Entries in art (16)

Monday
Oct142013

interiority

'I have always thought there was such beauty about a room like that [empty], even though there weren't any people in it, perhaps precisely when there weren't any.' Vilhelm Hammershoi 1907

I find myself drawn to unpeopled rooms as a subject for art and photography. Then the focus shifts to the slant of light on an object - highlighting a detail, re-shaping the contours of the space, emphasising the silence.  

A few years ago I went to a stunning Hammershoi exhibition. Many of his paintings are of interiors, executed in muted variations of black, grey, beige, white. Sometimes a woman is glimpsed, her back to us, holding a plate perhaps or disappearing through a doorway. Rooms only recently deserted have a different energy to those that have been empty a long time, as if you can still feel the human molecules. Somehow, Hammershoi conveys in his paintings that sense of rooms where absence is recent. But even the paintings containing a figure imply that their presence is transitory; undisturbing. I circled the room over and over, taking in the cool delicacy of the palette and the absorbing quality of the empty canvasses.

Eventually I stepped out into the noise, colour and movement of Piccadilly and felt like Alice slipping down the rabbit hole with a feeling that the world was topsy turvy and I'd left reality behind, in that gallery.

 

Wednesday
May162012

secret light

top: Woman in a Beret, bottom: Woman in a Fur Coat

At the weekend, I went with a friend to the Lucien Freud hoopla in London. Squeezing between the fractious, shuffling crowd, we tried our best to actually look at the paintings. Ignoring the passive-aggressive glares and sniffs (thank you middle-class English reticence) I sidled into the respectful space that people left between themselves and the canvasses to place my face a nose breadth away from the paint. 

I've seen some of his work in the flesh and almost all of it in reproduction, but was still startled by my visceral reaction to the canvasses and the complete turnabout of all I thought I loved. The fastidious smoothness and precision of paint in the very early works has always discomfited me and I've erred towards the later, larger, looser work. But I found myself drawn to a series of portraits that displayed such an acute drive to render the reality of a person in paint that my dislike of the hand-cramping, fine-brushed stippling was overcome by a frank wonder at his eye and technique. 

With the large nudes, the inherent problem of chronologically curated exhibitions took hold. Coming one after the other, room after room, I became desensitized and - rather bored. With a few extraordinary exceptions, I realised that I actually disliked a number of the canvasses I've long admired in reproduction. Even now I find it hard to determine why. Partly a growing aversion to his palette and the obsessive dry stippling that he layered on over faces and contours, but more that his objective eye became colder and more relentless; more obsessed with paint yet less acute. What lingered most as I walked slowly through those rooms: what would that cold, clear, judgmental eye see hidden in me? 

The work that caught me most off guard was tucked into the very corner of a wall. Stepping close to the unassuming little head and shoulders of a woman hunched into a fur coat, intrigued only because she resembled an old friend, I was stilled. The extraordinary amber capture of light at the base of her pupils is a little slice straight into who she is. If you ever have a chance to see it, get close and peer at her. The technical mastery and sheer power of looking revealed in those moments redeemed Freud's genius for me. I have that little postcard on my desk and although her eye light is dimmed and dull in reproduction, I take pleasure in knowing that it's there. 

All that looking and shuffling made us suddenly starving and we practically sprinted through the crowds massed around the exit. Once we'd taken our comedy ride up and down in the lift to find ourselves always outside the same beautiful (expensive) restaurant overlooking the rooftops, then wound our way down endless flights of stairs finally to find our place in the basement cafe, we fell upon salads and frittata and beer and coffees with hungry happiness.

Watching clouds and crowds moving across the street level skylight above our heads, eating and talking and taking our time, worked to gradually soothe my ruffled inner self. Remembering that afternoon now, it's the time talking together and a handful of paintings that settle inside me as a firm memory. That, and a reminder always to look for the little unexpected sliver of light in the eye. 

 

Thursday
Mar292012

how are you?

A while back, I bought a trio of these postcards from Kerry at Seventy Tree and immediately knew that I'd have to claim one for my own. Just looking at it makes me happy - and reminds me daily that there is a long list of people I need to say hello to. 

