Sunday, April 26, 2009

Some Texts

Been very busy with new work and college, so apologies there has been nothing new to look at for weeks and weeks and weeks; amazing how time flies... or more correctly how time disappears... (I bet you were sick of the sight of that sodding tree stump...) However there follows a number of texts I've been working on and some references I've been considering for my course, on the themes of Englishness, landscape, and romanticism. Normal service resumes shortly; I am currently collecting my thoughts on the new Whitechapel Gallery.

The Territorial Imperative

"English writers and artists, English composers and folk-singers, have been haunted by this sense of place, in which the echoic simplicities of past use and tradition sanctify a certain spot of ground. These forces are no doubt to be found in other regions and countries of the earth; but in England the reverance for the past and the affinity with the natural landscape join together in a mutual embrace. So we owe much to the ground on which we dwell. It is the landscape and the dreamscape. It encourages a sense of longing and belonging. It is Albion."

Peter Ackroyd, from Albion, the Origins of the English Imagination

Saturday, April 25, 2009

What Beauty is there in a Young Life Snuffed Out

The English Romantic tradition has it’s origins in the Eighteenth Century, but it was the Nineteenth Century when the notion of what we might call the doomed sensibility, the poet or artist at the beck and call of unseen forces, was at it's height, but I believe this peculiarly English notion is still in some ways alive and kicking and the following excerpt from The Times, concerning Heath Ledger's untimely death, illustrates not only a prime concern of the romantics of the past but also the impact of romantic imagination on contemporary culture.

"One image immediately sprang to mind when I heard that the actor Heath Ledger had been found dead on his bed in a New York apartment, surrounded by prescription drugs. The image was not from Brokeback Mountain or his other films, but of a much earlier picture: Henry Wallis's 1856 painting, The Death of Chatterton.

In that extraordinary painting, the poet Thomas Chatterton, just 17, lies sprawled across the bed in his garret. Through the open window, dawn is breaking over St Paul's Cathedral. On the table stands the bottle of arsenic, with which he has just killed himself.

Chatterton, penniless and starving, probably committed suicide in despair, although it is possible he was self-medicating for syphilis, and overdid the dose. Ledger, 28, already wealthy and celebrated, may also have killed himself by accident. There is a direct link between them: two gifted individuals, dead long before their time, destined, like butterflies, to live gorgeously for too brief a season.

The notion of the artist doomed to early death, bequeathed by the Romantics and most memorably depicted by Wallis, remains deeply embedded in modern culture. Ledger now joins the roster of the talented young, untimely dead: Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats, Wilfred Owen and Rupert Brooke, James Dean and Marilyn Monroe, River Phoenix and Kurt Cobain.

Our relationship with movie stars is as intense and intimate as it once was with poets. Actors live other lives for us on screen. We live through them in other worlds, and we expect to grow old with them. When they die young, we are immediately reminded of our own impending deaths, and the need to seize the day."

Ben Macintyre, The Times, Friday 25th January 2008

Rupturing the Surfaces of the Given

"But, for all these artists [the Neo-Romantic painters of the 1930's], the pursuit of landscape was always something more than the quest for phenomena, or the appearances of natural and human forms. They were intent upon a transfiguration of what they saw: often, they laid claim to a religious or spiritual vision; always, they wanted to rupture the surfaces of the given with imaginative transformations. Landscape, for them, was an arena in which the subjective and the objective, the deeply personal and the richly traditional, could be mingled in new and previously unseen ways."

Peter Fuller, Images of God: The Consolations of Lost Illusions

The quote is in respect of a very particular group of British painters, however it seems to me to also apply equally well to freer landscape painting of this or any age, and in considering it I was reminded of Constable’s oil sketches. There is a often forgotten room of them at the V&A.

Constable's oil sketches seem to me to be closer to the actuality of life, closer to the real; than his finished paintings; there is something in the movement of the paint, the unfinished quality, the flux of it, that brings one nearer to an approximation of the experience of real landscape and real weather; yet they are packed with unreal actions and inventions. Perhaps a looming cloud that’s oddly coloured or, as in the picture here, a dark streaking of black, which we know doesn’t appear in the real view and was never before the artist’s eyes in this way, yet it brings us closer to an approximation of the experience of being in landscape than a photorealist view might.

Freely approximating the landscape, in not striving for a photorealist view, brings us closer to it; it assists us in understanding the effect of place: how a landscape can disturb and encroach. But I am also interested in how, in landscape painting, the picture plane has the potential to behave in front of the viewer. I am interested in the insertion of a device, or an area, that throws the real off course; this can perhaps be considered in a similar way to Barthes' punctum: the wound in the smooth plain. This device, or wilful guidance of the viewers eye, can be deliberate. It is possible to welcome the viewer into a painted picture plane and control, to some degree, where they go within it and where they experience shock; such unsettlement can, I believe, lead the viewer to consider the landscape on a far broader basis than would be possible otherwise. A broader consideration of their place in the world. For this reason I am interested in making an art that perhaps looks as once like traditional landscape painting but closer in one might experience the uncanny or the unsettling: the unexpected. I am also interested in artists who are unafraid to present a vision of the world where all might not be well. The shift of a balanced focus.
Although because of the nature of paint, and the wish to communicate excitement, the result can not alwyas be exactly foreseen, but it the intention that matters: a gesture of disruption. The slashing of a comfortable view.

