January is now halfway through and the first big art show of the year began yesterday at the Business Design Centre in Islington – the London Art Fair.
I’ve been going to this event for several years now and I have to say that it is a little like Groundhog Day, in that not a lot seems to change.
One would think that the galleries would refresh their displays each year with up and coming artists; perhaps get their established artists to produce some new works and do something different. I’m looking for excitement, I’m looking for spectacle – I’m looking for something that you wouldn’t normally get if you visited the galleries ‘at home’.
It’s a big space with an opportunity for scale, or theatricality. It sells itself as a fair for contemporary and modern art, but there are no contemporary public galleries here, no chance to see up and coming students or bright young things. The emphasis is on sales and high-end bling – not on showcasing the future and testing the waters for who might be hot in years to come.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty to see there, but most interesting pieces seemed to hover around the early 20th century, with work by Lowry, Spencer, Hepworth and the odd expensive scribble by Picasso. A stand out piece was Bryan Kneale's Rook in the Wind, Isle of Man, once owned by Sir Richard Attenborough. It looked like a pictoral version of a Ted Hughes poem, all feather, sinew and claw.
Elsewhere, there was plenty of figurative work and sculpture, but not much in the way of landscape. Gimmicks were abundant with weird materials, close- ups, photoshopped images, repeated shapes – mostly great as pieces of interior design, but not as mirrors of the artists’ personalities. There was a distinct lack of social commentary, for instance, with the exceptions being Pourquoi II, a macabre painting of three Holocaust victims, by John Bellany RA, and an interesting mural, Europe 2019, depicting Europe with all its former passport covers, by Yanko Tihov.
As I’ve said, the London Art Fair is really about a certain cross- section of galleries, signing up for the same stands each year and selling the same wares. That’s fair enough, but on a personal level I need to get out and see some of the other big shows to get a better perspective on the art market. I don’t think I’ll visit LAF for another three years at least, which is hopefully enough time for the content to reboot.
Highlights included a great wall full of Peter Brook prints showing the South Pennines throughout the year which were beautifully done and reminded me of where I grew up.
There was also a small ceramic by Grayson Perry, produced to raise money for Battersea Arts Centre after a fire. It shows Alan Measles, his teddy bear hero, stood at the entrance with a paint brush penis and large words above him stating, “Fucking Arts Centre”.
It captured my thoughts precisely!
Autumn is here. There has been a noticeable change in temperature over the past few days, but the sun continues to shine and there are some remarkable sunsets to cheer us all up.
This Friday, in my Art of the Landscape class at The Letchworth settlement, I will be taking the students through the painting of a sunset scene inspired by the work of Claude Lorrain, the French Baroque painter. It may seem a tall order to complete in 2 hours, but it’s all about the preparation…and simplification!
I’m always amazed, wherever I see work at group exhibitions or critique evenings, to see the variety of styles and techniques on display. You can often pick out some threads of homage to more well- known artists, or an obsessive commitment to a genre. As a professional artist, it’s good to develop your ‘signature style’, one that is uniquely you and unmistakable, should anyone wish to pick you out in the vast art market place. Often, this is what we are told is required for any buyer, or agent, to invest in our work.
Truth is, though, that the greatest artists of any age have changed their style constantly – developing and adapting to produce something new, to stay ahead of the crowd, to stay relevant, or dare I say it, fashionable?!
Whilst it is nice to steadily plod on and stay within your own comfort zone, it is sometimes good to peer over the fence and try something different. That's why, in my Friday Landscape Class, I take a class my aim is to tackle a variety of landscape scenarios – seascapes, townscapes, trees, mountains, lakes, etc. However, I try and mix it up, with each work produced in a different medium every week. Acrylic, watercolour, pastel – each poses a different challenge and begins to push students who only like to stick with their favourite.
