Celebrity Beautiful Stuff

George W Bush said of his Russian counterpart “Vladimir Putin is a man I could do business with.” Despite its sixth-form style, I’m sure this portrait captures the real sentiments of most world leaders: “I am not sure I want to do business with Vladimir Putin, but I don’t have a lot of choice!”

Celebrity 1

“Vladimir Putin” by George W Bush 2013, 35cm x 25cm, Medium unknown. Copyright: Art of Leadership, Dallas, Bush Foundation

This painting was, in fact, done by George W Bush. If I am allowed an opinion, I think the Putin portrait reveals what the painter felt about the subject: a mixture of fear and respect. This possibly insightful work is the most interesting part of the former US President’s “Art of Leadership” exhibition in which he lavishly displays his own portraits of world leaders (and his dog.) But are they good? Do they have some additional “artistic” merit because of their provenance? Would they demand a higher price than exactly the same work done by, for example, a not terribly talented art student? You bet they would!

Celebrity 2

“View over Chartwell” by Winston Churchill (year unkown) 50cm x 41cm, Oil on canvas.

The notion that “W” was powerful leader and painter, brought to mind a visit to the Royal Academy in London a few years ago. I saw – and admit to being not too impressed by – a room full of paintings by Winston Churchill. Recently, a different landscape of his Chartwell home sold at Sotheby‘s for £1 million. So let’s ask another question. If the painter has or had the power to change the destiny of the world, does the picture have additional value because of who painted it? You bet it does! But this is not just about powerful leaders. What it comes down to is our fascination with celebrity.

A few weeks ago, I was in Guildford’s chic and cheerful high street. The stylish Forest Gallery seemed like a good place to flush out some beautiful stuff. And so it proved to be; I found celebrity beautiful stuff! One wall had signed limited-edition prints by Ronnie Wood, Bob Dylan, and Billy Connolly. The gallery’s owner, Washington Green, specialises in works by these celebrities.

Celebrity 3

“Rhino” by Ronnie Wood 2005, 62cm x 47cm Screenprint. Copyright: Ronnie Wood Gallery

Rolling Stone, Ronnie Wood, went to Ealing Art School. He kept on painting throughout his whole rocking career. I love this dozy “Rhino” screenprint. However, most of his paintings feature members of the legendary band. The Forest Gallery also had a stunning original of Sir Mick Jagger in action. Would I want a Ronnie Wood print on my wall? Maybe, if I could afford it. Would I want to own an original and show my friends? You bet I would!

Celebrity 4

“Favela Villa Broncos” by Bob Dylan 2009, 107cm x 142cm Acrylic on canvas. Copyright: Gargosian Gallery

Despite the enduring presence of Bob Dylan’s music throughout my life and having enjoyed his tangled autobiography “Chronicles,” I never knew he sketched and painted and has done so for 40 years. “Favela Villa Broncos” is one of many ordinary scenes he favours. His “Drawn Blank” series painted between 1989 and 1992 is exhibited in New York and has caused a bit of a stir. But critics have used terms like “less-than-museum-level-artwork” and “art connoisseurs may question the quality.” Here’s my opinion: the man who has probably had the greatest influence on modern music (No Dylan, no Beatles!) has put paint on paper. The result resonates mysteriously with his music. In other words: THIS IS BOB DYLAN’S STUFF!  Whatever the New York art critics say, New York art collectors seem to agree and are prepared to pay up to $300,000 for one of his pieces.

Celebrity 5

“Self Portrait with High Horse” by Billy Connolly 2011, 56cm x 51cm, Drawing print on watercolour paper. Copyright: Washington Green

Comedian, musician and film actor Billy Connolly has only very recently taken up drawing. Apparently, in 2007, he ducked into an arts supply store in Montreal to escape the rain. Buying pencils and paper seemed like a good idea. He initially hid his doodlings from view but they have since developed into an exhibited series “Born on a Rainy Day.” Beautiful stuff? I’m not sure. But I like them. They are simple but distinctive. There is something that speaks to the Big Yin’s cutting sense of humour. Bear in mind, he’s Glaswegian. Maybe his “Self Portrait with High Horse” is a memo to self – and others – about not getting on a high horse? The prints can be ordered on-line for £700 each.

Talking Beautiful Stuff is about the narrative behind the human impulse to create. We do not aim to comment on, let alone critique, the output of that process alone. The “who” is as important as the “what,” “when,” “where” and the “how” of beautiful stuff. And the “who” is especially important when it comes to celebrities. Let’s admit it!

