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The Exchange is number ten in the fourteen print Sir Gawain and the Green Knight series I’m making in association with Daniel Bugg of the Penfold Press, and marks the episode from the poem in which on three occasions the Lord of Fair Castle returns from hunting to claim a kiss from his guest. I’ve always found this point in the story to be exciting, though wasn’t at all sure how to set about representing its transgressive nature. (Gawain has to parry the romantic advances of his host’s wife in her husband’s absences, and is made to surrender kisses to the Lord whenever he returns home. It’s as though the young knight is a shuttlecock being batted between the couple.) In the end I made the decision to create an extraordinary encounter, with Bertilak swooping from above to better create the sense of a dizzying erotic charge. I’m currently four stencils into this nine stencil print. Here’s a record of the work so far.
Above and below: preliminary sketches.
Below: details of the ‘master’ drawing used to guide my work on the print.
Below: creating the first stencil.
Below: the dead stag from the first of the three hunts.
Below: the granular texture of the TruGrain on which the stencils are made is apparent in this detail of the kiss.
I use a limited palette of red, grey and black to make the stencils, favouring a combination of opaque fibretip pen, greasy lithography crayon, oil-rich black pencil and acrylic paint.
Below: the colours planned for the print are dull blue, red oxide, dull sand, black, cyan, purple and orange.
Below: beginning to render the embroidered details of Bertilak’s jerkin.
I did a question & answer for the main newspaper of north Wales, The Daily Post. Peter went to get a haircut at the barber shop in Aberystwyth, and our friends there had very kindly set aside a copy for us. I answered the questions so long ago that I’d almost forgotten what I’d said. Here’s the transcript:
How old are you?
Where are you from?
Tell us about your family
My father was a wayleaves officer with the South Wales Electricity Board. He was responsible for brokering contracts between SWEB and the landowners/farmers whose acreage needed to be crossed by power lines. But because he was a countryman and loved the landscape, he was an artist when it came to placing them where they’d least be visible, hiding them in valleys and along the edges of woodlands. My mother was a hairdresser. She loved films and from an early age she took me every Saturday afternoon to the cinema. Never to see kids’ films though. She loved more dramatic fare, and so my tastes were quite unusual. I don’t know how she bucked the certificate system. She probably knew the local cinema manager and bargained haircuts against him turning a blind eye to a seven year old watching Bette Davies melodramas!
What are you best known for?
Probably my Mari Lwyd-themed series of 2000-2001, The Mare’s Tale. I had an exhibition of that name, and it made quite a splash. There was a book of poetry by the late Catriona Urquhart that accompanied it, and in 2013 the composer Mark Bowden and the poet Damian Walford Davies made a chamber work of the same name, based on the underlying narrative of a psychological haunting.
Tell us about your exhibition (what’s it called, what’s it on/where is it being held?)
The exhibition is at Oriel Tegfryn, Menai Bridge, and it’s the result of four years of exploration on the theme of Hansel & Gretel.
When is it running from/to?
Sept 1st – Sept 24th.
What can people expect?
Last year the publisher Random Spectacular commissioned a picture book from me that was based on the fairy tale. As my version is very dark it’s been marketed as being more suitable for adults. (It’s been described as ‘George Romero meets the Brothers Grimm!)
Simultaneously I was commissioned by Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop in Covent Garden to design a toy theatre assembly kit of Hansel & Gretel. This has been quite a thrill. I played with a Benjamin Pollock toy theatre when I was a child, and so it’s a great privilege to be asked to make a new one to bear his name. Published this summer, in contrast to the picture book it’s a sunnier affair, quite suitable for children. Even so I put my own visual spin on it. You won’t have seen a Hansel & Gretel quite like it.
The Tegfryn Gallery exhibition consists of all the artworks made for the picture book and the toy theatre, plus illustrations for Hansel & Gretel alphabet primers that I made several years ago. Prepare for a Hansel & Gretel Fest!
Tell us five things which make your exhibition great?
1) Scary and beautiful is an alluring mix!
2) I can guarantee it’s not going to be like anything you’ve ever experienced at Oriel Tegfryn.
3) What’s not to love about art in which family dysfunction, unhealthy appetites and manslaughter are the principal themes? This is a fairytale for the soap generation.
4) There are Liquorice Allsorts deployed as weapons and gingerbread men that bite back!
5) If you want to know what horrors lie beneath a witch’s prosthetic nose, then this is the exhibition you’ve been waiting for!
Tell us what’s good about the venue
It’s a warm and welcoming gallery with wonderful staff. Visiting Oriel Tegfryn is like calling on friends who are always pleased to see you.
Who is your favourite artist and why?
The ‘who’ is George Stubbs, and the ‘why’ is because he painted animals with unparalleled compassion. His Hambletonian, Rubbing Down may be numbered among the world’s greatest equestrian artworks.
