Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Christmas at Camelot

Christmas at Camelot by Clive Hicks-Jenkins, ed. 75, Penfold Press

All the joy and exuberance of Christmas at King Arthur’s court is expressed in this print, the first of a series of fourteen to be based on the medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The author of this verse saga, the mysterious Pearl Poet, is unstinting in his praise as he introduces the courtiers, equating their finery with their moral worth. In his recent translation Simon Armitage describes the two-week-long midwinter feast as ‘a coming together of the gracious and the glad: the most chivalrous and courteous knights known in Christendom’. 

Elegant, innocent and noble, these lively young men and women spend the evenings carousing and the daylight hours on the jousting field. Here we see the best of the best, King Arthur and his queen Guinevere (a woman whose eyes outshine the brightest of her jewels), and beyond them Sir Gawain. The horses prance. The riders eye us coolly, not least the knight, who seems ready for any challenge.

Another artist might have chosen to introduce the series with a scene of Christmas feasting, but Clive Hicks-Jenkins’ depiction of the three riders suggests the lightheartedness and energy of the youthful court, while also emulating the airy elegance of the poem. Dan Bugg’s expert handling of colour pulls a complex, multi-layered print together, making it feel as taut and snappy as a heraldic banner unfurling in the breeze.

Christmas at Camelot is available now from the Penfold Press.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Century at Jerwood, featuring Frink's Walking Madonna

When I went to Hastings earlier this year I resolved to find a way to return there in an employed capacity. Lo and behold, I was asked to curate an exhibition at Jerwood Gallery, featuring work from the Ingram and Jerwood Collections of Modern British Art. The show, which begins in October 2016, is tentatively entitled 'Century', and it will feature (approximately) 100 works covering a period of (approximately!) 100 years.

There won't be 100 different artists, though. While the collections are fairly eclectic there are particular artists who feature prominently in one or both, so inevitably there will be a bias in their favour. I think we will end up with a vision of 20th century British painting and sculpture that might surprise some people, that is if I don't go crazy trying to whittle down my 'long list'.

One highlight will be Elizabeth Frink's 'Walking Madonna', which stands two metres tall but seems more imposing than that statistic suggests. Of only three cast, one stands at Chatsworth House and another at Salisbury Cathedral. The third is owned by the Ingram Collection.

I was passing through Salisbury last month and stopped to visit the Cathedral, a building I had seen from the ring road countless times but hadn't actually visited in years. My main aim was to look at the engraved prism made by Laurence Whistler to commemorate his brother Rex. I'd forgotten about the Walking Madonna and so came upon the sculpture unawares. Hard to imagine another work of art that would fit in that environment, but this one certainly does.

It has been in situ since 1981, when the Dean of Salisbury Cathedral wrote to his parishioners to warn them of its imminent arrival. He wrote:

This figure symbolises ... human dignity and creativity over militarism and totalitarian disregard for human dignity and rights.

Something similar could be said today.

Friday, 6 November 2015

Hammer Time: Modern British Art at Auction

Augustus John, Self-portrait, 1901, at Bonhams
For London's auctioneers, Modern British art is a booming business. Prices keep rising as interest in the period grows, and there's no shortage of work being put up for auction by the descendants of collectors active in the 1950s and 1960s. For those of us not in the market for a Lowry or even an Auerbach sketch, there's an opportunity to go and have a look at the work, marvel at the estimates and enjoy the whole showbiz art world thing.

The newspapers like auction season for its Antiques-Road-Show-moments, as when this Ravilious watercolour went under the hammer in Banbury last year. That story made the Daily Mail, and of course it was the high price fetched by the painting that attracted the paper's attention. If this had the effect of spreading the artist's name, which I'm sure it did, the downside is that a Ravilious watercolour is now unlikely to be bought by a public institution.

Eric Ravilious, 'Belle Tout Lighthouse', 1939, at Christies
Which is a pity, as there are two Ravilious watercolours in this month's auctions, an early painting called 'Drought' at Sotheby's (est. £40k-60k) and at Christie's a 1939 piece which was included in the exhibition at Dulwich, and which is being sold as 'Beachy Head Lighthouse (Belle Tout)' (est. £80k-120k). I wrote a note for the catalogue, which you can read here if you're interested. I hope whoever buys this lovely watercolour continues to lend it for exhibition as its current owner has done on several occasions.
LS Lowry, Tuesday Morning, Pendlebury, 1947, at Christies
Otherwise, this season brings Lowry, Lowry and more Lowry. Award for highest estimate goes to Sotheby's, with the frankly terrifying 'Father and Two Sons' priced around the £2 million mark, but Bonhams and Christie's both have a number of studies and drawings with some estimates lower than ten thousand. Henry Moore is also heavily represented, while Christie's has some unusual sculpture by Barbara Hepworth.

Barbara Hepworth, Hand Sculpture, 1953, at Christies
There are quite a few paintings by well-known artists in their signature styles, but also some more unusual work. Here are a few of my favourites, in no particular order. The sizes are dictated by the copy-able pictures available on the auction websites. My top pick I think has to be the John self-portrait at the top of the page - no wonder everyone thought he was a genius as a young man.

Edward Burra, Still Life with Teeth, 1946, at Sotheby's

Ceri Richards, Tinplate Workers, 1942, at Christies

John Craxton, Spring Leaves, 1943, at Bonhams

Henry Moore, Two Women Bathing a Child, 1946, at Christies

Augustus John, Ida, c1905, at Christies

Paul Nash, Objects in a Field, 1936, at Christies

Richard Nevinson, Road Through a Forest, c1920s, at Bonhams

Keith Vaughan, Landscape with Figures, 1944, at Bonhams

 Happy bidding!

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Aerial Creatures: David Jones and Peter Lanyon

Peter Lanyon, Soaring Flight, 1960, Arts Council (copyright artist's estate)
I always look forward to the autumn exhibition season, and this year the harvest is particularly, er, fruitful. Nobody needs to be told to go and see the Goya portraits at the National Gallery, but you might not know that the curator is Xavier Bray of Dulwich Picture Gallery, without whom there would have been no Ravilious show. He's my ideal kind of art historian, knowledgable and serious but also down-to-earth and good fun.

I've no doubt people are queuing round Trafalgar Square to see the show, as we British love our portraits as we did in Gainsborough's day, but there are other exhibitions that are well worth seeing. One of the reasons why the Courtauld Gallery is my favourite London venue is that you never know what they will show next. A glance through the gallery's exhibitions archive shows just how eclectic the programme is, with recent outings for Goya, Egon Schiele, Jasper Johns, Durer, Picasso and Peter Lely. It is a rather male list, come to think of it...

Peter Lanyon, Thermal, 1960, Tate (copyright artist's estate)
After Goya's often gravity-defying witches comes post-war aerialist, Peter Lanyon, an artist who meant nothing to me until Dr James Fox explained how his paintings worked. Lanyon seems something of a surprise choice for the Courtauld, but an inspired one, following Towner's William Gear show at a time when post-war British abstraction is not getting much attention.

Not that Lanyon was an abstract artist in the way that Ben Nicholson was in the 1930s, when it was strictly circles and squares only. Lanyon worked that rich margin between the abstract and the real, which in his case meant the landscape, coast and sky of Cornwall; his gliding paintings evoke (I imagine, having never done it) the strange experience of flying alone and unpowered, like a bird with prosthetic wings. For a more in-depth analysis, have a look at Laura Cummings' review.

