Jeremy Gardiner’s exhibition of twenty smaller recent pictures, comprising his third solo at Belgrave, presents a compounded topographic, archaeological and geomorphological take on the west Cornwall coastline between St Agnes on the windy Atlantic edge and Lizard Point on the opposite, more sheltered southern shores. This intelligent, vital painter, one of the best working today in a still active westcountry modern landscape tradition, takes his cue here from the nineteenth century painter John Brett, who determinedly walked these steps in Victorian times.
Like Brett Gardiner takes a quasi scientific angle on a landscape, he sees as the visible outcome of violent evolution over eons of time. His artistic process is aptly robust for as the Independent on Sunday critic Charles Darwent writes ‘‘in the Belgrave catalogue Gardiner’s work doesn’t merely illustrate the outcome of a geological process. It imitates it.’’ And so the links with Brett’s Pre Raphaelitic verisilimitude are replaced, in Gardiner’s jagged, texturally scored and collaged post-cubist works, with a rigorous analytic and synthetic response.
Cornwall is a second port of call for a Dorset-raised artist inspired in his youth by Paul Nash’s neo-romantic-cum-surrealist vision of Swanage. Later the Jurassic Coast came to occupy Gardiner in his quest for a landscape idiom less superficially descriptive than replete with its internal and temporal identity.
Trained under Kenneth Rowntree at Newcastle in the late 1970s Gardiner returned to the westcountry via a distinguished 15 year teaching career in the United States. Exposure to the American scene instilled a conceptual rigour, a willingness to live in an eternal present, awareness of the flat frontality of the picture plane and a late modernist rationalism embracing the very meaning of mark-making. But the romantic Brit returned like a prodigal aesthetic son to the pastoral landscape tradition in these islands when, shortly before the millennium he came back to live in this country, at Bath, with his Brazilian wife and young family. Among the latter day abstracting landscapists in thrall of the post-war St Ives ‘school’ – and some are the actual offspring of celebrated modern British masters – Gardiner is one of the most authentic. His work comes closest to Peter Lanyon and John Tunnard though there are nods too to the more constructive approach of Ben Nicholson and Alex MacKenzie. Darwent points to ‘‘a dramatic engagement with the painted surface’’ as the factor linking Gardiner to Tunnard and at Pallant House, Chichester this spring Gardiner was honoured with a complementary show alongside a larger Tunnard retrospective.
Comparison with Nicholson and Tunnard is apt since these two early British modernists, the former from the constructivist, the latter from the surrealist wings of the pre-war avant garde, provide the double-edged cue for Gardiner. Certainly the younger man’s mode of working reflects on the one hand precise, consistent build-up and clinically delineated drawing and on the other the random decalcomania and textural frottage favoured by surrealism. But Gardiner’s essential source is nature rather than art and when we look at these beautiful small, intense pictorial jewels we see tableau-like irregular objects akin to archaeological relics dug from the ground. As Darwent hints Gardiner’s studio process is parallel to that of nature. The same critic estimates that there is ‘‘something wilfully anti technological about painting on poplar’’ thereby putting to rest the notion that Gardiner, the sometime maker of computer-simulated films about landscape evolution, has an element of the geek in his multi-facetted creative personality. The artist subjects his poplar supports then to many layers of acrylic, jesomite and wood layers which are abraded, reworked and abraded again.
In works like Wheal Coates ‘shaped’, according to Darwent, ‘by a parallel violence’ Gardiner indeed creates uncanny analogies with natural evolution. Colour too imparts mood and a compelling signature tune as well as extolling both naturalism and self referring plasticity. The acid yellows and greys of Wheal Coates, the indian reds and oranges of The Armed Knight or Logan Rock and the pinks of Sennen Cove provide Nicholson-like highlight to works otherwise bathed in the bleached earth tone generalities of landscape.