Alexander Waugh

Marlin Fuller’s jazzy neo-expressionist paintings bring many of the ideals of Edward Burra forward to a new genera!ion. While the humour, the satire and the risk-taking dash of Burra are al evident in his work, he is his own master and remains very- much an original. At one level his art is a life-enhancing expression of physical energy at another ii is recondite. His characters are at once humorous and reflective – pale faced, sometimes almost cartoon-Iike, dazzled by a fizzling world, unsure of themselves, edgy with one another

Music is Fuller’s driving enthusiasm. Here as in so much of his work he reveals his ability to transpose to the eye things about music that the ear cannot hear Divas and dancers flirting with the spotlights, audiences rapt with anticipation before the curtain rises or costumes swirling in balletic animation. In his studio Fuller likes to paint to music. From the late sixties, when his work consisted of delicate surrealist pencil drawings, through the seventies as he developed a beautiful series of beautiful crayon fantasies, to the large canvases of the present day he has never lost his admiration for the recklessness of jazz, for its dangerous sense of letting-go that is now such a virile hallmark of his style.

This latest series of works on paper binds together the fine drawing techniques of his early style with the bright colours and daring dramatic tones of his later works, fusing past and present they are axial pictures, to be seen as both a synthesis and a new departure.

Alexander Waugh, June 2003

William Packer


Is it a domestic, or a public stage: is it indeed a domestic, as they say? For there is, in Martin Fuller’s work, often a clear touch of asperity to the image: a certain sense, if not of explicitly sexual, at least of emotional tension, and an unspoken crackle in the air, a quarrel even, a lovers’ or a rivals’ tiff. A woman – for it is sure to be a woman – turns sharply away, at once the victim and indeed the cause of that fixed, unforgiving, female glare from across the room. An eyebrow is raised, a glass drained. Somewhere a man is sure to be looking on, hanging his head. High heels clatter on the basement flags – for it is sure to be a louche dive or ‘boite’ of some sort, where this little drama is being played out. Do we hear a foot stamp?

Even when Fuller moves out onto a more public stage, that sense of social danger remains. For with the opera, the dance, the circus or just the play, we still feel that expectant thrill of the disaster that is not to happen. We hope, we even know the dancer will still be caught by the man in tights, the acrobat stay safely one-footed on the horse, the diva not fall off the stage, the actor not forget his lines. Yet the spotlight is always on. The fear is always there.

Fuller’s, then, in its essential subject material, on public or private stage alike, is manifestly a narrative, a dramatic art, drawn with a quietly ironical eye upon the eternal tragi-comedy of life. Is it to a degree autobiographical? Who dare say?- though he has, to be sure, to those who over the years have come to know the ‘dramatis personae’ well enough, a decided flair for the hinted likeness. As with the novel, the ‘roman a clef’, it doesn’t always do, perhaps, to turn the key. It is a question, nevertheless, that draws us in ever the more closely, the closer in he moves, and the sharper into focus he draws his subject.

The closer, the better. The larger they are, the more characterful his figures become. Standing at the bar, sitting at the table, raising glasses, exchanging glances, they are powerful and authentic presences. In all this, he too is clearly taking social risks, living mischievously. But what makes his work properly remarkable is not just the imagery as narrative, but rather the degree to which such risk and danger are matched in the actual making of the paintings themselves. For Fuller is a true expressionist, not in any self-consciously adopted way after the modern fashion, but rather in working as he has always done with a direct insistence upon the immediacy of the mark and the essential necessities of the process. Here there are no corrections, only alterations as the image, and with it the idea, develops. And if such method would seem to be arbitrary or instinctive, it is in the reality cleverer than it looks. Ful1er is a painter of long and deep experience. He knows the risks he takes. And he survives them splendidly.

William Packer
October 2007

The Guardian

Arnolfini Gallery, Bristol, 1968
Guardian Review by Bryn Richards

MARTIN FULLER’S canvases, showing at the Arnolfini Gallery, Bristol, until September 6, are large, white stages for the presentation of dramatic, organic events which speak of an obsession with adolescent sexuality, sadism, decay, and fear. At first glance they seem innocuous enough; some, such as “Plug” and “Escalating,” focus attention on human heads and reveal a certain skill and pleasure in traditional methods of drawing and painting. The drawings show the evolution of ideas which are modified and enlarged on in the paintings and in some cases reveal a nervous intensity of handling which is in contrast with the bland fluency and directness of the paintings. Colour, again at first glance, is pale pastel and much influenced by the big areas of white ground and the transparency of the thinly brushed pigment. On closer examination things begin to happen and I am reminded those drawings in children’s annuals which are invitations to find various animals and objects concealed in an apparently empty landscape. So in these paintings a wriggly jelly-baby shape becomes a human figure; a grey smudge becomes human buttocks; random red marks become weals. The forms are all meat of one kind or another. The pastel colour can be seen as rancid and the transparency as a form of rot, like a slice of bacon left out too long. One becomes conscious of having to tread warily in a Freudian jungle.

