4 Oct 2008

Maev Kennedy review in the Guardian of the Artist's Studio exhibition at Compton Verney

The ‘necessary insanity’ of chaos in the studio

There is a lot discussed about how artists work in the studio and what it means metaphorically, as a space for creativity; a state of mind of the artist etc. but ultimately, it is just a working space. Some people have an office or a potting shed that they retreat to; artists gravitate to a studio, through need. Look at the exhibition currently on at Compton Verney about Artists Studio's Compton Verney exhibition.

I have come to think a little more about how I work in my studio as I have had to do some renovations to the outside, I can begin to look objectively at it as a working space, however, I’d never consider it in terms of a romanticised space for the creative act, as it usually stinks of turps and I have to clamber over stuff to get to the paintings being worked on, and am usually unhappy with what comes from it.
However, in the words of James Elkins in his book ‘What Painting Is’ (Read a review of the book) you would believe that the painter in his studio works like this:
‘Working in a studio means leaving the clean world of normal life and moving into shadowy domain where everything bears the marks of the singular obsession. Outside the studio, furniture is clean and comfortable, inside, it is old and unpleasant. Outside walls are monochrome or pleasantly patterned in wallpaper; inside, they are scarred with meaningless graffiti. Outside, floors can be mopped and vacuumed; inside, they build up layers of crusted paint that can only be scraped away or torn up with the floor itself. The studio is a necessary insanity. Perhaps writers have insanities of paper, or of erasers, but they cannot compare with the multicoloured dementia caused by fluids and stone.’
A ‘necessary insanity’. I had not considered this as a way of looking at what takes place in the studio an ‘insanity’, and what is produced at the end, but Elkins is right. The reason for this is that you are only there for one thing, to paint. It is not about appearances, unless you have an immaculate studio, which would suggest little work being done (unless you are an obsessive-compulsive minimalist?) studio’s should be ready for action, get in, pick up where you left off and start painting..
Elkins goes on saying:
‘Waking each morning and going into a room suffused with the penetrating sharp odour of turpentine and oil, standing at the same table so covered with clotted paints that it no longer has a level to spot for a coffee cup, looking at the same creaking easel spattered with all the same colours-that is the daily experience of serious painters, and it is what tempts insanity. Some artists try to keep the studio at bay by keeping it neat, or by putting their easel in the corner of a larger room, but the effect is like cleaning an infection: no matter how well swabbed the wound may be, it is useless to pretend it is healthy, or that the infection does not exist.’
Well I’m not sure how many contemporary artists use easels rather than the walls or the floor, but I think we can get the point. The main thing is to ensure that your time in the studio is spent taking you somewhere..
As Brice Marden suggests, it’s how you exist in the studio that creates the works anyway, its already there:
‘The paintings come out of these studios really reflect the places. It’s not as if you are sort of conceptualists, going around applying some idea. Your idea is coming from how you exist within where you are. That is in the painting, its part of the whole expression.’
What interests me is how we look at painting and especially abstract paintings during the process of painting. There are a number of artists who have explored this, too numerous to mention, but ultimately this is what we seek, a visceral other-ness coupled with a physical object that a painting is. On page 88 Elkins explores this:
‘..it may be that the human mind can only think of one aspect at a time: either a painting is what it represents, or it is a fabrication done on a flat surface. Or perhaps it is possible to think of both the surface and what seems to be behind it at once, in a ‘twofoldness’ of attention that takes in both equally.’
But that requires much manoeuvring through conscious and unconscious understanding of where we are in the process:
Gerhard Richter talks about this in ‘The Daily Practice of Painting 1962-1993’ (Review of book by MIT press) in his entry for 18th May 1985, on page 121, he states:
‘When I paint an abstract picture, I neither know in advance what it is that I am aiming at and what to do about getting there. Painting is consequently an almost blind, desperate effort, like that of a person abandoned, helpless, in totally incomprehensible surroundings-like that of a person who posses a given set of tools, materials and abilities and has the urgent desire to building something useful which isn’t allowed to be a house or a chair or something else that has a name; who therefore hacks away in the vague hope that by working in a proper and professional way, he will ultimately turn out something proper and meaningful..anthing goes; so why do I often spend weeks over adding one thing? What am I making that I want? What picture of what?’

But to counterbalance Richter’s despair, we know why we are there in the studio, as the remarkable photographer Joel Meyerowitz has questioned in himself:
‘What are we trying to get to in the making of anything? We’re trying to get to ourselves. What I want is more of my feelings and less of my thoughts. I want to be clear. Whether you’re making images, poetry, painting, music or love, you should be totally enraptured by that, by the experience itself. That’s what it is about-the location of subject, it’s about the passage of the experience itself, in its wholeness, through you back into the world, selected out by your native instincts. That’s what artists do. They separate their experience from the totality, from raw experience, and it’s the quality of their selections that makes them visible to the world. What is the art experience about? Really, I’m not interested in making ‘Art’ at all. I never, ever, think about it. To say the world ‘art’ it’s almost like a curse on art. I do know that I want to try to get to myself. The older I get, the more indications I have about what it is to get closer to yourself. You try less hard. I just want to be.’
With that in mind, I want more of my feelings and less of my thoughts, it’s time for the studio..seeya

15 Sep 2008

Coming across some Patrick Heron prints in the foyer of Bedruthen Steps Hotel in Cornwall on a sunny January day.

