What do you do when you are not working?

Curator and writer Douglas Dreishpoon from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo in the US has got me thinking.
Trace this back to my friend Isin, whose Masters/ PHD in Curatorship I have been proof reading, and the reason I have been paying more attention to curators and to what exactly it is that they do. He asked several artists in a panel discussion to talk about the above question: what do you do when you are not working? This being obfuscatory curatorspeak, turned into something about “parallel practices”. I can see brilliant avoidance speak here. So next time somebody makes a query about your “new work?” You can simply say, “well I have been pursuing my parallel practices”. Any way the participants thankfully ditched the jargon, and started to speak about everything or in Seinfeldspeak “nothing”. This included a later life discovery of gardening, another spoke about curating other artist’s shows, somebody danced! and spoke about dancing and making art, and someone close to my heart spoke about the joys of wandering, and the artist as 21st century flaneur, but being artists they also spoke about a whole lot of other things too.

Significant in this were memories of early life; and an early life spent in a family that moved around the world a lot, which of course got me thinking about my son. She also spoke about a mother who pulled her kids out of school if there was something more interesting going on, a sighting of whales, for example.

They also spoke about the hours one has to spend pushing paint around, or messing about just so that when “the flow” as they called it, happens you are there to make the most of it. People often ask me about discipline. Yes, you have to be disciplined and show up in your studio, understand how to optimize the conditions (and this is different for everyone) so that when you bobbing about and the wave comes you are there to ride it. But you also have to know when its not happening, perhaps its time to go and pursue your “parallel practices” whether that’s riding your bike, or playing with your friends. And its often in these times where you are distracted from your real work, that new stuff presents itself unbidden and sends you hurtling back into the studio.

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Posted in artists studios, cities, drawing, Uncategorized, visual arts

Picturing the shadow of the city

Picture this, on the one side of where I walk, the Bosphorus with its close and weighty passage of ships. On the other, early morning traffic tearing around a traffic island festooned with summer geraniums. Suddenly a large ornately upholstered couch appears on the walkway, and a companion chair. A trick of Ottoman wimsy, perhaps, or a carefully orchestrated photo shoot for a prime object or acquisition. The chairs appear slightly absurd surrounding by the industry of ships and the blare of traffic, but also somehow poignant as chairs so often are as we recall other chairs we have known, and perhaps more particularly the people who have sat in them. This particular duo reminds me of my paternal grandmother, and the impossibility of remaining seated in her chairs, a fact for which I was duly chastised.

Arriving at the studio, I received a poem from my studio mate Ann’s partner, Seref Hazinedar. The poem is entitled “Kaldirimlar” (pavements/sidewalks) by Necip Fazil Kisakurek (1905-1983). I had given Seref a charcoal drawing, entitled “Passage”, of commuters in Istanbul, and for him it recalled the poem which is an evokation of the city streets and the thoughts and feelings the poet experiences as he walks them. Then this week I have been proofreading the Phd preparation of a remarkable friend, Isin Onol on the theme of shadows and how they are often presented with negative connotations, our words, and images being littered with the need to bring things out of darkness into “sharp light”. This she sees as a peculiarly western obsession, and she cites many examples of Eastern cultures, particularly, Japan where instead, shadow and darkness are valued, and used as a medium of true revelation. Interestingly enough, the upcoming Venice Biennale is entitled Illuminations. All fascinating stuff, and it got me thinking about my own preoccupations with vagueness, perhaps an attempt to restore a charged mystery to the world.

I awake in the city to my favourite kind of morning light on the Bosphorus, ships passing through a bewitched haze of summery mist.

Leaving this quietude my thoughts return to this city, and the sharp edged tilt of its race into some future. I like what John Cage has to say, “It is only irritating to think one would like to be somewhere else. Here we are now.”
But on every bus shelter now, in the city there is an image of a high rise apartment complex and shopping mall, gleaming behind the picture of a happy couple or family, and so, on my commute into the city, buildings keep slamming up into the sky. In 21st century cities like Istanbul where the developers scarcely breathe in their charge towards “progress”, the personal lived experience of the city is increasingly denied as is any creative evolution of living space, all in the interests of conformity. To question this so called “progress”, might even be considered unpatriotic. Along with this systemic dehumanisation of the city, is the denial of the ordinary person’s lived experience of the city; feelings as expressed in Kisakurek’s poem are disregarded. As the city is repeatedly dug up and plastered over, so to is memory. Perhaps painting the city has the capacity to restore humanity to the city in the eye and heart of the viewer, a painting in its choreography between eye, hand and heart may reawaken some of those thoughts and feelings that have been denied; paintings that emerge as a response and celebration of the quotidian life in the city, not the sentimental backdrop that is carefully preserved for the benefit of the tourists, or manicured for the latest advert for cleverly branded “white goods”.

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Dreaming with the giantesses of the Acropolis

Still dreaming with the giantesses on the Acropolis. In the vast, contemporary space of the New Acropolis Museum, the Charyatids, now freed and 12 feet tall, powerfully transmit their magic for all time. What is it about their marble contours softened by wind and dust, their beautiful forms, there to be completed by our imaginations that still stir us to reverie, filter into our subconcious and invade our dreams.

In Greece, I rediscover sacred geomety in the ancient ruins of the Acropolis and then again, in the New Acropolis Museum, a suitably majestic, grandly simple and pristine space impossibly housing the giants of Greek antiquity. And yet there is somehow an intimacy that allows one to rub shoulders with Apollo and Aphrodite or follow the scuff and ruin of the marble in the Equestrian Frieze. From the Erechtheum, modern Athens appears framed by its ancient history, so many forms of bits of white paper, crumpled, shaded in white.
At Delphi the world is renewed in all her light and mystery, restored by these ancient temples and remnants, an invitation into their silence and quiet grandeur. Walking Mycenae rock against rock; the long triangular slope of the opposing hillside and curving texture of olive and orange grove complete the equation. In my sketchbooks, how to capture line and light and colour so sprung from earth and sky and sea; how each edifice, in ruin holds its quiet and sure weight in pillar and post. Perhaps what the late British painter, David Bomberg called “the spirit in the mass”.

Ryszard Kapuscinski’s “Travels with Herodotus” accompanies me on this journey; he writes of provincialism, not only of space but also of time, and how his own travels as a journalist, with Herodotus’ Histories, gave him not only the breadth of perspective of space as he traversed continents, but also, of time, as he lived through the events and story of thousands of years ago.

Faced with Demeter in the Archeology Museum, I feel the reverberations of this ancient story. Each funerary stele whispers the intimacies of death and passage. Birds alight from the marble singing into the silence, and later at Mycenae there is a robin that will not be disturbed from her perch, even by the vigorous efforts of young Tem.

On the platform at Larissa Station, as we wait to depart Athens, there stands a woman silhouetted in the morning light, boots, black coat, with a suitcase. Is the suitcase part of the iconography of being Greek? Of migration, travel? I see it sometimes in artists’ works in galleries around Athens. What if Aphrodite had a suitcase? As she makes her appearance in my notebooks, she has.

back in the studio, at first I avoid my Bosphorous walk and city commute, not wanting anything to impinge on the silence of my memories. On the easel is a canvas begun sometime before. A vague evokation in turpsy paint and winter light, a group of fishermen standing aloft, caught under the veil of their nets.
Enter left, Aphrodite with a suitcase, soon to be joined by her fellows, refugees, travellers, exiles, emigres all on the move, momentarily held.

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Shifting shapes on the Bosphorous

Its been a while since I’ve been here. Most days find me walking next to the Bosphorous or working in my new garden studio. That sounds rather too “World of Interiors” for this particular space which lies somewhere between a makeshift construction and an excavation. It is in “Potter’s Street” which is particularly apt since I share the studio with a potter. Twenty or thirty years ago another potter lived and worked here and his hardy and ruggedly thrown pots scatter the garden. When we arrived the garden had been completely neglected; olive, quince and pomegranate trees grew bravely on amongst the builder’s rubble. Part of the garden used to house chickens, so the potter’s daughters tell us. Many walks to and from the studio later, and the garden is emerging revealing a Bay tree, while the quince tree is a sort of plumb line to the view from my studio window.
The best days are when I arrive at the studio invigorated from my walk, my head full of fluttering birds.
The paintings that finally settle on those days are surprising.
“Spun Ship” was such a painting.

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Walkabout in Istanbul

"Wave" Oil on canvas 120 x 120 cmTomorrow I conduct a “walkabout” of my exhibition “Ships and Dreams” currently showing at Arnavutkoy Gallery in Arnavutkoy, Istanbul. Where I come from it is fairly common practice to return to your exhibition after its opening, at a designated time to meet with visitors and to talk about the work on show. But here, I received an email asking “what is a walkabout?” I was reminded that, beyond its more mundane British derived meaning, it holds far greater significance for the Aborigines in Australia. And a day later, whilst reading in the brilliant “The Vintage Book of Walking” I came across Bruce Chatwin:

“The man who went” Walkabout” was making a ritual journey. He trod in the footprints of his Ancestor.” “By singing the world into existence, the Ancestors had been poets in the original sense of poesis, meaning “creation” .
Interestingly this passage from Chatwin’s Songlines starts with a reference to Islam, more specifically the Sufi orders:
“..siyahat or “errance”- the action or rhythm of walking -was used as a technique for dissolving the attachments of the world and allowing men to lose themselves in God. By spending his whole life walking and singing his Ancestor’s songline, a man eventually became the track, the Ancestor and the song…

With that, I have a walk to do, from home to studio, along the Bosphoros. Sometimes I stop mid stride take out a notebook draw a few lines, sometimes not. At the studio I’ll spend some hours moving paint around, so that when inspiration arrives I am there to catch the wave.

Yesterday at the metro two men in dark suits, one dandelion haired, speaking a language I could not identify. On the metro a young women in green, a harpist shuffles her music, an autumn shower of note; finally reaching composure but she is still not quite with us, deep in her songlines.

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In Praise of beauty: Susan Sontag on Howard Hodgkin’s paintings

Revisiting my art books scattered in various homes across the land, I come across this gem from Susan Sontag on the Venice paintings of Howard Hodgkin, and it immediately takes me back to Istanbul:

Venice once again. Imagining the imagined. When you want to see Venice again, and you have seen it many times, rising out of the sea, in winter perhaps, semi-deserted, what you appreciate is that it will not have changed at all.
Or you stand at the railing of the boat going up the Nile, a day’s journey from Luxor, and it’s sunset. You’re just looking. There are no words you are impelled to write down; you dont make a sketch or take a photograph.You look, and sometimes your eyes feel tired, and you look again, and you feel saturated, and happy and terribly anxious.
There is a price to be paid for stubbornly continuing to make love with one’s eyes to these famous tourist-weary old places. For not letting go of ruined grandeur, of the imperative of bliss. For continuing to work on behalf of, in praise of beauty. It’s not that one hasn’t noticed that this is an activity which people rather condescend to now.
Indeed, one might spend a lifetime apologising for having found so many ways of acceeding to ecstasy.

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Tinted windows

I had the completely novel experience of viewing my new studio from the waters of the Bosphoros. I remember reading somewhere in Orhan Pamuk that being able to view where one lives from the water, must change the perception of the inhabitants of the city in some way. And so there it was a speck of texture on a travelling hillside, close to the antway of the coastal road. And once there in its busy swirl, I am at eyelevel with the Bosphoros and its passengers. A boat journey from the mouth of the Black Sea; taking a sweet tea next to its waters; a stones throw from my home. And I wonder how this new place will change me and my work.

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To pass on wonder

I’ve been thinking a lot about my teachers lately, and especially those who taught me art at university.  I arrived in my first year surrounded by fellow students who had all studied art at school. As it turned out, this was something of an advantage. I was raw and up for it. But I struggled, smudging my way through pencil drawings of still life, being flummoxed by cross hatching, battling with proportion, flawed by life drawing but loving art history as it was idiosyncratically presented by each of our lecturers- one who loved the Renaissance and “extremely attenuated limbs”, another who idolised Rauschenberg and the Abstract Expressionists, and the late Dick Leigh who loved Monet, Matisse, Bonnard;  painters who he spoke of with a gentle passion that could only be contagious. For still life I kept a plate of mussels in our digs fridge for a month or two, as I wrestled with paint and colour. But Dick lLeigh pronounced them “too visceral”.  I needed to use my head more.  I painted the Maritzburg station, first charcoal drawings in situ, then a muted atmospheric study and then for my exam a large expressionist slashing evokation, that the Rauschenberg fan pronounced as “visual diorhoea” but in the end it’s not these comments that remain but rather just a few that illuminated a pathway.  After endless drawings of bottles, glasses, vases trying to find cylinders, spheres, cones, there came a still life class where Dick Leigh changed the imperative, and for me, for good. “Draw the strangeness of things, he said. If it bulges, make it bulge. Find the strange shapes of light and shadow.” Suddenly it wasn’t about proportion and ideal form;  it was all about perception.

Then there were sketchbooks we were supposed to fill. One day Dick Leigh came into my cubicle and I had put up some small colour acrylic studies of interiors of our digs, studies for paintings. “But those are drawings!” he said, and he loved them. Then I understood that a sketchbook was where I could develop my own language, in any medium, in any format.

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The blank page

I have moved from blogger to wordpress. It is part of that need for a fresh canvas, a white sheet of paper, the blank page. It coincides incidentally with a studio clear out. Unlike Francis Bacon  or Frank Auerbach whose studios in their accumulated layers, become works of art in themselves, I have the need every now and then to sweep out, reorder, organize, scrape off, clean up.  At the moment I seem destined to tread lightly, and in my studio also. It is a gift, a room of my own, a quiet space in the cacophany of this city, Istanbul but it is just for now.

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Robert Hodgins, a great South African painter and a teacher to many painters, curators, plumbers, bankers, died recently. He was eighty nine. I was never fortunate enough to meet Robert Hodgins but my early encounters with his work were memorable. There was a lucidity of colour, coupled to an extraordinary wit and playfulness. And in his paintings, only just emerging out of the paint, were a whole cast of characters grimly evoking South Africa’s politicians, powermongers and socialites of the 80’s and 90’s. In paint he conjured up a farcical world, hinting at its undoing. I watched Cabaret with Liza Minelli recently; perhaps there was something similar in his paintings; an often colour saturated celebration but then underlined in menace.

Robert Hodgins once compared painting to surfing; you have to spend a lot of time out there just bobbing about; but you have to be ready to catch the wave when it comes…
I was teaching a young cohort of surfers at the time, and I quoted him often, so I wrote to Robert Hodgins telling him about my painter surfer students. He generously wrote back- I have the letter, written in pencil, posted from an address in the Karoo somewhere, just tell them to remember that they have to get their feet wet first.

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