If you are in Hastings tomorrow take a look in the Blue Room outside Sussex Coast College and see the Shaman the second day of a two day drawing performance by Adan Gibrelli. Adam uses the wolf as an icon to represent primal behaviour. He has developed a technique in which he goes into a kind of trance to create automatic drawings, using charcoal, ash, dirt and animal fat. The results have an extraordinary energy and vitality. When he is not being a wolf Adam is a second year student taking FDA Fine Art Contemporary Practice.
If you do go to see him, don’t expect him to talk. Wolves are notoriously silent animals when they are drawing.
Ever since I saw Patrick Jones’ small white painting at the Royal Academy exhibition last summer I have been angling for a visit to his studio. I liked the painting a lot, though it was poorly displayed among a wall of other small paintings. But Patrick had been quite dismissive, it wasn’t one of the better ones, he had insisted, not one he wouldn’t have chosen himself. I was intrigued – I knew it was typical in one sense in that it was painted in wax; I understood they were normally far larger; I googled – using his full name of Patrick Adam Jones by which he signs his work, but there seemed to be remarkably few images. I wanted to know more.
Patrick is head of course for the FDA Fine Art Contemporary Practice at Sussex Coast College but tends to avoid showing his work to students for entirely understandable reasons – the first he did not express but can be surmised – he works far too hard anyway and wants to get on with his painting in peace. He is also afraid of influencing students’ style. “It has happened,” he said, “it is flattering in a way but I don’t want to create a whole load of mini mees – one is enough.” I could relate to that one – when I was at school I always got excellent marks for RE by imitating the syntax of my sanctimonious RE teacher. It read like a parody but she never twigged. It worked with RE but you don’t want it in art.
Last week, I finally wangled an invitation. The studio in St Leonards is almost exactly what a Hollywood Director would call for if making a film about an artist. That is to say it was perfect – a large room on the first floor it was stacked everywhere with paintings, there were paintings on the floor, in racks, leaning several deep against the wall; on every surface there were sketches and experiments and bits of things, cut outs of hands, of animals, of deconstructed trees and plenty of maps sometimes used as a base for paintings.
In the plan chests there were leaf plates from a residency in India, and wonderful notebooks with drawings and ideas that one day may be expanded. It looks as though nothing is thrown away; it is all there waiting to be transformed or rediscovered. “Careful, the floor is slippery, “he warned me. I wasn’t worried about falling over and hurting myself, but I was seriously worried about stepping backwards and putting my foot through something.
Many works were in the course of construction. It is a long process; any single painting can take five or more years to create. They are built up over time by layers of wax – he uses a special recipe: damar varnish is mixed with refined linseed oil, wax and paint or pigment and is cooked up over a little two ring stove. The wax is applied hot, straight from the melting pan. The canvas or paper has to be kept horizontal as the wax would otherwise run. Each brush stroke is made separately and carefully and in a specific direction but may then be partially scraped off again, so the canvases tend not to exceed 4ft square as that is the largest surface he can work on and be sure of reaching the centre. When the wax finally sets it is quite hard and stays put even if the picture is placed in a hot room in the sun. “The bending over is really hard on my back,” he tells me and I can believe it. In the middle of it all there are a couple of easy chairs in which to recover when it all becomes too much.
Although Patrick uses brushes, the effect is very different from what it would have been had he used traditional paint. There is always an element of white in wax, so when pigments are added the colours are necessarily muted. Wax is translucent and reflects light quite differently from paint and depending on the a angle in which the light is cast reveal s different aspects of what lies beneath. Many of the works are geometric and suggest perhaps some kind of building or just the corner of a room; there is a deceptive simplicity to them. The way the brush strokes are applied to the planes in different directions creates strange three dimensional effects
Patrick is particularly concerned with words and how they limit communication and understanding by labelling an object and in so doing allowing people to avoid thinking about its nature. One painting bears the words – measure to avoid. I think he meant that by measuring something, people feel they have its nature somehow sown up. There is superficiality to the precision of measurement.
Many of the paintings appear to allude to possibilities of an alternative existence, “ I could have been a farmer” “I could have been an architect” These were not personal unfulfilled fantasies but deliberate stereotypes; anybody could have been anything. The words nearly hidden lead the viewer to consider what might have been and the way that possibilities become closed down.
Alongside one wall there is a series of some 20 square white paintings designed to hang together. They are each done on paper; you can barely make out what they say; you move your head side to side so the light catches the letters in different ways. They are not paintings that you can take in immediately; they reward study. If hung in a room, the natural variation in light might reveal a shape or a shadow you had not noticed before. There seems to be a significance in the way that so much is concealed beneath layers and suggest a far more introspective side to him than might be expected from the cheerful, bossy extrovert exterior that Patrick uses to chivvy students to turn up on time, and generally get on and produce .
Among the pale and textured wax based paintings there were also some more highly coloured works done in conventional paint, the deconstructed trees , which I personally did not like so much, so I was relieved to see just beginning a new wax painting – there was hardly anything there – a shape, a stain of linseed oil and a few marks of wax. In another five years or so it should be fantastic.
For the last two years Patrick has been concentrating on his role at the college; he only took over as head of course in 2010; there has been no time to put on an exhibition. This will change; next year he is having a show with University of Brighton lecturer and artist Tom Hammick. The idea is to arrange the work as a dialogue and it will be interesting to see how that turns out as they have radically different styles. It will certainly be difficult for Patrick to choose which pieces to include. As he admitted, he has amassed enough work for at least three exhibitions. Patrick, why not have three exhibitions? The series of square white paintings on paper would be perfect by themselves; I think I might do some chivvying myself – they deserve to be more widely seen.
Ok – you have two days. The assignment is to think about the nature of clothing, and turn a garment or garments into a different sculptural form. This was the challenge given to 60 Foundation Diploma students at Sussex Coast College. Then, unexpectedly, Katy Oxborrow and I were given a challenge ourselves. We were asked to consider the resulting art works and choose from them to set up the first exhibition in the Room – the mobile gallery standing outside the college. This was yesterday lunchtime; by the evening the exhibition was set up. We do things fast in Hastings. It was difficult making a choice; so many of the works were excellent; we had to consider not only what we thought was good but also what would fit and what would work well together. Here are the works we chose in no particular order.
Next week there will be a new exhibition in the Room
How do you set up an art gallery in seconds – well minutes anyway? Answer – you bring in a specially adapted shipping container. This is what happened yesterday at Sussex Coast College when a large transporter arrived outside the college and off-loaded the Blue Room
Now all we have to do is find some wonderful art to put in it.
The Blue Room featuring art works from students on the FDA Fine Art Course will be outside Sussex Coast College until the end of January 2013.
Could an exhibition change the course of contemporary art? Probably not, but if there were one that could do so, it would be the widely acclaimed Bronze Exhibition currently showing at Royal Academy. It was a brilliant concept bringing together works linked by the material with which they were made rather than by geography or era or subject matter. The thing that strikes you as you go round is that many of them are just so amazingly old – 3000 BCE or thereabouts, that is 5,000 years ago, a thousand years before the point that the Bronze Age officially started in Britain. There were plenty that were 2,000 years old.
There is an obvious moral: if you want your work to last and so ensure yourself a little bit of immortality you need to work in something durable. Bronze will survive being immersed in peat bogs, or indeed being under the sea. That is not true of clever things made out of plastic or stuffed tights, or of performance art, or the photographs of performance art not even of paintings and certainly not true of vitrined sharks. At a time when contemporary art is getting something of a drubbing from art critics, could it be that we see more artists moving back into creating art works from this extraordinary material that not only has the strength to allow a statue to stand on one leg but provides what appears to be an infinite variety of finishes?
If it happens, it will not be that artists up and down the land, inspired perhaps by the RA’s informative videos on how it is done, will wake up one morning and say “you know what, I think I am going to turn out a bronze today” though I suppose a few may be inspired to so. I certainly wanted to. It is rather that collectors who have seen the exhibition might start hankering after something with durability that can be guaranteed to outlast them. It is interesting that Damien Hirst recently produced a bronze clad sculpture, albeit one that is 20 metres high which has produced some controversy in Ilfracombe where she is stationed for the next twenty years.
Just recently there has been what could turn into a back to basics approach in contemporary art. First there was Frieze which decided to run Frieze Masters then Will Gompertz complained that many curators thought that the works of the YBAs were overrated. Celebrated New York critic Dave Hickey said that he was quitting the business, because it had become obsessed with celebrities and money. Evening Standard publisher Evgeny Lebedev then claimed in an article yesterday that society was obsessed with celebrity, money, consumerism and greed so it was not surprising that art reflected it. He went on to say that tutors complained that instead of asking ‘how do I get my art better?’ students would ask ‘how can I get the right gallery to represent me?’
But thinking that artists in the past would have been unconcerned about money is clearly a fallacy. Artists have to live; materials are expensive; studio rentals astronomic and an artists who are not making income from their art will find themselves too tied to the day job to produce much. Nearly all the works in the Bronze exhibition would have been commissioned by somebody. The wonderful Cellini sculpture of Perseus holding the head of Medusa aloft was first commissioned by Cosimo I dei Medici, after he had just been named grand duke. The one in the exhibition is full scale 19thcentury cast taken from the original in the Loggia dei Lanzi and made for the garden of a country house now demolished. So this particular sculpture was the subject of double commissioning.
Other pieces would have been commissioned by priests, by warriors or simply by the rich. On a far more modest scale I was impressed by a delightful bronze strigil, a grooming tool used by athletes to scrape off oil and dirt after exercise, dated to 300BEC, its handle is of a young woman who herself is holding a strigil. Perhaps like mirrors of mirrors, the sequence went on and though too small to see it the tiny strigil in her hand also had a handle of a woman. This piece was not made by the artist simply for the fun of doing so, though he may well have gained satisfaction from the task – it would have been made because somebody wanted one and was rich enough to pay for it.
Though made originally for rich patrons I was struck by the freshness of the pieces that had been chosen. Many seemed somehow to have a modern feel despite their antiquity. Take the Chimera a wonderful mythical beast, part serpent, part goat part snake as and surreal as anything produced by Salvador Dali.
It was almost as if you could feel the excitement and trepidation of those artists two thousand years ago as they cracked open the cast to see whether the sculpture within had come out as they had hoped. I rather regretted the fact that whereas in times past the artists were likely to have been closely involved with the casting process today it will be a matter of commissioning a specialist foundry.
At first I felt hat modern artists might as well give up, that everything that could be created in bronze had been made. But among the pieces of great antiquity there were some modern pieces that stood up well to the older competition. There was a beautifully patina’d bronze by Barbara Hepworth, a distinctive spider by Louise Bourgeois but it was the huge lacquered bronze made by Anish Kapoor this year that has me most impressed by its perfection and the way that it reflected the surroundings of the Royal Academy upside down. It sounds gimmicky and I wouldn’t be totally surprised to find that Kapoor was one of the celebrity artists on the Hickey/ Gompertz hit list. He has been pilloried for his Olympics tower. In fact the work was simple, engrossing – and beautiful. It made you ponder also on the way the brain works and the process of vision itself. I wondered whether if one looked at it long enough the brain would reverse the upside down effect as it does from the image created by the lens within the eye. The work proved beyond doubt that bronze can be as contemporary as any more modern material, though that being said I had my doubts whether the lacquer would last 5,000 years.
One bronze that could not be included in the exhibition was Dr Salter’s Dream. This had been a favourite of mine and used to be a surprise to anybody walking along the Thames in Bermondsey. It was created by Diane Gorvin to commemorate Dr Alfred Salter who worked tirelessly to improve the health of the poor in Bermondsey but who lost his eleven year old daughter to diphtheria. The statue of Dr Salter was seated on a bench which you could share with him and was looking at two other statues – one of his daughter and one of her cat, dreaming of happier times. Almost exactly a year ago Dr Salter was stolen presumably for scrap. It would have fetched the thieves no more than a few hundred pounds at most.
I don’t know whether a cast remains of Dr Salter and whether the work could be recreated – if it could be I really would like to see him put back; sadly he would need to be resin; if he were cast again in bronze the same thing would happen again until the government finds some effective way of regulating the scrap metal industry. Bronzes can last 5,000 years and withstand flood and burial but they cannot survive being melted down.