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'If you could say it in words there would be no reason to paint.'   Edward Hopper

 

Most children, when asked the question ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ either haven’t a clue, or say something different each time they are asked. I was one of the lucky ones: I knew what I wanted to be, every time, and I’ve been fortunate enough to have been able to do it. Whilst my themes and subject matter have metamorphosed over the years, my commitment to representation, and to the exploration of human relationships, remains as strong now as it did as an undergraduate in the 1970s.

I choose the word ‘representation’ with care, though even this is not really adequate. The word 'realism' is bandied about carelessly – and I have taken part in shows which have included that term in their title – yet the images which I create are, ironically, more about fiction than reality. The places depicted don’t exist, and the episodes portray moments which exist only in my imagination and which never occurred in the real world. What I try to do, rather like the novelist, playwright or film maker, is to present my fabrication with such conviction as to make the viewer believe in it.

'The object of art is not to reproduce reality, but to create a reality of the same intensity'   Alberto Giacometti

Northern Europe has a long tradition of narrative painting. It has never really been ‘in fashion’ – and therefore never out of it either – but it is ubiquitous. From my early days at art college I became fascinated by the narrative clarity of the early Flemish painters, who found it necessary to invent oil paint to facilitate their slow, painstaking and descriptive methods. During my foundation year, I discovered that the artists who interested me most were those whose work investigated human relationships, from Lautrec and Degas to Stanley Spencer, David Hockney, Anthony Green, George Segal and others. These - and of course the American Edward Hopper - have all left an indelible mark on the way I see the world and its inhabitants, and try to make sense of it all through painting. (Interestingly the Americans, from the Ashcan School a century ago, through Hopper, Wyeth, Bay Area Figuration, Pop and later the Photorealists, have continued to embrace representational painting in a way not much seen in Europe).

Equally, however, I have been influenced by the aesthetic of Film Noir; by the haunting, atmospheric imagery of later film makers such as David Lean, and by the exquisite candid photography of Cartier-Bresson and Robert Doisneau. Not all my influences are visual however; I love live theatre, especially the work of writers who observe and dissect the human condition, often using shifting viewpoints or time-frames. A seemingly simple juxtaposition of two or three people will be read very differently by any number of different viewers, and I love that. Of course, the stock-in-trade of stage drama is its careful, deliberate lighting, and the chiaroscuro which I contrive is probably as much a product of that influence as it is of the paintings of Caravaggio or Joseph Wright of Derby.  

I have never really been able to get along with the late-twentieth-century idea that painting, if it remains at all, should only be about the process of painting. I love abstract art, yet somehow I'm driven to visual storytelling. When I'm building compositions - assembling shapes, light and colours - my processes owe more to abstraction than might immediately be apparent from the end product. Nonetheless, they have to be layered with old-school concerns such as linear perspective and close observation. I’m old enough and fortunate enough to have been taught to draw and to use the formal elements of art at an early age; then I gradually learned to paint. Throughout my career, of course I have constantly revised my methods; tried to refine my skills and discovered many new ways of doing things. I’ve learned partly through the study of other artists, partly through lots of trial and error, and hugely from teaching students for 37 years. However, all this ongoing development has always been - and for me always will be – a means to an end, not an end in itself. My paintings must tell a story (which ultimately will be your story rather than mine), and that's just the way it is for me.

So, then, why do many of my recent works – at first glance at least – seem to depict a time half a century ago? Some romantic attempt at nostalgia, perhaps? No, not really. Have I just looked at Hopper for too long? Perhaps. But I think there are really two reasons.

The first is this: when we try to imagine, images associated with our childhood are often very potent. For example, train travel seemed very exciting and glamorous to me as a child, and the recent works based on railway stations evoke hazy recollections of those early experiences. I still have a passion for travel, and my recurring dreams about journeys are, I am told, analogous of our striving forward through life, trying to get to the next stage. The images of jazz clubs and art deco ballrooms are inspired by my very earliest musical recollections from the BBC Light Programme, as it played from the Bush radio ("the wireless") in our kitchen as my mother did her chores. I certainly don’t paint actual childhood memories (and I’m not particularly interested in trains or vehicles for their own sake), but I suppose I am recreating – or maybe just creating – a world which I imagine existed. I’ve passed sixty now, and the 1960s shaped who I am.

Secondly, and more importantly, I actually want many of my images to be as timeless as possible, because they are usually inspired by universal themes or feelings which have been recognised by adults of all ages in all time periods.

What? Timeless? Yes, I can see how that might sound odd. Bear with me.

An image depicting today’s fashions or post-modern architecture will sit firmly in the present day, just as 1970s or ‘80s fashions will always evoke those specific decades to those familiar with the codes. And yes, of course that applies to the decades of the mid-twentieth century too. But here’s the thing: the 1970s will forever only look like the 1970s. Same for the 80s and later, and anything much before the thirties also stays rooted there. Now, it may just be that I grew up in the baby-boomer years, but it seems to me that the fashions of those post-war years are constantly being revived and rejuvenated by successive generations, and have thus seemed to attain a sort of timeless ubiquity. The 1990s saw much innovation, yet the decade was characterised by men wearing double-breasted suits, braces and wide, patterned ties (remember?). The men and women in my paintings usually wear clothes which would have worked equally well on VE Day or yesterday in the city (notwithstanding the hats!). And although the scenes I create are imagined, they are usually based – albeit loosely - on real locations which have not changed much in the six decades I have been alive. I record my sources at first hand – cars, railway stations, people, theatres, planes – it’s all still there if you look. My reasoning is, therefore, that most of the images I compose could have originated at any point during the lifetime of anyone alive today. Much of what existed sixty years ago still exists, whilst the reverse is clearly not true.    

Having explained all of that however, it must also be said that an artist’s ideas and impulses often defy any great plan, and may confound attempts to pigeon-hole or intellectualise them. That is the nature of the arts; creatives don’t always, or necessarily, think linearly. As I increasingly listen to forties and fifties jazz; as I become fascinated by the culture of the generation that preceded mine; as I visit sites to photograph and draw them, inevitably I become embroiled and may end up painting a few works which are fairly time-specific, such as ‘Morning Debrief’ and ‘If You Ever Change Your Mind’. Then, along come ‘Dream of Me’ and ‘Come Rain, Come Shine’, which could very easily depict today - or even the future.

Can figurative painting survive the twenty-first century? As technology develops exponentially, will people still want to spend hours, days, weeks even, painting a single image? My gut feeling is that they will. Like many artists, I now use digital media to work out my ideas which twenty years ago I used to do on paper (wouldn't Leonardo have loved that?), but once I’ve done that I still need to commit the image to paint, even though the painting alone might take me two full working weeks. Thirty thousand years ago people were using paint to make representations of the world they saw and inhabited. All children do so instinctively and without prompting, and only cease to do it when conditioning renders them self-conscious about it. Therefore it would seem that the need to do this is fundamental to the human condition.

 

Tim Shorten