Imagine a city devoid of its people.
Not somewhere bleak and decaying, but a city whose inhabitants had lived lives so vibrant, so full of energy that the city they left behind couldn’t help but reflect that energy.
Casting your eye over the surface of one of Russell West’s works and letting it be drawn into the interiors created by its many layers takes us on journey to that city. As with any painting we start with visual impact it makes.
Make no mistake about it, Russell’s works are beautiful to look at. There is enough here in the interplay of colour, light and shade – both figuratively in the pigment used and literally arising from how the base medium is arranged – to keep us occupied far longer than many other artists working today.
These paintings look impressive. Russell invites us to think about the physical act of making them, how he controlled the flow of pigment across the base medium, a lattice of wires, mathematical lines and their extension into planes parallel and perpendicular to the wall behind.
But Russell goes further.
Starting from a transformative moment in 1993 when he witnessed the destruction of the city of Kowloon, he takes us on a journey to the city of the future. Imagine if every building of a city reflected in its colours and shapes the life of the people who lived in it; how they lived – alone or with others – maybe found love, maybe raised children; how they cared and were cared for, ate their meals and shared food with one another; how they kept some things private and made others public.
Imagine a city whose inhabitants were set free from the constraints of the city of today; where planners and architects designed buildings which could be reconfigured; where engineers delivered materials which could be customised; where building codes kept us safe but didn’t constrain us.
And while you’re thinking about that, come back again to the physical painting in front of you, because Russell has something else for us. When we look at the flow of paint in an action painting we are taken back to the instant of its creation, and the same is true of Russell’s work.
The pigment which flows through his sculptures flowed over many hours.
The tools by which he could exercise control over the finished product are the same as for any other dynamic artist, but the end result arrives more slowly. Even after it has left the gallery and is hung on the owner’s wall the painting is still hardening.
So finally, perhaps, this thought has something to tell us about how cities evolve. We make our home in a physical structure; we paint the walls and arrange the furniture, we knock through walls and build extensions. For many years our homes keep us safe.
But eventually we pass them on to someone else and the city changes again; this small record of our life is recreated, always new, a living document of the lives we lead.