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.

Approaches to Drawing: Research/my work

I was keen to try out the single line approach with drawing for myself having looked into Calder.

First I had a go with doing a figurative piece based on my cat, Jasmine.

My first attempt (top left) I had started with a gel pen and I like the design of this work but the line quality was not as satisfying, so I moved into brush pen for the remainder. This also gave a little more freedom to my stroke, where I perhaps had been a little more focused on ensuring the pen did not lose contact with the paper with the gel, giving a more precise and static feeling.

I explored the depiction of the distinctive markings she has – a black stripe down her back and into her tail. I think this perhaps over-complicated the picture though, and I find the more simplified line drawings more satisfying. I enjoyed adding a suggestion of texture with the outline though, and developed this in several test runs. The final work I think has the best expression of this, and I am especially pleased by the impression of the right haunch – here the line is not so literally portraying her outline but highlighting the form in another way.

It was relatively quick for me to run this exercise, so could be easily repeated, though it did require several iterations for me to explore it. Perhaps this iteration gets streamlined with practice, but I am interested that this helps process the visual into something more essential.

Play – Exquisite Corpse: Critique/my work

In this workshop, we collaborated as a group in generating lots of images and drawings of objects that could signify body parts – these were all photocopied and scaled in various ways to give us uniformly black and white copies. We were then tasked to create a series of characters with these body parts in collage.

There were some forms I was immediately drawn to, and for the middle figure, the two objects that form it seemed to come together perfectly in the first instant. This is the only character for whom I did not go through an iterative process. I especially like how off balance but simultaneously complete it strikes you.

For the left hand figure here, I was keen to make use of this folk icon sculpture, particularly due to the interesting form and large scale. I wanted to play with this sense of solidity with a small or off-balance leg so experimented with a few options.

Meanwhile on my second sheet, I liked this other lamp shape for other legs, and also the teapot, but didn’t feel they quite worked together in an interesting way. The middle figure I felt had a bit too much going on, though I was interested in incorporating the eyes somehow – I liked them being detached here from the body itself.

I enjoyed this exercise especially. I think my most successful figures used shapes and forms that I had not myself selected from the material, and I found this allowed me some ‘distance’ to objectively select what I found to be most interested and explore different combinations more easily. The forms I had found (the crab, the lampshades) perhaps did not do as successfully because I had a bias to ensuring they were used and so perhaps working them in where they might not have been entirely best suited? I do like all my figures but I think some (the teapot, the wheel) are more complete than others.