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Graham Crowley's works are not otherworldly or mystical; it is a workshop, a hotel room, or a glimpse of his garden. What he creates is simple, direct, and captivating. Painting in tones of Payne’s grey (originally a mixture of Prussian blue, yellow ochre and crimson lake) and cadmium lemon, Crowley was recently awarded the highly esteemed John Moores Painting Prize and his winning piece, titled Light Industry (2023), was subsequently acquired by the Walker for their permanent collection. His latest show at domobaal, Light Fiction, sees the artist return to London eighteen years after his last solo show in the city and features an extraordinary series of paintings made at the same time at Light Industry exploring balance, stability and   of course   light.

Installation shot courtesy of Andy Keate/domobaal

Gallerist Domo Baal, curator of Crowley's latest exhibition Light Fiction at London-based gallery domobaal, notes of Crowley who has been painting since the early seventies and his journey, “He has changed in two ways that I think are important: he is not doing kind of ‘beautiful’ views quite as much, he is having a very direct experience with his own life. The other important thing is he paints the memory: he does not do a sketch, and he does not take photographs, which also gives him a huge amount of freedom, because it is the things he is interested in.”

For Baal, the exhibition’s ethos is deeply tied to the changes Crowley incorporated into his most recent paintings. “I have known him well. When his work changed to almost completely acidic, yellow, it was not just the yellow, it was the impact of the yellow in the work that is kind of sucking you in rather than holding you out. It is more in your face. But it is not brash or rough. I just said, ‘Come on, let’s do something.’ It was that simple. But it is quite exciting.” Of the curatorial process, Baal notes that Crowley "is a very generous guy to work with. (...) He has been painting what I think are the best paintings of his life. A lot of it is personal choice and what I think is best works. And there’s something about when he paints with virtual monochrome and there’s something about his practice, that changed quite recently... that’s when I got it. For me, it feels as if when you use colour as a tool, you enter the whole mood of the painting, the feel of the painting, and the sensibility of it."

A well-known former professor of Painting at the Royal College of Art, Crowley identifies as a painter rather than an artist. He modestly calls himself a “fairly okay” essayist and considers painting to be the “most challenging thing I’ve ever undertaken.” However, his essays show deep introspection not only into his work but also into the state of contemporary art, its relation to the past, and its significance today. Fetch had the opportunity to speak with the artist last month.

Installation shots courtesy of Andy Keate/domobaal

Can you explain the vision of your exhibition?

I paint shadows. There is a wonderful duality between the subject matter and the painting as its object. The content of these paintings is light. Put simply; I’m attempting to paint the light.  Painting these days has become literal, concerned with issues like identity to the point of illustration, or anything else. One of the essential qualities is the duality between the thing depicted (the thing's subject matter) and the object, the thing itself. It is about the illusion of light. But also, when I paint things like that, I paint that before I get it as this big idea. What I’m trying to say is ‘Look at the wall, look at the chair.’ I’m trying to take the experience that we all share and look at it again more closely. To make the familiar, unfamiliar.

You mentioned earlier that you have been fascinated with Manet, is there a particular reason why?

I’m fascinated with Manet’s paintings because of their duality. It’s this sense of duality that (to my mind) defines painting as opposed to illustration or photography. Manet could be painting a little glass of flowers, which may at first appear modest in terms of the panoply of history. But the way he paints has captured this ability to make the image appear luminous. That’s what I also want to show is the light, the idea, and the luminosity of the painting. I also wanted there to be ‘chromatic tension’ because I’m attempting to paint in a way that is intended to appear almost vibrant – or luminous.

There is a lot of yellow in most of your paintings in this exhibit. It is also prominent in your later works. Is there any reason why?

It is cadmium lemon. It is dominant but does not have any special meaning. But it does have a special function in these paintings. I’ve discovered that if it were yellow, it would be hotter. If it were yellow, like butter, it would cause the whole space would be a lot ‘denser’- that is to say, appear shallower. (...) I find [this yellow] arresting and visually stimulating. These aren’t exactly easy on the eye. There’s something about the way we’re wired when we see a lemon or yellow and black, like hazard warning tape or wasps. It’s probably subconscious. But it also sparkles visually. There is a sort of instability. Then there are the brush strokes. Each one is studied. You can tell which direction it was made, where it went, where it stopped and when things are erased. It is not an illustration, I am not trying to convince you that this is real, or that it is fact. It’s fiction. This is why the title. So, the whole thing about light and shadow is that it is ubiquitous, it is everywhere but intangible.

Graham Crowley, Workshop: Hastings 9, 2023, A love of Many Things 4, 2020

This is your first solo exhibition after almost two decades, how are you feeling about it? 

The last time I did a solo show in London was probably 2006 or so. So that was 18 years ago. I don’t have a simple answer. I mean, I’m 74, so quite happy and surprised. Every morning, I wake up, I think I’m still here. To have the opportunity to be able to think these things through and also realise this later in my life is remarkable.

What inspires you to continue creating?

Life. The idea is that this is the only opportunity to get to do what you want. I am fascinated or preoccupied with this discourse - painting that is. I’m just beginning to get the hang of it. However, inspire is a rather strong word. I’m not sure that I’m inspired. What drives me is fear. Fear of death, fear of dying.

Is there a time in your career that stood out for you the most?

Yes, now! I feel that I’m not only making the best paintings that I’ve ever made but I have ‘ownership’ of my practice. For me, painting has always been about the mind - or, more correctly, abstract thought about a world that although intangible is nonetheless one that we take for granted, one that we can see but can’t actually ‘touch’, a world which we can even think about but can’t know in any objective sense. 

You consider painting as a discourse, rather than it being an activity. How does that impact what you do?

I have spoken and thought a lot about painting. But painting remains the most challenging, if not the most frustrating thing I’ve ever done. And I’ve also made some pretty dreadful paintings, but the reason I’ve been able to make mistakes is that I haven’t been concerned with commodification and product identity. When I was a student, painting was out of fashion. You were regarded as perverse if you painted! You wouldn’t gain approval institutionally. And so, for a brief moment, painting became almost ‘countercultural’. Something hard to imagine these days!

Graham Crowley, Workbench 2, 2023, Light Fiction 4, 2023

And now I’m painting about light, which is something that seems to have been forgotten. Probably in part due to current issues of identity. I write a lot about the visual arts because I have thought a lot about it. I’ve spent my whole life not only doing it but thinking about it.  For example; a common art school question is ‘How do you know it is finished?’. I’ve realised that there is no answer to that because painting is about self-knowledge. Nobody knows when something is finished or complete because painting by its very nature involves indeterminacy. You cannot define that which has no fixed definition. I identify as a painter rather than an artist. It is very important because, for me, painting is a discourse and not simply an activity. It’s also an all-consuming pursuit. The term artist is an accolade.

Installation shots courtesy of Andy Keate/domobaal

Light Fiction runs from 18 May to 29 June 2024 at domobaal, John Street, London.

Avantika Pathania is a London-based writer and arts journalist.


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