Somehow I have conspired to spend most of my adult life living as far from the coast as it is possible to get on this relatively small island. Of course because of this it isn’t actually that far away…but you know how it is with all that ‘stuff’ in the way. Nowadays we have enough space in our lives to get to the coast more regularly and its just about the most blissful thing I can think of. We’ve just been to Pembrokeshire and because it is less known to me all the more rewarding. I’d been once before but all too briefly and this time around, although it was all too short a visit we had the good sense to stay in one location and at least explore that space.
How these experiences feed into my painting practice I’ve no real idea, and I’m not sure I want to. But what I do know is my times away in these locations certainly do inform my thinking about my practice whether or not I have the intellectual or emotional capacity to understand why or how.
Cone for St. Ives No.1
Having completed a suite of paintings loosely related to section one of Landscape & Memory it struck me in conversation at the opening at Harrington Mill that I could, indeed should, proceed to section two on Water. And, I guess that means I’ll now have to undertake Rock, the third section of this fascinating book. I’d previously read the Wood section during my Masters study at De Montfort University but never, until now, got around to the rest of the book. So far the Water section has focussed exclusively on the great rivers and aspects of them. I don’t know why but I’d imagined maybe it would have been Coasts and Lakes…perhaps they’ll come later (though I’m well into this part of the book now).
Of course there is a temptation to think in terms of maps again and as one observer of the first part of the project noted recently thats never too far from my thinking. There are other equally obvious image tropes such as bridges and boats and then there is the disturbances of the weather on the surface and how these may affect the rhythms of the brush. I’m open to any and all of these but as I often stress there is no conscious connections between the individual pictures and any one or all of the above. Far more important is the spontaneous reactions to the basic collaged forms that I use as the starting point.
In Wood these initial pieces were arranged around the perimeter of the papers with a crude and simple idea of woodland hemming one in. In Water I’ve laid the pieces out along an imaginary upright central spine so the flow proceeds up and down disturbed by these casually placed torn pieces.
The pieces come from my once substantial stock of failed works on paper. When I started there was quite a big box of them…but over the course of the Water series this is substantially reduced! I’ve had to go back through the various plan chests and purloin more pieces that never really worked out (though some I’m now documenting before tearing them up). This isn’t too difficult as all the drawers in all five chests are stuffed to the gunnels and I’m pretty hot at generating failure!
It also has other benefits too. Like most people as I get older I’m thinking to rationalise my lifetimes stuff. A friend has just written eloquently about this very topic. So going back over the work amassed during nearly fifty years of creative endeavour is both cathartic and practically useful. And also interesting to me in terms of the drivers behind that practice. I find myself coming back to some of those old works and thinking there may be aspects that I can still use now. I’m thinking that over the next couple months maybe I’ll post a few here with thoughts about their validity or otherwise.
In fact I’ll start now…this is a group eight drawings I made in a studio over a garage in St. Ives. We’d driven over seven hundred miles in a day to get there…and meet up with my pal, the sculptor Paul Mason. He had been given the studio to accompany a residency in Barbara Hepworth’s studio attached to Tate St. Ives. It must have been in the mid 1990’s. Together we worked in the studio for a couple days.
Wishing to avoid the whole Cornish landscape thing I produced these eight working off the pretty basic idea of the ice cream cone – my two very small sons were pretty obsessed with them alongside their passion for surfing. I’d stored them away and forgotten them as at the time they didn’t exactly ‘fit’ with my work at the time. Now, besides thinking they have some nostalgic value, I’m not sure they are amongst the ones I’ll tear up.
Like any half decent crusty old cubist I’ve been drawn to the oval…work in progress at present…
I can rarely, if ever, have vocal music on whilst working in the studio. More often than not I’m inclined to jazz. I know lots of you probably hate it but I like to think that jazz is a bit like abstract painting…as the great Dave Hickey once said “those who care about it know where to find it but no one else gives a shit…” But of course what makes it helpful is the central importance of melody played off against improvisation. That, for me at least, makes it powerfully resonant with the way I engage with the working process. “Oh enough of this arty bollocks” I hear several of you say. And as it happens today I’m rather agreeing with you.
A decent painting is, after all, just like a good tune…take, for example the CD that just dropped through the mailbox this morning. It came about from me sitting at the breakfast table one morning a few weeks back and suggesting we got up off our bums one Saturday evening and go and see a live bank again. We don’t do it often nowadays, some large venue experiences with ‘big’ acts having put us off. But this was different – a smallish room in the back streets of Derby city centre – but with a great acoustic and a warm vibe (as us old jazzers call it). The gig was Corrie Dick’s band and it was excellent. I guess you could call it a kind of fusion jazz…some poppy, folky and world music sounds into the contemporary jazz mix. Lovely. But something made me a little sad.
I’m a bit crusty now, and apart from my missus, a fella sitting just behind us and the terrific Corey Mwamba (now the “musical Director’ or some such of the marvellous Derby Jazz), the rest of the audience (forgive me folks!) were similarly on our way to ‘knockin on heaven’s door’. Nowt wrong with that of course – we deserve to be serenaded on our way I reckon. But where were the young people – aha! of course they were the band! Now this is surely a shite state of affairs (apols to Renton) that the younger generation aren’t getting out to see what other extremely gifted young people are making. Maybe its just Derby…but talking it over with my 28 year old son…it seems a lot of them just don’t go out to gigs much, preferring their web connected devices. If so, sad.
Anyway I bought the CD and it arrived today…not only that but with a handwritten note from Corrie. Well worth it and I’d say do the same and if they’re in your neck of the woods go check ‘em out live..
Whilst on the subject of music…two other recommendations.
Firstly I got followed here recently by musicophile. Goodness only knows why s/he was attracted to this place, when I discuss music its only ever “I don’t know much about it, but I know what I like’, but their blog is very rewarding.
As is Dave Whatt’s – its one of the few things that often makes me laugh out loud – but today I’m suggesting you dip into his Soundcloud account. It has its fair share of Dave’s wry and affectionate take on the human condition (that reminds me a bit of the legendary Derby trio of Kevin Coyne/Paul Warren/Ian Breakwell) but it is also really really good musical fun too. Damn these multi talented people I say!
So the net then. Good and bad really…just as always!
Its fascinating when you find yourself doing something you never imagined you would…and very rewarding too. When Mindy came into my life less than three months back I was mildly fearful. I never was one for pets…and the idea of a dog in my life was definitely not on my agenda. But she has turned out to be a joy – I couldn’t face the idea of a yapping, jumpy dog in the house – but she’s so relaxed and well behaved that its a pleasure to have her around in the studio. But its the lunchtime walk thats invaluable, not only because it means I get some decent additional physical exercise (though goodness knows I need it), but also because of the thinking space in the painting process. Of course there’s plenty of that in front of the work too. After all I doubt few studio based artists spend more than a fraction of their practice actually wielding the pencil, brush or chisel or whatever but far more gawping at the work and pondering the big question – what next?
Work in progress – one of the first Sea Shanties, part 2 of the Landscape & Memory work.
But the time away from the work is precious too. Its the churn that counts. On our trips around the village I get to ponder the important questions about the really tricky aspects of the process…the choice of colour for the shape, the texture of the colour – will it be a glaze or solid, the brush size…or is it all damned and am I going to scrub, tear or sand it out completely (or just partially). All this is stewed in the old grey matter and sometimes decisions emerge – or if they don’t then the brain exercise at least helps when the fateful moment comes when you are back in front of it and have to act.
As Simon says…its a hard business but we have been chosen (or at least we self selected). And today I spent the first forty five minutes saying I’d never been here before…until we chanced across this charming scene from King Lear (appropriately in a lake of the same name – well gravel pit) when it became clear that many moons ago (the 80’s) I had passed this way once before…just as the artist was creating the work…he was a young sculptor – David Hunter – from Leicester and he had the opportunity to make a piece on this site…back then a pretty rough and ready location.
The construction of the piece was – I recall – quite a challenge for David, fresh out of college, and a pretty stiff learning curve. It was cold and very wet the day I visited but he persisted and it was good to see that the work has stood up to the test of time pretty well.
We were of course on our Playground Of The Midlands jaunt…the project to mark every entry in the early 80’s Charnwood Borough Guide. Today we took in Birstall, Thurcaston & Wanlip though in truth we pretty much kept to the Watermead Country Park that the three bound on the north side of Leicester. It made a refreshing change to take in plenty of waterside and countryside for a change and on reflection seemed quite appropriate overall. Not least as the River Soar is, as my pal Simon pointed out, the ‘backbone’ of the Borough running from just south of my village Kegworth, above the north boundary, and leaving it to meander into Leicester proper to the south. Whatever our excuse it made for a good walk topped off on our return to The White Horse in Birstall for a damn good pub lunch!
