Final Major Project – experimentation in floor based drawing/painting

I was keen to get started experimenting with linear gestural mark-marking. It was important for me to capture the process of this as potential starting points for performance too, but as I have been cautioned not to use the studio space in the university due to the corona virus shut down, I was presented with a challenge to make use of my home environment to do this in!

My first challenge was in erecting some way of filming the process from above, as I do not own a tripod or the special craning equipment that would be used by professionals. I discovered a DIY instruction for a cardboard cradle of sorts for my phone that could be affixed to the ceiling using masking tape, and used this for some drawing experimentation in my sitting room. This floor is carpeted, which would mean it less than ideal for paint work, but does give me the most floor space in which to work.

Having centred myself by completing a yoga exercise, and reflecting in my journal, I decided I would explore different modes of attack for my gestural drawings – from standing, from kneeling, and from lying down. I was also keen to see the difference between using a large graphite stick and large charcoal (i chose these large materials to more easily capture my gesture across a wide surface, and for greater distinction in pressure, orientation etc). I opted to do these with my eyes mostly shut whilst moving, so that my gesture might be guided from the sensation/from within, rather than aesthetic appraisal. I did allow myself moments in between marks to assess whether further marks were needed or not.

I think the standing piece is my least preferred, it is more chaotic and less readily understood in terms of being gesture. I especially enjoy the expression of the charcoal, the pushing/expelling nature, and how the paper in fact moved away from me and contributed to the mark itself. Kneeling seems to be the posture in which I can exercise more control of expression, and capture the full arcing of my arm movements. Lying down was intriguing for allowing movement that was not isolated to the arms as much, and for more chance to be involved (when the graphite was caught in my hair and made no mark on the paper).

While the cardboard cradle worked for this short experiment, i found that the masking tape peeled away and the camera angle could not be easily perfected. The sound of the tape coming away was quite distracting, so I decided I would purchase a cheap phone holder as an alternative. I reasoned that if I am needing to use my phone camera to document anyway then this is a worthwhile investment!

I decided to try a paint pour experiment using this holder, this time working on my kitchen floor (to prevent any spills marking my carpet!) and had the holder clamped on my kitchen table. This allowed for a more up close view of the work in progress, but less vantage of my full body movement. I think this shot though is better suited to the A1 paper size I am currently working with.

I chose Ultramarine colour to experiment with, as I believe it the nearest to the blue of Yves Klein. I wanted to repeat to some extent the gesture used in my charcoal piece – the pushing element I thought might be interesting explored in a more fluid sense. Perhaps in my execution I was more focused on the pour (I did not perform this with my eyes closed, though perhaps I should repeat this with them shut!) and so there is less forcefulness in my gesture. It seems more meditative.

Unit 2: 3D – Data Visualisation (pt 4)

I was interested in exploring the reflective qualities of metal sheeting as analogous to that of screens, in visualising my screentime data. I was shown offcuts of aluminium sheets that I could use to experiment with. Following the performative clay work I had done, I was eager to incorporate this again, and decided that manually hammering it over an anvil would be a satisfying process to try out. In this way I could again demonstrate the human-screen interaction and also something of the strong impact this has on our lives (for better or ill). This turned out to be really fun!!

I hit it 39 times, to reflect the number of hours of screentime over the 7 day period. The marks of the hammer I used here reminded me of those I had created in my previous exercise using pastels. I like how the surface of the sheet has also distorted somewhat from the force of the blows, warping it and the way the light reflects off it.

I wanted to experiment with a round headed hammer, to see if I could produce marks that were similar to a thumbprint, so repeated this. The effect reminds me of bullet holes/impacts in shooting targets, and gives an added sense of violence.

I chose to then fold the sheet twice, to give an approximate size and shape to a phone, and repeated this exercise.

I like the way that the concave shape (a byproduct of my process) draws the eye, as though a captivating screen itself. I used two hammer types here to produce a variety of marks and depths. I was interested in exploring the folds as marks in themselves, and of pure distortion of the screen, so focused on this only for my next sheet. Placing the sheet so that it overlapped the edge of the anvil, I brought the hammer down at an angle to bend it over the edge. I repeated this action in somewhat random orientations, to produce an irregular form. Much like the hitting, I did not want to create an ordered effect, but instead imply the violence/impact to our humanity of such interaction with technology (messy and unstructured), as well as the distorted view it offers us.

I repeated this with a larger sheet, so that I could produce finer distortions. The result resembled crumpled paper and I enjoyed that this suggested the sheet was more malleable than it was in reality, and that there had been a more manual process at play.

I enjoy the way the light reflects on these, producing dark and light regions and suggestion of texture (dappling, rippling, scrunching). The effect alters as you changed your position as an observer, which was also interesting, and if close up you do get a fragmented, blurred reflection. This reminded me of some interactive reflective works I have seen recently.

Below, a Yayoi Kusama work that I had interacted with at Tate Liverpool, whose appearance altered according to the external circumstances it was placed in, and the position adopted by the observer.

