My Rough Cartography series is such a long standing practice that it seems now just habitual. Wherever and whenever I’m somewhere away from home I pick up those freebie tourist maps and once back in the studio they are pasted into one of the sketch books. Over time…lots of it!…they are gradually painted in. Why I do it I’m not at all sure but the letter below maybe gives some kind of clue to it.
Dear old friend,
Today you would have reached pensionable age but, as things go, sadly you’re not here to celebrate. Later I will raise a silent glass for you. I remember back when we were still youngish men sitting and discussing making work, why we do it and what it means. You asked me about my peculiar habit of keeping scraps of maps in my sketchbooks and colouring them in…and us both laughing at my complete inability to explain any purpose behind it. Well I think I may be on my way to understanding now. Not bad eh, its only been thirty plus several years after all!
Its something (if I understand it properly) contained within an essay in the catalogue for Contemporary Masters From Britain – a show of 80 paintings touring China from the Priseman-Seabrook Collection. Dr. Judith Tucker suggests that painting retains a capacity to capture our attention precisely because of its materiality; its “sensuous, viscous quality” as she puts it. This is coupled in the essay with a notion of painting as “quasi-subject”; a site in which bodily experience of the artist in making the work is somehow a residue within this materiality. I think it may be at the very least something to do with these ideas that keep me, all these years later, fiddling with those damn maps.
I’m also dwelling on the good fortune that allows me to keep working and how, over time, opportunities present themselves through a myriad of circumstances. It’s in my mind because of the show just mentioned. Its been through recommendation (and I owe thanks to the talented Terry Greene for that) that I’m part of this exhibition. Other possibilities open up and suggest themselves too. I suspect that over the past decade or so you would have cemented your reputation not least because of the way in which your last works were opening up new avenues and directions. Amongst the many things I miss is the opportunity to have argued and wrestled with these ideas and outcomes that never happened.
With affection and remembrance,
More information on Paul Mason can be found on my blog on him here.
Contemporary Masters From Britain is available through Amazon. The show opens at the Yantai Art Museum on 7th July 2017 and runs till 3rd August before moving to Nanjing.
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!
and there they are…the Marquis of Waterford and his pals up to ‘high jinks’ in the 19th century in the town of Melton Mowbray. Literally painting the town’s buildings (and apparently one of the toll keepers) in red. Yes…following on the heels of From The Earth Wealth a few years back and last years Playground of the Midlands it is onto the Borough of Melton in what has become a grand projet to visit, photograph and produce a painting for every place listed in a guide to each borough or district of Leicestershire. As with Playground I’m being accompanied by my friend Simon and once again I’ll refer you to his posts for the quality photographic images – my excuse for the low grade ‘snaps’ is my focus on using (and abusing) them to make photoshopped collages that serve as the springboard for the canvases. So our first trip out takes us out to Welby (hardly a place at all…the local Manor owner apparently shipped out the locals back in the day!) but the church still exists…although we had a few interesting moments locating it!
Then onto the somewhat larger village of Scalford, that was pleasant enough but lacked much liveliness although as always there were several interesting and novel visual ‘tags’ to take in. Enough at least to enable me to cobble together a collage that can spur on the painting process.
Having strolled around the village (larger than it might appear from the main road that runs through it, as has been the case with quite a few) we decide to move on to the lunch venue. I’ve described before how these are chosen – by zooming in on Google to the relevant area till the first knife & fork symbol appears – but this time I omitted to check that theRose & Crown in Hose actually opens for lunch and it didn’t!
So we double back into Long Clawson the last of our quests on this first trip out. We spot a fella appearing to enter theCrown & Plough the pub in its centre…so start hot footing towards the entrance – only for said fella to pass us saying it too is closed! Now glum chums we get back in the car grumbling about what is wrong with these inns only to turn the bend and spot the On The Sands cafe & deli. Hooray! lunch is available and very good too. So hardly painting the town red…more the surrounding countryside a delicate light shade of pink…or it might be except its January in England
The New Year thing rather passed me by this year (and the Christmas thing as regards wishing several of my overseas friends well)…but it is, of course, and however much one tries to prevent it, a time for a bit of reflection. It’s sobering to think how much has happened over this year past and what it means. I try to avoid too much social comment and politics here but I’d thoroughly recommend this post from Brian Eno. It seems at least a little more optimistic than most! But I’m also a grouch so can’t help recalling that old gag about Enver Hoxha who threw a lavish Xmas party for his Communist Cronies in Albania in 1967 saying they should enjoy it as although this year was the worst on record next year would be even harder (actually Jeremy Corbyn quoted this at a Labour party in 2015 and got roundly criticised for it so I must apologise to all my Albanian readers immediately).
