Ian North Into Myth 2004, oil on linen, 
61 x 48 cm. Image courtesy of the artist and Greenaway Art Gallery

Despite abundant claims to diversity and openness, contemporary art still has many recognisable and repeated traits. When we say pointedly that a work of art has the look of contemporary art we damn its meretriciousness over its aspirations. Alas mediocre art has always survived by its conformity to reigning styles over the desire to challenge ideas; indeed to some extent the art world has always rewarded conformity. But what of work that doesn't look at all like 'contemporary art’?

For this very reason, there was something glaringly perverse about Ian North’s suite of sea-and-boat paintings (traditionally referred to as ‘marines’) which seem to forfeit contemporaneity for conservatism, as if destined for a stuffy men’s clubroom. Yet it was this very reluctance of the paintings to appear anything other than traditional that gave alert of their deeper intention. North had engaged in an ingenious reversal which encouraged us to inspect the ‘look’ of contemporary painting more closely. For instead of branching into transgressions of content or form - feigned transgressions to which we have become rather inured and which we habitually expect – North retreated into a style somewhere between the Romantic American Thomas Cole, Turner and the eighteenth century French marine painter Loutherbourg.

The paintings were mostly of galleons, sails aloft, on either stormy seas or under brooding skies. Like the earlier paintings in this genre, the ship is used as an agent within the capricious forces of nature. Unlike the work of those painters, however, there is an eerie anonymity to these ships, which remain unnamed and whereon no human presence is visible.

It was customary for Romantic artists to cast an object as a surrogate for themselves – a boat for Turner, a tree for Friedrich – in order to express the ways in which the inexorable energies of nature and oblivion advance upon the frail self. There is a presentness in Romantic painting, the investment in the unique event of time and self, that is absent here. Though in North’s paintings the ships can be viewed as metaphoric portraits, they are ostensibly of no particular place or time, rather enacted as part of a relentless eternal return. They are melancholy anachronisms, they come to us as figures of alienation, telescoped back into an inscrutable imaginary.

But as the words in the catalogue indicated, these ships can also be read as symbols of the instability of politics and human relations. In the face of too much activity that we are powerless to control it is easy to lapse into indifference. In the presence of too many images and too much commentary, it is easy to turn away in exhaustion. The kinds of solutions that art can offer are often paradoxical, such as expressing with clarity and honesty the infinite nature of human impotence, as well as the ability to suffer for futile causes. These paintings are about the unaccountable urge to take on tasks that perpetually elude us, whether political or personal.

Artists occasionally avail themselves of languages of the past as a reflex against trauma. Carlo Carrà, having lost almost of his fellow Futurists to the horrors of the First World War, turned to the Florentine primitives for inspiration; De Chirico adapted his own airy amalgam of Dutch and Sienese painting to express his alienation with a world that, because of a violent childhood, he always felt was hostile to him. The odd retro-character of North’s paintings might be understood in a similar light. They are both highly introspective works about private searching, and expressions of the fragility of human and political relations. These are not negative paintings, though, far from it. These nameless ships on nameless seas are nonetheless there, above water, existent and resistant.