On the brink

Language (A4 acrylic paint and pebbles 2018)

Recently, a new book by pianist Susan Tomes (published by the company where I work) was reviewed in a prestigious classical music magazine.  “[The author] is now in her mid-sixties but her tone of voice is that of a much younger person – inquisitive, energetic, entrepreneurial and gently provocative” wrote the reviewer. Personally, as someone much of an age with Ms Tomes, I hope that the day that I’m no longer inquisitive is the day that I’m no longer breathing.

Interestingly, I read this the same day as my copy of Parker J. Palmer’s new book arrived, On the Brink of Everything. In it, Palmer explores the questions that age raises and the promises that growing older holds: it is, he writes, “a time to dive deep into life, not withdraw to the shallows.”

For people like me, the notion that old age is a time to dial it down and play it safe is a cop-out. Those of us who are able should be raising hell on behalf of whatever we care about.

PJP has a few years on both Susan Tomes and me, and his spirit and joy in the wonders of everyday life as he approaches 80 are inspiring. He’s the sort of person you’d like to shuffle up close to, hoping that by standing next to him you could see the world as he sees it.

Then, earlier today, driving around Rochester, NY, I heard a programme on public radio about older people who’d picked up the thread of their creative activities – or started something completely new – after a long break. There were storytellers, stand-up comedians, painters and musicians (“I’m supposedly too old to rock,” said one, “but I’m too young to die”): one had given up art to found a business but discovered her life was lacking something without the smell of linseed in her nostrils.

What all had in common was the sense of relief in their voices that they’d returned to “whatever [they] care about”. Certainly that business was important, they’d enjoyed fulfilling careers, but it was the sound of an electric guitar being tuned or that first mark on a blank canvas that was truly important, the thing that fed their souls.

I’ve nothing against the young, of course, but I resent the idea that anyone over 50 should put on a cardigan and dispense toffees to grandchildren and leave life to others. If you can’t be “inquisitive, energetic, entrepreneurial and gently provocative” when you’re older there is something clearly amiss. In fact, the young and the old share a great deal: when you’re young you think you have a whole lifetime ahead of you so why not try something new? In later years, there’s a feeling that if I don’t do it now, I never will. Certainly in my own personal, professional and creative lives I’ve come to relish the leap into the unknown, the heady feeling of free-fall, the rush of adrenaline that comes with a sudden turn away from the expected or the familiar.

The image at the top of this post is a collage. I had a yellowy-orange sheet of paper ready to work up into something, and then scooped up a handful of pebbles from the beach which, I thought, looked like hieroglyphics when laid side by side. It seemed to capture something of the intrigue of a language that I don’t know.

 

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The Party

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Quinces (21 cms x 29.7 cms acrylic and collage 2018)

“A painter should be able to see space as a flat plane. The viewer should be able to see a flat plane as space.”

The Czech painter Vladimir Kokolia is also a teacher, one who is generous with his ideas about drawing and painting. His own paintings, now on view at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, are beautiful, shimmering evocations of nature. They’re the sort of pictures that critics and art historians struggle to describe, their clumsy words bumping up against his luminous paintings like moths against a light. They exist in that beautiful space between the figurative and the abstract: a place that is difficult and perhaps even dangerous to reach but once you’re there it’s as radiant as a spring morning.

Laura Cumming, who I think is one of the most evocative writers on art, says of his painting, Looking at Ash Tree, that “while the tree may be present, in the tangle of marks, the emphasis is entirely on the sensation of seeing; specifically, the way that leaves percolate sunshine and breezes shift leaves.”

Seeing.

My life drawing teacher, growing impatient with my attempts to draw the woman that was in my head instead of the one sitting in front of me, once said, “I pay for the f***ing model – you might want to look at her now and again!” Why don’t we look? Why can’t we see? Why do we struggle to describe what is actually there given that the language that we use is one we have devised ourselves?

That’s why I love to paint fruit. I strive to describe the ‘quinceness’ of the quince, the ‘pomegranteness’ of the pomegranate, as I see them. Not that my way is any better than yours but it’s surely different, and to me it feels somehow important. Kokolia’s way of looking at the ash tree, all shimmering greens against a grey and white background, is (probably) more interesting than a photograph. He invites us into his world: he has transformed this ash tree in rural Moravia into a flat plane of twisting colour and form; we on our side must interpret this plane as a three-dimensional tree in that world between what we see and what we feel, between the figurative and the abstract.

The quote from Kokolia that opens this post stopped me in my tracks as I leafed through the disappointing, over designed catalogue that accompanies the exhibition (which I haven’t seen, by the way). I love the idea of a bargain between artist and viewer, the artist saying “Trust me, this is what I know” and the viewer responding with “Yes, and this is what I understand.”

Many years ago I went to a party in the house of a famous rock guitarist in London. I didn’t know anyone and they didn’t know me. For a while I wandered around with a glass of wine in my hand and even, for a while, hid in one of the bathrooms wondering how I could make a dignified escape. Then, in a distant room in a dimly-lit corner, I came across my two best friends (who had invited me). “Where have you been?” they asked, “We’ve been looking for you everywhere.” Sometimes creativity feels like a you’re a guest at a party where everyone knows each other and you know no-one, then you turn a corner and find that, yes, you do belong here after all.

The transfiguration of the pomegranate

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Two Pomegranates (acrylic) 2018

Sometimes I look at some of the artists I follow on Instagram and wonder if they ever get bored, painting the same type of thing day after day. If I paint a piece of fruit today, tomorrow I want to start a line drawing of a man wearing a mask in the form of a fox’s head. Variety, as they say, is the spice of life.

So the idea of following a seven day online painting project to produce a series of variations on a theme was a little outside the box for me, but that’s exactly the point of Tara Leaver‘s challenge. I started with a straightforward painting of a pomegranate, just to ease myself into it:

My plan was to move from this towards an abstracted version of the fruit but, switching media to charcoal and pastel, I produced something more conventional on the second day:

A fresh approach was needed, so I put together a collage next, just to see what would happen:

That seemed to do the trick, and by the end of the week I was more relaxed and, after a short detour into a painting of quinces, I finally reached the rather more abstract pomegranates at the top of this post. The full sequence can be found on Instagram. As I wrote to Tara at the end of the seven days, it was an exhilarating experience. Exploring different ways to approach a single subject every day for a week was astonishingly liberating. I felt no compulsion to produce ‘finished’ work even though I was posting it on Instagram. The journey was the key, empowering me to experiment. Others, it seemed, had the same experience. Tara was the perfect companion on this journey: her admission that her own theme had gone somewhat awry but she was going to enjoy it anyway inspired and relaxed many of us, I felt.

If, like me, you like to flit from subject to subject, I can wholeheartedly recommend a short period of concentration on one, using different media, pushing your style in new directions, not worrying about the outcome as much as enjoying the process. If we can do that, it would appear, an ‘end result’ suddenly makes itself apparent.

The art of bliss

The Park (A5 sketchbook page collage and mixed media 2017)

In January 1946 a fire broke out in Arshile Gorky’s Connecticut studio, destroying two dozen paintings and many drawings. The following month, he was diagnosed with rectal cancer and endured debilitating surgery. A couple of years later, he broke his back and lost the use of his painting arm in a car accident; shortly afterwards, his wife moved out with their children, and so, heart and spirit broken, Gorky hanged himself in his barn after writing the words “Goodbye, my loveds” in chalk letters on a crate.

The tragedy of Gorky’s final years was mirrored by the hardships of his early life. Brought up among the persecuted Armenian community in Turkey, he and his family lived as hunted refugees: his beloved mother died of starvation in his arms before, still a teenager, he was able to escape to the United States.

Yet in between, he produced some of the most joyful art you could wish to see. Something of a father to the abstract expressionists, and an enormous influence on Willem de Kooning, he painted sensuous, organic forms, coloured with crayons or thin washes of oil paint. Titles such as Pastoral or Virginia Summer give some sense of his work’s roots in the natural world, as do the abstracted forms of seed-pods, fungi and bulbs that inhabit his paintings.

I was reminded of Gorky by an article by Holland Cotter in the New York Times, a review of an exhibition of his landscapes at Hauser & Wirth, “an exhibition as manic and tender as a Schubert song cycle.” He looms large in Mark Stevens’ and Annalyn Swan’s magnificent biography of De Kooning and his retrospective at the Tate Gallery some years ago was a revelation.

I wanted to do something in honour of Gorky that wasn’t intended to copy him so, being still engaged with collage as much as drawing or painting, I put together the piece that heads this post. The shapes are hard-edged and angular where Gorky’s are sensuous, their positions in the grid formal where his are abandoned, but the curling shapes owe something to his vision, confined as they are here to the background.

If you don’t know Gorky’s work and you’re lucky enough to live near New York City, I would urge you to visit the current exhibition. For the rest of us, there is an excellent biography by his son-in-law, Matthew Spender, and resources are plentiful online. Once seen as a somewhat derivative painter who put together elements of Cezanne, Picasso and the surrealists, he is now recognised as an important figure in the development of abstract art and a painter of subtle beauty. Once seen, his paintings and drawings, born out of his early suffering, can never be forgotten.

 

Another paradise

The Path to the Sea (A4 collage and acrylic on mounting board 2017)

There are a number of places which, when you’re there, you never want to leave. The cool marble and tinkling fountains of the Alhambra; Rome, where Henry James’ greatest heroine ‘dropped her secret sadness into the silence of lonely places where its very modern quality detached itself and grew objective’; New York City in winter, looking out at the snow-filled garden of the Frick mansion from a room hung with Rembrandts.

On a different scale, I’d now add Great Blasket Island off the western coast of Eire. Uninhabited since the early 1950s and dotted with tiny stone cottages in various states of disrepair, the island is a place of enormous beauty and a gentle melancholy. Surrounded by the Atlantic with its ever-changing blues and greens, Great Blasket is virtually cut off from the Dingle peninsula during the winter months when the ocean becomes a fierce adversary. It was the winter isolation with a tragic consequence that finally drove its tiny population from this unlikely paradise.

Some descendents of the Blasket Islanders are renovating and restoring the houses now. Walls are being rebuilt and roofs replaced and a hilltop cafe serves possibly the worst tea you’ll drink in Ireland. In the early years of the last century a number of inhabitants wrote books about their experiences living here which I’m sure are well worth reading, but you don’t really need to.

Just walk down to the beach with its pungent, lolling seals and look out across the ocean which, even on a peaceful summer’s day, peaks and troughs around the coastline. Between you and America there’s nothing but these temperamental waters, stretching away for over 6,000 kilometers. Put yourself in the shoes of those Islanders living on lobster and rabbit and burning peat for warmth; imagine writing your stories or tuning your fiddle by candlelight, a winter storm thrashing at your windows and around your thatched roof. Consider all of that and tell me this isn’t a paradise of sorts where things detach themselves and grow objective.

I’ve been involved in making collages lately, using cut-up pieces of unwanted paintings, as a sort of palate cleanser (apologies, there was no way to avoid the pun) before beginning the task of rethinking the way I paint. There’s something satisfying about finding those corners where a brush stroke takes on true character or a line of charcoal intersects a block of pigment in an exciting way. Building those pieces up into something new is such a thrill. This particular one tries to evoke that feeling of walking to the sea along a lonely cliff path.

More over on Instagram.

My heartfelt thanks to SO’R, PM, SB and IB for making it possible for me to visit Great Blasket last weekend.

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Facts and wonder

A Garden in a Grid (A4 collaged painted papers 2014)

What do you do if you feel you’re following the wrong path through life but haven’t the courage or the financial security to retrace your steps to the point where you took the false turning?

If you’re an author or an artist or a musician, how do you react if your writing, paintings or compositions don’t live up to what you see or hear in your mind?

Suppose you were to declare a passion for someone, but that person couldn’t – however much they cared for you – return your feelings to the same extent?

The novelist, Sebastian Barry, asked in The Temporary Gentleman, “Does wonder have any dominion over facts, in the end?” In the context of the novel, these words have a specific meaning. Removed from their context they provide an interesting way to view pedicaments such as the ones described above.

If we take ‘wonder’ to be our ideal – that one-man show at the Gagosian in New York, proud of every piece hanging on those expensive walls, our partner of choice at our side during the private view followed by a quiet dinner for two at Pearl‘s after the event (“Sorry, Larry, we’ve got something lined up for later…”) – what determines the distance between that and the facts of our existence? Is it just talent? Luck, opportunity, chance? Setting aside self-help platitudes, can believing in a desired outcome influence the facts as they stand this morning?

