Cultural historian Gary Lachman observed: “All our art, poetry, literature and philosophy are attempts at reminding us that reality is real. They are a kind of wake-up call to what is.”
Lachman was reminding us not to take for granted the way our consciousness determines the meaning of the world around us. Colin Fraser's remarkable tempera still-lifes and landscapes are a case in point: the view of a landscape from a bedroom window: the vases of flowers or bowls of fruit on a table; the white cotton shirt and pink flower lying on a chair in a sunlit field. These works have a luminosity that seems to irradiate from them. It’s an effect that conjures a remembering of the timeless moment or mood they seem to capture.
Yet there is a paradox at the heart of this work too. They display an apparent simplicity and directness that’s the result of a lengthy creative process. The dynamic movement of sunlight across Fraser’s scenes is rendered in egg tempera – perhaps the most complex and unforgiving of all artistic media.
Egg tempera comprises a coloured pigment mixed with water-soluble egg-yolk binder. These materials are applied layer upon layer and are very fast-drying. So egg tempera doesn't allow for the mistakes or changes of mind possible in oil or acrylic. It’s unforgiving.
At first sight it would seem a perverse choice for painting something as evanescent as the transience of light. But Fraser doesn't see it like that. He says: “Tempera has a vitality about it which reminds me of the dynamism of the sun – never static, always changing.”
It was, of course, the medium of early Italian Renaissance art. And while Fraser has no intention of going back to this time either in style or intention, he is aware that he shares the same aims as those early masters. He too is seeking their radiant intensity and profound depth of mood.
Egg tempera has enjoyed a revival in the 20th Century – among Surrealist-biased artists above all. But for Fraser, it is the great American realist Andrew Wyeth who provides the closest role model. Like Wyeth, Fraser is all about exploring light, mood and memory in particular.
Another apparent paradox in Fraser's art is the fact that all of these light-filled pictures have been painted in Sweden. Yes Sweden, a country notorious for its Nordic gloom. Fraser moved to a house in Lund in the south of the country in the mid-1980s after mastering the tempera technique. But the Scottish-born artist sees the Swedish sun differently. “Working in Scandanavia makes you aware light is not a constant but always in motion. The portrayal of the changing moods of the sun is a central theme in my work – a world that is ongoing, not a snapshot.
That last phrase is crucial to understanding the real nature of Fraser's achievement. His complete mastery of his painstaking technique – not just the medium, but also the laborious process of constructing arrangements and then making preparatory drawings of them – lets the painting do all the work.
What does this mean? It suggests the quiet power of these paintings lies not in some kind of photographic record but in the traces of emotion they have left in the artist's visual imagination – the tracking of a moment of intense consciousness. Whether it is the rich inky blackness out of which the roses, cherries, limes and artichoke of Veridian emerge, or in the shimmering rustle of sunlit trees and grasses and cool shadows of Sunline, you are convinced of their truth.
Nicholas Usherwood April 2015
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