'Depot 2', oil on canvas, 150 x 100cms, 2014
Earlier this year, in February, together with my artist friend, Andrew Smith, I became a member of Birmingham’s Eastside Projects’, an artist-run gallery in Digbeth, ‘Extra Special People’. This is a membership scheme that offers artist’s access to a range of different opportunities that the gallery is involved in directly or indirectly, including seminars; residencies; exhibitions; networking events; funding etc. Andy I both put ourselves forward for the monthly ‘crit club’ that they organise. It seems to be programmed as a series over a block of four months within the year, where each month three different artists present and discuss their work and ideas to any other ESP members that may be interested (not many in my experience so far- it’s mainly just the artists that turn up and me and Andy), with the session, which lasts approximately two hours, being led by one of Eastside’s Artist-Directors.
Andy’s went well in May, where he discussed his paintings and previewed ‘Orfeo’ (1), the film he recently made with artist friend Hugh Marwood which featured in their recent ‘Mental Mappings’ exhibition in Rugby. This looked great projected onto a big screen.
In July I took my turn at The Lombard Method, a studio group and project space in Digbeth, with artists James Harris and Nick Mobbs. Sadly, Andy couldn’t make it this time due to ill health. The session was presided over by Anna, the ESP coordinator, who early on apologized for her lack of knowledge about painting but she was the only one from Eastside Projects available to facilitate the session, and then followed that with declaring that she had no interest in the ‘enclosed and closed space’ of the traditional gallery experience, which was even more of a pity as we were all making fairly traditional wall based work which would normally find a home in such spaces! (I found that sort of a bit ironic though as it is a criticism often leveled at institutions such as Eastside Projects: that they operate in a very ‘enclosed and closed’ esoteric world). She was very nice though. The only other person present was an artist friend of James’.
I enjoyed listening to James, a young artist, who happily discussed his homo-erotic drawings, which were shared around the group. There were quite a collection of these, some of them very explicit with obvious debts to Picasso, and just one abstract painting hanging on a multi coloured pastel stained wall, which in many ways seemed pretty unrelated, a point not lost on James. The wall was a bit lost on me to be honest, as I thought the staining was just left over from some previous activity until James drew our attention to it. James discussed with passion his lack of interest in exhibiting his work anywhere: it was the process of making it that was more important. These are feelings I am totally in tune with on one level, but did think that the work would benefit from some sort of focus of some kind, which I think an exhibition can offer (or perhaps a crit like this). I have no images of James’ work to share I’m afraid.
Nick Mobbs, 'Game', screenprint, 2011, 61 x 54cms
Where James was very ebullient and happy to talk freely about his work, Nick Mobbs held everything back, more interested to listen to our responses to a recent print hung on the wall and a video work in progress of cowled, or hooded, figures, an ongoing theme (2), but more recently represented in absurdist images from the internet of celebrities masking their identities from the spying paparazzi with blankets or other things over their heads. As we discussed the work, Nick recorded our responses in a small notebook. Our responses ranged from enjoying some humour in them, to, in my own case, being disturbed by them and reading in them a more social and political dimension: the veiled, or covered head, and my relationship to the Muslim community I work at the heart of in Birmingham. I don’t think this was that popular a view when shared, except with Anna, who it transpired lives in this community too. The images of celebrities were culturally lost on me, as I have so little knowledge or interest in this these days. For me, it highlighted the issue of how important the idea is of how we individually always bring our own social and political perspective to our encounters with art, particularly when Nick was not interested in talking about them himself. It was all really intriguing but can be more fully explained in the interview link with Nick from his website (3).
I can’t find an image of Nick’s related to our discussion, but here is one (above) from his website that we did also touch upon when I bought this up.
'Cargo', oil on canvas, 65 x 90cms, 2015
When it came to my turn I too decided that I would just show the work and say nothing about it beforehand to see what people thought without any direction from me. I had taken seven of my fairly large paintings of lorries and vehicles, the most that night, and spread them across the studio wall. Much like my motivation for exhibiting these at the college Arts Festival I wanted to gauge people’s reactions to this new work. Slowly people started to comment. Anna remarked upon their ‘humanistic’ quality and the idea of what was behind the black windscreen shield of the lorry: were the drivers sleeping? with a prostitute? They seemed ‘funny at first, then very sad’ to others; ‘Edward Hopper’ like; ‘obsessive: I should narrow it down to just doing the same truck for the rest of my life‘; some seemed like they contained a narrative, other ones were like an advert for a cool truck, which was ‘not a bad thing’ apparently; the scale: some should be bigger and others, like the advert one, smaller (I didn’t take my smaller ones).
'Dirty From The Rain' (re-painted)
The drips that have entered the most recent paintings (“Under The Bridge’ and ‘Dirty From The Rain’) troubled people the most though, which I found interesting as they also trouble me. It was agreed by all of us that they looked most like ‘art marks’ (my phrase, paraphrased from Chuck Close ). That is, those gestural marks in painting, most often found in abstract painting, that somehow aim to convince the audience that this is ‘real art’ borne from the struggle and sweat of the artist’s brow, but can often actually carry very little real meaning. Now, I like gestural marks, but I also like to disguise them, and have tried for years to attempt to create in three marks what I would in the past have created in thirty. I think the ‘Under The Bridge’ painting is a little problematic in the sense that the heavy drips and runs of turpsy paint look somehow more ‘arty’ but in a more superficial way, which is what I’m clumsily trying to explain here, although that was far from my intention; I was just trying to push the materials to see where the image could go that was different to the others. (This was generally picked up on and liked in the crit: the fact that they were all paintings of the subject, but all seemed very different). When exhibited at the college it was the painting I was least happy with, but actually was most people’s favourite, which I felt a bit cynical about because of these reasons of ‘artiness’ discussed above. I was pleased that the crit also shared my reservations, but in some way I wish I hadn’t taken the piece as it was also a bit distracting as too much focus ended up being on what in my mind has become one of the least interesting pieces of the last few months.
Still, I have found myself painting over the excessive drip-work since in both of these paintings in an attempt to get them looking simpler and tougher, but I’m not going to change them too much.
'Under The Bridge' (re-painted)
Anyway, it has been good to put the work, and myself, out there in both events; the college exhibition and the crit. Overall, the work has been positively received. My friend, artist Andrew Tift, commented recently that he thought my lorries were the best thing I had done and that they were much more ‘fresh and original’. So it’s keep on truckin’ I guess…