Friday, 22 September 2006

On the rebound

So the rejection letter comes through the letterbox and there is that usual rush of disappointment. I scour the single slip of paper several times hoping that I can detect an element of ambiguity, but there is absolutely no doubt. "R in the column above denotes rejected," it says, and there above it is an R. It's a flamboyant R, an R that shows no sign of equivocation. It's bold, in upper case, and couldn't in any way be confused with the A that would have denoted that the work had been accepted. It has been written, I can't help thinking, by someone who has taken some pleasure in it.

This is the kind of rejection that is familiar at one time or another to all artists who enter competitions. I think this to myself quite a lot to cheer myself up. In order to win you have to be ready to lose. Entering art competitions is like falling in love: you can get hurt. There is always the chance that the object of your affections won't see you in quite the same way as you see them. I open my heart by sending in a painting, and get a swift slap around the chops in the shape of an R for rejection in return. (I check the slip one more time to see if I could have made a mistake, but in the intervening hours the R seems a little larger, perhaps a little bolder.)

It's easy to look on the dark side when you're an artist. Every step promises disaster. The work wasn't selected for the exhibition, which was a failure. If it was selected but then not noticed by a talent-spotting gallery, that would be a failure. If that gallery offered me a show and nothing sold, that would be a failure. If the show sold out and received bad reviews, then that, too, would be a kind of failure. It's hard to know where this trail of misery could end, and at the rate I'm going, it's unlikely I am going to find out.

The next job is to collect the rejected painting, which is as discomforting as buying condoms in the chemist for the first time. Anyone you meet when you're picking up a rejected painting is probably there for the same reason and so there's the opportunity for mutual sympathising, but people are quiet and in a hurry, and in no mood to chat.

With anther entry deadline bearing down, I download entry forms for another competition, the Jerwood Drawing Prize, that is more suitable for my kind of work, and enter it on the rebound. It's a squeeze finding time to get things ready for it: I'm framing one of the two drawings I enter on the evening before they need handing in, and crack the glass soon after midnight, and have to frame it all over again. Then I have to cross town on the morning of elder daughter's birthday party to deliver it, which isn't the best timing when there's lots to do, like blowing up balloons and hiding breakable things while 12 eight-year-old girls bear down on the house. If I hadn't already paid the entry fee I may well have persuaded myself I didn't have time to enter at all.

About a week later the phone rings. One of the drawings, of Buxton – another from a series completed sitting in a cafe - has been accepted. I whoop around the house a bit, which draws concerned glances from the children. The feeling of triumph is somehow even better because I had been through the R for rejection episode just the week before. There is a CV to write, a statement to shape and perhaps now I can get around to getting that website sorted out. It's suddenly much easier to look on the bright side.

Mounting tension

In an effort to stem the rising tide of drawings accumulating around the house, I use January A&I’s handy annual round-up of competitions to see if one or two could catch the eye of some judges somewhere. Experience proves that entering open competitions usually takes the form of a short-term loan rather than any permanent departure, but, hey, they aren’t going to catch the eye of anyone if they sit around the studio, so I download the entry forms and set about choosing which works to enter.

Artists, as we all probably know to our cost, are not always the best judges of their own work, so, as usual, I enroll the help of my partner Naomi, who is more qualified than many a competition judge. We whittle the drawings down to a shortlist by sticking them up around the front room and then try them out in temporary frames and hang them over the fireplace. Things are going well until the daughters then also add their views. Celia, who is five, offers an immediate ego-massaging “cool, Dad” but Esther, eight, suggests a “larger, darker frame”. I can see the day coming when the quality threshold required to get past my family is higher than that needed to get past the actual selection panel.

This in-house selection process is fast in comparison with the framing. Has anyone anywhere ever cut a 45 degree mount without wasting at least four sheets of A1 mountboard? I now have enough products that promise to help me cut the perfect mount to open a National Museum of Angle Cutting. If I manage three good cuts – in itself an undertaking likely to take the best part of an evening - the tension is such when I come to make the final one that it invariably becomes banana-shaped. Just as Mr Coleman made his millions from mustard left on the side of the plate, so too must the mountboard manufacturers from the wasted acres of their essential product. So frustrating and time-wasting does this become it is tempting to make new pieces of work to fit the perfect professionally cut mounts I already have.

