Always Missing the Point

A recent article by Waldemar Januszcak on Jennifer Saville’s show at Modern Art Oxford caused me to take a deep breath and think about whether I should have had kids or not…especially seeing that I am currently struggling to resolve a painting which has been challenging me for the past two years.  After less than a nano-second, I concluded that not having kids was definitely for me…despite, according to the author, that I would have, apparently, been a better artist.  I am also not a woman and this too, apparently, is another reason I don’t seem to be able to get my shit together.

I have been following Saville’s work since her international debut as a Sensational YBA and certainly find her boldness and fluidity of mark (although sometimes sickeningly slick) rather inspirational at times…she is indeed a masterful painter when she puts her mind to it. While I’m aware of many incredibly talented women painters (Dumas, Rego, Kollwitz, Qwen John, Hicks, Angelica Kauffmann, Gentileschi and Khalo readily come to mind), I certainly believe it simplistic and naive for Januszcak to assume that “male artists…always miss the point” and to say that “…women artists seem to be so much better at (it) than men…”. What about Freud, Goya, Picasso, Delacroix, da Vinci, Egon Shiele, Fischle, Lopez Garcia, etc? The list goes on and on. Some artists are simply better than others, despite their gender and what life experiences they’ve been through. Saville and a host of other women just happen to be among them. Maybe I am missing the point here, but who cares if an artist is male or female and chooses to work with a baby on their hip…or is even interested in “the amount of movement involved in holding a baby on your lap”?  While it may, during the nursing years, be necessary for some artists to do so because their circumstances demand it, Saville by comparison, can easily afford a nanny or three, actually chooses to have her babies on her hip while she’s working. So what? Does it make her a better artist (than men) as is suggested by the author? I think not. While I certainly don’t deny that parenting could inform and probably even inspire many artists both male and female, I find it rather unfortunate that this artist-as-mother status is touted as some kind of certification of artistic achievement and is pandered to and even referenced at a critical and curatorial level. Januszcuk’s statement, in my opinion, trivializes both male and female artistic achievement…including Saville’s.
Having said that, I’m not entirely convinced by the size and obviously intentional shock value that most of Saville’s grotesque subject matter demands. On the one hand, she seems to be attempting to be intensely intimate, while on the other, she’s slickly harping back to early YBA sensationalism. This seems to be at odds with any honesty that may belie her subject matter…or her (now) MABA status. Maybe I’ve got it all wrong. She has after all, long been obsessed with female obesity, battery and trauma to the female body, but, if it’s really trauma, skin lesions, blood and blubber that she’s interested in, how come we haven’t yet seen any paintings of (obese, if you must) men who have also suffered severe trauma (think Iraq, IED’s and the like), the slaughter of whales in Japan, the clubbing of seal cubs in Canada or the skinning of live animals in China. Think of all the excitingly grotesque images she could come up with. She’s now only 42, so there’s still a chance we may see something other than mother and child images, obese women or portraits of girls with smashed-in faces. However impressive her paintings and drawings may appear at first glance, she seems rather self-obsessed with little to say about anything else. I’m not suggesting that this is necessarily a bad thing, nor am I attempting to diminish her oft thought-provoking images, I merely find it ironical that despite all her obvious talent, the huge dimensions of her canvases and the enormous figures within them, that her world still seems so sensationally small. Maybe it’s because there’s a baby on her hip.
Related reading:  (watch the video)


Seeking direction…

Another day has come and gone and still I sits and thinks…..   Circumstance has not allowed me to get anywhere near either palette or canvas for the last few days. Maybe this is a good thing; because despite not being able to smear or scrape, I have definitely kept my beady little eye on those previously made marks while going about my daily chores and I’m slowly conjuring up the chutzpah to tackle it head-on. I need distance from the work…not as in metres, but mental distance…because when I’m actually painting I can’t, and mostly don’t want to, see the wood for the trees. I find it gets in the way of the process. I need the process to show the way, not some fucked-up-preconceived idea of what the painting should be (about). It’s important that the painting…any painting…doesn’t reveal itself too soon, to either author or reader. The longer it takes the deeper it gets. Perhaps tomorrow things will be more conducive to pushing paint.

The happy accident….

The “happy accident” is a misnomer and actually has very little to do with the accidental. Relying on it to resolve a painting is like trying to win the lottery. It can however do wonderful things if orchestrated properly. But orchestrating it successfully is not as simple as the result may imply. What looks easy, even to the trained eye, is usually anything but. This is why much of the paint I apply ends up on the wall or floor…either as a result of missing the canvas altogether while slinging a cake-lifter full of paint, or having just scraped a week’s worth of paint from the surface. Both are about as uneconomical as you can get, but then for me painting is not about economy of material or effort…they are merely means to an end. I am amazed when I see some painters’ palettes which look like the bottom of a bird-cage that hasn’t been cleaned in years. I wonder how they can possibly conjure up anything other than a colour that resembles…well, shit. How can they properly load a brush or palette knife I ask. Anyone who paints in oils is well-aware of that taupish colour that oil paint so loves to become if not handled with respect. This is probably the real reason amateurs and poseurs resort to using acrylics…siting health reasons, free radicals, volatiles, quick drying times and the like. But I digress. Setting the stage for the happy accident involves knowing exactly how the paint will react at a given viscosity. Painting in oils is about playing various viscosities off against each other…particularly when painting wet into wet and trying to avoid that previously mentioned shitty colour. Having recently watched that fabulous documentary of Gerhard Richter squeeging his way to success, I noted that the pigments were carefully prepared and applied with authority…not always, by his own admission, with success however. It can never always be successful, so calling the times it is so a happy accident, depends on how happy one feels at the end of the process. I suspect Mr Richter also has much paint that turns to shit and ends up on the floor…probably a hundred times more than I do. Perhaps this is the reason his paintings are so much more expensive than mine. (sic)

 Brian Bradshaw once made the annotation “Plasterer” in the margin next to one of Frank Auerbach’s paintings in a catalogue of British artists in the early 60’s. While some of Auerbach’s early works had a certain resemblance to a thickly plastered plank, the difference between Frank and a plasterer is that Mr Auerbach removed a lot of what he applied when it wasn’t “working” and kept repeating the process until it did indeed work. This is something a plasterer strives not to do…it’s just not consistent with the art of plastering and would be considered incompetence by anyone in the trade. Not so with painting.

On pushing paint…..

Here I am writing instead of pushing paint. The reason being that, as usual, I find myself procrastinating pending my next smear. The painting I am currently working on (a commission) is nowhere near any state of being resolved but, after a few weeks, is now at a critical point of no return. Whatever I do now will throw it in a different direction…hopefully. I have become somewhat disenchanted with it as it stands and the only solution is to turn it upside down, look at it with a new eye, and continue scraping, smearing and manipulating both form and colour in the hope that the current layers of paint (and there are numerous) will suggest, if not show, the way forward. I have a number of unresolved paintings which I haven’t touched in some time…not because I am precious about the marks made to date…far from it…but because I’m not really sure if I want to continue pushing them in the direction they were going. If I leave them alone for long enough perhaps I will be able to see them for what they are…mindless drivel or the beginnings of something worthwhile. Pushing paint is only one solution to this dilemma, but obviously only of value if pushed intelligently…something I’m not always capable of doing. As the saying goes: “…sometimes I sits and thinks and sometimes I just sits”. Pushing paint is similar. I often find a solution when I am engaged in something other than applying, smearing or scraping paint…like having a wee dram of my favourite Single Malt while listening to Dave Matthews, Salief Keita or Peter Gabriel work their magic way through the scales…or reading Robert Hughes and thinking about what Tapies actually meant to me (especially after having seen the other Antonio’s masterful paintings which hung in the Beaux Art in Brussels in 1985). The trick is to remain engaged, however remote that engagement might be. The other trick is not to get too pissed in the process.

Then of course there’s the happy accident…but that’s another story.