Glenys Cour

Glenys Cour : A World Observed, a World Imagined

Mel Gooding - Retrospective at Glyn Vivian Gallery, Swansea in 2003

This exhibition represents the work of the period when Glenys Cour came into her own as an artist, finding subjects and styles (whose development is absolutely coherent) directly expressive of a distinctive personal vision and which as given her a unique place and presence in contemporary art in Wales. It is marked by an intensely imaginative recollection of visual experience, a grounding in the actual,unrestricted by any desire for descriptive exactitude. It is shaped by an impulse to the abstract evocation of a time, a place , of objects in a landscape or on a table. In every case, however, the actual - a hillside, a gold bowl, a boat, a butterfly, a carved and decorated door - is released from the everyday and assumed into the order of myth, the reality of art. It is the kind of translation that we associate especially with archaic arts, with Celtic art and with those arts of late antiquity and the early middle ages in which the natural world is acknowledged but stylised and elaborated into forms of the decorative valued for their own sake.

In the landscape paintings of the late 1970s and the early 80s we see this development of Cour’s work beginning in a manner that does not yet anticipate the originality and the richness of the paper collages of the next few years. They depict their subjects - Swansea Bay, the coastal scenery of Gower - with a spare economy of form and colour that is suggestive of feeling and mood rather than descriptive of specific topographies. Cour recalls these paintings as having been “inspired” by the landscape, implying that in certain respects they begin in the experience of place but depart from it: ‘In retrospect I realise that they speak of my mood at that time: sad and reflective.’ They indicate clearly that a naturalistic treatment of traditional subject matter is no longer sufficient to her expressive purposes.

Their tendency towards a more generalising abstraction is carried further in a dramatic way with the oil and collage landscapes on paper of the early 80s. In them Cour gives full play to her predilection for strong colour-light and translucent hues, qualities literally manifest of course in stained glass, in which medium she has worked for many years, and which perfectly suits her love of decorative brilliance. Each of these collage-paintings has a dominant colour-key, disrupted by collage fragments that increase our sense of them as objects rather than pictures. For Cour at this time, as she has said, landscape and still life had become ‘starting points’; they were, as we we might say, pretexts for the making of works whose essential dynamics of colour, shape and texture were intrinsic rather than simply referential to something external.

At about this time Cour was commissioned to design back-projections for the stage set of Aida. It is not difficult to imagine an artist of her temperament being greatly stirred by the dramatic action and musical excitement of Verdi’s spectacularly colourful opera, and it provoked in her a response that was to prove catalytic. The stage set, with its proscenium edges and sight lines, provided a confining formal framework, and the use of colour-paper collage elements in her designs added a further physical constraint that released the artist from the spatial conventions that govern the representation of landscape or still-life subjects.

Collage now provided the possibilities of abstract formal elements that could be deployed allusively without regard to naturalistic reference, and which could perform on their own account, as it were, within the theatre of the picture frame. She had discovered a new set of pictorial dynamics.

At this point Cour began to make her own paper to use in her collages. This created completely new possibilities of colour and texture, and brought a richness and objective complexity unprecedented in her work. Colour now became intrinsic, no linger applied to the surface of the paper but stained into it. To extraordinary intensities of saturated hue - blues, greens, reds - were added the decorative brightness of gold leaf and designs drawn into the paper matrix of the constructed object. Essentially these works which began in the late 80s and have continued though to this year, are sculptural reliefs, constructed of hand-made, hand-stained paper fragments, whose textures are encrusted like the surfaces of archaeological objects recovered from the ground, those ancient utensils, bowls and mirrors, brooches and buckles whose burnish has been faded and abraded by time.

This objective richness and complexity provides a perfect formal correlative to the artist’s thematic purposes. Its visual resonance is at one with the mythopaeic tendency that is central to her work in recent years. It was the archaic Greek and Hellenistic gold and bronze objects - masks, shields, bowls, vases - encountered in the Greek museums that she visited annually that first prompted Cour to develop a technique that might create something of the magical physical presence of such charged objects. It was not the Greek myths that touched her most deeply however but the ancient matter of Wales, the body of legends collected in the Mabinogion. Like the works of Cour’s that refer to them these stories are layered and complicated, full of strange and enigmatic events, of metamorphoses and transformations. Cour’s interest in them is linked to her love of those ancient Celtic stones incised with marks and signs that she borrows freely.

These themes continue to be explored in the most recent work, in which Cour has returned to the simpler forms and harder edges provided by commercially made coloured papers. These pick up again something of the atmospheric clarities of the earlier landscapes and collages made for the Aida designs. They are more direct in their reference to landscape and still-life than the richly encrusted Celtic landscapes of the later landscapes and such wrks as the Moroccan Door (1) and (2) of 2002 and the butterfly series of the same year. Each of these series, in its own way, reflects Cour’s habitual impulse to find a metaphor or a mythic reverberation in the worlds observed. (Of the latter she has written that it “arrived out of the gift of a lovely butterfly on my bedroom window on Christmas morning: a metaphor for life”).

The latest paintings share this impulse : some refer once more to the characters, events and metamorphoses of the Mabinogion, others to the local landscapes. All transfigure the ordinary into the strangeness of the magical. In Colin’s Boat” the familiar red motorboat of a local fisherman in the bay at Mumbles is transmuted by the imagination into every little boat on every morning’s fishing since time began: a perfect example of the “translation’ of the ordinary into to the order of myth.