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Paul Tonkin
Scrumpy 2010 (109 x 69cm)

The Jimi Hendrix of colour abstraction

Paul Tonkin explains how Gauguin opened his eyes to the exotic. Review by Corinna Lotz

The glorious Gauguin show running at Tate Modern has made it possible to rediscover a artist who many of us thought we already knew. 

The maverick stockbroker-turned painter of the late 19th century is revealed as a multi-faceted artist and a forerunner of 20th century heroes like Picasso and Matisse. He expresses undercurrents of ennui, psychological insights and anti-capitalist sentiments which are totally of our time.

Gauguin has, in turn, been a great fascination for an English artist of a much later generation who is currently showing some of the best paintings of his career.

An impressive body of 15 paintings by Paul Tonkin is on display in a rare solo show at The Gardens café near Peckham Rye. It is the fruit of 35 years work and has a wonderful maturity. It is a reminder that colour abstraction is more alive than ever and moves us in secret ways.

Paul Tonkin

Born in 1951, Tonkin grew up in a suburb of Southampton. He remembers listening to a record (on the cheap Marble Arch label) by Blues harmonica player Little Walter while looking at a Thames and Hudson book about Gauguin. He says: “The exotic black musician from Chicago and Gauguin appealed to me. It was like meeting long-lost friends. The music and the painting went together, even though I was just looking at a book. I saw Gauguin through the music of Jimi Hendrix and Fleetwood Mac.”

As an art student, Tonkin met rock-n-roll singer Ian Dury at Canterbury College, joining Dury’s Kilburn and the High Roads band as a fiddle player. After leaving college, he worked as a roadie but eventually became a painter.

Seeing Gauguin in the flesh, so to speak, the abstract and musical qualities that Tonkin appreciated all that time ago, rise to the fore:  “There are so many passages in his work which are abstract,” he says. “There are watery flows and indistinct foliage abstracted into repeating ambiguous shapes. The repeated shapes take on musical qualities.”  

Here is an artist in the almost secret tradition of English abstract expressionism who has taken it forward into the 21st century.

Since that first initiation in the late 1960s, Tonkin has sailed on, not to the exotic South Seas, but ever deeper into the possibilities of colour itself. Between the two Pauls is a century of pure painting – from the Fauves of Paris and Kandinsky’s great compositions of 1909-1914 through to British artists like Denis Bowen and Sheila Girling.

As with these pioneers, Tonkin’s vibrantly contrasting colours exercise a powerful emotional effect. And, the colours generate their own spaces. The intense hues and textures lead the eye into new places, with unexpected effects on our emotions. Flowing arabesques curve and curl around each other creating smoky depths and lacy patterns where colour meets colour.

At This Moment in Time 2009 (183 x 164cm)

In At this moment in time a yellow swoosh descends into an iridescent transparent purple, while a blue interlaced with pink surges up into a lacy pink. The colours acquire their own personalities, silent melodies and riffs, ranging through the canvas. 

Magpies and Parakeets 2010 (95 x 183cm)

A fluffy purple cloud erupts from dark blue, like a nebula in outer space, in Magpies and Parakeets. Swirling pinks and hot mustards hover. On the left, reds and greens leap out of another explosion. The gaseous dust of new born stars brought to earth by the Hubble telescope comes to mind.

Painterly abstraction has formed a pure undercurrent in English art since the early days of Ivon Hitchens, Peter Lanyon and Patrick Heron. Tonkin shares these interests with colleagues in south-east London’s Art in Perpetuity trust such as Mali Morris, Cuillin Bantock and Clyde Hopkins.

But the jazz analogies, the earthy textures that bring us back to the surface, the jarring craziness, the 'Duryness', the energy and the humour of it all are all his own. It’s Tonkin’s sense of mystery, like Gauguin’s, that makes him so rewarding.

2 December 2010

Fifteen paintings by Paul Tonkin are on show at The Gardens café, corner of The Gardens and Peckham Rye, SE22 until December 12. Open daily 9-5pm. Free admission. Photos: Sara Hannant

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