Perfect and Rae

The last entry in this ‘painting’ blog was October 2012. At that point I had the fragments of a broken multimedia M.A. degree and some paintings and not a lot else. From there on things improved and I have spent the last two years on a ‘research-led’ investigation of drawing that has taken me to London and New York and a set of subsidiary concerns with sequential art and technology that have led to Amsterdam and Paris. I have ‘done’ research quite well but deep down it didn’t really affect my longer term interest in returning to painting. Ironically as I am being pitched at ‘Graphic Design’ I will have to wear the designer mask a little longer but deep down I am a painter always have been always will be.

Will Self wrote an excellent piece in the Guardian last weekend about how he felt the ‘grand design’ of the modernist novel was falling apart and I feel similar concerns for painting. Despite the thrill of seeing the Dan Perfect paintings in the show with Fiona Rae at Nottingham Castle I still feel that we are at the thin end of a wedge of modernist painting not at the start. Like the novel maybe the best is behind us and we are collecting the fragments?


Perfect’s paintings straddled the post-digital and modernist divide beautifully but a nagging doubt remained that as effortless as they were the process of mapping up from smaller digital drawings whilst echoing Christopher Wool also lost something visceral in the process. The buzz of a Bratby-like density was over-ridden by the knowledge of the perfection (sorry for pun) of the execution. They were visual feasts perfectly constructed on finest linen but maybe lacked a grittier flavour? Fiona Rae’s work left me cold a lukewarm salad of tropes I’d seen before lacking the intensity of her early work. maybe that the devil’s deal gone sour. Early fame followed by a lifetime creating perfectly packaged show-pieces.


I purchased the catalogue in support of the organiser Tristram Aver. The catalogue disappointed being too showy and too many perfectly shot close ups and little real detail. Martin Herbert I am unfamiliar with I really don’t spend much time perusing the art press. His articles were pretentious nonsense but at least we have a contemporary Brian Sewell to amuse us. I learnt more about what Herbert thought of his own reading than I did of the work a sure sign of narcissistic writing. I am sure he is quite loud at dinner parties. Silence is sometimes golden. Perfect said more without saying a word.


Drawing or painting?

Spent the afternoon in a not too cold studio (it has basic radiators thankfully) as starting to come out of over two weeks of severe chest infection. After looking at the neo-primitives below I thought I’d try black acrylic paint straight to canvas and compare it with other methods. Pencil and chalk,  paint this was because I forgot to take some Sharpie pens to the studio. So I could theoretically call this an experimental artefact led methodology although I can only gain ‘qualitative data’. I have posted on facebook so be interesting to see what reaction I get.

I was vaguely thnking of the kind of memory painting Arshile Gorky did (most of his major works refer however subliminally back to his Armenian childhood) but after I’d finished the last piece I realised that today’s news about Hurricane Sandy and the associated imagery had leaked into my sub-conscious. I therefore named the drawing ‘Sandy’.

The smaller image in the gallery of two ‘badges’ is from 1987 and were a couple of examples of laminated drawings that I sold in aid of Greenpeace at my show that year in Hornsey Library. Proving that nothing changes and I was doing Burgerman before he was knee high 🙂

Looking closer other influences which I can see in the drawings include Leger, Mariscal, and Miro all major influences on my late eighties work so it feels like I have somehow carried on from a point then of semi-abstraction before I went more figurative and lost some of my spontaneity. I picked up a book from my library at studio called ‘Arshille Gorky: The Breakthrough Years. Which I will examine along with my present reading. I was heavily influenced by a book I subsequently lost by Harry Rand called Arshile Gorky: the implications of symbols ( I have now found it as paperback on amazon although out of print). The Gorky fascination is not so much in his application of paint but far more the way he created ‘memory symbols’ analogous to Miro. These repetitive symbols came from his childhood. I repeat similar motifs from my past almost like an alphabet and maybe analysing where this came from would be productive. In fact at one point I did try to make a pictorial alphabet of simple symbols. I will try and find the examples I drew. We then stray into both semiotic and literary territory. I will leave the deeper examination of this to the research pages.



Abstract Comics?

I have started looking in more depth at the idea of ‘abstract comics’. There is an anthology assembled by Andrei Molotiu called ‘Abstract Comics’. He also has a very interesting blog at :

This anthology includes work by Mark Staff Brandl.

It made me look again at the ‘Suit of Nettles’ work I produced for the Connect Course and exhibited at Lincoln. Although ostensibly a series of illustrations for a suite of songs the interesting thing was that as a non-linear series of unrelated images they could be hung together in any order.This leads in a strange way to some experimental work I have been doing in the studio with ‘abstract narratives’. This is why I was so interested in the series of drawings displayed on Guston’s studio wall…almost in a comic strip fashion.(see post below). I have played with a comic approach before as can be seen in these paintings (all sold or destroyed) from 2005. It is not a big stretch from these works to the paintings from September 2011 when I first had a painting studio again.

Pre M.A.: Practice based research?

Ok so here I am back in the studio at the beginning of the second year of my M.A. by registered project and after a summer of drawing related ‘research’ I am standing in front of a very old work on paper (c.1988) and two new canvases done over the summer in the time not spent researching Frayling’s Categories (which wasn’t much). So what do the canvases have to do with research if anything?

I am struggling already to codify or analyse the works from any kind of methodological perspective. The ideas ’embedded’ in the paintings are intuitive, visceral (acrylic paint applied to canvas) and come from a half-formed naive idea of ‘comic’ forms from looking at various comic and graphic novels and studing Philip Guston’s work in some depth especially his drawings. I did read the book ‘Night Studio’ by Musa Meyer which I remember was quite a harrowing account of how his depressions and rages affected his family ( Musa is his daughter). It did however convince in describing the sheer effort that went into his work.

I suppose if I mined back into other works on him I would find material relating to his genesis of the comic forms that replaced his earlier ‘abstract expressionist’ period. I also own the book ‘Sweeper up after artists’ by Irving Sandler which I was half way through and which is very telling in its depiction of the fraught nature of post Abstract Expressionist careerism in New York in the early 1960’s. But is this research…it is art historical research for sure but unless it impacts on my physical creation of an object could it be said to describe anything but ‘contextual knowledge’. To impact on the creation of an art object surely it has to be more profound than that?

I am just asking questions here as at the start of a difficult journey. Turning ‘intuitions,  feelings and observations’ into theoretical research is a hard task. I am not convinced as I start this ‘Studio Diary’ that it at all possible but I may learn something else in the process.

I am standing looking at the works. Day One. I photograph them so as to show the similarity in pieces created nearly twenty years apart and in very different locations and circumstances. Maybe that affects how I create images. Maybe the context is more important than I thought.

I am also awed by the quotation from Dickens that I discover Guston had on his wall, which he held to, about complete devotion to the cause. I have never liked ‘sunday painting’ but never had the means to devote my life to painting and this the reason I have stopped painting for long periods. I found an interesting article online by chance detailing Guston in the studio by Dore Ashton.;;doc.view=print

This appears to be completely available online at:

Now here’s some art history to get my teeth into.

Quite a start…..but is it research?

Painting Practice examined by Graphic Research

Before I started on the Nottingham Trent University M.A. by registered project I already had three fairly well-defined practices or is it PRAXIS. I had painted in oil for ten years and drawn regularly, I had written poetry which published as ‘Last Farmer’ (Salt Publishing 2010) and I had spent ten years or more writing songs and performing as my alter-ego Trailer Star,  By the Lincoln Collection show of 2008 this morphed into a strange amalgamation of songwriting and painting in the Suit of Nettles project.

However none of this work was ‘research-orientated’ I just did it in a foolish Picasso/Miro-esque way you know like people had done for thousands of years before Research Exercises were even invented. BUT….as my M.A. was funded by my venerable institution and was supposedly part of ‘continuing professional development’ I set to on the chosen path for me of ‘MULTIMEDIA’ by registered project.This made sense to my peers and bosses and sort of made sense to me that was until they closed down ‘Multimedia’ department and informed me that the reason for that was the word ‘multimedia’ did not mean anything. This came as a bit of a surprise as we had done well to survive the mis-management from above and indeed our employability was nearly 80%. Indeed it had more to do with managerial self-promotion than common-sense but this was not apparent at the time. Whatever, it will be over soon (2014) but the M.A. carries on. I am now in a process of rationalising how my M.A. proceeds and alongside it I have created a separate ‘research’ praxis which uses cartoons to examine in detail the whole justification and deployment of postgraduate study in the arts. I now call this ‘GRAPHIC RESEARCH ‘ and a blog details all the work I am doing in this field.

Meanwhile the first year of M.A. ‘TRACK’ blog details all the work I did during my first year of ‘development’, all of it in the area of MULTIMEDIA AND ‘new media’.

I also started to paint again (at a low level) and this detailed in my second year M.A. painting related blog ‘Blank Canvas’.

So as it stands I have three simultaneous reflective journals done during the past two years..I wonder if any or all count for my M.A? In my opinion the cartoon research alone should qualify for a degree let alone the rest. I am going to stretch my examiners and supervisors patience to the test now by suggesting that I revert to PAINTING as the sole focus of the final year and use it to test theories of what research is and what practice is against each other. As the whole dichotomy of practice V research is what I questioning then physically separating the two and attempting both separately looks like a valid way of testing my ideas. This makes sense to me and in conversation with James Elkins I think makes sense to him. We are both examining the apparent contradictions in postgraduate fine art delivery, he from a theoretical ‘research on research’ angle, and myself from a physical practice versus research theory angle.

Simples Meerkats. If you are confused by all of this just try reading Pessoa whilst standing on your head…..

Gesamkunstwerk – Saatchi Gallery

From the banal to the sublime…


Volker Hueller – Self Portrait.

‘Gesamkunstwerk’ – ‘a total work of art’ – uses all or many art forms. (Dictionary definition.)

Intrigued by the title which has many facets and does not easily translate into English I made my first trip to the new Saatchi Gallery. A little late in the day but then I only visited the original one in North London a couple of times and missed out on the South Bank farrago. Intrigued however was not how I felt by the time I had left and I certainly had not seen an all encompassing show of the arts as promised by the title. Indeed I felt more like I had entered a time-warp and stumbled into the New Spirit in Painting show at the Royal Academy circa 1981 but without the same excitement or technique on display. The most impressive feature was the building itself which is a Wagnerian symphony of contemporary gallery chic and cannot be faulted. Indeed a more impressive set of floorboards I have never seen. If the building is intended to impress it succeeds but at what cost? Most of the work seemed quietly subdued by its illustrious surroundings and indeed a good deal of it sank altogether. Formerly famous for setting the ship of Britart afloat how does this show succeed in opening our eyes to New German Art of the 2010’s? Well, frankly, not very well.

There are good individual artists in this show but after finding ones way around all the floors and finally being overwhelmed by the frankly awful huge works at the top I felt I had no more idea about contemporary German Art than I had when I arrived. The picture-book ‘catalogue’ does little to enlighten and whilst I not keen on over explication a little more info would have helped greatly. My impression was that bar a rough correlation of ages there was little to tie the artworks together and this had been manufactured quickly and with little curatorial thought. The one common factor was an almost complete lack of digital works. This was about big, bigger and huge…almost all the works were over six foot and in some cases were collossal. In that there were echoes of the far better German artists of the R.A. show e.g. Penck, Middendorf, Baselitz, etc. but there comparisons ended. I did not see one painter on a large scale that really showed exceptional technique or content. It was almost as if a T.V. reality show had asked a bunch of fairly average artists to create a pastiche of German Art of the last thirty years in a week.

Some works were truly awful e.g. the reclining plastic coloured figures and the afore-mentioned ‘print’ across a hundred canvasses. Others were good but lost in the hang apart from the Tobias Brothers and the small shellac and watercolour works of Volker Hueller both of which I was impressed by. I will not add insult to injury by naming the worst of a fairly mediocre bunch but winners of irritating and downright stupid awards go to Andre Butzer ( New York Graffitti school overdosed on Penck with a horrible use of colour) and Isa Genzken’s tedious assemblages like a car boot sale organized by Rauschenburg if he’d been a pantomime Dame…tinsel and spray paint darlinks is so camp …yuk. It is easier to actually spot the reference in most works. Maz Frisinger and Alexander Bircken wouldn’t have a practice without Duchamp’s large glass basically and Ida Ekbald looked like a foundation art project to use concrete that had gone horribly wrong. It seems that such is the plethora of art students coming out of the academies that even basic aesthetics have been jettisoned. Maybe she networks really well..maybe you have to living in how come she in a German show..ah she lives in Berlin well that’s alright then…shame they didn’t chuck Tacita Dean in too at least we could have seen something interesting. By the way Tobias Brothers were born in Romania so is this really New Euro Art? Again the contextual strings were missing…if a Norwegian then is this really German Art now or just a motley collection hastily cobbled together..methinks the latter. This is reinforced by the seemingly haphazard way works melt into each other. If Saatchi can afford to build such a place why does he not employ some decent designers to fashion some continuity and catalogue support. If ‘democratising’ the artworld means flabby shows with little thought I may not be so ‘democratic’ in future. Free to enter you do get what you pay for. It seems Saatchi is keener on being seen as super-patron than actually doing the right thing by the art he assembles. But then he is bigger (as his building) than any poor artist caught in their combined wash.

The show is worth going to for the well hung Tobias Brothers room and for the Hueller small works both of which show grace and aesthetic consideration rather than the Pantomime Showiness of most of it. I came away with the impression that New German Art had fallen into a rut of pastiche of former glories and far from benefitting from new immigration the ‘Eurozone’ dizziness of it all had actually devalued some of the participants. If a single currency has devalued the economies of Western Europe then this show displays that Saatchi’s global reach and international obsessions are similarly dangerous to ‘national’ ideas of art. Post internet, post Berlin Wall what we see is a weak and diluted parade of imitators and hangers-on to concepts and working practices which were old hat in 1960. If you want to see post-war German art at its best go google MĂźlheimer Freiheit‘. This is just a pantomime of the new wilds and honestly it as tame a collection of physical art as I ever come almost yawned on exit. Maybe Saatchi can blame his ‘art-teams’ for nothing on this scale is supervised that closely…..committee and buyers do the rounds hoovering up those who fit the bill.

