Recalling Echoes (19 May-1 July 2023, Hales Gallery, London, E1) is the current exhibition of art by Basil Beattie (b. 1935). It is his third solo exhibition at Hales, his London representative. The large works, all made over the last ten years, display new elements as well as familiar ones. The floating steps, rudimentary ladders, roads, caverns and simple tower blocks come from the last 25 years. They show no sign of tiredness nor complacency; the retain their freshness because they are so primal and universal, notwithstanding the personal significance the artist attaches to the motifs. There is plenty of risk here; the exhibition is seething with invention, motival and technical.
The exhibition consists of seven large canvases and 18 untitled charcoal drawings, made over the period 2020-3, using wash, arranged in a block six sheets high and three wide. This assemblage of identically sized sheets (all 14” x 10”/35.5 x 25.5 cm) acts as a treasury of compositions and motifs already established, as well as recording new ones, such as pseudo-hieroglyphs. There are new leads and (perhaps) the promise of firmer, more complicated drawings of definite things in the world, as indicated by the largest canvas in the display. There are also foreboding hints. Ladders here have broken rungs or appear ramshackle; one ladder has split completely asunder. These sturdy primal frames become catastrophically unreliable imply awareness of bodily frailty and ultimate mortality.
A drawing with a meandering, looping heavy line recalls Brice Marden; the buildings echo the paintings of the Metaphysical artists and Guston’s termite-built slabs. Beattie is an admirer of Guston and may be taking from his own memories of a residency in New York City. Other drawn forms stand more aloof, ur-images of steps, ladder, buildings, passages, caverns, roads, grids. In one drawing, a set of stairs enters a welter of dashes, which hangs like a cloud. At least three drawings relate directly to Ladder Red (2021), which is, along with In the Ascendancy (2015), are the most powerful and satisfying paintings here. Ladder Red features grey over painting on a diagrammatic frame, similar to sprues designed for casting. It recalls the paintings Beattie was making in the late 1990s.
Painted over two large canvases placed together, the large In the Ascendancy features a platform – for hunters or perhaps as one finds in railway signal boxes. (The artist’s father worked in the railways.) That structure surmounts a network of bricks/mesh, recalling sturdy constructions, lushly painted, tactile; they are the sorts of forms that the mind’s imaginary hand can reach out and grasp firmly. The tightness of the draughtsmanship of the platform is counterpointed by the janky, skewed outlines of bricks below. The crisp asperity and confidence of the tight drawing makes one wish to have more of such drawing in the paintings. Beattie is such a fluent master of the cursive description that he never needs to be literal or pedantic; however, In the Ascendancy shows that when he chooses to be, he can build wonderful linear structures.
Steps over Fiery Waters (2022) has his sequence of ascending (descending?) grey steps crossing an aerial view of magma-like pools of orange and red. This was perhaps created under the influence of reports of extreme summer weather of high temperature and drought, broadcast last year. The psychedelic light show of puddles of acrylic soaked into the cotton duck links to Beattie’s past – he used colour-field technique in the 1960s and 1970s, with its ethos of soaking, organic forms and absence of distinctive brushwork.
The gestural space-filling scribbles in oil stick (of Close to Beyond (2014)) seem a nod to Pollock’s Stenographic Figure (1942). Beattie was greatly excited to encounter American Abstract Expressionist painting when it reached London in the 1958-62 period, something that would see him begin the first half of his career as an abstract painter working on a large size. Top Up (2013) is a classic example of Beattie juxtaposing fields of a single colour, repeated motifs and outlines. The interaction between solid and hollow forms, recognisable images and abstract elements provides a clear demonstration of Beattie’s pictorial thinking.
Sgraffito incisions in the black overpainting of Outreach (2017) creates a neon effect by revealing pink-and-ochre underpainting, making a wire-like drawn form to balance the impasto. Elsewhere in the painting, black spray paint is used extensively. The qualities of aerosol paint (diffuse, flat, matt) make it often disappointingly insubstantial and difficult to integrate into the facture of an oil painting on canvas. It is best used sparingly (a la Bacon) or used delicately in very controlled compositions (a la Pasmore). Beattie does not seem to have overcome (or at least harnessed it) the void-like effect of black aerosol paint in two paintings where it is deployed (the other is Beyond the Ladder (2022)), as it tends to drain the paintings’ surfaces of liveliness and tension.
A third canvas, Close to Beyond (2014) has less intrusive use of spray paint, not noted on gallery label. Artists often use their corpus as a larder from which they take liberally. Beyond the Ladder is perhaps the only misfire in the show – it is not bad in itself but a recollection of the Circus series of the 1980s. That series, full of geometric forms and primary colours, often floating untethered, always seems less weighty, less profound and irksomely jaunty compared to the art that followed, with its muted colours and earth hues. The floating dab of cadmium yellow and the black triangle feel applied to the surface, not animating or directing the rest of the elements. The playfulness of the Circus paintings is adjacent to arbitrariness and Close to Beyond comes perilously close to that.
The only disappointment is that this exhibition is limited by the relatively modest confines of Hales Gallery and is not the full retrospective at a major venue that the artist’s stature deserves. Given the politics and blind spots of administrators of major metropolitan public galleries today, this is sad but unsurprising. Beattie’s achievements have long been denied the respect and exposure they are due. In any other European country, a painter as great as Beattie would a towering public figure. The urgency, rawness and plangent poetry of Beattie’s images are too potent for apparatchiks who direct our public art spaces – which is exactly what commends his powerful art to all who have eyes to see.
This exhibition – a masterclass in invention and vigorous execution – is highly recommended.