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‘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.

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


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.


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:

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: 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: but the work in the degree show is on a whole different level.


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:

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 (, Natalie Chapman’s coulourful pictures of life in West Wales (  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.

Furiously happy, a funny book about horrible things by Jenny Lawson.


The bloggess, after a photo on the back cover of the book. 

I bought this book a few months ago after seeing a reference to it in the guardian review section, and I’m so glad I did.

Jenny Lawson (AKA the blogess. Her blog is here: writes in a style that is utterly unique. There’s a clear love of language here, even extending to creating words of the author’s own creation that become running jokes in their own right.The nonstop barrage of stuffed animals, misheard or invented verbage and beautiful misunderstandings is an absolute torrent of joy. There are times when it gets a bit much- this is probably not a book you want to read in one sitting. Some of the best bits are the quotes from little notes to herself that the author writes, a process she describes as ‘like being stalked by a madwoman- myself’. The style of writing is also incredibly fresh and contemporary- often it feels like one half of a long conversation with the author. Perhaps a drunken or heavily medicated conversation. The reader is taken right into the creative process that spawned this book, dealing with late-night antics and episodes of writer’s block.

There are, of course, real moments of darkness here. This is, after all, a funny book about horrible things. The chapter titled ‘the fear’ is a particular case in point. The opening line is chilling: “Some stories aren’t meant to be told”. These moments act as a useful counterpoint to the hilarious sections. There are real, deep life lessons to be learnt from reading this book. Only those with real dark shadows in their lives, it seems, can depict the world with lightness and joy. Re-reading the final chapter, ‘It might be easier. But it wouldn’t be better.’ is a wonderful way to lift your spirits.

There are a lot of animals in this book, both dead and stuffed and live and hissing at you. The star, of course, is Rory the racoon, the dead animal on the book’s cover If you want to convulse with laughter, read the section where he makes his appearance during a conference call. And there’s an untamed, riotous, animal, quality to the book too.

You might expect a book about the author’s battle with depression and anxiety to be rather self-involved. Not a bit of it. Clearly, the author feels for her long-suffering husband, who acts as a heroically patient foil to the more insane pieces of invention. Various friends of the author make appearances. There is clearly an ability to see past her own situation and use it to make a little more sense of the world- a valuable trait in any work of art. This book really is atrociously funny, but it’s also disarmingly wise. And amazingly honest. You feel like nothing has been spared in the author’s life.

This is not just a book. It’s both a lifestyle and a battlecry against the illnesses that plague the author. When you read about her trips to Australia in an attempt to hug chlamydia-laden koala bears and her relationships with taxidermied animals, you see quite how far the bloggess has come in her quest to be ‘furiously happy’.

Get it. It’s good. This is in fact the second book by the bloggess, and I’m itching to get the first one now.

Frayed boundaries at Carmarthen museum

Before I start, I should perhaps declare a conflict of interest. Karen Wise is in fact my mother. I pondered this conflict of interest for a full thirty seconds before realising how dissapointed she might be if I ommitted to review her show. With that in mind, read on.

‘Frayed boundaries’, showing on the upper floor of Carmarthen museum, is a masterly and varied exhibition of textile art. The artists, Marysia Penn and Karen Wise, have provided both forward-looking and interesting pieces obviously influenced by modernism and a wealth of consummately executed visual delights.

Perhaps the most consummate pieces by Marysia Penn are her works in appliqué, ‘Merlin’s Oak’ and ‘The yew trees at Nevern’, two pieces that refer to local mythology. They are cunningly composed pieces in rich, autumnal colours that show a real feeling for both movement, in the depiction of dance in ‘the yew trees at Nevern’ and serene stateliness in ‘Merlin’s Oak’. Looking for the forms of dancers in the yew trees provides an entertaining visual game that enhances the enjoyment of the piece.

Her piece ‘Llanelli sunset’ is very lovely. The thin layers of material have a translucency that provides great visual interest. A simple piece, perhaps, but the artful simplicity of the composition belies a complex, layered execution that keeps you looking deeper still.

Mauricia Penn even develops into three dimensional expression in this exhibition. A series of pieces such as ‘the magic cornu aspersum’ and ‘phi(garden snail) use the shell of the humble garden snail as a stage for colourful, delightful visual effects that also touch on mathematical ideas. The snail shells are treated like little jewels.

Marysia is obviously influenced by modernism too. The piece ‘the colour of music’ recalls most clearly Kandinsky in its wonderfull expressive felted loops. For me though, her strongest piece is ‘Bishop’s Chapel’ that uses themes from eccliesiastical architecture to achieve an effect that is solemn without being melancholy. The backlighting works wonderfully, enhancing the contemplative, well-organised structure of the piece.

Karen Wise also seems to have taken on ideas from the world of twentieth century associative abstraction in a series of embroideries about music, depicting works by Bach with a real sense of rhythm and a subdued but effective colour scheme. These are complex works, often on a large scale, that demand long looking and in-depth analysis.

The Cordoba series shows the same restrained and tasteful use of colour, but with a more nuanced, orderly sense of design. The ‘Moorish Gardens’ show a thoughtful use of pattern and repetition that really does recall the moorish works these pieces draw inspiration from.

In another series on the story of Gryfudd Ap Llywelyn, an early medieval Welsh hero whom Karen Wise has written a novel about, the jewel-like finishes of the relatively simple compositions work to create an effect that enhances the mythic, folkloric quality of the story told. The direct visual approach often masks an intricate subtlety of conceptual expression, such as in the piece where each bead represents a man killed in an important battle. ‘The Battle of Snowdon’ offers a powerful visual metaphor, the counterpoint of red and white working to great effect. The artist has used visual tropes that draw directly on the experience of visiting museums and public collections, appropriately enough given the venue. For instance, mounting the pieces on red felt and green velvet gave a great ‘museum feel’ to the collection.

All in all, it’s well worth making the visit to Carmarthen Museum to see all of this. There’s enough here to interest, educate and entertain, offering a rich, tactile and visual experience. Frayed Boundaries is on Show at Carmarthen museum ( until the 14th of July.

A view from the bridge at Vue cinema


It turns out that vue cinema in St.Catherine’s walk- that’s the bit with Debenhams in it- is regularly screening national theatre live performances. It’s great to have the chance to see really top notch theatre locally. Part of me wishes I could go to see a local theatre group tackling something this ambitious, but that’s in no way a criticism of the performance I went to see.

The play, A view from the bridge by Arthur Miller, was a highly strung piece of modernist theatre. There was a real sense of ominousness from start to finish. The audience could feel the impending tragedy long before the scene is even properly set. The actors moved like chess pieces on the stage, each full of their own sense of dramatic potential. The set was minimal. A few lighting effects was as lavish as it got- appropriately for the piece. It meant that the actors suggested their setting, sustaining a real sense of claustrophobia throughout. The other interesting theatre was a single drum beat at moments of narrative tension throughout the play. It did really get the audience on their toes, but over long periods could become wearying.

It’s a simple enough story- Eddie (Mark Strong) is a longshoreman who is overly attached to his niece Catherine (Phoebe Fox) who grows close to one of two Italian immigrants (Emun Elliott and Luke Norris) staying in their home. The plot and themes are given to the audience without complication. It’s not an effort to tease out the ideas from the dialogue. Take the scene where Beatrice (Nicola Walker) tells Catherine how she has to mark her independece and act like a grown woman- nothing is hidden and little is implied. The language is all part of the fun- it’s straightforward enough, a depiction of everyday speech on the New York waterfront some time in the mid 20th century. This isn’t altogether easy theatre though- the themes show deal with taboo subjects, and the piece requires a certain amount of stamina.

There are some really shocking moments here- take the moment when Eddie Kisses his niece and- bizzarely- her lover. Here, complex, powerful emotions lead up to an irrational, spontaneous act. The crowning glory, though, is very close to the end. The struggling bodies on stage tangle together under a red light, looking much like a sculpture by Rodin. I remember thinking that moments like that are a big part of why people make Art. Moments of pure beauty that transmit a powerful energy to the audience. A less dramatic delight is the knowing, worldly lawyer (Michael Gould) who provides narration and ties the piece together.

So yes, it’s well worth checking the listings to see what vue is showing.

‘Notorious’ at Oriel Myrddin

There is a rogue’s gallery of victorian villains on show at Oriel Myrddin. This exhibition bills itself as ‘the dark side of victorian Carmarthen’ and presents tens of ‘portraits’ of felons painted in oil on paper by the artist, Anthony Rhys.

This exhibition works exactly as one would have hoped from reading the documentation. The walls present a series of delights, some of them quite horrifying and others quite endearing. Of particular note is the priest, who it appears ‘hit the prosecutor on the head with a stick until the place where the blow fell swelled badly’. The little stories that accompany each painting are part of the meat of this exhibition, and close inspection pays remarkable dividends.

Some of these stories are extremelys sad, hinting at squalid victorian poverty and desparation. Sometimes wit and humour would be out of place, especially those portraits of family disputes and domestic violence. Some of the accompanying text however is extremely funny- one thinks of the man who put two shillings in his mouth and dared the officers to take it from him!

There is a lot of painting at this exhibition. The small formats distract one to an extent from a fact that a lot of surface has been covered in total. I find the portraits of people yelling, their mouths wide open, a touch gauche, but they do help transmit the real horror of the situation these people were in. On the whole, the painting is well-observed and right on the money. The fact that they are in monochrome helps the whole thing along, as one gets a sense of the dehumanising treatment meted out by officialdom. The obtuse nature of the authorities is revealed in a charming little painting of a girl who it appears had ‘a fondness for cream’. The repetition of the trope of the mugshot, whose very limited resources proves a strength here, provides a window into the dickensian world of 19th century Carmarthen. Expressions have to be pieced together from the really very small surface area of each painting, and it’s touching how much one can divine from such a treatment.

It’s unclear how much of this is invention on the part of the artist, but in a way this works to the exhibition’s credit. So much gritty, dark realism is counterbalaned by a certain playful uncertainty, although I expect that a lot of it relies on what the documentation calls ‘re-invention’ rather than imagination: there is an authentic air to the exhibition, bolstered by the presence on the far wall of the gallery of ‘prisoner’s badges’, with the artist’s usual candid, terse oil paintings.

Another object on show here is the pricless relic of the felon’s register, a dry document one would think, but one which gives an unexpectedly powerful insight into the criminal life of the time. I noticed, in fact, a felon born in my own village of Llanfihangel Ar Arth. His crime? Stealing a hat! I held my own hat a little closer to my body!

Of course it would be impractical to allow visitors to rummage through this important historical document, a problem which the gallery solves by showing one page a day. There is also a searchable digital display, whih I regret to say wasn’t working when I visited. The gallery has also arranged talks and free events to accompany the exhibition, such as a talk by the artist on Tuesday 16th February at 1PM and a sketchbook walk with him on Satrurday 5th March from 11AM to one. I won’t be able to go, as I have no transport and have other commitments, but I’m genuinely sorry not to be able to attend- they sound great.

‘Notorious’ is on show at Oriel Myrddin, Carmarthen, until the 12th of March.

The artist as hero- an anatomy of a bad idea


Beethoven by yours truly


Before we get into the anatomy of the bad idea, it’s worth saying that I have a huge respect for the production- if not the ideals- of the romantic period. Think of Turner and Delacroix and even Courbet- those people who helped break the ground for impressionism and the whole apparatus of the modern movement. In fact you could argue that of all the artistic movements- those that we think of as ‘movements’ of course- the romantic period achieved the most, liberating art from the iron bourgeois values that led merely to so much decadence and cant.

So much for the preamble. When we think of the idea of the artist as hero, Beethoven is the figure that comes most readily to mind for me. I’ve recently listened to all of Beethoven’s symphonies at nearly one sitting and at first the idea of Beethoven as the romantic hero seems unassailable. They are like watching a storm sweep over a great turneresque landscape. But if you look too deeply into the idea, it soon falls apart.

That statement had better have some substantiation behind it. The thing is, if you’ll forgive the nod to both Wittgenstein and Foucault, that what we are dealing with is the idea of language games, and more pertinently what I refer to as ‘knowledge games’.

You’re probably familiar with this idea, in some sense, from looking at the way history is and has been taught at school. When I was in school, at first sight what we were learning seemed to have very little to do with history- or at least with history as it was taught to my parent’s generation. Instead of learning a teleological view of history, from 1066 forwards, we learnt the basics of the historian’s craft- analysing a source, getting a picture of the period.

Such a way of teaching history is of course open to criticism. The problem is that the narrow view focussed on a single slice of history in all its complexity can lead to a loss of perspective, not to mention an unhealthy obsession with Hitler (the subject covered extensively in many GCSE classrooms) One could very well argue that some knowledge of the facts is essential. But which facts? And more importantly- whose facts? To return to my idea of ‘knowledge games’, what is happening here is that there are two models of history teaching, both of which may be valid, but whose thinking is reinforced by very different groups of people. To put it simply, what people believe- or rather what they are expected to believe- becomes the truth. At least, that is, where there is no clear referent to external ‘fact’, if such a thing can indeed be respected in the postmodern age. Water continues to boil at one hundred degrees celsius and fusion continues to occur in the sun. It is our interpretation of the facts that changes- our attitude to such knowledge.

So what this means for the artist as hero is clear: That idea belongs to a past where art was very different to today. One could even ask if such a thing as a genius- an artist as hero in his fullest manifestation- can exist in this day and age

This has to do with a shift in what artists are and in what they are expected to do. In an earlier age, it would seem ludicrous- even heretical- to ask what art is or what it is for. It was oil painting and statues, and it was there for detached aesthetic contemplation. In this sense, the move to a more reflexive art- a more abstract art that referred to its own visual language and its own history- is obviously to be welcomed. In our own time, such questions are ladled out at art college for examination and argument. In such an environment, the artist as hero seems a stale and bad idea.

Yet the artist as hero is perhaps an idea that exists between the two camps- writers, especially german writers in the nineteenth century- at the time longed to talk of an art that was a language, an abstracted form of communication. In a sense, such people have proved poor prophets- they can have no idea that a form of art thinking might develop where the very aims and ideas of art were their own subjects. As it is in the postmodern age. But in another sense, they were right on the money: abstract expressionism, and later abstract artists who have thrown off the early dogma, make art that really is focussed on visual language par excellence. It takes the intervention of pop art and french intellectuals such as the aforementioned foucault to turn such art into anything else. I often feel that the work of artists such as Gillian Carnegie (Who exhibitted a ‘black painting’ that turns out upon inspection to be a woodland scene) presents the best kind of fusion between the two worlds. In addition, it is playful. In other words, it’s fun.

And yet, somehow, a lot of us are left yearning for the ‘great’ art of the past. It’s one thing to enjoy paintings, it’s another to be transported, amazed by it. At our core, most of us long for an art that has power, that posseses the viewer with the kind of electric charge we might feel in front of, say, Whistler’s nocturnes. We can, however, have both. We can- and do- still look at the art of the past. What we also have to consider, though, is that each period has a right and a duty to make it’s own art and to make art its own. While questioning whether it’s possible to make something entirely new, we can also belive that sometimes, an artist is somebody who does just that.

Modernist art also participates in the idea of the artist as hero. Picasso is, for me, the clearest example of how such thought propagated itself in the twentieth century. His prolific output, his sometimes grand themes and his intense focus on the visual dynamic of power and effort all speak of such an idea. You can still go and see a spot of Picasso and marvel at his sheer energy.

So all this leaves the idea of artist as hero- as genius- hanging somewhere in the ether. It’s worth mentioning that perhaps the old art appreciation of the eighteenth, nineteenth and earlier centuries is still with us. What exactly is the gallery system other than a vehicle for appreciation and commerce? One could also cite advertising as a relic of the old order as John Berger does, arguing that it is in fact the ‘last, moribund form’ of the great oil paintings of the past. As a corollary, there is now an interaction between Art with a capital A and advertising- think of Jeff Koons, for example. The truth is that in many ways we still expect the artist to be a somehow enlightened being. One who sees further than others. But we must do so, it seems to me, with a healthy suspicion of such grand ideas and narratives. Today, we do some playfully, with self-awareness and irony. And so our ideas move on and change. They must. That which cannot change is dead.