Month: November 2015

November 30, 2015

Yesterday: the start of Advent; the beginning of the first ‘coming’ (Greek: parousia).

Today: 8.30 am. The days, these days, never seem to come to full bloom. My study is cast into perpetual gloom from early morning until around 4.00 pm (when it gets properly dark). And ‘the rain it raineth every day’. This day began, following Monday’s now established pattern, with tutorial admin, followed by PhD correspondence. Because so many of our PhD students study part time, and live away from the university, fairly regular exchanges of emails between tutor and tutee are common and very necessary.

A box, masquerading as one containing a guitar, had turned up:


It turned out to be the box which contained my new heavy-duty record turntable … which is far smaller than the box, and squarish. I could hardly contain my disappointment.

11.00 am. Back to School, to pick up module assessment forms, set up materials for the afternoon’s lectures, and prepared for the day’s re-routed third and second year tutorials. 11.30 am. Off to the Old College, battling against the rain, feeling like Mr Turner strapped to a mast in the storm (only walking).

1.40 pm. Back to School (again), to set up for the Abstraction lecture. Three more to go:


3.00 pm. The remainder of the afternoon was set aside for micro-tutorials (15 mins), in order to make up for the regular ones that I couldn’t deliver last Thursday, due to my indisposition:


I went through the module criteria assessment sheet with each student in turn, to ensure that they understood the nature of the rope by which they’d be hanged in January. (Some found this to be a somewhat alarming metaphor.) By the end of this week, my aim is to have them fully aware of all that they must require of themselves by their return to studies. Some observations and principles derived from today’s classes:

  • Sometimes, it’s the things we do on the margins of our core activities (unselfconsciously) that prove to be sign posts pointing the way forward.
  • Failure is the necessary underpainting of success.
  • You might be a stranger painter than you could’ve ever imagined.
  • When looking at the work of an artist whom we admire and are influenced by, we see a partial reflection of our own visual identity. In other words, our influences are not arbitrary; they’re drawn to us by a principle of natural affinity.
  • When in doubt, do! (This is not a piece of advice for any other department of life outside of creative practice.)
  • Richard Diebenkorn grew as a painter by yielding himself, very conspicuously, to the influence of a great many other painters. They were the fertiliser to his soil. One must be influenced. To imagine otherwise is hubris and self-delusion.
  • Celebrate your eccentricities.

A new guest or an infiltrator?: Thomas Johnes, best known for his development of the Hafod Estate in Wales. (‘Don’t blink! Don’t even blink! Blink, and you’re dead!’):


6.30 pm. Practise session 1. 7.30 pm. modular adminery. I fielded eleventh-hour requests for advice of the Abstraction submission, which are due in tomorrow, and disposed recommendations to fellow sufferers, as a fellow sufferer, on how to deal with this darn cold.

November 28, 2015

8.45 pm. A late rise from a better night’s sleep. 9.30 am. In the sound studio, I reviewed the ‘spray job’ on the discs, unmasked them, and readied them for receiving the fragments of My Heart is Broken in Three:


Curiously, not all 10 inch, 78-rpm records are. The three examples that I’d purchased have as much as a 2/8th variance from the norm. Presumably, different record labels used their own pressing moulds which only approximated to the standard size. Absolute accuracy wasn’t called for; so, there was no need to strive for it. That’s a rather refreshing thought.

Next, I needed to ensure that the overlaid fragments were aligned with the spindle hole at the centre of host disc, for which task considerable accuracy was required. Mercifully, I had one large fragment that retained the hole of the whole record intact. So, I aligned the hole of the fragment with the hole of the host record and then manoeuvred one of smaller pieces into its original position next to the large fragment, from which it had broken off. The smaller fragment was then glued down, and the large fragment removed. The operation was then repeated for the remaining small fragment and, finally, the large fragment was secured to its own host disc.

Now I have three partial, playable records:


It hadn’t struck me before, but in this piece makes possible what was impossible in the context of my Evan Roberts wax cylinder project R R B V E Ǝ T N Ƨ O A. The fragments of the cylinder couldn’t be played in their dissembled state, not least because they’d be reassembled:


Having failed to establish a link with PURE (the university’s research record database), I had a long ‘live chat’ with an operative from IS (Information Services, that is; not the terrorist organisation. Perhaps they should change their name to Services of an Informative Nature: SIN. No, that won’t do, either.) The conversation proceeded as follows:

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… and so it went on for over an hour. No resolution. Sigh! But they were as helpful as they could be for a limited weekend service. I await further wisdom.

1.40 pm. I made a photo-document of the discs and then reviewed yesterday’s work on ‘Image and Inscription’. A sense of dread anticipation has been established, and I’m perceiving the pace of change and development more keenly. 3.45 pm. Back to CV and updating, and on with reference writing. I desperately need to clear my desk of small admin before I knuckle down to marking 24 x 5,000 word Abstraction submissions, early next week. Now that should see me through Wagner’s Ring Cycle many times over.

5.00 pm. Tools down. An evening with my wife.

November 27, 2015

The trouble is … the more help you give a student, the less credit they can claim for their attainment. Of course, a teacher should instruct, advise, inform, elucidate, demonstrate principle and good practice, advocate standards, and, above all, be a sterling example of their own pedagogy in practice. (If your teaching doesn’t help and change you, first and foremost, there’s little chance of it improving the lot of your tutees.) What a teacher mustn’t do is provide answers to the students’ academic problems. To do so is to rob them of an experience of searching, discovering, and realising, thereby, something very precious, for themselves.

I don’t reflect on my teaching very much. Which is not a very fashionable, or indeed a particularly professional, thing to say these days. If I was that interested in the mechanics of teaching, I’d have studied education rather than art. However, I do reflect a great deal upon my relationship with the tutees and upon their relationship to the subject. This process has taught me more about the profession than any book on the subject (and, I’ve read a great many).

Furthermore (and I’m aware that this is even more controversial and indicative of my dinosaur-like mentality), I believe in the opposite of student-centred learning: that is to say, subject-centred teaching. (Teacher-centred learning is downright bad practice.) In one sense, the subject of study is of more consequence than either the teacher or the student; they will both pass away, but it will abide. On a pedagogical level, my adherence to this conviction has had a number of attitudinal manifestations. For example, I’ve endeavoured to:

  • draw the students up to the level of the subject, rather than vice versa;
  • regard myself as a custodian of the subject, responsible for passing it down to the next generation intact and with interest (in the investment sense of that term).
  • inculcate a sense of responsibility for the subject: after all, it’s already the students’ inheritance and charge, one which they in turn must pass on;
  • inculcate a sense of respect for the subject: after all, it has been through the minds and hands of scholars and practitioners far greater than those of this teacher and his tutees;
  • inculcate the principle that it’s not what the student demands of the subject but, rather, what the subject demands of the student which matters;
  • inculcate the principle that the subject must first shape the student before they can have any hope of shaping the subject.

To realise these objectives, I contend, demands as fierce a commitment to the process of education as any suggested by student-centred learning.

8.30 am. After a little module admin, I moved into the sound studio to review last week’s work on the ‘Image and Inscription’ composition. The desert’s heat. How might that be realised, sonically? This’ll require a rethink of the opening of the first section, and the search for a sultry sound. I found a sound immediately, but its processing took an age. There were no short cuts. (This is what the subject required of me.) 12.15 pm. The final stage of its preparation involved removing extraneous sound artefacts (clicks, snicks, and ticks) from the track.

1.40 pm. I made further changes to my three 10 inch, 78-rpm records, by spraying their surfaces white. This won’t improve the sound quality of the artefact, but it’ll enhance the outlines of record fragments, once they’re be affixed to the surfaces. (There must always be a reason for doing something.):


2.00 pm. Since the narrative of the source text begins, abruptly, at the start of Exodus, chapter 19, the sound composition will do likewise. Fading-in is a convention that arose with the invention of sound recording and engineering. It’s a metaphor for something that appears to be travelling towards us from a distance. This idea has no warrant in the text.

The rain Auerbached the world outside my studio window:


Throughout the afternoon, sound samples were inserted, modified, and often deleted. The composition is an aural jig-saw puzzle, but without a picture lid; I have to feel the shape of each piece of sound and each hole in the compositional fabric in turn, in order to make a match. 5.00 pm. I could hear no longer. My ears were saturated. I desisted.

