Michael Ashcroft, High Point, 2010, oil on canvas, 198×203 cm

British artist Michael Ashcroft gets star billing at the Lucy Mackintosh Gallery in Lausanne, an international  hot spot for contemporary art.  Under the theme Sweet Alpine, the London-based artist presents large paintings of jagged mountains against moving skies. The views are so perfect that they look like they come from windows carved in the walls. And yet Ashcroft has never been to the Alps.

This is not the first time that Michael Ashcroft has a solo show at the visionary Lucy Mackintosh Gallery in Lausanne but now his paintings are selling like hot cakes. Priced between 8.000 and 30.000 Swiss francs canvases as large as bay windows allow viewers to swoop over the Alps like birds.

“The great thing about presenting these paintings in Switzerland is that I am bringing to people what they see every day and at the same time conjuring in them different responses. They can’t believe I’ve never been there” the artist said in an interview.

Ashcroft picked up an old edition of a small alpine guide in a bookshop in Lausanne when he was here for his previous exhibitions at the Mackintosh Gallery. Under the title When Life began, the monumental jungle and sea-side scenes shown in 2006 were also bathed in lush realism.

When Life Began, 2006, oil on canvas, 239 x 178 cm

“I originally tried painting directly from nature, but I never seemed to be able to find the ideal spot” indicates the lad from Lancashire who studied art at the University of Northumbria in Newcastle.

Ashcroft then spent many years copying nineteenth century landscape painters. “We have history to draw upon” he says. “ I am still finding new ways to paint all the time.”

Lucy Mackintosh, who opened the eponymous gallery with Cyril Veillon five years ago, is very passionate about her protégé’s work, as she is about all her artists, many of them from the UK. The gallery is given the credit for putting Lausanne on the world map of contemporary art, as many of its artists are now recognized by major institutions abroad.

Ashcroft’s work has been presented in the leading galleries of Saatchi and Anthony d’Offay in London, as well as the Andrea Rosen Gallery in New York.

“What is amazing about Michael is his complete mastery of painting techniques, but, unlike earlier painters who have inspired him, he does not use his incredible skills to depict reality” says Lucy Mackintosh.

Michael Ashcroft,  Summit, 2010, oil on canvas, 203×158 cm

Now this might sound a bit odd for an artist whose paintings could be mistaken for photographs from afar. “My paintings are actually an idealization of reality, like experiencing something second-hand” Ashcroft indicates. “I am capturing a moment in time, hoping to tap into what people feel in front of a landscape”.

As in the case of Sweet Alpine, small images in an old publication serve as the starting point for his larger than life canvasses (up to 2.5 metres tall or wide), although Ashcroft does not include the people in the original photographs, but only their traces, like footsteps in the snow.

“This contributes to the sense of loss and alienation that I am looking to obtain” he explains.

Starting in one corner, Ashcroft paints his way across the canvas, continually standing back as far as the depth of his London studio will allow him to. “I enjoy the way paint sticks to a canvas. Its texture and fluidity are very important to me” he says.

Although the paintings in Lausanne feel very real, a close-up reveals the layering of successive colours of paint that may explain their delicate luminescence. Each square metre of the canvas could actually be a stunning abstract painting on its own.

Ashcroft says that he does not become attached to his paintings. “I enjoy the process in making them, but I have no trouble parting with the paintings. I am happy when we go our separate ways.”

Michael Ashcroft’s work can be found in collections in Manchester, Naples, London, New York and Lausanne. When he comes to Switzerland, he says he feels recharged, although even this time round he did not go up to the Alps because of the bad weather.

“I want to create a strong virtual space that people can occupy” he explains. “I like the idea that things move on and become something else.”

Michael Ashcroft,  Crown, 2010, oil on canvas, 203×158 cm

Michèle Laird, née Haffner, was an international arts administrator (visual arts and theatre), successively in Paris, New York and London, before moving to Switzerland and becoming an arts journalist.

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