Wednesday, 18 November 2020

Vija Celmins, Frances Richardson and Peter Dreher: Nature Morte

Vija Celmins: Desert

I have briefly mentioned the work of Vija Celmins before, and her work came to mind again when I was looking at some of Frances Richardson’s recent drawings on display at the Karsten Schubert online Gallery. Celmins’ drawings of ocean waves, desert floors, and night skies touch upon what is often called ‘the sublime’, she is known for images of things that are endless vistas or views of the world too difficult to be fixed in the mind’s eye. However back in the 1960s when she was first beginning as an artist she made images of lamps, heaters, and other overlooked fixtures of everyday life. It is as if she became more and more amazed by what it is to look at things, and then she discovered photographs. In many ways a photograph of a sea that ends up in someone’s living room, is like a doorway into a magical other world. A photograph may sit alongside other domestic things, perhaps on a mantelpiece alongside a brass candlestick, but unlike the candlestick, each time you look at the photograph it opens out into other vistas, ones that are far away from where the viewer is standing. Celmins’ images of seas and empty deserts were made out of graphite and charcoal and were meticulously copied from photographs, their materiality replacing the chemistry of photography with carbon. The only quote I know from her is, “I believe if there is any meaning in art, it resides in the physical presence of a work.” Therefore I would argue that she is not that interested in her drawings as windows that look out onto the world, but that she is presenting her images as objects for contemplation as things in themselves. This is at odds with my previous assertion that photographs are also windows, but perhaps the reality of the situation is something to do with the imagined reality of the image, something that sits between what is imaged and what receives the image, a situation that in communication terms creates a membrane that stretches between the perceiver and the perceived. This is the space in which as I have argued before, we find life in death. 

Vija Celmins: Sea

Frances Richardson has been responding to the work of Peter Dreher. Dreher made a series of paintings called 'Tag um Tag guter Tag' that engaged him for several years, and which involved him painting the same glass over 5,000 times. This series of paintings, in English ‘Day after Day, Good Day’, was a meditation on time, painting the glass 2,500 times at night and just over 2,500 times during the day. He always painted the glass in the same position on a 25 x 20cm neutral grey ground, and from the same viewer distance and life size. You could argue that these paintings measured out the length of his days, in effect becoming his own personal clock. 

Peter Dreher: 'Tag um Tag guter Tag'

So what you may ask would another artist find interesting in these images of a glass? I think artists are always fascinated by other artists, and are driven to try to understand their obsession. But artists are particularly obsessed with artists that take on the still-life as a subject. It is as if the human/material conversation brings out something fundamental, it focuses on a material metamorphosis, in such a way that it is almost like a religious revelation. Perhaps I need to provide a little history. 

 Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber (c. 1602), Juan Sánchez Cotán. 

Cotán’s painting of a stark, very deliberately arranged group of vegetables elevates this humble subject matter into a celestial dance. The vegetables are framed in a night sky darkness, their austere nature almost monk like; we are meant to worship in front of this image as at a vegetal altar. There is a spherical geometry that underlies this image, one that suggests celestial bodies moving across a night sky, a classical order that perhaps takes us way back to a time when vegetal Gods were worshipped and the night was a sky God's domain; a reminder that the first animal and human sacrifices were made to ensure the continuation of the yearly growth cycle. 
Chardin ‘The Ray’ 1728 

 In Chardin’s ‘The Ray’ the tense figure of a startled kitten stands alongside a dead ray, a fish that is painted in such a way that it’s vacant and ghostly gaze, becomes a metaphorical message as powerful as Rembrandt’s 'Carcass of Beef', this is indeed 'nature morte'. This is another still life that is deliberately constructed, the architectural arrangement of both alive and dead animals, being framed in a structural triangle of inanimate and animate objects. The frozen action is locked into a space initiated by a knife that almost pierces the picture plane with its handle, but which also establishes the compositional structure, a structure held down by a black jug that gives weight and gravitas to the image. 

