10 years pricking the art voodoo doll 2005-2015

Month: April 2007

Debate or spin?


Moogee been barking on the debate again…here his latest …

from Arts Council Debate Tim Rose said…

I find myself thinking the heretical thought that public funding of artists is a disease posing as a cure. I would like to see a 10 year moritorium on funding of artists. There is no clear criteria on who should get funding, remedy whether the public might agree with the way their money is being spent (sometimes a contemptuous disregard for public opinion from funding bodies). Also it creates a dependancy culture within the artistic community leading to an unwritten belief in the power of the state to ‘dictate culture’ and paradoxically dissempowering artists in their self belief. Art is not easy, every one is not an artist and there is no real reason the state should pay artists any more than an aromatherapist. I do believe in funding for galleries and exhibitions but artists should only be funded for specific commissions…….well I said it, got it off my chest and feel better…hey ho!

I find myself in sympathy with Tim Rose’s comments. Not because the practitioners in East Midlands are any better or worse than rest of U.K. We have our share of tickboxers and plain lame like anywhere but because it chimes with an unspoken assumption being aired about what the cuts will mean in reality. As money slowly seeps away from lottery and grants are cut it appears that the best and most honourable solution is to give the money to organisations and galleries that can share the benefits between a group of artists rather than one. An old-fashioned benevolence but one that far fairer than hefty wads of cash being hoovered up by the most able to fill forms or convince the ‘administrators’ in A.C.E.of their genius.

Finally has anyone noticed that this debate was launched just before the cuts were announced – pre- emptive spin to bury bad news comes to mind but maybe I just a tad cynical – our government would never do something like that would they?

Of course not….the very idea…

Gloria Cummins said….I believe the only principle should be has it got sustainability?

“sustainability” has become a buzz word here for the droves of eager beavers working on their app forms before the bar gets lowered again…and it like most buzz words means absolutely nothing at all….

If somebody can show me how any project can be described as having “sustainability” I’d like to know how…even projects I been involved in that appear to have legs are suddenly confronted with problems in location, funding and direction that can mean they can end at any point. There is no ‘given’ that talking up a projects long term prospects means that when push comes to shove any funding stream or sponsorship can be guaranteed. The private sector knows that when the money runs out the shutters come down and the same rules apply to the arts unless you happen to have a particularly lovely benefactor with deep pockets or…heresy..you have a business model that ‘makes money’…and few arts bodies would be able to think like that…

The New Profs: Parade 3 – Stuff Happens


“we would have known and surely would have predicted that the General Motors of the art world – the museums and universities – would ultimately seek to alleviate their post-market status and control the means of production … Within 10 years, stuff the art world was on its way to becoming a transnational bureaucracy. Everybody had a job description and a résumé … I was face to face with a generation of well-educated and expensively trained young artists whose extended tenure in art schools appended to the art world had totally divorced them from any social reality beyond it.”

David Hickey quoted in Gordon Burn try ,1921975, buy 00.html” title=”Make it new”>’Make it New’ Guardian October 14th 2006

Hickey is talking about the 1970’s in America but just as we have lagged behind our unweildly offspring in so many things since WWII – armaments, planning, social movements, music so too we have lagged in Art Education. Hickey’s words are echoed by sculptor Richard Serra who called it ‘Floor and drawer art’ – referring to the fashion for conceptual, documentary and installation work. ‘Plus ca change’. Here we are in the late naughties playing catch-up again but this time the implications for an art-world on brink of overload are severe. What has this to do with the offspring of our munificent academies toting their ‘cutting-edge’ wares before us on a sunny evening at Angel Row? Well everything and nothing…..

To explain I have to tell you a little story……

Once upon a time there was an Irishman and an Englishman and they both  dreamt of America….one ended up there studying at Yale with the same Richard Serra and one made it across from the hinterland of Birmingham on a Fullbright. What both of them ingested as well as a respect and understanding of American academic practices and art-scene was an understanding of the new world that was emerging. No more cosy provincial art-schools with their tired old life-drawing rooms and quaint practices. No they saw a golden vision of a big brash new world and they weren’t going to let the old feudalism dent their dreams. The history of post WWII propagandist use of art movements such as Pop and Abstract Expressionism as examples of ‘democratic American freedom’ is well written. Far more subtle and really only apparent now years later is the influence of the free-market on the art schools of Britain. In an unholy alliance academics with left-wing sympathies who were able to earn right-wing lifestyles found that the ‘freedoms’ of a free-market in education gave them prestige and their bosses higher turnover and profits. Locked together ‘Art Education’ and ‘Commerce’ factors danced like there was no tomorrow.

