Wednesday, 31 December 2014

On Any Given Day....

It’s New Years Eve and I’m coming to the end of a busy but enjoyable Christmas break spent with my family. I was watching ‘Toy Story 3’ the other night with the kids, and, never having seen it before, was really struck by the level of detail and the accuracy of it’s depictions in the creation of this world within a world of children’s toys and imaginations. I often enjoy occasionally stopping to look around the frequent chaos of our home which is thanks largely to the children’s toys scattered about the place. 
  I love following the trail of colourful plastic and coming across allsorts of weird, often surreal, juxtapositions of different inanimate objects and their unusual colours, forms and sizes. This evening I spent fifteen minutes to take a few photos around the home to demonstrate this, and say that these photographs represent the sort of scenerios which occur, in my experience, on any given day when you have young children with too many toys….There is a project there I tell my students, but they never listen. I can assure you none of these photos were contrived, they were just as I found them
  It’s been another busy year for my painting practice. Although I would have liked to make more work, I now feel pretty primed to launch myself into some exciting new things with a clearer head in 2015, after what feels like quite a period of experimentation. 
  Still, I’ve been in five exhibitions this year, including a fairly large solo one, “Black Highway’ at Nuneaton Museum and Art Gallery in January. I’m currently in a Christmas group show at Cupola Gallery in Sheffield called ‘Delicious’, as well as the West Midlands Open 2014. The experiences I have had so far with Cupola have pleasingly and hopefully seen me taking the first steps towards the presentation of my work into welcome, newer, commercial opportunities, an ambition I wanted to fulfill at the start of the year. Developing this is something I want to continue in 2015, and I know building relationships with these sort of galleries will take a long time, but I have alot more insight into this than I did at the start of the year. 
  I still want to continue with my own artist-led projects though, and the freedom this allows, and am hoping to do more with Indigo Octogan Projects, as well as hopefully participating in another ‘By The Way’ exhibition with Nottingham based group Land Lies Fallow, which we are planning for next December in Birmingham. I also want to do much more with my smaller works on paper and printmaking and get these out to other galleries and perhaps art fairs. And so on and so on....! I'm never short of ideas for the work, just time.
  It’s good to have a plan. It’s even more interesting when things stray from the plan. We’ll see how it goes. Happy New Year!
  (Santa on the stairs sums me up on any given day, and certainly at the end of 2014)

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Jane Freilicher 1924-2014

I was saddened to hear of the death of painter Jane Freilicher on December 10th, aged 90. She lived a long life and had a successful, respected and established career, still working and exhibiting at 89. Of course no artist ever retires, but it still took me aback a little as I’m an admirer and fan of her paintings and have learned a great deal from her and others of the so-called ‘New York School’ of painters and poets that followed the Abstract Expressionists in the 1950’s and 1960’s. These include painters Fairfield Porter. Larry Rivers and Alex Katz, photographer Rudy Burkhart, and poets such as John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara and Barbara Guest. Unlike the generation of AE artists before them, the painters of the New York School returned to a representational form of image making but tried to incorporate the language and grammar of abstract painting. This is what distinguished them, and kicked the door open for so many representational artists that have followed.  Fairfield Porter’s ‘Art In Its Own Terms’, a collection of his essays and art criticism, a brilliant book that I’ve recently read, and must be the best art criticism I’ve ever encountered, discusses in his writing on painting many of the concerns these artists shared and gives a real insight into this period.

Untitled Abstract, oil on canvas, 1960, 60 x 60cms
Many of the surviving poets and painters paid tribute to Freilicher in a memorial service in New York a few days after her death, alongside a new generation of artists appreciative of her work. I’ve read many of the tributes by artists and journalists, and decided to select a review by her close friend poet John Ashbery of a Freilicher show at New York's Fischbach Gallery, published in our May-June 1975 issue of ‘Art In America’. It  seemed to describe really well many of the values I have found in her work, and have influenced my own painting in the last twelve years or so as I've fumbled around trying to develop something of a relevant language to depict the landscape of my own.
'Nightfall', 1968

To mark the passing of painter Jane Freilicher (1924-2014):

‘Jane Freilicher showed paintings of the landscape outside her studio in Water Mill, Long Island, along with still-lifes and views of the city from the windows of her apartment in New York. Thus she is a painter of "what there is there," in Kenneth Koch's phrase. The Long Island landscape is beautiful, though not spectacularly so in reproduction, whether photographic or painterly: its beauty is more a question of light and atmosphere, both singularly pure and precise because of the nearby ocean. The land is flat, though in the distance there are some discreet undulations which pass for hills. The buildings, at least those the artist can see from her studio, are a discreet mélange—old frame houses of the type that used to be called "beautiful homes," less distinguished newer ones, and barns and sheds. It is a landscape as good as any other, perhaps nicer than many, but the artist is less interested in whatever picturesque qualities it may possess than in its exemplariness. Somehow everything she touches is revealed as a prototype, a sample of what there is there, though she would be the first to disclaim any transcendental intent and is probably unaware of this quality in her work. Obviously, she paints what she sees, but it happens that she sees a lot.

Creation—fresh, unassuming, a little awkward still with some of its folds not yet shaken out, is her subject; creation even in the joyous, homely sense Milton imagined it:

Forth flourished thick the clust'ring vine, forth crept
The swelling gourd, up stood the corny reed
Embattled in her field: add the humble shrub
And bush with frizzled hair implicit.
Nothing is made to look more important than it is, some things are even kidded a little. One is tempted to ask the floppy Marsh Bouquet: "And just who do you think you are?" When the houses down the road or the tower of the Con Ed building seem to be giving themselves airs, when the field outside the studio momentarily assumes a brightness that is out of keeping with the glum cast of light in the sky, these discrepancies are noted, but sympathetically. Everything is free to be itself, nothing is too tentative or modest to be included in her factual but generous account of what she sees.
In the landscapes, the "interesting" part of the scenery—a bay, a line of trees, a roof poking mysteriously out of the foliage—is usually in the distance, as is true of most landscapes; the foreground may be occupied by some "frizzled" shrubbery. That's the way the view is, but one can't help reading a kind of moral order into the way the scale of things is managed: these are "democratic vistas." In Potato Truck, everything hinges on the truck, a tiny patch of man-made red in the distance, organizing space like Stevens' jar; but what is closest and biggest are some bushes. They are elaborated more thoroughly than anything else in the picture perhaps just because of their shapelessness and their inability to benefit very much from celebration by a poet or a naturalist. So they are left in their frumpiness, looking unfinished despite the articulation lavished on them. Nature is efficient but not always neat, and the romantic depths of the painting, suavely and succinctly painted, seem to recognize the justice of this and efface themselves before its logic. And two of the still-lifes, One Cat, Two Fish and Objects on a Table, are miniature cosmogonies: all things in them co-exist and are allowed their idiosyncrasies, as is subtly indicated by the varied handling of paint. The cityscape outside has a Guardi-esque fluidity, but on the table things are less easy: some objects (the loaf of bread, a branch of broccoli) are deftly encompassed; others are allowed to appear as problematical, as recalcitrant to easy solutions as they would have looked to Cézanne.

The swift transition from style to style is one of the most remarkable things in Freilicher's painting. The denotative and connotative jostle each other, with no fixed boundaries; a rough tangle of brushwork menaces a sleekly realistic passage. A field as minutely painted as Ruysdael would have done it leads to a cloud on the horizon which really isn't a cloud but a brushstroke. "Non-representational" painting is always lurking in the background, or the foreground for that matter, of an ostensibly straightforward account of a landscape, and of course landscape is like that; the eye deals with some of it and neglects the rest. Other painters have made the point, but in Jane Freilicher's case the transitions are so gradual, the differences so close, that her grammar of styles can easily go unnoticed. The viewer imagines he is looking at an "objective" account of trees or a table top without realizing that they have been dismantled and put back together again almost seamlessly. It is only on closer inspection that the oddity, the purposeful inconsistencies of tone, the fact that everything doesn't hang together quite as it should, become apparent. By then one has accepted the anomalies as the norms that they are. Her purpose in ruffling the surface, in injecting not her own note but that of things, in showing up each element's poignant desire to make its own point, to put itself across, to be accepted on its own terms, is to restore the primitive calm that the world presumably had before anyone had looked at it, to reinstate that higher naturalness which can only become visible with the help of a little artifice. She succeeds both in recreating the innocent look things presumably once had and reconciling it with the knowledge of them we have now’.

John Ashbery, 1975

Wednesday, 17 December 2014


oil on canvas, 150 x 100cms, 2014

I’ve been working on this painting for a few weeks. I think it’s finished now. After completing most of the painting in one longer session I then spent several evenings developing it further. I did this by scraping and rubbing paint on and then off again, glazing different parts, and adjusting the colour up and down till it worked. What makes it work for me, I’m never quite sure. You make these informed, technical adjustments that make it hold together, but you hope that it goes beyond that level of understanding and something more unknown intervenes and a sort of ‘rightness’ (not a technical term!) occurs. I know this all sounds rather fanciful, but I do think that’s where the heart of something more interesting lies, but it is difficult to explain. I know many artists will understand exactly what I mean though.

It’s a bit of a flat-footed, almost a bit theatrical ( I was actually thinking a bit about Beckett’s minimal stage sets with just a very few props),  and certainly the most direct image of a lorry I’ve made so far, at least on the surface.  I’ve seen a few paintings of lorries, such as in the Photo-realism exhibition at BMAG last year, or other, more sentimental, examples done by more so-called ‘Sunday’ Painters, and although I like to nod to both these things, and think the image possesses obvious inherent romantic qualities, it ultimately distills many of the ongoing interests I have in painting, like so much of what I do.  What I like most though is that it seems a bit more of a break with the motorway paintings, although with obvious ties to them. I feel more excited than I have for a while as I’ve been slowly trying to move forward with the work. This feels a bit new and different.

pastel studies

I’m really warming to the lorry theme, and this is my fourth painting now that features them (I’m not sure whether to refer to them as trucks or lorries: trucks seems a bit too American, but a bit cooler than lorries, which sound a bit naff when I’m discussing them with other people (‘Yeah, I’m doing a few paintings of…er…lorries at the moment…’ Blank look. I get that about anything I’m doing though). I’m not trying to be cool though, or American, so I think I will have to settle for lorries).  I’ve been eyeing them up, and taking photos whenever I come across them and been making a few new drawings trying to develop it further still.  When you start to hone in on something, you start really looking at things differently. I keep jumping out the car to go back and photograph some enormous articulated vehicle parked up in some lay-by. Either that or I excitedly stop dead in my tracks, breath taken away, as I do a late night run for a pint of milk to the local Tesco express and find a huge delivery lorry parked up front. These things….

'Locke' starring Tom Hardy

I’m reminded a bit of ‘Locke’, the recent film starring Tom Hardy as a Construction Manager, Ivan Locke, and all the action is set completely in the cab of his car as he heads down the M1 out of Birmingham to London (it said M1 but I’ve always done M40!), at night on the eve of the biggest concrete pour in Europe, which he is due to supervise in the morning. Hardy is the only character we see as he has various hands free telephone conversations with his family, his co-workers, and lover. It’s a great film, with beautiful and atmospheric shots of the motorway at night.  Add it to your Xmas wish list…

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

We Used To Think The Motorway Looked Like A River...

I’ve been using the camera on my phone a bit like a sketchbook lately. I love the spontaneity it offers and it’s ease of ability to capture something seen more by chance. I’m finding it a great way of generating ideas as I travel through the landscape.  It seems to take quite a good picture at night, but the imperfections of it and the weird lighting effects it seems to sometime capture interest me too. Here are some recent ones looking down on the M5, and of some factories passed and motorway service stations stopped at, the parked lorries catching my attention. 
  The title of this post is adapted from an album title, ‘We Used To Think The Freeway Looked Like A River’, by Richmond Fontaine, which seemed to fit that image. It’s a pretty good record, not great, but the lyrics are really interesting. I recently read ‘The Motel Life’ by Willy Vlautin, the band’s songwriter and lyricist. This was a terrific tale of two brothers trying to escape their shared past. The prose style was incredibly engaging: very spare yet packed with observation and detail. Just up my street, and often very sad and moving at times. I’d really recommend it. Not so the record…

Author/songwriter Willy Vlautin, 'The Motel Life' 

In recent months I’ve also loved reading ‘How I Killed Margaret Thatcher’ by Dudley born, Anthony Cartwright. This is his third book after ‘The Afterglow’ and ‘Heartland’ set in the Black Country, and I’ve enjoyed all three. This one tells its story through the eyes of a nine-year old boy, who, as the narrator, bears witness to the devastating policies of Thatcher in the 1980’s on his hometown of Dudley and the surrounding factories, and the impact this has on his own family. It’s a both sad and angry book, and made me feel both sad and angry too. Finishing the book and then stepping back out it made me reflect on the world around me as it is now and see how much has been lost in our communities and society thanks to that woman’s policies.  The current coalition government are doing a devastatingly good job of hammering the last nails in the coffin. 
  Anyway, on a last, and less bitter note, other records I have enjoyed in recent months, include London Grammar’s debut  ‘If You Wait’, from last year, which is a wonderful warm, late-night listen. It’s been a record to get lost to to in the studio.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

'Not Much Good Painting' -The West Midlands Open 2014

'The Gaze', oil on canvas, 210 x 150cms, in The West Midlands Open 2014, Gas Hall, Birmingham

It’s been a few weeks now since it opened and from when I went to the Private View, but I’m pleased with how my large painting ‘The Gaze’ looks in the ‘West Midlands Open 2014’ exhibition at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery’s Gas Hall. It looks great against this green wall, and it’s so nice to see it with some space around it as it hangs on a wall on it’s own. In fact, it’s the biggest painting in the show, which is a bit of a surprise in some respects, but in others it’s not. There does seem a current vogue for more modestly scaled painting, which I also felt when I exhibited in the ‘Worcester Open’ last year. My painting in that show, although at only five feet across and so not terribly large, was the biggest painting there too. It seemed to sit very awkwardly in that particularly show, like how I often feel at parties, and I didn’t like how it looked. I’m much more pleased with this representation of my work in the Gas Hall. 

Digging that green wall....

I just wished some of the punters visiting the exhibition felt the same. The comments book, although full of many complimentary things to say about the show, also has it’s fair share of, often quite outrageously rude, condemnatory comments too. I don’t know, as it is with these things, it’s a mixed bag, but I thought a good mixture of things if you are willing to look a bit harder than the feeling I got from some of the said commentators. Oh well. Each to their own.  Apparently there is ‘not much good painting’ in the show. Well, I didn’t notice that. Instead, here are some rather good examples that caught my eye…
Paul Newman, 'The Fly', mixed media on canvas
Angela Maloney, 'Danny Boy', oil and acrylic on canvas
Celia De Serra, 'Isabella', pencil on paper

The show runs until February 2015. I think it's well worth a visit. 

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Lest We Forget

CRW Nevinson, 'After a Push', 1918
There were a few activities organized by different departments across the college to mark today’s hundredth year anniversary of the beginning of World War 1.  I held a presentation of art created from the period by different artists from both Britain and Germany, as well as looking at more contemporary examples by artists in more recent conflicts.  Here are some of the examples of paintings I shared with my students and colleagues today to remember the terrible loss and sacrifice made by so many, and the key role art, from painting to poetry, has played in helping us attempt to understand the horrors of war and conflict.  
CRW Nevinson, 'Bursting Shell', 1915
Paul Nash, 'The Ypres Salient at Night', 1916
Otto Dix, 'Der Krieg', etching and aquatint, 1921
Otto Dix, 'Skat Players', oil and collage on board, 1920
The brilliant Otto Dix, like so many German artists, was never afraid to look at things head on. Here in this painting he mercilessly depicts the former generals and officers who sent so many innocent men to their deaths with their terribly mutilated bodies and crude artificial limbs and 'tin jaws', yet still looking smart in their uniforms, medals proudly worn. Sights of ex veterans like these were common on the streets of post war Germany.
Henry Tonks, 'Portraits of Injured Soldiers', pastel
Tonks, a former doctor before becoming an artist, was asked to detail the terrible facial injuries suffered by 15% of soldiers on the frontline to aid early practitioners of plastic surgery at the Royal College of Surgeons. 
Peter Howson, 'Bosnian Harvest', 1994
Howson, a former soldier himself, was commissioned by The Times and The Imperial War Museum to be the official War Artist in Bosnia in 1993. Gruesome scenes like these, where local women collect the mutilated limbs of dead civilians, sent Howson to the edge of a breakdown.

Lest we forget.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Tail Whips and Back Flips

i-Pad study, local ramp park

It’s half term and I find myself at some of the local ramp parks as my six year old gets rid of some of that energy he’s full of on his stunt scooter and bike again. We go most weekends for a few hours whilst his sister naps in the afternoons, but as he was quick to tell me as I reminded that he had a week off school, ‘Brilliant! That means we can go to the ramps every day!’ At six, he is the only one on the planet.

Anyway, I did this i-pad study there the other day getting colder by the minute. I spend a lot of time there, often with a book, and always with a sketchbook, and have begun to amass quite a few drawings. I have been mulling over whether to develop something further about these cast concrete landscapes. I’m tempted to see if there are any ramp parks illuminated in the evenings to make studies from, as this would appeal to me more with my interest in the nocturnal landscape, now that the evenings are drawing in. 
Painting in my WASPs studio space, Edinburgh 1998
It’s an idea I’ve been mulling over for years the more I think about it and remember: scenes of illuminated parks and football grounds etc. It first came to me when I was lecturing at Sunderland University in 1998. The Fine Art Painting office was five floors up and overlooked a local park. One evening as I was preparing to leave and catch the first of my trains back to my home in Edinburgh I noticed the park below eerily lit up with brilliant floodlights and a small crowd of young guys playing football. Obscuring the view however, was this wonderful screen of silhouetted trees and branches. The combination of black against the artificial light of the park seemed such a good image and really captured my imagination. I consequently made some drawings and over a few months made a rather dismal attempt at a large painting of it back in my Edinburgh studio. I remember it as being my first serious attempt at a landscape painting and trying to move my work somewhere new. It felt exciting with possibility.
Jock MacFadyen, 'Mare Street Snooker Hall', oil on canvas, 1996 (?)
 Jock MacFadyen, 'Cambridge Heath', oil, 2004
Half way through making it, I ventured across the city to the Talbot Rice Art Gallery to see a very large exhibition of new Jock MacFadyen paintings. As a student I had enjoyed MacFadyen’s paintings of working class life similar to my own background, peopled by caricatured but always realistic characters set in the urban wastelands, but hadn’t seen any of his paintings for several years now. I was therefore shocked to see these new paintings where the figures had largely disappeared and the artist had foregrounded the buildings and the gritty, blasted urban landscapes. Several of them were also of floodlit parks with gangs of youths playing football at night just like the scene I was attempting to paint just a mile away in Gorgie! I felt gutted and unbelieving (this is all true by the way! I take this stuff pretty seriously!) I walked round the exhibition somewhat dazed, and then under grey Scottish skies staggered down The Mound and through the early evening headlights of Princes Street back to the studio, feeling that I had been totally beaten to it.  I went back and enjoyed the show several times, and reluctantly tried to finish my own rather lame painting.  I didn’t attempt anything serious with landscape again for several years, instead finding a route out of the corner I had found myself in by focusing instead on my portrait work.

Jock MacFadyen, 'Limehouse Basin', oil, 1998(?)
Now, having developed more of a ‘vocabulary’ in landscape painting of my own, sixteen years later, I feel more ready to return to this sort of subject again. If anything I’ve learned is that so often the development of certain ideas is a long, slow, and often unexpected process. You have to be patient. Also, knowing me I also know that I probably still won’t do anything with this idea, as it’s just one of several ongoing things I’m thinking of…

(There are a couple of nice Jock paintings on this blog of scenes at night, but I sadly could not find any examples on the internet of those floodlit football matches I was fed up that he’d done. Sorry.)

(It’s strange to observe the old photograph of the landscape painting that I found out and scanned for this blog and notice how much it looks like one of my present day nocturnal landscapes. I’ve still got it rolled up somewhere. When I have my major retrospective at the Tate it will feature in the first room you enter, ‘Early Beginnings’…! Or maybe not..)