 Morandi: Natura morta 1939 

 Morandi’s bedroom doubled as his studio, a situation now common as covid hits our ability to travel to studios and other places of work. He stated, ‘I’m a painter of the kind of... composition that communicates a sense of tranquillity and privacy, moods which I have always valued above all’. Morandi uses very subtle rhythms to give a pulse of life to inanimate objects. He suffuses them with his own quiet life rhythm, created in this instance by the undulating heights of objects played off against subtle colour variations played as if by a colour piano and transforming a simple group of everyday objects into a meditation on time. His methodical approach also extended to the objects he used as his subject material; often painting them and then allowing dust to settle on the now slightly rougher surface, each object slowly losing its original sharpness and clarity, gradually beginning to dissolve and soften its form as dust settled. This slowing down of perception until it becomes a meditative experience is what ties all these artists together, and is the key to what I have called an almost religious revelation. 

You should try this; stare at an object, especially something mundane, something you have previously found uninteresting. Keep staring, stare at it for longer that you want to stare. Now begin to draw it, find its edges, feel the movement of its various planes and angles with your drawing materials, mark your way over its surfaces as if it is a loved one, locate it in the space it belongs to, focus on the light that envelops it until it dissolves back into the light from which it emerged, and then keep drawing. Draw until you cant see anything any more. Now stare again at what you have drawn, stare at it for too long. Take your time, look again at that object you found boring and insignificant and hold in your mind what you have seen and then meditate again on the experience. Gradually at some point in the process, hopefully there will be a moment of revelation, a realisation that you and this object are in fact entwined together in existence and that just for a little while you were joined in a harmonic relationship, one that is recorded in the materials of your extended mind. I often draw the things I'm about to eat, I regard drawing as a type of digestion, we are what we eat and what we look at. 

A beetroot

Frances Richardson is a sculptor, someone I have written about before in a post on drawing as ‘thin sculpture’. She was obviously drawn to Peter Dreher’s work because of its focus on the enduring materiality of time. This is what is said about the exhibition on Karsten Schubert’s website. ‘Hunter/Gatherer brings together Frances Richardson's recent ink drawings with a selection of work by Peter Dreher. An exercise borne from the solitude of our current moment, Richardson's new works on paper gather together a group of objects each of which holds a sense of emptiness. Paired with the works are texts written by the artist’. 

Frances Richardson: Ungrounded objects, 1, 2 and 3

 Frances is she says ‘full of doubt’ about this, she feels ‘representation tends to hold authority and domination over things, subjugates the object in a reduced form for the purpose of narrative or symbol; reductive nouns and images attach themselves to objects, a shortcutting of our sensory experience of the world. For me, representation was a ‘not seeing’ of things in themselves as a matter of vibration; but perhaps I need to deal with things as they seem to be the measure of us’. I was personally fascinated by her doing things over and over. The last time I was engaged with Frances’s drawings there was a sense of labour, repetition and the pricking of countless holes, as paper became sculptural as well as becoming a drawing. As a maker she was re-making paper in her own image, partly yes trying to exert her ‘authority’ on things, but partly I suspect being controlled by paper’s very own material language. I use a lot of ink, I use it with pens and brushes and sometimes I pool it and think of it as a metaphor for my own ageing skin, its ability to crack and seep and stain, coupled with paper’s ability to soak it up, to resist it and to pool it as the paper crinkles and bends, being in my mind a metaphor for my own materiality. I’m therefore excited by the way Frances uses the ink to capture the surface of buckets and stone axes, or should I write 'the bucket' and 'the axe head', or is it 'a bucket' and 'an axe head', are these general or particular things? As they repeat how do they do so? I often draw the same thing, but each time it looks totally different, I can never get back into the same place, the object is always dissolving back into the world it emerges from. Frances Richardson plucks her objects out of their spaces, she holds them firmly in their Chinese ink coats, dark surfaces floating in white, each image struggling to become a mass in a space, but as she realises herself, each object is only a vibration, the thin skin of each drawing, a stretched membrane that just needs the faintest of breaths to make it vibrate again. The work is a fine and proper salute to Peter Dreher, the hours that he spent staring at his glass, compressed into nuggets of time, each one like a hand grenade waiting for someone to pull out the pin, and when they do, like all universes that exist in a point of fluctuation, they expand to become everything that has been and will be, even an old bucket or a hand axe chipped out of flint 10,000 years ago or a drawing and another drawing and another drawing. 

