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

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


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.