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stand within the area they defined was to be absorbed within an immersive visual experience formed by tactile, restless imagery. Each painting took the form of a cellular grid-like arrangement. Within that template, and working directly on the canvas, the artist improvised a bombardment of rapidly formed marks and shapes which occasionally coalesced into strange and sometimes familiar-looking images. In Threshold for example, a ladder and, elsewhere, a pair of towers can be discerned, both being motifs that would make frequent appearances in later works. The surface of each painting seems animated, giving rise to an impression of instability and endless, flickering energy. Collectively, the installation was deliberately calculated to provoke claustrophobia, the welter of images appearing overwhelming. A possible source of these developments was a personal experience, in itself unremarkable. The artist has related how, while travelling on a train through Holland one night, he observed the illuminated interiors of certain buildings, as if framed by their large windows. The succession of glimpses afforded on that occasion appears to have made an impression. Sensed obliquely and fleetingly, such cryptic images seemed replete with enigmatic significance. In particular, they signalled the rich, suggestive potential of unfamiliar visual situations grasped momentarily and incompletely. In another way, the paintings may also be seen as a response to an all too human predicament: the difficulty of choosing. In an image-saturated contemporary world how can any single motif be definitive? From a vast range of possible images, why prefer one to another? The ‘smallness’ that ‘stirs’ in the title of one of the paintings shown in the Curwen exhibition refers not only to the scale of the multiple, individual forms that, collectively, comprise each large canvas. The sense of diminution also suggests an ego – but one tempered by the acceptance of doubt. From the early 1990s, the grid-like format of the works exhibited at Curwen Gallery gave way to a ziggurat-like motif. This is the defining characteristic of the Witness series of paintings that he commenced in 1990. Echoing the earlier cellular arrangement, the first of these works, Present Bound 1990, invested an abstract structure with qualities that seem

more personal, almost anthropomorphic. Subtracting cellshapes from the all-over treatment of the surface, Beattie produced an image that, by virtue of its isolated situation, suggests a figure. This tesselated form recurs throughout the series. In each painting its position, disposition and situation are different, like a protagonist in a range of scenes and guises. In Present Bound the stark contrast between the sensuous, painted area and the raw canvas suggests an exposed, almost naked, presence. Subsequently, the same motif invited a range of physiognomic interpretations: respectively appearing upright, totemic, slouched, weary, vulnerable and anxious. With these successive manifestations, there is the sense of the artist inhabiting and exploring a range of different bodily states, each expressively distinct. The way that Beattie invests each abstract image with values that seem both human and vulnerable is the product of a compelling artistic sensibility. Assertive yet questioning, Beattie’s art evokes caution and uncertainty in a contemporary world that has grown wary of intellectual, moral and artistic authority. Supplanting those certainties, it asks: ‘What am I?’ At the heart of Beattie’s work there is an ever-present sense of going within, entering unfamiliar spaces and encountering ambiguous presences. The process of creating his paintings seems to involve a constant negotiation between the will to understand and the recognition that nothing can be known absolutely. In the imaginative spaces he creates, there is a sense of displacement. An ambiguous hinterland is articulated by disconnected forms. From these amorphous shapes, different elements begin to acquire recognisable characteristics. Some parts are reminiscent of doorways and windows. Elsewhere, there are ladders, towers and, later, arches, steps, barrelvaulted tunnels, horizons and perspective lines leading to a distant horizon. All come and go, interact, fall away. The world thus created is revealed as a strange and precarious place, dimly illuminated, elusive, leading nowhere. At the same time it is clear that none of this is the recognisable world that we know, or think we know. No decipherable narrative is offered. The fragmented perspectives are a jumble. The steps are poised in space. Rather, the quiet 9

Basil Beattie LARGE WORKS 1986 2009  

Bail Beattie Large Paintings and Installations

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