Patrick Heron - red garden painting (june 3rd - 5th)
There have been any number of records I have confidently predicted as Top 10 Smash Hit Singles only to have been proven spectacularly wrong, but the failure of Propaganda’s ‘Duel’ to climb higher than 21 (it stalled there for three consecutive weeks in June 1985, resolutely failing to budge) is the one that continues to baffle me most. ‘Duel’ had everything going for it: A Trevor Horn production; a Paul Morley media construction; alter-ego versions and re-versions (one part dreaming blissfully, the other screaming like a banshee); a tape for your Walkman; a picture disc for your wall and more. They even had the coat-tails of Frankie Goes To Hollywood to glide along on, and perhaps this was the problem.
There was a lot of pressure to choose sides in the 1980s and there were a lot of people who despised ZTT and its acts as constructed Pop. Pop full of hype and bluster. Pretentious and posturing. Essentially, ultimately empty. Mutterings of ‘authenticity’ have plagued Pop and Rock throughout its history, often hysterically so. ZTT were certainly on the receiving end of such criticism and perhaps this is why I loved them. Morley of course had written so eloquently of the New Pop and really ZTT was a way of having those suggestions take form. Some didn’t understand how the sounds could apparently be so different to what he had proclaimed to love in the recent past, but perhaps such people did not really understand what he meant when he asked us to contemplate the point of being bored.
Propaganda were certainly my favourite ZTT act. I fell for the suggestion that, if Frankie were the ZTT group for teens, than Propaganda were the band for the thinking adult. Did I think? Perhaps. Was I an adult? Perhaps not. And it is possible that I have got that back to front. There is certainly something awkward about those years of late teenage, when one rather desperately likes to think of oneself as grown-up. The trouble is that there is often as not a distinct lack of clarity on exactly what that means, and so we end up becoming caricatures. Old before our time but thoroughly lacking the maturity to make the most of it, mistaking knowledge for wisdom and lust for love. Glancing back now, this is the age I would most definitely wish never to live through again.
It is this tension between experience and knowledge, awareness and ignorance, lust and love that makes ‘Duel’ such a perfect soundtrack for this age. Duality, and the tensions inherent in those separations is what the record is all about, after all. It is a record that glances back into the traditions of Pop (structurally, in its simplest form, the form that you heard on the radio, it is classic Pop) and yet simultaneously both looks ahead to an age of digital repurposing and re-visioning and lives unreservedly in the instant of its creation. ‘Duel’ is a record that reinvents itself as it unwinds, both metaphorically and actually. A myriad of re-workings leave us either breathless or bored, sometimes within the same heartbeat. Remember the question? Did you think the answer was simpler than the truth?
At just about the same time that ‘Duel’ was stalling in the Pop charts, Patrick Heron was working on a series of paintings in his garden at Zennor in Cornwall. Needless to say we are not talking about quaint little watercolour sketches here, but large two by three metre canvases lavished with oils. They are some of my favourite Patrick Heron paintings.
Painting is something I really know very little about. My own practical experience is limited and rudimentary but to use that hackneyed expression, I know what I like and I like Patrick Heron. In terms of why I like his work, I think I know the answers, and my reasoning is also likely limited and rudimentary. But it is certainly to do with the way in which his work openly acknowledges the two-dimensional quality of a canvas and eschews attempts to peddle to the illusion of spatial depth. Space instead is created by shape and colour, texture and touch. There is a lovely video clip of Heron explaining how ALL painting is abstract and he is of course spot on about that. And whilst I enjoy Heron’s more figurative work from the 1950s for example, it is certainly his non-figurative work that resonates most strongly with me. His ‘disc’ paintings from the 1960s have always touched a nerve, and deliciously so. The distillation of a language of painting; agreeing with oneself about the essential phrases and grammar of one’s art; playing with that grammar and breaking one’s own rules to create new meanings and in-jokes that only one’s own sense of humour can ever appreciate; laughing at the people who never understand. Something like this. The discs are important. I like the circles and the way they interact. Heron’s paintings sometimes remind me of Matta-Clark’s building interventions, or perhaps it’s the other way round? Whatever.
And gardens? I never understood the appeal of gardens until I looked at Patrick Heron’s paintings. Hoodwinked by the traditional notions of gardens as three dimensional spaces to be walked around, as a youth I found this interminably dull. This is still true now that I am 50, yet the thing that Heron’s paintings taught me is that gardens can be translated in the eye into two-dimensional canvases of colour and light. Perhaps this sounds strange? Perhaps not. It is a question I grapple with: does the eye/brain interface in some people naturally tend to one interpretation of a visual ‘reality’ over another, or does it adapt itself in line with experience and decisions about aesthetic preference? Nature or nurture? The eternal question. I expect science has an answer but frankly science can go take a running jump. It can figure out the speed and trajectory necessary if it wants to (and it WILL want to).
Heron’s garden paintings of 1985, like his work from this point until his final pieces in the ‘90s, are looser than previously and there is an argument to be made that they are more in the tradition of drawing rather than painting. There is a parallel with Roger Hilton perhaps: A delight in the motion of the brush or the tube. This is the line. This is the mark. Real, not real. Again and again. This is what we do, where the ‘we’ is artists and perhaps particularly the Cornwall artists. Certainly in some of those later paintings I can feel the various essences of Heron, Hilton, Lanyon and Frost coalescing in one vibrant place. And in his red garden painting too there is perhaps a nod to Matisse in the strong dominant colour. Perhaps that was also a table cloth. Perhaps not. Discs too put in an appearance. Of course they do. Streaked with yellow or spotted as mauve lozenges. Here is the garden, here is the painting. Minds leap between the two, excited and expectant. A duel between reality and truth, artifice and fiction. It all fits when you think about it.
There are any number of excellent articles about and interviews with William Eggleston available to peruse both online and off, to the extent that one wonders if there is really anything left to add. Perhaps, perhaps not. There have also been any number of wonderful collections of William Eggleston’s photographs published over the years and all are worth spending some time with. There is certainly no ‘perhaps not’ about this.
My favourite anecdote about Eggleston is when Henri Cartier-Bresson collared him at a party in Paris and proclaimed that “colour, it’s bullshit.” To which Eggleston’s eloquent response was to say nothing and wander off to talk to an attractive French woman. Well you would, wouldn’t you? Elsewhere in some of my writings I have said that Eggleston recognised that there is beauty in the everyday, which is different to saying that the everyday is beautiful. It is the same as knowing that boredom can be a delicious pleasure whilst simultaneously recognising that there is no point in ever being bored.
Eggleston’s commissioned photographs of Graceland are certainly not of the everyday and nor are they boring. Nor were they actually made in 1984. Yet they were first collected into the ludicrously limited boxset of dye transfer prints in that year and that is good enough for me. I understand that many of the images were in fact first published in 1983 (the year of the commission) in a book titled ‘Elvis at Graceland’ but I have not actually seen a copy of that either. Such idiosyncrasies of timing should appeal only to the pedant.
It is fitting of course that Eggleston should photograph Graceland for it is such an emblematic place. For some Graceland is Memphis and vice versa. Not so for Eggleston of course, whose tireless recording of the city and its environs has proved a lifetime’s project. This resonates with what William McIlvanney said about “the longer you are acquainted with a place the more you know you don’t know it” and one suspects that Eggleston would concur with that. It’s the reason we keep looking, after all. The reason, one suspects, that Eggleston keeps taking his photographs. What do we see? What do we know? Where are the spaces? How can we fill them? Can they be filled? Should they be filled? I think Eggleston’s photographs ask these questions, and many more. The best photographs after all do not answer anything, but ask everything.
Eggleston’s photographs of Graceland ask us questions about the relationship between fame, success and voyeurism. They ask as about taste, style and wealth; about what we have and who we are; about what we’ve lost and who we were; about what we need and what we want. They ask us about shape and colour; about hue and space. We come away not really being sure of the answers but rather happy to have been asked. When I was studying Art in school there was a teacher who would often look at our work and then at us. He would say nothing, but instead just form a question with his face and move his hand in a gentle wobble. I like to think Eggleston’s photographs do a similar thing.
