Friday, June 3, 2011

'Edgy Watercolour Paintings' Should be an Oxymoron

Watercolour paintings are rarely described as complex. It is not the translucency of the medium that has contributed to this, but the fact that it has long been associated with hobbyist painters.Of course, this is a generalisation: several professional artists have exploited watercolour to great effect, most notably Marlene Dumas and Durant Sihlali.But certainly watercolour landscapes have become the fare of shopping mall art galleries and Sunday art markets.

Perhaps this is why the late Alan Crump’s watercolours come as such a surprise.They are edgy, ironic and intricate and leave you distinctly uneasy, which seems almost incongruent with the medium. We expect watercolour landscapes to orientate and order the natural world in a pleasing manner, highlighting its beauty. The composition of Crump’s landscapes, in particular the series of aerial paintings of mines, is dense and claustrophobic. Every inch of the paper is covered in a dark palette. There is no white space, no reprieve, no lightness. Crump depicts everyday scenes, but there is an implicit violence lurking. Under Crump’s hand the world appears chaotic and in disarray. The angles of his subjects, the absence of focal points, and the multidirectional patterns all work towards drawing you into a dark and frenzied world.

Open Cast Coal Mines, Newcastle, 1994, best illustrates Crump’s modus operandi. In this striking work he presents what appears to be an atomised object. It’s as if the ground has exploded and its insides have been scattered on the surface of the landscape. It’s a crude description of mining, a recurring motif in Crump’s art. His palette is always muted, except for the use of red, such as in Red Giant (1994), a painting of a large building excavation site, or in Earthworks (1997), which presents a tunnel inside the mine. Red streaks line the inside of the shaft before scattering in the interior like pools of blood in the wake of an attack. As Karin Skawran observes in the catalogue, Crump depicts the landscape like a human body. Undoubtedly in Red Giant the red earth reads like bruised and exposed flesh. It is not just Crump’s keen awareness of the environment and its vulnerability that compels this metaphor, but the history of exploitation and domination in this country, which most obviously manifested through the mining industry.