Inspiration from the abstract at the Royal Academy

11 Oct

It is strange to think that when I first started my art course in the autumn of 2011, people were seriously having debates about whether painting had a future. Of course, in truth, artists had never stopped painting but students seemed to be doing it in rather an apologetic way.  I met people who worried that painting pictures of recognisable things was not really contemporary.  Equally, abstract art was not seen as the answer either;  why that had had its heyday with the Abstract Expressionists and was well and truly over. There was nothing more to say, it was implied. Conceptual art ruled.

I was not convinced.  In the summer of 2012 I wrote a post about my disappointment that in one Art and Design Degree Show, there was not a single painting to be seen; it was at the same time as cave paintings were being attributed to  Neanderthals and I argued that if painting had been around for approximately 41,000 years it was unlikely to stop any time soon. Just as in the financial markets, at the very point that people are saying that the price of shares or  oil, or cotton or houses will never go up again or, conversely, never fall, the change is already happening. It turns out that, four years later, painters of all kinds are doing well and are decidedly less apologetic. More paintings are appearing in degree shows. My friend Jesse Waugh appears to be making headway with his declared movement Pulchrism . A contemporary gallerist told me  recently that there was strong demand for paintings with a representational element. So paintings of things or people are now ok.

What about abstract art? Is that thriving too in the art college?. Of course it too has never entirely gone away but has been simmering on the back burner.  Thanks to the Abstract Expressionist Exhibition at the Royal Academy, new and young artists could be inspired afresh; I predict that in a reaction to the recent popularity of representational and semi-representational works there will soon be an explosion of new abstract paintings appearing in galleries. Indeed,  Cass Art and the Royal Academy have launched a competition for those who  make contemporary abstract works inspired by the Abstract Expressionist movement for an exhibition that will take place this November in Islington.


Jackson Pollock: Blue Poles

Having visited the exhibition twice I find it hard to believe that artists could not be inspired. It is always interesting to see paintings that one has previously known from reproductions and in this exhibition there were so many -including the drip paintings  by Jackson Pollock, extraordinary colour studies by Rothco and the enormous and dramatic works of Clifford Still . What I found particularly fascinating was the way that the RA arranged the exhibition so that you could see the sources and roots of the movement arising from cubism and surrealism, the innovation and energy that was current in the 40s and 50s when the movement loose enough for artists explore very different avenues but at the same time united by some common principles that came to have a political dimension of their own. It was also evident that the later works were less impressive, so that they became almost pastiche on themselves. Enough time has passed now that artists today can feed on that excitement without feeling constrained by the sense that the movement is over.


Clifford Still: PH -950

For entrants in the RA/Cass art competition creating the perfect response will of course be difficult, particularly as the competition limits the size of 2D works to 1 metre on the longest side. Size was certainly a dominant characteristic but then so was colour, so was vigour and in some works so was violence. Abstract Expressionism was a response to the horrors of the period, two devastating world wars, the atomic bomb and the cold war. In this new millennium we have dark days of our own. It will be interesting to see how a new generation of artists use the abstract to express their own emotions about the state of the world.

Abstract Expressionism is running at the Royal Academy until January 2 2017.

The deadline for submissions to the Royal Academy and Cass Art competition is October 16.

Art in pens at the Tate

15 Sep

Initial fear of crowds combined with the summer holidays meant that I have only just made it to the new Tate extension. I wanted to see the Georgia O’Kieffe exhibition before it closed. It was excellent, though for me  it failed in its stated objective to dispel the cliches about her work, by which I presumed they meant the entirely understandable tendency to consider her paintings as tending towards the erotic. On coming out, I crossed the upper bridge, relieved the that the balustrade was high enough to counteract the vertigo inducing view of the Turbine Hall, took in an interesting room devoted to  Louise Bourgeois and worked my way down the wide staircase.

On the whole I was impressed with the space, though the decision to leave the wood on the stairs unsealed seemed odd; three months in and there are already thousands of stains. As I progressed down, I was pleased to see so many women artists has been included but became increasingly annoyed with whoever decided that visitors could not be trusted and that art-works should be put behind what looked like little electric fences. Fortunately, someone, in Health and Safety perhaps, has ensured you do not actually get a shock if you touch one.

Often these barriers went against the clear intentions of the artist. Take Helio Oiticica whose works Tropicalia and Penetrables were, according to the information on the wall, supposed to mimic the colourful dwellings of Rio de Janerios favelas, complete with sand and Macaws to give the sense of the tropical nature of the city. They were called penetrables because people were encouraged to enter them. Well not at the Tate. Stuck behind a little fence, the sand looked ridiculous; indeed the whole thing looked like a send-up of art with the sign stating that because of visitor numbers the Macaws had been returned to their owners.


Helio Oiticia: Tropicana, but without the Macaws

It was also impossible to walk among these sculptures by Ana Lupus; you can see the little fence on the left; the lighting did them no favours either, which was a shame as they were interesting but, properly lit, could have been so much better. She had originally started a project in the 1970s to encourage local people in a rural area of Transalvania to create large wheat wreaths and arrange them in their own farmyards. But due to social and economic changes the processes stopped and the wreaths began to decay; so in 2000, she began encasing them in metal – she called them tins = which echoed the original shape and potentially allowed them to last forever.  So they were designed to be tough but, according to the curators, not tough enough to be viewed up close.


Ana Lupus: Wheat Wreaths

Go down further into the main gallery to Between Object and Architecture and the pens continued with most of the works corralled in their own little rectangles.


It even went against the Tate’s own expressed intentions. Again, the blurb on the wall explained that “since the 1960s” artist had thought in new ways about objects…..they were brought down from the pedestal  which had traditionally separated them from the viewer and placed on the floor…The viewer could now interact more directly with the object as they occupied the same space”

Mercifully the curators had allowed Roni Horn’s completely wonderful cubic glass sculpture, shown here only illuminated by sun-light to be protected only by a line on the floor and a notice that it was fragile.


Roni Horn: Pink Tons

It was very touch-worthy but nobody was touching it.  Indeed, further up, the public was in the main walking round, rather than on, Marwan Rechmaoui’s  rubber map of Beirut, Beirut Caoutchouk  even though it is designed to be walked on.


It is sad that once you become successful enough to have your works displayed at the Tate, they becomes so valuable that their impact is diminished by wires and ropes. Living artists should protest. Alternatively, now that visitor levels have fallen back from the initial peaks, the Tate curators could decide to be a little braver.

Welcome to touch

6 Sep

I have a friend (you know who you are) who occasionally accompanies me to art exhibitions who is a complete menace when it comes to touching stuff. I am always on tenterhooks, ready to hiss ‘don’t touch it’ and fearing that we will be told to leave in disgrace. Of course I understand the temptation; if a work is intriguing you want to feel the texture as well as look at it, so it was refreshing to be invited to touch Jill Rock’s small sculptures at her open studio in St Leonard’s on Sea.

Rock who has exhibited widely, in the US, South America, China and Australia as well as in the UK and many other European countries, works with found objects, pieces of bark, roots and  the odd kind of object that can get washed up on the beach, a dead bird, a child’s sandal. She manipulates them, adding colour or arranging them in different juxtapositions so that they are transformed. “I see them like puppets, ” she said; “they can be used in different ways.”

Originally a painter, her interest in the objects that people disregard dates back to 1997, when she spent time in the Australian outback and got to know some Aboriginal artists. On her return to London she found herself re-connecting with nature and on finding some birch bark decided to paint it. While the Australian experience was an influence, her works could not be confused with indigenous Australian artefacts; “after all” she told me, “I am not an Aborigine.” There are other influences there too – Buddhism for instance, maps and manuscripts as well as the very different climate of northern Europe.

Showing in the studio were a selection of small works seductively laid out on pink cloth. The blue and yellow bark paintings were originally created for an exhibition at the Royal College of Pathologists and were titled Evidence of the Death of Krishna at the age of 125 in a Hunting Incident. According to legend, Krishna was seated under a tree when a hunter saw his legs move and thinking it was deer let loose an arrow. Rock explained that the bark is painted Indian Yellow, a colour which was traditionally created from the urine of cows fed on mango leaves, and in these paintings signifies Krishna’s yellow trousers while the indigo parts reference his blue skin. All the pieces are anthropomorphised; they could be a finger, an elbow, a piece of forearm, a breast plate or an eye.



Elsewhere on the table the works had different colours  like this piece below which is fascinatingly and intricately painted and represents a map. Rock explains that the earliest maps were created on birch bark and in this one the flatter parts are the paths where you walk, while ridges and indentations represent the contours of the land.


On the wall, the map stopped being one of the mind and became real – fittingly a map of St Leonard’s where Rock has recently bought a small seaside retreat. Attached to the map were bramble roots, partially painted white giving the impression of chaotic human activity.


