Signs and Narrative in Art: A R Penck – Research

I recently discovered the ArtRabbit app, which tells you about art events and exhibitions in your area. I was excited to get involved in more live art happenings, and a view into the art world outside Brookes. On here, I saw a half-day conference (free for students to attend) at the Ashmolean in Oxford related to their exhibition on A R Penck, and decided I would go along.

Curator Lena Fritsch gives us a mini tour of the A R Penck exhibition at the Ashmolean after the various talks, in front of the Edinburgh (Northern Darkness III) mural.

A R Penck was one of several pseudonyms for Ralf Winkler, which he first used in the 1960s to elude the authorities in communist East Germany (GDR), which has stuck. Self-taught, following an apprenticeship in advertising, he looked to masters such as Matisse and Picasso, prehistoric cultures, as well as popular culture comics and scifi to influence his work and style. He moved to the West in the 1980s, and lived in London for some time.

Shaped by the subversion of his early work (having to operate in secret with scant materials, smuggling his work to the West), his use of symbolism and repeated motifs is of particular interest to me, as is the fact that his work sought to communicate socially relevant narratives.

This exhibition focused on the development of his ‘Standart’ stick figures, which were used expressively as well as to form signs relating to the concept of man and social power systems. Often the Standart took on the form of a hunter, to play on the primal urges and timeless aggression of humans. Below we can see his exploration of this form expressively through various media (pencil sketch, printmaking, sculpture, paint and ink)

I think for me the more interesting executions here are the print and the painting, with the flat layering of colour accentuating this flat essentialised form that we still recognise as human.

I appreciated understanding a little more of the narrative within the Edinburgh mural from the curator Lena Fritsch, though I think a much lengthier talk would be needed to grasp all elements of this large scale work fully. She drew our attention to the elements featured which captured something of the zeitgeist from 1987 (when the painting was created on-site at the Fruit Market Gallery in Edinburgh). The middle image above shows two standarts (each holding a different letter) coming together – symbolising the softening of the cold war, with American and Russian interests meeting to discuss disarmament during this time.

The right hand figure sees a hunter, a dynamic figure covering much of the space, carrying a spear in two hands and a wheel in another (symbolising change/time?). He is breaking about a shape that hangs above the two conciliatory figures, with another letter falling out from it – perhaps to show the new phase coming?

The left hand detail was not mentioned specifically in the talk, but to me appears like figures falling out of a dinghy/life raft – perhaps a warning that this is yet still potentially unstable times?

I think in pictures before I think in speech. Before thinking in pictures I think in abstract motions. The content of such motions is abstract gesture. Such abstract gestures are what interest me.

A. R. Penck as quoted in the Ashmolean exhibition notes

I enjoyed his more abstract work, though I think it was most successful when working with a limited colour palette of only one or two, to help focus be drawn more to the gestural quality. I had not previously come across the art term ‘neo-expressionist’ but this is how his work has been described.

Colour in the Everyday – my work

For this workshop, we were to bring in a photo demonstrating an interesting combination of colour, texture and pattern, based on the everyday that might otherwise be missed. I chose to bring in this photo I had taken of different surfaces in a car park.

We then had to mix 8 or so colours from this photo using gouache and paint A5 samples to create a palette – here they are ordered by tone.

I enjoyed engaging with the paint in this way, though did find it tricky to mix the darker tones (we were not allowed to use black in our mixing).

We experimented with identical colour swatches on different coloured backgrounds, to see how the interaction changes the perception of the swatch colour (after Josef Albers).

The dark blue swatch in the top configuration appears somewhat greyer and flatter than in the bottom configuration, where it appears sharper and brighter (in fact seeming closer to the background of the top configuration rather than the swatch to which it was identical).

We then had to fill an A1 sheet with palettes experimenting with these different samples that we had produced. Below my work – I enjoyed playing with composition here as well as colour, and since my I had some colours that were near enough primary I produced works that seemed quite modernist and almost Mondrian. That said I think the variety achieved in the palettes that repeated one composition at the bottom of the sheet were perhaps the more successful in exploring the colour combinations, since you can more clearly compare between them.

I enjoyed this exercise and think it could be something I would repeat to help isolate a palette for further work, or that I could develop further in e.g. graphic design.

Performing Chance: reflection

We were introduced to performance art in a one day workshop relating to play/chance. This was probably the discipline I was most wary of in the art world prior to joining the course, as I found it to be unnerving and out of the norm (a bit like when you are approached on the street out of the blue by someone trying to get you to sign up for something). I’m still pretty sure this isn’t the discipline for me but I did enjoy some elements that I think I could look to incorporate in my practice – particularly the element of play possible.

First we engaged in some chance word selection from a newspaper, using the roll of a dice to determine the line and word we would cut out, to form a sequence of 12 words.

This was apparently a strategy used by J D Salinger and a similar one to how David Bowie created his lyrics.

We also had a task where one by one we entered a room and interacted with some objects (while being filmed). I was the last person to enter the room and unbeknownst to me the person prior had reoriented the camera so that my actions were not recorded. I found this to be a bit frustrating as I had put thought into them, but I suppose this was a lesson in itself!

Finally we had a group task. Here, we were to fill a disposable camera with a sequence of recordings of something. As the theme of the workshop was about chance and relinquishing control of the art form/the art being the performer, our group chose to involve the general public and ask that they perform an act for us, before then thwarting that and recording their reaction. We chose to ask them to blow up a balloon, draw on it, and then we would pop it without their forewarning. We created some rules and a vision of how we wanted this sequence to pan out before heading out to complete the task.

Below the photographs developed from the camera. We were not allowed to use the viewfinder to aim the shot, and found that winding on the disposable camera hindered the timing of the shot also, meaning sometimes we missed crucial parts of the sequence for some participants.

On reflection, I think perhaps we over-complicated the rules/sequence requirements and did not factor in the timing constraints/delays of the disposable camera we were using. We also had not planned for some participants being unable to blow up the balloon, so had to improvise with these participants the ‘destruction’ of their work by stamping on it, smearing the ink.

Overall I think it was successful in creating a sense of play for these participants, who were amused and quite willing to take part in our action. For the most part, they were unphased by the balloon being popped/trodden on and took this as part of the ridiculous scenario, so this too became a part of the play. I enjoyed this sense of fun and mischief, which I think is particularly seen in shots where the participants are laughing, or in the midst of blowing up a balloon (which harkens to children’s parties particularly).

Henry Moore Gardens/studios – Research pt 3

Finally, I enjoyed on my visit attending the exhibition of his drawings, to see how these had a changing role in his creative practice through his career, which lasted 7 decades. The exhibition was organised chronologically by decade, starting in the 1920s with his life drawings, and finishing with the works he produced towards the end of his life. It was interesting to note that it was in light of his drawings in the Second World War that his career really took off, despite this not being what he is best known for today. (Pictures below are taken from a book as no photography was allowed in the exhibition)

In the 1930s he began developing his own individual style and used drawing as a tool for developing ideas for his sculptures.

In the 1940s, the war effort meant that he worked almost exclusively in drawings, and was commissioned to document the London Blitz, producing sketches and large drawings of Londoners sheltering in the London underground. I like the use of perspective in the below tunnel, emphasising the sheer volume of people down there (barely perceptible as figures) disappearing into the distance, they seem unending – quite evocative and haunting. This motif was repeated in the portrait beneath.

This was a technique I saw him using in many instances – multiple studies/idea development on one sheet for a sculptural work. I like this idea of trying out lots of things in sequence and having them laid out next to each other like this.
Here we can see how the ideas developed in drawing were translated into sculpture.
Head, 1958

The above work is one of a triptych of Head studies shown in the exhibition from the same period. This was during the phase where he was now using maquettes primarily to develop his sculpture ideas, so drawing was more for creative release. As such his approach was more experimental, and took him into printmaking and tapestry. These Head drawings were done with crayon as a wax resist against watercolour and ink – I find these very effective and am interested to give this a try myself.

