I had the joyous experience of going to the Tate Britain recently, my first gallery visit since lockdown finished. It was a great visit, to a great show, the work of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. The show is caled Fly in the League with The Night. I enjoyed it very much.
And why? Because it was great. It is not very often you see contemporary figurative portraiture displayed in a major gallery so there is that.
There are other stand out matters in this show. It is very rare to see in art, of any period portraits of black people, at least portraits that do not fetishise them. This show makes a small step to correcting this. This is not the only thing that makes it stand out. It is of extremely high quality.
The paintings are large, gallery large but convey an intimacy in the way the subjects are depicted. The group of dancers above is a good example. The ease of the figures with each other and the the one subject that looks out at you with that piercing gaze. There is a nice looseness about the brush work that I like, and also she is excellent at reflections.
It is slightly here in this painting, but more so in others in that there is, or at least I read, a lot of ambiguity about the sexuality of the subjects.
It is the intimacy in these portraits that I think attracts me the most. My favourite of the paintings in the whole show is the one above. The two squatting figures, stark against the textured white background, staring intently at each other. Their pose is both dynamic and relaxed. Tense and relaxed at the same time. I stared at this painting for a long time.
What I particularly like is the looseness of the paint. There are parts of the painting, the left hand edge of the left figures face for example, where the canvas shows through the paint, making a very effective highlight. This is very difficult to do effectively.
One of things Yiadom-Baokye is good at is contrasting shades. The figure on the left with the different shades of white on the jacket are superb. The folds conveyed in the jacket and shirt are very well rendered, working against the skin of the figure.
She does this again with the figure on the right, but with the added detail of the reflection, all set off by the flash of gold in the chair behind. The flash of gold is something she does in a number of paintings, it works very well.
I could say more, much more, all I will say is that you should go and see it for yourself. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. I will leave you with two pictures, ripe with iconicraphy. I particularly like the shades of right in the figure with the christ like pose.
The weather was nice during lockdown, and where I was staying fortunately had a large garden, so I set myself up there to paint what was there to be painted. My efforts were hampered by the willing "help" of my niece, the fact I only had my second best paints and brushes and that my easel was constructed out of a step ladder, a pirece of wood and some wire.
There are at either end of the garden two large old trees. One is an oak and the other (Check with mum).It is the second you can see above. It is very old, parts of it are dead. It is full of empty hollows, twisted branches and pollarded trunks. There is a hive of wild bees living in part of it (they swarmed during lockdown, it was very exciting). I didn't want to paint it in a realistic fashion but slightly more abstracted, and to capture some of the doom laden spirit of this year. I started with a red coloured ground and painted on top of that. The tree itself is just done in various thicknesses of ultramarine.
Above is the other tree, again with a red ground (above left) but painted slightly more realistically to provide another moody piece. Then a bee flew past and suddenly I wanted to do yelow and black, so I painted a yellow ground. Originally I was going to paint on it but then instead I opted for charcoal. The painting is very scratchy (above right) because before I started the drawing my young neice was allowed to attack the canvas with some charcoal. I incorporated her marks into the final work. Gives it a nice energy.
The colour I was enjoying using most was ultramarine. It had a lovely resonent depth to it so I decided to do a painting in mostly blue with a sort of photo negative feel to it with the dark of hedge in white and the light of grass in black (above left). It has a more hopeful feel than the earlier piece and I have to say I enjoyed painting it more.
Having done a painting with charcoal, I wanted to do one with some natural chalk I found in the garden. To that end I put on a black ground and drew on, again using the photo negative idea, to produce another tree picture.
All the paintings were done in situ passing the time in a garden, waiting for world to re-open.
After a while though I ran out of canvas, but I did have cardboard and some white gesso. I treated the cardboard and decided to experiment with an idea I have had for a while, a still life triptych. The cardboard packaging lent itself very well to this having the two wings on each side. I simply higlighted these divides in black and used it to portray again, in close up, two of the objects from the centre. I enjoyed this very much and it worked well. I plan to do it again.
The in-and-out nature of lockdown has, in part, led me to explore a variety of different media. I spent many months conducting a rather maudlin exploration of watercolour and gauche. I then moved onto play with pastels. A few years ago, I was given a large 120-piece set of Sennelier soft pastels by some good friends of mine. I decided to use these and made a considered decision to make a more joyous and hopeful series. I called it the Road Up and posted it almost daily on my instagram feed.
Pastels are joyously messy and very therapeutic to use. There were a number of themes in what I did. One, as can be seen above, is riffing on similar colour ranges, in this case red and yellow, encased in charcoal borders.
The other theme, again featuring charcoal shapes, was the construction of florid designs that I would then infill either with solid colour (like the above right) or with a gradation of colours (like the above left). Often I would not consciously choose what I was going to do when I started, but would be either guided by instinct, the amount of time I had available or a strange desire not to leave out some of the pastels. Looking back on it now, I prefer the results of the above left but gained equal pleasure from producing both.
The next theme was a design based on a field of colour. The field of colour would not be uniform but would again use blended colours from the same range, in this case brown (above left) and blue (above right). On top of these I formed sigils of various designs, the yellow gold pastel being a favourite. I particularly like the effect when you move the pastel in a wave or curve, with its longest edge pressed flat on the paper. You can see this in both of the above.
Two of my favourite artists are Agnes Martin and Sonia Delaunay. They have been influences of mine for a while and both of them can be seen in this series. Never is this more obvious than in the above, where you have Martin's formal geometric shapes combined with Delaunay's bold, even brash colours. The red-themed squares (above left) are, I think, the more effective of the two and I did a number of these. The triangles are more of an experiment and were less successful. Again, they are very tactile and therapeutic to produce.
Sometimes though, you just have to go a bit crazy and let out a burst of energy in high speed mark making on either a blank page (above left) or again on a field of colour. Some of my friends find these the best of these series, saying they have a tremendous sense of energy to them. I find them cathartic to do but to messy to contemplate afterwards. I prefer the above right, probably because it is calmer. Half the fun here though is applying the pastel in different ways and at different angles (and speeds).
Of course, sometimes you have to draw a tiger/chinese dragon.
I have completed some new Still Life Paintings. You can see them and others here.
The Henley Arts Trail usually runs during the bank holiday weekend in May and features some 30 plus artists. It runs every year, well nearly every year. This year it was of course Covidised and is taking place this weekend (and last weekend but I missed it) in a much-attenuated form. In fact I could only discover two manifestations of it.
The first of these was a display of the wares of Margaret Wainwright (above). There are two parts to her practice, ceramics and wood. The ceramics are solid and earthy in blacks, browns and golds. Assembled in coils, they have a very tactile bulbous quality, and the rougher-hewn ones appealed to me particularly. They are all inspired by Charnwood Forest, from which the wood, carved into the various shapes you can see, is sourced. It can all be found on Gravel Hill in Henley outside number 36. It is open today and I recommend going along. I plan to come away with something.
Down the hill and in the Old Fire Station Gallery, behind the Town Hall, are three artists. Again we have ceramics by Karen Marks (above left), well… porcelain to be exact. These silky wave forms have lovely crinkly edges and sinuous blue patterns across them. She has some lovely conical pots in the same style if your desire is for something more practical.
Sharing the space are these animal-themed stained glass panels (above right) by Jaci Foster. I prefer my stained glass to be more abstract, but if you are attracted by animal themes (and many people are) these are of good quality. There is one featuring two bunnies (it is the small one in the centre) that I thought was particularly fine.
The work of Jennie Jewitt-Harris features mottled multicoloured backgrounds on which sits a figure (usually a famous figure) converted into a fairy. The best of them, which is greatly enjoyed, is the one above of Mo Mowlem.
Hopefully next year the Henley Arts Trail will take place in full and I can explore it all.
It has been a tumultuous year for many people, me included. My life has taken a strange and unexpected turn, which I may talk about in future posts. As such, this website and blog has been somewhat neglected.
Now however the time has come to work on it again, and I have started with a bit of an image makeover. The website has been simplified: the theme and colour scheme changed and the pointless home page gone.
One thing that lockdown has done is made me very productive. I shall shortly start posting photos of the work I have done on the website. A couple of sneak previews below, or if you are too impatient you can see them on my instagram page.
Being stranded out in the countryside and all the museums and galleries being shut, this blog will be in abeyance until such time as they reopen and I can go again. Strangely, I have felt no urge at all to engage with the various digital offerings the galleries are all putting out. For me, seeing the art in person is the thing and a reproduction rarely produces the same results.
I have also been without my usual art implements and so, with the weather being quite good and there literally being nothing else to do, I have had to improvise. So I hammered two pieces of balsa to a board, added in some nails, tied it to a stepladder with some wire and there you are… an easel. Fortunately, Cass Art was able to deliver some essential supplies and then it was up and running. The above was my first painting, a sort of test piece if you will.
The main thing I blog about and the focus of my interests is visiting museum exhibitions and reviewing the same. This tedious virus-caused isolation means that is no longer possible. I find, along with many people, that this absence of stimulation causes me to be less productive and creative no more. Time weighs heavily on me and motivation is difficult to summon, especially as my usual studio space is currently miles away and forbidden to me.
So instead, I have been experimenting with pen and watercolour. Making abstract shapes or geometric patterns, and experimenting with combinations of colours.
My traditional stance is to use a variety of colours, often not having the same colour next to itself (such as in the above left).
I soon tired of this though and branched out into using colours of the same base or of a similar hue: green in the above left and brown (strictly speaking madder) in the above right.
I have been posting these up, every day, on my instagram page. I intend to continue doing so until the lockdown ends. I am not sure what will happen then. Maybe I will try exhibiting them (or the best of them). In the meantime I hope you enjoy them.
William John Mackenzie
I am an artist with a specialism in landscapes and still life. My contact details are here.