Sculpture & Other Matters


You may have missed the Peter Blake show ‘Sculpture & Other Matters’ at Waddington Custot in Cork Street, that finished in April.  The gallery was filled with what were described as ‘everyday objects’ and, I imagine, the contents of Peter Blake’s studio – a lifetime of collecting ‘stuff’.  He has been making ‘assemblages’ or sculptures since the 1960’s after he took up woodworking at art college, and this was the first time in 20 years that he has shown them as the main emphasis of an exhibition (we are more familiar with his paintings and prints). 

Thankfully, his artefacts are not my current experience of everyday objects, but are admittedly similar to the ‘stuff’ that I have spent the last year purging from the clutter in my life.  It was a joy, though, to see how somebody else can embrace these ‘things’, rearranging, organising and assembling new imaginary environments for me to immerse myself in, within the confines of the safe, clean-line gallery space.  I am familiar with the therapy that comes from organising ‘stuff’, categorising it, containing it and then happily expunging it from my life.  The assemblages certainly had a Peter Blake familiarity about them and I felt safe in the knowledge I was viewing someone else’s ‘stuff’ from a pace or two away, allowing myself to be mentally, though not physically, drawn into his magical fantasies.  I now have digital photographic evidence of the show, disburdened and filed transparently away in the Cloud, whilst I carry a memory of a joyous visit and a sense of relief that I can leave it all behind.

Sir Peter Blake, Sculpture & Other Matters, Waddington Custot, 20 February – 13 April 2024

Sculpture & Other Matters2024-05-22T19:41:29+01:00

In the Studio with Katherine Jones RA


At an art fair I bought a little painting, titled ‘Fade From White’.  I didn’t mean to, it just kept winking at me every time I walked past (and admittedly I walked past quite a few times).  I knew of the artist and had a few facts at my disposal to know that her career is on the up, but the real reason I invested was because it stirred memories that lifted my spirits and I wanted to take those feelings home with me.  The artist is called Katherine Jones and I met her briefly at the fair, but wanted to find out what makes her tick and whether knowing the hand that had painted my little gem would change how I felt. 

By the time I set off for south London to meet Katherine, I had lived with and contemplated my little painting every day for a few months and it continued to bring me an uplift with each glance. I found the studio in a complex of other artists’ studios – possibly a block of council offices in a previous life, with long corridors and rooms behind windowless doors – but now Katherine’s ‘office’ and her daily commute.  Inside was a light space with old Crittall windows, laid out with tables, plan chests and a big printing press, wafting turps and ink.  We talked, not only about Katherine’s inspirations, influences, roots and progress, but also about the graft, the discipline, the aloneness and the huge amount of time that goes into pursuing a creative career.  Plus the lows, the doubts, the insecurities and the cycle of emotions that ride alongside the absolute certainty that this is what she must do.  In fact, we found so much to talk about that four hours flew past until we realised we were sitting in fading daylight – “Oh where did that go!”, we laughed at the end, and continued to text names and books on the journey home, that had escaped our memories in the studio.

Her work has a lightness of touch with a twist of strangeness.  Trained as a printmaker (2001—2003: Camberwell College of Art, MA Fine Art Printmaking and 1998—2001: Cambridge School of Art, BA (hons) Fine Art Printmaking) and gaining experience in print editioning for other artists after graduating, she is probably better known, at least so far, for her own editioned, hand-pulled collagraphs.  Her subject matter has been described as referencing ‘perceptions of safety and danger’ and I can see that; the home, containers, shelters, nature, clouds are all references that we imagine seeing in the lines and shapes that make up her images and that we satisfactorily pin to this theme.  She is a mother and a protector (we discussed our children and how they have shaped our futures).  She is a cultivator and a nurturer (we talked allotments and how our mental well-being is touched by the plants, soil and sun).  She is an accidental dog owner and a custodian (neither of us want to live without the responsibility of a dog in our lives, now that we have tried).  We both care about world peace, equality and the environment, and I can understand how security matters to her, as it does to most of us, and how vulnerable we all feel in this world.  Yet sometimes the idea of describing an artist’s work in words is not enough because these ideas are huge and wide-ranging, but it is in the looking that we really comprehend the specifics.  Explaining the line of enquiry that she pursues is deliberately vague, allowing us to pin these, and our own, references onto it.  The description, Katherine says, has probably come about retrospectively when looking back over what she has done and trying to assess how, collectively, to describe her intentions.  Yet when I look at the paintings and prints scattered around the walls, across surfaces, filed in drawers and tucked into portfolios, I just somehow know they are from, and of, her.  The best thing is, she can’t really define that, she just is who she is.

When she was admitted to the Royal Academy as an Academician in 2022, “no one was more surprised than me”, she said, and is still unsure about how it happened.  New candidates are usually proposed and voted for by existing Academicians, but the candidate does not make the approach or even know about the vote, until the invitation is sent.  The Academy represents the ‘Establishment’ and is, for many of these elite artists, an enviable badge of achievement.  For Katherine it brings a reassuring endorsement from her peers and elders, some of whom she has admired for years.  It is finally an opportunity for her to look with humility on the bright side of the months spent questioning what and why she does what she does.  She is naively modest and becomingly so.  For the Royal Academy’s 2023 Summer Exhibition she curated Room V, called ‘Wishes Of Others’, which is no mean feat and I am curious to follow how this accreditation may bring new opportunities to shape her career in the future.

So how did my painting ‘Fade From White’, which she painted in 2023, come into being?  Paint has always played a role in her process; either to sketch out ideas on scraps of paper for her eyes only, or to work into a print after it has been through the press.  The luscious, inky marks that transfer from a constructed plate onto paper after being squeezed through a press, are not only repeatable but are of such special quality, that the medium is often a specialist craft chosen by makers and collectors alike.  The use of paint, she says, was always to simply add a burst of colour or a gentle softness to the printed marks. But the painting that I bought is painted on board, so no printing involved, and a prepared white board suggests it had already been defined by Katherine as the end, and not the starting point.  In a recent exhibition at Sims Reed Gallery, ‘Drop Shadows’, in St James’s, several more little paintings had been revealed (I thought a couple of them were special little gems like mine, and indeed they had already been snapped up by the time I got there) but now I see that they might be multiplying.  She even shows me two, quite large, unfinished canvases, lurking at the back of the studio – “a commission”, she says.  We discuss the missed opportunities for those musicians, artists and writers that have only ever had one real hit, and the need to push oneself for longevity, take risks and keep an open-mind about that which, in the minds of others, has already defined you.  My conclusion is that she is experimenting and pushing herself, and her little painted boards hang around on the walls of her studio while she contemplates how finished or not they are.  

I still don’t really know exactly what my painting means to Katherine or how it will fit into her future and evolving practice, and maybe she doesn’t yet either.  She mentioned that it came about as a response to time spent in the Chelsea Physic Garden, where she regularly draws (alongside a group of artists from the Royal Society of Painter Printmakers) with the medicinal plants and the billowing marquees that are there during the summer – part shelter, part nature.  Meryl Ainslie from the Rabley Drawing Centre, Wiltshire who regularly exhibits Katherine’s work explains, “until the 1970s these gardens were a living classroom to train apothecaries in the use of plants and their medicinal uses. Today the garden also hosts weddings and parties and Jones has documented the changing marquee shapes and structures as they are put up and taken down alongside the plants”.  

The body of work that resulted from her time in the garden is titled ‘The Real Sunshine of Feeling’ which is a quote taken from Charlotte Brontë’s ‘Jane Eyre’ and it is obvious that Katherine is moved and influenced by literature (I have since enjoyed ‘Babette’s Feast’, a beautifully written short story by Karen Blixen about the human sacrifices made for creativity – one of Katherine’s recommendations to inspire me).  Both prints and paintings that celebrate the multifaceted nature of the Chelsea Physic Garden comprise ‘The Real Sunshine of Feeling‘ and, the catalogue informs us, is ‘underpinned by the many free associations and ideas inspired by it’.  Yet to me my painting is of somewhere else, a reminder of a memory, a spark of a revelation and it winked at me because I am who I am. Katherine Jones is everything I had hoped for in the hand behind the work.  Never meet your heroes”, we had joked, and we had both revealed stories of disappointing encounters.  In this case, though, it has definitely been a risk worth taking.

View my painting Fade from White

In the Studio with Katherine Jones RA2024-05-15T13:23:16+01:00

Technology and the Lamb


If you visit Ghent, why would you not visit Jan Van Eyck’s masterpiece? My guess is that for some it would just be a stuffy old altarpiece in a cold, dark church.  Yet Ghent works hard to make the visit to St Bavo’s Cathedral an enlightening and worthwhile experience for all.  First, a fun walk around the crypt immersed in a virtual world, using augmented reality headsets, gets even the most naive audience interested in the complexities and worthiness of this painting.  By the time you get up into the church and stand in front of the magnificent Altarpiece, you know what to look for and can feel the X-factor.  You and apparently over 90% of visitors to Ghent (though thankfully not all at once).

Mind you, the good people of Ghent have spent €2.2 million of their taxes restoring the Altarpiece, wiping away layers of 16th Century overpainting, and protecting it with a six-metre, climate-controlled, glass case (which magically opens the wings each morning and closes them again in the evening).Fortunately for the taxpayers, the restorers have found surprising discoveries that have hit world headlines and drawn the crowds.The restorers, employed by Belgium’s Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage, are focusing on a few of the twelve panels at a time, and are working in a glass-fronted room inside Ghent’s Museum of Fine Arts (which rather makes them into exhibits themselves).Of particular interest (and fuel for much hilarity on social media) has been the restoration of the central panel (known as the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb).In 2020, three years of scraping revealed that the central sacrificial lamb (ie Jesus) was no longer a vague, woolly creature, but who now gives us an unnervingly human stare, flaring his nostrils and pouting his lips, as Jan van Eyck had presumably always intended.

Much of the hyper-realistic detail in the heavenly gardens of the Ghent Altarpiece makes looking at the painting a delight if you know what to look for and was, in part, thanks to Philip the Good. Jan Van Eyck had proven himself an impressive painter and his pioneering method of applying thin layers of oil paint to create astonishing illusions of depth and light made him the choice for the Duke of Burgundy to appoint as Court Painter.Otherwise known as Philip the Good, the Duke was a great Patron of the arts (although incidentally he captured Joan of Arc and sold her to the English to be burned at the stake, so not-that-good).In 1428 Philip decided to send Jan to Portugal to paint two portraits of his (Philip’s) future wife, Isabella.Whilst he was there for ten months, Jan became inspired by the landscape and nature of the Iberian peninsula, which appeared in gorgeous detail in the Ghent Altarpiece just a few years later. Even the Mediterranean citron, which used to be known as the forbidden fruit and therefore was of great symbolic meaning, is placed in Eve’s hand as though it will drop out of the painting at any moment.

Other juicy facts add to our adulation of this, no longer stuffy, old masterpiece.Older brother Hubert van Eyck actually did much of the underpainting and composition whilst Jan (the better painter) filled it with the amazing detail a few years after Hubert’s death, including writing on the frames. Worthy of a Dan Brown novel, a quatrain (a poem consisting of four lines) is scribed on the side. In the last line a number of letters have been marked which, when added up, the Roman numerical value of these letters totals 1432, the year in which the Ghent Altarpiece was revealed.In more recent history, the Ghent Altarpiece was taken to Paris by Napoleon, to Germany by the Nazis, stolen six times, held for ransom and sold illegally.One section turned up in the checked-luggage department at the Ghent train station and one section (the Just Judges) is still missing, though rumoured to be hidden in a public place in Ghent.It is a wonder then, that today we are able to see it at all, in its intended place, in (almost) its complete form, and finally as Jan Van Eyck would have wished it to be appreciated by everyone, pout and all.


Technology and the Lamb2024-04-10T12:50:48+01:00

Frank Auerbach, The Charcoal Heads


The more courageous that I am in destroying partial success, the more likely it is that I will get something alive and true.” Frank Auerbach

Capable of conveying great depths of human experience, Frank Auerbach’s charcoal heads (created in the late 50’s and early 60’s) have been brought together for the first time, and are on display at the Courtauld Gallery.  His drawings are considered to be standalone works, of equal status to his paintings, so I went along to take a look.  The drawings are hung together in two rooms, looking like raw forms of modern portraiture.  I found a deep sense of melancholy in those rooms, and inter-reflection upon each drawn face.  Even his self-portrait carries a weight of human experience, despite his 27 years at the time.  They are not simply portraits, but something so much deeper.

It is helpful to know Auerbach’s story.  His parents died in a concentration camp during the War and he was an orphan from the age of 11, growing up in a Kent boarding school, without much family left to speak of.  It is no wonder then that his drawings are not simply likenesses of his friends, but are searching for truth and intimacy. His portraits are barely living, as though excavated out of their materials.  They become textures of feelings as much as subjects. 

When he was 16, he started attending an evening class at Borough Polytechnic, taught by the then ‘out of favour’ David Bomberg, whose dense, thick, dark painting technique had a great influence on Auerbach.  In fact a few years later, when Auerbach was taken on by Beaux Art Gallery, his paintings were so heavy with paint that they had to be exhibited flat.  Likewise with these charcoal drawings, at each sitting more and more charcoal and chalk was applied, rubbing away areas with typewriter rubbers so that the paper eventually became burnished, torn, patched and reworked.  Forever seeking to reach the truth about his connection and relationship with his sitter through his materials, most of his sitters would endure 40 or 50 sessions before Auerbach was satisfied that a drawing had reached a conclusion.  

He is now in his 90’s and continues to live in the same studio/house he took over from his friend Leon Kossoff (also a great artist) in the early 1960’s.  You will find him in Camden, north London, which he hardly ever ventures beyond, preferring a routine of early walks in the neighbourhood (he also paints his local landscape).  The afternoons are for portrait sessions with one of a small handful of sitters, each assigned one of the five workdays of the week and with whom he has built up deep friendships.  His contemporaries from the 1950’s are known as the ‘School of London’, and include Lucian Freud, Leon Kossoff, RB Kitaj, Michael Andrews and Francis Bacon. 

The exhibition includes three women that were very important to him at this time.  Gerda Boehm, was his much older cousin, who had fled Nazi Germany in 1939 and was his only relative in this country.  She sat for him every week for 20 years and her portraits convey a yearning for a previous life.  Another sitter was the amateur actress Estella (Stella) Olive West, identified as E.O.W, with whom he continued a tumultuous relationship for 23 years.  His wife Julia is also included in the sitters from this time.  She was a fellow art student from the RCA and they married in 1958, but separated until his relationship with Stella was over, not reuniting until 1976. 

Perhaps it is also relevant that Auerbach was interested in acting, both at school and as a young man.  It is as though each painting or drawing session could perhaps be described as a rehearsal for the final performance.  One of his later sitters, the art critic and great friend, William Feaver has said,

“We are there to enable him to perform. We keep him occupied…”

In the 1970’s he stopped building up layers of paint or charcoal, instead his sitters found that their portraits had been wiped away to leave only a ghost after each sitting, to be started again.  

“At the end of each session the work comes off the easel and is placed on the floor, displayed casually, like a fresh kill. This is not the moment for critical analysis. There it lies, winded if not slain, close below the easel that holds the larger, current, landscape in progress. What one hopes for, over the weeks and months and years, is that from the familiarity of the pretext – person or place – something marvellously new has been released.” William Feaver

These portraits from the 50’s and early 60’s are heavy with their layers of effort and toil, looking battle-worn and scarred.  Together they are a series of hauntingly sad and fragile lives, of those weighed down in the wake of destruction.  They are the artist’s evidence  of the slow process of realisation that he was seeking whilst with his sitter.  But to us they are a reminder of what we might indeed feel ourselves when the weight of the world sits on our shoulders.

The Charcoal Heads, Courtauld Gallery, until 27 May 2024

Link to Frank Auerbach print, available for sale

Frank Auerbach, The Charcoal Heads2024-03-11T18:20:04+00:00

Philip Guston at Tate Modern


The paintings of Philip Guston, the pink, cartoonish ones that remind us of comics we used to read (or still read), could have been painted by a young artist today but were, in fact, painted nearly 50 years ago by a man well into his prime.  They also, appallingly, deal with issues that are still acutely relevant today.  In 1970 when Guston decided to change direction from being a successful abstract expressionist, he shocked the art world.  It appears we are still wary.  The touring show (that landed at Tate Modern in the Autumn of 2023), had been postponed following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020 because the exhibition was considered by the museums to be too insensitive.  So what on earth are we shielding ourselves from?  Guston’s paintings don’t offend us, instead they help us along in acknowledging the real world.  He believed that it was his responsibility to ‘unnumb’ himself to the brutality of the world and ‘to bear witness’ and we can take that step with him.

What kind of man am I, sitting at home, reading magazines, going into a frustrated fury about everything – and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue?”  

In the painting, Dawn, 1970, Guston drew some birds on a wire at the same time as the day was breaking.  It felt good to put something in that was right outside happening”.  Whilst figures in hoods drag a jumble of legs, referencing violent crimes from the night before, Guston reminds us that evil can always be present, even on a ‘peachy’ morning.  Bravo Mr Goldstein on your change in direction.  I wasn’t shocked by your paintings but they did make me feel deeply insecure that humanity fails to change.

Born Phillip Goldstein in 1913 to immigrants from Ukraine, he changed his name to mask his Jewish roots when he moved to New York in the 30’s, after living in Canada and Then LA.  He gained significant respect in New York as one of the abstract expressionists (alongside Pollock, Rothko, de Kooning, Kline et al), representing the United States at the 1960 Venice Biennale and a retrospective at the Guggenheim in 1962.  If he had continued like that for the next two decades we would not be taking so much notice today.  So what happened?

By 1966, Guston had stopped painting and was facing a personal crisis.  The war in Vietnam, increased police violence towards protesters and racial discrimination were intensifying the horrors his parents had fled from across the Atlantic, only to find the situation in America heading in a similar direction.  As he struggled to find a way of coping with his trauma, he turned his back on the extravagance of abstract painting and started producing minimal line drawings, which later became paintings of simple objects around him: paintbrushes, jars, shoes, lightbulbs, food, and books, over and over again.  As he drew he noticed how books looked like stone tablets or legs looked like pillars, changing but filled with different possibilities.  Though we are not always certain what some of the recognisable but shifting forms in the paintings are, or even why they are there – a forehead or a sunrise, a book or a tombstone, you decide what and why.

You’re painting a shoe; you start painting the soul, and it turns into a moon; you start painting the moon, and it turns into a piece of bread.

Guston finally revealed the new paintings that we are celebrating today but they were spurned by the art world in the 1970’s.  His colleagues were outraged that he could abandon his established practice for something so crude in style.  He was resolute that he had found his calling, however, and continued to make paintings of objects, that could be one thing or another, body parts, hooded and sleeping figures (some were self-portraits that had previously eluded him) until he died in 1980.  He chose to turn his own back on the art establishment and instead collaborated with poets and writers, with whom he felt he had more in common.  If he is looking down from his pink cloud today, he would realise that he had contributed to a seismic shift in the acceptance of what painting could do and that we are applauding him.  Although interpretation may morph over time, or between one person and another, he proves that the bigger picture hardly ever changes and we need to face up and be reminded of the evils in our midst.

Philip Guston, Tate Modern, until 25 February 2024

Philip Guston at Tate Modern2024-02-22T13:56:56+00:00

El Anatsui: Behind the Red Moon


The vast cavernous Turbine Hall at Tate Modern is often used to show some pretty big and awe-inspiring art works.  Sometimes the space just swallows up what is put in it and the art works look disappointing and under-whelming.  Sometimes, though, they wack you in the face like Anish Kapoor’s Marsyas did for me in 2002.  Ghanaian artist, El Anatsui has more recently had a go at filling the hall with three giant hangings: two huge sails billow at either ends of the hall.  Near to the entrance, one shimmers yellow on one side, red on the other and suspended high above the viewer, as though capturing the wind.  The other is at the darker, enclosed end of the hall and cascades menacingly, like a huge black waterfall, crashing in waves on rocks.  In the centre of the hall, and between the two, hang several translucent, human-like shapes that visually swim together (when viewed from a certain angle on the bridge) to form a golden moon or perhaps a world.

Whilst many people rushed through, barely glimpsing up, the hangings were not easily missed either, enticing those who had time to descend the bridge, examine, contemplate and eat their sandwiches, feeling very small.  What a delight then, to find that these huge forms are made out of millions of crushed bottle tops and metal fragments, carefully wired together with copper strands.  This global commercial waste (carrying hundreds of logos) has dark meaning such as environmental pollution, human dispersion, political oppression and survival.  But I also sensed joyful renewal, reform and hope in these twinkling and air-filled sails.  Was I wrong?

These commissions are funded by huge corporations and foundations, that wish to align themselves with art and its power to ‘connect beyond boundaries’.  If this funding wasn’t offered, artists like El Anatsui couldn’t possibly reach such large audiences or undertake such monumental pieces involving the collection of vast quantities of material, teams of people sorting and wiring in Nigeria, transportation, industrial-strength hanging and filmset lighting.   The creation of this art was made possible by Hyundai and Microsoft, but such is the paradox of today’s world.

Behind the Red Moon, Turbine Hall, Tate Modern, until 14 April 2024

El Anatsui: Behind the Red Moon2024-02-19T15:52:48+00:00

Sarah Lucas, Happy Gas


When I started taking notice of the art world in the early 1990’s, Cool Britannia and the Young British Artists had hit the scene.  Disapprove all you traditionalists, but this was my introduction to art and I found it rebellious and exciting, and it drew me in to everything that came before and has come after.   So how could I miss the laugh-out-loud, shocking, human and feminist show by Sarah Lucas at Tate Britain, as an after-Christmas lift.  

Occupying four giant rooms, encased in huge photographs, it wasn’t a retrospective as such, and forget the mothballs and nostalgia.  Instead she had used some past work, combined with recent, to create new discussions and it felt fresh.  Clever.  Filled with cigarettes, chairs, swearing, bananas, breeze blocks, tights and toilets and also, of course, herself in Herculean form.  The materials she uses are not traditional art materials, but stuff that is to hand, so that she can be spontaneous.  She says she didn’t intend to put herself in her work,  ‘I just happened to be handy’.

Curated and narrated in her own voice, the themes relate personally.  Although many of her sculptures are humorous and suggestive, they often speak of the intimate, sordid everyday and ultimate self-destructive tragedy of life, as well as class, gender stereotypes, communication and feminism.

“Go away, get a nob, come back, we’ll talk about it.  My Mum had an allotment where she grew vegetables and fruit.  There’s a tradition in England, mostly among men, of growing super large vegetables and showing them off once a year at harvest festival time.  A prize for the person with the biggest.  My mum grew the marrows in our family.  She made the jam too.”  Sarah Lucas

I love that quote.  I am a vegetable grower too.

In the largest room there were two long lines of figures on chairs.  She calls these her ‘Bunnies’ and has been making them for a long time. Made from stuffed tights and sitting in chairs they reminded me of Louise Bourgeois’ use of stockings and textiles to explore memory and the body, but in a more cartoonish, saggy Jessica Rabbit (with shoes), kind of way.  The chairs acted as cradles for the contorted bodies, becoming part of the sculpture (having both arms and legs too).  Some of the textile body forms had been cast in bronze, although I think I prefer the textile ones.

The last room seemed to relate more to Lucas now and there was a sombre atmosphere of ageing and less tee hee humour.  The burnt out cigarette car made me breathe thankfully into my nicotine-free lungs and I skirted around the galleries, back to the relief of the Bunnies and out of the entrance.  

If a man did a show like that it would be shot down. In a woman’s voice it becomes something entirely different and poignant.  It was entertaining but it was also memorable for being much more than entertainment.

Happy Gas, Tate Britain 28 Sept 2023 – 14 January 2024


Sarah Lucas, Happy Gas2024-01-12T17:07:06+00:00

Who will be the judge of that?


I hope I make a fair contribution to the arts sector.  Not only have I given a lot of my time to supporting contemporary artists over the last 20 years, but I buy from artists and am a Friend/Member/Patron of various arts societies and institutions. Collectively, with the millions of other individuals who are interested in the arts, people like me are contributing 44% of private funding to keep the sector going, which is roughly the equivalent to the contribution made by the State.  I am an un-named philanthropist and I am thankful to remain so. The remaining funding is provided by corporate and foundation donors who are generally acknowledged publicly for their donations and, some might say, comes with certain privilege and benefits.

A week or so ago I was up at Cromwell Place in London.  A row of five townhouses in South Kensington that has been converted into a space to serve galleries and art dealers who wish to host pop-up art exhibitions in London.  Often one can visit and see a dozen or so different exhibitions, which makes it a worthwhile destination and has a lovely cafe too.  Two of the exhibitions I saw were hosted by philanthropic bodies: the Ingram Collection and RIA (the Roberts Institute of Art).  Both of these were founded by non-art business people, but who take an interest in the art world and employ people who help them make selections.  In addition to compiling their own art collections (which are often loaned to museums and galleries), the foundations also select artists for career development opportunities through residencies, networking, commissions, commendation and collaboration.  For example, the Ingram Prize (now in its 8th year) sets out to celebrate and bring attention to the work and early careers of selected UK art school graduates.  About two dozen or more finalists were on show at Cromwell Place when I visited.  In addition, RIA’s exhibition was called ‘Close Looking’ and displayed six works taken from their collection.  For each work selected, an artist/writer had been selected and commissioned to write a response to the work. 

My viewing session was followed by attending a panel discussion, courtesy of Cromwell Place, titled, ‘Curating Art Foundations: Ideas of Philanthropy’.  Amongst the panel were two representatives from the foundations and two artists from their exhibitions.  The discussion was wide ranging but got me thinking, particularly about my own relationship to those who are making selections for me to view.  Philanthropy for the arts (or in fact philanthropy for any worthy cause) is riddled with thorny issues.  The agendas and backgrounds of named philanthropists often hit the headlines: BP, Blavatnik, Sackler to name a few.  Named philanthropists have to be very careful about how they influence and guide us in our behaviour.  Receiving something of value in return for a donation is also considered both legally and ethically a quid pro quo or a case of ‘you scratch my back…’.  I am not saying that all donors are not truly altruistic, and certainly Ingram and RIA are doing some very laudable work. We should remember that we, the un-named philanthropists, also play an essential role in deciding how to judge their judgement about who comes to prominence in the art world.  Unelected billionaires may be allowed to try to determine what is good for us, but ultimately we have the power to decide whether their judgements have been appropriate for us.   

From the Ingram prize, three works caught my eye (Shirin Fathi, Abigail Norris and Louise Frances Smith) and I am grateful that the foundation has sifted through the vast number of entries to select around 25 for me to see.  In addition, I was treated to a reading by one of RIA’s commissioned artists, Osman Yousefzada, who had written a poem called ‘Untitled (for Prem)’ and I must say it was truly captivating.  Without the support of RIA it would not have been written.  As a result of this encounter, I will be watching out for Osman in the future (at the 60th Venice Biennale in 2024) and I have since taken the time to further research the three artists from the Ingram Prize.  Whether I had been drawn by these single works because of some personal association or memory in a single instance, or whether they are actually representative of an amazing body of work yet to come from a great artist, is for me to research and follow.  It is for me, and you, to notice, support and vote with our presence in the future.  The word philanthropy comes from Ancient Greek φιλανθρωπία (philanthrōpía) ‘love of humanity’.  When we as viewers look at a work of art that has been selected for us, we must remember that we are giving our time to pause and consider our humanity (which, of course, is good for our wellbeing) but we must continue to question whether what we are being shown is a fair filtering in exchange for the precious resource of our time.


ABIGAIL NORRIS, The Faellen Aeppel, 2023, latex, wadding, tights, copper wire, vintage silk gloves

SHIRIN FATHI, The Disobedient Nose, Fig. 1. The reconstruction of a nose, 2022, photograph

LOUISE FRANCES SMITH, Epibiont, 2023, wireweed bioplastic, cotton scrim, hessian, cotton thread

Who will be the judge of that?2023-12-03T19:11:38+00:00

Peering Under Rocks with Alan Franklin


When I first met Alan Franklin in 2014, I had a gallery and he came to show us a portfolio of drawings. I remember being gripped by excitement because they were unexpected, new, witty and joyful to me.  I don’t think I then fully appreciated the scope and depth of Alan’s practice, or took on board the thread of ideas that he has been able to sustain throughout the last 50 years.  The thread is, in retrospect, apparent in the work he first offered up to his tutors on the Fine Art Sculpture course at St Martin’s, back in 1973, and you can still see it there in his most recent work.

In his own words, Alan allows his “curiosity to take the lead” and hopes at best, for a “surprise at the end”.  He has learnt to rely on trust in the simple enjoyment of making and not worry about, or try to predict an outcome. Like a curious child on the beach ‘Peering Under Rocks’ is a metaphor for Alan’s approach to creating, providing a link with which we can connect together his created objects, currently on show in the main exhibition space at the Sewell Centre Gallery, Radley College, Oxfordshire. Curated by Amanda Jewell, the layout forces you to select how you wish to weave in and out of the various plinths or exhibits on the floor and walls, spanning the last 50 years of Alan’s practice.  Each work in the exhibition makes you question what went on in Alan’s head for him to arrive at this conclusion, and Alan has helpfully provided an accompanying leaflet with short explanations.  Take, for example, Still Life, 1985.  He says: “On a Greek island I heard how a village up in the mountains had been rapidly vacated before a foreign invasion.  I imagined empty houses still with furniture, curtains and tables laid.  On visiting the village I found crumbling buildings and a few pieces of rusty metal including a tin helmet, the barrel of a rifle and the broken casing of a door lock.  These surviving objects might one day be part of an archaeological jigsaw puzzle, collected and housed in a museum telling a story of another time.”  Yet, in recreating some of these objects in red tin salvaged from petrol cans, the objects appear to be metamorphosing; growing claws and legs by which at any moment they might scuttle away. 

His process was perhaps first set in place by his tutors at St Martins, and later remodelled through his own teaching practice.  In 1973, students were expected to work out for themselves what sculpture was or what it should look like, be their own critics and set their own criteria.  On the first day, he was handed a bag of clay and told to make something from it.  He (and we) can still see that what he made was perfectly in line with what he is making 50 years later, led by the materials to hand. He graduated in the footsteps of artists who have since become giants in the contemporary art world: Richard Long, Barry Flanagan, Gilbert and George, Richard Deacon and Bill Woodrow, many of whom work in an unconventional and naturally instinctive way.   Later, and whilst teaching a new BA Fine Art course that he had co-written, he would set a task for his students that was restrictive and abstract, such as ‘to make a piece of work using only a ball of string’ or it had to have ‘dimensions less than 5cms in any direction’ (‘something out of nothing’, he calls it).

Alan’s work, in tune with his teaching, became less representational around the year 2007 and took on a distinctly abstract quality.  He says: “Working abstractly makes the work less conceptual and perhaps more playful, but it is still the search for surprise that leads the process.”  Teaching has been integral to Alan’s own practice, and he says “how many times have I sat down with a student and stared at something I’ve never seen before or thought about, trying to unpick what’s going on and to extract meaning and merit.  The student looks to you for what to do next and the best you can do is to keep asking questions. 

He managed to incorporate drawing into his practice around 2011 by thinking of his creations as flat sculptures with the process in evidence.  He says, “The how, may at first be mysterious, but the clues are there for the drawing to be deconstructed.”  After working out how to include drawing in his practice, he then considered how to make his sculpture more like drawings and paintings, concentrating on the ‘stuff of paint’ becoming the subject, as in PS#7, 2014.  Humour in Alan’s work, which I find is very often there and particularly endearing, is never intended but just appears, “there it is again” he thinks, with an expression of surprise.  Having disappeared into two-dimensions for a while, his most recent drawings are now taking on more physical depth and new materials are being used.  If anything, they are becoming more tangled and less geometrical.

Alan certainly has a curious mind, and one that I wish I could consider mine an equal.  Yet I sadly think my curiosity is considerably more restrained and less abstract, probably because I haven’t spent the last 50 years learning to release it.  He rejects the idea that his work starts with any meaning, but I can see that the process of making is the uncovering of meaning. Meaning is there but sometimes it is outside of words and a lesson for us all.  Throwing up sticks to see where they land”, he often says.  Well life has a habit of throwing at us that which is not planned, wanted or expected.  If somehow we can go about our daily lives whilst managing to keep curious minds, limiting too much control, we are likely to encounter good and unexpected surprises too.  So I stand back, applaud Alan’s arrival at this point, admire this review of his career and look forward to being gripped once again by the next new surprise. 

11th November – 11th December 2023

The Sewell Centre Gallery, Radley College, Oxfordshire

Link to Alan’s artist page and some work I particularly like

Peering Under Rocks with Alan Franklin2023-11-27T19:22:27+00:00

Discovering James Rogers


An artist recently brought to my attention by Julian Page is James Rogers. A potentially rising star, just 30 years old, and originally from the heart of England (me too). Julian has championed James for a year or two now, bringing him to attention at several London art fairs including the London Original Print Fair at Somerset House last summer, the British Art Fair at the Saatchi Gallery last month and now at the Woolwich Contemporary Print Fair. Although the deep process and nature of interrogation behind his work currently confuses me (I’m hoping for more future engagement and enlightenment), the inked brass etching plates (so good to see these as artworks in their own right) and the resultant prints on paper, speak to me of ancient ‘British Museum’ shields, strange mythological beasts, blood and body and man’s urge to conquer over perceived evil. Upon reading the text I learn about the importance of AI and the digital 3D printer in James’s drawing process to explore, not just the ancient world, but rather the bang on, right up to date emerging world and our experience of existing in it. More important is the fact that I get drawn in, without reading the text, called over from the other side of the room, to examine the detail of something beautifully executed and that may turn out to be rather precious.


James Rogers, In Search of Hepatizon, 2023

Discovering James Rogers2023-10-26T12:14:27+01:00
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