Martin Fuller is reluctant to be drawn into any explanation of his work and feels that the painting should not reveal its meaning too easily but slowly provoke a personal response. I think that perhaps that he is being a little disingenuous in that there is a string element of calculation in his work.

David Cohen

Drawings and Paintings by Martin Fuller

Camden Arts Centre, London, 1971
From a review by David Cohen

The current relatively small exhibition of drawings and paintings by Martin Fuller has already been on show in Bristol and Oxford. I for one hope that it won’t die completely when its time at the Camden Arts Centre comes to an end because Fuller’s work has a curious combination of charm and power.

Like any artists currently, he appears to be fascinated by science or rather by his notion of the scientific. There are drawings entitled “No Sound”, ‘No Gravity” and ‘Biological Machine” and there are paintings named ‘Energy” and another “Organic Energy”. But you don’t feel annoyed by this pro-science fad because the substance of the best of Fuller’s work does explore the relationship between things as they are, as common sense, as simple science if you like, tells us they are, and things as they seem to be in our minds, in our dreams, in the fragmentation that takes place in both those inner sanctums. Psychology done visually is another way of putting it.

There is, for example, a series of drawings about underground stations and trains. Fuller stretches what we normally see in an underground station. Alfred Hitchcock once said that he knew perfetly well that every time he shot a train going into a tunnel he was making a Freudian point, but that there was no need to labour the fact as critics wished to. Fuller does not labour the point but illustrates and embellishes it. He makes concrete the subconscious possibilities of an underground station.

Fuller’s concern with the difference between inner and outer reality is underlined by a drawing called ‘The Evidence of Our Senses” in which everything is confused. There is a face somewhere so hidden it looks like a mask and unlike in real life it is impossible to make out anything very distinct.

For the drawings alone it’s an exhibition worth visiting. Unlike many, its claims to some scientific involvement are not a total façade.

the Hunting Prize 1997

Martin Fuller | Winner, the Hunting Prize 1997

Martin Fuller’s most recent London exhibition, of work on paper, held in the summer of 2003 at Jonathan Clark Fine Art, saw him paired with that distinguished mid-20th century narrative surrealist, Edward Burra. It was an association that perhaps invited invidious comparison, for Burra, now safely dead, is secure and expensive in his reputation, while Fuller, though a regular exhibitor over the years, is not as widely known as perhaps he should be. But Clerk, as discriminating a dealer as there is, specialising in Modern British art, could see the connection well enough, and in the event Fuller more than held his own.

For Fuller too, like Burra, has not only produced quite as substantial proportion of his entire oeuvre on paper, but also bears close and sympathetic comparison to him in relation to his subject matter. In short, both have always been drawn to the more louche and seedy aspects of modern life, and if for Burra this meant the narrow red-lit streets of old Marseilles, with their bars and tarts, for Fuller it has been the dives and pubs of Soho, and the spotlit, magically ambiguous world of Opera and Cabaret.

An expressionist in his manner, he has always been a figurative and a narrative painter, concerned with episode and incident, much of it autobiographical, yet never explicitly so, end often wilfully ambiguous and loose in the actual statement of the image, at times almost to the point of abstraction. The men and women in the half-world of his imagination move through fragmented, shallow, impossible spaces as in a dream, yet ever credible for all that, as in a dream. Down the stairs they come, lean against the bar, take a drink, eye each other up, and down. Girls dance across the stage, diaphanous, transparent in the light, or, as in a circus, swing high or low on the trapeze. It was by just such a painting, of a girl naked on a swing, shining pale in the black night like Diana the Huntress beneath the moon, that he won the prize.

Modern Painters Magazine

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.

Howard Jacobson


‘The Stuff of life By HOWARD JACOBSON’
modern painters magazine

‘It’s very much to do with wine, women and song, actually,’ Martin Fuller says as we stand looking at a wall of his latest work, newly hung above a sofa in his Brixton studio. As though I needed to be told.

I am not sure I have ever seen so much wine, women and song on a single wall. But if that suggests a surfeit of careless late-night bohemianising, a bon viveur admiring his own wasted hours, it belies the serious spirit of the paintings. As does, since I have not yet replied and he is not sure that I am keeping up, what he says about wine and women next. … ‘The stuff of life- and all the trouble that goes with it.’ Superficially a jest, what he conjures up is not the knowing, nudging world of men but opera, Mozart and Verdi, Cosi Fan Tutte and Rigoletto. That sort of ‘stuff; that sort of ‘trouble’.

He should design an opera. The turbulence he likes to paint is of an operatic order. Though they can be contemplative sometimes, locked away in a world of thought, the women in these canvasses are more frequently gestural, their movements under the sway of powerful if not always explicable emotion. A gouache I particularly like shows one woman throwing wine at another at the bar of what looks like a private arts club. lt is a passage of pure Mozartian comedy – so balletic is the throw, so angelically unheeding the recipient’s expression, and so magnificently careless the thrower’s flouncing departure.

Ask whether Fuller is painting his inner life or the external, vertiginous world of womanly extravaganza – women talking, women dancing, women swirling, women tilting, women intensely meeting one another’s stares or just as intensely avoiding them, women on the stage or the high wire, women coming in and going out, women sometimes spinning in mid-air for no other reason than that they possess the wherewithal to do so – and you realise at once that for him there is no such disjunction. ‘I dream about the sensation of making a mark,’ he tells me. ‘The sensuality of the mark . . . happy dreams. I very rarely have nightmares.’ No wonder, if it looks this good inside his head.

Though he likes you to see the drawing under the paint, as though the women have a double structure and demand to be rendered twice, there is no mistaking his love of paint. These are dense, rich, tactile paintings, delicious even when their colours are subdued, the paint in constant agitation, the brush, you feel, never satisfied or still. Whence exactly their sensuality, though, is sometimes a mystery. You take away a memory of sumptuous nudity, of voluptuousness whether in indolence or acrobatic performance, but when you return to the individual canvasses the women are not as vivi dly particular in the flesh as you remembered them. This is partly to be explained, I think, by cumulative effect. by the number of women who populate a painting and who, if you like, constitute a sort of compound woman. by turns quizzical, combative, decorative, deeply thoughtful, lewd, or so perfected in herself- inviolably spotlit, she can appear- as to be unknowable. But there is another reason why we feel a heat we cannot always point to in a passage of paint. What Fuller most intensely paints is the act of seeing itself. And in him seeing is a hot activity.

I do not wish this to sound intellectual, but on the other hand I do not wish it not to sound intellectual either. Fuller is a thinking painter. And as with anyone who thinks, he cannot avoid contemplation of the acts of the mind itself. What it is to see, what liberties are taken when one looks, where looking leaves one vis-a-vis one’s subject. or how far looking ultimately becomes one’s subject- these are important questions. Questions entailing no small delicacy in our day, either, when the object of one’s looking is a woman. What stops these lines of painterly enquiry becoming merely abstract in Fuller’s hands is the rapture with which he does look.

As it turns out, no observer of women could have less to reproach himself for. He tells a story of how as a boy he thought hard about sending away to Ellisdon and Son’s catalogue of novelties for glasses that gave you X-ray vision like Superman’s and enabled you to see through girls’ clothing. ‘But I knew they wouldn’t work.’ he laughs. ‘And besides, the imagination does it better.’

lt is entertaining to imagine the line drawings of women underneath the paint as a nod to the glasses he never bought. So long as that doesn’t give the impression that there is youthful prurience at work here. Of prurience of any sort there isn’t a trace. For all the intensity of the looking, there is no suggestion in any of these paintings that the painter, or the man, strains to see what should not be seen. Occasionally one can just about make out an onlooker at the edges of a painting, a little out of things but enjoying what he sees, an appreciator not a voyeur, and if not always a guest then certainly never a gatecrasher. But even when a looker-at and looker-on is not painted, you feel his presence, indeed you are sometimes invited to become such a person yourself. lt is the atmosphere of spectacle, partly, that creates this sensation of removal and appreciation. Spectacle, not because the actors are performing for one’s delectation – they are, even where they are on stage, engrossed in their own affairs – but because those affairs are rendered so vital and multifarious. Everything they do- and what they do is no more than be themselves- is interesting, mysterious. surprising, absorbing of one’s whole attention. And the world- recognizably contemporary at every turn – is their playground: bars. pubs. jazz clubs, drinking clubs, eating places, dance halls, green rooms, circuses, theatres. operas. sometimes places one cannot definitely locate and which look like carnivals of the mind, pageants and tableaux newly minted because they have to be, because all actual sites have been expended, have ceased to be adequate to the energy and ingenuity of the women who populate them.

They are all. if I read these paintings right, as it were amateurs, these women. They play or listen keenly to musical instruments, they dance, they sing, they swirl, they perform what it is they have to perform, but less out of any specific calling than the sheer exuberance of their being. Martin Fuller is quick to point out that as a painter he loves a rectangle: the surprise in all the flux, of an unexpected table or doorway or windowframe. A technical preference, simply. But the fact remains that these rectangles, however they are come by, serve as performance spaces – stages to dance on, staircases to ascend. mirrors to be seen through, boxes to be framed by. However intuitive the marks, they never show as mere flourishes in Fuller’s work. Time and again, what is clearly an inadvertency of the brush delivers a mark which ultimately, you are tempted to believe, is purposive. This is especially the case in the whirling spaces behind his figures’ heads. Is that a drip or splash of colour, or is it hair gone wild or obdurate. a hat. a horn, a halo even? I can show you a dozen instances of a woman seemingly wearing a cap and bells. a bridal veil. a crown, a diadem, an excrescence that wouldn’t go amiss on the devil. or such lambency as a saint might radiate. I am not entirely certain that I haven’t even espied a back-to-front baseball cap. But you could just as easily dismiss the lot as floating atoms of paint, something or other on the walls, a trick of light. a mote in the painter’s, or the viewer’s, eye.

What is not equivocal or imaginary is the spotlighting. In some paintings these spotlights are clearly theatrical. The woman treads the boards in the full glare of cone-shaped illumination. She inhabits light (whose shapely gauziness Fuller delights in painting) of theatrical necessity. But this same cone-shaped illumination – sometimes coming from common or garden ceiling lights, or sometimes an effect of strobe-lighting – can also envelope her when she is not on stage. She might catch just an edge of a barrage of it as she passes a bar; she might accidentally step into someone else’s; sometimes it seems to come down from heaven like divine refulgence, as though it means to carry her away, or as though it has just. like a gift from the gods. delivered her; but always, you feel. the cone is optical, the physical expression of Fuller’s seeing, the ophthalmic symbol of vision itself, the painter’s very eye-beam.

In the end, this is Fuller’s true subject. What it means to see. I have said that with him the question is never abstract. Not for one moment do we cease to be interested in the breathing world he paints. But he is a highly sophisticated painter, immersed in what has been painted before him, conscious of the conversation one must go on having with painters of the past, serious. impersonal, and there is no painting in which we do not feel that it is thought. with him, that is forever being transmuted into sense. To call him an intellectual does scant justice to his sensuality. And to dwell on what is sensual in him undersells what is of the intellect. Perhaps we can say that he is supremely a painter of intellectual sensuality. Not forgetting that he is also – or if you like for that very reason – supremely a painter of enravishment.

© Howard Jacobson

Jonathan Meades

Jonathan Meades

The coarse irony is that to achieve decadence we have to work. In a state of actual decay we are incapable of making anything. We rot, rant, slobber, jabber, ignore time, forget place.

Decadence is a posture created by those whose defining quality is vitality. Martin Fuller isn’t rotting. He is far from jabbering. His limpidity of thought is nimpaired, his lucidity – an important word here – remains horribly astute. He stays 2O/2O. Yet…there is a sensibility here in these paintings which depends if not on psychotropic intervention then on dream or the madness of love. A bit of all three, I guess. And a will touched by irreason and contrarily by the conviction that the material quotidian stuff of his life is sensational but that sensation without reflection, meditation and mediation is sheerly artless. It’s easy to make an inventory of the things he doesn’t do: answers; explanations; hopes; straightforward coupling; anyone else’s take on the world.

He is selfish in the most literal way. He paints himself. But with such tangential deflection that he recalls Alain Robbe-Grillet’s declaration that “I’ve never written about anything other than myself.” Fuller, no less than that Breton mythologist, takes the self to be a site of mutating memories, distorted pasts and an insistent, slippery present. He raises the question of tense, a question that is seldom raised in painting.

