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CATALOGUE ESSAY 2015

What will survive of us is love. ’ Philip Larkin

It is initially a slightly unnerving experience sitting for a portrait with Nathan Ford. With piano music softly meandering in the background, and the artist looking one intensely in the eye, it helped to home in on a small triangle of Nathan’s furrowed brow as a means of warding off wandering thoughts. ‘Loose!’ he repeats softly.  The scrunched concentration is immediately recognisable from his archive of rather stern and unflattering self-portraits, and more than a little redolent of the painting of ‘Dad’ in this show.   His father Stan, unused to an extended period of remaining still, busied himself while sitting for his portrait worrying about the garage he runs. The clenched look of concern is as familiar as the subject himself, though it is not how Ford senior would like himself presented. Noteworthy too is the title, describing the oft-painted Stan from the artist’s point of view for the first time.

These portraits are Nathan making conversation, plotting a pathway through the experience of being with the sitter.  He is well acquainted with his chosen subjects and tries to describe something of their interiority.  Though this attempt will always to some extent be a fumbling in the dark, it addresses the simple question in Yeats’ poem The Man and the Echo,  ‘What do we know but that we face one another in this place.’

Nathan is nothing if not a practical artist, with a considered, strategic modus operandi. His tools are laid out within touching distance; palette paints ruler scalpel calculator rubber pencils and an array of brushes. His face alternates between the strain of ardent looking to the visible relaxing of features as he marks the canvas.  All the small adult portraits in the show are painted thus from life, and it appears, in marked contrast to the paintings of his two sons that life has, to paraphrase Rembrandt, etched itself on to the faces with age.

The portraits of his sons Reuben (8) and Joachim (6) are only a small part of their overall contribution to the exhibition as a whole, and their influence on his work in general.  At one time Nathan would not paint his children for fear of bringing the outside world in on them. Their gradual involvement, from oblique portraits, through panoramic scenes of open spaces and vulnerability, then as graffiti draughters of monster fish and runaway apatosauruses, now has them as artists in their own right,  more or less, with their own ongoing project (Grey Hope), albeit with the imprimatur of paternal tutelage and an ever-decreasing degree of choreography. One can appreciate that he wants a painting like ‘Carnival’ to be enjoyed in all its glory; not to give it import, but to show its import.

It seems obvious to say that Nathan is painting his life, and that drawing and painting has become part and parcel of his children’s experience. On a visit to Rome in the autumn of 2013, he characteristically eschews the oft-depicted delights of the eternal city, offering us instead the ‘Diario’ paintings, from the rooftop of his rented apartment at the same time each morning.  When in Rome, Ford will do exactly what he thinks he should and though it may seem to be a contrariness, it is with a hard- won confidence and single-mindedness that he carves a way through any painting; he has a language he can make vivid, and tools that he knows and trusts.

The wide open urban vistas which include an unguarded child are still a part of the artist’s oeuvre.  A tiny Joachim features in ‘Pocket’, enveloped by the sweeping architecture of Brighton’s  Victorian railway station, the diminutive figure joined by an assortment of cartoonish accomplices. The spiders, bees and the blue elephant soften the sense of peril, much more present in ‘Recalculated’.  It is Joachim again (the more boisterous of his two sons) who is nonchalantly strolling along the pavement in ‘Collective’, a painting which extends the idea of employing children’s graffiti in an  urban setting.  This collaboration, where members of the public were invited to draw on to the basic street scene depicted, was part of his contribution to an arts festival during the summer of 2014.  It appears to build on Picasso’s remark that all children are artists - Nathan remarks on the reticence of adults to take up the offer to simply draw. A form of expression once perfectly natural becomes anathema with age.  One can see why he would want to capture the artistic yen in his children.  All parents do.

Other larger paintings depict vignettes from the artist’s life that will be familiar to aficionados.  ‘Apart’ is an effervescent, flashing moment on Oxford Street as a cascade of buses slides past.  The sense of urgency is a direct contrast to the scrupulousness of the small portraits.  ‘Quinn II’ is a more sombre reflection, set in a semi rural side street near his current home. In ‘Flock’ sheep gather comically in a field on the artist’s running circuit. Even the bottles unearthed from his garden which appear in the still lifes are mainstays of the studio and the life he has carved out for himself and his family, many miles from South East London and the view of Crystal Palace so familiar to him from his own childhood ‘bedroom window’.

Whateverthe subject, a balance of figuration and abstraction is sparingly achieved, encouraging viewers to allow themselves the time to pick up a subtly woven thread into the work.  The backdrops, areas that may go unnoticed, are what the artist sometimes works hardest on in order to make this happen. Large and small, the paintings thrive on their mortality. There is the mortality of moments; in London streets, in cavernous railway stations, on family holidays, the phases of childhood that are rendered memories all too quickly.  Mortality is distilled into the emotive single eyes of his nearest and dearest. These small gems sparkle, unerringly and without flinching, in a testimony to what a small portrait can achieve even when, or especially when, the drawing medium has been reduced to its merest essentials.  ‘All memory’ Richard Hugo says, ‘resolves itself into gaze.’

Aidan Quinn 2015

 

CATALOGUE ESSAY 2013

‘My child could do that ’ (anonymous)

The notions of family and home lie at the heart of the latest collection of paintings by Nathan Ford. The work can broadly be divided into 2 categories. Large sweeping street scenes, barren on the margins,set the scene for off-centre hives of activity, their bright flashings resembling the collisions of far-flungnebulae. In the absence of medium-sized works, all the remaining paintings are small, and amongst these are portraits of 3 generations of Ford’s immediate family. In addition is a series of still lives, which include vessels unearthed from the formerly abandoned garden behind the artist’s home. With a growing maturity in work and in life (though still a measly 36 years of age) and with the support throughout of wife Anna and his parents in encouraging his career as an artist, Ford has developed confidence as a painter, without ever falling into any kind of comfort zone. He now more than ever has the practical tools necessary (and has earned the right to give himself time) to experiment with new ideas and work them through fastidiously towards what many viewers would consider an impressive resolution, though the artist himself remains his own harshest critic.

The experience of successful shows has not dampened his curiosity, far from it. Echoing Picasso’s description of art as the ‘elimination of the unnecessary’ he is paring the work down more than ever, every stage of the mark-making process recorded on the canvas, including the preliminary measurements. Ford has the uncanny ability to draw us toward the main detail, not just through his penetrating observation of streets or faces, but in the very act of looking itself. Momentary vignettes are cut and pasted, reconstructed, the solitary figures (so often now clearly his own children) choreographed in coruscating streetscapes through which they move, as if under theatre lights. The threadbare landscapes are a London we know in our very marrow. ‘Much of my time’ he posits, ‘is spent on the spaces that are meant to be ignored. In a way I am trying to make a subtle backdrop, where I can plot a visual-neural pathway.’ This is of course easier said than done, as ‘the line between what is noise and what is signal is not distinct.’ Indeed. It is in the interface of noise-signal, figuration-abstraction, movement-stillness, where the fizzing tension of the work finds its harmony.

Ford’s streets should be teeming with people, though only one (Butterfly Affectation) appears significantly populated. In The North Woods (the name of the area comes from a wood that once stood there), the child is alone at a traffic junction, the lights, signals and sounds flashing and winking in the inky blue of evening. The stance and the favourite bumble-bee hat identifies his younger son, standing in a street Ford the elder knew like the back of his hand. The child looks dwarfed and vulnerable, though with Stan Ford’s garage at the end of the street behind him, I suspect this is a vicarious self-portrait, a paean to vulnerability both in the child but more so in the parent, revivified as when observing our children, as we ruminate on how we can best look after them and keep them safe. In other paintings the children have their backs to us- in The Triangle (depicting a street in Crystal Palace) the vivid signs tell us it is a one-way street (pointing away from us). In South Circular the little boy ambles pensively, perhaps avoiding the pavement cracks, while the traffic flashes past toward a distant constellation of street lights.

