Saturday, 30 April 2011
Sunday, 14 November 2010
Excitement is mounting with the imminent arrival of the BP Portrait Award to Aberdeen Art Gallery. A visitor to the gallery today, as many recent visitors have done, struck up the conversation about the upcoming show. As the discussion developed, we inevitably began to talk about the winning portrait.
Daphne Todd won the BP Portrait Award 2010 with a painting of her mother. To say her portrait was painted from life is not an apt description of the method of direct observation from the model. The victorious portrait depicts a dead 100-year-old woman in her deathbed.
This haunting portrayal was painted over three days in the funeral parlour cool room. Daphne Todd, former president of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, asked her mother’s permission before she passed away if she could paint the death portrait. Todd said her mother agreed to it but “happy is not quite the right word, she couldn’t care less really.”
The macabre painting has got people talking. Some horrified, others fascinated. Either way, people can’t help but discuss the work. The artist confronts the viewer with the idea of mortality and taps into our innate need to try and perceive the difference between life and death.
Viewers looking at the portrait may be asking themselves how the artist could lovingly paint her mother in this state? What must it have been like to stand in the cool room of the funeral parlour and spend that time with a corpse?
Although I have not performed this exact activity myself, I have carried out something very similar. The day before my Aunt passed away, I sat in the chair beside her bed in the hospice and drew her. There are many reasons why I felt the need to draw her at this time. Feeling comforted by the act of drawing was a form of therapy to cope with the grief I was experiencing.
When an artist creates a portrait, it is a record of the relationship between the artist and sitter. Knowing it was the last opportunity to document the connection I had with my Aunt, I felt compelled to pick up my sketchbook.
Many artists have felt the same and made portraits of loved ones in their deathbeds. With the tears blurring his vision, Claude Monet painted his dead wife Camille. Lucian Freud with his mother and Steven Assael with his father also captured their final intimate moments together. Although each work of art is different with regards to technique, each artist shares the same determination to record what must be one of the worst moments in his or her lives. To create a portrait at this time can either be an attempt at consolation or a harsh acceptance of reality for the artist.
Portraiture is always a product of a relationship. But we must not forget the viewer’s participation in this. Daphne Todd entered her portrait into the most prestigious portrait competition in the world. The decision to enter the portrait upset some members of her family, in particular her brother. Todd said, “I haven’t heard from him since. I’m letting things lie really and there’s not much I can do. I’ve done it now.”
Having made the portrait of my Aunt on her deathbed, I can’t help but feel that what I thought was an act of love and memory on Todd’s part has become more a form of self-publication. Although this portrait has had a powerful effect on me, I somehow wish I had come across it through some other means rather than the BP Portrait Awards.
The BP Portrait Award opens at Aberdeen Art Gallery on the 22nd of November 2010.
Tuesday, 26 October 2010
Everyone will be aware of the current hard times facing us. The media is full of talk of cut backs and decreased government spending. Like all sectors of society, people are campaigning to try and save their chosen department from being hit the worst.
The cultural headlines have been grabbed by the likes of Nicholas Serota (Director of the Tate) claiming a blitzkreig* on the arts, saying it is the greatest crisis in the arts and heritage since government funding began in 1940.
Movements including the Save The Arts Campaign have fuelled such announcements with their media attention grabbing visual one-liners. Cornelia Parker’s image of the Angel of the North with one of its wings clipped has been widely publicised. The same is true for Mark Wallinger (winner of the 2007 Turner Prize) who has slashed a section out of the image of Turner’s painting, “The Fighting Temeraire.” Both artists are trying to make the point that the governments proposed cuts are reckless and unnecessary.
Charlotte Higgins wrote in the Guardian newspaper “we are going to wake up to find orchestras have closed, galleries have shut down and museums are falling into disrepair.”
Should we not take a minute to look at what exactly public money is spent on within the cultural department, before we get carried away with the loud declarations these modern artists are so used to crying?
Seven million pounds was spent on constructing the new funding body Creative Scotland, which merged The Scottish Arts Council and Scottish Screen into one. They aim to promote creativity in Scotland by investing in talented people and exciting ideas.
Three cultural ministers ago, the Scottish government expressed a desire to “shift towards trying to encourage art which will have an audience and a market and away from just giving grants.” It is clear that this message has been lost along the way when you begin to discover what projects have received grants.
In 2002, Dan Paterson was awarded £25,000 to create a play which he admitted in 2008 was unfinished. Malcolm Fraser was given a grant of £30,000 to transform the Grassmarket area of Edinburgh into an ice rink, which seven years on there is no sign of.
Creative Scotland is now awarding £500,000 to seven Vital Sparks winners. Rob Drummond is one of those winners who have received funding to retrain as a wrestler in order to write about fighting.
Public money has also been given to support arts groups like Deveron Arts in Huntly, Aberdeenshire. They have facilitated projects including David Sherry’s Health and Safety effects whereby the artist took a group of school children into the wood to climb trees. The artist then gave a talk on the health and safety implications of this activity.
Another project made possible through Deveron Arts was a walking festival by artist Hamish Fulton. Visitors were encouraged to participate in the first and last day of the artist’s 21-day walking trip in the Cairngorms.
When discovering these projects have been funded by government money, I tend to agree with Cath Bell when she writes in the Artwork Newspaper, “when the cuts bite, they might firmly grip the complacent behinds of a select group of artists and craftspeople who are at present sponging up public money to fund personal ventures.”
However it is not just public money that the arts rely on. A lot of financial support came from Lottery funding, however in recent years this has declined due to the Olympic games requiring subsidy. That just leaves private money from wealthy individuals and companies.
It has been reported that the Cultural Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, says he wants “American style philanthropists to step in” and fill the gap public funding for the arts once occupied. The plan is to reform the perplexing tax system to make it easier for donors to understand how they can benefit themselves from doing so.
Dame Vivien Duffields is reported to have given well over £100 million to the arts. When asked what she thought of the Cultural Secretary’s comments, she said “charity ought to be providing the icing on the cake, and the government should be providing the cake. I’ve always thought we should be doing the stuff the government can’t – the interesting new production, say – not the core expenses.”
Aberdeen City Council is proposing to achieve 37% of its £47million savings in education, culture and sports directorate. They propose to close all galleries and museums, two secondary, five primary schools and all public parks. Shouldn’t they start to listen to Dame Vivien Duffields point of view? Stop funding individual artist’s personal projects and start focusing on keeping the museums open.
Cut backs are a time to be realistic and reprioritise. The arts have to take their fair share of the cuts, the same as the welfare state, education and health.
*blitzkreig means lightning war. The Germans in WW2 first used it and was a tactic based on speed and surprise.
Saturday, 23 October 2010
Visitors to the Tate Modern are being welcomed to find museum staff guarding the roped off exhibit by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. The installation of 100 million porcelain hand-painted (of course not by the artist himself) sunflower seeds were creating too much ceramic dust when walked upon by visitors.
Visitors can now view the work from the bridge that intersects the Turbine Hall where they can look out over the 100 million seeds. From this viewpoint, it is not obviously what exactly the pieces actually are that make us this immense grey carpet. To discover they are in fact sunflower seeds, you need to go down a level where you can stand about a meter away from the exhibit.
But does this health and safety enforcement really hinder the work of art? As an interactive form of art it basically fails. If you cannot get up close and appreciate the detail of an individual seed then the concept of vast numbers of individuals making up an entire mass is in my opinion impeded. You are forced to only think of the crowd and not the individual. No longer can you walk on the seeds and think about the fragility of the piece, which asks you to consider the individual’s impact on the world.
The fact the museum staff are encouraging people not to take any seeds away also thwarts this concept. The artist however has said, “if I was in the audience I would definitely want to take a seed. “ This idea of ownership and theft of art is not a new one. Feliz Gonzalez-Torres did it in the 1980’s with his piles of sweets inviting viewers to help themselves in the knowledge that if they do, they reduce the work for the following viewers. To be honest this concept of morality is rather boring now.
Visitors to the Tate Modern are encouraged to take a step back and view the work. This fits in with the new trend in art to be more subtle and reflective, instead of the last decade of visual one liner, which has been rammed down our throat by using the loudest forms of shock tactics.
At the end of the day the museum have not made any effort to foresee the problems that have now arisen with the work and so the success of the piece has been reduced. However, even if the health and safety measures had not been brought into force, I doubt the work would have had a significant impact with his recycled ideas.
Saturday, 16 October 2010
I have eventually found the time to start writing a blog. I thought the best way to begin would be to post some articles I wrote previously to set the tone...
The following articles was published in the UK best-selling art magazine, Artists and Illustrators in June of last year...
There comes a time in every person’s life where you are faced with the challenging question what should I do now? Having reached the end of my final year at Duncan of Jordanstone Art School I faced that very question. The options seemed endless – start a “proper” job; enroll in a Masters Course; take the obligatory 21st century gap year or pursue a career in the art world.
As Henry Moore says “There’s no retirement for an artist, it’s your way of living so there’s no end to it”. Although at the ripe old age of 21 I was hardly thinking about retirement I did feel that Henry Moore had hit the nail on the head. That is exactly how I felt. There was no decision to be made – I had to find a way of developing my painting technique.
I arranged to go to New York and investigate the possibility of studying at the New York School of Art. While there my friend, the artist, Ian Scott suggested contacting the world renowned artist Odd Nerdrum to see if he would consider allowing me to become one of his elite group of students. Odd has created an international community in Norway with painters from all over the world coming together to study with their master.
Four months later I opened my email account to discover a reply offering me the opportunity to study alongside the great master at his Norwegian home for a year. I couldn’t believe my luck and I was also extremely honoured to discover that I am the first Scottish painter to have ever been chosen.
Although this was a fantastic opportunity as every struggling artist knows funding is always a problem. Thanks to the Elizabeth Greenshield Foundation this became less of an issue as they awarded me a grant, which enabled me to live and travel to Norway, where the cost of living is extremely high. Fortunately Odd’s offer included free accommodation and studio space along with access to a vehicle, which is extremely generous.
From the moment I arrived in Norway Odd and his family made me feel extremely welcome. The feeling within the community is one of a big family with Odd as the father figure and the students his children. All of the students share similar ideologies towards painting, making this experience a stimulating progression from the art school environment. Everyone helps each other with the development of their individual practice.
Evenings are spent talking about paintings, with the emphasis on work of the Old Masters. My previous experience of such work was limited. There are also philosophy evenings once a week where the students read philosophical text and act out Odd’s plays. As well as being a painter, he is also a very talented writer. Odd has published a number of books and during my stay I was involved in the editing of collection of six short stories entitled “How We Cheat Each Other.”
During my stay in Norway I have been working on a series of self-portrait paintings and drawings of the studio. The painting shown in this article has been my main piece of work, depicting the studio where I have been working. Under Odd’s guidance of using a very limited palette, my technique has improved vastly. I feel this has given my paintings greater harmony in colour, which on my own would have taken years to achieve.
However I continue to use my surrounding as inspiration for my work and have remained true to my own painting style, which I feel is critical for any artist. Artists should have their own identity while still being able to appreciate and learn from the talents and skills of others
I will forever be grateful to Odd for giving such a wonderful opportunity to come out to Norway and learn from him and the other students. Maybe I have taught them a few things as well, that’s if they have understood my Scottish accent!