MY DILETTANTE YEARS

1974 – 84

Some artists don’t bother with early, formative work and would rather stand by just their signature style. And for a while I planned to show work here only back as far as the Workouts series. That’s when I think my work really comes into its own and achieves an ongoing consistency or rigour. But that series didn’t spring from a vacuum, obviously. So I’m including earlier stuff now just to help fill in my rather slow and wayward development. There was a long period after art school where I focussed on movie making and although I continued to sketch all through that, it was essentially as a hobby. I now think of this as my dilettante years. I’m probably including too many here – it’s a very long page – but the choice is from a vast collection.

1974

Photocopybook2page2 1974 30 X 40cm pen, pencil, wash on photocopy

Photocopybook2page3 1974 30 X 40cm pen, pencil, wash on photocopy

Photocopybook2page5 1974 30 X 40cm pen, pencil, wash on photocopy

Photocopybook2page6 1974 30 X 40cm pen, pencil, wash on photocopy

Photocopybookpage1 30 X 40cm pen, pencil, wash on photocopy

Photocopybookpage2 30 X 40cm pen, pencil, wash on photocopy

Photocopybookpage3 30 X 40cm pen, pencil, wash on photocopy

Photocopybookpage4 30 X 40cm pen, pencil, wash on photocopy

After art school I did a year at teachers college, for a diploma. While there, I found a 3M copier that handled photographs quite well (in 1974 this wasn’t common in colleges) and freely assembled material in the copier and then worked over the prints with pens and stuff. I made them into little books, vaguely tracing a sequence of images and over-drawings. They were a kind of diary/scrapbook of enthusiasms. The approach clearly follows on from the lithographs I’d done at art school; that had added layers of graffiti-like or doodling text, collage and imagery and continues a kind of semiotic layering of the picture – as realism, cartoon, abstraction and text. All the same, they betray the same array of influences I’d started with – from Rauschenberg, Dine and Rivers to Hockney and Kitaj. You have to work through these things, even when you’ve got a theory, even after you’ve been to art school.

1975

In 1975 I went to London and attended the London International Film School for two years. Once on my own I found I actually enjoyed painting and drawing a lot more. It was something to do in my series of bedsits and crappy shared flats. Movies took a lot of organisation; sketches were more immediate, intuitive. At art school there had been all sorts of pressure from rival approaches and sceptical staff and I was always very aware of putting my best foot forward, being very serious and professional. But in London that was all gone and I found inspiration everywhere. There are hundreds of sketches from this period and I’ve kept them, again as a sort of diary of my fads and fancies. Occasionally the pictures included actual people and events, sometimes they were small versions of pictures I’d painted at art school – now done properly – or with sufficient detachment. But mostly they were casual versions of film stills.

OverCite 1975 – 30 X 40cm biro, wash, paper

Re-Manufactory 1975 – 30 X 40cm biro, wash, paper

After Pierrot Apart 1975 – 30 X 40cm biro, wash, paper

After Scandinavian Movie 1975 – 30 X 40cm biro, wash, paper

After Ken Russell Movie 1975 – 30 X 40cm crayon/paper

Father and Brother in Pirate Movie 1975 – 30 X 40cm biro, wash, paper

Soul Hitchhikers Map 1975 – 30 X 40cm biro, wash, paper

Hitchcock 1975 – 30 X 40cm pencil-paper

It’s worth saying a little bit more about film stills here

Film stills are understandable given I constantly encountered them reading film criticism in books and magazines as well as in advertisements. But film stills have distinctive pictorial qualities as well, and in later years it was interesting to discover many other artists of my generation were using them around the same time. Film stills basically illustrate a story, obviously. But even if we are unfamiliar with the story or players, we can often still identify a photograph as a film still. There are all sorts of little clues about the framing, lighting and format, usually together with details of costume, setting, props and poses to figures. As stills, they often carry a certain theatricality or melodrama. And even if they’re not really film stills, they can still evoke or allude to the category, as in the work of Cindy Sherman, for example. At a certain point film stills own some bundle of these pictorial qualities. In my case stills were sometimes drawn from favourite films, but mostly it was the opaque or inscrutable quality to the events depicted that seemed paramount. I would use quite obscure films. There was no way to discern an effective anecdote from the picture, as in Victorian or 19th century literary painting. They were both more detailed than standard graphic illustration, and yet less concentrated or salient. It was actually their remoteness from the story in this way, or even an accompanying critical text, that particularly interested me. My casual treatments were really a way of extending that distance, of seeing how far I could make them ‘painterly’ or variously embellished while retaining a sense of a film still. Of course the more relaxed, roaming line was also quite expressive of my situation and even the watercolour somehow heightens the sense of dabbling, of modestly amusing myself.

But beyond film stills or photographs as sources there was still a love of merging realism and cartoon, text and abstract or decorative motifs. I wanted something like the fluency of handwriting in all this, again, giving the work an intimacy and privacy. Film stills fitted into this more general aesthetic, but after a while began to undermine it.

1976

1976 was a busy year at film school.

1977

Once my course ended I had a lot more time on my hands. I’d also spent most of 1976 working part time in a shop for artist’s papers in Covent Garden, just near the film school. I got to know a bit about the different brands and Hot Press, Not and Rough. It was inevitable I would try a few Cansons and Fabrianos.

Something’s Come Up 1977 30 X 40cm pencil/paper

The-Private-Life-of-Leon-Trotsky-1977-55-X-75cm-pencil-acrylic-paper-2WS

The Private Life of Leon Trotsky 1977 55 X 75cm pencil/watercolour/paper

After Weekend 1977 55 X 75cm pencil/watercolour/paper

After Bandwagon 2 1977 55 X 75cm pen/wash/paper

Balancing my range of interests was not always possible. Increasingly, some pictures did some things, others did others. And around this time I started to simplify as well, thin the mix down and take it a little too easy. I think I was settling into an illustrator’s little signature style.

1978

Thor and the Coconut 1978 55 X 75cm pencil/wash/paper

Ideally, I would have maintained this lightness of touch. But I kept getting suckered into more elaborate compositions which lost the spontaneity.

Disturbance 1978 55 X 75cm pencil/watercolour/paper

At Easter, I went with a friend for the long weekend in Rome. We visited his friends’ family in Tivoli, but the famous villa there was closed during Easter – too bad. So we just hung in the park and wandered around, had a laugh and flirted, as you do. This was actually at the time of the Aldo Moro kidnapping and there were loads of armed troops around Rome and graffiti for the Red Army Fraction or RAF. At first I thought it was perverse endorsement for the Royal Air Force. It was probably just kids, either way. Anyway I photographed the day, like a dutiful tourist and thought nothing of it until sometime later, back in London, looking at the photos, thought I would try to make paintings of them, in ‘my style’. Partly this was an exercise in applying my so-called style to fairly pedestrian material; partly it was to take my mind off some pressing personal problems.

Tivoli 1 1978 – 55 X 75cm watercolour

Tivoli 2 1978 – 55 X 75cm watercolour

Tivoli 3 1978 – 55 X 75cm watercolour

Tivoli 4 1978 – 55 X 75cm watercolour

Tivoli 5 1978 – 55 X 75cm watercolour

What I wanted I think was just a relaxed, playful approach. I needed to step back from a lot of things, be reassured. Now they look like a fairly bland bunch of sketches, but at the time skimming over the photographic content with a languorous line, washy colour seemed enough. It doesn’t get any more dilettante than that.

1979

Once I got a job as an assistant film editor and most importantly, a union ticket (this was in the days of a closed shop in the film and TV industry in the UK), things got back onto more of an even keel. I had to rethink how I would make my own films, but in the meantime my sketches continued apace.

Dog and Trolley 1979 75 X 55cm watercolour

Sometimes quirky photographs suggested a similar lack of story or distance to film stills. Sometimes they were just silly and begged to be taken with a straight face. But somehow the casual treatment had become a little more careful, more routine. On the one hand, my more discursive stuff risked looking like rather arch doodles, on the other hand, taking them into a cleaner, leaner style risked banality. This wasn’t too much of a problem so long as the pictures remained a hobby and I concentrated on script writing and trying to organise little independent films, (see also my filmography) but whatever impetus I had maintained since art school had now dissipated. The work got slicker – all this work was making me a better technician – but less interesting, even for me.

