Mad Dogs and Englishmen: Adam Berry, artist

“Field Sport Series (Fear of the Dog)”, 2011-12

I know Adam and have long admired his work, so writing about his latest pieces has been difficult in that I’ve tried to forget almost everything I know about his views on art and look at them through a stranger’s eyes, as I have – out of necessity – the works of other contemporary artists I’ve discussed. (I’ve also studiously ignored the 10,000 word thesis that accompanies this series as part of Adam’s final submission towards his MA degree; if art can’t speak for itself, it’s not doing its job.)

I’ve always been struck by a certain ‘Englishness’ about Adam’s work: hard to put into words precisely; something Turneresque, perhaps? Constable-ish?
Then, looking again at Field Series, it hit me: Thomas Gainsborough.­
Now, I’ve no inkling about what Adam will make of the comparison, but I’ve come to view him as something of a natural heir to the great 18th century painter.

Gainsborough’s great love was reserved for landscape, the land; portraiture was how he earned his living. When he combined the two, something extraordinary happened, something a world away from the academic ‘grand manner’ style favoured by his rival, Joshua Reynolds:

‘Mr and Mrs Andrews’, 1750, 69cm x 119cm
The National Gallery, London

Portraits were (still are?) commissioned by the landed and wealthy to reflect their social standing back at themselves and at their peers: a kind of certificate of authenticity, of ‘belonging’.
But the newly-minted Mr Andrews got rather more than he bargained for.

The artist, having no love for the monied, landed classes, produced a painting which, while doing what it says on the tin, is full of irony, subtlety and subversion. It is what Adam would call ‘a situation in an image’, where nothing is stated and everything implied.

Consider the gawky awkwardness of the couple in posture and, in her case, dress: their relationship to the land is strictly proprietorial, not ‘natural’ –  the land has not been tended by their hands; the great oak tree, symbol of tradition and stability, is surely ironic when one recalls that Mr Andrews was something of a parvenu. But he’s got the land, the gun, the broodmare: to him, then, the history.
What he hasn’t got is the nous to see that, in that lowering grey cloud, Gainsborough is about to piss on his parade.

This, in my view, is exactly what Adam, another lover of the land, does in Field Series.

Stylistically, the artists are similar: the warm greeny-brown palette of an English late summer/autumn (the start of the hunting season); superb draughtsmanship combined with vigorous brushwork and a lively painterliness; in Adam’s work here, however, the ‘situation’ is not in a particular image, but in the series as a whole. Several pieces could be taken out of context and appear quite anodyne (and look well on a huntsman’s drawing-room wall; oh, irony), but viewed together, referentially, they imply an over-arching narrative that is as satirical as Gainsborough’s masterpiece.

Just as Gainsborough took traditional form and content and used them as a means of subversive social critique, so Adam appropriates age-old artistic tropes and genres – the hunting print, the cartoon, the portrait, the horse study – and deploys them not just to ‘condemn’ fox-hunting – too crudely didactic –  but, I believe, to allow for, while never insisting upon, a strongly political interpretation: the ‘State of the Nation’, no less.

Hunting with dogs, opposed by the ordinary majority, has been illegal in England since 2005, yet the law is routinely flouted by those with the money/power, the rich ‘them’, with their exclusive and excluding ‘uniforms’ (hunting ‘pinks’, hunt buttons, special ribbons, collars, etc. etc.), their strict top-down hierarchy, their particular and peculiar jargon, their arcane rituals (‘blooding’ of children, for one.)

The government does not give two hoots, clearly. We are supposed to live in a democracy, all equal before the law.

The fact is, we are governed by a self-regarding ‘club’, a network of vested interests which rides rough-shod over the rest of us much like the local hunt once ploughed through a North Yorkshire neighbour’s garden. Just as we have pro-hunt types waxing sophistical about the ‘traditions’ and’benefits’ of chasing foxes and their cubs and ripping them to bloody shreds, so we have Cameron and his mob hunting down and tearing the lives away from those among us, the ‘vermin’, who have so very little to start with; at the same time they are doing nothing at all, other than engaging in diversionary moralising (Jimmy Carr), to curb the excesses and evasions of the obscenely wealthy.

It is not ‘we’ who control our land, our history; it is still ‘they’, Mr Andrews and his ilk; the toilers, like Andrews’ invisible farm-hands, the true curators of those golden, rolling acres, don’t get a look-in.

What is ‘tradition’? Whom does it serve?
Both Gainsborough and Adam raise these questions formally, through the medium of paint; ‘traditional’ content becomes the means of it’s own radical subversion. Crucially, Adam’s work shows that painting, as an art form, can still be relevant and incisive, whatever the ‘conceptualists’ would have you believe.

Oscar Wilde once described fox-hunting as “the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable”.

So it remains.

Adam’s very own (True) ‘Blue Boy’?

Come the Revolution…



All Adam’s images in the series –  the above are a very small selection – are approximately 25cm x 22cm, and are framed in Adam’s own idiosyncratic, handmade style:

The frames, which would require their own blog post,  and the position of the images within the frames, are integral to the art works, but I wanted to concentrate in the first place on the images. The above gives you some idea of the look of the whole, and why, together, with this extra heft, I view the Series as something more substantial, more ‘sculptural’, perhaps, than simply ‘paintings’.

See more of Adam’s work here:
(Needs updating, Ad!)

Excellent. A timely re-visiting of an era when we thought things couldn’t get worse…


Gillian Wearing, Signs that say what you want them to say and not signs that say what someone else wants you to say (Help) and (I’m desperate), 1992-3

Though Gillian Wearing doesn’t re-enact the work of a scientist to make art, arguably she does nonetheless take on another role: that of the confessor. In a number of different works, Wearing allows those she encounters – either through approaching strangers on the street or by advertising – to express their innermost thoughts in one way or another.

For the series of photographs Signs that say what you want them to say and not signs that say what someone else wants you to say, made in 1992-3, Wearing asked people to write a sign that said something they really wanted to say and hold it up for the camera. Some of the signs comment on the wider political situation of…

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Laugh? I nearly did.

Time for a bit of froth.

Now, dear readers and fellow-bloggers, I need your help.
I’m on the hunt for Funny Art and Art Jokes. Having scoured the internet (well, the first page of a Googled search – you know how it is) I have been appalled to discover just how little of the funny stuff there is out there.

And I don’t mean Bad Art, hilarious as it often is. You will recall my delight at coming across The Museum of Bad Art and the ghastly treasures therein:

No. I want Art With A Humourous Intent.
There must be some out there.

Of course,  there’s David Shrigley. But even he doesn’t find his work that amusing.

On this he and I are as one.
(I did however find the ‘catocopter’ – very Shrigleyesque – entertaining for about a minute.

I love my cat, but that doesn’t stop me being a sicko.)

And ‘art jokes’! Where are they?
And why, with a terrible irony, considering he’s viewed as the most tragic of geniuses, do most of them seem to be about poor old Vincent ?

“Man walks into a pub and sees van Gogh standing at the bar. “Oi, Vinnie! You’re my hero! Let me buy you a drink?”
“You’re alright, pal. I’ve got one ‘ere’.”

Hahahaha. Ahem. Not really.

And then there are those dreadful ‘Van Gogh’s Relatives’:

His Mexican cousin’s American half brother — Grin Gogh
The constipated uncle — Can’t Gogh
His niece traveling the country in a van — Winnie Bay Gogh
His nephew the psychoanalyst — E Gogh

And so on and so forth.
It took me a while to even ‘get’ them. We Brits – equally egregiously, I’m sure, to Dutch ears – pronounce ‘Gogh’ as ‘Goff’.
As in:
His notorious truant Brummie nephew – Bunkin Gogh
His eternally contagious niece – Whooping Gogh   (Ouch.)
His cricketing, ‘Strictly’-winning second cousin – Darren Gogh:

Athlete supreme

I know. They’re rubbish. I’m trying here.

Oh, and for the record I don’t want ‘witty’, pointed jokes. You know what I mean:

“During World War II an inquisitive German officer was harassing Picasso in his Parisian apartment. Noticing a photograph of Guernica lying on a table he asked the artist ”did you do that?” “No, you did,” responded Picasso.”

Or this:

These aren’t funny.
Sharp, maybe. Funny, no.
Unless you’re the type who goes to Shakepeare comedies and ‘laughs’ smugly and a bit too loudly to show how erudite and cultured you are. If you are the type, know this:
I hate you.

So, c’mon guys. Help me out here.
All contributions very gratefully received.
Let’s have a laugh.
God knows, we could all do with it.


Update 17/6/2012:

I thought this recent ‘Jubilee’ work by T’Art Club member Vincent Lee was amusing:

Check out also this post by Ann Jones:

Getting ’em out for The Lads: Lee Horyon

(Thursday Rant.)

Lee’s work separates the vague relationship between image and desire.”

Since when has the relationship between image and desire been ‘vague’? A vast porn industry is predicated precisely on the fact that  the relationship between image and sexual desire is very clear-cut indeed. How else would pornography ‘work’?

Take a look at Horyon’s work.

Am I the only one to find them offensive?

I am reminded of the old sexist ‘joke’:
“You don’t look at the mantlepiece when you’re poking the fire”.
Dress it up in meaningless, high-sounding sophistry as much as you like; the fact remains that images of headless/faceless women in poses ranging from the titillating to ‘softly’ (ha!) pornographic are, in my opinion, offensive to at least half the human race.

The last one, with her ass in your face, is veiled, for crying out loud.
This in a world where women the world over are struggling to throw off ‘the veil’, both literally and metaphorically.

Subjecting women in this fashion, reducing them, not to ‘objects’ (all art objectifies, as I’ve argued before) but to detached, depersonalised commodities purveyed to the male gaze is, in my opinion, not something to be tolerated in the name of ‘art’. There’s no denying Horyon’s technical excellence, but art is not just about how you make it; it’s also about what you choose to make. I’m all for freedom of expression – which is why I’m having my say here – but retrograde representations like these contribute nothing; they merely perpetuate the millenia-old view of women as little more than the means to male sexual gratification.
Strip-tease, burlesque, pornography, these works: they’re all the same in their rejection of an equal relationship between ‘viewer’ and ‘viewed’, and therefore equally deleterious.

Compare if you will Rembrandt’s magnificent Hendrickje Bathing:

The National Gallery, London

This is a woman, Rembrandt’s common-law wife, who was both desired and deeply loved. She has a name and a face; she is a person, not an idealised/air-brushed cipher, and is presented to us with all the tenderness and respect that Rembrandt’s matchless painterly skill allowed.
In her complete trust and lack of self-consciousness, she is very much an equal partner in this work.

That’s what it’s all about.