Monday, 23 December 2013

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year

Skating rink at Somerset House, 7 January 2002   ©Heather James
Art on the Run is signing off for Christmas and would like to wish all our readers a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. See you all again in January with more 'Art on the Run.'

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Midwinter Solstice: 21 December

Highbury & Islington Station: 14 October 2010,
drawn just after dusk   ©Heather James
In a couple of days it will be the Winter Solstice and where I live in the northern hemisphere that means it will be the shortest day of the year so I thought you might like to read a ghost story to chime with the time of year. So if you are sitting comfortably I will begin.

The Crier of Claife
It was around the time of the Reformation (in the 16th century). On one stormy winter's night when the wind howled up Lake Windermere (in the Lake District in the north of England) and the waves rolled northwards a party of travellers were staying at the old ferry inn beneath Station Scar. They had postponed their crossing until the next day and sat together in front of the roaring fire telling stories and jokes, the ferryman among them. Outside the bare branches of the young sycamore trees moaned and whistled in the blast while from time to time squalls of rain beat against the windows. The ferry boat was securely tied to the landing stage opposite Crow Holme, a small island nearby.

The sound of a voice suddenly wafted across the lake and the ferryman heard it first as he had an ear open for travellers through long practice. It was a prolonged wailing sound and only just audible above the wind. "Holloa! Boat! Holloa there! Boatman!" The long O's sang through the night across the stormy water, at times merging with the wind, at times rising above it.

"Listen!" the ferryman cried. "Somebody's calling!" The chatter stopped and the room was filled with the sounds of the storm.

"I can't hear anything," someone declared.

"You've drunk too much ale ferryman," said another.

"No, listen! I can hear it again!" the ferryman persisted.

Everyone fell silent and then faintly the sound of a voice was heard.

"You can't go tonight" someone exclaimed as the ferryman drained his mug and rose to his feet.

"There's someone waiting, I'll have to go" he replied "it may be a matter of life or death if there's anyone abroad on a night like this."

He made his way to the door and some of the travellers accompanied him to the boat to see him on his way. Once outside the blast of the wind caught them suddenly. Through the interlaced trees the scudding clouds were dimly lit by the intermittent glow of the moon over the far shore. "Expect me in half an hour" the ferryman called as he cast off and took to the oars.

The ferryman steered by keeping the lights of the inn in line with the hill above. At other times a lantern was kept burning at the landing on Nab End but tonight it had blown out. And still that voice called out: "Boat, boat. Halloa there!" as if the traveller could not discern the vessel was creeping slowly over the water towards him.

"Alright, I'm coming, blast you!" the ferryman cursed as he pulled on the oars his temper growing short. The voice had a mournful note about it which fitted in well with the dismal weather.

At length the ferryman gained the lee of the Nab and came alongside the tiny stone jetty looping a line through one of the iron rings set in the stone work. He stepped ashore peering about in the gloom for his mysterious passenger.

"I'm here," he called. "Hallo are you there?" He walked a few steps up the road, his eyes searching in vain for some sign of his impatient fare beginning to think that the fellow had given up hope of a boat and gone away.

A tall shape suddenly materialised out of the darkness before him. "Ah! There you are. Thought you'd given up sir. Have you across in no time..." But the words froze on his lips and the breath choked in his throat. For a split second the ferryman stood stock still and gazed in horror at the abomination that leered at him in the moonlight.

Then uttering a scream he turned and rushed to the boat and pushed panic stricken into the lake. For what stood at the water's edge, claws upraised to the sky, wailing and shrieking in devilish rage was neither man nor beast but some loathsome creature from the very blackest depths of Hell.

The guests at the inn were becoming impatient for the ferryman was long overdue. Just as they were getting ready to go out and see what had happened there came a sound at the door. The ferryman stood at the threshold and for a second there was a deadly silence.

The fellow was scarcely recognisable as a human being. His face had aged 20 years and his hair had turned completely white. He was unable to speak and he was put to his bed and a priest was called who could do nothing for him.

For three days he lay in bed with a high fever, his face contorting with terror when anyone approached, shrieking aloud at times like a soul in mortal torment and then he died without once becoming lucid enough to relate what had happened at the stone jetty at the Nab.

This story is an extract from Tales and Legends of Windemere by Peter Nock, Orinoco Press

Monday, 16 December 2013

Emilio Greco: Sacred and Profane

The Estorick Collection has chosen this year to exhibit Emilio Greco's work to celebrate the centenary of his birth in 1913. This is the first exhibition at the Estorick Collection to be devoted to sculpture but my attention was drawn straight away to his life drawings. They were very confident and full of life and I felt that they might have been produced just last week. His obvious enjoyment of voluptuous female nudes sets the tone in the first gallery and the accompanying sculptures develop in three dimensions the forms and curves Greco depicts in two dimensions in his drawings.

I was visiting this exhibition along with members from the Islington Art Society and a number of us were very taken with some of the very fine details in his sculptures in particular the eyelashes on one male nude. They appear to be real, fine eyelashes until you look really closely and see they have been made with scratches into the clay before the piece was cast in bronze. This attention to detail along with Greco's awareness of, and artistry in creating solid but alive forms of the human body runs like a thread through the entire exhibition.
Emilio Greco (1913-1995) was born in Catania, Sicily and he began to learn the craft of making sculpture when he was apprenticed as a young teenager to a stone mason and sculptor of funerary monuments. He taught sculpture in Rome, Carrara and Naples and he began receiving recognition for his own work from the 1950s. One of the pieces of work that enhanced his reputation was his design for the Monument to Pinocchio (1953) which is located in Collodi's Pinocchio Park. The design is unlike anything else in this exhibition and was my least favourite exhibit.

Greco was contemporary with Pablo Picasso and you can see Picasso's influence in at least one of his drawings. I really liked this piece and it helped show me that Greco was part of a vibrant European artistic movement where any artist can influence any other. However Greco was also his own man and distinct from other artists and you can see this clearly in the second gallery where there are examples of his sacred work. There are studies for a major project for a set of monumental doors for Orvieto Cathedral which include bas-relief modelling. This project took years to be completed and may well have caused Greco untold anxiety but this sacred work does reveal a depth to this artist which is only hinted at in his smaller nude studies.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

An early Christmas present

I was given an early Christmas present yesterday. Like many people I always appreciate a nice notebook and this one is very nice indeed.

It is one of a series designed by Batik artist Annie Phillips and stationery company Blott. Each design is limited to 3,000 copies so when they've gone, they've gone. The covers incorporate Annie's Batik design artfully hidden by a stencil-cut cover. When you open the cover you see this. Each notebook has 80 pages of lined paper, is 14.5cm x 21cm and is stitched along the spine. Just right for that special project.

Monday, 9 December 2013

Isabella Blow: Fashion galore

Somerset House is an atmospheric setting for an exhibition reviewing the 30 year career of Isabella Blow. I'm not generally interested in high fashion, I regard it much like Formula One racing — a rarefied field inhabited with people who might as well be from another planet.

I do find Isabella Blow intriguing though and I assumed that, because she was of noble lineage, she would also be filthy rich because how else could you maintain the eccentric lifestyle she appeared to enjoy without loads of cash. How wrong was I? Her Wikipedia page reveals that she had a series of odd jobs including working as a cleaner for two years in London and at a shop selling scones which made me warm to her having myself done similar work in the past.

This all changed when she moved to New York to study Ancient Chinese Art. Before long she was introduced to the to the fashion director of the US edition of Vogue, Anna Wintour and employed as her assistant which set her on her path to becoming a stylist and fashion editor in her own right.

Heaven knows what the daily life of a fashion assistant might be like. It makes me think of the film The Devil Wears Prada starring Meryl Streep set in the fashion world and said to be loosely based on a certain, very famous fashion magazine. Anyway Isabella obviously thrived in this culture eventually returning to London and establishing herself as a fashion director of Sunday Times Style and Tatler magazine.

This exhibition consists of more than 100 items from her own collection of clothes, hats and shoes. They include garments from fashion designers she launched like Alexander McQueen, Philip Treacy and Julien Macdonald. Isabella had a natural sense of style and an eye for future fashion trends. She discovered Alexander McQueen and bought his entire graduate collection for ₤5,000 paying it off in weekly ₤100 instalments receiving one garment a month in return. This must have been a risky investment but one which clearly paid dividends for both parties. Isabella also discovered models Sophie Dahl and Stella Tennant and collaborated with various photographers and became a legendary figure and patron on the international fashion scene.

The easiest way for me to appreciate these garments was to look at them as though they were sculptures made from fabric instead of items for wear and then they made sense. I loved Philip Treacy's hats most of all. Some of them resemble helmets made out of wonderful materials which almost completely obscure the face. Others are made from feathers and look as though they might take flight at any moment. One of them had a ship in full sail on top of it. In addition to the garments on display there are family photo albums from when she was a child. One of the films playing on continuous loop has her describing where her desire for beauty came from. She said something like: "We lived in a horrid pink house with a 1970s car port outside it and in the distance was this beautiful house we owned and couldn't afford to live in." There is also an excerpt from an interview with her in around 1996/7 where she exhibits a lively and vivacious side to her that was very attractive.

Towards the end of her life she suffered from severe depression attempting suicide more than once. Her influence in the fashion world was waning, she had had the sadness of infertility to contend with and her parents had divorced when she was young which must have left its mark on her and in addition she also had money worries. To top it all she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and she committed suicide in May 2007.

This was such a sad end to an extraordinary life which was clearly not an easy one. Isabella Blow was one of life's individuals and it's hard to imagine any other fashion director commanding the level of public attention or having the same influence on the international scene as she did.

Somerset House
20 November 2013 - 2 March 2014

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Public art 5: Man with open arms

 Bronze statue by Giles Penny 1995
I don't know if this statue has an actual name. There's no explanatory information nearby and I only found out the name of the artist after a quick trawl on the internet.

Anyway, it is sited near One Canada Square or, as it is more commonly known, Canary Wharf. Privately I've always called it 'Exuberance' and the sight of it always makes me smile and feel uplifted. When I worked in the area it used to remind me that there is life outside offices.

Monday, 2 December 2013

Paul Klee: Making Visible

Vase of pink roses ©Heather James
I made this drawing in response to visiting the Paul Klee exhibition at Tate Modern titled Making Visible. The quiet simplicity of his art made a big impression on me and I wanted to try and capture some of that without actually copying any of his work. This was the third image I made during this exercise and the previous two images had different subject matter.

Paul Klee (1879-1940) was born near Bern in Switzerland to a German father and a Swiss mother, was given German nationality and lived through turbulent times during his whole life. He was brought up in a musical household and as a young man became a professional violinist. Paul Klee certainly packed a lot into his life which was relatively short but the periods that most interest me are his early life and the 10 year period when he was teaching at the Bauhaus.

His route to studying art was far from straight forward and included being rejected by the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich. Instead of throwing in the towel he studied at a private drawing school and then later on embarked on a six month tour of Italy with his sculptor friend Hermann Haller. On returning to live with his parents in Bern he spent the next four years studying art and experimenting in order to develop his own artistic identity meanwhile supporting himself as an orchestral violinist. It strikes me he must have had a burning desire to explore his interior life as an artist if he was prepared to go to these lengths.

