Reflections on a Lost Exhibition

I’ve always believed – when younger, without really understanding why – that paintings breathe. Sculpture too. They are the only art forms where there is a tangible link between maker and beholder. Believe me, paintings talk to you! There is nothing in between: no translator, no intermediary, no signer, in short, no interpreter.


Bottles and brushes, Oil on plywood 49 x 73.5cm

You confront a real painting (I don’t mean on-line reproductions, postcards or even high quality book illustrations) pretty much exactly as the artist did – at the same distance – as he or she did at the moment when (s)he contemplated the finished work and felt content with it. The visual experience is the same: you breathe on it in the same way and it responds. This is demonstrably not the case with music, film or writing for any medium – all of which require an intermediary and very often several or even a team. You are only reading this because it’s been through several machines.

This is all fine but an exhibition of paintings is a two-way thing. A meaningless exercise if one half of the equation is missing. It is unbalanced, there is no conversation. Paintings without people, talk to themselves or merely stare bleakly at each other across the void.

img_0415-3A corner of the gallery

The painter provides the paintings, the gallery provides the space, and both parties promote it as best they can. That’s how it works; the only way it can work. If a painter spends years in oblivion wrestling work out of heart, soul and mind, he can legitimately feel disappointed if the gallery falls short.

This is the second year running I’ve been let down by a gallery. Not tuppeny-ha’penny galleries but pukka ones. The exhibition with ceramicist Eilean Eland suffered from poor gallery publicity before and during the event. As artists, we did all we could: half-page illustrated articles in quality regional and local journals but both galleries did very little. Why that should be must be the subject for another time.  Nevertheless, those visitors who did attend were enthusiastic; words like “stunning”, “vibrant” and “expressive” cropping up in the Visitors’ Book but during most of my attendances, the gallery was often empty. Stairs from the busy shop and café one floor down appeared to be an obstacle too far. To be fair, there was little incentive from the Arts Centre – not the box office, shop or counter – to encourage movement beyond the caffe lattes.

wedding-carnations-oil-on-mdf-46x61cmWedding carnations, Oil on MDF 46x61cm

This was particularly depressing because we were in an Arts Centre and not a café. I felt sorry for my paintings and for Eilean’s terrific sculptures in having little or no human company. They felt neglected. Most artists need interaction with their audience. Imagine live theatre or an orchestra playing to an empty auditorium, or an important football game before no spectators. You cannot expect anyone to be at their best.  In a previous life, I’ve been a cinema projectionist several times, and occasionally had to show films – usually in matinees – to literally one or two aged people. Even though technically it made no difference to putting on a good ‘performance’, it always felt a tad futile.

Sweetpeas in a blue jug, Oil on canvas 35.5 x 46 cms.jpgSweetpeas in a blue jug, Oil on canvas 35.5 x 46 cms

At its most elemental level, art – painting and sculpture – is as much a part of show-business as anything else. People look at paintings to be uplifted, thrilled, enthralled, perplexed, surprised or, if they are of a more educated mind, perhaps technically intrigued. [I will not use the word ‘challenged’ in this context.]

Above are two versions of a Study of anemones after Vassyl Khmeluk. I fell in love with the original of this painting from a tiny reproduction in a newspaper. Khmeluk (1903-86) was a Russian painter who has for me become a favourite (see previous post That loving feeling.  Copying this got me back into painting after my Blighty Girls experience last year (see previous post My dear blighty girls). The anemones remain favourite paintings despite or perhaps because of that difficult time. It was, technically, an intriguing exercise which I hoped might rub off on visitors. Two people did indeed tell me (unsolicited) that they were their favourite paintings but otherwise I noticed little engagement with the more ‘challenging’ paintings throughout September at The Plough Arts Centre in North Devon.

