Look, Look Again!

John Ball

It was almost impossible to get her to say anything about her work, but Prunella thought deeply and intelligently about what she was doing, about its meaning. Her landscape comprises the detritus of modern urban life, objects that are expendable and ignored. Flaking paint on an old wall, packets of plastic, giveaway toys, the junk and clutter of builders’ yards, discarded plastic bags, a leaf, a grimy neglected hedge, corrugated roofing, surfaces distressed by time and exposure to the elements. She liked to look at things though plastic or wire netting, or through glass. From such discouraging sources she created richly inventive images, satisfying as abstract paintings but somehow, as she said, always keeping a grasp on the original experience. One of her gifts, and one that she half-deplored, was for making a perfectly constructed image, a kind of natural grace in design, placing and balance. She complained: ‘The trouble is that I have a lifetime’s preoccupation with construction, layout, the traditional checks and balances. I cannot throw any of that out. It leads to an over-elegance, unsuitable to the integrity or real presence of the raw material.’ Evidently she would have liked to paint more crudely and brutally; I think she was mistaken to want that. The tension between elegance and brutal fact lies at the heart of the appeal, the authority and the powerful fascination of her work. Take away the elegance, the tension and you’d be left with little more than reportage. The tension is more obvious in the earlier paintings, where the starting material, the urban or industrial motif is more readily recognisable in all its brutality. In the more abstracted later pictures, resplendent in their beauty, wit and humour, an analogous tension is often generated by the intrusion of a harsh, uncouth shape into a soft ground, or of shocking acid colours in a muted tonal context. Subtler is the tension created by a strongly geometrical basis – sometimes overt, as a mesh or grid, often only lightly hinted at – contrasted with freer, floating elements. Earlier on, she had little interest in colour as such; but later, colour came flooding in. In part, this was probably a result of her two cataract operations in the 1980s for which, typically, she awaited her turn on the NHS. I’d driven her to hospital one Monday for the first operation. On the Wednesday, when the dressing was removed, she ’phoned me and said excitedly, ‘I can see blue!’ For weeks she was almost delirious about the newly visible blue end of the spectrum, sitting for ages in her kitchen staring at the blue gas jets on her cooker. Inevitably, her brain got used to the new sensation – but not before she’d incorporated the gas jets and the excitement into at least one picture (Still Life, 1987).

From then on, colour – vivid, sometimes strident, sometimes subtle and modulated – played an increasingly important role in the pictures. There was an obvious change from the figurative earlier works to the seemingly abstract later pictures. I think that, along the way, she simply got better. Magical as the earlier things are, I locate the full flowering of her genius, the great achievement of her ‘sideways’ vision, in the later abstracts. These, for me, are the most powerful, haunting, often joyous things she ever did, objects of great beauty, of great tension. To summarise it all, these pictures seem to act as agents of redemptive metamorphosis, working both on their starting material and on us as we contemplate them. Prunella looked at the ordinary, utterly familiar objects of our lives, at work, at home and out and about – objects so commonplace that most of us, long ago, stopped seeing them – and she says:

‘Look, look again! How extraordinary, surprising and strange this is – how beautiful. Isn’t it exciting? Just look at it!’

‘Look, look again! How extraordinary, surprising and strange this is – how beautiful. Isn’t it exciting? Just look at it!’ ‘It’ might be a factory gate, a bent water-pipe, a gas-jet or a rusty blue litter bin. And it is in this sense that her paintings are ‘machines for looking’ at all the overlooked visual delights that surround us, heralds of the poetry inherent in the small change of mundane existence.

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