Lesley Birch discusses the work of Ray Fearn, a highly respected York-based painter and colourist, who passed away earlier this year. According to McGee, York, currently presents a rich collection of his paintings.
Ray Fearn’s landscape paintings are arresting. Executed in oil, using blinding, exciting colour, they invite us to delve deeper into their possible hidden symbolic meanings. The viewer is struck by vermilion, pink, acid yellow and bright orange skies, stonework, pools, arches, bones, tangled roots, gliders, topiary, plants and hedges. Ray’s drawing, colour and use of perspective reveal his admirable technical expertise and his absolute joy in painting.
Skies range from a flat rose pink in ‘Amarylis, Lotherton Hall’ to a blinding acid yellow in ‘Forest of Dean’. He embraces colour complementaries with gusto and the viewer enjoys this playful attack on the visual senses. A later oil painting, ‘Arch in a Wood’, reveals Fearn’s pleasure for tackling negative spaces and tangled forms. The sense of looking through and beyond a focal point and being blocked appears here as it does in ‘Amarylis, Lotherton Hall’.
Looking through and looking on are key themes in Fearn’s work. If you examine ‘Forest of Dean’ carefully, you see two gliders and a bird of prey circling the landscape. This circle motif is echoed below in the river, the composition carefully balanced. Again, the artist has control, looking down on his subject and forcing us to do the same.
‘Horn Dancers’ depicts men in costume dancing, yet they seem so still. They remind me of English Morris dancers, but this is not so, as they carry horns close to their hidden faces. There is a strange atmosphere in the orange sky, pink ground and bright blue shadows. The twists of bonehorn continue Ray’s motif of entanglement and the mischief continues.
A feature in this exhibition for me is a sense of Ray’s presence looking at his subject, but also forcing us to look too. You feel the artist is not only playing with colour and shapes, but playing with his viewer. There is a clear sense of stillness and mischief. The artist is simply looking, so the viewer does too.
‘Mausoleum’ initially presents a twisted Yorkshire hedgerow, recently clipped, so perfectly that the eye sees it running horizontally with the yellow rape field behind. The painting is constructed of horizontal lines expertly executed in careful tones and the eye is forced to move upwards to the horizon. Here stands an ominous structure, humorously phallic-like – the mausoleum of the title – defiantly presenting itself to us. And this is where the viewer’s eye stops. The end. There is a sense of mockery about it.
Looking occurs again in ‘Amarylis’, where just as the artist is looking, the object of the painting, the plant itself, seems to stare out at us with its stamen blatantly waiting to be pollinated. We are then led behind to two twisted topiary structures and we follow a path through an opening between two hedges, only to be blocked by another hedge on the horizon. The end again. The choices of colour expertly unite the painting with the warm orange moon on a radiant pinky-peachy sky and the warm red of the amarylis in the foreground. A strong sense of perspective allows Fearn to play with shadows and twists and turns, controlling us in our journey through the painting. This is a master of technique.
‘Coldingham’ is one of the largest paintings. Again the viewer looks and is looked at, this time by little stone faces watching us, mocking us? Fearn is playing with us again. It’s all a bit of a joke. The painterly skill in the starkness of the stone with circles, holes and crosses suggests a sort of banal humour in everything.
The show also features early abstracted pieces which give a nod to Ray’s later use of colour, but a special highlight is a previously unseen set of self-portraits which form the initial building blocks for Fearn’s seminal piece ‘The Damned’. This important painting is currently under restoration for a 2015 appearance at Halifax’s widely celebrated Dean Clough. Critical interest in this painting is highly anticipated with Ray’s reputation set to strengthen accordingly.
Ray Fearn: New Visuality runs until September 29th at According to McGee, 8 Tower St, York.