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Give me a hand

29 Jul

After a flurry of exhibition and creative activity, what better way to enjoy the Summer weather than a relaxing stroll around Telford’s Stafford Park Industrial Estate?

It was a baking hot and humid day at the end of July and a storm was building to the west as I made a circuit through the estate…

…before going over and across the roar of the M54, ambling around Priorslee Lake and the quiet suburbs…

…some found paintings:

then back into the estate:

I find something enticingly eerie about the huge monolithic sheds, the boom, clank and hiss of machinery, the almost complete lack of people visible, and the incessant movement of vehicles.  I feel a part of a larger machine, where stuff is made, moved around and, sometimes, stuff is brought back in.

Around lunchtime, some people, mostly men, emerge to walk around the block, to stand smoking, staring at the traffic, or to dodge across the road to the uninviting cafe for a sandwich.

“…And there’s no thanks
From the loading bay ranks…”

Always in such places, I recall the Fall’s “Industrial Estate” and “Container Drivers”, Mark E Smith… so clinical and relentless.  So evocative of my youth, listening to the Kicker Conspiracy EP, “Wings” again and again.

Detritus lies scattered in the verges and under every bush.  Landscaping so carefully planned for a life of minimal maintenance.

I am curious about the large numbers of discarded, or perhaps just lost, gloves.  Poignant remnants of human contact.  Always just a single glove.  Were they dropped by accident?  Or were they jettisoned once the owner realised there was no longer a pair?  Or are they a secret sign… a code between drivers … of a place they can go to escape?  Or are they a call for help?

gloves

 

Motor Plantation

26 Feb

Thoughts and images from a recent walk in woodland below the local hills – not quite an Edwardian picnic:

The gleaming beauty that was yearned for
Striving to earn more
Slumps here amidst the trees
Silent and dull

The industrious and hopeful
Relieved the weary world of its burden
With the cogs and the pipes and the cables
They built a time machine
To explore the future
And looping back to these relics
Catch a glimpse of star dust
As the Earth reclaims its bounty

Now, diverted by brighter lights and shinier stuff
They rise up and glide away
into the gentle breeze
While others far below cling to the ground
against an icy wind

The Art of Relating Sites

21 Oct

Earlier in the Summer, on consecutive days, I had the pleasure of seeing Laura Oldfield Ford and George Shaw give talks about their respective exhibitions at Grand Union, in Birmingham, and the National Gallery.

I had researched both artists as part of my contextual study in edgelands, site specific art and psychogeography for my Creative Arts BA, and they feature in my extended written project. The paper investigates some strategies that artists employ in relation to site-based art, focusing particularly on painters. It reviews the extent to which a selection of contemporary artists measure up to the challenge of Miwon Kwon’s relational specificity. Kwon asserts that they should deal with the:

“uneven conditions of adjacencies and distances between one thing, one person, one place, one thought, one fragment next to another, rather than invoking equivalences one thing after another” (Kwon, 2002).

It is suggested that psychogeography offers a productive means of making connections between adjacent places in time and space in order to foster new and unexpected perspectives on a site.

You can download the essay here:  160406-a-howe-the-art-of-relating-sites_final

 

Laura Oldfield Ford’s show Cnothic Reverb was the result of a residency at Grand Union in the Summer of 2015.  It comprised a 30 min sound installation (city sounds, music fro 80s, 90s, 00s) and Ford’s voice describing thoughts, reminiscences and experiences of Birmingham) plus black and white photographs and copies of drawings posted onto wooden and citex billboards constructed into an enclosed rectangular layout within the gallery.  Ford’s characteristic pink was used as coloured fluorescent strip tube lighting.

Walking around Digbeth beforehand, I had very similar experiences to those explored by the artist in her powerfully atmospheric show.  Like Ford, I was returning to this area of Birmingham for the first time in about 20 years. Some areas were threatening (was this just because I was no longer familiar) but other areas felt the same (eg the areas around the Custard Factory).  There were large amounts of graffiti, security devices/fencing/wire and lots of dark “goings-on” behind industrial metal doors and boarded up buildings.  There seemed to be endless car/taxi respray and maintenance workshops interspersed with gentrifying art/music/design studios.

There was a strange eclectic mix of furtive people in alleyways, doing something on phones, snogging in corners, sawing a wooden crate for some unfathomable reason, standing in groups on corners talking or smoking.  There were arty or well dressed affluent folk and more “ordinary” working folk on their way home.  Some photos I took on the day:

There was a buzz, a tension.  As I got used to the atmosphere, I reacclimatised and felt more comfortable, invisible.  But still I didn’t fancy walking down onto the canal towpath, through a graffiti-covered seating area, populated initially by 3 overexcited kids, possibly drunk, on drugs or glue or just being kids off school, and later by two wizened old drunks.

Walking out of the glitz of the Birmingham Bull Ring towards Digbeth I was struck by the rapid change in the people from bright happy shoppers to more downbeat individuals waiting listlessly for buses, ambling along or homeless sitting on any available vantage point.  I was accosted (politely) for help by an Irishman, and given looks of cautious suspicion by people of Asian or eastern European appearance.

Am I remembering something that really happened, something someone else talked to me about or something I just imagined.  For example, returning to town via the large area of land left vacant ready for the incoming HS2 station, I saw the derelict shell of the Fox and Grapes pub on Freeman Street.  That name rings a bell, but I recall going to a different pub on or near that road (The Vine?) but the Fox and Grapes did seem familiar.  I “remembered” a Summer afternoon, mid-week when I went there, played pool, listened to the Happy Mondays (Thrills, Pills and Bellyaches LP) with either my brother(s) or possibly one of my Moseley mates, or was it someone else?  Or am I just imagining the whole thing?  Our perception of the world we see is based on memories and hearsay that we just can’t rely on.

Ford’s commentary alluded to place, her memories of pubs and buildings, and the history of local events such as the Battle of Saltley Gate” during the Miner’s Strike of 1973 – she said “we need to remember when “we were on top”– and “make new positive trajectories” that may modify the writing of political history or instigate actions along these new trajectories.

The conversation with Dr Phil Jones (urban geography lecturer at Birmingham University) was slightly disappointing but it did prompt some good insight into Ford’s thinking and psychogeographical methods – using the derive as a starting point for her work.  Despite her relatively diminutive stature and neat appearance, she has an aura of anger and history of living in squats and political activism.  I asked her about whether her work may increasingly draw on the optimistic aspects (in reference to her positive trajectories which in turn referenced Walter Benjamin’s  writings) to suggest future solutions.  I had previously heard criticism of her, because despite her anger, she fails to make positive alternative proposals – and indeed she avoided doing so when asked directly by Phil Jones.  I can see that there are signs in her paintings of the positive aspects of community cohesion.  She acknowledged my support but did not say much more about whether her approach may change to a more optimistic, constructive view.  In a way, why should she?  Art can be about raising issues and asking questions, expressing anger … without necessarily having all the answers.

On the following day I travelled to London to see “My Back to Nature” by George Shaw at the National Gallery.

In reading the excellent website by Duncan McLaren Scenes from the Passion, following his work in detail, I became more aware how autobiographical Shaw’s paintings of the Tile Hill estate are. They are not just nostalgic reminiscences of places he knew growing up, the paintings reflect Shaw’s moods and his experience after the death of his father.  (Shaw ceased painting for some time after this event).  For example, paintings of tree trunks in earlier work were revisited but now they were literally truncated, chopped down or burnt and vandalised.  Clearly a metaphor for life that I had not fully considered previously. Trees become anthropomorphised, and are certainly corporeal in several paintings, including this new exhibition. Similarly, Shaw’s paintings of fences, walls and other barriers perhaps reflect some of the feelings of frustration and loss he had in coming to terms with life after his father’s death.

The exhibition press release is here.  There is some interesting insight in the touring information sheet, revealing some of the mythological background to the paintings, and also a glimpse of some Shaw’s studies in his studio space at the National.  I was aware that there is a considerable background of cultural references behind Shaw’s paintings, and he evidently gives each work a great deal of thought.  This is reflected in his writings, and interviews.  Certainly a line can be drawn from a Neo-Romantic heritage to Shaw’s work.  He lacks the political anger of Ford, while taking a more realist, pragmatic, honest view of the contemporary landscape.  Perhaps closer to the paintings of Sutherland, Nash and Piper than Ford’s urban viewpoint.

In his residency at the National Gallery as part of the Associate Artist scheme, Shaw has interpreted paintings from the collection whilst keeping within his known territory of the woodland near the Tile Hill estate.  The paintings are inspired particularly by Titian’s Death of Actaeon and Diana and Actaeon.  Poussin and Constable are also references, and it was fascinating to see the exhibition and view these paintings face to face.  The blue plastic sheeting, the fragmented porn mags, and graffiti on tree trunks take on new significance in the paintings, and I see the links with the old.  I am also reminded of the passage about the English affinity for woodland, (and the oak tree in particular) in Schama’s “Landscape and Memory”.

The interview with Shaw in the a-n website also provides some interesting insight,  as does this BBC Radio 4 interview.

There is a review of the exhibition in the Observer here.  And an earlier review in the Guardian here.

The review in the Telegraph was less enamoured with the exhibition and is not impressed by Shaw’s contemporary interpretations of the paintings in the National Gallery.  It does not seem to make the connections with Shaw’s earlier work.  This is what they say:

“Gone are the goddesses and forest nymphs, replaced by discarded beer cans and the scattered pages of porn mags. Elsewhere Shaw depicts a tree trunk with a large phallus graffitied on it.

In short, he opts for slightly coarse, 21st-Century twists on age-old erotic myths, bringing the illicit sex and drunkenness of works like Poussin’s Triumph of Pan into the present day.

In one scene – the ironically titled Call of Nature – Shaw himself can be seen urinating against the foot of a tree, but this is the only figure we see. The other scenes are entirely depopulated; in some cases they’re so bare even the trees are bereft of leaves. Does Shaw want us to pause for thought about how modern man has despoiled his landscape?”

I don’t think Shaw is making a strong ascerbic point about human impact on nature (although he is making a point), but he is drawing attention to the fact that nature can resist and thrive in spite of human disregard. At least, that is my thinking on the subject. Shaw’s perspective is complex.  I suspect he found the woodland of his youth a place of refuge and calm, but also of threat and darkness.  Certainly, he sees the litter and casual disregard for nature as symptomatic of contemporary human attitudes.  Yet he also views the woodland as representing a place of freedom.  The meticulous style of painting is surely evidence of Shaw’s love for the woodland/nature – and this is also seen in his paintings of shabby housing and wasteland.  The painting of Shaw urinating against a tree, is more ambiguous, perhaps recalling a time when he was not so observant or caring of nature.  Or perhaps, it acknowledges something in himself that is always at heart a grimy urbanite, someone who can never have true affinity with nature.

Shaw reveals that initially he saw the residency as an opportunity to change his style or subject matter, and indeed some of the early work comprises 14 charcoal self-portraits in the positions of Christ in the Stations of the Cross (which he knew from his local church in Coventry).  While these offer a different perspective on the artist, and they do relate to other work in the National Gallery, they do not sit easily for me alongside the woodland paintings he returned to, of which Shaw has made a huge number during the 2 years.  I should not be so surprised by the self-portraits since Shaw studied performance art, not painting, in his first fine art degree.

One of the main technical changes Shaw made in this exhibition was to move away from painting on board (mdf or plywood) and to use canvas, which relates with the materials used by the Old Masters in the Gallery.  He still used the Humbrol enamels, which he says, he initially adopted as a means of distancing himself from the established history of oil painting. The enamel paint is quite dark and glossy on board, but it seemed softer and less reflective on canvas.  Either Shaw is refined his technique, or the canvas allows for greater subtlety.

I admire the way in which Shaw has found a voice that rarely strays from a specific location and landscape, and yet he is able to layer on multiple meanings and moods that reflect both his own personal story, but also wider views on society.  Shaw uses a familiar place to make universal statements.  My own range of painting subjects and places is more diverse than Shaw’s, and at the moment, I would find it restrictive to stay focused on one site.  But it is useful to think about how I can use motifs or themes that I revisit frequently to reflect thoughts and views which may have a tangential connection to what appears to be the main subject in the painting.

Trees and woodland, for example, regularly feature in my work (eg “Ours Too” – the rope swing painting or “Ours” –  the den painting), and I made a book some time ago collecting various paintings and photographs together with haiku poems by Colin Blundell, called “We’re Not Out of the Woods Yet”.  I can see many connections with George Shaw in the topographical visual aesthetic, the corporeal tree trunk, the “mistreatment” of woodland by people or rather the use of liminal spaces for experimentation and play, such as kids making dens, trying cigarettes and alcohol.  My painting “Trunk” has some similarities with Shaw’s preoccupation with tree trunks.  It shows my own geometric aesthetic, and I recognise the parallel verticals which feature in others of my paintings.

There is no doubt that woodland was a formative landscape during my childhood and teenage years when I used to go into Ecclesall Woods near my house in Sheffield, in much the same way that it was for George Shaw.  Now Shaw has established such a strong identity for himself with the edgelands, I feel slightly intimidated in trying to forge my own identity with this subject matter.  This is a little like how Shaw must have felt during his 2 year residency, walking in past the Velazquez and Rubens.

In the evening I attended the event: George Shaw in conversation with Paul Farley (edgelands poet and co-author with Michael Symmons Roberts of “Edgelands: Journeys into England’s True Wilderness”)

There was inevitably some mutual self-indulgence in this conversation but some of the points I took included:

  • the edgelands are not really feral, they are not wilderness, they are only yards from “civilisation” where one can hear car alarms, children shouting etc;
  • the woodlands are places only adolescents (and criminals) feel empowered to experiment in because there are no rules, no CCTV, no parents, no one is watching;
  • for others they are a place of threat of violence and wild behaviour or a place to rediscover the liberation of adolescence;
  • there are only a limited number of narrative themes, whether Shaw really sees these themes, or whether he creates/constructs a scenario based on classical references;
  • edgelands have stopped being the unnoticed landscape, and by the very nature of their being explored are being changed.

The End is Looming

20 Sep Postbox loom band Andrew Howe

Everyone has seen Royal Mail elastic bands scattered along footpaths and driveways.  This litter phenomenon is a frequent cause of complaint in the populist media.  I am reliably informed that the bands changed from red to a pale beige in 2010. Apparently, the red bands were more biodegradable and “officially” easier to spot… but it didn’t seem to reduce the numbers being cast to the ground.  Perhaps they were changed back to blend in a bit better with the dust, or may be beige is cheaper.  (Elastic bands cost Royal Mail nearly £1billion per annum)

Birds peck at them.  They get caught on hedgehogs. Being the good waste and resources consultant, I began collecting them for reuse.

The craze for loom bands came and went.  The Government sold off the Royal Mail.  I decided to make a small contribution to returning the bands to the Royal Mail via my local postbox:

Post box loom band Andrew Howe

Post box loom band Andrew Howe

Post box loom band Andrew Howe

Post box loom band Andrew Howe

Post box loom band Andrew Howe

Post box loom band Andrew Howe

 

You can do this more formally if you like, by sending them, free of charge, to: Royal Mail, Rubber Band Recycling Department, Freepost, Tomb Street, Belfast BT1 1AA.  But I’d like to think these little interventions will proliferate on many more postboxes around the country.  My band has been in place nearly a week, and either no one has noticed it, or people quite like it enough not to remove it.

Things come and go , some things go round and round, but there’s always an end eventually.

Against the Inevitable

8 Jun Entropy, Against the Inevitable, Andrew Howe

My Canon camera has become afflicted with the dreaded ERR099 fault, and I fear its final demise may be imminent.  Before this, and perhaps as some kind of forewarning or omen, I found myself taking shots of seemingly futile patch repairs and supports to bits of infrastructure facing the inevitable drift from order into ruin and chaos. Its hard to resist a morbid fascination in the relentless entropic process of disintegration and gradual takeover of vegetation and other organic growth.

These photographs were taken in and around Shrewsbury and Walsall towards the end of 2015 and early 2016.

The Minutes

18 Mar

My “In Parallel” exhibition has been running for a couple of weeks or more, and has another week to go.  I’m receiving some very positive feedback and its certainly creating some interest.  I delivered a talk about the ideas and motivations behind the project at the Participate Contemporary Artspace gallery last Wednesday 16th March, which was well received too.  I’m still reflecting on some of the ideas and themes in the project, so it was a useful exercise to try and bring it all together, communicate it to people, and then answer some questions.

Some of the visitors to the exhibition have commented that it was useful to read my book “The Minutes” first, as it gives an insight into how my ideas developed during my walks to work over a twelve month period or more.  The book is displayed as part of the exhibition, and I had thought that it was more of a supplementary piece rather than the key introduction.  Other visitors have said that they preferred to see the paintings in the exhibition first and form their own view, without having any preconceptions set by the book.  So it is interesting to consider the impact of the book on the exhibition experience.

The book comprises photographs of the business park/office and edgelands (most of which have been featured in this blog in earlier posts).  The photographs are coupled with text describing my perceived experience, or phenomenology, of these environments at specific times and dates over a twelve month period.  Hence, the title refers to the minutes during which I recorded my perceptions.  I was interested in the “parallel universes” of the business park and edgelands, what was happening in one “universe” when I was observing the other.  To paraphrase Hans Peter Feldmann, I was interested in the unexceptional 95% or so of the day when “nothing” was happening.

My interpretation of what phenomenology means to me is that our mind passively receives sensory stimuli from the external world. This is an objective process.  The mind then internalises these stimuli by actively responding either with emotion or thought or both.  So there are two processes of perception and affect.

  1. Perception – tends to the objective
  2. Affect – tends to the subjective

This illustrated in this diagram, based on Yi-Fu Tuan’s ideas about how humans gather experience:

phenomenology

The Muppets make a more amusing explanation of phenomenology here.

In the book, I concentrated on the perception part, allowing the reader to respond to the “affect”.  It was quite difficult not to respond to the affect myself, and I did veer into a more subjective form of writing in several places.
You can preview a small selection of the pages in the book here:

In Parallel Exhibition

15 Feb

On the 29th February 2016, I will begin putting up my exhibition entitled “In Parallel” at Participate Contemporary Artspace CIC.  Its located on the Ground Floor of the Riverside Shopping Centre in Shrewsbury town centre.  There will be a private view on Friday 4th March 2016 (4pm – 6pm) and on Wednesday March 16th 2016, I will be giving a talk about the project from 6.30pm at the gallery.

The exhibition will effectively be my degree show for the BA(hons) in Creative Arts that I have been studying by distance learning with the Open College of Arts.  I began almost 12 years ago in 2004, originally intending that the course would provide some formal structure to my art practice (not having had much in the way of formal academic education in visual art previously).  As I became engrossed in the academic studies and practical development in painting and photography, I became more determined to take all 7 modules up to degree level.

The work in the exhibition represents the outcome of 2 years of research for the last module in painting. The paintings will not be assessed during the exhibition but later at the college in July.

