A Maelstrom Of Color and Brush Marks

SCOTTISH painter John Houston (b. 1930) has more paint brushes than I have ever encountered in an artist's studio. Different sizes, types, shapes, textures - brushes with stiff bristles or soft and floppy, square-ended or pointed, fine or bold, Western or Eastern. Much traveled, Houston is clearly a brush collector. Looking at this recent, large oil painting, ``A Day by the Sea, Summer,'' those countless brushes come to mind. They are a great resource, an arsenal of ready and various tools for a painter whose language is one of sweep and gesture and stroke, surge and direction, shaft and force, and whose pictures are luminous, elemental landscapes, attempts to grasp the vastness and upheavals of sky and ocean, of sun and cloud, horizon, wave and shore.

Houston's subjects may be recognizably derived from parts of the Scottish East coast - his particular stamping ground is the North Berwick coastline on the Firth of Forth - but they are taken into the memory and imagination, and transform themselves under his hand, in his studio, into cosmic mindscapes. Houston is not really a naturalist.

A PHOTOGRAPH in the catalog for his most recent exhibition, shows him drawing as he sits on a beach rock. But the shore and sea - and on the horizon one of his favorite, often-repeated motifs, the Bass Rock - are his setting, the environment of his vision rather than a subject he appears to be scrutinizing with meticulous attention. The Bass Rock is a basalt mound of an island, and in Houston's paintings it becomes a focal point, an interruption on the horizon, a heap of earth breaking through sea like a molehill, a minimal form which punctuates the otherwise free-ranging maelstrom of colors and brush marks.

What happens in a Houston painting is not so much a record or an observation as an event composed partly of landscape memory but even more of colors and free movements of the brush experienced directly in the studio as he paints, as he attacks the canvas. In an interview many years ago Houston was quoted as saying that ``the paintings grow as you paint them; in a way they are painting you.'' Today that seems just as true.

The large expressive freedom of ``A Day by the Sea, Summer'' also, perhaps, owes something to Houston's recent making of monoprints. These one-impression prints are made by painting onto sheet plastic - a surface which is quite different from lithographic plate or canvas or paper to work on. It encourages spontaneity and a sense of translucency: It is like painting on glass and seeing light come through the pigments. Houston's monoprints are remarkable experiments in colors intuitively juxtaposed.

This method of printmaking also encourages the painter not to work into his paint surface repeatedly, but to allow breathing space between colors and brushmarks. This openness is what seems to have transferred itself to the large scale of an oil like ``A Day by the Sea, Summer'' and has allowed Houston to escape from the somewhat heavy and dense surface of some of his previous paintings.

AT the same time the artist is freeing himself from the idea of a picture as a single time and a single place. He has described this particular painting as ``a diary of a day.'' Not one moment observed, but many amalgamated. As if to extend the viewer's gaze beyond the rectangular dimensions of the canvas, or the limits of conventional perspective, the horizon seems to bend with gigantic tension, describing the arc of the globe.

One of the difficulties of Houston's earlier work has been that his admiration for other artists has been too easily recognizable. Not that there is anything shameful about such influence, but it needs to be fully digested. Even now, sometimes, one comes across pictures by Houston that are so like work by Emil Nolde, or one of the other German expressionists, or even, in some of his figure paintings, of Max Beckmann, that the question of pastiche almost raises its head. But in this cataclysm of vermilion and magenta, orange and yellow, turquoise and ultramarine - ``A Day by the Sea, Summer'' - the only artist's vision it summons up is John Houston's.

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