Cambridge, Kettle's Yard Gallery, Victor Willing: Paintings Since 1978, 20 January - 20 February 1983, cat no.9, illus b/w
Ed. Fiona Bradley, Victor Willing, August Media Ltd, 2000, p81, illus colour
DescriptionPlants was painted by Victor Willing during his year-long residency at Kettle's Yard, University of Cambridge. At this time, Willing described the ideas for his paintings as coming to him fully formed, like 'visions', possibly a side-effect from the drugs he was taking to treat his Multiple Sclerosis. He would quickly record the images he had 'seen' as drawings in charcoal and pastel, which then became the basis for large scale canvases. The related drawing for Plants measures 53 by 51cm and is dated 5 January 1981. Despite the large jump in scale between the drawing and painting, Willing's broad and liquid application of paint, has ensured that the larger oil retains much of the immediacy found in the original sketch.
Here, four animated plant forms, stand amongst man-made objects and a coiling rope. These other objects appear to be a pipe, a brick, and, more clearly, a folded bed sheet, an explicit reference to insomnia and illness. Ropes, belts and swathes of fabric feature in a number of paintings, weaving menacingly around other objects, ready to move in, (which they eventually do in the painting Knot, 1984). These elements are arranged together on a yellow-coloured 'island' or 'stage', a compositional device which recurs throughout Willing's oeuvre, from his early paintings of still lifes and nudes in the studio, such as Standing Nude, c.1952-3, through to oils such as Place with a Red Thing, 1980, both Tate Gallery Collection. The islands in question are sometimes a sheet of paper or carpet placed on the floor, at other times a table top or a puddle of deep shadow. Just as Francis Bacon placed his subjects within coloured arenas, Willing uses this technique to isolate his subjects and thus intensify the psychological atmosphere.
None of the paintings from this period include a human figure but Willing sometimes uses conventional stand-ins such as chairs and clothing to convey a human presence. In effect, almost all of the objects he places together, have such strongly anthropomorphic qualities, and are acting upon each other in such a way, that they can only really be understood as representing human (or animal) figures or actions. Like the dreams which inspired them, the paintings tell of perilous dramas to which neither the artist himself, nor the viewer, are fully privy.
There is no doubt that Willing's paintings from the early 1980s are amongst his very best; an achievement which is all the more impressive when one considers his failing health. It is interesting to compare Willing with his American contemporary, Philip Guston, who abandoned Abstract Expressionism in favour of a more narrative and personal painterly language.