Thursday, 31 December 2009

A man's list...

Yup, like a lot of men of a certain age I like to make lists, so this is my end of year review as 2009 draws to a close. All my favourite magazines are filled with their favourite records, films, books and TV at this time of year which gets the cogs in my own feeble brain whirring as to what have been my own cultural highlights.

Francisco Zurbaran, 'Saint Serapion', 1628

My favourite exhibition this year has been Wilhelm Sasnal at K21 in Dusseldorf. I think my fine art interests increasingly becoming narrower and narrower each year to just painting, and other more traditional forms such as sculpture and photography, and this exhibition pushed all the right buttons for me. Sasnal’s engagement with the medium opened up possibilities in my imagination but also confirmed some of my own convictions in the decisions I’ve made in my own painting practise in terms of keeping it mobile and varied. I also really enjoyed Van Dyke in Britain at Tate Britain, and Per Kirkeby at Tate Modern, as two other examples of the vigorous possibilities in painting from very different places but very rooted in its traditions. I always found ‘The Sacred and the Real’ at the National Gallery, the exhibition of Spanish Realism in the Polychrome sculptures and paintings of Zurbaran and Velasquez, two favourites, very moving. Seeing Zurbaran’s ‘Saint Serapion’ (above) in the flesh has been a particular highlight this year. The best things locally had to be Neal Rock’s sculptures and Gordon Cheung’s paintings at New Art Gallery Walsall. These two exhibitions, that ran alongside each other, were really exciting, particularly in their ambition and engagement with their materials in service to the ideas. I’ve also enjoyed discovering the paintings of Janet Fish and Rackstraw Downes this year.

And the worst? Well, it has to be The Event, the Birmingham Contemporary Art Forum in November. Trudging from one venue to another in Digbeth’s Eastside on a cold Sunday afternoon to view ever increasingly esoteric installations was a bit soul destroying. I did enjoy visiting the old factories where some of the events were housed though. it was just a shame to spoil them with such boring installations. When it came to being asked to fill in a questionnaire on my experience I just didn’t know where to start or what to say….I just quietly slipped it back on the table and hurried away…

Wilhelm Sasnal

In music, it’s been a great year for my two favourite artists, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. The Boss’s ‘Working On A Dream’ was an album full of surprises and memorable songs, both uplifting and stirring, poignant and poetic. I really loved it, and his Glastonbury performance with the E Street Band was so exciting. Dylan’s Together Through Life was a great record too, with a warmer, more spontaneous feel than ‘Modern Times’, and Christmas In The Heart, the controversial Christmas album is inspired to these ears. It’s like a Theme Time Radio Hour Christmas Special only with all the songs performed by his Bobness. It’s divided opinion but I think the arrangements are terrific. It’s been on my stereo non-stop in the last few weeks anyway.

I’ve also recently enjoyed updating my Kraftwerk albums with the digitally remastered Autobahn and Radio Activity. I think the latter must be one of the most affecting albums I’ve ever heard. It’s both disturbing in parts with its experimental sounds and also very sad. Also sad and wonderfully melanchoIy was Richard Hawley’s ‘Trueloves Gutter’. I was also lucky enough to see him live at the Town Hall earlier in the year-he was fantastic, one of the best live acts around.


I’ve also enjoyed a good slice of so-called Americana (which seems to cover most things American with guitars) with The Gaslight Anthem’s ‘The 59 Sound’, Ryan Adams’ ’29’ and ‘Jacksonville City Nights’, The Low Anthem’s ‘Oh My God, Charlie Darwin’, Grizzly Bear’s ‘Vectamist’ and The Felice Brother’s ‘Yonder Is The Clock’. The latter were 2009 releases, and are all terrific listens, but my album of the year has to go to The Low Anthem (below) with its range of songs that were one minute reminiscent of Simon and Garfunkel, the next Tom Waits in raucous jug blues band mood. ‘Champion Angel’ must be song of the year. They were a spectacular live act at The Glee Club in Birmingham too, as were The Felice Brothers.

I’ve not seen much in the way of new films this year, but really enjoyed ‘The Wrestler’ and the lo-fi sci-fi ‘Moon’. The film which made the most lasting impression had to be Swedish Vampire film, Let The Right One In. As mentioned in a previous blog my favourite TV was all five seasons of ‘The Wire’ which were shown late on BBC2, and also ‘Occupation’. This 3-part British drama set in war-torn Iraq proved that our own home grown drama can be every bit as good as the American dramas that are so lauded. It was an amazing piece with very powerful performances by James Nesbitt and Stephen Graham. It was every bit as good as The Wire. I also, rather guiltily, enjoyed ‘Desperate Romantics’, the (very) fictionalised story of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, an art movement I’ve never really enjoyed, but this was great fun, again with great performances.

Let The Right One In

I’ve read a fair bit too as usual. I’ve previously blogged about my enjoyment of the novel, ‘Heartland’ by Anthony Cartwright which is probably my favourite book this year. I discovered the poetry of Jackie Kay, and enjoyed her ‘Adoption Papers’ and the collection ‘Darling’. More recently I read my first George Pelacanos (below) book, ‘The Night Gardener’, which was really absorbing and unexpected. It was very reminiscent of ‘The Wire’, which shouldn’t be a big surprise as he produces and writes a lot of it, but also had a downbeat quality with an interest in the ordinary and mundane details which I always enjoy and relate to.

As a postscript to the previos blog where I asked what am I going to do now ‘The Wire’ has finished, Santa kindly bought me the DVD miniseries ‘The Corner’, which was the precursor to ‘The Wire’ and the book ‘The Wire:Truth Be Told’, by Rafael Alvarez, the inside story of the series. So that should keep me going! Happy New Year!

(Please feel free to share some of your own lists...!)

Thursday, 24 December 2009

The Wire

I watched the last episode of the final series of ‘The Wire’ on Tuesday evening. Earlier in the year we bought a HD recorder and recorded all five series when they were shown late on BBC2. Over the last few months, Diane and I have sat down every night to watch an episode totally gripped and drawn into this dense, complex and dark world of modern urban America. I’m suffering from withdrawal symptoms as I write. What shall I do with my evenings? How can I go to bed without my head full of Bunk, Bubbles and Omar, trying to disentangle the latest development in the plot, and trying to second guess how things will unfold, tense and frustrated that Marlo Stansfield and his crew still walks the streets of Baltimore…?

‘If it’s not the best thing you’ve ever seen, you’ve not seen it’, runs the excerpt from a review on the box set. I can’t help but agree. There has been so much written about it, and you can understand why. It’s off the air now (as usual I’m about two years behind everyone else), the series ending its run with HBO in March 2008. It was not by any means a hit, with the last episode aired to an audience of some 100,000’s rather than millions. It’s success was through the box sets and word of mouth, but it’s cultural impact resonates enormously. I don’t want to repeat the details of the show which has been extensively written about much better than I could ever hope to do here. The show’s own website is a brilliant guide if you’ve not seen it, and has a great archive to the show and all that has been written about it. I just wanted to add a little about it’s impact on me and why I have felt so inspired by it.

I’ve just loved ‘The Wire’ and its characters. Over the course of each series the cast of characters continued to develop their stories and expand with new characters introduced, other ones finishing (often in untimely, violent deaths). I think the real achievement in why the series worked so well was not so much in the brilliantly innovative storytelling techniques, and the unflinching eye that it cast on the society and communities portrayed, but more in the traditions of why all great TV, Film and literature work: the ability to create great characters that draw you in, that you can empathise with, root for, that express something of our shared humanity. And this is what I loved above all else about The Wire (although I was amazed by the other things too). It’s interesting to note therefore that series creator, David Simon, says he had little interest as a writer in character development. Which you can see too in the sense that very little is explored about the individual characters background stories, motivations or personal lives, it is acted out in the moment in the greater service to the narrative arc. And yet who else can express something of our shared humanity as deeply as the character of Bubbles? How can you root for your favourite character (and Barack Obama’s) who is a violent outlaw like Omar Little who acts by his own screwed-up code of ethics that you think makes perfect sense? There were so many memorable characters amongst the regular cast: Valchek; Landsman; Denis; Brother Mouzone; Duquan and many, many more. The performances throughout have been inspiring. The stories told as much in a look or a gesture, as in the words spoken.

The boundaries between the so called ‘good guys’ (the law) and the ‘bad guys’ (the street, the drug gangs) were not so much blurred but obliterated. Most of the time, I felt more in sympathy with the street characters, which considering the often depraved lives they lived again says something of the skill in the writing. I even found myself in sympathy right at the end with ‘Snoop’, one of the most malevolent characters ever seen on TV, as she faced her own death. You couldn’t without hesitation say the lives they lived were wrong. For most, it was the only options they had, or bad decisions made from limited choices. It must be the one of the best written things about the black experience of living in modern well as all the other issues it deals with. I’m not sure how much of an impact it has had on black audiences and whether they recognised it. I’d be really interested in finding this out.

Anyway, I could go on and on. I feel really lost without it. The big question for me now is: what am I going to watch now?