I also liked the linear effect in his charcoal pieces here above – the tendril-like branches in silhouette are very effective here. I believe that ‘The Artists Hands’ is one of his more well-known drawing motifs.

Drawing, even for people who cannot draw, even for people not trying to produce a good drawing, it makes you look more intensely. Just looking alone has no grit in it, has no sort of mental struggle or difficulty. That only happens while you are drawing.

Henry Moore, 1978
Here I have experimented with abstract forms using the wax resist of crayons as Moore had done. It was also quite pleasing to experiment multiply on one page in this way. I would like to repeat this exercise when I am needing to generate ideas as well.

Henry Moore Gardens/studios – Research pt 2

Disregarding for now his somewhat problematic subject matter, it was interesting to explore his studios and the Perry Green estate to get an insight into the practice of this prolific artist.

What I found particularly interesting to discover was his incorporation of found objects (bone, stone, shells etc) in his experimental miniature casts that would then be scaled up in working models and final pieces. Knowing this now, and seeing the examples e.g. of whale vertebrae dotted around his various studios, I can now reflect on how the forms of these organic and geological objects informed his work. ‘The metamorphosis of natural objects into human forms’ is how they put this in the exhibition notes.

It was interesting too to get a greater understanding of the technical approach he took to sculpting, both carving and in plasterwork. That he would cover his working medium-sized plaster model in a grid system to enable it to be exactly scaled up and then cast in bronze at a foundry.

I was also surprised how natural light was important to his practice – something that I had only previously considered would be the case for colourwork – and gaining a sense of the environment. His use of scalable plastic temporary studios (a bit like greenhouses) was quite novel.

I visited 4 studios on the estate – the ‘top studio’ outside his Hoglands home, and the three in the top right of the map – the Bourne maquette studio, plastic studio and yellow brick studio.

Henry Moore Gardens/studio – Research pt 1

Following my research into Brancusi’s use of generalised forms, and Calder’s approach to drawing through sculpture and singular lines, I was keen to go along to the Henry Moore studios and gardens before they close for the winter season.

On this visit, I encountered several of his bronze cast sculptures dotted around the estate where he used to live and work for the majority of his career, as well as the various studios he had there. There was also an exhibition being shown cataloguing his approach to drawing and how their role in his artistic practice changed over the years.

I was excited to discover the sculpture after being encouraged to get ‘hands-on’ with the outdoor ones and feel their texture when purchasing my entry ticket.

I found it really engaging to be encountering sculpture at such scale and so personally – it seemed an artform made for human observation and interaction. Many of them I could step into, and touch, and peer around. They offered interesting changing forms when you looked at different angles, as you walked around it. The sculptures themselves bear the marks of their making – the above piece is smoothed but also deliberately etched into.

The above piece shows clearly defined grooves that I believe have been made by the artist’s own hands – running my hand along it felt as though I were running it through carved wet clay.

The above work had intriguingly distinct forms from different angles.

The pieces I found less intriguing were perhaps the ones he is best known for, the reclining figures.

I found some of the forms here interesting, but I couldn’t get past the fact that these were staging the female nude as object. The figure is uniformly passive, and static. She is reduced to her ‘primary function’ as childbearer. This could only make the contorted forms and exaggerations of fertile hips etc seem exploitative for me.

John Berger’s ‘Ways of Seeing’ was released in 1972, ahead of all but one of the sculptures shown above, and in episode/chapter 2 he dealt with the problematic obsession with the female nude in art history. This feminist perspective may not have been taken seriously by Moore etc however, with contemporary reviews in the industry literature dismissing Berger as ‘a committed leftist who poses as the antagonist to all received knowledge about the arts’ (J.A.Robinson writing in the Journal of Aesthetic Education Oct 1974) – with no direct mention of the feminist argument he had been making. Indeed the modern movement was less under scrutiny here than mass media imagery for Berger, but that the passive female nude and mystification as the Great Mother could be still so primary to an influential artist like Moore at this time suggests perhaps it should have been.

