Lunch at the Ariana

I am early for a lunch meeting at the Ariana Museum. I take a seat in the discrete little restaurant. The tables are as yet empty. There is a display of large china dishes and vases. Not so surprising given this museum’s standing in the world of ceramics and glassware.

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Jan De Vliegher “China Blue V&A” 2014 Acrylic on canvas

Then a double-take. This is not a display case. It’s a painting! I approach Jan De Vliegher‘s “China Blue V&A” in awe. The realism is extraordinary.

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Detail of China Blue V&A

More extraordinary still is that the tones, perspective and depth of field have been produced by a combination of the boldest of brush strokes, splashes and drips; a technique rarely associated with, let alone accomplishing, realism. I can’t draw my eyes away from this painting. This is master-class beautiful stuff.

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Paul March “In Pulverum Speramus” Clay, 2015

After lunch, I look around the rest of the museum. In a corner by a door I stumble upon something recognisably from the studio of Paul March. Five smooth ceramic forms are arranged in the pose of a sleeping dog. I want to pick up each part and heft it in my hand. The whole is pleasing. Although caught between abstraction and canine imagary, the piece captures the awkwardness of man’s best friend lying on a hard floor. The title is “In Pulverum Speramus.” My schoolboy latin tells me this reads something like “We hope in the dust.” (Perhaps Paul will tell us the “why” of this title?) His work has a way of finding corners in the Ariana. Remember his spider?

Nice day! Lunch with surprises! But then the Ariana has a way of serving up surprises.

Meeting Susan Gunn

I am due to meet Susan Gunn at the opening of her new exhibition at Mandells gallery in Norwich. I look around. The canvases are stylish. The whole show is calming. The press dossier tells me that Susan was born into a Bolton mining family in 1965 and that she gained an Art Degree at Norwich. It details countless exhibitions, commissions and prizes including, in 2006, the Sovereign European Painting Prize.

Susan Gunn 1

Friends and admirers arrive. Journalists vie for Susan’s attention. She has that rare quality of being able to soak up admiration whilst making it all feel like friendship. Fortunately for me, she is generous with her time. I tell her that Talking Beautiful Stuff is about the narrative behind beautiful stuff that creative people do. She allows me to dig a bit. Her own narrative of the journey from Bolton to Mandell’s is recounted with lucidity and modesty. It is an eye-watering story of talent and success winning over loss and sadness.

A “special gift for art” was noticed by a school teacher. She went on to, and soon dropped out of, Bolton Art School. She set up a successful wedding dress company. She fell in love. She moved to Norwich. She married. She became a student again. She became a mother. She lost her daughter. She suffered an immense grief. She managed to pick up both herself and her family life. She then returned to painting.

Her most recent accomplishment is a commissioned 20 metre work for the Enterprise Centre at the University of East Anglia (“one of the greenest and most sustainable buildings in Europe.”) “Terra Memoria I S,” a smaller version, is part of this exhibition.

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“Terra Memoria I S,” Natural pigments, wax and gesso on canvas 200 cm x 40 cm (approx) 2015

I ask Susan what three words apply best to her work. “Earth, infinity..” she reflects for a few seconds “.. and death.” She talks about how her father couldn’t remove all the coal dust from under his fingernails, the near-spirituality of whiteness, her ritual polishing of a certain grave stone and how, with her work, she aims to forge a link between age-old techniques, things primitive, nature and contemporary painting. Everything is rational. There is no artspeak.

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“Divided Ground: Square II,” Natural pigments, wax and gesso on canvas 150 cm x 70 cm (approx) 2015

All her paintings carry a visual theme of natural colours with polished surfaces riven with cracks. The appeal is immediate; some fundamental matter is fractured but nevertheless holds together. There is a promise of recreation; of good things. The contrast between the clean crisp lines, the colours and the organic, complex forms is mesmerising. I am drawn into a kind of imaginary space where Susan insists that I stop and reflect on the cracking paint of a lovely old shed or sun-dried riverside mud. My imagination advances; the cracked paint and the fissured mud are cleanly cut into precise rectangles on her studio floor.

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“Divide Ground: Orchid Yellows,” Natural pigments, wax and gesso on canvas 70 cm x 70 cm (approx) 2013

I ask Susan about her influences. Top of the list is Alberto Burri who executed a number of “cracked” paintings in the 1970s. The process that Susan has mastered involves age-old materials and techniques. She employs a traditional gesso made of chalk and an authentic glue binder. Its propensity to crack is usually regarded as an undesired flaw. However, she remembers the thrill when she first noticed the complex beauty of fissures appearing in her paint. This was her moment. This was a recall of past, earthy and heartfelt things. Since, she has learnt how the apparent randomness of the cracks in her gesso can, to an extent, be pre-determined by the tension in the canvas, the amount of water in the mix and the ambient room temperature. The natural pigments include coal dust (unsurprisingly,) cochineal, lapis lazuli and suffolk linseed. The final stage involves grinding and waxing the surface by hand.

As we talk, I look around at her paintings. The highs and lows of her life, the evolution of her process and the aesthetic outcome of that process are three intertwined and interdependent strands of one uplifting narrative; one strand can only be appreciated in the light of the other two. Inevitably, I become another admirer of Susan Gunn and her work. Meeting her is a rare privilege.

Celebrating the 2016 Rio Olympics with “naïve” Brazilian paintings

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Fabio Sombra, Untitled Acrylic on board, 54 cm x 72 cm, 2000

I just love this picture! Fabio Sombra painted it with the idea of the Olympic Games in Rio on a far horizon. At first pass, you might be forgiven for thinking it is done by a talented child. At second pass, you would notice the graded sky, the perfect composition, the balance of colour and the convincing anatomical pose of each athlete. On further consideration, you would take in the multiple ingenious details from the cameraman at the foot of the Olympic steps (who, confused by the abundance of scenes, is pointing his camera at one thing whilst looking at another) to the two little Red Cross guys helping an injured and grimacing athlete off the track. Of course, Brazil wins!

This is no childish work but there is an innocent charm about Sombra’s painting. It is naïve! It makes me happy. It has a James Rizzi appeal. It features on the invitation to the current exhibition “Rio Naïf et les Jeux Olympiques” at Espace L.

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Gerson, Untitled, Oil on board, 24cm x 19cm, 1994

I call in at Espace L. Its founder, Laeticia Amas, believes that naïve Brazilian paintings have not been shown in Geneva before. I find the whole narrative fascinating and can’t help smiling and swinging along with Gerson’s two happy-cool-clown-trapeze artists.

As an Olympic celebration, the exhibition is set to travel this year to other Swiss destinations with close collaboration between Espace L and the Museu Internacional de Arte Naïf do Brasil (MIAN) in Rio, the Basel-based foundation Brasilea and the Consulate General of Brazil in Geneva.

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Magda Mittakis, Untitled, Acrylic on multiple boards, 24cm x 19cm each, 2015

According to Jacqueline A Finkelstein, conservator of MIAN, the term “naïve” was originally applied to the work of Henri Rousseau (1844-1910) who started painting his signature jungle scenes in his forties and famously said he had “no teacher other than nature.” This glorious montage of small paintings by Magda Mittakis shows just how enduring Rousseau’s influence is.

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Barbara Deister, “Brasil, campeo natacao” Acrylic on board, 30cm x 20cm, 2015

The exhibition is also dedicated to the paralympics. Barbara Deister’s naïve gem shows amputees on the medal podium for a swimming event, an ecstatic crowd and – inexplicably and wonderfully (or maybe just naïvely!) – a white duck in the pool! And of course, Brazil wins! It’s fabulous!

Bravo, Espace L … and good luck with this ambitious project!

The exhibition runs until 5 March.

The expressions and emotions of Alyaa Kamel

Alyaa Kamel 1

I get a message from Facebook: the 13th November is Alyaa Kamel’s birthday. Another message tells me it is the first day of her new exhibition. Galerie Cimaise has risen to the challenge of showing her “Expressions and Emotions.” Go to this exhibition. Do not expect to see representations of people’s expressions and emotions. You will find Alyaa Kamel’s people but the expressions and emotions are all hers. This is, after all, #alyaakamel: emoting on-line and “out there.”

Alyaa Kamel 2

A large canvas reveals her fascination for tagging. It is a crush of hopeless, expressionless people: her main theme. I remain convinced that her inspiration is driven by the all-too-frequent images from daily news: thousands of poor middle-eastern souls in crisis. I try to nail down her thoughts. She cleverly responds in a meaningful abstractness. With a gush of words, she throws ideas at me such as humanity, inheritance, memories and genes. I push…. “We all have our secrets, Robin!”

Alyaa Kamel 3

Another large canvas moves the theme to the individual. The face is grotesque and haunting. One eye is closed. The nose is broken. The lips are mashed. In describing what was in her mind when covering it with glue and kitchen film she loses me. I see only an attempt to obliterate one of those poor middle-eastern souls in crisis; only this time the crisis has been meted out at a personal level. By my interpretation, this is the battered and bruised face of the final interrogation.

This exhibition carries 36 pieces. Alyaa’s expressions and emotions may be elusive but she has a lot to say and she says it better with her drawings and paintings than with her words. The ensemble of the person and her work is contemporary, enigmatic and intriguing. A visit to Galerie Cimaise will not disappoint.

Aboriginal rock paintings in Brisbane

Aboriginal rock 1

It is hot and humid. I am in a natural reserve near the heart of Brisbane, Queensland. I walk up to the J.C. Slaughter waterfalls. There are only rocks. The river is dry. A sign indicates “Aboriginal Art”. A small plaque tells me that these rock paintings from 1993 celebrate the International Year of the World’s Indigenous People and that the aboriginal artists are Laurie Nilsen, Marshall Bell, Laurie Graham and Mark Garlett.

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Blow-painting – with dyes spat from the mouth – was a prominent feature of aboriginal painting. Hands and hunting boomerangs were frequently used as stencils. Here, the paintings include, in white, macropod (e.g. kangaroo) tracks. The works have an instant and earthy appeal. I find them beautiful. They take me closer to an ancient culture born of a harsh environment.

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A fabulous serpentine form uncoils itself from under the over-hanging rock. I guess snakes feature so prominently in aboriginal folklore because, even today, they represent the greatest danger for anyone who goes walkabout.

Aboriginal rock 4

A few metres away is a human figure. It is as though the painters wanted to represent the future observer of their beautiful stuff. Is it therefore me?!! Maybe it is J.C. Slaughter himself, the civic-minded administrator who expanded the public amenities of 1960s Brisbane? (I can find no link between him and the falls; he certainly wasn’t their European “discoverer”!)

Despite the fact that these paintings are only twenty-two years old, I accept that they are “aboriginal.” They represent creative impulses of people who were the owners and custodians of this parched land for thousands of years before Captain Cook sailed into Botany Bay and the painters are, I assume, descended from these people. As I walk back down the dusty track, a young woman jogs past; she wears Nike shoes, a pink lycra top and an iPhone strapped to her left upper arm. I reflect on the dual and incomparable stories of humanity’s existence on this huge dry continent. A kookaburra cackles its laugh at me. I have a feeling that the bird is ridiculing my attempt to understand what these paintings really mean for aborigine people. But then, maybe it is just telling me to go away.