Dimensions: 210 x 210 mm
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Nigel Swift has been a regular contributor to group and mixed offerings in the gallery and at major fairs such as the London Original Print Fair at the Royal Academy since he first started showing with us back in late 2013. This period has also seen two shows at Eames Fine Art Studio devoted to his work, highlighting an avowedly wide-ranging practice that embraces print, paint, oil pastel, monotype, wall-relief sculpture and life drawing in charcoal. Our studio (just around the corner from the gallery on Tanner Street) provides a place for artists to find and nurture a following for their work and Nigel has rapidly attracted a knowledgeable and loyal collectorship. So, this August we felt it high time to entrust him with the walls of the gallery for a first solo show. This poses an immediate question: for an artist that clearly revels in such a variety of different working practices, what direction will he take us?
‘The Pathless Wood’ is his answer and it consolidates and deepens an engagement with monotype that will be familiar to visitors to the studio over the past four years. Nigel’s work in this medium, expressed mostly as tightly composed landscapes in monochrome, has come to occupy an increasingly dominant place in his output, so it is entirely appropriate that this show should provide a comprehensive overview of this aspect of his practice. This overview confirms themes that emerged in Nigel’s first forays in the medium back in 2014: the intensity of working on a small scale, the subtlety of tissue-thin layers of tone, the preoccupation with moonlit seascapes and desertscapes (perhaps more accurately these should be described as dreamscapes) that stand for an ‘otherworld’ for the imagination to explore.
This is important to emphasise. These landscapes are not depictions of observed reality, they are an imagined reality, or rather a realm that Nigel journeys through and returns to repeatedly. The spark for these journeys can be musical. My first conversations with Nigel about these works centred on the importance of music, or at least the elusive idea of the ‘condition of music’ being what his work should be reaching for. The frame of reference is broader now. Ancient mythology, Dante, the War Poets, Japanese Haiku and Thomas Hardy are just some of the many new threads that Nigel gives echo to in this work. In places, we see a more daring palette at play too, although the lunar blue and chaste yellow that Nigel employs never puncture the dreamlike silence that pervades the show.
If Nigel is drawing on diverse source material for these works, they are underpinned by a single, central tenet that is strictly adhered to. Nigel has repeatedly stressed to me that the process of creation IS the work. Press, paper, copper plate and ink provide an exhilarating ‘jumping off’ point and there should never be a preconceived idea of what the finished work will look like: “The reason for starting cannot be the result” as Nigel firmly declares. So, these monotypes can indeed be seen as journeys that Nigel is undertaking, explorations that he embarks upon without a clear idea of what the final destination, what the finished work will be. To stretch the analogy still further, (and I hope that Nigel will forgive me as he can be somewhat intolerant of ‘arty bullshit’) the example from Greek mythology of Orpheus navigating the underworld is an insistent one. Along the way, various guides, from Homer and Shakespeare to Wilfred Owen and Yosa Buson help to light the way. These works are the stunning result of these journeys.
Nigel has been fiercely committed to this way of working and has produced an astonishing volume of work. The 40 or so pieces that make up this show have been curated from a much larger body of work spanning the last four years and the final selection has been sifted, refined, debated and argued over by all of us at Eames over the past few weeks. Of course, this is all grist to the mill for any gallery that takes its role seriously and it has been a pleasure to witness everyone on the team devour this rich body of work, make choices and champion personal favourites. We are all grateful to Nigel for the difficult but absorbing curatorial challenge he presented us with.
This is not to suggest that this show has been selection by committee however. In the end, Nigel’s work essentially selected itself as the various threads that he has been weaving settled into a gentle harmony with each other. Rarely has a show cohered with such elegant, logical poetry. ‘The Pathless Wood’ is its own inevitable result.
Vincent Eames, August 2018