Posts Tagged ‘Alastair Sooke’

Blackpaint 322 – Canyons, Maggots and a lot of Trees…

January 29, 2012

Hockney at the RA

Went on Thursday afternoon and queued for only 20 minutes.  First, a couple of lovely, dour English paintings of Bradford scenes, then into the 60’s; cartoon boys tearing along in a car heading, so the caption said, from Switzerland to Italy, toothpaste colours in striped and chevrons, “An Ordinary Painting” with top and bottom balancing.

Then, some roaring red, roasted American landscapes; “A Closer Grand Canyon” (98) and “Nichols Canyon” (80) – the latter a fluorescent quilt, like that early Miro, the Farm, in the recent exhibition.  In the corner, “Garrowby Hill” and “The Road across the Wolds” (date 200?),  ribbons of road winding around hills, as the names suggest, the lower two thirds of each canvas flat , the top third a receding perspective of fading patchwork fields; really odd and effective. 

Watercolour trees and puddles from 2004, smudgy blue-grey skies – quite striking in their pallor, in the prevailing Ribena and lettuce-coloured surroundings. These must be the paintings that Alastair Sooke describes as “dull-as-ditchwater” in the Telegraph.  Welcome relief, I thought.

The hawthorn and blossoms were a highlight for me; big, square blocks of branch, the blossom squirming like bunches of white grubs on the limbs.  Ghosts of Paul Nash and maybe early Craxton hovering.

The uniform size and number of the IPad panels surrounding the room, I found a little off-putting; what stayed with me – the reflecting puddles and the swirling leaf/tree tunnels, created by multiple small strokes, the Van Gogh effect.

One thing very apparent, especially with the huge composite image of “Spring in Woldgate Woods” (2011), is the crudity of the drawing – the trunks are often just flat shapes, outlined with a thick dark line.  Flowers and leaves are simple shapes like cut-outs coloured in.   This may be the result of the enlargement of IPad drawings – I didn’t read the notes carefully enough to be sure.  However, it is even more apparent in the Yosemite pictures, which are recent and are definitely enlarged IPad images.  The only thing I really liked about these was the clouds in one of them.

There is a sequence of paintings in different styles which are versions of a Sermon on the Mount by Claude.  Hockney’s final version has Christ preaching on what looks like the top of a giant carrot.  These pictures seem somehow out of place, except for the carrotty colour.

The sketchbooks in glazed cabinets are good, but then, isolating and presenting images in this way gives them added significance – for me, the repetition and uniformity of size of the other images detracts, although it did occur to me that, if you saw many of these pictures in a gallery “on their own”, with  paintings by other artists, you might walk past them without a second glance.

BUT – having said that, a bit of distance makes all the difference.  If you stand right back, the other end of a room, say, some of them look great.  It’s obvious really; they’re made to be seen from far off.

I haven’t mentioned the charcoal drawings; they are really quite powerful – big, square cliff faces of tree at intersections and crossroads, looming like liners or huge black department stores.  One of them reminded me of an enormous black owl’s head.

To return to this thing about presentation for a moment – I saw the show reviewed on BBC4, the Review Show (appropriately).. and all the pictures looked fantastic – the winding roads and patchwork fields, the blossom maggots, the Technicolour woods, even the red-raw Grand Canyon.  Photographs, and especially television, glamourise everything drastically.  There’s no point in going to exhibitions, everything looks much better on the telly. 

 And of course, with IPad drawings there’s no texture, no lumps, bumps, trickles or ridges – just SMOOTH, how a picture ought to look.

Interesting to see the uniform chorus of approval on the prog for Hockney’s “positivity”; he has “brought the colour home” from the States; he is showing “bravery” for still doing new work at his advanced age (Leonard Cohen, too, got similar praise).  This positivity thing seems to be in the air in the art world; something to do with the Olympics, all being in it together, the Big Society – art in the service of society under the coalition.  Paul Morley, in particular, condemned any negative criticism of the Hockney and took a sneering swipe at the RA visitors as middle class, for making facetious remarks like “Too many trees” within his hearing.  Too many trees is, however, true and to-the-point. 

 One last thing – one test of a work to me is if the image stays in your mind with any sort of clarity, once you stop looking at it.  The Hockney pictures certainly do that.

Wilhelmina Barns – Graham

Just around the corner from the RA, in Berkeley Street, an exhibition of the above Scottish and St.Ives painter, showing a pleasing diversity if styles, from naturalism to total abstraction.  One glowing yellow ochre and brown harbour scene, resembling Prunella Clough’s early worker pictures; some lovely abstracts with magisterial brush sweeps of white; in a corner, a group of brilliant, brightly-coloured abstract shapes (with one terrible pink-based one, the larger one in the middle of the wall) and by far the best painting, a brown and red job that looked like a pair of pliers clenching a red-hot ingot – just like a Roger Hilton, I thought.  Great little exhibition, just right for my little British tastes.

The Russell Omnibuses on Elgar and Delius

Fantastic – the images and the music.  That avenue of  poplar trees filmed from below in a tracking shot in Elgar, the stunning acting of Max Adrian as Delius – “Are you ready, boy?   Take this down – Tan -ta-TAA, Tan -ta-TAA….”.  Russell was a great, great film-maker.

Blackpaint

29/01/12

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Blackpaint 178

August 21, 2010

Joan Mitchell

Yes, she’s on in Edinburgh til October 3rd, and there’s no way I’m going to miss this, even though it’s just a few paintings – seven ,I think, and some pastel drawings.  Got a glimpse of three on the Culture Show, presented by  Alastair Sooke in a Sinatra hat with Coltrane in the background (I think – my ears need syringeing).  He mentioned some really important things;  for instance, she swore a lot and was alcoholic – unusual for an Abstract Expressionist.  He pretty much got the main things right, though, mentioning Monet and lyricism and colour, contrasting with the black, depressive, explosive stuff.

I think that Mitchell was one of the most distinctive, expressive and inspiring of a miraculous bunch and is up at the top with de Kooning, Pollock and Hoffman.  Sick of hearing how she was younger, second wave, not as innovative, etc., etc.  Look  at the pictures in Jane Livingstone’s book; they’ll make you gasp and sometimes even move the sensitive to tears (probably only when drunk at 2.00am, however).

I was interested in Sooke’s account – if he wrote it himself; maybe he was just reading the words –  of the dark, “depressive” stuff and the light, “lyrical” stuff, in terms of how long it takes a painter to complete.  if you are responding to moods and you start something doomy, what happens if you cheer up half way through?  And vice versa?

The answer must be that you respond to the needs of the painting – this idea that Ab Exes just painted their moods is surely bollocks.  I understood that depression stops you from working, so the “dark” paintings must be “recalled in tranquility” or whatever the quotation is.  All art is fiction, unless it’s about itself.

Sidney Nolan and Arthur Boyd

Since seeing that great Arthur Boyd painting in the Tate I’ve been looking at stuff by these two; the Ned Kellys, lost explorers, scapegoats, sunsets…  I was going to call it surreal, but I’ve got an idea that their paintings are a lot more “real” – maybe Australia really looks, or looked, like that…  The only other Australian painter that I’ve seen work by is Fred Williams, who did those fantastic landscapes and top shots that were in  the Tate Modern a couple of years ago.  Bit of an Australian Lanyon – or the other way round.  I’ll be looking at other Australian artists in blogs to come. 

Saw the Francis Alys at Tate Modern today – will write about it tomorrow.

Listening to Kris Kristofferson at Cambridge, doing “Me and Bobbie McGhee” – and of course, Bobbie  is a girl!  Obvious really, but only just realised – I knew Kris wrote it, and even saw him perform it to a totally unappreciative audience (he was booed) at the Isle of Wight.  Joni told us off, said it was nothing like Woodstock…

“Busted flat in Baton Rouge, waitin’ for a train,

Feelin’ near as faded as my jeans…”  

Janis did it better, but Kris wrote it.

