In Proximity: The Lynda Cotton Gallery, Watchet, Somerset
22 May – 12 June 2016
In evocative and sensual paintings Kitty Stirling holds atmospheric and naturalistic, plastic and painterly qualities in check. Neither dominate the other and while strong and structural paint marks and strident unmodulated gestures of the brush grab the immediate attention on the picture surface, there also remains in residual form a glimpse of landscape space and through it elusive memories of place.
This uncanny capacity to retain palpable mystery and qualities of haunting memory through the paradoxically base, physical means of the art of painting makes one think of Nicholas de Stael, Peter Lanyon, Howard Hodgkin and late Prunella Clough, lofty company perhaps but one that provides Stirling’s art with a valid benchmark. Her admiration for these masters is a function of Stirling’s own ambition and seriousness of purpose.
Her part Scottish background also provides a clue, a birthright almost, to the use of colour, painterly flourish and merging of subject with form, that stems from a tartan congruence with modern French art.
Her own artistic training and career has not, however, taken place north of the border or in France, but in London and West Somerset. In the capital she studied at Chelsea and the Byam Shaw Schools of Art during the later 1980’s, and is indeed currently studying for her Masters at City and Guilds of London Art School.
Where West Somerset is concerned, where her family has a home, she has often drawn on the Quantocks, the Exmoor coast and Bristol Channel with its stunning views and prime walking country.
In the present exhibition a series of semi abstract paintings, including ‘Landscape 7’, focus on views in and around the village of Bicknoller, though without topographical specificity. The independent life of paint and the spatial properties of pictorial composition assume more importance in these works than observational accuracy.
Her use of collage in other works, either in the form of torn colour fragments or cut up photos, is abstract in quality, Stirling knowing well that collage is inherently abstract and must remain so if kitsch or vulgarity is to be avoided. At the other end of the expressive spectrum, comes the thin colour gestures, where painted marks are naked records of their own random, alla prima formations. Such informal gesturalism, when she pulls it off, is akin to a state of grace, the artist equating weather and landscape mood with raw human emotion.
The various dichotomies within Stirling’s work in key respects, reflects her double life as an advantaged and educated independent on the one hand and as a grass roots art world activist and teacher on the other. They are also the outcome of a life oscillating between town and country.
Nowhere has this rural/urban life been more obvious than in her allotment series of drawings and paintings shown in a previous exhibition at Lynda Cotton Gallery in Watchet. As a rural microcosm in a wider urban environment, the allotment has long provided a fascination for Stirling, who sees in it a return to the community spirit and grow-your-own self help of the egalitarian post war era. The deftly drawn ramshackle sheds on these allotment sites also reflect what in formal, purely artistic terms is the power of structure and man made factors within a broad naturalism.
A third front between town and country was opened up by her living part of the year around the millennium on the Aegean island of Samos, where the peasant way of life and its inspiring accord with history and geography moved her. This same spirit accompanied her on art world projects in which, instead of only playing the art world power system, with its dubious politics and pecking order, she has contributed through creative ventures with like-minded artists, many involving the community, and through curating exhibitions, some aimed at the vital promotion and encouragement of emerging young talent. She ran the Tricycle Gallery at Kilburn’s Tricycle Theatre aimed at precisely such artists.
From her own solo Tricycle exhibition, she was taken on by art dealer Caroline Wiseman, who showed Stirling at prominent London art fairs as well as in her London home. These were followed by a successful 2013 solo at Cassian de Vere Cole Fine Art in the Ladbroke Grove area, where Stirling had grown up in the 1970’s, along with successful selections for the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, the Discerning Eye Exhibition and the Lynn Painter-Stainers Prize Exhibition.
Her current return to Watchet brings her back to a country where she in part belongs and to whose inimitable landscape her work so effectively relates.