Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Blue is the colour

Tuymans, Donachie et al. talk about painting light, drawing shadows and work that surprises at the Drawing Room and Turps Gallery

The Drawing Room’s three-person exhibition, DE.FI.CIEN.CY is built around the work of the long dead and fashionably obscure Andrzej Wróblewski. But of course most visitors will be there for the star of the show - Luc Tuymans.

Over at the Turps Gallery the inaugural show, Tutti Frutti, featured the work of 14 painters. Any connections between the artists, apart from a shared interest in paint, are pretty much accidental because they were independently selected by three artist/organisers, without a theme in mind aside from that suggested by the show’s title which literally translates as ‘all the fruits’. 

I went to artists’ talks at both of these non-commercial spaces and it set me thinking about galleries that concentrate on individual media and the practitioners that are loyal to the spaces.

At DE.FI.CIEN.CY Tuymans in conversation with the show’s curator, Ulrich Loock told us that if there was a book to go with the show, which also features the work of Rene Daniels alongside Tuymans and Wróblewski, it would be Raymond Chandler’s Long Goodbye – a fitting choice as the show has the noirish atmosphere that seems to epitomise Tuymans oeuvre. Tuymans was mostly his taciturn self only becoming illuminated when he talked about popular references such as his drawing of a flying monkey from The Wizard of Oz. One of the more interesting discussions was about blue, a preeminent colour in the work of another Tuymans favourite, fellow Belgian, Léon Spilliaert. Loock encouraged Tuymans to explain his own connection to a colour, which could be seen as another manifestation of his downbeat Belgian ness. Tuymans explained that when he was young he could only paint in his studio at night and the yellowish artificial light meant that his work generally had a bluish tinge to balance the colour.

Luc Tuymans, Nikko, 2014, watercolour on paper, 29x42cm,
private collection, courtesy of Studio Luc Tuymans

And what about drawing? It has, says Tuymans, a sense of decisiveness because unlike painting it cannot be changed and subsequently the painted line has a very different quality to the drawn line. Because of these differences Tuymans prefers to exhibit drawing separately from painting, unlike other artists (such as he somewhat disapprovingly noted Marlene Dumas), who are happy to mix them up. My struggle with this magnanimous idea about drawing and painting is that to all extents and purposes the drawings on show in DE.FI.CIEN.CY are, as far as I can see, only drawings because they are on paper. They are mostly made with paint. But maybe this is a minor detail. Other little nuggets of Tuymans info that I gleaned were that he considers the Arnolfini Portrait the first conceptual painting and that shadows are very hard to paint because they are non-colours.

And so onto the Turps gallery, the latest addition to the Turps Banana empire, which recently opened in a defunct South London estate alongside the Turps Art School. Marcus Cope led a discussion with a number of the Tutti Frutti artists, co organiser Katrina Blannin and an engaged audience of painters. 

Painters talking at Turps Gallery
L to R: Daniel Sturgis, Kaye Donachie, Katrina Blanin, Katrin Maurich, Nick Goss, Marcus Coates, Unknown
Nick Goss's work can be seen behind Marcus Coates   

Kaye Donachie, best known for loosely painted depictions of women, talked about her Tutti Frutti work which rather than a painting is a cyanotype on canvas. A cyanotype is a basic photographic process using a light sensitive chemical, the resulting image, as suggested by the name, is always blue. Donachie’s desire to ‘paint with light’ led her to the process and the resulting work has, it was noted, the quality of an animation. One audience member wondered if the resulting image always had to be blue – the answer I think is in the name. Printing it seems is very much in vogue with painters. Nick Goss had also included printed sections in his large work, which was inspired by glimpses into the Turkish Sports Clubs around his Green Lane’s studio. His and Donachie’s mix of figuration and abstraction is very prevalent in contemporary painting – and maybe this desire to get away from a too literal reality while retaining some of its structure explains their experiments in print making.

Works by Kaye Donachie and Erin Lawlor

Artist Erin Lawlor said that too much intention kills her gestural abstract works and that she was always waiting for the work to ‘surprise’ her. Many painters believe in the power of happenstance which explains why they so often struggle with concept driven mainstream art education, which can seem to kill the spontaneity that is thought to be so important to ‘good’ painting. It is certainly true that the creative process involved in painting is hard to quantify and for this reason it does seem to be at odds with much of the cerebral art world. Katrin Mäurich knows when one of her individually shaped wooden paintings is finished because it ‘looks like a little dance’. This esoteric, vague language has made painting an art school outsider. Which is why the Turps School is thriving. It has stepped in, knight in shining armour to save painting. But in reality state art education should be addressing painting in a more satisfying way and students should not have to resort to independent art education. I am not calling the ethos of the Turps School into question here but there will no doubt be other less scrupulous establishments opening up that rip off less knowing artists. We should all be campaigning against cuts in art education, as Bob and Roberta Smith are so commendably doing, or art as a whole will become a marginal activity.

The Turps Gallery, we were told by Katrina Blannin, is there to fulfil a need that is unaddressed by other galleries – it is a place for painters to put together painting shows. I have reservations about limiting a gallery to one specialism, but it seems that there are plenty of takers for this form of exhibiting. The Turps Gallery grand opening attracted over 400 people to the modestly sized space, so separating painting from the rest of the artworld is obviously popular, but could it also be dangerous? Not giving painting the chance to connect with other media and taking it away from the conceptual, could well result in the confirmation that painting is the irrelevant and reactionary medium that so many art school tutors have told us that it is. I for one want to stay connected to ideas and don’t want to be painted (or drawn) into a corner.

Rene Daniels, Luc Tuymans, Andrzej Wróblewski
curated by Ulrich Loock
21 May – 11 July 2015

Luc Tuymans was in conversation with Ulrich Loock was on 21 May 2015

Tutti Frutti
Carla Busuttil, Graham Crowley, Kaye Donachie, Tim Ellis, Nick Goss, John Greenwood, Erin Lawlor, George Little, Katrin Mäurich, Charley Peters, Audrey Reynolds, Daniel Sturgis, Richard Wathen, James White
organised by Katrina Blannin, Juan Bolivar & Caterina Lewis.
24 April – 24 May 2015

Tutti Frutti artists' talk was on 24 May 2015

Monday, February 09, 2015

PJ Harvey: Recording in Progress - 05.02.15

Down to the basement, along the shooting range and into an L shaped viewing gallery surrounding a room-sized glass box. We can see them but the encased musicians with their rows of instruments can't see us and we can't record what we see and hear because it's 'no phones allowed'.

Polly looks like she looks, all darkly smudgy eyes and wide expressive mouth. She is tiny, the skinniest girl, dwarfed by her huge guitar. Head to toe in black, her long hair is centre parted and often covers half her face. When she looks to the side the little triangle of her nose is the only thing visible beyond her thick wavy hair.

Sketchbook 05.02.15

At one point she straps on her guitar and starts to thrash out the rhythm of a song. Excitement ripples through the L.
She stands up, puts her guitar on its stand, applies lip balm and prepares to sing. It will be a guide track.
There are eight bars of intro - but she isn't sure where she is, she holds up four fingers with a quizzical expression.

The accompanying notes have an interview with Polly - she talks about the history of Somerset House and the time before the Embankment when the Thames flowed into the building.

'Heard it was 28,000' she sings, 'and watch them fade out'. Her voice is so familiar but I can't catch many more of the words. Maybe it's about drowning?

'I think that the intro was too long' says the drummer,  'I agree' I want to say.

One of the producers or engineers messes around with some cables. 'Maybe the best thing is if someone starts and then you all join in gradually' he says.
'No' she replies firmly and that is the end of that.

Hanging on my bedroom wall is a painting of Polly in the studio by Stella Vine - I hadn't thought about it before my visit - now it seems very apt. The intimate moment becomes public.

Stella Vine, Polly, 2002, oil on board

PJ Harvey: Recording in Progress
Presented by Artangel and Somerset House
From 16 January 2015
Somerset House

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Rome on Film: 1940s

I've been back from Rome for a month or and am only just starting to process all the information that I took in during my time there. So I thought I would make an inventory of sorts of the 'Rome' films that I have watched and how these connect to my experience of the place. For convenience and coherence I am going to divide the films into the decades that they were released, so this first 'Rome Films' post is about films from the 1940s. One last point before I start is that this is a very subjective list of films and there will of course me many missing either because I haven't yet seen them or don't know them.

