Week #2's 'Research Methods' lecture opened with the statement: 'Everything we do in life is rooted in theory'. This prompted me to dig out a bit of writing I'd done before (with minor changes for a new context):
'We commonly speak of applying a theory; that is, deducing how to act on the basis of what we take to be true. Speaking in this way is legitimate, of course, but if we take our words too seriously we are brought to an understanding that is entirely back-to-front. We are led to suppose that theory is the foundation for action; that the ability to do something necessarily requires a theory of some sort to guide us. Far from being logically true, this is often empirically false. The assertion that theory necessarily precedes action is simply wrong.
However, this mistaken, knowledge-based conception of human activity has a distinguished past. In his 'Meditations on First Philosophy' Descartes, doubting as much as he can, finds solid ground only with the understanding encapsulated in his (in)famous phrase: 'I think therefore I am.' Allied with a belief in the existence of a God who cannot deceive, this certainty allows Descartes to build, from the ground up, a solid and trustworthy conception of the whole world. For Descartes, the external world of physical objects and wilful persons depends on the apprehension (knowledge) of his own existence. Knowledge becomes foundational. And if knowledge is truly the basis of all understanding and agency, then every observable human action is necessarily the outward and visible sign of an inward and theoretical world view. Stripped of its theological trappings this picture has become the unquestioned, common sense view of the Western world. Our default position. But that doesn't make it right.
The German philosopher Martin Heidegger offers a penetrating criticism of the Cartesian perspective. In 'Being and Time' he progressively unveils a subtle understanding of being human in which knowledge is put firmly in its place as just one way (and by no means the most basic one) that people have their being-in-the-world. 'Being-in-the-world' is Heidegger's name for the fundamental and distinctive way that people, rather than objects, exist; a way of being that he painstakingly investigates in his complex inquiry. There he reveals that in our everyday lives we do not, for the most part, attend to the world at all. Far from needing a theory to guide us we find that in practice we simply cope. This practical coping or 'taking care of' Heidegger calls 'heedful circumspection', and it's the way we spend most of our lives. What I do in any given situation is determined by three things. Firstly the habits and resources that come from my past (that with which I am 'thrown' into my situation); secondly the mood in which I presently find myself (over which I have, at best, limited control); and finally, what it is that I am working to bring about in the future (the 'for-the-sake-of-which' that prompts me to act at all). Far from being foundational, knowledge is shown to be something that we acquire only when we stop our normal dealings with the world. Knowing, for Heidegger, is a deficient way of being. It is the product of 'simply staring' and possible only because we first engage practically with other people and useful things. Action, then, is the foundation of theory; not the other way round.
If this unfamiliar analysis appears far-fetched then the simple observation that mundane factors such as habits and desires have a pre-eminent influence on what we do most of the time should prove enough to overturn a disposition to look for theoretical forces at work behind the scenes. The distinctive interpretations of twentieth century psychology introduce causative structures of the unconscious mind to bolster this simple argument but, whether we align ourselves with Freud or not, we can readily concede that anything coherent enough to deserve the name 'theory' is absent from almost all our daily activity, even when this involves something complex like making art objects. In practice we do not need much 'know-that' knowledge in order to 'know-how' to cope. Many highly-skilled artists (even the famous ones) would be hard-pressed to explain what makes them successful and, conversely, intimate knowledge of current thinking about art practice is no guarantee of competence, let alone expertise, in the studio.
It's probably wrong in most cases to suppose that there are strong causal links between theoretical knowledge of art practice and the day-to-day activity of individual artists. Rorty indicates that such a realisation renders theoretical propositions no more than 'rhetorical ornaments of practice'. Though unflattering, this description explains accurately why such propositions are made; namely in order to persuade. The reason why they can be no more than ornaments is 'because we have much more confidence in the practice in question than in any of its possible justifications.''
My post of 17/08/19 ('Making') records one artist, William Kentridge, making much the same point, though more succinctly and with far greater authority.
One thing that strikes me as I wander round my edge-of-town setting is how big, on a human scale, the natural world is. Mature trees on the housing estate, even perfectly modest ones, tower over the domestic architecture. Fields cover an area many times that of the proverbial football pitch, the standard unit for those of us with no intuition of measurements in acres and hectares. Beyond the suburbs if you could trace, in three dimensions, the limits of trees, of copses and especially clouds you’d enclose vast envelopes. (Not even Christo and Jeanne-Claude attempted clouds.) I walk among impressive things.
