Friday, 26 August 2016

'We Had Stayed Up All Night'

'King of The Road', oil on canvas, 2015 
Ahead of ‘A Minor Place’ opening next Saturday on September 3rd, here is a piece of writing by artist Andrew Smith. It will feature in a new publication by Indigo Octagon designed and created by artist Chris Cowdrill that will be for available for sale at the exhibition.

Andrew’s piece is a response to my lorry paintings, and is an adaptation of ‘The Futurist Manifesto’ by Italian artist Marinetti, written in 1908 as a ‘celebration of speed, machinery, violence, youth and industry’, in which Andrew has combined lots of phrases and language associated with trucks and the trucking life on the road. It’s a typically highly imaginative and surprising response from Andrew. I love it: 
'The Road', oil on canvas, 2015
‘We had stayed up all night’
We had stayed up all night, my friends and I, one with dispatcher brains, the other deadhead with tow chain of filigreed brass.  Sometimes we were driving by braille, at other times eyeballing the colouring book.  For hours we put the hammer down on the big slab, up to the last confines of total logistics control and blackening many a blue eagle with our super single tyres.
An immense pride was buoying us up, because we felt alone in those hours, like proud old gears, or forward knight squires against an army of hostile pole cats glaring at us from galaxy 949.  Alone like suicide jockeys feeding on motion lotion at the pickle park, alone with the training swifts who grope in the red-hot bellies of the freight shakers launched down their crazy courses, alone with the high speed chicken feeders reeling like wounded birds into the disco lights.
Suddenly we jumped, hearing the squawk box, and the huge off roaders that rumbled by ablaze with confusion lights, like massholes on holiday suddenly struck and uprooted by the flooding performance cummins.
Then the silence deepened.  But as we listened to the blue radio tooth muttering its feeble rambo, and the creaking rocking chair, we suddenly heard the famished roar of the nada trucks.
“Let’s go!” I said. “Friends, away! Let’s go! The polar bear and the better half are defeated at last.  We’re about to see the birth of the Pumpkin … we must smash the gates of life, brush our hair and comb our teeth.  Let’s go! Look there, on the earth, the very first dawn!  There’s nothing to match the splendour of the salad bar after winter, the ball bearing turbo slashing through the millennial gloom!”
We went up to our three snorting beasts, to lay amorous hands on their torrid breasts.  I stretched out my covered waggon like a corpse, but revived at the wheel, felt the hammer threaten my stomach.
High speed chicken feed swept us out of ourselves, blew our doors off, drove us through the clean shots.  And like young lions we raced after Death, the meat wagon: to be greasy side up, and back in the yard.  Death, domesticated, met us at every turn, holding out its paw like a city kitty. “Let’s break out of the swindle sheets, the chicken coop of safety, shake the bushes like the wind.  Let’s give ourselves utterly to the Unknown, not in desperation or at 10-33 or on cheap cb, but as comedians starting a new career at Paschall Services.”
Andrew Smith and Filippo Tommaso Marinetti.
 'The Tyres Rushing By In The Rain', oil on canvas, 2015

Thursday, 11 August 2016

'A Minor Place'

I’m excited to share this poster and flyer about a forthcoming exhibition I am showing some of my recent paintings in and have organized with artist friends Andrew Smith and Hugh Marwood. The exhibition, ‘A Minor Place’, is at the Artists Workhouse in Studley, just twenty minutes drive from Birmingham, and opens on Saturday September 3rd. I will be exhibiting some of my new large paintings, at 200 x 150cms the largest I made in some time, and in contrast some of my smallest canvasses based on trucks etc. I’m also boldly previewing a video animation I have made based on my digital i-pad paintings, which I have shared on the blog recently. 
The animation was Hugh’s idea as a way of presenting them and I’m pleased to say it seems to have worked quite well, although I am also thinking of making a small book and having some mounted for sale at the exhibition too. I hope to share it on the website soon, and also put it on Youtube, which is a first for me, although I have made several films about my work over the years I have not shared publicly. I’ll be posting a few more things about the exhibition this month as it gets nearer, but for now I hope you like the poster which has been designed, based on a photograph of mine, by my good friend and artist Chris Cowdrill. He’s also currently collaborating on a publication to accompany the exhibition too.

