From Hazy Planes and Burning Bodies: The Art of Patrick Palmer
I catch the artist in a liminal state: Patrick Palmer the Portraitist is moving house. Patrick himself has carved a career out of catching others in a state of emotional undress; I suspect he endeavours to give form to physical and psychological vulnerability in such a way that the beholder will find himself compulsively attracted to the curvaceous qualities of its shape and the enigmas of its tone. He also paints pretty women naked.
'I am about to embark on a new body of work,' he says, excitedly, and his enthusiasm is contagious. In this case, 'body' may well be a double entendre, as his work is swarming with them. His is a collection of bodies that are simultaneously inviting and inimical, lovely and loveless, rather purchasable (Palmer’s best paintings still go for only a few thousand) and thoroughly unobtainable.
So, where did his love-affair with the human body, and in particular the female one, begin? The young Palmer, living in Dublin, went to see Francis Bacon’s work and studio at the Hugh Lane Gallery. ”Bacon had just sold for more than any other artist in history and I was the only person there for an hour…there were around ten originals on the wall which I could have touched, and his actual studio is there too.“ Bacon’s studio had recently been relocated from London to Dublin with meticulous care. The team of conservators and curators captured, tagged and packed each of Bacon’s items, including the walls, doors, floor, ceiling and the dust that rested on the used paint tubes. In other words, the studio was in such a condition that one expected the artist to pop open the door and stride in at any given moment. To Palmer, this experience was both uncanny and inspirational. Moreover, in one of life’s funny turns and twists, he would later receive tuition from one of Bacon’s friends and portraitists, Michael Clark.
As Palmer ponders on the past, he reflects that 'my strongest memory of childhood is being taken on a hovercraft to the Isle of Wight by my granddad when I was five. He never took my mum or her sister out anywhere, and they were naturally quite jealous.' He explores this divide between the sexes further by remarking that 'my dad was a successful businessman, an alpha male if ever there was one, whereas my mother was a perfectly girly stay-at-home mum. But she was a very talented artist and a great character. My dad was away an awful lot, so from a young age I and my two brothers were obliged to help my mum with all the household chores, and many tasks besides. I didn’t mind that much, because I enjoyed spending time with her.'
Palmer’s childhood appears to have been one unclouded by profound misery. 'We lived in a big house in the West Country where we had free reign to do what we wanted. When I was around five or six I used to make these little books about cowboys and Indians,' Palmer says. 'They were even stapled,' he adds with a wink. 'My friend Simon Kernick did all the drawings and I wrote the text. Now Simon is one of Britain’s leading crime-thriller writers and I am an artist. Who would believe it?' Not me, because Palmer also shows me a charming little watercolour drawing he made of an Indian on a white horse jumping off a cliff. The Indian and the horse appear to be equally surprised at crossing this sudden precipice. (A remarkable specimen, by the way, for the fact that the Indian’s face is pale as the moon, whilst the rest of his body is neatly suntanned, perhaps as a result of ceremonial face-painting? Or perhaps artistic license typical of children?)
'I was always drawing and painting and making things. This will sound like I am copying Picasso, but it is true: I never drew like a child. Perhaps this is partly due to my mum, who was my main influence. She would draw, make ornate duvet covers, embroider, etch, and make jewellery from scratch.'
Later, Palmer enlisted to the class of Bobby Gill, an honorary fellow at the RCA. 'Bobby taught me for years, a lovely little class in Notting Hill which I went to whilst I was doing my office job, it was always a happy oasis there. She is a wonderful artist, teacher and person. Truly one of life’s special people.'
'Patrick was always very serious about his drawing and started at the beginning like everyone else,' Bobby tells me. 'All the basic exercises like line, tone, measuring, scale, you name it. When he came to my drawing classes it was just basic drawing, no attempt to develop a style. That comes later.'
There would be Jazz playing and tea and custard creams going at half time. Sometimes classes would go on in the pub down the street. 'Often friendships are made through the classes which keep going way beyond the classes. I know Patrick has kept in touch with some of the friends he made here,' Bobby says. As he developed his artistic skills and befriended people of a similar disposition, it became increasingly clear to Palmer that he wanted to prioritise his passion for painting over his office job. He now considered going down the path he had signalled many years before, but which had been out of bounds to him then.
'Even though my mother was artistically gifted, I was nevertheless completely discouraged from doing art as a career as I was good academically. But, hey! I finally got round to it.' At forty, Palmer finally left his job in media and decided to dedicate his time and efforts to art instead. 'Losing my office job,' was not much of a sacrifice for him, as he 'hated having a boss, and realised that art was what I was best at.' He enrolled at Heatherley’s in Chelsea and later at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin. 'Going to art college as a mature student and being happier than ever,' proved it was the right thing for him to do.
'The best advice I can give to an artist who is just starting out, as I was then, is quite simply: be brave, be prepared to fail. Don’t try to come out of a class with a masterpiece, God no. You are there to learn. Ironically, you will get better quicker if you do not care about the quality of the work you take home. Also, enjoy yourself.'
Bobby tells me 'he was always very critical of his work, and quite hard on himself, but also very committed to it, and over time it became clear that he wanted to make changes in his life which meant that painting and drawing would become foremost. Quite a decision! You see, it’s not an easy path.“ She thinks that over time ”his work began to evolve and change into his own particular style.'
Michael Clark, one of Palmer’s friends and mentors, seems to deserve some credit for the emergence of Palmer’s recognisable style. 'He took my work apart,' Palmer says. 'And told me to focus on tone first, before embarking on colour. It took me in a different direction'.
Does he keep developing his own style? 'You know, the art world is tricky. Firstly, it is actually very commercial - I thought I’d escaped that, but have I? - and a great deal of it is about building your brand. Of course I want to sell my art, but I also keep experimenting. I am expecting progress, but only because I keep experimenting. By the way, did I tell you I have a drunk canvas? When I come home late I can attack it, and do with it whatever I want.'
I want to ask him to have a go at it right now, to ambush and assault the unsuspecting blank canvas in his most vicious and merciless manner, smashing it to pieces in a perfectly aesthetic rage, and to run circles around the remains (for which there probably is a market, considering the sheer madness of contemporary fashionable taste), whilst all the time whipping out war whoops like some crazy pale-faced Indian. Tempting though this is, I resist the irresistible, and inquire instead after his usual practice and technique.
'Originally I worked from live models, but as I now work in oils I have to eventually work from photos as they can take months to produce. These days I book models I like for a photoshoot and bring along images of paintings or photos I have gathered over the previous months. I talk about these with the model and then let them do their thing. I snap away, usually taking around four-hundred photos. Later, I pick the ones I like (normally only around 10) and play around with them in photoshop until I have some I am happy to work with. I usually make them black and white and get high-quality prints made. Then I start to paint.'
Is he aware some people have accused his paintings of being merely pornographic? Yes. I ask him what he thinks of those comments.
'Not an awful lot. I don’t see my work as erotic or pornographic. It has nothing to do with sex, it’s all about beauty, not necessarily of the subject but making something that appeals to the eye and to evoke some kind of emotion, some feeling. We are programmed to find certain designs, shapes and colour combinations attractive. The golden section, for example.'
This is all very well, but to what height does Palmer's wish for innovation soar? I submit that he continues on paper and canvas the art form Rodin arguably invented in sculpture – the fragment as a finished work, usually trunks and body parts in which Palmer's wretches can bury their heads. Palmer is not the first draughtsman to leave parts of the body largely unfinished: Michelangelo, too, drew with great delicacy some body parts, whilst leaving others bits out. (This technique of leaving out accentuates the great delicacy and precision with which the body parts that are finished have been observed.) So many opportunities are opened up by this use of fragments, by omitting and distorting body parts, and Palmer's considered and balanced use of this fairly ancient technique is certainly not without merit.
'A filled in painting asks no questions of the viewer,' he says. 'Sure, the work can be technically good, but personally I find them boring. We can rely on our brains to fill in the gaps. By focusing on the important parts and by playing down, or even ignoring, the weaker parts, you improve the image. As an artist you have to create (or uncreate, if that is a word?), not simply recreate. This will sound simplistic but a good painting is all the good bits minus the bad bits but also the unnecessary bits. Also, as a painter you can lead the viewer wherever you want. This,' Palmer says confidently, 'is where the painter has the advantage over the photographer.'
There is also a tangible movement in Palmer's figures, and yet hardly any of them seem to want to move: they are trying to hide themselves from the world, yet their bodies are there for all of us to see. His red chalk figures are often darkened figures in light spaces – and the viewer's gaze inevitably intensifies in order to perceive of them. For example, just as when one tries to focus on an object situated between oneself and the sun, one can clearly distinguish the silhouettes, but filling them in is more visually challenging. Whereas, nowadays, the figurations on conventional drawings and paintings need not be deciphered as much as the conceptual quality they may contain, these chalk drawings present us with a (mild and pleasant) visual challenge from the very start. Palmer's painted bodies - pockets of frigidity interjected into planes of radiant heat – are exposed to the beholder, but their faces are either entirely hidden or half-turned away, making us depend primarily on the colour in which they bath to construe their inmost emotions. The bodies are dialed back by shades of shadow almost as if the painter deems them disgraced and blasphemous (or is this merely a trick to tantalize?). Although the bodies are put centrally, what we really see are landscapes of the mind. There is no world we recognise; no platform of familiarity on which we can stand to survey the surroundings with a connoisseur’s binoculars. Instead we are forced to confront the naked truth of a stranger’s inner world and either trust them and take their raw feelings at face value or choose not to understand them at all. These faceless charcoal stumps are perhaps Palmer’s most powerful works to date.
