Taking notice

I'm not entirely certain that if one were to mix (in imagination) the ingredients of an uncomplicatedly feminine sensibility; a degree in natural sciences; several years spent teaching mathematics and science; a freedom from art training; marriage and children; and life on a small farm in Norfolk followed by more life in a farmhouse in Suffolk - that one would inevitably come up with the art of Mary Newcomb. Only Mary Newcomb could finally do that. But these basic biographical details (which with many artists seem little more than factual and not particularly relevant background) do offer some intriguing insights into the character of her drawings and paintings, and of the words she writes alongside them.

Her art clearly flows with considerable spontaneity from her daily life. It is an art of the countryside, of white swans on the marshes, of a wild goose on the pond outside the kitchen window (''she made a small platform in the mud on the farther bank where she could watch us, and we her. She remained separate, but one with us''), of a dog sniffing the air as it follows a path near some trees, of pigs in the wind (not liking it), of hens and sheep and goats. She observes (and observation is the tool, though not the product, of her work) people - workers, say, scything reeds along the river - with the same quiet recognition with which she observes a magpie flying up suddenly near a barn. She ''recognizes'' in just the same unexaggerated way that a bird might notice the arrival of another bird: with awareness rather than surprise.

Those ''Very Cold Birds'' (what are they? starlings?) on the thin, bare twigs of her pencil line are characteristic silhouettes, and no more than that. She remembers them like a vivid afterimage. An essence remains which makes ornithological particularity somehow irrelevant. The perching of them in that drawing seems as casual and unemphatic as in nature. She sees them at a distance , oddly detached, but at the same time intimately.

Here is an art that makes no great claims for itself, never overstates, moves lightly through an environment in which the most ordinary event catches the eye: signals to the artist's readiness.

As a natural science student she had learnt to draw and watch meticulously. As an artist, she is primarily someone who notices. She evidently wants to record experiences rather as the keeper of a diary might: this is what caught her attention today - what ''appeared'' to her, as she sometimes phrases it; it came fleetingly to sight but fixedly to memory, as she ''cycled towards a small village'' or ''sat on a green seat'' after she ''had climbed the hill (and) come down again.'' Her written notes add their tone to her drawings and paintings, providing further description and information selected by intuitive processes. This intuition is subjective and personal to a degree that neither the simplicity of her words, nor the unfussy directness of her drawings (or, as one writer calls it, their ''sophisticated naivete''), really indicates. Her words seem mainly objective, quite matter-of-fact, almost as unexcited as the documentary statements of ''conceptual'' artists. They might be the records, dispassionate and orderly (except for occasional stabs of unexpected emphasis), of someone who was once a teacher and once a student of natural science.

But there is, only slightly beneath the unassuming surface of her words and images, affection, enjoyment, delight - and nothing at all to prevent an observer's experiencing his own surprise. These qualities, however, are not stated or announced. They are not overt - but intrinsic. And Mary Newcomb's rather private art is all the better (and also all the more expressive) for that.

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