Towards Abstraction?

Art in South Wales since 1960

An exhibition of works by Sarah Ball, David Binns, PaulBrewer, Brendan Burns, John Cleal, Richard Cox  (Cardiff Airport Suite, shown above) , Michael Freeman, Carol Hiles, Robert Alwyn Hughes, Bert  Isaac, David Nash, Stephanie Tuckwell and Ernest Zobole from the university art collection

1 July to 18 November 2016

The year 1960 is seen as the transition point from modern to contemporary art. It is also the year after the ground-breaking 1959 Tate Gallery exhibition The New American Painting. The four artists represented by the four large-scale paintings in the front of the gallery provide a way into the south Wales art scene since 1960. This period begins with Ernest Zobole (1927- 99) whose painting Black Valley (1962-63) was produced just months before he started lecturing at Newport College of Art. His contemporary there was John Selway (1938-2017) who had studied at the Royal College of Art. His visiting tutors included the American Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko (1903-70). Newport was the first art school in south Wales to be deeply affected by post-war abstraction via London and New York and Zobole and Selway's 1960s paintings represented a painterly approach towards modernism. Another approach promoted by other painting tutors at Newport was a more systems-based one where brushwork and representational motif were largely suppressed. This hard-edged, post-painterly abstraction was preferred by Richard Cox (b 1946) who studied there in the mid to late 1960s. It can be seen in all his paintings, including Cardiff Airport Suite.

A generation younger again are Sarah Ball (b 1965) and Brendan Stuart Burns (b 1963). Like Cox, Ball hails from England and studied at Newport and her painting Crater (2007) also has a uniform colour field bordering on the monochrome into which various geometrical motifs are added. In contrast, Burns' painting Mist Wet with Rain (1998) is more painterly, like Zobole's. And it too obliquely references a south Wales location - although this is coastal Pembrokeshire rather than the Rhondda Valley. Another artist who looks to American modernism is Stephanie Tuckwell (b 1953) whose work brings-to-mind that of Cy Twombly (1928-2011). But art in south Wales has not just looked to contemporary America. It has absorbed a continental European tradition too. One conduit for this was Ceri Richards (1903-71) and his influence can be detected in the paintings of the Swansea-based Michael Freeman (b 1936), Bert Isaac (1923-2006), who studied under Richards in Cardiff, and Robert Alwyn Hughes (b 1935) who also had direct contact with him as a Royal College of Art student.

The exhibit by Paul Brewer (b 1946), a student contemporary of Cox at Newport, is abstract in appearance rather than intention whilst those of John Cleal (1929-2007) and Carol Hiles (b 1959) are cIearly informed by abstraction - as indeed are the ceramic and wood sculptural pieces by David Binns (b 1959) and David Nash (b 1945). Nash's Split Frame: Crack and Warp Square (2002) was sourced from a tree in south Wales and shaped at the university. 

Dr Ceri Thomas, Curator