29 November 2021

Cambodia genocide

I think I tried to post this a million years ago in this Blog space but it never worked due to technical problems. I made it nine years ago (so Vimeo reminds me). I went to Cambodia around 2005 on one of my drawing trips to Vietnam and I loved it. But it seems sad to me for a few reasons. The main one was that Pol Pot had killed off so much of the male population as well as most of the University trained citizens, both women and men. But then the children were not spared either. Phenom Penh was a poor city and people despaired even after so many years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. At the museum I made these photos and found myself wanting to make a slide show of it but it took me several years to face it. The beautiful music of Arvo Part accompanies these pictures. I regret a little that his music has since become so popular, so ubiquitous everywhere, but then, he deserves success. 

I re-watched this recently, as I have a number of times over the years. It always hits me hard. And it's always in the most fragile place where I cannot protect myself from that terrible pain in front of such cruelty that one sees in the dark corners of humanity. When seeing this I always need a box of tissues nearby.

26 November 2021

the bumbling tourist discovers Basho the invisible

It's an awful photo of Basho, the famous and iconic figure of Japanese literature, but I love the MacDonald's empty cup. I snapped it in the brutal morning light whilst running to catch a train. 

On my first trip to Japan I was in Kyoto for about five days staying in a small suburb a few metro stops away from the city center by JapanRail. Before going into the city I used to go for a coffee in a small tea shop in a nondescript plaza next to the station. In the small plaza was this statue which I had noticed and walked by each day but didn't pay much heed until the very last one when I was leaving to go south. I casually wondered over to look at it more closely and to my surprise, I saw that it was Basho, the great haiku poet! There was a small plaque next it explaining that he had lived in this very Kyoto suburb back in the 17th century.

I have always venerated Basho and read every Haiku he wrote several times over. I have lived with his tattered books, slept with them, and taken them from continent to continent, dog-eared and falling apart, and so the irony of stumbling upon this statue on the very last day is rich. But being a die-hard fan of his, did not keep me from being a blind bumbling tourist.

                In Kyoto 
             hearing the Cuckoo
              I long for Kyoto  

translated by Jane Hirshfield

25 November 2021

A faked painting! Alas!


                    Châteaunoir, Octobre 2018 

There is something wrong with this small study. It was done in the forest of the Chateaunoir during my last trip there in the October month of 2018 which I wrote about the other day.

But I do find it intriguing, just deficient in a most essential way. It has a kind of flash that advertises a certain skill, as if it might be a good painting, but honestly, it really doesn't come together as a whole and it lacks integrity because of this. It is a faked painting! It appears to be more than it poses to be, and like the British say: 

"It's mutton all dressed up as Lamb!" 

But curiously, most people might be more seduced by it than the one below which is far more unified yet it would not draw the same interest from the public. It's a painter's painting.

It is unified but probably too 'painterly' for the public to accept as a landscape which it is, for it was done at the end of the day below Poet Laval. I went several late afternoons to paint in a field and I loved painting there. Incredibly, I wasn't painting landscapes around Dieulefit when I lived there, this kills me to think of it.

The Autumn and Winter months are divine in terms of colour. None of those distracting greens everywhere, just mysterious violets.

I had not seen the painting below since I made it three years ago, I had liked it then but I really like it now. It is so 'Expressionist' in feeling it confirms my thinking that I secretly wish to re-moor the entire school of 'American Expressionism' back to Nature, back to the laws of Nature more specifically (even though the American Expressionist School was not derived from Nature, as we know it). This would be a Herculean task by any means, so it is just on my wish-list, my to-do list for someday, a bucket-list of sorts.

The person who might like this picture would be someone who loves the expressive nature of paint and painting. This would most likely exclude a vast majority of the public who expect a more sentimental verisimilitude in a 'Landscape' painting. Alas!

               Poët Laval November 2018 35 X 27 cm

22 November 2021

Châteaunoir, still a souvenir in painting


When I was back in France three years ago I put together the very minimal things I would need to step out and work in Nature, a palette, easel, and bought some colours and brushes. I had not anticipated to paint at all. I was going over to 'write' and 'think' (ha ha). For some reason I couldn't foresee making an ambulant studio in the boot of the small Citroen C3 I had rented. Though I did write I mostly spent a great deal of time driving around France, all the time in fact. And naturally I watched the foliage cycle through the colour wheel into early winter. In Grignan where I was based I gratefully watched snow accumulate on the roads one night before heading back to London at the end of November.

