Liam HANLEY (b. 1933)

Liam Hanley paints small modest works in considered response to the overweening ambition and vast scale of much contemporary art. His paintings, with their distinctly moon-haunted palette of silvery greys and pale luminosities, are about the bite and structure of pattern, the varying weights of shapes abutting, the look of land beneath the seasonal cloak of vegetation. Hanley goes back to essence, to structure, to bone, searching out 'a kind of geometry'. It is not for nothing that he loves the restrained sensuality of Morandi, whom he calls 'a painter of visual prayer'. Hanley's own paintings approach the same goals.

For more than 40 years he has studied the 'spare, almost austere countryside' of North Hertfordshire, and in particular, five or six huge fields, white with chalk and scattered with flints. He writes of his recent work: 'it is all based on a few thousand acres just south of Royston and a few yards east of the A10. I have known these fields since 1970 -  They have made many shows for me. I like the land - shaped by the Ice Age Great Surge - in mid-August when the crops have been cut and the fields ploughed and harrowed. It is as though the soil has been combed. At this time it is quite an experience to walk across the "floor" of the land, the sky like a great dome overhead. When the crops are cut the level of the landscape we see drops by about two feel. So in August we get the bone structure of the place. It is very peaceful.'

There is a decided oceanic rhythm to the fields. Hanley compares the tractor driver on these vast wastes to 'a solitary trawler-man, moving over great waves in all weathers. The dimensions of the land seem to dwarf him and yet intensify his presence there. It is a bare stage, serene in structure - one that magnifies the commonplace and sharpen the vision.' The furrowed lines of the harrow engrave the landscape with abstract patterns, which yet have meaning - agricultural as well as aesthetic. Man's trace is everywhere apparent. In connection with these images of layout and plans, Hanley has spoken of his wartime childhood, recalling how much he enjoyed looking into the back of the family's old wireless set with its valves and transformers. 'I didn't know how it all worked, but I was attracted by the mystery of it'. That same enquiry and cartographic instinct informs the work he makes today.

In 1982 he wrote of his fields: 'The land has a mysterious quality for me. Like sculpture, it can be looked at time and again from many angles and still produce surprises. Sometimes the shapes are sculptural, as graceful as human forms, and diminutive versions of these shapes repeat themselves in the flint stones that the plough turns up each year.' Over the years he has filled many sketchbooks with studies of this particular landscape. He draws standing up to get the necessary elevation, and likes to walk through the fields to experience being in them, not just observing from the sidelines. In drawing, he prefers fact: the recorded observation made on the spot, in from of the subject; later, when he is working on the actual paintings back in his London studio, the process widens to include the interaction of memory and imagination, and a more emotionally complex imagery is evolved.

In some of his earlier works, the urge to abstraction coexisted perhaps less easily with the evocation of place; in these new paintings, the extremes of abstract and figurative have been reconciled into a new and complete statement. In specific terms, Hanley has moved away from Ben Nicholson and Breon O'Casey, towards Victor Pasmore (of the Turnerian Spiral Development, 1949-50) and the more structural aspects of Paul Klee. I mention these names not as specific influences, but merely as reference points, for Hanley has developed his own language of mark and gesture, with its own very definite intentions. (In the same way, his interest in the aerial view suggests a kinship with the 'house and field' composition of Francis Davison, although these are works with which Hanley is not especially familiar.)

A new theme is cloud shadow and flight, with the silhouettes of birds appearing here and there, like arrows or signs in the sky. These works are among his most original conceptions and demonstrate a new unification of thought and vision, a tightening up of intent. This, in Gerard Manley Hopkins' beautiful words, is 'Landscape plotted and pieced - fold, fallow, and plough'. Liam Hanley, working with the wisdom of distilled experience, has reached a new understanding of his subject which has taken him to a higher level of formalized perception. These quiet, subtle and deeply felt paintings are the fruit of that vision.

 

Andrew Lambirth