YORKSHIRE DAY HOODOO STRIKES AGAIN by Russell Lumb
Two years ago, on Yorkshire Day, the lovely Jannine was reduced to a limp, seated pose as the proximity of Tom’s and Tony’s bare knees overcame her normally ironclad constitution, and yesterday, the heavily-pregnant Stephanie was forced to throw in the towel (without the customary hot water) as the offending patellas were given their annual airing in celebration of our wonderful county. Heaven knows what might have happened if the string vests had also been displayed?
The general concern with Stephanie’s wellbeing was somewhat short-lived for the male members, however, as Tom announced that he would take over the pose. Steven made an early exit claiming that he had to feed the neighbours’ cat, whilst Matti was clearly aghast that he might be required to pay for this opportunity to study our mentor in greater detail. I have to confess that my own continued presence resulted from loyalty overcoming jet-lag which almost got the better of me when Stephanie resigned. The girls’, undisguised delight at this turn of events, was also short-lived, however, as Tom took his seat without uncovering any more than the aforementioned knees. Disappointment and relief ebbed and flowed in equal measure around the studio.
I had only made a very loose start to my intended portrait of Stephanie, and so was able to morph her elfin head into Tom’s more substantial features, rather than make a fresh start. The loosening effect of the false start, after my month-long absence from Redbrick, appeared to be beneficial as the sketchy base, completed by lunchtime, showed some promise; the painting complies with Tom’s dictum stating that the second overpainting usually hits the spot; Tom over Stephanie, over Rachel. The promise may remain unfulfilled however, as I decided that I must return home before falling asleep. Tom thoughtfully took photographs of Stephanie from each viewpoint to allow completion, but I really need one of him to finish my painting; perhaps I can do it from one of the self- portraits on his website?
Having departed after lunch, I now await the gallery posting to make any comment on the day’s final output, but it gives me the opportunity to relate some of my summer art experience, beginning with Tom’s retrospective at Huddersfield Art Gallery; if, by any chance you have not visited the show yet, do it as soon as possible to allow maximum opportunity to repeat the experience and marvel at our amazing good fortune in his acquaintance.
I do not know Sarah Lucas and cannot therefore make any insightful comment on her work at the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, but I have to say that it appears to be a rare opportunity wasted. Her “fag in every orifice” oeuvre may have been mildly amusing and even shocking originally but is now tired and juvenile, in common with much of the work throughout the biggest art show in Europe. However, there is much to be admired, enjoyed and amazed- by thankfully, and the setting is beyond words. Personal highlights were the Japanese and American pavilions, and our very own Sean Scully and Peter Doig in exquisite canalside palazzi; relatively small shows of grade A painting, displayed thoughtfully in the most atmospheric context. Book your tickets now for 2017 and the experience of a lifetime.
At the opposite end of the display scale is Chicago’s Art Institute and specifically Renzo Piano’s serene new wing, where the top floor gallery of twentieth century painting must be the most complete history of modern art in a single place, with jaw-dropping views of the gleaming city centre across the institute’s beautiful millennium gardens. If Venice is a selective distillation of our past, then Chicago is a plausible projection of our future. At The Institute of Contemporary Art, it was back to installation and video, with emerging artists competing to be oddball, enigmatic, disinterested, edgy and irreverent. Some succeeded in one or more but this was too soon after the modern masters down Michigan Avenue to be more than amusing. Nothing struck me as fresh or visceral.
The numerous immaculate commercial galleries in the holiday harbour towns along Lake Michigan’s Eastern shore, Saugatuck and Douglas in particular, show how to move decorative painting big time. The expensive apartments in the major North Eastern cities must all have work from these places; colourful, slick and undemanding.
Finally to Iowa City, the home of elder son Matthew and the University of Iowa School of Art and Art History, where I wangled a tour of the new Steven Holl building; from exhibited art in a beautiful piece of modern architecture in Chicago to the teaching of art in an inspirational modern building in Iowa. The setting, space, layout and facilities are hugely impressive, although the life room, for all its purpose-design, could not compare with Redbrick for atmosphere. Back in England, I now have little time to re-acclimatise before London on Tuesday and Wednesday with Bren, for The Summer Show, the BP Portrait Award and the Ruth Borchard Self-Portrait Competition, two of which feature our Tony!
The Saturday gallery is still awaited, but I have now been to London for the most intense feast of new painting. The Borchard show is both impressive and mystifying; better hung, in my opinion, than previous years, but swinging significantly from inspired to insipid, with the “winner” way off the radar. Encouraging, in the sense that anyone can be accepted and even win, although I failed to do either.
The BP Show at the National Portrait Gallery was similarly eclectic, but of a generally higher calibre and includes some beautiful work. The crowds are an unwelcome difference from the almost empty marble halls at Kings Place but the restricted space seems to magnify the quality of the painting. Again, the winner will not satisfy everyone, although a really powerful image, whilst the second-placed “Eliza” by Michael Gaskell shows how the simplest of images can occasionally transcend medium and style to convey the essence of a subject; I am certain that this skill cannot be learned but is always there, encouraging greater effort.
And so to The Royal Academy Summer Show; the one which I would choose over all others despite the critics faint praise. If you want to see almost the full breadth of painting techniques with supporting print and sculpture, then this is the place. Michael Craig-Martin’s inspired decoration of the principle rooms using his trademark ice cream colours is possibly the best thing there; the interior is hugely uplifting and how it makes the work sing! It is easy to understand the frustration of rejected artists as the varied scope of the chosen work is so wide, but it is impossible to be surly about the selection. Rather, I enjoy the vicarious thrill of the little artists hanging next to their heroes as the pomposity of the London art world is pricked, in the friendliest possible manner. If you ever doubt your involvement in art, or lose sight of your objectives, then take a day trip to Piccadilly in the summertime and recharge your batteries, as I have done, for another year.
The Saturday gallery is posted and I can now see how work progressed after my departure. It is an interesting situation where the artists know the sitter very well, and one would expect this to show in the work. Tom’s selection of Anne’s portrait is well-justified ; another very strong, graphic piece showing much greater confidence than her earlier, careful pencil work. Very minor adjustment would deliver an incontestable likeness. I know that not everyone will agree with this caveat, but likeness is clearly an objective of the drawing. Cathy’s painting is another terrific expression of Tom, again with a single weakness about the eyes, but the “baggy”, lived-in quality of the loose paintwork is as good as I have seen from her; this is an artist who knows her subject. Jane’s use of colour and application technique really delivers in a portrait which makes a strong statement about Tom without prioritising conventional likeness.
Sue’s charcoal and watercolour(?) provides a number of fine passages, particularly the dull gleam of the cranium , but Tom looks a little too perky; maybe this is how Sue sees him, and who am I to tell her otherwise? Tony’s painting demonstrates the perpetual difficulty of “live” portraiture; it is made with his customary care and attention to detail, and he knows Tom better than most, but something is adrift, and it is just as difficult to pin it down now as it will have been whilst painting. I can visualise a mash-up of Tony’s face with Sue’s cranium.
Looking at my own work, I now regret having given in to tiredness, as this seems to be an opportunity which will not be repeated. I think that the foundation is in place for an interesting record of my own personal image of Tom, but it lacks the sense of the powerful presence which lies behind the easy smile. I must finish it to exorcise the curse of Yorkshire day, if for no other reason.
Paintings and drawings by Anne (1 & 2), Cathy (1 & 2), Jane (1 & 2), Russell, Sue D-Y, Tom and Tony.