Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Porpoise Driven Life

See what I did in the title? I made a pun! On the name of some completely naff self-help spiritual bollocks bestseller from the last decade. I'm actually in St Augustine Florida, the oldest city in the United States (if you discount the claim of Jamestown, Virginia--and all the Indian civilizations and settlements of the millenia preceding both of those). My wife Patty and I have come here for the last three years in a row, and it is full of delightful sightings that don't happen in our urban Chicago neighbourhood. To wit: porpoises curving out of the waters of the bay, glimpsed in groups and singly on our morning walk along the beach in front of our rented condo; osprey overhead, hovering in the air as they hunt for fishy prey, or calling loudly as they fly by with a fish wriggling in their talons:





On our very first stroll yesterday morning, we saw: a pelicanvention (copyright Patty McNair 2013), skimmers, gulls, osprey, sandpipers, and other birds that I don't even know the name of but which have thin legs and run very very fast when the waves come up the shore. And did I mention the porpoises?

I've been a city dweller for so long now that I know I can't live permanently anywhere else. Like I say to anyone who will listen: I only feel truly comfortable when I'm surrounded by five million people.


And yet, I never completely forget that I grew up close to a sea, surrounded by fields (blotted by coal mines, but anyway), with farms and horses near the small village of a couple of hundred people. Being closer to natural elements of water, sky, sand, and so many animals, is refreshing, a reminder of my old self that used to walk for hours through the fields to the cliffs overlooking the North Sea, a volume of Wordsworth's poems in my pocket. And when I'm in a place like this, my drawing starts to reflect it, too:



My studio in Chicago doesn't have windows, so spending a week next to the ocean is almost literally like opening the windows and letting some light in to my vision.  I look up from this table where I am typing, and I see a green lawn lit brightly by the morning sun, a line of ferns that marks  the dunes, and immediately above that, so close it seems I can touch it, a prussian blue slab of sea. Next week, we return to the frozen north, and preparations for a new semester of teaching, an exhibition in California, and so on. But for now, we're content to wander off to the beach as often as we can, and let ourselves be led around by the porpoises for a bit.

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Essential Always Remains Invisible

A few days ago, I went to a memorial service at the Music Institute of Chicago, in Evanston, which is in a fine temple-style Christian Scientist building not far from the campus of Northwestern University:


I was there to commemorate Gertrude Grisham, the mother of a dear friend of my wife Patty who died recently (Gertrude, that is) at the age of 87. Gertrude was a remarkable woman who was born in Austria, came to the States in the 1950s, and then had a career of notable achievements, perhaps the chief one being her decades long post as diction coach for the Chicago Symphony Chorus. The deep affection and gratitude of the musicians who were helped by her was in full evidence on Wednesday night. The Orion Ensemble played two of Gertrude's favourite pieces of chamber music (by Mozart and Mahler), and no fewer than 60 singers from the Chorus took to the stage to sing Brahms and then Handel. There were moving speeches by family and friends, and Austrian wine to drink in the lobby afterwards.

I met her a couple of times at the Steans Institute in Ravinia, which is the summer program of chamber music and vocal master classes that takes places at the same time as the famous music festival. A college friend of mine who is a classical pianist was one of the accompanists, and I would go up to Ravinia to hear him play. When I told Gertrude that my friend was playing, she said something like "Delightful!", and then a little smile appeared on her lips, and she said: "Watch what he does when he first takes the stage: he always adjusts the stool, no matter what." 

The bell sounded, the audience took their seats, the lights dimmed, and the singer and my friend walked onstage. Sure enough, as he sat at the piano, he leaned first to one side and the other to adjust the height. At that moment, Gertrude turned round to face me, a sly smile on her lips again, and she just nodded slowly. 

It's a moment of humour and warmth that I will never forget.

And how marvellous that she was sent off into the Underworld to the sounds of music, the greatest art, and by Viennese composers, its greatest practitioners. Few of us would be fortunate enough to be eulogized in such a manner. 


Saturday, December 14, 2013

D.H. Lawrence on Cezanne

Paul Cezanne, "Still Life with Apples"
I have a book called Poets on Painters which contains essays long and short by many well-known twentieth century writers about artists. Here is the English novelist D. H. Lawrence talking about some of Cezanne's paintings:

Cezanne wanted something that was neither optical nor mechanical nor intellectual. And to introduce into our world of vision something which is neither optical nor mechanical nor intellectual-psychological requires a real revolution. It was a revolution Cezanne began, but which nobody, apparently, has been able to carry on.
He wanted to touch the world of substance once more with the intuitive touch, to be aware of it with the intuitive awareness, and to express it in intuitive terms. That is, he wished to displace our present mode of mental-visual consciousness, the consciousness of mental concepts, and substitute a mode of consciousness that was predominantly intuitive, the awareness of touch. In the past the primitives painted intuitively, but in the direction of out present mental-visual, conceptual form of consciousness. They were working away from their own intuition. Mankind has never been able to trust the intuitive consciousness, and the decision to accept that trust marks a very great revolution in the course of human development...When he said to his models: "Be an apple! Be an apple!" he was uttering the foreword to the fall not only of the Jesuits and the Christian idealists altogether, but to the collapse of our whole way of consciousness, and the substitution of another way.  If the human being is going to be primarily an apple, as for Cezanne it was, then you are going to have a new world of men: a world which has very little to say, men that can sit still and just be physically there, and be truly non-moral. That was what Cezanne meant with his: "Be an apple!" (1929)
In much of this, Lawrence is writing about himself rather than Cezanne, I think. For us, it's a settled fact of art history that Cezanne was the founder of a more scientific way of looking at nature, and of analysing reality. Lawrence sees the break from the traditions of realist painting in Cezanne's art, but he claims Cezanne for the very Lawrentian cause of living your life by following your most essential human desires and urges. Lawrence grew up, like me, in a mining town, and came to despise what he saw as the effects of industrialism on modern lives, not merely in terms of poverty and physical degradation, but the way he thought it led to a whole world of mechanised human beings who were fucked up on the inside, by suppressing their natural animal instincts. A lot of that "he felt the desire in his blood" stuff makes us laugh, nowadays, and rightly so. But there's a lot of stuff here to agree with -- particularly that idea of the muteness of the object that Cezanne tried to capture ("Be an apple!")

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

My Nelson Mandela Story

One of my sketches from Cuba
All right, I never actually met Nelson Mandela. But his death last week reminded me of something that happened ten years ago, when I was in Cuba.
At the end of my third week in Havana, I decided to take a bus to visit the town of Trinidad de Cuba, about 150 miles east in the middle of the country. It’s a Unesco world heritage town because of the high number of well-preserved colonial era buildings, including an ornately decorated church in the centre. Well, on my first evening there, I ended up at a club watching some excellent musicians perform traditional Cuban son. I was sitting quite close to them, and sketching them while they played. This caught the eye of the trumpeter, and when the group finished their set he asked me if I would show him my drawings. When he discovered that I spoke reasonably good Spanish, he invited me to join him and his friends in the town square for an after-concert open air party. My feeling of good fortune and being highly flattered was not remotely diminished by the quick realization that all the drinks were going to be on me.
We got to the square after midnight, and the talk and the music continued for several hours. A few other Cuban guys joined the group, and even if they didn’t have an instrument to play, they joined in by tapping the sides of the tables or clapping their hands in complicated cross-rhythms. Most of my temporary new friends were afro-Cubans, in their twenties or thirties, but there were a couple of guys who looked a little older. I started talking to one of them, probably in his mid-forties, with a shaven skull and a thin moustache. I can’t remember how we got on to the subject, but he mentioned that he had been in the Cuban army fighting overseas in the 1970s. It quickly dawned on me what this might mean: “In Angola?” I asked. Yes, yes, he replied, pleased that I knew something about that part of Cuban and African history. He was one of the many thousands of troops that Castro sent over to fight in Angola on the side of the liberation movement, which meant engaging in some fierce combat with CIA-backed South African soldiers. I remember reading about all this at the time, how the white South African prime minister, Vorster, wanted to defeat the liberation movement in order to prop up a sympathetic apartheid regime in his own back yard. And here I was in the middle of Cuba, several decades later, sitting next to a man who was talking excitedly about travelling halfway across the world and (in his words) “bloodying the nose of the racists”. I asked him if I could shake his hand, and told him I was honoured to meet him.
The connection to the ANC’s struggle in South Africa is explained this way by Edward George in his book “The Cuban Intervention in Angola”:
 The internal repercussions of the Angolan debacle were felt quickly when, on 16 June 1976 – emboldened by the FAPLA-Cuban victory – the Soweto Uprising began, inaugurating a period of civil unrest which was to continue up until and beyond the collapse of apartheid.”
During the 1980s in Britain, I went on anti-apartheid marches, attended concerts in support of the ANC, always gave the thumbs up when I passed the permanent protest group camped outside the South African embassy in Trafalgar Square—all the easy stuff that privileged left-leaning westerners did then. The passing of Nelson Mandela reminded me of that encounter in 2001, and also of a fact that shouldn’t be forgotten: sometimes, the only answer to fascism is not just to sign a petition, but to engage in armed struggle.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

