Touched by the pathos of humanity in the world we inhabit, here is a body of work deeply felt and observed. ‘Yearning’ is a word that resonates with nomadic artist Pippa Blake, and it’s not hard to see why when you view her soulful, touching paintings. Her work often lingers in the darkness, as small pools of light appear and illuminate or ignite a curiosity about her chosen subject. Blake is constantly searching as she investigates and explores her vision of the world.
QUEST, seems an apt title for her solo show, which takes a look at a body of work from the last ten years. Her subjects are inspired by dramatic geographical and man-made features; from gorges and wastelands to figures glimpsed. Her enigmatic paintings evoke a sense of mystery and mood and for her they “are outer expressions of her inner feelings”.
Blake’s work is immensely atmospheric, perhaps melancholic but there is something always exquisite in the moment or scene that she captures – a soulfulness. Her work is able to suspend us in a place where reflection and stillness can happen. “I have always felt deeply. Light and dark is integral to my work. I look to the horizon and am fascinated by what might be beyond”. Many of her pieces are observed from a distance, often on travels – in cars, aboard planes, on walks – the world Blake shares with us is one that is seen to be going on about us but one in which we only watch, peripheral, not disrupting, hidden.
This is in contrast to the way in which Blake makes her paintings. She comments that she “loves the physical process of gestural mark making”. She tells me that she puts her whole body into it – left to right, up and down - the larger the canvas the better. For her painting is a very visceral and immersive act and this commitment remains vital to her practice. Music too fuels her creativity and she has a passion for blues, jazz and Bach. Her current obsession, in the studio, is Wagner’s overture to Tannhauser.
Art has always been part of Blake’s life. Her grandmother and mother were both potters and artists and she was encouraged from an early age to be creative. Her childhood on the shores of Chichester Harbour was spent messing about in boats, walking on the South Downs, and today remain places that fuel her work. She attended both Camberwell School of Art and later West Dean College. She sites Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline and Richard Diebenkorn as influences and her early abstract art school work was influenced by an exhibition of Islamic art at the Hayward Gallery.
A critical moment came for her when her then tutor squared off an inch of wall “and made me sit and paint it”. I suddenly realised I was making a painting and that it was totally valid as a piece of work”. Later, her MA tutor Dr. Ed Winters was pivotal to her artistic development as she began to move towards an aesthetic inspired by words shared with her “The landscape can be but a metaphor for the mind and its contents”.
Blake is something of a rover and adventurer so it was no surprise when life found her criss-crossing seas and continents, at times living on boats and making other lands her temporary home. In this time, she experienced both deep personal joy and pain, which has sometimes spilled into public life, with the tragic death of her much admired husband, yachtsman Sir Peter Blake.
Throughout her life though, she tells me that she has always felt drawn to the darker side of the human experience. She was much affected by the poetry of the war poets, particularly one of her literary heroes Wilfred Owen, at school. A line from his poem Strange Meeting has long resonated with her and war is a theme to which she continues to return. She was recently appointed artist in residence for Chichester Festival Theatre to respond to the play Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me that explored a hostage experience. Today she continues to watch, collect and remain fascinated with the images of conflict in the Middle East and the response and reaction of the people it affects and the adversity they face.
Journeys are also a repeating theme for Blake. Her Road series, was inspired by drives at night to and from West Dean College. She was touched by the loneliness of travelling in darkness. Recent travels have led to the creation of her newest series Flightpath. She comments that so often “we zoom past the world but for me, when I’m in the air, I am acutely aware that there is a whole world down there and people getting on with their lives and dramas”. The poignancy of this thought, and the unknown circumstances or conditions of the people below, are what she feels moved by and is expressing when she paints.
Blake’s mastery of mark making, gestural strokes and the suggestion of form and line are evident across the work. She tells me that she has a sheer love of paint, always oil, for its “…quality, richness and texture” and intuitively mixes her colours to get the tonal effect that helps to give her work such mystery. For her painting is not easy and she comments that “I constantly question why I do it. People often say it must be relaxing to be able to paint but for me it is a struggle but one that I can’t help doing’.
This show may be something of a crossroads for her as she contemplates where she will go next, not just in the world but also with her painting. She sees it as a wonderful opportunity to overview her work and is curious as to what questions or answers it may draw out. So, just for a moment, we shall suspend here, somewhere between the light and dark, and take time to see what might be revealed before this remarkable painter continues on with her quest.