REVIEW: John Virtue paintings at the White Horse Gallery - energy, immediacy, confidence…and scale

Written by Vincent Stokes on .

In 1960, the Abstract Expressionist painter Willem de Kooning produced a work he called Door to the River. For some reason, it’s a work that I’ve always envied; a work I wished I had been able to paint. I love the energy, apparent immediacy, confidence and scale of the piece. I also think it’s a great title.

These same qualities – energy, immediacy, confidence and scale are abundantly present in the work of John Virtue. An excellent selection of his work - titled London.Italy.Norfolk - is currently on show at The White Horse Gallery, Marlborough. This intelligently hung exhibition presents us with a rare opportunity to ‘get up close and personal’ with big, bold paintings. What do I mean by that?

John Virtue is a nationally-acclaimed artist. When paintings by such artists are exhibited it is customary to be required to maintain a respectful distance from the work: “Don’t come too close. And certainly don’t touch!” 

This directive is entirely valid. Touching works of art risks damage. Even large, gutsy works are fragile. 

Nonetheless, the White Horse show invites a close-up viewing of three of Virtue’s large works, as well as a number of smaller pieces. Get within an arm’s length of the sizeable ones (but please don’t touch) and you feel as though you could climb into them. Their scale envelopes our field of vision.

Expressive, energetic paintings like this often risk falling foul of comments such as: “Well, that didn’t take long to do. It’s so slap-dash”.  Paint is slippy-slidey stuff - it can behave like an unruly pet. Controlling it without preventing it from enjoying the freedom it sometimes demands, is an acquired skill. 

Paintings like these also require a degree of patience on the part of the observer. In the work of a skilled artist what can initially seem like a mess will, given a little time, reveal things not immediately seen. 

Viewed from across the room these pictures are one thing. Viewed close-up they are something else. Here one is engaged with the spatter, dribble, spray, brushmark, clothmark, wipe, change of direction, delicacy of edge … 

This is to experience the magical transformation as a swipe of paint becomes a veil of snow blown from a mountain peak - or the distant sea horizon at the last light of day - or a flash of light reflected off the city river.

This is an exhibition to savour. An opportunity to spend some quiet time with work of quality and depth. Don’t miss it.

The exhibition remains at the White Horse Gallery until 15 February 2019 - it is open during shop hours and entry is free.