My view from the sofa when I work in the sitting room
In 1906 he married Lily Stumpf and they moved to a small apartment where he had to work in the kitchen or the sitting room since he didn't have a studio. There would be other periods in his life when he also had to work from home and the constraints this must have imposed on him (and his family) didn't seem to affect his output or the quality of his work.

My apologies for skipping the next 15 years including Klee's service in WWI. We meet Klee in 1921 as he joins the faculty of the Bauhaus school.He begins teaching on the preliminary course and in the bookbinding workshop. Then he is appointed master in the metal workshop and following that the stained glass workshop. Several years later he takes on the textile composition class as well as teaching painting classes. I'm impressed by the range of techniques he could turn his hand to as well as teach. Maybe if he was alive now he'd be designing websites, making art installations and films.

Sadly Klee was diagnosed in 1935 with scleroderma, an incurable degenerative illness which meant he was unable to work. In time his strength improved and he was able to paint again at a steady pace. The final gallery (of 17) in this exhibition has about eight works in it which he produced during the last couple of years of his life. I found these to be among the most moving pieces in the exhibition as I felt drawn, as if by a magnet, into their quiet, colourful interiors where I could have stayed for hours.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

In praise of patterns

A sample of fabric we have in our house which I really like
In the summer of 1979 I, along with 30 other students in the same year, was ready to graduate from art college having spent three years grappling with the problems posed by graphic design or Visual Communication as it was known at Bath Academy of Art. In order to pass our degrees we had to be interviewed by an external examiner. All I can remember about him was his first name was Ken (I think), he dressed in black and was a bit intimidating.

Last Saturday's Sudoku which I
solved for once

I'll be the first to admit that my efforts at design were hardly setting the place on fire and it's always possible that by the time Ken reached me he'd run out of things to say or was sick of talking to anxious students. Anyway, the only thing I can remember him saying to me in a rather disparaging tone was 'you work in patterns'. He was unimpressed to say the least and for years afterwards this phrase echoed around my mind as in 'you work in patterns therefore you can't be any good at design.'

So the years rolled by and I discovered, while working in magazine and newspaper design, that I loved solving visual problems. I thrived on looking for the visual patterns in a layout which aren't always obvious but when they work well enable the reader to understand more easily what the author is trying to convey.

I don't remember being given the chance to counter Ken's argument all those years ago but I will now I have 35 years experience to draw on.

Finding patterns and designing patterns has an honourable tradition. Textile design has employed patterns of varying complexity for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. I'm sure the code breakers working at Bletchley Park during WWII were seeking patterns in the codes in order to try and beat the Germans. In my small way I enjoy grappling with Sudoku puzzles and finding the patterns to solve them — quite often they defeat me. Since I can't help but look for patterns everywhere I'll continue to celebrate them by producing sketches like the one below which is full of them.
A wet Monday in Marseillan April 2013

Monday, 25 November 2013

Public art 4: Charity by Van Spangen and Powell, Mile End

Charity by Van Spangen and Powell
This is a sketch I've drawn of a sculpture that is currently on display outside Hackney Museum which is inside Hackney Library. Well, I assumed it was on display but it turns out that it has been placed here for want of a permanent setting.

The notice on the wall describes it like this: 'Charity' by Van Spangen and Powell, Mile End. This sculpture dates from around 1800 and once stood on St Leonard's Parochial Schools in Kingsland Road, Shoreditch before being moved to St Leonard's Children's Home (orphanage) in Hornchurch, Essex.

I've just checked the distance from Shoreditch to Hornchurch on Google maps and it's about 17 miles. I assume the state of the roads would have been fairly bad back in the 19th century and it would probably have been carried by horse and cart so I am surprised it has remained intact although I understand it comes apart for transportation. After the children's home closed in the 1980s the sculpture ended up in the gardens of the V&A's Museum of Childhood down the road in Bethnal Green and then was moved again when the museum underwent refurbishment.

It's not unusual to see small sculptures adorning the outside of schools in London. For example Greycoat Hospital School in Westminster has figures of a boy and a girl dressed in clothing contempary to the date the school was founded set in niches in the front wall of the school. Raines Foundation School in Bethnal Green used to have similar figures on display outside their building.

This sculpture is different in that it is telling a story of Charity who is portrayed as a mythical goddess offering support to a boy and a girl. I find it fascinating that the children's clothing is so detailed including showing the girl's bonnet and the way the fabric of her dress falls and the buttons and buttonholes in the boy's waistcoat and their shoes look like something we might wear today.

This sculpture was produced by a Dutchman called Van Spangen who set up an artificial stone factory in Bow in 1800. He used 'cast stone' to produce his work which seems to be a version of fine concrete and is a material that has been in use since the 12th century. This sculpture was very likely made in clay and then cast to look like stone. Van Spangen's firm was broken up in 1828 and the moulds were then sold to a sculptor called Felix Austin. This sculpture was probably just one of many knocked out in that 30 year period and not regarded as anything particularly unusual or special but I've yet to see another one quite like it.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Beaujolais nouveau

Restaurant in Shoreditch High Street
I was sitting on the number 26 bus today lost in a daydream when, as we stopped at the traffic lights just before the turn off to Hackney Road, I saw a sign for Beaujolais nouveau, November 21. You can just about see this announcement on the window of the restaurant above.