I also introduce an element of art history, and every couple of weeks, we attempt to produce a work which either mimics the style of a famous artist (with a local scene) or copies a painting faithfully but using an alternative medium. For two hours you are transported into that artist’s mind using shapes and methods of application perhaps entirely alien to your usual hand. It can be exciting, sometimes annoying, often surprisingly difficult but ultimately rewarding. Students throughout history have copied the Old Masters to learn technique, it isn’t something new. In my version, I don’t just stick to the classics though – any style, any ‘ism’ is up for grabs, so long as it can be broken down and painted in about 2 hours.
So, I urge you to have a go! Pick a van Gogh, or a Monet, or an O’Keefe. Grab your paints or pastels, have a think about how they may have produced their painting -and try it out. It may or may not work – but at least you might learn something along the way. It might loosen you up, give you an idea, or just make you appreciate the artist and their talent more. It will certainly give your brain a holiday, free you up from your own style and I guarantee, you’ll enjoy it!
Even though I left school 30 years ago, I still feel a proxy tinge of sadness that summer holidays are at an end and the new school term is beginning.
We had a great summer overall - no one could complain about the weather (or rather they did, but it felt good to moan that it was too hot for a change!); the BBQ made more appearances than it had done in the last three years and we spent the last week in beautiful Portugal, soaking up more sun, seafood and culture.
Over here, I managed to catch a few more 'blockbuster' exhibitions. The BP portrait award was, as always, full of well executed and sensitive artworks - and as usual, I didn't agree on most of the awardees, apart from An Angel At My Table, by Miriam Escofet which deserved to be overall winner as it was beautiful.
I also managed to catch the Summer Show at the RA. As an extravaganza of colour and variety it ticked all the boxes and Grayson Perry did an excellent job as curator.
I did think, though, that it was just too political and cliched and it was harder this year to pick out any outstanding pieces. There were several Kim Jong- Uns, Trump and a prostitute, Nigel Farage and a Banksy Brexit poster. Subtle, this show was not.
I liked the Queen's portrait with her elongated head and the massive drawing of Steven Hawking and a nun, but really, I got the overriding impression that the show was to be seen as a confusing whole, and not as individual artworks - hence Perry's bold room colour schemes.
I was lucky enough to get into the Artist Magazine's exhibition at Patchings Art Centre for the second year running and it was nice to pop up there for the Patchings Festival in July. It was a fabulous mix of exhibitions, demonstrators and art materials plonked on a field with big marquees and a brass band. It was all very inspiring and, dare I say, compared to the RA, very traditional and British...
Anyway, the new school term has begun - and so too it has for me. This coming week sees me leading a new series of landscape classes at The Letchworth Settlement and on Thursday 13th, I'll be holding the first of two workshops at Harpenden Arts Club. Onward!
Though it’s not officially summer yet, I’ve recently seen quite a few ‘summer blockbusters’. ‘Solo’ and Jurassic World’ of course (!) but also some of the big art exhibitions around London – Rodin at the British museum, Picasso at Tate Modern and ‘All Too Human’ (Freud and Bacon) at Tate Britain.
I found them all interesting, largely enjoyable and managed to see them without the usual teeming crowds. The only gripe was the cost – each one tipped the £20 mark. Were they worth the money? Here’s how they shaped up for me.
Rodin and the Art of Ancient Greece:
Taking up the large new extension at the British Museum, Rodin’s sculptural work is spread over an open plan space, through which you can glimpse tantalising views of what is to come. His work is complimented by Classical Greek art from the Museum archive, namely the Parthenon ‘Elgin’ marbles, which Rodin visited many times at the Museum. To see these ancient pieces in a different context together with Rodin’s sketches, subsequent maquettes of new interpretations and finished pieces is inspirational.
I would have liked there to be more of a journey – surprises around the corner, rather than seeing everything in one go. That said, the sculptures are large and need the space to step back and admire them. You can see where the money has gone. Transport and positioning alone must have been costly.
Overall, well presented and worth the money.
It is an imaginative idea – to present a year in the life of one of our greatest artists; a turning point in love and career.
