>Shades of Meaning

>Press reports on “A Year with MI-6”, a superb new exhibition at the Mount Street Galleries in London, drew my attention this morning, for they just happen to have coincided with the very significant fact – for this scrivener – that today is Tuesday. If you happen to follow me on Twitter, then you know from previous tweets that I am incommunicado on Tuesday evenings from 9-10pm. For this is when the MPT2 channel airs “MI-5”, the enthralling BBC spy drama which in the U.K. is titled “Spooks”, after the slang term for “spies”.

However this new exhibition by British artist James Hart Dyke moves out of the world of fiction and into the reality of that other legendary branch of the intelligence services, James Bond’s home base of MI-6. Mr. Hart Dyke was approached and given the unusual opportunity to become embedded with the service for a year, without being able to tell his family what he was doing, natch, and to accompany the spooks as they went about their shadowy business in Britain and abroad. The end result is an extraordinarily appealing collection of oil paintings, drawings, and lithographs that are unquestionably modern, but which simultaneously hearken back to some of the great English and American painters of the 19th century, and even those of 17th and 18th century Spain.

For example, take perhaps my favorite painting from the series, “Espionage 2010”. In a palette of grays and blacks ranging from pale silver to deep, jet black, with occasional highlights of red and green, Hart Dyke beautifully evokes a city sidewalk on a rainy day. If this was merely an urban landscape painting, it would be an attractive and appealing painting in and of itself.

Yet we know from the title and the context of the show, that something else is going on here – and what is it, exactly? The man in the leather jacket, shown from the back to the left of the center of the picture, seems to be approaching the short figure in the upper central portion of the painting. This second figure is wearing a white raincoat, and seems to have locked eyes with the man as he strides in that direction. What is about to happen, we wonder? Are they going to attack one another, or perhaps exchange some information?

Compare the palette and the enigmatic subject matter of this work to John Singer Sargent’s 1882 painting “A Street in Venice”, now here in Washington at the National Gallery. It has always been one of my favorites among Singer Sargent’s works, showing a woman walking down a rather run-down street in Venice, far from the grandeur of its squares and baroque churches and palaces, wrapped in a fringed shawl and observed by two men. Here again, we do not know exactly what is going on, or what has or is about to happen, but the effect is the same: an urban landscape with intriguing figures, using a very stripped-down but sophisticated composition and color choice to highlight the mystery of what we are observing.

Another aspect of Mr. Hart Dyke’s series on MI-6 which I particularly like we might refer to as the seemingly innocuous quality of everyday objects, carefully observed. His “Doughnut on Stripes 2010” for example, is a very tempting doughnut indeed: Hart Dyke manages to capture and evoke the quality of the pastry. It is glossy and crumby, and we can almost feel the stickiness of the glaze on our fingers. Again, if this was simply a still life of a doughnut, it would be an impressive painting for all of the aforementioned qualities.

As it happens, however, the painting is also highly symbolic, in the world of spook shorthand. The British Government Communications Headquarters in Cheltenham, near the Cotswolds, is a structure built in a circular shape with an open space in the center, not unlike the Pentagon here in Washington, and is often referred to as “The Doughnut” in the espionage community. In this sense “Doughnut on Stripes” has a clear relationship to the “bodegónes” of the great Spanish still life painters, such as Zurbarán or Meléndez. For not unlike his artistic ancestors, Hart Dyke manages to evoke a sensual quality from a single piece of food, which has a deeper meaning if one is willing to consider what that piece of food represents, in context.

It is encouraging to note that there are highly competent and talented artists in Britain such as Mr. Hart Dyke and his contemporary Rupert Alexander, whom I have written about previously [N.B. and whom, I am pleased to add, I will have the privilege of meeting up with soon], who are able to continue the artistic traditions and standards of representational art into a new century, creating captivating and memorable works using actual skill and an understanding of the techniques of drawing, line, and figure – unlike *some* people I have written about recently.

I am disappointed that I will not be able to see this show first-hand, but should you happen to find yourself in London in the next week or two, gentle reader, I encourage you to visit the Mount Street Galleries and take a look at these pieces, in this brief show which opens to the public today and runs through February 26th. And afterwards, it would seem more than appropriate for you to pop across the street to Scott’s, (my favorite London bar-restaurant), where Ian Fleming used to hold court back in the day. Would that I could join you, but I must be content for now watching Lucas, Ros, and Sir Harry this evening on the tele.

Mr. Hart Dyke in his studio, from The Guardian article.

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