Unit 2: Fine Art – Dérive (pt 4)

On my first walk, I encountered fencing that separated two college car parks in the centre of town, which when layered with the gate of one of these car parks, produced an interesting grid form.

I wanted to explore this structure and so produced several studies, exploring the negative space and outlining of this form. I think the cut paper is particularly effective here with field-ground effect.

I decided it would be most interesting to focus the eye by enlarging one section of this image/simplifying the structure. I chose the mid-right section of the upper grid as this held an interesting combination of the two layers, and a symmetry in the gaps of one to give a uniform kind of pattern.

Section traced in outline using pen and tracing paper

Having done this I was also interested to outline my leaf sketch also – I was concerned that my work was taking me further away from the nature that had interested me so much in the second walk and wanted to see how I could continue with this theme also.

Overlaying the two traced outlines revealed a surprising similarity

I was truly surprised to find that the two forms showed a great similarity when I overlay the tracing paper. Striking especially in the primary diagonal and the bisecting verticals in the top right of the image. This, like the composition repeat that I observed in my photography, suggest that my mind is unconsciously replicating patterns and drawing me to these without my knowledge. I’m still not quite sure what to make of it!!

The Tree A c.1913 Piet Mondrian

Mondrian, in his first forays into abstraction, was seeking to simplify the form of a tree into geometric line. This is a fascinating project that he undertook, where he gradually became more and more abstracted, and one that is now used in machine-learning. He later went into pure abstraction, without recourse to objects in the world.

I’m interested to understand whether the fence-work itself has in any way been inspired by the proportioning/structures witnessed in natural forms – or is it purely coincidental that this should be observed now? Unfortunately St Peters college does not have information on the gate for it’s fellows car park online (!). But from my desk research, it seems that this is not a style of gate that is currently widely available (it would be a bespoke piece) so it is likely these gates are somewhat historic, though the modern design makes me think it is likely 20th century. The rust evident indicates iron or an iron alloy, though whether this is cast, wrought or rod I am unable to really say. Similar styles of design describe the pattern as either chevron or diagonal box section, and claim it to be an especially sturdy design owing to the diagonal supports, with no mention of the aesthetic itself. As such I think it may be more coincidental that it resembles the natural leaf form, though it is hard to conclude!

Below I experimented with masking tape, to gain a clean line for my grid system. I originally intended to cut away the edge so that the ends would not be visible, but in removing the tape, I found it tore away some of the edging of the lines, and that the ends of the tape produced an interesting tear, which juxtaposed with the uniformity of the lines and the strong black squares. I like the stark contrast of the monochrome here making the grid jump out. I am interested in exploring other masking approaches.

Acrylic on paper.

I decided to experiment with the form in the way I had done previously with crayon/wax resist (i.e. sectioning a piece of paper and completing several instances at once). I explored different marks and organic forms here, though I found the bottom right the most satisfying (where I quickly made expressive marks to form the grid). I continued this expressive form in various colour palettes using soft pastels, experimenting with the layering of the grid systems in different colours.

Unit 2: Fine Art – Dérive (pt 2)

Following on from my previous post, where I noticed I had repeated a certain composition across some of my photos of the walk, I sought to research a little more about this.

I recalled seeing something similar in Van Gogh’s landscapes that I had seen in the summer, at the Van Gogh in Britain exhibition, and looking into more of these confirmed my theory that this could have been something I picked up on there. Here he has also made effective use of yellow and blue to make even greater emphasis of this composition – dividing the canvas by its horizon near the middle, but off-centre focal point (though his tending to the right where mine was to the left). I find it interesting that he would be returning to a similar strategy for two very different scenes – the rural and the urban, with comparably similar palettes also. The small red tree on the path in the left painting is positioned almost in the same place as the figure in red on the streets in the right one.

I wonder if there was intention for Van Gogh behind this or if, like in the case of my photos, it was accidental or perhaps even just a result of him having honed his style and preferred colour palette? Were it to be intentional though, it could be seeking to draw comparisons between these different locations – or perhaps serve as a reminder that though they might seem opposing locations, that they share the same viewer (or that we are seeing it through the eyes of the same artist) they have a unity of experience? That no matter where we might find ourselves at a given moment we still experience the same ‘what it’s like to be me’ in that moment? It might be interesting to create a shared colour palette for my three compositions to explore this further.

I used google image search to find out if the algorithm could find further instances of this composition. However, I found that the image recognition software was more apt to see the subject than compositional comparison – this suggests to me a more sophisticated programme than where it might first have looked at blocks of light/shade/colour (and so composition) but now is identifying objects within those blocks. It was interesting to me to see that the software was distinguishing 3 different subjects in these images: Tree, Apartment and Street, reflecting the change of environment along my walk. The images it saw as being visually similar all fell within these 3 categories, and some do replicate my composition.

I sought to further abstract this composition, and this deconstruction of three complex images was interesting. I think the cut paper works are more successful – the precision of the shapes achieved and the flattening of the colour fields I think work well to focus the eye on the shapes and their relationships together. A more simplified colour palette also helps here I think, and I like the use of a contrast for the ‘horizon’ line. I wonder if a casual observer would still get a sense of the perspective in the original composition, or if these flattened fields would disrupt that sense of your eyes being drawn in.

These recall for me geometric abstractions like those of Malevich and Moholy-Nagy. It might be interesting to explore further whether some of my fields are overlapping of other shapes and to explore more tonal colour palettes.

Approaches to Drawing: Alexander Calder

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
The Brass family, 1929
Kiki de Montparnasse, c.1930

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.

Piet Mondrian, Composition with Red, Blue, and Yellow, 1930, oil on canvas, Kunsthaus Zurich

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)
Drawings, 1931-2. Alexander Calder: “These are some of the drawings I made right after I visited Mondrian’s studio. They are among the first abstract things that I did and they led to the wire universes”
Mobile c.1932 Alexander Calder 1898-1976 Lent from a private collection 1992 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/L01686

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.

A Universe, 1934 – motorized mobile: iron pipe, wire, wood, string

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!

Helene Schjerfbeck exhibition: research/reflection

This weekend I visited the RA to see the retrospective on Helene Schjerfbeck, the first solo exhibition of her work in the UK. Born in Finland in 1862, she was an active painter until her death in 1946.

I was keen to visit this exhibition, to continue my run of women artist retrospectives in 2019, begun with Lee Krasner and Natalia Goncharova. This is motivated by various reasons for me – to do what I can to ‘vote with my feet’ and support the rewriting of art history to include women who deservedly should be included within it, in the process educating myself and reflecting on their practice, and further because something about observing depictions of female subjects devoid of the male gaze is palliative and reassuring to me in some ways. I have often felt very uncomfortable in the more historic wings of art galleries, filled with idealised and sexualised female forms, and while some women artists have continued in this convention in the hopes of subverting the narrative, I find it most interesting seeing depiction go beyond this.

The exhibition itself was divided into 5 sections, split across 3 rooms, suggesting that the curator could have filled a good number more rooms if given the space!

Dreaming does not suit me. To work, to live through work, that is my path.”

Helene Schjerfbeck

I think this artist held a deep emotional intelligence, and conveying complex emotional narratives in her work. I will highlight the works I found to be most interesting here, in the order in which they were presented in the exhibition.

Section 1.

The Bakery (1887)

For this painting, Schjerbeck had set up her easel in a working bakery but chosen not to depict the bakers who no doubt would have been present at the time. In this sense she is already subverting the conventions of naturalism. I found this painting a little unsettling, and reflected on it for some time. The scales, just off centre, are unbalanced. We see a large table filled with fresh baked buns, just laying there (the perspective of this feels like it is exaggerating the size and dominance of this in the space). There is a sense of stillness and murkiness in the room, which is contrasted by the vivid light from the furnace emanating from around a corner in the distance. It implies for me a sense of waste, empty endeavour, inequality in a land of plenty.

Shadow on a wall (Breton landscape), 1883

I was intrigued to see this painting in the exhibition, following my own thinking around depiction of shadows and impermanence. For me, this painting was interesting as she had taken great care to depict the detail of the young branches on the foregrounded tree, to a very fine degree, but the subject of the painting itself, the shadow, contrastingly feels slightly sketchy or blurred. I wondered if this could be defying the convention of the object of focus being also the main subject of a piece (as in photography for instance). The effect is such that it is as though we are only seeing the shadows in our peripheral vision, as though they are some ever-present looming darkness. I think this must be the intention, since the landscape itself is fairly sparse, and the space taken up by shadow is quite large, you cannot focus on the tree without seeing it.

