I’m occasionally rude about ‘stuffism’ – you know it…the bits and bobs artfully arranged, the texts, video, sound, etc. with ‘socially engaged’, ‘environmental’ and ‘action research’ labels. Very much what you expect from a pig ignorant dauber such as me. But – just like paintings, drawings and sculpture actually – there’s good, bad and so so in ‘stuffism’ so today I’m pointing you to something called art that could just as easily be historical research or – gawd help us – museum ‘interpretation’ but isn’t it is art…of – imho – the very highest quality.
I just came across it through the excellent Hyperallergic online journal and am now an avid consumer of The Memory Palace…with a lot of catching up to do. So try out this one that I’m sure is as close to great art as can be…and yes I’ve been lucky enough to visit the Met…but I’m pretty sure I never visited this room – but I’m also damn sure if I can get there again I will.
Imagine its around 1420 and a ship is sailing north, away from the leading Hanseatic League port of Bergen, having left Bremen or Hamburg some time ago, and making for Hillswick, its destination to trade goods for salted fish, lamb and skins. Although on the last leg of its long journey it espies rough weather from the west and puts into the natural harbour of Schaldewage or Scalloway as we now know it. At that time the place is part of the Norse rule of the Islands, in fact it is only a couple miles south of Tingaholm, the Thing, where laws are debated and enforced. Until a century and a half later when Earl Robert Stewart moves it to the town, where twenty or so years on his son Patrick Stewart (presumably before becoming ‘Professor Charles Xavier’ or Jean Luc Picard – ha ha) builds his spanking new castle in the ‘town’ and the ‘ancient capital’ of the Islands. The town sits on the bottom end of the Nesting Fault, a splay of the Walls Boundary Fault, itself possibly connected to the great Glen Fault.
So The Booth is situated in an immensely rich and interesting location. Literally on the edge of the fault, the Castle a few yards away, the water of the harbour right below our window. Do learning about any of these things influence the production of abstract paintings I wonder? I’m just one of many artists who occasionally talk airily about ‘a sense of place’…but what does it actually mean? I’m ploughing my way, painfully slowly, through Mary Jacobus’s Reading Cy Twombly (its a very rich and rewarding book but requires a great deal of contextual understandings!) and she quotes from Shelley “Naught may endure but mutability” in regard to Twombly’s Letter of Resignation. The line has resonances for me every time I look up and out into the harbour and the ocean road beyond it…the sea and its ever changing moods and cadences. And perhaps its that, more than anything, that creates ‘a sense of place’.
Sometimes you’re taken away from painting by other work or chores…or simple fatigue or recreation…but we all need some interaction with family and friends. As for friendships they often tend to be longstanding, often forged way back. As one gets older they really do go way, way back. In this instance we all met – pause for reflection – forty seven years ago.
It started with a trip to Trent Bridge for the third day of the second Test against South Africa with my pal Allan. Cricket (along with Snooker I feel) is very much an artists game, something to do with space and time. And margins too, fine ones that can change the course of a match irrevocably. Despite England’s increasing forlorn chances of saving the game it was a good day’s outing. We followed this with an evening in the company of the fine singer songwriter Keith Christmas who played his latest album in its entirety explaining that he had conceived it with the live performance in mind. I cannot recommend it too highly.
On the way home we got to discussing what makes a great artist (in any form) and Allan repeated a conversation with his own son, Adam (himself a very talented musician) who suggested it was simply intensity. And I cannot agree more. Keith has it in spades and I like to think it may be something to do with age – Keith’s latest has some of his best work ever and quite rightly he wants it out there and admired by as many as can experience it.
On Monday last I was away to London to meet up with another pal from the graduating class of 1973 at Falmouth School of Art, Stuart. We were at Tate Modern to take in the Giacometti show that didn’t disappoint – full of well presented masterpieces. It was intensity personified – especially as regards the spacial awareness in what constitutes formal integrity. Over two days that took in a studio visit our conversations ranged widely though several of them were situated in his garden, a relatively small space but full of flower intensity that, to me at least, spills over into his paintings, ostensibly concerned with landscapes (mostly in Dorset & Spain) but just as much focussed on vibrant colour, light and form.
Our talks about painting were easy and relaxed – 47 years does that! – and some of it homed in on intention and ambition. What really matters to us is simply what our heart and head says to us in the moment – not all that extraneous matter that creeps in once you start situating the work in any kind of context. Is that what we mean by intensity?
