heiratic head of SC

A portrait of my friend Stephanie, a farewell gift on her leaving the charity we both work(ed) at.

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Obviously there was never any chance of doing a straightforward naturalistic portrait, but whilst painting it I was increasingly drawn to Gaudier-Brzeska’s Heiratic Head of Ezra Pound as reference and much more so by the end, than the few photos I took before beginning the painting. Gaudier-Brzeska makes no attempt at a likeness of Pound. The sculpture seems more about the force of Pound’s personality, but maybe its not even that, and what Gaudier-Brzeska was doing was creating another Ezra Pound completely, one that exists not in any mimetic sense but one equal to the Ezra Pound that happened to be made of flesh and blood and bone.

Yesterday at an artists social gathering at the studios in Newcastle where I paint, at one point during the evening someone wondered aloud what would today’s art be like if modernism hadn’t happened and the old Renaissance rules still held. An interesting question but I think modernism and the break with how painters and sculptors imagined the world on their canvases and in bronze and marble, was inevitable, a consequence of changing social and economic conditions as that were being radically affected by industrial and political revolutions that were taking hold in the 18th century.

The collapse of old hierarchies of state and religion, the developing new social-political forces (bourgeois/proletarian), the development of cities and the impact of science, engineering and philosophy on our understanding and interpretation of the natural world; the collapsing of space and time by new technologies like railways and photography all combine to make the ‘isms’ of 20th century modernism simply unavoidable. The challenge we face now is still how to come to terms with and work through the freedoms modernism has given us and to make art that is of its time and relevant but not completely up its own arse…

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Work on paper

Continuing to largely work on paper (sheets of A1 pasted and stapled together) with poster paints. And continue to be impressed by the quality of the paints. I’m tempted though to try varnishing one of the paintings to return to it the gloss and depth of the wet paint and see what results.
These are the three works from today, each taking as it’s starting point two figures lying together.

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degree shows

Yesterday I visited Newcastle University’s Fine Art Degree Show. I arrived about 30 minutes before the show closed for the day, my efforts to arrive earlier having been frustrated by both the rail and bus services. I therefore didn’t manage to get around all the works on show, probably less that half of them.

Of what I did see it was encouraging to see painting and sculpture prominently on show, although one of the most entertaining works was a video piece (Verity Casey’s fictional landscapes). However what lingers longest in the memory isn’t necessarily the art being exhibited but the well produced catalogue, (a bargain at £2), and the students firm grasp, as they seek to position themselves and their work, of the frequently baffling lexicon of the artists statement. Their work is variously subjective, unorthodox, decontextualised, absent, limitless, fragmented, distorted and more.

None of these characteristics might be apparent when standing in front of the actual work. Anyone unfamiliar with contemporary or modern art may simply be tempted to ask ‘why’ or ‘what’, as might the familiar but sceptical. The problem facing anyone making art these days, whether student or professional (as loosely defined a description as your every likely to encounter given the low income of the majority of most artists) is how to justify what they do so that it is serious and worthwhile to a society that doesn’t really know what it wants from the thousands who describe themselves as an artist. In 2011 AIR, the ‘UK’s leading professional body for visual and applied artists’ reported having in excess of 16,300 members.

There is no commonly held view about what art is for these days, whether amongst those who are making art or those viewing or buying it. Often, it seems for the political class art is about national prestige and boosting GDP (or GVA); for collectors its a commodity and an investment; for the public sector its social work; for the majority its decorative or its irrelevant. Meanwhile for artists, the continuing temptation is to scrabble about, as many of these students ably demonstrate, constructing reasons for their work out of sets of cultural, political and/or sociological theory, technical and obscure words and phrases.

The artist statements (and the articles and essays) that result might be interesting, playful or genuinely thought provoking. Keeping up with them can certainly help to make you feel part of a (exclusive, artists) club (useful if your not making any money out of your efforts) but in the long run, when it comes to improving the lot for most practicing artists, they probably don’t help.

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Lucy Jones looking out, looking in

During its last week on show I manage at last to get a long to Lucy Jones exhibition Looking Out, Looking In at the University Gallery Northumbria University, of what are mostly recent paintings . I haven’t come across Lucy Jones paintings before, though perhaps that’s not too surprising. According to a review in the Financial Times, Jones along with other British painters of her generation were just coming into the notice of the art world when they were pushed aside by the noise and hoot of the YBAs.

This turn of events however hasn’t deflected Jones from painting and like the vast majority of artists she has continued to find a way to work outside of the glare of the art market. Jones’ achievement is impressive several times over. At a time when visual artists average earnings are no more than £10,000 per year, to simply continue making making stuff deserves to be acknowledged, but as a woman Jones is likely to have had to work harder to gain recognition. Add to that, Jones was born with cerebral palsy and has suffered periods of depression. Apart from two easel pictures painted in the early nineties, the paintings on show are all large, requiring great energy and concentration in their making. The demands of painting on this scale would sap the resources of any young tyro straight out of art college, never mind an artists in her late fifties who finds difficulty standing and walking.

People in Britain with disabilities do not get a fair settlement. If they did the government would not have had to introduce the Equalities Act to make sure people with disabilities or people who have other ‘characteristics’ (such as sexual orientation, age and race) are treated with fairness and respect. Looking back, the London 2012 Paralympics was a moment of national recognition and celebration of the talent of disabled sports men and women. But it was also one of national hypocrisy taking place against a background of increasing abuse and slander of disabled people, who were being stereotyped by government ministers and their media supporters, as benefit scroungers. Jones’ self portraits give some account of the challenge of being disabled in Britain.

Back to the paintings, they are divided in to two subject areas; landscape and self-portraits. I found the landscapes more consistently successful. The gallery blurb refers to Bonnard like appreciation of tone and colour, but it was Dufy who sprung more readily to mind. Not necessarily in the brightness or intensity of colour, Jones after all is painting British landscapes and so South of France colours would strike a false note. Her hues can be intense though and are often far from local colour. Where the connection with Dufy rests is the way in which her paint sits on the surface of the picture plane. The gallery blurb also refers to Auerbach and Kossoff, both of whom were visiting tutors at Camberwell when Jones was a student there. However whilst there is some expressionist affinity between these three artists, compare Jones ‘Overhanging Trees’ with Kossoff’s series of paintings of a collapsed cherry tree in a London garden. With Kossoff the paint becomes a scaffolding which grips and holds the dense image to the board. Without those whips of paint that lash across the surface of Kossoff’s paintings, they risk becoming deadening matter. By contrast, Jones trees are barely there. They have the directness and naivety of children’s paintings where nothing existing beneath the surface. This is not a criticism. And passages of Jones paintings seem to reach back further into simple (though in fact quite sophisticated and clearly based on observation) mark making, pinning down the landscape in a series of squiggles or slash of lines. At her best, Jones is primal, pushing the paint across the canvas in rhythms and gestures that say ‘I’m here’.

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Artists’ Union England

I’ve joined Artists’ Union England. It was launched (or founded) this this month and some of its new members have been taking part in today’s May Day marches in Newcastle and London. It seems a little odd to me however for a Union for artists to be set up at all. The history of Trade Unions is of workers organising in order to gain better terms and conditions from their employer; a unionised workforce, whose members will each have a contract of employment with a certain company or organisation, coming together to undertake collective action. Sometimes actions will include coordinating with other union members, employed at other organisations but an identity they all share, along with being union members, is that they are employees.

Artists, in the practice of their art at least, tend to be self employed (the majority earning their living from doing something other than their art). Along with their degrees and MA’s etc and fretting about lack of appropriate recognition of their status compared to other professionals, artists could almost be described as bourgeois. Maybe an artist equivalent of the Federation of Small Businesses would be more appropriate, but what a nightmare that would be. 

An FSB for artists would be consigning artists to membership of the bourgeoisie. No, the principle of organising to challenge economic inequalities and to influence the value and role of artists are fine aims and by forming a trade union to bring them about, it aligns artists with other union members and makes a clear political statement. I suppose I’m a little concerned that after August when AUE starts to charge membership fees, and as it develops more generally, it finds itself beginning to compete for our meager incomes with other artist organisations, such as the Artist Information Company . It seems to me both will be trying to do similar things to benefit artists. Hopefully it won’t come to that, in the meantime here’s a little ditty to sing along to

 

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Primitive fish

Spent the day cutting lino (actually rubber floor tiles) to make this three colour print. Slightly mis-registered this first test print but hopefully get it right with the rest.

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bike parts

The challenge was, over three days (in the end three and half) to use second hand bike parts to create a sculpture (a relief is maybe a more accurate description) for Bike Stop, a social enterprise in Darlington that takes old bikes, restores and sells them on. Working within certain constraints, time, not knowing what was behind that white facia, the position of the windows above the facia, a malfunctioning welder, me and friend and art-colleague Keith set to work last week to create this…

Image  Channeling the lessons of futurism (without the accompanying dodgy ideological sympathies of course), cubism, constructivism, David Smith and the photos of Edweard Muybridge, the sculpture splits the bike into constituent parts and attempts to convey the motion of the machine through space. Whether it quite achieves that aim, I’m not sure. It could probably bear more work on it, (when is a piece ever truly finished?), the essential form is there however. The white facia though is particularly unhelpful. Responses were mixed but is that not one of the purposes of art? To make an intervention, push people out of their received view of the world?

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