These are paintings of great sincerity and refinement. White paper is stretched over board, sized and primed, and then the search begins to find the image. Care is taken to avoid becoming too figurative, as if recalling a long since forgotten moment, a vision blurred with the passage of time. Perhaps a view from childhood. A distant memory evoked just as the dark closes in. A delicate membrane illuminated with light years of paint. It was Easter Sunday, day of resurrection, when I came to visit.
We had been showing Susan Foord’s work for years but strangely we’d never met. Paintings would arrive by courier. But since I was in Bristol it seemed like a good opportunity to introduce myself. I think perhaps I was early and took her by surprise, but she was gracious and welcoming, and frankly I was amazed. Susan’s house has many floors with many rooms and all the walls seemed to be built of paintings. It’s a house of paintings. Framed pictures stacked on top of each other from the floor up, each one like a brick in a wall of pictures. Cabinets of precious artefacts. And I was invited to choose!
It was the work of a lifetime, there was delicacy and melancholy, moments of joy and fading beauty. The more recent paintings seemed the less visible, overwhelmed by light. We talked about framing and I suggested they might be glazed with non-reflective glass, a suggestion met with an indifferent response. Reflections are a good thing, the image has to be looked for, the world is a hidden place.
Then later, just as I was about to publish this blogpost I received an email from Susan with an essay about her work written by Derek Balmer, Past President of the Royal West of England Academy, that I might like to quote from. But it’s such a beautiful and perceptive piece of writing that it would be a shame not to include all of it. So here it is.
Painters have a different view of the world than most mortals and as one of Susan Foord’s fraternity I recognise the unique quality of her vision and the very special paintings that materialise from it.
The images that she creates are an oblique glance; a suggestion or an indication of a secret place that she alone is aware of. Somewhere, elsewhere, there is this place of which only Foord has knowledge or has half seen or remembered or would one day visit. An echo of a half forgotten dream that is extraordinary and magical. These small intense precious objects allow us to share her private world of contemplation and peace. And sometimes too we can feel disturbed by their ethereal mystery.
To think that Foord’s work has charm is to miss the point, for charm suggests superficiality and there is nothing remotely superficial about these paintings. Nor are they pretty, although I am sure that to some the words pretty or decorative would come to mind. No, they are much more than that for behind the initial ambiguity there emerges through the scratchy layers of glazes and blobs and smears an absence of trickery or knowingness. Each painting reflects the struggle to hang on to the essential truth and as the image emerges through those layers of doubt and effort so their unique character is born.
These paintings are tough and in spite of their small scale will stand in comparison with those many times their size for whilst paintings that fill the full width of our vision can command our attention, so these, more importantly, earn our respect.
The process of making these beautiful and subtle paintings owes much to a basic ritual attention to detail. First, heavy paper is soaked and stretched upon a wooden board and allowed to dry. Then searching haphazard marks are made as the artist feels her way through those initial tentative skirmishes in establishing a base from which to advance. Before long a border becomes necessary, a need to contain and to hold, to intensify the developing statement. Usually the border is square, dark and wide, a deep frame to look through and beyond. This need is paramount to an unexplainable security that reflects a particular idiosyncrasy of this painter. The massive border is then held by a delicate box frame and contained by glass that both protects and is elusive. The onlooker is allowed to get close but not too close; is constrained to keep their distance.
The mysterious iconography of the eventual finished painting is searched for, found, slips away and is regained as the painter finally exercises her control. The paint is smeared and scratched, rubbed and scraped until gradually a recognisable harmony of form and colour is established. No literal connotations are sought but the most casual drip of paint, the most arbitrary swipe of congealed pigment will unwittingly produce a reference to known objects – a submerged boat, a flag, a sail, a leaf, a parasol, a crushed flower, or an isolated pole standing high on an empty beach. Or maybe we see a coloured diagramme for a piece of complicated machinery or a gentle referral to Japanese inro lacquer work.
No matter. Whatever our particular need may be to anchor or identify our reactions, these paintings will continue to float and shimmer and tease. They do not have to explain or be reasoned with. They are to be enjoyed and treated as precious objects.
In admiring these paintings one is aware of a discipline that rejects and simplifies all that is inessential or frivolous. Although some may appear to show a bleak and isolated landscape devoid of animation they are stark in their truth and courageous in their subtraction. These paintings do not trumpet an effect through brash muscularity but rather they quietly establish their authority through an iron will of honesty and sincerity.
Derek Balmer, PRWA, Hon.RA
Six paintings by Susan Foord in the window of The Rowley Gallery throughout July
together with six embroideries by Selina Carr.