If you know me in person, you'll have many examples of phone calls left unreturned for far too long. The phone and I are not friends and it's too easy for me to let a call go to voice mail. Then begins a self-perpetuating circle. I don't return a call promptly - time goes by - and it becomes too hard to easily answer the question 'what have you been up to?' More time goes by. It becomes even harder. And the worst thing is, it's the friends I think of almost daily - but who live at a distance - that I neglect most. I too often assume that we will always pick up where we left off. The loose, local acquaintances based on proximity and children have calls and coffees and no hint of my elusive ways.

But at this point in a new year, I realise that it isn't enough to say that I've thought a lot about someone (though entirely true). I need to accept that a regular phone call is better than a perfect phone call. To answer that call instead of leaving it to the more convenient moment that never comes. So these cheery lovelies are not going to be used to avoid a call but as an adjunct to one. And if one of them arrives on your mat then I hope it comes with a light-hearted hello, unweighted by lengthy apologies. It means I've managed at long last to break one of my most unhappy habits. 

Tuesday
Mar062012

fare forward

I'm in a bit of a bind. Part panic, part paralysis, with this new year hurtling by so fast it's taking my breath away and this song going round in my mind. I need to decide what I'm going to commit to over this next year, and beyond, to make myself happy. The kind of intrinsic happiness that comes from doing something that you love and that leaves you with the sense of a day well lived. Something beyond the daily contentment of family: something entirely personal. These last years have been so full of parenting that this kind of decision was, more or less, redundant. Now, before another birthday comes, I feel I need to make that choice and get going. But making the choice between different options is where I come unstuck.

There are many things I love and that fire me up and make my world a brighter place. Some of those things - art, making, photography - are more simple pleasures. They don't cause me too many problems. But the writing that I guess I know is what I really need to commit to is where the fear lives. It's words that have always held me and exercised me and filled my secret corners. The trouble is, I'm not at my happiest whilst lost in words. It's too deep a descent into the world of the hidden, and the excavation of words and meaning is hard. I'm distracted - preoccupied - often lost. It's like being back in the forest and choosing the path that looks the most impenetrable. It may be that I have to exchange the comfort of a gentle, immediate form of happiness for the sort that comes when something hard has been achieved. When fears are faced down and seen off.

There's a small circle of blue breaking through the dense clouds that have suddenly taken away the promise of spring. Enough to make a sailor a pair of trousers my grandmother would say with satisfaction; knowing it was likely that the day would turn out well after all. I have most of this day in front of me and I won't make it better by indulging in yet more circular thought. I think I know what I've got to do. 

 

Tuesday
Dec132011

finite

Today I found myself sketching from memory a Frink head and was surprised to discover how melancholy and odd he turned out. Replete with fiercely herbed and garlicky mushroom soup and with a cluster of newly potted tiny, fuchsia cyclamen catching this winter light on the windowsill next to me, melancholy is something far away.

Though as I drew I was listening again to a fascinating tribute to Ted Hughes, recorded to celebrate his inclusion in Westminster Abbey's poet's corner. The epigraph on his headstone consists of the concluding three lines of his poem That Morning, celebrating the magical sensation of standing amongst a shoal of salmon with his son. And perhaps the static monumentality of stone and plaster seemed suddenly a sadder, duller thing in contrast with the living, vivid flash of light and fish and atoms. With being human. 

There, in a mauve light of drifted lupins,
They hung in the cupped hands of mountains

Made of tingling atoms. It had happened.
Then for a sign that we were where we were
Two gold bears came down and swam like men

Beside us. And dived like children.
And stood in deep water as on a throne
Eating pierced salmon off their talons.

So we found the end of our journey.

