Tag Archives: art

Jonathon Yeo at the Laing

In the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art hangs a portrait of the Duke and Duchess of Hamilton, painted by the Austrian expressionist painter Oskar Kokoschka. The painting was made in 1969, well after the portraits of members of the Viennese intelligentsia painted in the early 20th Century, for which Kokoshka is best known.

John Berger wrote that Kokoshka was painter concerned with energy; first nervous then historical energy. The painting of the Hamilton’s is full of energy. The figures have a solidity about them, but are constantly shifting. They might break down at any moment, only to reform a moment later. It gives the painting tremendous life (energy!) but I have to admit to standing in front of it and wondering what the Hamilton’s made of it. It certainly doesn’t flatter or make space for vanity.

Jonathon Yeo on the other hand does, i think, exactly that. He has a major show on at the Laing Gallery, Newcastle, that was due to close at the beginning of February but has been continued because of public demand. Why are people so keen to see Yeo’s paintings?

I think it is because they reflect the bland, celebrity culture of our times. On one level this is very obvious. Many of Yoe’s portraits are of celebrities; some from the art world, mostly from theatre and film, others from politics and the media. What all of the paintings have in common is an uncritical gloss. They are the painted equivalent of Photoshop. None of the paintings on show delve any deeper than the surface. And its an approved surface, informed by publicity photographs and magazine photo shoots.

Kokoschka’s Hamilton portrait might have been painted well past his prime, those paintings that reveal the psychological maelstrom early 20th Century Vienna. But they are considerably more revealing than Yeo’s paintings of present day celebs. The tragedy is that Yeo is clearly a talented artist, capable of capturing a likeness and confident with his use of oil paint. Sadly he has been captured by a pointless aesthetic that panders to the expectations of those already lauded by a thin, meretricious culture.

Although some of the paintings on display are accompanied by quotes from the sitters, claiming that Yeo has magical properties of insight and depth, the paintings are ultimately, (and sadly), disappointing. This is not a call for ugliness over beauty, nor the cruelty of the sort Lucien Freud was often erroneously accused of. Its a call for an honesty of vision and technique. Clearly it is difficult to be a painter these days. Painting can seem to be at odds with a culture of photographic and digital excess. However, painting continues to offer a way to re-make the world around us on our own terms. It resists the bland autonomy of the digital world, whether expressed through the media or our Iphones. Painting belongs to us in a way that photography never can. It is the act of individuals directly expressing ourselves without the mediation of digital or photographic technology. It offers a resistance to a cold, neo-liberal culture. The sort of culture Jonathon Yeo gives us.


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into the (uncanny) valley

Amongst the many traditions commonly observed during the Christmas and New Year break is watching films on TV that you’ve seen countless times before. In keeping with that tradition one of the films I watched again this Christmas was Spielberg’s Adventures of Tintin and it reminded me how much I’ve come to dislike animated films made using CGI.

Like everyone else, I enjoyed Toy Story when it came out, marveling at what computer animation was capable of. But the style and aesthetic of CGI animations now have, for me, a chilliness about them. They lack any obvious sense of human feeling about them. Their lines are too clean, the colours too bright, even when they are dark. And overwhelmed by the possibilities offered by the software, the animators overwhelm us, with detail. Every thread, every hair, every blade of grass or leaf is on show, much more detail than our eyes normally take in, especially when watching live action films. Which effectively undermines the animators attempt to create an illusion of perspective and real space. Instead the glut of detail sucks space out of the frame and pushes everything upfront and onto the same visual plane.

Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson, whose company Weta Digital provided the animation for Tintin, said that they set out to show the ‘fibres of their clothing, the pores of their skin and each individual hair’. For Jackson the aim was to make the characters ‘photorealistic‘ but what such details actually does is push his characters into the ‘uncanny valley‘.

The uncanny valley is a proposition that features that look almost, but not quite, human, cause a sense of revulsion. Most of us we will have no problem with animated figures that are hand drawn or modeled, unless we dislike the style of drawing or modelling. However, when computer animators attempt to create ‘real figures’, such as Spielberg’s Tintin or more notoriously Robert Zemeckis’s Polar Express or Beowulf, the not-quite-humanness of the characters can repulsion in the viewer. It is a contested idea but there’s no doubting how uncomfortable watching some of these films are.

It occurs to me that CGI animators (and robotics engineers whose products are the other main candidates for taking us to the uncanny valley) might be at a similar stage to 14th and 15th Century European painters who were coming to terms with the potential of both perspective and oil paint to produce paintings capable of a depth and illusion unavailable to earlier artists.

