February 26, 2024

The Meaning of Beauty


Eric Newton in The Meaning of Beauty…in which Roger Fry  wrote ” subject matter is as a kind of bait which the artist uses to attract the spectator”.


I am now looking at galleries to see what bait is generally being used. I am looking at what the viewer seeks as much as what the viewer seeks it for?




“Handwriting is barren if there is no thought for it to express; thought is impossible unless there is a concrete stimulus to originate it; and the concrete stimulus can only come to the artist from the outside world in which he lives”..


The words of Eric Newton which are thought provoking and help in an explanation for the direction I have taken with my work.


The stimulation for Unframed was a life fast unravelling, a desire to express views that are ignored and were suppressed or covered up. The outside world appears as a miasma, a media sea into which I could cast my feelings. The “Sea” I used as a blank canvas, covering the walls of a gallery in newspaper.(The picture is of Ivan Unframed an Exhibition at Birdwood House in Totnes, 2011). It was filled with press views, pools of thought  and spot colour, in a cadence of column inches.


Does the artist vie for  a space in which to dangle a bait? Some spectators will have a desire for something more than others; beauty, composition, expression of emotion, or perhaps a reflection or social comment maybe something that has more interest  during economic or political change.


Berber boys high in the Atlas mountains, perch themselves on the edge of sheer precipices. They hold long bamboo canes, to which they attach a string and a feather. They bait their lines and “fish” the air currents as casting into the winds with their imaginations.


It can be argued that the stimulus from the outside world can erode the emotional capacity of the artist. Taken to an extreme, the artist is bound to provide a constrained expression that is to be devoured by the spectator. This constraint is then reflected in the colours and the content and subject matter presented for the spectator.


Kenneth Clark supports this view in “The Nude”;  the ceiling for genius in theory  is without bounds he argues, as it is reliant upon a man’s capacity to experience,  which in turn is limitless. Limits though are “imposed upon each artist by the limits of his emotional capacity rather than by the limits of his capacity for expressing emotion”.


Matisse succinctly said  “seek the strongest colour effect possible the content is of no importance” , his choosing of colour over content.


A  further example comes from St Vermer writing of Amadeo Modigliani;


«I saw in Modigliani’s subsequent works that the strongly emotional style of “The Cellist” represented a stage in his development that he soon left behind.


He hated feelings. “What does a painter have to do with moods?”He blotted out  the content of his paintings and became objective, his drawings were condensed to precise contours which flowed unconsciously from his extremely nervous hands.”In Modigliani’s work the “narrative is reduced to virtuoso stylisation of the represented subject”.


I  worked initially with composition and tone (charcoal on newsprint) allowing the form to emerge as I transferred ideas from my pen and ink studies. I let the subject matter and some aspects  of composition to float in the wind like a feather on a string. Upon the newsprint I found the layer at which I worked to be held between the backdrop of press print and the spot colour and the foreground of Moorish architectural design. This was as a live unfurling,  of a soft rhythms and bold forms took place.


The plain of my emotions is expressed at the same time as the stimulus of the reported world is covered with mark upon word, mark upon mark.(see photograph “Cause for Celebration”.


With the desire to see what subject matter is used as bait , I headed to London. The Queen’s Gallery showing Leonardo Da Vinci “Anatomist” from  4th May -7th October 2012 and a look at The Huntarian Gallery , The Royal College of Surgeons, Lincolns Inn Fields seemed interesting starting points. There is an historic intrigue into what is physically inside us, how we work, it is of cause human nature to be inquisitive. Damien Hirst very much an artist of the Naughties, certainly explored something about this.


The “Anatomist” was sold out for the day, by midday on Sunday 6th May and The Huntarian Gallery is open Tuesday-Saturday with free admission. This meant a  rethink over some lunch in Holborn (please see my other blog of the Travelling potato).


The Southbank Centre is home to the Hayward Gallery where Jeremy Deller “Joy in People” and  David Shrigley’s “Brain Activity” are showing until 13th May 2012. Both shows are wry, raw and have a charm that is alluring and yet sensitive. The artists are more than social commentators or even social surrealists, thay are representing what the viewer cannot find a way to say. Aristotle wrote the art completes what nature can not bring to a finish-“the artist gives us knowledge of natures unrealised ends». Eller and Shrigley are managing to complete what others have not managed to say. Damien Hirst and other artists of the Naughties may not be in touch with what appears to the Artistic Spring of the Teenies.


“Everyday Life”, “It” , “Look at This” and “Relationships” are examples of  Shrigley’s bait that intrigues. Deller  “It is What It Is “2009 really does have a  stillness after a moment of horror that is wonderfully juxtaposed by his work the” Battle of Orgreave”. Cryogenic preservation of poignant moments that look like they might all be revisited in the not to distant future.


Deller invites us to face facts, this maybe uncomfortable, sad or embarrassing in that one feels that one should paid attention more at the time. One is struck by how easy it is to have done nothing in a global society that behaves so often like a dysfunctional family. The show suggested the consequences of moral truancy.


“The Battle of Orgreave (an injury to one is an injury to all),” 2001. The 1984-85 miners strike under the Thatcher regime was a back drop to the “Billy Elliot” in which a young boy follows his ambitions to become a ballet dancer despite a social and emotional wall of stereotyping and hardship all the way. The boy came from a mining family during the very same Thatcher years. Deller revisits issues such as the wholesale closure of the pits that are painful. He puts a new edge on them, so they are given the significance and dignity they deserve but were not granted at the time because of suppression. The spectre of the violent actions of the police and the snatch squad techniques are shown through a massive renactment footage, this was “The English Civil War Part II, juxtaposed by a snatch squad shield mounted on the wall.


The wreck of a suicide bombed car, blown up in Baghdad on the 5th March 2007, killing 35 people and injuring hundreds. The cultural heart  of  Baghadad was bombed the symbolic carcass paraded across the world. This is a stark room of the exhibition that hurts and brings home the fact that mans inhumanity to man is world wide and seemingly relentless. Maps of Iraq and Britain are marked with city names transposed, this reminded me of an old Calman cartoon, that portrayed a message of the NIMBY, by suggesting fear of terrorism only if it is just around the corner.


“Our Hobby is Depeche Mode”,2006. This work touches on the partisan element of pop music enthusiasts. Though there is a camaraderie that flows in all fans of music genres, Depeche Mode became a symbol of a struggle for freedom during the Communist era of the Soviet regime.(There is a well known Russian film that visits this them that dates from  and centres upon the underground jazz and music world.)


A cultural unity is depicted through social commentary of outlawed groups that were sensitively observed by Deller and his co Director Nick Abrahams as they travelled filming Depeche Mode globally.


The final piece of Deller’s work that really pulls together the theme of making it happen and doing something about it is “So many ways to hurt you (the life and times of Adrian Street), 2010.A photograph by David Hutchinson form about 1973 or 1974 is taken a starting point for a bio of young welsh miner turned glam wrestler first saw this photograph in 1998 on the cover of an album by Black Box Recorder, “England Made Me”, I was intrigued by Adrian Street then as am still now. Adrian Street made of his life what he desired and Deller gives us the cause for celebration.

It is appears that Deller likes people to make it happen and not just be a product of the context that they find themselves in. Deller takes an aspect of our world and subtly enhances aspects of it bringing a new meaning to it, even to Depeche Mode.

The ground bait is cleverly cast across two floors of the Hayward Gallery and was attracting a significant interest at the penultimate weekend for the shows ; “Joy in People” and “Brain Activity”. Art was shown in a wide range of media by both Deller and Shrigley, work that had been created over the last ten years being shown, the exhibitions were well put together and used the space intelligently the gallery did well to show theses artists together.

I would disagree with the view that was expressed that Shrigley’s work was facile and no more than skin deep as expressed by one journalist. “Brain Activity” gives us a broad gamut that is played, contributed to and heard by all of us, as a solo or a chorus. It was so good to watch faces turn to face Shrigley’s work and then try to guess what emotional response this interaction would cause. Added to this voyeuristic intention, the viewer’s companion was often then glimpsed being observed, watching the watched, lots of smiles in slow motion.

The artists of the Naughties, the Young British Artists  (Hirst et al.), who extruded  tubes of “cool Britannia” to the tune of  “Let’s face the Music and Dance” and then thrust it at us with a muttered;

“They can afford it!” they have may be had their day.

“I am not Charles Saatchi’s barrel organ monkey-he only recognises art with his wallet…he believes he can affect art values with buying power and still he believes he can do it.” Damien Hirst was said to have made this remark in 2003.

It will be interesting to see Hirst’s show at the White Cube, Bermondsey (23 May 2012 -8th July 2012) and see if the “Enfant Terrible” of British contemporary is still mouthing the matrix pretentions of the Naughties.

Were it not for artists such as Deller and Shrigley, artists of the “Artistic Spring”, view of modern art would still be highly relevant today. Jarman noted that modern art is not going anywhere and that “traditional art has all been done before. The cinemas, the theatre, possibly T.V. are the media the painters must express themselves in”.

Degas (Interior 1868-9) and Daumier through sensitive and yet unpretentious observations brought us close enough to hear their subjects breath or sigh. Daumier particularly used a wry artful wit in his works. The audiences in the theatre, the caricature features, and one could imagine turning and looking back from the stage watching these faces in the stage light glare.

