Chair lift

I met the outgoing Chair of the Critics’ Circle Visual Arts Section late last summer, at a gallery finissage on Brighton seafront. He’d read some things I’d written, he said. I should consider joining the Circle, he said.

So I did make an application, and I got accepted, and I received a plastic card and a members’ booklet and a little metal pin badge in the post. The booklet had a list of the other members – 57 in total in that section – and I recognised a lot of the names: people I’d read in the broadsheets and art magazines, and seen on the TV. The great and the good, you might say.

I went to my first meeting in February, in an upstairs room at the Cardi Gallery, in Mayfair. Togged up in my wedding suit and favourite shirt, feeling new-boy nervous. I was surprised to find there were only seven others there: everyone, it seems, had got out of the habit of meeting in person. One member talked about a book they’d just had published about decolonising the art world, a subject that interests me greatly, so I felt confident joining the ensuing debate, which was fairly robust.

Afterwards there was an ‘any other business’ discussion, and the main subject was ‘who will be the new Chair?’ Apparently, there was nobody coming forward to take on the role: a bit of a post-Covid crisis. I noticed the outgoing Chair looking at me rather meaningfully. Afterwards, I was walking back to Green Park tube station with him, and he said: “you should consider, you know.”

Well, I did consider, long and hard, and I applied, and the outgoing Chair asked a couple of the inner circle who had been at the meeting if they would second him, and they both did, and the notion of me becoming Chair went to the section, and I was accepted, unanimously. Or at least nobody disagreed with the idea, as far as I know. This was in April.

I’ve been writing about art for nearly twenty years, but it has been one subject among many, until this last year, when I decided to make it my speciality. I’m in my late fifties: I figured that it was one of the few jobs that I could do in which I was considered ‘young’. Or, at least, ‘not old’. And, anyway, I’m fascinated by the art world. I find it endlessly absorbing.

My new career, since then, as an art critic (it still sounds odd to me) hasn’t been very lucrative – not yet, anyway – but it has been marked with some progress. In May I became the editor of an online magazine for the British Art Fair; in June the first issue of ROSA’s print magazine, of which I am editor, was published. I hope this constitutes my star being in the ascendency. But I still feel like something of a rookie.

And I’m learning. One thing I’ve recently found out is that – particularly when you’re in London – the art crowd is a multi-tiered hierarchy, and many of those who are above you in the pecking order will only talk to you until they find somebody higher up the scale to attach to, at which point you are abandoned. This can be hurtful. All the more reason to get up the ladder.

Last Friday I had three art-related events to attend, in London. The first was a lunch at a Belgravia art gallery, hosted by a colleague from Critics’ Circle, in honour of the two artists being exhibited, the Americans Jeffery Becton and Andrea Hamilton. I decided to walk from Victoria Station, got a bit lost, and arrived late. When I got there, the hostess seemed delighted to see me. “This is Alex Leith, the Chair of the Critics’ Circle Visual Arts Section,” she announced, to the twenty or so other people in the gallery. The result was astounding, and unexpected. The bulk of the party was formed by a group of expensively attired, female, ex-pat Scandinavian art collectors, in their thirties and forties. I was ushered round the room, and greeted with great enthusiasm. With my new title, I realised, came a good deal of kudos. At lunch, I was invited to sit next to the two artists, and spent most of the meal – cold fare, but healthy, and sophisticated and very tasty – talking to Becton, a septuagenarian photomontage artist whose digitally manipulated work is beautifully painterly, and brings to mind that of Andrew Wyeth, and Vilhelm Hammershoi. Also to a woman who is involved with a charity auction which is connected, in some way I couldn’t quite fathom, with Prince Charles. I sipped at my rosé, rather than gulped. I had to keep up appearances. And my day was young.

My next arts-related event was a twenty-minute walk away, above a pub in Chinatown, at 4pm. A meeting of all the Critics’ Circle section Chairs, and other dignitaries, over pints of beer. Everybody had to report in from their section, and all the sections were represented: Dance, Film, Music, Theatre, Books. Having the night before checked out the CVs of the other attendees, I was back to new-boy nervous. One of the Chairs was a Front Row regular; one was an OBE, another used to have a show on Radio 5. They all knew each other, of course. They all knew the ropes. And they all knew what a difficult task I had taken on. “Who is this guy?”, they were clearly thinking. “Is he up to the job?” I gave as good an impression as I could, and everyone was very supportive. Another hurdle overcome.

My final appointment was at the Royal Academy, just down the road, at 7pm. My wife had entered an artwork for the Summer Show, and it had been accepted (and sold). It was in the Art & Architecture part of the show, curated by artist Rana Begum and architect Niall McLaughlin, who were holding a drinks reception for all the artists they had chosen, and their plus-ones. Black-clad waiters served flutes of champagne as we wandered through the rooms of the gallery, scrutinising the mixed fare on show.

“Are you an artist,” I was asked, at one point, in a little group that had formed near my wife’s artwork. “No,” I replied. “But I am… I am…” Was it time to big up my credentials in the art world? Was it time to reraise my status, so high at lunchtime, so lowered by tea? My glass was half-full of champagne, my head half-full of bubbles. I was standing next to a giant lemon, in sight of a poignant Tracey Emin. I’d just witnessed a painting of a polar bear, offering the finger. “I am… an artist’s husband,” I said, putting my arm around my wife’s shoulders, and draining my drink.

Heaven is a place…

Nathan Coley presents his new found text installation at Charleston

“He’s always on the look-out for philosophical statements, and when he comes across one he likes – from some graffiti he’s seen, or something a taxi driver has said to him, or a song lyric he likes – he puts it up in big lights, attached to scaffolding. Twenty foot high, so you can see it from quite a way away.”

I’m in The Lewes Arms, on a Tuesday night, talking to a friend about Nathan Coley, the Turner-nominated Scottish artist, whose installations are on view in six different East Sussex locations, throughout the summer.

“So how many of these does he do, like, in a year?”

My friend is highly sceptical about the validity of conceptual art.

“I think he does one new one every year, but all his old ones do the rounds, and get shown in different places, all over the world.”

“He only has to come up with one new one a year?”

“I believe so.”

“Nice work if you can get it! I wouldn’t mind having his job”

“Well then, you should have come up with the idea of doing it yourself.”

I’ve met Coley twice, once on the phone (for an interview I did with him for Viva Brighton Magazine) and once in the flesh, a few weeks ago, at Charleston House, for the launch of his new project. He was standing in front of his latest work, specifically designed for its location, which read ‘I DON’T HAVE ANOTHER LAND’.

Around him stood a gaggle of art critics, down from London for a press trip, mainly to see the opening of the show by Langlands & Bell. He was asked the relevance of the statement, to its surroundings.

Coley revealed that he originally saw the words scrawled on a wall in Jerusalem. A political statement, then, about sovereignty. “But”, he continued, “on another reading, it could be a statement by – say – Duncan Grant, about his sexuality.”

“But I’m not here to give the answers,” he continued. “I’m here to raise the questions. To encourage the viewer to make their own interpretations.” Coley is a genial guy, with a glint of don’t-mess-with-me Glaswegian grit in his eye. I instinctively liked him. He’d be good company, I reckon, in the pub, or at a party.

He’s been commissioned by the organisation Sussex Modern (headed up by Charleston CEO Nathaniel Hepburn) to put up a series of installations – six in total – in locations all over East Sussex. The Charleston one is purpose-designed, the others have already been seen in other places. There’s one in Glynde, one in Eastbourne, one on the Rathfinney Wine Estate, one behind the West Beach, in Newhaven, pointing at France, which reads ‘YOU IMAGINE WHAT YOU DESIRE’.

And, most excitingly for me, one on Brack Mount, in Lewes, reading ‘HEAVEN IS A PLACE’, recalling the Talking Heads song, from the album Fear of Music, a real favourite of mine.

About three weeks later, I’m in Lewes, in order to photograph Coley’s installation there, for an Instagram post. I live in the nearby village of Kingston, and I’m on my way back from a work-related daytrip to St Leonards, with my wife and colleague, Rowena. Brack Mount is a rather mysterious mound of earth, right next to the Lewes Arms pub, which was built by the Normans as a motte for the castle. It’s inaccessible to the public, but the Sussex Archaeological Society sporadically do a tour up it, and I went on one once: there are great views from the top.

Trouble is, you can’t see the top from the road that runs below. “Where can you view the Nathan Coley thing from?”, I ask the Lewes Arms barman. He’s obviously been asked this before. He tells us there is a perfect spot, right at the end of Fisher Street, and we walk down there. And sure enough, there it is, visible through the space between two buildings, the words attached to scaffolding, rising high in the sky. It’s not lit up yet – it’s about six o’clock, and it’s not dark till eight – so we decide to have a pizza at Rustico over the road, and couple of pints in the pub, and come back later.

Our anticipation is greatly heightened by the wait, our spirits raised by the alcohol we consume. We drag our art-sceptic friend along with us, to try to persuade him of the validity of Coley’s practice. As we walk down Fisher Street, I take the lens cap off my camera, slip it in my pocket. This is going to be good…

Unfortunately, no-one’s turned the lights on. A blanket of night has submerged the top of the mound, along with the structure of the scaffolding and the lettering, so it looks like nothing is there. A black expanse of emptiness. We were expecting philosophical enlightenment, and all we got was pitch darkness.

Heaven,” sings our friend, “heaven is a place. Where nothing. Nothing ever happens.

We walk the two miles back home, singing the Talking Heads song, and discussing what’s just happened. “Do you think”, I idly suggest, “that not turning the lights on might have been a philosophical statement about the non-existence of heaven? About the futility of our existence? About the puniness of our planet within the infinite expanses of Space?” “Nah,” says Rowena. “I think the fuse must have blown. Or maybe they only put it on at the weekend.

Alex Leith

A room of one’s own

Studio of Pierre Bonnard. Photograph: H. Cartier Bresson

One of the first things I did last Wednesday was to sneak into the studio of the artist Rowena Easton.

She’s drawing a series in oil pastels, on picture postcards.

The room she has earmarked for the purpose also houses my underwear drawer. She’s my wife, it should be explained; her studio doubles up as my dressing room.

She HATES it when I walk into the room when she’s painting, and I have a look at the easel, and say “what’s that?” or “hmm, interesting”, or even “hey, I LIKE that”.

So I’ve stopped doing it. Or, at least, I’ve stopped doing it so much. I’ve come to realise the sanctity of her workspace. Which is why it’s not an ideal place to put my collection of underpants and socks. I’ve started feeling slightly guilty going in there when she’s not even in the house.

I went to a total of five artists’ studios the other week, accompanying the photographer Adam Bronkhorst, working on a series we’re preparing for the forthcoming ROSA print magazine. We were going to call it Surprised in the Studio and knock on artists’ doors unannounced, without giving them time to make it look tidier than it usually does.

I’ve been to some artists’ studios (take a bow Marco Crivello) that look like two mad, drunk impressionists have just had an oil-paint fight in there, and I wanted to let the reader share that experience.

But every artist I mentioned this to shuddered so much at the idea, that I shelved the plan. Like many good ideas, it got watered down. On the day of these pre-announced call-rounds, the working title of the series had become Space Invaders, to convey a sense of the intrusive nature of such a visit.

One of the studios we intruded upon, at Phoenix Art Space in Brighton, was the working home of the artist duo Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt, collectively known as ‘Semiconductor’. Adam took his shots, and we were having a chat afterwards, and I told Joe – who had pointedly returned to work, poking holes in a bit of card with a compass – what we thought the series might be called. “How about ‘Time Invaders’?” he said, deadpan, and we left.

It was that week that I realised that artists’ studios were having a moment, and that we were bang on the zeitgeist. The next morning, I read in The Art Newspaper a review of the show A Century of the Artist’s Studio: 1920–2020, on till June 5th in the Whitechapel Gallery, the final salvo of its brilliant outgoing director Iwona Blaswick, who quoted Virginia Woolf at the end of the piece: “everyone needs a room of one’s own”.

Which was funny, I thought, because that very morning I was off to Woolf’s sister’s home, Charleston Farmhouse, to attend the press launch of a new three-part show by the artist duo Langlands & Bell. One of the growing complex’s smart new galleries has been dedicated to a show the pair have curated, called Absent Artists, in which they have chosen 32 images of artists’ studios, painted, drawn or photographed over a period of 400 years, featuring… artists’ studios.

In this case, artists’ studios depicted in the absence of the artist. It was a fine show, which lent itself to the game ‘guess which artist’: I scored 7 out of 32; you may do better. And the experience came with a frisson of voyeurism… would Pierre Bonnard have let Henri Cartier-Bresson into his workspace if he knew that the resulting photo – of jars brimming with tools, and a butt-filled ashtray, and sketches pinned onto the wall – were to be framed and hung up for public scrutiny, across the Channel, 76 years later?

And what would Duncan Grant have thought, I mused, as we concluded a subsequent guided house-tour of the Grant-Bell residence, if he had known that his Charleston Farmhouse studio – done up as if he’d just popped out for a fag, or a shag, or whatever – would become, after his death, the highlight such an art-tourist attraction? About the thousands of visitors tramping through, asking the charming volunteer expert questions about the half-empty bottles of vodka and whisky, the kids’ pictures taped onto the mirror, or whether this was the actual carpet he’d trodden on?

After that tour (highly recommendable, if you haven’t been) we had a finger-sandwich lunch with Ben (Langlands) and Nikki (Bell, no relation), who showed me pictures of the self-designed house/studio they built in the Kent countryside 20 years ago, and still live and work in when they’re not in London, which they had called – with their typical sense of cool irony – Untitled.

Which brings me back to the title of the bang-on-the-zeitgeist series of studio-visit photographic shoots we’re going to run in the print magazine of ROSA. There was a period when we were going to call it Where the Magic Happens, but that seemed a bit lame. In the end we plumped for the uncontentious Studio Visit. But that’ll probably change again. Any ideas?

Better end there, I’ve got to have a quick shower and get changed into fresh clothes, for the meeting I’m already running late for.


Alex Leith

Five fizzes and a red dot

I always try to get to art-show private view parties early, because that’s the best time to catch a few minutes to network with the most important people in the room. When the party gets swinging, the curator and the artist get surrounded by a gaggle of admirers, with others awkwardly joining the group to wait their turn for an audience. It’s like trying to engage with the bride or groom at a wedding.

My wife Rowena and I make sure we’re just about the first people down the stairs for the evening opening do celebrating Tom Homewood’s Spring solo show at Gallery 94, the art space at Glyndebourne Opera House. And so, glass of Sussex sparkling in our hands, we manage a good long chat with Nerissa Taysom, the curator of the show (and director of the gallery), and with Tom himself, before the scrum descends.

I’ve known Tom for years, having interviewed him for Viva Lewes Magazine (he was born and bred in the county town), and commissioned him to do a couple of covers for the mag. We always have a chat when we meet, in the streets of Lewes, and I sometimes pop into his town-centre studio, when I’m walking past.

There’s something old-fashioned about Tom’s small-scale oil paintings, though they’re anything but stuffy. His mark-making is deft, and his use of shade and colour is sensitive, and calming. You recognise a Tom Homewood immediately you see it: he’s developed a very recognisable visual voice. I’ve always rated his work.

Today’s offerings are largely of the Glyndebourne grounds, painted in situ. There’s a lot of chartreuse and Prussian blue going on amid the tonal brushplay, but the colour that jumps out to my eye is a bright orangey-red. Not in the paintings, but from the sticky dots on their labels. We may be among the first though the door at the exhibition’s opening, but, I soon realise, this show has already half sold out, presumably from online and private sales. I ponder this as I walk up the stairs, to get a refill. Tom’s trajectory, in terms of popularity (and reputation, and marketability) is definitely on the up. Buying a Tom Homewood would not just pretty up a bit of wall space. It would be an investment.

The next couple of hours are tinged with mounting nervous excitement. We play ‘what’s your favourite painting?’ (a staple private-view party game) and both come up with the same response, a small landscape depicting the cottage on the cliff-top at Cuckmere. But it’s not viewed from the hill behind – which has become a terrible cliché – but from in front, as if Tom were standing in the sea when he painted it (he was, in fact, we find out later, on a stretch of beach, the other side of the estuary).

We mingle with the guests – half of whom we know – and chat to Tom’s son, and Tom again, and Tom’s wife, and Nerissa again, and have several more glasses of fizz. Every ten minutes or so we are drawn back to the painting, which is hung in splendid isolation near the entrance, well lit, ever more beguiling. It costs £500. It has no red dot. Could we? Could we possibly? We couldn’t, could we? I can’t remember if it’s Rowena or if it’s me who broaches the subject, about five fizzes down. Let’s say it’s her.

Shall we… buy it?”, she says. But she says it knowing that I have already decided that – even though money’s tight at the moment, starting up a company and all that – I’m going to say… “Yes. Let’s do it! Let’s fucking do it, babe.

It’s not so difficult to catch the attention of artist or curator when you signal that you want to buy one of the artworks on show. Our role in proceedings has changed. And with it, our status. We’re no longer just journalists: we’re collectors. Tom offers us a 10% discount, though he doesn’t have to. We spend the rest of the evening on a high. We’ve bought a painting! We’ve bought a Tom Homewood painting! We escort people we know to see it. Our Tom Homewood.

But this is tinged with another underlying feeling. We’ve bought a painting? Did we really need it? Can we afford £450? Is this a terrible self-indulgence? It may be a good investment, but it’s not going to pay the next utility bill.

We cadge a lift off a friend into town, and the party continues in the Lewes Arms. Pints are drunk. We commission a cartoonist, called Zebedee, and watch an eight-piece folk session. I’ll tell you: private views are fun, but post-private view pub sessions are even better. And all on a Thursday night.

I wake up later than usual the next day, and the usual thoughts go through my head as I acclimatise to the new day. Oh god, there’s a terrible war in Ukraine. It’s Friday… I’ve got football tonight… Last night I went to that private view in Glyndebourne, and then to the pub, that’s why I’m feeling so groggy…

And then a memory jolts my brain into fully awake mode, and I look round at Rowena, who’s reading the news on her phone.

We bought a painting last night, babe,” she says, reading my thoughts. And we both smile a naughty, slightly rueful smile.

Alex Leith

Peak Ravilious?

Train Landscape, 1940. Watercolour on paper (collage) c) Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums

In the preview of Extraordinary Everyday, in the ‘Coming Up’ section of this web magazine, I wondered if we were nearing ‘peak Ravilious’, joking that I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a Hollywood movie biopic of the Eastbourne-and-bred artist in the offing.

At the press launch of the show, a major retrospective of the painter’s work at The Arc in Winchester, I come to realise that: a) Eric Ravilious’s star is still very much in the ascendency and b) that there is a forthcoming cinema-release movie about him, a documentary featuring, among others, Jeremy Irons and Alan Bennett, by the filmmaker Margy Kinmonth, entitled Drawn to War.

First up, it must be said that Extraordinary Everyday, curated by James Russell, is a cracking exhibition, in a brand-new gallery space, which – coupled with a visit to Winchester Cathedral – constitutes a compelling reason to visit Hampshire’s elegant county capital. This major retrospective, drawing from no fewer than 15 lenders, displays wood engravings and ceramic designs, as well as numerous watercolour landscapes, and works from his brief tenure as an official war artist, cut short by his untimely death in Iceland in 1942. It succeeds in showing the breadth and scope of the artist’s oeuvre, his seemingly effortless crossover between fine and commercial art, and above all, his ability to draw you into the narrative of every subject he approaches, with subtle use of light, and layering, and perspective.

I find myself chatting to Russell in front of Train Landscape (pictured above). This painting incorporates the interior of a third-class railway carriage, and a view through its windows of the Westbury White Horse, a hill figure on the escarpment of Salisbury Plain, in Wiltshire. But, Russell tells me, it is not all it seems. Close examination has revealed that it is in fact a collage, with certain sections overlaid by his wife Tirzah Garwood, to change the setting of the image. Originally the seat livery was yellow, and the hill figure in the background represented the Long Man of Wilmington.

I feel slightly cheated that the painting has been de-Sussexed, like that. Hey, Tirzah! What’s wrong with our hill figure?

Russell is the go-to expert on Ravilious, having curated the 2015 retrospective of his work at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, and the 2020/21 show about the artist, Downland Man at Wiltshire Museum. His field of expertise, he says, encompasses 20th-century British art and design as a whole, but such is the interest in Eric Ravilious that anything he does about the Sussex-born painter garners an inordinate amount of attention. The artist has star quality, then, but – get this – the curator doesn’t think that Ravilious has even hit the mainstream yet: there are still plenty of British art lovers who aren’t familiar with his work. And then there’s the rest of the world to conquer.

I also have a chat with Margy Kinmonth, in front of the same painting (it draws people towards it, like moths to merino). We get talking about how painters achieve posthumous fame. There’s a room in Towner Eastbourne, of course, permanently dedicated to Ravilious. But could a gallery solely dedicated to the artist’s work, to where fans could make a pilgrimage, all year round, raise his status to that – say – of the Charleston lot? Where could that museum be? What’s happened to Furlongs, the house of his friend Peggy Angus, which he frequently visited and painted?

Now there’s a project, if you’ve got a spare £20 million or so to play around with. In the meantime, Extraordinary Everyday is on till May, and we’ve got Kinmonth’s film release to look forward to. Drawn to War is coming out in May/June, and since my visit to Winchester, I’m flattered to say, I’ve been asked to conduct a Q&A with its director after its initial screening at Depot Cinema, in Lewes.

So what of ‘peak Ravilious’? If the artist’s posthumous fame trajectory were a walk up the escarpment of Firle Beacon, I’ve come to realise, we wouldn’t even be halfway to the top yet. So, after the stardust has settled from this 2022 flurry of Raviliousness, who will they get to star in the Hollywood biopic?

I perform a quick mental scroll through early-middle-aged actors, and soon come up with a couple who are blessed with suitably odd, English-sounding surnames: my first thought is Benedict Cumberbatch, but after some reflection, I reckon my money’s on Tom Hiddlestone.

Alex Leith

Viva Vera

I walk into the ticket-and-shop anteroom of Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft, which is chock full of masked-up white-haired folk milling around looking at tote bags, tasteful mugs and copies of John Vernon Lord’s The Giant Jam Sandwich. Though I’m four months shy of my 58th birthday, I realise I’ve made a significant dent in the average age there.

I guess that when director Stephanie Fuller and her team decided to have an exhibition celebrating the life and work of the late Dame Vera Lynn, who lived in Ditchling for the last thirty of her 103 years, they weren’t aiming at a crowd of Millennials, or Gen-Xers or even cusp Boomers, like me. Lynn, of course, was the ‘Forces Sweetheart’, the singer of The White Cliffs of Dover, whose annus mirabilis was back in 1942. Or maybe the whole of the 1940s was a decennium mirabilis? She certainly had a ‘good war’.

