Friday, 24 February 2012

Something unexpected in Walsall – and then it’s ‘Go West’ – but still on Assignment One

It’s almost two weeks ago now that we went, with friends, to the New Art Gallery, Walsall.  It was at my instigation, having seen a write-up of a Martin Parr exhibition of images made in the Black Country, in BJP.  That exhibition comprised four large colour prints and two slideshows running on small iPads!  Hmmm, it was beginning to feel like an embarrassment.  The gallery has an extensive collection of busts by Jacob Epstein, plus a miscellany of paintings by contemporaries, and contextual pieces about his life.  Interesting, but it wasn’t especially inspiring for the group.  There was Zarina Bhimji’s film ‘The Yellow Patch’, being premiered in partnership with the Whitechapel Gallery – stupendous photography, but we only got to it late & could only watch half!  Oh dear!

Fortunately, there was something else, within which I found a real source of unexpected inspiration.  A special exhibition, spread through three rooms, it was entitled ‘There is a Place’, with six artists featured and varied media, including paintings, drawings, prints, etc.  The title gives a clue as to why it might link with this assignment.  ‘There is a Place’ ‘... brings together a group of artists who explore our psychic connectivity to landscape...’ so reads the supporting leaflet, ‘... seemingly generic urban and suburban views which, on closer inspection, have the ability to evoke personal and collective memories.’  There it is, just what I’ve been thinking about for the assignment – ‘My neighbourhood’, from a personal perspective, but in a way that demonstrates its generic character as much as its individual exceptions.  There were, as I say, six featured artists, but one in particular must be singled out, for me; and I have to admit I had not heard of him before, despite his having been shortlisted last year for the Turner Prize – more fool me!

His name is George Shaw and this exhibition included 2 or 3 of his paintings, of which there is a good selection here, and a series of twelve etchings entitled '12 short walks'.  There is also this article about him, written interestingly by Sean O’Hagan, who writes on photography for the Guardian.  His paintings are created using Humbrol model paints, and they all feature scenes within a half mile radius of the family home in which he grew up, on the Tile Hill Estate in Coventry, as do the 12 etchings.  He takes, he says, thousands of photographs as he walks the area, and the painted images are created from those that keep ‘nagging away’ at him.

I really like his choice of subject matter – the ordinary and the mundane, made significant by his memory and his work, remaining honest to its ordinariness, yet as O’Hagan puts it ‘alive with possibility, aglow with resonance and suggestion.’  His paintings are beautifully crafted, subtly coloured (the Humbrol) yet retaining a vibrancy, in what he fully acknowledges is a pictorial style that he was using when learning art in his teens, but to which he has returned later, rediscovering an enthusiasm for painting that seems to have deserted him following art school.

He seems to be capturing the ordinary moments lest he/we let them slip by.  ‘If I hadn’t made these paintings,’ he says, ‘they would still be circling round somewhere ...’ Thankfully, for someone who clearly has a respected place in contemporary art, the work is unpretentious, highly accessible, and both engaging and rewarding for the viewer.  He says that he tries to paint images that the Professor of Fine Art could discuss with his (Shaw’s) mother and neither would be condescending to the other.  Excellent – and what a lesson for any photographer or artist who bemoans the shortage of subject matter in an urban environment.  Anyone studying OCA Photography 2 – Landscape – please look!

So, what a turn-up!  No sooner do I start on a module entitled ‘Progressing with Digital Photography than I find inspiration in a painter, and one who says ‘sometimes I look at my work and its conservatism shocks me.’

But it doesn’t end there, because the next stop is a photographer who, so far as I am aware, has never used digital – certainly not for any serious works anyway – and who works exclusively in black and white.  Coincidentally, Sean O’Hagan has recently written an article about him, too, it’s Robert Adams.  I mentioned him in the previous post, a photographer renowned for his ‘sense of place’, a phrase that crops up in the article above, but to whom I havn’t ever paid particularly close attention.  The truth is that, when I’ve come across his images, as one does regularly, I have never felt inspired, never enthused to look further.  The ‘sense of place’ label makes this a good context in which to take a closer look, and I also note that Yale University Art Gallery has put together a big retrospective called 'Robert Adams: The Place We Live'.  The links and co-incidences begin to mount up!  So, I’ve taken a little more of a look at him than I had done before.

Actually, I’ve found myself comparing the two – Robert Adams & George Shaw!  It has proved to be an interesting exercise in thinking about an assignment that relates to ‘place’.  Clearly, both demonstrate a strong interest in ‘place’. Both create images of the ordinary and the mundane, and both invite the viewer to see more.  Their low-key, ‘neutral’ style of presentation has similarities, and although in different mediums and quite different styles, both have chosen to present their images in what might be described as a rather outmoded fashion.  Shaw’s pictorialism could be at odds with many contemporary artists and Adams’ black & white images feel more in tune with the FSA in the 1920/30s than cutting edge 21st century photography.  One difference, it seems to me, is that Shaw’s subject matter is intensely personal to him, whereas Adams is working on a broader, bigger stage, dealing with ‘political’ issues in a sense.  The photography is certainly personal, but the purpose and subject seems broader.  Whilst both certainly examine ‘change’ in the landscape, Shaw seems more accepting of the change.  Where Adams, despite the beauty and craft of his images, seems genuinely anxious that we realise what we’re losing, Shaw, again operating at a personal level, seems to accept that life passes and things don’t stay the same.  Of course, Shaw starts with the urban environment.  His ‘nostalgia’ (and that might not be an entirely fair word to use) is for the urban, man-made environment in which his early memories were made, whereas Adams (and again you could say, nostalgia, but it doesn’t seem fair with him either) concern is much more to do with the natural world, and man’s impact on it.  I tend to feel that Shaw’s painted images have more ‘realism’ about them than Adams’ photographic ones.  On the face of it, one might say that Adams’ images are simple representations of what he sees – but of course they aren’t.  For a start, he is far too intelligent an individual for that anyway, but the use of these beautifully toned black and whites, in which he is openly concerned to present with an eye for ‘beauty’ seem to ‘nod’ backwards in time – or they do to me, anyway.

And that is where I seem to struggle with Robert Adams.  I can’t seem to relate to, for example, relatively recent images of damaged leaves, which are presumably intended to draw the viewer’s attention to an issue that is current, yet which suggest to the viewer that they might have been created 60 or 70 years ago.  A key difference between these two artists, for me, is my personal reaction to them!  George Shaw seems to speak directly to me and touch something deep, whereas Adams leaves me feeling cold.

At which point, I can draw conclusions, hopefully, that will help in my thoughts about Assignment One.  (I’m tempted to say – that I should paint my neighbourhood in Humbrol, but that would be plain silly!)  These are relatively simple, and even somewhat circular.  I will create seemingly simple images that observe the mundane and everyday in a ‘realistic’ manner, but which seek to speak at a personal level to the viewer, who will feel a sense of the place where I live, but perhaps also feel a sense of the place where they live, too.  Actually – good idea to have all of that in the back of the mind, but what I really need to do is get out and make some photographs, ones in which I feel personally interested because I want to make them!

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