Tuesday, 31 December 2013

"Oh I was very Lucky, London 1944" - Priscilla Thornycroft

When in London last I went down to the Imperial War Museum because, as regulars here will know, war art speaks to me and their collection is the best as they did most of the commissioning. Not much is on display at the moment due to refurbishment but they do have a selection from their collection in an exhibition entitled "The Architecture of War"

A high proportion of the work was made by artists I had previously overlooked or never stumbled across (DIY art history education is good but sometimes it misses out important things). I don't really want to talk about the exhibition today - I'd rather highlight this painting.

Thornycroft spent chunks of the war wandering round London sketching. Not being having a permit, she could easily have ended up in hot water just for that as, not unreasonably, people drawing or photographing damage or even slightly military things were regarded with a lot of suspicion. This picture was a result of these wanderings. It was made in 1977 from memory. Thornycroft wrote to the Imperial War Museum in June this year to tell them a little more about the painting.

"The woman sitting on a chair in the rubble was near the southern end of the footbridge from Charing Cross Underground station... I had just run across the river and saw her sitting in the road drinking tea... all she said was: “Oh I was very lucky.” An old lady from over the road, with a teapot, explained: “She was in the basement when the bomb fell”..."

I really respond to the feel of this picture. There is a perkiness about the smiling lady despite the darkness of her eyes, her head wound, her grey pallor and the fact her hair is still in shock. There is a joy and a thankfulness about her and she strikes me as a counterpoint to the line from Full Metal Jacket: "The dead know only one thing. It is better to be alive." Never has a cup of tea tasted sweeter, or a wooden chair felt more comfortable.

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Thursday, 26 December 2013

I've seen this weather somewhere before

I remember last year the Thames was rising violently at Christmas, and come Boxing Day it was sweeping boats away left, right and centre. Its not as extreme this year, but its high and its fast because we've just emerged from a week of outrageous rain. There is one big difference this year though: today I bought a pair of wellies, so I can jomp across the meadows no matter what - and that is a very good thing indeed because the willows take on the most glorious all winter and now I can get up close. Its a very different place in winter, it hardly looks like Southern England at all.

Monday, 23 December 2013

Too many and too few possibilities

Another trip to London, another batch of options. So very many choices, so very much confusion.

I made the mistake of trying Tate Modern again. I find it impossible to engage with the work there. I still can't work out whether it's the building, the curating and hanging or the work. The hanging certainly doesn't help - there is an either an ego competing with the artworks there or maybe the curators simply don't believe that the art is interesting or actually communicates anything so they feel a need to spoon feed the audience with connections between pieces, juxtapose things and place things at strange heights. The rooms are discordant and lacking in rhythm. It must be deliberate but it distracts from the art instead of enhancing it. I'll try again when they finish the extension - the crowds will be spread out a bit more and maybe the quality of light will be different but I'm not optimistic - in recent years there have been signs of curator's egos at Tate Britain too.

Of course, it could be their current emphasis on the surreal as I only really buy into two or three surrealists, or it could even be that I have lost almost all interest in most post pop art art history;-) There has been a strange stagnation towards the end of last century and the beginnings of this, in and around post-modernism. A pursuit of superficial sensation, a tendency towards decontextualisation and cultural imperialism, change for change's sake, celebrity, art as a commodity and brand, a lack of purpose and never-ending cynicism may mean that much blockbuster art, high art and museum art is truly of our time but it will not get me excited. There is a precedent for me taking this broad a swipe - in between the settling down at the end of the Renaissance and Turner's late works, there are only a handful of artists I would get out of bed for. I think I respond most to art which was made in a time of purposeful change - not the technical and compositional stagnation of the Academy and Salon eras, not the sensation chasing search for novelty of today. I will keep checking out contemporary art, and from time to time I will stumble across gems like Kara Walker, or the film I saw the other day - Waste Land - but mostly I'll either be turned away by its superficialness (search Washington Green) its lack of ambition (search Royal Academy Summer Show) or its cynicism. As a result, I'll keep wondering where the hell I fit in to it all!

By contrast, other cultures seem far richer than ours at the moment. Here is a spectacular piece of pottery from the British Museum.

"Large Feather Leaves Bowl" was made in 2013 by Hisono Hitomi in London. She is a Japanese potter, born in one of the traditional pot-making towns. It draws on a truly ancient tradition known as flame pots, and is made from a hand thrown pot which has then 1000 leaves/feathers attached. It is a truly breath taking piece which took six months to make.

