Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Classy Notting Hill

I'm taking part in Notting Heaven, a group show at Sartorial Contemporary Art about 'class, place and social mobility'. There are 23 of us in the show, and most of us have made new work on the theme for the appropriately extreme setting of Kensington Church Street. In addition the gallery's in house magazine 'The Rebel' is devoted to the subject for the duration and features a revealing piece by Matthew Collings and an interview with George Galloway. It also includes all of us artists describing our Social Class, and sounding, for the most part, like a rather joyless bunch. For the record, I described myself as "Forward thinking bohemian out of a bedrock of non-posh country farming stock". I qualified that with "I should mention that i never wish to go back there, however neither can I entirely escape...".

My picture for Notting Heaven is called The Call of London. It's a painting of me aged 16 in the South Shropshire countryside that I come from. It's based on a photo - so the sunglasses, eighties flick and raffish tie are all authentic, as is the Gilbert & George badge and superior attitude. I've inscribed the picture 1988 to set the painting very definitely in time. I'm bending the rules slightly as in reality the idea of 16-year old Stephen setting foot in a muddy field, never mind picking his way across the Long Mynd or any other hilly range is frankly hilarious, but it speaks volumes for me about how I felt about home at the time.

Sartorial, if you've not been there before, is a mere stones throw from Notting Hill Tube and spead over two first-floor rooms. The main room is dominated by a dizzying wall piece 'The Gilded', by Gretta Sarfaty Marchant. Gretta runs the gallery and the piece is a repeated image of her wedding photograph multiplied over 100 times and wallpapered. Gretta is pictured with her ex-husband and attendant family. She is smiling, with big hair. She is also wearing a sunshine yellow dress that on big repeat lights up the room. It's none of our business what happened but the knowledge that the marriage subseqently took a turn and the subjects are no longer basking in their joyful yellow happiness, or at least not with each other, is what gives the piece its power. The other strong piece is Fran Richardson's watercolour of an ornate chandelier. It's cleverly hung between the two large windows looking out over Ken Church St. It seems fitting that such a symbol of refinement and elegance should be flanked by sunny stucco, but it comes crashing down from its lofty heights when you realise it is painted in a rather realistic feacal brown. It reminds us not to take such images at face value and for this reason it's the centrepiece of the show.

The hang in the second room is too crowded to see most of the work properly but I loved Stephen Walter's entrancing piece about London: Hub. It's a large drawing on paper and an obsessive arial view; brimful to bursting with galleries, buildings and landmarks in gunmetal graphite. I particularly enjoyed roving around Stephen's East End checking his findings against the territory I know. Galleries predominate and although the piece may have begun as an artist plotting his personal landscape using art-spaces and pubs I think Stephen is saying important things about modern London on a far broader scale. His modern mapping is full of surprises. He not only captures the flighty here today, gone tomorrow fashions of Hoxton but also Leyton's leylines and the 'Wrong Bow Bells'. But then this IS how we experience London (if we have half a mind to see beyond the usual): Ancient rubbing up against New. The Museum of London should buy it immediately.

I also loved James Unsworth's unsettling pen and ink pieces. James makes minutely detailed, finely wrought fantasies of leering depravity. Monstrous creatures, half-man half beast, eating shit, and cooking cocks. They are filled with violence, vomit, daggers and all manner of sexual imaginings. They reference Hans Bellmer AND Hansel and Gretel, and I love them for it. They don't sound beautiful but they are. You shouldn't like them but you will (but your mother wouldn't).

Be quick... It finishes this Saturday 19th at 5.30.


Monday, January 14, 2008

Happy New Year!

In the sparkling company of Dr Philip Normal, fashion scientist, at Retro Bar on New Years Eve. Photo courtesy of Jon Haugh.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Dark Nudes

I often pop in The Courtauld and wander around the permanent collection if I have a spare hour in the West End. They have some great pictures and you can go to the Admiralty bar afterwards for a champagne cocktail. What's not to like? Great art AND a sympathetic bar! They also do some stonking small shows, like last year's Wyndham Lewis and, at the moment, Sickert's 'Camden Town Nudes'.

The show comprises probably less than 20 pictures and a handful of supporting drawings. He painted the nudes on his return to dreary old London Town in 1905, having been abroad for a time no doubt sampling continental delights.

He was excited by getting up close and personal with some cockney ladies and they are painted in a lively, broken, sketchy way. The annonymous models set on crumpled beds in dark airless north London rooms, a sliver of light falling over voluptuous curves from a slit in the heavy drapes. The nudes are utterly mixed. Some are sexy, some delicate and tender, some with more personality than others. Some are death-like with hollow eyes and gashes for mouths, like the autopsy photos of Jack the Ripper's clip-clopping victims. But the backdrops are the same: mouldy rooms in boarding houses. London damp, Rembrandtian gloom.

The paintings remind you how much the London school held Sickert in high esteem in their developing years. The second nude in the show is tied to the bed by Auerbach's signature zig-zags (describing atmosphere). Kossoff and Freud are all over, and Kitaj's chalky lines. There is a surprise in the three paintings Nude on a Bed, Nuit d'ete and La Hollandaise, hung together. Mentally trace the three nudes in their abandoned attitudes on their single beds, fenced in with wrought iron bedsteads, surrounded by suggestive bordering and walls in sickly colour demarked by window shapes... Well, we're pretty much looking at a Bacon triptych. Or what Bacon could have been if he hadn't chanced on a happy accident and used the same template for forty years. I'm entranced by these three. I think they are the centrepiece of the show, not the so-called 'Camden Town Murder' paintings, which barely figured for me.

In addition to reminding me of good painting, and the London school, the show reminds me of the power of oil paint in particular, and also how effective domestic sized pictures can me. Human scale. All such painterly thoughts are bolstering me for my new paintings.

Sickert's Camden Town Nudes is on until 20th Jan.