So we stood, alive in the river of light,
Among the creatures of light, creatures of light.

from That Morning - Ted Hughes


Saturday
Oct152011

make do and mend

Susan Collis 'Made by work' 2001 Royal College of Art, MA Sculpture show

Seeing Karen Barbé's glorious fantasy darning of a favourite dress unexpectedly ripped, I was reminded of this degree show piece, consisting of a pair of dungarees with repair work and bleach marks. I remember coming around the corner, in a bit of a hurry and full of the itchy irritation I sometimes get at the shows, and looking around to see where the exhibit was. Then I realised those old dungarees were it and I smiled. They reminded me of the tenderly mended clothing I've sometimes unearthed during my years of trawling flea markets and vintage shops: aprons, work shirts, nightwear, jackets. I love the old and frayed and patched. I like an object to be a little imperfect. And there is something about the utility of darning that moves me, perhaps because it reminds me of my grandmother. She wasn't a keen sewer but she could darn beautifully; a skill she learned during those years of necessity in the second world war when everything was in short supply.

As I rue the lack of wearable autumn clothes in my wardrobe (moths have holed both jersey and wool) I'm thinking of re-purposing instead of replacing. I love the descriptions in E F Benson's Mapp and Lucia books of competitive dress alterations: roses cut from a curtain and sewn onto an old dress to revamp and evoke jealousy or a judicious re-dye and re-collar. 

In that spirit, I'll try adding lace to the neck of a sweater that's starting to fray, and perhaps I can transform those moth holes into something more agreeable. I've discovered this cunning new moth-patching product and it looks fun as well as being practical. For those worn out elbows (I just can't shake the elbow on the table lean -I'm doing it now!) I like this lovely take on the patched elbow: a pretty solution and the chance to learn to crochet while I'm at it.  And, of course, there is Karen's superb tutorial on making lovely patches that adorn rather than simply disguise. Thriftiness can be fun!    

Wednesday
Jun222011

perfect moments

 

Do you sometimes find that, in the middle of an otherwise ordinary day, there are little moments of near perfection? Today's little moment came about through lassitude. Idly clicking through my inbox to avoid doing any of the many things on my list I'd prefer not to do, I opened a link to the Toast blog. Did you know they had a blog? News to me. But it's surprisingly interesting, and rather lovely. On it, I discovered a little video of Maria Bosch working in her studio. It's silent, which was what made the whole perfect moment.. perfect. At the time I was listening to one of my favourite pieces, Arvo Pärt's Spiegel im Spiegel. The rain was falling heavily and audibly through the trees and tapping gently on the windows. It synched gently with the sublime melancholy of Pärt's music and provided the perfect soundtrack to the engrossing dexterity of Bosch's hands working the clay.

Desperate, suddenly, to shape something myself and with my old block of clay lying neglected, poorly wrapped and hard as stone in the shed, I hurled myself at the only thing to hand; a block of white air-dry clay in the craft cupboard. With no aim in mind I formed a few tiny little bowls similar to some we've unearthed in our garden, simply by pressing out the shape with my fingers. They were too hastily made to be lovely and I think we'll gift them back to the garden, but I may try and make some with a little more care. Now to find myself a pottery course. I hope you've had a perfect little moment today.

Friday
Jun172011

desperate measures

Looking onto a steel grey sky with rain pouring straight down and heavy, it seems I need to take matters into my own hands. Gardening being central to our lives, we are friends of rain. We appreciate that each day the world is getting greener. But precious, life affirming blooms are also being defeated and bent sadly towards the ground they spent so much time getting clear of.

So it's out with the secateurs and in with the blooms. A bunch of ludicrously blowsy but delicately fragrant peonies. A few darkly red, modestly proportioned roses that fill a room with their rich perfume by the evening. And last night John brought back the first, intensely fragrant sweet peas. Some have evolved into a particularly attention-seeking neon coral that doesn't seem quite the thing, but for their scent and brightness in the gloom I'll forgive them anything.

I'm also peppering my notebooks with flowers, even digging out the watercolours, inspired by brand new but long lost brushes I found tucked down the back of the desk. Something like this perhaps? And I still have Emin's embroidered flowers urging me to get back to stitching. I have the fabric, the ideas and the thread and, from next week, a little more time.

So, I've determined it will be summer inside if I can't have the real thing. I'll pretend the blazing wood burner is actually a summer campfire and sing along with Minnie (although I'll probably have a bit of a distracted cough when it comes to the difficult up and down bits.)  

Tuesday
Jun142011

familiar ground

 A weekend away in the depths of the Kent countryside; a ten minute drive from Canterbury but a curiously remote and rural world of wheat fields, high hedges and ancient lanes. We stayed just down the road from the house we once lived in. And possibly made the mistake of visiting it. Or rather, trailing muddily alongside down a footpath, peeping into the garden as we went.

I pointed out the field that Joel knows only from one of my favourite photos of him, at a little over a year, running topless back from our blackberry gathering. The greenhouse where he took his first steps and helped John water tomatoes and me pot up seeds. The gates that he walked with John to open each morning. The grounds that I wheel-barrowed him round in when he was too heavy to carry and our return journeys laden with vegetables we'd picked. Searingly vivid moments of remembered happiness stand out amidst the background grey of profound isolation I felt during our year there. And our visit brought that remembered unhappiness to the fore.

Was this the cause of my snippiness and critical eye this weekend? Easy to say so. But despite it all we managed to make a lot of happy little memories. Fresh fish on the beach at Whitstable, and discovering scores of fresh oysters hiding in the sand (reader: we left them). A trip to the new Turner Contemporary Gallery in Margate that surprised and pleased us all and Joel's first stick of rock. Tree climbing, flower sniffing and hide and seek in the glorious garden of the cottage we were staying in. No TV, computer or radio so quiet nights of reading and just a bit too much wine.

And the relief of coming home and appreciating again that then isn't now.

Monday
Jun132011

grand oasis

my photo of Russell Crotty installation, Turner Contemporary Gallery, Margate

 

 

Then I looked down and saw

the world I was entering, that would be my home.

And I turned to my companion, and I said 'Where are we?'

And he replied 'Nirvana'.

And I said again, 'But the light will give me no peace.'

 

from 'Fable' The Seven Ages, Louise Glück 

 

Wednesday
May252011

big smoke

I stepped onto London's South Bank to find myself at the seaside. Beach-huts, bunting, even a strip of sand. A very short strip - not quite the Paris city beach experience. Enough for a toddler or two, but not a sun lounger. Anyway. There was a general perkiness about the place; perhaps we were temporarily stunned by the colour scattered amongst the brutalist architecture, and by seeing both sun and blue sky for the first time in a while. 

After lunch with a friend I haven't seen in too long a time, I headed to the Hayward Gallery to see the Tracey Emin exhibition Love is What You Want. It steps away from many of the infamous pieces that have been featured so frequently and instead shows quieter, more crafted but still acutely personal works. What I returned to over and again were the large-scale sewn drawings. The juxtaposition of the beautifully finished stitching with the aching acuity of the emotions the drawings described, gave the pieces a real power. Worked onto fine, cool, vintage sheeting or blankets, some were given an unexpected, vivid and lovely scattering of applique flowers that I longed to try at home.

I found myself thinking of them in the context of the generations of women for whom sewing was, variously, a means of making a living; a solace; a necessary social skill. And I wondered at the emotions that were stitched into the fabrics I sometimes find discarded in thrift shops, or gaze at in awe in museums. Emin acknowledges this tradition, and the role of craft in her work, in an interesting Radio 4 interview

Too soon, it was time to bolt for the station. And no matter how much I enjoy my days in London, I always love to catch the train away. I lived in London for several years and have so many memories associated with it. But now, when I come home to my little house, step through my gate and hear .... nothing, except birdsong, I feel - to quote Sinatra - that yes, it's so much nicer to come home.

 

Thursday
May192011

indignity

 

There is a particular indignity that comes with having something go amiss with one's head. Today, whilst trying on a top, I entangled my hair so thoroughly in the fastenings that, head topped with top (and body exposed),  I was forced to ask the assistant for help. After a lot of pulling and tugging and leaving of hair behind I was freed. But with dignity shattered.  The assistant seemed appalled and conducted the procedure in silence. Which made it all so much worse.

Oh, and I went out with mascara only on one eye. I noticed it as I peered and plucked frantically at my hair - when I still believed there was hope of keeping my predicament to myself. I fear the stars are misaligned for me today and it's safer for everyone if I just stay indoors.

 

 

 

Tuesday
May172011

upstairs downstairs

I love to wander around an historic house but it isn't the grand reception rooms that principally draw me in. The kitchens and the servants' quarters are where I prefer to spend my time. Walking through these rooms on a recent trip to Uppark, it was the beauty of the everyday objects that compelled me. The cool smoothness of a worn chopping board; the subtle lustre of storage jugs and jars that bring to mind Vermeer's milkmaid; the weighty intricacy of a cake mould or a saucepan.

I wonder about the hands that scrubbed those boards and poured from those jugs, day after day after day. Did they sometimes appreciate the unexpected beauty of a shaft of light on a just polished pan or the satisfaction of a cake that slips, perfectly and smoothly, from its mould? Did small moments like this lift a day for them as they can for me?

Tuesday
May172011

boredom

 

Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so

After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,

we ourselves flash and yearn,

and moreover my mother told me as a boy

(repeatingly) 'Ever to confess you're bored

means you have no

Inner Resources.' I conclude now I have no

inner resources, because I am heavy bored.

People bore me,

literature bores, me, especially great literature...

John Berryman, Dream Song 14 The Dream Songs (Farrar & Strauss & Giroux 1969)

Sometimes, having nothing to do does me good.  I love an unexpected period of solitary time that allows me space to think and to plan - or just to sit with a pile of magazines and a pot of coffee. And the curious subterranean boredom of the earliest days of parenthood, when life seemed to close down to repetition interleaved with the panic of responsibility, nevertheless held a precious intensity.

But I find myself more intolerant of what truly bores me. Waiting interminably in a doctor's surgery with no-one else in it and nothing to read or in a traffic jam with no radio and lashing rain that excludes even the distraction of people watching. Or yet another evening listening to acquaintances discuss schools or cars or extensions. And yes, of books that just don't make my heart sing. Slowly I've learned (these things take longer with me I fear) I can say 'no' to the invitation that makes me groan and put down the rapturously reviewed book that I just don't like. And as for the rest? Perhaps I can use those moments to cultivate my inner zen.  

Thursday
May122011

nostalgia

Sometimes I'm caught out by a photo or a letter that slips out of a 'strictly in the past' album shelved out of reach amidst a tangle of gift bags that accumulate dustily. Today it was music. Two tracks that shuffled next to each other and sent me back to another lifetime. And the clouds gathered over my house and, for a while, the rain fell in bursts. Actually, not metaphorically. Weather and music combined synchronistically to induce a rush of nostalgia that took my breath away.

Now the sun's out again and I have a school cake sale to attend and swimming to cheer on, and risotto ingredients to buy and prepare. And life continues on.

 

 

Monday
Mar282011

good morning

Do you have a sense of how the day will unfold before you've even opened your eyes? My checklist starts the moment I begin to surface: have I slept well - do I smell burning toast (or worse, the smell of old burning crumbs) - what's with the noise? - is it raining? Then there's a nebulous sense of uneasy discomfort that's sometimes present, as expressed in Jenny Holzer's plaque. It's funny and true and self-indulgent so I typed it out and have it propped to remind me, maybe, to chill.

Once I'm up the worst is over. Unless there's no milk for coffee (or worse, no coffee) or we have visitors and I'm expected to speak, smile and make breakfast all at once. But there are things that reliably make for a good morning. Sitting outside is one of them - in silence, with coffee and an egg or two, sourdough toast or, on a weekend, a warmed croissant. The iron tang of a frosty morning is as appealing to me as the wet green of a spring day and with a bit of air, warm coffee and diverting birdly antics, I'll be happier by the minute.

Then there is light. The low slant of a winter morning or hot yellow of a hot summer day are the spurs I need to get up and get out. I stalk light around the house with my camera. It's elusive, forcing me to work fast and, at the same time, to look.  

A good morning is a fine thing. What do you need to make your morning sing? I'd love to know. Meanwhile, I'll wish you a good day and leave you with Joni.