Friday, 24 February 2012

The secret is Shepp

With the majority of the painting work for my next exhibition completed, I should be relaxed, happy and feeling satisfied. Sadly, nothing ever is quite that simple. This morning, in fact, I woke early from a series of anxiety dreams. Suddenly, it seemed, nothing was quite right. My paintings were all too similar, the names I gave them yesterday were clich├ęd, or just too damned gnomic. No one would want to buy them. I wouldn't be able to paint the last few pieces as I had intended.

The paranoia and the anxiety rolled on and not much work got done. It took the intervention of Megan and her years of experience with these things, to turn me from that path. She also pointed out that if I didn't feel that way sometimes, then I would be an "asshole" and I think she has a point.

Maybe I'm a stuck record when I mention this, but being an artist is hard. It may well seem from the outside that it is easy, just turning up and putting paint on canvas, yet the reality is far from this. Those sharp jags of self doubt are just part of that.

A little while after being turned from the dark side, I returned to my studio and managed to paint. Making even one good mark was a victory and I managed to make plenty.

As ever, music plays a key role in my motivation, as well as helping to tune out external influences. This allows me to dive inside for material, or for energy, or whatever it is that I need to paint. Today I chose a piece of music that has played that role probably more than any other.

At twenty minutes long, Yasmina, A Black Woman by Archie Shepp is a long and winding piece of avant garde jazz, recorded on his visit to France in 1969 and it is perfect for painting to. The long passages, the ebb and flow, the moments of intensity and especially the rhythms, nothing else quite works as well. It takes me to the place I need to go almost every time.

Right now I have a painting on my board that is rough, harsh marks and odd spaces. It is a good way from being complete but it is a start. In a little while, Archie Shepp will return to my ears and I will move and I will paint.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Time, percussion, movement and light

Time moves onwards. Weeks seem to fly by and the long months I had to work on my show slip by quicker than I can comprehend. This has been a stretch of time that has been dotted with intense moments of painting, like bulging knots tied randomly in a long piece of string. In between those moments, I think and I plan and I prepare and I worry.

Those moments have stretched out now over seven weeks. Seven weeks spent working on my latest series, for Kevin Low and my joint exhibition in April at Union Gallery (regular readers will have noticed that I've mentioned it already). For all that the time has flown by, it has also been hard work and I can feel my momentum nearing its end. I have one painting currently on my board and three more that I plan to start. Reaching the end of these last four will be a relief, a break from the pressure that has been constantly on my mind since late November. It will not, however, be the end of my preparations for the show.

With six weeks to go, my vague internal estimate says it will take me almost approximately four weeks more weeks to finish all that I need do. Even though it is a very comfortable margin, I still hope to finish sooner because the sooner I finish, the sooner I can relax.

My recent move onto bigger panels has therefore been timed well. After over a month of working on panels of one square foot each, I was beginning to flag, finding the small space was becoming constrictive and so my desire to reach the end of this work was growing. Happily, the larger panels have rejuvenated me for my final push to the end.

As a consequence of both this increased area and energy, my latest paintings have become a good deal freer than the earlier, smaller ones. My marks are bolder and more expansive and, when the polyrhythmic percussive pandemonium of Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp or Sun Ra is filling my head, the world almost entirely slips away. Low winter sunlight is diffused into my studio through sheets of bubble wrap, taped over the windows to obscure the distractions of the outside world. In the light, with full ears and upon a paint-spattered pink bed sheet, I move and I paint and I lose myself in the work for a while. Nothing is better than this.

Soon those bulging knot moments of otherness will pass and my work will be hanging in Union Gallery. I hope the time keeps on speeding towards that moment, for I long to relax again, almost as much as I can't wait to see my finished work on the wall. Yet at the same time, those moments of loss of self, when I am simply existing in that almost sublime moment, are what I live for and I do not and never will want them to end.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Cash rules everying around me

On first appearances, the world of art and the world of banking would seem to have few similarities. However, on pondering the current show at the Fruitmarket Gallery, it occurred to me that there was at least one.

Showing until April 9th, Anna Barriball's exhibition 'Exhibition' fills both floors of the gallery. Walking in with no foreknowledge, we were at first perplexed and then, finally, made somewhat angry by what we saw. Two dimensional objects, such as a five pound note, coloured in with ink; pencil rubbings made of doors and windows; rolls of graphite or paint-covered paper placed against the walls; found photos spotted with ink; a whole wall of stencil-patterning.

Here is art that is made using techniques common to primary education, masquerading as interdisciplinary work where "drawings are also sculptures, sculptures are drawings". These are basic techniques being exhibited as elitist art and I was utterly disengaged by them.

Without reading about the work, I saw nothing here but surface; a gallery of superficial 'art'. After reading the exhibition guide, which uses several hundred words to say almost nothing, I felt no more disposed to the work. More to the point, the long-winded descriptions of the pieces in fact angered me.

Anna Barriball, Untitled, 2009.
Pencil on Paper, 218 x 134 cm.
Private Collection.
"Much of the large-scale work in this exhibition Barriball makes through a process similar to taking a rubbing of an object: pressing with pencil or brush onto paper attached to different surfaces, directly transferring the texture of a window, wall, shutters or door onto paper. The body of dense markings possesses solidity, weight and mass despite the weightlessness of materials like paper and graphite. The direct transfer of surface texture and folds and creases produced through flattening volumetric elements creates a very close representation, a fusion of abstraction and figuration."

Of the ten paragraphs in the guide, of which this is one of the shorter ones, there is little more explanation of the work than this. Barriball's techniques are laid bare in rather grand eloquent terms, that try to disguise what could be seen as rather infantile mark making processes. If anything, rather than serve as an intermediary, an explanation that helps the views to enter the work, the guide slams the door in our faces. Like the art, it simply says that if you do not know and use the word 'liminal', you have no place here.

This exhibition is a retrospective and one where the majority of the pieces are called 'untitled'. There seems to be almost no evidence of artistic development, over the ten year period covered. Looking at the work, and the overblown claims made against it, it all seems like an inside joke that is trying really hard to be clever. This is exclusive and arrogant work and there is nothing here for anyone beyond the elite of the art world.

A few weeks ago, I commented on more conceptual art that is currently being exhibited in Edinburgh. In particular, I was unimpressed by Sol LeWitt's Wall Drawing #1136, a large mural concept that has been licensed to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art for eleven months (does anyone know if LeWitt works with Ikea?). At that time, a phrase popped into my head, which I kept to myself. That phrase, 'fashion art', returned to my head after seeing Barriball's work.

Fashion as we understand it in terms of clothes, is a superficial world. There is nothing beyond what you see on the surface. As a label, Fashion Art could be thrown at any art form, however this morning I want to throw it at Conceptual Art, because for me it seems the closest fit. When a piece of art looks bizarre or ugly to the majority, when it makes no impression on us, does not move us, when even the artist seems to have no explanation for it, who would call it anything but Fashion Art? There is no depth here, no meaning. It is not holding up a mirror to life.

The more I am exposed to the world of Fashion Art, the more come to I dislike it. Who is this work made for and who is buying it? It feels like a giant house of cards, waiting for the slightest wind to knock it over, when we shall see the emperor's new clothes for what they are.

Another place we may well see at least the first part of that horribly mixed metaphor is in our banking system. Yet it is not the house of cards in banking that first drew me to writing this piece. The similarity I see in banking and art is in the people who populate it. In both worlds, the mass of those working there are simply doing what they can do to get by. The motivations between the two groups may well be very different, but we all work and eat and live in the world. However, it is at the top of the ladder than I see the biggest similarity.

On both sides are groups of people, whose importance and renumeration are impossible to justify. It is hard to see why they are in the positions they are in. To many, it appears they have reached their positions by either bluffing their way to the top, or having known the right people and said the right things.

In both practices, the existence of these people bring their entire worlds into disrepute. They grab all of the headlines, as well as farcical sums of money, while at the same time having almost no connection to those that make up the majority of their worlds. It hardly seems to be a balanced system.