What piece of work are you most proud of and why?
Green George. It’s in a private collection here in Wales. If you type the title and my name into a search engine, you can see it. I paint only for myself and I never think about who might purchase. I made Green George as a painting I’d like to live with, though in fact I never did. It was finished only days before being shipped to the gallery, and it sold immediately. I knew even as I painted it that I was riding the wind. I couldn’t have bettered it.
Tell us a little known fact about yourself:
I once played Batman’s nemesis, the Riddler, in an American musical.
What are your best and worst habits?
I’m a fiercely loyal and loving friend. But I’m also implacably unforgiving when betrayed. It’s an unattractive trait.
What’s next for you? What are you currently working on, or what do you plan to work on?
I’m on the last lap of a fourteen print series on the theme of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in collaboration with Daniel Bugg at the Penfold Press. The press has been publishing the series sequentially. The art historian James Russell has been writing accompanying texts. It’s been a wonderful experience. The Martin Tinney Gallery is having an exhibition of the work in January.
Then I go into rehearsals for a new music theatre work of Hansel & Gretel that I’m designing and directing. The production opens in London before embarking on a year long tour.
I have never been busier. (I haven’t yet quite worked out why.) I have one-person exhibitions both imminent (September and January) and planned for further ahead. There are promised book covers for several authors and a big, as yet unannounced project for a major publisher. There’s the October exhibition I’m curating for the Royal Cambrian Academy and ongoing work on the stage production of a new chamber music work which I’m to design and direct next year. There have been and continue to be commitments to lecture at various universities and art colleges. Right now the Gawain and the Green Knight project in collaboration with Dan Bugg of Penfold Press is the most pressing occupation, as we have to finish the planned fourteen prints by end of December. I guess I’ve always been an active person in terms of planning ahead, but this… this schedule is extreme, even for me.
Because of my increasingly busy diary, I have less time to write here at the Artlog. Occasionally I’m halfway through a piece when other matters intrude and I have to turn my attention elsewhere. But this morning I sat down to type a reply to an e-mail addressed to me via my official website, and in the writing of it I expressed something I thought I’d share here. While both unexpected and brief, I realised nevertheless that the simple idea expressed to my correspondent, was massively and personally significant in terms of how I see the world.
‘As I get older I begin to see that all creative endeavour is linked. I may be first and foremost an easel artist, but I know that books in all their diversity have helped make me the man I am. It’s fitting that in what must by any measure be the last quarter of my working life, I have found myself being given opportunities to work in the field of books, both in the making of covers for writers I love and admire (Marly Youmans, Damian Walford Davies and Mary Ann Constantine), and more recently in the picture book of Hansel & Gretel for Random Spectacular. The book illustrations in my head – and they’re still there, carried since childhood – are as potent as any of the magnificent paintings I experienced in galleries and cathedrals that came later. So Picasso sits companionably alongside Beatrix Potter, Klee alongside Alfred Bestall and George Stubbs alongside Arthur Rackham, and it’s right that they do. My affection for the illustrators has never been displaced by my love of the great artists, and the interior of my head, if you could see in there, bears testament to that truth.’
When I began this project to make fourteen prints with Daniel Bugg of the Penfold Press on the theme of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (translated by Simon Armitage, Faber and Faber, 2017), I first made a painting of each image that I could then use as a guide when making the stencils. Seven prints into the fourteen I made the decision to work directly onto stencils, which means ‘holding’ the ideas I have for the colours of a print in my head, rather than referring to a painted study.
Like those for The Three Hunts completed last month, the stencils for The Temptations have been produced in this way. Once I’d mixed the paints for the ‘colour key’ (see below) I made the stencils while imagining how the colours would look once the print was underway The stencils are not rendered in the colours of the finished print, but with a grey, red oxide and black palette allowing me to better see the planned image on the transparent layers of drafting film that Dan will later transfer to the printing screens.
Below: rough sketch for the print.
A more refined study for the Lady of Fair Castle.
Gouache samples in the ‘colour key’ indicate to Daniel Bugg the six inks I want mixed for the print, plus black. Every colour requires a separate stencil. Sometimes several stencils of a colour are required so that the inks can be applied with varying tonal effects.
Here are images of the stencils as they progress.
Although they have their own allure, the layers of stencils give an entirely deceptive impression of what the print will eventually look like. The more layers added, the hazier the image becomes, as though viewed through a mist. It’s quite a feat, remembering all the colours involved and trying to imagine what they’ll look like when printed over each other. I keep notes to hand, but the process is one that relies entirely on being able to work toward an idea that won’t be revealed until the printer begins to assemble the image from layers of inks mixed to match my colour samples.
After Dan has transferred the images to the screens, the long slow task begins of mixing inks and proofing. Once all the proofs have been examined, tweaked and finally agreed upon, the editioning of the print can begin.
27th May, 2017, 19:30H. The space is packed. Under the great dome of the wooden ceiling there’s restlessness and anticipation from the audience. Everyone has been waiting for this performance. Director of the festival, Daniel Broncano, has played his cards close to his chest. I haven’t seen the projections of my paintings on these rough stone walls. I don’t know how he’s fitted the images to the music or what the scale of them will be. The musicians of Trio Rodin walk out onto the stage. Jorge Menotti on piano, Carles Puig on violin and Esther Garcia on cello. Daniel joins them with his clarinet. They begin.
I’ve grown to know the music well during the weeks spent making the paintings, yet in this space, it springs surprise after surprise on me. There are things I’d missed completely in the recording I’d used. Here in the Iglesia de los Jesuitas the players are transformed. Jorge at the piano is ablaze. He’s at the back of the platform and when his head darts round to watch his companions, the speed is almost shocking, less a man than a predatory bird. Esther’s face, thrown back into the light becomes the pale mask of a seer. She curves into her instrument, embracing and becoming one with it. Carles is as ramrod straight as a Renaissance prince, fierce and commanding. The dramatic spectacle of the playing is mesmerising. There’s a moment when Daniel wrings a passage from his clarinet that has me trying to align my breathing to his. I can’t. I don’t know what his lungs are made, from but mine are not made from the same stuff! The experience of both the music and the musicians playing it, is visceral, exhausting, exhilarating.
The images of my paintings above, are huge and vivid in the darkness, their surfaces textured by the rough stone. All is well. Everything works. The paintings become meditations between the black and white photographs of the Stalag VIII-A prisoner of war camp. Gaunt musicians from the the first performance of Quartet for the End of Time, stare out from the graininess of another world: barbed wire, snow and rows of dark huts. I glance around to see an audience transfixed and transformed by a performance both eerie and life-affirming. I think about my parents and how they would have loved this moment. I imagine them siting here, a few rows away in front, their backs to me, heads inclined together. Younger than I am now, so that the grey-haired son gazes on his youthful progenitors-to-be. I wish they would sense my presence and turn around so that I could see their faces. But onstage the movement draws to a close, the audience stir and settle again and the couple are no longer there. Time, having for a moment folded so that the past pressed against the present, reverts to its more usual, linear trajectory. I am in the moment again, and the long-time-dead have gone.
The players are done. There’s a frozen moment of completion, the held breath of a conclusion. Then the long exhalation and the applause. The audience are on their feet. The musicians return from the mountain top. Here at Segura the demand for an encore sometimes comes in the form of a rhythmic ‘Flamenco’ clap that grows out of the applause. But not for this. There is nothing that can extend or follow this performance, and we all know it.
From my notebook, Prado Museum, Madrid, Tues 23rd May, 2017.
‘In an exquisite arrangement for an emotionally draining painting, the four figures are linked in a composition that restlessly carries the gaze around it. A woman to the left holds a pose straight out of a Martha Graham ballet, her elbows raised and her fingers interlocked. Hers is an oddly large face, the most prominent of the three mourners, and however I view the painting, she’s always the starting point. The problem is that she’s a tad too conventionally pretty, and as such very nearly undermines everything with her sweetness. In contrast the Virgin and St John evidence palpable grief, their faces dully anguished, their bodies broken, bowed and frozen, as though they will never recover from the horror.
Then there’s the brutalised figure of Christ, sallow, shadowed and unmistakably dead. His high forehead and features are taut, as though the flesh has shrunk back to cleave even more closely to the skull. His joints are pronounced, ribcage visible and collar-bones sharp. The face is ageless, simultaneously childlike and old, the way the dead so often appear. The nails of his punishment have not just torn and bruised the skin, but have made the ligaments spasm. His ruined hands are frozen, clawed as they rest on what seems less an unravelling loincloth than an elaborately scrolled strip of parchment.
It’s agonising to look at. The artist wouldn’t have witnessed a crucifixion, but he certainly knew what a dead body looked like. His painting is brutally honest about the horrors men have wrought on man. He’s thought hard about how the beating of a nail through a foot that then has to bear the slumped weight of a body, will make the flesh swell around the wound. As my eye travels upwards from the sumptuous green pool of fabric around Christ’s head to the dramatic, self conscious pose of the woman whose skirt’s hem is his pillow, I think I know at last why her face is so sweet. It’s a punctuation mark, a relief, a moment to rest and catch the breath and hold onto life, before the restless journey continues down into grief again, to the pitiable and the broken.
When I paint, I always try to imagine the sensations that I’m depicting. This painter has imagined too, and his imagination has led him to a dark place. Whether you have great faith or no faith, the honesty of what he has imagined makes for stark viewing. This painting shows us the evidence of brutality and suffering. We recognise what it tells us, because brutality and suffering are as present in the world today, as they were when the Maestro de Virgo painted this unforgettable image in 1487.’