Sunday, 28 September 2014

The Importance of Local Exhibitions

One of the modules that you will have to respond to this year will be the PPP one. Whether you are at level 4, 5 or 6 this module runs right through the course. One aspect of this is a reflection on possible opportunities to advance your career by exhibiting. Visiting local exhibitions can be a great way to develop documentary evidence of this. For instance Karolina Szymkiewicz’s exhibition   "Pandora's Box" opened this Thursday at Union105 (105 Chapeltown Road, LS7 3HY, Leeds) and is open until the 5th Oct. My first observation is a basic one, I went to the opening and not one student from LCA attended. I know it was first week back, but there was free wine. I presume everyone has a LVAF account, if not you should have one. Go to I do realise they send out lots of information that might not be directly relevant but they do advertise most of the openings that take place in the area and openings are free and usually drinks and free nibbles are also available. The drinks of course are incidental, what is more important is how an opening or visit to a small exhibition can add to your professional development.
Karolina Szymkiewicz: Pencil Drawing

Small openings are good networking events. (I know some of you will cringe at the mention of the word, but getting to know others in the arts community is vital if you are to become aware of opportunities). Because there won’t be so many people there, it is more likely people will talk to you and conversations can lead anywhere. Small exhibitions are usually in peripheral spaces and so are usually full of artists just entering the profession or artists looking for new spaces to exhibit in. Therefore the situation is one you may well find yourself in, in the very near future. It’s a great opportunity to ask whoever is showing how they made contact with the gallery space, find out what were the issues about showing there and try and think through how you would have used the same space.
Union105 is an East Street Arts space. It has artists studios above the gallery and because it is based in Chapeltown it has also been trying to develop some community outreach work and last year they ran a series of community workshops alongside several of the exhibitions that took place.
The show on at the moment has a local connection. The Northern School of Contemporary Dance is almost directly over the road from the gallery and the drawings on display were done as part of a larger project involving the interaction between artists and dancers. The show itself consists of prints done from drawings.

As you can see from the image above, the drawings are figurative and done by an artist with a strong background in academic drawing. The artist Karolina Szymkiewicz was trained in Poland (See ) and now works in Leeds and has a practice that operates between illustration and fine art. During the opening I was able to have a conversation with her about the fine art/illustration issue and she is struggling with this divide herself. She feels that because of the skills involved in what she does she is almost always categorized as an illustrator but she wants to develop a career as a fine artist as well. This could be a very interesting area to unpick as part of your PPP reflection, because the boundaries between disciplines can slip and people starting off on one side of the divide can move that barrier and find themselves firmly on the other side. For instance if you look at Warhol’s career, he moved from being an illustrator to one of the fine art world's key figures.
My last post was a reflection on the life room tradition and the work on show is what it is because of the continuing practice of academic drawing within Eastern European art schools. This itself poses questions as to the nature of art education and what should be taught. I’m sure you will have your own thoughts on this.
Then there is the issue of how work is displayed. A reflection on this each time you go to an exhibition is important, you really need to develop a clear idea of how to hang work, especially drawings because the difference between one hanging method and another changes the whole ‘read’ of the work.
In this case the images were hung from their top edge by a white wooden batten, (see image below). By doing this the artist moves the emphasis onto the paper as object and away from the idea of the drawing as illusion; this perhaps reflecting the fact that the artist is trying to break into new areas of representation, her images now moving between the two languages of tonal and line drawing. I wasn’t too sure this was right, but I could see the reasoning behind it.

Whatever you might think of the actual work, as you can see the exhibition raises issues and as students you need to construct a professional engagement with whatever is happening in the art world, not to praise it or dam it but simply to become aware of possibilities and to help yourself with future decision making. 

Don't forget there is a joint opening this coming week at the Leeds City Art Gallery, Thursday 6 till 8
Shezad Dawood and Elín Jakobsdóttir, in particular Jakobsdóttir is showing drawings. If you are going to the first Thursday evening life drawing class, we will be going to the opening once the session finishes. 

