Target Caught at the wall 100x140cm
An online interview with Inspirational magazine’s editor, John Hopper
As a youth visiting the local art gallery and the town hall, the ranks of provincial dignitaries, by turns ruddy and ochreous, each emerging from their oily black backgrounds, very nearly put me off art for life. As it was, painting was peripheral to my main studies which were geared towards the humanities. Inspired by the reportage of Cameron, Wheeler and Pilger, a career in journalism beckoned. I derailed any plans in that direction by taking a gap year to earn some money for university studies. I began to work more seriously on drawing and painting and a few weeks before my enrolment at St. Andrews University to read Modern History, I applied instead to take an arts foundation. This signposted the well-worn route through art college and to a career as an art tutor. It seemed likely that I was going to become a part-time painter, in the spare time which teaching duties allowed me.
Everybody deserves one fortunate break in their life; mine was being accepted as a trainee at BBC Television Centre in London. This was in effect my post-graduate course -with the added bonus that I was being paid a salary to study.
I was given technical training to equip me with the skills to tackle large-scale canvases. Once you have painted a backdrop 60ft high by 250ft long, large scale work holds no terrors. I used to agonise over every brushstroke at college. As a scenic artist, up against real deadlines, that thinking time was a luxury I could no longer afford. Working to the clock is an essential concept which all professional artists need to grasp as quickly as possible. Scenic painting was a career which entailed me drawing and painting every day of my working life. Not many art tutors are able to do that. There was also a degree of professional peer recognition at play. Two projects on which I headed the scenic artwork team won BAFTA awards for the designer to which I was directly responsible; “Portrait of a Marriage” 1989; and “Persuasion” 1994.
This career which lasted for fourteen years provided opportunities for me to develop trompe-l’oeil techniques and visual trickery on an industrial scale. The working environment with its faintly surreal visual discordances between reality and illusion has provided me with much source material ever since. “Smoke and Mirrors”, with its theatre played in front of a canvas backdrop and cut-out clouds is an example.
Smoke and Mirrors 176x142cm
It seems natural to me that an artist should relate their ideas to a fellow human using the figure as a vehicle. The use of an abstract visual language never offered me the required vocabulary with which to make my thoughts communicable. It lacks the necessary element of deception.
For many years , portraiture featured quite prominently in my art. The face and, to a lesser extent, the hands are features with which we make connection with each other. I explored physical flaws and minor blemishes across the surfaces of even the most attractive of individuals. Needless to say, my talents were not in great demand, though because I have always operated outside the gallery system and never needed to produce saleable product, this wasn’t a problem for me.
With recent work, a sense of anonymity is more important than an accumulation of individual details. Facial features may be obscured by shadow to present the figure as an ‘everyman’ or ‘everywoman’ so that the audience may more easily identify with the motif’s situation. lighting is arranged to cast shadows which veil any evidence of individuality.
Though my first love was the immediacy of drawing, and I have worked in the disciplines of video and graphic novels, Painting is the medium I always return to. It is primitive; in essence, it is the use of coloured mud refined with some basic chemistry. Some of it was already available to our oldest ancestors.. It has a history. I know how old-fashioned this hands-on concept of making is in the age of the lithium-ion battery, the iPad and the Corel Painting Suite, but a medium which can encompass surfaces as varied as those of Van Eyck, Rembrandt, Auerbach and Close has me under its perpetual spell. From the very first, I was enraptured by its potential to create a variety of effects far exceeding its twentieth century nemesis, film emulsion.
I suppose I am now closely associated with paintings which focus on the male form. This hasn’t always been the case. Because I tend to work direct from models rather than from images generated in my head, my figure painting has always been governed by the models available to me. At foundation, my life drawings were all studies of the female form as there were no male models available to us. At Kingston upon Hull college, the most reliable model was male. Because the staff there had a low regard for figurative painting, I was able to utilise him on a one-to-one basis for almost two years. Thereafter, the gender ratio featuring across my work was about 50:50. Recently, I have been using myself as a model, working with video to produce stills as source material. Photographs provide only a certain degree of information for the artist to use, but life drawing experience informs the eye and compensates for that shortfall. I can now see a photograph and know how the surface contour of that shoulder muscle disappears beyond the shown outline of that figure.
The use of self as model was a response to my need to work with more extreme poses which I could not expect anyone else to hold for long. [The ‘Consignment’ series required me to film my movements around the interior of a 1 metre cubed crate. ‘The closely paired projects, Target’ and ‘Barcode’ employ body shapes which would be difficult to hold for any length of time] As it is these recent works which have received most coverage, it is the male nude with which I am most closely associated.