Monday, 21 December 2009

Andrew Page and Jippi Comics

As well as the great Christmas cards, the season is increasingly often the only time I catch up with old friends from year to year. I’ve just come off the phone from my good friend Andrew Page who has just told me the news that he has had his first graphic novel published by Jippi Comics in Norway ( It’s great to see Andy’s talents recognised. We both studied on the MA Fine Art course at Norwich School of Art and Design ’back in the day’(as my students would say). Andy has lived in Norway now for many years, and since taking this new direction he seems to have really found his artistic voice.

Here is the Jippi Comics press release for ’Kunsten å knyte en knute’ (Yes, it is in Nowegian)

’Mr. Sule is alone on a small boat at sea. Suddenly he is seized by a whale. His friends in the local fishing village decides to hunt for him. Is it possible to still find him alive? The quest that follows is both an inner and outer journey includes both action and philosophy.This is a completed original graphic novel that owes inspiration to Herman Melville as well as Samuel Beckett.

Andrew Page makes an impressive debut album after he previously released a number of his own fanzines in recent years. Order the album from Jippi Cafe.’
I’d really recommend it, if your Norwegian isn’t up to it, Andy works more in pictures than words so I don’t think there would be too much lost in translation. Here’s a link to Andy’s own webpage:

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Seasons Greetings...

It’s great having artist friends. I always look forward to receiving their home made Christmas cards at this time of year. I’ve had some brilliant ones over the years, and this year is proving to be just as good as ever. Here are a few examples that have landed on my doorstep so far….

So This Is Christmas from ‘Stolen Moments 1978-2009’ by Tony Lawlor, photographer, Birmingham

A brilliant ceramic card/tree decoration from Pat O’Donohue, ceramicist, Birmingham

Façade of the Nativity Sagrada Familia from one of his sketchbook drawings…Barcelona April 2009, Chris Cowdrill, Illustrator, Birmingham

A great drawing from Pierre Turton, Art Therapist, Glasgow

And here’s this year’s from Diane and myself… Garden and Studio in The Snow, February 2009

Merry Christmas and a happy New Year to all friends and followers of the blog.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

School of Infantilism

I’m sure there will be lots of art bloggers tapping away furiously in response to ‘The School of Saatchi’ TV show which finished its four week run the other night. I thought I ought to make a little contribution of my own as I found myself turning off the TV as soon as the credits rolled up at my wife’s disgusted insistence. ‘Turn that rubbish off- that must have been the biggest pile of living and breathing rubbish I’ve ever seen ‘. It wasn’t the word rubbish really, but I think you can guess the adjective.

She’s right of course. I’ve found myself equally amazed at quite how bad the show was and depressed at how it’s confirmed so many of my own prejudices (I did want to enjoy it- honest!). I’ve also found it really funny too, particularly this week’s episode which seemed all too often to remind me of Galton and Simpson’s brilliant Tony Hancock film ‘The Rebel’. All it needed was a guest appearance from Irene Handl as Mrs Cravat, Tony’s landlady and we would have been there. The hilarious Van Der Graaf Generator sculpture was the modern day equivalent of the ‘magnificent beauty’ that was Hancock’s famous ‘Aphrodite at the Waterhole’.

I think I wasn’t so fed up with the artists themselves, it was more the critics and curators that wound me up, in particular Tracey Emin and Matthew Collings. Collings seems to increasingly lay his hat wherever seem s convenient if you ask me, or with whoever is paying. I’ve read alot of his writing over the years, and enjoyed much of it, but I find myself increasingly irritated by what he has to say. It seems to centre around a formal obsession that I find increasingly condescending to anyone who is remotely visually literate. His recent ‘Ten Things About Beauty’ on BBC Four was awful. He does argue though, and I tend to agree, most contemporary fine art is really lacking in any visual literacy...but give me Waldemar Janusczack, Andrew Graham-Dixon or Simon Schama any day. They write with insight, passion and a real commitment to their subject.

And Tracey Emin? Well, it’s taken me ages to appreciate Emin’s work, but her rampant ego and the vague self-important rubbish she spouted every time she appeared was really off-putting. I listened mildly disturbed to her ‘Desert Island Discs’ a couple of years ago where she described her tent and un-made bed as seminal pieces comparable to Picasso and Braque’s breakthrough with cubism. It’s not that I’m knocking these pieces, but they are essentially a Duchampian thing, not seminal like Picasso’s achievements in Paris. Let’s get some perspective, Tracey. I don’t think the art world has ever recovered from that urinal of Duchamp’s. I suppose my attitude to Emin is rather like that of Hancock's landlady at the start of the film. Informed that the hideous statue taking up most of his bedroom is "impressionist", she replies:
"Well, it doesn't impress me. I want it out of here."

