Tuesday, 23 March 2021

Memorial to a Friend

Memorial to a Friend

Picasso's Reading at a Table, 1934 at the Tate Gallery

In 1960 a major retrospective of Picasso paintings opened at the Tate Gallery. Organised by the Arts Council of Great Britain and curated by Picasso's friend and biographer, Roland Penrose. One of the works included was listed as Girl Writing, from 1934 (cat.136), now known as Reading at a Table.

Pablo Picasso, Reading at a Table, 1934, oil on canvas, 162.2 x 130.5 cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of Florene M. Schoenborn, in honour of William S. Lieberman, 1995

    Whilst Reading at a Table is quite an important painting from this stage of Picasso's career, the centrepiece of Penrose's 1960 show was Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, 1907 (Cat.34), a large canvas that had already acquired almost legendary status in the history of modern art. Owned by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York since December 1937, this was only the second - and up to now, the last - time it was shown in London. 

    Such was Penrose's influence that he also managed to borrow ten important paintings, made between 1900 and 1909, from Hermitage Museum, Leningrad and the Pushkin Museum, Moscow, at a time when relations between the USSR and the West were notably frosty. This said, I believe that the inclusion of Reading at a Table was, in many ways, just as important for Penrose.

    The painting had also been included in the landmark retrospective, "Picasso: 40 Years of his Art" at MoMA (15 November 1939 - 7 January 1940), where it was given the title Girl Reading. It was not illustrated in the accompanying book-length catalogue, although a photograph of it in situ in the exhibition exists in the MoMA archives.

Installation view of the exhibition, "Picasso: 40 Years of his Art", showing Girl Reading, 1934. Photographic Archive. The Museum of Modern Art Archives. IN91.14C

    Girl Reading had been lent by the wealthy English collector and supporter of the arts, Peter Watson who had bought it, through Penrose, directly from the artist. Along with Penrose, Watson was one of the few Europeans prepared to allow significant work from their collections to make the treacherous journey to New York in the first months of the Second World War. The painting remained in storage at MoMA until 1945, when it was collected by Watson's sometime partner, Denham Fouts, who was at the time engaged in a characteristically tempestuous affair with the writer Christopher Isherwood. In September of that year Fouts made a written bequest, promising the painting to Isherwood in lieu of payment of financial debts he owed. As it was, Fouts sold it to a couple he met in Chicago, Samuel and Florene Marx in November. It remained in Florene's hands until she bequeathed it to its current owner, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in 1995 (see J. Dronfield and A. Clark: Queer Saint - the cultured life of Peter Watson, London, 2015).

    Penrose and Watson were close friends for many years. Along with Anton Zwemmer, they were  Directors (and the main financial backers) of the London Gallery until it was wound up in 1950. More importantly, they were founding members of the London Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA). Both worked passionately in the cause of establishing the new organisation, and both supported it with substantial injections of their own money. When Watson died in mysterious circumstances in 1956 he left quite a hole in the London art world, not least among a number of individual artists, including Francis Bacon and John Craxton, who had grown used to relying on his patronage.

    By 1960, Reading at a Table was, of course, in the collection of Samuel and Florene Marx, whose ownership is credited in the catalogue. However, I believe that Penrose's decision to include this particular work, rather than any of the other twenty or so variations of this theme painted at that time, was to honour his late friend. Indeed, it is surely a sign that its inclusion was a kind of memorial to Peter Watson, private to Penrose, that it is one of only two images reproduced in colour in the catalogue accompanying the show (The Arts Council of Great Britain: Picasso, London: Lund Humphires, 1960). The other one is Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.

Friday, 8 January 2021

Joe Minter's 'African Village in America'


Fig. 1 Joe Minter, The Price to Vote, The Price to be Human (The Selma March), 1995
Photo: C. Rhodes 15 May 2014

Joe Minter's African Village in America

This article was published in French as "L'African Village in America de Joe Minter", in Création Franche, no.53 (December 2020), pp.34-42, available at musee-creationfranche
I publish a version of my article in English here for anglophone readers.

In the late 1980s Joe Minter discovered there were plans to build a Civil Rights Museum in his hometown of Birmingham, Alabama. Although he welcomed this development in a part of the United States with a particularly dark history in respect of its treatment of Black Americans, he quickly realised that the stories it would tell would privilege those of the leaders of the Civil Rights movement. As he put it, "The main characters were left out of the history," namely the "foot soldiers", the thousands of ordinary people who participated in the emancipatory struggle, and without whom the changes made would not have been achieved.* In response to this, Minter resolved to create an outdoor sculpture park or environment. It would tell that other story, beginning with the arrival of Africans in America in the 16th Century. He credits the inspiration and prosecution of his creative mission to Divine forces working through him: "God gave me the mission of art, to link that 400-year journey to the Africans in America ... and I decided to name what I create The African Village in America. It explained the story of the life and struggle we have undergone here in America." Situated on a plot of land next to his home at the edge of the city, and backing on to the New Grace Hill Cemetery, Minter's sprawling creation is at once history, memorial and sacred art.

