Jonathan Woolfenden

Social realism in art - as in some mid-20th century literature - is often referred to as “kitchen sink”. In art it takes its cue from David Bomberg and his followers. These were principally Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff. To put it in perspective, the literature equivalents would be some works of Alan Sillitoe – Saturday Night and Sunday Morning springs to mind - and John Osborne’s ground-breaking drama Look Back in Anger.

David Bomberg was such an influence on the Kitchen Sink movement  that it in turn gave us an abundance of fine works.  Into any catalogue of these soi-disant works come the names of Edward Middleditch and Jack Smith. It was however one artist who has been described as the true Kitchen Sink artist and he is the stunning painter John Bratby. Stunning he is but perhaps he is best known for, in a way, outflanking his colleagues by painting….a kitchen sink! When David Sylvester saw that particular work he coined the phrase, the first to so do. Kitchen Sink art was born.

Bratby was more than the man who gave us the genre. It is his direct influence on Jonathan Woolfenden that we have to thank for the work on display here. When Sillitoe and Osborne broke moulds and even more importantly broke the then-accepted rules of their literary peers, they started a sort of pawn-roller effect in British theatre. After that, there were few if any rules - the  ancient Greek demands  for   unity of time,  place  and action  were gone.

So it is with Woolfenden. Huge mounds of paint are piled onto canvas along with apparently impulsive brush strokes which however, like a stanza from Chaucer or Shakespeare, make  us realise this man knows exactly what he is doing, both with his ideas and his knowledge of his surroundings. His technique, among other qualities, is significant, more so indeed, with liniar rhythms and patterns in German expressionist style.

When Jon decides to pour paint directly onto canvas, it is to give us an honest and raw, almost one might say, a full-frontal representation of not only his technical ability, but as a creative chronicler of the world in which we live - our troubled, chaotic, uncertain, worrying times. Jon paints the futility, banality, and despair of life. His paintings present to us the last vestiges of industrial history which he shows us in oil…captured in oil paint for eternity, for future generations. You might, for example, be reminded of the scene in Beckett’s Endgame when, sighing deeply, the Blind Hamm asks, “What’s happening, what’s happening?” To which Clov replies,  “Something is taking its course”. It is for us to decide what.

Now, just as closer examination of Beckett’s works - all of them, not just the plays but the novels and smaller works - will reward us, the same applies to Jon Woolfenden. What we see is a guided and careful construction of each layer of paintwork,  whether with brush, palette knife, or even fingers and other tools. And because he is also showing us a lost world, Jon’s work is taken direct from closed factories and decaying shipyards. We are in the 1950s and 1960s when we watch the last major shipbuilding and the beginning of the disappearance of the manufacturing industries that made Britain great. It is genuinely heart-breaking as his work shows us this decay and disappearance …but in a beautiful manner. It is Prospero sighing that “they are all gone into the world of light and I alone sit lingering here….their very memory is clear and bright….and my sad thoughts do cheer”. So Jon gives us the vanished world, its sadness and chaos but  in a way that not only makes us stop and think, but makes us marvel, truly marvel, at a skill and technique that can at the same time  tell us to mourn but to admire the way the admonition is delivered.

Jon has said of his work: “I enjoy trying to make paint do things that it’s not supposed to do - a slab of chequer paint in 3D, an electric light bulb that is switched on, a rusty pipe that is decaying on the canvas, the smell of iron from a landscape of chains, a discarded glove”.

Jonathan Woolfenden started  learning his craft at the Bath Academy of Art and it was there  he began to learn also to understand his craft and his own talent. He is in many collections and his work has been featured on many television and radio programmes and in the press. His work, ‘The Deadliest Catch’, was sold within minutes of the opening of the Royal Academy Exhibition 2011.


Jamie Dillon, Curator, Visage Gallery

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