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Magical realism, autobiography and biography

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My most recent project still remains an expression of ‘magical realism’ but the emphasis has changed: over the past two weeks I have gradually moved away from the idea of a phantasy-laden ‘dreamscape’; in its place I have been constructing forms of portraiture – or, at least, ‘portrayals of persons.’ Initially I had the pleasure of making a romanticised type of work that sought to embrace a number of themes: for example, I had melded time-past and time-present and produced work that reflected certain idiosyncratic aspects of my imagination. I had focused on myself and an acquaintance of mine – a young Taiwanese fashion student who was following a course of study at UCA.  After I had developed a rationale for my work I became very absorbed – overtaken even – by questions of aesthetics. I enjoyed relating my work to certain manifestations of recent iconography. There was also a fair ‘dose’ of classical Freudian psychoanalysis that was embodied in my work. I had made conscious use of this: one screen print of Celia, for example, quoted from Bunuel’s ‘le chien andalou’ …)

But then I started to feel as if I was really finding a dubious rationale for everything that I was doing; something was disquieting me; I was troubled by questions of authenticity. I was troubled because I had come to realise that I was mainly developing a series of portraits – both of myself and of Celia – the young woman from Taiwan. I was, I think, making work that was both autobiographical and biographical. (When I look back I rather regret my loss of confidence in what I had achieved. But there it is! )

So, I completed the more autobiographical work by paying attention to the fact that I enjoy the inner process of following trains of thought – and I focused on Celia as a young person ‘wired’ into the world of fashion whilst simultaneously living in the post-Sontagian ethos of the ‘new aesthetics’ i.e. the ‘now’ of the super-saturated digitised image-world.

I also turned to develop an additional series of screen prints featuring the artist Meng Zhang. I had worked with the intriguing Meng in various ways over the past four months. (We enjoy each others’ company.) I had great pleasure in choosing an attractive image of her – and especially an image that reflects certain of her current interests and personality characteristics. I then set about making screen-print portrayals of her.

The production of each and every print was (and is) always challenging but really enjoyable. Technically, the making of the screen prints was (and is) never really straightforward. I had to prepare backgrounds and estimate what any additions to the backgrounds (the process of collage) would achieve prior to the actual printing. What is more, each image is a unique piece: there is a certain degree of chance involved in producing each print and a successful outcome is never guaranteed. Will the merging of the colour ‘work’ with that of the background? Will the specific applications of paint enhance the image or just ‘look’ wrong? Will the designs actually satisfy complex and elusive aesthetic criteria? Do the images genuinely describe their subject? – and so on.

At present I have made up to five good prints of myself, of Celia and of Meng. They do achieve one thing: they suggest the shifting identities on the part of each person under review. They almost certainly reflect the kind of image each person likes to have of him or herself. To that extent they serve as a ‘document’ of time-present – a time that is informed by time-past and time-future.

For the time being (at least) I have resolved a way of conceptualising my work: it is simply: 3 experiments in magical realism.

Footnote: The photo above is my screen print (number 3) of Meng Zhang. The photo upon which it is based was taken in Paris, France in December 2019.

‘Last night, a dream …’

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I learned most of my ideas about human psychology from literature; when I was 19 years old I realised that I was far too ignorant and far too poorly educated. I could see quite clearly that if I wanted to participate fully in the best kinds of discussion I needed to learn from the world’s great literature. So, I read and read. I read terrific novels for at least two years – and I have continued reading them. (But, once my professional work began in earnest, I had to study, carefully, the subjects of which I would have to give lectures and lecture courses; in consequence, the reading of great literature has had to take second place.) Sigmund Freud has continuously supplemented my knowledge – and engaging with his discourse on subjects like ‘narcissism’ and the ‘psychopathology of everyday life’ has been great fun.

From Dostoyevsky I learned about ways of describing the ‘inner life’; I loved the way he would identify streams of thought – thoughts that take on a life of their own; From Tolstoy I learned how to think about varieties of personality, temperament and disposition; and, from a far more recent source, I learned about a character with whom I could identify: in this case the character was a writer who would experience moments of ‘dreaminess;’ An escapist dreaminess would overtake him. It overtakes me too; in fact, if the exigencies of life are so configured that I cannot drift off into phantasy and the pleasures of pure imagination, I begin to feel a sense of frustration.

I think that one of the reasons I like certain songs so much is that a lyric – a fragment from the words of a song – is sufficient for me to have pure imaginative pleasure. For example, REM’s song ‘Losing my religion’ has the line ‘just a dream, just a dream’ and it yields a perfect moment for me. Emmylou Harris’ ‘Michelangelo‘ has the same effect. And Bob Dylan’s ‘She belongs to me’ has the line, ‘She wears an Egyptian ring that sparkles before she speaks.’ I love that line.

This ‘dreaminess’ of mine is really the background to my most recent art work, ‘Last night, a dream …’ This work is scheduled to be shown in late March at UCA.

I decided to meld time past and time present into a series of screen prints. There are prints of me based on a photo of myself in the desert. The photo was taken in Wadi Rum, Jordan; I was dressed as ‘the Englishman’ – who has borrowed his ideas from a rather conventional visual tradition of the individual-as-romantic outsider. In Wadi Rum I was allowed to have moments of dreaminess – from midday sun to twilight and then to dawn. And whilst I was there (and since) I listened again to Bob Dylan – and the song which features his girl with the Egyptian ring. Then, in October 2019 I had the unexpected moment of meeting Celia – and experiencing her sheer charm … and feeling a new kind of dawn. There are screen-prints of her too. I think she wears an Egyptian ring …

Is the work about a recurring dream? Is is about the way the material and the metaphysical combine? Is it about the fragmentary life of my imagination? Is it a disguised response to Freud’s ‘The interpretation of dreams’? It certainly seems to be a kind of ‘magical realism.’ It also harmonies with the idea of an ‘unsettled focus’: I’m not sure what whomsoever may see the work is expected to focus upon. But that’s part of the intention. Overall the forthcoming  MA show is entitled, ‘Unsettling focus‘.

And I have enjoyed wondering how I can bring to life a strange elusive dialogue between myself and this beautiful woman who comes to me, both in imagination (my dreaminess) and in my actual dreams …

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An email conversation with Peter V. about art

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I had mentioned to the writer Peter V. that I thought a great deal of art (high art, elite art) had become a strangely conventional form of following a kind of fashion: the new aesthetics, ‘spectacularisation’, existential fed-up-ness etc. …). I said that I was inclined to avoid this; after all, as Musashi had long ago stated: ‘Do not act following customary beliefs.

Peter replied in January 2020 by email. Here is his message:

Dear Rob – here are my ‘rules of art’:

1 There are no rules
2 Don’t join a school – be one
3 Paint what you see
4 Every picture tells a story
5 The picture will tell the artist when the work is finished …

… and do keep in mind Musashi’s rules:

7 Perceive those things that cannot be seen
8 Pay attention even to trifles
9 Do nothing which is of no use

All the best,
Peter

I thought about his comments; I thought that they were very stimulating  – and I started to put together my work on magical realism. I replied, by email, to Peter on 8 February 2020 as follows:

Hello Peter,

The storm is lurking. At least we have had a few lovely days full of sunshine and the blessing of a fine crisp morning air.

I suppose my main news is the ongoing experience of the MA. I don’t regret doing it and I am surprised at how generous the resources at UCA really are. For example, the technical tutors made huge plinths for me as well as shelves and supplied the paint for my recent show on ‘Intimate narratives‘ – all at no cost. The screen-print tutors have been on hand to help me or to give me advice throughout the last 3 full days – and the facilities for giving a presentation and lecture on the day of our recent symposium were and are superb (as was the venue.)

I have also been struck by the nature of the younger students that I have met; they are studying subjects like illustration or textiles or animation and they are surprisingly positive and agreeable. Often they smile – and are even willing to engage with an old chap like me! There is a good mix of nationalities and ethnicities and, in the very large majority of cases, the students work hard – and in a very focused way. I am pleased, now, to be aware of the processes that generate the people who work in the creative industries – graphic design, illustration, product design, fashion, animation, computer games, ceramics, glass, pottery, and all manner of 3D work.

Fine Art (my domain) now occupies a rather strange place; since all the other fields produce highly skilled, very effective technical outputs (for example, the illustrators produce better (well, more polished) figurative stuff than the Fine Art artists) the only thriving refuge for Fine Art is in expressions of the weird, wonderful, bizarre, unexpected, spectacular, plain odd, recondite or esoteric. There is some room for expressing intellectual ideas as well as personal phantasies. (I like the last two areas.) It is as if the Fine Artist follows an idea or concern and then finds a quirky or allusive way of ‘showing’ and expressing it. There is also space for a kind of ‘howl’ or ‘moan’ about life … as there is for grappling with that which is taboo.

So, it has been testing, demanding and exhilarating. I am now making a piece called: ‘Magical realism: last night I dreamed of shooting Lawrence of Arabia.’

Could I make it as an artist? Possibly yes. My interim shows have given me some hope! Would I be well-equipped to participate and thrive in the Fine Art world? Probably not! (I might have been a successful player if I had been under the age of 45 or so.) But anyway, that’s not why I am doing the course.

Well, as usual, thank you for your generous support and pithy trenchant comments,

with very best wishes,

R

Footnote: The photo above shows a segment of my work concerning a portrayal of Celia, the young Taiwanese woman; the photo below shows part of my ‘semi-random biographies’ that was shown in the ‘Intimate narratives’ group show.

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An Autobiography: Chapter 61

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Chapter 57: Shooting Lawrence of Arabia – along with a Self-portrait in yellow and a hat.

Fine Art is freedom: Freedom from constraint and freedom to express whatever. (But it all unravels as soon as anyone stops to think about the concept of ‘freedom’ and the nature of persons and their forms of sanity. Sanity implies some sort of reality principle and that means facing up to the constraints of the real world.)

Anyway, as soon as I turned to consider self-portraits and the Fine Art ‘freedom’ of making a self-portrait I searched around for examples of my visual appearance. I came across a photo of me taken just before I hitchhiked from Wadi Rum in Jordan down to the seaside town of Aqaba. I had spent 24 hours in the desert and I was wearing a great hat and an even better scarf. The subject lent itself to a bold screen print. (The original appeal of going to Wadi Rum was because it was supposed to be beautiful in an unique way. So I left the wonderful tranquility of the wild life reserve of Dana in Jordan, stayed 3 days in Petra, and then I caught a south-bound bus and found a person who arranged trips into the great expanse of Wadi Rum.)

Here is my account of the twilight hours of that desert trip.

‘The sun was setting. I felt as if I was setting with it. The bright disk of the sun rested for a moment on top of the distant cliffs. It looked like a huge satellite dish that had finally overdosed on TV channels.

I sat down on a small rock. Presently I questioned the wisdom of sitting down, insouciantly, on a rock in the desert. Maybe there were scorpions fallen from the stars that had made their homes right there, underneath that rock, in the desert. Maybe the very rock I was sitting on was a palace, a shopping mall, or a holiday resort for scorpions.

I stood up and pushed the rock over. No, there were no scorpions. The rock looked 100% uninhabited. This, I knew, was an illusion. God knows how many trillions of tiny beings were going about their business on the lifeless surfaces of that rock.

I sat down again on the rock and watched the sky turning roxy-red and purple-velvet. I sighed – just for a moment. It was a special sigh: It was all very simple: I was sitting on a rock, on a sand dune, in the middle of the place where they had made the film, ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. I was taking in the mood of Wadi Rum. [A Wadi is a river valley; I don’t know what a Rum is.] And, I was here on that rock, on that dune, after the million ups and downs that hitchhiking in Jordan had visited upon me. This was Journey’s End; the End of the Line. A tune came into my head – it was The Travelling Wilburys – along with the chorus, ‘End of the line, end of the line’.

And then the outer space of the world disappeared from the horizon; I was lost in my own dreaminess; a few thoughts and bits of thoughts came and went: Iron filings; the cover design of a Penguin modern classic; the melody from a Neil Young song; remnants of a conversation with a colleague; the same colleague looming towards me in the half-light of his study; railway tracks; memories of the early morning dew and foot prints in the dew, and footprints in the sand; a 2b Pencil; a photograph of my mother … Susan Sontag, sensibilities, Dylan’s ‘All along the watchtower’ … my mother playing Rachmaninov, my father reading the Sunday Times …

Of course, the hardness of the rock upon which I was sitting began to return me to the other world, the world out there. But before it could do so from under its own steam, a small boy appeared. He sat down bedside me. I had met the small boy earlier in the day. He was the son of my Bedouin guide. The boy was aged about 5. The small boy was armed with a toy Kalashnikov. It was quite a realistic Kalashnikov even though it was made from heavy-duty grey plastic. In truth, I didn’t really want to have to think about Kalashnikovs at that particular moment. BUT the small boy obviously did want to think about Kalashnikovs. He looked at me happily and started to demonstrate the properties of his particular Kalashnikov. It rasped out a kind of machine-gun sound and, as it blasted away, a series of lights arranged along its muzzle started flashing. The lights were red – cardinal red – the red that cardinals wear in the Vatican.

I wasn’t exactly annoyed but I wasn’t overly pleased either. It had suddenly become much harder to take in the last light of the desert sunset and to absorb whatever it is that people absorb in Wadi Rum. The boy then circled around me still smiling happily; he chattered away to me. I didn’t understand what he was saying. But, I did get a strong sense that I was supposed to join in with his game. ‘Um,’ I thought. ‘This isn’t looking so good now. I wonder if he is going to go away.’

I waited.

The boy did not go away.

In fact, the more I gazed across the plain to the distant cliffs where the sun had quietly overdosed and collapsed a few minutes earlier, the more the boy seemed to attach himself to me. He nestled up against me. It looked as if he and I had become friends. So, I picked up the Kalashnikov and began taking aim at imaginary enemies lodged in the nearby cliff and rock faces. The boy was overjoyed. He seized the weapon from me and rattled off a few minutes worth of machine-gun fire.

‘God, almighty,’ I thought: ‘I mean, I’ve had a pretty so-so time in Jordan and this was supposed to be a moment of stock-taking, of meditation, of figuring things out, of seeing a sight. But it’s all gone belly-up, shot to shreds by a small boy and his wretched toy gun. I mean: Who on earth gives a small boy an imitation Kalashnikov? For heaven’s sake …’

I looked at the boy who was imploring me to continue with his game, enjoining me to fill out his fantasy. He offered me the toy gun. Once again, I shot at a range of imaginary figures. This time, though, they had started to take on more recognisable form. Some were in military uniform, others in the khakis of a murderous militia.

RAT A TAT TAT. RAT A TAT TAT. RAT A TAT TAT.

And with each rat a tat tat the lights on the gun blazed away. Then the boy took his turn.

Suddenly, I burst out laughing. I laughed and laughed and the more I laughed the more I wanted to laugh. In the end I was howling with laughter. The perfect irony of it all had struck me with maniacal force. The boy, though, had become most disquieted. He was looking completely mystified. Undeterred, I grabbed the Kalashnikov and charged off towards the nearest cliff. I hurled myself to the ground and shot just about every possible person I imagined had ever come near to Wadi Rum. ‘You can f**k all that stuff about finding peace and tranquillity and the spiritual silence of the desert. No. Stuff that,’ I thought. By now, I was blasting every living thing to smithereens. It was heaven. And the best bit of all was that I even got to shoot Lawrence of Arabia.

Now that Lawrence of Arabia was well and truly dead I paused. Then it dawned on me: I had shot a national hero. I was in disgrace. I trudged back to where the small boy was standing. Overhead the stars were grinning. I handed him his Kalashnikov.

Inside the huge Bedouin tent a wood fire was burning.

Yesterday, 6th February 2020 I turned the memory of myself in Wadi Rum into a really stylish screen print. A self-portrait in yellow with a hat. (That’s the one – up there.)

Lady Gaga: a study in transformational aesthetics

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By chance I happened to see a rather new manifestation of Lady Gaga when she was beautifully dressed for the premiere of her latest film in Venice. And then, unexpectedly, I happened to read about Lady Gaga and her song ‘Poker Face‘ in a serious discussion of art and ontology in T. Gracyk’s ‘The philosophy of art.’ The discussion sought to identify exactly what form (or categories) of existence a musical composition and its performance ‘possessed.’

I like Lady Gaga because I admire the way she copes with and masters the world of popular, mass and spectacular culture. Am I a fan of her? Not really – but I cannot but like her. I painted this picture and then dressed it up for display during Christmas 2019. If I were to exhibit it I would suggest (for fun) that it’s best to view the ensemble through the regulation ‘cool’ sunglasses. As Iris Murdoch said, ‘Art is more fun than philosophy‘ – which it is – but obviously we need them both.