The 1940s marked the amazing rise of the Italian film industry from the ashes of the devastation of WWII. This is of course the start of Italian Neorealism, a movement which used its lack of resources to define its aesthetic. The first film on my list is maybe the most famous Neorealist film - Rome Open City (Roberto Rossellini, 1945). Neorealism dealt with real things happening more or less in real time in the places that they happened. Rome Open City was released the same year as WWII ended and is about Italian partisans in Nazi occupied Rome towards the end of the war. It was mainly shot on the streets (this was partly through financial necessity) and featured many non-actors alongside stars such as Anna Magnani. Because of the scarcity of film stock Rossellini had to use whatever he could get his hands on resulting in a lack of stylistic continuity. Similarly film equipment was hard to find and I have read that old-style monolithic silent movie cameras were used. This meant that the sound was added later causing the strange disconnect that is often apparent between the actors and their speaking, something that is a bit of a trademark of Italian film.

While in Rome I visited the Museo Storico della Liberazione in via Tasso which during the Nazi occupation of Rome was the headquarters of the German SS and members of the Resistance were tortured and interrogated here. I am sure that I have read that it is the location used for the torture scenes in the Rome Open City but I can't find the reference now, nevertheless if not the actual location the cells graffitied by condemned prisoners are a direct inspiration for the scenes in the film which are really harrowing.

Graffiti on a cell wall at Museo Storico della Liberazione

The film itself has not aged brilliantly and the melodramatic drug addicted showgirl plot line and the odd comedic moments seem a bit ill judged and at odds with the film's tag as the forerunner of Neorealism. However there are some very memorable scenes, notably Anna Magnani running at full pelt down the street after her fiancee who has just been arrested by Nazis screaming 'Francesco, Francesco, Francesco'. I originally watched the film in 2012 and this is the Film Diary painting I made of one of the dramatic moments towards the end of the film.

Anna Magnani in Rome Open City (Roberto Rossellini, 1945)

The second film on my 1940s list is another Neorealist classic - Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio De Sica, 1948). This is a more cohesive, less melodramatic film than Open City and for that reason is a better example of the Neorealist idea. It has a very small plot, one that is pretty much covered by the title of the film, and is more about the struggle that many people had to survive in post war Rome. It is also very sad and for this reason I couldn't bring myself to watch it for many years.

There are are a series of posters around the city at the sites where famous films were made, in true Roman style most of these have been defaced and now like much of the city are in a dilapidated state. I became a little obsessed with finding and photographing these. The Bicycle Thieves poster is close to the huge, thundering tunnel (Traforo Umberto 1) where the hapless Antonio chases after the thief who steals his bicycle.

I walked through the tunnel a few times, as part of a film inspired walk from the via Veneto to the Palazzo dell Esposizioni to see the excellent Pasolini Roma exhibition (more of this in a future post). On one occasion a group of chic, motorcycle riding, Italian police screeched through the tunnel and the last cop in the group somehow slid off his huge bike. Immediately a huge crowd of people rushed to his aid, I think he was more embarrassed than hurt though as he quickly climbed back on and caught up with his mates (no pictures I am afraid - I was too shy and a bit worried about being arrested for mocking the police or something).

Traforo Umberto 1 in April 2014

Traforo Umberto 1 in Bicycle Thieves (1948)

One of the strengths of Bicycle Thieves is the relationship that Antonio has with his young son Bruno, who dotes on his father and seems to be constantly trying to make eye contact with him. When Antonio chastises Bruno and Bruno's ultimate  realisation that his father is not always honest are some of the most heartbreaking moments in cinema history.

Enzo Stiola & Lamberto Maggiorani in Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio de Sica, 1948)

I won't go any deeper into Neorealism in this post but if you are interested my 2012 essay 'The Stylistic Features of Italian Neorealism' has a lot more info, especially about Visconti's early films Osessione (1943) and La Terra Trema (1948).

Thank youth Jacopo Benci for the following info : 'Via Tasso was NOT the location used for the torture scenes in Rome Open City, Rossellini filmed in a large basement in Via degli Avignonesi, near Via Rasella, but the set of the Nazi HQ/prison was indeed based on recollections of Via Tasso.'

