Friday, March 04, 2011

Two Exhibitions: Long Posting. Make a Cup of Tea.

This week I have visited two entirely contrasting exhibitions: the Norman Rockwell exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, and the exhibition of Edwyn Collins' drawings at the Idea Generation Gallery, Redchurch Street, E2.

Getting off the train at North Dulwich station on a sunny day in late winter is exactly like walking into the pages of a Ladybird Book; there's not a scrap of rubbish on the ground, the fences are neatly painted in white and there is nothing broken or out of place. There is hardly any traffic, and life seems to flow at a very slow pace indeed.
It is a ten minute walk to the Gallery, and once I got there I abandoned hope of a cup of tea, because the Gallery Cafe is not a caff, it's a restaurant packed with ladies-who-lunch, lunching in their expensive cardigans and looking rather immoveable. Straight to the exhibition then!
I have a weakness for Norman Rockwell after visiting the USA with my gran when I was 14 and seeing a Saturday Evening Post at an elderly couple's house. This is a nice exhibition: it is not too large, and the information beside the paintings is interesting and well-written.
Lots of his pictures concentrate on the relationship between two people, or one person concentrating intently on an object (such as a needle that they are peering at and trying to thread). He recycles poses and characters and this gives his work a sense of continuity; he is materialistic, using props and possessions to speak about the characters of his subjects. In this he reminds me of the Ancient Egyptians, who buried meaningful objects with the Pharoahs in a somewhat capitalist bid for a place in the afterlife.
Rockwell is a patriot, unquestioning of the status quo, but he's happy to be realistic about painting plain or even ugly faces, and for this reason I would not agree with some critics that he's sentimental even though he clearly loves Santa Claus! His playfulness is evident in this exhibition, with a painting from above of a Bridge game whose card hands we can see, that obviously means something to those 'in the know' about the game.
He loved ciaroscuro, and his unpublished painting The Young Valedictorian (1922) is a beautiful example of this, with touches of duck-egg blue even in the deepest shadows. Other paintings that I particularly liked were The Voluntary Fireman (1931) where he followed his hero Maxwell Parrish's ideas about dynamic symmetry and worked on a grid system, and Shuffleton's Barbershop (1950) a lovely almost monochrome silvery-touched painting, a little snapshot of history: off-duty barbers can be seen through an open door, playing fiddles and carousing in the evening after work.
The funniest painting is Lunch Break With Knight (1962) in which a museum attendant perches on the pedestal of a very grand armoured knight on a horse, pouring coffee, with a slice of cake about to slip from the napkin on his lap. The horse rolls a baleful eye at the sacrilege of the hungry chap, and reminded me of Jake and Dinos Chapman's clown horses in their controversial re-workings of the Goya etchings.


So last night I went to see Edwyn's show. A few years ago he came to talk to my song-writing students and they were thrilled that he actually played his songs to them. This was pre- his double aneurysm, since when he has learned to draw with his left hand using pencil and Caran D'Ache crayons.
His subjects are wild animals and birds; many of them fight with a fierceness which probably reflects the way he feels about what has happened to him. Gangling herons scrap, a mass of crackling feathers; the cold anger of a herring-gull's eyes look piercingly out of the paper, animal wildness at the mercy of nature's personality. I loved the fighting hares, the neck of one of them pulled back in fury.
He is developing an interesting technique, building up fur and feathers with strong crayon strokes, subtle colour drifting through his drawings like passing clouds. In spite of the turbulence in some of his drawings, there is also a great delicacy and attention to detail: he is a fine draughtsman.
He seems to have been able to enter the psyche of his wild subjects, even capturing that look of mild annoyance that many wild animals and birds seem to display when they are caught unawares. I get the feeling that he is just at the beginning of  a very interesting artistic journey and he is definitely an artist to watch.

Back out into the cold of Shoreditch, where stylishly street-dressed Sons of Surrey mingle with besuited businessmen dabbling in 'hip' for a quick snifter on their way home to a Waitrose lasagne (discard outer sleeve: pierce film lid before heating); a social soup that refuses to emulsify.

Funny how Rivington Street is so long when you walk down it from west to east, and so short when you walk from east to west!

No comments: