»Paintings, Drawings & Wood Engravings«

Curwen Gallery –

Jonathan Gibbs’s fifth solo exhibition at his venue was, in fact, the first to include an extensive collection of wood engravings. According to the exhibition brochure »… his images refer to things seen and remembered, from nature and from the imagination. Forms are inspired by found objects — stone, wood and bone — and also landscape for example the sea defences on the East Coast. There are windows, shadows, reflections, doorways and enclosures.« This description fits well the memorable Autumn Series of twenty oak panels, painted in oils, each only 32mm x 39mm in size. In these paintings, ships and lighthouses, tree bark and leaves appear as shadowy, suggested forms: translucent ghosts merging with other less naturalistic but nonetheless powerful abstract forms. Gibbs builds up paintings with semi-transparent layers of subtle colour, developing rich textural effects and an impression both of the flat, two dimensional painted surface but, at the same time, a shifting sense of spatial ambiguity and three dimensional depth. Blue, brown and chalky white hues predominate but the effect is of a tonal rather than colourful richness. This tonal quality forges one link with his wood engravings. Another link is that the very surface of some of the panels is scored and carved with lines reminiscent of engravings. I found these paintings highly evocative of »things seen and remembered…«; they are sensitively and subtly rendered yet retain a lively edge of experimentation with rich sculptural and surface qualities; they also have a highly personal, individual stamp. These are difficult attributes to combine successfully. Sadly, by comparison, I found the wood engravings rather disappointing.

Trains, Boats, Planes is a sequence of tiny wood engravings printed in repeat patterns, using chess-board effects of colour. This work, and two similar pieces, are collaged onto terracotta, green and blue papers whose edges are cut into zigzag shapes reminiscent of bus tickets — an appropriate reflection particularly for Trains, Boats, Planes. The imagery suggests symbols or motifs for each mode of transport depicted — childlike but not childish interpretations, combining a knowing naivety with a strong sense of geometric form and pattern. East of the Sun another series printed as a repeat pattern, called to mind a block of postage stamps with their serrated edges. The sun, moon and tree imagery display a cutting style with quite broad, unsophisticated marks which read as patterns of line rather than tone. I found each of the engravings comprising this piece somewhat insubstantial, but printed collectively, involving pattern, colour and collage, they are quite dynamic. Rather than using collage merely as a background to frame a composition, I would be interested to see Gibbs incorporate collaged elements and coloured papers more directly into his engraving in a manner which might relate more closely to his paintings but which would, no doubt, retain those particular qualities special to wood engraving.

In contrast to the generously spaced hanging of the paintings and drawings which occupied four of the five available walls in the gallery, just one wall was given to the main body of the prints: some twenty or thirty black and white engravings — all grouped closely together, several frames deep, in a display which looked attractive from a distance but did not favour the close-up scrutiny which wood engraving demands. It was not possible to focus on just one work without another three or four crowding into the field of vision and diminishing the impact of each individually. Their collective impression suggested a too-strong influence of the fine engravers of the 1930s, both in their stylistic and decorative qualities and the character of the cutting. This was particularly true of Kitchen Still Life I and The Singing Bowls. These combine Eric Ravilious’ characteristic bold, diagonal cross-hatching (cut with broad tools to create an emphatic pattern) with thin curved lines suggesting subtle tones in the bowls. The influence of Blair Hughes-Stanton is also clearly apparent, particularly in Soups with its elegant silhouetted jug and bowl forms incorporating a Cubist quality of construction and rendered with swirling curves and impressively delicate lines. The perfectly parallel fine lines used to define a tone on a chopping knife recalled old trade engravings.

These works are all exquisitely drawn and cut and Ravilious and Hughes-Stanton are undoubtedly excellent choices to emulate. But they seem to lack a sense of the particular personality of the engraver. By contrast, Sea Picture is more crudely cut but has a textural feel, more in keeping with his paintings. Similarly, Take me to the River comprises a printed assemblage of assorted small blocks depicting fish, figures and portrait profiles, houses and still-life compositions; its mark-making is more energetic and individual — if less ‘polished’ stylistically. In particular, within this image, a profile of a man baring his teeth made a refreshingly gritty change from the sweetly smiling sheep, grinning cats, owls and benign birds which populate many of the other engravings.

Although Gibbs undertakes numerous commissions in design and publishing, I was informed by the gallery that the engravings on display were all in fact, independent works. This surprised me as, with one or two exceptions, I assumed that most must have been commissioned, so different were they in character from his paintings an so much more representational and derivative both in style and subject-matter. Although these prints are technically faultless and many merits, the excellence and inventiveness of Gibbs’s paintings suggest that he is capable of much more interesting and innovative contemporary wood engravings than those showed in this exhibition.


by Anne Desmet
Curwen Gallery, London, 10 November — 5 December 1998