Friday, April 16, 2004

While passing the Municipal Gallery in Worcester yesterday my eye caught sight of a poster advertising an exhibition of paintings called ‘Porth’ by Kurt Jackson. Shows in the Worcester gallery are usually a disappointment they are usually touring shows of installations or the ill considered daubing that seem to be in fashion with museum curators. . I first became familiar with Jackson’s work on seeing an exhibition of his innovative watercolours in a gallery in St. Just. So this time I went in eagerly anticipating a welcome change from the usual stuff.

Well for this touring exhibition Kurt has put together large collaged paintings in mixed media. The collaged bits were mostly items retrieved from the beach at Priest’s Cove where Kurt mostly works. ‘All that was left’ had two crumpled oilskin jackets and cork floats with bits of rope evocative but somehow inappropriate.

The majority of the paintings were made up of two or three door-sized stretched canvasses fixed together – gallery art again. Very few locations could display these paintings, a college refectory if you shifted the portraits of pensioned academics perhaps. There were perhaps three of four mixed media watercolours framed but unmounted as though they were a hurried addition. These were typical Kurt showing evidence of his playful exploratory way with water based media – capturing effects of light on the sea and evoking in the viewer a sense of noise of waves breaking on shingle. I wish there had been more.

The gallery was showing a video of Kurt at work outdoors on a cliff top at Priests Cove. He gave a bravura performance working on a huge canvas spread on the turf and held down by stones. I guess he was working on an acrylic underpainting laid in earlier. The video showed him working barefoot, trowelling on paint with a knife, splattering it on with a loaded brush Jackson Pollock style and blending it with fingers and toes. Great fun and with an eye for the chance effect or happy accident but never completely controlled.

For quiet reflection I wandered into a neighbouring gallery and saw ‘Herald of the Night’ by Arnesby Brown - an oil painting of about 1870 he was also a Newlyn painter. The painting shows a full moon rising over a simple landscape with two rather badly painted cows, a painting easily dismissed because of its romantic Victorian subject matter. But then I looked at how he had painted the evening sky, there were blues mauves greens juxtaposed and harmonious. It was controlled and considered the product not of impulsive brush gestures but of carefully placed marks. Characteristics all too rarely found in contemporary painting.

Thursday, April 15, 2004

Robert Hughes is still one of the few critics that are worth reading. For an art critic he has the rare quality of expressing his opinion in plain words. His international status as a critic is long established and he has no time for dumb hyped-up nonsense posing as fine art.

He wrote in The Guardian recently a review of Lucien Freud’s exhibition of recent paintings and etchings at the Wallace Collection, Hertford House, London – it runs until 18th April. He used his review to contrast Freud’s achievement with the show at the Saatchi Gallery called ‘Fresh Blood.’ A show of ‘awful dumb-arsed posturing’ to paraphrase Hughes’ assessment promoted by Ad-men without any kind of connoisseurship. Nobody can really take the whe work of Hirst, Emin, Lucas and their chums seriously can they?

By contrast there is Freud at 82 producing strong engaging work – the product of a lifetime engaged in subjecting people and objects to obsessive scrutiny. This scrutiny leaves the viewer if not the sitter feeling uncomfortable. There is a residual element of the expressionist distortion which characterised German art of his Grandfather’s time – those reclining figures with exposed genitals distorted by exaggerated perspective.

For Hughes, Freud is England’s greatest living artist - other critics share his enthusiasm - ‘our Titan among minnows’ is Laura Cumming’s assessment of him in The Observer. It is good to find critics who are defending work done by a figurative oil painter. Freud has a sensitivity to the way the oil medium can reconstruct a perceived form and give an interpretation of reality which is far superior to the photographic image. In part this superiority is due to the fact that much effort and obsessive observation have gone into the creation of the paint surface – a result of long and exploratory reworking of the surface. Freud’s paintings show the ‘naked evidence of labour’ to quote Cummings. It is this display of effort which for me gives the work a value which demands respect. After all the uncompromising nakedness though it is refreshing to escape into the fresh air where the breeze ruffles the leaves on the trees and and sunlight creates vibrant colour. I need to gaze at a little David Cox watercolour I think.

Read the reviews at:
Sarah Cumming: 'A brush with Genius'
Robert Hughes: 'The Master at Work.'

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

It is good to meet an artist who is at home with digital technology and makes competent use of it. Last week I went to meet Mark Ansell one of our new Ludlow Art Society members. Mark is a graphic designer and we met to discuss the Society’s publicity – specifically designs for the posters for our exhibitions. Mark had been busy on his Apple Mac and showed my some of his preliminary designs for the Society’s logo and a redesigned format for the Newsletter.

Some years ago I designed the Society logo using a graphic created with Corel Draw. Greyscale versions of it are used on our membership cards and on the masthead of the Newsletter. Colour versions also are used on the Society’s web site. The design carries the words ‘Ludlow Art Society’ superimposed on the church of St. Laurence the town’s most visible landmark. This in turn has the skyline of the Titterstone Clee as a background.

Mark essentially adopted the same device but gave it more impact by placing the lettering below the graphic and simplifying it into a stark black and white design employing counterchange. It was at once more contemporary and striking. I congratulated him and we chatted about this and other changes over a cup of coffee. What was refreshing about our talk was the way in which he was quite ready to engage in critical discussion without rancour. A rare quality I find in the art world where artists can be temperamental and easily upset if someone expresses a dislike of their work. But then as a professional designer he is constantly discussing designs and listening to his clients instructions. Such is the difference between the real world of the commercial art and the more esoteric one of the fine artist.

