Long awaited painting

Sunflowers in a glass vase (lr)

Sunflowers in a glass vase, Oil on board

My resistance finally broke down and I tackled a study done after a break of 18 months. This the second attempt; it’s rough round the edges and it’s been a struggle feeling a way back into managing thick paint.

The actual sunflowers had long since expired, so I needed recourse to memory, pre-knowledge and imagination. This is a detail of the painting.

Sunflowers in a glass vase (det2)The only other oil painting done in that year and a half was this commission for a friend.

Rosh on a couch A3 size 2 (2)

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New Chris Thomas Exhibition

Chris Thomas catalogue

We took the bike down to the Camelford Gallery for a preview of Chris Thomas’s impressive exhibition Documenting the New Build. The exhibition is exactly that: paintings recording a housing development adjacent to his studio in North Cornwall. From very understandable initial resentment, he soon saw an opportunity to use the experience artistically, in the process becoming part of it, to the extent of being accepted on site by the builders as a kind of hard-hatted, hi-viz ‘artist-in-residence’. From my perspective, this took some guts.

During the course of building 21 ‘affordable homes’ Chris produced a tumultuous body of work: starring large oil paintings (some of them 2-3 metres wide) mainly on board. It is not hard to imagine how, to a casual passer-by, Chris lugging these round the site would have looked exactly like one of the builders. There are also intense smaller studies exhibited and a portfolio of large charcoal drawings. My favourite of all is Study from the studio executed in February this year. – I wish I could afford it. 

There is also a comprehensive illustrated catalogue with illuminating text produced to a very high standard. This was something I could afford and mine – the first to be sold at the Preview – Chris kindly signed for me: it is something I will treasure.

 

Chris Thomas frontispiece

Gratitude also due to artist John Blight for putting on the show at his gallery which, for me, exemplifies precisely what a gallery should be: something not unlike Rembrandt would have recognised: a real working artist-gallery with little concession to commercialism; in other words, not a ‘picture shop’ which so many so-called galleries actually are.

I’ll stop there lest another rant begins!

Henry Israel, Jan 22 1933 – Dec 24 2017

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Henry Israel – A rare and genuine artist

Henry was a truly great artist and teacher. We shared the same birthday but not the same year. He was strong and forceful but enormously kind – and very patient if he thought you were serious. For over 30 years I regarded him as my mentor: he jostled on my shoulder as I worked (and still does) with my brother John Martin and Paul Cezanne – stern but wise mentors all.

He was classically trained at the Slade but not well known beyond a small circle of collectors and students in North Cornwall because he hated attention and fuss. I remember him once saying that he didn’t paint in public because it’s not a performance. This makes him sound a curmudgeon but he wasn’t; he had a dark and mischievous East London sense of humour, which I think comes across in the photo above.

Our painting techniques, from widely different starting points, seemed to converge at the end.  He was always a decidedly abstract painter – stunningly original – but I felt he came to me, but he would say the opposite of course. We had one exhibition together in Camelford in 2005: Henry’s B&W photography and drawings, and my own very un-B&W paintings.  We also had a love of animals in common.

I miss his wise counsel tremendously.  He leaves his wife, Caeria – also a very fine and completely different painter.

Henry landscape

A late landscape: he painted on board and, as you can see here, came to use a painting knife; this gives our work certain similarities. We both evolved the use of under layers of paint as plane boundaries.

Chaim Soutine exhibition

A visit to see Soutine at The Courtauld Gallery in London turned out to be a mismatch of the expected. Having studied this phenomenal artist ever since I began to paint seriously myself in the 1970s, his work has been massively influential, validating looseness and freeing up honesty. I’ve responded most to his landscapes – more so than the portraits but Cooks, Waiters and Bellboys are the subject of this exhibition. There aren’t many Soutines in British collections, so to suddenly be confronted by 21 portraits, most of which I knew so well from reproductions was something of a shock to the senses. Not so much the visual as the tactile.

soutine-3The Chambermaid (1913)

In truth, they were both disappointing and exhilarating. Maybe that sentence needs some explanation. Disappointing because they were less spontaneous than I expected. The execution was carefully considered even though he never made drawings, either on the canvas or in sketchbooks. In fact, there are none in existence. There I was, expecting de Kooning-like explosions of passion. Frenetic paint and ideas mixed up together and dumped spontaneously on the canvas, instead I found repetitive series. Nothing wrong with that, it was just not what I was expecting. More fool me.

My visit happily coincided with a curatorial talk. His painting practice was not mentioned once; at the end I had to ask the question ‘Did he use knives or just brushes?’. Neither on the information panels was there any reference to technique, well, just one reference to brushmarks. All reviews have been concerned solely with the subjects of the paintings – who or rather what they were, their jobs, their social status, their poses etc. It was more a psychological study than a painting one. That was disappointing for me as a painter, but it must be what most visitors are interested in. As a masterful manipulator of paint and restricted colour, how could this be?

With van Gogh, we hear about the way he painted, as with de Kooning, Pollock and Dubuffet, but if anyone needs his technique discussed and analysed it’s Soutine. One often encounters the same anthropocentricity with Rembrandt, whom Soutine admired above all, as must, I submit, any real painter. Just look at Rembrandt’s handling of  paint.

Details, Soutine (l) Rembrandt (r)

So those were some disappointments, what about the exhilaration? It’s what I get when in front of a REAL painting, a work in which the integrity and sincerity of the worker smacks you in the face, right between the eyes. This doesn’t happen often, even with ‘big names’ and the grand masters, there is so much commercialism to sift through. This has always been the case.

If I don’t paint for money, why should anyone else! Soutine didn’t, at least not until, he was ‘discovered’ by the immensely rich American collector, Albert C. Barnes. He became an overnight celebrity in Paris, and possibly more repetitive.

Soutine’s enormous impact stems from his ruthless approach and his early forthright attack on stuff of painting; his independent vision, fierce individualism. His close friend Modigliani had absolutely no influence on his technique whatsoever although he did on choice of subject. The other big quality was his downright angry unconventionalism. Oh, yes, his landscapes are angry, and from that anger he derived energy. But I’m not convinced his portraits are angry at all.

A human-being sat in front of you, staring straight at you – as his models did – can be unnerving, especially if that person is bored or anxious, and doubts whether he’ll ever get paid. I found it difficult to concentrate on the actual panting and distance myself from the living being in front of me, for his paintings certainly are ‘alive’. When I did, my passion bounded back.

In 1913, at the age of 20, he arrived in Paris from Lithuania. It took 10 years of extreme poverty before being discovered by Barnes. As a Jew he felt constantly persecuted and from 1940 hides from the Nazis. He dies tragically from an untreated ulcer in 1943.

Residency at Bucks Mills Cabin

Residency at Bucks Mills Cabin

Two weeks of intensive focus on Art at this majestic venue has now finished leaving me tired but with a body of work which ultimately feels worthwhile. “Majestic”? This is the location, not the actual cabin, which is anything but majestic: dilapidated inside with very little of the spirit of those two lady artists, Mary Stella Edwards and Judith Ackland remaining despite their artefacts being everywhere. Nevertheless, I feel very privileged to have been given this chance of residency at what the National Trust calls an “Artists Retreat”. I should have liked it to have been both: a residency and a retreat. It was neither really: one couldn’t reside there (sleeping was not allowed) and the continual footfall of visitors past the door made “retreat” impossible, at least for me.

Let me hastily qualify the above criticism by acknowledging the difficult position NT must find itself in with regard to this unique place. Deciding how to preserve or conserve perishable textiles is very difficult but there is little inside the Cabin which could not be resolved by a good clean and refreshing of some of the furnishings: the carpet and curtains in particular. Anyone who knows me knows that I am not a pernickety person (ask my wife) and well used to roughing it, but I was upset about the disonance between the spirit of Edwards and Ackland and the state of the cabin interior now. They were sophisticated, educated and well-to-do ladies who would not, I’m sure, have tolerated such decay.

There is a vast difference between that and a simple frugal lifestyle. I was told that the dirt was “original” and that the cabin was as it was left by the lady artists but a lot of the grot has been left by subsequent users – and not, I’m sure, by previous artists, who would have all treated the cabin with great respect. [I hear the cabin was used for parties etc between 1971 and ownership by the Trust in 2008.]

Fabrics decay. Should they be allowed to, in honour of their provenance – ultimately to disappear completely – or be replaced by facsimiles the better to convey the original style? Is it necessary, by virtue of dust, dirt and decay, to convey the impression of a ‘time capsule’? I think the Trust should address this question as a matter of urgency. The beauty of Bucks Mills is its inspiring location and the spirit of Ackland and Edwards. It is wonderful to have their belongings as left by them and there is enough documentary evidence to keep it very much the same. But it really does need some sensitive TLC. It was the spirit I tried to tap into.

Although a good part of my working life has been on western UK cliffs and coastlands, my natural inclination is always towards woodland, and there are superb tracts of ancient woodland east and west from Bucks Mills. It was here I first gravitated, spending time in the company of what appeared to be an epidemic of ticks before coming to my senses and realising that the main point about being at the Cabin was the coastline. And so thereafter it was here I mainly concentrated, becoming intrigued by the endless jumble of rocks and pebbles played upon by the light, weather and tides which made each day very different from the preceding one.

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The coastline looking west.

I hope to be posting some other examples of work here and the entire body on my website in the near future. Below are a few examples from the Pebble series. My main medium was oil pastels on high gloss silk art paper in self-made ‘sketchbooks’. I also use chinagraph pencils. These media allow a lot of flexibility. The more I worked, the more I became aware of the magnificence of Jackson Pollock’s intuition – instinctive painting and mark-making.

Some of the studies will lend themselves to larger oil paintings, and I’m looking forward to that. I will post more results soon. Please leave comments, I will greatly value them.

Pebble series 15, Oil pastel on silk paper 23x32cm

Pebble series #15, Oil pastel on silk paper 23 x 32cm

Pebble series 20, Oil pastel on silk paper 32X45cm (6)

Pebble series #20, Oil pastel on silk paper 32 x 45cm

Pebble series 13, Watercolour 23x33cm

Pebble series #13, Watercolour 23 x 33cm

Pebble series 06, Oil pastel on silk paper 23x32cm

Pebble series #6, Oil pastel on silk paper 23 x 32cm

Pebble series 01, Oil pastel on silk paper 11.5x16cm

Pebble series #1, Oil pastel on silk paper 11.5 x 16cm (the first small study).

Pebble series 04, Oil pastel on silk paper 23x32.3cm

Pebble series #4, Oil pastel on silk paper 23 x 32.3cm

Reflections on a Lost Exhibition

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.

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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

[Ends]

Spanish Notes Final part (III)

If the route up the Tejeda Parque’s mountain fizzled out after 50 yards, going from path to single goat track to multiple goats tracks to indiscernible scrapings which would have confused Kemosabe’s sidekick Tonto, the route back down was completely invisible. [Tonto in Spanish means ‘stupid’, so in the Spanish version of The Lone Ranger, Tonto became Toro (bull), and kemosabe sounds a lot like the Spanish phrase quien no sabe, “he who doesn’t understand”.] Already I digress, but since I’m not unused to being ‘he who doesn’t understand’ this title seems quite appropriate. Not for the first time, I’ve heard myself say confidently, “This way” only to realise that not only have I lost myself but also my unfortunate companions. Yes, I did once lead field courses so Mij should really have known better than to follow me. If there’s a hot sierra equivalent term for off-piste, that’s what we found. If you look at the photo below, the area top left is very similar to our downward route.

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Mij and Robin revisiting the Parque Natural (in inappropriate footwear)

We had gravity on our side and we were roughly going in the right direction so it was only a matter of time before we reached the bottom. Three-quarters of the way down, we met three goats, which danced off giggling on tip-toe.

