YCBA exhibit features contemporary British art

Canvases piled inches thick with acrylic paint, bright still life screen prints and blurred abstractions in pastel colors hang side by side on the third floor of the Yale Center for British Art. This is contemporary British art.

“The Independent Eye: Contemporary British Art from the Collection of Samuel and Gabrielle Lurie” — a new exhibition curated Eleanor Hughes and Angus Trumble, both curators at the center — brings to campus 44 major works by contemporary British artists.

All six postwar artists featured were born within seven years of each other and developed as artists in England in the 1960s. The collection deals in part with the artists’ common cultural background at the time of the rise of abstract expressionism — exemplified by Jackson Pollock’s paint on canvas method — and pop art in London.

The works also represent 40 years of art collection by one couple — Samuel and Gabrielle Lurie. “The Independent Eye” marks the first museum exhibition of selected works from the Lurie collection of British art, which will be gifted to the Yale Center for British Art. The exhibition brings to the forefront British artists who have produced provocative work over long and consistently prolific careers.

Samuel Lurie said his and his wife’s interest in British art began with the acquisition of Ian Stephenson’s “Diorama,” a rainbow-hued abstract oil and enamel painting featured in the exhibit. The couple, whose artistic interests range from British painting to East and South Asian sculpture to contemporary Japanese ceramics, began collecting art in 1977, the same year the Center for British Art opened.

Over the years, the Luries forged personal relationships with many of the artists whose work they collected. Painter John Hoyland said he met the Luries — his “friends and tormentors” — 30 years ago in London.

Since the exhibit features work from a private collection, the pieces are not always thematically united. But the brightness of the colors, the play with texture — thick layers of paint piled onto the canvas — and the abstraction of the subjects link the works together. The Luries added that quality is an important common denominator in their collection.

“It’s easy for excellent art to live well with each other,” Samuel Lurie said. “It’s about quality and enduring values.”

He said he was particularly struck by Patrick Caulfield’s “Wine Bar,” a neon and rust colored painting that depicts a wine bar in abstraction. The plant in the corner has no pot, jugs and a salad bowl are suspended in the air and there are no people.

Though he saw it for the first time through the window of a gallery 20 years ago, Lurie said the piece has yet to lose its power or interest for him. He explained that he was attracted to the work for its strange colors and structural paradoxes, such as the absence of necessary items.

“There are no people, nothing to definitely prove it’s a wine bar,” he said. “It’s suggestive but structurally wrong. It’s more riveting than a conventional painting would be.”

Gabrielle Lurie said she relates best to paintings with life and energy that convey a certain joie de vivre, such as John Hoyland’s vibrantly colored paintings. By partially layering different colors of acrylic paint, Hoyland creates an effect of transparency and depth in his large paintings.

“The painting is sensitive and poetic with these little details coming through,” she said. “It’s almost schizophrenic.”

The exhibition will run through Jan. 2, 2011.

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