Sunday, 26 February 2012

Yes! Got the carrier bag.... and the mug... at the David Hockney exhibition

Today we've been to see the gorgeous, intoxicating David Hockney exhibition at the Royal Academy in London. Such is my terror of infringing DH's copyright that I only dare reproduce a photograph of the lovely carrier bag in which our inevitable souvenirs were borne home. In fact as we were walking around the exhibition itself we saw a diminutive guard throw herself in front of a naughty visitor who was about to sneak some footage of the bosky loveliness on his mobile phone -- she critically lengthened her arm by judicious flourishing of her spectacles case so that it blocked any possible misdemeanour by the phone's owner. We almost cheered her, even as we were wishing we could sneak one or two pictures ourselves (but did not, no sirree).
Well, I must start at the beginning and end at the end of this memorable day out, with the model of Tatlin's Tower that has been erected in the courtyard of the RA. How I love the tilting, sinuous lunacy of this Tower, which was supposed to dwarf the Eiffel Tower and celebrate the supremacy of the Third International (but, alas, was never built for real). The lower, inner cube was to rotate once a year, the next stage up once a month and the top bit once a day. Imagine how giddying that would have been.
Also in the RA courtyard was Sir Joshua Reynolds flourishing his paintbrush alongside DH waving his. I'm not in the club that sneers at the Royal Academy -- I think it does a wonderful job of bonding our British artists together and giving them a sense of historical continuity and comradeship.
     So, no pictures from inside the show, but it was absolutely beautiful and inspiring. The interconnecting rooms of the RA made for wonderful glimpses of the paintings at different distances, and they just seemed to get more and more intense the further away from them you were. It would be a cold heart indeed that didn't respond to the exuberance and sheer love of the landscape in these paintings. The wall of small single-canvas paintings of fields, roads and hills sang out with the joy of just being there. As for the paintings done on the iPad, they were almost unbearably lovely. I don't use that word lightly -- you just couldn't take in all the moments Hockney had recorded, the bursting greens, the mists, the puddles, the buds, the cold days and warm days. His work in East Yorkshire has been so prodigious, you wonder how he hasn't burst with all the visual data he has taken in and recorded.
     In the room with the eighteen screens (which were like his multi-canvas paintings brought to life), the atmosphere was almost like a religious gathering -- reverent but pulsing with a shared joy. The screens were split into two sets of nine and each set showed one of a pair of corresponding films (split into nine simultaneously recorded fragments to make a whole) -- a lane in winter and spring, a hedgerow on two different dates. It was just an 'ordinary' English lane or hedgerow but somehow imbued with glory, just by being looked at so lovingly (by DH via the nine video cameras). A large crowd sat on the benches or stood gazing at the screens without talking. It was very peaceful.
     So, finally, I think it will be safe to show you the mug of the show:
And in the background of the mug is some mighty rye bread bought this afternoon from the Nordic Bakery in Golden Square. Imagine if you will my intense pleasure at discovering that the bakery was open, after its being closed on the day when I first discovered it (it's next to the Frith St Gallery) on an earlier London trip. In we went, and there was even a table big enough for all four of us, me exclaiming over the lovely colour of the walls and the very Skandinavian mugs and the cakes and everything. I am currently obsessed with semlor, the Skandinavian Lent buns and I asked if they had them, but they didn't. However, while we were drinking our coffee and munching on our lingonberry buns, I spied a tray of semlor being brought out. You might imagine a vast tray with about 30 buns on it, but no, this tray had only three buns on it. Up I jumped, heart in mouth, and queued again. It was obviously my lucky day, as I was able to buy two of the (rather pricey) buns plus some rye bread.
We've just eaten both the bread and the buns and they were absolutely wonderful. The bread in particular was so tasty and chewy, it was like ur-bread, almost mythically good. From what I can discover online, I think the Lent buns were a Finnish variation, with raspberry jam and cream instead of the almond paste and cream favoured in Sweden. They were lovely, anyway, and allowed me to indulge my Skandi-love for a few happy moments.
The trees outside the railway station on our return were very lovely. Do you think I have ingested something along with the buns to make this day seem so exceptional?

