Tuesday, 30 November 2010

'Immortality'- New Paintings by Ken Currie

Mars, oil on canvas, 210 x 300cms, 2008

As anyone who reads the blog will probably know I’m a big fan of Scottish painter Ken Currie, a contemporary of Peter Howson mentioned in the last entry. In the Eighties they were labeled as ‘The New Glasgow Boys’ with the late Stephen Campbell and Adrian Wiznieskei. His latest paintings are on show at Flowers East, New York, which may mean getting to view them may be a bit difficult, but the images on the Flowers website are well worth a look. I really like the way he has started to paint more convincing portraits. They seem less mannered and stylized than previous paintings. The gallery press release explains some of the motivations behind the work. I’ve cut and pasted some of it below…

Proud and Terrible King, oil on canvas, 167 x 137, 2009

“Dark and dramatic both physically and thematically, Immortality can be viewed as a meditation upon the nature of portraiture itself. While Ken Currie draws upon traditional portrait conventions, these figure paintings do not depict the likenesses of actual people. They are a presentation of an invented world of aristocrats, patrons, military and religious officials, and other esteemed persons who would traditionally be deemed “worthy” of being immortalized in a commissioned portrait.

Currie presents a kind of portraiture in which there are no holds barred, where the painter is not circumscribed by his own desire to flatter or his need for diplomacy. He shows a portraitist free to paint what he has actually seen or construed, and often reverses the process of accentuating the positive. In Currie’s hands, art collectors are depicted not as glossy, proud patrons of the arts, but anxious and vain in front of their acquisitions. A war “hero” sits astride a winded and thirsty horse. A suited man in a typical corporate headquarters-style pose is depicted without trousers.

Chimera, oil on canvas, 240 x 360cms, 2010

Immortality has a spirit of competition with the Spanish masters Currie so admires. Homage to Velázquez in particular can be seen in some of the works, including the large scale Chimera. In Chimera, the space is confusing and ambiguous - the viewer is unaware of his or her physical relationship with these figures: a cradle-to-grave collection of a family. As in Velázquez’s Las Meninas, the artist and the painting itself are found among this fictitious group. On the extreme right, one can see the left hand side of a canvas that is in fact the left hand side of the painting currently being viewed. Currie is shown scrutinizing his canvas, blade in hand, reminding the spectator that a painting is contingent - the painter can decide at any point to destroy what he has created. In another echo of Las Meninas, the artist seems to appear again as the backlit figure standing at an open doorway, looking past the cast of characters and out towards the viewer. Currie suggests the power of painting by creating something both rational and irrational, that exists and yet has no existence, that is real and yet a chimera.”

Follow the link to see more…the ambition of these two artists leave most of other contemporary painters in the shade


Sunday, 28 November 2010

'The Madness of Peter Howson'

I found ‘The Madness Of Peter Howson’ on BBC Four the other night totally compelling viewing. It was a fascinating documentary that followed the famous Scottish artist as he struggled to complete an important commission for the Catholic church in Glasgow, depicting the martyrdom of Saint John Ogilvy.

He talked candidly on screen about his struggles with drink and drug addiction, money, Asperger’s Syndrome, and the devastating effect these things had had on his obviously fragile mental health. In recent years he has sobered up and become a born again Christian, yet the incredible compulsive drive and passion he demonstrated to make his dense, knotty, bold, and often eccentric figurative paintings just leaped off the screen. There was something of a caged, wounded animal about him as he padded restlessly about his home and studio. He even described himself as ‘a complete nutter’ at one point. I found myself thinking there was something pathetic about him, but also almost heroic. I was very moved, and couldn’t help but come away with a re-found admiration for this artist that I had previously lost.

Peter Howson 'The Heroic Dosser', 1987

I used to be a big fan of Howson’s art, particularly as a student. I learned so much about handling big scale figurative compositions from looking at his expressive paintings. They had a directness in their handling and energy I really admired, and gave me a lot of confidence in trying similar things in my own big paintings. I also loved their subject matter with their depictions of the Scottish working class, particularly the macho male world of Glasgow; a world of illegal boxing clubs and violent bars that Howson frequented. It was a far cry from the sedate and worthy depictions of the English working class to be found in Coldstream and Gore etc. I was really excited by his work as I was trying to attempt similar things about my own working class experience. Howson’s paintings were often shocking and brutal, and really unfashionable south of the border, which is never a bad thing and always appealed to me. I remember finally visiting the Gallowgate area of Glasgow where Howson had his studio, thinking it can’t be that bad. But it was. It was like a theatre of the world. It made me think Howson didn’t go far enough in his art.

But as time went on the work seemed to get more and more horribly mannered and repetitive. The brutish figures became much more parodies of their former selves and almost Marvel-like in their depictions of his muscle-bound anti-heroes. And when Jesus appeared on the streets of Glasgow, well….I was out of there. He seemed unable to move on, almost as if it was the money not the art that motivated him.

Peter Howson, 'The Martyrdom of Saint John Ogilvy', 2010

And I think there still is that side to the paintings he makes now. I really don’t like the way he depicts the figure with the huge distortions he makes to twisted limbs, swollen feet and monstrous hands. But the repetition, the sense that he just makes the same painting over and over again, I felt I did get closer to understanding through the film. His compulsive nature just drove him on and on, never satisfied, the figures a cipher for his troubled and turbulent emotional self, not really about Glasgow’s hard men anymore. They seemed more like the demons in his mind. It was very affecting, and made the work very powerful. He seemed lost in this chaotic world he had made. A brilliant documentary.

Monday, 22 November 2010

'New Art Now'- Nein Danke

Miao Xiaochun 'ORBIT' at BMAG

I popped into Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery today in anticipation of enjoying their ‘New Art Now’ exhibition of recent acquisitions of contemporary art, Drawn in by the Fiona Rae painting on the flyer, the exhibition seemed promising with apparently a more international range of artists’ work to get away supposedly from much of the so-called ‘regionalism’ of the collection.

What a disappointing and dull experience it proved to be. I actually like many of the artists on display, yet found the whole hanging and feel of the show very uninspiring. It just seemed very flat and boring, lacking variety although there was a diverse range of work. It just all seemed to have a ‘cool’ and detached feel, with much of the work possessing an obsession with formalism that kept me at arm’s length.

The Fiona Rae piece was not her best, with just not enough of the dynamism and formal inventive energy that I love in much of her work. There was a Jason Martin piece that seemed really dated already somehow, although I hate things to be defined on those terms. I love George Shaw’s and Callum Innes’s paintings usually too, but I felt there work lacked their usual power in this context.

The international work was represented by the German printmaker, Christaine Baumgartner, and Chinese artist, Miao Xiaochun. Baumgartner’s giant woodcuts were based on video stills of reflections in the Birmingham canals. I didn’t enjoy these, either as images, or as depictions of water, lacking the visual complexity of their subject. The monumental photograph by Miao Xiaochun, one of China’s leasing artists, was apparently inspired by the flattened perspective to be found in Chinese scroll paintings, where the artist had manipulated his photograph of a Chinese bus station to create a similar effect, where all the elements existed on the same perspective plane across the picture. To be honest the effect was so subtle as it made me wonder why he bothered, and I can’t but help finding manipulated photographs like this more and more boring. I never really liked them. The image itself was surprisingly just not that interesting to engage you more fully either, with or without the photo trickery.

I think galleries like BMAG play an important role in supporting our regional artists and exposing their work to visitors from outside the area. The ‘How Art Is Made’ gallery at BMAG showcases some excellent artworks by some of the regions artists. I would hate to see this neglected in favour of these recent acquisitions which really failed to impress this visitor today. I felt really let down, particularly as I helped to pay for these pieces.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Late November

David Gunnings

I enjoyed a drive in the late afternoon on Sunday through the Worcestershire countryside. The light glowed through the trees and across the land. The landscape has now turned to yellow ochre’s, burnt umber browns and earthy greens as the previously glorious autumnal colours have faded, signaling the beginning of winter. My son was dozing in the back of the car, and Midlake were on the stereo. I love the thinking space that driving allows.

I’ve been trying to process some of the very different exhibitions I’ve seen lately, and some of the work I’ve been trying to make. At Bilston Craft Gallery I really enjoyed an exhibition of etchings and etching plates by Bilston born artist, David Gunnings. The exhibition spanned thirty years of this artist’s career and his experience of depicting the disappearing manufacturing landscape of the Black Country and beyond to Ironbridge. Developed from drawings completed entirely on location, the etchings had a terrific quality of mark and line that seemed to move and unearth the scene. Although I liked the Black Country scenes, particularly the ones actually inside former factories and forge mills, I was most drawn to his etchings of the ancient standing stones sites of Britain. I love the images, but also Gunning’s obsession with traveling across Britain to discover and draw all the sites he could. The excitement of traveling to far flung corners of the UK, sketchbook in hand, never knowing what you may find must be a real thrill. For an hour there, I really wanted to be David Gunnings.

David Gunnings

Last Wednesday I attended the Private View of celebrated Magnum photographer Martin Parr’s exhibition of over 600 photographs he has taken of the Black Country in the last year at The Public, West Bromwich. Parr is very well known and respected and it has been a real coup for the region to commission him to work here, largely based in West Bromwich, and managed by Multistory, who I too have been lucky enough to work with. He also worked with the HNC photography students at Sandwell College, mentoring and helping them with their own work, a selection of which was shown alongside Parr’s in an exhibition called ‘Show Me A Secret’.

Martin Parr

The Private View was very busy, and it was great to see The Public finally drawing in large numbers of people. I must admit I was a little underwhelmed by Parr’s photographs though. The installation of over 600 was a bit much to take in, but there was an edited and more curated exhibition of some of the photos upstairs,which seemed to make more of a statement. I ended up preferring some of the works in the student show, which seemed to possess an edge that was missing in Parr’s work. He’s not a photographer that’s really known for having an ‘edge’ though in that sense, but as someone who grew up in West Brom and know the Black Country well the region does possess this: it is a tough place to live, and I would have liked to see more of this reflected in the work. Perhaps he isn’t the artist to do this.

Interestingly, the next day I visited the exhibition ‘Art and The Uncanny’ at The Waterhall Gallery in Birmingham which featured some nocturnal photographs by Black Country born Richard Billingham of the backs of houses and quiet, neglected spaces in Cradley Heath. I’d seen these reproduced before and found them a bit boring if I’m honest, but seeing them again and in the flesh (they were large pieces), and with the Parr exhibition in my mind, they seemed to have that edge and power that maybe I was looking for at The Public. They had an unsettling air and atmosphere that related more to my experience of the Black Country. Context can be everything.

Richard Billingham

I really enjoyed the rest of the exhibition, which had a great mix of photography, painting, print and sculpture from artist’s based in or associated with the West Midlands. It was a real shame it was only for a brief, blink and you’ll miss it, four days. A wasted opportunity, in my view, to showcase some of the best practice in the region.

I completed a new painting late last night. I was surprised how it turned out, and I’m not sure what I think of it. But of course, one wants to be surprised. With the act of painting it can often snatch control from your hands and tell you it might be more interesting to try this! We’ll see when I go down to the studio tonight to clear up and assess the damage…