Blackpaint

21.08.10

Blackpaint 135

May 17, 2010

Alastair Sooke’s Picasso programme

Big disappointment, this.  There was plenty on Blue Period (cue Miles Davis’ “Blues for Pablo”), Rose Period, Saltimbanques, Harlequins; there was that lovely picture of Gertrude Stein that was on the cover of the Penguin “Autobiography of Alice B Toklas”.  There was the suicide in the cafe.

My first big gripe was the description of the women in “Desmoiselles” as ugly!  The two on the viewer’s right with the mask -like faces, I suppose, but the others, staring directly out of the picture, are beautiful, surely, both in face and body.  Their gaze may be interpreted as challenging, but that was nothing new – Manet’s “Olympia”, for example.

Sooke’s comments on “Three Dancers” (hellish, middle one a parodic crucifixion, etc.) were fair enough, but a bit overstated.

It was interesting to see the detailed close-ups of the Cubist surfaces – the overworking, varied texture; could have been St. Ives!

Then, we’re on the beach at Antibes in the 30s (where is the “bone” beach picture of 1929?) – and then, Spanish Civil War and Guernica.

“Guernica” is obviously hugely important depiction of  brutality of war, an image resurrected over and over again – there was the story of the covering of the Guernica tapestry in the UN at the time of the 1st Iraq war – BUT is it really as shocking as Sooke appears to find it?  How can it be, next to photographs of the real thing?  Film and photographs of the Kovno garage massacre and the einsatsgruppen, Dresden, Belsen – that is shocking;  “Guernica” is not.  In fact, the man entering on the right like some sort of swooping ghost, I find vaguely comic and endearing.  Bathetic, I think, is the right word.

It strikes me that Sooke follows the line that Simon Schama did in his recent programme on Picasso; that “Guernica” was really the last important and original work that P did and that afterwards, he was reproducing his own ideas, sort of feeding off himself with endless variations in different mediums (ceramics, for example).  Sooke doesn’t actually say this, but the scant attention paid to the post-Guernica stuff seems to bear it out.  We got “Sylvette” – and an interview with her – but little else in the way of pictures.  Instead, Sooke moved on to merchandising; stripey sailor tops, Andy Warhol, signatures on cars.  This was interesting in a way, and fitted with the other progs on Warhol and Matisse (and, no doubt, Dali), but it meant that great swathes of the paintings were left out.  A few examples:

  • The statuesque women 1921 -3
  • Three Musicians 1923
  • “Bone” pictures 1929
  • Blimp nymphs with beach ball 1932
  • Dreaming woman
  • Night Fishing at Antibes 1939
  • Re-working of classics (Dejeuner sur l’herbe, Women of Algiers)

Would have been great to see any, or all the above.

Not Picasso.

Blackpaint

17.05.10

Blackpaint 130

May 9, 2010

Private View (cont.)

Eavesdropping on the visitors, one realises what should have been obvious; this is more about interior decorating than it is about art.  There you are, having agonised about your work, wrestling with the tempestuous emotions stirred up, screaming (almost ) with frustration, perhaps just managing to check your shaking hand as it lifts the razor to your ear – and what do you hear? 

 “What about that for the lounge?” 

“No, I don’t think so really – we need something a bit more… green”.

Fair enough.  It’s a compliment, really because they are paying cash to live with your work – or not, in most cases.

Bomberg

What I said about admiring him because he died in poverty; reason is that, to me, it implies he had some integrity about his art, something I haven’t got; I’m a whore, I’ll knock out a green painting for the lounge any time, I suspect; haven’t been asked, so far.  Of course, it could just be he was a miserable, cantankerous bastard who was his own worst enemy, but I prefer to think not.

