Urban Legends

6 minute read

Not all young British artists mummify sharks, put their unmade beds on display or trot round the celebrity circuit. Some stay quietly in their studios, recording their surroundings in empty cityscapes haunted by their missing inhabitants, lit by streetlamps, early dawn or winter dusk.

Chris Campbell’s specialty is car wrecks under a sodium glare. He finds most of his models in the streets around his studio in Walthamstow, in east London. In his “first grand car painting,” the car lurks behind a billboard next to a busy road, light falling on the concrete pillars that frame this slice of no-man’s-land. Campbell, 27, started painting night and the city while a student at Leeds Metropolitan University. “Day pictures don’t have the same emotion,” he says. When painter Duncan Swann came into the art supply shop in central London where Campbell works the two found points of resemblance — Swann’s night vision takes in deserted sports fields. The resulting friendship led to a joint exhibition at Leeds Metropolitan earlier this year.

While conceptual artists like Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst grab the headlines, painters like Campbell and Swann are continuing a very British tradition of urban realism that stretches from Atkinson Grimshaw’s 19th century nightscapes to John Piper’s records of war-torn London. Duncan Swann feels part of an “urban landscape” movement that includes people like Campbell, who mentions among his influences Jock McFadyen, Frank Auerbach and David Hepher, from earlier generations. Hepher is known for graffiti-scrawled tower blocks, McFadyen paints rundown roadside bars and sports stadiums, while Auerbach obsessively records the environs of his London studio.

Swann, 33, will start a postgraduate course at London’s Royal College of Art in a few months. He studied European finance and accountancy at Leeds Metropolitan and worked for Goldman Sachs before returning to painting seven years ago. His current subjects are artificially illuminated football fields, squash courts, sports pavilions, golf driving ranges. His walk home after dark from a former studio “took me past all these sports complexes and football pitches. These places seemed to have a different dynamic at night. The last thing it seemed like was a place of recreation.” He photographs the locations in daylight, then returns at night. “I jot down things, make a sketch on the back of a cigarette packet, then go back to the studio and paint them in the way I remember them — or should like them to be.” His painting of a pavilion, with light streaming out past an empty bench, has conscious echoes of mid-20th century American artist Edward Hopper, whose most iconic canvas is Nighthawks (1942).

Stuart Free, who graduated from London’s Central St. Martins art school in 1994, has painted 360 pictures of north London, which sell steadily through a local gallery. He doesn’t mind being called an “urban realist,” but doesn’t know what he’d call himself: “In a way I’d rather just get on with it and call it something afterwards.” In Westway he depicts a scene under a motorway, the curve of the road cutting off a generic blue sky. On the nearest strut is a thick accretion of graffiti, and greenery struggles for life. The harsh contrast of light and dark is reminiscent of art of the 1940s, but Free explains this is the light of early morning, when he often takes photographs.

Free, 30, has “become obsessed” with documenting London’s constantly changing face. He has drawers full of photographs waiting to be made into art — enough for a lifetime. To any native, his work is like a family album. Isn’t that the old cinema opposite the playground off York Way? The Italian restaurant in Seven Sisters Road? “Most of my customers have a link with the piece they buy,” he says. “It seems as if each one of these places has somebody who loves it.” People hardly appear in his pictures, he says, because there is already a central figure — the imaginary person standing in the road through whose eyes we view the scene.

In George Shaw’s pictures the viewer is always on the outside looking in. Using Humbrol enamel paints (designed for plastic airplane kits), Shaw, 36, depicts the 1960s housing estate in Coventry where he grew up: its fish-and-chip shops and social clubs, its surrounding wet woods and backways. People and cars are missing, the light is fading and summer never comes. In Scenes from the Passion: The Fall a line of derelict garages bisects the picture, beneath a band of brooding trees and a lemon sky, and its image is repeated in the dank surface water.

In his youth, he found that the kind of art contained in books — “drawings of dead Jesus, sliced lemons and bottles of wine” — had “little connection with growing up in a council house.” At Sheffield Polytechnic in the late 1980s he found himself creating “as an art student, not a human being” — any kind of personal work had to be approached ironically. “Passion seemed to be discouraged,” he says. “Any sort of little hint of interest in your work was immediately theorized, put through the grinding mill of pseudo-psychoanalytical art criticism.”

One of the first things he did when he went to the Royal College in 1996, after a break of seven years, was to copy a list of some 2,000 works shown at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1979, thinking that reconstructing them would keep him busy. “The first title was something like Sunset in the Dordogne,” Shaw recalls. But he had never been anywhere like the Dordogne. So he thought: “I’ll do sunset over the garages round the back of me dad’s house, rather than going and looking for somewhere that looks like art.”

Shaw paints places that should hold a jolly crowd, like pubs and community centers, but they are always shut, with just a few lights left burning. In his pictures, it is always 3 p.m. on a winter’s day, the time when children walk home from school and the pubs are closed — the hour that Christ died and the sky went dark, as he was taught at Catholic primary school. He says his paintings are “a mixture of fantasy and memory. I remember it being quite lonely and just wandering about a lot.”

For those wanting to recapture Britain in all its crumbling, rain-soaked glory, wandering around the work of these artists is worth the trip.

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