I was saddened to hear of the passing of Barrie Cook recently. Like many another painter he ought to have been more celebrated but we’re not good at recognising the worth of them here in the UK. I didn’t know him well but I do recall two occasions, one many years back, one more recent, when he was much in my mind. The more recent happened on the occasion I wrote about here. For in this most unlikely of locations I passed round a large free standing wall in the middle of the upper main gallery to be confronted by a fine example of Barrie’s spray canvasses. How he had come to know Piet Moget who had assembled the amazing collection there I don’t know…but Moget (and Barrie Cook himself) were well travelled and connected. Sadly I didn’t get an image of the work on the day.
The earlier occasion speaks volumes for the warmth and generosity of the man. He had just taken up the post of Head of Fine Art at Birmingham and had called into the Ikon where I worked. I think he’d had a meeting with the boss but as he was leaving he mentioned that someone on the staff had told him I was a painter. We exchanged pleasantries but then he suggested that if I was finishing work shortly did I fancy a drink? We ended up sharing a couple pints with him looking over some slides of the work I’d just embarked on and offering encouragement and sound advice. He also gave me a copy of his small catalogue from the recently completed Gregynog Fellowship that I’ve treasured over the years.
I haven’t seen him in many years but it seems he was still working away daily down in Cornwall and had a good life, and that is heartening to know. A talented artist, a good teacher and a smashing bloke.
Because the year is still (just) under a sixth old I’m fairly relaxed about the progress of the various bodies of work underway. Besides several are nearing completion to my satisfaction (and who else is there to consider!). These two, roughly the same size, around 40 x 60 cm., are amongst them. It offers an opportunity to compare and contrast. There are obvious differences in origins and in materials and methods. As for the latter the picture above is on board prepped with hard sandable gesso (Golden) and using a fair bit of various mediums added to the thin washes of pigments. For the one below 12 oz. cotton duck has a lightly thinned plain gesso with a goodly variety of acrylics, including heavy body applied. Mind this one also has a substantial number of thinned washes involved. In terms of content and form the first is part of the on-going Very Like Jazz series where a certain looseness of approach and call and response is the primary process drawing upon fifties modernist art and design tropes; whilst the second is rooted in observations and intimations of my experiences on our recent Cornish adventures. Is there anything else to be extracted from their quite separate personalities other than to underline my inability to stick to one plot line? I’m not at all sure!
This has been both studio and living space for the past fortnight. It’s good light, a decent workable wall and a reasonably generous desk. In most respects it works well. There is a sizeable drawback…what the comfy chairs don’t reveal is the view, through the open doorway, and from the window in front of the desk. It looks like this sometimes,
and like this at others…
and has many more moods to show you. Yes I have made some paintings, none fully resolved, but my often glacial progress would be even more dilatory if I ‘worked’ here often. Sadly tomorrow I’m off home to my normal environs!
So it begins…2019 that is and, courtesy of our extended stay here on Cape Cornwall, it will be over before I get going at the pace it’s setting so far. How does time speed up as one ages? Not that I’ve been idle – posting is a bit of a lottery however dependent on a hazy purchased wifi ‘hotspot’ – as these studio images can testify.
And if it all seems a bit glacial that maybe because quite a lot of time is spent keeping our eyes peeled on the Atlantic to catch glimpses of the pod of dolphins that seem to be about these parts of late…and I’m sorry that my mobile isn’t up to giving you the view we’ve seen!
Ah…yesterday…and now today. It doesn’t pay to be clever does it. Bragging about the weather has seen a day of squally rain, some of it quite heavy. We have managed to get out twice for reasonable strolls without getting wet but a goodly part of the day has us confined to the studio. Some decent progress made but in order to cheer us on a grey day I’ve pinned a few studies I made back on Cape Cornwall a few years back that put some strong Cornish colour on the wall. Oddly enough we were there on the first of November with a temperature (and sun to match) of seventy degrees c. And ‘the donald’ says global warming doesn’t exist!
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.
It’s always gratifying when you plan something out and it pretty much comes together in the way you hoped. There was a plan of sorts that emerged over several months, starting with an almost whimsical experiment utilising torn pieces of failed works on paper collaged onto larger sheets, and then very gradually coalescing into a group of pictures around the loose idea of woodlands egged on by a careful reading of Simon Schama’s Wood section from his Landscape & Memory book from 1995. The form is a tight grouping of images – something I’ve done a lot of over the past few years – and here it reflects the notion of ancient woodlands as dark and enclosed spaces of the kind that have all but disappeared from the contemporary landscape. Installing them was easier that I’d imagined, in the main down to the hard work of my wife who did most of the heavy labour, and they pretty much fit the space as I’d intended. Ideally they would be viewable from a greater distance though that would dissipate the density idea so I’ll go along with Barnett Newman‘s initial rationale for Vir Heroicus Sublimis at Betty Parsons – its meant to be that way!
