John Virtue

Lisson Gallery | 27 Bell Street | London

Each of John Virtue’s “Landscapes,” 1981–85, consists of a set of black-ink drawings, mounted in grid formation with no gaps between them. If the grid is a dissipating force, promoting loss of focus and dispelling any prospect of narrative, it also serves to unify; constituent parts are equal in size, and enough landmarks recur in the drawings to convey the impression that this is a single region, crossed and recrossed continually. Houses—sometimes terraced, but more frequently in isolation—are pictured as entire pictorial units, complete with gates, fences, and paths. The viewpoint is never too close; the distances between them matter more than the buildings themselves.

One stylistic feature is a constant puzzle. The density of line is such that only one interpretation is possible: all the drawings are night scenes. Gradually, differences between each grid emerge. Landscape #10, 1982–83, in which the drawings are square and quite different views are included in each corner, plays on the idea of framing. Landscape #11, 1981–84, with its vertiginous slopes, seems to deal with problems of rendering proximity, while Landscape #20, 1983–84, is preoccupied with the challenge presented to centralized motifs by an attempt at high focus all over the picture. Most mysterious of all, Landscape #9, 1982, and Landscape #13, 1983–84, deal with shadow and the impression of moonlight as it falls between the trees. To call these “stylistic features” is jargon. They are moods, evoked by and corresponding to modes of vision.

Landscape drawings and minimalist grids are nearly incompatible. Deprived of convenient points of fixity, the eye is either sidetracked by detail or led from one complete unit to another, despite the fact that in isolation each drawing would give the opposite effect. Another result of the grid structure is to
generate tension between intimacy and distance, an inevitable result of mounting moments of private experience as a kind of mosaic. These uneasy truces affect the slow perception that each of the “Landscapes” demands. Constant exposure to the same places, time after time, with no deliberate attempt to chart changes in weather, subjects, or the artist’s own private feelings, produces a steady gaze in which separate parts are never singled out, in which the viewer is no longer shamed by the excess of manual labor placed on the wall, and in which the deliberateness of the project comes to seem inevitable. This constancy is, finally, disturbing.

Virtue works as a postman in the North of England. His drawings are of his round. The triumph of his “Landscapes” is to persuade their viewer, gently but constantly, that this repeated walking forms a ritualized pattern, and that its relation to the making of art, another form of ritualized behavior, is utterly appropriate. While recalling some of the highest ideals of Minimalism, with its dream of intellectualized craft, and of British esthetics in general—preoccupied for centuries with the morality of making—the works’ true antecedents would probably be religious. For Virtue, making art is above all an act of devotion.

Stuart Morgan