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Catalogue introduction to Solo Show: 60 Degrees North, Cadogan Contemporary Gallery


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.” 



'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

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