I needed to consider the performance aspect of this project and, so, resurrected my audio/midi controller (which I’d not used in public since the inaugural presentation of ‘Abort Nerves’ in 2011):


Now … how does this work, again?

6.40 pm. I installed software for the above hardware. Thereafter, I took the evening more gently. While the active physical effects of the cold were slowly receding, the lassitude persisted. I used the period of convalescence to source guitar amps. My dippy lower spine has forced me to consider lighter weight and more portable options. But before I can make a purchase, I need to raise the capital by selling my glorious Fender 100-watt Twin. (I simply cannot be schlepping this around any longer.)

November 26, 2015

‘I have a cold’; a cold has me’! This mantra kept going through my head during the night, as sleep remained evasive and I was thrown about the bed by fits of coughing like a demoniac by its host. I arose late, ate breakfast, returned to bed, and waited for the Lemsip MAX to arrive. Once it’d kicked in, the piercing headache and mucus coughing subsided sufficiently for me to get my first real experience of unconsciousness in two days:


1.40 pm. Back to the pumps! Now to do the postgraduate bibliographies. Some Bach to lubricate the mind, enliven the soul, and mask the noise of a neighbour’s tree surgeon. The rural boundaries of the urban world experience their own unruly and aggressive sounds.

3.30 pm. Next summer, I need to write a ‘module’ for PhD Fine Art students, one that could be studied both at a distance and on site. (This was a one of those ideas that come to me with clarity when in infirmity.) It would deal with the philosophy and psychology of practice-based research, the problems of self- and para-analytical writing (the thesis element), time management, the concept of the artist-researcher, and notions of originality, among other themes. This would be a ‘module’ for the School’s students only. I don’t want to water it down into a generic provision that any creative researcher might attend. That would miss the point entirely.

Pumping over! Rest. More hot, honey drink:


4.15 pm. Back to updating my CV and website profiles, as a prelude for fleshing out my university research profile. I always vow never to let my profiles fall being significantly. But I often fail to honour that pledge.

6.15 pm. Practise session 1. 7.15 pm. On with the profiles’ updates. Inconsistencies between versions of the same items on different databases abound. But sorting them out is part of my responsibility as the curator and conservationist of the works that I’ve produced: be they books, chapters, articles, conference presentations and originations, exhibitions, or sound works and performances.

More fluids:

Screen Shot 2015-11-26 at 21.30.37

As HAL, the computer in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), would say: ‘My mind is going. I can feel it. I can feel it. My mind is going. There is no question about it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I can feel it.’ Enough!

November 25, 2015

7.00 am. If must have slept no more than hour last night. Bronchial coughing broke any attempt I made to ‘drop-off’. Putting my feet on the floor was an effort. I sensed that the cold had now become fully established. My eyes are like hot marbles. Following breakfast and a dose painkillers, honey in hot water, multivits, Q10, and garlic tablets, I hit the pillow again until 11.00 am. I don’t ‘do’ being ill particularly well. For one thing, my mind accelerates even as my body slows down. Sometimes, I’ve received new ideas, that came with great clarity, in this condition:


11.00 am. I had little strength or will for anything other than to sit in front of a computer and pump bibliographical references into an online database. It needs to be done, and right soon. Furthermore, I’d rather be spending my worst energies on this than my best.

1.00 am. Bring on the baked beans on toast. Comfort food is the call of he hour. 1.40 pm. I took to my bed again. Sleep was denied. 2.10 pm. Back to the pump. The University’s upload and search systems are running very slowly and, occasionally, timing out. (The object correlative!) I’m going to try and listen to the entire of Wagner’s Ring Cycle … now that I’m grown up.


Grand opera and grand colds really don’t go together. I’m found myself getting irritated and turning down the volume periodically. Scott Walker will heal! But he can be very operatic too. No. I need instrumental music: Sonny Sharrock’s Guitar (1986). Some guitarists (and he was one of them) have guitar’s strings connected to their heart as well as to the tuners. Pumping done for today!

I worked my way through the medical cabinet in search of succour. This was nice:


Absolutely no taste. Peculiar! But it had the consistency of what can only be described as thick water. I was cautious not to bump into anything, just in case I exploded. Calamine lotion was the only other fluid in a bottle that I’d available to drink. Maybe not.

7.30 pm. Email catch up. I needed to decide what is realistic in terms of tomorrow’s commitments. To my second year painters I wrote:

I am, as they say in theatre land, ‘indisposed’. I’ve a dreadful cold that has turned horribly productive making it difficult to speak without collapsing into a torrent of coughs. So, meeting tomorrow is not good for you or me. I propose seeing you on Monday afternoon instead, for micro-tutorials (15 mins each). We’ll then have full ones on Thursday as usual. I’ll post a schedule soon.

Thanks for your patience. (Yes. Even cold-hearted robots get poorly occasionally.)


Having suffered from an irrational, unreliable, and either under or over-reactive immune system for over a quarter of century, I respond to illnesses, from which others might bounce back swiftly, with great caution. On occasions, a small noise has triggered an avalanche.

November 24, 2015

It’s the straw, not the large and heavy bale of hay, that breaks the camel’s back. ‘So, beware of being unseated by minor irritants’, John!. 9.00 am. An additional essay-prep tutorial. Once one objectifies thoughts — laying them out, visibly — the burden of the task and the student’s anxiety decreases noticeably. (But I must improve my handwriting in a vertical plane. Yikes!):


The latest plague (which I’ve contracted big-time) is establishing itself among the student fraternity/sorority. I sent one of them back home to Lemsip and bed. A swift and helpful review of my draft funding proposal, from my colleague Dr Roberts — a man who knows his beans in these matters — landed at 9.30 am. I need to finalise this document today, without fail.

10.00 am. An MA Fine Art tutorial. It ranged from a discussion of the Rococo to one of bums in art, mother of pearl buttons, parenting, and dogs in art (a very practical concern in this case). 10.50 pm. I held an emergency micro-tutorial with a second year Fine Art student who was not well enough to attend her regular tutorial last week. Now, she’s back on track.

Medical matters disrupt. In the late morning, on my return home, I implemented changes to the funding proposal and posted it off. (Cough!. Cough!)

2.00 pm. I held a short sound remastering tutorial with one of our illustrators who’s working on a fascinating visual/sonic animation. The objective: delimit the ambient traffic sounds and enhance the presence of the voice in the recording:


2.30 pm. An impromptu Abstraction essay micro-tutorial, followed an arranged magna-tutorial on the same  (1.5 hours) … :


… followed by two regular-tutorials (with marshmallows but without cream, please) on the same.

Some principles and observations derived from today’s literary encounters:

  • Woolly writing indicates woolly thinking.
  • If you wrote as often as you drew/photographed/painted, or whatever, you’d improve very quickly. Continuity and regularity in the exercise of a gift is crucial to its development, and to the promotion of self confidence.
  • In the past, even people with only a moderate education wrote passably well. This was because they kept daily diaries and wrote letters habitually. Texting and messaging are no substitute.
  • If you read as much as you watched TV, your writing would improve considerably. Reading is an engagement with how others write. Therefore, learn to write from reading.
  • Writing is the mind’s exhalation.
  • The only thing easy about writing is stopping.

6.30 pm. Practise session 1. 7.30 pm. An excitation of the PowerPoint presentation for the next Abstraction lecture. One day, I’ll miss doing this. (Wagner’s, Der Ring des Nibelungen played in the background. The opening section is almost unbearable.) While both were underway, I fielded emails/Facebook messages from/with postgraduates, both current and to come. Social media is a useful pedagogical tool. Sometimes, when looking for images and articles on the internet, I come across something that’s useless to me but very relevant to a student under my charge. If they’re one of my Facebook buddies, I can slip it to them, effortlessly. In this way, the tutorial relationship remains open … like a conversation that never quite concludes. 

November 23, 2015

8.00 am. A raging sore-throat and tiredness blighted my concentration for the first hour of the day. (Manuka honey, to the rescue.) My attempts at centring, contemplation, and reaching beyond myself — for myself and the needs of others — suffered continual interruption from thoughts that ranged too broadly and inappropriately. The mind, like the heart, is an unruly beast. 8.30 am. I began setting up my tutorial and classes for the week before making a response to PhD Fine Art proposals, and submissions describing work in progress. By 11.00 am, I had ‘0’ unread emails in the inbox. Wonderful! Rare! More fluids; more fluids. (Cough! Cough!)

Some extracts from this morning’s advice to PhD Fine Art students (intending, pending, and bending):

  • This is a very good list of propositions, agendas, and questions. You’ll find that, eventually, a number of them will conflate, others, fall away, and a few drift to the top of the pile. The latter will be the governing questions of the research. You can’t force them to emerge. Be patient. … You need to create a hierarchy of importance among the questions that you raise, and weave together the ideas into a first draft of prose. Daunting, possibly; necessary, certainly.
  • Writing the proposal is a toughy. Don’t be discouraged; it takes time. It also helps to ask the institutions, to which you’re applying, what they want to read. Then you can accommodate their requirements too.
  • One needs to be entirely honest with oneself and the work; and, what’s more, not to feel any pressure to dress up your intentions for the sake of others and of making the proposal sound more conceptual, sophisticated, or ‘acceptable’ [than it needs to be]. However, the ‘simple’ pursuit, the immediate response, and the ‘mere’ sensual pleasure of looking and remaking [which you describe in your proposal], are notoriously difficult to comprehend, let alone articulate. In short, simplicity is never straightforward. Try and understand why Eric Satie’s piano pieces (the most paired-down, self-evident music of the late 19th and early 20th centuries) work so well, and endure repeated listening. I’m a great admirer of Henri Fantin-Latour. His painting of a White Cup and Saucer (1864)  is a masterpiece of uncomplication and clarity, and yet I never tire of looking at it … never cease to learn from it. This work nails the transcendental grandeur of the so-called ordinary things in the world and, what the Greeks called, scopophilia (the pleasure derived from looking):


11.45 am. On with my own proposal in search of funds to finalise the next, double CD. I played, in the background, Satie’s keyboard piece, Vexations (c.1983-4). It’s based on tritones (C-F#) — the ‘devil’s interval’, so called. The instruction to the player at the head of the manuscript advises: ‘In order to play the theme 840 times in succession, it would be advisable to prepare oneself beforehand, and in the deepest silence, by serious immobilities’. The performance thus involves repetition of a ‘melodic’ line (and there’s more than a hint of Schoenbergian atonalism here) that, itself, doesn’t repeat. (Can I make a performable arrangement for guitar?, I ask myself.) :

Screen Shot 2015-11-23 at 12.18.42

1.30 pm. Onwards; Schoolwards. 2.10 pm. The 15th Abstraction lecture. There was a slight delay on syncing my Dropbox online folders with my laptop. I’ve not had this problem before. Nor had I anticipated it, either. (Now that’s a worse problem.) Otherwise, it was a breeze. 3.30 pm. On returning to:// home/study/desk/iMac/desktop/Outlook/inbox\ I found an email in my junk mail from a deceased former student. Before the malicious practice of hijacking users email accounts became commonplace (of which this is obviously an instance), the phenomenon would’ve been considered borderline paranormal. I pushed on with my funding proposal. The central argument is that, even in an age of instant access downloads of music, the CD is still relevant. However, I can readily see that in less than a decade this form of physical media will be redundant. And, paradoxically, vinyl will be fully in the ascendant.

6.30 pm. Practise session 1. I’ve returned to the Fender Stratacaster. It rings like a bell. A solid, work-horse of a guitar, and a masterpiece of design that cannot, in its essence, be improved upon:

Screen Shot 2015-11-23 at 20.22.29
Fender Stratacaster No: 0001 (1954) (Courtesy of Gilmourish)

7.30 pm. On with the proposal. It’s beginning to sound more persuasive. Towards the close of the piece, I remarked: ‘The culture of CD listening is qualitatively different to that of hearing, say, streamed or mobile music. It requires a more deliberate attentiveness. And this is the commitment that I expect from an audient coming to my work’ .

