Sunday, 27 January 2019

A thing of beauty...

A thing of beauty is a joy forever,
Its loveliness increases it will never
Pass into nothingness...    -Keats

Maybe we all need a little joy in our lives every now and then? That question is largely rhetorical. Maybe I am getting older and am more conscious about what is happening politically in the world but in my lifetime, I do not remember a time as wrought as the one we are living in now; for that reason and the colder, darker winter days, I think that we need things that are inherently uplifting to compensate. And it is ‘joy’ that is the resonating theme present in the work and literally in the accompanying text, mentioned not once but several times, which describes the work of Albert Irvin [1922-2015] whose epic sized paintings are on display alongside his prints, early paintings and works by abstract expressionist painters (who influenced him) in an exhibition on at the Royal West of England Academy (RWA) in Bristol.

Albert Irvin -Northcote (1989) and Rosetta (2012) Acrylic on canvas at the RWA
Text in the catalogue aside, the effect of walking into the gallery containing large-scale works radiating with colour, huge, clean sweeping brush-marks in dynamic strokes and patchwork quilt-like shapes, has as an immediate impact on the senses. Oranges, pinks, reds next to greens; complementary colours zinging and dancing from left to right in an assortment of shapes, daubs, dots and strokes that, I defy, almost regardless of one’s personal taste in art, not to widen their eyes in reaction to confronting a room full of Irvin’s paintings. Colour is incredibly emotive and perhaps more-so in the winter when we are faced with less of it on a daily existence. Personally, I found the first room of the RWA exhibition to be joyous for that reason. Although I am interested at analysing whether it was a joy because of the colours in the paintings or whether that sense of joy comes from what Irvin has done with colour? It is probably a combination of both, but part of me wondered if there was an element of the Duchampian ready-made to how some of the Abstract Expressionist painters used colour. Barnett Newman and Rothko weren’t so much creating ‘red’ as though we had never seen it, as they were presenting ‘red’, a colour, for what it is. Attempting to give space or volume to something which exists but maybe we never fully notice or experience (similar to that of Duchamp putting a urinal and calling it art). Yet, I also appreciate that a Rothko and a Newman are completely different in their treatment of how they applied colour to canvas, that creates different mood and feeling; I think I am just curious as to where my response to these works lies, in the colour (doing what colour does naturally) or in what artists, in this instance, Irvin do with it.

The highlights for me are Irvin’s paintings from the 70s onwards, around about the time he started working with acrylic paint and is said he, 

‘took to their [acrylics] properties immediately. Working horizontally stopped the inevitable run-off of water-thinned paint from top to bottom, and by placing the canvas stretcher on large cans, he was able to reduce the drying time of the saturated surface…’

These paintings are deceptively simple in their cleanness of how colour is applied in shapes and layered without becoming muddied almost textile-like or reminiscent of Matisse’s paper-cuts, and it is an interesting parallel to see Irvin’s thought processes displayed in the exhibition as using coloured paper scraps to build his compositions before he scaled them up into paintings. Incidentally, the vitrine displaying some of the paper cuttings alongside a pair of Irvin’s paint splattered shoes, brushes and paint cans was an unexpected highlight. The old irony ringing true for all artists it seems that the palette used to the mix the paint is often more interesting than the resulting painting... that unintentional freshness so difficult to recreate. Though Irvin does retain some of that sensitivity to knowing when to not overdo a painting and allow certain colours and shapes space. Arrived as if by magic by anyone who has ever tried to create an abstract painting and been left with a muddy, chaotic over-worked mess. It is harder than it looks.

Kestrel (1981) Acrylic on canvas.  213 x 305
Gesture and the use of movement and action present in these paintings, such as the sweep of yellow across a pane of blue in ‘Kestrel’ (1981) gives extra dynamism to the use of colour, rendering it less static as we attempt to imagine the tool, the movement and body it was attached to that created those marks, Irvin was known for using ‘improvised squeegees’ and decorating brushes. In the accompanying rooms to this exhibition a collection of paintings from an exhibition at the Tate titled, ‘The New American Painting’ includes a Pollock, De Kooning and Motherwell whose use of action, volume and bold confidence in their approaches to painting inspired Irvin when he went to see the exhibition in 1959. Certainly, the parallels between the Irvin paintings which use a lot of black in them alongside saturated colour, such as ‘Untitled 3’ (mid 1970s) use a similar colour visual language and use of saturation as some of the works by the American painters. These rooms included a collage by Grace Hartigan who I’d previously never heard of and was like a combination of Kurt Schwitters meets Abstract Expressionism.

Untitled 3 (mid 1970s) Acrylic on canvas. 213 x 305
Irvin’s early paintings, also on display (before he used acrylics), done in oils are contrastingly more representational; depicting street scenes, portraits and still-lives. Though they are still very painterly and become increasingly abstract with paint as a medium being applied in different thicknesses, mixed with sand or scrapped and smeared (with influences of Francis Bacon and even a Futurism-style sense of movement in some) being precursors to what lead to the later treatment of paint in this very physical, experimental way. The influence from meeting Cornish artist, Peter Lanyon in Irvin’s early branching out into abstraction are also readily comparable. Lanyon’s birds-eye view mix of abstraction with landscape elements filtering into Irvin’s treatment of painting on the canvas horizontally ‘from-above’.