Wednesday, 6 July 2016


Sculptor Des Hughes
Through my membership of Eastside Projects’ ‘Extra Special People’ I enjoyed the opportunity yesterday to meet ‘1-2-1’ with artist sculptor Des Hughes at the gallery about my own work. I’d applied hoping that the common ground we seemed to share in our individual interest in transforming the everyday and familiar in our practise might be of interest to him and getting some valuable critical feedback on my current work.
Des Hughes, 'Do You Think Of Me Often?', 2011
I really like Des’s sculptures-they are right up my street. I enjoy the skill and craft of the work, but also the wit and imagination and all the different contextual and historical references that they explore, play and converse with, both materially and conceptually.  (You can see some examples through this post). 

I’m pleased to report that Des was exactly the same in person and we seemed to get on well. The conversation flowed easily for twice our allotted slot of 45 minutes and he seemed to engage seriously and have a keen sensitivity to many of the issues I am trying to explore in my own work. This was in relation to my own interest in the craft, materials and process of my work, but also pushing me to think more about the ideas behind the work, what I am trying to say, which is something I’m not as confident about. It all seems to have multiple possible meanings and associations, which is ok on one hand, but also hard to discuss coherently. We talked about my relationship with the places I’m depicting, with Des stressing that, for him, it was ‘all about the spaces’ in the paintings: the spaces that the trucks occupy and the spaces in the trucks themselves. I’m left thinking about that most keenly, and feel that my new large paintings are my attempt to explore some of those issues. 
Des Hughes, 'Rust Never Sleeps',  2015
I had taken three of the more modest sized paintings to discuss as well as looking at my website, which he had viewed before our meeting. Des was also very enthusiastic about the new black and white digital i-pad prints I have made, which I laid out on a long bench in the gallery. I’ve now made nearly twenty of these, and Des commented how he thought the scale of them worked perfectly, which is what I think, but you never know how other people will respond. I took these hoping to gauge a more objective response, as these digital works are a new development for me, and so I was really pleased by his enthusiasm., and we discussed how best to present them which is a dilemma I have. I hope to exhibit some of them in the group show I am putting together with Hugh and Andy in August. 
Des and I are the same age, and completed our Foundation Courses at Bournville College of Art in Birmingham at the same time. I recognised in him the same passion and commitment to making work that I have. He’s just managed to translate that into being much more successful as an artist than I have! (I’m referring to him being able to support himself full-time through his work).   

As I ate breakfast this morning I stared at my bookshelves filled with countless art books and monographs, which I can afford now, but also the countless small catalogues I used to acquire and read and take to the studio to inspire over the many years when I had no money at all but still painted as if my life depended on it. As I get older, you do wonder what it is you are doing and why, as I know I am never going to translate any of this hard work and conviction into anything more successful, and I think that gets even harder as you get older. And also you make all this ‘stuff’ that accumulates and accumulates, and yet I can’t seem to stop. Nor do I want to.

Monday, 4 July 2016

The Late Shift...

oil on canvas, 200 x 150cms, 2016
If you had been wondering what I’ve been working on in the last few months (though I don’t imagine anyone has!), it has been this large (200 x 150cms) painting. This is the third, and final, painting of this size which I had originally embarked upon for my show at Wolverhampton Art Gallery which was scheduled in May earlier this year. I had planned to create these three paintings specifically for the gallery space, and had stretched and primed all three large canvasses when I decided to pull out of the show. Still, having made the commitment to these pieces I was determined to see them through. I thought they would hopefully stretch and extend my work with this lorry theme into more challenging and formally complex areas. This has certainly been the case, particularly with this final painting which has taken me three months to complete.
 Artic Landscape, oil on canvas, 200 x 150cms, 2015-16
oil on canvas, 200 x 150cms, 2016

It has gone through many different, although often slight, stages to get to something I am satisfied with. It depicts a transport hub seen from the roadside above, with a large warehouse in the background and a line of trucks sitting at the edge of the interior space. The middle and foreground depicts a large, empty, concrete space with a group of pallets huddled together near the front. These ‘zones’ of space and the geometry have been very difficult to realize in terms of colour and treatment, and have been continually redrawn, repainted, rubbed down and tried again. I could never seem to quite get there.  At one point I thought I had got there and repainted the sky only to return the next evening to find the paint from this re- painted section had run all over the rest of it. Bugger.  In some ways though, I didn’t mind. I like how these disasters force you to think and push on again and resolve them. I don’t normally just touch up a painting to recover it, I tend to try something completely different, which is what I did this time. I repainted nearly the whole thing in about an hour and a half with lots of paint and large brushes. 

The painting is an attempt to explore more explicitly the abstraction in the image, but also approach an idea about the presence of an entirely man-made landscape scene and it’s otherworldly, alien qualities. It is obviously a place of human activity, but that also seems very absent too. Anyway…it’s hard just now to judge it that well having worked and lived with it for quite a long time. I know I am ready to leave it on its own at least.

Tomorrow, through my association with Eastside Projects in Digbeth, Birmingham, I am having a discussion/crit about my work with sculptor Des Hughes as part of their 1-2-1 scheme which I’m looking forward to. He too is interested in the transformation of the banal and everyday in his sculptural objects so I’m hoping it will be useful to talk with him.

Saturday, 18 June 2016

Something In The Night...

The Boss: Bruce Springsteen at Coventry Ricoh Stadium 2016
Any readers of this blog, even the occasional one, will have probably picked up on my passion for Bruce Springsteen’s music as reflected in my exhibition titles, writings on his concerts and records, and various other references from titles of individual paintings and my peppering of blog posts with references to lyrics and quotes.

A couple of weeks ago I saw him play live with the mighty E Street Band once again at Coventry’s Ricoh Arena. It was another amazing performance by the band, this time more stripped down to their core following the large ensemble, which included a full horn and percussion section and backing singers, which accompanied the last tour. The pared down band seemed possessed of a raw force that was at times very moving, always exciting, and also lots of fun as ever, particularly as the show reached its three and a half hour climax. One had to wonder as you joined the fifty thousand fans that drifted out the stadium in a state of euphoric awe and wonderment, and sheer exhilarated exhaustion, how Bruce does it at each night. I’ve never been to any gig that becomes such an immersive, emotional experience such as these. I was nearly in tears when at the start of the gig, after a lovely opener of ‘For You’ played unaccompanied at the piano, the whole band joined him onstage to open with ‘Something In The Night’ from ‘Darkness On The Edge Of Town’. It was an incredible moment as the piano intro started and the drums rumbled in the song’s slow build-up and Bruce’s howl (link:
I could hardly believe I was hearing it, it’s such a great song, and it set the scene and atmosphere with such a powerful and tense grip that the hairs on my arms literally stood up.  And from there you find yourself on this incredible 3 hour journey, where you really feel you are seeing something magical and thrilling unfold before your eyes as the setlist is skillfully built from a heady mixture of requests from the crowd, the popular and more well-known songs (this time including a blistering ‘Born In The USA’, a real highlight in a gig full of highlights), covers, and Bruce’s own selections from 40 years of songs.  
Bruce with guitarist Nils Lofgren
I feel so alive at these gigs that it is difficult to explain in words to the uninitiated, but you can see it in the sheer and unadulterated joy and love you see in the faces of the fans at each gig which are frequently projected onto the large screens at the front and side of the stage throughout, so caught up in the moment. It’s a wonderful and inspiring sight and testament to the experience.  

 A few days later I went to a gig by Hugh Masekela with some friends who had also been to see Bruce at Coventry. We talked non stop about the concert on the way there, and when we arrived we met a friend of theirs in the bar who had also been, and for him, despite being a music nut, this had been his first time at a Bruce gig.  On Facebook he had apparently posted, “I can’t believe it. Why have I never done that before?!!!!”. On meeting him, I recognized that familiar ‘Bruce glow’ I always have following one of his concerts. It’s a mixture of warmth, joy and inspiration. I know I go about these things, but I’m not the only one. Here’s a link to a recent Guardian article that says pretty much the same as I just have, only better. I should have just directed you there at the start of this post:
Bruce with Little Steven Van Zandt
And here is a link to one of the best Boss fan websites, Backstreets, where you can see for yourself the diversity of Bruce’s setlists and some great accounts of the recent British leg of his current European tour:  

