Touch: Julian Brown, Celia Cook, Jane Harris and Mali Morris RA

Aristotle observed that 'Every body that has a soul in it must, as we have said, be capable of touch' and that it was only this sense that a conscious creature must have in order to 'be'. 


It was Aristotle’s further contention in the De Anima that touch is the only sense that a conscious creature must have in order to be. The other senses, said the Stagirite, namely sight, hearing, taste and smell, are necessary ‘not for being but for well-being’. Contemporary painting finds itself in agreement with these priorities in making perception a specialised version of touch, and touch the foundation for what is seen.

To look at Julian Brown’s new paintings, one gets an idea of what he means in calling some of them ‘manicured’. They are fastidiously presented; but that is
not the only quality you see in the high-colour striations that 
Serso, for example,
is an instance of. There is no intelligent regard for such works that does not ask questions about the calculations that gave rise to them. How wide does a swathe of colour have to be to fit a given number of them into the given format? Is that pulled swathe at just the right angle of decline, and is it likely to smudge the one just completed, or be smudged by the one to come? Would it matter if it were? What sort of surface must one prepare, to maximise the chances for that kind of speed-painting to succeed – casually, so it would seem, yet with assurance that the trick won’t go wrong. How much risk needs preserving in the painting process for mathematics not to completely sanitise it? The answer lies in mastery of the manufacture, the touch of the implement upon the ground. Yet Brown is not always a manicurist.


Paintings are flat objects, obviously; and in modern painting that flatness can be literal, but ludic too, a game of look-and-see with the materials and manners in the painter’s tool-kit. In the larger, more celebratory works, of which Luna Park or Black Lagoon in the present show are fine examples, the ludic attitude is slightly different, with the ‘quick’ surfaces of the small paintings largely absent. In the larger works, the artist will get things started with a pale-coloured diamond grid (the colours of cheap wrapping paper, roughly) then do something to it: interrupt it, obliterate the grid’s order, switch quickly from wide-angle to narrow, from field to focus. From there on it’s a matter of dialogue between a grid that shows signs of disappearing and various new visual strangers arriving on the block. He will put an arbitrary blob centrally, often dark green or blue, then smooth it out thinly. He might then overlay that double-surface with some signature boat-shapes or some fairground baubles, the latter sometimes painted on carefully and sometimes blotted on with the help of a transparent perspex screen. Some boat-shapes are painted, some are printed in the same monoprint method, pressing a painted shape onto the surface and hence reversing it, in a slightly hit-and-miss frame of mind. There are echoes in all this, remote and now quite formulaic, of a Polish paper cut-out tradition that still thrives in that country and in Ukraine.


Finally, we have the new small painting The Crossing, an important transitional
work whose scale and colour-key is lowered, but whose casual intensity has been stepped up a good deal. It’s blasé, but carefully so. Meanwhile a similar attitude of do-it-and-see is the generative one for Nightbloomer, the small watercolour painting in the show. In this case, the curdling and blossoming shapes that form between the wettest and least wet parts of the indigo wash are not exactly designed by the artist, but their preconditions are; then given a free reign to coalesce and self-organise in their own random way. Planning, and the action of materials, do much of the work in contemporary painting, even though the artist is responsible for how much or how little to control.