I love standing stones, Neolithic burial chambers and ancient monuments, but I don’t own a single picture of one. I think this is because it’s hard to paint them without ending up with the kind of cheesily ‘mystical’ picture you see for sale in shops in Glastonbury. To find an artist who can capture the special atmosphere of these places without resorting to airbrush, starlight and moon-gazing hares is rare. It’s the visual art equivalent of Spinal Tap’s Stonehenge; by trying to capture the magic, these artists cheapen it and even turn it into comedy.
Step forward David Tress, whose latest exhibition opened at Cardiff’s Albany Gallery yesterday. Tress is fascinated by Britain’s wild places, especially ones where you can see traces of man’s past, yet he rarely paints standing stones.
He broke that rule for his latest show, producing two stunning paintings that are full of wild energy – one of Gors Fawr in Pembrokeshire and the other of Chûn Quoit in Cornwall – a site he especially loves because it is so unspoilt and off the beaten track. These paintings capture the surreal experience of stumbling upon a monument in a wild landscape, the special atmosphere of these ancient places, and a poignant sense of our ephemeral little human lives, but they are not self-consciously ‘mystical’.
Tress does not paint on the spot, partly because he – a romantic like Wordsworth – is more interested in painting emotion recollected in tranquillity. Instead, he makes dynamic sketches and drawings on site, his hand making swift, deep, dark strokes across the paper – sometimes scoring it in the process – yet also deftly capturing the finer details. He is an astonishingly good draughtsman, bold yet subtle, his drawings as unrestrained as the wild beauty he portrays.
Back in the studio, the paintings take shape. I have visited Tress’s studio and I can tell you that the walls are utterly covered in spattered paint. He is a visceral painter who is truly tuned into his experience of the landscape, and this shines through in his work. As he has told me more that once, he does not paint ‘snapshots’ and believes an ongoing relationship with the places he paints makes for a deeper, more honest, response. I believe him. One day I will buy one of those paintings, one day…
Getting to interview Tress was a highlight of my week; so too was my trip to Smoke House in Cardiff last night. I must make it clear at the outset that I’m talking about the Smoke House in Pontcanna, not Smoke Haus in Cardiff city centre.
Smoke House is extraordinary, and I can’t believe how long it has taken me to get there. I suppose the delay is down to that fact that it can seem a bit of a trek to go to Cardiff for a meal; but having eaten there with the husband, I can’t wait to head back with the whole family.
The Smoke House does Texan barbeque like no other place I have eaten in Wales. It’s a warm, glowing little place with a great vibe, the décor sporting plenty of wood and some magnificent gleaming metal cow horns. There’s a huge blackboard offering American craft ales and a menu bursting with barbecue meats and burgers. In true US style, everything is big hearted and generous; despite this being one of the best meals I have had in the past year, there was so much of it that I sent back a lot uneaten and had to pass on dessert, even though key lime pie and pecan pie were on offer.
There’s a lot on the menu, so my experience is just a snapshot, but to summarise my meal: first came sliders – three of them; one Mexican style, one regular and one chicken. They were perfect, from the soft granary mini-buns to the tender, juicy meat with just the right amount of charring, each matched with the perfect amount of punchy relish, crisp onion and lettuce.
It was a great warm up for the main act – a huge wooden trencher bearing a pot of pulled pork with the house sweet and smoky sauce; rough-cut coleslaw; house baked beans (a magnificent sweet-savoury concoction made with three types of buttery-soft beans); and big, golden, crispy-fluffy chips. As if this wasn’t enough, there were also some of the biggest and finest onion rings I have ever eaten, the batter firm, crunchy, perfectly seasoned and joyfully dry rather than weeping oil.
I must admit we also greedily ordered mac and cheese as a side. I have mentioned my obsession with this dish before, and this was a transcendent example, the macaroni just firm enough, each forkful trailing strings of melted cheese. If I was Nigel Slater, I would probably call it unctuous, but I always feel that word has negative connotations (ie. swimming in oil). Let me just say that it was melted cheese nirvana.
I woke this morning still feeling full, and desperate to go back there. The bill was astonishingly cheap at £57 for two, and while it has been plying its trade on that spot for around two years (meaning I cannot really call it a new discovery) I will say that this meal was a revelation for me, and I fully intend to become a regular.
That’s enough from me for this week I think. My other news is that I am working long days to get interviews done ahead of a Latin American conference I am covering for Intelligent Insurer at the end of the month. I know insurance might not seem as exciting as the other subjects I’ve mentioned here, but it really is engrossing, especially because writing about it touches on social, political and economic themes in the vast and developing Latin American market. But I’ll tell you about that another day. Thank you for reading – and here’s a David Tress painting for you: