A visit to an artist’s studio

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How many times we’ve ended becalmed among the roads across the fens, that all look the same, straight as parallel rifle shots on the map but rising and falling like sea-swells when you are on them. This time we arrive without getting lost but don’t recognise the car parked by the outbuilding that used to be our friend’s studio. I want to read something into the colours of these cars, the old mustard-coloured Mercedes, or now a sleeker one in grey-blue, as if they’d been chosen like the colours in her paintings.

I had been looking forward to seeing Bette Spektorov’s paintings in a big exhibition in Cambridge in 2017.  Then she called it off.  So the only way to see the work of this artist, now in her eighties and unwilling, or in some way unable to show, was to visit her studio, which is why on that weekend in October my wife and I were back again in the Lincolnshire fens where Spektorov has lived for forty years.

What I had not expected was that, though welcoming and ready to talk about the paintings on the walls of the rambling old vicarage, she was not willing or perhaps able to go into the studio where the rest of her paintings were collected.  It was as if an iron door had come down, she said: she couldn’t go with me, and I was on my own, without a guide.

There were paintings everywhere, frozen in place like the inhabitants of the castle where a spell has fallen, stacked on chairs and against the walls, obstructed by easels and little tables loaded with tubes of paint, while underfoot, sticks of pastel were being ground into the concrete. I could see a few paintings mounted on the walls, but I couldn’t get to them over the piles that blocked the way.

Through the most distressing circumstances I was prevented from finding out anything about the paintings except what I could see: their intentions, their sequence, even their names–all were now hidden.  Thrown off stride by what I didn’t know, I didn’t notice for the longest time what a wonderfully phantasmagoric way this would be of seeing the painter’s whole life as an artist unfolding before me at once.

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I started in the furthest corner of the space—was it a desire for at least a hint of method, or desperation in the face of confusion? The big picture I fixed on was like an explosion, a rich burst of colour that was at the same time shattered by strong vertical lines which broke the surface into five divisions, like a recall of the old idea of the triptych that made one thing out of three separate parts. Here motifs were repeated from one section to the next, like characters who reappear in successive scenes, but they bumped against each other and both of them were cropped. The divisions didn’t occur logically but interrupted what was taking place, as if parts of the intended scene had been swallowed up, as by a curtain hanging in folds that took no thought of what parts of the design might be lost.

This was a functional explanation of the feeling of compression you got from the picture, which seemed to show you only a fraction of what it had to say. Here I first wondered if Kandinsky weren’t just as strong an influence as the artist’s favourite painter Matisse. Kandinsky’s work of 1909-13 provided close parallels to all the swirling tale-material that had been set loose by the initial explosion which put this picture in motion.

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Next to it was one superficially similar—divided by vertical lines—but not actually much like it at all. Here the red lines traced through blue made weaker divisions and resembled plant-stems, which undercut the force of separation.

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This one is part of a series that teaches me what blue means to this artist. It is something you sink into and are enveloped by, a colour for submitting to, and I found that the longer I looked the more compelling this trellis of flower-forms became, full of slippages and elements being swallowed up.

4 DSC03725.jpgThe next blue picture is one it’s hard to get an unobstructed view of, one which looked much bluer to the eye than it did to the camera, one that has a bouquet at the centre like one of the onion-domed towers in Kandinsky’s canvases of 1910, architecture not flowers, from a Symbolist fairy tale. A duskiness in the blue, not visible to the camera, plays a big part in making this an unfathomable picture. As I stare, it turns from an orchard into a hierarchical grouping of three divinities in ascending form. There’s a ritualised order hiding here: pattern has become a spiritual fact, and an icon has materialised out of flower-shapes.

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I turn for relief from the sequence of powerful blue pictures to a small one on an ochre ground with bold forms like Japanese characters, or just as much the forms of plants as calligraphy. This one is drastically pared down, with bold shapes and only four colours. The yellow which seems a brightening in the ochre, and a subtlety in the overarching starkness, isn’t really there, but only a reflection on the glass.

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Among a jumble on the floor is one where Matisse’s parentage is most obvious, a picture made of pictures, a languorously sloping armchair in one, lemons in another. This is a canvas you would certainly include if you were doing a complete anatomy of all of this artist’s types and stages. It interests me now for another reason, because of what is peeking out from behind it, which I didn’t pay attention to then, but only later, like a clue in a detective story that no one sees the first time around. It’s a painting that will matter later but is only a sliver now.

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Instead, I’m diverted in another direction, toward a blizzard of dots, seen very slantwise.  It caught my eye by its raucousness, but when you looked harder, it wasn’t just a blizzard of dots but a tree in blossom radiating streamers of dots which formed an aura, while a fractured section to the right was like a picture of the pile-up in the studio. When this painting was fully extracted, the pile-up loomed less large. When it was seen head-on, the picture’s proportions changed. I was altogether disconcerted by how pictures changed with the time of day or what they happened to sit next to. Kenneth Clark said hanging pictures was his favourite activity, in which you are always finding things in them which weren’t visible before.

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My next discoveries were favourites of mine that Spektorov didn’t seem to have much time for. I saw them both standing on end, where it was easy to guess the right orientation with one of them, not so obvious with the other, one of the excitements of the visit, testing pictures in different orientations. I remembered that Kandinsky was given a crucial push toward abstraction by seeing a painting upside down in his studio.

