Let Me Tell You a Secret

19 November, 2008

One of the inspirations behind our new business project is the annual Royal College of Art (RCA) Secret Exhibition.

Founded in 1994 by a Royal College of Art student, this most unique art event raises money for the RCA Fine Art Student Award Fund by selling art works by famous and not so famous artists for just £40. There are only two rules, firstly the artwork must be produced on a postcard and secondly the artists’ identity must be a secret, only revealed to the purchaser when they can look on the back of the card.

Postcard 223

postcard 223, is it or isn't it?

What makes this event such a success is the wonderfully affordable price and the joy of deciding on the art for its own worth, rather than because it is by Damien or Peter or Tracey. There is also of course the delicious game of seeing if you can work out the identity of the artist and thereby snaring a potentially priceless work of art. My only guess at the moment is 223 which I thought looked a lot like Howard Hodgkin but then maybe a student has painted it in his style……

postcard 82

postcard 82

This year you can view the work online. The site is a bit cumbersome to use. To see each card as a larger image you have to keep returning to the thumbnails where I would have preferred a next button, but what the online site does give you is the time to dip in and out when you get a spare few minutes, rather than visiting the RCA in Kensington and getting visual indigestion as you try and look at all the art works of which there are 2700!


postcard 249

postcard 284

postcard 284

The online site also gives you an option to create a favourites basket and I have been busily gathering all the art works I would like a second look at. This is as far as I have got from browsing the first 500 postcards. No surprise that my selection is mainly photography.

The sale begins at 8.00am 22nd November 2008 and you are only allowed to buy four postcards. See you there.

The Winner Takes All

5 November, 2008

Hurrah, at last a judging decision I can understand and agree with. This year’s National Portrait Gallery photographic portrait award [sponsored by Taylor Wessing] has been awarded to Lottie Davis for her work entitled Dream of Quintuplets Birth shown below:Lottie Davies' winning picture

Quintuplets is from an ongoing project called Memories and Nightmares. Drawing on her own childhood dreams and those of her friends, she refigures the stories within a studio setting, employing carefully choreographed props and models. Using digital technology, in this case to re-present the same baby as a quintet, Davies creates a fantasy scene.

Quintuplets has been likened to the work of Manet, specifically Olympia, and it is easy to see the visual references. The position of the nude, lying seductively on a bed, her gaze directed towards the viewer inviting us to look upon her and her nakedness, the casual nod to the maid through the black faced figurine are direct correlations to Manet’s painting. But there are also other references, the deep red fabrics of the brothel, the religious iconography of the Madonna and Child give a depth to this photograph that speak of an intelligence and deliberate reworking of our visual vocabulary. There is an integrity here, the composition, lighting and narrative all lead the viewer to consider what is within the frame and not what isn’t there.

Second prize went to Hendrik Kerstens for Bag (below), a wonderfully comic and beautifully realised portrait of Kerstens’s daughter wearing a plastic bag on her head, shot in a style again reminiscent of a famous painter, in this case Vermeer.Hendrik Kerstens' Bag (click to see larger)

In contrast to the complexity of Davies’ work, Kerstens gives us a portrait of calm and serenity. Through the use of carefully crafted lighting and a deep black background he enables us to almost imagine the plastic bag as a piece of lace and cotton. Once we have seen beyond the surreal headgear, our view is taken to the intensity of the sitter’s gaze upon us, her piecing eyes are slightly unnerving but not so intimidating that we can’t look back at her.

What thrills me about these two images and the fact that they have been recognised through the NPG award is that they are about the act of looking. They are both clever works, evoking our memories of previous art works, but even so, they have gone beyond mere homage. Like any good piece of art, they reward the viewer by giving us more, the more we look at them.

For further reading and reviews go to:

The Independent Review

The Times Review

How Limiting is Limited?

20 October, 2008

For our new art project I have been doing some research into the rules of producing and pricing limited editions and I am quickly discovering that there seem to be no rules.

I started delving into the murky waters by looking at how an authoritative source such as Aperture sold their prints. A quick survey revealed that edition sizes can fluctuate wildly as can price and that the size of the print run did not necessarily have any bearing on the price. Sebastian Salgado’s photograph of coal miners in India is in an edition of 300 and sells at $10,000, while Annie Leibovitz’s photograph of Merce Cunningham is in a smaller run of 100 and is quoted at $500.

Edward Steichen’s The Pond – Moonlight sold at Sotheby’s New York in February 2006 for $2,928,000, yet the same image, although not printed during Steichen’s lifetime or printed as the original was – a platinum and ferroprussiate print, is issued by Aperture in a print run of 500 with a $650 price tag.

What this has highlighted for me is that the practise of pricing and editioning art is open ended and has no agreed conventions.

In a special report Diane Smyth in the 10 Oct 2007 issue of the BJP asks what’s a photographic print worth? Smyth goes on to say that the value of photographic prints is “quite a lot” and it is certainly the case that art photography is undergoing a meteoric rise in the art world, both in the primary source of galleries and on the secondary market of auctions. While the credit crunch may see cut backs in investment funds, big corporations, such as Deutsche Borse, who have a long tradition of buying and investing in art, have in the last ten years included photography in their collections. Zelda Cheatle’s role as advisor to the Wealth Management Group, who launched a fund in 2007 to invest purely in photography is further evidence of this maturing of photography as an art medium. This patronage by the large art buyers, gives support to the high prices currently being set for some vintage and contemporary photography.

Art photography has borrowed its concept of editioning from traditional print makers and has made it its own. Whether using a hand print process or digital output, photographs are easily repeatable. While the potential to mass produce photography could be seen as the Achilles Heel of any attempt to legitimise photography as a limited art form, many artists have embraced limited edition print runs. Thereby creating the idea of rarity and mimicking the traditional short print runs of etchings and engravings, which were a consequence of the simple wearing out of the plate during the printing process.

Position in the edition adds another layer of rarity and contributes to the price of a print. As a print run moves towards the sell out point so the price rises, apparently reflecting its collectability and how the market determines its value. Where a print run of 20 may start at $5,000 the last five prints may end up selling for $15,000.

It would seem that size has begun to matter as well. There is a tendency in the gallery world towards the very large print, produced in editions of 3 or 5 and a smaller print of the same artwork produced in a bigger print run of perhaps 15 or 20.

So we have size of the print, size of the run, gallery exposure, being held in private and publicly funded archives and how many prints in an edition run have sold. All of these factors plus the reputation of the artist will influence the price tag of a photograph.

It has come as no surprise to me that when I meet up with photographers to talk about our new venture that one of the first things we talk about is this lack of ground rules and their concern about how the editioning of photography works and how best to do it.

For the moment my thinking is don’t worry. Work out a price that you feel comfortable with and if it reflects the amount of work you have undertaken to produce it then I would argue you are probably in the right ballpark. Also don’t worry about issuing an artwork in varied print dimensions as long as they are significantly different. What matters more than anything is keeping to what you decide. So if you make two or three sizes of prints in stated print runs, be open about it and stick to it.

Once your career has gone stratospheric then leave the black art of pricing artwork to the galleries, who probably have a better idea of the market and which way the wind is blowing.

What’s in a Name?

8 October, 2008

I have spent the last few days trying to settle on a name for our new business venture. Names are difficult things. What do they say about us?

Our new venture is an art photography online gallery, selling work by established artists at accessible prices. Art for everyone is where we are headed. Our current business, a photography agency working in editorial and documentary photography is called Troika. We liked the Russian graphics that went on the business card and perhaps as importantly it didn’t have any reference to photography, which we thought marked us out from the crowd.

