RSS Feed

Category Archives: Arts

A Lawnmower In The Loft by Bruce McLean (21 Publishing)

A Lawnmower In The Loft by Bruce McLean (21 Publishing)

This collection of anecdotal vignettes by celebrated Scottish action sculptor and painter, Bruce McLean, offers a compelling lop-sided account of his artistic life. It is full of a louche bon vivant’s interest in food and drink stretching from the food parcel that his parents posted from Glasgow in 1963 when he was studying sculpture at Saint Martin’s School of Art to the day he ate five steak and kidney pies during his tenure as head of painting at the Slade School of Fine Art.

Here we have the usual elements of autobiographical memoir arranged alphabetically to create a deeper impression and unorthodox tone. A bit like Daniel Farson’s memoir, Never A Normal Man, only funnier and more reliable. It was Bruce’s eccentric father that kept a lawnmower in his loft, which gives the book its title. McLean also employs some beguiling list poems of menus, the informal and formal names of his mother’s neighbours, orders at the Bull’s Head, Barnes, and other quirky lists.

The focus on sustenance and bodily functions offer opportunities throughout to debunk conceptions of the artistic life as impractical and outside of social relations. Thus, the reader learns that horse urine was once used to etch plates and that Bruce spent a day at Covent Garden Market waiting to collect horse urine in order to make some not very good etchings of a horse peeing in a bucket.

Much of the material has a wit that partially serves to camouflage the wider purposes of the stories. Humour always serves a social purpose and here the reader is immediately drawn in to savour the fun and joy of a man intoxicated by food, drink and storytelling. The back cover features one of his plinth pictures from Pose Work For Plinths (1971), originally created as an ironic joke in performance in 1970 around the use of plinths in sculpture with the artist bending his body to fit on and around three plinths.

Inevitably, reader’s will seek out celebrated artists that appear in the stories. I must admit to noting references to Kathy Acker, Joseph Beuys and John James, who wrote ‘Poem For Bruce McLean’, which appeared in Bruce McLean: Berlin/London (1983) rewriting McLean’s colourful linear paintings as a series of images. James’s poetry engages with the visual, phenomenology and visual art, in many ways and he has written on artists, Barry Flanagan and Richard Long, who also feature in stories. His latest collaboration with McLean is On Reading J.H. Prynne’s Sub Songs (QoD Press, 2016) where McLean provided original lino cuts to poems written in response to J.H. Prynne’s poems, in a book designed and hand printed by Bridget Heal using a Hopkins letterpress in a limited edition. McLean recounts the occasion when John James was invited to read a new work before for the opening of The Masterwork: The Award Winning Fish Knife at the Riverside Studios in 1979. After some pre-show drinking the performers were miked up ready to start. James goes for a nervous pee. The lights go down, audience silent in expectation, suddenly there is the sound of someone’s zip being undone, followed by an enormous fart, and what ‘sounded like a fire hose wazzing and skooshing on the porcelain’ and finally James appearing to tumultuous applause and cheering. Never, writes McLean, had a poet had such a welcome, and a great fart to this mediocre work.

McLean is eminently recognisable in these stories with their self-deprecating non-conformism and debunking of assumptions around what sculpture is and should be. There is a strong sense that he has ploughed his own furrow making his way by single-mindedness and continual probing. Moreover, he allows other figures to emerge in their full glory. Leonard Swartz, for example, who despite disliking McLean’s lecture at Maidstone School of Art nevertheless gave him a day’s teaching job. The stories are distinctly noteworthy and great fun rather like his self-interviews and refusal to be constrained by pre-set conceptions. This is a memoir that I shall re-visit with pleasure.

David Caddy 19th October 2017

Advertisements

Timeless Man: Sven Berlin by Sonia Aarons (Millersford Press)

Timeless Man: Sven Berlin by Sonia Aarons (Millersford Press)

The substantial biography of the sculptor, painter, writer and poet, Sven Berlin (1911-1999), records the whirlwind of a flamboyant, non-conformist, bohemian who upset the St Ives artistic community and paid a price for challenging their exploitative treatment of Alfred Wallis. Berlin was a self-taught artist and his erstwhile friends, Peter Lanyon, Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth, used this against him. He was a key and integral part of the St Ives arts community, being particularly close to the critic and artist, Adrian Stokes, the poet, W.S. Graham, and painter, Terry Frost and sculptor Naum Gabo. He was a hard-living, Romantic figure more in the mould of Augustus John than some of his genteel contemporaries. His article on Wallis in Horizon magazine and subsequent book, Alfred Wallis: primitive, published by Poetry London in 1949, made him an outcast from the art establishment and he moved to live among the New Forest Gypsies, with his second wife, Juanita, who subsequently became a successful writer in her own right. His fantasy novel, The Dark Monarch (1962), based on caricatures of St Ives, exasperated matters and he retreated again to the Isle of Wight after it was banned. The novel received four libel actions, including one from his friend, the poet, Arthur Caddick. He finally moved near Wimborne Minster, with his third wife, where he found some degree of recognition in later life.