But the night before the closing date they are ready, and I’m off on my bike - stopping at traffic lights on the way, grumpier A&I correspondents will be pacified to know – with the drawings strapped to the back in a pillow case. On my way to the delivery point I stop off at the Royal Academy to see this year’s Summer Exhibition. As the world’s largest open submission exhibition there is such a variety of work on view to encourage anyone who is wondering if they should bite the financial bullet and enter. However, to be hung is one thing, to be seen another; many of the works are hung so high on the walls that they are impossible to see as intended.

One work on show, however, is a reminder of how selection judges see what they want rather than what the artist may have hoped. David Hensell was delighted to hear his jesmonite sculpture of a laughing head had been selected, but what he didn’t know until the exhibition opening was that the plinth upon which it stood had become detached, and it was this section that had been judged and put on show. The head itself had been rejected.

I’m glad that the stunted work, which is a little wooden fitting on an outsized stone slab, remained on show, rather than being reunited with its upper half. The episode does, as Hensell admits, say something about the state of the visual arts today, and perhaps something about the judges. But I can’t help thinking that if, say, the reverse side of one of my drawings was selected in the competition I was entering I would be more than slightly miffed. Not least because of all the effort I’ve put into cutting that mount.

What’s the big idea?

To get your work noticed it helps if your artistic marketing package can offer the pithy one-liner that puts your name immediately in context. Jenny Saville, the painter who paints close-ups of fleshy, contorted female nudes, Georg Baselitz, who paints people upside down, Howard Hodgkin, the painter of colourful sweeps and dots that spill onto their frames. These descriptions hardly do justice to what they’re really doing, and simplify to a ridiculous degree, but it is the kind of tabloid description that they will be partly remembered by.

Where does that leave the rest of us? Have you had your big idea? For some the idea behind what they are trying to do appears to be more important than how well they carry it through. As long as it looks good on paper – by which I mean in writing rather than as a drawing – then success is assured. But what constitutes a good idea? This is the nitty gritty for conceptual artists. I recently heard of one such artist making sculptures out of carpet fluff and another whose work involves viewers taking off their own shoes and putting on others that he kindly provides. We’ll have to wait and see if the names of these artists become household. But at least they have ideas.

So what about the artists who go out and paint and draw what they see? James Hobbs, the artist who draws what he looks at. That’s hardly going to get me anywhere, is it? It’s hardly one for the epitaph. But that is how, at times, it feels as if I work. Inevitably I’m drawn to some subjects more than others, but I often find I do better if I draw what all my instincts tell me not to. What about this then? James Hobbs, the artist who draws what he really doesn’t want to. It’s hardly any better.

Perhaps finding the big idea involves a little analysis of exactly what you are doing with your art. For the lack of anything else to say about their work, some artists resort to the good old staple of describing it as “raising questions”. A sculptor makes work “raising questions concerning hollowness and solidity”. A painter “raises questions about cultural and artistic identity”. I read about an exhibition recently that “raises questions about what constitutes site-specificity” (which sounds like a mealy-mouthed apology for work not looking as good as it should in the place it has been put). Rachel Whiteread’s recent installation Embankment at Tate Modern, which featured thousands of casts of cardboard boxes, encouraged us, a gallery handout told us, “to think about the space they inhabit”.

Do these artists realise that they are continually posing these queries as they make their work, or is it just the PR people and critics that imagine it? Do you, for instance, consider what your work may be asking as you make it? Is there – and this is the point I’m really trying to make here – is there a chance that, unwittingly, my drawings are already raising questions about something or other?

So what’s so good about asking questions all the time? And how about some answers to go along with them? As anyone who has lived with small children will know, there’s nothing quite as tiring as a continual stream of why-thises and why-thats, lovely as it is to see an enquiring mind develop at the breakfast table. And do people want to buy work that asks questions?

So the hunt for the big idea goes on, for me at least. I’m pondering this in a cafe, and with a little time to spare I get out my sketchbook to draw the scene through the window. Flicking back through it I realise that I do an awful lot of drawings as I sit in cafes. Is this my big idea? It certainly raises questions about how much time I spend drinking coffee.


I hadn’t laughed as much at an impressionist since watching Mike Yarwood doing Denis Healey about 20 years ago. The BBC1 series The Impressionists (usefully titled in case you happened to doze off during the three-part series and need reminding what you were watching when you woke up) was presumably supposed to be fulfilling some arts remit, but it certainly gave us plenty of comic relief. It became, in fact, must-watch TV just because it was so painfully, blissfully awful.

