The colours of black

John Caldwell and Len Davenport
Ipswich City Council Regional Art Gallery, Ipswich

The Ipswich City Council Regional Art Gallery pulled off something of a coup recently, with its exhibition entitled The Colours of Black. The idea for the show came from Sydney based art historian and publisher, Lou Klepac, who, on a visit to Ipswich in 1988 to judge the Gallery 's Aberdare Art Prize, went to see the Aberdare coalfields. He suggested that they would be an interesting subject for a future show at the Gallery. He also recommended artist John Caldwell, as an appropriate artist to undertake this project.

Caldwell was offered and accepted the commission. Last year he spent a total of ten days at the coal face, making studies and preparing for a further twelve months work.

Building upon the idea, photographer Len Davenport was asked to accompany Caldwell during his visit to the mines. Her photographs formed a companion view to Caldwell 's, acting partly as a documentary of his time as "artist in residence", as well as making their own visual comments on the experience of the same landscape.

From its inception in 1988, the project has taken several years to complete. As an example of the fruitful co-operation of a Regional Gallery, local industry (as inspiration and sponsor), artists and an art "expert", it suggests that much can be achieved. Add to this the avowed intent of the Labour Ipswich Council to 'put the city on the map' and to use the art gallery as of flagship to represent and chart a course for local cultural development, and you have a powerful combination.

This 'idea' then, of an exhibition focussing on the city 's traditional industry of mining , seemed an excellent plan . Over thirty of Caldwell's paintings filled the upper exhibition space and the newly reappointed Lower Gallery made an attractive setting for Len Davenport's photographs. Almost without exception, visitors to the show found Caldwell 's work "lovely ". Indeed his beautifully framed landscapes did create a wonderfully decorous effect.

As he said in the catalogue notes: "Wilderness areas have been a recurring subject in my previous work". But Caldwell 's is a gentlemanly style. The "hostile environment of sombre, black mountains of coal, gouged earth, excavated lakes of sludge ... ", described by Len Davenport, were rendered strangely serene in Caldwell 's paintings.

Gentle greys, pale blues, soft pinks and muted oranges, were melded together in quiet water-colour. The surfaces were broken up with mottling and shadow. It was this delicacy of treatment and sophistication of technique, which gave a contemplative beauty to the subject. But, having feasted on these qualities in the paintings, and having admired the deftness of their execution, one wondered, finally, whether they were true.

Without the title, The Colours of Black, and the knowledge that this show was based on time spent in coalfields, it would be hard to guess from the paintings that this was so. Coarseness and energy were mostly absent. Len Davenport wrote of "the savagery of the landscape, the grandeur and the visual power of its imagery ... " and we might expect that and look for it in the work.

But it was as though the protagonist was missing. These measured, classical scenes seemed to lack a real subject. The violence of tearing coal from rock, the power that must be present to dig this substance from the earth these qualities, with some exceptions, were not evident in Caldwell 's paintings. The few that had it seemed rough and sketchy by comparison but because of this, they left more room for the viewer's emotional engagement. Len Davenport's photographs worked as a foil to Caldwell 's paintings. Blue Landscape, with its formal structure and the series of rock details, including Rock Etchings and Dark Crevices, had their own fascination. But the slightly humorous, toy-like trucks, in Green on Black (Modern Mammoths) and Green on Black (Environmental Revenge), were particularly appealing.

This show was an interesting demonstration of how a regional gallery can creatively respond to the specifics of its locality. In doing so it produced a show which, despite my reservations, provided the public with something undeniably attractive and, at times, challenging.