Humans are fascinated by celebrity. This is part of our nature. Individuals of every culture and, importantly, every primate group are constantly alert to the doings of those who have superior authority, standing or prestige. Whether alphas, royals or warriors, it is these people that determine our security, access to resources and possibilities of greater prestige for ourselves. This hard-wired fascination extends to others with whom these important people are consorting. In this way, we get to understand the ebb and flow of important influences in our societies. Gossip is important; especially celebrity gossip. Hello! Paris Match! OK! If the focus of our fascination and gossip puts paint on canvas, we cannot divorce the painter from our consideration of the painting. Owning the canvas adds to our prestige. This is why we want it and why we are prepared to pay for it.

A judgement of the aesthetic merits of any work includes who the creator is. This is part of the work’s narrative and the difference between stuff and beautiful stuff. I am not shocked if a childish daub by Picasso sells for millions. It’s a Picasso! If I’m honest, I’d be really pleased to own – so I can show it to others and therefore boost my social standing – a childish daub by Barack Obama, Cristiano Ronaldo, Madonna or the Dalai Lama. And having made reference to humans as primates, I’d be happy to buy a work by Congo the Chimpanzee but, first, I would have to speak to my bank manager.

Miriam Kerchenbaum and the Dragon

Miriam Kerchenbaum 1I have encountered her work in the past, I have even bought one of her paintings. So I arrange to meet Miriam Kerchenbaum to talk about her exhibition next week in Carouge at Galerie Marianne Brand.  I cannot escape a glimmer of apprehension. Do her other-world images represent her character? I meet her in her studio and am happy to report that she is calm, charming and articulate. Her discourse is reassuringly at odds with the subject matter of her work. She recounts with total objectivity her eclectic influences ranging from Giotto to the Simpsons via Hieronymous Bosch, art brut and Paul Klee. She attributes her fertile imagination to her parents; her father was a painter and her mother, a biologist.

Miriam Kerchenbaum 2

Theatre poster for “Mein Kampf (farce)”, 2007.

Miriam studied fine arts in the 1990s. Now, she divides her time between her studio and acquiring stage props for Geneva’s bijou theatre culture. No surprise then that she is solicited to produce posters and flyers for a wide variety of theatrical productions. She acknowledges with modesty that her unusual work is immediately recognisable and has won her wide acclaim. The high point of her creative career, she tells me, is when she first saw one of her posters on the side of a Geneva tram.

Miriam’s reputation has won her an invitation from Drozophile publications  to illustrate a book of her choice. There is something inevitable about the publication she chose: Evgeny Schwartz’s “The Dragon.” She exhibits these illustrations at Galerie Marianne Brand from 6 to 10 March.

The Dragon tells the story of a Soviet-era Lancelot who sets out to slay the dragon: a soul-destroying Stalinesque figure. The dragon, of course, is only the figurehead of a brutal and all-powerful bureaucratic hierarchy. Meet the dragon in his childhood!

Miriam Kerchenbaum 3

Illustration for “The Dragon,” 2013.

The adult dragon-in-power has perfected his forced smile and the means to drain people’s souls.

Miriam Kerchenbaum 4

Illustration for “The Dragon,” 2013.

Miriam’s work is difficult to describe. Resist the temptation to refer to it as childish. It evokes words like absurd, grotesque, humourous, visceral, imaginative and intriguing. Whatever, all her work is carefully composed and beautifully executed. The apparent naivity of her technique is often enhanced by her materials. Many of her paintings are on brown paper stitched along the edges or on graph paper. I find them compelling and mesmerising because they are intensely narrative. I am drawn into their stories. If a critic, richly endowed with artspeak, were to point out that Miriam Kerchenbaum “lays bare the essence of the human condition,” I wonder if, for once, these well-worn words might just be appropriate.

“Utopique Airlines” is a showpiece for Miriam’s technical abilities.

Miriam Kerchenbaum 5

“Utopique Airlines,” mixed materials on paper, 99cm x 100cm, 2010.

When I first saw “Seduction,” I burst out laughing. This is why I bought it. Who is being seduced? What is on the menu? Don’t you love the little serrated edges on the knives? Delicious and vicious! Is this about gluttony?

Miriam Kerchenbaum 6

”Seduction,” acrylic on paper 15cm x 25cm, 2009.

If you can make it to the opening vernissage of Miriam’s exhibition at Galerie Marianne Brand on 6 March, you might get to meet her …. and the dragon. Don’t be afraid!

Art Club Puplinge

I had the good fortune to be invited to Art Club Puplinge by Victoria James (who lives in Puplinge!) For me, a lapsed painter, it was both fun and inspiring. I will go again.

I didn’t know what to expect. Before leaving home, I threw into a shopping bag some coloured inks, a box of neocolor crayons and, for reasons unknown, a map of the London Underground. Would we be given free rein to do what we want or did Victoria have a cunning plan for us? As it turned out, Victoria had a cunning plan that involved us doing what we want. Brilliant!

