Thursday, 28 May 2009


I went to see this show yesterday: Visionaries at Wallspace

It's well worth seeing: they have a Stanley Spencer lithograph from a tonal study of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane; a large oil by Philip Howson, "Legion", which has remarkably robust and active participants and escaping demons; an icon-influenced piece called "Downland Discourse" from Noel White, a huge watercolour/gouache(?) called "Dark Madonna" painted by Norman Adams on losing his mother...

It was inspiring to see so many active (or recent) artists working in the general area of spiritual or religious subject matter - "responses to", rather than straight depiction, in many cases. I am just beginning to find out how many people DO work on these subjects or have some kind of spiritual influence - partly by finding the Airbrushed from Art History series which Jonathan Evens of "Between" is writing, well worth a look:

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Life drawing gathering

Yesterday's life drawing did go ahead, after various permutations of models (or not), venue (or not) and time changes. I had one of the best drawing experiences of my life, and took along a friend who hadn't done life drawing in years and raved about how good it was.

We met in an empty house (with permission!) so there was about as much space as possible in Victorian terraced house rooms.

The afternoon was bright but overcast. We had been working in the front bedroom of the house, but suddenly the light went dim in there, so we adjourned to the back of the house, which faced west. There was still some amazing light there and we ended up doing some very contemplative poses for the last session.

Monday, 25 May 2009

Art time

I'm currently hoping for a life drawing session tomorrow - emails have been flying around all day, with varying venues and models and just general chaos - at the moment I'd estimate about a 70% chance that something will happen somewhere.

I've primed a couple of canvases this week: one 40*40 square and one 120*60. The larger of the two is going to be based on a hazy landscape seen from the top of Masada when I went on pilgrimage two years ago. Today I started painting on the small one. This is going to show an image I saw in a guided meditation at the Art and Spirituality Network last year. It's about chalices and green shoots in a stone church, with a lot of pottery shards whirling around. I'm hoping for an eerie light and a strange sense of the surreal and the real, with the little pieces of pot almost suspended in the air. So far I just have some raw umber under-drawing...

One of my friends has just returned from a prolonged period of travel and asked if I was preparing for a show. (!) I think I'll think a bit smaller than that for the time being, being relatively out of practice and having a lot of other stuff to do.

I'm working on some excruciatingly personal writing for a role I'm looking into, hence the retreat into very matter-of-fact details of what I am painting - stand by for a list of the colours on my palette this week....

.. not quite.

Monday, 18 May 2009

Creating Symbols

Last autumn, I created a set of clay pieces at a weekend workshop. They are hand-sized, intended to be held like hand crosses, rosaries, or other items for use when praying or meditating.

I needed to move them off my main desk to make room for a graphics tablet, so ended up taking a few pictures.

There is a range of Christian symbols in there, obvious ones like crosses and an alpha and omega, some Trinity symbols I made up (I like trefoil-based Trinity symbols, and an adaptation of Escher's impossible triangle) , a Chi-Rho, and a few others. A couple of them have step joints for stacking so the pieces can be played with on a desk. Another pair have plugs carved out of them and re-inserted, a reference to Joseph Beuys' End of the Twentieth Century piece ( version at Tate ) .

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Let's paint tractors?

Yesterday I went to the Rodchenko and Popova exhibition at the Tate Modern. I thought it would be a constructive use of my time. I felt Popova's architectonic constructions worked best when they were simple, and similarly my favourite paintings by Rodchenko were the very stripped down graphics on black grounds, also his "Black on Black," which was a beautifully balanced pair of segments in glazed black on matte black. As the Constructivist movement and the Russian Revolution continued, the works seemed to become over-complicated and over-derivative, and visibly less confident.

Finally they set up a show called "5*5=25" - the first part showcasing what were to be their very last paintings, and the second part their new advertising graphics, which are now iconic (odd word, but anyway...) red and black and strident and active summing up of the era. Those are now so familiar that they are hard to see as if for the first time. There's this poignancy to all those shattered hopes and new beginnings that ended up on a frozen dead end. Already in the early twenties the new Soviet powers are messing around with private enterprise, having suffered a terrible famine.

