Archive

Monthly Archives: April 2012

At 11.30am last Sunday morning, when by all rights I should have been curled up in a duvet having my brain comfortably numbed by T4, I was instead watching a large man have ink punched into the skin under his chin with what initially looked like a shark’s tooth tied to a piece of wood. I witnessed this bizzare sight at the Great British Tattoo Show, being held for the first time this year at the Olympia in Hammersmith.

I was soon informed by the boyfriend that this was the traditional form of Maori tattooing, using sharpened albatross bone, dipped in ink, tied to a stick and tapped with another piece of wood to break the skin and insert the dye. Although a bit of a self-confessed tattoo lover, I admit this was a pain barrier too far for me. Not so for many others, though, who rushed to get their names down for the next booking. The Maori tattooing was one of the better stalls at the convention, which was overall sadly disappointing and had a cheap, amateur and chucked together boot-fair aura to it, but did spark some interesting topics of debate.

I was struck at this ‘convention’ by the seemingly unshakeable bond between the tattoo sector and half-naked women writhing around in their underwear. The ‘entertainment’ seemed a bit gratuitous. Actually, very gratuitous. Whilst watching some young, clearly inexperienced girls on stage trying to dance seductively and failing miserably, I got a familiar uncomfortable feeling. That same feeling of discomfort I got whilst walking through the red light district in Amsterdam in broad daylight – that this was seedy, surreal and above all, awkward. It’s a shame, as the tattoos themselves were fabulous. I am by no means a prude, but I wished that the girls would wear shorts and strappy tops and just be the canvas for the tattoos, without all the sleaze. It gave me feminist rumblings in my soul which I couldn’t ignore. If only the tattoos were about the tattoos, whether they are on young or old, man or woman, breast or beer belly.

                 The whole idea of woman as sex object is entrenched in this atmosphere though – one of the most popular types of tattoo is the pin-up girl, or the naked woman with the impossibly big breasts. These types of tattoo were displayed by men long before it became acceptable in modern society for women to take part in this culture. They could have and still could be seen as, men attempting to possess the image of woman by having them permanently represented on their body. When do you ever see ‘pin up men’ tattoos? Ironically, a Google search for that exact phrase gave the top result as ‘pin up girl tattoos for men’. It may be tradition, but surely this just perpetuates the now hopefully outdated view that the purpose of the female body is purely to satisfy the male gaze.

The flip side of this argument, of course, is that this is the empowerment of women and the reclaiming of our bodies. Women who choose what they want to do with their bodies and have pride in who they are and their femininity. Absolutely. To be on an equal footing with men in this culture, we should be able to produce art on our bodies in the same way and be viewed in the same way. You could say this has improved somewhat as tattooing has become more socially acceptable, but the idea of the tattooed woman as loose and trashy is ultimately still portrayed today. Tattooing is still seen as a predominantly male experience and women who have tattoos are seen as trying to be like men. This association antagonises every conservative echelon of society and inevitably results in women with tattoos automatically tagged as ‘bad girls’. A book on the philosophy of tattooing by Robert Arp discusses this idea and looks at how “The idea of tattooed women as sexually promiscuous or deviant remains an enduring misogynist stereotype”. I agree, and by linking tattooing to naked women and seductive ‘seven veils’ style dancing, we only serve to perpetuate that view.

So why isn’t tattooing given more credit as an art form? Why is it forced to showcase itself in this ‘alternative’ way? I know the answer really, it’s art elitism. It’s Brian Bloody Sewell. In my view, tattooing has to be one of the most technically skilled art forms. The artists get one chance to produce. No rubbers, no new pieces of canvas. They have to get it right that first time or you are marked with a bad tattoo forever. I know this does happen, inevitably, but there are many great tattoo artists out there who create stunning pieces of art on the canvas of the human body day in, day out.

                

Tattoo has become an art form in itself, but in the same way as graffiti art has, ie. it is a self-confessed art form. Before the Banksy explosion brought graffiti art to the masses, it was a separatist movement, with equal animosity between the artists and the art establishment. In many ways it still is, but you now often see these works in gallery settings, something you rarely or never see with tattooing. Perhaps this is how they want it, and in many ways I don’t blame them. Why should they bow to the elitists? Why ‘sell out’?

But I would love to see a coming together of the art world and the tattoo world. Throw off the biker clichès and the stereotypical prosecco-filled private views and merge together to create a new form of display. Somewhere between Gormley’s static figures and Emin’s humanism, with the tattoo culture at its centre. With the body as canvas we are the art. We are both the messenger and the recipient – from Us to Us. When you look at it like that, what could be more empowering?

It’s 2012. It’s nearly Summer (supposedly). You’re bored of going to see artworks by ultra-famous artists in a silent, sterile gallery setting. What to do? Go to some smaller, less restrictive galleries? Search out some local artists? Get your supplies out and start creating some tantalising guerrilla art in the South Kensington underpass? All good plans, although the third may earn you some extra time in another very different confined space, so maybe drop that one off your list.

What about…an art fair? No I’m not talking about your local craft-style fair, with trestle tables leading dizzyingly into the horizon and a small town’s worth of kids legging it full speed to the bouncy castle – although they can be great too.  I’m talking about art fairs such as Frieze, which I had my first experience of in October last year.  Frieze is a contemporary art fair which showcases the latest works being sold by top galleries. It is essentially a commercial enterprise, a fact unbeknownst to me, a mere mortal, as I wandered through. Obviously no prices are displayed or catalogues given out to point out that I could, very much theoretically, buy these works. The gallery owners can smell the money (or in my case, lack of it) and I was therefore left happily alone to wander around. For hours. And hours. And hours. The place is immense. I had just begun to go the art equivalent of snow-blind when I decided it might be time to sit down and stare at the floor for a while to give my synapses a chance to regenerate.

    

I might sound as if I’m being negative about Frieze; I’m actually not. I just felt it was beyond me. It didn’t feel designed for me. For a start the focus was on galleries. I’m interested in Art. Less so in its commercial value, its collectability etc. The business side of art is to me a sad necessity. It’s the death of a bee after its sting. It’s the parent that sends their child to a school 2 hours away to get them a good education. It’s a shame, but what’s the alternative? I don’t have an answer to that. The fact that Frieze is set out by gallery is a pretty clear indicator that a lot of people visiting will know where they’re going and will have a plan of action. I didn’t. Hence the snow-blind episode. However, on the positive side the gallery format actually means that you see an eclectic array of artworks by some very different artists. It gives you a sliver of insight into what’s ‘in vogue’ for the art-producing international elite. I found it interesting to see a focus on mirrored/shiny surfaces used as canvas. Ceramic tiles, black mirrors, standard mirrors, reflective metals; some painted, some manipulated, some used as a sculptural base. Fabrics were also a strong theme, and popular with the public too, judging by the crowds loitering by certain pieces.

      

  

I’m soon to try out another event, taking place on May 10th – 13th. The Other Art Fair is a new concept whereby the artists shown are unrepresented ie. they are not being shown by a gallery but by themselves. I must say this approach is more appealing to my liberal values than that of the traditional gallery sale. The pieces are affordable, even for me, at £50 upwards, although this in itself is not revolutionary. Throughout the year the Affordable Art Fair weaves its way across the world selling works costing up to a maximum of £4000. The London leg of the AAF at Battersea takes place 25-28 Oct 2012 which is…hmmm let me see, 2 weeks after the Frieze show. Coincidence? I imagine not. Whet our whistles with the big stuff, let us be all weepy and disappointed that we fell in love but were just not rich enough to make the cut. Then swoop in with the revelation that we can have some beautiful art, that there is a show made just for us. The galleries still get their pounds (albeit a little less) to top up their coffers, and we go away grinning with our new acquisition to show off to Janet next door. Clever marketing team.

At least with The Other Art Fair you’re buying from the source. Only for the moment of course, they don’t make any secret of the fact that these newbies will be signed by a gallery at some point, but for the moment they are still ours, we still matter to them. The passing over of their work to someone else has not yet taken on it’s full business-like format and still has an element of emotion and attachment. I hope to see an artist clinging to their sculpture screaming ‘No! I won’t let you take it! It doesn’t belong with you! You don’t understand it!. That’s the vibe I’m going for. I hope it lives up to my expectations…

NB. I’m afraid when I visited Frieze I didn’t know I would be doing this blog and so i didn’t make a note of all the artist’s names when browsing. If you have a burning desire to know who they are by, I’m sure you could email Frieze a copy of the picture and ask, or buy a copy of the catalogue. Worth a try.

Sitting in Vinegar Hill Pottery, a hundred miles away, are 12 pieces of traditional clay dinnerware ready to be fired, glazed, packed and posted to me, to add to the 6 Raku pots I already finished and brought home on Sunday. Each of these began as a lump of wet clay in my very own hands. If you had told me a week ago that this would be the case I would have thrown you my most deprecating look and thought you a fool at best.

Having never been given the opportunity at school to try pottery, I was a complete novice and had serious misgivings about my potential lack of ability. It’s the familiar fear, which most of us have felt at some point, that you will be unspeakably rubbish at your chosen subject, whilst everyone else seems to take to it so naturally that you look up to find them staring, with open-mouthed horror, at your grotesque pot/painting/nude figure before they retire to whisper in corners about your scandalous lack of talent. Thankfully my rather dramatic fears were unfounded.

Much of my success was a result of the literally hands-on teaching by David Rogers, the local Potter who owns the studio and the house attached. Part of the house has been converted into a separate B&B, with individually accessed rooms. We stayed in the Hayloft, a gorgeous room ascended to via an exterior wrought iron spiral staircase, in which we were presented with a fabulous cooked breakfast each morning. This was included in the price of the 3-day course, as was lunch, cooked fresh by a local caterer in the adjoining house and rapidly demolished by the five of us taking the course in the showroom above the studio.

                 

The course began by teaching us the basic premise of how to work clay on the wheel. (Before a ‘Ghost’ joke even enters your mind, please take my word for it you are at least the 100th person to voice it, and it was crap the first time.) The closest we got to the erotic was whilst making the phallic shapes necessary to ‘centre’ the clay, during which my mature 30-something boyfriend peppered us with Beavis and Butthead sniggers as he watched me working the vertical cylinders. My subsequent disparaging stance was short-lived however, as he proceeded to then knock out creatively-shaped and carefully detailed bowls, cups, and plates at tremendous speeds, turning our romantic getaway into a brutal competition. I began to breathe smoke and got my head down.

We spent day one making cylinders, which are the base shape for all pieces except plates. This is most certainly harder than it looks, although easier to master than I expected after my first go; a fact which the deformity of my first pot is sure to demonstrate. The experience of having the wet clay in your hands and teasing it from a sticky, heavy, dollop into a smooth tall pot is inexplicably satisfying. It requires intense concentration and a certain amount of decent motor skills, but is undoubtedly achievable for almost any ability.

Once you have a basic cylinder, you can then lean on the clay to flare out the edges which creates a bowl, or manipulate the material to create other shapes for things such as vases or jugs. The main stumbling block is the co-ordination of spinning the wheel (with either a manual kick-wheel which you pump or an electric wheel which you gently accelerate), whilst focusing on lifting the clay. It’s a bit like learning to drive, albeit without the roads, or a car even. At points the clay becomes so thin it can easily collapse, which it did. Repeatedly. The boyfriend didn’t look quite so smug when his potential pieces ended up on ‘The Mountain’ of failed clay to be recycled. Ha.

Day two began with learning all about Raku; a traditional, rustic form of pottery from Japan. Raku clay is coarser, thicker and fired in an oil drum at 1200degrees. After firing the clay to harden it, the glaze is applied. The pots are then fired again, removed and covered in sawdust, which starves the glaze of oxygen and creates a cracking effect on the pot which many of you will recognise and is the trademark of the style. The process is manageable until the second firing, which took place on day 3. It then becomes random, as the finished effect depends entirely upon how the sawdust falls on the pot; which parts are hottest/coolest etc. When it emerges from the sawdust it is completely blackened and only a scouring process reveals exactly how it turned out.

So why should you go on this course? I can think of dozens of reasons why you most certainly should and not a single one as to why you shouldn’t. The accommodation is fantastic, the course is endlessly enjoyable (3 days wasn’t enough) and Milford-on-Sea is everything you would expect from a  seaside town on the edge of the New Forest; small, quiet, but full of quality restaurants and quaint charm – the fishmarket restaurant Verveine is an absolute must. David Rogers and his wife Lucy, who tirelessly keeps you stocked with tea and coffee, as well as looking after their 3 gorgeous children, literally cater for your every need. David even jump-started our car with a grin when the battery died on the last day. Think of it as going to holiday with your coolest hippy relatives in the countryside, add a bundle of clay and you’re almost there….

You may initially think, well, it depends on how long you spent queuing. I have heard stories of people waiting for 3 hours, 5 hours, 10 hours. From dawn ’til dusk. At one hysterical point it even gained that  legendary status, usually only afforded to super-brand Apple or the new World of Warcraft game, of people dragging their pop-up tents through the sweaty caverns of the Circle Line to camp out all night. All for a glimpse of the new work produced by an artist Brian Sewell calls a ‘vulgar prankster’.

So was it worth it? Without a doubt. If Brian Sewell hated it, it means it is certainly worth seeing. Mr Sewell (ever noticed how his name sounds strikingly similar to Sewer?) is rather like a compass pointing towards a bear pit in the dark. Whatever it says, generally go the other way. I personally had a rather extreme reaction to the show and was quite overwhelmed by the scale and colour, almost bursting into tears in front of the vivid A Closer Grand Canyon, 1998.

The exhibition puts you slap bang in those glittery red shoes belonging to Dorothy just when she arrives in Oz. Technicolour wonderland. You feel as if this is what the world should be like, with a hint of jealousy that he saw it first, that this is the way he sees the world. Not only that, but that he can convey it with such abandon. You are struck by an overwhelming sense that this man has mastered his craft. Yes he is technically superb, as you can see from the stunning charcoal preparatory drawings which intersperse the paintings and provide a crystal contrast, but he is also deeply and firmly rooted in his niche. His style is obviously still reminiscent of his much earlier and most well-known works, A Bigger Splash, or Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy, for example. But the awkwardness of that sterile utopia has been replaced with a hyperactive excitement at the natural world. The natural world as it is in Yorkshire, no less. The concept of a kid in a sweetshop comes to mind; it’s there, they’ve got it, they can’t get enough of it. It makes you smile. Well, it made me smile. A lot.

Aside from being a celebration of the beauty of nature, the works tell a story. They are a study, or rather, many studies. Hockney spent countless hours meticulously photographing, recording, collecting and painting, to capture the scenery across the changing seasons. Some say the British seasons are the most wonderful, as the extremity of change creates the most striking contrasts. I would certainly say they had a point after seeing these works. Hockney has often portrayed the same scene 3 or 4 times at different times of year and the effect is startling. No more so than in the Ipad room, where a spectacular headline piece entices you into the space. I strove to ignore it and to save it for last, like my favourite food on a dinner plate, and made my way round the room full of prints. Ever the  techno-geek, Hockney took it upon himself to learn to paint on the Ipad, using a Paint app. The resulting enlarged prints are primarily, for me, a visual representation of development and exploration. They were not visually my favourite pieces in the exhibition, but then I don’t think they were meant to be. Dated by when they were completed (generally one a day, which alone is pretty amazing), they traced a very visible learning curve which was fascinating to follow. It led me clockwise around the room and to the astonishing crescendo of The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate.

The debt to Van Gogh and Picasso is clear; the exploding colours, the multiple viewpoints. They complement the theme and have been used to his advantage, but the ethos is all his own.  I wait with baited breath to see what the next ten years will bring…