Meet Jock. He’s a hot water bottle.

280118 - JockI was inspired to draw / paint this after visiting the Rachel Whiteread exhibition at Tate Britain last weekend. She had cast quite a few “Torso’s” by filling up hot water bottles with various materials, plaster, resin etc. and then, presumably, removing the outer rubber “skin”. It’s alright Jock – I wouldn’t dream of doing that to you!

I must admit, if you did lop off the head, arms and legs of somebody (please don’t try this at home, or anywhere else for that matter!), then yes – you can see the resemblance to the inflated insides of a hot water bottle.

Rachel Whiteread likes turning your mind inside-out and back-to-front with casts of stairs, windows, sheds, baths, bookshelves (I liked these!), and rather infamously a complete terraced house (sadly now demolished under rather controversial circumstances). It is the voids, the spaces inbetween that she captures so well.

The papier-mâché shed end exhibited here took me back to seeing the inside-out shed installed in the grounds of Houghton Hall in Norfolk that which we visited last year. In particular, I liked the cast detail of the bolt from the inside of the shed door, especially as a caterpillar was crawling up the side (bottom left of the right hand picture). It made it seem so real!

280118 - RW TBLastly, I have to share this with you. This is Rachel Whiteread’s “Untitled (One Hundred Spaces)” from 1995, which filled one of the main Duveen Galleries at Tate Britain. Each of the 100 pieces is a cast in various coloured resins of the underside of a found chair. Really beautiful!

Embracing Yorkshire weather

We’ve been up in North Yorkshire for the last few days, and the weather has been wonderful in it’s contrasting forms, from bright sun on a frosty morn, to heavy snow showers.

The 3 images above, although totally different from each other are also related, in that they are all images of fleeting moments in time, and none of them exist anymore. I am also not responsible for any of them, although I do make a guest appearance in one of them.

The picture of shadows on the left, elongated by the low sun and downward slope of the hill was taken by my wife, Jane, on a walk towards the river Nidd in Darley. Can shadows be art? Why not – you have shadow puppets on stage performing, and as so often in Richard Long’s work, the photograph is the only record of the artwork that is left.

The leaves in the snow have been arranged like a roulade. It is in fact a large collapsed snowball that had been made by hands unknown on the Stray in Harrogate. The snowball was rolled under trees and the leaves that were on the ground stuck to the snowball as it was trundled around making this pattern when broken open. Is that an animal looking at me?

Lastly, we have the snow sculptures sat happily on the parapet of a Harrogate railway bridge as dusk settled around us. Hail, the unknown artists!

Somebody who has a fine feel for depicting the weather is Katharine Holmes. She was a near contemporary of mine at Newcastle University, who lives and works in Yorkshire. There was an exhibition of her work at Harrogate’s Mercer Art Gallery that we went to see whilst we were there. She has an assured style; a handling of oil, and acrylics that gives her paintings a real innate and naturalistic feel whatever the weather, wherever the place. I loved her sketchbooks on display, with the ink drawings occasionally reminding me of some of the work of former Cumbrian artist Percy Kelly.

A Bomberg hits Chichester

Chichester seemed a good place to go for a mini break, before Christmas chaos sets in. I had my eye on the David Bomberg exhibition at the Pallant House Gallery there, with the added lure of Paula Rego’s sketchbooks on show at the same place as a choice dessert. The drive down in bright winter sunshine produced long shadows across the South Downs, and the watercolours of Eric Ravilious leapt to life in front of us. It was a good precursor of what was to come, I hoped.

I didn’t know much about Bomberg before this exhibition, apart from the futuristic geometric patterns and shapes of his early work, which to be honest, didn’t really inspire me. Was it worth coming all this way?

101217 - Bomberg1I was unaware of how his work transformed during his life, from the depictions of Barges and Bargees at work, (there is a really nice watercolour on display here), to when he went abroad to Jerusalem where the cityscapes really lightened up his palette. A moonlit scene really captured my attention, with Bomberg using the white of the canvas to capture the tranquil light. Moving on to Spain there are some dramatic landscapes matched only by his dramatic brushwork. His pictures of the Ronda Bridge were a good example of this. In the last room there are some poignant portraits especially his last self-portrait painted when his health was declining. I think he knew this was the end of his life, and this painting was a great way to end it. They say his talent hasn’t been fully appreciated up until now, and I hope this exhibition will help him to become much more widely accepted as the great artist he undoubtedly was.