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Miracles and Charms

It's already nearly the weekend again and I haven't written up last Saturday -- tut tut.
I took my kids to London -- ostensibly for shopping but I made it part of the deal that we would also drop in to two small exhibitions. I think I was bribing myself for the trip, in a reversal of the usual set-up where I sweeten a 'boring' visit for the kids with some shopping. Anyway, it worked well and I discovered that the Wellcome Collection on the Euston Road is a place that perfectly nourishes very many of my interests and really I'd like to go and live there and just curl up in a corner of the bookshop at night and wake up again in the morning to reach out for another lovely book. How is it possible that I've never been there before?
postcards from the Wellcome Collection that hint at its fixations
There are two linked exhibitions on there at the moment, both finished on Feb 26th, so, once again I'm afraid I only got there right at the tail end. Both are worth catching, in my view.
Mexican retablo (not from the actual exhibition) giving thanks for survival after a car crash
The first is a wonderful selection of Mexican retablos, naive paintings done on tin to celebrate survival after terrible mishaps and thanking a particular saint or saint who responded to prayers at the moment of greatest need and interceded to save the poor victim from death. So there were many calamities -- madness, near drowning, fire, electrocution, dreadful falls and more -- all painted in a very consistent style which makes one think they must be able to be categorized as 'folk art'. What I'm not clear about is whether the grateful savees painted the pictures themselves or commissioned a retablo artist to do it for them. The practice has not entirely died out and there was a very interesting film where someone who had pulled a woman from the rubble of the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City seemed to be briefing an artist to paint a retablo of the event -- though it's possible that he was just giving an interview about his first terrible and then miraculous experiences. Someone was there sketching as he talked, so perhaps this was the artist. Sorry to be so vague but, alas, I felt I had to get a move on from the outset as my offspring were not as engaged in the show as I was...
Guanajuato in Mexico -- beautiful dawn light
There was a film being projected against one whole wall of the Mexican city of Guanajuato, a place of pilgrimage. It was filmed at dawn, you can see buses and cars moving quietly through the streets and it was rather beautiful. Again, I don't know the full information behind it -- but you can watch all the films on the Wellcome Collection website.
Here are a few more retablos where you may be able to work out what has befallen the 'sponsor' of the painting -- and how they have been saved.
It all reminded me of the Mexican Day of the Dead, and Frida Kahlo (with her dreadful tram accident), and J. G. Posada's 'penny dreadful' prints. Mexico does seem to be a wonderfully singular place -- it's a shame it's too scary (for me) to go there at the moment. I should have gone twenty years ago instead of trying to make my own Mexican Day of the Dead shrine in the spare bedroom of my flat in Crouch End. Those were the days.

In an adjoining room at the Wellcome there was another exhibition, this one based on the collection of amulets and charms of Mr Edward Lovett at the turn of the 20th century. There's a very good page on the Wellcome website where you can look closely at some of the amulets.
I particularly liked the lucky glass seahorses, the hearts, acorns (to protect against lightning), belemnites (to protect against thunder -- we used to pick these up on the beach at Whitby when I was little), hands and fragments of red coral (to ward off the evil eye).
I have quite a few of my own personal amulets which I keep in this little box (which is about 8cm x 5cm)
Inside there's a lock of Charlie's baby hair, an agate heart, a moonstone, a couple of stones with 'eyes' and my special little egg-shaped stone. It's a miracle in itself that I haven't lost these over the years.
     The charms at the Wellcome were the stimulus for some beautiful miniature artworks by Felicity Powell done in wax. There was a film of her working, in close-up, and it was incredible to see how she smeared and scraped the tiny quantities of wax (with her fingers and with dental tools) to make eerily translucent images which seemed very redolent of Victorian melodrama -- but in a very wonderful way. Below is just a screengrab from the Wellcome website where you can look at all her work in detail:
Finally, the bookshop at the Wellcome was really fantastic and I could hardly wrench myself away from it -- but it was no good my buying books that day as we were just off to Oxford Street and the earthly paradise that is Topshop, so my carrying strength was needed for other stuff than books....

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Gunnel Wåhlstrand at Parasol Unit, London

Today I nipped into London to catch the last day of the current exhibition at the Parasol Unit in Wharf Road. I'd never been there before but, as you can see, it's right next door to Victoria Miro. It was a beautiful space with a garden at the back that also had installations in it -- dozens of silver balls held captive in the frozen pond, and a Japanese-looking shelter which will help you fend off Seasonal Affective Disorder if you stay under its fluorescent light tubes.
But the reason I went was to see the extraordinarily beautiful indian-ink paintings of Gunnel Wåhlstrand, a Swedish artist. I have just taken some quick photos of pages from the catalogue, so as not to reproduce them too exactly, but you'll see how exquisite they are.
 The actual artworks are on a very large scale. They are incredibly painstaking reproductions of the artist's old family photographs, which is why they appealed so much to me. The particular poignancy to the artist of these photos is explained here.
The realism of the paintings is uncanny, but what I found interesting was the edges of the painted area where the realism breaks down into a looser sort of threshold between the painted and unpainted areas and you can see the individual strokes and tiny washes of ink. If it wasn't for this strip around the painting, you wouldn't really be able to tell that it wasn't just, say, a blown-up digital scan, so it's crucial that the viewer can see it.