Of all the painters I admire, Cy Twombly is perhaps the one that divides opinion the most. I find much of his work both exciting and moving, yet others see him as a charlatan who fools the gullible into believing they’re looking at something profound. Yet whatever we think, Twombly had faith in his own vision and how it developed over the years; also, influential dealers and collectors – some of whom, you’ll be surprised to hear, are only in it for the money – were prepared to gamble their reputations on a large canvas with two smears of yellow oil paint and a badly-written quote from the Aeneid scrawled across it. Like his work or not, Cy lived the ‘wonder’.

Perhaps the important factor is belief. Had we believed sufficiently in ourselves at that decisive moment we might not have taken an ill-judged turning at the crossroads; perhaps the gap between the music we hear in our heads and the notes on the stave is down to our belief in the piece; perhaps our potential lover turns us down because in our heart of hearts we know that we are unable to provide what he or she needs? Twombly’s teachers, fellow artists and, crucially, he himself believed in what he was doing; he sold those controversial paintings, married the beautiful Luisa Tatiana Franchetti and lived in elegant style in Rome for the rest of his days.

There may always be a distance between the facts and the wonder, between what is and what could be. As I’ve mentioned before, perhaps that’s what drives us on. If we feel we’re on the wrong road the answer may not be to go back, but to find a way forward to where we need to be given where we are now rather than where we were ten years ago. After all, there’s no choice about that: we cannot go back.

I can’t provide answers to the questions posed at the beginning of this post. I’m also aware that this is not the most fully realised piece I’ve posted: I’m still working through it. However I’m fairly certain that belief has a great deal to do with those questions.

What do you think?

A note on the image: As those of you who follow my Instagram feed will already know, the image is made up of pieces cut from a couple of unsuccessful flower paintings and repurposed. I’m grateful to Jacob for the title.

A note on Sebastian Barry: Barry is a beautiful writer, as this will demonstrate: “We are in the great belly of the whale of what happens, we mistook the darkness for a pleasant night-time, and the phosphorescent plankton swimming there for stars.” However, his stories and his plot turns can be desperately sad and I advise caution when reading his novels in public. Last week I found myself on a plane bound for Frankfurt surrounded by international businesspeople. I was approaching the end of The Temporary Gentlemen when something unexpectedly tragic happened to one of the characters. Fighting back my emotions, I became aware of someone standing next to me and I looked up to see a Lufthansa stewardess. “Käse oder Salami?” she asked, a sandwich in each hand.

Ships that pass

Head Over Heels (A4 mixed media with collage 2017)

This isn’t a blog about my life but some background is necessary to this, I feel.

When I was a teenager I was in love most of the time. I nourished myself on a rich diet of Romantic poetry – Keats, Shelley, Coleridge, those boys – and Pre-Raphaelite painting (lots of women staring wistfully at pomegranates). Teenage girls, it seemed, allowed you just enough of themselves to break your adolescent heart, or they were aloof, hanging out with the cool boys.

One reasonably constant object of my teenage desires was Veronique Smith*. Her exotic name – French mother and English father perhaps ? – was only the start of it. She played the violin, she read poetry, she was shy in a way that only self-assured people can affect, she knew about things I didn’t comprehend, she drank red wine.

Veronique and I would often meet at parties. When she walked towards me the angels sang and surrounded us with clouds of joy. We’d talk about this and that. I would look her in the eye to try and keep her engaged or watch her beautiful lips moving as she spoke. I was conscious of the imperfections of my skin and wished I’d worn something different. All too soon she moved on and left with one of the cool boys while the angels wept tears of frustration.

Life went on, I moved to London, and then, during a visit ‘home’ before I left England for a twenty year spell in Europe, I bumped into a mutual friend of mine and Veronique’s from those earlier years. I asked how she was. Married and expecting her second child, said the friend. Of course, she was never meant to be alone for more than a few moments at a time.

A mischievous look came into the eyes of our mutual friend. “You know something,” she said, “Veronique had such a thing about you. She thought you were adorable – but you never asked her out.” Clouds covered the sun, leaves fell from the summer trees, the angels stared at each other and shrugged their heavenly shoulders.

So here’s the love boy, head over heels for the object of his teenage passion, scattering pieces of his heart around him as he turns in confusion and indecision. If only I could reach back down the years and give my younger self some fatherly advice. Follow your heart, I’d tell him: it may not always lead you where you want to go, it may not always be the best choice for you or those around you, but at least you’ll live your life to the full and it’ll rarely be dull – it’ll ring to a glorious music that you’ll never forget.

Veronique Smith wasn’t her real name, of course.*

 

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