Catalogue essay 2015 ~ Aidan QuinnWhat 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’.
Whatever the 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