Tuesday, 30 April 2019

Drawing and Mindfulness: Part one: Preparation

Georgio Morandi: Still Life

I'm very aware that drawing as a window into mindfulness is something I have been having to address more and more at the moment. So perhaps it is time for me to put my thoughts down about this. There is a particular mental and physical conjunction that is required in order to make a drawing that helps you to achieve such a state; however as a name, 'mindfulness' when using drawing as a way towards some sort of mind/body awareness, is for myself the wrong term. 'Mindfulness' suggests that you want to achieve some sort of awareness of the mind and how it works, the word suggests that you need to become 'full of mind' and in actual fact, the opposite is the case. The mind needs to be emptied into the body and drawing is a wonderful way to do this, but it takes time and practice. So in this case what I am suggesting is that if you want to achieve what I would call ‘mindemptyness’, a ‘mindmeld’ or a ‘mindvoid’, you could follow the exercises I will be suggesting over the course of the next few posts.  

There are several stages that you need to move through in order to use drawing as a tool to help you embody a ‘flighty’ mind and to balance the mind body relationship. I have therefore decided to break the subject down, so that if you want to follow the process, you can do this in a measured way and not be tempted to rush. Like most things, if you slow down and take one step at a time, you will eventually feel the benefit of deeper knowledge and in the process calm down and become de-stressed. Think of how calm and still the Morandi still life drawing is above. It is stripped down to its essence and nothing is superfluous. The drawing seems to echo a state of mind and this is what eventually I would hope anyone can achieve by applying themselves to some not too hard to learn approaches to drawing. 

Preparing to draw

The subject. What to wear, where to do it, lighting, choosing papers, materials to draw with and your supports such as tables, easels or donkeys. 

There will always be a certain amount of preparation required before you begin drawing, and how much will be up to you. At its most basic you can simply decide to go with what and where you are now, just grab the nearest pencil and drawing pad and just draw what is in front of you and there is nothing wrong with that, but you may want to think it through in more detail, I offer you both options. 

Choosing a subject. 

The reality is that everything is interesting. Those artists that you meet that are always looking for inspiration or the ‘right’ subject matter are I firmly believe deluded, and its not what it is but how its looked at that is important. A drawing by Van Gogh is instilled with his energetic looking, whether it’s a brick wall he is looking at, a starry sky or a wheat field. Therefore your subject just needs to be something that allows you time to look at it. This is the vital element, ‘time’. For instance if you want to draw the dog it may be one of those dogs that never stops moving, therefore you will need very fast responses to capture anything useful, so I would suggest if you are a beginner to this sort of drawing, selecting something that is much slower moving, such as a still life situation or a view through a window, or architecture. Nothing is ever totally static, but everything has its own timeframe, a rock is much slower than a human being, which is faster than many plants, but slower than a mayfly. In many ways your subject will be how to capture a series of time bound relationships. 

What to wear?

You do need to be comfortable, and when we come to looking at what you will need to do, one important issue will be balance, so this means either to go barefoot or to wear comfortable shoes that help you stand for as long as possible. You will need to stretch and bend, so think of clothes that you would wear if you were to go to Tai Chi or contact improvisation dance classes. You can do this anywhere, inside or outside, so adjust clothing in relation to temperature and never wear anything that you don’t want to get dirty. 


Lighting is always an important factor; the quality, intensity, angle and direction of light will effect what you see and you can either control this to the nth degree or respond to whatever lighting conditions you find. For instance you might want to light your subject from one side, thus giving more focus on shadow and the way light can model form. Some life classes have hanging lights that enable the drawer to light their paper in order to assess and control changes in tonal value, whilst the life model may sit in the dark under a spotlight. You may want to draw using the natural light of a window to illuminate your paper, whilst the rest of the room disappears into gloom. This is up to you, but even if all you do is decide to simply use whatever the situation is, just remember it is light you are actually seeing, not things. If you want to think about this in more detail there are other earlier posts on light. 

