Doors, doors, doors

I have come to realise that I like taking photos of doors. Put like that it sounds a bit odd, but I don’t think it is. Doors carry all sorts of symbolism, they are entrances into another sphere, guardians of lots of stories, even secrets, and the sites of so many meetings and encounters.

I like a door that looks well worn and slightly down-at-heel; like a weather-beaten face you know that this indicates a life well lived. It makes me imagine a busy flow of people entering and leaving and to wonder who has passed through the boundary which it guards.

Doors can also be fun, real expressions of personality. I particularly like the Art Nouveau ones in this respect, all curvy lines and coloured glass, symbolic to me of adventurousness and optimism. Then there are those doors that you just don’t want to enter. Think of every haunted house in films or ghost stories. Just like the classic cartoon image below, we are conditioned to imagine that rundown doors lead to dark, creep places full of maleficent creatures and bad past deeds. Yet, it’s all a creation – a means of playing to our love of storytelling.

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Doesn’t look so scary any more!

There are also those doors which act as portals to other places, as seen in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. Yes, a fictional story where a girl enters another world through the back of a wardrobe but also an allegory for the joy of imagination.

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Wardrobe from the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe

So, doors are a form of art, but they are also everyday objects and their appeal relates to our intrigue about the lives of other people and the mystery of the unknown. For, unlike paintings that are revered from a distance and cordoned off, doors are opened and closed, scratched and bashed and assaulted by the elements. I like their authenticity and mystery.

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Or maybe not a door… Is the allure the same when it’s basically a window?

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Door (or not door?) in Mies Van Der Rohe designed house

Pottery production at last

For a while I had a potter’s wheel and some clay, kindly given to me and my aunt by a retiring potter. I documented my early efforts to begin pottery production in a previous post (have a read here), which was admittedly a while ago. Only now am I sitting down to provide the next instalment in the tale.

Part of the slowness is simply down to geography, I spend most of my time in London while the wheel spends all of its time in Perthshire. Also, ceramics is not a pursuit for those in a hurry (partly why I like it as it counteracts my tendency towards impatience). There is the turning of clay into a form, then there is waiting for it to dry, then a first firing and a second firing. Amongst this there is the need to trim and decorate the pot. It takes some time!

Enough with the preamble. I can’t just have a wheel, I thought, that can only take me so far. It allows me to make some shapes but once dry they’re brittle and useless; I need to close the circle and turn this piece of clay into a usable bit of ceramics. I need a kiln. Locating one took a while, plenty of scouring Gumtree, then finally one was within my grasp – except that it was in Brora on the north east coast of Scotland. Many thanks here to Steven (if you ever read this!) for driving the whole way up there and somehow lifting what is a very heavy bit of kit into the back of a pickup truck, and repeating the same trick at the other end.

As I write I realise how many more words than I initially anticipated are being dedicated to the ‘setup admin’ of my soon to be flourishing pottery workshop. Part of the fun has been in how ad hoc the process has been. I have muddled through and in doing so learnt a whole lot more about what goes into the craft of a ceramicist – as well as realising just how much more there is left to learn.

I have found that the kiln needs to be plugged into a single phase electrical supply – which then had to be installed before the kiln could work (many, many thanks to my Aunt for sorting this!). Then came the assumption that I could operate the kiln computer without instruction (I now have had the basic induction). There has been deciding which type of clay to use, which glazes, how to apply the glazes etc etc.

The result, nevertheless, is that I have actually managed to turn a lump of clay into a finished product of sorts. Have a look below:

Snapshot of glamorous setup
A view of some of the bases which I tidy on the wheel once the clay is leather hard
An old photo of the kiln (the room is a bit neater now)
Loaded inside the kiln before the bisque firing
Post 1st firing (or bisque firing). I’m about to paint on the glazes
Close up of green glaze. This was less thick than the blue one and didn’t come out so strongly

Most of my output (featuring the kitchen table)

Hopefully future blogs will show some improvement…

*Point of info – The kiln and wheel are mine and my Aunt’s! Seems easier to clarify now than repeat throughout the blog

Barcelona and Gaudi: it’s all a bit much for me

After visiting Barcelona for the first time I have decided that I don’t like Gaudi much. For those that haven’t visited, he is the city’s most famous architect, the vision behind the Sagrada Familia, and is unavoidable in the city. His style is in your face, jagged edges, sharp curves and garish tiles; I would call it ostentatious and brash. Yet, I do have an admiration for what he was doing, it’s a pretty bold break from the past, when others in the early 19th century were creating pastiche roman buildings, neo-gothic and neo-baroque, he was doing his own thing. There are strong links to Art Nouveau, a style which I really like, and it is highly referential to Catalonia, making it admirably grounded in its setting.