The 2nd episode of John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, which first considered the problem of the male gaze in the convention of female nudes in Western art (1972, BBC)

This episode was aired just at the start of a great feminist movement in art history, which was kickstarted by Linda Nochlin’s article from the year prior ‘Why are there no great women artists?’. I am interested to read more into this subject and hope to start with some writings by Griselda Pollock.

Drawing: my work/reflection/research

One of the aims I had for this course was to get more confident in my drawing, and for this to become more instinctive for me. I have enjoyed as part of that exploring the one line drawing style of Calder, but here follows some more descriptive drawing that I have completed first in a recent workshop, at a life drawing class (my first!) and a cast study I did in the RA recently.

Charcoal/conte/chalk on paper – Study of my cardboard object from Gained in Translation

Here we were given a few hours to really study and work into our drawing – I had not before used this technique of building up a layer of charcoal to begin with, but I enjoyed how this made the process somewhat more malleable – it was forgiving to making adjustments along the way. I enjoyed also using chalk and different charcoals to add further depth and texture here. I found it difficult to get the perspective quite right on this and I think the top of the foot (the concentric circles) are not as occluded as they ought, but I am overall pleased with this work.

I chose this slightly altered pose for the object so that I could focus more on the interesting texture and tone of the top of the foot (the more interesting element for me). I felt that otherwise my work would be too generalised to warrant the length of sitting!

I enjoy working with charcoal for the responsiveness to weight and immediacy you have with it.

I enjoyed the life drawing class, though found it very hard going! Working at pace in quick succession was quite the challenge. I enjoyed experimenting with the soluble graphite stick (which I had not previously used) for the tonality you could achieve quite quickly and the sketchy quality you still achieve. I am most pleased with the 10 x 2 min sketch charcoal piece though. I think this allowed me to release my inhibitions somewhat and be more confident in my lines firstly since there was a time pressure, and secondly since I knew that in overlapping them any ‘errors’ might be obscured. I enjoyed in this experimenting with dynamism and scale and the more successful elements are towards the bottom of the work I think where you see the legs. I’d be interested to try this approach again but using the one-line drawing method.

I am pleased with the tone in this piece, though I think here too my perspective could have been refined (i.e. more hunch to the left side/proximity of the torso to the thigh). I perhaps self-edited here once more and did not fully capture the tonality of the genital region..! I was a little conscious of being in public at that point.

Angelica Kaufmann, ‘Design’ c.1778, RA Collection

As I was leaving the Collection having completed my study of the torso, I was struck by this painting for depicting what I had just done myself!

Exhibition notes for the above painting

I was particularly interested to read here that women were not allowed to draw from life at the time of this painting, and so had to study from casts of classical sculpture. This would certainly have been a hindrance to the development of their craft. I would be interested to learn more about the challenges women faced in art history and the broader picture of why they went unrecognised.

Typography: my work

In this workshop, we were introduced to the Adobe InDesign app, taught several basic functions within the app, completing various exercises to put these to practice, and then finally asked to create several typographical representations of a word given to us from a hat.

I found this brief especially interesting to read and so think I would like to explore typography in greater depth.

We were instructed to use Helvetica as a neutral font type, and asked to choose a letter to experiment with. I chose a capital R as I thought it had an interesting variety of form to play round with (straight, curved and wiggly).

First we experimented with duplicating and transforming the letter in dimension and orientation. Then too with opacity and layering. What’s interesting here (which I have only just noticed) is that unintentionally I arranged the page in the shape of the R I was using..!

Then, we experimented with colour fills, as well as gradients, and outlines with varying thickness and pattern.

Here, by masking certain elements of the letter by drawing a shape over it, we experimented with deconstructing the letters and marrying them to create new letters or abstractions. I enjoyed this especially, and testing how far the letter could be pushed and still recognised.

I was given the word ‘error’ to portray through type. This word for me has connotations of machinery and computing, as it’s synonymous with ‘error messaging’ in applications and computer systems. As such I knew I wanted my typograms to play on this.

