Saturday, 31 January 2015

'Shoulder To Shoulder'

'Shoulder To Shoulder' oil on canvas, 100 x 150cms, 2014-15

I’ve found it hard to get much done in the studio in January, which has been a source of frustration, but I have repainted this painting, which I originally posted in October, over a few sessions. I felt like there was something too ‘clean’ about it somehow, and so have thrown a lot more paint at it in an attempt to mess around with it and open it up. I applied a lot of the paint with a rag which seemed a good way of painting the stacks of pallets, which is what they are if you weren’t sure, in a more interesting way. I’m a bit happier with it now. 
  It’s the only painting recently I’ve been able to think of a title. It’s called ‘Shoulder to Shoulder’ in reference not to the pallets all leaning against each other, stacked high and close, but to something one of the characters said in ‘Pride’, the film last year about the time in the Eighties in which the Gay and Lesbian Movement stood up and raised valuable money and support for the Miner’s Strike. He said about the need for people to stand ‘shoulder to shoulder’ in solidarity against Thatcher and the Tories as their policies wreaked destruction on working class community after working class community across the country. 
So, the battered pallets are a metaphor, and nostalgic, for a time when people did stand together and those values of solidarity and collectivism counted. Still, with what has happened in Greece in January, maybe there is still hope; it certainly proves that there is the will, that those values can find a place again…. 

Saturday, 24 January 2015

'Black Country' by Liz Berry

I’ve just completed reading ‘Black Country’ a short poetry collection by Liz Berry. It’s received a lot of notices and awards, including the Forward Prize for Best First Collection 2014. I’m not surprised, as I’ve found it to be such a great read. Considering Liz is only 33, the poems have a depth and maturity, and equally a passion, that really draws you in and holds you close. As you may have guessed from the title, many of the poems explore Liz’s relationship and experiences of growing up in the former industrial Midlands region, in places such as Sedgeley, Tipton and Dudley. Much of it is also written in the much misunderstood Black Country dialect, but where many writers often have an air of mocking about the flat, vowel twisting language of the region, Liz brings an air of seriousness and gravity to it that I really appreciated. Indeed, it made me think a lot about my own upbringing in the Black Country in these places where the poems are set (my Dad is from Tipton, my grandparents lived in Sedgeley and Coseley) and renewed an appreciation and respect in the uniqueness of the dialect that I grew up with and spoke myself. It’s an accent that is very thick and broad, and is hard to understand to the untuned ear. My wife still has trouble understanding my Dad. It’s never going to be heard as ‘cool’ or romantic either other regional voices or like the Scottish accent, which is also very hard to understand at first from my experience of living in Edinburgh for a few years. Yet, Berry’s poems do bring something of an air of almost exotic romanticism that is a real surprise, as well as that important quality: authenticity. 
Poet Liz Berry
My own former accent is a bit mangled up from my experience of living in different parts of the country, including the North East, West Yorkshire and Scotland. The Black Country still informs much of how I sound, although it is hard to ‘hear’ your own voice; it’s what I’m told, but it has softened. It has had to  in an attempt to make myself understood to others. I remember in my first few days at University being asked by a fellow student where I was from, and when I told them, a sarcastic reply of ‘No kidding’ was returned. Feeling a sense of embarrassment and shame, which is often how I think people from the Black Country are made to feel about their accents, I quickly tried to change my own so it was less noticeable ( and more understood).  But it’s a warm and friendly accent, rich in character and history, so it has been really enjoyable to read ‘Black Country’, and how Liz Berry treats and explores the language of the region with the respect it deserves in her poetry.

I have really enjoyed reading these poems. They are a good companion to my recent paintings, which are an attempt to get close to the Black Country again.
Donald Provan, 'Pillars' oil on board, 2004
As a footnote to this post, I remember fondly times in the shared studio I had in Edinburgh with my artist friend, Donald Provan, who spoke in an often barely intelligible Fife accent. We used to share cups of tea in the afternoons and chat away, but I was always aware that I don’t think he understood my accent, and I didn’t understand his own, so we were never quite sure what we were talking about to each other. We just used to nod at each other and say ‘Aye I ken’ a lot until gradually, over time we slowly tuned into each other. Donald is one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met, and the great painting of Leith above is by him.

A good link to one of Liz’s poems is here:

Saturday, 17 January 2015

O Death Pt 2: Jean Michel Basquiat

Jean Michel Basquiat
I’ve just completed reading ‘Basquiat- Or How To Make a Killing In Art’ by Phoebe Hoban.  Written in 1998, ten years after his death from a drugs overdose aged just 27, it charts the meteoric rise and fall of New York painter Jean Michel Basquiat set against the backdrop of the gross capitalist excess of the Eighties art world; a time when art really collided with the world of commerce and became just another consumable commodity. Artists like Basquiat became overnight stars, but at a heavy cost; selling their work at astronomical prices, but not as much as the vulture like dealers they worked with who would then sell the work on again for double or treble the price to the ‘nouveau riche’ collectors, who sprang up at this time, who would then sell the paintings off at auction for grossly inflated prices. It became a deadly vampire like game that all famously came crashing down in 1989, destroying many artists careers, but a game which had a lasting impact on how we view and experience art today. Charles Saatchi continued many of it’s excessive practices with his own art collection in the Nineties, launching many careers and destroying others in the same way, when he would sell off wholesale a particular artist’s work that he had been collecting and subsequently kill off the market for it. 
It’s been a compelling read, which I’ve found myself picking up at any given opportunity. Hoban fills the book with a high level of fascinating detail where we are drawn into the seemingly outlaw world, or a seemingly private, closed universe, of shark-like dealers (sharks and vampires! I’m piling this on!) such as Larry ‘Go Go’ Gagosian, Bruno Bischofberger and Mary Boone, where it is all about the money and total free market capitalism at its unchecked worst. I’ve been shocked by much of it, but also found much of it very sobering: this is the world of art reduced to the bottom dollar and nothing else. Any noble ideas of its value beyond that seem laughable.  Basquiat himself, exploited mercilessly as he destroys his body and soul with an extraordinarily large amount of Class A drugs, seems lost like an angry child; making paintings of ever diminishing returns as he is trapped in a cycle of producing work for the big queue of collectors waiting impatiently at the door, to feed his desire to be famous and to feed his terrible heroin habit, heading into oblivion. It’s a sad story. 
  There is not that much discussion about the paintings made by Basquiat during the story. This comes a bit later after his death where his ‘legacy’ is reflected upon. The general consensus, lead by critics like the often pompous, Robert Hughes, is that the early work that made him famous is the best, with what followed repetitious and increasingly facile and that he never developed as an artist. I agree with this point of view about the early work etc. but with a career so short, and no art school background, and the trappings he quickly found himself in at a very young age, I don’t think he ever really had the chance to develop.  There is an undeniable raw energy about the work, combined with many very sophisticated ideas about colour, the painted and drawn mark, and the combination of text and image. The paintings can be full of unexpected passages and surprises, crammed with ideas and references. They can also be sparse and terse, angry and spooky, with their cryptic words against the simplest of grounds. They can be very poetic, and also reminiscent of a more street smart Cy Twombly. 
Having finished the book, I found myself digging out ‘Basquiat’ the movie made by artist Julian Schnabel, a painter I have never really seen the appeal of, unlike Basquiat. Schnabel was one of Basquiat’s peers in this incestuous New York art world of the Eighties, who has managed his own career much more successfully. I’ve seen the film several times, and having finished the book, I thought that film seems a pretty lame attempt to capture that world. However, on watching it again, I appreciated what a great and sly film it is, where so many of the issues discussed in Hoban’s book are worked through in the little asides of dialogue between David Bowie’s Andy Warhol (not sure about that casting!), and Dennis Hopper’s Bruno Bischofberger (which seems very good), or Jean Michel’s friend, a composite of many people, played brilliantly by the charismatic Benecio Del Toro. There is a two minute scene where they are playing basketball in the street, where Del Toro explains the whole art world Basquiat is trying to enter and will find himself quickly trapped in a few neat sentences. I loved it when Warhol accused Jean Michel of not spending much time on any of the painted postcards that he is trying to sell to him in a restaurant, and Basquiat retorts that other people make Warhol’s so he spends even less time. At which point, Hopper’s Bischofberger quietly states that it is not about how much time you spend on something, but how much you can sell it for. That sums it all up neatly. This painting below 'Riding With Death' is a brilliant and prophetic late painting by Basquiat, completed a few months before his death. 

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

'O Death'

100 x 77cms, oil on canvas, 2014-15
…and into 2015. I’ve just completed this painting over the break. It’s smaller than the last one at only 1m tall, and painted more loosely. This wasn’t a conscious act on my part. It’s just how things developed. I also think this ‘looseness’ was easier to achieve thanks to the red ground I applied first, and have been applying to all my recent paintings. I began to do this as a way of eliminating the painting underneath, as most of my recent paintings have been worked over over pre-existing ones which I have been unhappy with (many actually on this website which is a bit of a concern! I really need to update the pages on it). 
These grounds have also allowed me to create more depth in the colour and painting surface by experimenting with rubbing back to the exposed ground and also glazing on top of parts or applying thin washes of paint over the red. The green passage on the left is a good example of this, and I found laying this almost fluorescent green in really took things into unexpected areas. Against the bright pink, which combine with the slashing shadow shapes, things became much more dynamic than I anticipated.   
I really like the Franz Kline like black shadows and the treatment of space in this part of the painting now. It gives the painting a slightly different character than the previous ones.

I was a bit unsure about painting the lorry so directly with this frontal view, and worry a bit about any associations with Yorkie Bars and Ginsters Pasties, but I think I’m managing to avoid these issues. The black, blank windscreen appears pretty forbidding. I was looking at it earlier this evening and Ralph Stanley’s ‘O Death’ came on the i-pod, and in a peculiar sort of way it provoked me into thinking the lorry had a sort of appearance of the Grim Reaper appearing at the end of a lonely, nocturnal street. I guess most of these paintings are a meditation on death in one way or another.

I need to cheer up, or stop thinking so much. It’s only January…!

Here’s a link to the wonderful Ralph Stanley singing ‘O Death’: