Monday, February 22, 2010

Jeffrey Steele and Op Art

Christ Carrying the Cross caused a sensation at the 1953 Royal Academy exhibition. It depicted Jesus Christ carrying the cross up Constellation Street, Adamsdown, Cardiff. It was painted by 21-year-old Roath artist Jeffrey Steele. Because his studio was situated in Metal Street, Adamsdown, he decided to include local characters and landmarks in his artwork. Bookies, shop-keepers, and the Lord Mayor were all clearly recognisable.

His style was strongly influenced by Stanley Spencer and he even once made a trip to Cookham to visit the famous artist. But Steele knew he had to find his own style. He destroyed his follow-up painting Palm Sunday in Adam Street using a razor blade, having made the drastic decision to completely change artistic direction. Steele was a bit of a rebel.

He became an artist against his parents' wishes. He dropped out of Cardiff College of Art because he didn't like their teaching methods and instead worked on his own at Newport Art School. The tousled-haired artist also objected to military service so had to spend a couple of years working as a hospital porter.

In 1959 he earned a scholarship to Paris where he came into contact with the work of Vasarely, Albers and Soto. By the time he returned to Cardiff he had given up representational art altogether. During the early Sixties he was producing two-tone, two dimensional work, influenced by mathematics. His Op Art induced the viewer to make kinetic movements when confronting his work. Viewing became an act of will rather than a passive response.

His big breakthrough occurred in 1965 when his oil on canvas, Baroque Experiment (see pic), was shown at The Responsive Eye exhibition (see YouTube) at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. This was the Op Art moment of the 1960s. Along with Bridget Riley, Steele became one of the best-known Op Artists in Britain. In 1964 one of his paintings had featured in an article about Op Art in Time magazine with the subtitle: Pictures that Attack the Eye.

Steele made a living lecturing at Cardiff and Newport art colleges and also at Barry Summer School. In about 1969 he co-founded the Systems Group with Malcolm Hughes - another artistic school influenced by mathematics. In 1983 his works were shown at the L'ultima avanguardia exhibition at the Palazzo Reale in Milan. Jeffrey Steele now lives in Portsmouth.

* Steele's Baroque Experiment appears 3 times during this absolutely fantastic 30 minute YouTube (in 3 parts). See if you can spot it.

Arthur Machen Resurrected

Feast your eyes on this 1965 Corgi paperback edition of Arthur Machen's The Novel of the White Powder. Looks so good I could eat it. Machen has to be Wales's coolest ever writer. His celebrity fans have included: H P Lovecraft, Aleister Crowley, Borges and Mark E Smith. This year the Library of Wales will be resurrecting two Machen masterpieces, The Great God Pan (in March) and The Hill of Dreams (in June). Sweet.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Conrad in Cardiff

Cathedral Road is not exactly Cardiff’s heart of darkness but it’s where I journeyed today in search of Joseph Conrad. The famous Polish author is long-since dead, of course, but I wasn’t going to allow such a minor detail to deter me. The object of my quest was the house in which Conrad completed his manuscript for The Nigger of the Narcissus back in 1896.

The Nigger of the Narcissus is a controversial novella, not least because of its unfortunate title. It’s the tale of James Wait, a black sailor, who suffers sickness on a voyage from Bombay to London. But is he really ill or just feigning tuberculosis to avoid having to do some hard graft? Members of the ship’s crew are divided in their opinions. The subject matter of this book - along with its follow up, the more famous and influential Heart of Darkness - has led to accusations of racism. We’ll leave that particular debate to the critics.

Conrad arrived in Cardiff in 1896 (his third visit to the port) armed with his manuscript. He lodged with his friends the Spiridion family on Cathedral Road. They provided him with a room overlooking the tree-lined street where he could work undisturbed. The family owned a watchmaker’s/jewellery shop on Duke Street so they obviously weren’t short of a few quid. A previous visit to Cardiff central library to check the relevant street atlas furnished me with the Spiridion family’s exact address: 78, Cathedral Road.

This affluent thoroughfare has seen a lot of redevelopment over recent years so I was praying that number 78 hadn’t become an office complex or a car park. Weaving my way through Pontcanna’s half-terming jeunesse d'orée I squinted at house numbers. To my relief number 78 was still there. As Conrad must have done in 1896 I strode up to the front door. The house has been converted into flats. Thankfully I resisted the temptation to pretend I was from the council and con my way inside. Instead I stood in the doorway absorbing Conradian vibes.

I was in a kind of reverie. Conrad once spent Christmas in this very house. At a Christmas Eve supper his host Joseph Spiridion (a Polish nationalist) is said to have offered up this toast to the author: “May Conrad through his talent for writing, bring glory to Poland’s name and in his stories publicise the sad fate of his country.” This didn’t go down too well with Conrad who responded thus (in French!): “My friend – what do you want of me? I would alienate my public if I made writing a propaganda tool.”

In Cardiff during this particular visit Conrad gave an interview to the Western Mail in which he expressed his admiration for Dickens. In the published article (01/01/1897) details of his family background appeared. It was the first time that his Polish heritage had been publically revealed. When he, later, discovered the contents of the article he was said to be furious as he wanted such personal information to remain private. Conrad also found time to visit the Old Library on the Hayes. In fact, Cardiff central library still have a visitor’s book with Conrad’s signature in it, dated 30/12/1896.

*If you get the opportunity give The Nigger of the Narcissus (1897) a try - it's a fascinating novella and even contains the odd reference to Cardiff and Penarth.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Bertolt Brecht and the Irascible

A few months back I bumped into old school friend Nick Lewis (currently of The Irascibles). We chatted about music, art, literature etc because that’s the kind of chaps we are. During our conversation Nick mentioned that Bertolt Brecht had once written a short story partly set in Cardiff. Scepticism gripped me. He must be mistaken. Surely he meant Bound East For Cardiff by Eugene O’Neill? Or The Nigger of the Narcissus by Joseph Conrad which references Cardiff and some of which was written in the Old Library on the Hayes? No, it was definitely Brecht, he insisted - check out his Collected Short Stories. OK, I said, and waved goodbye.

So anyway, today I’m in Capital Books in the Morgan Arcade browsing the shelves for second-hand literary gold when out of the corner of my eye I spot Brecht’s Collected Short Stories. It’s a 1983 Methuen reprint in paperback. I cough-up the requisite £4 and re-locate to Dempsey’s. Armed with a refreshing pint of ale I obsessively scanned the volume for references to Cardiff. Absolutely nothing. Until, that is, I arrived at the last story in the collection.

Life Story of the Boxer Samson-Körner is an unfinished biographical study of Brecht’s pugilist friend Paul Samson-Körner. It recounts episodes in the German boxer’s life including his arrival in Cardiff as a stowaway; his job in a cheap hotel; and his first taste of the ring at a Cardiff fairground. He got battered, incidentally. The story was first published in 1926 in Scherls Magazin, Berlin, and later in Die Arena, Berlin. So, there you have it: Nick Lewis, singer in The Irascibles and authority on the writings of Bertolt Brecht.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Third Floor Gallery

The Third Floor Gallery is a new, exciting, and much needed addition to the capital's cultural landscape. Situated at the Bay end of Bute Street the gallery will specialise in showcasing the very best of contemporary photography from around the world.

The inaugural exhibition, entitled Love UK, will feature the work of Peter Dench who takes a wry photographic squint at British attitudes in matters of the heart. It's an investigation that has taken him from the domestic to the twilight world of strip clubs. Appropriately enough the show will open on St Valentine's weekend.

The collective brains behind the Third Floor Gallery enterprise are Cardiff-based snappers Joni Karanka and Maciej Dakowicz. With the help of fellow photographers they have been busy transforming a disused loft space into a cool exhibition facility. It's an ongoing project so if you want to get involved or lend your expertise then feel free to contact the boys via their website.

You'll find the Third Floor Gallery at 102 Bute Street, Butetown, Cardiff. The Love UK exhibition will be launched on the evening (7pm) of Friday, 12 February. Peter Dench will be in attendance.

*The above image is copyright of Peter Dench

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Interview With Shay Hendrix

Here's a quick interview with delightful Welsh porn star Shay Hendrix to celebrate the launch of her super cool new website: (you must be at least 18 years of age to visit).

How and why did you first get into the adult entertainment industry?

I was working as an account manager for a web development company, but was struggling to pay the rent so I took up lap-dancing part-time. I met a girl there who turned out to be Welsh porn starlet, Loz Lorrimar. She suggested I try giving porn a go and put me in touch with Killergram (a porn production company). I did my first shoot with them, loved it so much and never looked back!

What are the good and bad points of being a porn star?

There are so many good points!! I thoroughly love my job. I have met some truly wonderful people, travelled the world, I love getting all dolled-up, hair and make up done, and every day is different. I don't see many bad points, but I guess if I had to say one it might be that I have to travel long distances and it gets a bit boring sat in my car for sometimes up to 8 hours a day. But it's a small thing and I can't really complain.

