Thursday, 27 February 2014

Still life in the photographic age

Peppers, 2010
When you’re sitting inside on a gloomy, wet weekend and you don’t know what to paint or draw, the answer may be nearer at hand than you imagine.

Still life is a gift for anyone wanting to paint, draw or even photograph – and as a genre, it has a remarkable capacity to make some mundane, domestic items look interesting.

With origins in ancient times – there are still life paintings on the walls of Egyptian tombs – still life as a genre reached a pinnacle in the 16th and 17th centuries, not least in the hands of Flemish and Dutch artists.

Mind, that could be taken to read that nothing after that period was much cop, but you only need to look at the vast number of still life paintings by Cézanne to realise that that was not the case.

And modernity didn’t ditch the still life, but simply found new ways to represent it, from Braque’s Cubist canvases on, while photographers have also realised that you can do great things with everyday objects.

With just a simple, single light source, you can even create a picture that conjures up those classic paintings of yore with their rich, velvet-dark backgrounds.

The Ukulele, 2010
The vanitas, as a sub genre of still life, also has a place in today’s world, although we probably wouldn’t see it in quite the same way, while there have been plenty of street artists who have executed superb Trompe-l’œils – the sort that aim to make you think you’re about to plunge off the pavement and into a vast hole that’ll send you to Dantean depths.

From a personal perspective, it was photography that led me into still life – although I’d regularly drawn, in painful detail, single objects when studying art at school.

But what makes still life work is the arrangements you use and not simply how you paint or photograph any objects.

It pretty much goes without saying that fruit and flowers were popular subjects for still life paintings, and they remain so.

Food has also often been popular – no, ‘food porn’ isn’t as new as some might imagine.

The history of representations of food in art is itself interesting. In the case of those Egyptian tomb paintings mentioned earlier, they often featured food, which was believed to transform into the real thing in the afterlife, thus providing the deceased with sustenance on their journey.

Pears, 2009
But later in Western art, many paintings featured food in a moral sense – as an indicator of something related to sin and its dangers.

Some of those paintings are hilarious, since they seem to have been executed with a sense of great irony.

When the food looks beautiful and the partying in the background shows everyone having fun, it’s difficult to believe that the artist was entirely convinced that he was painting all this to show that it was all bad.

One is rather inclined to believe that the ‘moral’ aspect of such paintings was really just an excuse to represent interesting subjects such as food or even partying – just as early landscapes were painting around religious subjects, which themselves finally diminished and diminished until we were left with entirely secular representations of the world around us.

You could extend this argument to the vanitas sub genre: after all, you might be saying that good food and wine and music mean nothing when it comes to the final reckoning of death, but if you’re doing so in a way that shows off your skills as an artist to an incredibly high degree, then an element of pride seems rather to have crept in to the equation.

Still life has, historically, been considered as one of the poorer relations when it comes to the painted subject, but it has always been popular with buyers, and when you consider the roster of artists who have painted still lives, then it’s hard to see that as much other than a form of snobbery.

Glasses, 2013
After all, when you can list a roll call of the likes of Rembrandt, van Gogh, Matisse and Picasso as creators of still life works, it’s rather difficult to maintain an idea of the still life as artistically inferior. And van Gogh’s Sunflowers remain some of the best-known and most loved paintings in the world.

These days, a certain snobbery exists about photography – or more accurately, about ‘Photoshopping’.

The advent of cameras had a huge impact on the path of art history, as they removed a sense of painting as being the only way that you could visually record images for posterity.

Once that had gone, it freed artists (as opposed to photographers) to look for ways to represent other elements of life than the straightforward figurative image – for example, the Fauves trying to convey an emotional response to a scene rather than present a photographic record of it.

Cup and saucer and stripes, 2010
And now photographers are altering their images too to create something beyond what the lens cannot capture.

Yet alteration of an image on a computer is not new – photographers used all sorts of techniques in the developing lab to create different effects – and it’s really only an issue if you are seeking to present a photographed image as a true record of something, so in reportage, for instance, or in terms of the moral argument about digital alteration presenting ideas of supposedly ideal, but impossible, bodies.