Within a few years, the constructivists stop painting, turning to mass-produced items to make their images available as widely as possible. Rodchenko says in 1927, "When I look at the number of paintings I have painted, I sometimes wonder what I shall do with them. It would be a shame to burn them, there are over ten years of work in them. But they are as useless as a church (my emphasis). They serve no purpose whatsoever."

Other painters came along, or rather were promoted by the Stalinists. So we ended up with more paintings again, but this time socialist realism, with tender little scenes like Uncle Joe and the flowers.

This sort of thing, and its Nazi German cousins, is undoubtedly one reason why we don't have a category of Narrative History Painting with appropriate capitalisation today. One of my visitors last week mentioned this: he feels there would be a place for paintings of great events, such as a Martin Luther King speech.

I couldn't find anything along those lines. I did turn up a few portraits of MLK, such as this sensitive one from "The Painting Activist," an online gallery I'll be visiting again. No grand-scale oils of him in action, unsurprisingly, just portraits.

Narrative paintings might give a viewer a more emotional and subjective way in than the flatness and apparent objectivity of a still photo or news footage. Or maybe we cannot respond to such things in the same way today, even if we take into account that a painting is not "what really happened" and neither, on another level, is a photo.

Even with the Art and Renewal Center, their "living masters" seem mostly to be painting single individuals in fancy dress. I have some sympathy with the idea of making sure traditional painting techniques do not die, and making compendia of artists and teachers working with them available on the web, but I don't want to throw out the more thought-provoking "modern art". (And I find the ARC's adulation of Bouguereau excessive.)

Komar and Melamid did parody the grandiose Stalinist style, this one from the 1980s taking Lenin's famous question, "What is to be done?"

Since I don't share the same view of Rodchenko's simile "as useless as a church" I am going to have to consider what kind of painting I might want to do in future. I have made a small amount of painting affected by religious experiences, thoughts, and visits to locations, most recently a series responding to a trip to the Holy Land, but I don't paint religious narrative scenes or traditional icons (I know officially icons are "written" not painted, I'm not going there). I am not sure what it would mean to do so, how one would rescue it from descending into total kitsch, ironically or otherwise. I tend to focus on small details when I am being realist and representational, which is most of the time.

Chris Woods' Stations of the Cross (the soldiers are shown here, borrowed from a post on 3 Minute Theologian's blog ) work for me. I find the modern dress of the bystanders and protagonists and the oddly bright lighting and serene staging "make me think" - and view the story afresh somehow.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Writing inventory

Yesterday I received a preliminary notification of my grade from the OU writing course, subject to possible moderation later. I passed! That and the end of the Great Greek Slog prompted me to check out all the various bytes lurking in different directories on my desktop and laptop. It turns out I have one complete novel first draft, one two-thirds completed, and another with 8000 words written. These are supposed to form a trilogy and the least complete one is chronologically first. I also have three other items of several thousand words each, none of which have a complete outline, nor have they declared to me whether they are going to be short stories or novels - like a lot of my writing, they started life as single ideas or even images and I have expanded them a bit but not given them much structure as yet.

My short story for the OU has the potential to be a novel when it grows up, too, according to the tutor. There are also a ton of little ideas from my courses, and a few from conversations with my writer guest last week. I am not sure which I shall work on next - but I think it might be an idea to pick ONE and structure it a bit, towards the goal of actually finishing something for once.

Having said that, I was writing another piece for the first novel of the trilogy in a cafe today. I haven't touched that story in months, but this place was somewhere my main character would go so I started describing it and took it from there. I went to church today without my Greek New Testament (I am taking a few days off from that) and had an afternoon of cafe-writing and gallery-hopping instead of going to the library with a ton of textbooks, which had been my usual Wednesday afternoon practice for a couple of months.