The Irishman was Michael Craig Martin and in his pivitol role at Goldsmiths he ushered in the YBA (Young British Artists) phenomenon. The other character in my story is John Newling of Trent University ( formerly Polytechnic). At Trent Newling has overseen a similar if less glamorous drive towards both improving standards and building the new University’s reputation in the arts. It is the nature of what that built upon that I am interested in..those words of Hickey and Serra came back to haunt me as I moved around the Angel Row in the evening sunlight……are we witnessing the evening shadows lengthening on the day in the sun promised by the YBA circus…I think we are…..

As a student Trent had already a growing reputation, Goldmiths too but nobody could have predicted the sea-change in the arts that they have overseen. At Hornsey College in 1980’s I witnessed a full scale attack on the bourgeoise notions of craftsmanship, artistic talent and skill as ‘new arts’ performance, installation and digital swept all before them ..this a full 5 years before YBA’s. The students of the 1970’s had prospered and brought their own practice to the art school corridors..out with the old and in with the new. In the art critical wilderness voices opposed to this turn around were berated as hopelessly conservative..Peter Fuller who had started his published life on a left-wing press was berated as a closet fascist. The art-war was over…progress had won and as the numbers of students swelled ( fuelled partly by a government which had become a dab-hand at closing down all else especially manufacturing) and the money flowed in and the old ‘Polys’ blossomed into cathedrals of light and regenerated beauty who could argue? In Nottingham’s case the University actually built a new business school on the site of the old Raleigh factory. There was never a better time to be an artist and the YBA cash cows were the icing on the cake……..things could only get better and better…couldn’t they?

20 years on and the cracks in the facade have started to appear. The new Unis have been very succesful for those lucky enough to be within their privileged walls..and increasingly the proportion of ‘overseas’ students is climbing in direct relation to the falling numbers of U.K. students unable to navigate the fees fiasco or convince their parents that the art lottery worth playing. Meanwhile the Further Education colleges take up the old boring mundane training duties for ‘real work’ the hairdressers and bricklayers who would have trained on the job in the old days. It not only the working class feeling the pinch as Grayson Perry noted even the middle-classes beloved of Blair are examining the fine print carefully these days before committing their hard earned cash. The art-world today has been transformed and here the nub of my story……what we seeing is a generation of ‘Floor and Drawer’ artists….our clean, bright lovely ‘New Professionals’ who could have easily gone into medicine, architecture or been vets…the art-world has been ‘scrubbed up’ for the naughties..it had to be to carry on…anarchists, hairies, yippes of old need not apply…..solid artworks and intellectual rigour only…if it is weird it is safe ‘weird’. Which brings me back to my reverie in the late sun in the soon to be ‘upgraded and cleansed’ Angel Row. Where has all the fun gone..the anarchy, the dare I say it ‘revolution’ and as for ‘social reality..you ‘avin a larf guv’nor?………..

Oh dear am I being too old-fashioned for you dear reader?

Parade 3: Curated by Leo Fitzmaurice (who incidently has some fairly slight squibs on supermarket posters in the entrance) is the final act in the three-ring circus that was Parade – an attempt to showcase the brightest and most ‘urgent’ art from the sunny East Midlands.

In concept it draws on a large amount of networking events and in-house collaboration between artists chosen because they already ‘performing’ across the ‘Critical Network’ i.e. a post degree infrastructure that effectively promotes more of the same and excludes just about everybody else from the show. Imagine a Circus tent that pitched up in town and when you arrived 90% of the acts were clowns and when asked ‘where are the horses and elephants and even the jugglers’ you were told sorry by official decree only the clowns can take part the rest have been deemed too ‘reactionary, conservative or just too old’. The factors causing this state of affairs are tedious and would take a book to explain but art as instrument of social policy, art as regeneration symbol, art as education and most importantly artists under 30 as keys to unlocking European Funding have all played their part. Factor-in a developing network of self-promoting across the land and you have a virtual ‘alternative art scene’ but is it ? What is mind-numbing about this series of shows is how ‘safe’ it really is and how old-fashioned it all looks. The new underground drinks lattes, shops at Muji and uses their arts council grants as deposits on houses…capitalism must be quaking in its boots. One artist ( the oldest in show of course) actually has a thread of the real rebel in him and it shows.