Art Club Puplinge 1

Our session started with the group doing brief “blind” portraits of ourselves or each other without looking at the paper. I squirmed inwardly. This was not in my comfort zone. Little did I know that it was part of Victoria’s cunning plan.

Art Club Puplinge 2

One of my new friends managed this alarming likeness of me in just twenty seconds!

Art Club Puplinge 3

Here’s my best attempt at revenge holding two crayons together!

One hour and twenty such quick drawings later, I found that I was not back in my comfort zone but in a comfort zone that was new to me. I was enjoying it. I was squirm-free. Interesting! This of course is also part of the plan and sets up the second half of the session. We then selected one of the sketches as the basis for something more ambitious on a larger scale.

Art Club Puplinge 4

Art Club Puplinge 5

I am not sure at what stage or why a scaled-up version of my little blue-pink-dash-double-crayon portrait surperimposed on the map of the London Underground invoked a feeling of fear. I admitted this to Victoria. “Go with it!” she said. And so I did! It may not be beautiful and it may not be “art” (whatever that may be!) But if you had told me thirty minutes beforehand that I was behind the creation of this frightening bazingo image, I wouldn’t have believed you.

Art Club Puplinge 6

Victoria’s objective of the wonderfully informal two-hour sessions at her Art Club is that her guests find and recognise that creative part of themselves the existence of which they are unaware.  She tells me that everyone has a bit of creative software loaded on their mental hard drive although, for some, it may be tucked away in a password-protected programme. She can usually help a guest to find it whatever their age.

Victoria trained in London at the Chelsea College of Art with a focus on sculpture. She wins me over by agreeing that the creative forces of humanity might flourish more widely if the word “art” was not used to denote something exclusive. In this vein, she looks slightly ill-at-ease when describing her former career in the world of “contemporary art.” She won considerable recognition for her video-installations which, at the time, were “what one did” if one was in the progressive London art scene. By her own admission they were “out there.” Then, eight years ago, she quite simply stopped. It had ceased to be creative. She took to sports massage, a domain in which she has also been successful. Only in the last months has she found herself drawing again. Her own creative hard drive was re-booted. The result, happily, is Art Club Puplinge. Join it! You’ll have a ball! You’ll also leave each session feeling rather liberated and with an insight into the programming that supports your own creative abilities.

Alyaa Kamel’s people

Alyaa Kamel 1

I see Alyaa Kamel’s drawings and paintings on Facebook. The on-line human images are, paradoxically, intensely personal. There are new ones every day. Sometimes, they take the form of a reflective and mesmerising little girl; sometimes, they are contorted, shrouded or bound homonculi. Who are Alyaa Kamel’s people? Where do they come from? The more I see, the more questions I have.

On entering her studio in Geneva’s old town, I am surrounded by canvases bearing a variety of striking human figures and faces. Books on every subject imaginable are stacked around the walls. Alyaa smiles, offers me tea and then puts a bulging folder of exquisite sketches in front of me.

Alyaa Kamel 2

Ink and watercolour on paper, 2012

Alyaa Kamel’s work is much more than slick representation of the human form. Her people emanate vulnerability. They display an agitated vitality. They are all taken up with the same struggle. They are aligned in a cohesive force. When I ask about their provenance, Alyaa’s answers contain words like “humanity,” “searching,” “hope” and “freedom.” After some time, I realise that her people communicate her general anxiety for us all: for homo sapiens. And I learn that Alyaa’s people came over the wide horizon of her imagination only two years ago.

Alyaa Kamel 3

Ink and watercolour on paper, 2012

In the 1990s, Alyaa studied in London and Geneva. Her subjects included psychology, fashion design and fine arts. She had jobs in public relations and interior decorating. She returned to her native Egypt for a few months in 1998 and, without any great intention to do so, took up painting. Back in Geneva and lacking studio space, she worked on abstract pictures the size of playing cards. She has sold them all and to my disappointment, she never thought to take photographs. She continued to work in the domain of the abstract but on large canvases. What she exhibits she sells.

A return visit to Egypt in 2011 to show her work coincided with the beginning of the “Arab Spring.” Something about the people’s struggle against oppression re-aligned the beacons that guide her creative journey. Alyaa Kamel’s people were born. She emphasises they are not Egyptian nor even Arab. They are not women, men or children. They are simply people. The first time they were seen in Geneva was at the Tafkaj gallery in 2012: it resulted in another sell-out.

