Salthouse pilgrimage for painting lovers

IAN COLLINS A summer art show in a beloved church high above the north Norfolk coast is now a highlight of East Anglia’s cultural calendar. Ian Collins visits Salthouse 07.

IAN COLLINS

Salthouse church - brilliant beacon on the north norfolk coast - should be a place of pilgrimage over the next month for all who believe in the power and the glory and the sheer beauty of painting.

Beaming ever more brightly each summer since the millennium, this practice of combining contemporary creativity with an ancient spiritual setting has attracted artists and audiences alike. If national critics ever made it to the far east of England they would be seriously impressed.

A capacity crowd gathered last night to see Salthouse 07 launched and hailed by the architect and Royal Academy president Sir Nicholas Grimshaw, who lives near Burnham Market.

Curator of this year's show is the Norfolk raised and residing James Colman, who until recently ran a pioneering gallery in London's East End.

He has done something very daring in the context of both this cutting-edge project and his chosen title (The Spirit of the Age) by concentrating almost exclusively on painting.

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Drawing was unwisely damned in art schools decades ago. Now the medium of paint is often regarded by trendy conceptual artists as hopelessly out of date.

But here we can see how more than 40 Norfolk-linked painters find in pigment (possibly underpinned with pencil, charcoal, ink and collage) the perfect means of fresh expression.

Close to the exultant expressionism of John Kiki and Bruer Tidman rolls a pair of Maggi Hambling's dark and dramatic North Sea wave oils and the neon disquiet of nocturnal urban imagery by Stephen Cross.

Surreally-calm Sheringham narratives of Peter Baldwin, and a dreamy study of figures on the beach by Jessica Prendergast give way to jetties, lookouts and sea defences vividly evoked in the waste product of sump oil by Emily Cole.

Near to zestful and scintillating abstractions by former Norwich Art School tutor John McLean, there's a witty ten-panel walk and boat tour of the nearby coast guided by Tessa Newcomb. (She says: “I want to talk about violet April light on oyster pens, the chug, chug of the mussel washer while it's still frosty, the graffiti which cuts through time and my awareness of the curve of the earth as I walk towards the Wash.”)

And I'm still much moved by a huge black gesso and gold-leaf panel by Susan Gunn, perfectly placed in the bell tower - where the broken surface of the black echoes crumbling mortar alongside and the gold squares reflect the panes of glass in the window above. The whole piece alters with the light.

It's wonderful how bits of ancient art and architecture (a painted medieval screen, an antique ship scratched on a bench-back, a niche, an arch, a window) punctuate current creativity essentially grounded in this lovely location.

And then we connect back to the wild world outside - with a flock of bird pictures relating to this spot on one of Europe's most important avian migration routes.

I love the exquisite and oriental minimalism of Helen Bullard's White Grace birds (including avocet, egret and spoonbill) on lengths of brown wrapping paper, the nervy energy of gulls as drawn by Jason Gaythorne-Hardy, the bird-rife landscapes of Caroline Kent and a kind of bird frenzy captured by Fran Pemberton.

But paint is not the whole picture, even for many painters.

Two multi-media shooting stars in this contemporary constellation are husband-and-wife Damian and Delaine Le Bas - he is descended from Irish/Huguenot travellers and she is pure Romany. They were acclaimed exhibitors in the Roma pavilion at the recent Venice Biennale - having also been shown by James Colman in the Prague Biennale with great success.

Extending a theme from his Venice showing, Damian has filled ordinance survey maps of Norfolk with a dense assembly of Dubuffet-like faces. Delaine and her gran have made a gorgeous flower-decked gipsy caravan out of coloured crepe and golden doilies - a sense of joy contrasting with portraits of skulls, devils and witches hanging above.

Delaine has also sewn and decorated a kneeler in tribute to the Norfolk writer George Borrow, who celebrated Romany culture in books such as Lavengro, and who was himself harried as a “gipsy” and a “witch” by local children for allowing travellers to camp on his land.

The Le Bas display flows neatly into a three-part offering by artists from Walcot's famous Barrington Farm Art Barn. James Gladwell's fantastic organ-playing puppet, Ian Partridge's glowing and blazing painting of what could be a garden at night and Barbara Symmons's fabulously inventive screen (stitched, painted, collaged and bejewelled) reveal the splendour of the untrained and unfettered imagination.

We've anyway had fair warning of the wild and wacky aspect to this show in Wayne Lucas's modern take on medieval gargoyles, cast from soft toys and plastic rather than from stone, which hangs in the entrance porch. A pair of upturned rocking horses merge into a stag's head and tiger's body which sprout ornamental fruit like some beastly fertility symbol.

Polly Cruse recalls vanished congregations in pews massed with snuffed and twisted candles - a bright tribute contrasting with Mark Cator's deadly indictment of war in general (and Iraq in particular), via a photo of toy soldiers leading to a tombstone slab in which the words Come And See sink into a black infinity. The world is wasted by war games.

Many will recall the playful sculptures of Mike Rhodes in the window when he ran the Cley Smokehouse (one figure of a flasher revealing an unusual place to hang a kipper). Here his exuberant flute-playing dancers cavort in a niche, not far from Penny Colman's painterly recollections of circus acrobats and clowns All in all there is a fine kindred spirit about this multifarious show, with endless links between friends and families, pupils and tutors.

Penny is James's aunt and has been his link into the art world - and it was clan matriarch Lettice Colman who gave many Norfolk artists (including Peter Baldwin and Colin Self) crucial early encouragement.

A suite of knockout collages by Colin Self confirms that humour is an awesome weapon (to wit: the bucolic bliss of dogs on a mountainside is broken by a bomber and a bulldozer literally bursting through the paper). Intimate portraits by twin daughters Coleen and Emily depict their mother and late grandfather respectively.

The Norfolk family is of course spread far and wide. A wiry portrait by Australian Denis Clarke carries hints of alienation, dislocation and exile - and it seems more than coincidence that his great-grandparents emigrated from Yarmouth.

Salthouse 07: The Spirit of the Age can be seen in Salthouse church until August 5. Open 10-5.30 daily. Free admission. Most exhibits are for sale.

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