The reason I've put it in this post is that perhaps it signposts a way forwards for me. I happen to have been looking at Japanese and Chinese literature as a potential source of work but more to the point I am currently in a fog - I have seen art which has literally changed a little bit of the world (seriously, watch Waste Land), I have seen difficult and engaging art, I have seen art very local to me so backwards and lacking in ambition it hurts, I have seen current high art, so impenetrable and cynical. It has left me in a strange place where I can do nothing because I want to do everything and where I genuinely don't see how I fit into the contemporary art scene and unsure that I want to. Maybe looking out of the tradition of Western art is my best hope. I am part of it so I can't step out of it completely, but I can call on notions and values from the rest of the world and I can retrace my steps back to before the point at which I think we went astray.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013


It occurs to me this blog has become a little monochrome lately, misty photos, graphite drawings, paintings of midnight, too much text and some subdued oils. So I prescribe a little Broadway Boogie Woogie!

'Nuff said!

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Jack Simcock: Landscape

Following on from last week's weather I've been scouring the internet to see how painters have dealt with mist and I found this enigmatic affair. Simply titled "Landscape", the painting is on a panel just 13cm by 16cm. There's a real ambiguity about it, with it being impossible to say if the bands of colour are hills or walls or cloud banks. The painting is a simple progression of closely related colours over a far wider tonal range than you first realise and is less monochromatic than it first appears too. It takes supreme confidence in your own ability and judgement to release a painting this simple and with so little definition. When you see the second tranche of nocturnes I'm finishing off at the moment, you'll understand why I have a reaction to this painting.

Simcock only died last year and this is far from typical of his output. He is best known for brooding pictures of bleak cottages on bleak hillsides around Staffordshire and the village of Mow Cop, where he lived. This later piece is perhaps typical, with the cottages shown from below so they appear very exposed and with the colours pretending to be monochrome when in truth they are anything but.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

The Celebrated American, Kara Walker, Negress.

A couple of weeks back I saw what I consider to be the finest free exhibition I have seen this year. I didn't write straight away though as it needed careful consideration. As a white English man I have to approach the exhibition with a delicacy that Kara Walker, a black American woman, has chosen to avoid. There are strong clues as to why this is in the full title of the exhibition: "We at Camden Arts Centre are Exceedingly Proud to Present an Exhibition of Capable Artworks by the Notable Hand of the Celebrated American, Kara Elizabeth Walker, Negress." If ever there were a loaded and evocative title it were this and it sets the tone for the whole show.

Walker appears to start from the premise that modern race relations, especially in America, have their origins in slavery and this history affects both how white people see black people and how black people see themselves. As such, she sees the importance of reclaiming slavery from the history books, removing the veneer of politeness that Hollywood, the passage of time and the reduction of slavery to a set of facts and figures has brought and making it alive, real and visceral again. To this end, the exhibition goes to some serious extremes. The Arts Centre describe it as explicit, I prefer to call it unflinching and from here on in this post will touch on some difficult things.

The first room sets the tone. Three walls are covered in cartoonish silhouettes, clearly recognisable as negroes (and I use the word with due consideration here) or whites, using over the top facial features and outfits to instantly distinguish the two races. By and large the figures on the left are slaves and the figures on the right are slavers and soldiers - although there are a few interlopers on each side. There is a great deal of interaction between the figures, especially at the border between the two races. Much of it is violent and the closer you look the less cartoonish it becomes. A soldier's gun explodes as he tries to shoot a black girl. A white Southern lady examines the decapitated head of a slave. A black man tries to tear the penis from a white soldier. Various body parts fly across the wall. Hands are forced inside of or emerge from other people. I had the distinct impression that a lot of the vignettes were based on specific stories but I neither knew them nor needed to. With or without knowledge, the vitality and complexity made the installation incredibly engaging. I couldn't help but think of Punch and Judy, the traditional English puppet show for children, which treads some of the same ground but without the racial element and to very different effect. In Punch and Judy, domestic battery is played for laughs but here that same stylisation and humour is used with a more serious intent.

On the fourth wall is one of the most powerful new drawings I have seen for many, many years. "Sketch for an American Comic Opera with 20th century Race Riots" is a huge, vigorous piece which at first glance is dominated by an old fashioned fat, white man in full evening dress and a vast pall of smoke. On examination though, the painting is a history of the USA through race relations and it may prove to be a foretelling as well. The bottom of the drawing is a writhing mass of black people, with reaching limbs and distorted faces. Some shelter from the smoke, but most are caught up in or protecting themselves from a cartoonish flow emanating from or sucking them into the white man's belly. This white man, casually chatting to a friend, has a negress at his feet and he is holding something in her mouth. She pathetically reaches towards him. Is he turning her into a walking stick? suckling  her? force feeding her? stabbing her? On such ambiguities the drawing hangs. Beside the white man, a woman with (in Walker's visual language) a black facial structure but pale skin sweeps up the writhing mass of blacks. Again, this begs questions - has she on some level become white? (a theme which is perhaps touched on elsewhere in the show) is she a ghost? or is she simply that way for reasons of design? The left of the drawing shows destruction in the aftermath of a unspecified race riot. There are striped, cartoon movement lines here, and much broken glass which is very star-like in places here. The flames and smoke come from this section and it is hard not to see it as a torn and burning Stars and Stripes. The smokes keeps drawing the eye back to the white man's belly and the writhing mass of black people caught up in its influence. I can't help but read the drawing as a proclamation that the history of Black America's woes is the story of White America's greed. Whether its a view one agrees with or not, there is no escaping the force with it is put across.

