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Beauty and menace

Words by Mercedes Smith

Painter Gareth Edwards RWA is the original Alpha creative, but his work exudes an intriguing sensuality.

“To give yourself permission to engage with paintings like these, as a man, whether artist or collector, is a powerful thing,” says Gareth Edwards when I interview him at his studio in St Ives. The studio itself, with its high ceilings and windows that capture Cornwall’s famous north light, is drenched in paint spatter and the heavy scent of oil colour, and around us hang a series of sensuous, large-scale canvases.

Image courtesy of Paul Massey

As an artist of some 30 years, an elected Royal West of England Academician and a lecturer in Fine Art and Visual Culture, Gareth is respected as a painter of extraordinary landscapes. His highly contemporary, semi-abstracted works are exhibited regularly in London, New York and Toronto with Jill George Gallery, and in Cornwall they have led the field in contemporary painting, with shows at Millennium, Newlyn Art Gallery and Lemon Street. Gareth and I have met numerous times before to discuss and review his work, and in recent years his paintings have exhibited a notably dark edge: blacks, greys and taupes – with the occasional hint of gold – have defined his work, and his subject matter has been distinctly moody, all dark ravines, towering forests and bleak terrains. This new work then, which has lately expanded not just in terms of colour and scale, but also in subtlety, is something of a revelation. “It started with some floral works I made just for pleasure,” says Gareth, of a small series which is currently on show at the Saatchi Gallery in London. “They were generic really, none of them specific flowers, but they were an excuse to bring some colour back into my painting. I had been thinking lately about Monet’s Nymphia (known also as his famous Water Lilies), those spectacular decorative friezes at the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris, and I was considering ways of making abstracted landscapes with flowers. I read studies of those works and it set me off on a train of research. I was able to start leaving behind a certain ‘rugged landscape’ imagery – things like mountain passes, estuaries and the cooler climes I’ve been working on for several years that have gone down well at exhibitions in Canada and North America – those vast countries of the ‘Grand’ landscape. That combination of studying Monet’s work and making my own little flower paintings has put me in a much more sensuous place, and it has opened up a dialogue between imagery and landscape painting that hasn’t yet been explored, I think, in a Postmodern way.”

The resulting works, which hang floor to ceiling in his studio space, shimmer with depth and colour, and are, well, beautiful.

Is that a word he deems fit to describe such imposing paintings? “Yes, it is, he says of a word that is generally anathema to the art world. “For a long time now I’ve been campaigning to myself about the genius of ‘beauty without meaning’, and the key that that can turn in people. I’ve seen it again and again – it’s absolutely what I’m interested in as an artist. Nobody can define what ‘beautiful’ is, but that’s what artists are doing, they are rearranging ideas of ‘beauty’ all the time.”

Something in his work, though, seems to counterbalance their innate beauty; I describe it to him, as I take in more and more of his new paintings, as an underlying sense of ‘menace’. That description seems to please him. “I would say that there is a kind of Baudelairian menace behind them,” he says, “like in a movie scene, where you get the feeling that just below the glittering surface someone could have just been drowned. That whole idea of Ophelia and of madness is there alongside all that sumptuous beauty. I am very aware of Lacanian philosophy, of ideas of reflection, of mirroring, and things unseen beneath the surface.” A wicked and deeply entertaining thought comes to him. “It makes me think of Lord Byron! Of him slipping quietly out of a grand country house in the early morning for a swim in the lake owned by some aristocratic woman he has just seduced – after seducing her daughter! – a dark slick of immorality circling behind him as he slips below the surface amongst the water lilies. It’s there in my work, absolutely!” This duality in his paintings, the pale, culturally feminised motif of the flower paired with a potentially sinister darkness, is a metaphor in itself for the recent progression of Gareth’s work, and perhaps for the artist himself. “I suppose these new works,” he confides, “coincided with me starting therapy, and with giving up alcohol. The brooding, rugged landscape is still in me, but I wanted to increase what I gave myself permission to paint. I wanted to explore a more intimate and poetic palette, so these new, much larger paintings of rivers, ponds, and lakes have allowed me to bring in deep greens, beautiful purples, damson colours and pinks. In addition, the spaces within my paintings have become more atmospheric, in a more intimate way I think, and that was certainly precipitated by having a healthier mind and body.” As Gareth describes them, I note that the scale, and the colour of these works seem essential to their power. “Their huge scale is about immersion” he explains, “and about ‘Colour Field’ really. Viewers can lose themselves, literally, within these paintings. In theory their size presents a risk, in terms of what happens to them, because not everyone has the space to hang such large works. I’m constantly being told by gallerists that nobody wants huge paintings, but in my experience the opposite is true. These works demand a commitment – a real passion for painting – that will put them in the hands of the right collector.”

Amongst the vast expanse of colour then, what place does the flower motif hold, and what, if any, is its meaning? “My default position has always been to use process and composition, and the other formal properties of painting, to create emotional atmospheres. However, when you have a figurative subject in a work, like a river, or water, or a flower, there is always freighted meaning: water lilies carry a whole range of meaning, from ideas of the ‘lotus eater’ and it’s use as a hallucinogenic flower, to the Nymphia, [the scientific name for Water Lillies, from the Classical myth that attributes the birth of the flower to a nymph who was dying of love for Hercules] which were seen in ancient Greek as the symbol of flowering womanhood. Flowers generally carry with them ideas of life and death, and of beauty and decay, so I have always been very interested in floral imagery. It is a dialectic I have within me. I can be compelled by a colour – and I am always interested in abstraction – but I can use a motif to give focus and meaning to my work. Essentially, we are all, as human beings, both male and female, and I am definitely accessing a more feminine side in my work at the moment. In the end, all we are left with in life is human complexity and the existential journey. That’s what all my work is about”.

Gareth Edwards’ new work will be on show this autumn in Seattle and Toronto with Jill George Gallery, and in Melbourne and Singapore with Eumundi Gallery.


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