I can’t say that art has always been in my blood. There are no family connections and there were no childhood interests in painting, unless you can include ripping and scribbling on my bedroom wallpaper. Maybe these formative works were shaping a preference for the avante-garde?
My first day at school is remembered for being reduced to tears at the prospect of having to draw. We were given a piece of paper and pencil and asked to make a drawing, I didn’t know what to do, not much has changed.
It was not until my early teens, when I took up photography in school, that I remember becoming interested in art. At last I’d found something that excited me and I took to it quickly. Prior to this, pictures in books- be they photographic or illustrations fascinated me, but I didn’t know why. I just remember being more inclined to look at images in books and magazines rather than read the text and I would play the game of judging which images I liked best. I would also do this at home every year with Christmas cards. Looking back I can see how this relates to my visual sense, not only for the importance of training the eye, but it is also linked to my interest in aesthetics and the importance of making value judgments.
At age sixteen I went to college to gain the qualifications to study photography. Art was one of the subjects, and in 1979 we were taken to a Post Impressionist exhibition in London- I was blown away. Not just by the paintings themselves, but also the methods used. Seeing them in the flesh was so different and better than print. I’d not been aware of how raw and far removed from realism this art was. I still see people today looking surprised when they see this for the first time. Not being the most naturally gifted at representational drawing, I was encouraged and soon began to paint in a manner inspired especially by Toulouse-Lautrec and Van Gogh. This freed me from the frustrations and difficulties that my lack of traditional drawing skills caused. I began to experiment and enjoy a licence to make art.
Here is a painting from around this time:
My interest in painting grew. In 1981 I enrolled at college again, now taking art at pre-art school level. I visited art museums more and was tending to be influenced by the modern stuff, by now having an appreciation of the likes of Picasso and Klee. By 1983 I was familiar with Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism. This was soon showing in my work as I began to experiment with automatism through doodle-like drawing, sourcing from within rather than from the exterior world. Whether doodling with a ballpoint pen or applying paint, the same basic principles of spontaneity apply. This grounding in using the subconscious is still the basis for my painting today, although now I work in a much more structured and skilful way.
Doodle with Collage C.1985
I failed to go the next stage by being declined a place on an art foundation course and succumbing to the follies of youth, I dropped out of college and decided I would become a self-taught artist. My painting now developed more slowly and although I occasionally made a good picture, my lack of focus caused an enormous setback.
Over the next few years, I did some painting here and there entering many art competitions and submitted for group shows always being rejected. I twice applied to participate at Sir Anthony Caro’s Triangle Workshop.
After complaining about my second time rejection, to my surprise, Caro’s assistant called me, saying that Caro would like to meet me. I showed him some small paintings, some of which he liked, there were about three to which he referred to as beautiful and that greatly encouraged me. Along with some painting tips, he insisted that I go to art school; this was not what I wanted to hear.
Eventually I got my act together and joined an art foundation course in 1990. This was with the intention of going on to do an art/painting degree or a combination with photography.
A lot of emphasis was placed on life drawing and preparatory studies for paintings. This is not the way I work, I function as a spontaneous artist. This does not mean that there is no substance behind the work – on the contrary – my pictures draw from my acquired knowledge, experiences and skills. Even now when I try to play it safe and enlarge on practiced small work, the transition doesn’t work, it has to be direct.
The impulsive gestures of hand and eye response are critical to the success of my paintings. This is what works for me. As Clement Greenberg said: “You cannot prescribe to art” he also said: ”There’s only one rule in art and that is to be good”. But this kind of thinking did not go down well and I was soon given the ultimatum to either adopt a more tangible approach to painting and to aim for photography as a vocation or be off the course. Being weaker willed in those days and owing to the pressures of my circumstances, I complied with these demands. I opted for photography and in 1991, enrolled on an art based photographic course. From then on my art education centred on photography through which I gained a BA and MA.
So from 1991 until around 2004, painting took a back seat. I still kept up some interest, but photography dominated my creative life. I enjoyed photography and despite my style being either documentary or commercial, the education I received and my approach was always art-based. I learnt a great deal as my eye continued to develop, still applying a quick reaction- Greenberg philosophy to recognising aesthetic quality. (I will elaborate on this more in future writings).
The teaching I received encouraged breaking the rules of convention. Perhaps the greatest lesson that photography taught me is the universality of subject matter. Anything has the potential to look good and convey meaning in an image, be it a flower or rotting cabbage. As an abstract painter, this translates to what materials/methods can be used and what subjects can be suggested. Abstraction can convey something of our experiences, not only visual but also spiritually and emotionally.
Painting has always been my real passion. I have not altogether abandoned photography and I’m sure it will sometime feature with my painting in some way. Since I returned to occasionally making some small paintings in 2002, a conviction within me to pursue painting has grown ever stronger.
By 2006, now much more active in painting and seeking inspiration from what had been happening on the art scene, I felt the need to seek out more than what I was familiar with. I’d been a great admirer of certain painters. Visits to London impressed me with the likes of Hoyland, John Mclean, Tapies and non-abstract artists like John Ballany, but especially Jules Olitski and Kenneth Noland. But I was having a hard time finding something more contemporary and then one evening I had the thought: I wonder what Kenworth Moffett is up to these days. I was familiar with his books on Olitski and Noland and I’d read an interview with Clement Greenberg in the eighties, where the critic complemented Moffett on having a good eye. This rare endorsement from Greenberg still resonated with me.
I looked Kenworth Moffett up on the Internet and to my surprise, his online Artletter appeared. Along with lots of writings, the Artletter featured many examples of New New Painting, a movement I’d never heard of. Despite the inadequacies of screen reproduction, there was enough to recognise that there was some highly progressive and original work here.
Soon after this, I called Mr Moffett to ask if I could visit him and see his collection. He was very obliging and so alongside an art viewing trip to New York, I met Kenworth Moffett, who has very kindly afforded me much of his time. I took to most of the works immediately, recognising their originality and tremendous visual qualities. I could see how they had moved on from Olitski and at the same time showed links with earlier movements from the early twentieth century along with Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism. They did also challenge my eye though, and I did have difficulty getting to grips with the increased plasticity and garishness of some of the works.
On my second visit about a year and half later, I was much more at ease and could now appreciate ones I hadn’t been sure about. On this second trip I also visited some of the artists at their studios and this was yet again a big eye opener. This gave me a much clearer view of the unique qualities of individual painters and where they are currently at.
When I got home from the first visit, I took on a more experimental approach to painting. A big factor with New New is the plethora of innovations with materials and colour. From here on I experimented more in regard to trying other mediums such as gels and metallic colours. Through much trial and error, I have continued to explore new possibilities for my painting. The New New have certainly provided a springboard from which I can push my work forward
I now devote most of my time to painting, I have recently acquired a studio for the first time and seek to develop my work in a way that is modernist, expressive, powerful, original and true to the traditions of a medium that has not run out of steam. The fresh possibilities for painting are as alive as ever.