Wednesday, 23 March 2016

British painting at the new Heong gallery: Is it abstract?

There is a new gallery in town.  It is the Heong Gallery.  Where is it?  Go to Regent Street in Cambridge; opposite Parker's Piece and across the road from the Pizza Hut, is Downing College.  Walk through the main entrance across the gravel path and past the Porter's Lodge; turn left.  And there it is.

Heong gallery, the entrance façade

It's in the old stables and was wonderfully re-purposed by Caruso St John Architects.  It opened on 6 Feb 2016 with an exhibition of British painting in the 50s and 60s.

I visited as part of the  symposium Generation Painting: Abstraction and British Art 1955-65, held at Downing on Sat, 5 March.

Now, the concept of 'abstraction' is interesting in the context of the current exhibition.

Detail from Patrick Heron's Soft Vermilion with Orange and Red: April 1965, 1965 (oil on canvas)
Above is a detail from a painting whose very title shouts "Hey, I'm abstract! Look at me! No figurative content in me!  No illusion to be seen here! Just plain old real paint.'  Except not quite, perhaps?  Because why is the vermilion 'soft'?  And why is the word 'April' part of the title?

As was pointed out by one speaker during the very interesting symposium, these 1950s/60s painters from Cornwall (Patrick Heron lived in Cornwall when he painted this) remained attached to the light and sea and atmosphere of their landscape.

And David Hockney's absolutely wonderful Hollywood Garden (1965) is definitely not abstract.

Detail from David Hockney's Hollywood Garden, 1965, pencil and watercolour on card

There are some witty references to abstraction, and there is a play with the tension between surface and depth, the horizontal line and the vertical shapes, like starlings on a wire, the drooping umbrella, the bush like a boulder.  At the symposium, Martin Hammer (University of Kent) was brilliant on Hockney:  "our involuntary urge to recognise."

Allen Jones, Parachutist, 1963 (Fitzwilliam Museum)

Detail of the preceding

Allen Jones's Parachutist (1963) is a wonderfully witty and juicily 'painterly' juxtaposition of the overtly figurative and the ambiguously abstract.  Are those vertical shapes stripes of yellow, green and blue, like the stripes in a painting by Morris Louis?
Great sky lights at the Heong Gallery

A picture window onto Downing lawns that looks like a literal picture, next to an actual picture by Roger Hilton, January 1962 (tall white), 1962.  Below is the same picture window viewed from the outside in.

Heong gallery, viewed from the Downing lawn

Visit the show! It's fantastic!  And so is the gallery.  Totally free, too.
The catalogue costs £12.

Wed 10 am - 8 pm
Sat, Sun, Bank Hols 10 am - 6 pm

Exhibition: Generation Painting 1955-65
British Art from the Collection of Sir Alan Bowness
Ends 22 May 2016.

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