A Review of William Foyle: Landscapes at Asia House, London
Entering Asia House, I was immediately struck by the overflow of glittering figures adorned in all manner of extravagance; each in silent competition with the other. Air kisses were exchanged, delicately gloved hands waved at exquisitely tailored suits, crisp bubbling champagne was poured, and at the centre of this frenetic whirlpool was Scottish artist William Foyle and his eleven landscapes.
Before my arrival, I had satisfied my curiosity by exploring Foyle’s previous work and trying to absorb all that I could about his young and impressive career. From the articles I had perused and the works I had committed to memory, a vague image of the artists externally imposed persona had begun to take shape. I knew Foyle had been declared ‘one to watch’ by Sir Timothy Clifford at only eighteen and had been heralded as the ‘Francis Bacon of tomorrow’ a few years later. These monikers of preordained greatness echoed in my mind as I descended a winding marble staircase to the exhibition itself. Were these declarations intended to colour my impending experience or were they destined to validate it? Was William Foyle’s reputation as a protégé of virtuosity deliberately romanticised or did unadulterated talent flow out of him organically and claim that mantle as its birthright?
Breathtaking. Jolting. Humbling. Upon entering the gallery rooms, my growing fear, that the myth of the man was more potent than his works, melted away. Warm, watery images of landscapes punctuated each wall like portals looking out to another world. Murky inclinations, hazy memories, enigmatic horizons all rose before me on a scale that rivalled the impact felt at Musée des Impressionnismes Giverny.
Foyle’s balmy works, Scotland II and Indian III, in particular, pulsated with glowing light - as if they were backlight by the iridescent kiss of the sun. This expert rendering of light and shadow can be partially accredited to Foyle’s use of burnt umber and burnt sienna (also known as terra rossa), pigments employed religiously by Renaissance masters like Rembrandt (1606-1669), Titian (1488-1576) and Caravaggio (1571-1610). Foyle’s illusions of luminosity created such an extreme sense of depth in each image that it was as if I were looking through frosted glass; squinting with childlike fascination in an attempt to behold the blurred landscape beyond. A wonderfully unattainable dream.
These surprisingly romantic images were so contradictory to what I had begun to associate with Foyle. His 2015 works, Holocaust Figures I-V and Showers in Lodz Ghetto I & II, had held my heart in a beautifully painful vice grip as a result of their raw desolation and pain. These latest creations, by contrast, slowly filled my heart with longing the way winking stars slowly saturate an endless night sky.
Following an unexplainable pull, I navigated my way through the throngs of fashionable collectors and admirers until I reached Easter at Borrobol, Sutherland. It stood in dignified grandeur, a mammoth wall of cerulean blue marked with inky lines of viridian which liquified into a gleaming moss-green expanse. I looked down at the catalogue image in my hands and back up at the painting itself in immediate disbelief. The photograph, I decided indignantly, was practically an insult to the shimmering, living thing that towered before me. Having already considered several of the other landscapes, I found that like them, Easter at Borrobol, Sutherland’s glassy surface was ruptured with deliberately unblended dollops of paint.
These abrupt smatterings of thick paint acted as evidence of Foyle’s manual labour, along with his broad, brazen brushstrokes that functioned like fingerprints across the canvas face. Serving as a poignant reminder that the surreal scene in front of me was the result of Foyle’s hands, the strokes were unapologetically visible and often unanimously horizontal or entirely vertical. Their decisive direction added a cutting sense of motion that undoubtedly mimicked the distortion of form often experienced when gazing out the window of a moving vehicle. You could feel the speed, the temporality, the wind, the journey.
But whose journey was it? Surely we all go on a personal pilgrimage when we immerse ourselves in an exhibition, but we are also simultaneously attempting to slip into the artist’s skin; to see what they saw and feel what they felt. A masterclass in the art of empathy. Luckily for me, I was able to speak with the ‘man of the hour’ after he had been gushed over by the latest pair of adoring supporters who had catapulted themselves towards him the moment he had come up for air. In an endearingly comical situation, William Foyle seemed genuinely gracious and unfailingly patient.
