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Tender the Butcher
Debbie Duffin
I first met John France about fifteen years ago when we were both students at Lanchester Polytechnic (now Coventry Polytechnic). I remember John and his work very clearly from my early years as an Art student. john’s approach to his techniques and the resulting works greatly influenced me. His attitude to painting and to other artists helped me both as an artist and as a woman who took her own work very seriously in a climate which still, at times, didn’t take women artists very seriously - John always took me and my work seriously.

Particularly impressive was John’s daring approach to making. He seemed to have the courage to rework and completely change a painting even if it already looked strong and interesting to an outsider. He always seemed committed to some vision he was after, without quite knowing what this was. He was prepared to take the risk of seeing what lay around the corner if he pushed a painting to new limits. I could hardly wait to see what he would do next.

John used a wide range of expansive techniques; my memories are of him pouring, scraping and pushing paint around huge canvasses, sometimes laid on the floor, sometimes hung on the wall. He was always working on several at once, but still seemed well able to cope with, and work with the unexpected, the chance occurrence, He worked quickly and spontaneously while obviously directing the work to a well-defined and chosen conclusion.

I didn’t see John’s work for many years after he left London in 1980, until a recent stay with him and his wife Sue in Morvah, Cornwall, early last year. Iwas pleased to find him still painting whilst doing a demanding full-time job

The early work seemed to me to be completely abstract, about the activity of painting itself - exploring how paint worked, how shapes, forms and colours relate to one another and how these relate to the canvas shape and size. The resulting works consisted of great slabs of colour sliding across the surface, butting up one against another, gliding past one another or reaching Out to one another.

It is perhaps easy to think of abstract work as being entirely self-referential and it was only on recently talking to John that I was reminded of the extraordinary influence the American painters of the 30s, 40s and SOs, had on those of us painting in the 70s. This was particularly important to the Fine Art course at Coventry which had been dominated by Art Theory for some years; painting had been seen as an outdated activity. How to begin painting again must have been an enormous challenge for the first students prepared to take it on. The Americans with their love of image, spontaneous expression and an interest in paint for its own sake provided an antidote to analysis and intellectual reasoning.

It became obvious as we talked of the effect of John’s surroundings on his own work. Coventry’s post-war rebuilding had led to a ‘concrete jungle’ of geometric shapes, which found their way into his work. The view we had of the City from the top floor of the college was a panorama reflected in the large paintings, which were possible in the roomy studio spaces of the 705.

The move to London in 1975 onto the postgraduate painting course at Chelsea School of Art allowed a consolidation of John’s Coventry works. But a year later, on leaving Chelsea, reduced physical circumstances forced a reduced scale — for a few years John worked on tiny paintings on paper. These works became tighter and more hard-edged, but at the same time never lost the physical effects of their making. On this scale tiny scraps of masking tape were used and his fingers applied colour. Fingerprints and the slightly torn edges left by peeling off masking tape, were the equivalent of the huge scraping marks and sweeping strokes of the Coventry paintings.

John’s desire to develop the ‘dib - dab quality’ of these finger marks coincided with his move to rural Cornwall, a move which brought about fundamental changes in both his life and his work. The effects of the surrounding countryside were allowed to infiltrate his work. He rapidly introduced softer more organic shapes, forms and marks. Mark-making began to break up and destroy the geometric forms which had dominated the London works.

This new approach to making paintings set up the beginnings of a long continuing tussle between the old geometry and increasingly wild skeins, ribbons and flecks of paint, until in 1988 some of his forms had almost been obliterated. This dialogue has been his obsession over a period of almost ten years of thoughtful work, with new techniques, shapes and images emerging, including the use of a tiny paint brush to work close up on certain areas of the paintings — a new departure for him.

The most recent works have seen the introduction of new elements — ‘tubes and cubes’ now vie for room, and colour is used straight from the tube- Skeins, loops and dabs of colour still compete and on occasion John brings a playful puzzle into the work.

One question which came to mind on seeing the Cornwall works was the use of colour. In spite of the influence of the surrounding countryside colour has remained ‘manufactured’. John’s reply is ‘I didn’t want to let go of certain things, I think you develop certain colour relationships and combinations that are your own, you understand how they work and you build your own rituals, signs and language’.

Part of the decision to leave London related to the desire to develop a highly personal language away from the pressures of an art scene which seemed to John to ’digest’ an artist until ‘I felt I was becoming a viewer not a doer’.

Ten years after his move to Cornwall John feels he is ‘just starting out at 37’. This period of working in relative isolation has allowed him to take his time, to provide himself with a long experimental period of gathering strength and working towards a point where he ‘can make the work I want to make’.

Despite the changes which have come about in John’s work over the years, his approach and attitude has remained one of great commitment to painting and to the artist’s freedom to make decisions. He believes strongly that it is not the artist’s job to make work easily accessible to its viewers, but that for the artist the work is ‘an unexpected thing — a journey into experience of form, space and colour’ and that ‘the artist creates his/her own reality as strong as any other’. The artist’s job is to take that ‘voyage into the unknown and come back with different realities’. In this sense John sees painting as no different from any other activity, and the artist of today is not fundamentally different from any other human being past or present The human race has always had a need to create ‘rituals, methods and realities through which to live’.

Debbie Duffin on the work of John France, 1989
Essay in the exhibition catalogue
'Tender the Butcher', January - February 1990.
Lanchester Gallery,
School of Art and Design,
Coventry University,