Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Still Live

I really enjoyed Emma Bennett's second solo show at Charlie Smith, London which was
a nice contemporary take on C17th Dutch/Spanish still life. At first glance you could almost think these paintings were made at the same time as their historical antecendents, but after closer inspection you realise the paired-down compositions and mysterious configurations of objects root them firmly in a more contemporary moment. In this, Bennett manages to walk that fine line between over-referencing sources on one hand, and appearing too obviously 'now' on the other.

Emma Bennett Nor Any Haunt of Mine 140x110cms Oil on Canvas 2012
 These paintings absorb the viewer in a ghostly world where the objects, whilst ostensibly inanimate, become protagonists in an unspecified drama which unfolds before the indeterminate dark space of the backgrounds which unite each composition and comprise a link between each field of existence. These are assuredly symbolic spaces, where each element is carefully orchestrated for dramatic effect, the sparse arrangements locked in high tension which draws the observer in.

Emma Bennett Unknown Quantities 122x91.5cms Oil on Canvas 2012

I have also noticed Damien Meade's work in a number of group shows including The Future Can Wait, as well as the focus of an article in Turps Banana by Geraint Evans. Meade, like contemporaries such as William Daniels and Paul Housely, paints from strange models that he makes in the studio - in this case they are anthropomorphic shapes fashioned from clay, wire and other basic materials, which reference the classical portrait bust.

These works remind me of the classical terms in Poussin's paintings, or the crumbling sculptures in the game paintings of Jan Weenix.

Damien Meade Talcum 2011 Oil on linen on board 66.5x44.5cms

Nicolas Poussin A Bacchanalian Revel Before a Term  1632-3 Oil on canvas 98 x 142.8 cm 
Another contemporary painter working from models in this way is Meade's countryman Donal Moloney.
Moloney constructs intricate environments featuring organic shapes and plants, over which he projects psychadelic patterns, the results of which are rendered in painstaking detail on small canvases. These still life pieces set up disorientating spaces in which the viewer is unsure of what exactly it is that they are looking at, whether a real or imagined scene, a narrative or abstract space, yet one which is presented in almost hyper-realistic detail.

Donal Moloney Shrines 2011 Oil and acrylic on canvas 43 x 58 cms 

It is exciting to see so much evidence of the continuing revival of the still life  in contemporary painting, when not so long ago it seemed to be a genre that few thought could ever be relevant again.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

American Revival

John Frederick Peto For the Track 1895
 Whilst in Washington DC this summer I was interested to come across some work by the late C19th American painter John Frederick Peto. It seems there was quite a lot of interest in the Dutch Fine Painters in the USA at this time, as Peto was just one of several artists working directly from their canon.
Peto is effectively trying to pay homage to Cornelius Gysbrechts, even down to employing the motif of the wooden panel, letter rack or door as a backdrop to a collection of objects presented in a trompe l'oeil style.
The obvious difference with Peto is his choice of objects that are particularly contemporary to American life of that era. I'm not sure if there is anything particularly conceptually interesting about this - Peto doesn't move the genre on particularly, but then again perhaps revivals are always de facto different from their references, just by dint of context. The paint work isn't as fine as Gysbrechts either, a little more gestural, not quite so painstaking.
John Frederick Peto Letter Rack 1894

Cornelius Gysbrechts Still Life with Portrait of a Soldier 1670

Cornelius Gysbrecths Letter Rack c.1670
 I keep coming back to these type of trompe l'oeil paintings for some reason - I think it is to do with the idea of making painted copies of things that are already artworks or secondary images - there's an ostensible pointlessness about this on one level, but actually the re-made image becomes something radically different. This is evident in the work of artists like Warhol, Harland Miller, Glenn Brown and Gerhard Richter.

Harland Miller Bridlington; Ninety Three Million Miles from the Sun  2002

In my own work I am currently exploring this idea - beginning to work from images of images, rather than objects, such as I have tended to do in the past, as in the recent example below.

Tom Helyar-Cardwell Urbis Aqua 2012

Thursday, 31 May 2012

Restoring My Faith in Art

Walter Sickert The rue Notre-Dame des Champs, Paris: the entrance to Sargent's studio 

Yesterday I managed to visit a few shows and saw quite a lot of stuff that was really good. This made me remember that painting and Art in general really is a worthwhile thing and I'm glad to be involved in it.

I was in Oxford for the morning, and managed to get half an hour in the Ashmolean, which has a very nice selection of Walter Sickert paintings. I've always liked Sickert but for me these are some of his best. Small, un-ostentatious murky paintings, describing the full range of greys, browns, mauves and mournful yellows that he is known for. The subjects are also typical - a non-descript street in Paris, an old woman drinking tea. He is a sort of Philip Larkin of painting - subdued, a bit depressive, but somehow wonderfully inspiring.
Adam Dix and Tim Phillips installation view at Summaria Lunn

Getting back to London I called in at Sumarria Lunn's space on South Molton Lane to see the 2 man show featuring painter Adam Dix and Sculptor Tim Phillips in a collaboration that works excellently.
Dix makes retro future paintings featuring scenes that could almost be out of illustrated sci-fi comics of the 1950s, were it not for the recurrence of incongruous elements that suggest something stranger and more interesting than the cliches that such subject matter can initially invoke. Elements of Communist mass parades and mystical secret societies mingle in this strange world, subtly described through paired-down, almost monochromatic skeins of thin paint and glaze, giving the resulting works a beautiful ethereal quality.

Tim Phillips skilfully constructs geometric sculpture from various woods, veneers, metals and other elements. These are part modernist religious icons and altar pieces, part 1970s office furniture from a parallel dimension. Harmonious triangular forms are carefully balanced with props and illustrative panels.

The arrangement of these works together in the subterranean, dimly lit gallery space has the feel of a shrine from some strange alien religion. Curation and lighting are used strongly to exaggerate these connotations.

Shannon Finley at Bischoff/Weiss
My final call of the day was at Bischoff/Weiss on Hay Hill, a short walk away in Mayfair. I hadn't been to this space before, and was pleased to stumble across an exhibition by Canadian painter Shannon Finley.
Finley paints small geometric abstracts whose forms are not dissonant with those of Phillips.
Once again a Modernist minimalism is invoked, this time through multi-layered translucent acrylic paint, offset by razor sharp edges - it is this attention to quality of construction that makes these works successful, and raises it above the rank and file of this well populated genre of contemporary painting.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

There is a Kingdom

Damien Hirst Doorways to the Kingdom of Heaven 2007 Butterflies and Household Gloss on Canvas

Plenty is being written about the Tate Modern's current Damien Hirst show so I don't particularly want to dwell on it here, but having looked around it a couple of times now I do keep coming back to these pieces particularly because of their connection to still life painting.
If the tradition of still life is to do with the isolation or collection of mundane objects (that is, things of the everyday) as a way of discussing larger themes in a rhopographic way, then these pieces would seem to do this very literally by actually bringing the object (in this case dead butterflies) onto the canvas, and trapping them there in a way that puts us in mind of the taxonomic displays of the pre-Modernist collector of specimens. Indeed, much of Hirst's oeuvre draws heavily on the history of the wunderkammer and associations of categorisation and classification.
Granted, Hirst is a long way from being the first to do this - there are plenty of Modern examples such as Picasso, Duchamp and Rauschenberg.
What is interesting here however is that the butterflies are employed precisely not as specimens of nature but rather as specimens of colour. Each brilliant wing becomes a coloured piece in the mosaic whole.
Whilst the obvious stained glass window motif is strongly apparent, there is a crucial difference in that these are very contemporary stained glass windows. Saints and narratives are replaced with geometric abstraction more reminiscent of eastern traditions. Form and colour replace any direct storytelling with mathematical repetition.
Franz Francken II Kunst und Raritatenkammer 1636

Detail of Doorways to the Kingdom of Heaven

For me there is a natural connection between these repetitive patterns and the decorative armour and shields I have been researching for my current paintings. These masterfully wrought objects contain their own worlds of narrative or abstraction, and were designed not as functioning armour at all but rather for display, giving them at once a magnificence and a futility - they will never perform the functions which their shapes evoke. 

Philip Rundell Shield of Achilles 1821 The Royal Collection

Using such objects in paintings increases this frustration of function; paintings of objects designed for display are even further removed from any sense of real action. Norman Bryson discusses this effect in relation to Willem Kalf's paintings of armour in his essay Abundance (Reaktion Books, 1990):

Divorced from use, things revert to absurdity; anticipating nothing from human attention, they seem to have dispensed with human attention, whose purpose and even existence they come to challenge.

Armour for Field and Tournament 1527 Royal Workshops Greenwich - Collection of Metropolitan Museum New York

Such objects, with their associations of power, privilege and cultural dominance make for rather formidable subjects for painting. They do not include but rather isolate the viewer, keeping them at a distance and warning them against any attempt at interaction. The associative, communal space of the still life table is replaced by the cold, impregnable, even unreal space of the museum display cabinet. And this metaphor is reinforced by the form of the objects; armour by definition is designed to keep others out.

Friday, 30 March 2012

Paintings Within Paintings

Work-in-progress 150x122 cms Oil on canvas 2012

 A growing theme in recent work has been paintings of paintings, or more precisely, paintings of objects that themselves contain a picture. This seems to function as a sort of secondary picture space, one situated within the overall confines of the physical picture space (i.e. the canvas). The example above is a work-in-progress based on an image of a Florentine altar piece containing 25 small picture panels.

 I think that the desire to paint these objects is partly an attempt to negotiate a way of incorporating other painting languages or subjects into the schema of my practice, which has come to be quite a specifically defined territory. Generally the paintings need to depict objects in a fairly high level of detail, and presented as a single object against a dark ground. Over the past couple of years I have attempted to paint different types of objects, or groups of objects, or painting in different languages (or styles) without much success. It seems that the painting-within-painting could resolve these issues by allowing me to broaden my range of references (or even 'quote' things that are ostensibly alien to my practice) without being inconsistent.
In the piece shown above, I have deliberately altered the language of the painted panels from those in the original image. Instead of the early Renaissance detail, the images are presented in broad-brushed impasto, a nod to Modernist distortions and re-imaginings such as Graham Sutherland's crucifixions. The altar piece frame itself of course has to be presented in a much more detailed, representational style.

 Here is an earlier work (from the start of 2011) that is as yet unfinished. I think it is the first proper 'painting-within-painting' I made. The image is loosely based on a Renaissance landscape and the frame is from a stock image. I have found this painting quite difficult hence haven't resolved it thus far, but I think it is a useful step in the progression of the current work.

Another long running interest for me has been decorative banners. I am currently planning a large painting of a banner (another type of painting-within-painting) taking reference from the rich visual tradition of trade union and military banners such as the wonderful examples below:

Apart from the strong aesthetic values of these objects (and it is important that they are objects - at once both object and image, a meeting of the material and illusionistic, just as a painting is) I am drawn to their links to heraldic tradition, and connotations of power, ideology and unison in service of a greater cause.

In the past I have made banners as artworks in their own right - such as the example below - and I was pleased to have the opportunity to show these pieces once again in a recent exhibition (Everything London 2012). This seems like a nice meeting place in my practice - as the banner as artwork object connects with the current plans to make a painting of a banner.
Imperial Standard 2007 210x150 cms Appliqued Fabric

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

The Labour of Painting

Willem Kalf Large Still Life with Armour
Over the past week I've been writing a research application based on my studio practice. Whilst initially confusing me, the process has ultimately helped me clarify my thoughts around what it is that lies at the very heart of my practice at an artist; that is, what are the 'live' issues in what I do (isn't that what all artists are trying to get at?). What I've realised is that it's not just about subject matter.

For a long time my studio practice, and thus my research interest, has stemmed from a fascination with Dutch still life, particularly the Ontbijtjes or 'Breakfast Scenes' of mid C17th painters such as Willem Kalf, Willem Claesz. Heda, Pieter Claesz and Jan Davisz., de Heem.
Elements from this genre such as the dark or sombre background, artificial light source and richly decorated objects have all become important constituents of my own paintings. I have found Norman Bryson's writing on these works particularly important, particularly his essay Abundance in the volume Looking at the Overlooked (Reaktion 1990).
In this essay, Bryson suggests that Willem Kalf's superlatively detailed rendering of ornate objects, themselves testament to the skills of the master metalworkers who wrought them, leads to a kind of symbolic emptying - like the effect of a double negative in mathematics:

The paintings are subject to the paradox of 'the supplement'....If these objects are already masterpieces, why should they be repeated in a second masterpiece? The duplication of elaborative work begins to point to a process that is as endless as it is without reason; the replica indicates a deficiency in the original object that will not be remedied by the supplement, but contaminates it and so to speak hollows it out. 
Bryson 1990 p. 126

The idea that a painting could potentially be so finely detailed that it actually surpasses (and so detracts from) its referent object is fascinating. Stories like that of Zeuxis and Parrhasius would suggest that painting's ultimate quest was always to be mistaken for life. But could it be that the masters of the Dutch still life (arguably one of the zeniths of representational painting) actually go one better?

This has led me to think about detailed painting in general. There seems to be a suspicion around it (particularly at the present time when looseness, gesture, the deitic mark or 'trace' of the artist seem to be championed once more from many corners) - that perhaps it is a self-indulgent quest, an ultimately pointless diversion from the quest for truly Great Art.

Johan Zoffany The Tribuna of the Uffizi
I was interested to see that the RA are shortly to host an exhibition of the work of Johan Zoffany, a German-born painter of the C18th who built a reputation as a society artist in England, and was known for his highly detailed catalogue-like works. It seems that even then there was a suspicion of such a high level of detail. According to Amanda Vickery in her piece A Roll in Gold Dust (Guardian Arts 03.03.2012) Zoffany was never accepted into the premier league of the contemporary artworld, and despite his clearly unnatural skill was dismissed by Joshua Reynolds (then president of the RA) as possessing mere 'mechanical dexterity', 'minuteness' and 'imitation'. 

This perhaps leads to the nub of the practiced-related side of my research interest; What lies at the heart of the desire of artists like myself to make highly detailed work? Can this quest lead to great painting, or merely to deluded self-gratification? Is it in some way an attempt to earn artistic merit through labour - a kind of Protestant work ethic of painting? 
The tension between control and gesture, between a high level of 'finish' and a looser, less contrived-feeling type of painterly language has always been something I've wrestled with, recently in more conscious ways than before. Perhaps it is time to turn the focus of my practice to this very issue.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

By the Power of Grayskull!

'Snake Mountain' - Collage, acrylic and watercolour on paper 420x297 mm 2012

'Castle Grayskull' - Collage, acrylic and watercolour on paper 420x297 mm 2012

Over the past couple of months I've found that the imagery of the castle playsets from the 1980s He-Man toys series keep coming into my mind as I've tried to find ways to focus ideas for paintings. I think it's partly that this was something I was a fan of as a child (though never actually owned), but also because they seem to sum up the idea of an immovable structure (i.e. the medieval-type fortress) translated into a portable, scaled down, all-in-one unit, like a traditional dolls house.
Of course, the pre-20th century dolls house was something only available to the children of the very wealthy, and was linked in form (and sometimes materials) to the wunderkammer. Some of the more elaborate dolls houses were probably as much to be admired by adults as to be played with by children.

The dolls house or playset as a miniature environment has been well documented and thought about, such as in Susan Stewart's On Longing.
For me, objects like Snake Mountain and Castle Grayskull come out of a very Hollywood appropriation of the European Gothic tradition (think Friedrich as imagined by Orson Wells). It's kitsch quotation of encapsulated, reductive history, tied up with the castle as a site or symbol of power and hierarchy. There's also the simplified embodiment of a highly polarised vision of Good and Evil.

I'm not sure how these initial collages will develop - possibly as paintings or screenprints, but I think the images themselves are quite successful in summing up something I've been trying to get at for a while, in a number of paintings and objects such as Sentinel (2010),  Men of the Mountain (2010), or the new untitled piece below.

Untitled Oil on canvas 700x500 mm 2012

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Formulating an Image of Integrity - More Sketches

Some small sketches/ideas for new paintings I have been experimenting with over the last week or so. I don't think there's too much to say about them at the moment other than they are attempts to combine several layers of source imagery in one image, whilst retaining some sort of integrity in the object as a whole. I want to see if multiple layers can be used without having the overall painting fragment in an overtly postmodern way.

The two images above are oil on board (roughly 40x25 cms) and the one below is a pen drawing on a print of an illumination from a Hebrew text in the British Library (Leviathan).

Contrary to what I said last week I am also continuing to work on the larger paintings as well...

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Back in the Studio

I'm back in the studio after the Christmas pause, and trying to reestablish my practice. It's strange how even a short break can make you feel quite detached from your own paintings, and you have to reacquaint yourself with them. Sometimes, the interruption causes an unfamiliarity that is never overcome, and you have to almost begin again, at least conceptually.
Here's an image of one of the new large paintings, which is still in its early stages:

 After working for a couple of days on this since the new year I've ground to a halt with it. It feels like a very mechanical labour which I feel quite detached from. It's led me to question the rational behind these single object paintings - what is really being added to the objects depicted? I feel that perhaps there needs to be more of a chance or responsive element to them.

I've started making some more watercolour sketches to try out ideas, such as these based on antique helmets:

The language is deliberately more painterly, and I think I'm attempting to re-understand the objects by depicting them less literally (literalness = deadness sometimes).
I'm also working with the idea of combining or overlaying several subjects in the same picture space - I'm not sure yet if this will be successful, but it feels like a positive direction.

I'm working on quite a few small pieces at once, moving from one to the other as necessary. This also helps with drying times. Over the next week or so I'll try to put up a few images of developing works.