Monday, August 10, 2015

The Girl with the Yellow Hair

She was three rows in front of me at a public lecture on something architectural that I was attending because a friend was one of the panellists; three rows, and six seats along that row, so that I mostly only saw the back of her head, the deeply blonde hair that might have been natural, but probably wasn't. In front of us was a table for the four panellists, so inevitably her head was turning all the time, as speakers alternated the answering of the forum's questions. A quarter turned, with the arc lights catching the edges of her profile like sunlight, and she could have passed for nineteen; half turned, and now the arc lights cast shadows, of hair and nose and that very precise placement of her hand against her face, but with only a single finger making contact, and then only brushing the upper lip, she could not have been a day under thirty, with a clear sense of what she would look like at forty-five. At the end of the event she got up, as we all did, and my friend introduced her to me, her older sister, and I knew that my friend had celebrated fifty not a month before, and I remembered that she had told me that her sister was dying of some obscure lymphatic cancer, and had only months to live. How to capture all of those ages that were concurrent and simultaneous in her, in a picture that had to fix one particular profile, one particular set of light and shadows? How to convey the monumental sadness of so much beauty being on the verge of disappearing from the world?


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The Grey Thinker

One of the great modern art critics - I think it was Robert Hughes, but I'm not certain - once wrote about the distinction between sculpture and painting, that the former is integral to itself, a completed object that stands in its own space, and can stand in any space, home or gallery, indoors or outside, alone or surrounded, and it remains what it is, an isolated creation that one can walk around, a context unto itself; while a painting is a mere fragment, an incompleteness, a part of a landscape, a person's face without a body, or only part of a body in a space that extends beyond the painting, or objects, artefacts, ikons, trapped in space by nature of being framed inside a canvas that is itself fixed upon a wall.

Walking around the Rodin Museum in Paris, on the umpteenth of many occasions, I was reminded of that intricate distinction, and wondered what Hughes would have said about the painting of a sculpture. Do both definitions apply simultaneously? The painting unquestionably limits the context, and the sculpture can only be viewed from a single angle, and yet the sculpture is still a context that is integral to itself, the thinker who is not Rodin's thinker, but who is looking at a book of paintings that could possibly include Rodin's thinker, or maybe even a picture of itself.



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African Child 2

Is there something psychological in the fact that most of my portraits focus towards the left hand side of the canvas; or is it unconsciously political in some obscure manner? Do left-handed people do the opposite? Do politically conservative people do the opposite? These, it seems to me, are the truly, profoundly, deeply, universally insignificant and unimportant questions that no academic has ever bothered to ask, let alone try to answer. And yet, who knows, maybe it matters.

Maybe the children of Africa matter too. Not terribly many people seem to be asking that question either, and those who do, like the current British Foreign Minister, simply answer it by wanting to send all the refugees from Africa home again, while the UK Department for International Development wants to find new ways to rob Africa of its resources, out-source slavery back to the continent, and seek better opportunities for UK companies to get rich by pretending to help the continent. "Britain will boost investment into promising businesses in Africa and South Asia to create jobs, stimulate growth and end dependency on aid," is the slogan on its website. Which businesses do they have in mind? The international arms trade? The planting of still more cotton for export, so that when drought and famine come the locals have nothing they can eat? We'll drill your oil for you? Or maybe they are thinking more like the Americans, who just want to open branches of Macdonalds and Starbucks and sell cellphones anywhere they can.

And maybe I just answered the question in my opening paragraph after all.


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The oldest woman in the world at 127

As a Brit, I have tried to follow some of my compatriot artists down the years. Turner, rather than Gainsborough or Reynolds - Whistler called him ‘the greatest creator of mystery in art’, and a visit to the Tate Gallery, where there is an entire section dedicated to his work, is one of the great art experiences in the world. I was fortunate to know Tom Merrifield, briefly and vaguely, but it included visits to his Hampstead studio and the purchase of a wonderful painting at a time when his name was still better known as a ballet dancer; I only wish I had bought one of his extraordinary sculptures too. Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth and Jacob Epstein even more so, but they were already completely unaffordable before I saw her garden in St Ives or Moore's miniature grand canyons everywhere or spent hours wondering whether Epstein learned from Rodin or Rodin from Epstein in the Whitechapel Gallery. Mark Gertler was a genius of impersonation, and he impersonated every style and genre anybody else ever thought up, but never managed to invent one of his own. And then there was Lucien Freud, who started as a genius and simply went on getting better.

The painting on this page is not a Lucien Freud, though the influence is surely obvious, and it recurs in many of my paintings. There is verisimilitude, which is what most artists seek when they offer to sketch you outside the bistro in Montmartre or at the art flea-market by Whitestone Pond on a Sunday morning; simple lines, light shading, and most importantly a strong resemblance to the sitter. This is a sketch of me, you can tell your friends, and they can look at it, and say, yes, it certainly looks enough like you to pass, but it isn't really very good, as Art, is it? Verisimilitude is what one gets much more effectively when one points a camera.

What Freud is after, it seems to me, is exactly what his grandfather was after, only the latter used the psychiatric couch to get into the hinterland of the human self and psyche, where the grandson was more interested in fibre and tissue, muscle and gland, not the moving parts of ego but those of tendon and cartilage; though both in their own ways got down to the bone, and revealed levels of the human that nobody had ever touched before.




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Sangre de Christo




A church, somewhere, it truly doesn't matter where. The lines of pews are abstracted out, because the pews don't matter, nor the individuals who might sit or genuflect in them; but abstracted out in primary colours, the blue and red and yellow which are the fundamental pigments from which the infinite variety of natural creation is rendered possible, but also the blue of sea and sky, the yellow of sun and moon, the red of blood, which is life, but also death; and all of this held earth-bound, or at least earthed, by the merest touch of green. What matters is not the location, nor the worshippers, but the space of stillness, the communal organisation, the ingress into the inner world, which could happen just as easily in a synagogue, a mosque, a mandir, a pagoda, an ashram. What matters is not the Cross either, the sado-masochistic symbol of yet one more martyred Jew, whose blood is among the millions frescoed on that wall. What matters, only, exclusively, is the light, which Christianity has spent two thousand years darkening, and yet still has the power to illuminate.



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African Child

Botswana, 1978

The first sight of the aloes
reminded me of Israel,
and the first thought of Israel
of a desert and a war.
It is curious the way
experiences fester.






There were no harvests gathered,
no banks were overflowing;

only the barest scrubland
and groups of naked children.
The lightest touch of poetry
would have undermined this starkness.

Their money is called “Pula”
(by those who can afford it).
“Pula” - a Setswana word
meaning simply “may it rain”.
Only the poorest people
can spend wishes that freely.


From "Welcome To My World, Selected Poems 1973-2013" (The Argaman Press, 2013)


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The Girl with Red Lips

The woman in the next seat knows that she is beautiful. All men stare at her, and sometimes she resents their leers, and sometimes she takes delight from their delight, but it is utterly impossible for men to know which mood their stares will kindle. Merely they gaze, and hope.

The woman, who may be blonde or brunette, tall or short, understands that every man desires her, and that it is her destiny to be an object of desire before she is a woman with a name, a personality, a life, before she is a woman with desires of her own. This troubles her, but she is accustomed to it, and finally the advantages outweigh the disadvantages, and anyway it matters not a jot, provided she retains control. So the men around her fix their gaze, and she absorbs them. So the men around her yearn, and she is free to choose whether and on whom to bestow her favours.

The men, she knows from harsh experience, come in a multitude of guises, but behind the masks they are all the same one. They seek her body. Some wish to know her body, briefly, passionately, in order to be quickened by her beauty, as a light bulb is quickened by a wave of electricity, only to die out when the current is switched off. Some wish to inhabit her body in order to destroy it, because they cannot bear to witness their own ugliness; for ugliness is relative, yet ugliness increases in the instant of destroying. Some wish to sleep beside her body, because it is warm, and cradling, and less solitary than making love alone; but she knows that they would still be making love alone. Some wish just to use her body for their own gratification, to notch another number on the blackboard of their conquests, to embrace her like a trophy. Some wish to be ornamented by her body, to wear her as they would a sapphire or a gold watch or a designer suit. Some wish to make her body the subject of their dreams, the untouchable enigma whom they have encountered once, and longed for through eternity. Some wish to make her body the object of their fantasies, engraving her upon their memories so they can take her home with them, to use her like an air-doll in the solitary desolation of the night. Some wish to possess her body, as they do their Persian cat, their Porsche, their season ticket.

All these men are different, yet all these men are the same. All in their own ways have imagined entering her body, and if they have bothered to ask her name it was only out of politeness, or as an aid to memory, or as a tactic in the great game of seduction. Her name, her personality, her life, are incidental. To each one she is just her body, and what excites them is her body’s impact on their own body, her capacity to stimulate their desire. To each one, were she to get up and move to another seat, were she to be replaced by another creature of equal looks, it would be as if nothing had altered.

So she sits, and ponders. She too has desires, and perhaps, perhaps, one man among all these will treat her as herself, will desire her for her and not for him. This man? Could it be this man, the one who has opened his notebook and is writing down these very lines? Could it, perhaps, be him? Do these lines that he is writing signify that he is the one who understands, he whom destiny has appointed for her – or is the act of writing simply his seduction technique, his point of relativity to her body?

She sits, ponders, hopes, doubts. He who has written will not speak. It is for her to speak. But experience makes her so wary, so unsure. And the silence holds hands with the silence. But the man and the woman do not touch.

And now the man has put away his notebook, resigned himself to leaving without speaking to her, given up all hope. And the woman in the next seat knows that she has missed her chance.


From "The Captive Bride" (The Argaman Press, 2013)



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Optical Illusion




All artistic design is, of course, and by definition, 100% original, unique to the creative genius of the man or woman who imagined it. I can therefore state without fear of contradiction, let alone copyright law-suit, that these four images owe absolutely nothing to the work of Frank Stella, a man of whom I have never heard, and whose works I insist that I have never seen, especially at the Guggenheim.



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Mobius Faces





Ah but she was one stern lady, glamorous and elegant and sophisticated, but stern, and I really do mean stern. "If you are going to sit there through my seminar doodling," she muttered, soundlessly, as she sidled past the table where five of us were theoretically assessing three very different cases of what was either ADD or ADHD or Asperges Syndrome; the task was for us to determine which we thought it was, and how we would handle such a child in our classrooms. I carried on doodling, because that is what I do when I am forced to sit still for several hours, and concentrate; the doodling helps me focus, where she thought it was simply me distracted, and no doubt she would have diagnosed either ADD or ADHD, but she would have been wrong, because I was not seeking attention. When she sidled by the second time, she stopped and looked, and smiled, and said nothing. Then came another exercise, in which we were each handed a number of Mobius strips, and asked to think of a creative way to employ them in a High School classroom that was neither Maths nor Science nor Art. I could see little point to the exercise, but a great deal of creative possibility. I used the scissors to cut the strips into the shape of a face - her face - and spent the remainder of the session colouring them in.


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Girl 6

Another of my very earliest drawings, from way back in the late 1970s, in that bygone era before digital technology, when an artist had to use stone-age tools like pencils, charcoal and fine-tipped drawing pens.





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Chinese Plant 2

There are things one paints because one is simply driven to it - my African collection for example. There are things one paints because the need to paint is there, and this is what came out. There are things one paints because they are technically difficult, and one wants to try to master that technique. There are things one paints, as on several occasions in this collection, because one is bored. And then there are the things one paints because it is Sunday, and raining, and this looks like it could be fun, not just the shapes but especially the colours, the multiple shades of green, the decision to make the leaves in the background grey, and then the strong contrast with those powerful reds and yellows. The sort of thing that lives at the heart of the Japanese and Chinese traditions, but is considered little more than embroidery or textile design in the European.







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Marja Lubov

One of the many pictures I made along the years in an attempt to recreate the masterpieces of Bernhard Aaronsohn-Ari Ben Aaron, the hero of the "Argaman Quintet", which is why the signature says Argaman in Hebrew letters as well as my own for copyright reasons.

He was an artistic genius; I sadly am not, but the picture is pleasing enough for all that. Pastel on board, for those of you who like to know these things – that version still hangs in my studio and remains one of my favourite pieces; later scanned and block-mounted, this is a photo of the block-mount.


Marja Lubov is the Christian wife of Yakov Baritzchak, or Mikhail Lubov as he had become by then, in "The Chronicle of the Kingdom of Alphalia".

Face 101a

She inhabited an apartment almost adjacent to my own, with a boyfriend who was even better looking than she was, and a collection of some of the world's great art - in the form of posters, unframed, attached to the walls with backing-tape. I asked her to model for me a hundred times, but she always refused. Then, one evening over wine and conversation in a group of friends, I sneaked a photo of her on my cell-phone, and she caught me, insisted on seeing it, asked me to delete it, and then relented when I said I wanted to use it for a painting.

What happened after that I'm afraid I can't say, because I haven't made up the rest of the story yet. Good tale though!





