Essay by Rachel Campbell-Johnston
Plantation in Red, 2009
Dan Llywelyn Hall follows a tradition which first flourished amid the dreams of the Romantics. He is part of that visionary lineage of painters for whom the world was suffused by the mind of its seer, for whom landscape became an embodiment of human feeling and thought. It was this spirit of immanence which such British artists as Turner and Constable were aiming to capture; which their succession of followers from Samuel Palmer through John Piper and Graham Sutherland to Paul Nash all set out to evoke.
Reflections of such predecessors may be glimpsed in Llywelyn Hall’s work along with those of other formative influences as varied as the impetuous passions of Chaim Soutine or the simplified patterns of Henri Matisse. But, drawn together in the bright, sometimes hazily nebulous, sometimes wilfully jarring, surfaces of Llywelyn Hall’s paintings, they work to conjure a fresh, idiosyncratic and fundamentally modern mood.
Llywelyn Hall works rapidly, often out of doors in fast drying gouache or acrylic. But even when it comes to oil works done in the studio, few take more than two or three sittings to complete. This immediacy is important. Llywelyn Hall builds up his images with wandering lines and thin washes of colour, bold swipes of bright pigment and big all-but unmodulated blobs. He is not interested in detailing the minutiae. Rather he sets out to capture a sense of atmosphere afresh. What his paintings show is not the world which surrounds us as a camera might record it, but a landscape as it captures a moment of experience. Llywelyn Hall paints a world haunted by his own memories.
Is memory everything we keep or everything that we lose? The experiences that shape us are quintessentially transient. And yet they are always fixed in a place, the artist explains. When we recall them we recall also their location. These are not just places he paints, but specific moments.
Sometimes he highlights their transience. A figure is caught poised in a momentary mid-handstand balance; a half-smoked cigarette smoulders on a window sill. These are images, the artist reminds us, of fleeting fragments of time. But more frequently, this awareness of time’s passing is more broadly pervasive. The world is mutable. It is altered and adapted by each changing age. Llywelyn Hall is no picturesque painter, blotting out traces of the present as he searches for scenic perfections. Rather he tends to prefer modern subjects from the wind farms which have been planted like giant daisies upon the moors and the mountain-sides of his native Wales through the final flight of Concorde as it cuts through an autumn sunset to television images of the Iraq conflict taking place on the very spot where the vast ziggurat of Ancient Babylon once reared its great stone head.
Llywelyn Hall focuses on his own personal response. He picks out those aspects of a scene which most strike him with strong outlines or bright colours or glowing touches of light. He shows us a world as it is shaped by his feelings and moods. His Plantation in Red, for instance, a vivid image from a Mustique holiday depicts an open space between serried ranks of trees. “The island felt pretty barren to me, just lots of wealthy houses that amounted almost to nothing,” Llywelyn Hall explains; “but I went to this spot to try to clear my head.” The viewer taps into his mood as he watches the way in which the clutter is swept to the sides of the canvas, leaving only calming expanses of emptiness at the picture’s core. Or he senses the strange, almost mystic attraction, of the eerily radiant wind turbines which gather together to create an electric force field.
Llywelyn Hall’s images belong to those elusive hinterlands which lie somewhere between the ostensible subjects of his pictures - the trees, stones or mountains, the sunbathing girls or wind turbines or tents which he plonks down unabashedly in the middle of his pictures - and the shadowy atmospheres which he conjures around them through the way that he paints. Even as images emerge before the eye, they dissolve back again into the landscapes of the mind.
It seems no accident that a recurrent motif in Llyweln Hall’s work is a winding path looping its way like some meandering perspective line towards the furthermost horizons. This is an artist who leads his spectators beyond the frame of his pictures into a land of imagination, into a place in which the looker may wander and wonder and eventually get lost.
Rachel Campbell Johnston