It sits on the long wall at Harrington Mill (where I’m showing till October 2nd) and faces off against several paintings from my Very Like Jazz series that have evolved over roughly the same period. How can I make such different pictures? Well its just the way I roll – I don’t have a specific style, brand if you like, never have and never will. For me very different subjects require very different treatments out of a creative mind that can think very differently at different sessions. The critique of this includes the accusation of dilettantism to which I’ll happily plead guilty as charged.
Take for example the Cornish Coast series, reworked from the small ten centimetre blocks, to a bigger format of 30 x 30 cm. by 7.8 cm. deep. These are quieter, more straightjacketed pictures operating within a constrained format where only colour operates loudly. But for me it is important that the experiences of the specific locations are enabled through the surface modulations and the colour juxtapositions, both sympathetic and jarring.
Another wall features a selection of paintings from yet another sequence, ongoing for two or three years now, entitled Wonky Geometry. These operate pretty much exclusively within the realm of ‘pure’ abstraction whereby a predetermined open structure is put through its paces by the intuitive operation of gesture and colour within it. In my mind its a kind of Mondriaan on acid(not that I take acid nor have any delusions that I’m in the same ball park as Piet)…I simply operate in the same manner!
Anyway all these paintings can be seen at the Mill from 2pm on Sunday till Sunday 2nd October. It’s best to check on access – better still get in touch on 07808 938349 – to be sure of viewing. But I’ll be in attendance from 2 to 4pm.on Tuesday 13th Sept., Friday 30th and Saturday 1st Oct. if you want to come along and see the work and have a chat about it.
Its a different kind of ‘Cornish’ today. The waves are rolling in at a lick, its white and grey green for around a couple hundred yards at most before the mists gather. Sennen has gone and Lands End is on another planet entirely. But I’m glad to be a visitor to this remote spot when nature is at its rawest. This is as much a part of the experience of West Penwith as any sunny summers day, perhaps the more so.
Earlier in this second week we took another break from the work to visit Penlee House in Penzance and to take in ‘The Bigger Picture’, their current exhibition. This is a timely reminder that the twentieth century story of art in this far South West outpost goes well beyond the familiar and now oft celebrated ‘St. Ives’ group (of which of course Terry Frost, my last post, is a well known leading light). It is an historical survey covering the mid century and years either side, so sadly cannot encompass most recent work (I think, for example, of painters like Kurt Jackson, Michael Porter or Luke Frost, all still producing terrific work within the locality). But what it does do is remind one of figures who ought (indeed in some small measure already are) to be reappraised at the critical distance opening up on this fertile period. For me it was an absolute delight. There were good examples of many artists who are much less acknowledged than seems right to my eye.
The show opens with a handful of paintings that position the ‘stars’ of St. Ives in the firmament. Lanyon’s small panel Bicyclist in Penwith, a good Nicholson or two, a better Frost than many in the current show up the road, a beautiful Hepworth medical study, solid examples of Heron and Wynter and a decent John Wells or two are just some of those on offer. But its not them I want to comment on really, plenty having been said before and better by others.
But also ‘early doors’ in the gallery are two small unassuming pictures that might be easily overlooked…and for me that would be a big mistake. Both are dark and crowded, tightly packed interlocking loose geometric shapes in juicy oil. The artist is Michael Canney. To give you an idea of his historical context I have in front of me the Tate’s biggish catalogue of ‘St. Ives, 1939 – 64’ where just about anyone associated with the area is at least referenced (including most of those in the current show) but he doesn’t even appear in the index. Not that he’s the only one, I have waxed lyrical about Michael Finn in this blog before and his joyful 50’s oil in this exhibition is a highlight, and he’s not mentioned either. I only met Canney twice, the first time we simply exchanged pleasantries but on the second occasion, with what I think was typical modesty, our rather longer conversation centred on Peter Lanyon (who I was researching for a show I co-curated with Hugh Stoddart, my then boss at Ikon Gallery, Birmingham). I wish I’d known his work then, and had quizzed him about it. Go visit his website…if you care about abstraction there’s a deal of exceptional work to be seen.
There are plenty of paintings that repay attention over the five rooms. Tom Early is an artist I knew nothing of until a few years back when my good friend David Ainley alerted me to him. His four pieces here are variable (to be fair two being quite slight studies on paper) but he like those mentioned above is a much neglected figure – I’d like to see more. Early used a loose and relaxed figuration and was unafraid to use colour aggressively unlike much of the St. Ives group (excepting of course Frost). Alexander Mackenzie is another somewhat forgotten figure and to be truthful his work could sometimes for me be a little too ‘polite’ and over designed but here he has two cracking paintings. And if ever an artist has ever been woefully undersold it must be Margaret Mellis, here with a terrific canvas, one of the largest in the show. It finishes in a couple weeks time…get a train down!
Is just along the beach from Sennen Cove. I think I have another half a dozen or so of these left in me for the moment, at least until I’m done with my large Conversation canvases. The change of scale between the two is quite bracing mentally meaning that the selection of brushes and handling takes on a harder aspect than usually. That said on the big picture I’m working on the palette knife is currently doing most of the work…