Sunday, December 28, 2008

Brion Gysin at October Gallery

“I may write only what I know in space: I am that I am”
Brion Gysin, Notes on Painting

Brion Gysin was interested in the juxtapositon of word and image, and he developed a unique visual language combining repeat-image calligraphics (he studied Japanese and Arabic as a young man), photo-based work, collage, and some of the most extraordinary landscape painting of the Sahara and Tangier. But his calligraphic investigations were central to his art and at the end of his life a patron donated studio space in order that Gysin could make one final work: a large ten-panel calligraphic piece inspired by a Japanese makemomo or folding book called Calligraffiti of Fire.

The work is some 16-meters long and designed to be ‘read’ from right to left (i.e. in Eastern picture space). It begins with Gysin’s personal sigil that ignites panel one before racing in blazing solar yellows and oranges across a further nine canvases; the glorious yellow colours vibrate into the room and that the end panels have to sit at angles to the middle of the piece in this installation only adds to the dancing, life-enhancing journey of Gysin's signature.

A chance to see Brion Gysin's work in the flesh is rare in any event but a chance to see Calligraffiti of Fire is rarer still. The work does not belong to a public institution and has been shown only once since it's original exhibition at Galerie Samy Kinge in Paris in 1986. Sadly, it’s current home is a Parisian bank-vault.

Gysin was dying with emphysema when he made the painting, which was not only his last but his most ambitious. Once he had finished Gysin proclaimed it "THE picture of my lifetime", and I like to think of it as his joyful summing up. It's on until 7th February 2009.

Brion Gysin
Calligraffiti of Fire
October Gallery
24 Old Gloucester Street, London WCN 3AL

There are also a number of smaller paintings and calligraphic pieces in the exhibition, in particular a great roller-and-ink and photo college Burroughs in Tangier (1974).

October Gallery are also screening the new Nik Sheenan's new Gysin documentary FLicKeR on 31st January.
See also Burroughs Life-File at Rifemaker (until 17th January) and the Royal Academy GSK Contemporary Season Burroughs Live (until 19th January).

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Damned and the Saved

"The show is divided both between the two venues and the classical themes of 'Portrait' and 'Landscape'; Standpoint will be peopled with souls in transport or torment and here at studio1.1 we will present their various hells and/or Edens. The onus as ever is upon the viewer to judge."

The Damned and the Saved is an exploration of modern morality shared between two gallery spaces. I have a portrait of a stranded young soul at Standpoint in the company of Chris Humphrey's screaming souls in rivers of flame, Cathy Lomax's Mary Bell paintings and Matt Lippiatt's occupied body-bags among other participants.

Respite (salvation?) from these figuritive unsettlings can be found several minutes walk away at Studio 1.1. Michelle Fletcher's lushly sinister painting of a forest glade dominates the front gallery space and Tom Wolseley's film 'Mountain Harmonica' reminds us that all may not be well in the rural idyll. My landscapes are in a small back room next to Andrea Gregson's sculpture 'Lair': the twigs seeming to reach over and into my paintings, dragging them into the room and allowing them to be something other than painted improbabilities.

The Damned and the Saved asks us to judge modern moral predicaments or at least be mindful of age-old notions of good and evil as we find ourselves before yet another Christmas in front of the TV. It's on until 21st December.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Chuck out the Chintz

Have you ever been to the Guildhall Art Gallery in the City of London? The chances are you haven’t. In fact, I don’t think many people have judging by a quick gin-sozzled straw-poll in the pub last night (I refuse to say ‘survey’ - it sounds suburban) and neither had I until an acquaintance of mine was talking about the G.F. Watts show the other day in terms so urgent I thought I’d better go and see what all the fuss was about.

The Guildhall are showing the holdings of the G.F. Watts’ Museum (just outside Guildford) which are on holiday while the place undergoes a lottery-furb and the first thing that strikes is the unfinished self-portrait of the artist aged 17 immediately to your left as you enter, a bit like being given the opportunity to say a cheery 'Hullo!' to the artist on the way in. It's one of those confident portraits of talent too young, and reminded me of Samuel Palmer’s great teen self-portrait, only less intense. On into the exhibition proper and in the first room I was captured by the painted sunlight of Fiesole, Italy (above) dappling across deep rolling fields below a changable sky and creamy yellow clouds. But the joy was shortlived as the picture is unfortunately hung opposite a picture of Victorian children so emetic I am surprised I didn’t decorate the floor.

The second room is, thankfully, more balanced, with a great trio of gothic Victorian dramas, Irish Famine, Found Drowned, and Under the Arch, and, just for good measure, a six-foot Satan. As if this wasn’t enough, and just as you find yourself time-travelling into a fog-filled land of gas-lamps and ticking clocks (it's OK I don't expect you to share my penchant for dramatic reaction) there is another dazzling landscape, with curling clouds and hulking mountains scraping the heavens: it’s ‘In Asia Minor’, and so am I, realising, by this point, that far from being a dusty old Victorian painter Watts is a strong painter of place. I believe his far flung locales. I'm just not sure I can say the same for some of the figures.

Moving on, the big room holds further greats. Psychedelic slabs such as Sower of the Systems and After the Deluge, followed by Sunset on the Alps, Mammon Dedicated to his Worshippers and Obama’s fave picture Hope (or as G.K Chesterton would have it ‘Despair’ - but no matter - it’s beautiful). The mysterious The Ghost Ship is barely there, emerging from the snowy blizzard with the chill of a M.R. James and, in the last room, a wonderful landscape of the Isle of White... But I’ve rarely been in a show that needs editing as much as this: I want to take all the forementioned pictures, and put them in a large white gallery with plenty of space around them. They are crammed in to what amounts to a Rotary Club function room and too much of the work is the schmaltz that makes people give Victorian painting a wide berth. The duds are in danger of diminishing the greats.

While you're there, the permanent collection is worth a look, but a shock awaits on the landing as you’re confronted with 9-foot of chaotic Constable that assaults in too narrow a space. I took a few steps back and nearly went over the glass barrier into the downstairs area below (like Lee Remick going over the banisters in The Omen). The landing should be kept for small works and the Constable moved downstairs where you can get ten-feet away from it. There are some great pictures by Landseer, including the Well-Travelled Monkey which will make you smile and The First Leap which you will want to hate for being chocolate boxy but your inner taste-police will be scrapping like two cats in a sack as you fight to stop liking it. Popping back in to the Watts' show it occurred to me that the same can not be said for the chintzy duds.