Another reviewer noted the air of ‘inconsequantiality’ about this third show and he nailed it. This is Sunday supplement wannabe art. It affects an air of defiant rebelliousness but it no more real than a Peter Docherty ‘poem’ or Tracy Emin Sunday column. Art has been divorced from its social setting and artists starved for years of funds and attention are more than happy to dance to the piper’s tune. In an area like the East Midlands where there virtually no private sales system that means Academia and Subsidy…….they are all on A&S (the medical overtone there correct) without it most would have withered on the vine years ago or got proper jobs. So what is ‘Joe Public’ (conspicuous by his absence of course) to make of this Parade in his name?

I could list every artist’s name but for a fuller overview please read Mark Patterson’s incisive account in the Nottingham Evening Post (which incidently in response to public clamour for art coverage recently reduced said coverage by half in order to print more dating ads…). I am just going to give my honest appreciation of the work as it shown. I know only one participant and that is Paul Matosic whose floor piece of dismembered computer parts got a a thumbs up from Mark Patterson and which I agree is a highlight of the show. Another piece which caught my eye immediately was Hessing’s assemblage of multiplugs…concise and a formally inventive and clever piece that had real ‘sculptural’ precsence. In the same room Godfrey’s magazine excerpts were Foundation level smartypants, ( ditto  Davis …so you took these symbols of capitalism and contemporanity…and you ‘broke them down” …..how exciting……..) Jamieson’s envelopes were a good joke…Sol Lewitt for the poor? Ayling and Conroy I leave to an anonymous comment I ‘overheard’ …” art for the front page of Frieze only it will never make it’…..it looked like Jeff Koons on a bedsit budget… if they’d aimed lower like the neatly formulated ’96 tears and 96 eyes’ they could have got frontpage of A.R. publicity literature instead. One thing I cannot fault though is the premise of lo-fi, reusing objects as defined by the overall curation….it is stuff and sometimes it is happening but mostly it isn’t.

Stuff that could have enjoyed development included Stevenson’s signage…nicely done and could progress, Hessing’s ‘re-modulations’ and maybe Fisher’s other work although HAL was a bit too pop culture referential to have any real bite but full marks for a laddy reinvestigation of traditional laddette materials. Kirshnir’s morse code was a good idea badly presented.

Stuff that emphatically, ‘oh god why bother’ didn’t happen for me and quite a few others, included Gubb’s amplifier…yawn….and Danica Maier’s soft (literally lace..but from abroad…not Nottingham you understand…) pornographic cartoon. Nothing trembling there. By coincidence the two most lethargic entrants have the academic seal of approval….and if Norman and Mayer continue like this they will soon join them.

Stuff Happens..was sort of Ok in a five out of ten way….to return to the vegetable metaphors then this was more like a street barrow at 5pm on a Saturday and whilst most of it was well past sell-by date intellectually ( pace 1970’s and 1980’s conceptualism and assemblage) there were some still fresh bargains to be had and at least the curator/barrow boy tried to showcase as much as possible…i.e. throw enough against wall some sticks ….rest flog it cheap mate..

So what does any of that have to do with the first part of this extended ‘rant’ or ‘diagnosis’ depending on your age/social background and access to those barrow boys and girls of benevolence….A.C.E.?

Well members of the jury my prognosis is simple. What has happened with our art education system is directly reflected in the quality and the depth of the work these artists display. Too many older artists in the East Midlands have tried to reinvent themselves in recent years to gain access to these charmed circles and in doing so have jettisoned any credibility and development for a handful of silver. Amongst the younger artists the ‘wow factor teaching’ has left them polishing old ideas in ever decreasing circles and now ever decreasing funding. The golden eggs are no longer going to be dished out for fourth rate art and I’m afraid the only gold will be hanging around athletes necks. The system of professionalisation has left us with a glut of pretentious semi-curators with more and more artists of variable talents to ‘curate’. Academia is the ‘safe-house’ where the avant-garde can sleep safely and all the while the ‘social reality’ remains a late-night bus ride away. There was not one reference in any of this work to the actual area of the East Midlands. That ‘social reality’ simply didn’t exist. The ivory towers have not got any taller ..they have just got thicker walls.

Once upon a time there was an Irishman,an Englishman and a Scotsman and they dreamt of America…they dreamt of revolution. of turning the world upside down…where is Tom Paine or Burns when you need him most?

To quote a singer in a band..Jefferson I think we’re lost…..

All we have now after the Parade has passed are a handful of beans and a golden goose….oh and a lovely, lovely square…

Editor’s note: Apologies to Alexander Stevenson for an honest mistake re. his and Kirshnir’s work. In the speed of writing I mistakenly assigned his (positive) mention with Kirshnir. This has now been rectified and a heartfelt apology to both. My only defence is it a genuine mistake and my incredible age. Even with proof-reading sometimes things slip through. Amended version now online.

The Real Art World: 1980 – London’s Burning


Hornsey Art College burns…a great start..

I am going to describe the 1980’s artworld as it really was for the majority of art-students. Not the cosy new money YBA’s and their cohorts or the city-slickers with loft-spaces and pockets to fill. No this is one lowly art student’s coming of age in the brutal underbelly of North London in the years when Lady Thatcher was in charge and you could get round London all day for £2.50!

I will start with the photo above. Hornsey College of Art burning well in summer 1980 just after the previous year’s final show. Alexandra Palace had sat safely on the hill above North London through over a century but in June 1980 a considerate workman was deemed to have inadvertantly set fire to a roof. Most at the time didn’t believe it and it sad to say that both the council and developers gained much from the resulting fire. An art college burns very well by the way what with all the paint and combustibles contained therein. My favourite story from the conflagration was the one about etching tutor Dick ‘Sleepy’ Fozzard who having worked a plate to the final stages was sleeping throughout most of the fire and only an alert staff member prised him away from the presses before they melted. I watched the whole thing from my parent’s council house in Oxfordshire after my mother kindly pointed out that my college appeared to be on fire on the T.V. Hot enough to make the BBC news! I sat in an armchair with my pork chop and two veg and watched two years paintings burst into some spectacular flames and then it was gone…next day I pointed out where my space had been in The Sun’s coverage …now empty sky….

I sometimes try to recall not only my artwork but that of those around me…ironically Bell & Langlands (later Saatchi chosen ones) had just left and had probably removed their ‘burnt-books installation’ before the real fire got a hold…life imitating art? I can’t say I was that impressed with Bell & Langlands then it seemed mediocre conceptualism and I can’t say my opinion shifted much since. I did see them sucking up to someone form the Tate years later and evidently they played their networking hand well..but art??..hmm not in my book. Ironically looking at the archive photos it just as well that most of us actually more intent on learning our craft and developing theories..if the same occurred now half the students would be ‘documenting’ the ruins and the other half either rolling in the ashes for a site-specific performance or claiming they had burnt the whole thing down as a protest against neo-stalinism in the Hackney gulags…

As it was we suffered in silence watched the building collapse and got on with drinking ourselves stupid and occasionally making splendid art at the original college which still contained the Foundation Course about two miles down the hill. We were all shipped back in there come September 1980 and told to get on with it..three years work to be done in one..oh yes we were a hardy lot….no digital archives then just new paint. canvas and stone..oh and cameras…

My first memories of the new building were that it had changed little from the grainy footage of the Hornsey ‘Riots’ which was religiously shown to all new students ( along with a healthy helping of art history tutor Peter Webb’s porn collection rebranded as art history). Now although some real Situationists did make it over to sleep on the floor and smoke dope with the Hornsey crew in 1968 it was hardly Paris ’68. Indeed the footage confirmed our suspicions that most were spliffed out hippies having a damn good time and sandals and kaftans aside there was no real riot just a bunch of students carrying coffins and  getting bitten occasionally by friendly police dogs. Kent State it wasn’t in fact it wasn’t even Guildford. The College had been purpose built at turn of century and had some fantastic north-facing studios, illness perfect for painters and if truth be told was better equipped than the now crumbling Palace with the exception of the much-missed Panorama Bar which had been the handiest bar to an art college ever devised. Situated directly below the college one short stairwell down and half the college had written off another afternoon in fierce debate or shallow drinking depending on your viewpoint. The view was lovely….I remember listening to the Iranian Embassy siege on a tinny radio and watching the smoke rise across the London skyline to the south. Dearest Margaret was untroubled by our Leninist revisionism and Barthes semiotic signifiers she was too busy deploying the S.A.S. and getting ready for the real enemy within ‘Oop North’.