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Life Drawing

With apologies to Daniel Clowes

I’ve been asked to put on a series of life drawing sessions for drawing strand students. This has of course raised several contentious issues, not least of which has been that often posed question, “What place has life drawing in the modern art school curriculum?” The problem is that as an activity it carries a hell of a lot of baggage. The study of fine art is associated with a particular set of behaviours and attitudes that have evolved over the years. These attitudes come with a complicated history, a history that directly impacts on the idea of the life class. For instance the history of Modernism begins with a direct refusal (the Salon de Refusés: 1863) of and rejection of the modes and practices of the academy and academy trained artists. The life room was an integral part of a classical art training and it presupposed that an artist needed a certain skill-set in order to develop a recognised practice. Modernism swept these ideas away and the focus was now on the development of a ‘signature’ or personal practice that did not rely on a set of agreed conventions. The position of the human figure as the dominant subject was questioned and as artists opened out new territories to explore, the figure became just one of many possible subjects. During the 1970s the practice was further questioned, this time due to much wider sociological issues. Most of the unclothed images of human beings within Western Art history dealt with the naked female figure. Women started to question what this was about, and several feminist writers pointed out that artists (mainly male of course) still making images of naked women were often doing so without any real understanding that as a practice it was loaded with complex aesthetic, moral and most of all voyeuristic connotations. The concept of the male gaze was introduced into what was then current theoretical debate and it became hard to justify life drawing as an objective practice. The politics of the life room were unpicked and often seen to be unsavoury, the boundaries between serious art and smut were hotly debated and for many artists the life room started to represent not only an out of date pre-Modernist practice, but also a particularly suspicious arena within which slightly dubious patriarchal conventions still held sway.
However here I am about to re-introduce life-drawing into the curriculum. Why? The conventional argument would be that drawing from the figure helps students to develop observational skills, skills that can then be applied to the drawing of anything. Why the human figure? Because it is so subtle and complex in its organisation and because as humans ourselves we are hyper aware of subtle distinctions in relation to the bodily form of others and to the distribution of its parts and how these effect our awareness of emotional resonance and non-verbal communication.  I.e. that we can approach the figure like a doctor, and objectively study its proportions and muscle structure, that we can build up a catalogue of poses that can help us think about how the body effects communication and how a stance or pose can signify perhaps unease or anger.
All perhaps true, but why not work from a clothed figure every week? Clothing is a key form of human communication and is inseparable from how we develop our individual body language. (We will in fact sometimes be working from the clothed figure, but not all the time) The situation is very artificial; a group of 15 to 20 clothed people surround one naked figure (this will be sometimes male and sometimes female) and stare at them for up to 2 hours at a time. In normal life if anyone stares at you for more than 2 minutes you might think there is something wrong. The models will ‘allow’ a whole group of people to stare at them, they are paid to do what is asked, whilst of course bearing in mind the ‘decorum’ of the life-room.
Is it actually possible to eliminate the emotive frission that the situation engenders? I don’t think so. So I am proposing to spend several evenings walking and talking and pointing things out about measurement, creating a language of form, finding mark equivalents for the texture of skin, the way muscle wraps around bone, finding a dynamic composition that can reflect the way balance is maintained while the figure holds a contrapposto position etc. etc. And yet at the same time trying to make everyone aware of that strange condition called the life-room and what it represents. Trying to make students aware of their own emotional engagement with the situation and how this too can be built into their image making.
This series of sessions will be balanced upon a dangerous pedagogic tightrope. Not the least problem being the skill issue. It takes approximately 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill. If a student attends every session they will have done 16 hours drawing. Therefore expectations as to the raising of personal skill levels might not be met. This is probably the most potent art school ‘myth’ that surrounds the life room, the one of skill. Skill in drawing in particular and my most serious question in relation to the life room is perhaps this, what skills are we really developing here?
There are the motor skills of hand/eye control. The skills associated with getting to understand your drawing medium, how ink flows or how tone can be gradually built using a controlled pencil hatching. There are the skills associated with expression, recognizing when a particular mark quality has the potential to carry a certain emotional significance etc. However the skills associated with self-awareness and reflection may be even more important. A growing awareness of how posture carries meaning or how gesture is used as body language. These observations coupled with an understanding of the artificial environment of the life-room and what this itself signifies may have a longer lasting effect on an individual than the actual practice of drawing. Whatever approach is seen to be of value, there is a rich and still vital arena for exploration here and this is why I have agreed to host these sessions. As long as everyone is open minded and engaged as to the possibilities of the situation they will I hope gain a heightened awareness of how the human body is used as a vehicle for communication. Yes it is a physical object, an object that has an internal structure of fluids and bone and muscles, an object with a particularly fascinating surface of skin and hair and cartilage. But this is also about a particular confrontation with a human being, someone making a living, enacting out their part in a drama that has a long history and whoever takes part in this engagement is also acting out their part, whether it is myself as the life tutor or a student hiding behind their drawing board because they are slightly nervous about their drawing skills. This is as I pointed out at the beginning of this post a charged and contentious arena, but that is not an argument I believe to therefore avoid it, only another argument to re-enter the arena and create another and perhaps all the more richer response.  

Friday, 19 September 2014

'The Nakeds' at the Drawing Room

It’s nearly time for everyone to start back at college and we have been finalising briefs, writing handouts and putting together new lectures. One result of the college refurbishment is that we have reinstated a dedicated life drawing room. This will mean that life drawing becomes available again and for drawing students there will be 2 hour sessions on Thursday evenings, 5 till 7.  I shall be hosting these, so any of you interested in either just sharpening your concentration and ability to look or just wanting to make images from the body should come along, the sessions will be open to all drawing strand students.

Interestingly The Drawing Room is staging an exhibition looking at contemporary approaches to figure drawing. Any of you interested in developing a body of work around this theme should go. It opens 25th of September and is on until the 29th of November. A wide range of artists will be represented, including one of the college’s ex-students, Georgina Starr as well as images by Joseph Beuys who I worked with at one time back in the early 1980s when he visited the college.

This is the line up:
David Austen, Fiona Banner, Joseph Beuys, Louise Bourgeois, George Condo, Enrico David, Marlene Dumas, Tracey Emin, Leon Golub, Stewart Helm, Chantal Joffe, Maria Lassnig, Paul McCarthy, Chris Ofili, Carol Rama, Egon Schiele, Nancy Spero, Georgina Starr, Alina Szapocznikow, Rosemarie Trockel, Nicola Tyson, Andy Warhol and Franz West.

Working from the figure and at the same time keeping the imagery fresh and alive is very, very hard. On the one hand because we are all so aware of what the human form looks like we are hyper-critical of any human image; we are prone to see faults and distortions rather than to praise. On the other hand because so many artists have worked in this territory and the vast majority of historical artists having many years focused training on producing convincing images of figures, that coming to this new means that either you are tempted to despair that your work doesn’t measure up to ‘the masters’ or get too caught up in trying to make yet another ‘nice’ life drawing. The challenge is to re-invent and to yet still be able to engage with hard looking. 

Joseph Beuys

George Condo

Maria Lassnig

Stewart Helm

I’m looking forward to starting these life drawing sessions, it’s not worth doing if it’s too easy and I enjoy a challenge. However if you are going to come, don't just rely on what will be provided, try and bring your own paper, paper quality is vital to a good drawing, and think about applicators, pencil and charcoal are fine, but what sort? How will you erase marks and how will the process of erasure lead towards a 'found' or 'discovered' image rather than a predicted one? You can draw with paint, inks, chalks, directly on to etching plates, cut forms out directly in paper etc etc there is no right way. We will start with short poses and each session for the first 5 weeks will have a different focus, so these will not be 'free for all' sessions. However as the sessions develop I would hope each to see individual approaches coming through and by Christmas the sessions will have changed their focus from directed approaches to sessions designed to help individuals 'hone' their own language. The first session will be Thursday 2nd of October starting at 5pm and will be in the new life studio which is where Advertising Design was last year, just off to the right of the  end of the corridor that runs alongside the first year Fine Art studios. 
The skills required are quite complex, so don't expect quick results, I will therefore expect everyone that wants to do this to attend every week, as sessions will be designed to build up a range of abilities over time and drawing skills are like any others, you need to practice them in order to be able to control what you are doing. It is said that high level skills of this sort need over 10,000 hours of practice before you are in complete control of them, ten two hour sessions will without further practice, not be enough. 

Richard Sennett writes about these issues in The Craftsman see this review

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Grayson Perry at Temple Newsam House

If you have not been there it’s well worth a trip to Temple Newsam House. It’s just off the York Road about 20 minutes by bus from Leeds city centre. (Number 10 bus from Infirmary Street, (just off City Square) drops you off right outside) However you do have to pay to go in, it cost me £7 for a joint ticket to the house and the farm, but I wanted to draw some pigs so had other things to do when I was there. The house is set in a wonderful Capability Brown designed landscape, so it’s also a great place to go walking.
Temple Newsam house is being used to exhibit Grayson Perry’s ‘The Vanity of Small Differences’ Click
These large scale tapestries are done directly from drawings constructed using computer software very similar to a cross between Photoshop and Illustrator.
What I found most interesting about the show was first of all the curation. The tapestries are housed amongst the House’s permanent collection of Classical paintings and antique ceramics, tapestries and furniture. By doing this, an interesting dialogue is created between Perry’s desire to reference Hogarth and other ‘Classical’ artists and art works from the periods he is trying to invoke and the works of art within the house. For instance in one room there is some old Leeds pottery with scenes from the Prodigal Son, another narrative of a life gone wrong.  
Leeds Pottery scene from the Prodigal Son series

In another room there is a large Chinese screen, its composition illustrating a narrative scene from the Dream of Red Chambers, a famous Qing dynasty novel. The border, which incorporates vases of flowers, utensils and traditional Taoist symbols, is guarded by an inner dragon pattern surround and an outer band of lotus motifs, the whole composition, including the border being a reminder of how within narrative images you often need to flatten the compositional space in order to allow different actions to be easily seen. The fact that this image is carved in low reverse relief and then coloured, making the screen a very interesting comparison to Perry’s woven images.  
Really bad photograph of the Chinese screen

They are also of course showing Hogarth’s original ‘Rakes Progress’ prints, so you can compare how inventive Perry is in relation to the original 18th century prints.  
Hogarth Rake's Progress

Perry references several classical artists and in particular takes ideas from religious paintings. 
Masaccio, Expulsion from Eden

Detail from The Vanity of Small Differences

The tragedy of life is a continuing fact of the human condition and by looking back at how artists from different periods and times have depicted this we can learn a lot about how to pose or organise complex images of people interacting together. In a recent post I mentioned that this summer I had been travelling around Belgium looking at Flemish painters from the 15th and 16th century, I did several drawings when there trying to clarify how certain compositions can be used to help link and yet separate out various different areas for action. I’m now employing some of these ideas back in my studio.  As artists we are part of a long ongoing tradition and I would always recommend looking as much at historical practices as contemporary ones. In fact looking too much at what is happening now can make it harder to determine what your own work is about, but when you look at art within a much longer timeframe, certain issues will always re-occur and you can sift out what it is you are really trying to deal with. Bill Viola is a good artist to look at in this respect. Even though he mainly uses video, his approach to his subject is heavily dependent on his knowledge of Renaissance painting.

The other issue for me was the process. Perry had undertaken extensive research. This was partly photographic and partly hand drawn. (Of course there was the filmed element, but I wasn’t sure how much was due to him and how much the work of the film producer/director. They are though screening the original programs so you can sit and watch if you missed them first time round). It was clear that he went out and talked to people, he engaged them directly in his project. Whilst getting engaged with his subject he was always taking photographs, so I presume he built up an extensive archive of images to work from. The second stage appeared to be done in notebooks, lots of drawings being used to construct ‘compositions’ and ideas for the tapestries. 

Grayson Perry notebook pages

The final stage was to work up the more finished images, have them scanned into a computer and then further refined using specialist computer software. You could say that the final tapestries are in effect coloured in drawings.  I have always been interested in comic-book art and I found another parallel here. Perry’s methods are very similar to the way graphic novel pages are constructed. Usually starting with hand drawn images, these are then scanned into Photoshop and clarified / coloured and outputted for print within the computer environment. Again this is something I’ve been doing myself recently, a set of cards I have just had printed started life as pencil drawings and were eventually coloured in PhotoShop. The colour separations I used were based on some silk-screen prints I did last year, which is a reminder of how working through different technologies opens out the decision making process.
Whatever you might think of the final images, the process is a powerful one and relies on engaging directly with ‘real-life’ and issues that are important to our society.  His easy grasp of the relationship between hand drawing, ancient weaving techniques and the use of computer software is also a very useful lesson in using whatever tools are available to us and not discounting them because they are too old or too new.

Find images and texts taken from the same exhibition when it was in Birmingham here.

Grayson Perry's Reith Lectures more