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Judith Tucker : Resort (ii)

Monica Bohm – Duchen

Although unwavering in her twenty-year long commitment to landscape painting, Judith Tucker has increasingly come to see that genre as a potent vehicle for the exploration of ideas and feelings more often expressed in art through the human figure – in her own words, as “a site for my investigation of loss, un/belonging, dis/connection and home”. While an anthropomorphic approach to landscape is hardly a novel one, Tucker’s position as the child of a mother who fled Nazi Germany in the late 1930s (“I can never know what it is to be a refugee, only what it is to be the child of a refugee”) lends her work a very specific and very contemporary poignancy.

Coastlines in particular have seemed to her rich in symbolic possibilities… “of passage and displacement, of arrivals and departures and not of permanent dwelling, this sense of impermanence, threshold and of possibility of change is important for my work”. Until about a year ago, Tucker’s primary preoccupation was with the dramatic cliff forms of rocky coastal regions, rendered almost abstract by ambiguities of scale and perspective, the subtle sensuousness of the tactile surfaces and a rhythmic, calligraphic fluency disrupted by vertical lines derived from her practice of sketching in front of the motif in fold-out, concertina-like notebooks.

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More recently, armed with a fellowship from the Arts and Humanities Research Board in association with the University of Leeds, she has embarked on a new project entitled Painting and Postmemory – re/visiting, re/visioning, re/placing, which far more self-consciously than before, seeks to link her studio practice with a more theoretical approach to the subject of landscape and second generation memory. The inspiration for this undertaking was a small number of photographs of her maternal grandparents and her mother as a young child taken on the beach at Ahlbeck Seebad on the Baltic coast in the early 1930s, among the few personal belongings which her grandmother brought with her when she and her daughter fled to England after Kristallnacht in 1938.

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By her own admission, Tucker’s first encounter with the German resort a few hours’ train ride north of her mother’s birthplace, one of several so popular with Berliners that they were dubbed “the bathtub of Berlin”, was disconcerting and disorienting. As she herself puts it, the Ahlbeck of today is “an evocative mixture of decay and lavish restoration”. Unsurprisingly though, it was the shoreline rather than the architecture of this once-fashionable seaside resort that caught her imagination. Yet there are no rugged cliffs eroded by the elements here, just “the vast flatness of the Baltic”, and long stretches of pale sand, enlivened only by reeds and seagrasses.

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In the absence of the complex geological forms that had previously exercised such a fascination on her, Tucker fastened upon those few man-made landmarks that punctuate the flatness: an old-fashioned pier, the sign marking the border with Poland, only a stone’s throw away – and above all, the Strandkörbe that were a conspicuous feature of the pre-war resort and are still characteristic of the region. In the tiny concertina sketchbooks, these landmarks are more easily “legible” than in the large-scale canvasses; the fluent mark-making a vivid evocation both of the place itself and the immediacy of Tucker’s visual response to it. The studio-based paintings, as has always been the case in this artist’s (and indeed, most artists’) working practice, represent a far more considered and self-conscious response to her original subject-matter.

Clumsily translated by the dictionary as a “wicker beachchairs with hood”, Tucker herself describes the Strandkörbe as “hybrids between beach hut and deck chair”. In any event, it was these distinctive vertical forms that provided the artist with the resonant motif for which she was looking, perhaps even without realizing it. Although barely recognizable in some of the canvasses, their monumental presence speaks eloquently of human absence. In others the hood seems to billow upwards to suggest a winged creature; while paradoxically, the circular handles on their sides bring to mind the form of a coffin. Close-up fragments of a pre-war map of the area, clutched by her own fingers, have also provided her with a potent symbol of dislocation and distance, both physical and psychological. A strong tendency to abstraction and the vestigial presence of the vertical fold lines familiar from her previous work also serve to prevent too easy or seamless a reading of these images.

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In Tucker’s best work, such notions – far from being intellectualised – are so completely embodied in the physicality of the painted surface, that medium and message become inseparable. As always, Tucker displays great technical inventiveness and skill: gold leaf, marble dust and pearlescent pigments combine with a whole array of glazing agents and varnishes, their smoothness sometimes disrupted by the application of methylated spirits and water, to create surfaces that are both seductive and tantalizing. Also striking is the way in which these surfaces look quite different in different lights – an effect that Tucker herself is well aware of, seeing it as a fitting metaphor for the workings of memory.

The artist’s first visit to the resort frequented by her mother before the war changed everything was in the spring of 2003, when it was virtually empty of holidaymakers. She plans to return to Ahlbeck this summer, when the human presence will be hard to avoid. Whether this will prompt her to incorporate the human form directly remains to be seen; she herself is unsure what direction the remaining works in this series will take, and confirms the sense one gets from the works produced thus far that the process of creating them has not been an easy or a simple one. Like the true artist that she is, however, she does not regret being forced to employ a radically different vocabulary of forms. This latest work of hers, one might well argue, is all the more interesting for it.

© Copyright Leeds 2017