One of the biggest revelations of the last Affordable Art Show, Yorkshire-born Donald Porteous breathed welcome winds of change over the local artistic community with a collection of small yet noticeable showstopper paintings bound to seriously intensify Gibraltar’s timid flirting with abstract art.
Fittingly, Don hails from wind-swept Tarifa, whose light, colours and natural shapes inspire most of his artwork, but he doesn’t stop at abstract: he can indeed present a varied collection of floral-themed pictures and dramatic charcoal life drawings to those detractors who may quickly dismiss his abstracts as compensation for any alleged lack of technical expertise.
In fact, he is an MA Fine Art graduate of the prestigious Central St. Martin’s College of Art, and BA Hons from the Birmingham University of Central England, both attended as a ‘mature student’ self-styled as ‘coming from a working class background’ with a flair for drawing and painting.
Shortly after leaving college, Don held a number of solo and collective exhibitions in England and his professional career went on as a fine art and life drawing lecturer at Hull College of Art and Design after a stint in the difficult but rewarding role of A-level art teacher at the high security prison of Full Sutton in York.
Interesting are the titles of his major solo exhibitions: ‘Select All’ at London Wharf Gallery, ‘Painting Class’ at Lethaby Gallery and ‘Modified Again’ in Manchester’s Blankly Gallery. ‘Select All’ may refer to the hard time the onlooker will have in picking their favourite out of what is on display, while ‘Painting Class’ remands to his enriching experience as a tutor and promoter of new beginnings with those turning their lives around, and finally, ‘Modified Again’ alludes to Don’s ability to effectively reinvent himself and his art with every new project he enterprises.
However, Don explains how ‘Painting Class’ really was an exhibition of new work where an exploration of colour, texture and composition helped develop imagination and experimentation, while ‘Modified Again’ explored the possibilities of changing the subject of the artwork into an entirely different vision, deconstructing a familiar object into completely abstract form. Finally, ‘Select All’ was merely an exhibition of previous works by his MA students.
At his debut in a Gibraltar art gallery (“I have been a member of Fine Arts Association for a while, and I thought this is a good opportunity to showcase my latest paintings”) Don entered mostly palette-knife abstracts in which vibrant colours pop out from the dark background in true Mitteleuropa ‘black theatre’ style, with energetic curves and flattened dollops suggesting the fairytale landscape that dreams are made of, as if it was the setting for contemporary pantomimes, but elsewhere, he shows how he is fluent in the language of still nature, with close-ups of exotic flowers painted with hues stolen from tropical sunsets, or in the geometric work he labels ‘mandala’, with his hypnotizing neon-colour concentric rings that give the illusion of lively rotating on the canvas.
He describes himself mostly as an abstract painter, dabbling in ‘semi-abstraction’, but with a penchant for figurative, particularly the human figure in its entirety or fine portraiture. He says: “I work in oil and love the colour and richness in creating thick glutinous paint. My figurative drawings are usually created in charcoal.”
He pinpoints his influences in the six-decade long parabola of German master Gerhard Richter, whose abstract paintings Don echoes albeit in a less geometric manner, and whose figurative he draws inspiration from, still safeguarding the tradition of dramatic chiaroscuro and the precision of anatomic outline. Don also mentions British painter and printmaker Howard Hodgkin for his poetics of producing artwork based on emotion and memory, while German painter and sculptor Anselm Kiefer gives Don an afflatus for larger projects thanks to his ‘massive semi-abstract emotive paintings’.
“My work is based on landscapes, memories, emotions and colours,” Don says. “The paintings’ ground and subject matters with its symbolism and juxtaposition suggest a movement from representation to an abstracted form of material and process.” On the other hand, when dedicating himself to life drawing, he concentrates on “a stricter guideline of working, observing, measuring and correcting proportions.”
He expatriated to Andalusia twelve years ago to open a gallery in Gaucín, the artistic hub for Northern Europeans that enjoys ‘fantastic views of Gibraltar’. This affects some of Don’s recent work, not in a representative way, he says, but more in an emotional manner with its ever-changing atmospheres and light. Weather permitting, he tries to paint outdoors in the daytime, listening to loud music that he claims helps him focus.
The move to Tarifa meant an intense change of natural scenery, from the lush greens of countryside to the transparent blues of infinite seas and skies, which best reflect in his new work, where the brushstrokes, laden with oil paint, follow the undulated swelling of the tide captured with surfer’s eye precision, although Don shuns from the iconic kitesurfing practised on that beach. “I love walking on the beach and in the nature. The whimsical weather conditions and colours have a big influence on my works.”
The artwork submitted to the Christmas show, was, as rules dictated, small and affordable, but Don paints larger and more textured paintings on different grounds and surfaces. “I want the viewer to become immersed in the paintings and create their own idea of deconstructing a landscape. The works are also steeped in history of art especially Abstract Expressionism and about painting as a tradition itself. Ultimately, those works are about control and chaos.”
words | Elena Scialtiel