After WC Fields’ Movie 1979 – 55 X 75cm watercolour

Girls School/Prison Movie 1 1979 – 55 X 75cm watercolour

Girls School/Prison Movie 2 1979 – 55 X 75cm watercolour

Girls School/Prison Movie 3 1979 – 75 X 55cm watercolour

Shootout 1979 – 55 X 75cm watercolour

Cary and the Flying Shoe 1979 55 X 75cm watercolour-paper

Mystery Crime 1979 55 X 75cm watercolour

Film stills were still my main inspiration and looking for graphic or comic strip affinities still drives the idle derivation, but apart from making them tighter in drawing and modelling, I didn’t really have a lot of options at this point.

Superhero Romance 1979 – 55 X 75cm watercolour

Pictures like this were derived from more mixed sources and start to depend upon a much more sophisticated handling. All the same though, I was just turning into the natty little weekend watercolourist.

Sophia 1979-80? 75 X 55cm watercolour

I can’t be sure about the dating of this picture – only recently recovered, in somewhat distressed condition, but in 1980 I made a short 16mm film (28mins) titled Sophia Loren’s Eyebrows. The source still almost certainly surfaced during my researches for the film.

1980

One option lay in working larger, stricter.

The Berth of Venus 1980 75 X 110cm pencil/paper (a double elephant sheet!)

Love Cage 1981 75 X 110cm pencil/paper

The introduction of nudity into an obscure film still was another way of removing or distancing the work from its identity as a film still. In retrospect the theme of a semi-public nudity has interesting parallels with Eric Fischl’s work. I didn’t know of his work at the time, although I did visit New York in 1981.

Holding a Candle to David 1980 55 X 75cm

This was actually derived from an obscure film still as well, but by this point I felt confident enough in my skills to introduce a portrait of Hockney into a fairly camp scenario.

Artist’s Motorcycle Gauntlets 1980 32 X 53cm watercolour

From 1979 to 1985 I became a motorcyclist. My whole appreciation of London was transformed, as was my social life. Although I was never a very good rider or mechanic. My riding could best be described as fearless.

1981

Around this time I did start to think about perhaps showing some things in some suitably modest or plain twee little gallery, like the Thumb Gallery in Soho. But they never really fitted in any of those spaces and it was actually symptomatic of a kind of complacency or meekness that had overtaken my stuff. I think I was influenced by all the high quality illustration around at the time.

Braced 1981 55 X 75cm watercolour

The Exercise Machine 1981 – 55 X 75cm watercolour

Muybridge Plus 1981 – 55 X 75cm watercolour

Mary and David 1981 – 55 X 75cm watercolour

Actually there was a whole series of works based on film stills of Mary Steenburgen, I’d picked up in New York. I’ve no idea what happened to the rest.

In the summer I travelled with friends to Paris for the weekend. Significantly, I spent most of my time in the Louvre and the Pompidou. Again, I came back with photographs of the usual cliché street scenes and soon set about trying to filter out the dross, find some kind of stylistic traction. I knew it was in there somewhere. I’d switched to coloured pencil, I think just for the convenience. Even working in watercolour called for a certain amount of setting up, and at the time I was pretty much only spending weekends in London, the rest of the time I was working around the ITV network as a freelance assistant film editor, in the evenings, working on film treatments and scripts.

Paris1 1981 42 X 59cm coloured pencil/paper

Paris2 1981 42 X 59cm coloured pencil/paper

Paris3 1981 30 X 40cm coloured pencil/paper

Paris4 1981 42 X 59cm coloured pencil/paper

Paris6 1981 42 X 59cm coloured pencil/paper

Paris71981 59 X 42cm coloured pencil/paper

Paris8 1981 42 X 59cm coloured pencil/paper

Paris9 1981 30 X 40cm coloured pencil/paper

1982

1982 was a busy year in which I made a short 16mm film (30mins). No works seem to survive from then, although the film featured a number of specially produced works, whimsical scenes involving Beefeaters. In the film they are the work of a young German woman. I’ve no idea what happened to them. This was not quite the end of my dilettante years, but I pursue the world in the following, more focussed series.

Posted 19/09/2012 by gerrybellart

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