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Website: Chestnuts Design

Francesca Simon : Navigations

Ryedale Folk Museum,  25 July - 1 November 2015

A review by Annie O'Donnell

©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock  All rights reserved.

For Francesca Simon, the ridges, spurs and cross-dykes of North Yorkshire are a ‘palimpsest in the landscape’, marked and scarred over time. Some of these transformations are clear: the September heather is cropped into geometric shapes on a purple ground - later it will be burned and allowed to re-grow. Elsewhere the narratives of work and movement are more blurred. Approaching Hutton-le-Hole, the subtle autobiographies of the dry stone walls can be read in their ‘wall heads’ and ‘sheep creeps’, and the land unfolds and enfolds stories of people and place, or perhaps people as place.

Like Simon, previous inhabitants may have taken their bearings from memories of transits over land and sea and early place attachments elsewhere. Truly seeing places by living and moving between them, as outlined in Lucy Lippard’s ‘The Lure of the Local: Senses of Place in a Multicentered Society’, is in fact as old as the hills.

Leviathan (2015), acrylic on linen on wood, triptych, two panels 122 x 93 cm, one panel 122 x 160 cm

Here, in the Ryedale Folk Museum, Simon’s solo exhibition of new paintings, Navigations, addresses the allegory of navigating, of ‘finding a way’ through layers of space and time, providing a powerful subtext in her current abstract paintings. The poetics of her visual language are underpinned with this deep discursive ethos, and once again, Lippard’s call for a ‘serial sensitivity to place’ seems pertinent to the rhythms of Simon’s life and practice. This is no chocolate-box exhibition site - its beauty is hard won - and the work is a distillation, not a mirror, of the phenomenology of the surrounding land. The lives of the navigators (or navvies) who built the railways and structures in the area were rooted/routed in this beauty and have become an important trigger to Simon, as she examines parallels with her own artistic exploration in Yorkshire and London.

The abstract works of Navigation speak of illusive landscapes, but also of seascapes, and carry the names of ships: Ardent and Vanguard, Turbulent and Leviathan. The groupings of the paintings as triptychs, or as partner works that share concerns of colour and form, underline the fact that these names have been used repeatedly within fleets from the time of the Armada to the present day. Resolution 1 and 2 bear the name of Yorkshire explorer, Captain James Cook’s converted coal brig: in this part of the world, coastal and inland lives intertwine. Their lichen green geometries hold the rhythm and action of self-reflexivity and of becoming ‘lost in the making’.

Lines begin in a direct fashion and are then intercepted by interruptions and revisions. They seem to nod to a pragmatic destruction and construction. The marks could be those seen from the hills or when walking along trackways to meeting-places and crossroads. In Leviathan, a triptych, but one in which a section has grown larger than the others, the forms tumble across the sections, animating the white exhibition space and making it complicit in the construction of the piece. The erasures and washes on diagonal lines of varying widths are perhaps the grey of the bones of the surrounding landscape. Decisions of how forms of action are undertaken - adjacency, erasure, balance and movement - can be seen in the materiality of the painting, but it also side-shadows events in time: writing boundary lines, constructing defensive earth mounds and whispering of ownership and loss.

Resolution 1 (2015), acrylic on linen on wood, 66 x 52 cm

Resolution 2 (2015), acrylic on linen on wood, 66 x 52 cm

Turbulent (2015), acrylic on linen on wood, triptych, two panels 52 x 40 cm, one panel 52 x 68 cm

The most recent work, Turbulent, references Simon’s stated preoccupation with the dazzle camouflage of WW1 vessels most clearly. The eye’s ability to read the painting is tested by the oscillation of the forms as they reach upwards and jostle forwards and backwards. The viewer moves across the galley in order to orient herself within lines of position. Pausing, the surfaces are seen to be smoother and the shapes seem more redacted than in the other paintings. Turbulent is freeing itself to navigate to another place and time.

It is particularly intriguing to experience Navigations in a rural site, where figurative art is perhaps more frequently seen. Its success lies in Simon’s ability to connect with both her own, and the viewer’s ‘primal landscapes’, those deep, spatial understandings that are used to make sense of other places. Navigations underlines how, by immersing herself in narratives of the particular, the artist is able to re-shape and challenge the relationship between abstract painting, time and place. This requires a generosity of vision, which Francesca Simon has in abundance.