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.