This is Ralph Freeman’s third solo exhibition with the gallery and at first sight there has been a major shift in the work. Ralph has left the fragments of his family history behind, expanded his colour palette and produced an inspiring body of work that seems to be full of hope and light. Although the work appears very different with only a hint of past collages, in actual fact Ralph still seems to be following his own personal process – allowing himself total creative freedom, trying not to be pigeon-holed or categorised and very much following his own inclinations. Ralph started the Foundations and Fragments series in 1993. His father had died in 1985 and it was this sense of responsibility to the past that led to him incorporating family documents into a series of works. The culmination of this was an exhibition in 1997 at Tate St Ives. He says of his new work that it has ‘taken me this long to exorcise that whole thing’, the use of the word 'exorcise' seeming to indicate the level of emotion involved in working on such a sensitive area of his past. However the new work benefits greatly from all this reflection; it is almost as though without the dark, it would be impossible to have the light. I asked Ralph whether he was nervous about how this new body of work will be received. ‘No, it’s what I do; this is me at this moment in time.’ It is this openness to new possibilities within his practice which seems to give the work a sense of freedom. He does not see himself as an abstract or figurative painter or any other such definition. Instead he says, it is about ‘honesty within my own limitations. If it is sustaining me, then I will carry on doing it. The blue paintings didn’t sustain me any more so I stopped. Enjoyment is important in art.’
This body of work started with a visit to Pompeii and another to Herculaneum. ‘I have always been drawn to Italian art and culture, to Renaissance and Roman art. It has such a rich palette, rusts, reds, oxides and ochres.’ Although he is still interested in the challenge of working with a limited colour range, he acknowledges that this work is broader in colour palette. Ralph has not extended this range to include green. However, when I suggest this, with a little naughtiness and a sense of challenge, he tells me that he may make a green painting one day. I am reminded of the words of Kandinsky: ‘Blue is heavenly, the ultimate feeling blue creates is one of rest; when it sinks to black it echoes a grief that is hardly human; whereas green is a neutral colour; pictures painted in shades of green are passive and tend to be wearisome. In the hierarchy of colours, green is bourgeoisie – self satisfied, immovable, narrow.’ (Modern Painters, Charles Pickstone, June 2006). Although Ralph wouldn’t necessarily agree with this challenging statement, it may help us to understand why perhaps he has consistently used the colours he has. Form is important: the rectangular forms that dominate this series go back long before he started the Fragments, for it was partly the forms of the documents that attracted him initially. For this series Ralph says he is thinking about ‘form, colour and light. I’m trying to make something really simple that has a oneness about it. At the same time it should surprise me, and if I’m not surprising myself, something’s very wrong.’ It was suggested to me by another artist that Ralph’s work is about still life and the way he uses the interior space within the canvas. Whilst it is not still life in the traditional sense of placing objects as an artist like Morandi would do, the forms Ralph uses are placed with a precision and assurance, and the lasting effect is one of beauty and depth. Certainly, Ralph is modest enough to acknowledge that the forms could be very simple or very profound. As we look at the paintings in his studio on Porthmeor Beach with the beautiful windows facing out to sea, I suggest that the forms could be like these windows, looking through to another space. Laughing he says, ‘Maybe it is as simple as that. It is just the studio windows in the end.’
Ralph is acutely aware of process in the development of his work. ‘Every painting is just a series of very small steps that go on and on and on. It is the eye the heart and the hand and not the mind; a whole series of yes no, yes no, ending with a yes.’ He uses the term ‘management of errors’ to describe the importance he places of making mistakes. ‘Your mistakes, your errors, when you make a botch of it then you are really being yourself.’ There seems to me a tremendous sense of humility underlying these statements. Some artists seem to imply that everything they do is mapped out and thought through, or at least if there are mistakes, they are not mentioned. Here, however, is an artist who sees his mistakes as a vital part of the artistic process.
Ralph says it is fear that produces the underlying reticence. ‘The only reason you don’t make errors is because you are afraid to; if you’re not afraid to make errors you won’t be surprised by much in life.’ In this time of machine- or computer-generated paintings, where pieces are being mass-produced for the ultimate interior, it is this idea of the error that for me makes the difference between something which is meaningless and something which is art. It is like the mistake that a musician can make in a live concert and yet despite that, the performance is more vital and has that extra indefinable something.
Music, as many reading this will know, is a very important part of Ralph’s creative life. As well as being a painter, he is also a very fine jazz pianist. Although he seems to keep the two worlds quite separate, he definitely needs both to sustain him. I try to draw him, perhaps unfairly, on which he would choose if he had to. Whether unconsciously, or to please me, he says he would choose painting, but it is clear that each art form satisfies a different aspect of Ralph’s personality. Music is a collective activity and painting is very isolated and insular. Ralph believes music requires more emphasis on technique. ‘With music, technique goes hand-in-hand with your ability to express more complex and developed ideas.’ Ralph agrees that with painting you need technique to mix colour, to draw, to observe but he says that something extra is required. ‘It is to do with your unconscious; you have to keep fit with painting, keep doing it everyday; painting is a complete body exercise, you are exercising your creative being.’
Ralph believes that art doesn’t come from nature; it comes from other art. ‘What artists have done before you and what artists are going to do after you; everything you have seen and which has inspired you, the way artists use colours, the power of the line of Max Beckmann, the simplicity of Leger and Piero. That inspires you to work more than anything. You emulate what they did; how did they see that?’ It seems not to be about creating similar or derivative work, but about inspiration which enables the artist to spend long hours in the studio making work in isolation. Even the artist who works directly from nature, painting the landscape en plein air, is following a long tradition of artists who have gone before.
Although Ralph’s work seems to involve the building of many layers of paint, he doesn’t see that as anything extraordinary. Quite the reverse in fact. ‘Every artist paints over layers, it’s what you do.’ He tells me a story about Matisse who would spend many hours drawing heads, academically, very beautifully, painstakingly. He would after a time become so tense that he would take paper and brush and ink and in a couple of movements he would produce a beautiful head. ‘Where are all the layers in that? It is all the experience and feeling in that one line, not in all that preparatory work.’ In fact Ralph believes that the only time you do good things is when you no longer know what you are doing. ‘Suddenly something happens because you are no longer thinking about it, it only lasts a few minutes and then you think, "Ah! the painting".’ The overriding feeling I was left with from the interview was the sense of modesty and humility. It is summed up for me when Ralph quotes the composer John Cage who said, ‘I have nothing to say and I am saying it.’ It’s a message for us all, and it says, ‘I don’t have to have something to say. I am doing this because I need to do it.’