A few posts on Light


Choosing paper is a complex subject and there are plenty of earlier posts on paper that might help you think about which ones are best for you. Perhaps one of the most important factors is paper size and shape. In order to capture body/mind transference, your paper needs to be of a size that enables you to develop body movements in front of it and of course to make marks on it using those body movements. Therefore A1 or larger might be required if you are thinking of really pushing this type of work forwards, however you can still do this on a post-it note if that is all you have, but the amount of visual scale translation is much higher and the challenge much harder if you want to go that way. 

Paper shape will affect your physical relationship with the situation, think about the differences between working on portrait, landscape or square formats. The degree of roughness or smoothness will determine the flow of lines or type of mark being made and the paper’s weight will determine the amount of ‘work’ you will be able to engage with it, in terms of rubbing out, scratching into etc. 

Further posts on Paper that would be useful to read if you want to undertake an in-depth preparation before setting out to make a drawing.   

More thoughts on paper (includes further links to other posts on paper)

Paper supports

Sundeala soft board

The support for your paper is very important. A good drawing board is essential if you are to develop a firm support, this needs to be further supported by an easel, a table or a donkey. For drawing boards I have traditionally used Sundeala ‘K’ Quality standard pin board, which is manufactured from waste paper, and has a light grey textured surface. Boards are 6mm, 9mm and 12mm in thickness and a standard sheet size is 1220 x 2440mm. I then cut drawing boards to size. You can get other sheet sizes on request. An 8 x 4ft Sundeala board will cost you £60 from Amazon, not that you would normally need a drawing board that big. If you are going to stretch paper a good solid wooden drawing board is better, but far heavier. 

Artist's radial easel

Most art schools will have the artist's radial easel as a standard support for undertaking observational drawing. It can be set up at different heights and has adjustable wooden clamps so that your drawing board can be held in place firmly. However, when using this type of easel any untoward pressure on the drawing board can cause the easel to rock and thus destabilize or upset the delicate balance needed for fine motor control. H frame or studio easels are much more sturdy and although more expensive you will only ever need to purchase one and it should last you a lifetime. Donkeys are ok but if you want the full spectrum of body movement to be built into your drawing, something that allows you to stand is always best. 
'H' Frame or Studio Easel


If you are going to use wet materials you may need a table, but check that you can see your drawing subject easily when working at this table. In this case you may want to think about stretching the paper. 

Don’t forget you will need to attach your paper to the board, again opinions vary, but whether you use drawing pins or clips, they will each leave a distinctive impression within the final drawing. 

Drawing board clips
Find a link to a video on how to stretch paper at the end of this post which also gives you several drawing exercises to try which can be used as warming up processes when you are trying out materials.

Drawing materials 

Your drawing materials may be wet or dry. However there are big differences between them and as always there are previous posts that are designed to help you think about what you might draw with. However there are some basic differences. If working using very wet materials, such as ink and brush, you may want to work standing at a table, with the paper horizontal, dry techniques such as charcoal or chalks, are fine when working on more vertical surfaces.  The applicators you use are also of course very important, whether these are brushes, charcoal holders or electric erasers, each will have a certain set of qualities that will shape the way the drawing is made. 

Earlier Posts on drawing materials 

This initial preparation is an essential first step towards mindfulness, because it is beginning the process of converting your thoughts into a physicality. It is a first step towards ‘material thinking’. Therefore spend some time playing with the papers and materials you are thinking of using and get to know more about them by testing out their limits. 

Friday, 26 April 2019

Bill Viola: Video and the drawings of Michelangelo

Bill Viola:

The Royal Academy exhibition whereby some of the drawings of Michelangelo are exhibited alongside the video installations of Bill Viola has just closed. It had been severely slated by critics, therefore I wanted to make my own mind up about how well Viola video installations stand up against Michelangelo and other classical drawings.
Adrian Searle had this to say about the exhibition when he reviewed it in the Guardian: "Michelangelo is always engaging, on the level of drawing as much as subject matter. Drawing cheats time. Viola’s art is so much of its own time that it is already dated, dead in the water. So what I wondered was Searle so dismissive about when it came to Bill Viola's work?


I went to see the Bill Viola installations in St Paul's Cathedral and on entering that religious space had to ask myself some serious questions as to the nature of art in a secular society. This it felt was the first question to consider, before a secondary one of whether or not contemporary media can have as powerful an effect as traditional drawing techniques. 

This is how the cathedral prepares its audience for Viola's work.

'Our visitors are able to encounter the universal spiritual questions of life and death that this extraordinary work lays before us. A contemporary medium that so often controls mass culture is slowed and shaped to unravel that control, allowing us to face ourselves alone in our fragility and potential. The rumour of God is very loud in the work, as enigmatic as it is profound, and I have no doubt the work will be a spiritual encouragement to those who spend time with it.
Today martyrdom is often spoken of in terms of what people kill themselves for and others with them. It is more authentically a word that focuses on what a human being might be willing to die for – faith, conscience, justice, love of others. This work deepens our perceptions by slowing them down. We see the courage and resilience of the human in the face of all that would destroy what is true and good. We each have been given the gift of being. The gift we have to offer in return is who we become and how our lives, and deaths, might transform the world.' This was not about something that was 'dead in the water', so someone has got the wrong end of the stick. 

The writer of the cathedral's text begins with a presumption that 'spiritual' questions of life and death are universal and that Viola's work allows us to 'encounter' these questions in some way that allows us to face ourselves. 
The first thing that you are aware of with the Viola is that people have come to see the work who expect a spiritual reaction. The art's position in the cathedral is designed to make you feel that these works are important to what you are experiencing, not just some art fitted in somewhere, which can often be the case. Positioning within a ritual building is vital to the context and Viola has been given two excellent spots. 
Because you have to stand alongside other people, you become aware that they are also investing time into thinking about what these two works mean for them. This like all communal experiences heightens the feeling of engagement and you don't want to dismiss feelings that you sense are being shared by others looking at the work. 

The introductory text tells us that what we are experiencing is a 'contemporary medium that so often controls mass culture', but it...'is slowed and shaped to unravel that control'. Now this is something else, it is suggested to us that in some way by looking at this work we can understand how contemporary screen based media controls mass culture. Is this I  wondered a reference to Marshall McLuen's the medium is the message? Or is this a reference to changing values? It used to be thought that religion controlled the masses. It was argued that for thousands of years, power over populations was maintained by a very close association between rulers and ruler sanctified religions. In particular some of the central planks of the Christian faith, such as 'Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the Earth', it was argued, were used by the not so meek, to ensure that people understood their place in society and accepted it as a good thing. Looking around at the building we were in, all its visual rhetoric was designed to assert authority; huge intimidating spaces, over life sized statues of important state figures and an entrance designed to ensure you have no doubt that this is a building of the most highest importance. Religion and the state would in this form appear to be fused. Friedrich Nietzsche in particular stated that Christianity fostered a kind of slave morality. He argued that it had been used to suppress free will and that it was used to contain and restrict natural human desires. Nietzsche in ‘The Gay Science’ went as far as stating that even though God is dead, there are still caves within which his shadow still exists and that ‘we still have to vanquish his shadow’. So is what I am experiencing in looking at Viola's work some sort of 'shadow' of God? Nietzsche would no doubt argue that what Viola is doing is providing a way for us to continue to hold on to old belief systems, without having to 'sign up' for the religion. It would seem that we need our rituals, and they are important to us in our day to day negotiation of life, but are old recycled Christian beliefs the best and is Viola in using the media technology we associate with the world of advertising and mass communication, in the end simply selling us an old idea repacked as some sort of extended bath salts advert. Those adverts where water is slowed down and naked people are seen to emerge slowly from their showers or baths, whereby we are led to believe that they have also undergone some sort of 'spiritual' change, this time in the name of a commercial product and one that as long ago as 1972 John Berger in 'Ways of Seeing' had picked out as being sold using a deliberately constructed fantasy. 

I'm afraid I was beginning to side with those that criticised Viola's work. But perhaps for other reasons. I felt that he was using certain visual conventions without really questioning them. Instead of searching for new rituals, that we all, as I have already pointed out seem to need, he was recycling old ones and merging them with certain conventions that have been used in advertising to suggest 'spiritual' change. These tropes can be seen in adverts for alcoholic drinks as much as for bathroom relaxation products, slow motion hair dripping shots can be used by hair conditioner sellers just as easily as artists. 
This is very different to the more private experience of looking at old master drawings. Leeds City Art gallery has an exhibition of Leonardo's anatomical drawings on at the moment. The lighting is kept low and each image is presented in such a way that you can see that it is very special, and something to be revered. Again something that the commercial world is aware of, and I have been in some expensive jewellery shops, where tiny spotlights have been used to give some sort of almost religious 'aura' or glow to expensive items of jewellery. In this case the low lighting, it is argued is to protect these drawings from the corrosive power of bright light. Even so the low lighting levels make you feel that you are entering a cave like experience. 

Entering Leeds City Art gallery you find the Leonardo exhibition immediately on your left opposite the entrance to the cafe. Although the building has that solid worthy presence that so many of our civic buildings have that were built during Victoria's reign, it is of course not a building designed to 'house God' or his spirit and therefore there is not that same sense of religious participation and control that St Paul's has. This is of course a similar situation to the Royal Academy and this is where another problem for the reception of Viola's work might come from. 
The Royal Academy as a place to show work is all about 'art'. As a building it has been a centre around which debates as to art's worth and meaning have taken place many times. It is a building that in many ways stamps its authority on what is shown within it. It gives a formal secular 'blessing' to what it shows, raising the status of art on display and in doing so, reinforces its own reputation as a world art measuring stick. Therefore expectations are different and what Searle is writing about is how Viola's work measures up to the art world 'measuring stick'. Is it worthy of standing company with contemporary practices as well as does it compare with older practices?
I have seen Viola's work in several different religious settings, Durham, Venice, the church in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and now London, all of which I found to various degrees emotionally moving and I have also seen his work in more secular surroundings and I found it far less moving. As I have argued above, I have caveats about his work in these places but at least there is a sort of recognition that the 'spiritual' nature of the siting reinforces the message and that whether or not I like that, it is a better place to explore possibilities for new responses to the need for post-Christian religious experiences than an art gallery. 

But what about Michelangelo's drawings? Perhaps it’s best to separate out the drawings from the finished works. If you have to compare Viola to Michelangelo it would be more appropriate to look at frescos rather than drawings for ideas. It is in this separation that I can find a more personal reading of the differences. Michelangelo's drawings show us a thinking and searching hand/mind. The drawings demonstrate to us how his ideas were unfolding. The frescos are 'finished' productions of their time that fulfilled their remit as statements about the power of the Christian idea, statements that were made right at the centre of the Christian power base for the then ruling Pope. The Michelangelo drawings still speak to us of the man, whilst the frescos tell of history and the changing reality of power structures. The frescos might be wonderful works of art, but they are works that have a charge that comes from their synthesis with the architecture of St Peter’s, they are inseparable from their context. So is this how we should be looking at Viola’s work? Situated in St Paul’s cathedral, we again have that pomp and majesty associated with official Christian religion and Viola’s videos are housed in casings not too dissimilar to those units devoted to holding relics or significant church ornaments. They are though clearly recent additions, their technology is of the 21stcentury. If we look at this technology, we are immediately aware of other uses for it, as the ‘blurb’ we are asked to read suggests, Viola has used modern methods but slowed them down in order to ask his audience to meditate on the experience. However, once aware of this, I was forced to think carefully about his production values. 
One problem I felt with these videos was that they were over produced, the struggle that he must have gone through in order to realise his ideas is hidden behind the slick finish of the various edits used. Beautifully lit, composed carefully, his videos somehow become anodyne, their underlying visual tropes, referencing commercial advertising as much as historical painting. I was reminded of those beautiful adverts for tonic water, whereby water is poured over ice cubes, the bubbles and flowing liquid enlarged to a scale that references a slow motion natural waterfall. 

From Schweppes adverts

Bill Viola

Liril advert

But what would be Viola’s equivalent to Michelangelo’s drawings? Would it be the pre-edited footage, would it be a documentary of the making of the work, such as the 'The Road to St Paul's' 

Documentary 'The road to St Paul's'

I find the documentary interesting and it makes us aware of several technical issues that lie behind Viola's work, however there is nothing quite like a drawing in the way it can reveal intimate thoughts. Perhaps the nearest is a poem’s original note form, those handwritten stanzas that are crossed out and edited in such a way that you see the final form emerging out of the making, such as the one by Wilfred Owen below.

Dulce et Decorum est by Wilfred Owen

Both the edited poem and the adjusted drawing are things that any of us could contemplate working on. Most of us have had ideas about what to say or what to visualise and have attempted to put those down on paper, so we can have an immediate affinity with a small drawing or written note. The technology of a fresco or a video is complex and only really understood by a specialist practitioner. The necessary distancing required by the power holder, (the Catholic Church or the High Anglican Church), suits the grandeur of high production technology, but spiritual experience for myself would seem to require personal intimacy and I feel confused by the differences between ‘church’ and ‘religion’. It’s the word ‘organised’ that is missing here and this is my own problem, I have a deep suspicion of ‘organised’ anything. From my horror of the scout troop I was made to go to as a boy, to organised sports and especially organised belief systems. I don’t want to belong to anything that smacks of masonic rituals or enter into a compact with something that absolves me of my own responsibility for what I do. 

Michelangelo: Study for crucifixion

So finally I have to point to the democratic nature of a small drawing and suggest that whether or not Viola’s work is effective depends as always on the observer. I am too suspicious of the High Church and its motives, which means that I am also worried that Viola has not thought through the implications of placing his work in these contexts. However for a devout Anglican Christian, entering this place of worship and coming across Viola’s works may well be a life affirming and spiritual experience, it’s just that I am of a different cultural set. The struggle of any individual to arrive at an image that can be used to carry an idea is one I can empathise with, so if asked which of these works I would point to if I was asked to pick out the ones that had influenced me, it would always be Michelangelo’s adjusted and worried over images of the crucifixion. 

 See also:

Tuesday, 16 April 2019

Drawing in or with Paper

Embossed surface of toilet roll paper

Some of the papers we use in everyday life are decorated as they are made, their surfaces embossed as part of the moulding process and others are embossed after they are made by having shapes pressed into their surfaces. What is interesting about these ways of marking paper is that because of surface indentations we become more aware of the importance of the angle of direction of light sources. A light falling directly in front of the image may not reveal anything, but a light source from an acute angle can reveal every textural difference. Therefore this type of drawing makes you much more aware of the complex interrelationship between light source, drawing and observer. Just to take the photograph of the humble toilet roll above, I had to move the object around and try several locations, as well as shift my own viewpoint a few times before deciding on an angle that I thought demonstrated my point well enough. 

If you make your own paper you will have I'm sure realised the potential to weave wire into your mesh, so that a 'watermark' can be made. This simply thins the paper that sits over the wire when it is as a thin pulp collected over the mesh and is often seen at its  best when you hold the paper up to the light. 

Folding or scoring paper will give you a wide range of marks depending on how you make the fold, for instance you can make a former by taping down two sheets of card with a narrow gap between them and scoring a line along this gap with a traditional bookbinder's bone folder. This gives you a line that on one side of the paper rises up like a small wall and on the other side opens out like a tiny empty canal. Every implement used to score paper will create a different mark, and the different ways that a fold can be worked on, such as by applying different amounts of pressure or working on the back of the paper with smoothing implements, again create different line types. 

Paper scoring tools

You can also sand your paper down, each movement of a sheet of sandpaper creating thousands of tiny marks, all of which can be seen if you get the light hitting the paper at the right angle or beat your paper with a hammer or other heavy tool, such as those hammers used in the silver manufacturing industry, that are used to build up beautiful textures as a silver sheet is formed. They can do the same job on thick watercolour paper, crushing the surface as it is hit, whilst at the same time building a repetitive textured surface as you overlap your hammering marks.  

Silver hammers normally used for giving textures to hammered sheets of silver

However in the printing industry the most common way of creating surface difference by using the properties of shadow is to emboss paper. This at its most basic means applying a cut out shape to the paper under great pressure. The surface of the paper is in effect crushed by the weight applied. 

The video above is interesting because it shows how someone can use a combination of new and old technology to create what they want. The tools made by the artist in this case are quite specialised and if you do want to create work in this area sometimes you do have to refine your working methods in order to get the best out of the process. 

You can also draw with specialist tools made for other purposes such as using pricking wheels made for sewing through leather, such as the one above. But the most common way of making surface textures of this sort is by using an ordinary needle. This technique can be used to create basic lines and simple drawings or the most complex images, it just depends on the amount of time you want to spend and the invention that you can put to the process. 

The artist Fu Xiaotong uses pins to create her massive drawings on handmade paper. 

Fu Xiaotong at work

In an earlier post I looked at the drawings of Frances Richardson and she has at times commented about the relationship between drawing and sculpture and in this case I believe the relationship is very close. 

So why use these techniques? There are several issues that fine art students could consider here. The first one is the 'objectness' of the papers that you use. By making the image an integral part of the paper, you can begin to separate the idea of the image, from the idea of the object. No longer do you have an idea/image/design placed on top of the paper, the paper traditionally operating as a background or support. In this case, because the image is embedded within the field of its making, it is itself now part of the object. This was part of the point Frances Richardson was making when she referred to her drawings as 'thin sculpture'. If we go back to some of the issues raised when we were looking at framing drawings, we had to explore the differences in presentation between drawings that were 'illusions' of things and drawings that were exploring the 'objectness' of flat things made of paper. Working in this way can open the debate out further. For instance compare paper folding with making embossed paper illusions such as this one below.

Embossed paper used as shallow relief

Another theoretical area that can be explored using these ideas is that of Greenberg's media specificity. If you follow the implications of his writings, paper is itself a medium and therefore its specificity is to do with what it is capable of as a medium. So instead of looking at how it can be used to carry representations of other things, such as the image above, it should be treated as something that has its own possibilities, therefore as an artist you should engage with this process of revealing possibility and in doing so you will also discover your own language. 

I am personally very interested in the relationship this type of work has with revealing light as the most important factor in seeing anything. You can make your audience much more active as they have to move around to see this type of work to its best effect and more importantly you can get your audience to focus on how a light source is effecting perception. 

There is a 'stripped down' feel to the aesthetics involved in this type of work. As colour is eliminated and all additional materials such as drawing or painterly substances are also eliminated, you can also touch upon notions of purity and truth to materials. 

Miso: New York Moon

The artist Miso in her work 'New York Moon', took maps of the New York city grid and laid them over images of the valleys and craters of the moon and then combined the images by pin pricking through both into a sheet of paper below. In this instance she is finding a new use for a very old technique of transferring drawings using pricked papers.

An old print that has been pricked in order to transfer the image

This technique goes back to the Renaissance, when painters would use holes pricked in large 'cartoon' drawings to transfer their images onto wet plaster ready for fresco painting. They used to pounce these cartoons with crushed powder or charcoal, thus leaving faint dotted lines on the wet plaster as guides within which they would paint. 

 All of these techniques depend of course on the types of paper you are using.

See also.

If you do want to get serious about using some of these techniques, The Graphic designers guide to embossing.  is a useful starting point. 

Saturday, 6 April 2019

Ilana Halperin: ‘Minerals of New York’, Leeds Arts University

Colour study and accompanying observational drawing

Ilana Halperin is exhibiting her drawing led practice ‘Minerals of New York’, at the Leeds Arts University's new Blenheim Walk Gallery from the 29th of March to the 9th of May, and an examination of her practice is an ideal opportunity to think about how current theories associated with what has been called 'the material turn' work as conceptual tools. 

In a Studio International interview with Janet McKenzie, Halperin had this to say about her relationship with drawing, "Drawing is a trace fossil of a moment, an idea, proof of life. We make contact. Movement through space and time, layers of thought (material) accumulate. Drawing is like a stratum of activity – layers are laid down one upon another. It allows a process to develop through time. Every object (drawing) is a record (trace fossil) of its own formation. For me, drawing and printmaking – especially in relation to etching – is a physical and narrative process that allows me to make poetic links across time and space".

