Having relocated from California to a remote studio in Cornwall, painter Trudy Montgomery is bringing together the influence of two historically important art cultures, and continuing a celebrated line of British abstraction that goes back 70 years.
The tradition of international exchange is a feature of Cornwall’s artistically important far west. Since the nineteenth century international artists – and perhaps more importantly, international ideas – have enriched an arts scene in and around the town of St Ives which is still recognized as among the most significant in Europe. In particular, the link between mid-twentieth century international abstraction and the corresponding rise of British abstract painting is well known, or at least well argued: during the 1950s, at around the time Tachisme and Art Informel were blossoming in Europe, and American Abstract Expressionist painters like Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko were investigating colour, gesture, and the expressive potential of paint, luminaries of British art such as Patrick Heron, Peter Lanyon and Terry Frost were developing important abstract work in West Cornwall. So far, so long ago, I hear you say. But in fact, that moment in art history was so influential that it affected pretty much everything that came after, and in West Cornwall especially that same thread of abstraction is still very much in evidence. In 2016, one abstract painter whose work is now enriching the art culture of this unique area, came full circle in terms of both her location and her inspirations, returning to the UK after fourteen years in California, and moving to Cornwall with her own, unique variation of international art influences.
“I have a real love of American Abstract Expressionism and Colour Field painting” says Trudy when we meet at her studio on Cornwall’s beautiful Penwith Peninsula, “particularly the colour work and mark making you find in paintings by artists like Franz Kline, Helen Frankenthaler and Mark Rothko, who of course came here to West Cornwall himself in the fifties. Richard Diebenkorn is another American artist whose work I admire. I first saw his ‘Ocean Park’ series at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and fell in love with their scale, glowing colour and calm confidence. In California I lived in San Francisco, and then Marina Del Rey near Santa Monica [where Diebenkorn lived and worked from the late 60s] so that whole West Coast beach area was my home. There’s no doubt my years in the landscape and art culture of California have had a strong influence on my work. The intensity of the light over there, the big skies and wide open spaces are inspirational, and now I’m responding to those same aspects of Penwith, a place with its own naturally beautiful and culturally dynamic ‘west coast’ feel.”
At her studio, a huge, skylit space nestled in the rolling Cornish landscape that stretches from St Ives to Land’s End, Trudy shows me a collection in which mark, colour, and barely perceptible aspects of landscape are brought together in abstract paintings of extraordinary vigour and creative confidence. Vibrant canvases of red, orange, pink and green oil paint are a delicious riot of colour against the studio’s white walls, and the influence of Abstract Expressionist painting is immediately evident in the wide, high energy reach of her brushwork. “I love the gestural nature of Abstract Expressionism” she continues, “the energy that flows through the arm and onto the canvas. There’s a force that gets transferred with gesture which is evident even after the paint is dry.” To illustrate her point, Trudy directs me to a vast, unfinished canvas pinned loosely to one wall that is daubed with an imprecise circle of colour ten feet high – a height that seems to have required the use of a nearby floor to ceiling scaffold – and other canvases, large and small, which exhibit the same exuberance of mark and dazzling brilliance of colour.
“Colour is so important in my work” says Trudy. “I really admire the colour work of St Ives artists like Patrick Heron and Terry Frost, and the freshness of Sandra Blow’s palette, as well as her exciting compositions. She invited me to her studio in St Ives once, but she died shortly afterwards so I’m sorry to say I never went, which I so regret. Terry Frost really knew about colour – I once read he would teach his students to mix up endless versions of black from a host of other colours. When I’m working, I select my palette intuitively, since colours, I feel, are reflective of emotional states. Colour can take me to new places, to new states of being. Kandinsky once said ‘colour is a power which directly influences the soul’. That’s an idea that really speaks to me. Coral, for example, is a colour I consider to be the essence of my own spirit, of myself before my birth. It’s a colour that makes me feel so happy. In the same way, I think people can often find themselves in my work through colour. It’s something that each of us will respond to in our own way.”
Does the intuitive use of colour and gestural mark, I enquire, preclude any sort of deliberate thought in the making of these works? And like West Cornwall’s Lanyon or Santa Monica’s Diebenkorn, does some element of the physical landscape in which the works are made have any influence?
“Here [in Cornwall] there’s a powerful sense of the land itself. Visual influence is not a linear thing, but I’m enjoying seeing my subconscious response to Cornwall emerge in my paintings. I’ve studied the work of Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth and their relation to both landscape and abstraction, and I travel a great deal, so there’s a lot of aerial influence, an influence similar to Lanyon and Diebenkorn’s abstraction of the aerial landscape. Ultimately, my work marries aspects of the human state of being with our physical placement in space, and because of that, there will always be a very definite hint of landscape in my work. I may sketch out some compositional elements with my brush, but I am always mindful of Diebenkorn’s assertion that in starting a painting, the artist should never value ‘the pretty, initial position which falls short of completeness.’ In the end, I will let the painting take me wherever it wants to go.”
See Trudy Montgomery’s work on show at Josie Eastwood Fine Art, near Stockbridge, Hampshire, from 11 – 28 November 2017 or at www.josieeastwood.com. For more information on Trudy’s work see www.trudymontgomery.com
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