Thursday, 30 October 2014

Tranquil views of the London landscape

Barge and Leaves
Exhibitions: you wait for months and then several come along, one after the other.

It certainly felt a little like that last week: just two days after attending the launch of the excellent A London Eye: here Artists Look at the Leyden Gallery in E1, another invite popped up for another opening that, in a happy coincidence, followed on really rather well from that.

Regent’s Canal: Reflections on Urban Water is a very small exhibition of paintings by Valerie Irving that is now on at the Broadway Bookshop on Broadway Market in Hackney.

Don’t expect a lot of paintings – this is a small space that is, as you might gather, first and foremost a bookshop.

But the canvases that are displayed here all bring something different to the wider idea of how we see our surroundings in urban environments in general and specifically, in London.

This is a case where the exhibition title does the job of telling the audience exactly what they’re going to see.

Irving’s works are focused on the canal that runs just a few metres away, with hints of the industrial landscape of the area reflected in the grey-blue water, and occasional suggestions of a barge or building in the corner of a work.

Reflected Buildings
It’s a landscape that is part of the legacy of the Industrial Revolution, but these paintings create a near-abstract world that softens the hard industrial architecture into kinder colours and contours.

And all this is seen through the artificially-created ‘nature’ of the canal, giving it a pleasing circularity.

Blues and greys dominate the works, although the reds in Barge and Leaves help to create great depth.

This canvas – together with Large Reflection Grey – conveys a great sense of light.

The composition is superb and the ripples on the water beautifully captured.

But it is that light that makes these two the stand-outs of the collection.

Ultimately, this small selection conveys an unexpected sense of calm and serenity: they soothe, and act as a fascinating counterpoint to those on display at the Leyden.

Regent’s Canal: Reflections on Urban Water will run until December 24, so if you’re in the area, it’s well worth popping in.

Small the exhibition may be, but you get to visit a rather lovely wonderful bookshop too.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

London through three pairs of eyes

Marc Gooderham with The Ghost of Southwark Street
As the tail end of hurricane Gonzalo lashed Britain, I found myself near London’s Petticoat Lane and with time to burn, having turned up rather too early for the opening of a new exhibition.

Shelter from the intermittent downpours and whipping wind was available around a corner in The Bell – and if ever you wanted a simple illustration of how this part of the city has changed – and is changing – then here it was.

Just a decade ago, you’d have ventured inside with a certain caution.

Now, although the décor remains authentic, the crowd is rather more booted and suited than once it would have been, there are comfy sofas to relax in and, while the young lass at the bar is pierced and tattooed, she’s also perfectly happy to discuss the two rosés that the pub serves – one from either side of the Catalan Pyrenees.

Christ Church, Spitalfields
It was an entirely appropriate taster for the main course ahead.

A London Eye: Three Artists Look, gives a trio of painters the opportunity to show their different interpretations of the city in one place.

Although this isn’t a solo show, it’s dominated by the work of Marc Gooderham – 22 works as opposed to 12 and 10 from the other artists here.

Writing briefly about Gooderham’s work previously, I’ve touched on how he finds beauty in the run-down and the derelict, complete with street art – often faithfully captured in his hyper-real acrylic works.

While there are paintings here, there are also works in graphite and chalk, giving a great idea of the artist’s range.

Christ Church, Spitalfields, a beautiful chalk on black paper, has a delicate, spectral quality about it.

It’s the antithesis of The Ghost of Southwark Street, a large acrylic on canvas that catches the eye as soon as you enter the gallery.

Blue Skies
Here, in a way, is the epitome of what interests Gooderham, as he explained. It’s not just the derelict – or even the past – but the constantly changing landscape; the process of transformation.

He captures a part of the past that is still with us – even as some of it is about to be razed to the ground or changed into something considered more apt for the new bustle that is London.

Indeed, even documenting the street art and graffiti captures part of that transformation – many of Gooderham’s subjects are in a part of town where street art has developed into having commercial pull for visitors.

