Writing on Water 2014

Art review: a watery world

Painter Luke Elwes brings Writing on Water to a central London gallery

One of the best contemporary British painters I know of – a man fascinated by the physical environment he lives in and the effect that people have on it - is Luke Elwes. Naturally enough for an artist who draws his inspiration from the low-lying flatlands of Essex (which, over thousands of years, are slowly sinking into the sea like the rest of England’s east coast, while the western coast equally slowly rises) the subject he paints is water. His latest work – a series of 24 subtle evocations of a river, entitled Luke Elwes: Writing on Water - is currently exhibited at the Adam Gallery in central London.

Elwes’s water paintings, while always decorative and delicately painterly in their finish, have something disturbing about them too. The water whose ebb and flow he charts so poetically often swirls around abandoned doors and buildings – marks of human attempts to conquer the tides that have been abandoned. The blues, greens, greys and pinks of moving liquid ease smoothly around the sharp red-and-brown lines of the remnants of mankind's failures.

Water wasn’t always this artist’s subject. His early years were spent in Iran, where the light and space of the desert were a formative influence. After training as an artist in London, a meeting with the writer Bruce Chatwin took him to the central Australian desert to explore the landscape and its use in aboriginal storytelling and art forms (if you read Chatwin’s book, The Songlines, about how the purpose of aboriginal walkabouts is to retrace traditional paths across ancestral lands, singing old songs handed down through the generations so as to "sing the lands back into existence", you’ll understand the connection).

 From land to water

The water theme came to the fore after 2000, when Elwes started spending a lot of time on Osea Island, off the Essex coast, and watching the interaction of water and land. These days his Essex observation point has moved to some damp if lovely rooms looking out over water a little further down the coast. This is at the top of a former smugglers’ inn on a remote creek that – on good days – is just above water level. Once the holiday home of several members of the Bloomsbury set, the mouldy books on the shelves belong to them. Water is always on visitors’ minds. Boats, many also looking as though they might have been left behind by someone in the Bloomsbury era, lie around outside, with greenish tidelines, and neighbours dropping by as Elwes paints bring stories of the water breaking through such-and-such a defence, or spreading into a new field.

 The current exhibition arose out of a month spent in America, painting in the Green Mountains near Vermont, and, Elwes says, “working each day by the flowing waters and cascading rapids of the Gihon river. It was a month that began in heavy snow and ended with the first signs of spring, as the ice flows slowly dissolved and the rivers rose up with the roar and rush of meltwater.”

“Arriving from London with two large rolls of paper and a few drawing materials I set out to find a way of recording this parcel of time and space by interacting with the river’s alchemy, pacing out the days – sometimes icily cold, sometimes warm and wet as the season changed – with images made both with the water and of the water. Responding to this fluid encounter, as well as to its vibrant sounds, both its pulsing rush and gentle whisper, was a way to reconcile (through marks on paper) the river’s dark mercurial force and glittering surface with the mutating course of its submerged history.”

I went to the exhibition rather hoping that the flimsy nature of the materials might mean that I could afford to buy one of this collection of mixed-media works on paper. (Most of Elwes’ oils are well outside my price bracket these days - I missed my chance to buy one before he became too famous). Sadly that was not to be, and none of the pictures will be coming home with me (though the profusion of red dots suggests they’ll be going somewhere). But they are very lovely, a little frightening, and well worth a look.

The Luke Elwes: Writing on Water exhibition is at the Adam Gallery, 67 Mortimer Street, London W1W 7SE until 28 March, then moves to the Adam Gallery at 13 John Street, Bath from 31 March to 16 April.

By Vanora Bennett  21 March 2014