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Bob Osborne | driftwood constructions

BOB OSBORNE

driftwood constructions

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The driftwood constructions that form an important part of Osborne’s output since the I990’s trade in the discarded poetry of marine life. The weathered texture and fortuitous colour of these objects-frequently broken up boat fragments, oars, sackcloth, machine parts or piping-lend an automatic distinction to works that are subjected to a synthetic régime of post cubist composing and re-arranging. Here automatic or more conscious impulses interact to create an uncanny synthesis between chance and order.

Broken, and subject to natural decay, the objects find artistic salvation and boxed permanence as they are constructed in an entirely new, this time non-utilitarian context. The salvaging of order from chaos is, however, of a random kind finding ultimate and final rationalisation within the tight parameters of wall-bound boxes or framed pictorial objects. In Cornwall 1996 and Cornwall 1998, made just after he started living in a studio overlooking Porthmeor Beach in St Ives, Osborne slots shells, bones, pebbles, metal fragments and beach detritus into ready-made grids adapted from printer’s block boxes. These pictographic compartments are unified using the vivid ultramarine blue paint patented by the French artist Yves Klein and known as International Yves Klein Blue. As part of his open-ended notion of aesthetic democratisation Klein saw IYKB as a chromatic commodity for general artistic use. Not only binding Osborne’s diverse found objects into a whole, the blue contrasts with the pebble greys, fishbone whites and rope greens of the composition’s members. As in the Hayle painter John Miller’s use of deep blue skies to express the timeless quality of Cornish high summers, Osborne’s deployment of IYKB evokes the carefree tranquillity of the seaside. The intrinsic linear patterns of fish vertebrae instils a natural visual interest with the biographical accoutrement of it’s derivation from an actual fish consumed by the artist and his friends.

Newlyn, by contrast, relies on the intrinsic textures and colours of burnt or painted wood fragments, blue tubing and red canvas offcut. Slotted together as a tightly-composed ensemble, this semi-sculptural relief reads more like an informalist abstract painting with random and multifarious paint textures.

Some constructions, while pinned to the wall, forgo the pictorial ‘packaging’ of framing and stand-or rather hang-as raw, naked, found objects. In these instances the works are the product of a sculptor manqué, their coloured morphologies the Duchampian outcome, not of the traditional methods of carving or modelling, but rather of direct construction using maritime members or pastoral parts. They are attached like trophies to the wall. Picasso, Schwitters and their British (St Ives) successors Peter Lanyon and Margaret Mellis are the precursors of this romantic, nature-inspired constructivism- at once art historically specific yet both primitive and timeless. In After The Fire, made up from elements salvaged from a summertime bonfire on Porthmeor Beach, near to his St. Ives studio, Osborne’s modus operandi becomes more opportunist and autobiographical.

In 1999, Osborne and I visited Southwold on the Suffolk coast to spend the day with the celebrated former St Ives painter and collagist Margaret Mellis. Mellis' breadth of experience, as a ‘child’ of the wartime Carbis Bay constructivist enclave, informed her relaxed and literally down to earth working practice. This entailed composing ad-lib from a pile of dried out and domesticated driftwood and boat parts kept in a spare room. Mellis’ late husband, the paper collagist Francis Davison, also extolled the virtues of direct handling of found materials.

The rawness of  Mellis’ latter day wall-bound constructivism-though at variance with the neater collaged, paper configurations of her wartime Carbis Bay beginnings that had originally drawn on the site specific influences of Hepworth, Nicholson and Gabo-recalled Schwitters, Lanyon’s late constructions and the recent work of Janet Natham, a  Hampstead constructor and partner of the painter Patrick Caulfield.

Although London based, Osborne was already collecting and working with the salt-licked debris of broken boat parts in his Porthmeor Beach studio, and must have seemed a kindred spirit to the older Suffolk artist. Mellis hung some of Osborne's constructions on her kitchen wall later that afternoon, along with her own works for comparative effect.  This open-ended democratisation, where art became a shared process and experimental adventure conjured up the communal spirit and carefree atmosphere of the immediate post-war years in St. Ives.

During the first few years of the 21st century Osborne regularly visited the small Cornish fishing village of Mousehole where he was able to collect boat fragments from the harbour and keep them in the cellar at The Fish Store, a house originally used for packing pilchards and inhabited by Augustus John and his family. Mousehole had also been a base for the painters Adrian Ryan and Mary Jewels. After one particularly heavy winter sea storm Osborne salvaged wood from the wreckage trapped in the tiny harbour and constructed a series of works which were exhibited in 2005 in a group show at the Royal West of England Academy in Bristol.

These constructions were pinned directly to the wall without any framed context or constraint, their banged-together rawness the exact compositional equivalent of their fortuitous shapes and colours. Mousehole 1, 2 and 3 are generally vertical in orientation and use partially recognisable boat parts such as oars. Their bright colours-reds, yellows and rich blues-enliven the surrounding space and introduce a sense of the wild outdoors into the tame, reposeful and settled environment of the domestic or gallery arena.

During the first few years of the 21st century Osborne regularly visited the small Cornish fishing village of Mousehole where he was able to collect boat fragments from the harbour and keep them in the cellar at The Fish Store, a house originally used for packing pilchards and inhabited by Augustus John and his family. Mousehole had also been a base for the painters Adrian Ryan and Mary Jewels. After one particularly heavy winter sea storm Osborne salvaged wood from the wreckage trapped in the tiny harbour and constructed a series of works which were exhibited in 2005 in a group show at the Royal West of England Academy in Bristol.

These constructions were pinned directly to the wall without any framed context or constraint, their banged-together rawness the exact compositional equivalent of their fortuitous shapes and colours. Mousehole 1, 2 and 3 are generally vertical in orientation and use partially recognisable boat parts such as oars. Their bright colours-reds, yellows and rich blues-enliven the surrounding space and introduce a sense of the wild outdoors into the tame, reposeful and settled environment of the domestic or gallery arena.

As a schoolboy in August 1970 Osborne hitchhiked to the Isle of Wight pop festival at Afton Farm near Freshwater Bay. 37 years later he would exhibit at nearby Dimbola Lodge Museum in Freshwater. The former Victorian home of pioneering photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, Dimbola today celebrates the epochal festival as a key event in Wight’s cultural history with a bronze statue of legendary guitarist Jimi Hendrix, whose virtuoso performance in that  summer proved his penultimate ‘gig’.

Given Osborne’s use of old postcards and photographs as collage material, it is apt he should have exhibited at Dimbola during the summer of 2007 in the ‘Sharing A View’ group as the chosen ‘guest’ artist of Denis Bowen. Preceding working visits to West Wight yielded the driftwood compositions Chale and Brightstone, two tightly assembled, irregular off-square constructions where painted and intrinsic colours of boat parts establish a specific chromatic and textural character.                                                            

Equally aptly, Dimbola Lodge Museum in making its acquisitions of each member’s work for its permanent collection chose, not a driftwood construction, but a collaged stencil work depicting Mick Jagger, which was commissioned to be reproduced as a poster to herald the June 2007 pop festival outside Newport on the island. Five years later the Dimbola connection saw Osborne and I attend photographer Carinthia West’s exhibition of her portraits of rock musicians at the Julia Margaret Cameron Museum where Jagger’s brother Chris performed with his band.

 

 

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