Sensationalists: people who might convince us.

I have covid, and maybe some of that ‘brain fog’ so this may be foolish on all kinds of levels. But I want to write something about modern art and I have just watched Saatchi, Hirst, Emin & co on the tellybox.

Let’s start with a wee bit of credit. BBCiplayer Arts is a treasure trove; one which I dip into regularly, especially when that What’s On, Bruv? moment drops. (There’s always something on the iplayer).

More rank positivity: it’s my opinion that the overwhelming majority of artists (yup, even contemporary ones) work with a huge amount of integrity and even honour. They ask the Big Questions for us and almost without exception their work is deeper, better and more multi-layered than we perceive. Broadly, we chronically undervalue what they do.

Public understanding of and respect for modern art is generally an embarrassment, reflective of the stupidity and bigotry of (for example) The Daily Mail – which unsurprisingly features in the 3-part series.

Morons at the Mail, poor or tokenistic arts education and profound levels of ignorance have engineered a situation where we are a) visually illiterate b) suspicious and small-minded and c) too bloody lazy to stand in front of an artwork and let it do its job – beguile us, transport us, challenge us. This, for what it’s worth, is my context; the belief that art matters and that artists carry that privilege of being our conscience with courage and often a deep, deep, incorruptible honesty.

I’m happy to out myself as some kind of enthusiast rather than a bona fide expert. I watch and read about art and even Theories of Art. ( I know, weird). So Sensationalists, a series about Young British Artists/that London scene, whilst not necessarily being top of the list, was always going to get a look.

I found it relatively disappointing. The subtitle ‘Bad Girls and Boys of British Art’ maybe didn’t do us any favours. It wasn’t entirely cheap and headlinetastic but the casual clumping-together of two very different social phenomena – punk and the dance/rave scene – was just one example of rather lazy inference. Those warehouse parties were all bout loved-up escapism. Punk spat at the politics of the universe and the depravity and (yes!) immorality of capitalism/the Music Bizz.

I’m not sure if any of the YBA were punks. There was subversion, yes, of the laughable Arts Establishment and there was lots of punky mischief. And of course that whole being on the lash thing smacks of ‘edginess’. But the utterly central role of Saatchi and (some of) the artists’ complicity in both the rather shameless hedonism and ultimate gentrification of parts of East Landun do ask questions. Whilst respecting that right and even imperative for artists to ask those Big Questions, might we ask why much of the YBA cannon is apolitical? (Cue the arguments for it being ‘bigger than politics’)…

Hirst is a fascinating man. Perverse, savvy, brilliant and possibly lost. I may need to look harder at the whole of his output because it’s ver-ry easy to conclude that his obsession with the business of art is a joke that only needed telling once. I really don’t want to traduce him so let’s put on the record the signature contribution – telling, shocking, reverberating, truly powerful works of art. (You know which ones). Installations which announced something new and did transform a feebly necrophiliac industry. But, in the absence of a killer interview or similar, and with the sense of potential wankerdom looming largeish- Groucho Club Laddism, endless wealth-gathering – what are we to make of him?

My default position remains. That shark/those cattle were profound.

Sensationalists is okaay and I recommend you watch. Understand we need Popular Arts Coverage but I wanted and think the seismic lurch into scary, conceptual art required some elite-level voices. (They don’t have to, obvs) but many wonderful artists talk or write spectacularly about art, or their work.

A recent doc on Munch and Emin utterly vindicated the latter as a Serious Artist. Her real, human messiness and her cheapish, temporary East End Squat-zone Posse mischief rightly got an airing in the series but, interestingly, pretty much the only Brilliant Mind on display in Sensationalists was Jake Chapman. (I know – FUCKFACEs!)

Emin can talk. Chapman can plainly talk. Given the poor understanding abroad for the leap into Art of Ideas, we needed more articulate people. People who might convince us.

Levels of Hurt.

Bale’s two interventions. Ramos. Karius. Salah. Wow.  The word is probably ‘dramatic’.

Dramatic but cruel? Dramatic and relatively just? Depends where you’re at. As a neutral, the result felt a tad generous to the slightly haughty Spain-based gentlemen but they were (in some sense) classier and more comfortable on the night. Predictably.

Modric was absurdly unhurried as usual; Marcello – without engaging annoyingly flamboyant mode – was cool. The Liverpool midfield were not; most of the Red Men, were not.

For much of the game, Milner and Wijnaldum and Henderson fluffed things or threaded passes straight to the opposition. Both the Englishmen did that thing where they make the case against themselves, as top international players. They looked bloody ordinary – and one-paced.

Wijnaldum was mostly worse than that, for the first hour plus,  but almost looked to have settled, arguably unhelpfully, by about the eightieth minute.

