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 my 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. I even added my own likeness, leering in the top left, standing next to someone wearing a mask, who could well be you.
The problem with this painting was that it had originally been intended as part of a larger composition with a different story. I abandoned that project, after spending an awful lot of time and money on it – it just didn’t work visually when I scaled it up to full size. But I did like this particular section, and the sentiment it evoked. And so I continued working on it. For four years. And then I saw Michael Armitage’s painting, and I knew how to fix these figures of mine.
So, after nearly four years of frustratingly little progress, it turned out to be quite easy to finish the painting in the end. Below is a short video of me adding the figures to the background.
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 from 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, it might not be viable.
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, and I feel that this scene represented so much more, and evoked strong emotions in me. The birth of a new hope for the future. 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 but menacing 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. They usually took much longer than I planned for. Men in Suits for example (shown above), took four years to complete. The difference this time is that much of my recent work has been 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.
The Judgement of Men is a painting about male menace, predatory behaviour and misogyny. 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 feel 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 Hermes (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.
Above is the source of my inspiration – The Judgement of Paris painted by Peter Paul Rubens in 1636. It shows Rubens’ version of idealised feminine beauty, with the goddesses Aphrodite, Athena and Hera on one side and Paris accompanied by Hermes
Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
So, what could you do in four years? I was showing my brother this painting, “Men in Suits”, explaining how it had taken four years to complete, from troubled start to tortuously slow end. And then I said “Well, what else would I have done?” “Well, you could have completed a degree course in less time” he suggested, which got me thinking. Damn! Four years is actually quite a long time. It took just a little longer to build the Hindenburg, but it only took two years to complete the Titanic. The First World War only lasted four years; time enough to kill 8.5 million soldiers. The Trump presidency survived four long years, and look what he managed to do. Okay, so none of them had to contend with models cancelling at the last minute; or with four studio moves. And then there was Covid… Well, Trump dealt with Covid, sort of. Now, I must add that I haven’t been working on this painting everyday for four whole years. Most of the time it has been turned towards the wall. But it has been painted and repainted on numerous occasions in that time. And well, yes, now I think about it, it is a long time.