When June Redfern was at art school she was nicknamed ‘the slasher’ for her forceful application of paint on ‘man-sized’ canvases. She liked the larger scale for the freedom it gave her to move around in the picture, repeating marks, attempting an evenness of surface. Always daring to experiment, her progress has been marked by leaps and bounds until today she feels she has finally ‘met’ herself. The forcefulness has now transformed into a rare potency; the rich and various handling of the paint resulting in monumental figures which combine a great physicality and spirituality.
Asked what effect her training at Edinburgh School of Art with its strict academic background had had on her she replied that she paints the way she does because she’s a Celt; allied to that, her work has always been firmly rooted in drawing–her speed and fluency now enabling her to capture movement from the TV screen.
On leaving college in 1972 she was besieged by doubts that she would ever paint again. Taking up a teaching post in the tough seaport of Leith, doing a job she didn’t want, re-motivated her. ‘I tend to work better when I’ve got my back against the wall–it gives a very positive feeling’. The harshness and deprivation she saw around her heightened her sympathies and observations and led to a series of canvas paintings, ‘Real Lives’. Seeing these exhibited confirmed the intuitive feeling she’d had whilst painting them, that the semi-realistic style was unsuitable for her; powerful paintings though they were, Redfern destroyed many of these works. She is rigorously discerning over what she shows and we see about a quarter of what she produces.
After ‘Real Lives’ she determinedly went back to the beginning. Starting again meant resorting to drawing, tearing them up, collaging them, abandoning acrylics in favour of oils.
Her move to Wales in 1983 where she was Junior Fellow in Fine Art at Cardiff College of Art, saw a flood of expressive and emotionally charged paintings from oil painting factory. Paganism and Christianity, the mingling of past and present, influenced her as did the ever-changing atmosphere of the natural light. She decided to speed up the pace of her work, often completing a large-scale canvas in just a few hours. When she has a feeling for a certain colour she will suffuse the canvas with it, hosing it down with paint stripper, trowelling the paint on with a knife, approaching it from all angles–all the while working rapidly, uniting the physical activity with the emotional involvement.
In the recent paintings, thin veils of colour stain the raw canvas in the non-figurative areas. The paint is allowed to drip and run, skeining into burnished reds and coppery-greens resembling mineral striations in rock or the weathering of ancient frescoes. ‘It’s not really about the subjects, it’s about the paint’, she has said. As Artist in Residence at the National Gallery from 1985-86 she made surface and handling her primary concern. Working feverishly she sometimes found the pressures of the residency too much. Having to open her studio to the public and discuss paintings in various stages of progress was disruptive, as it would be for any artist, but particularly so for Redfern who needs privacy and anonymity in order to work. She gave of her energies on these occasions but felt she couldn’t communicate. She wasn’t influenced by the Collection whilst she was there, saying she felt she needed time to absorb things. She returns now, to look at the Rubens and Gainsborough landscapes.
Having a love-hate relationship with the figure, she doesn’t want to draw realistically. It is the spirituality of the figure which interests her. Of necessity they are naked, which she equates with a timelessness. In the later paintings all individuality of facial features and detail of form has vanished. The figures which loom from the canvas embody the archetypal. They fuse with imaginary landscapes, or rather inscapes, for these are landscapes of the mind. The language of the overall surface reacts as one to express mood and emotion. She likes her paintings to have this ambiguity, what she calls ‘an historical feel to them’ so that they appear ‘vaguely familiar’. Stirring the unconscious they reveal to us what we already know within the deep recesses of ourselves, but thought we had forgotten.
The liquidity and looseness of her current oils owes much to her recent explorations in watercolour. She worked obsessively to achieve this synthesis, where the techniques she discovered in one medium could be successfully translated into the other. Working wet-into-wet where every mark on the paper is unalterable, the single figures dissolve into ecstatic movement as in Whirling Dervish or hold a suspended strength and stillness in their bodies.
In Dreamtime a monumental figure of a woman appears as a dark and compassionate angel descending. Gestural sweeps of paint suggest her pointed wings. The paint of her body swirls and surges, confronting us with her presence until she fills our vision. ‘You can only paint about sex and death, that’s all’, Redfern has said. The exalted feeling which can be found in her work has sometimes led people to assume she is a Christian. She does see a parallel between religion and art, declaring that ‘to be an artist is an act of faith’.
Having scaled new heights in virtuosity and intensity of feeling in her large-scale pictures, what comes next? ‘I think I’ll do a series of icons’, she said. This time they will be small!
June Redfern’s show of paintings, ‘Naked’, is at the Aberystwyth Arts Centre and will tour to other venues until June 1989.