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Before Vermeer's Clouds, by Martin Greenland


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About the artwork

Martin Greenland has shown work in four consecutive John Moores Exhibitions: 16, 17, 18 and 19, between 1989 and 1995. This, his fifth showing, is the first to have been awarded a prize.

Despite their photographic realism, meticulous detail and sophisticated finish, Greenland's landscapes are all fictions. He draws a distinction between real landscape, experienced on a country walk, for example, and the 'illusion of landscape' invented with paint on canvas. The former, he declares, is 'about absorption, meditation, analysis', the latter 'about realisation, connection, revelation.' Of course all painted landscapes are illusions in the sense that they are two-dimensional fabrications of a real scene. Greenland, however, dispenses with the starting point of a real scene and fabricates a place which 'exists only in this painted illusion.'

His four previous John Moores submissions have been landscapes seen disturbingly close. Hemmed in by trees, shrubs and ferns, the picture spaces had a menacing, airless claustrophobic quality. They were literally enclosed by heavy, distressed frames, made by the artist from driftwood and fragments of railway sleeper. A low viewpoint restricted visibility of the sky to fugitive glimpses through foliage. Objects ranged from the sordid and mundane, fly-tipped old mattress or rusty safe, to the bizarre and unsettling: a lifebelt, a golden Minotaur, a hatchet buried in a post.

'Before Vermeer's Clouds' appears to represent a departure. We seem to be viewing the scene from a lofty vantage point giving a sweep to the landscape and, most importantly a sense of space and distance. Greenland's original title was 'A Vision of Heaven'. Significantly a good third of the picture surface consists of sky. Ironically, in view of the fictional nature of Greenland's pictures, the sky is the only element that he has actually copied; and he has copied it, not from nature, but from Jan Vermeer's landscape masterpiece 'A View of Delft'.   

Greenland's title might seem puzzling. In view of its debt to a Seventeenth century work, we might expect it to be called 'After Vermeer's Clouds'. Instead, the implication seems to be that the clouds copied from another man's painting form an artificial backdrop to an equally artificial invented landscape. Greenland's landscape is therefore 'before', in the sense of being 'in front of' Vermeer's clouds. 

The painting, he says, 'had to have the same appearance of stability and unhurried peace as Vermeer’s, and incorporate as many elements of the stable or perpetual as could be organised.' In the left foreground and almost out of the picture, is the comforting stability and continuity of a visual quotation from an earlier work: the golden plinth from 'Released' of 1993 which then was imagined as supporting the 'massive guardian lion', that had figured in 'Rich' of 1990.

In the right foreground, what started out as a descending flight of stone steps, was changed to a waterfall. We strain our eyes to identify the characteristics of buildings in the thick forest clothing the valley but, on the far horizon, we might just discern, perhaps, another element of stability and perpetuity: the Parthenon of Athens. There is a strange structure at another point on the horizon. Judging by its apparent distance from us it must be a truly colossal tower, but we identify it as a truncated cone of coloured plastic rings remembered from the nursery.

Listen to a recording of Paul O'Keeffe's gallery talk on Martin Greenland's 'Before Vermeer's Clouds' online now.

Martin Greenland has shown work in four consecutive John Moores Exhibitions: 16, 17, 18 and 19, between 1989 and 1995. This, his fifth showing, is the first to have been awarded a prize.

Despite their photographic realism, meticulous detail and sophisticated finish, Greenland's landscapes are all fictions. He draws a distinction between real landscape, experienced on a country walk, for example, and the 'illusion of landscape' invented with paint on canvas. The former, he declares, is 'about absorption, meditation, analysis', the latter 'about realisation, connection, revelation.' Of course all painted landscapes are illusions in the sense that they are two-dimensional fabrications of a real scene. Greenland, however, dispenses with the starting point of a real scene and fabricates a place which 'exists only in this painted illusion.'

His four previous John Moores submissions have been landscapes seen disturbingly close. Hemmed in by trees, shrubs and ferns, the picture spaces had a menacing, airless claustrophobic quality. They were literally enclosed by heavy, distressed frames, made by the artist from driftwood and fragments of railway sleeper. A low viewpoint restricted visibility of the sky to fugitive glimpses through foliage. Objects ranged from the sordid and mundane, fly-tipped old mattress or rusty safe, to the bizarre and unsettling: a lifebelt, a golden Minotaur, a hatchet buried in a post.

'Before Vermeer's Clouds' appears to represent a departure. We seem to be viewing the scene from a lofty vantage point giving a sweep to the landscape and, most importantly a sense of space and distance. Greenland's original title was 'A Vision of Heaven'. Significantly a good third of the picture surface consists of sky. Ironically, in view of the fictional nature of Greenland's pictures, the sky is the only element that he has actually copied; and he has copied it, not from nature, but from Jan Vermeer's landscape masterpiece 'A View of Delft'.   

Greenland's title might seem puzzling. In view of its debt to a Seventeenth century work, we might expect it to be called 'After Vermeer's Clouds'. Instead, the implication seems to be that the clouds copied from another man's painting form an artificial backdrop to an equally artificial invented landscape. Greenland's landscape is therefore 'before', in the sense of being 'in front of' Vermeer's clouds. 

The painting, he says, 'had to have the same appearance of stability and unhurried peace as Vermeer’s, and incorporate as many elements of the stable or perpetual as could be organised.' In the left foreground and almost out of the picture, is the comforting stability and continuity of a visual quotation from an earlier work: the golden plinth from 'Released' of 1993 which then was imagined as supporting the 'massive guardian lion', that had figured in 'Rich' of 1990.

In the right foreground, what started out as a descending flight of stone steps, was changed to a waterfall. We strain our eyes to identify the characteristics of buildings in the thick forest clothing the valley but, on the far horizon, we might just discern, perhaps, another element of stability and perpetuity: the Parthenon of Athens. There is a strange structure at another point on the horizon. Judging by its apparent distance from us it must be a truly colossal tower, but we identify it as a truncated cone of coloured plastic rings remembered from the nursery.

Listen to a recording of Paul O'Keeffe's gallery talk on Martin Greenland's 'Before Vermeer's Clouds' online now.