An exhibition of large, colourful, abstract paintings created in Shetland by an artist in her 70s and never seen in public before has to make the new show at Da Gadderie in the Shetland Museum one of the most remarkable in its short history.
The Velocity of Colour is a memorial exhibition of the late work of June Hainault who, for more than 10 years until her death in 2007, painted in her small cottage in the West Side near Walls.
After a life full of travel, working in Africa and developing her abstract style during the 1960s, she found a new home and a new creature surge in Shetland in the early 1990s. This most important show is a gathering of works that she produced from 1992 onwards until ill-health in 2002 prevented her from continuing.
Uncompromising abstract art is never going to be easy for some, but this collection of dynamic, highly-colourful paintings demands that you view it with no preconceptions. There are no views, almost no titles, and little or no representational baggage which allows for a freedom of interpretation.
But there is one title on a painting, Essential Essentist vii. It’s irrelevant as a title (it’s called No.1 in this show) for Hainault loathed titles as she loathed other forms of pigeon-holing in the world of art, essentially an English trait according to her son, poet and writer Simon Mundy, who this week gave a valuable talk about the artist.
The painting in question formed a part of her large London show in 1994 which would prove to be her last solo exhibition. The organisers requested titles and got them, but typically titles which say nothing or may actually say everything. Perhaps it means tapping the essential essence of nature. Mundy alluded to his mother’s interest in quantum physics, the collision of particles and the release of energy and this can stand as a metaphor when viewing the work. It’s another way in.
What these paintings do have is tremendous energy and a strong underlying structure often based on the diagonal. Hainault was formally trained as an artist and for her structure was of crucial importance. This might not be apparent in a cursory glance but taking in the work overall, which you can do thanks to the hanging of the show, one is struck by those strong diagonals and asymmetric shapes. It is this that gives the work its strong sense of movement and energy, of Velocity.
And it is the energy of Shetland that is depicted here, from wind, from landscape, from the sea and, beneath it all, its turbulent geology. Sometimes this energy is overt – No.11 and No.12 in the show with their swirling bands of colour spinning chaotically off axis. No.7 again has blue diagonals cutting across vivid blocks of warm colour falling into a pool of dark blue, while beneath the turps has unleashed a flow of thinned paint rinsing down the canvas.
At other times the energy is rumbling below the surface. There’s a lightness of touch, airiness in painting No.15 which though it looks from a distance calm, passive, almost Zen-like is, in reality, seething in movement beneath its surface. Colours are being pushed out on all sides by immense whiteness.
In what could be a reference to increasing eyesight problems, another painting contains small discs of silver paint interrupting the flow of colours.
Not everything is going to work. That’s pretty much inherent in the experimental style that Hainault adopted but one has to admire the lack of compromise and the risk taking. Pink features heavily. It’s not the pink of fluffy, candyfloss associations but a pink that is strong, emotive like that found in painting No.4 or punctuating the canvas of No.3 like a wound.
Here is also an opportunity to see smaller work. Two acrylics, though she disliked the medium’s quick-drying time, have a depth and richness of colour, especially reds and greens. Other small works are from other times in her career or when she simply wanted to paint something else.
Then there are prints, aquatints from the 1990s which show her experimenting, forcing the medium to do what she wanted it to do, working and reworking plates. They ultimately give us something often missing from the paintings, namely textural contrast.
In a conversation I had with Hainault in 2002 we talked about the Shetland landscape which she loved: “People don’t often think about edges … edges of the land, edges of colour” was her comment. Looking at one of her last paintings made in that small croft house kitchen studio near Walls that comment makes more sense. The edges of the colours fray into one another, or are hard-edged, colours clashing or harmonising, forming new colours, new tones, creating new worlds, landscapes of the spirit.
June Hainault, as the photograph of her striding out over the Shetland hills shows, was a strong character, robust in her defence of the arts, supportive of younger artists and encouraged by painters who trod different paths. She detested superficiality, dumbing down of creativity and arts organisations that didn’t share her passion.
She made no apology for her work and I think it would have pleased her immensely to see these large dramatic paintings fill the space in the museum. It’s a show of her work in Shetland that has been long overdue.