REVIEW: When Now Becomes Then: Three Decades | Basil Beattie at MIMA from Susan's Spotlight

When Now Becomes Then: Three Decades

Basil Beattie

Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art

20th February – 5th June, 2016


Review by Susan Edwards


Basil Beattie was born, raised and his early education took place in North Yorkshire in the 1930’s. At 81 years of age he is still a currently practising artist and his recent exhibition at Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (MIMA) is an example of a “local lad done good and returns home”. A well-respected painter and print-maker among the UK art community, he taught at Goldsmith’s during the 80’s and 90’s and is best known for his twist on abstract Expressionism. In his formative years, a key moment was seeing an exhibition called “The New American Painting” at the Tate Gallery in 1959 and being strongly influenced by Mark Rothko. While Beattie’s work is not remotely visually reminiscent of Rothko’s paintings, they do echo the same human emotive and psychological qualities.


His body of work is non-representational, manifesting a theme including patterns within a built structure. Certain specific shapes distinguish his paintings. The most often used shape is a ziggurat that recalls an image of a staircase. Along with this zig zag form, doors, tunnels, and symbols indicating entering and exiting are seen during the whole of his three decades of work. Beattie felt it was important to have breathing space or a “lung” within the work. 

(1998, exh.cat.p.10).


It is art that is not everyone’s cup of tea.


Many people continue to mistake an absence of technical skill as a lack of artistic ability and sophistication. The art of concepts and ideas is much more difficult to convey and understand then art that directly represents an object. Abstraction is often thought of as immature scribbles and met with scorn and derision. Artists that choose to portray concepts, emotions and the conflicts of a global community can often produce work that is uncomfortable and thought of as “ugly”. With his crude, deliciously loose and imposing mark making often referred to as “gestural” and a characteristically dark, monochromatic colour scheme, Beattie’s paintings can often fall into an ugly category.


MIMA selected art works ranging from the mid 1980’s to 2015 that hung in 4 rooms. The most memorable part of the exhibition is in the first room, consisting of ceiling to floor India ink drawings on paper. Ten across, twenty four high of A4 sized drawings thumb-tacked on the wall directly opposite the entrance to the exhibition was a visually overwhelming sight; leaving the viewer to feel dizzy with neck crooked up to the ceiling, staring at the individual images. Selected from 376 pieces of work from 1990, “Drawings on an Interior” gives an astonishing insight into the thought process of an artist at work, his intimate sketches and meanderings as if his personal notebook has been displayed for public scrutiny. Beattie has said of these drawings, “this work is a resource that I have mined ever since. Acting as a blueprint or guide, the motifs, designs, and symbols on these images were to be seen throughout the remaining three rooms of art.


Room three contains a work from 2001, titled “Never Before” with a dull beige and brown colour palette to create forms that appear as stacked books, planks or blocks.  Despite the monochrome dreary hues, on closer inspection there are tones of black and burnt sienna layered over pale creamy yellow, layered over beige, producing scrumptious blobs of colour squooshed about, drips and smudges that tug at a naïve emotion to touch and further push these pigments about on the canvas. The palpable brushstrokes replicate a style seen in children’s paintings. This deliberate paint application and composition cause unpredictable responses which would not occur in detailed life like imagery. The marks are large and bold, transferring energy, but expressive lines suggest ideas rather than representing his personal feelings. The geometrically stacked shapes offer a vaguely recognizable notion and despite the appearance of spontaneous design, his layered paint and composition technique has been carefully thought out and planned.


 “Far from Somewhere”, 2015, is the most challenging of his works to view. Roughly scrubbed in black pigment on a wall sized canvas with seemingly random marked in shapes. He has deviated from the monochrome tones to give blue, pink, red and yellow colour against the black background. It looks ugly, it feels chaotic as if one has woken from a dream with snippets of images in flashback but the parts to connect the meaning have been left out. His mature work (if one calls an 81 year old man mature) shows a lack of inhibition, increased fast, free gestures as if he quickly needed to capture all his previously used symbols in one place without logic or semblance of pattern. Yet amid this chaotic process glimmers a hint of narrative.  The title offers a clue of its thematic origin. Beattie states, “I feel I can put almost anything in. I put things that have references to psychological and emotional concerns that are important to me, but I try to paint them in a way that is not illustrative”. 


MIMA has curated an exhibition giving varied paintings of Beattie’s growth as an artist. His life work comes to us as free, expressive with forthright strong gestures to inflect turmoil, movement, ambiguities, insights, and humour. Whether one chooses to embrace this art, it cannot be overlooked that he discards established rules of pictorial space and colour and introduces new vocabularies and boundaries of art providing the viewer the opportunity to reinvent their own narratives in life.



Basil Beattie, (exh. cat. essay, J. McEwen, London, Tate Gallery, 1998).


Basil Beattie, R.A. is represented by the Hales Gallery, London, New York

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By Susan
Added May 25 '16



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