Gratitude, a two way thing.

With my visual art’scape barren, I’ve been writing a lot, having finished a trilogy of adventure stories for ‘grown-up children’ (that’s my category, so not, definitely not, ‘children’s fiction’) and writing mainly environmental poetry (some here) in which I find great solace away from the ravages being wrought on our poor little lonely planet by warmongers, wildlife abusers, religious zealots and industrial powerhouses… oh, let’s call that ‘civilisation’ shall we?

So, with my studio being dismantled (‘wrecked’ would be another word) and with little thought of painting especially since my portrait of the ‘February Girl’ was rejected for the summer exhibition by the Westward Ho! & Bideford Art Society, I was hit for six by finding I’d sold six paintings in one week; or rather, to be strictly truthful, sold 3 and bartered 3 (for a new studio roof, oh, I love bartering!). The three sold went to a collector in California – who already has one or two of my works.

Feb head, Oil on hardboard 41x30cm (2)            Feb head, Oil on hardboard 41x30cm (3)
Rejected Portrait of the February Girl, Oil on hardboard 41 x 30 cm (detail right).

I find it interesting that the three sold were from my last days in Cornwall, with the three bartered ones being more recent.

One of the sold ones was very dear to me, and I’m grateful it’s gone to a good home somewhere far away across the Atlantic – over which that studio looked – almost! It is ironic that literally right now, 20 years later, I’m having to destroy another studio, this one next door to Cornwall in Devon! Oh, life’s little ironies.

After receiving them, my Californian collector wrote the following words – which I quote with his permission. I’d like to share them because, a) it’s so rare for buyers to be quite so complimentary, and b) if his words help encourage other struggling non-standard artists to carry on so much the better. By ‘non-standard’ I mean in the sense of objective technique (knives, no brushes, wet into wet quickly) and not subject matter – which I accept (very happily) is as old as art itself.

These pieces are better and deeper than words can convey, though I will indeed attempt that task.
Thank you!
I wept at seeing them and then again at seeing them on my walls.
I had removed a few of my own pieces and put yours up.
God, they are just perfect!
I love them.
I adore them!
I can’t stop looking at them!
How much for the shipping?
Forgive me if you’ve already told me, but I don’t recall and want to get the total right.
They inspire me to collect more.
Thank you for letting me acquire these. They are magnificent. Their detail enthralls me.
DKN
These words are genuine. No fraudster or self-aggrandising artist would dare say such things about their own work, would they? When I thanked him and mentioned problems of work being assessed too hastily, he replied:
BTW, galleries are lame!
They don’t know poop!
ANY real curator will immediately see the importance of this work.
The fact that you’re getting rejected is good news! Eyes of the day CAN’T see important work. It takes heralding from pioneers. Remember that critics of the day crucified Jesus and assassinated Gandhi.
I will be writing more on your work over some great wine.
The three paintings he bought are here in small format; visible here in more detail.

If anyone is interested I’ll show and talk about the three bartered paintings another time. Do let me know, also anything else on ‘Leave a reply’ facility so that others can get a different perspective. I’m always really pleased to hear – it’s a lonely old business this.

Thanks for reading. I’m as grateful for DKN’s comments as he seems to be for the actual paintings, hence the title of this piece.

 

Mono Standing Nude, Oil on board 71 x 58 cm

Standing nude in mono, Oil on canvas on board 70.5 x 57.5cm

This painting is at  the White Moose Gallery in Barnstaple from Thursday (4th) in a North Devon Arts group show.

A surprising example (for me at least) of an early stage in a painting which I decided to leave midstream under the theory that ‘less is more’ (advice I usually find hard to follow).  It is therefore mainly monochrome and ‘raw’.  Loving black & white photography, I felt it worked all right and liked the totemic monumental thrust.  Consequently it was submitted to The Royal Academy (for their ‘Raw’ summer show show a few years ago); needless to say rejected in preference to work much of which seemed to me to be trite, arch and not in the least raw.  Others twisted ‘raw’ to ‘roar’ and ‘war’ for example – literary games that left me cold.

I liked the work so much that it has a splendid expensive frame and is consequently quite heavy.

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)

Empty Surfaces

Paul Cezanne wrote to his mother in September 1874, “I have to work all the time, not to reach that final perfection which earns the admiration of imbeciles. [T]his thing which is commonly appreciated so much is merely the effect of craftsmanship and renders all work resulting from it inartistic and common. I must strive after perfection only for the satisfaction of becoming truer and wiser. And believe me, the hour always comes when one breaks through and has admirers far more fervent and convinced than those who are only attracted by an empty surface.”

Two years later, at the end of a letter to Pissarro, he wrote, “I almost forgot to tell you that a certain letter of rejection has been sent to me. This is neither new nor astonishing.” Nothing much changes, does it?

In my recent wonder of Rembrandt’s portraits – surely his greatest triumph – I saw surfaces with barely an empty inch between them, and this includes swathes of canvas scrubbed in with huge cursory skill – no learnt craft that – the better to reveal truth and the perilous condition of humanity, so beautiful in its pathos and vulnerability.

