Saturday, 16 September 2017

'From The New School' Paintings At Rushey Mead Academy

All Images: 'From The New School 1, 4, 3, 6, 5, 2', Acrylic, Inkjet Print & Paper Collage, 2017.
Rushed Mead Academy (Teaching School), Leicester, September 2017

I regularly allude to my day job in a large Leicester Secondary School - possibly with a suggestion of ambivalence on occasions.  It’s not that I dislike my job at all – I couldn’t have stuck around for eleven years if that were the case.  It’s probably just that, like most amateur artists – I’m often slightly conflicted over the need to pay the bills, and the time taken up with that - when I might be producing art instead.

However, I’m pretty lucky really - not least with the people I work alongside on a daily basis, and the interest and encouragement they often express regarding my own creative endeavours.  My role as a Technician inevitably has its menial and routine aspects and, sadly - no one will ever get rich on the kind of wage it commands.  But the upside is, it still allows me the mental space to remain a creative entity.  And beyond that, I’m regularly invited to apply my subject knowledge to my dealings with teachers and students alike, and am generally encouraged to regard myself as an artist working within the faculty, rather than just “that guy wot cleans the paintbrushes”.  Another of the more rewarding aspects of my role is periodically being invited to contribute to enriching the school environment - something that has included a significant commission in recent years.  This post relates to the latest move in that direction.

I’ve already showcased the six existing pieces in my ‘From The NewSchool’ series (along with some of the thinking behind them), as they were produced earlier in the year.  Although work on the series has given way to other activities over the summer, It’s still very much a live project.  It’s definitely something to which I intend to return, and I envisage the series ultimately extending much further than it currently does.  However, for now, it was gratifying to be asked to display the existing panels on one of the school walls, on a kind of long-term loan arrangement.

This is all somewhat appropriate, given that each of the panels was actually produced on the premises, during lunch breaks and after hours.  As they also encapsulate certain possible questions about the purposes of, and theoretical justifications for education, it seems fitting that they should hang in the building housing the Teaching School arm of the overall Academy.  It’s also really useful for me to see them on a wall, in a quasi-exhibition context (and a pretty clean, white wall at that!).  Most artists will tell you it’s impossible to fully evaluate any piece of work until you’ve seen it trying to hold its own - out there in the world. 

I’ll conclude this post with the short information text that accompanies this hang.  Before I do so, I should also thank Head of Art, Tim Durham; and Jolan Woolridge, Leicester SCITT Director – and a teacher of Art in her own right.  Both proved keen advocates of the work, and were instrumental in pushing for its installation.

Hugh Marwood

Hugh completed a Degree in Fine Art at Bristol Polytechnic in 1984, and has worked as a Technician in Art and Design-Technology at Rushey Mead Academy, since 2016.  Much of his free time is devoted to producing his own artwork.  In 2015 he completed a major commission for the school, situated in the Art Dept.

‘From The New School’ Series

(L – R):  ‘Untitled (From The New School) 1, 4, 3, 6, 5, 2’ 

Acrylics, Inkjet Print & Paper Collage On Panel, 2017

The paintings by Hugh exhibited here, belong to an ongoing series, which also represents part of a collaboration with fellow Birmingham-based artist, Andrew Smith.  The intention is that each artist should periodically reinterpret or ‘remix’ a piece of work by the other.  The original inspiration here is Andrew’s painting, ‘The New School’ (2016).

Andrew Smith, 'The New School',
Acrylics & Digital Print On Canvas, 2016

Hugh has extracted Andrew’s central, motif, and plans to repeatedly reinterpret it within a standard compositional format - exploring a wide range of media, methods, and modes of depiction.  Each panel should suggest its own mood, or possible meanings.

The title, ‘The New School’, and the suggestion of architecture in each image, might relate to the ongoing processes of expansion and physical transformation imposed on many establishments like this one in recent years.  However, the shifting aesthetic within the series, may also reflect the ever-changing theoretical, philosophical, or political contexts in which Education must exist.  Each generation promotes new schools of thought regarding the value and purposes of Education, just as it erects new school buildings.

Hundreds of staff and students move through these buildings each day, as the structures and the systems operating within them, continue to evolve.  Perhaps the most important consideration should always be, “What is it all for?”

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Asylum Steampunk Festival 2017 (The British At Play)

All Images: Asylum Steampunk Festival, Lincoln, August 2017

I’m running a bit late with my posts at the moment, so apologies for this one being already three weeks shy of the event it reports on.  It relates to my recent afternoon spent at Lincoln’s Asylum Steampunk Festival – a repeat of a similar excursion, two years ago.  Just as then, it felt like it would be an entertaining enough way to round off the summer holidays – and waking to one of the sunniest days in August sealed the deal.  So - I jumped in the car and zoomed over to the old hometown.

I have no personal involvement with Steampunk, as a subculture - other than as a spectator.  However, the numerous eccentrics, exhibitionists and fantasists who have, constitute an enjoyable spectacle, as they promenade around the quaint environs of Lincoln’s historic centre.  Investment in a wristband, to gain admission to the various organised events and dedicated venues, would - I imagine, bring one in contact with the movement’s real hardcore.  However, as before, I contented myself with simply strolling amongst the crowds in Castle Square, around the Cathedral, and along Westgate –pausing for the occasional tea break, and  taking numerous photos.  Some of the results can be seen here.

If I’m honest, the initial impact on me was just slightly reduced this time - but I suspect that’s just the result of a certain familiarity, rather than any real lack of enthusiasm or involvement on the part the participants.  Certainly, much raiding of the dressing-up box had still clearly taken place.  I do wonder though, if (as all subcultures must) the Steampunk phenomenon has lost a little of its initial creative spark – possibly defaulting to a set of relatively predictable tropes.  Thus, amongst the copious standard-issue waistcoats, flamboyant skirts, goggles and brass cog accessories, it was pleasing to come across the occasional spark of genuine inventiveness or attention to detail.

Special mention should thus go to the young woman in the slightly ramshackle, but pleasingly alternative, glazed cast-iron headdress.  Another, in an absolutely immaculate, oriental-themed ensemble, also impressed me - not least for the sheer amount of effort that had gone in.  I was not alone, as she became effectively trapped at the Cathedral’s west front - expertly posing for an endless series of impromptu photo-shoots.  I can only hope she won some kind of prize over the festival weekend.

It did strike me that, for many, the more fantastical aesthetics of Steampunk can blend all too seamlessly into a rather more generalised strain of Victoriana.  In fact, as I sipped my cuppa in front of my old junior school, I was intrigued by an overheard conversation nearby.  It revealed that, for one party at least, this gathering was just another slot in a packed calendar of re-enactment events, that might see her dipping in and out of numerous historical periods.  (This week - The Age of Steam: next week - The Wars of the Roses).

This in turn, led me to reflect on how, for the British, so much leisure time is spent longingly projecting into the past.  If Steampunk could be identified as one of the last real subcultural flowerings, it is one with a distinct nostalgia for a supposed golden age at its heart.  Certainly, there is little about it that could be said to actively critique current society (other than a desire to escape from it).  I also sense that, these days any hauntological intent, or sense of an alternative future haunted by the technology of the past, is somewhat diluted.  The overall vibe seems now to have defaulted to do a fairly generic affection for corsetry, brass fittings and quasi-military costumes.

Look a little harder, and more critically, and one’s eye also fixes on the preponderance of union jacks and the unmistakable fetishisation of Britain’s Imperial past.  Is it just me, (possibly squinting too hard through the filter of my current artistic preoccupations) – or is this all slightly problematic in our current, distinctly fractured, socio-political moment?  Certainly, I find it hard to regard any age defined by bellicosity and expansionism as a golden one [1.].  Under the jolly, picturesque surface, could it all really be just another (if slightly alternative) symptom of that defining British disease – terminal nostalgia?

Ultimately though, it probably doesn’t do to get too po-faced about it all.  I doubt many of the Steampunks feel the need too delve too self-analytically into the motives behind their pastime.  And the general mood in Lincoln was seemingly one of relaxed theatricality - rather than of strident jingoism or aggressive xenophobia. It's also important to remember that most subcultures have a darker side.  A degree of transgression is part of the deal, after all.  In fact, it may be that those troubling strands of British consciousness are more likely to be unearthed amongst the civilians on housing estates, in anonymous suburbs, or dining at weekend carveries - than amongst the cheery oddballs at the Asylum.

[1.]:  Given the choice, I'll take the Post War Consensus and The Welfare State (for all their defects) any day of the week.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

The Failure And Success Of Alberto Giacometti (Stanley Tucci: 'Final Portrait')

Alberto Giacometti, 'Portrait Of James Lord', Oil On Canvas, 1964

There are certain artists I always come back to over the years, regardless of how much, or how little, they influence my own work directly.  The sculptor [1.], Alberto Giacometti is one, so it’s no surprise I found myself at Leicester’s Phoenix media centre the other night, to watch Stanley Tucci’s film, ‘Final Portrait’ [2.].

Actually, it’s been a good year for Giacometti enthusiasts - with Tate Modern also staging themost recent in a series of excellent retrospectives that I’ve attended across the decades [3.].  Whilst I (seemingly alone) have a few reservations about the way the work was displayed in the Tate survey, I have very few about the actual selection.  And I definitely have none at all about the enduring power of those works to move me profoundly – even those with which I have become very familiar through repeat encounters.

'Giacometti' Exhibition, Tate Modern, London, 2017

Alberto Giacometti, 'Bust Of Diego', Plaster, c.1956

It was a thrill to experience once more, the particular variety of perceptual ambiguity exerted by Giacometti’s blade-form portrait busts, the disturbing sense of sexually-charged alienation embodied by ‘Four Figurines On A Stand’, [4.] or the inexplicable power of a tiny head to hold one it’s thrall from the far side of a crowded room.  All that sense of human presence, of energised space around his figures, or of one’s grip on perceived reality slipping away, the harder one stares, should be getting old by now – but it all still moves me every time.

Alberto Giacometti, 'Four Figurines On A Stand', Cast Bronze, 1950-66

'Giacometti' Exhibition, Tate Modern, London, 2017

Clearly, Giacometti’s work and preoccupations have little correspondence with my own current output.  However, as a student, and for many subsequent years of wrestling unsuccessfully with my own hang-ups about drawing, and how to even make art at all, he did seem to represent a kind of mountain I might yearn to climb – but never successfully scale.  The irony is, of course, that he was beset by much the same kind of self-doubt, even whilst operating at an elevation of which I (and most others) might only dream.  In fact, as Tucci’s film serves to reinforce – he really is the No.1 poster boy for a particular form of angst-ridden artistic authenticity.

Ernst Scheidegger, 'Giacometti In His Studio', 1958, (Foundation Ernst Scheidender/
Giacometti Estate

It’s a habit of thought in which it’s hopeless to even dream of producing anything of real value; in which all attempts are doomed to failure; in which the very task one has set oneself is impossible; and yet one that still compels an individual artist to sacrifice their whole life, happiness, and even sanity, in its pursuit.  It manifests itself in works which, however profound their effect on others, mostly feel like disappointments, wrong turnings, or aborted excursions along the way - and in a sense that the struggle is far more significant than any individual artefact thrown-up.

