Robert Welch show at The Eagle Gallery, London

Rob Welch's new work on show at the Eagle Gallery Farringdon Road is a pleasure to see. At first glance the works look -  as usual - economical in element and spare in layout, but this is a bit misleading as when you examine them, you see a rich, complex handling of surface with brushstrokes both wet and dry dissolving in and out of focus. (these are works that really need to be seen in the flesh). Paradoxically, they have a very 'deliberate' matter-of-factness. There is a matte tautness to the surfaces with Welch's increasingly familiar palette of muted tones, earths and greys as sonorous as ever. What is  present now though more than ever, is a more confident 'attack' in the execution of them. This is confidence rather than bravura, the hallmark  of a highly experienced, savvy artist. There is  a very successful employment of larger than usual sizes too. There appears a lot of reworking a la Matisse - namely removing whole passages of paint - via painting out with gesso rather than wiping out with turps (acrylic forces a different approach to reworking) - then re-hitting the surface with vigour and an assurance won through this process. Welch searches for  immediacy and sparkle , paring  down rather than accumulating a built up facture. He succeeds in this quest too,  with only an overly dark on blue' tree' painting looking a little harsh in contrast by comparison with the feel of rest of the show.  

 

What I find most satisfying in the work though is the way colour gets across the surface. Something that abstract painters often suffer with is the centre / edge transition, so much so at times that you can almost draw an imaginary line 1 inch or so inside the perimeter of a work to find the real field of interest; this no man's land area that is left forces a centrifugal weighting that feels like the same visual weight as the single lens of photography. Ironically here, Welch's quite filmic compositions go the other way and end up with an inventive shift of focus, so that the edge areas feel naturally part of the overall schema. It's as if the 'image' has been freed to open out democratically with an equal 'disinterest' for any hierarchy of elements - so fence, hedge, roof, wall, window, road etc are just what they are in the work  - a patch of colour in the overall blanket of surface. This blanket is getting thinner by the way; as Welch pushes the approach he has to  more extreme ends, so too the paint gets more deft in handling - heady stuff.

 

It is fun to compare these works with a Hockney for example- whose reputation is nothing short of stratospheric to the majority - yet you can see how much more Welch's figuration achieves. Hockney's work never moves beyond looking like it is painted ' over' a photo, whereas Welch's emptying out affords him opportunities at many junctures of their creation to make decisions about the essential in each work - what is left out has become as important as what is there - these works sit  on the fulcrum between the two extremes of removed and remaining and it is often delightful to see the tottering balance that this position occupies for him. I am reminded of an actor being told by Scorcese (I think)  to 'strip it down' repeatedly on each take - "Marty" he said,  "if I strip it down any more there'll be hardly anything left"   "that's what I want" he was told . 

 

Another artist that springs to mind is Hitchens. He too used a muted palette of 'local' colour working from the landscape but suffered from the no man's land dilemma with floating planes of colour never quite reaching full fruition as paintings in the way Welch's do. (without being too harsh on the much-loved Hitchens , those planes are starting to irritate me a bit - they feel more rococo now. Putting it bluntly Welch has a more advanced spatial language than either Hitchens or Hockney - a bit of parity in recognition would be timely. 

 

I recently read an opinion by Jed Perl about the work of Matisse which I think is relevant here too - essentially it was about the way colour 'enters and exits' a painting and sets up more rewarding works than would be the case if it floated in the centre. So too in Welch's new work colour enters and exits, spanning the centre area, which prevents the middle collapsing in, or any sagging of space. It should be noted that this is also in tandem with good drawing and touch. It is never a simple recipe and there is discovery evident throughout these works which also keeps them  fresh. 

 

It would exciting to see even larger works and also I wondered what more could be achieved next from the palette -  if colour went on non-white underpainting say… Welch speaks respectfully of Alex Katz whose cool, giant-sized canvases swagger like a true "Yank's" would,  and I can see a link there with that soft brushing in of direct of colour and that slightly simplified "look" .  Yet, Welch has a coolness in his works and a "coolness" about his works (either definition in any order works)-  whereas for me, Katz is merely a "cool" artist  - a bit "Hollywood", lacking that bit of poignance…and "Cut".