Catalogue essay 2013 ~ Aidan Quinn

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-flung nebulae. 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