Chicago Tribune

Chicago Tribune

Tens of thousands of medical professionals and representatives of the worldwide pharmaceutical industry come together in the McCormick Conference Centre in Chicago for a summer time festival, largely replicating patterns of hominid behaviour going on since Neolithic times.

I found this a bit overwhelming and went, alone, walking round Chicago. Last year, I painted several pieces based on those walks.  I had forgotten this one.

The Ribs

The idea for this image clearly has its origins in China Mielville’s steampunk masterpiece, Perdido Street Station.

Ribs 11

In my imagining, an urban density of neon-lit blocks and dwellings, surmounted by a tall temple’s spire, has risen beneath the gigantic fossilised skeleton of an ancient beast.

So this image does not truly depict Mielville’s vast diverse metropolis, New Crobuzon. where the Ribs jut over Bonetown, a makeshift market of temporary stalls, with scanty brick buildings and abandoned lots edging dirty scrubland. Tools break and cement remains fluid.  A baleful influence from the gigantic half-exhumed bones limits development on the gravesite.

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This piece started as an A1 size memory of the fallen tree in backlit woodland, drawn in chalk pastel, washed and blotted.  Seeking to further disintegrate it, it was wetted and covered in inks and white gouache.  Weeks later, I drew the Ribs into the dried-dark image in oil pastel and painted onto this resist with diluted white acrylic.  This still exists in that form, awaiting further work. I took a digital image and explored future directions of travel on the iPad in ArtRage.

Sixth floor, Holiday Inn, Edinburgh: dawn.

I was invited to Edinburgh to give a talk about Merkel cell carcinoma

Edinburgh from Holiday Inn (5)

This skin cancer is more aggressive than melanoma but occurs more rarely.

It occurs more frequently as we age or in people with damaged immunity.  Sometimes it nestles in the same tissue with other cancer types.

Fascinatingly, in 2008, Drs Moore and Chang discovered that Merkel cell carcinoma harbours a novel virus.  Merkel cell polyomavirus turned out to be a common harmless inhabitant on our skin.  It gets into the predecessor of the cancer cell by an unhappy accident, perhaps helped by ultraviolet light.  When it does so, it is crippled, no longer able to make new viral progeny, forever integrated in stunted form in the cellular DNA. It encodes four genes and makes just six proteins.   Just one of these genes, mutated and truncated, contributes to the cancer.  The virus subverts its hosting cell but is itself subverted to drive and shape an evolving cancer.

Cancer is complex, driven by a myriad of dysfunctional and  repurposed pathways.  How do you break the Enigma, the encrypted cipher, the code of the Merkel cell carcinoma?  We need a crib or key: a simple message we already understand as a way in.  Merkel cell polyomavirus provides us with that key.

pumpjacks

Taking the ride from Los Angeles airport to Hollywood I was amazed to be passing between fields of nodding donkeys.

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I had no idea that LA is built upon an oil field.  I took no photographs, still less drew in the field.   I was left with a fleeting impression, a mind image only, of rising levels separated by scrub, on each step a scatter of structures rhythmically dipping and craning up against the distant heights and the waning sun.  Gradually, I have been piecing together this landscape and the engineering I had seen, through google maps, wikipedia and flickrhivemind.  These fast sketches are my reconstructed memories.

Downtown Los Angeles from Bronson Canyon Park

I spent four days in Hollywood, in sight of the famous sign on a hill, learning the latest science about melanoma.

I had part of a day to spare.  I walked east.  The transient glitz and commercial bustle of Hollywood Boulevard rapidly becomes run down before changing to well-to-do neighbourhoods on the ascent above the city.  I ate a fat perfectly ripe avocado sandwich at the Trails Cafe, among mothers closing deals on their laptops as their toddlers played.

There was birdsong all around but I had chosen to walk light so no scope or binoculars, nor watercolours, only charcoal and a pocket sized sketchbook.  Rounding a bend on a high path with the Griffin Park Observatory above me, I suddenly glimpsed the city laid out below between a gap in the hills.   The city glowed, framed by the the silhouetted hills.  The white walls of the observatory gleamed against a darkening sky.

I did this painting tonight, back in the UK, from my charcoal sketch on site and from photos on my phone.

This was my first attempt at painting this scene.

I still think that I need to return to this painting and try again.  In brief … there is too much paint on the paper.   I want to pare this image down to the essentials.

Entering the city via the sewer

One night I experimented with powdered charcoal and pastel, scraped into shapes with a time expired credit card and palette knife on a smooth resistant plastic surface.  The first version developed almost by chance to show a distant city, part obscured by mountains against a red sand-blown sky.

https://kestrelart.wordpress.com/2012/09/18/powder-and-glue-2/

The second piece was undertaken more deliberately.  I wanted to show the path into a city through a river that in the way of cities has become more an outflow for waste.  The city was to have been monumental.  The superstructure of the tram system was to spider across the foreground above the open sewer.  These two urban arteries were to draw the eye back to a massive city that reached up and up, piercing the clouds.

At the start, I built in the textured surface of the tram supports over the smooth waterway.  But at some point, the picture lost direction.  I began lifting out with tissue, lost much of what I had done and in exasperation scrubbed at the surface, abandoned it and went to bed.

After a week, I began to work into what was left in pastel, then ink.  I began to see an alien city, with distorted organic buildings.  I tested options digitally on the iPad.  This weekend I added stalactites to make clearer the structural positioning and added what is not quite a bird.

Here it is, not the image I had imagined at first, but one that grew in the drawing.

The way into the city.

Powder and glue

Foam board – two sheets of shiny plastic sandwiching a layer of expanded polythene.   I bought half a dozen pieces but then puzzled about how to use them.  I experimented with an off-cut.

It doesn’t take charcoal.  This makes pale marks and pressing harder just scores the surface.  OK, why not fix that layer and then draw into it?  The sprayed fixative sat on the surface layer in a puddle.  I crushed some charcoal onto this and started making textures with my finger.  This seemed pleasing but I was inhaling the fumes of the slowly evaporating solvent.   Start again – the only other glue in the house was my children’s PVA stuff.  That must be safe.  The nozzle was blocked so I took this off and squeezed.  Out came great globs.  I ground down all those charcoal stubs that accumulated from sketching and threw it in and switched from fingers to shaping it with a palette knife.

At the moment I have in mind a distant city, monumentally big, with river and suspended tramlines weaving their way toward the foreground.

Except this is not that image, it is still just charcoal suspended in glue. Perhaps some colour was needed.   Cheap chalk pastels – small pieces ground down with the handle of a hammer seemed to go a long way.  Some white and paynes grey acrylic ink into the mix to create more contrast and definition.  This all seemed pretty viscous.  I propped it up to look and left it there overnight.  It slowly slid down the board as it dried.

I have found a use for foam board.  I’ll stick paper to it.