The Grey Cardinal’s Last Act
Charcoal and pastel on Arches paper
Street Boogaloo (Keep Left Stay Left)
Charcoal and pastel on Arches paper
Charcoal and pastel on Arches paper
Text by Richard Meaghan
Where do you paint?
My studio is located in a biscuit factory that makes McVities, Jacobs, probably most of the brands you’ve ever heard of. Back in its day the place was a hive of industry. The whole area including the Railway pub, a social club, all the terraced housing, food markets and shops all serviced the factory. There was even a railway that ran through the whole place so people could get from one end to the other without losing time for work or lunch. The factories have since been sold off, all the housing gone, the pub and club closed down and been replaced by a huge retail park, with all the usual suspects. The main building is now a hub for all the administration that goes on throughout the business.
The studio itself is an old office that I rent. It has north facing windows all down one side and is about 100sq ft. It houses around 2000 art books as well as vials of pigments, a horse skull and a stuffed rat. It’s my refuge, I paint in there, read, research, teach and sleep ha. It has 24hr access and security, friendly staff that give me biscuits, a huge canteen that once served hundreds of employees, now it serves soup and sandwiches.
I like it there and have had it for several years now (they were really nice during lockdown when they said I didn’t need to pay rent). I have, in the main, had offices as studios and not been with other artists. I like it like that, I’m pretty solitary and like my own space and can easily get distracted by conversation. Although the two maintenance men often pop by for a cuppa and a chat about all the stuff going on and their take on things, that’s usually an hour or so. Like a lot of people they find it strange that art is my ‘job’. I get the impression that they are always wondering what goes on in here but are too afraid to ask!!!
When do you paint?
I’m very routined. My days are very similar during the week. I get 9 or 10 hours of sleep every night. I get up around 11am, shower and have lunch. I enjoy a keto type of diet, lots of protein, red meat, eggs, nuts, berries, and leafy greens. Then I’ll cycle to work and take the car when it’s my time with the kids, usually finishing early to pick them up from school, although my boy gets the bus now. I’m in the studio usually around 7hrs a day, sometimes being very productive, sometimes not. I return home, eat and then go play squash with my partner for an hour or so before enjoying wine and conversation in the backyard until midnight or so.
Sometimes TV gets in the way, she’s got me watching Made in Chelsea and in return she watches Liverpool matches and American Football. We both secretly love it. Weekends are leisurely, I have the kids Friday after school through to Saturday evening, my son has footy in the morning and my daughter likes to paint so I may do the odd study on paper whilst she splashes about, Sunday’s are lazy as Saturday night can be very late, usually we are found dancing and singing in the kitchen until all hours. In fact my partner’s 17yr old daughter comes down and switches the Alexa off (oh how times have changed!!!). We like Sunday roast so we get up very late and make that and usually go shopping, bit of a cycle to squash, more wine, kip, and then the week starts over again.
What do you paint?
Ah, what do you paint? Good question. I suppose I paint what it feels like to be human. I paint me. Over the years my work has changed a lot, always in a linear way; a direct result of what I had been doing before. My art education was firstly ‘atelier’ like. Grounded in Old Master’s techniques, understanding colour and how to desaturate it to make naturalistic colour. Mixing paint was very important and understanding hue, value and chroma. Drawing was huge too, as a model was always available, I remember most weeks we would draw from the model every day.
Later I was taught by an artist who was taught by Frank Auerbach. His drawing and painting approach was very considered and very physical and there was a real air of seriousness, that painting was important. He left his mark on all of us and to this day the ‘hard won’ image, a kind of painting that makes itself; a battle between painting and painter is still very much the crux of my work.
At that time landscape, whether urban or rural was what I did, people walking in the streets, the hustle bustle of the everyday. After college I won a 5k travel grant and took myself off to Italy and was enamoured with the huge renaissance freezes and I learnt how to make paint in a monastery, and I taught myself how to glaze. I came back and made huge abstract landscapes with isolated figures. I won an award and I started getting exhibitions and being collected. There was something that felt too easy about it all, so I needed to break that, and that has been a constant theme, breaking painting. Always fighting with myself not to be too repetitious.
A few years ago, I found out I had prostate cancer, I’m lucky I can live with it but the reality of any invasive surgery or radiotherapy for a man had a huge effect on me and I started to paint about that, the effects of the illness itself and its impact on masculine identity. The paintings at Three Works are an extension of this, drawing on a world that promotes highly moralistic and repressed beliefs, and in which we are no longer free to express ourselves without fear of insulting or offending. My work confronts this cognitive dissonance with reflections of a deeply personal nature and sardonic observations of a dysfunctional society in a way that mirrors Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) and the post WW1 artists of the Weimar Republic; Beckmann, Grosz and Otto Dix. The concepts and compositions of these artists are particularly important and are specifically incorporated into my work to mimic their dark realism that exposes the moral degradation occurring in society.
How do you paint?
I paint like a boxer who doesn’t want to get hurt waiting for a moment to wade in throwing roundhouse punches. Painting is not a linear process it's much more organic; starting with the germ of something and ending up somewhere never imagined. Destruction plays a huge part in the process and how impotent we are as artists as paint just will not do as it is told, so sometimes you need to throw something at it and take the consequences. Scary and exciting. I don’t like painting to a formula, I like taking risks in the search of something not preconceived.
The fun bit is the start, making bold marks and rough compositional lines. I used to get to a stage, usually several weeks into the painting where I’d think, right now I have to paint this. Now I try and keep the fun and exciting bit right up to the end. The ‘end’ is always rather surprising, most of the time I didn’t know I was there.
Why do you paint?
First day of senior school, Mr Plews asked his pupils what they wanted to do when they grow up. The usual astronaut, footballer and architect were all proposed. I said I wanted to do something for me. My mum would always say go to art school but what do parents know! I left to go to Spain with £200 and stayed for 8 months. I was 21. When I returned, I went on the dole and ‘job club’ had been invented. It gave you a list of possible jobs after a number of multiple choice like questions, very Jungian I thought. My top two were author/artist. A light bulb moment so I went back to do an art A level and journalism and dropped journalism within a week. I never thought about being an artist, painting just found me.
Talk about influences.
Lockdown allowed me to reflect away from the visual glare of the studio. I had wanted to write about Picasso for some time and this was part of an essay I wrote entitled, ‘A Crisis of Masculinity - Picasso and Painting Me’.
My interest in the late work of Picasso was initially born not from my diagnosis (as I had no idea at the time that Picasso had prostate problems) but from their form; their overriding physicality and capacity to evoke emotion and a sexual leitmotif that connected at a deeply primal level.
Looking further into these works and the hundreds of etchings he made during this time, it transpires that Picasso had prostate problems, maybe cancer, that resulted in an operation in 1965. This new information and my own connection with the possibility of losing one’s virility provided me with a deeper understanding of why he created these masterpieces.
The late work of Picasso, so often dismissed as the daubs of a dirty old man, had new meaning and a significant context now that Picasso was faced with life and art as an impotent man. They take on a different stance to the stereotypical, sexually confident, aggressive male assessing and devouring his muse, his prey. His late work is all about a crisis of masculinity, the fear of the unknown and the pain of a covetous fate.
With the advent of a new, politically correct 1970s and the rise of the conceptual and feminist movements, Picasso and the ‘bravado’ painters of post-war Abstract Expressionism were deemed barbarians. This coincided with the ‘death’ of painting in the form of the grey monochrome, a painting devoid of any emotional content or signature style. This further resigned Picasso to the annals of history, his oeuvre made redundant.
The result of this is an art world where painting is cold, dissociated from emotion, detached from those base needs and feelings that Picasso painted about. This ‘death’ of emotional male painting is where I begin.