Rob Adams a Painter's Blog

December 6, 2014

Anthony Gormley

Filed under: Art History,Uncategorized — Tags: , — Rob Adams @ 9:12 am

Another in the BBC series of “What Artists do all Day” dealt with Anthony Gormley which I enjoyed I must say. They have done comic strip artists and so forth and haven’t for the most part done the obvious genuflections to the fine art elite.

Anthony Gormley is an interesting figure. He fits almost too well into the “Modern Artist” mould. He is just of that generation where the battles were all fought and won by earlier artists and so is well placed to take his comfortable place at the table. He has taken the approved course in his career, settling on one subject and pursuing in remorselessly, indeed some might say ad nauseam.

Part of my problem with him is that I vaguely like his work, it would indeed be a challenge for anyone to dislike it. It is thoughtful, polite, quite well conceived and generally well executed. There have been a few moments of resistance to his public works, but none of his work is really going to scare any horses in the longer term. He is I suppose very safe. I could find a certain amount of criticism of him, not only eulogy, but even the attacks on him from the Guardian and the Evening Standard lack intellectual bite. More on message critics are oddly reserved about him as he really does seem to offend no one, which is in contemporary terms his weak suit.

It is I find quite hard to focus on his work long enough to form any view. His large works are large without any intellectual reason for scale. Interviews show that he hasn’t quite grasped how expansion works in the universe, (he thinks getting bigger but staying the same shape) everything moving away from everything else at the same speed from any chosen point is a mental step too far for him perhaps.

The film was based in his studio that encompassed a host of studenty elves who carry out the tedious work of manufacture. I couldn’t help but notice that almost none of the work would be a great deal of fun to make. All drudgery and not much pleasure with barely any personal satisfaction, must be their lot. He stressed an art community ethos, but benevolent, austere autocracy looked like more the actuality. I felt a little sorry for all the young folk forced to endure uncomfortably egalitarian and probably vegetarian lunches, with the great man determinedly not physically at the head of the table. It would be more courageous and sensitive, I would have thought, to occupy the physical location that reflected the actual statuses in play. I tried during the film to spot anyone over 35 but couldn’t which is a little odd. Does he live in a world as a solitary patriarch, with no one of his own generation to threaten and intrude on his monopoly of  temporal perspective?

There was a particularly funny section where people were taking, to my eye, crude 3d scans of his much observed carcass. They then rather randomly and solemnly created cubic volumes to occupy a vaguely similar space. The master stroke was then scaling these each from their centres until they became abstract intersecting forms. (Some poor bastard then had to weld them up in steel afterwards no doubt). That the scan looked to be of poor quality in the first place throws some doubt on the whole procedure, the 3D form was weak sculpturally so by adding cubes it could only improve. It was a process for its own sake, without as far as I could see any real worthwhile intellectual thought.

Another illuminating moment was when some fellow artist arrived from China on a visit. Gormley told us admiringly that the chap had been dipping a paint brush in paint every morning as a sort of ritual and it was now 30kg or so in dried paint. He seemed to think this interesting and admirable rather than risible and dull. I wondered if it was Yue Minjun as he uses figures in the repetitive way that Gormley does. Repetition indeed is Gormley’s main attribute. Other than his fondness for his own body as raw material he does that thing that so many artists do which is making a big thing out of a lot of little things. He did it once successfully with Field early on and I suppose he thinks it might work twice. Field however works because of the eyes… which he doesn’t appear to have realised, as eyes are notably absent from his work for the most part. He avoids any body part that carries any weight of character, so hands and facial features are downplayed.

I ended up feeling a little sorry for him. A large slightly clumsy and uncertain man whose mind was probably abused by priests when young (he stresses his education by monks) so as to remove too much pleasure in self worth. He looks inside himself and sees an empty void, his body  as a container that bounds an empty space rather than supporting and nurturing a personality. He tries to reach within but ends up repeatedly reaching outwards, unable to come to terms with being lost and alone in the world. He is a man, like many overly large men, who has perhaps gone through life in a slightly hunched manner attempting to come to terms with the excessive space he takes up.

On the whole I suppose I liked him, despite that irritatingly superior and deeply superficial zen manner that people who have flirted with Buddhism seem to be plagued with. I can never help suspecting (probably unfairly) that such impossibly calm people actually run around stamping and shouting if a real disaster or crisis occurs! Do I think his work worth his while? Well on the whole yes, I think he would serve his ideas better if he didn’t inflate them so much. He is trying to say something intimate in a mock heroic manner which feels a little forced. However the general idea of a body either filling, occupying or containing a void is an interesting one and streets ahead of his contemporaries.

I was more impressed with a previous artist in the series Frank Quitely who draws comic strips. Frank know exactly what he is doing and why, doesn’t expect or want our admiration and is completely absorbed in his work. He is skilled and subtle beyond the bounds of Gormley but will never attract the serious attentions of an art critic. He also has an audience far larger than the famous sculptor, but not of course made up of the appropriate sort of people!

November 24, 2014


Filed under: Art History,Painting,Watercolour — Tags: , , , — Rob Adams @ 2:05 pm

I went to see the Constable exhibition at the V&A. I was painting in a very wet Knightsbridge and took refuge from the rain for an hour or so. I nowadays try to distance myself from all I know and have heard of an artist when I look at their pictures. What would the reaction be, I try to think, if an unknown posted this on an online painting forum… how many “likes” would it garner. It is not easy to look afresh, this is after all Constable, one of the greats of British landscape. The exhibition is well worth seeing as it includes paintings by artists who influenced him, both from the past and his contemporaries. So we had Thomas Girtin who he admired hugely and Ruisdael who he copied with great attention to detail. The exhibition also included the sketches and so forth where they when available, which I always like because they show how an artist sets about his business.

Firstly there was much I very much liked. The small plain air sketches and pencil studies. One or two of which have a lovely immediacy and delicate touch. It was here that the heretical thought occurred… if I found an unknown one of these and posted it under an assumed name on UKPleinair (a Facebook group with many fine painters as members) would it stand out? After racking my brains I had to conclude most would not. Indeed many were well below the standard that some artists currently post. The very best would I expect garner praise and positive feedback of course but not I have to conclude adulation. A few examples would be appropriate I suppose.

constable sketch

Here is a middling quality painting. You have to say though perfectly pleasant it is ordinary. Other painters of the time such as Turner and Girtin were doing far better work on the average in my opinion.


Constable sketch

Here is another from later in life. Some nice enough bits but the trees to the left are clumsy as is the composition. The distant blue is a good touch but once again nothing remarkable.


Constable sketch

Here is another, very briskly painted but heavy handed with some ugly brushwork. If it was not by Constable you would possibly throw it out! Because it is by Constable we earnestly peruse it, but to my eye it is just a poor painting.


constable study

This is a sketch for a bigger picture. I find, as Turner and the other Academicians did, that the crude muddy brushwork and the shotgun white highlights just don’t work. The red browns also overwhelm the painting and sit unpleasantly with the blue.


constable salisbury

Now to dig myself a deeper hole still I will consider one of his iconic later paintings. Here is the sketch. There is very little good here. The drawing is poor with Salisbury cathedral toppling to the left. As for the stand of trees on the left, what was he thinking? The sky usually one of his stronger points also is marred by ugly fussy and ill considered white highlights.


constable, salisbury

Here is the final result. It looks better here than in the flesh. The whole picture is smothered in distracting white speckles. He used to call this his “snow” and knew that other painters disliked it. The drawing is a little improved but the river on the right climbs impossibly up the picture plane and there appears to be a miniature village built into the undergrowth on the far bank. Once again the trees are terrible especially the overworked branches at then top. Is it just me but those horses look more like Shetland ponies rather than cart horses!

Poor Constable I hate to say it but I think he has been built up greater than he really was. It is not his fault of course he has been taken by art historians to represent the precursor of impressionism. He is in fact, I feel, a very hit or miss painter who struck a few very high points here and there but struggled in later life to find his way. I liked his Water-meadow near Salisbury far more than his Haywain and some of his oil sketches more than both. He was of course influenced as all artists of the period were by Claude Lorraine and there was a fine example there. His real contribution was pioneering the working out of doors from life, though the curators of the show didn’t appear to notice that several of the so called plein air sketches had glazing over impasto white which makes it unlikely that they were actually done on site. I will end with my favourite thing from the show. A small oil sketch on a bit of millboard.


oil sketch, constable

This is altogether delicious with a light touch and subtle colouring.

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