Philip Guston: Late Paintings at Inverleith House

The Festival exhibition at Inverleith House (the erstwhile Gallery of Modern Art, but you’re showing your age if you remember that) is Philip Guston’s Late Paintings.

The exhibition, the first ever of his work in a Scottish museum, shows nine major paintings by the Canadian born but American-raised Guston (1913-1980).

Guston, of Ukrainian Jewish origin, was raised in California and was fully aware, in his youth, of the Klu Klax Klan’s anti-semitic and racist activities.  He also suffered the suicide of his father.

Guston grew up inLos Angeles and became a mural painter.  He was drawn to the paintings of the Italian Renaissance Masters (della Francesca and Ucello, for example) but also to modern surrealism.  At one point he travelled to Mexico where he was intimately involved in the work of the political artists including Diego Rivera and Frieda Kahlo.

In the pure, superbly lit setting of Inverleith House, Guston’s abstract impressionism hits the viewer’s consciousness a blow to the solar plexus.

In content, colour and imagery, these muscular works take away the breath.  All nine paintings reflect a man who states plainly that his approach was to look and to paint, not to think but to paint for eight or nine hours on end.  Pent-up energy and intellect are released and revealed in objects of a thickness and a solidity which invite marvel.

The implicit threat in Guston’s work is partly a function of colour.  All nine of the pictures contain major areas of four stark and contrasting colours, pink, black, white and grey.  Some have only these colours; others are relieved by the occasional use of other, usually stronger colours.

One of his recurring leitmotifs is the Klu Klux Klan figure, the hooded man.  Guston states that these are only based on Klu Klax Klansmen.  They are symbols rather than literal representations but, but for all their cartoonish nature, they are symbols of a vain, arrogant power.  In Riding Around(1969), three KKK figures, two of them smoking, are riding in a black car against a grey sky with a red building in the background.  There is no violent content in the painting but the overall impression could barely be less threatening.

In The Studio (1969), a hooded KKK artist, cigarette in hand, is painting a self-portrait.  The white hooded figure stands against pink and black but the whole scene is sharpened by small items (paint, brushes) in green, yellow and orange.

Perhaps the most striking piece of all is The Line (1978).  A rough but muscular hand and pencil emerge from blue and white clouds.  Mythic, threatening, prophetic, apocalyptic: the pencil is drawing a thick black line on a red floor.  The line has been drawn.  The judgements will be made.  Guston speaks truth to power and arrogance and insists with muscular confidence that these forces will be confronted.  His is neither a neat nor a warm view of the world but it is an optimistic one.

 

The above article was first published in Lothian Life on 29 August 2012: http://www.lothianlife.co.uk/2012/08/philip-guston-late-paintings-at-inverleith-house/

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