The late 1980s were a turning point for Ian McKeever, professionally and personally. He moved from London to the village of Hartgrove in the Southwest of England. In the same period, the landscape photographs that he had been gluing to his canvases and then partly submerging in paint came to seem superfluous, too literal a reference point; they ceased to appear. In keeping with the early British Conceptualism in which his art is rooted, McKeever understood the landscape as a point of research more than a subject to be depicted. Nature’s processes came to be equivalents to the physicality and unpredictability of gestural abstract painting. In the early ’90s, he spoke of wanting his painting to become “strictly of itself.”
McKeever first exhibited the “Hartgrove Paintings” in the mid-1990s. At the Royal Academy, a selection of four from the series—all squarish rectangles around 9 feet wide—were shown in conjunction with 42 more recent black-and-white photographs (2007–10). The photographs, all about 8 inches on a side, are high-contrast close-ups of the interior of McKeever’s Hartgrove home. Deploying an equally high-contrast vocabulary in the paintings, McKeever stained raw cotton duck with pools of black oil paint, then overlaid bands of white acrylic (black on black in the case of Hartgrove Painting No. 5, 1993–94), their edges sometimes revealing minute traces of the newspaper he used as a makeshift stencil. Meandering horizontally and vertically, the bands of paint create an illusion of spatial recession, like semitransparent membranes giving onto gelatinous depths. But in only one sense—that of the fundamental descriptiveness of their medium—are the photographs more concrete than the paintings. The comparison between the two mediums suggests a return, in a more attenuated form, to the tensions that characterized McKeever’s work of the 1970s and ’80s. Primary among these contrasts are the differing visual embodiments of time. The photographs are instantaneous, however much we intuit the movement of changing light, while the paintings are physical records of the duration of their making. They intimate how the glacial pace of McKeever’s painting must inevitably be even slower than our perception of it as a single field of activity, however detailed and vast that field.
Ironically, when McKeever moved to the countryside, landscape disappeared from his art. Hartgrove Painting No. 5 resists being perceived as a field in darkness; it remains black material accreting in distinct intervals, becoming glossier as the paint thickens. Similarly, the photographs have an uneasy relationship to what they show. Brightness slants and eddies between the geometries of the furnishings, reluctantly yielding up the objects around which it congeals. Windows are metaphors for pictoriality: a casement of four dislodged blinds bleeds a cross of weak light into the darkness. For all their evanescence, the photos are records of daily existence—a duvet thrown over a staircase, a stack of saucers, the coil of a telephone cord—whereas the paintings are sturdy monuments, the time they embody refusing to be harnessed to any singular present tense.
Photo: Ian McKeever: Hartgrove Painting No. 5, 1993-94, oil and acrylic on canvas, 981⁄2 by 1041⁄4 inches; at the Royal Academy of Arts.