fri 28/02/2020

Leon Kossoff, New Works, Annely Juda Fine Art | reviews, news & interviews

Leon Kossoff, New Works, Annely Juda Fine Art

Leon Kossoff, New Works, Annely Juda Fine Art

A rare exhibition teaches us to look, and then look again

Kossoff has long been known for his paintings of architecture – Christ Church, Spitalfields (main picture, above) and the Kilburn tube station - or railway sidings, or building sites, using repeated visits, repeated canvases to create a way of depicting not merely changing light but changing moods and emotions. His long love affair with the Old Masters, humble yet challenging, paying homage yet daring them on, was beautifully displayed in the National Gallery’s exhibition of his drawings in 2007. Now, in his first solo painting show in nearly a decade, we can trace how old friends have fared, in portraits of his long-term model Fidelma and others, and also in more architecture, with three new paintings of Christ Church.

These are welcome more than as old friends, however. Yet again, Kossoff has enabled us to "look new", to see what we couldn’t see without his help. Kossoff only turned to Christ Church in 1985, when he was already 59, and, interestingly enough, after a literary rather than a visual introduction –  reading Peter Ackroyd’s novel Hawksmoor. Since then he has painted the building dozens of times, partly as a valedictory act, an awareness that time is short, that soon the building will be ever-more fenced in by office blocks, by loomingly unsympathetic structures. But whatever the impetus, the result is more about the building, less about time, about a great, monumental soaring into space: the movement up and out is what captures his imagination, and in these images, what captures ours.

Here the thick grey-green tones soon separate, give way and permit us to see the building as a building of light, of day, of passing moods: on one, a tiny line of red on the church tower transforms the earth-toned palette into one of inner radiance; on another, it is a surface dribble of yellowy white, a graphic decorative line that has nothing to do with the structure depicted behind, but a line that nevertheless permits that structure to breathe.

Kossoff_Cherry_Tree_springAnd then there are the cherry trees (Cherry Tree, Winter, 2006-7, pictured left). Say "Kossoff", and "nature" is not the first word that springs to mind. Yet somehow neither are these new images surprising: Kossoff has long been interested in very traditional subjects for both his paintings and drawings – the National Gallery show, after all, was in effect an entire show of 19th-century subjects re-imagined by a 21st-century eye: views of London, the urban space that so fascinated the Impressionists, or before them, Turner. Kossoff’s repeated views of the single tree are a record of looking as it takes place, and how each look changes through time.

Kossoff_Cherry_Tree_drawingBut these are Kossoffian trees: while they are clearly trees that he has seen - indeed each one is clearly an individual tree he has observed closely - they are not "about" anything, they are merely themselves. Elderly, held up by crutches, braced against the weather and time itself, they persevere in their urban settings, growing older but growing, surviving (Cherry Tree, Autumn, 2002, pictured right). These are not orchard trees, but city-garden trees: there is one drawing of a tree with a tube train passing; another is entitled Cherry Tree, with Diesel, just to make sure we get the point.

So much of contemporary art, by showing us everything, doesn’t in fact expect us to give much back, in time or attention. Kossoff’s work teaches the value of attention. In these paintings, as in all Kossoff’s subjects, he teaches us the difference between looking and experiencing, and between looking, and looking again.

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