For Ralph's fourth exhibition with the gallery, we see no change of philosophy with regard to his practice, but I believe that we see an exciting shift which seems to give the paintings a renewed vigour. My lasting memory of his previous exhibition was of veils of colour, rectangular shapes of colour emerging through clouds of muslin, creating a sense of shimmering light hovering with a perfect symmetry. The new work, too, has that same wonderful atmosphere and transparency, but the symmetry seems to have been replaced by what I can only describe as a perfect imbalance. Shapes of brilliant colour shining through curtains of quieter colour, but now the shapes are suspended asymmetrically on the canvas. The works still have that beauty and atmosphere that marks out a Ralph Freeman painting, but also they have an extra tension that adds to their excitement.
I have known other artists who have aimed for this perfect imbalance, indeed Sandra Blow spoke of this as being an important aim in her work. A friend of Ralph’s perceptively made a drawing to show how she saw the paintings:
The drawing shows that despite the apparent imbalance, the end result creates equilibrium and a harmony.
Ralph quotes Einstein that 'everything should be as simple as possible but not simpler', and says, 'I have to keep asking myself the question, "Is this too comfortable? Surprising myself is a constant challenge." He says of the process: 'It's like a spatial conversation with a silent partner – a slow dance. The work stays still whilst you move around the studio between paints, kettle, chair, window and back again. A dance in which you make all the moves – eye, heart and hand.”
Ralph does not want to create something that is jarring, but it should never be predictable. 'I try for unity between composition and surface as well as some kind of transparency in the whole illusion. It’s through this process that I may perhaps discover or see something the work has not yet revealed.' I find that when I live with one of Ralph’s paintings it is like a series of doors gradually being opened over time, each one revealing to me some new feeling or sensation.
It can be very difficult to be objective about the quality of abstract painting, that is why Ralph believes that craft is so important; it must underpin everything that you do. He always looks to the Renaissance and the Dutch masters for inspiration because their handling of paint is so inspiring. Time is an important part of the process: 'Each work maintains its own journey in its own time – not your time. It's often the painting that decides.' He is aware through long experience that whenever he tries to hurry the process, maybe because of deadlines or because he has already worked on a painting for a long time, it will always haunt him and, even without looking at the painting, he will know it needs more work.
Despite the huge investment of time and emotion in a painting, he recognizes that at some stage he will accept that he will have to “bring life and transparency back into it”. It is for this reason that he tries not to build walls for himself, ie. creating restrictions for the work too early on which will inevitably need time to dismantle. He believes that trust in the process and openness to new ideas is vital. Although the process includes inevitable angst, Ralph believes that painting should be full of hope and that it should be a celebratory affair. Every day in the studio has a promise and an expectation of something new, fresh and exciting.
Recently reading an essay by Norman Rosenthal written for the catalogue of Auerbach’s exhibition at the Royal Academy in 2001, I was struck that the following quote could apply to Ralph. ‘The question is one of contemporaneity which, coupled with an implicit understanding of tradition, is vital to the relevance of an artist's work. It is not possible to paint like a Rembrandt or like Soutine or Giocometti or even like de Kooning. An artist is compelled to find his own language by which he is recognized and through which he recognizes himself, as in a mirror. Above all, he must constantly take the language which his has developed to new heights.' I believe Ralph has achieved these new heights with the work for this exhibition and I hope that you will visit to judge for yourself.