Picasso was in danger of becoming a ‘has been’. Despite his earlier successes, he was looking to try something new. He experimented in different styles, different mediums and with a different woman. At 50 years old, he found a new muse in the shape of 22-year-old Marie–Thérèse Walter.
His portraits of Walter begin to contort into strange, sexually suggestive shapes of vivid colour which we are familiar with today, but at the time were revolutionary.
I have to say though, that a couple of rooms on this theme would have been enough. There was not enough variety of image (which I suppose was the point), with too many rough sketches and discarded ideas and the story eked out till it was paper thin.
It may have taken a while to pull all these pieces together – especially a series of paintings done within a week of each other. I can’t say that it was worth the cost of admission – but if you are an ardent fan of Picasso, maybe.
All Too Human:
This exhibition at Tate Britain grouped a series of figurative paintings together under the mantle of influential London- based artists from the early 20th Century to the present. The two main painters being Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud.
There is an interesting chronology and it is great to see how Bacon and Freud were influenced by earlier artists such as Sickert and Spencer.
There was a mixture of portraits and landscapes with F N Souza’s illustrative imagery, colourful and iconic, standing out as a highlight.
Then there were the last two rooms. Suddenly, we are in a different exhibition altogether. Without an explanatory introduction, there is a room dedicated to Paula Rego and a final room of female portrait artists. It seems like a guilty add on for the ‘Me Too’ generation. The art is great, some arguably better than that which came before – but it is out of context, and jars.
The curators should have introduced female artists alongside Bacon et al, even if we had not heard of them, to show the state of play at that time. Then, when the latter two rooms appear (together with some contemporary male artists such as Jonathan Yeo) we could see that female artists are now more widely recognised and stand shoulder to shoulder, as it were – then there would be a natural flow to the story.
There were lots of works to be seen and a good variety. It is hard to say what were already in the Tate archive and which had to be brought in. Worth the money? Not sure again.
It seems wrong to be talking about whether an art exhibition is ‘worth the money’. You could argue that art is educational, that it allows the public access to world- class artworks and enriches life and how could you put a price on it? On the other hand, not everyone can afford £20 per head for an hour-long experience. You could spend a whole day at a stately home and see hundreds of pieces of art and architecture for that. If art is to be accessible for all, then the cost needs to come down.
I can see the point. It costs a lot of money to put on a show, and most of the larger museums and galleries are free entry to the public, so they need to pay for them somehow. To be honest, in most cases, I’d rather just pop into the National for free and have a browse around their permanent collection for half an hour, than spend a fortune being jostled in a ‘blockbuster’ show.
As a compromise, perhaps the answer is to begin charging a small entry fee to the permanent collections and heavily reduce the price of the shows?
This is probably also due to my chosen subject matter. This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Emily Bronte and as a longtime admirer I've decided to mark the occasion with a series of celebratory works.
I've had many ideas, some figurative, others more conceptual. Unfortunately I've begun to 'overthink' the subject as I try to do it justice. Perhaps that is the problem...Yoda says, "Do, or do not. There is no try".
Time to get on with it!
'Jane Lost On The Moor'
acrylic on canvas
It has been a great start to the year! A mad rush of events in the early stages of January meant that 2018 started with a bang, but as February approaches things have calmed down and now is a time to contemplate the rest of the year - take stock, as it were.
This month I am featured in the February edition of Hertfordshire Life magazine! It's a nice glossy four page spread and it really shows my work off well. The interview came out of the blue last October and I'm hoping that it is just a taster for things to come! It was an interesting experience and my eclectic background and methods came across well, though inevitably I suppose, there were a few mistakes - facts lost in translation! I would like to say here and now that I haven't worked on the Indiana Jones films (sadly)!
I'm now preparing for week 4 of my 'Art of the Landscape' course at The Letchworth Settlement. This term we are taking a tour of the world and painting a variety of exotic scenes in different mediums. This week will be a view in Southern France in the style of Cezanne and painted in acrylics. Please contact The Settlement should you wish to take part next term.
