LIKE a pair of blue Levis, you always come back to painting, reckons Maria Rogers, from the art enterprise New Visuality. She was speaking as the enterprise launched its Return of the Painter series of exhibitions with Tom Palin’s Against The Grain at the According To McGee gallery in Tower Street, York.
“There’s a feeling abroad that painting is frustratingly under represented, pretty much on every level of art,” says Maria. “Well, Return of the Painter is dedicated to paying homage to the reason we got into art in the first place: tactile, experimental, well-crafted painting.”
The series at the McGees’ contemporary art space will showcase the work of established and new painters, beginning with 38-year-old Birkenhead artist and tutor Tom Palin.
Painting may have fallen off the radar but Tom has put it back on the shelf, his small oil paintings each placed on a white shelf newly screwed into the gallery walls.
“I’ve decided to place them at an eye level slightly below what I’d normally hang works at, so that you’re possibly looking slightly down at them,” he says. “It seemed sensible with small objects to do it this way rather than when you’re being dwarfed by pictures.”
Tom’s work comes from the past three years, painted in oil on hard woods – oak, poplar, sapele. The smallest paintings, each two inches by an inch, form a min-triptych; the biggest is only ten inches square.
Why is small beautiful, Tom? Most of my work over the past 15 years is under two feet square, the bulk of it under 18 inches, and primarily that has been to encourage the recognition of ‘painting as object’, as a precious thing that has inhabited your space,” he says.
“The bigger a painting is the more you feel you’re already in it, whereas the smaller they are, the more they draw you in and you realise how tangible they are.”
Tom has used ledges or shelves once before for an exhibition in San Francisco. “I didn’t want obtrusive hanging, which may sound odd as I’m using shelves, but with a shelf there’s a more psychological reason because there is a sense of it being somewhere that you put objects that you treasure on display,” says Tom.
“Also, with a shelf, obtrusive as it is, no one thinks of it as part of the painting. For years I framed my work in black frames to separate it from where it’s being shown, but I moved away from that because having no borders encourages you to see the paintings as scenes that you project yourself into.
“The important thing to me is that the border is dissolved as I want to remind people of the physical quality that paintings have, so that you sense the time it took to make the painting rather than just seeing it instantaneously.”
Tom teaches fine art part-time at Leeds College of Art and “does not have a particular distaste for the conceptual art” that is so prevalent at colleges today. “What I’m interested in is the practical, the process of painting, where the act of painting almost brings about the image, rather than sitting and observing. That comes from the transformative quality of painting, because, with memory not being precise, it exaggerates, it distorts, it does things that the mind encourages it to do.”
Birds, bridges, landscapes, are the repetitive motifs in his latest work. “I used to think I led the memories in my painting, which determined what I painted, but then I found that a paint, a colour, would remind me of a bird or a landscape, and I noticed that there must be a process happening, something deliberate,” says Tom.
“Most of my interest in painting goes back to romanticism and the idea of landscape as places that you can go to. Probably Constable was the first artist I was interested in, seeing his paintings when I was a kid.
“I grew up in Birkenhead when Cammell Laird shipbuilding was in decline in the 1970s and 1980s, but I don’t want to over-egg any sense of urban misery as that wasn’t my experience. I was definitely drawn to the more rural spots, and what I’m not interested in is social documentary, the changes that happened in Liverpool.
“That’s anathema to my artistic thinking though I’m very happy for other artists to deal with it, especially in industrial areas that have moved through big changes.”
Tom divides his time between Liverpool and Leeds, where he is based, and spends plenty of time on trains, letting life move past him in snapshots seen from the carriage window.
This all leads to paintings, rich with paint, that draw on Tom’s memories. “The exhibition title is Against The Grain, in reference partly to the fact that the works are painted on to wood, but also because it’s a comment on my painterly pursuits going against the grain of the present predominant art practice,” he says.
Tom’s act of going against the grain delights According To McGee gallery co-owner Greg McGee. “Conceptual Art is a misnomer, it’s a sleight of hand,” argues Greg. “This series of New Visuality shows will help to remind us all that the rumours of painting’s demise have been greatly exaggerated, and Tom’s the ideal man to get us going.”
Tom Palin: Against the Grain, A New Visuality Project is on show at According To McGee, York, until September 24.