By Amanda Knight

At the end of July, four Sussex artists collaborated to create a unique and dynamic exhibition: Pushing Boundaries at Hastings Art Forum, a focused bid to raise the profile of contemporary watercolour painting.  Over two years in discussion and development, Artist Susan Miller led this incentive to look at watercolour with fresh eyes, selecting accomplished co-exhibitors whose work presents the medium at its leading edge.

Alleluia by Sue Miller

A confident and inviting show, the gallery experience also feels like a very personal experience as one enters.  Clusters of work are eye-catching and help to establish the presence of each of the four artists. My eyes dart in all directions, and I understand a journeying decision is to be made as I move into the space.

I am drawn to Tanglewood 1 by Christine Forbes, a work that is almost calligraphic, skittering lines playing out against pristine paper; inky-black branches catch the light with accents of red and ochre. A subtle pathway leads the eye in, the tangled and keenly observed tree canopy drawing the eye upwards. Forbes’ work is, in her words, “all about drawing”.  Fascinated by the untidiness of nature, she sees in the natural world an unruly counterpoint to over-organized modern society. 

Red Hot Pokers (Talking Heads) by Christine Forbes

Susan Miller demonstrates her versatility and knowledge of the medium, with several inventive series of works. Large-scale textural watercolours on canvas are light, meditative and immersive; smaller, lyrical abstracts in the Passia series, darker and more conceptual in origin.  In Alleluia we discern “a partially eclipsed figure”, an illuminated protector emerging within arching brushstrokes.  Susan tells us it is the fastest painting she has completed and she remains personally compelled by it. Alleluia forms part of a series of 17 abstract watercolours, Releasing the Feminine, based on Miller’s Residency at the Pugin Chapel, St Leonards in 2019.

Aspidistra by Jan Irvine

In a room where landscape and abstract themes prevail, I meet several visitors, including Patrick Glass for whom Jan Irvine’s Matisse-inspired figures are nothing short of “superb. Both intricate and minimal, Irvine’s line work and joie de vivre is compelling and masterful.  Irvine describes how at an early age she made a bee-line for the portraits when visiting art galleries. In turn, Irvine’s sureness of touch has a pleasing insistence, a hook to which I found myself returning, and a reminder of the summary at the heart of a rigorous medium. 

Lucy Marks’ South Coast landscapes certainly give us the ‘water’ in watercolour – epic skies made from melting blue washes have a captivating density. Palette tones described by an admiring viewer as “sober” are indeed rich and swarthy –  fast, decisive brush work telling us what we need to know about the elements.   Retracing the footsteps of Constable’s South Coast walks, Marks is a contemporary advocate of ‘plein air’ painting.  Taking a small pack-up easel she works outside in all weathers, making colour studies and sketches for development at her studio.

One of Lucy Marks’s South Coast landscapes

On leaving this buzzing show I am left with a strong sense of authentic enquiry, artistic commitment and accomplishment. Has it made me re-question any lack of stature faced by such a demanding and visually enticing medium? Yes certainly. It’s refreshing to attend an exhibition where there is an underlying mission to raise up a particular tradition to establish the parity it deserves. Has it made me want to get my watercolours out? Yes absolutely!

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