For some time, top artists have been thought by the masses to be in this unjustifiable position. Only lately have top bankers been recognised as being similarly located. At this time, following a seemingly endless cycle of banking crises, many are questioning why we have such 'top bankers'. In the world or art, where fewer and fewer artists are able to make ends meet, I think we need to ask a similar question.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Don't worry…

Since early last year, I have been exploring abstract painting as a means of self expression. All the work I have created since then has been, in one sense, a snapshot of a particular moment in time and the state of my mind at that moment.

When I began my current body of work for April's exhibition at Union Gallery, I had in mind an over-arching theme that would intersect with that self-expression ideal. That theme was borne on my flight home from Fayetteville in November. Leaving behind Megan there and heading back home, I had a feeling of being torn between two geographical locations and between two possible futures. This, I decided, could become a loose framework around which my work could be built.

In late December when I finally put paint to panel, that torn feeling still had coherence. However the feeling had diminished somewhat with the sad abandonment of the Fayetteville Artist's Alliance, which had been the town's main attraction, after Megan. The torn feeling was lessened even further, when Megan herself left Fayetteville to visit Edinburgh.

With the loose framework that the torn feeling had provided now largely missing, I was left floundering. I knew that my paintings must mean something to me, that I needed the initial meaning as a connection, as a sort of internal badge of worth because without it I can all too often end up feeling as if I am simply moving paint around, making a decoration, not art and that is not enough for me.

Unfinished, untitled, not even dry yet, at 24x24"
this is the largest painting I have worked on
for months. (© Stewart Bremner 2012)
Yesterday, I set aside my worries, about both my self-imposed (false) framework and moving onto a large panel and began my biggest solo painting since July. I simply let myself move and, I think, maybe, that it is going to be one of the strongest pieces in my show.

In retrospect, my worrying has been a bit silly. I find my meaning, that internal badge, examining my mind state in the moments of creation. The idea that I was going to use one over-arching theme as a framework clearly acts against the spontaneity that my approach benefits from. It is little wonder, then, that I managed to tie myself up in knots.

With fourteen small pieces in a state of mostly finished and five more large panels to work on, my half of April's exhibition is coming along nicely. I've made some of the best paintings of my career and I've enjoyed the process of painting more than I even have before. If I can keep that in mind and stop bloody worrying, the show is going to be a killer!

Friday, 3 February 2012

A third of the way there

The studio, today
I've been working on my next show for over a month now, with a day or so over two months remaining until the exhibition opens. So far I have painted twelve pieces, of which only three are still in need to attention. Several pieces whose finalising was last week proving troublesome, have now been upgraded from 'most likely finished' to 'almost definitely finished'. It was a pleasure both doing so and being able to do so.

This afternoon I sat with all twelve paintings and watched. What stuck me was that my favourite piece has kept changing over the course of making the work. In the first rush, I created two strong pieces and then felt I had a slump. For a while I was worried that I would not be able to paint anything that would rival those first two. Today I realise that I have, almost certainly more than once. Indeed, I might even have made some better!

Another aspect of the work I've been pleased to note today is its evolution. I began this series with a narrow, if poorly-defined, theme. As the work has progressed, this theme has by necessity expanded. I have thus become less absolute about what I want the paintings to express. Changing in this manner chimes with a narrative that runs though much of my work (which I could, if I was feeling particularly pretentious, call a meta-theme): the meeting of order and chaos. In this instance, where before there was rigid order in a single narrow theme, now chaos it taking the dominant position (and I am attempting to keep up).

The style of the paintings has also changed over the month. Initially (at least in my mind), the work had some similarities to my later Hidden Messages pieces. Moving from this, the work at first change darkened and became more intense, before more recently becoming airy and lighter. Yet though all of this, I can still see a commonality, beginning with my normal orange, blue and black colour palette.

Next week, some large boards that I have on order will be ready. It has been a while since I painted on anything larger than one square foot and it is going to be a challenge to increase my scale. However, it is a challenge that I am am going to relish!