Rebecca Partridge: On a Clear Day
Essay by Nicholas Alfrey
The title of Rebecca Partridges’s exhibition references a work by Agnes Martin, an artist who has been important to her for some years now. Martin’s On a Clear Day is a set of thirty rigorously abstract screenprints, and Partridge is giving us a clear indication that abstraction is the key to her own work. Yet the imagery of her paintings is, just as unequivocally, derived from the natural world. Here is a paradox that requires some careful unpicking.
The relationship between landscape imagery and abstract painting in the work of Agnes Martin herself has long been a matter for debate. She never considered herself as anything other than an abstract artist, yet the titles she gave to her works, particularly earlier in her career, are often suggestive of natural phenomena, and she was evidently not averse to her spectators responding to her work in terms analogous to their experience of landscape. Partridge has noted that she herself has made paintings, entirely coincidentally, on themes that echo the titles of some of Martin’s works, such as The Tree and Night Sea. But the explicit reference to On a Clear Day is an unmistakeable sign of her commitment to abstract art. Martin’s series, completed in 1972 and published the following year, has been memorably summed up by the art historian Anna Lovatt: ‘Alone, each print appears ascetic and absolute, the definitive move in an abstractionist endgame. But the series unfolds into a dazzling series of permutations on the grid, spinning endless possibilities out of that most familiar of modernist myths’. Partridge’s interest in serial production is significant here, but there is also something else she shares with Martin: the belief that a work of art might be invested with emotional resonance as well as qualities of formal beauty.
It remains the case, though, that the series of oil paintings and water colours shown here and in other recent exhibitions depend at a fundamental level on the direct and repeated experience of walking in the landscape. The locations she chooses have tended to be those traditionally associated with Romanticism and the Sublime: mountains, forests, deserts, the seashore, places which give on to great expanses of sky, where the effects of light and colour can be contemplated without interruption. Various periods as artist-in-residence have enabled these experiences, and led to particular groups of work: the Sky Studies derive from a residency on the remote north-western coast of Norway, for example, while the Sky Paintings originate in the first-hand observation of a succession of dawns and dusks in the Mojave Desert following a residency at the Albers Foundation, where several series of forest paintings were made. The multi-part Mountain (Fragments), exhibited here for the first time, relates to a residency undertaken at Banff, amidst the spectacular scenery of the Rocky Mountains.
Partridge is acutely conscious of the tradition of the Romantic Sublime, but also of the difficulties of working in its aftermath. She has addressed these issues not only in her own work, but also through her activities as curator, making the relationship between contemporary art and the legacies of Romanticism the theme of a series of exhibitions, including Reason and Emotion: Landscape and the Contemporary Romantic, Scaling the Sublime and In Search of Elusive Horizons. Her paintings often take as their starting point motifs of ungraspable immensity, grandeur and boundlessness, once the repertoire of Sublime landscape, and difficult to take up now without falling into hackneyed visual conventions or unconvincing sentiment. The various processes of distillation, refinement, fragmentation and abstraction adopted in her work can at least partly be understood as strategies designed to avoid falling into this trap.
The themes and motifs that are central to her painting may all have been prefigured in earlier art, but her thinking about these subjects, and the ways in which she renders them, are distinct from earlier representations of, for example, sea, clouds and sky. Take the dominant theme of the of the present exhibition, the painting of skies. Sky painting, or ‘skying’ as it was sometimes called, emerged as a compelling practice for British and European artists from the late eighteenth century and through the first half of the nineteenth. This has often been understood as an aspect of the rise of naturalism, and sometimes taken as an indication that scientists and artists were engaged in a parallel endeavour in the systematic observation of natural phenomena. On the scientific side, meteorology became more securely established, and Luke Howard’s classification of cloud types transformed understanding of the lower, middle and upper altitudes. Landscape painters, on the other hand, with rare exceptions, did not acknowledge Howard’s cloud system in any immediate or obvious way (though there has been considerable if ultimately unproven speculation over John Constable’s celebrated series of Hampstead cloud studies), and the pictorial study of skies and clouds continued to be invested with spiritual, moral and imaginative meaning.
Partridge has acknowledged that she was aware of the small oil studies of clouds made by the Norwegian painter Johan Christian Dahl around Bergen in the late 1820s and early 1830s, but this does not imply that in going on to create her own 30 Day Sky Studies she was following Dahl’s methodology in any way. Dahl was in fact one of the few artists to be informed by Howard’s ‘Essay on the modification of clouds’, which had been drawn to his attention by the German scientist and artist Carl Gustav Carus, and his cloud studies, presumably made in the open air, were pursued in a spirit of scientific enquiry. Partridges’s Sky Studies, however, were not made directly from the motif but based on photographs she took, in her own words ‘intuitively and randomly’, during the period of her residency. Furthermore, she has been at pains to emphasise that she is not interested in personal expression or in setting down her private experience of nature; in a recent interview, she said that ‘For me, it’s not really about the sky itself; it’s about translating a perceptual or sensory experience into something shareable and locatable’.
There is a significant shift in method, medium, surface and scale from the Sky Studies to the Sky Paintings. As noted above, they derive from a period of sustained observations at dawn and dusk in the Mojave Desert, but they are painted from memory and no longer mediated through photography. The medium is watercolour rather than oil. Historically, watercolour was the principal medium used by artists in making studies of the sky (Dahl and Constable are somewhat exceptional in their use of oil), but again, we should be careful not to take Partridge’s choice of medium as an acknowledgement of the landscape tradition. With the Sky Paintings the break with tradition is most evident in that watercolour is applied to a canvas surface rather than paper, a most unorthodox move technically. Watercolours are usually classified as ‘drawings’ in museum catalogues and scholarly catalogues raisonnés, on the grounds that they are works on paper, but here the distinction between painting and drawing is collapsed entirely. This might remind us of Agnes Martin’s strategy of using pencil on canvas to establish her grid structures, but it also makes clear that Partridge’s practice does not rely on drawing at all, though she has on occasion used notebooks in the field with written colour notes as the basis for subsequent paintings. The most recent works exhibited here, the Sea-Sky Studies, are painted in watercolours on very large sheets of paper; smaller sections are then selected for framing. Like the Sky Paintings, they are made from memory, in this case of the sea and sky seen from the Dorset coast.
The Sky Paintings are on a large scale, large enough to relate to the dimensions of the human body; they provide an immersive experience both for maker and spectator, and in this respect recall the scale of abstract painting in the period when the concept of ‘the abstract sublime’ still had currency. They bring out most clearly an important aspect of her process, at whatever scale, the bodily rhythm involved in their making. She once described the overarching theme of her work as ‘expressing certain values through actions in the studio’, and these paintings provide her with a larger arena for those actions. But she has always been careful to distance herself from any dependence on the expressive mark, and from the tradition of gestural landscape painting generally. The watercolour is applied in layers and veils to create the most subtle effects of gradation. An apt point of comparison, difference in medium notwithstanding, might be the delicately graded expanses of sky in the work of Caspar David Friedrich, an artist who is Indeed another significant point of reference for her.
Partridge continues to work on a variety of scales, combining canvases, panels, or framed sheets of paper into single multi-part compositions, such as Mountain (Fragments) and Sea-Sky Studies. For all the diverse techniques and formats she employs, there is an underlying connectedness running through all the work, and ideally they are intended to be experienced as a complete ensemble. She has spoken of the landscapes she responds to not in terms of overpowering sensations or intimidating grandeur but as something familiar, spaces where some kind of transcendent experience is possible, and not only for the lucky few. Her ideal is to as treat the gallery space as itself a landscape for a visitor to become absorbed in, a place in which, through the contemplation of painting, inner states might also be revealed.
Rebecca Partridge currently lives and works in London. Since graduating from the Royal Academy Schools in 2007 she has exhibited Internationally.
Solo exhibitions include, ‘In The Meantime’, at Kunsthalle CCA Andratx, Spain, ‘Notations’ Kunstverein Springhornhof and ‘Painting Fast, Painting Slow’ at Konstkraft Ljusne, Sweden. She has been awarded several international scholarships including from The Nordic Kunstnasenter Dale, Norway, The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, USA, and The Terra Foundation for American Art Fellowship in Giverny, France. Over the past ten years she has curated a series of exhibitions taking place in Germany, Norway and the U.K, most recently ‘Scaling The Sublime’ at Nottingham University which she co-curated in 2018, followed by ‘In Pursuit of Elusive Horizons’ at Parafin Gallery, London.