Posted in Writing

The Fire

The Fire



She shivered as the hot water ran through her hair and down her body, turning grey with soot and ash at her feet.


The smell was invasive,  thick and choking. It stuck to her skin and scratched her throat, and she coughed with huge gasping sobs.

Did he?

Her hands shook as she tried to wash it away from her face, making her feel weaker still, and she steadied them against the tiles and let the shower hit her. There was enough water for now, but she would have to get out eventually. She knew it, but could not face it yet. The water could get her clean but it couldn’t make the truth go away.

She knew he had tried to kill her.

The room had filled with steam by the time she turned the shower off and clambered out of the bathtub. She sat on the edge, gripping the towel she had wrapped herself in like armour, and wished she didn’t know it. What came next? That depended on whether or not he knew that she knew what he’d done.

What would he do once she came out?

Where was he now?

It was late – definitely after midnight – but she couldn’t tell exactly what time it was. Where was he? She couldn’t call anyone or go anywhere without him knowing.

The police.

But there was only one phone downstairs, where he would probably be sitting. She would have to wait until he was asleep, but no-one would be sleeping in the bedroom tonight, so that meant he would be sleeping downstairs. If he did plan it, why would he let her live to tell anyone? For tonight, they would both pretend that it had been an accident.

The shaking had not stopped but she had to leave the bathroom before her absence started to appear suspicious.

Even so, she might have locked herself in for the night had it not been for the baby. When the door of her bedroom had finally been opened after what seemed like an eternity trapped in the smoke, she rushed out and down the stairs, letting her breath out and sucking in the clean air outside the door of her son’s bedroom.

Don’t wake him up.

When she opened the door, everything was exactly as before, the baby sleeping in his crib, the ceiling unmarked, the air unchanged. The fire hadn’t burnt through the floorboards above. He was safe. She wanted to hold him but she had to get clean first, or the smell and sight of her might scare him. It was over and they were safe, and mercifully none of the neighbours had been woken up. It was over… until she began to think about what had just happened as the water washed over her.



To Be Continued…



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Visual Research & Working Methodologies – An Essay

Visual Research and Working Methodologies: An Essay

The following text has been adapted from my student essay for the “Visual Research and Working Methodologies” module of my BA (Hons) top-up course undertaken in 2011.

Looking back over student work is a curious exercise; it feels strange to have communicated so earnestly, and so formally at the same time. Here it goes…


Visual Research and Working Methodologies

The intention for the work this year is to investigate the depiction of the male figure in contemporary art through the creation of a larger body of work, to be realised in the form of paintings and carved wood sculpture.


Several artists whose practices have been referenced are Ricky Swallow, Ana Maria Pacheco, Clive Head, Ellen Altfest, Patrick Hughes, Tomoaki Suzuki, Gehard Demetz and Willy Verginer.


The depiction of the male figure in contemporary fine art arose as a theme in the middle of the previous academic year, after the completion of several paintings and drawings of the artistʼs male friends. The attention they attracted, particularly from female viewers, posed the question of why in the post-feminist age the nude was still almost exclusively female, and why both male and female artists and viewers expected or preferred to see females as objects of art.


The paintings completed at the end of the year were meant to explore the reaction of the viewer to male subjects, presented as objects of beauty, and to question the assumed gender of the gaze.


The combination of two and three dimensional mediums is an important part of the development of the practice. Spanish devotional sculpture from the middle ages has recently come to the fore in terms of an historical precedent in bridging the gap between painting and sculpture, and in researching contemporary polychromed wood sculpture, the work of Ana Maria Pacheco and Tomoaki Suzuki has been of particular interest.


Ana Maria Pacheco is an artist who moves fluidly between various mediums, finding solutions to problems in one medium through working in another. (MacGregor, 1999. p.5) Pachecoʼs painted wooden figures are relevant to this research, as her aesthetic philosophy is found to be very appealing and sympathetic. She reflects that her colonial background may be the cause of her preference for her work to be well finished; she says,

“there is this thing about spontaneity, very closely connected with modernism, I find it impossible.” (Wiggins, 1999. p. 47)


Patrick Hughesʼs work as viewed in his retrospective exhibitions at the Flowers galleries in London was provocative, not in the direct way of manipulating perspective, but in his combination of highly realistic painting and 3-dimensional support. Reflecting on Hughesʼs work in the light of the recent interest in combining sculpture and painting, the synthesis seems entirely natural and very exciting. One method of working towards this combination is to utilise supports in circular and oval shapes instead of the traditional rectangular format, as have artists such as Frank Stella. Exploiting the cultural references of the circular and oval format will be a key aspect of the work within painting.


The work of Northern Renaissance artists including Holbein the younger has long provided an inspiration to attempt a similar effect of smoothness of surface, with the removal of the evidence of the artist.


The latest oil paintings, [redact]Tobi[/redact] (fig. 1) and [redact]Phil[/redact] (fig. 2) have shown an inclination towards this surface quality, but there is some way left to go in deciding how much of the brushstroke should remain, and how much mimetic illusion is aspired to. The effect of the artistʼs touch, the sensual effects of the paint surface and how much this affects the reception of the image in the mind of the viewer, is of great importance. On reflection, these last paintings produced have appeared static and overly slick in comparison to previous work, in particular [redact]Cill[/redact] (fig. 3)


A consolidation of style is therefore a key aim in production of this new work.


Since seeing the work of Clive Head at the National Gallery in London, the ambition has been to move the work towards a more detailed, photorealistic style. Some progress towards this was made in the last paintings, but there is much more progress to be made in terms of technique.


The hyperrealist work of Ellen Altfest at her exhibition “The Bent Leg” at White Cube, Hoxton, was a later discovery, and thematically is closely aligned to the current investigation of masculinity. Altfest similarly cites Sylvia Sleigh as an influence, and although in terms of painterly technique, her works are more thickly layered and heavily encrusted, the focus on detail is an essential link. (Storr, 2011)


Referring to Ricky Swallowʼs hyperrealistic sculpture Paton writes:

“we tend to associate detail with clarity, and conversely to think of blur and vagueness as the outward signs of mystery. In Swallowʼs art, however, detail is not an antidote to mystery but a form of it – a way to delay recognition, to make strange, to enlarge an object in a viewerʼs mind.” (Paton, 2004. p.10)


This view of detail as a form of mystery is a striking concept which encourages an interest in smaller sized, more detailed objects –

“Swallow is less interested in how loud an artwork can speak than how closely it can make you listen.” (Paton, 2004. p.64)


The intention is to expand further into a wider range of sizes, and produce a greater number of smaller paintings as a way of pushing the working methods. Since starting to exhibit and to enter work into competitions and open calls, the presentation of this current work has become a prime concern.


The impact that something as simple as framing has on the perception of a piece is a key area of interest and influences the choices made for the presentation of the work. Its usefulness as a method of contextualising images of men lies in how framing creates importance around an artwork, and how framing could create an artwork in itself. The frames will be used to present the images of men as works of art, to validate them as art by placing them in a very traditional sphere by presenting them as women traditionally have been.


The treatment of the frame as an integral part of the artwork incorporates the element of form within the 2-dimensional discipline, once more providing a link between the pictorial and sculptural.


Suzukiʼs use of scale, presenting his sculptures 1/3 life size, is something that sets him apart from other artists working in wood, and confers a very engaging quality to the pieces. Gehardt Demetz and Willy Verginer are both Italian artists carving naturalistic figures in limewood, and like Suzuki and Swallow they utilize virtuoso carving techniques which inspire emulation.


Suzukiʼs method of carving and painting is very interesting; he works towards a high level of detail, using photographs taken from 360º and carves very close likenesses. Yet his figures are not smoothed to the extent that Swallowʼs are; there remain traces of the tools, slight angular planes on the surfaces. He uses acrylic paint on limewood, but does not seem to use gesso to prime the wood. Perhaps because of this the skin colours can appear to be flat – especially when the subject is black. The paint appears chalky, and some of the wood grain remains visible through the paint, which hints to the process in the same way that the carving does. In contrast, the highly refined process of gesso application in traditional Spanish devotional sculpture lends a more naturalistic ground, and produces effects which are closer to the desired result for the artwork.


