Monday, 6 May 2013

AAA Artists: Books Of Paintings (News, Views and Music Issue 192 Top Five)

It’s said by some that writers have good ears for the world around them and that artists have good eyes. Sometimes some rare people have both – the ability to have such a creative sub-conscious that even music with all its colours, feelings and themes isn’t enough to stop them doodling ideas in art forms. Very often the AAA members around in the 1960s only discovered their gifts for music after attending ‘art colleges’ and finding they were being called ‘creative’ for the first time by less mainstream tutors, even if art never became their first love or main goal. Occasionally an AAA star will even make ‘proper’ paintings/ sculptures/sketches/computer prints of their work and even exhibit them like ‘proper’ artists – often to a sniffy critical reception that says ‘what do musicians know?’ (as if art and creativity are only the respite of the few, not the many as it should be). Every so often they’ll gather up enough to be published in book form, too – which is where this top five comes in. Now I’m not an artist in any way shape or form – my third year artwork was famously the only one out of my entire year not to be put on display for being too ‘ghastly’ and badly drawn – and while my occasional few supporters would I hope claim that I have an OK-ish ear, my eyes are tired and crooked (curse you astigmatism!) and I doubt even my biggest followers would claim I have a good eye (frankly in my opinion there’s only been one truly great artist in history and that was JMW Turner – if only he’d been born later he’d have made the best album covers!) Ah well, give me ears anyday! Still, what we have got for you is a guide to where you can see these paintings and my idea of what their best work is, so without any further delay here is our handy AAA-sized guide to art. Please note, by the way, that we haven’t included Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood’s work here because I don’t know it that well, but from what I’ve seen of it he’s a marvellous, inventive illustrator whose actually more at home with a paintbrush than he ever was with a guitar... :

Janis Joplin (three paintings are included in her sister Laura Joplin’s biography-with-letters tome ‘Love, Janis’, 1992)
Janis found art long before she found music and for a time it was a better fit: the only teacher she even vaguely respected from her hated days as a misfit student in Port Arthur was her art teacher. She even shocked everyone by going to college to study it later, although folk music performances did get in the way. Actually Janis was a natural student who soaked both art and music up like a sponge – it was her bullying fellow students and grim, strict teachers she disliked (we’ve said it here before many a time but I’m convinced her ‘death’ was a half-accident, half suicide in response to a mortifying school reunion the week before when Janis went back as the ‘big star’ and still got laughed at by all the nasty bullies in her class she thought she’d spent 20 years conquering). Sadly only three pieces of her work have so far been published, to the best of my knowledge and whilst they’re all as derivative and eclectic as you’d expect a good 16-year-old student to be, Janis nails every single one. Her top three then: 3) an angular portrait of an unknown female (Janis’ favourite style and her proudest art achievement, that reportedly hung in the family home long after her death) 2) a sketch of her first boyfriend, showing off her quick eye for detail (given the pictures I’ve seen of him she’s got his unusual quirky stance spot on) and 1) a marvellous portrait of Laura herself, then a bored 11 year-old enthralled by her big sister offering herself as a model for some grand portrait, only for Janis to draw one of her most realistic works. Despite the age difference – and the fact that Laura grows up to look nothing like her sister – you can easily recognise the Joplin nose and intense stare!

Grace Slick (four colour prints are included in her autobiography ‘Somebody To Love?’, 1998)

Grace slipped quietly into retirement after the Jefferson Airplane reunion fizzled out and a few sleevenotes and a racy autobiography aside hasn’t been in the public eye since (as one of the older AAA stars, she figured it wasn’t ‘proper’ to still be performing on a stage at 50 – of course most of her Jefferson colleagues are doing just that in their 70s now!) You can’t turn off a creative tal;ent, though, and like her ‘soul sister’ Janis Grace’s biggest outlet in the years since leaving music behind has been painting. Unlike almost all the others on this list, Grace doesn’t see much divide between the two artforms, with most of her published work being interpretations of her own lyrics or portraits of her musical friends and associates. Whilst it’s probably fair to say Grace was right to make music rather than art her career, she does have a good eye for, well, eyes actually and getting to the ‘inner’ vibe of the people she draws rather than simply drawing what’s on the surface. It’s sad, in fact, that to date only four of her pieces have been published (as part of her autobiography) and none in the past 15 years, although apparently there’s hundreds of pieces of her art that no one in the public has ever seen. Her top three: Whilst her picture of Jimi Hendrix isn’t that great (he looks like a boxer), 3) Grace’s picture of Janis Joplin captures her suppressed energy and sad-eyes, happy-smile look that so many paintings of her miss. I’m not so sure about the hair though which would impress Rapunzel! 2) ‘Alice and the White Rabbit’ is Grace’s interpretation of Lewis Carroll, via the hallucinogenic drugs that inspired Grace’s best known composition ‘White Rabbit’. Interestingly she gets the rabbit spot on (managing to be both Victorian and psychedelic all at the same time) but struggles more with Alice (who has the face of a 40-year-old, legs of a 24-year-old and hands of a 4-year-old). Still, it’s way better than anything I can draw. 1) Best of all is Grace’s portrait of Jerry Garcia (if only Grace, Janis and Jerry had all drawn each other it would make for a fine exhibition!) Garcia’s depiction here is excellent, capturing an expression that appears in so many photographs with Jerry smiling at the camera before being pulled away at the last minute to concentrate on the music he’s playing, leaving that smile hanging in the air like a – well – Cheshire cat (perhaps Lewis Carroll was more of an influence on Grace than we thought?!)

Paul McCartney (a whacking great book of Macca’s artwork was collected in ‘Paintings’, 2000)

I must confess that this is such a whacking-great coffee-table-book-that’s-bigger-than-your-coffee-table tome that I’ve never had the space/weight/empty space in my current house to bring it with me so I’m having to do this book from memory. What surprised everyone, though, I think, was how dark many of these pictures are: sub-conscious squirls and interesting angles are frequently developed, not into beautiful music or cute melodies that sound like they’ve been around for centuries but dark, unforgiving shadows and oppressive block colours. There’s a definite theme of nature and Earth, too, which should come as no surprise given Macca’s vegetarian links and support to animal charities, with the biggest link of all between art and music coming in the ‘standing stone’ style drawings that draw on paganism and mysticism. Macca’s art is also terribly modern – much more so than his music – perhaps because of his friendships with modern painters (especially Marc Chagall). As someone who thinks most modern painters are having a laugh at our (costly) expense I can’t say I was as taken with Paul’s work as I should be, but a lot of very high-up, hard-to-please art critics considered his work to be nothing short of brilliant and they know a lot more than me, so there you go. Overall this book is the artistic equivalent of Paul’s ‘McCartney II’ album, using a then-new medium to do something quite unlike he’d ever done before, with all the highs and lows that suggests. His top three: again this is from memory here but 3) the moody looking face on the front cover of the ‘Paintings’ book is highly unusual and you can see why it was chosen for such a focal point: a wispy cloud-like face with huge lips hanging in the sky by themselves (and only a smidgeon away from one of John Lennon’s own doodling from ‘Skywriting B y Word Of Mouth’). 2) ‘Standing Stones’ a series of four pictures that manage to combine naturalism with surrealism, doing a good job at summing up McCartney’s lyrics about ‘hidden’ spirituality calling our ancestors towards progress. One of these should really have been the album cover instead of the modern digital and all too obvious atrocity that made the album. 1) McCartney’s drawing of John Lennon – not a straightforward portrait (there are no straightforward portraits in this book), but a subconscious smudge of paint that, after a bit of work, ending up reminding Paul of his former partner. The beaked nose and half-glasses certainly do seem like Lennon, who at once manages to look like the arrogant Lennon of 1964, the psychedelic Lennon of 1967, the ‘peace’ Lennon of 1969 and the home-maker Lennon of 1980 all at once. It remains the most remarkable of Paul’s work, not just for the Beatle connections but because it breaks all the boundaries Lennon – the art school student among the Beatles – would have approved of.

Stuart Sutcliffe (his work is mostly published in sister Pauline Sutcliffe’s biography ‘The Beatles’ Shadow: Stuart Sutcliffe’, 2001, with a handful in fiancé Astrid Kirchherr’s book ‘A Retrospective’, 2010,)

Arguably the best and most natural artist of all was only in a band for about 18 months and his only recorded work with the band appears on poor-quality hard-to-hear bootlegs. To those in the know, though, Stuart Sutcliffe is so much more than just a part-time Beatle: his friendship with Lennon brought out an artistic side to John that might have been hidden forever, his high-falluting concepts learnt at art school (when Lennon was sleeping or messing around) brought a new depth and intelligence to the early Beatles sound it might not otherwise have had without Sutcliffe to ‘translate’ and his fiancé Astrid Kirchher gave the Beatles their defining early look, existentialist, sombre and intense (not to mention giving them the Beatles haircut). We’ve covered Sutcliffe’s story many times by now but if you don’t know it it’s an incredible one which ends with him in an alien town (Hamburg), dying from a brain haemorrhage at the age of just 21. Modern sneering critics reckon Sutcliffe is only ‘famous’ now because oif his Beatle links and would never been accepted as a proper bona fide ‘artist’ – but they’re all wrong. Perhaps the leading living German artist of the 1960s happened to teach at Astrid’s college and quickly added Sutcliffe to his class too, believing the young artist to be even greater than he was. He was right too – I might know very little about modern art, but whenever you see Sutcliffe’s art displayed properly (which it often it, especially in Liverpool) and it almost always outshines the work around it. Sutcliffe could and should have been great, with or without the Beatles connection and his untimely death was an awful tragedy, robbing the art world just as much as Lennon’s untimely, unnecessary death robbed the music world. His top three: Unfortunately, most of Stuart’s artwork doesn’t seem to have been titled and, to make a hard job harder, the ‘page numbers’ given in my copy of Pauline Sutcliffe’s otherwise excellent book on her brother don’t match up with those given in the book’s index so we might be talking at cross purposes here, dear reader. We’ll give it a go though: 3) The ‘Hamburg Series’ (listed as pg 160, but pg 154 in my copy), a fascinating mesh of criss-crossing lines, with parts of the canvas peeled back to give a very three-dimensional effect (at least, I think this is the same one I’ve seen on display). Sadly the monochrome reproduction doesn’t do the work justice but it’s an alluring, exotic, incredibly modern work for an unknown 20-year-old student. 2) While most of Astrid’s book features her own excellent photographs of Stuart as opposed to drawings, there are several shots of him standing in front of his portraits. The untitled one on page 60 of her book is quite different to all the other Sutcliffe examples on display but every bit as pioneering and eye-catching, using thumb-prints to mimic the waves of the sea on a work that, surely, is about the distance between him and John at that time (The Beatles had just gone back to Liverpool and Stuart was in two minds whether to stay with them and go back to his family or stay with his fiancé). 1) ‘Liverpool 1958-59’(pg 10 in Pauline Sutcliffe’s book). For those who don’t believe that Stuart could really ‘draw’, take a look at this sketch, made when Stuart was all of 17 years old. Victorian characters appear to walk down the docks of Liverpool like ghosts; remnants of the days when Liverpool was an important, bustling port rather than a fading industrial tip (little did Stuart know that friends he hadn’t even met yet would play a major part in re-shaping Liverpool’s future and rehabilitation). Somehow this quick sketch manages to both include the detail of the character’s faces, giving insights into their characters and personalities, and seem like they aren’t really there at all, just floating past in their own world.

Jerry Garcia (his work is mostly published in April Higashi’s book ‘Jerry Garcia and his Collected Artwork’, 2005)

What surprised me most about this work was both how far back some of these sketches go (there’s a weird and wonderful pull-out pamphlet a 16-year-old Garcia made about the horrors of smoking and ‘watching too much T.V.’, little realising his adult self would do more than his fair share of both) and how close up to his death (Jerry died in mid-1995 and yet that’s the year that keeps cropping up again and again here. The sheer range of work here is staggering – from pen-and-ink doodles done backstage to keep Jerry’s mind busy, to fully made paintings that must have taken forever to do to surprisingly modern and impressive-looking digital paintings made using computers, it’s all here. Like his music, Jerry’s art also varies considerably from the very traditional conservative styloe portraits (which could have been made a hundred years before), to the surreal and edgy and psychedelic, up to the clean-cut digital age. Unlike, say, McCartney there’s no real sense of the artist’s sub-conscious on show, barring a few creepy, shadowy pictures and there are several drawings published in the book that look like ‘practices’ at working on new techniques than fully fledged inventive portraits, but no matter. Garcia is one of those Renaissance figures who had a lot to say and an awful lot of means at his disposal to allow him to say them and any extra glimpse into his psyche is welcome. There aren’t many references to Jerry’s music, with one exception: a pen-and-ink version of the leering hobo ‘August West’ from perhaps Jerry’s greatest song ‘Wharf Rat’, whose blackened eyes and scared half-smile are a pretty accurate depiction of the character in the song, even if he doesn’t look like the character I had in my head! His top three: ‘Scales’ from 1993 – a surreal background of lots of colours blocked by circles, squares and triangles seem like modernist art. The mandolin on the left looks more traditional. The figure who looks a bit like Jerry himself is captured between the two extremes, hiding behind a ‘square’ with a set of scales, looking not unlike the Statue of Liberty. The pun on ‘scales’ (weighting scales and musical scales as signified by the mandolin) is very Jerry too, making light of what seems like quite a dark piece. 2) Perhaps the most famous illustration is the wobbly Rhubarb-and-Custard-like pen-and-ink drawing of Jerry and friend David Grisman which was used as the album cover for the pair’s children’s album. Despite being just a series of wavy lines over-laden with scruffy colours (that often go over the lines), you can easily identify who the pair are. Though rougher, the drawings of the crowd of children at their feet are quite sweet too, some of them looking less than pleased at the music being played for them! 1) Ever since abandoning their ‘space age’ tag in favour of traditional country-style songs in 1970, it seems like there’s been a ‘hole’ in the Dead’s music, a side to their art that only showed itself at rare moments. However, it was clearly just sleeping; hence ‘Jiom’, probably the best of Garcia’s ‘computer’ paintings with fascinating but believable-looking new worlds surrounded by cones and spheres. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to ‘draw’ with a computer, but it’s near impossible even nowadays: you have to be so exact with placing every object and every time you try to add colour you risk shading in everything on screen, not just the segment you’re after. But Jerry’s work is fabulous, wholly believable, multi-shaded worlds that look more like a picture from the Hubble space telescope than a drawing from someone’s head. And this was in 1995, back when I didn’t even own a computer and when they were officially driven by steam-power or something. Even given the fact that Garcia had a better and more expensive computer program than I’ll ever have, this is staggeringly good.

And that’s that for another week. Join us for less art but a whole lot more music next week!


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