Revisiting David Stacey’s Natural World

Scientific latin flows easily as painter David Stacey and I talk about frogs in his gallery-studio in Kuranda, Tropical North Queensland, Australia.

David Stacey 17

Turning from the subject of Litoria xanthomera breeding in chlorinated swimming pools we move to view his painting of Litoria rothii. This fabulous rendering of a Northern Laughing Tree Frog clinging to a lichen covered tree with its sucker-like toe pads is simply exquisite. The identification points and character, or ‘jiz’, of this species, one that I know well and have painted myself, is captured to perfection. The fine, warty detail, camouflaging patterns and striking yellow and black ‘flash markings’ are, to me, deliciously amphibian. I want to touch it. I notice other frogs in the original works, reproductions and greetings cards around me. They all have the same effect on me.

David Stacey 18

Orange-thighed Tree Frog – Litoria xanthomera

David Stacey 19

Northern Laughing Tree Frog – Litoria rothii

I have written about David Stacey before. His work reveals a man deeply connected to his subjects; namely, the environments, ecologies and species of the world’s most ancient rainforests which are found only in this part of Australia. This connection seems to lead naturally, in his words, towards ‘obsession’. The sheer volume of his output since our last meeting does indeed testify to an obsession.

David Stacey 20

Pandanus fruit segments, beetles and other matter

David Stacey 21

Gmelina fasciculiflora

David is generous with his time. We talked about technique and style, composition and reference material. His style is unique; a ‘Stacey’ would be recognised anywhere. His latest major exhibition, featuring 70 paintings, was held at Brisbane’s prestigious Redhill Gallery during November 2016. The exhibition consisted mainly of his fine, pen and ink drawings which he then “colours in” with wonderfully opaque acrylic washes overlaid, where necessary, with thicker acrylic application. (All the works shown in this post are from the exhibition). We also discussed problems that being ‘artistic’ can bring!

David Stacey 22

Amorbus Sp – Davies Creek

David Stacey 23

Resting – Azure Kingfisher

However, it is David’s sense of composition that particularly impresses me. How he thinks his trademark compositions through to completion is a marvel. He balances colour, tone, form and space. He leads the eye; sometimes by not colouring or leaving something out. It is as if he considers your peripheral vision as well as your focus when composing. Clever! Some of his paintings leave me imagining what might be there that he has left out. This is the same feeling I get in the rainforest where so much is hidden in the green, luxuriant half-light.

David Stacey 24

Rose-crowned Fruit Dove

David Stacey 25

Emerald Dove

This compositional prowess effectively renders each painting far more than just a portrait of a species. (My own paintings, however hard I try, always end up being just that). David’s works stand alone as accomplished creations, pleasing to the eye, where the subject matter of the painting becomes simply one element among many that make up the whole.

David Stacey 26

Peacock Spider – Maratus speciosus

David Stacey 27

Harlequin Bug – Tectocoris diopthalmus

David has another ‘style’ which is extraordinary. He describes it as ‘surrealist’. It is these works that hold me in fascination as I explore them. They are conglomerations of images: landscapes, creatures and plants, abstract patterns and even maps. They are dream-like, thematic and thought-provoking and are woven together with his accomplished, compositional artistry.

David Stacey 28

The sky has fallen

David Stacey 29

Fragmentation

Our conversation was far more than just an interview for this post. I learned stuff! I also identified our shared obsessive need to portray the natural history that fills our minds with interest, respect and appreciation. We have in common those lonesome journeys and vigils in the wild places where we observe and photograph reference material and add to our knowledge and understanding of the wild. We talked of the difficulties of being obsessional ‘artists’ and how our work is profoundly personal being often difficult to market. At times, we have both ‘prostituted’ ourselves to create for a commercial market driven by conventions, expectations and desires of others. More than once David used the expression “money is corrupting”.

David Stacey 30

Double-eyed Fig Parrot

David Stacey 31

Zodiac Moth – Alcides metaurus

These days in Kuranda are my last in Australia. I am about to migrate back to Britain after four years of trying, unsuccessfully, to assimilate into life here. But David Stacey is where he should be. As a man so connected to the rainforests of his home he clearly understood my similar connection to the natural history of Britain and Europe. We spoke of the recognised phenomenon where an Aborigine may die if removed from his ‘country.’ In this extraordinary painter-naturalist, I found a kindred spirit who understood and acknowledged my expression, ‘homesickness is a gentle term for grief’.

A Letter to Tracey Emin

This is a guest post by Bonnie Golightly.

Tracey Emin 1

Tracey Emin “My Bed,” Installation, 1998

Dear Tracey,

I know you’ve come in for quite some stick for “My Bed.” Is that really art? Anybody could have done that! How was that shortlisted for the 1999 Turner Prize? etc. etc. I have to admit I was a bit baffled myself. (Was it really worth that much?) But as I tootled happily around Tate Britain the other day, I happened upon “My Bed.” I found myself intrigued, then mesmerised and ultimately quite moved.

The blurb on the wall says “By virute of bringing the domestic into the public sphere without directly representing specific events, the installation is forcefully and compellingly suggestive of personal narratives.” I’ll say! I stood and looked. I walked around. I then realised that “My Bed” was boring into my heart. The mess of the soiled sheets together with the bedside scut of discarded underwear, fluffy toys, well-worn slippers, vodka, cigarettes and KY recalled a whole raft of good, bad, sad and indifferent moments of my life. So many things and times I might – or might not – want to leave behind! And then, to my surprise, I found the sad, saccharine squalor of it all quite eye-watering. In fact, it made my day. So, thank you, Tracey. I hope you’re doing OK now.

Lots of love,

Bonnie

PS I really went to Tate Britain to see the Frank Auerbach exhibition. Not my cup of tea!

PPS As you know, “My Bed” is installed next to two Francis Bacon paintings and a series of your own drawings. I’ve never liked FB’s paintings.

PPPS I need help with your drawings.

Tracey Emin 2

Tracey Emin “I could feel you” Gouache on paper, 2014

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.

Susan Gunn 2

“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.

Susan Gunn 5

“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.

Susan Gunn 6

“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.

Twenty years of Pop Art at Galerie ID

Galerie ID 1

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Galerie ID in Carouge, Geneve. To celebrate, Isabelle Dunkel is planning a sparkling retrospective from 23 September to 17 October. Beautiful stuff by all the major pop artists she has hosted here will be on display. A friend whom she admires greatly is Roger Pfund, creative giant and the only living artist whose work has been exhibited at Geneva’s Museum of Art and History. It’s a fitting tribute to Isabelle that he put together her invitation.

Galerie ID 2

I call in to see Isabelle. I get a warm welcome as usual. But this time, it is her I want to interview. She’s not keen to talk about herself. She obviously thinks the story of la galerie is more interesting than the story of ID. (This could be hard work!) So… Born in Paris (I didn’t ask the year.) Traveling childhood (11 different schools.) A year in England (loved it.) Trained in languages (four.) Married young (a banker from Geneva.) Grown children (two.) Why pop art? (A hint of enthusiasm for this conversation.) Always loved “art.” Went to the USA in 1992. Saw and fell for the work of James Rizzi. Started a small collection. Met the man himself and offered to represent him in Switzerland. The story of Galerie ID starts here.

Galerie ID 3

James Rizzi “Girls Like Flowers” 1997

Girls like flowers! So take some along to the birthday girl whose efforts to bring Rizzi’s work to this town were laughed at. “He’s too American!” “It’s just commercial!” And of course… “It’s not ART!” But she had the last laugh. In her first five years of business she sold more than one thousand pieces of Rizzi’s wonderful, whacky stuff. On the back of this success her rapidly expanding portfolio grew to include names such as Robert Indiana and Alex Katz. She now runs the only gallery in Geneva dedicated to Pop Art and is an ardent promoter of limited-edition prints as an art form to be valued.

I ask Isabelle what she sees as her greatest achievement. The answer is surprising and immediate with neither preparation nor pretension. She is proud of the accessibility of what she shows. Drawn by pop images, people who would never think of going into a gallery come in off the street. She wants her exhibitions to brighten the day of anyone and everyone. Popular art! Popular appeal! And now she has really warmed to her subject. I dare to ask what makes her heart sing. Do I see a blush? Pop music!! Beatles? Yes! Rolling Stones? Yes! Michael Jackson? Fabulous! Who else? Supertramp! Abba? Yes! Daft punk? Of course! Taylor swift? Not my cup of tea! Mrs Dunkel is just Miss Pop at heart.

Jeff Schaller 1

Last year I had the privilege of meeting Jeff Schaller at his second exhibition at Galerie ID. He pays tribute to Jasper Johns – one of the doyennes of Pop Art – who famously said “just take something and add to it.” Let’s acknowledge what Isabelle Dunkel has been doing with passion and success for the last twenty years. She’s taken James Rizzi and added accessible Pop Art. Enjoy!

Discovering Phillip Payne of Santa Fe, New Mexico

Phillip Payne 1

Phillip Payne: Visions of an Iron Horse

For a man in love with the Old West I astound myself sometimes with what I don’t know about it! I was completely unaware of ‘Western Art’ until, by happy accident, I was funnelled off Interstate 25 into the heart of New Mexico’s capital, Santa Fe, during a nine week, solo road trip across The West earlier this year. But for this, I would have driven past the World’s second largest art market after NYC and missed discovering this genre. As I intend to write more about it in Talking Beautiful Stuff, I will concentrate here on the man who introduced me to it.

Phillip Payne 2

Phillip Payne at work on: Quanah Parker, the Battle of Blanco Canyon.

For two days I explored the downtown streets of this small, attractive, unusual and classy city lying in the heart of one of America’s most remote, arid and empty regions. Native American pottery and turquoise jewellery of the highest quality filled exquisite emporiums. Galleries by the hundred purveyed every kind of art imaginable and with this sophistication and wealth came comparable coffee houses, restaurants and gift shops. However, having this lifelong fascination for The Old West, I was drawn to the galleries that displayed bronzes and paintings of cowboys, Indians, buffalo and horses and awe-inspiring western landscapes. In one of these I met the gallery director Phillip Payne. His welcome to a road-weary scruff, who clearly couldn’t afford any of the wonders offered in his extremely classy gallery, was a delight that many gallery directors could take a lesson from. We fell into good conversation. At this point I had no idea who I was talking to. I soon discovered that Phillip is also a sculptor, creating powerful bronzes of many subjects including those with a ‘western’ theme. As an extra attraction to the gallery for browsing visitors, he works on an on-going piece using an oily clay.

Phillip Payne 3

Phillip Payne: Beethoven: Feeling the Music

He showed me his bronze: “Beethoven: Feeling the Music.” He read out the words of Beethoven engraved into the piano lid: “Had I not read somewhere that a man should not quit this life so long as he can still perform a good deed, I would have left this Earth long ago and by my own hand at that. I can’t imagine leaving this World without taking the art God has placed in my soul and putting it to pen for others to hear.” This clearly echoed his own feelings as I saw him gulp with emotion. Here was a man who appeared profoundly involved with his creations and it was at this point that I decided that the readers of Talking Beautiful Stuff should know of him. I was privileged to be allowed an interview. In the half hour or so that we talked we both found ourselves close to tears as we discussed the influence of our deceased fathers upon us. It was a moving experience for me. I found Phillip to be completely without pretension and very sincere about the reason for and the philosophy surrounding his creative talent.

Phillip Payne 4

Phillip Payne: Breaking Camp

If you visit Phillip’s website you are greeted with his words: ‘To create art is to bare your soul in the hopes that you will find a kindred spirit in the hearts of others’. This declaration is close to his answer to my question, “Why do you create?” He told me something along the lines of his desire to share with others the things that move him and better his life but unfortunately, over my travels, I lost my notes of our interview where I recorded his words verbatim. However, I well remember how unusually selfless his personal philosophy was and also my scepticism about this as it doesn’t fit with my ideas about creative people! By the end of the interview though, I was convinced that here was an extremely rare being – a truly altruistic artist.

Phillip Payne 5

Phillip Payne: Canyon Sanctuary

I was now aware that Phillip’s father was Ken Payne, sadly deceased, but not yet aware of Ken’s stature in America as a sculptor. Phillip spoke fondly, with some emotion, of his tutelage under the kind and patient eye of his father and showed me his influence upon him as a sculptor. Phillip likes to create moments from western history that have importance to him and to bring awareness to others of the greatness of some of the leaders in the Native American struggle against white Manifest Destiny such as Quanah Parker of the Comanche Nation.

Having said farewell to Phillip I visited other galleries and discovered that I had fallen upon the mother lode of creators in bronze, a veritable ‘ant nest’ of brilliance. Ken Payne, his sons Vic and Phillip Payne and Vic’s son Dustin are all celebrated and tremendous sculptors within the genre of what I now recognised as ‘Western Art’. Vic’s daughter Jordyn is a painter of the most vibrant and gorgeous, western  landscapes. What a family! The artistic gene proves its existence!

Phillip Payne 6

Phillip Payne: If it ain’t got that swing

As I journeyed on I saw many ‘Paynes’ creating wonderful moments as they graced the streets, parks, museums and galleries of The West’s towns and cities. I confess to relishing the change in attitude displayed by ‘Western Art’ gallery directors when I mentioned that I had interviewed Phillip Payne! The Payne family commands enormous respect in America.

Phillip Payne is a very young man and is already an accomplished and acclaimed sculptor. I believe that he has a glittering career ahead of him that can only blossom when fuelled by such a kind and unselfish philosophy towards his creative nature.