Friday, June 5, 2009

In innocence, in vain.

M Charlton - Porthgain Memories

‘Let’s start with some poetry’, he said.

He stood in the centre of the group, dressed all in black, and read from a battered blue notebook. His voice was louder than I’d expected, a little flat in tone. We listened intently, trying to fathom the meaning of the words.

He, standing hushed, a pace or two apart,
Among the bluebells of the listless plain,
Thinks, and remembers how he cleansed his heart
And washed his hands in innocence in vain.

He snapped the notebook shut.
‘So what’s all that about then?’
There was no reply.
He recited the poem again, this time from memory.
‘The trouble is’, he said, ‘If you think of it as a story it doesn’t quite work. All of the words make sense, yet the meaning isn’t clear in a traditional sense.’
‘It’s beautiful though’, said a girl who, I’d noticed, seemed to hang on his every word.
‘Exactly’, he said. ‘And I think if Housman had spelled out some sort of narrative, it wouldn’t have worked. It was the feeling that mattered; the feeling he wanted to express and the feeling it gives us when we read it now.’
He turned towards me and I noticed he was wearing a hearing aid in each ear.
‘’Now tell me Mark,’ he barked. ‘How can you paint like Housman writes?’
This was my first introduction to John Skinner. I had come to a figure-painting course at his studio, recommended by the teacher of my local art class. I thought there would be a studio with drawings on the walls, some easels, and perhaps a model waiting in a robe. I’d expected everyone to prepare quietly, sorting their pencils and charcoals, sneaking glances at each other’s sketchbooks. And yet here I was discussing poetry with this strangely charismatic man, in a room that was bare, save for a few tables stacked against the walls.
John explained that we wouldn’t have a model that first morning, instead we would paint from our imagination. Later, when the model arrived, she would walk amongst us so we didn’t get stuck on a static image. He made us draw without looking, to paint straight onto canvas – ‘no preparation, no hesitation’ - and on a scale I’d never before considered. He couldn’t care less if I had any skill or not; I should forget all I’d learned about proportions and foreshortening. ‘You’re not here to copy objects,’ he said. ‘You’re here to realise your sensations in paint.’
And there were none of the pleasantries of my weekly art class. The group, all of whom were regulars, were expected to give detailed criticisms of each other’s work. The comments were fiercely to the point. At one stagte, the girl who had looked so doe eyed at John, ripped up her drawings and began to cry. In the breaks the group discussed poetry and contemporary art with the same intensity as blokes arguing over football. There was an evangelical air to their fervour; and they were all, I decided, in awe of John.
I struggled that first weekend and yet I was captivated too, especially by John and the sheer force of his personality. I left with my head spinning and folder full of work.
When I got home, I showed some drawings to my wife, Jane.
‘What are they all about?’ she said.
Over the next eight years John Skinner would transform the way I viewed the world. He would become my friend, my tutor and mentor, a constant source of inspiration and a partner in ideas. He would teach me more about art than I had learned in twenty years of painting. It would never be easy. We would argue as much over trivial meanings as big issues; over his Romanticism and his notions, as I called them; over my rationality and the failure of logic, as he would put it. With John there would always be a sense of combat, it came with the territory, so to speak. But our friendship would take us both to new places and different ways of seeing.
A few days after that first weekend, John phoned me. We had talked in the pub about my job as a strategist and how difficult it was to get people to see creative possibilities. I’d suggested he had something to offer in that field; was he phoning to follow up? He wasn’t much interested in that conversation, he said. He wanted a marketing plan for his studio, and in return he would give me a free tutorial. I had potential, he said with disarming candour, providing I stopped going to evening classes.
We met at his studio-gallery and I began by asking to see his paintings. He was pleased; he’d met dozens of advisors from the Arts Council and the Small Business Service. ‘All of them were crap. None of them looked at the paintings. I am hoping you might be different.’
‘No pressure then’, I said.
‘Of course there’s pressure’, he said. ‘This is the most important thing in my life.’
I soon discovered just how difficult John could be. Almost every suggestion I made he dismissed. He wouldn’t stock pottery or glass – ‘I’m not selling trinkets’. He would never use a London gallery again – ‘bloody sharks’. He wouldn’t discount his paintings, even to regular buyers – ‘they’re a lifetime of ideas and they’re not going cheap’. When I described his racks full of canvases as ‘old stock’, he almost exploded.
He wanted, he said, to make enough money to spend more time painting. He wanted to be less reliant on courses, to spend less time selling his work, to do less, it seemed to me, of anything that might make him some money. The work was all that mattered, he kept saying.
I was fascinated by his attitude. What appeared dogmatic was, I realised, a genuine integrity. Impractical perhaps, but somehow compelling. I envied his determination to stick to what he believed, not to compromise for the sake of money. His approach to life felt like it had been the opposite of mine. When I was eighteen had given up painting to do a ‘proper degree’. Later, as I came to love philosophy, I gave up a post-graduate scholarship to get a ‘proper job’. My work since had been a pragmatic compromise – I was proud of what I had achieved and I fitted in time for my interests as and when I could. Yet as I talked to John, I felt as if I had sold out cheaply. He had that effect on people.
I wrote him a plan the likes of which I’d never written before. It had no structure as such, I simply blurted out dozens of ideas – most of which I knew he wouldn’t accept. And I challenged his obstinacy; he couldn’t expect the world to pay him to paint, just because he wanted to. But there were possibilities, and his personality was a vital ingredient. I told him his ‘groupies’ adored him – he should build on that. Like it or not, the ’Skinner factor’, as I called it, was his best chance of making big money.
He rang me up two days later. ‘Fantastic plan’ he said. ‘You’re the first person to take this seriously.’