Fig. 2 Joe Minter, View of the African Village in America, including African Huts, Warriors and 'The price to Vote'.
Photo: C. Rhodes, 15 May 2014

Minter was born in 1943. He was the eighth of ten children. His father had served in the US Army in the First World War. But on his return to Birmingham he had been unable to find a job using his skills as an engineer. Instead, he spent his life working as a caretaker. Minter and his brothers also served in the military, returning to be treated as second class citizens: "We have joined a long line of Africans that have put their lives on the line to come back to America and be treated as less than a human being." After his discharge in 1967, Minter worked for more than a decade in jobs requiring skills with metalwork. This was to prove useful later on when he began to make art. Minter received his calling after ill-health forced him to retire. "I knew I had to regroup," he says, "find a way to continue my life and make the best of it." He tried to figure out a way in which he could tell the story of the African American experience and somehow perform an act of social and spiritual healing: "I was living in a place that looked upon Africans as less than human beings," he says, "My ancestors helped build America on the sweat of their backs, in their own blood, in their life, free slave labor, and the way out was death." In spite of having no training or background in art, Minter tells us, "I realised the only way I could preserve this history to hand down to the other generations was through art. Art is a universal thing. My idea was to make the art and put a message with it so that it could heal wounds everywhere. I wanted to send the world a message of God's love and peace for all mankind. I then took on the name, 'Peacemaker'." This was to be an art whose function would be not only expressive, but also curative.

Fig. 3 Joe Minter, Entrance Sign to the African Village in America
Photo: C. Rhodes, 6 April 2012

Beginning in 1989, Minter created the African Village in America, a complex matrix of sculpture, tableaux, and text, that reveals the African American experience since the arrival of the first slave ships and memorialises key moments and events in that history. The environment consists essentially of two sections. The rear part borders the cemetery. It is devoted to African history and what Laura Bickford describes as, "the values of Black Americans that Minter understands as governing factors in African life in America and African American values." (Bickford 2014: 53) It performs a spatial and cultural continuity between the African past and American present, divided by the traumatic and life-giving medium of water, connecting the old and new homelands. This is symbolised in the park by a sculptural element, Slave Ship Africa, which joins together the two sections. Charles H. Long has noted, "For the Africans forced into slavery, their African culture was dissolved and resurrected in the Atlantic passage. The Atlantic was a cataclysm and a source of renewal of African forms. The Atlantic Ocean simultaneously constitutes a continuity and a discontinuity for the African American." (Long 2001: 466) Elements in the rear section of the park include 'African' huts, as envisioned by Minter, fashioned from found wood and metal, and painted in bright geometric patterns. There are also figures representing warriors, chiefs, and other African types (Fig.4). Symbolically 'African' colours of red, black, green and yellow predominate.

Fig. 4 Joe Minter, Africans. Photo: C. Rhodes, 6 April 2012

The front of the yard consists of assemblages memorialising specific events and themes, intermingled with hand-painted signs that are heavy with Biblical quotation and didactic text. The memorial pieces include some of the most poignant and powerful events in the Civil Rights struggle of the 1960s, most of which were played out broadly in the triangle between Birmingham, Atlanta and Montgomery. For example, there are assemblages dedicated to the Freedom Riders and the Bus Boycott, the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church by so-called White Supremacists in 1963, in which four small girls were murdered (Fig.5), the brutal Bloody Sunday attack on peaceful protestors by police on Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965 (Fig.1), and an evocation of the Birmingham Jail, in which Martin Luther King Jr and countless other activists were detained, and from which Dr King famously wrote his "Letter from the Birmingham City Jail" in 1963 (Fig.7). More recent events include the destruction of the New York World Trade Center in 2001, in which a disproportionate number of Black and members of other American communities of colour lost their lives, and the cataclysmic floods in New Orleans caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Fig. 5 Joe Minter, Memorial to those murdered in the 16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham
Photo: C. Rhodes, 6 April 2012

There are also memorials to the all-too-common occasions of ordinary people killed in acts of racist violence or through systemic racist neglect: The Murder of Dallo, 2000 ("Male unarmed. Killed by 19 police bullets") and The Death of Jasmine Moore, who died just age 4 in 1999. Thematic assemblages include a tribute to the "Unknown African Soldier" - a figure that Minter regards as a universal for all African Americans who have served. Another text-heavy piece (Fig.6) recalls "the lynching of all our African American ancestors in the USA 1555-1997." Note the tied rope around the neck of the central figure, which functions both as noose and physical connector holding the head in place. Minter's text adds ominously, "America repent, for we are in the last days."

Fig. 6 Joe Minter, Memorial to African American Lynchings 1555-1997. Photo: C. Rhodes, 6 April 2012

There is an Apocalyptic quality to much of the African Village in America. it is a warning to all. The Healing that Minter wishes to effect is played out through an encounter between the living viewer and the dead, extending from the symbolic realm in the park into the literal one in the coextensive burial ground. The figure of the artist is here simultaneously revelator, judge and guide. Minter is clear about this: "My prayer as an African artist and for all African artists all over your Earth our Lord thy God is that all artists come together these last days as brothers and sisters in the name of Jesus as one to bring the whole Earth together in the form of love for humanity to clean up the Earth which we have just about destroyed."

Fig. 7 Joe Minter, Birmingham Jailhouse, 2000. Photo: C.Rhodes, 15 May 2014

One of the distinctive features of Minter's environment is its construction. He eschews the usual materials of fine art and instead uses only recycled ones. This is important for two reasons. It speaks to the enormous expressive potential in the most ordinary used-up objects, when transformed by the ingenuity and creative insight of the artist. And it is a kind of political act of resistance. This relies on the notion common in African American culture in the South that this discarded stuff is in some way a repository of life force. As Minter puts it: "A spirit of all the people that have touched and felt that material has remained in that same material." There is also a connection here between the commodification of the object and people. Long reminds us that, "the Africans who were brought across the Atlantic as slaves constituted the first human beings as commodities in the modern world." (Long 2001: 468) Minter points out that this identification continued to be played out systemically long after the abolition of slavery in the United States, after the passing of the 13th Amendment in 1865. We must therefore see Minter's specific choice of materials as being driven by much more than metaphorical intentions. He writes: "The whole idea ... is to use that which has been discarded, just as we as a people have been discarded, and make it visible. All that was invisible, or thrown away, could be made into something that everyone could understand. I want the African Village in America to demonstrate that even what gets thrown away has a spirit and could survive and continue to grow."

Fig. 8 Joe Minter, African Village in America - view from the street. Photo: C. Rhodes, 6 April 2012

The last year has been one of great anxiety and turmoil. Nowhere was this more so than the in laying bare once again of the deep divisions and inequalities in US culture sparked by the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis. Joe Minter has been telling this story through the lens of ordinary African Americans in his African Village in America for 30 years. Perhaps the time is near when the healing he seeks to achieve through the agency of his art might begin in earnest.

Fig. 9 Joe Minter. Photo: C. Rhodes, 15 May 2014

* All Joe Minter quotations here are from his self-pubIished book, To You Through Me: The Beginning of a Link of a Journey of 400 Years, written between 1979 and 2005, and available for sale only from his home. I have visited the African Village in America twice, in April 2012 and May 2014. On both days the weather was wet and grey. In some ways these conditions seemed to deepen the intensity and poignancy of the experience. On the first visit only Minter's wife, Hilda was at home. The artist was in Birmingham participating in a labor protest. In 2014 Minter was home. Despite the inclement weather he came out to speak about the environment and the route he intended visitors to take through its labyrinthine paths.

Other sources

Laura Bickford, "A Self-Taught Knowledge System: Joe Minter's 'African Village in America' as a Syncretic Epistomology." Elsewhere, no.2, 2014
Charles H. Long, "The Gods that Bind: Artworks of African American Artists of the Birmingham Area." In W. Arnett, ed., Souls Grown Deep (Vol. 2). Atlanta: Tinwood Books, 2001

Sunday, 27 September 2020

Where are the Dadaists When You Need Them?

Thoughts on current museum culture

What a difference a decade and a half makes. An article published in today's Guardian online (1) couldn't be further away in approach and focus than another from 2004 ostensibly on the same subject, in the same newspaper. (2) The subject of both is Canadian American artist, Philip Guston (1913-1980). Titled, "An Everyday Genius", the earlier piece, by Sean O'Hagan, reviews the retrospective held at the Royal Academy of Arts, London 16 years ago. Today's article, by Edward Helmore, "Sense or censorship? Row over Klan images in Tate's postponed show", covers the announcement that a projected "major retrospective" of Guston's work, planned by four major international art museums has been postponed until at least 2024.

    O'Hagan's 2004 review focuses on Guston's artistic journey, providing context through the times in which he lived and his personal relationships. Crucially, and probably unsurprisingly, both the choice of illustration for O'Hagan's piece - Guston's famous self-portrait, The Studio (1969) - and his opening gambit focus on the celebrated abstractionist's return to figurative painting at the end of the 1960s: "In the Thirties, he had been a politically aware mural painter," O'Hagan tells us, "and now, 40 years later, he felt the need to respond once again to an America that was wearied by a long unwinnable war abroad and simmering social discontent at home; a country that was in the grip of a new conservatism." Sound familiar? Ironic, then, that backlash from the very people who are currently engaging in political struggle against the dominant (conservative and populist) ideology appears to be what the museums fear most.

    Those new paintings by Guston commonly included hooded figures that can be read as Ku Klux Klansmen. Or, says O'Hagan (and, I'd be more tempted to say), "something more personally emblematic: the masks that artists, like all of us, hide behind; the disguises we don to face or shy away from the world; the evil, banal and faceless, that lurks within us all." In other words, Guston's late paintings are richly complex and densely layered: in terms of their manifest and latent content (their intellectual content, if you will); and from the perspective of the way they operate as painting (their status as manufactured objects of visual culture). They are intensely political, but do not reveal their 'message' in crisp one-liners. Like all good poetry, Guston's figurative painting is allusive and multivalent; it demands the active (contemplative) attention of the viewer.

    This is something that the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the Boston and Houston Museums of Fine Art, and Tate Modern that have now announced the postponement of their planned "major retrospective" of Guston's work would agree with. The problem, it would appear, lies with the show's likely public reception. Thus, the "everyday genius" of O'Hagan's article is now rendered a dangerous commodity. Today's article is well-balanced and thoughtful but focuses (necessarily) not so much on the art as on museum politics and funding. It is a sad inditement of where things stand in the state of contemporary museum culture in the West. 

    Guston's work, in this is instance, is caught in the crossfire, so to speak; like so much other interesting and important art seems to be these days. At the centre of all of the bruhaha is an implicit presumption by the museums themselves that their audiences are incapable of contemplating art in thoughtful and sophisticated ways: Helmore quotes National Gallery of Art source, “There is a risk that [Guston's paintings] may be misinterpreted and the resulting response overshadow the totality of his work and legacy."  Moreover, this hypothesised audience is further infantilised by a perceived need to protect it from harm: "the museum wanted to avoid 'painful' experiences the imagery could cause for viewers." Dangerous work indeed!

    The museological impulse to 'inform' viewers about the ideas behind exhibitions and the works they contain really, through wall texts and audio guides, begins in earnest with the emergence of a 'new museology' in the 1970s and '80s, and a desire to better help inform and assist audiences in their apprehension and enjoyment of the museum experience. What was to be provided was interpretation; the impulse was neither to 'protect' sensibilities nor to appease particular, or multiple, entrenched viewpoints. Yet, it can sometimes seem like we have arrived at a point at which full-time, institutional curators believe that they are capable of producing didactic truths in their contextual texts and audio, drawn from a generally shared pool of theory and socio-historical belief that has ossified as dogma. 

    Realistically, there is an assumption among museum administrators and their curators that even those people who will not visit the museum have to be listened to. This is in no small part because public museums have come to be seen as symbolically important politically (not least because they have been increasingly forced to become a constitutive part of the 'leisure industry').  Thus, there is a nexus of groups that is interested in the symbolic identity of the museum and its function which, by means of their public behaviours and interactivities, either threaten or vouchsafe the museum's continued existence. Public museums rely on public money (tax dollars) and government patronage for their financial viability. In the US especially (though not exclusively), they also rely on the continued support (political and financial) of boards of trustees. Sponsorship by business is particularly important (nowadays often essential) for the realisation of special projects and individual exhibitions. And they rely on additional direct public funding, through ticket admissions and the sale of museum products. The withdrawal of any of these sources of patronage would endanger the continued viability of the institution. There is much at stake. And with the museum as political symbol having become, it seems, a legitimate target for political attack from all sides, with little evidence (at least if current mass media reports are anything to go by) of any side using it in a fundamentally supportive way, there is a real sense that the institution is endangered. To complicate things further, much current museum curatorial received wisdom is also inherently (and publicly) antagonistic to the institutions it serves - a political positioning that is at the very least double-edged. Little wonder that museum administrators tasked with maintaining financial viability and, put bluntly, political neutrality, find themselves in a truly divisive and unenviable position.

    To be fair, Helmore notes that Mark Godfrey, Tate Modern's Senior Curator of International Art, has said that the decision regarding the Guston retrospective "is actually extremely patronising to viewers, who are assumed not to be able to appreciate the nuance and politics of Guston’s works”. However, I suspect the issue at the heart of all this is the effect wrought by the mishmash of political fighting, both ideological and in the realm of realpolitik, that converge on the museum, its collections and exhibition practice. Competing groups outside the museum appear to be saying that its purpose is to tell us all what to think; 'goodthink', perhaps, to quote Orwell. The problem, of course, is that there is disagreement on exactly what that is. And the public museum's multiple stakeholder groups (that is, whether directly or indirectly, its funders) represent every one of these competing ideologies.

    Although it is perhaps understandable that much of the wider political battle is being waged with slogans and the blunt instrument of the dialectic, 'bumper sticker' criticism is surely not appropriate in the museum? And most especially in the case of works of art, which are, by their nature multivalent. A work of art cannot be reduced its definitive essence (or explained away, for that matter). This has been the common mistake of much academic art history and criticism (unlike literary criticism), which habitually looks past the work to engage with issues of intentionality, psychology, and the conditions of its production. Too often the work itself is rendered mute. But then, works of art don't 'speak' in simple phrases, and their valency is altered according to the time and place in which they are viewed, and by the subjectivity of each new viewer. As O'Hagan says, "Sinister, but oddly humorous too. Put simply, Guston's late paintings confuse and confound, disturb and dismay in equal measure; they are often vulgarly funny and utterly ominous." I'm not convinced that any amount of framing by “additional perspectives and voices” will neutralise the disturbing beauty of this particular body of work. What then?

    Faced with a far less accommodating dominant culture than currently prevails in the West, the Berlin Dada group used art as a weapon. They staged their own exhibitions, fully expecting the authorities to close them down. And, in due course, their revolt was appropriated and assimilated into the museum. Rather than watching an unedifying spectacle of public museums tying themselves in knots worrying whether they can possibly appease everyone with a stone to throw, it would be nice to think that new art was being utilised in the fights of today, created without public funding, and presented outside institutional contexts, and invading the dominant culture. Where are the Dadaists when you need them?

(1) Edward Helmore, "Sense or censorship? Row over Klan images in Tate's postponed show." The Guardian, 27 September 2020 theguardian.com/artanddesign/2020/sep/26/sense-or-censorship-row-over-klan-images-in-tates-postponed-show

(2) Sean O'Hagan, "An everyday genius." The Observer, 11 January, 2004 theguardian.com/artanddesign/2004/jan/11/art

Tuesday, 8 September 2020

Four Artists in Rotterdam

In and Out of the Frame

Galerie Atelier Herenplaats, Schietbaanstraat 1, Rotterdam, The Netherlands

Colin Rhodes

Last Friday saw the opening of In and Out of the Frame at Rotterdam's Galerie Atelier Herenplaats. Including more than 60 works by four artists, Anuja Hoogstad, Tim Soekkha, Richard Bennaars and myself. It was the first exhibition opening at the gallery since the beginning of the covid pandemic in The Netherlands, giving the event an added poignancy. It was great to see people turning out on the night to see the art and to mix with real people, as opposed to the eternal computer screen meetings we have all had to become used to (why do they call them 'virtual'? I see only necessity, not virtue). Of course, art that is made by hand and exists in physical form must be seen in real time and space. So, it was doubly pleasing for me to see the work of all four of us together in the gallery and viewers interacting with it. Online exhibitions are in no way a replacement for this; they are shadows, mere approximations that are not to be mistaken for the real thing. The online exhibition alone belongs in the dystopian descriptions of Debord and Baudrillard.

Anuja Hoogstad

In any case, these are all intimate works. Every artist here has poured themselves into the process of making and the resulting works are revelations of the psychologies and moods of each. In opening up in this way, they are trusting viewers to engage not objectively, by empathetically. This is as true of the sometimes dense, sometime tentative abstract mark-making of Richard Bennaars' paintings as it is of the precise, cool pen work of Anuja Hoogstrad, which operates through symbolic juxtaposition and gentle pareidolia. Tim Soekkha's drawings arise directly out of the experience of the way 2020 has thrown everyone back into an interior of sorts. They embody a crashing together of real experience and absurd encounter. I'll leave others to describe my work, except to say that everything here arises out of the cognitive process that only exists when mind, senses and physical movement trust to the demands of the materials of visual art.

Richard Bennaars and Colin Rhodes

The gallery card announcing the show can be seen in my previous post from 28 August, including information about artists and the concept


Here are some installation photographs I made in the gallery, showing work by all of us. The exhibition can be seen until 14 November

Anuja Hoogstad

Tim Soekkha

Richard Bennaars

Colin Rhodes

Friday, 28 August 2020

In and Out of the Frame

Exhibition Announcement

In and Out of the Frame, Galerie Atelier Herenplaats

4 September - 14 November 2020

Very excited to announce that I am included in the forthcoming exhibition, In and Out of the Frame at Galerie Atelier Herenplaats, Rotterdam, The Netherlands. This is a four-person show, including artists Anuja Hoogstad, Tim Soekkha, Richard Bennaars and myself. I have more than 20 works in the show, all available for sale. Please contact the gallery for details.

Monday, 10 August 2020

Stephen Convey: Australian Visionary

 Stephen Convey and the Attraction of Place

My article on the Australian self-taught artist Stephen Convey was just published in French as 'Stephen Convey et l'attraction di lieu' in Création Franche, no.52, July 2020 - available at www.musee-creationfranche.com/
Stephen Convey's work will also be included in the annual invited exhibition, Visions et Créations Dissidentes at the Musée de la Création Franche, Bègles, France, 26 September 2020 - 10 January 2021
I publish a version of my article in English here for anglophone readers, including additional illustrations of the artist's work

Internal Dialogue, ballpoint pen and marker

The Australian artist Stephen Convey started making work in the mid-1970s. At that time, he was a wharf clerk on the Melbourne waterfront, a job that meant he spent a lot of time in dreary offices waiting for ships to arrive. As with some others before him, such as Scottie Wilson, he began drawing absent-mindedly in times of boredom. He soon realised that the act of drawing took him to another place. As he says, “I seemed to be able forget about time and become immersed in the moment.  I became fascinated by the images that seemed to flow out and it made the humdrum existence of work a lot easier to bear.” (Unless otherwise stated, all quotations are from communications with the author in spring 2020.) The urge to draw was not backed up by an artistic education. “I grew up without knowing art,” (Beier 17) he notes. However, although he never visited art galleries, there were books at home filled with images and his parents took him to museums sometimes. Most of the friends and work colleagues he has interacted with over the years have not been particularly interested in art. Entirely self-taught, his work has remained spontaneous and intuitive to this day. “I have no preconceived themes. Ninety-nine per cent of the time I just start,” he says (Beier 17). There are, though, recurring elements. The human figure, and in particular the face, is usually central, although sometimes stylised to the point of abstraction, and body parts, especially eyes, often crowd the picture space, commonly creating an effect of horror vacui. His oeuvre is also populated with strange, hybrid creatures; the spiritual forms of more mundane animals, perhaps. And there is a strong connection to place and the landscapes that he has known and inhabited, rendered symbolically and empathetically, rather than pictorially. In view of this, it comes as no surprise when he says, “The drivers for my work are that my art is an important extension of my self and my connection with the world.”

Untitled, ballpoint pen and marker

Convey was born in 1950 in the inner Melbourne suburb of Prahran. Now a rather trendy part of the city, during his childhood it was much more down to earth and significantly less developed. The young Stephen and his brother Tony, who is also an artist, regarded it as “a magical place,” filled with odd characters and interesting buildings, including derelict houses, from which the two of them collected old newspaper advertisements for movies that they found under the linoleum covered floors. The cinema was part of the magic, and equally the nearby Yarra River, which runs through Melbourne to the sea. As a young teenager, Stephen says he spent most of his time exploring Gardiners Creek, a tributary of the Yarra in nearby Glen Iris, where the family had relocated, “being fascinated by the natural world of frogs, eels, tortoises, and small native fauna.” He even remained close to the Yarra throughout most of his working life on the docks.

The Maze, ballpoint pen and marker

School was, for Convey, a largely unwelcome period of resisting attempts to force a conformism to which neither he nor his brother were suited: “The rigid discipline and dogmatic teaching didn’t appeal to me and by my teenage years girls and rock ‘n’ roll had taken a firm hold.” (Warner 37) He left school as soon as he was able and began a string of mostly labouring jobs. Before he settled into working on the docks, he hitchhiked to Sydney after reading Kerouac and the Beat writers, where he lived in Kings Cross, which at that time was notorious as the city’s clubland, gangland and home to society’s outcasts and dropouts. Back in Melbourne, working first in the railway yards, he was surrounded by an eclectic mix of people, including, “itinerants, musicians, junkies, alcoholics, writers, uni graduates and other assorted eccentrics,” (Warner 38) making for an enriching and often enjoyable experience. Music was, and remains, a hugely powerful, life-affirming experience, that both mirrors and finds expressive equivalences in his art. Over the years he has amassed an extensive and enviable record collection: “Music has always been a big influence on me: the rock ‘n’ roll of Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis and also the lonesome sounds of Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzel had a strong emotional effect. I have always been a seeker and started tracking down all influences on those people and many more. I realised this is a never-ending quest and one that I am still pursuing.”

Journey, acrylic, ballpoint pen and marker

While he rejects blind social conformity, Convey has strong personal ethics: “Images dredged from my inner world are my way of attacking the blandness of civilisation. McDonalds and Coca Cola are destroying individual cultures, turning us all into homogenised sameness. My journeys into my inner sea are my grasping for life and searching for deeper reality.” (Convey, S 3) Family has also played an important part in his life. He tells us, “I tried to instil in our children a love of nature and the mystery that life is. I used to take them on walks through parks and laneways and tell them it was the secret way.” Affinity with the natural world is strong. It is where, he says, “I feel most comfortable.” His brother remarks on Stephen’s strong attachment to Gardiners Creek and suggests that he “intuitively empathised with the original inhabitants whose stone tools lay buried under the grass.” (Convey, T 15) The attention he pays to place is always, therefore, fully sensory and intuitively immersive: “Country, as in nature, has a big impact on my art. I am always picking up different sorts of rocks, feathers, pieces of wood and seeds, and being amazed at the patterns. I suppose a lot of the symbols come from my belief that everything is connected.”

Flowing, acrylic, ballpoint pen and marker

In fact, Convey’s embrace of art making proper can be related to a kind of epiphany involving experiencing a powerful pantheistic intuition of nature as integral in a living, organic universe. As is often the case, this occurred at a difficult time in his life: “Work was really getting me down: I had nothing in common with the people I worked with. They were mainly relics from the ‘50s Cold War mentality and I was full of optimism and change. It was becoming harder and harder to keep going. I was continuing with the meditation and walking and starting to have weird experiences such as seeing ghosts and all sorts of spirit-like entities. Things were getting out of hand.” (Warner 38, 40) After one particularly powerful experience he relates, in which “magpies and wattle birds were talking to me” and  “the trees and plants were also communicating their inner thoughts to me,” Stephen found himself incarcerated for a couple of months in a “locked, overcrowded ward full of men and women swarming around praying, screaming, crying” in Melbourne’s old Larundel Psychiatric Hospital. After his release and return to work, he found himself drawing continually. “It seemed,” he says, “as if I had reached a place deep within myself that would stay with me forever, the primeval source if you like.” (Warner 40)

Heart of the Matter, ballpoint pen and marker

His methods rely on allowing images to rise to the surface from unconscious depths, as it were: “They just come out and flow out with my pen, marker or brush. I suppose it is similar to automatic writing, as it is completely spontaneous.” Precisely because of this Convey tends to use whatever materials are immediately available, although this does not always produce fully satisfactory results for him, as was the case with the very first works he made. Similarly, at times he has made drawings using fugitive materials that severely limit their lifespan. The first works he was fully satisfied with were made with Japanese Marvy makers that his wife, Suzie had suggested he use early on. Given the choice, he says, “I like to draw with Mitsubishi Uni-Ball biros and markers – whichever I can find. When I paint, I use acrylics, and use the brushes and their ends to sometimes draw with on the board or canvas.” The urge to make art is powerful: “I always take drawing books, biros, etc wherever I go,” he says, “I like to produce or start something every day. Otherwise I don't feel comfortable.”

The Talisman, ballpoint pen and marker

There are a number of recurring motifs in Convey’s work. Many images are dominated by a schematic human bust or face with figures contained within the overall form. Figures are also sometimes ranged across the shoulders of the main form. Vulvic shapes are also common elements, often serving as noses. The human form, whether complete or as constituent parts dominates his iconography. It is always, however, cast as a mythic presence in direct contact, and co-extensive, with the fecund forces of the universe, as is clear in Tuning In (below), which is redolent of some shamanic vision. Convey’s work abounds with references to energy and flow; there is a sense of things in motion and in the process of (presumably endless) transformation, mutation, development and diminution. Spirals are common elements, often in the form of ancient mythic snakes, and jagged triangles produce a feeling of almost iridescent energy, set against stars that are like synapse pulses revealing an organic universe of spectral presences.

Tuning In, ballpoint pen and marker

Although he has exhibited his work occasionally since 1988, Convey has never, as Beier put it, “sought exposure to his art, which puzzled or even irritated his friends. Art was to him a way to personal freedom.” (Beier 12) In other words, for Convey the emphasis is on the process of art making, rather than its dissemination. His art is also about understanding the self through the images that emerge. “It is important that I create images wherever I go,” he explains, “It helps me make sense of my existence.” Yet, he also regards his art as a communicating vessel: “A lot of the time I find it hard to communicate with people,” he told Beier, “So many things can’t be conveyed in words. There is so much inside anybody’s mind, there aren’t enough words in the language to say what we really feel. But in a drawing, I can put it all down precisely.” (Beier 18) Convey’s engagement with nature was thrown into relief around eight years ago when he had a liver transplant: “I was days away from dying when I was lucky enough to receive the gift of life,” he says, “Being so close to death has given me a better appreciation of the world around us and life in general.” And since then his artistic energies and production have not dimmed, but further intensified.