As I told him about my infatuation with Easter at Borrobol, Sutherland, Foyle began to indulge my enthusiasm with a variety of insights into his physical process of creation and the genesis of the exhibition. When crafting his alluring compositions, Foyle described his ritual of painting primarily in the afternoon and how his landscapes frequently materialised into images that were far from his original intention. Abashedly, he smiled as he recalled often being submerged in his work for hours, only to resurface and realise with bewilderment that it was evening. Evidently, these hypnotic landscapes transfixed the artist as well as us viewers.
Foyle explained, amidst the attention of the gallery photographers and the greetings of passersby, how after his 2015 exhibition he had run towards solitude and ventured into the unknown, driving around Eastern Europe in search of fulfilment. Resembling a restless nomad, Foyle had set off through Hungary, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, and Slovakia, eventually extending his odyssey to Turkey, North Africa and India. The window of a train became the lens through which Foyle began to ruminate on the landscapes of these unfamiliar places and gradually this contemplative experience developed into the core concept of the exhibition.
With each landscape, Foyle submerges us in specific memories of his four-year quest for inspiration; with every piece being modelled off a single photo he’d personally taken. It was evident, by the names of the works (many of which were names of countries), the exhibition title Landscapes, and Foyle’s underscoring to me that the paintings are based on real locations, that he intends to be placed in the broader narrative of landscape painting. I would also add that, by defining the vantage point of his works as being the window of a train, Foyle is unavoidably placing himself in competition with the likes of contemporary artist Philippe Cognée. More specifically, Cognée's latest abstracted landscapes of the Indian countryside observed from the window of a rocketing train.
Unlike Cognée, however, Foyle has elevated his landscapes to a level approaching those produced by the esteemed nineteenth-century British landscape artist J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851). Although Turner’s later landscapes only teetered on the edge of true abstraction, Foyle has managed to channel the same sense of mystery found in Turner’s Yacht Approaching the Coast (c.1840-45), and Seascape with Distant Coast (c.1840). Like Turner, Foyle illuminates his landscapes with a masterful rendering of light that charge his scenes with a tempest of emotion, distinguishing his works from the monotony commonly associated with the perennial subject matter. Moreover, Foyle mirrors Turner’s eerie ability to elicit a sense of longing from the viewer; as if the bitter-sweet yearning had poured out of the artist himself and onto the pallet in an emotional catharsis that inevitably washes over the viewer like a resolute wave.
While too indecipherable to be considered classically impressionistic, Foyle’s mighty square creations can loosely be defined as belonging to the canon of abstract expressionism and colour field painting. Foyle’s gestural brushstrokes and seemingly random paint spatters speak to the core qualities of abstract expressionism; a style often defined by ‘mark-making’ and the impression of spontaneity.
Similarly to the oeuvres of Mark Rothko (1903-1970), a pioneer of the New York abstract expressionist style, and Jules Olitski (1922-2007), one of history’s most prolific colour field painters, Foyle uses large swathes of solid colour and nebulous forms to bewitch the viewer and produce a meditative response. Like Barnett Newman (1905-1970), a contemporary of both Rothko and Olitski, Foyle has punctured his vast fields of pigment with substantial lines or ‘zips,’ as Newman referred to them, which define the spatial structure of the composition. While Newman’s ‘zips’ were characteristically harsh and executed with impassive brushwork, Foyle has stayed closer to the emotive tradition of Rothko by executing his ‘zips’ with expressive strokes.
At just twenty-six and with Landscapes being his fourth solo show, it would appear that Foyle’s prophesied fate as a consummate innovator may be coming to fruition. While artists rarely contemplate their place in Art History, we critics usually agonise over who will ultimately be worthy of ink. Who moved the needle forward? Who bravely built on the visual language chartered by the greats? It’s impossible to say for certain, but if I were a betting woman, I would wager that William Foyle’s mystifying landscapes will leave in their wake an indelible emotional and academic impact.
Written by Maya Asha, Editorial Assistant and Contributor to Arteviste