Thursday, 21 May 2015

Garry Barker exhibition

I have been very busy putting up a show of drawings and other related work. Those of you who are regular followers are invited to the opening on May 29th at Assembly House in Leeds.

This exhibition is a great opportunity to see how my recent work is communicating with audiences. I was selected for this opportunity by the Assembly House curatorial committee, and that selection itself is always a boost to one's esteem, as you have in some way passed a first 'test' as to your work's ability to communicate. 

The main theme behind this body of work was a response to a conversation I had whilst making a drawing of a tower block in central Leeds on one of my walking and drawing days. 

The sketchbook drawing might not seem much of a starting point, but the conversation I had was a powerful one. I was told that the tower block was not a very nice place to live. It was hard to maintain any social interaction, especially as people in it were from all sorts of very different communities, the only thing they had in common was that they needed housing. Some of the people that had found themselves housed there had made their way across the Mediterranean and they had horror stories about the journey, these stories seeming to be common currency amongst the people that lived here. 
My conversation also brought out the fact that the idea of England as a wonderful land of opportunity was something soon forgotten as the reality of life became apparent. In many ways there was relief and gratitude, but also a realisation that someone well educated, (as my conversationalist was) was not going to be able to use that education and that their employment prospects were going to be menial labour. 
On returning to the studio I was already aware that I had an image of a hollow modernity as a starting point. The tower that as an idea had once expressed optimism in a modern future, was now discredited, no one wanted to live in these buildings, which was why they were now being used to house recent migrants into the city. I was also very aware that the refugee crisis was on the new nearly every day and that thousands had already died crossing the Mediterranean. I also had to somehow communicate something of the futility of these deaths. 

Initially the tower block was simply menacing and it sat behind views of typical Leeds views that I had made many a sketchbook drawing of.

A very rough sketch of a church tower surrounded in scaffolding suggested something else to me about the past in the present and the present shrouding the past, this would emerge as a shaping factor when I began to really draw towers.

Something was going wrong and my time in the studio had to find images for this.

Modernism began to feel as if it was inhuman and my first image was of empty buildings floating over the city and I began using the three key Modernism colours, red, white and black. People were falling, and somehow the fall was becoming mixed up in my mind with the Christian 'fall' of the angels that followed Satan being pitched out of Heaven. 

I also developed what I thought of as a 'God's eye view', a viewpoint I wanted to use because so many of the people I spoke to at this time who had come across as migrants had a strong faith and often stated that the situation was due to 'God's will'. In the drawing above we see what is happening through a gap in the clouds. 

This celestial viewpoint became more and more important to me and for a while dominated the imagery I was using for these drawings. 

I also began to imagine a room in the tower block and the things that would be in it. In tis case decorative ceramic plates for the wall depicting what was going on in my head, and this imagined room would eventually have its own wallpaper, depicting 'the Fall'. But that would come later, and would be a very important aspect of the exhibition and the focus for my interaction with an audience. 

The drawing above, (about 4 feet wide) was one of the first to 'arrive' that seemed to be about something. It had the hollow building, falling people and a sea, a sea which people were falling back into, the trees of the land losing their soil and now floating in mid air. Lost in the sea was a boat, too small to see easily, only to be picked out by this spending a lot of time with the image. This boat had arrived via various other drawings and the boat at sea would become a long running obsession for me, I found it hard to get out of my mind and chance encounters kept reinforcing it as being vital to what I was trying to communicate. 

Eventually the drawing above would be stripped down to its essence. The boat and wave form becoming a clear motif and symbol for the fragility of lives when cast adrift in a stormy sea. The simplified drawing also became a template for other ideas including the possibility of making this in ceramic, thus solidifying what had been up until now conjecture. 

At the same time as images of the wave were developing, the image of a huge literally skyscraper of a building, that stood for both the aspirations of those crossing the sea and the suggestion that on arrival things were not what they were envisioned to be was also coming into being. 

This image would eventually be refined to this 'upside-down' image that linked in my mind two spaces, one on the English south coast where I knew migrants had landed and the other in Leeds, where I knew some migrants had managed to reach and settle. 

Getting to Assembly House, 44 Canal Road, Armley, Leeds, LS12 2PL

Assembly House is in Armley, Leeds, on the junction of Canal Road and Pickering Street, just up the road from the Armley Mills industrial museum. Walking from the City Centre takes about 30 minutes along the Canal Path or Kirkstall Road.

The number 5 bus service runs directly past the studios and can be caught from Leeds train station, Kirkgate and Wellington Street. 

Sunday, 17 May 2015


Today is the anniversary of the death of Botticelli who died on this day in 1510. So let’s salute Sandro a true precursor of the modern predicament. Botticelli was a man who faced the full blast of political cross-winds and had to shape his responses accordingly. On the one hand his Classical images were a direct response to the Renaissance uncovering of Italy’s Classical past and his style owes much to the scientific discovery of perspective and the development of new forms of realism, but on the other hand he is bowled over by the force of Savonarola, the mad Catholic preacher who railed against the decadence of classicist influenced erotic art. It was as if as an artist you were having to work under the shadow of Isis but of course without the edict preventing the depiction of anything. These conflicts continue, artists now facing similar predicaments. Why should they make images at all? If they do so for what purpose and for who? Should artists be using their skills to raise awareness of the predicaments we face, global warming, religious fanaticism, mass migration, the loss of socialism and the failure of other political collectives. Is art only for the rich? Is it only for those looking for investment? These are indeed difficult times within which to make art. However one thing I do know is that when we look at a drawing by Botticelli, it still resonates across the years, its flowing energy still elevates the soul and makes you aware of something wonderful about the human spirit. 
Whether Botticelli was inspired by classical ideas or frightened by the prospect of a Christian Hell, his response was to draw and in that response he has left us with a unique document of a human being responding to complex and difficult times. 

Drawings for dante's Inferno

Friday, 8 May 2015

Fay Ballard at &Model

Fay Ballard: from House Clearance

Don't miss the Fay Ballard exhibition 'House Clearance' which is on at &Model from 14 May 2015 - 30 May 2015.

The opening is on Thursady evening 14th May 4pm till 8.30pm
If you don't know where the &Model Gallery is, it is very close to the Leeds City Art Gallery, just cross the road right in front of the Town Hall, East Parade is the road that comes from the station end of town and cuts up between the Town Hall and the Art Gallery.
The address is:
19 East Parade, Leeds, LS1 2BH, UK
Check out what &Model is up to here:

Read A Guardian review of the show.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Drawings in the newly refurbished Whitworth Gallery

Cornelia Parker ‘Cold, dark matter: An exploded view’ 

I finally managed to fit in a visit to the recently re-opened Whitworth Gallery in Manchester last weekend. It’s always good to see more space for contemporary art and the Whitworth also has a wonderful collection of drawings by a wide historical cross section of British artists, many of which are of a high quality. There is a lot to take in, but as this is a drawing blog, I have tried to pick out a few things that might be of use to those of you thinking about where to take your drawing interests next.

I really enjoyed the installation of Cai Guo-Qiang’s huge gunpowder drawing, ‘Unmanned Nature’, to get an idea of how these drawings are done, see the film below.

Years ago when I taught on Foundation we used to do ‘fire drawings’ using saltpetre that had been diluted in water with a little PVA. When the water evaporated you were left with a series of pyrochemical marks that were then lit and the resulting fire burned its way across the paper. Cai Guo-Qiang’s drawings are much more controlled and done under a layer of cardboard so that oxygen cant get to the paper, we hadn’t thought of that and had to stand ready with pots of water to douse the paper if it caught fire. You can still get saltpetre because it is used for curing beef, even Amazon stock it.

So how do you make a basic fire drawing? Mix potassium nitrate (the chemical name for saltpetre) into a small amount of warm water to make a saturated solution. It is fine if there is still some undissolved potassium nitrate left. Dip a paintbrush, cotton swab or if you really want to open out the mark potential some hand made drawing tools into the solution and make some drawings. (Be careful to use a heavy duty drawing paper, thin papers can flare up and burn too quickly) Make sure you start the drawings at the edge of any paper used. The lines of the drawing must be continuous because the fire will travel from the edge of the paper along the marks you have made, therefore make sure there are no gaps or have more than one starting point. Sometimes you have to re-trace or go back over the drawing to make sure there is enough potassium nitrate on every area. Your drawing will be virtually invisible, but you can lightly stain your solution with a little black ink if you need to see what you are doing.
Then allow the drawing to dry completely. Don’t try and speed this up by using a hairdryer.
Touch the start of the drawing with a light, (in those days everyone smoked, so we would just use a fag end). The drawing’s marks should ignite and smolder, the marks slowly being cut out by the red edge of the smolder, the rest of the paper should remain intact, but can at times burst into flame, so have pots of water at the ready. Cai Guo-Qiang’s drawings add the extra element of gunpowder, which means that ground charcoal is added to the mix, but then it starts to get dangerous and I cant advise you to go that far, unless you get heavy H&S support.

The drawings on display echo the themes of traditional Chinese landscape drawings, however when it was first conceived ‘Unmanned Nature’ was made in Hiroshima as part of a larger project that was made to reflect on Hiroshima’s position as the first city to suffer an atomic bomb attack.

The Whitworth display although no longer site specific, has tried to support the reading of the drawing by putting in a shallow pool, this reflects the drawing up-side down in its unruffled surface and helps turn this part of the gallery into a more meditative space.

Close up detail of the burnt surface

Cai Guo-Qiang ‘Unmanned Nature’

The main exhibition space is devoted to Cornelia Parker. Parker has often used drawing in her work, but always in a much more conceptual manner. In particular Parker creates her work out of what she often calls ‘loaded’ materials. I.e. materials that have a particular history or materials associated with a particular set of uses. She is often seen working with subjects related to violence and war, in this exhibition there is for instance a drawing made out of melted down bullets and then the metal is made into lead thread that is then used to construct a gridded drawing. The grid as I have pointed out before can be seen as being about power and control and of course so can the bullet. 

Detail from Bullet Drawing

She has also done a series of ‘self-portraits’ this time using her own blood to draw 4 basic universal geometric forms, shapes that she says only exist in human minds and nowhere else. So in effect her blood is mixed with an idea, reminding us of both the blood/wine / flesh/wafer of the Catholic mass and the mind / body separation that the philosopher Descartes was considering when he uttered his well-known statement, “I think, therefore I am”. She is probably also very aware of more current philosophies of the embodied mind, as typically developed by Johnson and Lakoff.

Self portrait as a circle 2015

Self portrait as a triangle 2015

Self portrait as a line 2015

Self portrait as a square 2015

Just because they are very beautiful I was especially drawn to her Poison and Antidote drawings. She obtained rattlesnake venom, enough to kill 10 people and then sourced the antidote. She then mixed the poison with black ink and the antidote with white and created Rorschach test like ink blots. The Rorschach test is designed to help psychiatrists tap into a patient's inner mind, and rattlesnake poison often causes a bitten person to hallucinate before they succumb to unconsciousness. These drawings could if eaten poison you and save your life at the same time and when looked at could also be a trigger into your sub-conscious. 

Poison and antidote drawing 2012

The Cornelia Parker exhibition has several of these types of conceptual drawings and is well worth a visit if you are looking to develop a more rigorous approach to an underlying conceptual narrative to your drawing practice.

Of particular interest for those of you looking at that frayed edge between the disciplines of sculpture and drawing is her ‘Black Path’. Made of patinated black bronze, this is a cast of the cracks between paving stones, taken from the non-conformist cemetery of Bunhill Fields in London. William Blake is buried there. Parker’s cast of the spaces between the slabs was made in rubber and cast in bronze, then finally laid on the floor like a horizontal drawing, with iron pins set into it at regular points to make it appear as if the piece is floating just above the floor; and it’s the pins that make all the difference.

Black Path

Black Path detail

 Her famous ‘Cold, dark matter: An exploded view’ installation is also on show, a piece that has been written about by many critics. However, one approach you can take to it is to think of the installation as a ‘shadow drawing’. As a shadow drawing technique, hanging objects in front of a single light source in a dark room is a very powerful one. I have referred to this technique before and have used it myself, it is very seductive and well worth investigating. Tim Noble and Sue Webster are of course the artists that have really taken shadow drawing on and refined it as an installation process.

Shadows cast from ‘Cold, dark matter: An exploded view’ 

Noble and Webster

I'm always interested in how work is displayed and there were a couple of examples of alternative ways of doing this in the different supporting exhibitions. There was a Thomas Schütte exhibition of etchings where the prints were hung just above head height from taut wires criss crossing the gallery space. People had to work around the lines of images and could pass through purposefully left gaps. 

Images above from Thomas Schütte's Low Tide Wandering 2001

There was also a portrait exhibition, these were mainly drawings but from a very diverse range of artists, both professional and amateur and covering a wide rage of media and sizes.  In order to accommodate this complexity and make visual sense of it the gallery had gone for a salon hang, but a very controlled version of it. 

Using a very large gallery space that could have been overpowering, the curator had clustered the works into 'salon hung' blocks. As you can see from my quickly taken photographs by blocking the works, it was much easier to divide up the space coherently. Notice how the larger simple drawings have been placed at the top as they are easier to read from a distance. Tiny drawings are at head height or low down. 
It was also fascinating to see that more digital photoframes are now being used in this type of salon hang context. It looks as if people are now running animated gifs that have been converted into MPEG files, so that cheap photoframes can host images such as Rachael Goodyear’s Woodman of 2011. There is another of her hand crafted animations available here
Rachael Goodyear’s Woodman of 2011

There was of course a lot more to see, for instance because I have spent some time recently drawing waves I was particularly taken with this tiny drawing of waves below, from the Whitworth's stunning collection of traditional drawing and it's always wonderful to see original William Blake drawings. 

William Blake: Illustration to Milton's "On the morning of Christ's nativity".

From Sarah Lucas to Richard Hamilton, from textiles to print archives, the Whitworth is well worth a visit. Find out what's on here