'Giacometti' Exhibition, Tate Modern, London, 2017

All this focus on futility, despair, and other such portentous stuff, clearly ties into what philosophers call Existentialism.  At its most profound, and in the hands of its most sincere exponents (Giacometti, Samuel Becket, Harold Pinter, even Ian Curtis, perhaps), it can cut deeper and more uncompromisingly than most other stuff.  It notably captured a distinct twentieth century zeitgeist, and Giacometti has often been identified as one of the few visual artists to fully engage with the genocidal implications of World War 2, in its immediate aftermath.  If he did so, it was through a stripping-away of everything other bar the essentials of human existence (what it is to simply inhabit this body, in this space).  Of course, all that soul searching can all too easily slip into affectation too (something that, the film suggests, even Giacometti was aware of).  It can become a performance or a form of indulgent self-sabotage.  It can surely become an alibi for failing to complete, or to advance by setting achievable goals.  Indeed, “If I can’t be as good as I want to be, it’s all meaningless – so I won’t do anything at all”, was my own sulky mantra for far too many years - I now realise.

Geoffrey Rush As Giacometti In: Stanley Tucci (Dir.), 'Final Portrait', 2017

‘Final Portrait’, might therefore just have been a vicarious excursion through the entertaining psychosis of yet another obsessive artist.  Certainly, it pulls few punches in examining Giacometti’s legendry eccentricities, and Geoffrey Rush brings an intensity commensurate to that of his subject’s reputation.  We first encounter him as a shuffling, hunched ruin of a man, who proceeds to chain-smoke and hack his way through the remainder of the movie – one minute frozen in despondent immobility – the next, leaping impulsively into an outburst of frustrated anger, or some inexplicable action.

But we’re far from the Hollywood excesses of ‘Lust For Life’ [5.] or ‘The Agony And The Ecstasy’ [6.] here.  This film is actually based on American author, James Lord’s celebrated factual account of sitting for a painting, ‘A Giacometti Portrait’; late in the artist’s own life.  I think he’s generally accepted as a pretty reliable narrator.  Aside from those periodic demonstrations of ‘artistic temperament’ and the bohemian lifestyle choices, the real experience of modeling for Giacometti, it would appear, was one of a baffling endurance test.  As his wife Annette, and heroically stoic brother (and studio technician), Diego attest, the artist really knew how to torture his sitters.

(L.) Armie Hammer As James Lord, And (R.) Geoffrey Rush As Giacometti, In:
Stanley Tucci (Dir.), 'Final Portrait', 2017

Thus, Lord finds himself sequestered in the Spartan, cave–like environs of the Giacometti atelier - a place where the standard rules of time, consideration of a model’s other commitments, and clearly defined deadlines, are all sacrificed to the artist’s obsession.  The insights into Giacometti’s unorthodox domestic arrangements, openly triangular (and emotionally abusive) love life, and totally cavalier disregard for money, actually represent colourful, if disturbing, punctuations, it transpires.  Otherwise, it’s mostly an interminable process of sitting immobile, as the days tick by and the artist goes through his cycles of attempting to really ‘start’ (drawing with the small black brush) and collapsing in despair at the impossibility of his task (obliterating with the large, grey brush).  It might be ‘Waiting For Godot’, by another name.

(L.) Sylvie Testud As Annette, And (R.) Geoffrey Rush As Giacometti, In:
Stanley Tucci (Dir.), 'Final Portrait', 2017

It would be foolish to ignore the fact that, aside from creating a cauldron of existential drama/non-drama, within four walls – the film’s other real strength lies in the power of its five main performances.  Geoffrey Rush himself pulls-out what feels like one of those ‘career-defining’ turns as Giacometti - tempering the forbidding aspects of his subject with moments of genuine vulnerability, and even wry amusement at his own acknowledged character defects.  His achievement is to depict with considerable nuance, his selfish disregard for the feelings of others, and apparent appreciation of the sacrifices and discomfort they endure on his behalf.  We are left with the sense of a fallible but deeply ‘human’ personality (if not exactly a humane one).

