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Paul Tonkin
Neither Here Nor There 2010 [Installation shot]

Go with the flow

Creating chances is usually associated with the beautiful game. But in the case of painter Paul Tonkin, it’s his desire to liberate colour and form from clichés and explore new territories.

Review by Corinna Lotz

Much of the excitement in football comes from the way in which players may or may not transform chances into goals. That involves a complex process where the very uncertainty of chance is exploited by the skill of the players to achieve the certainty of scoring.  The eye of the beholder allows her or him to trace the pattern of the game which can unfold in surprising and intensely enjoyable ways.

It is that same combination of chance and necessity which gives artistic performance a special quality, taking our existing knowledge into unexpected directions. And thinking about this can help us delve into often mysterious new areas which an artist has presented for our pleasure and delight.

Paul Tonkin
Installation at Delfina

Tonkin describes his creative process as “paraphrasing” – or “words to that effect”, as he says – also the title he has given to one of his paintings.  He recalls Miles Davis’ advice to a sideman:  “Play what you know and then go beyond what you know”.  “Which is good advice for anyone doing any kind of artistic activity!” Tonkin believes.

“Certainly,” he says, “this was at a time in the 1960s when Free Jazz suddenly appeared and some people believed in completely free, wild improvisation based on nothing at all – and Davis was saying, well, that doesn’t always work. It’s better to start with something you know. Then be as free as you like, or as you can. I try to follow that advice.”

In other words, inspiration is mediated through the techniques / traditions / styles used by the artist, which of necessity are pre-existent, and are then developed and negated.

He believes that his recent paintings are more open than those of a decade ago: “I try to get more space into them and to make the colour freer as well, so that there are unexpected combinations.” He uses Golden Acrylics – an American brand – straight out of the tub, but also mixes and layers the colours. He likes combining oil and watercolour techniques, making full use of acrylic’s versatility.

And, while admiring 20th century artists like Chaim Soutine and Matthew Smith who applied oils in a sumptuous, visceral way, as an abstract painter, Tonkin feels he is doing a different kind of thing.

An Isolated Incident 2009 53 5 x 119 25 ins (136 x 303cm)
An Isolated Incident 2009 (136 x 303cm)

How does colour create a sense of space?  In the last century, Paul Cezanne and Hans Hofmann, explored how this happens. “You want the painting to be flat – but it simultaneously has an amazing depth to it. You are respecting the surface and the stretching backwards, forwards, sideways, up and down and every way.

“But at the same time you have all this space going on as well, which is achieved through colour combinations and contrasts. So you are not using the traditional means of perspective to create a hole in the wall.... which is what US critic Clement Greenberg was going on about – he described what happened in French painting, starting with Corot during the mid-19th century, when he (and others) departed from the earlier traditions of creating the illusion of depth that was like an imaginary stage set.”

Episode 2009 (182 x 171cm)
Episode 2009 (182 x 171cm)

Colour and paint have become more upfront. “But within the new flatness you are trying to create another kind of space. People often talk about paintings being flat – to me that’s boring!  It’s not there is NO space, but that there is now a pictorial space rather than an illusionistic one.”

This new space is created by the paint itself, the awareness that it is paint – stuff on a surface. There is still illusion – it’s simply different. There is an element of performance and action in which the colours become the protagonists, the actors in silent dramas.

Tonkin says quite sternly that he doesn’t believe in accidents, and yet much of what he does is trying to create conditions for the unexpected to happen. “I want to create traps for myself to stop myself getting clichéd. So I want things to happen which are beyond my control. For example, the floor in my studio is uneven. So when I apply paint to a canvas lying on it, unexpected things can happen.”

Tonkin dislikes the word or even the notion of chance or accident – a chance effect, he says, is “something that happens” and not an accident. Although on reflection, he adds: “I did call one painting An Accident Waiting To Happen.

He admires the music of composers like Lutoslawski, who employed aleatory techniques. The word aleatory - derived from the Latin for dice – is used to denote incorporation of chance into a composition – or a sequence where the musician does what he or she wishes to do.  This element of improvisation takes us to a powerful influence on Tonkin’s approach – that of jazz, more specifically Miles Davis and the Free jazz music of the 1960s.

Paul Tonkin
Some Other Stuff 2010 [Installation shot]

In Some Other Stuff (the laid-back title is stolen from an album by US trombonist Grachan Moncur III), an intense blue leaks, seeps and bleeds into a molten vermilion. We are always aware of the “stuff” – the physicality of the paint and its insistent movement across space, as one colour intermeshes with another, as though with a will of its own. At times the contrasts may be harsh and jarring, at others sonorous and symphonic. Dark wine reds and purples, with tiny flecks of paint lying on their surface, approach deep blues, turquoises, yellow and green. There is a contrasting play of textures from matt to shiny, crusty blacks. Floating bits of brown look like ashes lifted up by the heat of a fire.

Colour swirls around as though in a deep ocean, powering on its own life and movement as it rises, arches, falls down again, penetrating and mingling with its counterparts in Episode. It is a cauldron of activity: in which elemental forces seethe and smoulder. Brown tentacles trail squid-like, cautiously approaching an orange, a hazy blue floats over a pink at the centre. Sweeping curves cut bright windows into dark choppy waves; a rampant green curves up to confront fiery yellows and scarlets. 

Paul Tonkin

Recent canvases like Any Time Soon and Helios are more luminous and hopeful than some of his previous work.  Could this change be connected with the democracy movements that took off at the beginning of 2011?

“It’s a cliché that art reflects the times like a kind of mirror. This is no doubt true in a general sense, but I think the best art actually supplies something else. It’s a kind of reaction to what is going on. Maybe – I hope – my stuff is not imitating what is going on around me – a kind of antidote to the times.”

Plunging into his coloured cosmic explosions, you can feel the ebb and flow, the under tows of energy, of magnetic fields pulling and twisting the colours. Forms and colours prowl, attack, dance, frolic, laugh and cry out.  What more can you ask of them?

29 May 2011

Paul Tonkin’s new abstract paintings are at Delfina Restaurant, 50 Bermondsey Street, London SE1 3UD until July 31st. Free admission. Open daily 8am-5pm; Friday evenings 7-10pm

Paul Tonkin's work will be on view as part of the Art in Perpetuity Trust's Open Studios on 1-2 July. Harold Wharf, 6 Creekside, Deptford, London SE8 4SA Tel: 020 8694 8344

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