Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Visually elsewhere

I write about music and books and films and TV but I don't write much about visual art (painting, photography, or those fancy not-so-new-now installation things). Also I'm sure I have mentioned now and again my less-than-finely-honed visual sense. The fact that I fail to notice visual details (“The picture's moved? What picture?”) is a source of comedy for some of my visual artist (and generally more visually-minded) friends but I don't mind - I notice other things...lots of them. I notice how people talk, what they say, who they are friendly to (and who they are not), what they are thinking, why they are doing what they are doing. I know I don't write much what you might call conventionally-descriptive poetry but I don't worry about that a whole lot - I reckon there is plenty of very, very descriptive poetry being written already (plus I think mine is descriptive...just not necessarily in a visual way). A while ago I wrote a poem about this and called it 'Seeing isn't everything' (on website – in 'Seeing and believing) and it is a poem that has done well for me. It was chosen for the magazine 'Pushing out the Boat' last year, I put it in the book and I've had some good reactions to it. Also the poem helped me understand the way my mind and senses worked and helped me feel OK about the whole thing. We are what we are, after all. I don't think we all need to notice the same things.

However...however...we are what we are but we can still change too, right? I try to change...all the time really...so I am still working on the visual sense...still trying to see more and to see how other people get so much out of seeing. I go to galleries – as often as possible considering where I live and how I get about (not very well) - and I read articles about art and artists. I watch those TV shows where they try to bring art to the plebs (like me!). Also I visit blogs where the writers DO have a highly developed visual sense and interest in visual art (Dave King, Baroque in Hackney...). I read them and I look ...and I read and I look. I'm not sure how well this is going...but it's a project now, no going back.

Just recently I have been reading a lot about the Brit Art sharks-in-tanks/condoms-on-the-floor duo of Damien and our Trace (Ms Baroque on Hirst and Mr King on Trace, amongst others)...all of which makes me think that if this were a film they would be an in-and-out-of-love-and-lust couple (Damo and Trace not Baroque and King). But they're not - they're just two very, very successful artists. They have done that thing that artists struggle to do – they have made money. Is it unfair? Probably. Is their art any good? Probably not (though I do have a soft spot for our Trace herself, if not for her bed and her pants...or lack of...who wouldn't...if she were a character on Eastenders the whole country would love her, she would be a national treasure like Barbara Windsor). But is it wrong that these two do so well? Probably. Do other people deserve it more? Quite possibly. Is the system a load of nonsense (whoever gets highest price is best)? Yes, unquestionably. But is it life (not art) that has made the system? Yes. And is life a bitch? Look around...is the answer not everywhere?

Still, I'm interested in the rest of art too – in the pictures and other creations that are all going on behind the noisy bling-fest of Mr god-I'm-so-ugly-I'd-better-get-rich Hirst. I'm not really sure how I ended up such a devoted music fan and such a keen reader but with not really much knowledge or interest in visual arts but I'm keen to investigate so off we go!

First off we are not a family of seers, I suppose. My Dad was a GP (family doctor) who loved comedy and poetry, my Mum was a Social Worker who still loves novels, biographies, theatre, TV and classical music (oh and Lloyd Webber...) and my brothers played a lot of loud rock music and watched a lot of TV and films. No one was really an art lover, looking back. My Mum would go to the Monet exhibition of the moment and things like that when in a big city but she has always liked some well ropey things at home (I'm sure I remember horrible hunting cartoons and lots of oily ship paintings and more than the odd dull landscape on our walls growing up). I do have an aunt who is an artist (Lilla Fox – she lives in Crawley and is in her 90s now but she did etchings, paintings, book illustrations, went on lots of CND demonstrations...) but we always lived a long way away and barely saw her (though she has always kept in touch). I remember watercolours of hers from my childhood (I think) and I do still love a good watercolour now but you don't see many (I like them the more washed-out the better). The Montrose sculptor and painter I wrote about recently, William Lamb, did local landscape watercolours that are beautifully faded now and that's undoubtedly one reason I like his work.

Also living where we did (Darlington, Middlesbrough area) well,...they may have arts centres now but they certainly didn't in the 1970s and 80s. I probably didn't go to an art gallery before the age of sixteen with one notable exception - a trip to the Louvre with my much older brother when I was ten. We did the obligatory find the Mona Lisa and say “bloody hell, isn't it small?” march with every other tourist in Paris. After that it was back to visiting every place Napoleon ever went, every cup he ever drank out of, every pot he ever pissed in etc. (my brother was big on military history – still is, I think).

So growing up I was exposed (if you like) to heaps of music and books and films and TV (and Napoleon memorabilia) but very, very little visual art. I knew people were artists but that's probably about as far as it went. Art was the subject I did least well in at school and I think, at the time, that was because it seemed too easy to me then...just looking and drawing or painting. I liked puzzles, questions, hard work (that was then - I'm the world's idlest fop now!). I'm not saying I was right – I'm quite sure I wasn't – but that's how I saw it then. I don't remember any of my art teachers (not even their faces!) but I can remember every book we read through primary and secondary, every play we ever went to or read, every song I liked in the charts.

When I was sixteen we moved to London and again I know I did go to an exhibition here and there but whilst I can remember all the plays we went to in that time (LOADS! After Middlesbrough living in London was like one big long theatrical orgasm or something) I can't remember any of the art. I remember going to some big exhibition at the Hayward Gallery but I've racked my brain for days and I can't remember who it was. Matisse, maybe? No idea.

At eighteen I moved to Madrid for a year and being on my own and with an easy job that gave me a lot of free time I did turn culture vulture in every sense. As well as going to the cinema almost every day (it was dirt cheap) I spent a lot of time in the Prado and elsewhere and I looked at many, many pictures by Velázquez, el Greco, Picasso, Miró, Goya...every Spanish artist you have (or haven't) heard of. So...OK...all that exposure...what can I remember? What really made a mark in my head?

A pause. A guilty pause?

Well. I can remember all the famous pictures ('Las Meninas', 'Guernica'...) but mainly because I think I spent a lot of time looking at them, trying to see what was so special about them. I could just see paint. Skill perhaps. But paint mainly. I remember other sights or images from that year in Madrid much more clearly - the sparkly dark eyes of the man I was in love with, the colour of the big bottles of beer we used to buy, the winding streets in the area where I lived, the fields of asparagus to the south of Madrid, the windmills they think were the ones Cervantes knew and put into 'Don Quijote'...all these things I can still see – clear as day. So this is my question – when it comes to seeing...is it just that real life (and its memories) are enough for me? Does that sound weird? Do you think it will ever change? Am I a hopeless case and if so, what am I missing? If you told me I could never hear music again I would have to kill you, I think. If you said I couldn't read another book I would be pretty pissed off too. But with paintings and art....I'm just not sure. If I can see my little girl's beautiful curly hair (it's red/gold..and ringlets...perfection really) then why do I need to see anything else? I don't want a picture of it. What could be more interesting (to me anyway)? What could be more beautiful?

I'm a bit stumped. Any comments (beyond 'open your eyes, you thick bitch') welcome, as always.


Marion McCready said...

I can see the seeds of a lovely image-based poem in your memories of Madrid - the colour of the beer bottles, winding streets, asparagus fields - perfect details for a poem!

I'm very selective in my love of art. I mostly love Picasso and Van Gogh. Picasso is Plath in painting for me - such energy and passion and in a sense visionary. I also love Turner, I think I could drift into one of his paintings. The funny thing was when I saw a Turner exhibition in Glasgow I was a bit disappointed, in the real they just didn't have the impact I was expecting. On the other hand seeing Picasso in the real blew me away.

Rachel Fox said...

I have one Madrid poem...an old love poem really. It's in the love section of the site - called 'Chileno on my mind' (chileno meaning - Chilean man). I haven't written much else about that year...but maybe I will yet. It was a great year in so many ways. I very nearly didn't come back!