This took me back nearly 30 years to the days when the arrival of this young, and to my tastes frankly unpleasant red wine was anticipated with much excitement. It was during the heady days of Margaret Thatcher's premiership when the Young Conservatives had balls and the Hooray Henry's got very drunk and threw bread rolls at each other and their female counterparts were all called Caroline and they wore dresses that looked like meringues and the rest of us thought this was normal behaviour for Tories.

So Henry and Caroline would race each other to France and back to see who could get back first with a case of the stuff while the rest of us got on with earning a living. They would get two minutes attention on the evening news and then it would all be forgotten. I had assumed, with the passage of time, that Beajolais nouveau had been a passing fad and like a property boom the bubble had burst a long time ago. But it seems I am wrong and today is the day to celebrate this year's arrival.

À la vôtre.

Monday, 18 November 2013

Strange seating in Victoria Park

London Bridge is falling down,
Falling down, falling down.
London Bridge is falling down,
My fair lady.

I can remember singing this in the school playground. I didn't know then that it is just the first verse of a very long nursery rhyme about the numerous bridges that have been known over the years as London Bridge.

In 1968, when I was 11 years old, London Bridge was sold to an American oil tycoon, Robert P McCulloch, for $2,460,000. I can just about remember the astonishment this sale caused and the assumption was that the buyer probably thought he was buying Tower Bridge which looks completely different. It was later dismantled and shipped to Lake Havasu in Arizona, where it was reassembled and still stands today. I've just had a look at some photographs of the bridge in its present location and it looks lovely and as though it was designed for the place.

That bridge was built of granite and was designed by John Rennie in the 19th century and replaced a previous bridge which was built in 1760 by Sir Robert Taylor and George Dance the Younger, and demolished 1823. The stone alcove you can see above is one of a pair from that earlier bridge that found their way to Victoria Park in 1860.

You can just see the second alcove in the distance

There is an inscription inside both alcoves which reads: 
This alcove which stood on
Old London Bridge
was presented to
Her Majesty (Queen Victoria)
by Benjamin Dixon Esq J P
for the use of the public and was
placed here by order of
the Right Honourable W. Cowper
First Commissioner of
Her Majesty's Works
and Public Buildings. 

I have wondered where these alcoves were stored in the intervening years between the old bridge being demolished in 1823 and 1860 when they arrived in the newly opened Victoria Park. Apparently other alcoves from the same bridge were given a new lease of life somewhere else. Maybe people sit in those alcoves too gazing across green grass and admiring the skyline in the distance pretending to be listening to the sound of the Thames flowing in and out according to the tides just the same way I do.
The sketch I made while sitting in one of the alcoves

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Centre Point, Oxford Street

On Monday I was rushing through rain soaked London at lunchtime and passed one of my favourite buildings. I'm rather fond of Brutalist architecture (reinforced concrete) which is why I am a bit sad that the Royal Festival Hall has had its exterior covered up. I am referring to the Centre Point tower which was one of London's first skyscrapers and completed in 1966. According to Wikipedia the site was once occupied by a gallows which is news to me and adds a gruesome touch to the area.

It became controversial because it was built by the property tycoon Harry Hyams who was happy to keep it empty for years until he could find a single tenant for the entire 34 floors. This led to all sorts of conspiracy theories, for example a designer I met who worked in Soho confidently told me it was built as a tax dodge and I've just read on the internet a few other explanations for this odd behaviour.

I think there are few things more depressing than walking past an unoccupied and deserted building and it was squatted briefly in 1974 so presumably some other people agreed with that view. Now it is occupied by a number of tenants and it is a listed building in spite of Nikolaus Pevsner describing it as 'coarse in the extreme'.

It used to have a rather elegant pool complete with fountains on its west side but all that has been demolished because of the ongoing Crossrail Project and this is the view you get at the moment until 2018 when Crossrail should be finished.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Public art 3: Stairway to heaven

Stairway to heaven memorial, Bethnal Green, designed by local architect Harry Paticas with initial help from Jens Borstelmann
This memorial didn't attract much attention from passers-by who were busy going about their day when I visited it last month. It is sited near a library in a park next to Bethnal Green tube station on the corner of Cambridge Heath Road and Roman Road.

This part of the park had been a cordoned off as a building site for quite some time and I was keen to take a look at it now it is accessible to the public. I had no idea when I arrived how emotionally affected I would feel by the time I left. I also had no idea until I read more about the design of it that it is still incomplete. The trust that runs it need to raise the money for the actual staircase. In spite of this the memorial, as it stands, is an affecting tribute to the people involved in the worst civilian disaster in the UK during WWII.

During WWII it was common for tube stations to be used as communal air raid shelters. They could accommodate thousands of people unlike the cramped, airless shelters buried in back gardens. Londoners had endured relentless bombing during the Blitz in 1940-41 with the city being hit 57 nights in a row. The population got used to air raid sirens going off even though they might be false alarms and would spend the night in the shelters as a precaution.

Bethnal Green station is on the Central Line and was still under construction when this disaster took place on 3 March 1943 as a result of several things happening at once. The siren sounded, a cinema closed and three buses let off their passengers so they could make their way to the shelter. 

A woman carrying a baby tripped and fell as she walked down the steps to the platform. A man tripped over her and a domino effect began. At the top of the stairs came a shouted warning of bombs falling and when a different deafening sound was heard they thought it was a new kind of bomb (it turned out to be a new, secret, anti-aircraft rocket battery being tested in Victoria Park near by).

As a consequence of this it is estimated that around 178 people died that night, many of whom were crushed to death, and a further 60 people were wounded and needed hospital treatment. Many of the survivors never recovered from this experience and the Government of the day decided to hush it up. To me this is reason enough to have a very public memorial where local people can remember their families.*

*I found most of this information at the memorial's website. You can also read individual stories from this disaster at the same site.

This seat is part of the memorial and is where I sat while I drew this sketch

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Public art 2: Reclining figure in bronze

Reclining figure in bronze by Thomas Bayliss Huxley-Jones made in 1964 outside Hornsey library
Monday evening was handing in day for the Islington Art Society's autumn exhibition at the Original Gallery at Hornsey library. While I was approaching the library I noticed this sculpture in a pool with a fountain. I liked the sculpture so much I thought I would show it at two angles.

I love the exuberance on display here and now that I have just begun to be aware of civic sculpture I am impressed that local authorities used to commission art in a way that never happens now.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Glass fusing course

My panel based on one of my existing landscapes
I'd been looking forward to last Saturday for several months. Back in August my friend Wendy booked a beginner's glass fusing course for us and her two daughters and then we had to wait patiently until the end of October before we could try it out.

Wendy's niece practises this mysterious art and apparently the results are so captivating Wendy resolved to start learning how to do it herself and infected me with her enthusiasm.

We spent the day at Abinger Stained Glass and were taught by the owner, Amanda Winfield, the basic skills needed for glass fusing. I'm generally used to learning new skills so I don't expect to be fantastically proficient by the end of one day. After all cutting glass accurately can only be developed with a lot of experience. I was surprised when Amanda told us that we'd probably finish one large piece of work and still have time to make a coaster or a pendant before the end of the day. As it turned out it took me all my time to complete the panel above and even then I had to get a move on.

As I understand it glass fusing requires two or more layers of glass which can be cut, arranged and decorated how you like with powder, bits of glass, metal and even dried leaves and then it is fired in a kiln over a number of hours. If you are making a plate or bowl (which I'd love to do another time) the work is fired once in the kiln and then again where it is 'slumped' over a ceramic mould which defines its final shape.

First we were taught how to cut a straight line using a glass cutter and a device that snaps the glass. You have to wear goggles during this which take some getting used to and you need to try and avoid cutting yourself. I managed to draw blood several times and got through quite a few plasters during the day.

It can be quite frustrating trying to cut the glass because until you have there's nothing to work with. I realised during the day that a distinctive sound accompanies the glass cutter as it travels along the glass. When you hear that it is likely you will manage to break the glass cleanly. Amanda assured us that our only limitations with glass fusing is our imaginations but after you've been working away for a few hours it is easy to think your imagination has fled.

After a half hour lunch in Amanda's dining room we were able to return to our benches refreshed. The workshop is in a large shed at the top of her garden. There are views of the rolling Surrey hills which is managed by the National Trust and early on in the day we spotted a couple of pheasants looking at us which increased the feeling of being in the middle of nowhere.

Before we knew it our day was over. I'm looking forward to seeing the finished object and having another go at this interesting and potentially painful artform.

Thursday, 31 October 2013

Revisiting old friends

View from the churchyard of the Downland Church of the Transfiguration Pyecombe 2008
I've had a yen to develop this sketch into a painting for a long time. This morning I dug this sketch book out of the box it's stored in and finally did that painting.

Back in 2008 we spent a couple of days walking part of the South Downs Way which I understand used to be a pilgrim route from Winchester to Eastbourne. It was wet and it was windy but I enjoy recalling the memory of that visit. So here below is the finished result which I will be submitting to the Islington Art Society autumn exhibition next week.

©Heather James 2013

Monday, 28 October 2013

Dayanita Singh: Go away closer

Dayanita Singh is an artist who works with photography. Her exhibition Go Away Closer is on at the Hayward Gallery until 15 December. Thanks to my husband's passion for photography I'm beginning to be able to discern a well thought out photograph from an idle snap taken on a phone camera but it's been a long time coming.

Similarly I find listening to music difficult because it feels like a foreign language that I don't understand and I'm unsure how to respond. Dayanita refers to music in the exhibition notes saying that she 'understood that music, with its pauses and silences, has lessons for photography'.

Dayanita is a natural storyteller and uses her photography to form books as a way of engaging with the viewer. For her, photography is a language and the images are texts. The smallest exhibit in the show is a concertinaed structure with a photograph on each face and the exhibition notes echo this design as a folded out leaflet rather than a small booklet stapled at the spine.

While I found the unconventional arrangement of the photographs challenging to look at (if you change the order in which they appear you simultaneously change their meaning) I did respond to the way she works in series because I like to do that myself.

Dayanita clearly thinks rather differently about the world from many of us because she is creating her own Museums to display her work. Unlike the vast cathedrals to science, art and the natural world I am used to visiting in Kensington these museums are large wooden structures like movable book cases which can be transported around the world and then put on display. These allow her to choose endlessly different arrangements of her pictures and in this way her work can 'keep on growing or changing.'

I imagine that you could visit this exhibition over and over again and it would be different every time. I think there were roughly six of these museums on display when we visited. They included images along with empty shelves causing me to wonder what might be in them if I came back the next day.

Living in London we are bombarded with photographs at every turn. They are on the tube, on the bus, on billboards, inside shops and also everywhere on the internet to the extent that I find I'm protecting myself from the endless stream of photographic images which invades my daily life. This exhibition helped me see photography in a different light, to engage with it and revel in the stories the images revealed which was both refreshing and a delight.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Sustainable cities

View of the Emirates Airline from the Crystal café
We decided today was the day to experience the Emirates Airline where you travel by cable car from Victoria Dock to the O2 Dome: it's not what you would describe as a commuter route but we wanted to try it out. However we delayed all this fun by visiting The Crystal which is an exhibition centre nearby devoted to explaining why we need sustainable cities.

Apparently a new baby is born somewhere in the world every two seconds and the population is growing faster than we can cope so our friend's son who was born a mere five days ago has not been the youngest person on the planet for nearly his whole life.

They had an illustration of a city of the future which looked a lot like the photo above with little blinking dots showing the traffic. There were all sorts of interactive screens that explained stuff and there were displays of water pouring through rusty old Victorian pipes and salad plants growing in walls. There was an electric car I would like to been allowed to test drive and a weird Harley Davidson-style electric motor bike that you would need legs 10ft long to reach the pedals.

Then we ate our carefully considered lunch in this entirely sustainable building drinking tap water that we were assured was much better than anything that we can drink at home. We've now put The Crystal on to our list of places to bring future house guests which also means we can learn more about sustainable cities.

We really enjoyed our 'flight' in the cable car across the docks. You can see as far as the runway at London City Airport, south to the mast at Crystal Palace, beyond that the start of the Surrey Hills and to the east the beginnings of Kent. I also had a birds-eye view of a recycling centre and watched people sorting the rubbish and got a good view of the Thames Barrier. So all in all it was as refreshing as a mini-break to a far flung city.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Ana Mendieta: Traces

I was emotionally wrung out after visiting Ana Mendieta's exhibition Traces at the Hayward Gallery at the weekend which I wasn't expecting from an afternoon jaunt around London's Southbank.

I don't think I'd ever seen any of her work before or even heard of her name. She was born in Cuba in 1948 and in 1961, in the wake of the Cuban Revolution, she was sent by her politically active family to live in the USA. She was active as an artist from 1972 until her sudden death in 1985. It was a short life but a prolific one.

I couldn't help wondering, while surrounded by her work, how much a person's background might shape that person's life as an artist and affect the work they produce. For example in 1973 she visited Mexico during the summer and produced her first Silueta or silhouette. These are 'earth-body' works which reveal her body in a natural setting. In one of these she's shown in a film lying down in woodland covered in rocks and bit by bit she moves about and disturbs the rocks to reveal her own naked body. In another short film there is an effigy of a person floating in water and in another you can see her reflection in a mirror placed in woodland but you can't see her. She seems to be something like a nymph or spirit of the forest. She created hundreds of these silueta's where she explored burial and regeneration in Iowa, Mexico, upstate New York and Cuba from 1973 to 1981.

I asked myself this question because in 1973 I was 16 years old, only eight years younger than Ana. I'd just left John Lea Secondary School in Wellingborough, where your only career options were to get a job in a factory or possibly a bank and the idea that you might want to study art and design was looked upon as a bit odd. So with this in mind I was impressed that Ana was artistically so productive so early in her life.

Her work was often autobiographical and there are examples where she filmed or photographed herself exploring disguises or distorting her body by flattening herself against a plane of glass. She was always careful to document her work with photography or film and notebooks since a lot of it was ephemeral and was here one minute and gone the next. Her work is very complex and includes raising awareness to sexual violence towards women and incorporating a lot of blood into her work.

Alongside this practice she developed an interest in ancient and indigenous cultures. The work on display in this exhibition that had the most impact on me were the drawings she made on leaves she found in the gardens of the American Academy in Rome where she moved in 1983. While she was based in Rome she was able to travel to other places including Malta where the oldest Neolithic temples are located. These temples are famous for their sculptures of big, fat women and these monuments influenced her floor sculptures.

The Neolithic temples in Malta is one place we mean to visit and when we do I'm sure the experience will be heightened by recalling the work of this most interesting artist and her fascination with the natural world and its spiritual realms.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Public art 1: The blind beggar by Elizabeth Frink 1959

This is going to be first post in an occasional series about public art. There is so much art on display in formal squares, on street corners and in gardens in London that I feel the urge to comment on some of it.

I pass this sculpture regularly when I am on the no 8 bus heading down Roman Road. It is a piece of public art in the sense that you can see it from the main road but it is on private property in the gardens of a group of bungalows on the Cranbrook Estate. So unless you can get to know someone who lives there this is as close as you are going to get to it.

I included my wonky video because I enjoy the sound of the fountain playing in the background. I made a quick sketch of it from a nearby bench where I could spread out and while I was drawing I thought that it was merely of a man taking his dog for a walk. But it turns out it represents The Blind Beggar of Bethnal Green who is said to be a local mythological figure dating back to the seventeenth century. This bronze sculpture stands eight feet tall and was created by Elizabeth Frink in 1959 having been commissioned by Bethnal Green Metropolitan Borough.

The blind beggar is also represented at other sites in Bethnal Green and at the pub of the same name in Whitechapel which is notorious for the Kray twins killing of George Cornell in 1966.

I would love it if our borough council chose to site a fabulous piece of sculpture outside our house and perhaps include a fountain but I'm afraid it's never going to happen.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

The Royal Academy: Australia

My friend Yvonne suggested meeting up and yesterday we caught up with each other at the Royal Academy to see the Australia exhibition which began a couple of weeks ago.

Like many thousands of other people I have family connections with Australia.  My grandmother sailed there from the UK in the early 20s to get married in Adelaide. My mother and her siblings were born and raised there until the 1930s when the family moved to the UK to escape the depression. I have cousins living in NSW, Victoria, Tasmania and beyond and still I have never visited this great continent.

I've always had a curiosity about Australia and I can remember as a five-year -old believing that there were only two countries in the world and they were England, where I lived with my family, and Australia where the rest of the family lived. Fortunately my world view has expanded considerably since then but my curiosity remains much the same.

The only time I have experienced vast, open spaces was when I travelled with my husband by train across Canada. It took many hours just to get out of Ontario so I really have no conception of the size of Australia and the climate is so different from anything I have ever experienced.

