Jonathan Meades

The art of Jonathan Meades

The art of Jonathan Meades
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Ape Forgets Medication: Treyfs and Artknacks

Londonewcastle Project (28 Redchurch Street, E2), until 23 April

Process, means, method: it was these rather than the results which initially fascinated me. There was an unmistakable exhilaration in discovering that I was not merely learning a new language but that I was creating a language peculiar to myself. Given that it was non-verbal the word 'language' is inappropriate. In every instance the words, the capricious titles I have appended to the works (the treyfs and artknacks) came after. Treyf signifies that which is not kosher. Artknack is a neoligism which suggests arts, a knack or facility, a knicknack or cheap bling, arnaque (French for a scam).The titles propose subjects which were not intended, meanings that were not meant.

None of the works are 'about' anything other than themselves and their multiple surfaces. They do not represent anything I have seen, anything I have felt, anything I have imagined. They are not expressive. And yet it is impossible to survey them and not perceive anthropomorphic, zoomorphic, geomorphic forms. The more we seek a void the more we discover multiplicity. 'We': I mean me. Given the density of my prose, the density of my images is perhaps inevitable. Much as I try I cannot escape myself, I cannot escape the maximalist aesthetic that contaminates everything I compose, no matter what the medium.

The titles are, as I say, capriciously granted. They are variously cryptic, misleading, allusive. There are homages, jests, puzzles. They are nearly all provisional. The one exception is 'Derry Welcomes You'. It is provisional in a different way. It is the only unambiguous piece in the show. A neat idea which I rather chide myself for: too easy, too pat. But there you are, you possess a fondness for your own obliquy. It is a more or less naturalistic image – a selfie wearing a balaclava, against a similarly coloured background, desaturated, touched-up (the lips), re-photographed, re-printed, re-photographed...

[caption id="attachment_9445712" align="alignnone" width="520"]'Babsk 03/09/89' by Jonathan Meades 'Babsk 03/09/89' by Jonathan Meades[/caption]

'Babsk 03/09/89'

I am sparing in adoration. In the early autumn of 1990, exactly a year later I was working in Rome on a script (L'Atlantide). One evening I was waiting for a taxi with a friend, an Italian cinematographer. I was staring at a wall plastered with layers of torn posters. We were talking football – the 1990 World Cup was only two months back.Who, he asked, is your favourite Italian footballer. Conti, Rossi, Schillaci? All forwards. No, I replied, Gaetano Scirea, the greatest and most nimble of defenders. You know, he said, Scirea is dead. Babsk is the place southwest of Warsaw where he died in a car crash. I still find it hard to look at a palimpsest of posters without recalling this peerless player. The work is the result of multiple collages piled on each other. Typically I had no idea how it would turn out. Typically I photographed the first collage, printed it, added further material, photographed it, printed it again and so on. My methods are primitive. I don't have Photoshop. I fear its predictive interference just as I have long since suppressed spellchecks. Photoshop takes away chance. I crave mistakes, the effects of randomness and of lack of control.

[caption id="attachment_9445722" align="alignnone" width="520"]'Pignight: The Screenplay' by Jonathan Meades 'Pignight: The Screenplay' by Jonathan Meades[/caption]

'Pignight: The Screenplay'

Snoo Wilson was one of the great writers of my generation. He and Dusty Hughes adapted his play Pignight as a film. It portrayed or invented a version of rural life which had quite escaped me, which has never left me, which has fed much of my writing. It is the only work by contemporaries whose influence I recognise. Snoo's indignation when the BFI refused to fund it because of its scenes of bestiality was quite something. As he pointed out, carnal relationships with pigs are normal in East Anglia. Every fiction I have written includes a character called Dusty: a sort of fatidic charm. This began, like many pieces, with a painting, gouache on coarse paper. When it looked about right (how that is assessed I have no idea) I placed a further sheet of paper on it and agitated it, then treated the result to a brisk assault with a sponge in the hope of achieving a honeycombed surface of the sort that Max Ernst fetishised. It was subjected to further stramashes. When I looked at it the next day it was Leviathan or some kindred marine monster posing as a particularly minatory combine-harvester, a riff on industrialised, non-bucolic countryside.

[caption id="attachment_9445742" align="alignnone" width="520"]'Cotchford: Final Memory' by Jonathan Meades 'Cotchford: Final Memory' by Jonathan Meades[/caption]

'Cotchford: Final Memory'

The writer Phil Griffin tells me that this recalls the toxic Mersey of his youth. It was made with liquids of different densities and properties combining and separating like a vinaigrette, with the sort of polythene sterile syringes are packed in. I doubt that I could replicate the many stages it went through before the aquatic-gothic thing was done. It was too effete for the Mersey, I thought. Cotchford Farm in Ashdown forest was once owned by A.A. Milne, who means very little to me. I have no childhood memory of Winnie-the-Pooh and was well into middle age before I learnt who Eeyore was. A subsequent owner of the house was Brian Jones without whom the Stones would have never really been the Stones. He drowned in the pool at the house on 03/07/1969. Who knows what you see when you drown, who knows what it feels when life leaves you. One of my first essays in television, in 1978, was an attempt to make a film for the tenth anniversary of that death. I met the man who may have murdered the pageboy from hell. He had a well-rehearsed story. I also met a producer whose imagination was so stunted that it might as well have not existed: the first of many such encounters in tellyland.

[caption id="attachment_9445752" align="alignnone" width="520"]'Adieu, Francis Le Belge' by Jonathan Meades 'Adieu, Francis Le Belge' by Jonathan Meades[/caption]

'Adieu, Francis Le Belge'

Francis Vanverberghe's surname was unpronounceable by most of the denizens of the Marseille milieu in which he grew up and of which he became a caïd. His record was impressive. His first prosecution for pimping was at the age of 18. His business colleagues included Tony 'L'Anguille' Cossu (Tony the Eel) and Joseph 'Le Toréador' Lomini. He was a major player in the French Connection. When Marseille became too hot for him he moved to Paris. He forgot the cardinal role of quarry: vary your tracks. He took to breakfasting every day in L'Artois Club off the Champs Elysées. Seven bullets, 27/09/2000.

[caption id="attachment_9445762" align="alignnone" width="520"]'Selbstportrait' by Jonathan Meades 'Selbstportrait' by Jonathan Meades[/caption]


The German word is used because the German painter Christian Schad used it for his self-portrait, the greatest self-portrait of the 20th century. Schad has long obsessed me. I have travelled across Europe to see exhibitions of his work – invariably the same work, for he was far from prolific. If I could paint, I'd paint like him. But I can't, so I am reduced to stealing techniques from a very different but equally beguiling artist, Ladislas Kijno. The technique used here is froissage. Take an image on paper, screw it up into a ball, flatten it, photograph it. And repeat till the thing is ready. It's like cooking.

[caption id="attachment_9445792" align="alignnone" width="520"]'Mary Aborted the Son of God' by Jonathan Meades 'Mary Aborted the Son of God' by Jonathan Meades[/caption]

'Mary Aborted the Son of God'

In my forthcoming film Benbuilding on the architecture of the fascist era in Italy (BBC Four, May), I allude to G.G. Belli, the early 19th century dialect poet who was the voice of Roman anti-clericism. Maggie Davies and I translated one of his poems, about the Anunciation. In our version Mary exercises her right to choose and aborts the son of god. If only Mohammed's mother had done the same.

Ape Forgets Medication: Treyfs and Artknacks is at the Londonewcastle Project, 28 Redchurch Street, London E2 7DP. Everyday, noon to 7 p.m., till April 23