The Red Ink Old Lady
In the three or four years between my gallery's attention on me starting to slip and my finding my current job as a Fine Art lecturer, I had to take work where I could find it. Fortunately, living in London made that easier and more varied than it might have been had I been living in the provinces - thank God we didn't sell up and move out, like so many of my contemporaries at the RA - but it was a bit touch and go for a while.
If you have studied art, and taught a bit, you have two options. Either you work in one of the practical areas, which can be scene painting, painting and decorating, that kind of thing, or you you teach. One thing I have learned is that I am not the practical type; my DIY is terrible, and the two days I spent 'helping' my friend Dave in one of his advertising sub-contracting jobs were not successful. I have taught a bit. I didn't want to teach again, in fact I had thrown a lot of notes and records out when I last moved, and the gallery was starting to sell my work. But I had little choice.
One of the first jobs I had I got through a friend who had connections in the Art Therapy world. She worked in a chain of Jewish old peoples' homes, running workshops in painting, getting the students to paint their childhood memories and talk about the images.
It's easy, she said. Just talk to them. They'll probably try to get you to marry their granddaughters.
She needed someone to take a bit of the strain out of it, because she had too many workshops to run and not enough time.
I did a few sessions, each one two hours, for a couple of weeks. I liked the work, it wasn't hard, although it could be depressing. Rooms full of old people. Well, you know the cliches.
After I had got used to it she asked if I would be prepared to work in the 'Special' home. This was a place where old people with mental problems lived. They were mostly people with Alzheimers, she said. Interesting work, because while they couldn't seem to remember anything much, the images they came up with could be quite specific. Not all of them, though.
I said I would, if she came too.
Of course! I wouldn't let you do something like that on your own!
The place itself was a bit forbidding, but not like a horror-film or anything. I remember thinking that it was darker than I had expected. We carried our bags into the room where the session took place, an art room - it was like a school art room, with plans chests and pictures on the walls, but no big desks or anything, just chairs and the old people sitting down, with nurses or helpers standing behind them.
The Principal, which is what they called the people in charge of the homes, had two dogs with her. They were big, floppy old Basset Hounds, a bit smelly and wheezy. They are funny looking dogs, like full sized,overweight hunting dogs with little fat legs. They wandered around the art room at will, and she told me that they were there for the old people, who would cuddle them and play with their floppy ears. Are they your pets? I asked.
They are now.
She was a very straight-faced woman. I looked for irony, but could see nothing in her eyes.
There was one old lady that I remember very distinctly. She was thin, and sat upright, quite formally dressed, like old ladies used to dress, in black with white lace collars and cuffs. She had two young male nurses behind her, one holding a jar of bright red ink.
I want to paint red today. I want to paint red.
Would you paint me a picture of your school? I asked her. That was the project we had agreed on in the car, coming there. We needed a theme that they would have in common, that they might recall in some way. Even if they were recalling someone else's memory, or a film or a book, everyone would have a response to the word 'school'.
School? I will paint it red.
She didn't look at the paper as her brush swirled round and round in the red ink.
The Russian Protester
I was an artist, and now I am a teacher, a lecturer is what I'm really called, but at least I am still thinking about art, l am dealing with the issues all the time. It's stimulating. Sometimes l remember days spent in the studio, painting after painting dropping from the end of my brush, being excited just by what my eyes were seeing my hands doing, and I feel a bit sad. I don't quite know why it all stopped, but my artist's licence was revoked a few years ago. The committee decided. Fortunately the Chairman had given his speech about education, education, education a couple of years before and the University sector had been expanded, so I found this employment. I can't do much painting, but, as l say, teaching is nearly as good. I work a lot more than I am contracted to do, as well - it is expected, but I do it willingly, and I still have time to make my contribution to the Community.
Being a Community Support Officer is interesting work, and, like the teaching, it helps me feel connected to everyone else. We all have to do something and this is what I do. I am tall and also of an age that commands some respect, you might imagine I was a Senior Administrator for example, and I have a clear voice which I can use in a commanding way if I need to, so people do tend to obey my authority, and of course the authority of the Community Support Team.
The police force were good, but they were expensive, and now that the People's Republic of North America has split into different, 'democratic' nations and the the United States of Russia, in league with the Chinese Empire, is the dominant force in world politics, we in the once-Communist West have to tighten our belts. The People will triumph, as the Chairman says, but not yet, and while we are suffering this setback we have to make do. He says that we will discover new things, good things, about ourselves. I am sure he is right.
I have, anyway. The solipsism of my past life rather sickens me now. I miss it, true, but sometimes I think, what was I doing? I was like a grown up child with his crayons, drawing fantasies all day long. I was rewarded for them in a small way, but it was more like being patted on the head. Well done. Another picture. Now I am at least active in the 'real world'.
Last night I was on patrol in the market place, as usual. Me and Simon, and Simon had gone for a quick drink, leaving me on my own, with nothing but my uniform hat, my Nokia and my bit of 2x1 for support, when the Naked Protester turned up again.
The crowds are quite thick of an evening in the market place, because of the monitors that have been set up there to show the News. It's a local Community Initiative, because a lot of people cannot afford the new subscription charges for TV. Also there is a bit of trading going on. I turn a blind eye to most of it, to be honest. It's not exactly legitimate, but everyone does it, and where else do you get your software, your soap, or your old fashioned light bulbs from?
But this Protester. He turns up with a blank piece of card and stands, by himself. The rule is that any group of people, more than one, in or at a public place or location, can be classified as a demonstration or protest if their intentions are apparently intentional, and if they cannot prove that they have been authorised by the correct body to collect then they are breaking the law. If a singular person utters, demonstrates or communicates opinion likely to cause hate, embarrassment, other annoyance or cast doubt on the legitimacy of the local authority, they are also deemed to be breaking the law. What he's doing, this chap, is he's standing there, a few meters away from the postbox, on his own, with a large, blank piece of card held up in front of him. The light is fading, and there's a little drizzle in the air. People are grouped around the monitors and the little stalls that have been set up, trading, exchanging.
As she walks past me this woman, she must have been my age, carrying a bag with some courgettes in, looks up at me, smiles and says
What are you going to do about him, then?
I smile back.
At the moment he is not contravening any regulations I say. He isn't, but he looks as if he might be.
I don't actually know what he's protesting about.
The woman laughed, and we got chatting. She knows my wife, it turns out, and knows the family from quite a while ago. I liked her, and we were getting on well, when it occurred to me that people were not dealing with the protester in quite the usual, English fashion. You know what l mean. Ignoring him mainly, or perhaps just giving him a little smile as they went past. Instead they were shouting at him. Two young men were actually threatening him. I turned from the woman, Angela she was called, and began to walk slowly over.
Fuck off. You fucking queer.
That sort of thing. It turned out that he was protesting about Gay Rights, that's what one male attendee of the News Broadcast told me. He was protesting by standing here with a blank card.
How's that about Gay Rights?
I asked the male citizen. He isn't allowed to protest with any actual slogans, and he isn't allowed to protest in a group, obviously, so he's just standing there, I was told.
What are you going to do about it?
I didn't know. For a moment I wished Simon were here to back me up, but then I thought he is such an unreconstructed male, l mean that's great and everything, but I know what he would say. Let them kill the fucker.
Then I thought it's pretty rubbish, isn't it? I mean, it's pretty rubbish to treat people like that. I don't care what the Party says about it, the way homosexuals are treated is bloody horrible, and it's not like they have a choice about how they feel. Maybe it's just how biology is. Why can't people be left alone with who they love or care about?
So l left him for a while, but it started to get a bit nasty. One of the young men spat at him. Then my phone rang.
Williams? Sprat. Look, someone's just called me about that arse bandit in the market place. Move him on, will you?
Sprat's my line manager.
I decided to act. I walked towards him, and stood next to the post box. I stared at the young men. They stared back, and then smirked at me, and stepped back a bit.
I walked over to the protester.
Time to go, mate.
He was a gay rights protester, who featured in a rather low-brow sounding TV documentary series called 'Reggie Yates: Extreme Russia'. Reggie Yates is a youth TV presenter, or DJ or something, but the series was actually pretty good. He's a charming sort of fellow, not amusing like Louis Theroux, but nice, and he talks bravely to all sorts of dreadful Russian types, nationalists, homophobes, gangsters, racists. One of the programmes was about the absurd Russian anti-homosexuality laws, and this young man was a high profile protester, arrested and beaten up countless times, all of them legal.
Mentioning homosexuality in public is regarded as promoting it and is illegal in Russia and I think that the laws had also been altered so that any group numbering more than one could be seen as an illegal meeting. So his protest was to stand on his own, with a sheet of paper with nothing written on it. He was well-known for his views but he was saying nothing at all in explicit terms. He was waiting to be arrested illegally.
He was a very odd young man. He was slight and pale and red-haired, and he seemed determined to be martyred. He had a new tattoo on his forehead, l could never work out what it was. Reggie joined him on his protest, but soon enough he became frightened and they had to call it off. Protest is serious in Russia.
The horror of his martyred state, and the intensity of his path touched me, and his sense of alone-ness. A person outside his culture. You read the books, you watch the television and the films, you learn the jokes, you hum the songs. You know when the buses run, how much and who to trust, where to buy bread, which side of the road to drive on, and still you are a stranger to your culture. People enunciate their loathing of you, carefully, thoughtfully.
Does protest play any part in my painting?
The empty placard is like James Dean's what have you got? He stands behind his question, he is his question. There is nothing else but the question, really.
In some of the paintings he is being moved along by a Crap Soldier. This figure appeared in my work a year or so ago, when l was thinking about apocalyptic events on the evening news. Syrians' lives upended made me think about what that might look like in my native Faversham, being conscripted into the local militia like Dad's Army, a sort of incompetent vigilante group.
Rubbishy attempts at totalitarianism have a long history. In 1956, after the Russians quelled their attempt at a freer version of Socialism, the Hungarians initiated a kind of useless Communism, full of blind eyes, anonymous envelopes, political appointments. Corruption of values beyond cynicism, backed up with relatively mild terror. If terror can ever be mild.
But lines have to be drawn. Borders have to be maintained. You cannot just get on the train at Nyugati Station and get off where you fancy and take up residence. You won't understand the culture and you won't be part of it.
The empty placard is also a painting or a drawing not painted or drawn. There is an image conspicuous by its absence. There is a white rectangle in the painting, in the most visible area of the painting, that is waiting to be filled. The rectangle's edges run roughly parallel to the edges of the painting, and are interrupted only by the fingers of the Protester.
Is it a protest that my Protester holds up? Perhaps it is a protest about not selling art when I would like to, but I don't think so.
Since about 2008 l have lost the expectation of an easy relationship with the market for my paintings. I don't remember wanting to be an artist with the idea of selling my work, in fact I think l had a vague idea of being a Lecturer in an Art College as a way of earning a living when l started, because that's what the only artists I had met did, but by the time I left the Royal Academy Schools I saw the possibility of living by my painting alone. I sold a ton of work before I left, and a year later, even when my first solo show in London rather bombed, I was still able to see a viable career ahead. The next London shows sold gradually better and better. I would send three paintings to a gallery and only one would probably come back. The small amount of teaching l did became easier to do. Then I was taken on by a gallery who paid me a regular income in return for paintings, and I gave up all teaching. When that deal came to an end it wasn't disastrous, I was able to survive on sales until I had a show in Marylebone that sold enormously. That was in 2007. In 2008 the economy collapsed and I sold two paintings in the next solo show. I also started teaching on a degree course.
I had already begun to think slightly differently about the value of my work. My wife is a jeweller, and her idea of value is quite straightforward. She makes work using precious materials, and the value she adds is the design and the making of the thing, but if the worst comes to the worst she can melt it down and sell it. It has an intrinsic value.
But my work is, essentially, spoiled artists' materials. If no one is charmed sufficiently by them, in market terms they are more or less worthless.
Market terms, though, are not the only terms, or to put it another way, the art market is not the only market. The works have some level of cultural capital, and they contain something, or represent something or embody something, and when the bottom fell out of the market I began to think more about what this might be.
A good painting
At the Academy you might think that you were taught how to make a good painting as opposed to a bad, and that rules were inculcated, and part of the reason I chose to go there was to 'learn about academic drawing'. In the sense that I understood far more about the mechanics of visual representation in tonal drawing and painting than I had before, and that I gained an insight into what had been the dominant visual language of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, then I did, but it was always in the awareness that it was the fag end of a culture, whispers along the cast-filled corridor.
I do not accept 'technique' as the definition of what I learned there, and the self-conscious adoption of 'technique' by artists pretending to conservative values makes me want to retch. 'Old Master technique' is not a constant. Old masters had techniques that were appropriate to their time, and they all differed.
Being an Expressionist was radical once but the adoption of an Expressionist technique now is a self-conscious act as much as adopting an Old Master technique would be. There may be a confusion in the proximity of an Old Master technique to the visual tropes of photography, which assigns the soothing appearance of 'reality' to both.
Talking about the technique might be a way of assessing value, when the market value seems to fail. My painting has not sold, but it is too advanced or refined to appeal to the masses. They don't get it, you could say, but you are still compelled to carry on your exploration.
This is like writing the rules to your own game, and actually that's how it feels a lot of the time. As I paint an image the formal issues seem quite clear, and I have noticed that there is a pattern in which l make a series of works, gradually more complicated as the ideas become more complex. l look back at painting number one from painting seven, say, and can't imagine how such a simple idea could result in this edifice. It's only later that I look over the work and think how much better the first one was, how much clearer.
Does it have to mean anything to anyone else?
At the time it seems very meaningful as well. The Russian Protester seems to have the potential to communicate something important and significant. This feeling fades when the painting is put in the racks, and it becomes just an annoying obstacle, but it grows again when it is put on the wall in an exhibition. But then it has a distance. Sometimes that is positive, and I think 'what a good painter l can be' and sometimes not, when I think 'I wish I could do that now', and sometimes really not, when l am just embarrassed. That doesn't happen all that often.
A good painting
A definition of a good painting might be one where the intention matches the outcome, where the problem posed by the painting is solved by the painting. A colleague of mine painted a lovely small painting of a green cleaning sponge, from observation, a small thing, almost an abject still life. The intention seems to me to have been to bring that very humdrum, abject thing into view, to point out the way that even this humble thing can be a source of delicious colour and form. Not a huge ambition, and the painting's scale and construction matched the ambition. That might be defined as a good painting.
I want to communicate with my painting. I want the ideas that I have while painting the various versions to be available at some level to the viewer. I want ideas about politics, history, human nature, as well as about painting, to be present in the work. I don't want it to be just about painting, to be purely formal.
Most of the things painting used to be good for are done much better by other mediums now. Spectacle, mimesis, adventure, record, imagining are all easier or more effectively rendered by film, digital media and so on, leaving painting in a strange position, a sort of high craft whose collectors are few and far between. For the most part its complex matrices of meaning are dependent on highly specialised knowledge, most of which is to do with precedent, which may be why it is so comfortable in the academic world. Even painting that makes a virtue of simplicity does so in reference to other work; it's easy to see how the whole thing could be taken up with painting itself.
In a way, painting has to be part of what the painting is about, because painting itself is such a peculiar visual language. But language has to communicate something other than language itself, otherwise it is an empty vessel.
The empty painting in the hands of the Russian Protester is not an object. It's not a Modernist painting, but it is a space in which a vacuum lies. It is a space for a communication without any explicit communication. Its empty rectangle pairs it with the empty rectangle underneath the layers of paint that make the figure that is depicted holding it. The double of the empty painting is the painting that it is part of, and its presence throws the paint into sharper focus.
The Russian Protester is a painting of a young man with a messiah complex. It is a painting of someone who has accepted martyrdom into his future. The centrality of the Christ figure in Western culture doesn't need noting, although the eliding of 'artist' with 'the crucified Christ' is worth mentioning, in for example the work of Van Gogh, Munch, Ensor, Caravaggio.
I think the choice is infinite, and I imagine the technique is optional and adoptable but perhaps it isn't. I think I paint things how they loo, but other people say I have a style.
Why paint and repaint this character?
I started with what I would describe as a drawing; when I was in my studio I remembered the scene in the television programme the night before, and l tried to remember it on paper, drawing it out of my mind in watercolour and gouache, about 30 cm high. Next I painted the image larger, this time relying as much on the drawing as my memory, and it may be significant that I was using a paint type that I had not used before, a kind of gouache that I had ground and prepared myself.
A drawing is an autobiographical record .of one's discovery of an event - seen, remembered or imagined. A 'finished' work is an attempt to construct an event in itself. John Berger 'On Drawing'
This led to my exploring the relationships between the colours and the surfaces that the paint made, setting up a new mesh of visual interest. What was the relationship between that focus and the figure itself? Did it obscure the message with the medium, or did my concentrating on the medium allow the message to come clear, independent of my conscious control?
The subsequent paintings, which sometimes include the Crap Soldier, were painted with less and less direct reference to the memory of the television programme and more reference to the paintings themselves, which implies a certain formal interest, a growing interest in the methodology and technique as against the content. I am looking for what would make the painting good, and when I find it I stop.
Do I stop because the image has embodied the idea? In which case, how has it not embodied the idea five minutes before, when the figure was a recognisable form and the background was slightly lighter? Is it a search for perfection, and if so, are the layers beneath less perfect than the layer on the surface?
The Crap Soldier moves the Protester along because he thinks he is expected to, he imagines that the Protester is doing something that he, the Crap Soldier, has been ordered to stop. He acts according to the script he has been assigned, or thinks he has. If the placard had said 'Support Our Brave Militia' he would have perhaps smiled shyly and said thank you, but nothing will come of nothing. It doesn't ask for any support, it just says nothing.
The Crap Soldier is incompetent Authority, ushering off the Protester, Christ, the artist, me, when he thinks he ought to, when he imagines the Protester has gone too far, maybe when he thinks he has finished.
What am l left with, though? What is the function of these images? They are all quite large, except the drawing. What is it that they do now, hung on the wall in my studio and my sitting room?
The painting answers its own question.
In Vonnegut's Bluebeard the case for 'Nothing' is made, more satisfying to me than Greenberg and Fried. Vonnegut's AbEx artist Karabekian makes blank paintings because all the stories and all the images so far have led to the Second World War. Georg Meidner's apocalyptic visions, painted between 1910 and 1913 in Germany, predict the oncoming horrors, and the Blaue Reiter group could be seen as rejecting the inevitable imagery by painting nothing, not what's out there but what's in here. Hold back history, refuse it. Paint nothing.
I really cannot paint nothing. I would like to, but I cannot. My recent series of still life paintings started as an attempt to escape the tyranny of meaning and narrative by painting things and not people, but quickly fell into a meditation on mortality that led to my getting the horrors when I painted them. I cannot escape the figure because painting is a means of dragging out things about my own existence from my mind and making them 'real' in front of me, and hoping for validation from other people.