In some ways, I was amused by the idea of having an MA in Engineering Science and BA in Creative Art.  Some might see these as opposing ends of a spectrum, but having worked through both, I can see that there are so many similarities in how engineers and artists take observations of the world, develop creative ideas and then use judgement to make a statement of some kind.  In the case of engineering this is normally a physical construction with some defined purpose, while art works may be real or virtual, useful or not, profound or banal or basically anything.

The project

I adopted a working title of “Parallel Universes” because I set out to investigate the relationship between the adjacent “universes” of the office where I used to work on the Shrewsbury Business Park and the surrounding area.  The area encompasses edgeland landscapes of a cycle track (formerly the Bridgnorth to Shrewsbury railway), suburban estates, the River Severn, agricultural land and post-glacial meres, one of which is below Thieves Lane and another lies in public open space next to the Mereside Community Centre.

I was interested in how a highly controlled environment co-exists in close proximity to a very different landscape with elements of wilderness.

A particular event helped define the project for me.  Whilst sitting at my desk looking out of the office window, I witnessed a crow attacking, murdering and then eating a juvenile blackbird, while its parents looked on helplessly crying out.  It was a truly horrific scene, which highlighted a stark difference between the office world, and the world “out there”, separated only by a pane of glass.  Life, death and the everyday.

The paintings touch on issues of land ownership, opportunistic or tactical uses of space, and the experience of time and place.  I explore the tensions between control and liberty, geometric order and chaos, the organic and the human-made.  I consider whether these must always be viewed as polar opposites, or whether hybrid or composite situations are, perhaps, a more realistic interpretation.

During the project I researched space and place, the everyday. psychogeography, walking as art practice, ruins and entropy, paths/boundaries and various other aspects of site specific art.  Key writers included Miwon Kwon, Lucy Lippard, Yi Fu Tuan, Doreen Massey, Michel de Certeau, Guy Debord, Henri Lefebvre, Ben Highmore, Walter Benjamin, Michel Foucault, Jean Baudrillard, Felix Guattari, Hal Foster, Simon Schama, Edward Soja, Tina Richardson, Phil Smith, Nick Papadimitriou, Iain Sinclair, Richard Mabey, Rebecca Solnit and Merlin Coverley .

A selection of the artists I studied includes George Shaw, Laura Oldfield Ford, Mark Bradford, Ingrid Calame, Clare Wood, Toby Paterson, Julie Mehretu, Stephen Willats and numerous cartographic artists, such as Matthew Picton and Val Britton.

The Work

The art works featuring in the exhibition will include paintings and a book.  The exhibition is a curated eclectic experience of the “parallel universes” and the work is quite diverse.  The paintings may be broadly categorised into:

  • representational or collage-style paintings, mainly in oils on mdf or plywood board;
  • reverse paintings in acrylic on clear perspex and acetate sheets;
  • mixed media painted reliefs constructed in layers of lasercut plywood or acrylic sheet.

Layering is a connecting theme or approach which runs through each of these categories.  Layers, whether by physical layers of lasercut materials, by layers of paint, or layers of imagery, offer a means of combining or juxtaposing different concepts.  Palimpsest, obscuring and revealing, play a role in these works.

There will also be a book, entitled “The Minutes” comprising photographs of the business park/office and edgelands, coupled with text describing my perceived experience, or phenomenology, of these environments.  I’ll write a separate post about the book.

The paintings incorporate everyday motifs, like air conditioning units, fluorescent light fittings, blinds, and manhole covers, drawing attention to the aesthetic qualities of these rarely noticed objects.

Stair cases and transitional spaces below bridges also feature in a number of the paintings, as do renegade spaces such as dens and trees appropriated for rope swings.  These are heterotopia where different people might attribute different meanings or values to each place.  The edgelands (referred to by Stephen Willats as “the lurky place”) offer a place of refuge or subversion, whether it be for walking the dog, building a den to hide and create a personal space, or for just hanging out.

A few examples of my paintings are shown below: