Last week, while in London with a few hours to spare, I decided to take a trip to the Royal Academy to see the Summer Exhibition and the David Hockney portraits.
I first came across David Hockney’s work during my A levels, in the late 1980s. In fact, one of my favourite paintings of all time is a Hockney: Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy. When I went on a school trip to London in 1988, I came across this painting and fell in love with it straight away. There is something about that painting that hypnotised me: the light, the cat, the quirkiness, the perceived ease the figures have in each other’s company, the way they are looking out, the sunshine and the happiness infused in it. I love it.
So I was quite eager to see this new body of work. I don’t like all of David Hockney’s work but I was intrigued to see this exhibition as he had recently returned to portratiure after a long break from the genre. One thing that I have in common with David Hockney is a determination to champion the basics of art: for me, drawing and still life; for him, still life, portraiture and landscape. I admire his determination to do what he wants to do, even if it goes against the tide of fashion.
Entering the galleries housing the 82 portraits and 1 still life was like entering a jewelled Aladin’s Cave. The walls are bright red, the backgrounds of the portraits are mostly greens and turquoise, contrasting brilliantly with the bright red walls and the skin tones in the faces. The paintings are all the same size and orientation (except for one) and are spaced equidistant around the gallery rooms.
It felt simultaneously like entering a private space and a place of exposure (oddly it reminded me of how it might feel to live in the Big Brother house). The faces in the portraits are solemn, the eyes are sometimes piercing, something blank, sometimes staring, but they all look out at the viewers as they wander slowly around. Most of the portraits are sitting in the same or similar pose to each other. They are mostly in the same chair and in the same space. I felt stared at. I was staring, they were staring. There was a lot of staring.
This exhibition acts as an epic still life of many people (and of one grouping of fruit). Life has been arrested by the painting of these portraits.
I like anyone who uses subtle humour in art and David Hockney is well-known for doing that. He hasn’t been quite so quirky for a while but these portraits were definitely humourous. I loved the addition of the still life, painted as a result of the non-attendance of one of the sitters. What else was he to do with his unexpected free time? There’s something majestic about the fruit posing on a bench in a gallery full of people. It felt as if they are speaking out: ‘We are just as valid as all of these people so please appreciate us just as much as you appreciate the organic objects here.’
The exhibition is like a ‘This Is Your Life’ of David Hockney. The sitters are friends, family, friends of friends, colleagues, office staff, other artists, curators and gallery owners, and the odd child (my favourite being the rather important-looking Rufus). They comprise an eclectic mix of personalities. Some of them sit, determined to express something of themselves via their choice of clothes, glare or pose, others sit nervously dressed more soberly and some sit in the expected pose in their best dress, feeling lucky to be someone chosen to be painted by a master artist.
The common element throughout are the size of the canvas, the chair, and the background colours (with some small variations). It works extremely well. I spent a long time in the exhibition (probably longer than I should have). Sometimes I sat and stared back, willing them to blink. Often I just walked around, and around again. I also stood, and studied the paint, the brush work, the tones, the colours. I went around more than once, more than twice, even.
By the time I decided to leave, I felt calm and relaxed. This contrasts to how I had felt leaving the Summer Exhibition galleries an hour or so before, when I’d felt chaotic, energised and inspired. Leaving this exhibition, it felt different. I felt in balance.
I had studied and been studied.
Last week I had to go to London for a two-hour long meeting at Bloomsbury Publishing. The meeting ended at 2.15pm so this gave me the opportunity to see some art before heading home. There was no contest as to where to go; it had to be the Royal Academy for the Summer Show (and also the David Hockney portraits).
As soon as the meeting finished, I walked over to the Royal Academy, dodging the rain drops. It cost me £20 with my Art Fund card to buy tickets for both exhibitions. To my horror I only had half an hour between them and the Summer Show had been booked first.
Half an hour is not even close to long enough to see and absorb everything in this amazing, compact, chaotic, overflowing exhibition. This was the first time I’d ever seen a Royal Academy Summer Show and I wasn’t sure what to expect. I'd seen a short video on the Internet so I expected to see a lot. However, the video didn't fully prepare me for the sheer volume of creative output that constitutes the Summer Show 2016.
My main response was awe. Awe at the draftsmanship and quality of painting that I saw, as well as quality of the idea. I think I expected more abstract expression of idea and less focus on detail and realism. The ideas were indeed there but the quality and subtlety in the expression of those ideas was something I wasn't quite prepared for and something worthy of admiration.
I tried to make the most of my half an hour. It wasn't nearly long enough. Walking through the vast rooms filled with art, it felt as if my sense were straining under the pressure as the artworks were jumping off the wall screaming 'notice me!' 'No, notice me!' There was so much to see. My eyes flittered about from image to image to sculpture. Eyes followed me, faces stared, all willing me to feel an emotional response. I did feel emotional responses and it was hard to bear. It was a sensory overload.
The overall impression I felt was one of faint, almost intangible, optimism in a floundering world. I can't say that I felt great happiness walking around. The faces, the figures, the shapes, the colours, the buildings, the land- and cityscapes were all struggling and decaying. They seemed to be on the point of giving up, but not quite willing to. There was a real feeling of 'We are well into the 21st century now, but what is the world doing to us?'
