On one of my walks, I was interested in drawing, and drawing with, natural forms and materials. This began with an interest in the trace I was leaving through my action of walking, the impact I was leaving – my footprint.
I then proceeded to print my muddy footprint on pieces of paper that I had brought with me, using different types of mud that I found around me (varying in their viscosity). Here I prefer the clearest print – the one from the path itself – and I feel this most clearly represents the impact of my walk. I enjoyed using the surface on which I was walking as a material in itself and transposing this onto another surface. It felt a fitting way of capturing the moment. I chose then to experiment with drawing one of the leaves I had been stepping on in the mud, using the mud itself. I used a dipstick to achieve a linear sketch, and printed the leaf itself. I found it interesting how similar the linear structure of the leaf came out in the print and my sketch.
This exploration of structural forms in nature, and their linear form, is interesting to me. Most interesting for me in the printing is how it reveals hidden forms that might otherwise be missed by the eye – particularly in the pine cone above. It was also interesting to see the transition of the printed image from when saturated with ink to after several prints – the big contrast and interesting silhouetted shapes created in the saturated images are very abstracted and intriguing I think.
Over the half term weeks I enjoyed taking a break and slowing down the pace of my practice. However I still found myself eager to engage in research!
So I started reading this book I had taken out of the library – a heavy tome so I am still only part way through – and have been really captured by the characters Mary Gabriel introduces from the New York art scene in the 1920s onwards. I was moved to read the book to pursue a deeper understanding of Lee Krasner (whose retrospective at the Barbican this summer I had been bowled over by), but too in hopes of learning about the other 4 women the book biographied who were also innovators within the Abstract Expressionist movement (and regrettably overlooked in the art history): Grace Hartigan, Elaine de Kooning, Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler.
(Below: works included in the Barbican Lee Krasner exhibition – I found the gestural quality and sheer scale of her work breathtaking)
I have found it particularly interesting so far to understand more about the context of the inter-war period for American artists, their sense of being onlookers from the European art scene that dominated, and the driving need for these artists to pursue abstraction. For Krasner, this was greatly guided by her tutelage under Hans Hoffmann.
You cannot deny yourself. You ask, am I painting myself? I’d be a swindler if I did otherwise. I’d be denying my existence as an artist. I’ve also been asked, what do you want to convey? And I say nothing but my own nature. How can one paint anything else?
Some other quotes contained in the book have been notable too
I found that I could say things with colours and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way – things that I had no words for
Painting or poetry is made as one makes love – a total embrace, prudence thrown to the winds, nothing held back
Though I find this contextual background really interesting, I wish that it was accompanied with greater emphasis on the works they produced. I suppose I would like this to be an exhibition of its own (though it would need to be a really big one!!). I am interested to go and find works in the flesh for each of these artists (I know of a Krasner in the Tate Modern but I wonder if there are others in the UK, or of these other women?)
Anyway, I was inspired by reading about these intrepid women to experiment for myself with expression. I have til now adopted a swooping style not unlike that of Krasner (though perhaps more akin to a doodle). As yet I have not ventured into paint or proper layering, only sketches thus far as I feel I need to refine the vision before doing so.
I experimented here with using my left and right hand simultaneously to generate this gestural mark, with graphite first, then with willow charcoal. I am interested by how they differ between my hands – the left hand marks seem more erratic, staccato feel – almost vibrating with energy. I like this frenzied effect and I think it is to do with the strongest/most defined lines being straighter, more repetitive and generally within a similar axis/plane. Contrastingly, my right hand marks are more concentrated and looped, though not exactly restrained. For me, here the energy seems constrained instead – caught up inside itself. I think this perhaps reflects more of the intention I had had but it’s interesting that I find the left hand marks more pleasing. Altogether I think the charcoal most effective
I was keen though to try a different expressive technique (one that I thought of when lying awake one night). I conceived that this would involve rotating my arm through almost 270 degrees – starting behind me and swooping over my head and down onto the paper. This was to deliver some force in the contact with the paper, and also to some extent eliminate my control over the mark. Using this forceful hitting also seemed something that could be rhythmic and expressive – not necessarily violent but certainly with an element of physicality to it.
I was surprised by the tailing of the strikes on the paper. I especially like the indents of graphite that can be seen in the paper, and the contrast between the tone of the struck marks and these tails as I lift the graphite back up again. As I had seen in the Chance workshops (in dropping pieces of paper) some order did seem to be produced, as the marks appear to cluster and be heading off together towards the top right corner. They remind me of tadpoles or perhaps sperm, certainly life potential, which is interesting as I had not anticipated this connection (though in reflection now I notice how ‘alive’ this experiment made me feel).
The action itself felt freeing and I was keen to continue experimenting. Here again I tried to see if there was a difference between the marks of my left and right hands. I saw here that the left handed marks were less clustered, less ordered, with greater diversity in the marks made. Again here, I prefer the effect of the softer charcoal, and I am intrigued by the use of colour with this technique, as I think it evokes a vivid liveliness that is not communicated by the charcoal alone.
I am interested to move these experiments into paint, though I am nervous about making a big mess. I think it would be really interesting to try hitting a field of wet paint to see the effect of the impact in this reversed sense.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
They used to sell wrapping paper at the League and we found that it was pretty good for drawing. You folded a sheet into eight rectangles and it would fit in your pocket. With this we used to pass our time drawing people in the subway on our way to and fro.
I seemed to have a knack for doing it with a single line.
Alexander Calder (autobiography, 1966)
Calder didn’t start pursuing a career in art until the aged of 24 in 1922, when he began taking night drawing classes in New York, having found the working life following his graduation from engineering to be much too dull. He found his start as an illustrator at the National Police Gazette capturing athletic events including one time a circus (which was to serve as inspiration for the work that would catapult his career).
Once he had his own studio, he immediately began experimenting in wood and wire, and then wire alone. His works are recognisably playful and characterful and were sometimes called caricatures.
One cannot describe his works – one must see them…The figures are amazing and in these works of art all artistic rules are suspended for the moment.
B. Werner review of Calder’s ‘Portraits, Sculptures, Wire Forms’ Nierendorf Galerie, April 1929
His networking in Paris was crucial to his gaining renown in the art world, and also was to provide a key catalyst to his work – none more so than his visit to Mondrian’s studio in 1930.
It was a very exciting room. Light came in from the left and from the right, and on the solid wall between the windows there were experimental stunts with colored rectangles of cardboard tacked on… I suggested to Mondrian that perhaps it would be fun to make these rectangles oscillate…
This one visit gave me a shock that started things.
Though I had heard the word ‘modern’ before, I did not consciously know or feel the term ‘abstract’. So now, at thirty two, I wanted to paint and work in the abstract.
Alexander Calder (autobiography, 1966)
Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Nude descending the stairs’ is the result of the desire for motion. Here he also eliminated representative form…
Therefore why not plastic forms in motion?…Just as one can compose colors, or forms, so one can compose motions.
Alexander Calder, exhibition notes at Berkshire Museum, Aug 1933
I had not heard of the mention of ‘plastic forms’ before, and initially thought this referred only to the material plastic. Upon researching this though I understand it now to mean anything that has the capacity for the artist to shape it, so in most cases for Calder, wire.
The move into kinetic or moving sculpture was groundbreaking for Calder – here he not only was playing with form and space in his wire drawings, but also time and movement. Though some were powered by motors, others were only subject to the movement of air or external stimuli.
The underlying sense of form in my work has been the system of the Universe, or part thereof… the idea of detached bodies floating in space…
There is the idea of something floating – not supported – the use of a very long thread, or a long arm in cantilever…seems to best approximate this freedom from the earth.
Thus what I produce is not precisely what I have in mind – but a sort of sketch, a man-made approximation
That others grasp what I have in mind seems unessential, at least as long as they have something else in theirs.
Alexander Calder, ‘What Abstract Art means to me’, 1950
I have enjoyed learning more about Calder, after I was first fascinated by one of his mobiles at the Peggy Guggenheim in Venice. One thing that I am eager to try and take into my own practice is to try the line drawing technique. Til now I think I have shied away from this for fear of making a mistake, but I am intrigued by the unique forms that come from this method, and the simplicity of the finished work, so will resolve to experiment with this!
Since the lecture on approaches to drawing, I’ve been interested in thinking about impermanence in art and materials disintegrating.
I think this is different to auto-destructive / destruction art. Where the whole piece might be destroyed in the process, e.g. Gustav Metzger’s acid paintings, or Banksy’s Love is in the Bin. Instead it is the juxtaposition of something ceasing to be, while something else endures. For me, this is akin to memento mori. We are reminded of our own mortality, while at the same time viewing something that will endure beyond the life of the subject.
I looked to other water soluble materials to experiment with this idea. In both tests I took the paper and ran it under the tap directly – this alone let the pen run, but I had to stroke the sketch itself in order to distort it directly. In both cases I chose to use imagery/text that directly act as memento mori.
I think this was an interesting experiment, but I wonder if it is a little too obvious? I may try to incorporate this into a more subtle approach.
Another thought I had was to make use of fleeting phenomenon to explore impermanence. In particular, shadow. In the process of making one of the objects for my survival kit, I happened upon an interesting shadow form as I was exploring it in suspension
I would be interested in exploring this theme further also. I am aware of artists creating sculptures in order to cast figurative shadows, but am not yet aware of more abstract shadow pieces, which I am interested to look into.