The Passing Winter, Yayoi Kusama 2005 – close-up photograph peering into one of the holes opening onto the mirrored interior (with reflective exterior)

And here, an installation from Tate Modern (in an exhibition focusing on participatory art ‘Performer and participant’). The use of the blue tape is intended to integrate the mirrors with the space in which they situate, erasing the difference between real and reflected space – so that our experience is not only of the work itself but the entire environment.

Edward Krasinski (first installed in this way in 2001)

These other works have not distorted the reflective surfaces themselves, but used the quantity and distribution of them in space to add variation, and the colour/light of other parts of the environment to add further depth. Both also use suspension of these to disrupt our expectations. I would like to think further about how my own distortion works might employ these techniques too for added impact. E.g. perhaps by projecting a digital screen interface demo onto them, suspended in a dark box?

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: Chance & Sequence – my work

Charcoal drawing of where pieces of 4 different types of string landed when dropped from a height onto paper

In this workshop, we were introduced to 3 different approaches to drawing, and performed exercises that incorporated an element of chance within them: stochastic, system, and collaborative. We were then invited to expand on these exercises further.

The above image is what I produced for the stochastic (organic) drawing exercise. One by one I dropped pieces of string onto my paper and drew where they had fallen. I was keen to capture the difference in texture and shape demonstrated by each string type and varied my marks and weight with the charcoal to do so. I think this has been quite effective. In doing this exercise, the longer I went on (say after the first 6 drops) the more editorial I became with how the string fell – I still dropped it from a height and observed how it had landed, but if the composition was not quite to my liking I tried again without documenting this shape. It was interesting that I gained confidence/a sense of agency once I had a feel for the task at hand – that there was a sort of dance in a way of the relinquishing and regaining of control with chance.

The second exercise we performed was the system drawing. Here we were told to draw a grid and then populate 6 squares to the side with 6 colours. Then we were told we would be rolling a dice and painting 6 consecutive shapes within the grid with the colour for square 6 if we rolled a 6, or 2 consecutive shapes with colour 2 if we rolled a 2, etc.

(top) my first grid, (bottom) I repeated the exercise with a less brilliant palette a la Mondrian

The third approach was collaborative drawing. Here we would receive an instruction from Myfanwy and add an element to the paper in front of us (e.g. draw a line). We would then pass the paper on as instructed (e.g. pass it twice to your left, and rotate it through 90 degrees). We continued like this for some time, adding what we had for breakfast, a drawing of something in the room, a pattern, etc. Finally, we were instructed to retrieve the paper that we had started with and made our first mark on (the line). We could then add to or remove elements in order to make it uniquely our own.

Here is my finished collaborative work. I chose not to obliterate any contributions from the work, though I submerged the pattern (which had been done in biro in the bottom right corner) beneath my ink strokes so that only the texture of the pattern could be seen.

I enjoyed this exercise, though I find the artefact itself I am left with does not fully capture the process I myself went on. Since I had created equivalent elements for each of those seen in my finished work, but they are not here seen, I feel there is something lost along the way. I also dislike that the orientation of the piece is difficult to really nail down, with the elements often being drawn at contrasting ones. But it was an interesting exercise.

For my self-guided piece, I was keen to do another piece that captured the element of dropping. In the session we had been introduced to the below work by Jean Arp (that does appear to have been choreographed somewhat) and I was keen to try this method out for myself.

Jean Arp, Untitled (Collage with Squares Arranged according to the Law of Chance) 1916, MoMA

Then above an A1 piece of paper that I had placed on the floor, one by one I (without aiming/looking blankly into the distance) dropped the pieces approximately above the page. I varied the position of my arms in relation to the paper, but maintained roughly a height of 1.5m.

In my first attempt, I found that much of the paper floated off the page, and others ended up clumping into little piles. I felt that the clumping/pile effect might be difficult to effectively capture by sticking, as I would need to deconstruct first and then recreate and might lose something in the process.

For my second attempt, I decided to introduce an element of system/rule to the dropping, and not drop all the pieces of paper in one sequence. Here I chose to drop the coloured pieces one by one first, and then reappraise prior to dropping only a selection of the black pieces. This was interesting, but I still found that the pieces formed a pile/clump.

I decided to restrict the number of pieces of paper I dropped even further. Here I chose to remove from the collection pieces that did not fully have torn edges (i.e. exclude the pieces that had a straight edge)

3rd attempt with restricted pieces of paper

I was very interested by the fact that in restricting the number of pieces I used, the composition appeared to coalesce to a form of sorts – here a diagonal stripe. Below the piece following sticking down with Pritt stick.

I think it is interesting that texture and depth has been lost to some extent in the process of capturing these by sticking them down. A loss in a move to permanence from something impermanent?

I chose to repeat this with the remaining pieces that I had excluded onto another piece of paper.

Intriguingly, again a diagonal shape was formed, this time in the opposite direction.