I’ve always had a soft spot for Dame Vera, and would probably have visited the show anyway, but I have two ulterior motives to be at Ditchling Museum: a work meeting with Stephanie, and a vested interest in a side-show of the main exhibition.

In the meeting, over a cup of tea, I tell Stephanie all about our plans for ROSA, and she tells me all about forthcoming shows at her museum. Hot news: next up, Frank Brangwyn!

And the side-show? Ditchling Museum commissioned the illustrator Neil Gower to design a 40s-poster-style portrait of Dame Vera as one of the centrepieces of the display. In the late 2000s/early 2010s, I commissioned Neil to produce some 40 covers for the magazine I was then editing, Viva Lewes. Neil – still a friend today – had recently let me know that original artwork for these, as well as some of the mags themselves, were to be on display in the Print Room of the museum, as an extra element to the exhibition.

A word here about Neil, who did all those covers for free, for the love of the community he lived in, and who thus helped the magazine to get where it did, becoming (I like to think) the much-loved cultural hub of the Lewes community for a good 15 years. He came into my office for a meeting one day in January 2009, and we hatched the plan there and then that he should design our covers from scratch each month, masthead, date details, issue number and all. He was otherwise working for the likes of Faber & Faber, and Condé Nast. He was a real godsend. I will forever be grateful. Lewes should forever be grateful.

Meeting over, Stephanie quickly takes me through the main part of the Vera Lynn exhibition – whizzing past sequined silk dresses, and old letters from soldier-fans, and theatre bills, and black-and-white photos, and portraits she’d painted as a hobby, and Neil’s portrait of her – to the Viva Lewes covers section of the show. And… I’m flabbergasted. 

I’ve been expecting little more than a few mags on a shelf. Instead there are two twelve-shelf cabinet displays full of work that I’m very familiar with. Work that, for the most part, I commissioned. Two dozen or so magazines, and a large selection of the original artworks, some of them double their eventual A5 size. There are a couple of covers for Bill Bryson books he did for Penguin, for good measure, but 95% of the work on display is Viva-related.

We used to give each Viva Lewes edition a theme (‘Bonfire’, or ‘Literature’ or ‘Noir’) and mostly Neil would go to work with that in mind, coming back a few days later with a completed artwork. Occasionally, though, I’d (rather gingerly) suggest how he might fashion an idea, and if he could ‘see’ it, he’d follow that suggestion. The Francis Bacon-like Pope, moaning “oh $*@%! It’s November again!”, which has pride of place in the middle of one of the central shelves? That was my idea. One I’ve always been proud of. And now, here I am, standing in a gallery in front of the fruit of that idea, lovingly conjured up by the skilful hand of Neil Gower!

I’ve often noticed how artists, in group exhibition private views, hang about in front of their own work. Suddenly, I get an empathetic inkling of why they do that. Neil’s the talent here, I need to stress. But I had a hand in a few of them, too. And that’s enough to eagerly await any scrutiny from passers-by. The only thing I can equate it with is when I used to write for the Guardian as a young man living in London, and sometimes somebody sitting next to me on the tube would be reading an edition I had an article in, and I’d be on tenterhooks to see what sort of reaction they’d have if they came to it. But they always folded the paper up and got off the train without getting there.

It’s not a busy part of the museum, while I tarry there, it must be said, but eventually an old fellow comes up, looks at one of the shelves, and turns towards me. “Ooh look!” he says, and I get ready for my moment of glory. “Bill Bryson! I love Bill Bryson. Haven’t read this one here, mind. Notes from a Small Island, now I like that one, because it’s about here, you see. It’s all about England.”

Deflated, I prepare a response to his comment. I think he’s right, actually: I think Bryson’s best work is about being an alien in Britain, poking gentle fun at our mores and foibles. But before I can voice that thought, the old chap has moved onto a different subject. “Jeffrey Archer, now he’s a good writer,” he says, and he looks down to see if there are any Archers on the shelf.

I decide to go and look at the Vera Lynn bit of the show.

Alex Leith

Pick a card…

No thanks”, says the girl in the mask, and turns away the way people turn away when they don’t want to buy a copy of The Big Issue.

And I make a face, as if to say ‘oh la-di-da, too good for me, are you?’, but deep down I feel very, very small.

I’m at Fabrica gallery, the deconsecrated church in the Lanes area of Brighton, which has for some years now dedicated itself to art. The occasion is a networking meeting, for photographers.

I’ve gone there to spread the word about ROSA, and to watch a talk by the war photographer Rick Findler, who has spent much of the last decade photo-reporting from the front line in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

Networking events, doncha just hate them? I do, anyway. I’m not naturally inclined to sidle up to strangers, and get chatting, before bringing the subject round to me, and what I’m doing. I’m not a natural peddler, let’s put it that way, I hate selling myself. So I’ve developed a way to break the ice. A way to make that initial contact less awkward. I call it ‘the card trick’.

It came to me when I saw a pile of old picture postcards on sale in a junk shop in Lewes, from destinations all over the world. Some had messages, addresses and stamps on the back, most were blank, unsent. Mostly from the 70s, 80s, 90s. I bought them, for a couple of quid. This was in the summer.

I went back to the office and wrote on the back, with a Sharpie: “Follow us on Insta: @therosamag”, adding a smiley face, for good measure. And I took them to the networking meet-up I’d been dreading, also at Fabrica (they hold them every couple of months, as far as I can see).

It worked a treat. Instead of approaching a group of people, or a lone stranger, and awkwardly offering my hand, I now had a prop. I fanned out five or six of the cards, picture-side up, and said “pick a card, any card.” This generally raised a smile, and willing participation. A choice, was made, and we examined what they’d got. “Oh the Lake District. That’s nice. Have you ever been?” Or whatever. It was amazing how many people had a connection with the card they had chosen.

Next came the hard-sell. “Now look at the back of the card. I’m from ROSA Magazine. Have you come across us yet? Are you on Instagram? You are? Why not have a look at our feed? Feel free to follow, if you like it.

It’s continued to pay off in subsequent events. It’s led to Insta follows, it’s led to journalistic leads, it’s even led to friendships, of a sort. In short, it’s helped me to achieve all the things that you are meant to achieve in networking meetings.

And so, six months down the line, I sidle up to the girl in the mask, fan out the cards, put on a smile, and offer my invitation: “Pick a card, any card.”

Her blunt refusal knocks my ego no end, as I’m left there, offering my cards to the space which she used to fill. And a lot of thoughts go through my head. Like: “Am I bothering everyone I approach?” Like: “Did she think I was coming on to her?” Like: “Am I too old to be doing this sort of thing?” Like: “Is the magazine going to work, even?” Like: “Maybe it was a Covid thing!” Like: “Stupid stuck up so-and-so, she didn’t deserve a card anyway.” You might call it the seven stages of network rejection.

I get back on the horse, card-trick wise. Other people do accept them, we have a nice chat, I get their card, another contact made. Later on, a seventy-something woman picks an image of Lindisfarne Castle, and tells us that she’s from Northumberland, that she lives just a few miles away from Holy Island. She turns out to be the war photographer Rick Findler’s mother. She puts the card carefully in her bag. I feel warm, inside. Rick gives a great talk.

Looking back, I feel quite sorry for the girl in the mask. I’m not sure what she was doing there in the first place; she probably finds the idea of networking meet-ups as daunting as I do. And… [*gets into character*]… she missed out on a great opportunity. By the way, are you on Instagram? You are? Why not have a look at our @therosamag feed? Feel free to follow, if you like it…

Etcetera, etcetera.

Alex Leith

From the hip

Photograph by Alex Leith

Let’s just see where these stairs lead to…

I’m walking round Hastings with the street photographer JJ Waller, who I’ve known for some years now. It’s not like walking round anywhere with anyone else, and I guess that’s why he’s a street photographer. He has a nose for the unknown, an instinct for happenstance, an appetite for unpromisingly scruffy alleyways.

Have you seen JJ’s work? He periodically publishes books, with his name in the title, focusing on the eccentric characters and everyday oddness he encounters in his regular seaside haunts: JJ Waller’s Brighton; JJ Waller’s St Leonard’s & Hastings; JJ Waller’s Sussex by the Sea. It’s not just about quirkiness, though. His photos are layered, and intuitively well-composed; there’s often an intriguing subplot going on.

A few years ago, I interviewed JJ in Viva Brighton Magazine, which led to him having a regular slot in the mag. I’d known of him long before that, though. In the eighties he was a street artist, and I saw him performing in Covent Garden a few times, in front of scores of enthralled spectators. A busking escapologist, living off his wits, a coin in his hat if you liked the act. There was a bed of nails, and spinning plates, and everything going a bit wrong was part of the show. Did he dive into an egg, without breaking the yolk? Something like that. He was a post-punk Houdini, a post-modern Tommy Cooper. I lapped it up.

The most interesting thing he told me in that Viva interview was how he’d transferred certain skillsets. When he was a street performer he had to be aware of everything that was going on around him, so he could incorporate randomness into his act: commenting on an aeroplane flying overhead; persuading a reluctant spectator to help him with the performance; turning the tables on a heckler. And so he developed an acute, almost 360-degree field of vision, which has continued to serve him well as a photographer, and which is apparent when you go walking with him. There you are, chewing the fat, and without warning, JJ’s in action, focusing his camera and shooting away. By the time you spot the subject of his shot, he’s got it in the bag.

I’ve got to know his MO, on our regular walks, over the years. Many of his photos are taken from the hip, as it were, without the subject realising he’s there. Sometimes, if he needs to be more obtrusive, he asks permission. But some shots require a fair bit of organisation, and he shifts into film director mode. He’ll strike up a conversation, with deadpan charm. Then he’ll choreograph his new friend in the tableau he’s just arranged in his head. An example: later that day he asks a stranger we’ve just met to walk his dog slowly past a crumbling wall. “Not like that, make the dog go in front of you, not behind you. That’s it: slowly, slowly.” Four takes later, and the guy is allowed to carry on his way, a bemused smile on his face.

+ + +

The industrial steel staircase leads up the side of a ramshackle, five-storey building. JJ beetles up them, and I tentatively follow, thinking “are we actually allowed here?” At the top, there’s an empty, semi-derelict flat… and, from its front yard, a stunning rooftop view of Hastings old town, incorporating the beach, the sea, the castle, the art gallery, the lot. Snap, snap, snap, and he’s done, his satisfaction betrayed by the tiniest hint of a grin.

I point and click at the view, as well, and follow him down the steps to the next photo opportunity, wherever it might be. I’m a street photographer too, did I tell you? I carry a camera everywhere with me and regularly publish my photos. My camera’s a Samsung phone, and I post the pictures on Instagram and Facebook and WhatsApp. I bet you do something similar, too. Nowadays, everyone’s a street photographer, with helpful filters to jazz up the drabbest of efforts. Which means if you’re a real street photographer, like JJ Waller, you need an elaborate toolkit of skills to set you apart from all that competition.

As well as the requisite technical know-how, you need vision, patience, dynamism, chutzpah, charm, and the energy to thrown yourself into enough random situations to make your own luck, on a regular basis. You also need, I guess, to be able to tightrope-walk the fine line between opportunism and voyeurism, without falling off too often, on the wrong side. It’s exhausting, trailing in JJ’s wake, as he teeters on that taboo-line, and I’m often taken out of my comfort zone. But it’s enlightening, too, and educational, and fun. Can’t wait for our next walk.

Alex Leith

The Birds

Just about my favourite word in the English language is ‘murmuration’, most often used to describe the beautiful, madcap, flash-mob flock-dance of starlings, performed every sunset in various locations across the UK, during the winter months.

One of those locations is the Palace Pier. I paid a visit to Brighton on Friday evening to experience a triple-bill of murmuration action. That night, the city was hosting two art-shows that focused on the phenomenon, one just beginning its run, one about to end it.

Murmuration #1

First up, the genuine article. I arrived at the seafront at 3.50, half an hour before dusk, and took up a place in the middle of the pier, looking west. I’d lucked out: it was a cloudless day, and the yellow sun was slow-motion sinking towards the horizon. There were tens of people who had clearly collected there for the same purpose, and scores sitting on the beach waiting for the spectacle to unfold, plus a stationary paddle-boarder out to sea. The sense of expectation was palpable. I was, I’m ashamed to say, an excited first-timer.

An etymological aside, as we’re waiting: the collective noun ‘murmuration’, I’ve discovered, describes the murmur-like sound of the beating of thousands of pairs of starling wings, in unison. This onomatopoeia sounds very English, but it was the Romans who coined it; it comes from the Latin verb ‘murmurare’, to murmur.

The birds appeared suddenly – and silently – in the sky, as soon as the sun dipped into the sea. Not many, at first, though soon other groups appeared from who-knows-where, and the flock got bigger, and bigger, and bigger. It swirled, and swished, and split, and swarmed back together, and I think I might have enjoyed a quasi-religious experience, if it hadn’t been for the two London daytrippers standing next to me, who’d happened upon the phenomenon. “Look at them birds! They’re almost as good as the sunset!” Perhaps there should be a word for ‘ruining a serene moment with verbal inanities’. I bet the Germans have one.

Murmuration #2

By 5 o’clock I was at Duke Street, looking up at the three stained-glass windows of the conceptual art gallery Fabrica, formerly Holy Trinity Church. I was expecting to dislike this digital representation of what I’d just seen – how could it possibly compete with the real thing? – but was pleasantly surprised as the arched frames were filled with black, swooping bird-shapes, silhouetted in yellow, green and blue light. The whole affair was anchored by a tailor-composed electronic soundtrack: I was there a full half hour, transfixed, imagining real birds cascading around inside the deconsecrated church.

Murmuration #3

Was I all murmed out by now? Not a bit of it. By six o’clock I was in the Phoenix Art Space, on Grand Parade, where there was the opening of a show called ‘Undercurrents’, on the subject of starlings and their nightly jig. We were among the first there, so I had a good chance to look around, before the crowd arrived. There were photos, and bird-boxes, and graphs, and nests: it was full of intriguing information I’d grown hungry for. Did you know that male starlings fill the inside of their nest with sweet smelling herbs and flowers to encourage females to come visit? Did you know they have an extra dimension to their vision, which means they see in ultra-violet?  That sometimes they perform their murmuration purposefully close to the nesting place of peregrine falcons, so as to tease their natural predator out to play?

In a little speech, artist Steve Geliot suggested that even the experts he’d consulted didn’t know the reason behind the starlings’ desire to flock together and dance every night, though one Italian scientist had suggested to him that they did it for ‘fun’. Oh, and he said that starling numbers are dwindling fast: we are in danger of losing them for good, round these parts. Action needs to be taken.

By that time, we humans were performing our ritual movements, when placed in a room together, with drinks in our hands (mine, sadly, it being dry January, was a Cawston rhubarb fizz). I imagined a bird’s-eye viewpoint of the movements of our crowd, the great and the good of the Brighton-area art scene. The shapes we made as we wandered in search of conversation: chatting; networking; laughing; flirting, maybe, here and there. Some groups bigger and more animated than others, some people paired off, others on the fringes, on their own, the outliers. And the noise, of all those voices, battling to be heard!

