A Very British Modernist
When one looks at Steven Heffer’s work, one simultaneously thinks of two very different, and apparently opposed things. The first is that he is a very British artist. What he does is directly relatable to artists who form part of the British historical tradition – in particular, to the British artistic relationship to landscape. Though he paints in a different medium, comparisons are possible with the great watercolourist, John Sell Cotman.
Even, on occasion, one is made to think of the sketches that J.M.W. Turner described as ‘Colour Beginnings’. There is a whole trove of these radical experiments in the collection of the Tate.
Heffer is also indubitably a Modernist – a painter who is directly related to the main current of the Modern Movement, now being challenged by many artists who would prefer to wash their hands of radical Modernist ways of seeing, or in fact re-seeing, the world, and who now are happy to be labeled Post Modernists. In this sense Heffer can be regarded as a direct descendant of John Piper, who also managed to keep a foot in both traditions. Like Piper, he has managed to keep a foot in both camps. A few of the pictures shown here seem, certainly at first glance, to be entirely abstract. It is only when one looks at them more closely that one begins to think that they possess what one might metaphorically call representational bones.
Something that tends to negotiate the gap between the purely abstract compositions and those that are recognizable depictions of the world the artist shares with the spectator are the works that contain what, in a very broad sense, can be called representations of architecture. One has, however, to use the term extremely loosely. One painting, for example, is a depiction of an underpass. Others show industrial buildings, and structures such as bridges – bridges in their least romantic, most industrial guise. The horizontal and vertical components of these man-made creations prompt the artist to create compositions that can be read alternatively as abstract or figurative. They contain no overt element of the romantic – and romanticism is of course the fallback position of nearly all British School landscape painting, whatever epoch it belongs to. It suffuses John Piper’s work, for example.
What Heffer does seem to romanticise is not what he finds on land, but in the sea. His studio is near Eastbourne, and among his most frequent subjects are the white cliffs of the South Downs, plunging directly into the English Channel. Where Turner is a painter of storms, Heffer prefers the sea when it is at it calmest, serving as a mirror to the chalk cliffs that border it.
A play of reflections is in fact a constant and important element in these paintings. There is a constant movement of shifting planes, one that invites the spectator to look, then look again. Every time you gaze at one of these subtle compositions, you tend to see it just a bit differently. The various simple shapes from which they are built have a constantly shifting, unstable relationship to one another. By inviting, or even forcing, the spectator to ‘see the world differently’, Heffer very much belongs to the High Modernist tradition.
Art Historian, Author & Critic