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Collection Reflection: Len Tabner

30 July 2020 12:30 pm

Len Tabner, England, 1946, Number 3 Furnace Casting and Running Scaw, 1978. Pastel on paper. Gifted by the artist

When I was an A-Level student at Stockton Sixth Form my art teacher Mrs Gill dedicated an entire lesson to watching a video of Teesside artist Len Tabner from an old episode of Look North. It focused on Tabner’s obsession with creating artwork in the open air with extensive footage of him painting his expressive seascapes on the deck of a ship in a terrifyingly rough sea. I remember seeing him on the deck in waterproof clothing getting soaked, unfurling his canvas as the ship violently bobbed up and down in the cold grey North Sea. His aggressive brush strokes mirrored the crashes of the waves into the bows of the ship. The rain furiously lashing down on him as he attempted to replicate the sensation he was experiencing with extravagant and aggressive painterly swirls and splashes. It brought to mind the (possibly fabricated) stories of the famous British romantic artist J.M.W. Turner in the 1840s fixing himself to the mast of a ship during a storm at sea in order to realistically and honestly paint the wildest weather conditions.

Tabner, like Turner, is hellishly preoccupied with experiencing the raw elements he wants to depict, whether that means getting his easel out and painting in situ on the rain sodden deck of a ship or on a fiery factory floor. He was born in South Bank, Middlesbrough in 1946, and perhaps due to the influence of his merchant seaman father was fixated from an early age with not only the brutal industrial expanse of the north east coast, but also its wild nature, weather and sea. He studied at Middlesbrough Art College alongside his South Bank contemporaries David Mulholland and David Watson and went on to study in Bath and Reading before returning to the North East.

We can imagine him at the blast furnace at Redcar in a welding mask surrounded by the heat and fury of transforming molten metal, orange sparks flashing against the paper, the vibrations of the factory floor pushing his pastels around the sheet. You feel with Tabner it is essential that the intensity of the environment needs to be felt in order to create the work – whether that’s the harsh cold stabs of rain on the deck of HMS Exeter in the South Atlantic off the Falkland Islands from his time as a Royal Navy artist or from the inferno of heat and noise inside one of his favourite Teesside cathedrals of heavy industry. There is a manic urgency in his mark making and any semblance of accuracy is largely abandoned to make way for the elemental purity of his experience. For me this work is all about the power of colossal machinery and the sensations that come with it. You can almost feel the heat of the casting process as it blazes across the paper.

Tabner remains as passionate about local industry now as he was when he created this piece in 1978. In 2016 he created a series of works which outlined a vision of what he believed could happen to the former SSI steelworks at South Gare, Redcar. His plan was to preserve parts of the site as a memorial to all those who worked in shipbuilding and in making the steel but to also create nature reserves, a wharf and living spaces as well as a National Museum of Iron and Steel.

By Kingsley Hall, MIMA Gallery Assistant

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