Tag Archives: painting

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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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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two figures, reclining

the long painting in the middle was begun about two weeks ago, finished it off today, poster paints on paper, pasted and stapled together, dimensions approx 80inches by 23inches…

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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.

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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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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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