Tuesday, 9 December 2014

It's not you...

Here's a new painting I have called "It's not you, it's me".

Don't read too much into the title, it's from a Norah Jones/Little Willies song.

It's not you it's me
Mixed Media on Canvas 50x60cm
Anyway, I'm still going. Painting, spraying, scratching, splashing...

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Cave 5 - In defence of Abstraction

First here's a new painting:

Cave 5
Acrylic and oil bars on canvas

Below there's an edited version of something I wrote originally a couple of years ago on abstraction.

In favour of abstraction

The arguments made by those who do not like abstract art cover a wide range. They range from the less well-argued “It’s shit, anyone can do it” to the smug argument that it was a movement invented by American art-dealers and galleries who needed a quick turnover of paintings, somewhere in the middle of this is the argument that “it’s finished” , played out.

In 1940, as the second world war was in full swing and the world was just becoming aware of the horrors of the holocaust, Wyndham Lewis argued that abstract art had “died of boredom”. This is a an anti-abstract quote often thrown out by those who like to attack abstract art, whilst noting and citing Lewis’ early abstract work to back up their argument. But it is no coincidence that Wyndham Lewis was politically to the far right. So far to the right in fact he had written the book ‘Hitler’ in 1931, portraying Hitler as a great man. It is also no coincidence that at this point in time artistically he was heading towards the end of his career (he was blind by 1950) and his days as a modernist and a vorticist were far behind him in his pre-first world war days.

So, given the political and personal contexts, can his view be taken seriously? Wyndham Lewis was siding with Hitler, who derided abstraction as ‘decadent’, and with the establishment in arguing that abstraction was over, and ‘nature has won’.

Art for Art’s sake

Anyone with a modicum of knowledge of art history can see that ideas of what is accepted as ‘a work of art’ have changed continually for hundreds of years. Look up ‘What is Art?’ on the internet, and you are certain to come across the following statement: Both the notion of "art" and the idea of the "artist" are relatively modern terms.”

it is unsure upon what this widely reproduced statement is based. The assertion seems to intimate that the caveman who did the best pictures on the walls of his cave was not appreciated by his contemporaries. But this seems to be contrary to our common experiences of human behaviour, and contrary to reported behaviour of ‘primitive’ communities, who highly value and prize their musicians, dancers, story-tellers, and decorative artists. The concept of the ‘artist’ – the prized member of the community who has the ability to create something appreciated by others in that community, has existed as long as man has been able to create.

It is sure that the desire for these ‘artists’ (let’s call them that) to create something new and original has existed for just as long. (A) society recognises the talent of someone who can reproduce something pleasing, but really prizes the talents of the artist who can create something new. Whether it be a painting, a song, a poem, a novel or a movie: the artist that creates something original and good is highly prized and often lauded as a genius. Such as Picasso, the Beatles, TS Eliot or Orson Welles.

For almost as long as there have been artists there have been art critics. Thousands of years ago they would have been the caveman who said “hey, go and look at Ug’s paintings in cave 4, they’re really cool”, (or something like that) and their role has become more important as years (and generations) have gone by. One of their key roles has been as the art establishment: the people who decide what is good, and what is good ‘now’. For example, advisers to the Medicis in 16th century Italy, or the people who chose the exhibitions at the salons in Paris in the 19th century and earlier.

But whilst there the art establishment existed the practicing artist has had a problem: to survive, to earn a living as an artist, an artist needs to create for the establishment – whether it’s a portrait of the queen, or a new pop song performed by Kylie. But to be a REALLY successful artist-genius, a Picasso, an Eliot, a Lennon or McCartney, the artist knows they have to create something NEW.

Historically, when artists (usually younger artists) have found their new works being stopped and stifled by the establishment, they have grouped together (in a human tribal way) and formed a movement, or a group. In music terms this has lead to movements such as Jazz or Punk, in the visual arts this has lead to impressionism, vorticism (hi there Wyndham), da da-ism – and of course abstraction and its many sub-genres: abstract expressionism, cubism, etc.

*   *   *

In his 1891 essay "The Soul of Man Under Socialism", Oscar Wilde wrote: “A work of art is the unique result of a unique temperament. Its beauty comes from the fact that the author is what he is. It has nothing to do with the fact that other people want what they want. Indeed, the moment that an artist takes notice of what other people want, and tries to supply the demand, he ceases to be an artist, and becomes a dull or an amusing craftsman, an honest or dishonest tradesman. He has no further claim to be considered as an artist.
Abstract expressionism stemmed from the desire to completely remove nature from art. From a desire to completely rethink the visual world, to remove entirely the link with the natural world. After two world wars which had killed tens of millions of people, many artists began to feel the ‘natural’ world could not provide them with the visual inspiration they needed to paint.

Painters like De Kooning and Pollock in the USA (the new centre of culture – and everything else) created paintings that had no natural visual reference at all. They were paintings about ideas, emotions, colours, space. And the natural extension of this: they were paintings, sometimes, about painting.

For example, Jackson Pollock wanted an end to the viewer's search for representational elements in his paintings, and so he abandoned titles and started numbering the paintings instead. Of this, Pollock commented: "...look passively and try to receive what the painting has to offer and not bring a subject matter or preconceived idea of what they are to be looking for." Pollock's wife, Lee Krasner, said Pollock "used to give his pictures conventional titles... but now he simply numbers them. Numbers are neutral. They make people look at a picture for what it is - pure painting."

Abstract painting can be about anything. The key thing about abstract painting (this should be obvious) is that it isn’t representational – although it is amazing the amount of things people see within a painting that is not consciously put there (or maybe it is) by the artist. Abstract painting opens the door to endless possibilities: and it is this that causes problems. It causes problems for those who like representational work exclusively, because the abstract painting challenges their boundaries, whilst conversely it challenges the ‘post-modernist’ who believes abstract painting is ‘played out’ and offers nothing new.

It is not enough for an artist to defend abstract work by attacking the viewer, however. It is not the viewer’s ‘fault’ (necessarily) if they don’t “get it”. Abstract painting is not “tabsaco spilled over mustard.. voila” , otherwise the criticism would be correct: your five year old child COULD do it. What’s difficult about abstract painting is not the paintings themselves, but the idea of the paintings: the idea: why do they work? Why is a Jackson Pollock painting so much better than a lot of splodges on a canvas created by a five year old? (At this point those who don’t agree with that statement should leave the room). I can only surmise that there is a connection to those simple, easy to recognize issues in representational art: talent and skill. An artist like Pollock understands use of colour, texture, space – his/her training and natural talent enables them to make and reject choices in creation that the five year old simply cannot.

If you reject this thesis on the basis “it’s all crap”, I can’t argue with you – I can merely encourage you to be patient, open-minded and spend some time looking at some of the greatest abstract works. If you can get to MOMA in New York, that might help. Also, stop looking for things, as Pollock asked: just look at the painting for what it is: a painting.

If you reject this thesis because “it’s out of date” I can offer a different argument: a different perspective. An artist recently told me that there had been no new art movement in the last 30 years, and that everything that was being done now was a re-hash of everything done before. In some ways this is true: but does it make it less valid? If one removes the flashy-tinted spectacles of fashion, it remains a fact: what is good is good. To reject art out of hand simply because it is ‘old’ is ridiculous – and is to put oneself in a cultural vacuum. Further to reject all art because “it has all been done before” is again short, or maybe narrow, sighted. It is true that there is nothing particularly new about any art now being created. Nothing being created in art schools now is radically different from what was being made 30 years ago. But does it make it less valid? Not if it’s good: and the same goes for art influenced by work created 50 years ago, or 100 years ago, 500 years ago – or whenever.

Something new will come along, but in the meantime, there is nothing wrong with exploring what we have, and what we have got, and what we can do? Has every abstract painting been done? Has every pop song been written? Has every horror film been made? Abstract painting is a genre that still survives, and still leaves room for exploration and development. Whether it is done on canvas, on paper, on wood, or on giant tents: there’s still room for development and progress within that one genre: and still validity. To suggest it is ‘finished’, or ‘boring’ intimates a position adopted for a purpose, rather than an aesthetic appreciation or criticism.

In the 1950s and 60s the critic Clement Greenberg and his cohorts in New York’, promoted and exhibited (and sold) abstract expressionist artists’ works. Their views were (and often still are) considered vitally important in the development of this movement. And it is this that has led to modern day criticism: “The galleries like abstract impressionism because artists can churn them out”. But this critique surely comes from the same home as that originally occupied by the abstract expressionists themselves – the home of protest and of whatever new “modernism” there is. Even “post-modernism” now seems old hat.

