Portland Gallery

2009 installation

From the beginning of his career Neil Canning has being a landscape painter, but the meaning of the word ‘landscape’ in his work has changed and developed, until now his paintings can truly be described as ‘landscapes of the mind’, being a blend of memory and observation. His early training in drawing rooted him in reality and he drew and painted the world around him as he saw it, first in his native Oxfordshire and later in Wales, where his so far unrealized desire to be an abstract painter gradually came into being. The dramatic landscape and turbulent weather moved him to employ more energetic brushwork, causing his traditional landscape paintings to mutate into abstractions. Realizing that painting the sea and coast would be his true métier and, discontented with his landlocked condition, he started visiting St Ives and eventually moved there, which was, he says, ”the best thing I ever did”.

He had concurrently been looking at the work of other abstract painters who had already made St Ives their home, in particular Patrick Heron whose home at Zennor was a floral paradise, and Peter Lanyon, many of whose paintings were motivated by gliding over the coastal landscape. After he settled in St Ives Canning’s paintings became a paradigm of Cornwall’s rock formations and it’s sea-borne wind and weather, inspired by the energy of the place itself.

During the last eighteen months there has been a discernable shift in Canning’s approach to his paintings, which now contain more emotional constant and depth of feeling, although the balance between abstract passages and direct response to the landscape has been maintained. Until recently he made drawings or notations when out in the landscape but with the paintings in the present exhibition he has made virtually no notes at all and relied on memory and the emotions generated by those memories. A year or more may pass before he is ready to mine the depth of the experience, the process characterized by Wordsworth as ‘emotion recollected in tranquility’.

Canning’s studio in St Ives is flooded with light from the Atlantic, a crucial factor in the creation of his luminous paintings. The majestic West Coaster, some 5×7 feet is an embodiment of the great crashing breakers rolling in from the Atlantic and the green sweep of the bay. The broken circle which appears in so many of the paintings can represent a multitude of natural shapes such as boulders, flowers, curling wave forms, the sun or indeed the globe of the earth itself. The painted circle takes solid form in the works on a circular support such as Fistral Beach, in which the elements of earth, sky and sea are all there but where are they in relation to each other? And where is the sense of gravity? The effect is to bounce the eye around, uncertain where to focus. In Sea Fire, also tondo-shaped the rush of incandescent red hurtles upwards into space like a rocket, reflecting Canning’s recent experience of the Florida coast, where he saw spectacular sunsets and paid a seminal visit to Cape Canaveral. It is no coincidence that a blaze of orange and lilac, tempered with white exploding into a deep blue sky, is titled Apollo.

Mary Rose Beaumont