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'Dangerous' Subjects for A Serious Painter

'DON'T think I'm ever the kind of painter who's going to do heroic themes, or social comment... ," says Scottish artist Elizabeth Blackadder.Some admirers of her work - and she has achieved one of those pervasive, persistently growing reputations in the art world that has nothing to do with publicity or trends - have mistaken the "intimate" and "domestic" subject matter of her paintings for the wrong sort of "unpretentiousness" or "modesty." She doesn't quite know what they mean by that. "Do they mean I am personally modest? Or that my work is?" I suggest there may, in fact, be a confusion there. "Well," she says (as we talk in the sitting room of the Victorian house in Edinburgh where she and her artist-husband, John Houston, live and work), "if it suggests you're not being adventurous or taking a risk ... I certainly hope that's not true. You're always taking a risk - even if it's not obvious. Each time you do something, you think you could really fall flat on your face." Here, one feels, is an artist both sure and not sure of herself. Was she pleased, I had asked on the phone, with her 60th-birthday show just set up at the Mercury Gallery in London? "We-e-ell... ," she replied somewhat tremulously. If she knows self-doubt, she is nevertheless, quite certain of her intuitions. It is getting far enough away from a painting to see it objectively, that sometimes she finds so difficult. The paradox of Blackadder's art is that it has a kind of daring and directness, and at times even a roughness, that is immediately there for all to see and yet is somehow belied by the appeal or charm of her subject matter. That subject matter is many faceted - landscape, still life, flowers, architecture, house interiors, cats, even a little portraiture - and yet these conventional categories do not in the least explain the unconventional and often very surprising character of her paintings. Different parts of her paintings have what she neatly calls "different kinds of energy." Her aim is something "slightly off balance" and "not quite what you'd expect." She appreciates the freshness of naive art, and although academically proficient, she often achieves astonishing simplicity in describing complex subjects. When I suggest her pictures might be full of secret meanings, she immediately laughs, "No!" But she does concede they contain their share of the enigmatic. "I quite like that. It also means they can mean different things to other people." What Blackadder never apparently does is talk about what the objects in the pictures and their relationships "mean" to her: That is to be experienced by looking at the paintings. "It's just through working that the ideas come, and you develop them. It's not a case of sitting down and seriously deciding, you know, that I must pursue this or that line of thought. It's ... one painting to the next," she says. Although she often paints a subject many times before she feels she has fully explored it, she has many themes. To some viewers, she may seem like several different artists in one. But not to herself. "Because I have different subjects, some people think I'm kind of split up, but I don't really see the flower paintings as different from the still lifes - it's just that I happen to be using a different subject. My ideas about painting are the same, and even in landscape the things I'm trying to do in the painting are the same." What she is trying to do in painting has primarily to do with space, design, color, light. The subjects are "used" to this end. At one time she described herself as "teetering on the brink of abstraction," and yet with very few exceptions, nothing she has produced could be called abstract. Nevertheless the abstract element in her work is particularly strong. "It's very important," she says, adding: "but I don't think I would ever abandon completely the figurative thing, the actual object... . I'm still a ttached in a way to the relationships of the objects themselves and what they mean to me." She is indeed attached to many kinds of objects. Her home and studio are full of them, all there to be potentially selected, ordered, arranged, dispersed in a composition. Particularly in recent years are objects brought back from two trips to Japan. An avid collector? "Yes - but it's all rubbish! I really like the kind of cheap, throw-away things. ... Just odd things that catch my eye." Fans, candy paper, chopsticks, toys, games and puzzles, pieces of fabric, brushes, containers. "Shop Window with Masks, Kyoto" is typical of the kinds of unimportant bits and pieces she uses for her work. Even the No mask in this painting is not the famous mask found in the Tokyo National Museum, but a cheap copy. Ephemera - she picked off the mantlepiece some vivid little animal figures made of papier-mache attracts her probably for the same reason she finds flowers irresistible. Their value, their beauty and freshness, seem to be linked to their fugitiveness - one moment they're there, the next moment gone. Discussing the work of another artist, I said, "It's as if what he is painting is almost not there." "Yes - I quite like that." she said. Even large exotic flowers drop petals soon enough - though orchids which she clearly loves last longer in flower than most. If affection is, rather disarmingly, a mainspring of Blackadder's art, it is affection for things that are transitory - even momentary, as in the case of her cats, and their insinuating ways of appearing among the objects and flowers. Architecture is not, as you might expect, a subject valued for its structural permanence, but for its facades, as surface and interval, brought up flat to the picture plane. And although she understands its three-dimensional structure, what matters for her is how it can be used as material for making two-dimensional paintings. SHE sees her current paintings of Japanese and Chinese temples and shrines as a revival, in different shape, of her earlier theme of European and Mediterranean architecture. Clearly, though, her fascination with shallow pictorial space finds sympathetic resonance in the Japanese use of screens and screening, pierced, gridded, decorated: The thinness of screen-walls act as an analogy for the thinness of her paint, watercolor or oil. Blackadder is an artist to whom other artists are supremely important. As inspiration, as reference, as source - but above all for kinship. To touch in conversation other art that has meant a lot to her is to open up a cornucopia of art history and geography. She has traveled much, starting as a student, in Italy. But there, in tune with the atmosphere at art school in Edinburgh, her preferences were for the "early Italians," not for the Italians of the high Renaissance. She liked Masaccio, Fra Angelico , Piero della Francesca. And she was influenced by the art history taught by David Talbot Rice, a Byzantine specialist. It is particularly clear that Byzantine mosaics were a vivid part of her early training, including her predilection for self-contained motifs - objects, figures, plants, animals - spaced separately throughout the neutral arena of a picture, each making its own space and contributing to an overall spatial ambiguity. From there her tastes moved steadily East. Persian, Indian, and Japanese art have all played far more than a supporting role to her own vision. At the same time, though, she owes a clear debt to one teacher-artist in particular, Scottish painter William Gillies. It is almost as if she has lines of thought bequeathed by him, so close in many ways their art can at times seem. None of which is to suggest that she is anything but her own master. It is simply that she is not one of those "solitary" artists. She believes those who work without consciousness of other art and artists are extremely rare. Does she mind her art being called domestic and intimate? "It doesn't worry me at all!" About that she is definite. She cites as precedents such "heroes" as Bonnard and Vuillard. "And," she adds, "I think Gillies was the same too. It was very much his own surroundings he painted ... and also bits of his house and his garden." When Blackadder discovered she wanted to include her cats in her paintings - simply because "they're there" and "they keep coming in at first she thought, "My goodness - paintings of cats!" But then as she thought of the painters she admired who painted cats - Bonnard, Steinlen - she realized "they don't need to be too cute and sweet." Characteristically, she looked right through the history of art to see how cats had been used, and studied them anatomically, before she decided "it was possible." IT was the same with the flowers, though her love of them goes back to childhood. She very much liked botanical prints, yet also admired the way in which a painter like Emil Nolde, for example, could reach the bold essence of a poppy, "without the definition" of a botanist. She somehow achieves a balance between these two approaches. But, she adds, "I think both cats and flowers are dangerous." Dangerous subjects for a serious painter. But I believe Elizabeth Blackadder, a very serious artist, actually relishes the challenge of that danger.

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