Not quite as black as it's painted
Tuesday 30 May 1995
Imagine a Constable in black and white - one of the late mezzotints perhaps. But imagine it the size of a finished painting. Then imagine it through half-shut eyes. You're looking at Landscape 147 by John Virtue (he titles all his works with a simple number).
As his point of departure, Virtue, like Constable, takes his own village. For the past eight years this has been South Tawton in Devon. Before that it was Green Haworth in his native Lancashire. Virtue never loses touch with this topographical anchor. He was once a village postman and knows the way you move through a landscape, according iconic significance to specific landmarks. Here is the familiar church spire, the winding lane. Such identification with the locality does not imply, though, that there is anything nationalistic or xenophobic about these works. Their subject matter might be more "pastoral" than "sublime", but these are not comfortable paintings. They're landscapes, certainly, but on to the rural stereotype Virtue has grafted the inner landscape of his own imagination.
Virtue paints big - 130in by 154in is not uncommon. The huge, rough canvases, though heavily worked, seem barely "finished". They show all the signs of their making - drips, roll-marks, folds and crazily wandering edges, warped by the wetness of successive applications of paint. Like the land itself, they have been scoured and abused. Their gnarled surfaces speak of earth, stone and water - the very stuff of their creation. Virtue, having almost obliterated his landscapes beneath a veil of paint, invites you into their multi-layered ambience.
The skill required to pull this off has not come easily. In his early work, Virtue seemed to be in command, manipulating various views of the land in a painted collage - a multiple freeze-frame. Now, though, in a form of anti-picturesque, the artist, rather than alter a view to suit his principles, submits himself to the dictates of the underlying structure, directing the flow of his paint according to the will of the land.
Virtue has learnt about the overwhelming immutability and continuity of landscape. The skeins of paint that float across the surface of his images are, essentially, layers of collective memory which cross and recross the land like so many ghosts. In this sense of the eternal it becomes clear that, if Constable is their formal progenitor, the real feeling behind these works comes from Samuel Palmer. Like Palmer, Virtue is in a sense a visionary, endowing a specific location new meaning and a heightened reality. His veil of paint seems less a physical entity than a metaphor for the increasing urbanisation of society - our growing inability to engage with the reality of the land.
Ultimately unable to penetrate the shimmering cortex, we experience a sense of loss - a separateness that suggests an expulsion from Eden similar to Palmer's own starting point. Yet within the post-lapsarian gloom of these canvases, all is not as hopeless as it might at first appear. Particularly in such works as Number 143 and Number 270, it is light that emerges to command our attention: light of an astonishing purity and blinding brilliance.
It was chiaroscuro, wrote Constable late in life, rather than colour, that was "the medium by which the grand and varied aspects of landscape are displayed, both in the fields and on canvas". Looking at Virtue, you can see his point. In obscuring the landscape, the artist allows us to see it more clearly; to glimpse a salvation so obvious that we otherwise merely pass it by. Beyond the seeping, trickling darkness, using only the endless tonal variations of a monochrome palette, Virtue offers the bright white light of the promise of redemption.
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