sackcloth collages



The common material of sackcloth has found its way into modern art in general, and the arte povera movement in particular. It’s tactile and expressive possibilities were exploited by its leading proponent, the post war Italian artist Alberto Burri.  Its coarse weave possesses a rough tactility making it a poor cousin to the finer surfaces of artist’s canvas. It’s soaked, stained or ripped surfaces provide an ideal ground plan in Osborne’s collages and constructions for the superimposition of driftwood, corrugated card or other ‘found’ detritus.

The axiomatically titled box construction Finding Common Ground is composed from three vertical ‘bands’ of driftwood, card and sacking. Its typical brown and cream colour scheme is an unmodified record of its common state. Similarly Sennen Cove is put together from the given shape and colour of sacking and driftwood found on Sennen’s wide beach on New Year’s day 2001. The washed out Cornish colours are a product of nature’s bleaching or corrosive actions on broken boats.

Osborne describes his “pathway to Burri” as coming through his collaborations with Sandra Blow, once a Burri disciple and then a St Ives based artist, in whose studio at Porthmeor Beach he assisted. Osborne was clearly influenced by the elder artist’s working practices and in 2000 bought a large Blow composition Sacking and Acrylic. This work hangs alongside Osborne’s own sack cloth reliefs which generally, however, do not include Blow’s painted passages. Exceptions are Pandora’s Box and Reinventing the Past, where a frenzy of red, white, blue and ochre paints dribble crisscross in an informalist mêlée. The almost Pollockian action of these violent paint trails creates a surface counterpoint against a vivid torn orange and earth coloured collaged background. These painted passages notwithstanding, Osborne’s work prefers a Duchampian directness and a Burrian gravitas to the doctored decorativeness of a more laboured or craftmanly approach.

Bob Osborne's crucial connection-both personal and professional-with the well-known painter and collagist Sandra Blow RA proved mutually advantageous and added a sophisticated and 'arty' spin to the messy business of constructing imagery from the humble detritus of discarded materials and ‘found’ objects.  Blow's influence was to help Osborne develop his natural collaging facility towards large scale pictorialism. This pictorialism linked in with the spontaneous, improvisatory and gestural currents of avant-garde mid-century abstract painting.

The enhanced textural and chromatic feeling for paint as an independent expressive substance informed and inspired much post war abstract art. The dichotomy between flat, illusionistic elements, on the one hand, and concrete, collaged imagery that extended into the third dimension on the other, linked painting and low relief sculpture in the ‘combines’ of Robert Rauschenberg, and the collaged paintings of Jasper Johns, late Lanyon, Joe Tilson, Michael Kenny and others. Art historically aware, Osborne tapped into this strand with an innate conviction.

Sandra Blow, by contrast, followed  her early association-again both personal and professional-with the Italian arte povera master Alberto Burri, by drawing  on the flat, decorative, specifically pictorial legacy of Matisse's late cut-outs. In this context Osborne was obliged, through assisting in Blow's St Ives studio in the physical execution of work, to make tactile as well as visually explicit surfaces courtesy of sack clothing, torn paper strips, corrugated cardboard and other textually sensual collage materials. These processes invested his work with decorative largesse and gave physical impact and imaginative daring to Osborne's subsequent plastic and psychic automatism.

The crucial experience of assisting in Blow’s St Ives studio paid direct dividends in terms of Osborne’s fast developing methods. To have a bookish admiration for the arte povera or random collage ethos was one thing, but to learn directly about the risk-taking ambition of Blow’s studio practice gave an immediate authenticity to Osborne’s evolving work. In particular, the open-ended process of incorporating chance effects, accidents and mistakes inspired a physically engaging and real, rather than cerebral or precious, attitude to the creative process. The intuitive search for what Blow termed “resolution” or “startling rightness” suggested to Osborne that final perfection was a product of raw, imperfect means. Osborne always admired the demonstrative physical presence of Blow’s early masterpiece Space and Matter (1959), a work whose pentimenti of unerased matter formed a template for the younger artist’s own approach.




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