The latest exhibition at Nancy Sever Gallery makes my heart sing with pure delight. The paintings are by John Scurry and I intend to visit them over and over again. Scurry’s landscapes and portraits are wonderful but I will go back because I cannot stay away from the interior of his studio. Scurry’s crisp, skilfully executed still -lives offer us a glimpse into his world through the depiction of mundane, insignificant objects. His art brings to mind the deceptively nonchalant yet exquisitely precise poetry of William Carlos Williams:
Flowers through the window
lavender and yellow
changed by white curtains—
Smell of cleanliness—
Sunshine of late afternoon—
On the glass tray
a glass pitcher, the tumbler
turned down, by which
a key is lying— And the
immaculate white bed (William Carlos Williams)
In Williams’ poem, a pretty still life is presented in linen cool colours – flowers, curtains, pitcher, tumbler, key and bed. We are offered a seemingly simple moment but as we look more closely, we find the texture of a story. Scurry’s art does exactly the same thing. In Echoes and Silence we see the chintz printed armchair draped in a white sheet, the small tumbler of blooms and sprigs, a takeaway coffee cup, a guitar leaning casually against a sky blue table, a random book…but a narrative is gently inserted in the photo of a man’s face, the edge of a suitcase (almost out of frame), the warm rug folded over the arm of the chair. Just as the key and the immaculate white bed in Williams’ poem tell us that there is something more going on so the details in Scurry’s painting are tantalisingly suggestive.
Scurry’s canvases are compelling because they infuse the commonplace and humdrum with a human story and this makes them extraordinary. In Table with Reflected Portrait, an empty bottle, a tiny white tablet and a half filled glass of water sit alongside a dainty card and a shallow bowl of peel and pips but our eye is drawn to the shadowy brick coloured portrait that leans against the pallid wall and the hammer that lies ominously on the wooden floor.
Again in Points of Departure we find ourselves in a room of objects that we recognise immediately but as we gaze at the jumble on the table we know that nothing is as simple as it seems. While Scurry paints with a precise and detached eye – his pictures resonate with unanswered questions: who will eat that delicious melting moment biscuit? And who moved it from the plate to the napkin? The whimsical mix of colours and objects on this table is mesmerising. That golden, creamy biscuit, the toxic bottle of blue cleaning fluid, prosaic tools, a paper coffee cup and brightly coloured boxes… who was in that room?
I am transfixed in front of the hints of humanness in these paintings. Whose shirts hang on wonky wire hangers in Udaipur Still Life? Whose apron is tossed on the black chair in Frame? What is in the taped up box in Still Life with spiral light bulb?
As we trawl through these works, we become more and more familiar with this confined interior. Items are constantly repeated in the pictures – crumpled plastic bags, splattered ice cream containers, empty bottles, cardboard cylinders, sheets, books, takeaway coffee cups, glasses of water, posies of flowers, the same neat washed blue table and cosy pale patterned arm chair, hammers, boxes, cards, brushes… Scurry invites us into his world by unfolding it for us in these meticulously painted snapshots of muddled, inconsequential objects that are part of his everyday life.
Now and then we glimpse the world beyond this space as in Frame where the view, of blue sky and green trees, outside a window is juxtaposed against an empty picture frame or in Mirror where we can just make out the murky shapes of branches through the greenish glass. Mostly we are caught within this room of lived life – a place where odd objects jostle against each other – where the woody stem of a pear reflects a cruel metal spike or a bumpy yellow quince sits incongruously next to the stark hardness of audio visual machinery or a lemon balances on a document box.
There is melancholy and wit in these perfect representations of ordinary things. Drum Stool is filled with a sense of foreboding and loneliness. The muted stony background, the tidily placed drum sticks and empty coffee cup on a black seat evoke a sense of ending. Where is the drummer? Where are the drums?
One of my favourite paintings is the quirkily titled Blue Shirt. Unlike most of Scurry’s subdued still-lives, this picture accosts the eye with vibrant colour. The bright unequivocal yellow of the paper bag and the deep coral ribbon tied around a roll of soft white tissue jump off the canvas. We have to search for a few seconds to notice the faint blue collar of a shirt peeping out of the top of that vivid yellow bag. Again one of William Carlos Williams’ poems springs into my head…
The Red Wheelbarrow
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
chickens. (William Carlos Williams)
So much depends on that pastel blue collar edging gently out of the strident burst of yellow. Every infinitesimal particular in this picture matters as indeed does every minute detail in the complex tapestry of everyday life. Both Williams and Scurry know this truth. The title of this picture is part of its poetry as are the titles of many of Scurry’s works. They are often ironic, humorous and discomforting. The incongruity of Landscape with its cardboard cylinders, colourful blocks and crumpled stripes, the haunting image of the leaning guitar and packed suitcase in Echoes and Silence and the uneaten sweet biscuit in Points of Departure.
While there is much to love in Scurry’s landscapes and portraits- the impassive face of the Museum Guard and the warm glow of lights from houses in the dark stillness of a quiet street in At Night – it is his still-lives which make it hard to leave this exhibition. We are captured in the achingly familiar, sharply observed and beautifully rendered world of banal, often unnoticed objects which are redolent with human possibility. We are invited into an artist’s common round of life and it is very hard to walk away from that.
© Anita Patel, 2017