Aarons has amassed a considerable volume of information about Berlin’s diverse artwork and writings, his connections and fluctuating career in and out of the public eye. What emerges is a telling history of how a notable figure can be ostracised and fail to recover with the result that their many talents can be obscured by time. He only had one item in the 1984 Tate St Ives exhibition. He was exiled by the art world. Yet he was a significant figure during the Forties to both Adrian Stokes and W. S. Graham, with whom he was deeply connected. The exchange of letters between Graham and Berlin are featured in The Nightfisherman: Selected Letters (Carcanet, 1999). Malcolm Mackintosh, a friend of the editors, Michael and Margaret Snow, produced a limited edition of Berlin’s poem ‘Jock Grim’ dedicated to Graham. Berlin’s wartime letters to Stokes were used for a diary-like novel about warfare experiences, I Am Lazarus (1961). Berlin’s main artistic theme became an intuitive movement towards timelessness exploring the vagaries of creation and destruction with reference to diverse life forms and situations. His relief carving, The White Buck, (1958) captures the agonising moment when a stag is caught between life and death. His drawings and paintings focused upon harbour and forest life, fishermen, shipping, animals and labourers. His expressionistic use of colour imparted a mood of mythological intensity, and was at some distance from art market requirements in the Eighties.

Aarons shows that even when his sculptures, drawings and writings were not selling sufficiently to make ends meet, he was still lauded in the media by the likes of John Arlott, John Boorman, Lawrence Durrell, Roy Fuller, Robert Graves, Adrian Stokes, Tambimuttu, Denys Val Baker and Philip Ziegler. Despite being ignored by the art world, he was a regular figure on local and national television featured in documentaries and current affair programmes. We effectively have a rebellious figure unable to find buyers for his sculptures being kicked out into the long grass where he continues to create and write whilst being part of the New Forest Gypsy community. His writings on fishing, Jonah’s Dream (1964) are well anthologized. He also wrote extensively on the New Forest, published three volumes of autobiography, collections of poetry, and Pride of the Peacock – The Evolution of an Artist (1972). His knowledge of gypsy counter-culture emerged in his novel Dromengro: man of the road (1971), as was as in numerous film items.

Berlin’s exile in a way makes his art and writings more acute, more distinct in relation to the now world famous Nicholson and Hepworth. The Dark Monarch furore and split with the competitive St Ives art colony has rather obscured his fine sculptures, in particular the enigmatic, The Timeless Man, Madonna, Serene Head, as well his Creation pictures. He was close to Wallis, Stokes and W.S. Graham, and thus well worth discovering.

David Caddy 17th April 2016

Environmental Arts Therapy

Environmental Arts Therapy

Ian Siddons Heginworth’s Environmental Arts Therapy and the Tree of Life (Spirit’s Rest Books 2009) explores the natural cycles of each month in relation to the Celtic, Christian, Norse and Greek mythological traditions of trees. It connects the human heart to woodland and cites therapeutic experience stemming from this historical outlook and association.  This development in drama therapy, part of a growing awareness of the therapeutic benefits of woodland, is well worth reading.

 

It offers a general guide to the forgotten connections between human emotions and woodland. It points to the possible therapeutic and healing qualities of extended contact with the natural cycles of woodland and develops an eco-psychology.

 

The emphasis on mythology as opposed to more practical experience of orientation, senses and communication perhaps overshadows the diverse and untapped potential for learning from trees and woodland life. Similarly the Book of Revelation’s comment that ‘The leaves of the trees are for the healing of nations’ is to be found in folk and Romany customs, legends, poems and songs. Whilst there are some practical and useful exercises, such as the making of mobiles, bridges, and lying down looking upwards as a technique for centering and grounding, I wanted more of the potential of woodland interaction to emerge to complement and supplement the mythological input. One thinks of the number of instances when people sit beneath a tree in order to solve problems, find peace or inspiration as a kind of base line of common sense association to realize that there is something tangible underlying Heginworth’s approach. A wood, like a city, carries within it old stories, history, botany, openings, wild and counter places and has a psychogeography that can be engaged.  A working wood as opposed to one that is left to its own devices and growth is similarly quite distinct and would presumably have different therapeutic potential.

David Caddy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

%d bloggers like this: