Eyeballing the competiton

It was very nice of the Atkinson Gallery to include two of my paintings, Nostalgia for the Body and Brain Dysfunction in their exhibition of work by selected MA and other Post Graduates. The Gallery is within the grounds of Millfield School in Somerset and has in the past  shown work by an impressive range of artists, including Andy Warhol, Anthony Caro, Marc Quinn and Elizabeth Frink. The aim of the Post Graduate Exhibition is, according to the press release, to showcase “the work of students who express particularly fresh, innovative ideas and  reflect the talent and wide range of work being produced in art schools today” So thank you.

McDougall: Nostalgia for the Body 2014

As I had never been to Glastonbury before, mud and blocked loos not having much appeal, I decided to go down for the Private View to see what fellow artists had done and at the same time visit the Abbey and stay at the George and Pilgrim which claims to be the most haunted hotel  in England.

Finding the Attkinson Gallery itself without psychic help proved quite a challenge and if Andy Warhol et al ever made it there, it just goes to show what a resourceful lot artists are; the signage is non-existent, and even some of the school  kids seemed unsure where it was. I would still be wandering the grounds had not a very nice lady in reception come to my aid and took me there despite having no coat and it being a cold night.  Once inside,  I desisted muttering about signage as I thought the works that had been chosen were genuinely interesting and I was pleased to be part of it.

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Two visitors look at my paintings, A work by Caroline Pick is in the foreground

Here are some of the works which appealed to me. I particularly liked the latex steps by Caroline Pick which you can see above. Caroline is a fellow MA student at Brighton and I featured her work last year in the MA Exhibition . It was also good to see this work by Paul Tuppeny, Wing and a Bag. Paul is also taking an MA in Fine Art at Brighton. With this piece there is a satisfying contrast between its appearance, which resembles a cellophane bag, and its actual solidity.

Paul Tuppeney, Wing and a Bag
Paul Tuppeney, Wing and a Bag

I seem to have a penchant for black and white paintings and I particuarly liked this one by Slade student Konstantinos Giotis. In this case it is more just black than black and white and you can just make out an enigmatic kneeling figure,which I presume is supposed to be there, unless it is like one of the photographs shown in the George and Pilgrim where a ghost was supposedly visible in what the photographer had thought was just an everyday picture of people drinking in the bar,

Konstantinos Giotis: Untitled

Among the prints I thought the textures and colours interesting in Martha Oatway’s monoprint Terrain 14,

Martha Oatway, Terrain 14
Martha Oatway: Terrain 14

and was also impressed by the draftsmanship in Kathryn Poole’s lithograph  Trachyphyllia Macrosoma, The bright light in the top middle left is a reflection and unfortunately the reflections in the photograph also stop you fully seeing the cleverness of Garry Wiggins superb drawing of a bulldog,.

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Kathryn Poole: Trachyphyllia Macrosoma
Gary Wiggins: Phoenix the Gladiator

I am a great fan of Tori Day’s tiny paintings of everyday objects. This one Finger Thing is only 12.5cm x 11cm; not only is it beautiful in itself but it makes you look round you at other overlooked objects.

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Tori Day: Finger Thing

Finally I really liked this rather spooky hand set in glass by Catherine Jones from the University of Gloucestershire,

Catherine Jones: Held

Talking  of spookiness, to my disappointment I did not see any severed hands or floating forms at the George and Pilgrim. Well, perhaps I didn’t really want to see severed hands. But while at dinner in the hotel my mobile did send a text to my daughter without any intervention from me, I can now report that ghosties use the rather over jolly way of speaking favoured by IT technicians. “cant talk now – what’s up,” it said. Now, if it had managed it in Shakespearean English, or, even better, had done it earlier and sent me a handy map of Millfield School, I would have been well impressed.

The MA and Other Post Graduate Exhibition is showing at the Atkinson Gallery until 29 March

Would Rubens recognise a Kebab?

Back in 1994, the New York police mounted a sting by circulating a leaflet saying that a film crew wanted to film graffiti artists at work and those featuring in the film would get a free trip to Los Angeles.  When the unfortunate youths had demonstrated their style and identified examples of their work, the film crew whipped out the handcuffs and nabbed them. I thought of this when, unexpectedly, I received an invitation from the Royal Academy to attend a bloggers evening to see the new Rubens and his Legacy Exhibition.  I kept expecting the photo police to jump out from behind the bar and cackle– “you lot are the worst offenders for taking unauthorised photographs,” and then herd us into some lock up in the basement.