David Jones, Capel-y-Ffin, 1927, Nat Museum Wales (copyright artist's estate)
Another artist who portrayed the invisible air as a palpable thing, albeit from the ground, was David Jones, the Anglo-Welsh artist whose work is fiercely championed by fans but not easily appreciated by people who haven't put a certain amount of time into the task. Actually this isn't quite true. For a few years in the 1920s David Jones was a bright star, a watercolourist who pleasantly combined sundry influences (Cezanne, Japanese prints, Celtic design) to create beautifully designed, distinctive paintings of places he loved, from Brockley to Capel-y-Ffin.

He was one of an exciting group of painters in a medium undergoing an unlikely 20th century renaissance, and something of a leader. Ravilious and Bawden admired his dry brush technique, and it was Jones who, as Secretary, invited the latter to show with the Seven and Five in 1932.

David Jones, The Terrace, 1929, Tate (copyright artist's estate)
But Jones was not content with his pleasing landscapes. Never a believer in traditional perspective or classical values, he moved further and further from simple representation. In the early 1930s, having written his extraordinary Great War poem 'In Parenthesis', he suffered a severe nervous breakdown, and it is tempting to see the increasing strangeness of his paintings at this time as a symptom of mental disturbance. One could say as easily that Van Gogh's greatest paintings were the product of madness, and I disagree profoundly with this view for reasons I imagine are fairly obvious.

David Jones didn't paint his extraordinary, melting, multi-layered paintings because he was going mad but because he was trying to push himself ever further towards a particular kind of vision. In a way he achieved this layering of realities, from everyday life as he saw it to Arthurian myth, most effectively in his poetry, yet the paintings give a great deal to the patient viewer. You can't simply look at a Jones watercolour and move on. You have to explore it. There are whole worlds contained in his more experimental paintings and sometimes it takes a while just to identify different objects, structures, layers. Everything is transparent.

David Jones, Flora in Calix-Light, 1950, Kettle's Yard (copyright artist's estate)
That this was a deliberate approach is clear when you look at his copper engravings from the 1920s, which show a similarly multi-layered approach. What is so remarkable about his work in watercolour (to which he added smudged graphite for its silvery quality and white body paint for substance) is his ability to dissolve boundaries, abandon traditional ideas of space and yet retain a kind of sense. There's a suggestion of medieval manuscript illumination in the pictures, but mixed in with the flat world of signs and symbols - chalices, thorns, unicorns - is a real, three-dimensional world in which land and sea dissolve into air which is translucent yet solid.

I think David Jones was a remarkable artist, far more adventurous than his mentor Eric Gill. Simon Martin and the Pallant House Gallery succeeded in persuading people that Edward Burra was a great artist despite choosing watercolour rather than oil paint as his medium (current auction estimates for his work are fairly shocking). Jones is harder to get into, but worth the effort.

'Soaring Flight: Peter Lanyon's Gliding Paintings' is at the Courtauld Gallery.
'David Jones: Vision and Memory' is at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester. The accompanying book, by Ariane Banks and Paul Hills, covers engravings and inscriptions as well as watercolour, and is thoroughly recommended.

Garn Fawr & Trehilyn, with John Piper & Griff Rhys Jones

This autumn has had something of a Welsh theme. Having visited Clive Hicks-Jenkins in the Ystwyth valley and publishers Frances and Nicolas McDowall on the banks of the Wye, we headed to Strumble Head, Pembrokeshire for a half-term break. Over the years we've had odd winter weekends at one or other of the fabulous old cottages managed by Under the Thatch, but Trehilyn turned out to be grander (and warmer) than most.

Trehilyn, nr. Strumble Head - as seen on TV!
The house is divided in two. Our end had four outside doors, crog lofts for sleeping and a woodburner. Also underfloor heating, which was a surprise. In fact the place had evidently been done up with considerable care, but I would never have guessed how much skill, cash and labour had been poured into this out-of-the-way farmhouse. It turned out that Trehilyn had been bought some years earlier by Griff Rhys Jones, and subjected to a televised renovation, which we watched one evening.

Sunshine in west Wales...
I'd never much fancied the idea of buying a doer-upper, but this BBC series, 'A Pembrokeshire Farm', put me off for good. The 'before' pictures showed a farmhouse neglected almost to dereliction, hideous 70s wallpaper peeling off the saturated walls. The house had a grouted roof, a regional speciality, which had persuaded architectural historian Greg Stevenson (founder, incidentally of Under the Thatch) to enlist as a consultant to the series. But the roof was in terrible shape and had to be replaced with slates, every one of which was drilled and then pegged down.

Cottage interior, with apologies to Hammershoi
In fact the house was stripped down to its stone walls, and then rebuilt as authentically as possible. Of course, as the programme pointed out, there's nothing authentic about an 18th/19th century house with underfloor heating and a power shower, but I do see the point in using traditional building techniques - as a living record, if nothing else. So the walls were plastered on the inside and rendered on the outside with lime plaster that had to be applied by hand. It didn't look particularly fun. Griff was given the job of building a bed, which, rather bizarrely, we slept in. Is that a claim to fame?

Indigenous building: John Piper's studio, Garn Fawr.
When we arrived it was dark, but the following morning we trudged up the hill in the direction of Strumble Head. As we approached a rocky outcrop the scene began to seem familar, but it took a bit of research to jog my memory. This was Garn Fawr, John and Myfanwy Piper's Welsh retreat for many years, and the subject of innumerable paintings. In the 1960s they bought two tumbledown cottages, one to the left of this picture where they stayed, and this one, John's studio, which looks as though it sprouted from the bracken.

Cottage and rocks, Garn Fawr
There's a nice post here on Garn Fawr, with some paintings illustrated, and I could see why the quintessential Romantic Modern was attracted to the place. It was wild enough on a mild day in October. In a January storm it must seem like the end of the world. Strumble Head is about half a mile beyond the chimney above, but Garn Fawr is much more atmospheric.

The view south from Garn Fawr

Friday, 30 October 2015

Lectures & Exhibitions for 2016: Georgia O'Keeffe & Paul Nash

Georgia O'Keeffe, Black Mesa Landscape, 1930, copyright O'Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe, NM
I was excited to discover that two of my favourite artists are being given major shows by Tate next year (2016). A hundred years after her first New York exhibition, Tate Modern will be devoting the summer months to Georgia O'Keeffe, one of the most distinctive painters of 20th century America. According to the Tate website:

The exhibition is the first important solo institutional exhibition of the artist’s work in the UK for a generation. This ambitious and wide-ranging overview will review O’Keeffe’s work in depth and reassess her place in the canon of twentieth-century art, situating her within artistic circles of her own generation and indicating her influence on artists of subsequent generations.

Judging by the rest of this introduction it looks as though we'll be getting a good selection of flower paintings and desert scenes, with art historical commentary designed to make an artist who had little time for 'gendering' and so on seem relevant. From the gorgeous watercolours she made while working as a teacher in Canyon, Texas, to the crosses and bones of her decades in New Mexico, O'Keeffe showed a marvellous sense of colour and design, and a powerful feeling for places and objects. If you want context, I'd recommend a trip to Abiquiu, New Mexico. Beyond the village and the valley of the Rio Chama there's nothing but desert, mountains and sky; these were her subjects.

Actually O'Keeffe had a lot in common with Paul Nash, the subject of an epic Tate Britain show next autumn, although he was gregarious and she solitary. Both were fascinated by out-of-the-way places, interesting architecture and objects that were charged with possible meaning. Both were mavericks, artists of unique personal vision, and neither enjoyed the labels others obliged them to wear.

On the other hand I think Nash would have enjoyed the open-endedness of 21st century contemporary art. When inspired by a new discovery - a dead tree, for instance - he would look at it from every possible angle, sometimes using watercolour, oil paint, photography, collage, assemblage and the written word to investigate a phenomenon that seemed to him vitally significant. Like Joseph Beuys, his motivations were intensely personal; had he been born half a century later he would have made a fantastic conceptual artist.

David Fraser Jenkins' dazzling Nash exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery took us deeper into the strange workings of this artist's mind than any previous book or exhibition. It will be a hard act to follow, but it sounds as though Tate Britain will be putting on quite a show.

Having written 'Paul Nash in Pictures: Landscape and Dream' for the Mainstone Press in 2011, I have my own take on Nash, which emphasizes his family life and personal experiences, his humour and his sense of place. My lecture, 'Paul Nash: A Life in Pictures', offers a jargon-free and (I hope) entertaining introduction to the artist.

I've also started lecturing on O'Keeffe recently, and am booked to give my talk, 'Georgia O'Keeffe in New Mexico' to a number of NADFAS groups next year. The lecture is based partly on my own experience of the state, which I first visited almost twenty years ago, and I hope it leaves people with an impression of O'Keeffe as a bold explorer of canyon and mesa, and a visionary artist.

There's more information on my lectures here, while both exhibitions are previewed on the Tate website.


Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, with Clive Hicks-Jenkins

Painted maquette of Gawain, by Clive Hicks-Jenkins, 2015 (artist's copyright)
I don't remember a huge amount about my first year at university (it was 1985, after all) but I do recall that all the English students had to read 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight' in the original olde English, and that none of them seemed to enjoy it very much. Well, I've been reading this remarkable medieval poem in Simon Armitage's newish translation, and have enjoyed the experience hugely.

Its author, the mysterious Pearl Poet, lived and worked around the same time as Chaucer (14th century) and in this translation, at least, the story seems closer in spirit to 'The Canterbury Tales' than to 'The Mabinogion'. Gawain is not an idealised knight but a human being who is tormented by temptation and who - crucially - fails to resist. Actually his fellow knights don't seem that concerned about his fall from grace, considering the womanly wiles to which he is subjected, but he feels that he has failed dismally. He is not a cipher in a helmet, but a proud, flawed young man.

Chaucer would no doubt have described Gawain's temptations more earthily, yet their description is in the spirit of his Tales, and the counterpoint between scenes of hunting and seduction is glorious. Here and there I'm also reminded of 'Don Quixote' (in translation, alas), in the sense that the Pearl Poet seems to be playing with the traditions and expectations of medieval chivalry. On one level, Gawain is the butt of a rather cruel joke: he thinks he's a bold knight on a brave and noble quest, but he is deceived - rather as the squire of La Mancha deceives himself.

Although I do love a bit of knight errantry, there is an ulterior motive to all this. I'm involved as a sort of writer-in-residence in a collaboration between painter Clive Hicks-Jenkins and printmaker Dan Bugg of the Penfold Press. Together they are to produce a set of fourteen editioned screenprints illustrating 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight', with the first one under way. Having already worked with an impressive roster of artists (Mark Hearld, Emily Sutton, Angela Harding, Jonny Hannah, Ed Kluz), Dan relishes this kind of collaboration.

Painted maquettes for Gawain & Gringolet, Clive Hicks-Jenkins, 2015 (artist's copyright)
Clive, meanwhile, has been exploring the story of Gawain for years, which probably doesn't come as a surprise if you know his work. A former actor, choreographer and theatre director, he was first inspired as a painter by the Welsh landscape and the spirit of the Neo-Romantics. Subsequently, however, he has found rich veins of material in Bible stories, Welsh mythology and an array of narratives involving saints and animals (wolves, dragons and the like); he is also, I should add, a prodigious creator of artist's books.

Over the years he has evolved an unusual, distinctive approach to painting, which sees him first create articulated maquettes of figures. These he manipulates into shapes that a real model (human or animal) would struggle to achieve, so that the figure(s) form part of a fully integrated design in which negative space is as valuable as positive. The upshot is that the paintings are bold, stylised and quivering with life. They are colourful, but not pretty. An early version of the Green Knight is fairly scary, while paintings of Gawain show a vulnerable young man, proud and unaware of what fate has in store...

