I dreamed of painting London at night since I first saw the American painter Whistler’s nocturnal work on the Thames River. I wanted to capture a gay café life…a place that comes alive in the fog and sparkle of an evening.
As part of that quest, this summer I am taking a good hard look at a subject that always fascinated me: the private clubs of this historic city. Vanity Fair dances with the names of these places: Boujis, China White and Annabel’s, The Groucho Club, The Chelsea Arts Club, The Arts Club on Dover Street. Think The Parlor, Neuehouse or The Core Club, with a brush of Manhattan’s Metropolitan Club history or grandeur, and you are half way there. New York’s Soho House is an ode to a scene that wreaks of the media baron, hedge fund, socialite, and royal appetites for entertainment, arts, and an unusual dish of suggestive sexuality after dark. Its true home: London.
I’m working at The Slade. I wanted a taste of Britishness — a discourse with other contemporary painters, while I was at work. The Slade’s summer offering is exactly that. British artists are brilliant at capturing the human condition, social commentary, and the unexpected. Think of the work at Saatchi, Gagosian, White Cube: I wanted a taste of that.
Thanks to the Slade directive, I have been freed of my easel. Canvas and primed brown paper are applied directly to the wall: Giant walls streaming with natural light. I feel a new freedom, an expansion out of myself onto the materials.
There was something in me that wanted to capture the conflict and contradictions in so many ideas and circumstances, so I set myself an artistic journey to paint a part of London’s night life. For the London visitor who wants a taste of the discourse without need of an invitation to one of the London’s private clubs, there is The American Bar at Duke’s hotel. It might be considered an after-work primer for a night at one of these nearby haunts, because in London they drink…a lot. Two to three martinis as a liquid appetizer can be de rigeur here. I would argue the martini is a New York cocktail. The New York Times however, described the bar at Duke’s with the review, “The hotel bar which some say concocts one of the world’s best martinis.” Regularly visited by James Bond author Ian Fleming, legend has it, the bar inspired the famous line “shaken, not stirred.”
In the study for Duke’s Martini No 2, it was very important to capture the experience of the drinkers, without ever showing them. I painted the bar in red on purpose; hundreds of bottles of liquid dreams reminding me of the red light district, of both the attraction and warning of alcohol in a very posh setting. I left no martini glass on the bar, because the viewer was already tucking into his second at the end of the painting. I wanted to be completely certain that the bar tender’s jacket was a stark, Titanium white and its appearance crisp, starched…the white of his jacket and the priming area for drinks, speaking to the standard of the master mixologist and a history of service in the UK. And the bartenders face should be blurry…a greeny yellow, a haze of an inviting world that also spelled obliteration of responsibility.
I drew the paint down in a messy representation of Munch’s, The Scream, not because I couldn’t paint a portrait of the man I knew. I was remembering what martini no 2 looks and feels like to the novice drinker. The bartender friend soon becomes a blurry, inviting mist or even a haunting figure, depending on the day.
Art is everywhere. As a painter I try not to just look at my environment, but to see it, truly see it all. I’ve been advised not to show my work, not to write about my work in progress, because value lies in its rarity. I’ve also been a writer for half my professional life, so that seems impossible. I’m from the generation of sharing, and surely there is a new value in that.
I look forward to bringing back a taste of London to New York: Next steps at The Slade…to integrate Boujis “A New Sense of Belonging” into a bigger work.