101217 - Bomberg2

Around Chichester I looked for a some subjects that I could use to draw and tie in with this blog. It was difficult. The photograph at the top I took the next morning. It was of a heap of mud (wow!), covered in frost. It had been turned over by farm machinery giving it geometric forms which I thought could represent Bomberg’s early work. (You have to use your imagination here!) Similarly, the drawing above was of some large potato crates stacked up high in a farmyard behind some trees, this was again thinking about the geometry of his work, although it would have to be abstracted a lot more to get to anything like resembling his 1913 work “Ju-Jitsu.” Lastly, below is a sketch of Chichester’s harbour with it’s saltmarshes viewed from the marina, the nearest I could find to the canals with the Bomberg barges on.

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I should have mentioned earlier, that the dessert after the main course was also very good. Paula Rego’s sketches were intimate little windows into an artist’s thought processes, as she wrestled with ideas; the compositions and characters that would populate her more finished work. A drawing of some dancers and their movement within it has given me fresh hope of resolving the difficulties I am facing with my troubled drawing of the half marathon runners – I must get back on to it.

JJ at the RA

Last weekend we visited the vast retrospective exhibition of Jasper Johns at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.

“One hopes for something resembling truth, some sense of life, even of grace, to flicker, at least, in the work” – Jasper Johns 2006. Part of this quote has been used as a subtitle for the exhibition “Something resembling truth.”

It’s been said about his work, the American flags, targets and numbers amongst them, that as he didn’t have to design them, he could move beyond that in his paintings, as these were images that the mind already knew, it gave him room to work on other deeper levels. It certainly made you want to take a closer look at his work, to explore the surfaces and textures of the paintings, and to see what has got entrenched in them, as he worked. This in turn affects what you get out of them by looking.

261117 - JJ1“I am interested in the idea of sight, in the use of the eye, I am interested in how we see and why we see the way we do.” – Jasper Johns 1969. This is not just the mechanics of seeing that he is talking about, but also at the psychological level. I must admit, it took me 10 minutes looking at various versions of the American flags to realise that the number of stars varied in them. Doh! This is probably because I had it in my head that I already knew what the Stars and Stripes looked like, so I didn’t actually have to take in what I was looking at – not a straight copy – but a lot more besides. That thick textured encaustic medium that he uses, it seems to be so versatile in it’s uses. Wonderful – perhaps I ought to investigate it.

I’ve included above a little drawing I did a couple of years ago. It is not a copy of anything that Jasper Johns did (you’d probably already guessed that), but it is the closest I have. Perhaps you could view it as a take on one of his Target paintings if you wanted, or an eye, or the centre of a sunflower, or lots of bubbles on the surface of some water. Whatever you want really, I will leave it up to you to see what you want. Your eye will see it differently to mine. The only thing I would say is that I won’t be repeating the exercise – It was so very tedious to do, but once started I forced myself to finish.

This retrospective is a big exhibition with so many great things to take in. I loved the large cast aluminium “Numbers” from 2007, that not only has the various textures of the repetitive numbers, and their backgrounds, but also within the sheen you can see newspaper text coming through. So much to look at, oh and there is the impression of a foot at the top of the picture – the dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham has left his mark.

Then there is the series of cross-hatching paintings called “Between the Clock and the Bed” with the obvious reference to Edvard Munch’s painting of the same name, and the pictorial cross hatching used on the bedspread. This examines the passage of time from birth to death with you stuck somewhere in between the two. (As a complete aside, I googled inbetween as I wasn’t sure whether to put that, or in-between, or in between, and this was number 1 in the charts: “You grow old and die anyway. And then there is everything you have to endure in between/inbetween: grief, loneliness, sickness” – that was courtesy of http://www.ellstackexchange.com. Munch (and Johns?) would have loved that!)

Nearby there was a much smaller pastel drawing, basically solid black with the name TENNYSON spelt out at the bottom. Although the exhibition doesn’t mention it, this for me again links Johns with Munch, echoing the lithographs “Self-portrait with skeleton arm” or even more strikingly the portrait of “August Strindberg”, or “STINDBERG” as Munch had originally misspelt it, before correcting it at a later stage. Jasper Johns’ picture doesn’t depict anyone, instead he leaves it in the mind of the viewer to either come up with their own image, or perhaps to conjure up some of Tennyson’s poetry from the great storehouse of their memory.

261117 - JJ2I would wind up this review of a great exhibition (which I have merely touched upon), by sharing my thoughts on a series of states of the Aquatint called “Regrets” (16 of them in total) on display in the last room, which come from an old photograph of Lucien Freud commissioned by Francis Bacon. Wonderful as they are and great to see the progression, I must return to earlier rooms to see some works that depict the cosmos above us, a late Untitled painting from 2016 clearly depicts the Big Dipper or Ursa Major if you prefer. The only reason for taking you back here is for the selfish reason to finish up with 2 further sketches of my own from 2015. The first was drawn rapidly on a freezing clear morning before dawn which showed a magnificent line up of the Moon, Venus, Mars, and Jupiter all in a row. You can’t get much better than that, and you have to take the opportunity to sketch them when you can. I make no apologies for the roughness of this, it just shows the immediacy of the spectacle.

The second sketch drawn a few days later shows as it says the moon trying to break through some cloud. A failure it suggests (try again), but I can’t remember if that referred to the drawing (probably), or the moon (unlikely), or both. I think I will leave that up to you to decide. It could be that “one hopes for something, resembling truth, some sense of life, even of grace, to flicker, at least, in the work.”

261117 - JJ3

 

Found Art that triggers the memory and imagination.

I don’t know about you, but my eyes are forever on the lookout for art ideas and inspiration from whatever source they can.

300617 - Found Art - Japanese WarriorThis was a piece of rubbish found on the pavement, yes complete rubbish, thrown away, discarded and abandoned paper that’s been trampled on and weathered by sun and rain. Nevertheless it caught my eye. Not exactly a Marcel Duchamp “readymade,” but certainly an “objet trouvé.” The paper folds look like deliberate origami and, with a large upraised fist, a Japanese warrior comes to life!

(Perhaps it also begs the question, what I would have made of it, if I had originally seen it the other way up on the pavement. Something completely different I imagine.)

 

291017 - Shoki after Hokusai

Shōki (after Hokusai)

This brings me on to one of Hokusai’s depictions of Shōki from the recent British Museum exhibition “Beyond the Great Wave.” Shōki dates back to the seventh century and legend has it that he is a demon-queller, and banisher of diseases. Quite useful this week as I wrestle with a head cold. I think a good version of him could be done in origami. Apparently when he appears in red he is remarkably efficient at warding off smallpox as well. Something for you to bear in mind, and the reason I have copied this Hokusai in red (well brown is the nearest I have) Conté crayon; to keep you safe.

 

 

070517 - Soft as a DumplingThe raised arm from my “objet trouvé” reminds me of another guy with arm aloft from one of my instant sketches done on the London underground last May. A portrait of an unknown man that I was drawn to, both for his immense presence, and also his humility (I think he’d just given up his seat to a pregnant lady). Not really related to the above, but more of an opportunity to stop him languishing in a forgotten sketchbook and to bring him to life in a blog post for his 15 minutes of fame.

Chocolate teapots in the studio

Way up in the attic of the Royal Academy of Arts in London at the moment is a studio I wanted to visit, although I wasn’t sure if the artist was going to be at home or not.

First possible mistake: I took the frosted glass stairway up. This was disorientating to my aging eyes and I took a step that wasn’t there much to the amusement of the children who nimbly followed me up. I bet the Queen took the lift when she opened the Sackler Wing in 1991. Sensible girl!

The front door was open, and in we went – Matisse in the Studio. I wasn’t sure what to expect with this exhibition; I knew that it tried to marry up Matisse’s work with the various objects that he acquired and he used as props that appeared, and re-appeared, in his paintings and sculpture throughout his life. Immediately I am confronted with a green vase – with it’s hands on hips. What is it I want? I could see it was slightly contorted in it’s hand-blown (mouth-blown / hand-made) state. It wasn’t my eyes, or Matisse’s, or necessarily the way he depicted it – it really was like that. Green vases, all with hands on hips, looked back at me from the walls. Although more of them, they had lost their aggressiveness, I saw through them, and marvelled at the art instead.

The rooms that followed were arranged by themes: The Object as Actor; The Nude in juxtaposition with African Sculpture; The Face with Masks; The Studio as Theatre; and the last room was Signs where the late cut-outs adorn the walls in a triumph of colour and shape overseen by a Chinese calligraphic panel given to Matisse by his wife. You can see the link.

221017 - Matisse's Chocolate Pot

Matisse’s Chocolate Pot

But, having moved around the rooms I sneak back past the green vase, who’s attention had been diverted by other visitors. The star of this show is undoubtedly the Chocolate Pots in the Object is an Actor room, and to mis-quote Bob Dylan: ” There is no actor anywhere better than the Chocolate Pot!” So much so, Matisse has 2 of them! Perhaps one was an understudy for when the principal was ill. A more likely story, is the first was a wedding present from his first marriage, and as that marriage disintegrated the first Mrs Matisse understandably held onto this Chocolate Pot, and Matisse full of bereavement and loss had to replace it. What beautiful objects they are! The wonderful large bulbous pot-belly of the silver supported on 3 tiny legs that don’t look strong enough for the job. The spout to pour the frothy hot chocolate out (you have to imagine the contents), and a lid to flip up and peer in (if you were allowed – hence imagination required). Best of all though is this great wooden appendage of an arm that sticks out perpendicular to the whole contraption. The pot must be hot I guess, and this is to aid the picking up and pouring. Matisse’s depictions of this are manifold. An early predecessor of the cut-outs on the wall next to the pots shows how it got moved about, and eventually, literally, pinned down in position as shown finally in the painting “Still Life with Seashell on Black Marble” on the wall by it’s side. My attention was more drawn to a small insignificant colour chart on show where dowsed with various colours the coffee pot appeared several times upstaging simple sketches of herons that also appear rather bizarrely. What a delight. It is great to see these snippets that show how the artist is really thinking.

