Review | Robyn Denny: Works on Paper

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Charlie Dixon


Robyn Denny:
Works on Paper

Robyn Denny’s work soared with the post-war momentum of 60’s London, helping to define the visual culture of a generation. Whilst Denny is perhaps better known for large scale murals, including public installations, Robyn Denny: Works on Paper sheds new light on a previously overlooked element of his practice. Spanning the length of the artist’s career, these pieces plot the development of an important artistic language – one that has previously garnered the attention of large collections including Tate. Denny was also selected to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale in 1966.

There is a clear interplay between rigid and organic abstract forms within many of the exhibition works. Alongside this, there is a materiality that evades reproduction; to see these works up close is vital for the viewer’s full understanding. The earlier pieces, predating Denny’s graduation from the Royal College of Art, are inherently suggestive of the maker’s hand; compositions such as 1A (6:8), 1954 signifying the energy behind its creation. Whilst these monoprints appear at a distance from later, more clear-cut abstraction, the viewer is made aware of the emergence of more architectural marks which will later constitute a large portion of the artist’s practice. Subsequently, one can observe the introduction of collage in addition to further monoprints. Layers of colour and texture intertwine, rendering a depth that extends beyond the surface of the image.

Robyn Denny 1A (6;8) 1954. Monoprint on paper, 20.3 x 17.5 cm

The introduction of typography should also be noted, as the link between art and graphic design would lead to one of the most important commissions of the artist’s career. Collage (Austin Reed moquette) 1958 is a significant element of the show, serving as a preliminary sketch for the Denny’s Austin Reed mural Great, Big, Biggest, Wide London. It carries a visual energy that perfectly captures the dynamism of the swinging sixties, whilst also compounding a link between fashion and art which later becomes a defining feature of the Pop Art movement. In 1963, the Beatles chose the mural as a backdrop for one of their first photoshoots by David Redfern, demonstrating its significance within the wider culture at the time.

After the creation of the collages, Denny began to experiment more with pure abstraction which constitutes a large portion of the artist’s body of work. The forms within these images carry an almost architectural quality, as colour and shape interact, distributing a sense of weight across the picture plane, appearing, at times, as abstract responses to modernist and brutalist styles. Despite the distinct lack of ornamentation, these works remain tied to their creator through their sketchy imperfection. They herald a move towards true abstraction, a goal to which Denny would remain dedicated for the rest of his artistic career. Paintings such as 4 (2), 1963, present a harmonisation of colour which leaves the eye transfixed.

Robyn Denny, 4 (2), 1963. Gouache on paper, 34.3 x 34.3 cms

The artist’s move to Los Angeles in the 90s saw a shift towards more ethereal use of tone and mark, met by a change in subject, as the abstract forms began to suggest the ocean as viewed from Venice Beach. His piece 21 (2), part of Moody Blues appears caught between abstraction and landscape as a principle mass sits isolated within the frame, bisected by a thin blue line, almost reminiscent of the ‘horizon’ of the Pacific Ocean.

Robyn Denny, 21 (2), 1990. Acrylic and watercolour on paper, 106 x 75.6 cm

These images signal a return to the more organic forms that defined his early practice, with a confidence that is only found through years of creative experimentation. In these paintings, rock-light masses float in pools of colour; drips and lines dissect the image, while remaining imperfect and organic. This imagery is continued through The Private Pictures/Fully Frontal works where strong shapes are rendered three-dimensional through experimentation with light, shade, and texture. Works such as No. 1, 2005-08 appear, at least in an abstract sense, as reflections on nature. Contained within these images is a sense of beautiful melancholia, far from the post-war ideals of the 60s and its architecture.

Throughout his artistic career, Denny remained dedicated to pushing the boundaries of abstract painting. Robyn Denny: Works on Paper brings together a wide selection of compositions, many of which are exhibited for the first time, employing a simple chronology that highlights the process of artistic development, while allowing each piece to stand alone.

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Robyn Denny: Works on Paper runs from the 10th October to 16th November at Bernard Jacobson Gallery, 28 Duke Street St James’s, London SW1Y 6AG. More information can be found on the Bernard Jacobson Gallery website. 


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