In 1986, on the occasion of his retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery, the exhibition’s curator Nicholas Serota noted that Victor Willing was the brightest of a bright generation; “a fiery comet which would eventually guide us all”. In 2015, some 27 years after his death, Willing’s reach and ability to influence other artists seems as powerful as ever. With this in mind, it gives the gallery enormous pleasure to be able to present the first substantial showing of Willing in over a decade, in a two-person exhibition with Nicholas Hatfull.
In his early manifesto Travel by Bus, Victor Willing calls painting “a revelation.. simultaneously discovery and communication”, and “the most insidious penetration through banalities”. His often vast canvases and sublime pastel drawings uncover realms that only painting can access so hauntingly. In an age when solitary reverie is, supposedly, an endangered state (the culprits, apparently, smartphones and social media), the unsettling longeurs of his paintings are to be cherished. Willing noted that the images he made were “apparitions not appearances” and “visionary not visual”. He spoke of his paintings coming “through the wall”, whereby the viewer is involved almost physically in the scene. A wristy application, uneven finish and sinuous line, suggest the elusiveness of these reveries. Some are renderings of imagined sculptures – indeed, he began as a sculptor, which may help account for the particular presence of loosely indicated forms in his paintings.
Though preoccupied by graphic design, convenience food culture and the detritus of urban life, Nicholas Hatfull shares with Willing a favouring for large format, vividly coloured, stark compositions that seek a metaphysical presence. He also puts great store in images appearing from the imagination (albeit an imagination nourished by ongoing reference to his surroundings), and favours associative imagery over rationalised connections. In My life in a frozen moment (high chair on Tolpuddle st) what might be glimpses of a Saturday out and about in London – the sole of a contemporary running trainer, a high chair and a sandwich from a coffee chain, are presented as a fierce vision, wreathed with orange and arranged in a sinister perspective.
In Salt grit, dumb waiter, the forms that populate the scene are a Salt grit bin, a beer can from a Japanese diner and an ubiquitous carrier bag. Though he insists on utter mundanity in his points of reference in the visible world, the results are outlandish and distinctively strange, adding to the dreamlike turbulence of the pictures. Whether details take their cues from computer icons (in the case of a trash can) or a Ninja Turtles playset (in the case of the cracks in a pavement), they are given a breezy, searching treatment, as Hatfull explores what might charge up and give off heat in his paintings.