The Bell – indeed, the entire area around Spitalfields – is all part of the transformation (for good or bad) that is taking place almost on a day-to-day basis.

Wilton's Music Hall
Many of these subjects are places I’m familiar with: Christ Church, Wilton’s Music Hall, the Rio Cinema in Dalston and the Regent’s Canal in Hackney are pretty much my patch, so they have a particular personal resonance.

The works show such places as rather worn, yet still glorious for all that, and with an atmosphere to match.

It’s all achieved with a satisfying variety of techniques, from the hyper-real acrylics to a rather looser style (The Blue House), the softness of graphite and chalk, and the near-abstraction of Blue Skies.

It is also, of course, a call to look at and explore our built environment – and most particularly where you least expect: to look and find the unexpected glories that the urban world has to offer.

Try it some day. You can even do it on the nightmare that is Oxford Street: cast your eyes above street level and there is a different and fascinating architectural world to be discovered.

London Face
Miranda Benzies’s work offers a very different perspective – her London Faces series is an intriguing and surreal world where iconic aspects of the city are reimagined into human faces – a London Eye car becomes an eye, for instance, as in the eponymous London Face.

In London Lady, a red phone box becomes a mouth – which did remind me of the anecdote about Max Bygraves telling Julie Andrews how to speak Cockerney for My Fair Lady: “just open your mouth like a letter box and it all comes out!”

There are also landscapes here that convey London – and particularly the Thames – in a different and sometimes rather darker way.

The execution is excellent – Benezies’s works are all in oil, with a very fine finish

Nicholas Borden paints en plein air – which is a challenge in itself in the bustle of London – and explores the city in bold, bright and deceptively simple canvases.

The selection here includes oil on canvas and on wood, plus drawings.
This may be a small exhibition, but it’s a fascinating presentation of London – and not least, of the less well-known side of the capital.

A London Eye: Three Artists Look is at the Leyden Gallery, 9 Leyden Street, E1, until 15 November.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Freud's slip and the dangers of the unsayable

It’s been an Orwellian week in terms of any concept of free speech in the UK, with two rather different cases provoking the sort of widespread outrage that threatens once more to dampen the inclination to actually saying anything that might go against the accepted view of the (mostly) elite.

It can be all too easy, sometimes, to forget that the test of whether one believes in free speech is not allowing what you agree with, but what you don’t.

And there is a danger that, increasingly, social media in particular is rendering some things unsayable.

Welfare reform minister Lord Freud is under continuing fire days after a recording from a Conservative Party conference fringe meeting was released, appearing to show that he had described disabled workers as ‘worth less’ than their non-disabled counterparts – and therefore should not be entitled to the national minimum wage.

That’s a précis of how the story has been tackled, with calls from across politics, mainstream and social media for him to resign or be sacked, and screams about how it illustrates that ‘the nasty party’ is back.

Also during the last few days, TV personality Judy Finnigan made comments on the TV show, Loose Women, to the effect that, while all rape in unacceptable, some rapes are more serious than others.

A few more tons of metaphorical bricks were rained down on her head – and now, it seems that she and her daughter have had threats of rape made against them via Twitter.

There are a number of points here.

First, the hysterical responses disguise certain nuances and therefore deplete any proper debate.

It is not the first time that the issue of disabled workers and pay has arisen.

He was, of course, roundly castigated.

But there is a certain disingenuity in the way that Freud’s latest slip has been tackled in many quarters.

It is worth pointing out that the peer was responding to a question from David Scott, a Tory councillor from Tunbridge Wells, who had said:

“The other area I’m really concerned about is obviously the disabled. I have a number of mentally damaged individuals, who to be quite frank aren’t worth the minimum wage, but want to work. And we have been trying to support them in work, but you can’t find people who are willing to pay the minimum wage.

… “And I think yes, those are marginal areas but they are critical of actually keeping people who want to work supported in that process. And it’s how do you deal with those sort of cases?”

In response, Freud noted:

“ ...You make a really good point about the disabled. Now I had not thought through, and we have not got a system for, you know, kind of going below the minimum wage.

“But we do have … you know, Universal Credit is really useful for people with the fluctuating conditions who can do some work – go up and down – because they can earn and get ... and get, you know, bolstered through Universal Credit, and they can move that amount up and down.

“Now, there is a small … there is a group, and I know exactly who you mean, where actually as you say they’re not worth the full wage and actually I’m going to go and think about that particular issue, whether there is something we can do nationally, and without distorting the whole thing, which actually if someone wants to work for £2 an hour, and it’s working can we actually …”

You can – and please do – read the fulltranscript (and listen to the audio) at Politics Home.

It’s pretty clear from reading that that Freud was thinking on his feet. This wasn’t a policy statement – but ruminating on a question.

There is no evidence that the ‘not worth it’ aspect of his comments was not an economic comment.

Let’s take issue with that by all means – discussions of economic policies and markets and goodness knows what else often flounder on a simple, basic fact: that they are abstract and exclude the ‘real world’ and real human beings.
Let’s take issue with any sort of suggestion that lowering pay even further could ever be positive. 
But frankly, the approach seen in that exchange doesn’t sound as much ‘nasty’ as just downright patronising and paternalistic.
And if anyone wants to say that ‘the nasty party’ is ‘back’, well, you’d could do rather better by looking at Iain Duncan Smith, who has repeatedly lied about matters related to welfare, and been pulled up for it by the UKStatistics Authority.
By all means disagree with the gaffe-prone Freud, who has form for cretinous remarks – and presumably, Scott, although his comments seem to have been forgotten – but screaming for resignation or the sack because you disagree with something that someone said is way over the top. 

Better, surely, to use such an opportunity to engage with the subject and, as here, ask what can meaningfully be done to help to get disabled people into work.

This case offered an opportunity to raise the issue of the abysmal treatment of disabled people by the government since 2014; the general difficulties in disabled people finding work; the very idea of seeing human beings in purely economic terms, and even a chance to raise awareness of mental illness in particular.

Indeed, one positive on the social media side was the appearance of a list of famous people who had a variety of mental illness conditions, which was an easy way to illustrate that geniuses can be disabled (in our current use of the term) too.

After all, who would question, for instance, whether Beethoven was ‘worth it’?

Similarly, in terms of Finnigan’s comments, behaving as though she has no right to voice her views is ludicrous.

In fact, it was less a view than an observation of straightforward fact.

In the context of whether Ched Evans should be able to return to plying his trade as a professional footballer after his prison sentence for rape, Finnigan observed:  The rape – and I am not, please, by any means minimising any kind of rape – but the rape was not violent, he didnt cause any bodily harm to the person.

It was unpleasant, in a hotel room I believe, and she [the victim] had far too much to drink.

Now how can any half-way intelligent person conclude that those comments make Finnigan pro-rape, as was subsequently suggested on social media by some?
Disagree with Finnigan by all means, and make the case against what she said, but hysterical shouting down of comments such as that, to the extent that a row blows up and people are threatened (however credible or not the threat is), is completely detrimental to any sensible, considered public discourse. 
As is something that, in effect, would see any political meeting turned into something that has to be scripted in order to avoid something that could be jumped on in such a manner, rather than permitting open discussion that might be far more revealing of far more things.
Be Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells (or Islington) all you want, but your disgust should not stop a discussion. 
Indeed, there’s an irony in all this that seems to have rather passed some people by. 
Making certain things unsayable was a factor in the way in which the systemic abuse and rape of vulnerable girls and young women by groups of men from particular ethnic backgrounds was allowed to go unchallenged for so long in Rochdale and Rotherham. 

That point alone should be enough to convince of the dangers of making things unsayable – no matter how unpalatable they may be.