Painting knows no frontiers. Of all the arts, it is the most immediate, the most ready of access. Of all the arts, it is the least constrained by cultural difference. Literature is tied to its particular language, music to a set of conventions that bind it within its cultural limits more than is the case with painting. It is in painting that the transforming power of art is most evident, for it can draw on what we might – if we follow Richard Wollheim – regard as a natural and universal human faculty for seeing something as other than it is. Wollheim called it ‘seeing-in’, and Leonardo was the first to describe it when he advised painters that they could stimulate the imagination by looking at stained surfaces and seeing in them whatever scenes they wished. We cannot know what the prehistoric cave paintings at Altamira meant to those who made them, but in so far as we see as they saw, we may see what they saw: animals and men, in traces of coloured pigment. All painting is alike in this respect.
And yet painting is at the same time the most territorial of the arts, the only one bounded by a perimeter, its very own frontier: its surface, its frame. It is in painting, too, that limes of cultural demarcation have been most evident, often egregiously so: the bias to gender or class. Painting is also, like the other plastic arts, material, concrete and tied to the specific: the materials the cave painters used were of necessity those found locally. It is through its narrowness and particularity, then, that painting opens to the world, and opens up a world. It offers a frontier in order that we should cross it.
The present exhibition has a transnational theme, and it proposes a dialogue across frontiers. The ten London painters shown here have long sustained a dialogue amongst themselves, feeling affinities, respecting differences – or, rather, responding to the stimulus of difference. They have exhibited together previously, in Italy, and while two of them – Mannocci and di Stefano – are Italian by birth or parentage, the general basis for this present conversation with Italian art has to do not with any such particular connection but rather with a certain commonality of approach, one that makes a group exhibition at the Estorick Collection apposite. Of course, like any artists working today, these painters draw on sources diverse in origin and date, but the common element we might regard as ‘Italian’ may be found in their particular investment in precisely that transformative capacity in painting Wollheim named ‘seeing-in’. Accepting that this potential in painting is universal, we might encapsulate its ‘Italian’ realisation in an aphorism: painting takes us into another country….
Every painting is a veil, though given that many abstract painters have sought to vanquish the inherent illusionism of the medium, perhaps we should say, potentially so. It is a potential each of these painters accepts, none of them more explicitly than Luke Elwes. The paintings shown here are characteristic, in their layering of diluted, stained and poured oil paint. Ostensibly abstract, in the sense that they are flat, dispersed in structure and without figural content, they manifestly suggest liquid, flowing, reflective surfaces. That which they enact, then, they also configure. Zoran Music, Elwes’s chosen artist, was not Italian by birth, though he did spend most of his working life in Italy, moving just across the border from his native Slovenia to live and work in Venice. There is evident identification here, for Elwes himself has a migrant past, having lived for part of his childhood in Iran, and, like Music, he is attracted by remote and desert regions. While the desert, in its aridity, might seem the opposite of these apparently liquid formations, there is an underlying affinity between water and sand, and a liaison between both and the wind: sand is formed and moved by the wind, and flows like water, forming waves and ripples. Elwes intends his paintings to form themselves correspondingly, in a microcosmic recapitulation of these natural processes of flow and inundation. Beneath Refuge we may see the traces of the free, impulsive drawing over which flow the layers of dilute paint. Each painting has such transparency, with crisscrossing paint flows forming lattices through which appear regular, vertical formations in three of the paintings. In all the paintings, in differing ways, regular elements confine or cut across the liquid flows: either submerged and washed over, or intrusive, like the black vertical in Passage. The limit reveals the unbounded.
Brendan Prendeville 2010