Yet, my favourite piece of architecture in the city is the Barcelona Pavilion by Mies Van der Rohe. It is stunning, a temple to modernism designed by possibly the most influential modernist architect. In many ways it is the antithesis to Gaudian design, embodying the principle of less is more. Every surface is smooth, every junction is deliberate, and the ceilings is apparently suspended by a twine of invisible string. It feels strikingly modern, yet it was designed in 1929; imagine the stir it would have caused back then

While I think the Sagrada Familia is a pretty monstrous building what is has in common with the Barcelona Pavilion is a true sense of originality and boldness. I read that George Orwell, who fought in the Spanish Civil War, and was based in Barcelona called it “one of the most hideous buildings in the world and hoped that it would be destroyed in the war. On balance it’s fortunate that didn’t happen, as a record of Gaudi’s work it’s great that it can be seen and discussed. Yet, the continuing construction of the cathedral is farcical.

My issue is that none of Gaudi’s plans still exist, so the architects are simply imagining what might have been drawn. They are creating a pastiche of an already bizarre building and it’s hideous. It would have been much more atmospheric and meaningful to walk around the cathedral as Gaudi left it.

If you want to provide a completed building, then engage a modern Catalonian architect and make it clear the distinction between old and new. I’m not saying that would create a beautiful building, but it would be more honest and more forward looking. 

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Inside the Barcelona Pavilion

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Sunset (not my photo credit!)

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Apart from a chair this is the single piece of decoration in the pavilion

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Tourists at Park Guell

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Casa Vicens – another Gaudi house (I like this one though!)

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Sagrada Familia from its best side..

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impressive but not attractive

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Sketch like an Egyptian

I try to maintain a vague link between what I write on this blog, although as I jot this down and consider what my next topic might be it does occur that I should define what the continuity is. ‘Things that look nice’ strikes me as the best tagline with the sub heading ‘and me trying to make things that look nice’. In that vein here comes my latest communication; me visiting Egypt (which looks nice) and trying to sketch bits of it (trying to make them look nice).

Egypt is really nice and I recommend. I spent nearly two weeks there over Easter and was taken in by almost everything it had to offer (except for the obligatory hassle). It has so much going for it; relatively short flight, 1 hour time difference, a totally fascinating history, sunshine, beautiful and ancient monuments, the red sea for some beach time and relatively few tourists. No, it really isn’t that dangerous!

Hopefully these, photos from the trip give a better sense of the place than I can write.

 

Aside from photography I also took a sketchbook along with me and made some quick sketches at a few of the monuments we went to. It was a relaxing to pause in a beautiful spot and attempt to capture its likeness on paper. There is something about a sketch which is particularly alluring, more so than a photo. It captures a place in a certain time as seen by the ‘artist’ – however inaccurate the sketches are (see mine below).

 

There is also something more about sketching which captures my sense of nostalgia/the historian in me. I am a bit of a sucker for Victorian exploration, not the exploitative aspects of it of course but the sense of adventure and glamour. David Livingstone, the early Victorian explorer, – him of ‘Dr Livingstone, I presume’ fame, followed the Nile into the interior of Africa in the mid 19th century. For the most part, he was stepping foot into territory which no European had ever seen. He existed before mass photography, before Iphones, before the internet and before fake news. Sketches and paintings of what he had seen made their way back to the UK and were the only images of this ‘far off land’. They played to the adventure and exoticism of travel. Travel back then was genuinely adventurous, it was also hugely dangerous.

 

I am happy with my comfortable hotel, malaria prophylaxis, mobile phone and motor car but what I do want now and again is to have my cake and eat it. I want to find amazing monuments to history and feel as though I am in some way stepping on virgin territory. The link, for me, between sketching and travel is a sense of storytelling. However amateur my sketch might be there will only be one if it, it also allows me to depict (skill permitting) my idealised vision of the place I am sitting in. No instagrammer is going to post that same photo online and suddenly undermine my sense of adventure and discovery!

I am not claiming that my sketches are going to find their way to the British Museum. I simply like the idea that, however amateur, they are at least unique and like the Victorian images – rather idealised. I also hope that through practice they will improve…..fingers crossed.

Finally from me, the Egyptian tourist board and their democratically elected president I do recommend visiting Egypt, whether or not you bring a sketchbook.

 

 

Getting my 5m Watercolour badge

I tried to sign up for a ceramics course and ended up on a watercolour one. Consensus is that it’s a difficult skill to master. I don’t know if this is an accepted cliche, but generally if something appears easy then it doesn’t tend to be. Don’t be put off though, hopefully my efforts show that there is hope for all abilities to get some fun out of it. I found it a very free way of painting, it requires you to act quickly and with some confidence. Because there isn’t much room for re-work it’s hard to get obsessed with one painting and I like that.