Anyway onwards and…well..upwards if we can. One of my little projects for the year ahead comes out of my current obsession for tidying and de-cluttering (doomed to failure for such an inveterate hoarder). Up popped this small volume so lets start off with an easy stroll with the ambition to polish off all 25 walks within over the year ahead. As it turns out Dave & Beryl (the authors) are a wee bit economical with the quoted distances (their 5kms turns out to be over 7) and the guide gives no warnings re. mud and animal excreta – cows and horses with bowel issues methinks! But on a pretty glorious day for the beginning of January a joy to be out and about nonetheless. Happy New Year folks!
What constitutes content in abstraction will, I suspect, always evade us. Damn good job too. It is probably one of the handful of things that can sustain painting as an activity in the contemporary world. Anyway this is a detail from a picture I’m working on now – and in my head it has something of a festive feel to it. So I’m using it as my way to wish all a very contented yuletide. I always struggled with Christmas as a youngster…I felt trapped by the shut down of ‘real life’…but now it seems to be a welcome (and all too brief) moment of calm in what seems now to be an increasingly sour and vulgar world. I hope it gives all of you a sense of calm and contentment too…and comes with my very best wishes.
between different projects is often difficult to divine. There are times when the focus is clearer and times when its not. Its one of those not times. There’s a suite of small wonky geometries on the go. They are still at the early stage of ‘roughing out’ – the broad structure is in place (further variations on the 5/6/7 sided figure interactions) but the colour combinations and variations are, as yet, very unclear. They are amongst a group of panels to be offered for selection for a show entitled Colour Bliss so there’s a challenge!
Alongside these I’m playing with a collection of over 100 small paperworks – that are even more wacky variants of the same repertoire of basic regular sided shapes expanded to include 3/4 sided appearances and a host of other marks and forms. These are pretty much just for fun and to keep myself busy when the other project gets too tricky.
There’s actually another even more mindless long term project that uses up quantities of mixed colour so as not to waste it. And when I say longterm I really mean it. I guess my casual interest in colouring in maps (!) started in my early teens. On one of my first trips abroad (a scout jamboree in the Netherlands) a pal asked me why I was clutching a sheaf of maps (picked up in various locations) on the return journey. I couldn’t answer him satisfactorily but it began a habit that has lived with me through over fifty years now. Some time later…exactly how long I’m not sure (though by the time I started my Foundation studies)…I began in idle moments (and to keep me engaged in some activity in the studio) to fill in these having glued them into sketchbooks. Goodness knows how many there are now but its a lot. Some time back I actually collated a few into a pamphlet that I called Rough Cartography. Here’s one that has been mushed up in the last couple days…it amuses me to think about why I do them and whether I’ll ever use them for any more elevated artistic purpose. I am also (obviously easily pleased) amused at the way the locations are obliterated by my actions…if they were shown would others be able to recognise them? What about the one here? First answer received gets a copy of Rough Cartography signed by the artist! Well it’s Christmas innit!
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.
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.
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!
Yesterday my wife suggested I link my blog up to the other social media I use…I knew this was possible but as with many aspects of the new technology I often fail to get beyond the basics of these things for quite a time. But I had a few moments and of course its only a moment’s engagement to deal with. One consequence of doing this that I’m sure others have experienced is the exponential growth in responses…in my case from a very small handful of regular readers to, well, a slightly bigger armful. And yet already it is apparent what an amazing variety of quality creative activity and commentary is out there. So much so that it feels as if it might overwhelm my capacity to cope with it. So this is an apology to all those lovely people that responded to my last post…that I shan’t be able to give all your blogs anywhere enough time that they deserve.
But at least I can say that Otto‘s blog contains a wealth of sound and insightful ideas and advice on photographic practice today and that Fiona is writing equally fascinatingly on Spanish Cinema. That John and Claudia are talented and prolific painters whilst Patricia is making some terrific sculptural pieces that deserve wider exposure and that there are others out there that I know already and still others that I don’t doing exceptional creative things and recording and reporting them through this medium…and that I’d need many, many parallel lifetimes to do them all justice! So for now I’m simply saying both to my regular friends (both those I know in ‘analogue’ and those online) and those who dropped by – thank you.
Today was a good day…many years back I bought a catalogue at a show of Barnett Newman’s work at the Tate (yes it was that far back that there was only the one…) and I wrote in big black marker pen inside the cover…’Studio is Sanctuary’ – a quote from the artist from the text. Never a truer three words!