Matisse

Watched the Alastair Sooke programme on the above.  I was amused to hear Django Reinhardt and the Hot Club doing “Swing 42” yet again.  Someone at the BBC sound archive is a Reinhardt fan and Django keeps popping up on anything to do with France or art or the occupation of Paris in WW2;  A bit like the Ry Cooder bottleneck soundtrack to “Paris Texas”, every time there’s a desert or US road shot.

There were three staggering generalisations made by Sooke.  First was about “The Piano Lesson”; there was a lot of grey, for Matisse, in this picture, a spike of it poking into the boy’s head.  “It’s about the First World War,” said Sooke, “Matisse was thinking about all those young men sent to the front…”.

Second, there was that beautiful, rich red interior with all the items floating about in the room as if in liquid.  “Matisse has left the hands off the clock,” said Sooke, “He has suspended time…”

Third and last, and maybe fair enough, the book “Jazz”, which Matisse made in bed in the last couple of years of his life; Sooke said in this book, with its brilliant colours, “Matisse was defying death”.

I’d really like to know what evidence he has for any of these assertions; all three were made totally baldly, no “One might think Matisse was..” or anything like that.  Still, if art critics are prepared to take this on, it removes the responsibility from artists so not necessarily a bad thing.

Roger Hilton

This thing about Matisse doing the simplified cut outs when he was ill and bedridden reminded me of Hilton and the childlike images he produced with poster paints after his illness incapacitated him.  Please note I say childlike, not childish; I’m not being disparaging.

Interregnum by Blackpaint

Listening to Cold, Cold Feeling by TBone Walker.

“I got a cold, cold feeling, it’s just like ice around my heart, (*2)

I know I’m gonna quit somebody, every time that feeling starts”.

Blackpaint

09.05.10

Blackpaint 126

May 3, 2010

Moore and Ofili revisits

Second visits are often disappointing, and I wasn’t as impressed this time by the big elm “recliners”:  however, I had a good look round Moore’s archetypal recliner (the one the cartoonists always parody) and noticed the way the hole disappears when you look at it from behind and above and the shoulders become even more massive; also, the way the light falls on the planes, emphasising the perfection of the sculpting. 

The little so-called sketches like jewels, worked over carefully in pen, pencil, crayon, pastel etc., and the pen sketch with the blots which are themselves attractive – something similar on TV last night, that thing about Warhol by Sooke; Warhol used a technique of pressing paper against the wet ink line of a drawing to get a broken, blotty line.

There was a funny little mother and child at the start in which the baby was huge, the size of a small adult (and mother’s face seemed to reflect this).  Reminded me of some of those 12th century madonna and child icons in the National Gallery etc, in which the Christ is a full-grown man on mother’s knee.

Although it might be true, as Laura Cumming asserted (see Blackpaint 80), that Moore’s subject matter is rather limited (Mothers with child, recliners, masks, helmets, stringed sculptures, the “atomic” maquette, the warrior, the miner drawings, the shelter drawings..), the varieties of material and style are wide.  African Wonderwood?  and how did he get that gleaming smooth finish on concrete?

As for Ofili, I liked it as I did first time around.  No new insights, other than the humour and the really strong sense of unity of the whole set of work – must be the colours, because he’s stopped using the elephant dung.  One thing – that exchange between Ofili and Jonathan Jones about the function of the hanging man (see Blackpaint 54, 55); the painting’s called “Iscariot Blues”, something I overlooked last time.  Best paintings still the art nouveauish “Raising of Lazarus” and the cocktail girl next to it.

Fundamental Painting

A Tate room devoted to stern, dark, minimalist work from the 60’s;  Alan Charlton (born 1948), four huge paintings in shades of charcoal grey.  The first has a long slot cut in it, the second four square holes in the corners, the third is cut into 20 equally sized “sleepers” and the last, a square, framed with a 2″ interval.  Other artists; Edwina Leapman (one all blue, one all red, slight gradations of pigmentation); Bob Laws (huge plain canvas with a black frame painted in 2″ from edge;  Alan Green, Peter Joseph (dark blocks of black, green, blue).  What’s it about?  Asking questions like “What is a painting?”