The passing out from defence was similarly twitching between the poles of freneticism and wastefulness. Klopp seemed generally impassive on the sidelines but the disappointment at the level of sheer nervousness and consequent lack of fluency and fire must have hurt him. Not much worse than not turning up for a massive, massive game.

By my reckoning only Mane and Robertson did themselves justice – certainly in terms of forward, or forward-thinking play.

Sure we can credit Modric (mainly) for the suppression of the Liverpool Way, but I can’t be the only one who (whilst acknowledging Real’s impressive ease) also feels they might really have been vulnerable to the kind of exhilirating rampage Klopp’s team have been serving up all year.

Instead Ramos and Morcello and co went relatively untested.

Of course it’s easy to be critical after the event but I did wonder during the game why the Liverpool coaches were not more animated and maybe proactive. (Presumably Klopp tried to light a bonfire at halftime, rather than counselling calm and measured improvement?)

If Klopp was content to concede possession and look to counter-attack – that’s maybe only to be expected, right? – then okaaaay, except that conceding possession against the most successful team in European Cup/Champions League history will surely invite trouble in the end? Plus – in my view critically – Liverpool have thrived via a pacy, open matrix rather than an italianate(?) deliberately staccato slow-then-alarmingly-quick approach.

Firmino wants to flick things and move; Mane wants to run, Salah wants to turn and race. Much of this starts from halfway and/or springs from periods of pressure,  from within the energy and context of an athletic, confident, free-running team. In my view that kind of team might be more of a threat to Ramos’s relative lack of legs, Morcello’s arrogance etc etc.

In short I think Klopp missed a trick – or his players were too awestruck to express their natural way. That’s a tad frustrating.

The genuinely sad and inevitably damaging removal of Salah was of course a factor – though already Liverpool’s performance seemed both muted and on balance likely to stay that way. The dancing Egyptian might plainly have unzipped the Madrid backline at any moment and the watching world was robbed of much of that frisson.

In terms of Match-winning Moments, let’s concentrate on Bale’s extraordinary overhead. Throw in the fact that it was *more possible* for a left-footer to do what he did than a right… and we are still left with something impossible. Impossible and magnificent and staggeringly, wonderfully worthy. And how hilarious that all of us thought immediately of Ronaldo’s ego flinching at the sight?

The other Madrid goals were clangers off-the-scale: mortifying to watch. Paul Hayward has rightly led the calls for understanding of the possible dangers around these freakish and traumatic moments. Let’s just add that maybe we all have a kind of duty of care to Karius and then move on, hoping that he can, with help and support,  gather himself and respond.

Madrid are champions and they deserve it. They may be fortunate though, that the real Liverpool did not show up; that Liverpool might have hurt them.

Playing to the Gallery (the book!) – Grayson Perry.

As I write that mixture of shock, anger and frankly depressive disquiet prevails. In an extraordinary week for world affairs – I’m thinking Paris and Nigeria here – my own daft orbit has swung wildly between healthy titillation and Appalled of Pembs.

Before the irreligious scumbags from Boko Haram and (who knows? Al Qhaeda?) did their work in Africa and North West Europe, I’d been enjoying that simple pleasure of reading something upful. Despite being conflicted about that book’s place or relevance in a) my head and b) the Universe right now, I intend to go on abard it anyway. Because whilst this book is not remotely about the means by which we oppose radical Islam, it does contain truths about making meaning which I believe powerfully relevant – always – and maybe particularly when homo sapiens lurches back towards the swamp.

Please listen while I say this: there are rich and beautiful things (that I am happy to call invincible) which can represent us humans with a kind of defiant grace. We need these things – let’s use these things.

The book is Grayson Perry – Playing to the Gallery.

Grayson Perry is a funny old bloke. Maybe that’s not an appropriate start – not for a kosher look at yer average book on Art Theory. Except that this book, unsurprisingly, is like him, Grayson, an engaging mixture of colourful parries and friendly fends around what’s real or profound or material in life and in contemporary art. It’s an antidote to cynicism, full of good-natured one-liners aimed at the various intellectual stratospheres we space-hop through together. It’s therefore not (al-ley-luyah!) any of the following; arid, dull or impenetrably dense. In fact there’s a kind of juvenile (and I think I do mean that in a good way) zeal running through; playful, yes, but defiant about the integrity of most contemporary artists and the nobility of that calling.

So the essence of ‘Playing to the Gallery’ is lightly campaigning, de-mystifying, educational veering-to-populist rather than cerebral. The cover spiel makes plain that this baby is certainly not
sucking up to an Academic Elite.

No. It ain’t. ‘Playing to the Gallery’ is anti-pomp and anti cobblers. It’s full of friendly exclamation marks (marked down, I know, by the intelligentsia) and arguments deflowered where possible of their museum-speak to welcome in – indeed to really encourage in – the or’nary human.

Some facts. This book is lifted from or sculpted out of the Reith Lectures that Perry gave in 2013. If you listen to the first of them on the BBC Radio Four website then once you’ve have cringed your way through Sue Lawley’s prolonged itemisation of his clobber, you will be immediately immersed in a whole lot of love for the man. There are cheers and gales of laughter. He rips it up as well as reveals, or proffers insights. It’s a hoot.

The book isn’t a word-for-word re-run of those gorgeously garrulous lectures but that’s absolutely where it’s centred. Containing chapters named for the four performances at the lectern, ideas fleshed out a little or trimmed of the live banter. The book could be either a souvenir for those who loved the lectures or a touchstone (perhaps) independently.

Perry immediately (in a prelude called How much?!) de-Ivory Towers the scene by relating the epiphanic tale of how The Archers revealed to him the profound integration of contemporary art into general life. But, typically, this is the springboard for a declaration of faith –
If there’s one message I want you to take away it’s that anybody can enjoy art and anybody can have a life in the arts – even me! For even I – an Essex transvestite potter, have been let in by the art world mafia.

Sure, he’s saying, the art world may seem to want to exclude us normal folks, to sieve us out via the intimidating glamour or bewildering language or obscure purpose of its protagonists but it’s possible – and indeed necessary and nourishing – to get the fuck in there(!)

Democracy Has Bad Taste concerns that thorny-delicious debate over judgements on quality –
what are the criteria… and who tells us it’s good?

I suspect elite level academics may disagree but it is my contention that Perry is no mug. He appreciates well here, the conditioning and the self-consciousness of the novice viewer and the uppity, sometimes excluding brilliance of the Art Circle.

(Nowadays) To judge a work on its aesthetic merit is to buy into some discredited, fusty, hierarchy tainted with sexism, racism, colonialism and class privilege. It’s loaded, this idea of beauty, because where does our idea of beauty come from?

We are thus rallied towards rather profound questions on validity and – dare we say it? – truth.

In Beating the Bounds, Marcel’s Duchamp’s position at the very birthplace of much of our angst is considered. The magnificent subversion-of-all-things that was Duchamp’s urinal – his declaration that anything was art that an artist chose to be so – is revisited repeatedly to ask questions about where modern(ist?) notions of legitimacy have come to us from… and where they have travelled. Ultimately, Perry’s wonderfully circular story of how Duchamp’s urinal was effectively lost (and its significance almost wasted) before a potter was commissioned to re-make one from grainy photographs is one of the highlights of the book.

In this second chapter our quirky pal Grayson cracks the whip – and I do mean that – so we have a bitoffalarf as we are bundled round the problems or undiscovered joys of the parish. Perry offers further ways in to the arguments around where art is at… and how we might recognise it.

Refreshingly, there are few conclusions anywhere in this mini-tome; the artist does suggest, however – in Nice Rebellion, Welcome In! (Chapter Three) – that

I don’t believe there is an avant-garde anymore…
He goes on

But if we are at the final state of art then I’d like to end on a positive note and quote the philosopher of art Arthur C Danto. He said ‘If the age of manifestos had a political parallel in ethnic cleansing, then in the age of pluralism we have a model of tolerant multi-culturalism.’

Whoa. The Age of Pluralism – multi-culturalism. I can see in the art world this may be or this may seem how things are moving. Wow.

This may be an appropriate moment for me to close the book and gaze wistfully into the middle distance. Then say something unwisely woolly and positive. So, being positive, I will.

I believe in Grayson Perry, the Essex trannie/good bloke/artist. I rate his work more now than before – because I am understanding better. I have always shared his conviction – expressed in these lectures – that we the audience might have to put a little work into appreciating art. That there is value in that effort, in part because what is revealed includes the life-affirming notion that most artists are genuine, committed people looking to share meanings with us and, who knows maybe offer leadership, sustenance or hope in a mad, mad world.

I for one hold up my fist, my torch, my pencil for that aspiration against the horrors of un-love, of intolerance and extreme bigotry.

Llareggub – Peter Blake/Dylan Tomas.

Homage is such a weird one; part most personal, part public ablution of some other greater one’s feet. At whatever level it’s clearly revealing of both sides of a (typically) unbalanced relationship but when both idolised and genuflector-alike stand as considerable forces in The Arts, weightier baggage is lumped onto the laundry-cart.

It could be that the necessary cleansing routine for us ordinary folks includes the bawling-out of our deference but a) this is often from within some protected cohort of friends, family or fans and b) nobody’s listening – not really. But for a figure of stature – like Peter Blake say – to come out and darkling thrush his humble joy in the presence of some other, greater genius is well, significant.

This is not meant as some entrée to sychophancy. I can’t stand the idea that artists are better than the rest of us – although (in contradiction) the contribution real artists make is, for me, central to the quality of life itself. I mean specifically that there is likely to be meaning in the fact of the public adoration of one world-renowned artist for another. And Blake’s sincere but gobsmacking, painstaking, deliberate and normal-life-denying love for ‘Under Milk Wood’ is – when you are confronted with the scale of it – phenomenal.

Twenty-eight years and counting. Zillions of man hours that could have been spent on other ‘productive’ things. Used instead to tickle or tease out 170 (and the rest!) mini collages or water-colour scenes or pencilled portraits from some drunken Welshman’s ‘Play for Voices’. What is that all about? Obsession? Love? Vulnerability, even, to some sense of his own inadequacy? I visited Oriel y Parc in St Davids, Pembrokeshire to get a proper look – at Llaregubb.

In the sunken but airy, slightly creamily-lit gallery and…
Ok, so we get told the following; Blake’s been doing this Dylan Thomas thing since about 1985. At college (much earlier) ‘Welsh students’ had stoked his interest but the genesis of this project – or more accurately another Dylan Thomas project – came around the mid-Eighties. When that originally-proposed book of etchings was abandoned (apparently because it was a struggle in every sense) Blake continued with his Under Milk Wood obsession as a form of extra-curricular ‘hobby’.

But why this – Under Milk Wood -and why this intensity?

Knowing too little of Blake’s work to bypass these questions, I needed and was fascinated to break into the link between these two extraordinary and extraordinarily different men. So I cheated and listened to or read more of the background material provided by the gallery.

The painter/artist (in filmed interview) rather flatly describes the ‘separate me’ who is the illustrator – the non-painter, the other bloke – who makes this Milk Wood stuff of an evening, after a day’s work. He is not so much restrained as simply quiet; a quiet, serious but madly zealous fan, then? Quietly-voraciously zealous rather than madly anything, was my impression. In truth – you can’t help but calibrate along with the interview – Peter Blake is pleasingly unpretentious but a smallish, dare I say dullish personality.

Like his handwriting beneath the pictures he is orderly but yes, so undemonstrative he may appear small-hearted. Hard, then, to immediately reconcile this on-screen, quintessentially English keeper of deep secrets with the Welsh torrent himself.

The cod psychologist in anyone works overtime in situations like this. (Erm, or is that just me?) The real live artist discussing the real live art in front of us. O-kaaay. But he doesn’t get asked ‘why Thomas?’ Or ‘why Milk Wood?’ so we must either go to the work for that which confirms or denies or figures, or simply close down the detective instinct. Who needs reconciliation? Who needs explanation?

What matters is the stuff on the walls (alright) but it feels right to offer a doubts-and-all response, a personal response and this began with concern at what felt like a lack of passion; or the lack of a key into that passion. The admittedly short film provided suggested that Blake isn’t the sort to rave colourfully in conversation, even when (surely?) measuring out that which he treasures. Meaning the fear that he may be a (prosaic? Skilled but mechanical?) builder of metaphorical train sets in some spotless attic did occur.

It is not until he offers a snippet of

secret information
on the
disguised portraits… including Terry Wogan as a woman… and Billy Piper

that encouragingly fecund tones begin to bubble out, gently.

I remind myself – or perhaps Blake does? – that this is the geezer who was poptastically famous in the sixties, who dun that seminal album cover, who was all about hallucinogenic brightness… or something.

Instinctively, I go look at the Portraits. They are (ahem) quietly sensational. Beyond alive; they are life-affirming in their twinkling, mischievous, animal presence. It’s a game-changer. Evans the Death, Nogood Boyo and Mr Ogmore-Pritchard and Mr Ogmore are visceral or tragic or ghostly or wicked but what they have in common is a triumphant presence – they are with us, here and now. The doubts have gone.

On to the Dreams, which similarly float free from the shackles-that-might-have-been. They too have their own, brilliant, independent being. The pictures are no longer merely piggybacking ‘captions’ –

Now behind the eyes and secrets of the dreamers in the streets rocked to sleep by the sea, see the titbits and topsy-turvies, bobs and buttontops, bags and bones, ash and rind and dandruff –

they are works of art, in fact. And if there is a language in these pictures, let it work; read it; it trills and dances – voluptuously – or it nails that sense of a bloke with all his daft and tragic dimensions. There is suddenly a flow, a dialogue, a shared exuberance between poet and illustrator… and onlooker.

In retrospect I made the error of underestimating at first contact the apparent modesty of this show against the flooding brilliance of the inspiration. I walked into Oriel y Parc and feared smallness. Foolish. Lazy and foolish. Wrongheaded too to wonder if it may have been a tactical error by the curator/gallery/artist/his ‘people’(?) to set the thing out with Illustrations of scenes and locations up front; but this I did wonder. Because these pictures are simply less immediately arresting than the Portraits and the Dreams further in to the exhibition.

Only when I had read my way into the pictures (and actually contemplated at some length the triumph that are the Portraits and many of the Dreams) did I successfully gather in the whole experience. Lesson learned.

Blake makes both his reverence for and his sheer enjoyment of Milk Wood gorgeously explicit. In the Portraits he captures a winking Mr Pritchard, a Voice who might secretly be Samuel Beckett. In the Dreams, Mrs Rose Cottage’s eldest Mae smoulders in something close to fire, nakedness and poster-paint whilst Sinbad Sailors sincerely and absurdly

…hugs his damp pillow whose secret name is Gossamer Beynon.

It’s alright for it to be a lot of fun, this art thing.
This exhibition now goes back to the owner but I am informed that a New York show is a distinct possibility. Go mad and unquietly extravagant. Go pay homage.

Your own… personal… Mu-nich.

The Munich Trove. What a great story. The spiriting away of proper high-end modern art – Chagall/Picasso/Dix etc etc – by sleeping cohorts of either greedily ambivalent or conflictingly discerning Nazis, bearing canvases through dark tunnels in hay-carts or on dark, dark trains. Or by packing them on reluctant mules for clandestine hikes over the Schwarzwald. Or somewhere – somewhere misty. This is surely so-o fabulous we may have to wheel out the You Couldn’t Dream It Up subheading. More fun though, methinks, to dream up our own, life-changing stash…

Except maybe not a stash; not something the buggers could legitimately take back. No – NO – a gift, a spectacular, real, fuck right off GIFT that The Authorities could gawp at all they liked but never take away. So you can choose to openly display it – put one in the conservatory dwarling, put one right there in the front fucking window!! Wherever you want. And there’s no denying it’s yours. Phew. Woddablast that would be. In my head now it’s already sorted.

So yeh My Inheritance of absurdly wonderful art-stuff happens thissaway – in a whirl. I’m in Venice… and there’s a mighty storm… and everything must surely be lost ’til I swallow up the sea and spit it back out, harmlessly into er… The Dalmatians. And the Richest Man Ever Ever –who has been watching from an unsinkable mega-schooner thing, whilst supping fine Prosecco – sees, and promptly magics up, without my knowledge, the following. For me. To keep.

(If that was all a bit urgent it’s because I just want to get to the bit where I think about which paintings really quick, okay?) Because, yeh, it feels like I kindof get to choose… or does the Rich Bloke like … read my mind?

Hmm. Not clear on that. But whatever, suddenly, they’re all there! On the carpet. With the dog still sleeping under-neath! WOW!! Or should that be POW!!?!!

You Couldn’t Dream It Up But…

The first thing I see is yeh – the biggest. Back there, behind the dog, the parcels and everything. Parked against the wall but taking up half the goddam room. A ginormous box-like rectangle, like a fish-tank only I don’t know yet what’s in it because it’s wrapped in stuff. If I unwrap it now… OMG!! Shark!!

Settle down and think.  And try to be articulate.

Never known how much I like this but ‘The Impossibility of Death or Whatever Thingy’ – Damien Hirst. Bloody great shark in the living room. And what’s the label saying? Oh yeh. Maybe the title is massive on this one. ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’. How brooding and primeval and slow (actually) and bewitching and swallowing and challenging is that? Great work, RB and thanks for the early monster red-herring curve-ball. It’s awesome. I know that’s a totally naff and inadequate word for it but close up, that is awesome. And yeh – a surprise.

Whoa. Okay so clambering into this pile here now and… it’s hilarious this. Propped against each other. Just plonked down, pretty much.

Oh, okay – this is great. This is great. This I’ve always loved or been drawn to; David Bomberg – The Mud Bath. Always just thought it’s remarkable and somehow has so many levels, only about half of which I’m getting. But it really pays to look. Nationalism and chaos and blood/mud, I imagine… but there’s something both kinetically charged and sophisticated going on here. It’s a radical British treasure; absolutely e-ssen-tial. Nice one – great start.  Chuffed with that.

Just realised we’re effectively into a Desert Island Discs thing here. How groovy is that? 20-odd artefacts here though, by the look. And they’re all ‘modern’, I think. So it is my Munich.

I’m just going to pull them out and see what’s here. Almost brutally. Line them up or separate them. Jesus. Be careful enough Vinnybach.

Okay, this is really interesting because RB has obviously caught hold of something here; my sense of what’s bloody magnificent or powerful or attractive, rubbing up against conflicting (used that word already I know but it’s right, again) emotions around the artist. Lucian Freud. Part of me thinks genius, part of me thinks brute. The flesh and the eyes; painted or flippin’ ravaged? Incredibly sexual workings-over of the subjects – the people. Unbelievable – no! Corporeal/supra-believable. Hugely, intimidatingly present bodies… and those eyes.

Brilliantly, this one’s a subtler variation. Girl in bed, 1952. But it’s still all eyes. Beautiful. Welling. Meaning (I’m guessing) this man can’t have been a complete brute; there’s just too much poignancy here. What’s next?

Okay. So we’ve gone back a bit. Vlaminck. And I saw a painting of his in Helsinki, I think… but was it this one? No. But it was… it made me think, it made me re-appreciate Vlaminck, position him way higher. This isn’t it. This is ‘Under the Bridge at Bezons’, 1906 and it’s strong again – from that heavy-daubed fauve scene. Colourful ,obviously. Strongish whiff of Van Gogh maybe. Wouldn’t immediately have chosen that. Maybe that’s the point? Move on.

Now this is fantastic. Inspired work by the RB Geezer. A Rothko, but one of the earlyish ones, before he really got going on the Universal wotnots – the ‘mausoleums’ and all that. (Which I love.) Untitled (Subway) c. 1937. Saw this on ‘Power of Art’ – the Simon Schama thing – which I also loved. Weirdly seductive crazee-mirror people on a platform which is also a trance… deeply fascinating. And so, so hinting at the godlike free-form genius to come; a revelation because of the contrast with Seagram murals and all that. A much littler story but a wonderful one. 

And now immediately a BI-IG Print. Of a Richard Deacon sculpture/installation. Whorls of bentwood. Okay… and this would really be about the object’s presence in the room, in the space. But I’ve got it in the two dimensions. Interesting. ‘What Could Make Me Feel This Way 2’. Airy and modern and kindof unstill in a way I’m still trying to get to grips with. Wouldn’t fit so in cibachrome.  Top choice again – think something about the beauty of diversity and open-mindedness is being suggested here. Fabulous.

How many things do they get on Desert Island Discs? Is it eight? And two luxuries? Well I’ve got more than that here but for my next gift (or choice) I have… something again I recognise but which is reduced (as it were) from installation to print form. Judy Chicago’s ‘Dinner Party’. Epic and genuinely significant feminist statement from the seventies – still major now. A table laid in celebration and observance of brilliant (largely forgotten) women, controversially featuring ‘vaginal forms’ as plates. Iconic. Massive. Demanding. Demanding recognition. Stunning. If the original installation is still in the Brooklyn Museum(?) let’s us blokes hire a plane and go pay homage. Seriously. Flog a painting or two and go. Onwards.

Last of my eight for now (I’m saving a shedload for private viewing)is… a Miro. A Miro because I love his range. From surreal poetry to polemicist to farm-boy naif to metropolitan boxer. With that particular Catalonian angle, broiling with heat and deftness and parochialism and utopian heart. ‘Constellations’. Symbols that I can’t yet read. Wow, wadda gift. What a mixture of gifts we have. What are yours like?

Points of departure

The idea that Miro seems to have needed a ‘jolt’, a shock or an accident to begin making his art is perhaps no great surprise. Maybe all of us who do creative work rely on or gratefully latch onto a source. For Miro it may have been an imperfection, a stain on canvas ‘primed’ by cleaning his brushes upon it in order to stimulate such an inspirational event. He does speak at some length about this process and one of many things that resonate/jar/jolt is the affirmation that

A piece of thread, therefore, can unleash a world. I invent a world from a supposedly dead thing. And when I give it a title, it becomes even more alive. Miro, XXsiecle, interview with Yvon Taillandier, 1959.

We can most of us, in our turn, fly with this attractive notion. But before we do, let’s remind ourselves that the bulk of humanity, when informed of this cosmic spontaneity, might belch out a not unreasonable protest. Like what kind of painting is that? Beginning with a fucking splodge or a hole or a stain? That’s a fraud! We’ve all heard that stuff.

So what kind of painting is it?

Miro – who, let’s make clear did not always paint the same way (and therefore dear viewer, should you require of your artist the obvious ability to draw the obvious relatively obviously, please refer to… The Farm say, of 1921-2) – Miro I suspect came to depart from these flecks of dust in a heightened state of both confidence and susceptibility. Requiring of the immediate (physical?) impulse but trusting that this sprang from unspoken understandings.

There seems to be very little talk of fate, but an exquisite, a poetic appreciation of the journey from the automatic to the liberatingly real through the process of painting. Something is being found; something more wonderful than that which could have been found by knowing the destination beforehand. I think this may be Miro’s definition of human experience; this expression of faith in the life of the imagination.

I’m besotted with his contrary genius. Farmboy/cosmonaut; diligent mercurial-instinctive doodler. Sign-maker and allotment-holder. Man of principle/man of business. Surrealist and… farmboy. What seems constant however, is the graft, the integrity of the man. He detested dilettantes and those who abused the true calling – at one stage being highly critical of Picasso for his slavery to the franc and the dollar. He worked at it, for decades; quietly, but like a fighter too, in training. Earning the right to express himself, then calling out to the universal.

Miro did ordinary stuff – family stuff, being skint stuff – but dug for the sublime. He left ciphers and signs for all of us to gather, knowing surely that we would lack the confidence to allow them to work upon us or baulk at the work involved in getting them. Always he moved forward and on, in relative independence, in his exacting, exhilarating way.

I find my titles in the process of working, as one thing leads to another on my canvas. When I have found the title, I live in its atmosphere. The title then becomes completely real for me, in the same way that a model, a reclining woman for example, can become real for another painter. For me, the title is a very precise reality.                 Miro, interview as above.

These are not the words or the ways of a fraudster.  Please, go after him; follow.

Finding Miro

I’ve recently been to ‘the Miro’, the stunning exhibition at Tate Modern. I’ve been to Barcelona too; once, briefly, like a tourist. I took my family on a near-depressingly hot slalom up to Montjuic – hotel map was garbage, honest. Traipsing through a treacly sun we were, sacrilegiously trading moans as the city and the Med emerged in the hushed, glorious haze behind us. Finally, a sweaty “Wow”, then on, down to the nearby Fundacio Joan Miro, which was and is a beautiful space, with beautiful art and a ver ver decent caff. (Go). It’s all got me thinking about… about figures, or ciphers, or being bothered.

Deep breath and a beginning, an opinion…

So let’s be clear about this, in my view we have to/need to shed some of the snaky certainties, the horny machismo, the intellectuality goddammit, shaping our approach; and then we really may find something. Understanding stuff like this might just be a combination of contrary engagements; relaxing as well as fine-tuning our focus; believing and discerning; really standing there. This then may be a way into the vocabulary of the thing – if there ever is a vocabulary – for abstracted art.

Joan Miro hated and was offended by the very notion of his art being ‘abstract’. He was a slowish, diligent painter all his life. He could barely have been more attached to his land, his family farm, his keenly felt Catalan roots. He could not associate his art, his concrete testaments, with abstraction, since they were surely and clearly and obviously the natural expression of his being. (Even if they were mythic or symbolic in ‘nature’ or ‘about’ going beyond the plastic facts). Miro tilled his canvas, and there’s a fabulous tension between his quietly belligerent modesty, this visceral simplicity on the one hand and his ambition for and poetic sense of the search for absolutes, for wonder, for truth.

All the pictorial problems resolved. We must explore all the golden sparks of our souls!          Letter to J F Rafols (Montroig, Oct 1923)

But he was an extraordinary man. On the one hand a proud and committed Catalan; on the other a serial abuser of the provincial “handful of imbeciles in Barcelona“. (Letter to J F Rafols 1919).

Almost shockingly clear about the two polarities; 1. The abundance, the dynamism, the cultural sweetness of Paris was essential; 2. His farm (Montroig) was essential, but Barcelona was suffocation and death.

Whilst it makes complete sense that Montroig was not Barcelona, and that Paris was mind-expanding, what continues to fizz – arguably for fifty years – is the HOW/WHY of Miro’s liberation from the shackles of (a prevailing) dogma or form. He was a surrealist who left surrealism emphatically behind. He was time after time a pioneer, somehow kindof quietly; perhaps he played a good game rather than talked it. Miro did, however, choose to involve himself in sometimes unavoidable causes – chiefly to do with his homeland and the civil war – but generally persisted as an outlier. Both Picasso and Breton came to respect his individuality, his importance even.

Often he would let nobody see work in progress; his studio was typically immaculate and private in comparison to many of his contemporaries. There is this real sense – reinforced by reading Selected Writings and Interviews/ Da Capo and Joan Miro/Tate – that he was conditioning himself throughout his extraordinary career, readying himself for the next ‘jolt’ which would imbue both spiritual force and method. And yet this itself was an organic if revelatory process; one which he had to let happen and believe in.

In 1940 Miro began working on a series of paintings called the Constellations. In a letter to his dealer Pierre Matisse you sense his quiet confidence that something “important” was happening. But what is also fascinating to me is the following

I can’t even send you the finished ones, since I have them all in front of me the whole time – to maintain the momentum and mental state I need to do the entire group.

(Selected Writings and Interviews, Da Capo.)

