what has become of Birmingham over all the years since I walked the streets of that city. Here’s a photo I took just below the Rotunda back in 1976 or thereabouts. I doubt you’d recognise anything in the picture including the Grade II listed structure itself – a clue the advert for Double Diamond has gone…as has the beer (actually I just checked and apparently that’s not true…its still brewed allegedly because it is Prince Philip’s favourite tipple). Actually yesterday’s trip (another good day out with my pal Simon) took us swiftly away from this end of town to the other end of New Street. And here you don’t need to look back to the 1970’s for evidence of rapid change as even a gap of a few months reveals another story. Here’s the site of the Birmingham Library…with a good view of the Birmingham Library! The site being the Central Library that opened in 1974 just after I arrived in the city as a post-graduate student…boy…that makes me feel old! Tempus Fugit… Luckily although the entrance faces this construction site the Museum & Art Gallery is still accessible and, as it happens, in excellent form at present. As per our usual we got stuck into the comestibles first – we have our priorities right – and the cake selection and the staff make the grand Edwardian Tea Rooms a real pleasure as well as a beautiful space (score one to Tangye brothers). After that a stroll through the galleries is always rewarding and at present a wonderfully thoughtful and well curated show sits in the middle of the building.
‘Curation’ is a much abused and loosely used word nowadays. If it means anything in terms of contemporary art practice then it surely involves a degree of careful intellectual and emotional construction of a selection of works to create a meaningful engagement with the work. And if you want to see how that should work out go and study John Stezaker’s Turning to See. Any commentary from me is superfluous it simply stands on its own impeccable’ jewel-like completeness.
…who was born in the 50’s in Western Europe. At least those of us with sufficient disposable income to afford the occasional cheap flight across the continent (and who knows how many decades that will be sustainable). But we can, and we do, take these trips that my parents would have found quite unobtainable. This time to the ‘Eternal City’ of Rome. Of course the ubiquity of such travel means that the ‘romance’ of such locations is a little tempered by the vast armies of us fetching up in places such as the Trevi Fountain.
I had planned to visit the big set piece museums of contemporary art, MAXXI, Macro and the National Museum. But once here desire evaporated. After all with several thousand years of the most creative endeavour on every street corner just strolling around is a visual education second to none. So instead it has been the most enjoyable flaneur punctuated by the occasional lunch or drink stop. Though fate always plays a part and suddenly we are at the Ponte Sisto and across the river from us is an extraordinary frieze, some 12 metres high and 500 long, by one of my favourite contemporary artists, William Kentridge. The ingenious manner in which the work was realised by washing off the grime in reverse is matched only by the freshness of the drawing despite the technical difficulties of translating small drawings up to such massive size.
‘Triumphs and Laments’ is a terrific work that animates the otherwise dismal pedestrian walkway along the Tiber that seems an interloper into the Eternal City – dirty and neglected for the most part, a stark contrast to the life of the Seine through Paris or the Thames through London. Never one to shy away from controversy in his themes the frieze takes a critical look at the history of this great city and brings visitors to a part of town that seems a world away from St. Peter’s or the Spanish Steps. And the title of the work…seems so pertinent in a world that is becoming more and more polarised.
As I’m participating in the upcoming ‘Pareidolia’ show at Matthew Macaulay’s Pluspace in Coventry I had occasion to visit last weekend that gave me the opportunity to view David Beaumont’s Drawings. I curated a show of recent large scale drawing last year at Harrington Mill and in my introduction suggested that “Drawing is paradoxically both better and worse off than it has ever been. As the first way in which humans made sense of their surroundings visually it remains central to the idea of our visual culture, at the same time the advent of technology has made it – for many artists – utterly redundant. It features rarely in many contemporary art events.” So it is refreshing to see an artist at work for whom drawing is the process and the product of his creativity. That the subject of the work is a careful, indeed almost forensic, examination of his surroundings is also fairly surprising, much of the drawing activity I have recently seen by younger artists tending to be process driven. The exhibition features a dozen or so of his recent output. Most of the subjects are probably recognisable to those who frequent the streets depicted on a regular basis but the show explicitly doesn’t reveal location except by occasion reference to signage. This is I suspect to serve not to distract the viewer from a careful inspection of the topography of each location. The construction of which is quite calculated and painstakingly accurate. Indeed the work has a meticulousness that betokens the level of sophistication at work here. Evidence of the working out of placement and the heavily invoked selectivity of the angle and cropping set against the demands of the papers edge are testament to the creative vision of the artist.
Another striking aspect of these drawings is the beautiful use of negative space and the signifier of blankness that is a feature of windows and other apertures in each of the works. Such careful and considered deployment of the light that is occasioned by the heavy working of line around these punctures in the image is yet further indication of their specialness. So much contemporary practice (across the so called ‘expanded’ field of painting, drawing and sculpture) is dependent on gesture, on the ‘casual’ or provisional that something like a Beaumont drawing that is so rigorously planned and executed comes as something of a shock. But its a really good shock and one that, in his case, one can look forward to seeing more of.