Monday, January 19, 2004

Richard Wardle RE in a recent demonstration he gave to Ludlow Art Society members expressed concern about the marketing of Giclée prints. It is a concern I share because of the way they are marketed as a form of fine art. An advertisement once caught my eye in, I think, The Observer. It was offering a ‘Fine Art Giclée’ of ‘St. Michaels. Mount’ in a limited edition signed by the artist – an elected RA. The image was printed of course on archival paper with lightfast inks by state of the art digital technology - a quality bargain at around £200!

Well the gullible may be impressed with that and there is nothing new in the marketing of mass editions of signed artists prints. Russell Flint and L S Lowry are two artists who come to mind whose work was marketed in this way. Lowry though was honest enough to admit that he was being paid a fee essentially for signing his autograph. There is a nice story told in his biography that a dealer brought a quantity of prints for him to sign. The dealer became concerned when he noticed that Lowry was signing the prints ‘L.S.Low.’ When asked to explain Lowry replied, “You have only paid me half my fee so you are only getting half a signature.” He was also quietly amused by the fact that gullible art shoppers were prepared to pay a prestigious gallery £45 for a signed numbered print from an edition of 850 when the same print could be bought unsigned for around £5 from less pretentious outlets. Do artists, who can now produce their own passable prints rather than use a commercial printer, really wish to compromise their integrity with this kind of marketing?.

Richard and other RE members make prints which are individual in the sense that each carries the stamp of the artist’s hand–tooled mark. Their work has far greater integrity than the digital print where the technology creates a barrier between the original hand crafted artefact and the mechanically produced print. I once took issue with the writer of an article in ‘The Artist’ magazine which explained at length the skill and care that she took in producing her giclée prints - using the finest materials and making test prints to get the right contrast and colour. All of this of course is sheer pretension, the real skill resides with the programmer who wrote the robust code that kept her system stable while she tinkered and played with the image on her screen. The final digital print owes more to the programmer’s skill than hers.

There is of course a place for digital imaging in helping artists to promote their work. The technology is quite appropriate for cards and notelets that are not being passed off as fine art. But as painters or printmaker we have chosen to work using hand-craft methods which have a long tradition. We should work in sympathy with the tradition and practice of our chosen craft if our work is to have integrity. In any hand crafted printing process image quality degrades after a number of prints are made. This is why the printmaker produces a signed limited edition – at the end of the print run he destroys his plate. There is no such constraint with ink jet prints so it is a pretence to sign and number them.

By using graphics software like Adobe Photoshop to merely make copies of their paintings artists are missing the creative potential of digital technology. There are artists with the necessary skill and training who use graphics software to create original digital images. Their work has greater integrity and honesty of purpose than scanned images of paintings. The simple reason is that their work does not attempt to simulate a hand made artefact. Indeed original digital images are created by a process in which the hand made mark has no place. The appropriate place for digital graphics is in the developing media like video, the internet, or advertising. Digital images are quite out of place in a gallery or exhibition whose primary function is to display hand-made artefacts. I personally would like to see an addition to the Rules of Entry for the Society’s exhibitions that would exclude Giclée prints from being accepted. I hope most members will be persuaded by the logic of my reasoning

Saturday, January 17, 2004

Yesterday a poster placed in the window of Hereford Art Gallery caught my eye. It announced an event called ‘Making a Splash’ which turned out to be an exhibition by St. Ives artists. The doors of the gallery were closed and enquiry at reception revealed that the exhibition did not open until today. I was saved from disappointment by a nearby gallery assistant who having overheard my enquiry asked if I had traveled far. “Oh about 30 miles,” I said, “from Ludlow.” At this she invited me to have a look round while they continued to hang the pictures and I was privileged to spend 20 minutes or so with three very friendly assistant curators who pointed out the paintings by artists I was interested in. It was a kind gesture that I really appreciated and I promised too return again to see the exhibition when it is up and running.

The exhibition has a painting by Stanhope Forbes of a group of figures enjoying a summer day in the shade of a tree lined pool. There was something familiar about the location and the way he handled the ripples on the water. Then I remembered his large canvas ‘The Drinking Place’ which is in Oldham Art Gallery. Did he work at the same spot for both pictures? It’s worth another visit to check. Critics have been rather sniffy about Forbes but in my view he handled paint very well. There was also a nice watercolour by Dame Laura Knight that I must return to study and a rather disappointing small work by Peter Lanyon painted in 1945 I didn’t get the title but it shows him working in the manner of Ben Nicholson and Naum Gabo. These flat abstracts created from linear designs have lost their novelty and interest now. Ten years later the linear basis is still there in his work but the colour is more subtle and textural treatment of the paint surface makes his work more appealing. Another visit to the exhibition is a must.

Friday, January 16, 2004

Tim Marlow is currently presenting an interesting series about great artists on Channel 5, the series is enjoying a rerun and last night his subject was Delacroix. I was delighted when he opened the little Phaidon edition of the Journal and read from it. The same edition that graces my bookshelf and which I also turn to from time to time. It takes real determination to write a journal and there are periods when Delacroix never wrote a word. So his journal has several gaps whether this was due to pressure of work or because he had little to say is uncertain. Well in this respect I’m in good company - this is the first entry in my blog since September 2003. 2004 begins with a resolve to pick up the thread again.

Viewing the Delacroix programme again I was struck by the strange preoccupations of 19th Century Romantic painting. The massacres, noble suicides, violent revolution, and voyeuristic glimpses into harems. Uncomfortable subjects hardly enjoyable to contemplate. Better perhaps to simply look at how the paint is handled, It is now easy now to understand why the Impressionists admired Delacroix vigorous free handling of paint – a revolutionary change from the tight handling of the French classical tradition. Those raindrops he painted with juxtaposed touches of rainbow hues are also prophetic. The idea of exploiting the optical blending of primaries did not occur again until it was developed by Seurat and the Divisionists.