I imagine Miro serenely immersed in some contemplatory groove/purple patch through and during which he expresses an astonishing new force. One which would later lead Andre Breton to say – specifically concerning these paintings – that

No surrealist painter has shown greater capacity for renewal, nor moved further forward in the confirmation of his mastery, than Miro     (Interview in ‘Le Litteraire’, 1946).

These signature works are surely bewitching? To me they are. But do we take them as a challenge to our sense of (the order of) things, or… how?

Miro the populist would have no problem with this confrontation. Are they doodles, do they irritate us? In the current cheap colloquialism is this the kind of modern art cobblers that “any child could do?” Is somebody who can’t draw taking the piss? Is that the essence of this proposition? Would it be easier to feel cheated and metaphorically or literally walk away, muttering? The answer is clearly YES. After all, the man is pretty much basing his pictures on chances and accidents – marks on the paper, imperfections! It becomes then a matter of integrity.

So listen. Look. Read. Find Miro, or Pollock, or Rothko or… you name him/her. Because you will find without exception an intense and rather magnificent sense of real purpose which will exorcise the doubts. Will help you get it. (I know the following may sound preposterous but) often what these artists have said or written is almost as exciting and inspiring as the work itself. And I recommend you listen to it. Because the artist deserves your attention and you will benefit. My own extra-curricular work has turned out the following; Miro is unquestionably the quiet genius I hoped for. For his extraordinary faith in pursuing the golden sparks; for his low-burning graft towards freedoms; for his undemonstrative courage. Look at the work.

For many of us actively trying to engage there are difficulties – we are badly trained/lazy/typically at some level visually inarticulate. We can’t make sense, or enough sense of the ciphers/symbols/lines/dots. But what a fabulous challenge! When the artist is trying with such heart to find a new glory he believes common to all of us, how can we not want to follow him, to understand him, to appreciate him, to support him, to enjoy him?

Me, I am finding Miro an absolute wonder.

7th July 2011.

Painting from withinside the head

In my last missive I warbled on pseudo-stylee about ethereal connections between Ian Chapell and staccato dance and ready positions. Extraordinary – as David Coleman might have said – given my visceral nature. Today I am ready to move on to further, similarly abstracted considerations relating to art. Because – unbelievably – not only is bowlingatvincent fluent in ECB Coaching Directives, he is genetically predisposed to appreciate yer Miro and yer Vincent ; and wishes to share these things with you.

So bowlingatvincent will roam, sometimes dangerously over diverse terrain.
today where I’m pitching up – doctor who-like, though perhaps in a yurt aromatically muggy in (phworr!) a frankincense stylee – is in the over-populated midfield ‘twixt art and theory. Or does it feel more like the trenches? And the thrust of what is emerging is perched upon the following gambit: that everything beautiful now gets painted from withinside the head.

Simon Schama knows this and I gladly refer to him as an inspiration and a teacher. In particular his understanding of the searing magnificence of revolutionary art, for him and me the exhilarating pinnacle of human possibility. What I don’t know is… does he like cricket? But this is irrelevant. Unlike the notion that art’s power is lashed, Simon says, to the exercise of invincible boldness and i.n.s.p.i.r.a.t.i.o.n. – a phenomenon that may be independent of ‘traditional’ painting skills; that may piss all over any sense of the literal, the figurative as god. Because it sails beyond, it pierces existing possibilities, re-defining the wonderful.

I paraphrase, atmospherically, but if you are in any way attracted still to the notion that figurative art is highest and best, classical and irrefutable, you need to get real. And get a life. An abstracted one, a theoretical one, an emotional one; one where you feel the colour of natural human experience and you don’t have to recognise its shape.

On the mighty Vinny’s journey to greatness and excruciating revolutionary triumph, he made the Potato Eaters. It’s a sensational picture in which his workaday (one might say prosaic) appreciation of working peasants is described thus

I have tried to emphasize that those people, eating their potatoes in the lamplight, have dug the earth with those very hands they put in the dish and so it speaks of manual labour and how they have honestly earned their food.

But the picture smoulders darkly – brownly! – with a radical philosophical intent. And it looks like it speaks; a new level of sympathy, of understanding, having being spawned in the moment of choosing feeling before verisimilitude; or rather developing verisimilitude into a newer, richer realness. Van Gogh was making himself – had made himself -a great draughtsman – but the perspectives being dismembered here are (the existing) linear views of art and perception itself. The painting is that important, that wonderful. And I am close to tears every time I read that which I quote above.

Cleverly, I’ve proggled the ear of your half-interest with a rather unchallenging picture. It’s after all relatively figurative; any moron can see what it’s about. There are figures. But greater challenges lie ahead.                 June 25thth 2011.