Jonathan Shearer – New Paintings from the Northern Highlands

6 Mar 2012 in Highland, Showcase, Visual Arts & Crafts

Castle Gallery, Inverness, until 24 March 2012

NEW environments often provide the catalyst for creative evolution.

FUELLED by plein air painting, Jonathan Shearer’s latest body of work reflects his engagement with his new home in Easter Ross and the surrounding territory of the Northern Highlands and Islands. The dynamic between direct physical response to the natural environment and formal elements of design are visible in the immediacy of oil paintings created in the field, together with the development of larger scale works in the studio.

Jonathan Shearer - River Coe, Glencoe

Jonathan Shearer - River Coe, Glencoe

There is a war to be fought in relation to Highland Landscape between an environment that is essentially elusive and transient and the art of painting, which communicates the core of human experience in this environment in terms of permanence. Only artists brave enough to consistently challenge themselves, pushing the boundaries of paint handling and composition are able to create more than just a view. While Jonathan Shearer’s latest solo exhibition does not present a defining statement of a human mind perceiving the landscape, seen in the work of an artist such as Allan MacDonald, it is a wonderful exploration of land and technique which heralds an important new phase in the artist’s work.

It is exciting to see the fluid translucence and shifting elements of water and sky in Dornoch Beach (Oil on board) or Surf I, the rhythmic intensity of Autumn Spate (Lewis) – a sketch for a larger work, with all it’s spontaneity and vigour. Although painted on a relatively intimate scale, these works bear a direct human mark and physicality which expands beyond the modest confines of their scale. The key is in the handling of paint and a resistance of surface ground which arguably gives the work an edge. Larger works such as Autumn Spate Isle of Lewis (Oil on Canvas) feel more consciously mastered, a rush of water spilling into the foreground within a misty landscape of purple mountains. Varying densities of paint and a tapestry of colour; rich browns, purples and greens viewed in a haze of muted Scottish light and rain saturate the scene.

While this and a work like Winter Sun Rannoch Moor (Oil on Canvas) are beautifully evocative ( the latter a mindscape of stillness crisply observed in heightened blue and white reflecting a brief encounter with winter sun), there are elements within the larger scale works which feel rather self conscious by design. In River Coe, Glencoe (Oil on Canvas) the balance created between form, colour and light within the curvature of the glen, sweep of stone into the foreground and flow of water seemingly emerging from the mountain pass in the distance, create balanced composition but muted feeling.

In contrast, Culcraggie Track In Snow (Oil on Canvas) with its cross hatched marks and vibrant brushwork, palette of white, ochre, sienna, umber and depth of blue shadow, draw the eye compellingly into the work and allow it to remain. The viewer is pulled into the image not through illustration of a scene but through the tactile handling of pigment – a raw, immediate response to the subject as an exchange between place, artist and viewer.

This can also be seen in the great swathes of paint and monumental shadow of Mountain Blues (Oil on Canvas) contained in a canvas of intimate scale, the delicacy of Lochans Skye II (Oil on Board) or the almost abstract composition of accents in red, ochre and blue in Inverness High Street; a marriage of deliberation and first impression, design and instinct. This sense of grappling with subject and technique in relation to new environmental stimulus is a leading element in the exhibition, ranging from landscape to cityscape and wildlife paintings. The best of these combine dual pursuit of paint handling and of the subject, communicating an essential tension between the two. This is perhaps best illustrated by Shearer’s series of stag paintings.

Jonathan Shearer - Inverness High Street

Jonathan Shearer - Inverness High Street

There is a mythic and emblematic brand of Romanticism in relation to Highland landscape which begins to rear its head in this series of watercolours. Thankfully Stags (Sketch III) (Watercolour) is all about accomplished paint handling and capturing a transient moment rather than clichés, pulling itself back from subject leading over and above creative process. The adjacent two works, however, are not as convincing, and the artist’s capacity to bring the rigors of technique and his vision of landscape resoundingly together will prove definitive in future. It is encouraging and exciting to see an artist actively experimenting and redefining his practice in a new setting and the best works in this show bode well for a resounding statement of place and artistic vision to emerge in future work.

© Georgina Coburn, 2012