Brancaster Chronicle No. 43: Harry Hay Paintings

‘Shadow Brigade’, 2017, oil on canvas, 107x107cm

11th April 2017, London.

Taking part: Harry Hay, Anne Smart, Anthony Smart, John Pollard, Emyr Williams, Richard Ward, Alexandra Harley, Robin Greenwood, Sarah Greenwood, Hilde Skilton, Mark Skilton, Noela James, John Bunker, Matthew Berka, Jackson Payne





‘Wasp Pick II’, 2016, oil on canvas, 107 x 97cm


‘Strewn’, 2016, oil on wood, 45 x 50 cm


‘Tarnation’, 2016, oil on wood, 50 x 45 cm


untitled, 2016, oil on wood, 60 x 70 cm


‘Kid’, 2016, oil on wood, 20 x 25 cm


untitled, 2016, oil on wood, 25 x 30 cm


‘Wasp Pick’, 2016, oil on wood, 60 x 70 cm

  1. A good talk.

    What I would have liked to have said but didn’t, at the end of part one when Hilde mentioned ‘abstract content’, and despite knowing that not everyone agrees with its value as an idea, including a few in Brancaster itself, is:

    That one can pursue the development of one’s own personal content, as I think Harry is doing, bit by bit, painting by painting, with it sometimes failing, sometimes succeeding, and with something of a disinterest in either case, since we don’t know from day to day what and how things succeed or fail; and sometimes a new kind of failure can be better than a familiar success; yet with a persistence that would allow the development of that content to be dependent upon not what we might term success, but more on what we eventually might understand as some kind of ‘progress’; because what is more important than a quick hit is the expansion and deepening of that personal content, its complexification and its necessary clarification, which since we are abstract artists, will be abstract content, and in large part ineffable.

    Regarding “Shadow Brigade”, Sarah has noted that people were discussing it, looking at it, talking about moving around the complex transitions of pictorial spaces of the painting in a manner quite comparable to that of looking at and moving around in a complex spatial figurative painting – BUT, it is now clear that this is not a quality restricted to figurative painting, and this particular quality of how the eye takes in and moves around imaginatively in the work is just a natural condition of all painting once it starts to develop and mature and take on synthesised complexity to any degree. In other words, because Harry’s work has this quality, and this degree of content, it does NOT mean it is working as a figurative painting, or even ‘like’ a figurative painting, but only that it is working as a serious painting, one that can be returned to over and again for the discovery of new meaning(s).

    (My hope would be that this is happening in abstract sculpture too – though with sculptural, rather than pictorial, spatiality – but there is not really any comparable or relevant activity in how one moves through a figurative sculpture, since it rarely has any spatiality.)


  2. Richard Ward said:

    Inspired by this encounter with Harry´s paintings, and by a slightly longer acquaintance with Anne Smart´s recent work, I´ve been trying to think through the appeal and import of these kinds of small-mark, not-quite-all-over painting. I think they share a lot of qualities with Jackson Pollock´s drip paintings, so I´m including these for comparison.

    First to the differences: I think all three have strongly contrasting treatments of pictorial space. Harry´s paintings (I´m thinking in particular of “Shadow Brigade”) tend to have numerous shifting pockets of almost, but not quite atmospheric space. The eye wanders languorously from pocket to pocket with no pressing need to come up to a surface that is always available but never clamorous.
    The space in Anne´s paintings (I´m thinking in particular of the works at last year´s Brancaster) also comes in pockets, but every movement into depth immediately re-encounters the intensely worked and structured surface. Here the movement is more of an energetic vibration in an out of a picture that hums tautly like an expectant crowd.
    Pollock´s space is uniformly shallow, defined everywhere by areas of bare or lightly grounded canvas behind the web of thin lines and marks. There are no pockets, but a single coherent space that stretches across the whole painting.

    Broadly speaking therefore, Pollock´s drip-paintings are held together by their space, Anne´s paintings are held together by their surface and Harry´s are held together, I think, largely by their colour, which grades and intermingles without sharp contrasts of tone or hue. (“Wasp Pick” and “Wasp Pick II” have stronger contrasts and are held together by a picture-wide, coherent space).

    To come to the similarities – all of these works are lacking in large forms and large, unbroken areas of colour. I think it is for this reason that they don´t immediately come across as expressive. Although they have obviously been painted with much spontaneous energy and passion, their relative uniformity, their not-quite-all-overness, gives them a somewhat unspecific appearance. Perhaps this is why Fairfield Porter writes of Pollock: “(the effect) is one of all emotion spent”.

    So what is the fascination? I don´t think it is enough to cite the visual feast to be enjoyed by journeying around and through their crowded detail. That aesthetic pleasure is certainly there to be experienced but, for me, there is something about the “small-mark” structure that resonates with one possible way of visualising the world in its social, metaphysical, historical and personal dimensions. This is the precedence of detail over the “bigger picture”, the particular over the theoretical, the fact over the narrative, the moment over the constructions of past and future.
    The ambition of such painting would then be comparable to that of Tolstoy´s “War and Peace”, explicitly emphasizing the episodic over any grand narrative; attempting through a sheer mass of detail to cram all of existence into a single work.

    In all these paintings it is possible to make out larger forms, which tentatively organise but fail to dominate the picture plane. It is almost as if they are sinking back into the detail rather than emerging from it. Tolstoy has Napoleon as an unexceptional figure caught up in a complex sequence of events to which he only becomes pivotal in the artificial narratives of historians. Nassim Taleb has named this phenomenon the “Narrative Fallacy” – our insatiable need to construct an organising, explanatory story around the details of existence, to be witnessed, for example, in the way that substantially random and arbitrary successes in business and politics tend to be explained by special qualities of character and virtue in the persons involved.
    These paintings resist that kind of explanatory ordering. Here the larger forms give way and it is the detail that counts – the thousands of tiny decisions that might be considered as the real substance of our lives, rather than the putative “life-story” assembled out of disparate and contradictory fragments. Seen through the lens of the way that these works are structured, our lives transcend all explanations, theories and interpretations – happiness is just one moment among others; redemption/fulfillment/enlightenment are ever within reach but never there to stay.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. If there is a flaw in the brilliant Brancaster model, it is that we only get to see the work for a short time before each talk. I have had on my wall for one week now, since the Brancaster discussion, Harry’s painting “Shadow Brigade”. I look at it every day. It’s hung on the wall next to my desk, as I write this. It is not well hung. It is on a wall with other things. It doesn’t seem to matter that it is not in the middle of a big white wall all to itself. It continues regardless to offer itself to sight. I come back to it again and again, thinking I will get the better of it, but it somehow contrives to avoid any conclusion. It is an undeniable fact that looking at a painting a few times every day for a week is a completely different experience to seeing it for a few hours from scratch. Everything that makes its mark on your brain at first sight, that calls to your immediate attention, all those initial impressions of what goes on, are the very things that fall away first. Your brain accommodates them, familiarises them, puts them to bed, so to speak. After a while, you might stop seeing them at all. You stop seeing the obvious things. You see past them. To what? By this time, everything has changed.

    To pick up on Richard’s theme: I would say that Harry’s painting is a very different proposition from any Jackson Pollock that I’ve seen. Let’s not say better or worse for the moment, only different. The space in a typical abstract Pollock, to simplify a little, is a slightly illusionistic expansion between succeeding layers of lattice-work paint. One looks through and past one layer to the next, and so on, in a way that quite significantly, if not completely, mimics the facts of how the layers were applied, one on top of (and, to the eye, in front of) another, each layer being more or less a flat plane parallel to the picture plane. There is, broadly speaking, uniformity across the canvas as to how these layers operate spatially (“a single coherent space that stretches across the whole painting”, as Richard says). The effect, in the end, is aesthetic, as the manner of application either succeeds or fails in producing a strong-looking and coherent overall work, singular and striking. But the spatiality is comprised of those literal layers, even if the painting is thought of as abstract. And because the content is somewhat literal, we would still be able to say, after a week, a month a year, that the painting works in more or less the same way, one layer over another, producing the same aesthetic effect. We could still talk about it, or write about it, in the same way, ten years later. And people do. The literalness of technique is a large part of what contributes to the iconic value attributed to the simplistic signature styles of high-modernists like Pollock.

    We are in another world now. For starters, the literalness of technique is (so it appears at the moment) stripped out of “Shadow Brigade”. How it is made is not a part of the content (how very unmodernist!). Richard describes it as “numerous shifting pockets of almost, but not quite atmospheric space”. That’s a good first reading, but if I say that I don’t now see that in the painting at all, that only emphasises my point about the difference that taking a longer look engenders. “The eye wanders languorously from pocket to pocket”, continues Richard. It can. If you want. Or it can do other stuff. You can actually jump about quite a bit. What “Shadow Brigade” seems to have on offer is freedom for the eye to do what it likes. For as long as it likes. Without (apparently) reaching its limits. This freedom is not the same as the freedom of self-expression won for the artist by Abstract Expressionism and Pollock especially. This, by contrast, is a freedom gifted to the viewer by virtue of the imaginative discipline of the artist.

    I’m making a thing about “Shadow Brigade”, but it’s not alone in having no formats, no dominating composition, no overwhelming technique, no big story. And it may well be that this work is quite a crude example of a future for abstract art that a number of us are striving for. Harry himself may well better it soon. And in continuing to support the “looking at” for a longer period of time, good abstract work can go right past the words that might initially describe it. This is its strength.