We are now in a time of such fast technological, social and cultural change it is clear that the “art world” (such as it is) doesn’t know how to react. Things move so fast culturally that the next “new thing” is part of the mainstream before you can blink. Indeed, it is the mainstream that is demanding “the next new thing”. The commercial art world that has dominated the establishment for the last 20 or so years likes to think of itself as at the head of any artistic movement: which by definition it can’t be.

Let me explain: when you think of the most modern of modern art – performances, situations, sharks cut in half or whatever –  where do you see it? Is it in a little gallery in the back end of beyond that someone might stumble upon? No – it’s at Saatchi’s or at the Tate. The establishment is dominating modern art development to the point where the place for hip art critics to hang out is the degree show at the Royal College of Art, where nothing new seems to have been noticed for 25 years. The art establishment is eating itself, striving only to be new, and to be hip – completely missing some of the key points about where we are now in this development of art, and where (you knew we’d get there) where abstract art fits in with this.

“Abstract art’s appeal is intellectual rather than intuitive” Conrad Keely

In June 1970, the French writer Jean Clay observed: "It is clear that we are witnessing the death throes of the cultural system maintained by the bourgeoisie in its galleries and its museums."
So after all that, all that matters is - is it any good? 

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Time Out

I spent last week in the UK. I was with my family in Wales, and we buried my dad's ashes, next to my mum's. Two rosebushes, side by side. I will have to paint two roses at some point but not quite yet. I left sunny Wales to return to storm-covered France. We were supposed to be doing Christmas markets this weekend, but everything was rained off - which gave me time to paint. Working on a few, they are slowly being finished, one by one.

Here's the painting:

Time Out
50x60cm, Mixed Media on canvas

I am still searching for an identity. Or am I just confused about which one applies? I feel overcome. Time out, please!!

Saturday, 15 November 2014

No more

After a hard summer, working 70 hours a week in BizeArt, autumn has been hard too. My father became seriously ill and died on September 28th. More here, I don't want to write about it in this blog. After returning to France after the funeral I tried to relaunch the shop, but then became ill myself with sinusitis, so gave that up for a week or so. Then I tried again - and I don't think my absence has helped (not that I could help it) but it's been dire - hardly any customers, or even anyone coming in at all. After 5 straight days of nothing I have shut up shop and decided I would be better off painting. All I can do in the shop is make Christmas cards and paint the odd watercolour, which isn't as satisfying as getting active with acrylics and oils. So that's what I've been doing for the last couple of days, working on several paintings at the same time - and here's the first one finished, which I've called "no more":
"No More"
Mixed media on canvas, 70x50cm
We will be selling stuff at Christmas Markets here in France, cards, paintings and stuff - starting tomorrow at Caunes Minervois, and then at various others including Le Somail, St Chinian and of course Bize. I'm going to put info on the BizeArt Facebook Page,  so take a look there if you're interested. As well as selling handmade cards I will of course be selling the new Purple Cat Xmas cards . take a look. I am doing an awful lot for someone not really working...

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Ink and watercolour bargains

This summer I have spent all day every day in the gallery/shop that is BizeArt. This has necessarily lessened my output on canvas, but encouraged me to think commercially, and to produce dozens of hand made cards (mainly flower drawings or cat drawings), and other work on paper, using a combination of ink and watercolours. Or sometimes just ink, or sometimes just watercolours. So listening to gentle Jazz, Blues and Country music here's some examples of this work:

Wine, flowers and stripy wallpaper
Ink and watercolour on paper 30x40cm

Blue Flowers, Stripy Vase
Ink and watercolour on paper 30x40cm

Wine, café, trees
Ink and watercolour on paper 30x40cm

Passarel, Bize-Minervois
Watercolour 20x30
Blue Flowers, Red Wine
Ink and watercolour on paper 33x50cm

Café des Amis
Ink and watercolour on paper 30x40cm

Red wine, 2 glasses
Ink and watercolour on paper 30x40cm

Empty Café, Green Chairs
Ink and watercolour on paper 30x40cm

Ink and watercolour on paper 24x34cm

All for sale, if you're interested, at incredibly cheap prices: Starting at £25 up to £90 plus postage (unframed)

