Friday, 15 March 2013


I’m obsessed

with cambered tarmacs, concretes,

the washings of rain.

Roy Fisher, excerpt from his poem, ‘Wonders of Obligation’

 Despite all the work that went into my recent exhibition in Rugby, I’ve been very busy in the studio lately working on new things; playing and experimenting with the material I generated in Scandinavia last August.  Much of my thinking has been informed by the reading and other things I have been doing since January. This includes an anthology of Birmingham born poet, Roy Fisher, ‘The Long and Short Of It- Poems 1955-2010’, published by Bloodaxe Books,  which I’ve enjoyed spending some time with most days. Many of Fisher’s poems often detail his long walks through the scarred Staffordshire countryside, and his inventive prose is often punctuated by his descriptions of the sights and details he observes along the way.  One feels like you are walking alongside the him, in good company, and it reminds me a great deal of my own long walks along the Black Country canals that weave through and under West Bromwich, Wednesbury, Great Bridge and Tipton that I used to make when I was younger, and revisit now to paint and draw. I’m looking at things with a different, older and more purposeful eye now though, not with the lost reverie of youth, when any sense of purpose was unimportant.
Roy Fisher, poet
Fisher has long been seen as an ‘outsider’ in the UK poetry and literary establishment (he is also a Jazz musician), and gained early recognition in the US. Interestingly, it was because of the negative connotations for outsiders of "Birmingham" that the city's name did not once appear in Fisher’s early long poem City, which seems to sum up a lot of attitudes towards the second city that I’m sure all its residents have experienced from outsiders at some point. I know I have. But if you think that is bad, try telling people you come from the Black Country.  Especially to a Brummie! I’ve experienced that too, and my Dad, Tipton born and bred, holds a great deal of resentment towards Brummies even now, which is a common feeling in the Black Country. This stems from his experiences of working in factories alongside men from Birmingham in the 60’s, and constantly being talked at by the Birmingham workers  as if he was an idiot because of his thick accent, and being accused of nicking their tools, which the Birmingham workers would not share with their fellow workers from  across the Black Country border. Somehow, to come from the Black Country is to always be seen as ‘outside’.
Edwin Butler Bayliss, 'Furnaces', 1920 approx
I felt I could sense some of this funnily enough in the paintings of Edwin Butler Bayliss that are currently on display at Wolverhampton Art Gallery. His paintings of the Black Country landscape at the height of its heavy industrial past, are all dark, tall chimneys and scudding smoke, and are being celebrated there in a major exhibition of this artist’s work.  Although I found much to enjoy in the paintings when I visited, I couldn’t help but feel they didn’t deserve this sort of attention, and were typical of this period of nineteenth century painting, owing more to France than Tipton. Bayliss was the son of a wealthy local factory owner, and for me the lack of any meaningful portrayal of the workers in these forges and furnaces, apart from a few anonymous figures seen from the back furtively moving across the landscape, who were more often than not working in the most appalling and dangerous conditions, was troubling. I guess his subject was the ravaged and melancholy Black Country landscape, but it served to create a somewhat disturbing ‘distance’ from the reality of the subject and the lives of the people working in Bayliss’s family factory. My own family, from my Dad and his brothers who all worked in factories like their Father, my grandad, and my grandmother’s brothers who all worked in the local mines,  they all worked in places like these and have dark tales to tell. These paintings stirred in me an uneasy sense of alienation.
Edwin Butler Bayliss, 'Evening In The Black Country', oil on canvas, 1920s

Alongside Bayliss’s works, in an adjoining room, were a selection of current interpretations of the Black Country by members of the RBSA. Please feel free to shoot me if I ever make anything like this in my portrayal of the edglands landscape. My A level students make more exciting work.

Slade in 'Flame'

I recently watched ‘Slade In Flame’, the 70’s movie starring the famous Black Country rockers, and despite it actually being filmed in Nottingham and Sheffield, I noticed  as the credits rolled up, it reminded me more of the industrial region that I grew up in. This was something to do with the black and dry gallows humor of Noddy Holder (who was great) and the band, and the other supporting cast that reminded me a great deal of the characters I grew up around that my Dad worked with. But what a bleak and dispiriting film it was too! It was an incredibly cynical tale of the perils and the reality of fame for a rock ‘n’ roll band in this era that left me quite numb as it rather abruptly ended, almost as if the filmmakers had become too jaded themselves to carry on with this story any longer than strictly necessary.   
                                                 Tom Thomson, 'Tamaracks', oil on board
I have also recently read ‘Painting Canada: Tom Thomson and The Group of Seven’, an extensive catalogue for the recent exhibition in 2011 of this group of painters at Dulwich Picture Gallery, which I sadly failed to get to. I opted for Richter at the Tate instead, but think I may have got more from the paintings of these guys, which are pretty new to me. I think it would be too much to describe their work as innovative or as important when compared to others of the period in Europe who they were greatly influenced by, such as the Post-Impressionists, the Expressionists and Munch, but I have really enjoyed the many strengths and qualities to be found in these often dynamic and colourful canvasses. Thomson’s small ‘plein air’ paintings have a special intense and dense quality that lifts them to another level, that I think is lost a little when they are developed into the studio pieces. I had a similar comment levelled about my own work at Rugby recently, which compared the energy in a smaller piece to a larger painting of the same motif where the person felt the energy had become ‘dissipated’. ‘Plein Air’ studies are always going to possess a certain quick, spontaneous energy by the very nature of how they are made.  Many people prefer Constable’s oil sketches for the same reason, and it was also commented on at the recent Thomas Fearnley exhibition at the Barber Institute, but the studio pieces are often something else entirely. But still, it is an issue I have been considering since the Rugby exhibition, but more in relation to scale, and have been working on many smaller pieces on the studio since in pastel and oil on paper.
                                                   Tom Thomson, 'Sunset', oil on canvas,
Coincidently, the Group Of Seven were greatly influenced by an exhibition of Contemporary Scandinavian Art held in New York in 1912, and shared an affinity with their ‘fondness for great, open spaces and the magic radiance of the arctic aurora’, and ‘an exhilarating sense of direct communication with nature and natural forces’. It is these qualities that I admire in the Groups’ work and their relationship with their native Canada, and need to share this with the wider world as they headed off on their various painting expeditions. Here is a good example by J.H McDonald in his ‘Beaver Dam’ painting of 1919. I also really like Lawren Harris’s stylised paintings of icebergs and mountains, which in their stylization possess an austerity that I find appealing.
E H McDonald, 'Beaver Dam', oil on canvas
E H McDonald, 'Dam and Birches', oil on canvas
Lawren Harris, 'North Shore, Lake Superior'

current studio work Jan-Mar 2013

McDonald in writing of the exhibition of Scandinavian art and comparing them with the Group’s ideals wrote, ‘The painters began with nature rather than art’. My own responses to landscape with my recent motorway paintings have begun the other way around, they are more about art than nature. I’ve been trying to bring the two areas closer together with my own Scandinavian work.  

There seems to be an ‘outsider’ theme to this post, and that seems to be the theme that is emerging from my Scandinavian work as I start to get deeper into it. The experience we had in Norway, and the feelings of abandonment we felt, coloured the whole trip, and also left me questioning my relationships with people. As I’ve worked on these pieces in the last few months, I keep coming back to these issues and my own persistent sense of being an ‘outsider’…

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