But even a sub-editor’s crop of a picture for the page is an act of alteration – a choice made for all sorts of reasons, not least the purely practical, but also involving the aesthetic, the political and many more.

Otherwise, alteration of digital images is simply another part of creating a final picture.

The still life may never have enjoyed the status of the genres above it – history paintings were at the top of that particular tree – but, unlike those, it has remained a constant throughout art history and one could even suggest that the most modern installations to be found in contemporary art are themselves little more than large, 3-D still lives.

Truffle, 2010
The photographs that I’ve posted here are all examples of modern, photographed still lives.

Some have been worked on heavily – others not.

But briefly:

Pears is one I shot in 2009, quite early into my experiments. It uses two proper fruits and a glass one. The latter is from Isle of Wight Glass – my mother has been buying me pieces as presents for some years and it’s very lovely stuff. A small mirror underneath the three pears provided the reflection, and it took a fair amount of Photoshop work to achieve the finished effect.

The Ukulele also took a lot of post-production. It’s sepia tinted but, I think, holds within it the suggestion of a story.

You might, by now, have sussed that I do rather like dramatic light.

Peppers is nothing short of food porn – and why not? Like most of the rest of these pictures, it was shot on a desk, with a single Lidl-bought lamp for the lighting, on a black t-shirt to give me the basic background, which was then deepened and smoothed out on the computer. I keep meaning to turn this into an art poster. The translucent quality is something I’m particularly pleased with.

76 Trombones, 2012
Cup and saucer and stripes was not set up, but grabbed when I was waiting in an apparently bland meeting room to doing something else. It seems to me to illustrate perfectly how you can get an interesting photograph from something that you’d barely imagine could look so good. There’s also almost no processing involved.

Truffle, on the other hand, was both carefully lit and carefully processed to give the reminder of that ‘old’ look. It also involved a number of components and a more complex composition.

76 trombones is not, of course, a single trombone – let alone many. But it made me think of Robert Preston and The Music Man for what should be obvious reasons. It’s unique among this selection in that it was shot with an iPhone when an entirely unexpected opportunity materialised. And yes, it’s highly processed – right down to the spot colour, which is not an effect that should be overdone, but works well here.

Glasses was grabbed during a shoot that had nothing to do with glasses, but is an example of how you can shapes and patterns and textures in the remarkably ordinary. It isn’t actually a black and white image – that’s just how it came out in colour.

So there you are: if you fancy a spot of painting or drawing or photography and you’re stymied for a subject: have a look around: you may be surprised at just what will make a good subject.

• All photographs © Amanda Kendal

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Save us from faux architecture

The Brunswick Centre
An elegant ramble into Bloomsbury yesterday evening for a tonsorial tidy up brought me alongside the Brunswick Centre – now fashionably rebranded as The Brunswick.

This icon of the concrete brutalist style was designed in the mid-1960s by Patrick Hodgkinson, based on studies by Leslie Martin, and was built between 1967 and 1972.

It differs from many brutalist buildings primarily in having been whitewashed, which gives it a slightly gentler appearance than, say, the National Theatre.

Back in the 1990s, I resided there for 18 months, so can say from experience that it is a perfectly decent place in which to live – the brutalism does not brutalise or oppress.

Gherkin reflections
I continue to appreciate its intriguing lines and forms: it’s expanse, seen against a blue sky (yes, rare I know) is bold and varied and not at all intimidating.

Indeed, if there’s any personal mystery for me, it’s why such a building still upsets some people so much.

Mind, that could take us right back to the National Theatre, which was designed by Sir Denys Lasdun and Peter Softley, and built between 1963 and 1976.

For all the criticisms of it – including the notorious denunciation of it being like a nuclear power station from that self-proclaimed guardian of our country’s architecture, Prince Charles – it found perhaps rather unexpected fans.

Of all people, that archetypal old pastoralist, Sir John Betjeman, wrote to Lasdun declaring that he “gasped with delight at the cube of your theatre in the pale blue sky and a glimpse of St Paul’s to the south of it. It is a lovely work and so good from so many angles ... it has that inevitable and finished look that great work does.”

Camden Town Hall
I have always liked the National – again, lines and angles: shapes that draw you in, that reflect light and absorb shadow to create yet further angles and planes.

These buildings seem to me, even now, to represent a bold and clea/n and optimistic future: I cannot see in them anything to depress.

What is depressing is Paternoster Square and its ilk: both desperately banal and simply desperate – the latter, in its weaning effort to placate the likes of Charlie Windsor and to somehow blend in with Wren’s magnificent cathedral next door.

Yet all it does it to conjure words such as ‘faux’ and ‘pastiche’, just as does Charles’s vanity town, Poundbury, which even includes pre-bricked-up windows designed into the new-old buildings.

Against Wren, they look all the poorer. I’d have given the space over to the likes of Richard Rodgers or Norman Foster and said: ‘go for it’. And then you might have got a world-class, iconic building.

Instead, it’s every bit as bad as those ghastly supermarkets that attempt to ape an old-fashioned look in their attempts to con people into believing that what is inside has some sort of culinary authenticity.

Kemble Tower
But the prime question remains: just why are so many people so apparently intimidated by buildings that divert from suburban convention?

None of this is to suggest that all modern buildings are brilliant, but it’s errant nonsense to suggest that they’re all bad.

And concrete brutalism is no different.

There’s a fair old amount of it around: the Barbican in London is but one more example – another immensely successful one, with its public spaces, water features and gardens giving it a sense of calm amid the wider City.

The Lloyd's Building
That wider City is a fascinating place to ramble if you’re remotely interested in architecture. In a small area, it possesses at once everything that is worst about British modern buildings and everything that is best.

In one tiny area, we have Norman Foster’s glorious ‘Gherkin’ – an elegant, spiraling tower – and his Willis Building, another monument to the power of glass and steel.

In the same area are Richard Rodgers’s Lloyd’s Building and now his new ‘Cheesegrater’, soaring into the sky above.

As architectural competitions go, this is really very good.

On the other hand, only a short distance away is the ghastly ‘Walkie-Talkie’ building and, just over the river, in an isolation that highlights its inappropriateness, the Shard, which now dominates every view over the area.

Willis Building (Lloyd's, to the right)
And for a different take, there is Broadgate, with more of those pretend columns and mock, mock invocations of classical styles.

Why the fear of the new?

The old and the new can coexist and compliment each other perfectly.

The British Museum – now graced with Foster’s magnificent inner court that surrounds and covers the original Reading Room, and soon to see an extension by Rodgera – is one such example.

The new UNISON building on Euston Road, which has sensitively incorporated the old Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital for Women into a new structure, is another.

Architecture is ultimately about living and about our wider aspirations.

To desperately try to remain living in the past limits us all.

And to pretend that modern architecture, when done well, cannot hit the heights, is clearly the folly of rather limited minds.

• All photographs © Amanda Kendal

Monday, 24 February 2014

A reminder of just how good television can be

Certainly not brutal on the mind
Television used to be at the heart of home life: the large box on legs in the corner of the living room around which the family grouped after homework and the evening meal.

That was in the good old days, when there were just three terrestrial channels and, in our household at least, ITV was almost beyond the pale, except for Saturday afternoon wrestling and when my father wanted to get sentimental over This Is Your Life.

Childhood memories are seasoned with TV programmes and their theme tunes. Strangely enough for such a Europhobic home, foreign-language programmes left abiding memories of childhood: Belle and Sebastian, Robinson Crusoe (the never-ending, black and white French version, with the beautifully evocative and short opening), The Flashing Blade and White Horses.

And then, of course, there was Blue Peter – you can measure your age by the earliest presenters you can remember – Vision On, and Animal Magic (I blame Johnny Morris for a propensity to voice my cats).

There were also the cartoons – the first programme I saw in colour was Top Cat, to be astonished that his waistcoat was purple and his fur yellow.

Later, there were all the cop shows from the States.

Catching some recent repeats of Kojak has reminded me how good this was was. But I loved Harry O too (already a world-weary cynic) and, of course, since I am of a generation, Starsky and Hutch. Later still, there was Cagney and Lacey, which beat the homegrown Juliet Bravo into a cocked hat and which my mother also loved but my father detested.

Some years ago, when she was playing Annie Wilkes in a stage version of Stephen King’s Misery, I got the chance to meet Sharon Gless and, among other things in a wonderful conversation, thank her for what Cagney and Lacey meant to me and, Im sure, many other young women.

Somehow one never felt quite the same attachment to the likes of Dixon of Dock Green, Softly Softly and Z Cars, although I remember them all. But there was always a sense that they had more to my parents’ generation and rather less mine.

Oh indeedy: the US crime shows of the ’70s and  early ’80s rocked: who loves ya, baby?

That’s not to say that there were not plenty of British dramas that also form part of that patchwork of televisual memories that seem to possess such a powerful sense of time and place.

All Creatures Great and Small, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Maybury, those BBC Shakespeares, I, Claudius: later, there were joys to discover in the utterly superb Singing Detective, and the likes of Boys from the Blackstuff

Theo Kojak: grittier and 100% sexier than Dixon
Comedy too: Morecambe and Wise of course, Porridge and Dad’s Army: my paternal grandfather served in the Home Guard (I get my myopia from him) and would chuckle merrily at Jimmy Perry and David Crofts timeless comedy, observing that it was incredibly accurate.

One could be forgiven for assuming that the vast increase in available channels would have meant even more good telly, but the opposite seems to have been the case.

The drive for viewing figures means TV executives and programme makers playing inevitably to the lowest common denominator.

Thus Big Brother, in proving such a ratings hit – and one that could also generate money by persuading viewers to invest their hard-earned in phone votes – has spawned countless further ‘reality’ TV where the only reality is a lack of quality and similar money-making ruses.

And each passing year demands, of such series, further sensation to fill the pages of a media that is increasingly voracious in its need for the sort of page-filling non-news that has increasingly eased out the inconvenient real news.

In a televisual sense at least, there are, of course, exceptions.

In the US there has been, in recent years, a real blossoming of TV drama – not exclusively but not least at HBO.

Deadwood, The Sopranos, The West Wing, Broadwalk Empire and so forth. I’d go so far as to suggest that certainly the extensive use of multi-season story arcs was kicked off by Babylon 5 (1993-98), which had moments of hitting quite classically dramatic heights and has had an influence that has gone well beyond any genre and beyond what people might like to suppose.

It's worth watching in its own right too – right from the beginning, at least until the end of season four.

In terms of home-grown TV entertainment, there are occasional bright spots: it might not please the purists, but the reincarnated Dr Who continues to look good as entertainment that doesn't actually insult the mind – not least when compared with the rest of the schedules – while Sherlock has been an absolute delight and, on the comedy front, The Thick of It is utter genius and at least all those retro channels allow us frequent repeats of Blackadder, which, the more we move from  on from the time of creation, the more we realise just how good it was.

But it’s rare for me at least to get excited about something on the box in the corner – a box that is no longer a box but a flat panel.

However, just as you might imagine that this post is going to be all negative, we come to the unexpected – because television excitement is precisely what I have felt over the last eight days and, with catch-up TV, it’s worth mentioning because, if you missed it, you can still catch up.

Well hello, Officer Dibble
Stuck away in the BBC’s ghetto for the sort of ‘serious’ programming that used to occupy BBC2 until it was hived off into the digital realm of BBC Knowledge, and which subsequently became BBC4, there is a season of programmes on architecture.

Which is worth mentioning in its own right.

But part of this has been, in two parts, another television essay by Jonathan Meades: this time, on Bonkers, Brutalism and Bloodymindedness: Concrete Poetry.

There is style here, but no shortage of substance. Indeed, you may well find yourself wanting to rewatch these programmes, so thick and fast fly the ideas and the information.

You don’t have to agree with Meades all the time to appreciate him – not least, to appreciate that he neither talks down to anyone nor dumbs down his arguments.

