Turning space into substance

Behind a neat hedgerow in a peaceful street in Herne Bay, Margot Perryman lives quietly and anonymously, her neighbours unaware that they have an artist in their midst. That’s just the way Perryman likes it. Despite having moved in illustrious circles – she spent two years in the mid 1960s rubbing shoulders with many of the big names in Abstract Expressionism – Perryman is not in the least interested in status or reputation, preferring to focus our conversation on a passionate discussion of the work itself.

Margot Perryman at Churchill College, Cambridge

Margot Perryman at Churchill College, Cambridge

© Margot Perryman

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After her mind-expanding years in New York, Perryman moved back to London in 1966 and began her own serious assimilation of the experience. Her work began to shift; larger, almost door-size, canvases were bought. Colours were mixed in gloopy acrylic paint – eggy yellows, sky blues, blacks and some thinner washy pinks and whites. Then she began work on a new series of paintings, three of which – Citadel, Bay and Untitled No 76 – were shown at the New Art Centre in London’s Sloane Street at the end of 1968 and subsequently bought for the Government Art Collection (GAC).

Deceptively simple on first appearance, these calm paintings are distinguished by their artificial and oppositional sense of colour and space. Far from being flat fields of colour (like the Clyfford Still and Helen Frankenthaler works that Perryman had seen and admired in New York) these new works play with illusions of form and space. Each features a central field, positioning the viewer underneath what appears to be a towering exterior or an interior façade, bounded around the edges by some uprights or rectangles. There’s an ambiguity as edges and boundaries dissolve and solid forms disappear into thin air. On the one hand the work is muscular and robust while at the same time there are unexpected shifts and slides that take it somewhere else entirely. Many of these disruptions find an echo in successive work although nothing appears to be repeated. This is Perryman as magician or alchemist capable, as her friend and mentor the critic Bryan Robertson remarked, of ‘turning that space into a substance’.

The colours in these three works help reinforce the juxtaposition between artificiality and a more natural ‘earthiness’ – in Untitled No 76 (image 2) there is more than enough blue to make a sailor’s trousers but this is counterpoised by the orange hexagon and a mysterious grey column that asserts itself from the bottom edge. Citadel (image 3) is a particularly beautiful painting. The tension seems to reside in the washy pink area at the top of the work – somewhere between a frothy liquid and the torn edge of blotting paper – and the roughly hewn black rectangle on its right hand side. When I ask Perryman about this recurring sense of a cusp in her work she refers to Leonardo da Vinci’s use of termine – the point of abutment or boundary that has no physical substance in its own right. She confirms her interest in playing with oppositions, explaining that she often introduces a darker, harder note (particularly obvious in Bay, image 4) to offset the softness. ‘I love black, she explained, ‘it’s a magical colour and I completely understand why Malevich wanted to paint all those black paintings’.

In the late 1960s Robertson helped her secure a number of exhibitions at the New Art Centre. The GAC bought a fourth work by her: from the Octave series, Untitled No 94 (image 5, 1971) is a square painting with eight subdivisions of further overlapping squares. The tension in this geometric work between interior and exterior is particularly marked with the slither of blue in the top right hand corner opening up a window onto a bright sunny sky.

Perryman’s personal circumstances became more difficult in the late 1960s, leading to the breakdown of her first marriage and subsequent remarriage. ‘My focus in these years went into my home life – my new husband and my sons,’ she said, ‘but I always kept going although my work went through various changes in terms of its imagery and its scale’. Perryman also taught part-time – at Goldsmiths College of Art in London and was a Visiting Tutor at Winchester, Ravensbourne and Portsmouth Colleges of Art. By the mid 1990s she was working in the studio towards exhibitions again and had secured an Artist-in-Residence at Churchill College, Cambridge.

Following on from her earlier pattern, Perryman’s studio is an upstairs room at her house in Herne Bay. Preferring to have a studio at home for the obvious practical reasons of cutting down on travelling time and expense, she also enjoys the sense of integration it gives her with the rest of her life. Although she chooses to work in a domestic environment the fact that her studio is upstairs and therefore separate from the everyday comings and goings, seems quite significant.

Perryman works most days: at the moment on a series of predominantly blue paintings. It is a slow process. Most paintings don’t come quickly but are worked on over a series of months. ‘I build up a rapport with them,’ she says laughing, ‘it’s a two-way conversation, they tell me what they want, eventually’. These inky blue jewels – some punctuated with bright spots of pink and yellow – are dotted around the walls of her studio and the rest of the house. There’s one that’s placed at the top of the stairs: it’s small but has the power to grab you from quite a distance through the open studio door.

Looking through the window to the near-rural landscape outside, I ask her how she feels about being here with its complete absence of the hustle and bustle of city life and its distant relationship to the art world. Again she stresses how important her privacy is to her and the feeling of relief she feels at not having to jump through the hoops that being in the mainstream requires. ‘It’s just about getting on with it’, she says fixing me with one of her disarming bright-eyed looks, ‘at the end of the day its all about integrity isn’t it?’