Alyaa Kamel 4

“Dans la brume métallique, le jour glisse” 100cm x 40 cm Acrylic and mixed medium 2012

Alyaa’s people are homogeneous but at the same time, they appear as individulas. To acieve this effect is no mean feat. The fluid lines with which Alyaa depicts her people show a profound sense of anatomy. The effect recalls her interest in fashion design. The faces are, you would easily believe, the faces of real crowded people. They are hungry, anxious but nevertheless united.

Alyaa Kamel 5

Ink and water colour on paper, 2012

Alyaa shows me her what I consider her most powerful work. A crowd of bare-headed men is enveloped by one Arabic word red-written hundreds of times – “Allah.” The faces have a haunting skull-like air. Is this a warning to us all that religion offers no better – nor a less bloody – alternative to repressive government? Alyaa insists her work does not carry a political message. It is, rather, an expression of both hope and concern triggered by the events that moved her in Cairo two years ago.

After an hour or so, I have not really deciphered the “Why?” of Alyaa Kamel’s people. I am not sure Alyaa herself has clear answers. For me, her people and their narrative combine to remind us that human destiny is largely out of our hands and increasingly uncertain. And if I’ve got this wrong, my admiration for Alyaa’s work remains unchanged.

Egyptian sun and a hill of mice: welcome to the world of Tom Bogaert

His studio is just a little bit whacky. Coloured lights flash and twirl. A tinny little voice set in squeaky-tinkly electronic music calls out “We are coming to Earth!” Tanning lamps shine from one wall. Folded car windscreen heat shields are stuck to another wall. I am offered a cup of tea and, from a large sugary box, a delicious little black liquorice mouse. My first impression – that does not last – is that the guy is….. well….. special!

Tom Bogaert, it turns out, is a charismatic, widely-travelled human rights lawyer. He is impassioned by his creative projects that tend toward the intensely political. Some are statements that whisper insistently. Some scream. His work has been exhibited to no little press acclaim in New York, Beirut, Berlin, Gaza, Port au Prince, Jerusalem, Vienna, Dubai and Amman. He is now based in Geneva where he plans and prepares for future events. Meeting him is fun.

Next year, Tom takes his project “Sun Ra in Egypt” to Cairo. The piece below was inspired by Dan Flavin’s “monument” for V. Tatlin (1969.)

Tom Bogaert 1

Tom Bogaert with his ““monument” 1 for Sun Ra,” 2013. 27 tanning lamps taken from 5 face tanners with mechanical timers. 300 x 200 x 30 cm.

The Sun Ra in Egypt project focuses on a series of concerts performed in Egypt in 1971 by Sun Ra (real name: Herman Poole Blount), the legendary jazz pioneer and bandleader. Sun Ra was also a cosmic philosopher; he believed he came from Saturn. His mystic solar fascination – or obsession – began when, at the age of eight, he heard about the discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb.

“The Broken Light Year” makes reference to astronmical distances, heat from the sun and the colours of Good King Tut’s sarcophagus. It tilts at Walter De Maria’s ‘The Broken Kilometer’ (1979).

Tom Bogaert 2

The Broken Light Year, by Tom Bogaert, 2013. 15 folded aluminum car windscreen heat shields in red, gold and blue.

The parts of the Sun Ra in Egypt project that Tom shows me are just that: parts of a project. Although they stand for themselves, they serve also as research for what will culminate in an event in Cairo that will be part installation, part performance.

Maybe this project is far from his political statements of recent years. Well… just try this, his most widely acclaimed work! “Colline au mille souris” (Hill of a thousand mice) is Tom’s angle on the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Using a huge pile of black, mouse-shaped sweets, he pulls together references to lush sub-Saharan hills, the infamous murder-inciting Radio Mille Collines, the sweet stench of thousands of rotting bodies and the Malthusian theory explaining that the awful event was the preordained result of the impersonal forces of poverty and over-population.

Tom Bogaert 3

“Colline au mille souris III” by Tom Bogaert, 2008, Liquorice mice (lots of!) Image: Real Art Ways, Hartford, CT.

The 20 year commemoration of the end of the Rwandan genocide will include a collective exhibition “Au Cœur des Ténèbres” (Heart of Darkness) at L’Espace Cheminée Nord opening on 4 July, 2014. It will include a new, bigger version of Colline au mille souris.

Tom is welcoming and completely at ease when talking about his creations. There is nothing “too far out there” or pretentious. It all makes sense (that is, if you are someone who wants to find sense in “contemporary art.”)

The “What does it mean for me?” element of any post on Talking Beautiful Stuff is not so easy to answer. After an enjoyable hour in Tom’s company, I feel considerable admiration for the ambition and scope of his projects. They intrigue. They provoke. Together they represent an unusual creative force resonating with history however whacky or tragic that history mighty be. I am happy to have a brief glimpse of Tom’s world.