For more information do have a look at Clive's artlog or visit the Penfold Press.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Paul Nash: Landscape from a Dream

Paul Nash, Landscape from a Dream, 1936, Tate
The Nashes hoped to live permanently in Dorset, but medical opinion insisted that the climate of the Isle of Purbeck was bad for Paul’s health, and in 1936 they finally bought a house in Eldon Grove, Hampstead.

‘Although the furniture is in, the house is not yet habitable,’ Nash reported in the autumn. ‘The distracted painters and carpenters are still working doggedly on, and the blasted electricians pull up the floors under our very feet.’

In July he had participated in the International Surrealist Exhibition at the Burlington Galleries in London, and now had two of the movement’s main British protagonists – Herbert Read and Roger Penrose – for neighbours. Eileen Agar’s work was also included, and she appeared herself in a photograph of the exhibitors alongside Salvador Dali, Read, Penrose, Paul Eluard and others, but not Nash. Coincidentally or not, his romance with Agar ended in July 1936, a break made more painful when she began a new affair with Eluard.

‘We break at the peak of our flight,’ Nash wrote to her, ‘Where we had climbed like two birds who make love in mid-air heedless of where they soar.’

Birds had always fascinated Nash, perhaps because he had experienced vivid dreams of flight as a child; in his work birds often make an appearance without taking centre stage, as the peregrine falcon - recognisable from its distinctive grey back and long, crossed-over wings – does here.

The peregrine is at home on this Dorset clifftop, with the dark, fossil-rich beach of Kimmeridge below. Nesting in a simple scrape, these birds hunt pigeons and other cliff-dwelling species, diving at speeds of up to 200mph and snatching prey from mid-air. Falconers have exploited their predatory talents for at least 3000 years but the peregrine has an equally ancient symbolic importance best personified by the falcon-headed Egyptian god Horus. Associated with the rising and setting of the sun, Horus is often shown with the moon as one eye and the sun for the other, suggesting the union of opposites: night and day, sunset and sunrise.

Not to say that Nash’s falcon necessarily refers to Horus, nor that the second falcon flying away into the sunset represents Eileen Agar. These are possible interpretations or sources of inspiration, no more. Nash constantly sought and borrowed ideas and images, from other artists, philosophers, historians and poets. He tended to scan books, pouncing on the phrase or theme that he was looking for. Perhaps he had hunted in this way through Ash Wednesday (1930), in which TS Eliot asks, ‘Why should the aged eagle spread its wings?’

Debilitated by asthma, Nash could have made this a sombre painting, but instead it is radiant, as his very last paintings would be. One can imagine the artist in his Hampstead home, with its mirrors and screens, dreaming of the Purbeck cliffs and remembered pleasures.

This is an excerpt from 'Paul Nash in Pictures: Landscape and Dream' (Mainstone Press, 2011). I posted it because I'm giving a talk on Nash next week to the Somerset Art Gallery Trust. Info over here -->>

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Help the Fry Art Gallery buy its Building!

Eric Ravilious, Two Women in a Garden, 1932
The Fry Art Gallery in Saffron Walden is one of my favourite art museums, being small, mildly eccentric and full of work by artists I like. Visiting from Bristol poses a logistical challenge or two, but it's always worth the effort. I was there for the launch of the 'Ravilious in Essex' show a few years ago, and what an entertaining day that turned out to be. On those occasions you can be sure to meet some interesting people and hear a tale or two.

Anyway, the Fry has been going sicne 1985 and now its custodians have the opportunity to buy the lease - correction, freehold! - of the building, which was built in the mid-19th century to house the art collection of Quaker businessman Francis Gibson - it still seems like a private gallery, but one to which we're all invited. Success in its fundraising mission would mean that the Fry's valuable role as first port of call for students and admirers of the Great Bardfield artists is assured for posterity.

In case you're wondering who the aforementioned artists are, they include Eric and Tirzah Ravilious (or Tirzah Garwood), Edward Bawden, John Aldridge, Kenneth Rowntree and the Cheeses, Bernard and daughter Chloe. For a full list, why not have a look at the Fry's website? You will also notice, tucked away at the bottom of the Home Page - how typical of the gallery to ask for money so discreetly - a mydonate button.

And you have until October 25th to visit the Fry's 30th anniversary exhibition, which features work by numerous artists with a Bardfield connection, from Rav and Bawden to Grayson Perry. Have a look and see what Martin Gayford thought of the show...

Monday, 21 September 2015

An Unsettling Vision: Kate Gottgens

Kate Gottgens, Harlequin Mother (2010)
Painting seems to be back in vogue these days, to judge from the range of new books devoted to the subject. I tend to struggle with the writing in books about contemporary art, which can sometimes seem deliberately opaque, but the reproductions in books like 'Painting Today' (Phaidon) and 'A Brush with the Real' (Elephant Books) are impressive. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that these books take a global view of the subject. It's both inspiring and rather bewildering to think of so many artists beavering away all round the world.

Red Interior (2012)
A couple of months ago I was flicking through '100 Painters of Tomorrow' (Thames and Hudson) when I was struck by a painting of a 1960s interior. In mood it reminded me a little of Eric Fischl's 'Bad Boy', only there were no people in this picture. Backlit by wide windows, the room was both real and insubstantial, a setting for a dream.

Kate Gottgens, On the Ferry (2015)
The artist, I learnt, was Kate Gottgens, a South African painter born in the mid-1960s. You can see her work online, or in a new book published by her Cape Town gallery, SMAC, or in person next month at another acronymically named gallery, NUNC, in Antwerp.

Something about her paintings appeals to me strongly, but I'm not sure what it is. There are certainly echoes of modern painters I admire, from Gerhard Richter to Peter Doig; like them she works from photographs, and like them uses this material to create distinctive paintings. In her case the found photos tend to depict the family lives of white middle class South Africans, while the paintings suggest an alternative reality - beautiful sometimes, but unsettling, even nightmarish.

Kate Gottgens, Wilderness (2014)
In a commentary accompanying paintings in her book, Alexandra Dodd writes:

It is written on the photograph - 'Wilderness'. She takes it both literally and figuratively. It is a small black and white image from the early 20th century of two female figures on a boat. As she paints, the foliage morphs into lurking phantasmal shapes. The rumour of a face emerges from the shadowy bulrushes. The vegetation takes on the feel of a headdress or a mask...

Rowing, Kate Gottgens (2015)
Sometimes the original image in the photo is still recognisable, but on other occasions figures almost disappear, while areas of negative space or minor details are emphasized. Faces become obscured, vehicles melt. There's a mushroom cloud in one painting, which makes me wonder whether Kate grew up having nightmares of nuclear holocaust like I did. I don't know the answer to this, nor have I managed to glean much about her, apart from the fact that she has a family. Her book and website are refreshingly free of artist statements and biographical blither.

Kate Gottgens, Milk Teeth (2015)
Kate Gottgens' solo exhibition, The Rising Sea, is at NUNC Contemporary, Antwerp, from 1st October. You can see more of her work here.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Drawing & Memory: Fay Ballard

Flipper, 2012 (copyright Fay Ballard)

The more complicated and technical the production of art becomes, the more I admire drawing. One of my personal highlights of the Ravilious exhibition was his drawing of sunflowers, while earlier in the year I much enjoyed the RWA/Ingram Collection exhibition 'Drawing On', which offered work in contrasting styles by Elisabeth Frink, Edward Burra and many others.

A new discovery for me is Fay Ballard, who made a name for herself a decade ago creating beautifully observed botanical illustrations, before finding inspiration for a sequence of drawings that she exhibited in her 2014 exhibition 'House Clearance'. With a few exceptions each of these depicts an object in isolation - an old glove, say, or a blanket, or a chess set. These everyday things, none of any financial worth and most fairly battered-looking, have been drawn tenderly, some from life and others from memory.

Dead Bird, 2012 (copyright Fay Ballard)

So unpretentious are the drawings that, leafing through the equally modest catalogue accompanying the exhibition, it takes a few minutes to notice how odd some of them are. Among the objects drawn from life is a creased receipt dated 5.5.67 from the Metropolitan Police, for 'Restoration of dog'. A dead bird is among those drawn from memory. We are looking at two different sets of images, one a record of things encountered during a house clearance and the other memories made manifest, but there is much else going on besides.

You might have guessed by now that Fay Ballard is the daughter of JG Ballard, novelist and cult hero. I was introduced to his work via the wonderful mobile library that brought civilisation to remote corners of Lincolnshire in the early 1980s, and via my mother, who picked out 'The Unlimited Dream Company' as a book she thought I might like. So I was introduced to the mythic suburb of Shepperton (a place I will probably never visit for the same reason I can never watch film versions of favourite novels), little knowing that its most imaginative inhabitant was also a father of three.

Car in Desert Photograph, 2012 (copyright Fay Ballard)

Subsequently I learned more about JG Ballard's life, from his childhood in Shanghai - where, coincidentally, my mother was born - to his early career as a writer of speculative fiction. He married in the mid-1950s but lost his wife Mary to a sudden illness in 1964, and thereafter raised their three young children himself, while writing a series of extraordinary and often disturbing books, and drinking heavily.

I was quite a Ballard obsessive for a few years, but all that was in the distant past when I came across a notice for 'House Clearance'. The exhibition had already been and gone, but I was directed to Fay's website, where the haunting clarity of the drawings instantly caught my attention. In an accompanying essay the artist described how, in 2008, she returned with her father to her childhood home, a place she hadn't seen for fifteen years as they invariably met elsewhere.

Opening the door with the key I'd kept all those years, the home had not changed since my childhood, the holiday flipper was holding the nursery door open, the dried lemon was sitting on the nursery mantelpiece, the plastic flower ornament was lying on my old bedroom window sill and our family hairbrush, still full of strands, was there on the bathroom ledge. Time had stopped still.

Memory Box: About My Father (copyright Fay Ballard)

A year later JG Ballard died and, while writers around the world expressed their admiration for his achievements, Fay returned to the house, feeling the past in rooms and on the staircase bannister, and most potently in objects. The flipper, so incongruous as a subject for a drawing, prompted a vivid recollection.

Yes, I remember how my brother swam across the bay in Rosas wearing that flipper as my father and I looked on from our apartment balcony at the tiny dot moving across the horizon terrified he'd be swept away by the currents. 

Of her mother, Fay tells us, her father had barely spoken after her death (when Fay herself was seven). There were no photographs on display. Now, going through her father's things, she began to find clues: a powder compact, and then a collection of tiny black and white photographs. For two of these her parents took turns to pose in front of a statue of a sphinx, in Chiswick House Gardens, proudly holding their first-born. This was in 1957, and the baby was her.

Omen (i), 2012 (copyright Fay Ballard)

Omen (ii), 2012 (copyright Fay Ballard)

Drawings of these photos were included in the exhibition, along with those of objects real and remembered. For Fay this was a profound personal experience. As she put it:

The drawings of my mother make concrete her presence. The process of drawing and making marks on to paper brings her back, and makes her real. 

But these drawings work on other levels too. In a way no literary biographer could emulate we see JG Ballard simultaneously as celebrated avant garde writer and as a girl's father, a man who used a carpet sweeper and taught the family origami, but who also drank whisky after breakfast and read 'Crash Injuries' by Jacob Kulowski on an orange corduroy sofa. Good artists make you see the world differently, and these drawings have done that for me.

For more information on Fay Ballard and her work, please visit her website