My paintings are small. I suppose (unthinkingly perhaps) that if I was working bigger I might better convey something of the scale of what I see. My paintings might become impressive like their subjects. Each of my boards is small because I paint in situ, and there’s only so much canvas I can cover in a day. Roughly 30 x 60 cm is my limit. Added to which I’ve got to carry the board, along with everything else I need, to and from the field.
There are ways round this, of course. I could return again and again to a chosen location, with changing light, changing weather and changing seasons to contend with. Patrick George didn’t try to capture a specific day: changes over many months were somehow incorporated into the paintings he made. Several painters leave things in place for a protracted period because to move them each day is impractical: Ray Atkins left vast boards on roped down easels in out-of-the-way places to minimise the chance of vandals spoiling things (not always successfully).
I could make sketches from which paintings are created in the comfort of a studio space. These could be as big and cumbersome, as protracted over time, as I want. Frank Auerbach, amongst many others, does this. It'd be worth looking carefully at the things he brings back to work with, and what he does with this material; how it's transformed. Nick Schlee also uses this approach: his pastel drawings are clearly the basis of his oil paintings, and are an essential step in transforming the landscapes he sees into the particular form of his paintings.
I could work from memory. A consideration of memory (and more to the point, some activity to promote a better one) would be worthwhile. Ilse D'Hollander is a good example of someone who worked in this way.
I might like to wonder why painting larger might be attractive to me... (not that that should prevent me from getting on with some larger work in the meantime). In the first instance I think this desire may be an outworking of my hope to get to grips with abstraction. I'm still drawn to wonder how to make my pictures more abstracted. I'm disappointed when my struggles outside result in a too-literal end product. I like it when little patches of deft brushwork appear, and when marks are interesting in their own right. Also I think I mean to consider how abstraction showed itself in the second half of the twentieth century: Terry Frost, Roger Hilton, William Scott... This might become the direction of my research interest.
I visited the James Tower ceramics show (James Tower: A Centenary Celebration, Victoria Art Gallery, Bath, 21/09/19 - 24/11/19).
It took me a second visit to realise that I like his work. Enough to make me wonder whether I might play around with clay as the ground for some abstracted landscape imagery. It might be a way to force me to abstract for a reason. There would be a logic to doing this which I feel is absent from a determination to modify my paintings. In two dimensions I sense the danger that I'd be choosing a style, which I resist. For a 3D form I'd have to invent an approach to suit the material, which feels like a different thing altogether.
What I liked in Tower's work was his clear insight into natural forms. That, and his avowed hope to try to make 'hymns to the beauty of the world'.
College has begun. Three days of introductory activities this past week. There was much emphasis on creating a community, and a declared intention to keep up contact between the members of the different courses (Fine Art, Ceramics, Visual Communication, Research, Curatorial Practice). The shared spaces of the Locksbrook Road site are likely to encourage this. I’ve been struck by the enthusiasm shown by other students: many of us are relishing the prospect of postgraduate study.
A day at Corsham Court featured three workshops. A challenge to ‘draw’ in unusual ways prompted me to play with my ‘phone’s camera (twisting it and backtracking whilst using the panorama setting). This is something I’d previously experimented with whilst looking through the coach window on a motorway journey. The end result was striking (if tricky to display here):
Listening intently in the estate’s churchyard was a pleasingly well-defined task. As it happens I’ve recently recorded sounds in the fields where I paint. I copied photographer Simon Roberts’ idea: he displayed pictures of Hitchens’ countryside alongside this summer’s Pallant House exhibition (‘Ivon Hitchens: Space Through Colour’) and also provided loops of sound to listen to (through headphones) when viewing some of Hitchens’ paintings. I enjoyed listening to one of his recordings, even with repetition, as I spent some minutes sketching an image, and similarly I’ve enjoyed the forced stillness needed to make my own recordings. I’ve noticed how slowly time seems to pass when I’m doing nothing but listen and (unsurprisingly but pleasingly) stopping to do so makes me notice far more than otherwise I would.
Tim Vyner’s illustrated talk about his reportage work was well conceived and clearly presented. He gave us a glimpse of an impressive body of work.
Ruskin 200 Art Competition
The best post to receive is the unexpected kind (unless it's a bill). I received a package this week, clearly marked from the University of Oxford, and I couldn't think why. Inside was a little catalogue for the 'Ruskin 200 Art Competition', a show of works inspired by the architecture and collections of the University's Museum of Natural History, and displayed there to mark the 200th birthday of John Ruskin. Featured in the booklet are images of two large linoprints of mine, so I'd be sent a copy. A lovely surprise.
I was particularly chuffed with the text accompanying the illustrations:
'The Ruskin 200 Art Competition was initiated by... Front of House Deputy Manager, Michelle Alcock. Tim Heath's linoprints (original artworks 180cm long!) were Michelle's personal favourite entry.'
I'm flattered by that: thanks Michelle!
Just a few days to go before the start of college...
Kentridge’s final drawing lesson is a sober affair. It’s about time and fate (which is death) and what the artist does confronted by them; namely, create things that express a determination to make meaning.
‘We have the terror of the internal lightning bolt, of the heart attack, of the stroke, of the body betraying us...
[Also, we recognise] that other gap within ourselves: the gap between who we are, and all the other possible selves we sense but cannot reach…
We take the external world, bring it inside us to understand who we are, and then project it out and beyond, against [our fate]… to escape from that which insists on what and how and where we are…
How or why does one become an artist?... It has to do with the need to see oneself in other people’s looking at what you have made… the need to be a snail, leaving a trail of yourself as you move through the world… As if it is in the reflection of people looking at these traces that one finds one’s existence...
Torschlusspanik, the fear that with decision… the door to other possibilities closes behind us… the gap between what we are and that which part of us feels we are or could be, gets larger and larger…
Duties of the artist: Put fresh water in the dog bowl. Work...
I have written about what happens in the studio….
[The artist tries]… to construct an object (a drawing or a lecture) that embodies a will towards meaning. Even if that meaning is about the elusiveness, the uncertainty, of the project itself...
This is what the artist does. Takes the fragments, the shards, and rearranges them… He tries to distract the inconsolable child…
...needing the fragments… in the project of wresting meaning from them. The meaning is always a construction, a projection… - something to be made, not simply found.’
Kentridge’s explicit invitation to his reader is to take his drawing lessons, or at least some fragments, and wrest meaning from them. In my case, then, to wonder how, now, I respond to the certainty of my death, and to the fact that many of my possibilities have become the one actuality that has been my life, most of which is past, though some of which remains. Do I try to escape, or acquiesce, or be reconciled, be thankful or regretful or what? Also, to wonder how all this heavy stuff relates to my desire to make things, specifically (at the moment) to make pictures of places that are close to home, and what meaning I’m projecting in them.
Of course, responding to all the ‘heavy stuff’ isn’t just the lot of those who make things. Whatever I choose to fill my life with, I live it in the valley of the shadow of death and must come to terms with this as best I can. That I choose to make pictures – like any non-trivial choice I ever make – is linked to apprehensions of my mortality to a greater or lesser extent, and the strength of the link between my making and my sense of being is the mark of its seriousness to me. I could say that I make pictures simply because I enjoy it, but that would be belittling. Dennis Creffield described how the painter David Bomberg instilled a sense of importance in his students:
‘He was extraordinary in the way he loved painting, he really thought it was the most important thing in the world. That’s what he gave you: a sense of great privilege as if you were involved in an immensely significant activity. Painting was the most important thing a human being could do.’
My life choices (career, family) deny me the ability to make this bold claim. And I wouldn’t. However, the challenge now is to work out, in practice not words, how important all this stuff is to me. To give it time, for instance.
Do I agree that my desire to make things is motivated by a need for others’ to notice them? To leave a trail, a legacy? I’ve certainly said to myself that I’d like to leave evidence of an internal life, if only for my children. That may be unduly modest. Perhaps, instead, I should declare the hope that more people recognise the particular view from somewhere that’s mine, and then work to try to make that possible.
And what are the fragments that I’m trying to rearrange?
(Creffield's statement is quoted on page 64 of Martin Gayford's 'Modernists and Mavericks'.)
In a nearby field, I painted a landscape.
