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Dead by Frances Aviva Blane
Dead 90 x 90 cm oil on linen

Back to black

The centre holds in Frances Aviva Blane's Big Black Paintings. Review by Corinna Lotz

Frances Aviva Blane’s big black paintings are displayed in an unusual setting – KCL Bay Hall at the Hampstead School of Art.  

Thanks to the imagination and insight of its dedicated staff, especially principal Isabel Langtry, this School is an oasis of democratic learning and art appreciation. It’s a far cry from the increasingly corporate-oriented atmosphere of so many of today’s art schools and the bland feeling of many commercial galleries.

Bay Hall is an old-fashioned space not designed for contemporary art and hanging art there is a bit of a risk. And yet Blane’s six canvases hold their own due to their impressive scale and the electric charge they carry.

Frances Aviva Blane Folie
Folie 240 x 180 cm oil on linen


At first glance, they are dominated by her signature rich, deep and heavily-worked – even tortured – blacks. And a sense of gloom as the graffiti-like scrawl of Dead stares at you from the far end of the hall.

But it doesn’t take long for this sea of negativity to turn into an unequivocal assertion of life. When I visited in the daytime, the sunlight was streaming through long windows. The trees in the courtyard cast dappled shadows on the wooden floor, as though echoing the free floating-falling pink squares in the grand Folie.

Their uneven shapes, made of thick blobs of pinks, whites and reds, are scattered randomly and seem to twist and turn, borne by the thermals above a fire. The sombre black is denied by the frivolously shocking, candy-striped brushstrokes.  

Frances Aviva Blane Black on Red
Black on Red 244 x 183 cm oil on linen

Its unassuming title gives little warning that this is one of Blane’s most sumptuous paintings: Black on Red, which is alternatively disturbing and rapturous. It is very dark indeed, with a remotely landscape feeling, as though we are in a deep mountain valley, perhaps due to the two towering peaks that frame a glimpse of grey, red and blue in the far beyond.

As you get lost in this sea of shadows, more and more colours reveal themselves, under and over the black matrix. Swirls of yellows, reds, greys; blue spatters and dribbles; orange scratches, light blue glimmers and complex scrapings and daubs.

Frances Aviva Blane Eclipse (detail)
Detail from Eclipse

Black on Red is so different from Eclipse, painted some 10 years earlier.

Eclipse is perhaps the greatest revelation here, even for those already familiar with Blane’s work. Here there really are no holds barred. The colours are lighter, more agitated:  blues, oranges, whites, turquoises and greys dance and play, zigzag in a baroque maelstrom of anger, despair – and huge energy. The paint is dragged, slashed, scrawled, clawed even, billowing above a window of escape – a wide gash of unpainted white canvas.

And then, touches of blue, yellow dance in and out. Ridged drips form ladder-like upward thrusts. Arched sweeps run across and down, creating depth and movement. It looks like chaos and madness. And all this comes together in a superb sense of baroque composition, and above all, vitality. The centre does hold.

There are ravishing passages of massively thick paint, reminiscent of Frank Auerbach, but totally abstract in contrast to his depictions of London scenes. Heavily-articulated flesh tones have the suggestive energy of Willem de Kooning’s nudes, connecting up with the legacy of New York Abstract Expressionism. This painting shares the outrage and anguish of the charismatic Haitian-American, Jean-Michel Basquiat.

It brings to mind the words of another American, the poet Ruth Stone:

In the longer view it doesn’t matter.
However, it’s that having lived, it matters.
So that every death breaks you apart.
                 All pauses in space,
a violent compression of meaning
in an instant within the meaningless.
Even staring into the dim shapes
At the farthest edge; accepting that blur.

10 March 2014

Big Black Paintings by Frances Aviva Blane runs until March 21 at Hampstead School of Art in KCL Bay Hall, Kidderpore Avenue, NW3, 9.30am to 8pm. Free admission.

Shapes, from In the Next Galaxy by Ruth Stone, Copper Canyon Press

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