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 www.alanperriman.co.uk/magnacarta

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.

Beginnings

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.

Archeology

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.

Perception

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.

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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 royalholloway.ac.uk/magnacarta

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.

Monday, 18 May 2015

Braque the Fauve

It's always fascinating to see how artists try things out and re-invent themselves before they have their epiphany, and as a painter it lets me know there is still hope ;-)

Sometimes a painter goes through all sorts of metamorphoses before this moment. Last year's Malevich exhibition at the Tate is a case in point with the artist trying many things from Russian peasant art up before bam! the black square changed everything. Things were a lot more straightforwards for Braque. Two years into his career, he saw two Cezanne retrospectives, met Picasso and the rest is history. For those first two years though tried out being a Fauve.

Seen collectively they seem very tame and ordinary now, but at the time it was a new approach to art so it would have been a great adventure for a young artist. The Fauves really aren't my thing; anyone who has dropped in and of this blog much will know that I don't think that is how colour works. This one I found at the Courthauld last week really caught my eye though.

Port of L'Estaque, 1906
What makes this stand out for me is that Braque manages to unite the Fauve ideal of the brightly coloured surface arranged for decorative and emotional effect with more traditional and Impressionist values of a depiction of light and space all within a simple picture. This ability to pull together disparate things is perhaps key to the way he later developed cubism - the multi-facetted approach of the early days, the convincing integration of shallow spaces and textures without breaking the surface and later on the integration of ever more overt elements of collage. It is also obvious from this painting he understood - unlike some of his contemporaries - that it is impossible to make the most brightly coloured picture unless you incorporate less intense colours and even areas without colour. There are clear signs that he was going to develop into a top class painter.

Monday, 11 May 2015

Goya's Witches & Old Women at the Courtauld Gallery

The Courtauld has the most exquisite exhibition of Goya's sketches at the moment. Just two rooms, but full of the most powerful and delicate little drawings you could hope to see.

I don't want to talk about the content of the drawings here - on the one hand the Guardian talks us through the drawings with intelligence and insight here and the on the other hand I don't see the darkness that everyone else does - I see the humour and I see the solace that can be found in the drawings but not the horror.

I don't even want to talk about the Goya's astonishing and economical draughtsmanship; again others do it better elsewhere. Instead the aspect that really did catch my eye was Goya's use of white space. This is a common trick among artists nowadays but I don't think I have ever seen it done better and I can't think of too many earlier examples.


In this first drawing, two figures tumble through a space without any definition at all. The far happier shades of another two figures, or perhaps the same ones, are behind them. The couple are falling due to their fight as the title makes clear and they do so with incredible dynamism. The second couple are intriguing but I'm inclined to see them as indicating from where the main characters have fallen - both physically and in terms of mood. From the Renaissance onwards creating weight and solidity within a figure and locating it precisely in space was a great priority, even in preparatory work. The Courtauld has drawings on display in other galleries at the moment which demonstrate just this so for Goya to muck round with weight and dislocated spaces was quite radical, even if the drawings were private. The near complete absence of cues for the brain to use to establish where the ground is or where anything is is used with incredible skill, creating hints of space, narrative and movement out of quite literally nothing.


In this second drawing he uses the white space quite differently. Here, simple marks indicates the ground. The figure, bent double under the weight of his years, is right at the bottom of the page and this really gives him a sense of smallness and a beaten down but resilient quality. There is a strange mix of acceptance and determination in his face, and his location relative to the empty space is all Goya needed to give that expression meaning and context.

The exhibition is only on until 25 May but is well worth a trip.

Monday, 4 May 2015

Brancusi: A vignette

You know how sometimes you start digging and things get a little out of hand?

A couple of weeks ago I stumbled across some interesting geometric abstract pieces by Al Held. Knowing nothing about him or the work but understanding the difficulty in comprehending giant paintings when you've only seen reproductions I started reading. The more I read, the more complex he became - although his work seemed simpler and simpler and perhaps less interesting. Anyway, the point is I found a gem of a resource - the Archives for American Art at the Smithsonian have a cache of in depth interviews with artists. In his one, Held describes a trip he took to visit an elderly Brancusi when he was living in Paris.

"There wasn't really too much of a conversation, it was a very primitive conversation. But it was a piece of theatre, it was marvelous theatre. I sort of called him up and said that I was a young artist, a student and I admired his work and that I'd like to have the opportunity to visit his studio if it were possible. All I got back was: Tuesday at three o'clock. Well, I presented myself at his door on Tuesday at three o'clock or whatever. I'm making up Tuesday at three o'clock but it was something like that. I rang the bell. There was a crack in the door. I said, "I have an appointment with Mr. Brancusi." 

Sculpture for the Blind (Beginning of the World) - Brancusi, 1916
"The door swung open; there was no answer but the door swung open. By the time the door had swung open all I saw of him was his back. He was already sort of like he was going into his studio and expected me to follow. Which I did. The studio was like a maze. Remember this was about 1952 or 1953 so he was quite old at the time; and ill. The studio was very much like the facsimile in Paris, there were three ateliers there, three French ateliers. It was so full of stuff it became like a maze. There was no real open space. He took me around this path and without ever turning around he would sort of reach out and take a chamois off and say "Fish" and then he'd sort of shuffle down the row and his other hand would reach out and take another chamois off, say, "Bird", and he would go through this maze. I would be following this shuffling figure, all I saw was his back and kind of white slippers, and this one word thing and... he slowly shuffled around the whole studio and never once turned around. Then he sort of led us to a kind of opening and the opening was something like where we're sitting now -- I don't know exactly -- but I think it was some of his stools, you know, and a kind of carved table, a little sitting area. That's the first time I saw him as he turned around and gestured for me to sit down and he sat down.

Man Ray's portrait of Brancusi
"All I saw was this maze of white: white beard, white smock, white trousers, white shoes, white hat. He had one of these little -- what do they call those? They're not yarmulkes, they're not sitting on the back of the head, they're sort of like modified baker's caps -- well, anyway, that was white; and it was white beard, white hair and only those two black eyes. And that was it. It was a maze of -- the whole thing was white. I'm sure he was totally conscious of the theatricalness of the whole thing."

The interview goes on to detail Brancusi doing what artists do, bitching. In this case it was about how the people who had commissioned a sculpture from him were compromising it too much.

I find it pleasing, from the theatricality (one of the reasons that the most famous artists are famous is because they're great showmen) to the dismissal of his own work with a single word. That dismissal is fascinating - it could be a loss of interest in work as soon as it is finished, it could be a belief the work was so simple it could be summed up with a single word, it could be acknowledgment of the limitations of language and his knowledge of French.

The full interview, both as an audio recording and a transcript, is at http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-al-held-12773

Finished!

As of today, the Magna Carta paintings are finished. I'll post some pictures when I have taken a proper batch.

The work is far from over though! My flyers and posters have arrived and need distributing - tomorrow will have to be an internet day, arranging their display. Thankfully the press release was done and dusted a long time ago. The framing and other aspects of presentation have been devised but still need making (and paying for) and then of course there is delivery and hanging in just over a month. Last but not least, I have to drop the photos into a little catalogue I'm putting together and then get it printed. There is a reason I've avoided solo shows up until now!

Meanwhile I've got to sort out work for a second exhibition running concurrently. There is a collective called More Arts running a pop-up over in Wokingham and I have two months as a guest there. In contrast to the big, ambitious and expensive stuff at Magna Carta, the emphasis will be on affordable work. I'll be showing small paintings, prints and oil sketches. Its lovely to let my hair down and just paint speculatively - the small scale and low prices means I can afford some rejects, so I'm playing with a different approach to colour sequencing. Normally I work from light to dark with transparent paints and then back to light again either by using opaque paints or removing paint and at the same time I work from delicate colours to intense and then back down again. This gives good intensity, clarity and subtlety. For some of these little pieces though - skies around dawn and sunset, autumn leaves, all chosen for the intense colours - I'm trying the opposite - starting with sledgehammer colours and then dulling down. It does work, but it's harder to generate convincing space and light and produces a very different tonality. It may get better with practice so I'll push on a little longer. Even if the experiment fails, it is important to stretch yourself and try new things and I have found a couple of interesting colour combinations I hadn't spotted before.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Reading Museum

I lived in Reading about 15 years ago, but I don't think I ever went to the museum. Recently I rectified this and I'm glad, because Reading Museum has had two good ideas for hanging art. Sadly, a strict no photography policy means I can't illustrate them but they are worth discussing.

The first is in the main body of the museum. There are spaces where art is hung as in a conventional gallery but for much of the space, paintings are shown individually, in a display case alongside related artefacts from the Museum's collection. The paintings and objects end up contextualising each other and the display is visually richer than if the artefacts were left on their own. I do think the provision of context is massively important as it can fundamentally change our understanding of ambitious paintings. Equally, if the painting happens to be a very ordinary portrait of an industrialist then the objects can make it seem far more interesting than it is and in return the painting can give a human touch to the artefacts and make it easier to connect to them. I applaud them for doing this instead of doing what most other regional museums do - commissioning second rate illustrations which communicate little.

The other idea could perhaps be of benefit to many museums. Thanks to a long tradition of public museums and of bequests being set against death duty in this country, many galleries, museums and public collections have far more art than they have wall space. A few highlights of their collection are shown repeatedly while the poor relations (some of the work isn't good enough, some is in poor condition and some is just too similar to other pieces in their collection) languish in vaults and stores. What Reading have done is to take a room which isn't used as anything other than a space to marshall school trips, pulled down the blinds to reduce the light levels and absolutely covered the walls from floor to ceiling salon-style with as many paintings as they could cram in. There is no attempt at curation. There are no labels except on paintings which were framed at a time when fashion meant the details of the image were written on the frame. There is no information other than a pile of photocopies crammed into a leaflet holder. The quality ranges from the decent to the painful and the condition of the work is just as varied. In spite of this, it's a wonderful thing. Every single one of these paintings would otherwise be locked in a vault unless there happened to be a temporary exhibition which could use them. Not only does it get these paintings seen, it also draws attention to the scale of the problem. Go to the Your Paintings website, search for your local museum and you will be amazed at what they have in storage - even museums which have almost no art on display at all.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

The Art of Poetry

April 23rd is World Poetry Night and, to celebrate, the Obsidian Gallery near Aylesbury is once again putting on an exhibition of work inspired by or illustrating poems. They are also publishing a book of selected work. The exhibition runs from 23rd April to 31st May and there will be readings of some of the poems on the 23rd. Full details can be found at www.obsidianart.co.uk

I'm delighted to say I have a painting in the exhibition from my series responding to short Japanese poems and it is also in the book.

I've had my eye on Obsidian for a while as I quite like the esoteric feel that the website gives. Taking my work over was the first chance I've had to visit and I was really rather impressed. As galleries go it feels very friendly indeed. It is very much set up for exploring rather than for seeing everything in a glance and there are surprises round every corner. It is on the outskirts of Stoke Mandeville and, along with the other bits and bobs next door (a tea room & the Buckinghamshire Goat Centre!) and nice-looking pubs nearby it should make a nice afternoon out.

Monday, 20 April 2015

Sonia Delaunay at Tate Modern

The Tate have recently launched a retrospective which surveys the whole career of Sonia Delaunay. The exhibition emphasises the way Delaunay broadened her practice, incorporating textile, fashion, interior and graphic design and collaborating with poets in addition to painting. It also suggests that she was one of the first artists to develop herself into a broader brand and thereby laid a path for many artists later in the 20th century and beyond. For me though, a somewhat sadder story emerged.

Delaunay, and her husband, are best known for their work with what was then cutting edge colour theory, exploring how colours affect their neighbours to provide a heightened appearance and to evoke light. Often known as Simultanism, the development of this style of fractured reality is a joy to behold, starting out tentatively and become bolder and bolder. Delaunay was fascinated by the innovations of the years before the first World War and in particular the new forms artificial light was taking and new dance crazes that swept across Europe. These give her paintings a real pulsating light, especially the Electric Prisms and the ballrooms.



After the outbreak of war, the Delaunays found themselves in Spain and Portugal for some years and the local culture helped enrich Simultanism further - the painting had a relationship with music and dance from the beginning and being exposed to Flamenco led to Delaunay's paintings becoming more intimate and with more intricate movements.


About this time, the fallout from the Russian Revolution hit the Delaunays. Sonia had been supported by her godparents and then suddenly their estates were seized and her allowance stopped. This is the point at which shed diversified, starting fashion labels and collaborating with manufacturers. Although she had dabbled with clothing design before, this escalation wasn't a point of principle or a grand idea, it was simple economic necessity.

The Tate show covers this period well, perhaps too well. A huge room is packed with fabric samples, clothes and assorted designs with a huge table of samples, a wall of bolts of fabric rotating like conveyor belts and much more. Personally I found it overwhelming and difficult to take in. Perhaps this was the point as it showed both the depth and breadth of Delaunay's creativity.

After the financial crash at the end of the 20's, Delaunay shut down her businesses and returned to painting. To me, this is where the story saddens. All her work after this point, with the exception of the Paris pavilion paintings which were collaborations, becomes heavy and static; all the light was gone and all the joy was gone. She was still very obviously interested in abstraction, geometry, colour and rhythm but the paintings have lost their life. It does make me wonder whether the Tate have got their message back to front. They rightly celebrate Delaunay's incredible versatility and bravery but perhaps they should also use her as a cautionary tale; a story of someone losing the heart of their work by spreading themselves too thin and a warning about the commoditisation of artists.

Monday, 13 April 2015

Kanak Mask

Here's a startling thing for you: a ritual New Caledonian mask which sold last year at Christie's.

Little is known about the use of such masks as the rituals they were associated fell out of use during the early days of Western colonisation. According to the sale catalogue, their use was not unlike a European crown - they were used by the leader during special ceremonies and helped confer and legitimise his power by providing a direct link to previous generations. Of course the ceremonies were somewhat different - a warrior tribe with a warrior leader has very different needs to a monarchy which claims its power is derived from God - and apparently some of the ceremonies involved the leader pursuing the crowd and brandishing a spear at them.

Artists tend to look at such objects in one of two ways. There is the post-modern approach in which the artist may see himself as an anthropologist, social historian or satirist and will focus on the use and context of the object, be that real, imagined or subverted. I prefer the modernist approach which doesn't pay so much attention to the object's purpose and instead simply revels in its physicality. Picasso was perhaps the most famous exponent of this and built up a small but noteworthy collection of African and pre-historic objects.

Looking at this mask as a thing, with neither context nor specialist knowledge to colour my judgement, I find it astonishing. Bold, confident carving has created a series of remarkable interlocking forms and the talon-like nose, flared nostrils and bared teeth give the face a real power. The emotional effect must depend entirely on whether it is being worn by friend or foe. One important thing to keep in mind when looking at a mask is that it is meant to be worn. The facetted carving and polished black finish on this example means it must glitter and flash as the wearer moves - all except the mouth which would be in shadow and is less polished and so would always remain dark and gaping. The other implication of it being worn is the only way of seeing as far I can tell would be to look through the mouth. This means the wearer would instantly appear to be a foot taller than he really is, especially as real hair was affixed to the top.

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Coming this June: Runnymede Ghost

This summer, the world is coming to Runnymede and I'll be here to welcome everyone.

The tale of how Magna Carta was signed here has been told many times already this year, and it will be told even more over the next two months. This is because this strange treaty which has become one of the most famous and influential documents in the history of Western civilisation is about to be 800 years old.

There are huge celebrations surrounding the anniversary with events taking place worldwide. I am delighted to say that as the contemporary painter perhaps most local to the site of the signing of the treaty I am taking part and holding an exhibition to coincide with festivities in conjunction with Royal Holloway, University of London.


Both of these are essentially medieval views
The initial brief was simple - celebrate the landscape of Magna Carta - but the work has become far richer and I will be presenting a series of paintings which show the landscape as it is today in all its complexity and variety but highlight how easy it is to imagine how it looked at different times in the past including 800 years ago. The title, Runnymede Ghosts, simply draws attention to the way one can see the past through the present. Making the work has revealed a subtle and complex story which is as much about the environment as it is about history and has revealed Runnymede as ancient, fragile, resilient and above all man-made.

The thing I want to talk about is the final painting, which really ought to be well advanced already. All the prep work was done and I was just waiting for the bluebells to come out so I could finalise my palette when my subject was hit with some unexpected drama. There has been an encampment of protestors in the woods above Runnymede for the last two or three years. They initially tried to resurrect the spirit of the Diggers and have styled themselves more recently as an eco-village. My original plan was to show one particular part of the camp where there are still signs that the top of the hill was once parkland. The old, broken fence was to wend its way and guide the eye through the painting.


Over the last week or two, the landowners have given the protestors a writ to attend court with a view to eviction and have started to repair the boundaries. I'm waiting to see how it pans out before starting the painting. It has had a dramatic impact visually and is also interesting in the context of Magna Carta. The protestors' spokesman suggests this is a Magna Carta issue - he sees the court action as an act of oppression. I want to play Devil's advocate here. Magna Carta came about in part because the King was out of control and was seizing land from the nobility whenever he felt like it so the Barons made it clear that the law could be used to hold him to account. The protestors saw some land and they didn't like the way the owner wasn't using it so they seized it. The landowner is now trying to demonstrate to them that they are not above the law. So which side of this conflict is in the King's role and which in the Barons'? It is a Magna Carta issue, but not the way the protestors claim. Magna Carta enables landowners to evict people because it reinforces the status of law. I don't know how all this will creep into the painting yet but I find it interesting - just as the paintings reveal that the difference between good and bad environmentally is complex, blurred and often counterintuitive, so the eviction shows that the same can be said of issues relating to liberties and rights.

Realistically the fence and eviction are too complex for one painting so for the Ghosts series I will almost certainly stick to my original composition but using the half-built new fence in the same way as the old one. I will try retain BBC levels of neutrality as I haven't decided where I stand yet. It does tell me I'm on the right track though - if my work wasn't changing my opinions and challenging my preconceptions then to my mind I'd just be making pictures not art.

Monday, 30 March 2015

Ben Nicholson: Lines and Still life

Ben Nicholson was one of that glorious generation of British artists who reached their peak between the two wars. He is best known for abstract work, deeply rooted in the landscape and more often than not built up in near-monochromatic relief. I don't want to talk about that today; doubtless you've seen it all before.

Instead, I want to show you two things I stumbled upon, one from each end of his career.

His father, Sir William Nicholson, was a well regarded painter of still lives and so Nicholson grew up both steeped in this tradition and surrounded by eminently paintable gewgaws. As a child he must have learned to see objects and maybe the wider world as elements of compositions, as vignettes and dioramas so it should be no surprise that early in his career he should follow in his father's footsteps.


This, from the British Museum's excellent collection of works on paper, is a linocut from 1928 called Three Mugs and a Bowl. Already it contains all the elements that define Nicholson's work - graphic simplicity, elegance of line, limited palette, an awareness of substance and texture and, above all, clarity and decisiveness. Technically it is fascinating: according to the British Museum's notes here Nicholson all but let the ink dry before taking the impression and this created the texture. I can see in this a lot of parallels with his more famous work - the process of cutting, coating, colouring and texturing a surface and then combining it with a support is the same whether printing or making a collage or relief - the only real difference being that the surface is then peeled away from the paper again when printing but left attached to the canvas or board when building a relief.


This intriguing little thing is "Cluster of Spanners" from 1973 and is painted and drawn on mounted paper. I found it on the pages of the art broker Waterhouse Dodd. The similarities with the print from 45 years earlier are remarkable - the simple outlines, the overlapping forms which are both separate and merging into each other, the approach to space and surface. The main difference is perhaps a denial of physicality rather than an embrace of it within the image.

Seeing this continuity has set me thinking. If I wasn't aware of the other things Nicholson had done in between I would seriously question the lack of growth and maybe accuse him of stagnation. This would be unfair though as his oeuvre was inventive if narrow so it is more that this is marking a point at which he had come almost full circle. I suddenly find myself regarding the things he did in between in a way that hasn't occurred to me before. Was Nicholson, when making reliefs all filled with crisp but disappearing edges and small but changing spatial relationships, actually exploring the mechanics of the still life? Was he making constructions that were both the subject and the depiction of that subject at the same time? If so, that is monumentally ambitious, about as extreme as Modernism can be and perhaps even a pre-cursor to Post-Modernism.

Monday, 23 March 2015

Rant: A cry for subtlety

It was blog research time over the weekend so I went digging. What with the equinox and the official start of spring I thought I'd find and explore a painting I hadn't seen before on that theme. The plan was to rummage through some "new" old books I've bought but I started with a quick Google to see to get an overview of painters are up to at the moment. You can repeat my search easily enough, the term was simply "painting spring" and it was just an image search. This is typical of what came up:


The lack of subtlety and understatement is undeniable. It is particularly shocking because the artists have all chosen spring as a theme. Spring is bright, energetic and intense but it is also the most delicate and the most vulnerable season, when young life and weather are as fragile as each other and the world is as full of doubt and false starts as it is of optimism and growth.

While obviously a range of quality is present with a decent painting or two tucked away in there, the vast majority of the recent things which pop up are just intense colour upon intense colour with little variation within a painting from one passage to another. I believe this to be a fundamental problem which dooms a painting to failure. I don't know why it is so widespread; perhaps it is the lack of painting teaching within art colleges, a mis-understanding of what Impressionism was that is now so widespread that it has become fact, a reflection of the "bigger, brighter, louder and more instant is better" culture we live in or (as it I posited in my last post) a side-effect of fashions in paint manufacture.

I see this manner of painting as problematic because no matter what it is trying to be it is falling down. If it is trying to be realistic, it fails to realise that the brightness and intensity present in the real world is about variations in luminosity, not high levels of saturation - see this little sketch by Baron László Mednyánszky as an example (told you I was looking for spring pictures I hadn't seen before!) There are no ludicrously intense colours here, just careful mixtures and juxtapositions and the brightness of the canvas shining through and yet the painting appears both far more intensely coloured and far less garish than any of the multitude of day-glo blossoms Google fed me.

Equally if the Google paintings are just taking pleasure in intense colour, some sensitivity of handling and boldness of composition would help. This time I draw your attention to a painting by Ernest Lawson - this dazzling, eye-burning panel is effectively three stripes of blue-green and three stripes of yellow-green given form by marks, textures, specks of complementary colours and delicate changes in luminosity. Again, it is both brighter and less garish than my initial discoveries.

Perhaps you think the paintings at the top are an attempt to build on the work of the Fauves and Pop Artists and apply it to a traditional genre? Such things require extreme skill, extreme discipline and usually extreme simplification, all of which are lacking. Matisse only hit his absolute peak as he became too old to paint and as he simplified his work dramatically. Look any random piece of his: all the colours work together (both through harmony and discord) for a common aim whereas in many of the Google paintings the different colours and passages are just fighting each other for the viewer's attention.

What it boils down to is this: where has all the subtlety gone? Many of the paintings I started this post with appear to be emphasising speed of execution over careful consideration. Is this what their makers chose to do or are there chronic limitations in the ability of the current generation of retail (and to a degree contemporary) painters to handle colour and a desperate lack of understanding of light? If they did chose to rush, what does that say about the art market today?

I would like to end with an appeal to painters around the world who cater to the retail market: please slow down, consider your work carefully as it progresses and give your paintings a treat - lavish some subtlety upon them. They will be grateful, and they will reward you.

Monday, 16 March 2015

Paint Review: Potter's Pink PR233

A couple of years ago an unexpectedly detailed reply to an email unlocked a whole new world for me. It was when I'd first spotted Pip Seymour's paints in Cornelissen's; there were strange colours I had never heard of and a lack of knowledge made choice difficult so I asked Pip whether there was a starter set or any information. What came back was an enormous email, where different sources had been copied and pasted to give an overview of the qualities of every paint in his range. This changed my view of paint in general and the the repercussions are still echoing through my practice. One of the colours which intrigued me enough to include it in the second batch I bought was Potter's Pink. I've now been using it for long enough to share my thoughts.

Character

Dusky and delicate are key the words. Potter's Pink is a very soft colour which is either warm or cold depending on context. Whichever side of neutral it appears, it is a colour born of the shadows. There are two variants, a lighter, brighter and more luminous version and a softer, duller and duskier version (see inside the caps of the tubes in the picture to see the difference in mass tone). As an oil paint (Pip Seymour's - looks like the dark version), it has a low tinting power and is semi-tranparent. In water-colour (W&N, looks like the bright version) it is quite granular and more intense - almost a rose rather than a pink. According to two pigment suppliers, Kremer and Rublev, it is safe to use in any medium but according to Cornelissen it is only recommended for aqueous media. It produces incredibly delicate mixes and is beautiful when used as a glaze or under another glaze. As you would expect of a colour with its origins in ceramics, it is lightfast and, when used with the right binder, very tough.

History

Sometimes known as Pinkcolour, Tin Pink or, in Germany, Nelkenfarbe (Carnation colour), Potter's Pink has its modern English name for a reason; it was invented by an unknown potter in Staffordshire late in the 18th century. It was one of the first "modern" pigments and, just like a huge amount of modern synthetic and stable colours, it is a metallic oxide. It has always primarily been a pigment for ceramics but Winsor & Newton introduced it as a water-colour under the Pinkcolour name in the 19th century. It was the first stable pink available in this country, far pinker than local earths and without the treacherousness of Madders.

As with so many of the older colours it fell out of favour as brighter, more powerful and cheaper alternatives were discovered. Currently it is available as a watercolour from Daniel Smith, Rublev, Pip Seymour and Winsor & Newton, as oil paint from Pip Seymour, as pigment from Kremer, Rublev and Cornelissen and as a pigment in an aqueous dispersion from Rublev so there are signs of a revival, especially as a watercolour pigment. If I've missed a manufacturer, please let me know via the comments.

In Use

I have been using Potter's Pink extensively in oils (Pip Seymour's). I find the mixing power to be low so real care has to be taken when selecting colours to mix it with; many newer colours are virulent in mixes and will simply obliterate it. As a result I tend to use it almost unmixed, either as a delicate glaze or as a gentle block of colour.


The clouds here are built from layers of Davy's Grey, Charcoal Grey, Cobalt Blue and Lemon Yellow (PY31 not the more common PY3) over a bright white gesso. Other parts of the sky are areas of Cobalt Blue, Cerulean, Zinc White and Flake White. Parts of the clouds have then been given an irregular barely-there glaze in Potter's Pink for warmth and richness. Its warmth has largely neutralised the cold grey but because it is applied unevenly and over many colours it gives a pulsating life to the clouds and helps them change colour with the light. There is also a gesture of more thickly applied Potter's Pink to help define the cloud and bring out the pinkness elsewhere.


Here is a painting with more widespread use of the colour. At the edges of picture it is over cold, dark areas. In the centre it is applied with varied opacity over Cadmium Yellow Deep. Towards the bottom right it is mixed with white. Elsewhere there is a very light scumbling, but it doesn't show so well at this size. It shows the ease with which the paint can mixed optically to make a wide range of glowing but delicate colours.

Potter's Pink mixed with oils on left (clockwise from top left) on its own, with Ultramarine Red, Titanium White, Raw Sienna, Cobalt Blue, Titanium Orange, Viridian, Ultramarine, Davy's Grey, Lemon Yellow (PY31). Mixed with miscellaneous watercolours on right - I especially like the burnt quality it gives Vermillion and the way it brings out the lurid green undertones of Lemon Yellow (PY3) at the bottom.
Above are a range of mixes. I have only dabbled with it in watercolour (Winsor & Newton) as I don't use the medium very often. It mixes far better as it is the brighter, stronger variant, giving a range of oh-so delicate but luminous colours. Liz Steel has another set of less random watercolour experiments here.

Final thoughts

I find there to be a real lack of subtlety in much modern painting and I think this is due in part to contemporary trends in materials. In paint manufacturers' scramble for pigment load, intensity and purity of colour at one end of the market and a combination of brightness and economy at the other, colours have been getting brighter, brasher and more garish and the more delicate, understated colours have been left behind. As anyone who was fortunate enough to see the Veronese exhibition at the National Gallery last year will know, a skilled painter can make less intense colours sing out as brightly as one could want through a mixture of careful juxtapositions and the use of glazes. When this is done, the resulting painting can be bright and colourful without becoming garish. The same painting made from modern "sledgehammer" colours would be inescapably garish. By the same token, if an artist wants a subdued or delicate painting - maybe for a portrait, a flower or an overcast day - starting from a modern palette of cadmiums, azos and pthalos is making life un-necessarily difficult. Artists benefit from the bright, intense palette of today but I strongly urge them not to discount the older, more delicate colours. Potter's Pink is as useful and practical an example as any.

Monday, 9 March 2015

Magna Carta, Queen Elizabeth and the Unexpected Statue

Today I saw this week's Surrey Advertiser. The front page horrified me.

Last year I heard there was a proposal to erect a statue of the Queen on Runnymede in time for this year's Magna Carta anniversary celebrations. It surprised me, but I held my tongue because at that time the local council were refusing to have anything to do with the proposal so I thought it would fall by the wayside. It hasn't.

According to the report (which can be read in full here) two proposals were made. The full cost version is for a gold covered statue on a plinth (4 metres tall in total) in the Pleasure Grounds with an avenue of trees leading to it and hiding the existing car parking. The lower cost version has less landscaping, a smaller plinth and is described as "purple". The charity set up by two councillors has now raised enough money for the low-cost, purple version. The lower cost version is to cost £276,000 + VAT and the gold version £900,000 + VAT. For clarity, the proposal has not come from the Queen.

I plead, with every fibre of my heart, intellect and integrity, that this statue be erected somewhere else and at some other time.

To build it at Runnymede, to celebrate Magna Carta, is at best ill-conceived and at worst offensive.

Let me be absolutely clear: this is not an assault on Queen Elizabeth or the monarchy. I am a closet royalist and believe our Queen has done a sterling job in a tumultuous era. I have nothing but respect for the way the British monarchy has evolved over the last 150 years so that it still holds a useful function in a way that very few other monarchies around the world have managed.

Let me be clear again: this is not a comment on the artistic quality of this particular statue. All I have seen are photos of a maquette and although I am underwhelmed I am not in a position to judge at this time.

I am not even opposed to new statues of the Queen in general.

What I do object to is the lunacy of thinking a gold statue of the current monarch could ever be appropriate to a celebration of Magna Carta and to the thought that this specific site could ever be appropriate for any statue.

Magna Carta is of significance today not just for specific clauses that have been given new meanings down the centuries but because it was the first time the absolute power of the monarch was challenged by people who were not trying to displace him. Runnymede is significant as the place where this happened. So we have to consider, here, now and in this context, what exactly is the statue saying?

Is it saying that Magna Carta was the beginning of the process which led to the monarch today being an apparently ceremonial figure, wheeled out as decoration on special occasions like a Christmas tree? If so, this is deeply unfair on and offensive to the Queen.

Or is having a gold-plated monarch towering 4 metres over her subjects on the site of Magna Carta actually celebrating the fact that the reforms that have cascaded down the ages since its signing are being eroded to the point where it is increasingly just optional for our rulers to pay attention to it? To rub this in further, the Pleasure Grounds flood almost every winter. Every time they do, the Queen will appear to be walking on water. Considering one of the reasons King John acted the ways he did leading up to Magna Carta was the belief in Kings being Kings by divine right and effectively appointed by God, everyone from Queen to commoner via Parliament, the Church and the ghost of everybody who ever fought to make this country fairer should be appalled at this image. It is no wonder the council believe it will be a magnet for vandalism.

Not only is the thing wrong in principal, it doesn't even have internal logic. If the statue is being erected to celebrate the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, it should show the Queen as she is now, at the anniversary. Instead, it shows her in her youth. I can't help but wonder whether it was originally conceived for the Queen's Jubilee. In that context, it would make more sense although this would still be the wrong site for it. 

It must be very difficult for a councillor to say no to this project. After all, we are almost in the shadow of Windsor Castle here and it is being donated. It has been sold to the public as being at no cost to the taxpayer (it turns out this is not quite true according to the Advertiser report) and it sounds like there has been a certain amount of bull-dozing going on in committee and during fund-raising with things being prematurely presented as a done deal. The council seem to have woken up to this and have sent it back to be debated again. Considering the Magna Carta celebrations are about three months away procrastination may be the easiest, most diplomatic and most politically acceptable way to stop the project. This decision should not be rushed as, once installed, the statue will be there forever.

I believe this statue is at the wrong time and in the wrong place. If the people behind the statue are adamant they want to give it to the area, might I suggest they consider the Royal Park at Virginia Water or one of the town centres and, instead of rushing it, link it to a different and more appropriate event?

Monday, 2 March 2015

Marlene Dumas at Tate Modern

I'm not given to hyperbole and I'm not convinced that concepts like "best" are useful or even meaningful in the utterly subjective world of art but let me say two things clearly: I cannot think of a living painter producing work which is more powerful, more intimate or more emotional than Dumas and I cannot remember an exhibition which moved me and involved me as much as her current show at Tate Modern.

Marlene Dumas: Moshekwa
The exhibition is mostly painting after painting of heads and figures (ranging from the demure to the pornographic) torn from all context, often painted on a monumental scale and always with a breathtaking economy and tenderness. Tenderness is the key to the work; the paintings draw you into their isolation and call out in a way that goes beyond eye contact. As a painter though, it is the economy that fascinates. They may be centuries apart in aesthetic, technique and intent, but the only painter who springs to mind as besting Dumas' stark and tender economy is Hans Holbein the Younger, especially in his drawings. In Dumas' work, large areas of thin paint are played against thicker colour, texture and tone while lines and edges are kept simple and this is enough to describe faces, features and moods with eloquence. There is enough confidence and integrity within her work to allow her to paint with delicacy, vulnerability and fragility - or even to break her subjects' faces - but that confidence permeates them and keeps the paintings powerful. She says she works from photographs to keep her from worrying what the sitter thinks and I believe this may genuinely be what enables her to paint this way.

Hans Holbein: Grace, the Lady Parker
Marlene Dumas: The White Disease
I can't help but feel I ought to write something of the artist's intent and the grand themes she explores but in truth I don't want to. The Tate's accompanying texts and the panels in the exhibition do so but it feels like it this missing the point. These paintings function the way the very best paintings do: by osmosis. Words just aren't necessary.

That is all that needs to be said. Dumas' website is here, her career details are here, the exhibition website is here. Get to London before May 10th and see it.

Monday, 23 February 2015

A quick catch up

It's been a busy old year since I was last updating this blog regularly. I've had do some bits away from art (seeing as how I like food and not sleeping outside) and I've done lots of little bits which I won't recap, but mostly I have been tied up with three substantial projects - two of which are ongoing.

About a year ago, I saw a call out from Obsidian for work relating to poetry. I'd been umming and aahing about working in this direction and had done a fair bit of preparation but it was the final wake up I needed to actually start. The first piece wasn't ready in time for the deadline but I have the beginnings of a major body of work now. So far, there are only four paintings but they are substantial, subtle and ambitious. Each addresses an old, short Japanese poem. Each poem was chosen after assessing as many English translations as I can get my hands on and avidly studying any notes the translators gave. The poem was then transplanted into 21st century southern England (I can't really paint from the view of an 8th century Japanese monk with any integrity!) and the painting then forms a meditation on that poem. The process helps me understand the poem better than I could otherwise hope to, and at the end I am left with a painting as full of richness and ambiguities as the original text.

Because fog engulfs/ the cottage where I am/ I feel as though/ I've melted into the sky. (Myoe  d. 1232)
The two main challenges with this poem were that the translation needed "vernacularising" as the peasants of England no longer live in grass huts and what it is to be in the sky needed rethinking - Myoe was writing in a time of birds, kites and Chinese lanterns and so to be airborne was to float and hang whereas today it is to zoom. Early morning mist over the river provided the solution to getting the sense of both flight and stillness necessary. 

I chose Japanese poems because they tend to be very visual and very intense whereas European, Classical and English poems tends to have more of a narrative element which would lead to more of a temptation to just illustrate them. This project is currently bubbling away on the back burner while I deal with more urgent things but I will be starting up again as soon as I have broken the back of my upcoming exhibition as the penny has recently dropped about the underlying meaning of Basho's famous frog haiku.

A lot of the late summer was spent as Artist in Residence at Sulgrave Manor in Northamptonshire. Built by the ancestors of George Washington, it is a modest Tudor manor full of Tudor furniture and I was privileged enough to be given fantastic access to it. Seeing as today the Manor places a large emphasis on making the past come alive, I looked for ways I could do that visually. In the end, I used it as a vehicle to explore the absence of electric light - what the mind does to shadows and sound when there is no way to make darkness disappear and trying to imagine what darkness might have been to people who would not have had any conception of electric light. This had the added bonus of picking up on discoveries from my work with nocturnes. There was a real temptation to build nightmares into the shadows, but I resisted and played it straight. Anything you see in them is what is already in your own mind.

Since then I have been working towards a short but major exhibition this summer. As readers from before may remember, I work on the edge of Runnymede, the water meadows where Magna Carta was signed. This June sees the 800th anniversary of the Charter and there are a lot of events locally, nationally and globally. I am taking part in the celebrations being held at Egham by Royal Holloway, University of London. The central idea is to show parts of Runnymede which make it easy to imagine how the place looked in the past. I have previewed two paintings on my website, the rest will be launched just before the exhibition. There will be more about this over the coming months, but for now here are the dates - 12 - 16 June, with the University's Great Charter festival being held on Sunday 14 June. 

Old overgrown ditch at Ankerwycke. Uniquely among this set, this painting is stagnant and time weighs heavy.