Over the past few days I’ve been mostly working on a geo painting that is (for now) a rather messy complex arrangements of bright colour. Although last Friday’s enjoyable outing to The Crypt for Colour: A Kind Of Bliss focusses on that very subject it is sometimes just as joyful and contented to strip it away so thats the way Wonky Geometry No. 25 is staying…
I can’t abide waste with materials…so I’m an inveterate hoarder. Several of my ‘projects’ are the consequence of this compulsion. The Waldgeschitchen series began by raiding my box of failed paintings on paper and pasting bits onto fresh paper, the Lavanderia idea utilises canvas offcuts and the Tales From The Lumber Room recycles all manner of wood bits and bobs (both of these still in process right now). But the sheer volume of failed paper pieces some time back forced me into drastic action. I had acquired four rather lovely boxes some 27 cm. square and began to trim and re assemble pieces with an ambition to fill them with a new series of small works. This increasing avalanche has the title of Wonky Geometry and they sit somewhere between the more straitjacketed Geometry paintings (some of which can still be seen at The Crypt in St. Marylebone Church until 30th June) and my Very Like Jazz works (and the Winter Cycle that preceded them). And the voluminous quantity liberates them a good deal. I’ve tried not to be precious or hidebound with them…I’ve even co-opted some of the existing imagery, not only my own but occasionally that of my children and others. Whether there is any genuine quality alongside their undoubted quantity – well theres the rub as William had Hamlet remark.
Of the show in Marylebone its worth reminding that there is a discussion this coming Friday week (9th June) at 3pm. If nothing else its an opportunity to chat with several of the exhibitors including myself and the show’s curators Lucy Cox & Freya Purdue.
And another shameless plug – one of the Geo series Six Miles High – is featured on the Auction blog set up by the artist Andrew Bracey. He has assembled quite a cast list for this charity event inspired by the death of his father last year and in support of Liverpool Heart & Chest Hospital. A really worthwhile cause and the opportunity to pick up a work by some great artists at bargain prices.
I’m wondering exactly what may be the unintended consequences of working from my mashups of the photos I take in preparation for my series Playground of the Midlands. Perhaps it should have occurred to me a lot earlier. After all I started playing around with photographic source imagery back in the 1990’s! But in all honesty I’d not really thought it through much until earlier in the week. Stepping back from one of the canvases the choices of elements were shockingly clear – yes – you could see what it was! Usually my mashing up, or colour choices or plain cackhandedness takes care of any original referent.
One of my many painting heroes is Thomas Nozkowski. I like his clearheaded and unfussy approach to the business of making a picture and the plain commonsense of much he says about it. He is rightly admired for his certainty that everything he does is grounded in real world experience. You get a really honest insight into his process from these videos made by his son – here’s the other – where he expands on the idea of how the work evolves. I guess one of my reasons for liking his work is my similar idea of how to construct a picture. In a 2015 catalogue he talks of his work becoming “more open ended. That’s to say initially I prided myself on sticking close to my original source material…but I’m much more interested in all the evocations and echoes and implications…so instead of a tight little knot, I think it’s now something that’s a bit more open for interpretation”. I’m wondering whether or not I may allow some movement in the other direction – or should I – as Thomas suggests – work harder at the taking out rather than the letting in?
So that’s one conundrum going around my head (where a gummed up ear is making it a rather lonely and frustrating place right now). Another that’s been bugging me for a while is the point of all this anyway. I mean doing what I’m doing right now…’social media’ that as David Byrne recently suggested may actually do as much harm as good. After all if there’s a point to painting it has to be in substantial part the engagement with the actual object. It’s not lost on me that both the bodies of work I’m particularly focused on right now have no obvious outlets in the real world – and that is equally frustrating too. Maybe the memo to self is to start searching for opportunities to get the work out there…though after I have resolved it all!
we were. My pal Simon and myself at the terrific Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Back on form and showing one of the UK’s finest cultural exports, Tony Cragg after a year or two of rather desperate material. I cannot recommend this show highly enough – it demonstrates that there is still a place for work that, in addition to being physically substantial , is also intellectually and – yes – spiritually strong enough to dominate both the cavernous galleries and the landscape in which they are located. I will review the show over on my Cloughie’s Eyes site after a second visit but go see for yourself it will be worth it.
And now I’m off…to spend some time in Northern Tuscany over Easter…and work on yet another of my various projects – Lavanderia – that has been entirely conceived and (so far at least) executed over there. So sadly I shall miss the opening of Colour: A Kind Of Bliss, showing now in the Crypt of St. Marylebone Parish Church. But if you can go and take a look! And if you cannot…here’s a sneak peek of it with one of my works far left…