Throughout the modernist revolution the arts of painting and sculpture have often acted in plastic accord and creative tandem, the one informing or reacting to the other. Nowhere was this more in evidence than in the work of Picasso, the twentieth century’s most astonishingly inventive and restless artist. In Britain, too, a creative symbiosis between two and three-dimensional form yielded a unique collaboration between artists, architects and designers in pre-war Hampstead. A remove to the Cornish seaside led to a significant post-war colony of modern art.
A key member of the post-war modern movement in St. Ives was not a Hampstead refugee but a Cornish native, Peter Lanyon, an abstracting landscape painter of relentless exploratory zeal whose expressive, gesturally assertive pictures were directly concerned with three dimensional imagery in the form of collage, painted construction or an urgent and improvisatory appropriation of ‘found’ materials directly encountered in the environment. The inimitable Lanyon has continued to inspire many through means rather than stylistic ends. Lisa Traxler, a talented former textiles and costume design student educated at Croydon and Birmingham during the 1980s has settled on the Isle of Wight and pursued variations of Lanyon’s informalist approach. Like her Cornish lodestar she has adapted her aesthetic to the dictates of architecture and she has collaborated with architects, one of whom is her partner Lincoln Miles.
The frieze-like architectural cladding that constitutes Traxler’s exterior mural at her home sees collaboration at play on the home front. Other enamel and steel projects have materialised at Stourbridge College of Art and Design where the expansive mural Transition confronts the visitor with rhythmically vibrant shards of swirling red, blue and white. In its fusion of painting and architecture Transition recalls Lanyon’s tiled or woodblock murals inside the Engineering or Arts Faculty Buildings at Liverpool and Birmingham Universities. The extension of painted designs into the functional form of textiles or dress – a discipline learnt early on by Traxler – now finds outcome not in the realm of fashion but in the industrial and high tech arena of engineering and architecture.
Her exhibition at Quay Arts, Newport, Isle of Wight is revealingly called Lives of Spaces and includes four medium-sized steel sculptures, varying from 1.5 to 4 millimetres in thickness, fabricated at A.J. Wells and Sons long established and productive factory at Newport. The geometric components form irregular, hard edge shapes – bent, curved, flat or upright – that intersect or sit proud of each other. They possess both the organic geometry of Lanyon’s lightweight, ramshackle constructions – created as space models for the abstracted landscape paintings to follow – and the improvisatory, playful and handmade quality of Caro or Serra. Traxler’s pieces, not surprisingly, derive from deftly fingered paper maquettes that are also open-ended models or rehearsals for free-standing planed compositions using real space as an active ingredient.
These intriguing objects derive from intimate handwork by a sculptor manqué. The private paper doodlings are transformed through industrial process to become concrete objects that inhabit real space where they form intimate relationships with the immediate environment. Though a commonplace feature of the urban environment since the Victorians first used them as transport signs, the vitreous enamel panels are rare in fine art. Traxler replaces the lettering and visual symbols with informal, stream-of-consciousness gestures whose arbitrary shapes, colourings and textures originate in abstract compositions on paper which are subsequently cut or torn, Terry Frost–style, to create a new synthetic entity.
Traxler’s willingness to adapt pictorial art to industrial process automatically lends her work plastic significance and an art historical pedigree, reminding one of the important link between art and industry in the wartime Design Research unit. On an aesthetic level the switch-over between formal extension and the illusionistic plane reminds one of the concretist and illusionist dichotomy at the heart not only of Picasso and Lanyon but of the early work of the Americans, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, and of the mature sculptures on extended platforms by the British sculptor Michael Kenny.
© PETER DAVIES 2011
essay by Peter Davies from the book ‘Lives of Spaces’
The book accompanied the exhibition ‘ Lives of Spaces’ Lisa Traxler, West Gallery, Quay Arts, 2012
Peter Davies Peter Davies is a well known art critic and author of almost twenty books on modern British art. He is an obituarist for The Independent and has contributed to numerous art journals. He is also a painter and printmaker and is currently Exhibition Secretary of the Bath Society of Artists.
His previous books include A Northern School, St. Ives Revisited and After Trewyn (on St. Ives sculptors), as well as monographs on Joan Bratby, Denis Bowen, John Milne, Margaret Lovell and Clifford Fishwick.