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Bordeaux


An early attempt at what was much more successful in "Wall of Light", this started out life as a photograph of one of the cloisters in the town square in Bordeaux, during a family holiday in 2002. I wanted to capture the endless repetitions of the vaulted ceiling, and the way they generated their own vanishing point; an inevitable and inexorable vanishing point that seems so obvious to the modern eye that it is unimaginable that it took artists so long to see it, and to develop it as perspective painting. Even more I wanted to capture the light at the end of the tunnel, the literal as well as the metaphorical. And still more, because this was 2002 and computers were still a novelty, digital art even more so, I wanted to explore what could be done with a photograph in order to transform it into a painting or a drawing. Looking back, I should have varied the shades of white at the egress to create something more misty and obscure, whereas this was achieved with a single shade, and therefore appears solid, almost a door of light.








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Brown Face




Love this piece. Something to do with the softness which is deeply, sensually alluring, yet at the same time fading, misting over, the way a photograph does when it is slightly out of focus.

Perhaps this is because it began life as a photograph - though not out of focus - then underwent some of the silly modifying you can do with Photoshop, before it got cropped and reworked with the digital pen, and finally a mixture of brush-types to get the different effects. Large canvas.



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Face in Profile 2




The model for this was Jean Cocteau - Jean Maurice Eugène Clément Cocteau to give him his full name, and perhaps not surprising that a man with so many names should also have quite so many talents: one for each. As a writer he is best known for Les Enfants Terribles, but he was also a designer, a playwright, an artist, and a filmmaker - Blood of a Poet, Les Parents Terribles, Beauty and the Beast and Orpheus. My fantasy is of turning up at his Paris apartment one evening, uninvited obviously, needing some feeble excuse like I must have written down the wrong address for the person I was really visiting, and then apologise, but ask if I can use the washroom; and then get a moment inside to see who his visitors were that evening. Picasso more than likely, but the actor Yul Brynner was a regular, as was Marlene Dietrich, Coco Chanel, Erik Satie, Igor Stravinsky, Édith Piaf,  Colette, Genet...

I had several versions of this portrait at one time, each one a variant of the other fantasy, that I could somehow capture the entirety of his enigmatic prolificity and genius in a single, unified painting; with solid blocks of colour like here, and washes, and crayon lines, and even one with a physical paintbrush and acrylics from a tube. In this version I was also trying to imitate a style, but can’t now remember which – Max Jacob possibly; something of the era of Picasso anyway. Standard canvas.


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Woman



Is that a date that I can't quite make out underneath the signature? 1980, I think, which tells me it was drawn when I was living in Lancaster, taking a Masters in Drama & Theatre Studies and having the amazing opportunity to work with two of Britain's great modern playwrights, David Edgar and Arnold Wesker. What has this to do with the drawing? Absolutely nothing. But as I can't remember who on earth she was, and I feel a compulsive need to supplement the drawing with a piece of writing, this is what you get. The original is very large, a mixture of grey drawing crayon and charcoal stick.

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Twins




Posting these paintings and drawings on the blog, there are some that obviously belong on the left-hand side of the page, others on the right, a few in the centre - not the sort of aesthetic concern that occupies an artist while making the thing, but suddenly it becomes important, and I guess art gallery curators in the real world have the same issue with walls, and relationships to other paintings on the same wall, or opposite, or the light, or the angle of approach from an elevator or a door. For this one I have gone dead-centre, but it also seems to me that, because they are twins, there might be a case for posting two copies, one on the left and one on the right, or perhaps - why not? - a reverse image with the yellow twin on the left and the purple twin on the right. Maybe I'm just over-thinking this!


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Sunday, August 2, 2015

Retort to Carl Andre



One of the great controversies of the 1960s and 1970s, Carl Andre produced a series of what he called "Equivalents", eight in all, made up of 120 firebricks in a rectangular formulation, just about high enough that they came above your ankles, but low enough on the ground that you had to switch your attention from the customary horizontality of the art gallery to something rather more vertical. He called the eight "Equivalents" because they were equivalent to each other, having the same number of firebricks, the same mass and volume in the final configuration, and not because they were equivalent to any conventional definition of Art.

Like many people, I hated them then and I still hate them now, half a century later. Which is to say: I like the idea behind the shift from the horizontal to the vertical, because new perspectives are always worthwhile, but I dislike the bland, empty nothingness of the bricks, which make their barely meaningful statement in such a grey voice that it devalues even the small amount of point it may have. And in truth, if they were not placed at a point in the gallery where you risked tripping over them, it would be easy to walk right by them, and assume some construction work was about to be undertaken, and the contractors had brought in some of the materials, and then go and wonder if the fire extinguisher on the opposite wall was just a fire extinguisher or itself a piece of art. Paint the darned things, Carl! Give them some life by giving them some colour! Bring out the purpose by forcing the eye to look at the art, not at the obstacle in the path.


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