I’ve recently been making woodcuts. This is the latest
I like doing these woodcuts, the slight resistance of the wood (which increases as your tools slowly blunt) and there’s a nice balance between chance and being in control of the final image. In all printmaking, however simple there is a magic quality in peeling back the paper to reveal the image.
Earlier this week I was in York and visited the city’s art gallery. I have to admit there wasn’t that much I saw that I found particularly memorable, I quite liked some of the ceramics on show but it was two very different 16th century paintings in the gallery’s collection of early religious paintings that have really stuck in my mind.
One painting was from the studio of an Italian painter. It was round and in the style of those Raphael paintings of the Madonna and child, which can seem a bit overly sweet nowadays but the skill of which is undeniable. The York painting was abysmal. The drawing was bad, the painting clumsy, the proportions of the figures were wonky, one of Jesus’ legs didn’t seem to be connected to his torso. There wasn’t much information about it, perhaps it was the work of a student, maybe it was recognised as incompetent when it was freshly painted. Now however its on a museum wall, representing Italian 16th century painting and more obliquely, the 16 century Italian art market, which judging by this result was fairly cynical and mainly concerned with making money rather than producing work of quality. Markets, plus ca change.
On the wall opposite the Italian painting is an English screen painting of the same period. Its much less sophisticated in its execution, more like a coloured drawing than an oil painting. Its been damaged, most likely apparently during the reformation. It’s rather dark and crude. However it seemed to me a much more honest work. I could have spent time looking at it and did try snatching a photo on my phone but it turned out all blurry. What interests me though and why I’m still thinking about these two very different paintings is my reaction to them and why the English painting is so much more powerful.
At the moment I’ve no idea really, except somehow the crude English work achieves a marrying of purpose and execution which the Italian painting lacked, it so clearly being a piece of hack work, intended to earn income and no more. I’m not religious but even I can see (or think I can see) that whoever painted the English scene did so in a sense of devotion or something similar and that this has made a crucial difference, now some 400 odd years later.
There was one other painting that caught my attention, an LS Lowry painting of bandstand and crowd. It was a fairly typical Lowry composition but he too had achieved a fusion of subject and execution so that the greys and ochres created a true alternative to the actual scene he must have sketched one day. The critic Peter Fuller used to write about paintings that transcended their material reality to create an alternative to the reality in which the painter existed and to dominant visual environment made up largely of advertising; proper painting?
have we not got Mark Wallinger’s Diana at the Baltic, instead of those bloody stones???
Mark Wallinger’s Diana at the National Gallery. Photograph: Graeme Robertson
A week ago I went to the Baltic, where Mark Wallinger is showing SITE his largest UK show in a decade. SITE comprises of three commissions and a new film ‘construction site’. These works see Wallinger dwelling questions of randomness and systems. One work has 65,536 pebbles arranged on card chess boards, the boards arranged side by side the pebbles sitting in the middle of each square. Another is a brick wall running the length of one side of the gallery. Each brick has been numbered sequentially before being selected at random by the brick layer.
I suppose there is a certain simplicity and wit in Wallinger’s approach however the most memorable thing about the trip wasn’t the art but the action of the gallery assistants to two minor incidents. First, to a couple of the pebbles being knocked out of place and then to me taking a few photos from the balcony overlooking the gallery.
In response to the pebbles the assistant came over, hand in white glove and gently repositioned the few displaced stones. Now bear in mind that these were ordinary pebbles which showed no evidence of being worked in any way. The most remarkable thing about them was their relative uniformity of size and their presence in an art gallery. What material change had taken place that now required them to be treated in a way similar to rare or unique art or artefacts? I’m sure if a handful were replaced each night only the most attentive would notice and even they might struggle to recognise any changes to over 65,000 of them.
The second interesting thing to happen was when I took a couple of photos with my phone and an assistant came across to tell me, very politely photography wasn’t allowed. But why? I can understand a ban on flash photography of old paintings. I can understand a gallery’s desire to want sell you postcards rather than permit you to make your own record of your visit, (though I didn’t see any cards in the Baltic shop). But again these are common materials being used, stone and brick, that you can see virtually anywhere. Like all good conceptualists it’s Wallinger’s ideas which are important. Any of the works at the Baltic could be shown elsewhere with different stones and bricks. What has happened to make these so special?
I suspect it’s the invisible hand of the art market. Clearly Wallinger has a reputation and this appears to work a strange alchemy on any materials he comes into contact with. It’s rather like napkins doodled on by Picasso that are carefully stored away by cafe waiters as heirlooms. Except, at least there is a drawing on the linen. Carefully preserving a napkin Picasso had merely touched would be perverse, wouldn’t it?
I can’t help finding all this a bit depressing. It’s not Wallinger’s fault, probably not the Baltic’s either. More likely it’s a consequence of the art world that operate within, one which is determined to apply value (and all that goes with that) to anything it deems worthy. Any here are my snatched photos, only one of which is actually of Wallinger’s art work.
The popular romantic myth of the artist is of someone who is eccentric (at best) or mad (at worst), most likely poor, who disregards the habits and conventions of society and is prone to periods of intense inspiration during which they produce their masterpieces.
That’s not an accurate description for current art world stars of course who certainly aren’t poor but the notion of the artist as outsider or prankster drawing inspiration for their work out of the ether still persists in the popular imagination.
Inspiration may exist but what is more important is simple, regular work; routine. Of the artists whose work you will see in the major galleries some may have led shambolic or even dangerous lives which have may have effected the amount and quality of their work.
Offhand though the only artist I can think of who could be accused of something approaching dilettantism in his work is Leonardo, described by one art historian I read as incapable of completing anything. There are plenty of artists the strength of whose ideas you could question but they certainly churn out the work; that may be responding to the demands of the market of course. For the rest of us it needs to be a simple task of regularly, unglamorously just getting on with it and that includes more regularly blogging.