The Boys are Back in Town
These are my first figure-paintings since my MA exhibition at St Martins in 2010. There was a definite fallow period after I finished my masters; the research paper and that final push of an exhibition, particularly on top of a full-time 'day-job' exhausted me (how I miss those casual/part-time days prior to the economic collapse!). It was some months before I had an urge to make anything, however the work started to come back in stages as I gathered my energies. It began with small A5 drawings of Shropshire using Google Streetview, including Wilfred Owen's house in Shrewsbury, semi-rural roads and shopping precincts. Then, after some weeks of searching, I found a copy of John Piper/John Betjeman's Shell Guide to Shropshire on eBay, the first edition from 1951, generally thought of as one of the best Shell Guides which were quite avant-garde in their day, and began making drawings of the Piper photographs (they have his Neo-romantic eye). For a time I enjoyed being in the midst of all this drawing: one of the main things St Martins did for me was to encourage my drawing, which I'd always hidden from people, as something that could stand alone, it didn't need to be a try-out for a painting and could be important in its own right. Then the painting started again, after almost a year, again based on the Shell Guide, but I had become so attuned to graphite pencil and the strange beauty of these 1950's photographs, the paintings were almost entirely Paynes Gray and monochrome.
I knew the figurative element would be back at some point, but I was unsatisfied with the figures I had made on my MA. They were largely fictions: the painted proportions based on a real person's facial structure (most people's facial proportions are generally the same - it could have been anyone), and the boy himself invented over the top of this template/armature. This was interesting to a point, but not surprisingly they ended up strangely empty: an Alex Katz blankness. There was no sense of the person being tied to the place in which they were situated, no sense of personal history or of them looking to their developing future. I was therefore determined to find a real model, however this time I had a requirement: they had to be from the place I was painting.
I met Dan on Facebook, he went to my school so he came up in my 'people you might know' list, we also have mutual friends, actually people I went to school with who are still in the area, which is Church Stretton, a small town in South Shropshire. His face seemed to fit, so I sent him a message and was pleased to get an enthusiastic response almost immediately. He said he liked my work, recognised all the locations in my paintings, and my film too, and would be pleased to help. We did the photographs in a couple of hours driving in Dan's car around various country lanes on and around the Long Mynd, the countryside immortalised by Mary Webb and Powell and Pressburger's Gone to Earth, the very centre of my rural fixation. There were to be no fictions this time other of course than my own which are brought to the work in any event by the very nature of my making it. Also, and this is key, Dan was happy to be photographed; amazing the number of people who change the minute a camera is pointed at them, and as an artist the very thing you wanted to capture has slipped from view.
I think the work has been richer for having Dan as a starting point and my working practice is now more balanced. I am working on both drawing and painting projects, my sources are becoming varied and more diverse, and I no longer feel that blocked sensation that I did for a time after St Martins (only a continual mild annoyance that I've never got enough time...), and he is a part of that. Painting real people is something of a collaboration after all, and it was important that Dan was not only in the place, but also of the place: that is something the work needed.