Art outside

I took my guests to several parks and art galleries while they were here.
We found irises at the Horniman Museum's botanical gardens, which I drew with conte.

There were also some poppies in bud, and I had never noticed their texture before: spiky but also soft. I drew these in pencil, so I'm uploading a photo for clarity. I can see someone making a huge walk-through installation of something like this (not me, I don't have the time).

Another day we went to Dulwich Common and saw the rhododendrons, among other things.

At Dulwich Picture Gallery, as well as a good exhibition of Sickert's Nocturnes in Venice, there was a coffee mug in the shop with the caption, "When I grow up I want to be an artist," which reminded me of the joke punchline, "Well, you can't do both!"

Monday, 11 May 2009

Past Tense

I've just come home from my Greek exam, thinking I did the best I possibly could. 

A more balanced life to follow... (last week I had people staying, and the last few weeks I was gradually going round and round the set texts for the exam, a little faster and more surely each time, and probably going round the bend too). 

Saturday, 2 May 2009

How do you say, "AARGH" in Greek?

The final exam for my Greek course is in ten days. Learning it has been a blast, but I haven't taken an exam for 12 years (last time I did a Spanish A-level, also as an adult - there's a long personal story behind that). I get nervous when taking exams. Really nervous. 

So I have been revising like mad the last few weeks.

Once in a while I catch myself looking forward to getting this over with so that I can go back to learning more Greek rather than revising the set text for the exam. Clearly, I have got it bad. 

Friday, 1 May 2009

Backed up with paperwork (the writing course finishes)

Late last night I submitted my second and final assignment for the OU course. This was a 1500-word story and an accompanying explanation - we were supposed to explain why we chose the narration method we did, ditto the tenses used, the place where we began, etc. For the story we had a list of words to pick from as inspiration, ranging from the more abstract to concrete stuff like "hair" or "prison". I used "abandonment" and "music" for my jumping-off points, writing a story about a young woman who was abandoned as a baby and then adopted into a family which was surprised by her musical talent. 

I found writing the explanatory text somewhat clunky. I knew exactly how I wanted to write my piece, so although I dutifully tried out a few alternatives in the way of tense and narration, this exercise pointed up how inferior they were. 

I was reminded of an art talk I attended a couple of months ago. The speaker was talking of her own very intuitive way of working, and one of the many fine arts undergraduates in the audience bemoaned the fact that her college insisted on tons of supporting documentation for any piece. It was not enough to plan and execute a painting/sculpture/installation, nor just to log what you did and keep early sketches, you also had to have a cogent game plan for how you had planned your work and what you hoped to achieve, and had to write this up formally. 

OK, to some extent, this is going to stop someone sitting in front of a tableau of roses/ elephant dung and just doing the same-old same-old term after term, but on the other hand, too much bureaucracy and paperwork seems to be deadening pretty much every area of life. The visual arts are likely to be full of people who communicate better with imagery than words, all of whom are required to submit long written reports. I think Edward Hopper had something to say about this, "If you could say it in words, there would be no reason to paint." 

If we are hearing complaints from so many areas of life about paperwork - as well as the ever-present statements of teachers, I have heard priests complain about management jargon working its way into the church, and I have experienced wildly excessive performance review procedures at a lot of large companies - probably something is up. Some areas cannot be measured purely on obviously quantifiable criteria, and when we try to use something measurable as a shorthand people will soon start to game the system. (NHS waiting times, anyone?) Then we react by changing the measure, probably by adding new stuff and increasing the admin burden, rather than replacement. Finally we wonder why our artists, scientists, technologists and engineers don't seem as "creative" as they used to be, and our public sector projects have massive overspends and overruns in spite of all the measurements taken. 

"Creative" vs "innovative" is a whole other can of worms - people attempting to excuse bad behaviour by explaining the person is "creative", for one thing. I am wondering, though, if there is really a type of person who simply cannot fit into corporate bureaucracies, and if such people aren't vital (in both senses). I read an interesting book last summer on Managing Creative People set in the ad industry, but with some useful things to say for other areas.