I found her interview fascinating, as she refers to some of the central themes that have been explored in this blog over the last few years, in particular the need for human beings to become much more aware of the entangled part they play in the physical processes of life and how drawing can itself be regarded as a deeply metaphorical material process.

In 'Anti-Oedipus', Deleuze and Guattari put an idea of human immersion into the physical nature of the world like this; "He thought that it must be a feeling of endless bliss to be in contact with the profound life of every form, to have a soul for rocks, metals, water and plants, to take into himself, as in a dream, every element of nature, like flowers that breath with the waxing and waning of the moon." (1983, p.2) Deleuze and Guattari point towards a need to re-merge with the world we inhabit, to sink into its very grain; reminding us that we are part of the Earth's texture, even if we are the bit that gets stuck under the world's fingernails. We are after all, as they state, 'only a process'. (Ibid)

Exhibition view

Halperin's drawings line the walls of the gallery, each one framed behind glass, each sheet of which is held in a wooden frame. The fact that each drawing is a focus on a material fact, immediately shifted my own focus onto the material presentation of the work itself. Ordinary glazing glass is composed of approximately 75% silicon dioxide (SiO2), glass 'forma' being sand (silica) which when looked at closely is made of millions of tiny quartz pebbles. However something happens when at 1700°C the crystalline quartz melts and becomes glass, this new structure combines some of the properties of a crystalline solid with some of the properties of a liquid, becoming in the process neither. Glass being something that floats in between states, its very transparency, seeming to suggest a ghost like material that isn't quite there. Often formed into glass doors, doors that seem to be designed to facilitate that comic routine of walking straight into them, an activity also designed to ensure we are all well aware that glass is also a solid. As well as silicon, there are other elements that are required to make glass sheets for these drawings' protection. An alkali, oxide of sodium in the form of soda ash, will have been used as a flux, which is used to lower the melting temperature of the silica. Traditionally soda ash was made from burning sodium rich marine plant life such as kelp and seaweed, and it can also be mined or produced in chemical factories, but before its use as a flux, it had another use, that of a dryer or desiccant in Egyptian mummification rituals. Calcium, in the form of limestone, that sedimentary rock made of billions of crushed organic bodies, is used as a stabiliser, without which water would gradually dissolve the glass, its removal a catastrophe for all aquariums and finally we find lead, which is added to make the glass as shiny as it is, it gives the best glass that clear brilliance that allows us to see the fine details in these drawings laid out beneath its surface. It is as if by placing these drawings beneath glass, Halperin echoes the process of material conversations that she has already had, conversations that carry on without her, as we mentally dig down through the drawings into the wall beneath them, a wall that was once part of a lecture theatre, a wall erected on the site of a previous school building that itself had brick walls made of Yorkshire terracotta clay, a school that this writer once used to go to on an evening, so that he could visualise his ideas in a ceramics evening class. 

Halperin has made small studies of the rocks she has found, in particular making pairs of drawings, one always analysing the colour range of minerals discovered, and the other presenting an observational drawing done in pencil (graphite). All materials have colour, and as was pointed out in the last post, artists such as herman de vries have made us very aware of the relationship between soil colour and location, each soil sample for instance, being (when dried out and crushed to the same consistency), of a different colour value. Halperin, like herman de vries relies on a formal presentation technique to give verification or honorific value to her collections of colour and observed form. It is as if she regards the streets of New York as being a place for the collection of exotic species and I was reminded of pages of Charles Darwin's notebooks from his Beagle voyages as I walked along past the framed pages of Halperin's observations of New York's minerals. 

Malacolite in limestone. 

The free e book, Mineralogy of New York: Comprising Detailed Descriptions of the Minerals of New York (State), Natural History Survey by Lewis Caleb Beck, is an excellent companion for this exhibition, because you can immediately delve down into the deeper complexities of mineral formation. For instance malacolite is a type of pyroxene, a stranger to fire, named as such because it was at one point thought that although these types of rocks are often found in lava flows, that these prismatic crystals of four or eight sides, shouldn't, it was reasoned at the time, be there. It could be regarded therefore, that malacolite in limestone, is a mineral with a strange type of agency, that it is a type of 'vibrant matter'. 

