Review: Lesley Birch’s ‘Traces and Memory’ at Trevelyan College

To walk out of the beating sun and into Trevelyan College’s latest art exhibition, where the first painting on display is entitled Rain Coming in Again, may feel like tempting fate but it is absolutely worth it to catch a glimpse of Lesley Birch’s Traces and Memory. The exhibition, organised by Alex Kingdon and Trevelyan College Fine Art Committee, showcases thirty-nine of Birch’s works, which are inspired by the Yorkshire landscape where she lives. The collection is displayed across four walls of Trevelyan College’s bar, with each wall bearing its own distinct series of works, including Birch’s Spring Series, Timeless Series, a set of prints, and a selection of paintings illustrating the changing states of nature and landscape.

Glasgow-born Birch has built up a rather impressive reputation, having previously exhibited at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition, and at Cork Street, London, which must be due in no small part to her distinctive painterly style. As I studied the first couple of paintings on display, I was instantly reminded of the works of JMW Turner, the Romantic artist whose abstracted depictions of tempests at sea caused a storm in nineteenth-century England. Like Turner, Birch relies on broad, sweeping, expressive brushstrokes to convey the awesome strength and unruliness of nature and its ever-changing temporality. However, where Birch stands out as a truly original and innovative artist is in her deployment of a variety of different textures and a rather eclectic palette, which often combines dull grey with aqua blue, cerise pink, ochre and ebullient gold.

Lesley Birch: To the Sands Image: Writer’s Own

‘To the Sands’ by Lesley Birch. Image: Writer’s Own.

As soon as you walk into this exhibition and view the first enrapturing work, you are drawn in to a world of chaos and endless spectacle. There is a particular sense that, across the collection of paintings on the first wall, nature is in constant motion and that it possesses an immense strength that forces us through the seasons and across different landscapes. Beginning with Rain Coming in Again, we gradually progress through clouds, storms, and frost until we finally make it to the beach. Two works entitled On the Beach and To the Sands employ a palette of aqua blue, black, white, ochre, and light mauve blended innovatively and expressively to create the idea that all the elements – sand, rock, sea, and wind – naturally conglomerate and work together in nature. What is also really interesting about To the Sands is the rough, bubbling effect Birch creates with the paint, which gives the painting an almost three-dimensional quality.

Birch: 'Night Sea' Image: Writer's Own

‘Night Sea’ by Lesley Birch. Image: Writer’s Own.

The series of monoprints, although smaller and consisting of a predominantly black palette, are just as atmospheric. Night Sea is a particularly interesting piece; it develops Birch’s tempestuous theme whilst also introducing an entirely different aesthetic form to her earlier acrylic and oil paintings. Although this monoprint is executed using only a black inkpoint pigment, Birch manages to capture all the drama and peril of the rough sea at night by employing a variety of different brush techniques: sharp vertical strokes show the waves ferociously gathering height and power, while curling brushstrokes, which expose the natural white of the print paper, depict mass of unruly crashing waves. Added to this are scratch marks across the canvas, which drag black ink lines across the canvas, enhancing the sense of an ominous and unsettling atmosphere.

Birch: 'Spring'. Image: Writer's Own.

‘Spring’ by Lesley Birch. Image: Writer’s Own.

As we move to Wall Three, home to the Spring Series, we are launched into an unprecedented realm of colour and light. These oil paintings are landscapes of the Yorkshire countryside, close to the artist’s home in York. Spring is undoubtedly the centrepiece of this collection, depicting a springtime landscape with a luminous palette that includes orange, ochre, bright yellow and turquoise. Birch’s decision to employ an expressive and abstract use of colour and line in this work, rather than represent a faithful depiction of Yorkshire in spring, creates a vision of the landscape as perceived by the artist, with sheer joy and excitement.

'Remembrance' by Lesley Birch. Image: Writer's Own.

‘Remembrance’ by Lesley Birch. Image: Writer’s Own.

The Timeless Series, which forms the final part of this exhibition, includes paintings that take the form of some of the landscape and nature-inspired pieces, but which seem to carry a heightened sense of emotion. Birch’s enigmatic titles, such as Remembrance, Eternal and Beyond, attach a sense of spirituality to the works and suggest a deep personal affiliation with the Yorkshire landscape that they portray.

Traces and Memory is an extremely interesting exhibition, with some truly arresting artworks; I would recommend it thoroughly to anyone with an interest in abstract, contemporary, or even Romantic art. Birch’s collection really is a delight to view, and will surely be met with joy by all art enthusiasts, whatever the weather.

All of the works displayed at Traces and Memory are for sale and the exhibition will run from 8th May until 10th June; admission is free.

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