Still thinking 1 (Bucket 1)

Still thinking 3 (Bucket 3)

Frances Richardson: Still thinking 3 (Bucket 3)

Wednesday, 11 November 2020

X rated

There is something about an X that goes a long way back and we keep returning to it over and over again to create key symbols in our visual iconography. The common 'X' opens out some very interesting features about the relationship between drawing and language. I have touched on some of these issues before, often when looking at those entoptic forms that humans have been using for thousands of years such as spots, dots and zig-zags. 

Entoptic categories, each represented here by a typical form 

We have all signed off a text message with XX to mean kisses, which is a custom in language that dates back to the Middle Ages, when a Christian cross was drawn on documents or letters to mean sincerity, faith or honesty. It was also used in early Christian history to stand for 'Christ' which in Greek was χριστός the X standing in for the entire word. This was of course quite a useful thing to do when Christianity was a forbidden religion. The issue here is how the kiss, a physical act between two people, becomes graphically represented by an X. It does look a little like two faces coming together, and more importantly that tiny point of contact where we would expect the mouths to be is in the X a visually and psychologically heightened moment. 

The kissing X

We use X to target something. It is the centre of the X we aim for when sighting. We have come across this before with the point.
The point at the centre of the cross of the sight

Sighting formats
The cross set at a diagonal is called a saltire or Saint Andrew's Cross as in the Scottish flag or the crux decussata. It is often associated with something being wrong, and we come across this X when we make a mistake.

Chemical hazard
From being a sign for something not being right, it is a small step for it to become a sign for a hazard. 
So on the one hand we have the fact that the x has a precise centre and this gives us a sort of x marks the spot accuracy, a sign for a kiss and a sign of things being wrong. 
The British army when they were about to execute someone used to mark a piece of paper with a black X and position it over the heart of someone sentenced to death. The firing squad would then shoot at the X. 
The X can also be used as a replacement for a signature if someone is illiterate, to make one's mark was literally to make a cross. Signing by making a cross was something also akin to an oath, it confirmed that the person signing was honest and telling the truth, because you were indicating that you understood that Christ crucified was the truth.
An early Christian document in Greek with several crosses as signatures.

Because an X signified an unknown or nameless person, it also began to assume another meaning, that of mystery or the unknown. From 'X-Men' to 'Project X' this aspect of the X continues to be used in the world of comic book and filmed adventure. 

In the world of film, an X rating was a rating used to classify films that were meant for adults only. However as a symbol it was very quickly appropriated by the pornography industry and porn films began be be self classified as x or xx or even xxx, signalling to customers that there were several degrees of sexual perversion. 

The artist Tapies was very aware of the loaded symbolic value that lay behind the X and used it over and over again in his images, partly as a signature, and partly as a ritualised religious mark, as well as a sign for the raw beginnings of language itself. 
Joseph Beuys was another artist that used the cross as a symbol but he used the much more positive + or right-angled version. 

Joseph Beuys
Because X is offset or at an angle to + it has long been recognised as an occult symbol for Satan.  
Various 'Satanic' symbols

The Ankh

The Ankh cross symbol predates the Christian cross, and it has been used by a wide range of faiths, new and old as a symbol for life itself.
Malcolm Morley

The cross can still of course be used in exactly the same way as it was when we were at school, as an indication that something is wrong. In 'Race Track' (1970) Malcolm Morley 
made a painting that was a protest (Morley was acting in defiance of apartheid in South Africa, where the race track was located) and an abandonment of Photorealism (he was also crossing out a picture made using the photorealist style), this was the last photorealist painting he ever made, he had decided that painting from photographs was old fashioned and outmoded. 
See also:

Saturday, 7 November 2020

Roy Oxlade, Rose Wylie and raw image making

Roy Oxlade

Oxlade's images are odd, funny, sensual, absurd and visceral. He didn't like French art  "The problem with French painting," he wrote, "is it all seems a bit Montmartre." I.e. it had become mannered and he was always in a battle with what he thought of as English insipidness. 

