Although still going strong at 86, it is both apposite and convenient to propose that John Blackburn’s extraordinary career as a painter is now bookended by fire works. For surely, at his age, Blackburn cannot be expected to surpass his latest body of work, the Fire Paintings; thirty paintings made in 2017-18 and first exhibited at Osborne Samuel in London last September.
Four of these feature in this exhibition in Auckland, where it all began, in 1960, at 290 Wairau Road, Glenfield.
Here in his backyard, with just an Auckland City Art Gallery group exhibition behind him, Blackburn, then 28, ambitiously embarked on a creative journey which would take him back to England and artistic success.
The Auckland paintings were called the Encaustics (1960-61) because Blackburn used fire in their creation; they were made of hardboard covered with hessian and old sheets, on which Blackburn painted and collaged disparate objects. But then, to the amazement and delight of his children, he set the paintings alight with kerosene, dancing around them and splashing on more until he got the effect he wanted before dousing the flames with water. The Encaustics were totally innovative and unlike any paintings produced anywhere at the time. Their purchase by Les Harvey and is encouragement of Blackburn to pursue his talent as an artist motivated Blackburn to return to England.
The Encaustics were fuelled by Blackburn’s extraordinarily vital, expressive urge, which continues today, as evidenced by these new Fire Paintings, painted at his home and studio in Kent. It never crossed Blackburn’s mind to employ fire again until over half a century later when, inspired by a painting by Karl Weschke, in 2017 he plunged into this new series of works, utilising both flames and smoke to achieve their final effect.
The visual element common to all the Fire Paintings is the vertical oblong “stripe”, Blackburn’s adaptation of Weschke’s column of black smoke rising from the flames of fire in an otherwise empty Cornish landscape.
These latest works by Blackburn constitute a Promethean tour-de-force, conjuring dark magical beauty through the evanescence of smoke and flame. They are as much wrestled into being as painted, requiring the physicality of this nuggety but diminutive octogenarian artist and drawing on every ounce of his six decades of creativity, skill and experience.
– Christopher Johnstone