But of course they didn’t and instead gave us a glass of wine, asked us very nicely not to take photographs of the exhibitions (and because I was  their guest I haven’t,  though a glass of wine does not necessarily buy my good behaviour on future occasions.) One of the RA’s experts also gave us a talk and told us quite a bit about Rubens which included the fact he was one of the most successful artists of his time and made over 5,000 paintings and drawings during his lifetime, making him very rich. Also that four years after his wife died, he married his niece, Helen Fourmant when she was just 16. He was 53, which was thought distasteful at the time. And remains so today.

The speaker also told us about a conversation he had had in the modern part of the exhibition which has been curated by Jenny Saville and includes Sarah LucasTwo Fried Eggs and a Kebab. A member of the public had maintained that it was not art and it surprised him that such attitudes still existed. I was surprised that he was surprised . But I did possibly have something in common with that unnamed member of the public, while I was happy to agree that the work is art, I couldn’t see what it possibly had to do with Rubens.

The exhibition does have a few fine paintings by the Master, including Garden of Love where all the women are disconcertingly modeled on Helen Fourmant. But if Rubens really did paint something in the order of 5,000, you would have thought that the folks at the RA would have managed to lay their hands on more of them. They have only managed to bring together six of his major works and, to make up for this,  the exhibition is padded out with a job lot of paintings that are supposed to have been influenced by him.  But it doesn’t really work . I can’t believe that when Constable was sketching out the Haywain he was thinking much of the fact that Rubens had also done a landscape; I think he was looking at the wide open skies around Dedham . Similarly artists had been painting Nativity scenes for centuries before  Rubens and it was hardly surprising that they continued to do so afterwards.

But it was  in the contemporary gallery that this kind of pretence that Rubens was single-handedly responsible for virtually all art became the most ridiculous. I often find that viewing contemporary works at the same outing as more classical paintings is a bit indigestible. It’s like starting a meal with wonderful roast beef and then finding the next course is a delicious spicy curry. Both are good It’s just not what you want together. Nonetheless, having started on this course of bringing in a whole lot of other painters who were supposedly influenced by Rubens, I can see why they chose Jenny Saville to do the curation of the recent stuff. In her large fleshy nudes, it is possible to see a line of direct influence. But Saville chose to include a work of her own that she made specifically for the exhibition. A near monochrome in charcoal with just touches of colour it was surprisingly different in style; it is called Voice of the Shuttle (Philomela).

The Rubens  influence appeared researched rather than emotional. Doing away with her habitual obsession with flesh, Saville has chosen to do her own version of the grisly myth, told by Ovid, in which  Philomela is raped by her brother in law Tereus, the king of Thrace who then, for good measure,  tears her tongue out.  She becomes a nightingale, whilst her sister revenges her by serving  the king his own son’s flesh at a banquet. Whilst Rubens indeed painted this subject, it is hard to imagine that Saville would have gone there if not asked to curate the exhibition. In some of the choices the links become extremely  tenuous. Lucien Freud’s works clearly shows signs of having benefited from the Rubens legacy, though the painting on show is not one of his better ones, but what about  William de Kooning? He used pink paint sometimes; Rubens used pink paint; is that it? As for the Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab, surely the fried eggs metaphor depicts flat chested women, hardly the best example of Rubens’ influence.I can’t believe that Rubens himself would have claimed responsibility.

So if you go to the exhibition you can expect annoyances. Even so, I felt it was well worth the visit if only to see two paintings. The first was the hunting scene widely used in the RA advertising. This is quite extraordinary, the tensions, the detail and the sheer virtuosity is dazzling,  But my favourite was Maria Grimaldi and her Dwart. I spent ages looking at it. Seen full-size it is immensely powerful. You cannot help but want to know  more about their lives.  There is such a contrast between her beauty, her perfect proportions, his enormous head and unreadable expression.  I still keep wondering about his opinion of the portrait and whether he liked how he was depicted.

Rubens and His Legacy is showing at the Royal Academy until 10 April 2015.