But late October I stayed at the Châteaunoir where Charlotte Tessier kindly lent me her apartment off the courtyard. It was so familiar, all of it; the smell of all those pine and oak trees especially after a rain, St. Victoire looming like a grandfather in the East, lots of cats though not as many, nor as friendly in my day. Even Mazout (heating oil) not used in decades had somehow lodged its unique scent into the kitchen walls and tiles permeating one's sleep. Through my all senses I   had returned back to Aix and my youth. All of it brought on so many memories, nostalgic yes, but not at all cloying or sad as I had moved on. All these memories though are like finding old photos in a desk drawer. That was then, this is now. I was left feeling like I wanted to keep moving, and this was good because it means I had changed. Unlike so many people, I had always seemed to be someone with a club foot still dragging the past with me in discomfort. 

On the upside, I was connecting with so many old and dear friends, especially being so close to Poussey (the owner), with whom I had coffee every day just like in the old days. And yet, as much as I loved being there I was also happy to leave, to keep moving forward.

During those 10 days or so I walked a lot on those familiar paths which all seem to end up at the top of the plateau. And I set up to paint just for fun. I was curious to see how I might conceive a small picture in the riot of  colour around the infamous and much celebrated Châteaunoir. I found it difficult, but not without great pleasure. And as I regularly exclaimed so many years ago whilst painting in that forest: "What am I doing?? This is way too complicated!!"

Mixing this palette of these forest colours was fun too, so different than the one I prepare in here Australia.  

I did make a few things I liked during that visit, but because I have changed so much these past years, my work is different. These days I am much more concerned with the graphic surface of the painting even though it doesn't sometimes look that way in my studies at the beach. I had always wanted to move in that direction and I could see it in so much of the work done twenty years ago. But I seemed to be still chained to old ideas. 

The top painting, (above) is made up of splotches of colour without too much concern for the drawing (though the drawing is in the splotches) whereas the one below is conceived equally by the colours and drawing. They are different but both seem to me, as they did at the time, not quite paintings but more souvenirs. There is nothing wrong with that. More than ever, I am after the conveyance of feeling, technique be damned. And souvenirs are keepsakes. 

19 November 2021

Pipe-bomb dreams; Bush's criminal war on Iraq, trauma twenty years on

These photos by James Hill are from an article in the New York Times that appeared today, 19 November 2021. 

It is hard to fathom a fraction of the suffering caused by, not only the Right Wing of the Republican Party, but the cowardly or ignorant Democrats, and the large population of under-educated Americans who all united to back the destruction of Iraq back in 2003. (even against Trump, I refused to vote for Hilary Clinton because of her support for this war)

All for nothing, except to make money for the American arms industries which created endless profit and conflict in the Middle East. All that killing and maiming for what end? 

American soldiers and Iraqis citizens all suffered the same fate, the same shallow grave. But unlike the Iraqi people, the American soldiers at least for the most part, were shuffled through various hospitals with basic medical care.

Amazingly, not one of these politicians or policy advisors ever faced any consequences for this war crime. Indeed, America today is now the land of the free (of consequences) if one is powerful and white. 

And so, almost twenty years on, refugees are still on the move to flee a once prosperous region. And yes, Iraq was run by a dictator, but its citizens lived in a relatively safe country, a society with universities and hospitals and a robust economy. What did America offer the people of Iraq? Pipe-bomb dreams?

These refugees from the Middle East will join the millions more already on the move from climate change. It has proved to become a prolonged version of World War II. 

Will we ever have get decent, intelligent and wise leaders?

18 November 2021

a painter gets it right or dies


Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads, 1 September, 2018, oil on canvas board, 25 X 20 cm

Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads,  9 September, 2021, oil on canvas board, 25 X 20 cm

As the iconic Rod Serling would say at the opening of each episode of the Twilight Zone; "For your perusal", here are two very different kinds of images, both done virtually three years apart. Once in a while I stumble across pictures seemingly lost in a digital twilight zone somewhere that surprise me. And this early one (top) from 2018, did it for me. I see a freshness in it but also a certain conviction and an 'assured insouciance'. Though I vaguely remember painting it three years ago, I do remember seeing it the day after when I pulled it from the boot of my car to take a photo of it. Once in a great while a painter gets to say to himself: "Tiens!" 

What I like about it is the complete unity of expression (of feeling) as if the motif were seen, felt, ingested even, then hurled out upon this modest little board with a magical wand. 

I see no thought process involved it (though of course there was). It makes me think of how much I appreciate the frank conviction of a child's painting, one which is seen (somewhere in that imagination) then pushed out with glee. But I sense also that it is the kind of picture which only my close friends in Aix would really appreciate. To others with too much art education it risks to look silly. But Hey!!

The later picture which I include as its compliment, was done three years later and possesses a certain sophistication compared to the aforementioned study. I like this equally but for different reasons. It was one of those hazy skies which almost obscure the pale clouds at the very end of the day. The small, orange, raspy traces of sunlight almost feel glued upon the delicate sky. I remember thinking about them before putting them down. Specifically thinking: 


One doesn't get a second chance if one mucks it up, but if they do, they must keep going until  another solution is found. But then, it becomes a different painting! The thing is, though I wasn't by any means paralysed with fear, I still had to stop and think before putting these small wafts of orange down. In the painting above, there was no thinking, no thought, just an intuitive movement like one made by a child. 

Writers always talk about the 'shitty first draft', and when I read that I think: 

"Boy are they lucky!" 

A painter doesn't have that luxury to get to do a shitty first draft. (Well,,, maybe Basquiat or Twombly, but then they make a different kind of painting altogether). They make studio pictures which are altogether a different kind of beast (more on that another time).

A painter must get it right or go off and suffer an ignoble death someplace. But then he must also rise up again like Lazarus and return to fix it. One needs a lot of talent for this sort of thing, but maybe just divine intervention. As I noted a week or two ago, only the Dutch were very good at this, but they have been dead too long to return.

I always hope to have this experience of the first painting, but I am equally grateful for that of the second. Thinking or no thinking, thought or no thought, divine or profane, what counts is the result.  

15 November 2021

Halong Bay Vietnam, a few drawings from 2004


These quick drawings came from a day trip out to the islands in Halong Bay on my first trip to Vietnam in 2004. I wish I had done an overnight trip on these boats at the time as I could have filled a few notebooks. These unusual islands are fun to draw from, top-heavy, and rise up from the surface tall and beefy like dinosaurs. 

It was a sunny day so I felt lucky because it had been raining a lot the whole week when I went up to the north from Hanoi. I stayed in Haiphong in a large Soviet-style hotel which was huge and empty. Each floor was as high as a New York office lobby. The walls everywhere were polished cheap-looking rose marble, something one would see at Trump Tower. I must have been the only guest staying there because there was no sign of a living soul anywhere, and no heating, just cold, stern-looking employees eyeing me with little emotion.

The drawings are pretty simple, child-like, and crude and they look handmade because the boat was continually rocking from side to side. I had a pair of gym shorts and jumped into the chilly sea when we had stopped for lunch. Millions of people live on boats in Vietnam as well as the rest of Asia. They never shop on land because the shop comes to them bringing all their supplies. Because I am a landlubber, I remember being very moved by their very difficult and particular life on the sea, whole families tied up to other boats and anchored together for better or worse. 


14 November 2021

Christina Zenato, elephant heart of the blue sea


So what can one say about this incredible photo? I took it off the internet (where else?) and it has been sitting on my desktop ever since. I keep this photo parked on the uncluttered upper left hand corner along with other favourites I like to keep close.  

With the extraordinary technical advances in photography, both above and below ground, we humans, seem to be the fortunate beneficiaries of these new and popular technologies. 

Drones now drop bombs but also shoot photos. 

This looks like a family nap on a friendly afternoon. Isn't a relief to know that elephants chill? And of course a photo says a thousand words but this prompts in me a brief reflection of just how connected we all really are. Almost all beings on this earth look for connection in one fashion or another.

Christina Zenato began removing hooks from sharks in the Bahamas over twenty years ago and she has befriended many of these sharks, some of which come daily for a pet. This is remarkable. Who would have imagined this 100 years ago when Humankind was basically at war with the animal world? Unless it was a pet, it was a commodity, nothing more. 

How far we have come, most of us anyway. When I see these elephants sleeping, all cozy next to one another, all touching and connected as a whole unit, I am reminded of the importance of family. Our social order extends outward from there to other human beings and the animal world. When others suffer, it has an affect upon us whether or not we even realise it. Whether they are immigrants trapped between borders at the onset of a European winter or just people squatting around the corner in an old car which won't start.

Since I was a child, I have been indoctrinated with this idea that as human beings, we are notches above the animal world, above all the terrible violence which goes on for survival. Religions have instilled in us this idea of the separation between us and the 'beasts' outside.

Now, I think it has become so apparent to so many of us around this world that it is really the opposite. The animal world seems to possess more 'human' heart than do humans.

11 November 2021

Gainsbourg, whaddya gonna do about it?

I used to regularly drive to Grenoble to stay with friends who live in La Tronche, normally an hour and 45 minutes by autoroute from Dieulefit.

Once in while when I wasn't rushed I would take one of the roads up over the mountains by way of Seyne and Aspre-sur-Buechs arriving into Grenoble from the South. It was obviously longer by more than two hours, but every time I made the trip it took my breath away. It's a lovely drive, as are so many, all over France. Driving anywhere in France is a joy even if its ecologically unsound. 

My life here in Australia is one without breathtaking drives though I am sure there are many, especially out West. But it's different because Outback Australia is mostly a rugged empty landscape, extraordinary; yes, but like Mars maybe. I haven't yet done a road trip but I have been to the Northern Territory and seen the Big Country below Darwin. These are Aboriginal lands full of cave drawings from a prehistoric time. But the drawings are not really old, authentically so, because they have been 'refreshed' over time by tribal guardians of these sacred sites. This disappointed me when I visited. I expected to see the real handiwork which I quickly realised was impossible. Who wants to see graffiti iterations refreshed over these walls?  

Australia is huge, and getting anyway on this continent takes time and resources. Distance is measured by gallons and gallons of both water and petrol. The Outback is a spectacular but empty and remote landscape, a place where one faces one's own insignificance under the stars. 

But to travel in Europe (throughout France for instance) is always to make an acquaintance with oneself through one's relationship to a collective historical and cultural past. And to be honest, as a white guy from Europe, I really miss a landscape full of historical relics, and I often feel a dislocation from my European cultural roots in this regard.
On my way to Grenoble I used to drive by this old stone house La Maison des Cantonniers, tagged, but repainted over with two delicious  hues of cold green. I normally abhor Graffiti but I am occasionally amazed to find a secret delight in it (but don't tell anyone!), and in this case, I kind of like it. Here, one can see that the owner (I presume) had tried to paint over the original graffiti with an Emerald Green. This colour harmony between the tags seem to pull the building back into the vegetation, back into the forest, like an abstract glove from the Bronx. And all this paint feels like an intrusion from another land, another culture, another people altogether. And it's meant to be. It looks like the artiste/vandal, came back over it with a coat of pale Veronese green. Somehow, I can imagine this colourful tug-of-war going on and on for decades.
Otherwise, it's a beautiful, intelligently proportioned building with a substantially high roof gable. It sits aside a small road on a bend situated absolutely in the middle of nowhere. It is always a surprise to see it again and again over the years, like a cousin at a family reunion each year. 

I find that people are generally tolerant of graffiti until it comes to their own neighbourhood. Graffiti, like cockroaches in a home, usually ends up taking over the neighbourhood. For me, it almost always destroys the personal and aesthetic pleasure I take in the unadulterated emptiness of everyday urban experiences. An eroded old brick wall doesn't need anything added to it, neither does the old enormous cement facade of a factory building dating from the 1930's. But hey! I am just an old white guy from another era.

Basically, all graffiti says: 
"F**K You ! I'm here ! Whaddya gonna do about it??"

Graffiti is angry because it's political. Who can argue that there isn't enough to be angry about in this world? Better to respond with a spray can than a gun I think.

But there is one great exception to my bias in this debate and it is on the rue de Verneuil in Paris, where the late Serge Gainsbourg lived. It was always a stupefying experience to walk by his home and now it seems even more extraordinary. Here are various iterations which, like the Aboriginal caves, are apparently always touched up. 

05 November 2021

Corot, Corot, I know, I know,,,, gentle gloom


Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads, 3 November, 2021, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm

Dark rainy springtime clouds have been visiting us for weeks now. Only a smattering of sunny days have allowed me to get to the beach to make anything. But happily, it has forced me into the studio to face my real inner demons.

These two studies are not great, but I was relieved to get out to work. The top one feels "too 19th century", as we say, but it is what it is. I accept it gratefully because I never know what I will make of a particular evening, from a particular light. Every session is an unknown destination. 

Last night was mostly clear with the usual bit of fuzz over the horizon line. They are out of order, the one below was done first, and I spent too long on it. 

The first one above was painted after the sun had set behind me, mellowing out the colours. It is my preferred time to work as I often say in these pages. It is that "Corot" moment when all the ardor of the passed day is seeping out, when one is left with sensuous grey forms still clasping fragile breath. Sometimes it feels like I'm trying to pick up a flower blossom, glued to the wooden deck after a rain.

A lingering light diffuses these gentle forms evenly as dusk penetrates the evening air, infecting it with its own gentle gloom. And the painter searches for meaning in these soft nuances of the twilight sky. 

The only problem is technical; how to still see the palette with this onslaught of the night? It is a great shame because although the colours on the palette are not easy to see, the sky still radiates with delicate light. 

The last image is a detail from the picture below. There are many paintings to be done from this idea. Somedays indeed, I come close to just painting the sky and ignoring the sea underneath, completely.

Evening prayer Brunswick Heads, 3 November, 2021, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm