Catalogue introduction to Solo Show: 60 Degrees North, Cadogan Contemporary Gallery
BRIAN FALLON, 2013
Chief Critic of The Irish Times for 35 years and Literary Editor (1977 -1988)
JANETTE KERR, in my estimation, is the best painter of the sea in these islands, and I say this with no risk of hyperbole. She is not a “marine painter” in the traditional sense - a very honourable tradition too, running from the eighteenth century on to men such as Clarkson Stanfield, Napier Hemy and William Wyllie, and producing in the twentieth a major figure in Montague Dawson. Many or most of these painters were sailors, or at least ardent yachtsmen; Turner, too, intimately knew the sea as seen and felt from the swaying deck of a boat. Janette Kerr has tended to paint more from the shore - very often a rocky or precipitous shore, and from a vantage point which may become an actual danger zone in stormy weather. However, she does not shun the open sea and has developed an intense, even scientific interest in wave formation , studying it at first hand and consulting with professional oceanographers on the subject.
Only by submitting herself directly to the elements can she fully experience the reality of wind and waves, and capture accurately, but freely, the colours and tumult and sheer energy unleashed . She has even described herself as a “foul-weather painter’’. Her present exhibition is deeply influenced by a stay in the Shetlands, which are treeless and windswept and subject to very rapid, abrupt changes of weather – sometimes as many as four inside a single day. It is, she says, “one of the highest wave-energy environments in the world.” She made drawings out at sea, but also was fascinated by the landscape - the ruins clustered along the shoreline, long-disused, stone-lined places where boats were drawn up above the waterline, abandoned and roofless dwellings, stone walls with empty windows staring out to sea ‘’testament not only to the migration of people , but also to loss of life and the uncontrollable nature of the sea. I cannot but be aware of this as I stride along the cliffs and clamber and crouch on rocks, staring out to sea as I draw and paint.”
Janette Kerr is not a realist, nor is she an abstractionist, but goes her own individual way between them. As a rule, there are few directly recognisable details in her pictures, almost no people and few houses even, yet it is all observed or experienced at first hand, and nothing is slurred over by gestures or showy brushwork. She grew up in a generation of artists who knew abstract painting familiarly and were able to make their own accommodation with it. They did not despise subject matter but they found that it could be conveyed most tellingly not through description, but through the medium of concentrated visual images.
One of her greatest assets is the quality of her brushwork, which is as free as an Abstract Expressionist’s; it is dynamic and suggestive, and has an organic life of its own. Her formats vary a good deal – some have a basic, sea-and-sky divide with a rudimentary horizon line, while others tilt almost giddily into steep diagonals. And she is capable of conveying a sense of inexorable, upward motion, the rhythm of a big wave rising higher and still higher until it threatens anything - shore, rocks, houses, boats - which gets in its way.
However, I should not exaggerate or harp on a single string. She has painted calm seas as well as wild ones, even “straight” landscapes when she is in the mood. Yet it is in the foamier sea paintings that she seems most herself, in a lineal descent from Turner and Francis Danby or even, in some respects, the great Peter Lanyon. In that sense she is a Romantic artist, though with an added quality of modern awareness. She herself has defined her own special area: “It is the periphery of the land that I am drawn to – the far edges of a place - margins between land and sea which blur with the ebb and flow of tides; areas that feel remote and uninhabited, which seem touched more by the erosion of land - the action of wind and rain – than by human occupation.”
BRIAN FALLON, 2013
'A profound understanding of the power of nature'
2014 catalogue essay for solo show 'Meteorological Musings', Cadogan Contemporary Gallery
Professor Paul Gough, Melbourne, Australia
‘My paintings’, writes Janette Kerr, ‘represent immediate responses to sound and silences within the landscape around me; they are about movement and the rhythms of sea and wind, swelling and breaking waves, the merging of spray with air, advancing rain and mist, glancing sunlight - elements that seem to be about something intangible.’ Few contemporary artists have so deftly summarised the essentials of their art. Kerr renders the immaterial tangible. She does so with maximum intensity. Her recent suite of paintings is robust, physical, strong-willed. Vigorously painted, seething with sustained energy the brushwork is dynamic and evocative, but always rooted ineffably in the visceral experience of nature at its most raw.
A self-confessed ‘foul weather painter’ Kerr has become renowned for her approach to the plein-air. In all weathers, in every season she can be seen perched on cliff-tops at the furthest tip of the British Isles, her canvases weighed down against the elements, the painter staring out into the heaving tides and exploding surf. But these recent paintings also incorporate her recent sea voyages and collaborations with Scandinavian scientists. Absorbing their theories on extreme wave formation she has created a steady stream of powerful images, calmer seas as well as wild ones. Her blog records these fresh insights:
Heading north from Ålesund, the sun behind us, the sea is still incredibly calm, light travelling softly across its surface. A dark dull greenish hue, gentle undulations cross its surface, no breaking waves to be seen, not even along the shoreline. Either side of the ship lie dark rocky cliff faces, the tops covered with a dusting of snow. Warm in the sun, the temperature is still 0° in the shade.
Attentive and alert, Kerr has an intimate understanding of the sea honed by long weeks of studious observation. Her repertoire is remarkable. One of her greatest assets as a painter, writes the Irish critic Brian Fallon of a previous exhibition, is the inventive quality of the brushwork, ‘it is dynamic and suggestive, and has an organic life of its own.’ This is so true. Her current exhibition is further proof of an extending vocabulary of pictorial design and gesture. Sometimes in looking at her paintings we can orientate ourselves, we can detect an horizon; in others all sense of normal order has been abandoned, the picture plane tilts and shudders, cloud has become crest of a vast wave, sunlight seems to burgeon from the depth of the waters not from above. To be absorbed by these new paintings is to be thrillingly overwhelmed by a lust for the language and possibility of pure painting. But it is a language tempered always by a keen knowledge of nature, a profound understanding of its power and resilience.
Professor Paul Gough