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

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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: http://thebloggess.com/) 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.

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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 (http://www.carmarthenmuseum.org.uk/index.html) until the 14th of July.

A view from the bridge at Vue cinema

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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

http://orielmyrddingallery.co.uk/event/anthony-rhys-notorious-the-dark-side-of-victorian-carmarthen/

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

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.

How to go to an art gallery

Interested in art? Want to go to a gallery? Good. Artists and galleries alike hope for people like you to come in the doors and be entranced, even transformed, by the experience. The problem is that all too often, people like you end up shuffling uncertainly from label to label, glancing at the exhibits but not really understanding what’s going on. The confusion is understandable. The array of possible exhibits- and the ideas behind them- is vast and complex. It’s hard to give concrete advice when the parmaters are so broad, but I’ve compiled here a list of a few small points that should make your next visit to a gallery much more exciting, entertaining and informative.

The first thing you need to know is that works can work differently at different distances, and that some are designed to be seen from far away and some from close up. So take each exhibit separately, and spend some time pacing around, trying to find your ideal viewing position. With a sculpture this might be difficult, but most sculptures have a ‘principal view’- a viewpoint from which the work is intended to present itself.

After a while of this pacing around, start to analyse what makes the painting work. Think about why things are being treated where they are- it might help to superimpose imaginary lines on the piece, thinking about the principal horizontal, diagonal and vertical elements. A point not often appreciated is that empty spaces are significant– no artist will ever leave space on the canvas blank on a whim. Empty spaces do not sell pictures. A good analogy is the use of the rest in music- how the composer uses a pause to help shape his melody. Think about colour and light and shade as well. This sort of analysis gives you a way to look at the art for a longer time- which is important. A lot of paintings demand more time, to let the whole thing soak in. If you have trouble, I recommend ‘how to look at paintings’ by Mary Acton.

In a representational picture, all the items are important. The artists has probably spent a lot of time ‘making it right’ as Gombrich (In his usual direct, unaffected manner) calls it. It’s also critical to think about how the subjects of the picture reflect the conerns and attitudes that the artist wished to convey. It has been said that art is a form of communic ation, but there is one crucial difference from regular, verbal communication; The message, to some extent, depends on you. The artist’s intended message is not necessarily the one that you come away with. A piece by Joshua Reynolds, for example, might be intended to convey the wealth and influence of the artist’s patron, but you might simply enjoy the quality of the painting. The message will shift over a space of time as well.

In an abstract picture, and in a lot of more recent representational work, it’s more important to think about how the picture is painted rather than what the picture is made of or what it depicts. Try and analyse the means by which it was constructed or the way in which the paint is persuaded to summon up the subject. This is often very personal to the artist, and it will show you how the artist makes the subject theirs. An important point to bear in mind is that direct, true one-to-one representation is actually impossible. Even in a photograph. There is always some degree of abstraction in operation. Line, for example, is a form of abstraction.

A certain level of familiarity with the intellectual climate of the time when the piece was made is indispensable. Reading what a critic has to say could give you a way in to the piece. A really good critic is an artist in his own right in the sense that he helps form the spirit of the period- think of Ruskin and the preraphaelites, or Greenberg with abstract expressionism. I’m not saying that everybody who goes to a gallery should attempt to read Derrida though- that would only make the experience more intimidating. A good place to start for the interested member of the public would be the ‘very short introduction’ series, or possibly the illustrated ‘introducing’ books. Both series are very good at giving the reader a solid orientation in a short space of time. The other book I thoroughly recommend is Gombrich’s ‘the story of art’. He’s gone out of fashion recently, and there are bits that you possibly shouldn’t take too much to heart, but generations of artists and gallery-goers have read and valued this book.

Another point is not to assimilate other people’s bad ideas about Art. Give yourself the freedom to experience and interpret the work for yourself. Don’t be intimidated by the label, either. A lot of exhibitions have extra documentation- sheets of notes, catalogues etc. I tend to wait to read this sort of stuff until after I’ve seen the exhibition, but some pieces actually rely on knowledge that’s difficult to come by except by reading the documentation- information about how the piece was made, for example. Possibly the best advice is to have a look first, and if you find yourself stuck on a particular piece to have a look at the documentation then. It could make all the difference. A lot of people would ask what makes an unmade bed art, and miss out on the fact that Emin’s bed was the bed on which she lay after a painful break-up with her boyfriend of the time, and the mess and clutter act as a portrait of her emotional state at the time.

I hope this little article will hope you get more out of your next visit to a gallery. Art is a vast, weird and wonderful world and a little orientation helps enormously.

Flora at Oriel Myrddin

The first thing you see in Oriel Myrddin’s gallery at the moment is a strange drift of clay flowers, with little notes written on cards popping up at intervals between them. You can participate in this exhibit. What you have to do is write down your first memory of flowers and you’re given one of the little clay flowers (roses?) to take away with you. I recommend you do so firstly because the little flowers are exquisitely made little things and look great as table centrepieces, but also because this kind of piece really needs the audience to help it work, and if you do join in, the memory of the piece seems to linger, adding an extra nuance to the work. This is an unusual sculpture that exists in time as well as space.

I sometimes play a little game when I’m going around exhibitions called ‘what would I steal if I could get away with it?’. In this exhibition, the make-off-with-it piece, for my money, is Michael Boffey’s bronze Frozen Melody. The whole thing is a colour just warmer than gold would be.The void left by the flowers is somehow more eloquent than the actual remains of them would be- not that the other pieces aren’t arresting in a different way, but the act of removing any intelligble fragments makes for a different sort of statement- Not ghostly, exactly, but a tangible-seeming way of referring to an object without actually referring to it. I think of Rachel Whiteread’s similar method of using casts of the inside of things, but Boffey’s work isn’t as direct- it’s more poetic really, using the process of arranging objects to cast to carry the visual metaphor of the piece.

Ori Gersht’s film is well worth a look too (you can ask the gallery staff to switch it on). The central thing to understand is that the sound being heard is the machine that was used to make it. I won’t ruin it for you by describing it too much, but there’s an ethereal quality to the sound, note quite music, not quite speech, not quite white noise, in the hinterland between those three things. The stills, in a way, are stronger pieces- the selected pattern made by the objects in the still have a dreamy nature that belies the process by which they were made. Having said that, you wouldn’t want to see the stills on their own- having the film there completes the experience.

One can’t really miss Jacques Nimki’s big, patterned drawings. There’s a certain essence in them that reminds me of surrealist scribblings and automatism, but conceptually they belong to an entirely different category, and the kinking drainpipe and other representational elements of her compositions remind you of that. You can really lose yourself in these works, and there are all sorts of little details to discover around the edge of ‘the little florilegium’.

A lot of the pieces in this show depend on you knowing a little more about them than could be easily gained just by confronting them head on, and this is nowhere more true than in Yoshihiro Suda’s work. This is mainly because they’re so good though- ‘morning glory’ had me totally convinced as the real thing until I find out it was a magnolia wood carving. The mind boggles that the technical capabilities that artist must have.

Emma Bennett’s striking paintings are also pieces that depend on the artist’s personal resources, but these are probably the most intellectually accessable pieces in the whole show. Her flowers and fruit ane other props can be enjoyed just for the virtuosity involved, but her sheer black surfaces and other devices invite more nuanced interpretation.

Don’t miss Owen Griffith’s account of his experiments in green spaces and volunteer-fuelled transformation programs. He clearly has a flair for this kind of thing, and the images are charming, if a little cosy.

Flora is on show at Oriel Myrddin until the 31st of October.