The world needs more Lerts

February 20, 2010

There’s something heroic about this.

I have driven past this semi-aggressive notice hundreds of times on my way to work and I have to say that it never fails to raise my spirits. It’s almost perfect in its failure.

It may be the supreme confidence in which the ‘NO PAR’ section is executed, as if the signwriter (and I feel that he or she should be elevated to that status for this work alone) felt they were on an unbeatable roll. It was, at that stage, their version of the Hollywood sign. The world was at their feet.

Or perhaps the bold, huge letters were painted in pure anger, as if one person too many had parked inconsiderately in spaces adjacent to their retail premises. Damn them all, it wasn’t going to happen again! This was painted rage.

I have also imagined the pure horror and blind panic that went through the artist’s mind when they realised that they were running out of space, literally running out of wall.

But in the long run, I feel that this small creation stands as testimony to man’s determination in the face of daunting odds and sheer ridicule. The fact is, they pressed on with the rest of the word, the ‘kin’ bit. But even then, tougher times were ahead – just look at that G. It’s barely recognisable as such.

One interpretation of the sign could be that it is a visual metaphor for human life – we start off bold and fearless, then doubt and fear creep in as we attain adulthood. Finally, towards the end, our life is often extinguished with a whimper and the realisation that we are insignificant in the wider context of human history.

Welcome to my world. Next up, a semiotic exploration of the hidden politics and sexual subtext that surround the formation in which people put their binbags out on the pavement the night before collection.


Everybody’s clever nowadays

February 15, 2010

Byker is a photobook by the Finnish photographer Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen. To me it has all the elements of great art – it is in turn humourous, dark, life-affirming and deeply touching. Konttinen came to England to study film-making and although she was originally based in London, she moved to the Byker area of Newcastle in 1969.

The book is a product of the twelve years that she spent there and it as much a social document as it is an artwork. The 1970s saw a proliferation of British documentary photography and the medium became, in many respects, a political occupation, albeit with aesthetic intent. Photographers were giving a voice to those who are marginalised or simply forgotten (For example Shirley Baker, who documented the compulsory demolition of working class areas of Manchester). 

Konttinen’s work appeals to me because it has authenticity, largely due to the fact she chose to live in the area that she photographed. Whilst she would always be an outsider because of her nationality, it gave her an objectivity that perhaps wouldn’t be present if she was born and bred in Byker. But one of the many roles of an artist is highlight the beauty in places where people see none.

An intriguing aspect of the work is the way in which Konttinen interweaves words with the images. In selected parts of the book she includes conversations or monologues from residents, an atmospheric approach that really brings the people to life. The speech she includes is heavily accented and punctuated by slang but it provides a brilliant window into the everyday life of the area. In less considered hands this may have been construed as condescending but it is an amazingly heart-warming work.

Photobooks tend to have a standard approach, normally featuring an artist’s statement followed by a daunting and somehow intentionally impenetrable academic essay. By recording the thoughts, speech patterns and worldview of the people, the book creates a fantastic sense of atmosphere and it documents a community that has long since disappeared: much of the area was later bulldozed in the name of redevelopment.

I have been working in Art & Design for the last decade and when asked to name my favourite artists, I don’t struggle for answers. But rather than produce a list of names, I think it would be interesting to share some images and perhaps explain what attracts me to them. Some will be big names, others upcoming artists who haven’t received much attention.

George Shaw is Coventry-born artist who specialises in landscapes, although the subject matter is non-traditional. His early work depicted buildings and urban scenes from the Tile House Estate in Coventry where he grew up. Following his early exhibitions, much was made of his use of Humbrol paint (normally used to paint Airfix models) to realise his work, but I have always felt that this is a minor detail that only serves to detract from his intentions.

What struck me about the paintings has always been his unusual choice of subject matter. Aside from some of his early work, there are no people in his paintings, just renderings of drab environments – pub car-parks, concrete underpasses and badly maintained playing fields. I suppose many would view them as depressing, but there is a depth to his images that made me want to explore his motivations. I am particularly interested in the reasons for selecting the particular locations he paints.

A key reason why I was intrigued by his work was the fact that his images seem to be lifted directly from the area that I grew up in. His rendering of early seventies pubs, short cuts behind garages and vandalised playgrounds could have easily have been drawn from the estates I used to explore (although I must point out that Kingswinford is hardly a ghetto). I think it’s easy to forget that when you are a child, your geographical boundaries are very restricted – but a by-product of this is that you form an intense memory of the spaces within which you move.

Until I looked at Shaw’s work, I think the nearest cultural touchstone I had to refer to, that reminded my of my environment, was Gavin Watson’s book Skins, which is a photographic book that focuses on the Skinhead movement. With that publication I was perhaps interested in the urban environment depicted in the book as much as the early Eighties movement that it documented.  I was never a skin – more of a Two-Tone/Soulboy during that period (when I was nine-ish), but their influence was huge, threatening but also familiar. 

In Shaw’s  work, the idea that he was rendering such familiar-looking scenes rendered in a painstaking fashion was something that appealed to a feeling that I have always had – that anything has value and that every environment has a meaning, however harsh it may seem.

One of the over the overriding feelings his work creates – particularly when you see them in a gallery setting – is a sense of tension and unease. The lack of human figures in the works could be construed as a device to create a sense of loneliness, as the viewer seems to experience the locations in a solitary way. But fundamentally I feel that people are essential to his work, in that each painting contains human traces – whether it is via graffiti, damage or a path worn by feet.

Another aspect of the work that interests me is the idea of the encroachment of people into nature. The area I grew up is a kind of hinterland between the huge West Midlands conurbation and the countryside – and where the two meet it is not normally attractive. But there are elements of beauty in these urban woods, as well as a sense of danger and secrecy. I’m probably not alone in remembering the kind of characters that are attracted to these areas (such as a man we called The Coat Man. He used to hang his coat on the branch of a tree and then ask us if it was ours. He also brandished a knife at us on one occasion. We thought he was harmless but there you go).

Shaw is interesting as an artist in that he also writes, which is fairly uncommon. I own one of his books, which contains no images and although fairly unstructured (much of it was written in the kind of pubs his work depicts) it forms an ideal companion to his art. He has a strong obsession with cultural iconography, particularly British popular culture and in this respect I think keeps good company with figures such as Morrissey and the filmmaker Shane Meadows.

I’ll say this for him, he has catholic taste. This is Shaw on his youthful aspirations “I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to be Jimmy from Quadrophenia or John Everett Millais … or Francis Bacon … the list was endless and I couldn’t decide which messiah to follow. All I could really do was draw quite well.”


More on Shaw