Friday, 28 January 2011

'Losers'

“The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.” Well, in mid-noughties Britain there was no X-Factor - just Pop Idol, plus Fame Academy its bargain bin competitor over on the Beeb.

I recently discovered some portraits I did in about 2006 of rejects from these shows. They didn’t see the light of day at the time. I vaguely remember that I was planning to link them together in a ‘tree of failure’ which never happened. Now they make me smile – a roll call of anonymous faces, whose names might only stir a feint glimmer of recognition in a few of us.

What became of them? Gary Phelan is still releasing music and playing live if his Facebook is anything to go by. Marli Buck recorded an album for a major label which was never released – she’s still putting out music on her website. Nick Hall hasn’t updated his website since 2008 whilst Chris Hide lasted out til 2009. Alistair Griffin continues to gig, write and record – he released a mildly successful major label album in 2004 – and did manage to trouble the lower end of the charts again in 2010. Peter Brame was a tabloid fixture for a brief period when he dated Fearne Cotton, yet his website has been defunct since 2008. Naomi Roper also quit music the same year. James Fox tasted failure once again in 2004, when he came 16th in Eurovision, with ‘Hold onto Our Love’. He’s now found a career in musical theatre, most recently seen in a touring production of Chess. Last but not least, Aaron Bayley’s website invites you to book his band for your wedding.

If only they’d won their respective talent shows. They must be sitting at home kicking themselves that they’ll never be as famous as David Sneddon, Michelle McManus or Alex Parks...

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Christian Art / Secular Age

I’m not religious myself, but I was brought up in the Catholic tradition and I’ve always been rather fascinated by the iconography of Christ in particular. Aren’t the stations of the cross just a bit weird?... As a child in Ireland, the church we attended contained a load of highly realistic paintings of a bloke being thrashed, jeered through the streets, nailed to two bits of wood, and dying a grim death in the glare of mocking onlookers.

I always found the ‘cult of the wounds’ a particularly odd, not to say morbid diversion in Christian art. A symbolic devotion to the five wounds (hands, feet and side) sustained by Jesus in The Passion is often expressed in oddly sexual paintings, such as this one by Caravaggio, where St. Thomas explores the vulva shaped lance wound with his long, outstretched finger. Yeuch.

Early Christian art was characterized by a theological debate between the Byzantine iconoclasts (those who believed that it was impossible, not to say heretical, for artists to try and represent figuratively the face of Christ as God incarnate) and the iconodules, who asserted that it was by contrast essential to represent, and thereby venerate, the humanity of Jesus.

In contrast to Islam, where the representation of Mohammed is still frowned upon, in Christianity the iconodules, have by and large, won the debate. (Although at times in history, such as the English Reformation, iconoclasm has enjoyed a resurgence)

These polarized arguments have come to characterize, in a sense, the challenge that lies at the heart of Christian art. Artists through history are attempting to paint Jesus as a divine being, but also - in case that wasn’t difficult enough - they’re also seeking to express His humanity.


Few have ever managed the mix just right. Humanity, misery and fallibility win out in in Grunewald’s Isenheim Christ – with precious little divinity.


Conversely, Michelangelo’s risen Christ is a transcendent, sun-kissed muscleman who seems never to have known hunger or strife.


Some images do seem to succeed in representing Christ as some kind of unsettling character with his foot in two worlds. Piero della Francesca’s uncanny Resurrection seems to exist in a frightening dream state between the physical world and myth, divinity and the impossible. Neither triumph nor humility light the saviour’s face. His gaze, echoed in the sleeping soldiers at his feet, evokes a wisdom, stillness and calm more akin to artworks of the Buddhist tradition.

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In the modern age Christian art has arguably become more interesting because the challenges are so much greater. Many people (me included) don’t really believe any more.


One particularly thought provoking sculpture of Christ from recent years is Mark Wallinger’s Ecce Homo, made for the empty fourth plinth at Trafalgar Square. The title refers to Pontius Pilate’s words as he presents the flogged and humiliated Christ to the baying crowd who must decide his fate. Wallinger, himself an agnostic, plays with our preconceptions and sense of scale in this work. Christ is modelled on real human proportions and looks like an ordinary man, yet he stands on a great plinth high above us. The disparity between His physical ordinariness and the plinth scale is jarring – toying as it does with the conventions of art history that demand public (and religious) sculptures be huge and attention-grabbing. As if to emphasize this fact, on the other sides of the square stand enormous larger than life sculptures of mortal men which honour their status and earthly achievements – shouting with pride, vanity and arrogance. Wallinger’s Christ reproaches them with his gentle presence.


Another interesting piece of modern art that references Christian iconography (also made by an agnostic) is found in Sam Taylor Wood’s remarkable Pieta. Taylor-Wood has expressed the view that her religious themed works are not made from any doctrinal point of view, only to reference and comment on art history. Naturally, though, the two aren’t mutually exclusive. When Taylor-Wood entered into dialogue with the classic Michelangelo Pieta, she also commenced a similar dialogue with issues of what it means to represent Christ in an age of doubt.

Pieta consists of a looped video in which Taylor Wood cradles the troubled actor Robert Downey Jr. in her arms, in an identical pose to Michelangelo’s sculpture. Her choice of medium is pretty crucial here. In marble the pose is timeless – Mary bears the weight of her son without effort, while his dead body rests secure and not without elegance on the folds of her dress. On the video, we see Downey Jr struggle not to slip, the pose clearly a challenge to maintain. Taylor-Wood has explained in interviews that, although she keeps a serene face, the effort of holding Downey Jr in this unusual pose is incredibly painful.

Like Wallinger’s sculpture, Taylor Wood’s piece – due to it’s time based nature – seems interested in redressing the balance in that age old humanity/divinity paradox. Where Holy images have traditionally been (particularly in the High Renaissance) the stuff of idealized marble tableaux with which we can hardly have any empathy, Taylor-Wood reminds us that all suffering is real and tangible, not frozen and idealized.


An extreme example of this is surely ‘Piss Christ’ by Andres Serrano, a 1987 photograph of a plastic crucifix submerged in the artists own urine. Following the production of this work, the agnostic artist was caught in a decade-long firestorm of hate mail, death threats and litigation. A reproduction of the piece was torn up in the US Senate. Many spectators felt that Serrano had literally urinated on the holiest symbol of Christianity.

Perhaps inevitably, I see it in a rather different light. Naturally, with a title like ‘Piss Christ’, the work courts open controversy and seeks to snort in the face of the Christian Right. Yet look at it for a second… it’s beautiful. A spectator could glance at this work and be caught unawares by the eerie majesty of Christ seen through the regal filter of golden liquid… before the inevitable jolt of realization slaps him or her in the face. It effortlessly brings us back to the contradiction at the heart of all Christian art, the aforementioned ‘humanity versus divinity’ paradox. By surrounding the idealized Christ with the stuff of basest humanity, Serrano brings that paradox into focus. Jesus, so we’re told, was the Son of God. But he shared our bodily functions, he pissed, he was human. The Christian Right need to wrap their heads around that.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Freud

A Tuesday mid-PM injection of inspiration from Lucian Freud – in the form of a particularly delicious unfinished portrait of Francis Bacon.

I recently read Martin Gayford’s book ‘Man with a Blue Scarf’, his first person account of sitting for Freud. The portrait which resulted from the book admittedly didn’t seem to be a particularly great example of Freud’s work, however the text provided a brilliant, often witty, peek into the artist’s processes. Freud is famous for labouring through months – and sometimes years – of daily sittings on any given portrait. It was amusing to learn that Freud insisted Gayford, a busy art critic who commuted to the sittings from Cambridge, continue to travel all that way and sit in person, even while Freud spent several weeks filling in the background.

Monday, 10 January 2011

New Year

January is well underway, and I have to admit it’s good to be back at work. The New Year promises to be a busy time for me – with both a book illustration project and a CD cover commission to keep me busy as the days grow longer. Additionally I’m preparing for a group exhibition in East Grinstead at the start of March. I won’t spoil the surprise, but lets just say I am working on the biggest single image of my career. More info very soon.

Meanwhile here’s a piece of work I completed at the end of last year, a cover illustration for my friend Alan Kenneth Kite’s fourth book of verse, ‘Tryptic.’