Introduction – Richard Kendall

There is noisy art and there is quiet insistent art and both have their place in the scheme of things. But the loud stuff does not always resonate longest in the mind. Liam Spencer’s pictures are usually small and unassuming, often painted in subdued tones and engaged with famiiar scenes and everyday experiences. Such paintings can come close to invisibility, or pictorial silence, not least in the racket of image-making and thunderous, media-amplified sensation of our late twentieth century world.

One of Liam’s favourite painters is Albert Marquet, an underrated contemporary of matisse and Andre Derain, who was amongst the most reticent artists of his age. Marquet’s gently-brushed cityscapes and harbour views, with their pearl grey light, muted colours and self effacing design, remind us of the virtues of restraint, as well as the extraordinary eloquence of the simple means of painting. Certain paintings by Liam, such as Falling Snow and London Road, are almost acts of homage to Marquet’s peaceful vision, offering an unexpected bridge across eighty years of the most artistic tumult our culture has known.

Liam’s city views might appear as the natural successors to the nineteenth century tradition of improvised outdoor painting, from which artists like Constable, Monet and Marquet himself emerged. Like Marquet, Liam paints the everyday and the unemphatic – no apocalyptic sunsets, human tragedies or eruptions of temperament – and his craft is modesty itself. Both artists with unusual directness, laying down their paint sparely and decisively, respectful of their subject and its right to be taken seriously. Like the best painters working in this way, both can make a single brushstroke, a painterly flick of the wrist or a patch of colour sing like a bird.

By working directly from his subject, an artist adopts a high-risk strategy. Light and weather can change in an instant, shadows shift their alignment or disappear and, in the urban context, traffic introduces new trajectories and accents of colour. But the rewards are often equal to the risks. The urgency of such a confrontation can raise the pictorial stakes, encouraging the instinctive response and a slightly reckless, fluid technique. At worst , the result is approximation and near-incoherence, at best a kind of serendipitous intensity that in Headlamps and Tail-Lights, heightens the rawness of the image. This exhibition shows how, far from avoiding such unstable subjects, Liam has sought them out, testing himself against failinf twilight, fleeting clouds and chance configurations of lorries and pedestrians, as if to ‘deepen the game’ of painting in Francis Bacon’s memorable phrase.

But a fundamental distinction exists between Liam’s pictures and those of the early modern masters he so steadfastly admires. Working in the 1990’s, an artist belongs to an age that has rejected most forms of representational art, even painting itself. To work from observation today is an act of either folly or considerable courage, or conceivably both. To choose to make serious art in these cicumstances, the painter must defy history; not by pretending it hasn’t happened, as many amateurs are tempted to do, but by tackling it head on, plundering it and celebrating it, and turning it to contemporary advantage.

Liam’s acute and practical consciousness of history lifts his project from the near-mundane to the frankly exhilirating. View from Hanover Mill, Spring, for example, would be just another rooftop sketch if it were not for the artist’s passionate grasp of Cezanne and his thoughtful awareness of Picasso and Georges Braque. The slabs of colour and block-like structures are locked tremulously together, each space accounted for and each form alloted its weight and function. In the monumental Studio Window, the precedent of Matisse is everywhere, now wryly relocated to an industrial backyard somewhere near the Mancunian Way. By building his composition around a rectilinear grid, Liam knowingly or otherwise invokes a number of the idioms of modernism, from the stark language of Piet Mondrian, to the sensuousness of Richard Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park canvasses, while his whimsical inclusion of found objects and model boats (a plastic dinosaur has recently made some appearances) recalls some of the visual michief of Paul Klee or perhaps Wayne Thiebaud.

With many artists, such encounters with the past can be stultifying but Liam Spencer’s painting is bursting with vigour and recent inventiveness, nourishing itself on art of all kinds but retaining its appetite for its own abrasive times. These are pictures that engage with (among other things) the bleakness of post-Thatcher Britain and the frivolity of toys, a delight in evening sunshine and the doubtful glamour of Manchester snow and rain. Liam’s images have impressively come to terms with the post-industrial world he knows so well and the realities of the artist’s vocation at the millenium. Marquet never painted a motorway or a Stegosaurus, but he would surely have been proud of his tenacious, alert successor, who continues to grow in what Walter Sickert called ‘the good nature and high spirits that attend a sense of great power exercised in the proper channel, and therfore profoundly stisfied’.

Richard Kendall

Art historian