Monday, 28 October 2019

Rubbings and frottage emerge from the graveyard

Michael Rakowitz: Rubbings of architectural details

It used to be that the only rubbings taken seriously outside of those made by children were brass rubbings made of tombstones. I well remember the activity in the 1960s, several people I came across in those days spending their weekends travelling round looking for the perfect tombstone to take rubbings from. They also had specific tools for the work, certain types of papers and special wax blocks. But with the recent exhibition of Michael Rakowitz at the Whitechapel and Simon Woolham's exploration of the Kennet & Avon Canal at the drawing centre  in Trowbridge, you can see that there is a growing awareness that a direct touch with a surface has far more possibilities than might at first be apparent. Rakowitz has used rubbings in more than one exhibition to transfer information from one context to another. The decorative details that exist across many threatened architectural monuments, can be re-presented by a rubbing far more intimately than by a photograph. For one thing you know they are size for size and you also realise that someone had to climb up onto the architecture, place the paper over the surface details and make the rubbing. This much more physical record is emotionally much more highly charged than a photograph which by its very nature implies a distancing from the subject. 

Michael Rakowitz: Casts of architectural details

Rubbings can be thought of as very shallow casts. Rakowitz using both processes to capture his experiences of the way conflict is destroying the architectural heritage of the Middle East. 

Simon Woolham's exploration of the Kennet & Avon Canal uses the process of making rubbings differently, he recreates the various experiences of surface that he comes across on his walks, by building complex reconstructions or compositions out of the huge number of collected surfaces that he brings back with him. Not only composing the rubbings by finding new juxtapositions for them, he will cut out sections so that he can use geometry to give order to what could be a chaotic mess and work into the compositions other types of drawings that are more observational. As these constructions are built they can also take on an environmental aspect, especially as they reach floors and ceilings and spill out into the spaces of a room. Because Woolham is also a performer, these adjusted spaces can then also become settings for other things to take place such as musical or spoken performance. 
Simon Woolham

An animation made by school children working with Simon Woolham

The great thing about working with rubbings is that people don't get worried about their drawing ability. Simon Woolham's work with school children proving that very sophisticated results can emerge from collaborative ventures.

The use of rubbings as an art form is often regarded as something originating in the work of Max Ernst. Using the wooden floor in his room, he began to take pencil rubbings and as he did so realised that these rubbings suggested ideas to him. This was an ideal Surrealist technique, which he first called grattage and subsequently frottage. It was of course a very old idea, Shakespeare had this to say about it;

Sometime we see a Cloud that's dragonish,
A Vapour sometime like a Bear, or Lion,
A tower'd citadel, a pendant Rock,
A forked Mountain, or Promontory,
With Trees upon't, that nod unto the World
And mock our Eyes with Air.--Anthony and Cleopatra (Act IV Scene II)

Max Ernst: Le Start du Châtaignier

What was also interesting about these Surrealist inventions was the use of titles to further reinforce the feeling of unreality. In this case 'Le Start du Châtaignier', in English, 'the Chestnut tree start', continuing to not provide an answer as to what the image is all about. I do think we could spend more time thinking about how to use titles. From Turner writing long poems for his titles, to abstract artists giving their work titles reflecting those of musical terms, such as 'composition 23', there have been many attempts to include the title itself into the meaning of the work. If you visit an exhibition, it is interesting to see how much time visitors will spend reading titles and other associated information, so for an art form that prides itself on not having to use words and a 'what you see is what you get' attitude, this suggests that audiences are not so sure and they want a belt and braces approach to finding meaning. 

Not that the old traditional skills of brass rubbing should be discounted. Some brass rubbings I have seen were very powerful images in their own right. The dense black of a wax 'heelball' pushed into the surface of 'butcher's paper' (a 22–30-inch-wide roll of white paper) can be used to produce a beautiful negative. 

Brass rubbing from a church in Otley, West Yorkshire

Astral wax used to be the wax of choice for making brass rubbings. 

