Few besides the illustrator and printmaker Paul Catherall have paused to notice the details of the London skyline and precisely how they’ve changed. For more than a decade, Catherall has fixed his gaze on the city’s urban transformations, capturing them in bold, abstract linocuts. During that time, he’s seen new London landmarks, such as Renzo Piano’s The Shard, emerge, while other languishing Brutalist complexes have been demolished. These structures figure heavily in the artist’s most recent works.
Catherall completes his linocuts by hand, a laborious process that often take weeks. His prints are recognized for their crisp modernist lines, minimal detail or relief, and dynamic, Constructivist-like compositions. Yet there’s also something nostalgic about how they’re presented. When read in the right (or wrong, depending on how you like your building movements) light, that presentation gives them a slightly Romantic cast. A look at his latest work, most especially the city ensembles, affirms this; those arrangements take on much more stylized, ornamental configurations. All of which is rather appropriate for Catherall’s current show at gallery@OXO, a London artspace housed in the storied Art Deco OXO Tower, where 30 of the artist’s latest and past works are on display through May 19.
Catherall is relatively sanguine on today’s London. "It’s changed dramatically in some ways," he tells Co.Design, pointing mainly to the corporate-backed "branded" (silly nicknames derived from the architecture’s shape and used to market a site) towers and developments that have come to blot the London skyline in recent years. "These days the Gherkin is about to be obscured by the 'Cheesegrater’ and the 'Walkie Talkie’ has popped up in the same view. It’s a bit of a shame, really."
That isn’t to say that Catherall’s against contemporary buildings—so long as they are good, admirable pieces of architecture. He cites Richard Rogers’s paradigm-shattering Lloyd’s building and even Norman Foster’s aforementioned Gherkin as examples. Conversely, it took him some time to warm up to The Shard, Renzo Piano’s showy 1,012-foot (308-meter) glass tower thunderously dropped in the city’s traditional center. (He was converted after it found its way into his linocuts.) Still, he underscores, "I have the luxury of being able to put my own spin on it."
There are plenty of "controversial landmarks" that the city of London has very little interest in maintaining and which the populace finds less than accommodating. These are the ones that Catherall personally treasures. Civic centers, such as Southbank, and the culture and housing complexes at Barbican and Trellick Tower, frequently figure in his cuts. While his affinity for such Brutalist buildings may be rooted in his past—the illustrator grew up in Coventry City Center, a notorious postwar locus for concrete civic architecture—the structures also happen to suit Catherall’s artistic medium rather well. Speaking on his method, he says that he is "always looking to reduce the image to its essential parts" in the hopes of arriving at a building’s or a site’s essence. Brutalism’s use of heavy horizontal massing and raised concrete formwork coupled with highly plastic secondary elements (broad curving ramps, spiral staircases, bullhorn facade flourishes) give Catherall plenty to work with.
If the subject is good, Catherall explains, sunlight will hit it and "create shapes and patterns that translate really well to linocuts." To paraphrase the architect Louis Kahn—in a turn of phrase Catherall might appreciate—the sun never knew how great it was until it struck the sides of buildings like these.