David Storey’s haunting paintings are, above all, an exploration of memory – memory in all its fleeting complexity. We often find memories travelling back towards us, meeting us as we are in this very moment and inviting us to bring our experience and changing worldview to bear on them, giving each memory new shape and new meaning. As such, memories are as much about the present as the past – and a moment away from shaping the future too. This world of memory is the fertile territory David explores in his captivating work - a world that is in constant, though often subtle flux. And within that world he has one particular focus: memories captured at the point of fading away.
Working from his studio in an old Victorian dairy in Brighton, East Sussex, David draws deeply on the images and atmospheres of his own childhood and teenage years spent growing up in West Cumbria. Indeed, the landscapes, lights and skies that illuminate many of his paintings are gleaned from a small area within a 30-mile radius of Workington, the town where he grew up. He references elements of this world regularly - maybe the wild fast-changing skies above the Solway Firth, the fells and hillsides looming from a veil of mist or the old sandstone Victorian buildings typical of the area that turn black when it rains. It’s here too where he spent cherished summer holidays absorbing the changing lights above the sea and the sandy, hill-encircled shorelines of that coast that feature in many of his paintings including works in this collection such as “Rain Clouds over Allonby”.
He’s drawn too to a particular era spanning the mid-fifties to the early seventies, a time of lives lived optimistically yet with a sense of soft melancholy. It’s a world quite distinct from the one he found when at 17 he moved to London in 1972 to complete a foundation course at Hornsey School of Art, before studying for a degree in art and design at Middlesex University. Yet despite these distinct reference points, these are by no means works of nostalgia. The alluring figures that populate the paintings belong to no particular time and place. Instead, he draws his ideas from a range of sources, but most frequently from old photographs – the sort that often turn up in car boot sales or bric-a-brac shops, where whole family histories might be found parcelled into a cardboard box or a tattered envelope. These memories are rescued and then re-imagined at that point where they might vanish forever. Again the photographs that capture his attention will often be from that favoured era, and so the poses people strike in them have that careful, formal, almost reverential, feel that comes from a time, long before Instagram and the camera phone, when photography was still something of an event.
It’s from these found images that the process of creation starts as David begins to unlock the characters that will eventually take centre stage in the finished work. It’s a process of teasing out ideas that can take, he admits, anywhere from five weeks to five years. He begins to develop the idea by producing studies on small pieces of board no more than five inches by four and often working at this stage in egg tempura, at first in monochrome tones before adding colour. When the time comes to move to the full canvas the process of creation moves much faster, done in deliberately brief and intense bursts of creativity, working as much with his hands, palette knives, rags and sponges as with the brush to manipulate the oils paint. It is this process of realising the final image swiftly and physically that lends an intensely expressionistic quality to these figurative paintings. You see it particularly in the, often dramatic, sky or seascapes that frame the figures at the centre of the work. These backdrops draw us into a grander, darker, more turbulent space or, in the brighter more colourful backdrops, to a place of deeper calm.
Yet it is the figures that hold the attention and draw us in, their bodies nearly always strongly drawn, but their faces left deliberately indistinct and sometimes almost blank. This is how David strives to achieve what he calls a “glimpsed effect” – offering us just a fleeting sense of character, situation, and personal history. His aim is to invite viewers to bring their own narratives to the painting - much as we bring our own evolving story to our personal memories - excited that for every ten different viewers there might be ten entirely different stories evoked by these ghostly figures and their world. The effect is subtle and compelling. Even in the sunniest and most colourful pictures – a woman sitting quietly on a sand dune at Allonby, the ‘Children on a Hillside’, ‘Walking Behind’ or ‘On Reflection’ – the optimism is always balanced by a sense of isolation, of loss, of lives only half-remembered, qualities that prevent the pictures from ever being sentimental. They have that same ache, and that same hint of darkness, that is more directly found in the edgier paintings where he is experimenting with a more subdued, often monochrome palette such as ‘Figure from a Dream’ or ‘Hymn to the Light’. And even in the rare pictures where there is no human form – such as ‘Summer Rain’ – there is a palpable sense of the characters that have just left the scene, their chatter still echoing on the breeze.
All of the paintings have a quality of magical realism, although they are by no means fabulous in the normal meaning of that term. Instead, they speak of the extraordinary things to be found in profoundly everyday events - and it is this that, ultimately, makes the paintings so accessible, yet so intriguing. The influences David cites are varied yet all clear to glimpse – that word again! The expressive, often lonely figures of Edvard Munch, the more formal poses struck by Gainsborough’s subjects, Peter Doig’s blurred human forms, Turner’s exhilarating skies and seascapes.
There are also links back to an earlier point in David’s artistic life when he started his career as a graphic designer working in the music industry. On graduation he landed a job with Elton John’s label Rocket Records, before moving to Chrysalis, where eventually as artistic director, he produced sleeves for artists as diverse as Blondie, The Housemartins, Iggy Pop, The Lightning Seeds as well as those iconic 2 Tone record covers for The Specials. Interestingly, it was here that he started using found images from obscure photo libraries to bring these very different creations to life.
But the desire to return to painting was strong and it was a two-week painting retreat at the Slade School of Art that persuaded him to turn his back on graphic design, focus full-time on painting as he has for the last 15 years and begin his eventful voyage in the world of memory.
Other significant moments have informed that journey. Moving from landlocked Bedfordshire and returning to live by the sea in Brighton – with all its dazzling, ever-changing lights – propelled him on his way, providing constant inspiration. The birth of his son Luca in 2008, marked a moment when his worldview changed fundamentally, unleashing a cascade of new ideas.
In this collection we see those ideas and his unique way of working coming to fruition. These are the works of an artist who is striving to perfect his technique, forever trying to move closer to the point where he can capture an essence of human life that can so often and so easily slip through the fingers.