Hull and Whales: the art of Hondartza Fraga

20131026-084337.jpgdetail of “Books to Sea” (2013) series of prints from pencil rubbings of old whaling books

Hull has been on my radar as a place worthy of serious exploration for a while, and so a serendipitous invitation to the opening of a show of new work by artist Hondartza Fraga meant a line through the diary on a sunny Thursday afternoon, a casserole in the oven on a self-timer, and a judicious decision to stop for petrol before hitting the M62.

I was expecting a fast drive through the autumnal sunshine, although some mystery person had reset the SatNav settings to ‘shortest’. So I ended up on a slow putter through the East Riding countryside, driving up to and under the engineering marvels of Drax Power Station and the Humber Bridge.

With hindsight, my musings on the incongruous beauty of these testaments to engineering brilliance were an interesting precursor to viewing the melancholy beauty of art inspired by the maritime industry heritage of Hull.

And maybe inspired too by the prevailing melancholia of Hull itself: quite possibly the emptiest city it has been my privilege to wander in the middle of a working day. Barely a pedestrian to be seen in the Old Town, and a surfeit of available parking spaces (although complicated and challenging to pay for: I entered and exited two car parks before I found a system I could handle and may consequently and unwittingly have incurred a penalty for driving where I oughtn’t).

Hull is really Kingston-Upon-Hull. It’s a sort of mirror equivalent (on a smaller and shabbier scale) to Liverpool. There’s that inimitable maritime feel and air and light, a peripheral consciousness and awareness of an exotic and adventurous past amidst the slightly tawdry and seedy charm of the Old Town. There’s a lot in a name, and I sometimes think that abandoning the “King’s Town” element here has resulted in a self-fulfilling prophecy of decline.

But I’m over-exaggerating. In maritime and whaling history terms, Hull has a seriously fascinating allure and has proved an inspirational resource for Hondartza Fraga’s “…a still better seaward peep”
An Artistic Perspective on Whales, Whaleports and the Marine Environment
whilst Leverhulme Trust’s Artist-in-Residence at the Maritime History Studies Centre, University of Hull.

The work is shown across various venues, and for a visitor unfamiliar with Hull, it’s a wonderful chance to place the project within the wider context of Hull’s heritage. The Maritime Museum, for example, is the type of idiosyncratic specialist museum normally to be found scattered throughout Paris, Musée de la Chasse-style.

I find an endearing eccentricity to collections of this sort: model ships; painted figureheads and ropy ephemera. And it was a splendid setting for Passages For The World (2013), a polished animation using old etchings of the search for the North West passage

20131026-094207.jpgThe Maritime Museum

There was a sensitive attention to detail in this mesmerizing animation. Clouds drifted, waves shimmered and crashed on the ice, and a barely perceptible rocking movement suggestive of languorous wave movement.

The middle sequence of the film momentarily brought Captain Pugwash to mind with the fractionally more obvious dipping of the whaler; but that was the only jarring note in the whole film. A darkening sky and vast ice masses and the eventual icing up and clever use of howling wind and crackling flame combined to portray the terror and horror and isolation of the search for the North West passage.

I found the marrying of old etchings and digital animation inspirational, and this for me was one of the many strengths of the show. The tangible heritage and artifacts of the past are not just informing the art in an abstract way, but in a real and direct fashion.

In the Art Gallery opposite the Maritime Museum, for example, large scale photographs (immaculately printed and presented on metallic paper) of “seascapes” in Seaward Bound (2013) proved to be constructed images of light shining on the textured leather of old books – also the source for the lovingly intricate set of pencil rubbings in Books To Sea.

The richness of these sparse yet emotionally charged images seemed emblematic of the whaling industry. I loved the monochromatic aesthetic simplicity of all the pieces which connected and linked them throughout the varied locations. There is also a beautifully bound hardback catalogue of the show (a final sympathetic gesture to, and acknowledgment of, the rich textual material underpinning the work) which is a steal at £10.

A Still Better Seaward Peep is on until 5 December 2013, and further details can be found here. There’s also a great map including details not just of the exhibiting venues but other places of interest in whaling and maritime history.

Go and have a great day out in Hull.

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Crossing Science and Art

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Above: an inadequate attempt to show the extraordinary detailing of Laura Culham’s 1:1 scale paper sculptures of weeds. That narrow crease in the carefully rounded plant stem defies belief.

The autumnal nip in the air and shortening days prompts me to start thinking about show time in the contemporary art world. A summer spent introspectively researching and making in the studio and farther afield is all well and good, but time now to pull out the diary, read the newsletters and launch back in to visiting, reviewing and reflecting on what’s happening out there NOW.

So I was lured down to London yesterday by the enticing prospect of a group show Nature Reserves at GV Art near Baker Street. The gallery is clear on its focus: it aims to explore and acknowledge the inter- relationship between art and science, and how the areas cross over and inform one another.

As the daughter of a research scientist who was passionate about art, I always think this is a much overlooked but fascinating intersection, particularly in terms of process. Open-ended play, exploration and risk-taking alongside hard grind are key to success in both. But that’s a topic for another post another time.

Nature Reserves is conceived and curated by Tom Jeffreys, and is a thoughtful and intriguing show with a great online catalogue. I’ve been to so many shows this last year with untitled works and no context and yes, whilst allowing space for the viewer’s own thoughts is fine, complete absence of information becomes wearisome after a while. I appreciate a context, and a beautifully written catalogue adds immeasurable value to any show. Not least, how satisfying it is these days be able to download a “book” and shelve it in iBooks for instant future access.

And this show taken as a whole is also extremely beautiful and immaculately presented. It’s a joy to wander and gaze at the works within GV Art’s great space, and after some summer reflections on Art and Beauty in post-modern times, I’m owning up without shame to the fact I love nothing more than thought-provoking and compelling beauty (another post waiting to be written one day).

I wanted to visit Nature Reserves primarily because it includes works by Laura Culham, whose work I saw and admired last year in a show at the Hoxton Gallery. But everything else was well up to meet my high expectations.

I liked the way that the execution of a lot of the exhibits nicely reflected scientific methods of enquiry; painstaking attention to detail whilst maintaining a clear focus on outcome. The details to be found in the extraordinarily intricate paper sculptures of Culham; the moon studies of Anaïs Tondeur (unfortunately hung slightly inaccessibly for my myopic gaze) and the exquisite lithograph of Victoria Browne all exemplify this. It is so hard to maintain a coherent artistic vision when this level of detailed study is in play.

Then there is the simple perfection of natural forms and the clarity of approach necessitated by the study and cataloguing of natural forms. Liz Orton’s immaculately photographed piles of specimens reference both, with their air of a 17th century Dutch still life: clarity and detail set against a matt dark velvet surface and background but all subsumed into an harmonious, abstract, effortless composition. The piles cut through the space and continue beyond the borders of the picture plane, alluding perhaps to the challenges inherent in containing through labeling and classification?

It wasn’t just visual sensory material though. Hestia Peppe’s live Kombucha culture installation provided an earthy pungent background scent to my wanderings, and made me laugh out loud. I returned a few times to replenish my olfactory sense as an ongoing accompaniment to the other exhibits.

And I was delighted to see real scientific collections displayed and attributed to their parent organizations. On first encountering the UCL geology and other collections, a little jaded part of me yawned slightly at yet another pleasantly aesthetic “found” artwork. But when I saw the catalogue entry, I cheered inwardly. There is something much more powerful about the direct acknowledgement of provenance in this show; truly recognizing the inherent art form of scientific enquiry both aesthetically and conceptually.

Nature Reserves is on until 13th September 2013. Check opening times.

Woolgather’s Art Vend

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When someone from Woolgather enthusiastically invites you to participate in the latest @WoolgatherArt initiative, it’s really really impossible to say no. Even when you’re off on a big trip somewhere and have two shows happening imminently.

So last weekend saw me manically folding origami lotuses for Art Vend, which looks to reach out to a new brand of contemporary art consumer willing to drop a £1 coin in the slot of a vending machine and in return grab a capsule full of contemporary art cheer.

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Art Vend launched on Monday night to great excitement. There’s a brilliant new website for Woolgather which I’d love to link to here but my phone is struggling to find it. I recommend trying though, not least for a Pythonesque coin sequence.

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I was thrilled to see someone actually pull one of my capsules from a vending machine on Monday night. Above you can see his uncontainable joy and glee at the prospect of opening his purchase.

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Naturally my own little effort contains adequate Warning instructions and points out the consequences of risky decision making in unfolding/not unfolding the artwork. In these H&S conscious days, I could do no less. The Art Vend collector above looked as though he was taking this Very Seriously Indeed which is a Good Thing.

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So keep your eyes peeled for Art Vend when you’re put and about. There’s great stuff in them there capsules.

The Art of Delivery

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Getting somewhere as an artist is not an easy matter, but there are some eternal truths guiding the paths to success, one of which is Win Prizes and Enter Big Shows.

This is sound advice, and assuming the artist is on a roll of successful art-making, it’s a worthy aim.

The biggest challenge however in Winning Prizes and Entering Shows is not doing eye-catching great work: It’s entering competitions and making submissions in the first place.

First, the psychological hurdle of “What’s the point? I’ll never win/be selected anyway.” That’s easily overcome by the counter arguments that “Someone has to win” and “You certainly won’t be selected if you don’t even enter”.

Next the delusion that it’s too much trouble to keep up with entry and delivery deadlines. I was very good at this excuse for many years. Keeping a diary isn’t a bad idea here, and I think telling myself that not keeping a dairy is good exercise for my brain is lame. Anyway, with wonderful monthly updates from Artists Competitions, the diarising is done for me.

So finally, the cost-of-submission argument. When you add up entry fees, and petrol costs and time and speeding fines and license penalty points (Jerwood Drawing Prize, 2010) or train tickets and time, or courier cost, the price of failure can be astronomical.

But I have resolved to change in 2013. My new routine of daily practice development habits with all excuses and procrastination tendencies cast aside has already brought me success in one competition, and with the annual RA Summer Exhibition on the horizon, I decided this year I would actually enter, and somehow I would do so cost effectively.

And so at 7.40am this morning I was lurking in a parking bay in a nearly deserted car park at Wetherby services off the A1, cash in hand, waiting to rendezvous with a large white van with flashing hazard lights.

Exactly on time, the van pulled in to the parking area, and like the humans drawn to the spaceship in The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951 version, obviously), we aspiring Summer Exhibition exhibitors emerged from the cover of our vehicles and glided towards the white van clutching bubble-wrapped offerings.

Picture Post, the answer to my competition delivery dreams, was in fact suggested to entrants by the RA in its exhibition entry blurb, and that’s how I decided to give it a go. It’s not got a website, but the brilliant Making A Mark blog gives a valuable review of this and other similar possibilities. And Picture Post has so far proved simple, efficient, convenient and cost-effective. Plus, I got to visit and linger in Wetherby A1 services which is a cut above most of the M1 services I’ve frequented in recent months, and it’s always nice to sit in a pleasant Services, and then drive home on an empty motorway in full sunshine.

And I’ve ticked the daily good habit box.

#trinityleeds Part II

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Given my obsessions with the urban environment, consumer culture and the wonderful everyday, there was no way I was going to miss first day at Trinity Leeds, the Biggest Shopping Centre Opening in Western Europe This Year, Creator of 3,000 Jobs Covering A Million Square Feet.

I almost chickened out when I saw queues stretching down the road approach to every car park I drove past as I entered the city centre, but luckily managed to squeeze in somewhere a mile away. Then sauntered through an otherwise unusually deserted central Leeds to join the pilgrimage to this latest Mecca of consumerism.

As I walked, I took advantage of unusually excellent connectivity to google the new centre and pick up Wikipaedian key facts and soundbites to impress family, friends and any roving reporters. In this way I established that a sizeable chunk of Leeds equivalent to thirteen football pitches has been missing from our inner topographical shopping consciousness for six years without us even noticing. Imagine that much land “disappearing” from a central, active, urban location without being aware of its absence!

And I was mightily impressed, despite my cynicism for all such things. I loved the arching glass megagrid and sense of real space and yet a feeling of connection and connectivity. It seems quite extraordinarily un-British in the way it seizes the opportunity to open up unfamiliar vistas and perspectives at every turn.

More fundamentally, I’m impressed by this contemporary architectural reference to Leeds’ amazing 19th century arcades, in turn quoting earlier continental arcades. I love the potential and scope for a contemporary form of 21st century flanerie and I genuinely think it adds something to Leeds. It’s not the first “new” arcade; the Light transformation did something similar, but it’s good to take these more interesting terms of reference and get away from the tedious and depressing “Leeds Look” of the late 20th century.

It’s reminded me of an interesting thing about Leeds. It’s not just another Northern city. More particularly, it’s not just another old industrial city of the North. For years, I was puzzled by the more domestic sense of scale, elegant city centre architecture and “small town” feel you find in Leeds, so radically different from Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield, and Bradford. Then one day I happened upon a fascinating website, UKCities, which listed dates of incorporation. Scanning the 19th century cluster, I failed to find Leeds, and had to descend some considerable way down, to 1207 in fact, before I spotted it. I was intrigued by this discovery and thought that it explained much about the small town feel. Looking at the list of British cities of mediaeval incorporation, you find ones such as Wells(1205), Hereford (1189), Ely (673) and a whole series of county towns, earlier centres of administrative rather than industrial importance. Leeds acquired industrial strength during the 19th century, but was already a well established centre, and I think this goes a long way to explaining its unique character today.

Hotel… Art?

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It’s easy to be churlish and disparaging about artwork in hotels. Often I’m pleasantly surprised (perhaps not unsurprisingly given my subterranean expectations) by what’s on the walls (a great hotel in San Diego last summer immediately springs to mind) but more usually I can bask in familiar re-encounters with stuff so dire, it’s positively reassuring.

In the depths of last weekend’s snowfall, and child-free for 24 hours, Himself and I decided on a spontaneous getaway for ourselves and the dog.

The dog’s destination was the local kennels. Ours was the best hotel in a nearby town.

We had secured a fantastic bargain deal for a veritable suite of rooms (including our own personal emergency exit) and it was perfectly delightful.

Except I was overcome by a desire to submit a proposal to the hotel management for artistic redesign of the interior. Unusually, there was hardly any thing on the walls at all, save for the ubiquitous frosted glass wall lights. And one truly stupendously bad “artwork”.

Actually, I may have got it wrong. Maybe it was just a framed homily-sort-of-thing with no pretensions to post-modernist conceptualism at all. But somehow, I don’t think so.

Remaining open to positive critique, perhaps the atrociously badly laid-out phrases and sentimentalised choice of font were an ironic contemporary take on Victorian framed embroidered aphorisms. But again, I don’t think so.

It was all too sadly serious. This was clearly not the Bonaventure hotel of North Yorkshire; on the contrary, it appeared the least likely place to go in for a bit of postmodern irony. So I was forced to conclude this was a seriously bad bit of Art: so wonderfully and intriguingly dreadful that I wasted at least five minutes trying to capture it with my iPhone.

I don’t know what disturbed me more. The odd triptych sectioning of Beatles lyrics? The lay-out? The font? The slightly off positioning of the frames? Oh, lighten up, Gillian. It’s only a piece of Hotel Art.

Maybe I won’t bother with my proposal for a redesign. Maybe it wouldn’t be the sort of thing they’d want after all.

Hoping for answers: Hopper at the Grand Palais

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In early autumn last year, I noticed there was a major Edward Hopper exhibition on at the Grand Palais in Paris. I dragged the family off to see it saying we were bound to just be able to buy a ticket on the door and walk in because I couldn’t imagine why on earth the French would be interested in Hopper’s work.

Wrong. We were greeted by a three hour queue. Never mind, said Himself. We’ll book tickets online for when we are back after Christmas!