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The first of the discoveries was a Biblical scene or a tense moment in an opera, in which a bearded man waves a sword over a baby dangling from his other hand. I had finally stumbled on a narrative, in rapid, careless, confident strokes, a kind of cartoon of a serious subject. I had to disentangle it from a hysterical princess in pastel who looked vaguely familiar (something by Vrubel?) for a reason I would later discover. When I mentioned the narrative subject to the artist (I still hadn’t worked out whether it was classical or Biblical) she said ‘it must be one of my Poussins’. So I looked it up and only then realised that one of the main characters was missing and would have filled the big purple void on the left, King Solomon and his throne. But perhaps he wouldn’t, for Spektorov has pared down and focused the story.

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The other discovery was a more like a wild Kandinsky when seen on its side than when it was right side up, with a mêlée of forms and a big patch of khaki-chartreuse. Both these paintings had introduced a new set of colours that I looked around for more of.

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I often circled back and paged through stacks I hadn’t got to the bottom of before. Now something made me pull out a big picture buried deep in a pile, where I’d caught a glimpse of unfamiliar colours and big blurry forms. In fact, it wasn’t until the next day that I got a really good look at it, an occasion when my wife and Bette broke the taboo and came too. I loved the rich and dusky colours that didn’t bear down or weigh on you, the combination of looseness and density, the way forms seemed about to solidify, hinting briefly at large figures or truncated cones in a monumental landscape, then dispersed again. Even the heaviest elements seem to float, full of possibility, and little is fixed. Here for once the title is scrawled on the back, and fits with the idea of loosening one’s hold—‘Come what may’.

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The picture with a name formed a satisfying conclusion to a memorable visit to the studio, but the paintings seem doomed to remain lost in the fens. What will become of them? In her frustration the artist even talks of throwing them onto a bonfire.  A friend who is an unusually sensitive photographer has offered to help archive them, which would be a first step toward getting them shown in the kind of sympathetic setting that they richly deserve.

Bette Spektorov’s work is important for its instinctive rapport with colour as a way of being in the world, and for setting an example of throwing oneself fearlessly into the visible world in its fullest, most saturated intensity.  Her exuberant mêlée of forms depicts a world constantly breaking down and re-forming in fresh shapes, drawing impartially on plant structures, fabric patterns or key moments in the history of art, and blurring old boundaries between the world and the self.

 

In Darkest Southwark

Every unfamiliar part of London is infinitely strange to begin with. This bit of Southwark had no distinctive features. After you left the main road the place consisted entirely of big rectangular solids, presumably council housing, but such pure, unpenetrated masses as you had never seen before. These hulks seemed to push against the pavements that ran along them until there was barely room to pass comfortably. Opposite, a low building spread itself behind a high metal fence, to which were tied rubberised banners with enthusiastic comments by parents selling the building within. So this unfriendly sprawl with windows in mirror glass was nothing but a harmless school.

How could an art gallery have landed in such barren soil, we wondered, as we turned into its street? Here was a little row of slightly older buildings, with a couple of former shop fronts painted an incongruous oxblood colour. You had to get extremely close to read the words ‘Matt’s Gallery’ and only then did you notice a row of artists’ names, half of them scored through in white paint which only half obliterated them. Were these artists formerly represented by the gallery, who’d left, and were now like deposed emperors remembered only in scratched out inscriptions?

The doorbell was answered quickly by a man looking surprised but not unfriendly, like one of those characters in Alice who has just waked up for no other reason than the story’s needing him in order to continue.

I didn’t notice then how ingenious the room he ushered us into was, only that it was incredibly small. It was also bright, and empty. We had come to see a friend’s exhibition, and we soon knew that we were in it, because the two small paintings on the entry wall contained small, nearly identical butterflies, and our friend is fascinated by moths and butterflies, about which she has some interesting ideas that I haven’t got to grips with yet. On the wall opposite was a larger painting consisting of patterns and marks in colours so subtle you even wondered if they were there at all.

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The house we were in, for it felt like a house, was very small. We had already sensed that, having caught a glimpse as we entered of packed-in slivers of space beyond, in which someone was working. So we hardly needed to ask, is this all? is this room it? The man came back and said yes, I always pare down the work: leaving things out is the main task in a gallery. He put it better than that, and I believed that he meant it. He thought the small butterfly paintings were enough, and our friend had added the larger painting from an understandable fear of the void even in the confines of this little cube. For it was a cube, inserted into the fabric of the house on a pronounced diagonal, with its one way in, diagonally, at the corner.

This minimal insertion was the brainchild of the gallery man’s son, an architect who had studied and taught at places I knew and had taught in. So had the gallery man, who had spent longest at a place where I had given one of my worst lectures ever. I began to see the gallery man as quite an art work in himself. His shirt, half concealed by a purple fleece, was a hilarious display of summertime drinks. But it was the way the conversation jumped around that was particularly delightful, and before long I heard my wife inviting him to Kentish Town to carry on with this.

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He explained the scoring-out of the artists’ names: it only meant that their exhibitions were over. They were minimal too and always lasted exactly eleven days. It seemed the same anarchic and even half-destructive impulse was surfacing in all these forms. It was an impulse that didn’t continue for that long in the same course but shifted its orientation continually. He told us he’d just bought a new batch of ISBNs, having used up his initial supply of 100. So we wanted to see all the past books, which turned out to be stylish fold-outs, not books, most of them.

Coming away, we saw the desolate scene with different eyes. In the large industrial hulks, like council blocks without the windows, we now knew that 100+ artists’ studios had formerly lodged. The runaway property boom that is destroying much of what anyone has ever loved about London has also sent these artists packing to create high class rentable space with the soulless anonymity of money itself.

At least one large drafty leftover of the big studio spaces survives as a funky café-gallery inhabited by a riff-raff of second hand furniture and assorted survivors of the art schools, one of the last jewels in the crown of British culture.

 

photos by Esther Menell     for more see esthermenell.com