Review: Ben Payne at Heartbeat Gallery

If you head down to Heartbeat Gallery in central Sheffield you’ll find the view suddenly change from one where amber traffic signals illuminate city roads to one in which orange sunsets fade over country fields. On a lake, a solitary boat is moved by the gentle lapping of the waves. Somewhere, someone is flying a kite.


This is the new exhibition of work by the artist Ben Payne. In actual fact, this can be thought of as two exhibitions as there are two very distinct sets of pieces on show. The first is composed of romantic landscapes in oils whilst the second – the artist’s newer pieces – is formed of resin-coated acrylic paintings of flowers. These different bodies of art are stylistically coherent and could almost be viewed as separate oeuvres in their own right.


Payne’s art is easy to like. There is certainly much about it that merits the term that’s been applied to it: ‘escapist’. The landscapes, in particular, often appear to present an untroubled, dream-like world.


Ben Payne, Installation view at Heartbeat Gallery

Ben Payne, Installation view at Heartbeat Gallery
© 2013 Heartbeat Gallery 


However, such a response does not quite do justice to the paintings themselves. There’s more here than simple nostalgia or fantasy. There are mood shifts and nuances that give these works a subtle depth.


Payne delights in capturing that moment when the sun has just sunk down behind the horizon but the sky is still lit up by its radiance. In his hands these light effects become hyperreal. This suggests an almost sentimental view of the landscape, an argument that could be supported by the apparent lack of activity in the pictures. Sure, there is a boat here, as in ‘Lake Reflections’, or two ramblers there, in ‘Walking Home’ for instance. These are works, though, that by and large look away from houses and roads – the only real exception being ‘Evening Lights’, although even here the town is reduced to a distant, reflected light effect.


However, Payne’s execution of his evening skies de-sentimentalises his paintings. In the aforementioned ‘Evening Lights’ in particular, the artist seems to gesture – perhaps unconsciously – towards Turner’s works. There is an unspoken tension at work in this work, the merest hint of danger that threatens to unsettle the otherwise serene surface of the water.


This kind of complexity is more pronounced in what is, perhaps, the most successful of the landscapes – the large oil on box canvas piece entitled ‘Yellow Kite’. Here, Payne presents what might, at first glance, appear to be another idyllic coastal scene. The painting shows two distant figures flying a kite on an otherwise unpopulated beach. There is an impressive spaciousness here. There is, however, at the same time, an encroaching melancholy. For one thing, the dark blue of the sky seems to threaten storms. In this context, the yellow of the kite only serves to remind us of what is entirely absent from the picture: the sun.


Another thing that’s not in the picture is the line that should connect the kite flyers to the kite itself. Whilst this might simply be an artistic, painterly necessity, it also points to a larger feeling of isolation in the painting.


These emotional complications are, if anything, even more evident in the work’s smaller sibling, ‘Red Kite’. The sky here is positively foreboding and the kite itself, which seems to lift up out of the canvas, can be seen as a symbol of warning.


Ben Payne, "Flash of Red" 2012

Ben Payne, 'Magenta Blooms', 2012
Acrylic with mixed media
© 2013 Heartbeat Gallery


Payne’s floral paintings – all of which are Acrylic with mixed media – are extremely interesting. Whilst they are ostensibly representational images of flowers (it’s possible to identify specific flowers here), they have been largely decontextualized in a way that makes them seem strange and new. These are not still life works. They are also not, in many cases, pictures of flowers in recognisably natural landscapes.


Instead, the flower heads look, in several of the pieces, like fireworks exploding against a night sky. This is especially true in ‘Glowing Display’ and ‘Burst of Red’, two works whose very titles point towards such an interpretation. When viewed in this manner the plants’ stems become the lingering traces and trails of rockets.


The floral paintings are all coated in resin. This produces some remarkable effects, not the least of which being that it creates depth. The reflections visible on the resin’s surface generate the illusion that what we are looking at are actually flowers trapped in (and not under) glass, or even suspended in melted sugar. It’s hard to believe that these aren’t flowers sunk into a resin substrate.


The exhibition is scheduled to run until 23rd July 2013. For more information about the show, including exhibition dates and gallery opening times, please see Heartbeat Gallery’s own website here.




Review text: © James Holden 2013

Images: © 2013 Heartbeat Gallery