Thursday, 29 October 2015

In the Studio Today

Autumn paintings!

Clockwise from top right - Hyde Park near Round Pond, Hampstead Heath, cherry trees at Kew gardens and flowers form the border in my garden.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Bill Viola at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park

Bill Viola is an American video artist pioneer whose major retrospective opened at the wonderful  Yorkshire Sculpture Park this weekend, and I went to see it.  Viola specialises in enigmatic, slow motion videos of figures, which create intense emotional feelings.

Now bear with me here - last month I blogged about Steven Wilson playing at the Royal Albert Hall.  Wilson's music is very dark, intense and emotional, and is accompanied by striking visuals of projected films and animations.  Wilson seeks out the uber dramatic, the darkly quirky, and the often downright depressing as his subject material.

On the second night, the second half of the show started with a black and white film of a beach viewed through the windows of a house.  There, near the waves, is a small black shape.  

The film is in very slow motion, so it is only after a while that you realise that the black shape is moving towards you - a sinister hooded figure.  It comes closer and closer.  You can't take it your eyes off it.  For something moving so slowly, it is very compelling.

Then the figure disappears out of the picture to the right hand side.  For a long while, there is nothing but the view of the beach and the waves.  However, the absence of the figure creates a tension.  What is going to happen next?

Then horribly, the figure enters from the right, to stand in front of you.  It's actually a real fright - a slow motion fright, but a fright nevertheless.  Which is ridiculous - but because you are so fixed and intent on looking at the image in the dark in such detail, it packs a powerful emotional punch.

At the time, the film superficially reminded me of the work of Bill Viola.  Both use the technique of slow motion videos to convey that emotional punch.  But, in a very important way, it is also very unlike his work.  

Viola's work is all about emotion, yes, but it is about elemental opposites - life and death, water and fire, youth and age, male and female.  This is a guy who doesn't beat about the bush with the small stuff, it's all about The Big Questions for him.  He pares away the superfluous detail so that it is just People, Fire, Water, Light, Dark, Life, Death.  His work has a big, intangible sense of spirituality, a sense that there's something very profound but you don't know quite what it is, often involving the exploration of the thin, thin divide between life and death. It manages to be incredibly broad but very subtle at the same time.  

When you compare the two, it is this depth is lacking in the Steven Wilson film, for the purpose of the latter is merely to illustrate the mood of the music, to set the scene, to provide a memorable image, a long Gothic 'BOO!'.

Some years ago I saw a film by Viola ('Observance') whilst in Liverpool.  A procession of people in slow motion came towards the camera and then moved away again. How simple.  But it was full of what seemed to me to be a profound longing and sadness.  It made me cry.

Remembering how it had affected me, I was keen to see a new exhibition of his work at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park at the weekend. 

The exhibition consists of a series of large, dark spaces, each one showing a different  video installation.  As your eyes adjust to the light, the first piece you come across is The Innocents.  On one wall, two screens show grainy black and white images of a boy and girl walking towards you in very slow motion.  They come to a wall of water which flows between you and them.  They pass through the water, and as they do so, they come into high definition transformative technicolour in front of you, before returning back through the water, walking away and fading into the grainy dark.

Bill Viola, The Innocents 2007 

On the other wall, a single screen shows the same ritual being performed by an older woman.  She comes through the water, emerging in a bright red dress, but the water for her is a shock, almost a trauma

In the next room, 'The Trial', there are two giant screens side by side, one with a young man and the other a woman, both naked from the waist up.  They stand as they endure torrents of different liquids are poured onto them, again in slow motion.  First thick, dark and oily, so that it is hard for them to breathe, then red like blood, then milky white, then clear water until they are clean again. Apparently neither actor was told what to expect, so their reactions are genuine.
Bill Viola, The Trial 2015 

As you can tell, not much happens, and yet everything happens, such is the strangely compelling nature of the piece. 

One room which had parents hurrying their children through had two large screens propped up against the wall, one with the life-size figure of a man and one with a woman, both of whom were naked and who were slowly examining their bodies with a torch.  

Image: Kira Perov 

Called  “Man Searching for Immortality/Woman Searching for Eternity” these people were both of pensioner age, and the man looks disturbingly like Jeremy Corbyn.  

Image: Kira Perov 

Whilst the woman examined her body with a certain amount of pleasurable surprise and contentment - as if she had a quiet delight in the fact that her body was still all working and standing her in good stead after all these years - the man looked rather more awkward, as if he was searching for something - perhaps if it really was Mr Corbyn, he was trying to track down some lost policies in his folds of skin.  

In other words, even though they were performing the same action, the woman looked as if she had found something, the man as if he had lost something.  What was that something?  In a broader sense, a feeling of hope, of time, of life passing perhaps?  Time had had its effects on their bodies, and this elicited acceptance in one and sadness in the other. 

This next image is from the room with the installation called 'The Dreamers' - a series of screens each showing a person floating underwater.  Occasionally a bubble came out of their nostrils.  I found it downright creepy, and couldn't stay. 

Apparently Bill Viola had a hugely formative experience when he was six, when he fell into a lake in north New York and nearly drowned, only being saved when he was pulled out by his uncle.  

Whilst he was under the water, he saw that there was a whole different beautiful world beneath the surface, which he had never even known existed before, one that was calm and serene.  This very elemental near-death experience of air/water, the narrowness between death and life, passing through to another world, profoundly informs his work. The near-drowning becomes a trial, a baptism, an epiphany, a cleansing. 

A short walk away in the grounds of the park is the Chapel, with Ai Wei Wei's Iron Tree outside (I recently saw his remarkable new exhibition which just opened at the Royal academy).  In the Chapel are another two works on display, Fire Woman and Tristan's Ascension.

When you go into the space of the building it is again pitch dark, and there is a great noise, the roaring of flames.  A huge screen, the double height of the chapel, shows a wall of flame with a hooded figure in front.  You watch as the flames ripple in slow motion.  What is going to happen?  Will she be engulfed?  Walk into the flames?  Be consumed?

Then eventually, she raises her arms, and falls.  She falls into water, and disappears.  The flames turn out to be a reflection, and they ripple and change colour, forming patterns until they eventually resolve and calm.
Bill Viola - Fire Woman (details) 

Bill Viola - Fire Woman video here. 

In the companion piece, a man is lying on a slab, with water pouring onto him.  Except the water is running upwards, pulling away from him.  You watch and watch.  You watch for a very long time.  The water roars continually.

Then suddenly, he twitches and moves, and as if pulled by an invisible force, he flies upwards, in a movement which is strangely euphoric, completely surprising, and literally uplifting.  He disappears. The water eventually stops until all you can see is a fine mist.

Bill Viola - Tristan's Ascension (The Sound of Water Under a Mountain) 2005

Because you are so focussed in the dark rooms on the huge videos, the action or inaction takes on a huge significance.  You are forced to notice every detail, immersed in waiting for what is going to happen next.  

And because of the nature of the human brain, which looks for narrative order in chaos, you are constantly looking for the story of the image.  Why are they there?  Who are they?  What is happening?  What is going to happen next?  What are they thinking?  How would I feel lying underwater, or walking through fire?  Would I look as serene, could I bear the weight of the water, the heat of the fire, could I stay calm?

Go and see it if you can.  And while you're there, go and see the Poppies as well.
 Paul Cummins; Wave (Getty Images)

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Work in Progress

Here's the scene the other week in my studio - hardly able to move for new paintings for the Edinburgh Art Fair and work for my show in London.

It's good to work through an idea or motif whilst it's fresh in my mind - in this case a series of pictures of the coastline around North Berwick and also Northern Ireland.  

It's good to do a series of related paintings, as no matter how carefully you plan an image, it will always bring to light problems, puzzles, issues and new ideas and relationships as part of the process of executing it.

Monday, 26 October 2015

Mystery Solved! The Painting in M's Office in Skyfall

Thanks to a very Alert Reader (you know who you are!), the mystery posed here of the painting in M's office has finally been solved!  My thanks go to them and their hard work in tracking it down.

Here it is behind Miss Moneypenny, Naomie Harris.

I've spent a great deal of time trawling through various online resources, including the Your Paintings website - hot on the theory that the painting was owned by a major London Institution, or was perhaps of a London park such as Hampstead Heath (with its Fleming connections), or a painting by a contemporary of Turner or Constable.  Turner, of course, is memorably referenced in Skyfall, as in the scene in the National Gallery, and again in the scene in M's office 

The reason I thought of Hampstead was that Bond author Ian Fleming lived there (as well as having a house in town).  As a local resident, he objected in the 1930s to the proposed demolition of old cottages nearby for the construction of the modernist-designed terrace buildings at 1-3 Willow Road.  
These were designed by architect Erno Golfinger. However, the old cottages were demolished, and the futuristic new houses duly built.  A furious Fleming got his own back by naming one of his most famous villains Goldfinger.

However, I digress.  

The painting in M's office turns out not to be of Hampstead, nor is it by a contemporary of Turner.  It's by James Isaiah Lewis (1860-1934) and is View down over Ham Fields from the Top of Richmond Hill, Surrey.  It shows the curve of the river Thames in the distance.

Here is one version in its original frame.

Lewis was a prolific artist, beginning as a photographer's assistant, and then working in Richmond producing local paintings for local people.  He often sold work to nearby pubs - apparently he had a somewhat beer-related lifestyle, and ultimately died a poor man, despite painting and selling prolifically.   

He regularly painted small pictures in pairs, finding these popular with local newlyweds. And he painted this same scene of Richmond many, many times, almost like printing a photograph, but just with slight changes to size or detail.  Just have a look at the sky in the version above - it's not the same as the Skyfall one.

Here is the companion piece to the above painting (a companion piece being a painting which was painted to match so that they could be hung as  a pair).  It's called View of Richmond Bridge, and they measure a dinky 8 x 12".  They were sold on Feb 9 2007 from Halls Fine Art Aucitons as Lot 446C.


Lewis also painted the Richmond scene as an oval, which you can buy for only £750 from the Bowman Gallery.

Or here it is in a 16" x 14" version, available for sale from the same gallery.  again, look at the clouds - it isn't this one in the film.  How many versions did he do...?

This version of Richmond Bridge sold in January this year for £400 at auction.  Looking at it closely, it's a pretty formulaic painting, and it measures 20 x 30".

Now, I'd say that the one in M's office is about that size.  It's large enough so that we can actually make it out.  But it's a pretty obscure painting to recognise - it's taken us nearly 3 years to track it down!!

So what is it telling us?  

It's a calm, pastoral scene of England in the great landscape tradition, but moving towards the turbulent Modern era (it was painted about 60-70 years after Turner's Fighting Temeraire, the ship which represents Bond himself).   Lewis died in 1934, and after him came English Modernist landscape painters such as Paul Nash, with his vision of a surrealist, spiritual England that is both familiar and futuristic, with an underlying tension of disharmony, violence and turmoil.

Paul Nash, Landscape of the Vernal Equinox (1943)
Landscape painting starts to become just as much about the self as it does about the actual place.  It is also a reflection of the mind of the artist.
If this painting of the view of the Thames from Richmond Hill is therefore meant to represent Moneypenny - and she's standing right in front of it, in the same way that Q and Bond sat in front of paintings in the National Gallery which each told us something about their characters - then it's perhaps telling us that she, too, is calm and ordered.  She is based in tradition, rooted in London and England - as shown in the painting by the curve of the Thames, the lifeblood of London. However, she is looking towards the new, more turbulent era. 

So Moneypenny and Lewis are bridges between the old and new, between the traditional, ordered and formal, and the new world of often violent turmoil and chaos, where the familiar becomes unfamiliar.  
Perhaps you no longer know who your enemies are... 

Therefore,  according to my theory, look out in the new Bond film Spectre (out this week!) for lashings of retro old-school Bond references, but plenty of modern new twists, violence and chaos!

