Painting the soul

Go back a relatively short time and souls, angels and demons appeared regularly in art; Stanley Spencer, William Blake, Titian, Hieronymus Bosch, Fra Angelico: the list could go on and on. Angels appeared on mighty wings; demons had tails and teeth; souls were sometimes in paradise; sometimes tormented. But their appearance in paintings was so frequent as to be unremarkable. These days, despite surveys showing that 70% of people in Britain believe in the soul, spiritual paintings are something of a rarity.

I myself fall into the sceptical 30%.  The scientific evidence suggests that there is no little person dwelling inside our heads. Read of neuro-psychologist Michael Gazzaniga’s split brain experiments conducted on subjects where the connections between the left and right cortexes of the brain had been severed, and the single self becomes unconvincing. The scientists appeared to be able to communicate with each half of the brain separately. The experiments done by Benjamin Libet suggest that free will could be limited to the power of veto. He showed that subjects believed they had initiated actions such as switching a switch after their brains had demonstrated an electrical surge known as the readiness potential a full half-second earlier. It was the unconscious brain which had started the action, not the conscious self.   In the introduction to her excellent book Consciousness, an introduction, Susan Blackmore warns readers, as she had warned her students, that those of a religious persuasion could find their beliefs challenged.

Even those of us who side with the scientists have to admit, it still feels as if the soul is in there somewhere.  It is a distinctly reluctant siding.  So it was with a sense of delight that I came across De Anima, paintings and sculptures by the Belgian artist Johan Van Mullem at Unit London in Wardour Street. Van Mullem does not question the existence of the human soul but simply paints it. I enjoyed his certainty and I enjoyed the way that the spirits did not appear medieval but thoroughly 21st century.

p1000856-2

If there is an afterlife, how would you recognise your loved ones? It could be a problem. Van Mullem’s spirits are largely disembodied; the sculptures reveal that where bodies exist, they tend to peter out at the feet. You might catch a familiar expression or it could be too fleeting.

p1000861

For the most part the spirits peer out at you through a puff of multi-coloured smoke or an indistinct landscape. They look as though they could melt back into the vapours. Some are apparently caught in a force-field of digital dots. I spied one that looked like Mrs Thatcher, perhaps it was the hooded eye. Indeed, eyes are a feature of many of the paintings but in some cases the journey to the spirit world allows the survival of the mouth, an ear and hair.

p1000864-2

A few unfortunate spirits turn out to be nearly all mouth, while some, the bland or the woolly perhaps, find that their features have been obliterated and their surviving essence boils down to something which looks uncomfortably like a ball of yarn.

johan-van-mullem

None of the paintings has a title to help viewers discern influences;  they have reference numbers instead.  Titles are not needed as Van Mullen does not use a model or apparently have a set destination in mind. Instead, painting with inks on canvas, he works intuitively allowing his subconscious to capture what he perceives as the essential human. Just as I do not like all people, I did not like all his works but I am intrigued by them. If I am wrong and the soul survives, and Van Mullem has captured something of it, we can look forward to eccentricity, to variety, to colour, to chaos, to beauty and, because what is left is derived from the human, to cruelty as well. But at least it will be interesting.

De Anima is showing at Unit London 147 – 149 Wardour Street, Soho, London W1F 8WD until 6 January.

Ken Price at Hauser & Wirth

I’m always interested in the importance that sculptors attach to drawing; they seem such different skills: the hand eye coordination and precision needed to convey a three dimensional object on a flat surface compared with the physicality of moulding, building or carving. Google the subject and you find some sculptors claim only to draw in order to demonstrate ideas to potential purchasers and gain commissions whilst for others it is a vital and intrinsic part of the process. For Ken Price, the Los Angles ceramicist whose work is being shown by Hauser & Wirth in a major retrospective, it was essential. Price, who died in 2012, is quoted as saying that he was at his happiest when drawing but it was also the way he clarified his thinking. “I think sculptors learn to draw so that they can see what they have been visualising,” he said, “because if you can’t draw it, you can’t see it”