Yesterday was good, really good actually, beautiful weather – sunny and warm but with that slight cooling autumnal breeze – the makes England, especially that rural part of England that is the Playground of the Midlands such a good place to be stirring the creative juices. If you want (and why not?) some good images of our travels head over to the site of my pal and partner in crime. I’ve long since given up on slogging it out with him on the photo front – my images are simply fodder for the paintings, not least as I bastardise them extensively before using them as the equally loose basis for the paintings themselves (see below!).
Though my pal’s blog points up a particular problem with the project – that villages like Swithland present rather few points of incident for novel creative interventions. Indeed I was reduced in that location to snapping planning applications appended to the telegraph poles…
And this got me to thinking today. I, with most of my family, was overjoyed that, despite the awful, nasty vilification from Labour MPs, the whole UK media and a loud but mercifully modest (and utterly misguided) section of the membership, got our Leader re-elected. This after a poisonous and wholly unnecessary contest that did nothing but deflect us from the vital task of defeating the awful, corrosive and divisive Tory government hellbent in taking us back to Victorian times.
As we strolled along the road, passing the homes that (entry level 500k plus) lined these leafy glades, it is easy to think that the Tory way is set in England forever (and some of my Labour friends think our decision to elect a genuinely left Leader seals the deal). But these places are ‘true blue’ and of course will never elect a decent fair-minded and compassionate government. Greedy, selfish and narrow-minded bigotry seeps out of a fair few driveways (apologies to those thereabouts that don’t see it that way, I’ve met quite a number over the years!). But nonetheless the fight for a properly fair and decent society has always been fought on a thin sliver of the electorate (usually no more than 500k) whose interest in politics is marginal at best and most of whom take little or no interest in the day to day knockabout of the political process. Their votes are always up for grabs and more often than not go to the party that seems least likely to upset the applecart (and its usually the case that one side loses rather than that the appeal of the others wins).
And so (with my first stab at the likely image for Shepshed from my project as my headline image) I’m thinking: why have so many of us decided to back a properly left of centre leader for our party (now apparently the biggest left of centre political party in Western Europe)?? Maybe, just maybe, the really radical and constructive alternative to a Tory government (whose sole purpose is to protect the interests of the few over the many) can succeed if it sticks together and keeps true to its principles. Not least as whole swathes of middle England (the Shepshed’s rather than the Swithland’s) sink deeper into despair to shore up the super wealthy and the penny begins to drop that it just ain’t working for them. We can only hope.
And time passes…and I’ve not managed to post in very nearly a fortnight. Perhaps I’m running out of things I want to say…or just too busy with other things (but what?) or just too plain idle. But there are small moments of thought that might have made decent posting. Like the economy and certainty in the 50’s and 60’s of Francis Bacon’s paintings that moves into a kind of Mannerism later where the paint thickens and becomes perhaps a little less sure of itself (at least to my eyes) – seen in the rather good display at Tate Liverpool (now sadly closed I think). Or the sheer genius of Louise Bourgeois in the display in the new Switch House at Tate Modern. Here I was especially taken with 15 drawings made in her 97th year…and I’m certain mistakenly labelled as etchings? (or not..the etching is the base on which she drew further marks so the link says)..although maybe I’m wrong (as without looking too carefully I mis referenced to my companion a Whiteread as an Andre!). I was less excited by Wifredo Lam than I had expected…too much influenced by others (even after the early days) and thinness in process taken perhaps just a wee bit too far. And the Liverpool Biennial display at Tate which (sorry but) looked like contemporary art but was pretty much just stuff by and large.
Try outs for East Coast
In my own work I’m busying myself with various projects, making inroads into what has become the second part of a three part romp through Schama’s Landscape & Memory, getting into the Playground of the Midlands canvases, but also casting around for a form for a series of paintings stimulated by the East Coast (a follow on from the Cornish Coast group). At first I experimented with a tall upright and agonised over the exact dimensions settling eventually on two competing sizes and ratios. Then I pretty much settled on the thinner of the two at 130 cm. high (the turning of the flat coast in the east on its side an idea I nicked from Shelagh Cluett, oddly enough one of whose works from the relevant series was up in Tate Liverpool). But – and I imagine anyone unfamiliar to art practice will wonder what I’m agonising about! – I’m still not happy so I have plundered the far past for a ‘fresh’ idea (see top of post) a take on my proscenium arch idea that I first deployed in my practice in 1969. There’s nothing new under the sun…well certainly in my practice!