To celebrate my long Hong Kong connection, in 2015/16, a mini retrospective exhibition of my works, on loan from private collections, was held at that venerable institution, The Hong Kong Club.
Gathered with me there, to remember those past thirty years, were long-standing friends and supporters of my painting journey in Hong Kong and China. Sadly, my loyal friend and collector, Fai Cheung, (third from left) is no longer with us.
Recently sadly also passed away, is Sandra Walters, co-founder of Alisan Fine Arts, who welcomed me to Hong Kong’s art world in 1986.
Hoping to renew Hong Kong connections again when international travel allows.
There are several things happening in my studio today.
In the painting department, a detailed watercolour of Yunnan hay stacks plus several ongoing geometric oil abstractions with a taste of Moroccan carpets, Kuba cutouts, a pinball machine, all ‘somewhere between a map and a hard place.’
Spring sun lights up assorted bits and bobs assembled on my window sill. A turquoise fragment is holding court in a clearing surrounded by a throng of stoney sentinels.
How are all these things connected, apart from my being the ‘Selector’ in the midst?
A conical, triangular, pyramidical connection is apparent.
In both the figurative and abstract paintings the eye finds numerous pathways.
The haystacks are small but might suggest bigger things from tepees to large conical mountains. Memories creep in here of the monumental lime karsts lining the Li River. The structure of Chinese Landscape vertical scroll paintings are never far from my mind.
Every shape is a springboard to another. The restless eye keeps on the move, at times quickly and at others slowly manoeuvring into backwaters or in and out of a cul-de-sac.
Some shapes appear like off-cuts… a plough left in a field or flotsam and getsam drifting through dockland.
We move from conversations between congregating shapes approached by angular tadpoles to hieroglyphic tools. There seem to be momentary attractions, then currents carry them away along zig-zagging waterways to side channels where they filter between floating communities.
Matisse said about his paintings that the idea was to ‘lose your way’ the eye never settling.
I equate this to the flippers on a pin table sending the ball bouncing away, from pillar to post.
In this current series of oil paintings, I was at times thinking of islands and reclaimed land, of re-wiggled rivers, of diversions. And then, at others, an added lump changes a plan of a piazza into the elevation of an internal combustion engine.
At times a reference comes that morphs a mountain into a rooftop, subsequently breaking it up to suggest a road symbol… anything is allowed. An electric cantilever cable becomes a plough and then a kite.
During days of painting, identities transform. It is a long process of pushing lines and shapes back and forth.
During Lockdown, a stack of roofing-timber offcuts, discarded in my garden, became the key to creative play.
It all started as something different to do as a birthday treat while ‘locked in’. During ‘Lock down’, in the absence of opportunities for physical travel, recollections of places visited and imagined were finding a way into my painting themes.
So why not build a solid ziggurattish thing.
I was fortunate to have a sizeable garden. My lawn became the arena for months of play as the zigguratttish thing became a fortress, Machu Picchu, Angkor Wat, a Balinese Gateway, a citadel, a temple, which would send out tendrils connecting to lesser | templets’, communities and strategic outposts.
I did not alter the initial shapes, my invention came in the way they were periodically arranged and dispersed among fresh pastures. Every ten days or so the theme would change to allow the lawn to revive. A tree of life-giving way to peninsulas, railway sidings, canals and, eventually, with the arrival of winter, bamboo stick supports lifting the planks clear of the grass to create boardwalks.
I learned to tell the time by the cast shadows.
Seasonal changes enhanced the surfaces, as did falling leaves, rain, frost and snow.
Beans, lettuces (and slugs) leant their support from the prime grandstand position of a neighbouring vegetable patch. Sporadic repairs were sometimes needed after nightly interference by animals or wind. Only gravity held the parts together. There were sunny days when I would lie down on the grass to be on the same level as the blocks, to feel their monumentality. Just as I did as a child arranging my toy bricks among the rectilinear oriental patterns of our living room carpet. Everything connects. Subsequently, new shapes have been introduced into my paintings as a result of my garden Lockdown diversion.
To the casual onlooker my morning exercises, standing amongst my constructions, might have seemed like a meditative ritual. Perhaps it was. Perhaps that is what painting is.
The starting platform is now the only evidence that remains. The grass is upright.
The wood offcuts are again a discarded heap, secretly waiting for..!! Whoknows Wat!
Drawing deblurs…..it defines boundaries, it makes lines round things and creates shapes. However- in nature edges arrive due to the force that drives from within. A line is a direction – a movement. A line does many things during the drawing process. As it changes direction it becomes less ambiguous. Defining a shape, the line loses its energy and transfers the energy to the shape it has enclosed. The line then has two jobs – to define what is next to it whilst retaining the energy of the stroke.
This morning I am strolling through a thick fog, a white sun seeps through the haze like a melting marshmallow. Walking downhill through the park that lies between my home and the invisible otherwise gleaming spires of Oxford, all I can see are the ghosts of trees dappled with a few remaining pointillizing leaves and a looming figure trailing the silhouette of a dark dog. The blur that wraps around me like a scarf is vaguely comforting. My surroundings are simplified- they are mystified into a state that could readily be translated into paint!. Nevertheless, I walk on in punning rather than painting mode – mist defying.
I am pondering the mental blur that passes for my thought process, the way in which I am constantly trying to define things, the need to organize, make boundaries, have goals, arrange, how life is a drawing process, balancing on the cusp between order and chaos, creating structure from day to day in order to survive whilst keeping in touch with the disordered self, the self that has the ideas that make me tick.
A few weeks ago I had the privilege of painting on large metre square tiles in the studio of a Beijing ceramic factory. Armed with a variety of brushes, my favoured tools turned out to be sponges, wire wool, rags and fingernails. The process of getting the glazes fixed to the slippery surface was totally unlike painting on paper. I found it exhilarating. Ideas that I had previously laboured on with mixed success on paper, board and canvas became liberated on these tiles. Marks that I might have previously considered out of order in my paintings suddenly gained respectability on ceramic. Each day I arrived in the studio I was off on a new tack responding to the mood of the day. I can’t wait to see how they look after firing.
Back home in England I am considering the ‘safety’ and ‘validity’ of my own painting whilst driving west for the opening of the RWS show at the Royal Cornwall Museum in Truro and then on to visit a long-awaited major exhibition of paintings and sculpture by Cornish painter Peter Lanyon at Tate St Ives.
Lanyon was a visiting speaker at my college when I was a teenager – I didn’t realize then his importance in the development of English landscape painting. Subsequently, I tuned in to his preoccupation with the shape that topographical images take in our memory and how they reassemble themselves when we act out and represent places and experiences in paint. St Ives painters and sculptors, like Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson, who abstracted elements from nature to make aesthetically pleasing and tasteful objects, were anathema to Peter Lanyon who employed shapes and colours derived from his Cornish surroundings in a simultaneously jumbling and ordering process, to represent a specific place or sensation. Taste didn’t come into the picture.
This ‘getting a grip on reality is obsessive for we painters. Our mental images may seem clear to us until we start to express them and then we realize the enormity of the blur we are attempting to grasp!
Artist & Illustrator “A Splash of Colour” No.13 | Jan 2011
A gleaming fighter jet, polished to a mirror finish, rests between columns in the heart of the main hall in Tate Britain.
Adults and children alike flock around it looking at their reflections, marvelling at the craftsmanship, attracted by the sheer impact of it’s presence in these unexpected surroundings. For me this scene brings back 1950’s childhood memories of spitfires hanging in The Imperial War Museum, of rows of tanks at the army museum in Bovington. Of glistening suits of armour in The Tower of London, The Wallace Collection and Hatfield House. Of the braid and colour of military uniforms at the United Services Museum in Whitehall, which my mother had to pretend to enjoy when taking me on birthday treats around the museums. This before I was old enough to go off on drawing trips on my own. In those colourless post war days, the scarlet and blue uniforms of the Guards on sentry sung out against London’s soot and war stained buildings. I have another distant memory on holiday of being stunned into silence by powerful vision of a working paddle steamer engine. Impressed then by what I would now describe as the ‘sculptural’ power of such man made bits of engineering and design, another person might have dreamed of making an equivalent one day. I wanted to draw to keep the experience alive.
Looking back, I might have seemed an odd child. With my sticky up hair, squinting through national health specs, short of stature clutching my sketch book I bore an uncanny resemblance to the black and white, Picture Post, image I had seen of Stanley Spencer reeling off drawings on a loo roll in Clydeside Shipyards.
Long before I became aware of painting and sculpture in galleries, like the rest of us I suspect, I was interested in sounds, people, events, places and “Things”. I owe a great debt of gratitude to the museum curators and the collectors who wanted to share the engineering, invention and beauty of ‘Things”. When asked as a child what I wanted to be when I grew up I used to say “a museum curator” – this, so that I could spend my time amongst all that amazing stuff! Would I call the person with the energy and enthusiasm to bring ‘Things” to Tate Britain an artist, a collector or a curator? Are the museum curators ‘artists’ for allowing things to be displayed in their museums. What’s the difference between an Art Gallery and an Art Museum. All these questions end up pointlessly tying a brain in knots. However what Fiona Banner, who polished the aircraft and initiated the project and combined with the museum have done, is presented, or maybe represented, for us a beautiful object. So here I am ‘re-representing’, encircling a jaguar jet plane, at The Tate Gallery, with pad and pen revelling in the rows of flush rivets, sweeping lines and distorted reflections reminiscent of the steely dress pattern-like shapes in the Stanley Spencer Port Glasgow Paintings.
The Imperial War Museum houses paintings and sculpture under the same roof as aircraft and Tate Britain are doing the same with no distinction between ‘manufactured object’ and ‘art’. Now I feel at home! Somehow I have found a bit of spare time for painting this year! In my coming one man show, in Hong Kong, I have combined a recurring obsession for worn Chinese walls with a portrait of an erhu player whose notes seem to waft into the rendering behind him and become picked out in the brickwork.
Artists and Illustrators | “A Splash of Colour” No.11 | Nov 2010