Friday, 28 August 2009

Chance Encounters...

Jacques-Henri Boiffard

I enjoyed ‘Subversive Spaces, Surrealism and Contemporary Art’ at Compton Verney the other day. The exhibition examines the legacy of the Surrealist project in two distinct spaces. Psychic Interiors uses themes of psychic disturbance- anxiety and hysteria- to explore the spaces of the home. Wandering the City follows the Surrealists’ preoccupation with walking around the streets as a means to discover hidden social spaces as well as unconscious fears and desires. It is in these spaces, both private and public, that the ghosts of Surrealism are to be found, stalking both our homes and our streets.

The whole exhibition was really thought provoking, but I found myself being drawn to the latter theme of Wandering the City, as I recognised in this idea parallels with my own approach to subject matter that I previously hadn’t considered, and was surprised to see them in an exhibition on Surrealism, as it is an art movement I’ve never really had a lot of personal interest in. For the Surrealists, wandering the city was a means of letting themselves be surprised by chance encounters, and discovering their own fears and desires. Jacques-Henri Boiffard’s dead-pan, black and white illustrations for Andre Breton’s novel Nadja suggest that the most banal location can become the setting for the unexpected.

It is this ‘chance encounters’ theme that I particularly related to, as I approached my recent portrait work in a similar fashion. In both ‘Seek My Face’ and ‘Audience’ for JCC, nine times out of ten, I hadn’t met the sitter before turning up to draw them, so I had no expectations of who I was going to meet. I had normally just arranged the sitting by phone or e-mail as I tracked down possible sitters from all sorts of contacts, or from pinning up a notice for volunteers.
I found this way of working on portraits really exciting, as it helps eliminate the possibility of selecting sitters for the character in their faces or because of their lives of jobs or achievements. Inevitably, I had to then ‘select’ individuals from all my drawings to create the paintings, but the starting points always tended to be from creating a situation where there was room for surprise and ‘chance’, in what would be a very intimate one on one situation between artist and sitter. I try and force myself into a position where I have to deal with the form and features of the sitter in that precise moment and place, as I also don't use photographs as an aide memoire or record.

'Bernard'. oil on canvas, 60 x 210cms, 2007

I approach my ‘Nature’ paintings in a similar vein, especially the work done on location outdoors, but feel that this is still relatively under-developed compared to my portrait work. I try to be completely open minded to seeking subjects, and often set-up to paint or draw when out walking, looking for that surprise in the banal. It often only reveals itself as you observe and translate what you see in a drawing or painted study. Also, the continued use of my sketchbook to draw just for drawings sake, has lead to my recent ‘Eve Of The Day’ painting and others which are just developed from drawings made of flowers in the neighbour’s garden, when I inadvertently find myself in front of something with my sketchbook. It is often only later when I’m in the studio and I have chance to reflect on my ‘chance encounters’ with the landscape that things start to suggest themselves as starting points for a painting. It’s about being open to these things and trying to avoid cliche.

'Motorway', oil on canvas, 90 x 60cms, 2004
Up until this week, I’d never made the connection with Surrealism. This ‘chance encounter’ with the exhibition has proved really exciting and something to explore further. Don’t you just love it when that happens…?

Monday, 24 August 2009

More Monkey Business...Chris Cowdrill

I went to Twycross Zoo with my photographer friend, Laura and also Chris Cowdrill. Chris is a really talented illustrator, and has great drawing skills. He manages with great observation, precision and economy to really capture a subject and filter it through his unique style. He makes it look so easy too, but anyone who has ever picked up a pencil would know how difficult these things are to do successfully. Here are some of his sketchbook drawings from our trip, and a link to his website:

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Too Much Monkey Business...

At the Elephant Enclosure:

Is he dead?
He looks dead. He isn’t breathing…
He’s not dead
His arse is as big as mine
No it ain’t

Or in the Monkey House:
Hey Dave, he looks like you, only not as ugly! (overheard several times. Replace name accordingly)
Look at his bum.
Oh no, he’s doing a poo…
Look Mom, he’s doing a poo!
Yes. Let’s go and look at the Giraffes…

These were just snippets of conversation I overhead last week, as I was drawing at Twycross Zoo. It was so busy with the school holidays in full force, it was quite difficult to find anywhere to draw. I’ve been more interested in trying to draw the animal enclosures themselves, rather than the animals, for some time. I particularly like the Gorilla House. It was only when I managed to find the one enclosure that was not occupied by a gorilla, that I completed the sketchbook drawing below.

This clean and tidy place was ‘their bedroom, and the messy one with gorilla’s in next to it was their living room’, according to two small children.

Monday, 10 August 2009

Down on the Farm...

I had a lovely morning last week drawing at my friend Liz Monk’s farm near Bromsgrove. Liz has lots of Highland Cattle which I was particularly keen to draw, and spent my time perched on my stool in the middle of the field as these huge animals circled inquisitively around me. I did get a little nervous when they almost ate my sketchbook. The horns were rather big, but Liz assured me they were only being nosy.

I went with my photographer friend, Laura Gale, who specialises in animal photography. She took some excellent photographs, including the one above of me ignorant to the slowly advancing cows, including the very large bull. Who said you should never take your eye off the subject when drawing? Laura was a bit more prepared for the muddy conditions than me in her red wellies compared to my trainers. It made me smile later on when I went to find her in the sheep field. I arrived just to see a large flock of sheep come fleeing down the hill, swiftly followed by Laura in those red wellies with camera in one hand and large portable flash in the other. ‘I don’t think they like me’ she said. Here are some of Laura's photo's. I think they're great. They really capture life on Liz's family farm.

Chadwich Manor Farm is also the home to Liz’s ceramic studio and gallery. She is an excellent and very experienced ceramicist, and you can watch Liz at work as you browse the gallery. It’s a great set-up in this wonderful location. Here’s a link to Liz’s website:

I’m off to Twycross Zoo with Laura this week. I’ll keep you posted.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

New paintings

'The Eve Of The Day', oil on canvas, 100 x 300cms, 2009
I wanted to draw your attention to the fact that I have added ten new paintings to the ‘Nature’ section of my website. They include the one above, which I only did last week, and others that I have been working on largely this year. I was keen to develop this side of my work, particularly after the large group portraits I was commissioned to do last summer for Joseph Chamberlain Sixth Form College, which was very challenging. Indeed, the first painting I did after that commission was ‘Spring’, a very energetic painting which was an attempt to just paint much more freely and expressively after the control and stressful conditions I had had to work with on the portraits. I painted most of it flat on the floor.

As I mentioned in a previous blog, my painting practise over the last few months has been very much informed by the experience of seeing my brother’s condition worsen as he suffered from cancer and eventually died. The motifs of flowers and trees have taken on an increasingly powerful resonance for me and became important metaphors for some of my feelings and experiences. Of course, it is a theme that has traditionally been used by artists for centuries to explore issues around the fragility of life, loss and death. Interestingly, I didn’t really look at this tradition again. My initial motivations behind the images were always more formal ones, as they usually are, to do with different ways of painting, exploring compositional elements, and trying to push the work into newer territories. It just inevitably rose to the surface as I developed the work. It could be seen as quite clich├ęd a theme, but for me it just felt very real and ‘right’, making you realise where these things come from. As the months went on I have worked with a heightened compulsion I’ve not felt for a long time, which seemed to disappear almost as soon as Stu passed away. Some of the paintings are only just begiining to make some sort of sense sense now. I think the act of painting itself has just given me a space to explore and work through difficult feelings, and this in itself has been really helpful. Like a good friend. The artist Maggi Hambling has often said that the relationship you have with your painting must become like that of a best friend, which is something I have always really liked, and now more deeply understand.

That is some of the background to the work. At the end of the day, the paintings have to stand alone and exist on their own merits. I’m currently looking into venues to try and exhibit them as a body of work in a solo show next year sometime. I hope you find them interesting, and any comments are always welcome.

Monday, 3 August 2009

The Stu Morris Fun Run 2009

I’m pleased to say I managed to complete the 5K ‘Stu Morris Fun Run’ yesterday around Sandwell Valley, and I can still walk today. It was a great day, although very emotional at times. There were around 100 people, largely from Stu’s workplace, and friends and family and an estimated £2000 at least has been raised for The Willow Foundation so far. My wife, Diane and I (that's us limbering up in the photo above)have managed to raise about £630. I’ve been a bit overwhelmed by support from friends, and also work colleagues at Joseph Chamberlain Sixth Form College, who’ve organised cake days, and also donated artwork for a raffle at the recent Art Festival we held, alongside all the sponsorship. I’d just like to take the opportunity here to thank everyone who has supported me. It means a great deal.