We must distinguish between art and craft. The desire to display a high level of empty (taught) craftsmanship in painting (I can’t speak for any other art form) is often an attempt to deceive. To what end?  That you have something to say, that you have great skill, that people with money to spend will do so on you…?  I put ‘taught’ in parentheses because craftsmanship at its best and most meaningful is learnt on the hoof, empirically – then it is truly unique and genuine… bespoke craftsmanship. Andrés Segovia, the virtuoso Spanish guitarist said, “I had only one teacher, myself, and only one student, myself.” He also said, “If people have even a little understanding, it is better to move them than to amaze them.”

Much so-called art is therefore simply the display of craftsmanship. This can often be of jaw-dropping beauty, but if not used in the service of Art (with a capital ‘A’) it is as empty as a dumb blonde. [And I love the spectacle of a dumb blonde as much as the next man.] So, what are the empty surfaces Cezanne talked about? Don’t we see them everywhere? In every picture-shop gallery where art masquerades as a veneer of cleverness.

Fine Art is only revealed to those with the insight to see it. It is an insight that can be learnt, but how many bother, so beguiling is the cheap thrill of ooh-aah-art?  While I was being seduced and again educated by Rembrandt, he spoke, saying, “Look around, where else can you feel such breath of rare sincerity?”

Once you get your eye in, you can find sensual delight and phenomenal qualities of kindness and empathy. Here are a few artists who come quickly to mind and who reveal it in spades of differing sizes, (in no special order) Leonardo, Tiepolo, Francesco Guardi, late Titian, el Greco, Goya, Constable, Morandi, Daumier, Millet, Corot, Maurice Utrillo, Henri (le douanier) Rousseau, van Gogh, Pissarro, Berthe Morisot, Gwen John, Alfred Wallace and… please add your own.

Most of those names are well known, but there are others far less celebrated, whose paintings deserve to be recognised for their own sheer depth of humanity. The reason they are not is because they fall foul of the ‘imbecile’ rule. I’d mention, for example, Vassyl Khmeluk, Agnes Martin, Leon de Smet, Alvar Cawen, Philip Guston, and Sheila Fell. Friends also alert you; thank you Isabella Whitworth (who knows a thing or two) for Oswaldo Guayasamín.

Today, because of our capitalist and celebrity wracked idiocy, one must search diligently, and often forlornly, for equivalent humanity (wrack is Middle Dutch for shipwreck). It exists but may remain unseen forever.

Portraits and Presentiment

 Portraits and presentiment (part 1)

        The Mij Oil on canvas 76x56cm 2          

The Mij, Oil on canvas 76x56cm

and

The Marmoset Oil on board 73x49cm 2

                                                                               The Marmoset, Oil on board 73x49cm                  

 Two new portraits presented themselves unbidden, and presented me in the process with renewed sombre misgivings about modern commercial art. [By ‘commercial’ I mean art produced for the marketplace] These misgivings conspired to see me destroying some old works, not because they haven’t sold but because they presented other misgivings: some technical and some personal. Since my first career was in zoological science, it’s perhaps relevant that curiosity weighs heavy with me.

That out of the way, portraiture must be the severest, most profound test of an artist (be they painter or sculptor) – something most avoid for its unforgiving and unrelenting scrutiny: of the practitioner of the model, of the beholder of the practitioner.

Over the last 12 months and more I’ve been debating with myself (there being no-one else really) about the path work takes and to where. You may (or may not) find these experiences a) interesting, b) helpful, c) provocative, d) irrelevant or e) just plain boring, so skip ahead if you don’t wish to read of someone else’s toils (but, as humans, don’t we enjoy some schadenfreude?!

2013 then is the background for a year of misfirings:

  1. My Structured Landscape exhibition produced all the inevitable doubts that such ventures always produce – one could do, think, arrange, select, price, publicize and invite better etc;
  2. The loss in early February of a dear friend & collaborator on some books, the great bird illustrator Malcolm Ellis              Paradise Park Garden Party 08vi06 3
  3. A disappointing talk to North Devon Arts at The Broomfield Sculpture Park fell well below the standards I’d normally set myself; for some reason, the slides in transfer to their computer got muddled, which doesn’t sound disastrous in itself but the thumbnails were displayed on the enormous screen while we re-ordered them – a bit of a spoiler which took time to correct meaning I had to cut out some hilarious (or so I like to imagine) anecdotes;
  4. This was followed by the misfiring (for me but it would seem for no-one else) of Open Studio Art Trek;
  5. Then there were laborious preparations (e.g. thematic, selection, doubt, framing, pricing) for my Autumn show The Constructed Female at The Plough Arts Centre, and the incomprehension and misunderstanding it seemed to create for some;
  6. Distressing and disturbing ecological consultancy duties involving (inevitably) the slaughter of badgers  – which I’m unable to avoid, and consequent on those…
  7. … thwarted attempts to reprint my 1986 book The Fate of the Badger (Batsford) despite some demand from affected caring people;
  8. My novel The Children Who Wouldn’t …http://t.co/mHsyDbdQXP was published. I think at least 10 people have read it, or at least bought it (for an impressive 77p, 99c in the US – and I just got a royalty statement from Amazon USA for 36p, mind you they withheld .12p for tax, I trust they spend it wisely). To top these distractions …
  9. there’s been a frustrating and disillusioning failure to find a venue for an altruistic exhibition of 12 paintings of 1940s pin-up ‘Land Girls’, done with the co-operation of some lovely mums in Cheshire, to help raise funds for ‘Help For Heroes’ or some other human warfare related charity. This I’d optimistically hoped to arrange to coincide with Centenary Commemorations this November – which is now highly unlikely.

While some of these tribulations are amusing and petty they conflate to such an extent that I found myself in the deepest doldrums since emerging blinking from a 5 year PhD in Glasgow and an ensuing short but disillusioning career teaching in Primary Schools and one ghastly private school. [Can doldrums be deep? Perhaps I’m just a lousy teacher]. The thesis, incidentally, of >300 pages, ca.100,000 words and gawd knows how many tables, figures and statistics remains I imagine unread and unused apart from by my sponsors www.paradisepark.org.uk/choughs. [The RSPB cannot even acknowledge its existence.] Of course it was not all awful, I had a good and rewarding year working in Cornish schools for the RSPCA, and a delightful two years lecturing and getting up and running a new FE College outpost in the grounds of Paignton Zoo, Devon.

However, outweighings prompted re-evaluation; so I destroy old work and find furious cathartic satisfaction in it.  All of which brings me back to the portraits – inevitably a substantial element in The Constructed Female exhibition.

The two portraits I mentioned at the top had an underlying cause – partly to convince myself after nearly a year of scant activity that I could still paint. The first was of a model from Cheltenham who contacted me via Twitter, and has since become an engaging and feisty ally, and the second of the beautiful and long-suffering Mij whom I have of course painted many times and who has crept unbidden into other portraits (or so I’m told by people; and they can see it and I can’t).

What I can see (and maybe what I can’t) follows.

Portraits and presentiment (part 2)

 Portraits, so I’m told by gallery owners, are virtually unsellable. I think this is disingenuous nonsense! To back up such a bold rebuttal, I cite the case of the Fowey River Gallery www.foweyrivergallery.co.uk who told me this but took one anyway. It was this one

 Naomi Oil on wood 43.bmp

Portrait of Naomi, Oil on wood 43.5 x 48.5cm

They phoned me in Wales the following day to say “Guess what? It’s sold! A young couple saw it, went away, had lunch, came back and said they couldn’t live without it” (verbatim because it’s a conversation I shan’t forget). Galleries guard their client list with a zeal that would do credit to Vladimir Putin’s police so I’ve never found out who they were but hope they still enjoy it. Even so, Fowey wouldn’t take another, but this was ten years ago, perhaps they might now.

Anyway, back to the premise. As I said in Part 1 my training (such as it was) was in wildlife zoology with an emphasis on sexual dimorphism and the captive breeding of rare and endangered fauna, so it seems obvious to me that biologically and ethologically the human face is central to our understanding of the human condition.  We scan and study our own and everyone else’s without realising it, picking up and processing the tiniest inflections. Intrigued, entranced, attracted and repelled by each in turn. How can we not be interested in the painted portrait, which is always a double portrait – that of subject and artist?

Disabusing this, people say something like, “But I don’t know them” thereby implying that they might be more interested if it was a likeness of someone they knew, or of course, better still, a family member. So what is going on?  Obviously we might like to have around us images of ‘loved ones’ but since we can admire a landscape or a still-life without ‘owning’ or even knowing it at first hand, why are we put off by the image of another human being?

Not always of course for we respond positively to a Rembrandt or van Gogh (self-)portrait, a Leonardo, a Matthew Smith, a Chaim Soutine, an Auerbach, a Hockney… and the list could go on and on.  Is it merely then that a portrait painted by someone famous is acceptable while one by an unknown (however good) is not?  No art aficionado, only a dealer, would admit this so one is left to ruminate on a determining factor. Is it simply that gallery owners are a conservative non-risk-taking lot and they simply believe that buyers do not like portraits, and will not buy them? As a self-fulfilling prophecy this takes some beating. But since I called Rembrandt as a witness, let’s return to quality.

Oh, I so hope this is the final arbiter, because then there’s hope. Quality is the touchstone: any artist worthy of the name aspires to it; and always before the grubby ephemeral of “Will it sell?”

So, I want ‘galleries’ to be worthy of the name they assume. A gallery should never be just a picture shop, though that is sadly what many are.  Yes, they have to be financially solvent but alongside that (and are the two mutually exclusive?) it is their duty to present Fine Art to the public. If they don’t where on earth’s high street, can we find honesty and truth mingling with spine-tingling beauty and forensic enquiry?