Abstract painting continues to endure and seems to be resonating even more today than it did 10 years ago, despite constant attempts by the avant-garde over the last 50 years to quash it. Deborah Lanyon’s large abstract paintings come from a generation of artists, mostly men, including John Hoyland, Frank Bowling, Howard Hodgkin and Sean Scully. Like those artists, she works rapidly and physically with canvases positioned on the floor, letting the paint have its own voice. Yet the feminine subtleties give the work interest and difference from those of the male painters in this genre. The paintings are the voice of a woman and a reflection of her personality: physical but effortless; dynamic yet soft; harmonious and rhythmic. They have something else to say that gives them a place in the evolution of abstract painting through the last four decades.
In the 1980’s Lanyon graduated from art college just as abstract painting was being ridiculed by the art world. She had a respectable pedigree, having studied under the likes of Frank Bowling and Ken Kiff, growing up on the bohemian Kings Road in the 70’s and living amongst communities of artists - her grandmother had even been drawn by Augustus John. Yet, despite the scepticism towards what had gone before, her paintings sold well.
Today, a new generation of artists is continuing to pursue abstract painting in even more experimental ways. Perhaps because they avoid us being affronted by disturbing, offensive or intrusive content. In the technology era, the colour of paint is an antidote to the colour of pixels, grounding us in a more textural reality. The lack of content in the abstract, except for the materials themselves, gives us a freedom to interpret - a luxury that we are increasingly denied in our media-fed world. An unstable economy is made stable by pigments of the earth that you can touch.
Historically, the act of painting big paintings was a male expression of genius, whilst women’s artistic creativity was tempered to the pursuit of leisure. ‘Why are there no great women artists?’, asked art historian Linda Nochlin in her seminal essay of 1971. Though the tide is finally beginning to turn, we still seem to be asking this question and continue to fight for women to be taken seriously. Male selection by our institutions and by our taste makers continues to muffle the female voice.
Yet, like other women artists breaking through, the seemingly ‘male’ traits of dedication, devotion to practice and physical endurance are strong in Lanyon’s practice. Whilst working on the edge of both intellect and vision, Lanyon permits the paint to develop its own identity within her paintings and her large, vibrant and energetic works on canvas are painted on the floor and wall, for which she uses her whole body.
Painting for me is very physical and I endeavour to exploit it fully.
Lanyon joined St Martins when the punk movement was in full force – in fact Johnny Rotten had been a student there. The general attitude was anarchic and rules were to be broken. Women in the colleges were expected to express feminist angst, using more experimental media such as photography or performance, but certainly not paint. St Martins took a non-pastural approach towards Lanyon, pointing out that because her father had died suddenly when she was 15, she should be well able to cope emotionally with the difficulties of going to art school.
Clearly she had not suffered enough, nor had she much to say, in the eyes of the institution and at the end of her foundation year she was not accepted to continue there. “Perhaps they were right,” she says, “however it did not prevent me from toughening up and reapplying to Byam Shaw a year later”, where the painting department was a lot more experimental and progressive, run by artists like Ken Kiff and Frank Bowling. In defiance, Lanyon adopted the ‘masculine’ attributes of single-mindedness, concentration, tenaciousness and absorption in materials for their own sake. To be so lucky and to be introduced to colour in such a monumental way set Lanyon on her way to life as a painter of abstraction.
Through the 1990’s, Deborah Lanyon’s work was shown across London, at the art fairs which were coming into fashion, and in various London galleries including Bruton street, Albemarle and New Bond Street, and by Geoffrey Bertram in Cork Street who also takes care of the Whilemina Barns Graham foundation Trust. Now, coming back again with a new body of work, Lanyon will show at The Foundry Gallery in Chelsea, drawing upon four decades in pursuance of abstraction, to give us a feminine version of the enquiry.