Thursday, 13 November 2014

Art for the pleasure of Art, thanks to Carl Randall

It was refreshing to hear Carl Randall speak about his paintings, at a new exhibition that has opened at the Berloni Gallery in London’s West End.

We first came across his work at the National Portrait Gallery, which had honoured him with a BP travelling prize that had enabled him to spend time in Japan and produce a series of paintings which kept us spellbound by their detail, their vivacity and their enchanting – sometimes humorous – ability to present Japanese life as it strikes a foreign visitor.

Exactly the atmosphere of bustle and liveliness of a busy Japanese station
So going to hear him speak about his paintings was an opportunity we couldn’t pass up. It proved well worth it.

First of all, because he talked plainly and simply about his paintings, about his time in Japan, and above all about what he’d been trying to do. On display were more of the works we’d come to associate with him: packed with people and places, breathing life and bustle, enjoyment or concentration.

Carl Randall introducing his paintings to us
at the Berloni Gallery
But we also discovered a new side of his art. There were some swift stolen sketches of travellers in trains, absorbed in themselves, their phones, their music, or just passing the time on the way to work. 

And then other pieces, as large as the ones we already knew, but largely empty – as he explained, he was working to a more Japanese idiom, in which “negative space” (what I’ve always thought of as “white space”) isn’t shunned, but used to heighten the impact of the detailed painting. He had several Japanese ink works, on Japanese paper, in which he’d used a single model or perhaps two models, repeatedly, sketching their heads over and over, but leaving wide areas untouched. The ink sometimes ran, sometimes splashed, sometimes simply soaked differently into the absorbent paper, giving an engagingly unpredictable effect to the final result.

Japanese faces in the Japanese style
Japanese ink on Japanese paper
He’s working now on a series of fifteen “portraits of London”. That’ll be fun, to see him take on with the same verve and gusto, scenes from another country and another city, and one he knows in a very different way, as his home rather than the objective of an outsider’s visit.

But I described listening to Randall as “refreshing”. One of the more refreshing aspects was the way he kept pointing out the almost gratuitous nature of some of his techniques. He often subverts perspective, showing a large figure in the distance and a smaller one in the front.

“I do it because I like it,” he explained, “I like the flattening.”

I enjoyed that because it reminded me of many conversations I’ve had with people who’ve earnestly assured me that Jane Austen, or Graham Greene, or Salman Rushdie deliberately wrote something or other. In other words, they want to tell me about the author’s intent. But they have no idea of what the author intended and in the first two cases, they certainly can’t even ask, as they’re both dead; even in the case of Rushdie, they’re unlikely to get the chance to check, and even if they did, they might be disappointed with the answer.

So I was delighted when Randall assured us that his flattening of perspective didn’t symbolise anything in particular, except for his pleasure in doing it. That doesn’t stop a viewer seeing symbolism in it, and perfectly legitimately – a viewer, or a reader, has every right to see symbols in a work of art, and it matters not a jot that the author or painter intended none of it. After all, what something symbolises is a matter for the observer, not for the creator; if you see it, then it’s there.

But it was highly refreshing to hear an artist assure us with great sincerity that it wasn’t there because he deliberately put it there.

So we passed great hour or two, in good company, with fine paintings. 

Want to know more? Check his website.

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