Monthly Archives: May 2013

gilded cages

For the May bank holiday weekend we went up to the Scottish Borders, on the way passing through Ponteland, a well set little town, sitting on the edge of Northumberland and Newcastle. All along the road leading to the centre of Ponteland, almost all the houses displayed estate agent style boards with the legend; Ponteland residents say no to building on the green belt.

Once quickly through Ponteland and into Northumberland’s sublime, empty spaces the notion of expending so much energy on protecting a ‘green belt’ seemed absurd. From the car I took a few photographs of the boards. This is one of them.

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It may look like some photoshop motion blur filter has been applied but in fact I simply didn’t have the right settings on the camera. I like to the think however that, accidentally the picture offers an ironic comment on the Ponteland residents desire for stability and control over their environment, both physical and social.

These urges of the Ponteland residents aren’t unique. Much UK public policy from both the left and the right often appears to pander to it. So how might the artist critically engage with these circumstances; beyond taking bad photographs?

One way not to do it, I think, is Jeremy Deller’s example at the Venice Biennale. The BBC describe Deller as ‘controversial’. Deller’s wall sized depictions of a bird of prey carrying off a Range Rover or William Morris destroying Roman Ambramovich’s luxury yacht might be intended to be subversive within the context of Britain’s official contribution to the Biennale. After all, the UK is a country that has proved itself sentimental over the rights of the wealthy and privileged to kill wild animals for enjoyment as well as fetishising private property rights.

However, whilst I have every sympathy with the motivations driving Deller’s work, if he really wanted to be subversive why not steal a Range Rover to crush down (preferably one from Sandringham) or take pot shots at those out hunting and shooting or find and actually sink Abromivich’s yacht. After all, surely one of the reasons William Morris remains important was because he tried to realise his ideas about socialism and his response to Victorian capitalism practically, through his textile design and manufacture and his other activities as part of the Arts and Crafts movement. 

By contrast, Deller’s interventions are on the level of interrupting an exclusive dinner party by coming in and mixing up the cutlery or substituting one crisp, white napkin for a blood red one. If we really want to challenge or comment on how awful our society is becoming, it needs something more than Jeremy Deller is offering. Clearly sinking a yacht, stealing a car or shooting at people might be seen a going a little too far but what is on offer risks simply amusing those it is intended to criticise.

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‘rain washed concrete’

The other day I was reading a strategy document about improving the quality of life for residents of a northern city . The ambitions and aspirations within the strategy was largely what you would expect to find in these sort of documents. As ever it is what individuals and agencies do subsequently that will make it successful or not.

Despite its familiar innocuousness I couldn’t help but become irritated by parts of it. In particular the idea that our streets should be clean and safe, free of litter and graffiti and hidden dangers.

On the face of it, this is the sort of thing we can all be expected to want. However, recently I’ve been developing a certain nostalgia for the grime and chaos of cities past. The New York or London of 70’s films in particular, (and these always seem to be the city’s these films I watch are set in) appear in their chaos and horror to be more vital but also more democratic.

An article in the Guardian last year listed public spaces in London that now belong to corporations and is effectively private spaces to which people are allowed access. But if you are only allowed access, clearly that access can also be denied by the owners or their agents. And whilst on that corporate space you are potentially subject to a set of forces or rules, explicit or otherwise, that are designed to shape and limit your behaviours. 

The city’s we see depicted in films of the 70s might have been more hostile, both aesthetically and physically. But they also seemed to be an expression of a social equality that has been blasted apart in the west by the rise of neo-liberalism and the pursuit of capital at all costs.

In seeking to have a city clean and neat and tidy are the authors of that strategy document unintentionally draining the energy and spark from the very people they hope to save? Hmm, time to get some spray cans…

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Plein air

For the first time in about two years I packed up my paints and brushes, easel and a canvas and went out into the open air to paint.

During a morning of generally pleasant if changeable weather, I painted in a field not far from Morpeth, in Northumberland. Here is the result

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And here’s a photo of the easel and painting standing in the field.

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It wasn’t a particularly compelling view and I didn’t stick too closely to what was in front of me. Instead, using the paint to capture the rhythm and physicality of the sky and landscape.
What did catch my eye though was the two chimneys. An interesting contrast with what’s otherwise a fairly plain rural scene. And it reminded of certain late Cezanne’s, always an inspiration.

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