I told Rock how much I liked being able to handle the pieces. “I let people touch, whenever I can,” she told me, “whenever I visit exhibitions; I want to touch and have to keep my hands firmly behind my back. But my practice is based on touching; I find pieces on the ground; I pick them up and clean them and then I paint them and all the time I am touching them. Touch communicates so much.” My friend would have approved.

Jill Rock’s studio is also open next weekend. 10th and 11th September from 11am to 6pm as part of Coastal Currents  and is at 56 Warrior Square, but the entrance is through the green garden door from Church Road. Her website is

Susan Fynes at blackShed

21 Aug

Susan Fynes, whose work is currently showing at the blackShed Gallery in Robertsbridge describes herself as predominantly a system based artist but, looking at her work last night, I wondered whether that emphasis might slowly be changing. Fynes  was in the year below me on the Brighton MA Fine Art course and  impressed everybody by her painstaking geometric compositions. You would be forgiven for wondering whether they might be computer generated, but there is no technology  involved. Amazingly, they are all done by hand  in pencil and acrylic paint. The larger ones, which can measure  50 inches square, can take months to complete.

If like me, your working habits tend towards messiness, you cannot help but be awed by the precision, the care and concentration needed.  Imagine having just a few tiny triangles to complete, when you knock over your cup of coffee, or you shift the paper to fill in another area before noticing that your thumb has picked up a liberal coating of yellow paint. Fynes clearly has the self discipline to avoid such disasters and to keep track of which colour comes next.  Stand in front of some of the painting and you can sense that there is a system in place but try to work out the code and you are likely to be puzzled.

free from suffering edit

Susan Fynes: May You Be Free From Suffering

Take the work above,  one of a series of three in the exhibition; you sense that the  pattern is not random; distinct bands appear out of the complexity but your eyes are likely to go squint before you work out whether there is a repeat pattern let alone what it might be. In fact, the answer lies in the title: May You Be Free From Suffering. Fynes told me this phrase is repeated in the work and that each letter has its own code, but, even knowing this, I cannot trace out the mantra in the painting or in either of its companions, May You Be Well, or May You Be Happy. But I liked the idea of the good wishes being woven into her works.

Much of Fynes’ work has this spiritual element; she considers herself a Buddhist. Increasingly, she appears to be allowing herself a freer rein in the way this spirituality is portrayed..In Faith, shown below, there was no formula,though oddly it looked as though there might have been one. In fact, the process was intuitive and started with filling in triangles of one colour and grew from there.


Susan Fynes : Faith

Emerging too are more fluid pieces where squares and triangles give way to curves and the resultant bands appear to move and vibrate.


Susan Fynes: Untitled XV

In the exhibition there were some pieces which did not appear to rely on process at all, like this perfect little drawing which was sold even before the private view,


Susan Fynes: Untitled Study V

and this larger piece which is clearly a free composition.


Susan Fynes pictured with Path of Least Resistance

It will be interesting to see whether, in future, works with no underlying grid slowly get larger and larger.With the increase in size; the technical challenges must surely grow. In the early days, she told me, she used to cover up part of the work to concentrate on the area on which she was working.  These days, with the looser interpretation, it is vital for her to be able to see the whole composition all the time, even if it increases the work’s vulnerability to the notorious gravity-defying properties of paint.

Susan Fynes is showing at the Blackshed Gallery,Russet Farm, Redlands Lane, Robertsbridge
East Sussex, TN32 5N Robertsbridge,  until 3 September.




Sea Pictures professionalism

18 Aug

When I was first interviewed for a place to study art at Sussex Coast College, I remember saying that one of the reasons I wanted to become a student was that I felt my works looked amateurish. Reasonably, I was asked what that meant and replied that I didn’t know; if I knew the reason I would be able to change it. The answer obviously satisfied as I got in. But it is a problem that I have wrestled with every since and perhaps am now a little closer to finding the answers though not necessarily to putting them right. I thought about this whilst looking at Czech artist Richard Höglund’s extraordinarily effective Primary Colours at the Mayfair Ronchini Gallery.



