Resplendent on Bath’s ever-so-quaint Gay Street, Bath Contemporary is showing an exhibition of Robert Welch’s paintings. Travis Riley potters along to the gallery at tourist pace to find out more.
The gallery spaces of Bath Contemporary, two quirkily shaped, narrow rooms, one with dado rail and ceiling cornice and the other with skylight, very much fit in with the Bath aesthetic. The paintings hung on the walls provide immediate contrast, firmly rooted in a more urban environment, the predominant tone is grey and they are filled with simple, hard-edged forms.
Welch’s painting style owes a definite debt to the St Ives School. The simplified silhouettes and dry, scratchy brush marks of Alfred Wallis combine with the spare forms and dusty colours of John Wells’ landscapes. Unlike Wells, Welch’s simplified forms never stray fully into abstraction, and his simplifications speak more of a desire for emphasis of real world structure, than an intention to isolate form.
The four prongs of Power Station rise up through a turbid white sky and off the top of the canvas. Smears of grey and green push horizontally through the painting giving an impression of motion. The monumental silhouette of the power station appears fleeting. The paint is dry and scratchy; the brushstrokes are abrupt and protracted.
The perspective in the image finds us gazing up at the immense building from ground level. The viewpoint implies a human gaze, and throughout the exhibition the perspective of the eye is emphasized, whether we are looking down across the fields, or up at tall, impressive buildings.
The adjacent painting Ochre Curtain shows an archetypal house, framed on the left by a murky yellow curtain hanging down the length of the scene. Contrasting with Power Station, in this image thick, smudgy paint creates a hazy stillness, heightening the voyeurism implied by the curtain.
Through the doorway to the right of Ochre Curtain the eye is drawn to the far end of the long gallery space. A deep red strip lines the bottom of an otherwise muted canvas (Kingston) creating a pull through into the next room. Mimicking the turrets of the power station and the jaundiced curtain, the painting employs another vertical motif. Six white columns stretch the length of the image filling the foreground. We look past them and up at the ashen silhouette of a looming industrial building.
The majority of the images in the show depict these urban (or suburban) scenes, houses and factories described in uniform muted tones and plain shapes. The effect, however, is not bleak – in their formal simplicity the images foreground a fundamental elegance in the ubiquitous patterns of population.
The grey-tiled roofs of Slate are barely discernible from the sequence they produce. Isolated from the buildings they protect, in the pursuit of the formal study, their function has been lost.
Moving away from the depiction of urban structures, Day Trip still has a trace of the city. The image in the painting is framed by the matte grey of a train window. Through the window the countryside is portrayed as a liquid white sky with geometric fields of molten green and brown. The paint, which appears as if it is still drying, has a present quality, contrasting with the toneless grey window frame.
The effect is replicated in Scrub, the exhibition’s most expressive painting. Green foliage is smeared in loops across the grey-brown canvas. The result is unavoidably gestural; the marks provide evidence of a spontaneous scrub of paint that can only have happened over a short, intense duration. This immediately performative piece betrays a bodily element that runs throughout the exhibition.
Whilst the artist’s gaze is held always within the composition of the image, the artist’s hand also is ever present in the texture of the paint. A gestural presence and captivation in the subject matter manifests in the dry and scratchy rock faces (with the white of the canvas showing through) of Creek, the marshy countryside of Day Trip, and the strident green stroke, formed by a single motion, that pushes through Power Station.
Robert Welch, Viewing Form is at Bath Contemporary (Bath, BA2) from 25 January to 8 February.