Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Begin Again

'Journey's End', oil on canvas, 120 x 200cms
After twenty years of public exhibitions, projects, commissions, and grant awards I'm pleased to say that I've finally managed to achieve some decent gallery representation. Following a really hot and sweaty trip to Sheffield with a van full of paintings last Friday, followed by a great meeting with gallery director Karen Sherwood, I'm pleased to say that the city's excellent Cupola Gallery want to represent my paintings. They have taken several large pieces and drawings for now, and want to stage a bigger show of my work next year. Hurrah! My practice just seems like a long and forever ongoing apprenticeship of things tried and lessons learned...
'Canal', oil on canvas, 120 x 150cms
This is something I’ve been trying to rather faltering strive for for a long time, but have never felt like I had the work to approach many places- largely because of the large scale of so many of my paintings, but also the subject matter. I’ve since realized that I have been misguided with this, as my meeting at Cupola demonstrated, and the level of interest I’ve had in my motorway paintings since embarking on them with the help of the Arts Council. Karen and Graham, the manager, at Cupola praised their originality, and it was interesting discussing other paintings of mine such as my tree paintings, which form part of the same series, as being less original and therefore less appealing. As for the scale, Karen quite rightly pointed out how I worked much better on a larger scale, with smaller pieces looking more ‘compromised’. They ended up keeping ‘Journey’s End’ as one of their selection (top), which is one of my biggest paintings.  They were also encouraging about some of my new paintings such as ‘Canal’ above. 
 I really enjoyed my time at the gallery with Karen and Graham, who were both full of advice and enthusiasm, and I saw some great work there. I was particularly struck by the paintings of Mandy Payne (below), who apparently was personally selected by Sir Norman Ackroyd for this year’s RA summer show, and is also a prizewinner in this year’s John Moore’s Painting Prize in Liverpool. 
Mandy Payne, 'Brutal', aerosol on concrete
I’m really excited to think that for once someone else now has a vested interest in selling my work and getting it more widely seen than me.  It’s also interesting to think that my work is now getting promoted outside of the Midlands. I’ve found there are very few decent commercial opportunities in and around Birmingham, hence casting my net much wider.  So, for now, I’ve signed a six month contract with the gallery until January 2015, which we will review in November. This feels like the beginning of a welcome new chapter..

Monday, 7 July 2014

'British Values'

Some of my portrait drawings completed at JCC Arts Festival
On Saturday the Art Department I work in at Joseph Chamberlain Sixth Form College in Birmingham held it’s annual Summer Arts Festival.  There were lots of activities and art workshops to enjoy and participate in, and also music and performing arts. I’ve written on the blog about it before and described my experiences of either painting or drawing portraits of willing volunteers. I try to do it differently each year to keep myself challenged and also not to appear to be trotting out the same old schtick each time too.
Right up until my first session at ten in the morning I was umming and ahhing about what I should do this year and came duly prepared. I was undecided whether to do some colourful pastel portraits or some moodier, large charcoal drawings. I thought I would wait to see who my first sitter was and then decide.  When Mark, boyfriend of colleague Sally, looking quite Biblical with his long hair and beard, sat down in front of me the answer revealed itself: it had to be the moody charcoal. He was a gift to draw. 
I really enjoyed working larger and exploring the versatility of the brittle willow charcoal. Working larger also allowed people to watch the process more easily, which lead to quite an audience gathering behind me at times, and I’m not sure if the scale (the drawings were A2) contributed to this rather than my drawing skills, but when I revealed the finished drawing to the sitter I received real gasps of astonishment and pleasure that, in over 15 years of doing portraits with a sitter like this, I’ve never really had before. It was a nice surprise. I was on fire! In around five hours I completed eight drawings. My head was like mush at the end of the afternoon. 
The drawing had been fun, but what had been better were some of the conversations I had with the sitters. In particular, a long conversation with a young Muslim guy (nearly all my students are Muslim) studying Islamic Studies and living in a nearby student hostel. We talked at length about my own atheism and his own Islamic faith, which I enjoyed, but also about people’s perceptions of him. ‘They see me coming down the street and they think I’m a terrorist because of my appearance’, he decried, understandably finding it really upsetting.  I would have liked to talk more about this, but with the drawing complete and the next sitter waiting it was difficult. He was visibly moved by the drawing, and asked if he could give me a hug, which was touching. I’d been moved listening to him. He was only eighteen, had moved from his home in Bradford to the hostel, had no family around, and had clearly found these changes difficult. 
The experience reflected a lot of my recent thoughts about working at the college which is located in the heart of the East Birmingham community under scrutiny over the controversial ‘trojan horse’ allegations in some local schools. Many of the schools recently inspected by Ofsted, and deemed now ‘inadequate’,  and reported about by the media are our feeder schools. There have been things going on in some of these schools that should cause concern, but there has been such an Islamaphobic and racist tone to most of the coverage one has to question the agenda on one hand, but also the general ignorance of many of the commentators and journalism. I found Ian Hislop’s comments on Question Time really offensive and patronising in the week that the news broke, but also unsurprisingly Michael Gove’s, the Secretary of State for Education, whose answer, also unsurprisingly, to these problems were to turn all the schools into academies. Not that the academies programme is one of the causes of these problems of course.  His single-minded mission to privatise our education system has all the hallmarks of fundamentalism being led by a religious zealot.
The point I would like to make, however, is about my own positive experiences of working with young people from this Muslim community of Birmingham. I’ve never worked with such nice students, who come from some incredibly deprived backgrounds. They have, and continue to be, the friendliest, warmest, tolerant, generous, kind and respectful community. They also have a great sense of humour and a real commitment to their studies in the Art Department. I’ve learned so much from them and they inspire me. They seem to live and practice by example so much more the so-called ‘British Values’ currently talked about, which huge swathes of our society seemed to have left behind a long, long time ago. 

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Station Wagon Painting

oil on canvas, 75 x 60cms
So following on from the drawings in the last post I have spent some time working on this painting in the last week or so. I sort of collapsed the drawing when I came to the painting, which is what I often do, to move the painting into it’s own thing. It’s like kicking away the scaffolding if you like. It’s a painting that presented me with a few problems, in particular the stripes of the railings, which are things I’m not very good (or patient) with. I had thought about a few ways of doing them, but in the end I painted them in my usual direct manner inspired by the bands and stripes in Terry Frost and Patrick Heron’s paintings, which I’ve been looking at. 

I didn’t quite get there though, but I’m not too worried. I’m more worried if things look too refined. I did work further on them but not too much. 

I’m aware it’s pretty different to the more expressive paintings I’ve made lately which seem more obviously indebted to the abstraction of Frost or Heron etc, but I’m letting the work lead me rather than the other way round. I’ve had it commented that my motorway paintings have echoes of Edward Hopper, but, although I can see why it is made I’m not that keen on the comparison,. I’m much more interested in the language of abstract painting than the figuration of someone like Hopper. Hopper leaves me cold for all sorts of reasons really. 
Chuck Close does not paint Station Wagon paintings
I also know if I had made the painting much bigger (it’s about 75cms high) I could have painted those stripes much more surely, feeling much more comfortable working larger and physically, from the shoulder not the wrist. I’ve been making a lot of applications to commercial galleries lately, however. I’m trying to make a more determined effort to get a foothold in working with commercial galleries and make a move away from the public and artist-run exhibition spaces I feel I’ve done a bit to death in the last twenty years. These have been great of course, but can be very limiting and exhausting too after a while. I want to seek fresher opportunites and challenges. And scale seems to be an issue that keeps occurring when it comes to the spaces many of these commercial galleries have. They prefer smaller or mid-scale (say a metre and a half across) paintings, so I’m trying to take this more seriously and develop more work of this size. I’m aware of how Chuck Close, a favourite painter, derogatorily describes paintings of this size as ‘station wagon paintings’, and hate to think this might be some sort of compromise, but until I find that New York studio and New York gallery with enormous walls, I need to think about the types of galleries I’m applying for in provincial England. 
Jo Brown, 'Walking The Coast', oil and acrylic on canvas, 100 x 100cms
Most of my gallery applications have disappeared into the digital void, but one has borne fruit I’m pleased to say. The Cupola Gallery in Sheffield has expressed an interest in my work and are keen to exhibit some of it. I’ve got to contact the director, Karen Sherwood, in a couple of weeks to discuss things further. It’s a well-regarded gallery that shows some great work, including a painter I admire, Jo Brown, who I briefly worked with years ago when I was based in Yorkshire.  I’m really pleased at this prospect of showing there and think I could learn a lot from the experience and Karen Sherwood herself, who writes a really interesting blog on the gallery website (see links below). Let’s hope it works out.