There exists a photograph from the 1950’s, of the British painter John Blackburn sand painting at Takapuna beach: a telling image, suggestive of a man whose approach to life is pragmatic and elemental. It was whilst living in New Zealand during that period that Blackburn started to find his true direction as an artist; his first abstract paintings were made in Devonport towards the end of the decade, and the return visits he makes to the country each summer with his wife Maude – herself a New Zealander – are, for both personal and artistic reasons, a kind of homecoming.
Blackburn uses all manner of materials in his paintings – resin, grit, house-paint, varnish, etc – typically applied to canvas laid over MDF or wooden panels; supports sturdy enough to cope with the vigorous physicality of his methods. I am reminded of a conversation with the artist at his studio in Kent, during which I asked how he had applied a particular surface to a painting, to which he replied: I didn’t apply it. It grew. It’s organic. This sense of flux arises from his empirical, serendipitous use of materials, resulting in work that is to varying degrees unstable, ungovernable; so that at times it gives the impression of being to some extent provisional; not yet fixed, but still evolving. This transitional quality is fundamental to Blackburn’s approach and to the life of the work. His art is rooted in an empathetic humanism, expressed in an abstract vocabulary of simple forms painted with an inimitable sensitivity, into which found materials and objects – weathered and frayed cast-offs of the quotidian world – are integrated as component parts.
Like most artists worthy of the name, Blackburn combines an unshakeable belief in the validity of his enterprise with sporadic bouts of self-doubt. This tension finds some echo in the work itself, in its negotiations between solidity and weight, fragility and softness – of form, material, and mark. There is, for example, an authoritative delicacy in the way that he unites those bolted-together bits of corroded metal with paired flat black shapes in Black with Iron: Ironman, and then inserts that slip of torn white paper to serve as both compositional anchor and to emphasise and extend the horizontal rhythm of positive and negative forms.
Blackburn worked mostly in isolation for many years, and perhaps this helps in part to explain his kinship with romantic outsiders; he cites for instance a sense of connection with the artist-filmmaker Derek Jarman, and the St Ives ‘primitive’ painter Alfred Wallis; artists who, though ostensibly worlds apart, both lived and worked metaphorically and literally at the edge (of the establishment, of the land). Each – like Blackburn – incorporated the found within their art. One thinks of Jarman’s tarry black paintings from the Eighties, with embedded objects and mirror shards, and of Wallis’s use of yacht-paint on shaped pieces of cardboard packaging; the stuff to hand, resonant with personal significance. The guileless former fisherman painted ‘for company’, a form of consolation from which to summon narratives of memory and imagination; and although Blackburn’s work is essentially abstract, it too is imbued with autobiographical association and meaning. Perhaps Blackburn thinks occasionally of Wallis when painting on the balcony at the Mount, where each summer he rents an apartment high above the harbour.
Reflecting the light and atmosphere of the southern hemisphere, Blackburn’s work in this show is generally lighter, both in substance and application, than much of his recent English painting: see for instance those plainly stated discs of white paper in The Surf, and the playfully audacious interplay of closely toned white-on-white predominant shape and ground in The First Fan.Blackburn’s whites tend to withhold or contain light, whereas his greys can suggest spatial atmosphere: that triangle of grey, overlaid with a blue-black swathe, in Orderly Compositions, is like a storm blowing on the horizon, an elemental note to counteract a formal regularity elsewhere. During the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, whilst Blackburn was painting on the North Shore, unbeknown to him Colin McCahon was painting in Auckland. His subsequent admiration for McCahon makes it entirely likely that the deceptively simple The Lonely Cross in the present exhibition is by way of hommage to him.
Blackburn tends often to title his pictures quite plainly, by merely indicating shapes and colours as a means of identification, but a number of the paintings shown here reference places, particular locations; acknowledging affinities with the tangible, to objects and people, to earth, sea and sky – a kind of homecoming. In all of Blackburn’s painting there is a sense of him feeling his way through the symmetries both of the physical world, and those of the spirit, tracing and demarcating something of life’s transience, forever conscious that in time all will fade or disappear, just as the waves erased the lines drawn at Takapuna beach all those years ago.
Ian Massey is a writer and artist, and author of Patrick Procktor: Art and Life (Unicorn Press). He is a Principal Lecturer at the School of Art and Design at the University of Huddersfield.