John Golding 

Born 1929, a canvas called “CV 1973”.  Two unequal rectangles, one egg yolk yellow, the other dark flesh pink.  A white frame of plain canvas all round with swipes of paint here and there – vaguely reminiscent of a landscape Clyfford Still.  My partner tells me the salient point is that the pink is layered, built up in a Rothko-type way.  Two other Goldings, one blue one green, quite different.  The blue one, “Toledo Blue”, lines across a sort of misty surface, vaguely like a Futurist painting, Boccione maybe, not much close up, but great through archways from a couple of rooms away.

I Mailed it in the Air, by Blackpaint

Listening to Gus Cannon’s Jug Stompers;

“I wrote a letter, I mailed it in the, I mailed it in the – air indeed, lord,

I wrote a letter, I mailed it in the air,

So you know by that I have a friend somewhere”.

Blackpaint 03.05.10

Blackpaint 67

February 13, 2010

Sewell on Gorky

As promised,  Brian Sewell’s review of Tate Modern show, in Thursday’s Evening Standard: writing of de Kooning and Pollock, he says they “served to bolster Gorky’s reputation as the stud who sired their rough and ready kind of gestural Abstract Expressionism.  We should blame him for the scribbles of Cy Twombly too”.  De Kooning and Pollock acknowledged Gorky as a prime influence or inspiration – why Twombly, though? 

“Rough and ready” as a description of Pollock is only partly fair – “Full fathom five” incorporated fag ends and keys, which I suppose is pretty rough and ready; but “Cathedral” and “Lavender Mist” are delicate, intricate, many-layered… As for de Kooning – well, the surfaces are often rough, paint runs down, it’s scored and scratched, the paint blears from one colour into another, the brush dries in mid-streak, so yes, rough and ready.  But the effect of this is a matter of taste; I find his surfaces a source of immediate pleasure; deep, rich colours, movement, texture – how do you explain why you think they are good to someone with different eyes?  

It strikes me that Sewell despises the whole “project” of Abstract Expressionism and is suspicious of spontaneity in the creative process altogether.  he describes how Gorky, in his later works, “the images scribbled, doodled, smudged and the colour scrubbed onto the canvas….was released from all formal responsibilities.”  Looking approvingly at Gorky’s drawings, he describes how Gorky’s “drawn line…lends order to the chaos of surreal forms, often Dali-like, in a fantasy of hubbub and disorder.” 

From these observations, one can see that Sewell’s aversion is to “hubbub and disorder”, and to release from “formal responsibility”.  He approves of Gorky to the extent that he shows technical skill at drawing.  All the other stuff is pretty much rubbish.  Clement Greenberg, who promoted him, was “jabberwocky-driven” (presumably harried by a phantom of his own mind) in describing him as “a painter of more than national importance”; this, Sewell says, “is to assume that he knew what he was doing.  He did not.”

Given Sewell’s stance, it is difficult to see how he would approve of, or derive pleasure from any Abstract Expressionist “works” or those works associated with the movement.  That’s fair enough as a position, of course; but it’s not a useful review if you like this sort of stuff.

By way of contrast, Alastair Sooke in the Telegraph says the later paintings summon “a sense of spontaneity and freedom that is nothing short of ravishing.”  There’s nothing for it – I’ll have to go myself. 

Coincidence

In Sewell’s review the adjective “desuetudinous” appeared – not a commonly employed word.  Then it popped up again, this time used by Pat Kane on BBC2’s Review Show.  I’m glad I know what it means.

Regarding Blackpaint 64 and 65, should have mentioned that there is a film of “the Horse’s Mouth”, with Alec Guinness as Gulley Jimson.

Listening to “I ain’t superstitious” by Howling Wolf;

“You know I ain’t superstitious, but a black cat just crossed my trail (*2)

Don’t sweep me with no broom; I just might get put in jail.”

Blackpaint

13.02.10