Dark Movements: ‘the quickening’

Here I show the early stages of work on the painting The Quickening, currently underway. I’ve included images from other paintings and drawings that I’m referencing into it. You might call this post a combination of mood-board and progress report.

Below: the briefest sketch shapes the composition

before being worked out more completely

Below: key aspects get worked out in more detail

Below: the foliate-patterned ground to my recent cover for Marly Youmans’ new novel, is sticking like a burr to my coat-tails, and is set to be reinvented to play a significant role in the new works…

… as is the rendering of the bird

Last Year’s Hervé and the Wolf series of paintings, set the tone for ‘Dark Movements’

Underdrawing for The Quickening. (detail)

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So many things are meeting in these new works: my original drawings for The Mare’s Tale (and my family history that underlies them), the recent collaborations with my model, Jordan Morley, themes of greening and renewal, my love and use of toy theatre in my practice, and of course, that old discipline of mine, long behind me but always present in my mind… and in muscle-memory… the dance.

I am pleased to announce that the composer Peter Byrom-Smith, will be providing a soundtrack of new music to accompany the exhibition, both in the gallery, and as a soundtrack to the animated film Dark Movements that I’m working on with my regular collaborator, film-maker Pete Telfer of Culture Colony. The film will be screened in a dedicated space within the gallery. There will also be new work from the American poet Jeffery Beam, who has been closely watching my progress on Dark Movements, and has produced a poetic text to accompany the recent paintings.

Composer, Peter Byrom-Smith

Beam

Poet, Jeffrey Beam

the cat that won’t stop looking at a painting

Racket is a young Devon Rex that lives with my friend Philippa Robbins and her family. On the family’s sitting-room wall hangs The Righteous Man Surprised by the Devil, one of eight paintings I made based on fragments from a mid-fifteenth century altarpiece depicting the ‘Lives of the Desert Fathers’ held in the collection of Christ Church Picture Gallery.

In my painting, the ‘righteous man’ of the title has been waylaid by the devil, rather shockingly emerging from the ‘flowery mead’ beneath his feet, popping up as though from a man-hole leading straight to hell! In the background an anchorite living in the upper parts of an abandoned industrial building, is pulling up a bucket in which a man has deposited supplies of food and water. Anchorites sometimes lived atop pillars, far above the temptations of the world. But neither the anchorite or the man plodding wearily away, have noticed the foreground drama, though a little dog is alert to it. Perhaps he’s going to come hurtling to the rescue. Terriers are courageous. This one was based on a Jack Russell I once owned, called Rugrat.

Back to Racket! Apparently he stares for long periods at the painting, mesmerised. Philippa has captured one of these sessions on her phone camera. No-one can explain why this happens. There are many paintings in the house, but The Righteous Man Surprised by the Devil is apparently the only one that Racket is interested in.

It is, as you can see, a little spooky, and Philippa is beginning to wonder what Racket can see that the rest of us cannot. Can this painting… dare I say it… be haunted? Beats me. By the way, that’s Lauren sitting on the sofa, Philippa’s daughter.

Below: Racket having a cuddle with his best friend.

My thanks to Philippa for the use of her film and photograph. (And to Lauren, who said ‘yes’ to my showing her.)

Morley and the Mari

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The floor around me is awash with Jordan Morley maquettes, both intact and disarticulated, Mari Lwyd parts, sections of horse anatomy, drawings and inkjet copies of photographs. It might be called ‘Jordan-alia’!

The new works for my exhibition Dark Movements at Aberystwyth Arts Centre this summer are well underway, and the race is on to the June opening. Here are a selection of images I’ve been playing with as I work my way toward a new composition.

No, nothing wrong with your eyes here. It was just a duff shot, but I liked it.

‘Maze of Blood': Marly and Clive

Front cover art work for Maze of Blood

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Maze of Blood is the latest novel by Marly Youmans, due out from Mercer University Press in 2015. I’m charged with producing the cover image and interior decorations. Here’s Maze of Blood as described by Marly in the acknowledgements of the book.

