Saturday, 31 October 2015

Drawing on Photographs

The prevalence of large-scale digital printers and the, (in comparison), lower printing costs of large scale images on good quality paper, has seen a rapid rise in drawings on top of photographic imagery. This practice has a particular history; you could trace the combination of drawing and photographic collage back to early cubist collages and the fascinating issue of how artists deal with bits of reality within an image stems from that time.



The issue is one of separation and combination. A piece of collage exists both as a slice or piece of the ‘real’ world and as a formal element within an image. For instance Gris uses actual pieces of material from decorative surfaces, and then integrates drawing onto their surfaces. A mark or line exists as a physical thing made of chalk or graphite or paint, but it also operates as a conceptual idea. For instance a drawn line can represent something else, it operates metaphorically; the artist could draw an image of a beer bottle label as a representation, or the artist could stick a real beer bottle label into the image, in which case it represents itself. It operates as a slice of reality within and amongst a representation of reality. A photograph operates within a similar territory and of course many of our collage materials have photographs embedded within them. Newspapers, magazines, product wrappings and advertising flyers all rely on a photographic ‘texture’ to provide verification for their contents. Rauschenberg was particularly adept at playing with this duality when using image transfer techniques. (see earlier post) He is able to lock his mark making techniques into the way he transfers images, pencil rubbings directly removing print surfaces onto paper, silk screen print applying paint to canvas within a photographic format, the image now made of paint is thus transferred into the language of gestural marks.


There is both an intellectual tension and an emotional friction here. For instance, Plato complained about artists creating false illusions, using trickery to deceive the public. Both photography and collage it could be argued break that illusion. A photograph has a ‘direct’ correlation with reality, (this is why you can only use a photographic image of yourself on your passport), and collage elements are of course taken directly out of the ‘real’ world. One passes smoothly into the other, a photographic print could be both exhibited as art and/or found on the floor as yet another discarded piece of paper based rubbish. The issue begins to develop a further complexity when the writings of Greenberg are added into the mix. Greenberg argued that any form of illusion in painting was in effect working against the specificity of the medium. Artists therefore, he argued should be only looking at paint's qualities of surface effect and colour to develop meaning, not seeking to represent reality. Abstract Expressionism, the movement particularly associated with his ideas, concentrated on separating out painting's representational ability from its physical properties. Photography   replacing painting as the only legitimate tool for making representations of the visual world. 

So what happens when you use a photograph as a surface to draw on? Both languages are read at the same time, one is though operating as a ground, (the photograph), the other as ‘the mark', however a mark laid on top of a photograph defiles or damages the image, and establishes another reality, the language of mark and gesture. Photographic languages tend to operate as if the photograph is a form of verification, but as to its deeper semiotic meaning, it is often a free floating signifier, just as any real object in the world awaits our giving it a use value, the mark or drawn text provides an additional emotional or annotational signifier that can be used to 'anchor' a photograph's meaning. What we seek is closure, which can be thought of as the glue holding these different elements together. It’s about the human tendency to seek and find patterns, and to apply meaning to these patterns. In psychology we would call this gestalt theory. The key to closure is providing enough information so the eye/brain can fill in the rest. If too much is missing, the elements will be seen as separate parts instead of a whole. If too much information is provided, there’s no need for closure to occur.

Typical of the images that deal with these issues are the gestural marks on photographs in the work of Huma Bhabha. The scale is typical of images printed using a digital laser printer such as the ones we now have in college, these images are about 6 feet high; human sized. In her re-worked photographs, taken by Bhabha in her native Karachi in southern Pakistan, the artist undermines the documentary tradition of the photograph with a darker, personal vision that is carried by the gestural marks applied across the surface. The photographic document is obliterated or defiled, in effect graffitied over. 

 Huma Bhabha

An artist that makes a powerful drama out of the conjunction of the photograph and drawing on its surface is A
rnulf Rainer. He keeps a fine balance between the photograph as document and marks as signs of emotion. The tradition of Expressionism taken to its logical conclusion by separating out and yet at the same time joining the emotive image and the emotive mark.

Arnulf Rainer: After Messerschmidt. “Der Heftige Geruch” – “The Strong Smell”

Arnulf Rainer

Arnulf Rainer

Rainer's images derive their psychological power from the visual reinforcement that operates between gestural mark and the underlying image. Lines extend or emphasise what is in the underlying image and because the subjects appear to be in heightened states of emotion, we read the marks as a type of nervous graphology, as if the subjects of these photographs were able to defile their own images, the marks 'interpreting' the photographs below. 

In an analogous way to Rainer, Maurizio Anzeri makes his portraits by sewing directly into found vintage photographs. His embroidered patterns garnish the figures like elaborate costumes, but also suggest a psychological aura, as if revealing the person’s thoughts or feelings. The antique appearance of the photographs is often at odds with the sharp lines and silky shimmer of the threads. The combined media can suggest a dimension where history and future converge. Separation and combination again giving rise to a powerful new form. 

Maurizio Anzeri 

Because of a photograph's indexical relationship with the world, the distinction between image and reality has been blurred. By adding a further mark made layer we further conflict the distinction and it could be argued now open a portal into a new semiotic dimension. 
The complexity of these issues suggests that there is much to pursue here and I would suggest that there is still considerably more milage in the area. 

See also:

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Drawing in wire and iron rod

I was at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park today and as well as going to see the marvellous Bill Viola exhibition, spent some time looking at Anthony Caro's maquettes for sculptures. Some of them can be read as 3D drawings. Caro was influenced by the american sculptor David Smith. Smith's Hudson River sculpture is a 3D line drawing of a journey, and many of Caro's early linear sculptures have a landscape feel to them as well. 

David Smith: Hudson River

Anthony Caro: Emma Dipper

These (below) are a few of Caro's maquettes for sculptures photographed at the YSP. The small scale makes them much more accessible and above all achievable on a small budget. 

All the Caro maquettes above are no more than 3 or 4 inches wide. What makes them interesting is the use of various thicknesses of metal to ensure a constantly changing rhythm for the eyes. The less linear sections operate as punctuation points, giving the eyes focus points that can be used for orientation as you look through and around the forms. 

I've mentioned artists who draw in space before, and it looks as if there is a small revival of the practice, but with the added element of a more environmental approach, artists using the ability of the space frame format when used on a large scale to house other elements such as flat TV screens in amongst the framework. 

Neil Beloufa's The Office (2015) at the Mendes Wood DM booth at Frieze London

Beloufa has created a structure that allows the artist to include media outputs, connecting wires becoming part of the linear nature of the whole piece.

Picasso was as always prepared to experiment with different modes of drawing, his memorial to Apollinaire was designed to reflect a line of Apollinaire's writing, “the statue made of nothing, of vacancy” which he wrote when thinking of a monument to a poet. The sculpture represents this nothing-ness. Made with iron rods these pieces at one moment appear 3D but then revert to a perceptually flat image as the light changes and the black lines separate themselves out from their background.  

Picasso: Maquette for a memorial to Apollinaire

See also posts on Gego and Sara Barker  

If you get a chance to go to London, try and catch the Calder exhibition at the Tate.  See

Sara Barker who I have mentioned before in relation to 3D line drawing talks about her more recent work here:

There was an excellent exhibition at &model back in 2015 of the work of Nicola Ellis. See

Nicola Ellis

Sunday, 18 October 2015

How to try to say what you mean.

The last but one Fine Art module, Context of Practice 3 is now upon us. The third year are once again embroiled upon the writing of a text that is meant to create a deeper understanding of an individual’s art work and lead to a synthesis between theory and practice.
I believe that it is a useful process to go through but there are so many ghosts in the educational machine that it is a very hard thing to do. The biggest and most potent ghost is of course the educational system itself. It rewards the obtaining of learning outcomes, but these are often written in such a way that they remove the poetry from the practice. They for instance ask you to demonstrate research, however some art practices needs lots of research and other practices can be made as Yates said, “Out of a mouthful of air”.
If anyone was to ask me, (and it’s unlikely that they will) to write the key learning outcome for the written element of this module I would say it should be: “The student can write in such a way that it communicates what they are trying to get at”.
If I was to have a model for how to do this I would recommend Ted Hughes’  ‘Poetry in the Making’, which was a book he wrote for 10 year olds.
This brings me to another ‘ghost in the art education machine’, that of referencing other artists. A ghost that persists in the structure of what in COP3 is now called ‘the case study’.
In my mind the last thing you need is a close model to follow when developing your own work. I don’t think you can justify your work by pointing to another artist that does something similar. This way of thinking is a left over from the art academies and has found its way into how art is taught in schools. At one time within the art academies only certain artists were deemed worthy of study, ‘Raphael, Murillo, the Carracci’s’ etc. That time has gone. Yes look at art, look at it in depth, explore its vast history and immerse yourself in its possibilities, but not to provide justification for your own practice. Try to look at other art as a symptom for the human condition. Try to work out how and why artists might have done the things they have done, why different cultures may have come up with the images they have, and why materials available might have shaped making in the ways that they have. Use your looking to sharpen your eyes and visual appreciation of possibilities, but don’t go searching for models, avoid the “I make art like…” trap.
This however is not a plea for anything goes. There are things you can learn from other art. What makes for a successful resolution? What types of working processes are used that seem to be able to reconcile research with visual concept?  How has truth to material been reconciled with craft invention? These are however questions of purpose not questions of style.
When writing COP3 you are asked to first of all write a positioning statement. This is about self-knowledge. Hopefully it helps solve the question, “how can I make art without becoming false to myself?  There is no best way or answer to this. But Hughes’ ‘Poetry in the Making’ does suggest possible directions to take. He asks us to re-discover our passionate interests. He points to survival, being fed and warm as central, then posits relationships with others as our initial concerns. However as we get older he suggests that our interests spread out and become too easily superficial, an artist though, he further suggests, has to learn to differentiate between what is just of interest and what has the possibility of being an obsession. This fascination with something does though take time to develop and it can be as much a fascination with art, as with the world itself. (Art cannot of course detach itself from the world)

When you are thinking about the case study and are looking to search for ‘art friends’, make sure that these are not people who make things that look just like the work that you make, but people that have resolved issues in their work that you empathise with. Because I’m trying to deal with narrative and politics in my work at the moment, I look at how other artists might have resolved these two issues. Perhaps one artist might help me to think through one particular part of the problem and a very different artist another aspect. Often it’s to do with approach. I might look at Duchamp, but not for his ready-mades, in my case it would be for the narrative complexity behind the ‘Large Glass’ and the fact that he had in some ways created a contemporary allegory of sex in the city.  I’m not however going to make something that looks like the ‘Large Glass’.  I might look at the work of Chris Ware in order to think about how time can be expressed in a visual narrative and compare that with 13th century Chinese landscape painting. I might use a David Hockney video as a guide to how to think about how complex visual narratives were constructed in Chinese scrolls. See which is a short clip from ‘A day on the grand canal with the emperor of china’ by Hockney. 

At the end of the day my own work does not look like Duchamp’s or Hockney’s but may well have taken on board issues that both artists have at one time or another dealt with. It’s not a case of not looking at other art, it’s about learning from looking and thinking about what you are looking at. 

Ted Hughes says that there is no one way to write, only to make what you write interesting. It’s the same with fine art. Hughes goes on to say that you write interestingly only about the things that genuinely interest you. This he says is an infallible rule. Again I would say this applies to fine art as well.

How to try to say what you mean is part of a search for self-knowledge, Ted Hughes goes further and suggests that as you refine that voice, as you develop and hone the languages you use, eventually you might in your work develop something that he calls, “grace”.

Although a poet, Hughes has some wonderful advice for the young artist.

“See it and live it. Do not think it up laboriously, as if you were working out mental arithmetic. Just look at it, touch it, smell it, listen to it, turn yourself into it. When you do this, the words look after themselves, like magic.”

“What’s writing really about? It’s about trying to take fuller possession of the reality of your life.”

You can learn a lot from this small book written for children, in particular Hughes points to how we struggle to possess our own experiences and express something about them. “Something of the almighty importance of it and something of the utter meaninglessness”.
I realise that you should not change the original words of a text, but with a slight change, ‘Poetry in the Making’ could easily become ‘Art in the Making’, and would thus end so:

…And when a visual language can manage something of this, and manage it in a moment of time, and in that same moment make out of it the vital signature of a human being – not of an atom, or of a geometrical diagram, or of a heap of lenses – but a human being, we call it art.

Friday, 16 October 2015

Drawing as abstraction and performance

Caroline Denervaud 

Caroline Denervaud has developed a really interesting practice that brings together performance, drawing and abstraction.  Richard Baker introduced me to her work and I have spent some time the last few days going through the videos she has on her web-site. She has managed to hold a very fine line between how the body can be represented and classic processes of abstraction. She also uses collage to create biomorphic forms, using a Victor Pasmore like visual language. As an artist she makes seamless links between the abstract concerns of the mid 50s and current performative work.  

Victor Pasmore