Issue Number: 108
A new series of experimental exhibitions highlights the artists and architects at the heart of the RA and aims to explore their working methods. First to exhibit in the Artists’ Laboratory is Ian McKeever RA, who reveals how photography has influenced his painting. By Jill Lloyd
Ian McKeever RA’s ‘Hartgrove Paintings and Photographs’ introduces a new series of exhibitions at the Royal Academy, in which Royal Academicians are given an opportunity to showcase an experimental aspect of their work. Entitled ‘The Artists’ Laboratory’, the series aims to show that contemporary artists are at the core of the RA’s activities, as well as offering new insights into their working methods.
The idea is that each artist will explore aspects of their working processes that would not usually be seen in a gallery setting, thus giving viewers unprecedented access to their creative process.
McKeever provides an excellent launch to the new initiative by exhibiting his Hartgrove paintings alongside a recent series of black-and-white photographs that, as a rule, would be hidden from the public eye.
McKeever is known, above all, for his majestic paintings which explore a mysterious and highly original terrain between figuration and abstraction. His work also encompasses drawing and printmaking – indeed, the works on paper provide an important counterpoint to the large-scale paintings. Rather than serving as studies for paintings in the traditional sense, McKeever’s drawings and prints are made after the event, taking aspects of their imagery further or summarising an achievement, which often provides the impetus for new works.
His long-standing interest in photography is a lesser-known aspect of his work. Originally he integrated photographs into his paintings by physically applying them onto the canvas and painting over them, finding that the dialogue with a ready-made image (often of a landscape or geological theme) was less daunting than confronting a blank canvas.
However, by the end of the 1980s McKeever began to paint directly onto linen and cotton duck – the Hartgrove series, which he made in 1992-94, features the characteristic veils of shadow and light that have become intrinsic to his paintings. The series takes its title from the village in Dorset where the artist moved when he left London, and he views these paintings as his response to the openness of the rural landscape.
The photographs that he juxtaposes with the Hartgrove paintings in the exhibition chart the intimate corners of his home: light falling on a stack of cups in the kitchen, a half-open shutter, the pattern of shadow and light on a rumpled duvet. The impetus for showing these two sets of images relates to this dialogue between exterior and interior space: ‘The paintings grew out of a response to a feeling of greater open space when first arriving here,’ McKeever states, ‘while the recent photographs are a more inward-looking reflection upon moments seen in my day-to-day living environment.’
In this regard the exhibition of large-scale paintings and smaller photographs relates to a recurring theme in McKeever’s work, concerned with an underlying rhythm of expansion and contraction. The artist views this as a universal impulse running through nature that characterises both the heartbeat or breathing of a living creature and the grander, eternal rhythms of nature, like the ebb and flow of a tide.
Although he stopped using photographs physically in his paintings by the end of the 1980s, he continued to use them as ‘notes’ or source material. To a certain extent they fulfilled the preparatory role that would traditionally be associated with drawings and other works on paper. Often these photographs – which remained in his studio archives – were taken on the artist’s travels. The images they record find their way by a process of poetic metamorphosis into his paintings and prints – the tangled branches of a fallen tree, for example, might suggest the meandering lines of a girl’s hair.
McKeever’s fascination with light and shadow, and the alternations between positive and negative effects in his prints, also relate to his photography. A series of drawings he made in 2003, titled ‘As the Day is Long’, for example, relate directly to his interest in looking at and photographing shadows.
The photographs for the current show were taken over the past three years. They form a cohesive group, all with the theme of the interior of his Hartgrove home. Although McKeever would not yet consider exhibiting them alone, his photographs of everyday objects are infused with a stillness and ethereal beauty that is reminiscent of photographers he admires, particularly André Kertész and Charles Sheeler. There are obvious formal similarities with the Hartgrove paintings – veils of light and shadow, luminosity and spherical forms – but from the artist’s point of view it is the process of contrast and counterpoint that is more vital.
McKeever sums up this productive relationship in the following terms: ‘Painting is a cumulative process: one starts with a blank canvas and it is a slow accretion. With photography, one begins with the fullness of what is seen in the world, looking through the viewfinder of the camera. This, then, is slowly reduced, first to black and white, then to light and shadow. It’s a process of distilling and stilling. I find this reduced, but nevertheless, very concrete sense of something real in the world as seen in the photograph – be it a stack of plates, or the shadow of the lean of a chair – very reassuring in contrast to the elusive and often for me ungraspable nature of painting.’