Of all his Graceland body of work I think I like this one of the piano the most. For me it is classic Eggleston. Just look at that relationship between the dark and the light, the positive and the negative. And look at the beautiful hues of browns and golds. Normally these are colours that do little for me, but in Eggleston’s hands (or should that be eyes) they become something other. They shimmer and glimmer, glitter and glow yet are simultaneously sombre and ethereal, brooding and mysterious. There is no real depth in the photograph (of course there isn’t, it’s a two dimensional artform) and the illusion is only subtly hinted at. Look at the reflection of the keys in the wood that must be polished to within an inch of its life and see the dream creep into your brain. This is real, not real. This is truth, not truth; fiction not fiction.
So is William Eggleston my favourite photographer? Perhaps, perhaps not. It depends what day you ask me and what mood I might happen to be in. But as with the most perfect of Pop singles which, whenever you hear them you instantly, in that moment just KNOW is the Best Thing Ever In The History Of The World, so it is with any collection of Eggleston’s work. It’s an instantaneous, primal connection. Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom. Nik Cohn would know what I mean.
Is ‘Abandon Ship’ my favourite Pop single ever? Certainly yes and certainly no. This is the essence of the Pop single, after all. There are many perfect moments, each the peak in its instant of playing.
But there is something in ‘Abandon Ship’s favour for claiming that title: It stands alone. By which I mean that April Showers never made another record. This is all there is. One moment. Flash. Bang. Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom. Nik Cohn and William Eggleston would know what I mean.
‘Abandon Ship’ is the only record that April Showers released. For a long time it was almost impossible to hear, never mind find a copy of the record. These days it is still tough to find the record (as I write, Discogs has one copy for sale at a mind-boggling £300, though the median price is £65 and the ‘highest’ a mere £150…) but thankfully it can be heard on YouTube for free. Alternatively, there is also a video on Vimeo where footage from the 1967 movie ‘Anna’ is re-purposed, and very effective it is too. In my mind it would be lovely to see some shots from the movie ‘Melody’ edited with the song, for there is something of The Bee Gees circa ’67-’71 in ‘Abandon Ship’ that makes it something to truly treasure. Something in the orchestration perhaps, for which Ann Dudley was responsible; something in the soaring, sweeping melody that floats effortlessly to the skies of cornflower blue. There is, incidentally, a glorious instrumental version of the song on the flip of the 12” that showcases Dudley’s arrangement to perfection, yet for sure it is the inclusion of Beatrice Colin’s exquisite vocal that lifts ‘Abandon Ship’ to a point that makes me fear for spontaneous combustion every time I play it.
For many, Colin’s name will be one more readily connected with her successful writing career (there is an excellent 2010 interview over on The Scotsman website) but I admit that after an attempt to read 'The Luminous Life of Aphrodite’ I have passed on any of her other titles. This frustrates me to a degree for I so want to like her books. The interviews with her that I have read are filled with intriguing ideas and connections that resonate strongly. Mostly though it is to do with that restless (and ultimately pointless) desire to revist some mythical past that one has constructed for oneself. A past that certainly never existed in quite the way it plays out in memory, and yet nevertheless teases with carefully aimed arrows of ache and lost possibility. In short I guess I want her books to be novelisations of ‘Abandon Ship’ which of course they never could or should be. Which is my problem, not Colin’s, and I’ll deal with it in my own way.
Dealing with it means spinning ‘Abandon Ship’ one more time; means wheeling it out as the vehicle that delivers those aching arrows more effectively than any other. When those strings kick in I glimpse lips never kissed and hands never held; I see skies never bluer and a sun that never shone so brightly; I feel dapples of sprinkler mist envelop newly shaved legs and the hammer, hammer, hammer of a heartbeat up love from riding danseuse over the hill. Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom. You know what I mean.