Frank Auerbach Reclining Head of Julia, 2011 indian ink on paper 57.8 x 75.6 cm
"To put down an ideogram of a table so that people will recognize it as a table is not the work of a painter, but to sense it for a moment as a magic carpet with a leg hanging down at each corner is the beginning of a painter's imagination."
Wriggle Room by Tom Wood
In 2015 there will be a Frank Auerbach retrospective at the Tate Gallery, for me this is momentous news, for my generation of artists, Auerbach was and is the real deal. As the Guardian newspaper describes him, he is 'the painter's painter' and whilst I have never wanted to emulate his work I have envied his single minded sincerity and industry, nothing has stood in the way of his pursuit of understanding and making paintings. As fashions have changed and the market has moved onto bigger and bigger monumental works sometimes on an industrial scale, Auerbach has had none of it, no shortcuts, no tricks, no flirtation with new materials, no self publicity, just domestic scale works in thick oil paint recording the people and scenes around him. There have been many imitators but none have captured the relentless sincerity and singularity of his vision. The works are not beautiful, some are downright ugly with great nasty accretions of black paint, the peaks and troughs appearing angry and random and yet within these works lies an honest struggle to use oil paint in all it's greasy, unco-operative slipperiness as the vehicle for some elemental truths. More than anything Auerbach speaks of time passing, each painting records a passage of time in whch the artist and the model have sat in a room colluding and trusting one another in the search for the elusive meaning of what it means to just be alive, to share this world with someone else, to breathe air together, to drift in the bubble of ones own thoughts only to be periodically dragged back into the reality of that space at that time. They are paintings that stand as signifiers of life in all it's visceral messiness.
The paintings are almost aggresively there, the first thing you notice is the great volume of paint, a ridiculous amount of paint to record something so fragile and tenuous as the presence of two people in a room. But the paint is not important, it's just an accretion, the by-product of the effort of looking and understanding. This is where imitators get it wrong, they see the paint and not the effort, their thick paint is a facile sign denoting effort without actual real industry. To see Auerbach at his clearest I think we need to study the drawings, here we can often see a patina of earlier abandoned efforts supporting calligraphic ciphers maybe denoting a nose or a mouth, these black scribbles occasionally coalesce into a recognisable face but at other times they never quite make it. I like these drawings best where the marks appear to have gone rogue, wriggled into their own territory, decided it's more fun to wander than stick to the plan. The drawings as the quote above suggests are the painter exerting his imagination, I desperately wish I had that skill, that confidence, that sangfroid which said, what the hell, lets dawdle awhile.
The adherence to truth when confronted by the real presence of a person is almost overwhelming, all those facts there for the recording, how can one turn away, it's seemingly impossible, perverse almost. But for me at least the truth lies elsewhere, it lies within. Each drawing is reminiscent of the garbled platitudes typical of when one person meets another. In the everyday world we have social codes to mediate these meetings, in the art room we evolve codes based on skills, knowledge, maybe precedent or even pleasure. I've written about the pleasure principle before, the glide of a pencil, the flow of a wet brush etc. Precedent is the stuff we've done before, knowledge which we've learnt , skills, well that goes without saying, these all govern what we do in the life room. Back to Auerbach, he has his model and all the other stuff, precedent in spades etc but each time he attempts to disregard the lot and try and find something elemental, truthful, even if it requires crude marks and hour upon hour of apparently fruitless scrawling, scratching and rubbing out. Eventually a few marks emerge that seem to summarize the person, or the time or the mood or the light something real and true is caught and the drawing ends. We can't all do it and probably nor should we but as a mere spectator I find it thrilling that in this increasingly vacuous age there is still someone so attached to the fundamental nature of art that nothing will stop them making it. When the Auerbach circus arrives , as no doubt it will, tickets will be bought, arts correspondents will pontificate, marketing people will gear up, but just remember that underneath all that dross is the art, the real deal, a man who has devoted his life to showing us how paint and charcoal can still tell us something perceptive and moving about the simple act of sharing time and space with someone else, ignore the thick paint it's not important, look at the life, the endeavour, the desire, the profound simple truth embodied in each and every work.
Paintings and drawings by Dick, Ian, Roger, Sandra, Steven, Sue D-Y, Sue, Tom and Tony
There are countless dreadful things happening around the world which really deserve our attention, but I feel obliged to take this, possibly final opportunity to comment before the impending Scottish Independence Referendum. I have a tenuous link between this huge public issue and my own relationship with Redbrick, which I hope will get me past the censor; more of that later.