    This is possibly another kind of more abstract “wholeness”… maybe; the idea that you can continue for a considerable period to move about the painting in different ways. I think it has nothing to do with “all-overness”; more to do with change and variety, and the transitions and accommodations of difference.

    (And Richard’s conclusion I like very much.)


    • Just re-reading this: “How it is made is not a part of the content”. That needs some qualification, because how it is made is massively important, but not in a literal sense. The literal process is not part of the content, in the way that it intrudes into the meaning of a Pollock – that’s what I meant.


  4. anne smart said:

    Different perspectives.

    Personally my head is so full of all of the stuff aaround.the work and the conversations at the Greenwich Show Chronicle and Harry’s that I can hardly sleep at night.!
    There will be ” flaws ” in our Brilliant Brancasters
    I find the “first impressions ” thing… the “on the hoof “discussions …” shooting from the hip ” ..who knows what to call them?…all of that dialogue in an actual Chronicle is a massive asset .A real BONUS
    No history behind a comment ..well there”s no time for that..the work has to stand on its own…
    Looking at works in depth over a few hours ,days or even a lifetime is a practice we know and are comfortable with..getting more pleasure and a greater variety of experience is a measure of quality but for me that same familiarity of moving into the world of academic aesthetic tends to compromise the visual experience…that immediate response given with trust and without prejudice …accepting we may change our minds develop and enrich the work or even reject it …well… for me.. that is unique and I love it…….. of course its not the whole story…
    I don’t think it is possible to summarise potential or experimentation ..I just get excited every time I go to the next Chronicle to see what might have happened now…….
    Yes…I think Robin is right …we are in a different world now..its the one we have all made…..


    • Ah, your wonderful enthusiasm! Where would we be without it.

      Sometimes I can’t sleep at night either; sometimes from excitement, sometimes from doubt. Keeping just half an eye on history makes good sense. Unlike most of what passes for abstract art now, one of our greatest achievements in Brancaster is that our mistakes are our own, not the repetition of those made previously by others, Pollock included. But let’s not get too carried away. Our successes to date are modest by the highest standards of art, and what other standards do we have?


  5. anne smart said:

    If there is anything “new” in the work of all the Brancaster artists it is unlikely we have seen it yet…
    ……however where the works in the Greenwich show more familiar to us they would also be more open to having their achievements measured.
    ….we all have our own standards….
    … is not the job of art history to identify the right “set” of those….
    ….the Chronicles themselves try not to deliver prescriptive instruction but draw attention to what individuals think at that moment in time is happening in that work …..
    This filmed Chronicle of Harry Hays work being an example.
    PS ..surely there is nothing wrong with getting carried away !!


  6. Now that I’m back home with a little more time to write and digest a few of these things, I firstly wanted to thank Anne, Richard and Robin for their comments. I’d also like to thank all those present at the chronicle for offering their time and their insights. You’ve all been a huge help to me over the last few years, even from such a distance.

    Richard has been able to articulate something that I would love to think was happening in the work. Literary comparisons with abstract art can be a slippery slope but he has handled it particularly well, inspiringly so, and without any shred of pretentiousness or indulgence. But it also got me thinking about the whole small mark thing and the extent to which I have control or any say in doing it. Obviously I could make bigger marks or broader patches of unbroken colour if I wanted to, but there hasn’t been that compulsion in me for a long time, if at all. It just doesn’t seem to be something I can make myself do. The smaller marks feel the natural way forward for me. I like Richard’s observation that it can be expressive without appearing so at first. It also made me think about some questions raised at the talk by Richard and Mark, about where my decision making was happening in proximity to the canvas. I answered that it was happening at the canvas, but Mark was right to observe that I’m also noticing things from further back and making decisions from there too. I can see now that that is definitely true, and that there is a little bit of premeditation happening, even if that thing I put in is later altered or removed from up close.

    I think what excites me most when I paint, is the thought that I could put “something” in the picture (I always think “in” not “on”) and that it could become something other than just paint, surface or colour, and I like to move around and observe what else it is doing when I stand somewhere different. I wouldn’t necessarily bring this expectation or desire for that feeling with me to anyone else’s work. It is just something I have observed while making mine.

    Anne and Robin are right. It’s an exciting time to be making art, and there was loads of stuff keeping me up last night too. Itching to get into the studio now.


    • Yes indeed, exciting times – AND we are getting somewhere! Your contribution has been really important.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. From Emyr in part two:
    On Shadow Brigade
    “There is more of a challenge in using a broader palette with stronger contrasts without them popping.”
    “Lot more ambitious, more subtleties, more force, just more for me.”
    Complex Diversity?
    Just a possibility.


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