‘Maze of Blood was drafted during a residence at Yaddo in 2007. I thank The Yaddo Foundation and its staff for quiet, time, and a room of my own. While fiction, Maze of Blood was inspired and shaped by the life events, works, and times of pulp writer Robert E. Howard. Secondary sources most essential to me were: One Who Walked Alone, by Novalyne Price Ellis; Blood & Thunder, by Mark Finn; and Two-Gun Con: A Centennial Study of Robert E. Howard. Poems quoted are from Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert E. Howard.’

Early concept for the cover

E-mail from Clive Hicks-Jenkins to Marly Youmans, 19/02/15

“I never wrote to tell you how much I love Maze of Blood. I was so daunted by its dark beauty and darker psychologies. Daunted by the notion of conjuring a cover for a book that makes a poem of the life of the man known as the ‘Father of Sword and Sorcery’. (There will be illustrators that want to kill me for having been given this opportunity!) Daunted by the task of serving you as well as I can, and yet serving myself too. And last but not least, daunted at the task of making images to walk hand in hand with your matchless prose, so that I balked at writing to tell how much I loved it, for fear of putting the challenge onto paper, for fear of frightening off my muse. But now, as I tweak and adjust and make my way to the finishing-line of the cover, I write to say that you never disappoint, and I love discovering the terrains of your books. The interior images are going to be somethin’ else, and you are going to love ‘em! Just saying’!”

Early concept for the cover

Facebook message from Marly Youmans to Clive Hicks-Jenkins, 19/02/15

“I am so glad that long ago I mentioned you, and you found me. Friendship is a great sheltering tree, full of birds and beasts and a homemade treehouse in the canopy!”

Preliminary studies

Final study

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Drawing to scale

Beginning to paint

Paint and pencil render

At my desk

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From Maze of Blood

‘He could hear the clock on the other side of the room. It reminded him of the bird that used to peck against the glass. Peck, peck, peck… Maybelline flew in the window in the shape of a tiny, tiny cardinal and sat on his knee. “I know what it is now,” he told her. She tilted her head, eyes like jet. “Love is like a bird. That’s why the old Greek writers gave Eros a pair of wings. You can catch the little flying creature in your hand and keep it, and your fingers will be the bars that curl into a cage. It will stay in the dark where it can never be seen or known.” Her feet tickled his knee through the coarse pants.’

You can read author Midori Snyder’s pre-publication review of Maze of Blood, HERE

Johann Christian Rohl in the wolf’s den, part 2: the interview

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Part 1 of J. C. R. in the wolf’s den may be found HERE

  • Clive H-J. With The Company of Wolves you’ve explored just one of the suite of Angela Carter’s tales, The Bloody Chamber. Was your first experience of this dark and sexualised spin on Red Riding Hood the short story, or the film by Neil Jordan? Many people came to Carter as a writer after seeing it.
  • Johann CR. I read the book first. I’d been told about the book by a friend I’d made in my first year of Uni, she was a second year and told me what briefs to expect and gave me advice and a lot of support throughout my time at Cambridge school of Art. I owe a lot of my development to her. (Erika Lewis I am eternally grateful, you beautiful blackbird.) I couldn’t put the book down. I was completely engrossed. This was a book that had so much meat to it. A most decadent banquet. There was a lot in those pages that I savoured. The writing itself was gothic, so rich in detail that you could almost smell the acrid blood drenching the tales. It was sharp and witty.
  • The stories felt like familiar terrain but weren’t. It was full of surprises and there was a whole wealth of dark imagery for me to delve into. There’s sexual bluntness, a bounty of symbolism. The writing is sharp and witty and there’s a heavy presence of danger! When I finished it I’d go back and read my favourite bits and I still do. I didn’t even know the film existed until one of my lecturers, Mick Gowar (an expert in fairytales and folklore and one of my most favourite people on this earth) told me about it in my second year. He’d recommended it as at the time I was exploring how the dream world had been achieved through film. I’d looked at Alice by Jan Svankmajer and Valerie and Her Week of Wonders by Jaromil Jires. Both films share a lot of similarities with Neil Jordan’s interpretation of The Company of Wolves, and allowed me to go deeper into the world of dream imagery. It was nice to see an interpretation of The Company of Wolves on film because all I’d known before was my own, obviously, so it was cool to compare the director’s take on it. Also the use of special effects was immensely appreciated! They really don’t make films like that anymore (and if they do then please point them out to me!) What about you? Which did you experience first?
  • Clive H-J. Like you, book first, film later. Interestingly, I felt sure that one of the fairy tale films Neil Jordan had referenced, was a favourite of mine. But we’ll come to that later.

  • Clive H-J. in the matter of re-spinning old tales, many have tried, and just about all have failed in comparison to what Carter achieved. She got there first, and in my opinion did it best, though I accept that I haven’t read everything out there. One of the things that makes me wish she had lived longer… and there are many… is that within The Bloody Chamber, she offered two riffs on Beauty and the Beast: The Tiger’s Bride and The Courtship of Mr Lyon, and both are beautiful in their own rights. I’m impressed by that doubling up, because to me it shows the kind of creativity I want to see in an artist, where there is no single, definitive approach. In my own practice I work and re-work a cache of carefully selected themes, because no version is the definitive one, and every time I set out, I feel as though I’ll do better for all the work that’s gone before. Like an actor never nailing the role of Hamlet, but discovering new layers with each performance. Discuss!
  • Johann CR. Reading the different takes on the same tale surprised me. I think as a collection I’m in amour of the way each story has it’s own fleshed out world that feels completely its own and at the same time there are these echoes from one story into another. The same motifs crop up and it feels like you’re looking through alternate realities of the same world. I think as an artist you’re taught to approach things from different perspectives. What art school has taught me is that there are an infinite number of solutions to be made. No single idea is the ultimate one. All of the artists that I look up to seem to have that creative unrest, that ability to keep going and going and going with an idea and with work in general. I think through observing the different perspectives on a subject you allow deeper understanding which is ultimately what it’s all about, exploration.

  • Clive H-J. I agree. So which of the other Bloody Chamber tales is tickling away at you right now, in terms of how you might approach it?
  • Johann C R. At the moment I’m working on The Lady of the House of Love which is a story overflowing with an abundance of imagery. It has this duality and divergency that I really enjoy in a story and I’m looking to recreate that. I’m hoping I can mirror all the contrasts and contradictions in it.

Below: image for The Lady of the House of Love

  • Johann CR. I really want to capture those elements of beauty and grotesqueness, violence and serenity, those qualities that give depth. I like that. The presence of sex and death is rife in these tales, and that’s something I want to be present in my drawings.

  • Clive H-J. I’m guessing you’ve already found and read Bruno Betelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment (1976), but if you haven’t, order a copy from Abebooks now. (And if you haven’t read it yet, then you are going to love me for eternity for pointing you in its direction!)
  • Johann CR. I haven’t! Why that book isn’t already on my shelf I do not know. It looks like a Johann Rohl essential!

  • Clive H-J. To me it seems that Carter… like Betelheim did by bringing an analytical approach to the way children ‘use’ fairy tales to make sense of the world and its frightening aspects… gives her readers license to dredge up the darker sexualities underlying the tales, and be creative with them. (‘It’s OK’, she seems to be telling us, ‘to have those feelings. They’re exciting. It’s good to imagine a sexuality in which your lover licks your skin clean away to expose ever deeper layers of desire.’) I believe this particularly germane to gay men and women, for whom sexuality has too often in the past been a thing of shame. Discuss
  • Johann CR. I like the idea of layers being exposed by a lover, I think that’s a wonderful metaphor for the nature of a relationship and for sex as well because the only way you can let someone in is by bringing your walls down and exposing yourself. It’s a beautiful thing to be in a relationship with somebody. You learn so much from each other and you grow, and even when it doesn’t work out you still grow from the things that go wrong. The same can be said about work; you’re constantly working stuff out and learning, through exposure and exploration. There are always new conclusions to be reached, and even when an idea doesn’t work out you learn from it, and so you’re peeling layers of yourself back and revealing a better version of yourself. I believe that’s why I’m drawn to The Bloody Chamber it has that honesty and bluntness about sexuality, and I think that’s something I tend to seek out, that openness and assurance that it is okay to have those feelings and desires.
  • As a young gay man growing up I’ve always felt the need to hide those parts of myself away as a means of self preservation and I think in a way it’s been very damaging as I’m sure a lot of other people in the world have experienced themselves. So naturally I’ve always tried to look for assurance in some form or another where I can, be that in film, art or literature. I’m starting to find that if I’m open about my thoughts, feelings and experiences though then I’m allowing myself to make connections with other people that share those same thoughts, feelings and similar experiences and in turn I’m creating this world for myself where I no longer feel segregated or alone and that’s breaking down a lot of walls for me. At what point did you feel comfortable about your sexuality ?
  • Clive H-J. That’ll take a little explaining, because I grew up in different times. I was born in 1951, when homosexuality was illegal and considered by most people to be an aberration. For a child, those attitudes made for an incredibly isolating experience, and I hid as best I could the aspects that would draw attention to me. It made me rather introverted. What I still find most repellent about those times, is my memory of the cruelty practiced at every level. (You see it today, with the hatred directed at immigrants and all those deemed to be ‘outsiders’. For the greater part, homosexuality today in the UK has been protected by law from the prejudices that were once so rife.) Back in the 1950s and even the 60s, society as a whole openly despised and mocked gay men (and it was men, rather than women, that drew the most homophobic wrath) labelling them as limp-wristed, fey, ludicrous. Moreover gay men in the entertainment industry were actively complicit in that homophobia, emasculating themselves into parodies and sexual grotesques. (Kenneth Williams, Frankie Howard, John Inman and too many others.) It was as though it couldn’t be countenanced that homosexuals might actually be like everyone else, and that gay mens’ ‘desires’, came in as many varied packages, as did the desires of heterosexuals. We had to be rendered neuter, laughed at, held up to ridicule. We couldn’t be handsome, or masculine, or heroic or powerful or any positive thing. It was horrible, and I absolutely knew that it was a lie, even before I began to discover the wider world for myself.
  • So I didn’t share my understanding of my sexuality with my parents, as I knew from things they said that they would’t understand. Imagine, if you can, a world in which there were no role models for gay men and no positive expressions of homosexuality. It was a world in which a defining part of my life would have to remain hidden. I knew that I was different and that my sexual desires ran counter to everything I saw around me, but I was damned certain that I didn’t fancy Kenneth Williams!
  • I got lucky. I went away to school in London. I studied performing arts at Italia Conti, left when I was fifteen-and-a-half, and made my way as a dancer/actor. Later I became a choreographer. In that world I could be myself. There were many of us, and we recognised each other. Gradually I told trusted, long-term friends. All was well. My hero became the British film director and gay activist, Derek Jarman. He was a force to be reckoned with. Here was a passionate, outspoken, drop-dead handsome and openly homosexual man. He was fired up and angry, and he wouldn’t shut-the-fuck-up. The establishment hated and feared him, but for me, he showed the way. Nothing was the same after Derek Jarman. He changed everything for us. I wish he were here still. Seek out his books, Johann. He was compassionate, insightful and loving, and he burned white-hot. Jarman wrote beautifully. Beautifully.

  • Given that we’re both horror film fans, I have to ask which film/s affected you most in terms of staying with you and informing your work? Mine are:
  • 1) Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. I love all its aspects: the visual aesthetic, the pace of the unfolding narrative, the sound (no music, but the soundtrack is masterful) the actors’ performances, the matte-paintings by Albert Whitlock that so ravishingly enhance the location footage, the horrific bird assault that begins with a seagull dive-bombing a man fuelling his car. All the performances in a film shot through with neurosis, are mesmerising, not least newcomer Tipp Hedren’s cool blonde socialite becoming steadily unravelled.
  • 2) Hitchcock’s Psycho, because Anthony Perkins troubled Norman did it for me, and I deeply appreciated Janet Leigh’s unflinching yet nuanced performance of Marian Crane. Then there was Bernard Hermann’s amazing, nerve-jangling score. (Everyone talks about the shower scene music, but just listen to what Hermann did for Marian’s car journey in the rain. Staggering!
  • 3) La belle et la bête, directed by Jean Cocteau. Probably not horror at all… though in terms of what the Beast suffers the film might profitably be viewed alongside David Cronenberg’s The Fly… but certainly the most beautiful film of a fairy tale ever made.
  •  Johann CR. Yeahhh! The Birds and Psycho are both genius! I haven’t seen La Belle et la Bête. I’ll have to add that to my list!
  • Clive H-J. Do it. Now! The experience is going to change you.
  • Johann CR. I think for me films had a major influence in the early stages of my life but as I grew up I took a lot from video-games. Films that stick out for me from my early childhood that I think heavily influenced my interests now are:
  •  1) the Film of Roald Dahl’s The Witches. It frightened and fascinated me. I watched it recently and It’s fantastic! The Head Witch (Angelica Huston) is still as grotesque as ever. The special effects in it are fantastic and I think as a result it’s stood the test of time
  • 2) The Thing (the 80s one) was my first experience of a horror film. I saw it when I was very young. Far too young, really, to be watching anything like that. On a Wednesday after school I’d go to my grandparents house for tea and my granddad would record monster movies that had been on the telly for me because I was obsessed with stuff like that. I was always drawing monsters. So I’d go and there’d be a new VHS waiting for me and I’d go into the living room with my colouring pencils and paper and watch whatever it was whilst lying on the floor drawing. I don’t think I ever expected to see anything like that. I was disturbed, to say the least, but at the same time I had this morbid curiosity to rewind the tape and try again to keep my eyes open to the sight of this warped and twisted ‘thing’ on the TV screen. If only my granddad knew what he was recording for me haha!
  • There’s a quality I can’t quite pin down in Jaromil Jires’ Valerie and Her Week of Wonders that I feel I’m being influenced by right now. If you haven’t yet watched it I’d recommend giving it a look, then maybe we can decipher what it is I’m on about.
  • Clive H-J. OK. I’ll do that, and you watch the Cocteau film. Tell you what, afterwards we’ll meet up again here, and discuss. Deal?

Above: a recent ‘self portrait’ by Johann that he tried to palm off on me instead of a photograph. I’m sure you’ll all be pleased that I persisted and was forwarded the image at the top of this post.

Johann will view La belle et la bête and I’ll view Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, and  later we’ll convene for further discussion here at the Artlog.

new scene for the ‘Dark Movements Toy Theatre': the Mari Lwyd comes by night

Component Parts:

backdrop, free-standing mid-stage element, ground-row and 2 x wings

Backdrop

Free-standing mid-stage element and ground-row

Wings

Concept Sketch

Realisation

Details

Waterfall at stage right

Rock face at stage left

The toy theatre will be shown at my forthcoming exhibition

Dark Movements

Gallery 1

Aberystwyth Arts Centre

June 6th – July 25th

making a new scene for the Dark Movements Toy Theatre

Below are some sketches of a new scene planned for my ‘Dark Movements’ toy theatre.

A giant skeletal horse strides the night sky, dwarfing the Welsh village crouched beneath the sentinel ruins of castle and viaduct. Rocky cliffs make the wing pieces, a foreground ‘ground-row’ of rocky terrain frames the lower edge of the scene and the village and castle mound are on a separate ground-row beyond it. The Mari Lwyd/horse is on the backdrop.

The second sketch piles the composition a little too high for the proportions of the toy stage.

In a second drawing I’ve placed the horse lower down, to better fit the view of the scene through a proscenium arch. Traditionally ‘toy theatre’ scenes are relatively foursquare and simple in composition, a style that suits the scale of the form. I think that in the final version, I’ll try to split the difference between these two drawings.

Beginning the artwork for the backdrop.

More news on this, soon.