Thursday, 31 January 2013

A tentative definition: trying to pin down art

Just lately, when people have asked what I do, I've been using the phrase "I'm an artist" quite a lot. Inevitably, there is a range of reactions.

       Reaction #1: Excitement                       Reaction #2: Whatever            Reaction #3: The Intense & Helpful Idea

"The Helpful Idea" has been by far the most telling. I have spent half my life, a bit here, a bit there, steeped in art. Most people haven't and as a result their conception of art is fundamentally different to mine. It reveals itself in their ideas about what I could do. The ideas tend to be intense and range from the useful to the insulting to the laugh out loud bizarre but they have one thing in common - Art Is Pictures.

I do not think Art Is Pictures. I certainly do not think Pictures Is Art.

Last night, on my Business Studies course, I was asked to do an elevator pitch. The idea of this is to explain your business to a stranger before they've had a chance to escape out of the lift you are both in. Its purpose in the real world is to help find customers and in the classroom is to help you clarify your own understanding of your business. This was the first time I had spoken to the group as a whole about what I get up to and some words came tumbling out as I tried to explain.

"You can have a relationship with a painting. Look at that photo on the wall, you can get everything you ever will get out of it in a couple of glances, but if you hang a decent painting on your wall then even if you look at it every day for a year you'll still be getting new things from it and you'll still be engaging with it." By things I mean pleasure, emotions, thoughts, the spotting of links, insights and so on. From the reaction I got it was plain that some people there had never thought about art as anything more than a pretty picture and certainly never considered owning any. Those few words generated a frightening amount of curiosity. Next week, ready or not, I have to bite the bullet and take my work public as a result.

So for now, my working definition of art is this:

"Art is a [insert art form here] with which both the creator and the viewer can have an ongoing relationship"

and frankly, even if I say so myself, that is the best and most succinct definition I have ever come across!

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Unexpected Influences

A couple of posts ago I spent some time looking at Peter Bruegel the Elder. When I say looking I mean just looking, no thought, no analysis and precious few words. In that post I mentioned I would be making sketches of our lovely new snow. This I did. Whilst gathering material on the Friday afternoon, I was struck by the different attitudes there exist towards snow. I was out and about, freezing cold and having a lovely time. Meanwhile, there was a queue of cars going nowhere along the Egham bypass, full of warm but unhappy drivers.

I came back and sketched my sketches with no thought of Bruegel. After all, our work could not be further apart stylistically.

It was only while watching the programme mentioned in my last post that I saw the link. I don't mean the fact that if rotated through 180º the shapes become similar, but that it addresses the same theme from a different point of view.

The program featured Grayson Perry speaking about Hunters in the Snow. For him, the painting is about the drudgery and hardness that is snow in the absence of shelter and security as epitomised by the weary hunters in the foreground, contrasted with the background showing the wonderful, magical playground that is snow when you have the option of heading into the warm at will.

In my picture the same contrast has been rotated through 180º.

The trees that line the bypass are painted as slushy, used up snow that half swallows up the almost ghost-like vehicles with their invisible drivers safe and warm but trapped and fed up. Meanwhile, the viewer is unencumbered by metal and dual carriageways, with an expanse of pristine snow beckoning them into the cold - in other words if I were in Bruegel's painting I would be an ice-skater looking up at the hunters returning through the trees.

This link was entirely subconscious, but now I have noticed it it is inescapable. It just goes to show paintings are a fabulous tool for exploring and digesting, and if made with this in mind they can go on surprising their maker long after the paint has dried.

This treatment of this composition has legs, and I will work it up into a proper painting in due course.

How on earth did I ignore Caspar David Friedrich all my life?

Sometimes, especially as youngsters, we can be guilty of dismissing ideas, people and aesthetics out of hand.

When I was on my Foundation course a young lady said she was influenced by Friedrich. Her work was not to my taste. It was too teenage-girl-gothic for me. At that age the bittersweet dark romance of it passed me by and I thought there was too much cliché and not enough rigour.

On my degree course there was another young lady influenced by Friedrich. There was no gothic element to her work; the influence was more in finding romance in the landscape but again it did nothing for me. So I had a distorted hall-of-mirrors view of him, never really even looking at his work properly, perhaps glancing at a picture if it happened to be in a book I was reading.

This week, having just turned 38, I have finally discovered Caspar David Friedrich.

There was a beguiling documentary called "Tales of Winter: the art of snow and ice" on BBC 4 looking at how winter has been portrayed in Western art. In it, poets, artists, historians and even distant relatives spoke about particular paintings - Bruegel's Hunters, John Nash's soldiers, Nevinson's football match and many others. One thing to praise is the extraordinary quality of this programme's photography of the art works - looking at reproductions for this blog this aspect was truly exceptional.

It featured this painting by Friedrich, "The Abbey in the Oak Wood", and it has grabbed me and refused to let go. Formally, influenced as I am by photography, I adore its tonal structure. Emotionally, it captures that strange mix of hope and trudging bleakness that defines Runnymede at the tail end of winter - an acknowledgement that yes, everything is harsh and a slog, but dawn is earlier every day and buds are forming on the trees. There's a searching quality about it which reaches right inside me.

That's all I'll say for now, but I will find out what of his is in London, have a field trip and report back.

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Between running round like a loon enjoying the new snow and recalling the hardships of winter for the furry things that have neither central heating nor supermarkets yesterday, I thought I would bow to the inevitable. Just as the Fairy tale of New York is everywhere at Christmas, now is the season of Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

Frozen water, fresh snow and a "can't work so we might as well play" attitude is just about right for Egham right now. I saw an estate agent in a suit standing in the falling snow showing off his brand new sledge to some excited colleagues - kudos! Who cares how hard things are, wrap up warm and arse about! I proclaim this as someone who has but one miniature wood burning stove for heat. I know very little about Bruegel but this young lady who is apparently somewhere with proper winters has picked one intriguing highlight - the bird trap.

Anyway, whilst I was out yesterday I gathered some material, so the plan for the weekend is to do a couple of decent oil sketches to see if there is potential there or not. Egham bypass in the snow, smudgy and wet-on-wet, with dirty greys, earths and yellows. Who was it who described car lights in a traffic jam as rubies and diamonds? There'll be a bit of that going on too.

Friday, 18 January 2013

Still snowing...

Getting proper now...

It's snowing

It's snowing!

This is exciting for me for two reasons - Heathrow might shut and when that happens the mead and the riverbank seem so peaceful. Better yet, if it keeps getting colder and the edges of the river start to freeze, I can expect to see something a little controversial from my window.

There is a mink in the district. I've known this for a couple of years but last week I found out it is a lot closer than I realised. I found this because it decided to saunter past me, less than four feet away, sleek and fat and looking like an otter that has been drinking milk. It would have been rude not to follow it as far as I could, so I know roughly where it nests but not exactly. Most likely its in the magic garden or the big patch of brambles.

When the river gets too fast or the pike are too aggressive, the fish swim into a little pond I can see clearly from my window. All summer there is a heron perched there, cormorants and grebes swim underwater and the kingfishers fly down from their burrows half a mile upstream. When everything freezes though, the mink comes in. You can see the trails it leaves as it breaks through the ice. One time I saw it after hunting, leaping out of the water then crashing down through the ice again, all the while holding a fat fish in its jaws.

Not being a native species and being so ruthless the mink is considered unwelcome but when you actually see one up close or at work it is beautiful and exhilarating. I think its good to remember sometimes that the natural world is about brutal efficiency, not beauty.

Monday, 14 January 2013

2'b'2' or not?

Over the weekend I was photographing some paintings and I wondered why I am particularly drawn to one size of canvas, the 2' x 2' square. When I last painted seriously, 15 years ago, my strongest work was this size so when I picked up my brushes again last year it was a natural place to start. On reflection there is more to this than reassuring familiarity.

One of the things I like to keep in mind is the need to make work that is easy to hang - the easier it is to display your work, the greater your chances of persuading a gallery to show it. To this end, I tend to work in batches of the same size canvas, or at the very least the same height. Or if not the same height, then at least they should fit together easily - perhaps an oblong and three squares which form one larger square. I spent time reading le Corbusier when I was young and these combinations shaped the work I did to get into art school. There a tutor told me to go to the Hayward where Julian Opie was showing at the time. I stepped back from the brink though and the rectangles never got out of hand in the end. Equally, they never entirely left me either.

So from this standpoint one standard size makes sense, but why that one?

One of the things le Corbusier and others did was use standard dimensions and proportions, the famous "Modulor", enabling the idea of the almost mass-produced building. The consequence today of this process is that we live in a built environment defined by the 8' x 4' sheet of plasterboard. Rooms are 8 feet tall, vans 8 feet long and everything, furniture included, relates to this modern magic number. At half the width and a quarter of the height, a 2' x 2' painting will naturally use the plasterboard sheet as an impromptu frame when hung singly. When a series is hung on one wall, it will pick up the rhythm of the wall. It forms relationships with the room of which le Corbuiser would be proud because the building itself and everything else built into it also respects the plasterboard sheet.

More than this, its scale is human. In relation to us, it is large enough to be impressive but small enough to be intimate.

It is not the only size I paint, but it is my favourite. After all these years, for the first time I understand why.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

The Hunt in the Forest

There is nothing that needs to be said about this painting, other than it is my second-most favourite painting in the world, ever. One of the reasons I took a job and a flat in Oxford 10 years ago was so that I could see this at the Ashmolean whenever I wanted. Just one point though: click on the painting to see the enlargement and pay attention to the structure of the composition; now scroll down the page to the Menin Road and its plain to see from the rhythms and geometry that there's a good chance Paul Nash, with all his links to Oxfordshire, saw this painting, liked this painting and was heavily influenced by it.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Lately I've been thinking about mud. The Thames has dropped again and I can walk into town with dry feet but the mead is still a proper quagmire. The main reason I've been thinking about mud though is a painting I'm working on. A path runs along the bottom of the wood above Runnymede, and this is my setting, sterile and wintry with the mead, a simple sunlit field, glimpsed through the trees. The whole foreground is awash with mud and fallen leaves, and the sheer quantity of mud around here can't help but remind me of perhaps the ultimate mud painting, Paul Nash's Menin Road.

For those that don't know him, Paul Nash was an English landscape artist obsessed with finding both the sense of a place and playing with the geometry within it. He mostly worked across Southern England and had strong associations with particular places in Sussex, Kent, Oxfordshire and Dorset. He found his clearest voice though as a war artist. During the First World War he was briefly working in the endless mud of Flanders. Here, his precise, middle-class and romantic aesthetic was suddenly smeared with infinite filth, ducked in the putrid water of shell holes, brutalised by industrial death and finally invalided home with a broken bone.

Back in this country he embarked on his paintings, culminating in this epic. It can be seen in the Imperial War Museum in London (although this is currently closed) and is over 3 metres across. 

The Menin Road

It takes its power from the collision between Nash's obsession with order and geometry and the location's inescapable chaos. By working on an outrageous scale and then imposing rhythm onto the destruction Nash gives a sense of the dynamism and the vastness of the conflict whilst also helping to define the relentlessness of the narrative that is being played out. Without the rhythm and rhyme among the pockmarks, shell holes and trees the struggling figures would have been completely lost in the setting. As it is, they just about hold their own and the characters and landscape have near equal status. This was the beginning of a strand in Nash's work which developed between the wars and reached a high point in his Second World War work (Totes Meer, Battle of Britain) and showed the landscape as the dominant character in a narrative rather than as a setting for it.

Let us come back to Runnymede and the woods. At the moment, to walk the wet parts is to slither, to trip and to bicker with them. They are an assault on the body and the senses, when at more benign times of year they are a shelter, a larder and a playground. Right now, a simple walk is an adventure. They embody what Nash almost overcame, that a painting is a very limited way of expressing an experience. Although a painting can suggest the fatigue, the mud, the slog and the cold, ultimately it only uses one sense. The Menin Road comes closer than most to transcending this, not by evoking the utterly overwhelming mud but by making it the lead character in a narrative. Nash shows us that a landscape painting is infinitely richer when treated not as a view but a story. Only then can it trick the viewer into filling in the missng senses, only then can a painting make you feel the exhaustion in your legs and the utter weariness of mud.

Hmm. AlanArt. What's all that about then?

My name is Alan, and I'm a painter. This blog is going to be a hotch-potch of home-spun art criticism, shameless self-promotion and, for want of a better phrase, tales of the river bank. Painting never exists in isolation, and mine is founded on my relationship with other art and the landscape in which I find myself, so the three themes will intermingle and blur. I thought I'd start simply by showing where I live: Runnymede, a world famous water-meadow on the Thames with an ancient woodland rising above it, home to one of the most important pieces of paper of the last thousand years, the Magna Carta. A couple of weeks before Christmas, before the rain, there was one of the finest hoar frosts I've ever seen. It is in this photo.

My relationship with this place deepens year on year. The ebb and flow of seasons is pronounced here. It is as harsh and haunting as anywhere in the south-east during winter, but a paradise come summer.