Richmond Fontaine
When I return to earth I visit the studio and listen to nothing but Bruce for the next few weeks (as well as my other new favourite band, Richmond Fontaine, whose songs seem inhabited by the same sort of characters in many of Bruce’s songs), re-read ‘The Wanderers’ by Richard Price, watch lots of Bruce on Youtube (if you’ve not heard his recent Prince tribute of a cover of ‘Purple Rain’ you must check it out: ), start to read ‘Independence Day’ by Richard Ford, and follow lots of other Bruce threads and connections from David Simon to Rob Brydon….  
...The journey continues...

Thursday, 12 May 2016

'Black Country' by Bruce Gilden

A few months ago a friend directed me to these recent portraits (example above) by American street photographer, Bruce Gilden. They are actually taken on the mean Black Country streets of West Bromwich, where I was born and grew up, and Wolverhampton as part of an ongoing commission Gilden is doing with Sandwell community arts organisation, Multistory. My friend actually said they reminded him of my own portrait paintings of the people of West Bromwich and Sandwell that I worked on between 2006-2008, also as a commission managed by Multistory (see my website ‘Seek My Face’ page for more details of this). 

I was blown away by the impact of these ravaged and sometimes frightening faces and how Gilden had framed and taken these photos, and although flattered by my friend’s comparison, I just wish had had even come close to creating something so powerful. They seemed to speak to me very personally about my experiences about growing up in the Black Country and the types of forgotten and broken faces you encounter in a region blighted by poverty and hardship from the heavy manual work people used to do, and the mass unemployment that followed in the Eighties that has marked the area ever since. The poverty that has lead, as can be seen in some of these faces, to addiction to alcohol and drugs.  
But I also think these portraits are not unique to this particular corner of the world: you could find faces like this in any of the post-industrial towns and cities of the UK, or in the world as Gilden’s website contains very many similarly harsh portraits of people, particularly in his native America (see image below).
I was pleased therefore, to receive a link from Emma Chetcuti the Director at Multistory the other day to a short film they had made of Gilden at work, with his assistant, on the streets of West Bromwich. I was fascinated to hear of his experiences of the town, as an outsider all the way from New York, and his motivations for focussing on the more extreme faces he encountered. Indeed, he spoke of his empathy for ‘the broken’, and the underdog, a character trait that seems embedded in the Black Country psyche in my experience, which I think helps us understand the deeper, psychological drive of the artist, and remember that photography is no less subjective than painting or anything else. Are these photographs portraits of the artist? They seem part of a bigger picture to me. 
 I shared the film with my friend, Andrew Tift, the well-known portrait painter based in Walsall, who has made portrait paintings of his own of working class people from the Black Country, such as this magnificent drawing, ‘Ken’ (below) but he was less than impressed, finding them exploitative and near to, in his own words, ‘taking the piss’. This is also a view shared in this Guardian review of Gilden’s book, ‘Face’ here:
I can totally understand Andrew’s feelings, and there are some questionable moments in the film, but I’m inclined to think of them as more complex, offering a deeper and uncomfortable look into the eyes of our shared humanity.  My Dad, when I shared them with him, also thought it was a narrow view of the area, but before long was recounting stories of many of the characters, many desperate and broken too by poverty and addiction, he had worked with in the factories around West Brom, Tipton etc, and before long was making a deeper connection himself with these extraordinary portraits.  Watch the video and see what you think yourself:

George Shaw 'Plays For England...'

George Shaw, 'The Uncovered Cover (detail), humbrol enamel on canvas, 2015

It looks like artist George Shaw has been enjoying himself. This week saw the opening of his exhibition at the National Gallery in London, in the Sunley Room, ‘My Back To Nature’. It’s a culmination of his work there as the Artist-in-Residence over the last two and a half years. I can’t wait to see what he’s done in response to the collection, which is the basic remit of the residency when artists are invited to participate in the programme. These few images and this link to a review in The Guardian certainly whet the artistic appetite though….

George Shaw, humbrol enamel on canvas, 2015