What's the most unusual porn scenario you have been involved in?

Haha! Oh goodness....there have been a few!! I do a lot of fetish work such as ball-busting, face-sitting, cat-fighting, splosh, etc so it's difficult to pick just one! I've done a pet-girls shoot for Television X where I was dressed up as a puppy; have wrapped a man in bubble wrap and sat on his face for half-an-hour; put a plastic bag of beans on my head, so yeah! Haha!

Outside of the industry what are your cultural interests?

I love trying new things, adventure type stuff like sky diving, etc. I enjoy getting lost in a good book, my favourite of all time being The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. I like live music and festivals, and when the summer comes round I can't wait to go camping on Shell Island! And most of all I'm happy to just be spending time with my family and mates.

Who would you like to star with in your fantasy Welsh porn film?

Oooh, erm....lets see. It'd be an orgy scene with me, Jason Statham, Eminem and Megan Fox and we'd all be rolling around a big Welsh flag. YUM!

Finally Shay, you have just launched a brand new website - can you tell us a bit about that?

Yes, it's . I've had so much fun shooting stuff for it, and it's great to have the freedom of choosing what I want to shoot and what I think my fans will like. I've got loads of ideas for future shoots and have got plenty coming up soon. So go check it out!!

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

John James - Votan

Delighted to see that Neil Gaiman is set to re-publish Welsh writer John James’s all but forgotten first novel, Votan (1966). Described by Gaiman as, “probably the best book ever done about the Norse,” it is the story of, Photinus, a Greek trader who is mistaken for a Norse god. It kind of anticipates The Life of Brian in its theme of mistaken identity and in its irreverent humour (though Photinus is far more knowing than the naïve Brian). James’s skill at inhabiting and subverting a mythological framework is what really sets this book apart from other Dark Age fictions.

James penned a sequel to VotanNot For All The Gold in Ireland (1968) – which employed the same technique but used the Mabinogion and Celtic mythology for its inspiration. Another much darker book followed, Men Went to Cattraeth (1969), which is based upon Y Gododdin, a Medieval Welsh poem attributed to Aneirin. This is, I suppose, his most ‘Welsh’ book. James went on to write other historical works (Seventeen of Leyden (1970), Lords of Loone (1972)), though they never gained as much attention as his first three novels.

He articulated his preference for writing historical fiction thus: “If you write about the present it is very much more difficult to make things sound convincing. But writing about the past means that you are writing about a situation in which you know at least as much as anyone else.”

Born David John James he was originally from Aberavon. He studied philosophy at St David’s College, Lampeter, before completing an MA in psychology at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He became a psychologist for the Ministry of Defence, lecturing on the selection and training of air crews for the RAF at Brampton. He lived with his wife (a teacher), two kids, and a Siamese cat in St Ives, Cambridgeshire.

*Re-published in the Neil Gaiman Presents series, Votan will include a new introduction by Gaiman outlining his reasons for resurrecting this forgotten gem. Including the influence it had on his own novel, American Gods.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Sophia Loren in Crumlin

The Crumlin Viaduct was a wonderfully impressive structure that once spanned the Ebbw Valley. It was the highest viaduct in Britain and the third highest in the world. Built in 1855 it was made of cast and wrought iron. It closed in 1964 due to maintenance costs which amounted to little more than its seven-yearly paint job. Criminally it was taken down altogether in 1966.

Not long before it was dismantled the viaduct experienced a bit of pop cultural gloss. In the summer of 1965 Sophia Loren and Gregory Peck turned up there to shoot a scene for their latest film Arabesque. It involved them running along the catwalk of the viaduct whilst being shot at, and buzzed by a helicopter (see pic).

Before shooting could begin 10 streets (approximately 200 homes) had to be evacuated in the area to comply with a Ministry of Aviation ruling. 350 Crumlin citizens were moved to emergency centres (2 church halls) where they were given cheese and ham sandwiches and a cup of tea. They also received a £2 “disturbance fee”.

During breaks in filming Loren and Peck signed autographs and chatted to the hundreds of people who had arrived to watch proceedings. One onlooker, a Mrs Nora Beecham, said: “I held Sophia’s hand. This is a wonderful day for Crumlin.” Loren herself, wrapped in a thick blanket and clutching a hot water bottle, said: “The countryside here is beautiful and the people are so kind and friendly – just like my native Naples.”

Today Crumlin is perhaps best-known for being the home of Pot Noodle.