I began by writing this as one word, and sought to experiment with one of the outlining functions which makes the edges angular/squared – to increase it’s artificiality. I arbitrarily drastically increased the size of this outline and it created an unforeseen interesting result, whereby it was obliterating the word itself. I liked the effect it gives, a bit like someone has viciously markered a piece of paper. Over the top of this, I included a small ‘error’ in a typeface that evokes typewriter or mechanical writing as a footnote of sorts. I chose a contrasting yellow to have this stand out, but also give a sense of alarm. Interestingly, when printed the strength of the black ink behind this yellow note means the type is almost imperceptible.

For my next page, I wanted to experiment instead with each letter in isolation. I chose to continue with the yellow/black palette for this piece as well. I knew I wanted to mix up the sizing, typeface and capitalisation of the letters to disrupt the reading of the word. I deconstructed my capital E which I find interesting since it remains identifiable despite the middle and bottom horizontal lines being disjointed.

The fact I had three rs in my word was interesting, since I had been working with this earlier. I chose to still have one capital R here but I enjoyed exploring the lower case r in this instance – particularly when duplicating and varying the opacity and making this overlap. This reminded me of an error that used to happen with Windows OS and that was featured in the opening credits of the IT Crowd tv show (which again reinforced this connotation of error).

For the O, I wanted to again play with the outlining feature, and again using an oversized one, I achieved an interesting effect which effectively multiplied the letter itself. By scaling this up and tilting it I realised it looked a little like the iconic Vertigo poster, and I liked the additional meaning this could convey, alongside the repeating r, of you falling into an endless error. I backgrounded this to highlight that sense of falling into it. [Here again, the vortex is appearing as a motif!]

I further subverted this work by ‘accidentally’ leaving one of the InDesign function windows on top of the design and screengrabbing it to create a further page – in a postmodern sort of way.

I also enjoyed seeing this message at the bottom of the application window and thought it could in itself ironically imply a paradox of both being and not being an error.

I enjoyed this 1/2 day workshop greatly, and would like to work to extend it as suggested at the end of the brief.

Gained in Translation part 2 – my work

Following on from the cardboard structure I had created in the previous weeks (as a translation of the drawing I had made from my partner’s description of a plastic severed foot prop), we were tasked with further translating this into different materials – wood, and then clay moulding for a plaster cast.

My finished wooden piece

I enjoyed finding an even more generalised form for the wooden interpretation – I utilised some very strong timber (previously used as a wooden fencepost) as I wanted to evoke the solid and supportive role this object could take. Cutting and sanding this to smooth out a more organic form was hard going but I am pleased with the end result on the arch of the foot. The graining on this part also is very interesting, and unique to the material used – I think it adds a suggestion of movement and dynamism as well as materiality.

The most difficult was the concave jointing space that I cut out from the foot piece, to slot the cylinder within it. This was to replicate the joining mechanic I had used in cardboard, but it was too sharp a curve for the saw to do, so I had to cut straight towards the curve line and break off as many pieces as I could with the saw, before chiselling down by hand. This proved very hard work, and I did not quite achieve the finish I had wanted. I might find a different solution to this if I were to repeat this/look to produce a finished piece.

The cast plaster

I took quite a different approach with the clay/plaster sculpting – here rather than simplifying/generalising I explored detail that had featured in my cardboard structure, and some abstract forms. I first was interested in exploring the effect of depth and relief when carving the clay, though it was difficult to fully envisage what the finished result would be in the plaster reverse. I knew that I wanted to attempt a full standing foot like I had achieved in the other materials, so I doubled the depth of my clay to ensure I could achieve the height required. I’m not sure the generalised shape that I reproduced here is as effective with this material as the detail I captured, e.g. of the severed top of the foot in the bottom corner.

We were given instruction to prevent undercuts in our mould, which I tried to follow, but I think some of the finer detail in my design still meant clay was not easily removed from some of the crevices.

It’s interesting I think that here again we can see I am repeating the concentric circles/vortex motif that I have been exploring in survival!