Neil Douglas is a pugilist.
I first met him in the café at the National Gallery in London. He had arranged to meet me because he wanted to challenge his own work, and thought I might have something of value to say.
We have kept in touch ever since and I have witnessed the evolution of the work in this exhibition. Not that this is an end point. It is as much a beginning, but then Neil would expect me to say that. But it is an evolution, not just a change in direction, and Neil knows that painting is not simply a personal manifestation of views and opinions, where every painting has the same value as the next. Neil is prepared to engage with the challenge of recognising that some paintings are better than others, they offer the viewer more because they are more sophisticated, more accomplished and more independent from the world around them. That might make Neil unfashionable. He has had to jettison the ease of art as just a dialogue with his fellow man. In terms that we can easily recognise, Neil is no longer a photorealist. He no longer uses the lowest common denominator offered to the visual artist, the photograph, to communicate his thoughts and interests. And with the rejection of the mundane photograph must also come the rejection of the easy praise gained from those who are impressed by an artist’s ability to emulate the photograph in paint.
My role in Neil’s evolution is not even as a sparring partner. I have a faith in painting and know it to be a secret art. Neil has had to find his own faith. But by nature, Neil is confrontational, outspoken, and he expects others to face the really difficult challenges of being a painter, and not find the easy way out. Of course in this, he is as much fighting with previous versions of himself.
In painting, there is no opponent, and the painter spends his days shadowboxing.
Neil spends his days in a studio on the fringes of Manchester’s city centre. Appropriately it has the architectural features of a garret. For all of Neil’s streetwise credentials, and his political allegiance to the working man, he knows that painting must happen in a special space, away from the public gaze. Painting is not an entertaining performance. Again, this makes Neil unfashionable. But what has become integral to Neil’s practice is painting as material alchemy, and in these paintings he has used an array of unconventional materials, from concrete to ground glass.
Let’s be specific. “In Bloom” is a triumph of Neil’s relentless experimentation. We can trace his painting of blossom back through this show. It is always a poignant symbol of loss as much as of regeneration. Neil has his own reasons for the subjects he chooses but it is never the role of the viewer to question what motivates an artist, only bear witness to what they have made. More importantly, what distinguishes painting from illustration is a distance between the origins of the subject matter and what it subsequently is transformed into. It is the difference between an image being of something, and a painting being a new reality.
Neil greatest transformation throughout this evolution is to become a painter who understands this. But let’s look again at “In Bloom”. Its concession to illustration, as John Constable said, is that paintings can remind us of our world. And this painting reminds us of blossom. But it is so different from the delicate petals and soft pinks of the spring blossom that is in my garden as I write this, that we no longer think about this painting as an image of floral Englishness. More powerfully, we should not think of this as being an image of a more brutalist agenda, tempting though that may be. Because the actuality of this painting is as a physical mass and a spatial construct. It simply is. Its beauty is quite outside of the natural beauty of blossom; its ugliness, outside of the ugliness of its raw materials.
We find a similar transformation in Autumn/Homage to Hepher. Neil leaves us in no doubt here of his interest in the urban decay of the city. We might also think that this is reinforced by the title which refers to the great English painter David Hepher and his landmark paintings of tower blocks in South London. But Hepher is no more a social realist than Neil is. From this confrontation with the city emerges painting of remarkable originality and presence. The autumn leaves in Neil’s painting are quite un-leaf like, harsh, angular, cutting and disturbing. Neil knows that to paint is not to emulate but to invent. In this he is not appropriating Hepher but working within a tradition that demands originality in painting.
That lodges painting within a Modernist agenda. It is not word play, nor the fabricating of images. Simply, it becomes the struggle to find something new from all that lies around us. Whether that is tubs of paint, sacks of concrete, views of the city, branches of blossom, or the books on art history, none of these things in themselves will adequately define a work of art. For many, the existential paralysis induced by not being able to imagine the new has now created a contemporary landscape where believing that this is even possible is scorned.
But failing to imagine the new does not make it impossible, and Neil belongs to a small but growing community of artists who want to challenge these negative conclusions. So in viewing this exhibition it is worth reflecting on a broader agenda. Within the many layers of paint, scrapped back surfaces and cut up and collaged canvases, we are seeing a willingness to establish difference and reject the familiar solutions that artists adopt rather than create.
Finally then, let’s dwell on Friends and Ghosts #3. In 1970, Malcolm Morley made his now iconic painting “Race Track”, in which he crossed out, in blood red paint, a giant hand painted postcard of a South African race course. A political statement perhaps, but within the oeuvre of Morley’s painting, it is more redolent of his rejection of photorealism. After this painting, Morley’s work became more painterly. Where Morley, for me at least, did not go far enough, was that he continued to use a systematic grid to make his paintings. His process remained just as restrictive. The challenge to creativity didn’t lie in using the photograph per se, but his attitude towards it which he failed to address.
45 years later, Neil has cut up an earlier photorealist painting of a figure, re-arranged the pieces on the canvas, and made a new painting that makes it abundantly clear that he has had enough of easy, systematic image making. That is has taken so long for a handful of artists to say “enough is enough” might indicate the paucity of an avant garde spirit for decades, or perhaps the endurance and seduction of making images with mechanical aids. Either way, we are now at this point. Neil’s painting is successful, mysterious. More importantly it is a point of no return, rendering his earlier work, and the world of photorealist painting which he has come to reject, yesterday’s reality.