Stu’s work, Sandwell Council, wish to make it an annual event now, and have also asked me whether I can help design and make a small award named after Stu to be presented each year to one of the team to recognise outstanding achievement at work. It will be nicknamed ‘The Moz’, as Stu was affectionately named. I feel very proud and a bit overwhelmed that people want to remember my younger brother this way. It seems to speak volumes about how he touched people’s lives.

Here’s a photo of me and Diane with my parents, and Stu’s wife, Emma, and son Brody at the front, with her family. All of us looking sweatily relieved after our run! And below that is a photo of me with my Dad.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Royal Academy Summer Exhibition A Big Con Shock!

I had a few days in London at the start of the week, staying with friends and meeting up with some others. It was great. In between I managed to visit lots of exhibitions across the Capital, mainly at the big institutional galleries, as there was a lot I was keen to see (I’ve also got my Tate members card this year and I’m determined to get my money’s worth!).

On Monday, I started off at the Saatchi Gallery’s ‘Abstract America’, which I found a bit boring if I’m honest. My tastes in contemporary painting lean towards abstract painting, but I found the painters in this exhibition all trying a bit hard- there was too much thinking about it, and not enough passion or heart. The result was a rather lifeless selection of work, which just wasn’t that exciting to look at. The abstract sculpture that was on display had much more energy though. Over at Tate Modern I enjoyed the Futurism exhibition, where the paintings by comparison seemed much more fresh and powerful even now. Better still was the retrospective of Danish painter and sculptor Per Kirkeby, whose work had a great elemental energy to it that I found very inspiring. I found myself going back to it on Wednesday morning for a second look (the advantages of my Tate card…).

Per Kirkeby
On Tuesday I was confronted by a large man dressed in a sequinned dress and an enormous feather headdress on top of the Fourth Plinth as I entered Trafalgar Square on my way to the National Gallery. I had my usual little pilgrimage to Piero Della Francesca’s ‘Baptism of Christ’ (my favourite painting), before heading down to the Sainsbury Wing to the lovely ‘Corot to Manet’ landscape exhibition. As I descended the stairs I looked out of the huge windows with a direct view on to the Fourth Plinth and there was the aforementioned man now naked except for the headdress! It was only 10.15am. He then proceeded to dress in a bright yellow ‘Angel of the North’ costume and salute from north to south. It was all rather marvellous.

Later on I had a mooch around Cork Street, and discovered a great Ken Currie exhibition at Flowers. I then headed to my first Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. This was a bit of a shock as I thought most of the work was pretty awful if I’m honest. I was also shocked by how little space is actually given over to the exhibition of art by members of the public, which so much is made of on the television and in the press. There was only a small room and the printmaking room that was used, with a few other bits intermingled in one of the other room amongst the so-called ‘Academicians’. It all seemed a big con! And it looked rubbish anyway, it really did. My advice to anyone thinking of entering is- don’t bother. You’ve got a cat in hell’s chance of getting in at great cost and inconvenience, and your work won’t look any good anyway next to someone’s picture of their cat. It could be worse though- you could be next to the extraordinarily bad Anthony Green.

Jeff Koons
Gasping for air, I staggered up to the Serpentine Gallery to see the first show in a UK public gallery of Jeff Koons’ art . I found this all a bit weird and creepy. People seemed obsessed by the fact that the inflatable toys were made from stainless steel, and by the photo-realist techniques in the paintings. It all seemed to get in the way for me, and mask what was a very empty experience. I just couldn’t get the work to ‘save my life’ in the way Jeff wanted.
Elizabeth Peyton
I visited the newly refurbished Whitechapel Gallery on Wednesday on the off chance as I waited for a friend who was running late. I was pleased to discover a major retrospective called ‘Live Forever’ of the American painter, Elizabeth Peyton, whose work I quite like. It was great to see so many of the paintings in the flesh, as reproductions don’t do them justice in terms of their intimate scale and Elizabeth’s incredibly skilled handling of oil paint. All the images of the ‘beautiful people’ that she depicts, including many famous rock stars dead or alive did jar after a while.It all got a bit sickening and repetitive after a bit, where I found myself longing for a different tone to the images where the artist was less in thrall to it’s glamorous subjects. I yearned for something grittier. Time to go back home to the Midlands…