Cock Tower - a response to Grayson Perry's 'All Man' on Channel 4.

Grayson’s Better Man

I am a fan of Grayson, and Perry’s latest tv trio investigation into ‘masculinity’ was on my watch list as soon as I heard about it. I had really loved his study of the class system, found the Portraits series fascinating and resonant, and with motherhood having made me a more ardent feminist than before, I was excited to see what insights he would be sharing.

I won’t say I am disappointed exactly, but this wasn’t the exhilarating ride of his first TV outing.  It  also seemed a little shallower and less thrilling than the portraits. Perhaps it’s just that the formula is already wearing thin, or maybe that I have thought about the subject matter in such depth already myself – yet there are a few points I think worth noting. (It has after all, inspired me with many new ideas: and of course, to write this piece.)

In each show he explores this notion of ‘masculinity’, but it is a pity this idea wasn’t really defined properly at the outset. It’s a complex construct and there were places where I felt it was glossed over, or even that casually sexist perspectives were bandied about carelessly. For example in part three, the investigation of the city bankers and traders, there was reference to the Heroic fantasy common to small boys as being representative of pure or essential masculinity. This angered me – it seemed that Grayson, along with the bankers he purported to be critiquing, was claiming that the desire to be heroic: alone, struggling, hunting, surviving – were the exclusive domain of the male imagination. But I remember very distinctly as a child being utterly entranced by spaghetti westerns. I loved the idea of the lone hero wandering slit-eyed across the deserts with only a horse as a trusted companion; also the Tintin stories, with the plucky hero outfoxing baddies in every corner of the world; I loved too the Tygers in their little boat and their Victorian-explorer romance. Indeed, I regard the Tyger Voyage, received as a gift from my aunt Pauline when I was four, as the single most influential and inspiring work I encountered in childhood.

I fully identified with these characters – and looking back I wish there were some female versions because as I got older I started to feel excluded from these roles, in popular imagination if not in reality (I did lead an expedition to the Amazon, after all, thus fulfilling my childhood dream of being on my own Tyger Voyage). So to see dear Grayson implicitly casting women as  the ‘loving, caring, clever types’ and the men as these fools with their childish hero fantasies causing trouble – well, grrr. Even if he didn’t mean it like that.

This idea of the women being the clever, sensible ones was reinforced when in each show, Grayson’s artistic turning point or ‘magic moment’ comes when he goes to meet the women affected by the masculine world he is exploring. The women spin their wisdom, Grayson listens and gets the insights he needs to realise his artworks. Watching this process, I wonder if this is the parallel/analogous to his dressing up – he seems to get his creative clarity and insight from accessing the feminine aspect either of his psyche or the society (or both). As he declared in the show, he is in fact very masculine himself – aggressive, strong, competitive, driven. Being a man accessing the feminine rather than despising it, makes you neither a feminist nor necessarily in a particularly strong position to assess the impacts of masculinity. Perhaps he can, though, offer men something in the idea that they could try meeting and valuing the feminine more greatly .

I also think he missed a trick at the end of the banker show – he lamented that until men cast off these notions of the ‘noble hunter’ or rugged survivor from caveman days, we won’t find ‘happiness’. But in ‘Animal Spirit’ he is clearly depicting a ghastly wasteland, trampled by the raging bear-bull – and from where I am standing, this is no imaginary threat – climate change is beginning to wreak apocalyptic havoc on our lands and capitalism is crushing the poor beggars who ‘don’t fit the shape’. It is not ‘ happiness’ that we risk losing out on – it is the very land on which we stand, on which those priapic tribal tower-totems are built – these men risk their own destruction as well as ours, and that of many thousands of other creatures – much much more than just missing out on a jolly time with the kids at the weekend.