In paintings by Uccello for example, a strange tension arises between the three dimensional modelling of the figures, animals and landscape they inhabit and the stiffness and formality of their apparent movements. In fact they don’t move, not in any illusionistic sense, not in the the figures of Titian or Caravaggio would move some hundred or so years later. Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Marriage is another example of a reach for a depth of realism which ends up just missing the mark.

What is separates these early renaissance paintings from 21st Century computer animation (apart from 500 odd years) is that the paintings are still compelling. Maybe the uncanny valley moment of revulsion lies in the movement of the animations or robots. Certainly the sculpture of a super realist like Duane Hanson tends to excite curiosity rather than revulsion, even though he, like Peter Jackson, was striving for hyper-realism in his sculptures.

In the end though, I think what CGI animation suffers from is a lack of touch. Talking about the late painter Michael Andrews, his friend and fellow painter Frank Auerbach commented on Andrews ‘touch’, his ability with paint that distinguished his painting, a quality that as much as his subject matter made the work personal to Andrews. Touch is a rare thing. Looking through a book of about Jackson Pollock it seems to me that his work undergoes a qualitative shift around 1943 as it becomes more abstract in form, developing a new lightness and rhythm that leads up to his ‘breakthrough’ drip paintings a few years later.

Touch is something unique to each artist and I think many never achieve it, they labour away conforming to standards set by others rather than finding their own expression and having confidence in that. CGI animators and directors like Jackson seem to be trapped by possibilities of the medium and a desire to show off all it can do, without asking themselves is it really necessary. In the end Spielberg and Jackson’s film might be technically impressive, it may avoid trundling into the uncanny valley, but for me Herge’s drawings are much more entertaining, expressive and a joy to look at.


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some landscapes (plus one studio painting)

I spent last week on holiday in Ullapool, in north west of Scotland, where I found time to paint a number of landscapes, all acrylic on paper and all approximately 22×26 inches, apart from one which is approx 22×74. It seems the natural thing to today, when surrounded by the drama of the Scottish highlands and the ever changing weather, to try and capture it, however ineffectively, in paint.

During the week I was reading Painter as Critic, a selection of criticism by Patrick Heron. Written mostly during the 1950’s and 60’s, Heron was obsessed with the creation of a space within the picture plane that doesn’t rely on Renaissance drawing or perspective but instead uses colour, texture and new forms.

Heron seemed to reject the notion of purely abstract painting and Clement Greenberg’s obsession with the flatness of the picture plane, arguing instead that the painter or sculptor always draws their ideas, however tentatively, from the natural world.

In the Ullapool paintings I’ve used (as I’ve being doing in some recent still life’s) a fairly heavy black outline as a way to reduce and flatten the space in the picture, and isolate areas of worked colour. However as the week went on, influenced perhaps by Heron’s writing, some of that harsh delineation lifted, leaving the colours to react to each other directly.

When I got back to the studio in Newcastle, I spent a few hours working on a painting (again on paper) which I’d begun a few weeks previously. The painting was essentially figurative but using abstract forms and rhythms and vertical in shape. At the end of the morning however I looked at it sideways on and could see an (unconscious?) influence of the landscape painting in Ullapool.



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still life; three versions

Three versions of the same still life, painted earlier today using a limited palette of acrylic paints on paper. Its may be obvious from the differences between the three paintings that what was  interesting to me was, rather than trying to reproduce on paper, the objects in a realistic three dimensional space, was instead simply the paint as colour and as a material substance, the shapes of the bottle and the fruit, and the plate. In that way these three are I think consistent with other paintings I’ve been making recently, which objectively, may appear more abstract.



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unacceptable vandalism?

On Durham Road leading through Low Fell in Gateshead, in the space Gateshead College where once stood, there is now a housing estate being developed. All along the road are boards, shielding from passersby the view of the building work going on behind, and bearing photographs of the perfect family life available to anyone who buys one of the new properties.

Passing by these advertisements I have mused as to how I could go about subverting the message of bland conformity they give off, the invitation to put yourself into debt for what is likely to be a house with very small living space. . Imagine my excitement when driving by on Sunday and I noticed someone had vandalised one of the posters so that the woman in the photograph looked grotesque and almost skull like. Certainly not the cosy domestic image the developers want to convey to sell the newly built houses. Excitedly I parked the car and ran across the road to photograph this blow to capitalist propaganda.

It was only later on, looking at the photos that I wondered whether this was the work of an anti-capitalist protester or something rather more sinister. Just days after Conservative MP and offensive fool Michael Fabricant had tweeted his urge to punch journalist Yasmin Alibhia Brown in the throat, was this act of graffiti/vandalism more anti-woman than anti-system? Sadly, I think it probably is



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heiratic head of SC

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


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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