Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Forget unmade beds – how about some real painting?

A Murder, Lee Madgwick
A couple of weeks after seeing the East London Group exhibition at the Nunnery in Bow, I joined in a conversation on Twitter that had flowed from that show.

One lady had tweeted that the pictures were wonderful – but a tad old fashioned for today’s tastes, which she thought was a shame.

It is an interesting view – and it’s easy to see where it comes from and why it exists. But I think it is, nonetheless, flawed.

What is the case is that the art produced today that gets mainstream media coverage, and the contemporary art that is seen in major galleries is, by and large, conceptual art – in other words, it’s not painted and it’s not figurative.

Aux Loisirs de la Haute Vallée, Judith Alsop Miles
An easy way to explore this is by looking at the UK’s most publicised art award – the annual Turner Prize, which goes to a visual artist under 50.

The prize is 30 years old this year and, in a way, what the general public remembers of it is a little like many other aspects of life: the more ‘outré’ some of the work of the nominated artists on display, the more it becomes rooted in the public’s consciousness.

So, we had Damien Hirst’s shark in formaldehyde, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, in 1992, and Tracey Emin’s My Bed in 1999.

Valencay, Christian Furr
Neither of them won – but while many of the public will remember or be aware of those works, few will remember who did win and what for.

They were, respectively, Grenville Davey for an abstract steel sculpture (Entitled HAL) and Steve McQueen, for a video based on a Buster Keaton film.

In 2003, Jake and Dinos Champan caused a press sensation with a sculpture, Death, that appeared to be a pair of plastic, blow-up dolls doing the 69 on a lilo.

It was actually made of bronze and just painted to look like cheap plastic.

In other words, it was something of a technical feat that seemed to be designed to prove just how certain media elements love crass sensationalism.

Carcassonne Square, Allan Kirk
That year’s winner, incidentally, was Grayson Perry, with a series of ceramics decorated with sexual imagery, although where it’s probable that more people are aware of Perry’s transvestism than his pots.

Of course one of the advantages of the Turner Prize is that it upsets people like Prince Charles.

On the other hand, one has rather more sympathy with the view of the Stuckists, who have protested against the prize since 2000, describing it as “a state-funded advertising agency for Charles Saatchi”.

Stuckism is an international movement, which was founded in 1999 by Billy Childish and Charles Thomson, and is intended to promote figurative painting in opposition to conceptual and what their manifestos describe as “ego-art”.

As I’ve suggested before, one can say of Hirst that one would not give one his works space in your home, but to also think that perhaps he has deliberately taken the piss out of the sort of people who have spent millions on his pieces and, if that’s the case, to have a sneaking regard for what he’s done.

January Sea Study, Mick Oxley
But that’s all part and parcel of the Saatchification of UK art, which is largely about art as ‘investment’; about what’s ‘hip’ and ‘on trend’ – and, it often seems, about what people will admire for the sake of being seen to be ‘in on it’.

That’s not to say that all contemporary, not-figurative, non-painted art is exploitive in such a way.

As I’ve said before, there’s absolutely is a place for installation art – I have no difficulty with the idea of it. Indeed Anish Kapoor’s Marsyas in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern in 2003 was an extrarordinary piece that, in scale alone, provoked myriad reflective responses when you wandered around it.

Raven, Maggie Goodwin
But however much you like such works, the overwhelming majority of us won’t be displaying anything like that in our homes.

So we have, to an extent, seen an increasing divide between the public and the domestic in art terms: what is displayed in galleries and what we have on the walls of our own homes.

Not, of course, that that is new. Few of us will have had a Lowry for instance – but then again, many people did buy his paintings before they cost millions.

That prices for paintings by the East London Group are now growing is indicative of the rise in interest in the group.

So ‘domestic’ art – the art that we live with today – may be the masterpieces of tomorrow.
In the Neighbourhood, Marc Gooderham
And there is plenty around to enjoy.

That art schools in the UK at least no longer teach drawing is not indicative of a lack of top-notch, figurative painters working in the country right now, thankfully.

And the internet – and social media – can be a superb way of finding and watching some such artists.

So, to take just a few examples:

Escape from Change, Lee Madgwick
Lee Madgwick is a professional artist, living and working in Cambridgeshire, who trained originally as a graphic artist rather than in the fine arts that one might expect for a … well, a fine artist.

His paintings are extraordinarily haunting, often featuring decayed buildings or out-of-place objects in lush English countryside.

There’s something reminiscent of Magritte here, in these lonely, deeply atmospheric works, with their quiet suggestions of hidden dramas – and all beautifully executed in oil and acrylic.


The Thames from Richmond Park, Christian Furr
Christian Furr is particularly acclaimed for his portraits – in 1995, he became the youngest artist to be commissioned to paint the Queen.

Things have not, fortunately, gone downhill from that point.

Much of his work is by commission, but while his landscapes are utterly traditional, his cheese paintings are Impressionistic – and look good enough to eat.


The Apartment, Marc Gooderham
Marc Gooderham is a London-based painter whose work ranges across styles, from black and white drawings of his home city, to superb, hyper-real acrylic paintings of this and other cities, with several ports of call in between.

But he doesnt opt for the obvious subjects –  the smart, beautiful areas that suggest a tourist experience – but looks for and finds beauty and fascination in more run-down scenes, complete with graffiti and street art, in a meeting of the old and the new.

Indeed, the London scenes can be viewed as a intriguing continuum of what the East London Group were doing, with scenes from Brick Lane and around Hackney – buildings and streets that would have been around when the group were active and have somehow survived everything from the Blitz to the developers ever since.

Its another stage in Londons evolution – the street art that Marc records is even bringing visitors to areas that, previously, most people would have avoided.


Bins, Judith Alsop Miles
Judith Alsop Miles is a watercolourist whose subjects range from “the Pyrennes to the Pennines”.

Her paintings are gentle and beautifully executed, but dont let that fool you.

There are surprises in her subject matter too – her online gallery/shop includes a section of industrial paintings and then there are works such as a painting of a curving row of large wheelie bins in different colours.

Which illustrates once again – were it needed –  that you can find things to paint or draw in the most unlikely places, and they can look good.



Flower Shop, Allan Kirk
Allan Kirk is based in the South West of France – perhaps it’s no coincidence that I love his work so much, because I can recognise, if not a specific place, then the sense of the area as a whole.

There’s an enormous amount of pleasure in his work, which beautifully captures the area that he lives in.

Allan also runs Tarincolour Watercolour Holidays with his wife from their farmhouse. He teaches watercolour and has developed online tutorials for watercolour, and pen and ink.

His website has a huge number of galleries in which to let yourself get lost for a while.



Heron collograph, Maggie Goodwin
Rather differently – you’ll see why in a minute – is Maggie Goodwin.

Although she does paint, Maggie describes herself as primarily a printmaker from Yorkshire, who finds much of her inspiration in the open spaces of that county, and described her passion for nature as having begun in childhood, when she “gathered things which have taken my eye while out and about”.

Maggie started printmaking after taking a workshop in 2005 also creates works using hand-pulled etchings, collograph, drypoint and lino print.


Cheviot Stream, Mick Oxley
Mick Oxley is an artist and gallery owner in Northumberland.

He focuses on work that brings out the rugged beauty and the unpredictability of the region in which he lives and works, from the fells to the sea.

These subjects are perfectly matched by a style that is highly Impressionistic.

His gallery continues a wide range of work by other artists too.


The point about this all this is very simple: to dispel any myth that conceptual art reigns supreme and there are not plenty of wonderful artists out there using paint figuratively.

Their works range from modern takes on figurative painting to the more traditional, providing a vivid snapshot of just how alive and well figurative painting is in the UK today.

The few artists I’ve highlighted are just that – a very few – and I’ve deliberately avoided mentioning other artists who I have mentioned here before.

I hope you’ll explore – and enjoy – their work.

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