The great American artist Bill Lynch (1960-2013) never had a single exhibition in his life. Almost nothing has been written about his wild and beautiful paintings – ancient but modern, mythological but extremely contemporary – and they only gradually began to emerge. Brighton’s Center for Contemporary Arts somehow managed to get their hands on 15 of their elusive wooden works from scattered locations to put together this mesmerizing exhibition, the first in a public gallery in the UK. The result is a hit.
Lynch was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the heart of Breaking Bad, and studied art at Cooper Union in New York. He lived in California for a while, but ended up in Raleigh, Northern California, to be close to his family. He appears to have worked intermittently, sometimes as a carpenter, although it is surprisingly difficult to find out much about him.
There is a portrait, by his friend and fellow painter Verne Dawson, that shows a man in a sweater with blue eyes and red hair, but Lynch is an artist with no public face (at least to me). He died of cancer at age 53, but his inner life seems private, unknown even to the curator of this show.
We’re in ancient Greece, or Monet’s Giverny, or here and now, somewhere in America
Lynch may have started painting on reclaimed wood because it was raw. But the medium becomes crucial to art. Old plywood, used boards, table top pockmarked with weevils: he found a way to paint over this tough, tough substrate as if it were as light as parchment. And his brushwork, moreover, is correctly described as calligraphic. Owls, hawks, tangled flowers, the pale disks of seeds of honesty hanging like silver moons from skeletal black branches: his art has all the delicacy of nature, combined with a whirling, stuttering, sometimes rebellious brusqueness.
Over the tawny heat of the old wood, he paints a harsh blush of crimson to hold a stalk of white flowers. They materialize as a vision in the moiré grain of the wood. Lynch pays attention to every nuance of the natural surface. His brush follows the flow or glides over the unfinished wood to let its grain appear as part of the image. Circles where a knot has dropped are filled with pigment, like shimmering planets.
On a piece of blond board, he paints two classical gods locked in mortal combat under a sequence of almost abstract swirls, dark with thunder, that repeat the rings of wood as they imply ancient skies. A green frog watches from halfway to one side, impairing your perception of what’s above, below, and beyond. Wood has the disorienting dimensions, for him, of both heaven and earth, outer space and Greek sand.
A deer moves through white light, a morse code of dots and fine lines, the red of a fawn and its blood. Only from a distance is it clear that this creature is turning its head to cast a backward glance. The bristly marks and bristly foliage give a fireworks impetus to this huge image; the creature leaps, about to disappear.
A willow-patterned cup lies, blue and white and bizarrely coarse, among the ferns and ferns on the forest floor. There is a glossy painting of a mirror, just a disk of white, but just the right white, gleaming against the cardboard in another painting, characteristically without date or title. These still lifes, small and discreet, seem to come out of nowhere and yet make a kind of poetic sense.
The image of a pomegranate, cut in half, its ruby seeds painted an alizarin crimson that collects on the surface like drops of blood, appears against a hazy, smoky darkness. Water lilies hover beside him for no apparent reason; and above it hangs a wooden plate, decorated in gold over terracotta, almost deliberately slovenly in appearance, and yet so expressive of the object itself that it is instantly recognizable. We are in ancient Greece, or Monet’s Giverny, or here and now, somewhere in America. For this photo, unusually, it has a title and casts all the emphasis on a ball of soft, pale fuzz at the bottom, the seeds of a native plant. Is called Still life with Milkwseed.
The willow pattern cup is revealing. Lynch loved and studied the art of Chinese watercolor, especially the flower and bird compositions that mark his way through this show. But other cultures are always behind the scenes. A work in Brighton includes an image of a Chinese painting of a horse which in turn somehow functions as its own ancestor from the prehistoric caves of Lascaux; three different eras in one.
There is a quote, taken from a letter to a friend in the 1990s. “I realized that 20th century art is the fruit of personal revelation,” Lynch wrote, “whereas ancient art is the product of the initiation of mystery.” This somehow illuminates the strangeness of his work, with its peculiar combination of primitive gaiety and high sophistication. A huge painting of a sunset rolls across the hardboard in brilliantly controlled swirls, smooth as any pop art riff but with a glory of gold, pink and blue that could have come from another painter under a different sky thousands ago. of years.
The most beautiful work here is painted on five bare boards joined together to make something the size and shape of a door. It is almost entirely composed in black and white against the muddy gold of the wood; like the colors of a Japanese parchment. The snow descends in smooth, circular strokes. Birds, or at least dark forms of birds, appear among the silent flakes. Everything is coming down these long vertical planks like winter in an imposing American landscape. It is a dream of a forest, painted on wood from such a forest: humble, organic, gentle.