Whether the painting or sculpture is concerned with image or form, a predominant theme is that of “re-skilling”, connecting to traditional aspects of production and increasing technical fluency. The aspiration towards technical mastery that wood carving as a craft instills is obvious at amateur levels, as contemporary carversʼ societies show; this is a legacy of artists such as Grinling Gibbons.


The V&Aʼs Power of Making exhibition highlighted the debt that oneʼs attitude to working owes to oneʼs experience in design and craft. The exhibition focused on craft, on “objects that relate not to the quick invention of conceptual art, but to the slow perfection of skill”. (Miller, 2011. p.20) The line at which craft meets fine art is perennially an interesting one to define, especially within the discipline of wood carving.

“ʻCraftʼ is still a charged, even scandalous, term in the end of the professional art world that Swallow inhabits… There arose “a view of craft-skill as a kind of excess in artʼs economy of ideas – something ʻgratuitousʼ.” (Paton, 2004. p.95).


One of the ideas behind a traditional, skill-centric approach is an attempt to elicit a feeling of trust from the viewer.

“The care that we take in making something properly is cousin to the care that we retain for other people and their labour…selecting depth at the expense of breadth” (Miller, 2001. p.22)


It is important that the viewer feels able to trust the artist and thereafter become immersed in the discourse started by the artwork. In addressing the gender of the gaze, the viewer-subject connection and relationship becomes an essential aspect of the work, and this is established by the formal methods of production.



Figures 1, 2 & 3 are studen works, all now destroyed.


Adler, K. (7-24) 1999. in: Ana Maria Pacheco In The National Gallery. ed. Jervis, J. National Gallery Publications. UK

Bray, X. 2009. The Sacred Made Real: Spanish Painting And Sculpture 1600-1700. National Gallery Company Ltd. UK

Jopek, N. and Marqués, S. 2007. in: The Making of Sculpture: The Materials And Techniques of European Sculpture. ed. Trusted, M. V&A Publications

Langland, T. 1999. From Clay To Bronze: A Studio Guide To Figurative Sculpture. WatsonGuptill Publications. NY USA

MacGregor, N. [ps2id id=’MacGregor’ target=”/]1999. in: Ana Maria Pacheco In The National Gallery. ed. Jervis, J. National Gallery Publications. UK

Miller, D. [ps2id id=’Miller’ target=”/]2011. The Power Of Making. in: Power of Making: The Importance Of Being Skilled. ed. Charney. V&A Publishing

Paraskos, M. 2010. Clive Head. Lund Humphries. UK

Paton, J. [ps2id id=’Paton’ target=”/]2004. Ricky Swallow: Field Recordings. Craftsman House. Australia

Storr, R. [ps2id id=’Storr’ target=”/]2011. Ellen Altfest: The Bent Leg. White Cube. UK

Slyce, J. & Hughes, P. 2005. Perverspective. Momentum. UK

Wiggins, C[ps2id id=’Wiggins, C’ target=”/]. 1999. in: Ana Maria Pacheco In The National Gallery. ed. Jervis, J. National Gallery Publications. UK

Williamson, P (ed). 1996. European Sculpture At The Victoria And Albert Museum. The Victoria And Albert Museum. UK

Web references.

Corvi-Mora. accessed Nov. 2011.

Demetz Website. accessed Oct. 2011.

Hada Contemporary. Cha Jong Rye. accessed Oct. 2011.

Leo Koenig Inc. accessed Oct. 2011

Meneghelli, L. accessed Oct. 2011

Moore, S. 2009. “Open Frequency: Tomoaki Suzuki”. Axis. accessed Oct. 2011

Pratt Contemporary Art. Ana Maria Pacheco. accessed Oct. 2011.


A Manifesto For Contemporary Realism

A Manifesto For Contemporary Realism:

Recording for history, creating diagrams of the day to day. In recording animate objects, there inevitably comes the knowledge that they will eventually become inanimate… I enjoy the idea of representing life to celebrate life.

This is my visual recording.

I am highly aware of working within a European tradition, but I believe tradition is pointless if it exists for its own sake. It amounts to no more than the misplaced reverence of the dead. However, traditional craft is an invaluable tool for the visual storyteller, whether satirist or celebrant.

The history of Western figuration represents a visual lingua franca, invaluable for manipulation in storytelling. Working within and right up to the bounds of history and tradition can serve to point to its omissions and failures. One merit of figuration is its accessibility. Humans naturally relate to representations of themselves and their created environment, and thus they can be a vehicle for conveying empathy and comparison because of self-recognition.

Portraiture and the figure

Drawing and painting are central to my practice, but my love of creating and learning leads me to embrace many different media. What remains consistent is my interest in portraiture and the human figure. It may be akin to the Renaissance ideal of placing man at the centre of the universe; in any case, it serves to communicate shared experience.

My focus on the male figure may invert centuries of art history, but is a purely instinctive response in choice of subject. Some of the themes I naturally explore are relationships, love and day to day life, situations (or the pursuit of such situations) which are common to us all, and which have untold power over our lives.

How I define contemporary realism in relation to my art practice - and how that relates to 'traditional' figuration.

Conceptualism and craft

Personal involvement, labour and precision are very important to me. I try to incorporate my experience in varied fine and applied art media to my work, blurring the lines between them to point to their equality in the hands of the artist, and to my personal vision through the control I exert over them.

I could never be a purely conceptual artist; Victorian concepts of value and virtue having been ingrained in me by my upbringing preclude such a line, in my case.

Personally, I have an irresistible need to create.

For me, the value of art is bound in its craft. Value, being subjective, is at once a risible concept, yet of the highest importance to humankind. The exploration of worth and perceived value is an ongoing part of my wider artistic practice.

My version of realism

I am a realist. This is accurate, not only in referring to my traditionally naturalistic depiction of figures and objects, but in that I depict people, situations and conversations that have existed and that may be recognizable to many.

As the reality of life in the western world now means the pervasion of digital technology, its depiction within my artwork is unavoidable, perhaps necessary.

The co-existence of the highly polished, intangible, artificial world with the frail, fleshy, inescapable humanity is something that I find extremely interesting.

The souvenirs of choice for lovers may no longer be painted portraits or even printed photographs but digital images; but as long as we are human, their conversion into tangible objects, with physical presences, will be irresistible.





In the evening I walked through the subway towards the station.


I saw the writing on the wall, and realised I had walked into a poem. One that was meant to be commenced at my destination. For those going towards the city.

Pointless to read, but I glanced nonetheless. I would not have stopped, but that one line not hit me like a cold slap across the cheek. It may have been written for all travellers, but today it was only for me.


I read it again.



I knew, I remembered, because of that very day. A day of watching lovers in Westminster, lovers in Jubilee Gardens, lovers in Waterloo.

I remembered without jealousy when we were them, or they were us. I was as happy for them as I was happy for us. I remembered that day when we rolled on the grass in that public private garden, putting on a show of the most exquisite happiness for all the people having their lunches, reading their books and waiting for their buses.

We strolled from park to place to point, never needing to be anywhere but the place we were. Up there on the cool grass, I laughed so hard, kicking my legs in the air, holding his face over mine, pulling his arm around me, pulling my dress down around my knees for the sake of the strangers. But now, under pavements, I am sucked through a concrete straw, into the mouth of Waterloo station.


The words on the rounded wall pointed to me alone and my dream of a garden, faded and foxed like a watercolour left in the sun.


I remembered another summer in another garden in London, sunlight on my face and hands in my hair. Then flashes of trains, airplane windows and cars, always moving and waving goodbye. A Venn diagram of our worlds merging in the thinnest secondary-coloured sliver. But then how I suddenly thrashed and reveled in wonderful grief, doubled over clutching at my stomach, gasping, barking, rasping.

I remembered how I grieved then for the grief itself, quietly and exquisitely, drawing out its every breath and measuring its feebling pulse. Then how I suddenly wished it dead. I folded it neatly and put it into a box of favourite mistakes, there to gather dust and eventually, hopefully, innocence.


