Bearing witness to war… thanks to Marie Colvin and Don McCullin

Marie Colvin: “Despite all the videos you see [from governments] and all the sanitised language… the scene on the ground has remained remarkably the same for hundreds of years. Craters. Burned houses. Mutilated bodies. Women weeping for children and husbands. Men for their wives, mothers, children.”*

Don McCullin“War is partly madness, mostly insanity and the rest of it is schizophrenia.”

UK Defence Secretary, Gavin Williamson: “Brexit has brought us to a great moment in our history. A moment when we must strengthen our global presence, enhance our lethality and increase our mass…” and be willing to take military action and able to deploy “hard power”.**

While the ‘War’ Secretary flexes our national muscles, anti-war rhetoric is headlining in cinemas and art galleries. And I for one welcome it with open arms because it is coming from people who have experienced war first hand.

Seven years ago, on 22nd February 2012, Marie Colvin, one of the most celebrated war correspondents of our time, was killed while covering the Siege of Homs in Syria. The recently released film A Private War is a powerful homage to her and the relentless bravery she displayed at the frontlines of the world’s most dangerous conflicts in order “to bear witness” to the human suffering. Easily recognisable by her trademark black eyepatch, American-born Colvin worked for The Sunday Times for more than 25 years. By the time she died aged 56, she had probably seen more war than most soldiers.

Paul Conroy and Marie Colvin on her final assignment
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INSIDE – an exhibition where art replaces prisoners and visitors can feel how tiny a cell is

“Outside the day may be blue and gold, but the light that creeps down through the thickly-muffled glass of the small iron-barred window beneath which one sits is grey and niggard. It is always twilight in one’s cell, as it is always midnight in one’s heart.” Oscar Wilde, de Profundis, 1897

IMG_9031.jpgReading Prison

People were moving around the building as if it were an ancient site, a relic of times long past. Tentatively they stepped into the tiny cells, their barred windows raised to a height designed to deprive. Metal bunks, the squeak of their springs still echoing in the silence of long nights past; a painted table, names etched into the surface, reminders of identities transformed into numbers; and toilets tucked behind waist-high partitions separating toothbrushes and washing-up from another’s piss and shit.

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Frieze London’13… should this piece be there?

Walking the labyrinth of this year’s Frieze London was a bit like exploring a huge playground for adults… or children actually. Lots of bright colours, smiley faces, flower-power daisies, a dog seemingly made of balloons twisted together and Jeff Koons’s  vast, kitsch (hideous) sculptures surrounded by bodyguards… Image

There were also many collage-based works, which of course interested me. Paint applied over photographic and printed material, transporting the literal reality of a photograph into another, more imaginative sphere. Several fun, beautifully crafted, clever and witty pieces too – large embroidered till receipts raising everyday rubbish into a grander sphere.  And a few pieces by some of my favourites – Cornelia Parker, Francis Alys, Tacita Dean – that added a depth and authenticity that I know I can trust.

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Having to tell people you are good… the joys of being self-employed

The week ahead is a dauntingly big ‘Admin Week’ for me. Daunting because, for the self-employed, “admin” basically involves telling people that you are good; that they want you and need you. This doesn’t come naturally to the artist in me, precisely because I see my paintings as a way of saying what I want to say without having to say it. And the other parts of me don’t like it either, because they just don’t.

Sure, I have been known to get on my soapbox and spout off about things I believe in, that’s no problem: the huge defects of our prison system; the benefits of the arts to offenders; the potential power of apology within Restorative Justice, the un-funnyness of out of date anti-German jokes; recycling; growing potatoes; the music of The Cat Empire… I clearly spout off about a lot of things. But I find it harder to tell people how good my paintings are and why they should buy one, or how well my talks have been received by schools and why they should book one, or  how great my forthcoming art course on the Greek Island of Skyros will be and that they really should enrol. And yet that is precisely what this admin week requires me to do.

Let’s see if I can make it less painful for myself.

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Searching for identity, through art and dance

Akram Khan’s solo dance production “Desh” has to be one of the most beautiful and moving pieces I have ever seen. It is a visceral exploration of and search for identity; an attempt to bridge the gulf between two vastly differing cultures – Bangladesh and the UK – and a personal quest by Khan to find resolution within his own family and indeed himself. (http://www.akramkhancompany.net/)

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Akram Khan in Desh, Sadler’s Wells, 2013

I had a triple hit of identity issues on Friday. It all started with my being rudely awoken by unexpectedly urgent and slightly panicked questions into who I am and what on earth my life is about.

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Why chairs…?

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Thoughts can fly (2012), 100 x 100cm. Mixed media and oil on canvas

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Re-dressing absence, Stroud Cemetery (2009) Collaboration with Shirley Margerison

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Him undressed (2013) 60 x 60cm. Mixed media and oil on canvas

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Untitled – 3 (2010) Installation in vault. Armchair with cigarette packets

I have just returned from a trip to the Cinque Terre in Italy. People always ask if I take my paints, assuming painting is something I love to do all the time. Actually painting is hard work and painting a painting invariably involves being confronted with oneself. So I like having breaks from that. But I can never get away from being inspired. From looking at something and having ideas about what I could do with it. I can’t imagine ever being able to switch off the desire to create out of the raw material I gather.

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