Sunday, 22 January 2017

Emma Stibbon

Emma Stibbon RA, Hverir, Iceland Ink and volcanic dust. 130 x 183 cm
The sublime and landscapes that we associate with this, is still a very important subject matter and one that has a particular relevance for drawing. Emma Stibbon is of particular interest as she has been able to forge a career out of following her interest in those places in the world that are still awesome, that fill us with awe. The drawing above is typical of her best work. She has mixed her ink with volcanic dust, this indicating that she went to the site and has collected her drawing material from the very spot that she is examining. The scale of the drawing is big enough to impose itself on an observer, over 4 feet high, it is is big enough to fill your field of vision as you stand in front of it. The mixture of ink and volcanic dust allows Stibbon to make marks that both represent the landscape and make us aware of their own physicality. Notice how at times the ink/ash mixture runs down the surface of the paper. The image selection is done in such a way that this could almost be an image from the moon, only the wisps of steam coming from volcano craters give away their earthly origins. 

In the image above you can get a better idea of how her interest in an aspect of landscape is also an interest in how materials can be played with. The smoke from a volcano is rendered using a series of marks that come naturally from the way that ink and resists whorl around the surface of a plate as you add solvents to them. This being an image as much about the materials of intaglio printmaking as it is about an Icelandic volcano. 

Stibbon is also a printmaker and her large etchings continue the theme of scale and almost otherworldly landscapes. In particular her recent trip to the Artic has caused her to reflect on the perilous state that this fantastic landscape now finds itself facing. Are these the last images humans will ever see of a snow and ice covered wilderness? She is very aware that these types of sublime images have political undertones. She says this about her work; "I see my work fitting somewhere within a North European Romantic tradition – landscape has a peculiar hold over the British psyche and the rich literary and visual legacy of Romanticism in British art is defining in terms of my own values and beliefs. However I am aware of a tension here, in a contemporary context, our perception of landscape is always contingent. What may have been considered wilderness or pristine in nature we now have to recognize is often fragile or under threat. Our perception of place is refocused through a changing environment. I am interested in whether drawing or print can connect the viewer with the urgencies of our relationship with environment  and an experience of place".
Etching approx 4 to 5 feet wide. 

The scale of her prints gives them a physicality that helps make a direct connection with the landscape experienced. She also likes to link the technique of printmaking to the subject matter, so in the case of the mountain landscape below, this is a woodcut, the technique echoing both the northern expressionist tradition of printmaking and the clean cut shapes that can be made with a wood chisel closely mirror the way that snow sits and falls away from rocky surfaces. 

Woodcut mountains

It's hard to get an idea of the scale of her images from reproductions, but this image of her at work might help. 
Emma Stibbon at work on a drawing

She is not just interested in the sublime as an aspect of our experience of nature, she also deals with similar experiences in the built environment, in particular in Berlin, where she finds traces of a Nazi preoccupation with grand building schemes designed to awe the people and make them believe in the permanence of the 3rd Reich. 

She also draws water and those of you that have been following these posts should be very aware by now that I have a particular interest in the way various artists over time have responded to this seemingly endlessly inventive fluid. 

Emma Stibbon: Sea 3

In Stibbon's case it is of course a storm at sea that interests her, storms being another of those sublime tropes that re-occur at different times during the history of Romanticism. 

Stibbon is well worth investigating, especially if you are thinking about what scale to make your drawings and how a printmaking aspect to your work could be developed. The printmaking is of particular interest to myself, in the case of the 93 inch wide image below she has had to make the print on several sheets of fitted together Japanese paper. 

Abandoned Whaling Station, Deception Island, Woodcut, 117 x 238cm, 2006

When prints get this large you have to get inventive. In this case the image is cut using wood carving chisels from two sheets of plywood fitted together. The ink is then hand rolled on to the wood and the paper then placed on top and burnished from the back. I have made prints of this size with students at college. They do take a while to make, but the final product can be wonderful. You can vary the weight of the burnishing to achieve different tonal values and by very carefully peeling the paper away, whilst still holding it in place so that it doesn't slip, can work on re-inking and further burnishing in order to get very strong blacks. The grain of the wood can be used to good effect too, especially if you don't over ink the areas of wood that you want to get good grain quality from. 
If your idea is grand, then why not look to make that idea with ambition. 

See also: 

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Wittgenstein and aesthetics

From Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus 

When I was an art student in the late 60s and early 70s the key philosopher in relation to the way we were discussing art was Wittgenstein. In his books his thoughts were laid out in numbered mini statements (see illustration above), each of which was treated at the time as a way of on the one hand cutting down metaphysical speculation about grand ideas and on the other as a way to develop a lever with which to develop ideas. He was at times both the subject of our work and a means towards a process by which we could make it. 
Looking back it seems very restrictive, but it taught us to grapple with complex texts and read philosophy. It also made sure that you had to think about how art operated as a language.
One issue that has I would have thought been of concern to generations of art students is that link between the act of perception or experience and an expression that has something to say or is a reflection on it. It is quite natural to ask yourself, “What does my work communicate?” It is also of course an area fraught with pitfalls and art tutors will often advise students to “Not go there.” because you can get lost in layers and layers of philosophical speculation and many art students have lost the desire to create after been sucked into trying to answer this question.
On our reading lists at that time was Richard Wollheim’s Art and its Objects. A complex book that asked a lot of questions as to whether or not an artwork had to be a physical object. I don’t remember coming to a conclusion about this but what I do remember is that Wollheim opened up the possibility for being able to think about the fact that what constituted an artwork did not have to be an object. The debate at the time was often looking for the art in different situations. For example, one of us might propose that the conversation we were having was to be seen as art. If so, we would argue at what point did the conversation move from being something we were experiencing to something that was now a reflection on that experience. Was it enough to simply quote Judd’s dictum, “If the artist says it’s art, it’s art.” or should we be looking at an underlying structure that could confirm that this was a universal activity common to all cultures and not just something particular to a sub-group preoccupation of what was coming to be known as the ArtWorld. People were often polarized in their opinions and you had on the one hand those who yearned for a universal validity for what they were doing, these people, including myself, would often quote Jung and Chomsky, believing that universal languages were possible, whilst others would argue that we were only able to deal with specific targeted speech acts, each one only readable within the sub-group interests of a very specific community. I.e. we were restricted to making work that was always going to be a comment on and a reflection about art and its associated activities and practices.
Because Wittgenstein was being read by all of us he often became the arbiter. One area I was particularly interested in was that of ‘correspondence’. This was a Baudelairian concept, and it questioned the link between what could be perceived or experienced and what could be expressed that accounted for the perception or experience. Was there or was there not a ‘correspondence’ between the two. Wittgenstein had looked at the link between lived experience and expression, expression he seems to argue being essentially the face of experience. As we experience the world, perception is shaped as it is perceived, so that there is in fact no difference. So you could argue that as an artist you are perceiving the world ‘as an artist’. ‘It’s like searching for a word when you are writing and then saying: “That’s it, that expresses what I intended!” – Your acceptance certifies the word as having been found and hence as being the one you were looking for’ (Wittgenstein [1978]: 68). He asks at another point ‘what happens when we try to find the right expression for our thoughts?’,  (Wittgenstein [1953]: 335) and suggests that this expression is a form of translation and that there is some sort of fusion between perception and expression.
This was for myself a position around which I would argue that the artist could therefore have experiences and communicate something about them to others. But for the ‘institutional theory of art’ adherents they would say that the experiences I was having were mediated by the fact that I belonged to the Artworld and that I could only demonstrate a sub-group preoccupation focused on art.
There is a diagram that illustrates the issues involved, and as this is a blog about drawing I suppose it’s time to get some drawing into the frame. What the drawing illustrates is that these arguments could be set out as being diametrically opposed poles centered on or surrounding some sort of notion of real world experience or perception. 