Richard Höglund: Primary Colours

The work which is part of his Sea Pictures project is about portraiture; Höglund has explained that he wanted to indicate a man through “mark and measure.” It comprises a series of panels each showing a number of loosely executed loops and swirls drawn in silver point on a pastel background inspired by Turner’s seascapes

What I have found interesting about this work was that in the four years I spent studying art,  two fellow students, one at the Hastings campus, one in Brighton  attempted something similar. They came from different perspectives; one was influenced by the measurements and data from her own body and the precise measurements which she recorded became, over time, looser and more fluid; in the other case, the starting point was originally Chinese calligraphy but her drawings were made on the out breaths whilst she was in a kind of meditative state. Both artists produced marks which had a lot in common with those made by Höglund. If two students from one university have tried something like this, it is likely that there are people across the world also experimenting with this kind of mark making.

Hoglund 2

Primary Colours: detail

Indeed look at the marks in isolation and they are no so very different from the scribblings of a small child.  This is not a matter of saying that anybody could do it, because they quite clearly could not, but trying to understand why, with similar initial ideas, the paintings produced by my two friends, though interesting, were not impressive and those of Höglund are.

Size is obviously part of it. Höglund’s paintings are enormous. They are apparently some of the largest silverpoint works ever made. The photograph shows just one side of the room; on the opposite wall there are a further four panels whilst there is a single linking panel at the end.  But size alone is not the answer.

Materials are also  important; Höglund’s painting are on linen and incorporate lead, tin marble dust and bone pulver. The use of the metallics means that the works will change and develop as the materials react with one another after they have left the studio. Whilst the potential for change is interesting, it does not explain why they look so right just now.

With this work, the reason that they are so powerful is not the looseness of the drawing, nor the subtlety of the colour, nor indeed the concept but is actually all of those things crucially combined with the precision of the horizontal bands. It is the grey bands top and bottom and the centre grey mark which are all so carefully and perfectly executed which gives the work a structure and a discipline which was lacking in the student works. Professionalism is a matter of getting everything right at the same time: and that is never going to be easy.

Primary Colours is showing at the Romchini Gallery, 22 Dering Street, London W1S 1AN until 10 September.


Two year’s of looking: New Art Projects Gallery

15 Aug

It is amazing how a little information can transform entirely your views of an artwork or, as happened to me recently, an exhibition. I had wandered into Two Years of Looking at the New Art Projects Gallery knowing very little about it. At first it seemed one of the oddest exhibitions I had visited. The gallery is a blessed with a large space and around the walls were sculptures and different sized paintings but there was no apparent theme and no predominant style that I could identify.

I wrote last time about my visit to Black Shed Gallery where the artists through their paintings were supposed to be having a conversation. The works in  New Art Projects Gallery were possibly chatting among themselves but not about anything in particular, what they had had for breakfast, perhaps, or, as they were all from the States,  the pros and cons of the dollar strengthening against the pound.

None of the works had labels but with the aid of the catalogue you could find out who had done what and there were works from some 50 different artists.

One of the first paintings which caught my eye was this one,  with no information about it  but the not particularly informative title,  iPainting (3434267) I am not sure what it is supposed to be about, but I  really like the organic shapes; it reminded me of swirling smoke somehow captured and solidified in time. The name against the work was  Robert Buck and the price $19,000 which turned out to be the most expensive there.


Robert Buck: iPainting

Nearby was another small painting in a similar tone of grey. I thought at first it might have been by the same artist but, no the other was by Betty Tompkins, Pussy Painting, so perhaps not so similar after all. Looking her up afterwards, I really liked her grand scale erotic works. But while I could see there was at least a colour connection,  with her work and that of Buck, I couldn’t see what either had to do with  what appeared to be a stuffed cat in the corner, Mr Early by Jack Early or the weird hanging thing,Weeping Willow (For Orlando)  by CarlosRolon/Dzine .




James E Crowther: Love Thyself

I was amused by the strange painting cum sculpture of a fat man skateboarding by James E Crowther  but, again, what was the connection?

The price variation was far more than you would normally expect within the same exhibition. Whilst there were plenty of five-figure price tags,  a small ceramic figure by Dasha Bazanova was just $275; and if you fancied an orange jock strap that was a snip at $500 whilst a pastel drawing of  Popeye by Scooter la Forge came in at $975

jock strap

Mark Jan Krayenhoff van de Leur: Jockstrap

I was puzzled and went back upstairs to ask. The connection was in fact one man – US performance artist Erik Hanson  whose self-portrait, below, was included in the show. Hanson, like many artists, believes it essential to keep looking at the latest artworks and Fred Mann owner of the gallery had asked him to curate an exhibition including all the works which had touched or influenced him over the past two years.


