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.
WONDER THAT THERE IS SOMETHING NOT NOTHING
I guess at some point pretty much everyone catches a glimpse of the fact that being-here in an observable world is remarkable.
That there is a world to see, and that I’m here to see it, feels significant. Uncanny. Surprising. Wonderful.
I have the health, resources, freedom and opportunity to give some time to this. Which makes me very lucky indeed.
I know it.
ASK WHERE YOU BELONG | STAY CLOSE TO HOME
For the moment I’m drawn to represent landscape. Mostly the places close to home, specifically an unremarkable bit of countryside at the edge of town and the estate itself where I live. ‘Landscape in art… asks us to think about where we belong,’ says Andrews (which perhaps invites deeper thoughts about what belonging means).
If the fact of my ‘being-here’ is remarkable, in and of itself, then the ‘here’ bit, the particular place I accidentally find myself in, feels significant. I’m not interested in tracking down exotic or striking views.
There’s certainly a tradition of representing ordinary people and places and things. Patrick George said, ‘I do not know why I am only interested in my immediate surroundings, the same trees, the same fields and railings… The well-known surroundings are like furniture in a room, just there until you notice them.’ And Martin Heidegger was at pains to understand average everydayness: ‘all existing is how it is out of this kind of being and back into it,’ he said. Rule this out as uninteresting and you rule out most of life. And that can’t be right.
HEY, BE HAPPY WHATEVER YOU DECIDE
Words from a poem by Raymond Carver in which, torn between several possibilities, he wonders how to spend his day. He concludes:
‘Hey, I’ll live, and be happy,
Whatever I decide.’
I hope that my art practice remain a source of joy. I don’t want to count myself amongst the number of those ‘who seem to hate their work and go through their artistic life in a state of self-critical rage and misery.'
PROJECT YOUR FELT LIFE
‘Felt life’ is from Henry James (he speaks of the ‘perfect dependence of the ‘moral’ sense of a work of art on the amount of felt life concerned in producing it’). In connection with my efforts I can do no better than quote Patrick George again: ‘Could there be a better way of passing the time than sitting in a field surrounded by the intense concentration of nature…? We paint because it is all marvellous to look at, that’s why.’ I hope something of that feeling shows through in what I make.
MAKE YOUR IGNORANCE AS PRECISE AS YOU CAN
‘What is the value of knowledge? That it makes our ignorance more precise.’
This phrase encapsulates a right attitude to study and practice, one that accepts ‘aims that we can achieve only fractionally and imperfectly.’ This isn’t, however, a counsel of despair: ‘It means… not abandoning the pursuit of truth, even though if you want the truth rather than merely something to say, you will have a good deal less to say.’
But not nothing to say.
TURN YOUR BACK ON LOOKING AND SEE
This enigmatic phrase is from Terry Frost’s notebooks. Various notes are gathered together in a chapter called, ‘Desire, imagination and discipline’. It’s a dense, allusive passage worth re-reading. I think it contains a lot of wisdom. Here’s a bit more:
‘If you look you can’t see for looking. Looking for something to inspire you to work is an escape from taking action.
The decision to take action is the only way of seeing.
If you look and look the tree becomes a tree and not a particular tree moment…
Turn your back on looking and see.
If you must look, stand on your head to do it.
Look at the works. Read the philosophers. Think and work as hard on the subjective as on the objective – one does not exist without the other…’
GLORY BE TO GOD FOR DAPPLED THINGS
by Gerard Manley Hopkins
Glory be to God for dappled things –
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Ivon Hitchens’ paintings contain something of the quality of Hopkins’ poetry, and Hitchens' notes about painting include similar pairs of opposites (‘dark-light, warm-cool, up-down, in-out. Circular shapes, square angular shapes. Large sombre areas – short, quick notes…’). John Piper made the connection between the painter and the poet in notes for an exhibition in 1940, as described by Peter Khoroche (though he acknowledges any links between the two are actually strained). Anyway, if I ever manage to include an inkling of the same sense of wonder in anything I make I’ll be a happy man…
TRAP FUGITIVE VISIONS
This aim is taken from a discussion of Mark Rothko’s work:
‘One of the words Rothko used most often about his art – but it could be extended to all art – is ‘poignant’, for the best of it is suffused both with a sense of the inevitable passing of things, including us, and with art’s determination to trap, consolingly, those fugitive visions.’
INVENT, DON'T TRY TO RECOVER
I could be tempted to copy the work of others, and I know I’m tempted to recycle some of my own better bits in new things that I make. Both approaches are doomed to fail, before long.
As a teacher I used to tell children, ‘It’s okay to steal other people’s ideas as long as you make them your own.’ And I believe it still. The hard bit, of course, is making things your own: that requires invention.
(These words are stolen – and reapplied – from Tony Parson’s description of a character in his novel ‘Man and Boy’: ‘…she was still really young and curious, still discovering what she wanted from the world. Still inventing her life rather than trying to recover it.’)
For the first time, I’m starting formal study of Fine Art. What follows is advice to myself, plus questions to answer. I don’t think I could or should follow it all –some things probably contradict others – but I think that what’s here matters, or is at least interesting. I’m not pretending any of it necessarily applies to others. It’s really just for myself at this time.
The idea of gathering these thoughts was copied from the first lesson of William Kentridge’s ‘Six Drawing Lessons’. There, in preparation for a series of lectures, he ‘listed every thought I had ever had, or remembered someone else having.' Since all my thoughts are stolen from someone else I’ve explained who they really belong to below and in two subsequent posts.
ADVICES & QUERIES
The title, ‘Advices and Queries’, is the name of a book of guidance made by members of the Quakers (Society of Friends) in Britain. The first list of advices was in 1656 and ended with:
‘Dearly beloved Friends, these things we do not lay upon you as a rule or form to walk by; but that all, with a measure of the light, which is pure and holy, may be guided: and so in the light walking and abiding, these things may be fulfilled in the Spirit, not in the letter, for the letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life.’
Both ‘light’ and ‘life’ would be very welcome as I start my studies.
WHAT DO YOU WANT TO DO?
‘Authenticity’ was a goal of some twentieth century thinkers. It supposes that ‘an individual must take over their own existence with clarity and intensity.’ I take this to mean that I should be able to give a decent answer to the question: ‘What do you want to do?’ Which is surprisingly difficult.
Oh… and then try to do it.
TRUST PRACTICE NOT RHETORIC
Perversely, I rather like the writings of Martin Heidegger (the bits I’ve managed to struggle through anyway). He showed that theoretical knowledge is not the foundation that we mostly suppose it to be. Instead, practical ‘taking care of’, or coping, is how we mostly deal with things.
Making a related point, Richard Rorty says that propositional statements ‘turn out to be rhetorical ornaments of practice rather than foundations,’ explaining ‘this is because we have much more confidence in the practice in question than in any of its possible philosophical justifications.’ This is worth emphasising at the start of my study of art.
ACT WITH PRECISION IN A STATE OF UNCERTAINTY
Reflecting on changes in the way he painted (a consequence of his failing sight and advancing years) Sargy Mann wrote: ‘As long as one has the ability to organise materials and is able to discover new experiences, art can be made. I have always believed that artists are people who can act with precision in a state of extreme uncertainty. It is not always easy or comfortable but it’s what we like doing and I hope to keep going.’
‘Keep going’ is very good advice too.
ALWAYS TRY TO MAKE
This underlines the earlier advice to trust practice. Terry Frost declared, ‘The great problem is to sort out your own ideas,’ and went on to explain what this means for a painter: ‘Practice is the answer, experience is the catalyst between theory and practice. Always try to make, or a great danger is that you could think yourself to a standstill.’ It seems to me that the moment you stop making is the moment you stop being an artist.
BETTER BE SORRY THAN SAFE
Patrick George’s paintings are low key and well-mannered, yet he recognised the importance of taking risks. In advice to his students he’s quoted as saying: ‘Better to be sorry than safe when painting.’ My temperament is to be cautious, so I state this as a challenge to myself.
DON'T CHOOSE YOUR STYLE
Sargy Mann again:
'I have always detested the idea of style as something you choose and felt that style was how you turned out to have done it and should only be talked about retrospectively if at all… However, for all that I was opposed to the idea of style, I knew that figurative painting… achieved figuration by means of some sort of pictorial convention and although it was a condition of being any good that one arrived at one’s own necessary way of painting, nonetheless there were different conventions that had been employed at different times and by different artists and which were in some respects mutually exclusive. So there had to be some sort of choosing of how one was going to proceed even if one might change one’s way of doing it mid-way through making a painting. This dilemma of how to choose a figurative convention or pictorial language, but not choose a style has troubled me ever since my student days… The only test has always been, what seems most true at the time; different ways of drawing and using colour seem most true at different times.’ (My emphasis.)
EMPLOY IMAGES OF MAKING RATHER THAN FINDING
The images in this quotation are the pictures in my head of what I think I’m doing as I develop ideas and complete work (they’re not the works themselves). Am I seeking to find the one best way? Or making one of any number of alternatives?
Strictly speaking the answer has to be ‘making’, I suppose, but the danger of emphasising invention is that it seems to make all solutions as good as each other, an arbitrary choice amongst free-floating possibilities. But completing a picture can feel a lot like uncovering or revealing something; something connected to the way the world really is. Perhaps it’s simply an illusion, but the process of making does seem to contain necessity.
I want to make the things that I feel compelled to make, in ways that feel necessary, not just selected.
ASK QUESTIONS SLOWLY
My study and practice is likely to be framed in the form of questions, more or less explicit. These will, I’m sure, somehow be about the business of ‘being-in-the-world’. Since I manage to negotiate my way through each day I must have an inkling of what this entails, but whether I will manage to shed any further light I can’t yet know, only hope. I’m not even sure what an answer to this sort of question might look like. So patience is the order of the day: ‘Questions without answers must be asked very slowly.’