The best exhibitions are the ones that make you want to work, send you out into the daylight filled with determination and – so the gallery hopes – with a new sketchbook and some rather expensive pencils, bought at the shop through which you are always obliged to pass on the way out. That’s one of my two measures of the success of a show – how much does it make me want to work? The second measure is more larcenous than aesthetic – is there anything here I’d like to take down and walk out with under my coat. In my defence I’m bound to say I do not have a collection of very small paintings filched from the walls of galleries, because if if I was willing to deprive artists of their proper income I’d be an art dealer.
On the same day we visited the nature reserve at Newborough (blogged on Tuesday 5th March) we kicked off in the morning by visiting Oriel Môn which translates – minus any resonance – to “Anglesey Gallery”, and which doesn’t sound half so much fun nor a fraction as erudite. I’ve used a lot of Welsh this week because we’re in one of the remaining strongholds of the Welsh language and I applaud every effort to keep it alive and kicking. In a very small way I understand how the deprivation of a language can drain a culture of meaning. It sounds ridiculous, I know, but I was brought up in an area with a strong local – really local – dialect. Away from home and school, where they were punished, we still used ‘thee, thou, and you’ in the distinct subtle meanings you can find in Shakespeare. When I went to work as a (very bad) welder at Jordan Engineering when I was seventeen I knew that when Brian – who was a brilliant welder – addressed me as ‘you’ – he was putting a distance as wide as the Bristol Channel between us. There was no other way of expressing that subtly insulting tone. The nuances of local dialects and languages are irreplaceable. A language helps you to think differently and so I find the only way of even beginning to understand what’s going on here is to engage with the Welsh language in my own embarrassed and fumbling way. Don’t get me wrong, I’m too shy even to say ‘diolch’ when I leave the local shop.
Anyway, like my good friend Samuel Beckett (OK I made that bit up) I sometimes wonder whether the ease with which I can write is as much a curse as a blessing. Familiarity with the language comes with a big price. I have absorbed the clichés, the lazy habits and the spent and lifeless rhythms so well that they can slip past me on to the page. And after an hour with Kyffin Williams’ drawings, prints and paintings I was wondering whether it would be possible to give up writing for a month or so and just draw. There was a large drawing of a garden by another artist at the end of the gallery and it seemed possible that instead of writing about the allotment I could draw it for a while. A daunting prospect for me, but the very condensed capacity of a drawing to express far more than hundreds of words is appealing. It’s as if wordiness can be boiled down in some kind of alchemical experiment resulting in a lyric poem and, returned again to the fire, can become a sonnet, then a haiku and finally a drawing. The very writing of which sentence makes a kind of argument aganst conceptual artists who – peering up their own arses – can see nothing and then write a long essay about it. The essential beauty of the drawing over the word is that it eschews the concept. Anyway, enough of that.
So filled with transcendental artistic desires we went off to the nature reserve and I was transported into a different frame, pushing disruptive thoughts to the back of my mind while we hunted for plants. Until Wednesday, that is, when we drove over to Plas Glyn-w-Weddw at Llanbedrog mainly to get out of the ceaseless wind and rain and stumbled on the centenary exhibition of work by Jonah Jones, an artist neither of us had ever heard of. There’s probably a reason and a couple of PhD’s in that fact. Welsh art hasn’t, in large measure, managed to fight its way past Shrewsbury or cross the Bristol Channel. You might cite different networks and funding bodies as reasons, but speaking from the English side of the channel I sense that there’s a bit of a dismissive attitude there. We watched a documentary about Kyffin Williams recently, and one of his faux friends implied that he sold too easily and produced too much uneven work. I’d answer that with two words – “Damien Hirst” and rest my case. Yes, Welsh Art does seem to have been remote from some of the nonsense of the past decades and that may turn out to be its saving grace, but much of the best of Welsh painting and drawing has been bought because people love it and want to live with it, not as an inflation busting investment kept in the bank. Yesterday I asked my question of one of the attendants at the MAC in Macynlleth. She said that it was true that Welsh art hasn’t crossed the border much but she went on to say that every time she drives back into Wales she sense a different atmosphere, a different ambience. She seemed to think that Welsh artists had something very special going for them and it emerged from the culture, the language, the landscape even. I think it’s the lyricism that’s all but disappeared from mainstream British art. Somebody pass me the stepladder and I’ll get down off this high horse!
But Jonah Jones was a revelation. His illustrated and hand lettered poems seemed to be answering my Tuesday question about words and drawing. I thought they were beautiful in a very Blakean way, and the slowness of his technique of hand lettering seemed to be a homage to the poems themselves. Jones was taught letter cutting in Eric Gill’s workshop. The hand lettering almost adds to the meaning of the words in a symbiotic relationship that does justice to both, suggesting that the answer to my question should be “not one or another but both” I should mention that when I was twelve or thirteen I found a copy of Edward Johnston’s “Writing Illuminating and Lettering” in the library and was so captivated by it I taught myself to write in italics and uncials from it.
Two days. two artists, and less than £1500 would have bought three limited edition prints that would give us endless inspiration and pleasure. If you’re anywhere near you really must see this exhibition. But then, at that price could they possibly be any good? – the British critics ask. Aaargh. We’re too skint to find out!
But Hazlitt was right, and I’m missing the allotment too. The photos both come from the catalogue to the exhibition.