’Colin Middleton Retrospective’, Arts Council exhibition, Ulster Museum, Belfast, and Municipal Gallery of Modern Art, Dublin, 1976, no. 144 (loaned by the present owners)
Specific bodies of work resulted from these journeys – paintings and drawings of Barcelona and gouaches of Australia – but the Wilderness Series demonstrates the shift in mood in Middleton’s painting following this trip. The renewed interest in surrealism, which had dominated Middleton’s early painting, as well as the extreme consciousness of design and the use of pattern and fabric, harking back to his training as a damask designer, suggest the mature artist re-examining his early inspirations and influences, but the Wilderness series also introduces rather baroque elements of fantasy and a formal consistency that distinguishes them from his early surrealist period.
In some ways the Wilderness Series presents Middleton’s personal Hall of Fame, a wide-ranging cast of characters, who appear to define the world in which the artist presents them. There is an internationalism about this roll call that is in sharp contrast to his identification with his local landscapes throughout the previous decade. Richard Wagner is named in the title of another of this series and the present picture, one of the most inventive in the series, is a tribute to Norwegian soprano Kirsten Flagstad, a legendary interpreter of Wagner.
While Columbine is very different from the Wagnerian roles associated with Flagstad, it suits perfectly the mood of the Wilderness Series, playful and seductive. The checked trousers of Middleton’s typically high-breasted nude also appear to allude to the role of Columbine. Visual jokes run through the Wilderness Series, often between paintings; the wooden boards that run in vanishing lines towards the horizon in many of the works suddenly seem to become a piano keyboard as she depresses one of them.
Middleton took undoubted pleasure in his skill at treating fabric and using its patterns in the Wilderness paintings. A house is perched on a detached floating hill whose apparently solid grassy earth is suddenly revealed to be a swirling cloak made of the same fabric. The painting is held in balance between the sense of downward pressure from Columbine’s foot and the upward movement of the house being carried upwards and while the mood is engaging and slightly mocking, there is something dark about the house with its blacked-out windows and its daunting position.
Killinchy, Co. Down
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WHYTE AND SONS AUCTIONEERS LIMITED, 2018.
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