David Blackburn’s Lyrical Landscape Visions
On the 22nd of June 1939, artist David Blackburn was born in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire and continues working in the north of England. His art is visually and technically unusual for our times. Good art features a clearly recognizable visual signature, something unique, inviting and thrilling for the eye – something that is never monotonous or manufactured in commercialised series. A good artist is a generous artist, willing to transfer as much of his spiritual self through the work to the viewer, who thereby leaves the gallery enriched. All these qualities apply to David Blackburn. His visions teach us how to conjure up the world as an ideal; they bring out the best in us. His pastels prompt us to use our imagination and at the same time they guide us through the process of exploring it to its full potential. Every piece is a trip with a surprise destination. Every drawing Blackburn finishes becomes a mental journey. His works are well-formed entities, with a beginning and an end, encapsulating a whole world in themselves. During this itinerary, we have the opportunity to explore a multitude of viewpoints of the same subject and learn about its polysemy. The minute we step into Blackburn’s landscapes, they become inscapes of our own.
We can easily realise when we are looking at Blackburns. Thanks to the rare medium of pastel, the typical vocabulary is fresh and very personalised. Even though the artist pays tribute to a multitude of predecessors, such as Claude, Blake, Palmer, Klee, Tanguy, Nash, Sutherland, Diebenkorn, The Australians Williams and Nolan, Prunella Clough the works that carry references from other artists, other times and places, are so recast by the artist that they are his. Blackburn explains the way his vocabulary developed: “In the first ten years, you see the world not through your eyes, but through the eyes of other painters. You are picking all the bits that fit and trying to merge them into your work. All the time you are adding new ingredients to the stew, until you get your own recipe.” (Imola Antal: Interview with David Blackburn, September 2001, Canterbury).
David Blackburn is a valuable exponent of the lyrical orientation in British landscape painting. His balanced visions in shiny, luminous colour are the result of years of chromatic experimentation and of overworking the rigorous underlying structure. It is uplifting to discover an artist whose work provides both great visual satisfaction and is perfectly bound from a formal point of view. Blackburn points out: “I think young artists nowadays should learn drawing first; it is a bit like learning grammar in order to write.” There is no way of learning the polysemy of a language without mastering its grammar first. For one will soon discover that freedom of interpretation is the essence of Blackburn’s work. As critic Sasha Grishin put it, our artist is the perfect ‘master of metamorphosis’. His pictures seem to alter in front of our very eyes, taking up new meanings every time we return to look at them.
There is no visible reference to nature except perhaps the titles. To us, they seem to be more like dream projections of a fanciful nature. The artist himself confirms their ambiguous quality: “They are inner visions, in a way. The black shapes are black walls, the landscape of the north. The shapes might suggest elements of the real world, but they are also shapes in themselves. As soon as you ask yourself ‘What is it?’, you are lost. It’s like the difference between poetry and prose. The first time you read a piece of poetry perhaps you look for meaning. The second time maybe you are looking at the way it has been constructed, the rhythm, maybe you are listening to the music, the sound of the words; then it comes back to the ambiguity that the meaning isn’t precisely the way it has been built.”
It was the Jewish-Austrian Expressionist artist Gerhard Frankl who in 1962 kindled his life-time love affair with pastels. The soft effects in the latter’s depiction of the Eastern Alps left a lasting impression on young Blackburn’s budding visual vocabulary: “I’d never seen pastel used to produce such intensity and depth of colour. It had an extraordinary looseness and freedom, which suggested huge spaces, shimmering light and a feeling of cold. I found it a revelation.” (Charlotte Mullins: David Blackburn: The Sublime Landscape, Hart Gallery, London and Nottingham, 2002).
Whereas other landscapists in the Cézannian tradition begin from a mental image of recognizable reality which they try to synthesise, Blackburn starts with the shapes themselves. Just like Klee, he claims to have an internalised sense of place. The landscape is first a dream, and as it transpires from within, it is organised into some discernible structure. That is why the finished product is such a personalised, intimate piece of imagery and hence it is so difficult to box either of these artists into a well-determined trend or as belonging to a specific pictorial tradition.