Martin Fuller at Leamington Spa, Museum and art gallery
A Review Exhibition such as this can never be as comprehensive and definitive as a full-scale retrospective, but by its very concision it may be no less revealing. For it is a truth of Art that artists remain themselves even as they appear to change in their work and the interests that stimulate it, and in taking but a sample from here and there over any long and prolific career, the constancies and similarities may strike with an added force. Martin Fuller, who comes from Leamington and whose initial studies were at the local art school, is now in his later 50s, and has lived by his art, and exhibited widely, over a career that has now lasted the better part of 40 years. And it is perhaps a measure of his commitment and personal success, that so much more of his work has disappeared, untraceable, into private collections around the world, than remains available and conveniently to hand. But this is an artist who has always lived by the principle that there will always be more where the rest came from – an attitude no less healthy for being cavalier.
Indeed, in thus forcing our hand in the selection of the show, which falls markedly into two parts, it makes the point very well. For if the work we see here of the last 40 years or so, whether on canvas or on a large sheet of paper, is predominantly painting in every material sense, so drawing is the essential and almost exclusive character of the work of the preceding years. Here indeed is an apparent shift of interest and practice that would seem to mark out and separate quite distinctly the one phase or period from the ocher. The imagery too, at least superficially, is different, with the early emphasis as much upon context and setting, in contrast to the later focus upon the principal figures, which are described in looser, simpler, bolder terms. The whole feeling of the later work is open, ebullient, painterly as opposed to that earlier sense of an artist drawn for a time more into himself, the work close, intimate, graphic.
Yet we have only to look at it another way to think again.And if we compare directly the early,flimsy fragmentary studies from the 1960s – of a girl in bed with only her head above the blanket, or another who looks across as she rides up the escalator, or the large, more complex near-abstraction of figures together on what might be a bed with some of the most recent images, we see precisely that same taught and nervous profile, that same edgy line, that same loaded image fraught with all the tense ambiguity and uncertainty of the moment, and a relationship caught on the wing. With the latest, near-monochrome half-length figures, for example, that look at us and each with so oddly disconcerting a passivity, we have that same sense of a moment and a discovery, and of something very odd going on.
For this subject has always been in essence the same, and the artist never anything but a figurative artist. Even at his most expansively abstract, as in the landscapes he brought back from an extended visit to New Mexico in the early 1990s, he has always been committed, if not to the actual representation of the thing seen, at least to the experience of it, the memory and sensation. And that excursion into landscape, serious and productive though it was in itself, was in truch a diversion, for his true interest has always been the figure, and in particular the female figure, and the relationships and possibilities, psychological as much as physical, that follow inevitably upon it. A product of the old art-school life-room, and still an endless maker of notes of what the French call ‘croquis’ on any scrap of paper that comes to hand, his reference is always to the learnt and remembered figure, even as he distorts and contradicts and otherwise plays with it.
His creatures move, as they always have, through an ambiguous half-world of the imagination, as in a dream. The imagined spaces they animate are strange, fragmented, shallow and impossible, yet oddly credible stages upon which each little episode is set. Down the stairs they come as into some louche bar or club, lean against the bar, take a drink, eye each other, up and down. Or they swing together as on the trapeze at the circus, or lie together beneath the stars. Male and female and something in between, the undeclared, unspoken war between the sexes is carried on.
Martin Fuller is at once most sophisticated and yet manifestly instinctive a painter. He sets his work to no programme or policy or conscious influence, yet has a real understanding, natural and profound, of the influences and examples of modern art at work upon him, and with and against which he works. It is the natural, inevitable dialogue by which the artist engages with the past and yet remains true to himself. His work could not be what it is without Cubism and the possibilities it opened up, nor Surrealism and Expressionism, Picasso and Ernst, Grosz and Beckmann. Yet there is nothing of the self-imposed exercise or conscious imitation to the work, and there never has been. He does what he does, is what he is, and has always taken his own path. He is something of an original, and as such yet to be recognised at his full critical worth.
William Packer, London, May 2001.