LONDON — Forced as a teenager to choose between “art, acting or army”, Timothy Spall rediscovered his inner artist while preparing to play the eponymous Mr Turner in Mike Leigh’s 2014 film.
Five years later, his film role as LS Lowry in Mrs Lowry & Son resulted in an exhibition at the Lowry Gallery, where his paintings were seen by gallerist Domenic Pontone, who invited him to stage a solo exhibition in London.
The 20 landscapes now on show were all made in the past six months, based on photographs taken in locations from central London to Spain to the Swedish Baltic.
Perhaps the exhibition’s title refers to Covid, or the strain felt by an actor trying to make paintings good enough to fill a gallery. Without doubt, it’s a nod to Turner, and to William Blake, whose influences are felt in turbulent seascapes, fiery skies and the occasional lone figure or barren tree – Romantic tropes that signpost the connection.
Further homage to Turner comes in two scenes at Margate, scumbled paint and delicate strokes of white reminiscent of the great painter’s evocations of peaking waves and ferocious water and sky.
For all that, these are not pastiches: that Spall has found a voice of his own, he says, is thanks in part to his choice of acrylics over oil paint.
There’s a distinctive humour at work in landscapes that reach for the sublime only to be grounded by the banal, the effect sharpened by titles composed as sardonic asides. In Heaven Beyond the Shit-Bin, the realities of dog mess disposal are an (almost) reassuring anchor in the vast nothingness that rises beyond; in Washing Worships as Day Declines, silhouettes of clothes lines against a darkening sky are a surprising and moving memento mori.
Where he has real ability is in tonal work, and several paintings – almost monochrome – explore the variety to be found in the depths of darkness. Dying of the Lake Light is a poetic study of light as it drains not just from the sky, but from the water below, in contrast to the artificial lights glimmering on the opposite shore.
Such focus in individual paintings shows the seriousness with which Spall has applied himself to his new pursuit, evident also in his willingness to experiment with techniques.
He departs from his more usual smooth canvas and impeccably blended brushstrokes in Rootless Landing, achieving a painterly confidence in thickly textured encrustations of acrylic.