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