A little more conversation . . . with artist Graham Crowley

At home with painter Graham Crowley.

At home with painter Graham Crowley. - Credit: Archant

One of Britain’s leading contemporary artists has recently arrived in Suffolk, and as Andrew Clarke discovers, he is marking his arrival by participating in a major exhibition at The Sainsbury Centre

At home with painter Graham Crowley.

At home with painter Graham Crowley. - Credit: Archant

Graham Crowley is an artist, but more than that, he is a painter.

He has spent a lifetime captivated by a fascination with painting. He loves the way that paint can illuminate a canvas, create atmosphere, texture and define an idea. For Graham, painting is all about a dialogue with the viewer – it is about communication, generating a discussion about thoughts and ideas.

He believes that art is great for advancing arguments for social change. It can shine a spotlight on aspects of life that would otherwise be overlooked in the world of petty point-scoring, for example, in modern politics.

“Art is about life. It is about us, so nothing is off limits,” he says.

No SuchThinge by Graham Crowley

No SuchThinge by Graham Crowley - Credit: Archant

Graham is a recent arrival in Wickham Market after a life that he admits has been characterised by itchy feet.

Born in Essex, he attended St Martin’s School of Art and lived in London for many years before spells in Oxford, Cardiff, Staunton in the Forest of Dean, Hartlepool, Middlesbrough, Stockton and then West Cork, Ireland, before returning to London.

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He moved partly because that was where the work was, but he looked for paid residencies because he wanted to explore different places and he wanted his children to experience a life that was not rooted in central London.

Graham arrived in Wickham Market, which he is cheerfully predicting will be his last move, seven months ago.

“It’s a fantastic place and Suffolk has a wonderful artistic heritage. I knew East Anglia very well, having been born in Romford and going to school in Chelmsford. I decided to move here at the age of 64 because I didn’t want to spend my final years, however many they may be, in SE22.

“More than that I wanted another chapter in my life, another adventure, another project. I am not a slave to commodity. I never have been someone to land on a signature style and then spend the next 40 years turning out variations of that central theme. My art changes with time and experience and I wanted to explore a new world.”

He understands why galleries like artists to deliver recognisable work – it makes it easier to sell – but artistic integrity also has to remain intact.

“I understand that we have to sell our work. I do like to eat and we all have bills to pay. I have no problem with reality but, like John Ruskin in the 19th century, I believe that art is not just about pleasure it should also make us think more.”

Graham Crowley currently has two paintings on display at the Sainsbury Centre in Norwich in the Reality: Modern and Contemporary British Painting exhibition, alongside such heavyhitters as Lucien Freud, Francis Bacon, David Hockney, George Shaw, Caroline Walker and Jenny Saville.

“Art can help us become better people. My painting No Such Thing was my response to Mrs Thatcher’s statement that there was no such thing as society. You can make of it what you will.

“I am not dictating a response, but the painting is the starting point for a discussion you can have with yourself, your family/friends, or even with your local MP. Everyone brings their own ideas and their own life experiences to a picture so everyone sees it differently.

“I describe art not as an activity, but as a discourse. It’s not a case of whether you like it or not, but what you think about it is really important. Good art doesn’t supply all the answers. It’s up to you to join all the dots and come up with your own take on things.”

Graham says one of the most important aspects of his landscapes are the shadows because they represent an absence of information – it is up to the viewer to fill in the blanks.

“The subject matter may be the landscape, but the content is light and shadow. The shadows make them what they are.”

Graham is not only a painter. Writing is a valuable part of the artistic dialogue he seeks. Essays and interviews are posted to his website and some have been collected together in a book, I Don’t Like Art, which is to be published later this year.

“It isn’t art criticism, it’s creative writing. It’s a collection of reflections on the work of several contemporary painters – a vehicle for current ideas regarding culture and value.

“I like to avoid using the word art when I can because the word is often used as a euphemism or an evasion. There is no intelligible definition of art and no one seriously asks themselves ‘what is art?’ any longer. Like gravity, we have to accept it.”

Graham has no intention of retiring or slowing down. “I paint because I love painting, so why would I want to stop? Besides I have a wonderful new county to explore.”

Reality: Modern and Contemporary British Painting runs at The Sainsbury Centre, Norwich until March 1.