Cameron, Tony Bevan, LA Louver
Gallery, Venice, exhibition catalogue, 1991, illus colour p10 (installation
Tony Bevan painted Green Blouse in 1988 at the age of 37. In the same year, having exhibited in the UK for over a decade, Bevan was the subject of two solo exhibitions in Germany, his third and fourth in the country, and his first in the United States at the Ronald Feldman Gallery, New York. The following year he had a show on the West Coast at the LA Louver Gallery, Venice Beach, where Green Blouse was shown for the first time.
Three of Bevan’s earliest London exhibitions were at the Matt’s Gallery – an independent non-profit space set up in the East London studio of artist Robin Klassnik. Much like Bevan’s own studio in Deptford, south of the Thames, the exhibiting space at Matt’s Gallery allowed artists to make and present works on a scale that would be impractical in most of the commercial galleries in Mayfair. For his second show at Matt’s Gallery, Bevan conceived his enormous, 4 x 3 metre painting The Prophet, 1982, a violent image of a youth in handcuffs with scissors protruding from his head, which set the benchmark for the kind of expressive portraits he would make throughout the 1980s. In 1987, Bevan was the subject of an early survey show at London’s
Institute of Contemporary Arts, which covered the formative period 1980-1987. This breakthrough collection marked Bevan out as a new voice in British painting and a further show at the Whitechapel Gallery followed in 1993.
Bevan’s late-1980s paintings typically portray young, marginalized figures set against austere coloured backgrounds, as we see in Green Blouse. He often took his subjects from images in magazines or books, but on occasion he based them on people he’d seen in and around Deptford. Some of Bevan’s early paintings referenced photographs of defendants in American law courts, while another sequence of drawings and etchings was inspired by a single blurry newspaper photograph of a men’s choir in Chile, a series that culminated in the multi-part painting The Meeting, 1993. Curator Paul Moorhouse later observed that the apparent vulnerability of these disparate figures was the ‘connecting theme’.1
Green Blouse is a rare example of a female figure – the only other example from this period is Mother and Child, 1986. It is evident in hindsight that Bevan’s early portraits of young men were, in effect, stand-ins for the artist himself – an idea backed up by the fact that he used slow-exposure photographs of himself to provide additional detail for The Prophet.2 Bevan made his first acknowledged self-portrait in 1987, and from 1988 onwards this became the main focus of his figure painting. Using himself as a subject presented obvious advantages, as Bevan could take as many photographs of his own body as he wished, often from extreme angles or while pulling at his skin. By studying himself through photographs Bevan was able to make his self-portraits appear highly subjective while at the same time conveying a familiar feeling of otherness present in his earlier portraits of strangers.
Green Blouse owes much of its power to the sheer size of the painting. As we can see from the photo-graph of The Prophet at Matt’s Gallery, the scale of Bevan’s paintings necessitated that he work on unstretched canvases on the floor of his studio, a primarily practical solution that inadvertently introduced a performative and sculptural aspect to his paintings. This is increasingly noticeable in his later works, where debris from snapped pieces of charcoal, shadows of earlier drawings and scuffs made while moving over the surface of the canvas all remain part of the finished paintings. As Bevan said: ‘I tend to work on the floor, sometimes on the wall and then on the floor. It's constant movement between the vertical and the horizontal’3 …‘I need that contact, to be physically close to them'… 'I can't feel over-awed by them when they are on the ground… 'I also need the gravity if I'm trying to build up the thickness'… [The tradition of floor-based work] 'doesn't just go back to Pollock. It's been done for centuries – as far back as the illuminators of medieval manuscripts'.
From the beginning Bevan has made his own paint by mixing raw pigments and suspending them in a water-based acrylic medium similar to the kind used to size the canvases. This home-made medium gives his work a distinctive, rough texture that complements the starkness of his subjects. As important as Bevan’s use of scale is the intensity of the colour he applies – most often pure hues of red, orange, violet and blue. In Green Blouse, this unadulterated shriek of bright orange contrasts with an almost electric blue and jade green, giving the image a powerful visual sting. Bevan’s vivid, contrasting colours suggest a heightened psychological state – an approach that can be traced back to the paintings of Graham Sutherland and Francis Bacon. This particular Cadmium orange is a key feature of Bevan’s ‘singing men’ paintings, such as The Meeting, which formed the centre-piece of his Whitechapel show, but he has used it much less frequently than his favourite Cadmium red, which appears in most of the other paintings shown at LA Louver in 1989.
Bevan’s early figures are often cut short by the edge of the canvas, props such as a table or simply an abstract band of colour. Here the figure is placed right in the foreground of the picture within a shallow pictorial space. The physical isolation of Bevan’s figures in space suggests performers on a stage, and his later focus on individual parts of the body, such as the head and mouth, recall theatrical productions of Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, 1961 and Not I, 1973.
In this early period, Bevan demonstrated a particular fascination with patterned clothes and folds of fabric as we see in Green Blouse. The rhythmic lines he uses to pick out these details and animate the figure would typically have been developed through a sequence of preparatory drawings in charcoal. Freed from the requirement to represent a true likeness of the subject, Bevan’s expressive lines detach themselves some-what from their original referents. The visceral materiality of the paint contributes to a more abstract understanding of these marks, which simultaneously describe the subject and, at the same time, describe something else, for something previously held within the subject and now made manifest on the outside.
Bevan casts a similar eye over the body so that his portraits invariably have a strong sense of the underlying anatomy of muscle, cartilage and flesh beneath skin. Here the tendons in the neck – a favourite focus for study – are marked out in crude red lines that thrust up towards the head and are mirrored by equally vivid lines between the subject’s fingers, which make her hands look red raw. The exaggerated straining of the figure’s neck recalls the ‘Character Heads’ of Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (1736–1783), a series of late 18th century carved busts with contorted, grimacing faces, which have informed Bevan’s work since his under-graduate degree at Goldsmiths College.
In Green Blouse the figure clutches a letter in her hand, a device often used in Northern Renaissance portraits to signify that a gentleman sitter has an education or is the owner of property (see, for example, German painter Hans Holbein the Younger’s, Portrait of a Man Holding Gloves and Letter, c. 1540, and Sir Thomas More, 1527, or Portrait of a Young Man holding a Letter, 1518, by the Italian artist Rosso Fiorentino. In fact, Bevan is known to have had a postcard of Sir Thomas More pinned to his studio wall, so it seems likely that the lustrous, rippling fabrics that dominate Holbein’s picture contributed to the way Bevan has painted the clothes in Green Blouse.
Critic Richard Cork identified another quality in Holbein’s work that might have appealed to Bevan, pointing to the ‘sense of strain’ in Holbein’s portrayal of More , both physical and psychological. Indeed Holbein’s portraits convey an existential disquiet that still feels remarkably contemporary, and which Bevan too seeks to address through portraiture. The meaning of the letter here is unexplained, leaving the narrative open.
Perhaps this is a deliberate reference to the history of painting, or maybe it’s there to add to the sense of menace, as the scissors do in The Prophet. It could be an ominous message – a break-up letter, an eviction notice – or something entirely benign.
Bevan's engagement within a relatively narrow range of figurative subjects connects him with the earlier generation of British painters collectively known as the School of London and including Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff and Francis Bacon. In return, one of Bevan’s private collectors Keir McGuinness recalls that Lucian Freud, who died in 2011, would make a point of visiting all of Bevan’s London exhibitions and had been inspired by the younger artist’s paintings. Given his expressive style of figuration, it’s not surprising that Bevan quickly found an audience for his art in Germany, and there is certainly common ground with the work of Anselm Kiefer. His work can also be considered in the context of American paint-ers including Ida Applebroog (with whom he briefly shared a dealer), Philip Guston and Leon Golub, whose layering and scraping back of paint evokes a similar sense of flesh and wounded skin (see for example White Squad V, 1984.
Tony Bevan studied at Bradford School of Art, Goldsmiths College and The Slade, completing his studies in 1976. He took part in a number of important group exhibitions in the early 1980s, which led on to solo exhibitions at the ICA, London in 1987-8, Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1993 and National Portrait Gallery in 2011. He has exhibited extensively in the UK and internationally and his work is included in 38 public collections including the Tate Gallery, London; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Israel Museum, Jerusalem and Kunsthalle Kiel, Germany.
1 Paul Moorhouse, Tony Bevan: Early Works 1980-2000, Ben brown Fine Arts, 2006, p3
2 Ibid, p4
3 Hossein Amirsadeghi (Ed), Sanctuary, Britain's Artists and their Studios, Thames and Hudson, 2012, p168
4 Richard Cork, Tony Bevan, Paintings and Drawings, Michael Hue Williams Fine Art, London, 2000, p21
5 Ibid, p12