Hartland, Provence & Co. Kerry


Wednesday 17th September to
Saturday 4th October 2008

Foreword by Jenny Pery

The physical, tactile quality of Alan Cotton's paint tempts the fingertips and leads the viewer along intriguing visual pathways. Miniature escarpments and waterfalls of thickly-laid paint catch and glossily scatter the light, creating a bright counterpoint to the orchestration of colour within the picture frame. Even at their most sombre, the paintings sparkle under the play of light over richly coloured sweeps and striations of violet, ochre and grey. The glitter on the lemon yellows and icy blues depicting sea or sky also penetrates into the deep purple crevices of rocks or stone. Blocky patches of subtly modulated paint stand beside thinly scraped areas, where different hues are dragged or scumbled over each other. Other areas again are rendered in dabs and points and lines of paint. The variety in the nature and apparent speed of the mark-making is very wide. As Alan Cotton often stresses, 'it's all about the marks'.

Using his beloved painting knives like conductors' batons, Cotton wrings rhythm and movement out of the paint, his marks ranging from chunky, slabby rectangles of solid impasto to wispy feathery strokes or fine lines planted with the thin edge of the knife. He now usually works over a terracotta-reddish ground, and the tiny glimpses of enlivening red revealed by gaps in the laid paint add sparkle to the whole. Sensitive to the texture, weight and mass of different objects in the landscapes he depicts, Cotton plays with contrasts - water against rock, stone against foliage, wood against blossom, close-up foregrounds against deep space. He is adept at creating depth within the picture frame, opening great expanses of pictorial space by the subtle diminution of the marks. While suggesting limitless space, his compositions are direct and stable, possessing strength and a sense of completeness.

The current exhibition marks the 20th anniversary of Alan Cotton's first London show with David Messum. Theirs has been an unusually fruitful partnership, encouraging Cotton to paint prolifically and well, and generating many important commissions. For the sixty-or-so paintings that he has made during this year for the present exhibition, he has returned to three of his favourite painting grounds - the Dingle Peninsula in Ireland, Provence and the South of France, and Hartland, on the North Devon coast. He knows these areas well, and a firm knowledge of their history as well as their changing seasons and climates underlies his visual understanding. When in each area he draws on the spot, making numerous fluid line-drawings. These drawings are the seed-corn from which Cotton works up the paintings. In his Devon studio he revels in manipulating the paint, mixing and dragging it on the palette, experimenting with chance alignments of colour. When interpreting his drawings in oils, he searches for new solutions to the perennial problems that arise in finding painterly equivalents for mass and light and space. And in the process of developing the paintings he revisits the emotions he felt when going across the cherry orchards in the Luberon, with the last of the light catching the tops of the trees, or when watching the evening light reflect onto waves rolling in to break on the Hartland rocks. In Ireland he is invariably entranced by the wet glow of light piercing the dark clouds and illuminating corn-filled enclosures below, and the quasi-human shapes of the Blasket Islands glinting in the far distance. The adventure of visiting these special painting grounds and making the drawings becomes a new adventure when exploring them in paint.

Alan Cotton has long been one of the South-West's most distinguished painters, as active in promoting the cause of Art as he is assiduous in maintaining his own vision. Artistically he is a natural heir to the late Sir Kyffin Williams RA, whose broadly-handled knife paintings have played such a strong part in invigorating British 20th century art. Cotton's work, however, displays greater variety in the mark-making, and the general mood of his landscapes, unlike those of Kyffin Williams, is joyful and upbeat. He is attracted more to the iridescent mark-making in Pierre Bonnard's landscapes than to the doughty but dour summarizations of Williams. Alan Cotton's work celebrates both his love of oil paint and his delight in looking at certain wonderful corners of the world.

Jenny Pery, July 2008
Art historian, and author of Alan Cotton's biography 'On a Knife Edge'.