Wednesday, 30 May 2018

Originality and value: What use is art?

As an artist I have often been brought into discussions about originality and value. There is a tricky question at the centre of this issue, "What value has the arts?" and this is very closely linked to that other question often asked me by my father, "What use is art?"
When I was trying to study philosophy I came across similar questions and found a part answer in Wittgenstein's idea of "The meaning is the use", and the associated concept of "use value".  
So what use is the artwork that I do? Perhaps in asking myself the question and making some sort of attempt to answer it, it might help others, as I know it's a question most artists at one time or another ask themselves.  So here goes nothing... Most of my work begins with me listening to people, so I think I had better start there. This is Mary's* story, told to me a few weeks ago.

Mary has been having nightmares, she can’t sleep and she wants to know what her dreams are about. She has asked her local priest and he has told her that these are only dreams and that she shouldn’t worry.  She finally tells her dream to the artist and his wife, she knows that these are people that will listen to dreams and take them seriously.
Mary has been dreaming of a bleak office type space, it is full of bustling about people and they are all white. She has turned up in this place to make a complaint directly to God. She wants to know why he has stolen her charisma and why he hasn’t given her any qualifications.
At first she cant find God, but she is directed to a huge desk, so big she cant see who is sitting behind it but she can feel his presence and she believes it is God behind the desk. “Why” she demands, “have you stolen my charisma?” “Because”, replies God, “if you had had charisma alongside all your other talents no boy would have been safe from you, you would have broken all the men’s hearts and I couldn’t allow that”.
Mary remembers the time when she was the fastest girl around, she ran everywhere and one day she was picked to run for her school in the local races. ‘Three speed grey pigeon’ she was called at the time, and she had a special boyfriend, one that loved to watch her run and who always expected her to win all her races, and she prided herself that she would always win for him. But on the day of the race, she wasn’t feeling well and as soon as the race started she fell over and cut her knee. It bled heavily and she never recovered, the race was lost and so was her boyfriend. She still remembers the shame of that day, letting everyone down and now she knows why. It was God taking away her charisma, and that was the day he did it.
She now wants to know why she has been given no qualifications for all the work she did in that school, but God is no longer replying, instead a very elegant white woman is standing there and she tells Mary that she must go now and that she hasn’t got permission to be there.
Mary then tells us that everywhere surrounding this dream is a ‘nothingness’, so she can’t go anywhere but into this nothingness and it’s then that she wakes up because she is frightened.
I ask Mary if she has been worried by the Windrush stories on the news and she tells us that she came over to England from St Kitts as one of the Windrush people. That’s why she has no paperwork. Her husband is very ill and her grandson has been finding it hard to get work. Her priest had been telling the congregation not to worry and that it would all be sorted out and that they should trust in the will of the Lord but she doesn’t really believe him.  Her son comes over to see us and after apologising for his mother’s dreams, tells us a long story of how difficult it has been over the years to get things done as a family because of the lack of certain proofs of identity.
Two days after Mary told us the story her son comes to tell us she has been taken into hospital, she has had a stroke.
Stories like Mary’s are common, especially in an area of the city where everyone comes from somewhere else. There is a shape to everything, and Mary’s is that of a wonderful ‘Three speed grey pigeon’, no matter that she is now an old white haired woman in her late 70s, she has a presence and a grace of movement that belies her age, her skin glows and she wears her carefully chosen clothes with grace and carries herself with pride. 
All communities are full of stories, but without someone to listen to them and to shape them into images the stories fade away with people’s lives.
If Mary’s story is to have any meaning beyond what it means to her, it needs to find a shape outside of the immediate community and if the collected stories of the community as a whole are to be preserved they need to find a shape as well. The feeling tone of Chapeltown, and this is where Mary has now lived for many years, is a layered history of immigration, Jews, Irish, Eastern Europeans, Caribbean, Indian etc. every community bringing stories of the past and stories of arrival and stories of life in a new place.

Mary's story is one of many stories that I have heard over the years and her story is now lodged in my head waiting for some sort of outlet, so that I can pass it on in a sort of Chinese whisper sort of way. Everything for me is a translation. Mary had to translate her dreams into a story, I have had to retranslate my memories of her story into a written text and at some point I will re-translate something from the feeling tone of her experience into an image.  For someone that draws, stories need a place to settle into, what I call a geography of the imagination, and that geography is found by making drawings as I walk the streets of Chapeltown. More stories are collected as I make further drawings and engage people in conversations as I do so. Each time I hear a story the map of the imagination expands, sometimes a story might be from Europe and at another time from South America. The traces and lines of all the different stories are important to the imaginative development of another world, some stories will have come from my reading of both fact and fiction, some from the media and others from talking to people or just observing what goes on, until within my head a series of potential drawings will be starting to be visualised, and then as they are put down onto paper they will be reshaped again as they emerge into a world of ink or pencil or paint. An imaginary town may grow within the suburb of a real city, finding itself located within an imaginary map that looks very like an actual map, the one dependent on the other, the harsh reality of the day to day gradually becoming a fairytale, but like all fairytales it may have a dark core that belongs to the reality out of which it emerges.

All the various elements in the drawing above have been developed in response to stories heard, things seen and events experienced, however they have now been poetically refashioned into a mythic landscape, one that is centred on an impossible tower, an image that was designed as an allegorical response to being told that after living in Chapeltown for a while all those hopes and desires that someone had before they arrived now seemed hollow promises of a bright future, the towers of the city were not full of riches, but were impossible mirages. 

So what use is it to make an image like this? I would argue that in the same way a fairy tale contains within it something of the subconscious, something about the way things are that we don't always want to confront, so images like this become entry points into conversations and meditations on what the world is like. Not as answers to questions, that is perhaps for politicians and not as some sort of sociological study, but as a poetic image, and if it is argued poetry has no use, then perhaps this type of work doesn't have a use either, but I would hope that by providing a window within which people can take a step backwards from reality, they may be able to somehow see it more clearly and in that step backwards a use value is born.

What this has to do with originality and value is that there is a need to find a shape for the information behind the drawings, a shape that you could call the drawing's 'subconscious' and in finding that shape a certain originality is needed, especially if there is no existing form that will fit. However originality in itself would not appear to be the most important thing, sometimes the forms developed by earlier artists are the right fit for what I want to say and if so I see no harm in using them. As to value, it would seem that there are various ways of looking at that. One is that some people will value the drawings I make because they help them to experience the world by providing them with a means to take that one step backwards from it, the drawings give them an entry point into thinking about the world in a different way. The second is that of monetary value and that is something only conferred by those that can make those sorts of decisions, art dealers, collectors and people involved with the art market. The art market rarely dips its toes into the local waters of a place like Leeds, so it is unlikely that the things I do will ever be given the validity of monetary value, but that doesn't mean that one shouldn't bother to make art. The job of trying to communicate something is one that you can always do better and every time you make something you can hope on the one hand that something of value is communicated and on the other that even if it isn't it may be that what you did do has helped you think about how to shape a new communication in just that bit better a fashion. Like all conversations sometimes they are boring, sometimes of no apparent value, but occasionally you will have a conversation that changes your life. 

It could be argued that I have no business making the art I do in an area like Chapeltown, an area where most of the people who live there see themselves as part of the African diaspora. I think of myself as someone who's own story rubs up alongside a series of stories from somewhere else, but even though these stories don't refer to my own background and ethnicity, they affect me and make me think. So I respond to stories and shape them according to my own predilections but I suspect that is what everybody does, we will all interpret the world through the colour of the lens that sits over our own eyes. We can never be objective, but we can emphasise with other people, other animals or things and attempt to feel what they feel, understand what they understand or simply be like they are and in that empathy lies perhaps the main reason for making images.
So what use is art? Perhaps it is to give a shape to feelings, emotions, observations and thoughts that can become entry points for others to develop their own awareness. These shapes in turn allow us to develop links between ourselves because they help us to create stories about things we were not aware of before. In the stories we tell we shape the world, in the shapes we make we refashion the way the world is seen and as we do we create new possibilities for how we will engage with whatever it is that is out there to be engaged with. Art in effect becomes an intermediary between one thing and another. In religious art it can work as an intermediary between the material world and the spiritual world, a connection between humans and gods, and in a more materialistic culture it can operate as a communication channel between speakers of different verbal languages or between those that inhabit different cultures. Art makes us more connected with things, but it doesn't tell people what to do with this awareness, something else will always step in to fill that gap, power abhors a vacuum.

*Names have been changed to protect people's identities. 

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Drawing in Colour 4: Beryl Hammill

Sometimes when you know someone you don't really notice what they are doing. Beryl Hammill was one of those people that it seemed like I knew, they were always working and when I saw their work I was always impressed but perhaps what I didn't do was really think about what they were doing. Now she is no longer with us and her weaving has stopped and I realise that what she represented was something very important, something that so easily gets forgotten and that is the lifelong preoccupation with what it is to see something. 
For Beryl what it was to see something was also fused together with how to capture the seeing, how to hold it or trap it within the fibres of her weaving. She represented the paradox of art, what is experienced as a series of infinitely short moments, is communicated through hard fought and laboriously constructed image making. In her case the last few years of her life were often spent gazing, no not gazing, staring at the sea, watching how waves break, how colour refracts as the sea bulges, how the spray of breaking waters, reflects colours as well as creates tiny rainbows of broken white light as each water droplet curves through space, dropping and finally recombining with a newer parent wave. She looked for the various rhythms of movement and how they could be combined, the powerful swells of a huge beast like movement, played off against the fast chatter of small breakers as they roll over the edges of the land, rolling pebbles before them and trailing white patterns behind. She was watching for how blues and greens change with depth, how yellow sunlight fuses with seaweed shot moments of unexpected colour as it waves within waves as the sea flows over the rocks that it breaks upon.  

Sometimes the drawn marks would be annotated by short bursts of writing, reminding us that writing is so very like drawing, the calligraphy of her hand contained in the shaping of letters as much as in the shaping of wavelets.

There are other moments of observation to be found in her sketchbooks, usually made when her attention wandered from the re-creation of moving water, such as the drawing above, made as she responded to a jumble of sea birds as they cluttered across the beach. These drawings have a lot of humour in them, in particular I love the way that she has found in her quick marks a bird snail.

She filled many notebooks with her studies, each drawing an attempt to create a mark set that would echo what she had seen. Colours combine in a drawing to recreate both texture and rhythm, the white of the paper a space analogous to the expanse of open water before her, the marks breaking spaces as waves break through the rolling body of sea as it nears its edge. The fact that she was drawing on the coast of Australia, looking out at a body of water that stretched from where she was to Antartica somehow makes the edge between the sea and the land that bit more special. The sea has met an unexpected barrier to its forever swell of forward momentum, it has to break from its customary pattern and find outlets for its energy in waves and foam and breakers, in those wonderful waves that tunnel over surfers as they cut into the moving edges of the waves. And there sat Beryl, for hours on end staring those waves down, looking into their heart and trying to decide what made them tick. What made the waves and what made the images that she saw, were two makings, one in the physical world and the other in the mind, that would combine in a third, the drawings made. The mind can only catch so much of the perceived wave  the hand can only catch so much of the necessary movement needed to stroke the brush in a manner like the wave, the mind and the hand now woven together with the sea, until something is captured that is held balanced on a moment, a frozen perception that is right for being preserved. 

Beryl would take these drawings back to Yorkshire and would construct from them a template for weaving, and in doing so would set about the long slow process of making crafted images that could capture in the grids of their making the colour, the rhythm and the shapes of seeing that she had seen on that edge between the sea and the land. 
The last time I saw one of Beryl's weavings it was left three quarters finished, its edges composed of partly woven hand dyed threads, their lengths as they separated from the body of the tapestry still wrapped around their spindles. The open edge of unfinished business, somehow right and proper, because seeing is never done, we will never see through to the reality behind things, because if we did there would be no place to go, nowhere else to travel, because we would know it all. But the struggle to remember what we have seen, the weaving of memories of moments of recognition into the tight weave of a tapestry, is still myth like in its potency. The Wyrd in European myth, was made of an invisible thread that followed everyone from the moment they were born. Your daily movements in effect weave your own tapestry.  Atropos of the Fates would eventually cut the thread and whatever pattern your life had made was now fixed, and now that Beryl's drawings and tapestries are also finished, it is perhaps time to reflect on a life well lived and a pattern well woven.  

Cezanne is an artist people go back to when they want refreshing. His lifelong struggle to show what it was to look at a landscape, or a bowl of fruit, is something that as artists we all wish we could emulate because he was able to cut through all the ideas and concepts and stories and take us back to the simple process of opening our eyes to see and in Beryl's straightforward Yorkshire way she has also left us with another legacy of looking. 


Before posting I decided to check with Beryl's husband Terry to see if what I had to say about her work was accurate. He suggested a few additions.

Her favourite location for 'staring' was at the bottom left hand corner of Australia, facing west across the Indian Ocean and into the setting sun. This was important to her for the way light shone through the breaking waves - and how the waves themselves circle the globe endlessly, not really meeting land until they meet the tip of south west Australia, a place where surfers meet to experience some of the biggest waves on the planet. Looking to the left and way south is the Southern Ocean and the 'roaring forties' where the sea changes colour to an icy green and grey, a hint of distant Antartica. 

Terry also pointed out that Beryl was a student at Leeds College of Art where she learned how to weave during the early sixties when Harry Thubron was there. We tend to think of the radical days of Leeds as being to do with new visual languages and the introduction of modern fabrication methods into the art school and forget that craft skills such as weaving were still being taught. 

Beryl Hammill: Woven wave detail

Hand dyed threads of remembered sea colours beginning to be woven into one of her tapestries 

Drawing in Colour part 2

Friday, 11 May 2018

Tomoko Konoike, ‘Fur Story’

The college gallery is hosting an exhibition of the work of Tomoko Konoike, ‘Fur Story’ at the moment.  'Fur Story' interweaves Konoike’s artwork focusing on images drawn onto animal skins with stories of human-animal bonding selected by fairy-tale scholar Mayako Murai.
Konoike gave a wonderful rendition of an old Japanese folk song at the opening and her work, usually centred on drawing also takes on a variety of other formats including sculpture, large wall hangings and animation. Any of you interested in that edge between illustration, fine art and animation should go along to this exhibition, which is a timely reminder of the continuing relevance of old traditions and of how they can continue to be reinvented and new meanings found for our own times.

Tomoko Konoike

I was particularly interested in how the work moved between different formats, because certain ideas that involve narrative can be developed in subtlety different ways. The linear nature of stories works very well in animation, but there are times when an idea needs to be condensed or boiled down into an image and this is where her dramatic coloured drawings on animal skins come into their own. The reality of inter species narratives will always include the idea of death, we have hunted and killed other species throughout our existence, therefore old folk tales will often deal with these issues and the use of hides to draw on makes a direct connection to this continuing reality of our engagement with other species. Whether we like it or not we should not avoid this aspect of the fairy tale, it will always touch upon one or another exposed nerve, if not it would have no edge, or window into our subconscious. So make sure you go and see this, even if only to look at how the work is presented, as always the way the work is curated and hung, can be as important as the work itself when it comes to how it is read by an audience. 

