Chris Seaber conflates painting and drawing with the potential that a two-dimensional image has to be an object. The works hanging on the gallery wall might be labelled assemblages, a form of sculpture comprised of objects so put together that they make a cohesive visual whole; they could equally be drawings or, for those that include paint, paintings. Conceivably they project out just enough into the real world to stop being purely a painting or drawing and become an object that (as the Oxford Dictionary describes) one need not, cannot, or does not wish to give a specific name to. Where they forego the support of a canvas stretcher they hang and flop like soft sculpture. When they have a tight formal structure they become constructions with a disciplined approach to composition in which chromatic relationships that shift across a strict system of variation are explored through rigorous repetition. Seaber’s works are essentially abstractions but even here they defy easy categorisation. They may stem from his personal history and that of his family; from nature and the calendar year; the large scale of a lorry-load covered in tarpaulins or a used tea bag. All become a source for his compositions.
As Seaber has said: The starting point for these investigations has been as varied as the work produced. Something seen, heard, read or remembered can spark the initial engagement. The resulting body of work at times has been figurative but more often than not has resulted in collections of drawings and paintings far abstracted from the original source of engagement — but each group of works has been bound together by a consistent theme and over the years I have often returned to these themes.
After studying painting at Falmouth School of Art in the 1960s Seaber joined the Environmental Art Department at the Royal College of Art and it was here that he extended his knowledge and interest in expanding his boundaries as an artist. Certain traits remained, however, as consistent characteristics of his work that go back to his Falmouth days and his exposure to the paintings of one of the UK’s great colourists and radical thinkers on art, Patrick Heron, whose studio in Cornwall Seaber often visited. Back in the late 1950s Heron had been subject to criticism in the art press when his work was roundly dismissed as programmatic, ‘deft exercises… organised like diagrams’. Half a century later that view in turn can be easily dismissed. With Pop Art, Colour Field painting and Minimalism well behind us, we are free from that old school critical humbug and can acknowledge Seaber’s ‘deft exercises’ as works of enduring value. All artists are influenced, they either react against others’ ideas or develop them. And these influences come from many sources. I cite Heron here because of his over-riding interest in colour and, although to a lesser extent, the act of painting that became both the form and the content of his paintings. In Seaber’s work, colour clearly is of the utmost importance and his work also emphasises the abstract quality of mark making that stems from Abstract Expressionism and a peculiarly British sensibility in which American bravura was honed into a more lyrical form.
Much of Seaber’s work is produced in series. An approach that provides him with a structure upon which to develop a particular idea and an opportunity to play with variations on a theme. Very often this takes the form of experimenting with different combinations of colour, while the materials and the form in which they are assembled stay constant. Seaber then is determining the colour changes to illustrate a different mood; an unfolding narrative; in some cases a change in tempo or the passing of time. Behind them all is a sense of enjoyment and playfulness frequently borne out by the titles that add a knowing irony that completes each piece. In a new series of compositions on show here for the first time Seaber combines a lyricism with his sense of time passing, the natural rhythm of life and the way in which the relationship between an object or a colour, a mark or a shape can establish a poetic narrative. In this instance the structure for the narrative is the twelve-month Attic calendar, one of many ancient Greek calendars. The uncertainty that still exists over the extent of this calendar’s use and its effectiveness as a measure with little relevance to the outside world, imbues it with a mystery and a contradictory purpose that may have meant more to individuals than wider Greek society. Chris Seaber has written, ‘I am interested in the creative journey and the examination and necessary fixing of the depiction of a vision or idea as it occurs’. The same might be said of the Attic calendar. A creative solution to the abstract nature of time, which in Seaber’s hands become concrete expressions of colour and form.
‘I think it’s all always there, the stuff we’ve experienced that shapes us – regardless of what we do. It’s filed away in our memories – it’s just finding the access codes that can be difficult – all the things that have assailed our senses from the year dot. We have ownership of this archive, so it’s all usable, all legitimate. We just have to remember where we put it...and from this reservoir, this personal vault, we build our own mythologies, alternative histories and possible realities and perhaps improbable futures.’
Independent Curator and Writer on Contemporary Art