|INTRODUCTION By BRYAN ROBERTSON|
It is a constant paradox of contemporary art world-wide in the past few decades that at a time when art has opened up so much and revealed fresh possibilities in so many different directions, artists in pursuit of a recognisable style have increasingly narrowed their focus. In the aftermath of all those disclosures initiated by Malraux, among others, about the newly promiscuous visual aesthetic for mid-twentieth century in which, as a 'museum without walls', the entire history of art with all its complexity and different cultures was so alluringly available to us, Barnett Newman in the USA, for instance, was perfecting a formal approach to painting consisting of a single vertical stripe or bar of colour placed to left or right of a differently coloured plain ground. Painting with brushes on canvas could not be reduced in the formal structure any further until, more or less at the same time, Yves Kelin created his all-blue series of totally monochrome paintings.
Perhaps in the sheer profusion of knowledge, awareness of style and richness of choice drove so many other artists, also, toward a massive simplification of ends and means, terminating within a decade of minimalism. An oppressive sense of surfeit can drive one sometimes to fasting or at least induce a loss of appetite. There is of course also the well fact that a central tenet of twentieth century art has been grounded in reduction, simplification, leanness, an distillation. And some of the new simplifications in mid-century emerged quite logically, even organically, from history. Certainly, Newman's often beautiful achievement can be seen as a striking extension of Mondrian's aesthetic, but what Newman and some other artists created has also to be seen as a closing-off of possibilities, a final reduction to a state of absolute conclusion. Much the same could be said of the great work of Pollock and Rothko, as well as the bracingly enjoyable refinements of Johns and Kelly. If art is a large house with many rooms, these artists closed a lot of doors and windows.
In all the areas of painting, an increasing media and dealer-dominated market has led to other kinds of limitation and narrow focus in the interests of readily identifiable products. And gradually, as an on-going accompaniment to these narrower developments, came the slow but seemingly inexorable undermining and decline of other expedients like installation art. Art has not been in decline but its focus has shifted and sometimes become blurred. Although a number of very fine artists in countries have continued to paint and draw and to make sculpture with considerable distinction, often breaking new ground, the past quarter of a century has not been the best or most supportive time for their endeavour.
Polly Hope works consistently as a figurative artist with a keen appreciation of abstract principles and she likes to move freely from one medium to another, from drawing to painting, from printmaking to photography, from making sculpture to designing and executing murals and other decorative commissions. She excels as an artist in all these disciplines and sometimes likes to blur the edges herself between different techniques. In the last few decades it has not been fashionable to move around in this way, to be seen as a polymath. Contradiction rather than expansion has been the order of the day. And in the English speaking world, at least, the act of decoration and the whole idea of decorative art has been viewed with suspicion if embarked upon by a practicing painter or sculptor and invariably treated as a lower, more trivial category as an end itself.
I think this narrow and puritan view of art in our time is confined to Northern Europe and perhaps just to Anglo-Saxons, but it exists and it is an absurdly prejudiced misconception of art. If we took it seriously, we would have to deny the validity of many marvelous works of art, beginning with the Minoan Spring frescos, continuing with Tiepelo's walls, ceilings, and staircases at Wurtzburg or the decorative nudes composed so majestically by Matisse for Doctor Barnes' house at Merion, among many other creations all conceived as 'decorative', as an integral part of a decor.
Polly Hope has a strong decorative flair and in recent years she has completed some large-scale schemes: painted murals at the Barbican Centre London, ceramic murals and sculptures for the new Shakespeare's Globe theatre in London, as well as a fountain in Switzerland. The range and variety of her work is part of her strength - she has also recently completed all the drawings for a half-hour animated film and made a perfect sequence of vistas in watercolour of Hong Kong's islands and waterways - but it means that her identity as an artist sometimes eludes conventional assessment. For some years, for instance, she created a long sequence of stuffed soft sculptures, bringing whole aspects of classical sculpture, religious iconography and folk-art to new life with three dimensional stuffed, sewn, appliquèd, coloured and patterned figures: scenes and situations of tremendous wit and poetic verve, one of them neither a scene nor a situation but a richly detailed portrait of a well known English museum director with a love of gardening and cats: the man in his world.
I do not believe that her lack of a directly identifiable place within the present structure of fashion has any concern for Polly Hope. Her range of interests matches the vitality of her imagination; but in drawing attention to one particular group of works, any admirer must feel bound to point to the competing attractions of other aspects of her art. Her most recent group of works, featured in this exhibition, seems to be not only self-contained, however, but to touch on a particular nerve which is new to the artist. These photo-montages or collages which seem indivisible from their dyed, painted or stained spatial and atmospheric contexts, are autobiographical in the sense that the images come directly from the numbers of photographs taken by the artists wherever she finds herself, using the camera as an economical equivalent to a drawing pad or notebook. And as Polly Hope travels a great deal in Europe and the US, with studios in London and in Greece, on the island of Rhodes to a vacation spent as part of a crew with friends on a small yacht sailing along the coast of former Yugoslavia. The motifs are not conventional 'views' or vignettes but scenes and situations sliced up, edited, re-composed and structured to achieve the edgiest results. And as the work has been made during the long period of imaginative and emotional recovery following the death in 1994 of her husband, the architect and designer Theo Crosby, her partner in many projects, these images seem also to have a new acuteness, brevity, dryness and astringency, to come back to life from a fresh angle.
Polly Hope's great strength in the past has been certain ebullience and buoyancy, an almost baroque flair for detail and profusion of incident and often a light hearted wit in her handling of mythology, contemporary mores and art history if we sensibly include the decorative arts. She has always kept history firmly in its place. The new works have a particular preoccupation with light and shadow, plainness and directness of statement: evocative but rather mysterious present-day images on thin unstretched material which seem also very direct, exact, circumstantial and unprovisional, like selected stills from an on-going but uncompleted film set in some impregnably foreign country.