I'd previously laboured much over the framing of the motif, fiddling around over a few days with several drawings and editing a couple of photos to visualise alternatives. Against my better judgement, I plumped for a very wide format (1:3 ratio)... until I drew the image at my proposed full size which changed my mind again.
So, not wanting to dither any more and waste a beautiful day, I headed off with a smaller double square board, thereby committed to a different composition. I wandered in my chosen location, fiddled about some more, cut out part of the view, and measured out a working drawing to square up on the board.
As I did for a previous painting, I then made a small sketch with a relatively wide brush (above), to represent what was in front of me as broad patches of colour. By which time I'd worked through the usual fluffing about that gets in the way of getting going, and so felt keen to paint the real thing. Which is what I did.
Kentridge speaks of 'a productive procrastination'. He describes himself walking around his studio, circling both the space and the ideas that fill his head: 'While I know that the images or ideas will only clarify themselves in action - the charcoal on the paper, the ink in the book - I am unable to stop the walk... Knowing that the activity is both avoiding the questions to be found, and also essential... A walk without destination has a long history... There is something about the action that can provoke thinking - a change from the physical to the mental, a truce between the artist as maker and the artist as observer.'
One of the ideas I circled around was what to paint in the foreground.
Naïve as it might sound, I'd been struck on my river walks by how much plant life there is, and how complicated it all is. There's no let up in the undergrowth; no respite from it. Even the plain fields at this time of year are thick with long grass and that, like everything else, is tumultuous. At the fields' edge the banks of wild plants are overwhelming. I tried to sketch a particularly varied bit and as I did I just saw more and more (I mentioned this experience in my post of September 7th).
I had a notion that I'd like to have my painting include some of this complexity. Prominent in my chosen view were plenty of dried cow parsley stems whose light straw colour stood out against the darker foliage and shadows behind. I'd positioned myself up close to the ditch-cum-stream that leads out of the painting, so by moving a little to the left or the right I could place stems and inverted umbrella-shaped heads wherever I wanted in my field of vision, and more or less as large as I liked. Indeed I did exactly this in a sketch a few days earlier where the foreground stems are actually taller than the stand of trees in the middle distance. I drew this sketch seated, placing myself at the level of the plant heads.
At home, on the front room floor, I laid out a load of books opened at pages showing others' landscapes to see how they'd solved the problem of the foreground, only to discover that they mostly did so by omitting it. Almost all the examples I found gave the impression that there was a buffer zone of at least several metres depth between the painter and the depicted scene, accentuated in several cases by a raised viewpoint, effectively lifting the observing eyes clear of any intruding foreground detail.
Ultimately I too evaded the issue. I painted standing up, which immediately reduced the impact of the foreground and created the aforementioned buffer zone. In the paint I scratched in some texture to hint at the complications of the grass stems but even this had to be toned down in places (by poking at it with my finger). The few brave marks I made had to go as they snapped out jarringly from the rest of the painting. Perhaps there's the problem: sharp-edged foreground detail at odds with sharp-edged middle-ground and background content? You don't see everything at once for real. Rather your eyes focus near or far, but never both simultaneously. Perhaps that's why the distancing of most paintings, the omission of the close foreground, is a good strategy?
I found a few exceptions where close detail is included (a painting of a gorse bush by Ray Atkins, some screenprints by Andy Lovell) but in these cases the subject is the foreground and the rest is, well, just background.
But intriguingly this apparent conflict doesn't seem to be a problem in the sketches (and interestingly Andy Lovell's images are pretty graphic, more like drawings than paintings). What do your eyes do differently to be happy to view these?
The penultimate week before college begins.
Happily, I've spent a fair bit of time in the print studio this week. I've prepared and etched two of my recently drawn Hitchens-inspired images and completed a small edition of one of them, with monoprinted colour.
Colour-mixing: Some time ago I created numerous blue/yellow-mix colour swatches to bring order into the mixing process for my (mostly green) monotype landscape prints. I've referred to these colour samples repeatedly, mostly to cut down the number of primaries that I use to mix shades for each print. I figure - rightly or wrongly - that if I can identify that I need only a single blue (for example) then gratuitously adding more is likely only to muddy the shades that I mix. Because the 'September Water' print (above) includes purples I've now made a range of red/blue-mixes to guide me in exactly the same way. They've already proved worthwhile. The monoprint needed two reds, yellow ochre and cyan (with a tiny speck of black to mute one of the blues).
Holding my attention: I expressed ambivalence about my 'After Hitchens' images in my last post... but also the intention to plug on with them for a while yet. This determination is grounded in the simple fact that, to use the happy phrase of a printmaking colleague, they continue to 'hold my attention'. Never mind the success of any single image, the fact that it feels like there's something worth playing around with for a bit longer is justification enough to keep going.
William Kentridge describes the serious business of play in his fourth drawing lesson (entitled 'Practical Epistemology: Life in the Studio'). He says: 'This giving over to the medium is crucial. Allowing a space for the medium to lead, giving yourself over to the play itself... Not a random activity, but giving yourself over to what the activity provokes, and then following... possibilities assiduously' (pp. 106-107 in Kentridge's 'Six Drawing Lessons', 2014). In part, what this does is develop a facility with the materials. It builds up a vocabulary (in the case of my prints, the marks on the plate) and a grammar (how the marks can go together), but it also offers far more.
Kentridge describes the studio process in four stages:
I think what I hope is that I'll reveal a way to make my own printed landscapes. In fact, that's where my earliest attempts to combine etching with colour began, and perhaps I saw the Hitchens imagery as a resource to point the way. Certainly I do this with my painting. It's not that I want to copy Hitchens, but I envy the qualities his work contains, so I'm mining them for all that I can unearth.
Kentridge says more: 'We are talking about a trust placed in the physical. That is, through the physical materials and techniques - drawing, filming, walking - new thoughts, new images, will arise. Being led by the body, rather than simply the mind ordering the body about... We look at something usually taken for granted... and in the studio we demand its reconstruction, its shattering (p.108).
Painterly Prints: A fellow BAP (Bath Artist Printmakers) member lent me a book of prints by Astrid de la Forest, not someone I'd encountered before. They're very loose, 'brushy' images, most of them big. The ones below are both carborundum prints, the first with dry point. The prints are 70 x 100 cm and 99 x 70 cm respectively. It's crossed my mind that the Hitchens-like images could look good big, so carborundum would be an option to make this possible. However, my overriding memory of making a large, heavily textured carborundum print was the inordinate amount of time it took to wipe the plate...
Bath Spa Collection: A visit to Corsham Court, one time home to the the Bath Academy of Art, provided the chance to see and handle prints by some famous names: Hiroshige, Sickert, William Scott, Dürer and Rembrandt amongst them. The collection is a legacy from the art school days.
This past week has been the third one before my college course begins. Not long now...
Ivon Hitchens: Space Through Colour
Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, June to October 2019
You wait thirty years for an Ivon Hitchens show and, what d'you know, two come along at once. 'Ivon Hitchens: The Painter in the Woods' at The Garden Museum in Lambeth proved to be a modest but tasty starter to the main course in Chichester: 'Ivon Hitchens: Space Through Colour' was a good representation of the whole of Hitchens' painting career.
I first visited the show in July and left fully expecting to return, which I did last week. If Hitchens' next major show is another thirty years away then I probably won't be here to see it, so I was determined to use my second visit to the full. I tried to think through what I wanted to gain by going again, so attempted to pose questions that I wanted to answer. This proved tricky. In a small way I ran up against the larger problem that I foresee in the academic study I'm about to begin, namely how 'research' and 'art practice' marry up. So, unable to frame meaningful questions, and to try to honour my emerging belief that visual research is predominantly a practical activity (not a propositional one), I considered instead how I'd use my time in front of the paintings. How I'd question them if you like. It's my usual habit at a show to sketch things that catch my eye, but on this occasion I went expecting to draw particular images that I'd identified from my first visit (and from the catalogue of the show). I selected these because they promised to provide material that I might be able to interpret as etchings. With that end in mind I also prepared some zinc plates with soft ground so I could draw on them directly in the presence of the paintings. Which I did.
I didn't draw everything that I'd planned to. I had intended to give some of the later, colourful, abstracted canvases my attention but they didn't match up to the middle period landscapes so it was to those I devoted my time.
