Thursday, 11 June 2015

Now Showing: Runnymede Ghosts

My exhibition as part of the Magna Carta celebrations and Great Charter Festival is now hung and ready to go.

It is at Royal Holloway University until 16 June. Their main festival is Sunday 14 June.

For full details, check

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Runnymede Ghosts: writing as an artist

Final preparations for Magna Carta are underway across Runnymede and Egham. A stage has been erected, the plinth is waiting for the Queen, the obligatory murals and mosaics designed by school children are complete.

My exhibition is almost there as well now. The paintings were finished weeks ago but now the catalogue is printed, posters distributed and frames are finished. Up until now, I have only really written about the paintings from a general interest point of view, reflecting the fact that the audience at the festival will be primarily interested in the history and the local area rather than being out for a day of looking at art. It's time to change that and look at the project from a Fine Art perspective.


I first realised the anniversary was coming up a couple of years ago so that's when I started thinking. How could art reflect what happened 800 years ago and/or the consequences of those events? I have written here before about the difference between the verbal and the visual and was aware from day one that Magna Carta and its legacy are about words, not images. I also immediately knew traditional history painting felt inappropriate. This was such a strong assumption that I had to challenge it. Many thoughts later, I came to the conclusion that history painting has vanished from contemporary practice because it is fundamentally dishonest and its traditional myth-making function is done far better today by film and TV. So the two rules I set myself long before I knew what events would be happening and which one I would join were to avoid history painting and avoid resorting to words.

After I was in touch with the university, early discussions quickly pointed to a solution. They wanted work which celebrates the area which narrowed things down to continuing with my landscape paintings. They also told me that students were working on an app which used GPS to tell visitors more about the history of what they were looking at. This struck a chord; could I use a similar approach within the paintings? Not only would this dovetail with my host's activities but it would fulfil their brief and have the potential to be an elegant solution to the history painting problem.

History Painting

History painting is a genre that rose up as a new breed of patrons started to be as important a source of commissions as the church after the Renaissance. These patrons wanted to tell stories not from the bible but from their family history. The possession of art is often a display of power, and it was realised that a compelling picture showing the deeds in history that established a family's power base and reputation could help legitimise them and advertise their status. As a result as grand houses and palaces sprung up, grand paintings which used a biased view of events (often battles) were commissioned to fill them and mythologise their owner's origins.

As the art market evolved into the 19th century the character of patrons changed again. Rich industrialists were more interested in the present than the past and the new middle class was interested in less grandiose things so the demand for history paintings reduced. This was exacerbated by the rise of books, newspapers, photography and, later, cinema - all of which could tell the same stories in more immediate, accessible and compelling ways. There was also an increasing tendency for artists to paint what they wanted and try to sell it afterwards rather than waiting for a commission and this inevitably affected the subjects of choice.

The final death of the genre was the First World War. For the first time the public could see traditional history painting alongside work done by daring modern painters who had actually served at the front and history panting's flaws were cruelly exposed for all to see. Principle among them was that it was evidently made up. Art is great at making things up, but when it deals with real events that is a problem.

To bring this back to Magna Carta, what do we actually know about events? Roughly where it was sealed, the name of the King, the names of the Barons and Bishops and everybody's coat of arms. We also know the typical clothing of the time. What don't we know? We don't know what anybody really looked like, what they were wearing, where exactly it was sealed, what the tents looked like, how big the armies/bodyguards were, what the weather was like, was it like a celebration or a tense stand off, were the hills lined with archers or with spectators, how dense were the trees on the riverbank, etc etc... In short we know a couple of bald facts. Everything else is deduction and fantasy.

I realised a solution was to take the app's approach and use it to show where the meadows are still medieval in character. Where the app concentrates on buildings, I have picked out seemingly random chunks of the landscapes. Where the app concentrates on documented history, I have tried to read the landscape and draw attention to the lumps and bumps. Why is this a solution? It allows me to be honest and paint with integrity, gives the viewers more real information than they would gain from a normal history painting, equips them to go onto the meadows and work things out for themselves and, most importantly, delegates the making up and fantasising to them. This is important for two reasons - ensuring the audience understands the details are made up and making sure the made up things are as vivid as possible. Is this a genuine replacement for history painting? As it turns out, no. Is it a real and useful alternative? To my delight, it seems to be. It is definitely worth pursuing in the future.


