As the curator Matthew Rowe has written on Homage to Naum Gabo: ‘This composition is one of Wells’ most ambitious creations, combining a sense of lateral motion and recessional depth for the fractured form that also alludes to the material quality of Perspex, with radiating lines inscribed into the surface. The use of the dense green as a textured background may refer back to Gabo’s first paintings made in St Ives, which used similar tones, but it also helps place the object against an organic, natural environment, as if we are glimpsing some elemental force within the landscape’ (Matthew Rowe, John Wells – Reaching Beyond the World’s Edge, exh. cat., Jonathan Clark & Co., London, 15th October – 7th November 2003, note to cat. no.13). It is this abstract, geometric rendering of an ‘elemental force’ that makes Wells unique – a painterly equivalent of Hepworth’s contemporaneous exploration in sculpture (Wells worked as Hepworth’s assistant between 1950 and 1951). Whilst Lanyon takes to the skies in a glider to feel these forces, Wells keeps his feet on the ground and takes his measure from there – from the soaring flight of birds to the intimate spiral of a shell; the zig-zag lines of rigging of ships in harbour to the triangular flashes of colour of their sails fluttering in the breeze.
In the roughened surface of Homage to Naum Gabo one wonders if one can’t see an evocation of a dark, leaden sea surrounded by a bay, a moon perhaps reflected in the water, an image that then shears open to reveal alternative spaces and perspectives, of sea and sky and coast on a much brighter day – with this rupture of time and space conducted by the line that swirls and darts through the composition like a gull riding a thermal. Yet any such reading is deliberately fleeting and allusive, as the work’s obvious abstract quality pulls us back into the realm of art and the language of Modernism. It is this exquisite push and pull (conflict doesn’t feel like the right world, as it is all so harmonious) between the abstract and the figurative, measure and poetry, that makes Wells’s work so engaging and rightly evocative of the St Ives movement as a whole.
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