Catalogue essay 2011 ~ Aidan Quinn

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