Surman's is a practice of storytelling; one with many plots and subplots. There are heroes, heroines, villains, ghosts, and their presence ripple out in seemingly disparate directions. Unsurprisingly, with a background in film, the subjects that populate his paintings have an implicit narrative momentum, within his own life and within the story of art history, the seeds of which began long ago. They usually take shape as a solitary figure or animal, or a pared-down scene. In River King, a salmon appears in a dappled mauve monotone, spawned from Surman's early memories of fishing in the Scottish Highlands and later working in the laboratory of a Norwegian fish farming company. The salmon looms large at the bottom of the canvas. Here the fish resurfaces from Surman's mind stitched to Lynchian thoughts around consciousness and creativity.
"Ideas are like fish. If you want to catch little fish, you can stay in the shallow water. But if you want to catch the big fish, you've got to go deeper. Down deep, the fish are more powerful and more pure. They're huge and abstract. And they're very beautiful."
— David Lynch
An apt metaphor for the breadth of what feels like an oceanic practice; his method is literary, anecdotal and steeped in research. The paintings in Fairy Painting are surprisingly uncrowded considering the scope of ideas that surround each one. Surman boldly reduces his subjects to their essential parts, allowing them space to breathe and linger. An admirable denial of fixity pervades his work. As I stand in his studio, our conversation fluidly rolls from his interest in religion, mythology, climate change and environmentalism to thoughts around participating in society post-lockdown and back to canonical painters. We leaf through a book on Japanese Rinpa painting. He points to some comic books. As we discuss different works, his influences range from historical anthropologist Alfred Gell, German dramatist Georg Büchner, inventor-filmmaker Louis Lumière and writer Charles Bukowski, amongst others. Yet his influences don't stop there.
For any painter working today, the spectres of art history haunt their brushstrokes. In Surman's paintings, the burden of art history is an opportunity; there is a strong sense of belonging to a tradition and responding to it. He takes the works of old masters - Van Gogh, Kirchner, Breugel, Blake, Munch - feeds off them, embraces and rejects them as he engages with the form, in perpetuity.
Surman directly lifts these spectres out of the historical canon, sometimes speculating on who they might be if they were alive today. Van Gogh, he tells me, would be a "dedicated environmentalist." In Fairy Painting, Surman channels certain stylistic motifs of Van Gogh directly, but also encapsulates his sensibility. In the In the Labyrinth series he turns his hand to other artists, such as Blake. What strikes me most is this dexterous dedication to pushing the form. He commits to no particular style or media, deftly slipping from watercolour to acrylic, representation to abstraction, meditative detail to swift expressionism. This sense of infidelity follows his thought processes; the parameters for Surman's depictions shift from one work to the next, following his senses, a dream, a feeling, a haunting image. Intuition, as opposed to ideological framework, takes prominence-a departure from his previous works and first exhibition at the gallery.
Consider, for example, Each night counts for something, a depiction of a snake draped around a tree; the root of this painting came from an image Surman dreamt. In Bathers, four tortoises gather, their lined faces barely visible, with detailed shells amid a red background. Moved by the creatures that inhabit the natural world, animals are still a central theme for the artist but the animals that populate these paintings aren't friendly pets. They embody a primordial symbolism. Surman's preoccupation with the terms of his own discipline is apparent in Bathers; the namesake of a pivotal work by Matisse, in which four figures hold court in the canvas. Yet, backgrounded by Surman's interests in the natural world and the urgent concerns of environmental disaster, there is an ominousness to these works. As a storyteller, Surman implies where his characters are heedlessly headed.
This is felt most strongly in Roar Bark in the Understory, one of the largest in the exhibition. In it, a maned wolf looms over a human baby, placed between two trees and painted in a canary yellow on a grey background. Compositionally evocative of the fable of Romulus and Remus suckling a she-wolf at the birth of the Roman Empire and lacking formal detail, this depiction symbolises a beginning and an end. Surman informs me, the maned wolf of Brazil is a threatened species due to human activity but is also celebrated and immortalised on a 200 Real note in Brazil's currency. A huge fox/wolf-like animal; it appears otherworldly. With this, Surman employs mythological allegory to ask urgent questions of himself and the world. Can these two co-exist harmoniously?
The In the Labyrinth series, though grounded in myth, has a different narrative impetus than the larger works in the space, speaking more directly to Victorian fairy painting. Stylistically similar and redolent of William Blake, Surman employs tonally translucent watercolours. Here he speaks to its emergence as a form of escapism born out of the pandemic and environmental concerns. As in the Victorian age, there is a yearning for the natural world. However, these seemingly pastoral idylls could be scenes of dystopian science fiction. Co-opting the parameters of bucolic scenes and spiritualistic ritual, Surman presents us a moral fugue state in an extrapolation of present conditions.
Surman's ability to synthesise dreams, ecology, literature and mythology into a cohesive whole is a through line in all of his work. The assimilation of all these references accords his work a powerful attitude that is both tangible and transformative.
- Gwen Burlington, September 2021
Gwen Burlington is a writer based between London and Ireland.