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.

Henry Moore Gardens/studios – Research pt 3

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.

This was a technique I saw him using in many instances – multiple studies/idea development on one sheet for a sculptural work. I like this idea of trying out lots of things in sequence and having them laid out next to each other like this.
Here we can see how the ideas developed in drawing were translated into sculpture.
Head, 1958

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.

Henry Moore, 1978
Here I have experimented with abstract forms using the wax resist of crayons as Moore had done. It was also quite pleasing to experiment multiply on one page in this way. I would like to repeat this exercise when I am needing to generate ideas as well.

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.

Formative Reviews – Reflection

Last week we conducted formative reviews of our peer groups work, and gained some general feedback from the teaching staff on the Foundation course. This proved a great opportunity to get an insight into the working practices of my fellow students, and reflect on my own approach and how I could be refining it further in the coming weeks and months.

The key takeout in relation to my own work, is that I should use my sketchbook for even more experimentation and exercises beyond the brief. This should extend also to how I go about using my sketchbook in different ways and experimenting with the scale of drawings within the book itself and mixed media. Clearly documenting my progress in projects and sequentially helps guide the reader through my thinking.

I think thus far I have as a first impulse gone to my journal and hesitated to put pen to paper in my sketchbook until I have worked through my thinking in words. I think a good exercise for me would be to go first to the sketchbook with something.

Here are some examples of work by my peers that I found particularly interesting:

Sketchbook work: beyond the brief

Sketchbook work: experimentation

Sketchbook work: Mixed Media

At the end of the session, in the general feedback, Louise shared this blog with the group as an ‘outstanding’ example! This was due to the regularity of posting, variety of posts and how I was documenting everything, including research and influences from elsewhere. I was really chuffed with this! So I shall look to be continuing this as we progress in the course.