Sunday, 22 February 2015

Olha Pryymak - Ukraine Diaries

     In this cold and gray Sunday I crossed London to go see Ukraine Diaries, an exhibition of paintings by Olha Pryymak at Krilova Stelfox Gallery just off Brick Lane.

I was very touched by Olha's work; eight groups of small square paintings record days in which events in her native Ukraine cast their shadow on her quiet family life in London.
As an expat I fully understand the deep link with the native country, a link that is particularly strong nowadays when information travels fast, when there is always a camera around to record images and sounds, when strangers can give you an account of facts as they are happening.

Olha selects instants of some particular days: when her brother graduated, when the protests started, when the plane crashed, when her son walked the dog. 

He practices on the clarinet, maybe she is looking at news on the phone while she listens. He plays innocently with his toy soldiers while elsewhere troops are killing dozens of people in the snow. Where are we, here or there ?

The paintings are installed in asymmetrical clusters, some times they are coupled up, one in direct response to the other one. The show is hanged in chronological order of days and surprisingly proceeds  counterclockwise. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition we do everything the opposite way, says Olha.
All the paintings are on small wood boxes, their square format recalls images on a screen, they are images of images, all equal: interiors, landscapes, portraits, London, Kiev, the phone screen, a newspaper. They all contribute to convey the bewilderment and horror at a protest that unexpectedly turned into riots, then violence and ultimately a full fledged war.

The paint flows fast because recording fleeting visions, flickering videos, a casual appearance of the Ukrainian flag colours in an urban decor, is urgent. They need to be fixed before they drift away again  in the flux. Synapsis are firing, connections are made, some obvious, some only known to the artist.

We can almost hear the droning of the news, the clarinet being played, the pinging of new tweets, the sound of a shooting. Politicians are staring at us in gray ink from the front page, they don't do anyting while explosions obscure the painted space.

Olha Pryymak's Ukraine Diaries is at Krilova Stelfox Gallery, 23 Heinage St, London E1 until the 25th of February.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

"National Gallery" FIlm

    Having read some good reviews, last Sunday I went to watch this documentary by filmmaker Frederick Wiseman. At short notice I couldn't find anyone willing to endure three hours so I merrily went on my own and, particularly since I didn't not have to worry about the amount of boredom inflicted to spouse, I really enjoyed it.
The film is somewhere in between a fly-on-the-wall documentary and a photo of a museum by Candida Hofer. Images of paintings and visitors in museum rooms alternate with recordings of gallery talks, board meetings and discussions on conservation.

    There is no commentary, no narration, but the film is so self explanatory that there's really no need for it. The images, which I think have been recorded over a number of weeks, suggested to me the flow of a day.
The film opens with the whirring sound of a floor polishing machine and a glimpse of the gallery preparing for the daily opening, proceeds to "spy" on a morning meeting where we see the NG Director Nicholas Penny dealing with marketing issues. As the "day" goes on and we are shown people looking at masterpieces and a few ( too many?) gallery talks to the general public and to children.
It is quite revelatory how images of people queueing in the cold for tickets to the blockbuster Leonardo show precede footing from  corporate events evenings, and how the talks become more sophisticated when they address a public of "connoisseurs". Wiseman says his films are "based on un-staged, un-manipulated actions... The editing is highly manipulative and the shooting is highly manipulative... What you choose to shoot, the way you shoot it, the way you edit it and the way you structure it... all of those things... represent subjective choices that you have to make."

   Visits to the "backstage" are very interesting. The team from the conservation studio gives us a taste of the technological department of the Gallery's life, even if they too have to oblige to corporate visitors. The manual ability of the craftsmen painstakingly carving and gilding frames in the silence of some lab is hypnotic, and the care taken with the lighting of a display draws our attention to aspects that we might overlook.

   In a couple of shots we see people sketching in front of paintings, and two scenes present the art classes that take place in a frankly quite unsuitable room with a bad lighting and a circle of desks; it's the only time when the film touches on the subject of making paintings and on the museum's role to inspire and engage with artists.

