Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Its All In the Detail


Funnily enough there's an article about blogging on the radio at the moment. It suggests, pardon the language, that "the reason blogs work so well is that 90% of what's posted is shit". I agree in part. Part of the joy of blogging is the unedited nature of the postings. I know very few bloggers who spend hours pouring over their texts before publishing. At the same time, I admit to thinking carefully about what I say hear, believing that words have meaning. Images, too, require thought and consideration.

In this latest stage of the painting its all about the detail. The colours, composition and tones and close to being resolved and I tend to work these things out on the canvas itself as opposed to copying a sketch from photoshop (as many painters do today and often with good results). The working title has become "all the stages (after friedrich)" referencing Friedrich's "The Stages of Life" as well as the geography of the landscape on the Thames bank which looks, to me, like a series of platforms stages. There's also a sense of how long this painting is taking... and all those stages.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

New Online Portfolio


I'm in the final stages of completing a new online portfolio showcasing my new art as well as the 'greatest hits' from the past. Fancy a sneak peak? Click here

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

School of Saatchi

video

The BBC have been running a kind of X Factor for artists. The programme opened three weeks ago with over 1,000 artists competing for the hallowed prize of a free studio for three years and the possibility of showing art in the much revered Hermitage gallery in St Petersburg. Six artists have now been shortlisted by a panel of art notorieties including artist Tracey Emin, critic Matthew Collins and head of art at the Barbican, Kate Bush.

I must admit I was deeply suspicious of this programme at first. There's something quite hidious about the whole thing and it sounded like the worst kind of clash between reality TV and a contemporary art scene that already struggles for credibility from a cynical public. The trouble is, like some kind of guilty pleasure, I'm actually starting to like The School of Saatchi.

Each week the artists are given tasks to complete but they’re not the kind of humiliating scoffing of jungle beetles or putting ants down your pants you might expect from this kind of formula show. The artists are actually asked to make art and interesting projects at that. Last week they were asked to make public art for Hastings. This week saw our intrepid six installing art at Sudeley Castle, home of the Dent-Brocklehursts and Lord & Lady Ashcombe. These are the kind of art commissions many young contemporary artists (like me) would love to have a shot at.

OK OK so there’s an element of the ridiculous to keep the ratings up (Saad – 23 year old art student. Makes work about himself. Looks freakishly like a mate of mine at work - sends a japati through the post to Lady Ashcombe which arrives late and mouldy. Nineteen year old art student Eugenie is portrayed as a slightly pretentious and “quirky” girl but it doesn’t help her case when she comes out with statements like, “The reason I make art is to make people think about… erm… things.”) but this aside the artists come across as sincere and committed, each grappling with how to make art at a young age and at a time when traditional notions of skill, craft and historical awareness aren’t necessarily taught at art college. In fact, this seems to be what the show is really about. “It’s all in the effort of working out what is Modern art?”, Matthew Collins declares. This is an ambitious project. To me the project seems more about one particular faction of Modern art: this programme about Charles Saatchi, what he wants, what he likes and how to please him. It is Saatchi who has the final say on the winner and it’s his personal tastes that are the suggested guide for the students critical practice.



Saatchi is an Ad man. The “king maker of artists” as Collins puts it. This is the man who established the careers of artists like Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, Tracey Emin, Sarah Lucas and Jenny Saville. He’s into big bold statements. Today, I see graduates from the London colleges working with more subtle philosophies for art, we seem to have moved beyond the brash ideologies of the late 80s and early 90s. Bigger is not always better. Tact and understatement are favoured over shock and initial impact. Take this year’s Turner prize for example with refreshingly understated work by Luci Skaer, Richard Wright and Roger Hjorn (some might say too understated). On the programme, Suki makes quiet video installations. Her work is calm, thoughtful and sensitive to it’s subject matter but her work, so far at least, appears to be virtually ignored by the art tycoon.

For me, the most intriguing element of the programme is the rather conspicuous absence of Saatchi himself. For a programme that is all about the king-maker of contemporary art, Saatchi is rather disappointingly… well… not there. Notoriously camera-shy, Saatchi arrives in a helicopter at the end of the show in a flurry of glamour but chooses to view the work in private, relaying his preferences through an assistant (Rebecca Wilson) rather than meeting the students face to face. It is this sense of aloofness that, I feel, best encapsulates the zeitgeist of Saatchi’s world and the cult-like status he has reached. I can’t help but feel that the students would be better off rebelling against the programme, sticking a finger up to Saatchi and making their own art for the cameras. That might do more for their careers, more to answer the question, “what is Modern art?” and more for the TV ratings. Not all art collectors think like Saatchi and there is, I feel, more to Modern art than what we see here.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Oh Master and Commander (Reflections on ‘Turner and the Masters’ at Tate Britain)


The current exhibition at Tate Britain, Turner and the Masters, might have been aptly re-titled Turner Verses the Masters. Such was the scale and intention of his ambition. Turner not only set out to learn from the grand masters of European Art who had preceded him but also to better them. A grand vision indeed if not a little intimidating to those of us who seek to follow after his painterly example.

