I have to thank Michael Armitage for helping me finish this painting. Well, not the man himself (I’ve never met him, and no doubt he’s never heard of me), but his masterpiece “#mydressmychoice”.
I’d been struggling with this painting for a few years – constantly repainting and changing the background. I knew what I wanted to say, but didn’t know how to say it. And then, about this time last year, while looking around the Radical Figures exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery, I had my eureka moment. I had stumbled upon Michael Armitage’s superb painting #mydressmychoice and suddenly it seemed so obvious what I had to do. I needed a collection of seedy, smirking, sweaty middle aged men to fill the background – all dressed in suits with patent leather shoes. So who could I choose? That was easy; you can find them everywhere: A disgraced politician; a Prince of the Realm; convicted sex offenders; and this artist, leering on the left, standing alongside someone wearing a mask, who could well be you.
Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
A few months ago I prepared a proposal for a really interesting art competition/bursary – The Concord Art Prize. Artists were invited to propose an artwork inspired by one of a list of ten pieces of music (I chose The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky). Shortlisted artists would be paid to produce their work. Definitely one to look out for next year.
Anyway, my proposal wasn’t accepted for the next round, which brought to a rather abrupt end a frenetic period where I was immersing myself in the music, exploring ideas, making numerous sketches and trying to produce something suitably compelling. Now I have to decide whether to continue working on the project, without funding or a prospective home for the finished painting.
In my proposal, I broke the composition into three sections:
In the first section I tried to capture something of the first tentative signs of spring, signalled by that wonderful bassoon in the original music, suggesting a new beginning. The end of winter; a time of joy and restored hope This was also at a time we were finally looking forward to a return to normality after the pandemic. I chose to depict three “maidens”, dressed in contemporary summer dresses; with a bouncing stride emerging from over the horizon on the left of the painting. More “The Sound of Music” than pagan Russia
The next section is about the pounding, primal rhythm; the overt sexuality that pervades most of the work. Dancing and cavorting; all passion, desire and curiosity. In my preliminary sketch I featured a statue of Pan, with one woman touching the statue, while another couple, totally self absorbed, are cavorting at the foot. Other figures would be added in the area around the statue. I wanted it to look busy, chaotic, full of energy.
I wanted to end with a growing sense of menace. This time the pounding rhythm shouts danger. This final section has a woman in obvious distress, trying to avoid the clutches of sweaty, pot-bellied older men. I envisaged the men in grubby t-shirts and Y-fronts. There is nothing playful or innocent about this scene. I want there to be a stark contrast, a jarring change of tone, with the frivolities of the middle section. There would be a small crowd gathering behind.
It’s been two months since I learned that my proposal wasn’t accepted. My initial reaction was to shelve everything. A large painting like this would take a considerable investment in time and money. Aside from the considerable cost of materials, there is the difficult task of finding models and arranging sittings; and that’s before you even put brush to canvas.
I embarked on a similar project some years ago – The Feast of Venus. I’d been invited to contribute to an exhibition with that theme. Having already spent a fortune on hiring models and renting studio space, I soon realised that I would miss the deadline for the exhibition. So instead of doing the sensible thing and abandoning the project, I went on regardless, and it turned into a quagmire, eating up all my time, money and energy. I did eventually finish the painting, but at considerable expense. I promised myself “never again!”
Well, I don’t always follow my own advice, and have since completed a few more larger compositions (Men in Suits for example, above). The difference this time is that these recent paintings have all been very focused on a common theme of sexuality, physical menace and the male gaze. That focus has made the execution of my ideas go quite smoothly. And I see this new project as a continuation of my work on the subject.
Which brings me to my dilemma. Having invested a couple of weeks work to get to this early stage, do I forget about it, and save myself a load of money, or do I proceed, and risk it turning into an act of sheer folly.
Hmm, decisions, decisions.
I must admit to having been, only on rare occasions, one of those men; sitting in a group, talking loudly and ogling women walking past. I do feel a little embarrassed, and also a sense of complicity. Perhaps that’s why the male gaze has become a recurring theme in my recent work; maybe I’m seeking redemption. In my defence, I grew up when Miss World and Benny Hill were primetime family viewing.
I was particularly interested in painting something based on The Judgement of Paris, because it really is such an anachronism in the present day, and seems to me an epitome of the male gaze. For the character of Paris, I painted a figure with more than a passing resemblance to Prince Andrew; looking somewhat disempowered in his nakedness. By his side, to replace Mercury in the original Rubens paintings, I painted someone resembling Jeffrey Epstein. Amongst other things, Mercury is the god of financial gain, eloquence, trickery, and thieves; he also serves as the guide of souls to the underworld.
Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
I am always amazed with how a painting evolves from just a vague idea into something with a life of its own. I’ve been working on this particular painting for a few months. It has been constantly changing, but I think I may have arrived at the final layout.
The section above has seen the most changes. Originally it just had the settee with the two figures on it, but that left the composition unbalanced. So then I had the idea of adding the Three Graces; or a contemporary equivalent: three archetypal women. I already had an idea for a couple of the faces (Marilyn Monroe and Madonna), but I still had to find a model to pose. This provided me with the sketches at the top for my reference.
But still this little corner of the painting looked a bit empty. And then these two male figures in the background almost inserted themselves. As well as balancing the composition, they also tied up a few loose ends in the narrative – archetypal alpha males Presidents Trump and Biden), either waving their arms about trying to get everyone’s attention, or invading some poor woman’s space (or rather nuzzling their neck and giving an unwelcome “shoulder-squeeze).
Art exhibitions are like London buses. I wait months for an opportunity to show my work, and then I receive two acceptance emails in the same morning.
I’ve already mentioned The Discerning Eye in my previous post. I’m very pleased to have been accepted for that one – such a shame that the exhibition is virtual this year. The other exhibition I will be taking part in is The Autumn Salon, from 30th October, hosted by Candid Arts Gallery, Angel, London. That’s a real world exhibition – actual paintings on real walls, with real people walking about (albeit wearing masks, and suitably socially distanced).
I’ve had mixed feelings about getting involved in real exhibitions during this epidemic. However, the gallery at Candid Arts is a lovely open space – perfect for social distancing. At the end of the day, there is just no substitute for seeing a painting in the flesh.