Words by Mercedes Smith
Ashley Hanson is a painter committed to the power of colour.
The joy of abstract art, to my mind, is that it has returned us to the simple childhood freedom of responding, instinctively, to colour. You may think that’s a limited explanation for one of the most intellectually advanced art genres in the world, but it’s true nonetheless, and is significant, since by adulthood most of us will have demoted the value of colour in our lives from ‘powerful’ to merely ‘pretty’.
Later this year, at Terrace Gallery Penryn, you have the chance to see work by one of Cornwall’s foremost Colourists. Painter Ashley Hanson is a prizewinning artist with an exhibition record that has included selection for the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, National Open Art Competition, Discerning Eye, and ‘Discovery: Contemporary Art Perspectives from England’ at Agora Gallery in New York.
Ashley studied architecture at Manchester University, but was inspired to become a painter after visiting a Peter Lanyon retrospective in London in 1978. Lanyon, a leading figure amongst the St Ives School painters, was inspired by the Cornish landscape, and by abstract expressionism and colour field painting, and these in turn have become a significant influence on Ashley’s work.
“I found my own freedom in painting through colour,” says Ashley. “Mixing colours, finding colours, and the placing of one colour next to another are still the most exciting things for me in painting. Colour dominates all my work: it may come from my source material, or equally from two paint pots sitting side by side in my studio. I have a discipline of using no more than two or three colours in a mix, to keep the vibrancy and to create the hums and zings and harmonies that I’m after.” Ashley was introduced to the colour work of French painters Bonnard and Matisse, and was literally introduced to British Modernists, whilst studying at Canterbury College of Art. “We had visits from Patrick Heron and Terry Frost, whose lecture on ‘The Yellows of Cornwall’ included slides of a hundred different yellows in the landscape related to his painting.
City of Glass 35 (Village Green)
As Matisse said,” says Ashley, “colour is the art of the senses. It’s a powerful tool for the artist. Colour can be uplifting, joyous or unsettling. It can be used to set the mood in a painting, or to create harmony or discord, and colour can be used symbolically, or to express emotion.” This intuitive approach to colour is at the core of Ashley’s work, and is also the focus of his ‘Freedom in Painting’ courses, which he runs periodically in Cornwall and Kent in response to the landscape. Landscape provides “a context, or a catalyst for my paintings,” says Ashley. “I’m always on the lookout for a way into a painting, and that may come from the landscape, from the city, from music, or from the written word – from fiction. I’ve a lifelong interest in harbours and seaside towns as a subject, but since 2011 my time has been split between my landscape work and my responses to the written word, ‘Painting the Novel’.” Alongside works inspired by the Cornish coast, including his ongoing Porthleven series of forty-two paintings (directly inspired by Peter Lanyon’s Porthleven painting of 1951), Ashley has spent the last few years working on an extended series inspired by paperback crime thrillers. Entitled 20 Books = 20 Paintings, the collection responds to twenty different novels from around the world, and each painting takes the format of two canvases joined together like an open book. “I’m not going to reveal the source novels until the series is complete though,” explains Ashley. “It will allow the viewer some fun trying to work out the book from the clues in each painting.” Our potential response to colour, it seems, plays an important part in this curious guessing game. Of his painting ‘BOOK 8 - (smile)’ he tells me: “All I can say is that the orange and green palette is significant. Like all my work, I would hope the resulting paintings are objects of beauty, intrigue and authenticity that work first on the senses, and then on the intellect.”
Porthleven 39 (The Possibility of Window)
Left: Book 8 (smile) | Right: Porthleven 38 (A Pint of Doom and a large Merlot)
Ashley’s habit of working in series “allows all possibilities to be explored,” he tells me, and the inspiration behind his ongoing collections of vivid, large scale paintings, which he refers to as ‘abstract figuration’, are varied. His Cornwall and Americascapes series are both inspired by landscape, the latter by a series of train journeys across the United States, while his dramatic City of Glass series is inspired by the novel of the same name by Paul Auster. “City of Glass is a series that has grown to sixty-three paintings in seven years,” says Ashley of the collection, which will form part of his Painting the Novel exhibition at Linden Hall Studio in Deal next year. He describes it as “a dark story, a tale of obsession that became my obsession.” A catalogue of the paintings which Ashley sent to the author elicited a note from Auster saying he was “incredibly moved by your magnificent paintings. To think that my book could have inspired such vivid colours.” Auster rightly picks up on the essential power of Ashley’s paintings - on the predominance of colour that abstraction allows. “For me, abstraction is the means to achieve clarity in a painting,” says Ashley. “It is a process of editing and simplification that reveals the essential, where the ‘subject’ is subservient to the painting. In fact, I’ve no problem in removing the image altogether if it makes the painting stronger. With the ‘pure’ abstract artists that I admire, such as Mondrian, Rothko, Agnes Martin, Franz Kline, Kazuo Shiraga, Sandra Blow and Lee Ufan, there is an authenticity and language that is very powerful, but in my own practice, I found ‘pure’ abstraction to be a dead-end.” The landscape, and music, and stories provide a springboard for my paintings,” he says, “but the essence of my work is in the interplay between information and imagination, between freedom and control.” He describes process and the instinctive pursuit of truly meaningful colour as “the fear and thrill of the chase!
I need surprise, not sameness in my work, and exciting, unexpected things happen if you allow them to. I believe a pre-conceived painting is a fake painting: you can ‘think’ a painting, but as soon as a brush mark is on the canvas the idea evolves or is even replaced because of what is happening in the painting.
Artworks in the studio
As an artist, you have this database in your mind of all the paintings ever made, all the paintings seen, the weight of history, but you have to understand and resolve this painting - the one in front of you. I have a favourite quotation from Frank Auerbach, one of my artistic heroes, which I think sums things up. He says ‘all good painting looks as though [it] has escaped from the thicket of prepared positions and has entered some sort of freedom where it exists on its own, and by its own laws and inexplicably has got free of all possible explanations’.”
See Ashley Hanson’s next exhibition, from 26 November to 3 January, at Terrace Gallery, Penryn TR10 8EH.
Ashley Hanson is represented by Modern Artists Gallery, Berkshire.
For information on Ashley’s work and ‘Freedom in Painting’ courses, see ashleyhanson.co.uk