From the Studio, Part Whatever

At the end of 2010, I began working on a set of 18" x 24" panels, that I posted about here regularly during the first few months of working on them. Gradually, I posted less and less, as I got stuck with them and worked on them less and less. But every six months or so since then, I have taken some of these panels out and worked a little more on them, to the extent that the first coat is now buried beneath many layers of stuff.

Well, god help me, I pulled one of them out today, and worked on it for a day:


If I can recall correctly, the media that I've used over three years are: acrylic paint, acrylic gels and medium, airbrush pigment, gesso, modelling paste, ink, and oil pastel. If I used a texture, or I drew a shape, what I had in mind were things to do with coal, and mining, just the same as the short film I just completed. Some of the abstract marks still derive ultimately from remembered shapes of machinery, pipes, and so on.

For this latest foray, I took out lots of work on Japanese paper (ink drawings and prints), tore them into strips, and began collaging them to the surface using acrylic medium. It produces a pleasing extra layer of tone and texture, covering up the preceding layers but not entirely. Here is a close-up of one part:


The fibres of the paper are working with the black ink and acrylic paint underneath. I like the effect, though who knows whether I will call this picture 'done' -- after three years! -- or whether I'll keep working on it until 2016.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Against Spectacular Art

I see a lot of art these days. I see it online, via all the blogs and websites I have bookmarked. I see it in galleries and museums in Chicago, which I visit more regularly since I started writing articles about art for publications like Time Out and Hyperallergic. I see it in the corridors and studios of the building where I have my own studio. It gets tiring sometimes, certainly, but there’s one strain of art in particular that I’m growing very tired of—spectacular art.

By that, I mean objects and two-dimensional works that make a strong visual first impression, most often because they are made from unusual combinations of materials. Examples: portraits made from winding thousands of threads around the heads of pins embedded in a panel, so that the face gradually emerges from the accumulation of the unlikely material. Thousands of post-it notes apparently suspended in mid-air in a forest (created through digitally altered photos). Trompe l’oeuil face painting. Timelapse graffiti. Insanely gigantic sculptures of horses’ heads next to a river. Anything by Yayoi Kusama.

All this stuff definitely makes you say “Wow” when you see it. The level of skill, the time consumed in the making, is all impressive. It’s possible that all the work just cited makes people feel something emotionally, too. That’s fine. What I object to is that this kind of art is increasingly becoming what people think art should be, which in turn presents the danger that this is mostly what more art will become for the near future. If it doesn’t hit you like a big explosion of fireworks straight away, if it isn’t made from unusual combinations of materials, if it doesn’t fool your eye, then it might get passed over, even considered not to be art.

But I think the best art is unspectacular, less concerned with flash, and definitely unconcerned with the instant effect. There’s a place for unusual materials (and every artist should experiment, constantly), but only if it leaves room for something as old fashioned as paint, and wood carving, and all those boring bourgeois activities. So today I am standing up for grey paintings and drawings, things that don’t suck up to you via hot colours, or subjects that are comforting and familiar:


Cy Twombly

I am standing up for slow work over fast work:

Agnes Martin

Gerhard Richter

I am standing up for things that are not “colossal”, but small and indirect, that take time to reveal their meaning to you:


Christian Boltanski

With grey works of art, there's no room to hide, and your skills stand revealed in their barest essence:


John Tomlinson

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