    I have never joined one of the group talks from the NG program but having sat through a few during the film I am disappointed at how they (or the editing) focus on the subject and the iconography of the painting; from there we jump directly at the spectrographic analysis of layers by restorers. What happens between the moment the artist chooses the subject and visualises the scene and when we are confronted with the resulting physical object, the act of painting, is not looked at.
   Rubens' "Samson and Delilah" is explained as if the artist was a film director or a cinematographer, his main task placing and lighting the figures. Nothing is said about the impossible activity of taking some dust, mix it with oil and applying it to a piece of fabric and make something that is so individual and sublime that nobody can replicate it.

    We are told about Titian's paintings and his love for Ovid; we are even read a poem about the nymph Callisto but what about the surface of Titian's paintings, what about his revolutionary contribution to painting ? What about the way in which his teacher's glazing process is forgotten and the sensuousness of his nymphs is found precisely in the sensuousness of his paint, where the matter becomes flesh ?
Speakers in the film seem to be all art historians and the only one who introduces herself as an artist states she is not a painter but makes installations !

 "National Gallery" is enjoyable both for people who visit regularly and for those who don't have this privilege, its slow pace leaves the viewer time to think and flavour the atmosphere of the museum.
The attention to the visitors reactions, the slow track-shots in the empty rooms and the enlargements of painted details had made me hope for more, for a film that was enamoured with the deep and mysterious ways in which masterpieces affects us, but this is a long and at times beautiful documentary about the institution and not art itself.


Saturday, 13 December 2014

So, why would men be more interesting to paint than women ?


    A few weeks ago I read this article on the Daily Telegraph and I just needed to post my views.
Tai-Shan Schierenberg is one of the most important British portrait painters of these days: he has painted very distinguished sitters including the Queen, Lord Sainsbury, Seamus Heane. He won the John Player Portrait Award in 1989 ( now BP Portrait Award), his work is on permanent display at the National Portrait Gallery. He is also the principal of The Art Academy and an honorary member of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters. In the past two years he's been a judge of the reality show "Sky Portrait of the Year" ( I didn't watch it, does he prefers male portraits in the show ?).

     His latest show, New Works, opened on the 12th of November at Flowers Gallery; I saw it this week and it is an excellent exhibition. Presumably at the press preview for the show, Schierenberg chatted with this Daily Telegraph journalist  who managed to focus his piece on commissioned portraiture - which is not included in the exhibition by the way - and came up with a catchy title that it's not really explained.

     I don't know if or to what extent Schierenberg's words have been misrepresented but the result is a veritable own goal on the part of a very good artist who, aside from blatant sexism, misses an opportunity to talk about what modern portraiture should be.

In the newspaper piece Schierenberg launches himself in a rant against his own sitters. Vanity seems to be one of his main preoccupation when he is at the easel. 

"Men don’t like being shown in any way vulnerable.... They’re worried that I might see something they don’t want me to see, which can cause a bit of a power struggle. Men are often very proud of their scars and their frowns, and they don’t mind showing that stuff, whereas if you show that in a woman’s portrait she’d be very upset."
In a string of common places he says that in his experience men are concerned about their status while women crack under the pressure of being beautiful and youthful. When confronted with their own painted image his sitters are reduced to their Mars/Venus hormonal self, as testosteron inflames men and progesteron reduces women to tears. He concludes by saying that there's something wrong with women because they are not impressed with his struggle and that he cathegorizes them into "attractive and unattractive". 

        I wouldn't object to a painter who states that he is more interested in portraying men because he/she personally prefers to paint harsher and more defined features but these comments on gender attitude strike me as shallow and untrue. 

Perhaps my experience is not comparable to the two decades of high profile career of Mr Schierenberg, but I haven't really encountered these stereotypes. I have encountered a pinch of vanity, yes - don't most of us have that?- and actually I have found that men are concerned about their looks as much or even more than women, but this is nothing compared to the pleasure of getting to know someone and work together. Yes often painting a portrait is a power struggle between artist and sitter - or a sitter's parent- but it is also an engaging collaboration where their input and their commitment is essential.  
I think that it is the duty of a portrait painter to open a channel of communication with the person they are painting, and it's when that happens that the whole process becomes fascinating.
I like listening to their stories or witnessing their thoughts passing through their face. Looking at the latest portrait by Schierenberg, the one he painted of his father on display at the exhibition, charged with emotion, I really can't understand what would prevent him looking for the same humanness in a female sitter. 

 Dear Prominent Ladies, Woman's Hour Power List Game-Changers and the likes,
now that you know if you want to commission a portrait please remember that I am very interested in painting you, at a fraction of the price.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Painting and Back Health


In recent weeks a fortunately short bout of back pain has made me think about the best practices for an easel artist to keep a healthy back.
In my experience the "move" from the table to the easel when I started working in oils years ago represented the end of all neck pains I have been suffered since school days. My posture has always been quite correct despite being tall but I always had the tendency to hang down the head when sitting at a desk. This of course meant a constant strain for the trapeze muscle that resulted in sore shoulders and a stiff neck.

     When I started working at the easel and, like a homo sapiens, finally looked ahead rather than down, all of this disappeared. In my early days as an oil painter I used to stand all the time, both in class and very often in the studio. I sawed off the top part of my easel so that I could lift the base up and work standing even with small paintings.

    For a few years I also had one of those Swedish chairs with the seat at an angle and a knee rest. I realised though that I often ended up perched on top of it slumped forward with my feet on the knee rest. An ostheopath recently explained that even if used correctly those chairs are no good, as you end up having all the weight supported on your knees, which ultimately damages the joint and might affect the sciatic nerve.

   In recent years, as I concentrated on table top still-life in which my point of view is aligned with the set up, I work sitting 90% of the time. A good amount of time spent working on printmaking also meant again sitting at a table and working on small scale works that need to be looked at from a close distance. Since I am not getting any younger I decided to find out about the best way of preserving a healthy back. I asked my GP's osteopath and posted on FB to get advice from fellow painters.
You probably already know all of this but here's a little reminder anyway:

- Take breaks
 Cindy Procious points a timer if she becomes too absorbed in what you are doing and take a short break to move around. I want to think that a certain space and body awareness develops naturally with painting skills, so it's good to relax the muscles involved in handling the brush. Judi Green uses Spikey Balls to massage the back during breaks, while Linda Brandon does push ups ( I'm impressed!)
Ingres at the Phillips Collection, Washington

- Exercise
 Donald Beal has obtained a set of exercises from a physiotherapist to strengthen rhomboid muscles ( between shoulder blades) and hold a good shoulder posture. In case of pain there are contrasting opinion if osteopathy or physiotherapy is the best option ( see difference here). Annie Brash Kelvin opted for a personal trainer and Lylian Peternolli for jogging.
I must confess that when it's time to go to the gym I always find something more interesting to do in the studio. I try to go twice a week and I don't do classes because I know I don't like to go at a regular time. The osteopath advised me to do "a bit of everything". Best of best, he said, is swimming front crawl, otherwise do a little on all aerobic machines: treadmill, bicycle, cross trainer, rowing machine and the like (no Power Plate) followed by core exercises with control.
Pam Hawkes  says: one of the postures I have developed over the years is to try, when standing or sitting, to fold my arms behind my back and hold the opposite elbow with each hand; it helps keep those long back muscles stretched.
This is a good exercise to relieve tension in the jaw, as we often clench it without realising. Place a fist under your chin as when you support your head. Open your mouth slightly pushing hard against your hand and count to seven, relax counting to three and repeat a few times.
Pilates, yoga etc. are all good disciplines of course, and Sophie Ploeg suggests that I get another dog ! ( sigh)

- Palette
Dennis Spicer bought a cheap tea trolley at a charity shop  for his palette, while Linda Brandon clamps it to another easel close by. David John Kassan has developped a vertical palette that also has advantages for comparing your mixes as it's positioned beside the painting.
I haven't tried DJK's palette but having worked on a glass palette on a trolley in the past I now feel I am doing well with holding a wooden one. I have a couple of these large palette, one that is slightly smaller and fits in my painting backpack and a larger one for the studio. I got them from Green and Stone and they are light and balanced and don't strain the arm or the wrist at all. ( I know, Roy Connelly, I should put it down but I like it !).

Maryanne Buschini ( and my osteopath) suggests a Swiss ball chair. Gallerist Jonathan Ross suggests the Alexander Technique but I must thank Gail Sauter who suggested a book by Esther Gokhale ( similar to Alexander Technique in some aspects). I only had it for a week or so but I found that
the explanations are very clear and the posture she suggests feels very natural to me. I learnt not only a new posture for sitting but also one for when I stand and look down such as when making monotypes or framing. I tried this today and it felt very good.

If everything else fails, I leave the last words to the wise John Hansen:  "A cure that works almost as well as exercise is age. Time and ageing pain receptors help. I use both."

Friday, 5 December 2014

Mi Blog Es Tu Blog - Susan Wilson

I have known Susan for more than ten years, I have been taught by her and we had children in the same schools. Born in New Zealand, she arrived in London in 1976 and her work has been widely shown in UK and NZ.  She has a straight forward attitude towards painting that I always admired ( read about her studio gear in this post); what for other painters might be a source of inspiration, in Susan's works gets chewed and swallowed up whole: literature, old masters, foreign landscapes, costumed portraits. Her insatable painterly appetite results in pictures that are always engaging, challenging, confrontational.
Here is an interview from 2008 with Michael Peppiatt.

Susan is having a solo exhinbition at Browse and Darby next week, and chose this painting from the show:

Tiepolo Sky with Hollyhocks    
oil on linen, 30 x 50 inches

I have been driving across Europe this year to deliver paintings and prints- and then collect them- to an exhibition at the Bibioteca at Cassino where my father was a stretcher bearer with the NZ Medical Corps at the terrible battle for Montecassino in WW2.

I planned the route around Tiepolo, so we had a stay at Wurztburg to see the Tiepolo ceilings in the Residence there- reader- see them, you will never be quite the same-, then Udine, where again the NZ Medical corps was stationed at the close of the war, and young Tiepolo painted the Archbishops Palace, hollyhocks stand by the door Sarah peers around as a handsome angel arrives to tell her she will have a child, then Villa Valmarana ai Nani, where Giandomenico and Gianbattista again worked together as at Wurtzburg. Lorenzo, another son, also went to Wurtzburg.  They lived in a room at the Residence for two years and I keep imagining them lurching across Europe up mountain passes from Venice in a  horse draw coach.

So the Tiepolo sky picture is a distillation of thinking about Tiepolo after Mary Kuper (illustrator) gave me "Tiepolo Pink" by Roberto Calasso ( he's one of the foremost Italian intellectuals !) to read . It was made in my garden - I grew the hollyhocks and was given them as small plants as well, by Oonagh Elliott.
I sat outside, used a big linen canvas, and watched the clouds go by. My dog walking affects how I paint skies, as I am out with her twice a day in all weather. She is an orange pointer bitch, and she features in Goya, and Tiepolo, same dog!

The picture is on show at Browse & Darby from 9th Dec.

Paint? Sax naples yellow, alizarin crimson, sax heilige blau, titanium white, linseed, rickety old chairs to support the picture and thats it.


Thursday, 27 November 2014

Martin Yeoman's Open Studio and Studio Sale -This Weekend

I became aware of Martin Yeoman's work in 2009 when I saw this small drawing at the Royal Society of Portrait Painters show.

Since then I went to see one of his shows in 2010 in the now defunct Petley's Gallery in Cork Street and, this year, signed up for one of his classes at the Royal Drawing School. ( see a video interview with him here, then part 2 and 3)

      Martin is approachable and generous with his advice and in a single week under his tutorship I learnt a lot. He is the sort of tutor who teaches by example, sketching small heads on a piece of paper to point out drawing inaccuracies and taking knife and brush to  students paintings to simplify and demonstrate his free and loose brushstroke. He will be teaching again at the Royal Drawing School for a week from the 12th of January ( his class fills fast, book early !),

His website is a frequent destination for me when I am in need of inspiration and counteracting some of my painting bad habits.
One of my favourite bodies of work that he has produced is this series of paintings and drawings of Pole Dancers. He painted these from sketches made in Soho strip clubs, as a last row visitor who sees the scene through the filter of the old masters. There's the nude, the overtly sexy nude under cheesy coloured lights, and there's the indistinct mob watching, trying to touch and who knows what else they are up to. Lautrec and Degas come to mind for these paintings that talk about women, men, power, loneliness.

