There is a sudden haunting whiteness to the south. It seems to hover on the shining surface of the sea. Then it descends, and comes closer. It is a barn owl. He glows in the last sunlight, like burning snow, a white incandescence casting a black shadow.
J.A. Baker, The Hill Of Summer
It is finished. This one took just under two months, which is pretty good going when you’re only able to work on evenings and weekends. It’s unusual to see a barn owl, given that they prefer to hunt in the vespertine hours, and keep to territory removed from the urban sprawl most of us inhabit, but that gives them a sense of mystery that makes them compelling subjects to paint. Owls have a long and complex history in terms of how humans have perceived them throughout the centures, ranging from symbols of good fortune or sage-like wisdom to avatars of certain doom. Pliny the Elder wrote of the barn owl that “when it appears, it foretells nothing but evil”, going as far as to decribe them as “the very monster of the night”, which is going a bit far, but I like the fact that they have such a contradictory reputation, as this leads to a potent tension that can be exploited for the purposes of art. It was Baker’s quote above that really influenced my decision to make this painting, and inadvertently inspired the title, which is also a nostalgic nod to a certain song from the halcyon summer of 1983.
Here’s the full progress of the painting, from beginning to end:
I was born in the late 1960’s, and came of age in the 70’s and 80’s, but if my sensibilities are stuck in any era then that would be the 1990’s. I still recoil at the price of things today – a pint, a pair of jeans, concert tickets – somehow expecting to be charged the same as I would have been in 1995, and when it comes to music, I seem to limit my range of listening – with very few exceptions – to anything that predates the curious demise of Diana Spencer. Suede are a band synonymous with the 90’s, but I will admit that when the NME were first pushing them down our throats I was openly hostile to anything and everything they had done. That all changed when they appeared in Top of the Pops in 1994 to flog their new single ‘We Are The Pigs’. On a stage flanked by flaming braziers, they belted out a dark litany of all the woes befalling Britain in the early 90’s that sounded like something that could have fallen into the run-out groove from Never Mind The Bollocks. Suddenly I was having to make a drastic reassessment of this bunch of arty fops who all wanted be peak-era Bowie, an assessment that had to be extended when I subsequently heard ‘The Asphalt World’, the 9-minute epic from their second album Dog Man Star. It was obvious to me that there was a serious band with something to say, trying to smash through the carapace the music press had forged, and it’s taken then about 20 years to finally complete the mutation. Their new album The Blue Hour is a consolidation of everything they’ve learnt in the past 25 years, but energised and elevated by a desire to still keep testing their own potential. They’re all my age now, and should sound tired and spent, just going through the motions, but on this album they sound re-vitalised and ready to take their obsession with dark romanticism as far as it’s possible to go. Their stall was set out early with a cover that looks like a George Shaw painting, and a promotional trailer that features a dead bird lying in the snow, and what’s to be expected is reinforced by the album opener – ‘As One’ – that melds Gregorian chants with orchestral underpinnings to establish a tone (“here I am, talking to my shadow, head in my hands”) that permeates all the songs: darkness, desperation, desire, and a determination to venerate that which burns at the core of your being, even if it may ultimately destroy you. What follows is what would have once been called ‘chart friendly’ rock songs – for example, ‘Don’t Be Afraid If Nobody Loves You’ has undeniable echoes of ‘We Are The Pigs’ – intertwined with tracks where they’ve tried for a different kind of texture, making the whole album sounded like the mature and confident piece of work it is. They’ve never sounded as good as they do now, and unlike many of their 90’s contemporaries they have endured by staying true to their obsessions and learnt the power that comes from refusing to compromise.
I saw a fox this morning. I’d just cycled to work and was parking up my bike in the pre-dawn gloom when I saw it, sat nonchalantly in the car park, watching me. I was reminded of Ted Hughes and the importance he gave to such encounters, accepting that this was the “unseen something that haunts the day” trying to convey a message of great import. If only I was canny enough to figure out what that might be. In the meantime, here’s Motorhead:
Don’t be afraid, the darkness you’re in is no greater than the darkness inside your own body, they are two darknesses separated by a skin. I bet you’ve never thought of that, you carry a darkness about with you all the time and that doesn’t frighten you… my dear chap, you have to learn to live with the darkness outside just as you live with the darkness inside.
Jose Saramago, Today In The River
Photograph taken at St Mary’s Church, Morley, West Yorkshire, April 2014.
Here’s another new painting from George Shaw’s imminent retrospective – A Corner Of A foreign Field – opening next month at the Yale Centre for British Art in Connecticut, USA. It’s a painting I first saw a study for several years ago, so it’s interesting that for the several new works he’s created for the exhibition he’s revisiting subjects that never got the full treatment first time around. This is an almost ‘prefect’ example of George’s ‘ouevre’, being a painting of a place that for most people does not deserve to be painted. There’s “nothing there”, but for me that’s entirely the point, and the more attention to detail he’s brought to the painting, the more power it gains. The rush of memories this painting bring on is quite overwhelming, which is curious seeing as I’ve never been to this place, but it looks like so many other places I used to know that the sensation of having been there is palpable.
The idea, you know, is that the sentimental person thinks things will last – the romantic person has a desperate confidence that they won’t.
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Photograph taken near Daisy Hill, Morley, West Yorkshire, April 2014. I’ve long been obsessed with this absolutely non-descript piece of landscape that sits overlooked and forgotten between forlorn farmland, railway tracks and housing estates, and I don’t really know why. I do remember using this as my shortcut when I was on the dole in the Autumn and Winter of 1986, when I used to spend my days in Morley Library, reading anything that caught my eye, and making up for the spectacular failure of my secondary school education. Trudging along this path in the mist and rain, something must have seeped into my senses that has never left me.