Edward Gorey’s Great Simple Theory

Rosie (Prismacolour Indigo Blue pencil on Stillman & Birn Gamma sketchbook page 14 cms x 21.6 cms) 2019

Mark Dery has bravely published the first full-length biography of writer and illustrator Edward Gorey, who died in 2000. It runs to over 500 pages which, bearing in mind Gorey did little except go to the New York City Ballet and draw, is probably too long. Dery is an astute interpreter of Gorey’s art and writing, but spends far too long speculating on Gorey’s sexuality and his shortcomings as a fully-rounded human being (show me a great artist who is).

I used to be mildly obsessed with Edward Gorey, ever since a good friend showed me a copy of The Doubtful Guest, which had been given to her by a New York gay couple who were friends of her father. I started buying his intriguing little books in the pre-internet days when one had to write letters to the Gotham Book Mart in NYC and send them international money orders as payment. I’ve no idea how many hours I spent in my twenties just cross-hatching like the Master.

Mark Dery is also insightful on his friendship with author Peter Neumeyer which was largely conducted by letter, and has since been published as a beautifully-illustrated book. He reminds us of Edward Gorey’s Great Simple Theory of Art, which is basically:

Anything that is art…is presumably about some certain thing, but is really always about something else, and it’s no good having one without the other because if you just have the something it’s boring and if you just have the something else it’s irritating.

He continues that things ‘that on the surface…are so obviously’ about one thing make it ‘very difficult to see that they are really about something else entirely’ (unfortunately Mark Dery then goes on to say that this demonstrates Gorey’s ‘Derridean-Beckettian awareness of the limits of language’ and ‘his Asian-Barthesian belief in the importance of ambiguity and paradoxes as spaces where readers can play with a text, making their own meanings’).

I’ve spent a long time on this blog trying to pin down the ‘something else’. I think we can agree that whatever we are inspired to draw or paint, that object or landscape is more than just that picture on the paper. Take the drawing of Rosie, the retriever-samoyed cross, above. On one level it’s a drawing of a dog using a Prismacolor indigo pencil on Stillman and Birn gamma paper. The ‘something else’ might well be my affection for Rosie and her owners, my enjoyment of my time with them all, my drawing Rosie as an expression of my feelings about being welcomed into someone’s home and family life over Christmas, how much I miss my own departed greyhound, and so on. What it isn’t, ultimately, is just a drawing of a dog.

Gorey has it spot on that ‘if you just have the something it’s boring’. Have you ever started drawing or painting something and you feel you’re just going through the motions, that what you’re doing is so superficial that you simply can’t face taking it any further? You might be surprised to learn that I’ve occasionally started drawing a piece of fruit and have abandoned it because it simply bores me to death, and if I don’t like drawing it why should you like looking at it? I believe that’s just having the ‘something’ in Gorey’s Great Simple Theory.

I once met a painter who gave his landscapes titles like ‘Heartbreak is the end of all of love’s journeys’. That might well be true but it had the effect of not letting you see his paintings of nature as anything other than symbols of his inner turmoil. This is, perhaps, an example of when you ‘just have the something else [that’s] irritating’. It’s frustrating seeing or hearing something that you think is simple and its creator telling you it’s actually incredibly profound. Van Gogh did inner turmoil to a tee, but he called his paintings “Starry Night” or “Crows Over a Cornfield” not “I’m so wired up I’m going to punch Gauguin in the face any minute”, allowing us to form our own interpretation.

That, at least, is my take on Gorey’s Great Simple Theory. You might see it very differently, which is fine with me. And with Edward Gorey, I’m sure.

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The two chairs

The final quince of 2018 (A5 acrylic 2018)

Recently I’ve been dipping into a book called Preaching in Pictures: Using Images for Sermons that Connect by Peter Jonker. I’m not about to write a sermon any time soon and I’m not even particularly religious, but I was told about the book by a dear friend and became interested in the author’s take on creativity.

The Reverend Jonker is himself a thoughtful man and a creative thinker (you can sample his very engaging sermons from LaGrave Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, online if you wish). One of the images he uses in his book concerns two chairs.