Getting your ducks in a row at Brick Lane

“You can sell anything – you can sell Damien Hirst dots; you can sell a duck; it’s just a matter of finding the right market” so said a chap called Toby or possibly Tony who described himself as the proprietor of the Brick Lane Gallery. He became suddenly shy about giving me his name when he found out I wrote a blog, explaining that he had had so much bad press on the internet.  It’s true: google Brick Lane Gallery and you will find tons of indignant artists who point out that Brick Lane charges artists for showing their work. In other words, it is a vanity gallery. I was there because somebody I knew from the University of Brighton had invited me and as I was curious about what sort of place it would turn out to be, I went along for the private view.

Unfortunately, my friend had left by the time I got there but the artists who were still around seemed pretty satisfied with the service they were getting. The Gallery is well situated, the paintings were well displayed and the organisers certainly know how to put on a party as the place was crowded with young people. if. as I suspect, not many of them were buying, that probably goes for lots of private views. There was also a bloke who described himself as an international journalist. Really?

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The first thing to say about the art is that it stood up reasonably well: it looked contemporary. Though there was nothing there that I would classify as outstanding, it was above the normal provincial village hall art show, so clearly some sort of selection procedure had been going on. As you might expect, some were decidedly better than others and there were a couple I thought veered towards the awful, but I have seen that in conventional galleries as well. Some of the artists I thought distinctly promising; I particularly liked these paintings by CREO who is only 19.

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Toby/Tony reckoned that they rejected about 40% of those who applied. The way it works is that you can either rent the whole gallery at somewhere around £2,500 a week, and he says some artists do so frequently, or apply to pay for some wall space – about £500. The gallery organises exhibitions around themes. This week it was portraits. So is it worth it? When pressed, T/T reckoned that somewhere approaching 40% managed to break even though he claimed that somebody recently had sold £7,000 worth of stuff and that another had been offered three exhibitions as a result. But he was keen to stress that it wasn’t about selling – more about experience.

Incredibly, that is what the artists who were exhibiting there also said. He had clearly done a good job on structuring expectations. What is it about artists that makes them so uninterested in money? I blame it on Van Gogh. I think there might be a false syllogism there: “Van Gogh was a great artist; he didn’t make any money; I don’t make any money, therefore….

Really, I cannot tell you the number of times that someone over the past couple years has said to me in a vaguely sanctimonious tone, “I’m not interested in selling.” There is even one chap on the MA course, (Hello Cliff) who expounds the view that artists should not charge and art should be free. This is all fine and dandy but artists have to live, and canvas, paint, clay, stone, plaster, tools, transport etc all cost money, often a lot of money.  So there are choices: either artists have a day job, or a private income, which subsides their art, or they manage to persuade the Arts Council or similar to pay them a fee and people get to see it for free, or they sell their art just like any other product.

The traditional way is to get galleries to accept your work and they take a commission, but not everybody can find one, Or you can enter competitions – that tends to cost money too – but not everybody will get anywhere with those either, or you can try to sell on line and perhaps get lost in the crowd, or hire a room of some kind and organise your own show. That can be expensive in itself. This is where galleries like Brick Lane offer a real service: they take the hard work of organising an exhibition off your hands. Where I think they can be at fault is in suggesting to people that there is kudos in being selected. That is even worse if it leads artists to get involved in significant shipping costs.

Having an exhibition at the Brick Lane Gallery or any other pay-to-be-in will fail to impress anybody who has any knowledge of the art world. But such galleries are not the same as vanity publishing which gives authors a hard copy of their oeuvre but leaves them to do the selling. The vanity gallery is more like self-publishing on Amazon which for the very, very lucky few can lead to fame and fortune. I visited the exhibition on a day when 50 Shades of Grey, the ultimate rags to riches self-publishing success story, was being advertised on buses..

Meanwhile, the people going up and down Brick Lane, possibly thinking of buying a painting, will have few thoughts of how the gallery makes its money and I would guess are just as likely to buy a painting from there as from anywhere else.  Would I buy a painting from Brick Lane? Yes, if I liked it enough, of course I would. The prices were generally very reasonable. I certainly don’t rule out the possibility that you could find something really good there. Would I try to sell there? Well, I might be tempted if I were producing some work which I knew to have public appeal, some ducks perhaps, and I thought I could make a profit. Despite T/T’s views,that would be my sole criterion.  But if I were part of a group show there,  I probably wouldn’t put it on my CV.

Whitechapel Gallery provides the answer

For a recent seminar on my MA course we were all asked to think of a question about contemporary art today and to bring in an image that was relevant to that question. Mine was “whether originality was still possible or whether everything had been done”. It was not so much that I believed that originality was a thing of the past, but I thought it worth debating whether the emphasis on novelty in art itself became a constraint.

My image was a screenshot of the chaps below; who together make up Azorro, a Polish artists’ collective. In their video, made in 2003, and which I only just discovered by chance,  the four of them decide that they must come up with a new idea. They start off suggesting a horse, rapidly move on “to a square with some kind of background”, and keep coming up with ideas that become progressively more outlandish, but each time they decide that it has already been done. It is comical and their timing is perfect but what is really brilliant about this short film is, that having had the first conversation, they discuss the subject  again in a different location. Of course, the second time it had been done already – by them. It was originally shown on twin screens at the Raster Gallery in Warsaw. It is well worth a watch.

Unexpectedly I got the definitive answer to the question Has it all been done rather sooner than I expected. It was at the Whitechapel Art Gallery exhibition Adventures of the Black Square, which didn’t sound wholly promising but which turned out to be unexpectedly inventive and enjoyable. The exhibition takes as its reference Malevich’s famous black square, though to be precise it is his rectangle that they are showing; the square is presumably having a breather after its recent spell at the Tate.

The idea behind the exhibition, according to the blurb, is to look at how art relates to society and politics. It is apparently divided into four themes: Communication, Architectonics, Utopia and The Everyday, though with the hard to follow labeling and a poorly executed booklet, which got the paintings and rooms mixed up, I was not particularly aware of the themes at the time. In any case, they  were broad enough to allow the curators to put in pretty much anything that they liked.  So, the result seemed more like a brisk canter through the last hundred years to discover  what those artists, who had rejected Azorro’s opinion that it had all been done, had made of  this one basic shape.Black Quadrilateral, undated, by Kazimir Malevich. Downstairs, Whitechapel had managed to assemble quite an impressive collection of the  geometric. There is work by Malevich himself, whose rectangles, whilst ground breaking at the time, look surprisingly small and amateurish. There were paintings  by fellow Russians, Aleksandr Rodchenko, Vladimir Taitlin and  Lyubov Popova where  her  Painterly Architectonic, 1916, holds up remarkably well. It all lies in the quality of her brush strokes. There are 100 black tiles by Carl Andre, less well known than Equivlalent VIII, his bricks, and which look, as they always have done, rather like a flooring sample. You were allowed to walk on them too, but I noticed that very few people did so. There was a rather charming black square by Eva Hesse with a sort of tit thing in the middle, trailing a length of black electrical cable like a stream of black milk. There too was a sample of Mondrian’s well known geometric form. Some commentators have felt that originality and inventiveness lay here on the ground floor. Personally, I found that, whilst it was good to see  all these works for historical reasons, they lacked the power to excite, precisely because so many of them were familiar. A Mondrian always looks like a Mondrian, though as with the Mona Lisa, strangely rather smaller than you might expect. Upstairs there were some less familiar works, many created in the last couple of years and the connection to the black square was becoming more tenuous, and the geometry less rigid. I particularly liked Liu Wei’s colourful and intricate  painting Purple Air; there were no black squares in sight but the link as far back as Mondrian was apparent, The squares were visible in this striking work by Jenny Holzer Top Secret 32 . It looked younger than its 65 years. Jenny Holzer's Top Secret 32 (1950). I was less keen on the Mondrianesque work shown above – as art work, though as a carpet and a place to sit down it was extremely welcome. And yes there is a square in the middle. Of particular note was Angela de La Cruz’s Shrunk . Yes  it is black and geometric but it has come a long way from Malevich’s small black rectangle. Constructed from paint and canvas but on stretchers that have been mangled and broken, it occupies that  interesting middle ground between a sculpture and painting; I thought it proved that there is always more that can be said, 002

Adventures of the Black Square: Abstract Art and Society 1915 – 2015, is showing at the Whitechapel Gallery until April 6