CROSSINGS – A solo show by Spencer Shakespeare b.1967
A P Nicholson 2023
Spencer Shakespeare aligns himself with worldwide mythology. Always searching for signs and wonders his works contain surprise apparitions of characters from the ancient world. He expresses that “the painting is ahead of me”.
His creative process stems from a meditative state reached by existing in the landscape that surrounds his studio. His work could be described as folk art, specifically linking the human tradition of mark making with place.
The viewer finds themselves drawn into expressionistic works seeking familiar shapes hidden within. Birds and horses feature strongly as metaphors for freedom and ascension. As a boy Shakespeare was an avid bird watcher and enjoyed long summer days in the Essex countryside with his pony. These half-remembered dreams are present in his work, peering through a veil into the semi-conscious state, like the feeling of buzzing heat when you close your eyes in the sunshine.
Trees are an important motif Shakespeare uses to describe a universal network of communication. Trees are important in every culture as life givers yet also keepers of the nether worlds. “Trees are people too” says Shakespeare.
When figures appear in his works, they are rarely obvious. With an air of mystery, they are often obscured as features of the landscape. The viewer feels as if they have happened upon organic scenes unplagued by modernity. Evoking the primal feeling of coming across wildlife that has not yet spotted you.
The work transports the viewer to utopias where natural forms become personified. Richly coloured marks appear in organic fashions, not instantly recognisable as brush strokes. As if crafted by nature - the texture of tree bark or a bubbling stream.
Shakespeare’s Cornish studio sits in a valley between two moors. With far reaching views of ancient tors, it conjures paintings that evoke the prehistoric British landscape. Primeval bodies symbolise the elemental aspects of the paintings, earth and water become creatures with agency whilst reoccurring cloud motifs float above.
“Crossings” is a body of work that demands presence. The paintings act as if they were a tarot deck inviting interpretation. Contemporary painting exists here as a sacred space calling to be inhabited by those seeking rapture.
Benjamin Terrell 2022
Matt Retallick 2021
Pink is the colour of Sea Thrift. Its flowers sit in dense mounds along the Cornish coast, punctuating the green tangle of salt-sprayed grass. That same pink is seen in the paintings of Spencer Shakespeare. His work is, after all, a direct engagement with the landscape of Cornwall, but rarely about places you can pinpoint on a map. His drawings, produced mostly plein air, are a starting point for paintings that are a complex exploration of experience. Imagination holds an equal importance to recollection and memory, each work is a culmination of life encounters, but also a daydream where magic is allowed to permeate.
As a kid, Spencer regularly visited Cornwall, and he recalls many long journeys, and how the county gradually came into focus. Its landscape turning more natural, ancient, and otherworldly the deeper the car travelled into the county. He remembers being made aware of nature like nowhere else, the weather constantly changing, and catching sight of wildlife, for example a hovering buzzard, which he still considers a signifier of luck. Spencer now lives in St Buryan, a small village near equidistant between Penzance and Land’s End, yet it’s far removed from either. Mysteries are part of its fabric, with lichen encrusted Celtic crosses, Neolithic remains, and the Merry Maidens standing stones - girls turned into rock for daring to dance on a Sunday.
It’s this, the heart of Penwith, where Spencer feels at home, amongst his friends, the trees, streams, and timeworn monuments. All of this finds place in his paintings, with clouds blocked-out in thick white, the arc of a gull wing in flight, leafless tree branches reaching upwards, racing-green moorland, and sea spray tussling with magenta skies. Fleeting moments observed at the edges and boundaries of the land, with Spencer allowing us a glimpse into his intimate relationship with it. He paints for nobody but himself, creating his own version of reality, bolder, brighter, dauntless. The paintings are both rooted to real landscapes and imagined portals into another realm, familiar on one hand, ethereal and fairy-tale on the other. You are invited in and given permission to get lost in Spencer’s shimmering, radiant world. The local landscape is a means to unlock himself, to dream of ideals, utopias, rather than something to be faithfully transcribed. It is this position that sets him apart from many Cornish painters.
His choice of acrylic paint reflects the urgency of committing an image to canvas, and charcoal is often the quickest means of capturing fragments of memory as they surface. This conserves a powerful energy that defines his finished paintings, and mirrors Spencer himself, tireless and spirited. He wades through streams, climbs over hedgerows, sits on cliff edges, he’s an artist who truly lives his work. This engagement with nature is his safe space where wisdom can be absorbed, and each painting retains the spell of knowledge.
Spencer’s work stems from a sincere passion and admiration for his local environment, and the results are refreshingly honest. They are uncomplicated, they do not attempt to be unnecessarily clever, or something they are not. Regardless of whether the places depicted are real, the paintings certainly are - authentic and heartfelt. There’s alchemy in every canvas.
A free spirit in Art
Clark Rickard Oct 2021
EVERY now and then an artist appears who attempts to break loose from the ‘conceptual shackles’ of present day art programming, reverting to a shamanic approach of ‘free wilderness’ in their quest to create images that allow for expression to escape the cage of pure intellectual reasoning.
In doing so such an artist trusts that by ‘getting out of the way’ the painting is able to become its own communication with the worlds of humans. Being free to breathe its wisdom into those who are open to receive it.
Past examples are: Gillian Ayres, Asger Jorn, Sandra Blow, Peter Lanyon, Roger Hilton, Alan Davie, Hans Hartung among others in Europe where a tendency to rebel against the formal was referred to as ‘Art Informel’. In the USA it was named ‘Abstract Expressionism’.
