Thursday, 12 May 2016

'Black Country' by Bruce Gilden

A few months ago a friend directed me to these recent portraits (example above) by American street photographer, Bruce Gilden. They are actually taken on the mean Black Country streets of West Bromwich, where I was born and grew up, and Wolverhampton as part of an ongoing commission Gilden is doing with Sandwell community arts organisation, Multistory. My friend actually said they reminded him of my own portrait paintings of the people of West Bromwich and Sandwell that I worked on between 2006-2008, also as a commission managed by Multistory (see my website ‘Seek My Face’ page for more details of this). 

I was blown away by the impact of these ravaged and sometimes frightening faces and how Gilden had framed and taken these photos, and although flattered by my friend’s comparison, I just wish had had even come close to creating something so powerful. They seemed to speak to me very personally about my experiences about growing up in the Black Country and the types of forgotten and broken faces you encounter in a region blighted by poverty and hardship from the heavy manual work people used to do, and the mass unemployment that followed in the Eighties that has marked the area ever since. The poverty that has lead, as can be seen in some of these faces, to addiction to alcohol and drugs.  
But I also think these portraits are not unique to this particular corner of the world: you could find faces like this in any of the post-industrial towns and cities of the UK, or in the world as Gilden’s website contains very many similarly harsh portraits of people, particularly in his native America (see image below).
I was pleased therefore, to receive a link from Emma Chetcuti the Director at Multistory the other day to a short film they had made of Gilden at work, with his assistant, on the streets of West Bromwich. I was fascinated to hear of his experiences of the town, as an outsider all the way from New York, and his motivations for focussing on the more extreme faces he encountered. Indeed, he spoke of his empathy for ‘the broken’, and the underdog, a character trait that seems embedded in the Black Country psyche in my experience, which I think helps us understand the deeper, psychological drive of the artist, and remember that photography is no less subjective than painting or anything else. Are these photographs portraits of the artist? They seem part of a bigger picture to me. 
 I shared the film with my friend, Andrew Tift, the well-known portrait painter based in Walsall, who has made portrait paintings of his own of working class people from the Black Country, such as this magnificent drawing, ‘Ken’ (below) but he was less than impressed, finding them exploitative and near to, in his own words, ‘taking the piss’. This is also a view shared in this Guardian review of Gilden’s book, ‘Face’ here:
I can totally understand Andrew’s feelings, and there are some questionable moments in the film, but I’m inclined to think of them as more complex, offering a deeper and uncomfortable look into the eyes of our shared humanity.  My Dad, when I shared them with him, also thought it was a narrow view of the area, but before long was recounting stories of many of the characters, many desperate and broken too by poverty and addiction, he had worked with in the factories around West Brom, Tipton etc, and before long was making a deeper connection himself with these extraordinary portraits.  Watch the video and see what you think yourself:

George Shaw 'Plays For England...'

George Shaw, 'The Uncovered Cover (detail), humbrol enamel on canvas, 2015

It looks like artist George Shaw has been enjoying himself. This week saw the opening of his exhibition at the National Gallery in London, in the Sunley Room, ‘My Back To Nature’. It’s a culmination of his work there as the Artist-in-Residence over the last two and a half years. I can’t wait to see what he’s done in response to the collection, which is the basic remit of the residency when artists are invited to participate in the programme. These few images and this link to a review in The Guardian certainly whet the artistic appetite though….

George Shaw, humbrol enamel on canvas, 2015

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

'Tragic Forms' by Ken Currie

Ken Currie, 'Shoulder of Lamb', oil on linen, 167 x 244cms, 2014

In my last post I shared some of my digital prints, of which I’ve since done a couple more. Working on these, where I have been re-visiting some of the images in the paintings to rework them with this different media, has begun to throw up questions for me about I’m actually trying to do, or say, with my landscape work; what’s it about and where is it going? These questions seem to nag me more persistently when I look at these prints as a collection of images, with the possible idea of presenting them as a book. What do they add up to? Are they to be seen as individual images or as part of a larger, connected sequence, which is how I tend to view things? They are obviously connected with their motifs of trucks and roads, but at the moment I have doubts about whether this possesses much meaningful expression of anything. 

An artist I admire greatly, whose own work possesses an ongoing and powerful dialogue with certain ideas about the human condition, particularly about the body as a symbolic vessel, a carrier of ideas about power and the abuses of power, and transformation, is the Scottish painter, Ken Currie. His most recent collection of paintings, ‘Tragic Forms’, were exhibited at the Flowers East Gallery in London earlier this year, which unfortunately I missed seeing, but have just bought the catalogue after viewing them online.  For someone like myself, who knows Currie’s work very well, they are, to my eyes, the most disturbing and unsettling paintings he has made in a career of creating disturbing and unsettling paintings.