My favourite piece was a silent video work by Peter Fischli and David Weiss called Büsi. The video was simple. It showed a cat lapping milk from a saucer, while bathed in bright light. I have no idea what it means. I cannot tell you what the intention is. It is slightly peculiar, and definitely quirky. When we are struggling to deal with reality, often we look for the absurd. It was a still life of sorts. A still life of a moment of a cat’s happiness. Or perhaps a moment of the cat’s greed? Whatever the meaning, I can tell you with more confidence about my response. I'm not sure whether this is something that everyone perceives or whether it is a synaesthetic response but when I see a soundless moving image, my brain 'hears' the noises that it imagines exist. This happened while I was watching this video. My brain could 'hear' the cats lapping and the cat's movements. Later, when I re-watched the video on my phone, I kept putting the phone to my ear to check whether there was indeed no sound and it was my brain playing tricks on me. It seemed to be. This interests me. I would like to know whether the blending of the senses is felt to different degrees by different people. Do I have more blending than others? I have letter-colour synaesthesia so I am perhaps prone to sensory blending.
Comhghall Casey’s Toy Caravan, a small still-life in oils, also caught my eye. Contemporary still life features largely in my artistic practice. I am interested in how still life is able to highlight the relationship between the organic (us) and the inorganic (things). The organic and inorganic, an animate and inanimate, are not as separate as was traditionally supposed. There is a blending. There’s something very moving I think about an object in isolation and an object stilled. Still life traditionally means the arresting of decay, and one of my interests is in how this arresting of decay can be applied to things and our current relationship to a thing. The real life is decaying, but in the still life is persevered in a moment. There is silence and calmness in that stilling.
I also noticed Jock McFadyen’s Pink Flats 2. Again, the theme of decay and arresting decay is evident here. To me, still life can include the larger object (in fact it could be argued that all representational art stills life). This painting made me want to know more about the object: what is its story? Who lives there? Why was it painted such a happy colour yet allowed to decay so badly? Does anyone love this building? What is its future?
Finally, I was impressed with how much of the artwork was in a raw state. It wasn’t over worked or over thought. By that I mean, raw making, painting and especially raw drawing. Drawing often gets lost under the radar of fine art and I don’t think it should be. Drawing is vital. Drawing doesn’t necessarily have to be just sketching. It isn’t just the starting point to something great. It can be great.
The art made me tingle, but that is good. Despite the overall pessimism I felt, with the odd flickers of optimism, I came away inspired. This exhibition made me realise how much creativity there is and how we should be celebrating it and fostering it but sadly, we aren't doing this nearly enough (in schools, at least). The demise of enthusiasm and importance given for the arts in education is a travesty that probably cannot be reversed now.
The only way is forward, as that flicker of optimism shows.
July 13, 2016 by Clare Thornton
I had a fun few days working in the Scott Building last week. In an attempt to be super efficient and make best use of my time, I took to screen printing one colour layer, washing the screen and popping it in the drier for 15-20 mins. I would then scoot down the corridor to Ceramics to extrude another pipe of clay, drooping it carefully over the edge of a board to create a sagging tube effect.
Note: Top tip from one of the technicians - if you want a hollow tube of clay to keep its shape as you gently manipulate it into position and not collapse during this process and as it slow dries, put a small clay bung in either end. This traps the air in, helping the tube maintain its shape.
Yesterday I drove from my home, Shrewsbury, to Aberystwyth and back. I dropped something off, and then had lunch on the beach, and then drove back. I arrived back home in time to pick up two of my children from school at 3.10pm (with a little bit of beach attached to my elbow).
I didn't go to Aberystwyth just to sit on the beach for two hours, I went to drop off a drawing at the Aberystwyth School of Art as an entry for the annual Jerwood Drawing Prize. It was a long way to go but it had been a choice between Cheltenham and Aberystwyth and Cheltenham doesn't have a beach so Aberysthwyth won.
I have long been an admirer of the annual Jerwood Drawing Prize touring exhibition. I was first introduced to it by my tutor at SCAT, Matthew Wood, who showed me the exhibition catalogue in 2013. Since then, I have only missed the annual touring exhibition when I missed it being close-ish to me by two days.
I dabble in lots of areas of art: photography, painting, drawing, video, sculpture. But my favourite medium by far is drawing. I love to draw whenever I can. I live to draw. I campaign to get more recognition for drawing. I think everyone should draw. Drawing amazes me. I've always been able to draw. Put a pen in my hand, and I will draw. Make me go to a meeting and also put a pen in my hand, and I will draw. I recieved detention at school for drawing (drawing teachers). Drawing isn't simply limited to pen or pencil. You can draw with sound, food, ice, steam, wood shavings, dance, scratches, moving images, sweat, grease, blood, cat fur, anything. This fact, fascinates me.
Last year, I contemplated entering the Jerwood Drawing Prize but I didn't have anything to enter and I ran out of time. This year, I decided to give it a go. All I had to lose was half a tank of petrol and a day's wages. That's quite a lot but I can make up the day's wages in the evening and at the weekend if necessary being a freelancer.
So that brings me back to yesterday and my drive to Aberystwyth. This year, I had a drawing to enter. It's nothing special. It's just what I wanted to do at the end of term. It's just something I created over a week. This is it. It is a bit scruffy. It is a bit scuffed. It is just a drawing.
This is a drawing made on a found peice of wood, of my favourite pieces from my balloon collection. The title is Balloons: A Collection. I created it using colour biros, my current favourite drawing tool.
I don't have much hope of being selected but the experience of trying is worth a lot to me. I am always telling my children that a lot of the competition game is about luck and timing but that doesn't mean you shouldn't try and keep trying.
At the weekend my middle son and I entered a 'paint the day' competition at the Newhampton Art Centre. He won a runner up prize. He wone this becuase his piece was different, eye-catching and pretty damn good. He had recently missed out on being selected for a different competion: a design a book jacket competition, so he was feeling quite down. At the time he told me: 'I'm never going to enter anything every again, I'm useless, I can't draw'. Of course I told him that, yes, he would enter somethign again. No, he was not useless. And, yes, he could draw. Two months later he has proved all of that.
So even if I don't get selected for the Jerwood Drawing Prize (I won't), I've given it a go. I will enter again next year, and the year after that. And I might even enter some other competitions. It is a little bit addictive.
And I did have a lovely lunch on the beach.
It was great to get to Plymouth again this week for a meeting with AA2A artists Clare Thornton and Tom Stevenson about a planned exhibition of our work at part of Plymouth Art Weekender. Clare brought along several tests to show and we discussed a possible title for the show. "Edge of Collapse" was suggested and is the preference at this stage! I have had to be realistic and accept that creating installation at a distance and now without a site to work in relation to is not possible and accept that I would do well to reconstruct and deepen the piece I made for the Time Machine project at Fringe Arts Bath. I am reflecting on how best to achieve this.
While in Plymouth I also attended the first day of the Land / Water Symposium entitled "Journeys and Transmission". The morning before the start of the Symposium I was reading Jane Bennett’s “Vibrant Matter” and really enjoyed the chapter “Political Ecologies”, when she discusses the question of how and to what degree we can bring other species into politics, species that have non-human languages and that resonated with the FAB work. I then went to symposium and two artists spoke about their projects, which engaged with a place through sound, and I kept seeing in their work an attempt to give place voice.
Artist researcher, Paul Whitty works through direct sound recording in a specific field location and Marcus Vergette, through the creation of bells and their placement, with or solely by the community, in relation to the sea. I was very moved by Vergette's discussion of the situation which triggered his work with bells; the terrible culling of cattle at the time of the Foot and Mouth crisis.
After the morning session, I chatted with a young artist about his artistic and “pseudo-botanical” work. I was interested and explained my own dilemma, the fact that I'm very interested in Goethe and his belief that there is some kind of transfer between a person and another living being when a person observes both rationally and with intuition, that people do develop “new organs of perception” in relation to other species when they look more broadly in this way.
Beuys was interested in this development of perceptual knowledge. But I understand the concern that seeing this in spiritual terms can be easily distorted by evangelical discourses. I suspect this may seem a little odd to the artist I am talking to! We are not strangers to the world, aliens who have just landed. We interrelate. But questions of spirituality apart, can there ever be any kind of neutral translation? In attempting to facilitate the speech of place, there is always a degree of mediation through the human body and/or materials and/or technology.
Bennett talks about Darwin’s study of worms and criticisms that have been levelled about his tendency to anthropomorphise. But she says that this slight vanity is outweighed by the fact that in observing carefully, he learns something about the nature, capacities and interestingly history-changing potential of worms and their difference from the human being. This is why I find statements about anthropocentrism valid but not terribly nuanced at times. Certainly we need to seek beyond the languages of our own species (I can’t help thinking of certain staff member’s dismay at Beuys’ inaugural Professorial lecture, in which he cried out like a stag!) But though we need to recognise the limitations of our own perceptual apparatus and don’t perceive entirely through our eyes, how can we perceive other species and their needs but through our own senses? Perhaps it is about our response-ability, as Shelley Sacks once explained to me. (The initial sense of the improbability of Darwin's fascination with worms reminds me of my decision to focus on a slug in her social sculpture workshop!)
Walking back from the Symposium to the Air B&B where I am staying, I met a dormouse. It was probably a tiny baby, and thus fearless, and social. It wanted to run about on the wall of a local school, largely unseen by all who passed. The only reason I spot it is that I stopped to write a text! It flitted in and out of the dark and litter strewn area behind the wall and around the wall, heated by the evening sun. I was totally enamoured, and realised I should take less photographs and look more. Draw. When I extended a hand to try to very gently stroke it, it was finally spooked and disappeared. I waited, but nothing more. On the way back to Bath the next day, I see in my email in-box the news that the first mammal species victim of climate change is a small rodent called the Bramble Cay Melomys.
At the risk of being a little sentimental (not always a bad risk to take I feel!) it is hard not to feel that the little mouse that scuttled before me and showed me the importance, validity and beauty of its little life was somehow a reminder to me of the preciosity of each species. But further, and just as heart-breaking, I am left with the sense that some perceptual potential has been lost in me, and in us all, with each species loss. If soul is a problematic, sullied word, it still feels close to describing what is hurting at this thought. Perhaps we need to find another term. Perhaps not.
I drop into the Time Machine at 44AD several times this week, to see Sarah Wölker’s sound installation “Momento Mori” which seeks to find an alternative way of archiving time through a sensor responding to visitors’ movements and generating sounds. It is quite pleasurable to almost dj with your body! On Thursday to go to a piece created by two of the alldaybreakfast curators, Tommy and Anwyl . We have to remove our shoes and socks and put on a blindfold to go through a curtain and follow a quite therapeutic “scent” walk in the space. We are treading on a grass-like substance and holding a railing to guide us and scents emerge and waft at us. They leave a note in our shoes which we discover on our “return” to explain that in the future, when we smell that scent we will be transported back to their Time Machine installation.