Impressionism is as bankable as art gets. If a gallery needs a crown puller, they get a few Monets together and then look around for a Renoir, Bazille, Sisley and Morisot, and then a few works by the guys around the edges, who weren’t really Impressionists, like Degas and Cézanne. These artists are to galleries what the face of the Princess of Wales is to front page of the tabloids. They pull the punters in. How could the BBC possibly go wrong?

The problem perhaps stemmed from the way the story of the movement was told in a series of flashbacks to an aged Claude Monet – played by Julian Glover – as he talks to a journalist in his garden at Giverny. His voiceovers, emerging through a soundtrack reminiscent of one of the more saccharine programmes on Classic FM, showed supremely well how we tend to rewrite history when we look back at our past. No believable conversation took place at all between the young painters.

The clichés washed over the script like waves over the beach at Le Havre. “This will be my greatest painting yet!” says Manet. “These are terrible times,” says Mrs Manet, who underlined this by dying soon afterwards. Paintings were unveiled in galleries to cries of “It’s a masterpiece!”, although not, at first, anything by an Impressionist as they were still considered cack-handed daubers by the big wigs at the state-run Salon. (A touch of makeup and the Marquis de Chennevières would have been a dead ringer for Jack Nicholson’s Joker in Batman.) Artists saw the sunrise from their bedroom and ran to the clifftops to paint the glorious reflective effects on the surface of La Manche with their nightshirts still on.

Despite the mirth, what was really disappointing about The Impressionists was that here were three hours of Sunday night television given over to painting, and it told us less than nothing about a movement already mired in misconceptions. Indeed, The Impressionists seemed to have been made by people who had no experience or knowledge of art to ensure that there was no chance of it being in any way elitist or highbrow. (In the same way, Rolf on Art seemed to be aimed at fans of his Animal Hospital rather than anyone with an interest in art, in an attempt to boost ratings.)

If you’re not going to make a series that is going to help you look at something anew, then why bother? There are plenty of other movements in art, not yet bogged down in the misconceptions of Impressionism, that could have made more interesting and enlightening viewing.

An exhibition now at the National Gallery takes a look at this mythologising of the life of artists. Rebels and Martyrs: The Artist in the Nineteenth Century (until 28 August) looks at the way artists came to be seen as heroic and rebellious, misunderstood and suffering, and stuck in a garret. It’s an enduring stereotype that clings on despite the fact that marketing acumen are as important as painterly skills for art graduates now.

I saw three films about artists not long before I decided to apply to art college. One was Running Fence, the story of how the artist Christo negotiated his way to running a fabric fence across 24 miles of Californian wilderness. One was an interview with the painter Frank Auerbach. The other was that of Picasso filmed from beneath while painting on glass. They helped make me want to be an artist. There were no gushing strings. There was nothing remotely romantic about any of them. They showed artists to be lively, provocative and creative. Everything that The Impressionists was not.

Say it with flowers

The obituaries after the death of the Scottish sculptor Ian Hamilton Finlay in March 2006 – it was picked up by newspapers around the world – all unerringly mentioned within the first few sentences the one creation for which he will be remembered. But it wasn’t a sculpture, an installation or a video. It didn’t win him the Turner Prize. It wouldn’t fit in a gallery. He never sold it. It was, in fact, his garden, Little Sparta, set into the Pentland Hills not far from Edinburgh.

I have never visited it, but it seems a wonderful place. He and his wife bought the semi-derelict farmhouse in 1966, and worked 40 years to create what is now considered to be the most important post second world war garden in Britain. Within its six acres there are nearly 300 of his sculptures in the form of inscribed stones, monuments and buildings.

Finlay’s garden, labour of love as it may have been, doesn’t seem to have been a place he went to get away from it all. People think of gardens as a retreat, he once said, but his garden was an attack. He seemed to set about falling out with people, and the inscribed sculptures in his garden don’t hold back. Political references abound, and his allusions to the horrors of the Third Reich and his confrontational nature too often landed him in trouble – most famously with the French government and the Scottish Arts Council. Even naming the garden after a temple, Little Sparta, was an attempt to avoid the paying higher taxes it would attract by being classified as an art gallery. So the bailiffs came around.

Gardening, like painting, usually gives the impression of being the relaxing option, the kind of pastime people turn to when they need a break or therapy. Gardening and painting, some think, are the fluffy kinds of things you do when you've finished real work, either at the end of the day or as you hit retirement age. To some they are what stop you going gaga, and help take your mind off the fact that your pension isn't quite as much as you expected it would be.

Finlay isn’t, of course, the only artist to make a mark with a garden in the UK in recent times. Barbara Hepworth’s small, walled garden by her studio in St Ives, Ivon Hitchens’s cleared from woodland in Lavington Common, West Sussex and the painter and filmmaker Derek Jarman’s among the desolate pebbles of Dungeness, are all distinctive and highly personal artists’ gardens.

The processes, it seems to me, are similar for making art and making a garden. You start off with some very unpromising raw materials dragged from the earth. With vision, planning and patience something beautiful and enriching can spring from it, but you shouldn’t count on it. Gardening is like painting in very, very slow motion. Instead of the usual hour or two – or even less – for it to come to your realisation that a painting has gone seriously awry, with a garden it can take a year or two – or perhaps even decades – for it to dawn on you that you should have planted the avenue of poplars at right angles to the laurel hedge.

Finlay proved that gardening can be so much more than an escape, if you want it to be. It can be about colour, light, movement and composition, just as art can, but it can be political too. Gardening with attitude. Little Sparta was evidently something vital and current to him throughout his life. If he did find gardening therapeutic, it certainly doesn't seem to have calmed him much. And painting can be just the same.

On speed

I’m sitting on a train, and I have a few hours to spare. In the rush to catch it I have found myself without a newspaper or a book, and there’s not even anyone to strike up a conversation with. Great as it is to have some quiet time ahead of me, the idea of gawping out of the window all the way doesn’t do a lot for me.

It’s not as if it is the last option, but I get the sketchbook out. A little A5 one nestles in the bottom of my coat pocket with a few pens. (When I was looking for a new jacket recently I spent as much time looking at the inside pockets as how they looked on the outside. Too few seemed to have places to store a decent sized sketchbook – unless you want to walk around looking like a commando on leave - and this could have a detrimental effect on one’s creativity.)

The problem is, this isn’t what I usually draw. There’s landscape whizzing by, but it’s just not hanging around for long enough for me to get it down on paper. You see it, and it’s gone. And that’s not the way I like to work. I’m used to spending time in front of subjects rooted to the spot, even if I do like to draw them quickly. I prefer drawing buildings that have stayed in the same place, preferably for a few hundred years, if not longer. I do my best to avoid committing the human figure to paper; they shift around, make odd expressions and say things like “you’ve got my ears all wrong”.

But I give the rushing scenery a go anyway. It’s a case of glimpse and draw, with minimal lines and maximum speed. And gradually, after a while, it starts to feel a little easier. It’s a sketchbook for goodness sake, so the whole point is to try things out – sometimes things work and sometimes they don’t. How do I get the essence of that tree in three quick lines? How do I make that farm look as if I’m looking down on it as it nestles in a valley, and in only a few seconds? By doing it over and over, and by making a whole series of less than successful drawings, something takes over and they almost begin to make themselves.

The experience reminded me of a time when we were life drawing at art college. Tutors tend to have a habit of getting models to do very short poses, particularly in the morning, which are no doubt easier for the model and help to get the artists loosened up too. With only a minute or two to capture a pose you have to capture the essentials pretty quickly. By the afternoon things would settle into longer poses and a gentler pace.

The implication somehow seems to be that working at speed is just an exercise while long and slow is the real McCoy. It’s how, strangely, the hierarchy of art works. To some, the ultimate accolade is to stand in front of an artist’s work hanging framed on a wall and say: “It must have taken you ages to do it.”

But I prefer it the other way around. Seeing Quentin Blake’s drawings again in March’s Artists & Illustrators (although I see them often enough when reading the kids a bedtime story) reminded me how much I enjoy the apparent spontaneity of his work. It made me feel like saying to him: “They must have taken you a few moments to do.” And yet mean it as the greatest compliment. It takes hard work as well as a lifetime’s experience for Blake to make them look so fresh, immediate and so right, but it took a quiet train journey to remind me of it.