I have been unable to find any lately except on E Bay and people want astronomical prices for it. The nearest substitute I have found are some shoe polishes, (which of course was what Astral Wax was originally made for), especially if you take the wax polish block out of the tin and leave it out in the air for a few weeks, this seems to harden it up and make it more suitable for making a rubbing. Butcher's paper was used for wrapping meat and there are still butcher's papers being made. Some are wax coated but you can also get them uncoated. Rolls of butcher's paper can come in beautiful colours as well as white, one colour that is specific to butcher's paper being a pink peach. It is of course a very interesting paper to draw on and because it comes in rolls can be an ideal paper to use when trying to develop a different 'feel' to large images. 
I'm drifting off tack again. The important issue about rubbings is that they bring the sense of touch back into the way we think about collecting information about the world and communicating this to others. Touch in many ways comes before sight, as a baby, you need to touch the world to decide it is there, your eyesight is yet to be trusted. Therefore rubbing could be seen as a more essential or authentic record of a certain type of encounter with the world. But it is hard to get away from the fact that frottage is also “the act of rubbing against the body of another person, as in a crowd, to attain sexual gratification.” Which reminds us that rubbing is when you think about it, quite sexual as well.

Jane Eaton follows the logic of two dimensions moving back into three dimensions in her frottage work. If we think of a rubbing as shallow sculpture, or a type of low relief, then it is no surprise to find frottage as an entry into more sculptural thinking. 

Jane Eaton: Frottages

The transfer of texture onto a flat surface from a three dimensional experience is after simply being rolled into a cylinder, a new object, column like, its texture suggestive of marble. Treating one surface as a dense black and the other much more lightly creates a basic dark/light opposition, which is very effective as a structural device. 

A Banalinga stone

As I let these various thoughts spill out, for one reason or another I am reminded of Banalinga stones. These are used for Hindu worship in India. Found on the beds of rivers they are smooth ellipsoid stones that feel as if they were made to be held in the hand. Also called the Svayambhu Linga: a Sanskrit term for a “Self-existent mark or sign of God”, because they are discovered in nature and not carved or crafted by human hands. Their forms are often a simple roller shape that is roughly cylindrical. These forms are also about touch. In their case it is the action of water on stones being rolled along the river bed that makes their unique forms, the touch of water on stone, coupled with some abrasive grit, making something of beauty. Another case of non human action resulting in objects that can appear at first sight to be manufactured by hand. This 'sign of God' perhaps now read as a 'sign of nature' a reminder that we are no different to animals and minerals and other things, simply events linked to other events as we process our way through a mass of interconnected entanglements. 

Hanna Barriball

Hanna Barriball

Hanna Barriball has long been interested in the indexical; i. e. the one to one relationship a rubbing has with the thing that is rubbed. By pushing hard on the materials she makes her rubbings with she also engages with the sculptural qualities of the various papers she uses. She makes her images by rubbing so hard she pushes her paper into the indentations that are part of the surfaces being rubbed, thus making in effect shallow casts of the surfaces she is exploring. 

Paper casts sit in that space between relief sculpture and drawing on paper, made from one sheet of paper, they carry an impression of the surface they were moulded over, but they are still a single sheet of paper thick. Paper moulds can be used to make a negative impression of a building or object, from which a positive could be cast. Paper moulds were used by archaeologists in the mid-nineteenth century to copy the façades of monuments such as Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Palenque in Mexico or the Alhambra in Spain. Described as ‘facsimiles’ by the inventor of the technique, Lottin de Laval (1810-1903), paper moulds allowed explorers to transport a version of a building or sculpture with all its details back to the museum. As a cheap and extremely light method of reproduction, they allowed the explorer to travel further, into previously uncopied territories, into the Mexican and Cambodian jungles for example, where the huge weight and fragile nature of plaster would have proved prohibitive. For instance Alfred Maudsley made paper moulds of Mayan Temples.
Rachel Whiteread

In 2017 Rachel Whiteread shredded a plan chest of drawings to make paper mâché, which she cast on sheets of corrugated iron. In effect she was repeating the Lottin de Laval process, and like Michael Rakowitz casting off architectural fragments. The dialogue between people and objects being linked in this case by touch. 

See also these other posts that reflect on touch


I'm reminded by Patrick Ford of a project he was engaged with back in 2017. He was already engaged with a dialogue with rubbings, rocks and the implications of object orientated ontology. See his blog where he explores work in process. 

Patrick Ford at work

Wednesday, 23 October 2019

Philip Guston and alien phenomenology

Steve Bell: Boris Johnson

In times of political turmoil artists often turn to the absurd to communicate their obvious dismay as to what is happening around them. Steve Bell has seen Boris Johnson as an arse, and back in the 1970s Philip Guston saw Richard Nixon as a prick and ballsack. For Guston in particular his use of caricature was part of an ongoing transformation of his work as he moved from being an abstract expressionist to being an artist that dealt with harsh uncompromising imagery, imagery that was as much a reflection of popular culture cartoons as an awareness that if as an artist you had to match up to one of the greats of the past, Goya was as powerful as Velasquez. 

Untitled (1971), Philip Guston

Untitled (Poor Richard) (1971), Philip Guston. 

Philip Guston: Richard Nixon
From the Richard Nixon series 1971-74

The Richard Nixon drawings helped Guston to develop an approach to drawing that highlighted the raw absurd nature of life. He was also able to use the processes of caricature that he used to reinvent Nixon as an image, on other not always human objects, such as sticking plasters, shoes and coats. A severe distortion of human forms, could also be applied to non-human forms, giving to each subject a new 'reality' or 'attention' that ensured that these objects were no longer just 'background' details to a human drama but significant 'players' in their own right. 

Philip Guston 1980

The smoke from the cigarette is just as powerful as the fingers, which are as weighty in this image as sticking plasters or an ear or an eye. A coat and some shoes stand for an absent human and in doing so they are just as important in terms of image hierarchy as a human subject. This is where Guston's importance lies. He is able to transcend the human centred preoccupation of the cartoonist's imagery and in applying these conventions to non-human forms, is able to show us our own closed circuit of anthropomorphism, to be what it is, a problematic navel gazing, that has led to the dangers of climate change and species destruction. 
Philip Guston

A dismembered head, a green bottle, a light bulb, all inhabit the same space and all have a presence in this image that suggests that as actants (Bruno Latour's term) they all have equal possibilities, each one open to speculative narratives that may or may not entangle the others in their narrative gravity. These images of Guston's are perfect illustrations of what Ian Bogost calls Alien Phenomenology, a philosophy in which nothing exists any more or less than anything else, in which humans are elements but not the sole or even primary elements of philosophical interest. A position that has at times being called a flat ontology. 

This post is one of a series that begins to collect together ideas related to object orientated ontology, agential realism, speculative materialism, and other ways to give more weight to things that sit outside human centred disciplines. Gradually these posts will be used to put together a hopefully coherent philosophy of drawing as material thinking. 

In essence, other things have as much impact about what goes on as we do. We cannot but be entangled in the influence fields of other things in order to be part of the events that happen in our local timeframe. We have though in the past tended to not recognise the role that all these other actants have and we have instead prioritised the human (and often just one sort of human; white, male, middle class European) to the exclusion of everything else.  

See also:

Key texts

Barad, K (2007) Meeting the Universe Halfway: 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
Bogost, I. (2012). Alien Phenomenology. Ann Arbor, MI: Open Humanities Press
Bryant, L, R. (2011) The democracy of objects Ann Arbor, MI: Open Humanities Press
Harman, G. (2011). The Quadruple Object. United Kingdom: Zero Books
Latour, B (2017) Facing Gaia London: Polity Press
Latour, B. (1999) Pandora’s Hope Cambridge, Mass: Harvard Press
Morton, T. (2013) Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

Sunday, 20 October 2019

Artist signatures

Drawing and handwriting have a very close relationship in terms of the aesthetic reading of marks and the idea of an artist's touch or 'signature' style. In an earlier post on writing and drawing I mentioned that I would at some point explore the artist's signature, so perhaps now is as good a time as any. When I was a student at Newport College of Art in the early 1970s I made a body of work called 'art and egocentricity'. I was at the time worried about the nature of the glorified signature and amongst other things made big paintings of the name 'Jasper Johns', pointing out that this was what people looked for before they began looking seriously at the paintings themselves. It wasn't a very strong body of work and someone else took the idea up again a few years later and did it much better. 
So, what are we looking at when you see an artist's signature? Is it something more than clarifying attribution or verification of authorship? It is 'signature' works that the art world wants to invest in and as investment is an aspect of high finance, perhaps it is there that we need to look if we are to understand what artist's signatures signify. The European Journal of Finance published the following article two years ago:

"Ready to invest seriously in art? Pro tip: pay attention to the size of the artist's signature. In this case, bigger is better".
"Narcissism measured by the signatures of artists is positively associated with the market performance of artworks," the study found. "The artworks of more narcissistic artists have higher market prices, higher estimates from auction houses, and higher outperformance compared to the art market index." 
"In other words: for the most bang for your resale buck, consider the size of the creator's ego right alongside his skill".
"According to the study, psychologists have found that large signatures are an indicator of narcissism. And the more narcissistic, the study shows, the higher the market value. To come to this conclusion, Florida State University professor Yi Zhou combed through data from Sotheby's and Christie's modern and contemporary art sales. Using regression formulas, she determined that just one standard deviation increase in narcissism increased the market price of a work by an average of 16%, and increased the auction house estimates by about 19%". (From Business Insider)

So there you have it in black and white, as far as the financial world is concerned it is the size of the artist's signature that counts, as well as 'his' skill. I also suspect the fact the signature is clearly recognisable counts too. 

Simon Linke

The paintings of Simon Linke suggest that the art world is in fact the subject matter of a lot of the work validated by that art world. You could also argue that his paintings illustrate Dickie's institutional theory of art. If you agree that the primary function of the Artworld is to define, validate, maintain, and reproduce the category of what we call art, then Linke's paintings of art exhibition posters reflect this self-obsessed circularity. If you also agree that the other role of the 'art world' is to establish in our society the legitimacy of the artworld's authority to determine what is art and also what is good and bad art, then Linke's use of oil paint, his reproducing of existing images, his appropriation of a designer's image as fine art, his citing of various galleries' exhibition posters, his choice of artists etc. are all part of a self-legitimising enterprise.  The art world as an interdependent network is a very beguiling idea, because it validates whatever role you may have within it. For instance, if you are an art student, simply by being one you have entered into the profession. If you contrast this with the old apprentice system whereby you had to demonstrate your skill level by undertaking several complex tests before you were allowed entry into the guild, you can see how an idea of the value of individuality over 'craft ability' has been 'sold' as the central plank of an investment culture. However, late Capitalism as an economic enterprise is now being heavily questioned because its methods have led to the destruction of the world's resources and as the Art World in many respects mirrors a heightened version of the values of a capitalist market, some of the work that has in the past been highly valued, under a very different critical framework could be seen as worthless or only of worth within the parameters of the investment world. 

‘Larry Gagosian,’ Kim Gordon

The painting ‘Larry Gagosian' by Kim Gordon, takes the idea one step further. As the art world is controlled by the top gallerists, the most important signatures are now those of gallerists not artists. Kim Gordon paints all her 'signature' paintings in her own hand, whether it is Marcel Duchamp, Larry Gagosian or a self portrait of you. At the end of the day these are her signature paintings and what they suggest, even though she is clearly making a point about how the art world determines status, is that they are giving you 'the promise of originality'.

Kim Gordon

Kim Gordon is also a musician, (bassist in Sonic Youth) the distancing that being part of two different professional groups gives, is I think very important, in that it allows her to see the hollow reality of the signature.

Artist signatures first became prevalent during the early Renaissance, which saw art production shift from co-operative guild systems to a master and apprentice system, whereby the master controlled intellectual content as well as the crafting skills needed. A signature was a way to ensure that your name was recognised, or as we would put it now, that your brand was seen to be out there. For instance Albrecht Dürer developed the monogram, ‘AD’, which became a trademark. He went to court in both Nuremberg and Venice in successful bids to protect his authorship, so that any artists using his imagery thereafter had to identify the work as being ‘after Dürer’. Before this artists simply took ideas from each other as if they were common property. For instance icon painters could be seen to be not doing their job properly if they deviated from the set visual patterns for each religious subject.

In the book "Beg, Steal and Borrow: Artist's Against Originality" by Robert Shore, you will find a history of appropriation, Robert Shore argues that artists have always stolen or borrowed ideas from each other but over the last 20 years or so, the legal battles as to who did what, have become intensified because we live in a society that values individual authenticity above all else.
The paradox here is that on the one hand communities by their very nature need to be self supporting and for that to happen a certain amount of sharing and common values are needed. But on the other hand the art community values the unique individual above all else. From a Feminist perspective it is also nearly always the 'male' artist that is designated as the individual 'genius', therefore the 'signature' idea also represents an aspect of phallocentrism, something that we will come back to. To re-quote from earlier in this post; "In other words: for the most bang for your resale buck, consider the size of the creator's ego right alongside his skill".
When he was alive, Picasso's signature was so valuable that any cheques he made out would be kept by whoever they were made out to, so that the cheque itself could be re-sold later for far more money than the amount written on the cheque.
The importance of the signature of the chief cashier on the print made from a drawing above, (which is what the image is when you think about it), it could be argued, is similar in intent to the one on the print made from a drawing below.

However we are educated by the artworld authority as to what is good and bad art, to believe that the image of a woman drawn by Picasso has more to say about the human condition than the image of the woman drawn by Roger Withington on the current £10 banknote. It is interesting to compare the Picasso drawing of a woman's head (Françoise Gilot) with Robert Austin's image of the queen's head below from a previous incarnation of the banknote. Both are heavily stylised and both attempt to create an iconic image. These artists are concerned with 'readability', Austin in particular has had to create an image that can be translated by gravure techniques into something readable amongst many other competing graphic shapes, including numbers, scrolls, a crown and text. Picasso has stripped out all other competing bits of information, except for his own signature. Both women have accentuated hair and head adornments, the intricate forms of the queen's crown echoing earlier forms of headdress such as garlands of flowers. Jewels set into crowns eventually replacing flowers as tribal chiefs became kings with vast wealth. The more formal hair style of the queen, reflecting a particularly acceptable style of hair dressing for a woman of her class, and the loose hanging style of Gilot's hair reflecting her status as a creative muse, something reinforced by the garland of flowers she wears. Both women look out at us directly, suggesting they are comfortable in their status. 

Robert Austin
Both these images suggest that the women portrayed stand for something beyond the individual and in order for the two different artists to achieve this, they have both in their own ways ironed out individual flaws or features. The big difference is that you have probably never heard of Robert Austin, he has never been deemed worthy of being brought into the pantheon of fine artists. Picasso of course 'earned' his status by creating a huge body of work that included the invention of Cubism and a range of styles and approaches to art making that can astonish. But in this case we simply have two images of women, both of which are presented to us as prints on paper.  However as soon as we see Picasso's signature, just like those checks he signed, his print is automatically seen to be of more worth. 
So as an artist what do you want to do? Do you want to 'brand' yourself, do you think that you should be kite marking your unique originality? Or are you on a journey to discover what art is for? Are you looking to rediscover a purpose for art making that lies outside of investment portfolios? I'm not arguing that a heightened sensitivity to materials and the skills of making things arn't needed. Picasso was highly sensitive to material qualities and he had excellent skills. But I am suggesting that not all of any artist's oeuvre is of the same standard, and that sometimes we dismiss art work as being of no importance, when it actually is. Beware treating everything done by an artist as being of equal validity. The Picasso case does though highlight these issues and it makes us realise how money easily makes us blind to the subtle communication of material engagement being made by any one artwork. It is the investment issue that irks me. Using art as an investment actually diminishes its value as a conduit for human exchange. Monetary value replaces cultural or societal capital. 
I believe we are going through a time of great change and as we realise we have failed to achieve a proper symbiotic relationship with the rest of the planet and as we begin to try and change engrained habits of consumerism and move towards more sustainable ways of living, we may also have to change the way we think about art making and what it is for. At one time specially crafted artefacts helped us humans to mediate between the world of the spirit and the everyday world.  In the Catholic Church the doctrine of transubstantiation could be seen as one last gasp of earlier 'animist' traditions, whereby inanimate objects could be regarded as having 'spirit lives', or forms that would allow them to have conversations with humans. Human attributes given to, or placed within non-human forms allow us to have more sympathy or emotional resonance with them. The advent of the signature coinciding with the Renaissance and the rise of the artist as a named individual, and the move from an earlier tradition based on the iconographic traditions of early Christianity. It could be argued that those icons were used or worshiped in a very similar way to the engagement with objects in the earlier animist tradition, perhaps its last gasp, before the cult of the individual replaced it. 
The physicist Nick Herbert has argued that; "The quantum consciousness assumption, which amounts to a kind of "quantum animism" likewise asserts that consciousness is an integral part of the physical world, not an emergent property of special biological or computational systems. Since everything in the world is on some level a quantum system, this assumption requires that everything be conscious on that level. If the world is truly quantum animated, then there is an immense amount of invisible inner experience going on all around us that is presently inaccessible to humans, because our own inner lives are imprisoned inside a small quantum system, isolated deep in the meat of an animal brain". 
This type of argument testifies to a growing awareness that an animist tradition could be returned to. Not perhaps in its original form, but in a format that helps create a bridge between our human centric lives and the lives of other things.
Quantum animism is yet another response to the growing worry over the way humans have lost touch with the wider world.  If all things are in essence simply different vibratory patterns, why would one particular manifestation be more important than another. This is a similar situation to that suggested by the concept of a flat ontology. 
Eric Hebborn, the master forger was always interested in signatures. 
Classical head by Eric Hebborn
In the drawing above, you can see Hebborn trying out a variety of signatures much in the same way he would imitate a style. Hebborn's ability to copy styles causing several owners of collections of art to question the authenticity of some of their acquisitions. The question, "is it a good drawing or is it a poor drawing?" is replaced by "is it by the famous artist or by someone else?" If it is by the famous artist it is by definition 'good', if not it is an inferior product.  