Often when I draw I have the experience of things becoming visible that I can hardly believe I'd previously managed to overlook. This happened in front of Hitchens' paintings and in front of some complicated foliage on a walk this week. It's a terrific experience! With the foliage, as I drew, my eye was led from one feature to the next. Patches of colour and bright individual flowers that I felt, once I'd noticed them, should have smacked me in the face from the outset had been entirely invisible to me. I really had not seen them. The same thing happened in front of Hitchens' paintings.
The day after the show I found time to ask what I'd gained from my return trip. Just as it'd been hard to frame a question in advance, so it proved difficult to declare an answer afterwards. I found myself just listing the things that I'd noticed, those things that had sprung into visibility. It feels like this might be an appropriate way to record visual learning when it occurs.
I saw some curling swirls of yellow-green paint take on the form of a garden bench (in 'Tangled Pool'). There's no doubt that this is what is represented, but it took quite a while for the marks to resolve into this form. Now they have, they'll never recede into the scene again. This recognition showed me how literal the painted image is, and I saw more clearly the space in which the bench sat and other nearby features (a garden wall, for instance). The apparent disorder of a complicated and seemingly abstracted painting contains far more coherence and shape than I'd initially given it credit for.
I saw other swirling brush marks, in the foreground of the same painting, give the impression of great complexity. Like Hitchens, I want to represent a small part of the natural world in paint but it's an immensely demanding thing to depict. Some painters paint all the complexity (e.g. John Pearce), which is impressive, but it's not for me. Hitchens' complexity is not evenly spread all over, it's hinted at in a few places. There is great variety across the canvas (a conscious aim of his). I'm beginning to wonder if I can include foregrounded plant life in a landscape. I like the way this sometimes works in some of my field sketches, but I can't yet see how to translate these drawn marks into paint. Having noticed how Hitchens does it I'm going to look at whether my other 'Famous Five' (Atkins, George, Prendergast, Rowlett, Schlee) do it, and, if so, how.
I saw that many of Hitchens' paintings bear a second look, how they contain so much that is worth poring over. My work doesn't yet repay close study. What you see is what you get. This is a considerable shortcoming.
I saw how patches of paint that are ostensibly one colour are on closer inspection variegated and rich with texture. It's not that Hitchens worked laboriously to manufacture this variety, rather his brushwork created the intricacy and interest. Most of his paintings have little evidence of paint being applied over paint. However, where marks overlap proved interesting: where one patch of colour is modified by a neighbouring mark from the same paint-laden brush intruding into the same space (there were good examples of this in 'Divided Oak, Green Summer').
I saw how thin and 'surface' is so much of the paint (especially in later paintings) and yet how intense the colours remain (e.g. 'September Water', a painting which I liked more and more as I looked at it for a time).
I saw how gloopy some of the paint is in the earlier work (e.g. in the central section of 'Winter Stage'). It's very liquid, and looks full of oil. This quality disappears in later paintings. N.B. I briefly discussed this painting, 'Winter Stage', in a post at the beginning of March (which I called 'Hitchens' Eye Music'). I expressed there the hope that one day I'd see the painting for real. Well now I have, and the wide panoramic sweep of the painting is every bit as impressive as I'd hoped it would be.
Incidentally, for the time being at least, I'm no longer pursuing the 'eye music' theme discussed in this and other posts. Now I'm sensitised to the idea I keep bumping into it. I've concluded, for the time being at least, that it's a reasonably fruitful metaphor but it doesn't gain a great deal by being unpacked analytically. I've read some nonsense that presses the analogy too far and it's not helpful. So my fond hope that I'd be able to look at a painting and point out examples of counterpoint or melody will not be realised. No great loss, probably.
Modernists and Mavericks: Reading Martin Gayford's excellent description of the life and work of the London painters has pushed Kentridge's drawing lessons to one side for a while. I'd like to work out a good way to hang on to what I'm learning from this book and also widen my acquaintance with the work of the many artists included (not just the mega stars like Bacon and Freud and Hockney).
Printmaking: I've done more in the print studio in the last week than in the previous six months. I wanted to review where things stood and then, if anything showed promise, pick up where I'd left off. In the event I created a small edition of one of my existing Hitchens-inspired etchings.
I think it's worth persisting with this theme, especially as I was able to prepare five plates from the paintings in the Chichester exhibition. Having drawn these, I was tempted to dive straight in with etching them, but I'm pleased that I bothered to make a couple of simple test plates first as I made lots of errors with these. I've subsequently etched two plates successfully, so the trials certainly prevented me from spoiling one or more of my images.
I don't really know how interesting these coloured etchings are. I oscillate between on the one hand quite liking my marks and the composition (clearly not mine) and, on the other, thinking I'm spectacularly managing to misrepresent Hitchens' skillful use of colour. I can't imagine he'd be too impressed with them, but if I manage to achieve a greater familiarity with the paintings that inspired them then that'll have been worthwhile. It could, perhaps, also serve as an example of visual research?
My recent re-reading of Kentridge's 'Six Drawing Lessons' stalled part-way through the first lesson when I generated my 'Advices and Queries' (see posts of 1st and 6th August). This was a fruitful exercise so I'm glad not to have ploughed on before completing it.
The main point of the first chapter is the primacy of making. The argument is both clearly explained and amply demonstrated, both in the way it's carried forward and in the examples given to support it. The medium very much is the message; a notable and convincing feature of the whole book.
Kentridge's unease about rationalisation in art practice is explicit, a viewpoint wholeheartedly reinforced in his answer to a question that I stumbled on in a video of a lecture. The exchange takes place in the 58th minute, when a student asks a refreshingly straightforward question: '...do you think artists have a tendency to make the work first and then explain it afterwards and come up with some understanding about what they were doing after they look at their process?' To which Kentridge unhesitatingly replies, 'Absolutely.' His emphatic response is greeted with laughter by the audience which, it seems to me, betrays genuine surprise and a fundamental misunderstanding of art practice. Kentridge continues:
'Absolutely we do. I mean it's always a process of kind of reverse engineering. Which is not to say that it's a stupid process or a wrong process... but... yes, I mean there are intuitions and there are thoughts of where one's going and there are interests that you follow, but all of those clarities in the beginning are no justification if the work doesn't bear them out, and all the stupidities and dumbnesses of origin of a work don't damn a work if when it's made it has an extraordinary... it has an interest and a meaning.
So, I would certainly say there is a kind of...and as I was saying, it's a primacy and a primary belief in the activity of making, and that's both the physical and the mental activity. It's not first thinking and then carrying out the instructions which your brain has given you. It's starting with an impulse of an idea and testing in the world of the stage or on a piece of paper or on a piece of film and navigating that relationship between the idea and what is presented. And then when it's finished then one obviously goes back and one neatens up and writes the essay.' (More laughter.)
I think this insight can sit comfortably alongside the declared content of the first term's study: '...we will be considering what constitutes art and design practice-led research, unpacking prevailing ideas and thinking and engaging with limitations, pitfalls and ethics, so as to build a solid foundation for your practice. We will do this through considering aspects of research such as critical reflection and other research skills, as well as negotiating diverse methods, methodologies and prevailing theories. In short we will learn to do research together.' During my Open Day visit and interview I gained the impression that this focus may not require practical activity during the term, but on the basis of my acceptance of Kentridge's main point I can't see how I can set it to one side at any point.
Near the start of the summer I received some pre-course information. In an introductory letter it was suggested that I 'could do some preparatory reading around Research Methods, by accessing an essential text for the module: Gray, C. and Malins, J. Visualising Research. A Guide to the Research Process in Art and Design (2004 ed. 2016),' adding that 'there is a PDF freely available on the internet.' I followed the link and have now read this text.
Had I completed only my initial science-based qualification I would be struggling more than I am with the notion that my forthcoming study amounts to 'research'. As it is, I've largely got over this particular hurdle through familiarisation with the methods of action research (in the context of school improvement), so I can launch into my course without too much 'physics-envy', comfortable enough with the idea that my practice-based investigations stand a chance of generating knowledge in the required way.
I was also provided a reading list, though I don't understand this to be pre-course reading. Until I gain access to the university library I'm unlikely to be able to track down much of this stuff (articles and journals in particular). A few listed texts are books though, so I considered buying one or two. I struggled to find anything that really caught my eye, but plumped for 'On Not Knowing: How Artists Think.' The title chimed in with thoughts sparked off by William Kentridge's 'Six Drawing Lessons'. However, this proved a poor choice as Amazon's asking price was an absurd £266.57 and - to discourage me further - one of just two available reviews stated: 'This was really the most ridiculous load of art academic's twaddle. Terrible value for money too. Should be put straight in pseuds corner' (sic.). Which comment (a) made me wonder whether the inclusion of the colon in the book's title was unwarranted, (b) persuaded me to leave it not bought and not read, and (c) confirmed me in my intention to persist instead with a careful re-reading of the whole of Kentridge's excellent text.
I fear I may be difficult to please when it comes to suitable reading matter. I mean to be gracious and open to new things, but I suspect I won't suffer too much twaddle willingly. A legacy, no doubt, of the aforementioned analytical, science-based, training.
SHOW, WHEREVER AND WHENEVER
This is the first of two quotations from a statement (of sorts) by the abstract painter Albert Irvin. I don’t know if it’s ever been published: I saw it displayed in an exciting exhibition at the RWA (Bristol) and copied it down. Part of what he said was, ‘I show my work wherever and whenever I can and sell it to any noble soul who’ll buy it.’
I’m not sure if it’s good advice – judicious choices might be a better bet – but since, to date, I’ve rarely troubled to exhibit my work I include it as a prompt for future action and a challenge not to be too precious about it.
An omitted character in the previous piece of advice (in my print) was a mistake not an affectation. It forced my hand to include this piece of advice. It’s a point well made.
WHAT IS IT LIKE, BEING HERE?
Final quotes from Sargy Mann:
‘The overall determining question is always, what is it like being here? This is not an easy question to answer and indeed one paints the picture in order to find and fix that answer, and the act of painting effects what it is like being there, enhances the experience if one gets it right.’
A major theme in Mann’s writing is that an artist learns to see more, to see better, by creating. And thereby to make better sense of being-here. ‘Artists explore their world with their art,’ he says, and:
‘you see, most people… their ambition in terms of what art can offer them, is so incredibly modest and I want it to be very… very ambitious.’
SHOW AGGRESSIVE CURIOSITY WITH HEALTHY SCEPTICISM
This phrase is borrowed from my former professional life. These qualities were declared (in the National Professional Qualification for Headship standards current at the time) as desirable in a successful head teacher. I think they’re entirely transferable to any number of settings, including my new college-based venture.
Bernard Leach, the potter, propounded and defended a standard in his craft by publishing images of exemplary pots. The would-be potter, he explained, ‘should touch and examine pots made by a good potter. He should stay away from theories.’ By gaining acquaintance with the best, ‘the viewer may glean broad principles if not precise rules (which)… if they are deep and wide enough can be suggestive and helpful.’ Rules and reasons won’t do the job:
‘Judgement in art cannot be other than intuitive… No process of reasoning can be a substitute for or widen the range of our intuitive knowledge.’
(The trouble is I’m easily beguiled by clever words and the insights they seem to offer.)
VIVIFY THE PARTICULAR | SEE THE SUBLIME EVERYWHERE
I’m a little embarrassed to include these phrases… they’re out of step with the more down to earth guidance from Leach (above)... and they are undeniably beguiling.
A fuller quote makes a worthwhile point that’s definitely in tune with other thoughts that I’ve chosen to include. It’s from a discussion of the functions of art (a subject calculated to provoke florid language):
‘A third function of art is its capacity to vivify the particular… what we overlook or disregard, the mundane, the ordinary, becomes a source of inspiration to the artist’s eye… Art frames our view and captures the moment.’
This is probably the ‘something-rather-than-nothing’ sense of wonder already described (previous post) and essentially the same point made by Malcolm Andrews when he sums up a chapter titled ‘Astonished beyond Expression’ with the following:
‘The inexpressible, ‘unpresentable’ properties of landscape, its power to dislocate and renew vision, are not confined to the great scenic spectacles of the world. The Sublime happens anywhere, once the film of familiarity is lifted or pierced.’
HAVE NO PLAN FOR THE FUTURE
A second quotation from Albert Irvin’s self-deprecating statement:
‘I have no plans for the future. The future is a series of jerks from one painting to the next, each one sowing the seeds of its successor.’
STAY ROOTED IN THE VISIBLE WORLD
If ‘rooted in the visible world’ was to describe the work of my top painters (Ivon Hitchens, Patrick George, George Rowlett et al), all thoroughly figurative, it would hardly be a surprise. That it’s a description of the uncompromisingly abstract work of Terry Frost underlines how foundational it is as a principle for my future practice.