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Drawing with light 3: Anthony McCall at the Hepworth

Anthony McCall

Anthony McCall’s ‘Solid Light Works’ is on at the Hepworth until 3 June 2018, and is a must see for any of you wanting to work with light as a drawing material. I have mentioned his work before, so I won't elaborate except to suggest that you go along mid-week when there are less people in the gallery, then you can get a much better idea of how each piece operates. The relationship between his projections and his other work is laid out very clearly in the exhibition and some of you might find the drawings about sequences and how to visualise things changing over time, as interesting as the more spectacular projected works. 

In particular the sketchbooks he used are exhibited in long showcases; I always find these interesting as you can see what is going on in the mind of the artist. If only you could browse through them, seeing an open sketchbook page makes you really want to turn the page and see where a thought went to next. I would have thought it would not have been too difficult to have scanned the pages and to have made the rest of the notebooks available as an interactive database, such as has been done with Richard Diebenkorn's sketchbooks.

Anthony McCall: Sketchbook

The exhibition also provides a more rounded context for McCall's practice and we can see him working as a performance artist as well as an installation and series artist. The work below only really comes alive when you see it in conjunction with the video of its making. 

Anthony McCall: 5 minute drawing: Charcoal on paper 6 sheets 1974

A video of the 5 minute drawing performance

How far an artist needs to go with the documentation of work and where the boundaries of the artwork lie are always interesting questions. Did this work only really exist during the 5 minutes of its original performance, is the work contained in the 'finished' drawing that is presented to us on the wall and which is in the collection of MOMA? Is the work only realised when the audience watches the video and then re-looks at the drawing on the wall or is it really all of these things as well as a reading of the text that is used to describe the work and which is placed next to the drawing on the same wall?

Light works straddle genres and may be seen as drawing, sculpture, installation, projection, or performance. they are often immersive and have a long history (again see drawing with light part one)

David Spriggs

Some light artists make direct references to the history of using light as a powerful sign; David Spriggs being an artist that has been linking an awareness of Stonehenge as a sun calendar with his own light objects. He is fascinated by the symbolic, cultural and historical significance of light. Spriggs forces you to engage with the work by making the viewer keep moving in relation to the installations. He constructs his images in layers, so that they constantly change in relation to each other as you walk around them. 

David Spriggs

You don't have to use projections to control the way you use light. Nobuhiro Nakanishi plays with perspective by chronologically stacking landscape photos he has transferred to glass and making sure that his pieces are placed next to an appropriate light source. His images work both as sequential images and as coloured light constructions. 

Nobuhiro Nakanishi

Projections can of course be very powerful and at night can be used to project on a wide variety of surfaces. 
Tony Oursler: Vampiric Mirror

Tony Oursler is always worth looking at if you are thinking about how a moving image can be presented. The very first exhibition of his work I came across was hosted in old suitcases. You had to look inside them and in each one there was a tiny image on a cathode ray tube that formed the heads of a series of dolls, all of which were talking. It was designed to be like a collection of ventriloquists' suitcases.
Javier Riera has used his interest in outdoors projection to develop a practice that explores the conjunction between the organic forms of nature and geometric forms. 

Javier Riera's light projections make us rethink our relationship with nature and perhaps they also cause us to ask ourselves what right we have to impose our ideas and formal concepts onto the rest of the world. Nature usually gets there first and our first experiences of light entering dark spaces would have been nature made not manmade. 

Sunlight breaking through clouds

We are still thrilled by the sight of nature making its own light drawings, when clouds obscure the sun and then allow a shaft of light to pass through to the earth, our hearts lift. As light shafts down between the gaps in a tree canopy, it can feel as if we are in a cathedral. 

The use of stained glass in churches is another example of the spiritual enmeshing of light and religious ideas, a concept that goes back to the entering of a shaft of sunlight into a cave, being still used to create the ambiance lighting for nightclubs, so that as people dance they are helped to enter into a trace state, little different to the way things would have been thousands of years ago. 

Cirque du Soleil: nightclub lighting display Las Vegas. 

Drawing with light part 1
Drawing with light part 2

Articulated collage and shadow play