And finally, what of the artists selected for the show? I can’t believe from the THOUSANDS that applied they couldn’t find a more interesting bunch. I think what I struggled with, and what was one of the core problems for me, was their age. They were just so young with very little to say or no meaningful practise established, which was really reflected in the work they made.

I’m just going to put a couple of pictures from ‘The Rebel’ on this blog. Tony’s School of Infantilism was head and shoulders above the School of Saatchi.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

A Slice Of Christmas Action...

I’ve just had a busy weekend at the first Joseph Chamberlain Sixth Form Art Department Christmas Fair. I’ve really enjoyed myself amongst all the great regional artists that we managed to get on board to take part. These included friends such as leading ceramicists Craig Underhill, Simon Hancox, Emma Spence, and Serge Sanghera. Serge is an interesting artist whose ceramic practise revolves around his interest in the relationship between the martial art aikido and the circular movement of the clay vessel on the wheel. After some meditation Serge slices the revolving vessel with a samurai sword. His demonstrations in his martial art gear had everyone spellbound.
The vessels themselves are simple forms that when sliced create incredibly beautiful new forms from the momentum of the action as it strikes the moving clay. I loved the process of his art, the fact that they were created ‘in the moment’, with very little interference later, just a stroke of painted glaze. They had a poetic quality that really moved me. I treated myself to one of them as an early Chrimbo present (to myself!) Here’s a link to his website:

Craig Underhill

I also managed to acquire one of Craig’s vessels, which I’ve long admired but can never select one, until this weekend. We exchanged a piece for one of my recent etchings. Above is an example similar to the one I obtained. I also sold one of these etchings to photographer (and fellow Bob Dylan nut!) Tony Lawlor. We exchanged money to the sound of Bob’s wonderful ‘Christmas In The Heart’ CD tinkling in the background. It was a nice surprise to sell something. It made me feel a bit more relaxed about buying one of Serge’s vessels. My etchings received lots of good feedback, which was encouraging.

It was great chatting to all the visitors and artists over the weekend, which also included painters, clock makers, jewellers, and wood turners, and make a few new contacts. I think the students also got a lot out of meeting the artists too. We could have done with a few more visitors, but it was the department’s first event of this kind. I personally hope to see it grow. It certainly inspired me…

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

'Autumn to Winter': notes from the studio

'Alan', oil on canvas, 90 x 60cms

I’ve been busy over the last few weeks in the studio. Aside from working on ‘The Moz Award’, I’ve been trying to lock myself away to stay focussed on creating some new paintings. I’ve had a vague concept in my head of the theme ‘Autumn to Winter’ to help hang things on. I do mean only loosely though, with the idea of letting the colours and textures of the outdoors inform the formal decisions I make.

I did my first portrait in over a year, ‘Alan’, a portrait of Alan Cheeseman who owns and curates the Chameleon Gallery in Walsall. I really enjoyed doing it, and it was good to re-connect with this side of my work. I feel it has a more confident and ‘up’ feel than a lot of the work I’ve made recently. I have often felt the best portraits I’ve made express all that I want to say as an painter. I think at the moment however, I need to keep pushing the ‘nature’ paintings where things are less comfortable, such as the one below based on a study of an autumn tree.

'November' oil on canvas, 120 x 100cms

This is a larger painting, and painted very loosely. I surprised myself at how loose I was happy to keep it, but it just seemed quite quickly to become it’s own thing that I didn’t feel that it needed my hand interfering with it anymore. I wanted it to look like it was painted outdoors ‘plein air’, like the study it was made from, and think it does this and more. It was great fun.

'Wild Flowers', oil on canvas, 100 x 150cms

This blue painting, ‘Wild Flowers’ was made from further studies I had that informed my very large ‘Eve Of The Day’ painting. Initially it was intended to continue an exploration of the formal decisions I made there, and it was this, but since it’s creation it has very much asserted it’s own identity to me. I’ve really learned to like this one.

'Yellow and Purple', oil on canvas, 85 x 70cms

‘Yellow and Purple’(above) was shown hot off the easel at my recent ‘Thirteen’ exhibition. It was still wet as I put it on the wall, but often my paintings are. This and the large painting I did this last weekend on the easel in the studio photo, are based on dahlia’s my Dad planted on his allotment over the summer in my brother Stu’s favourite colours. The plot was covered in them, and each week he would bring more back to my parent’s home and put them in jars around the house. I found it very moving, and felt compelled to record this in drawings and paintings. I think the allotment has been a place to work through my Dad’s grief, as the studio has been mine. ‘Yellow and Purple’ on reflection seemed like a portrait of my Dad and Stu’s relationship. It’s ended up on my Dad’s living room wall which I’m pleased about. I did it for him.

I hope you find these notes of interest. Any comments are always welcome!