Philip Reeves retrospective opens in Glasgow

Philip Reeves' 'Primary Three with Black'. Picture: Contributed
Philip Reeves' 'Primary Three with Black'. Picture: Contributed
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AS A retrospective opening in Glasgow this weekend shows, the genius of Philip Reeves’s prints and collages lies in the way they keep the viewer slightly off kilter, writes Christopher Andreae

There is nothing blatant about the character of Philip Reeves’ art. It is the product of organised yet intuitive contemplation and takes time to give up its secrets. It is also extremely varied. Collectors of his work do not seem to tire of it. Over the years it steadily grows on them.

It can seem at first sight deceptively simple. But the structural elements with which he composes his images – one might call them building blocks – have functions beyond composition: they can be a means of orchestrating colours and textures. They may be a way of relating shapes, masses and weights. Or they may play a game of balance and imbalance. This intriguing game is subtle and precisely detailed. A sensitive shift between shapes may allow them to split subtly away from each other, away from the strictly vertical and horizontal. Such minuscule shifts, where edges do not quite coincide or marginally break an expected line, partly explain why Reeves has been so attracted to collage.

As he works, each cut shape can be moved minimally over or under another until he settles on a satisfactory, vital harmony. Seeing Reeves’ works in musical terms is tempting and, after one is completed, he may discover musical analogies in it – low notes and high notes, for instance, or the sound of particular instruments. But the works do not come from music to start with.

Though his works seem abstract, and some of them are persuasively so, one of the secrets of their lasting fascination is that in his thinking they relate closely to seen or felt experiences in the rural or urban landscape. They are not (except in earlier works) depictions of what he sees or remembers having seen. They are translations of feeling, like Wordsworth’s “emotion recollected in tranquillity”. For example, they may translate into the terms of his art rock structures and their predominant form and colour in a particular region – the rusty north-east of Scotland, the dark grey of northern England’s Shap granite, or the white chalk slopes of Wiltshire in the southwest.

Since he has lived in Glasgow most of his long career, works have also been in response to urban canals, rivers, bridges, columns, escalators, tower blocks, walls, hedges and allotments. Even “holes in the wall” have inspired one small work. He seems particularly intrigued by the way large new buildings alter the cityscape. His printmaking has sometimes sprung from found objects in the city, discarded back-alley fragments or even rough, abandoned sheets of metal powerfully inked up and pressed into service in place of the rectangles and smooth surfaces of conventional printing plates. This adventurous originality connects directly to collage.

It is not finally possible to separate his long career as a printmaker from his long career as a painter and maker of collages and reliefs. They are all part and parcel of one strong, different, scrupulous and frequently surprising vision.

Reeves taught printmaking at the Glasgow School of Art (GSA) from 1954 to 1991. He was a driving force in the pioneering establishment of the Glasgow Print Studio as well as the Edinburgh Printmakers. All the time he was also a practising artist in his own right and has continued to produce a large quantity of work since his “retirement”.

Printmaking, at least while he was a lecturer, was primary. He brought printmaking at the GSA into the 20th century at a time when making prints was of increasing interest to artists, and not just the craft-skill of specialist etchers, lithographers and silkscreeners. By 1970 he had under his wing a printmaking department at the school. It was now centre stage and no longer just a branch of graphics. And in 1970 he was appointed Senior Lecturer in Printmaking.

So when, in February 1969, a travelling exhibition arrived at the art school of German Graphics since 1945, it was incumbent upon Reeves to review it. His review survives in his own handwriting in the art school archives. It is revealing because it tells us quite as much about Reeves’ work as it does about the works in the exhibition. In particular, he praises a linocut (though the catalogue calls it a “woodcut”) by Hans Arp, a significant figure in 20th century modern art:

“The best print is by Hans Arp. Only three colours: yellow, green, with black hovering in four small areas, some appearing to slant or about to fall. It’s precarious. It includes aspects of optical illusion, it’s elegant, the colours are balanced and not bland, it’s beautifully printed…”

The catalogue list for the exhibition gives no titles, so this particular print by Arp is difficult to track down. Anyway, for our purposes today, it is what Reeves’ description discloses about the character of his own work that matters. Visual similarity is not the point. Reeves’ works do not bear any obvious resemblance to Arp’s biomorphic forms or Dada absurdity. Nevertheless, he found in the Arp crucial things in common.

One way in which the Arp print appealed to him was that it was “elegant”. He surely used the word to mean economical and concise in its design rather than suggesting sartorial good taste or suave movements. His own prints frequently have economical restraint. Overstatement is not a characteristic of his work.

He also noticed, with approval or interest, that the Arp print contained “aspects of optical illusion”. Optical illusion has sometimes understatedly played its part in Reeves’ work, and it is not without significance that, as a student in the early 1950s at the Royal College of Art in London, he was a contemporary of Bridget Riley, master of optical vibration and illusion. To this day he admires her work, pointing out that its apparently absolute precision and immaculate execution nevertheless betray a human touch. There are very slight variations in her (hand-painted) black and white, and later colour, strips and bands. Once again, as with his appreciation of the Arp print, Reeves’ appreciation of another artist’s work – in this case Riley’s – points to the character of his own. Though undoubtedly fastidious and exact, his images never lack a human touch. His works are freer and rougher (and often larger) than one might at first think, though “free” and “rough” are certainly relative terms. An improvised expressionism is not Reeves’ way. He is a meditative, constructivist artist, and his works often take months, or even years, to gel and reach satisfactory completion. Completion means that a balance is reached, but it is not a minimalist symmetry. It is not fabricated with machine-like precision. It is also, one might say, hand-made.

In his 1969 review, Reeves praised a “precarious” quality in Arp’s print. In his own work he wants to have an ingenious degree of “off-balance”. He explained this in an autobiographical interview with The Scotsman’s art critic Duncan Macmillan in 2001:

“In the end it is a matter of getting the balance right, but at the same time making things that are slightly off-balance. That is more interesting. It is easy to do it perfectly. You have to work at it to get it off-balance. It is more difficult to introduce something that might upset things a little. That is what I always hope will emerge as I work on something.”

Such slight imbalance ensures that his images do not have a rigid, frozen impersonality. They are anti-static. They are not highly finished graphic designs. Instead they deliberately involve a degree of irregularity, uncertainty, or inconclusiveness. They are on the verge of resolution. This is one thing that keeps them so vitally and intriguingly alive.

Reeves finds it difficult to date his works and rarely does so. Sometimes it can be over a year before they are brought to completeness. His art is more concerned with place than it is with date, surprisingly free from 
time. n

• This is an extract from Philip Reeves by Christopher Andreae, a major new publication from Lund Humphries, priced £40, A new exhibition of work by Philip Reeves opens this weekend at Cyril Gerber Fine Art in Glasgow, and runs until 4 July,