Many a good tune…

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The Fidler, 66″ x 22″ x 25″, rescued timbers & jesmonite, 2017

well its been an interesting week…generally I make it a rule nowadays not to enter competitions. My only exceptions over the past decade has been the Moores (out of habituation, I’ve been doing it since the early 70’s) and the CBP because a goodly number of painters I respect have been party to this set up since it began around 2012. So it was something of a punt that I found myself entering and then – surprisingly – being short listed for the Threadneedle Prize for figurative art with a sculpture. Oh yes…quite a surprise for anyone who knows my work as being a) resolutely abstract and b) almost exclusively painting. It came about by capricious accident, my wife (a previous prizewinner in this same competition) was entering it one morning as the deadline approached and a tad mischievously suggested that one of my Paintings Standing Up (the series yet to be fully resolved) might pass muster as ‘figuration’. Well it was true that it was around the right height for a figure and that the violin mounted onto the ‘torso’ projected from it around the right angle for being played. Adding a dodecahedron on top and two boots below and…é viola you have The Fidler.

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So being shortlisted required delivery to the Mall Galleries last Saturday morning, a round trip of 236 miles that went surprisingly well and, being a gloriously warm sunny day for late October, was augmented by a visit to Tate Modern. So far so good but, hey, not that surprisingly, a rejection followed on this past Thursday that, you’ve guessed it, meant another journey this Saturday. Not such a breeze as first the weather was wet, dark and greasy all the way down and secondly Regent Street was closed requiring a work around the centre of town to reach The Mall. This time we turned tail and headed back ‘ome straightaway. I’ve no complaints – you shouldn’t enter these things if you’re not prepared to be knocked back but, gawd, its been a bit knackering!

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sketch for Not Everyone Will Be Taken Into The Future

Oddly enough the trip to Tate was to take in the Ilya & Emilia Kabakov show – the central element of which (and that gives it the title) is Not Everyone Will Be Taken IntoThe Future…in this installation the ‘Art’ train is leaving the station carrying those works deemed ‘good enough’ whilst a heap of canvases etc. are left spilling over the platform…to which we might now add The Fidler!

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People; What Are They Like?

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The ‘Exhibition’ series, digital drawings by Paul Warren

I’ve been rather busy putting this together – an exhibition of the work of six artists focussed on the observation of folks as they go about their day to day lives.  It opens on Thursday (2nd November, 2017) at Déda, the dance dedicated arts centre in Derby from 18:30 – if you can come along we would love to see you.   Its been a voyage of discovery for me personally, not least as figuration is very much not my usual turf, and four of the six artists I’ve chosen were not known to me before I started to put it together. Of the two I did know its been a real pleasure to be able to share some of their work with new audiences as it is my view that they deserve to be admired widely.

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detail from Tiny Screamers by Ellie Young

Ellie Young from Cardiff is one of those I found out about as I searched for painters whose work is firmly focussed on observation.  In her case it can be very direct (she has undertaken a project making 15 minute portraits at a local centre) but also from photos and film, indeed film is a great love of hers and though there are elements of caricature in her work it is fleeting impressions and glimpsed moments that seem to especially inform her work.

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The Unknown Statistic by Sue Stone

Sue Stone (based in Grimsby, Lincs.) is another whose work makes extensive use of photographic sources though these are often wrestled into fresh configurations in her beautifully constructed pieces that combine exceptional qualities as a ‘textile artist’ with painted elements.  Her interests are in the wider realm of how memory plays such a vital part in our reading of images of people.

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Arches by Helen Latham

An element of nostalgia might be read into the paintings of Helen Latham from Cambridge and they certainly have a very particular mood but often the subjects are very much of our time, and there are, to my eye at least, disturbing undercurrents in several of the images.  Taking us, quite literally, to another place is the work of the painter, Anna Pinkster, whose acute observations of people going about their daily lives in Vietnam are imbued with a freshness that belies their carefully considered realisation in her studio in rural Somerset.  And their marvellous vitality leads back into those artists who work I did know.

