Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Art Basel Miami Beach

I’d never been to Miami Beach before, so I had no idea whether the people around town were any different to those that spend the remaining 51 weeks a year there. But when Art Basel Miami Beach descends upon this stretch of sandy shoreline so far south in the US that people are lazing on the beach well into December, there’s the sense that something special is going on, and that artists, dealers and collectors are out in number.

The art fair is the largest of its kind in the US, with about 300 international galleries showing works by 2,000 artists in the outsize convention centre, attracting a further 20-odd satellite shows around the city. There’s art on the beach, in hotels, up palm trees and anywhere else you can imagine. And even in the current economic climate, there are those who are ready and willing to buy it. Lots of them.

I’m there working with The Art Newspaper, which publishes a daily edition at the fair. This means working late, until the early hours, giving me some time to be around the city in daylight hours. The area’s art deco architecture takes me by surprise. In the UK you may come across a classic art deco building here and there, but the South Beach area seems to have whole streets of them, hotel after hotel, with palm trees lining the pavements. And whereas so many such buildings in the UK give the impression of having been “improved”, ie, had their art deco features, such as window frames, ruined in the name of maintenance and renovation, in Miami they have stood up to the passage of time so much better.

Unperturbed by the vast quantities of outsize, ambitious, multi-disciplined, opulent, attention-grabbing and wincingly expensive art on show around me, I spend what moments I can drawing in my simple little A5 sketchbook with a simple black marker pen. I have no plans to make a film of my drawings, make a series of ceramics about them, have a panel discussion with Julian Schnabel, Yoko Ono and Ai Weiwei about them or enter into discussions with the Guggenheim or Cartier about how they can present them. I just go about making small, squeaking, often uncertain marks with my Edding 4000 to represent the wonderfully foreign environment I have found myself in.

It’s sunny and hot, and therefore easy to find cafes with outdoor tables to sit at. But what I make seems to have very little in common with what is on show at Art Basel Miami Beach – this is hardly surprising; they are making thousands of dollars from this and I am not. In the fair, there is plenty to see and plenty to be moved by. The tour guide standing before two recent photographs by Cindy Sherman spoke fluently about the “brutally honest” figures with plucked eyebrows, sagging necks and ageing skin, despite their obvious wealth, before it dawned on him that he was describing most of the women following his tour just as much the subjects of the photographs. “And yet they remain endearing,” he rallied, less than convincingly, to the shuffling of feet.

Small and black and white drew me in – Brice Marden’s works in ink on paper, and Olga Chernysheva’s photographs of old rural Russia at “Russian Dreams” at the Bass Museum of Art. I’m not sure it pays to be understated in a city where so many are clamouring for attention, but it certainly worked for me.

Sunday, 2 November 2008

Joining Skylark

Skylark is an artist-run gallery on London's South Bank, with two spaces, one at Gabriel's Wharf and the other on the first floor of the distinctive Oxo Tower, between Tate Modern and the National Theatre. I've just been lucky enough to join the 29 artists, which means that I now have a space to show my work in Skylark 2 in the Oxo Tower.

I'm still a bit green - I spent my first day manning the gallery on Saturday, and have only met one or two of the other artists involved - but it already gives me that feeling I only get when my work is hanging on a gallery wall. I don't expect things to fly off the wall in these weird economic times, but there is always that promise in the air, a promise that can never be present when the work is in a box in the studio or on our own living room wall.

The advantages of showing in such a gallery are obvious: it's a professional space, marketed well, with all the benefits of a group, rather than solo, enterprise. And the South Bank is central and busy, with plenty of people walking along the bank of the Thames wandering in to the gallery on impulse, as well as those who have made a special trip. And the work on show is gloriously varied, and all the stronger for that. Best of all, the river runs just outside its window, busy with traffic, ebbing and flowing, the city's life blood.

Saturday, 11 October 2008

Remembering Dave

Remembering my late and much-missed brother David Hobbs, who would have been 50 this week.


Think of a building with lots of paintings and sculptures in it. No, not a gallery, or a museum. Hospitals. They are a great place for showing art. And because they are stuffed with people day and night they are busier than most galleries. All those lovely long corridors of otherwise empty wall space, and people with a bit of time on their hands ready for the kind of boost in morale that medication alone can not always deliver.

For one reason and another, I have found myself in hospitals too frequently in recent years. I'm lucky in that, rather than being the inmate, I've been visiting sick friends and family, or else, more positively, in a maternity ward with Naomi and a fresh daughter. The art on display seems to have become better, and is often by well known artists. It doesn't just affect patients; it also has a great effect on visitors and staff.

Research certainly shows that anxiety and depression in patients are reduced when they are more exposed to visual art. More than that, certain post-operative patients actually left hospital an average of one day earlier when they were exposed to visual art and live music. Although we're some way off being prescribed paintings on the National Health Service, that's just the kind of result that must have hospital accountants rubbing their hands with glee.
Because of this positive feedback, most hospitals make the most of art's beneficial effects. The charity Paintings in Hospitals loans works to about 250 healthcare establishments across the UK, and depends upon artists donating or loaning works of art to supplement the work it purchases. Your local hospital will almost certainly have a scheme of some kind.

The chances of making a sale at a hospital are perhaps slimmer than Keira Knightley in Lent, but there are other advantages to having your work there. One is that it is likely to be seen by more people than it would in a gallery, and many of those people would never dream of setting foot in a gallery, particularly a commercial one. And because of what they might have been experiencing, the people who see it are open to being moved in a way the artist could never have expected.

A painting hangs in my parents' home that illustrates the healing power of art in hospital. Our family had become regular visitors to an Exeter hospital where my elder brother David fought what turned out to be a losing battle with cancer. These weren't always unhappy visits. There was usually something to have a laugh about, however grim things were. And, over the years, just as we got to know the magnificent nursing staff that cared for him during his stays there, so we got to know the paintings that were on the walls that led to his ward.

The journey to the hospital to see him on the day he had lost his fight for life was, as you may well imagine, not an easy one. The landscape of our lives had changed for ever. But walking through the hospital my father — not, he would agree, an artistic man, and not given to voicing opinions on art — pointed to a framed work as we turned into the ward, and said: "I have always liked that painting." It was a painting of the River Tavy slipping through the bleak, wintry wilderness of Dartmoor, and for whatever reason, it had spoken to him.

A couple of weeks after the funeral came my father's birthday. What can you give as a present to a man who has just seen his eldest son buried? We bought him the painting he had admired, and it now hangs over our parents' fireplace. It offers a kind of healing. Not the healing we would have preferred, but healing nonetheless.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

In perspective

I’m sitting on the top deck of an 88 bus having had to rush back to one of the offices where I freelance in order to pick up a memory stick I had accidentally left on the desk there. It’s a handy device when you find yourself working on a variety of computers in a working week, but it's also handy to misplace and the idea of losing it is not one to contemplate; most of the information on it is backed up in other places, but there would always be that lingering feeling that I’d lost something irreplaceable if it did go awol.

The files that I was most concerned about not losing were a handful of images I’d been working on that I was due to be emailing on to someone. I had the original drawn versions safely at home, but I’d been grappling with IT problems and I’d invested a lot of time in getting the images to the state they were. Was I feeling a bit foolish about losing something so important to me? As I’m musing on this, the bus passes the Home Office in Marsham Street, a department with a history of losing vital data that put things into perspective.

Hopping off the bus in Regent Street, I nipped over to Sotheby’s to see Beautiful Inside My Head Forever, the show of work by Damien Hirst set for auction, sidestepping the usual route of selling through galleries and heading straight for the buyer instead. This is another chance to get things into perspective. The sale rooms are buzzing, from the foyer where we all get our bags checked, to the many rooms overflowing with spin paintings, preserved assorted livestock, bling in cabinets, and collaged butterflies.

To fill the space with a lifetime’s work would be an achievement, but everything I see is dated 2008. Then again, he does have a team of workers making the work for him. And after regularly seeing estimates of £2.5m to £3m for some of the works, it doesn’t take long for the £20,000 estimate for small butterfly works to look rather, well, cheap. It doesn’t take long, either, to see everything in terms of its price tag rather than the quality of the work. That, and managing to keep prices high as well as bring so many to the market, seems a particularly Hirstian achievement.

