A visit to catch up with some friends and be present at a wedding anniversary party gave me an opportunity to see the Roger Hilton exhibition (Swinging out into the void) at Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge last week.
It lived up to all expectations. Quite a stunning range of abstract paintings and drawings were gathered together from an artist who was a pioneer in abstract work. This exhibition was put together to focus on his oil paintings with particular emphasis on the period from 1953 to 1965. Hilton pushes himself and paints to his limits, submitting himself to the often frightening unknown in his quest for truth “Thus he is like a man swinging out into the void; his only props his colours, his shapes and their space – creating powers” offers one critic.
What I most appreciated about Hilton’s work was the sheer sense of space and movement – he achieves this through the generation of powerful forms which at times seem to project themselves out of the surface of the picture and into the real space of a room.
Art, as Hilton understood it, reveals a reality deeper than surface appearance; it gives us access to the hidden truths which are undoubtedly complex and probably contradictory. For Hilton, painting acknowledged the unconscious and accepted its messages. He said “I like my colours dynamic and strongly contrasted”. Hilton’s influence over other members of the St. Ives’ is clearly demonstrated in this exhibition.
There is emotion and depth and real unknowability in some of the paintings here. His paintings belong in a strange middle ground between beauty and ugliness. He was a superb paint technician, able to vary his mark-making to a gamut of effects from the delicate and feathery to the vigorous and gestural. This is art at its most creative – almost devoted to reasserting the importance of the disorderly. It challenges us to bring out a response from deep within ourselves and thus redefine the possibilities of art, and by extension, life
In the exhibition catalogue Andrew Lambreth makes much of Heidegger’s definition of thought: Coming into the nearness of distance. This seems to me to sum up the extraordinary feel, shape, texture and power of Hilton’s work,
It’s worth reminding ourselves that such creativity has a cost. Hilton died young and of alcoholism – he clearly was a person who lived at the edges and in that living for some cost of the sheer unpredictability and chaos that lies within us all.