The Point of Return
by Philip Vann
Article image credit: Night Fishing, painting by Paul Bloomer Courtesy: Paul Bloomer/Boundary Gallery
The range of Paul Bloomer’s art is richly and intriguingly diverse. Early monumental figurative drawings and woodcuts evoke a vision of bitterly constrained English urban life with both compassion and wit. Latterly, there are his Shetland landscapes of turbulent sensitivity and elemental expressionism. Recent narrative paintings set around his home on Shetland show how, after ten years’ living there, the island’s landscape and culture and his own visionary imagination have enchantingly merged.
Born in the Black Country in 1966, Bloomer left school at fifteen to take a job in a factory. After four years there, he “suddenly discovered a love of colour and drawing, which I pursued with energy and drive”. Soon afterwards he enrolled at a local art college. It was while later returning to the factory for summer jobs that he made countless sketches, “intense studies of hands and faces”. A 1988 charcoal drawing based on his mother, A Hand Press Worker, shows her absorbed in a grimly repetitive task, her poignant presence rendered with acute
A year later, Bloomer made a huge drawing, The Despondent Poet, showing “a factory worker though he’s secretly a poet inside – without anyone knowing it”. His bleak yet clearly perceptive features and muscular, veiny hands allude to the kind of creative temperament so often repressed in a remorseless industrial society.
His 1989 charcoal drawing Children of the Furnace – a grotesque, epic pub panorama of binge-drinking and dope-smoking – “was the most accurate representation of my generation that I could draw”. Such pictures were inspired partly by German Expressionism but also by the 1980s’ resurgence of British figurative painting.
Towards the end of his time as an art student in Nottingham, Bloomer found himself drawn to religion and nature. An often specifically biblical dimension is seen in a subtle, increasingly recurrent imagery describing rivers, lakes and the ocean as sanctuaries for the human spirit, birds as creatures of joyous transcendence as well as key dynamic forms in the bare Shetland landscape of his later work, and in the local imagery of fish and sheep with their own oblique New Testament resonances. “As a child, nature was very much part of my life: walking, fishing, collecting birds’ eggs. But at some point as a teenager, I got completely detached from it. Then I suddenly reconnected in a new, dramatic way.”
He was accepted as a student in 1991 at the Royal Academy Schools, on the strength of his drawings. He gravitated there towards the Sienese painters’ “inventive use of space and non-linear-perspective… Overall, Emil Nolde made the most lasting impression – for his luminosity of colour and vision.”
While he was living in London, Paul met a young Scottish woman, Fiona Burr, herself an art school graduate. They later married, and now have two small children. In 1997 an opportunity arose for the couple to visit Shetland, and they settled there.
“My first response to Shetland was woodcuts, when I was looking for shapes in a largely empty landscape.” Resulting prints – portraying long-tailed ducks in water vortices, each succinctly repeated, a fleet of mergansers, or swans flying over isles – evoke birdlife in scintillatingly vivid rhythmic patternings.
Bloomer found Shetland “a paradise discovered”. But it was hard to acclimatise to a new rhythm of life. “In winter, you are completely at the mercy of the elements and lack of light; there are very few trees and low houses – nothing to protect you. In the summer, there is light at ten o’clock at night; blazing sun, even. By midnight it’s still half-light; the sun touches the horizon and so slightly dips behind. It’s magical, wandering hills at midnight then, with only nesting birds and animals around – no humans in sight.”
FOR FIVE YEARS or so, Bloomer worked at night in a studio in an old telephone exchange, with views of hills and sea. He produced intricate prints of fleets of birds and ships. It was at the end of this period that he felt an inner need to go out into the landscape, to take a new direction.
So he started painting and drawing in charcoal on the spot, “not making a literal interpretation of the landscape but rather a panoramic viewpoint fused into one image, emphasising nature and weather and the elements”. After years making taut figurative pictures, he felt re-invigorated by fresh influences: the painterly freedom of American Abstract Expressionism, Peter Lanyon’s perspective-defying Cornish landscapes, and Joan Eardley’s both imaginative and quite literal immersion in coastal elements.
Bloomer’s Shetland landscapes include sunsets of molten vibrancy, colours and forms coalescing in wildly original ways – matching the indescribably transient weather – and pictures of skies bewitchingly streaked with Northern Lights, painted in sub-zero cold. Scenes of Approaching Snow are rooted in an attenuated palette of flurrying or even furiously animated tonal delicacies. “You can see the snow on the horizon. Closer and closer it comes. You have to paint quite frantically. Within a second, it’s a blizzard.”
He is moved by affinities between rhythms of sea and land and primordial patterns he has observed in archaic Celtic and Pictish art. Such rhythms of sea and land are seen on the canvas the artist is working on in a 1998 oil Self-Portrait. He is starting to paint the pier at Melby, a remote place on the west side of Shetland, with what he calls orbic “healing” shapes in the water, and a church luminous on the horizon. His own body appears shadowy, perhaps alluding to a ‘dark night of the soul’, yet is permeated by subtle abstract shapes and colours, a resilient, psychedelic-seeming inner core.
Two recent oil paintings, Birds, Lovers and Northern Lights, are pictures of mystical happiness and serene nocturnal reconciliation. He has written that he finds in such works “the paradoxical ingredients of ‘pale darkness’ and ‘dark light’… characteristic in paintings right across the northern hemisphere. The unique light of the aurora also finds its way into my work.”
He says, “I used to see a dichotomy in my work between light and dark, the realistic urban and the abstract rural – it was like that for a while but I soon started to realise it was all one and the same vision.” The poetic narratives of Bloomer’s recent Shetland paintings are the assured fruits of his longstanding search for truth about humanity and nature. As such, he is an artist on a perennial voyage of discovery.