Our logo

We still like the name Troika, but will it work for a different type of business? Therein lies our dilemma. To get a handle on this naming process I have been rummaging around on the web. The choice for art galleries seems to fall into two areas. Many chose a name that has some personal meaning, the owner’s name, or the name of the road or building where the gallery is located can often be a successful solution. I particularly like Paradise Row and Riflemaker. An alternative naming process is to use a word that references art, or in our case photography, such as Lensculture, newbloodart, aperture. This is more about using a name that describes what the business does. But in the end how much does it matter what you choose? If a business is successful its name will take on a life of its own. Magnum is a famous photography agency and also a bottle of champagne yet in the photography world, the fame and success of Magnum has banished all thoughts of champagne and we just associate the word Magnum with legendary photographers. Foto8 has used an association with the photographic process, yet the success of the magazine has enabled it to rise above a mere descriptive label and foto8 has taken on its own identity. And that is what you need from a name, a marriage between a word or a phrase that will be memorable and its connection to a specific business.

So, will Troika do it? Can Troika become synonymous with an art photography site? We have been thrashing this out in our offices on Farringdon Road for days now. [We have rejected Farringdon Road as too long]. We have sought advice from friends and family. It is the very thing that attracted us to the word in the first place, its foreign derivation, which is now proving to be our stumbling block. Will people think that we are selling Russian paintings?

We have tried out the enigmatic. Dazzle Ships, Dover Beach, Saffron Cross and Watling Street have all been thrown into the ring and thrown out again. We have tried art and photography word association. None of our ideas have had that eureka moment. Until from out of nowhere came Litmus Paper. We like it. For now anyway.

Lemon Ice Cream

1 October, 2008

I have long envied my sister her ice cream maker and had begun to wonder if my budget could stretch to the £250 that a proper Gelato costs. I asked my dear friend, Nick, who also has an ice cream maker, if he could recommend any and he immediately offered me his spare ice cream churner. The churner is a delight and I have been busy this summer testing it out with various recipes, yoghurt or cream versus egg custard with a variety of different flavours.

After much testing I have decided I prefer the custard based ice cream and as a basic recipe I have settled upon that of my favourite cook, Simon Hopkinson. His recipe for Vanilla Ice Cream can be found in his book, Roast Chicken and Other Stories. He has a wonderful approach to food and cooking and is very encouraging by making you not worry if things should start to go wrong. His practical tips for rescuing one’s culinary efforts are usually very apt. And most importantly his recipes work.

So armed with his vanilla ice cream ingredients I set about making lemon ice cream.

The ingredients are as follows:

4 small or 3 large lemons

7 eggs [yolks only]

9 ounces castor sugar

25 fluid ounces double cream

1 pint of full fat milk

lemon balm [optional]

Pour the pint of milk into a pan and grate the rind of the four lemons into the milk. Only because I had some growing in the garden I also put in a few leaves of lemon balm. Bring the milk to nearly boiling point, simmer for a minute or two and then leave to cool for about half an hour and allow the lemon rind and lemon balm to infuse in the milk.

You might find the milk curdles. If it does, don’t worry, just keep whisking it. When I first made this I also added the lemon juice to the milk which produced a pan of curdled sour milk. But regular whisking kept it all together and by the time the other ingredients had been added all was well.

In a bowl separate out the yolks from the whites and add the castor sugar to the egg yolks. Whisk until the eggs and sugar are creamy, I usually do this for about 5 minutes with an electric hand whisk.

Rather than throw the egg whites away, you can freeze them and use them for meringues. I sometimes divide the whites into three batches and add them to omelettes or scrambled eggs.

Once the egg yolks and sugar have been combined, keep the whisk going and dribble in the lemon juice. After the lemon juice has been thoroughly mixed in, add the cooled milk, but take out lemon balm first. Whisk together and pour back into a pan and return to the heat and gently bring to a simmer. This is the tricky bit. You need to keep the heat going for as long as you dare without turning the mixture into scrambled eggs. My technique is to keep stirring until the liquid starts to visibly thicken and then resort to a hand whisk for a minute longer.

Various people will tell you various things about when the custard is ready. One of which is to stop once the custard coats the back of the spoon. Hopkinson is wonderfully dismissive about this, saying that as soon as you put a wooden spoon into the egg mixture it will coat the back of it, so it is a pretty useless test. He urges you to live a little dangerously and take the custard to the edge of disaster. All I can say is that with a bit of practise you will begin to know when the custard is done. It is one of those inexplicable things, it will feel right. I also give it the finger test and only think about taking it off the heat once the cream mixture is so hot to the touch you think it might scold you.

When you are happy that the custard is ready, pour in the double cream, mix all the ingredients together and lastly sieve the whole mixture into another bowl and put it into the fridge for about an hour and then follow the instructions of your ice cream maker.

You may wonder about the sieving, I find it gives a beautifully silky texture to the ice cream. If you prefer a more gritty ice cream or want the bits of lemon in the finished ice cream then don’t worry about sieving.

I served the ice cream with my version of tarte tatin [made with plums rather than apples, but that is for another time].

Raw Nakedness

30 September, 2008

As I cycled home the other day, battling with the buses and taxis on the Westminster Bridge Road roundabout I was confronted by a new billboard advert for Skin Bliss by Imperial Leather. I was somewhat taken aback as the advert had a completely nude woman on it. Her arms were positioned in the right places and a strategic use of shadows meant that you could not see any of her bits, but there she was, full length and naked.

Skin Bliss Advert

Skin Bliss Advert

The use of the nude as an art form has a long history. From rock art to Lucien Freud’s Big Sue, [Benefits Supervisor Sleeping] artists have used the nude to explore an expression of form. We are used to seeing nudity in galleries and museums. So why do I find a naked woman on a billboard so unsettling? It is perhaps because it is not a nude. By that I mean that a nude is often thought of as an idealised expression of the naked human body. The naked woman in the Skin Bliss advert is not to my mind idealised. There is no joy or exuberance in the picture. No celebration of the female form. Her body is bent to make the shadows fall in the right place, hunched shoulders, an unnatural tilt of the head and ridiculously positioned arms and hands reduce the model to a mannequin. The image is ugly and perhaps that is what disturbs me more than the model’s nakedness. This isn’t nudity, it is raw nakedness.

That’s not nice!

25 September, 2008

When I was a child, my mother tried to ban the reading of Enid Blyton in our house. As a teacher, she claimed it was because Blyton misused and overused the word nice. I of course saw the ban as a challenge and enjoyed secreting copies of the Famous Five under the bed covers with a torch to devour the antics of George, Tim et al as they ran around the English countryside, solving mysteries. As a child the word nice didn’t hinder my enjoyment of the books, but it is curiously a word I try to avoid using in adult life.

The word nice raised its head again this week and I was reminded of my mother’s heeding, that it is a lazy word, devoid of any real meaning. I came across it in The Times’ bold attempt to explain Modern Art. The newspaper invites readers to comment on a picture, which they post on line and print in Times2 along side the expert’s view. This week they were soliciting views on Francis Bacon’s portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne. It was the review by Alain Williams that caught my eye and ire. To quote Mr Williams “It is horrible – I can’t see why anyone would want that on their wall or do anything other than walk straight past it. Producing nice pictures might be boring, but it’s what most people want”.

Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne 1966. © Estate of Francis Bacon

Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne 1966. © Estate of Francis Bacon

My immediate response to reading this was, you don’t have it like it, but must we all be condemned to a world that is boring and nice, bland and dull. For me art isn’t about being liked or only for hanging on the sitting room wall. Art is about thought and challenge, it is about asking someone to take time out from the bombardment of images we see everyday, and consider the image held in our gaze. Not all art is good and it is perfectly ok to say I like this or I don’t like that.

There are vast periods of art that I don’t linger over as I stroll around the National Gallery or Tate Britain because it doesn’t particularly hold my interest. But to confine our visual senses with the prescription that art should be nice is a boring proposition and I suspect does not reflect what most people want.

The Francis Bacon exhibition is at the Tate Britain 11th September – 4th January 2009