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abraham solomons - a life


In 1926, Ab Solomons would have come into adulthood in a very different England from the one we know today. Of course there would have been similarities, some perhaps striking: massive technological revolutions, uncertain economics and a growing climate of fear and unease towards those perceived as 'outsiders'. And yet the profound differences would have been very evident. We do live in a very different world from the one Ab met Celie in, and the world he was himself 'formed' as an artist in.

And it's this sense of change that Ab is able through his life-long practice as an artist to articulate in the most unique way. And as he perceives change in the world around him, he seems to invent almost from nowhere great leaps in his technique as an artist that make an encounter with the whole collection almost like a potted history of western art. From graffiti-like doodles that mark merely the presence of the artist almost as the first cave-painters did (I Wos 'ere?) to mini-portraiture, chiaroscuro, perspective and depth - into the final flat expressionless universe in which Ab and Celie are constantly presented as they wait for one or both of them to die.

Because Ab only began to see himself as an artist after the Second World War (the first time he actually depicts himself painting is late 1946), he begins the first of his ironic statements about the act of art-making itself after 20 years of being one. And of course these statements are always wry, knowing, and funny. By the end of his life as an artist, the 'gags' that he tells with an almost mechanical frequency seem to be from the landscape of a very modern world - the world finally of Beckett and not the shtetl. And in looking at this body of work that takes us from 1926 to 1982 he gives is something surely unique in art history: a picture (albeit unimaginably vast - like the universe) of the internal images of change in all our lives. And finally he reminds us, as Euripides does when railing again at the coldness of the Gods, that the only thing that is certain in our life is change.

Change and of course love.

The work was written by one person for the smallest audience in the world: a girl called Celie Brenner, for whom the chore of being in love was never onerous to Ab. And yet his gaze upon her was always steady, always even, and even when he presented her as the great Elizabethan court painters may have presented a terrified female leader as the Bouddica of her time, you knew he was always strangely truthful. Because the act of making art I am convinced to Ab was never without purpose. Like the shoes he made it had a function: a function and yet not a defined meaning. Art, any good art but especially visual art, cannot be easily defined. The image is both democratic and malleable.

And as Danny Braverman (Ab's great-nephew) and I have taken our companion show (Wot? No Fish!!) to audiences across the UK and further afield, a suggestion is made quite often, that somehow Ab was compelled to paint because he somehow 'couldn't express the things he felt in words'. Probably because he was a man, and/or a shoemaker or not good with words, or as we might say lacking in 'emotional intelligence'. That there was in a sense a deficiency in him and probably his relationship with Celie that had to be 'made up for' in the image. (Which also of course explains the constant gags in the second half of the work - somehow suggesting that a man who made so many gags and puns throughout his life was somehow not serious).

And I've always felt and believed that the actual truth was entirely opposite: that words were not adequate to express his grief, or joy or bewilderment at the cards he was being dealt. Which were no more or less than the cards we are all dealt. And also that 'the gag' was always the tool by which Ab could keep his eyes open at the horrors, and perplexities, and joys of life as it unfolded around him.

I've been curating and archiving this exhibition over many months with my companions on this overwhelmingly massive journey - Faye Mitchell and Sally Scantlebury. We seem to have done very little but end our sessions crying with laughter. This did perplex me as I assumed it also must be the growing hysteria at the foolishness of the task we'd set ourselves, or that we were doing the same as Ab was supposed to be doing - deflecting the truth of life with humour. And then I realised that our joy - because thats really what it was, pure joy - was finally Ab's doing. In the face of the futility or briefness of our existence what can you do but laugh - perhaps sometimes a little too heartily.

When I first encountered the work and began creating the theatre piece with Danny, I kept thinking of Morrissey's famous and ironic lament from the song Cemetery Gates

All those people, all those lives
Where are they now? With loves, and hates and passions just like mine
They were born and then they lived and then they died
It seems so unfair, I want to cry

And of course coming to see our show Wot? No Fish!! or an exhibition entitled Abraham Solomons - A Life your very investment in this man and the people around him very quickly leads to a tragic realisation that you must also die with him and Celie and Jeff and Larry.

And there is Ab at his most modern and ancient: like a Buddhist or an acolyte of Warhol there is an underlying belief that everything in our lives has equal value - precisely because it is located in the now. And it is the 'now' that would find Sally and Faye and I in gales of laughter and quite overwhelmed again by the tsunami of this mans creativity.

I hope you'll approach this work also with the solemnity of a sacrament but also get the gags as they come thick and fast. And that you'll realise our mortality is a gift. And that you'll never stop looking. Ever.


Nick Philippou




outside of wot

Making images from the 'outside' might well come with certain advantages. At first sight this notion would appear to be a paradox, because the outsider is, within the hierarchical formal Art establishment, generally thought of as disadvantaged. However, in reality the status of being 'outside' may allow for a clearer perception, a less spoilt and unencumbered vision. The status of 'outside' may hold a direct relationship with the creative practice of an individual who chooses or is forced to work culturally, socially, even emotionally from the outside. One would wish here to distinguish between different aspects, and different distances, that would constitute 'outside-ness'; however culturally socially and economically speaking this distance bridges between three very distinct worlds: the subject's, the artist's and the viewer's.

The idea of the artist capturing the world like a 'fly on the wall' is ordinarily in reference to a humanist approach, to a practice that attempts to depict reality as truthfully as possible, without the artists' interpretation. This potentially reduces the presence of the artist to something transparent, as if we, the viewer, are looking straight through him. In some cases the artists' presence in the act of recording is forgotten, or simply not recognised, and the subjects live their lives without ever paying attention to his omnipresence. This in itself constitutes the artist as 'outside' as someone who is possibly ignored, or for the purpose of making art, even wishes to be ignored.

In the act of creating, the artist is always mentally turned towards his subject. The implements he chooses to achieve his recording mimic the action of a lens, which suggests an engagement with the image's content. Nevertheless, the artist looks beyond this lens to construct, to frame, and then focus the image; and the fact that the artist's sight is interrupted becomes a tool that must itself be interpreted as a form of distancing. This makes the artist, consciously or unconsciously, consider the formal aspects of the image - the composition, the focus, the point of view, depth of field etc. These fundamental acts of decontextualisation might even be necessary to successfully produce images that are as aesthetically pleasing as they are emotionally engaging.


The artist, already the quintessential outsider, is then more than often also culturally outside. More specifically, the artist within a family unit is the one who steps out and records, and in doing so remains outside from them. However, here the familial portraits function on a variety of planes of implication: whilst returned looks manifest the artist's position as 'outside', he paradoxically adds the element of the distorted self-portrait. And whilst the subjects are fashioned by the artist's design, the expressions, postures, and increasingly the locations are by turn representations of the artist's vision of a good 'image', a good 'life'; one worth preserving, one worth living.

So maybe the artist isn't as much an outsider as one would immediately think. His presence is felt profoundly in every explorative line, in each crosshatch, every introduction of colour, each conceptual repetition, every stylistic expansion, and each and every artistic extension. To discuss the artist as 'outside' is to discuss his distance from the subject. Here subject and artist lose their distance. The created world gradually expands, then contracts, and becomes increasingly confined. Therefore the question: what subject the artist wishes to turn into art, also dictates his distance to the subject.

Ultimately there remains the artist's fascination for an object, a landscape, or a person, for him to create an image of it or them. This 'fascinated distance' suggests that the artist is, in that sense, a fascinated outsider. But the negative connotations of being 'outside' might here have to be noticeably erased to explore this notion further, because an artist unambiguously chooses to produce images that existentially locates them on the outside.

In the case of Abraham Solomons it was a fascinated distance that allowed him to see all the facets of his object Celie Brenner and in doing so present the contradictions almost as cubism did of the prisms of many different lights that were bounced from her.

Steve Rosenthal

copyright 2004