Monday, 14 April 2014

Picasso, some light bulbs and William Morris

After nearly a four month break from the studio I am finally back to work.  Mostly I spent those four months earning some much needed cash! Doing all sorts of jobs, including graphic design work, some sign writing for a local pub and running  A-side B-side Gallery with business partner Catherine Magnani.

Four months is probably the longest break from painting I have ever had, it was hard to be away from my studio but the time away has also given me a new perspective on my work.

My focus this year is developing the Housing series I have been working on since 2012, you can read more about the motivations behind it in a previous blog entry here 

In a nutshell - I am making a series of paintings which highlight the issues surrounding the current housing crisis in London.  Initially inspired by real adverts in estate agents windows, these paintings document the rising cost of rent in the capital, depicting gloomy, dreary interiors juxtaposed with text describing beautiful, value for money properties.  The series is a campaign for affordable rent in London.

This last week in the studio has been about bringing together and exploring the research and ideas I've been mulling over whist I've been away from my painting.  At the moment I am experimenting with lots of different references, themes and ideas to bring in to the compositions, I'm working quickly and producing rough oil sketches on small pieces of primed canvas, with the aim that at some point these studies will lead to some larger scale finished paintings.

Normally I like to have some reasoning behind the colour palette I choose, and for these pieces I am working with shades of blue: cyan, pthalo, ultramarine and prussian blue, with burnt sienna, burnt umber and white, with hints of yellow/orange.  The inspiration behind this is Picasso's Blue Period.  In art history monochromatic use of blue has often symbolized melancholy or hopelessness.  Picasso's paintings from this period often depict poverty, outcast type characters such as prostitutes, beggars and drunks, blindness and loneliness are recurring themes.  He painted these works when he was unrecognized, living in extreme poverty and suffering from depression.

Picasso: 'The Tragedy' 1903

To reflect the subject I am tackling, I do want my paintings to have a sombre, melancholy and gloomy feel, but I also want them to have some optimism!  In the compositions I am looking at how to create a light source which will symbolise hope, either a window or electric lighting.

During a productive tutorial with artist Graham Crowley last November (Via the brilliant Zeitgeist Art Projects) we discussed composition in depth.  When I first started making these paintings I felt that the composition should be true to the actual images I was finding in the estate agent windows, to give the works authenticity, however Graham made some really good suggestions and encouraged me to be more inventive.  We discussed prison cells, bare lightbulbs, rooms which contain sinks, toilets and beds, and the prison cell as a symbol of being contained and trapped.
I started thinking about bare light bulbs as a reference to confinement, isolation, or to poverty.  Usually properties are photographed during periods when there are no tenants occupying them, along with the typical bare mattress which always seems to appear in these images, the lights are often shadeless.  The bare light bulbs do feature in the original estate agents photographs but at the same time, I purposefully want to use them in my compositions to reference the themes and ideas underlying the paintings.

The bare light bulb often appears in art history, it can be found in the paintings of Francis Bacon, Phillip Guston and of course Picasso's Guernica.

 Francis Bacon: 'Portrait of George Dyer talking'

  Francis Bacon: 'Man turning on a light'

 Phillip Guston: 'Lightbulb'

 Phillip Guston: 'The Studio' 1969

Phillip Guston: 'Stationary Figure'

Picasso: 'Guernica'

Recently I have also become interested in the work of contemporary artist Tom de Freston,  all of this research into light bulbs in art led me to his painting.  His work explores and references contemporary political situations and events, but by using multiple layers of visual references to art history his work has a timeless quality.

Tom de Freston

The Jeremy Deller exhibition for the Venice Biennale was recently on display at the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow, although I knew about William Morris and his work, Jeremy Deller's show re-introduced me to him.  In the words of the William Morris Gallery, he was: 'a radical Victorian designer, craftsman and campaigner'.  

In his lifetime he designed textiles and furniture, launched an interior design business, wrote poetry, launched a publishing business and designed books.  Born into a rich family and the owner of a successful business he was a wealthy man, but he observed the income disparities in Victorian London, and he believed in and fought for equality.  In his later life, Morris became an active Socialist, speaking at rallies, writing essays and lectures, and publishing pamphlets, much of Jeremy Deller's exhibition explores this in a contemporary cultural context. 

I decided to bring in some references to William Morris into my paintings, by interpreting his wallpaper designs on the walls of the interiors.  Morris and his life's work represent fighting for change and for a more equal society, a nod to him in my own paintings is another symbol of hope.  Hoping for improvement to the housing situation in the capital - rental regulations? A cap on the greed of rogue landlords? More social (affordable) housing?  With the disparity between the cost of rent and average salaries continually growing, Londoners are being forced out of boroughs they have lived in for years.  It's a popular topic of conversation and you hear horror stories all the time, for example one of the mums at my sons school has just had her rent increased by £600 per month, paying for her home is now more than she can earn so she is having to move out of the area.

Some painting experiments below.....  I'm really trying to bring in more fluidity, movement and expression into my painting, but it's hard to 'unlearn' old habits.  I love the childlike quality of Phillip Guston's paintings, the simplicity of some of Matisse's work, the brushmarks of the impressionists, and the courage of Cecily Brown's paintings (that's a random selection of artists I like!).  But when it comes to picking up a paintbrush I quickly, with these recent experiments I purposefully used the most rubbish brushes I own, and embraced all of the marks I made, I want these paintings to have a raw and immediate quality.

More updates to come soon!

The text below is an extract from 'The People of the Abyss' written in 1903 by American author and social activist Jack London:

"This ghetto crowding is not through inclination, but compulsion.  Nearly fifty percent of the workers pay from one-fourth to one-half of their earnings for rent.  The average rent in the larger part of the East End is from four to six shillings per week for one room, while skilled mechanics, earning thirty-five shillings per week, are forced to part with fifteen shillings of it for two or three pokey little dens, in which they strive desperately to obtain some semblance of home life.  And rents are going up all the time.  In one street in Stepney the increase in only two years has been from thirteen to eighteen shillings.......while in Whitechapel, two-room houses that recently rented for ten shillings are now costing twenty-one shillings."

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