I was unprepared for the impact these works of art would have on me and I found the gallery with large pieces of native, aboriginal art mesmerising. There were a couple of paintings that are on raised platforms on the floor so instead of the usual convention of viewing art vertically on walls you view these horizontally as you would a carpet. Once your eyes begin to range over the canvas and you become drawn into it you really get the feeling you are floating  above and exploring a vast, angular, mountainous landscape and although the canvas is flat the effect is three dimensional.

Quite a few of these works are collaborations between a number of artists but it is hard to spot this because the end result is a unified whole and some of the works are so large I don't know how they found the stamina to keep going.

The purpose of this exhibition is to show how Australia is deeply connected to its landscape and it spans more than 200 years of art since the early settlers arrived in the 1800s. As you walk through the galleries you are treated to a whistle-stop tour of Australia developing from small, rural outposts inhabited by pioneers to an urban, industrialised country with a huge presence on the world stage.

Some of the work from the early 20th century struck us as staged and mawkish but that must have been the fashion of the time and we could probably find similar examples in any other country during the same period. Fortunately there wasn't too much of that and then we were back to views of people on the beach, roads disappearing into the horizon, a family in a car.

There really was too much to see in one visit and we had to save several galleries for a second visit which we have time for because the exhibition continues until 8 December.

As someone who also feels an affinity with landscape I can't resist showing you this one which I painted in August in north Yorkshire.

View from Grinkle Park Hotel

Sunday, 22 September 2013

A Crisis of Brilliance 1908-1922

Last Sunday, for my birthday outing, we visited Dulwich Pictury Gallery to see the exhibition A Crisis of Brilliance 1908-1922. Sadly it finishes today so there's no time for a second visit.

This exhibition traces the work of Paul Nash, C.R.W. Nevinson, Stanley Spencer, Mark Gertler, Dora Carrington and David Bomberg who were students together at the Slade School of Fine Art under the tuition of Professor Tonks. Henry Tonks studied medicine and became a surgeon before becoming an artist. Judging by the exhibition notes Professor Tonks was a task master who ran his studio like a military camp. So life for his students was no a 'walk in the park'.

However their work flourished as they were exposed to Futurism, Cubism and Vorticism and they became some of the most well-known and distinctive British artists of the twentieth century. The exhibition culminates with a selection of their drawings and paintings depicting the horrors of WWI.

I was particulary attracted to a landscape by Paul Nash using graphite and ink wash which has inspired me to try something similar. I think this simple sketch of mine evokes a similar mood.

Bittern Lookout

Friday, 12 July 2013

Summer Salon at the Islington Arts Factory

I'm really pleased that two pieces of my art work have been selected for this year's summer salon at Islington Arts Factory. Private view on Friday 26 July: all welcome.

The two images are shown here:
Band stand in Victoria Park from the Lady Burdett fountain

Kitchen still life

Friday, 28 June 2013

A tour of Union Chapel, Islington

Looking towards the Rose window: ©Graham White

Last Monday a small group from the Islington Art Society were treated to a tour of Union Chapel by Andrew Gardner. This imposing Congregational, non-conformist church sits on Compton Terrace and dominates the skyline where Upper Street and Highbury Corner meet in Islington.

Andrew explained that the chapel, that replaced a previous Georgian chapel which was deemed too small, was designed by James Cubitt in the 1870s with non-conformist values in mind. Unlike Anglican churches the chapel has no central nave. There are instead two aisles either side the central seating area which encourages a feeling of community among people sitting there. The acoustics were considered most important and you can easily hear the spoken voice from anywhere in the chapel without amplification. Likewise the minister can see the entire congregation (which originally numbered around 1600 people) when speaking from the pulpit. These were all designed to foster a sense of inclusiveness.

In the chapel's Victorian hey day up to 1,000 children attended Sunday School every week and this would have been the only formal education they would have received. There were lecture rooms upstairs and downstairs so the chapel was busy during the week as well as on Sundays.

The numbers attending the chapel declined markedly after WWII and by 1980 Islington Council was ready to demolish the building because it had fallen into such bad repair but this was halted by enthusiasts of Victorian architecture who began the task of restoring this colossal building. One way of raising funds was to use the chapel as a music venue and it is this area which has thrived and many famous names have played here. In addition to this the famous Father Willis organ has recently been restored and is going to be featured during the Organ Project Launch Week, 14-20 July with a diverse line-up of artists.

We all enjoyed our tour around the nooks and crannies of this vast complex including peering at the hydraulics underneath the organ, inspecting the basement and the offices upstairs. If you too would like a tour of the chapel or to attend a concert contact Union Chapel here.
Revealing the balcony: ©Graham White

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Art for sale

One of my new card designs: A view from Corbridge, Northumberland
In the interests of being more business like and productive I have just updated and reorganised the greeting cards section on my website which you can find here.

Friday, 22 February 2013

A bigger splash makes me think

Today I've been lucky enough to spend a few hours socialising with two different friends at two different locations. I met my first friend at En Cas & Espresso café near Old Street where we enjoyed some food and watched snow falling outside.

I met my second friend inside Tate Modern by the bookshop which is next to the Turbine Hall. Since it is often easier to walk round London than go by public transport I made this journey on foot. I walked along City Road until I passed Moorgate Tube station. I wiggled my way round the City until I reached Cheapside then onto Queen Victoria Street, over Millennium Bridge to arrive at the forbidding and fortress-like museum of modern art on the south bank of the Thames where I noticed that the tide was in.

