Tuesday, 25 February 2020

Lina Bo Bardi’s architectural presentations of drawings

Every now and again I try to put up a post about presentation techniques. Third year students will have to put proposals in for spaces and outline how they are thinking about final show and module assessment hangs in the next two weeks, so its a good time to remind everyone how important presentation is. There are several links at the bottom of this post that could therefore be useful as they bring together earlier reflections on various other aspects of presentation.

Johanna Unzueta 

Johanna Unzueta has a show of work on at Modern Art Oxford at the moment, her freestanding geometric drawings inspired by natural patterns, are being displayed in a format that echoes the one that Lina Bo Bardi used for her easels display format back in the 1960s.   Lina Bo Bardi's easels consisted of a pane of glass supported by a concrete cube and were an attempt to integrate the display of artworks into the structure of modernist architecture.

Lina Bo Bardi's 'Easels'

The iconic glass panels that Bo Bardi designed and exhibited at the opening of the Sao Paulo museum of Art in 1968, were designed to ‘resurface’ art objects dating from the fourth century B.C. until the 1960s. “Floating” them in glass panels anchored by a concrete block, art objects were positioned in no chronological order, and they revealed their backs. “My intention has been to destroy the aura surrounding museums,” said Bo Bardi at the museum opening. She wanted to disrupt the contemplation of works hanging on white walls, and diffuse the hierarchy between artists and artistic periods, being amongst the first to undo the sacralisation or spiritualisation of the museum experience. By “making walls transparent,” and through the showing of the back of the images, notes, records, and processes were revealed that had previously only been seen by museum staff. 

Lina Bo Bardi exhibition displays

Unzueta says of her work that it is “a body you can walk around, not a flat thing”, a concept that reinforces my own thoughts about both drawing and painting being in reality very thin sculpture. 

Johanna Unzueta 

Lina Bo Bardi's ideas have become fashionable, but not necessarily understood. She wanted to give audiences a view of what went on behind the images presented in museums. 
Johanna Unzueta's use of Lina Bo Bardi's idea is questionable. Why in photographic views of her exhibitions, do we never see the backs of images? Is there nothing to reveal? Has Bo Bardi's concept now become a style of presentation for Unzueta, rather than a way of revealing something about the way the work is displayed?

An exhibition of Lina Bo Bardi's drawings

A recent exhibition of Lina Bo Bardi's own work was presented with her drawings fixed to scaffolding posts. It was obviously curated in this way as a 'nod' to her ideas. However I'm not convinced that the exhibition worked because her intention to destroy the snobbery surrounding museums and wanting to disrupt the contemplation of works hanging on white walls, seems to have been replaced by yet another presentation idea centred on preserving art's 'aura'. 
('Aura' as used by Walter Benjamin in his influential 1936 essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction)

It is important to remember that the aesthetic of the white wall for presenting work was introduced in the early twentieth century in response to modernism. Art groups like De Stijl set off a trend of exhibiting their works against white walls, in contrast if you visit Leeds Art Gallery they have a Victorian room, all the paintings are hung against red or green painted walls. The white walls were also thought of as a type of frame, think of a photograph with a white border. Modernist architectural design was heavily influenced by the need to eliminate decoration, which itself was seen as capable of hiding germs. All those decorative flourishes made things much harder to wipe clean, so decoration became associated with ill health and hidden causes of disease. As an introduction to these types of ideas you could read 'Ornament and Crime', by Adolf Loos. He tells us:

'Because we have stagnated for a long time and we are stagnating still. Over the last decade the whole world of the applied arts has taken great strides under England’s leadership. The distance between us and everyone else is becoming ever greater, and it is high time that we took care not to miss our connection. Even Germany has been catching up at a gallop and will soon be joining the victory procession. Such new life abroad! The painters, the sculptors, the architects are leaving their comfortable studios, hanging ‘high art’ on the peg and taking their place by the anvil, the loom, the potter’s wheel, the kiln and the carpenter’s bench! Away with all drawing, away with all paper-based art! What we need to do now is to wrest new forms and lines from life, habits, comfort and utility! Get to it, journeymen, art is something that must be overcome!'
From the introduction to 'Ornament and Crime'

'High art' is seen by Loos as a crime and we are told that it is in design and craft that true value lies. He points to the problem of art's use value and questions what art is for.

