As anyone reading this will know we are living for the month in a small bedsit on the harbour in Scalloway on the Shetlands and its proper lovely as we Devon folk say. In fact when the sun shines (and we’ve more good days than not) it reminds one of how the West Country seemed to be when I was a child. Nowadays the crowds down in Devon & Cornwall make it harder to love but back then before motorways etc. Anyway enough of my misremembering as, apart from sitting staring out the window or visiting unspoilt and empty beaches, we are here to work.
But the rub is that you start to think about what you do and how you go about it. Yes I know one should be doing that all the time anyway…but holidays just exacerbate this…and added to which there are fewer materials and supports to hand…and ideas get stuck in your head in ways that just don’t happen at home. Its all rather confusing! So here I am rethinking, tinkering really, with both the Wonky Geometry and the notion I had arrived with (outlined a few weeks back) and fetching up with something that’s quite a departure. Should I be worried or concerned?
Given that it has been raining cats & dogs for over eighteen hours now there’s plenty of opportunity to get on with the work! So I have at last finished at least one piece to my satisfaction. It derives its title from both the context in which it has been produced (on the waterfront here in Scalloway) and a poem by the late Peter Redgrove entitled On Losing One’s Black Dog. The view from our French Windows reminds me a little of the time when, albeit briefly, I knew Peter as a student at Falmouth where he was, luckily for us, the Complementary Studies tutor. He was very finely attuned to the Cornish environment and spoke eloquently and imaginatively about the ‘Black Dog’ in its several senses, one of which (not the one referred to directly in the poem) concerned the melancholia that descends on all things Cornish in the winter months. After today’s performance here (see photo below) during August one can only imagine what mid-winter brings to the folk here on Shetland!
at least that’s what we’ve been taught to believe. But its a well kept secret that there is great weather to be had up here in Scalloway. Certainly over these past two (first) days of our adventure over the month of August. So far its been azure blue skies and full on sunshine. The Met Office has officially confirmed that Shetland had more hours of sunshine than Cornwall in July and so far August is following suit.
Not that we’ve been idle…the studio has been tidied and arranged to suit our purposes…and the beginnings of work underway – despite the absurdly wonderful context if you step through the doorway!
Sometimes you’re taken away from painting by other work or chores…or simple fatigue or recreation…but we all need some interaction with family and friends. As for friendships they often tend to be longstanding, often forged way back. As one gets older they really do go way, way back. In this instance we all met – pause for reflection – forty seven years ago.
It started with a trip to Trent Bridge for the third day of the second Test against South Africa with my pal Allan. Cricket (along with Snooker I feel) is very much an artists game, something to do with space and time. And margins too, fine ones that can change the course of a match irrevocably. Despite England’s increasing forlorn chances of saving the game it was a good day’s outing. We followed this with an evening in the company of the fine singer songwriter Keith Christmas who played his latest album in its entirety explaining that he had conceived it with the live performance in mind. I cannot recommend it too highly.
On the way home we got to discussing what makes a great artist (in any form) and Allan repeated a conversation with his own son, Adam (himself a very talented musician) who suggested it was simply intensity. And I cannot agree more. Keith has it in spades and I like to think it may be something to do with age – Keith’s latest has some of his best work ever and quite rightly he wants it out there and admired by as many as can experience it.
On Monday last I was away to London to meet up with another pal from the graduating class of 1973 at Falmouth School of Art, Stuart. We were at Tate Modern to take in the Giacometti show that didn’t disappoint – full of well presented masterpieces. It was intensity personified – especially as regards the spacial awareness in what constitutes formal integrity. Over two days that took in a studio visit our conversations ranged widely though several of them were situated in his garden, a relatively small space but full of flower intensity that, to me at least, spills over into his paintings, ostensibly concerned with landscapes (mostly in Dorset & Spain) but just as much focussed on vibrant colour, light and form.
Our talks about painting were easy and relaxed – 47 years does that! – and some of it homed in on intention and ambition. What really matters to us is simply what our heart and head says to us in the moment – not all that extraneous matter that creeps in once you start situating the work in any kind of context. Is that what we mean by intensity?
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’ve written before about making fresh discoveries in painting even when one prides oneself on being pretty clued up. Today on my birthday I received from my wife a copy of Red by Michel Pastoureau (actually I was lucky enough to get his Black too, from my mother-in-law) and am really looking forward to properly tucking into it. But a first flick through the very good quality reproductions (as always with Princeton University publications) revealed La Chambre Rouge from 1898 by the Nabi artist Félix Vallatton.
Now although I’m aware of his existence I know very little about Vallatton and have seen even less…there doesn’t seem to be a lot of work about in easily accessible locations (certainly in the UK). But this picture was a revelation. One of our favourite paintings is The Red Studio by Matisse (on show at MOMA) that we’ve been fortunate to spend time with on two occasions and it truly is an astonishing and remarkable picture – a game changer in so many ways. But this Vallatton, to me at least, underlines the old maxim that nuttin’ comes from nuttin’, that everything has antecedents and that as Picasso said “good artists borrow, great artists steal” (and of course others have suggested that he nicked that one…possibly from T.S.Eliot). La Chamber Rouge of course doesn’t go all the way that Matisse did but then again it was painted in 1898 when young Henri was still wrestling with divisionism and some twelve years before The Red Studio and it has an extraordinary way of pre figuring the flatness of the latter painting although staying firmly rooted in a form of realism. It too, of course, picks up on other innovations…the mirror punctuates the picture plain in a way reminiscent of a reversal of The Bar at the Folies Bergère and even the figures in the doorway have a kind of reference back to Vermeer in my mind. In any event I now have a voracious appetite for both the books and for more of Vallatton’s work.
I can’t abide waste with materials…so I’m an inveterate hoarder. Several of my ‘projects’ are the consequence of this compulsion. The Waldgeschitchen series began by raiding my box of failed paintings on paper and pasting bits onto fresh paper, the Lavanderia idea utilises canvas offcuts and the Tales From The Lumber Room recycles all manner of wood bits and bobs (both of these still in process right now). But the sheer volume of failed paper pieces some time back forced me into drastic action. I had acquired four rather lovely boxes some 27 cm. square and began to trim and re assemble pieces with an ambition to fill them with a new series of small works. This increasing avalanche has the title of Wonky Geometry and they sit somewhere between the more straitjacketed Geometry paintings (some of which can still be seen at The Crypt in St. Marylebone Church until 30th June) and my Very Like Jazz works (and the Winter Cycle that preceded them). And the voluminous quantity liberates them a good deal. I’ve tried not to be precious or hidebound with them…I’ve even co-opted some of the existing imagery, not only my own but occasionally that of my children and others. Whether there is any genuine quality alongside their undoubted quantity – well theres the rub as William had Hamlet remark.
Of the show in Marylebone its worth reminding that there is a discussion this coming Friday week (9th June) at 3pm. If nothing else its an opportunity to chat with several of the exhibitors including myself and the show’s curators Lucy Cox & Freya Purdue.
And another shameless plug – one of the Geo series Six Miles High – is featured on the Auction blog set up by the artist Andrew Bracey. He has assembled quite a cast list for this charity event inspired by the death of his father last year and in support of Liverpool Heart & Chest Hospital. A really worthwhile cause and the opportunity to pick up a work by some great artists at bargain prices.