Neil Canning is an artist consumed by the complex and protracted process of painting. ‘I need to make something that is deeply felt. At a profound level the work reflects the twists and turns of my life’.
He works every day in his light, spacious garden studio. In addition to the pleasures of painting and drawing he enjoys the traditional craft of stretching and priming the canvases. ‘I take pleasure in producing each unique canvas, with its carefully prepared surface. There is something satisfying about confronting this pristine, white space’.
As a young man Canning had a remarkably clear view of what he wanted to do in life, what he wanted to be. Painting the landscape was, and continues to be, his passion. After leaving school he chose not to attend art school. One can only admire and respect how resourceful he has had to be in order to compensate for the lack of contacts offered by teaching staff and the supportive networking of fellow students.
Understandably there is a simple pride in an artistic journey that started in the rolling hills of Oxfordshire, moved on to rugged Wales before finding a spiritual home in Cornwall. Above everything else, Cornwall provides Canning with a direct and powerful dialogue with nature: ‘Nature has been my main teacher’. For someone born and raised in middle England he has a remarkably strong affinity with Cornwall’s Celtic heritage. He enthuses about the wildness of the landscape and observes the ever-changing patterns of light, texture and pattern as he explores the coastal paths near his home. Walking with his dogs remains his favourite form of relaxation. This fascination with the infinite rhythms of nature is a recurring theme that permeates much of Canning’s work. ‘I am constantly stimulated by the ceaseless state of flux’.
He admits to being driven by a work ethic that he describes as ‘monk-like’. Relishing the isolation of a working day in the studio Canning taps into the energy inherent in the on-going process of creation and destruction.
This exhibition is composed of three distinct elements – Landscapes, Seascapes and Cityscapes. Atmospheres is derived from Brian Eno’s 1983 solo album Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks that accompanied Apollo a feature-length documentary film on the US moon missions. The use of the title Atmospheres, in the plural, emphasises Canning’s restless recording of the dynamic changes in natural phenomena.
The sources influencing his landscapes vary from his wood land garden in the hamlet of Relubbus to sweeping vistas in Wales. Never picturesque, the images are derived from memory and emotional response. At times Canning seems to battle with his emotions in attempting to record his deep psychological connection with certain places. Many of the paintings reflect his current wish ‘to avoid overthinking, to just let it happen’.
Canning has a marked ability to confront the panoramic and distil the multifarious forms into a coherent whole. Snowdonia – Summer Light (mixed media on canvas) is a majestic landscape that demands and retains one’s attention. The spectator is confronted with his/her own insignificance. Canning’s free flowing technique goes beyond a simple topographical recording of place and instead conjures up the complex sensual experience of ‘being there’. Air currents, light and cloud formations seem to collide in an attempt to intensify the viewer’s engagement.
When encouraged to reflect on the overall impact of the works in this show, the artist acknowledges ‘a new force, a new sense of direction which is totally me. I am less concerned about other people and their influence, and more concerned to make a personal statement that comes from deep within. Age and maturity facilitate this new confidence’.
In the seascapes Canning grapples to embrace the vast a nd primeval energies generated in the meeting of coast and sea, land and sky. Favoured locations include Prussia Cove, Kynance Cove, Praa Sands and Mullion. ‘These magical places are so dramatic, they actually take you out of yourself’. In addition to his visceral interaction with the physicality of place Canning is constantly striving to record the unique spirit of each location.
Atmospheres (oil on canvas) is an arresting image with a strong off-centre composition. One can detect a finely balanced composition of cliffs, sea and horizon. The collision of colour, texture and vista evokes countless personal memories of other coastlines. There is an interesting contrast between the looseness of the main visual components and the axis structure that locks the elements together.
Canning’s cityscapes owe much to the impact of his first visit to Hong Kong. He was captivated by the city’s raucous energy and its endless repertoire of smells, sounds, and visual overload. Offering an extreme contrast to the rhythms of his life in Cornwall he took some time to discover an appropriate visual response to the clatter of a 24/7 city. His views from Hong Kong harbour, combined with aerial views of the city, produced a series of large paintings that really challenge and stretch the viewer’s field of vision. With extravagant gestural marks, made by palette knife, these human-scale canvases impress with their intense physicality and their ability to embrace the viewer.
By contrast, a smaller work like HK – Early Evening (mixed media on panel) reveals how the frenzied activities at street level are dwarfed by the shiny grandeur of the glistening architecture. The limited colour palette, combined with the strict discipline of the composition, contribute to an image of raw and dynamic beauty. It provides a moment of reflection amidst the endless pursuit of commerce and pleasure.
Canning freely acknowledges the rare privilege of being a full-time painter. He has an abundance of energy and belief – there are many ideas and projects simmering below the surface. He enjoys searching for something new, something unexpected. It may be a lonely journey fuelled by creative insecurities, but it is one he enjoys. ‘I work every day. Painting takes over more and more of my time’.
We can confidently look forward to evermore exciting and innovative work from this impressive and dedicated artist.