Friday, 17 April 2009

In the Blood

'Oooo that’s really not bad, not bad at all.’ Peter leaned backwards slightly, titled his head to the side and re-scrutinized the canvas on my easel. I squinted at the brown and yellow smears, then turned and narrowed my eyes at him. ‘Really?’ ‘Absolutely!’ He reminded me a little of Neil Buchanan presenting Art Attack, when he’d needed to encourage one of the more artistically challenged children. ‘You know,’ he continued without a hint of sarcasm, ‘you can tell you come from a creative family, you have a natural aptitude for this, it must be in the genes.’ I too leaned back from the painting and tilted my head, hoping that this would offer a more favorable angle. ‘Well, I’ve never really done this before, not life drawing and not with oils. I guess it’s not bad. For a first go…’ I looked at Ingrid’s curvy form stretched out on the chaise longue, ‘…Kind of abstract.’

I had been working frantically, brushing paint to canvas, for three hours. The oils had worked their way up my forearms to my elbows and had been smeared across my cheek and brow. It reminded me of a photo in the Museum of Modern Art of the French-American artist Nikki de Saint Phalle: her sleeves rolled up, her hands covered in paint, her face spattered and her hair sticking up on end. I love that photograph. I love Nikki de Saint Phalle. It was, in part, my infatuation with her that made me want to move to Nice in the first place. I looked at the composition again. I was a mere novice, my opinion hardly counted for much. Peter was the expert. And Peter swore it was good. Maybe, I thought, he’s hit on something here; maybe this is my destiny. Suddenly it occurred to me that there was little point toiling away as a cash-strapped scribe if my natural talents were more inclined towards the visual arts. Artists made tons of money. Look at Damian Hirst. He earned millions for chopping up livestock.

As the week at the retreat progressed I found myself increasingly absorbed by my newly acquired passion for painting. Instead of writing, I used my time off from modeling to go down to the studio in the basement and in my oversized man’s shirt and apron I’d splash the paint on my canvas with wild abandon. ‘Your father says you can’t possibly have painted anything that good in a few hours,’ my mother said on the phone one evening, trying to quell the artistic fire burning in my belly. ‘How long did your grandfather take to finish an oil portrait? Months, that’s how long.’ ‘Honestly Mum, Peter says that I’m a natural. As you’ve just pointed out, it’s probably in my blood.’ ‘Darling,’ she sighed, ‘do we honestly think that this is enough on which to base a new career as a professional artist?’ Admittedly, I had spent the past six months touting myself as the next Jackie Collins and now I was threatening to ditch the romantic novel thing so that I could experiment with installation art, probably it was a lot to digest. So I didn’t argue and instead made a mental to note to say ‘I told you so’ when my first solo exhibition opened at the White Cube.

On the final evening, when I refused a glass of champagne because I didn’t want to stop painting, I understood what a profound impact week erotica had had on me. ‘You are really clever,’ one of the lady students tottered over to my easel with her bubbly, ‘clever to be painting.’ Her Scandinavian lilt was almost musical. ‘If only my mother was around to hear you say that,’ I sighed, ‘maybe then she’d accept that this is my true path.’ She shook her head and sang, ‘In Norway we say “You only borrow your children” and that is what I would tell to your mother if she were here. Really.’ Cryptic and wise, I had no idea what she was talking about but it sounded good so I nodded enthusiastically. As the rest of the group made their way upstairs for the last supper, Peter tried to pull the pallet from my resistant fingers. ‘I’m not ready,’ I moaned as we tugged it back and forth. ‘Do I have to leave tomorrow? Can’t I stay here, at the commune, forever’ He shook his head at me, ‘No, you can’t. And we’re an international art school if you don’t mind.’

Next day, staring at the grim fa├žade of my apartment block from his van window, I looked like a caged cat on its way to the vet. I thought of the domestic drudgery, the plates of beans on toast and the neighbour’s hip hop beats banging through the wall. ‘Please Peter,’ I wailed, ‘don’t make me go back out there. I’m not sure that I can.’ He laughed and went to fetch my suitcase from the boot before opening my car door. He thought I was joking? Before abandoning me on the street curb, he patted me on the shoulder and said, ‘Now don’t forget, keep at the painting. It’ll be good for you. It'll feed the writing.’ Yes, I thought, I suppose there is always my painting. I wondered where all the trendy artists in Nice hung out. If I found them I could have Yves Klein parties and maybe set up a commune of my own. 'Yes, I'll paint every day,' I said out loud to myself as I rummaged through a storage box for an unused water colour set. I put the paints down next to my computer and promised to pick them up the following morning. And then I started to type.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

The Art of the Striptease: Part 2

Sprawled out on a bed in a black bra and matching knickers, stockings and a pair of stilettos, I shut my eyes and tried to ignore the hand gently resting on my knee. My own hand was sitting motionless, loosely grasping the flesh of a warm thigh. I’d been lying like this, next to and facing a semi-clad Swedish woman, for the past fifty minutes. ‘It’s just like being backstage at the Moulin Rouge, isn’t it?’ the director said waving his arms around excitedly. I thought this somewhat hopeful but I appreciated his enthusiasm. ‘Peter,’ a Norwegian woman hollered at him from behind her canvas, ‘she look like a man. She has a man face.’ Ingrid and I looked at each other with concern, unsure which of us she was referring to. ‘It’s because her face is too fat, isn’t it?’ she continued and pointed her paintbrush at me. The director looked between the painting and me and nodded. ‘And it’s too red and her breasts are too massive.’ She folded her arms in resignation. It was a struggle not to leap up and see what she’d done; I was beginning to imagine something along the lines of a WWF wrestler. A small smirk escaped from Ingrid and within seconds the two of us had collapsed into a fit of uncontrollable giggles. ‘Seriously,’ the guy directly in front of me held his charcoal up and sighed, ‘I’m trying to draw your face.’ ‘Sorry,’ I managed breathlessly before realizing that, to wipe away the tears, I was going to have to move my arm.

After one week on the retreat, this was our last foray into the dark and twisty world of erotica and this was about as steamy as things had got. Since the opening session, I’d had no further opportunity to work on my stripping technique and at no time had I been required to harness my inner Von Teese. It turns out that, from a model’s point of view, erotic art is not so very different to normal art: take clothes off, find position, hold position for a very long time. And, quite frankly, it is hard to convey sexuality and sensuality when a) your muscles are twitching b) you are trying not to flinch c) you have no feeling left in your arms and legs. ‘You do tend to look annoyed,’ one of the male students noted during a mid-morning coffee break, ‘and you can definitely tell when you’ve had enough.’ Bloody Ingrid, I thought, if she wasn't so amenable I wouldn't look half as bad. It was hardly my fault that the statuesque blond had an unnerving ability to hold contorted positions for extreme periods of time. Of course, in comparison I was going to be the short, bossy one who seemed unable to sit still and refused to do anything uncomfortable.

At least modeling for three hours a day, six days in a row, gave me plenty of time to improve my technique. And although it did little to expand my "horizons", I did get the chance to think about my body in new and unexpected ways every day. 'It might be interesting if I twisted this way,' I'd think to myself as I'd try out a new pose, 'and if I let the light fall across me here it will cast beautiful shadows.' As the week went on I found myself getting increasingly creative. I painted my nails siren red, draped oriental fabric behind me, wrapped a white turban around my head and posed flapping a fan of green feathers (one prop too many according to Peter, who promptly told me to put it back in my suitcase). ‘Perhaps,' I suggested on the fifth day, 'we should try doing an Yves Klein?’ One of the guys raised his eyebrows at me, ‘You want us to paint you blue and watch you roll around on a giant canvas?’ I nodded; I couldn't think of anything I'd like better.

Sunday, 5 April 2009

The Art of the Striptease: Part 1

Last weekend, I came across an article in the Sunday Times that asked, ‘Are women sexually liberated or just confused?’ Having just spent the previous seven days at an artists’ retreat modelling for a painting course entitled, “Erotic Art”, the piece seemed perfectly timed. Being an artists’ model, people often assume that I must be sexually liberated. It's fair enough: for a person working in accounting or retail, getting naked for complete strangers can seem pretty risque. Few people realise that baring your body in the name of art actually involves sitting rigid in a cold studio full of retired housewives and has absolutely nothing to do with sex (not unless someone has a fetish for paint that is, or happens to be very, very desperate).

I couldn’t help wondering though, if this job at the retreat wasn’t going to be a bit different; clearly the course title was open to interpretation but I was pretty sure that there had to be more to ‘erotic art’ than simply sketching out body proportions. Half of me, the radical right half, was excited: this was exactly the kind of experience I needed to expand my creative and sexual horizons. The other half of me, the logical left, imagined a prop basket filled with handcuffs, whips and crotchless knickers and I began to feel sick. ‘What exactly do they mean by erotic dear?’ my mother interrogated me the day before I headed for the hills, convinced that I was being lured to a house of ill repute. ‘Are they expecting you to lie down and spread your legs? Or perform a live sex act?’ ‘I don’t know,’ I did my best to sound nonchalant, ‘I’ll have to wait and see. Don’t worry though, I won’t do anything I’m not comfortable with.’ This didn’t reassure her as much as I had expected. ‘But darling,’ she wailed, ‘what if it’s a cult.’

When I arrived on the Sunday evening, the “cult”- older Scandinavian women in smart trousers and silk neck scarves - were sitting on sofas nibbling nuts and discussing Renaissance art. After a civilized four course dinner and a couple of glasses of wine, I had come to the conclusion that I was ready to be brainwashed by them and taken into the fold. My left half began to relax: I was fairly certain that I wasn’t going to have to swing any porn star moves and there wasn’t anyone at the table who struck me as a hardcore sexual deviant. Indeed, it seemed to me that too much erotica might induce sever palpitations or fits of fainting.

I was, therefore, somewhat surprised when the director of the course took me to one side the following morning and said, ‘How about, for this opening session, you do a little striptease for the group? Could be fun, what do you think?’ ‘Fun?’ the word nearly chocked me. My face must have been contorted because the director looked at me with concern. ‘Striptease?’ I tried to breath and keep cool, ‘What do you mean exactly?’ ‘I’m not sure,’ he shrugged, ‘you could do whatever you wanted. Why don’t you give it some thought.’ ‘I’m an artists’ model,’ I bristled, ‘not a professional stripper.’ Now it was the director’s turn to look stricken. ‘Oh of course you’re right,’ he stammered, ‘the word striptease isn’t correct. I shouldn’t have used it. All I mean is that I want you to go from dressed to undressed, holding the poses in mid-motion. It doesn’t have to be sexy. Just imagine that you are at home getting changed for bed or undressing at the beach or stripping for your boyfriend.’ ‘I’m not being funny,’ I replied haughtily, ‘but you can’t possibly expect me to do what I would with a boyfriend in front of a group of strangers.’ ‘No, absolutely, not boyfriend,' he jumped in again. 'I mean just undressing as you would on your own at home, nothing more. If you think this is inappropriate, if you think anything is inappropriate, you must say. I’d hate to put you in an awkward situation.’ I suddenly felt guilty. He was a nice guy; pimping me out to his Scandi students was clearly not his intention. Besides, what had happened to expanding my sexual horizons? I was behaving like a prude. ‘No, no, it’s not out of line,’ I reassured him. ‘It’s just that I’m not used to modelling in this way and I’m not sure how good I’ll be. I can try and come up with something, leave it with me.’

I wandered down to the studio: half a dozen ladies were all positioned behind their easels in a crescent. They were dressed in cashmere cardigans and paint spattered aprons and I couldn’t imagine how I was going to take my lacy knickers off in front them without looking like a whore. This was only session one. Where on earth would we go from here? I found a good spot to focus my gaze. Think of the horizons, I thought, and began to pull off my jumper…