As we struggled to unload the batches of new easels and paint stocks from the lorries ( the technicians as ever too busy to help as they rebuilt yet another american car engine) little could we guess that the 1980’s were going to be as troubled a decade as any of us would ever see. I managed to set myself down in a bunker below ground with my welsh compadre and stone sculpting house-mate Ken Absalom who defined hippy chic in a way many of us had never known. Five years after punk he still wore a kaftan embalmed in pitchouli and owned more tie-dye and crocheted shirts than any man should. A miner’s son from Blaeanavon on a cold welsh mountaintop he’d ended up in India discovering large amounts of hashish and women in about equal measure. A return to his village was precluded by a fierce isolationism that was to affect us both sooner rather than later. For now I tried to rationalise the fact that I’d chosen to occupy a space about ten feet square next to a mad welshman who was power-drilling his way in true miner style through a ton of portland stone. Each time he started up a piece of stone would hit me in the ear or back and the dust….It was only when my ‘personal tutor’ (they could afford to be called that in those days) almost lost an eye and choked her way out of the plastic tent I was trying to protect myself in that I realised that a painter could do better in the purpose built studios upstairs.

Easy to say in retrospect but as I spent most mornings developing tinnitus by ‘drumming’ ( loose description) on old dustbins in a freeform jazz orchestra/ punk supergroup that later became the ‘Fuck Pigs’ most aspects of reality had probably already passed me by. None of this was drug induced the major drug was the ale sold at the new ‘Art School Pub’ The Railway conveniently situated downhill from the College in pre-yuppified Crouch End. Hard to believe that what has become the land of lattes and expensive three whelled buggies was then a pretty rundown suburb with a few pubs……and not a wine bar in sight….most of us then would have guessed a Pinot Grigio was an Italian dancer…maybe we were right…

My Proustian moment #1

In a vain attempt to prove my solid postmodernist hypertextual qualities I will occasionally sidetrack by digressing on a particular piece of artwork and see what hidden depths it may reveal or shallow inexcusable art pretensions it unravels before me after all these years. Starting in September 1980 is as good a point as any as everything pre June 1980 had just disappeared in smoke with the exception of a Foundation and school folder which remained tucked in my parent’s loft. Whereas my memory of the sculptors ‘Neffertiti at the waterhole’ remains strong….he was still hacking away at it six months later..my own work has slipped from my mind. I do however have the sketchbook from September 1980 here and it reveals a strange concoction. I had started drawing house plants whilst still at my parents. To save money most students (especially those unemcumbered by rich parents and trust funds) would go home for the summer to save paying rent which in my case set at a fiendishly expensive £9 a week thanks to the wonderfully eccentric yet generous Jewish Hashidic family the mad sculptor and I roomed with in Stamford Hill…The Gordons..of them more later….

The sketchbook reveals the influence of solid painters like John Walker, Alan Green and John Hoyland. Everything was very ‘mark-making’ in those far off days. We are talking pre Zeitgeist, pre R.A. New Painting Show. Recently there has been a spate of re-assessment shows in USA and Australia looking again at the supposedly ‘dead’ area of painting during those minimalist and conceptual 1970’s. ‘To the victor’s the spoils’! The art history has been rewritten from the more recent perspective as once again we are reminded that painting is ‘dead’. This memoir is in part a redress to this manipulation of history.

I remember distinctly taking Samuel Palmer and Graham Sutherland books from the newly restocked College Library and the drawings show their influence. I was encouraged in my focusing on ‘British’ art by my tutor a wonderful printmaker called Tricia Stainton who unbeknowns to me also taught part-time at the Royal College. I was the world’s worst ‘networker’ and so focussed on my own concerns things like that just went straight by me….others were less naive.

The sketchbook contains a print by Fragonard which came from a cheap artbook my Auntie Sue had bought me one Christmas from our local W.H.Smith….It wasn’t until my early twenties that I could afford more than a few large art books. The sketchbook stays in its dark foliage, slightly gothic mood throughout until the following March when Picassoesque forms take control. Maybe a subconscious reaction to the fire ..who knows..I know many of us struggled in those early months after the fire and the staff (in most cases) were very helpful. Needless to say the technicians helped the most attractive girls and the owners of american cars the most…

As my mood (and circumstances lightened) the drawings took on more Matisse and Picasso touches and a trip to see the Picasso bequest in Paris certainly helped..although my strongest memory of my fellow student’s reaction to first plate of snails must wait another day…Jackson Pollock comes to mind but not in a good way…..

Here is one of my very few prints that survived from the printroom then and Tricia’s influence. Samuel Palmer and Sutherland put through a blender certainly…

(picture to come)