A viewer stood in front of an artwork brings his or her life experiences to the table; -they cannot possibly help it. Their circumstances, or their specific mood at the moment of encounter, are bound to colour the verdict they deliver on one’s work. I fully embrace this meeting of minds by presenting works with just enough ambiguity to encourage an audience to complete the picture. In this very real sense, all art is collaborative.
Nothing dates quite so badly as overtly political painting. The moment passes, the target moves on and the artwork is rendered redundant. Polemical, didactic art by definition reveals its content immediately, leaving nothing to revisit. Of course my oeuvre is punctuated with projects which address socio-political issues and I hope that I have communicated these successfully.
Consignment: Batch 31 unit3 60x60cm
Although I hope that my work can be appreciated on a purely aesthetic level, much of my work is propelled by socio-political subtext. I suppose I have always found myself rooting for the underdog. The poor, the oppressed, the isolated, the outsider barely clinging on to the edge of the social structure. Consignment” developed from an initial theme of escapology into a response to human trafficking and extraordinary rendition. “Smoke and Mirrors” addressed political spin, social disenfranchisement, the ecological movement and feminism, with specific characters representing particular social traits.
Consignment is a multi-media project comprising paintings, prints and film. The work The composition of the figure physically enclosed within the confines of the frame, was chosen for its universality; it suggests simultaneously both cell and refuge or hiding place. It is employed here as a visual metaphor for the individual as the object of:
1 political oppression; the suspension of human liberties and the enforced submission of the individual.
2 human trafficking. The high risk strategies employed in acts of global transmigration, either voluntary or coerced, place people in situations of extreme endurance; conditions into which they are willing to place themselves and/or others, in the vain hope of improving their economic circumstances.
Barcode [Red Ground] 59x88cm
The Barcode series reflects our unquestioning complicity in a socio -economic system where the individual is reduced to a mere unit of production and consumption, with a given value like any other commodity. The paintings are designed to act as a warning of this process. If the audience grasps these concepts, fine. If a viewer judges my output simply on aesthetic grounds of colour and composition, That is also their prerogative. These are artworks, not polemics.
People are hardwired to construct narratives from any likely source material and paintings like “The Death of Richthofen” and “Human Bridge” offer themselves as a frozen present point in time. The viewer is invited to conjecture upon what preceded this moment, and what will happen next.
Human Bridge 122x122cm
Death of Richthofen 176x112cm
During the lockdown I have been revisiting a project which I commenced a couple of years ago.
“Target” began as a response to conventional state surveillance of the individual through comprehensive CCTV systems employed throughout the ‘free’ West. It also referenced attempts by various agencies to track footprints through cyberspace. This accumulated data, together with information freely offered up by the subjects themselves, processed through the use of sophisticated algorithms, produces a specific profile which can be sold on to companies. If this is a retail corporation, they may offer more or less meretricious commercial rewards. In the hands of those controlling state apparatus and financial interests, the consequences may be far less benevolent.
The emphasis of this suite has subtly shifted towards the aspects of isolation and control implicit in current government policy. The limitations on travel [with the glaring exceptions of certain individuals close to the seat of power at Westminster] and the restrictions on assembly may seem perfectly valid, but this is preventing the operation of restraints on state activity which are the essence of our democracy. As the Covid19 message is being waved up against your face with one hand to divert your attention, do not be distracted away from what the other hand may be doing out of direct sight…
Lockdown has curtailed much exhibition activity, but my next exhibition will be with “Room 103: a tribute to the work of George Orwell”. This began as an online gallery blog which I curate, where like-minded artists could display any work reflecting themes to be found in Orwell’s writings. Each artist provided a brief statement on how Orwell has influenced either their practice generally, or a specific body of artwork in particular. Images accompanied their text. From the beginning, I saw this as a virtual window display to attract the attention of a bricks and mortar gallery. Consequently, I have curated selections from “Room 103” In galleries in Manchester and Leeds, and at the University of Oxford. A further exhibition has been arranged for before the end of the year in Pembrokeshire, Wales.
I regularly show with:
Saul Hay Gallery, Manchester
Royal Birmingham Society of Artists: Group shows, based in the Jewellery Quarter of Birmingham
Royal Watercolour society of Wales: exhibits throughout Wales with European exchanges
John Hopper – Inspirational editor. Supporting the working artist.
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