Alberto Giacometti, 'Portrait Of Annette', Oil On Canvas, 1964

Alongside him, Armie Hammer depicts the growing exasperation of the initially urbane Lord with aplomb, whilst Tony Shaloub proves eminently convincing as the disengaged, but palpably benign Diego.  Clemence Poesy’s depiction of Giacometti’s paid-for mistress, Caroline, has a certain built-in caricature quality, but is enjoyable nonetheless.  Sylvie Testud, on the other hand, feels immensely relatable as his wife, Annette.  She’s a woman carelessly spurned, and yet heroically aware of her enduring importance as the mainstay of Giacometti’s domestic (and, as we discover - emotional) wellbeing.  It’s a tough role to play with dignity over victimhood – in drama, as in life.

Alberto Giacometti, 'Caroline', Oil On Canvas, 1965

Actually, for me, there’s a sixth member of the cast – namely, the recreation of post-war bohemian Paris.  The surrounding streets and cafés of Montparnasse reek of seductive bohemia, but shun excessive romanticism - preferring a more convincingly gritty squalor  [7.].  The Studio and adjacent courtyard, at Rue Hyppolite Maindron, appear to have been very faithfully reconstructed from various familiar documentary photos.  And while we’re at it - whomever did Mr. Rush’s costume, hair and make-up would definitely get my vote for Oscars.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, 'Portrait Of Alberto Giacometti', 1961

I’m sure many keen moviegoers will have succumbed to the perennial temptation to adopt the demeanor of a favourite character, on emerging into the ‘real world’.  So it may just be that I exited Phoenix with a slight Existentialist’s trudge, or possibly surveyed the car park with a particular weary gaze.  However, the fact is I no longer really identify with all that stuff.  My own creative re-awakening actually came when I consciously gave up fetishising ‘the struggle’, accepting that it’s okay to actually finish things - and even to take pleasure in the process, and in one’s achievement.  If something’s not good enough, these days – that’s just a reason to look forward to making something else.  Certainly, my own work no longer aspires to looking or proceeding anything like Giacometti’s (like that was ever possible!) - and I’m happy to just try to make the kind of art I probably should have been making all along (for better or worse).

Geoffrey Rush As Giacometti In, Stanley Tucci (Dir.),  'Final Portrait' 2017

My  love for Giacometti's oeuvre, and my fascination with the various accounts of his life and times, remain undiminished though.  I no longer want to live and work that way - but I'm glad he did.

Alberto Giacometti, 'Small Man On Plinth', Cast Bronze, c. 1939-45

[1.]:  Giacometti painted a lot for someone primarily thought of as a sculptor.   They must be some of the least 'painterly' canvases ever made however.  Anyway, it's my view that (in terms of his his mature work, at least), pretty much everything he did was actually drawing - regardless of the medium. 

[2.]:  Stanley Tucci (Dir.), 'Final Portrait', UK, Olive Productions, Potboiler Productions, Riverstone Pictures, 2017

[3.]:  'Giacometti', Tate Modern, London, Until 10. 09.17.  (There's still just time, if you're quick).

[4.]:  Famously, Giacometti linked this piece to a memory of viewing four prostitutes in a brothel.  It was an experience, he claimed - in which sexual desire was combined with a sense of the seemingly uncrossable distance in the room, between himself and the women.  Giacometti's psycho-sexual hinterland - and indeed, his sexual politics - were more than somewhat 'complex'.  His four figurines are both remote, and quite literally - on a pedestal.

[5.]:  'Vincente Minelli (With George Cukor) (Dir.), 'Lust For Life', U.S., John Houseman/MGM, 1956).  Kirk Douglas does his best raving madman impression, in Hollywood's depiction of the life of Vincent Van Gogh.

[6.]:  Carol Reed (Dir.), 'The Agony And The Ecstasy', U.S., Carol Reed/C20 Fox, 1965.  A physically implausible Charlton Heston, as Michelangelo, tries to complete the Sistine Chapel ceiling, as Rex Harrison's Pope Julius II looks on in exasperation.

[7.]:  It turns out the best way to recapture the flavour of post-war Montparnasse, is to shoot your film in Stoke Newington.  Who knew?