Thinking about the notion of guiding the viewer reminded me of Noel Coward’s poem 'The Great Awakening', which I remembered from my childhood as deeply shocking:

The Great Awakening

As I awoke this morning
When all sweet things are born
A robin perched upon my sill
To signal the coming dawn.
The bird was fragile, young and gay
And sweetly did it sing
The thoughts of happiness and joy
Into my heart did bring.
I smiled softly at the cheery song
Then as it paused, a moment’s lull,
I gently closed the window
And crushed its fucking skull.

- It too lulls the reader into a false sense of security before delivering the shock of the poem; which is the crushing of the birds head at the end; which seems at once humorous but also I think illustrates how it is possible to guide or control the viewer, at least in an opening stage.

But in talking about the guiding of the viewer’s consideration we need to consider the imagination; because what we are talking about is the extension of the real by way of an invention.

But the element of imagination - the taking of the landscape beyond the real, the transfiguration of the landscape that Peter Fuller talks about, brings us into the realm of the romantic; the imagined; the hightening of the real experience through invention, and perhaps the expansion of landscape using imagination is more a typically English condition: the landscape traditions of other countries have been perhaps embedded in classicial mythologies and reworking of overplayed legend; the English landscape tradition could be considered to be said to have originated through an engagement with the landscape itself.

Constable Oil Sketches

Monday, April 20, 2009

A Parody of Englishness as an Artistic Vantage Point

In the early 1970’s Gilbert & George, who had already for some time been presenting themselves as ‘Living Sculptures’, produced a number of works that showed them walking in idyllic English countryside. The majority of the work took the form of composite black and white photopieces hung in clusters; the photography looked dismally old fashioned and stagey; they wore Edwardian-looking suits and carried walking canes. The whole looked like amateur photographs of a bygone age: an illusion of a now vanished England.

The persona Gilbert and George adopted in these early works was part of a broad personal construct the artists were developing at that time, which fed into their lives and relentless promotions of their art. In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s they bombarded the art world with texts and announcement cards, most of which looked like invitations to a dance on a turn of the century cruise liner, or a Mayfair ball. They flirted with emblems of Government, and used symbols of Royalty and Freemasonary; cards for exhibitions urged the recipient do please get in touch, as though the card were an invitation to an Edwardian high-tea or the calling card of a bright young thing out of PG Wodehouse. They hand-signed their photopieces beneath a Royal crest, marking their joint signature with the year, as though each completed work were the passing of an act of Parliament; they used odd, stilted, over-enunciated syntax and overplayed politeness; a letter would look more like a note from the vicarage than a communiqué from within the contemporary art world; but perhaps this early distancing ensured their success; and all more interesting too when one considers the art world of that time.

But given they used themselves in so much of their work it is perhaps as though they needed to adopt the parody of Englishness to speak about the broader world,enclosing themselves in a protective construct that allowed them to keep their real personalities at a distance using the formality of manners; allowing them to begin to speak about difficult subjects.

To my mind the most successful of their works of this period were their first and last ever group of oil paintings –called simply The Paintings: they were a series of large triptychs carried out in 1971 of perhaps the sort of scenes one associates with the grand traditions of English art with the artists themselves in the mid-panels engaging with the landscape: leaning against a five-bar gate in relaxed, resigned pose or sitting in woodland; sometimes merely surveying the horizon, as though discovering alien territory for the first time - the mid-panels flanked by panels of foliage and landscape.

The Paintings have something of the quality of the amateur Sunday painter, as a painter one notices the colours are not quite right, perhaps the greens are too emerald, too hyper-real, and the colours look as though they are straight from the tubes, rather than developed in a way most professional painters would; they look a little like paint by numbers and were it not for the scale they would look like any picture one might find in a car boot sale; they are full of painterly errors, one even has a whip of dripped paint that flicks the air – but the mistake is left as is: the errors are accepted; it is as though Gilbert & George were intentionally concerning themselves with the unsophisticated, and while aping the traditions of English landscape painting in hamfisted fashion they are also challenging the proper painterly way of things; but the amateur intent lends the work a curious, disjointed strangeness; as though a non-artist were given a crash course in the romantic tradition then short-lived access to abandoned village and ordered to recreate what he found there.

We seem to be looking at the uncovering of a sensibility; there is a sense of glimpsed access to a parallel world, in much the same way as Martin Parr’s quietly invasive photographs of village fetes (up close and personal with the homemade jams); an investigation of the unsophisticated, the other. These works too seem to get close to a depiction of Middle England, or a Little England, that tells us all is perhaps not quite right. But are they are survey of a land that once was and is no more? A canny acknowledgement of a part of our history? Or are they a valid component of England as we know it?

Strangely, these works have only ever been exhibited twice, once in 1971, shortly after they were made, and once in the mid-1980’s. They remain sorely neglected and are not widely known; the paintings did not form part of the recent Gilbert & George show at the Tate and neither do they appear in either the original edition of the Complete Pictures or the updated edition for the Tate retrospective.

Perhaps this is because while the work uses an idea of England, and speaks of it, it also, in it’s painterliness, strongly references the English landscape tradition and while Gilbert and George are admirers of Constable, say, or Samuel Palmer, the referencing is perhaps more than the artists are comfortable with; in my view it would be typical of Gilbert & George to wish to edit their work of referencing of other art movements to keep the G&G story as uncluttered as possible for the viewer.