Simultaneous Contrast: Three Converging Attitudes to Colour

Two painters and a photographer have converged on the Ariel Centre Gallery in Totnes for an exhibition which promises lots of colour. ‘I know it’s got a pretty heavy title,’ said photographer Michael Carter, ‘but it means what it says. It’s about colour, but not just about colour.’ The exhibition, Simultaneous Contrast: Three Converging Attitudes to Colour, has three artists apparently colliding with one another. But the two painters, Alan Bourne and Lar Cann, are not in a fight with the photographer. Rather, they’re showing how close these very different arts are in what they’re trying to achieve.

Simultaneous contrast is a term used in colour theory describing how colours appear to change one another when put side by side. Only when a colour is alone can it be seen for what it is. ‘This,’ says Michael, ‘is strangely like people. There’s often a wide difference between how they appear in a social group and how they are alone. And it’s also the same with pictures. Context can both add and take away. We think this one adds.’ Seen in this way, the artists are hoping that their mixed individual works will be viewed as a whole.

Alan, who is both artist and classical musician, describes colour to be of prime importance in his paintings. ‘Colour,’ he says, ‘is used to elicit a purely emotional response when understanding them. It is not reality of colour as we know it. The thing of importance is that the artist’s choice of colour should stimulate the mind as the underlying message of the painting.’ He knows that his work might easily be seen as abstract, and yet many of his paintings are based on landscape, while others are founded on literature and myth.

Similarly with Lar, whose apparent abstractions are actually rooted in Cornwall’s most substantial element - granite. For more than twenty years he has sought among Cornwall’s granite quarries for the deep sources of his art. The minerals he finds are his ‘landscapes-in-miniature’. His primary concern then becomes the exploration of colour and texture on the picture plane. ‘It’s heavily dependent on the observation of natural colour relationships and of qualities of surface – to the point where they become the subject of the work.’

In the exhibition the promised colour is not obtrusive. There is more the sense of subdued colours ebbing into one another in a controlled unemphatic way, the shapes and abstract forms rising into prominence without heavy gestures. The sense of depiction of the outside world of objects is minimal, and sometimes only the titles tell how the pictures are derived. But the pictures aren’t primarily there to represent things. They are there to show how things can be transformed into something else which doesn’t already exist. This, the artists say, creates the right sense of engagement, the right balance between the world we know and the world we make. In occupying both at the same time the experience becomes fuller, more complex.

‘Exhibiting with two painters of such distinction as Alan and Lar is not just good for me, it’s good for photography,’ Michael says. ‘Photography is still mostly looked at as a window onto things. Merging it with painting shows how it can also be a mirror of the feelings and the imaginative life.’

Totnes Times, November 2023

Portraits Of The Artists

… he chose art instead. And wisely, perhaps, he chose the most inert of all things to come to terms with: rock. He also chose beauty, although he may not see it that simply. And he shouldn’t, because he is not a simple man. His aim may be simplicity, but it is the kind of simplicity that only emerges after complex investigation. It issues from a profound relationship with materials and a firm conceptual understanding of aesthetic process.

Lar says he doesn’t want to give the spectator of his painting any sense of scale or definite place. He doesn’t want you to know whether the face of something is a granite wall or ‘something the size of your hand’. So it might be thought that he wants to disorientate and create a resistance to anyone getting a good cognitive hold on what he’s up to. Rather, it’s a psychologically astute way of detaining the eye for further and more rewarding examination. But it’s not like some vulgar puzzle you are invited to solve and then immediately forget as soon as the job is done. His art’s not like that. It’s not code-breaking. It’s not a matter of identification. It’s a recognition that adequate aesthetic response can’t be obtained by the same shallow or fleeting means required for the appreciation of some celebrity personality. One needs to be arrested and detained. One needs to live with the work.

‘Painting’, he says, ‘is like a game of chess’. But of course, it’s not the frivolous game aspect he means - it’s the abstract conditions under which the game has to be played. The opening move of the pawn is like the first mark on the canvas, for it begins to determine all other moves, all other marks. As the picture grows, widens and fills, the painter’s freedom of choice is incrementally diminished because of all the choices which have been made before. With the last mark made and the picture finished, the final segment of freedom vanishes. This, perhaps, expresses something about Lar’s individual way of mind.

Lar is a radical. He has that close look of enquiry. There is this decidedly intellectual streak to him - a rather scientific distance where he employs analytical resources to what he does. There are no vague responses-to-nature raptures. Like Descartes, he moves towards having distinct ideas. With his ‘direct observations from specimens in my collection’, he can be seen as a member of one of those learned societies that flourished in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a man who looks into the nature of things without his mind being hampered by bias or irrelevance. He is a binary figure, taking the objective world and imposing subjective meaning onto it. This gives his painting a strangely complete quality, as if the two most important things have been united in a comprehensive visual plan. He is a kind of Joseph Wright of Modernism.

Michael Carter, Portraits Of The Artists

Published by The Penwith Society of Arts, January 2018


The Rock cries out today, you may stand on me,
But do not hide your face...
Maya Angelou, On The Pulse of Morning

The landscape we see is dependent on the geology we cannot see. Terrain features work by a potter, a ceramic sculptor, a painter and a photographer, brought together because of what they show us about the geology and minerals beneath the surface of Cornwall. This is not for decorative effect, but reveals a far more elemental relationship with the solidity of our ground. Paul Jackson uses clay from, and creates forms that correspond to, the moor. Lar Cann visualises massive granite slabs and the intervention of the quarryman’s explosives. Jenny Beavan scoops up material from river, beach and quarry, while Adam Pedley records the mineral industry alongside the natural erosion resulting from the prevailing Atlantic climate.

The Royal Cornwall Museum provides the most meaningful location for the exhibition Terrain. This is the home of the Royal Institution of Cornwall and its internationally renowned collection of minerals and geological histories of the county is considered one of the finest in the world.

New writing on the subject of artists interpreting geology is a genre of academic research that offers great potential for development. Academic writing on art referencing geology is not widespread. Studies have taken place in the open spaces of the south western United States and J. Dove’s Geology and art: Cross-curricular links. Journal of Art and Design Education discusses the benefit to artists of understanding geology, using the Exeter area as an example. Terrain is the exhibition that adds a contemporary Cornish investigation to the genre of art referencing geology, presenting a spread of beautiful art and artefacts in the very building that enables the most direct visual research.

In Cornwall, we are never far from reminders of the solid ground beneath us. Cliffs, seen in elevation, reveal the layers of rocks that have been eroded. A flight from Newquay is made spectacular because of the aerial views of towering cliffs, of the pits and tips of the china clay area and the engine houses, the surface evidence of the deep caves and tunnels of the metal mining industries. A longer view shows the jagged outcrops of our mountains and hills, braes and tors.

On foot, the phrase terra firma always seems appropriate. Where fields give way to open moor, south of Roughtor, the surface is strewn with granite boulders, as if they have showered on to the earth from a great height, embedding themselves in the peat and tussocks of grass. But they have crept to the surface by erosion. I live in St Mabyn parish, which has been cultivated for centuries, exploiting the productive soil. Even so, spar stones as big as rugby balls arrive at the surface to inconvenience farm machinery and the garden spade strikes slate with a metallic ring. There are traces of metals on the western side of the moor, but the landscape on the eastern side, around Minions, was transformed by the copper mining boom and tin and granite extraction of the second half of the nineteenth century.

Towns, villages, harbours, hedges, walls and tracks have been built from indigenous stone. St. Breward, for instance, has terraces of solid, square cottages, stout granite fortresses against uninterrupted westerly winds. All our towns are similar in that they feature local stone, but that also creates a distinction. Depending on which quarry was sourced, the colours are subtly different: golden, ochre, earthy brown, dark grey, pale grey, blue-grey, silver grey. Delabole sawn stone and roof slates are used throughout the county, unifying Cornish architecture with distinctive quality and colour tones. Fine-grained silver grey granite from De Lank continues to be chosen for important architectural schemes, public buildings and monuments.

