What a beast, what a man! Meet Mackie, artist

Looking at contemporary art is like panning for gold: once in a while, amidst the drift and dribble, you stumble fortuitously on the shiny stuff, on someone like a Katie Paterson or a George Shaw, say.
On someone like Mackie.

Romeo’s Return, oil on canvas, 153cm x 92cm

Mackie’s subect is “the very average man”, “the frailty and silliness of everything”. There is black humour aplenty: his world is peopled by what look like distinctly shady types but are in fact just men, caught in the act of simply being themselves, ‘blokes‘ ”: the innate slobbishness; the casual aggression; the tribalism; the testosterone-fuelled menace; the unconsidered lusty lip-curl of a lecher. But, as with all work of any worth, it cannot be reduced to simple cartoonish mockery; there is an empathy at play here, a fellow-feeling, an all too honest recognition (in himself?) of the ‘manly’ foibles and ‘frailty’ he so ruthlessly and starkly depicts.

Binge Drink, oil on linen, 100cm x 70cm

This empathy reveals itself formally.
With a background in illustration and design, it comes as no surprise that Mackie’s working process is painstaking, involving detailed preliminary sketching and 3D modelling before committing oil to canvas. His claim to classical Flemish influence is backed up by his realism, his measured palette, his meticulous attention to detail, his observation, his refusal to idealise or romanticise, his concern with the world as it ‘is’: he is a Bosch, or, perhaps more so, a Pieter Bruegel for our times.

Whose Round Is It? oil on canvas, 150cm x 90cm

All of which raises the work, as I said, above mere cartoon or caricature. What we are dealing with is not the stereotypical but the archetypal; a huge difference: moralising versus moral. (Easter Island heads, anyone?) Rather than putting on show a gallery of grotesques, Mackie is, perhaps, asking us to look within. And that includes you too, lady. You may not visually present, but you’re there by implication, in every single time you’ve looked at him and thought, “Bloody idiot!”. Men without women revert effortlessly to type.

A Convenient Streetlamp, oil on canvas, 153cm x 92cm

But what I really like about Mackie is that he loves art, he knows art. The references in his work are myriad, yet completely subsumed and assimilated, made totally his own: the Flemish, yes, but what about surrealists like de Chirico, film noir, Otto Dix (as a very percipient friend, Paul, suggested)? And, of course, with his spot-lighting, his ‘down and dirty’ naturalism, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio? I can’t and won’t speak for the artist, but this is what I see, and I love it.

Mystery and Melancholy of a Street, Giorgio de Chirico

A final word: Mackie may love art, but the modern art world is, maybe,  something else. His take on Champaigne’s Last Supper (1648) : Simon Cowell as Christ, and from left to right, Lucien Freud, Dinos Chapman, Richard Hamilton, Francis Bacon, David Hockey, Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst, Jack Vettriano, Rolf Harris, Banksy, Grayson Perry, and Edouard Paolozzi: the Big Boys, the Money Men. A scathing diatribe against the ‘celebritisation’ of culture? Or just a world-weary acknowlegdement that this is simply how things are?

Who’s Judas: The Final 12, oil on canvas, 184cm x 122cm

Vettriano (gah!) appears to come in for some serious flak: see this subversion of (or perverse homage to?) Vettriano’s  Billy Boys, itself a ridiculously romanticised, glamourised, even sexualised take on tribal macho posturing:

Silly Boys, oil on canvas, 168cm x 127cm

The Billy Boys, Jack Vettriano

So there’s Mackie: a man with something to propose and the skill, knowledge and honesty to do so.
I hope you like him as much as I do: he doesn’t give pat answers, he asks questions,  and the ambiguities in his work allow us to take from them what we will: recognition, outraged censure, amusement, or, if not quite pity, at least a kind sympathy for these ‘blokes’ who, amidst the modern pressures of ‘political correctness’, fail so epically at being anything other than their ‘unreconstructed’ selves.
In today’s art scene that makes Mackie, it seems to me, a rare ‘beast’ indeed.

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Mackie is showing at Hayhill Gallery, 5a Cork Street, London W1S 3NY, until 28 April 2012.
Mackie’s website: http://www.mackieart.co.uk/

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Definitely not for burning…

Following on from my last, vaguely controversial post:
I would crawl over hot coals to save this lad’s bed from a Naples-style inferno before anything in Antonio Manfredi’s gallery, and certainly before anything created by Damien Hirst.
An Iraqi orphan, the child – how old is he? Seven? Eight? – has drawn a picture of his lost mother to cuddle up to.

Are you moved?
You should be.
This image works on many levels. Unbearably poignant as it stands, the fact that the child is described as Iraqi raises questions, for me at least, about how his mother died; about the ‘collateral damage’ that is inflicted on the innocent during a ‘just war’ and its aftermath. Of course she may have died from entirely natural causes but the inferences are there to be drawn.
How can they not be?

Two works in one: the photographic image, and that terrible, beautiful bed.
Beautiful because it’s True.
A solace and a provocation.
This is Art.

Art on Fire: a Naples tantrum

Do you care that art is being burnt in protest at cuts to arts funding in Italy?
Or are you thinking along my lines: so flamin’ what?

Art? Meh.

I’d have put myself down as totally opposed to any Bonfire of the Vanities, a storm-trooper of the ‘art is a necessity, not a luxury’ brigade, but I’m having to admit to a whole load of Couldn’t Care Less.
Here’s what approximately 75% of me is thinking.

A friend, Tony, recently suggested that the true creatives are the scientists, and you know what, as it stands, I think he’s right. They are the ones who have been and are changing our view of the world, not the artists. It’s quantum theory, evolutionary biology, the glory that is CERN and the like, which have, more than anything else, made us reassess who we are and what ‘is’ – you know, the Big Questions –  and all art has been able to do is follow dumbly, effetely, in their wake, resorting in the main to either banal ‘concept’ or whining neo-expressionism.
As if anyone gives a rat’s ass.

Beautiful Science

No-one, except artists and their promoters, cares if contemporary art goes up in flames or not for the simple reason that it has made itself irrelevant; to the vast majority of people it’s a joke: self-indulgent codswallop or over-intellectualised bullshit. The ridiculous prices attained by the Big Names only compounds this feeling that art is something’ other’, a luxury indeed, instead of being at the very centre of our lives where it belongs.
Meanwhile it is science that has really captured the public’s imagination: just look at the TV schedules.

Blessed Brian: way cooler than Hirst

Ironically, artists seem to be very fond of quoting Einstein. The undisputed favourite, and most misappropriated by the quoters, appears to be:

“The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination”.

Who are they trying to convince? Me? Or themselves? Or is it just an attempt to legitimise their solipsistic faffing about as some kind of intellectually rigorous exercise?
How many artists are, like the scientists, asking new ‘imaginative’ questions? How many artists have anything to say about the world at large at all?

Not that many, from what I see.
We need to get back to understanding that art, if it is to be worthwhile, is difficult;  it requires knowledge, skill; it requires discipline; it requires thought and engagement, not just some cock-eyed version of ‘imagination’. It most certainly does not require indiscriminate tossing off of whatever half-formed notion happens to spring to mind and calling it ‘creative’.

So burn, baby, burn.
The Bonfire may actually do some good if it inspires debate about what ‘art’ is, what it can and should be: something for the many, not the few.
A necessity, without which we’d all feel the poorer.

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Katie Paterson, an artist who is interesting because she’s interested; more, please:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2012/apr/06/katie-paterson-cosmicomical-artist

Kitsch in Sync: Tate Britain’s Pre-Raph Rads

What the hell is Tate Britain on?

We’re currently ‘enjoying’ Picasso and Modern British Art, a cobbled-together show that, unsurprisingly, serves only to emphasise the inferiority of the home-grown, and now we’re about to be treated to a major exhibition of the Pre-Raphaelites, sold to us as the work of ‘revolutionaries’, of ‘radicals who did nothing less than change the world’.
Now I’ve nothing (much) against the PRBs – the work is nice to look at (mostly) – but to cast it in this light really is Utter Bollocks.

Rossetti’s Wrestler

The ‘medievalist’ reaction against rationalist neo-classicism and rapid industrialisation began long before 1848, and was already embedded in the post-Romantic mid-Victorian sensiblity: the popularity of the Gothic novel, the great medieval epics and romances, Scott’s Waverley novels; the Pugin-led Gothic Revival in architecture and the rise of Tractarianism which sought to re-introduce pre-Reformation ritual and liturgy within Anglicanism; etc, etc. If one should doubt the essentially conservative nature of this ‘taste’, one should remember that in 1844 Pugin won the competition to design the Palace of Westminster, the Houses of Parliament, the very heart of the British establishment.

Holman Hunt’s Gah!

Meanwhile in Vienna, as early as 1809, a group of artists, the Nazarenes, had already proposed a return to the values and practices of the Quattrocento:
“The principle motivation of the Nazarenes was a reaction against neo-classicism and the routine art education of the academy system. They hoped to return to art which embodied spiritual values, and sought inspiration in artists of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, rejecting what they saw as the superficial virtuosity of later art.” (Wiki.)
Sound familiar?

Far from being the Che Guevaras of Victorian England, the PRBs were band-wagon-jumpers, late-comers to a party that had been swinging for decades. Tellingly, the Tate sees them as “the equivalent…of Damien Hirst today”; I do, too: essentially opportunists who squandered whatever talents they had in the creation of kitsch. Kitsch is not about the imagination or allusion, it’s about fantasy where everything is acted out; it’s sentimental, falsely nostalgic; it’s “the trappings of belief rather than the thing believed in”, (Roger Scruton).

Burne-Jones’ Wallpaper

As I said, I like some of the work, Rossetti’s in particular: gorgeous to look at, even if his women are built like all-in wrestlers. Holman Hunt I loathe with a passion: lurid, moralising, literal to the point of banality. Burne-Jones is nothing more than decoration, finely-worked wall-paper. But like them or not, noone can seriously consider them artists of the first rank, much less as ‘avant-garde’. Oh, the exhibition will do well; as the Tate cheerfully admits, it will be full of ‘crowd-pleasers’, and this is the point: people will go in their droves, however the show is sold to them – the sine qua non of kitsch is its mass appeal; so to sell it, the show, as something it’s not strikes me as at best disingenuous, at worst downright cynical.

Get a grip, Tate Britain, you’re beginning to tick me off.

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Where I first saw the ‘news’:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2012/apr/16/pre-raphaelites-exhibition-tate-britain?CMP=twt_fd

To my eyes, the most beautiful ‘Annunciation’. Ah Botticelli, what joy you give.

My Eyes Have Seen

In one of my classes this semester, we’ve looked at often overlooked forms of theological work. Through art, music, the memoir, (even blogs!), we’ve been discussing the ways form impacts theological content.

This week we looked at different depictions of the Annunciation, Gabriel‘s announcement that Mary would give birth to Jesus. I found this pairing particularly beautiful.

The Botticelli Annunciation is an iconic depiction of the moment Gabriel informs Mary that she will give birth to the Son of God. In keeping with medieval and renaissance convention, Mary is depicted as a pious, self-assured, pure young woman; gracefully bowing to Gabriel as an assent to his announcement.

Andrew Hudgins reimagines this painting, emphasizing the terror Mary must have felt by her encounter with the other-worldly Gabriel. He stresses the contradictions in the scene: Mary is pure yet sensual, withdrawing yet advancing, determined yet uncertain. This perfectly describes the…

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“…bada bing, bada boom…”

So. The Caravaggio story gets better yet: according to the  scholar Vincenzo Pacelli, the artist did not die of malaria or of anything as dull as that; he was taken out by hitmen from the Knights of Malta in a Vatican “state-sponsored assassination”.

Crikey.

I know what you’re thinking: why isn’t someone, anyone, making a movie? (You are, aren’t you? Well, you should be.)
Relax, already. I’m on it.
All I need is my favourite director, my favourite art critic as consulting ‘expert’, and someone who isn’t sodding Julian Fellowes to turn the most thrilling, rambunctious, bloody tale in the entire history of art into a screenplay.
Here are two of the above, Martin Scorcese and Andrew Graham-Dixon, expressing their Caravaggio-love:


A perfect match, no?
And their film would be a huge improvement on Jarman’s 1986 Caravaggio, surely? A worthy enough take but mired in an effete British ‘arty-ness’ which was, for me, somewhat undermined by an 80s-coiffed Sean Bean playing ex-Spandau Ballet member Ranuccio while emoting in a Sheffield accent thick enough to spread jam on.

No, Caravaggio doesn’t need ‘arty’ or effete, he needs foul-mouthed, brooding, trigger-happy grit.
He needs The Sopranos, where, just as in the shady back-streets of Baroque Rome, everything is a point of ‘honour’ and a ‘funny look’ will get you your face sliced.

So there’s our writer: Sops creator and and script-man-in-chief, the estimable Mr David Chase. Imagine if you will a scene exactly like this, in italianate ‘Noo Joisey’ accents, but with tights and a horse:


Works for me.
I’m also tempted to audition Christopher Moltisanti (can’t think of his real name. Who cares?) for the role of the man himself, but if I’m honest he’s second choice. Top of the list (it’s my film, remember) is Aidan Turner, most well-beloved for his Byronic turns in Desperate Romantics and Being Human:

Like Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, he looks fabulous in black.

Finally, of course, I need a capo dei capi, an alpha male whose authority is unquestionable, a wiseguy with a finger in every pie who’d have you topped as soon as look at you: I need a ‘Pope’.
Yup, in the absence of Brando, and with sincere apologies to Gandolfini, there can be only one: Big (not literally) Al:

Seems to me I’ve done all the hard work.
So c’mon, Martin. What’re you waiting for?
A little ‘persuasion’?

(Still working on a title: all suggestions gratefully received. Try to include the word ‘badass’.)

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Nick Squires’ Telegraph article on Pacelli’s theory:
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-news/9181383/Caravaggio–was-killed-by-the-Knights-of-Malta.html

Yet another plug for AGD’s totally marvellous life of Caravaggio:
http://www.amazon.co.uk/Caravaggio-A-Life-Sacred-Profane/dp/0241954649/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1334139698&sr=8-1

this is suburbia

Really like this post by Ryan on an artist I know very little about. Great to learn stuff and get pointed in a new direction. 🙂

simply marvelous

A sham. A disgrace. A poor excuse for art, a soulless example of surface without substance. When I first saw a reproduction of Howard Arkley’s Stucco Home 1991 like the one above, years ago, that’s what I thought of it. Flat and without depth, it may serve the architectural profession well, but not the art gallery.

Oh the folly, the arrogance, of youth. Tsk tsk, angry young man. What would have made this worthy of being ‘art’? If he applied the paint with wild, angry brushstrokes? If he depicted the light in softer and subtler shades of light? If the forms and colours were all distorted? Would it then be worth of the prodigious title ‘art’? And why? What makes something art?

Arkley’s work is art, and very good art at that, in my opinion. I didn’t realise this fact until I wandered through the Queensland Art Gallery some time later and saw…

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Kinkade and Corrie: the Ugly Truth

The demise of Thomas Kinkade at the stupidly young age of 54 has forced me, screaming, to grit my teeth, brace myself, and have another look at his stuff. (I say ‘stuff’ ‘cos I can’t quite manage to make my digits type the ‘a’-word in this context.)

Ghastly, isn’t it, this Disneyfication of nostalgia, this cynical selling of a dream that never was, of ‘home’ and ‘family’ (complete with faithful spotty dog), to, especially, evangelical, conservative ‘God-bothering’ folk who we (I) feel should really know better and get a grip. And all the more contemptible to an art snob (me) because, as my pal reminded me, Kinkade actually could paint:

Yes, they’re both by that same, now sadly stilled, fair hand.
SELL-OUT!! TRAITOR!! PHILISTINE!!

But then, as we say Up North, I caught myself on.
The painting at the top of the post is called Home Is Where the Heart Is. Coincidentally (not really), that is also the title, pretty much, of a recent(ish) Sunday evening schlock-fest on UK telly – you know the type: vets, doctors, posh folk, midwives, village policemen, all set in a lazy-hazy version of long-gone ‘good old days’ and designed to make us forget for an hour the fact that in 12 hours we’ll be grumpily going off to a job we loathe.  Both painting and TV series are operating from exactly the same basis (note the central church tower in each) : as a palliative against present, here-and-now dissatisfaction and discontent. (This is very much a political issue, but if I go down that route now I’ll bore myself to death, so I won’t.)

But more disturbing for me, a rabid fan, is the gruesome admission that Coronation Street, that very finest of soaps, operates from, gulp, this basis too. (Eastenders sucks: not enough jokes, and where else, other than in Corrie, would you get actors like Ian McKellen and Nigel Havers ripping the piss out of themselves?) Corrie offers us a vision of a tight-knit northern community (it’s always about ‘community’), centred around a ‘real’ pub, where everyone knows everyone else’s business and where, eventually, everything comes right in the end. It’s a place which I, born amongst the cobbles, think I know, but it’s no more ‘true’ than Kinkade’s ‘cottage fantasies’.
I love it.

So where does that leave me? Admittedly I’m not one of those who conflate the actor with the character and shout abuse in Asda at ‘Richard Evil Twat Hillman’ and ‘Sally Daft Cow Webster’, but I do buy wholeheartedly into Corrie (ask my husband) and its premise; like Kinkade’s paintings are for some, for me Corrie is comfort food, a place to escape to, somewhere (unless Ken’s having one of his perennial, kimono-akimbo, stomach-turning affairs) better.

So there you have it. If I diss Kinkade I’m not only an art snob, I’m a hypocrite. And that, my friends, would never do.
My Dalmatians would hate me.

Death’s face: Rudolf Schäfer (*images may upset/offend*)

“One does not look at the dead, one lowers one’s eyes before them.”

In 1989 I purchased a copy of Granta 27: Death. Inside was a series of photographs by Rudolf Schäfer, taken from his book Der Ewige Schlaf: Visages de Morts. The photographs – they have to be photographs; only photography can do this – hit me hard, and they haunt me now. Are they portraits? No. They are still lifes, stilled life, each a silent, eloquent memento mori,  reminders that what makes us human is not our awareness that we are, but that we will cease to be.

In Schäfer’s own words:
“There is no direct experience of what death actually looks like…this notion that it must look terrible…”

“These are ordinary poses. We are constantly bombarded with…violent, extreme pictures – but we diffuse one of the implications of these images – our own mortality. With these…you simply do not have that option”.

“These people all died of natural causes…they all look very peaceful…The peace of this moment, this coming to rest…”

“…some people react with moral outrage…but you have to reach beyond it to see…the questions the pictures raise in our own minds about ourselves…”

“To me the pictures have a terrible beauty…[they] show what will surely become of us all one day, and we should therefore take a little bit more care over our lives.”

A “terrible beauty”.

How do these photographs make you feel? I find them inexpressibly poignant in their extraordinary ‘ordinariness’; I also feel as though I’m intruding on something very private, very intimate: we are seeing the dead exactly as their loved ones would have last seen them.  Furthermore, the subjects of these photographs, as far as I know, had no say in the process, there was no ‘prior agreement’; as Schäfer notes: “…sometimes I obtained the consent of the relatives; in other cases that wasn’t necessary.”

Is that enough? I’m not sure, not sure at all. But I do know this: the article tells us nothing about these people, they are anyone and everyone; this is how and why the photographs ‘work’. When I look at them they fill me with an empathy that reaches out beyond the individual, the personal, beyond religion and ‘morality’: it reaches out to all of us.

This is Art.

“We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.”

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Rudolf Schäfer’s words taken from an interview conducted and translated from the German by Piers Spence, and published in Granta 27: Death, 1989.

Conceptual Art: it’s not all crap…

It is a truth universally acknowleged by at least four people that I have no love for Damien Hirst, Artist; (Damien Hirst, Chap, is quite a different matter: he makes me chuckle, and you can’t put a price on that.) Some of those four (two) who actually give a toss about my views on anything at all have equated this animosity with an antipathy towards Conceptual Art in general: this is not the case.

Hell Greco

Admittedly, it’s taken me a while to get over myself and actually look at Conceptual Art with something other than a prejudiced eye, but I’ve found, unsurprisingly, that yes, some I like very much, I ‘get’ it. (I’ve also had to admit to myself that there’s quite a lot of ‘traditional’ or ‘great’ art that leaves me cold: El Greco, for example, – that ghastly palette, those writhing forms, that oppressive, peculiarly tight-arsed religiosity make me feel really rather sick.)

Anyway, back to Conceptual Art.

My problem with Mr Hirst is this: for me, there is no humanity. The artefact – I hesitate to call it ‘art’ – has no ‘heart’. I may have been shocked and disgusted on cue (once upon a time), but this is not the same thing at all. I have never, not once, been moved by anything he has created: it seems the more I put into his stuff, the less I get out of it. Call me old-fashioned (please), but intellect without emotion does not make for good art and never has, be it in music, literature, performance, whatever. Hirst’s work seems to me glib, disingenuous, cynical, the very antithesis of what it is to be humane.

But then, Hallelujah! – I discovered the work of Felix Gonzalez-Torres; Conceptual Art became, for me, a whole new ball-game, one that repaid my attention.

Untitled (Portrait of Ross in LA)

What do you think when you see a pile of colourful, shiny cellophane-wrapped sweets? I think, Ta very much, I’ll take two! I think of the big tins of ‘Roses’ we have at Christmas; of giving and sharing. And we are meant to share, to take the sweets and deplete the pile, and every day that the artwork is on show it is restored to its original weight of exactly 175lbs, which, as the accompanying wall-text (text, titles, are the sine qua non of Conceptual Art) tells us, was deemed by his doctor to be Ross’ ideal weight. Safe to assume, I think, that Ross was a fun, social guy, freely giving of his time and spirit. But that note on the wall undercuts all this gaiety with something very serious, even frightening: ‘sharing’ also references Ross’ AID-related death; contagion, infection; ‘share’ too freely and you will be sick. The daily depletion of Ross the work can be read as the daily depletion of Ross the lover of Felix through the ravages of terrible illness. The celebration of someone deeply loved and missed is inextricably tied to the manner of his going, and it is this concept that, while the form of the work is fluid, becomes fixed through constant, daily re-iteration; a kind of Eucharist perhaps, a Holy Communion, where love and loss, participation and memory, combine and become something almost sacred.

Are you?

This is so far above and beyond anything Hirst has ever done or even attempted to do. I cannot help but be intensely moved by Ross; yes, it’s ‘easy’, but it’s not glib; it’s considered, elegiac, moral, even; it breathes humanity. I’m still inclined to agree, anti-‘conceptually’, with Hockney: art should be about Poetry and Craft; but sometimes, just sometimes, in the hands of a real artist, the poetry is enough.

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(Please don’t write me an essay on why El Greco is, like, fab. I’ve read ’em all. Or at least it feels like it.)