Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Life in Hampstead, London

After completing my residency at the University of Cambridge, I am embracing on a two-month journey of various places in Europe, the first of which is practically next door; London.

I have been to London countless numbers of times in the last 20+ years. I first came here in 1991 as a participant in the Danenberg Oberlin in London Program, which gave me wanderlust and imparted a set of critical skills that truly came to define my world view. I started returning on a regular basis for short visits in 2007 when two friends of mine settled in London. As early as 2007, I was especially drawn to the atmosphere around Hampstead station. It somehow feels like a quaint English village; compact yet rich in cultural offerings. The neighborhood is graced by two cultural treasures, the Burgh House and the Keats House, which both have a full program of events and activities throughout the year. Upon arrival in Hampstead, I spent the day exploring the neighborhood, and took a walk up to Whitestone Pond where the Hampstead Art Fair was being held. I met an artist named Emma Loizides, whose booth grabbed my attention simply because she was featuring an oil painting and corresponding reproductions of an iconic view of Hampstead; Flask Walk, Paul’s Bakery, and low and behold, my Airbnb residence for the the next two weeks!

I especially enjoyed observing an artist drawing in charcoal a scene of a brass quintet performing. So expressive! 

From June 27-July 8, 2016, I decided to become a student again and enroll in a two-week summer intensive at the SLADE School of Fine Arts in London. There were a number of courses available, but I decided to take Contemporary Approaches to Landscape Painting. Below is the intro for the course:

“Landscape Painting has a long and rich history which continues to stimulate contemporary painters. Many artists interact with the idea of the Landscape as both a starting point and a basis for their artistic practices. As well as containing the potential to symbolize ideas, the painted Landscape can suggest themes that may only emerge during the painting process itself. These can range from the personal to the universal. Pertinent to this course is developing a ‘conversation’ between the painted image and Landscape whereby one, not only informs but, enhances the other. Such a way of painting can bring out surprising and unexpected results. In this course you will be encouraged and supported in developing your painting practice in innovative ways. Experimentation with materials is key to this course; ways in which you open up and develop a dialogue between the Landscape you interpret, and the images you create. The primary aim is to open up approaches and themes within Landscape Painting and explore how they can be used as forms of expression within a contemporary context. Throughout this course you will explore methods of combining traditional and contemporary painting techniques as well as the creation of imaginative compositions. Looking at ways of combining materials, subjects as well as constructed and found objects into your paintings will be one of the main objectives of this course. In week one, students investigate methods of ‘bringing the outside into the studio’, using a range of approaches to transform primary and secondary source material in intriguing ways. By embracing risk taking and contemporary approaches to painting you will learn how to translate and manipulate your view of the landscape through paint. Each morning’s workshop, slide show and specialist lecture will be used to develop and expand particular skills, both imaginative and technical, in relation to landscape painting. In week two you will explore ways in which landscape painting can absorb other media and approaches such as collage, abstraction, narrative and photography. This week will culminate in a personal exploration of how to create curious combinations of techniques, from the mechanized and procedural to the more gestational and handmade, within painting. You will explore what landscape painting was, is and can be, in relation to contemporary painting."

One the first day, we were asked to engage in a assignment designed to prevent us from repeating patterns and help us to conceive of new ways to approach the same source material. The workshop was entitled “101 Ways of making a Landscape Painting.” As one would expect from the title, there was a list of 101 prompts to help focus us on ways to re-approach our source material. I chose a simply subject; a landscape featuring a deep blue sky, green hill in the distance, a field of daises, and white peonies in the foreground. The instructions were to spend no more than 2-3 minutes on a painting, so by the end of 3+ hours each of us could potentially have created 101+ “mini-paintings.” After we finished about 20+ of these paintings, we were asked to cut them up to create a collage over an existing image. Working with acrylics is a bit frustrating. I don't quite know how to keep my brushes clean and haven't developed a work-flow system to paint quickly. When I work with pastels, I have 120+ colors at my disposal and can just grab for the color needed. My challenge during this course will be to create my own colors from the primaries; red (crimson and cadmium), yellow (lemon and cadmium), blue (ultramarine and cobalt), and white while developing an efficient work-flow system. 

I got up early on the second day, awakened by the sweet smell of freshly-baked bread from Paul's Bakery down below and went for a walk in Hampstead Heath, which is just 10+ minutes away. We went to the South Bank to gather source material, and were given two extensive sketching periods, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. The most enticing image I made on this day was of the London Eye. I was attracted to the intricacy of the architecture as well as the oval shape of the eye itself. I sat on a nearby green that truly offered a majestic view of the spectacle before my eyes. 

The instructor noted that he wasn't quite sure what I was trying to capture in my graphite drafts. Honestly, neither was I! For me, part of the struggle is simply drawing, never find discovering a "conception" or "personalizing the landscape."

I have been thrilled to discover two nearby art stores through this course: Russell and Chapple and L. Cornellisen and Son (one of London's oldest shops), both of which I checked out this week when class was over. 

