Thursday, 13 February 2014

Dana Schutz in Wakie...

I do love painting, and at the end of January I saw an exhibition of paintings by American Dana Schutz that completely blew my socks, and was at another level than almost any other contemporary painting I’ve seen. It was at the rather brilliant Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield, and I travelled up keen to see the show, surprised and curious that this much feted Brooklyn based painter was showing in Wakie of all places. I say that, but the Hepworth gallery is a major international exhibition space, with the Yorkshire Sculpture Park also a short drive away. It’s just that I used to have a studio right behind where the gallery has been built near the river, on the top floor of an old mill. It was a huge and cheap space, the biggest space I’ve ever worked in, which I shared with two other artists, but really had to myself as they never turned up, which, in my experience, is often the way with these studio set-ups. I’ve often worked in shared studios, hoping to meet and engage with other artists, but I’ve been the only one ever there. It’s sadly defined much of my experience as an ‘artist’. 
Anyway, Schutz’s large, colourful, funny, paintings were a truly joyous revelation that had me grinning from ear to ear as I walked around.  
'Piano In The Rain'
 'Bra Removal'
Populated by rather melancholy individuals, couples, or large crowds, in scenes of weird psycho-dramas all of their own making, and in their own painted world, they were so inventive and witty. But the painter’s technical dexterity and seemingly effortless skill left me truly taken aback. The use of colour was terrific for one, but the handling was in another league.  Each mark, dash, and stroke and wonderful line and shape seemed to have this strange life of it’s own within this amazing cohesive whole. They were so fresh and alive. They also seemed to take on the legacy of Picasso, in a way that no other figurative painter seems to want to touch, and turn it inside out and make it so contemporary. I can’t remember when I’ve seen a better painter, I really can’t. I’m  so glad I went.  
 'The Flasher' 
 I’d previously only ever seen one of Schutz’s paintings before, in New York a few years ago, and had not been that impressed by their Expressionist tendencies, as I was desperate to move away from these in my own work. But these works in Wakefield were also very recent, and seemed much more sophisticated and fresher in their technique than the one I had seen then. Weirdly, when I was painting in that studio in Wakefield I was also painting very large figurative canvasses that contained their dense narratives and psycho-dramas of their own. 

                                                                         David Tremlett, '3 Wall Drawings', Ikon 
I also went to see David Tremlett’s wall drawings (not paintings, he is very distinct about this) at Ikon Gallery, Birmingham yesterday, which were really impressive. Their blocks and bands of colour and geometry really chimed with some of my current thinking for my own paintings, so that was really inspiring. I really think I should look further at Tremlett’s work, and I shall go and see this again when I’m not with my wonderful, but very loud, daughter who just loves testing the acoustics at Ikon, as well as the Martin Creed singing lift (which both my children love). 
 3 Wall Drawings

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Danger In Darkness

I didn’t enter the studio at all in January, and have unusually not wanted to either. It tells me that I have needed to take a break after putting up my show in Nuneaton, and the stress of the last few months working towards it.  Trying to juggle my family life, my studio work, and my job at the same time can all prove to be a bit much, especially during these dark winter months and the mania that is Christmas.  I’m enjoying not doing anything, but there have a few things that have got me thinking about where I might take my painting work next.

I went into the studio one evening last week and cleared all my walls of the Scandinavian studies I made last year and on my trip in 2012. I carefully piled them in my plan chest, enjoying exposing the bare walls and returning to a ‘blank’ space again. I’m left thinking that the burst of activity I had early last year making all these pieces in about a month was the ‘art’ I needed to make from my experience there, and that’s enough. I’m aiming to go to Sweden and Denmark again later this year to visit my artist friend Jamie again, and we’ll see what happens then.  He has a large studio in rural Sweden that I hope to work from. 

I had an interesting conversation down the pub with my artist friend, Andrew Smith recently, where we discussed the whole ‘edgelands’ thing and the danger of ‘aestheticizing’ these sites and places through art, writing, photography etc. It is worth remembering that much of this landscape has been created in the wake of deindustrialization, the global economy, and the destructive policies of the right, notably Margaret Thatcher and her government, on huge swathes of different working class communities, largely in the Midlands and the North of England.  Many of these communities and towns have never recovered, but adapted to the rise of the consumer and service driven industries which have transformed the character and individual identities of our towns and cities, so that everywhere now looks the same. I would not like my own paintings to ‘aestheticize’ these places, and have hoped that my more recent paintings of the canal underneath the motorway present some ideas about this experience and the legacy of such policies and vicissitudes on the present-day Black Country. 

I was very pleased therefore, to read a terrific piece written by Leicester based artist and friend, Hugh Marwood, about ‘Black Highway’ on his blog. In it, Hugh discusses my recent paintings in great detail, asking at one point:

‘Could this erosion of descriptive detail, and consequent blurring of specific identity, echo the transformations that have overtaken this whole region?  Does this reduction of a subject towards formal concerns, recall the plight of a community once rooted in proud tradition but now shifted towards increasing disconnectedness and anonymity?’
It was interesting to read Hugh’s reading of the paintings in those terms, as so much of what he says here echoes my thoughts and feelings about the present day Black Country landscape, and how much it has physically transformed from when I was a boy. I lived for ten years away from it between 1990-1999, and when I returned I didn’t recognize it, so great was some of the transformations it had undertaken, and I felt incredibly alienated from it.  These changes were by no means exclusive to this region however; you see them wherever you look in the post-industrial, global landscape of England’s edgelands. Of course, these feelings have informed my paintings and their formal language. It’s great having someone like Hugh recognize it and discuss these issues in relation to my work. Thanks, Hugh. Here’s a link to the rest of his piece: