Voyages – Francis West, The Piper Gallery, London


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The Independent Culture

"I grew up in an isolated fishing community on the Moray Firth in Scotland," 75-year-old artist Francis West has explained."The vast spaces and dynamics of the North Sea and experiences of working my father’s fishing boats, have shaped my mental landscape."

Indeed, the surging oceans of West’s paintings, at once mythic and vivacious, malevolent and joyful, are informed by memory. There is a sense of figures disappearing in and out of abstraction, coming into view only to be engulfed once again by a dangerous kind of nature.

As 27-year-old gallerist Megan Piper points out, there is a wildness to these paintings. The wildness is authentic. It is there in Boat of a Thousand Years II (2012), in which a blue sea is apparently orchestrated by a suited man, positioned in the heavens. A vast fish falls in the foreground of the painting, its eye registering terror.

Rather than a sun, the moon seems to have been stained yellow. Here, colour is the agent of metamorphosis. Things, beings, and beasts merge and break apart as the viewer moves around the canvas. The pictures are large and busy, though not overstuffed. They seem to change every time I look at them.

Dark moods are alleviated by the sunny Méditerranée series (2009). West’s influences include De Kooning and Goya. Far from a retrospective, these paintings were mostly created over the past 10 years. West completed National Service in Malaya before studying at Chelsea College of Art in the late 1950s. Although he has exhibited widely over the years, he has been overlooked by the mainstream.

This is only the second show at the gallery, which opened in June. Nearly half a century separates Piper’s age from that of West, but she is committed to representing artists with a career spanning 40 years or more.

In a market dedicated to big names and youthful, emerging artists, Piper’s approach is truly exciting. Her view is that being an artist is a lifelong commitment that doesn’t wane with age; to the contrary, it often strengthens. Older artists possess qualities that young artists may not: wisdom, experience, and what Piper deems “sustained practice”. This might all be a canny marketing strategy, a way of staking out a niche, but the proof is there in West’s work, which is exhilarating. These paintings sing with life.

To 5 October (020 7148 0350)