The Boundary Wall paintings incorporate perhaps the most interesting feature of the bigger paintings - the use of the drawings of Ford’s two children, Reuben aged 6 and Joachim 4. Artists too numerous to name have attempted to capture the unfettered innocence of the child. More numerous perhaps (and the writer is a signed up member) are parents who stare in star-struck awe at their children’s drawings. Just as the street scenes seem to freeze a fragment of time and deal with the ‘how’ of looking, the paintings which include children’s drawings are a celebration of the developing ‘mechanics of visual intelligence’, as Michael Ayrton put it. So here we have, in part, Ford as set-designer and choreographer, his sons the draughtsmen. The children themselves are the subjects of several of the small portraits, soliloquies on the different moods and character traits that are the essence of each. More unflinching are the portraits of the adults. 'Anna' and 'Mum' particularly seem to be meditations on the harsh effects of time and responsibility, though the artist himself in typical fashion saves the most severe treatment for himself, perhaps in anticipation of the exposure of another body of work to the world. These adult portraits are moving, melancholically difficult yet irresistible, compelling one to wheel around and reconsider.

Ford has again produced an innovative, indefatigable collection of work. The small works distil something much more than likeness, and preserve this quiddity in unforgettable gem-like portraits. The larger paintings manage to go one step further than simply attempting to recreate the naive or the child-like. They endeavour to preserve the artist’s sense of fascination and wonderment at his children’s unbridled, unforeseeable directness, not to mention the education he has inadvertently received at their hands. They nail their ideas on a blank page, in a brief flurry, with phlegmatic ease. ‘Every child is an artist’ said Picasso, ‘the problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up’.

Aidan Quinn 2013

 

CATALOGUE ESSAY 2011

If you dig deep enough, all of our dreams are the same - Amos Oz

The figure in Nathan Ford's portrait of Mwaana (the Lugandan word for child) looks penetratingly out and into the viewer. It is at once an uncompromising and haunting expression largely, as is Ford's wont, with one eye the emotional epicentre, framed by facial and background detail in various stages of fragmentation and dissolution. It is a painting that inspires silence. Mystery lurks there too, an ambiguity in the harsh yet soft, knowing yet lost expression on the boy's face. He is in fact an orphan, his parents victims of the Lord's Resistance Army in northern Uganda, a country that Ford is familiar with having travelled in central Africa over a decade ago. It is a painting not without risk (there can be prurience in our presumption of victimhood) especially given that the subject matter is a child. 'All memory', said the poet Richard Hugo, 'resolves itself in gaze'. This gaze, of bewilderment, determination, resignation, embodies within it something that we recognise.

There is an emotional strength reminiscent of the later portraits of Rembrandt, or the tortured visages of Egon Schiele. Most of all however it perhaps calls to mind a more modern and iconic imagery - Steve Curry's famous photo of 'The Afghan Girl', or even Don Mc Cullin's shell-shocked soldier. We feel somehow that we bring to the painting some knowledge of the context of this single human being's life. What we seem to recognise, or face, in Mwaana is actually, to paraphrase a line of Seamus Heaney (from The Human Chain), 'Me in the face and the face in me'.

Mwaana's is a face made to be painted by Ford, it deserves the scrutiny of being writ large. It is a comment on how we look as much as what we are looking at; drawing us to the fulcrum of the eye, and as ever balancing figuration and abstraction in such a way that what is left in the painting is as important as what has been omitted. There is no ostentation and no redundancy.

The issue of how we look, how we see in any transient instant, seems to preoccupy Nathan Ford. Take his urban landscapes such as 'Last One Home' and 'The Race'. He picks up on the fleeting passage of visual details we may be aware of in a trice as we take in a busy street scene - the reflector light on a bicycle mudguard, the strip of colour on the side of a bus or shop signage, a just opened umbrella, reflections from windows in the street. In spite of the careering presence of the buses and vans, the towering buildings, the hulking Victorian steel architecture - played out amid the lit canyon-like light of modern urban life - all this too, he seems to say, is periphery. It will pass.

The transitory nature of the scenes depicted also carry a sense of foreboding - a white van lurks menacingly in 'Last One Home' and in 'Limited Service', paintings that could also be a vignette from a parent's bad dream (familiar child in familiar but incongruous setting). These landscapes relate to the precariousness of raising a young family, and judging by the portrait of Reuben, Ford's eldest son, the father is not the only worrier in the household. The apple has not fallen far from the tree.