‘You like the ideas?’
‘God no, they’re dreadful. But it’s helped me see things differently. I’ve been faffing around; like you with your night classes. Come down again and let’s talk about how we can make big money.’
The next time we met he had a video playing in the studio.
‘Look at this’, he said. It was the band, Portishead, scratching records as the introduction to a song. ‘ When I was a kid we thought scratching a record was bad; the worst thing you could do.’ He fast-forwarded to a clip of Jimmy Hendrix playing the guitar. ‘In those days, musicians hated electronic feedback, and yet Hendrix realised he could use it.’
‘I‘m not sure what you’re getting at’, I said.
‘He saw it differently; he turned what was considered crap into something like gold. It’s the same with scratching records – who first thought of that? It’s like there’s fine line between things being really bad and the opening up of new possibilities. I’ve been thinking about this a lot.’
He skipped ahead to a clip of Eddie Izzard. ‘Fashion goes in cycles,’ said Izzard, drawing an imaginary circle in the air. ‘It starts with dull, then normal, then cool, then hip and groovy’… he paused and held his arm above his head before completing the circle…‘Then looking like a dick head’. The audience laughed. ‘I like to cruise that back edge,’ Izzard joked. ‘It makes me feel good, but sort of sick.’
‘John, you’ve lost me,’ I said.
‘That’s what I want from my paintings,’ he said. ‘I want them to make me feel good, but almost sick.’
‘My painting make me feel sick, they are so bad at the moment.’
‘That’s because they aren’t bad enough. You need to make them really bad – so they suggest a new way forward.‘
‘I can’t do that.’
‘Yes you can. You can do what you like,’ he said. ‘ Your trouble is you won’t take any chances.’
This conversation was typical of John, taking notions and spinning themes and variations, but never quite reaching a coherent outcome; not caring that he didn’t. To me, who’d worked all my adult life in a target driven business, which measured success by visible recognition and gradual improvement, the idea of making something worse to make it better just didn’t add up. Yet I sensed the possibilities. I knew also that he was right about playing safe. I was trading any real success for the safety of mediocrity and a little praise. Deep down I knew my paintings were pretty pale imitations of what I wanted to achieve.
‘I’m not sure people would understand,’ I said.
‘You’ve got to get used to ridicule, or at least risk it. When the work’s good enough, it will stop. And anyway, why do you care? It’s not as if you need to sell your paintings is it?’
He was right again. It cost me more in materials and courses than I made selling the odd picture. It was nice to feel someone wanted to buy them, but surely that wasn’t why I wanted to paint?
‘You need to think what you want from this, Mark. I wouldn’t say that if it wasn’t important.’
‘I thought you wanted to talk about making big money.’
‘ I do’, he said. ‘But I promised you a tutorial. Anyhow, it’s the painting that I care about most.’
As I looked round his studio I could see what he meant. He had a just finished a series of landscapes on the theme of air sea and hills. They were huge semi-abstract paintings on a scale and ambition that, too me, was overpowering. Nothing about these paintings was easy; some I quite liked, most I couldn’t understand. But the aspiration behind them was clear. They were more than just paintings; as he would have put it, they were a way of connecting with something beyond us.
My own attempts at connecting resulted mainly in frustration. I tried painting with more expression, but I wasn’t quite sure why. I tried ‘painting my sensations’, but ended up confused. I tried to use ‘marks as a language’ but found myself lost for words. Over the months that followed, I came slowly to realise that all the skills I had acquired (and I was a good painter in a conventional sense) were not much use for where I wanted to go. He was right about the ridicule though. Jane at least tried to understand; others thought I’d lost it completely.
Painting with John was no longer a pastime; it was an intense experience, a struggle in every sense. And each time I got frustrated, he’d encourage me to do more of the same.
‘Make the paintings even worse,’ he’d say. And I’d go off to try again, never quite making them bad enough.
Part of my problem was the lack of logic behind John’s method; I craved a clear explanation, but with John that was never easy to find. An even bigger problem, through I didn’t realise it at the time, was that I was trying to please him, and still not painting for myself.
It was year before a breakthrough came. As always, with John, it wasn’t straightforward.
‘I’m fed up with this,’ I ranted, during one of our tutorials. By now I’d joined a group of regulars who he considered his more serious students.
Instead of the usual cajoling, he took me to the top of the hill outside his studio. We leant into the wind, the thin line of Chesil Beach down below, waves dumping on the pebbles, fishermen casting lines past the surf. He was shouting.
‘I used to come here and tell myself I could never paint this.’ He gestured to the sea, the horizon curving in a huge arc towards Lyme Bay. ‘It was five years before I even knew where to start.’
‘How did you begin?’
‘Someone came into the studio and started talking about swimming away from the shore. He said he was most afraid the shallows, because there wasn’t enough water to hold him up.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘It doesn’t matter; it just made me see it differently. It’s not logical. I realised it was the weight of the sea that I felt -its depth and it’s power - and that’s what I needed to paint.’
‘Maybe, but all this painting your sensations stuff - it’s your way John, not mine. I feel like I want to paint straight lines – stripes even. That’s what I really want to do.’
‘Okay, so paint stripes then.’
‘But I can’t just do that.’
‘Yes you can. You can do whatever you like.’
When we returned to the studio he took a five-foot square canvas from the rack and handed me a brush loaded with paint.
‘Now paint your stripes,’ he said, before leaving me on my own.
As I drove the brush across the canvas I felt a sense of relief, of joy even. More than that: I felt, perhaps for the first time, that I was connecting to something beyond reason. Even now I don’t quite have the words to describe it. It had taken me a year of struggling to reach this point – the result was three vertical stripes, applied in less than thirty seconds. I remember standing back and admiring them, grinning even. It felt like my best ever painting.

