The Joy Of Bricks

Carl Andre – Equivalent VIII

When I was eight, my mum took me to the National Gallery, stood me in front of Paolo Ucello’s Battle of San Romano and asked me what I thought. Apparently I stood there for a second before announcing that it looked like painting by numbers. The memory is long lost to me now, but I can imagine the stifled sniggers of other gallery goers and my mum’s embarrassment at having raised a mini-philistine (to be fair to her ,in reality, she probably sniggered too.)

Of course these days when I look at the painting, I’m thinking of far higher things – of the techniques and commissioning practices of Medieval Tuscan panel painting, of the politics of 15th century Florence and Siena, of all ranges of viewing positions and theoretical mumbo jumbo, and yet right at the back of my head somewhere, nagging away is the voice of an eight year old boy saying “painting-by-numbers”

The things is though, now when I look at it I can see what I meant, there’s a consistency and precision to the great big flat patches of colour that make up the figures and landscape that do almost suggest to the facetious and fanciful part of my mind that Ucello and his workshop apprentices were slaving away matching paint to numbers:

“Oi! Paolo – what colour’s number 7?”

“Ultramarine Giorgio – and make sure you stay inside the lines”.

With hindsight I don’t think my eight year old self was denigrating the painting, in fact I think it was a compliment, I knew how hard it was to stay inside the lines. (Come to think of it I still do, as the sometimes wobbly outlining in my own work will attest.)

Years later when I was beginning my studies of art history, and was crowing at the high grade that my first essay had achieved, Mum sent me a postcard of that painting with the story of my first attempt at art criticism written on the back. I think the maternal intention here was twofold – first to remind me never to get too big for my boots, and second, and more relevant to today’s little artblurt, to remind me not to forget one of my first encounters with a work of art.

So what’s all this got to do with a pile of bricks – or more specifically Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII? Stay with me – all will become clear…

There are some pieces of work which I wish I could somehow induce a state of temporary amnesia about so I could relive the innocence and excitement of that first encounter, especially those encounters that occurred when I was a child One of those works is Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII (more commonly known as ‘the pile of bricks’).

Andre was one of a loose group of artists, writers and curators that emerged in the USA in the 1960s, who have come to be classed together by art historians as the Minimalists. The art was simple, but to make up for it the theory wasn’t – a lengthy and heated correspondence was entered into, battle lines were formed and a debate raged back and forth in the pages of high minded art journals. Now I love the game of Minimalist art theory – it’s the kind of navel gazing mental gymnastics I’ve talked about before. A few years back I was at a session on Minimalism at a summer school and the tutor was asking us all to talk about a particular work to show how much we knew. When it came to my turn I was asked to talk about Equivalent VIII and I was overjoyed. I babbled garrulously about form and function, about objects and phenomenology, about modernism and postmodernism until, when I finally stopped to draw breath, the tutor said “Good grief Howard, if you can talk so much about so very little you’re already an art historian”.

This was all very well and good, and I got a kick out of the gold star from teacher – even if it was a fairly double-edged compliment. But something nagged at me, I remembered loving Minimalism from a quite early age before I knew any of that theory or history and no amount of Artforum articles could explain what it was that attracted me to that kind of work in the first place. I wrestled with this problem for a while – this is the kind of thing that keeps me awake at night, well that and a few other odd little things (Chaos theory, why my aubergines have stopped growing, the next episode of Doctor Who) that prompt Pete to say “For God’s sake stop it – I can hear you thinking. Some of us need to get some sleep.”

Then one day I hit on the solution – to head to the Minimalism room at the Tate Modern on a Saturday afternoon and watch children react to the art.

It wasn’t particularly busy in the gallery that day, but I stationed myself near the bricks and waited. Soon a boy, of about a similar age to me in front of the Ucello all those years previously walked in accompanied by a frazzled and cynical looking Dad. The boy made a beeline for the bricks and studied them with the intense seriousness that only and eight year old can muster.

“See Toby,” huffed the dad “Told you there was a load of old rubbish in here – look at that. A pile of bricks!”(Okay I’m not sure if the boy was called Toby, but it just fits)

“I like that.” said Toby seriously.

“Don’t be daft” replied dad “You could have done that.”

“And that’s why I like it.”

Game, set and match Toby.

Exit wannabe art historian stage left stifling giggles.

It’s a cute anecdote, but the point is this – Toby got it! Without recourse to piles of textbooks, without hours spent in seminars, without a working knowledge of the ideological debates around art in the sixties, this eight year old had instinctively recognised something so central to Carl Andre’s project ‘art that anyone could make’.

Art is a wonderful thing and of course a head full of knowledge and experience can make us appreciate it all the more, but sometimes we just need to chuck the books out of the window and look at work like we did when we were children, sometimes our childlike instincts can prove to be just as insightful as our jaded adult eyes and minds.

It’s me being fanciful again, but I’d love to think that in a couple of decades time somewhere a yawning art history student will turn over a postcard of a pile of bricks to read..”Do you remember when you were eight and I took you to Tate Modern…”


Sometimes a Lance is Just a Lance (But In This Case It Probably Isn’t.)

Sandro Botticelli – Venus and Mars (c.1483)

Frank Zappa once posed the question ‘Does humour belong in music?” Given that the album in question contained the song Penguin in Bondage, it’s pretty clear that in the mind of the late lamented pointy-bearded musical loon/genius and Czech cultural attaché the answer was a resounding ‘yes’.

Although music was Frank’s target, the question can and should be applied across the arts and that great big ‘yes’ goes across the board, the canon of ‘great paintings’ included.

For example I find Ingres’s Angelica Saved by Ruggerio absolutely hilarious, largely due to the expression on Angelica’s face which seems to have fallen backward through time from a Beryl Cook painting, I can never decide whether she’s thinking “About time too.”, “Oh no not you again.” or “Watch what you’re doing with that bloody lance.” The great thing is that the more detailed analysis you apply the funnier it gets – I once spent a joyful half hour in front of it with a well-respected lecturer in Art History and Gender Studies whose psychoanalytic interpretation had tears of laughter streaming down my face and brought gasps of shock from a coach party from the Batley Guild of Disapproving Women who were tutting around us like a flock of tweed starlings. ( I wont go into the details but the shape of the rock that Angelica’s chained to had a starring role.)

So, if art is so funny, why do galleries echo with hushed whispers rather than gales of bawdy laughter? Simply because it’s the way the gallery space encourages us to behave. Carefully spaced and meticulously lit, hanging in neat rows or arranged on plinths, painting and sculptures are presented to us as sacrosanct objects and we respond in quiet reverence.

This is all well and good, I like a nice empty gallery, I like being able to sit quietly and lose myself in a work of art cloistered away from the noise of the city. (Anyone who’s been in a gallery with me will have noticed me grinding my teeth if someone’s mobile phone starts to ring).

But displaying work in this way also has the effect of separating the work from the life it once had. It’s true that much of the work we see in, say, the National Gallery was once displayed in chapels and churches, even if lit by candlelight rather than halogen, but just as much was hung in sitting rooms, theatres, public offices, clubs, bedrooms and all manner of improbable locations. In their original settings these paintings and sculptures would have been surrounded by political arguments, bawdy singing, declarations of love and lust, drunken fights and laughter.

Take Sandro Bottticelli’s Venus and Mars. Hanging in its white-walled cell in the Sainsbury Wing of the National it seems like a contemplative illustration of a scene from classical mythology – a post-coital moment in the tempestuous and illicit affair between the gods of love and war. (At the time Venus was married to her sort-of uncle/brother Vulcan – classical mythology is more preposterous and convoluted than any soap opera, if you ever have the inclination read The Iliad, it’s like Dynasty on crack with togas). Venus gazes towards her sleeping lover with a cool look, resigned and a touch disdainful at his lack of stamina. A gang of attendant satyrs play exuberantly with Mars’s weapons and armour, one blowing a conch-trumpet in his ear in a futile attempt to raise him for another round of lovemaking.

On the face of it it’s a nice simple allegory. Love conquers war. But when we realise what the painting actually was it becomes so much more. Although there are no surviving documents about the painting’s commission, the size and subject matter point to it either being part of a painted bed-head or the front of a cassone – a richly decorated ‘wedding chest’ that would be given to newly married couples to furnish their bedroom as part of the bride’s dowry. The presence of the wasps buzzing around Mars’s head suggest that this may well have been a commission for the Vespucci family – close financial and political allies of the Medici family who held Florence in the grip of their influence at the time.

Marriage in Florence was an incredibly political business, cementing diplomatic allegiances and business deals, and these noble families, jostling for control of trade and influence, frequently used the commissioning of both religious and secular art as means of displaying their power. It’s not too much of a stretch to read a political message into Venus and Mars, to me there’s a suggestion that the power in the relationship lies firmly with Venus, and by implication the brides family – the wasps serving as a reminder to the groom that even when he’s asleep, they’ll be there, hovering close by, ready to deliver a sting should he step out of line.

So much for the political message, but I think there’s a sexual message here too. Earlier and later works on the same theme (such as Poussin’s and a mural from Pompeii) show Cupid and cherubs playing with Mars’s weapons of war, symbols of profane, possibly illicit, but still human love. Botticelli on the other hand uses satyrs, traditionally representing boisterous and bestial untamed lust, two waving the lance around with gleeful abandon while another sneaks underneath him reaching for his sword. Sometimes Freudian analysis can be all too easily applied and while I certainly subscribe to the view that sometimes a lance is just a lance, I can’t help thinking that in this instance it probably isn’t.

Take this painting off the wall of the National Gallery and stick in the bedroom of a newly wed couple and the high-minded noble message of ‘Love conquers all’ gets a nudge nudge wink wink coda.

‘Love Conquers all (but sex never shuts up).”

It’s a beautifully painted, graceful, elegant and erotic incitement to pleasure, a seaside postcard of a painting with a subtle political sting in its tail. Go and stand in front of it and laugh – I’m sure the people it was painted for did.

Clutter and Cardigans

Cornelia Parker - Pornographic Drawings (1996)

De-cluttering before moving house with me can be a painful business. Left to his own devices Pete will quite happily clear a drawer in 30 seconds flat leaving nothing but a couple of paperclips and a teaspoon. The ‘left to his own devices’ here is key because if I’m within a mile-radius of him as he goes to throw away a long-dead lighter, some sixth-sense kicks in and I’ll be at his shoulder before his hand’s out of the drawer.

“You can’t throw that away.”

“But it’s a dead lighter.”

“Yes, but look, we bought that in Amsterdam..”

“But it’s a dead lighter.”

“Yes, but we bought it that night we got lost in the rain ‘cos all the canals looked the same.”

“But. It’s. A. Dead. Lighter.”

This continues for some time until I get distracted by something shiny and Pete throws the lighter away anyway.

Objects have memories.

Or rather, to be uncharacteristically rational about it, we attach our memories to objects. Relics of our past become mnemonics for whole events, a dead disposable lighter starts a domino-topple of remembered sensations that leads to a hazy giggly night negotiating canals in the rain.

Such associations and leaps of logic seem hard-wired into us, we don’t even need to have direct personal experience of the object to be affected by a real or imagined history that it might have somehow woven into its fabric. In his book Supersense, Psychologist Bruce Hood describes a neat trick that he uses in his lectures to show that even the most rational skeptic can find themselves in the grip of supernatural belief. Holding up a tatty cardigan, Bruce asks the audience how many would, for a fee of £20 be willing to wear the moth-eaten garment. A few of the audience raise their hands. When however Bruce reveals that the cardigan once belonged to the serial killer Fred West, the potential volunteers invariable lower their hands. The cardigan didn’t belong to Fred West of course, but Bruce’s little prank illustrates the way in which we almost subconsciously imbue objects and materials with meaning beyond their intrinsic properties. In the case of the ‘killer’s cardigan’ it’s an example of what James Frazer defined in The Golden Bough as ‘contagious magic’, by contact with evil, the cardigan itself has become contaminated with evil.

Cornelia Parker works with found objects and through display, transformation or destruction she amplifies, distorts or reverses their contagious memories and meanings, anchoring a web of ambiguous ideas to physical properties. Sometimes these works are minimal, abject objects displayed in vitrines whose significances only become apparent when we look at the label to find out what they’re made of – a pair of dusty earplug are made from fluff gathered from the Whispering Gallery of St Pauls Cathedral, a pile of black plastic fingernail clippings entitled ‘The Negative of Sound” turns out to be the cast off lacquer cut at Abbey Road Studio from the grooves of master disc for a vinyl record, a stain on a handkerchief is the tarnish gathered from the inside of one of Henry VIII’s gauntlets and so on. Other works are monumental, for Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View the artist filled a garden shed with household objects and toys before getting the British army to blow it up, the resulting debris now hangs orbiting a light bulb casting shadows on the walls of the gallery space, the moment of the explosion frozen in time.

