St Ives is dominated by two natural elements, the sea and the sky – perhaps especially the sky. The visitor is immediately aware of the seemingly excessive amount of sky, the vast panoramic skyscapes and the transitory shapes of the scudding clouds.
The quality of light is energizing and stimulates in many a wish to be creative, a need to capture some of this energy and give it expression, particularly in two- or three-dimensional form.
It is this source of creative energy that attracted the potter Bernard Leach and, a little later, the St Ives School of artists (Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth et al) in the first half of the twentieth century. It continues to act as a magnet for painters, sculptors and ceramicists.
St Ives must boast more small galleries per square mile than any other town or city in the country. Much of the work is clearly being produced for the commercial market – an artist has to live! – but a substantial amount is abstract.
Why abstract? In the best examples the abstract image or form is the natural vehicle through which to express a powerful feeling or impulse. The abstract work needs no narrative explanation but, through a coherent relationship between its component elements (eg., line, shape, colours, contrast, balance, rhythm, harmony, use of space etc) it encourages the viewer to explore similar feelings within his/her own experience.
But with a surfeit of galleries, it is not surprising to find a high proportion of work of indifferent quality. In some instances there is evidence of a mismatch between the artist’s aspirations and his/her technical competence. (One can sympathise – we have all had a similar experience at some time). But sadly there are too many works in which ‘abstract’ has been interpreted as ‘anything goes’ – inferior works which create the illusion of art by using frames of reasonable quality and for which extravagant prices are then asked.
Whilst it is good for everyone to respond to any creative urge, regardless of technical limitations, and is natural to wish to share the outcome with others, there is a responsibility shared by both artists and gallery owners to ensure that the quality of work presented to the public is the best available and that prices asked are appropriate and fair. Not all galleries currently fulfil these last two criteria.