Erik Hanson: Self Portrait

It was such a simple but brilliant idea. A kind of Desert Island Disks for artists without the need to be limited by eight choices or to imagine life on a Desert Island. I really liked the democratic way that established artists and those at earlier stage of their careers had been treated with equal respect.

Study the works for longer and one could no doubt learn a bit more about Hanson; I mainly learnt that he liked the unusual  and the colours grey and orange.

floor crumples

Bill Abertini: Three Floor Scrumples


Justen Laada:Bevmax

His hope, according to the press blurb, was that viewers would see the New York art scene through his eyes, would  enjoy the works which had affected his thinking and might in turn be influenced by them. Once I understood the connection, I hugely enjoyed the variety; there were pieces there which I thought were tremendous fun and works which I would have loved to have owned. It introduced me to new artists.  But in a way, the lasting effect for me was the way that, just as a Desert Island Disks gets you whittling down your favourite tunes to a paltry eight, the exhibition had me drawing up in my my mind what I would have included from my own wanderings. It also made me want to see what other artists would choose given an equally free hand. Perhaps New Look Art Gallery will make this artist’s choice an annual event.

Two Years of Looking is showing at New Art Projects 6D Sheep Lane,  London E8, 4QS until August 28


A conversation at the Black Shed

19 Jul

I had been aware for some time that there was a contemporary art gallery near Robertsbridge; friends have recommended it; I follow it on Twitter; fellow MA student Jenny Edbroke, whose work I wrote about in July 2015, exhibited there last summer; Susan Fynes who graduated this summer, see last week’s post, is to exhibit there soon. I had even thought I had noticed a discreet sign to it on the A21. But Robertsbridge is about half an hour’s drive away, not a particularly onerous journey admittedly, but still not next door. So, it was not until a couple of days ago that I finally decided to investigate. I ignored the Robertsbridge turning, found that I had been right about the sign and drove up narrow country lanes and finally arrived at what looked at first sight like a group of farmyard buildings. All most improbable.

What is perhaps even more improbable, as many people dream of starting a gallery, is that owner and director Kenton Lowe has clearly made it a huge success. His eye for interesting and collectable artists mean that buyers are prepared to make the journey to find London quality work in the heart of the country. Look up Black Shed on a map and the red place marker is in the middle of sea of green, but the number of red dots on the corners of paintings, suggest that those who come keep their credit cards at the ready.

The current exhibition was certainly worth the drive. Artists Bent Holstein and Alan Rankle are described as having a conversation about landscape painting. I am not usually convinced by this idea of a conversation between artists. Too often it is used loosely to justify grouping together people who have only the most tenuous links. In this case I really felt it worked; the approaches were very different yet there was a genuine connection; the colour palettes of the two artists complemented each other. While Danish artist Holstein had a more abstract style, Rankle’s work also included an abstract element. Indeed, you could imagine the paintings discussing the place of abstraction.

Before going I was not acquainted with either artist. At first it was Holstein’s work which attracted my attention. I liked the subtle tones and the gentle impressionistic style that takes you into his mysterious landscapes so that you imagine more than you can actually see.


Bent Holstein: As if standing on Fishes Blue 2016

But as I looked round the exhibition, it was the works of Rankle that grew on me. When commentators talk about works being semi abstract they normally mean that you can kind of make out what it is that the artist is painting. Indeed I would have described Holstein’s works as being just that.

Many of Rankle’s paintings are semi abstract in a completely different way. In part they are very precise;  in his working of trees, he reminded me of Constable. Originally educated at Goldsmiths, it turns out that he had gone on to study classical techniques, particularly the Dutch Old Masters. So here you can have a tree as well-painted as as the most ardent fans of realism could desire; you can make out the leaves; if you are good at that kind of thing, you could identify the species. But in the piece below you also have the bold splash of yellow providing mood and emotion. The two elements could almost have come from different paintings but Rankle’s skill is demonstrated by the fact that they worked as one.


Alan Rankle: Enigma Patricia Kalitzca + the Object

Contemporary art should challenge our ideas and see help us to see things afresh. If my first reaction to these unexpected explosions of paint was “I’m not sure about that”,  it quickly gave way to admiration and wanting to see more.

The Black Shed Gallery   is open on from Tuesday to Friday 10.00 am-4.00 pm and on Saturdays 10 am to 4.30 pm.

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