In comparison with Leonardo's original Hebborn's is structurally weak and marks are rather vague as to their spatial location. Even so we can recognise the drawing as a fair copy. Hebborn did though fool a lot of people who were supposed to be expert art historians at the time. Several art works being valued and re-valued as their authenticity was questioned. 
Leonardo didn't sign his drawings, but we are so obsessed with artist's signatures that as you can see in this video, his signature is now being 'invented' by picking out letters from other writings and converting them into a PhotoShopped signature. 

A much worse artist's signature drawing is this one below that is supposed to be by Van Gogh. The marks might look like the ones he uses, but there is no attempt to model the head with them and they simply fill the space rather than make space for the head to exist in. It is a really poor drawing. Like the Eric Hebborn drawing it fails to recognise basic structural form, but it also fails to even get anywhere near a likeness. The 'signature' mark of Van Gogh in this case fooling several 'experts', an image of this drawing is on the front cover of a recent book on Van Gogh. 

Van Gogh: man in a straw hat
If you look at the hat above, you can clearly see that Van Gogh works his way around the contours of the hat, using classic cross contour drawing techniques. The other hat is flat and flaccid. I've wandered off from signature to signature style but they are very closely associated in an art world where authenticity is valued often far more than insight or usefulness. 
Van Gogh: T shirt
There is though as always another story. Derrida proposed that the signature is a wound, and "that there is no other origin of the work of art." He goes on to state that a style is inimitable, (Nicholas Royle, The Uncanny, p.194) and that the desire to leave one's mark is inseparable from the desire to be remembered and inimitable. Because of this, death and otherness are inscribed in the signature. In 'Signsponge' Derrida goes on to state that by needing to be repeated a signature in effect becomes a duel with death. There is, "a phallocentric longing to produce a signature that would be a 'stony double of the dead phallus'. (Nicholas Royle, The Uncanny, p.195) As Derrida puts it, "The double of the dead man in erection". 
So is the signature our way of attempting to overcome the fact that we will die? This does seem to lie behind so many of our attempts to leave a mark on the world. If we could therefore embrace death as a normal part of life instead of fighting against it, perhaps we wouldn't need to metaphorically carve our name on every tree and rock we encounter. Eventually all will turn to dust, all will become everything else anyway and our lives will be seen to be a part of something much greater, an ever unfolding series of events that at any one moment were in a certain configuration, a configuration that was entangled into all the other configurations. 
I leave you with this message from our sponsors. 

See also: