Last weekend Zak and I went to view Stilleven a new exhibition by Chris Kettle at Naked Eye Gallery in Hove. Zak had told me that the paintings were brilliant, and they certainly were. A painting is a very physical thing, and Kettle understands all the elements that make viewing a painting a sensual experience.
The first work that caught my eye was this small oil on panel White Rose Study. A painting happens in the synapses where all the marks and splashes turn into a bunch of roses in a glass vase. That is alchemy. The textural fireworks are sheer pleasure. The way the thick impasto shapes the edges of the petals where they dissolve into the light. The foreground grey, splayed onto the canvas then teased into a stem of grass – this is what it’s about at its roughest, laying paint on panel.
It reminded of a panel I used to have on the bookcase at the old flat. I’d found it against the railings in the square coming home late one night. I thought it was a painting, an abstract in thick impasto on chipboard panel. When I picked it up it was a square of counter-top the builders had wiped their putty-knives on, but it was still the same picture.
White Rose Study is a slightly earlier work than the other paintings in Stilleven, where Kettle steeps himself in Dutch Golden Age still-life painting. His work is exciting because he strips painting back to its elements. Gainsborough learnt by copying Van Dyck, exactly, but in his own style, and Kettle does the same thing with a Master who inspires him in Still-life of Fruit and Flowers after Van Huysum.
Kettle’s observation is superb, the exact palette of the original down to the precise colour of the decayed Seventeenth Century green pigment, and the same three-dimensionality where the shape is sculpted by light.
Kettle seems to slow light down, dragging it over the highlights, and letting it linger around its source, like mist or as though it has weight. The Festoons hanging along one wall of the gallery show this to the power, blazing like girandoles when you first come into the gallery.
Festoon VI (detail)
The Festoons literally draw your eye upwards, and their weighty presence is a triumph of illusion. They are a series of paintings based on photographs of a sculptural still-life of fruit and vegetables that the artist created and hung in his studio. This technique reminded me of the work of Philip Cath, whose Caravaggist tableaux are painted from sculptural installations.
Kettle was kind enough to explain his technique to us. He delights in the possibilities of traditional oil painting, choosing sized linen because it is one of the earliest supports in painting. He hung these paintings unframed, so you could appreciate the tacking edge. I approved. John Bratby put a label on the back of his paintings asking the owner to leave them unframed. The most he would tolerate was a thin batten. He painted right to the edge of the canvas, he said. Like all painters, Kettle has the same love of materials and method that his forebears did, the same reverence a carpenter feels for wood. The linen is sized, and thinly primed before painting, but where the light is strongest Kettle has rubbed down to the linen to produce that effect of melting light. Each picture takes him about a fortnight to paint, which I was glad to hear.
There’s a story about Carlo Dolci going into a terminal decline because he couldn’t paint as fast as Luca Giordano, and there’s a line from Schoenbaum about habits of business not being incompatible with genius, but I couldn’t work either of them into something interesting in time, so I said, I love that! pointing at the bright red light on one of the chilli peppers at the bottom. And that was my favourite bit of the painting. There are luscious effects throughout the picture – the green leaves on the not-radishes top right are just superb, the round fruits with the tactile simplicity of Cezanne. But I love how the elements in shadow have been left in outline, as underdrawing with the accents picked out, like a figure in a crowd sketch by Canaletto.
Chris Kettle’s Stilleven will be at Naked Eye Gallery, 70 Western Road, Hove, BN3 2JQ until September 28th 2017.