A couple of days later – the auction is spread across two days to the accompaniment of meltdown in the financial markets – and the 223 lots have gone for a total of £111million. Financial crisis, what financial crisis? Where do I fit into all this? Where do any of us fit into it? I email my images, now backed up, and have interest from another gallery to show my work. Life, somehow, goes on.

Saturday, 6 September 2008

Rain stops play

The wet weather sketchbook: I nearly started one of these again this summer. I had one about 18 years ago when I was in the Lake District for only a few days. The rain was incessant then, too, and rather than take a perfect, dry, empty sketchbook home, I took a battered, stained, warped, torn, and yet full one home instead. Even a pencil doesn't get a firm grip on wet paper, unless you're using about a 16B, so the results were less than great. A coat pocket with a sketchbook sticking out of it becomes a funnel in a downpour, which only added to the problem.

I cycled through part of the Lake District this summer with brother and brother-in-law, going from Whitehaven to Newcastle, from west coast to east coast, which would be impressive if it was the United States or Australia we were talking about, but it's only about 140 miles in this rather thin part of the UK. Thirty-odd miles on the first day in relentless rain meant the sketchbook stayed in the bag — we wanted to get to the B&B to dry off rather than have me sit around like some pretentious idiot pretending to be like Turner strapped to the mast of some ship in a storm, or whatever it was he did. I bet the crew weren't too impressed with what he was up to.

Camping with the family in August wasn't meteorologically ideal either. The ground became a little soft for trifling things such as tent pegs, which had interesting consequences. But we stuck it out, because camping is still just so great, even in the wet. I didn't resort to a wet weather sketchbook then, either, not least because the marker pens I use now would take to damp paper in an even less successful way than pencil. But it didn't rain as much as all that. It sounds bad from inside a tent, but it's not, if you're outside.

Thursday, 17 July 2008

A rough guide

With a few days to draw a series of landmark scenes around London, I've found myself rubbing shoulders with international tourists seeing the side of the city that only tourists do. At Tower Bridge I spent a couple of hours working by the railings in front of the Tower of London, the water lapping against the pier, the only suggestion that the city is overflowing with cars being the stream of tiny vehicles crossing the bridge. The river is hardly teeming with craft, but it's lively, and it seems like the natural way to get around.

A yacht comes in, and the bridge opens, the first time I have seen it happen in all the years I've lived in London. A family visiting from Pakistan watch it as it happens, having been in town for all of a few hours, thinking it as regular an event as traffic lights going red. At Buckingham Palace, too, I am there for the Changing of the Guard, which I probably saw when visiting London from Cornwall as a boy in the 1960s, but never since. There's the band, horses, coachloads of French schoolchildren, and American tourists, who, I can tell from their well broadcast conversations, know much more of Britain's history than I do.

Becoming as much a fixture of the cityscape as lampposts and railings as I stand and draw, I come to be seen as a dependable travel guide: I offer suggestions for trips down the river to an Israeli couple; highlight the main points of interest in Trafalgar Square to two young women from the US; suggest the shortest route to Oxford Street from Piccadilly Circus; and tell the story of Ken Livingstone's downfall as the city's mayor on Westminster Bridge. Few want to engage me in conversation about what I am doing in the sketchbook. Not that I'm complaining.

Thursday, 26 June 2008

The bard's bar

Somehow, post children, I haven't got to the Shakespeare in Stoke Newington as much as I once did, and instead seem to find myself passing it with a small daughter in tow on my way back from dance or "movement" class, going at such a slow pace that I have time to look through its windows and remember the times I would go there with my late, great brother Dave and listen to its incomparable (then, at least, and perhaps even now) jukebox, sup dark beer that somehow has a way of tasting better because there is no carpet on the floor (I don't know how this works but it is a theory that demands further investigation), and wait for the toppling of the Tory government to gladden our hearts further.

I spend some windswept mornings drawing it from a variety of angles at a time when it is shut and therefore impossible to take refuge in. The drawing is for some friends who have left London for the country, friends who evidently managed to spend more time there than we have, building up the kind of long and enduring relationship with it in a way that calls for a print of its exterior to be hanging on their wall. And the walls of their friends. As they are from the acting and theatrical fields, it's a more than suitable pub for them.

And anyone else who goes in it.

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

At the Printroom

Hampstead isn't so very far away from where we live — it's only about seven or eight stops on the overground line running west from our lovely grubby corner of north-east London — but in many ways it is a world away. Think of London in terms of lots of villages or towns crushed together so that the green lungs of rural landscape have more or less been squeezed out. Hampstead is closer to us than it should be. It's unmistakably London, it's unmistakably north London, and yet it throbs with a different beat to the one rattling our Stoke Newington windows.

But I came across a gallery there, Printroom, that, I thought, my work could fit into well. The owner and director thought so too, if I could come up with some local scenes that people were keen on. So I spent the day there, wandering through its quiet little backstreets, filling a sketchbook. There probably are pockets of poverty and deprivation in Hampstead, but I haven't come across them, either then or during the previous 20-odd years I've known it.

It proved continually surprising, however, and I found places I never knew existed. It's the kind of place where cats come brushing around your legs as you draw, where there are milk bottles on doorsteps and au pairs wander down to the cafe with their buggies and iPods. It's also the kind of place where locals go into galleries and ask for local scenes they can hang on their wall, and that's where I wanted to come in. But the working process is different to just turning up in a place and drawing what I want to draw, as I usually do — here, I am aiming to capture what people who live there may want to have on display, and that's not the same at all.

Fast forward a few weeks, and I leave a couple of prints in the gallery, one of the car-lined Church Row (shown top), which for some reason strikes me as much like Boston as London, and the other of Flask Walk (above), a quiet alley with a pub and independent shops. It's too early to say how things are going — they've barely gone on the gallery walls — so we'll just have to wait and see.

Friday, 16 May 2008


From the island of St Mary's towards Tresco on the Isles of Scilly.

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

From the cafe in Amandola

Amandola, as I mentioned before, is a little place about halfway down Italy. When we were there the piazza was stuffed with a market, overlooked, of course, by a shady cafe.

We left our borrowed bikes propped against a wall for a few hours while we explored the town. When we got back to them they were, surprise surprise, still there — a magical state of affairs for a cyclist from London, where any unpadlocked bike vanishes in seconds and is on sale in Brick Lane within minutes.

Cafes remain a favourite place for me to work. They are often fantastically located, in the heart of a town, offering outdoor seating, tables to spread out on and plenty of refreshments. Is it a lazy way to work? Would a drawing be better from another angle, one that doesn't have a conveniently placed table? Perhaps, but it stops the angles looking formulaic, and makes me look at what I wouldn't otherwise.

Thursday, 24 April 2008

On the move

Back from ten days away in Italy during the school holidays as the seasons work out which one is going to hold sway. Snow on the mountains is visible from our apartment's windows, and the swimming pool in its garden is still covered up, but each day the sun rises and shines and promises, but doesn't quite deliver. The hammock that hangs tantalisingly in the garden dries each morning in the sun before the next downpour makes it too wet to lie in.

Le Marche is an area of hilltop towns and rolling countryside, away from the crowds, and a gentle place to be. We cycle to nearby Amadola down ridiculously steep lanes, so steep that we end up pushing the bikes down, because the brakes aren't all they might be, and then, later in the day, push them back up again. We might just as well have gone for a walk.

The town has an arch in its central square, through which all its traffic must squeeze, and cafes overlooking a market. The kids' ice-creams are big enough to give me plenty of time to draw the piazza from a cafe, while a Birmingham couple talk loudly from the next table about their plans for a new extension to their house.
Celia gets from the market a red and black striped AC Milan shirt with "99 Ronaldo" on the back, and wears it for the walk back. We visit our old friends and their children nearby who have moved to Italy to live, and drive up into the snow.

Back in London, the local patisserie that features in one of my drawings agree to take one to hang on its wall, and then three other ones. I attach my contact details, and then get a series of emails and phone calls from potential buyers and people interested in commissioning me. Hang them on a wall and they start to sell themselves. Most of those who call me are leaving London and want to take something to help them remember their favourite places. Everyone seems to be on the move.

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Corridors of power

On my way yesterday to the Royal Academy to deliver the £25 entry fee for this year’s Summer Show in return for, well, nothing usually, I stop off by London’s City Hall next to Tower Bridge. The view of the city’s financial district from the new building, occupied by mayor Ken Livingstone until the elections in May, at least, is spectacular. An evolving clump of high-rise buildings gaze back from the north side of the river with only the dwarfed Tower of London and Tower Bridge in view to remind the tourists gathered here that the city has a history longer than the 40 years the architecture suggests.

Encouraged by Livingstone, more new huge towers are planned to be built in the city in the coming years, many of them changing this very view from City Hall. The Heron Tower, now being constructed at 110 Bishopsgate, will have 47 floors and 680,000 square feet of office space when it is completed in 2011. Broadgate Tower, straddling the railway lines at Liverpool Street and now almost complete, is 35 storeys high. The Walkie Talkie on Fenchurch Street, planned at 36 floors, is due to be ready in 2010, and so named because its top floors are larger than the lower ones. The Shard at London Bridge will be a whopping 72 floors, making it the tallest in the UK and Europe if it is finished on schedule in 2011. The 48-storey Cheese Grater, named because, well, work it out yourself, is another planned to be ready in 2011. And there are more.
But will they really be ready then, or will they really be built at all? As I drew the skyline from a cafe almost under Tower Bridge, the financial markets contained within the buildings before me were in a state of meltdown, with the FTSE 100 index down by 4% on just that day. Financial uncertainty is in the air. Turbulence in the markets has already delayed the construction of some of these buildings, so how do things look today? And even if they are built, who is going to be moving in to them? It was years before the 50-storey One Canada Square at Canary Wharf was fully occupied and profitable after it had been topped out in 1991.

A strong economy can only help artists hoping to sell their work, and having just had an art consultancy take me on that works primarily with clients in the corporate sector, the arrival of many acres of new wall space that will need filling just a few miles from our front door can be seen as a promising development. London has been transformed in recent years – a walk along the South Bank proves that – and its skyline looked set to change even more in the coming years. How does that vision look today?

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

Juan Muñoz at Tate Modern

A visit to the late Juan Muñoz’s retrospective at Tate Modern (until 27 April) is not a relaxing thing, and yet singularly memorable. There is the continual feeling that one is an uninvited guest, and that you’ve come in the wrong door and are seeing everything from the wrong angle. Backs are turned towards us, figures group in an excluding way.

In The Prompter, 1988, the back of a dwarf is visible in a prompter’s box at the front of an empty stage – but try as we might we can’t see its face, and there is no prompting, and no sound. A drum is propped against a wall at the back of the stage. It’s hard to know how to react, but by then we have already reacted – by feeling kept at bay and excluded.

In Staring at the Sea, 1997-2000, two standing figures look at their reflections in a mirror, but their faces are covered by cardboard masks. They each look like the other, and there is little to be gained by them looking in the mirror. Whichever way you look at it, it seems like the back.

Many Times, 1999, in Room 10 is filled with 100 figures representing a single Asian man modelled on an art nouveau ceramic bust Muñoz came upon in a hotel. The manically smiling figures gather in groups, conversing and laughing, but they are smaller than lifesize so that visitors meandering among them stand head and shoulders above their heads. We are the ones that are left exposed and unusual rather than them.

This show is a matter of reflections, shadows, light and theatre – and a sense of unease – rather than a sculptural event. They are powerful images, but hard to endure. The spotlight illuminating Shadow and Mouth, 1996, of two figures in a strong beam, has blown out, smashing its glass, according to the attendant. A makeshift replacement spotlight stands alongside it, picking out the few remaining uncollected shards in its beam. Even the lighting finds it hard to take.

Friday, 8 February 2008

Are you being conned?

I have details about how to buy my works on my website and get interest from buyers from time to time, but getting two interested buyers ready to send me hundreds of pounds in one week without another question was always going to seem suspicious.

One email was by someone claiming to be a priest wanting to buy several works as a present for his parents on their 50th wedding anniversary, the other by a man wanting a wedding present for a friend. What made them stand out was their willingness to part with hundreds of pounds at the earliest possible opportunity, their poor grasp of the English language and a writing style that suggested they were ordering 15,000 ball-bearings rather that a piece of art.

Websites are a great first point of contact for potential buyers of work from unrepresented artists, but they don’t usually lead to mass orders and untold riches. So the appeal of such unquestioning enthusiasm to own one’s work is understandable – someone really likes my work and wants to buy some. It’s what you hope for from your website when you first get it set up – orders rolling in each week – but it doesn’t usually happen quite like that.

The style of email is instantly familiar. The writer is certainly a close relative of, if not the very same, person who wrote to me the week before to generously give me the chance of sharing the $10 million his father, the owner of a large oil company, left to him after his sudden death in Ivory Coast last year. Touched as I was by this kind gesture, it was an opportunity, like many other similar opportunities, I let pass.

I was suspicious, but curious too, about these people interested in buying my prints. The priest wanted to know the total cost of the list of works he was ordering. I asked for his address and phone number first. He lives, he claims, a couple of miles down the road from here, on the edge of London’s financial district, and can send a courier around to pick the works up without me having to pack them and pass on postal charges. The phone number he gives is nonsensical and obviously fake. Even though I would only accept payment by Paypal, and don't know quite how I would end up being out of pocket, I let it drop. There are better things to do.

Other artist acquaintances have had similar recent emails from people wanting to buy work in this way. How many artists have been conned like this already? How many have had their egos massaged enough to let the conmen slip beneath their radar? Anyone with an email address is accustomed to questioning the validity of what lands in their inbox each day, even if it doesn’t end up their junk box first. But if these scam emails are being sent out, and increasingly so, there must be at least a few artists who are losing out, somehow, because of them.

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

Racing the builders

Some good friends are leaving the city to live in the country. We’ve mainly got to know Mr and Mrs B through going to the same childbirth groups, by watching our toddlers pretend to be snowflakes in dance workshops, and by chatting to them in the playground as we wait for the kids to come out from school. Now they are leaving our inner-city enclave and heading to rural Kent, where houses with gardens are still relatively affordable, and the pressures on growing little boys are perhaps fewer than in the urban hothouse.

Before they go, to remind them of their time here, they ask me if I’ll do a drawing of Newington Green, a historic square close to where we live, and upon which their flat looked. I’m happy for anyone to ask me for anything, and it’s a good excuse to work on something nearby that could have a demand locally.

Rather than just being a busy roundabout with a high crime rate, there are some great stories behind the place. A Tudor hunting venue, Henry VIII installed his mistresses there, Samuel Wesley and Daniel Defoe attended a school there, and it was a hotbed of non-conformity and radicalism from the 1660s. Four of the houses that overlook the green, built in 1658, are among the oldest surviving in London. Most important, for some, is that Newington Green is home to Belle Epoque, a sensational French patisserie and cafe that is the ideal bolt-hole when the call of tea and cakes becomes too overpowering.

I do some drawings and email them to Mr and Mrs B. There’s no rush because they are still waiting for the builders to sort out some problems with the new house, and they can’t move into it as soon as they had hoped. I’m busy with other things anyway, and it slips down the list of priorities. I do a few more drawings, and one or two get approval from a group of kids playing football on the green.

I have kept my text messages to Mr and Mrs B over this period. There is no urgency in getting the job finished, and I am enjoying working on it when I get the chance. “No rush for pic,” one text says. “It’s such a busy time of year coming up. We know it’s work in progress.” “Look forward to seeing drawings,” says another, “but no rush.” Isn’t that the best thing to hear when the pressure is on with other projects, and Christmas and all the other stuff we are dealing with?

Except now this project has been going on for long enough. I know that I could have turned it around in a couple of weeks if I really had to. Deadlines can be a wonderful thing. Mr and Mrs B are in their new home now, and I have taken even longer than their builders have taken to complete work on their house. Slower than builders: a damning indictment. It will be ready soon now, Mr and Mrs B. I promise. Thanks for being so patient.