City Art Centre: Until February 14th
Currently on display at the City Art Centre is a collection of over 100 pieces by William Gear, a controversial abstract painter who arguably changed the face of British modern art. Now largely forgotten, this show of Gear’s art is neatly timed to coincide with the centenary of his birth. Occupying the gallery floor above, ‘Jagged Generation’ is a collection of art by Gear’s influences and peers. It is a rare thing to visualise an artist so firmly within the context of his contemporaries, and together they provide a fascinating look into the man himself.
Gear sometimes reacted against, rather than with, the dynamic set of tutors he encountered whilst studying at Edinburgh College of Art. However, the same whimsical expression that Gear so often portrays can be seen in ‘Man with Flowers’ by one of his teachers, John Maxwell. Although perhaps not directly influenced by Maxwell, they both studied under Fernand Léger in Paris, who clearly shaped the dream-like surrealism that can be seen in both Maxwell and Gear’s work. Another of his main inspirations was surely the 17th century Renaissance artist El Greco, whose work Gear saw while in Spain. This stimuli manifested in the form of heavy blacks and strong colour, so characteristic of his work post 1947.
As described by David Sylvester, Gear was ‘one of our few real colourists, maker not of pattern but of light’. Between 1947-49, Gear seemed to be establishing his own distinct style, and in this period he produced exploratory geometric pieces, whose ‘flashes of intense colour’ have been described as reminiscent of a ‘Byzantine mosaic’.
‘Broken Yellow’, undoubtedly the largest work of his career and certainly celebrated as his greatest, takes centre stage in this exhibition. This painting is an explosion of colour, and might be interpreted as a reflection of the state of mind of the artist: he had ascended to Head of Fine Art at Birmingham College of Art only one year before so he was at a very stable point in his life. However, some of his less celebrated, milder pieces are infinitely more interesting. ‘Winter Landscape’ of 1955 is a demonstration of the hard edged minimalism that came to define his style in that period. His use of colour is assertive, and thoughtfully conveys the starkness of winter.
Speaking on the degree of abstraction within his works, Gear once made an admission that increasingly as his career progressed, ‘they [became] evocative of something within my visual experience’. This potentially explains why his paintings manage to preserve a warmth that is sometimes lost by art entirely in the abstraction.
Perhaps one criticism; although arranged in a timeline, the haphazard layout of rooms makes it a little difficult to follow the chronology of his work. Thus, when wandering through the collection, the progression of his style is lost somewhat. This may be reflection of careless curation, or simply that the gallery space does not lend itself well to sequential exhibitions of this kind. However, that should not detract from the importance of this retrospective: an eye-opening look at one of the most important, and moreover deserving, modern artists of the 20th century.