The particular pleasure in tracking the evolution of a painter’s oeuvre was abundantly indulged by this retrospective of Anthony Palliser’s work. His career has had an unusual trajectory, perfectly plotted by this exemplary exhibition. Having studied literature at Oxford, and with no formal training or art school directives, Palliser decided to become a painter. He learned the technical skills required by the figurative-realist tradition through sheer dedication and self-discipline.
For Palliser the initial goal was simply to master highly realistic renderings of the visible world in oil. Once this was achieved and painstaking effort replaced by facility, Palliser began to realize that he could relax a little and try something different, even an outright experiment. He introduced acrylics in 2003, and the quick-drying medium presented new possibilities for lightness and fluidity that enhanced the surface textures. Eventually acrylic predominated, and Palliser worked on increasingly large canvases, up to 64 by 51 inches. He painted outsize portraits in which the compositional tightness and tense, meticulous technique of earlier works give way to a much looser approach. Thinly washed planes and furrows of scumble are as expressively abstract close-up as they are realistic at a distance. At times the textures recall the surfaces of Houdon’s sculptural portraits, and their angular abutments of contrasting tones also invite comparison with Cézanne’s landscapes.
Palliser’s newly liberated approach yields particularly spectacular results in the most recent works on view. Gary Grier (2008) is a portrait born of a riotous spectrum of tonal variants. Palliser builds up the image from fractured brushstrokes and palette-knifed contours. Likewise, James Ivory, of the same year, seems so lightly and deftly sketched as to at first appear incomplete. Palliser’s bold shift in strategy culminates in two gigantic paintings, also from 2008, Swimmer and Savannah Diver,whose wild style reflects an entirely liberated energy bordering on gestural abstraction. These pieces contrast strikingly with the careful precision of Private Lives (1991), the earliest piece in the show.
Palliser’s self-education and the progression of his work recapitulate in some sense the history of art, from the long battle to achieve convincing realism toward an exploration of abstraction. His example also recalls Picasso’s claim, “When I was a child I drew like Raphael. It took me my whole life to paint like a child.”