Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Happy Birthday, Bob!

Unless you live under a rock or in a cave, you probably know that it’s Bob Dylan’s 70th Birthday today. I’m a huge Dylan fan; he’s without doubt my favourite artist. I’m a relatively recent convert though in many respects, having always had a few records from about aged 16 onwards, but not really a true fan. It was only when I read ‘Chronicles, Vol 1’, his stunning 2003 autobiography that I decided to listen more seriously. I remember putting the book down when I had finished and thought, ‘I’ve just got to go and listen to this man’s records’. So I decided to start at the start and buy the very first LP and proceed from there and plug the gaps of the few Dylan records I had. It’s been an amazing journey so far (though I have currently stalled at the Eighties, which I think most people did!), and he is an artist whose music goes incredibly deep if you open up to it, much more than anyone else I have listened to.

This is why I am such a fan these days. So much so in fact, that every couple of months I meet up with a group of friends in a pub in Birmingham to discuss all things Bob. I’m a fan, but these guys, all about ten years older and more than me, are seriously hardcore. They often regularly follow him around the country on his British tours, like so many of his followers, fascinated by his famously unpredictable and exciting live shows. I’ve been to a few myself now, and they possess a great edge and unpredictable nature. You couldn’t describe this about many artists of Bob’s age or with his iconic reputation. He doesn’t on the surface seem to give two hoots about his ‘reputation’, which is what distinguishes more as a true artist, and why he is able to still keep his music fresh, supple and alive, particularly in performance.

It only seems fitting that I had to write something today on the blog, but there is so much currently in the media and on the TV and radio, that I don’t think I could even attempt to write anything that hasn’t been said in a more interesting way by someone somewhere just now. It says so much about the importance of Dylan just how much his birthday is being covered everywhere- I can’t think of any other musician who would receive this sort of exposure . It probably seems more appropriate therefore that I say something about his paintings and drawings that have been exhibited widely in the last few years. There is an awful commercial gallery in Birmingham, Castle Fine Art, that sells the most dreadful work, but also some of Bob’s prints which seem very incongruous amongst this other stuff. I often find myself popping in when I pass on the way to Ikon. I really love them.

They have a wonderful, poetic quality that is all Dylan’s own, despite the range of influences that you can see: from Max Beckmann to Chaim Soutine, two other artist’s I really love. I think I especially like the way he intimately takes you into hotel rooms and balconies peopled by curvy girlfriends, or into parking lots and diners on the road. Despite the seeming mundanity of the subjects they possess a mystery and inscrutability, much like Bob himself. They also have a great deal of humour and are observed with that sharp glint in the eye that he has (the one of the large bottomed lady in the bar in Blackpool makes me smile and says much about Bob’s reputation as a ladies man).

Q `I’ve been playing Bob in class most of the day, and telling the students that they should all listen to some of his music today. These suggestions were met with rather blank expressions…I'm not worried though. Even if his music won't live on with the students at JCC, I know it will live on everywhere else...

Happy Birthday, Bob!

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Exploring the 'Edgelands'...

I’m currently enjoying reading ‘Edgelands: Journey Into England’s True Wilderness’ a collection of writings by Michael Symonds Roberts and Paul Farley, two poets and writers based in the North West of England of Manchester and Liverpool.

The book’s publisher explains how the book ‘…explores a wilderness that is much closer than you think: a debatable zone, neither the city nor the countryside, but a place in-between - so familiar it is never seen for looking. Passed through, negotiated, unnamed, ignored, the edgelands have become the great wild places on our doorsteps, places so difficult to acknowledge they barely exist. "Edgelands" forms a critique of what we value as 'wild', and allows our allotments, railways, motorways, wasteland and water a presence in the world, and a strange beauty all of their own… Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts – both well known poets… write about mobile masts and gravel pits, business parks and landfill sites in the same way the Romantic writers forged a way of looking at an overlooked - but now familiar - landscape of hills and lakes and rivers. England, the first country to industrialise, now offers the world's most mature post-industrial terrain, and is still in a state of flux: "Edgelands" takes the reader on a journey through its forgotten spaces so that we can marvel at this richly mysterious, cheek-by-jowl region in our midst.’

It is full of great descriptions and poetic prose that really bring the life and texture of these so-called forgotten and overlooked places: places that are only briefly glimpsed as we pass them on the motorway or train. They are places that I’m very familiar with myself, which is why I’m getting so much from the book, having spent a large part of my life passing through these places largely on foot, or bike when younger. I only learned to drive in my thirties, which is why I think some of these places seem so familiar, as I used to get around much more by walking or on the bus.

The charcoal drawing above is one I’ve been working on the last few nights with this books themes in mind, and also my desire to focus my landscape painting on these overlooked nowhere locations in an attempt to create something that is more rooted in the specifics of place. I’m going to develop a painting and maybe some prints from it.

I’ve also been working on this portrait of ‘Anwar’, a student of mine that I’m going to attempt a large painting of in the next few days. He’s from Eritria, and like most of my students, a Muslim. In a way, I think it’s sort of related to the drawing. I think most of my favourite portraits depict people who are often on the margins of society, like the places in these landscapes and book, and who seem a bit awkward in their own skin, or don’t seem to ‘fit’ in. It’s how I’ve always felt about myself in some way, which I’m now beginning to see the connections between in my art. I’ve often tried to, but now as I find myself in my forties, I think you can’t really run away from who you are, but just try and create some distance from it sometimes.

Monday, 9 May 2011

John Salt at Ikon Gallery

There is currently a retrospective of the photorealist paintings of John Salt at Ikon Gallery in Birmingham that is well worth a visit. Salt is from Birmingham but moved to the States early in his career, and developed a powerful body of work that features the American Automobile as it’s central motif. The paintings do not seek to glorify the cars however, but depict them in painstaking detail in various states of neglect and abandonment in sites at the edges of the city or countryside: disused parking lots; under bridges; in the trailer park.

It was the images rather than the style that I was drawn to, as I’m not really a fan of photorealist works, where the style just so often seems to get in the way of any deeper response. Salt’s gritty images however seemed a curious, and almost very English antidote to the shiny, reflective surfaces of American consumerist signs and symbols that is often celebrated and slavishly copied in the work of the American photo-realism of painters like Richard Estes et all in the sixties and seventies. I was really drawn to them. There was a great painting of a car at the back of an old squat building in Baltimore whose subject seemed to be the snaking shadows on the wall, which seemed really animated. My favourite pieces however, were the very first car paintings he completed of the vehicle’s interiors which seemed to employ a wider variety of painting techniques which invited the viewer in more easily.

A video in the gallery featured Salt talking today on his work. Still retaining his broad Brummingham accent after all these years, he commented that it was only when he moved to this photorealist style that his work developed to a more successful place due to the restraints that he was now faced with when trying to recreate the photographs he works from. These restraints were very important to him and liberated him to become much more focused in his approach and intent.

I really identified with this at the moment, as I feel my own lack of restraint, particularly in my use of subject matter, has become a hindrance of late in my own development. In a previous period, when I was just doing portraits in exactly the same frontal ‘mug-shot’ format and all exactly the same size I too had felt strangely liberated by expelling any other ideas from the work. I’d like to get back to this in some way with my own landscape work.

‘John Salt’ is on at Ikon until July 17th at Ikon Gallery, Birmingham

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Journey Into Autumn

oil on canvas, 90 x 210cms, 2011

Here are some of the paintings that I have been working on over the last six months or so. These are the ones I’m pretty pleased with. I’ve made several others that did not work out and were scrapped after a few failed attempts. It’s been quite an intense period. I’ve been reluctant to post too much on the blog about the work, as I’ve wanted to keep things to myself whilst in the middle of it all. I now feel a bit mentally exhausted from it and am trying to step back and reflect, which isn’t easy when one works in such isolation. I feel at the end of a sort of ‘cycle’ of painting that I feel might be worth sharing now.

I’ve been trying to develop my landscape painting for some time, and had created some studies at night, including some photographs, around the motorway outside West Bromwich at the end of the summer last year. I went off on a tangent however, when autumn arrived.

I don’t know anyone who doesn’t enjoy the magnificent splendour of the colours of autumn, and last year I felt particularly moved by them. The passing of the seasons served to heighten once again feelings about the death of my brother in 2009 and I found myself again deeply saddened and painfully aware of moving on without him. The seasons can be a romantic and clichéd expression of the idea of the passing of time, which I was very aware of, yet my feelings did not feel either clichéd or romantic so I decided to follow my instincts. I’d already made several paintings that explored my feelings about my brother’s death just before and after he died using trees and wild flowers symbolically the year before, but I found myself thinking there was more to explore.

In the studio, I found myself picking up previous small oil studies I had made years before at autumn time that I had not been inspired to do anything with previously. I started to crop sections of them, which I hadn’t tried before, and different possibilities immediately opened up, which lead to the ‘Autumn Again’ (above) painting.

'Bring Down',

oil on canvas, 150 x 90cms, 2010

Excited by this image I decided to pursue the theme further and started looking at lots of old studies made of trees in sketchbooks and in paint. ‘Bring Down’ (above) came from this. For me it almost seems like a portrait of Stu, and is an expression of sorts for me of trying to imagine what he mentally must have gone through as his cancer progressed. Despite its seeming simplicity, it’s an image I find myself getting really lost in. The more I look, the more I see. I can only really barely imagine what he, or anyone else living with cancer, goes through in his or her mind.

I then found myself working on two paintings (above) that I just couldn’t get to work after re-painting them several times. This was mainly because it just didn’t have anything supporting work in the form of stronger studies, simple as that. I was a bit wrapped up in looking at artists like John McLean, Terry Frost, Patrick Heron, Ivon Hitchins and others. I was trying a more improvised approach to the paintings, just starting with a very bare compositional structure to work from, and creating more abstract images. This approach also manifested itself in some smaller almost entirely abstract pieces and another big painting, which took on many different forms, such as the yellow painting above, before I finally repainted it entirely last week (top) bringing it back to a tougher, more structured piece based on an earlier smaller painting I had made. The abstract pieces seemed to continually fall down between two stools, not sure what they needed to be.

oil on canvas, 90 x 210cms

In between this I painted this large painting above with I have yet to title. I’m pleased with it, but it has divided opinion in my home, with my wife Diane not liking it all. She exclaimed ‘you’ve really lost the plot with this one!’ when she saw it for the first time, which made me laugh and despair both at once. Yet another painter friend thought it ‘beautiful’ and seemed to ‘get’ what I was trying to do. I preferred her response to Diane’s (!) as for a while I did wonder whether I had found myself not seeing the woods for the trees (excuse the sad pun). Although I quite enjoyed the extreme reaction by Diane (she really didn’t like it), as my work rarely provokes this sort of feeling, I thought it was the nicest thing I’d done in ages, and couldn’t see the problem. My friends more positive reaction at least made me think I hadn’t gone completely mad. I’m keen to develop further things along this line.

oil on canvas, 100cms x 100cms

The large painting that I completed most recently at the top of this blog entry was preceded by a smaller work (above), which was painted over an existing painting. As you can see it has a lot of very expressive energy, and I’m not sure it is complete. It was painted very spontaneously. Creating this made me want to re-work the big yellow one more radically and try get some of this energy into it. In the end I found myself taking this piece one somewhere else; something more structured and done more slowly over a few sessions. Slowing down felt really important in the end, and this painting definitely marks an end for now of this period of work. I was getting to the point of feeling almost possessed with trying to reach something in the work that I just couldn’t.

Earlier I said that these paintings were originally motivated by continued feelings about my brother’s death. This feeling of trying to reach something in the work that has somehow seemed unreachable, particularly as I made more and more work with increasing frustration and almost desperation, sort of tallies with my feelings right now, almost two years to the day since he died. The work I made before and just after this seemed to have a resonance with my feelings at the time. The pain of loss and grief was much more acute at this time, and I think this is reflected in the work. Now, two years on I’m left with a feeling of so much unfinished business, and still a sense of disbelief that he is dead at 36 and is not here. It is a mixture of complex emotions and thoughts, that perhaps I was hoping the painting would help me focus on and possibly, naively it seems now, work through. Instead it has just added to my confusion and sense of loss. I feel drained and in need of a rest and a re-think.

I hope that this blog has not been too self-indulgent. I’m aware that writing about one’s own work can often be seen like this. I’m just trying to be open about the painting after a particular period of creativity. I’m now keen to draw a line under this period and move on. I also think about what I as a reader would like from this blog. Hopefully, I can convey a sense of honesty and commitment to the people who do take the time to occasionally read this..

Any comments on the work or anything else are of course always welcome…