BY Josephine New in Features | 16 MAR 15
Featured in
Issue 170

Local Colour

Simon Ling and plein-air painting in east London

BY Josephine New in Features | 16 MAR 15

I am in a taxi crawling through the streets of London on my way to meet the British painter Simon Ling. The cab stops and starts past a drag of dark-bricked Victorian terraces, modernized by the shabby facades of plastic-fronted, neon-lit takeaway joints. These are just the kind of buildings that have been the focus of Ling’s canvases for the past few years; he paints in the streets of east London with an unflinching naturalism enhanced only by his attachment to bright, zingy tones. Anonymous, interstitial spaces such as doorways, shopfronts, back yards and street corners: the artist observes them all, translating their inconsequential architecture with deft, enquiring brushstrokes. To see the world through Ling’s eyes is no straightforward matter. As he stated during a lecture he gave at Goldsmiths University in 2012, ‘reality is an act of deep imagination’, and so, we might infer, is perception, as Ling meditates on the tactile spaces that he encounters when painting these scenes. It brings to mind John Updike’s response to the works of Edward Hopper: ‘The painter was not just an eye but a mind, also.’1

At the heart of Ling’s practice are two preoccupations. Firstly, his fascination with making ‘something’ (a painting) out of ‘nothing’ (a uniformly overlooked corner of an urban housing estate, say). Secondly, perhaps more significant, is the understanding that the imagination is partnered with the external acts of vision and touch. Ling begins all of his paintings with a cartoon sketched across the canvas in fluorescent orange. The paint forms an undercurrent of lines, which are reduced to spectral flickers activating the surface of the painting that he creates over the top of them. This rich layering of brushstrokes recalls the working process of Frank Auerbach, who similarly found inspiration in the area around his studio in Camden Town, north London, during the 1970s. ‘There is a sort of magic in conjuring up a real place,’ Auerbach once said, ‘a kind of intimacy and excitement and confidence that comes from inhabiting the painting and knowing exactly where everything is.’2 Ling, too, talks about a different ‘texture of decision-making’, that is ‘sharper, healthier and quicker’ when painting directly from life. This ‘live’ element, as he terms it, adds to the contemporaneity of the works. The pace of the marks and the time spent observing each detail are all savoured by the artist as an integral part of his method. You can almost piece together each element of a building, as if hung on (albeit wonky) planes: his doorways, for instance, are characteristically off-kilter, as though they had been painted on an easel rocking on an undulating pavement.

Untitled, 2014, oil on canvas, 120 × 92 cm. All images courtesy the artist and greengrassi, London 

There are few clues as to the exact locations of the street scenes that Ling paints. This is true of the six paintings hanging in greengrassi late last year. The show was modestly titled ‘Some Paintings’. Ling only occasionally titles his work, in a bid, he explains, to deflect a narrative reading. The everyday text that litters a city’s streets (shop signs, advertising, road markings) is banished; signs are flattened into miniature monochromes that clutter the brickwork from which they protrude. Ling began painting London’s East End in 2012, yet the new works at greengrassi could be details of the older ones, such are their cropped viewpoints, which often straddle the intersection where two shops meet and specific architectural elements – an Edwardian piece of cornice, a wonkily hung drain pipe, say – collide. In one work, a deep wine-red awning dissects the composition. Tucked beside it to form thecanopy’s backdrop, a luminous shop interior sings in nuclear green; the creeping hanging plant silhouetted in its window is the only hint that the building is inhabited. The painting’s artificial tones crackle and compete with one another as if in a comic book; allow your gaze to sink into Ling’s brushwork and a litany of fluorescent flecks start to register. Clots of painterly detail draw your eye to a sliver of sunlit brick, a cyan corner of window tinged pink.

Elsewhere, Ling’s paintings resonate with the static quietude of a Hopper streetscape. In a 2014 work, a block of flats set back from London’s urban hustle is framed by pink flourishes of hollyhocks that rise from the painting’s foreground; in another, a sweep of morning sun blanches the brash pink facade of a cafe viewed at the corner of a quiet back street. But Ling has also turned his paintbrush to more organic locations, which have included rocky outcrops of wasteland, fenced-off plots of British countryside and an almost forensically explored viridian moss-covered clump of rock. In the 2003 painting Gravity’s Garden, a view of a patch of weed-strewn scrubland is augmented by frenzied brushwork. The impression is of a lens honing in on particular details to dizzying effect, with the trace of slick red oils flickering and leading your eye through the fauna. It is hard to tell if we are falling into the painting’s force field or if this force field is pushing us out towards the canvas’s edge, where it bleeds into a flat, pink border. 

Untitled (detail), 2014, oil on canvas, 1.3 x 1 m. 

Consider the recent spate of exhibitions in London devoted to British plein air painters – Tate Britain’s ‘Late Turner: Painting Set Free’, the Victoria and Albert Museum’s ‘Constable’s Country: Inspired by Suffolk’ (both 2014), and David Hockney’s 2012 ‘Bigger Splash’, at the Royal Academy of Art – and Ling’s work could be said to align with that tradition. His paintings, though, are entirely contemporary. It’s not just that they depict very specific places in a particular time but more, as Ling explained to me, that the paint itself ‘retains a sense of its own temporality. So you make a fluid mark, which then becomes solid. But the sense of it once being fluid is still there. That gesture you made to place that mark is held, as is the observation and the thought that prompted it.’

Still lifes have also been a fixture in Ling’s oeuvre for the past ten years. Standing before two untitled paintings included in his largest show to date, at Bergen Kunsthall, a feeling of claustrophobia grows. Both their size and the sense of ambition catch you off guard. Each work contains dense and seemingly limitless agglomerations of junk – writhing matter built up from children’s discarded toys, a crocheted blanket and some less recognizable materials – cardboard, polystyrene, fabrics. What Ling achieves in these still lifes also applies to his other work: a deep engagement with the objects that he responds to through close observation. No matter that the objects themselves are mundane and discarded: the drama, for Ling, is in the unsung details of life.

1 John Updike, Still Looking, Hamish Hamilton, London, 2006, p. 199 2 Robert Hughes, Frank Auerbach, Thames & Hudson, London, 1990, p. 160

is a writer based in London, UK.

Simon Ling lives in London, UK. His solo show at Bergen Kunsthall, Norway, runs until 5 April. In 2014, he had a solo show at greengrassi, London. In 2013, his work was included in ‘Painting Now: Five Contemporary Artists’ at Tate Britain, London.