Pornographic Drawings is a favourite of mine, at first glance it seems to be a collection of Rorschach Ink Blot tests, we peer at them looking for images in the abstract splodges, recreating their very purpose. The title leads us to search for erotic imagery and in two it doesn’t take much of a stretch to find phallic and vulval forms. The other two are more perplexing, there’s suggestions of eroticism certainly but but nowhere as obvious as the first two or have we just got one-track minds?

Already the work is questioning the status of the images and our process of looking at them, psychoanalysed by the blobs in front of you, you can’t help wondering if you’re missing something. Given that two of them seem so explicit, are we failing to notice erotic content in the others that the artist has seen, is pornography in the eye of the beholder?

The situation become both clearer and more confused when we discover the materials used to make the images. Working with Customs and Excise, Parker took shredded video tape from confiscated pornographic videos and created an ink from the Ferric Oxide that gave the tape its magnetic and therefore recording properties. The ink was made from the very physical matter of pornography, the images were therefore erotic both by virtue of what we might see in them, but also by virtue of their material. Of course you could argue that the original film images are long gone, if we were to slide the drawings across the head of a VCR we wouldn’t see ‘adult entertainment’ (and we’d probably get chucked out of the Tate) but the point is that’s it’s our memory that’s at work here. Once we know the origin of the ink, we can’t forget it and our view of the images is irrevocably changed. Somewhere in our minds that contagious magic is at work, as if the very molecules of Ferric Oxide are ‘contaminated’ with the images they once carried, in the same way that the work’s title and our knowledge of the use of Rorschach blots contaminated our first encounter.

It’s a cliché that good art should change the way you look at the world. For me Cornelia Parkers’s work does exactly that. After visiting one of her shows the most ordinary of objects become fascinating artefacts bursting with meaning, memories and stories.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I can hear Pete rummaging in a drawer, he might be about to throw away one of those stories.

(Note: This is reposted from my old blogspot site, largely since a friend pointed out to me how much Cornelia Parker’s work had influenced my short story The Curator. He was right, and though I wasn’t consciously thinking of it at the time the bat-fur earplugs mentioned in the story are a clear steal from the Whispering Gallery earplugs mentioned above. It’s funny how influences creep under your radar without you noticing.)

Between Comfort and Horror: Dorothea Tanning (1910-2012)

Dorothea Tanning - Nue couchée 1969-70 (The Dorothea Tanning Collection and Archive)

I’ve spent the day writing an article on Surrealism generally and in particular the work of the male artists of the movement. I should point out that since the subject of the piece is my old friend the Minotaur, the gender bias involved was driven by the subject rather than a sin of omission. In fact if I was to write a more generalised piece on the movement  I think the balance would definitely be tilted in the other direction, as it’s the work of artists such as Lee Miller, Louise Bourgeoise, Meret Openheim and Leonora Carrington that really fascinates me. It’s not that I find the work of the male artists uninteresting, just that, perhaps as a function of my own gender I find them easier to pin down, less challenging.

It’s therefore a touch ironic that it was only when I called it a day today and pulled my head out of the books on Man Ray, Dali, Picasso and Masson that I learned of the death of Dorothea Tanning, and it seemed only right to put down a few words of appreciation for this often overlooked artist.

I vividly remember seeing  Eine Kleine Nachtmusik at the age of about 13. Then as now themes of dreams and fantasy fascinated me and it pulled me in far more than Dali’s Metamorphosis of Narcissus that was hanging nearby. Looking at it now with hindsight I think I can see why  – of the two dream images it is Tanning’s image of a girl venturing out onto a landing to be confronted by an apparently animated giant sunflower that speaks honestly of childhood nocturnal fears. The sparse composition, the empty corridor disappearing into the distance, the multiple doors and the apparently innocent object made threatening by its monstrous scale all come together to create a landscape that seem genuinely dream-like, by comparison Dali’s painting seems like a junk-shop arrangement of ideas – one painting looks like a child’s nightmare, the other seems like a painting of an adult thinking about what a nightmare should look like.

However, as much as her paintings continue to intrigue me , it is the series of soft sculptures that Tanning produced in the 1970s that really pull me in. These strange fabric constructions of female bodies merging, stretching, grasping, bulging out of items of furniture and climbing up walls occupy a space between comfort and horror. Like the work of her contemporary Louise Bourgeoise, these works are simultaneously attractive and repellant, speaking of both the joys and fears of the relationship between mother and child; when confronted by them in a gallery you’re not quite sure whether you want to hug them or run away very quickly to avoid being swallowed up and smothered by the plush folds.