Ken Russell achieved this delicate understanding of emotional urgency, naked exposure with a soft charm in an early work of 1958, Amelia and the Angel, a short film. The media used or subject matter are not enough in themselves, there has to be a touch that conveys to us other senses and true feelings.

This holding of the moment, has a poignancy that is returning to art after a period of exile caused by a pandering to brash market demand. With the work of Deller and to a lesser extent Shrigley , we can see examples of  artists who are part of life and not aloof from it and on the take.  This has to be the real direction for the arts to move in. To the Etruscans everything, the ALL was alive, the whole universe lived and the business of man was to live amidst it all. Man had to draw life into himself, out of his wanderings through the huge vitalities of the world. Such was the sentiment of D.H.Lawrence, who was suggesting that we be permeable to expression around us and not demand it be cut and pasted in some stark clinical and unemotional way.

We must thank the Hayward for providing a context through which we could walk and observe the emotional exposures of these two artists, leaving our fingerprints in the air as we wander, not prints smeared across glass tanks. Those marks upon a glass are wiped away without a drop of reverence as the day draws to a close, unlike the gentle kiss made to an Orthodox icon.

Shrigley should be applauded for his “clandestine interventions” and cheered for his belief that public art should have a transience like the strawberry had, until it became a commodity loaded with air miles and delivered in the form of a punnet  of “Santa” at Christmas. Monumental sculptures and public art could be seen to be part of the same continuum? It is this same continuum that appears to be encroaching upon and permanently altering our world with some considerable degree of conceit and without proper public consent. Does a Consultant plastic surgeon say of a patient “their face is my blank canvas”? Sadly the answer to this is in fact, yes. A fact picked up by a BBC documentary discussing the work of these Consultants.

Shrigley studied environmental art at the Glasgow School of Art and is mawkishly self effacing when he says “In terms of making “public” art I’ve never felt that I wanted anything I did to last,” and then, “I don’t want to permanently alter the world. I don’t feel I have the right to.”

Peter Randall-Page’s Green Fuse (or the “Gherkhin of Ragley Hall”), is vast 6 metre granite  work commissioned by the Jerwood   Foundation 2008/09 and is applied to a landscape  where an avenue of trees had gently led the eye to the sky line. The Green Fuse is a monumental sculpture that has semi- permanently affected the landscape, it makes one think that perhaps Choi and Shine pylons designs could yet get the go ahead?

“Everyday Life” plays with scale from over sized tea cups and an It in the corner, ceramic black boots are placed marching down some white steps from the middle of a wall into the centre of the room. The work encouraged a playful interaction as do many of Shrigley’s pieces. The short animation “Light Switch” is a human yet childish act of defiance that we have all experienced at some time or another. Dylan Moran played this out brilliantly on stage a part of a live comic stand-up tour, tirelessly toying with an imagined light switch, this humour is certainly conveyed in the drawn line of the animation. Shrigley clearly has fun with animation as media and spectator is encouraged to share the slightly mischievous moments that are provided. The casting of the dice again and again…and then again and The Headless Drummer are both examples of this. In New Friends (2006) an animation about social conformity there is a trace of Dr Seuss. Dr Seuss introduced the “most peculiar machine” that belonged to Sylvester McMauley McBean in the story of the Sneetches 1961 (stars on their bellies) and this is a reinterpretation of the same social dilemmas.

Shrigley does more than take the whole gallery as a blank page, murals, graphic art, sculptures and comic images lead us along as we hop from one visual expression to another, Pied- Piper- like in our blind enjoyment and then boom. One is confronted by “Stick Figures having Sex on a Car Hood” 2007, Shrigley may be gauche at times but the cynicism is not there.

“Insects” allows Shrigley to play with his surreal imagination with a plethora of ants and creepy crawlies; I was taken back to Beetlejuice (1988) with Michael Keaton in the star role and Catharine O’ Hara as the self imposed matriarch of a back water country home fresh from a life in the city and full of sculptural ideas. Tim Burton created some creatures for the movie, that Shrigley cannot resist slipping into his insect world.

Deller and Shrigley were well paired as foils to each other for this exhibition and it was a real pleasure to have taken time out to see their work at the Hayward Gallery. One cannot help but think that this is an example of making a step in new direction but there is more to come. Here there is originality without the desire for self gratification, enjoyment and understanding of human nature without its wanton exploitation. We view the new cast from amidst the audience and from the wings of the stage. This provides a new context which the Young British Artists made a choice to ignore and the artists of the growing Artistic Spring have had the sense and sensitivity to return to us.





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