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Website: Chestnuts Design

Trevor Sutton | Small World

Zuleika Gallery, Woodstock, 26 August – 27 September 2021

A review by Jeremy Morgan

©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock  All rights reserved.

Trevor Sutton’s Small World at Zuleika Gallery, Woodstock, is described as a show of two halves – work made before and work made after the Covid outbreak. As such, the show is something of an odyssey, tracing as it does Sutton’s journey through the exceptional circumstances of this defining event.

Entering the gallery via the entrance hall, one is greeted by two square paintings. Resident Ghost (1 and 2) mirror each other across the space – coloured isosceles triangles delineating their corners, acting as markers that lead the eye outwards. This is rather a surprise, marking a significant shift from the grids and modulated grounds of Sutton’s more ambient, atmospheric work. The aesthetic is fresh, hard-edged, and on first sight devoid of gesture. Looking more closely, however, one begins to notice deviations from the initial impression of flat surface; for instance, in the traces of a warm pink under-painting just visible beneath the near-white ground of Resident Ghost 2. This warm-hearted ‘gestural minimalism’, never overt, always considered, sets the tone for the exhibition and is reflected in the small and mid-scale works on show.

Left: Resident Ghost 2, 2021, oil on board, 38 x 38 cm; right: Reflection 1,2,3,4, 2021, oil on board, painting in four parts, each 25.5 x 21.5 cm, installed with 4 cm spacing between each panel installed dimensions 25.5 x 92 cm

Hung at shoulder height, Reflection 1,2,3,4, is a painting in four parts employing the repeated motif of twin coloured bars on light pink fields, variously locked to the horizontal and the vertical edges, holding the inner space. Elsewhere, this compositional enclosure might create an inertia or a barrier, but here the quadtych-like hang activates the work, allowing it to be viewed sequentially, rather like a gymnast going through their movements, a limbering-up, with elements tested rotationally and chromatically.

Five small pieces, Looking Back (1 to 5), also occupy this space, hung as a row, providing a playful, rather informal entrée. Variously coloured triangular shards of painted paper are collaged to the edges of white triangular supports, their brush marks and subtle staining emphasised by the minimal presentation. In contrast to the regular geometry of Resident Ghost, the painted shards are of varying angles and proportions and therefore occupy differing lengths of shoreline along their triangular islands. There’s an acrobatic dynamism to these pieces too – a rotational movement around the inner voids with elements spinning to the edge of the picture plane and beyond, a little frivolity to accompany the visitor over the threshold into the main gallery.

Looking Back (2, 3 and 4), 2020, oil on paper on 12 mm white Corian, each 15 x 20 cm (triangle)

Here, four diptychs are hung, two to a wall, chromatically and thematically sympathetic to their neighbours. The higher coloured pair were painted in response to a residency in the Midi-Pyrénées in 2018, and being earlier works, display more of an affinity with Sutton’s grid structures. Study for Nyons delights, with its eight lintel-like structures running along the top edge. The ever-so-slightly muted poppy reds and dusty orange modules are out of alignment with the irregular columns below, the grid here relaxed and in holiday mood – perhaps imbued with the region’s off-kilter vernacular of painted window shutters and sun-bleached façades. There is an enjoyment in the pencil lines demarcating each cell and which find an equivalent in the pin-wide shadow where the two panels of the diptych join. Sutton refers to his process as constructing rather than painting, and often favours the format of the diptych for the flexibility it provides in allowing things to be moved around and adjusted as work develops.

Study For Nyons, 2019, oil on board, 23 x 61 cm (diptych)

Shutter Painting is constructed from three storeys of symmetrical elements. Beguiling shifts in colour space are evident: for instance, in the upper two opposing modules nominally finished in the same light stone under which a darker salmon pink is just discernible on the right side, gently warming things. The specificity of such interventions encourages a consideration of the artist’s intention. Such modulations in colour and surface are important to Sutton, bringing richness, warmth and evidence of the maker’s hand. ”I want to let air into the work” as Sutton puts it, suspicious of too perfect or opaque a finish acting as a barrier between viewer and work.

Orkney Painting 1, 2019, oil on board, 63.5 x 127 cm (diptych)

On the facing wall hang two more diptychs. Orkney Painting 1 is the largest work in the show, where columns in hazy mauves and muted greys (painted with Sutton’s deft and unfussy handling so that there is ‘just enough’ of the artist’s hand present whilst maintaining a fresh, near-flat surface)  support higher-contrast ‘lintels’. Evidently a response to the geology and remarkable neolithic stone structures of the archipelago, the work feels intuitive, although mediated through the logic of geometry. The result is wholly contemporary, devoid of historical sentimentality (or reticence in the wake of a monumental pre-history). That the grid, with its connection to architectural space, has been relaxed into a more intuitive series of divisions feels a comfortable response to the natural landscape in which Sutton walked.

Installation view, various, oil on paper on 12 mm white Corian, watercolour on paper on 12 mm white Corian

Turning to face the back wall reveals an extraordinary sight. Here are fixed a dazzling cornucopia of brightly coloured jewel-like pieces lit directly by the bay window opposite – triangles, trapezoids and rectangles of varying dimensions, collaged with stripes and polygons cut from paper on which paint (both watercolour and oil) has been applied, the vestiges of gesture creating a softness to the surfaces. This is a resolutely new line of enquiry and marks a significant development in Sutton’s output. It is from this series that the show’s title, Small World, originates. Sutton and his wife, fellow artist Carol Robertson, spent several months in isolation during the height of the Covid pandemic at the Norfolk home of their late friend, the artist Roger Ackling (1947–2014), at the invitation of Ackling’s wife, Sylvia. Sutton’s world became smaller, yet there was joy and intense productivity in the intimacy of this period. “Our time was spent isolating in a beautiful 1890s Art & Crafts house and large garden with its own orchard, wood and flower garden. As well as walking and working most days in the garden we spent months creating a large vegetable garden that needed constant tending. In between times I made my own work.”

Left: Night Triangle 1, 2020, watercolour on paper on 12 mm white Corian, 17 x 13 cm; centre: Voewood 5/3, 2020, oil on paper on 12 mm white Corian, 10 x 20 cm; right: The Japanese Garden 1, 2021, oil on paper on 12 mm Corian, 6.5 x 13 cm.

There’s a playfulness and a restlessness here in which a multitude of chromatic and formal possibilities are tested and fine-tuned, extending areas of Sutton’s exploration from luminous, nuanced colour shift into affirmative juxtaposition as he embraces the possibilities offered by being adrift from the familiar regime of his studio.

“Everything I made was on a small and intimate scale which, I became aware, was as much related to Roger’s work as it was to the confines of my workspace”. Sutton began to respond to the exterior and interior architecture of the house, creating series such as The Japanese Garden and The Coach House, both of which are included in the grouping. The curation in four rows, rationalised into groups of common shapes, is suggestive of a taxonomy (is it stretching things to see these as beautiful, geometric butterflies?). The colours are rich, though never loud or harsh; warm terracottas, ochres and greys flirting with brighter pale yellows and creamy whites in an elaborate display ritual, echoing something of the changing seasons that Sutton and his companions experienced as they sheltered.

Ballycastle 1A, 2015, oil on paper, 20.5 x 15cm (framed in Perspex).

Stepping down into the partially wood-panelled Gallery 2 provides a glimpse of older works in the guise of three small pieces – Ballycastle (1A and 3A) and Alayrac 1, each encased in thick perspex, standing as objects, on the shelves of the quirky period room niche. These works are icey, yet the muted mint and grey fluidity of the grounds develop a sympathetic, nuanced companionship with the pencilled grid through Sutton’s discretionary emphasis on some of the modules which is anything but cold. There is a vitrine or aspic-like quality to the presentation – preservations from a time before the momentous events reverberating elsewhere in the show.

Time is also referenced in other works, suggesting it did on occasion weigh heavily. Nothing But Time and A Pocket of Time were both painted in 2021, yet feel like continuations from the Orkney works, picking up where things were left before the interruption of Covid. Lintels are now joined by similar foundation-like elements at the base – compressing the central space into an interior, portals and depth suggested through the darker modules.

Left:  A Pocket Of Time, 2021, oil on board, 38 x 38 cm; right: Nothing But Time, 2021, oil on board, 38 x 38 cm.

A Time of Silence (1 and 2) are kindred to the Resident Ghost works, though now compressed into a vertical rectangular form, the grounds rendered in zings of fresh lemon and tangerine. Sutton has extended the logic of this compressed format to the corner flashes, which are rendered as elongated scalene triangles, fixing the dimensions unequivocally to their extremities and creating an implied zone of protection around each work. The vibrancy of the colour is at odds with the calmness of the title, however, suggesting an inner constraint, a desire to burst forth from this silent, small world – a desire now beautifully realised in this exquisite show.