Important questions that the Terrain exhibition artists ask are, “How does this landscape feel? How can the sensation of being in the landscape be translated or described in visual terms? ”

Lar Cann is a Cornish artist, whose involvement, over decades, as an exhibiting member of Penwith Society of Arts, Plymouth Society of Artists, St Ives Society of Artists (Director and former Chairman) and The South West Academy of Fine and Applied Arts, has given him a secure reputation as a foremost abstract painter. His work is unremittingly abstract. He took up the challenge laid down by modernists in the 1960s. In the 1970s, the landscape influence was more readily seen; though still very ‘selective’ in imagery, it was very Cornish in the colour base. The stronger colours came about following a visit, in 1991, to the Var in south-eastern France and the abstraction became more pronounced. This segued to the contemporary work where scale reference has been avoided and the colour cross-pollinated with the mineral colours.

The industrial workings of Bodmin Moor’s granite quarries and mineralogy frequently reoccur as a visual stimulus. “Whereas I do not use metalliferous mining products directly as a visual reference in my work, there are quite a number of minerals that are, unearthed and scavenged from the spoil heaps of the county’s disused mines and Cornwall’s mining heritage. These references are made almost exclusively for their colour content, often in conjunction with the matrix of rock in which they are found. It is the natural relationships that frequently inform the compositions. These colours may well get modified in qualities of saturation and tone during the picture making process, but without direct observation from the samples in my collection, the work would not have this as a starting point.”
The titles of the works often make reference to the minerals, or their source, or as a sub-title to a quarry reference. Cheesewring, Caradon, Bearah, Carbilly, and Gold Diggings are prominent, all of which are regularly re-visited, easily reached and all within a few miles drive. De Lank is a little further away.

Extract from the catalogue essay, Esther Dudley, Curator
TERRAIN, Royal Cornwall Museum, September 2014 – February 2015

Going Underground

The geology and rich minerals of Cornwall’s landscape are explored in an exciting new exhibition at the Royal Cornwall Museum in Truro. Terrain features the work of a potter, a ceramic sculptor, a painter and a photographer and the result is a visual sensation of colour, form and texture.

The works in the exhibition represent what lies beneath the surface of Cornwall – the colours, subject matter and materials all reflecting the geology, minerals and landscape. They respond to the question, ‘How does this landscape feel? How can the sensation of being in the landscape be translated or described in visual terms?’

The exhibition was created by Esther Dudley of Plymouth University, who said, “The Royal Cornwall Museum provides the most meaningful location for the Terrain exhibition. This is the home of the Royal Institution of Cornwall and its internationally renowned collection of minerals and geological histories of the county is considered one of the finest in the world. The impetus for the exhibition came from a conversation in Paul Jackson’s studio, where I was looking at pottery that didn’t obviously suggest a usefulness, but evoked a strong sense of belonging to the landscape. The colours reflect earth tones and remind me of the metallic minerals, which bring Lar’s paintings to mind. With that connection made, Terrain began to form as a framework for bringing together interconnecting work.”

The Royal Cornwall Museum has played an essential role in the development of the exhibition; Esther’s research started in the Museum’s Courtney Library, using documents relating to the earliest recorded study of rocks and minerals of the county, such as Borlase’s Natural History of Cornwall of 1758. By happy chance the exhibition gallery, which shows Terrain, sits directly above the internationally important mineral gallery at the Museum and some beautiful specimens from this collection are exhibited alongside the works in Terrain, to illustrate the direct reference made by the artists.

Terrain was made possible with support from ICCI (Innovation for Cultural and Creative Industries) Plymouth University; World Heritage Sites, Cornwall Mining; Faculty of Arts Research, Plymouth University.