Since I am looking at the landscape archeologically and encouraging viewers to do the same, it seemed natural to me that the paintings should reflect this. My work has a tendency to be made in layers as it is in my indecisive nature to work with glazes and I think the act of removing paint is as important as the act of adding it. I have exaggerated this tendency in this project;  some of the paintings contain no attempt to obscure the layers, methods and marks from which they are built and those that do contain what archeologists might refer to as sections and sondages - areas where the sequence of layers has been made clearly visible and areas where layers at the surface of the painting have been removed to reveal what is underneath. I am tempted to draw a conclusion from this; the making of a painting is the equivalent process as the process of building, ruining and burying an archeological site with thoughts and of the intentions of the artist having the same impact and leaving the same traces as the lives of the people who lived and worked on the site; and the process of looking at a painting can be equivalent to an archaeologist then excavating the site. The methods he would use to understand the timeline of the site and make inferences about the inhabitants are remarkably similar to the way a critic would analyse the form of the painting and infer meaning from it.


One thing that is ever present in my paintings is a sustained investigation into the mechanics of perception. I rarely mention this because I haven't yet finalised my conclusions but this project has been used to test my ideas. I'm still not going to explain now, but if you're wondering why the emphasis on detail, brush marks and sharpness varies so much within and between paintings and why I make groups of paintings instead of individual ones, the preliminary conclusions of this investigation are the core reason.

Magical Realism vs the English landscape tradition

A couple of years ago someone told me I see the landscape in a magical way and this is true. It does colour my work and, during the preparations I made for this project, my presence on all parts of the meadows at all times of day and night and in all weathers with a time-travelling state of mind meant I couldn't help but reflect on the link between spirituality and the land. This did slowly seep in to some of the paintings and there is a real contrast between the "is", the "was" and "may be" within them. While I was chasing this down and exploring methods by which I could show the present day and imply the past in the same picture, a curious thing began to emerge which places the last few paintings in particular firmly in the realm of Magical Realism.

Magical Realism is used to describe something very specific in painting - a movement in the Americas of painters interested in the uncanny and the unsettling and heavily influenced by Giorgio de Chirico. One thing led to another and this tendency was embraced by central American writers and they turned it into something rich, glittering and multi-facetted, a method of writing that was set in the real world but draws no distinction between fact and fantasy and feels no particular need to use time in the same way as most authors. The most celebrated example of the approach is Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude and, although it is years since I have read it, the deeper I immersed myself in the project the book bubbled unbidden into my mind.

As I experimented with multiple focal points within a painting as a device for showing two opposing things and learning how to make them co-exist I realised I was learning how to make a simple observational painting and a fantasy painting out of the same image on the same canvas - a traffic jam disappears when the second focal point kicks in in one painting, in another a bright sunlit park plays against a dark vortex of a path which sucks the eye into a dank unknown. Another, deep in the woods, abandons focal points altogether, replacing them with a focal plane which divides and defines the picture and (thanks to the power of context) implicitly divides time.

The paintings may function in a similar way to "Hundred Years" but they look nothing like the Magical Realist painting style which helped give birth to the book. Instead, they are firmly within the English tradition of landscape painting. When you get a sense of the "Hundred Years" sensibility, it becomes evident that English painting has had its own equivalent ever since Canaletto washed up on these shores bringing Venetian fantasy with him. Look at the fine detail in his work, where his humour, fantasy and savagery come out to play. Then move on a few years and examine Turner's exploration of the sublime and the picturesque, the signifiers of past and future and his tightrope walk between reality and un-reality. Deeper into the 19th century and romantics start rebuilding the Arthurian Chivalric myths, reflected by many artists and notably by the Pre-Raphaelites. Also in the 19th century public art collections were opening; suddenly Uccello's landscapes were available to everyone with his curious mixture of realism and stylisation and the lack of distinction between fact and fantasy. This appears to have fed directly into the English modernism that emerged from the Slade in the early 20th century and is typified by Paul Nash, a man as close as this country comes to American Magical Realism. Through the 20th century and into my lifetime, Sutherland and Piper keep the direction going, moving away from Nash's geometry and back towards the English Turneresque interest in light, space and decay. I will confess that is not the most obvious timeline, that many more names could be added and that the incorporation of a quattrocento Florentine into late 19th century Britain will be controversial but I think it shows a direction and a tradition. Put it together with the Magical Realist literature and it's not a bad explanation for why the paintings look the way they do and it provides an interesting direction for the future.