I came across some of those classic 70’s prints at the Bredruthen Steps Hotel between Watergate Bay and Newquay on the North Coast. They were just inside the foyer, shaded from the bright white light of the January morning coming in from the beach with the tide.
The simplicity of these works is what we remember Heron for. They retain an intensity that suggest the colours, usually Cadmium Red, Vermillion and Dioxide Purple, actually vibrate next to each other in their organic lozenge shapes, tethered to their space, playing their part of the composition-oscillating colour!
This pair of modest sized prints had so much power compared to those of the landscape paintings of the coasts of Cornwall on the walls around them by other artists, in this lovely louche yet chic hotel. That these two prints should reflect so subtly the rocks, coves and pools that Cornwall is known and for it to be expressed so deftly in an abstract language by a master of British abstraction most probably unknown to many visitors who pass the prints on the way from the bar to the toilet and back to the bar again as we did. A distraction from the conversation, company, they retain your gaze, steady your balance as all good art should, they seem so aptly placed.
I have a soft spot for Patrick Heron and his paintings. There are few abstract painters in Britain of the last 50 years that achieved as much as he has as a painter, a critic, writer and educator. In post-war Britain, especially London, when Tate had a ‘the’ in front and wasn’t particularly Modern, there was little serious interest in abstraction, let alone in the work of the ‘fiddling rustics’ down in Cornwall known as the ‘St.Ives School’.
In a small way this began to change during the 1950’s and early 60’s, with the rise of Abstract Expressionism in the USA and a more sympathetic understanding in Europe of the significance abstraction played in modernist movements by artists such as Mondrian, Kandinsky, Albers, Masson and others. In time we have come to understand that they were the true modern painters compared with the figurative artists such as Bacon, Bratby and Freud always lauded so much by the British.
Heron kept plugging away, he had strong connections with Greenberg in America and many many American artists, as well as other European artists and movements such as the CoBrA Movement ( and he kept up a correspondence with with the enigmatic maverick Constant.) He was also a friend of Herbert Read and other writers, critics and dealers. As a critic himself, for the New Statesman among others, he was able to push ideas around abstraction to a level that had not been done before and is sadly still not as eloquently done by any of today’s contemporary painters.
Heron did much to blow his own trumpet and those of others, some his friends such as Peter Lanyon, William Scott, Terry Frost, Bryan Wynter and Willemina Barns-Graham.
He saw his generation of painters and especially himself, as following historically the modernist 'tradition' in painting after Braque, Bonnard, Cezanne and Matisse.
And so these subtle luminous prints go on oscillating, between the bar and the toilet, regardless of the temporary inhabitants knowledge of this truly British modern master.
(These two prints are from 1970 and are not from the Bedruthen Steps Hotel (they are however from the same print run and are courtesy of the Adam Gallery, Bath.)

Mel Gooding Lecture on Mary Fedden, ICIA, University of Bath

This was a fascinating lecture on the artist Mary Fedden by the art historian and biographer Mel Gooding. In this lecture we were taken through the works of Fedden's long career with specific focus on the paintings she made in the 1950’s and 60’s.

For me she is one of those artists that sits between abstraction and figuration in a way that only the British can. Not quite committing, yet bringing fourth a metaphysical landscape instead. In her most successful paintings ‘Hopjes’ from the mid sixties, ‘Blue Still Life’ from 1969 and other simple table top still life paintings, she is able to express, through paint, what she is thinking beyond the simple objects in front of her.

She explores the colour and the space between the objects, but also something else. Something that makes you see them as shapes first, surreal yet familiar, (influenced by her late husband the painter Julian Trevelyan) sitting on arched plains that drop down the picture plane in front of you, neither real nor imagined viewpoints but found ones created through the process of each painting.
Gooding discussed the ability Fedden has in transforming scenes of objects ‘alchemically’. How she creates ‘the mythic from the commonplace object’. There is a deep understanding of colour taken from both Braque's late ‘Atelier’ paintings and Matisse’s ‘Red Studio’ of 1911; where space, perspective and ‘objecthood’ are questioned through the act of seeing through painting.

The University of Bath now has a Fedden Room at No.16 Lansdown Crescent at the Vice Chancellors Office. This now comprises of four paintings and one drawing, including a recent donation from Fedden herself called ‘The Feather’ of 2007. These were exhibited alongside nine other paintings from local collections. An impressive little exhibition full of vitality.