Thursday, 29 June 2017

Chris Ofili gets weaving.

Chris Ofili's Weaving Magic in the National Gallery's Sunley Room is truly a beautiful thing. It's free to enter and it's in the centre of London so if you're passing by, and have even a passing interest in art, I'd urge you to get along to see it.

It won't take you very long. It's essentially one (very) large work with a selection of preliminary sketches and an accompanying film. Ofili himself however, along with the Dovecot Tapestry studio who had the not inconsiderable task of translating his ideas into wool, cotton, and viscose) spent 3-4 years conceiving, perfecting, and completing the work. It's clearly been both a work of lunatic scholarship and a labour of love.

Ofili, previously most famous for incorporating elephant dung into his paintings and winning the 1998 Turner Prize, has produced work I've been impressed with in the past but this, his first venture into the medium of tapestry, has surpassed anything I'd previously seen by him.

The colours, the softness of the fabric (you really want to rub your hands along it), the placid, yet classical, feel of the work, the sheer vastness. All combine harmoniously to make a spellbinding installation. Even better not only do the National Gallery allow you to take photographs but they positively encourage you to do so (and to share them with them).

The Caged Bird's Song (2014-2017)
Ofili (born in Manchester of Nigerian descent) moved to Port of Spain in Trinidad in 2005. There he seems to have found both the peace and inspiration he must surely have been seeking. Both the mural, and the preparatory sketches, are soft-hued, exotic, erotic even, and seem to celebrate both the beauty and the unpredictability of nature. There are echoes of Gauguin, Picasso, Lam, and Braque, and there are nods to the cubism and post-impressionism those artists practiced, but Ofili combines all this, and more, into a style resolutely his own.

Cocktail Serenaders (Spray) (2014)

Cocktail Serenaders (Charcoal) (2014)

The Caged Bird's Song (Voyeur) (2014)
The artist's intention was to capture the qualities of watercolour painting in thread but as these mediums are, essentially, polar opposites that presented something of a problem for Dovecot Tapestry. But not an insurmountable one. Ofili passed them his design and, over the course of 30 months, the weavers scaled it up and, using a loom (often operated by three people at a time) set to work on making the dream a reality.
There's a dreamlike quality about the Arcadian scenes pictured too. Waterfalls, reclining couples, a guitar, and a waiter pouring a sparkling liquid from above. All of these images wash in and out of each other. At times softly, at times delineated more rigidly. As we all know with dreams often a seemingly total random element shows up and in Ofili's work this is provided by Italy, Nice, and former Man City striker Mario Balotelli in the role of waiter.
Ofili, in the short, but informative, film that accompanies the show, spoke of his interest in Balotelli as a man who represents many things, an African but also an Italian, but also of Balotelli's sense of mischief. It seemed to me the inclusion of the footballer was also Ofili's way of being a little bit mischievous himself.. He seems to be showing that there's no distinction between high and low art, Maya Angelou and Manchester City, the modern and the classical, that the means serve the end. I think he's right.

The Caged Bird's Song (Crab Eye) (2014)

The Caged Bird's Song (2014)

Cocktail Bar (Balotelli) (2014)

Balotelli (Sweet Cocktail) 4 (2014)
The side rooms reveal how Ofili's worked up these seemingly disparate ideas and images into a spectacle to savour. The cut-and-paste of Cocktail Bar (Balotelli), the Miroesque sun drenched colour scheme of Balotelli (Sweet Cocktail), and the overwatered, bleeding, almost ghostly apparaition of The Caged Bird's Song (Crab Eye). The cup of seeds held by the female character to feed the birds only serves to make their song sweeter to the ear. The love and attention given over to this project has only served to make its end product sweeter to the eye.
And nothing here is sweeter to the eye than the triptych in the main room itself. Ever keen to focus on the mise-en-scene Ofili has designed a room-filling mural (below) as a backdrop to, and as part of, the piece itself. The swaying temple dancers lead one's eye to the wall hanging where everything that both Ofili, and the weavers at Dovecot, have been working on aligns in something close to perfection.
Don't you love it when a plan comes together?

The Caged Bird's Song (2014-2017)

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Wayne Thiebaud:The Emperor of Ice Cream.

"To see a world in a grain of sand and a heaven in a wild flower. Hold infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour" - William Blake, Auguries of Innocence.

Wayne Thiebaud is 96 years old and his most recent work in the White Cube Gallery's life enriching retrospective of his career was painted this year. After so much 'dark' and 'heavy' art it's a joy to walk into a space with so much light. But just because Thiebaud's art is light does not mean to say it is in anyway lightweight.

He's been dubbed 'the Emperor of Ice Cream' for his subject matter of bubblegum machines, colourfully decorated cakes, and, of course, ice cream cones themselves. It's a very American art and although, on the surface, it appears to have many of the hallmarks of pop art (he has, after all, exhibited alongside the likes of Lichtenstein, Warhol, and Ruscha) Thiebaud (born 1920 in Mesa, Arizona - though moving, as a baby, to California), and his early works, predated this movement leaving some to see him as a bridge between pop art and the earlier abstract expressionism, despite the commonly held belief that the latter was a reaction against the pomposity of the former.

Thiebaud's not an artist you could accuse of pomposity. Unlike Pollock or De Kooning (a friend of Thiebaud's) you could hardly say he's macho either. He painted cakes and flowers!

Two Wedding Cakes (2015)

Two Paint Cans (1987)
Perhaps because of this unusual subject matter Thiebaud has always seemed like an artist apart. I remember flicking through my Phaidon art books and being quite alarmed by just how dissimilar his work was to other artists of his era. Yet, spending more time amongst his paintings, I start to see that he has peers and influences everywhere.
From Chardin's lovingly rendered 18c eggs and cutlery, via Edward Hopper's sense of solitude and contemplation, to Richard Diebenkorn's fields, often quite literally, of yellow and green. Morandi, too, rubs shoulders with Bonnard and even Cezanne. It's quite a neat trick if you want to show off your mastery of colour to paint a picture of two paint cans with different coloured paint leaking over the side. It's a neat one and it's also highly pleasing to the eye. 

Sandy Cliff (2013)

Cheese Deli (2016-2017)

Cherry Pie (2016)
Something as simple as a cherry pie on a plate can be loaded with such infinite beauty that it reminds me of William Blake's Auguries of Innocence (as quoted earlier) so when, in a rare portrait, Thiebaud's subject is a beautiful woman in a beautiful dress it can, of course, only result in a beautiful painting. There's something about the sitter's inscrutable, almost blank, expression. A suggestion of secrets unrevealed. The fact that Thiebaud returned to this painting after a fifty-one year break also hints at longing, nostalgia, and a sense of innocence lost and time running out.

Green Dress (1966/2017)

Towards 280 (2000)
When he tackles landscapes he tends to use a very high horizon and incredibly flat perspectives that almost, but not quite, push them towards abstraction. His paintings don't really go in for narrative although they occasionally nudge you towards forming your own. Is that San Francisco in Intersection Buildings? Is the watery area in Fall Fields a lake, a reservoir? It looks like a giant bath-tub.
The critic John Yau wrote that "Thiebaud conflated the forms and colours of the observable world with those of the imagined world so that they were virtually indistinguishable from each other" and he's on to something. Although most of these paintings are of easily identifiable scenes in reality if you were served a cherry pie like that or saw a river like that you'd be pretty discombobulated, well into the realms of the uncanny valley.

Y River (1998)

Fall Fields (2017)

Intersection Buildings (2000-2014)
The colour schemes Thiebaud employs, at times, are as clashing as his Fauvist forebears yet because he tends to render his work in easy-on-the-eye pastel hues, and perhaps also because we've become more accepting of such colour schemes, they don't jar in the way say a Vlaminck or a Derain may on initial introduction.
Thiebaud says a lot of his work is inspired by the simple experience of driving across, and around, America. Just looking and learning. After 96 years of it he's clearly not lost his eye for a picture. Let's hope that doesn't change any time soon.

River Cloud (2002)

Untitled (Flowers in Glass) (2000/2006/2015)

Monday, 26 June 2017

TADS #12:The Greensand Way (or Hopping down in Kent).

It had felt like quite a while since the TADS had enjoyed wonderful walks from Hastings to Winchelsea and around Blenheim Palace. Despite recently getting back from four pretty gruelling days of Welsh hill walking I, for one, was raring to go.