Writing a sermon, he suggests, involves a good amount of time sitting in the straight-backed chair of concentration: checking your text, looking up references, researching what others have said or written about the piece, etc. Then – here comes the good bit – you have assembled a ‘beautiful mess’: all that ‘stuff’ you’ve noted down, cut and pasted, bookmarked online – it’s all there in front of you in its magnificent disarray and on Sunday morning you’ve got to engage the interest of your congregation – some of whom are sleepy from the night before or looking forward to a late brunch after the service.

So then you switch to the comfortable chair of contemplation. You move the pieces around in your mind, you try to pick out a thread from all these post-it notes in your head, you put the variations on your original theme in an order that produces a meaningful melody. It’s a more gentle process than the straight-backed chair phase but don’t let anyone think that you’re dozing because you’re sitting in the comfortable chair – your mind is still working.

The Mindfulness community will tell you something similar: if you keep rushing around you’ll achieve less than if you are able to give yourself space to breathe, to clear the table so you can see the pieces of the puzzle more clearly.

The painting of the quince above (don’t worry, it’s my last one for this season) lay unfinished on my desk for weeks. When I first started painting it, I was determined to dash this off in one sitting: it’s a single fruit, for heaven’s sake, how complex can that be? More than I’d thought, is the answer. Eventually, by sitting in the comfortable chair for some weeks (metaphorically – life isn’t that kind to me), I solved the problems with the picture and in less than twenty minutes one evening, finished it.

“Aren’t you just saying, take a step back?” you ask. Indeed, but that conscious switching to the comfortable chair of reflection is a powerful process, I’d argue. How many times do you feel like a fly in a bottle, banging your head against the glass sides, before you actually say to yourself, let me just sit down and think this through?

My New Year’s Resolution, if I did such things, would be to spend more time switching between the two chairs. In drawing and painting, too, there are straight-backed chair phases, but I know my creative process will benefit from mentally standing up, going into a different space, pouring a glass of red wine (I’m elaborating on Peter Jonker’s image, I realise – but, y’know, it’s my blog), and spending some time in the comfortable chair of contemplation thinking through what I’m trying to achieve.

I wish you a happy Christmas, Hanukkah, Pancha Ganapati, Chahrshanbeh Soori, winter solstice or whatever you celebrate to bring light to these dark days. Thank you once again to those whose support has meant so much during the year, despite a rather unproductive rate of posting on my part, to all of you following this blog and especially those who take the time to comment. Here’s a Christmas Eve selfie for you:

Kick-starting inspiration

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Horse Chestnut (after Robert Dukes) A5 (coloured pencils, ink and collage on Stillmann & Birn gamma paper) 2018

Do you know that feeling when you’re working on something and suddenly you think, this is so dull? Last week it happened as I was working on a drawing in four panels showing how a quince rotted over time, based on a sequence of paintings by Horst Janssen called Tagebuch der Amaryllis (Diary of an amaryllis).

There are various ways to deal with this but my preferred method is to copy something by someone else – not exactly, using it simply as a jumping off point without having to set up a still life or think of a subject. In my reference file I found an oil painting of a conker by Robert Dukes and started to reinterpret it in ink and coloured pencils, the change of medium ensuring a different outcome (not to mention his greater talent!).

Dukes is a London-based painter and teacher who was educated at Grimsby Art College and the Slade under teachers such as Euan Uglow, Lawrence Gowing and Patrick George. Although he also paints landscapes, his expertise in single object still life painting is astonishing. His own problems with inspiration and trying to fit art around the need to make a living will be encouraging for many of us:

I went to the Slade hoping to be inspired and excited but it had the opposite effect. I left in 1988 and did almost no painting for the next ten years or so. I kept drawing the whole time though. Also, I had to earn a living and as a result I had little time to paint. When I did paint I felt that I had no control over the forms I was trying to depict- and that had the effect of making me not want to paint, which of course meant that when I did paint, I was out of practice so it inevitably went badly.

He has also done his share of copying paintings by others (he was fortunate enough to work at the National Gallery in London for many years) so I’m sure he wouldn’t mind my borrowing his horse chestnut to work through my own creative block. It’s an effective way of kick-starting creativity, reinterpreting what someone else has done, observing how they’ve used colour, form and composition, feeling your way around another’s work. What’s more, as Dukes has said, “I do think making copies is a good excuse to spend a long time looking at a painting you admire.”

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.

 

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.

Circling around the truth

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Jasper Johns (pencil on A5 sketchbook page) 2018

In February, I sat on a friend’s couch in upstate New York and read an article on America’s most prominent artist, Jasper Johns.

Johns can’t be the easiest person to interview: he famously said the book about his work he most enjoyed was by a Japanese scholar – he couldn’t understand a word of it. His renowned flag paintings, which the MoMA was afraid to buy in the McCarthy shadowed 1950s, can be interpreted as either patriotic or subversive. Make up your own mind: all Johns will say is that the idea came to him in a dream. And he won’t even tell you about the dream.

According to Deborah Solomon, the author of the New York Times article, his flag paintings were revolutionary because they didn’t turn private feelings into public statements but claimed public symbols for the realm of inwardness and personal experience. His goal was not to convey a truth, but circle cryptically around it.

I love that idea about circling around the truth. I suppose that’s why I admire those artists who can keep a foot in the figurative but bring a sense of abstraction or mystery to their work. To me, seeing a painting of a vase of flowers that gives, say, their colours prominence over form allows us privileged insight into the artist’s view of the world – not just painting – more than would be the case with a deliberate representation of the subject. If you follow this link and look at the images before you read the bio, wouldn’t you already feel that the artist’s philosophy is something like “living is not just surviving”?

Raye, over at Jots from a Small Apartment, shared this quote from Jasper Johns:

I think that one wants from a painting a sense of life. The final suggestion, the final statement, has to be not a deliberate statement but a helpless statement. It has to be what you can’t avoid saying.

That’s what makes some artists’ work so essential, I think. Not just Jasper Johns, but anyone making ‘helpless’ statements, statements that they ‘can’t avoid saying.’  I’ve written before about the compulsion to draw or paint, that feeling that it’s something that must be done and, more to the point, must be done in this way. It’s that creative vigour that separates art from picture making, artists from painters.

There is a truth in everything we see and perhaps the best way to tell it is to suggest it rather than say it, to circle around it instead of stating it directly. Just like Jasper Johns.

The forest at dusk

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Olivia (A1 charcoal, pastel and graphite 2018) Drawn over an existing charcoal drawing which was partially rubbed out

Can you remember your childhood? Sometimes you’d rush into things – where angels might fear to tread, perhaps – without a second thought about the consequences of your actions. Yet I bet there is no child in the entire world who could be encouraged to enter a dark forest alone as dusk became night.

I feel like that on the morning of Seawhite Studios‘ workshops. Not because there’s anything scary about Katie Sollohub or Emily Ball, but because when you sign up for their courses you know you’re going to be encouraged to stray over boundaries, perhaps into the dark forest of your creative fears, and challenge your own preconceptions.

Earlier this week I was fortunate enough to attend Katie’s one-day workshop on drawing the human head. Katie and Emily work closely together, so anyone who was at all familiar with Emily’s wonderful book, Drawing and Painting People: A Fresh Approach, would know this wasn’t going to include a three-hour portrait session on the precise representation of the model in pencil.

We were guided through some liberating exercises – drawing our own faces with eyes closed, drawing the model without looking at the paper:

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(which resulted in the rather pleasing abstract above) – and producing a drawing by gently spreading crushed charcoal and coloured chalk over paper, completing it with a few lines. I’ve done this before – it’s discussed in Emily Ball’s book – but not with such a light touch, which made all the difference to the finished drawing:

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The image at the top of this post looks reasonably conventional. However it was one of two drawings that we were asked to do over existing ones. It was a pleasure to rub out a very dull drawing I’d done earlier in the day and concentrate on Olivia’s astonishing profile and her remarkable ear-rings. Little of the original drawing remains except for a few faint lines and the tint of the rubbed-out charcoal on the paper.

I’d had a rather difficult January, creatively: the lingering effect of flu over New Year and some demanding issues in my work life left me drained and uninspired. I’d done a bit of messing around with acrylic paint and sat in front of empty sheets of paper thinking, “I haven’t a single idea in my head…” The gentle explorations of Katie Sollohub’s workshop, however, cleared a path through the undergrowth as they have before – especially in that charmed space between the figurative and abstraction, which for me has all the wonder and terrors of the forest at dusk!