In Jane Bennett's book 'Vibrant Matter' she stated“Each human is a heterogeneous compound of vibrant matter. If matter itself is lively, then not only is the difference between subjects and objects minimised, but the status of the shared materiality of all things is elevated." She points us towards other stories, ones that are about an in-common materiality and in doing so she can help us appreciate what Halperin is trying to do. 

By simply identifying a mineral as being 'found on Broadway and 207th street', Halperin is able to link the narrative of the streets with the narrative of the minerals. 

There is a German animation film called 'Das Rad', which takes the point of view of two rocks set into a hillside. For them human action is but a blur of fast movement, far too fast to comprehend, and they puzzle over the various strange things they experience as they become more and more aware of human technology's impact on their environment, but they fail to realise that such short lived ephemeral things as humans could cause such changes. It is as if we failed to realise that mayflies were in fact having a big impact on our lives, which in fact they may. As the advert for the film states, "Apparently, rocks are having conversations all around us, but they talk very, very slowly..."
In the animation, the point of view of human beings is represented in “real-time”, and there are necessary points of contact between the two narratives, which allow us as observers to 'understand' what is happening. Halperin's exhibition operates in a similar way, she provides us with a Rosetta Stone to help us listen to the mineral stories that thread their way through New York and by implication Leeds and every other human habitation that sits upon the Earth's solid ground. As Karen Barad would put it, we have to meet the universe halfway, we need to acknowledge how matter and meaning are entangled and this shift in our thinking is vital if we are to begin thinking about our relationship with the world as a symbiotic one, and one that understands that humans cannot own the world, cannot simply regard it as something to mine for its riches, and that if we don't change our attitudes, the world will at some point become uninhabitable for beings such as ourselves. 

Halperin's narrative map of New York (detail 1)

Minerals of New York: (Map detail 2): Graphite and watercolour on Fabriano paper

During the 13thcentury the Eastern Italian town of Fabriano due to its close proximity to the port of Ancona, a port that was particularly open to trade with the Arab world, began to develop a specialisation in papermaking, using the skills that Arab artisans had themselves learnt from Chinese traders. The specialist skills that these artisans developed included the use of the hammer mill, a water driven device that superseded the old stone mortars and wooden beaters that had previously been used to break up old rags and vegetable fibres and which did not produce large enough quantities of pulp or homogenous fibre mixes. This ability to manufacture much larger amounts of paper pulp, alongside the development of animal gelatine for surface sizing, meant that as the Renaissance in Italy developed, Fabriano was ideally placed to supply the paper needed for artists, writers and the new booming business of accountancy. After a period of decline in the seventeenth century fortunes rose again, mainly due to a Fabriano specialism in security paper production. In 2002, the year the Euro became the single European currency, the Fedrigoni corporation acquired the historic Fabriano paper mills; its production of the paper used for Euro bank notes, being a factor of Fedrigoni’s decision to acquire Fabriano. The Fabriano paper mills still continue to produce high quality art papers and in particular make specialist watercolour papers, examples of which you will find on the walls of the gallery, carrying the watercolour and graphite marks left by Halperin as she attempts to record her mineral observations. The Fabriano name has remained central to papermaking in Europe not least because of the company’s decision to make both paper for art making and paper for money making. However Picasso’s portrait of the art dealer Vollard made in pencil on Fabriano paper is perhaps a more interesting story of art and money; initially bought by Vollard for 500 francs, if put up for auction today it would possibly become one of the most expensive sheets of paper in existence. However values change and as the Anthropocene unfolds we may well have to renegotiate our relationship with both art and money and find that we have a much closer affinity with the minerals of our everyday environment than we thought we had. 

Picasso: Drawing of Vollard

References and Links

Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (1983) Anti-Oedipus London: Bloomsbury
Barad, K (2007) Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning New York: Duke University Press
Bennett, J (2010) Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things New York: Duke University Press

Exhibition details