It was, it must be said, a Friday night, and the first big art show of the year. We were all inordinately excited. But what a glorious racket! Does anyone know the collective noun for a party of art liggers?

Alex Leith

Hammer Horror

Philip Halling / Ariel and Prospero by Eric Gill
CC BY-SA 2.0

Yesterday a man climbed up the front of BBC Broadcasting House, on a ladder, with a hammer. He was up there for four and a half hours, hacking lumps out of the statue ‘Prospero and Ariel’, sculpted in 1933, by Eric Gill. Eventually he was arrested by the police.

Eric Gill was a brilliant sculptor and stonemason, the spiritual father of the Arts & Crafts movement, a profound influence on generations of artists. His lettering is still used today: you can find Gill Sans and Perpetua among the theme fonts in Microsoft Word. For all that, Sussex can be proud: he was born in Brighton, and had long associations with Ditchling, where he based his Guild of St Joseph & St Dominic brotherhood. Or can it? There lies the rub.

Fiona McCarthy’s 1989 biography of Gill blew his reputation apart. He was, she wrote, an incestuous paedophile, who described in his diaries having sex with his daughters. They were in their teens: for ‘having sex with’, read ‘raping’. He also had sex, it seems, with his sister, and his dog. He called these violations ‘experiments’. He was clearly a vile, shitty man, and should have been imprisoned for a long time.

What should we make of the statue assailant’s actions? I mean what did you feel, when you first heard the news? Did you cheer? Or did you shudder?

I must admit that I shuddered, rather. Pulling the Colston statue down was one thing – and I suspect it wasn’t a coincidence that this latest episode of iconoclasm followed hot on the heels of the acquittal of the four activists who perpetrated that act. This is quite another. It’s one thing destroying a statue of somebody whose actions you find morally repugnant. It’s quite another destroying a statue by somebody whose actions you abhor.

And anyway, if you start condoning this sort of behaviour – and I’m including the ‘Colston Four’ in this – where does it stop? Should we allow ethical vigilantes to slash the canvases of Caravaggio, for killing a man in a street brawl? To destroy all the works of Benvenuto Cellini, who killed three men, and boasted about it in his autobiography? For that matter, what about Wyndham Lewis, the Nazi sympathiser? What about Picasso, an unrepentant misogynist? Or even good-old Banksy, (alleged) perpetrator of serial acts of criminal damage?

Also this: just who is qualified to morally judge the artists whose work goes on show? Remember, that when the Taliban destroyed the Bamiyan Buddha statues in 2001, they considered them to be a moral abomination. Hitler put ‘degenerate’ artworks on show, before destroying most of them, and selling the others for his war effort (how I would love to see that exhibition today).

Of course, the BBC didn’t know about Gill’s crimes in 1933, when they commissioned from the artist a sculpture to place above the entrance to their new building (though they certainly would have, interestingly, when they chose Gill Sans for their corporate typeface, in 1997). The statue represents a moment in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, where Prospero releases Ariel into the world; it is a metaphor for the dawning of a new era for broadcasting. We’re in the dawning of another new era of broadcasting today, of course, in which Ariel is supercharged: an online network in which news of a man attacking a statue with a hammer goes globally viral, in minutes.

Poor Ariel, one of the hammer blows knocked off his cock.

I look forward to an interesting debate.

Alex Leith

Playing the Clown

David Bowie is looming large on my cultural radar this week.

On Saturday the 8th of January it was his birthday. He would have been 75, which seems ridiculous, somehow. Bowie, an old man? Five years off eighty?

He died six years ago today (I’m writing this on Monday 10th), which led to the usual flurry of activity on Twitter, though he didn’t seem to trend, which surprised me.

And, of course, the long-running photo exhibition at Brighton Museum ‘Bowie/MacCormack, 1973-76: Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me’, is nearing its end, with less than two weeks now to run (its last day is on the 23rd).

At the risk of boring those in the know, I’ll give a brief description of this exhibition, which really is worth going to see. Geoff MacCormack was a schoolmate of Bowie’s, and he was asked to join the singer on his 1973 world tour, as a backing singer/percussionist in the Spiders from Mars. This was in Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust phase, of course: the glammest, wham-bammest period of his career.

But that’s not what MacCormack caught on the Kodak Instamatic he took along for the trip. The pair shared sleeping compartments on trains – Bowie was scared of flying, and Moscow was one of the cities on the tour – and hotel rooms all over Europe and the States. MacCormack captured Bowie in his more intimate moments: in his pyjamas; having a drunken snooze next to a table full of empty vodka bottles; killing time in nameless bars in nameless Cold War cities.

MacCormack was invited onto the next world tour a couple of years later, and also got a job on the set of The Man Who Fell to Earth, Nicolas Roeg’s 1975 sci-fi movie starring Bowie as an earless alien, so the jaunt lasted several years. Halfway through all this, he’d purchased a snazzier SLR camera, and the pictures are sharper and better composed, which is a pity, in a way.

There’s no reason for the show to be in Brighton other than the fact that MacCormack knows the director of Brighton Museum, and one day wandered in, with a plastic bag full of snaps from his days on the road with Bowie, wondering if they’d be of any interest. They sure were. I think that’s a really nice Sussex-related Bowie yarn, but it’s not the one I’m going to end with.

David Bowie did play a number of times in Brighton, of course: he played a number of times in every town and city on the country’s gig circuit. But there’s another reason that this county has a special place in his story. In 1980, after a decade of drugs and dwindling sales, the singer made something of a comeback with the album Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), and the video of the first single off that album was part-filmed on Pett Level Beach, near Hastings.

That single, of course, was Ashes to Ashes, and the video was then the most expensive ever made, costing £250,000. If you’re too young to remember it when it came out and hit the top of the charts, you’ve probably seen it since. Whatever the case, it’s still well worth a watch.

There’s a refrain in the video in which Bowie, flamboyantly dressed as a Pierrot, face painted white, is walking down the beach towards the camera. Behind him are four New Romantic figures, garbed in religious gowns and oddly shaped hats, and a bulldozer. Bowie relayed what happened next in several interviews. The camera was around fifty yards from its subjects, and at one point an old man inadvertently walked right through the shot with his dog. The director was forced to shout ‘cut’, then turned his attention to the old fellow. “Don’t you know who that is?” he yelled. “Yeah, I do,” came the reply, as the guy looked the singer up and down. “Some c*nt in a clown suit.”

That was a huge moment for me,” Bowie later said.  “It put me back in my place and made me realise, ‘yes I am just a c*nt in a clown suit’. I think about that old guy all the time.” Which is the measure of the man, really. Bowie in his pomp was possibly the most pretentious man in rock, and yet he managed to simultaneously come across as an honest, very human character, able to cut though his own glorious crap. Which is why so many people loved him, and still love him, I guess. That and the music, of course.

So I urge you, if you’re in any way a fan of David Bowie, to go and see the Bowie/MacCormack show in Brighton while you can, because that’s exactly what it’s about.  Ziggy Stardust in his jim-jams, mucking about with his old mate, half bored in hotel rooms. It made me like him even more. If it wasn’t dry January, at this point I’d raise a glass to David Bowie, the rock god who fell to earth, and rose up again, and again, and again.

Alex Leith

Insta Gratification

July 29, 2020. So there we were, five of us, sat in our new office, raring to get started on our new business: ROSA, the Review of Sussex Arts. We needed to create a brand, and then a print magazine, all the while developing a bells-and-whistles online platform.

But what would be our first move?

Three of the five in the room were seasoned professionals with over 70 years collective experience in journalism and the arts. Two of the five were 21-year-old interns. For them the answer was clear. “Set up an Insta account, of course.”

