Thursday 29 March 2007

Wobbly Bridge

Settling in to a new work space isn't easy.

I lugged my gear along to the Art Club today and piled it into my ducket - my fears were unfounded, my name on the piece of masking tape still there for all to see.

There were cries all round of "Mr Zip!" except of course they don't know I'm Mr Zip so they used another name entirely. There was a short period of good-natured banter and then I was urged to sit down with a cup of coffee and eat my lunch.

Eventually, I started to get things sorted out. I hauled an easel over to a handy spot next to The Salesman. I haven't seen The Salesman in at least six months and as he was just about finished what he was working on, we had to go through the Catching Up conversation. A necessity which I didn't resent, but I was itching to get on with some work.

"You'll find, " said The Mad Doctor, "that towards mid-afternoon a lot of people are packing up for the day, so they like to come and look at your work and talk; yes, definitely talk. You won't get anything done until they've all gone home."

Eventually things calmed down again and I was able to get my canvas on the easel. I'd decided to bring along a picture I started a little under a year ago, in the hope I'd be able to resuscitate it. It's a picture of one end of the Millennium Bridge - the "Wobbly" Bridge - seen from the window of Tate Modern, and this is how it looked at the beginning of today's session.

For a long time now, I've wondered whether I might have bitten off more than I could chew. A gallery owner once said to me, "You do like making life difficult for yourself, don't you?" And it's true; for some reason I'm drawn to complicated problem subjects. And the difficult problem area in this picture is, of course, all those bloody ribs on each side of the bridge.

I was attracted by the scatterings of people and didn't honestly think about the ribs when I started the painting, but now was the time to try to make something of them. Some time ago, I'd pencilled in the divisions between the ribs and now I needed to get some paint on them, to see how they might shape up.

As it happens, it went quite well. I did a lot of huffing and puffing - which The Mad Doctor found most amusing - but overall I'm quite pleased with the way it's going.

Sometimes I find that there's a kind of mental log jam builds up and it becomes very difficult to get things moving again. Just doing something different can be enough to get those mental logs to shift. Even though I probably won't be able to do more to this painting until next Thursday, I feel today's efforts should get me painting again in my own studio.

Monday 26 March 2007

Death at Zip Mansion

I was ushering Patsy123 up the drive of Stately Zip Mansion this afternoon - she's off singing her little heart out again - when a large bird-shape took off and flapped silently but quickly away. Too quick for me to decide what it might be. Somewhat tawny and a bit mottled, I thought.

As we got to the gate, we noticed we were treading on a path of downy feathers. More and more greeted us as we walked out onto the pavement and then, right in front of us, lay the remains of a freshly killed pigeon. It's head was mangled and the feathers had been torn from its breast, showing the bare red skin.

It's an upsetting thing to find a dead bird at any time, but more so when it's just happened and at your own front door. Patsy123 was visibly shocked. I take a more sanguine approach to these things, but I was sorry to find it. Even more sorry that we'd inadvertently scared off the predator, whose right to eat is just as great as the pigeon's and who now would have to find another meal.

I marked the corpse's position with a white outline and disposed of the body.

Second Time Lucky

News arrived today that I've had a painting accepted in a show at The Art Works in town. The show's theme is Focus on the Figure, so I took the opportunity to submit Sometimes Falling, Sometimes Flying, which was rejected from the People Show earlier this year.

There's a £10 hanging fee, but the picture stays on the wall from May until the end of July, giving it a decent exposure.

So, as the Spring sunshine streamed in the window, and butterflies cast their tiny flitting shadows across the carpet, I've been taking off the mirror plates and fitting the picture with a hanging cord, all the while whistling a happy tune, albeit an unrecognisable one.

Thursday 22 March 2007

Art Club Buzz

Whenever I've gone to the Art Club in the past few months, the place was almost empty and by 2 o'clock everybody had left. But when I called in today it was a hive of activity and when I took myself off at 3 o'clock people were still busy.

There's been something of a palace revolution there, following the events of the AGM, and there's a new buzz about the place. The Club needed a shake-up and today's atmosphere made me feel more inclined to spend some time there now.

Seeing that space has been made available by the junking of thirty-odd years of old paintings, drawings, broken coffee mugs and unidentifiables, I've put my name on a ducket. Over the next week I'll be putting a box of paints and some boards and canvases in there in an attempt to ensure someone doesn't think it a good idea to just peel my sticker off.

Although I'm happy with my studio at home - or will be when I've carried out my own de-junking - I fancy the opportunity to mix in with a group of painters and share some time and experience with them.

Wednesday 21 March 2007

The Call of Blawearie

When you can't paint, paint something else.

One of the problems of a long layoff, whether enforced or voluntary, is that it can prove difficult to get back into an unfinished painting. My birthday celebrations, my travels to the US and various domestic matters have all interfered with progress on the painting of Grey's Monument. It now sits on the easel, glaring at me, daring me to get back in and spoil it. I don't believe I will spoil it, of course, but there's always that underlying fear when you've lost the plot a little.

So I thought I might be better employed ignoring it's baleful gaze and doing something else to work up some steam as it were. Not another painting, which might bring with it some of the same baggage, but a drawing. I've neglected my drawing woefully over the last couple of years, so turning back to it can only be a Good Thing.

In an attempt to clear my head completely of its most recent preoccupations, I thought I'd opt for different subject matter too. So I dug out this small sketch I made a while ago.

Blawearie sketch (pencil on A4 cartridge)

I did this in a strange place I know of in Northumberland, a few miles off the road on Bewick Moor. It's held a fascination for me since I first came across it and someday I hope to make a series of work about it; not having any transport of my own, however, makes this difficult.

Nevertheless, I spent some time today making this Conte drawing from the sketch.

Blawearie steps (charcoal and coloured Conte on A2 cartridge)

Evidently I'm in a Graham Sutherland mood today, although later experiments in Photoshop suggest the possibility of a different approach

Tuesday 20 March 2007

3rd Gateshead Jazz Festival

The 3rd Gateshead Jazz Festival has come and gone. Buddy K's bro, the Jazz Geologist, was ill with bronchitis, so I got to use his tickets, and there were several good acts.

My jazz weekend got off to a poor start on Friday with Byron Wallen's Meeting Ground. Wallen's a competent enough trumpeter, and Tony Kofi on baritone sax was excellent, but the highlight of the set was supposed to be the addition of a Gnawa Sufi singer from Morocco, Boujamaa Bouboul. "When I first heard him sing," said Wallen, "it was like the first time I heard Louis Arnstrong play." Wow, I thought, must be good.

Then on shambles this guy in ethnic tie-dies and dreads with a tall gangly mate in tow. What a let-down! I like North African singing, and I note that the Guardian review of the record, quoted on the Amazon site, calls his voice "mesmerising." but last Friday this guy really couldn't sing. Maybe he'd been on the piss. He was flat half the time and the other half you couldn't hear him. His mate stood at the back and clacked some clackers made from what looked like rusty tin. The pair of them gave the impression of having been pulled in off the street and put into some ethnic clothes and told to get out there and do their best. Tony Kofi looked embarrassed. Poot.

The late night entertainment was provided by Bill Bruford and Michiel Borstlap. Drums and piano might not sound like a promising combination, but they were excellent, improvising most of the time and watching each other all the time for cues. They were obviously having a great time and Bruford was superb, using the drums as an instrument, rather than just a rhythm supply. Pity I could only stay for an hour.

The Chris Bowden Trio were the support on Saturday night. Never seen him before, but I'd like to again. The drums and electric bass were a solid armature for Bowden's saxophone solos, described accurately in the programme as "atmospheric ... resonant of film noir soundtracks and with the energy of early bebop."

And then it was time for the great EST (Esbjorn Svensson Trio). Sweden's greatest export since Abba. Svensson on piano is simply stunning; I was able to see his playing technique better than usual by virtue of the big posterised video images being projected live behind him and I realised for the first time how little he uses chords - he plays runs and trills and arpeggios, which must be very tiring and not helped by his posture, slumped over the keyboard.

Dan Berglund on upright bass was quite startling this time too (I've seen them twice before), using effects filters to distort the sound to the point that it began to resemble Hendrix-like feedback. Thrilling.

When Sunday rolled around, we were all excited. This was Patsy123's Big Day. And what a Big Day it was. Andy Sheppard and John Parricelli took the stage first and played some of her favourite pieces from their PS album, then Kuljit Bhamra joined them on tablas and as they played through what I took to be a track from Sheppard's new (downloadable) CD, The Birds, the choir filed onto stage and they launched seamlessly into Glossolalia (Speaking in Tongues), Andy's composition for saxophones, guitar, tabla, percussion and choir, describing the building and destruction of the Tower of Babel.

I don't know quite what I'd expected. I'd heard the CD recorded at last year's performance in Norwich and I'd heard Patsy123 singing little bits to herself, but the actuality was something else. Described afterwards by Buddy K as " a cross between Ligeti and the Honda car ad," the first section was a slowly building collage of clicks, stutters, bits of alphabet and meaningless words. Gradually it took form and became a joyous and lyrical piece with great solos from Andy on tenor and soprano saxes. (I'm always in awe of his circular breathing performances.) And Kuljit Bhamra was just wonderful, his tablas making echoes and counterpoints with the choir.

The choir were superb. Composed of elements from the North-East and from Norwich, all are amateur, but you'd never know it. Their performance was outstanding and their conductor's bum was hypnotic.

The reception was rapturous. The crowd roared out its approval and kept up a constant applause until the last of the choir had left the stage. I think Patsy123 can be justifiably proud of her achievement and that of her co-performers. And now she tells me Andy wants to take the piece to the London Jazz Festival and I'm sure he wouldn't dream of doing it without her.

I know the Barbican isn't a patch on The Sage Gateshead, but hey, it'll do.

Wednesday 14 March 2007

Showtime Again

I hear from the inestimable Mo that our Group has been given another show at another gallery. Next year again, in July/August, somewhere in the depths of darkest Co. Durham.

If our proposal for the South Shields show comes off, we'll have three shows in 2008. Maybe we don't need one this year - it may take a year to get enough work done for three shows next year!

Tuesday 13 March 2007

San Francisco

My trip to Austin had been paid for by good friends. But it seemed a shame, having gone all that way, not to go the extra distance and finally get to the West Coast. So I stumped up the money from ... funds.

I loved San Francisco as soon as I got there. As we drove in from the airport - we'd been picked up by another friend - there was an obvious difference in the countryside. After Texas's scrubby landscape, with what had looked like tar-paper shacks cowering amongst concrete flyovers, the land round the Bay Area was gorgeous, even in the rain. Green trees and grassy hills, with good-looking houses nestled here and there.

And the city was everything I thought it might be. The wonderful Victorian houses with their woodwork painted in terrific colours, the very European feel of the place. To make things even better, for the rest of our stay there, the weather was glorious, like an early summer day in the UK.

We could not have been better served by my friends there, some of whom I'd only met for the first time on this trip. They took time off work to drive us about. They bought us meals. One guy even drove in from LA and stayed in our hotel for a few days to show us around the city he'd lived in for many years.

I was particularly keen to see some of the WPA murals in San Francisco, so on our first day we stopped off at the Beach Chalet in Golden Gate Park. Difficult to photograph, but the murals are quite lovely. Actually, the whole building is a gem, with decoration in every part. The banisters, for example, are carved into the shape of sea creatures, such as squids.

Later in the day we drove up to The Coit Tower, where the views over the Bay are terrific, from the Golden Gate Bridge over to Alcatraz. There are more WPA murals in the Coit. Great stuff, showing ordinary people working in industry, in hospitals and on farms. Where the windows were set into niches, the niches themselves were disguised with clever trompe l'oeil shelves or bookcases.

I'd let it be known before I went that I was interested in seeing some Wayne Thiebaud paintings, if at all possible, so on the Thursday we were picked up by someone I knew only by name (but who soon became another good friend), who happened to have a pass to the De Young Museum. It's a fine looking building, the biggest in the world to be clad entirely in copper sheeting. When it's had a chance to patinate, it'll be glorious. San Franciscans can be truly proud of it.

Inside I was really in my element. They have an excellent 20th Century American collection and sure enough, three Thiebauds were on display. The earliest was the iconic "Three Machines." Often lumped in with the Pop Art movement, Thiebaud's paintings of gumball machines, pies and cakes are more a genuine celebration of the look of ordinary things than a knowing nod to the art of advertising and commercialism. He has more to do with Chardin than Warhol.

I'd have preferred to find one of his oil paintings of San Franciscan streets, but here was the splendidly wacky "Diagonal Freeway," an acrylic from 1993. Nice to be able to get up close and see some detail.

Further delights included the other great modern landscape painter of the Bay Area, Richard Diebenkorn. There was a lovely little painting called "Seawall," which I don't think I'd ever seen before. And there too was a painting by Elmer Bischoff, which I'm sure might interest Anna. Bischoff is someone I've only recently discovered, so it was a special thrill to find one of his works there.

And, of course, a visit to America wouldn't be the same without a picture by Edward Hopper. Not one I was very familiar with (I can't even find the title), and it was surprising how vibrant the colours were.

Close by was a fine example of Hopper's contemporary, Thomas Hart Benton. I've always had a soft spot for Benton's work, including his Regionalist depictions of Bible stories and this one, in tempera on canvas, is no exception. Susannah slips into a shady pool, her 1930s red strappy high-heeled shoes close at hand, while two geezers look on and discuss her disapprovingly, their rather Hopperesque church set up on a hill in the background.

And I could go on, but it's all in the past now. Look to the future now, it's only just begun ...

Thursday 1 March 2007

Austin, Tx

Despite all the flying and the inevitable sitting around on the tarmac and having to race up and down concourses to catch connections we should have had two hours to catch but only had 15 minutes ..... we had a great time in the US of A.

Austin is not a wonderful place. Or at least, what we could see of it from the hotel window and on the two occasions we left the hotel for dinner, it is not a wonderful place. It may be that downtown is fine and I hear there are lots of good music places there, but, well, we didn't stray far from the hotel at all.

The point of that part of the trip was to see old friends, meet people I knew only from correspondence or the Internet and generally have a Good Time. And all of that could be accomplished in the hotel. It was the reason my friends had paid for me to go and I took my job seriously. I partied long and hard.

When we did venture outside, in the company of a car-driving friend from San Francisco, we spent a great deal of time trying to negotiate the maze of flyovers and freeways that the good people fo Austin have allowed to be plonked down right across their town. Austin is not a place for pedestrians, it seems.

The trips out to eat were a welcome break from life in the hotel, however. One night we went to Threadgill's for some home cookin', neighborino. The secret of success of such a trip out is to take along a tame Southern boy from Alabama who can point out all the best things to try. Mixing and swapping, we got to try fried green tomatoes; cheese-a-dillos; chicken-fried steak (the house speciality - although they also do the bizarrely named chicken-fried chicken); stewed okra and tomatoes; San Antonio squash (a casserole baked with green chilies, queso, and onions); garlic cheese grits; black-eyed peas (slow-cooked with onion, garlic, and spices); turnip greens and collard greens. Oh, and some onion rings, of course.

Followed by Pecan Pie and Chocolate Ice Box Pie.

All washed down with Texas Margaritas on the rocks.

And before we left, most of us got to shove our hands up an armadillo's arse*. Where else in the world, eh?

As we got lost in the freeway jungle for the umpteenth time on the way back from Threadgill's, my driver friend was heard to mutter to his wife, "If I ever suggest coming back to Austin, just shoot me, will ya?"

(*Actually, it was a glove puppet.)