Friday, 29 December 2017

Every Story Tells A Picture – Martin’s Sausage: From Recollections of Early Childhood

The text is an account, in 39 tercets (over 3 sections), of a fictionalised incident in the life of the German philosopher, Martin Heidegger. Young Martin ponders the nature of pictures, their relation to himself and to the world, and the possible truths they might give rise to. In the process he involves his friend, Fred. Through a series of troubling encounters with drawings, over two days, Martin moves through various understandings of what a picture might be, to a happy realisation.

Part 1: Only a Picture

Martin was a clever boy
He liked pretty pictures
And one day he had a strange idea

What if a picture wasn’t pretty?
Did that mean it was bad?
Martin thought and thought

What do pictures do?
They don’t talk
They don’t walk

They don’t make my dinner
But sometimes they look like my dinner
And when they look like my dinner I think about my dinner

And when I think about my dinner I forget about pictures and feel hungry
I see sausages and sauerkraut and apple strudel
A picture must be very clever, thought Martin

Then he thought some more
A picture doesn’t have a brain
But Martin made pictures, and Martin had a brain

Then brains make pictures?
But a picture can be of a brain
That’s interesting, Martin thought

So, Martin got out his crayons and made a picture of his favourite dinner
He showed it to his best friend, Fred
Fred said it was so good that he wanted to eat it

Please don’t eat my picture, Martin shouted!
Why not, said Fred?
Because it's part of me

Fred was confused
How can it be part of you, he said
Because it was my brain that made you want to eat it

Oh, that’s why!
Ok Martin, I won’t eat your picture
Can I have some real food instead?

 Martin felt happy
But then he felt sad
His picture wasn’t real

And what if it wasn’t him either?
Don’t be sad, said Fred
It’s only a picture

Part 2: Nearly Real and Really Real

That night, Martin woke suddenly
My picture wasn’t pretty
My picture wasn’t me

But my picture WAS real
I made it myself
I showed it to my best friend, Fred

The next day, he made another picture
Again, he showed it to Fred
Does this look like a sausage, he asked?

No, said Fred
It’s a funny shape
It looks like a…

Stop, said Martin
Do you want to eat it?
No I don’t

It doesn’t look real
It doesn’t look like a sausage

What does it look like?
Well, it looks a bit like a sausage, I suppose
But it’s too big and too bendy

Martin sighed and smiled
If Fred didn’t want to eat his picture of a sausage
Then it was safe

Safe to be a picture
Of a Sausage
And never be eaten

Then Martin felt sad again
For his little picture
Was alone in the world

What would become of it?
Would it be happy?
Why couldn’t it be like other pictures?

Because it wasn’t really real, Martin thought
Which was worse than nearly real
At least Fred wanted to eat yesterday’s picture

How bad, thought Martin, could he make his picture before it became real?
So he set to work
To make the realest picture in the world

Part 3. Something and Not Nothing

Fred, come quick
One last drawing, pleeeeease!
This time he showed Fred a messy smudge on a piece of paper

Where is the sausage, asked Fred?
Not telling, said Martin
So, what is it, asked Martin?

It’s a rubbed out sausage, said Fred
How did you know, asked Martin?
Because I think I can still see it

So, Martin thought, what it is
Is like what it was
But different

I’m hungry said Fred!
This made Martin smile
He had rubbed out his sausage and it didn’t matter

It was a rubbed out sausage?
And it was still real
And it was his

Martin’s invisible sausage made
Fred feel hungry
And Martin felt happy

Martin didn’t need his picture
To be real
To make Fred hungry

He thought…
But he needed Fred hungry
To make his picture real

And to be really real
The picture must not
Be nearly real

It must be sort of real
Near enough to
To be real enough as

And to be just that
Was to be something
Something and not nothing

Enough like something
To be unlike something else
Pictures were very clever indeed

Tom Palin, 2017

Saturday, 22 July 2017

The In(S)ignificant Detail: The Paintings of Richard Baker

Richard Baker’s paintings present the viewer with motifs drawn of quotidian objects – chairs, tables, shelves, a single clipboard, a cupboard, a white shirt, a TV screen – motifs that, in themselves and in painted form, provide an appearance of the familiar, or at least of the recognisable in a nominal sense. However, in the presence of that which is recognised, recognisability tends, more often than not, to dissolve a work in favour of mere association. Yet, Baker’s paintings remain notably in attendance. By this I mean to suggest that behind the concession to pictorial realism (the sheen of a tubular steel frame, the grain of a wooden surface, the effect of gravity on hanging wires etc.), sits a drawn arrangement that, in the deliberation of its placement, attests to a distinct and consistent sensibility. 

This sensibility is most evident not in the choice of subject matter per se, but in its treatment—treatment that, at its best, strips the seen subject of all but its most telling properties in the service of a precisely ordered arrangement of forms, colours and tones. Many of the more recent works are small – under 30 cm in any direction (with the older works generally two to three times larger) – which assists in drawing attention to what Robert Frost thought of as the (in)significant detail (consider the distinct hue of a shirt collar or the irregular reflection on a metal surface, the disparity of size and peculiarity of shape when distance collapses through overlapping and unusual spatial alignments). Still, Baker is no slave to the lens – though photography clearly provides a starting point – rather, he is a careful selector of that which might best comprise a distinct and painted resolution. These works are not copies, but sit as reconstitutions.

But reconstitutions of what? Outside of common social narratives (e.g., this chair was one sat on by? Or, this clipboard was used for?), Baker’s works rarely call attention, in any obvious manner, to that which is not present, such as: metaphysical conjectures, flights of fancy, or indeed to any form of mystical possibility. Yet, to Baker, “these objects bear witness to sensuous activity, be it remembered, lived, forgotten, or mythologised.” This tells of a desire – though I remain wary of overplaying this – to situate these objects in a human space and to have them understood, at least in part, in tandem with the spaces they might in fact occupy within lives. And by occupy, I mean to suggest inhabited both actually and psychologically. Additionally, Baker acknowledges a degree of comparison – in content if not in form – between his practice and that of Annette Messager – who, in Word for Word: Text, Writings and Interviews, stresses that the artist is not a creator per se, but rather a manipulator or pointer out of things already known.

What is certain is that this is painting with a strong impulse to document what has been seen and related to—as recalled experience, photograph, drawing, then finally – over a protracted period of time – as painting. Part of Baker’s skill – particularly visible in works of the past few years – lies in knowing what to withhold in order to avoid a cheap effect or an easy resolution. This avoidance comes in two parts: firstly, in editing photographic material for use, and, secondly, in fine-tuning painted surfaces through delicate glazing and reworking. The result of this labour is not that the end result is overly academic, stripped of interest, or made deliberately obscure in accordance with an over-determined aesthetic. Merely, that Baker’s realism goes so far and, in an effort to maintain the integrity and presence of the painted object, goes no further. And of the human relations Baker alludes to? They remain withheld in perpetuity, as seems most fitting. 

Of his influences: there is a clear indebtedness to modernism and, in particular, to dominant architectural and design tendencies: from the Bauhaus of the early 1920s to the Brutalism of the 1950s through to the 1970s. This is most apparent in an emphasis on clean lines, orderly composition, the employment of an uncompromising palette – muted colours offset with grey, black and white – and a preference for minimal, non-adorned objects. There is a debt, also, to Edward Hopper, and to Luc Tuymans: the former discernible in the loaded, somewhat stagey atmosphere of the earlier works, and the latter in his employment of tints, and in a recent tendency to leave the brush mark open (for it not merely to describe) in the service of accessing techniques and processes. In a sense, the time involved in the making of these works – months at least – provides an intriguing counterpoint to Baker’s unwavering preference for depicting objects in stasis.

These objects he sees as, “dislocated from their conventional domestic settings”, which could be seen to provide a necessary critical distance from the material to hand, and even act to disavow otherwise sentimental yearnings for the familiar and the homely—the ‘once was’ appears displaced by the ‘might have been’ and the ‘probably wasn’t’. Yet this is as far as such projections go. Aspirational attachments, perhaps-accurate recollections and spatial juxtapositions provide a framework for a rich and progressively innovative practice. From here, Baker permits himself a freedom to explore what it is that painting does. And within this practice painting does rather a lot. In particular, it structures, reveals, limits and exceeds in respect of the vernacular of contemporary forms of pictorial realism.

To conclude: a careful consideration of Baker’s works over a period of several years points to a strengthening of clearly locatable concerns – some of which I have attempted to describe and account for here – and to a gradual distancing from what, within a domestic and urban setting, might be considered an approximation of the picturesque, if in a rather austere form. Pondering what lies ahead, I feel obliged to speculate as to whether Baker will continue to look for various and meaningful objects to paint or, if he chooses, revisit his growing arsenal of increasingly singular and centred motifs, so as to fine-tune, reorder and, in so doing, see yet more? Within such speculation lies not only a question of the direction and distinction of one painter’s creative journey and choices, but also a bigger question as to painting’s propensity to comment on an external world, or else rest replete within the borders of its own mode of being.

Tom Palin, 2017

A Room of One's Own (Exhibition Review)

This small, unexpectedly powerful exhibition of works (mostly paintings from the Williamson’s collection) draws its title from an essay by Virginia Woolf. All works have been purchased or donated between 1913 and 2015. Initially, a large painting by Richard Young startled me. Large Interior – a composite oil painting comprising four panels that together make an approximate square – glowed in a Sickertesque manner. Subdued pinks and a dirty yellow-green came first, then the recognition of a chair set back in the top left and an old fireplace surrounded by a host of chaotically placed books and other objects piled towards the corner of a cluttered room.

After a while I noticed a painting within a painting: sitting atop of the fireplace and barely distinguishable from the surrounding walls. The mood is dusty, poignant in an underplayed way, but nevertheless loaded with a sense of what has been. It reminded me of lines from a poem, The New House, by Edward Thomas.

All was foretold me; naught
Could I foresee;
But I learned how the wind would sound
After these things should be

Young’s ability to destabilise a composition in a controlled manner through subtle angular juxtapositions and intersections, combined with an enjoyment of muted colour and a truncated tonal range, draw heavily from the lessons of Sickert. And yet, irrespective of origin or influence, the painting broods. Look hard and there is an image of a face, presumably a photograph of a loved one. Nearby, scrawled on a piece of sheet music is the word 'Requium.

Oddly, but perhaps through necessity (presumably the work is too large to move), Thomas Sydney Cooper’s monumental Waterloo, in the region of 13 x 10 feet (though this is probably an underestimate) retains centre stage in an exhibition of 20 intimate interiors. Included, are two paintings by Vanessa Bell (Virginia Woolf’s sister): Interior with Duncan Grant and Interior with a House Maid. Both carry with them a pronounced feel for the air that circulates, or else stagnates, within a room. More than frozen moments, these paintings seem more about observance—the act of seeing and subsequently reconstructing the moment. With this comes an air of privilege, certainly in terms of the relative comfort of the settings, but more so in respect of the position of the absent watcher/painter permitted to take all of this in.

Other highlights from the exhibition include the deceptively simple Interior by Ethel Martin Frimston, which in spite of its subject matter (window, table, flowers, mirror) retains a considerable freshness, perhaps to do with the fluidity of her technique and the skill with which paint has been applied in the service of a well-composed picture. Next to this, Thomas Burke’s From My Study Window depicts a well-dressed woman looking through a large, heavily framed window towards the buildings opposite. It is rather eerie and to somewhat reminiscent of Freud’s early work, Interior at Paddington, painted a decade later. Though the work seems technically a little awkward – strange cropping and a rather dry use of paint – it nevertheless commands attention. The more I looked the more I liked. There is a familiarity with many of these works, which is no doubt central to the concept of the exhibition, and to its success.

William Turner’s The Night Before the Cup Tie shows a middle aged to elderly woman ironing a football kit in a rather humble kitchen sink-like setting. A sense of care, and of an absorption in a meaningful task, permeates the work. Philip Wilson Steer’s School Girl Standing by a Door is incredibly present. Sharp, crisp and fluid, in spite of its gloom, there are strong reminders of the artist’s debt to Manet and Whistler. Of the more recent contributions, Anniversary by David Pugh Evans, An Empty Room and an Old Belief by Peter Bibby and Hallway by Mavis Blackburn are particularly notable, attesting in various ways to a room’s capacity to both reflect and determine the nature of that which takes place within its confines.

In all, this is impressive display of intimate, quotidian spaces. Sickert’s influence looms large, as indeed it did over British painting for two thirds of the twentieth century, until Hockney and company set out to cheer it up. Still, for those willing to lend this grouping of quiet works their time,and to seek out something less immediate, there are surprising rewards to be found.
The exhibition runs until November 20th.

Tom Palin, 2016

Every Story Tells A Picture – Martin’s Sausage: From Recollections of Early Childhood

The text is an account, in 39 tercets (over 3 sections), of a fictionalised incident in the life of the German philosopher, Martin Heidegge...