It was extremely hot (ca.35oC) but at least we’d been sensible enough to take water with us. He who doesn’t understand was not always so sensible: one sweltering afternoon, I wandered off to do some drawing on a parched hillside. Not going far nor intending being away for more than a couple of hours, I didn’t want to be carrying water other than a small amount needed for watercolours, but soon became aware of how easy it would be to become debilitated and disorientated. I also thought what a pleasant place it would be to die (you ponder such things when alone in a wild places). Ever since working with vultures many years ago, I’ve had a deep respect for these beautiful disposers of waste, and it seems to me a fitting end for one’s mortal remains, soaring hundreds of feet above the earth, as close to heaven as I’m ever likely to get. It was the King vulture in particular I liked; this species doesn’t come from Europe but Spain has its own vultures, and towards the end of our stay we saw flocks of hundreds wheeling and soaring, carrying away others’ mortal remains.

The hottest day of all we experienced was in Granada at L’alhambra – one of just two conventional sight-seeing days. Such a well-known and easily researchable site needs no introduction from me but I liked the car park which put most British tourist car parks into the shade. And it was the shade that impressed most: the entire massive car park was virtually entirely covered by a shady leafy roof – the spaces between each space planted with low flat canopied trees (I couldn’t identify the type). They were certainly needed for the temperature was over 42oC.

It was interesting to see old Granada laid out from the heights of the fortress walls.

Overlooking Granada 4 rightGranada

Along some ancient walls covered mainly with blue Morning glory (Ipomoea sp.) large Violet carpenter bees (Xylocopa violacea) were busily foraging. That evening Josie found a dead one in the pool (Josie did spend the majority of her time at the villa rescuing insects from the pool); I took the chance to draw it before the ants and wasps consumed it; they were impressive insects…

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… as were the ants and wasps, fearsomely voracious scavengers.

Apart from innumerable wasps the most interesting and spectacular rescued insects were Praying mantises (Mantidae).

Praying mantis 1 (2)
The twittering of Red-rumped swallows (Cecropis daurica) and European bee-eaters (Merops apiaster) were a constant reminder of their swirling presence around the villa, sometimes sweeping so low you felt you could reach out and catch one. What we had, I confess, initially thought to be interference from overhead electricity cables – which were everywhere – turned out to be countless cicadas which we could never see. One day, searching a tree near the villa – from where the chainsaw-like noise was coming – as we might, we could see nothing.

Our other ‘day out’ was in Malaga – the birthplace of Picasso. It has a lovely pedestrianised city centre and there is a Roman theatre which is being renovated.

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A pedestrianised street in Malaga

Malaga (me as tourist) (2)Me as tourist in Malaga

The Picasso Museum was well worth the queue to get in. The staff were friendly, and a lovely lady insisted on seeing my ID to confirm my age (warranting an old geezer concessionary price). When I pointed out my grey beard she said, “Ah, no, you look too young.” One can fall in love disastrously easily.

The breadth and inventiveness of Picasso’s art never fails. He would try anything and generally succeed, but I think what I like most about him is his sense of humour; great artists often seem to lack this but Picasso has the ability to be both funny and ultimately deadly serious simultaneously.

Back in Sedella solitude, I took myself off into the groves of almond and olive trees (an almond plucked off an Andalucian tree is juicy and nutty in a way unknown to me in the UK). I felt the need to take every chance of immersion in this ancient landscape and impress on vestiges of a retinal memory its essence so that on return to the verdancy of England I could try to recall the dull parched dusty greens of Spain, and the watercolours helped.

Before leaving Spain, I continued to experiment with some basic water-colour enhanced drawing, using for motifs whatever was at hand: prickly pears, agaves and other vegetation in the garden of the villa.

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Whether or not I’ll continue seriously with watercolours remains to be seen. A lot, I suspect, will depend on time; I already seem to have too much to do (what is all this nonsense about “retirement”?), especially right now, with a forthcoming exhibition in July/August to prepare for. So it’s back to oils, and on my return from Spain, whilst the retinal memory was still vivid, I got quickly on to two medium sized canvases of an almond grove.

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If you’ve made it this far, you have my admiration and thanks.

© Richard Meyer, February 2015.