Category Archives: art

Choosing art

I had the interesting experience of selecting paintings for an exhibition the other day.  I work for a Great Big Company and the local council contacted various Groups in the Community to ask for volunteers to pick paintings for a Peoples’ Choice exhibition.  (It’s Blairite, but is it Art?)  So I said “that’ll be me then” and volunteered.

There were seven or so of us, and we were given an enormous catalogue of the paintings in public ownership in the county, and told to pick three each and state our reasons.  (The catalogue turned out to be fascinating and desirable in its own right and, since it’s available from Amazon, I’ve just bought myself a copy.  Damn.) The chap was a curator at one of the local museums or art galleries and he encouraged us to be simple and direct in our reasons, giving examples of things that other groups such as school children had said.



It would have been easy to consult with others and pick a whole exhibition of social history, or local faces, or even specifically non-local work, but it was much, much harder to pick just three.

I resisted choosing damaged pictures just because they were damaged which gives them an added layer of meaning in my pretentious world.  I resisted picking the local views because that was all a bit too obvious.  I resisted two enormous and gloomy portraits of a grimly smug victorian couple which I wanted to pick on the ground that – hey look, these people are so freaking different from people today.

I discovered that when push came to shove I preferred portraits, which was rather depressing.  My brow is higher than that, surely?   I did steer myself away from just picking portraits and resisted the option to show off by going entirely for abstracts.

It was an interesting insight into the world of the curator and the choices involved in putting together an exhibition.  I’ve bought myself a copy of the catalogue of the county’s art collection, and I’m looking forward to the exhibition.  I should love it.  What better way could there be to arrive at an eclectic mix?

Rubbishing Art


Harsh critique, eh?

(Photographed with the Samsung G800, with the contrast turned up a bit with PhotoImpact).

Flash Parks

Some time ago there was a fashion, or a flashion perhaps, for flash mobbing.  Wikipedia’s current definition says: “A  is a large group of people who assemble suddenly in a public place, perform an unusual action for a brief period of time, then quickly disperse.”

The other day I took a trip from Settle to Carlisle, and when we got there, we found what I can only describe as a flash municipal park.

Carlisle Flash Park 02

The plants were orderly and very very plentiful and

Flash Park 01

so healthy and cheap that the one I was with had to remind me just how difficult it would be to wrestle them on and off the train.  Otherwise I’d have flashed my cash and bought half the pavement.



I’ve mentioned already that I work near an art gallery. I noticed a piece of opportunistic recycling as I walked into town today.

Reinstall 02

Apparently the artist

“creates new relationships, experimenting with unexpected combinations of materials creating objects and environments, which encourage us to see the everyday world with fresh eyes”

and she

“fashions monumental objects from scrapyard materials and throws them away after use”

Though I do wonder if a graffitied garage door is quite what she intended. It pleased me though.

Across the Universe

PolarisJulie’s comment about the Turner Prize on my previous post reminded me of something I’ve been meaning to write up for a while.

Wouldn’t it be better if the Turner Prize was just announced the way that the Nobel Prize is? None of this “and the nominees are…” crap.

If they did, then the prize this year should go to NASA. Yep, the eningeering dudes who run the Space Station and put men on the moon.

Yeah, I know that they’re Scientists and Americans, but they came up with the most amazing piece of art last month. They beamed the Beatles’ song “Across the Universe” at the Pole Star, Polaris, the most useful and influential of the stars visible from here.

I don’t know what the guys at NASA call it, but in my book it may be cheesy, it’s also brilliant conceptual art. They’ve blurred the boundaries between science and art and done something inspiring and witty, and clever and pointless, a piece of apposite cosmic graffiti, and we should give those geeks a prize.

It’s clever but is it art?

Kipling’s rather mannered poem “The Conundrum of the Workshops” asks “it’s clever, but is it Art?”

Most of the time, it isn’t.

We don’t send teenagers to writing school, get them to live exclusively self-referential lives once they graduate, and expect them to produce work that is either interesting or thought-provoking. However we send our artists to art-school when they are still high on hormones and coherent thinking, expose them to nothing other than cheap drugs, grubby sex and their peers, and expect them to produce art. It’s no wonder that most of their pieces are self-indulgent wank-fests: self-indulgent wanking is what teenagers do, and with some artists you see no evidence that they have grown out of their adolescence.

These past two weeks I’ve some superb imagery by graphic masters and some deeply-felt and hard-won experiences expressed as narrative paintings and I’ll let you know about them in a minute. Let’s start with the wank-fests. Three spring to mind.

The first was a series of films of a bloke in a bear-suit wandering around an empty Berlin art gallery several nights in a row. I cannot remember what it was supposed to be about. Alienation, probably. (There is a reason why the perpetrators of such self-indulgence feel alienated from the rest of us: it’s because they are so self-obsessed. It isn’t us. It really is them). Apparently the bear-suit referenced the fact that the symbol of Berlin is a bear. Presumably the fact it was in the Berlin kunstgalerie references the fact that the artist is a c**t, otherwise why not do it in Warwick, which is also symbolised by a bear. I’m sorry, but if an installation needs a page of A4 to explain itself, then what we have is a writer who embellishes their writing with really complicated illustrations. The woman who put the crack in the Tate Modern would have been an artist if she’d left it at that, but the explanation that it was about alienation (dur) and racism reduced her work to mere illustration. Shame really. As a crack in the floor it was really cool. Unlike Bungle in Berlin, but there you go.

The second was more fest than wank, but precious little of either. The artist’s page of A4 burbled about sensuality. Essentially she tried to eroticise food. However, a pair of melons with a couple of vine-eye bolts and a chain is no more than a visual pun: it’s not even as if nipple rings are that outré any more. It isn’t Mapplethorpe’s Robert having his Nipple Pierced. The rest of the photographs would have made good magazine shots, but they weren’t witty, nor erotic, nor particularly clever and certainly not art. Nice production values, though.

The third was just cheap sensationalism in a Hirsty kind of way: dead animals enlivened with fluorescent paint. There was a mounted head of an Aberdeen Angus, where the nose and horns had been painted the sort of orange you get in highlighter pens. There was a stuffed fox snarled up in a bunch of brightly coloured bailer twine which was almost interesting. And a pair of white rats turned into salt and pepper pots which were, well, a pair of white rats turned into salt and pepper pots. You get the idea.

By contrast, the one I go to art galleries with and I saw some Modiglianis, a Mondrian and a couple of Picassos the other weekend. Now, they were boys who knew how to put colour and shape onto canvas and who knew what they were painting about. The reason they produced master-pieces is not just that they had mastered their craft (though they had) it is that they had progressed beyond their apprenticeships and journey-man days as people too.

The idea that war is hell is trite. It’s a cheap non-idea, like the cheap non-eroticism of the fruit. However, if you’ve experienced atrocities, then that will come through in your expression of them, which is why Guernica is so powerful and the Kandinskys I saw last summer, come to that. And why, based on her art, sex with the melon woman would be banally predictable while she thought it was exotic and edgy. Rather like sex with Rik from the Young Ones. Which confirms my point about dull adolescent thoughts expressed as dull adolescent art, really. (You want eroticism on the edge? Check out Buck Angel’s transsexual porn. Not likely in a provincial art gallery, I’ll admit.)

Experience informs art, and I am coming to think that the way we put our artists into art school actually hamstrings them.

The final exhibition I saw yesterday was a series of narrative paintings of coal-miners mining coal. The artist was himself a miner, though had he been a different generation and class, maybe he’d have spent his time wrapping up aubergines in wire or wandering around museums in animal costumes. Instead he went down the pit and then went through the miners’ strike. The paintings are illuminate the world that George Orwell described as being “like hell, or at any rate like my own mental picture of hell. Most of the things one imagines in hell are if there–heat, noise, confusion, darkness, foul air, and, above all, unbearably cramped space.” The paintings, like Orwell’s essay, bring out the physicality of the men and the work: “the fillers look and work as though they were made of iron. … It is only when you see miners down the mine and naked that you realize what splendid men, they are. Most of them are small (big men are at a disadvantage in that job) but nearly all of them have the most noble bodies; wide shoulders tapering to slender supple waists, and small pronounced buttocks and sinewy thighs, with not an ounce of waste flesh anywhere.” I found the paintings of the coal-mines powerful and moving, and full of purpose and integrity which was not even slightly ridiculous.

So, if you want to do art that’s worth doing, then you have to have something to say that’s worth saying. And if you have to have a page of A4 stuck on the gallery wall in order to say it, then you aren’t an artist at all. You’re an illustrator.

Unsung National Treasures – 3 – Pantomime

The Russians have ballet, the Italians have opera, the French have impressionist art. The British national art form though is not high culture, in fact it’s not considered to be any kind of culture. It’s so much part of the background at this time of year that its true status in British life is invisible. You see, the British national art form is Pantomime.

Most people who aren’t actually British have no idea what Pantomime is. A few non-Brits who have over-wintered in the UK may have been taken to a pantomime by unusually malicious British friends but by and large pantomime is a peculiarly private national vice. And I do mean “peculiarly”.

First of all – what pantomime is not: It’s not venetian. It isn’t mime. It isn’t dance.

And now what it is: it’s silly, it’s funny, it’s vulgar, crude and innocent. It’s childish and seasonal. It’s frequently a young Britlet’s first and maybe only introduction to theatre. Most interestingly of all, it’s a loose collection of rituals and conventions wrapped up in any one of a dozen or so traditional plots. And that’s really the point of going to a pantomime – waiting for and enjoying the wierdness as it comes out and beats you over the head with the subtlety of a string of sausages.

The principal boy in the pantomime might be a prince or a pauper, Charming, Aladdin, Jack; it varies from pantomime to pantomime and almost doesn’t matter. The only thing that really matters about the principle boy is that she should have shapely thighs. The principal boy, you see, should be played by a girl.

Principal Boy

This delightful piece of cross-dressing is counterbalanced by the Dame, usually a maternal figure, usually on the side of good guys, always presented as a grotesque and always played as camp as Christmas by a middle aged man.

Pantomime Dame

The actual heroine, Cinderella, Snow White or Sleeping Beauty, is sweetly played by a fully dressed woman, and she really is rather dull, bless her. She’s often by a soap star who has seen better days; there’s an odd cachet to playing panto these days, but it is one which no-one bothers even trying to explain when looking for work abroad.

Some pantomimes have demon kings and others have fairy godmothers and most have a comic sidekick or two. I hesitate to say “straight man” in this context, however anything less homoerotic than a pantomime is hard to imagine.

Pantomimes are full of slapstick and prattfalls, full of clowns clowning around, full of awful puns, appalling jokes and ludicrous double- and single-entendres.


The dramatic tension in a pantomime doesn’t come from plot or characterisation, it comes from where and how the ritualised elements will be incorporated. There should be a horse played by two actors in a single costume; camels are permissible in Aladdin, Sinbad or Ali Baba, but they aren’t really hardcore because if you are playing the back hump of the camel you can just about stand up straight. You see, that’s the whole point of the pantomime horse: one bloke you can’t see has his head up the bum of another bloke you can’t see, and I still say it’s not homoerotic. Though I admit you’d be deeply worried by pantomime if you were an anthropologist from Mars.

Someone will hold a ritualised argument with the audience – oh yes they will – oh no they won’t – oh yes they will, and at some point two actors will rotate on stage in such a way that one of them cannot see the other – despite loud shouts of “He’s beHIND you” from every audience member under the age of seven. Anyone under four foot tall in the first ten rows of the stalls will be brought up on stage to help sing a song the words of which will are painted on a bed-sheet and winched down from the flies. Sweets will be thrown at the audience.

Pantomimes are gloriously surreal, like Music Hall on acid. What I find fascinating though is that nationally we have no idea what we have here. We don’t take pantomime to the world as our national art form even though that is precisely what it is, with the Carry On films, I’m sorry I haven’t a Clue and McGill‘s seaside postcards expressing the same innocent filth in other media. We are almost unaware of just how peculiar and wonderful pantomime actually is. Panto is brilliant, wierd, idiosyncratic, silly, ritualised, great fun and uniquely British.

Ladies and gentlemen, as my panto-season gift to you, I offer you the unsung national treasure which no-one wants to publicise abroad.

Oh no they don’t.

Thank goodness.

Alan Bean – fourth man on the moon

Alan Bean is a really lovely guy. He’s witty. He’s fun. He’s funny. He’s impish, which seems an odd word to use about a moon-walker. He was and still is a painstaking professional, but I like the fact that some of the guys on the moon liked to play about and kick back a bit. The humour is only part of it though: he was changed by walking on the moon, changed in profound ways it seems, but he wears that profundity lightly and with grace.

Alan Bean Lecture

There were a few hundred of us in a shabby, battered, over-lit, over-heated school hall. It was grubbily mundane. I liked that though because it threw the focus of the evening firmly on the man and what he had to say. I wonder what he made of it.

He spoke for about an hour about our place in the universe, about NASA and the Apollo missions, about the fact that the first man on the moon could have been Pete Conrad or David Scott, Thomas Stafford or Gordo Cooper, James Lovell or John Young, that NASA simply pushed for the next step and the next step each time, and the fact it was Neil Armstrong and Apollo 11 was hapenstance. He spoke about the training they did, learning to become geologists and rehearsing all the tasks of each of the EVAs in Iceland, Mexico and Hawaii. He spoke about training to be in 1/6th gravity and what is is like to be there. He suggested that the Olympics should be held on the moon, simply because it would be such fun for the athletes to jump around in 1/6th G. He spoke about fear and how he handled it, about being so very far from home. He spoke with enormous generosity about his fellow astronauts. He told us about the work NASA is doing, on a shoestring, to try to get us back there.

The Apollo 12 team were close, closer than many of the Apollo crews perhaps, and one gets the feeling that Pete Conrad and Alan Bean in particular, as well as being supreme professionals, were … naughty. The painting which moved me the most was Bean’s fantasy of the three of them, Pete Conrad, Dick Gordon and himself, together on the moon. Dick Gordon was the most experienced pilot of the three and never landed on the moon – instead he flew the command module which was their only way back. In Bean’s picture, the three of them are posing for an official portrait on the surface of the moon – a fantasy which allowed his friend to share the experience. If you look closely you can see that Bean is holding up two fingers behind his friend’s head, as goofy pals have done since people started taking snapshots.

Conrad, Gordon and Bean

His art is interesting. It is strongly narrative and highly figurative; chocolate box art telling specific stories. He strives to convey emotion as well as to record events, which is difficult when you cannot show faces and when all the space-suits look the same. His colours are becoming more impressionistic as he develops as an artist; the skies are softer, the moonscapes redder and browner as he conveys the emotions of the event. But what he portrays is – well – alien. Our planet has an atmosphere and is covered in vegetation, so we are used to landscapes in pretty colours. Turner experimented with painting night scenes and Whistler experimented with compositions in black and grey, but most artists deal in light alone, not light and darkness. I suspect that Bean would seem to be a better artist if his subject matter were not visually so bleak. But it is a matter of astonishing serendipity that one of the dozen test pilots who walked on the moon had it in him to transform the experience for us into art.

Alan Bean

Bean spoke of the wonder of being here; the wonder and beauty of our day-to-day world. He said that he had come back and never complained about the weather again. He walked on a different world, it was an experience which he has spent the past 37 years coming to understand, he describes it (amongst other things) as “fun”, but while he was in space it seems he was agonisingly homesick too.

He took questions, and distracted himself into answering them fully and at length. We queued for a while for an autograph, the one I went with and I, but the hall was due to close at 10:00 and the queue had not moved at all – I believe it was because Bean was chatting away at length with the first few people who reached the table.

Of all the moon-walkers, I am glad to have seen Alan Bean and heard him speak.

(Apologies for the quality of the photos – it was a large hall and I was using my mobile phone. However they are important to me, which is why I have posted them here.)

Aphra Warhol

I should get out more:

Aphra Warhol

There must be a website somewhere that does this sort of thing automatically, but I did it the in the free photo software that came with my PC, and feckin’ ages it took me too. I don’t really like it that much either, though I did find it more interesting and much harder than I expected.

The demands of the flesh

While searching for an appropriate image for my post about CCTV I came across this:

1984 - George Orwell

Isn’t it fab? Now 1984 is all sorts of things, but sizzling with sex it ain’t. In fact that is rather the point, as I recall.

Years ago, when we were sorting out my brother’s books to clear some shelf space, we categorised them as “keep” “sell” and “assorted sordidities”. I think if Ma had come across this copy of 1984 it would probably have made it into that box. On the Road certainly did:

On the Road - Kerouac

(I didn’t know you could get cellulite around your waist; that’s rather worrying.)

My sister was startled to discover later that it qualified as a Penguin Modern Classic; she’d assumed it was some sort of schlocky adventure story with intermittent low-level porn and violence.

The Man from S.T.U.D, on the other hand is definitely a schlocky adventure story with low-level porn and violence. Actually, make that just low-level porn since it is endearingly unviolent. I bought it in Hay on Wye last summer simply for the camp 1970ness of it all and, amazingly, it manages to be readable in a post-modern ironic sort of way of course. I wouldn’t want you to think I read it without irony.

The Man from S.T.U.D.

You can’t read Therese Raquin ironically and the only reason I read it at all, racy though it is, is because I nicked it out of that same box of assorted sordidities without realising that it was a Great Classic of French Literature:


I can’t find the edition I read online, but you get the idea. Isn’t “Her body remained faithful to the wrong man” a great tag line? Though I’ll admit that “She listened only to the demands of the flesh” is even better. Chocolates. They are demands of the flesh. Which brings us back to cellulite around the waist. Hmmm.

I miss these blatent covers with Bardot-like beauties whose implausibly triangular breasts and tilty bedroom eyes seduce you into reading Capital-L Literature. These days book covers are so knowingly urbane and metro-cool that they are decidedly un-enticing and – well – boring. Proof, if proof were needed, that sex just isn’t sexy any more.

(The images take you through to the current editions on Amazon.)