Martin Fuller does not paint in the preterite. There is nothing entirely finite here, the past is not historic – it is forever to be confronted and remade. It is easier to wallow in the sump of abstractionist futurism, the most facile of escapes. ‘He makes us realise that retrospection and prospection are lies, that as soon as you make a mark (or write a line) you are creating a fiction. A fiction that Fuller has to rupture. But rupturing something doesn’t make it go away. It’s still there: the fragments of annihilation remain like the fragments of memory which we’ve smoothed to our own content.

When we are young we believe that the fantastical Funes who remembers every time he has remembered everything is a construct. When we are old we acknowledge that Borges’s character is a creation guileful hyperbole. Martin Fuller is a painter whose work endlessly evokes the memory of memories. The present is merely an invitation to the past, a moment when we accede to what was, and what will be. Fuller’s self appointed job is to capture this or that moment of his life. The several tenses collide. Painting is a spatial endeavour. Fuller renders it otherwise, his work is infected with a signal temporality. A drink, say, incites the memory of all previous drinks, a high heel that of every such heel ever swooned over. This is not a matter of representing material archetypes. It is, rather, to recognise that the deliberately straitened gamut of subjects that he eternally returns to are mnemonic catalysts, obsessions echoing obsessions. Every painting he makes has a painting behind it, or the ghosts of many paintings. The layers add up. We begin to discern a resolution: we glimpse stories without an end, we half- hear songs cut off before their climax, we gape at mirrors that may retain the image of the faces that have preened in them.

Ghosts? Magic looking glasses contaminated by properties that they cannot possess? This is a painter of evanescent inventions who bends the laws of the actual (an always approximate conceit). There is an element of the trickster at play here. And, of a man delineating his brainscape, granting himself primacy over the world, making his world which struggles to defy nature yet, contrarily, hymns the strangeness of the ocular. It is apt that his ears should be full of nineteenth century opera and the seething luxuriance of grandiose, lush, symphonic romanticism. These forms are only obliquely representational. They do not tell the truth. They create truths.

Naturalism cannot do this, all it can do is sooth us with the balm of the familiar, show us what we know, invite us to ‘identify’ with the comfy world of alienation, flatter us with our heartfelt ‘concern’ for the downtrodden. Fuller’s eschewal of naturalism admits him and, subsequently, the spectator to a multiplicity of milieux which are neither literal nor immediately comprehensible. They do not reveal his own attitude or a moral – let alone a moralistic – take on what he has found sluicing around his backbrain. Fuller is no more didactic that the composers he adores. Yet, unlike music, painting – unless it is mere pattern making – cannot avoid being about something more than the exhumation of memory and oneiric plunder. Memories and dreams have subjects. We do not simply dream: we dream of Fuller digs for the partially occluded through a dogged, convoluted process of line, colour and translucence. He appears determined not to grant himself knowledge of what he is going to find: if a painter has a finished canvas in mind he is an illustrator. Fuller’s work is composed of an aggregate of unconsecutive marks which are generated by each other, which respond to each other. The paintings are created as he goes along. They are made, so to speak, without a blueprint. Yet they are not ‘spontaneous’. For their spontaneity is tempered by the rehearsal provided by the practice of his art over most of his life; that is, by the balance of the unconscious with a gamut of formal devices and inescapable preoccupations.

The preoccupations are mostly urban, nocturnal, sensual – and morbid. The pursuit of pleasure is attended by risks. That, however, is no reason to forgo it. At night the décor of guignol asserts itself. Pans and satyrs come out to play. Ancient rites are reprised. Spectres grimace in the shadows. Diurnal safety is dissipated. Death gambols. Humans reveal themselves as animals, as elemental participants pushing at the limits of abandon. They see through each other in their orgiastic licence and libidinous candour.

Fuller returns time and again to frames within frames, glass boxes which render their inhabitants exhibits, and to a sort of baldachino which is also a key-light. It is both holy (or blashemous) and operatic. The ambiguity may harrowing but it is coloured by a vaudevillian humour. So too is what begins as a draft of wine, mutates into a barium tonic and emerges as menstrual blood.

This is painting of energetic contrariness. It denies admission to any part of the man who makes it save the artist with x-ray eyes, with a taste for display and, concealment, with the history of the hothouse contained within him. If there is an approach to straightforward autobiography here it is only to be found in a couple of atypical canvases representing domestic abundance in the forms of racked wine and a large oven at work, pleasures of a different kind, which cannot but remind us that the home is a dangerous place.


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.