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Why John Byrne is one of Scotland’s greatest artists

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Why John Byrne is one of Scotland’s greatest artists


A Big Adventure, John Byrne’s retrospective at Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery, offers a fascinating insight into the breadth of skills of one of Scotland’s best-known creative forces.

During an illustrious career he has traversed a number of cultural genres with success as an artist, playwright and scriptwriter with many stage and TV hits. Over the last 60 years he has built up an impressive catalogue of outstanding creative works that have become part of the Scottish cultural landscape, gaining him international recognition. Now in his eighties, Byrne is still painting and writing plays, his desire to create still burning fiercely.

The exhibition includes portraits of actors and musicians including many self portraits, figurative works, illustrations, cartoons, album covers, films and promotional material. He has worked in all sizes and mediums from thumbnail storyboarding to full gable-end murals on tenement buildings.

As a researcher looking into the lives of contemporary artists in a culturally dynamic Scotland, the show has given me unique insights into the distinctly Scottishness of Byrne’s work, approach and dedication to his craft.

Humble beginnings

Growing up in Ferguslie Park, Paisley, in one of the most deprived areas in Scotland, you would expect Byrne’s work to be deeply marked and influenced by that experience. However, there is rarely any sign of darkness or trauma in his artworks; in fact, his art is often joyful, displaying a gentle playfulness.

Byrne struggled to make a living as an artist after leaving Glasgow School of Art in 1963, and after a few years he decided to create an alter-ego called “Patrick”. Under this name he submitted some primitive-style artwork to the Portal Gallery in London which he pretended was painted by his father. It was accepted and exhibited in 1967, kicking off Byrne’s professional artistic career down south.

Billy Connolly.
John Byrne/Glasgow Museums Collections, Author provided (no reuse)

He progressively developed his writing skills in the 1970s to the point his artistic output declined and he became fully immersed in the world of scriptwriting and theatre. In this transitional period, he worked with both visual images and written dialogue as part of a fascinating creative process where his character ideas were visually illustrated and then allowed to mature and take form, before developing their own authentic voices.

The play and scriptwriting successes of Writer’s Cramp (1976), Slab Boys (1978) – based on his own experiences working in a carpet factory in the 1950s – Tutti Frutti (1987) and Your Cheating Heart (1990) interrupted a developing artistic career which was sidelined for 20 years. But he continued to produce powerful graphics and illustrative work supporting and promoting his plays and works for television.

A polymath talent

How can this extraordinary talent be summed up? Byrne is a figurative artist whose work is grounded in his exploration of the human experience which can be seen at the centre of both his scripts and his visual artworks.

A John Byrne painting of the actress Tilda Swinton.
Portrait of Tilda Swinton, Byrne’s former partner.
John Byrne

In the early 1980s, a group of young painters called the New Glasgow Boys (referencing the influential late-19th century modern painters the Glasgow Boys) also achieved international success as figurative painters, building upon Byrne’s own artistic output exploring the Scottish working-class psyche.

He is an architect and creator of narratives exploring deeply human characters and their complex relationships, capturing specific periods in time from a very Scottish perspective, as in the working-class characters in the Slab Boys and the rough and ready Majestics band in Tutti Frutti.

Even in his portraits, where he wrestles to understand both himself and the personalities who sit for him, we are given insight into a deeply personal journey. His portraiture is often comedic, and full of playfulness and irreverence, particularly when it comes to his own image.

Painting of the artist John Byrne.
Hands Up self portrait.
John Byrne, Author provided (no reuse)

The 40 self-portraits which dominate the show are larger than life, often set within city and seascapes, using a variety of mediums and nearly always showing him holding his trademark roll-up, a curl of smoke hanging in the air. In his earlier works, such as Self-portrait with Red Palette (1975), they can be serious and melancholic, and later on, full of humour where he does not take himself too seriously. But in more recent works, such as Big Selfie (2014), for example, darker traits reveal themselves, as Byrne muses on mortality and his image as the ageing artist.

In Byrne’s portraits, he treats his sitters with varying levels of respect, from the comic and affectionate, to the deeply serious and more reverent. This is expressed in his varied use of media such as flat oil paint, scraperboard, pastel, water colour and prints. To me his Conté crayon drawings of his daughters, Celia Asleep (1973) and Rebecca (2010), resemble the sketches of Leonardo.

The cover of the Beatles Ballads album.
One of Byrne’s many album covers.
John Byrne/Parlophone Records.

His love of R’n’B and rock’n’roll, together with his close friendships with musicians and actors drove his early artworks through album cover designs, paintings, portraits and caricatures.

His covers include the Beatles Ballads album as well as work for Gerry Rafferty, Stealer’s Wheel and Billy Connolly, whom Byrne has painted several times. His visit to Los Angeles with the singer Donovan had a significant impact, inspiring watercolour studies such as the gentle Burnt Orange LA (1971), and larger scale paintings of black musicians which were exhibited in Glasgow on his return.

A line drawing of Emma Thompson in her role as Suzi Kettles in John Byrne's play Tutti Frutti.
Emma Thompson as Suzi Kettles in Tutti Frutti.
John Byrne, Author provided (no reuse)

His fascination with black musicians has seeped into his artistic fantasy lands including Messiah (2015), a tryptic of musical figures in a fictional American city. And his ongoing relationship with teddy boy and rockabilly culture is reflected in the quiffed Fegs of Underwood Lane, his most recent and current play. It tells a story of a young skiffle band trying to make it big, and involves the big issues of love, religion, sex and death, written in memory of Gerry Rafferty, a close friend who also grew up in Paisley.

This retrospective highlights the quintessential Scottishness of Byrne’s work, in his resilience, his enduring humour and his focus on the frailty of human experience often lived on the edge of working-class communities. It is a richly rewarding show which underscores John Byrne’s rightful place as one of Scotland’s finest and most prolific artists.



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A brief history of found footage video art – and where Macklemore’s Hind’s Hall fits in

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A brief history of found footage video art – and where Macklemore’s Hind’s Hall fits in


Twenty-four hours after the release of Macklemore’s pro-Palestine protest song Hind’s Hall on social media on May 7, the video had already notched up over 24 million views.

In two minutes and 49 seconds, the music video uses found footage gleaned from social media feeds intercut with the songs lyrics in white text on a black background.

Much of the footage is of pro-Palestine encampments unfolding on the grounds of US universities. We also see images of popular Palestinian journalists Bisan Owed, Motaz Azaiza and Wael Al Dahdouh, footage from the Israeli bombing in Gaza, and older footage, such as N.W.A.’s Fuk Da Police (1988).

Much of the imagery is illustrative of the lyrics and polemic in messaging.

This use of found, gleaned and archival footage is a continuation of a long tradition in video art where artists have used existing footage to comment on and amplify social, political and environmental issues.

What is found footage?

Found footage filmmaking is a strategy used by artists and filmmakers who take audiovisual material from its original source and re-contextualise it.

Removed from its original context, this footage allows the artists to create new associations and critical perspectives on the material, culture and circulation of meaning. This process is also called remediation.

Prior to the proliferation of digital media, found footage artists found inspiration in newsreels, films and archives. Tracey Moffat worked with editor Gary Hillberg from 1999–2017 in creating a series of films call Montages, which reflect on tropes in Hollywood films.

Christian Marclay’s The Clock (2010) was a 24-hour video installation compiled from hundreds of films with scenes of clocks, watches and other timepieces.

Adam Curtis’ feature films draw on the vast BBC archives, which meditate on politics, power and psychology.

The advent – and plethora – of user-generated content on social media has given rise to new possibilities for video content.

With an endless flow of images and information through social media scrolls, the question of how to interrogate this material underpins how video artists approach found footage today.

Amplifying truths – and misinformation

The launch of YouTube in 2005 brought the ability to participate in the creation and sharing en masse of self-made video content.

Artist Natalie Bookchin saw this outpouring and sharing of personal testimonies through vlogs as an opportunity to reflect on the the contemporary social, cultural and political landscape in the United States.

Editing these vlogs, Bookchin created choral-like multiscreen video installations. Bookchin’s 2009 work Testament, a three-chapter multi-screen video installation, meditates on the shared vulnerability, isolation and collective experience of prescription medication, job loss and sexual identity.

Surrounded by the multiple voices in the gallery, the individual voices become a collective outpouring, giving voice to feelings of doubt, shame, anger and resignation. The multitude of voices transform an individual experience into one that reflects the impact of social and political pressures.

Bookchin’s follow-up work, Now he’s out in public and everyone can see (2012), similarly uses YouTube vlogs – but this time focused on the perception of African American men as threats.

Originally an 18-screen installation, the video excerpts speculate and comment on incidents involving famous African American men. This creates a collective narrative where there is always contradiction and never a singular agreed-upon truth.

In doing so, this work comments on how social media circulates and reinforces rumours, stereotypes and misinformation.

Montage and juxtaposition

Political commentary can also be made through juxtaposing unexpected images and sound. Montage editing is a technique first used by Soviet-era filmmakers in the 1920s through which the “collision” of images creates a new meaning.

American artist and filmmaker Arthur Jafa uses this technique to great effect in Love is the Message and the Message is Death (2016).

In this eight-minute video, Jafa takes up the question of the representation of African Americans through the 20th century through montages of found footage from film, music video, sports broadcasts and vlogs to the soundtrack of Kanye West’s Ultralight Beam.

The video oscillates between the hopes, dreams and great creative and sporting successes of Black Americans, undercut by the pervasive threat of systemic violence and white supremacy.

Long sequences of music, dance and sporting prowess, backed by West’s melodic anthem, are suddenly replaced by sounds and images captured on a mobile phone.

This footage feels familiar whether we have seen it or not. A scene taken from inside a car of a Black woman being pulled over by the police crying out for her children sits between that of gospel singing and the civil rights movement, demanding us to question what progress has been made.

While Macklemore’s found footage practice might seem unsubtle, given his platform, that’s also the point. Accompanied by unambiguous lyrics, re-presenting these images to a broad audience aims for maximum impact in a screen environment where attention is in constant demand.

Found footage gives video artists strategies to challenge dominant ways of thinking and reflecting on socio-political issues. When we see footage we know from social media, the news or films, we are given the opportunity to bring disparate ideas together, and challenged to see the world anew.



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Making short films is a powerful way to learn job skills: 5 ways it prepares students for work

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Making short films is a powerful way to learn job skills: 5 ways it prepares students for work


The world of work is changing all the time. Technology is driving innovation and productivity, leading to the creation of new industries and employment opportunities. This means people need new skills to meet the demands of an ever-changing economy.

While universities can and do equip young people with important skills, tertiary education isn’t available to everyone. This is especially true in a country like South Africa, where about 43% of students in 2023 who qualified to pursue a bachelor’s qualification at university could not because of limited spaces.

Valuable knowledge and skills can also be acquired through non-formal and alternative pathways, however. We are education scholars who ran a pilot project using artistic media to teach important life skills to young adults (18–24 years old). Our project, Myturn, ran in South Africa’s Western Cape province over ten months in 2020. It used simple technology like smartphones and editing software to make short films.

Myturn benefited participants in several ways, as we’ve documented in a study. For instance, it honed their communication and teamwork skills. It bolstered their digital skills. It also allowed the students to connect with their communities. This connection, in turn, provided a platform for the communities to witness the participants’ willingness to learn and become change agents, while also allowing them to share their own stories and experiences.

The project showed how short films could be used to change the way people learn. This method meets many needs of young people by combining the learning of soft skills, computer literacy and artistic expression. It gets them ready for the problems of the future – not just ready for work, but also as socially involved people.

Five main benefits

Our research paper focused on the perceptions of nine (out of the initial group of 17) Myturn participants. All had completed secondary school. They were involved in various dance, drama, music and visual arts projects when recruited for Myturn and came from semi-rural communities in the Langeberg district of South Africa’s Western Cape province.

In 2020 they found themselves in a transitional phase between jobs, were preparing to enter the workforce for the first time, or were between school and tertiary education. They were also dealing with the effects of the pandemic, which began after we’d launched Myturn. This global crisis created difficulties but was also an opportunity for learning and adaptation.

During the project, participants learned the technology and skills needed to create and produce their own short films.

Our study identified five ways in which participants benefited from the project.

1. Improved emotional intelligence and soft skills:

Making short films helps build skills like leadership, teamwork and communication. It pushes young creators to figure out how to work together on complex tasks. This helps team members from different backgrounds understand and care about each other. People learn how to resolve disagreements, make their points clear, and inspire others to work towards a shared goal. These skills are necessary in any professional setting.

2. Improved digital skills and connectivity:

Participants learned how to use software programmes, handle digital content and interact with online groups. They were empowered to offer their skills globally and work remotely and flexibly.

3. Encouraged new ideas and creative ways to solve problems:

Making short films encourages people to try new things and to look at problems from different angles. This way of handling problems creatively makes one more flexible.

As a way to reach their artistic goals, participants learned to make changes and accept loss. This approach is in high demand across various sectors.

4. Supported personalised learning and finding out more about oneself:

Making a short film is a very personal process. It lets people explore themes that are important to them based on their own experiences, interests and goals. Personalising the way people learn reveals their skills, flaws and interests.

One participant, reflecting critically on her role as short film producer in the project, showcased her ownership of learning and the potential for transpersonal growth:

Being able to watch my video back before sending it made me realise how fast I speak and that (I) can come across as unclear, so I worked on speaking slower and I was satisfied with the final product.

Participants became more self-aware and confident. Young adults need help to figure out who they are and what they want to do with their lives.

One told us:

When the opportunity came I told myself it’s time to stretch myself and explore my skills.

5. Made the community more involved and gave people more power:

Making short films is a way to hear opinions that aren’t always heard. A participant said she enjoyed the chance her short film presented “to be able to comment or talk about the issues that everybody is most likely aware of but refuses to publicly speak/comment on”.




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Young film-makers can bring attention to problems that matter in their communities by sharing their stories. This can start a conversation and help bring people together. This involvement goes beyond the project. People can be inspired by hearing these stories, which can lead to a shared sense of power and a dedication to making things better.

What came next

In the time since the Myturn project, participants have flourished. One was selected for a six-month jewellery design research programme in Belgium. Three more have been accepted for tertiary education; others became involved in education as teaching assistants. One started a media house company with a colleague. Two participants created their own YouTube channels and another started making TikTok reels with her brother.

While the project itself couldn’t guarantee personal change within its informal setting, it did offer significant benefits for some participants: developing critical self-awareness, overcoming cultural and language barriers, and gaining a deeper understanding of themselves. This suggests that meaningful interactions, both in person and online, can equip young people with valuable skills. These skills, like critical thinking and empathy, will be crucial for navigating their future lives and careers.



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Stanley Kubrick redefined: recent research challenges myths to reveal the man behind the legend

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Stanley Kubrick redefined: recent research challenges myths to reveal the man behind the legend


Even 25 years after his death, Stanley Kubrick remains one of the most widely known directors of the 20th century. Many of the 13 films he made – including 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), A Clockwork Orange (1971) and The Shining (1980) – are still revered today and remembered as some of the best movies ever produced.

To coincide with the anniversary of his death on March 7 1999, I have co-authored the first full-length biography of Kubrick in more than two decades. Based on the latest research into Kubrick, access to his archive at the University of Arts London, other repositories around the world, family members, cast and creatives, we have delved into his life in detail that few others have achieved.

Shy but not reclusive

During his life Kubrick was famously shy with the media, and frequently interpreted as reclusive. He granted very few interviews, and only when he had a film to publicise. He learned early on that he was not good at promoting his films personally. In the few interviews with Kubrick that survive, he comes across as nervous and ill at ease.

Kubrick was so shy and protective of his private life that few people recognised him publicly. Though born and brought up in New York, he settled in England in the 1960s and remained there. He could wander into Rymans in St Albans and buy stationery (he loved paper, pens and the like) or get a new pair of spectacles and no one would recognise him. It helped that he often used his brother-in-law’s name when doing so.

In fact, Kubrick was such an unfamiliar figure that an imposter went around London’s clubs and bars in the early 1990s pretending to be him. The imposter was only found out when Kubrick started receiving strange phone calls from spurned lovers and bars with huge unpaid drinks tabs.

Kubrick archive

His archive only opened in 2007, but it provides an insight into this extremely private director’s world as never before. Kubrick was a hoarder and held on to the miscellany and detritus of his personal and professional worlds. This included high school yearbooks, photographs he took for Look magazine, receipts, bills, invoices, as well as the voluminous amount of material a film production (especially a Kubrick production) generated.

Kubrick in 1949, working as a photographer.
Phillip Harrington / Alamy

Through studying this archival material, combined with our new interviews, we learned about the human being behind the mythology. Kubrick was a film director but he was also a son, brother, husband, father and friend.

He liked to entertain, chat, make jokes and cook. He loved making American-style fast food and huge sandwiches, often using a microwave as he was a lover of gadgets, adopting new technology as soon as it became available. This was as true of his private life (where he used car phones, pagers and computers) as his working life where he was an early adopter of Steadicam cameras and the Avid editing system.

He had a fear of flying, but it was based on his own knowledge as a trained pilot and frequent monitoring of radio traffic control. It’s not true that he never went over 30mph in a car, as has been claimed. Rather, he loved cars – fast German ones in particular – but frequently crashed them.

Kubrick at work

We uncovered much about Kubrick’s working practices too. Kubrick was a master of the insurance claim. He never hesitated to file one following an accident or fire on set. Not only did this help him to recoup his budget but it also gave him precious time to regroup and think about his options.

We also discovered how Kubrick had to beg, borrow and virtually steal to get most of his projects greenlit. It wasn’t until he signed with Warner Brothers in the 1970s – from A Clockwork Orange onwards – that he had a permanent financial backer. But even then he wasn’t guaranteed funding if the project wasn’t right.

A black and white close up of Stanley Kubrick's face.
Kubrick was famously shy in public.
Mayimbú/Wikimedia

And those projects included the famously never made biopic of Napoleon as the time wasn’t right, or his never-to-be-made Holocaust film, Aryan Papers, which lacked a big star and came too close on the heels of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List.




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2001: A Space Odyssey still leaves an indelible mark on our culture 55 years on


It is also tempting to wonder what would have happened had he made the film Burning Secret in 1956, with MGM studios, with whom he had signed a contract. Would he have become another studio stooge or been fired for being too much of a maverick? What would have been the implications for his career?

While we can only imagine how those projects would have turned out, what remains is an extraordinary body of work that includes thousands of photographs, three documentaries and 13 feature films. Stanley Kubrick may have shunned the limelight, but his films have had a profound influence on the movie and television industries, as well as a lasting impact on popular and political culture.



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