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An interview with artist John Blackburn

Laura Thomson Auckland 23 February 2015
John Blackburn

"The material dispositions of his paintings are surprising and intriguing. His mark-making generates an unexpected play of thoughts and emotions – the whole physical presence of Blackburn’s paintings is original and compelling. There is nothing polite here. There might be lumps in the canvas – folds or overlaps, different layers. These are intentional. If Blackburn wants a smooth surface he makes one. In the same way if he wants the paint to run, he encourages it; otherwise a form is carefully and precisely outlined." - Andrew Lambirth, 2012.

John Blackburn (born 1932) is a British abstract painter. He studied at the Margate School of Art (Kent, England) in the early 1950s before moving to Auckland, New Zealand with his wife Maude, a New Zealander. Whilst there Blackburn developed his art and became the most radical artist working in Auckland in the late 1950s. Though included in an exhibition at the Auckland Art Gallery in 1959 and exhibiting at the short-lived Circle Gallery in Auckland, Blackburn largely escaped notice in the parochial and conservative art world of New Zealand in the 1950s.

After nearly a decade in New Zealand, he returned to his native England in 1961 and began exhibiting at the Woodstock Gallery in London, which in the late 1950s and early 1960s had strong affiliations with the progressive painting coming out of St Ives. Blackburn’s lyrical abstract style caught the attention of influential collector and gallerist, Jim Ede, who offered him a show at his influential Kettles Yard gallery in Cambridge alongside leading British artists including Peter Lanyon, William Scott and Roger Hilton.

Personal matters meant Blackburn took a break from painting in the 1980s and he then fell into relative obscurity until the early 2000's when a show at Folkstone’s Metropole Galleries in 2006 led to a revival of interest in his work. In 2008 Blackburn returned to New Zealand, producing work for an exhibition at Artis gallery, his first in Auckland since the 1960s. He has continued to exhibit annually at Artis Gallery and at Osborne Samuel in London.

Blackburn was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in 1995, and his work is represented in the collctions of the British Embassy in Paris, Cambridge University, The Bank of Ireland - London and many other significant public and private collections around the world.

Of this body of work in his 2015 exhibition, titled Inspiration at Artis Gallery, Ian Massey, author of Patrick Proctor: Art and Life (Unicorn Press) says:

"Reflecting the light and atmosphere of the Southern hemisphere, Blackburn's work in this show is generally lighter, both in substance and application, than much of his recent English painting."

Whilst in New Zealand Ocula correspondent Laura Thomson caught up with John Blackburn.

[O] Tell us about your background. What was your journey into art?

(JB) I attended art school from age 14 to 17, and then I was conscripted into the Royal Airforce. Upon being demobilised I sought my future in New Zealand where I began painting seriously, this was by now 1952/3.

And how would you define yourself as an artist?

I am an artist that is primarily concerned with the human condition, my work is driven by this.

At age 82 you are still painting and traversing the globe for exhibitions. Looking back over your career, what have been some of the highlights.

The highlight of my long career has been the interest and support of many people including Thos (Les) Harvey of Auckland, Jim Ede of Kettles Yard, Cambridge, and also both of my galleries, Osbourne Samuel in London, and Artis Gallery in Auckland.

Turning to your current exhibition at Artis Gallery.  Tell us about the works in the exhibition – are they all new and over what period did you make them?

Most of the work is inspired by being in New Zealand, the light is more intense here and my work seems to be of a more delicate nature, the large triptych in this exhibition was started last year in England, then flown out and finished here in New Zealand last month. Almost all of the work now showing at Artis is new work pained at Muriwai (a small coastal community on the West Coast of Auckland, New Zealand) over the past 3 years.

The exhibition is called Inspiration, can you elaborate on this and indeed what were your particular inspirations for the exhibition?

Light and colour! The lushness of the surroundings together with the intense calm and peacefulness are indeed inspiring.

Which is your favorite piece in the exhibition and why?

The triptych (Triptych - Inspiration) is my favourite, it has monumentality and power, and I think it is a significance work.

What else do you have planned in 2015? 

Return to England in March and prepare for my next London exhibition.

What was the last great art exhibition you saw?

I cannot remember the title of the show, but it was held at the National Gallery, London a few years ago. A group of world class artists were invited to paint their interpretation of a favourite old master that particularly inspired them and the upshot of this was some extraordinary works. I particularly remember a magnificent work by Cy Twombly, in my opinion a masterpiece.

Does the world need art?

Absolutely there is no question at all about this, the world could not function, properly without music, poetry, painting and sculpture. —[O]

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