Along the way I dodged traffic and other pedestrians, giving way here and taking the initiative there. Once inside the museum I had to do the same to navigate my way to the bookshop to meet my friend. Then we had to travel on several escalators to finally reach floor four so we could visit A Bigger Splash: Painting after Performance.

There are 13 rooms devoted to this exhibition and the bigger splash refers to the David Hockney (1967) painting in Room One, of a swimming pool with a burst of water as its focal point. On the opposite side of the room there is a Jackson Pollock painting (circa 1950) on display on the floor and on the wall above a documentary showing the artist at work on this same piece. I think I liked this exhibit most out of the whole exhibition.

The first paragraph of the exhibition notes states: "A Bigger Splash: Painting after Performance looks at the dynamic relationship between painting and performance since the 1950s, and at how experiments in performance have expanded the possibilities for contemporary painting."

I confess I don't really understand what this means but we ploughed through every room doing our best to take in what there was to offer. At one point I asked myself: "If I had made this morning's journey covered in wet paint and had someone film me doing it, then shown it on TV in an art gallery would it count as art?" I really was that puzzled.

While I really didn't like watching female models being used as props and some of the images appeared to be quite sadistic I was intrigued by Geta Brătescu's films of her painting her face and then cleaning it all off again. Likewise I enjoyed the Polish artist Edward Krasiński's line of blue tape stuck all around Room Six at a fixed height and watching footage in Room Two of people firing guns at sacs of paint embedded in canvas devised by Niki de Saint Phalle made me laugh.

I found this exhibition very challenging and surprisingly thought provoking which I wasn't expecting when I walked into the first room and by the time we left Tate Modern I noticed that the tide was going out.

Thursday, 31 January 2013

Mariko Mori: Rebirth

Last Monday I was given the opportunity to visit Mariko Mori's exhibition Rebirth at Burlington Gardens, part of the Royal Academy of Arts. Other than visiting the exhibition in person you won't find a better description of it than this link to the Royal Academy where you can watch a very informative video about the subject matter plus an interview with the artist.

When I visit an exhibition I try to approach the artwork with an open mind and on a good day I leave a gallery feeling refreshed and invigorated - often I've learned something new. On this occasion I experienced something approaching a meditative state which increased as I passed from one gallery to another. I wasn't fully aware of this until it was time to leave the building and make a decision about how I was going to get home. Having to deal with crossing the road safely and navigate my way round Mayfair was surprisingly challenging.

So now it is the Thursday after my visit and I still feel quite incapable of describing adequately what the exhibition is like. But I do recommend a visit if you happen to be in the area and then you can decide for yourself. It's on until 17 February.

Monday, 14 January 2013

Catherine the not-so-great

Today was the first meeting of the year of the Freelance Media Group. We meet at the Groucho Club, the private hang out of the Very Important People who inhabit Media Land. Sometimes you'll spot a celebrity or two which is all good fun but you must not, whatever you do, engage them in conversation.

Anyway there is fat chance of that happening since we meet in a room up several flights of stairs away from all the schmoozing. Here I found myself sitting next to a journalist who revealed that she covers royal stories and she politely agreed when I pointlessly gushed 'Ooh, you'll be busy when the baby arrives.' Then I asked her what she thought of the Duchess of Cambridge's new portrait by Paul Emsley on display at the National Portrait Gallery which in the last few days has been subjected to a barrage of criticism. She assured me that it looks much better 'in the flesh' than it did in the papers. So I decided to check it out for myself since we were just a short walk away from the gallery.

My first impression was that it is far too big. It is more-or-less 3ft x 4ft. I think it would have had more impact if it had been half that size. I imagine it could be quite terrifying receiving a commission to paint a royal portrait and maybe that is why Catherine has ended up looking a bit lifeless. I much preferred the portrait further along the corridor of Mo Mowlam (a British MP and Labour minister) painted by John Keane in 2001. This portrait is full of life, you can see the brush strokes and although Mo Mowlam is in repose you can get a sense of her vitality. Poor Catherine by contrast doesn't appear to have any vitality. However if you turn your head slightly you can see her engagement photos hanging in a neighbouring gallery where you can see that she is clearly a very lively young woman.

This is just the first official portrait of Catherine and no doubt in time we will be able to chart the progress of her royal life in future portraits in the same way we can with Her Majesty the Queen who appears to have sat for more portraits than some of us have had hot dinners - let's hope they might have a bit more life in them.

Friday, 11 January 2013

A winter visit to Louvre-Lens

Photo: Graham White 2013
The Louvre-Lens is an art museum situated in the former mining town of Lens, in Northern France. It displays objects from the collections of the Musée du Louvre and it opened on 12.12.12.

We visited it barely three weeks after it had opened and were amazed by the number of visitors it was already attracting. This is no palace and quite unlike the ornate warren in Paris. It is a series of single storey buildings with the vast main gallery at the heart of it. It looks a lot like an aluminium shed and if you enjoy spare architecture you will find this very pleasing. The architects who designed it are Japanese, Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa and the design sits well within the landscaped gardens that are still being established.

The art is displayed in a strictly chronological order and there is a time line etched into one of the long walls so you can always check where you are in history. You might find you are looking at an Egyptian statue which is next to a floor made of mosaic from a different civilisation. Since we are generally used to looking at art from the same period or the same school this takes a little getting used to.

You need to allow at least an hour and a half to do this display justice and fortunately there is a café in the entrance hall where you can recharge your batteries. We were most impressed with this museum and plan to visit it again as well as exploring this part of northern France we previously knew nothing about.

Entry is free as is the shuttle bus going to and from the station. There is a charge for the temporary exhibition which is on until March 2013 and the current one is about the Renaissance. Lens is a one hour train ride from Lille.