Brancaster Chronicle No. 48: Noela James Bewry Paintings

untitled [1], 2017, acrylic on canvas, 100x120cm


16th July 2017, near Bath

Taking part: Anne Smart, Anthony Smart, John Pollard, Alexandra Harley, Robin Greenwood, Sarah Greenwood,  Hilde Skilton, Mark Skilton, Noela James Bewry, Jesse James.





untitled [2], 2017, acrylic on canvas, 150x100cm


untitled [3], 2017, acrylic on canvas, 100x150cm


untitled [4], 2017, acrylic on canvas, 100x120cm


untitled [5], 2017, acrylic on canvas, 100x120cm

  1. These all look really good on a screen. Colour, space, movement, rhythm, everything – the only query I would have in view of so many well defined criss-crossing edges, is whether the surface is still intact when the paintings are seen in the flesh.
    That open, loose space where everything can move against everything else looks really exhilarating. It’s something you generally only see when there is a background of some sort, so it’s interesting that Noela is getting it without any obvious background. What I think may be happening is that the linear shape of the marks leaves spaces between the marks which layer for layer become more and more like the marks themselves. The deepest part of any section of the picture you concentrate on is therefore not identifiable by shape or by colour, but only by looking carefully at the physicality of the crisscrossing marks. When you’re not looking that close the effect is of a “virtual” background which keeps everything dancing in space and which you kind of know (in a purely visual sense) must be there as the last layer behind the overlapping marks, but can nowhere actually identify. Does that make sense?


  2. Noela James said:

    Thank you for that Richard, that does make sense, there is a multi layering which, as you interesting put it, a ‘virtual ‘ background which keeps the movement going. This is a key way of working for me, one that I find engaging as it means I can constantly respond to what is there on the canvas. There is a constant possibility for change.


  3. I’m not sure Noela will thank me for this, but if you go to her website you can see lots of paintings that are comprised of quite distinct layers, rather graphic in their separate shaping and flattening, where colour decisions come close to being design decisions. These new paintings, especially 1 and 3, are way more interesting, a huge step upward. As I said in the film, I find the rather aggressive nature of the spaces exciting, but on reflection I also think they are subtle, supple and well-considered paintings, with the spaces cleverly and feelingly interwoven. In their “openness”, they feel both fresh and important.


    • Noela James said:

      Yes Robin, I feel my painting has definitely moved on from the work on my website which shows pieces that are pretty graphic and ‘designed’ in many ways. The poured, drip paintings were rather indulgently good fun and I felt I needed to get more serious.The working, and responding, process is completely different now and it does show.
      Actually Richard, I too would like to know what an ‘intact’ surface is. There is a lot of paint on the canvas because of the many layers, however each layer is relatively thin or fluid rather than crusty.


  4. Is the difference maybe that these new paintings pay more attention to the surface? It’s hard to see surface on a screen and I was worried that it might be broken down by the many overlaps. That would explain the graphic nature of the older works.
    Is the progress that you see in these new paintings an improved integration of depth and surface?


    • Hi Richard,
      I don’t recall having much of a take on “surface” as such. They are in thinish acrylic, and don’t have much going for them material-wise, but the strength of the content seemed to override that, or make it less relevant. So maybe they almost ignore surface. But I have to admit I’m not sure what an “intact” surface means.


      • It’s not really about the materiality of the surface, although that can obviously play an important role. It’s more about an even optical pressure across the whole painting, confirming its physical flatness. It’s what graphic art and trompe d’oeil don’t have – the depths have no way of returning you to the surface.

        If you’re making space by overlapping stuff then it probably means going back into some of the “lower lying” marks and reworking them to give them something that lets the observer’s eye get them back up to the surface/picture plane without simultaneously destroying the space created by the overlapping. I don’t know what Noela would say to this. It wouldn’t have to be a conscious process – just going for a certain “look”. John mentioned something involving conflicting depth signals at one stage in the video.

        Cézanne was berated by one of his critics for creating a successful illusion of depth in his painting and then doing everything possible to undermine it again.


  5. Noela James said:

    Not absolutely sure I understand, do any of the other Brancaster artists have the ‘optical pressure’ you are talking about? Do you have that in your work?