Friday, 23 October 2015

Autumn in Queens Park

I was out this morning to take photos of the autumn colours in the park.  Fortunately, after yesterday's stormy weather, there were still some leaves on the trees!  The good thing was that the wind had blown a carpet of colour on the ground.

So let me take you on a walk through the park...

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Back to the Future Day

Just back from Cornwall, in time for Back to the Future Day, the day which Marty McFly travelled to in 2015.

In the spirit of the day, thought you'd like to see my mini with a Delorean, when we took part in the Dash o' the Oirish rally along the Causeway Coast a couple of months ago.

Here we are at the Bushmills car park at the start of the rally.

Is that a flux capacitor?

Off we go!  It was my 16th rally, so I was familiar with the scenic route.  No need for a map!

On the road from Bushmills towards Portrush.

Coming down towards Dunluce Castle.  Portrush is in the distance.

White Rocks Beach from the road, with the sun setting over Ireland.

They insisted on driving the route with the doors open, even round corners.
But had to close them for going through the tunnel onto the racetrack....

Difficult to take a photo when you're kissing the apex.  The Delorean was a bit faster than I was.
Luckily, we survived.

Now, we then went on the second half of the rally.  

But we had a bit of an incident going two and a half times round a roundabout, almost crashed into another mini, and then two minis went off in different directions, leaving a dilemma for the other minis behind.  I panicked and took a group to Portstewart, via a church car park, because that's the usual route.  After all futilely driving round the car park, we headed for Portstewart main street, and confidently paraded along.  I thought it was odd that the usual crowds weren't lining the route to cheer us.  

Then, we met another group parading in the opposite direction down the street.  Ho w did that happen...?  So we did a U-turn.  So did some of the others following me.  

Some of the group on the opposite side of the road also did a U-turn, thinking it was them that were wrong.  

Portstewart main street was thus brought to a halt by hoards of U-turning minis.  People stood and stared.

At this point during the chaos, I saw another mini leaving Portstewart, and as I thought it looked as though it knew where it was going, I made an executive decision to follow it, and ran away from the U-turning carnage.

Randomly, we eventually bumped into someone we knew in a housing estate, and they directed out out on the Coleraine road to a remote church hall.

Meanwhile, in the church hall, sat a lonely Paddy Hopkirk, legendary rally driver and winner of the Monte Carlo rally, patiently waiting for his audience of triumphant mini drivers who had completed the course.  He had a celebratory cake to cut and everything.  Paddy Hopkirk once nearly reversed over me in a field in Birmingham, so we go way back.

Unfortunately, the rest of the rally were still careering round the Causeway Coast, looking vainly for the finish.

Sorry everyone....

Friday, 2 October 2015

The Start of Autumn in London

I've been out and about this week down in London, for the Ai Wei Wei show at the Royal Academy, the Barbara Hepworth at the Tate, and for some of this at the Royal Albert Hall..

It's Steven Wilson, who was playing two nights on his solo tour. (you can read the review and see some fabulous photographs of the two nights on the Royal Albert hall website here.)

He's the guy who used to be in Porcupine Tree but who now does the most amazing, raw, emotional, visual solo work, his latest album being Hand. Cannot. Erase..  He plays with bassist Nick Beggs (who also plays with Steve Hackett) and one of their special guests on the second night was Gavin Harrison, who I'd seen the week before as one of the three drummers with King CrimsonEvery band should now have three drummers.

And that's Guthrie Govan.  There's a man who can both play the most astonishing guitar solos, and grow hair profusely. 

Various films accompanied the songs, some of them animated, some live action, all pretty dark stuff.  And this was especially creepy.  It was a hugely slowed down film of a beach, seen through a window, and a dark figure moving imperceptably up the beach towards you.  Very intense. Sounds ridiculous, but take it from me - it was hairs on the back of the neck stuff.

Anyway, during the day, it was down to work, and off to Hampstead and Hyde Park to take photos of the trees.  Although autumn is well underway in Scotland, things are just beginning to turn in London.  The weather was wonderfully warm and sunny, the light was dappled, and the skies were blue.  This is all material which is going to go into the solo show work for February.