Rock Chic South of the River

By William Packer. Published in Financial Times, Tuesday January 25 2000

The general move of galleries dealing in contemporary art away from the West End has been one of the most significant developments in London’s art world over the past 30 years or so. Its most obvious effect has been the spectacular increase in the actual number of galleries, and with it the opportunities for artists in general, and younger artists most of all, to get their work seen in public.

But, while the City and the East End in particular have prospered in this respect, Southwark and the South Bank have rather lagged behind. The ancient London prejudice against “south of the river” has had much to do with it. One might have thought, for example, that the conspicuous complex of Hayward Gallery, National Theatre and Festival Hall would have drawn ancillary independent activity across to the South Bank – but it hasn’t. And if the South Bank area is tricky, how much more so Southwark down-river, which really is more awkward to get at – or at least was until now. Will the new Tate Modern at the Bankside Power Station do at a stoke what the Hayward never could? Will the new Jubilee Line extension do the trick? We shall see.

Meanwhile, Southwark needs must progress as shrewd businesses, charities and individuals see the point – so much cheaper, and now but a stop or two by train from Green Park and Bond Street. The Bankside Gallery home of the Royal Watercolour Society has been by the river at Hopton Street for 20 years. The Delfina charitable complex, with its gallery, its studios and bursaries for artists from abroad – and its excellent restaurant into the bargain – has been in Bermondsey Street since the mid 1980s. The Design Museum has been on the river below Tower Bridge since the early 1990s. The Jerwood Gallery and Rehearsal Space, again with café attached opened in Union Street last year. And small, independent galleries have been coming and going with a healthy, hardy few remaining.

One of the very first and best was Purdy/Hicks, at first below Tower Bridge in Mill Street, and now in it’s handsome space in Hopton Street, close beside Blackfriars Bridge. Its policy has always been to show contemporary painting – not of any age group in particular, but rather work falling loosely across the divide between abstraction and figuration of a romantic and associative kind. The result is that the gallery has never been slave to fashion, but only to quality staying with artists as they develop over a true career rather than looking merely to a moment of glory and the latest thing. Michael Porter is a case in point, an artist now in his early 50s who has been showing at intervals since the late 1970s with serious if not the most prominent (Purdy/Hicks these past 10 years), and his work finding its way into many of the better collections, if not yet the Tate. He is, however, set to show at the Tate St Ives next year, and quite right too. Which is rather the point, for his is now a somewhat neglected generation of painters, at once over shadowed in the eyes of critical orthodoxy by his sculptor contemporaries and superseded by the Young Brits.

He calls himself a landscape painter and indeed calls his show after the cliffs, and coastlines of farthest Cornwall, where he’s been living these past few years. But if his subject is landscape, it is a close and intimate surface of the landscape that engages him. Where it once might have been the bark and lichen-crust of tree trunk or the close, dense undergrowth or mouldering, crumbling earthy bank that supplied the image and the background – against which a delicately painted leaf might hover, or a fungus shelf or cap protrude – it is now the sheer wall of rock that holds the work cracks and fissured, covered in muck and moisture. But that is trying to read these painting literally - for now the devise of the floating leaf to activate the space is only occasionally employed: all is surface, leaving the space there only be implication not description.

They are thus as abstract as you care to take them – densely worked in a thick impasto, scraped, dragged, layered, and, in parts, actually collaged, leaving the surface selectively raised and edged. Technically they are extremely complex things, beautifully and immaculately done, worked in a generally dark, cool palette – although none the less rich for that – of black and umbers, greys and silvers, blues and greens, with here and there and old leavening of pink and ochre to warm things up. The eye is caught by rends and slashes, as though of barnacles or lichen striped off, or splits and cracks as a stratification of the rocks. The paint is held in marbled swirls and pools of pigment. A light spray marks up the grey, dragged striations in the paint, as of the grain and weathering of the stone.

Yet the imaginative world of this personal landscape is still there for us to enter, a dense, close forest or dark cave – as though Arthur Rackham of our childhood storybooks had come back, with his wild, wintry woods, crumbling banks and tangled roots, only this time as an abstract painter. And it is in this almost poetic and suggestive quality that Porter stands among his contemporaries as an uniquely atmospheric artist and latter-day romantic, gleefully, morosely Swinburnian in his insistent evocation of secret places, damp and shade, hard and soft, growth and rot.