So strong is the tactility of his works that without this quotation I might have expected him to be more absorbed with how the works would feel in his hands.  But at Hauser & Wirth there is the proof that it was drawing which drove his creativity. The curators have divided his works between the two Savile Row galleries; in the first are the small pieces from his early career,  cups,  bowls and jugs, playful and colourful as well as paintings and drawings. Price was clearly an outstanding draftsman as shown in what are described as snail cups, though another adjective would have been equally applicable. But other drawings were the equivalent of notes, apparently quickly sketched, almost diagrammatical, with instructions to himself about colour or texture.

Ken Price (1935 - 2012) Von Bayros Snail Cups 1968 Graphite on Paper 40.6 x 32.4 cm / 16 x 12 3/4 inches PRICE72303
Ken Price (1935 – 2012) Von Bayros Snail Cups 1968
Graphite on Paper

Ken Price (1935 - 2012) (Blue Object Purple) 1987 Watercolour, c

In the second gallery you find the sculptures, larger pieces displayed on a series of plinths. They create a feeling of ambivalence in the viewer; in part one longs to run one’s fingers over them but they also evoke inhibition. Many have a strongly sexual quality so that it is not just the general gallery prohibition against touching artworks that keeps viewer’s hands at a distance, rather the feeling that the sculptures themselves are sentient and would regard it as unwanted intimacy.

img_0359

img_0368

If the shapes suggest the human, or perhaps an alien body, the colours are far from natural. These subtle and extraordinary effects were achieved by layers of colour that Price alternatively applied and removed, so that it appears not so much a  created surface but part of the work’s fundamental structure. And often, as in this piece above, and suggested in one of the drawings, there appears a small strange black geometric shape – which tempts the observer to put out a cautious finger to discover if it is an indentation and to ponder its meaning.

Ken Price , A Survey of Sculptures and Drawings, 1959 -2006, is showing at Hauser & Wirth until 4 February at 23 Savile Row,London W1S 2ET

 

A chat with the Jens

Jennifer Binnie and Jenifer Corker are two artists who are coming soon to the Blackshed Gallery in Robertsbridge. I visited them at Jenifer Corker’s idyllic beachside home in Normans Bay, where in a cosy sitting room with their two whippets lounging companionably on the sofa, they told me about their work and passions.

jens
Photograph by Phoebe Corker-Marin

 Did you know each other before this exhibition?

Corker: We were involved in similar groups in London in the 1980s, so we vaguely knew of each other. Jenn’s sister Christine was a life model when I studied at Ravensbourne Art College.

Binnie: We were both part of a very vibrant Art and Fashion scene in 1980’s London and had some of the same friends in that world, people like David Holah and Stevie Stewart from ‘Bodymap’, the dancer Michael Clark, Nick Knight from SHOWstudio, Andrew Logan, Cerith Wyn Evans, John Mabury  and Grayson Perry, but we hadn’t actually met – we met when my dog ran off with you…much later, when I had moved to Jevington, East Sussex.

Corker: That’s right; I went for a walk on the South Downs and this spooky looking dog with wild wolf-like eyes attached himself to us and wouldn’t go away. But I found a number on his collar and I phoned up and asked have you lost a dog?

Binnie: We started to be friends after that; this was in the late 80’s/ early 90’s so we have known each other for nearly 30 years but we didn’t see a lot of each other until about five years ago when we met up again after a long break.

Corker: I had been living mainly in London and Sweden but when I started spending more time in Norman’s Bay we got to know each other better. I introduced Jen to Kenton because I admired her work and thought he might be interested in it too. Jen had a show of her paintings at The Blackshed in 2013 and then, last year, he asked us to do an exhibition together.

Do you think you have influenced each other?