The men in the Banker episode are to me, familiar kinds of men, I feel I know them well already – and I, like Grayson, felt that I did not discover anything to ‘derail’ my view of the city and how it works. However, I was surprised to discover that many of them do have a strong sense of morality lurking under their rapacious behaviours – with one describing his kind as ‘pretty unattractive people’ (demonstrating a kind of helpless and rather pathetic self-awareness, perhaps even self-loathing); another likening himself to a Warrior Prophet (!? – clinging to an extraordinary fantasy that he is engaged in a noble pursuit), and yet another seeming to think he was keeping society going with his endeavours (and I will admit that in some ways perhaps, this is true; although in others, completely the opposite).

From my own experience of being schooled to become part of this world (in a system which in my case has produced an almost total failure on its own terms), I wonder about the processes that have led people astray to become so detached from reality and from the more truly spiritual course that they seem to hint at wanting to be a part of. They seemed to me, not the psychopaths I often imagine (and also know to be present, having met a couple) but weak, misguided, even lost little boys, as Perry shows us: acting out a childish fantasy but failing (deliberately? or is it a masculine trait to just not be able to see properly?) to notice the very adult reality of their destructive behaviour.  Some of them had Moments of Doubt – like the guy who found it ‘confusing’ to meet fellow parents at his children’s school who had gone bankrupt after a weekend when he was triumphant, having made shedloads of money. I woke in the night thinking about how to steer this tender yet stunted sense of care for others in a new direction, and with fresh inspiration on this well worn track in my mind. I started thinking about the idea of women being a ‘threat’ to the male world – and the phallic towers – and how perhaps it is a cunt that has the power to bring the tower down, to empty it of energy and power, to render it soft and limp.  Why are men in love with their erections and so reluctant to release them? And where is the cunt of the world, come to take them down?

I also found myself wishing Perry had picked up on the analogy of the glass and steel buildings as armour. They present a cold, sterile, impenetrable face to the world, non-stick and inhuman, impersonal – the antithesis of life, with such total control – which is just death or worse – anti-life. They remind me of the Roman turtle formation – a mass of shiny hard squares hiding the messy, breathing, squashy, tender life beneath. Certainly this is a strategy for domination and invincibility. In his portrait series I noticed that I often had the same ideas as Grayson, in my own practice and in responding to his subjects. But this time I found myself thinking that I would have made a cock pot from little mirrors and shards of glass. The bankers could have come and seen themselves reflected back in a thousand shattered pieces, like their strange fragmented souls. Inside the jar, perhaps some mud, or the hearts of their enemies (women? poor people? anything that lives?), glimpsed through glassy sharps.

Cock Tower

Be kind. This is my first attempt at drawing since having a baby nearly three years ago.

I would also have enjoyed more explicit links made between the different expressions of masculinity presented.  The desperately sad, trapped boys in the second episode, stabbed through every part with knives, might well be the actual victims, the invisible side-effects of the exploding glass in the city. Yet there is a thread that links the shows together – if we call that Masculinity, then it seems to me to be something about a need for honour, fierce adult responsibility, and meaningful contribution – but none of these things were picked up on by the presenter. It seemed that Perry was trying to egg these men on to get more cool and talk and dress up a bit in a fanciful way. That these honourable intentions were no longer needed. I am not convinced that is quite right. We can ask more.

Without bombastic, creative ritual (and the people in the first show clearly do understand the need for this, and were healthily hanging on to it – and Grayson’s work fitted very smoothly and constructively into the pre-existing local culture) and strict ethical rules, it seems men at all levels are flying off the rails, jumbling up their drive for a sense of noble endeavour with selfishness, greed, terror, the thrill of ‘victory’ (or perhaps a kill of some kind). These men seemed to be grasping for notions of honour and righteousness, a strong moral code, and a heroic adventure story, behind what is frequently resulting in terribly destructive and ugly behaviour. Perhaps it is true that masculinity does need to become more flexible – but it seems to me from watching this that men also need greater rigidity around them. Their impulses are not encountering enough structure and containment by Society.

Ultimately, I think Grayson didn’t really give enough credit to these various lost men. He seems to be asking men to be less ‘male’ – to tone it down a bit – while I have come away asking – not to be less, but to Be Better, Male.  We desperately need powerful people to bring our structures round to a new way of being – of living within our means, of equitable sharing of resources – a softening might help, but a strong sense of honour correctly placed could really change the world.

Sarah Dixon is an artist, mother, wife, and WOMAN 

A Baby at the Studio

Baby at the studio

Sleeping or no, I can still paint.

I have found that taking my baby to the art studio is working quite well and I am able to do some painting with her there.

She can sleep, or stay in the basket playing with toys, or sit on my hip carrier as I paint. I can even work at the table on smaller icons as I nurse her. (Thank you nursing pillow!)

I can’t do portrait work but the icons are so tightly designed that it is easy enough to work in short bursts.

(I am trying to make the most of this time – I think when she is crawling it will be rather different…but sorting our house out is also taking up a lot of time)

Having the baby has also focused my mind so I have to use the time I do get to best effect, and this also is good for my art practice. She has also inspired ideas for work and as she grows I want her to see that adults can continue do art and its not just for children. At this tender age she seems to enjoy looking at the paintings too. Interesting patterns.

I hope this encourages other artists with babies or thinking of babies to realise that It Will Be OK.

Stair Poetry Mural

Stair poetry mural

In sliver light, an August moon…

This stair mural is created using Nature Paint from the Greenshop and poetry written for the house by Rob Clucas-Tomlinson. The poem will continue around the house and later, in the garden too.
The painting is based on a honeysuckle design. It took about a week from design to completion.

In silver light, an August moon
On tip-toes
Courts the curved green hills.

icon painting of a buffalo goddess

The Fancy Lady of 2013

icon painting of a buffalo goddess

The Fancy Lady of 2013

2013 is over now. It began for me with a fantastic party in a big country house, a buffalo dance in a king’s coat, and an icy swim in a pond. It ended with a baby. That party was the last time I got drunk and I’m glad I didn’t know I was already pregnant at the time as I would have never had such fun.

The title of this painting was given by a small boy who saw me drawing the sketch for it on new year’s day.

The baby has accompanied me at the studio as I completed it.

The Secret is Out

The Museum in the Park in Stroud holds an annual Secret Postcard fundraiser. There are some far more illustrious artists than I taking part, from James Dyson to Lawrence Llewellyn-Bowen, Cleo Mussi to Dennis Gould – but it is open to anyone so I thought I would make a postcard for the event. Its meant to be a secret ! but the show is over and the cards are to be allocated randomly to ticket holders later this week. So if you get this one you will know who its by, but then you will anyway, because my name is on the back.

Mother & Child

Mother & Child

Dreaming the Universe Into Existence

The Birth Goddess

a sketch of the birth goddess/creator of the universe

As part of the preparation for the recent birth of my daughter, I read a bit about birth art and a lot about natural labour and childbirth. Naturally for such a significant event I was going to have ideas for icons and this is the sketch of the image that came to me one day.

I hope you are not offended; having gone through the process my view of the female body is radically altered and I have no shame left so to me this drawing now expresses something natural and magnificent. Before the birth I was much more uneasy about it.

I was very lucky in that despite having just passed my 40th birthday a few days before the birth (and therefore feeling I was a bit old for this sort of thing) the baby was born in the birth pool and I had no need of pain relief (though that isn’t what I said at the time…)

The Goddess is not asleep – but she is dreaming the universe into existence. Life and death emerge from her body dreaming and rivers of energy flow from her being. A rainbow signals hope and the arrival of the new.The twins are like a yin and yang – the dark and light. Life begins here and at the end, she will take us back into her dark embrace, to nourish the next event with the afterbirth of experience.

I made this before the birth and having seen very few birth goddess images. Yet it features several elements that match other artist’s work on the theme.

Having now given birth I still feel it very clearly and strongly still works – if rather idealised – but then she is a Goddess after all.

This will form the central figure in a large icon painting I am planning, which will also feature the guardian angels (birth partners and midwife) and other characters in the process of this experience.