“Just as none of us is outside or beyond geography, none of us is completely free from the struggle over geography”. Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism
Andrew Gifford is a landscape painter and light artist. Previous solo shows have included the Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh (2001), Middlesbrough Art Gallery (2000) and Leeds City Art Gallery (2004). For the last six years he has made regular trips to the Middle East, painting in Dubai, Yemen and most recently Amman which formed the subject of a single show in 2011. In January this year he made his first trip to Jerusalem, painting there for two weeks. During this time he was invited to return as an artist in residence at the A.M. Qattan Foundation in Ramallah which he undertook in May, working on his own painting whilst also giving workshops.
Jerusalem presents numerous problems for any artist, especially a contemporary Western painter whose footsteps will invariably follow those of numerous topographical artists who have made the same journey. The somewhat tired legacy of 19th century Biblical and Orientalist scenes gives rise to almost as many problems for the artist as the more pressing political divisions of the city today. And yet the landscape itself continues to evoke the most profound emotions to its inhabitants, to its visitors and to the countless exiles for whom Jerusalem will always remain home. Both in Jerusalem, Ramallah and the outlying towns flanking either side of the dividing wall, the presence of a landscape painter working at an easel generated crowds, comments, and innumerable acts of kindness and encouragement. It was especially evident from younger kids who, on occasion, took it on themselves to protect, feed and guide Andrew around the city. The relevance of landscape painting and the fascination a view can still evoke in new audiences is demonstrated nowhere more clearly than in an area where the ownership and legitimacy of the land is the central part of people’s lives, pride and heritage.Focussing on the two cities impartially and objectively, Gifford subtly reorientates the conventions of a two-hundred year artistic legacy and offers renewed contemporary relevance to the tradition and practice of landscape painting.
In early 2014 the exhibition will be shown the Al-Ma’mal Foundation for Contemporary Art, Jerusalem and A.M Qattan Foundation, Ramallah. We are grateful to the British Council for their support.
"Think of landscape in the Middle East and you think of the grim unfinished business of history. There are the borders which are no more than lines etched in the sand when the Turkish Empire collapsed at the end of the First World War and gave way to the French and the British. And there is the international order established back then which is creaking under the strain of the chain reaction unleashed by the popular uprisings that began optimistically as an Arab Spring. The world has watched helplessly as Syria has descended into the chaos and agony of civil war. Iraq, rocked repeatedly by sectarian bombings, may yet follow. Jordan and Lebanon are overwhelmed by a rising tide of refugees. And there is the tragedy of the Holy Land. Israel’s dream of living peacefully within frontiers agreed with all its neighbours remains remote. And there is still no state - not yet anyway - for the Palestinians.
The world looks different when you view it from the Middle East. Europe is preparing to commemorate the outbreak of the Great War − an event which seems as remote as the Fall of Rome when you view it from London or Paris. Here its consequences still feel immediate and the settlement that ended it, in darker moments, feels like a ceasefire more than a historical full-stop. But if the world looks different from the Middle East, then happily the Middle East looks different to Andrew Gifford. In his extraordinary paintings he finds timeless and eternal qualities in landscapes where we spend so much time and energy contemplating politics which are fragile and fractious. To someone like me who studies landscape in search of cover or to work out why a border was drawn in one place rather than another it is a strangely powerful experience to see a new vision applied to familiar vistas. Andrew liberates in his paintings the qualities in land and light which the rest of us sense but can’t articulate.
This is not travel painting − although there’s nothing necessarily wrong with travel painting. And its not overtly political either although the decision to paint in both Ramallah and Jerusalem shows a fine instinctive feel for balance. It’s just that the portfolio feels like a vindication of proper landscape painting, subtly elevating certain qualities in a fleeting moment of the day or a particular fragment of a place so that it seems more real on canvas than it does when you look at it yourself. You might call the concept lucidity both in its ordinary, natural meaning of clarity of expression and in its hidden classic roots which touch upon our sensitivity to light.
Andrew Gifford makes the point − albeit rather self-deprecatingly − in one of his lively blogs from the Palestinian City of Ramallah which is a place of vibrant and rather chaotic charm. Having established the right vantage point and befriended the right security guard he goes on to explain it like this: “ I climbed up the rough concrete stair-well with its iron rods sticking out everywhere, stopping on the tenth floor. I wanted to paint at exactly the point between day and night where the last natural light blends with the artificial light of the city. It’s the hardest time to paint because it only lasts for minutes and you have to wear a head torch. Its fleeting quality is why its so magical.” A photograph records the scene and some curious trick of flash photography means that it captures some of the subtlety and intensity of the light. It also captures the head torch –incidentally, if Andrew is ever invited on to ‘What’s my Line’ it’s the tool of the trade he should take with him. Very few panelists would associate it with the world of art.
But if that painting evokes perhaps the most striking moments of Andrew’s journey through the Holy Land then many others are equally memorable. There is an astonishing representation of the al-Aqsa mosque in the evening in which the ancient walled city around the great building appears to be suffused with a light of astonishing purity. That extraordinary Golden Dome seems almost to float on a cloud of luminescence − it is a startling demonstration of the gulf between the view with which we are familiar and the vision the artist brings to it. Nowhere is that more powerfully evoked for me than in a pair of paintings of the Kidron Valley − one showing it in the late evening and the other in early afternoon. The Kidron Valley winds sharply downwards from the Eastern side of Jerusalem towards the Dead Sea, a place of antiquity where King David once fled a rebellion led by his son Absalom and Christ made his fateful journey to the garden of Gethsemane. The landscapes are extraordinary − within a few miles of Jerusalem and Jericho there are deserts of almost lunar desolation. Here and there you find stretches of rocky ground where ravine after ravine stretches deep below the surface of the earth - which is itself far below sea level here. They look like the subterranean moulds from which mountains are made before they’re placed above the ground elsewhere. Andrew’s subject again is the light and he captures a quality which I’ve never seen elsewhere in the gap between late afternoon and early evening. It is almost as though the light of day originates in the earth and then recedes back into it as evening comes. I have thought it as I passed that way many times but couldn’t put it into words until I saw it in Andrew’s work.
Journalists and politicians, aid-workers and surveyors all look at landscape through their own particular lenses. How reasonably was the land divided? Will oil be found beneath it − or water? Can it be built on − and can its people live well and live in peace? They are all important concerns of course − they’ve always mattered and they’ll continue to matter. But the artist captures something eternal which underpins it all − to look at Andrew Gifford’s work is to see the light as King David might have seen it or the sky as it must have looked on the night of the Agony in the Garden. In a place where the issues of day-to-day life are often grim and pressing Andrew’s collection is a triumphant demonstration of the value of that vision." Kevin Connolly, BBC’s Middle East Correspondent catalogue Introduction
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