A Sea of Colored Circles

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Rafaele Appleby (b. 1961) is a British painter for whom direct experiences are crucial sources of inspiration. This might sound rather inevitable. But there are artists whose work exists principally in its own self-sufficient world.

The ordinary or extraordinary experiences of the artists' lives have at most a subconscious bearing on the character or content of their art. Their work develops from image to image in the context of their studio.

Appleby is no such artist. She spent time living in the lighthouse keeper's cottage in the small Scottish coastal town of Portpatrick, which brought her into renewed contact with the overwhelming surge and jubilation of the sea, the smashing and breaking of it against the rocks. Out of this exhilaration, she made many studies on paper, using watercolor and pastel.

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These in turn became the basis of oil paintings in her studio in Cumbria, England. ``Sea Circle'' is one of them. It is a painting derived from a direct experience. The sea is transmuted into paint - into the surface movements and undercurrents of the paint - spread, fretted, agitated, and fragmented across the canvas.

This is no tame record of something observed. It is not, in the Wordsworthian phrase, ``recollected in tranquillity.'' Instead, it is an excited painting meant to evoke an excited experience. Appleby says she can tell a painting is really working by her mounting sense of excitement. Her paintings do not strike one as painstakingly slow in their genesis, but their haste is not frantic or frenetic, either. It is more in the nature of exultation.

Appleby's experiences are indeed ``transmuted.'' Her use of strong color - a full range of intense colors - is highly expressive, rather than realistic. Sometimes, as in another oil painting depicting a giant wave with a prismatic spectrum of colors glimpsed through its spray and foam, she feels no need to exaggerate: What she really saw is enough. But more often, she takes the slightest hint of a particular color and vigorously heightens it into a hue both indelible and vivid.

Color is not necessarily the only change from the original experience. In ``Sea Circle,'' the circle of light on the water comes from the artist's imagination. Circles are very much a part of Appleby's vision at the moment. She agrees that this is likely connected with her recent pregnancy. It is certainly not a matter of cool abstraction. Even when her work is at its most abstract, as in the resonant painting called ``Opening the Circle,'' viewers are still presented with an irresistible immediacy of experience: drawn into a protective vortex of darkly luminous colors. We feel virtually submerged in this overarching swirl.

This is a remarkable painting, perhaps one of those works that signals a moment of arrival and departure in an artist's oeuvre: Appleby herself must have a sense of its importance, since she has named her current exhibition after it. The idea of ``opening'' a circle came to her in reaction to a statement she read that Ben Nicholson, in some of his drawings, paintings, and reliefs, ``closed the circle.''

She has special reasons for coming to terms with Nicholson's work: He was her grandfather. And the painter Winifred Nicholson, her grandmother, undoubtedly had a powerful influence on her when, as a teenager, Appleby spent six months painting with her. While Appleby learned great freedom of approach and experimentalism from Winifred, she recognizes the necessity of being unlike both her grandparents.

Appleby refuses to be restricted to realism, expressionism, or abstraction - or any facilely labeled mode - just as she refuses to limit herself to brushes as the only tools with which to make her marks on paper, canvas, or board. She variously activates her colors with rags, a palette knife, or fingers. She is determined to be freely unpretentious and even disrespectful of the expected or of established conventions.

* `Opening the Circle,' featuring the recent works of Rafaele Appleby, is being shown at the Gracefield Arts Centre in Dumfries, Scotland, from Aug. 13 to Sept.11.

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