Sat, 10 Dec 2016
Olwyn Bowey at the RA

Olwyn Bowey is an artist I hadn't heard of or seen until I saw a few of her paintings in the last couple of summer shows at the Royal Academy. I liked them so keep my eyes open. She has a small exhibition on at the RA just now: not in a gallery but in the Keepers House. Actually in the Belle Shenkman Room, part of the café.

Below: Tortoise with Alliums, 2016, Oil on board. 69 x 66cm

Below: Cape Primroses, 2015, Oil on board. 72.5 x 77cm

Normally, you need to be an RA "friend" (member) to use the restaurant or café (some of it is swanky), but entrance to see the pictures is free. So it was good to see the inside of the RA member facilities. It was also very quiet first thing, so a perfect time to visit. See it here.


Fri, 09 Dec 2016
Oil Painters

On Saturday I went to the Royal Institute of Oil Painters 2016 exhibition. Amazing show, lots of different artists and lots of great works.

Getting there on a cold morning, and there must have been about thirty artists arriving to take part in the annual show competition: do a plein-air oil painting within half a mile of the gallery and win a prize. Although cold, it was a good day for it, with the sun out and a crisp, winter light.

It is impossible to pick a favourite, or even a reasonable number! One I liked was the large and imposing : On Time by Richard Combes ROI, Oil, 125 x 150 cm. Stunning realism and beautifully executed.

And for something quite different : Cats and Friends by Susan Bower RBA ROI, Oil, 47 x 53cm. She does these quirky paintings, usually people, often with animals, funny. They seem to sell well. I'm not a big fan but I quite like them and they usually bring a smile to your face.

For a good selection of the work, see the Mall Galleries site.


Sun, 04 Dec 2016
Quantum Ladders

Schild's Ladder
By Greg Egan

Score : 3 / 5

Egan's science-fiction is perhaps the wildest and most speculative stuff I've read, but the wildness comes at a cost: sometimes a lot of exposition of the maths and physics behind it all. Schild's Ladder is a case in point: I have to admit to skimming some of this after a while but still enjoyed the book. This novel perhaps pushed the "hard" science a bit more than usual, even for Egan.

In the far future, a researcher creates a state of vacuum more stable than our own by accident and it starts expanding inside our universe, destroying "normal" matter as it does (at half the speed of light). The novel has two opposing camps of humanity: those that want to reverse and destroy this novo-vacuum, and those that want to stop its expansion and study it.

Right now, both factions are on an outpost (seemingly) pacing the expansion, sitting in front of it and studying it. Fighting, a war of words at the moment. These are not your average humans though: essentially immortal because they exist as information that can inhabit flesh-and-blood artificial human bodies, inhabit artificial exo-skeletons or decide to stay incorporeal. Gender is fluid, AI ubiquitous and everyone seems to know a lot of math! The physics of the new matter inside the expanding new vacuum is described, as well as a mind-bending voyage inside to investigate its secrets. "Normal" space is fairly mind-bending as it is anyway but Egan can stretch things further when we get down to planck scale physics :

The Planck scale is the universal limit, beyond which the currently known laws of physics break. In order to comprehend anything beyond it, we need new, unbreakable physics.

I didn't really care about the characters, and didn't really understand a lot of it, but it is quite a dive into the far future and it is very thought provoking. I hope humanity makes it to the far future.


Thu, 24 Nov 2016
Copper Pot

Above: Copper Pot, Oil on wood panel, 10x8" [larger]

This is a painting done via a Will Kemp tutorial How to Paint a Copper Pot in Acrylics. I painted it in oils instead of acrylics. Kemp's done a very nice reference photograph that's lovely to paint because it's got such beautiful and strong contrasts, both colour and light.

I got some of the pot wrong for some reason (e.g. handle shape) but that's not a problem. I made the background too blue originally as well, and thought I over-worked it to fix, but that's not a problem either and I think it looks OK. The "pot" itself is the star here and it's turned out quite well. I hesitate to add extra highlights to the surrounding metal/cooker in case it detracts, and it is all too easy to mess things up. When is a painting finished?

