Glimpse – Brendan Stuart Burns

Like Dorcas Lane, from Lark Rise to Candleford, I have one weakness: gardening, making jam, art (goes without saying) and books.

A foolhardy old friend suggested I get rid of all the books in my home and get a e-reader (no product placement here). But that misses the point. I have books so old that when I open them they smell of the time when I read them, their pages orange with age. And I know the end pieces, the little illustrations, even the acknowledgements, off by heart. It’s all about the paper stock, the scent of ink, the font choice, the heft.

So when I was given Brendan Stuart Burns book Glimpse to review I was excited before I’d even seen it. It is gloriously lavish: juicy thick paper stock, sympathetic design, colour reproduction and the attention to detail that includes an embossed slip cover evoking the indentations left on the sand by a departing tide. Burns and designer Andy Dark have pulled out all the stops to make a bibliophile’s bosom heave with joy.


Glimpse is many things, but it is not a catalogue (though it’ll be launched at St David’s Hall on May 11 at the private view of his exhibition). Nor is it one of the plethora of self-published artists’ books, made for the hazy purpose of marketing, despite the fact that it has been privately financed by an enthusiastic patron.

Oh no, this book is an extraordinary exposition of an artist’s practice, made up of material from Burn’s obviously fruitful year-long residency at Oriel Parc in St Davids, Pembrokeshire.

A bit of background:
Oriel Parc is part of the Pembrokeshire National Park’s visitor centre in Wales’ tiniest city, St Davids. When the Collection of Graham Sutherland works were taken from Picton Castle, in the south of the county, and stored in the National Museum Cardiff, the Friends of Graham Sutherland lobbied hard for a new home in Pembrokeshire for Sutherland’s works made in response to the coastline. Eventually Oriel y Parc (gallery of the park, literally) was built, with the notion of showing works from NMW’s extensive collections of Sutherland works and emphemera, but giving those works a context with displays about the coastline and, most importantly, inviting artists to make their own responses to this ancient and beautiful landscape that flaunts its geology, marine biology and ancient legends in the exceptional western light.

The light and landscape have drawn artists to Pembrokeshire for centuries and the population is still dense with artists today. Burns has been visiting for over 20 years, making field drawings, taking photographs and then producing his beautiful jewel-like works, thick with paint and encaustic, back in his studio in Cardiff. He was a natural choice to be the first artist in residence at Oriel y Parc.

I lived in Pembrokeshire for 16 years and every time I saw a Burns’ canvas I thought “yes, that’s it, that’s what it’s like”, even though we’re not talking about representational work here, it isn’t abstract either, but what I suppose you could call representational abstraction.

I know no other artist who quite captures the gelatinous light of a Pembrokeshire beach at low tide as Burns does, and his canvases prompt comparisons with those outrageous Victorian aspic confections (“if it tastes good, let’s suspend it in jelly”). There is an innate understanding of form and mass in the drawn and painted references to geological and found forms and an absolute understanding of colour in the palette that conjures up mineral deposits, lichens and the marine flora and fauna spewed up by the tides that lash the coast. It is no surprise that writers, such as Professor Tony Curtis (who has written far more eloquently than I could in the book), are moved to poetry in response to Burns’ work.

Art historians and critics Mel Gooding and Dr Anne Price Owen also write enthusiastically and well about Burns, providing a critical context for his practice. Curator Sally Moss, the real driving force behind the residency, offers a more modest written contribution, which belies her sheer derring-do in getting the residency established in the first place and her insight into Burn’s work and how it might sit alongside the Sutherland oeuvre.

The book is full of images of the work, the printing and reproduction quality so high you can almost smell the paint and wax, fear that the charcoal will come off on your fingers.

But there are also the photographic studies, map references and, perhaps most importantly for other artists wrestling with a body of work, the journals.

Burns’ year-long journey to the work seen in the forthcoming show is minutely detailed in an honest and engaging way. Concerns about paintings that weren’t working jostle with the adaptation to a new working environment – one that was open to the public every Thursday – and the thought processes, the drawings, artistic frustrations, breakthrough moments.

Here is everything you need to know about the difference between looking and seeing.

As the residency draws to a close, there’s a building sense of urgency to get works finished, to explore and record as much as possible and the impending feeling of loss that comes with imminent departure. He has bonded with his studio, found its hot spots for working, adjusted to the rhythms of working 9-5 when the centre is open. He has also negotiated his way through the not always complementary agendas of the two organisations behind the residency – Pembrokeshire National Coastal Park and National Museum Wales, although he is discretion itself about this.

