Saturday, 23 April 2011

Motorway art

There are lots of photographic projects on roads - Ed Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations, Paul Graham’s photographs of the A1 and Catherine Opie’s untitled photographs of roads and flyovers, ‘Freeways’, spring to mind – but paintings of roads are much thinner on the ground. I would guess the genre was inaugurated by Matisse's 1917 painting The Windshield: On the Villacoublay Road, which pictures a Ford car from the inside, using the windscreen as a picture edge, a format later used by Ben Nicholson and Edward Hopper. More recently there have been Oliver Bevan’s paintings of the Westway, the elevated road in west London, and Julian Opie’s roadscape paintings titled Imagine You Are Driving, all subtle variations on the same grey road with white lines receding into the distance. Opie has also done blurry, photo-realist pictures of the M40 at night that look like action paintings: black voids illuminated only by the blinking tail-lights, cat’s eyes and central-reservation lights curving round. And then there is the writer and artist Bill Drummond who fell so in love with Jock Kinneir’s blue-and-white motorway signs that he stole one and replaced it with one of his own paintings.

But now I have a new, favourite road artist: Edward Chell, who in his new exhibition ‘Gran Tourismo’ – which is, appropriately enough, being held at the Little Chef restaurant, Ings, on the A591 into Windermere - combines oil paintings depicting motorway verges on the M6 with text pieces in the form of customised road signs, like the one illustrating this post.

Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts write about Chell in their recent book Edgelands which I posted about a few weeks ago:

The painter Edward Chell has been drawn to this inaccessible wilderness, mundane and sublime in its infinity. Chell first noticed how rich a landscape this is, like many of us, while inching forward in gridlocked traffic. Motorway verges today are pesticide-free strips of wilderness, as difficult to reach as sea cliffs, miniature landscapes that run along this in-between space for thousands of miles. He works from photographs and sketches, but access is difficult and dangerous: these are forbidden zones, places where the traffic police will pick you up within minutes. Working on the M2 and M20, Chell learned how to make himself invisible by wearing a hi-vis jerkin and hardhat: the twenty-first-century en plein air artist in disguise.

The paintings he produces suggest the busyness and fecundity of roadside verges, rich and alive. He has described the powerful visual metaphor of the verge as poised between ordered, policed and restricted boundary spaces of the state that we are only allowed to look at while travelling at great speed, and the slower, uncontrollable energies of nature.

You can see some of Chell’s work at and hear him being interviewed on Radio 4's Open Country at

Mundane quote for the day: ‘To hawks, these gritty country lanes must look like shingle beaches; the polished roads must gleam like seams of granite in a moorland waste. All the monstrous artefacts of man are natural, untainted things to them.’ – J.A. Baker, The Peregrine


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