Friday, July 25, 2008

My painting XXXII

As at 25.7.08

Time for a new brush, a ritual moment which, like the advent of the new ball in a test match innings, gives hope of fresh attack. The current brush will now be pensioned off for less exacting tasks in a process of demolition that leaves it in the end stiff and splayed; and ultimately binned. It has lasted two months but now shows signs, when shaken, of only reluctantly forming a point.

There are not too many jobs a valetudinarian fine brush can do, whereas a worn bristle brush can serve out its time at the scrubbing stages as here in the underpainting (now all done). These are the brushes seen sticking out of jars and pots in every photograph of an artist's studio.

One such is at the moment resting in white spirit for another ritual, the regular Saturday application of this week's Terminal Grey to one of the plank-like canvases that I have covered serially for forty years with the mixed palette scrapings of the week. Each of these mixtures in isolation looks like a murky grey with a bias towards warm or cool according to what colours I have most used; or paradoxically, put out but not used. However dull the blend of these colours seems it gains life by association with the other greys on which it rests or under which it lies.

Terminal Grey in progress, 2008.

Quantum Poetics (to remind myself of my picture's title) is now virtually the sole source for these salvaged pigments. Until recently it has acted in consort with various portraits on the go (notably those of Jeremy Isaacs and most recently of John Boyd that for me marks the pleasant end of my career as a painter of official portraits).

Sir John Boyd, 2008, Oil on canvas.

Part of the genesis of the Terminal Grey paintings was the desire to enjoy paint in and for itself - the pleasure of matière. Since the paint is often drying it does not go on smoothly and the final accumulation of twenty one layers of colour at the bottom of each can often be crustily rutted and richly pustular (a kind of muted homage to my mentor, Frank Auerbach).

Most of these canvases belong to Massimo Valsecchi in Milan though the Arts Council owns the first group. One, mysteriously, has found its way to the Fine Arts Museum of Budapest.

Terminal Greys, oil on canvas, 122 x 20.5 cm each, 1971-92

Whatever aesthetic virtues these paintings may or may not possess they must surely merit, as green exemplifiers of prescient recycling, some Gordon Brownie points for prudent economic management.

Friday, July 18, 2008

My painting XXXI

18th July 2008

I begin to sense that my picture as it now creeps towards its eastward edge will, like a protracted game of patience, finally 'come out'. It seems to be heading for an equilibrium, a state not unlike a perpetuum mobile in music, where hidden symmetries might allow it to end without an end; capable of extension in all directions as I had hoped... an excerpt, for better or worse, of its own eternity.

If this is so it would represent for me a minor victory in that, after almost fifty years of failed attempts, I shall have transposed into a world of colour and paint what I have only been able to achieve in terms of virtually monochrome drawing.

The abstract adventure of which this is a part started within weeks of my leaving art school in the early sixties. I rented the dingy upstairs room in a humdrum terrace house in Shenley Road (Site 2 in 20 Sites n Years) where the kindly landlady, as well as giving me tea and biscuits twice a day (all for £1.50 a week), allowed me to leave the windows uncurtained.

Shenley Road in 1973 and 2007.

The first work I started there was a drawing using those dialectical materials charcoal and an eraser, that had served me for endless hours of life studies. I wish I could remember how long I spent grinding away on what seemed to me then a large piece of good paper... certainly for more than a month. The paper seemed to know better what to do than I did. Two constraints were established: firstly that erasure is as much drawing as drawing is, and secondly that rubbing out, wiping down, redrawing gives three basic tones to work with (plus the tone of the paper itself). These elements, much transformed, also rule and inform the present painting.

Language drawing, charcoal, 1964. h50cm x w75cm.

Luckily (though it did not seem so at the time) the drawing remained, like everything else on show, unsold in my first exhibition in 1965. It hangs here in the bedroom still, the first thing I see every morning and the last thing I see each night. I miss it when it leaves the house to become part of a touring show.

Friday, July 11, 2008

My painting XXX

As at 11.7.08

Now back to more normal studio life, after long operatic immersion during which I had more occasion for sitting and staring at my painting than physically getting on with it. That is a necessary part of the job, just looking and surmising: yet it is a long way from theory to practise, even though the distance between chair and picture is only a few steps. Nerve can fail in that gap.

Thus as soon as I start to make marks I reenter the realm of the image and my intentions are subject to the tug and push, the twist and bend, of its gravitational influences. Although the painting inhabits only two dimensions the masses and intervals of shape and space behave as if they have a three dimensional existence. Attempts to go in this or that direction are urged off course and charmed away from planned paths, as dancers in a ballroom make and are made by the dance.

So really I am back in The Magic Flute, where the beasts must yield to Tamino's piping and the brutish slaves of Monostatos, unable to resist the chimes of Papageno's bells, move to their music. I should have known that art after all is all one thing.

Friday, July 04, 2008

My painting XXIX + The Magic Flute

The Magic Flute is now afloat in Holland Park. Even the accident prone first night was well received and moderately well reviewed: one or two critics went so far as to mention the design. Opera deals in magnified emotion both on and off stage. Behind the scenes, in rehearsasl room and workshop, blunder and wonder alternate with alarming rapidity. In the final few days containable crisis turns to panic: my own nightmare was to be left with two huge and prominent sections of platform which had been inattentively miscrafted at the scenery store. I got them both moved to a makeshift open air studio by the auditorium and sent for tins of colour.

This was my Charlton Heston moment, straight from The Agony and the Ecstasy, working at speed with brushes unfamiliarly large and visited from time to time by Simon Callow (in the role of Pope Julius II) bringing coffee in cardboard cups.

I finished the second of the nine foot long sections just as the orchestra were taking their places for the public dress rehearsal. A lot of earlier problems with costume and set had been solved by Billie Achilleos whom I met a year before at her graduate show at Wimbledon College of Art where I offered her the work experience as helper and gofer. Luckily she revealed all kind of talent and ingenuity and was properly designated Assistant Designer by the time the programme was printed.

Here is her photo of the initial Act One set and of myself and Simon after the harrowing first night - guess which one of these two is an actor. The image should have included our conductor Jane Glover who made sure that whatever went wrong on stage we were never without the full riches of Mozart's miraculous score.

My Painting

The comments above explain why my picture has not moved on very much. This is the current state of play. I am hoping for a quiet summer of consolidation in good light, with few phone calls and cricket on the radio.

Beginning of July 2008.