Corker: We talk about the things that interest us both – about nature, about dogs, about spirituality and about women’s energy. We’ve both read Women Who Run With The Wolves. We walk; we talk and then we go away and dive into our own little worlds. The threads come together but not in a conscious way.

Binnie: I like to work on my own; I get in the zone; I find it hard to have the radio on let alone another person. But we have a lot of connections, for instance there is the Swedish connection; Jen lived there; I have been to Sweden twice in the last two years and found it a very inspiring place, both times I have come back and made art about it.

Corker: I love the snow and ice-skating on frozen lakes in winter and swimming in them in the summer. Then there is our interest in animals – we both have the same kind of dog.

Binnie: Except yours is a proper whippet while mine is a mongrel lurcher; the dogs are the same but different, like us. They are great friends too.

Corker: When I say, ‘Roxy is coming,’ Ransome goes all tail-waggy

Binnie: When we started working on this show we focussed a lot more on talking about work and I think it made us realise how different we were, rather than how similar; our execution is very different.

Tell me a bit more about that.

Binnie: We both engage very strongly in the actual process of making things, we enjoy making.

Corker: I was introduced to stitching by my aunt while I was at school and I started to use it as a medium. I call my approach ‘Corsutura’ (Corker-sewing) I have taken the beginning of my surname ‘Cor’ and added ‘sutura’, which is the Latin for sewing. It also is a Sanskrit word for string or thread,and I use it as a tool, just in the same way that Jen uses paint as a tool.

Binnie: I’m interested in painting on different surfaces, canvas, wood and found objects. I’m interested in the transformative power of colour and paint. Some of my work is on canvas hung from or framed by branches, I have always enjoyed finding alternative ways of framing and presenting my work. It sometimes seems a shame to box things in.

jen-2
Binnie: Lady and Unicorn

Corker: Jen works on these solid, thick, lumps of wood, while, I’m going finer and finer working on silk and silk organza. Someone described my work as ‘controlled energy’. Even though I work with very fine materials, silk has an incredible strength.

Binnie: I’m more into layers; I like lots of layers. I also like pattern and colour.

I almost hate to ask the question but to what extent do you consider being women has influenced your art and do you regard yourselves as feminist artists?

Corker:  All Artist’s works are expressions of how the world impacts on them, so, of course, being female and mother, that will inform our work in some capacity. At college I was asked to do a self-portrait and I started with a question to myself ‘Can One Ever Be A Good Mother And A Great Artist?’ and here I have put it in the form of a word-search.

jen-3
Corker: Wordsearch

Binnie: I had some success with my painting in the 1980’s when I lived in London, soon after leaving Art College but I always longed to live in the country and moved to Jevington to have a different kind of life with a child, a husband and lots of animals. It was very idyllic at the time and I always carried on with my painting and art making but I discovered that it was hard to sustain the success with galleries and art dealers once I was out of London. Now I am focussed once more on my work and spend a lot more time in London and things are starting to happen again.

Corker: I have hope with the generations coming up, I see more respect in people towards the feminine and masculine sides to personalities and an opening up of celebration of the differences.

 Jennifer Binnie and Jenifer Corker are showing at the Blackshed Gallery from December 10 until the end of January. Russet Farm Redlands Lane, Robertsbridge East Sussex,  TN32 5NG

Art in pens at the Tate

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.

wp_20160913_13_24_41_pro
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.

wp_20160913_13_27_43_pro
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.

wp_20160913_13_47_55_pro

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.

wp_20160913_13_40_54_pro
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.

wp_20160913_13_16_41_pro-2

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.

Susan Fynes at blackShed

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.

P1000626
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.

P1000617
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,

P1000615
Susan Fynes: Untitled Study V

and this larger piece which is clearly a free composition.

P1000623
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

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.

 

IMG_3754

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

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.

Buck-iPainting
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 .

 

hanging

skateboarder
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.

Eric-Hanson
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
Orange
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