On Sunday, a number of the Time Machine artists and a number of members of the public, most of them artists themselves, come to discuss the week and its events. It is a really valuable process to discuss the work and also to view the video footage for each piece and feedback, and to ask bigger questions about contemporary work that addresses time. I get a strong sense of temporality as something that can be shaped by people, and that the shaping of space-time is not impossible! Each artist effects something different in the space; for example, Jane Thomason's performance gives a sense of long duration, of generations previous and yet to come. It reminds me of native American cosmologies; 7 generations past, 7 generations hence. A notion of time we would do well to pay attention to.
Tommy has worked incredibly hard on the documentation, and I am delighted with what he has done for my day, but I am also keen that there is some reference to my slight dilemma with Beuys’ work. In my talk I explained that I find myself sitting somewhere between his position and the nature of his work with materials, people and other living beings – which has real effects and operates in ways that aren’t purely scientistic – and that of Jane Bennett. Bennett recognises the vibrancy of material, the power of materials and other living beings as actants, but shies away from all notion of spirit because of its potential perversion in the context of evangelical discourses in a way that I agree with to some extent, but also find limiting in cutting off all sense of the spiritual.
Artist and Lecturer Robert Luzar gives valuable feedback and asks useful questions about contemporary questions around temporality. He wonders whether there are certain issues that are problematic once reified in philosophical discourse and whether some things happen only in the action of art. I find this interesting; I am not sure I feel that art can ever be innocent by virtue of this, but I find it a valuable reflection.
Monday was taken up with assisting again, helping Carol put up the lettering of scientist John Archibald Wheeler’s quotation about space-time: "The quantum principle shows that there is a sense in which what the observer will do in the future defines what happens in the past—even in a past so remote that life did not then exist, and shows even more, that 'observership' is a prerequisite for any useful version of 'reality'."
Then on Tuesday it is my day in the “Time Machine”! It is very important day for one me and feels quite powerful, as I have never really shown work outside a University context and felt so sad not to complete the MFA. The experience tells me – you can still make and show work! I should not be surprised by this at all and yet I am still bowled over by the fact that it is the people who come and respond to the work that interest me and make the work worthwhile. One of the visitors, a retired financier who enjoys art, really thinks deeply about the sounds that plants and flowers make and our ability to perceive them, or at least to intuit them. On first seeing it, one man emits a deep belly laugh of pleasure (not scorn I am relieved to say!) which is priceless. Another is angry, why do the flowers not speak when there is so much that needs to be discussed! One man shares, “There is a time machine in Keynsham!” A poet describes it as “A sensitive response to our “time of emergency” and she could not have said anything that could have made me more hopeful that the work might reach people. I realise there is something about the alarm call Beuys developed that interests me because it is committed not to violate people's dignity.
Encountering all these interesting responses I am really struck by the need for humility and a constant openness to where people are at. I reflect on Beuys and how he suggested that it the fact that he used a material like fat that got conversations and (spiritual?) processes going.
During the day, Carol, one of the curators reflects on the fact that there didn’t appear to be a connection between the video work of their previous time and space related project and my reflective piece and that this was confusing for some. I certainly observed that some people glanced at the installation then went straight to the video, not only I hope because it didn’t interest them, but because it demanded that they think and perhaps because it felt safer.
The talk at 4pm felt like an important part of the work, connecting the work to my research. At the same time I realised I was perhaps bringing myself to the work. I was asking myself the question – how does Beuys’ Steiner-influenced methodology speak to Jane Bennet’s formulation of “vibrant matter”. What is there in Bennett’s work about how materials transform us and are transformed by us? I also felt happy about the garment I had on and the Importance of the connecting costume and ‘being there’. I made sure I documented the work, thinking of Maria’s wise words, but was also very glad that Tommy has documented the talk and how people responded. That is important.
After my day in the “time machine” I go home and yes, eccentrically, I start having a conversation with the gorse!!!! I realise I need to pay attention to just what is going on here. I already have a sense of needing continuity with the work and wonder whether to draw the plants and work with them. During the few days following the installation I wonder, how will the work continue on? How will I work with people and in places where that is needed? I go and speak to the flowers! I had not been able to articulate why it felt important to include the broom even though it was not ‘used’ in the piece. Significantly, it was the broom I needed to go to at the end. What did it say? I know this is rather cringe-worthy but it is part of a process. It told me that I needed to go to where the work was needed, where people were at a low ebb.
I wonder whether, given the time I have, I should develop the work at Plymouth – showing “Emergency Conference” again, but this time, with more understanding of how it might work with respect to people. It makes me realise that perhaps the groundswell I am interested in is not in the ground, it is an upswell in people!!! How can I not have seen this before??! I was so tied into depicting the instability of the situation, but isn’t that there all around us? If I show this work at Plymouth, perhaps drawings could be included with it. Although I don’t presume to make a comparison with Beuys directly, I can’t help but think of his Secret Block drawings, shown alongside his lecture action at the Museum of Ulster. I also think of the work of Hilma of KIimt, I am so sorry I missed the exhibition of her work at the Serpentine! http:/
But perhaps it is a shame not to persevere with the lino pieces. I wonder about how the work might be more responsive to Plymouth as a place. I remember the issue that first interested me with respect to the history of Plymouth and underpinning narratives of the city. Can this be made reference to in some way? I realise that the work has helped to give me confidence – working in a certain attitude. I have a sense of needing to do something practical.
More work in preparation for the installation, a trip to the garden centre to buy the plants. I am immediately taken by a dwarf rhododendron referred to as Arctic Tern after the bird which flies from the Arctic all the way to our shores. It is a plant which the bees clearly love and which has, so aptly in conversation with Beuys, a wonderful honey scent! For a while I just want the piece to include that plant, but realise that would give the impression of a “conference” which lacks diversity! It takes a considerable amount of time to work out which plants to purchase but in the end I opt for the dwarf rhododendron, a dianthus (mojito) and a margerite. I also buy a rather dejected looking pot of gorse, which I feel somehow makes me think very strongly of Beuys’ interest in moorlands and areas that expressed the very powerful forces in the world. It reminds me of him somehow, bearing scars but still standing.
In the afternoon, it's time to sieve soil through transparent tubes, rather like medical tubing I got hold off at Scrap Store in Bristol. I find a funnel to help but it is a slow process, any hint of moisture and the soil sticks and plugs up the tube. The tubes need constant tapping to let the soil pass through and I am reminded by the way in which I have seen medical tubing being tapped in hospital dramas! I enjoy photographing the soil itself, too.
On Sunday I went in to assist alldaybreakfast in setting up the time machine and take in my materials. I get a sense of how the work would be presented in the space and I set up and am really pleased with the way the work interacts with Tommy’s LED light.
Following our meeting at Plymouth I send out minutes and am pleased that we would all like to show at the Plymouth Art Weekender in September. We can all meet on 17th of June, which is great as we have never met together as a whole group, as far as I can recall. I am unsure as yet how I am going to resolve the issue of working without studio space in Bath and at a distance from Plymouth, but realise I must now turn my attention to my contribution to the Time Machine project at 44AD as part of Fringe Arts Bath (FAB). When the curators, alldaybreakfast, mentioned it to me, what appealed was the opportunity to reflect on Beuys’ radical ideas about time and warmth not solely through theory but through practice. Beuys developed the notion of people’s relations with the living earth as a “warmth time machine”, depicting this concept in a number of drawings and other works, including this lithograph of that name. I could see that this related to people’s connections to the earth and their creative agency, but it is something I did not feel I had fully understood and felt it may help to explore through practice. In the end I put forward a suggestion to the curators to make a piece called “Emergency Conference” which was accepted. This is the initial blurb:
"This installation piece is a form of homage to the German artist Joseph Beuys. Beuys saw the earth itself as a “warmth time machine” – effectively the principal source of energy to which we are all connected and one that, without people’s active help, was running out of time. His notion of engaging the warmth of thinking as a means to re-enliven static forms and counteract what he saw as an overly rationalistic deadening consciousness is well documented. The installation consists of a group of plants installed in the space in the manner of a press conference, with a microphone set up to capture their ‘speech’. In this respect the work raises the issue of which species’ languages are seen as valuable and the importance of actively listening to other species across the globe. By calling Beuys’ legacies into the gallery, the artist hopes to suggest that this warmth work still has resonance and urgency across time and space.
Beuys famously clarified that his project stemmed from an engagement with issues around language. He argued for a “permanent conference”, whereby people would resolve their differences through ongoing dialogue. However, he was also emphatic that the voices and needs of other species be taken into account in decision-making. The idea of flowers speaking appears on a lithograph for a set of postcards entitled “Warmth Time Machine for the Economy”. There is a photograph of an apple on which the artist has drawn land masses in red, with his name placed above it. Underneath is a photographic image of pansies with the words “Lasst Blumen sprechen” (“Let flowers speak”). A drawing entitled “Warm Time Machine” also appears in Beuys’ extension of Finnegan’s Wake. This depicts what is thought to be the head of the central character Leopold Bloom, from whose mouth a test tube emerges and whose heart bears the form of a flower."
I have long felt that Beuys’ approach is formative for me, but I have never really worked with social sculpture through practice with any great degree of confidence. I also have concerns about the spiritual aspects of the work and how they are understood. Looking back at my thesis, I wrote the following:
“Beuys appears to take Einstein's proposition, that time is akin to another spatial dimension, seriously; however, as an artist he is particularly interested in this in terms of human perception and explores how, in working in relation to time and warmth as dimensions, (in the example that Beuys gives, communicated through the use of felt), he might stimulate the production of new thinking, new creative material in the human being. Ulmer argues that part of Beuys’ legacy lies in the lessons it offers “about how to mount a practice that moves between preconscious (Imaginary) and unconscious (Symbolic) registers…” (Ulmer, 1985, p.234). Arguably, Beuys stimulates both unconscious symbolic and pre-symbolic registers, triggering both human memory and the imaginary realm (which Ulmer refers to as the “preconscious”). He achieves this through expanding artistic practice into the spiritual realms of time and warmth, encouraging a future orientation and the production of new material.”
Looking at this again now, I wonder whether more directly the artist is trying to make people aware that they can affect space-time! This seems to be an important project today, because there is a clear and palpable sense in which may people aren’t responding to climate change, artists are seeking to raise awareness and engagement, but, with the exception of a minority of engaged activists, there is a level of either denial or a sense of not knowing how to engage. Perhaps we fundamentally lack a language of engagement, we are not fully aware of our power to intervene, and also to engage with other living beings who have agency.
The planned work is a kind of tableau (as much of my work on the PGDip seemed to be), a conference table set up ready for flowers to speak. The idea of letting flowers speak appears in Beuys’ work, particularly in this lithograph, created from a sugar card the artist picked up in the US, depicting violets. The artist writes “Let flowers speak” next to the image. I love this sense of the need to recognise languages beyond our own species, get beyond our own semantics, in order to fully grasp what he referred to as “the whole reality”. But I don’t want the piece to be simply a kind of description of Beuys’ perspective. There is something of my own practice here too; the concern with states of emergency, a need to revisit the question of whether the artist’s notion of materials is congruent with theories now referred to as “new materialism”.
Sourcing materials for the work takes longer than anticipated, the microphones prove more easy to find that I had anticipated – partly due to Tommy’s suggestion that I might find something on eBay – but a cover for the table proves hilariously difficult. I see this boxing approach at Plymouth but the fabric shops I visit simply don’t stock fabric on wide enough rolls and when they do they are extortionately expensive. I finally resolve this when I think of how I want the piece to look and I realise I would like a degree of continuity with previous work I have done with calico. If the table is covered with calico I can also wear my little “no more boiler suit”, a sort of impossible survival suit.
On Saturday I went to see the private view of Martin Creed’s work at Hauser and Wirth. I had mixed feelings about Creed’s work when I viewed the first few rooms, but as I moved through the exhibition and got a sense of the body of work as a whole, including his music (some of it performed live!), I got a sense of a huge playfulness, variety, warmth, humanity and generosity. I found the experience of being at an industry PV rather intimidating I must confess, the great and the good of the art world were there, and there was a definite sense in which business was being done. But although I felt rather gauche, it was interesting to be there, and I had a nice interaction with Manuela Wirth, who was kind.
Last weekend, the weekend before the final show at Wolverhampton and a likely week of stress, I decided that a family trip was required. I needed to see some art and get away from home for a while so I dragged my three children up to Tate Liverpool to see the Francis Bacon exhibition which I’d seen advertised.
Before we got to the Bacons, we stumbled across a retrospective exhibition of the work of Maria Lassnig. I hadn’t come across her work before, except in passing, so it was interesting to view her work without any preconceptions at all. I’d vaguely heard of her and I knew she was a little eccentric but innovative, but that was all.
Her work consists mostly of painting and video. What I admired about the work on display was the consistent sense of a twisting of reality in her paintings and animations. Nothing was quite right. It wasn’t completely abstracted either. It was almost as if it was challenging the viewer to find a place for it between abstract and representation. It was hard to place. Her paintings, especially, seemed to blend different known states or concepts without showing either in full: organic and inorganic, human and object, abstract and reality. Nothing was as it seemed and everything was just on that edge of disturbing. I was intrigued.
I also had a very strong impression that she was looking out at the viewers from the paintings and the animations. She features in a lot of them. And she has very solid features and very steady, serious eyes. I felt watched as I walked around the gallery, her eyes following me. It is an odd sensation, a hair-on-the-back-of-neck-standing-up one.
The highlight for me came at the end of the exhibition in the form of a video called Kantate or The Ballard of Maria Lassnig. My six year old son was particularly transfixed by this. This video is a 7-minute long part animation, part real video of Lassnig’s life from birth to old age sung in verse, and sung in German. It was compelling viewing. It was sad, yet funny. It was serious, yet light. It was full of irony and gentle satire on the art world and the people in her life. It was a fitting tribute to the life of a very interesting personality who I regret not having come across before.
Then we moved on to the Francis Bacons. We walked straight into a room full of Bacons: gaping mouths, twisted faces, and painful and contorted limbs. We were suddenly surrounded by bodies locked in frames, bodies against vibrant angry colours, and bodies trapped in colourful suspension. It was like stepping from the happy madness of the artist looking out (Maria Lassnig) to the hysetrical madness of the artist locked within (Francis Bacon). I had moved from being stared at to staring at. It was disturbing. I found the Francis Bacon exhibition an uncomfortable place to be. I admire the work of Francis Bacon for his ability to convey strong emotion through composition but it is just too intense to be around en masse. I feel anxiety in his paintings, and loneliness, and I guess that was his intention (or part of it). But a room full of Bacons? It was just too much and I had to leave.
Having said that, I would recommend a visit to anyone reading this. Both exhibitions had an impact on me and I'm still thinking about them a week later. I would like to find out more about both artists, who probably never imagined they'd be put together and have anything much in common. Oddly, they do.
I'm not sure I am qualified to write a review of the Wolverhampton School of Art Fine Art (BA) Degree Show as I was in it (albeit it as a not-yet-graduating student capacity) but I'm going to anyway. Or perhaps this is not so much a review but more of a 'You Must Go And See It' not-at-all-biaised plug because that is what I would think even if I hadn't been in it (of course, you do believe me, don't you?).
Last night was the Private View and the culmination of many stressful weeks. And it was the first chance that my family had had to go to the art building. They had heard a lot about it and they'd seen pictures of what to expect from the catalogue but they hadn't yet been there. They had a good time, they told me after I repeatedly asked them on the way home. They liked the fact it had seven floors (nine if you could the Lower Ground which of course you should do) and they enjoyed the nibbles in the Visual Communications (Annimation) room. But more importantly, they enjoyed the artwork. My six year old has been to many art exhibitions in his short life and is therefore an excellent art critic for his age. I asked him what he liked the best. His response was: 'I like the Far Art on the 7th Floor' which was the right answer as far as I am concerned as I am a Far Art student on the 7th Floor.
I think the phrase that best describes the exhibition for me came from one of the students who was interviewed about the exhibition earlier in the week for the University website. She said 'I wanted to colour outside the lines'. To me, there was a lot of colouring outside the lines. It is something I like to try to do too. Even though I have worked alongside these students for 10 months now I was still impressed to see the variety of creative output in the exhibition in their final pieces, and how far the boundaries of fine art had been pushed (yet while retaining, and very much earning, credibility).
I felt inspired and energised walking around, showing my three children and seeing their reactions, and I can't wait for next year to begin so I can work towards my final show.
I hope that over the next two weeks lots of people go to see the work. The exhibitions runs until the 23rd June. A lot of hard work and thought has gone into the pieces on display, everyone who is graduating deserves the attention. I wish them well in their future careers and I will miss them next year. I think we chose the right title for the show, for impact has most definitely been made.
While in London last weekend, after visiting the National Gallery and stopping for lunch, I paid a visit to the Found exhibition, curated by Cornelia Parker at the Foundling Museum. I had heard about this exhibition on Radio 4 the week before and my ears had pricked up with interest as lost and found objects feature hugely in my art practice (at least they have of recent years). Currently, I am searching for the lost and abandoned balloons of Britain (and there were some abandoned balloons in this exhibition - read on).
The Foundling Museum itself is a fascinating place, started off as a place for foundling babies of the early 18th century. It was founded in 1739 by Thomas Coram to care for the abandoned children of London. Many of the mothers who left their children at the hospital would leave an object with which to identify themselves with and as a keepsake for their child. They simply couldn't give up the hope that they might be able to return and reclaim their child. These objects are on display in the museum and they are very poignant and also fascinating in their own right for providing a glimpse into the lives of these mostly impoverished 18th-century women.
The Found exhibition itself came about as Cornelia Parker was asked to respond to the museum's collection in some way as part of her role as Hogarth Fellow. She decided to ask artists from all sorts of practices (including music) to lend the museum a found object of theirs for display. The object could be an actual object they themselves had acquired, or an object they were given, or an art work in response to an object. Some of the objects chosen are intangible - such as sound pieces. Some of the submissions were video in response to an object. But most are just things.
What is it about the notion of the 'found' object that excites people's imagination so much? I think it is an innate desire to share a love of something, or a story about something, with others. We feel such joy at the ownership of our rare objects that we feel the need to share that feeling.
The notion of the found object is interesting because even before we acquire the object, it has gathered a history. I believe that objects are full of narrative. They absorb our stories and those stories stay within them, perhaps locked away, for ever. But there is some glimpse of that story we can feel through those objects, that is the 'trace' that Derrida talks about. Once you own an object, you are adding your own narrative to it. Along with that narrative goes emotion. We put emotion into objects and that is where the pull of things comes from. We also use objects as a proxy for our emotions. Perhaps there is something we are not ready to face head on, so we put that into the object. Those strong emotions stay with the object and move on as the object moves on to someone else.
When I see such objects I find it hard not to feel moved. This was certainly the case with the Foundling Hospital foundling objects left by the mothers. They almost screamed with longing and the pain of separation.
To me, the Found exhibition is about the human obsession with recognising something emotional in objects. We all have a part of ourselves that is lost through the things we have become detached from. Those little lost parts of ourselves of us are adopted by the new owners. Generally we connect the idea of emotion with living beings, however, there is a huge amount of emotion in the things around us.
There were many pieces in the exhibition that touched me. I won't go into too much detail here because I hope that anyone reading this will be intrigued enough to go and see the exhibition themselves. My personal highlights were contributions from Christian Marclay (for bottle tops substitute balloons), Guy Turk (bronze casting on a monumental scale), John Smith (my current favourite video artist - I loved his piece), Rachel Whiteread (another bronze casting), Bob and Roberta Smith (creating a story on a found object), Mark Wallinger (found sleeping people), David Shrigley (humour in the lost) and Graeme Miller (another obsessive street collector).
The exhibition is quirky and eclectic and is thought-provoking about the role things play in our lives.
Just before I finish, I need to get something off my chest. Cornelia Parker is a big fat copy cat! One of her 'found' objects was a collection of three balloons.
And afterward, I wondered out into the park in Russell Square and found this. I wonder who lost it?
Last weekend I went to London, and what do most art students do in London? Go to an art gallery.
Ever since I first stumbled across George Shaw's work when at Shrewsbury College I became fascinated with staircases I've been a bit of a fan of his and I've sought out his paintings whenever I could (one in Coventry and another in Liverpool). So when I heard he was exhibiting at the National Gallery after a two-and-a-half year residency I knew that I had to go. This would be the first time I'd ever get to see more than one of his paintings in one room at one time.
The exhibition is called 'My Back to Nature' and it is in response to the collection at the National Gallery. George Shaw, known as a painter of gritty scenes from a modern estate, and the National Gallery, seem odd bedfellows.
The paintings and drawings of the exhibition are displayed together in one section in the centre of the museum. They are circled by centuries of great masters. And being the National Gallery (steeped in tradition and Britishness), the rooms are dark and foreboding, just like the subject matter: the woods.
