On My Travels Again (part 1)


It was terrific getting the Happy Little Fat Man project on the go and I really enjoyed pretty much the whole experience but it has monopolised a huge amount of time over the few months especially in the run up to the launch just last Friday.  So it has been something of a relief to be able to return to a (slightly) more relaxed way of life.  On Monday I ought to have been teaching in Lincoln but I had a fairly bad cold that coupled with a degree of exhaustion from the week just passed suggested a 100 mile round trip and talking all day might not be a wise course of action – for me or for the students.  So I cancelled and took some R&R that has served me well since.

On Wednesday I found myself back on the road, but mercifully in the passenger seat, going north to Newcastle.  My pal was keen to see Jonathan Yeo’s touring exhibition of portraiture at the Laing and I was intrigued to see it as, though its hardly my bag, the phenomenon of the ‘society portrait’ in the 21st century is worth some attention.  Yeo is pretty much the go to guy for these ever since he burst onto the scene in the late 90’s and its easy to see why.  First off he captures a good likeness, (that isn’t as often the case as one might imagine it ought to be) and he can, as occasion (and I suspect) sitter demands, sit the likeness into an interesting visual context.  These are sometimes quite elaborated, as in his recent picture of his friend Damien Hirst.  Hirst sits, as my mate suggested, like a latterday Henry VIII decked out in a frogman’s full kit in a curious spaceframe that has a whiff of Francis Bacon about it.  Is this deliberate given Hirst’s admiration for FB or is it a nod to the vitrines that Damien so beloves?..maybe a bit of both…but either way or not at all it seemed a bit contrived to my eye and added little to the painting in terms of facture or form.

In others Yeo is fond of leaving the scaffolding in place with plenty of scumble and dribbles and then rendering the visage…usually it seems of his more glamorous sitters…in a rather glossy, slick photorealist manner.  For me these were his least successful pictures (though I imagine the subjects loved them) and I found myself drawn more to those works painted in a more rugged tradition way, often of prominent men.  Behind his society portraits of the great and good, or notorious and celebrated in many cases, I suspect the more interesting artist is trying to break out.

The show was excellent, not too overblown nor too worthy but with detail and interest…and with a couple of tantalising glimpses into what Yeo the artist (rather than ‘society artist/business man) might be with more focus.  His collages (utilising torn fragments from pornographic magazines) were represented here by literally portraying George W Bush as an arsehole (or rather a selection of arseholes and other selected bits of genitalia)and the others in the catalogue are witty and irreverent whilst a series of portraits of those undergoing plastic surgery give real substance to the manner in which they are rendered giving purpose to the stylistic devices. For me these were the directions in which I’d be intrigued by Yeo in the future.

In a large gallery between the two parts of the Yeo exhibition is Claire Morgan‘s rather beautiful and extraordinary Gone With The Wind.  This is a striking visual tour de force as a kittiwake ploughs through a blizzard of wildflower seeds constrained within an enormous cube. The delicacy of the material plays out very sensitively contrasted with the visual solidity of the overall form achieved by rigorous and meticulous structural strength coupled to effective controlled lighting. An object lesson in what poetry can be wrought from a relatively modest material source.

With rooms devoted to other quality displays including a well considered display of their 18th&19th c. holdings (they had a fine Clausen on display as well as a good Breton Gauguin and of course some stonking John Martin’s) and a good cafe, shop and friendly informed and helpful staff this is one of our finest regional gallery’s. One is fearful that, coincidentally, the lead story in The Guardian that very morning was a warning by Newcastle’s political leader that further budget cuts from London might make the city bankrupt. Something like the Laing may well come under severe budgetary restraints as a result…something my pal and myself have already observed elsewhere in our travels.  Let’s hope not.

A short walk across the city brought us to the University’s Hatton Gallery.  This is the equal of many a municipal institution in other cities and Newcastle is fortunate to have it alongside the Laing.  Entering the building and going through to the small informal cafe you are hit in the corridors by a strong whiff of oil paint…something I haven’t experienced in any of the half dozen HE Art & Design environments I’ve ventured into in the past few years!  A chat to the friendly keeper of the well stocked art materials shop in the lobby suggests that around 50 % or more of the students are painting – again in my limited recent experience a high strike rate.

I’d suggested our visit so as to see a show entitled Basic Design:A Revolution in Art Education but our first encounter was with Screaming Steel: Art, War & Trauma.  This is an excellent and impeccably researched exhibition setting out to reflect aspects of the visual and in part literary responses to the First World War.  Within the limitations of the University’s reach (especially as regards loans I suspect) the breadth and depth of the material was exceptional…alongside Nash, Nevinson, Bomberg, Sasson, Owen etc. I was particularly struck by a couple Otto Dix etchings that besides depicting the horrors from the other side of the conflict did so with Goyaesque intensity.  Alongside the content the show is most instructive in terms of a wide ranging display of drawing and printmaking techniques though of course its fundamental intention is to help ensure we will never forget.  It certainly succeeds in this.

In all honesty I was a tad disappointed in the other show.  Though there was no denying that much of the material was of historical interest (to at least those of with an interest in Art Education) I felt there was relatively little contextual explanation of the circumstances by which Basic Design came to occupy a position of centrality at Newcastle in the 1950’s nor to set out its tenets and presumptions fully enough.  Maybe given its location those involved expected a higher degree of insider knowledge…or perhaps there was a view that the material ought to speak for itself.  There were some superb works on show – a strong Terry Frost with much subtler colour modulations than are sometimes the case, a large William Johnstone, a small fierce and intense Ian Stephenson and solid representative works by Victor Pasmore and Rita Donagh.  Although he often cropped up in the photographs  (including one amusing shot of him standing behind Paolozzi fag in hand and looking on somewhat incredulously) Richard Hamilton, one of the central players, was strangely rather absent.  Harry Thubron (who with his wife Elma had generously provided a fair bit of the archive material) was represented by one of his wonderful collaged works but again I’d have loved to seen more of these vastly underrated works.  There were things I was previously unaware of…I intend seeking out more works by Wendy Pasmore whose Oval Motif in Grey and Ochre was a sensitive, rather gorgeous, nod towards Paul Klee…but overall this felt to me at least to be a chapter ( a solid and interesting one nonetheless ) from a bigger (and very important )story yet to be properly told.  One that an institution like the Tate…or even somewhere like the Hepworth could and should get done in full.

Before leaving Hatton we had to take another look at the Merz Barn wall.  That the University managed to salvage this and keep it on display in the intervening fifty plus years is something of a miracle.  That the Tate of 1962 was so shortsighted is not far short of criminal…but the capital’s loss is Newcastle’s gain.  All those involved in the original project, including an old acquaintance of mine – Fred Brookes (who was central to the task of lifting, relocating and restoring it from Ulswater) deserve our gratitude.  Hatton is in full swing with a fundraising campaign at present to transform and update itself…and strengthen its capacities for the future.  I’d urge you to do what I’m doing right now – go online and donate!