In a cool and contemporary new art space in London's Hoxton something exciting is happening. Cutting-edge artists are producing and showing paintings in a dramatic return to making beautiful, challenging and uniquely metaphorical objects by hand. This resurgence in paint is something we are now beginning to see right across London and New York. The latest exhibition at the Arch 402 Gallery presents an important new display of twelve paintings by the British painter Simon Burton, who, in 1997, Lucien Freud described as the most promising young artist in Britain today. This statement certainly bears out when we witness directly how Burton's work has developed in the intervening years, in this poetic and highly accomplished new exhibition Nowhere Men.
In one of Burton's most striking works, titled Unwanted Visitor, we are presented with an image of a woman whose hair flows like a river, her eyes appear lost, looking out into the distance, while the background she inhabits has the appearance of a galaxy. She is neither happy nor sad, she is a dreamer forever held in an ethereal universe. The painting techniques employed by Burton to create this work, such as building up layers of paint one over another and then re-working them with sandpaper, scraping back the surface to reveal earlier marks, gives it the feeling of being some battered and rejected religious icon which has been rescued from a junk shop, to be appreciated and valued once more. Perhaps this is also true of the very act of painting itself in the twenty-first century, in an age which is dominated by social media and digital images, as we begin once more to see and value those things which are produced as unique and hand-made objects.
Burton cites masters such as Velazquez, Rembrandt and Georg Baselitz as proving influences for his paintings. This is clearly true and I would also add Kitaj and Bacon as important markers for understanding Burton's own approach to his craft. His paintings are powerful, emotive and enigmatic. His handling of paint is superb and in each of his works he skilfully contrasts flat bold areas against scratched, scuffed and clogged treatments. This is the result of a process which forms part of an ongoing and ritualistic practice, as Burton himself says the physical act is what is important; the paintings are the side effect of a daily practice, like the daily habits of life, making food, making a bed or making love. How do we best approach Burton's mysterious images, Sir Joshua Reynolds, founder and first President of the Royal Academy of Art, provides a clue. Between 1769 and 1790 he wrote a series of 'Discourses' which he delivered to his students. In his 11th Discourse he wrote, It may be remarked that the impression which is left in our mind, even of things which are familiar to us, is seldom more than their general effect; beyond which we do not look in recognising such objects. To express this in painting, is to express what is congenial and natural to the mind of man, and what gives him by reflection his own mode of conceiving. In other words, painting, when it operates at its highest level, ignores detail and strives to portray images as we see them in our minds eye, like some kind of frozen daydream. And it is this we see so brilliantly in Simon Burton's paintings. They are pictures which tell a story, a story which we construct for ourselves in the light of the fragments displayed before us, with each story revealing itself to be as unique as each viewer who stands before it.
In what is perhaps the key painting of the show, Fishing Man, we are presented with a large scale canvas. In its centre stands a man smoking a reefer, he wears sunglasses and holds a fishing rod. Above him flies a white dove, which is reminiscent of the dove hovering over the head of Jesus in Piero della Francesca's painting The Baptism of Christ (1450's), on display at the National Gallery in London. For Piero della Francesca the dove represents the Holy Spirit. We are not so sure that this is the case for Burton, and while there are five doves in this painting, just as there were five wounds on the body of Christ, Burton does not claim to make any direct spiritual connection. As with all his work, he instead presents us with a narrative which is mystical and enigmatic. As viewers we must search out the meaning for ourselves. What we witness in Fishing Man is that the main figure dangles a piece of bait from a rod and line. A dog standing in the bottom left hand side of the picture reaches for the bait but cannot stand high enough to bite it. The doves have the bait, the dog doesn't and neither, we realise, do we. What we recognise is that like the dog, we also strive for that which is just beyond our reach. We live in hope and know hope to be a fundamental of human nature. Burton's extensive use of dark and muted colours in his pictures combined with his exquisite handing of paint makes them hard to appreciate in reproduction. This brings to mind the work of the American Abstract painter Ad Reinhardt who became most famous for his black or ultimate paintings of the 1960's which he claimed to be the 'last paintings' anyone would paint. Reinhardt's canvases of this period appear at first glance to be simply flat surfaces painted black, but they are actually delicately composed areas of black and nearly black shades. This makes them impossible to reproduce, as the subtlety of effect can only be fully appreciated when you stand directly in front of them. This is also the case with Burton's work. So with that in mind, go and see them in the flesh, because this is a must see exhibition.