The other two rooms contain more drawings and an astonishing video of a shadow puppet play which - to warn any visitors - contains explicit recreations of sex, rape and murder. They draw on the historically difficult relationship between race, gender and power in brutal and unflinching ways - but I've already written too much for one day. Suffice to say, if you can get to Camden and if you can stomach the fact that the subject matter is treated without any of the layers of politeness that history uses to make it palatable, go and go with an open mind. I don't claim to know if she is right or not but if, as Walker appears to be saying, this is how America became one of the things that it is then it is important politically. Without a doubt, it is that rarest of things - an exhibition which is personal, beautiful, thought provoking, difficult, uncompromising and totally engaging so for me, that makes it hugely important artistically.

It runs until January 5 at the Camden Arts Centre.

Thursday, 12 December 2013


It would appear to be winter already. Autumn was late and only really lasted a month or so. In fact it was so late I had to abandon my big autumn project which really depended on good timing. Anyway, as there was heavy mist, maybe even fog, yesterday I took my camera out for one last hurrah before it goes into retirement in the country with a friend - and I'm glad I did, although I'd have preferred it if it had been my first trip with the new one because I saw something truly remarkable.

At the moment, waiting under the mistletoe is very lonely, very cold and very damp ;)

On the opposite bank of the river at Ankerwycke some tree surgeons were doing a little maintenance after the recent storms. With the mist making everything simple it was a truly beautiful thing to watch. In fact, I might even use the word "cool" and that is something I do not do.

After felling one of the limbs, the surgeon was balancing on a branch to tidy up. It shows better if you click on the picture to enlarge it, but for a split second, with the safety rope from higher up the tree taught and his head bowed, it was as though a lynch mob had got him. This is near the top of my mind at the moment as I saw the stunning Kara Walker show at the Camden Arts Centre recently.

Anyway, thank you camera, its been fun. Enjoy your new home.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

New Work: Cooper's Hill Coppice

Bet you thought I'd abandoned the project! It has been a long time coming, but here we have the next two instalments from the series, July and August. The reason for the delay is that I have been pushing the medium until it screams and begs for mercy which has led to a fair bit of failure. These two don't push the envelope in terms of carving but they do in terms of printing and the way I'm using paper.

The first one, July, involves four processes which range from princess-and-the-pea delicacy to barely controlled violence. The key to the process is changing the texture of the paper part of the way through printing. Finding a paper that did everything I wanted took 6 weeks and is the main reason for the delay.

The second one goes to the other extreme. When I was picking out the paper and I asked whether I'd get away with it for block printing, the look on the man from Atlantis' face was a picture. Why? I hear you ask. Well, the thickness of paper is measured in terms of weight. For context, watercolour paper typically ranges from 160-600 grams per square metre. Typical drawing paper will range from 100-200 gsm. Photocopy paper might be 80 gsm. Tissue paper is often around 20 gsm. The paper I have used is 9 gsm. It's a Japanese hemp based tissue and if you breathe heavily it floats away. The reason I wanted it was its transparency and smoothness. In this edition I have printed the green canopy, mucking about with the inks to give a hint of texture. I have then mounted it so it floats above a dark brown backing to give the rest of the colour. Perhaps it is a little too eerie for August, but it has so much atmosphere I didn't want to change it.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Open Arts Café

As you know, last week I went up to London to an arts evening I've been meaning to get to for a while. The Open Arts Café is hosted by the West London Synagogue near Marble Arch (although it is in no way a religious event and is open to anyone, not just Jews). The basic idea is that while there are many opportunities for musicians to meet musicians, visual artists to meet visual artists, writers to meet writers and so on, there are very few places in London where creators and performers of every kind can come together and feed off of each other. The other unusual aspect is that a lot of the work shown is still in various stages of development and feedback is encouraged. It's held on the last Thursday of most months and it turns out that it's well worth a visit - in fact its a thoroughly decent and thought-provoking night out for very little money. It's based around a very loose theme each time - last week it was "Secrets, Enigmas and Puzzles" - even if some of the acts had to shoehorn the theme in a little ;-)

