Michael Canney (1923-1999)

Painter, relief maker, writer, broadcaster and teacher, Canney was born in Falmouth, where he was taken to art shows from an early age. In the early 1940s he studied at Redruth and Penzance Schools of Art and St Ives School of Painting, under Leonard Fuller. After army service he studied at Goldsmiths College of Art, 1947-51, and then undertook postgraduate study at Patrick Allan-Fraser School of Art, Hospitalfield, Arbroath. In 1956 he was appointed curator of Newlyn Orion Gallery, and began broadcasting on radio and television. In 1964-65 Canney taught at Plymouth College of Art and then in 1965-66 was appointed visiting gallery director and lecturer at the University of California, Santa Barbara. From 1966 to 1983 he was on the staff of the West of England College of Art. In 1984 he moved to a village near Siena, Italy and continued to paint. In 1985 he scripted an award-winning documentary film for television on painting in Newlyn. He exhibited regularly at group exhibitions in Britain and abroad. His later one-man shows included Newlyn Art Gallery, 1983; Prescote Art and Design, Edinburgh, 1984; and Belgrave Gallery from 1990. Plymouth City Art Gallery and several other public collections hold his work.

Scott, Nicholson, Vaughan, Hilton and Lanyon were all friends of his. Canney was unusual amongst his contemporaries in so far as he was an indigenous Cornishman.

Selected Literature: Roger Hilton, Night Letters and Selected Drawings (introduction), 1980. Irving Grosse, Michael Canney 1923-1999, Belgrave Gallery, October 1990. Martin Du Louvre, Michael Canney 1923-1999: The Late Years, 1973-1993.

The 49 works in this show were produced by Michael
Canney in the last 25 years of his life. The pictures come
from the artist’s estate and represent the most significant
group of his work ever to come on to the market.
Canney was an innovator, and discovered the possibilities
created by the invention of a new medium. Alkyd oil
paint was developed in the 1930s and 40s for industrial
processes which required special paint finishes. The
addition of alkyd resin to oil paint gives more flexibility
when dry and speeds up the drying process. This medium
was to have a profound influence on Canney’s work in his
later years. It allowed him to paint with a precision which is
impossible with slow drying oils, laying contrasting tones
adjacent to each other with no bleeding of colours, and to
produce effects on the surface of the paint, with a variety of
techniques, almost immediately after the paint had been
laid down. The result is a stronger and more permanent
work of art, less susceptible to damage as it dries and more
durable when the process is complete.
Born in 1923 at Falmouth he was, from an early age,
inculcated into the modern art movement in Britain, and
in particular that of the West Country, where so many
leading artists of the 20th Century were based. From his
first experiences visiting exhibitions, his time serving in the
forces in Italy, and on to his career as an artist he came into
close contact with colleagues of the highest distinction and
some of the greatest creative minds of twentieth century
art: Giorgio De Chirico was an early influence and encouraged
Canney to pursue his enthusiasm for art. Aged
nineteen he met Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth
and was to collaborate with Hepworth on an open air
exhibition at Penlee Park. He became friends with Roger
Hilton, Patrick Heron and Peter Lanyon. In 1958 he met
Mark Rothko who liked his work: they had a shared
admiration for John Tunnard, whose work was then little
known. Mixing in the artistic circles of the time he came
to know William Scott, Robert Adams, Kenneth Noland,
Helen Frankenthaler, Mark Tobey, Naum Gabo and
Francis Bacon. These friendships and associations kept
Canney involved with painters and painting. He lectured,
wrote, made broadcasts and commented on the work of
artists of his own time, and always sought new breakthroughs
in his own work.
The earliest pictures in the show are from the 1970s
and are painted in oil on canvas; they are, like all of his
work from this time onward in the Constructivist
tradition. The compositions are asymmetric, with clear
blocks of colour, and the surfaces are smooth, even
polished. In Composition with Red Angle (cat.12) the
shapes are varied asymmetrical inventions, juxtaposed by
the artist, with differing colours to form an intriguing yet
stable composition. Similarly the painting Composition in
black (cat.11) is a taut construction of interlocking forms
made stark by the heightened contrast of the palette. In
these two pictures, as in the other nine oils in the exhibition,
the language is simple, an arrangement of many
solitary colours to construct a composition on a single
tone background. Canney’s inventiveness is clear and easy
to appreciate and with great precision and painstaking
technical ability he is working at the limit of his materials.
In the late 1970s and early 80s Canney embarked on
two new projects, the first of which he continued until the end of his working life. His paintings became concerned
with formal geometric shapes, in particular the
square, and he experimented not just with composition
using these shapes, but deconstructed them, cutting,
folding, peeling, unravelling and dividing, sometimes
using numerical sequences such as Fibonacci, and often
using common fractions such as ⅓, ¼, ¹⁄₅ , which he
maintained were easily understood by the human eye.
Between 1979 and 1983, to show his ideas to best effect,
Canney used the second of his new projects, the white
relief. The purpose of the minimalist, stark works was in
his own words: ‘to master the simple in order to proceed to
the complex. For example, the whiteness of the reliefs is not a
search for purity or even for a simplicity of statement. White
permits the element of relief to show most readily.’
As he progressed further with his analysis of the square
and other shapes he was at the same time starting to use a
paint type which would transform the variety and appearance
of his pictures. His discovery and experimentation
with alkyd allowed his vision and thoughts to come to
fruition in a burst of creativity which lasts until he was
finally forced to abandon painting due to ill health.
Alkyd, or alkyd oil paint contains a resin which means
that the medium dries quickly, or more accurately ‘sets’ or
hardens. This happens in a matter of hours and allows
blocks of colour to be laid down adjacent to each other
without any danger of ‘run’ or mixing. The earliest dated
works by Canney using this medium are from 1981 and
include System with Circles No. 1 (cat.30) which while
exploiting the technical advantages has not quite departed
from the earlier compositions. But with Four Plus Four
Equals Two (cat.19) we can see a new departure in the
form of the composition. Canney first creates the composition
in a white relief, and then realises the same idea
using only four colour tones. From these early
experimentations the work quickly takes on a third
element, that of surface treatment, to produce scratched
areas (Rotation No. II, cat.8), rubbed areas (Construction,
cat.39), incising (Three Triangles, cat.33), lifting of paint
(Enveloping V, cat.6), and that of delivering pigment into
the grooves of paint already dried (Granite Village by the
Sea, cat.34). At this time he retired from lecturing on art,
and he was invited to curate an exhibition of his recent
work at the Newlyn Art Gallery in Penzance. In the
catalogue notes Canney has chosen to describe the medium
not as oils but as painted in alkyd.
With these new found possibilities, and his exceptional
feel for colour, Canney started to create much more
complex images, laying bands of colour over one another,
he paints a third, fusing in his mind, and then on the panel
the ‘resultant’ patch of colour. Each of these sections has
been laid down independently, left to dry, and then the
others filled in. At the same time as he paints these vibrant
colourful pictures he also produces incised monotone
pictures (Sgraffito 3, 4 & 5, cats.25–7), these beautiful works
echo his period of making white reliefs, where he ‘masters
the simple to proceed to the complex’. In these compositions
he takes his meditations on the square to a deeper
level of analysis, no longer preserving the surface area, he
uses only the outline, and when these are folded on
themselves, and their corner angles are changed he reveals
the possibility of an infinite number of permutations,
while arranging the shapes on a muted ground of delicate
sgraffito paint.
Michael Canney’s art developed throughout his life,
but once he had adopted the Constructivist style he
continued it. Experimenting with both composition and
media, his work combines visual beauty and a love for
materials, with a sharp intellectual study of form, geometry
and balance. His own very particular style developed
alongside some of the major names of the modern movement
in British art. This comprehensive show of Canney’s
work provides the opportunity to enjoy, and reassess his
own contribution to 20th century British abstract art.

Robert Miller

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