A too oft repeated quip of mine is that I’ll “tart” myself any time, any place, for a bit of attention. And sadly, that’s too close to the truth to joke about. But whereas I’ve never had “morning after” regrets about putting myself through whatever dubious little adventures life’s journey may cast in my path, I do harbour regrets about where I’ve sometimes hung my paintings.
There are three occasions when art places me well and truly “in the moment”. Not when I’m painting. That’s another world entirely; one of conversations with myself and imaginary collaborations with whatever musician is on the CD player at the time. No. The first is simply filling in the application form for a forthcoming exhibition. That’s the moment when the fantasy ambitions of the studio begin to reach out to the real world saying “I want you to see this.” It can take courage. Some people never even get that far. The second arrives with the sound of the morning mail, the tearing of the envelope. Whether accepted or rejected, in that moment all senses become fully focused. Even the carpet under your toes makes its presence felt. Finally, if the letter brings “acceptance”, the third moment is Opening Night.
The particular Opening Night referred to here was in fact an afternoon. I arrived promptly thinking there might be speeches and prizes, and wouldn’t it be nice to make an evening of it. (You see? I can be optimistic at times). Everyone else arrived with equal punctuality as if in possession of the certain knowledge it wouldn’t be worth missing Saturday night TV for. We filed through the one door with all the courtesy afforded a London tube train, necks craning for the wine and nibbles table, the gallery staff failing to clear the previous recital’s seats in time, causing stacks of chairs to obscure the lower pictures for the duration of the evening. I take a glass of red to occupy my hands. I won’t drink it, I’m driving. The gallery is crowded. This is good. The walls are crowded with paintings in equal measure. Not necessarily good. Sociable smile in place, I begin my circuit of the room.
A young jazz trio have been installed for the evening, rendering access to the far wall’s paintings difficult. It’s okay, I’m not hung there, but the saxophonist’s piercing drone echoing off the stone walls is not going to be as easily dismissed. As with most young jazz trios their repertoire sticks rigidly to a selection of standards from the Ella Fitzgerald / Frank Sinatra songbooks, the Holy Grail of popular music, now about to be rent asunder by a pretty face in a black dress. Her hands are occupied with a bottle of water, the compulsory accessory of the young, no matter the context. It doesn’t help her sing any better. The saxophonist keeps turning her mic down. Such is the lot of a girl in a male dominated band. But I’m grateful nonetheless.
Very early on I’m asked by a curator about the meaning of one of the pictures on display, “The Blind Girl”. It is a parody of a famous pre-Raphaelite work. I try to explain in a light hearted, entertaining way, what my intentions were but eyes soon start to glaze over. References to the history of real art do not compute. I try to explain that Stevie Wonder actually “sees” more than I do. Some fell on stony ground. We make our excuses and shuffle away in different directions.
My second and third paintings look good and require no explanation. I believe both to be well painted landscapes with a leaning towards a post-impressionist palette, and made with the honest intent of making commercially viable works. A number of pieces on display can claim the same merit. But look to either side of them and I see the usual badly painted copies of lion cubs, owls, puppies…. I could go on. Even Elvis and Marylyn are on show, painted with even less respect than the jazz classics still loudly dominating the room and precluding all attempts at conversation. My work is worth more than this. I don’t mind “tarting” myself for a night amongst owls and puppies, a Marylyn would be most welcome, but my work is worth more than this.
And so, after all of fifteen minutes, car keys in hand, my “third moment” of this particular round comes to an end. Another envelope is due to arrive at the end of the month. Another cycle will begin. Other moments when the aspirations and fantasies of the studio meet the real world.
“The Blind Girl (a parody on Millais)” Oil on canvas. Copyright Ian Gordon Craig.