Cold uneasiness came over me, faced with the fading stain of the kiss that was once so eager, then became so weak. Not just the draft through the tunnel.


It was the guilt. Of not wanting to live in the dark any more.


Guilt. The guilt of letting it go and it letting go of me.


Guilt. Of cruelly prising apart the grip of my right hand with my left.


Guilt. Of wanting to see the surface again.


But how long could I stand motionless in front of these words? There could no longer be any place left for it, not by my invitation. Neither here in this close tunnel nor above ground. Up there, my green garden belongs to lovers; down here, it cannot exist. The expectation and the memory fought. Green and grey, they collided and kicked at each other until I tore them apart. Crumpled and flung into the corner like read letters. So it had to be. I knew it wasn’t a promise; it was only a plan.



I had a train to catch.





Originally published in 2011, this was inspired by my first encounter with Sue Hubbard’s poem “Eurydice” on the walls of the Waterloo underpass.

Little Bee – A Book Review

Little Bee / The Other Hand by Chris Cleave – a review.

Little Bee is a 16 year old Nigerian refugee whose story begins long before we hear her voice in a British immigration detention centre. Somewhere in the past, the thread of her tale has become inextricably knotted with that of a middle class couple from Kingston-upon-Thames, and as she prepares to step out onto British soil, that couple’s world begins to unravel.

The first revelations come quickly, but leave the reader begging for more: how has this funny, clever but terrified girl found her way to this far-away land, and how does she know Andrew and Sarah O’Rourke?


Power, privilege and violence

Andrew and Sarah have the power of money and the privilege of British citizenship which allows them to escape the events that tied them to Little Bee, but they cannot escape the aftermath; it will not reveal too much to say that death arrives not long after the girl does. The couple have the desirable veneer that the refugee girl wishes she could put on, but it isn’t enough to protect them, or their young son, who incidentally lives in a Batman costume.

It makes one think about the loss of security we feel in the Western world , where terror has come to our doorstep in spite of our wealth, armour, and our perception of ourselves as being exceptional.

As for the book’s alternate title, The Other Hand, it speaks about more than an alternative view of an event; it hints at the violence buried in the pages and the value of another’s life.

Value and values

Its opening line sets up an investigation of value and values: if a single pound coin is both free to circulate and is welcomed everywhere, then why can’t an African girl enjoy the same freedom, or be as welcomed?

This plain description of the pound and its power is simple but arresting, and brings to mind innumerable concepts of money and intrinsic worth that we hold to be sacred, just by virtue of never challenging them.

In truth, this may be more arresting to me than some others, as when Little Bee talks about the freedom of the pound in opposition to the restrictions placed on a girl like her, in a way I am reading, “a girl like me.” Cleave drops globalisation squarely into the scene in the first part of his story; Little Bee understands it and tells it like it is, with a solemnity we wouldn’t expect from someone of her age and background.

Narration and language

Cleave’s writing is gripping, and seamlessly uses both Little Bee and Sarah as narrators. However, Little Bee’s language tends towards the poetic as the novel reaches its melodramatic climax, and you are left with the sense that this girl, formerly very solid, funny and real, is being used as a substitute for some general “elegant African-ness”.

Also, attempting dialogue in Jamaican patios results in a jarring effect, and only serves to point out the difficulty in writing so far outside one’s natural frame of reference. This one small thing for me reduces Yevette, a character from the detention centre, into a caricature; it is the one thing that could be seen to suggest a lack of sensitivity.

From the novel to the news

The story is a curious mix of humour and horror that stays with you long after you finish it. There are few books that return to mind in the way that this one does – forcefully and unbidden. This is helpful in an age of compassion fatigue, where the plight of migrants is brought to us first with shock and disbelief, and soon afterwards with side helpings of scorn and mistrust by the mainstream media.

It is particularly hard to read it now without recalling Boko Haram’s abduction of 276 schoolgirls from Chibok in 2014, seven years after the book’s publication.

This, and the horrific new slave trade awaiting sub-saharan migrants who make their way to Libya in the hopes of reaching Europe, colours the story with a new sadness; you realise that even when the cover is closed on this book, the true story is far from over.