Sunday, 29 December 2013
John Baeder, 'Pappy's Place, Nashville, TN', 1985, oil on canvas, 76 x 121cms
I visited ‘Photorealism: 50 Years of Hyper-Realistic Painting’, at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery’s Gas Hall just over a week ago, in between the Christmas shopping. It’s the first major large-scale retrospective in Europe devoted to this art ‘movement’ and features celebrated artists such as Birmingham-born John Salt and Chuck Close, in what is being seen as a ‘real coup’ for the city. Surveying the work of the major US artists considered to have developed the style, the exhibition includes the large-scale hyper-realistic paintings of American life with which Photorealism became famous.
John Baeder, 'Prout's Diner', 1974, oil on canvas, 76 x 122cms
It is with some trepidation that I bought my ticket, not being overly interested in photorealism, as, like a lot of painters, you can be left wondering ‘what is the point?, other than showing off your fancy-pants skills at being able to brilliantly copy from a photograph. Many of my students can copy from photographs really well too, and I spend quite a long time persuading them not to, showing them different examples of drawing and painting. But as so much painting over the centuries has been about exactly the same, and I’ve still really enjoyed it (I’m thinking of Dutch Seventeenth Century Still Life Painting, for example, and the way lenses were used by painters long before the invention of the photograph to ‘project’ an image onto the canvas, in much the same way John Salt makes his wrecked car paintings today). Once inside though, I was hooked straight away by the images of the bland, Middle American landscape, by artists such as Robert Bechtle and John Baeder, whose paintings, the former’s work possessing an almost David Lynch like quality, and the latter’s nostalgic obsession with the American diner, I particularly enjoyed.
Robert Bechtle, 'Alameda Chrysler', 1981, oil on canvas, 122 x 175cms
There was something about their deadpan, often frontal, compositions, with the geometry of the buildings and roads that chimed with me, as well as the unglamourous settings of the worn-out diners, the banality of the advertising placards, the tired, parked cars and rusty trucks. Despite the seeming banality, they seemed to have much more individual character as places than the modern Western urban landscape of America and Europe today, where everything looks the same in our ‘out of towns’: same type of architecture and planning; same branded shops and restaurant chains, whether you are in Widnes or Albuquerque. I have liked Ralph Going’s diner still lives for a long time, and have been influenced by their subject matter in my own still life paintings, so it was nice to see an example of one of these: a large painting of sugar shakers and bottles of ketchup and mustard etc. They were very reminiscent really of the attention to detail and realism of the earlier Dutch painters I’ve mentioned, and in all the work of these earlier artists, I wasn’t really thinking about the use of photographs, they seemed more like good, realistic paintings and not as slick as anticipated, it was these other qualities of the subjects and the unusual compositions, I was really attracted to. I could however, see what an affront that would have been to the other art being made in the late 1960’s and 1970’s, when they first appeared, and how shocking they would have been to seemingly more sophisticated, art-world sensibilities, which also appealed to me. (In the landscape mentioned, I was also reminded of George Shaw’s paintings of Coventry’s Tile Hill).
Moving through the exhibition, some things struck me as just being plain weird, such as the horse and cowboy paintings of Richard Maclean, which you could never really say had any real sense of reality about them. I loved the paintings of empty interiors by Jack Mendenhall, which were apparently copied from interior décor magazines in the 70’s. There was something in their framing, sterility, and their inoccupation that was very unsettling and gave them a psychological charge that reminded me of Rick Moody’s/Ang Lee’s ‘The Ice Storm’. I also really enjoyed the gaudy, over-sized still life paintings of children’s old-fashioned toys and pinball machines by Don Jacot. I also loved randy Dudley’s industrial landscapes. But then, when it came to representations of figure my interest in the exhibition started to wane rapidly. There some awful paintings of the nude and some portraits of pretty, filigree-like girls by the lake or in the woods, like some slightly inappropriate middle-aged male fantasy. The Chuck Close paintings were terribly out of place amongst this too, largely because they are so much tougher conceptually, but also are about ‘process’ and the materiality. Close also famously hates being associated with Photorealism, and the paintings here had little to do with anything else on display, nakedly displaying the grid, which supports his experiments in constructing the portrait.
Richard McLean, 'Mackey Marie',1971, oil on canvas, 142 x 180cms
Jack Mendenhall, 'Ochre Couch',1975, oil on canvas, 104 x 154cms
Randy Dudley, '18th Street Near Wentworth', 2009, oil on canvas, 23 x 74cms
The exhibition then lead to more recent cityscape and architectural paintings of famous cities such as Venice, Paris and Las Vegas, which just seemed devoid of any of that psychological charge and conviction I had enjoyed in the earlier work. David Parrish also echoed this in his countless, fetishist paintings of shiny motorbikes and cars. I was finally left wondering ‘what is the point?’ other than the technical display. It had all suddenly seemed to appear so empty. Next to the motorbikes, were two far greater paintings of wrecked cars by Birmingham born John Salt, whose work seemed so much stronger, with its coherent urban grit.
David Parrish, 'Butler Terrace', 1973, oil on canvas, 138 x 138cms
I left the exhibition dismayed by all the later stuff I’ve mentioned, and the exhibition definitely seemed like a show of two halves. And yet in writing this I realise how much I had enjoyed the earlier generations of artists and the images represented. There were many connections to be made with my own interests, especially in terms of the subject matter, that I hope to explore further, and maybe visit the exhibition again in the coming weeks.
John Salt, 'White Chevy-Red Trailer', 1975, acrylic and airbrush on canvas, 115 x 171cms
Wednesday, 18 December 2013
'Nightime', oil on canvas, 150 x 100cms
I made this new painting the other day. I’m really pleased with it. It seems to bring together many of the concerns I’ve been exploring about the canal and the motorway, but also nudge things along a bit. I hope it has some of the more ambiguous and mobile poetic qualities I’ve been trying to tap into, influenced by Roy Fisher’s poems about his journeys through the Midlands landscape, often on the canal.
All my compositions are carefully planned out beforehand, for all sorts of reasons. One being to achieve a perfect balance of elements in the drawing, which takes a lot of consideration, especially to achieve something that does not feel too forcefully ‘considered’ or ‘perfect’ or ‘balanced’. Time too is a factor, as I like to execute the paintings quickly, and avoid any sort of laboring with the drawing, allowing me to just concentrate on the act of painting when it comes to it. The drawing is the scaffold that allows for this. And, in a rather banal way, because of the lack of time I have to make work, working for several evenings on a drawing feeds my need to be in the studio making stuff, thinking and exploring, until an opportunity presents itself to tackle a large painting like the one above.
Other studio activity- making Xmas cards and drinking beer
When it comes to painting however, I found myself reflecting while making this one, on how much I experiment and work totally intuitively throughout the act of painting itself. I always spend a fair amount of time mixing the colours beforehand, to achieve a freedom, so, once started, I don’t have to stop and think about this again if it all possible, but after that, once I do start nervously applying paint, I’m forever playing around with the application, and using different brushes for different marks, almost willfully trying ones that I think may cause problems to see what happens, and to continually open up the responses I have to make to each mark I lay down. I think it’s a bit like how Jazz musicians develop a cool technique, their own scaffold, that they can play around and improvise with, although that does sound fanciful I know!
For painting nerds (like me), the blacks in this one are much warmer than in other recent paintings, and as a consequence, it seems to bring a very different feel to the piece. I have mixed the blacks from a combination of Burnt Umber and Ultramarine Blue, rather than the colder Raw Umber, which I normally favour. But it doesn’t stop there, geeks- after laying in this ‘black’ I then apply, wet into wet, another, much richer black over the top of the first, made from a combination of Prussian Blue and Raw or Burnt Umber which seems to give things much more body and depth. I never use black paint, which I find flat (though tell that to Velazquez or Manet I suppose. I’m continually arguing with my students about not using black paint, that they now nervously, but jokingly, hide it from me when they notice me staring aghast at it on their palettes).
After painting this, the rest of my studio time in the evening was spent making this year’s Christmas cards. I ran off a run of relief Styrofoam prints adapted from some of my son’s drawings, which is quite easy and fun, craft lovers…
Thursday, 12 December 2013
'Burdened Children', Paul Klee
I was at the Tate Modern this time last week, visiting the Paul Klee ‘Making Visible’ retrospective exhibition with a group of 40 students (who seemed to disappointingly make their way through all 13 rooms at an incredible, I’m not looking at any of this, type speed. I was the last in, hoping to direct and guide them a bit as is my role as their teacher, only to step into the gallery to find they had all disappeared. It was a real tumbleweed moment). Still, it was their loss-this is one of the best exhibitions I’ve visited in recent years. There was so much wonderful, subtle, complex, playful, mystifying and inspiring works to enjoy, by the time I exited much, much later than the company I had tried to keep, I felt like I had completed an enormously, satisfying meal, but still had room for dessert. It was with great reluctance that I left the final room, wishing I could go round again.
Earlier I had found myself very moved by a rather raw charcoal drawing by Klee, titled ‘Burdened Children’, which had some reference to his wartime experiences, but I couldn’t help but find myself relating it to my five-year old son who has been having a difficult time making the transition from Reception to Year One at school, and the enormous expectations placed on him to suddenly act, meet targets, fit in to a model of behavior and learning that he is clearly not yet ready to cope with. To stop playing, and just sit down and get on with learning to read and write, learn mathematics, as well as complete a weekly homework (and one in his holidays too!).
Children actually playing outside! in a Swedish Forest School
He has been struggling with it, and has been clearly stressed with it. Him, and so many other children of his age too. It just makes you wonder why? And what are we doing this to our children for? Why can’t we just let them be children? This is the approach they take in the much feted schools of Sweden and Finland, where play is pretty much all they do, with nothing formal until 7 or 8yrs, and they are top of the so-called league tables in reading and writing, science and maths. This is because, in my view, by the time they do start learning more formally, they are ready to learn, and develop a much greater understanding of what they are being asked to learn. I’ve just seen my son, who is a lovely, funny, spirited little boy, over the last three months weighed down by it all, displaying increasing signs of anxiety and over-tiredness, worn out by the time he comes home.
I’m glad to report though that in the last week or so, he does seem to be coping better, and seems happier, regaining his playful and curious self, but it’s more to do with the tremendous resilience I think children have. Still, it’s been a stressful time that has had an inevitable impact on our family life.
Swedish Forest School
(I found myself fighting his corner after his swimming lesson last week, which he does on Wednesdays after school, again tired. The teacher started complaining at the end, about his poor listening, and not ‘meeting performance targets’, trying to shame him really, which is just wrong, and I’d just had enough of it all. I think she was expecting me to agree, which I didn’t anyway, but I also thought- he’s bloody five! This is meant to be fun! He doesn’t want to come anymore, where he used to love swimming. I just picked him up, and said ‘well I thought you did your best, mate’, and ‘he seemed to be listening pretty well from where I was’, and walked him to the showers. A bit of ‘Egyptian Reggae’ by Jonathan Richman in the car on the way home cheered us both up).
Here is a link to a film my wife showed me about the Swedish early years schooling, which totally depressed me. It is so much more progressive than things here (although recently the free schools made popular by Sweden have run into trouble with falling results, the only model willingly adopted by Gove. But you would have to question any place for for-profit organisations in public education) :
Sir Ken Robinson
Yes, we are a much bigger and more complicated society, and so far removed from nature compared to our Scandie friends, but surely there is a lot to be learnt from some of this? I’m just left asking, ‘how can we get it so wrong in this country?’, and these other links, one to a great animation, by brilliant educationalist, Ken Robinson helps explain this. I love Ken’s passion for the arts and the importance of creativity, and in the second film he talks well about children in school. He could well be talking about my son, but really most kids, but he also talks brilliantly about how some of the Scandinavian model could be adapted here, and the terrible problems in the culture and policies currently being forced upon our children by the monster that is Michael Gove.
Thursday, 5 December 2013
This is a new painting. At just 60 x 80cms, it’s fairly modest compared to some of my more recent paintings, but seems to pack a bit of a punch with it’s big, pared down shapes, and the quick speed of the marks across the surface. I was thinking a bit about the characters in Chinese calligraphy, the large Chinese paintings at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, and the pressures of work. And I was listening to 'Repave', the wonderful album by Volcano Choir I have on continuous 'heavy rotation' at present. It all seemed to end up like this.
A few hours painting this, and some of those pressures were relieved. At least until the next morning’s bus ride….
(and I also heard today that I'm now meant to be doing this until I'm 70. Great.)
(and I also heard today that I'm now meant to be doing this until I'm 70. Great.)
The Public, West Bromwich
(I don’t seem to have much time to write the blog lately, despite having lots to say. Other things-family, work, studio- have been the necessary priority at what seems like a time of year where every last ounce of my time seems squeezed out of me).
The Public, West Bromwich’s ill-fated arts centre, sadly closed it’s big pink doors to the public on the 16th November. I found myself outside the silver, Star Wars like, back door a few days later to pick up a few large portraits from my ‘Seek My Face’ project that I had donated to the centre a couple of years ago. It was either I come and get them or they ended up in a skip I’m guessing, although I was just told that ‘their safety could not be guaranteed after the end of the month’, when Sandwell College takes the building over and turns it in a Sixth Form (just at a time when I learnt today that many Sixth Form Colleges could be losing up to 40% of their funding next year).
It was a sorry sight to behold, as I was escorted to the back of the rather fabulous theatre that has really been a showcase for some national touring acts in comedy and theatre, a thing unheard of for years in the town, to pick up my paintings by a very angry and bitter senior member of staff. There was this unique, bespoke building being stripped apart and dismantled, expensive equipment being shoved in the backs of transit vans by hungry vultures, probably other desperate community and arts organizations.
'Shinda', one of my reclaimed paintings. I always like this one.
I don’t get it, as The Public in it’s weird, fish tank looking way, now seems to have found it’s place amongst West Bromwich’s recently built New Square, a complex of new branded high street shops, after four years of struggle to get the local community to take it to it’s heart. After a sky-rocketing budget of £72 million though to originally get it built, which did much to fuel local people’s anger towards it, I’m not sure that ever happened, but it was now becoming well-used, and a certain warmth towards it from the locals was being felt, as all sorts of community groups started to meet and hold events there. Their loss was really palpable as I watched their testimonies to the place on the local news.
But I do get it too, as one of my oldest friends is a councillor in West Bromwich, and involved in the decision to close it. He explained how it was a stark choice between shutting The Public, or cutting funding to essential frontline services in Sandwell, an already extremely impoverished area. And now, once again, culturally impoverished, with the closure of this major regional arts centre. Our regions really need place like this. You just can’t win in these desperate times under this desperate government.
The Public's space age interior
'Seek My Face' exhibited at The Public in 2008
I picked up my portraits and headed off. I’m not sure why I really bothered donated them. I had hoped that they may occasionally find a continued lease of life on the walls of The Public, but I don’t think they had moved from the back of the theatre since the day I gifted them. Which actually says a lot about my own rather strained relationship with the place since being one of the first artists to exhibit there in 2008, when it first opened it’s doors. But that’s another story, maybe one for my kids! Collecting the paintings sort of felt a bit like picking my children up.