Painting the Town Big: Martin Churchill at Beacon Arts Centre, Greenock

Martin Churchill, 'Alex Mair Ltd Dustsheets' (detail), oil on canvas (1987-1991)
'Alex Mair Ltd Dustsheets' (detail), oil on canvas (1987-1991)

Martin Churchill: Urban Landscape

Mon - Sun 10:00 - 17:00

From: 6 Aug 2022

To: 27 Aug 2022

Beacon Arts Centre
Custom House Quay
Glasgow & the Clyde Valley
PA15 1HJ

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A visit to the Beacon for coffee with a friend living in Greenock quickly led the artist Martin Churchill to the idea that the gallery spaces there would be well suited to show some of his large-scale paintings that had not been seen for some time. Contacts were then established with the Beacon and as a result the exhibition Urban Landscape is now open to enjoy and appreciate.

This reviewer was fortunate to visit the exhibition in the company of the artist and to learn a little about his life in painting.

Martin Churchill was born in Glasgow and studied at Edinburgh College of Art from 1972 to 1977 (achieving degree and postgraduate distinctions) and today still considers himself fortunate that he received the full Scottish Education Department student grant of the time, enabling him to fully focus on his college work, and in a way he feels that showing these works in Greenock now is a form of thank you for the public funding invested in him as a student. He contrasts his beginnings with the competing demands put on students today to sustain themselves alongside pursuing their studies.

The artist has exhibited widely in the UK, most frequently in Scotland and in London, and has won recognition with many awards across his entire career. His paintings are in the collections of Edinburgh City Arts Centre, Edinburgh College of Art and the University of Edinburgh, the Hunterian Art Gallery at University of Glasgow, the Fleming Collection, Brighton and Hove Museums and other corporate and individual collections. Subject matter for the artist over the years has included portraits (mainly of friends), landscapes, horse races, railway station roof structures and even the dockside cranes of Port Glasgow.

In the work on show here the artist was inspired by the physical presence of major building restoration sites in Edinburgh of the late 1980s and 1990s: he was interested not only in their architecture but particularly in the added layers of visual complexity of the scaffoldings, façade retention structures and protective coverings shrouding their elevations.

Although shown in exhibitions before, this is the first time that this selection of paintings has been brought together. On first sight, one is very struck by the large scale of the paintings, appropriate to the subject matter of large scale buildings and building sites. The works occupy the ground and upper floor gallery spaces of the Beacon.

Martin Churchill, 'Caledonian Hotel, Edinburgh (Under Scaffolding)', oil on panel (1989 - 1993)
‘Caledonian Hotel, Edinburgh (Under Scaffolding)’, oil on panel (1989 – 1993)

In Caledonian Hotel, Edinburgh (Under Scaffolding), (1989 – 1993) the artist conveys a shimmering atmospheric quality of light, and the rhythm of the structure of the enveloping scaffolding is very well portrayed. The artist has also captured the red sandstone of this famous Edinburgh landmark, and behind the scaffold we can see its distinguishing architectural features. The whole volume of the building soars above the viewer. Note that close in there is one orange-clad workman to find, in front of a window.

Martin Churchill, 'Formasons Dustsheets II', oil on canvas (1987 - 1993)
‘Formasons Dustsheets II’, oil on canvas (1987 – 1993)

The second work on the ground floor, Formasons Dustsheets II (1987 – 1993) has an almost three-dimensional quality to it, partly due to the technique of built-up paint application, with the tarpaulins rippling and sitting forward from the elevation they are protecting. There is a real sense of the tarpaulins being a wrapping around the building. It feels appropriate to the subject matter that these first two works are supported on concrete building blocks on the floor, rather than being conventionally hung.

Martin Churchill, 'E.N. Clark Ltd Dustsheets', oil on canvas (1991 - 1993)
‘E.N. Clark Ltd Dustsheets’, oil on canvas (1991 – 1993)

At the stair half-landing is E.N. Clark Ltd Dustsheets (1991 – 1993) – there is structural accuracy here also, and lots of visual interest in the fine detail of the site signboards for the Architects, Engineers and Surveyors. The artist again displays skill in conveying the folds of the dark green tarpaulins. The typography of the contractor’s name on the tarpaulins brings realism, although the artist emphasises that he is not interested in making photorealistic paintings.

Martin Churchill, 'Screaming Child', oil on canvas (1994)
‘Screaming Child’, oil on canvas (1994)

The first work on the upper floor is Screaming Child (1994) which comes as a shock and is a completely different kind of subject to the rest of the exhibition, the image is instantly powerful, moving and distressing. When we visited it had an impact on other viewers in the gallery and raised questions about its origins. Churchill has always had an interest in press photography and keeps images as inspiration for paintings. It was explained by the artist that this scene was in the aftermath of a hurricane.

Martin Churchill, 'Alex Mair Ltd Dustsheets', oil on canvas (1987 - 1991)
‘Alex Mair Ltd Dustsheets’, oil on canvas (1987 – 1991)

In Alex Mair Ltd Dustsheets (1987 – 1991) – once again there is very striking colour impact in the tarpaulins, and an almost abstract quality can be perceived in the work overall. This is a more ‘close-up’ view and it is the artist’s favourite of the series, which he describes as ‘a sketch’, although on close examination there is again a skilful depiction of the scaffolding structure. The artist explains that he often mixes plaster or cement and sometimes ground glass into his paints to achieve texture, and says of these works, ‘I wanted them to look scabby’. The date time-frame given for his ‘construction’ paintings is long – why? – the artist was painting at nights and in any free time in between working in a full-time day job entirely outside his artistic life.

Martin Churchill, 'Edinburgh Horse Monument', oil on canvas (1996 - 2001)
‘Edinburgh Horse Monument’, oil on canvas (1996 – 2001)

Edinburgh Horse Monument (1996 – 2001) – the artist has had a long time interest in public sculpture and this painting is one of a number of works depicting this same subject, a companion to this one is in the Fleming Collection, and a number of smaller studies of the subject were made. He very successfully captures the power of the sculpture: the viewpoint of this composition has something of a photographic aspect about it, which the artist likes to employ.

Martin Churchill, 'The Workers', oil on canvas (1990 - 1994)
‘The Workers’, oil on canvas (1990 – 1994)

The Workers (1990 – 1994) depicts activity on the site of an Edinburgh façade retention project. There is tremendous detail in the retention structure, steelwork and concrete structural work and in the timber shuttering. There are many points for the eye to go to and a real sense of this being a moment of activity captured.

Martin Churchill, 'Formasons Dustsheets III', oil on canvas (1989 - 1993)
‘Formasons Dustsheets III’, oil on canvas (1989 – 1993)

Formasons Dustsheets III (1989 – 1993) – the artist states this was ‘an excuse to use colour’. Only the doorway to the building interrupts this fantastic block of yellow tarpaulins: again there is almost an abstract level to the painting. The artist recollects being called by the contractor named on the tarpaulins and advised that the display of this painting had resulted in them getting further substantial contracts!

The artist was delighted to be asked by me at our visit, ‘did you ever want to be an architect?’ (to me this sensibility comes across strongly in these works) and he said that yes it had been an idea for him at an early age. We can now be greatly appreciative of these hugely accomplished paintings by an artist happy to call himself ‘a frustrated architect’. A visit to the Beacon to see the show is highly recommended.

With thanks to Gordon Reid for this review, and to Lisa McRuvie, Fraser Taylor, Isabel Hemphill and Martin Churchill for all their kind assistance.

A selection of the artist’s works can be found online here.

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