Untitled 6 (1975) Acrylic on canvas. 178 x 
I remember hearing more than once from different tutors during my art education that, ‘angst is easy’ and that creating art which has the opposite effect and brings a smile or joy to people’s faces is actually quite hard to do. I mostly agree with that and in the same sense I think it can be often easier to criticise art than it can be to see the merit in it or face the difficulty of attempting to understand it when it is easier to dismiss it as being ‘rubbish’. Despite this, Irvin’s paintings aren’t angsty enough for me, personally speaking; they are quite flat and need room to breathe compared to the sumptuousness and intensity of a Howard Hodgkin or scratchy variation of marks in a Peter Lanyon. Yet for the use of colour alone I cannot fail to appreciate the joy they bring.

Albert Irvin and Abstract Expressionism is on at the RWA until March 3rd 2019

Sunday, 20 January 2019

Not the destination

“Describing something is like using it -it destroys; the colours wear off, the corners lose their definition, and in the end what’s been described begins to fade, to disappear.” 

I love this quote, for reasons that, in a manner rather paradoxical, will hopefully become clearer as I describe them. The quote is (one of dozens more that caused me to ponder) from Olga Tokarczuk’s InternationalMan Booker Prize winning novel, Flights. A book I have tried (and always feeling as though I have failed) to successfully describe to people on several occasions, each time, explaining that it is a novel of fragmented parts, fleeting narratives, some of them purely fictional others rooted in fact, told across different times and by different people with many of them taking place or being linked by moments in in-between places, such as airports and train stations. The transitionary spaces we are when nothing is happening or something is waiting to happen -what do people think and do in those moments and in those places? Like eating a bag of pick and mix sweets, each time you reach into the bag you reveal a different flavour, shape or colour to try. However, as the quote from the book itself explains, it seems futile to attempt to summarise the diversity of places, thoughts and ideas in which this book took me. You may totally disagree, no two readers would  read this the same, which is plenty reason itself for giving it a try!

When I am enjoying reading a book, I like to make notes, notes of quotes I find interesting or ideas which resonate with things I have spoken to people about, places I’ve been or other anecdotal connections of a personal nature that mean something. Over the years I have built up a little library of these quotes, many of them are funny, some could be described as quite profound and some are purely incidental but in little ways, they reaffirm what it means to exist, what it means to be me. I found myself doing this a LOT whilst reading ‘Flights’. From a description of an airport as being like its own city, a dialogue about Dark Matter to series of facts listed off the packaging of sanitary pads in which we learn, “The word lethologica describes the state of being unable to recall the word you’re looking for.”

 Afterwards I like to read reviews of what bits other people picked up upon, wondering if others were drawn to the same passages of text as me. A review of the book by Tom McAllister in The Washington Post also picked-up on the quote about ‘describing things’ and I suppose the paradox for me came in the irony of wanting to describe and share why I liked this book, whilst the book itself drawing attention to the notion that sometimes describing does not do a thing/place justice. Ephemerality of the moment or ‘lived experience’ versus the permanence of ‘description’ being a theme alluded to in many of the stories throughout the novel; expectation versus reality. Tokarczuk trained as a psychologist and her experience in this field is drawn-upon in how she captures the thoughts and inner monologues of her characters with analytical, believable honesty. Part of the reason I write this blog is because of the challenge posed in trying to articulate in words, to describe how I feel about art I have seen or experienced. It continues to be something of personal interest. 

The book begins with a narrative about travelling and waiting in airports, in which the narrator's internal monologue recalls a memory about a visit to look at cabinets of curiosities rather than an art gallery. It is a fitting comparison to the construction of the novel's structure (or lack of) being like a cabinet of curiosities; a man searches for his missing family whilst on holiday in Croatia, a woman walks out on her family to live life during the day as a beggar, an anatomist in the 17th Century dissects his amputated leg, Chopin’s daughter transports his heart from Paris back to Warsaw…It is the sort of book that really does not lend itself well to description as it sounds messy and eclectic. To begin with I wondered if I was reading it correctly, whether I had missed something and as it progressed, I wondered whether I was supposed to understand how it all threaded together or have an inkling to where it may be heading; the fact was I didn’t have a clue! Though I was enjoying the journey and individual pieces of this patchwork tale and I had to learn to let go of my anxiety that I did not grasp the bigger threads or meaning that was happening.

Ropography, we learn, “…is a painting term for the attention the artist pays to trifles and details.” Another reference within the book that mirrors much of what is happening within the book itself and in example echoed in a fantastic chapter towards the end of the book (page 403 in my paperback edition) titled, ‘The Origin of the Species’ in which invading airborne anemones reveals itself to be plastic bags. As an environmental comment it could easily stand alone from the whole book as a separate piece of prose.  It sounds utterly random and banal, which it is, but is beautifully written and intelligently translated from Polish to English by Jennifer Croft. The reader is left to chart and make their own connections to other parts within the book, create their own meanings as they see fit. In this aspect reading this book reminded me a lot of the process of interpreting art and for that reason I enjoyed it immensely. Regular visitors or those familiar with my work will also know that the everyday and banal is something of an ongoing obsession of mine. The descriptions of cadavers and embalming fluids and some of the dark humour of this book may not be to everyone’s taste but it is counterbalanced by the allure for the sense of the whimsical and chaotic unknown, “The things that exist in the shadows of consciousness, and that, when you do take a look, dart out of your field of vision.”

If you only read one book in 2019, make it this!