Wrong again. All booked up even online for every possible date between Christmas and New Year.

Undeterred and driven by grit determination, I hit upon a Mad Plan to travel across to Paris this weekend and buy one of those Sesame tickets which purportedly allows you unlimited access for a year to the Grand Palais and no queues.

Why this grit determination to see Hopper’s work? Because I’d never seen it “for real” and I was desperate to form my own view on the question: was he a great painter or not?

I’ve always been intrigued by what I’ve seen of his painting in books. But the last six years have shown me that a lot of poor painting is greatly enhanced through reproduction whilst photos never do justice to great painting. And I remembered reading of debates between critics about whether he could paint or not.

So I finally made it in to the show yesterday. The Sesame printout actually worked to allow me in (with a friend to boot), and I eagerly joined the enthusiastic throngs now so much an irritating permanent feature of any blockbuster exhibition anywhere in the world these days.

I wasn’t too dismayed by the fairly banal early stuff being presented. Any artist needs a few years to really get going. But slowly, slowly, as I passed by his early commercial illustrative work, I began to wonder whether Hopper’s early years had lasted a bit too long in terms of developing his technical ability.

I brightened up when I reached a room of his etchings. I love etchings. I hadn’t even known Hopper had an etchings oeuvre! But the etchings on display explained this lack of awareness all too clearly. His etchings were frankly awful; banal subject matter and really not exploiting the creative potential of the medium. It puzzled me why such a tonal painter had never tried aquatint as an alternative to somewhat scrappy dense cross-hatching. There were however portents of the future in prints of American Gothic houses and strongly tonal abtracted images with shadows, planes and angles.

Next, I approached the watercolours room: the medium in which he achieved his early commercial success as an artist. Goodness knows how. His watercolours evoked Sunday painting at its absolute worst: insipid portrayals of countryside and houses in a style and of a standard more commonly found at the local weekly artfair market held in shopping centres across the country.

And so into the paintings themselves. I remain impressed by his compositional talent, striking viewpoints and sense of mood and surreal incongruity. New York Pavement (1924-25) exemplifies this.

But there’s an insistent clumsiness about so much of his work, and an unsettling garish childlike use of colour. Railroad Sunset (1929) in this respect is possibly the worst painting by a supposedly great artist I have ever seen exhibited anywhere. Many paintings with their simplistic colour modelling reminded me of the illustrations you used to see in those old Ladybird books of the 1950s and 60s.

Even more disconcerting is his mean use of paint. Scratchy and thin, with clumsy transitions of edges and no sense of stroke direction in modelling form. Hotel Room (1931) is a work which looks wonderful in reproduction with all these painting quirks smoothed, reduced, but is almost unpleasant to view in real life.

I could go on. And on. I won’t, though. Because actually I rather enjoyed the show. He’s definitely at his best in his voyeuristic questioning works. Room in New York (1932) for example is a brilliant composition, a beautiful contrast of red and a light grass green emerging from the blacks of the anchoring stonework. I was moved by the dissociated couple, she aimlessly playing a piano key with one finger, quizzical and reflective, he buried in his newspaper with a contented expression.

I was tempted at one point to see Hopper almost as the Thomas Kincaid of his day, but I think that’s going a step too far. He was unquestionably evoking something uncomfortably real, with evident feeling.

There’s no doubt for me that the seediness of the characters and clumsily stylised figuration of his later work in the early sixties was ultimately redeemed by the composition and formal tonal qualities of his work: and I do think he showed an unerring instinct for abstract form despite his figurative focus.

In this sense, then, it was reassuring to see the final painting on show was Sun in an Empty Room (1963). Devoid of apparent (though suggestive of a temporarily absent) human presence, it allowed light and colour and form to coalesce in a surprisingly pleasing study of a sunny room in which all his best qualities as an artist were allowed to emerge to good effect.

So I wouldn’t say don’t go to this show. It’s interesting and thought provoking, and I’ve concluded that Hopper wasn’t really a great painter but his paintings do somehow speak to the viewer. And ultimately, communication is what it’s really all about.

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