You may find yourself looking up a word or two in the dictionary or even Googling the name of an architect that you haven’t heard of before – I certainly do – but how much better is that than the mind-numbing inanity of Britain’s Got Whatever?

These are not documentaries, mind, and so rarely do we get anything like this to watch that you have to remind yourself of that rather obvious point.

They are, however, hugely intelligent, provocative (in the best sense of the word) and the sort of events that wake the little grey cells and makes them dance the fandango from sheer excitement.

There are reasons I watch so little television these days – it no longer forms a centrepiece of my home life. But when it’s as good as this mini Meades series, it makes you long for more.

Catch-up TV can let you see it – even if you missed it.

And as for whether he's right or not about brutalism ... well, that’s the stuff for another post, not least because, in terms of the quality of the programme, it really doesnt matter.

How grown up is that?

Friday, 21 February 2014

Crumbs, it's another bit of art destruction

This is art – not rubbish
Contemporary art has taken a bit of a bashing this week. First there was the incident of an Ai Waiwai vase being smashed and now it seems that a cleaner at a gallery in Italy has mistaken an exhibit as rubbish and thrown it away.

Works that included pieces of newspaper and cardboard, and biscuit crumbs, as part of the Sala Murat gallery’s display went straight into the bin.

A spokesman for the cleaning firm said that the unnamed cleaner was “just doing her job” and added that his firm’s insurance would cover the costs, which amazingly were cited as being around €10,000 euros (£8,200).
I’d expect an awful lot of paper, cardboard and crumbs for that.
The cleaner had thought that it was rubbish left behind by workers who had been setting up the Mediating Landscape exhibition.
Such has been the cause célèbre that Antonio Maria Vasile, Bari’s ‘marketing commissioner’ felt compelled to comment, apologising and then adding: “But this is all about the artists who have been able to better interpret the meaning of contemporary art, which is to interact with the environment.”
Sniggering is permitted, I think.
Now I know that much contemporary installation art is supposed to act as a form of social comment, but when it’s so esoteric that those not in on the know thinks it’s rubbish – and not just in a critical way – then it begs the question of just who will ‘get it’ and whether it can be said to have a point.
By way of complete contrast, this week has seen the announcement by Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery that more than 123,300 have seen a retrospective of paintings by Jack Vettriano in its 23-week run – making it the museum’s most visited art exhibition there.
Dance Me to the End of Love, Jack Vettriano
Mind, many who would probably enjoy Ai’s vases or an exhibit of paper, cardboard and crumbs would have decidedly snobbish views of Vettriano.

The art establishment really doesn’t like him – probably not helped because he’s popular with the general public and makes a fortune from having his works reproduced on cards and posters.

And of course, that popularity has meant financial success too – although money doesn’t seem to stop the cognoscenti worshipping at the feet of Damien Hirst, which also means that it isn’t a matter of class, since both Hirst and Vettriano are from working-class backgrounds.

Now personally, I think Vettriano is technically excellent, but most of his works do little for me in terms of the subject matter, as they seem locked in a kind of odd, retro fantasy world.

And that’s not just the pictures of pre-1939 scenes.

Olympia, his portrait of Zara Phillips, seems reminiscent of the style of David Hockney’s Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy (1970-71).

Some of his erotic paintings are interesting, but are more than a little clichéd – they have none of the edge, for instance, of Walter Sickert’s Camden Town Nudes.

However, the point is that Vettriano is the opposite of those biscuit crumbs – and those crumbs are the perfect example of what puts people off contemporary art.

With the best will in the world, if you have a comment to make on the nature of the world and you think it’s worth making, why do it in a way that will be understood or appreciated by the smallest number of people possible and, quite possibly with some of them only ‘getting it’ as a pose?

There is a place for installation art – it’s not all bonkers – but why does it seem to have relegated painting, for instance, to the periphery of the contemporary art scene?

Given that art schools have, apparently stopped teaching drawing, perhaps it represents, in general terms, a dumbing down of what might be expected to be high-end art.

Crumbs indeed.