Within this exhibition one common thread draws together the Artists and their work. Either they live and work in the peninsula of Penwith or visit and are stimulated by the geography or traditions of art making in Cornwall. The Penwith Peninsula holds within its boundaries a number of small towns and villages which have been home and inspiration for the modernist tradition in Britain. In particular St yes, Zennor, Newlyn and St Just have been the starting point for a number of movements which have significantly contributed to changing artistic attitudes in Britain in the last 100 years. Possibly this area can lay a very special claim to have attracted more artists than any other locality outside of London.
My premise for organising this show has been that, whilst earlier movements are relatively well recognised and documented, the process has been an ongoing one with only partial attention paid to work in the last twenty years. There is no intention within the exhibition to show a particular ideological movement; redundant in the post-modernist era when artist’s sensibilities are so less localised. Rather it is intended to give a ‘snapshot of activity’.
Traditions can weigh heavily on the artist in this area. On one hand some individuals have recognised the power of the heritage and have attempted to face the problems of reinventing the language and the task of ‘making’ in such close proximity to recognised artists such as Hilton, Lanyon, Hepworth and Nicholson. For others this brings with ita particular burden of assimilating the past.
Two painters who are both aware of this heritage of art-making in Cornwall and have based themselves locally are Russell Hedges and Stuart Knowles. Both have a keen awareness of the St Ives School and willingly take on the weight of this inheritance. Hedges has painted in West Cornwall for twenty years, steadfastly working in relative isolation. Aside from this tradition, it is for him “the experience of West Cornwall which has always been that of strangely ambiguous spaces. It is the notion of movement through these spaces, whether interior, exterior, coastal or hinterland, that continues to fascinate. The all-pervading sea presence almost inevitably permeates my work. The zooming scales, the sea horizon etc provoke reflection on the physical and metaphysical aspects of life by water.” Knowles too has committed himself to the visual metaphysical experience of the geography and as he points out, “Cornwall —objects made here cannot be simply records of the land, of nature, naturalistic. Here, especially, the manifestation of the past, the moods of nature and all the inherent metaphors encompassed by such changes must be present in an object that purports to be ‘of the place’ These works have a vigour and single-mindness of commitment that is bred in such relative isolation.
Two other artists who live in close, but isolated proximity to each other, at the furthest reaches of the peninsula, are the sculptors David Kemp and Peter Smith. Kemp trawls the peninsula searching for, and reinventing the discarded industrial and agricultural found objects. This area in common with many metropolitan districts has it’s tale of discarded industries such as tin mining. Kemp visualises creating a new ‘Iron Age’ changing the context of use of the objects and creating new myths and magic. Smith also uses found objects but in an unusual manner for someone trained as a ceramicist, and in an area where traditional ceramics is strong. Smith’s work is intent on pushing boundaries. Experimenting and comparing, challenging notions of taste by using a range of assemblage and readymades. Testing the mixture of manufacturing and clay. Both artists are prolific and seem to me to be relentless in the search to understand the materials they work with.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is the work of Michael Finn and Allan Boston. Finn lives and works in St Just, Boston in East London. Finn is the eldest artist in the show, and is now painting with the quiet assurance that comes with a long but relatively unrecognised career as a painter. Both artist’s work is meditative, uncompromising and carefully crafted, demanding application and time from the viewer for reward. Imagery is reduced to allow a clearer vehicle for contemplation. Both draw readily on the light and colour peculiar to the area.
Art-making as a diary form is common to the work of Nicola Bealing and Alan Dyer. Bealing works in a converted loft, rented from the A.C.M.E. Studios of London in the small fishing town of Porthleven. Dyer lives and works in the Midlands but has made regular visits over 20 years to St Ives and St Just. Both document their own and other peoples lives in the peninsula. For Dyer this journey is a particular personal experience. As he makes clear about his work “Some sheets may develop a particular theme where all the material set down deals with a common set of ideas. When this happens they become personal icons. They contain a body of information which can be read and subsequently expanded upon”. Bealing also adds to this observation of life a surreal depiction of its highs and lows. The work is made with immediacy and clarity of idea, allowing us an uneasy vision of mystical Cornwall.
For Debbie Duffin this area has provided a rich seam of source material. She
is concerned with the very sensual notion of rhythm and line. The surface and texture of natural material combines with a comfortable identification of the coves, beaches and granite rocks. This has proven an important input for the artist who normally works in East London.
The remaining artists in this show are a small selection, the tip of an iceberg of artists, who are drawn to this peninsula. Imperceptible in activity, hidden but committed. Their motives are manifold, all pursuing different objectives and intellectual inputs. As with all the artists in this show, it appears to me that they receive some special inspiration from having their own ‘Peninsula Journey’.
John France Cornwall, September 1992
E ssay in the exhibition catalogue 'Peninsula Journeys', which he curated. February 1993.
School of Art and Design,