I had meant to skim through the book, when I met Burns during the hang at St David’s Hall, but found myself rooted to the spot, reading on and on, while the hanging team bustled about to get the work on the walls. As I got to the last few journal entries – reflective, poignant – I remembered the time when I had been an artist in residence myself, far from home, and that intense relationship with the work that builds up when there are none of the familiar distractions. And how very hard it is to leave when there is still much to be said and done. And yes, a little tear did form.

This is a special book that shouldn’t just be left on a coffee table (though at £75 you’ll want to show if off), but read and absorbed by artists of all disciplines, art lovers and anyone who wants to understand the creative process. It is also a beautiful object in its own right and I’ll be buying one and finding book-friends on my shelves for it to sit next to.

Glimpse will be on sale for the special exhibition price of £50 during the show at St Davids Hall. You can also buy it here for £75 See more about the production of Glimpse on Brendan Stuart Burns Website where there are also more images of the work in the exhibition. I would also highly recommend Tim Collier’s blog about the book.

Glimpse, the exhibition, runs at St Davids Hall until 13 June 2012.

Moving Images

O:4WAs I write this I’m getting ready to go to a conference about curating video at the University of Westminster. I’m going because I’m part of a team that are preparing to unleash a festival of artists’ moving image work across Cardiff this autumn and I need to feel up to speed with current developments.

Some time ago, when I was still working for the Arts Council of Wales, I noticed that artists’ moving image work was burgeoning in Wales, but there weren’t many platforms for it, despite the very sterling efforts of galleries and arts organisations. I also noticed that it was becoming a key component part of the Artes Mundi prize and exhibition (and the next offering will be no exception) and a chance visit to one of the Artes Mundi lunchtime talks in 2010 started me thinking and led to an article in one of blown magazine’s ezines about what makes this art form special (you’ll have to scroll through to find the story).

While setting up a short-lived commissions pot for artists’ moving image for ACW I’d pulled together a specialist team to deliberate on who should get grants. After we’d doled out the money we all got talking and all felt that there should be somewhere for this work to go. And so Fourth Wall . Pedwaredd Wal CIC was born, and from it Outcasting:Fourth Wall – the aforementioned festival – began to set out its stall, with support from ACW’s festivals fund.

The fourth wall bit might throw readers a bit, but it refers to that moment in a film or a play when a protagonist turns to the audience and speaks to them directly, breaking the narrative spell cast by the more formal story lines of traditional dramas. We feel that artists’ moving image already does that – communicating directly and tapping into the audience’s own experience. And the festival is a physical manifestation of the excellent Outcasting – an international platform for artists’ moving image started by Michael Cousin here in Cardiff. For O:4W Cousin joins Ruth Cayford, of St David’s Hall (and Cardiff Council), to curate the festival, which will manifest in all sorts of places and spaces across Cardiff and link to all the moving image activity going on across Wales.

The festival is programmed across a period of time when there are lots of festivals, exhibitions and events going on across the Welsh capital, and we’re aiming to link in with as much as we can. The aim of the festival is to be as visible and accessible as possible, while giving artists as much creative freedom as we can and getting maximum visibility for this work.

If you’re an artist working with moving image and this sounds up your street then follow this link and let us know what you might propose.

If you’re a rich philanthropist, or a company not clobbered by the recession and wanting association with something that really reaches a public, then please email me (always worth a try).

Our thanks go to the Arts Council of Wales and Cardiff Council, who have clasped us to the bosom of Cardiff Contemporary (partially explained here) and the host of organisations and individuals across Wales who’ve already shown their support. Please keep an eye on the web site (still under serious development) to see how things are shaping up.

I’ll be the Judge of That – the Art Competition Minefield

The Table of Fraught Deliberation

A fortnight ago I spent two days closeted in a room with four colleagues, passing judgement on some 400 artworks, trundling before my eyes in the hands of a human conveyor belt. It was the eleventh Welsh Artist of the Year (WAotY) submission.

Now I’ve fought shy of this kind of judgement since I nearly presided over a village Easter egg decoration competition. Luckily then my Health Visitor warned me off and told me of a midwife who’d been drummed out of Dodge by angry villagers after a Bonny Baby competition. Why didn’t I remember that when the very persuasive Ruth Cayford of Saint Davids Hall asked me to be a judge? Luckily I had back up in the shape of Walter Keeler, Christopher Brown and Owen Griffiths and Ruth feeding us biscuits (the closest I’m ever going to get to a rock rider was asking for lemon puffs).

