A Journey from Dark to Light: An Appreciation of Winston Branch

... Branch himself described his residency in Berlin as being “a very important time”, though we perhaps have good reason to consider him needing freedom of geographic movement as much as freedom of artistic expression. This aligns with Branch’s escape from what he refers to as “identity politics”, that he believes dominated the art world, particularly during the 1980s and 90s. Today, he is forthright in declaring such concerns as “nothing to do with what I was about.”

“If you stand still, you get your feet webbed up,” he says. “If you keep moving, you keep living and invigorating yourself because you’re pressing new horizons.” These sentiments, about the need and benefits of new horizons are underlined by his expression “It’s not the place that matters; it’s what you do in the place that matters.”

These peripatetic dimensions have resulted in his work being exhibited, literally, far and wide. “The Caribbean gave me an opportunity to show my work, because it’s important for an artist to show. [International travel] gave me an opportunity to show in Ecuador, Argentina, [other countries in] Latin America, [and] Santo Domingo [the capital of the Dominican Republic].” Now in his mid 70s, Branch is, as much as he’s ever been, at home in London. “London has always been a city I’ve admired and loved and feel very comfortable in.”

Branch’s journey as a painter continues, though he sees himself in decidedly Robert Frost-esque terms, fondly recounting his ongoing decisions to take the road “less travelled by. And that has made all the difference.” Ever determined to artistically answer to himself alone, Branch maintains his unshakeable belief that “Painting is about feeling, and if it ain’t got no feeling, it ain’t got no substance.”

Today, Winston Branch is the most intriguing of painters, deservedly occupying a central place in the pantheon of accomplished British painters of the past 50 years. Yet paradoxically he remains an artist whose work deserves greater levels of exposure, appreciation, and critical reflection. Central to our appreciation of Branch’s remarkable paintings are considerations of what he does with paint. Behind his deceptively simple declaration with which I began this short text - “I put paint on canvas… the only thing that’s in your control is you, and the canvas and the paint and how you lay it down on the surface” - lies an extraordinary commitment to seeing what paint can do, when it’s applied to canvas with a range of gestural mark making.

Produced between 1982 and 2006, these paintings, brought together by Sotheby’s, not only demonstrate a journey of artistic expression but also point to Branch’s own preoccupations during his decades of considered, strategic (or, one imagines on occasion, somewhat impulsive) peripatetic journeying.  

Where in the world was Branch when he painted Journey Into Night? Or Walking Down To The River and Mint In June, both from 1994? Or When I See My Father’s Eyes from 1998? Where had this journeying taken him, for instance, when he painted Forever Young (2006) or Mist Over The Mountain, from the same year? London? St Lucia? The San Francisco Bay area? (Branch was after all, for a time, a professor of painting at the University of California, Berkeley). Those of us privileged to have had contact with Branch over the past four decades might possibly hazard informed guesses.

Such questions are of course speculative but so too, perhaps more fruitful, are our imaginings about what experiences, readings, travels, or encounters informed the making of and titling of the paintings in this exhibition. The more we comprehend the work of this brilliant painter, a product of the 1960s London art scene, the more intrigued we become and the more certain we are of his centrality in histories of British abstract painting.

The above extracts are from Eddie Chambers’ online text, commissioned by Sotheby's "A Journey From Dark to Light: An Appreciation of Winston Branch" - https://www.sothebys.com/en/articles/a-journey-from-dark-to-light-an-appreciation-of-winston-branch