Behind the modest brick façade of a terraced house in East Oxford there lies a small art gallery carved out from the owner’s home in what was once the family sitting room. Now, this serene, light bay-windowed room is a contemporary art space, showing a rolling programme of exhibitions.
The latest exhibition at the Irving Gallery is ASCENT, a show of mountain imagery in painting and prints by five artists: Sarah Duncan, Serena Curmi, Hanneke van Ryswyk, David Begley, and Anna Francis.
These mountain-inspired artworks take on a particular poignancy in the context of the recent lockdown and social isolation from which we are emerging, when wanderlust could only be satisfied vicariously and art offered an escape to places we could only visualise but not visit.
The exhibition is showing new etchings by Bristol-based artist Sarah Duncan, not yet exhibited elsewhere, including the monumental prints ‘Tutoko’ and ‘Kopaka’, recalling a past trip to New Zealand, and ‘Alda’ and ‘Volta’, developed following an artist residency in Iceland.
Alongside Sarah’s remarkable etchings, the gallery is showing two original drawings of the Alps: ‘Precipice’ and ‘Ascent’.
Both drawings are incredible works of monochromatic beauty, patiently made with thousands of tiny dots of ink in a process which Sarah has described as bordering on the meditative.
The painstaking technique encourages you to approach and look at the drawings closely, at which point the image evaporates into an abstracted pattern of dots and areas of light and dark tones, and only by stepping back again from the drawing do we refocus and experience the image as a majestic whole.
Another printmaker working in Bristol, Anna Francis’s one-off, experimental screen prints of Scafell Pike and Snowdon, the highest peaks of England and Wales respectively, depict the delicate and detailed contour lines mapping the mountain against an abstract background, offering a cartographic perspective on the mountain theme.
Hanneke van Ryswyk, who lives and works on the Irish coast, in County Wexford, has five small paintings in the show, each rich in colour and atmosphere. Hanneke paints imagined lands and seas, with an abstracted aesthetic and sensitivity; the resulting paintings are quiet, alluring works.
‘Night Visions 14’ glows with warm light, and peering through the polished surface, developed from layers of acrylic and pigment on gessoed wood panel, one gets a sense of looking back through time to a moment which might be yesterday, last year, or 400 years ago. In ‘Mynydd y Môr 2’, the mountain is captured, silent and apparently immutable, though vulnerable to the effects of climate change that Hanneke acknowledges as an ongoing theme and context for her work.
Irish author and artist David Begley is showing eight small monotypes, most of which measure only 10.5 x 15 cm, and yet there is so much movement and drama of light and inky darkness within these small prints. His curious, enigmatic print ‘Beneath the Mountain’ is a powerful image, with the figure of the artist rearing out of the mountain, seeming to embody its power or spirit.
Bristol artist Serena Curmi’s quiet, almost monochromatic landscape paintings are inspired by wild and dramatic settings that invoke feelings of both awe and humility. In ‘Bitter Rock’, the crisp whiteness of the snow reveals the form and crevices of the rock below, while ‘Frost Peaks’ uses layers of oil paint and resin to create a convincing depth to this icy mountain landscape. Like many works in this exhibition, these are small paintings which evoke a great sense of open space.
Serena’s painting ‘Uncharted’ is at the heart of this exhibition, hanging on the chimney breast wall. It is an immediately striking image, the majestic mountains rising above a lake surrounded by dark trees, and as you look closer into the painting, you realise that this image is conjured up with passages of painting that are almost abstract.
It is a wonderful painting which dances between being both descriptive and highly suggestive of the vast wilderness it portrays. Serena’s paintings reference images of historical exploration, and that feeling of a wilderness newly discovered but as yet uncharted is captured here, in this spectacular landscape which exists somewhere between nature and the imagination.
ASCENT continues at the Irving Gallery until 8th August (online until 5th September).
To find out more and check opening hours, go to www.irvinggallery.com