The diagram is very clear and simple and sums up all the complex arguments that too many words have tried to explain. It shows Goodman as situated opposite Danto, i.e. Goodman believes in the ‘languages of art’ and Danto believes in the language of the institution of art. Wollheim is opposite Sibley, Wollheim argued that a work of art is a structure which is has a physical actuality, (i.e. not just in the mind as Collingwood would argue) but Sibley would argue that aesthetics are prior to art, i.e. we apply them to all sorts of things, a flower or the look of a landscape, art not being the important thing here, but our propensity to judge things in relation to how they are both perceived and experienced. 

There is no answer to these types of questions, simply a range of standpoints but, I would suggest at some point it is useful to look at the standpoints on offer and decide where you want to be yourself. Personally I would like to believe that I could communicate with people that are outside of my specialist sub-group preoccupation. If so an image like the one below ought to mean something to people reading this blog if they can find a meaningful connection with an image from their own experience.

Detail of one of my own images from a sequence of drawings done in response to immigrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea in unseaworthy, overcrowded boats. 

Goodman would have suggested that there was a language that could be read across times and cultures, therefore he would have seen a link between the image above and the one below, which is a hand-coloured copper engraving used for a magic lantern projection. It shows ships on the Strait of Messina during a sequence of earthquakes in 1783. In a previous post, see I suggested that water itself has been a constant source for visual invention by artists from different times and cultures, in many ways it could therefore be argued that I am very much in Goodman's camp. 

Wittgenstein, L. 1953: Philosophical Investigation, ed. by G.E.M. Anscombe, Blackwell,

Wittgenstein, L., 1978: Culture and Value, ed. by G.H. von Wright, Blackwell, Oxford. 

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

A line of disjuncture: the tear

Asger Jorn  1950 drawing on two pieces of paper

I recently came across this drawing by Asger Jorn the COBRA artist. Tearing a drawing in half and juxtaposing it with another one is a method of creating a new image learnt by artists from the early days of collage. Not only could you bring into your work signs of the outside world by pasting into your drawing or painting a page from a newspaper, a torn out advert or some wallpaper, but your own work once released into the world becomes yet another potential collage element, so you could also treat your discarded work in the same way. A line of disjuncture always occurs across the torn edges that butt together, but because the same hand is at work in both areas, a formal or stylistic link will make the two halves sit together as a totality. Jorn was always looking to surprise himself and wanted to keep his expressionist images raw, fresh and energised,  therefore collage was a natural way to find unexpected formal relationships. Jorn inherits the Surrealist tradition of chance encounters. Although working as an Expressionist painter, his search for new imagery is heavily influenced by Surrealist procedures. This type of collaging influenced by the many 'Exquisite Corpse' drawings done throughout the Surrealist years. 

Chapman Brothers

Every process can be highjacked to support other agendas, and the Chapman Brothers turned to 'Exquisite Corpse' structures when they wanted to make a play on what invention and 'expression' meant for a contemporary Post-Modern artist. However for me, the line of disjunction that sits between each section of this etched image, reads more as a formal device to support their idea than a line of true discovery. This is what I would suggest John Berger would term a mannerism. (see previous post on Berger)  

Original Surrealist Exquisite Corpse drawing

In the original Surrealist Exquisite Corpse drawing above, I like the way that Miro's drawing is so clearly his, the awkward 'naffness' of this image chimes with the desire to discover something new and is an interesting comparison with the Chapman Brothers more knowing composition. 

The disjuncture created by pushing one image against another hasn't always been used as a device to create surprise or more 'Surreal' imagery. The artist and educator Hans Hoffman would often tear his students work in half in order to reassemble the image to create a better spatial resolution in response to the 'alive' nature of perception. The Cubist disjunction that comes from seeing something from multiple viewpoints being central to this, rather than the poetry of the coming together of sewing machines, umbrellas and dissecting boards. 

Olga Kitt

The drawing above was done in one of Hoffman's life drawing classes, he  would often tear a student's drawing in half, have them reassemble the image and then reconcile the two halves by re-drawing. Lee Krasner the famous abstract expressionist painter and former wife of Jackson Pollock used to go to Hoffman's classes and hated it when he did this to her drawings. 
What interests me here is that usually Surrealism, Expressionism and Cubism are held up as very different disciplines, however all three have used what I have called a 'line of disjuncture' to generate imagery and to open out expectations as to what constitutes coherent formal invention.  Disjuncture is not passive, and all of these artists have at one point or another had to struggle with what it is to create art about the experience of life. Life is of course rarely predictable and we will only survive if we are able to adapt and work with what life throws our way. The reconciliation of difference is also something that we all need to be able to do if we are to accept and work with other people and cultures, something that I would say is vital to our future survival. 

See also:


Tuesday, 3 January 2017

John Berger 1926 - 2017

I heard this morning that John Berger has died. For anyone interested in how to think about drawing the writings of John Berger are and will continue to be a necessity. I first came across Berger when I was at college when his landmark TV programme ‘Ways of Seeing’ was aired. He seemed able to articulate many of the questions that I had begun to ask but didn’t yet know how to phrase them.

Berger wrote extensively on drawing and you were always aware that his writing began with a sense of what it was to be someone who drew. At no time did I ever feel that he was writing from a theoretical point of view, he always seemed to be emerging from a grappling with the reality of making and what this might mean, rather than trying to fit his ideas into an existing intellectual framework.

In recognition of his huge contribution to the intellectual life of my times I have decided to take just one essay from 1976, ‘Drawn to that Moment’ and perhaps give a sense of why his writing is so rich.

Berger begins the essay by reminding us of a story about Kokoschka teaching a life class. Kokoschka was concerned that the students were not really thinking about what they were doing, so quietly asked the model to at a given signal from him to pretend to collapse and die. This of course caused great consternation and Kokoschka knelt down at the side of the model, checked for a pulse and pronounced the model’s death. Then just as students were trying to come to terms with the experience, Kokoschka clapped his hands and the model was miraculously restored. He then forced the students to begin their drawings again, this time with an awareness of the preciousness of life and their responsibility to always be aware that what they were doing in making a drawing was to capture the experience of life. The point being that only in the presence of death are we fully aware of what life means.  

This type of anecdote was typical of Berger, he would get you thinking of those big issues, life/death, politics/religion and make you fully aware that drawing was a serious matter and that it could be used to frame up questions around any of life’s philosophical or existential questions.

He reminds us that every time you undertake an observed drawing, what you are drawing will never be seen again. He was in this article writing about making a drawing of his recently dead father, but the reader could easily open out the specific issues into a much wider context. Drawing for Berger was about mortality and our attempts to reconcile an awareness of this with the fact that we have to live our lives with an awareness of death. In order to further explain this, he then gives an excellent interpretation of ‘mannerism’ in drawing, which he says is about inventing ‘urgency’ instead of submitting to the urgency of what is. Each drawing he suggests is a site of departure. For me he is referring to both that journey the soul must take across the River Styx and the fact that all drawings are a beginning as well as an end. Berger finally hangs the drawing he has done on a wall and reflects that now it begins to mark the site of arrival, it is a doorway through which moments of life could enter.

As the essay evolves Berger covers issues such as, ‘Drawings reveal the process of their own making,’ he points out that a drawing forces us to stop and enter its time. He goes on to explain that a drawing of a tree shows not a tree but a tree being looked at. This is a fundamental issue as it allows us to make a clear distinction between what a photograph is and how it operates and what a drawing is. The drawn image collects together in a simultaneity a multitude of experienced moments. Each glance reveals a small piece of evidence, these pieces are woven together to create an assemblage, which will eventually become a new totality. Each of these issues as they arrive have come from his initial reflections on drawing and death and he concludes these reflections with the final sentence of the essay, ‘Every day more of my father’s life returns to the drawing in front of me.’

John Berger was for myself one of those guiding spirits that I could always return to. He had a deep moral conviction that art was fundamental to the human experience and believed that an artist had a responsibility to help society articulate what it is to be a thinking, feeling human. I will miss him, there is already a hole where there wasn't one before.