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Better together

A new exhibition at The Crypt Gallery St Ives reveals the unique power of collaborative art shows.

Words by Mercedes Smith

Ashley Hanson and Sophie Capron were first brought together as part of a mixed show at AKA Contemporary in Cambridge in 2022. “Our mutual interest in the environment, and our perspectives on the landscape seemed to work well together,” says Sophie. “As artists we are connected by our use of colour and texture, and by our love of the materials and processes we use to record our world.” Ashley agrees, saying “we saw our paintings hung side by side at AKA and there was a wonderful frisson between them – they were different yet complementary. We sensed how exciting a collaborative show on a larger scale would be, with our respective paintings punctuating and provoking each other.” The result of this mutual recognition is a new exhibition at The Crypt Gallery, St Ives, this April. Titled Revealed, this collaborative show considers the landscape from two very different perspectives. “I see the landscape up close,” says Sophie, “every detail, mark, colour and idiosyncrasy, but Ashley works very differently. Two abstract painters like us can see the same environment from very different points of view, and that’s what this exhibition is about.”

Works by Ashley Hanson

Sophie’s work looks closely at manmade marks on our environment and the stories they tell, as well as looking at the ways in which nature, conversely, can erode the manmade world.

“I’ve always had an appreciation for the environment,” says Sophie. “Growing up I was always up a tree or falling into stinging nettles. We camped as kids, travelled to new places, and left things as they were found. Now though, I feel we are slowly spoiling nature’s beauty with crass buildings and cheap developments. But I find it fascinating that, despite our best efforts, nature will always reclaim things. I love the colours of natural decay, of rust and algae. Over time, nature heals and only marks are left where things once stood. All of this heavily influences my practice – I represent these marks, these colours and transitions within my work.”

“Sophie’s approach,” says Ashley, “is different to mine. Her vision is perhaps more intimate, closer-up. What links us, though, is our interest in the interactions of man and nature. This is evident in Sophie’s visual simulations, to quote her own writing, of ‘how nature and time encroach on the flawless wall or immaculate façade’, and is shorthanded in my works by the interplay between curve and line, between geometry and gesture. In addition, we share a love of paint – of what it can do, where it can go – and we both have a dogged approach to questioning and reworking things in our quest for that elusive visual ‘rightness’ of image.”

Sophie’s intriguing works define her concerns for the environment, the power of nature and urban decay using layers of recycled paint and deeply texturizing sgraffito marks. Having studied textiles at Winchester School of Art, she describes herself as “a very tactile person, and this feeds into my practice through the surfaces I create and how they feel or are treated.” She works exclusively with recycled and donated materials, in order to celebrate their previous stories. “My work reflects the community that I live in, and so this is where the materials come from,” she tells me. “It is these connections that underpin my painting and make it poignant and purposeful to me. This paint is not simply discarded and forgotten but repurposed into something new.”

Interestingly, despite the seemingly non-figurative nature of her work, Sophie rejects the limiting description of her paintings as ‘abstract’. “Although I am often classed as an abstract painter, I would also say I am a representational artist,” she says, “as I record marks that I have seen, and then re-work them into my pieces.”

Works by Sophie Capron

Ashley supports this idea, saying “Sophie and I aren’t abstract painters in the purest sense. We work from a subject, from place and memory, but each with a different emphasis.” For this exhibition, he has been continuing his long running Porthleven series, now extended to 65 paintings, which includes a new tree motif and explores the concept of a ‘hanging harbour’. The new collection includes the painting ‘Polruan Tree Blue’ which has been entered for the 2023 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. “All my work is studio-based,” says Ashley, “so it’s one step removed from reality. It’s all a dialogue between information and imagination, a coming together of map view and image. Although I work from drawings, both before and during the painting process, I see drawing as an abstraction, a simplification, a decision made about what is interesting in the landscape. Abstraction gets to the essence of the subject.” Colour also, of course, is an integral part of Ashley’s work. “Since I was introduced to Bonnard, Matisse, Heron and Frost, to the lineage of colour, when I studied at Canterbury College of Art,” he says, “colour has been critical in my work. Colour against colour, colour proportion, colour resonance; I am always looking for those magical relationships. Even in working from the written word, as in my recent ‘20 Books = 20 Paintings’ series, my approach and objective is to find the palette within the novel.”

Like Sophie, he too is deeply involved with his materials, and with the process of painting itself. “Oil paint has always been the medium for me,” he explains. “Beyond its intensity of colour, there is the enormous range of approaches you can take with it, from a translucent wash to a heavy slab of colour. This allows me to explore the contrast between the flowing, organic elements, and more static manmade aspects of harbour towns, typically expressed with more gestural marks for water and something slower and more deliberate for buildings and harbour walls. The slow drying time of oils is also important: it allows time for contemplation, and my incessant manipulation of the paint surface. Oil-paint is brushed and knifed, poured and smeared, layered, cut, peeled, embellished, refined and reflected on. What is in front of me provokes the next move. Lots of change, lots of redrawing, lots of coffee.”

What, then, do Sophie and Ashley think collaborative shows like this offer artists, and also collectors? “I am a lifelong learner,” says Sophie, “and I would hate my work to become stagnant and contrived. Collaborations keep things challenging and engaging for me – seeing someone else work, seeing their style and their ideas, only helps develop my own practice further. Painting can be quite solitary, so working with other artists is refreshing. Talking about your work to others solidifies your practice and helps you rationalise your intentions as an artist.”

“From a collector’s point of view,” says Ashley, “collaborative shows like ours present a new dynamic and a unique opportunity to see the work of two committed, highly individualistic artists at the top of their game, as well as the opportunity to meet us, talk to us, and make that connection between art and artist. A show like this is the real deal for collectors, on show in an historic space.” Finally, considering the play of difference and duality in collaborative exhibitions, I ask whether shows like this should be about making statements or asking questions. “A collaborative exhibition has the potential to be a real statement, an art-piece in itself, with a surprising juxtaposition of works in a particular space – like the historic Matisse/Diebenkorn exhibition in Baltimore – two artists with similar aesthetics but striking individualism in their works, a statement show, displaying art as a historical resource that raises questions of how, when and why.”

See Revealed from 22nd to 28th April 2023 at The Crypt Gallery, St Ives Society of Artists, Norway Square, St Ives TR26 1NA. For further information and to book art courses with Ashley and Sophie visit the websites below.


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