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The armies of kitsch march onwards, ever onwards, to death, glory and the great annoyance of Clement Greenberg’s ghost.

Welcome to the imaginary town, what I hope will become a regular feature of fictionalised and greatly exaggerated accounts of town life. Names and places have been redacted to protect both the innocent and the very guilty, particularly as I am one of the guilty parties. Having established that, read on:

Some time ago, I completed a jobcentre placement at a charity shop. I enjoyed it, and I got extra money on my dole. What wasn’t to like? The only trouble with it was that I couldn’t stand the waiting. It was fine when I was working in the stockroom- I could happily spend hours sorting things and I flatter myself that I did so in a clean, meticulous and methodical way. But sometimes I would have to spend hours cooling my heels behind the till.

Any charity shop has certain items that keep being donated to them again and again. A friend in another charity shop used to say that ‘It’s not a charity shop without a copy of the Da Vinci code’. Certain books are tediously recurrent. Forget the bestseller lists and the reviews in the papers- the best indication of what people are actually reading lies in which books are regularly donated to charity shops. They are read but not kept- you seldom saw a copy of, say, the lord of the rings or one of Stephen King’s dark tower books mouldering on the shelves. Dan Brown books were parcticularly likely to crop up in this context- at any one time we would have up to five copies of ‘the Da Vinci code’ laying dormant in the stock room. These are the cheap books- throwaway fantasies for the modern age. But who knows how posterity might judge them? The thought occurs that Shakespeare was simply writing popular entertainment. The box of Mills and Boon novels always kept by the bookshelves for reasons of space, I suppose, were more conventional escapism. They spoke to an obvious desire, but what dark, subterranean urge gives birth to popular fiction? Curiously, these books don’t seem to have the same lifespan as books that are explicitly within the fantasy genre.They were bought, read and then taken to the charity shop, perhaps with an interval of some months.

Nor was this phenomenon confined to the bookshelves. A particular dress might be donated twice or three times. I suspect that some of our customers bought clothes one week, wore them and then donated them the next. But that didn’t account for some items being donated in their tens- halterneck tops and T-shirts with allegedly humorous slogans. This particular charity shop- I omit the name to protect the innocent- was cursed with a profusion of tiny kitsch figurines. Teddy bears with drums, the three wise monkeys, that sort of thing. I found a huge box of them out in the shed, formerly a dumping ground that was being re-organised by the manageress, who’d only recently started at the shop. They barely sold- somebody might be particularly struck by a particular figure and take it off our hands, but by and large they sat in their box collecting dust. Eventually, my boredom and the free availability of these neglected creations combined to produce spurts of purposesful activity. I created little tableau with the figurines, acting out scenes from my imagination. I would have them all facing the shop, like a little army or crowded around a central figure. I added more, and they started to resemble a small army. This struck a chord in my imagination, and I started fetching more and more of them. I refrained from this frankly childish pursuit as much as possible, but eventually the long stale hours defeated me. I began to spend more and more time fantasising about the doings of these little plastic creatures, and re-arranging them according to my whims.

To begin with, my little objects occupied a small shelf by the door, but gradually and imperceptibly, they started to occupy more and more space, some with their little legs dangling over the edge of the shelf, others facing in a properly martial manner towards each other, or set apart, commanding the masses of dolls and toy cars. Their little empire kept on growing, until it reached the racks of reduced womenswear. This presented something of an obstacle, which I overcame by arranging them in a line along the floor of the shop. Undaunted, the little domains of these creatures kept spreading.

Had the manager been present, of course, this empire building of plastic figurines would have been called to a halt. But then the manager went away for a few days, and I went into overdrive. The fantasies associated with these neglected little objects became more and more elaborate. From one minute to the next they could change from being conquering armies to peaceful citizens of a wise and enlightened republic of toys. The other staff took an indulgent view of these activities, but as the people’s plastic republic began to encroach on the menswear section, that bemusement turned to alarm. Soon, the whole of the shop was inhabited on every flat surface with hundreds of little rabbits, china dolls and plastic toys of every description. I briefly christened the display ‘the armies of kitsch march onwards ever onwards to death, glory and the great annoyance of Clement Greenberg’s ghost’. Clement Greenberg was the man who described kitsch as a ‘tool of fascism’. For a while, the little empire became an authoritarian state in line with the thinking of that statement, then it would morph as other ideas took hold into a democratic state or a theocracy. I renamed it as the much shorter ‘people’s plastic republic’ Figures would sit in circles and assemblages as I imagined them discussing weighty matters of state policy. The jewellry stand became the seat of government, with two chambers of government and a president. The rightwingers were led by a transformers action figure, while the liberal left had a pair of doves as their joint leaders.

The effect of this little enterprise was to encourage customers to buy the figurines in droves. I’d long ago taught myself from the till manual how to print a total of the day’s takings. We were making more money than we normally did. This hadn’t been my intention, in so far as I had ever had an intention. The actual purpose of my work at the charity shop had long been occluded by the need to re-arrange and animate the people’s plastic republic. Piqued, I began to fetch the figurines in bags and for every one of the ‘fallen’ I would place ten of them back on the shelves. This activity had grown from a minor childish diversion to an all-consuming mania. I imagined how the citizens of the people’s plastic republic would react to the threat posed to their civilisation by these giant people who would buy their citizens and take them off to who knows where. Little squads of ‘guards’ emerged commanded by a leader, a fierce and hard-bitten teenage mutant ninja turtle, facing out to fend off the threat. These little guardians would disappear by twos and threes as customers bought them. Many of them were visibly amused, and people started coming back and buying more. Our shop became the centre of attention on the high street- people would come and admire the people’s plastic republic. Children especially were very taken with it. I began to weave the responses of the customers into my fantasies.

It occurred to me that the people’s plastic republic, while it had achieved so much, was still looking for a greater purpose, a unifying quest to unite its people. Something like the ‘great leap forward’. Now there was a third political party in the people’s plastic republic- the colonisers. I looked out the window and as I saw shoppers strolling in the morning sun, it seemed to me that the citizens of the people’s plastic republic must be aware in some way of the world outside the shop. They all came from other places, after all. The scientists and thinkers of this state, It seemed to me, had to have some plan, some vision of colonising the exterior world. And so, little groups of figures started appearing on street corners, in telephone boxes, radiating out from the shop.

When the manager returned, she opened the door in the morning to find an entire shop of plastic figurines, with just enough space for her to enter and see the armies of kitsch on every shelf and cupboard, marching across the floor, lines of them all converging on the door.

“What the bloody hell happened here?” She said…

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Diana Heeks at King Street Gallery

At first sight, Diana Heeks’ exhibition at King street gallery looks like a display of modernist painting of a very fine pedigree. The parallels to Rothko and Twobly are obvious, but the text on which these paintings draw is Raymond Williams’ ‘the people of the black mountains’, an unaccountably out of print trilogy of which only two books were ever published. The well chosen extracts give a window into a unique creative vision. The tendency with written descriptions is for visitors to virtually ignore the paintings that they are actually supposed to be looking at in favour of the labels. Not here though. They enhance, rather than describe, the work.

The breakthrough piece here, for me, is the magnificent ‘archetype’, a painting on board in the shape of a flower, perhaps a poppy, although the sinuous top edge of the painting recalls hills rather than flowers. The pink and blue underpainting, shown in parts, gives an aggressive, somehow intellectual, edge to the painting, but the ligature extending form it (a stem? A branch? A road?) is the piece’s crowning glory. Unusually shaped canvasses (or boards in this case) have a chequered past in the history of modern painting, but this one really works. The image has an ambiguity that is part and parcel of really intellectual painting.

Not that any of this is dry. The heart of this exhibition is the large rectangular paintings. The brushwork is deeply honest- by allowing the hand to show, there is an eloquence here that would otherwise be lacking. Take ‘cist’, for example, a vast purple ode with rusty orange passages. There is a surprising level of detail- the little arrow shapes are all the more eloquent because their scale is perfectly judged. But my personal favourite is the tree in ‘Glyn to Ellis: this place 3’, which gives us a faded image of a tree, evoking perhaps a hand, smeared into the background.

Or take ‘or the sweetness of the place’. The painting consists of a series of linear passages, one of which is a purple pool of paint, irregularly defined, on top of which text has been added in the perfect shade of orange-yellow. Beneath are hand drawn foliage motifs that lend an element of exploratory, tight, drawing to the piece.

The addition of text scratched into the surface of these works makes the text central to the work, not a peripheral adjunct. Landscape description in literature can so often be banal, merely a background, but here it is taken into the heart of the work. The painting perfectly evokes what the artist points out in the text involved: “A bird’s eye view with a succession of earthbound stories”

The mixed media pieces on the floor of the gallery encapsulate a sense of atmosphere in simple conceits of wood, paper and plastic. One really gets the feeling that these are the product of long and profound looking. Even the plastic pipe is a necessary inclusion. The artist has clearly looked a long time at landscape and thought ‘if this were an assemblage, what sort of assemblage would it be?’. There is a humour here, or rather a wit. Incidentally, the album of drawings is well worth leafing through too. The horses, for instance, are redolent of cave paintings and the elemental nature of these works carries through the whole exhibition.

This display of painting manages to be both incisive and rich. The purple stain in ‘Glyn to Ellis: The place 4’, for instance, activates the monochrome gestures of the rest of the canvas, and makes it a painting. Heeks is technically brutal. There is nothing here that is not both necessary and eloquent.

You can find her here:

http://www.dianaheeks.com/

and on King street gallery’s website here:http://www.kingstreetgallery.co.uk/calender/diana-heeks.html

Pwerdy Powerhouse summer exhibition 2017

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Yours truly’s drawing after a lithograph of an anonymous monk by Johann Martin Usteri

The powerhouse is a great little gallery in Pontweli, Llandysul. Their summer exhibition this year gave a huge variety of things to see, and some pieces of really outstanding quality. In an exhibition where so many people show, I can never hope to be comprehensive, and it’d be pretty boring if I did. Instead, forgive me if I dwell on a few personal favourites. If your piece isn’t discussed, please don’t be offended as no offence whatsoever is intended. Incidentally, yours truly’s work was shown here in the form of two drawings, one of which appears above.

For me, the piece that lingers in the mind most in this exhibition was Sophie Turner’s ‘crow 6′. It’s a very simple drawing, but it’s so well executed and characterful. The things this person can do with a dip pen.

Graham Lewis’ painting of welsh life are charming and well executed. He’s selling cards with prints of these things on them, and I recommend you get one. The characters depicted will make anybody living in Wales think ‘hang on, don’t I know these guys?’. They’re rendered in impressionistic, Kyffin-Williams-Esque terms and offer an authentic flavour of rural Wales.

Shelley Upton’s ‘Effie in Venice’ is very, very good. This picture stands with the best of them as an example of contemporary figurative painting. The way the image is cropped, showing just a head and shoulders in the bottom left hand corner, is a brilliant device to set off the creamy, abstract-like markmaking on the wall behind. A fellow wordpress denizen, She is to be found here: https://shelleyuptonartist.wordpress.com/

Landscape is a fairly well represented theme here, as you would expect from a gallery nestling in the Welsh hills. Tirion Haf’s paintings from mwnt, for instance, show a lovely feeling for the landscape. I can’t mention them all, but there is a great deal of skill on show. Alan Bonney’s ‘winter sun over Basel’ townscape is a remarkably accomplished painting. The huge yellow sky is a deceptively simple device for such a sophisticated painting.

It’s always edifying to see regional artists working with abstraction, and I had a definite thing for Greteli Morton’s work, particularaly ‘the human stain’. You can find it here: http://www.thepicturemakers.co.uk/webpm2/greteli1.html

There’s some good photography on show- Karen Brewer’s ‘bovine’, for example, is the wittiest and most effective picture of a group of cows I have ever seen.. Tez Marden’s photographs of trees are painterly and atmospheric and reward closer looking.

Valerie Price-West is here.. She’s created a new series called ‘let the fun begin’, a departure from her previous work that recalls classic modernist sculpture. You can go and look at her page if you like: http://www.valerieprice-westceramics.co.uk/

Sally Rogers’ output is varied, in the sense that she works in a variety of visual styles. Some of it is lighthearted and folksy, and some of it is earnest, even dark. I particularly like her hare. She has a website too:

http://sallyrogersceramics.strikingly.com/

Papier Maché is always fun, but Juanita humphries makes a straight-faced ecological point with ‘There is more plastic in the ocean than there are stars in the milky way’. She makes the hand-crafted aesthetic of the papier maché sculptures work for here. She’s here:

http://papiermacheartbyjuanita.com/

There were also watercolours of boats, mixed media pieces, even books of poetry on sale. Open exhibitions are always a mixed bag, but that’s what makes them so much fun.

Tinariwen at Cardigan castle

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I’ve no idea how this was managed, but Tinariwen played at Cardigan Castle the other week, under the good auspices of theatr Mwldan. For those who don’t know them, they are a group of touareg from the desert. I first found out about them by listening to Andy Kershaw’s undersung, now-defunct, world music show on radio 3. Everybody I know has episodes of his show on his tape, and the BBC really need to give him his job back. I know he’s been naughty, but look at the number of idiots in the mainstream music business who get up to much worse and they go out of their way to find spaces for them to play in.

But I digress. Judging by the sheer number of instruments on the stage, this was always going to be a complex experience. As soon as Tinariwen stepped on stage, the atmosphere was intense and palpable. Tinariwen provide a visual spectable if nothing else, dressed in flowing tuareg robes and brandishing highly decorated instruments. They look like something from another world.

They made do with very little in the way of introduction, apart from a rather nice supporting act from Kizzy Crawford, who has a simply wonderful voice. After the applause died down and a simple ‘good afternoon’, they went straight into their first song.

The sheer skill on show was something to behold. In terms of musicianship, Tinariwen easily hold their own with the best bands out there. I’ve never heard a bass guitar played quite like that. It’s not just the vocals that are in a different language- the instrumental portion is quite different from anything else you would hear, as you might expect from an entirely different culture. This culture speaks powerfully through Tinariwen’s vivid music. Just by listening, you feel you are really in Mali. You lose yourself in this music. The crowd and Tinariwen became an organic whole, as in the very best music. Despite the language barrier. By which I don’t mean to imply that the music is purely atmospheric- this is multi-layered, complex, intense and fast paced stuff. You are carried along by every single piece of in a meaty, integrated sonic puzzle.

The venue works really well, too. It’s a lovely spot by the Teifi estuary, a restful garden on the site of a ruined castle. Mind you, the cover in front of the stage was necessary as the weather seemed to feel the need to comment. The bar was good- you could buy a pint of real ale for £3.50, which you’d struggle to find cheaper in a pub.

If they put stuff like this on consistently, I’m going to more gigs at the castle. Rich hall (gifted, eloquent country music comedian) is playing there on the 30th of September. You probably should too if you’re in the area- book early though, the tickets understandably don’t hang around.

Tinariwen are on facebook here:

https://www.facebook.com/tinariwenmusic/

Theatr Mwldan are here:

http://www.mwldan.co.uk/

Full metal idiot.

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A break from all the art, books and music. Today, I want to talk about training.

First of all, I wish to make it clear that nothing in this post is intended as any kind of recommendation to anybody else. It’s just what I plan to do. Secondly, I am not seeking anybody’s permission or approval for this routine. I’ve done my own research and I am pretty happy with my conclusions, perhaps unjustifiably so, but a big part of making progress in both training in life is having the conviction to say ‘fuck your fucking face, I will do as I please’. This is important. We seem to live in an age where, despite our society being predicated on freedom and democracy, people seem to crave being told what to do. You can witness this on any internet exercise forum. Vast numbers of teenagers seem to enjoy being yelled at by behemoths. And the behemoths themselves are getting tired of it, to judge by their reaction to hundreds of threads on the same subject.

I’ve tried various popular routines over the years- crossfit, starting strength, westside for skinny bastards. They all worked to a certain degree, but they all had Three major problems:

  1. They didn’t fit in with my life. Crossfit was particularly bad for this. I’m a busy person. I run my own business, I write and and I draw, I sometimes exhibit, I do karate, etc. and I can’t commit to a program that makes set-in-stone demands. The worst by far were routines that split the work into different movements or different body parts. If you miss a day doing a full body routine, you miss a training session. If you miss a day doing a split, you throw the whole thing out of whack and experience a profound feeling of discomfort that comes from not following the routine.
  2. They don’t fit in with my goals. Most of the really popular routines are designed around getting you big. I have no desire to be much bigger than I already am. I’m six foot tall and fourteen and a half stone, which is already above the recommended weight for somebody my height. I am not and have no plans to be a bodybuilder, powerlifter or high-level crossfitter. These are all wonderful goals, but the two main foci of my athletic ambition are to get better at karate and to look better. I also, of course, have the generalised goal that crossfit describes as ‘being better at life’. But then everybody has that.
  3. I didn’t enjoy them. This, I believe is a major factor in choice of exercise program. It’s one thing for the elite to work away at stuff they don’t actually like. They make their money doing this. I don’t. In particular, I don’t like split routines. There’s something that feels wrong about them. I can’t explain or analyse this ‘gut feeling’, it’s just a question of personal taste.

So I sat down and did some soul-searching. In particular, I reflected on the fact that there was a time in my late teens when I was a lot fitter than I am now. I used to run five miles in the morning and I could do sixty pushups. It’s become fashionable to despise these old-fashioned exercises, but when I was doing them on a regular basis I was a lot fitter. Of course, I was a teenager back then, but the fact is that the routine achieved what I wanted it to achieve. It made me fitter and made me look better.
So what was I doing back then? I was doing the programme I’d been given by the recruiting lieutenant when I wanted to join the forces (which I never actually did- I decided I wasn’t actually OK with the idea of killing somebody. Strangely enough, the idea that I might be killed myself never seemed to worry me. All teenagers are immortal, as we know). This was before the forces started changing how they worked out. It was an old-fashioned program, heavy on pushups and running. It took the form of a short bodyweight circuit and some running. I quickly became at least as fit as the rest of the boys at school, something I’d never been before in my life.

There was one problem: the program contained no weight training. I’ve learned by experience that barbell work makes results come quicker and easier. I was pondering how to include it when I stumbled across this: http://chaosandpain.blogspot.co.uk/2009/02/uncle-training-style.html?zx=88de7f793286eb05 (Incidentally, be warned: Jamie Lewis is a vehement and savage individual and his work is not for the faint of heart or the easy of offence. In many ways, he’s a complete bastard but that doesn’t mean he’s not right.) Here was what I was looking for- simple, intense, full-body-based and generalised.

I was also inspired by a line in Kurt Vonnegurt’s ‘slaughterhouse five’ where he mentions that the English prisoners of war had been ‘chinning themselves and lifting weights’ for the duration of the war. It occurred to me then; that’s all you have to do. Lift weights, do callisthenics and run, running being available to me in a way that it wasn’t to prisoners of war. Eliminate all the agonising about what sets and reps to use, what program to follow, all of that nonsense. Just pick a few simple exercises and do them as much as you possibly can.

With all this in mind, I picked six exercises:

  1. The clean and press. I picked this to include barbell work as it is, according to Chris Colucci, a ‘one stop shop’ for weight training. The only problem (here: https://www.t-nation.com/training/biggest-exercise-in-bodybuilding) is that the limiting factor is how much you can press overhead. But it’s a generalised exercise. Strip away the exercise jargon and all you are basically doing is picking stuff up and putting it overhead. The ‘lifting weights’ part of ‘lifting weights and chinning themselves’. A lot of people will start to whine about how it’s an olympic, or at least an ex-olympic lift and these take a lot of coaching and apparently you have to see a grand high mugwump to learn the technique and so on. Crap. All you are doing is lifting something and putting it overhead. If you have trouble performing this action, you have a serious issue. Also, I think if you want to do something difficult and technical, you should start practicing it right away. That way, when you have a year’s training under your belt, you also have a year’s worth of technical practice, instead of a bigger body and no experience of the lift you want to do.
  2. The pullup. Part two of vonnegurt’s sentence. This movement, I believe is fundamental- it is, quite simply, the ability to lift your own weight. As to what variety of grip to use and all the associated questions the anwer is, quite simply: all of them. When you strip your routine down to six basic exercises, you have the freedom to practice all the variations you want.
  3. The pushup. Sophisticated exercises tend to despise the lowly pushup. And yet very, very few of them can do 20 one arm pushups. Unless you can do this, you can still benefit from doing pushup variations.
  4. The situp. Yes, I’ve heard all the arguments. I’ve heard about how it supposedly works out your hip flexors (and what, pray, is wrong with exercising hip flexors?). I’m aware that this exercise is not fashionable. And I don’t care. The fact is that I started doing them again when I started doing karate again after a long hiatus, and my god the pain. I need to be able to do large numbers of situps. Incidentally, gymnasts do tons of situps and they are often regarded as some of the best all-round athletes.
  5. The burpee. Another thing I have to do for karate, burpees are a wonderful way to do anaerobic conditioning. They require no equipment, aren’t greatly technical and they’re hard to do- sufficient reason in and of itself to do them.
  6. Running, swimming, cycling, walking etc. I also intend to do what closet homosexuals refer to as ‘cardio’ (seriously boys, come out of the closet and just run). I realise it’s become fashionable and cool to moan about how much you hate ‘cardio’, and to publish articles claiming that it’s unnecessary or even harmful. I don’t care though. I was a lot fitter when I was running on a regular basis, and morning roadwork is a tradition as old as combat sports themselves. These things become traditional for a reason. In a nod to fashion, some of it will be interval training (which, incidentally, the military recommend you only do once a week. There have to be some concessions made as to whether you can actually recover from your training. You have to recover for it to work.) and in a nod to tradition, I will try always to do one long run per week, of at least an hour.

You’ll notice that I don’t include any squatting. This is because I don’t in fact own a squat rack or stands any more. It’s also because I don’t like them. I distrust the dogma that they’re such a ‘natural’, fundamental movement. I’ve never seen anybody on a building site, or working in the fields and the woods, do a squat. You have to do cleans and various sorts of pushing motions all the time though. You might argue that the kind of movement I’m talking about is not quite a ‘clean’, it’s more an old-fashioned, ‘anyhow two hands overhead lift’. To which I reply: precisely. That’s the idea. Besides, why get into a movement where you are forced to care about the boring debate about squat depth?

I call this ‘routine’, insofar as it is a routine, ‘full metal idiot’, as it involves lifting metal and is idiotically simple.

In three month’s time I will make a full report of the progress I’ve seen on this routine, and will be regularly updating as and when it occurs to me to do so. I also plan to post ‘before and after photos’ in the traditional manner.

‘Milk and honey’ by Rupi Kaur

I didn’t actually set out to buy this book. I happened to be buying something else when the shop assistant happened to mention that this book was selling well. I went back upstairs to have a look, and I was entranced. Thank you Waterstones, incidentally, for employing well read, intellectually curious young women.

https://www.waterstones.com/book/milk-and-honey/rupi-kaur/9781449474256

The beauty of this book is its sheer directness and honesty. The verse is candid and intimate in a way that makes you feel as if Rupi Kaur was talking directly to you, or as if you were privy to an intimate conversation, one half of a love affair between you and the author. A lot of the passages in the first part of the book are erotic in a very forceful way that takes you into the inner life of the author in a way that reveals truths that would otherwise remain private. This is an intensely personal book that also speaks about things that are nevertheless true for all of us.

An unusual feature are the little explanatory sentences and phrases in italics that are not titles, precisely. They are more a way of offering some kind of context to verse which would otherwise be beautiful, but cryptic. The book sometimes feels like a confession, or more properly a form of art where the poet affirms that these things happened, that she really did feel this way, by the act of recording them.

This is verse distilled to its absolute essence. I won’t quote any of it to show you what I mean. These poems are so seemingly artless that even the briefest quote here would risk undermining the effect. This is not verse that deals in apposite metaphor or abstraction- it is uncompromisingly raw and direct. There are virtually none of the poet’s usual ‘tricks of the trade’ here. The author does away with clever technique in favour of an absolute, vivid, honesty.

Another thing about this poetry- it is wonderfully, explicitly feminine. The poems progress through four sections- the hurting, the loving, the breaking, the healing- in a sequence that is a fearless exploration of the female half of a relationship. No man would ever write quite as honestly as this.

A particularly appealing feature of this book is the poet’s own line drawings. They are exquisitely appropriate to the texts they accompany. There is a simplicity and directness to the visual language used that precisely echos the form of the verses they accompany. They are simple, yes, but very consummate- they look almost like a highly charged version of Gaudier-Brzeska’s drawings. It shouldn’t be possible to do all this with just a line, just with black and white, but Rupi Kaur manages it.

So no, this is not a book for the faint of heart. It’s an incredibly honest, sometimes graphic, but always enchanting collection of some of the most direct poetry I have ever come across. There are parts of it that feel uncomfortable- as if the poet was telling you secrets that she wouldn’t usually tell anybody. But that’s all part of the magic of this book, its honesty and sheer power.

Carmarthen school of art degree show 2017

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The Carmarthen school of art degree show is upon us again. There’s so much good stuff that I can only really cover my favourites. So what follows is a personal selection from the delights on offer. I’m told that not as many people as usual finished this year, but those who did put on a really spectacular show.

The first thing you see when you walk in are Carmen Friedman’s assemblages. These are totemic, gutsy pieces, like tribal artefacts- perhaps those of the art tribe. She references Eva Hesse in ‘De muras ’84’, an artist known for using unusual materials. There is something peotic also about these assemblages of bone, horns, fabric, etc. In a way, each piece is a visual poem. In her other cluster of work in the main sculpture exhibition, there is something that puts me in mind of a female Anish Kapoor, but perhaps a more cerebral one: She references feminism, surrealism and abstract expressionism. These are very well thought out, well realised objects.

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Carmen Friedman’s assemblages. My own photo.

In what is in college term time the seating area next to the café are Dorian Cava’s huge arial photographs. These are vast images showing records of every trace and path on the ground, in a paeon to the landscape of both the artist’s native poland and his adopted country. Little areas of colour, such as the yellow of the machines in what I presume is an open cast mine, carry great visual weight. It’s almost a nonsense to talk in terms of composition here, given that these are arial photographs of actual sites, but there is a certain craft to how these elements are treated. The best way to experience these photographs is from above, and one is mounted on the floor to facilitate just this. The viewer is placed at a great height, considering the marks on the ground. Looking into these industrial, abused landscapes offers a genuinely meditative experience.

Jou-el King’s bulky tree-like frames surrround haunting images of people with impossibly red hair and show a cunning use of artificial light. Check him out here: https://www.jou-elkingillustration.com/

There is always one sculptor in every degree show who just has to produce something absolutely enormous. That’s not a criticism incidentally- it seems every sculptor has their own natural scale. Some just require more exhibition space than others. David Gunther supplies the enormousness this year with a huge square of sprouting hair-like metal forms. The piece is much enhanced if you accept the invitation to walk inside it. The impediment to movement creates a sense of claustrophobia and angst.

The most visually arresting object, or rather collection of objects here, is the ‘lion hunt’ installation by Beverley Jessop, featuring a dramatically realised wounded plaster lion. It’s a dramatic piece of visual theatre that shows a sharp wit and great attention to detail- she’s even made her own labels for cans. No doodles or photographs of mine can really do this justice. You need to go see it in the flesh.

The biggest surprise though is Julie Hutton’s exquisite cermaics that lie concealed behind a curtain. The belief in an animating spirit arising from the earth is really well illustrated by a cluster of abstract pieces.

Well worth a look are Sian Reason-Jones’ succinct series of works on mental health issues. Each perspex box is like a portrait of the inside of someone’s head. One has a stack of slabs seemingly ready to fall. Another overflows with little boxes. Still another holds a brain-like form constricted with rope. Each is a poetic, finely judged conceit. She has an etsy shop here: https://www.etsy.com/shop/joreauk but it really doesn’t give a great idea of the power of her degree show work.

Finally in this room, Dwight Asomoah-Shalders’ effervescent ceramics are both visually rioutous and culturally authentic. They’re almost like folk art, but with a much sharper mind behind each of them.

Ceramics put on an excellent show this year. Naomi Doudswell’s political samplers go down very well. Emma Thomas’ small but well conceived ceramics provide a quiet note in this noisy show. But when I visit exhibitions I like to play a little game called ‘what would I steal if I could get away with it?’. This year’s winner is Jacob Chan’s incredible pots. The intricately modelled three-dimensional forms offer a fresh dimension to what are very finely crafted traditional ceramics. The potter’s dual Chinese and British and heritage are drawn on to create absolutely compulsive works. I can see these things changing hands for serious money in years to come. You can see some of his work here: https://www.gkgallery.co.uk/jacob-chan but the work in the degree show is on a whole different level.

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After a detail from one of Jacob Chan’s pots

In painting, I’m very excited about Miira Hyvonen. There have been times when landscape has been practically out of bounds to contemporary art, and when it hasn’t, it’s been mined as a resource. Mirra’s work instead is a participation in the mythology and symbology of landscape. The wall full of drawings showcases a prodigious talent for drawing. Apparently she works at lightning speed. There is a cricular canvas which, incredibly, works. The naturalistic, detailed, yet speedy execution reminds me most of all of oriental painting, and as it happens she also produces works on chinese astrology. There is also a piece of sculpture by her in the corner, a tree branch painted with the same mark marking as in her other works. It’s a lovely example of what I call ‘painter’s sculpture’, something produced by a painter almost as a locus for thought about a painter’s work (the idea first came to me when looking at Cy Twombbly’s assemblages, and that should show you what I mean.) Miira is, incidentally, selling works on cardboard and paper for 10 pounds a pop. I’d buy now if I were you, because that’s not going to last long. Check her out here: https://www.instagram.com/miirahyvonenv/

Along one wall are Polly Dixon’s miraculous essays in the printmaker’s art, depicting figures dressed in elizabethan costume, referring to Northern early renaissance imagery. The sheer detail is striking, and the overall effect is of a packed, busy surface that works great in monochrome.

Possibly the most visually energetic work here is by Sophie Kumar Taylor. It’s a walk-in op art installation, and you pass briefly through some of the brightest colours I have ever seen. One wall is a kaleidoscope of brightly coloured small squares, with passages of folded paper likewise decorated. It makes you think that Bridget Riley, Jim Lambié and Mondrian got drunk one night and sat up until the early morning with a box of coloured pens and paper. It’s stunning.

I’m also going to mention Samantha cook’s documentary black and white photography, Nerys Edward’s charming ‘cardiland’, Tomos Davies’ figurative assemblages (https://skyforjstudios.wordpress.com/), Natalie Chapman’s coulourful pictures of life in West Wales (https://www.nataliechapmanart.com/)  and Ffion Evans’ challenging and visuall rewarding wire creations. There’s more to see, and I recommend you go see it. This is one of the seminal moments in our local art calendar, and it never dissapoints.