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Pineapples by Anna Pinkster

Firstly Jackie Berridge from Southwell, Notts. is an artist I’ve known for many years but over the past decade she has become both the exceptional draughtswoman she always was but also a painter of rare distinction.  In her work a highly original cosmology exists in which episodes from childhood are interspersed with mature reflections on the human condition in paintings or, as here, drawings that are, on another level, simply lovely to look at.

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Leash by Jackie Berridge

So back where we began the drawings of Paul Warren take us into yet another personal universe.  And this is where my quest started because my whole impetus for the show came from wanting to see more of Paul’s work in the public realm.  His particular – and peculiar – vision is something he shares with the artist Ian Breakwell & the artist/musician Kevin Coyne, both school friends back in the 1950’s at the Joseph Wright School of Art in Derby.  In their world view they forensically examine the human condition, all its foibles and frailties, but with a certain affection and – most crucially – a wicked and delicious sense of humour.  And if this show does nothing else it will expose and celebrate Paul’s contribution to this remarkable triumvirate of artists that came out of this city in the 1950’s.

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Travels…

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Off for a few days…and now returned…from the Venice Biennale – here’s my thoughts.

Coming to the biennale is like putting on an old pair of shoes. They are really comfortable and fit snugly but you can’t help feeling you’d like to try something new that might put a spring in your step.  We started in the Giardini at just after 10:30 & habitually began by trekking up the long avenue towards the very grand British pavilion by way of the Switz, Venezuelan, Russian, Japanese, Korean, German, & Canadian offerings. Thinking back this is the way we always do it & perhaps we should turn about in future – polish off Spain, Belgium & the Netherlands and head straight into the Italian pavilion with the multi national curated section. Where, not constrained by national considerations in the mix, a more eclectic offering results and the options are more intriguing. As it was by16:45 ones critical faculties are pretty stunted making appraisals of – say – McArthur Binnion or reappraisals of – say – John Latham difficult if not impossible.

Finnish art was aided and abetted by someone with Doncaster sensibilities with predictably whacky results. Whackism was generally big this year with Finland coming in ahead of Iceland and Hong Kong in Venice slipping in somewhere behind them. My old pal John Rimmer’s Nutglove would have given them all a run for their money. Of course the Korean pavilion was also whacky but that’s par for the course. Mark Bradford put on a class act for the US whilst the U.K went big and rather overblown and the French cool & classy. The Low Countries & the other Scandinavians just didn’t seem to have their hearts in it. And the Germans lost their way in sub- performance activity that was frankly a bit silly (and was rather surprising given that the ‘action’ takes place in a glass box beneath the feet of the audience). I enjoyed Russia (part 1) and Erwin Wurm was suitably entertaining for Austria with his ongoing series of One Minute Sculptures though I was sorry for t’other rep for them – Brigitte Kowanz – as her quite serious contribution to light art suffered as a result. On the rest of the back lot things were solid but a bit dull. Though I enjoyed Geta Bratescu’s (now 91 years young) survey show of sixty plus years of artistic endeavour (in the Romanian pavilion) – that very controversially – comprised painting and drawing.

Actually age was a theme running through a deal of the contributions in the national pavilions and even more so in Christine Macel’s curated section. I lost count of septuagenarians and octogenarians being given a run out. This started with works by UK artist Rasheed Araeen (82) a piece he originally conceived back in 1968. In the same space Juan Downey (born 1930 and sadly died 1994) showed an excerpt from a video work of the 1970’s. It was good to see Raymond Hains’ work being given enough room to spread out and the curator able to expand my understanding of an artist that certainly to UK audiences is little known. That the work included pieces directly related to the Biennales of the past was a valuable addition to the show. It was lovely to have some genuine quality in drawing from Kiki Smith, though to be honest her room didn’t have (at least to me in this context) quite the intensity of magical charm I’d usually expect. The UK artist John Latham (1921 – 2006) was accorded a ‘mini-retrospective’ too whilst David Medalla (aged 79) showed a piece involving embroidery that he first gave an outing in 1971.

Embroidery was a thread (apologies) running through a great deal of the show, especially in the Arsenale. Though carpets were in shorter supply than a few years back when they swept through a wave of major shows a few hadn’t got the memo that it was now a lighter touch on these materials that was required (to be fair to Petrit Halilaj a Kosovan refugee and one of the youngest exhibitors at 31 his pieces are performative works that inevitably lacked some of their poetry in this context).  Someone who had was Lee Mingwei, a Taiwanese artist (though like many of those chosen by Macel, now resident in Paris) where he sat and sewed visitors garments for them. Other pieces in this vein included the Italian artist Maria Lai (1919 – 2013) whose works included fiddly but rather charming bits and pieces and the utterly solid and intelligent and thankfully cool and calm works from his 1980’s series Wallformation by Franz Erhard Walther (78). Rightly awarded the Golden Lion for best artist.

The bizarre whackist performance piece by Mariechen Danz was represented by a video within the space where it had taken place…a throw it all in work with much nonsensical tosh, by and about the artist, to absorb if you wished. At least its absurdist solemnity gave one a laugh, much needed if you had just made your way through the Pavilion of Shamans into the Dionysian Pavilion, the two most awful of the nine that made up the curated section.

Out beyond the long run of the Arsenale one of the very best (if not the best) national pavilion was that of New Zealand. I’ve not previously come across Lisa Reihana’s work, though it has been widely exhibited over recent years. But her In Pursuit Of Venus (Infected) work that forms the centrepiece of her show Emissaries is simply stunning, both conceptually and visually. It is impossible to do it justice in description but suffice to say it combines idea and execution with the very best use of new technologies to make something truly spellbinding.

If Whackism is in full flow then there was across the city an even more prominent display of Thwackism…the kind of absurdist work that is truly overblown and even more hideously vulgar. Leading from the front – naturally – was our very own Damien with his revolting and trashy Wreck of the Unbelievable schtick. Of course Venice loves this kind of thing…just take a peak in the Venice Pavilion in the middle of the back lot. Whether the old ‘epater le bourgeoisie’ routine can work when the whole edifice is an hermetically sealed game between obscenely wealthy artists and their even more disgustingly rich pals who can say. Perhaps we have to accept that poetry plays no part in contemporary practice but what is certain is that the lad Hirst has wrung every last drop out of it in his Disney meets Ray Harryhausen (on an off day) extravaganza. This kind of thing is just made for its two venues – Punta Della Dogana & Palazzo Grassi – owned by Francois Pinault (worth around 13 billion so Mr. Google reckons) making the two sites and their current contents the most vomit inducing sweetie jar in the contemporary art world – quite a feat. And it seemed that Damien had acted as a magnet for Thwackists of every nation…as represented by the odd displays at Palazzo Bembo and on the top floor of Coin, the city’s luxury Department store (admittedly neither of these officially sanctioned Biennale events).

By this point those shoes were well and truly beginning to pinch. But thats what makes a few days at the Biennale fascinating…every aspect of contemporary practice is present, often jostling for attention when it doesn’t merit that much and quite often getting it whether or not deserved. Every so often as you whizz by work that might or might not reward given more attention you suddenly see something that catches your eye and even more occasionally engages your brain. Just to list two more that took my attention – Julian Charrière and Thu Van Tran in the Arsenale. And both still under 40…so maybe the future is brighter after all.

Quality ‘Stuffism’

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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.

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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.

Rubbish!

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An amusing byproduct (at least it tickled me) of our adventures in Scalloway has been my ‘body series). Occasioned initially by the ominous floating glove that had attached itself to a clump of weed that – because of the good weather – didn’t move from beneath our window above the harbour. It then became obligatory wherever we went to spot gloves and the odd boot that had fetched up in the water or along the shoreline and take a picture.

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These were then doctored to add the body that was attached. Over time fifteen of these pictures emerged and were we to have gone searching I don’t doubt more would have done so. Of course around a working harbour like Scalloway its inevitable that a few go missing occasionally. But there’s a more serious side to it as the locations tended to be those where the general flotsam and jetsam gathered. So take a look at what’s there and you see just what is filling up our oceans… Every one of the seemingly pristine beaches has its pile of detritus washed up from the sea (that is collected up to keep them looking that way) and its becoming a major global problem. So much so that my nonsense could in time to come turn out to have been prophetic…unless the upbeat elements of this Telegraph report are right.

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Painting in Schaldewage

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Our Studio Open Day…painting by Sarah R. Key (left) two of mine on the right

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.

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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’.

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