     In the same way, there is often a small element in the painting itself which undermines the almost chilly perfection of the scene. For example, in the painting above, all the furniture fits like a jigsaw and the figures are unnaturally poised. All is still -- apart from the figure reflected in the picture on the right-hand side, who is perhaps waving at someone out of the window. It's an almost hidden point of freedom within the stifling interior.
  There was another painting, of a library, an astonishingly complex scene full of books and shelves. Students bent over their books and I noticed that some of these figures were blurred, introducing a disturbing note into the stillness. I guess that they must have been blurred in the original photo on which the painting was based and so have been faithfully blurred in the reproduction. But the blurring foregrounds the fact that this is not a painting of 'reality' but of a photo, at a remove from reality. It's what I particularly like about certain photorealist art -- when the apparent 'reality' you're looking at is subverted and you're forced to question what it is you're being shown.
     These beautiful paintings have really got under my skin.

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Cooking up a creative storm

I just wanted to say thank you so much to Gina firstly for the really lovely cookbook she gave me as the prize in her blog giveaway. It's such a nice book and I'm already drooling over the recipes -- very many beautiful, seasonal things to make with minimal fuss -- just the sort of recipe book I love.
     I was actually able to pick it up in person as Gina was at her art group's exhibition at Art Van Go in Knebworth. I had a good chat with Gina and admired Spectrum's artwork and also met Jill from the Postman's Knock postcard swap and Gilly the Vintage Rock Chick (in her new jacket which I liked a lot). I even ate one of Gina's beautiful heart-shaped custard creams which I'd read about only hours before on her blog. It's a bit like Alice in Wonderland when that happens and you go through the mirror into your blogworld. I like it a lot.
     Although this shop is only about fifteen minutes' drive from where I live, I'm ashamed to say I've never been before, but it was great. Not only a very pleasant exhibition and workshop space but an amazing shop packed out with an immense range of art materials. I wanted a particular thing and thought I'd have a look for it while I was there, never dreaming they'd have it, but they did. I was impressed.
    I'm not going to let on what it was I was after because it was something I needed to try out a new idea, and this idea is either ridiculous or exciting -- either way, it'll be better if I keep it under my hat until I've had a go at seeing if I can get it to work. In my mind it's going to be my ENTIRE FUTURE as an artist, but if my previous 'big ideas' are anything to go by it'll actually be a case of acute frustration and lobbing some sorry effort in the bin. We shall see....

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Doing my own (creative) thing

A couple of weeks ago I got rather immersed in responding to that "29 Ways to Stay Creative" video. It got me thinking: why not have a go at creating my own 'tips for creativity'? That question probably shouldn't have been merely rhetorical, because there are lots of reasons why I shouldn't 'have a go', chiefly not knowing how to make any sort of animation. However, I'm not one to let a small thing like total ignorance stop me, so I have spent an inordinate amount of time over the last few days trying to work out how to make this video and  upload it onto the web. It's quite interesting doing something completely 'blind' as basically you don't know what you aren't supposed to do, so strange things creep in. It even has music! Copyright free music!!
      Click here to see my 'Ten Tips for Creativity' video ...

Friday, 3 February 2012

"Far From Heaven"

As well as my disturbingly large 'to be read' pile, by my bed, I also have a 'to be watched' pile of DVDs, about thirty or so, which I just never seem to get around to watching. Most of them have been bought on impulse, perhaps because I spotted them on the 'People who bought that also bought this...' strip on Amazon, which I find very tantalising.
Anyhow, I've been at home today with a stinky cold and it was the perfect excuse to finally watch one of these neglected DVDs. Almost at random, I pulled out Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven and stuck it in the player. I no longer had any idea why I'd got it and the cover didn't particularly speak to me (something about that headscarf) ... BUT ... it was absolutely brilliant and suddenly I'm a massive Todd Haynes fan and have been looking at what else he's done and it's all starting to come together.
     So, Far From Heaven. It's the most beautiful evocation of 1950s melodrama, in particular the films of Douglas Sirk, which, I now know, typically starred Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson and were about 'forbidden love' across the class divide.
Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson in 1955's All That Heaven Allows
Far From Heaven isn't a pastiche, it's an homage, with every detail lovingly crafted and thought through. In the short documentary about the film on the DVD, it shows Todd Haynes' 'mood book' for the film, a fantastic scrapbook of source images, colour combinations, hair styles, fashions, furniture and so on. The film is a midcentury marvel. Haynes made a swatch of colours for each scene, to guide the designer and costume designer:
Haynes' swatch for the party scene

Set in Hartford, Connecticut in 1957, it's the story of Kathy and Frank Whitaker, who are, to all appearances, the perfect American couple. He's an executive in a television sales company and she stays at home with her two lovely children and her black maid (Mad Men must surely have been heavily influenced by the look and feel of this film, which predates Mad Men, having been released in 2002. Another film influenced by it is, I think, Revolutionary Road, 2008). I'm absolutely not going to give away the plot because it depends on an element of surprise and is really engrossing. Julianne Moore and Dennis Quaid are perfect as this all-American couple who start to see cracks appearing in their dream existence.
The aspect of the film that really makes it exceptional to me is Haynes' use of colour. The dark blues and greens which betoken troubles seem almost Expressionist in mood:
In the director's commentary, Haynes mentions the 'indigo gels' that he used to get the intense blue of the moonlit scenes, and he says that he had two separate shades, one for the autunm part of the film and another for when it was winter. The seasons are gorgeously evoked in this film.
     The use of colour was most startling in the costumes, and I felt that Haynes had made the costumes chime so strongly with each other in order to push home the sense of absolute conformity in American society at that period. Here are Kathy Whitaker and her friends, no doubt all wearing 'this Fall's must-have shades':
so much green conformity, it put me in mind of the Emerald City (which may be a deliberate reference)
In the above shot, Kathy, on the right, is wearing a lilac scarf with her russet ensemble. It's the only note of colour that isn't red-brown. I think it symbolises the small element of non-conformity within her. Look, it's coming loose in the wind...
Oh, it's flying away!
the lilac scarf is almost the same colour as the sky, reinforcing the idea that it symbolises freedom
But someone has found the scarf...
You've really got to watch this film! It's about forbidden love -- more than one sort -- and the viewer is asked to make a direct comparison between these different types of desire.
I have a Montgomery Ward catalogue for 1957 and you can see from almost any page of it that the film is perfectly in keeping with the fashion and conformist mood of the period -- look at all the coats for the new season perfectly chiming together.
     Since 'discovering' Todd Haynes (about twenty years after everybody else), I've watched his first movie (made at film school), Superstar, in chunks on YouTube. It's a biopic of Karen Carpenter done with a variety of mixed media, but all the actors are played by Barbie and Ken dolls:
Karen Carpenter sings...
The dolls work well as sinisterly plastic counterparts to the 'real' Karen and Richard Carpenter and Barbie's insanely narrow form constantly reminds us of the impossible body image that Karen's anorexia drove her to try, hopelessly, to achieve.
    I also watched another Todd Haynes piece on YouTube -- Dottie Gets Spanked -- which was a 1993 made-for-TV short with, I suspect, strong autobiographical elements. It's not as naughty as it sounds. Dottie is a 1960's comedienne with strong debts to Lucille Ball. She has a raucous comedy show on TV, sponsored by Revlon, which six-year-old Stevie is crazy about. He sits right up to the black-and-white screen and draws picture after picture of Dottie with his wax crayons. The other children seem to sense that he is 'different' -- his two-tone shoes are the butt of the boys' jokes and the little girls disapprove of his trying to talk about Dottie with them. But when Stevie wins a contest to go to the TV studio in New York to meet Dottie his popularity suddenly increases exponentially. At the studio, Dottie is recording a sketch where she gets put over her husband's knee and the intensity of seeing this at first hand combines with other things glimpsed and understood as taboo to become the little boy's most powerful fantasy. His father disapproves of his love of Dottie and he wants Stevie to watch the football game with him. In his dream, little Stevie is King but he kills another child and is dethroned. The black-and-white dream sequences are pure Dr Caligari's Cabinet:
The grown-ups accuse Stevie of murder
Stevie understands that his excitement at Dottie's spanking is taboo and he suppresses it, burying his drawing of the spanking scene in the garden. It's pure Freud and seems to go a long way towards explaining Haynes the sublimating artist.
     Now I've ordered two other Haynes features from Amazon, Velvet Goldmine and [Safe], and no doubt these will be spending a couple of years on the 'to be watched' pile before I get round to them -- or perhaps they'll jump straight to the top. Todd Haynes is definitely my new favourite film director.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Couple of things

If you're waiting to book tickets to the David Hockney show at the Royal Academy, they've just released loads of new tickets. I got some!

I love Joanne Mattera's online art exhibition of spotty, dotty art, Connecting the Dots.