Thursday, June 05, 2014

My Own Private Idaho

The British School at Rome is at the edge of Villa Borghese close to Piazza del Popolo. A couple of nights ago I watched Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho (1991) for the first time. I knew that it had some scenes in Rome but hadn't realised that they are mostly of River Phoenix stumbling around Piazza del Popolo. Here is a still from the film juxtaposed with my photo of the same statue.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Roman Spring

I am in Rome until the end of June on a three-month fellowship at The British School at Rome. There is so much to look at and research that it is hard to pin down what it is that I want to focus on and of course things will evolve and change over the time I am here. I have of course been watching lots of Rome based films from Neo Realist classics to Hollywood on the Tibor epics. The one that is really resonating with me at the moment is The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone (1961), which is adapted from Tennessee Williams' novella and stars Vivien Leigh and Warren Beatty. Leigh plays an ageing, wealthy American actress who decides to stay in poverty stricken, post-war Rome after her husband dies.

The film has the most beautiful colour palette and the bourgeoise interiors are brilliantly realised. Vivien Leigh's wardrobe was designed by Balmain (there is a great blog post about her clothes here) and features a couple of draping toga inspired dresses which I love. 

I have read that much of the film was filmed in a London studio but there are some sections filmed on location although I am not sure if Vivien was in Rome herself. Would be very interested to find out if she was.

Saturday, September 07, 2013

Swirling and twirling through movie ballrooms

After seeing Heaven's Gate a few weeks ago I started thinking about films that had amazing dance scenes - by this I mean mass traditional ballroom type dancing - not salsa, disco jive etc. They are of course, I have just realised, all historic depictions - maybe this is what makes them so breathtaking. What they all share is amazing movement - so that as you watch you are swept up in the dancing. As someone who really can not dance this is the nearest I come to feeling what it must be like to be floating around the ballroom in a beautiful, big, swirling dress

So here are my favourites..

Jezebel (William Wyler, 1938)
Bette Davis plays headstrong Southern Belle Julie in pre Civil War America. She wants to live life to the full and refuses to play by the rules. At the annual Olympus Ball she decides to wear red rather than the traditional white - this marks her out as an immoral woman in the eyes of her fellow party goers. The ballroom scene is brilliantly filmed in black and white, using Wyler's trademark deep focus to show the whole scene. The crowded dance floor feels claustrophobic and is filmed from a low angle to give us the sickening vertiginous feeling Julie has when she realises that she may have gone too far. When she steps on to the dance floor everyone starts to depart leaving her to dance on her own. Wyler's ballroom influences all the film ballrooms to come.

Madame Bovary (Vincente Minnelli. 1949)
Jennifer Jones plays the beautiful, ambitious and very foolish Madame Bovary. When she receives an invitation to a society ball she swiftly ditches her homely, doctor husband, to become the belle of the ball and dances with an unending supply of society men. When the charming and handsome Boulanger (Louis Jourdan) asks her to dance, her head spins as he swirls her (and us, as the camera takes her point of view) around the dance floor. When she (and the rest of us) start to feel dizzy and eventually faint there is an extraordinary sequence where the host orders that the servants smash the windows to allow her to cool down. This is all done in Minnelli's trademark super stylish way.

Heaven's Gate (Michael Cimino, 1980)
The film begins at Harvard with a new class of graduating students. Their final ball is a huge open air extravaganza befitting of a film that bankrupted a studio. The camera starts by circling the group of dancers before getting right into the middle of them, gliding and drifting around just as they do, getting faster and faster and more claustrophobic as the Blue Danube speeds up. It is spectacular.

Anna Karenina (Joe Wright, 2012)
After only meeting him once Anna (Keira Knightly) encounters Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) for the second time at a ball where he orders her to dance with him. As soon as they face each their eyes lock, in classic romantic encounter style, and nothing else matters. Wright brilliantly depicts this by making the dancers around them freeze and start moving as if they are in another world altogether. Vronsky lifts Anna up and holds her there for just too long before they dance a curiously formal dance where they raise their arms and place them against each other whilst never breaking eye contact with each other. It is intense.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Paul Nash and Dymchurch

Paul Nash first visited Dymchurch, a seaside town on Romney Marsh, Kent in 1919 and he found it to be ‘a delightful place with much inspiring material for work’. He returned numerous times and even rented a cottage to help him recover from a breakdown after his experiences of WWI.

He was particularly impressed by the vast sea wall at Dymchurch, a man-made structure designed to protect the Marsh from flooding from the sea.

In 2011 a new seawall was built at Dymchurch - it is impressively futuristic but still somehow retains the atmosphere that is embodied in Paul Nash's paintings and etchings.