Mike Holcroft ‘Flowers ….. plants & other stories’

This exhibition of Mike Holcroft’s new work has three elements: vibrantly coloured flower paintings; a series of ‘vanitas’ style still lifes; and a series of flower drawings on paper.  (Click the above link to see images of his work)

Looking closely at the flower paintings, which are the first to catch the eye, the material qualities of the paint suggests the textures of the subjects, evoking their physicality through glossy strokes or velvet-matt marks.

The subjects are observed with a child-like fascination, an excitement communicated through bold marks that have the appearance of being ‘felt’ as much as they are acutely observed.

Objects depicted in vibrant colour appear to float against their rich dark painterly backgrounds, giving a psychological depth that hints at memory, emotion, or something imagined.

The works are all held in the scaffold of a modernist grid which evokes Sean Scully, in the creation of three or more panels which are roughly painted, often in exuberant colour which reflects the colours used to pick out tiny details of the central still life.  It is this understanding of colour which gives the flower paintings their intense vibrancy which has been much commented on by visitors to the exhibition.  The grid removes any tendency to view these paintings as a window on the ‘real world’.  Instead, they are a window into the artist’s experience of the objects, leaving vibrant traces of his engagement with them.

That these have been observed from life is in no doubt – you almost get the sense that the artist had one eye on the subject in front of him, and the other on the painting.  They are authentically observed.  In ‘Tulips’, a powerful painting where clear colours glow against a rich midnight blue background, the pink, fleshy stalks hold up glowing yellow flowers – and yet some of the other blooms are faded, drooping or broken; the foliage yellowing and torn.  These flowers speak of aging and death as much as they do of vibrant life.

In ‘Baby’s Breath II’ there is a shadow of a frame that we can’t see, and another shadow that could be us, the viewer.  It puts us in the painting with the object; makes us intimate with it.

Compositions are simple, centred, satisfying.  Objects may have shadows (or may not); they may be sat on something (or not); but either way they float, bathed in light. They are homely, but also sublime.

Moving away from the flower paintings, in the second section of the gallery there are a series of still life ‘vanitas’ paintings.  Unlike the flowers works, these invite narrative.  In ‘Egg and Skull Still Life’ the foreshortened crumpled fist seems to beckon whilst also having a wry smile at the original aim of the still life – to show off the skill of the artist.  The repeated egg motif is another nod to this, and also disrupts it – in ‘Still Life with Skull and Bottle’, the egg is a ghost hovering in space.  In ‘Still Life with Antler Plant’ the perfect rendering of the egg is disrupted by the shifting planes against which it sits.  The wood evokes the crucifix, three nails hinting at the holy trinity.  These paintings are embedded within an art historical narrative of religious iconography, vanitas, still life, and modernist abstraction.  And in a post-modern turn, the work has been left with drawn lines visible, and roughly sketched-in paint.  The materials and processes are there in all their physicality for us to see.  We are invited to do some of the work, to engage with the works and make our own sense of them.  The process of ‘making’ these works continues with the viewer.

The two ‘skull’ works both evoke Francis Bacon, particularly ‘Still Life with Skull and Bottle’ with its inner ‘box’ of faint lines, and the silhouetted skull.  Even the hook, and the industrial mesh collaged to form the ‘roof’ of the box are somehow Bacon-esque.  The hand appears again, more ghostly this time, gently cradling a dead bird.  The empty milk bottle forms the bottom of a compositional cross, but also links wryly to the cow.  The milk, the egg, even the shape formed by the nose of the skull all symbols of nurturing and fertility, yet in this painting they are dark empty ghosts.

Another pair of still life works use tiling to describe a grid motif, against which the objects are arranged.  Domestic objects have their forms disrupted by this grid, in a style reminiscent of Delaunay.  In ‘Still Life with Antler Plant’ the arrangement is set within a painted ornate frame.  Objects are disrupted by the ‘matrix’ of tiles, creating shifting planes.

Moving onto the drawings – these are as much studies in mark-making as they are studies of the objects they depict.  Again, compositions are structured within a grid/frame.  Backgrounds are built up in layers of marks in charcoal, conte and pastel.  That these are intensely and acutely observed speaks for itself.  But these drawings (and the paintings) also owe a debt to the artist’s experience and eye for how to make a surface interesting.

My over-riding impression of the show is of an enticing mix of careful and engaged observation, confident marks firmly laid down, objects ‘floating’ onto painterly deep coloured surfaces, all held within the artist’s signature grid of vibrantly painted and collaged surfaces.  All the painted works are presented on solidly constructed panels, making these beautifully hand-made objects as well as rich and complex paintings.