PS no pictures today, as the paintings aren't being launched until tomorrow ;-)

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Columbidae: Barbara T Smith, The Poetry Sets

My digging into less traditional media has begun. At the end of a day of mainly computer driven art on Sunday I found myself in the humble company of Barbara Smith. Working in the 60s and in response to the lack of access to traditional printing facilities, she began experimenting with an early Xerox photocopier. She started out repeatedly copying the things in her home and re-photocopying the photocopies after they had been manipulated in an open-ended exploration of possibilities before going on to combine the process with poetry.

It is hard to describe the pieces on display at the Cell Project Space in East London. They take their form from the photocopier and are all on lightweight copy paper. The poems are typed and it is impossible to tell whether the images or the words came first, both because they fit together with such completeness and because Smith makes clever use of the degradation that is inevitably produced by photocopying a photocopy. The light paper, absence of marks and the combination of words with fragmented and delicate images give the pieces a real weightlessness and make them among the least physical things I have ever seen.

The content of the work is even harder to verbalise. Smith repeatedly returns to motifs like horses, new born babies and young ferns and it is hard to tell whether this is where her poetry naturally dwells or if this simply reflects the things of photocopiable size she had to hand. Her preferred themes are uplifting and joyous; she frequently returns to motherhood, growth and the simple joy of being. To break down the work though would be to miss the point - it would be like like dissecting a brain to try to understand thought. Suffice to say that both in each individual piece of paper and each set of pieces, Smith manages to make something self-contained, whole and satisfying and that overall the work is so delicate and so intimate that it makes me feel very, very clumsy.


As a postscript, I'd like to mention the venue, the Cell Project Space. The Cell is a self-funding organisation providing studios in East London and the Project Space is their gallery. Located in Bethnal Green, it is tiny (I've seen bigger bedrooms) but in a good way. It is beautifully lit by huge skylights and is set so far back from the road and railway that it is surprisingly silent. This quietness suited Smith's work to a tee and is one of the reasons it was so immersive. The best thing of all about the space though is the entrance. Walk along Cambridge Heath Road until you find a hoarding with a door in it. Behind the hoarding there is an alley which has been transformed into a jungle. As you enter, there are glimpses of studios through windows. At the end of the alley, climb the stairs to the entrance and you find yourself on a little patio with views across the rooftops and then - into the gallery with its softly textured whiteness and immersive silence. It's a lovely piece of theatre and absolutely perfect for creating a state of mind ready to accept works of art which create a little world of their own.

Thursday, 28 May 2015

Runnymede Ghosts at the Great Charter Festival

Only two weeks to go so it's time for an update about my big exhibition as part of the Magna Carta 800th anniversary celebrations. Things have changed a lot since my teaser post 6 weeks ago but all the paintings are now finished and overall I'm very pleased.

The exhibition is part of Royal Holloway, University of London's Great Charter Festival. The paintings are not directly about Magna Carta; instead they are intended to celebrate Runnymede, the place Magna Carta was sealed, and thereby give a little visual context to everything else that is happening. Each painting shows a different view of Runnymede and hones in on the clues that reveal how it looked at different times in the past. In other words, the paintings can be used as a guide to where the meadows still look like they did 800 years ago and where they still feel the same underfoot. For example, this painting shows one of the floods at the beginning of 2014 when the River Thames was effectively a kilometre wide. We know for certain that recently the river has flooded to this degree every 60 years or so but the extent of the flood plain, clues given to us by the road and the way the priory was built all suggest that the river has flooded to this sort of level on a regular basis since at least the Middle Ages and probably far longer.

The paintings cover the whole of Runnymede using its modern boundaries - that is to say all of the land managed by the National Trust. As a result, they don't just show the meadows but they also embrace Ankerwycke (on the Wraysbury side of the river) and the woods on Cooper's Hill.

They are on show from 12 June to 16 June (although access on Monday 15 may be hit and miss due to other events) and will be in the Windsor Building on Royal Holloway's main campus. The main Great Charter Festival is on Sunday 14 June and features a surprising range of events and attractions - for full details see

Entry to both the festival and my exhibition is free and getting here is easy. If you're already in Egham just go uphill and the University is impossible to miss. If coming from further afield, Egham is at Junction 13 of the M25, trains run from London Waterloo, Reading and Weybridge and buses run from Heathrow, Windsor and Staines.

Monday, 25 May 2015

The Floating Flower Garden and a future for art

Painting is a wonderful and magical act and is capable of leading to compelling art but it has limitations. These are so severe that there has been an ongoing debate about its relevance to ambitious art for the whole of the last hundred years. The reason for this is surprisingly simple. Painting is inherently visual but we live in a world which is increasingly verbal; indeed modern education is all about words and maths. This perhaps helps explain why people seem to spend more time reading information panels in galleries than they do looking at paintings - they have had visual thinking educated out of them. Against this context, the relevance of painting is further challenged by the rise of other media which are better equipped to co-exist with a verbal world.

A trek around contemporary galleries and museums makes it clear that the favoured forms for ambitious art about verbal ideas today are installations, time based media and lens based media but computer based and interactive pieces are rapidly gaining ground. Periodically I take a look at these digital pieces and try very hard to like them but with few exceptions find them impenetrable, un-involving or facile. Recently I came across teamLab's latest installation, "Floating Flower Garden - Flowers and I are of the same root, the Garden and I are one", which was at the Museum of Emerging Technology in Tokyo until earlier this month and has made me stop and think again.

The premise behind the garden is simple - growing flowers are suspended in a brightly lit space and the way they hang is controlled by sensors. As people move through the space, the flowers rise and fall so that they are always within a moving dome of flowers. When people move together, the domes merge and grow and when they separate, so do the domes. This playful and instantly engaging idea picks up on many Japanese traditions - the representation of flowers and their related symbolism, vertical formats, ikebana and so forth. It is this very quality of being engaging that has caught my attention and has clarified why I respond so badly to most interactive art.

The fundamental problem from which most digital art suffers is that it is inhuman. It is cold and distant. The garden elegantly solves this problem by changing the emphasis. The technology is not denied but neither is attention drawn to it. There is a confidence here and clear signs that technology driven art is growing up and that it is at last being used as a medium, not as a subject. Much digital work is about itself; the computer, the sensor, the robot, the program or the screen. There is an argument to be made that this is just a continuation of the modernist experiment but I think this is a misunderstanding on the part of the artists. Making computer art which is physically dominated by the computer or screen is not the equivalent of Jackson Pollock making a painting about painting, it is equivalent to calling a bare canvas a painting; a potentially interesting experiment but ultimately a very dead end.

The Garden is one of a new breed that doesn't make this mistake; it explores the uses of technology instead of the technology itself and it does so by stepping back from the bleeding edge and simplifying. The other and rather inescapable thing that the Garden does is to re-introduce nature, humanity and a tactile, sensuous quality. It does definitely point a way forwards, suggesting ways data can be visualised that is human and ways that interactivity can be at the very least charming and maybe even insightful. Additionally, and to go back to the beginning of this post, it does highlight the way that new media, when spliced together with things from the real world, have the potential to explore ideas without all the baggage that goes with traditional art forms and without the need for the rhetoric that has plagued contemporary art for the last 50 years.

It's definitely enough for me to start seeking out more new media work; from what I've seen on the internet I'm not convinced there is a new media masterpiece out there yet, but at least now I'm hopeful there will be sooner or later.