I hooked up with Pam, Kathy, Shep, Adam, and Teresa at Café Ritazza in Victoria and we all jumped on the train to Borough Green and Wrotham. Just outside the M25 it was a new station on me. We stocked up with some sandwiches and drinks in the Co-Op and headed off down Borough Green's pleasant main street. The wafts from the chip shops were very inviting but we continued downhill on to Thong Lane before the road curved round into the charming village of Basted.

We pondered the small lake for some time watching the ducks (with several ducklings) and coots go about their business. We passed a burnt out house and wondered what the story was there. As we reached the top of the first of many small hills on this route we spotted a pub, The Plough. It seemed too early to stop and the book had recommended another pub not much further on. Even the friendly customer outside who called us in didn't break our resolve to plough on past The Plough. It turned out to be a mistake but we couldn't have known how much of one then.

We passed through a wheat field and wondered if we could get up to anything as naughty as Theresa May. But instead of pissing away millions of pounds on a self-defeating election and then pissing away a billion more pounds paying off a bunch of climate change denying, anti-abortion, homophobes to prop up a minority government we just sang some songs to ourselves and chatted.
We passed several oast houses and were keen to sample some of the wares made in these places. The book had recommended The Harrow Inn on Ightham Common and described it as 'cosy' with 'hearty quantities of well presented food'. It was anything but.
It could've been a wonderful local pub, we've visited many on our travels, but it was all undone by one major flaw. The landlord was, not to put too fine a point on it, an absolute cunt. He seemed rude enough when we arrived and he told us it wasn't a pub but a restaurant (despite the fact that it clearly was a pub and there were both empty tables and tables with people not eating sat on them). The fact some of us were planning to eat didn't enter in to it. Shep, Pam, and I ordered a Loddon bitter. Adam tried to do the same but was told that he couldn't have one as he wanted to save the beer for more important customers that were due that evening. I regret not calling him a wanker loudly in front of the other patrons and walking out. It had started lightly raining and the tinpot dictator offered us one final indignity of telling us we'd have to sit outside in the rain. There we sat drinking our admittedly tasty pints (those of us fortunate enough to get served) and wondering what could've made a human being so small minded. When we took the glasses back to the counter, instead of smashing them into his ungrateful stuck up face, he seemed quite surprised. We won a moral victory but if you're ever in Ightham Common do not visit this shithole.

That's undoubtedly the worst pub experience we've ever had on any of our walks but we weren't going to let it ruin our day. We passed another pub, also called The Plough, and considered we'd have been better served than either Plough than the Harrow. Through the quaint village of Ivy Hatch and past the huge pile of Ightham Mote we went, more oast houses, more cattle, and more hills.

A long, slow ascent took us up on to Greensand Way proper. The Greensand Way is a 108 mile long path that leads from Haslemere in Surrey to Hamstreet in Kent. We clearly were only walking a small stretch of it today. Walking more than 100 miles would just be crazy.
From the top we could hear the sound of the music festival and I think some of us considered we'd rather be there with a cool beer than running out of breath walking up a hill in what was, now, turning out to be quite a warm day. The views across the lush Kentish countryside were spectacular and, after a couple of miles, the track brought us to Knole Park. The book had warned us that the resident fallow and sika deer may 'look adorable, but they shouldn't be approached as they can be dangerous'. 

They were no bother at all and, on occasion, even seemed to be posing for photographs. The large park (created for the archbishops of Canterbury to indulge their passion for bloodsport in) contained brilliant trees, a huge country house, and plenty of other walkers but the deer were sure winners of any beauty contest.
Knole Park pretty much emptied out into Sevenoaks town centre. An admirable mix of the ramshackle and the showy. A Lamborghini garage and some shops with fonts straight out of the 70s. Surprisingly hilly we took solace in the Crown and I had a pint of Pride of Kent IPA. Swiftly followed by another. The old 'two pint mistake'. The jukebox knocked out some good tunes, the chat was convivial, and the craic was good.
The service there was good but our final port of call Raj Bari more than made up for old grumpy bollocks earlier. They could not do enough for us. Want a starter as a main? Sure. Want a main as a starter? Sure. Fancy some extra poppadums? Sure. They didn't have Bangla but the Cobras kept flowing. Adam was so happy he sent compliments to the chef and, at one point, almost started dancing!
We'd turned it round. A walk that was in danger of being overshadowed by a rude over privileged nob will now instead be remembered as a fun day with tasty curry and, as ever, most importantly, good friends. We could all drink to that.