THE NEW TOWNSCAPE: the first UK group exhibition
New Townscape: Vol. I
EPOK Gallery Stockport November 2016
The Origin of Townscape
The architect Gordon Cullen is closely associated with term ‘townscape’. Focussing on this aspect of the British towns in the 1950s he challenged post war developers’ often hastily processed masterplans, rebuilding urban centres and their road networks across the UK. The townscape he was concerned with even included the development that flanked Parliament Square in London. An argument he lost. He was uneasy about the primacy of the road planners’ agenda that made routes easy to drive. Less worried about the presence of the motor vehicle but more about the widening of roads and the loss of the pedestrian vista that unfolded while walking through the streets of towns; his theory of “serial vision”. These routes, shaped across centuries of architectural style changes and urban functions, created surprise and drama, still found in Little Underbank, here in Stockport. He used his extraordinary drawing skills to demonstrate specific solutions to emerging modernist problems that could be read from pages of a book almost as if they were stills from a movie. Cullen’s drawings and graphic art are now highly collectable documents of a heroic age of British urban debate.
Post-millennium urban painting; a ‘New Townscape’?
This was in no sense a planned agenda but a type of synergy; some emerging artists shared concern for the promise of urban life as the country experienced a polarisation of wealth and poverty. Failures of some local councils to address derelict spaces or boarded up streets and the clash of schemes that somehow vetoed the genuine needs for a town to look beautiful. These artists, like a deliberately subversive act, found a beauty in “subtopia”; the urban fringe areas where the rot had set in. Shadowing closely the work of photographers and documentary filmmakers such as Ian Nairn. Partly accusatory, partly celebratory offering new opportunities for space, colour and form. A vision that is reflective, often ironic and realist. Often rendering their subjects with a forensic focus on the mould, litter and stains on grey wet days. A way of making painting that has respect for the handling of paint in Monet’s 1892-93 Rouen Cathedral townscapes, for example, but has no need for this specific technology. For Monet the fabric of building dissolves into coloured light in poetic “impressions”. Such enthusiasm for the power of atmosphere remains active even today in the work of many regional mini-monets. The New Townscape, on the other hand, has been called “miserabilist” because it requires the viewer to derive their pleasure in painting from another way of seeing, one that appreciates that most of the built environment of Britain never made it to the pages of Pevsner’s Buildings of England with its aristocratic backbone of churches and stately homes.
In 2011 Jonathan Jones, the art critic of ‘The Guardian’, questioned the Turner Prize verdict on the brilliant urban landscape painter George Shaw (he did not win). His Humbrol oil paintings reflected his “own back yard”, noticeably lacking the presence of the human figure. Shaw himself is dismissive of the romantic quest for sunsets in faraway tourist resorts. He sources his astonishing landscape idiom from a row of vandalised suburban garages or a discarded mattress. He has just completed a National Gallery residency and his reputation as modern master is secure.
Brutalism + Urbex
The recent public campaign to save Preston Bus Garage underpinned a cultural sea change that helped to pave the way for a revaluation of corporate concrete architecture of the 1960s. A catalogue of these buildings and schemes has recently been assembled by Elain Harwood in ‘Space Hope and Brutalism’ 1945 -1975, the period when Cullen was at the height of his influence. Mandy Payne has created a pictorial synergy between the rediscovery of Brutalist architecture and the pictorial surface in her series of panels based on aspects of the Park Hill housing estate Sheffield currently being renovated by Urban Splash. She has exploited the properties of concrete as both a ground and medium for painting and recently as a component of her printmaking methods. She uses a spray paint technique that resonates with the graffiti that is a motif of urban derelict spaces. Her work is receiving the highest national recognition from New Light to John Moores, Liverpool
Anna King can be included among the pioneers of a lyrical realism in urban painting. Trained at Duncan of Jordanstone College, she has a hungry eye for the dilapidated architecture of suburban fringe spaces, developed in her painting since 2005. These artists have sometimes been grouped under the heading of ‘urbex’; urban explorers.
The artists included in this show have chosen different visual strategies and languages to take intellectual possession and to explore the reality of the towns of Britain, and the North, in particular. They will not all tidily adhere to any particular manifesto but the emerging independence of their aesthetic has made it seem inevitable that they will be seen as an important movement when the second decade of the 21st century is evaluated. In the case of this group exhibition, for the first time at the EPOK Gallery, the title ‘New Townscape’ may prove helpful as a way the viewer might approach the unfamiliar spaces, compositions and subject matter that these artists are developing with such commitment and intelligence.
David Chandler Stockport October 2016
75 Wellington Road South