Being prepared to show your incomplete and fragmentary work to the world certainly requires a certain baldness and self-confidence. History provides us with instances of unfinished artworks celebrated for their rough and sometimes metaphysical character. Rodin had not started working on his Eve with the intention of leaving it unfinished: the sculptor described how he was left with a work in progress after his sitter could no longer pose for him due to her pregnancy. He chose to retain the work and exhibit it for the first time in 1899, on the eve of the new century. In this sculpture the sensuality of the female body is juxtaposed with the modesty of the gesture she makes by lowering her head and crossing her arms. Her protective attitude expresses her shame and remorse after the Fall. Eve here represents the state of moral frailty - a capacity to be easily seduced and led astray - which successive generations of men and women would be born in. Are all of Palmer's figures, beautiful but born in shame, daughters of this Eve? Edgar Degas is another inspiration to Palmer: Palmer's drawing Girl with Hands in Her Hair is evidently based on Degas' La Coiffure ('Combing the Hair', to be found in the National Gallery). In Rodin by Degas Palmer ventured into the world of hypothesis, asking 'what if'. What if Edgar Degas, later in life a painter of brash colours and fragmentary compositions, had translated Rodin's Kiss into paint? Here, finally, Palmer allows his figures not to withdraw in themselves, but to withdraw in each other.
How does Palmer compare to other artists of our age and day? By having his models avert their faces they are endowed with a certain anonymity, whereas the face is pivotal to the work of, say, Mark Demsteader. Does Palmer simply want to do away with those body parts that humanize rather than sexualize? Indeed, in his work there are a number of instances where the head simply disappears into thin air – but here our cerebral network of associations may be kind and guide us to the statues of the late Classical and Hellenistic period of antiquity as found in contemporary museums. There fragmented bodies, their protruding elements partly broken and sometimes restored, abound. The shapes of these statues allegedly contributed to the pop-inspired drawings of musician Daniel Johnston, which feature women that are static, frozen in posture and in form, and whose torsos are headless and limbless. One reason for an artist to leave out body parts is because their creation needs careful consideration and is therefore time-consuming. By not putting in all the details the artist can also lead the viewer's eye to the body parts the artist judges to be important. Mark Demsteader tells us that he uses abstract forms of colour tone and line to describe and emphasise his paintings' moods, and I have little doubt that this is what Palmer does too. And though the shapes and curves that Patrick reproduces on canvas and on paper are pleasant, it is this mood - which he expresses through contrasting colours, through disturbing absences, and through lines that make the misery of his subjects manifest - that is truly striking. His works may well be glimpses of some sort of purgatory, where Palmer’s wretches must suffer until all their earthly dirt has been burned off. And as their beautiful bodies evaporate and disappear, so too, perhaps, does love itself. Even if there is no case of cremation, the wretches have undeniably lost themselves in contemplation and perhaps also in the loneliness with which the envious damn those who betray a beauty that is not ordinary, but extraordinary.
'The loneliness.' Palmer says, suddenly. 'Before, you asked me what I think of the art world. Well, that side of it does not suit me at all. I try to go out for coffee or ride my bike as often as time allows, and social media helps too. And let’s not forget my two small, mischievous but wonderful kids. Yeah, they can be fun,' says Palmer, who is about to leave his house and neighbours (one of whom is Anna Friel, the actress - Palmer sketched her). I have the feeling Palmer, with his gentle smile and warm embrace of life, is hiding something from us. Whether this relates to his ‘undiscovered’ artist mother, his deceptively aesthetic approach to making portraits, or an unnoticed meaning in his art which he expects us to uncover ourselves, I do not yet know. However, he promises to keep me posted, and I expect I be will revisiting him and his art sooner rather than later.
On reflection, perhaps Palmer does just paint pretty women naked. Possibly, he undresses his subjects without regard to allegory or metaphysics. He could simply be a commercial craftsman with a trained technical ability to render female bodies well. If so, none the worse. For he invariably supplies us with an absence of form. We, the beholders, need to ascertain the meaning and the profundity of this absence. And in this freedom Palmer allows us, acknowledges us, to be mature observers of art, not afraid and willing to begin thinking where he stopped producing.