Both her paintings and sculptures have clearly been an influence on more recent generations of artists,  Helen Chadwick, Sarah Lucas and Cathy De Monchaux all spring to mind and perhaps less obviously, comic artist Jill Thompson (her work on Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series in particular.)

It is sad that her work is not as widely known as most of her male counterparts from the movement, and that contemporary surveys and exhibitions still tend to focus on her position within the movement as one of a number of romantic partners to the male artists. (Apart from one boxed out text discussing the 1942 painting Birthday, the catalogue of the 2001 Tate show Surrealism: Desire Unbound spills as much ink on the subject of Tanning’s marriage to Max Ernst as it does to her work).  Hopefully her death will lead to a long overdue reappraisal of her work.

(To learn more about Tanning’s life and work, please visit the Dorothea Tanning Collection and Archive.)

Time and Space (Shuttles)

Going through my blog feeds today I came across this great piece over at the Moon Under Water Blog about the amount of time that viewers spend in front of a work of art. (You really should visit and stick it on your bookmarks – Shane is endlessly fascinating, insightful and witty about all manner of things and is nowhere near as flippant as me.)

Like Shane I’d read the piece in the Daily Mail in which a reporter had recorded viewing times of visitors at Tate Britain and come to the conclusion that the gallery-going public don’t like modern art.  Now I’m not going to deconstruct their argument fully since frankly I’d probably find the act of deconstructing the yapping of a particularly irritating Chihuahua infinitely more rewarding, but, as I was taking the customary shower I find necessary after reading the Mail, I did find myself admitting, like Shane, that there was an important point lurking under the predictable surface of “modern art is rubbish” sentiment.

So why is it that gallery visitors charge around galleries at breakneck speed? Is it, as the Mail’s article implies that modern art isn’t worthy of anything but the most fleeting attention?

Well obviously I’m going to discount that. As followers of this blog know I’m passionate about art from the earliest cave paintings to the most recent Turner Prize nominees. I find art exciting, intriguing, sometimes infuriating but always rewarding, providing, and this, I think is key, I give it the right kind of attention.

Different works of art require us to adopt different ways of looking, I remember a tutor once telling me that what was important about a work of art was not ‘what it means’ but ‘how it means’- understand the way a work of art, well, works and then you can start on unravelling the knotty business of meaning.   Every work of art speaks if not a different language, then certainly a different dialect, and if you haven’t got a grasp of the basics you’re not going to get a great deal from it. Equally if you approach, say a Mondrian with the same expectations that you have of a Rembrandt, for example, the encounter is doomed to be a disappointment from the start.

The odd thing about out attitude to art is that we tend to misinterpret our inability to read the language as a failure of the artist or the work in a way that we don’t tend to do with other disciplines.   We wouldn’t for example pick up a copy of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo in the original Swedish and then dismiss Stieg Larsson as a lazy, incompetent con-artist because we can’t understand it, we wouldn’t expect to jump into a space shuttle with no training and then blame mission control when we couldn’t get it off the ground, so why do we expect an encounter with a sculpture, painting or installation to require any less prior knowledge?

I think part of the problem is that, unless you pursue visual art from an early age at school, our visual education effectively stops once we’ve learned to read.    We graduate from picture books to paperbacks with the occasional illustration and eventually to books that are nothing but text.    The result of this is that without thinking we place the written word far higher in a hierarchy of communication than the image – the word holds authority, the picture is for kids.   This subconscious attitude accounts, I think, for the snooty attitude of some towards those who illustrate children’s’ books, and for the fact that graphic novels have only comparatively recently been recognised as a form of literature worthy of the attention of broadsheet reviewers. We’re trained to put away the visual when we put away childish things.

And the effect of this demotion of the image on the gallery-goer flitting from work to work? They spend such short times in front of a artwork because they don’t expect it to require more time than a quick glance.

On the face of it this might sound like quite an elitist point of view – it’s not the fault of the artist; it’s the fault of the ill-educated viewer.   But really it’s not, no more than it’s the ‘fault’ of the non-astronaut that they don’t know where the launch button is or the reader who doesn’t speak Swedish. I genuinely believe that anyone can ‘get’ art if they’re armed with the right tools.    I used to teach art history to adult education students and my classes were made up of people from a wide range of backgrounds who had no previous experience of art education.   At the end of the autumn term one year after a ten week ‘Introduction to 20th Century Art’ course I took them to the Turner Prize show – we were scheduled to stay for 2 hours, we ended up staying for four.   I wish the Mail reporter had been there with his stopwatch that day; they stood for ages in front of installations of works by Simon Starling, Gillian Carnegie, Jim Lambie and Darren Almond and questioned, argued, debated and most importantly looked.   After ten hour and half sessions, that’s 15 hours – less than a day – they were engaging not just with art, but with that great bugbear of the press Contemporary Art, they were excited by it, they were spending time with it and they were enjoying it. These weren’t members of some mythical media-savvy London elite, but a group of people from Crawley who’d just signed up for course because they fancied looking at some nice pictures and who hadn’t the sense to run for the hills when confronted by a scruffy, over-excitable stick-insect who showed them slides of urinals while bouncing around the room babbling about context.

As per usual I’m getting carried away, but hidden away in that last, rather tortuous sentence is, I think, the crux of the whole thing. It’s about the difference between looking at art and just seeing it. It’s about knowing the right questions to ask, it about knowing what to look for and it’s about enjoying it. It’s about realising that spending a bit more time with a work of art is worth it and it’s down to writers, bloggers, artists, curators and educators to make people realise that and to do that we need to spend time with the art and with the viewers. We can’t expect people to stand in front of a box of fat and felt by Joseph Beuys and expect them to understand it on the basis of a paragraph on the wall, we need to welcome people into our subject and institutions and point them in the right direction, not in some patronising focus-group devised way with whizz-bang theatrics and gimmicks borrowed from The X-Factor, but by giving people credit for being naturally curious and by letting our passion and enjoyment for our subject draw people in. There’s nothing more infectious than someone talking with love, excitement and humour about their subject and in my experience that’s what you get if stick a couple of art people in a room together, so let’s share that enthusiasm and then maybe that Mail reporter lurking behind a Barbara Hepworth with a stopwatch will get bored after ten minutes and wander off to rummage through some footballer’s bins instead.

As a final word I suppose I ought to say something about Mark Tansey’s Action Painting II that’s sitting at the top of the page. Well, as well as an excuse for a rather clunky metaphor about space shuttles to satisfy my inner nerd, it’s a somewhat mischievous and possibly flippant response to a picture used to illustrate the Moon Under Water blog. One depicts a real situation, one depicts an impossible one but they’re both about the time we’re prepared to spend in the company of art compared to the time we’ll spend with the real world and that’s all I’m going to say.  Well you didn’t expect all the answers now did you?

Dinosaurs and Pianos

Well, I said in my previous post, that art rambling was on the back burner until the Spring. But I’m nothing if not inconsistent and having spent the day wandering around an imaginary museum in my head in the guise of an otherwordly Curator, it seems only fair to pen a few words about the places that inspired that story.

As much as I love the Tates, the Baltic, the National Gallery and the NPG, it’s the smaller museums that hold a real fascination for me these days. Partially I suppose it’s because the restrictions within which they have to work – lack of funds, corporate sponsorship, Tim Marlow wandering around them pointing at things – lead to collections of works and objects that I haven’t seen a million times in textbooks.

In these small collections you find works, often by the big name artists who adorn the walls of the aforementioned ‘Temples of Culture’ but not the ones that are considered the ‘Greatest Hits’, here you’ll find the ‘B-sides’ if you like, but no less interesting than the works that gave their names to movements, sold for eyewatering prices at auctions or generated enough critical debate to swathe the planet several times in academic gobbledigook. And, of course, here you’ll find work by the unknowns, local artists who never made a great splash on the international scene, never founded movements or wrote manifestos; artists and craftsmen who made a living creating objects for the people and places outside the front doors of their homes and studios.

For the artist, art historian or critic such collections steal our safety net of critical texts and theoretical tracts learnt by rote at college and leave us dangling precariously with only our eyes, our own opinions and (whisper it) our feelings to cling to.  It’s an experience that refreshes, excites and reminds us why we love art in the first place, before the likes of Greenberg and Gombrich got in the way.

But what I really love more than anything about the slightly snootily termed ‘Regional’ museums is the unexpected juxtapositions that a number of factors conspire to create. With restricted space, and the imperative of their remits demanding the coverage of a broad range of subjects, artifacts from so many different disciplines crowd together, vying for space and competing for attention. Geology crashes into Archaeology, Design wrestles with Social History, Fashion, Art and Palaeontology merge together in a joyous dazzling bundle, leaving visitors’ heads spinning at the sudden, unexpected shifts in focus. These strange collisions fizz with inspiration in ways that the Surrealist precursor Le Comte de Lautréamont would have approved of when he wrote of the beauty to be found in “the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella”

A case in point. On my first visit to the Bristol City Art Gallery and Museum, I was aimlessly bumbling about, making notes on some Impressionist paintings in the collection I’d never seen before when I turned a corner into a balcony space that was filled with dinosaur skeletons and antique pianos.

Let me say that again. Dinosaur skeletons and antique pianos.

I broke into a broad grin and burst out laughing, not with disdain but sheer unbridled joy. The audacity and eccentricity of the combination of two such apparently anachronistic categories of object appealed to my sense of humour, my love of the absurd and my taste for the bizzarre. The eight-year old me that’s never far from the surface when I’m making art or writing was doing backflips of delight, squealing and giggling. Dinosaurs and pianos – I was instantly smitten and spent the rest of the day grinning, my mind bubbling over with ideas and stories. Even writing about it now at 1am on a Tuesday morning when I should be tucked up in bed poking my partner in the ribs in an attempt to stop him snoring, I’m energised by the memory, grinning like a Cheshire Cat I can still taste the exhilaration of that encounter a few years down the line.

But I must come back down to earth, beacuse there is a serious point to all of this. As austerity cuts bite into areas of culture that aren’t deemed commercially viable,  small museums need all the visitors they can get, and you know what? At the time of writing, the vast majority of them are FREE! You can walk in off the street without handing over any hard-earned shiny pennies and spend ten minutes, a couple of hours or a whole day getting inspired, entertained and, unfashionably, educated.   So take your kids to see dinosaurs and pianos. Arrange to meet your mates there before the pub to see neolithic axe heads next to ball gowns. Take your parents next time you meet them for lunch to look at maps next to old bathtubs. If you’re mad enough, drag complete strangers in off the street shouting “Look! Vintage planes and fossils! How fantastic is that?”

Um, actually no, don’t do the last thing, you’re likely to get arrested or injured but you get my point. All over the country there are eccentric little treasure troves of ideas and stories waiting to be told. Archives of wonders that are curated, collected, cared for and loved by passionate people, many of whom do so for little or no reward but that need our support.

Go. As soon and as often as you can. Get on their mailing lists. Tell people about them. Go again. And if you find a combination better than dinosaur and pianos, let me know because I’d love to see it.

(I had hoped to include a link here to a list of regional museums in the UK, but it seems that such a thing doesn’t exist, not even on the website of the Department of Culture Media and Sport, so you’ll have to get your googling fingers working to find your local public museum or gallery. Or even better you could email the DCMS and ask them why they don’t have such a list in easy reach on their site, perhaps I’m being naive but I would have thought that was in their remit somehow. Just saying.

Of course if there is such a thing out there somewhere and I’m just being too inept to see it please let me know and I’ll stick it up as soon as poss.)


Well you may have noticed that it’s been a while since I’ve waffled on about art. Uncharacteristically this isn’t due to my customary retreat from any form of communication with sentient beings during the winter months, but rather because my attention has be diverted into writing art related stuff for other people. (Look out for an article I’ve got coming up in the next edition of the rather wonderful Something Dark Magazine)

Other than that I’ve been flexing my creative writing muscles, my NaNoWriMo experience turned out quite well in the end.In fact, far from being the sanity destroying disaster I had pessimistically anticipated I found myself at the end of November with fifty thousand odd words of a sprawling, somewhat psychedelic toned novel. On top of that I appear to have made a bunch of rather fab new friends, a shadowy cabal known as the Watershed Writers’ Block. The down side is that I now have peer pressure to produce a piece of creative writing once a month.

As the fruits of this task are likely to have very little to do with Art, (although obliquely there are thematic collisions) this doesn’t seem the right place to put them. So just to make my life even more complicated that it already is I’m pleased to unleash upon the world Test Signals from the Never which is where the blurts from the more twisted and fevered corners of my imagination will appear. Go and have a look.

Normal whimsical art wittering will resume in the Spring.