Week 1, I appeared totally under equipped, my fellow course members unraveled kit bags of brushes, paints, papers and tools I had never encountered. I sheepishly offered up my portable watercolour set, likely a stocking present from circa 2008. I have since expanded my collection to include some watercolour paper, it’s like normal paper but really expensive, and some brushes. I’m not getting carried away quite yet.

Being a student I had the luxury of taking part in a Tuesday morning course, a freedom I shared with the retired (although I accept that they’ve earned a break – making it less of a luxury!). Entering as a demographic anomaly actually added to the fun. I spent the first few weeks listening to their banter, I chuckled a lot, and constructing hypothetical life stories before gradually becoming part of the group. By the end I found myself apologising for not being closer to retirement and making the rather depressing commitment to be back in however many decades it takes me to reach retirement age!

I’ve included my work below, it’s displayed chronologically as I hope some progression is evident – or not, you might think…Regardless, I had a lot of fun and learnt some basic skills that I plan to keep up in my own time…and perhaps take another course if I can find the time.

I hear my fans asking me why I haven’t posted for a while – thanks for the query team. Well, cast your mind back to when you were last a student and had thousands of words of essay to write. Voluntarily sitting down to write a few hundred more isn’t as relaxing as it should be. Anyway the inspiration struck me and I thought: hit them with lots of pictures and hope that quantity does the trick.

For anyone in West London, I took my course through Hammersmith and Fulham Adult Learning and Skills Service, no acronym available. They are brilliant and great value and if anyone is considering adding another string to their bow there are loads of courses available. http://www.hfals.co.uk/courses 

 

Week 1 

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Week 2

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Week 3

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Week 4

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Week 5 – Transcription: This is a copy of a Sargent watercolour of Venice

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Week 6 – Transcription: I can’t recall the original artist, and Scotland is my best guess for location

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Week 7 – Transcription: Copied from a John Yardley watercolour in Beaune, France

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Week 8 – Transcriptions: Another Yardley, this time I’m back in Venice

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Week 9 – Painting from life

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Salzburg: The Christmas City

I watched the Queen’s speech. Christmas is a time for family, she said. A common theme and one I am sure she’s said before, or maybe I’m thinking of The Crown… For her, like many others, Christmas is about celebrating the most significant date in the Christian calendar. So, Christmas is about family and religion – but is it really?  Families gather for maybe two days in December – on Christmas day and perhaps on Boxing day. We are also an increasingly secular nation. So, what is the dominant narrative of Christmas? The one that gets the nation so excited weeks and months before the birth of Christ?

Christmas, if the advertisements would have us believe it, is populated by of snow and bells and irritatingly happy people singing carols. I think we all know that it rarely snows at Christmas, while carols are Christian hymns and mostly take place in churches where a lot of the population don’t visit. Yet, I like all these things, I also like mulled wine, mince pies and getting presents.

I get that Christmas is an experience, I’m all for it, but it could be better, it could be a lot more authentic – let’s model it on Salzburg! I went there at beginning of December and am totally charmed. I left with just what I had not expected, ‘Christmas spirit’.

I drank Gluhwein in the markets, looked at Christmas decorations, at hats and gloves and ate pretzels the size of my face. I walked through the streets as it snowed and ducked in and out of the narrow stone passageways that are the arteries off the main street. I admired the beautiful, copper green, spires of the endless churches. People skated on the ice rink. I was totally consumed by this vision of Christmas – I had recaptured my childhood sense of wonder.

Had I not been taken I probably wouldn’t have gone to the Christmas museum, I expected to have a bit of a giggle at the twee collection of a fanatic, some Santa gnomes and lots and lots of baubles. In fact, it was like the rest of Salzburg, very tasteful and compact and taught me a great deal. I learnt that Christmas in Austria is terrifying, Santa’s duties are split between nice St Nicholas, giver of gifts to the good children, and the much more than naughty Krampus, tormentor of the bad children. Krampus tends to have a skeletal face, ram’s horn, red tongue and a tail, scary enough an image for me – but what about the children?! In one of the Christmas markets I went to, a more local one, they had his disembodied head hanging from a tree. The museum also had collections of decorative wooden nutcrackers and Christmas paraphernalia, which was genuinely tasteful. It conveyed all of the tradition of Christmas without the commerce that now comes with it.

It is possible to be transfixed by a down to earth and authentic vision of Christmas. I think it would sell better. Save the twee ads and put those execs on a plane to Austria. Perhaps they could distil some of the essence of what made me quite so charmed. Then this Grinch will be decked in tinsel, singing Christmas songs at midnight on the first of December.

What am I missing about conceptual art?

Is there something that I’m missing about conceptual art? By conceptual art I mean things such an artist putting a chicken on top of a lampstand cum cardboard box (Rauschenberg) or hanging a shovel from the ceiling (Duchamp). The ones that you need an instruction manual to understand and a dictionary to translate the artist’s equally complex explanation of their own work.  I have been left wondering why such value is placed on conceptual art when so many of us admit to not understanding it. Call me old fashioned, square, or just plain unimaginative but I think art should first arrest you visually and then offer further meaning.

Even after making an extra effort to be ‘open minded’ about recent exhibitions I am equally ignorant to the ‘concept’ behind this type of art. So, I thought I’d spell these reactions out and hopefully you will grasp where I’m coming from. Either that or I could assemble some flatpack furniture underwater, take a photograph, put it on the wall and leave you work out what I’m thinking.

White Cube, Bermondsey, artists Ann Veronica Jassens, Damian Ortega and Cerith Wyn Evans

It’s free to visit and the building is a great piece of modern architecture. It’s minimalist in design, polished concrete floors and lit in a way that plays to all the myriad of reflections that the building offers. And the art inside?  Much of it was really arresting, particularly Evans’s Illuminating Gas, where neon lights formed the shapes of words which shifted as you walked around it. It fitted well into the stripped back gallery space. Jassens’s work too was interactive and visually striking. Now to Ortega’s show which is where I got lost, or perhaps it began before I walked into the room – while I was reading some of the accompanying notes for his show. He describes his show as ‘emotional geometry’, expanding on this to say that ‘the logic of fragmentation is one of chance, accident, eventuality, contingency, ephemerality and incompleteness’. Now I tried hard to absorb this and to like his work, yet I couldn’t engage with it. Apart from a few pieces I couldn’t read the visual symbolism or appreciate what I was looking at. It frustrated me that there was meaning in his work but I had no means of accessing it.

Jasper Johns, ‘Something Resembling Truth’ – Royal Academy

A survivor, literally – he’s still alive, from the period that produced Jackson Pollock and Robert Rauschenberg is Jasper Johns. Hailed by critics as one of the most important artists of the last century, he has been described as driven by an ‘unrelenting scepticism’ whose work ‘worries openly about how – and whether – art works’. Now I happen to agree, but that isn’t the point. Part of what I am getting at is that I didn’t need any explanation to appreciate his work. At the entrance to the exhibition I was greeted by his iconic work Flag – a copy, of sorts, of the American flag using an ancient technique called encaustic, vaguely like papiermache.. Then there was Target and Numbers in Colour. They were arresting, colourful, easy to take in but somehow hinting at something more than the surface. While I preferred John’s earlier work, I drew confidence as a viewer from the constant emphasis on painting as an art, on colour and composition. Traditional techniques, as he shows, aren’t a hindrance to fresh, modern art.

Dali / Duchamp – Royal Academy

I was nervous about going to this show. Neither Dali, who I knew for his bizarre drooping clocks, or Duchamp, the man who turned a urinal into modern art (and in doing so created the notion of conceptual art), fit into my traditional sweet spot for artistic enjoyment. If anything, I expected that I would find more to like in Duchamp who I admired for his brazenness. In actual fact, I left with an enhanced respect for Dali and the breadth and impact of his work. Beyond surrealism he was a hugely accomplished painter and his crucifixion Christ of Saint John on the Cross is rightly revered, his publicity seeking stunts, while truly bizarre were fresh and surprising. Duchamp’s depths, on the other hand, eluded me. Fountain (the title of his urinal piece) is still iconic and I liked the playfulness of his graffiti of the Mona Lisa. However, his work felt resolutely surface deep, none more so than his conceptual art. Hanging from the ceiling was a shovel or Prelude to a Broken Arm, sardonic title, sure, however what does it mean? I’m a practical person, I like shovels but I appreciate them more in a hardware shop and hasn’t Duchamp already proved the artistic value of everyday objects with Fountain? I felt alienated by it and many of his other conceptual pieces – I suspect I wasn’t alone.

Yet, I have this nagging feeling that I really am missing something. I can see that Duchamp was pioneering in showing how art could be about concept and not beauty and that Ortega is using art as social critique. Yet, if their work rejects the notion of physical beauty and looks instead to ideas doesn’t it fail if we can’t read the meaning which the artist wants to convey? Do we really need conceptual art in modern society, I wouldn’t miss it.