CODES AND CO-ORDINATES – The Painted Landscape, paintings by Simon Mills, is at Sun Pier House, Medway Street, Chatham ME4 4HF from 29 September to 29 October 2015
Veronica Tonge visited the ambitious solo show by Simon Mills at Sun Pier House, Chatham and found much to impress
Occasionally, in today’s over flooded landscape market, a genuine ‘painter’s painter’, with a genuine passion for walking the countryside, pops up and astounds. Moving from London to Rochester recently, Simon Mills was quickly invited to show in the Sun Pier House Gallery, following his local debut with Medway Open Studios in July 2014. Codes and Co-Ordinates: The Painted Landscape covers just under two years of work on 76 paintings or sketches. The Gallery is a contemporary, ex industrial space continuous with a local produce tearoom, forming a multipurpose arts event and meeting space. Its low ceilings and windows provide subtly changing light conditions, ideal for landscapes, over a panorama of the working estuary of the River Medway.
Simon Mills comes from a long, highly successful professional scenic artist background in theatre and television, mixed with teaching and Italian wall painting restoration. His landscape paintings are strong, slightly brooding and refreshingly unpretty. He offers a unique take on the painted landscape, hovering ambiguously between apparent realism, when seen from a distance, and a true painterly abstraction in close up. The exhibition’s dense hang of both urban and landscape subjects reveals a prolific artist visually excited by both.
Simon is an artist-walker with an intense love of OS maps, and has always loved tracking down where artists have worked, recently discovering where Turner painted his view of Upnor Castle, surmising that he had “invented” the sunset. Relevant map sections are included, pinpointing the works for the visitor. Their “magic” co-ordinates allowed Simon access to places to paint, which were recorded with rapid pencil sketches and a camera.
Working afterwards in the studio, Simon evolves a complex and effective system of built up layers of brushstrokes, as immediate and significant as handwriting. Although initially speedily applied with an intense bravura (the medium is quick drying acrylic) the works are built thoughtfully in layers over time, with oil paint used at some stage to create texture and depth. Developing an ability to remember the atmosphere and emotional impact of the place first recorded, Simon later recreates this to develop a meaningfully charged work. It is no surprise that Simon was influenced as a young student by David Bomberg and Frank Auerbach.
Alchemy is part of a painter’s unique vision; twenty of Simon’s works are deliberately spotted and splashed with flung pigment or the effects of tiny bleached areas from scatterings of water before the acrylic paint has dried. This elemental effect reminds us that these are paintings expressing the outside world. Also sensitive to the killer effect of white, Simon paints his canvas edges an unbleached linen colour, leaving his works unframed.
Solo shows are always a marker in any artist’s career, often acting as a mini retrospective and suggesting, often in one ground breaking work, new directions. For me, this outstanding work was Apple. Larger than most of the paintings in the rest of the show it had a monumental quality as a naturalistic “portrait” of a specific old bare tree, just surviving. Simultaneously, the abstracted, strong lines of the branches and the expressionistic use of the paint took Apple into a different universe. An illogical presence of areas of bright purple pigment amongst the branches hinted at a departure point. Wherever this exceptional painter’s work goes next it will be genuinely observed, deeply felt and grown out of a long involvement with using paint, the artist’s ultimate versatile medium.