A squeeze from one of his grandmother’s old tubes of oil paint; a dusting of Sahara sand; or moss scraped from a Hebridean Standing Stone. These are some of the textural talismans which might be added to the surface pigment of a Charlie Baird painting. Initially reticent when it comes to discussing his work (or disclosing techniques such as these!) we sat outside in the sunshine in front of The Art Stable in Child Okeford, where he was hanging his latest exhibition “Unlocked.”
On entry to The Gallery, there are the instantly recognisable prominent ramparts of Hambledon Hill against a backdrop of a gloomy teal coloured sky. In contrast, the blues and turquoises of “Village” give us a hint of what is perhaps a Child Okeford winter on a frosty morning, with pleasing jumbles of cottages etched into the landscape. Whereas “Below The Hills” shows a more abstracted glow in a patchwork of summer colours, as if nature has been rearranged. Vaguely sinister and mysterious glider-like birds swoop between the blue and grey trunks of a forest in “Small Flock in the Wood.” “It is easier to paint a gloomy picture than a cheerful one. Where would I be without anxiety?” remarked Charlie, in his typically self-effacing manner. But there is nothing gloomy in the warmth of the Naples Yellow light that emanates from many of the canvases. His colour palette, though often muted, glows with shades of Terra Rosa, Phthalo Turquoise and Burnt Sienna. There is an earthiness to the mainly abstract work and a use of different media to convey atmosphere: inspired by the local landscape of The Blackmore Vale, these compositions emerged almost entirely from his imagination.
Charlie explained: “Painting can be like groping around in the dark. Sometimes I know what I’ve got in mind. Sometimes it’s making a mess on the canvas; applying the paint and then scratching it off and scraping back; waiting for it to evolve. It’s a process of exploration. What I like about Britain is its history and archaeology and the traces of human influence left by the past – fields, hedges, walls, buildings. There are so many layers. Real and metaphorical. It’s like stripping back the layers of consciousness. Painting is a mixture of inspiration, skill and conjuring tricks to hopefully reveal a kind of magic of its own. It’s using the skills to do the conjuring trick, trying to catch light or atmosphere, to summon the mood.” A sensitive painter, in previous exhibitions he certainly has done this as well: in his Moroccan, Indian, Spanish and Caribbean paintings the moods and atmospheres were summoned as echoes of the past – for he never uses a memory board: all images are conjured up in his mind.
He is most certainly skillful. Charlie is reticent to talk of his talent which, inherited from his grandmother and an uncle, was honed from an early age. Indeed he has said: “Many paintings begin with evoking a memory from childhood.” His first solo exhibition was held at the prestigious Crane Kalman Gallery, London in 1977 and placed him firmly on the map. Kalman, a Hungarian refugee, was influential in his early career and “a lovely man” according to Charlie. Then a period of study of lithography and screen printing in San Miguel, Mexico and the Wimbledon School of Art, London. Although, he adds with a twinkle in his eye, that his time in Mexico was partly about drinking tequila! From 1983-85 he attended the Cité Internationale des Arts, Paris and since then there have been solo exhibitions in London, Europe and America. His paintings have been selected for the Royal Academy’s Summer Show on a number of occasions and in recent years he has had one-man exhibitions in the gallery of Cadogan Contemporary in London.
“Paintings can sometimes form immediately, sometimes they are a kind of battleground of winning and losing territory” he admitted. It can evolve with a ground of quickly drying acrylic applied to the blank canvas before adding the layers of oil and then scratching back to reveal hidden surfaces. The works in this current exhibition come from the last year of lockdown without the possibility for travel, so Charlie has dug more deeply into his memories, combining abstract and more figurative images. Local walks have provided the initial inspiration but he will often leave a piece and then come back some time later; thus each work can evolve, perhaps moved by inspiration or chance.
As for the future after lockdown, Charlie is looking forward to the resumption of his weekly art classes in Sherborne which are sponsored by Artslink (Arts Council and Lottery funded). The sessions are called “Transformation of Landscape” and participants bring in photos or sketches to develop with the use of colour and tone, whilst Charlie sets various exercises and recommends tips. He is also longing for a return to his old haunts in the Hebrides with those Standing Stones – and to Andalucía in Spain. The earliest known paintings of humanity have been found in the Caves of Nerja, Málaga – another ideal source of inspiration for Charlie?
Charlie’s new Exhibition “Unlocked” is at The Art Stable, Child Okeford and runs until April 17th. All the work can be viewed on The Art Stable Gallery website: https://www.theartstable.co.uk