Ian Breakwell: The Elusive State of Happiness on Nottingham Visual Art
Nottingham Visual Art (eds. Jennie Syson and Andrew Cooper)
by Wayne Burrows
This resistance to containment within any particular interpretation or genre across a body of work that spans drawing, photography, writing, film, audio, performance and television generates its own confusion about the fundamental nature of Breakwell’s project, and this extreme fluidity has almost certainly contributed to both his widespread influence on younger artists (without Breakwell’s example, it’s unlikely that artists as different in sensibility as Jeremy Deller, Heather & Ivan Morison and Tracey Emin would be working quite as they do) and his relative neglect inside the art world since the 1970s.
The exhibition begins with a 1964 etching, The Regent Snooker Hall, Derby, made in the year that Breakwell graduated from the local art college. It’s a canny choice of starting point by the joint curators Louise Clements and Alfredo Cramerotti, because despite its apparent straightforwardness – an elegant, roughly rendered evocation of a dimly lit space populated by shadows, perhaps looking back to the 1950s kitchen sink realism of John Bratby and Joan Eardley – it also points forward to the perspective that would inform everything that followed. It’s all here, in embryo form: the mundane urban setting and oblique viewpoint, the snatched quality of the image, the glancing fascination with an otherwise unobserved corner of everyday life. These things would become the raw material for all Breakwell’s later work.
The addition of material from the AD period of 2004 onwards makes this the first retrospective to follow the threads of Breakwell’s practice to their inevitable, if premature completion. Yet even as Breakwell’s death becomes the main subject of the work, he never allows autobiography to dominate: instead, it’s as though the art – from which Breakwell often removed himself, acting more as engaged, bemused and fascinated observer – obliges him to stand slightly detached even from his own physical decline, bringing that experience into sharp universal focus. Despite the roots of all his art in his own immediate life, he exists here as a figure defined by what he has observed and experienced, rather than a protagonist, and his literal absence makes the web of incidental details he leaves behind seem all the more solid.