Ken Currie, 'Ensemble', oil on linen, 214 x 305cms, 2014
Transformation of the body features heavily in them, whether that is in the portraits of mutilated or bandaged figures, often dressed in military attire, or the more surreal, horrific paintings of writhing flesh, half human, half carcass. Terrifyingly ambiguous, I’m not sure whether these figures are being born or devoured. 
'Tragic Forms No.4', oil on linen, 122 x 152cms, 2014
In a really interesting series of self-portraits, the artist wears a series of masks modelled on the well-known, but seldom seen, drawings made by Henry Tonks of mutilated faces of soldiers from the trenches of the First World War. These original drawings were commissioned by the Royal College of Surgeons as they pioneered the first attempts at plastic surgery to repair the faces of these unfortunate men: faces with their gaping wounds, scars and cavities, which were seen as too shocking for the wider public about the realities of modern warfare. I find it deeply fascinating that Currie has re-visited these in his own meditations about war and the violent transformation of flesh and bone. 
Ken Currie, 'Self Portrait After Henry Tonks', oil on linen, 61 x 61cms, 2013
Ken Currie, 'Self Portrait (with Henry Tonks Mask), oil on linen, 61 x 61cms, 2013
Henry Tonks, 'Studies of Wounded Soldiers',  pastel, c1918
He has made masks before to work from. For his well-known commission, the ‘Three Oncologists’, a triple portrait of leading cancer surgeons for the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, instead of working from photographs or life of these busy doctors, who had little time to pose, he actually persuaded them to have their faces cast in plaster in the tradition of the ‘death mask’ and worked from these instead, which seemed to add a poignant vulnerability to the portraits.  Currie also spent time in surgery with them as they opened up and worked inside the bodies of the sick to remove cancerous tumours, an experience that has deeply affected the artist.   
'Three Oncologists', oil on linen, 195 x 241cms, 2002
Tragic Forms’ possessed some enormous paintings of shanks of meat realised in exquisite detail and colour, totally convincing, but actually half imagined alongside the observations he made from things bought at the butcher’s shop. In their large scale they appear to wrap themselves around you. They owe a large debt to Francis Bacon’s or Chaim Soutine’s paintings of carcasses, a debt Currie readily acknowledges, with Bacon one of his painting heroes.   
Ken Currie, 'Acteon', oil on linen, 213 x 152cms, 2014
Francis Bacon,' Three Studies For A Crucificion (right panel), oil on canvas, 1962
In fact, much of Currie’s painting seems to be in a rich dialogue with the great European traditions in Painting, as Bacon was with his obsessions with Velasquez. In Currie’s new paintings references to Goya, David, Bacon, Velasquez, and most notably Chardin’s ‘The Ray’ frequently occur.  In a link to a video interview with the artist below, he explains how his extraordinary and strange ‘Tragic Form (Skate)’ was directly inspired by Chardin’s masterpiece.   
Ken Currie, 'Tragic Form (Skate)', oil on canvas, 244 x 304cms, 2014
Chardin 'The Ray', oil on canvas, 140 x 160cms, 1728
Yet I never feel that Currie is trying to breathe new life into old forms as much representational painting interested in these older traditions badly attempts: the ideas always seem much more sophisticated and contemporary. In this video link it is also very interesting listening to Currie talk about his methodology and techniques for creating the paintings too from a technical, more craftsman-like, perspective as he obsesses about subtle details such as how the figures or forms fit in the picture frame and what a difference an inch here or there can make. I really understood this, as I too get a bit obsessed with these details too, which is why I make quite detailed ‘cartoons’ or preparatory drawings where I carefully work these problems out before attempting a painting. I think they can make or break things sometimes. In the past I used to try and get the figures to fit the frame, now its’ all about the frame fitting the figures/lorries/heads/ motorways (delete as appropriate) and trying to work that out. It’s quite a different thing.   
Ken Currie, 'The Unwell (triptych)', oil on canvas, 214 x 733cms, 2015
Anyway, I’ve really got a lot from looking at these latest paintings by Ken Currie. He continues to make incredibly ambitious and challenging paintings. His ambition, skill and rigour is a quality I have always admired.  Have a listen to the video link. It’s a fascinating insight into the motivations and experiences of this great painter.