Thursday, 18 July 2013

We Are Alive....

This was an interesting article from The Scotsman ahead of Ken Currie’s forthcoming exhibition at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh, which I’m hoping to visit at some point:

‘THE oil painting, once the pinnacle of artistic expression, has fallen off its easel.

Ken Currie, one of Scotland’s most critically acclaimed ­artists, believes art students today are no longer prepared to dedicate years to mastering the canvas and instead view the video installation and conceptual work popularised by the Turner Prize as shortcuts to success and fame.

On the eve of his first exhibition in Scotland for more than a decade, Currie, who was part of the 1980s art movement known as “The New Glasgow Boys”, said the personality of artists has become more important than the work they produce and that art schools are increasingly hostile to ­traditional painting.
He said of painting: “It is a very difficult way of making art and I think people are neglecting it because it is too much like hard work.

“The art school is kindergarten, then it takes eight to ten years to gain your voice visually, so from 20 to 40 years old, you are trying to develop your work and I think that, for a lot of people now, is just too slow.
“They want an instant result, they want instant success and fame and a lot of them are not prepared to go through that hard graft.”

Despite the fact that he ­believes painting remains in “rude health”, students keen to paint are being ill-served by art schools.

“The younger generation want to learn how to paint, but this is not being delivered at arts schools in Scotland and all over the world,” he said. “Most of the tutors in art schools, with a few notable exceptions, are themselves deeply hostile to painting. They themselves are not painters.”
Ken Currie, 'Nightwork', oil on canvas, 210 x 270cms, 2013
The artist also believes the quality of education at the Glasgow School of Art is suffering as a consequence of the city’s success in playing host to so many winners of the Turner Prize for Modern Art. Since 2005, 29 per cent of all Turner Prize nominees and three winners – Simon Starling (2005), Richard Wright (2009) and Martin Boyce (2011) – have all been graduates of the GSA.

Currie said: “The problem with Glasgow School of Art is that it is a victim of its own success. What has happened is that since the 1980s and the emergence of these artists and the Turner Prize generation, is that lots of people want to go to Glasgow School of Art, not just in the UK but around the world. Of course, in these times, that is such a temptation for the Art School and they are packing them in like sardines.

“A lot of them are paying top dollar and I think what is happening is that there is not enough staff to cope with the number of students.

“I find it significant that two years ago Glasgow School of Art came third bottom for higher education institutions in terms of student satisfaction. A lot of students go there with high hopes, given the high reputation of the school, and come out feeling just completely disillusioned.

“They should get more staff in, or accept fewer students and stop being greedy for money. It is as simple as that. It is also part of what has happened over the past 30 years which is this dreadful academicisation of art. You get artists who are called things like ‘Professors’, or a paper, or video artist goes in and they are called ‘research fellows’.

“It completely academicises it. It professionalises it. When I was there 30 years ago, it was absolutely not the case. A few of the tutors may have been old buffers, but they painted and they were not bothered about what they were called.”

No-one from the Glasgow School of Art was available to comment.

After graduating in 1983, Currie contributed in 1985 to the New Image Glasgow exhibition along with Peter Howson, the late Steven Campbell and Adrian Wiszniewski, the artists who collectively became known as the “New Glasgow Boys”.

His new exhibition, Meditations on Portraiture, will be unveiled this week at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh and features ten new paintings, including Night Work, in which two men are in the process of making a death mask, a macabre object which runs as a motif through the new collection.

The National Portrait Gallery already displays Currie’s haunting painting Three Oncologists, a spectral portrait of three cancer specialists who work at the oncology unity at Ninewells Hospital in Dundee.

During the 1980s, Currie’s art celebrated a romanticised red Clydeside of heroic shipyard workers and firebrand shop stewards and was a political response to the policies of Margaret Thatcher, who he believed was destroying the culture of labour. The artist’s focus may have moved on from Scotland’s labour history to deeper, more universal questions of mortality and the human condition, but he still felt the demise of his bête noire should be marked.

“I was fascinated by the whole funeral, the kind of ­ritual and how the power ­behind this society shows its hand and how reverential they are to their own. 

“I did download Ding Dong (The Witch is Dead). I felt I had to make a con­tribution.” 
Ken Currie, 'Unfamiliar Reflection' oil on canvas, 210 x 150cms, 2009 
Currie makes many salient points about painting and art education. I’m heavily involved in both, and although I do not lecture in Higher Education, I am very aware of current trends in universities from the annual visits to the degree shows I make with students, and the help I give them in preparing to apply and then be interviewed for various art and design degrees. I agree with him that painting takes many years to become any good at. Another favourite painter, Alex Katz has often said that it takes the years you study and then about another seven years painting every day to become pretty good, and I agree with that.  That’s what I did. I would just add that it is more like seven years plus the rest of your life! 

I also agree with Currie’s assertion about how dreadful the academicisation of art has become and the need for all staff to be studying PHD’s or to be known as ‘Professors’, or ‘research fellows’. I’m never convinced about what much of it adds up to and how meaningful much of this research is, but more importantly I feel it goes against the grain of what it is to try and be an artist. It seems that artists feel the need to be seen as being on an equal footing with more academic research. It is a different model for looking at the world and this is what makes it unique and worth celebrating. So much of the research I have read on sites such as is pretty banal stuff. You feel like shouting, ‘Go away and just make something for goodness sake!’ However, I will always defend the idea of education for education’s sake, and will never buy into the Thatcherite idea of it being a ‘luxury’, or for Blairites ‘good for the economy’. I never want to question it’s value on those terms.

Despite all this talk lamenting the state of painting I was really impressed by the painting on show, which included my own (although I’m not necessarily impressed with that, I hasten to add) at the Worcester Open when I attended the Private View last Friday night. It certainly seemed to be a discipline in rude health in the region, and seemed to hold it’s own in the exhibition amongst a broad range of work in photography, sculpture, print and video. There were lots of exciting examples of committed painters in control of their craft, but also with some very clever, sly, witty, and serious ideas. Here are a few examples: 
Neill Fuller, 'Flea it', oil on canvas, 30 x 45cms, 2012
Carolyn Blake, 'Return To The Silence' oil on canvas, 13 x 18cms, 2012
K J Pocock, 'Brutal Facade', acrylic on canvas,  50 x 70cms, 2012

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Fingers In Pies...

I delivered the two paintings that were selected for the Worcester Open to Worcester Museum and Art gallery today. I was greeted by the ever affable Nathan Pitt, one of the key figures in organizing the exhibition from his position as director of Pitt Studio, an artist-led gallery/project space located in an old coach house in his garden,  which now also has a commercial outpost in Malvern. I worked briefly with Nathan years ago, from 2006-07, at the previous college I lectured at, when he joined the Art Department. He had just set up the gallery then and it has really grown since then, as has the art scene in Worcester, thanks largely to his efforts.

Nathan was telling me today how the competition had been very fiercely contested this year, with just 30 artists selected from well over 300 entrants, and that the judging panel had been made up by some pretty ‘hardcore’ selectors (his words) with strong links to Arts Council. These included Wendy Law, Director of Turning Point West Midlands, and Gavin Wade, director of Eastside Projects in Birmingham. I did know this as it was one of my motivations for applying this year. I thought it would be a good opportunity to get my work seen by some of the regions key arts figures, possibly make some new connections, and more importantly get my work more widely seen as this is a big regional show. There will be an accompanying catalogue, which will help. The Private View is this Friday. 

Shaun Morris, 'Drift' pastel on paper, 25 x 40cms, 2013
Earlier in the morning I collected my large paintings from Park View gallery, as one of them was needed for the Open, and it had been agreed that they would only be shown until the end of June. Nothing has been sold, but Roger Palmer, the gallery owner, wanted to still keep and exhibit all my mounted and framed drawings, and wants to continue the link with me submitting further paintings over the next year to see how things develop…we shall see. It's good to see that I'm now on the website as one of their stable of artist. Not so good to see my name spelt incorrectly.

Indigo Octagon have also been meeting in the last few weeks. That is, artists Chris Cowdrill, Andrew Smith, Harvey Smoke and myself. We’ve met in my studio where we all bought some new work to discuss, and then in the pub to talk about a new project, possibly a publication of some sort for the autumn.

Lots of fingers in lots of pies right now… 

Friday, 5 July 2013

Big Heads

Chuck Close, 'Self Portrait', oil on canvas, 240 x180cms, 2006
I finally completed reading ‘The Portraits Speak: Chuck Close Interviews 27 of His Subjects’ the other evening and am left feeling rather bereft now. It has been such a great companiable read over the last couple of months but also an education and inspiration, offering much needed food for thought which is certainly influencing my thinking in the studio at the moment.
For those who are not familiar with his work, Chuck Close, now 69, is one of the world’s most well-known painters, who in a career spanning over forty years is recognised for his multitude of different ways to ‘skin the same cat’ in his large scale  portraits.  His subjects over the years, as well as featuring various close family members, have always been his friends. These friends however,   happen to make up some of the most important and interesting artists in the New York art world where he lives and works. Hence this book makes a fascinating read with a wide range of interviews with some of them.
'Alex', oil on canvas, 1988
So we have artists as diverse as Richard Serra, Elizabeth Murray, Eric Fischl, Judy Pfaff, Roy Lichtenstein, John Chamberlain, Richard Artswager, Janet Fish, Lorna Simpson, Joel Shapiro, Alex Katz, Mark Greenwold, Philip Glass, and many others all discussing an equally diverse range of art-related topics, from working with galleries and dealers, the 70’s women’s movement, race and gender, learning disabilities and education, public and audience, materials and concepts, and the contextual influences of the day. I enjoy reading stuff like this much more than fiction, and am fascinated in reading about other’s creativity and lives, especially when told by the artists themselves. Close’s paintings are viewed as an important ‘portrait’ of the New York art scene, and this book is a perfect complement to them. When it was first published in 1998 (I think) a copy was placed in every public library across America.of the most original, challenging, creative and important artists in the post-war period.

'Mark', watercolour on canvas, 240 x 180cms, 1971

In relation to my own work, I’ve become again interested In Close’s assertion that it is very liberating to place limits on your work and to explore your ideas within these. I say again, as it was when I first became a fan of Close (who incidently is a quadroplegic after the collapse of a spinal artery in 1988, an tragedy he calls 'The Event') after visiting his retrospective at the Hayward Gallery in 1999 and reading the accompanying catalogue that I became exposed to some of these ideas of imposing limitations, getting rid of the hand in the work, presenting subject matter in a very flat-footed and even way, instead of more expressively, and  began looking at minimalist painters such as Ad Reinhart etc. It is no less a thing to say that exhibition changed my life, and offered up a route away from all the expressionist excess of my work at the time and lead me to soon after to start making my own flat-footed, coolly painted portraits which I made for about ten years. Close’s limitations became where he only used black acrylic applied with an airbrush for those early photo-realist works, throwing away all his brushes and evidence of his hand, and working incrementally, square after square by using a grid to transfer his photos to the canvas. I’ve never been able to do something as radical, but did impose certain limitations: for a long time all my paintings were a deliberately banal A1 standard size, all the heads presented frontally, and I tried to reduce the amount of marks I would use and paint in a deliberately unexpressive way.
'Big Self Portrait', acrylic on canvas, 270 x210cms, 1969

It is only since developing away  from this in the last five years as other interests have naturally took hold, and I’ve moved away from portraiture, that older more expressive and my more  impetuous tendencies have returned as I’ve sought to seek some sort of footing in making landscape inspired work. The recent motorway paintings though have helped me ground things again, and re-connecting with Close and some of his peers by way of this book, it has helped me think more clearly about the importance of striving to always be tough with the work, and more importantly, original (and how being influenced by others doesn’t necessarily get in the way of this). 
So, I’m taking things more slowly in the studio at the moment….