In 1976 Brian O’Doherty wrote a series of essays for Artforum magazine which were collected together in his book 'Inside the white cube'. In these essays O’Doherty highlighted the different types of meanings that the white walls of a gallery implied. In particular he pointed to the new church like aspect that galleries were now imposing on the 'read' of contemporary art. As an architect Lina Bo Bardi would have been very aware of these issues, and her work to expose the myths of the white cube, was an early example of the need to fight back against what had become an unquestioned norm. Art had by the 1970s been clearly separated out from design and craft but an all white aesthetic space for art's appreciation was still accepted as common practice.

The point about this and other posts about presentation is that it is never neutral, when we are told the clean flat white wall is simply to allow us to see the work without distractions, we are actually being subtly inducted into a particular modernist idea.

Whether you are making static images using traditional materials, or working with contemporary media, choices made at the point of exhibition or presentation will determine how your audience receive your work.

See also:

Drawings as exhibition proposals
Trapping and framing
Framing a large drawing
The frame and the banner
Fixings and fittings
Hanging large drawings
More on framing
From drawing to installation

Wednesday, 19 February 2020

Portraits and time

The various ways we think about time are central to an appreciation of portraiture. Several different temporal measures overlap and are read simultaneously. The first is a recognition of time as a factor in human lives. We are very used to looking at other people and are able to judge their age and social status at a glance. We might not be able to judge a cat's age so quickly, but we are very adept at checking out other human beings. So the first measure is probably from 0 to 100, broken down by us into baby, child, youngster, teenager, young man/woman, mature, old, ancient etc. Our particular empathy being probably with those that we judge to be of similar age to ourselves. 

Picasso: Claude writing

The next measure is one that is dependent on the way a medium works and how it has been used. If the medium is one that operates in such a way that it leaves traces of its contact with a surface, we can analyse the traces and look for how many points of contact have been recorded on the surface we are examining. Looked at carefully a drawing or painting can reveal a story of its own making and as we follow this story we get a sense of how long the maker was engaged in the work's making. A typical example would be the drawings of Frank Auerbach, and I'm sure that one of the reasons these drawings are appreciated so much is that we can see the story of their making. 


Ginny Grayson is an artist that records the times of her work in progress. In her case it is all about the different times she made her observations. You can see the framed series of photographs taken as the work progressed in the image below. 

Ginny Grayson
Luboš Plný is another artist that dates his drawings as they progress, but in his case he is documenting the gradual growth of an idea that comes from imaginative interpretation, rather than observation. See the dates written down the bottom right of the image below.

Luboš Plný

A historical time of making is read in relation to our own time period on earth, and the further away from us historically an image was made, the more this resonates. 

Hans Holbein 1527

Roman period Egypt portrait from approximately 100 BC

26,000 year old portrait carved in ivory: Moravian Museum, Anthropos Institute. 

There is also the time associated with the materials of the making. The Roman period Egyptian portrait of a woman above was made in wax encaustic on a wooden panel. Beeswax is a wonderful preservative and keeps colours fresh and alive over long periods of time. An ivory carving will last for thousands of years without deterioration if buried in the dust of a cave floor. The images above can startle us by their apparent freshness or make us thoughtful as we contemplate the time distance from our contemporary society.

A faded photograph

The materials that go to make a photograph are all notoriously ephemeral. Paper tends to be very vulnerable to both chemical and physical deterioration and many photographic processes are liable to fade when exposed to light. This can mean that although photography is a relatively modern technology, it can still be used to represent time passing.  

The recent advent of the video portrait has added a further dimension to how we read time in relation to portraiture, moving images question many of our previous assumptions. 

Andy Warhol: Film portrait of Edie Sedgwick

The video portraits trace their format back to the film portraits of Andy Warhol. An awareness of the historical time of making is still important to their reading as well as of the materials of their making, (all of Warhol's film portraits have been transferred to video because of the deterioration of old film stock) but added into the way they are understood is the durational aspect of the work. All drawings and paintings are static and seen by the viewer as a simultaneity. As an observer you need to put in considerable effort over a period of time to engage with an understanding of what you have in front of you. Stillness is very unlike life, therefore instead of automatically responding to an event, as you do when something happens, (i.e. moves), you have to intellectually engage and think about what the image might mean. Film and video seem to play out a period of real life, even if they do it over and over again, in effect the person appears as if they 'live again' in front of your eyes. The addition of movement suggests life. Conversely, when we stop moving, we are dead. Therefore our engagement with a video portrait is complex. It both operates as a recoding and we are aware of it as something that captures a past period of time, and as a reality, as it can move in 'real' time. Some video portraitists slow down the speed of their videos in order to further play with this ambiguity. 

Bo Gehring: Portrait of Esperanza Spalding

James Nare: Video portrait of Jim Jarmusch 

Most video portraits still refer to the long tradition of portrait painting and concentrate on the head, James Nare's portrait of Jim Jarmusch being typical, but there are exceptions such as Bo Gehring's portrait of Esperanza Spalding, which tracks over her whole body.

Some artists such as Dryden Goodwin, attempt to build an awareness of moving time into their drawings in a way that suggests they have been influenced by video portraits, especially those that use time-lapse techniques.

Dryden Goodwin: Red studies 2004/6

Time and people come together in Dryden Goodwin's work, he has an ability to both capture how someone looks as well as suggest the fragile nature of life within the liquid modernity of urban spaces. 

Dryden Goodwin

Goodwin is happy to mix video with drawing and installation practices, his work celebrating those brief moments of encounter whereby we become momentarily aware of the presence of others. His ability to capture those short encounters in the way he allows his drawing hand to follow his eye tracking movements, is very refined and for those of us that draw, they become readable palimpsests, as his points and marks of looking build over the white paper and then over each other to create a layered but open and readable experience for the trained observer. 

Another issue is what happens when the same person has portraits made of them over time. When the artist William Utermohlen was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, he decided to confront the situation and carry on making portraits of himself. Before his death in 2007, he created a final series of self-portraits that record the stages of Alzheimer’s that he went through. Over a period of roughly five years he documented the gradual decay of his mind. 

William Utermohlen

It is interesting to compare what Utermohlen did with Picasso's lifelong interest in his own image. The sophisticated 15 year old eventually becomes the 92 year old on the threshold of death. 

Picasso: First and last self portraits 

Even in his very last self portrait Picasso was still working through the implications of Cubism. His face pushes and pulls itself as it moves first one way and then another, its as if all his energy was fused into this one last attempt to hold time in motion. 

Jackson Pollock: No: 7

Jackson Pollock is not usually thought of as a portrait artist but the image, 'No: 7'  would have been recognised by Picasso as being one that took on the Cubist mantle and carried its next stage into America. The fast pace and dynamic rhythm of the New World are entangled with a moment of remembrance, a fleeting glance of what could be another human being fished out of the slipstream of time or as in the case of the image below, from a dream.

Jackson Pollock: Portrait and a dream

Los Carpinteros (Marco Castillo and Dagoberto Rodríguez) attempt to freeze time, so that they can help their audience think about the dignity of old age.  This Cuban artist collective is best known for merging architecture, sculpture, design, and drawing.

Los Carpinteros: Portraits on buildings

They visited old people’s homes, nursing homes and asylums, looking for facial expressions of older people that could lend themselves to an architectural translation. Then they alternated between hand-drawn and digital processes in order to simplify the photographic image. What was an image taken by a camera in a brief moment, is gradually converted into an essence of itself, in a way that slows down the read.

Los Carpinteros: the design process

Finished portrait installed in a gallery

LED light cables were placed behind the frameworks to achieve these glowing portraits designed to function like domestic monuments; being both personal and commemorative, humble and heroic. The scaffolding and the portrait become one, the need for a carrying structural framework for both the drawing and the LEDs being another example of things coming together to make a new fusion or hybrid. 

Tony Bevan

It is interesting to compare these pieces with the work of Tony Bevan. His portraits also attempt to reveal a structural framework, but this time in a much more emotionally intense manner, he attempts to also 'freeze' time in order to monumentalise the head.  