The sugar rushes were definitely necessary as the human conveyor belt ferried the 2D submissions past our eyes and we finally grasped the enormity of the task ahead. There are always so many things to take on board – the space, the audience, the balance of the overall exhibition – but the overwhelming feeling was that all of the judges wanted to ensure that the selected artists would be well represented by their work, and sometimes that involved some tough decisions – all consensual I might add.  But before you get over excited, I’m not going to emit any behind-the-scenes leakages, though I hope, by the power of the blog, to point up some things to think about when attaching cash money to a submission and sending it in, hoping it’ll be picked for exhibition or even to win.

As the submissions rolled past, what left me a bit perplexed was the very variable quality of works submitted, even given that there’s a built in duality to the competition as it’s open to amateur and professional artists. There were a few terrible framing and mounting choices, some effectively killing off the content; photographs that were cockled, badly cropped or that had slipped on the their mounts; works that I was familiar with in the context of the body of work they come from that looked odd as sole images.

The 3D works were also a bit of a challenge: some came with such complex installation instructions that it was clear that the entrants hadn’t considered the space in which they might be shown, others were impossibly fragile. And again the out-of-context nature of single works often fought against their ambition.

Meanwhile the new media category pointed up the problems of showing film or sonic work, originally intended to be embedded in a wider body of work and shown/experienced in a white box gallery space.

So here are my pointers, for what they may be worth, and I hope that with some time elapsed since the arrival of the rejection letters, this advice will help future applicants to sharpen up their submissions and win, win WIN!

  • Consider the context of the exhibition and the constraints of the space where the work will be shown – will it work? Will people be able to see it and understand it (especially if it’s one of a series)?
  • Take a long cool look at your submission: Does it do you justice? Is this the work you would like to represent your practice?
  • Ask a critical friend to have a look and give you honest feedback – what are you not seeing because you’re so familiar with the work? Are there flaws that could be dealt with or other works that would be more appropriate?
  • Consider the ultimate presentation: Are your installation requirements easily achievable? Are mountings/frames/plinths working with or against the work?
  • Does your technology work? Test CDs and DVDs on different computers and platforms and make sure that they open on everything.
  • For moving image work: Is it as crisp and tightly edited as it can be? Do sound and image quality match up?

Of course rejection is tough and we’ve all been there. My toppest of top tips is to go outside, kick something that won’t bleed, then ask for feedback and take it on board for next time. There are so many opportunities for you to send your work out into the world, with a cheque attached, that it’s worth taking a bit of time in considering which of the many open competitions and exhibitions would be the best investment for you.

And if these top tips are preaching to the converted, but you’d still like to get cross about something, have a look at what Maya Ramsay about has to say about pay-as-you-show opportunities in the latest Axis rant  The Art Lottery.

The Welsh Artist of the Year winners will be announced on Sunday05  June

Update: And the winner is… Paul Emmanuel

Congratulations to Paul and to all the category winners, the runner up, Pamela Rawnsley, and all the honourable mentions.

Other open submission shows to check out:

Mostyn Open 2011 21 May – 09 July

National Eisteddfod of Wales, Wrexham 30 July – 06 August

One Hundred Years of Sisterhood

Estelle Woolley Cut - cats claws and razor: Wunderland at tactileBosch March 2011
If you’re reading this on 08 March then a very happy International Women’s Day to you. This year is special because it’s the centenary and it must be said that there have been some major advances on the equality front (though let’s not mention the car insurance issue!), but there’s still a long way to go for women artists.

If you need convincing then take a trip to your local art gallery or museum and count up the number of works by women artists in their permanent collections, then tell me it ain’t so. If you want to stray into the minefield of whether it’s a good idea to show work based on gender then do don your flak jacket and read this and the comments that follow.

But, in Wales, for the next few weeks, you can access the work that often slips under the radar, much of it organised in collaboration with the Women’s Arts Association and, if you follow the link you can access the full listings of events and exhibitions that they’ve had a hand in.

I was delighted to be asked to help select the works for Wunderland at tactileBosch, and then a bit daunted as I wondered if we’d have enough work to fill the huge space and with the quality of work we wanted. Just goes to show how wrong you can be.

I do have reservations about exhibitions based solely on gender, especially when there is not curatorial rationale to link works together, but this one works, and I take no credit for it as it was Tiff Oben and the tB team who actually pulled it together and found sympathetic settings for very disparate and sometimes challenging works. You can read Tiff’s really eloquent description of the Wunderland here.

Similarly at the Artemisia exhibition at St. David’s Hall (why isn’t it on their web site, why?), I realised that sometimes it’s worth creating a critical mass of talent to underline the importance of the contribution that women artists make to cultural life in Wales.

And if you can’t celebrate this contribution during IWD’s centennial year then when can you?

If you’re involved in celebrating with an event or exhibition please post your events below. I’ll be trying to get to as much as I can over the next few weeks and do a review of personal highlights after I’ve recovered.

In the meantime I’ll be opening Female Frame III at the Wales Millennium Centre on Thursday 10 March between 6-8pm and hope to meet some of you there.

We’ve come a long way in the past hundred years, but there’s still a way to go. As a friend said to me today, “I’ve got bruises on my head from bumping it against the glass ceiling.”

The Culture Colonists

Now I’m guessing that Anna Wintour didn’t start her career by flogging copies of American Vogue from a cardboard box but, as deputy Editor of blown magazine, I set off for Aberystwyth with said cardboard box,  some pretty pictures and assorted stationary and passengers. The rain lashed down as I did various pick-ups from Splott, Riverside and Carmarthen, looping around Wales before finally reaching my bed for the night.

In the run-up to pulling together an issue for production it takes something pretty special to drag me away from my obsessive war against missing or misplaced apostrophes, but then I was heading for an event that I couldn’t miss: the launch of Culture Colony.

Now if you’ve had your head in a bucket or don’t live in Wales you may not know about this creative community, the love child of the remarkable Pete Telfer or, to be more technical, an on-line community for creative people and organisations in Wales.

Telfer, a former cameraman for the BBC, notching up an impressive portfolio of films for such programmes as The Slate, before the Beeb dumbed down their arts content, felt it was high time to circumvent the Welsh media, who had so poorly served the arts in Wales and go, as Culture Colony’s  slogan has it: “Beyond TV”. And he has.

The site offers a non-hierarchical forum for creatives in Wales. There’s no advertising (but please subscribe to keep it going), no agendas, but high production values and a lot of film content from Telfer, who can often be found, camera clamped to his editorially incisive eye, documenting cultural activity around Wales. What’s not to love?

For the launch (it’s been going a while but the site’s just had a major re-vamp) there were no press/media, no politicians or arts administrators, just a bunch of people who believe in the power of the collective platform and of the third (fourth? fifth?) way.

I was torn between (wo)manning my stall and attending the really engaging discussions. So, in the morning I sneaked into the session to hear a really thought-provoking conversation about archiving the arts, chaired (but in an informal “let’s just have a nice chat” kind of way) by  artist Stephen West.  Dr Heike Roms talked us through her work to date on What’s Welsh for Performance, followed by Eluned Haf from Wales Arts International, talking  in Welsh at breakneck speed (props to the fantastic translator who was just a heartbeat behind her) about the need for critical debate in Wales and bigging up Culture Colony.  Richard Huw Morgan, a last minute sub, who talked about some of his previous projects, future plans (both solo and as part of good cop bad cop) and how Culture Colony has supported his latest project – the cross-over from the digital world into the world of actively supporting creativity.

Around Aberystwyth Arts Centre artists had been invited to make interventions. So we had Kathryn Dodd and Louise Bird’s White Shift – Short Shrift; Roger Loughor’s subversive road signs; Kim Fielding’s disturbing photographs and Michelle Collins’ invitation to curate her un-edited archive while wearing a badge that said ” Artist”, “Curator” or “Critic”, with sustenance provided by Pete’s mother’s cake and sundry biscuits. But I can’t pull up at this point without mentioning the rather wonderful Dartboard for Witches in  the gallery. This exhibition offers a refreshing new look at textiles in art and has been exceptionally well presented.

This was not an event, nor  is Culture Colony an organisation, that could be dreamt up in any strategy. It is driven by goodwill, vision, passion and the collegiate and collaborative nature of the arts community in Wales.

Plugging blown, as was my mission, I was suddenly conscious of the role that arts centres and organisations play in Wales. This role doesn’t fit neatly into any monitoring or assessment format but… Aberystwyth Arts Centre have put themselves squarely behind Culture Colony, who are now housed in the splendour of the Thomas Heatherwick studio spaces. I ruminated on this as blown has had so much encouragement and support from Chapter Arts Centre. The unsung part that arts organisations play in developing artists and the wider culture in Wales deserves a big shout out.