Woman with Raised Arms, reworked 2006 to 2009
oil on canvas
30 x 36 inches
Martin is also a brilliant portrait painter. His work is intimate and affectionate; it comes across as a process in which there's a strong emotional participation. He asked this lady to sit for him after spotting her resemblance with one of Rembrandt's portrait ( on show now at the Late Works show at the National Gallery). The delicacy of this piece is remarkable and one of the most moving painting of old age I have seen in recent years.

24 x 20 inches

Martin will be holding a Studio Sale and an Open Studio day this weekend. I think that it would be a wonderful opportunity to meet him and get hold of one of his works.

Last but not least a familiar ginger head I found browsing the portrait gallery: do you recognise this intense and focused child ( hint: sing...) ? 

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Organising a Solo Show Elsewhere : My Way

   En route for the opening of my exhibition in Italy, it occurred to me to jot down the basics, so here I am on the plane writing this blog post on my phone (sorry no hyperlinks ) on how I went about preparing the show.

First: start painting the paintings. Yes that's obvious, but note that I wrote "start". I think that an exhibition should be planned when I know I am onto something in my work, when the infamous "body of work" is taking form and I am confident I am going to produce a satisfying number of pictures. 
As the idea of a future exhibition starts shaping in my head, I notice I can hone in the theme and develop it with more focus. I learn about the common thread that links the painting together, take it up and start following it as a life line that guides me out of a maze.
Planning a show takes months so it's better to get things going much before the work is completed: that deadline is an important goal that sustains and motivates my time in the studio. 

Paint the paintings, I said: one of the first things I thought of was how many, and how large. In the case of "Villaggi" I had a given space that I knew ( it's my third exhibition with Elle Arte and the first one in which I have the whole gallery). I wanted to have a good number of works but not to overcrowd the rooms, so I settled on about 25 works of different sizes. That number seem to be enough to articulate a discourse without ending up being repetitive. 

I wanted some paintings large enough  ( with frames they go up to 120x150cm) that could really affect the atmosphere in a room as well as many small ones where the ideas are condensed.
I think it is fair to offer work at different price levels. In my experience there are collectors who love the work and collectors who love the work and also have a new house with a lot of wall space. 
A folder with unframed works on paper ( matted, labelled and wrapped in clear plastic) adds variety, is a cheaper buying option and showcases technical skills in different media.
"Villaggi" is a still life show but I wanted to include two works that function a bit like backstage footage and interrupt the quasi obsessiveness of the theme: so I purposedly painted a self portrait while arranging a still life ( also a connection with my other work ) and a study of a landscape by Bellini.

Where and when
I have an ongoing relationship with Elle Arte, a well established gallery in Palermo with a high professional standard. Laura, the owner, shows my work regularly so she was the first one I called when I made the decision to have a solo show. This also meant getting in touch with other galleries I work with to let them know they wouldn't get much work from me in the following months and also deleting "call for entries" to art competitions from my inbox so that I could build up the work faster.
I originally set a date for 2015 but as a closer slot became available I accepted to speed things up. I think October and November are the best time to show in a city as well as spring months. 
If you are planning a show somewhere don't forget to check out the town's calendar. In London, for example, opening on Halloween night during the school holidays wouldn't be a great idea, while I was told that in Palermo this is a time of the year when families get together and stay in town.
In Rome a few years ago I was showing during the local film festival so it was impossible to have a press release published because local arts pages were all clogged with reviews. Research in advance !

Photographing and framing
In the meantime, work goes on in the studio. As I finish paintings, I photograph them and file the images. ( also have a list of paintings with measures on a piece of paper, you'd need the info a countless number of times, it's quicker !)
I normally take photos outside on an overcast day and adjust images in Photoshop. If I were to sell giclee prints I'd definitely have them done professionally, but for postcards, online posts and a small catalog I'm perfectly happy with my own pics.

   Normally I order natural wood frames online and paint them myself. I have approached the framer and obtained a small discount seen the number of frames I order from them. 
I must say that I probably don't save much money by doing the work on my own but I enjoy it very much. Most of my frames are gray and/or white: it's good to find one or two colours that suite all the paintings so the show has a unified and tidy appearance.
I prime the natural wood and paint two or three coats of matte emulsion, some times adding a little depth by painting coats of different tones and sanding exposing the colour underneath.
I finish off by sanding with fine steel wool and polishing with wax.
I use z-shape clips to fit the canvas in the frame and attach gummed tape to the back.

I fit a string behind the work for hanging, but for medium and small paintings I also include a single triangular fitting because the string can prove a real nightmare if the gallery has a chain system for hanging: it's impossible to align the paintings ! 

I like to have control of my frames however this time I decided to send my smaller works to be framed in Italy as I wanted a slightly different mould that the online supplier didn't have.
I recently visited a small bottega in Tuscany ( no website !) that does fantastic job at a better price and I also figured out it would cost me less to ship small works on panel from UK to Tuscany, frame them at Italian price with bulk discount and ship them on to Sicily. Check local services !

Packing and Shipping
If you have read until now you'll know I do my best to keep costs down. So I did not build crates, I don't know how to do it, don't have the space nor the tools, but
I'm happy to say that all my works arrived safely to Palermo.
For medium size works I purchased telescopic sturdy boxes that are intended for moving mirrors ( on Amazon), and I saved the large flat boxes in which my frames arrived. I used a lot of cling film and bubble wrap and probably ingested half a roll of brown tape ( not enough hands for scissors!).

I bought cardboard corners that I fit onto every painting protecting the frame with cling film. I then sandwiched bubble wrap between paintings in similar sizes and tied them together very firmly with wide packing cling film so that they couldn't slide, then more bubble wrap around the whole thing and in the box very clearly marking "Do not stack" and using "Fragile" tape.
I booked the shipping with an online shipping comparison website and chose a land service that turned out rather cheap. For a show a couple of years ago the gallerist had secured a sponsorship for the shipping by including their logo in the catalogue, worth a try.

Most of the job locally is done by the gallery, including securing press coverage  by sending a press release to local newspaper. Here in Palermo hard copy works: the gallery invested in postcard invitations to send their clientele and leave in book shops, cafes etc.
Social networking is useful to remind people about the event and to send more extensive information about the show. 
I sent a newsletter ( using Mailchimp) to all my italian contacts even if they live elsewhere. You never know, people have spread the word and I'm expecting some extra guests who are friends of friends. 

A catalogue is an important record: nowadays there's no need to invest a large sum to have enough copies for everyone. An online Print on Demand service allows you to only print a few copies that can be given to the best collectors and to potential or actual galleries.
I asked an artist friend, James Bland, who is both very articulate and familiar with my work, to write a piece that I have then translated in Italian.
Again, I did a little homework to keep costs down. I originally composed the whole catalogue with a software from Blurb but I also asked for a quote to a local printer in Sicily that came out much cheaper. I uploaded my draft on the Blurb website and bought a digital copy. 
I then showed it to the Sicilian printer to show him how I wanted it ( too complicated to compose again with a new software ). I then optimised all the image files for printing, converting them to CMYK and uploaded them on Dropbox, and he put the catalogue together. Again check the locals !
I also uploaded all the images and the text on a Tumblr blog: I chose Tumblr because the images appear very large. 
I included a link on my newsletter for people to see the whole catalogue online. 

I have spoken with my (poor!) husband at length about the work, "rehearsing" a bit of narrative about the paintings. It's important to memorise something coincise, coherent and interesting to say: you don't want to be caught by surprise and stutter something silly to a good  collector ( yes that happened to me).

At this point I can say I did my best and I only want to enjoy my time in Palermo.
The plane is landing... I can't wait until tomorrow !