[Metroactive Arts]

[ Arts Index | Metro | Metroactive Central | Archives ]

On His High Horses

Big Brown Dog
Canine Canvas: Basil Blackshaw's 1988 "Big Brown Dog" displays his ability to strip animals down to the essence of their form.

External form gives way to internal essence in the paintings of Basil Blackshaw

By Ann Elliott Sherman

FOR THE NEXT few months, the San Jose Museum of Art will no doubt be responsible for a sharp rise in city parking revenues, as visitors drawn in by one show discover three others that beckon. (Even a quick dash to the john downstairs is impossible, as Nigel Poor's darkly sensual photographs will likely seduce the attention of anyone on the way in or out.)

Myself, I was curious to see why the much-traveled Dubliner poet Paul Durcan named Ulster painter Basil Blackshaw (who, not surprisingly, Britain wants to claim as its own) as the poet he'd emulate "to learn how to mix / Defiance and caution / In equal proportion."

The Blackshaw retrospective flanks the exhibition of Deborah Butterfield's equine sculptures (coupled with John Buck's sociopolitical woodblock prints and sculptures) in the upstairs galleries. An intimate familiarity with the line and form of horseflesh is evident in both the scrap-metal animism of Butterfield's pieces and in Blackshaw's decidedly unsentimental insider's appreciation of sporting horses.

Butterfield freely acknowledges that her graceful and evocative equines are a kind of self-portrait, but one imagines that Blackshaw would blanch at such an idea. A draftsman whose '70s canvases can rival Degas' in nailing the nuance and ritual of the racetrack, Blackshaw now prefers to strip his subjects past literal representation down to their essence in form, function and idiosyncrasy--to a sense of their place in the world.

In the painting Horse and Object II, Blackshaw composes with sure strokes a picture of a horse and some other thing in a hot hayfield nestled against distant hills, where each element is distinct, yet not.

Things merge with the surrounding charge of light like a mirage. What registers is more a sensation than any one image. Yet the work, with its rigorous brushwork and hazy washes, is as much about the physical act of putting paint on a canvas as it is about maintaining a taut pull among the horse in the foreground, the expanse of golden ochre that fills the center, and the horizon line drawn near the top of the canvas. That blue line echoes the blue of the mysterious object in the field and simultaneously suggests a cool expanse of water or shade just beyond the ridge.

Much is made of Blackshaw's rural lifestyle, but that isn't as much of a rarity (or privilege) in Northern Ireland as here in the United States. As a consequence, there's little of the view of the horse as a bridge between the natural and manmade worlds that, in part, informs Butterfield's found-object animals.

Unlike Butterfield's sculptures, which are imbued with reverence and archetypal power, Blackshaw's horses are working animals, painted with a more pragmatic understanding. Blackshaw's father was a horse breeder and trainer. It is work that the artist also did for a time professionally and still occasionally does, though now, as Blackshaw's model Jude Stevens puts it, to his local mates he is "a 'dog man' first and foremost ... a breeder or trainer of distinction," and just coincidentally a well-known painter.

Stevens also allows that Blackshaw takes pride in "what can only be described as 'hard' dogs, just as there are 'hard' men." It stands to reason, then, that Big Brown Dog has the wizened flanks and cloudy, limpet stare of an old spaniel, and that Lame Dog is a caved-in carcass of a terrier whose tentative stance calls out for the xylophone plinks of a cartoon soundtrack.

BLACKSHAW'S BLURRY Heads of Travellers series evinces a similar eye for the survivor. Whether the blonde with a smear of a mouth distinctly at odds with demure clothes or the profile of a weathered man with a porkpie hat set atop an unruly bush of yellow hair, the most defined aspect of each traveler is their eyes.

Never quite meeting ours, their eyes are slightly downcast and guarded, yet clearly canny and not missing a thing. All of Blackshaw's portraits, while divergent in style, remind us why people-watching can be so interesting.

Though it may seem odd for an artist surrounded by nature to paint Cardboard Flowers, the removal from the realm of the actual pulsates with an electric energy. It is as if having the plant form already analyzed and re-created had freed the artist to cut loose and plug into the pure charge of painting. The result is not really a still life so much as it is a spectral presence.

The Last Walk (Evening) perhaps best epitomizes how Blackshaw's strength of observation has come to be realized in pared-down figures, rich yet subtle washes of color jolted by patches of vivid hues, lusty brushwork and pictorial dynamics that encapsulate the thematic content.

The main figure is sketchily defined by an occasional emphasis of line denoting a hat brim, sleeve, cane. It's a ghost of a man, really. The effect is emphasized by his rendering in grays and whites undercast with the background washes of colors both earthy and bloody. A slight inclination gives him the barest forward motion, dramatically contrasting with his scampering dog, who runs ahead, barely contained within the canvas.

Across the top, the brushwork forms an arc that ends in gold. Whether a hill or the trajectory of a life burning out in a blaze of energy like a shooting star, this gesture gives us the sense that the end of a journey lies just ahead. Blackshaw himself is now 65, and his colors are going hotter and hotter. Simultaneously intense and calm, they supply as much unquenchable pleasure as you can stand. To borrow his words, "You never get there, you just keep on moving. It's important to keep on going." May the final stretch be a long one.

Basil Blackshaw and Two in Montana: Deborah Butterfield and John Buck run through May 25; Between the Elements: Photographs by Nigel Poor runs through May 11 at the San Jose Museum of Art, 110 S. Market St., San Jose. (408/271-6840)

[ Metro | Metroactive Central | Archives ]

From the March 20-26, 1997 issue of Metro

This page was designed and created by the Boulevards team.
Copyright © 1997 Metro Publishing, Inc.