‘In search of Northern Soul’: In conversation with Len Green
By Bella Jewell
Out of a removal van, mancunian artist Len Green passes down a huge, square painting named after Sean Taylor’s ‘Magic Touch’. As I help heave it into the Sewell Centre gallery at Radley College, the Wigan DJ turned art teacher describes his love of Northern Soul music: the inspiration behind his first major exhibition.
Northern Soul music appeared in the North of England in the 1960s and 70s, particularly in Manchester’s famous venue, the Twisted Wheel. The music was based on black American soul music, and became the anthem of Northern nightclubs and dancehalls, sparking dynamic dance due to its strong beat and quick tempo.
It is this dynamic energy that inspires Len Green’s work: he claims his vibrant and free-flowing work is “a response to music and energetic dance”. In fact, Green compares the gestural quality of his work to pieces of graffiti, a reference which works well given the red brick walls of the gallery, against which we prop his canvases.
This energy, however, whilst being “quite spontaneous,” is tempered in the process of creating his paintings. Green describes a difficult process of reconciling his energy and freedom of movement with careful planning and control. He claims that his works balance “lyrical and gestural abstraction with geometry and structure; spontaneity yet control, order and chaos; colour and form”: artistic binaries which cannot always be balanced naturally. In this way, Green informs me that his works are “never started and finished without some substantial modification”.
Another striking characteristic of Green’s work is the use of flamboyant colour: his paintings could hardly be described as muted. As Green describes his love of bright, vivid colour, and how his palate choices are “subliminally Heron” in hue, I can’t help but notice his fluorescent orange trainers which illuminate the monochrome gallery. However, despite his obvious penchant for purples and pinks, Green once again recounts the process of ensuring his works “balance colouristically.”
Amongst the numerous works in the gallery, the stand-out paintings are the large-scale works. Once uncovered from their bubble wrap, the sheer dynamism of Green’s mark-making becomes clear. Green describes these gestures as “my writing” as he seeks to “draw without consciously drawing” to achieve the impression of ease of movement, evocative of dancing.
As the canvases tower over my somewhat vertically challenged self, Green comments, “the bigger the canvas, the better,” describing how the large scale provides no barrier to his gestures when painting: he can stretch out “like Da Vinci’s Vitruvian man.” This effect is clear when one considers his larger and smaller pieces side-by-side: the true essence of Northern Soul seems far more present in his larger works.
Yet the title of his collection ‘In search of Northern Soul’ raises several more questions. As a Northerner who has lived in the West Country for the past few decades, I wonder whether it is his northern soul that is being searched. Green responded by recounting how the process of painting is “searching my soul”, having had a long break from painting during his career as a teacher. However, following this profound moment, he dryly remarks that “it all sounds a bit too cheesy to me.”