Still, in motion: Julian Vilarrubi’s Shifting Moments exhibition breathes life into the Phoenix, Brighton

One of the most generous aspects of contemporary landscape art is its ability to translate a pastiched visual language of urban development – mixtures of modern and historical architecture, natural effects and organic structures – into something harmonious and profoundly beautiful.

From jagged scaffolds to the potent beams of an evening sun, Julian Vilarrubi’s most recent series of works on paper – Shifting Moments, currently on display in the Phoenix Art Space, Brighton – encompasses a full and enveloping experience of the artist’s perception of his exterior environment from a principal vantage point.

In various mediums, at numerous intervals, Vilarrubi renders a view of St Peter’s Church as he observes it continuously in transient glances from the window of his working studio upstairs at the Phoenix, which stands on the opposite side of the road. 

“It’s a visceral, in the moment response. A reaction to something.”

Vilarrubi is a warm and thoughtful conversationalist, with astonishing self-knowledge and an enthusiasm for reflective artistic practices.

With faces covered and distancing observed, the artist and I took a tour of his exhibition, while he illustrated the process of creation behind the artworks on display along with the lasting influences and inspirations that fed into Shifting Moments.

‘St. Peter’s Sunset’, 2021, 154 x 119 cm. The final work in Vilarrubi’s Shifting Moments, on display in the Phoenix’s Canvas Coffee Bar.

When I met with the artist shortly after the show opened to the public, he spoke of his fondness for producing works in rapid succession – something he encourages his students to do in exercises when teaching painterly techniques.

“There’s this strange ‘no man’s land’ between being conscious of what you’re doing and being […] in the moment,” he said.

“If I’m under pressure, then I’ve got to do something quickly – and I love working quickly.” 

Vilarrubi attributes this, in part, to time he spent working under a Fine Art tutor during his studies at Newcastle University.

His tutor had once led a trip to the Swan Hunter Shipyard by the Tyne, where the students were asked to paint inside the immense industrial sheds on-site in natural conditions – while it was half-lit and bracingly cold. 

Those paintings produced in-situ inspired the artist’s working method throughout his most recent series, which exemplifies a passion for painting with immediacy, and employing fast-acting materials. 

Vilarrubi also commended Sky’s Landscape Artist of the Year for giving him the opportunity to explore new modes of on-site painting guided by set conditions, and to practice responding “from reality”, when he participated in the programme back in January.

‘Swan Hunter Shipyard II’, 1983, 59.4 x 42 cm. One of two early works on display in Shifting Moments.

Two of the paintings produced in the Swan Hunter sheds are on display at the Phoenix, and occupy the first and second positions in the Shifting Moments exhibition.

“I only decided to put those two there right at the last minute,” he said. The decision was motivated partly by a recognition of parallelism between the recent studies of St Peter’s and his early studies of the Swan Hunter buildings.

“It’s about having those restrictions: going to the same place, working in the same way … in the same scale.”

When initially offered the corridor exhibition space at the Phoenix, he had planned to produce a series of 8 or 9 identically sized paintings that would lead a viewer through the effects of changes in the time of day on a single landscape. 

The artist had a working deadline of 6 weeks to develop and finish the series, which pushed him to adapt his initial conditions to suit the constraints that he had, for the most part, imposed upon himself.

Having created an inceptive piece which measured 60 x 80 centimetres in its frame, Vilarrubi sought to replicate the dimensions across all the works in Shifting Moments, but found that the number of identical frames he required would not be available for the exhibition – so he decided to make use of older frames he had stowed away which were diverse in proportions.

“The frame determined the composition,” he said, as he indicated towards outer edges of a painting in the series that had been deliberately spliced onto a painting of St Peter’s in order to extend the image and create a Baconesque focus on the central subject.

Vilarrubi adjusts focus and perspective in his compositions by working in layers, and considering the effect of “deep space” at each stage of production.

Six of the works on display in Shifting Moments are iPad drawings, and the artist enthused about the freedom digital drawing awards as the layers in each piece are able to be transformed, modified or repeated to great effect.

‘Morning Rain’, 2021, 29.7 x 21 cm. One of Vilarrubi’s six limited edition iPad prints in Shifting Moments.

“The top layer is the rain on the window, and then the next layer is the balcony, then the trees and the sky,” said the artist, in describing Morning Rain – the first iPad drawing encountered in the exhibition. “I started playing with the space even more.” 

The framing of space is a prominent motif across Shifting Moments, and mature works like St. Peter’s Brighton VII showcase the artist’s ability to draw depth by capturing details that create an interplay between foreground and background.

“Actually, what I’m painting is […] the space between me and the church,” said Vilarrubi. He explained that by representing dust, streaks and speckles on the glass of the window from which he observed St Peter’s, he was able to render the ephemeral moment more accurately.

The artist described the difficulty of creating landscape scenes that are true to life, even when painted plein-air. “There’s a gap between what you see and what you do. Therefore, in that gap, you’re memorising what you’ve seen.”

The soft psychedelia of Vilarrubi’s acrylic colour palettes suggests that he is open to creative renditioning of a direct environment, and working with electric colours was imperative for the artist when painting from life in Malibu or Tenerife. 

One of the more exacting challenges he has faced in his most recent series is developing and discovering greys or flat tones that are so ubiquitous across everyday Brightonian scenes over winter. 

View of St Peter’s Church, Brighton, in the spring.

Tuning into the moment and translating that moment into a composition simultaneously involves a great deal of control over practical methods, and a freedom of thought.

“It’s not relaxing at all. It’s full of tension, and the risk of potential destruction,” said Vilarrubi, while admitting that this process of creation can yield remarkable results, and therefore tends to be highly constructive.

Shifting Moments is a delightful exhibition which showcases the artist’s manifold talents across different media. The concept of a fixed central point being observed through changing points in time is acutely relevant in the context of recent months, and the delicacy with which Vilarrubi depicts his surroundings inspires the onlooker to seek such vibrancy in their immediate environments.

Shifting Moments is currently showing at the Phoenix Art Space, Brighton. The building’s main entrance is accessible to wheelchair users via ramp.

Many thanks to Julian Vilarrubi for his time, and for speaking with Sophie I See.