A selection of John's paintings can be found at this link


  1. I need to find someone like that to challenge and push me.

    All I can say is that I wish he wasn't in France!!

    C x

  2. I've just spent a silly amount of time looking at his paintings...I absolutely adore his Air, Sea and Hills series...that is the kind of thing I would love to be able to paint!! (I have to admit to being rather confused by his Plastic Plastic series)

    I also love your Porthgain Memories's beautiful!!

    C x

  3. Having worked with John to write our book Switch off the Light and Let Me Try On Your Dress I know as well as you do his limits and his possibilities. I'd say the two things - limits and possibilities - are in constant opposition and this friction is where his personality and work derives its energy. At the end of the day I disagree with his philosophy because I think it's too Romantic with a capital R, and also too bombastic, but I'd agree he has great integrity. You know what they say: when the pupil is ready the master will appear. So, perhaps, it was with you and John. The challenge for everyone who has studied with Skinner is to conquer his influence and make it new, not to produce sub-Skinner paintings, which is what the 'groupies' do. Now I'd be really interested to see the work of someone who'd been taught by John a lot but produced paintings absolutely nothing like his in any respect. Go on Mark - you could do it!

  4. That was fascinating. I really wanted too see your paintings of stripes. (And that's partly because my favourite painting is Barnett Newman's Adam which is basically stripes...)

  5. I loved this, long, yes, but so interesting.

  6. My goodness, what a great post. Great writing, great character.

  7. Well done for getting to that point, it sounds like it's really taken a lot of soul searching!