At Livingstone Gallery in St Ives a young artist who works near Penzance, Spencer Shakespeare shows it resurfacing in our own time moment to remind us that our ancient intuition can still serve our needs in freeing ourselves from the straightjacket of an over developed ‘scientific-intellectual’ world culture that has closed the door on the possibility of using those more instinctive gifts for channelling our inherent ability to allow solutions to surface from their own plane of higher knowledge.
When I said ‘free spirit’ in the title to this piece one is saying that mankind in our journey through space and time has always been in each stage of our development ‘sophisticated primitives’ or free spirits!
A show for those who like to be challenged, it runs from October 7th to 31st 2021.
Kate Reeve - Edwards 2020
Spencer Shakespeare says of his work he is ‘looking for transcendence from the bleakness of the modern world’, and a sense of utopia is precisely what comes across in his raw, generative paintings. Prelapsarian abundance is what first strikes you when looking at his abstract canvases. It is nature who inspires him; nature and its many intricate relationships that flow out of his fingers: the shape of a tree against the foliage, a bird’s flight in an empty sky, a beetle in it’s leaf-world. Shakespeare feels the awe of the sublime not from looking upon a vast vista, but in the minutiae of the earth: the small worlds that carry on without any knowledge of humanity's existence.
Born in London in 1967, Shakespeare discovered his addiction to natural spaces in his yearly holidays to Cornwall with his family, which, after 20 years of living in Australia's Gold Coast he has returned to, residing near Penzance where he says the bird song is at its most beautiful. Being an obsessive and automatic drawer since the age of seven, Shakespeare completed a degree in Illustration at Bournemouth College of Art and Design (1992-1995). Although his love of drawing never stopped, as he matured both as a person and an artist, he sought to break away from commissioned work, seeking his own artistic independence. Now an internationally successful artist, independence is what he has certainly achieved.
He enjoys transcribing places of intersection; the coastline, the edge of forests- places where a transition of boundaries takes place. The garden is significant in his work because of the element of interchange between the domestic boundary and the beginning of wilderness. Although he is inspired by places such as these, he never strives for specifics nor is beholden to the landscape around him, instead drawing and exposing his own imaginary world. His work connotes a kind of mystery, a kind of magic. A world where colours are intense, high-contrast, energetic: vibrating with an emotional energy. His abstract canvases show the blurred boundaries of the humming world he sees: a door for you, the viewer, that opens into wonderland.
Above all else Shakespeare is an expressionist, tapping into an automatic, corporeal, instinctive creative tendency where he casts the world in colour. Therefore, because of this unrestrained and flexible way of transcribing the world, Shakespeare is not an artist to be constrained by discipline. Today he’s an abstract artist, tomorrow he might start a band, build a house, or become a furniture designer. His creative energy radiates from him, turning everything he touches to rapturous colour.
Mark Nicholson Oct 2021
A show for those who like to be challenged.’ International artist now working and exhibiting in St Ives
Amid the fudge and pasty shops of St Ives Fore Street is a startlingly different type of confection, a must-see show by Cornwall-based abstract artist Spencer Shakespeare.
At the Livingstone Gallery until 31 October, it contains work produced during his residency this summer at Porthmeor Studios beside the Tate. These are probably the oldest working artist studios in the UK, Grade 2 Listed and since 1880 a creative cauldron for celebrated names including Stanhope Forbes, Patrick Heron, Ben Nicholson, Terry Frost and Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, even Francis Bacon for a few months.
Spencer Shakespeare is an energising hybrid of his Essex roots, twenty years of living on Australia’s Gold Coast, and a passionate love of Cornwall’s natural textures, its sounds, colours, coast and countryside.
Born in 1967 in London he discovered his addiction to the natural world in his yearly holidays to Cornwall with his family. Now, after two decades of living on the Gold Coast, Spencer has returned to live near Penzance, where he says the bird song is at its most beautiful.
Now an internationally successful artist who sells and exhibits worldwide and whose images have crossed over into fast-selling fashion materials, he was an obsessive and automatic drawer since the age of seven. He says he enjoys transcribing places of intersection - the coastline, the edge of forests, the transition between a domestic garden and the wilderness beyond.
The St Ives show, due to the skylit dimensions of the Porthmeor studio where he has worked this year, contains some of his largest-ever canvases - great cinemascopes where you can hear the sea and smell the drying seaweed, touch the gritty surfaces. Children love his work as near kinetic sculptures, tactile and redolent of days at the seaside exploring caves or having adventures in the woods or tropical gardens.
Never far from Spencer’s side whether working, walking or just wondering is faithful dog Chester. They live in St.Buryan, known contrastingly as the home of the late John le Carre and setting for Sam Peckinpah’s divisive banned movie Straw Dogs. Always about contrasts, Spencer lives here with fiancé, horticulture student Alice, a well-travelled cat and a garden of free-range guinea pigs. Appropriately reclaimed wooden self-built garden studio contrasts with the ancient granite cottage.
Spencer Shakespeare’s work connotes a kind of mystery, a kind of magic. A world where colours are intense, high contrast, energetic: vibrating with an emotional energy. His abstract canvases show the blurred boundaries of the humming world he sees: a door for you, the viewer, that opens into wonderland.
The exhibition ‘Amongst Friends’ is free entry at the two storey Livingstone Gallery, 71 to 73 Fore Street, St. Ives, Cornwall TR26 1HW