Of course! I knew all about Instagram. I had an account, on which I posted ‘fun’ pictures from my leisure-time life, especially when I was on holiday. I even called it ‘Insta’.

Nevertheless, I asked one of the interns – Celia – to prepare a talk about the ins and outs of the medium.

“I’m not an expert,” she said, as an introduction, the next day, before launching into an hour-long lecture, telling us about reels, stories, linktrees, optimum hashtag usage, optimum post frequency, algorithms, image credit etiquette, insights, reposting, strategies for building quality followers, strategies for keeping quality followers, what constituted a respectable follower-to-following ratio, colour-scheming the grid, breaking text up with emojis, shadow bans, and a lot more besides.

We asked Celia to steer the Insta operation.

It was a smart move, and to start with we sat back and watched, as she did her stuff, with the gentlest of guidance, using the handle @therosamag. A lovely graphic introduction, using the logo we’d commissioned our designer to create, in rosy pink. An ‘aspirational’ piece about Standen House, in East Grinsted. A historical entry about the Seaford artist Eric Slater, and how he was influenced by Katsushika Hokusai. A reel of an exhibition at Star Brewery Gallery, in Lewes, with its own little soundtrack.

But we knew she would only be with us for a short while, so we needed to perfect the ropes ourselves. Me and my wife/colleague Rowena started introducing our own posts into the feed, nurturing our personal styles, and watching the followers grow. And grow. How excited we were when we hit three figures! By the time Celia’s last week came, we were up to 297. Then we were on our own.

My life, I think it’s fair to say, hasn’t been the same since the whole thing started. We’ve posted at least one story every day since then, with the odd exception during holidays and Covid lay-offs. It hasn’t detracted from our other ROSA projects, but it has certainly added to the workload: the pieces are carefully researched, and at least 250 words long. Pithy little articles, really.  

And there’s more: the first thing I do in the morning, still in bed, is to check out Insta, scrolling through Sussex-based artists and arts professionals for ideas and contacts. One of our first Monday morning tasks is to ascertain who’s going to write about what, which day. Both of us know the exact number of followers we have attained at any given time: a new follower, or a favourable comment, are minor causes for celebration. How many times do I look at the ROSA Insta feed every day? I don’t even dare think.

I’ve just had a quick look at our Insights to see what’s going on, by the way. And not for the first time since I started writing this piece. The latest post on Andy Goldsworthy’s Chalk Stones Trail near Chichester is doing decently, with 70 likes, the latest just three minutes ago (our record is 300-odd). But no new followers for an hour: we’re still on 1,450. Aaargh!

Running our Insta account has been a fantastically informative process, immersing me ever deeper into the rich, vibrant world of the Sussex arts scene. And it’s been a hell of a lot of fun. But there’s something of a health warning attached: I haven’t been this obsessed about anything (non-human) since I bought my first Panini sticker album, aged 10, in 1974. Should we dial it all down a bit, for sanity’s sake?

Maybe when we hit 2,000 followers.


Alex Leith

Private views: four golden rules

#1: arrive early, leave early.

“Stop here please.” The taxi spits us out in Portland Road, Hove, for the first stop of a four-stop evening, at the studio of an interior designer who has just started exhibiting art in her workspace. The building has been easy to locate: its carefully designed façade jumps out of the dowdy street-front like a gold incisor. It’s 4.45pm.

We’re not the first there, but we’re not far off it, and we’re met eagerly by the PR team: I’m poured a flute of prosecco and shown round the artworks. At this stage of the evening, the done thing is to show great interest, and it helps that I like most of them. Pride of place is given to large colourful paintings of stylised lemons, clearly destined for the walls of people with big kitchens. It’s easy to verbally admire a couple of brutalist fired-clay lamps, too.

Going to private views isn’t all about having a look at the art, though: far from it. It is mostly about advertising yourself, networking the room, and drinking as much free booze as you can decently get away with drinking. Or one more glass than you can decently get away with drinking. I’m on my third flute – or is it my fourth?­ – and the actor Tony Robinson is telling me a story about his dog peeing on the living-room carpet of his Spanish villa, when my companion announces that our Uber is arriving to take us to the next party.

#2: play the room

This is in a small project space off an unfashionable street in the centre of Brighton, and there’s a different sort of earnestness in the air. The artist on show is a Swiss MA student who has embroidered adjectives associated with gossip onto hand-dyed tablecloths. We’re invited to pick up an essay, entitled ‘Gossip Talks’ to read later. There is sparkling wine and cans of IPA on offer, I crack into the latter and start doing my card trick. We’ve collected a hoard of vintage postcards, and stamped our Instagram tag – @therosamag, for the record – on the back. The ‘trick’ is to approach strangers, fanning out the cards, and inviting them to pick one. After a brief discussion about where is portrayed – Lulworth Cove, perhaps, or Monte Carlo – they are invited to follow our account. It’s a great trick, and I get through most of the people in the space, intermittently returning to the drinks trolley for more beer.

#3: remember to enjoy yourself

We hit the third show, in a large artists’ studio collective, which hosts its own gallery, around 7.30. It’s a much bigger do, with a pay bar, which means there is little-to-no obligation to look at the art, in this case by graduate students from round the South-East. I get the cards out a couple of times, but this show is more about catching up with other PV-habitue acquaintances than meeting strangers. And it’s pretty much the same crowd, week after week, year after year: I hook up with a cheery bunch, next to a life-sized expressionist-style painting of a woman examining her genitalia in front of a mirror. Two large white wines go down.

#4: don’t overdo it

Our final PV is in a deconsecrated church near the Lanes. We get there at 8.30, half an hour before it closes. The space has a reputation for showing large-scale conceptual art: in this case you’re invited to recline in a deckchair, and look up at the ceiling, where a screen shows a video of a forest canopy blowing in the breeze. My companion gets me a beer – it’s another pay-bar – and I sink into the canvas, looking up at the swaying digital treetops, hoping no-one I know spots me. A deckchair, in a gloomy church: the situation is tailor-made for my declining mood. I’ve never been to four private views in a single evening before. Perhaps I ponder, hazily, I’m putting too much energy into this project.

Alex Leith

Ready for the meta-meta

I always like to go ‘frow’ (catwalk shorthand for ‘front row’) at the cinema, but on a recent visit to the Towner Gallery’s screening room I arrived to find that – unusually – a little group was already sat in the central seats right in front of the screen. It wouldn’t have been Covid-polite to sit right next to them, so I plonked myself behind them.

I soon realised that this irksome group included the director of the movie, the renowned YBA Georgina Starr, who was to do a Q&A afterwards, so I watched the film – the Jarman Award-shortlisted ‘Quarantaine’ – with her blond-locked head almost directly in front of me.

The Jarman Award, inspired by the late Derek Jarman, ‘recognises and supports artists working with moving image and celebrates the spirit of experimentation, imagination and innovation in the work of artist filmmakers in the UK’. We’re not talking mainstream, then: I doubt there has ever been a car chase in a Jarman Award-shortlisted film.

With a jolt of smugness, I soon recognised the main cinematic influence behind the narrative of Quarantaine. It was, I think it’s fair to say, a liberal reworking of the 1974 Jacques Rivette ‘metamovie’ (WIKI) Celine and Julie Go Boating, one of the craziest films I’ve seen in the last couple of years (I think I found it on the Arthouse-movie streaming service, MUBI).

And so there we had it: an out-there video artist rapping on an already out-there arthouse film, watched over the head of – and thus, to a certain extent though the eyes of – its maker: floating heads, mad operatic nonsense-speak, naked women crawling through giant ears, symbol after symbol after symbol, all in a gloriously vivid palette, for 45 minutes. The experience was meta-meta: I couldn’t help wondering what my 89-year-old mother, for whom meaningful art stopped around the time Picasso went Cubist, would have thought about the whole affair.

The thing is fifteen, or even ten years ago, I would, I reckon, have considered it to be an exercise in pretentious claptrap. But since then, I have educated myself a good deal in experimental art and cinema. I’ve sat through Hiroshima Mon Amour; I’ve watched documentaries about Hilma af Klint; I’ve visited the latest Matthew Barney show at the Hayward. And much, much more, besides. I have, I believe, laid down the stepping-stones necessary to appreciate – even to enjoy – a film of this type.

Afterwards Starr gave a very interesting interview about the making and meaning of the film, and was very gracious in her response to my question – I have vowed ALWAYS to ask a question in such circumstances, almost as a matter of journalistic pride – about how come there were no men in the movie. It was a question, I guess, whose formation didn’t utilise the knowledge gleaned from those aforementioned stepping-stones.

I immediately felt embarrassed about the question, wishing that I’d asked something that had sounded more intelligent. But I really had wondered why she’d created such a manless world. And I qualified my embarrassment by telling myself that most people who ask questions in such events do so to show off their own knowledge rather than to make a genuine enquiry. Anyway, she laughed, and gave a charming response, and I was left feeling very positive towards her, and her madcap film, which I’ve thought about a lot in the subsequent days, always the sign of a good movie. I even forgave her for sitting in my seat.

Alex Leith

Art, ha ha ha

Is it appropriate to burst out laughing in an art gallery?

I’m not sure whether the Palaeolithic artists had a GSOH (for all I know the Chauvet cave paintings might have had early Homo Sapiens rolling around lolling) but it’s clear to see that as long as there’s been art, there’s been humour in art.

The Greeks did it, the Romans did it, the Medieval lot did it, the Renaissance painters did it, the Dutch masters did it, the Dada-ists made a point of doing it. Abstract Expressionism dripped humour; Pop Art thrust it into your face. In the post-modern era, it was pretty much verboten NOT to put a wry, subversive twist into artworks; Maurizio Cattelan has made a stellar career taking the piss out of the art world.

This all came to mind when I saw Julian Wild’s statue Salvia Corrupted, a photo of which we used to illustrate this column last week (see below), about the Lewes District Artwave Festival. A tangled angular web of pink steel eventually thrusts itself vertically into the sky, covered in shiny golden blobs, mocking the militaristic Norman reverence of Lewes Castle and the giant Russian cannon it shares a space with, in the Gun Garden of the Barbican Tower. Brilliant stuff.

It also came to mind when I saw the postcard publicising Marco, Jacob and Martha Crivello’s wonderful Outside In | Inside Out exhibition at the Continuum Gallery in Lewes, also part of Artwave, (pictured above). In front of one of Marco’s beautiful painted experiments in colour, bringing to mind Rothko (but playing a very different tune) is a little pile of salvaged wooden blocks, the top one precariously balanced on a rusty old nail. The shape of the blocks echo the shapes in the painting: perhaps they are making a statement about Armageddon, by thrusting the horizon apart. That they are prone to imminent collapse shows that Marco is simultaneously doing a rare thing for an artist: laughing at the seriousness of his own practice.

I was leading a stag party round Lewes last weekend: in the daytime we did a dry Artwave crawl, in the evening we did a very wet pub crawl. Not all of the participants were habitues of artworld settings; a lot of the laughter that came from certain stags was of the mocking, ‘my nephew could have done that and he’s three’ type. The humour, for them, was incidental rather than intentional. But humour, nonetheless.

Humour in art can be satirical (think Gilray), moralistic (Hogarth), sociological (Teraoka), surreal (Dali), bawdy (McGill), juvenile (Koons), enigmatic (Magritte), irreverent (Shrigley), shocking (Duchamp)… you can’t find humour in every artist, but you can find an artist who employs every different form of humour (though you may have to dig).

The point, I guess, is this: for many people, the word ‘art’ is associated with seriousness, reverence, pompousness. They might picture scrawny men in berets, scratching their goatees, making serious pronouncements, perhaps in a French accent. In any given year, over 50% of the UK population haven’t set foot in a gallery or museum, put off, I reckon, by this image of the art world as being pretentious and over-serious; the situation isn’t helped by the impenetrable jargon-filled language that is often used to describe the medium.

The Artwave Festival, and other open-house-style events in a similar vein, are a great antidote to all this. By taking art out of its usual environment, and into pubs, and gardens, and living rooms, and shops, it makes it more accessible to the public. It makes it seem like part of the fabric of their ordinary life: if you can’t take the people to the art, take the art to the people.

A lot of the work on show at Artwave is, in one way or another, humorous. And whether viewers are laughing with the work – as one might hope – or at the work, they are laughing; a ‘momentary anaesthetic of the heart’, according to philosopher Henri Bergson. They are, for that short moment, transcending their resting state of seriousness, whether with an inward grin, or an outward splutter. And that can only be a good thing.

So, yes, in my opinion, it is appropriate to burst out laughing in an art gallery. Just make sure you do it in front of an appropriate artwork.

Alex Leith

The Art of Discovery

I first found out about Artwave 15 years ago, when I returned to my hometown of Lewes after years away, to set up Viva Lewes Magazine. We soon became media partners with the annual art festival, taking place in venues all over the district every August. It was a great fit, as we shared a lot of values, and the relationship lasted the course.

Sadly, Viva didn’t survive the pandemic. But out of its ashes comes ROSA, with a broader range: the Review of Sussex Arts. I’m delighted to say that the first media partnership that we have set up at our new magazine – or should I say our new arts forum – is with Artwave. It’s like reuniting with an old friend.

The idea of Artwave, I soon learnt, is simple: artists from the whole of the Lewes District open up their spaces, whether their home or their studio, to give the public an opportunity to get a very personal look at their work. Like as not, the artist is at hand to answer questions. Cups of tea are offered, sometimes even glasses of fizz. A benefit for the punter is the chance to get a good nose round somebody else’s ordinarily private surroundings. Oh, what fun.

I got to realise, over the years, that what you get out of Artwave depends on what you put into it. Some years I followed the trail like a fiend, nose in the brochure, clocking up the art miles, weekend after weekend. And I ended up with a head full of new experiences. I was taken to places I’d never been before. I made new friends. On a few occasions, I even bought some art.

Other years it almost passed me by. Maybe I was on holiday, maybe I was occupied with other things. It was all over before I knew it. I always felt a sense of regret, those years, because I knew I’d missed out.

This year I’m really going to go for it. I’ve moved back into Lewes – or Kingston , to be exact – after a few years in Brighton. The festival is taking place in September (like it did last year) rather than August, and it doesn’t clash with my holidays. Plus, it just feels right, now we can enjoy freedom of movement, to enjoy that freedom. What better way of doing that, than to charge around the Artwave venues, from Newick to Newhaven; from Seaford to Southease? 

My first thought, when I started to plan this piece, was to give some tips about what I thought would be some of the unmissable experiences on the trail (which is – for obvious reasons – not taking punters into private homes this year, but into more public spaces, such as galleries, studios, shops and gardens). I have, after all, got to know the Lewes art scene pretty well over the last fifteen years, writing about it for Viva Lewes. 

Then I thought again. Because I realised that one of the real joys of Artwave is that you can forge your own individual path. You get the most out of the experience when your own decision-making is part of the process. In that way, the festival becomes a personal voyage of discovery.

So here’s my best tip: go onto the Artwave website, and download their brochure. Or pick one up from Lewes Tourist Information, or one of the 148 venues on the trail. Have a good read, then follow your nose. I doubt anyone will get to see all 148 venues, over the three weekends the festival is on, but I urge you to try out as many as you can fit in. Indulge yourself in the experience on offer: I promise you that there will be many pleasant surprises along the way.

Alex Leith