When I lived there I did visit a Picasso museum...I can't even remember where...in Catalonia I think but I looked online and I didn't recognise the one in Barcelona. Still it was over 20 years ago...I'll have to go and look in an old diary! I remember liking his sketches and the blue period. There is a mother and child painting of his in Edinburgh (in the Modern Art place). That's the ones of his that I find most interesting in all honesty - the gentler ones. I get what the big ugly stuff is doing but I don't want to look at it much, personally.

I have liked the Van Gogh that I've seen but I've not seen many of them in the big, as it were (just in prints, cards etc.). I love all those stories about him wandering about and painting with bits of grass or whatever. A man after my own heart. Mad as the day is long.


Colin Will said...

To talk about Madrid first: I love the city and its surroundings. I was amazed by the paintings in the Prado - Bosch, Goya, and others - and totally knocked out by the Reina Sofia gallery, where Picasso's Guernica sits alongside Dali, Miro and Calder. In fact, 'Talking of Michelangelo', which contrasted Calder and M., was in Poetry Scotland a couple of years back.

On the general point, many paintings have the power to move me, maybe as as much as music, but almost instantly. I think I'm in tune with visual artists, and if I could paint, I would. But I can't, so I content myself with looking at paintings (and sculpture of course) and being inspired to write poetry by art. It's why I love working with visual artists, like my local artist friend Carmen Ambrozevich, or my wife, whose paintings I like.

The trouble with 'conceptual art', the kind of thing Damien Hirst et al do, is that it's based on a single 'concept', a single idea. It's one-dimensional. When you get the joke, that's it. You can't see more in it, because there isn't any more. It's all surface and no depth, whereas I can lose myself in a Rembrandt sef-portrait for hours, come back to it months or years later and still see more.

I'll be visiting the Musee d'Orsai in Paris next week, for maybe the 3rd or 4th time, and I know I'll see more than I did last time, and I'll be moved again by 'Whistler's Mother' and many other paintings. I'll buy a print, bring it home and get it framed, then spend years looking at it, thinking about it, admiring the skill of the artist, making poems triggered by it.

Dominic Rivron said...

I'm lucky that my dad was a painter so I grew up with new art around me from year zero. It instilled an idea in me from the word go that the arts were an important part of what life was about. I generally like Emin's stuff and I'm quite keen on Grayson Perry's pots. Antony Gormley's Domain Field -the first show at the Gateshead Baltic Gallery- hit me between the eyes:


Ken Armstrong said...

"They have done that thing that artists struggle to do – they have made money."

This made me laugh. 'Not sure why :)

I'm no good with painting and stuff either - I don't feel I have the 'toolbox' to speak or write coherently about it.

We have a Picasso over the fireplace (yeah a real one!!) (sarcasm) it's a lady sleeping on her arm, simple and good)

Rachel Fox said...

Colin - they were building the R Sofia Gallery when I lived there. I lived just up the road from there in an area called Lavapies. It was cheap (then) and still very full of proper Spanish senoras off to buy their bread and meat and veg every morning. I don't imagine it's much like that now...cities change so quickly.

Interesting you mention Whistler. I did get to the Whistler exhibition in Glasgow not so long ago. I did enjoy that...can't remember a whole lot of it now. Maybe I'm one of those people who really should buy the catalogue (poor visual memory?). They're always so expensive...but maybe I should try that!

I didn't mention in the post but I did really enjoy the Joan Eardley exhibition in Edinburgh recently too. I particularly liked the set of paintings of her friend, the poor, skinny artist in the cold, dark rooms. Somehow I found them much more interesting than the landscapes. It's people with me..always people! Maybe too much...ah well.

And Dominic...yes so different to grow up with someone around you thinking in that way, seeing things through an artist's eyes. I am forever quizzing the visual artists who are my friends now...why is this, what is that, why is that good etc.?

Rachel Fox said...

And Ken - could she not afford a bed, poor love.


Rachel Fox said...

Colin - when I saw 'Guernica' it was in its own little gallery near el Retiro (the big park). There was nothing else there - just it. Pretty amazing.

Rachel Fox said...

I remembered something else just as I was going off to sleep last night. When I was about 17 I was an au pair near Vienna. I went to a huge Klimt museum/exhibition in the city and absolutely loved it. I'm not usually one for gold particularly...I don't wear jewelry...hardly ever...but I really loved the brightness, the curves, the patchworks and the beauty of these painting-events. I liked Shiele too but in a less wow way.

I had forgotten about that!


Unknown said...

I think that Colin has nailed it, on conceptual art, as opposed to art wit many layers: indeed you can say the same thing about poetry.

I think it takes time for art to become embedded in a culture - we need books written about it to understand it; perhaps this is why we prefer older art to the modern stuff. But this is to oversimplify matters a huge amount. I admit I don't know that much about art, beyond what I do like, and what I've studied in college. Like Colin, if I could paint I would, but I can't, so I write. My sister is an artist and we have lots of interesting conversations about the meeting between art and poetry/literature in general.

No doubt, it's a huge area of interest for me. Images and imaging (indeed imagination itself) is what I use in my work...

Anyhoo :?

Rachel Fox said...

I think the way you and Colin feel about painters, Barbara, is the way I feel about singers (and other musicians too but singers in particular). I would love to be a really good singer - to weave that spell that a beautiful singer can where they hold a whole room, a whole country...kind of in the palm of their voicebox...if you follow me - but I'm not...I have a very average voice and so-so range. So I make my poems as much of a song as I can...that's my taste, my way, my interest. Plus I write songs too now which is the most fun in the world (for me anyway).

I still go to galleries though...still try and see what it's all about! What art do you like Barbara..describe your favourites...if you'd like to...


Dave King said...

Damien Hurst and Tracey Emin are both brilliant at promoting themselves, there can be no doubt about that. Would they, I wonder, be as brilliant at it if they were painters (for example) producing traditional landscapes, still lifes atc, etc? I don't know, but I guess they would not. So we must conclude that their success is tied up with their personalities and with the nature of their products - which are also tied up with their personalities, of course. Where does this get us? About as far as trying to prove the existence of God by rational argument!

Rachel Fox said...

No, Dave, I just don't think they would get the same kind of publicity for that kind of work. A lot of the coverage for them is along the lines of 'shock - people pay money for dead shark', 'shock - artist has nerve to display old bed' etc. People love those stories (like the pile of bricks) and what's the story with 'shock - man paints good painting'? People moan about this kind of art but they still read the stories...they make good, light, tabloid type news stories. I read them myself. And once hyped then the stuff sells itself in a way...people will buy almost anything once it's hyped...that's the fashion industry (in a nutshell), that's consumerism!

And did I say Shiele before? I meant Schiele...dumbing down indeed.

Rob said...

I'm not much good at 'descriptive poetry,' in the sense of the close observation that characterises many contemporary poems. I admire it when it's done well, but often it's really boring. "Description makes nothing happen," as ABJ says.

It's best to play to your strengths. I use metaphor quite a bit - it's descriptive, but in a different way to simple observation. I'd leave the close observation description to people who are good at it - James Schuyler was a master, Heaney is hard to beat in his ability to find the most succinct and evocative phrase to describe virtually anything, and Norman MacCaig was a descriptive genius - with him, description was an event, not a still life.

Rachel Fox said...

Yes, playing to our strengths is a good approach! Finding them can take a while (and of course we always find plenty of weaknesses along the way too!) but if and when we do...it gets exciting. I wrote lots of articles and stories and notes for screenplays and all sorts of things before I kind of stumbled over the fact that poems are the writing I do best (my poems might not be to everyone's taste but I've certainly had enough good feedback by now to have some confidence that I wasn't completely wrong!).

It's a great feeling finding a strength. I write a lot about the whole process (here and in poems) and I write a lot about weaknesses too - how to cope with them, what they mean, how the struggle to try and be strong at everything is so...counterproductive.