Nothing can prepare you for the scale, drama and beauty of John Hitchens’ work in the opening rooms of this important retrospective exhibition Aspects of Landscape at Southampton City Art Gallery.
Born in 1940 John Hitchens has spent most of his life living in the Sussex landscape which continues to inspire him. The retrospective coincides with the artist’s 80th birthday.
The exhibition begins in an intimate room displaying painted stones and sculpture. It adds to the sense of drama as you enter the first of the main galleries. Seven paintings of extraordinary scale explore the landscape one informing the other. A clump of naturalistic, abstract, hewn vertical landscapes create a layered perspective uniting the works and gifting the viewer with a sense of inhabiting, of being present in a landscape.
The views from Duncton Hill, a period of aerial photography over the South Downs and a love of maps with their contours were the catalysts for these increasingly abstract landscapes from the last twenty years. Forms are reduced to a series of lines, dots, circles and patterns which provide motifs for the shapes created by ploughing and harvesting. Stubble was the origin of the dots and the black areas in the compositions recall burnt stubble, a sight no longer part of our landscape. Many of the pictures are textural, the earth hues painted on a base of sieved sawdust bound together with PVA. As you stop and stare subtle details reveal themselves. They reflect our human relationship with the land and our influence on the landscape.
The chronology of this beautiful and imaginative show works in reverse. We progress back through the years discovering each phase of this important artist’s oeuvre until we arrive at the beginning and his more representational paintings. Throughout his career John has often renewed his exploration in art by putting to one side those things which have been central to his work, brushwork, the relationship of the sky to the land, in order to develop and evolve his artistic voice and creativity. Although these points of decisive change can appear revolutionary this is a processional artist whose art remains about the landscape he is rooted in.
His early work was painted en plein air but today John works in his studio giving voice to the unspoken conversations between found objects, nature, the landscape and music in his art.
John Hitchens has described how, in order to move forward, he got rid of the skyline by ‘tipping the land up’.
John Hitchens’ prodigious creativity is born out of a generous discipline of ‘looking quietly’. He describes painting as a ‘calling’. His artistic practice is driven by both curiosity and delight in the familiar woods, fields, coast and Downs of Sussex. His life and art lend credence to the truth that you can journey far by remaining in the same place.
Our thanks must go to the artist John Hitchens and Dan Matthews, together with his team at Southampton City Art Gallery, for this exceptional show.
Rarely has a body of art, an exhibition, moved me so deeply.
John Hitchens – Aspects of Landscape is this summer’s must see show and has been extended until 3rd October 2020. To find out more and to book your free tickets visit www.southamptoncityartgallery.com.