Over last weekend I caught up with a painting I’d admired some 34 years back but hadn’t seen since (the second time I’d had such an event recently) and its a very curious experience. The occasion was the opening of Geoff Machin‘s exhibition at Buxton Art Gallery. I barely know Geoff at all having not really met him at the time of the first show ( we were both in an Arts Council award winners group outing organised by the Ikon Gallery) and maybe having met him twice since but I did study the picture – Swiftly in a Winter Nightfall – quite a deal at the time.
One of the things that strikes you as a viewer of Geoffs work is…and lets whisper it for how non ‘u’ can you be nowadays?…the craft involved in it. Immaculate construction and sleek, almost industrial surfaces are a given in each of his works and although the recent paintings and drawings are a tad less physically complex than those of the past this attention to an aspect of painting practice long out of fashion is a welcome friend from the past. In ‘Swiftly’ the way in which the slight physical variations in surfaces result in occasional visual disparities in the reading of the colour planes is exceptional and it suggests one of the many ways in which non- figurative formalist art might still find room for manoeuvre and new invention today.
For Geoff it was back to the rigour and discipline of the flat rectangle with the recent canvases that make up the bulk of this exhibition. The forms interlock to considerable effect in newer canvases like Secure But Free with the heightened colour palette used to good effect, another aspect of this practice that sadly seems rather out of fashion now.
Perhaps one of the subtlest of these paintings though, and my favourite was Floating Harmony made this year. Alongside the paintings there were exquisite drawings…like the one here…from the White Meander Suite. Again immaculately crafted pencil studies that despite their clear historical lineage suggest an artist alert and alive and moving into his eighth decade…hope for us all I feel!
Onto the Tarpey Gallery where in addition to catching up with another old friend, this time an actual person!, there was an opportunity to check a newer painter altogether. Mandy Payne is based in Sheffield and only graduated from the excellent (but sadly discontinued) Nottingham University part time Fine Art degree last year. Although this work is quite determinedly representational there were some faint echoes of the earlier of the days exhibitions. In the best paintings there was a very restricted palette, primarily deployed here to reflect the drab context of the infamous Park Hill estate, that was accompanied by formal characteristics that suggested the kind of interlocking space that Geoff Machin is obsessed with. It will be interesting to see whether this is a direction this artist continues down…and whether her picture selected for this year’s John Moores – ‘Brutal‘ – is in this vein…the title suggests so! And coincidently congratulations not only to the artist but also the Gallery for conspiring to mount this show at this moment of success.
Another shameless plug for the next show in the current Harrington Mill Studios programme. The Mark is the second of the group shows that I’m curating this year that situate aspects of my own practice into a group setting. I did this rather than taking a single slot to myself in the year. In this outing I’m showing some 5 x 4 ft drawings from a few years back alongside some other artists who use larger scale drawing in one way or another. Some of it operating in what is sometimes called the ‘expanded field’…combining and interacting with other media. More details can be found on my programme blog.
As this pesky disease is in the news again I thought I’d post the drawing of it from the Deadly Delicious series…and as it appeared on screen I saw the glum face – would you believe it – for the first time…
A period away from home always gets me moving faster when I get back. It’s that feeling that I have so much I want to get done in my life and the realisation that time is a very finite resource. So today I was up at 5am scribbling furiously on one of my drawings for the Deadly Delicious series but all the while thinking of the various other ongoing projects I have in the studio. Like ‘big orange’ above. This is one of a series of something like thirty five or so pictures that I’ve been playing with, on and off, for nearly five whole years now – and apart from one of our studio Open Weekends have never been exhibited anywhere. ‘big orange’ is over two metres tall and I just don’t know where, nowadays, an artist of very modest reputation such as myself could find a gallery big enough for these biggest paintings in the series. Most of the galleries in this region won’t touch abstract painting with a barge pole anyway so really big pictures would be a real no no. Perhaps this is why this group of works remain (in my thinking) very unfinished…there’s really no need to do so!
And whilst I was away I worked on a new idea…that sprang from the leak in the roof of the back room at my friend’s house! Sadly a rather nice almost unused sketchbook had become drenched in the room (it being many months since we were last there) and was to be discarded. I took it and carefully laid it out a few pages at a time on the terracotta roof next to the terrace to dry each of its leaves. Once dry I have some good images of it…
I then took some charcoal from the kitchen fire (the weather was so poor we kept it in fairly permanently) to draw into these rather stained and curled pages – I liked the idea of using only a found material. Over the eight days I had once the book had dried out I determined to fill each page with a drawing and/or text. The charcoal was of course not ideal nor compressed in the way that commercial materials are but I liked the labour required to get any intensity of mark. A couple mornings into the project I chanced to move the book on the table and loved the residues that had accumulated…
so much so that, and here I’m still pondering what and how, I might incorporate these images into what I think will eventually become A Nature Book. So yet another project (and one – because we were flying on this occasion with severe baggage restrictions – separated in contents by over a thousand miles!) is started and added to an ever growing pile…