Daffodils in blue glass - horizontal, Oil on cardboard 55 x 76.5cm.JPGDaffodils in blue glass – horizontal, Oil on cardboard 55 x 76.5cm

Since very few people reading this will have got to the show, I’ll include some photos to give an idea of the venue and exhibition. It was an opportunity for me to show some of my ‘still-life’ studies. In my naivety I thought it the most ‘commercial’ of the three exhibitions I’ve had at The Plough Arts Centre, but it’s difficult to sell if no-one much comes.

img_0417The Daffodil corner of the gallery

Are we down-hearted?  Yes, I suppose we are a bit, but no doubt something will happen to buck up the spirits: Carry on regardless (now that’s a film I probably showed once!). Actually, something has come along because I’ve just sold my third painting in 12 months to America without any opportunity of them being breathed upon by any of the buyers. Why Americans seem to like my paintings more than the British is a mystery to me.  A gallery owner in Cornwall last  week said that perhaps it was because they felt French (or was it because of my beret?). I love France inordinately but think I have only two paintings there, and I always feel they are more German than French, but maybe not the still-lifes. Any comments?

Apple triptych, Oil on panel 16.5 x 30 cm.jpgApple triptych, Oil on cherry wood panel 16.5 x 30 cm



3 thoughts on “Reflections on a Lost Exhibition

  1. Interesting, but strangely, in reading through your article, I realized that although yes, one looks at paintings without an intermediary, as other forms of art need – there actually IS an intermediary when you decide to display your paintings publicly. And that intermediary is the gallery. If the gallery does not do its ‘job’ in attracting the public into its exhibition, then one part of this relationship is missing. It is like having a party, preparing all the food and entertainment so that people can enjoy themselves, but never sending out invitations. The potential for a good time is there, but that’s all that it becomes – potential.
    I have often felt that anything that we create becomes something akin to our ‘children’. We give birth to an idea, a writing, a painting….give it life, so to speak (even though, of course, our art may be for sale, and presumably, we never think about selling our children!!) Our children/art are a part of us – we are proud of them and wish others to view them – a wallet full of our children’s photos, yet no one comes to look at them. It is totally disheartening to the parent – or artist.
    It is actually quite interesting that the sales that you have had come from people who, presumably, are not seeing your paintings in a gallery, but rather a reproduction (ah, here is that intermediary, again) on the internet, a brochure, etc. So it would appear to me that, even in painting, the intermediary – the efforts of the gallery – is essential.
    Your work is lovely. Do not be disheartened by the ‘business’ end of art – the gallery, sales, etc. The ability to create is a gift unto itself, and the fact that you can express your inner emotions in such an incredible, beautiful and artistic way is truly a gift. Instead of being disheartened about the cold, business side of art, be disheartened for those of us who have the same inner emotions, but lack the talent to create. Now, THAT is disheartening…..

    • I take your point of course; what I was proposing is that the actual physical relationship between a painting and viewer is a direct and unique phenomenon or experience with nothing in between (except when nervous galleries or owners think it a good idea to use glass on oil paintings – NO NO NO!!). You are absolutely right that in another sense the gallery is an intermediary, yes, although perhaps a better word for them would be ‘facilitator’?
      You make a valid point when you say that my paintings have mainly been sold via a machine and a real intermediary. Mostly, although I’m still waiting to hear from the lady in Michigan, that when they see the real thing they are pleasantly surprised. That is always my intention. If someone got bored with one of my paintings, I’d regard it as a failure.
      Odd you talk of producing children. In all the books I’ve written, I noticed the thrill of conception (let’s not go into that too far) then the period of gestation (research and writing) about 9 months, then the hard work of parturition (for a woman) which is of course publication. After that, we have all the trials and tribulations of bringing the thing up (=marketing)!
      Thanks so much for taking the trouble to add your thoughts.

  2. Janette writes to me personally. I repeat it with her permission.
    Richard….your art looks wonderful.
    I looked at the exhibition space and read your comments.
    I have to say it is the same here in Peebles.
    On the top floor of the Library there is an Exhibition on and off all year. Hardly anyone is there to see the really good art , the publicity is weak. Never staff to encourage people to go up and have a look.
    Artists are confident at entering galleries, joe public arenot so brave. If it is not common place
    to look at art then how about art teachers in school taking them to see what we do.
    The Eastgate art centre/ theatre here also puts on show…in a room used for dance or whatever.
    You cannot see the work most of the time. The door closes even although the room is free for viewing. No big sign , weak weak weak.
    What to do?
    All that work, all that time in hanging, framing , painting….
    I have no answer Richard just sharing with your frustration.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s