Stepping into those rooms was like stepping into woodland in the middle of West London. The paintings themselves were beautiful and much larger than I expected (the previous two paintings by George Shaw I'd seen had been tiny in comparison so somehow I'd expected the same). The colours were vibrant and luminous.
On one level, George Shaw has created paintings of contemporary scenes of woodland on the edge of suburbia. They speak of our modern relationship to nature. We use it to hide in, to experiment, to relax, to be alone or to be together. The woodland scenes he has painted are beautiful but are punctured by signs of human activity - tarpaulin, cans, pornographic magazines. As with many of George Shaw's previous work, human presence in these paintings is conspicuous in its absence.
However, there are many more levels to these paintings. They are utterly absorbing. Looking at them, I felt part of myself being absorbed into them. I could feel a sense of history in them, as if they weren't in fact showing contemporary scenes but scenes that have been played out for centuries. They were somehow able to suck energy from me. I found it hard to leave them.
The scenes, although very real and spontaneous, are full of symbolism: trees (memory, age, history, ghosts), blood (death, femininity , religion, sacrifice, horror), cloth (modesty, secret, religion), blue (a very strong colour in these paintings: innocence, water, purity, cleanliness), texture (imagery, abstract, sexuality, nakedness). These paintings are about much more than a look at the woods of today.
For inspiration for these paintings, George Shaw took himself back to his teenage self who used to come to London from his hometown of Coventry and spend time at the National Gallery (it was free) and walk amongst and sketch some of the great, immense artworks of Titan, Pollaiuolo and the like. Their works had a great impact on him and this comes out strongly in this collection. The My Back to Nature works link back to the symbolism and the voyerism of those other works. The younger George Shaw would admire these old paintings and wonder at the staging of them, the significance, the narrative and the meaning of the objects depicted in them.
I felt so many emotions looking at Shaw's paintings: the child exploring the woodlands and stumbling across some grubby pornographic magazines (yes, that really did happen to me and I remember running away in case the 'dirty old man' came back); the teenager hanging around the woodlands waiting for horror to happen, warmed by the taste of cheap cider; the adult annoyed by the spoilt natural beauty; and the artist creating the narrative behind the objects and the textures in the paintings.
I found it interesting that the only 'man-made' colours in the images are traditionally deeply symbolic of Catholicism: red, blue, flesh. Was this a conscious decision? The painting of George Shaw pissing up a tree has him in blue. The tarpaulin is blue. The tree is marked by brilliant red (blood, paint?), the magazines are flesh.
The number '3' appears a lot as well: 3 paintings, 3 trees, 3 cans, 3 points of the tarpulin.
There was also something auto-biographical about the works. At the entrance to the exhibition are a number of self-portrait life studies which show a raw nakedness of the artist that oddly connect to the tree paintings and that element of being with nature when surrounded by nature. It is almost as if he is saying: This is me. These paintings are about me. I am back to nature in my nakedness.
I was very moved by it all and I'm sure there are more levels to the paintings that I didn't get. I was absorbed into them. I want to go back.
When I started my foundation degree in contemporary art practice at Shrewsbuiry College back in 2012, I didn't anticipate how much common sense I'd learn as well as experience and development in my art practice. One of the main purposes of the course was to teach students how to survive out there in the Big Wide World as an artist. This was a fantanstic learning opportunity for me as previously I had no idea how to be an artist. I just liked to draw. Period. To pass the course, I had to exhibit outside the college; I had to liaise with galleries and curators; and I had to consider issues such as health and safety, cost, income, pricing and How To Survive out there. I now realise that the content of this course, run by Staffordshire University and taking place in a number of local colleges, is actually quite a rarity at the higher education level. Although it didn't go to full BA level, it gave me a really solid grounding for my time now spent finishing my BA in Fine Art at Wolverhampton. I learnt a huge amount about being an artist on that course which I have been able to apply at Wolverhampton for the end-of-year show.
Given that the modules directed towards working as an artist are not the norm on many more formal BA courses in Fine Art at universities, I believe that for anyone serious about a career in fine art an association with AA2A could be extremely useful. The AA2A guide 'Making it out there', provides much essential information for graduating students wishing to make a career in art. One point which sticks out for me from this guide is that life after graduating isn't an 'either / or' scenario. The graduating artist doesn't have to spend all their time egaged in art. They can work anywhere, they can do other things, and they can earn money in art and in other ways at the same time. It depends on the nature of the art practice. Life isn't black and white. Living in the grey is actually very rewarding.
As for my situation, I am currently freelance as a online publishing project manager and when I'm not doing that, I'm a part-time art student and blogger. I also do voluntary work at my sons' school and I'm a parent governor. I like to keep my feet in many camps. I don't make any money at all out of the art or the voluntary work. When I finish my art education I will continue to work freelance in publishing and, hopefully, spend time pursuing my art (and perhaps not expecting to earn much from it if any). But there are certain things that anyone wanting to make a career in art needs to know: building a creative career as a freelancer takes time, networking is essential, paperwork is essential, and low expectations (at least initially) are also essential.
If the new graduate needs a single source of useful information on how to get started, this guide provides that information in a concise and readible way. It also includes much-needed encouragement in the form of comments and advice from those that are in the freelance art world. It is an insecure life, so encouragement is vital.
My own advice: Never, ever give up and never say no!