This exhibition ran from 17th October - 11th November 2012 at the Millinery Works Gallery. Click here to see more of his works.
Art Powerhouse, acrylic on paper, 2010, 27.5 x 38cm
In his latest exhibition Christopher Firmstone presents us with a vision of London whose linking theme is the river, its buildings, its bridges and its people. Sketchbook in hand he stalks his quarry, capturing features that have caught his eye and his imagination, and then working them up from the drawing. He is not recording famous views per se, rather abstracting from the wealth of architecture around him certain angles and combinations, sometimes off-beat and quizzical, that create a picture in his mind. He likes what he calls ‘the strange, the unexpected, the weirdness of the ordinary’. The first impression is all-important to him, then follows the process of analysis and refinement before he begins to realize the subject in terms of paint.
Modern buildings and bridges predominate in his work, largely because of their satisfying shapes and clarity of form. He plays mass and silhouette against river and sky, the man-made sandwiched between the elements of nature. The Shard, the Gherkin, City Hall, the London Eye, the Millennium Bridge, the Dome, all make an appearance in his pictures. He is not, however, a hardened modernist. There is a wonderful full-on view of Tower Bridge where the artist contrasts its dark structures with the void of the sky. Battersea Power Station appears at sunset like some fabulous ruined castle, with the light shining through its empty windows. The great Dome of St Paul’s looms up at the end of a vista along Millennium Bridge.
On the Millenium Bridge, graphite on paper, 27.5 x 38cm, 2011
Heading back to the City, acrylic on paper, 2011, 27.5 x 38 cm
There are signature motifs in Firmstone’s work, the single standing lamppost, slender cranes against the sky, the cat’s cradling of Millennium Bridge, the suspension wires of the modern walk-ways on Hungerford Bridge. Such intricate details give life and wit to his work. Occasionally he really lets himself go, and the results are liberating: giddying views upwards of the London Eye seen through a blizzard of greenery; ship, gangway and river melting into each other in a surreal view of ‘Tattershall Castle’; desolate timbers in the shallows of the river reading as a sequence of abstract shapes. Pictures like this suggest a strain of experiment and a developing vision in Firmstone’s approach to art.
His architectural background gives him an innate sense of form and structure. His buildings and bridges have a powerful physical presence, but he is a painter first and foremost not an architectural draughtsman. He captures not just the shape but the feel of things, the atmosphere of the Thames at particular moments of time, the spectacle of great buildings under specific weather conditions, the play of light, the flow of the river, the sweep of the sky, the pulse of the city. His palette is cool and mute in line with the London weather, blacks and greys for the buildings, except where they reflect the river and the sky, pearly grey and yellow for skies, soft grey-blues and greens for the water, occasionally a burst of sunset pink and orange.
Firmstone paints in acrylic on cartridge paper on the scale of A2 and A3. Occasionally he goes larger. While his pictures are worked up from compositional drawings made on site, he is no slave to his original conception. When it comes to the painting the brush takes over and all kinds of modulations and spontaneous effects occur. He is an intuitive painter whose pleasure in painting is readily apparent. There is nothing timid in his handling, the pictures are broadly brushed in and richly textured, and as a result they take on an immediacy and vitality of their own. Surfaces break up as the brush is dragged across, pigment is built up with the palette knife or dissolved with the sponge. Sometimes you get the feeling that, like a sculptor, he is chipping away at the paint rather than building it up. It is through this painterliness that the artist avoids the banality of the literal and creates art that is visually exciting and emotionally satisfying.
A few years ago Christopher Firmstone did a series of pictures of the New York scene that were original and unhackneyed. He has now done the same for London, revealing a vision of the city that relies on his observant eye and sense of place, without obvious borrowings from earlier artists. He remains very much his own man.
Highgate, July 2012