Since the late eighties Basil Beattie has been exploring something inimical to the strict tenets of the tradition of abstract painting out of which he comes: a range of simple forms with figurative associations. First it was the archetypal components and bound volumes of built space, and latterly notional landscapes seen through ‘windows’ or ‘frames’, as though traversed in vehicles. These are the latest phases in a career spanning five decades, remarkable for its innovation and achievement. Beattie paints at a very large scale and enjoys the paradox of working close to on large expanses of canvas, with the scope of the canvas extending well beyond his field of vision. He describes the painterly structures he produces as ‘fibrous’, ‘muscular’, ‘incised’, ‘speedy’ and ‘distinct from questions of metaphor, the symbolic, illusion and allusion’. The meaning of his imagery cannot be separated from an impassioned process of making. He talks of ‘building the experience’, of being immersed in a process that gives substance and meaning to images that would otherwise lie ‘dormant’ on the canvas. As a consequence, there is in his paintings a profound sense of an artist plunged – was it originally with some reluctance? – into image-making. Perhaps, in that sense, it is more appropriate to see images as having tumbled into his paintings as though he lost the struggle to keep them out. The outcome is that he depicts them as though caught in that archaic moment when representation first coalesces out of gesture: they are the trial components of a language at the birth of the possibility of signification. That they should give us the language of shelter and dwelling, of the journey – of looking back and looking forward – is entirely appropriate. They are, after all, all fundamental to human existence. But if we look beyond the specific, this language has another dimension: it is a means to approach the grand narrative of time and space. As his current exhibition demonstrates, Beattie continues to make an important contribution to an on-going debate about contemporary painting, but his work does not rely on that validation. He has reached a place that only a few artists reach in their maturity, their creative forces far from expended, refined rather than diminished by time, and where it is the narrative of the mysteries of time and space – and their intertwining – that they are gifted to reveal as the work of painting, despite its apparent unsuitability for the task, given the inevitability of its engagement with its own materiality, the very thing at which Beattie also excels.
From Basil Beattie: Taking Steps 1986 – 2009, published by James Hyman Fine Art. The publication includes texts by Paul Moorhouse, Emma Hill, Adrian Searle and Nick de Ville.