Want to be in the next National Saatchi show…tick these boxes….International (i.e. not English) …large and technically inept  and finally be devoid of real artistic merit…then you may stand a chance.
I would like to see a ‘opt-out’ clause for British native art from this circus before we all become clowns dancing to the same ringmaster.

CODA: Is Serota’s Tate any different?..same egos just different paymasters…


Leonard Bullock: Ideas about painting


To celebrate Leonard Bullock’s forthcoming show at the The Front Gallery,  London in November I have collected together various images and interview pieces about the artist in order to publicise his name a bit more over here in the U.K.

Originally from North Carolina and New York City, Bullock has lived in Europe for the last 15 years, frequently exhibiting in Switzerland and Germany. He was often involved in significant events of the artworld in important locations, including starting an artist run gallery in the 80s in NYC, assisting Leon Golub and more, thus making him the source of a wealth of interesting anecdotes and unique criticisms.

Bullock is a painters’ painter especially in his mark-making; his direct facture has influenced many better-known contemporaries. He often paints on surprising surfaces such as fiberglass or silk and includes text and images with pure abstraction.


I first was in contact with Leonard when blogging and he very kindly replied to a piece I had written. this can be read here :

Listen to a Mark Staff Brandl interview here:


Hee is a pdf for his 2008 Summer Show press release

in New York David Zwimmer Gallery

Here a C.V. and images fromThe Tony Weuthrich gallery Basel

CORA COHEN interview LB for BOMB magazine



Cora Cohen What is the basis of the dimensional pieces you do?

Leonard Bullock They are anecdotal in relation in to dimension. I see them as combination collision, aggregation of near polarities. They derive meaning from relation. The works, made with found materials, carry age and decomposition in unlike ways, stressing vernacular association. A table once used to roll tobacco leaves is not antipodal to the crystals used in the painting rising from its surface. The two things come from parallel domains. One is not assimilable into another. Each part retains something of the origin of its use, or of both. I made an attempt to mix the pure system of the traditional painting studio with the minerals (“fragments of a larger fragmentation” R.S.) and the tobacco rolling table with its parochial history use and decay.

CC So there’s a relationship in your thinking to that of Robert Smithson’s?

LB In one of his essays Smithson speaks of the slate in Bangor Non-Site as being “fragments of a larger fragmentation.” This stresses that the material of the works is from somewhere else in the world. Because the site pieces rely so much on transitive metaphors of displacement they continue to be activated by a sense of productive unresolve as works of art. Planet on the Table is intended in part to operate along these lines. These works satisfy a specific ambiguity grown out of the apposition of new matter the way it occurs in nature: one thing put next to another in succession, aggregated, part of flowing movement but retaining its nominal character.

CC How do you mean nominal?

LB I have to say that I’ve used the word nominal here as in its relation to the philosophy of nominalism. The nominalists held that there are no universal essences in reality—to our intellects everything real must be some particular individual thing. So all general collective words are mere words.

The poet William Carlos Williams’ notion that “there are no ideas but in things” bears a relation to this sort of thinking. I wonder if your family doctor can impart that kind of influence. (Williams was Smithson’s childhood doctor.)

CC You often mention the notion of negative capability. Has it a direct bearing on the nature of your work?

LB The English poet Keats first transposed his idea of “negative capability” in a letter to a colleague. He describes the moment of making (creating) at its most frustrating uncertainty, of seemingly insurmountable difficulty. If at that moment the artist/poet could continue without resorting to reasoned exit, resist difficulties and the urge to rationalize the effort, that “negative capability” would awaken the imagination.

CC In what way has your having been itinerant enhanced your work (or detracted from it)?

LB I’d rather it be peripatetic but both have been true. Yeah, I wanted more freedom and New York didn’t provide it. The offer I got from Rudolf (Zwirner) to live and work in Cologne was exhilarating; it fueled my work, no doubt. The time of my life at which it came (I was 27) was perfect. I needed the challenge more than I knew.

So I allowed myself to wander for a few years. That can do damage and it did, but it released so much untapped power. I hadn’t undertaken all this to achieve that end; it wasn’t a project; I’d done it out of desire…

New Paintings August 2011

I have gone back to last body of work before life got in the way. These are a set of watercolour/gouaches I completed in summer of 1994 shortly before moving to Edinburgh. I then completed a small run of etchings based on these drawings. That was pretty much, excepting a few drawings and a couple of paintings completed when an artist in residence at City Arts which leaned towards that area,all I done since! Seems incredible but as I said life got in the way….

Here part of watercolour sequence 1994

Here the new paintings just started

The long slow death of visuality…responses to Matthew Collings

On Facebook ( that noted art history forum:-)
Matthew Collings posted the following:I have highlighted what seems to me the key lines. The second paragraph is his introduction to the set of photos which even I,  as someone accused of convoluted and dense and unreadable sentences, found hard to fathom and only after several re-readings did I get a sense (I think) of what he on about. My interpretation is he is concerned that at a time when we surrounded by a tsunami of visuality (more artists, more imagery than ever) that there is no coherent ‘ethical’and ‘aesthetic’agreement of what is ‘good’or ‘right’. i.e. that we live in immoral times and that affects judgement too. This chimes with the ‘Rediscovering Aesthetics‘standpoint. I do not know to what degree he agrees/disagrees with their views. The idea of visual achievement V visual success may be contrasting actual artistic creation with visual success i.e. cheap fame….low artistic worth..I am not sure. Below my response on facebook and a continuation of my ‘objective argument’which I apparently regularly fall short on …woof woof:-)

Matthew Collings:On some very visual and recent art
If there is celebrating it’s celebrating the visual dimension,but the reason to post the album (and others) is not “let’s party”but to look at the possibility of visual substance,depth,richness in art,because in the general idea of what contemporary art “is”that operates at the moment this visual dimension is virtually either actually absent or else unseeable (and consequently undiscussuable or unappreciatable).

Some very visual current and recent art:

Reassurance of pre-modern and even modern art no longer available —universal Rembrandtian Shakespearean etc greatness out now —meantime fragmentary but very visual art does exist. Problem in heads is to get visual to connect with ethical. Many steps. First is to be visually observant. Then questioning. What is all this visuality for? How can we make it be for something else,something better? (That is not for wrong ideology,wrong life dictated by consumerism etc,as exemplified horribly by contexts in which this art is actually usually seen.) And is a visual system aiming at high visual achievement,or visual success —and which therefore has the possibility of failure —and therefore entails some kind of judging —is it connectable to moral and ethical dimensions,political dimensions etc? (Nazis judging good notes in symphony,still chuck victims in ovens etc.) Or do we have to accept visually abject art that has moral excellent credentials? Plus accept visual abjection that has excruciating pseudo thoughtful credentials (idiotic pretence at engaging with history society etc while remaining in-crowd smugness only)?

My response:Part one ( from facebook)

Ironically my period of intense engagement with painting coincided with the publishing of artscribe which was my bible in mid eighties. I stopped any meaningful production of art in 1992 and am now trying to begin again. So in some ways I am heavily influenced by the artscribe ethos and coming back to the art world I acutely aware of the marginalisation of visuality and the lack of a coherent and representative forum/magazine for that visuality. Both Modern Painters and Frieze seem to be ad driven fashion mags and art monthly is simply art monthly…long on theory short on images. My feeling (I will expand later) is we are at a watershed moment and that all this visuality is not looking,making and time based to the same extant it once was in the artscribe era. Fragmentation is an aspect of globalisation and the rise of the internet which may also mean a fragmentation of values as you hint at. Could artscribe exist now at all in the same ‘moral’and ‘tightknit’way it did in the 1980?s when it ringfenced not only a seriousness about painting etc but also a relatively coherant worldview and small set of tuned in artists? We live in a ‘bigger’artworld but not necessarily a more serious or a more productive one. Was artscribe a magazine dedicated to ‘visuality’?
My response:Part two

Whatever it was (for those too young or unaware of the magazine) artscribe was the most important magazine in the period 1976 -1985 after that it became Artscribe International and I felt lost its way and became a precursor of the fashionista art mags we have now. early artscribes were ad free tomes of high-seriousness where you could enjoy lengthy,erudite articles on painting especially from the likes of James Faure Walker,Matthew Collings and Adrian Searle. Collings himself is representative of the gradual change and led to the ‘Internationalisation’of the magazine. My feeling has been that the success and failure of Collings’s internationalisation is a smaller model of the sea change in British Art at this point i.e. Sensation et al. Ironically Collings left the magazine in 1987 after which it went downhill fast and disappeared totally in 1993. My only surviving copy is ironically from Collings time as editor because I feature in it albeit in a very minor role as a model in a Gilbert and George painting called Gateway which featured in an article on them. That was about as close as I ever got to the International Art World. So any discussion of artscribe and visuality and its apparent ‘demise’cuts heavily into my own artistic history or ‘suicide’depending on your viewpoint. Now this is where things get interesting –in searching for the artscribe image I came across Matthew’s ‘Rant’from the saatchi magazine.

In it he discusses Peter Fuller. Ironically I was interviewed for Goldsmiths course in 1987 and 1988. The first time of interview I had recently completed a black empty canvas for painting and sat bewildered as Mary Kelly and Nick De Ville pontificated about it for what seemed hours (I too shy to point out it just a ground!) before telling me I ‘interesting’and they would come back next year. Sadly my studio was demolished and penniless the next interview was in my legalised squat in Arnos Grove and a disaster…
Basically I uttered the name ‘Peter Fuller’and it was if I had shat all over the assembled interviewers (and a postgrad student who hung bing bags on hooks who ignored me and spent whole time staring at out coathooks). Now reading the Collings piece I understand how evil I had been…Collings explains

“When Modern Painters began in 1988 it was the brainchild of an art writer called Peter Fuller,a man loved by fogeys and philistines,and middle class people who kidded themselves they were into art,while the art world as such couldn’t bear him. I couldn’t bear him either,at least not what he wrote. It always seemed so off the mark.”




1989 Pyramid Arts,Dalston,London.
1988 Solo show. Square Gallery,Highgate,London.
1987 12 Young Artists. Square Gallery,Highgate,London



Influences –New Scottish painters like Campbell and Maclean,New French Painting and the post New Painting 1981 show at R.A. Italian Transavantguardia…Ivon Hitchins, Francis Bacon,Howard Hodgkin,John Bellany
Philip Guston,Fernand Leger,Malcolm Morley,Gillian Ayres,De Chirico,etc. etc…oh and Gilbert &George.. and artscribe!

My Response:Part three

In contrast I had actually read and re-read Fuller intensely ( especially Beyond the Crisis in Art)and loved him and Modern Painters under his editorship. He seemed then and seems now to have been way ahead of the YBA pack. Ironically Matthew seems to have revised his opinion somewhat…

“The bits I like are,mainly,his raving on (positively) about Ruskin,who in those days I didn’t know anything about and didn’t care to learn anything about. Now of course I think Ruskin’s great and in fact I believe only an idiot wouldn’t think the same. As a personality,Peter (who I got to know fairly well) was great too.”

So I was victim of an almost Stalinist rejection of a certain way of looking at art. The Goldsmiths tutors gave me short shrift refusing to even ‘look’at my Bacon and Sutherland influenced self-portraiture. I was a rank amateur who did not understand the mission that Goldsmiths and YBA about to launch…( obviously the offer of a place at the Royal College for painting by Peter de Francia in 1981 was a figment of my imagination….sadly I was scuppered by Thatcher’s plan to give working class children a place at public school..guess what she took the money from the R.C. ensuring a foreign student took my place and this working class boy ended up on the dole). Forgive me if the International Art World leaves me a little sarcastic..wouldn’t you feel the same? ….Goldsmiths or Thatcher it all the same to me.

I ran out of critical road and ended up back in my parent’s council house in Didcot and immediately spent a year drawing the hills around my hometown in charcoal on location and effectively became as conservative as possible in reaction to the Goldsmiths debacle. My art career effectively over I went to ground just as Hirst and Emin won the art lottery. I continued to read Fuller and Ruskin and to ignore the London art scene for the next 20 years and pretty much still do. My artistic career petered to a halt with some etchings at Edinburgh College of Art in 1994 and that was that…until Moogee in 2005. So that was then but what about now and what about this contested ‘visuality’everybody banging on about?…..continues below….in it I hope to link the processes at play in 1988….Goldsmiths,internationalisation,YBA’s to my own career crash and the birth of Sattchi Land which more than anything both created and destroyed the ‘visuality’bubble.


My Response: Part Four: VISUALITY?

Required reading:Abigail Diamond:The role of the art object in contemporary art

Responding to internet representations of art.

The artwork online by Sarah Morris and a Frank Stella from protractor series


Interesting point here is you probably encountered both works in reality whereas I think I only ever seen one actual Stella and no Morris so have no idea of scale or construction of Morris so how could I really compare which brings us back to key point re. visuality..whose visuality?….we engulfed in a pervasive media which displays versions of many dscourses based on actual seeing any more..perhaps we need an institute of looking?

If we could assemble all the paintings you have here and make people actually look the responses may be very different. What we have here is a virtual gallery that lacks the essential ‘thingness’ of objecthood…..if one not responding to that essential object but only a virtual mis-representation then we are always on dodgy ground. What I find infuriating about contemporary theorists of the virtual is they discount the essential veracity of constructed artworks…to them and their students (and NTU has its fair share) they are continually avoiding the real by dancing spectacularly in clouds of theory and networks…..never touching the ground and certainly never needing to look at all..Ruskin would be appalled.

Conversation re; Artscribe with Matthew Collings: from facebook June 2011
Has ‘visuality’disappeared as much as you say across the board. I thought it just a Nottingham thing… almost eradicated from the fine art course because of all those elements I been ranting about for years….I didn’t even attend the PV of my own School as seen one blackboard with a Wittgenstein quote on and a screaming performance artist you probably seen them all;-) Really enjoyed selection could this not make a great ‘Art Commentary’stand alone website…..or interactive TV show.
Ironically my period of intense engagement with painting coincided with the publishing of artscribe which was my bible in mid eighties. I stopped any meaningful production of art in 1992 and am now trying to begin again. So in some ways I am heavily influenced by the artscribe ethos and coming back to the art world I acutely aware of the marginalisation of visuality and the lack of a coherant and representative forum/magazine for that visuality. Both Modern Painters and Frieze seem to be ad driven fashion mags and art monthly is simply art monthly…long on theory short on images. My feeling (I will expand later) is we are at a watershed moment and that all this visuality is not looking,making and time based to the same extant it once was in the artscribe era. Fragmentation is an aspect of globalisation and the rise of the internet may also mean a fragmentation of values as you hint at. Could artscribe exist now at all in the same ‘moral’and ‘tightknit’way it did in the 1980?s when it ringfenced not only a seriousness about painting etc but also a relatively coherant worldview and small set of tuned in artists? We live in a ‘bigger’artworld but not necessarily a more serious or a more productive one. Was artscribe a magazine dedicated to ‘visuality’?
  • Well ironically Artscribe was very much a visual celebrating mag under the editorship of its founder James Faure Walker,but when I took over,in early 80s,it became much more oriented to bringing news to UK of international trendy developments,and ultimately to airing info about those developments back to places where they originally came from —I wouldn’t say ethos of mag in my time was at all like ethos of these FB threads,which is because my true interests,while they were always there,were a bit buried in those days beneath my drive to make the mag buzzing and powerful.

That is really interesting Matthew you are more naturally attuned to JFW content than your own in hindsight? Do you think there a current magazine that caters for ‘visuality’and here I using term loosely to denote contemporary visual art where the emphasis on ‘objecthood’….I struggling to put it more clearly maybe in sense defined by Abigail Diamond here …The role of the art object in contemporary art – i.e. are we talking about art that reveals itself primarily as an which case ‘OBJECT’would be perfect title for such a magazine :-)

Watercolour in Britain: Sheffield

A touring exhibition which started in Norwich and currently at Millenium Galleries Sheffield this Tate Gallery touring show comes with a specific tagline i.e. ‘Part of the Great British Arts Debate’.

Now,if you are not aware this Great British Art Debate commenced during the first wave of Arts Council ‘restructuring’about two years ago. This seems to be a spin off from that ‘debate’. At the time that debate really amounted to no more than carefully chosen individuals talking in a ‘closed shop’about how best to redeploy funding in face of cuts by the then New Labour Government.

Any attempt to genuinely ‘widen’debate and participation is to be welcomed. That the Tate should choose to wrap a watercolour exhibition in such terms says more about current arts politics than any real ‘debate’out in the Shires. This exhibition highlights the deep uncertainty and failure of contemporary art to address notions of both identity and place and technique properly. It raises more questions than answers but not in the way intended.

The exhibition contains a great deal of stunning work and no-one can complain about seeing (even if in very low light to preserve the fragile colours) a collection that shows Turner,Blake,Sutherland,Burra and Offili in the same space. The Millenium Galleries,to their credit,are showing both local war artists and local ‘amateur/professional’painters work alongside the ‘masters’. However all of this is constantly being drawn into the shaping argument that a leaflet posits thus:

“Watercolour paintings have become shorthand for a comforting,conservative world view,rooted in the English countryside and largely rejected by the contemporary art scene. It wasn’t always so”

This statement has no author. It is presented as essentially true when it is,of course,contestable. It is illustrated by Burra’s ‘Soldiers at Rye’which is in the exhibition (see illustration above). Again our anonymous author cannot help but shackle a political point to it –

“” no portrayal of a pastoral idyll”

before drawing a comparison to oil painting which is just plain silly.

The comments also include a statement that this exhibition illustrates a ‘remarkable diversity’and also asks ‘where next’.

This is,I presume,continued in the exhibition catalogue which I did not buy for the simple reason that the interesting local artists and the work illustrated did not reflect what shown in Sheffield. It appears that if one wants to see the David Jones and John Piper work shown in the Tate publication one has to travel to Tate Britain next year.

The exhibition addresses two fundamentals of the watercolour tradition ‘sense of place’and ‘technique’and tries to map them to a contemporary notion of ‘diversity’.

Watercolour paintings have become shorthand for a comforting,conservative world view,rooted in the English countryside

‘Shorthand’is an unsatisfactory term based on a shallow perception of the tradition. ‘Shorthand’suggests watercolour painting is somehow inferior to the ‘easel painting’tradition and involves an almost throwaway sense of gesture usually ‘en plain air’. Anyone with a slight knowledge of the painstaking care that went into a Cotman or Turner can already see there a problem of some mis-aligned value systems here.

Instead of starting with the ‘tradition’the commentator is explaining the tradition backwards with a rather ‘secondhand’shorthand of their own. The suggestion they make is that watercolour is merely an amateur’s playground and the contemporary refuge of the conservative artist only. This smacks of the contemporary arts graduate view of art history and technique based on little real comprehension of its true history or creation.

i.e. in short –Watercolour + Landscape = a moribund ‘white male’tradition.

This notion is so embedded that the whole last part of the exhibition is set up as a failed retort to this assumption which instead of making one applaud the ‘beyond’as ‘groundbreaking’simply reinforces that there has been a break in both technique and value system which leaves no ‘beyond’–simply a sense of closure of that particular tradition.

If the instructional videos and cases of ‘this is how you do it’sketches and paintings littered around the show inspire one person to try the technique that is fine. However the examples used were illustrative in the manner of the conservative tradition the exhibition is supposedly challenging. Instead of inspiring true engagement it suggests an administrative dumbing down,reflected again in the noble but ill advised attempt to show and sell local work at the exhibitions end. It would have been far better to have a decent contemporary artist showing the technique ‘live’and ‘signpost’people to good watercolour artists in the community or have their work for sale in the ubiquitous ‘shop’than hang a frankly weak bunch of works next to William Blake which is doing neither party much good in comparison.

Because the Millenium contains an excellent Ruskin museum (all be it small) there were a couple of Ruskins and a large scale although slightly mad Burne Jones (a similar problem to most of the Burras being evident where scale and surreal subject matter outweigh a lumpiness and lack of touch in the works). Watercolour is a light and spontaneous medium which gets bogged down into sticky gouache when over-worked. Having said that a single ‘constructed’Burra landscape retained that effervescance.

The exhibition makes a very good fist of showing (albeit in a fragmented manner –i.e. Offili then Burra then Turner then Ruskin then Blake) some classic work in the medium. Nobody could walk away from the Cotman and not feel that they have seen an illustration of the very finest technique. It is almost as if one is in a hall of greats onto which a slightly amateur exhibition has encroached.

Now before the ‘post-modernists’cry foul and contest any suggestion of a “hall of greats”or “artistic canon”let me be clear. I do not buy into the notion that certain works of greatness can be explained away by socio-marxist reductionisim or are part of a white male tradition that needs ‘re-examining’. The reason the predominant works in the exhibition are from white males is simple. Historically,the only people able to safely travel the countryside and have the independent means to do so thus creating the topographical tradition,were men and white men of independent means at that. There were as few farm labourer watercolourists (male or female) as there were poets because of a harsh bondage to land. Arguments about impediments to joining ‘tradition’whilst valid do not change the available corpus of work we are left to examine.

So if one removes the ‘diversity’framework and examines the work one finds a fairly consistent and challenging set of works created by white males over a two hundred year period. The historical ‘romanticisation’of the ‘wilderness’occurred in this time frame. When the anonymous PR person spouts about a ‘conservative’tradition it is one built on socio-economic changes and predominantly male for a reason. Far more interesting would have been a ‘debate’centred on notions of ‘sense of place’not ‘diversity’as both are loaded terms.

The ‘contemporary’works undermine that tradition by both their subject matter and their technique,or lack thereof,and in my opinion this should have been divided into two shows maybe run concurrently.

Nowhere in the contemporary works do we see a similar level of technique displayed except maybe in the Blackadder (an illustrative painter whose work influenced a swathe of eighties illustrators). Other contemporary artists range from the slightly cack-handed (Offili) to the downright awful..Kapoor and Paolozzi or Houshiary. Indeed worst of all was a very contemporary bunch of splodges on paper by a ‘conceptual’artist I didn’t even bother looking at. All used watercolour in varying ways,none successful,and none with an understanding of the technique itself. Rather we were in the post-modern’s favourite place i.e. “Irony Island”.

Were these works selected simply for their possible ‘diversity’tick-boxing? Paolozzi not Peter Blake,Kapoor (not noted as a painter per se?) instead of Michael Andrews? The whole show fell between two stools in trying to concoct a ‘diverse’and ‘contemporary’‘beyond’that didn’t exist and in so doing it competely ignored a far deeper and questioning use of the ‘watercolour tradition’that could have included Conrad Atkinson amongst others. That would have been a real debate. Instead we are left holding the bath whilst baby and bath-water both lost and the bath increasingly leaky as a container for ideas……

To that degree ‘Tradition and Beyond’did reflect the current lack of confidence at the heart of arts organisations trying to hit targets in all areas..footfall,diversity,engagement and failing to concentrate on the matter at hand…..a word no longer politically acceptable above all others.


Quality is now so disparaged among academics and administrators that one is admonished for just mentioning the word. However all artists can be judged by that criteria if all could agree on a suitably diverse criteria to encompass works.

At present there is no such consensus and until there is we continue to drift through shows like this……like Turner strapped to the mast in a storm the water blurring our sense of vision….