THE DEVELOPMENT OF A PAINTER/PERFORMER
I was Born in India’s North West Frontier Province, Punjab, now Pakistan, 50 miles from the Swat Valley in the hill town of Barrian.
I lived in many towns in that area including Kohat, Peshawar, Ambala, Lahore, and travelled into Afganistan. In the hot summers we took refuge in Fort Lockhart, a military post overlooking the Afgan border. My father always carried a gun when travelling by road. Kidnapping for ransom was not uncommon. I think my birthplace has played a significant part in my attitude to western cultural modes of thinking.
I left for England aged ten. The influence of the East is in my blood. For that reason, I think I have a questioning attitude to everything that Western thinking brings up, particularly against some forms of authority.
Aged ten the first most exciting adventure when I arrived in England was getting chocolate out of slot machines and snowfall! England in 1938 After a period of acclimatizing I found myself going through school as if I was on another planet and couldn’t understand the language: I thought the eleven plus was really ridiculous. My early schooling had been very sporadic. And I taught myself to read by pronouncing the last letter of every line in a book to pretend I was actually reading: I had an innate feel for books. My thoughts were centered on doing water-colours when I was eleven studying painting from the Artist Magazine, and continued until I found myself at Ealing College of Art at fifteen. The drawing master said, “you seem to know about perspective?” — “no, what’s that?”
My other activity was doing fire watch for incendiaries and dodging anti-aircraft shrapnel. There was a war on. At eighteen I was called up to the coalmines and mined in Nottingham as a Bevin Boy, straight out of art school. Put on a revue for the miners. Feigned an epileptic fit at the pit bottom after a year, (my second performance piece) and three months later was in the army after many medicals at the then army hospital next to the Tate Gallery, wow! And saw the Paul Klee show there.
During this period of national service, I worked on drawings and water-colours whenever I could, in fact never stopped: ending up in Knightsbridge, drawing up plans for army buildings which were never used! While in the army I was offered a place at the Slade. I later declined the offer because of the colour of the corridor walls and went instead to the Anglo-French Art School in St. Johns Wood on a demob grant to study painting. This school was based on the Paris Atelier and was also the launch pad for the ICA: with visiting people such as Colquhoun and MacBryde, David Sylvester, Herbert Read, Victor Pasmore, Yankel Adler, and many French painters including Fernand Léger.
After three years there I gained a place at the Royal College. I was painting seriously all this time, developing my own style. John Minton, head of painting at the College in accepting me told me that I was mature as a painter and the college would do me no good, but come if you want! — I didn’t! --- Instead I got a part-time job in Robert Savage’s picture framing shop in South Kensington decorating frames for west end galleries. At that time, 1952, John Berger, lived in the same street as me so I knocked on his door and he arranged a show of my drawings at the Beaux Arts Gallery, I think, mistakenly, as part of the new social realist school. Framing however became my second trade, and I later set up a framing workshop linked to the Artists International Association’s Gallery in Lisle Street. W1. Just north of Leicester Square. Later I moved to Clipstone Street just north of Soho to set up my own business. Frank Aurbach and Leon Kossof were two of my most interesting clients. This venture was very successful, I worked there with my wife Mary, brought up two children and went on painting with one person exhibitions at the ICA, the Lords Gallery and Heals Mansard Gallery, also many AIA shows and as a member of the London Group, and two paintings in the Tate (Britain) Millbank with the AIA 25 show. We lived in Hampstead in a cheap rented flat with a communist landlady.
So, I was a fully blown painter and picture framer. Four days in the studio working and three at the workshop: bought a car and went on holidays abroad. Other things were stirring and we soon were caught up with Arnold Wesker, the play-write, ‘Chicken Soup with Barley’ and all that, organizing a tour of the Municipal Galleries in the UK under the banner of the FIRST GROUP. We were five artists, English, South African, Irish and two Scots, leading ourselves into a massive touring exhibition to twelve Municipal Galleries around the UK: starting at the South London Art Gallery in 1961. Arnold Wesker at the time was organizing a Peoples Cultural Centre in the Round House, Camden Town, while we were linking our exhibition with the Trade Union Movement in every town we visited, as well as Wesker’s project. I was a student at the Anglo-French from 1945-48, which incidentally, was the inspiration for the Institute of Contemporary Art, David Sylvester spoke there about the Ecole de Paris and Post-War contemporary art in Europe and Herbert Read was around also. I visited St. Ives in 1950: I was enthralled by Ben Nicholson’s work, and met Terry Frost and Adrian Heath, amongst others in bars and studios. Indeed a wonderful experience. The Anglo-French visiting French painter Fernand Léger surprisingly saw me as a very English painter! Other influences were Yankel Adler, Ancient Egyptian Art, Russian artists of the revolution, Corbusier, silent films of Eisenstein, theatre design of Meyerhold, artists Tatlin, Paul Klee, Kandinsky, Mondrian and the Bauhaus philosophy under Walter Gropius, and of course Allan Kaprow. For Russian revolutionary art I researched Camilla Grey’s book ‘The Russian Experiment’, not forgetting the Better Books basement events by The People Show in Charing Cross Road. I suppose that puts me in a certain category as a painter! For brevities sake I will miss out describing the Banana Warehouse meetings in Covent Garden, - 1950’s - with Kenneth Tynan, Lindsay Anderson, Christopher Logue, Ralph Samuel, Stuart Hall. This, with action space material is covered on the website at: http://www.imaginativeeye.co.uk/historical%20present.html While the framing business was going very well I began to teach at Barnet College and the Central School and eventually St Martins from 1960 to 1980.
This enabled me to sell the business and concentrate on teaching and painting where I think I found something new because I had to think about art and the why and what and how of art. So, I turned to philosophy to help out. Merleau Ponty’s ‘Primacy of Perception’ was a book that I used in teaching drawing with his ideas on phenomenology. I also taught sculpture. Later I taught at the Architectural Association, where I set up a visual research, foundation department and became more involved with philosophy. This was an interesting step to take because I was working with an organization called ‘Metropolitan Arts and Architecture’ in 78-79 and did performances with them at the Edinburg Fringe and Battersea Arts Centre. I was also part of the ‘Art and Architecture’ movement at that time, and talking to the Dockland Development Board about art in docklands concerning art workshops in the area.
My exhibitions at this time around 1961 were showing a development from painting to environmental sculpture and future cities in plastic models as works of art. (images are on the website www.imaginativeeye.co.uk) I also began to see the environment as a place for performance, a public space for art in performance. These ‘models’ were showing the way towards this very clearly. The ICA exhibition was also important because I saw in this work a means to paint sculpture. Roland Penrose was encouraging in this respect. In the next year I showed some work at the Lords Gallery, St Johns Wood, that developed the idea of art and architecture in materials of wood, glass and plastic. The exhibition was called ‘Art as Something Public’, reviewed in the Studio International Magazine February 1966 by Edward Lucie-Smith, entitled ‘Art as Something Public’ - but sold only one to the Arts Council Collection, a three dimensional wall hung piece called ‘New Venice’.
To skip on a bit I was now not far off the foundation of ‘Action Space’ in the year 1968. Joan Littlewood, the instigator of avant-garde theatre production was instrumental in my setting up this organization. But I don’t think I will write here too much about this venture that went from 1968 to 1978 working all over the UK and Berlin, Bonne, Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Poland. The details of this pioneering growth of artists working in the community did eventually spark of the emergence of ‘community art’. Finally working from the Drill Hall 16 Chenies Street London WC1 off Tottenham Court Rd, with charity status, supported by the Arts Council and Camden Council. However, community art was not my intention because I remained throughout those years a ‘fine artist’ in environmental structures, (Gaumont British News televised me in 1970 as ‘This environmental artist’, rather sarcastically), working through to being a performance artist with painting as my reference to sensory and phenomenological experience.
If you go to www.imaginativeeye.co.uk and the link to artists under my name the beginnings and development of Action Space is described at length and depth. A decisive change had to happen after ten years of Action Space (1968 – 1978). I returned to full-time painting in order to replenish and re-invigorate my original sources as a painter: but also developing the formal method of my performances. This was not easy after so much ‘action’ in the public arena. Yet I knew that my purpose remained the same: that is, fine art as the means to understand living as a critical human being and to achieve this through a link up of art and philosophy. The idea of the Post Modern intrigued me: Continental philosophers even more so.
The idea of the Word in a curious way became the model for me to paint and draw, replacing the studio posed life figure. My inspiration was now to be wrought out of words, phrases, concepts and a whole new way of thinking about visual form and performance of art. I had moved to Yorkshire from London in 1980, and lived there for two years, but before that I had made many performances in London at the Drill Hall, Battersea Art Centre, The ICA, and further afield at York Minster, Yorkshire sculpture Park, the Edinburg Festival, and the Zap Club Brighton, also an exhibition of Architectural Mirrors at the Moira Kelly Gallery Islington. My teaching at Central St Martins became more ‘spaced out’ as I was continuing to develop the use of philosophy in performance and painting.
This perhaps is a curious phrase to use here: in 1968 the sixties ethos did effect me somewhat but not as, “do your own thing man” I was actually more focused. Whilst realizing the notion of change, it had to be first intellectually advanced, more in the mind than actions, and I had to keep resolute in order to effect this change. Things are not that different with my thinking now from way back then. However a change in personal circumstance saw me coming back to St. Ives, having remembered and bearing in mind the impact that St. Ives had as a place for painters to be. But I was to be extremely disappointed. There is one other quite major event I want to speak about before going on about St. Ives since my last visit in 1952, and what it felt like in coming back to work there.
In 1998 I got together some prominent artists in live art around a table in East London to talk about the condition of art and how artists were publicizing their approach to art, as well as a look back to the 60-70’s. I have an excellent video recording. Then from this, in 2000 I presented a kind of, in the mind, covertly, an archival re-appraisal, in a back-and-forward flip of Action Space in Brighton: not exactly mirroring, but moving forward to bring together a group of artists in collaborating with no restrictions, free to make a contribution as they wished, in an exchange of values and aspiration towards moving out of the cultural strangle hold of commodity and mannerist art world commercialism to form experimentally a new way for artists to communicate and share common goals. This was supported by an Arts Council grant of £10.000. The artists were; Alistair MacLennan, Anne Bean, Jane Whitaker, Anna Best, Ella Gibbs, Roland Miller. Anna Laura Lopez de la Torre, Zbigniew Warpechosky, Mina Kaylan, Gustav Metzger, Bill Beech, and six students from the University of Brighton’s Visual Theatre in Performance, in order to investigate this problem. It took place in the arches on the sea front with many performances and debate on vital issues of live/performance art. It was in fact a work of art in itself: entitled SQALLP: Systems Questioning Art Live Life Project, linked to and with support from the University of Brighton—with interwoven intergenerational and international dynamics. A written report was made and an extensive archive kept.
Now about St Ives! it had changed a lot. The camaraderie amongst artists that had existed in the 50’s had gone. Modern Art had not moved forward at all. There was no real meeting place for artists. It was still living on its past glories, moribund in spirit. So I got on with my barn rebuilding and later contacted Rose Hilton who got me to apply successfully to the NSA. I gave my first performance called ‘Doubtless’ at Newlyn Art Gallery in 1994. Rose Hilton, Sandra Blow, and others were part of this performance, earlier performed at Dartington Hall, College Studios — it seemed successful as the first NSA performance art/painter member’s event. ‘Doubtless’ was a performance first made in Yorkshire with a poet and dancer in the Square Chapel in Halifax. Later I did it solo in the Action Space reunion at Bretton Hall Studios: then At Dartington, as I’ve said, while teaching there briefly. The piece was grappling with the text of Derrida and deconstruction, taking in Nietzsche, Heidegger and other philosophers. Apart from Rose and Sandra, Rory McDermott, Alaric Sumner also took part and others. I found however, that there was as yet no audience for performance art, and I don’t think this is much advanced at present. We are a little out of step with what is happening in the rest of the UK.
I made several other performances in the Acorn Theatre, many at the Newlyn Art Gallery and the Millennium Gallery and Salthouse Gallery. The last linking St. Ives Public Library with the Tate Gallery, a performance action through the streets — from word to image. However, in painting, though Bob Devereux gave me a retrospective exhibition in 1994, I was not really appreciated as a painter by the galleries. I put this down to the timid nature of dealers: difficult to sell and all that rubbish. I appreciate that they are really just shops selling art, but it is their duty to art to take risks, at least a modicum of risk. I now keep my paintings hidden from view, yet still waiting for a real appraisal from discerning agents or whatever. I occasionally show in NSA exhibitions. Badcocks Gallery did show me along with Sandra in 2003 and I was pleased with the postmodern (for want of a better word) feel of the show, even so they said I would do better to show in New York! And it didn’t sell: no surprise there.
My relationship with Sandra Blow began in the same year as the first performance in Newlyn, 1994. We struck up a friendship that developed into something more important. We both regretted the state of art in the now incorrectly named ‘artists colony’ and wished for better times when there might be a more forward and cutting way of making art: breaking boundaries. Incidentally she did not resign from the Academy because of the Sensation Show. We found an affinity in painting that reminded me of art as it used to be in the best of the modern era. Sandra appreciated and liked my performances and painting. We talked a lot on concepts found in philosophy and its relation to painting and performance. She was interested in continental philosophy but also had a liking for Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor Philosopher. I will always remember how rich our relationship was and beneficial to us both. We were struggling to keep at bay the St. Ives sickness, in its tendency for the pastiche of modernity and mannerism: we were remaining in a haven of thinking a little differently, though in the main I think this was kept hidden. Even though there was a gap between us in thinking about art, we understood the nature of the formal construction of visual art. Also as yet, hidden, is the video I was making of her working in the studio with me as the critical observer on formal questions concerning the picture plane. I think that this video is a first rate view of Sandra’s working method, and I am waiting for someone to commission me to edit and finish it for public showing. It is document made by an artist on an artist, and has relevance for that reason: that is, not a formal documentary.
So where am I now? Actually, I’ve managed to move through my life by moving in concentric and circulatory cycles of new beginnings: a kind of view, with the simulacrum in mind as not simply a copy, but a copy of the copy into an infinity of change, and thus, to be able to start anywhere anytime in the layers of memory and intuition. I have recently thought that while Action Space was about the appalling condition, environmentally of cities, and, the condition of modern art: my new environment is more in the mind: from the roundabout of places to the inside world of thinking and back to the material world with a revaluing of values: and, to be more precise, the revolving simulacrum.
I have racks full of paintings in the studio from 1950 to 2022, still increasing: a lot of performance pieces in mind, and in practice: and now this collaboration with the Thai boxing world champion, Julie Kitchen for the Exchange Gallery through the NSA’s Double Vision project. I have to state that though seemingly a socially oriented piece it also covers the territory I have been speaking about concerning the intellectual and cognitive approach to art, and this project relates to drawing with this particular approach particularly in mind. (please see publicity). I think I’ll leave it there because most of the recent projects from 2000 to now are documented and described on the web site of the imaginativeeye. The most recent being: ‘Shifts in Perception” —‘This Is Whatever’ — ‘Shooting Words’. The last was at the Waterstone’s bookshop in Piccadilly. How do I think philosophy and art and performance relate or come together?
Firstly, as I have said above, the studio life figure has been replaced by the life of words taken from the pages of philosophical speculation and concepts. They to me, are inspirational and set out a methodology not envisaged before. To read and muse reflectively on thoughts that expand the boundaries of thought is where art begins and grows. Joseph Beuys once said that ‘art begins with thought’; for me this is very true and always has been, but now is more vivid than ever. From Plato, Hegel and Kant and Wittgenstein to Husserl, Derrida, Virilio, Danto, and further; this remains in fact an endless search for a language of interpretation, almost a universal language that is expressive of the sensory intelligence, the imaginative intelligence and the poetics of revelation of what might be real. So real it makes a difference to thinking out commonly observed problems and the more obscure aesthetics of ethics.
I don’t think any philosopher should be ignored in order to find a balance to thinking through into territories found in contemplation, because they invariably are playing, in the sense of real play, with speculations that should be the right of everyone to experience and/or investigate. Philosophy and aesthetics of art in tandem have, as such, always been a fertile ground explored by philosophers. Now it is the turn of artists to follow in their footsteps. Particularly as the Grand Narrative of Modern Art has come to an end! Now that’s some statement! Has it really? Probably yes. Only the mannerists remain, only too clearly to keep the idea of Modernism going. But is this truly so? It remains a very serious question that can’t be ignored.
‘After The End of Art’, as posited by Arthur C. Danto, a New York philosopher and art critic wrote in 1984 that the end was upon us. Art after Duchamp must turn to philosophy. That is, the idea is art as philosophy, art as philosophy after art. : published posthumously(Kosuth). Thierry de Duve on the other hand is saying that the modern period is not yet over. Modernism has a way to go yet. Has it? In performance my colleagues and I are working with this question along with ideas on perception: perception as a means to thinking philosophically on the image and its relation to thought.
‘Art invites us to intellectual consideration, and not for the purpose of creating art again, but for knowing philosophically what art is ‘ Hegel: Aesthetics: published posthumously 1837.
‘Once it as determined that a philosophical definition of art entails no stylistic imperative whatever, so that anything can be a work of art, we are entering what I am terming the post-historical period’ and ‘…..it meant that as far as appearances was concerned, anything could be a work of art, and it meant that if you were going to find out what art was, you had to turn from sense experience to thought, You had, in brief, to turn to philosophy’ Danto< ibid
'The use of art for social change is bedeviled by the close integration of art and society’ Gustav Metzger
‘Communication is not about the recuperation of some prior truth of things, but rather a perpetual and mutual building and negotiation of truth, reality and subjectivity’ Paul Virilio edited John Armitage: FROM MODERNISM TO HYPERMODERNISM AND BEYOND.
more work is to be placed here later, so please come back because the images do relate to the text very closely, I think, hopefully.