If you haven’t had a look at Culture Colony yet I urge you to do so and, if you can find the modest wherewithal to join, then get PayPal-ing forthwith.

And finally, my apologies to my loyal blog fans. I have been out and about, and can commend to you: To the Buddha Veils and Voids, at St David’s Hall, Cardiff, featuring Peter Finnemore and Jonathan Anderson (who has a show coming up at The Mission Gallery in Swansea very soon); Bystanding at g39.  I also revisited the wonderful new Mostyn Gallery and  We have the Mirrors, We Have the Plans, (sorry but you’ve missed it, but more great shows on the horizon), which was well worth a quieter visit, away from the private view hoopla; spent too little time at Re:Animate at Oriel Davies (this year’s curated Oriel Davies Open curated exhibition, featuring the full gamut of some of the most exciting moving image practice form across the UK) and did my annual pilgrimage to the  National Eisteddfod in Ebbw Vale, the gold medal for Fine Art this year going  to Simon Fenoulhet (hooray!)

More bloggery when blown issue 2 is safely at the printers (and there’ll probably be a shameless plug too).

paint and place

A quick plug for Elfyn Lewis’s wonderful work at St David’s Hall Foyer Galleries, which runs to March 27th. Darryl Corner has already offered a great review in his Western Mail column, so it would be daft to restate what he’s said.

But I’ve known Elfyn for some time now, and would add that I never fail to be impressed with his seriousness of intent, his constant probing and experimenting and his deep and obvious commitment to paint, a medium that bobs in and out of fashion like a WAG’s handbag. Like his more-or-less contemporaries, Brendan Stuart Burns and Catrin Webster, Lewis manages to use abstraction to open up responses to place even if those responses are all in the mind of the viewer.

Below is the press release for the forthcoming exhibition at Cynon Valley Museum and Art Gallery, in Aberdare (my top tip – there’s a free bus to Tescos from the station and said supermarket is just over the road from CVMAG.)

There’ll be a whole new body of work in that exhibition and I’m hoping it’ll include some of the larger works, which won him the Gold Medal for Fine Art at last year’s National Eisteddfod.  Both venues offer interest free purchasing for original artworks, through the Arts Council’s Collectorplan Scheme and, if you’re going with some cash or your flexible friend, I strongly urge you to snap up some of Lowri Davies’  beautiful ceramics as they sell like hot cakes.

‘Gestiana’ by / gan Elfyn Lewis 13 March / Mawrth – 24 April / Ebril 2010

Cynon Valley Museum and Art Gallery, Aberdare

‘Surfaces are layered with paint that overflows, dripping. Congested, thick impasto paint has been pushed and forced to create a painting, which is also an object of desire. These paintings are layered time after time until the upper layer explodes and transforms from its volcanic creation into a vivid landscape. These are eruptions of colour and beauty intended to transfix the viewer’. Elfyn Lewis was born in Porthmadog, North Wales. His abstract paintings born of his love for the landscape of Wales and the powerful memories associated with the places depicted are distinctive and instantly recognisable. In 2009 he was the principal artist representing Wales at the Euro Celtic Art Festival, part of the Festival Interceltique the world’s largest Celtic Art’s Festival as well as being awarded the Gold Medal for Fine Art at the Meirion National Eisteddfod of Wales. He has exhibited throughout the UK and worldwide and his work is represented in both public and private collections. Brodor o Borthmadog, Gwynedd, yw Elfyn Lewis. Mae pawb yn adnabod ei weledigaeth ddihafal o’r hoff fannau sy’n ymddangos yn ei luniau. Dyma arlunydd sy’n gweu grym y cof a chariad at wedd ei gynefin gyda’i gilydd. Yn 2009, Elfyn oedd y prif arlunydd yn cynrychioli Cymru yn Arddangosfa Celfyddyd Weledol Ewro-Celtaidd. (Rhan yw hon o’r Ŵyl Ryng-Geltaidd, yr ŵyl gelfyddydau Geltaidd fwyaf yn y byd.) Yn ogystal â hyn, fe enillodd y Fedal Aur am Gelfyddyd Gain yn Eisteddfod Genedlaethol Meirion a’r Cylch, y Bala, yn 2009. Mae wedi arddangos ei waith ym mhob rhan o’r Deyrnas Unedig, ac mae casgliadau cyhoeddus a phreifat wedi prynu darluniau ganddo.