As a way of understanding the world around us, painting is constantly evolving. Although its collective coat has been said by many art critics to be on a shaky peg for several decades now, still our artists keep returning to a simple blank canvas as a means of telling their story.
In the same way that a good book can enrich your life, a painting too, can stop you in your tracks with a thunderbolt of recognition. A good painting is not about verisimilitude. It is not about perspective, composition or brushwork, though all these things help to make it work. A good painting connects the artist to the viewer. It says… you are not alone in an increasingly baffling world and more often than not, artists are making these marks to reassure themselves of that very truth.
For Lesley Banks, who at the relatively young age of 46 is having her first retrospective exhibition this year at The Park Gallery in Falkirk, this truth runs like a sliver of evenly placed light.
Lesley is a natural and honest painter, who for the last 25 years, has taken the stuff of her own life, tilted it this way and that, and then laid it down beautifully on canvas for viewers to lift out a kernel of connection.
Her figurative, landscape and townscape paintings often have a domestic setting. There is always a narrative, whether real or imagined, taking place. Even when her paintings portray people going about their business in public spaces, there is often hidden menace – such as a hotel on fire in the background of what appears to be a darkly foreboding cloud closing in.
A well-known series of paintings of Glasgow’s hugely atmospheric Arlington Baths, started in the early 1990s and revisited a decade later, reveal a painter maturing and becoming more confident in her ability to capture the fragility of our place in a rapidly-changing world.
Lesley’s work connects with people on many levels, but mainly for the way it portrays in a quietly direct way, the unease that lies beneath the surface of every day life. As her friend, the artist and gallery owner Vicki Cassidy says: “The thing that comes across in Lesley's work for me is the feeling of intimacy, there is nothing voyeuristic about it, even when we see someone just stepping from their bath or lying in their bed.”
For Lesley, when the idea of putting together a retrospective exhibition came up, she was taken aback.
“But the more I thought about it,” she explains, “the more I thought it would be a great chance to look back at my painting to see where it is that I am heading now that my youngest son is at school and I am able to devote more time to my work. I also realised that 2009 would mark 25 years since I graduated.
“I feel my painting career has been a bit stop and start because I have three sons aged 16, 10 and five and with each child, I have had the inevitable ‘rest’ from work. Returning to work has always been fraught with anxiety. The idea behind the Falkirk exhibition is that it ties in with the Year of Homecoming, and for me, it feels like a homecoming of sorts.”
As a little girl, growing up in the nearby town of Denny, Lesley was consumed with the need to draw and paint. No one in her family was particularly arty, but she decided early on that she was going to art school to be a painter. Not just any art school – Glasgow School of Art.
Nurtured at Denny High School by James Dunn, who was principal teacher of art there for many years, at the age of 17, she was accepted by GSA on the strength of her school portfolio in 1980.
She recalls: “At that time, everyone at art school did a foundation year where we all did the same wide range of subjects. At the end of this, we were asked to fill in a form and put three subjects in order of preference. I only put one subject – drawing and painting, because that was the only department I was prepared to study in.”
“For various reasons, I struggled in first year and I was asked to go for an interview with Barbara Rae, who was a tutor at that time, to talk to her and show examples of my work which I was happy with.
“She asked why I hadn’t chosen any other subjects and I replied painting was all I wanted to do and if I didn’t get in this year, I’d try again next year.
“I could see her hovering, but she could see I was determined and that there was something in my work. Mr Dunn was a fantastic painter and a superb teacher who actually taught you the finer technical points of drawing and painting.”
In the end, Rae, a distinguished artist in her own right, decided this rather serious-minded young woman should be allowed to pursue her goal.
Although there are layers that connect all her paintings over the years, rounding up and looking back at her work over the last 25 years has been an occasionally unsettling experience for Lesley.
She explains: “The earliest works in this retrospective date back to the late 1980s when I owned my first flat and are full of the anxieties surrounding what if? They look at what can happen ‘out there’ and how it can contribute and disarm what goes on in here.
“And certainly life has changed. Three children at spaced out intervals within a painting career can only add new pleasures and fears.
“Two years ago, I did a series of paintings that revolved around the subject of the home. I had read Julie Myerson’s book Home, in which she delved into the past life of the Victorian house in which she lives in London. I am fascinated by this idea that each time a resident moves in, they add a layer so I decided to revisit the tenement flat where I used to live in Glasgow with my oldest son and my ex-partner.
“The new owner’s lives added to the work. Some paintings depict Gil, a friend who bought the flat from us and other show Rachel and Joseph, a brother and sister who moved in after Gil.
“Revisiting the flat was quite an emotional experience. Like layers of wallpaper, elements of my time there remained, such as the green front door, the couch, the half-painted fireplace and the wonderful views with huge Glasgow skies. A real window on the weather.”
Windows have been a constant feature in Lesley Banks paintings, but there is nothing voyeuristic about her work. There is a very real sense of moving on in her most recent works, which are larger in scale and focus on light-filled Venetian interiors, both real and imagined. A long-running love affair with Italy is also another persistent factor over the last two decades in her painting.
Empty beds with rumpled sheets sit in the foreground while an open window reveals a wall of intricately patterned windows on the other side of the canal.
In these paintings, there are no restless figures taking in the moment. All is still; all is quiet. The colours are all pale ochres, terracotta pinks against the pale green shimmer of the water. A complete contrast to the rich colour of her Glasgow works. Yet, for all that, we are still left wondering what has happened here. In the same way Luchino Visconti’s film Death in Venice captured the elegant decay of this achingly beautiful city, these paintings hold us in the moment.
For Lesley, these paintings symbolise a new beginning in her painting career.
“In the Home paintings, there was a sense of detachment and involvement because this flat which held so many memories was no loner my home. At the same time, my relationship with the place itself remained.
“They offer the beginnings of a coming-to-terms with change, which is perhaps becoming increasingly resolved in the Venice work.
“Although at one point, I would not have wanted to be categorised as such, I am very definitely a female painter. I can only paint what I am surrounded by and what I am. What I am is a woman with a husband and a family who is trying to navigate that maze and still keep painting.”
- The story so far
- I'm an arts journalist & PR consultant living and working in Scotland. I've been a journalist for more than 25 years. I write a regular column for Scottish quality newspaper, The Herald. I deliver a PR service with an arty bent and work on a consultancy basis with arts organisations, including Scotland's leading creative industries festival, XpoNorth & broadcast support body, ScreenHI. I am currently co-writing a book about the celebrated Scots artist, George Wyllie, with his daughter Louise. Instrumental in making a celebration of his life's work happen in 2012. For more information, see www.georgewyllie.com When I'm not being a mum/working, I talk to my dog. He laps it up. Contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org (All work © Jan Patience)