alice neel: painted truths

The De Vegh Twins, 1975

Alice Neel: Painted Truths, currently showing at the Whitechapel Art Gallery is a challenging exhibition to put into words: Adrian Searle, writing in the Guardian sums it up well as 'exhilarating, touching and a bit wild' but thinking over this powerful body of work, the word that returns to me more than any other is 'unflinching'.

Credited with challenging the conventions of portraiture, Alice Neel is perhaps best known for painting many of the artists, poets and radicals of her day - portraits of Andy Warhol and Frank O'Hara are amongst those in this retrospective. However, as this exhibition makes clear, her art also depicts a range of subjects usually excluded from mainstream portraiture - the elderly, pregnant women, families from Harlem's immigrant communities, a Fuller Brush salesman, a child clutching a cat.

These works are often highly exaggerated, sometimes even grotesque: Neel's subjects are represented in bold brush strokes and florid colours, with spindly long-fingered hands, fixing the viewer with wide, troubling eyes. Yet in spite of this almost cartoon-like exaggeration and distortion, there is a profound honesty in Neel's work. Her subjects are depicted in all their wonky awkwardness: scarred, saggy, abject, uneasy. Often highly unflattering, these are also tender, touching paintings that expose the vulnerabilities and anxieties of her subjects - portraits made powerful by their psychological, if not representational truth.

This sensitively-curated exhibition focuses predominantly upon portraiture structuring Neel's work with a series of themes including Portraits and Memory, Nudes and the Detached Gaze; yet some of my favourite works here are in fact cityscapes: portraits of Neel's New York. These range from jaunty images of New York street architecture executed with an unusual lightness of touch, through to darker and more troubled works which hint at the aftermath of the Depression, but also Neel's own sense of herself as a woman restricted and confined within a domestic environment. Neel's involvement with New York and its artistic and radical communities becomes a thread that runs through this exhibition, which also references the events of her life, from early tragedies (in her early twenties she lost one daughter to diphtheria and another in a custody battle with her first husband), and subsequent breakdowns, to poverty, failing relationships, but ultimately, towards the end of her life, her rising fortunes as an artist.

9th Avenue, 1935

Although Neel is often represented as something of an iconoclast, what interested me about many of these works was their references to the tradition of painting, evoking everyone from Van Gogh to Cezanne to Edward Hopper. Night, one of my favourite paintings in the exhibition, and certainly amongst the most understated, recalls the abstract expressionist Clyfford Still; whilst Dead Father seems reminiscent of the work of Marc Chagall. Yet regardless of style, what unites this formidable and varied body of work is its honesty. It is the sheer frankness, the unflinching directness of Neel's 'painted truths' that makes them so exhilarating - and ultimately gives them their power.

Alice Neel: Painted Truths is at the Whitechapel until 17 September.

"Toto, I've a feeling that we're not in Manchester anymore..."

A couple of things happened yesterday that got me thinking. The first was that the very nice people at Central Station featured Follow the Yellow Brick Road in the Spotted column of their online bulletin, alongside some great Manchester artists and projects. The link reads: discover top cultural commentary on events taking place in Manchester in this blog by Katherine Woodfine. Lovely. But when I clicked through on the link, I realised with shame that I hadn't actually written anything about Manchester since February. Oops.

Seeking a diversion, I turned to my Twitter feed (ah, Twitter, ever an endless source of distraction) where I spotted that the nominations for this year's Manchester Blog Awards are now open. I started thinking about which of my many favourite Manchester blogs I was going to nominate - and then suddenly realised that for the first time since I started writing it, my own blog wouldn't be eligible. I don't live in commuting distance of Manchester and now I've finished my Masters, I'm not even studying there anymore. The last time I even went to Manchester was.... months ago. And that's when it hit me: I live in London now.

Perhaps that might sound pretty obvious: after all I've been here for over a year. But when I first moved down to London, I really felt I had a foot in both camps. I was still still coming up to Manchester often for dissertation supervision meetings, and readings, and to see friends, and to go to exhibitions. Being in London felt very temporary and I was thinking of myself as a sort of jet-setting hybrid, part-Manchester, part-London: in transit, or as I believe Creative Tourist put it so aptly, 'flitting between the two'.

But I can no longer claim to be a part-time Londoner. I have a full time job here; I have friends; I have a flat, and mysteriously (in spite of my original decision to leave most of my stuff in my mum's jam-packed attic and lead a more minimal existence) have acquired enough stuff to fill it with, including several shelves-worth of books. I know the best ways to cycle to places on my bike, the short-cuts down the back streets. I have favourite places to eat. I know where previously unknown locations like Crouch End and Herne Hill and Walthamstow are; and what's more, I've become one of those London people who is always enthusiastically comparing boring details of their commute with people they meet. I've even stopped calling it That London, except in a sort of jolly self-deprecating fashion when talking to people who live elsewhere. And though I still go north regularly, it's usually to stay with my mum up in Lancaster, rather than to visit Manchester anymore.

I still can't see myself living in London forever - in my view it's a great place to be for a couple of years before you move on. Yes, the public transport may be amazing, and it always seems to be sunny, and there are loads of restaurants and galleries and interesting places to go to, but I'm sure after a while that all that will pale beside my insatiable need for wet walks on windswept moors, steak and kidney pudding with chips and gravy, and conversations with other people who call a cup of tea 'a brew' and who know what the word 'mither' means. And who knows, perhaps before very long I'll end up back in Manchester. But for the moment I think I'll have to hold my hands up and admit to it: right now, I'm a Londoner.

So what does that mean for Follow the Yellow Brick Road? It's a good question. Because much as there are are a million and one exhibitions and literature events to go to here in London, one thing I've noticed is that the arts scene here feels strangely impenetrable. I miss the friendliness of Manchester's arts scene and that sense of belonging. The brilliant hubs of cultural activity that exist in Manchester that open things up to everyone and make connections between people - like the Manchester Blog Awards and Creative Tourist, like Kate Feld's Manchizzle blog or over in Leeds, the Culture Vulture - just don't seem to exist here in quite the same way, or at least if they do, I'm yet to discover them. And though I'm always excited by new exhibitions and things I want to see (right now, Alice Neel and the new Jake & Dinos Chapman children's commission at the Whitechapel), I'm still equally excited, often even more excited, by all the great things that are going on in the north. This autumn, for example, I can't wait to check out Manchester Literature Festival, the Liverpool Biennial, AND festival, the Northern Art Prize... I could go on. The idea of not being in the north, not writing about the north makes me feel incredibly sad.

That's why in the end, what this really comes down to is nothing more than a teeny tiny edit in the blog description, up there in the top right hand corner of the screen. That extra word... um... "sometimes" (bet you're glad you bothered to read the whole of this blog post now, aren't you?) Or then again, on the other hand, I suppose you could say it comes down to a whole lot more.

I struggle to put it into words, so instead I'm going to leave you with a link to something else: Lydia Unsworth's winning story about Manchester from the Rain Never Stops Play short story competition run by Creative Tourist and Rainy City stories, which I read for the first time this evening. Somehow she manages to express all this far better than I can: The City is Leaving Me. Or perhaps, while I wasn't noticing, it had already left...