Friday, 18 July 2014

Signatures - Artists v Experts

In the art world an artist’s signature is a very important thing. Art students are told it is vital. “Experts” cry out about its importance. Read any  “business advice” for artists and you will read somewhere about how important a signature is. I suppose a signature can be an interesting thing to see, and a verification that the piece of art you are looking at really IS a Matisse or a Picasso or whatever.  I mention those two because they are two of the most recognisable artist signatures:

Also easily recognisable are signatures by  Monet,  Renoir, Pollock, Degas, and my favourite – Oscar Kokochka – who just signs his pictures “OK”:

However, others are harder to recognise – try these ones for a bit of fun:
(answers at the end)




Now these are all famous artists of the 20th and 21st centuries and you’ve got to imagine that all of these guys spent time practicing their signatures, in the hope they’d be famous one day, but really their efforts are disappointing. Didn’t they know that a good signature is vital to all pieces of art, according to all experts? A good signature is necessary to help your pictures look professional, to be easily recognised by “experts”, (and to use as your website banner).

But, I am told you aren’t supposed to use the same signature you use to sign cheques – which means you have to have TWO signatures. Well actually possibly more for when you’re signing drawings and prints instead of paintings. Perhaps just using your initials is a good idea, but not everyone has a great set of initials like Oskar Kokoschka . I was thinking of changing my name to Vladimir Gorbachev – not for any political reason but I just feel like out-doing Oskar and having V.G. written in the corner of my paintings.

Actually I am jealous of artists with good signatures.  Some (like a number of those mentioned earlier) just use their surnames or their initials and this looks pretty cool.  Van Gogh of course only used his first name (that’s Vincent, not Van) - I have taken to just doing my initials (except when I forget) and I’m going to try a couple with just ABSE written in the corner – however I am worried that this means that somewhere down the line my work will be attributed to the Association of Boat Safety Examiners. One of the worst signatures I’ve seen recently was by a painter who put his initials – preceded by a copyright symbol! Given that most of his (very very very bad amateur) paintings were painted straight from other people’s photographs this raises another interesting point!

Another thing artists use is a monogram. Usually a superimposition of the initials of  both first and second names. This was common centuries ago, and painters who generally used monograms included Durer, Michelangelo and Leonardo. Whistler just drew a butterfly, and many painters appear not to have signed their pictures at all, for example, the Mona Lisa (but has anyone looked on the back?).

Interestingly ArtBusiness.com advises that “no work of art is complete” without a signature. Gosh, if only they’d told Leonardo. Maybe he didn’t have the internet. But reading further I am told there are RULES about signatures *gasp*. I have to sign in the same media in which the painting was done – otherwise people might later on think it’s a forgery. Shit that means I have to sign my name in about 14 different media for each damn painting! Screw that! I am also advised to “date your art” “Don’t sign over varnish”, “emboss your paper work” etc. Aargh. Elsewhere I am advised that “all serious artists sign their work on the back”. Elsewhere again I am advised that a signature should be “clear and legible”. Someone go and tell those guys!

Actually, the best advice about signatures I have read is by Picasso, who said that the act of signing a picture was the act of finishing a picture – the act that delineated the time to stop. And that’s another thing…

[i]  David Hockney
[ii] Salvador Dali
[iii] Damian Hirst  (Not "D Shit" as you might have thought)
[iv] De Kooning
[v] Roy Litchenstein

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Where have I been?

Busy, busy, busy.

We have set up BizeArt, a new venture in Bize-Minervois, consisting of a Gallery/Shop/Café in a tiny space at the heart of the village, and this has been a lot of work. We opened two weeks ago, and so far, so ok. I don't think we're going to be millionaires, that's for sure, but the summer season will tell us all we need to know. Take a look at the website, and if you're in the area pop in for a coffee - and enjoy a mini cupcake. I have been producing cards like mad - printed and hand drawn, which are all for sale in the shop for incredibly reasonable prices, and include drawings of the village and many more Purple Cat cards - and even a Purple Cat book! Take a look at the Purple Cat website at www.purple-cat.co . Whilst on the subject of Purple Cat, he will be appearing in a week or so at the Business Design Centre, at the "Progressive Greetings LIVE" fair. I've been working like mad at getting banners, posters, brochures, cards and all kinds of stuff ready.

What I haven't been doing enough of is painting - nor have a found enough time to carry on with my guitar practice/learning. None of this is helped by the excruciating pain I am in some of the time because of my tennis/golf elbow. I don't play either sport, by the way.

Anyway, here's a photo of the shop/gallery (above) and one of the drawings (left) I have done for postcards of the village. Below is a new Purple Cat image. The big pink bird is looking pretty disdainfully at Purple Cat using a rubber ring to swim in the sea, but I don't think Purple Cat cares very much. Stupid bird.

I've also been working on a couple of other things including a website called madeupfacts.net which is exactly what you think it is. Take a look and join in the fun. Or whatever it is.

Also working on stuff for other people such as "Languedoc Lifesavers" - as yet not live, but will be shortly. Or longly. Depending on people providing me with the text.

So busy, busy, busy.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Getting into the groove

Painting can be hard. Not the act of putting paint on canvas or paper or whatever, but the act of creativity to a level that is satisfying, that meets my own particular needs. Since before christmas I have laid down an awful lot of paint on canvas that has been a complete waste of paint. Because I haste no idea what I am doing. Thinking sometimes is a lousy idea and totally destroys creativity. Thinking about other things can be inspiring - or not, as the case may be. I've been doing a lot of walking the dog since the new year and this has given me plenty of time to think. I have thought about painting, writing, football and all kinds of stuff. None of it has really helped me paint. I have looked a lot at other people's paintings that I love - Chagall, Matisse, Derain, Kline - and they just reveal to me the problems with my own work. So I draw a Purple Cat.

Anyway, here's two I have finished this week that (for the first time in weeks) I don't immediately want to paint over.

Mixed Media on Canvas, 55x46cm

Oil on Canvas 65x54cm
But maybe this is better:

Purple Cat paints a "Selfie"
iPad painting

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Dogs and Visigoths

It's over a month since I last posted anything, and that wash't the most cheerful post in the world. The death of our beautiful dog Buffy hit us hard. She wasn't even 7 years old but died, in our arms, of the most virulent lymph cancer. Poor doggy. Here's some photos of her.

We miss her still, and always will. We have since adopted a new dog from the animal rescue centre in Carcassonne - a wonderful place where they support and rescue dogs, never putting them down. We went expecting to adopt a small mature dog, but instead fell for a beautiful baby boy whom we have named "Fender". He's only 8 months old, is part German Shepard but is the cutest, cuddliest dog with the sweetest disposition and waggiest tail. He's full of beans and has been described by more than one french person as "fou-fou" - which I guess translates best as silly. He has swiftly become an important part of our family, is getting on ok (mostly) with the cats, and helping me get fit. We are walking miles every day, and I am exploring and discovering new parts of the countryside around Bize.


Yesterday we did our longest walk so far - about two and a half hours or so - walking all over the hills behind Bize and paying a visit to the Tour de Boussecos.

 One of the great things about the south of France is the amount of ancient buildings, ruins and stuff lying around all over the countryside. Sure the UK has a similar amount of stuff, but you have to remember the size of the UK is about a third of the size of France in square kilometres, and the population about the same - therefore there's much more unexploited land, or abandoned land. In Britain, unless something is carefully preserved (and a lot is) it is generally built over. Here in France walking over hills and valleys are all sorts of scattered pieces of history. Some of it is recorded and noted (not a lot, but still noted) like the Tour de Boussecos, whilst other bits of wall, doorways and towers sit unidentified in fields.

The Tour de Boussecos itself, as you can read on the photo of the sign below (presuming both your eyesight and French are both good!) was built by the Visigoths, who occupied this part of the world between about 400 and 700AD. Look at this map and you can see that they occupied the whole Iberian peninsular for much of this time and this included a good amount of the Languedoc in France. Later occupants in the area added to the tower, the last being around the 15th century - when the area was subject to a loot of religious wars, with Simon de Montfort and his chums massacring loads of locals whose christianity they didn't approve of. But there's apparently also evidence of prehistoric occupation - with parts of neolithic pots and tools found.

All this history to look at and look up. I am spending almost as much time researching and reading about the area as I am walking around it. Just check out wikipedia here.

And in the meantime I am doing the odd drawing and failing to produce anything worthwhile on canvas - but as soon as I have a painting worth showing, it will be here first.