Taryn Harris
Membership and Communications Manager, Royal Cornwall Museum

In Search of Ancient Voices

The fringes of Bodmin Moor, in particular to the north-west and south-east, are areas long associated with mineral-ore mining and hard rock quarrying. These activities have influenced the physical appearance of a landscape already unique in character. The granite tors, weathered and eroded since the ice ages by the passage of time, are part of an ancient landscape, carrying the scars of industry.

This area of Cornwall has been Lar Cann’s home since the 1970s and it has exerted a profound influence on his paintings. His interest in linear abstraction had been stimulated by an exhibition of Ben Nicholson’s low reliefs at the Marlborough Gallery in 1963. Nicholson’s approach, more organic and obviously landscape-based than the harder-edge Constructivism of Naum Gabo or Victor Pasmore, was reinforced by the influence of Cann’s tutor Alex Mackenzie, Head of Painting at Plymouth College of Art. Cann regularly visited Mackenzie at his home in the Tamar Valley and then Penzance, where Mackenzie’s cool minimal abstraction made him a leading light in the post-war Newlyn and Penwith Societies of Artists, exhibiting alongside the pioneering St. Ives abstract artists.

Although the landscape is always his first point of reference, Cann’s primary concern, like Mackenzie, is the exploration of colour and texture on the picture plane with no attempt at photographic representation. Multi-layered lakes and glazes, or body colour cut heavily with a medium, are applied mainly through filters or masks, allowing for the fortuitous and accepting an element of surprise, akin to pulling a proof in printmaking. Though the composition is always a first consideration, it rarely subjugates anything impromptu revealed by a mask’s removal: the unpremeditated is absorbed into the composition as a consequence of process and no longer thought of as random. In Cann’s own words, “I would not wish to over-paint the spontaneous and vital simply because it was not part of the original design - much better to find a conclusion by other means, to sustain the painting’s own life”.

In the early 1990s visits to the Cote d’Azur had a dramatic effect on Cann’s palette. The sketchbooks and colour notes produced in situ started to provide the basis for much of the work and the emphasis became more firmly on pure colour. Kandinsky once spoke of the colour blue as having “that profound sense of seriousness which has no end”, and that the deeper it becomes, the closer it gets to arousing a sense of the spiritual in man. Cann’s frequent use of manganese, ultramarine, cerulean, cobalt violet and Prussian blue was a clear reaction to the intense heat of the summer months in the South of France, while the cadmium red and vermilion marks evoke the terracotta pantiles typical of the region, heightened in chromatic purity in order to balance the blues.

Inevitably other artists closely associated with the Midi, such as Matisse and Yves Klein, have become significant factors in the development of several avenues of Cann’s recent work. This continues to cross-pollinate current ideas, though the industrial workings of Bodmin Moor’s granite quarries and mineralogy frequently reoccur as a visual stimulus. This inspiration is now also very firmly based on direct observation of the mineral collection that Cann has amassed in recent years, not just locally but from many parts of the globe. Its increasing importance can be recognized in the references to mineralogy in the titles given to his new work – malachite, azurite, chrysocolla, erythrite – which is usually related to the named source of excavation. Cann’s recent exploration of the volcanic Eifel region of Germany has been the trigger for a re-appraisal and development of the new paintings, resulting in a noticeable softening of the palette. Some of these themes have been vigorously abstracted, others more demonstrably figurative, but the unifying thread is still a preoccupation with colour, which has inevitably evolved to a position of becoming the principal concern of his paintings.

Francis Mallett

White Lane Press, 2008

The Quarry Series

The 'Quarry Series' exemplifies the modern Cornish School's investigation into the hidden structure of landscape. Pursuing the perpetual exploration of landscape as a repository of geological and social history Cann brings venerable tradition up to date with a contemporary relish for intense, saturated colour.... [the] work speaks unequivocally about the plastic equivalence between the materials of art and the physical processes of landscape evolution.

Peter Davies, St Ives 1975-2005: Art Colony in Transition

St Ives Printing and Publishing Co., 2007