I've recently completed a museum exhibition wearing my other 'hat' of designer. "All Change! 150 Years of Rail at Elstree & Borehamwood" opened last Monday and runs until 26th July. I spent 6 months working with the excellent museum volunteers and various contributers on the exhibition and I do hope you can pop along to Elstree & Borehamwood Museum to see it.
I always wanted to be on 'Stars in Their Eyes'! It sounds like a confession, I know, but I did! To say those magic words, "Tonight, Matthew, I'm going to be ...Tom Jones", or whoever.
Well, over the last few months I achieved something similar in my 'Art of the Landscape' course at The Settlement. I didn't sing (!) but I did become a different artist every week. I wanted to introduce an element of art history into the course to show the progression of landscape painting, and so each week I chose a particular artwork and the students produced their version of it, using different mediums. They did Gainsborough and Monet paintings in acrylics; Turner and Van Gogh paintings in pastels.
The results were fantastic! It took us all out of our comfort zones and challenged our use of the materials, especially given the 2 hour time frame. We all get stuck in a rut from time to time, but painting in a completely different style can help to shake it up and inspire you to look at your work from a fresh perspective.
My current Landscape Course ends this Friday, but starts a new 10 week term on the 12th January. The theme of that term will be 'Round the World' - painting a variety exotic locations in different mediums (from photographs, not plein air, unfortunately!).
The course is booking up fast, so if you would like to join me then please contact The Letchworth Settlement. The classes will be every Friday morning, 9.30am till 12 noon, and the cost is £112.00.
The time has come to take down the bunting and return my studio to something resembling a place of work (where I can splash away without fear of spraying finished works with fresh paint!).
This was my second year of Herts Open Studios and the first to be run from my home studio. Last year was at Baldock Arts Centre, which was a large space with a coffee shop and plenty of room for me and my paintings. As it is in the town centre there was a steady footfall of locals - though even then I only managed around 30 people a day. Art isn't everyone's cup of tea, especially if there is the added 'danger' that they may have to speak to the actual artist! I might even persuade them to buy something...
This year, due to lack of locations and the fact I had recently converted my garage into a studio, I decided to play it from home. There was an expected danger that nobody would come. I live in a quiet estate on the outskirts of Hitchin - there is little passing trade. My hopes entirely rested on the promotional materials and advertising produced by Herts Visual Arts and myself.
The first two weeks were dire and my studio was steadily filling with tumbleweed. The weather was wet and windy and I was hardly able to keep my door open as it was freezing. The last weekend picked up, however, and numbers of visitors dramatically reached the teens! A mixture of people came along, good friends, some neighbours popping in on the off-chance, some following the Open Studios art trail and others from my course at The Settlement. All were very welcome and it was lovely to chat and show off my work. The studio was looking nice in the sunshine and I even had both doors flung open to the wide world.
I managed to sell some prints and greetings cards, so overall, I broke even on my initial HVA entry fee. I also got down to some painting, which is a GOOD thing! As to doing it again? I think I need a period of quiet reflection - perhaps there is a more appropriate platform out there for my artwork!
Meanwhile my course Art Of The Landscape has started at The Letchworth Settlement! I have 11 lovely students with me every Friday morning learning how to compose and create landscape paintings. This coming lesson will involve some plein-air painting so I'm crossing my fingers for dry weather!
There are still places available for my other course at the end of October should anyone want to learn about Acrylic Painting. All paints are supplied in the cost - so please contact The Settlement as soon as you can!
'The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever' announces the new Grayson Perry exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery - and it wasn't far wrong on the day. There was a sizable queue for the free show, with people being let in 10 at a time, and I wondered if the title alone drew people in?
I thought I knew what to expect - I had after all watched several of Perry's tv shows and read some of his books. I tried to explain to some of my friends, who had never heard of him, what he was about - transvestite potter from Essex producing work with social comments, much like a modern day Hogarth. Seemed a reasonable description. I thought that my 11 year old son would be ok with that - he likes current affairs and a good graphic novel. And then we entered the building...
Oops! I'd forgotten about the blatant sexuality of Perry's work - and the very first piece on view, the size of a bedspread, is a reclined Perry as a naked Claire (though reimagined as a hermaphrodite), gazing directly at the viewer like Kate Winslet in Titanic ("Draw me like your French girls" and all that). A wonderful woodcut giving us an insight into Perry's paraphernalia and life, but not perhaps the best thing for a self- conscious preteen to see unexpectedly!
Unsurprisingly, most of my party didn't hang around for long, leaving me to lag behind at leisure!
Each room had a loose theme based on Perry's TV series on masculinity, on Brexit and on his more personal alter ego of Claire, his father figure, Alan Measles and their adventures together. It ends with a dip into Perry's marriage which is given a pseudo folk/ cult makeover.
Two things stand out. Firstly, that Perry gives a lot of thought to his work and that most of that thought process, sketches, research, ideas etc. end up on the piece. Lots of information, intellectually interesting, but sometimes overwhelming and confusing. His works are at their best when there is an overarching theme or subject, and then within it you find further details and insights. 'Head of a Fallen Giant' is a great fantastical skull in its own right, but look closer at the surface textures and you can see the Houses of Parliament, a Union Jack, Tower Bridge, a crown and so on.
Head of a Fallen Giant, 2008
Secondly, is Perry's ability to use many forms of media to get his ideas across. The exhibition is full of tapestries, pots, woodcuts, metalwork, vehicles and even a genius skateboard (or 'Kateboard'). Mostly they are are manufactured by others, but unlike Damian Hirst, for example, they are unmistakably in the style and hand of Perry. A selection of sketchbooks at the end of the exhibition illustrate this nicely, with a small doodle of a pushbike for Claire, next to the room in which the fully formed version stands.
Lastly, I was impressed by Perry's use of historical forms - African figurines, medieval woodcuts, Victorian union banners, etc, reworked in his own inimitable style to illustrate an unrelated topic. Hence we get an African tribal figurine in a baseball cap representing youth gang culture and a medieval woodcut of a huge boar dominating a capitalist landscape of the City. He isn't afraid to change his style and draw on the past as long as it serves his purpose.
As you can probably tell, I loved it. Yes it's a bit weird, a bit crude and bit self- absorbed, but in this world of airbrushed clones and reality TV stars, Grayson Perry comes across as a breath of multicoloured fresh air, with a pink tutu. He exists as a living extension of his art and it is hard to separate one from the other. He seems to be enjoying himself anyway, regardless of what people think of his work and what he has to say. Fair play to him.
As our Flaming June has nearly gone and our default setting of uniform grey skies leads us into July I'm starting to think about Christmas...! Nah, I jest. Though Sainsburys has just announced a new chocolate mince pie for the coming season, so actually I've been thinking about cake.
More importantly, I've been fitting out my studio and thinking about what I need to make it fit for purpose. Here's a few hacks I came up with to make life a little easier and cheaper.
The space is enough for my creative needs, but it did require an area for storing large canvases. There were many suggestions on the net for storage and a few expensive shop- bought solutions. In the end I repainted some old shelves from the garage, and cut wooden doweling to length to divide and support the canvasses at the top. The result is sturdy enough and looks neat in the corner.
My second 'hack' was a picture rail. Again lots of purpose made items to be found, but all a tad expensive and I didn't fancy a permanent wooden picture rail around the top of the studio. The solution was staring me in the face in our upstairs bathroom - an extendable shower curtain rail. Three hooks on the wall and there it sits, allowing me to hang multiple paintings using picture rail hangers from Wilkos. If I don't want a display up, I can just remove and store the rail and use the hooks for something else, such as hanging a cloth as a splashback.
Now where's that application for Dragon's Den....?!