In the first room we are greeted by an impressive duo of nautical paintings, the first by grand master Willem van d Velde the Younger, Ships in a Stormy Sea (below top), and it’s companion by Turner painted in response and similar scene depicting fishing boats struggling against the swell of the waters to haul in their large catch of fish. Turner’s version (below bottom) is a bigger, bolder version of van de Velde’s original. He mirrors van de Velde’s composition but the seas are more choppy and the clouds loom heavier creating a far more dramatic effect than the original. Turner’s painting was commissioned to stand shoulder to shoulder with van de Velde’s first and I can’t but help sense there’s more than a little of “whatever you can do, I can do better” in Turner’s approach.



There’s more than youthful arrogance here. The depth and endurance of Turner’s practice show a genuine respect for the painterly tradition he was building on and there are moments of delight when Turner exposes his love of the masters through his careful study of their craft. His moonlit landscapes are more than homage to Rubens, for example, and likewise his extraordinary sublime landscapes that pay tribute to Poussin and Rosa whilst successfully building on what they achieved. This is, after, part of the artist’s task: to learn from those who have gone before us, learn from their mistakes, build on their successes and bless (or enlarge) the good in their vision towards new and truthful ways of seeing the world.



The exhibition guide opens with, “It is impossible to be an artist without engaging with the past.” As a contemporary painter and Christian I couldn’t agree more. It may be a little unfair to generalise but it has not been my experience of art schools in this country to educate emerging artists of today in the visual language of the past. To my shame I went through the first two years of art college thinking Titian was pronounced with a hard “t” in the middle, making him sound more like a 70s porn star than grand master. To the shame of my college, I was never corrected. Today we might read Turner’s vision as arrogance (and perhaps it was) but to my generation who are taught to assimilate rather than study the past, who are encouraged to express themselves rather than become aware of the heritage to which they partake in simply by putting paint to canvas and who don’t even know how to pronounce the name of the masters let alone know what made them so great I think Turner’s vision is a much needed example.



So who wins? If this is Turner verses the masters I would say that Turner more than holds his own. His sublime landscapes, moonlit scenes, architectural interiors and stormy seascapes, in my view, hold fast against de Velde, Richard Wilson, Salvador Rosa, Claude Lorrain and the others (no one paints frothy storms like Turner). It’s his figurative painting that, to me, is less convincing in the fight. In my opinion his Holy Family is no match for Titian’s Virgin and Child and his portrayal of Jessica from the Merchant of Venice seems flat and lifeless compared to the glowing brilliance of Rembrandt’s Girl at a Window (Turner's critics compared his colour palette unfavourably - if not unfairly - to a pot of mustard). Not to criticise Turner but rather compare his work with the masters... at times, the paintings Tate have selected seem more ape than able but as an artist myself who wants to build on the traditions of the past as well as navigate the murky waters painting today I would happily settle for a little ape if only to nurture a little able of my own.

(after writing these words I read Gavin McGraths review of the same exhibition which is well worth a read – linked to the right)

Monday, 7 December 2009

Follow a painting in progress.



The Romantic painter, David Caspar Friedrich is perhaps best known for his epic landscapes but he also painted people. To Friedrich, the landscape was a metaphor for many aspects of the human condition. The horizon, for example, representing the line beyond our peripheral vision through death and beyond. This relationship between the human condition and the landscape come together well in "The stages of Life" where four figures of varying ages are represented by four ships heading out to sea at various stages in their voyage.

As something of a homage to Friedrich I'm picking up his theme in a new painting set in the rubble washed up on the northbank of the Thames. If you'd like to watch a painting in progress stay tuned.



Friday, 4 December 2009

Down on the South Bank






I found out today my studio is a stones throw away from where Samuel Pepys looked out across the Thames to see the Great Fire of London and made his famous journal entry (the studio itself is above what used to be the old Clink Street prison). This photo is as close to the spot as I can find. Painting has always been a good connection point with history. Events are remembered. Forgotten stories retold. Even the act of painting itself can be a form of archeology as layers of paint are applied and peeled back to reveal hidden layers.

I've been sketching around the spot Pepys made his journal entry. Here rubble and debrie wash up on the south bank. The detritus of the city mixes in with the old foundations and wooden struts that used to support the old buildings along the bank. Very few people very few people venture down here although it's just below the Tate Modern and Globe theatre. A very inspiring place to work.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

A New Project


A few months ago I used this blog to document my artist residency at Dundonald Church. A few friends said they enjoyed the blog and have asked me to do something similar again. Those who have followed it in the past know my blogging is sporadic at best so no promises on how long the project will run for but if you’re reading this blog and interested in the project please do leave a comment.

My new studio is above Borough Market, a stone’s throw from the south bank of London’s river Thames. I’m working on a new body of paintings exploring the history of the Thames and those who have painted it. The biblical notion of “river city” inspired great works of art in the past from the Pre-Raphaelite painters, Hudson River School and German Romantics. Turner painted the Thames at the height of the Industrial Revolution, depicting the mighty steamers and inventions of men battling against the wild forces of the natural elements. David Caspar Friedrich painted rivers as a metaphor for the journey of life and Whistler, one of my favourite painters, described the light on the water late at night as a transient experience that pointed to God.

So there’s quite a legacy. No pressure then.