They say, 'You can't teach an old dog new tricks', well I did. I taught our old dog to jump onto a foot stool and then onto the sofa. I know it's not quite Cirque d' Soleil but believe me for him it's mightily impressive. He's a stubborn old dog, one might even say he views the world with a somewhat jaundiced eye, I've even noticed a slight cynical tilt of the head when confronted with a new trick. So the foot stool episode marks a small victory in a long war of attrition. But in the old dog I see something of myself and what I see is a certain cynicism towards the tricks of art.
Many years ago one of my tutors, David Smith (not the sculptor, I'm not that old), revealed a simple truth that still haunts me to this day and the truth was this. All art is smoke and mirrors, it's all an illusion, a conjuring trick and the qualities we choose to accept today are not eternal truths merely accepted prejudices, taste in other words. The pictorial devices we employ today may well turn out to be the cliches of tomorrow. The hierarchy of values we construct, discuss and generally abide by may well be seen to be wholly wrong. As I get older I seem to find it all too easy to categorize art into already well established boxes and with that comes the cynicism of the old dog. I kind of understand why the critics love outsider art where rules are happily broken and new and unusual forms emerge and clash with abandon, in other words when taste is subverted.
But it's a tough call to step outside of the taste of your times especially when your times are forgiving, inclusive and accepting of transgression. The thing is almost anything and everything is possible (provided it doesn't involve Prophets), and yet on the whole we conform. I wonder why that is? I have no answers but that tutorial forty years ago still resonates with me today and at the core of most of the art I do lies one word, freedom and I think David Smith gave me that.
Anyway thank you to our new model, Roger who without knowing transgressed one of the cardinal rules normally employed. He kept his glasses on and ne'er a word was spoken, in fact I heard a few murmurings of approval whereas when such an act was mooted and then carried out by the brave Fiona, there was an outcry. It just shows how easy it is to break the rules when you don't know there are rules.
Paintings and drawings by Chris, Hadyn, Ivan, Patrick, Sandra, Steven, Sue D-Y, Sue, Tom, Tony and featured artist Russell.
How good does it feel to be back in the studio, renewing the pleasurable struggle with paint, light and model. Little visible evidence of New Year resolution at the off, but jaded palettes were soon refreshed, actually and metaphorically, by our very own Fiona, who appeared not to have even looked at a mince pie over the festive season. On my side of the easel, a good long walk felt more appropriate, but, by the end of the day I was every bit as tired as having walked to Redbrick from home in North Yorkshire. Fortunately, I didn’t have to walk back as my wife remembered to collect me, and we scurried over the Vale of York to a waiting casserole and our plump armchairs in front of woodstove and television. And that was the moment when the day really took off.
Fiona, would have had to have eaten all of, and I do mean all of the pies to have been considered for the part of seventeenth cherub in any of Peter Paul Rubens’ colossal kaleidoscopes of allegorical excess. Waldemar Januszczak’s BBC2 profile of the great Flemish artist and his work was itself a minor masterpiece; an example to the world of how to engage the masses in art and to hold their attention forever (unfortunately, they were all watching “Britain’s got the Apprentice Factor”). I cannot remember laughing, crying, snorting and cheering more at a factual television programme since Margaret Thatcher left Downing Street.
Of course, I have a particular interest in painting naked ladies (and gentlemen), and had spent the day doing exactly that, but nothing can prepare you for the avalanche of humanity which is Rubens’ work; the scale, the prodigious output, the power, the colour and, particularly, the inventiveness. He clearly used models, as his several wives’ presence in many paintings testifies, but no model could adopt and hold the poses required for his cast of tortured thousands, all of whom are executed in the most complete and accurate detail. These paintings have a sense of continuity, despite their outrageous camp; they feel like stopped frames from an epic movie, and you long to see what happened next.
The camera crew and directors bring the work into your home in the most thorough and natural manner, and yet you are enabled to see detail which would be physically impossible in the flesh, given the vast scale. However, my greatest thanks go to Waldemar Januszczak; all the justification required for Polish immigration, to my mind. Here is a man who looks and speaks like us plebs, appears to be totally unaware of the arts presentation conventions, and is infectiously enthusiastic and knowledgeable about his subject. He was happy to confess that he would easily have got a part in one of Rubens’ epics, and you can picture him, in leather and silk, swashing his buckle through a sea of wobbly flesh, before necking six pints and a kebab on the way home. Great stuff Waldemar; keep it coming son.
I can’t imagine what W.J. would make of our efforts on Saturday. Looking back now, through the filter of Rubens’ work, even making all of the appropriate allowances, it is difficult not to feel ineffectual, but I suspect that he has long since mastered the art of historical perspective, and would be commensurately supportive. It seems to me, however, that Tom has more than a foothold on the upper slopes of artistic achievement, but the rest of us are gazing at a mountain which we will not climb. There is no shame in this, and we should enjoy our occasional minor successes. The making of very large, complex figurative paintings, in the manner of Rubens, is way out of fashion, but perhaps we could jointly tackle ”Nicholas Clegg in the Wilderness”, with Tom as Maestro and we, his trusty assistants; bags I the severed balls.
The gallery is now posted, and I am able to test my memory against the actuality. The first thing that strikes me is the general confidence; there are no tentative efforts amongst a majority of strongly- painted portraits and figures. I see nothing to change my earlier, sweeping judgement but have to applaud everyone for attacking that mountain. I particularly like Jean’s simple statement, rendered intriguing by the diminishing proportions, and the two mysterious heads from Jackie and Eva. The optimistic yellow in Dick and Sue’s pieces is very welcome in the depths of winter but both are trumped by the full palette of sunshine colours in Rita’s delightful little painting. I was able to observe the development of this piece throughout the day, and congratulate Rita on recognising the point to stop; it lacks nothing, in its own terms and is, at the very least, one of our minor successes.
Paintings and drawings by Catherine, Dick, Eva, Fiona, Gerry, Hadyn, Jackie, Jean, Russell, Sandra, Sue D-Y, Sue G, Sue, Tom (1 & 2) and selected artist Rita.