It is very hard to make a surprising image, the older you get and the more practiced and knowledgeable the easier it is to slip into tried and tested ways of making images. It is very hard to continually surprise yourself, but Oxlade in many ways achieved this and in doing so left a powerful legacy to those coming after him. Hopefully this is not a legacy in terms of how things look, or a style, but is a way of ensuring that art and life don't become separated. Life is surprising, odd, funny, horrible, tragic and visceral, is chaotic in nature and of infinite complexity and so why shouldn't art be the same? We have all at one time or another burnt the toast and thrown it in a bin, but how many of us have thought that it might be worth a drawing? 

One of the best responses an image can have from an audience is, "That's daft", words that for me mean that something has happened to raise a question in someone's mind about the nature of reality. It might also be funny. Never under estimate the power of humour. 

Roy Oxlade 

Objects can be very funny, look at those domesticated thingies that hang around the kitchen, what do they talk about to each other when you are out? How do they appear to each other, what is the kitchen pecking order? Who knows? But it might be worth a drawing to find out.  

Roy Oxlade: The Yellow Lamp

On some days the light source is more lively than the model. Who has never gazed at the angle-poise lamp with admiration. Pixar have branded themselves with it. Oxlade I suspect surprised himself when he made the image above, an image that is indeed, 'daft'. 

Rose Wylie lived with Oxlade for most of his life and painted her own surprising images that in many ways surprise us even more than his. 

Rose Wylie

Rose Wylie still continues to paint and as she does so, she seems to be able to tap directly into scenes from her childhood and a freshness of vision that is childlike. (Not childish, I hasten to say). Some of her images are very large and it feels as if the very struggle to work on such a large scale is part of the awkwardness of the images, an awkwardness that is part and parcel of why they feel powerful and direct. However, Wylie like Oxlade can also become trapped in that loop that can catch any of us out. As you search for a childlike or raw vision it can become a style, and as the policeman said to the art student, "Remember style is the enemy of all art". 

I saw some drawings by Nadine Fienson not long ago from her 'Sex Toy’ series. They had a freshness that suggested that she was trying to tap into things she was still finding awkward and difficult, like life. 

Nadine Fienson ‘Revenge of the Sex Doll’

Nadine Fienson

I hope that Nadine was as surprised by her imagery's arrival as I believe Oxlade was. It felt like that to me, but that's perhaps because I'm also aware of her sophisticated ability to handle paint. 

Pig Sticker

Nadine Fienson 'The matriarch' 

Surprising yourself with imagery is also about allowing it to emerge by itself and sort of catching if off guard. It's a lot harder than it seems, which is why so many artists end up getting fed up with themselves. What they are annoyed at is their own fear of letting go. I still have that problem. I can sometimes look at what I have been doing and realise that I'm making parodies of my former self and when I do I need to stop, walk away and begin again. Some artists look for a style, my feeling is that as soon as you have found it you need to lose it. Having a style suggests that you are more important than the world around you, but reality is far more important than any one individual and it has no style. Style also suggests that things are predictable, and as we well know, life is not like that. 

See also:

Sunday, 1 November 2020

Maryam Ashkanian: The stitched line

Maryam Ashkanian

Iranian artist Maryam Ashkanian's hand-sewn ‘Sleep Series’ consists of embroidered drawings of sleeping people and their dream states. Ashkanian uses the concept of the dream as a way of getting audiences to enter a very different relationship with her portraiture. She states, “Pillows are a metonymy of a dream,” and “Every person has a close relationship with his or her pillow."

Because the pillows are stuffed, the sewn on portraits are subject to puckering which alters the play of light across the surface of the pillows. As part of their process of metamorphosis they begin to resemble clouds, forms that we often use to help trigger a dream like state of imaginative play.

The Sleep Series was inspired by the notion that we become who we really are when we’re asleep. Working from photographs, Ashkanian creates line drawings of sleeping people which she then embroiders onto her handmade pillows.

Maryam Ashkanian

Presentation is as always important and Ashkanian floats her pillows in box frames behind glass, slightly distancing them and taking away their tactile 'reality' so that you are forced to imagine their texture rather than touch it. Touch is one of our key tests when it comes to reality, putting things behind glass therefore heightens a sense of something being 'untouchable' or 'unreal'. 

See also:

The work of Maria Lai in a post on the Venice Biennale 

Stitched, dotted and dashed lines

Patterns, knots and entanglements



More on touch