Arts: Papering over the cracks

The precision of a restorer and the exuberance of a bold colourist might seem incompatible skills. But, in Justin Hawkes, they complement perfectly.
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The Independent Culture
Justin Hawkes is an artist of two halves. There is the patient restorer, meticulously conserving the paintings of the past and there is the flamboyant colourist splurging in expansive swathes of brilliance across extravagant canvases. He is the Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde of painting. For 15 years, he has practised the demanding task of coaxing damaged art works back to life, eye focused on the minutiae, tiny brush ready to strike at a diverting crack. During the same period, he has developed his confident painting into modernist abstracts with the panache of a practised master. Grandscale paintings, they are charged with a sense of landscape.

When Hawkes, conservator, is at work, tiny incisions of paint transform a damaged canvas into a miracle of renewal. "You join up the missing bits," he says simply, staring hard at a maze of cracks. "But you only apply just as much paint as will allow the eye to slip comfortably between one good passage and another. No more."

Observing Hawkes's large colour paintings is equally astounding. But now you stand in awe of a new world, cowed by the confidence of the work; the daring of the horizontal bands of scumbled overlaid darkly luminous colour. In Hawkes's paintings, the evening is spread out against the sky with the same stillness as TS Eliot's Prufrock patient etherized on a table.You gaze at a series of mysterious evenings and wonder how dark dark can get and still be interesting. He works in Dry Drayton, a leafy village outside Cambridge, his studio in the grounds of the Old Rectory where he grew up, hard by the church where he was married. It is all very familiar and traditional.

On the easel in his studio was an 18th-century gentleman who seemed to have some terrible black boil on his neck - apparently it was simply dirty cracking. Once a couple of tiny fissures had been filled it was transformed. Still cracked, but a cravat, not a pustule. Next up was an intricate vase of 19th-century flowers: a dot here or there and the disjointed posy came together. It's all done by compressed referral to the painting itself.

"Craquelure is the the cracking pattern we see on most oils. It's something we can accommodate into our scheme of aesthetics quite easily. But when it's too bad it detracts."

The work is tough, demanding and precise.

"You have to have an revolving easel. You can only work for 20 minutes at a time on a painting." Little wonder, as concentration is the key. "A restorer has to have the temperament for it. People fancy the job and then drop out. In the apprenticeship, you have to be prepared to clean off your work and begin again, over and over. A restorer's work has to be removable. Reversibility is the word. Everything is done so it can come off easily in 100 years' time. You work as if everything were a mistake."

Precision, deference, respect for the procession of what Hawkes calls the "wonderful delicious faces" that come under his swab and scalpel, are the core of his dissembler's skill. Yet everything that Dr. Jekyll respects, Mr Hyde subverts in his dynamic paintings.

The gallery where his collection hangs is made tranquil by their still, dramatic presence. The white walls are punctured by deep pools of dark canvas. There is no black, only violets and purples and shades and nuances of Stygian dark. The pictures suggest a beach or sky. The horizons are blurred by splodges of light, bright paint dripped sparingly in what looks, close up, like a defiantly casual way.

The effect is exciting. People used to tell the great American colourist Mark Rothko that they liked his colour so much. "It's not about colour," he would growl. "It's about emotion". And it is. Standing in the silent gallery a love of life trumpets raucously from the pictures. These are eclectic paintings, celebrations of landscape. You are not lost in a daunting colourist nihilism but grounded somewhere wonderful.

Hawkes lives in a very English milieu. The parade of pictures that rotate across his easel for revival are traditional: watercolours, minor masters, country-house amateurs. The colours in them are simple, decorous.

"Colour is not what English paintings are about," he says as he mixes up one tone after another, each batch matched and manufactured on the spot, calculated to blend with the delicate original before him. By contrast, his own paintings are colour intense. He restricts himself to a fragment of the colour palette, mixing and adjusting his own pigments; nothing comes out of tubes. He paints the absence of colour, the resonance of the shadows. The blues are so deep they're almost monochrome.

"I want my dark colours to have meaning, a time signature, so you can tell what hour of day it is, so they tap into the mood you are in."

For Hawkes the craftsman, with his infinite exactitude, his swift, humble skill, you feel respect - but his paintings inspire a delighted admiration for their bold extravagance.

Yet there is a synthesis between the two disciplines. The dogged apprenticeship of the restorer shows up in the minimalism - the subtle skill of knowing where to stop for full effect. The unsentimental severe technician helps the nerve of the modern artist, out to access the emotions using just blue and orange paint.

Justin Hawkes in an enigma. The soft rural landscape of a quintessential English village informs his careful conservation. But his original work is far from that comforting ancient setting.

His paintings inhabit a foreign new world - the terra australis, the mysterious land beyondn

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