November 21, 2015

7.45 pm. I greet each day with expectation. Not that I customarily anticipate the arrival of either a surprising event, welcome news, or good fortune. Rather, it’s in the hope that something might change in me, and for the better: a new realisation, repentance, resolve, or restitution. 9.00 am. First, a review of the work so far. The composition has established a mood that’s appropriately forbidding and uneasy … and an atmosphere (in the scientific sense of them term) that evokes a turbulent miasma.  I’m conscious of seeing, in my mind’s eye, the scene at a great distance, from way above; a God’s-eye view, perhaps. The aim, next, was to construct an ascension motif. I knew what I didn’t want: a sonic construction that sounded like a spaceship taking off in a sci-fi B movie. (Gravitas and dread are my watchwords.) If my perspective is at a remove, then my awareness of Moses’s ascent would be as one of a number of  incidents within the general prospect. Therefore, the motif needed to be fully integrated within, rather than a feature of, the soundscape:

Screen Shot 2015-11-21 at 11.31.37

11.30 pm. Having ‘saved’ the composition, I discovered that the last two tracks I’d made (representing the ascent) hadn’t. (Sigh!) But I’ve learned never to curse minor misfortunes of this order. In redoing what is undone, the outcome is often far better. As was the case on this occasion.

There is a short period of silence once the ascension has reached its climax: the silence of a vigil, of awaiting. Returning to Close Encounters of a Third Kind; this absence of incident is reminiscent (and no doubt more than subliminally influenced by) a dramatic interval between the departure of the small alien crafts and the arrival of the mothership on the mountain — one of the most visually and acoustically sublime (in the 19th century aesthetic definition of that word) moments in cinema. Thus ends the first section of the composition. In the next, Moses will have his own close encounter with Yahweh. Bring on the mothership!

1.40 pm. A change of activity. (It’s unproductive to spend too long of any one endeavour.) I returned to the My Heart is Broken in Three project. Having procured me three 10-inch, 78-rpm records, I can now prepare their surfaces to receive the fragments of the broken one:


The centres of the records were then masked in readiness for a ‘spray-job’ in the next few days:


Mid afternoon, I received a review of the R R B V E Ǝ T N Ƨ O A (2015) CD by Ed Pinset of The Sound Projector Music and Radio Show. However confident one might be about the integrity of a composition, it’s encouraging, and in this case illuminating, to read the approbation and interpretation of another. (Especially, of someone in the know.)

On and off, during my unmasking activities, I finalised the album (more of EP, really) notes for I saw her Soul Fly Across the Clouds. 5.00 pm. An end to my labours, and the beginning of an evening with my wife.

November 20, 2015

7.50 am. I discharged my duties to my ‘flock’: writing emails notifications regarding tutorial appointments, while chivvying the discouraged, supporting the lame, and stirring the indifferent. 9.00 pm. Putting all that behind me, I launched into the sound studio and picked up the ‘Image and Inscription’ composition once again. Here my mind will remain for the next two days. As is my practice, I began the day’s work, first, by reviewing the efforts that I’d made at the beginning of the week. The next task was to download, and to set up software and a routing path, that would enable me to record directly from my MacBook’s output. (Sunflower in combination with Audacity works a treat.) The set-up enabled me to capture, for example, a micro sample of sound that was being played in loop mode on the Audition DAW.

Working programmatically is a new and fascinating experience. I found myself ‘audioising’ (or whatever is the sonic equivalent for visualising) sounds before I manufactured them. The opening ‘scene’ of the text is set in the the Sinai desert. I found biblical illustrations on the Internet, made in the same period as my two source engravings, to serve as a tangible reference to the subject and focus for my sonification:

J W M Turner, ‘The Sinai Desert’, engraved by E Finden (c.1870)

I suspect that, in my endeavour to interpret the visual source evocatively, I’m working like a composer of film scores:

12.15 pm. Hoorah! The repairman from Worcester has fixed the household boiler (which was disabled by last weekend’s storm, in all likelihood). We now have hot water and heat in the home, after a five-day cessation and much crouching pitiably over bar fires.


I’m disciplining myself to maintain a much slower pace of development than I’m accustomed to for this soundscape. The concepts of space, speed, and time are intimately linked. My work on Strictly No Admittance (2015) taught me a great deal in this respect. It’s fascinating how one work prepares you for, and anticipates, another. 2.50 pm. A break, and preparations for a second visit to the osteopath. Into a day of vacillating moods:


I arrived for 3.15 pm. Some places have a strong presence. This corridor aches visibly, having, perhaps, absorbed the discomfiture of those who sit there awaiting treatment:


4.20 pm. Back at homebase, I reviewed the efforts I’d made in the early afternoon. I needed to open up the tonal spectrum of the tracks. When superimposing sounds, one must maintain the distinctive identity of each, in concert —  as one would the instruments in, or sections of, an orchestra.

7.15 pm. The danger of a programmatic approach to composition is that of becoming too figurative in the realisation of the source. In an unexpected way, my sojourn in the osteopath’s corridor had suggested an imaginative (speculative) approach to the composition that would provide the ballast necessary to counter literalism. The ceiling illumination connoted the idea of either an electrical disturbance or static in the air — such as might have preceded the dramatic onset of lighting and thunder around the summit of Mount Sinai, later on in the narrative (Exod. 19.16-17).

The first ascension of Moses upon the Mount inaugurated the divine encounter and the dramatic natural phenomena. His ascent, and, later, God’s descent, provided the trope for the conclusion of Spielberg’s Close Encounters if the Third Kind (1977). Towards the end of the film, Roy Neary (played by Richard Dreyfuss) climbs Devil’s Tower, Wyoming to confront the alien mothership, which is coming down from the starry heavens to meet him. The ascent (Exod. 19.3) required a sonic motif. A task for the morrow!

November 19, 2015

8.00 am. Inbox defoliation, diary uploading, and a time of reflection before shipping out to the School to begin the morning’s Abstraction assignment pre-submission tutorials. A good turnout. But why have some folk not availed themselves of the opportunity to attend? How far should I go to wheedle them out of the woodwork? The boundary between a student’s and a tutor’s responsibility for their learning is always a fuzzy one.  10.50 am. On, then, to my troupe of second year painting tutees.


Some principles and observations that emerged from today’s discussions:

  • Economy is the watch word. A grand master chess player will attempt to win the game in as few moves as possible. Likewise, we should endeavour to resolve the painting as straightforwardly, strategically, and simply as we can.
  • Paintings should be interesting as paintings; in other words, in the manner of their construction, and in their qualities of colour, form, pattern, line, brushwork, and surface. Sometimes what a painting represents is a matter of indifference or, at best, secondary to how it represents.
  • One has to rise above one’s personal expectations. Because, often, we pitch them far too low. If we fulfil our low expectations, we’ll not be disappointed. (But that’ll be the only consolation.)
  • Just because making a painting is enjoyable doesn’t make it good; just because making a painting is painful, doesn’t make it bad.
  • Sometimes I arrive at the School with no heart for teaching. But when I start to teach, the enthusiasm returns. We must act according to duty, rather than from desire.
  • Don’t expect everything you do to be as good as, if not better than, the best thing you’ve ever done. This is unrealistic. Not even Rembrandt’s paintings are all equally great works of art.
  • The question is: What should I be doing, now?
  • Trust that the answer to your problem will find you. But it’ll be looking for you in the studio, while you’re at work. So don’t disappoint it.
  • Don’t be afraid to don the hat of another artist’s style. Try on many different hats; see what becomes you. This is what good painters have always done. We learn by, and from, imitation.


2.00 pm. Back into the fray until 5.10 pm, and the 14th Abstraction lecture. We’re on the homeward lap. In one respect, the module could end on this lecture which, itself, ends with the degree-zero of painting. As the discussion approaches Robert Ryman’s austere canvases, there’s a palpable sense of unease in the audience at the realisation that Modernism actually did achieve what it set out to do. I was reminded of the final lines from the original film of The Planet of the Apes (1968), when George Taylor (played by Charlton Heston) discovers the ruins of the Statue of Liberty in the desert and, in that moment, understands that the humankind had followed to a conclusion its trajectory towards annihilation: ‘We finally really did it … You maniacs!. You blew it up! Ah, damn you!’.

The last slide of the lecture was one of Ryman’s ‘blank’ white canvases. Works like this represent, for me, a triumphant moment in twentieth century art: the uncompromising commitment to the implications of an ideal; one that, furthermore, takes us full circle, and returns abstraction to Malevich’s own unconscious anticipation of the endgame:


Kasimir Malevich, Suprematist Composition: White on White (1918)

7.00 am. Following a fast dinner and brush up, I attended an NT Live performance of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (1937) at the Arts Centre. This is still on the GCSE English syllabus, and school children were out in force. 10.00 pm. What could not be done in the evening was completed during ‘the night watch’, namely, the finalisation of the 15th Abstraction lecture, for Monday’s class.