The running order was varied. First up was Kirsten Irving, a poetess/publisher with a mesmerising voice, reading from an anthology of poems about computer games she'd published. Her response to Lemmings has actually stuck with me; its a long time since a poem wormed its way inside me. Then came John Conneely, an Irish singer songwriter with an unusual voice and as much of an interest in talking as singing - who'd have thought that of an Irishman... Next was the beginnings of a play, In the Surface of a Bubble. We only saw excerpts and it is only a week or two into its development but it is going somewhere interesting; it takes the use of masks to a level I personally haven't seen before, with each performer wearing several at once on different parts of their bodies to turn a troupe of 6 into a cast of dozens. Although it was still very rough round the edges, the performers believed so the audience believed. It was a proper lesson in the benefits of just going for it, if you're doing something don't hold back, be intense and you will carry people along with you.

At the interval, there were a couple of visual artists to look at; one of them, Lola de la Mata, is usually a dancer and designer. As a result she is interested in repetition and variation and her work is precise and clinical. She took a couple of puzzles - a Rubik's Cube and a cut up piece of perspex - and produced diagrams of different states they could exist in, using dance notation as a code to record them. The diagrams, to a non-dancer like myself, took on other characteristics with the perspex puzzle notation in particular strongly recalling Viking runes, another way of encoding information. The other artist was Samar F Zia, and the work she brought along was exploring a simple observation - that a pomegranate can stand in for elements of the human body, from the colour, texture and layered structure of the skin to the blood red cellular structure inside. She was combining this with an exploration of muslin as material through sculpture and painting - this allows her to develop a medical theme which emphasises the body-ness of the fruit. From a bald description like that there is no link to the theme but, when you see the work, on the one hand she treats the inside of the fruit as a secret she is revealing and on the other the finished work is enigmatic and its origins are not immediately obvious. It is building into an interesting body of work and I'll be curious to see how it develops.

After the interval we had Pete Yelding, building up a tune from a sample of Evening Standard sellers' calls using loops of a cello and a guitar - perhaps the most interesting act of the evening but not entirely making sense. It was beautiful, the development and origins of it were clear and recognisable but I didn't understand why the guitar melody he played over the top had a Caribbean lilt. Chase him round the internet though, he's well worth a listen. Then came Sanjay the Psychic, a slightly disarming act. Either it went wrong early on, or he lulls you into thinking he can't do it before being genuinely impressive at the end. In some respects he takes the Tommy Cooper approach where the showmanship is more important than the tricks, in others he takes the Penn & Teller approach where he makes no attempt to hide how he's doing things. Finally we had a little improvised jazz, and without meaning any disrespect to the players, that's all that needs to be said from my point of view. They could all play well enough, but I personally can't tell the difference between improvised jazz and self-indulgent showing off. Don't get me wrong, it was competent enough but really not for me and from the set-up I'm not convinced it truly was improvised.

In between, founder, organiser and MC Maya sang a little - think a female Tom Lehrer without the science!

All in all, it was a really, really good night with good people in attendance even if the audience was politer and less rowdy than I'd expected. Some acts were far more polished than others but it really has got me thinking about my own approach and whether going multi-disciplinary and collaborative would be a good thing or not. Conversations I had with people have let me work out what it is that's been missing from my work over the last year, and collaborations do seem like fun.

The next one is in January and is thoroughly recommended; if it can change my way of thinking it might be able to change yours!


Sunday, 1 December 2013

Pay Night, Rosyth, in Winter - Charles Pears

I'm still spending  far too much time rummaging around the "Your Paintings" website and as a result I'm stumbling across many artists who have previously passed me by. Today, I want to introduce you to Charles Pears. He was active during the first 50 years of the 20th century and was an illustrator, a marine artist and an official war artist.

The illustration aspect is important; a cleanliness and a graphic quality shines through all his work. He produced a lot of artwork for posters and its easy to see this way of working carrying into his more personal work.

I've picked out this painting because it is startling. It shows a crowd that is both made of individuals and a monolithic entity in its own right. The crowd has a gravity, a slow but inevitable and unstoppable movement as it heads towards the building. The building itself is perhaps more typical of Pears' work, with its simple yet detailed draftsmanship. The mobility of the crowd gives the building a permanence and the relationship between crowd and building is similar to that between sea and ship in his other work. The sky, roof and foreground are constructed from characteristically flat, clean colours.

It was made in 1918 and is about 130cm x 58cm and is in the collection of the Imperial War Museum.