Julian Bell | Modern British Painters
Criticism has a mission, or a bias, towards placing, indication, definition. Rigour is its characteristic virtue. Thus it is a mismatch for its object, when that object is a painting one confusedly, muzzily, warms to. I am standing before a painting in Martin Fuller’s studio, and enjoying the sensation. There is something succulent about the streaks and thrashes of misty or saturated colour. I am caught up and taken along with the push of the paintbrush. There is a heart to the thing also, an emotional life that coalesces around the figures of the man and the woman. Above all this, crucially, there is the very general intuition that I am in good hands. The person who made this is master of his own act: I trust what he’s up to. The trouble is that I’m not master of my own act, qua critic. I can’t for the moment say what this is all about. Maybe it’s the beer that Fuller, a disarmingly affable man, has recently placed in my hands. So, by way of diversion – since stories may be nothing to do with the visual experience – I try to elicit from him some kind of history to his practice.
The looks of many of the canvases around this studio seem at first sight to align them with the neo-expressionist generation that came to the fore in the early ’80s: shouty, impulsive brushing, figures conceived as reservoirs of fleshly feeling rather than as graphic representations. And indeed, here was a painter who throve in ’80s London, only to lose his market foothold completely with the recession and the collapse of the Austin Desmond Gallery. (The new show is his first here for seven years.) Fuller’s manner, however, was born of the union of two characteristically ’60s ways of working.
Stashed in a plan-chest are a set of beautiful crayon drawings from that era – free-association fantasies of distended architectures and iconic obsessions, pursued with the deadpan elegance· of the Pop generation. At some point the dandy draughtsman behind these crossed the Atlantic and encountered the macho masters of pictorial space. The will to tackle the canvas as totality communicated itself from de Kooning, Kline, Morris Louis; ever since, Fuller’s procedures have put formal structure first, emotional accent second. The rawer canvases in his studio have been built up with big, abstract blocks of six-inch brushwork and paint pouring; it is only after much gesturing and feeling his way around the space that Fuller will attempt to occupy it with figures.
That marriage made in the ’60s is probably as much story as is strictly relevant. Fuller’s practice has been through several alternations of scale: for a long time he was tamping it down to paper and gouache, the better to intensify it and to unite structure and gesture. The new work looks up from that narrow focus, and offers fields of paint big and complex enough to lose yourself in – which is just what I found myself doing. But it exists in a kind of historical insulation from other pictorial currents- even though, as it happens. With the award of last year’s Hunting Art Prize public attention may once again be turning towards what Fuller does. Fuller himself states that his imagination is stimulated more by film and music than by the work of other painters.
Nothing wrong with that. Let’s speak up for fuzziness, drift and unplaceability; let’s call them open-endedness. Fuller’s pronouncement, in an early catalogue, is in its way truly generous: ‘I prefer to let the viewer decide the meaning for himself’ . Yet maybe this is to surrender to the logic of expression-based painting too easily: the critic still hankers to hone things down. What are these figures, these gestured, fleshly presences, doing? When pressed, Fuller can supply something of a story, backhandedly: contending that these men do not stand for his personal presence – which is sometimes glimpsed as a ghostly reflected observer – nor these women, in his intention, for that of some object of desire. (They’re not unsexy, though, I’d say.) But I suppose all they’re effectively doing is being. They are little worlds of feeling with a potential to interact; the circular motifs that characterise many of the new paintings seem to reinforce the static self-sufficiency.
If only something would happen! – something beyond the almost too attractive fluctuation of translucency and caked pigmentation of gesture and representation . And, on the studio easel, something was happening. Pushing it up to the last minute before delivery to the gallery, doing his damndest to court danger, Fuller was working something furiously lively – a great surging Baroque ascending composition entitled Ride a Cock Horse – unfinished and perhaps unfinishable. He was going to get away with it, I felt; his were instincts you could trust.