Bill Greenhalgh has been a painter pretty much all his life. Trained in Bolton and then Bristol, he moved to London in the mid-1970s, and has been there ever since. One of the early occupants of an East End factory space in Bow, where he lived and worked, he now resides south of the river and works in the Thames Side Studio Complex. But to speak to, you might think he had never left Bolton.
His artistic vision is one that taps into the grand heritage of Modernism, and his sources range across the last century, pulling-in things and fusing them with whatever concerns him at the time. The aphorism ‘good artists copy, great artists steal’ has been attributed to Picasso, and whether he said it or not, it is beautifully indicative of that master’s outlook. We can say the same of Greenhalgh. He is a deeply eclectic artist who has always shown the ability to take what he needs from others, in order to make what he wants. And what he wants is to create a self-referential universe, a place occupied by objects and creatures of his own invention.
His earliest work is redolent of the post-War Cornwall abstract artists. He was trained in Bristol by Paul Feiler, and deeply influenced by Roger Hilton, Peter Lanyon, Terry Frost, and others of that grand generation. He made his mark early with this work, but within a few years, he eliminated the heavy, painterly textures typical of that idiom, and embraced flat surfaces, and ideographic, cartoon-like forms. In some ways the hundreds of little figures intertwined across his surfaces were a response to Paul Klee, and the imagery of North West Coast Native American art. Joan Miro’s ‘personages’ were also important for him. In many respects, he is a late Surrealist, inventing figures, forms, and situations that hang between reality and dream.
It seems inevitable in retrospect that his frenetic imagery would lead him away from the rectangular canvas. During the course of the 1980s, he began to make large, cut-out forms that explode across the wall. He also developed an approach that saw all his forms defined with black outlines. While the emotional pitch is very different, this outlining and flat surface makes one think of Fernand Léger. Perhaps Greenhalgh also shares Léger’s directness, and aggressive commitment to populist language. As with this great French forebear, there is a sense in Greenhalgh that nothing is hidden: what you see is what you get.
Essentially, this work is about story-telling. The artist can spin a yarn about every shape. The manic, hopping and jumping imagery is very obviously driven by narratives. It is an interesting question as to whether the artist creates the story in his mind before he makes the work, or whether the story emerges as he is working. Again, it is part of the Surrealist heritage that has artists conjuring-up personal mythologies, which they then commit to canvas or paper. As with the Surrealists, it would be a stretch to suggest that Greenhalgh’s stories make ‘sense’ in any conventional way. Rather, they are vehicles for emotional expression, a means of objectifying the subjective.
The work is often shot through with a quirky humour, but this, we realise, is principally a form of camouflage, masking something far darker. We might say the same of the l’Hourloupe works of Jean Dubuffet, or the later work of Philip Guston. More pertinent perhaps, the expansive world of Keith Haring is physically in the same universe. Greenhalgh’s icons and images might hit the retina like fireworks, but they also describe a lonely, frightening world, in which horror nestles up alongside happiness. Like Goya’s depictions of the festival, the jollity thinly disguises the presence of nightmares.
Greenhalgh views painting as a discourse in itself, and he struggles to communicate outside of that immediate realm. It would be a stretch to say that he was ever fashionable, and even more of one to suggest that he cares about that. It would an understatement to say that he eschews the chattering end of the art world. The maker of these extraordinarily talkative paintings is reticent when it comes to talking about his work to any third party he doesn’t know. It has been said of him that when it comes to self-promotion, he is as useful as a sponge door-knocker.
While I can bear witness to this last comment, the reader might feel I am being unnecessarily direct. How could I know so much about this man, and why do I feel fully able to talk about him in this way? Because I am his younger brother, and have watched his work and career unfold through the decades. I have come to realise that he is one of the most technically gifted composers of his generation, and he is sitting on an extraordinary body of work, which has barely been seen beyond his immediate circle. Alongside a growing number of people, I feel it is time for my brother’s work to move onto a far larger stage.
© Paul Greenhalgh July 2019