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Kent artist of the month: John Blackburn, Littlebourne

PUBLISHED: 22:13 23 August 2012 | UPDATED: 21:46 20 February 2013

Kent artist of the month: John Blackburn, Littlebourne

Kent artist of the month: John Blackburn, Littlebourne

John Blackburn prefers to use found materials that have had a previous existence in his abstract paintings, which have been described as 'rooted in an empathetic humanism'

Kent artist of the month: John Blackburn, Littlebourne


John Blackburn prefers to use found materials that have had a previous existence in his abstract paintings, which have been described as rooted in an empathetic humanism


John Blackburns work is a blending of found items with abstracts, a sort of blend of Duchamps readymades with the abstracts of the St Ives artists Ben Nicholson and Peter Lanyon.


There are some fantastic abstracts around his Littlebourne-based studio, which is absolutely jam packed, and each painting involves many stages. John admits: Its a struggle, at times Ive enjoyed it and at times its sent me into a state of depression. There are layers of work, the first part gets swallowed up, so there is nothing to get alarmed about!


John, 80, is vastly entertaining and both lucid and passionate about his art. For example, with great excitement he shows me a stretch of marquee canvas which hes been given.


As early as the 1950s I decided that I wouldnt start from a state of virgin canvas. I made a decision that when I start a work that the materials have a previous existence. I used to use a lot of old bedsheets: they have been slept in, people have made love in them, they have been ill. Thats what makes my work tick, the human condition.


I note one canvas with a square of material painted over and over to bring texture to the surface, creating several meanings that the viewer may ponder over.


When John first started painting in New Zealand, with a wife and three small children, he would paint in the garden, inured to the weather.


Later, during his training at Thanet College of Art (he has lived in Canterbury and London since 1962), also painted in all weathers. Here there is Winter II, a fantastic canvas which I am hoping will adorn the Studio 3 Gallery at Kent Universitys Jarman Building, where John has been given not only the Studio 3 space, but also the whole building for his next show.


Certainly the large sizes of these canvases will display beautifully in that contemporary space, as these abstracts are really so much more than just simple marks on canvas. There are layers and layers of paint and therefore meaning.


I ask if there is a spiritual dimension to his work. Oh God, tough question! I wouldnt say that Im irreligious, but Im not a conventional believer and thats a basic question Ive wrestled with all my life: its more difficult that being in a family of conventional faith, he says.


Interestingly, the Studio 3 show will be called And God cried. For a while we digress on to the question of pogroms and genocide, the tragedies of the 20th century. The wall for Studio 3 is one of the hardest Ive done, he tells me. These paintings are about the ability man has to cheat and kill and have no regard for life, so they are difficult paintings difficult to look at and difficult certainly to paint. Quite a bit of the time you are getting it wrong.


It is hard to see how an abstract painting can go wrong, but this adherence to a sense of balance or a perfection in the abstract is what makes Johns work great. It must have a meaning, like Damien Hirsts spot paintings, I quip and we both laugh. Instead the painter who springs to mind is Piet Mondrian, an example of something edging towards being supernatural and Rothko, to whose works John and I shared a similar reaction: almost tears at those huge deep red paintings for the Seagram building.


The new show at the University of Kent will be an important exhibition of work over Johns life and I would encourage readers to take the detour to Canterbury. He truly inspires viewers to ponder on the abstract.


GET IN TOUCH


John Blackburn is exhibiting at Studio 3 Gallery, Jarman Building, University of Kent at Canterbury CT2 7UG 24 Sep-14 Dec, Mon-Fri 9am-5pm.


Visitors to Johns studio in Builders Square, Littlebourne, CT3 1XU are welcome by appointment: call 01227 728630.


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