Long time observers know I work on series of pictures. Some are relatively constrained to a few months or a year perhaps. Not so The Heart Of Rural England. Actually this title has only just been chosen as the first part of it started way back in the late 1990’s. Back then I was working on a series of canvas pieces that were mounted on board and based on imagery drawn from villages nearby my home. These were abandoned in favour of the series of canvases that became the project titled From The Earth Wealth shown at the Tarpey Gallery in 2011. During an interview for the Leicester Mercury I jokingly suggested I might go on from that project (featuring a painting by each place featured in the district of NW Leics handbook) to make a series for each of the other districts in the county. This lay fallow until around 2015 when myself and my pal Simon started on the documentation of the Charnwood Borough. In turn the canvases for each place in their handbook began towards the end of the following year.
The first – Loughborough – was completed in February of 2017 (by which time the photography for the next district – Melton – was just starting) but then progress on the paintings stalled. But though the wheels grind slow they do grind fine with the last handful of the Charnwood series (titled from a phrase in their handbook suggesting it is ‘the Playground of the Midlands’!) just drying as i write – so they should be all put to bed by year’s end. I’ve ruefully suggested before now that with the glacial progress to date there’s a good chance the project may out live its progenitor so in order to try and forestall that I’m now pushing on.
This starts with reviewing the images from part three (luckily most of which are already captured) that of Melton (with yet another title from their Handbook of ‘Painting The Town Red’) and ordering the necessary canvases. This will be followed in the new year – COVID restrictions permitting – with recommencement of the photography for part four – Harborough District – that we started on back in February of the current year but then never followed up – I cannot imagine why!
Away from the actual painting for quite a while it’s good to get back to it.An old colleague (and staff member) of mine once mildly rebuked me for chuntering on about the time they were spending away from the teaching saying “to be a good artist you have to put in the hours” and he’s right of course.Leaving aside all the high fallutin’ nonsense we all spout about making work that has something to say, it is just plain laborious some of, if not most of, the time.Imagine then how much tougher an activity like painting must be if sight fails you?More of that in a moment.
But it’s also important to see work and to reflect on one’s practice away from it – and to recharge the batteries in congenial surroundings.These come along in many forms.So it was rather excellent that my absence from this blog has been occasioned by just such variety.Firstly an old pal of mine came up from London to spend a few days with us.We hightailed it straight from the rail station to Lakeside in Nottingham to take in the Ivon Hitchens show, beautifully curated by Anne Goodchild and mounted by Neil Walker.Hitchens late works in particular a bit of a revelation – their wonderful colour singing out in what is our region’s best gallery.
Day two we were off to Birmingham to view the John Walker exhibition at the Ikon Gallery.We studied together at Brum, not long after Walker had left the city, his work having left an indelible mark on the art scene there, so not only had we gone to view the show but also to take a trip down memory lane looking over at a studio we had rented on Broad Street, then a pigeon shit invested loft – now an upmarket Indian restaurant. John is a proper painter’s painter and so any show he mounts starts from a high water mark – however this was a tad of a let down.For starters it consisted of just the upper gallery spaces and John’s work needs space – lots of it.Although most of the 8 x 6 ft.(ish) canvases sat comfortably enough the two real biggies (at least 8 by 12 feet if not more) were lacking room.And for another matter these two biggest works seemed to be pushing for that easy elegance that the late paper cutouts of Matisse have.Gone was the hard won push and pull of paint that characterise most Walker canvasses replaced by thinner washes and canvas collage, not to my eyes entirely successfully.Overall the body of paintings riffed off a variety of Walker tropes (the truncated lozenges harking back to the early 1970’s), an over reliance on stripes and the grid and the suggested references to the Maine coastline hard to see?
Day three took us to the Attenborough in Leicester.Although my colleague Stuart knew of him I’d only the sketchiest knowledge of Sargy Mann (gathered from a recollection of his involvement with a Bonnard show years back).But the substantial exhibition that Attenborough had mounted was a tour de force.Both as an example of how to celebrate a career (something the Ikon show signally failed to do for John Walker) and give the artist a proper outing but also for the quality of what was on show. as if that were not enough Sargy progressively lost his sight over his career so that the last canvasses were made – well from what? – not simply memory but knowledge and experience and a heightened awareness of other senses.Sadly the show is now ended but you can get an idea of the late works from this Youtube video.We topped off a great trip with a brief outing to the Tarpey Gallery where the latest crop of gallery artists showing included favourites such as Richard Perry, Jackie Berridge & the Richard’s Devereux & Thornton too.
Secondly news reached me of work ‘on the road’ again.Opportunities to have works seen in public are thin on the ground nowadays so always welcome.And so another outing for the estimable Andrew Bracey’s Enough Is Definitely Enough exhibition where a small and modest offering from me is part of the mix.Andrew is boundless in his energy and he’s produced a rather nifty gif to accompany this outing that I’m happy to reproduce here.
Thirdly another very dear pal of mine issued an invitation to me and my wife to accompany him and his partner to their Civil Partnership signing, and to a very grand and indulgent ‘Partnership breakfast’ shall we call it that?stretching over lunch, dinner and overnight stay at the wonderful Lympstone Manor.Although very upmarket (Michelin Star) it was a wonderfully relaxed and inspiring location: a Georgian mansion overlooking a vineyard sloping down to the Exe estuary.And although the artwas variable, quite a lot of it was very accomplished and some rather provoking for such a location.We were very privileged to be able to share the occasion with our friends and it was an experience that will live long in the memory (and I dare say feed into the work in some way).
Next up out of the blue a few weeks back I received an email from a painter for whose work I have the highest regard.Now resident in the Far East Laurence Wood wanted to send me a copy of his recent catalogue of paintings made over the past six or so years since his move to Hong Kong.
I have a small painting of Laurence’s, an oil on board, made during his brief time in Leicester.It was obvious to me then that here was a fine painter (and printmaker) in the making and though I haven’t had the opportunity to see his recent paintings in the flesh it seems that after all these years I wasn’t wrong.
And finally I took the opportunity of a trip down to Swindon Museum (to present a talk on the work of the painter Charles Howard of which more in my next post) to visit Avebury, a site I last took a look around sometime in the 1970’s! I got lucky for in the midst of this soggy winter I chose a day of bright sunshine to revisit this wonderful place.
So by way of explanation for my lengthy absence that’s been what’s been happening.I’m back at it now.Nothing completed yet bar this addition to Box Three of Wonky Geometrybut three or four new pictures that should be up on here soon!
Its hardly graft but I’m finding making the second half of the Wald series rather taxing…of course sometimes one has to just keep working through it and if I was as driven as I was thirty or so years back then the whole thing might be wrapped up in a very few sessions. As it is I keep prevaricating, then acting precipitously and screwing up, then having to rescue it, and going through the whole damn process again. In some cases it may be just this ‘history’ that brings something to the party, in others just the opposite. In any event I have to resolve another nine within the next three weeks or so.
But just as it was all seeming something of a chore along comes three things that add a little fillip to one’s day. Firstly we threw a party and a friend came along with a gift of three tiny paintings that are a joy. Secondly another friend recommended me for a quite prestigious collection. Lastly another friend bought a picture from our local gallery. These three have raised my spirits recently at (courtesy of them) is the end of what has been a testing period for my practice. I’m now experiencing the boost in confidence that is needed to crack this project. They know who they are…and I want to say thanks!
Its over five years on since I embarked on my project entitled From The Earth Wealth. This comprised very nearly a year of visits to every place identified in the 1977 handbook of the District I live in followed by a series of paintings loosely based on these. The whole exhibited at the Tarpey Gallery in 2011 and the whole thing chronicled on this blog. At the time I jokingly suggested to an enquiring reporter that I might go onto each of the other districts in Leicestershire and complete the set.
Well here I am at the end of January setting out for Loughborough and beginning the exploration of Charnwood, the closest of those other authorities, with a view to doing it all over again. My guide this time is an old copy of their official guide, sadly undated, but I suspect published around the beginnings of the 1980’s. I’ve grouped the smaller villages in the guide together and with Loughborough and Shepshed have come up with twelve trips, roughly one a month, to complete this exploration. My pal Simon has foolishly agreed to come along this time and it is he who – confronted with twelve numbers – made the random selection of Loughborough itself (the biggest place by far and the administrative centre of the borough) as our first mission.
Why the ‘playground of the Midlands title? Well From The Earth Wealth is a translation of the NWLeics motto Ex Terra Opes but try as I may I’ve not found one for Charnwood…so I’ve plundered the opening paragraph of the guidebook where someone dubbed Charnwood thus.
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.
Looking at Terra Preta last evening I wondered if Dermot Punnett spent any time as a youngster watching the X Files on television, for the strange and crazy theories of extra terrestrials seem to be played out in this painting with its mysterious tangled undergrowth populated by free floating geometric forms. The artist talks of entropy and there is a strong whiff of tension in the fetid air of this jungle environs in which objects are coalescing and decaying…though when I check up on terra preta I realise that this may be amazonian rain forest and it is rotting, manmade vegetation rather than, say, the Florida Keys. Whatever is going on here it is a narrative that is cut across with a knowing take on contemporary painting and a steady, consistent painterly intelligence that is at work.
Conduit and Arawak are pictures cut from the same cloth. In the latter the light is skillfully handled and we are emerging into possibly a clearing though again I cant help imagining that I’m just ahead of Mulder and Scully or maybe young Elliot about to discover that this light is that of a spaceship that has crash landed just out of view. Once again the same tropes are deployed, the geometries and the bisecting lines that carve the space open and just as quickly bind it up again, and those curious little flecks of paint just to remind us that this is above all else a painting.
Smoker is a more enigmatic picture…the billowing clouds are handled well and I see a suggestion of a bunny staring out of the rectangle to the right…though this maybe ‘very like a whale’ as Polonius would have it in Hamlet. Whatever, the space frame once more revolves around and through the gases weaving the rectangular space into something altogether more curious and fascinating.
Enjoying the ‘Seven From Sennen’ so much I decided to give the other work a rest over this festive season and carry on making these small formalist pictures. So we are off on a jaunt around the West Penwith coastline, starting with Porthgwarra. It’s a lovely little cove on the south side of that very last ‘bit’ of the land in the far west. I’ve given this little canvas (10x10cm) to Luke Tarpey of our gallery – the Tarpey – as a Christmas present from my wife and myself.
Its not that often that I’m really rushing about in the day nowadays…I try to organise my time around a single substantive activity in the working day…the studio or teaching or occasionally a trip out with my pal usually. But today activities were a little more rushed but most interesting. It started at Deda, our Dance centre in Derby where I had been asked by the Morph Creatives, a group of mainly Derby based artists and makers to help curate their group exhibition that opens tomorrow. Diverse groups of this kind can sometimes make for ragbag shows but on this occasion there were several serendipitous connections across and through the work and it pretty much sorted itself out and everybody had (whether by accident or careful consideration) brought just enough pieces to fill the exhibition space available. I thought everybody had made some pretty solid work and it seems a wee bit invidious to pick stuff out of the bunch but as simply an example of what you might see if you can make it along (and I’d certainly say it would be worth it) this striking and rather clever collage by Del Coombs looked great hanging in the stairwell.
Then it was back to the Tarpey Gallery to see how the hang was going for my wife’s upcoming show (see the picture above – and this will be a bit of a departure for those who haven’t seen her work for while so be sure to go along and see what one of the Midlands best painters has been up to recently) and to take in a piece for the mixed selection that Luke keeps in the back space that wasn’t at all like the work of mine that had just come down. Not too difficult as those who’ve seen the twists and turns in my practice can testify! On this occasion I pulled out a large work on paper that came back from the show I had touring in Portugal back in 2005/6. One of a group of three titled Tuscan Garden. Only issue – that when we unwrapped it somehow a speck or two of something (paper, timber, varnish?) had come away and was sitting over one of the washes of colour. It really couldn’t go up in a commercial space as it was.
I decamped to home (the wife’s work was sorted and already half displayed) for a spot of lunch. I normally refrain from comment on wider issues at large in the world in this space, and certainly steer away from politics but… on our so called ‘serious’ national lunchtime radio news programme (Radio 4’s The World At One) I could barely believe my ears with the appallingly dire level of debate emanating from the three spokesperson’s of our leading parties nor the asinine line of questioning from the presenter on the Syrian topic. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the situation (and goodness knows it is seriously complicated) it deserves to be better served than by this low level of squabbling. As an aside it is interesting to note that three of the four of them were products of our public school system and all four had degree level education in politics or the dreaded PPE and naturally have never worked outside of the broad political/journalistic domain. This trend now so dominant in UK politics coupled with the seeming impossibility of anyone over 55 having anything worthwhile to offer to frontline party service (I know Ken Clarke is hanging in there but…) actually means that this disgracefully poor level of debate and decision making is with this for far into the future. Its just as well that (in this issue at least) UK plc’s opinions and actions (or inactions) mean diddly squat to the rest of the world (though the USA seems equally afflicted sadly…). Anyway rant over – ‘normal’ service resumed!
So after lunch back to the studio to retrieve the other Tuscan Garden (one is still in Portugal in a collection now) that mercifully wasn’t afflicted with any rogue dust. Back to the gallery and onto Deda (again) for a lively Finance meeting (we are wrestling with cutbacks in funding…again!). On the way to which I caught a part of one of Radio 4’s better programme offerings – the excellent Thinking Allowed with Lawrie Taylor. In the last of three programmes on leading thinkers Lawrie and his guests reexamined the work of Erving Goffman. To my shame I didn’t know of his work (I suspect because he was a sociologist rather than, as in the case of the two previous episodes, a philosopher- Foucault and Benjamin since you ask) but I’m going to follow it up now. The meeting lasted a fair while – we had quite a lot to mull over and I arrived home quite late…for me nowadays at least! Blimey I thought as I pulled up at the house and dragged the speck ridden picture into the house…that was a bit too much like working for a living!
can be found at the Tarpey Gallery (in addition to my show, with a week to run). In the conservatory attached to the cottage Luke has displayed a lovely selection of pieces by my pal, the sadly deceased Paul Mason. Its a very discreet, ‘mini retrospective’ with some terrific pieces including five small marble panels that I feel are some of his best. Get along to the gallery, ask to see the work and think hard about maybe purchasing something – you’ll not regret it!
Perhaps it was the suddenness of the request from Luke (proprietor of the Tarpey Gallery) to mount a solo show when I wasn’t expecting it or the fact of the ongoing saga of the holiday breakdown and its aftermath but for whatever reason I’ve nor paid much attention to the current exhibition at the Tarpey Gallery. I delivered it before the vacation and arrived back the afternoon of the opening…and that was that. Until today when I went across to photograph it.
As can be seen it is a relatively small display of seven of the aluminium works and three of the watercolours. My thinking about the aluminium pieces is that because they had been conceived as part of the bigger display (at Lakeside this winter) the ‘in your face’ coloration is a bit much in this smaller, more intimate, venue. And the traditional hang (pretty much the only way it could be done in the Tarpey space) doesn’t entirely suit the works either. That said Luke did a good job in making them ‘work’ reasonably well and overall I’m not too unhappy with the way it looks.
Before the work comes down I shall go back and spend a few more minutes with the pictures – for me the opportunity to see work on walls away from the studio is always worthwhile, and lends a perspective to the process of creation that for me at least I never get in my working space.
I have also benefitted enormously with this show from Andy Parkinson’s very thoughtful review. Its good to have the opportunity to read what someone else thinks about your work – especially from a commentator of Andy’s standing and repute. And also pleased to see that it provoked further interesting debate.