Imagine its around 1420 and a ship is sailing north, away from the leading Hanseatic League port of Bergen, having left Bremen or Hamburg some time ago, and making for Hillswick, its destination to trade goods for salted fish, lamb and skins. Although on the last leg of its long journey it espies rough weather from the west and puts into the natural harbour of Schaldewage or Scalloway as we now know it. At that time the place is part of the Norse rule of the Islands, in fact it is only a couple miles south of Tingaholm, the Thing, where laws are debated and enforced. Until a century and a half later when Earl Robert Stewart moves it to the town, where twenty or so years on his son Patrick Stewart (presumably before becoming ‘Professor Charles Xavier’ or Jean Luc Picard – ha ha) builds his spanking new castle in the ‘town’ and the ‘ancient capital’ of the Islands. The town sits on the bottom end of the Nesting Fault, a splay of the Walls Boundary Fault, itself possibly connected to the great Glen Fault.
So The Booth is situated in an immensely rich and interesting location. Literally on the edge of the fault, the Castle a few yards away, the water of the harbour right below our window. Do learning about any of these things influence the production of abstract paintings I wonder? I’m just one of many artists who occasionally talk airily about ‘a sense of place’…but what does it actually mean? I’m ploughing my way, painfully slowly, through Mary Jacobus’s Reading Cy Twombly (its a very rich and rewarding book but requires a great deal of contextual understandings!) and she quotes from Shelley “Naught may endure but mutability” in regard to Twombly’s Letter of Resignation. The line has resonances for me every time I look up and out into the harbour and the ocean road beyond it…the sea and its ever changing moods and cadences. And perhaps its that, more than anything, that creates ‘a sense of place’.
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!
So shortly we are off to the Shetlands, to Scalloway and to The Booth. For a month we will be living and working there and it is always tricky on such an expedition deciding what to take by way of materials. You don’t want to be too prescriptive on the one hand but properly equipped on the other. Especially so as material supplies may be tricky there (though of course it might be much easier than I’m imagining). Nonetheless I have drafted a sort of plan! Some time back I was rather taken by a small clutch of Knitting Sheaths that reside in the museum there – I’m hoping to see them during our stay.
And I’ve riffed on them over the past few months in photoshop…so I have at least the beginning of imagery that hopefully relates to my Wonky Geometry. Then a trip to the Ashmolean a while back with my pal Simon to see the wonderful Raphael drawing show had us wandering through the room of Japanese scrolls – kakejuki…brilliant! Just the thing for a trip away…paper based and roll em’ up to transport back easily.
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!
on one can be a wee bit disorientating. One evening you may find yourself wandering along a track across a field in Northern France…less than a few hours since racing through the Alps (excepting the queue for the San Gotthard/Gottardo tunnel).
In his Anatomy of Melancholy Robert Burton writes that travel is one cure of it “for peregrination charmes our senses with such unspeakable and sweet variety, that some count him unhappy that never traveled, a kinde of prisoner”. Whether or not one subscribes to that rather extreme view it is undeniable that different perspectives emerge from moving about a bit. For example setting off from a small village in Pas De Calais this morning (the first round of the French Presidential Election) I was struck by the relative calm of it all. My straw poll of one elicited a response that it was “tres important” but it would have been easy to miss that fact of it at all. There was a single billboard in the town centre with a single poster for each of the eleven candidates and only one location in town where someone had fly posted three posters for Francois Asselineau (a hard line Frexiteer). Even those newspapers that I saw were treating the event with restraint, and though most TV channels at one point or another on Saturday night had coverage it certainly didn’t dominate the schedules as it does here. Indeed there isn’t a sense of hysteria but a sober responsible process at work. For what its worth though my sense of it is that Le Pen may well do better than expected in Round One and might just do enough overall to cause an upset.
She’ll certainly pick up Asselineau’s supporters with their very direct secondary slogan (above in yellow…’Frexit – Protection des Salaries’). And I guess that may well be a significant part of the reason that the Tories will romp home here with a stonking majority. I was going to follow up this observation with something incredibly rude and partisan about my fellow countrymen and women but I’ll let it be…I try not to do politics here! So instead some nice pictures of locations on our holidays instead!
Should there be any regular observers of my social media presence they might have been forgiven recently for wondering what was going on with me.
The Black Dog descended following the triumph of Trump and hasn’t lifted with the Brexit vote in parliament. I’ve been utterly defeated by the US/UK spiral towards nasty xenophobic totalitarianism…that it seems the majority ‘rabble’ have fully signed up to – but that’s democracy I guess. Personally I doubt we’ll see the tide turned back towards common decency in my lifetime. Still…
off on another of our occasional jaunts this time to Kingston upon Hull; where my pal found himself labouring for much of lunchtime on the task of persuading me out of this Stygian gloom I’d fallen into. An ‘orrible task for anyone but his combination of extreme patience, historical knowledge and sound political grasp made a great deal of sense (not that, naturally, I was willing to concede as much at the time). He (and another friend more recently) assure me that I’m wrong to which I can only say I bloody well hope so!
In the Ferens I had an epiphany; not only that I don’t feel – nor think – I’ve got beyond Duccio in my understanding of painting…but more importantly that I don’t want to! I’m often given to thinking that (and I’m pretty sure my pals from that time would agree) as a young man I was pretty sure I knew it all and now forty five years later I know nothing…where did it all go wrong? The Duccio in question is one of the sensational small panels that usually reside in the National Gallery and one of the very few things I am still reasonably sure of is that his work is amongst the greatest ever triumphs of painting. The panel in question still stands as sophisticated an exploration of pictorial colour and space as any I’ve seen in recent years!
The UK City of Culture 2017 is still winding up but it struck me as pretty chipper and as a bonus I got to tick off the Humber bridge from my bucket list. It was my first visit there and The Blade arching over Queen Victoria Square certainly makes a statement, not least about scale…who’d have guessed that those offshore turbines were that big (the one blade 75 metres in length). Though of course once you think about it…after all my pal Louise Garland and myself did a project a few years back encouraging passers by in Sutton-on-Sea to make seascapes and as you can see in this example most of them punched up the whirligigs in their creations.
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!
It’s the last trip for the Playground of the Midlands project that started the day in Syston before moving onto Seagrave and lastly Walton on the Wolds (though my estimable partner in crime ducked out of this one). Some might think that we were fairly eccentric in this endeavour though it doesn’t seem to have caused too many raised eyebrows as we, two loud, large, late middle aged, men with cameras, cruised about the Charnwood borough (other than crashing the Thurmaston Parish Church Coffee morning a couple weeks back).
Anyway we are done now. And of course there have been several of these signs dotted about the borough. They have a certain charm and usually feature fairly bland and obvious imagery as above…but hang on a minute…whats that chap doing on the right hand panel above?
I think we should be told…why its Montague ‘Bertie’ Bird. The sometime Vicar of the parish who around the turn of the twentieth century developed (excuse the pun) a passion for photography and…a habit of doctoring his images! Well that is eccentric!
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.