Finally the busy post-modern time of now, with its streaming images of multifaceted information channels has seen a return to collage as a way to squeeze together competing image strands into the same portrait. Artists such as Nathaniel Mary Quinn demonstrating that there is always something new about time to think about when making a portrait. His images suggesting a type of liquid modernity that was documented by Zygmunt Bauman.
Nathaniel Mary Quinn

Time in Quinn's case being a flickering one that never quite stands still. It is interesting to compare his approach with Lynette Yiadom-Boakye's. Her portraits are always of imaginary figures that coalesce out of her mind as she paints. Her images seem as if they are of reality but are in fact realisations of her dreams and all dreams aspire to a state of being timeless.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye

Tam Joseph: School report

Tam Joseph's 'School report reflects the reality of young male black lives and how they are shaped over time by society's stereotypes. 

Charles Howard Hodges: Master Adolf Johan Bernard Wattendorff 

I'm sure that this boy also had a future that was predicated and predicted by the society he found himself born into. 

See also:

Self portrait drawings
Drawing and time

Thursday, 13 February 2020

Virtual space and drawing metaphors: John Gerrard

Farm: John Gerrard

Sometimes the relationship between drawing and reality is itself a metaphor. In John Gerrard's virtual reality renderings there is a seamless dissolve between real life footage and virtual reconstructions which asks us questions as to what we know and assume and what is the reality we work with. 
In 'Farm' Gerrard has confronted one of the most obvious but somehow almost ignored issues of current life. Where are those 'clouds' of data that we so happily save to when we are building our online presence or saving our precious images. 

John Gerrard

Gerrard asked Google if he could film their data storage farm in Oklahoma but he was refused permission. However Google don't yet own the airspace above their facility, so he hired a helicopter and had the building filmed from the air. He then had the entire facility rendered as a virtual reality construct using the filmed information. Using game engine software, he was able to construct a world that is eerily like our own. The camera pans slowly across the Oklahoma plains, its movement revealing the uncomfortable fact that all our data ends up somewhere in the USA lodged within a gigantic data server. It will be kept cool using huge air conditioning systems eating up energy and creating a sustainability conundrum. 
Gerrard has also made virtual reality films of mega sized animal farms and often exhibits both these types of farming building complexes alongside each other. Industrial farming of both data and animals suggests that we think in a similar way about both. We don't really want to know about either. If we really knew about the conditions that the cow had to endure before it was processed, we probably wouldn't eat beef and if we really thought about what is happening to our data, we probably wouldn't be using media so thoughtlessly and be consigning so much of our lives to these anonymous data stores. 

All we are seeing here is a skinned wireframe model, but it is so detailed that we tend to forget what we are seeing, which is itself a metaphor for much of our lives today.

See also: 

Cross contour drawing and computer realisations 
Making models to work from
Computer generated art and coding
Fine art and computer animation
Artificial Intelligence 

Sunday, 9 February 2020

Drawing and politics: Part four

I was reminded of how important a political stance is to many artists by Kelly Chorpening's  presentation at the drawing symposium in Bristol.

Electric Peacock: Mounira al Solh

However when I began to look at Mounira al Solh's other work such as her Electric Peacock drawing, I was also reminded of how the poetic and the political can be woven together and in that weaving something else emerges, something that can transcend the political. 

The private and the political merge into each other in the wonderful coloured gouache drawings of Charlotte Saloman. I love her book 'Life? or Theatre?', it is one of those testaments to life that when you come across them reinforce your own commitment to keep trying to make images that may at sometime make sense to others. 

Charlotte Saloman

Whilst in hiding from the Nazis in France between late 1940 and early 1942, Salomon painted a series of approximately 200 images reflecting on her life.  She combined images, texts and musical references, but most of all she was simply 'honest' and straightforward, never self pitying and always life affirming. To look through her work always brings me to tears. Perhaps because my grandmother was of Polish Jewish descent I am prone to be more emotionally engaged with her work, but even so, I can't not recommend her work highly enough. Whether you are seeking to explore the potential of developing personal narratives around your own life, or whether you are simply looking for an artist that has combined text and image in such a way that they become fused, or looking for an artist that transcends the political, whilst still being political, Charlotte Saloman is someone to look at in detail. In 1943, she was killed at the age of 26, after been arrested and deported to Auschwitz; she was five months pregnant at the time. 

Charlotte Saloman: Life? or Theatre?'

It is important to remember that art has sometimes been produced under the most difficult of circumstances, circumstances that at the time must have meant that there was little or no concept of being able to show work to an audience.  But work was made, work that has  effected and still effects other people's lives. 

See also: 

Wednesday, 5 February 2020

Colour and control

When we emotionally think about colour, a culturally embedded object often shapes our response, the black of the executioner’s hood is different to the black of the blackboard, even if the wavelength we see is the same. The red, white and blue of the Union Jack flag, combining the older flags of England and Scotland with St Patrick’s saltire of a red cross on a white background for Ireland, is very different to the red, white and blue used in the flag of the United States of America. The citizens of the USA are told that white signifies purity and innocence; red, hardiness & valour, and blue vigilance, perseverance and justice.” In France “Bleu, Blanc et Rouge” is the linguistic order, being the colours of the French flag read left to right. The short sound-bite, “The red, white and blue” encompassing patriotism, valour and tribal belonging in an easily repeatable form, but meaning different things to different people. For Alberto Burri who used to be an army ambulance driver and medic, red and white were always the colours of blood and bandages. 

Colour often comes with an accompanying text. Even colour charts have their messages, words linked to colours so that you will form an association between the two. 

This colour range is designed to be upwardly mobile. A latte drinking, chic gourmet that sleeps in Egyptian cotton, and likes a touch of the exotic. 

The 'arty' range, Italian style

In this range we have associations with 'nature'. Minerals, 'limestone, obsidian' or forests and jungles, food or drink or places, each colour suggestive of a certain lifestyle, probably of a traveller, who eats good food, loves wild nature and sees themselves as having strong connections or affinities with the wild. 

If you can control the meaning of things, there will always be groups of people that will want to take that control or even "take back control".

The union flag headed flyer above was found discarded on the streets of Durham recently. After seeing that strange language, ‘British the Israel of God’, I was reminded of something I read over 25 years ago. There was an idea making its way around that a computer virus could ‘infect’ people just as it could infect your computer. It was based on how languages work at a deep level, and was derived from Chomsky’s work on universal language structures.  The zeros and ones of machine code were seen as a ‘deep language’ and as such even though we could not recognise them, viruses were able to subliminally affect those that were coders because coders had already shaped their own brains by writing computer code on a daily basis. All languages in effect shaping brain structures as they are learnt. The ‘gibberish’ that resulted from being infected by a virus was seen as a sort of glossolalia when read by a coder or when a non-computer expert was affected as a type of xenolalia. This is a very old condition and relates to the fact that all languages are prone to infection, (something the French are always worried about). The Bible for instance tells of people infected by devils speaking in languages known to others but not to the speakers. In Greece this speaking of gibberish was associated with prophecy, as Dale Martin, in his study of the Corinthian body puts it, they "emit words which are not understood by those that utter them; for they pronounce them, as it is said, with an insane mouth”. The Sumerians were the first culture to recognise how a certain set of sounds could infect a whole language and they had a name for it, a ‘nam-shub’.
The way that people spoke when being interviewed on Brexit night made me think that these people were also speaking in tongues, they had in effect been possessed by a ‘nam-shub’. A nam-shub triggers six basic symptoms: loss of rational control; dominance of emotion, leading to hysteria; absence of thought or will; automatic functioning of the speech organs; amnesia and occasional sporadic physical manifestations such as jerking or twitching. In pre-biblical Sumeria a nam-shub was regarded as similar to an infection, or as we would now think of it, a virus attack. Common in many cultures under different names, it is essentially a string of words designed to eliminate rational thought and to replace it with mindless acceptance. In essence, a nam-shub is speech with magical force. Initially a Sumerian word and concept deriving from their agglutinative tongue that collected and grouped syllables together to form words. Magical phrases similar to the one we know as 'ab-ra-cad-ab-ra', were used to control whole populations. Language was understood as magical and was used by the ruling powers to shape minds by enforced repetition of key syllables, such as ‘take-back-con-trol’ or ‘get-bex-it-done’. This repetition was understood as a key element of classical rhetoric and it was well understood that when working with witches language was distorted to enable alternative truths to be woven into the fabric of what was reality, or as Shakespere would put it, “Fair is foul, and foul is fair”. I suspect Dominic Cummings having a classical education and being well versed in computer coding languages was very aware of this condition, he may even have read Neal Stephenson’s ‘Snow Crash’ back in the 1990s when these ideas were themselves viral and he was perhaps not adverse to concocting a language virus himself and trying it out. As it is, it is hard to cure once infected. In particular if you have ever had to write for the Sun newspaper, one of their style guides ensures that you never use polysyllabic words, they have developed a language consisting of ‘simple’ short words and phrases that is then very easy to shape into a nam-shub. 

The rise of the Nazis in Germany during the 1930s was a time when the shaping of language into a state weapon was honed to a sort of perfection. A whole population's minds washed into believing they were fulfilling their destiny. But not everyone was convinced; Expressionist Art and Dada pushed back at a set of memes designed to cover up what lay beneath. The Nazi hierarchy perhaps saw more clearly than most, how artists' work operated in relation to the society that produced it. The work of these artists often exposed the dehumanising truths of 1930s German society, psychologically uncovering the iniquities perpetrated by the Nazis, exposing horror hidden behind the classical draperies of their favoured traditional art. The “degenerate” artefacts that they railed against, were in fact images of the unhinged reality that they had bought into being. 

Otto Dix: Match seller

Otto Dix was one of many artists labelled as degenerate by the Nazis. He had been in the first world war and saw how horrible both the war and its aftermath were and so it could be argued that his work was in fact a sort of realism. When the works were shown in the 'degenerate art' exhibition it is interesting to see that they had to be labelled as degenerate using large wall texts to ensure the audience knew how to read the works the 'correct' way. 

If you read what the artists who were singled out for derision by the Nazis had to say about their work, they were often seeking to tap into the deep unconscious roots of humanity. Either by looking for spiritual underpinnings, such as Kandinsky's interest in theosophical doctrines, or by developing a more 'primitive' or 'unconscious' side to their work. As part of his personal research into these issues, Kandinsky developed a circular colour chart whereby he stated; “As in a great circle, a serpent biting its own tail (the symbol of eternity, of something without end) the six colours appear that make up the three main antitheses.” 

One again colour charts are central to an understanding of these issues.

This colour chart is taken from 'Thought-Forms' by Annie Besant and C. W. Leadbeater a text that was first printed in 1901, and was pivotal to the thinking of many artists at the time.  The fact that you could have a colour related to 'religious feelings tinged with fear' or 'low type of intellect' is both fascinating and worrying at the same time. 

It could be argued that what was again being looked for was the nam-shub’, some sort of colour object that is like a song stuck in your head, an idea that might go 'viral'. "It's the real thing" we were once told. The advertising industry was central to the development of these ideas as the twentieth century unfolded.

The colours of sweets

When you walk down the aisles of a supermarket you will find changes in colour coding as you pass different areas, sweets and biscuits have a different colour range to pharmaceutical products or cleaning materials. Again, colour and text are combined, we see the word 'Crunchie' or 'Maltesers' as a typeface, sound and colour all at once and it embeds itself into our thoughts. 
So can art be like that? The Nazis obviously thought so, or they wouldn't have gone to the trouble to ban it. If you are looking at how to use colour to effect people it will be the world of marketing and advertising that is most confident in how to do it. Typically companies will demonstrate that they know how to do it.  Colour psychology in marketing is seen as a key tool. 

I personally also think it is to do with the surface quality of the colour. Those sweet wrappers are printed on shiny surfaces, which are a combination of plastic and aluminium also known as metallised plastic. This is a very seductive surface, it would not feel the same at all if the sweet wrappers were made of painted linen in exactly the same colours. Is this why we are so seduced by Jeff Koons? Is this why we find certain paintings so dull when we see them in reality? Film stock can shape and change reality in the same way. This is what the Kodak people have to say about Kodak Gold film stock: "Gold has a slightly nostalgic look to it. It brings out the reds and yellows particularly, which are the warm tones Kodak is known for." So if you want your work to look slightly nostalgic you know what to do. 

Jeff Koons: Balloon dog

See also:

If you want to mix colour try this as a starting point