Cave paintings in the twenty-first century?

Isaac calls me. “Hey, buddy, what going on with the advertising spaces in Geneva? Half the billboards are just covered with plain white paper. People have started to paint on them.” I grab my camera, hop on my bike and head into town.

Cave paintings 1

My first stop is right outside the University Hospital. Brilliant! This rapidotriptych by p2 recalls those ubiquitous questionnaires. So…. after your visit to hospital, were you unsatisfied, more-or-less satisfied or very satisfied with your treatment?

It’s cold. I freewheel down to the Plain Palais area.

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I find a bit of inner warmth in this rather beautifully designed rainbow-love-eye. Next to it is RZINO’s grotesque zombie face.

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This is fascinating. I think it most likely that an ad agency has gone bust and not having material to stick up has simply painted its billboards white. I’m a sucker for street painting but there’s always the reasonable debate whether such work is beautiful stuff or vandalism. In my view, if someone leaves open white spaces like this all-around town, then those shadowy figures armed with brush or spray can would reasonably see this as an invitation to set about their business. It’s difficult to call this vandalism; my pendulum of judgement swings towards beautiful stuff.

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This is by “Charles drawin'”?? Clever! Is his work the outcome of natural selection? Charles has been busy; he has covered about twenty billboards. His slick, rapid brush strokes hang between abstract and the figurative. Here, I sort of see a lady running in billowing skirts with a dog hurrying along beside her. I’ve seen less interesting stuff in the most exclusive of galleries.

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And take a look at this! @CRBZ.TYPO has covered the white with mat black and then overlain sumptuous interwoven arabesque golden curves. I am reminded of the liveries of exclusive Middlle-Eastern airlines. Amazing to encounter this “on the street.”

I head over to the other side of town. I find two billboards taken over by half a sun.

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In orbit around our blazing sun are three planets. The blue planet (Earth), the red planet (Mars) and what is obviously a bigger Saturn. A lonely little voice says “Allo”!? reflecting our constant search – or hope – for some kind of cosmic life-form that, we believe, will understand our greeting and respond appropriately. I also love the little random splashes of blue paint. A little bit of chaos theory thrown in?

What is happening on these cold white ad spaces is really exciting. It has a raw appeal. It’s straight from the guts. At the same time, much of it is technically accomplished. (It beats the edndless ads for health and beauty spas, visiting circuses, luxury watches and political parties.) What makes this different from other “art forms” is that it results from people doing their beautiful stuff unbidden and unpaid. Many of us would not even recognise it as “art” (whatever that might be.) I reflect on some aboriginal rock paintings I saw last year in Australia and, in turn, all those famous cave paintings that cause such excitement. So, here’s the question: If there’s no element of vandalism, does filling these empty billboards represent a primal human urge to leave a mark for others? A mark that indicates what I see, what I fear, what I hope for or what I believe in? Are we looking at the equivalent of cave paintings in the twenty-first century?

Maybe other readers of Talking Beautiful Stuff have taken an interest in what is happening on our streets? Have you got photos of other billboards that you think we should see? Send them to us. We’ll try and find your favourite, contact the modern cave-painter and do a feature on his or her work.

Before you go….. look what stared out at me from the shadows as I waited for a tram last night!

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All the American fun of the fair!

American fun 1

It’s that time of year! The Fête de Genève. The main event of the annual civic calendar. The Cartoons for Peace exhibit is removed from the lakefront. Articulated lorries swing into the centre of town loaded with the unlikely metal constructions of a hundred shows and rides. Shouting in a dozen languages, muscled and tattooed young men bolt and hammer the whole scene into place.

American fun 2

It is a couple of days before the Lake Festival begins. It is mid-morning but there are already thousands of tourists ambling about. Selfie city. Rock music blasts out. Hotel California. Johnny Be Good. Spicy smoke from Asian food in preparation stings my eyes. I notice a small 116 year-old carrousel. In this setting it is rather understated and dignified. The decoration has a by-gone charm. There is even a hand-painted and quite passable landscape of a Swiss lake with famous centuries-old boats. So cute!

I decide to look more closely at the artwork on some other attractions. Maybe not so cute but fascinating nevertheless. The circus theme is predictable.

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Most are decorated by spray paint. There is beautiful stuff to be found here. I can’t help wondering who these master aerosol-painters are. Is this the day-job for hooded graffiti taggers?

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A panel with a hundred bulbs is bolted into place. Jacko! Then I spot Elvis!

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In a moment of giddying perception, I realise that, in fact, the main visual theme of the whole show is Pop Americana!

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Why American objects such as big American trucks or American football helmets should excite us to the point that we dig into our pockets and spend hard-earned money on being turned upside down at high speed and nauseated is difficult to comprehend. But it’s all part of the atmosphere… I guess!

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Above all, the dominant theme of these technically brilliant works is Disney. The origins maybe American but the appeal is global and the images universally associated with good times, fun and laughter. This must be America’s biggest cultural export ever.

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I couldn’t resist snapping Space Ranger Buzz Lightyear, my favourite Disney character. He’s just so duty-bound and lovable but poignantly dim. He invites us into some cosmic whirligig. Subliminal message: even if you are scared out of your wits, good old Buzz will look after you!

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Right next to Fun City Vegas Super Nevada Paradise is Ali Baba. I am not sure what Ali is offering as the construction is, inshallah, ongoing. Somehow, given the current state of Americana, I just don’t think a fairground stall with a middle-eastern theme including camels and bedouin tents (but Disney-style treasure chests!) will have a great success. I’ll go back soon and bring you an update.

If you go down to the lakefront in the next days, you really don’t need to take a ride. Just take in some of the decoration! Send us a photo or two!

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.

Ariana 1

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.

Ariana 2

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.

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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

Rio Olympics 1

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.

Rio Olympics 3

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.