Section 2.

Silence, 1907

There is an interesting quality of light in this painting, her blue dress and delicately lit face contrasting with the plain dark background. The shape of her long neck and sloping shoulders makes her look ethereally elongated, and removed. Again here a sense of stillness and reservation – even regret from the downturned eyes?

Section 3

This room was dedicated to her self-portraits, painted throughout her life. Her style became more abstracted over time, and she confronted her mortality and the deterioration of age head on, with the final works completed within a year of her death at 83.

I found it quite a challenging room to be in, and felt that not only was she exploring that physical change she was seeing over time, but also capturing perhaps her self-perception and attitude towards herself. It is not a sympathetic view of aging we see in her final works, the figure abstracted to almost not being human. I wondered if here the figure of Nosferatu from early cinema might have been an influence (the film was released 20 years prior) – if so characterising oneself as a monster is certainly suggesting a troubled internal world.

Schjerbeck’s technique involved applying paint and then scraping it off or rubbing it back. She repeatedly reworked surfaces with a brush, palette knife or cloth and even sandpaper. The layering and erasure emulate the effects of time in paint. In some cases, parts of the canvas are deliberately left bare, using this texture as part of the picture.”

RA notes – Helene Schjerbeck exhibition

I was interested to read about her techniques with paint – she used oils which I am not familiar with but if applied thickly I imagine a similar effect can be achieved with acrylic? Could be interesting to experiment with this.

Section 4

Girl with beret, 1935

In this room, we saw more of Schjerfbeck’s portraiture, and here her style has developed further. She is using a variety of source material, including the latest fashions from Marie Claire and Chanel, as well as using her own memories and imagination to influence her work. This results in something more abstract and generalised, and though here again there is a woman with downcast eyes, here it suggests a sort of melancholy or regret for me, with a sharper light being cast on the figure.

Section 5

Her still lifes are for me really interesting. The exhibition notes stated that she would work on multiple canvases at a time, doing these as a counterpoint to the many portraits she did. As such I think she may have been a little freer here and we see her particular approach to painting clearly evidenced.

I especially liked seeing the variety of marks she used for the pumpkin still life and how the intent with these marks is not to recreate/emphasise what must have been a very rounded shape.

This exploration and experimentation with abstraction did not quite take her far enough in my view, and I left feeling like if only there had been a further section to her working life we might have gotten somewhere exciting. It left me somewhat unsatisfied, having seen the broad experimentation of Lee Krasner and Natalia Goncharova. But I certainly enjoyed seeing the depths of emotion contained within her works nonetheless.

Play: abstract use of objects – Research/my work

I was reflecting the other day about how several of the workshops we undertook in consideration of Dadaism and chance was in using objects in unusual ways/reducing them to their forms.

This reminded me of an artist I followed on instagram, Christoph Niemann (@abstractsunday) who illustrates for the New Yorker. He has an interesting TED talk which I include below, which discusses precisely this, and the role of the audience in visual communication (without recourse to cliche). I also enjoyed hearing about how this allows simple images to communicate complex ideas, even emotions – we fill in the blanks. The picture only need suggest enough.

I particularly enjoyed learning about his strategy here, in choosing an object from his home and reflecting on it for some time in how it might be portrayed differently.

The real magic doesn’t happen on paper, it happens in the mind of the viewer. When your expectations, your knowledge, clash with my artistic intentions.

Christoph Niemann, 2018

I am interested to use this strategy for myself. Following the success of my teapot figure I wondered about using one of the teapots I have at home.

I like these abstractions – I think I could develop them further and take better into account the space around my drawings to ensure I can best document the intended perspective in my photography (without going off the edge of the paper! Here I used A2 paper, but perhaps A1 would be better, especially when using sizeable objects.

The use of ink felt right here, as Niemann uses, as helps for quick sketching, but collage might be interesting too.

Forms in Sculpture: Research

Constantin Brancusi

What is real is not the external form, but the essence of things

Constantin Brancusi

After my experience with the Gained in Translation task, I was interested to learn more about how sculptors have sought to capture the essence of an object in simplified or generalised forms. This seems to be of particular importance in considering the work of the sculptor Constantin Brancusi.

He paid great attention to the material with which he worked, coming from a crafts background. This means the artwork gives a sense of being formed quite naturally, not working against the fabric with which it has been created. The fluidity of metal, the roughness of stone, and the smooth flint of granite.

What is intriguing though in particular is his depiction of the subject. He has not sought for it to resemble the subject in a physical sense, but has imbued it with an abstract sort of resemblance. The Danaide conveys a serenity and composure of the subject; the bird in space, graceful dynamism; the fish streamlined movement that in a flash would disappear from view. In a sense here he has depicted the qualia of the subject (as philosophers might term it) – that is, he has relayed the experience of witnessing the subject within his artwork: the ‘what it means to see a fish’. This is beyond simple emotional expression and onto something quite more conceptual depth.

This too can be seen in the Endless column. He is giving us the illusion of a pattern, a motif, that could be repeated ad infinitum and conveying to us what it might be like to experience that.

That he would return to several of these motifs again and again, producing unique versions sometimes with only slight nuance, is perhaps less interesting to me. But the notion of repetition on a theme and meditation is perhaps something to consider.

I think it is also noteworthy that he mostly shied away from geometric design and instead focused on smooth rounded shapes and organic-like forms.

Play – Gained in Translation: Critique/my work

Our 2nd theme is related to Dada and Surrealism, and we will be exploring various elements of play and chance around this in the next few weeks.

In the first of our briefs, we were to seek to remove ourselves from the subject matter. This would be achieved by the subject not being direct interaction with an object itself but the description of that object by someone only feeling it with their hands from inside a bag (reminiscent of some parlour games I had played as a child). So the visual object was twice removed from the subject of the drawing we were to make initially, and three times removed from the eventual cardboard sculpture we would construct from the drawing. It was only once we had completed our sculpture that we would discover what that object really was. We were paired up and took it in turns to describe or draw a different object.

In this way we were exploring the idea of authorship and subject as done by Francis Alys – who briefs into two sign painters to create a triptych based on his own original painting.

Francis Alÿs, Untitled (in three parts), 1995-1996. Triptych, encaustic on linen. Collection of Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami. Gift of Stanley and Nancy Singer.

I found this task very interesting, and enjoyed the challenge of conceptualising the object in a new and different way. The fact that we were working from organic forms which would not usually be summarised by geometric shapes made this an interesting challenge. When describing the object for my partner, it was easiest to talk in comparison and simile, e.g. ‘it is curved inwards like a spoon or a shovel’, and to use gesture to help indicate the contorted forms and shapes in the air.

The object I described to my partner, her drawing of this description, and the cardboard sculpture she created of this, 09/2019

It was interesting to see the elements of my description that were picked up in her drawing, and what details were lost. The form was greatly simplified and generalised, but the crucial elements remain (of the broad curved planes and the twisted dimension). The finer detail and symmetry of the piece was lost, though these had been described they were perhaps less easily conceptualised by the non-viewer.

My drawing and sculpture, based on the object described to me by my partner, 09/2019

Here too the forms were simplified towards geometry. I drew tentatively, so that I could reshape and revisit the lines as the description progressed. She began describing the foot itself as a rectangle, before clarifying that it was in fact more sloping and curved. Other elements were depicted that were less visible, but tangible nonetheless, e.g. the seam of the plastic moulding of the foot.

When converting the drawing to a cardboard sculpture, I further generalised the forms, in light of the thick cardboard material we were given. The curved shapes and ‘lumps’ that ended up being the toes were details that were lost. After finding the gummed tape difficult to use as a fast adhesive for the structures I was seeking to achieve, I redesigned the foot to be formed from one piece to minimise the need of the tape. I used scoring to gain the bends that would be needed.

A failed foot attempt using two pieces, using gummed tape which made the cardboard itself soggy and unable to retain its shape

I enjoyed the conceptual challenges in this task, but am not overall happy with the artefacts produced. That said, the task was indeed to remove our own aesthetic preferences from the process, so in this sense I have been successful!!

What has interested me is this notion of reducing objects to their essential elements, or simplifying them. I am reminded of the notion of Plato’s Forms, which were the ideal essence of the objects we see in the world (i.e. that there is a Chair Form which all chairs in the world harken to and symbolize in some way, that we recognise). Perhaps this act of simplification gets us closer to the Form?

I am interested to learn more about the idea of form in sculpture, and plan to visit the Henry Moore studios to discover more.