    • Well I certainly try to have it in my work. I’m only happy with a painting when I can see all substantial parts of it on the surface as well as in any depth they might possess. Sometimes it’s just there, sometimes I have to work at it and sometimes my efforts just destroy the space I started with.
      There’s bound to be other ways of sensing/feeling/describing this. But this is how I was taught and how my experience with painting has shown me to make a huge difference to the power/fascination of the finished work.

      Do you think there was a difference for you between painting the pictures that Robin describes as graphic and these more recent ones?

      Robin – Yes that’s what I mean, but I think it’s a lot more than connoisseurship. Where it works, people who are completely unaware of any aesthetic theory can be stopped in their tracks by it.
      And yes, I think it’s really difficult for abstract painting, because figuration is such a powerful space-making tool whose loss is sorely felt.


      • Noela James said:

        Yes a great difference in the approach and the look of them.
        I think I understand more of what you are saying though. Do you think it has something to do with working in oil paint? Acrylic paint is a perfect medium for layering and building on top of the surface. I have been working on a largish oil painting and have not layered at all just worked into it wet in wet or abutted some colour passages. The whole feel, I realised, is what you have described.
        I enjoy using different ways of working and feel I am still learning.
        Interested to hear that you were taught to do abstract paintings.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Cézanne was the master at reconciling three-dimensions in two, and making the most of the tension that is engaged in doing so. Is this what you mean by keeping the surface intact? The problem often with abstract painting is that it can have no three-dimensionality to reconcile, or maybe its too ambiguous to reconcile.

    I think this “surface tension” is quite a sophisticated quality of painting that has been talked through quite a lot in the past, in a kind of connoisseurship capacity, without solving other issues. Maybe it sometimes might need to be sacrificed for the sake of the content. If Noela is doing that, I don’t think it’s a worry, personally, because the paintings are strong in other ways. My guess would be that its better to push the development of the spatiality even if it punches holes in the canvas, and trust that, in the end, the surface will come back at some stage in the spontaneous development of successive works. Harry had a good take on it on Hilde’s comments: “I think we want to avoid over deterministic attempts to send us deep into the back of the painting’s field. But I also wouldn’t want to abandon that sort of aspiration altogether.”


  7. I agree, Richard, that it can make painting very powerful; but if it takes precedent over everything else, then I’m not so sure it has value.


  8. I think I understand what Richard is talking about in regards to maintaining surface tension, and he has brought it up a few times in the past. I also think that I probably agree with him as to its being an important if not vital aspect of painting, abstract or figurative. However, I’m not sure that I would think of it along the lines of keeping the surface “intact”, only because the idea of smoothing out the bumps and holes inevitably leads me to associate this way of thinking with the seeking of something flatter, less spatial. I’m not saying that it does mean this, it’s just an association I make. But I do agree with the need for every part of the canvas to exert pressure. I don’t know if I would call it optical pressure, but certainly visual pressure. Perhaps, though it may sound rather obvious, it is simply about making everything “look good”, and the diversity of these things and their different ways of holding your attention will lead to an alternating sense of space, because the values are always shifting depending on what you are looking at.


    • Yes, sorry, I’m rather careless with wording, and it’s a difficult thing to describe.
      Here’s Patrick Heron’s take on it:
      But the secret of good painting – of whatever age or school, I am tempted to say – lies in the adjustment of an inescapable dualism: on the one hand there is the illusion, indeed the sensation, of depth; and on the other there is the physical reality of the flat picture-surface. Good painting creates an experience which contains both. It creates a sensation of voluminous spatial reality which is so intimately bound up with the flatnesses of the design at the surface that it may be said to exist only in terms of such pictorial flatness.


  9. Your wording is fine, Richard – far from careless. Whilst I think I understand what you mean, I merely wonder whether or not it accurately represents how I would personally want to go about the task of reconciling three dimensions with two. And yes, describing it is almost as difficult.

    I suppose my question is whether keeping the surface “intact”, supposing that is something we want to worry about at all, could also be achieved by not really considering the surface in an explicit sense whilst painting. Is it possible to just focus on the simple visual characteristics of the multitude of elements that may go into one picture, and through that intense focus, they will be more present as a by product of the scrutiny they receive, and how good these elements look will inevitably be effected by the relationship to all the parts around the specific area, and so like some sort of domino effect, each bit must be adjusted accordingly. Or are these series of adjustments actually just what we do when we are thinking about surface?

    Funny, the more I write about this and think about the way I work, the more I think I share your inclination to smooth over the bumps and holes. I often find myself knocking back moments that protrude too much, often by adjusting what is around them instead. Similarly, the holes mustn’t be too cave like, so changes get made there too. But the question then becomes, what is going on that is stopping the paintings from being flat? Are we just bad at smoothing things over, or is there something more subtle going on? I think there is a fascinating struggle that takes place between the desire for space and the need to be abstract.


  10. In other words, what kind of spaces might we be identifying and what is making them permissible to us?


  11. I don’t think that question arises. You can have any space you want, because you’re not actually flattening the space, just making the painting perceivable as a flat surface, along with the spatial illusion.
    Some ways of getting rid of a “hole” in the surface may destroy the space of the image, but the hope is that there are other ways that preserve or just modify whatever spatial illusion there is.
    I think everyone will probably have a different solution to the problems involved and there’s a lot of room for experimentation and boundary testing: How figurative can the space get without turning its contents into objects? How far can you go in breaking up the picture plane without losing a sense of its presence? etc. etc.
    And yes, I agree that it’s best not to be consciously thinking about these things when painting. These are visual matters so it’s better to be pursuing a “look” than trying to fulfill some theoretical strictures.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Pursuing a “look”? Well, maybe. Each road has it’s dangers. It might be best not to think of these things when painting, but it seems to me important to think about them when not painting. And I still think that the development of robust abstract content (whatever that is, different for everyone) must take precedence (at the moment?) over surface nuances, which might well be best left to ones unconscious sensibilities to sort out naturally. I’d go so far as to say that Noela has the beginnings of her own distinct content.

      Just posted an Alan Gouk essay on Abcrit: “…it is not the succulent rendering of flesh, the atmospheric rendering of spatial illusion, nor the sumptuous handling of fabrics and the texture of appearances that counts, but the architectural strengths of the composition, the disposition of the major masses and the demands of their accommodation to the entire presented image, and the shape of the canvas, and that this can be created with a new economy of means, new and old, and an especial emphasis on “form”, form over the sensuous, form over everything.”

      Hard not to agree with that when talking, as he is here, about Cézanne. But “form” seems to be a problem for abstract art – form of what, exactly? Form in abstract painting can so easily just be “shape”; architecture can so easily just become “format”.

      Harry says: “I think there is a fascinating struggle that takes place between the desire for space and the need to be abstract.” There is a whole world in that, and maybe that’s where the surface tension comes into the equation.


  12. anne smart said:

    just a thought.
    John Bunker’s “Sibboleth” I love. Mostly for its danger. It’s modest scale shouts loud to be huge and in a room moves about under its own steam trying to get to where the action may be. [ in my opinion ]
    In your painting Untitled No 3 the blue marks on the left hand side ,which, when looking at the actual painting sit forward ,big proud and matt displaying their contradiction to the rest of the painting. In fact they seem dangerous.They have an expressive spontaneity at odds with the rest of the piece.I do think that they complete the piece.
    Now after looking again for some time I admire Untitled No 4 more.
    I find myself able to access the painting in more places. I am not distracted by a format or a structure imagined or real.
    I am intrigued by the ‘attitude’ of the marks.It was muted at the time this painting had some similarity to collage .To me, John Bunker always makes clear the attitude of his marks [ or pieces ?] Granted he mostly denies the quandary of the limitations of a boundary. Your painting tries to deal with that.
    For me, “Sibboleth” gives a feeling of a freedom with its ‘look’ of spontaneity and gives us a chance to interpret it in our own way.
    So….at the moment I am excited by the potential of Untiled No 4 , with its expressive ‘attitude’ which whilst open and seemingly unresolved seems more substantial.


  13. Noela James said:

    Thank you Anne, yes there are fewer structural elements to ‘Untitled ‘ 4. It has shorter more abrupt passages throughout which gives it a collaged feel.


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