Ford has recently completed long-term major renovations to his home, having settled in a rural location far from the South London of his youth, or his days as a scholarship student at the Byam Shaw school of art. Besides the portraits of both his sons, 'La Familia' especially is a painting that reflects this new period in his life, working from a studio annexe at home in close proximity to his family, far from what Thomas Mann called 'the guileless unrealism of youth'. There is a strength, a fizz of excitement and energy in his work that has been enhanced by his new-found responsibilities. Indeed Flaubert's oft-quoted adage is now even more apposite to Nathan Ford's painting than ever before. 'Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.' This set of paintings represents Nathan Ford's most pioneering body of work to date.

Aidan Quinn 2011

 

CATALOGUE ESSAY 2009

It’s hard being black. You ever been black? I was black once, when I was poor - Larry Holmes

Nathan Ford’s latest collection of work for the most part features close-up portraits of heads, most of these black males. They are as ever, fragmented, on the edge of dissolution.  What may be termed the sensory features; ears, mouth, nose, hair, are in the main shrouded or blocked out, giving an introverted, contemplative feel to each visage. It is as if the artist is looking for something essential in the deadpan, vulnerable yet often forthright expressions on these faces. Who is in there?  As Francis Bacon once persisted in painting the image of the nurse’s screaming mouth  from Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, Ford often homes in on one eye in detail-‘otherwise the world comes in and there is too much distraction’, he reasons.

There is a fundamental element of face-to-face communication that he is attempting to portray with this collection of heads. Two feet from another human being, rather than ‘locking into’ what someone may be saying, we will often home in on or get distracted with a facial feature; a scar, a prominent nose, a gap in the teeth. What Ford often allows to shine through in these portraits is the eye, the ‘traitor to the heart’. ‘Perhaps it is just shyness’, he suggests, ‘when confronted with another person, another human heart that has beaten many thousands of times, blood coursing through the veins, all I want to do is escape, disappear into the cocoon of my studio’. It is essentially the panic of communication that he tries to put into paint. ‘It is always hard to face people’, as John McGahern put it.

Whether during time travelling in Uganda, where he was often referred to as mazungu (Swahili for white man), or, as in recent years, spent living in a small former mining village in South Wales, it seems that the differentiation as a black man (as opposed to, say, an artist) is one that he is forced to return to, even if thinking of his identity predominantly in that way is something the painter himself left behind with adolescence. ‘Part of me is sick of being foreign’, he says.

For the series of 12 head paintings (Black Male 1 to 12) Ford, again as Bacon was wont to do, uses the reverse of pre-primed canvasses, preferring the textured, organic ground that seems to blend with the emerging faces so well. Whether they are knowing or innocent, all these faces seem shorn of self-consciousness, attention sometimes averted. At other times the viewer is faced starkly, with a frankness which brings to mind the last of Rembrandt’s self-portraits (1669). Though all the faces are black there is a diversity of ethnicity, and clear variations in skin colour. Ford has in the last couple of years adjusted the mix of pigments he uses and enjoys the challenge of the subtle tonal variation of the colour black itself. However it is also noteworthy (perhaps not entirely without mischief) that these portraits, unlike previous, smaller series of heads, but in common with many paintings in the not so distant past, are given a title which makes reference to a generic racial distinction rather than a first name.

Familiar also are the pencil lines on the portraits, reminiscent of Giacometti’s ‘scribbled’ portraits. This comparison is further accentuated in the drawings in the exhibition itself. Familiar too are the lonely protagonists on the margins of fragmented cityscapes, a modern melange which feels on the edge of chaos. The sense of panic is stronger in Carbon Lung than Usera, both of which have their genesis in Madrid. The latter has a softer feel, as if the day is warming up, a morning painting perhaps. In Souk the claustrophobia, the quiet whisper of a threatening world is very much there, as a child (recognisably the artist’s son) looks around fretfully towards a cloaked figure in the background.

It is noticeable in Souk that the foreground figures have the space to be dwarfed, to be hemmed in by the market trailing off behind them and the balconies and overhangs above. Ford seems in possession of a confidence which belies his youth, and certainly paints with a brighter palette now. This confidence is also evidenced in the Black Male series, paintings with a marked and arresting individuality in paint if not in name. The canvas is still obviously the battleground for this young artist, it is where he pits his wits against the reality that he sees around him and for the moment at least it would seem from this collection of work, it is a battle that he is excelling in. As a painter I think Ford would go along with Bacon. 'You could say that I have no inspiration, that I only need to paint.'

Aidan Quinn 2009