Balance, rollerball pen

Beier, Ulli. ‘Stephen Convey’, in, Outsider Art in Australia, Aspect no.35, 1989
Convey, Stephen. In Fifteen Australian Outsider Artists, Orange Regional Gallery, 1990
Convey, Tony. ‘Stephen Convey: The Hum of the Wheels and Wires’, in Outsider Art in Australia, Aspect no.35, 1989
Warner, Sandra. Australian Naïve Art, Sydney, 1994

Saturday, 7 March 2020

The Expressive Colour of Black and White Art

Monochromatic Minds: Lines of Revelation
Jennifer Lauren Gallery, at Candid Arts Trust, London
25 February – 4 March 2020

Monochromatic Minds installation view, including works by Terence Wilde
Monochromatic Minds is the latest venture of the peripatetic Jennifer Lauren Gallery. This ambitious exhibition, featuring 61 artists and around 150 works could be seen recently at Candid Arts Trust, London. The premise of the show was disarmingly simple; a selection of black and white art made by artists who have at times been gathered under the rubric of outsider art. The result, however, was a sophisticated system of compelling art that transformed the gallery space into an energetic, thought-provoking and highly intellectually satisfying visual conversation.

Works by Julia Sisi and introductory wall text

It is all too easy for an exhibition containing as many artists as this, and who come, moreover, from a wide range of lived contexts, to descend into visual incoherence. “Monochromatic Minds” does not. Cohesion is gained through curatorial restriction to the inclusion of monochrome works and essentially to drawings (even the relatively few three-dimensional objects in the show are essentially essays in the drawn mark). There is also a tendency toward a very shallow picture space in all the two-dimensional works included, which also assists the visual logic.

Monochromatic Minds installation view, with works by Albert (left) and Mami Yoshikawa (right)

Work in the show ranges from the boldly emblematic – Davood Koochaki, James Alison, Liz Parkinson – to densely worked, near claustrophobic essays in detail – Carlo Keshishian, David Abisror, Leslie Thompson, Chris Neate. It also collectively runs the gamut of techniques of conscious abandonment so beloved of the surrealists, from automatic drawing and writing – Malcolm McKesson, Julia Sisi, Dan Miller, Harald Stoffers, Beverly Baker, Cathy Ward – to mediumism – Madge Gill, Agatha Wojciechowsky – and visionary perception – Raymond Morris, Nick Blinko, Ody Saban. Visual Symbols dredged from the unconscious, whether through dream or imagination, are also commonly present, from Evelyne Postic and Margot’s tumescent organic images, to Jane Davigo’s suggestive symbolic narratives and Olivier Daunat’s remarkably spatial, yet airless, precise urban universes.

Beverly Baker, Untitled, 1998, ballpoint pen on paper (Latitude Arts)

Monochromatic Minds installation view, with works by, l to r Chris Neate, Cathy Ward, Evelyne Postic (top and bottom), Margot (middle), David Abisror

At times images arise from the experience of pareidolia, or a process of seeing-in to the figurative content of objects, as in Mehrdad Rashidi’s manipulated photographs and Gwyneth Rowlands’ flint figures. A near-automatic methodology and use of the suggestiveness of materials and emotion characterises Terence Wilde’s mixed media miniatures. Just about everything in the show seemed to be driven by an active process of evolution and growth, rather than some preconceived compositional conceit. Blinko’s exquisite drawings unfold, so to speak, only to be threatened by the weight of detail that packs the picture space, so that the whole is held in the most precarious of visual balance; a metaphor perhaps of human hovering between life and death. Indeed, in the case of two untitled figure drawings by the late Nigel Kingsbury, it is hard to say whether we are experiencing a smoky coming-into-being or a gentle, diaphanous dissolution of form.

Nick Blinko, Untitled, 2019, pen and ink

Nick Blinko, Crucilivas Arborilus, 2018, pen and ink

Nigel Kingsbury, Untitled, nd, pencil (ActionSpace)
One of the satisfying aspects of “Monochromatic Minds” is that it restricts itself neither geographically nor temporally in making its aesthetic choices – fourteen nations are represented here in a timescale that stretches from the present to around eighty years ago. In this way, the curator, Jennifer Gilbert was able to choose works that invited close individual attention by viewers and also consideration as a group in the liminal space of the gallery. Given the amount of planning and effort that had clearly gone into producing this project, which also included public artist talks, a short film and a published catalogue, it seems a shame that it ran for such a tantalisingly short time. I have no doubt that it will remain fresh in the minds of those who were lucky enough to see it for some time to come.

A catalogue is available, with an Introduction by Jennifer Gilbert and short essays by myself, Lisa Slominski and Judith McNicol, Manchester: Jennifer Lauren Gallery, 2020, 140pp, 73 col. and b&w plates, £10


Davood Koochaki

Leonhard Fink, Adam and Eve in Paradise, 2018, pencil
Malcolm McKesson (left) and Raymond Morris (right)
Agatha Wojciechowsky, Untitled, 1968, pen and ink

Monochromatic Minds installation view, including works by Ody Saban and Judith McNicol
Monochromatic Minds installation view