When was the last time you saw or even heard of anyone using oil pastels beyond an art lesson at school? I am certainly hard pressed to remember at the private view for the new Joanna Kirk exhibition which just landed at Blain|Southern. What do you mean, they’re all pastel? Taking in the size of each work (of which there was a no less than prolific amount) as I scan the room, I cannot believe what I have just been told. I had never heard of a contemporary artist working in this medium; could not have stretched my imagination beyond its possible use, at the very most, perhaps in a preparatory sketch. Not, mind you, because I believe an oil pastel stick to be so humble a tool as to be inferior, but because knowing the medium from my own childhood art projects, I could not imagine it being very easy or even pleasant to work with for anyone attempting an effect more complex than a strip of unblended blue sky or green grass at either end of a blank page. Unlike oil paint, I thought, you cannot beautifically layer pastel over pastel – doesn’t it just go muddy? And I remember my own set being incredibly sticky, but at the same time (if you pressed too hard) flaky, so that whole sections could end up falling off my masterpiece before it even made it to the kitchen fridge.
I thought this was why artists avoided using pastel. I thought that would happen to anyone, that it was just a pretty useless and frustrating medium altogether, along with powder paints (which will only ever be good for throwing, never painting with a brush, as far as I’m concerned). Yet clearly this was only the case in my clumsy childish hands, for in the hands of Joanna Kirk, the oil pastel is something both intricate and sublime. Self-Portrait is the first work that appeared to me in the space, and so closely woven are the textures of each pastel stroke that at first it does appear as something woven, like a tapestry or Joseph’s Technicolor Dream-coat. Yet closer inspection reveals that this is not in fact an abstract depiction of a swathe of material, but a knotted mass of trees in a forest.
And so are all of Kirk’s works in the exhibition, which draw from the topography of North Wales and Iceland, but also, I suspect, from the artist’s own imagination and the dense, rich landscape of fairy tales (especially Grimms’). They have been compared to the vast Romantic landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich; certainly in scale and in their Gothic tones of isolation there are parallels, and The Battle of Nant y Coed feautures a beautiful shade of blue that many would describe as transcendental (although Yves Klein may have somewhat spoiled the idea of a transcendental blue by patenting his own shade).
But there is also that craft element that first led me to believe I was looking at a tapestry. These paintings do not just capture the imagination because they are sublime landscapes, but also because they are fundamentally just incredibly well made. In oil pastels – I mean, how are they even possible?
There is some point in the evening where I learn that all of the works contain a tiny depiction of one of the artist’s children, sometimes obvious, sometimes hidden away – I won’t spoil it by telling you how to find each one. After running round to spot them all, I find I like the works even better. And I start to figure out why. This combination of the epic and sweeping with that pure painstaking skill is fantastic in the way the best forms of storytelling are. This is a mother weaving stories for, and about, her children. For this reason, they can be both sinister and tender – just as a childhood memory can be sad, because it makes us nostalgic, but still be happy, because it feels so familiar. And even while they are exquisitely well crafted, they are still childlike, because childlike doesn’t have to mean crude. That’s why pastel makes so much sense as the medium for these pieces, and why I now can’t understand why more artists don’t embrace it.
Much has been written on the reclaiming of crafts like sewing and weaving, traditionally seen as belonging to the inferior sphere of women, as an art form, and through Mindfulness we are also all of a sudden discovering the value of colouring in – even that basic block of blue sky at the top and green grass at the bottom can be an important piece of art. So what’s to stop us, I wonder, reclaiming the oil pastel? Kirk certainly makes a compelling case.
– Olivia Bladen
Joanna Kirk is on view at Blain|Southern until 3rd October 2015; 4 Hanover Square, London W1S 1BP; Monday to Friday: 10am – 6pm, Saturday: 10am – 5pm; Entry: FREE