Unit 2: Future of the Mind – research

In approaching this grid work, I knew I ought to investigate minimalist works such as by Agnes Martin.

Untitled (1965) Agnes Martin

I listened to an episode of the Bow Down Women in Art podcast discussing her life and works. It was interesting to understand the influence of Zen Buddhism in her work, which emphasises the need for mindfulness and meditation, and a sense of oneness. Though her works are perhaps a little too minimalist for my tastes, this set me down an interesting path of research, when looking for her work in a compendium of women artists in modern art. I came across the works of Eva Hesse here for the first time. I was interested here in her use of repetition to reveal naturally-occurring difference and iteration. This implies a sense of change and time for me, and the use of organic forms and materials was also interesting here. Her works for me seem tactile and invite a human spectator.

Repetition Nineteen III (1968) Eva Hesse

In looking further at her work, I discovered an intriguing article about Performativity in the work of female Japanese artists 1950-60s and 1990s by Yuko Hasegawa. Here I was introduced more deeply to the works of Yayoi Kusama, and to the instructional works of Fluxus artists Yoko Ono and Mieko Shiomi (who are also influenced by Zen), which I think are all relevant to the line of inquiry I have pursued in this project.

While I had previously been aware of the reflective/mirror infinity rooms of Kusama, I had not previously understood the context of her fascination with infinity and the dots which also pervade her work. The infinity nets series is a direct catharsis of visual hallucinations that Kusama experiences, which she has been afflicted by since childhood. Here polka dots cover her visual world like net curtains. By engaging with repetitive pattern and action she is able to gain balance in what might otherwise be an overloading experience.

No. F (1959) Yayoi Kusama
Infinity Nets (1951) Yayoi Kusama

These infinite repetitions and patterns seem highly relevant to my grid cell pattern work, and it could be interesting for me to explore building up layered work in the way Kusama has done with the thick textural paint in her No. F. It’s fascinating to me that she would be experiencing visual hallucinations which sound so similar to these visual navigation patterns I have been imagining, and I could hypothesise that she is actually just seeing this secret/hidden way in which our visual field navigates the world!

She also has explored visual infinities of self, and sense of the alter ego, in terms of the interaction of either herself or the audience within mirrored spaces. The duplication but also obliteration of the body by making it become one with the environment itself -> achieving invisibility. This reminds me of the phenomenon whereby repeating a word endlessly removes its meaning and makes it sound just as a series of noises. I think this could have implications for my future self-portrait work (which I have not yet had chance to write about on my blog!)

Instructional works interest me, for meaning that the outcomes of the work are unpredictable and unprecedented, something not controlled by the artist. Yoko Ono’s work is intriguing for specifying the destruction of a canvas or painting by burning with a cigarette, with the smoke produced being a part of the work. In displaying the work she would have the instructions and then the outcomes themselves, which I think is very intriguing.

The Smoke Painting instruction, Yoko Ono

Instructions were also used to good effect by Shiomi. I am particularly interested in her Spatial Poems work, where she sent letters to 100 people over the course of 10 years, coordinating a network of simultaneous events to take place across the world.

Events from the Spatial Poems (Word Event) 1965-75, Mieko Shiomi

It could be interesting for me to develop a set of instructions for others to recreate the grid and perform an interaction with it in any space. This could allow for all sorts of iterations to be created and explored beyond my own control which would be interesting.

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.