I suspect that not many eligible Scottish voters read this blog, but I have little to say to them which has not already been repeated ad nauseum by the “no” campaign, save to wonder again why the English have been excluded from this process? So long as the probability remains strongly with the continuation of the Union, then we can enjoy the “debate” from outside the tent, and, with respect to the televised Salmond/Darling confrontations, from outside the country, although I hear that we are to be allowed to witness the next instalment. If, however, there is a “yes” majority, then we will have been shafted by the most incompetent governmental bungle of all time. Even with a “no” majority, the Scot’s win-win position will reward their civilised insurrection with greater autonomy.
I have no particular objection to “devo-max”, and one can hardly accuse the Scots of opportunism; they have steadfastly refused to support the Tories and can shortly expect to have three times their number of Conservative MPs in the Panda enclosure at Edinburgh Zoo. The Scots know on which side of the border their confectionery is battered, but they also know what their departure would mean for the English regions; without Scottish votes, Westminster could be blue for a long time. It is ironic that the success of the SNP has also weakened the Opposition and strengthened the metropolitan elite. And this is where the problem, and the solution, for Scotland and the regions is to be found, not in distasteful self-interest but in regional solidarity.
The Scots know where they stand, but the shortfall in opposition to unfair, London-centric funding, welfare and education, is in the English Shires, where the Tory government is supported by “aspirational” voters who’s faith is not rewarded regionally. This is not a party-political jibe, but a grade A fact obvious to anyone who visits the capital and marvels at the sheer quality and scale of the infrastructure. OK, Londoners moan about everything, and Japan, Germany and now most of the Far East are showing us how to do things, but it is clear that the English regions are subsidising metropolitan advantage way beyond the justifiable; witness the pathetic programme for HS2 whilst Crossrail is close to delivering another, state-of-the-art transport facility for London. Westminster, of whatever colour, must be made to give appropriate regard to the regions, and not just Scotland, where considerable autonomy already allows for local budgeting and the bones of a fairer society. This can only happen when the regional electorate, including the scots, manipulates the balance of power on a term basis. So my proposal to Scotland is to remain within the Union and, next year, to vote Labour with the English regions on the strength of appropriate manifesto undertakings, until such time as it may be necessary to remind government of these obligations once again.
My roughly parallel experience on loosening my ties with Redbrick has been similarly contentious, although self-rule was not an objective. Nor do I hanker for home rule for Yorkshire, irrespective of our outstanding successes at Olympic and Commonwealth Games, followed by the mad outpouring of regional energy around Le Tour. I imagine a fledgling Yorkshire, led by the usual, attention-seeking comedy rustics , rather than our more introspective intellectuals. Frying pans and fires.With respect to painting, my inclination, confirmed now by experience, is that joint venture is of huge importance, providing the flywheel momentum as the basis for spurts of individual creativity. The trick is to get the balance right.
Last evening, I returned to the life studio and surfed the wave of group concentration. Absence had certainly sharpened my appreciation of the positive ambience and my work has a little more natural flow in place of the recent calculated precision. Looking at the posted gallery, I also see more clearly than ever that, although this session did not produce any outstanding individual piece, the sense of “Fiona” is collectively nailed. Better Together!
Paintings and drawings by Barry, Chris, Dick, Ivan, Roger H, Roger S, Sandra, Sue, Tom, Tony and featured artist Russell.
"Life isn't about waiting for the storm to pass. Its about learning how to dance in the rain" (Vivian Greene)
The above quotation caught my eye on a card in the gift shop of Manchester Art Gallery recently. It very much embodies one of my philosophies of life, along the lines of 'just do it', so I bought it. As it happens, at last Thursday's session at Redbrick, the stalwart few of us that attended were literally "waiting for the storm to pass" and whilst we ourselves may not have been dancing, our brushes, pencils and pastel sticks were certainly skittering, jiving and doodle-bugging over our various pieces of paper to the sound of 'raindrops keep falling on my head' - literally!
But apart from the raindrops a blissful tranquility seemed to hang in the air last Thursday night, not even disturbed by the hum of a fan as there has been on previous more sultry nights. Speaking personally, this is what I love about Redbrick, for within that silence there is the richness of joint endeavour and, like a group meditation session, the sum of the whole is definitely deeper than the individual parts.
On the radio recently I heard Sir Ken Robinson, well known speaker and advisor on the arts in education, describe creativity as
"a conversation between your ambition and ability"
So, within the apparent tranquility of Redbrick I rather suspect there were a great many conversations taking place as many of us struggled to get our ability to live up to our ambition. I know I certainly was. So if a little humming noise could be heard coming from behind my easel it was me trying to 'dance' in my own personal storm of artistic ineptitude. But I guess we have all been there from time to time and one cannot appreciate the artistic highs when they happen without also succumbing to the lows.
However, certain others amongst us were certainly dancing a merry fandango and impressing greatly us with their foot-stomping, dos-e-do-ing, moonwalking, cha cha cha-ing, salsa, high kicks and effortless walzing. Featured artist Frank has certainly been hiding his life drawing talent under one of Redbrick's many rain buckets up till now and produced not one but two fine portaits. Newcomer Matthew also went for quantity, also producing two drawings but without sacrificing quality, he made a fine entry onto the Redbrick dance floor. For me, the prize for the best likeness went to Sue D-Y and the best 'back of head' portrait to Hadyn. Long may the Redbrick dance go on!
"Everyone wants happiness
No one wants pain
But you can't have a rainbow
Without a little rain"
Keep dancing guys!
by Catherine Morris
Paintings and drawings by Barry, Catherine, Frank (1&2), Hadyn, Matthew (1&2), Sandra, Sue D-Y, Sue, Tom and Tony.
......so what becomes of all the little boys, who run away from home, well the world just keeps gettin' bigger, once you get out on your own, so here's to all the little boys, the sandman takes you where, you'll be sleepin' with a pillowman, on the nickel over there.....
I love poetry and even more I love poetry with music, but I especially like poetry that I don't understand where the rhythm and timbre of the words float like smoke through my brain. The sense that something matters and I feel enveloped with deep concern but for what I'm not sure. Listen to Tom Waits and I hope you'll see just what I mean. Because I'm a visual artist I live through metaphors and some metaphors are better than others, the gruff rasp of Tom Wait's voice suggests conviction, he could sing his shopping list and I for one would be fighting back tears.
Many of the life drawings we make are metaphors, they signify values above and beyond observation, they are trying to tell us something bigger, something more personal. The journey we take as artists involves an early phase of skills acquisition, it's a tool making phase leading to the expressive, communication phase. Once in this secondary phase our personalities start to have an influence, we play and experiment testing both our knowledge and our newly acquired skills, temperament takes over. Are we adventurous or cautious, assertive or passive, imaginative or literal, think of any two personality traits and you can apply them to the work done in the life room.
The metaphorical stage comes next when the work is a cipher, a portal to something else, a desire for freedom perhaps, an emotional connection with colour maybe, the need to create order and understand structure possibly. Auerbach calls it the 'search for significance', wherein I think he means that moment when the marks on the paper gain an equivalent importance to the presence of the person in the room, their weight becomes equal. I can see in Patrick's large drawings a similar search is in progress, I think Dick by different means is striving for the same moment. Patrick is looking to express an inner energy through forceful lines and deep black marks, Dick employs accuracy as his method wherein the paint through his objective scrutiny is transmuted into the creases and folds of the skin before him.
Roger uses a kind of of alchemical method whereby a deluge of water is splashed and poured onto the paper. To this watery flood he adds tints and washes, which flow and dissolve into one another to magically remind us of a figure. It could and infrequently does all fall apart but when the alchemy works as in the detail above, something special happens, like a lucky throw of the dice it tumbles into place. Roger uses the gambler's method of weighing odds, he's quick, mercurial, in and out, takes no prisoners and lots of risks, the paint is flicked and caressed onto the paper with minimum control so the final image appears sometimes like a lucky stain, a face in the clouds, a drifting smoke ring, even a metaphor. The little face, seen in the detail above is precious, all that life embodied in the few dabs of a wet brush, barely there and sadly destined to fade in bright light, only to eventually disappear entirely. It really is a metaphor and a profound one at that. All hail Roger, the Tom Waits of Redbrick Mill!
Finally we have the case of Helen's neck, a proud and forceful part of Helen but one damn difficult to draw and get right. The Brass Neck Prize for the Best Neck goes to Sue D-Y for a fine drawing above and beyond the neck and whilst we're making awards we must not forget Catherine. Presently in the Great Batley Bake Off, the audience have voted Catherine into the lead with her scrummy, Raspberry, Blueberry, Lime Drizzle cake however there is still time for other contestants to show off their skills and the good people of the Art Academy will be the judges as they waddle towards the final tasting. May the best cake win!
I’m sure we all have dreams, as I do, where logic and belief are suspended, reality is inverted and familiar scenarios and situations become nonsensical yet at the same time totally believable and not at all strange. Well I hope it is not just me. Try to capture that dream, the emotion and sequence of events, put it into words and it loses it’s essential narrative, it’s too erratic like the flight of a bat or a butterfly. It does not flow, is totally unpredictable and then vanishes from conscious thought and is lost. I would like to harness that element of absurdity, irrational thought and meaninglessness to begin a drawing or painting with, be it a life drawing or one of my abstract works. To make marks that have no rhyme or reason and allow the work to develop further until it has a vestige, a glimmer, a tenuous flimsy connection to the reason why I am standing in front of an easel wielding a paintbrush, roller or any other handy implement. However when we are conscious the dominant, controlling, rational part of our brains directs and dictates at full volume blocking and putting obstacles in the way of our ability to traverse that connection between our left and right brain. As I began the afternoon life drawing session on Saturday afternoon it initially was quite without a plan. Marks were random, arbitrary and unrelated. Then I’m not sure which took over, fear or methodology. In retrospect I think it was fear of failure, so that I ended up with something which was ok as a drawing but totally unexciting and which everyone can recognise as Joseph our excellent model instead of maintaining the initial disordered descent into chaos with a bit of reality thrown in to make it believable. I don’t know what the answer is to this....psychotherapy maybe? It was however a good day for everyone there as usual and one of the best ways to spend a Saturday afternoon.
by Sandra Cowper
Paintings and drawings by Emma, Jackie, Jane. Rita, Sandra, Steven, Sue D-Y, Sue, Tom and Tony.
In the final analysis, a drawing simply is no longer a drawing, no matter how self-sufficient its execution may be. It is a symbol, and the more profoundly the imaginary lines of projection meet higher dimensions, the better. Paul Klee quotes (Swiss Artist, 1879-1940)
Paintings and drawings by Catherine, Hadyn, Patrick, Roger S, Sandra, Steven, Sue D-Y, Tom, Tony and selected artist Roger H.
I've just spent five days in the Batley equivalent of a North American Indian Sweat Lodge. Along with the sweat came the hallucinations,visions from the deepest recesses of a stubborn subconscious rising like mercury in a thermometer. A glaze of distance was created, a sheen of separation existed where both the anguish of discomfort and the dreamworld of imagination, summoned up new and unlikely images. Submerged in this state, wild thoughts occured, feverish glimpses into a secret underworld where the labyrinth of the mind was briefly unlocked. For some this thermal overload triggers the need to jump into lakes or fountains, whilst others tiptoe into reservoirs never to return, I found my inner illustrator. I didn't realise I was a closet children's book illustrator with a penchant for drawing prim ladies in foreign lands but there you have it, the heat does that to you.
As I looked at Sue (maybe for the last time as she soon departs for the sultry temptations of Shanghai), all I could see was the image of a governess newly arrived in the East. She appeared flustered, glazed with a luminous sheen of perspiration no doubt the result of her long, dusty journey, rickshaw bound to who knows which mysterious corner of her adopted city. She became Miss Glister, a genteel woman of slender means with a poem up her sleeve. I imagined the adventures of Miss Glister (no first name required thank you), as she tackled the nuances of Mandarin whilst exploring the villages of the Yangtze River Delta. Later she would chance upon Zhou Zhuang, the Venice of China (more Norfolk Broads than Venice to be honest), where sitting ramrod straight with an air of slight bewilderment she would tour its numerous canals whilst being observed by hundreds of curious Chinese more interested in photographing her than the wonders around them. As I drew a portrait of Sue, all these thoughts and imaginary scenarios seeped to the surface, the real Sue gently evaporated and her alter ego, Miss Glister started to appear. Above is the finished illustration, below the tentative steps towards it.
On a personal note I will miss Sue, I've painted and drawn her lots of times and I've always found her inspiring, she seemed like a creative collaborator, someone who was wishing you on, a quiet accomplice on your creative journey. Fellow travellers like Sue, are the best kind, she has been been one of our favourite models and I know we will all miss her. I hope on her trips back to the UK she finds time to visit and we get to hear of her actual life in Shanghai.Good Luck Sue and Bon Voyage from all your friends at Redbrick Mill.
Paintings and drawings by Fiona, Hadyn, Roger H, Sandra, Sue D-Y, Sue, Tom and Tony.