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.