The third day of class was my favorite to date. We experimented with "deliberate vs. accidental" brushstrokes and made a series of abstract, imaginary landscapes by applying black and white paint to a piece of saran wrap and laying this on top of a painting surface. Moreover, we continued process over the course of several layers using various graduations of black, white, and gray. The result, in the best cases, was a complex "landscape" impossible to replicate with a brush. One of the most interesting tasks was to describe this painting to a partner, and without them seeing it, they would have to attempt to reproduce a version of the painting through verbal instructions. Can you imagine what this might look like?!

One layer, resembling a Chinese ink wash painting
I have been enjoying eating dinner at several local eateries in Hampstead upon my return home each day; L'Antica Pizzeria, Tip Top ThaiJin Kichi (the best Japanese food I have had in the UK by far!), The Coffee Cup, The Fish Cafe, and Gourmet and Craft.

During the second week of class, we began working on individual projects. The tutors wanted us to find a way to "personalize" the landscape. For me, this meant finding a place that resonates for me; Hampstead Heath. I took the following photo on one of my walks during the past two weeks:

Together with another photo that I found from a Google image search, the first "pass" at my painting looked like this:

In all honesty, I was thrilled with what I accomplished and thought I was finished. After all, I created the painting above using nothing but red, blue, yellow, and burnt sienna without using brushes! However, the tutor Donal Maloney urged me to take this painting much further. The first thing he did was create a thin orange glaze that was applied over the entire surface. I wept as he did this, thinking that my painting would be ruined. In the end, this is my final version of the painting:

In some ways, this may be the most accomplished acrylic painting I have completed to date. It has a richness and subtlety of color and depth of texture due to multiple layering. On the other hand, I also think that my first version has a certain innocence about it that was lost as I developed it further.

Wanting to have a painting that encapsulates the time I spent in Cambridge, I worked on another painting afterwards, this time at a much faster pace. I completed the following painting in one day:

While residing in London, I managed to find time to attend two major exhibitions; the 82 Portraits and 1 Still-life David Hockney exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, as well as the new Georgia O' Keefe exhibition at the Tate Modern. I was amused to discover that the reason why Hockney attached the "and 1 Still-Life" detail to the title of the exhibition was simply because one of his subjects decided not to show up the portrait session, so he decided to paint some fruit instead! I bet that is the last time that person decides to blow of an appointment!

The Hockney exhibition received mixed criticism in the Guardian and other newspapers, but I admired the focus that Hockney had to complete all of these portraits in a three year period. Criticism focused on the degree to which many of them exhibit little personality or have a similar tonal palette, but in contract to photography, I don't think in all cases that it is the purpose of painting to reproduce that natural world realistically. Rather, Hockney offers his interpretation of each subject. With a project of this size and scope, it is unfair to judge Hockney harshly simply because stylistic consistency can be noticed between the various works. If anything, this is a sign that he has dispelled his ego and has invested himself fully into creating a solid body of work. In essence, this is simply where he is in his artistic development. 

The O'Keefe exhibition resonated with me so deeply for personal reasons; last summer I was in residence in Taos, New Mexico as a Helene Wurlitzer Foundation Fellow. Having just completed a contemporary painting course, I can admire how difficult it is to execute the tonal graduations that appear to be created so effortlessly on the canvas. My favorite works were, not surprisingly, the Taos landscape paintings:

Black Mesa

Ranchos Church

Taos Pueblo
I attended the O'Keefe exhibition with a few colleagues from my SLADE course. It was tiring to get to the TATE with all of our art equipment and painting in hand. The first thing we did after arriving at the museum was get a drink at the VIP Member's Lounge on the 5th floor, where we were awarded with stunning views:

Last weekend I participated in a La Perla curated walk as part of Brown's London Art Weekend:

For over 60 years, La Perla has followed the evolution of women's fashion becoming the lingerie and beachwear brand synonymous with “Made in Italy” luxury. As art involves and evokes emotions, it has always been a fundamental reference point in the inspiration of the collections and the definition of its aesthetic vision."

We visited two galleries; Mazzoleni Art and Mayor Gallery. The Mayor Gallery was featuring an exhibition by Li Huasheng that was simply breathtaking. 

"Li hand-limns vast grids of horizontal and vertical lines. Each hand-brushed line —like an embodied EKG of his being in time— captures and records the moment-by-moment phenomenological state of his body, perceptions, feelings, emotions and thoughts. Holding the brush as only a painter trained through decades of practice is able, Li deploys each line in a state of meditative concentration, so that any minor fluctuations are directly attributable to fluctuations in qi, or the vital energy of his body and mind."

I found his work to be incredibly inspiring, especially in light of the the novel mark-making techniques we learned in the SLADE short course. 

Goodbye for now London! Off to Ireland tomorrow to attend the South Sligo Music School and immerse myself in traditional Irish folk music, followed by a week catching up with family and friends.

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