The girl, the bull and the airfield

New paintings by Matthew Lanyon

Field of Dreams  
oil on canvas  22 feet x five

In Greek mythology Zeus falls in love with Europa, disguises himself as a gentle white bull and, while the girl is making a fuss of this new member of her father’s herd, abducts her by swimming out to sea. Matthew Lanyon knows the story well: it was read to him as a child; in the mid-1950s his artist father produced a striking interpretation of the theme in which oil paint plays out a mythical drama of land, sea and sex. The thirty or so paintings in Matthew Lanyon’s ‘Europa’ series revisit and develop this complex personal legacy. They are, he says, about ‘pushing my childhood map to the edges’. Female forms become landscapes, which become animals, which become maps. Here is a lighthouse, a chapel, a navel – signified by a red dot, which may also be the rising sun or a beacon on the telecommunications mast above Camborne. Is this a horse’s head or a headland? A lot of what Lanyon calls ‘elision’ is clearly going on.

Field of Dreams, the largest painting in this show, is very large indeed. It is not made to be looked at from one position but to walk along, to think alongside. It’s like listening to a story in which familiar characters reappear in altered form. You recognise shapes and signs from other ‘Europa’ paintings – the red dots again, and a tilted 4 that, explains Lanyon, stands for Perranporth airfield.

Europa XVlll
19.5 x 6 inches oil on board

In fact this enormous work, like numerous others in the exhibition, is a carefully scaled up, horizontal variant of a small vertical panel painting, in which Europa’s figure-of-eight breasts and the bull’s horns are suddenly obvious. The breast shapes, especially, recall the conventions of Aborginal bark painting – human and animal forms are also landscapes, threaded by schematic paths that lead simultaneously through space and time. If you don’t recognise the cliffs around Godrevy lighthouse or know about Perranporth airfield or the clock tower at Porthleven, you could lose your bearings. At the same time, uncertainty and elision are necessary, says Lanyon, because (and I agree), ‘By not being clear, you go on looking’.


Michael Bird     August 2011


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