Gillian Ayres

Gillian Ayres, “Phaëthon”, 1990, Oil on Canvas, 244 x 366 cm, Tate Museum, London

British painter Gillian Ayres’ 1990 “Phaëthon” is a very large oil painting packed with a variety of interlocking but loosely defined shapes, including triangles, circles, semi-circles, arches and zig-zagging lines. Shades of yellow, red and orange are especially prominent, while many of the forms have been given thick white outlines. The surface of the canvas is thick with paint, which appears to have been applied quickly and freely in layers so that every area of the canvas is covered.

At the top of the painting black and white lines radiate from multi-coloured bands that curve from one side to the other over the central composition, which is made up of loosely delineated shapes of various sizes. At the bottom edge of the work is a sequence of vertical parallel lines in black, brown and red paint.

After a period beginning in the mid-1960s in which she worked predominately with acrylic paint, Ayres reverted to oil paint in 1976 and began utilising a much more colorful palette. Thick layers of paint, exuberant colours and expressive paint handling are characteristic of Ayres’s work after she finished teaching at the Winchester School of Art and left London for north Wales in 1981.

The title of this painting refers to the figure of Phaëthon, who, according to Greek mythology, was the son of the sun god Apollo. The predominance of yellow, red and orange in the painting may allude to Phaëthon’s parentage, and in particular to the mythical account of Phaëthon’s journey in his father’s sun chariot, when he drove so fast it caused the surrounding landscape to burst into flames. However, the titles of Ayres’s works are usually conceived after the paintings have been completed, and in some cases have been suggested by the artist’s friends or by a process of free association.

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