221017 - Our Teapot

Our Teapot

This exhibition that focuses on the sources for Matisse’s work, does ultimately depress me when thinking about my own work. In Matisse’s time, it wasn’t that long ago, mass production was not at the forefront of everything. There was not the straight-lined perfection of some machine, but hand produced objects that had character and love already built into them with their imperfections and wonkiness that captured your heart. When I got home I looked at our teapot. I drew our teapot. It wasn’t the same. “About as useless as a chocolate teapot” as the saying goes, but that would be far better than what we have. Perhaps I need to start searching the second-hand shops and auction rooms (and chocolate shops!) for my own objects to train up as actors and appear in my artistic dramas.

 

Portrait of Portraits – a lesson from the masters

240917 - NPG

As it was the last weekend of the BP Portrait Award exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, and I was in London, I thought I would sneak in and take a look. To be honest, I’m glad it was free of charge to enter, as not a lot grabbed my attention. I get bored of the super-enlarged photo-realism pictures that seem to be a common occurrence at these shows over recent times; admire the technique, but the imagination and creativity seem to be severely lacking. Most of the other work seemed to be paintings. Just paintings – nothing else, they lacked the feeling, the essence, and the true soul of the sitter. A couple of the smaller more intimate works had much more going for them than the 2m giants by their side. But it’s not saying much, and I don’t want to linger here any longer. Where is the exit?

I moved on and paid my money to delve into the past, an exhibition with the epic film-like title of “The Encounter” (cue dramatic music). This is wonderful! The subtitle: “Drawings from Leonardo to Rembrandt” hints at what to expect. In truth, there is only one figure study by the big L, and one sheet of studies by Rembrandt, which are great in their own right, but this isn’t what the exhibition is really about. I assume that by shoving these two heavyweight names to the forefront it will draw the punters in, but it wasn’t as crowded as the BP Portrait Awards – more fool them.

The real theme of the exhibition was the relationship of the artist sitting in front of the sitter and the interaction between the two of them. Were they relaxed, or tense? Was the occasion formal or informal? Did the two of them get on? The period of time that the exhibition covers is also significant. The advent of freely available paper in all it’s forms (some of a wonderful colour – see Durer) led to a loosening up of the artist’s abilities allowing images to be created quickly, simply, and at little cost. They could be used as studies for the artist’s apprentices, or as preparatory work for bigger commissions, and finished oil paintings. Throughout this exhibition, you feel that there is a real dialogue between the two antagonists, artist and subject, a spark of energy that fizzles and cracks to and fro. Sadly, I didn’t feel this with any of the BP Award works next door.

Between the bookends of Leonardo and Rembrandt are a host of other gems to be seen. Her Majesty the Queen has lent a whole royal household of drawings by Hans Holbein the Younger that really shows a connection with the various sitters. Their eyes meeting the artists gaze, or alternatively, definitely averting the eyes to avoid contact – what is going on there? The sitters supremely confident, used to the attentive gaze of the portrait artist, or nervous and shy in having their likeness depicted. Some drawings were evidently more quickly laid down, whilst others are laid down with great care and accuracy. Attention to detail.

The portrait of Giulio Pedrizzano: The lutenist Mascheroni (why don’t they have easier names!) by Annibale Carracci is simple, but very arresting; his stare just won’t let you go. I’m not surprised that this picture was chosen to adorn the poster for the exhibition.

Domenico Beccafumi (come on now – who dreams these up!) has done us a wonderful self-portrait the broad dense hatching and beautiful colour looks superbly modern, and belies it’s near 500 years of age (dated c.1525) only given away by the paper and the wash of other designs on the verso of the sheet (it was originally a sketchbook) that have seeped through.

My personal favourite though, is the small oval portrait by Filippino Lippi of “Man wearing a cap, probably Mino Da Fiesole.” This is drawn in metalpoint with white heightening on a prepared paper of a neutral colour. Vigorous lines, expressive handling, and great sense of tonal values gives this man a staggering gravitas that really pulled me in (again and again! – I had to keep returning to it) – wow!

Not a massive exhibition, but truly awe-inspiring stuff from some true masters that really does show the modern pretenders how it should be done.