The painting is on a wooden panel (Ampersand artists panel) using Winsor&Newton Griffin alkyd oils (faster drying oil paints). I used white spirit as a dilutant but also some liquin later. I don't like complexity in the process, especially worrying about medium concentrations (fat,thin etc.). I think some parts of the painting have too little oil and show as matte areas: probably too much solvent (white spirit). I may investigate fixing this, or perhaps varnish will in a few months.

The photograph of the work above was taken in my kitchen under a light bulb, then white-balanced slightly, so the quality is not the highest. By eye on my monitor it seems to be fairly true however.


Sat, 19 Nov 2016
Arrival

Arrival is a new film by director Denis Villeneuve, based on a short story by Ted Chiang called The Story of your Life. I read this last year.

This is a "first contact" with aliens film, where the aliens are very alien, but not obviously threatening, and we are struggling to communicate with them. The "threat" is human competition, fear and misunderstanding. Amy Adams plays a civilian linguist employed by the army to help try and talk to them, alongside physicist Jeremy Renner.

The film was very good, and a refreshing change from a lot of "speculative" (I hesitate to use the description "science-fiction") films made today. Chiang's story is about language and how much language might define us and the way we see (and are capable of seeing) the world. The story and the film are thought provoking, with the film deepening the very moving back-story (or is it?) of Adams' daughter. I have to admit that I haven't really figured it all out but that's part of the fun of an intelligent piece work sometimes. I would definitely watch it again.


Sun, 13 Nov 2016
Darkness and Light

Above: Detail from Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, The Taking of Christ, 1602

When I first discovered renaissance and post-renaissance Italian art, Caravaggio immediately stood out; he became one of my favourite artists. The sharpness of detail in his paintings, striking use of shadow and light and the realism, almost photographic, all contributed to my admiration. Compared to his contemporaries, the people he painted were much less idealised, much more like the people you would meet in daily life on the street. Many actually were.

The current National Gallery show Beyond Caravaggio is therefore a must see, and I went for the second time this Saturday morning. A very wet day indeed, and I got thoroughly soaked on the bike, but worth it.

Only a few by the famous man himself, the show rather concentrated on the artists he influenced. A couple of my favourite paintings are below. The exhibition is a collaboration between the national galleries of London, Scotland and Ireland.

Right: Christ before the High Priest, Gerrit van Honthorst, about 1617

I find this a very powerful and emotional picture, with Jesus standing before the high priest being interrogated. Christ looks completely worn out, tired and all too human as he faces the questioning. He will soon be taken out, beaten and crucified, and he knows it. The single candle is the only light source, and it casts the Caravaggio-like darks and lights. The candle and the pointing finger. A beautiful and affecting work.

Details at the National Gallery site.

Right: A Man Singing by Candlelight, Adam de Coster, about 1625-1635

Candle light figures prominently in the exhibition, as artists use the light cast to generate the deep shadow and bright light that is often so indicative of the style of Caravaggio.

De Coster is an unfamiliar artist but this painting is masterfully done. The only picture I could find of it is not the best reproduction (too dark) but gives an idea. In life, he uses the strong contrast beautifully, including the detail in the clothes of the singer. A very good painting.


Sun, 06 Nov 2016
Blue Sky Building

Above: The Library Building, oil, 20x20cm

This is a painting from a photograph I took a couple of years ago of the Library Building on Clapham High Street, a (then) recently built residential block on top of a redeveloped library on the ground floor (and an NHS Surgery). A slightly different design to the usual: sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. I'm undecided about it. Having said that, I loved the bright blue sky and the single wisp of smoke ascending; a clear, sharp and modern picture I thought.


Thu, 03 Nov 2016
The Explorer

The Explorer
By James Smythe

Score : 3.5 / 5

I've recently finished reading James Smythe's first book in his "quartet", having read the second a few weeks ago. The wrong order but I don't think it really mattered in this case.

