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.

Monday, 16 February 2015

Reiner Ruthenbeck at the Serpentine

Ever slow on the uptake, I made it to the final days of Ruthenbeck last week. In truth, I went to the Serpentine to see Julio Le Parc but, having gone to the wrong Serpentine, I found myself confronted by three heaps of ash and metal instead of plastic and light shows. I'm glad, as Ruthenbeck forced me to evaluate things I haven't really plunged deeply enough into since returning to practicing as an artist.

There has been a palaver over the course of the exhibition, summed up nicely by the Independent here, about the quality of the pieces and whether they constitute art or not. I'm pleased to say that as a consequence of going by accident I was absolutely unaware of this so it didn't colour my own thought process.

The exhibition begins with three of Ruthenbeck's cones and heaps, each of a different type of ash partially burying a different metal structure - the geometric one pictured, a wire one and one built of large square section steel tubes. There is always a temptation to react with fatigue when facing artwork of this type. Sculptures have drawn attention to their material nature for many decades now and is the fact that ash can have many different qualities really enough of an insight or aesthetic experience to excite? Three things save these pieces though - they were made in the late 1960's at a time when such investigations were not ten a penny, the fact they were shown in close proximity to each other instead of in isolation gave them added power and, on their own terms, they are beautiful.

Much of the next room is taken up with the upturned furniture discussed at length in the Independent so I won't add much except to say I have a major problem - the presentation. In the photo the Independent carries, someone is walking between the chairs and being able to freely move around the objects may have hugely increased their worth. As it is viewers were kept behind a black line on the floor. There seems to be a consensus that pieces like this are either drawing attention to the material and aesthetic nature of their parts (which I would favour in the context of Ruthenbeck's other pieces here) or are inviting the viewer to supply their own narrative element. Both of these possibilities were undermined by half-heartedly restricting viewpoints - either restrict them completely or don't restrict viewers at all. The narrative/dramatic element would have been transformed and strengthened by the presence of people amid the field of fallen furniture, and the formal investigation would have been more compelling had the viewer been able to see the objects and their relationships from different directions. As it is, young me would have raved about this piece whereas older and more critical me is, well, older and more critical and would suggest there is no honest way to say this is stronger or weaker and more or less interesting than any of the thousands of equivalent pieces kicking around the art world. I am always surprised that artists have not yet become bored of making such things, unless perhaps it is an attempt to take the modernist project of testing art by reducing things to their essentials and apply it not to Painting or to Sculpture but to the process of making art; a declaration that the only things fundamental to art are looking and thinking.

The third room was filled with structures combining a sensuously deep red fabric with welded metal and, on occasion, clear plastic. Again they address themes of materiality and geometry but I can't help but feel such things are more interesting to make than they are to look at. Another difficulty was the presence of a suitcase broadcasting Fluxus music - the strength and weakness of sound based work is the way it disrupts everything around it and I believe in this case it was a hindrance more than a help.

The final room is the one with the most intriguing idea, and the one that chimes most with my own interests. It is a large square room, a former courtyard, and it is almost blacked out. Light comes from a single, dim orange bulb in the centre of the room and is intended to recreate twilight - specifically the amount of light at which one cannot tell the difference between a dog and a wolf. That is an inherently interesting boundary to inhabit, and an interesting way to define it. Sadly, the piece didn't quite live up to expectations - but then nothing could. Having the light barely strong enough that you can walk into the room safely meant that when my eyes had fully adjusted I could see far too clearly. Equally, by definition twilight cannot be tamed - it is constantly changing both brightness and colour and, as the phrase the phrase about the dog and the wolf suggests, is accompanied by things that play on senses other than vision. Without the explanation and the title it was a fascinating and rewarding room for stopping and just existing in. Without the room, the idea was intriguing and beautiful. Sadly though, each undermines the other just enough to render this a missed opportunity.

I have saved what I think the best pieces until last. They were perhaps the simplest yet among the most sophisticated. In one, a single, elongated parallelogram is bent in half along the long axis to an acute angle. It is then fastened to the corner of a room by a single screw. The satin black of the metal and the stark white of the wall along with the acute angle of the metal and the right angle of the wall and the single familiar point of reference provided by the screw head interacted optically, distorting both space and material. In the other, in the fabric and metal room, the shape was repeated. This time it was the fabric wrapped around four pins in the wall. The fabric, being nearly edge-on to the viewer appeared to be a dark and colourless line. The white wall picked up the reflected colour from the red and took on a phenomenally delicate rose tint which faded imperceptibly to nothing over a couple of inches. The strength of my reaction to them compared to everything else surprised me.

The great strength of this exhibition (and it is a strong exhibition in spite of my apparent harshness) is that it forces the viewer to actually do that most clich├ęd of acts - using the basic stuff-ness of appropriated objects and materials it genuinely and forcefully encourages the viewer to consider their own idea of art. For me, the parallelograms and the twilight held the key. These were the pieces that actually achieved what I think the fallen furniture was trying to do: they proudly displayed their nature and then transcended it. This realisation absolutely defines what art I respond to and why I'm a painter. In a painting, the flat surface covered in marks is also a moment of space or volume or light in exactly the same way that the white wall was a rose-coloured wall. Painting, for me, is the ultimate expression of a material transcending itself. It is where everything is contradiction and nothing is free of ambiguity. Painting is the twilight where dog and wolf are the same.

Any exhibition that can give so much insight into one's own practice has to be applauded. Reiner Ruthenbeck and all at the Serpentine, take a bow.

Monday, 9 February 2015

OK, so that was a very short end...

A lot has happened over the last 12 months - to me, to my practice and in the wider world - so I think it is time I took to the keyboard again. Anybody who has taken the trouble to have even a glance will have realised I did not get on with Twitter at all (I'm not sure if it's the brevity, the immediacy or the constant avalanche of people shouting for attention) so I think bringing the blog back is the way to go.

I'll write a post soon giving an overview of what I've been up to and another teasing the high profile exhibition which is rapidly approaching but for now I just want to mention some of the things which have been and are pre-occupying me, things which will feature here in the coming weeks.

  • Following my adventures with Pip Seymour's paints, I have a whole new attitude to colour
  • I've been digging deeper and deeper into historic techniques and materials
  • Craftsmanship
  • Paint-making
  • The 800th anniversary of Magna Carta is just months away so I have been steeped in the history of Runnymede - where it was signed and I am based
  • The relationship between spirituality and the land
  • Residencies
  • Japan
  • The depiction of time
  • whether (and how) to let events in the wider world impact on my work
  • Value for money & exploitation within the art world
...and of course, as spring approaches, my fascination with seasonality will doubtless emerge alongside it.

Superficially, the blog will be more or less what it was before - the adventures, crises and choices facing a painter today - but I'm a little more grown up, a lot more forthright, I have more confidence in my own abilities and above all my eyes and ears are open and I'm no longer just paying attention to Alanland.

I don't know about you, but I'm curious to see how it turns out.