This first novel of the four has a similarly unsettling and claustrophobic narrative as the second; even more so in some ways. It also has a similarly nightmarish trajectory. The Explorer tells the story of the mission of the first spaceship sent out from Earth to meet the "anomaly"; once again things go very wrong. The journalist they take with them ends up faced with quite a shocking story, with himself as the main character.

There are plenty critics of some aspects of this book, particularly the science (it is not realistic). Personally, the science is good enough: it is not a "hard" science book but just the bare minimum to get by and move the story on. This book is really atmosphere and horror rather than science and as such it worked for me and kept me turning pages until the end. One thing, I had quite a feeling of claustrophobia and helplessness here and it might be a good idea to take a break between reading books in this series! That's it for now though. It will be interesting to see how it goes from here.


Mon, 31 Oct 2016
Kafka on the Shore

Kafka on the Shore
By Haruki Murakami

Score : 3.0 / 5

I decided to pick up one of Haruki Murakami's books and expected something a little different. That turned out to be true in this modern day story containing so many fantastic elements. Not just a taste of Japanese culture (some) but an odd tale mixing a road trip, a philosophical discussion about life, music and metaphors and an alternate world of magic and myth. As well as people that can talk with cats.

There are two alternating stories which intersect at the end. One follows a fifteen year old runaway, with an odd curse and prophecy from his father; and the other has an old man, simple-minded after losing everything he knows in a childhood accident. The old man is Mr Nakata, unable to read or write but with the special ability of being able to communicate with cats. After a particularly bad day involving a bad man who looks like Johnnie Walker (of whisky fame), he ends up on a quest to fix an old problem. Actually, describing this "quest" and the reasons for it is not easy; one of the problems with the book is that I'm not really sure what a fair amount actually means. There's depth to it, and mythic or fantastical happenings, but much was beyond me. I enjoyed some of the "intellectual" interludes - discussing the meaning of metaphor in life, Truffaut's cinema or the Archduke Trio (YouTube) piece by Beethoven - but they were quite unreal in some ways. It was so full of other meanings that it's the sort of book that needs a followup explanatory text book perhaps. In fact, as wikipedia says :

Metaphysics is also a central theme of the novel as many of the character's dialogues and soliloquy are motivated by their inquiry about the nature of the world around them and their relation to it.

So, there you go. It sounds heavy, but isn't too bad.

Having said this, my mystification was balanced by the charm and oddness of the old man, Mr Nakata, and his companion Hoshino, a truck driver who drops everything to help get him across Japan and complete his mission. Nakata and Hoshino are funny and sympathetic characters ("Nakata isn't very bright"). Hoshino's not the brightest bulb either, but his slow realisation that his life has been pretty meaningless until now, and the way he starts to see the world differently, is one of the highlights of the novel.

The reason for a score of 3.0/5.0 is only that I found some of the boy's story a bit stilted, and there were odd sex scenes that seemed out of place

A book I quite enjoyed then and I'll definitely try another sometime.


Mon, 24 Oct 2016
Peach Bloom

Having watched and enjoyed the recent BBC program about Chinese Ceramics, China in Six Easy Pieces, I thought I would like to see the Percival David collection at the British Museum myself.

The gallery houses a very impressive set of ceramic pots, plates, cups and much else. They range in age widely, some going all the way back to 300 AD. They all seem very well preserved, which is amazing considering the age. I assume they had few, but careful owners.

What is most beautiful to me is often the simplest forms that have the most perfect symmetry and the clearest and most delicate finish. The vase on the right is one example but there are many others. As household objects, most would not look out of place today in the discerning kitchen or living room. Really timeless.

Right : Vase with "peach bloom" glaze, Jingdezhen,Jiangxi Province. 1681-88.

The innovative "peach bloom" glaze was difficult to achieve. Potters covered the vase with a clear glaze, followed by a layer of copper-rich pigment, possibly blown on, and added further layers of clear glaze on top. When fired in a reducing atmosphere, this sandwiched colour developed into a soft mottled red and pink with flecks of moss-green.

As the label goes on to say, Chinese connoisseurs called it "cowpea-red". I think it's good to stick with "peach bloom".

British Museum catalogue page.