Having being offered a place on the MA Art Psychotherapy course at Roehampton University in 2012 I decided that I wanted to document how my involvement on this study programme might inform new ways of thinking about myself and thus lead to new directions within my art practice.

Graduating from the course in 2015, and now working within the field, I still maintain an interest in what it means to be both an art therapist and an artist. The purpose of this blog is to identify and develop dialogues with other individuals that inhabit these dual roles.

 

 


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Rachel Bailey is an artist I’ve got to know through the artist peer mentoring group over the course of the past 2 years (she was one of our original members). As artists, we have shared a common preoccupation with themes of identity and draw upon the theoretical influences of our respective trainings as Art Therapists. Rachel has been supportive of my practice and continues to signpost me towards artists, texts and exhibitions that she feels might be relevant to my work. Recently she has drawn my attention to an interesting article about the Claude Cahun/Gillian Wearing exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery – Behind the Mask, Another Mask. I have since seen this exhibition and hope to write about it through the blog.

As a means of repaying the favor, I was keen to promote Rachel’s upcoming exhibition – The Transgression of Dolls (Exploring myth, fiction and its relation to self and identity – through material objects) at Waterstones on Gower Street in London. The following blog entry is an interview I conducted with Rachel on Friday 31st March where she outlines her current art practice and the rationale for the exhibition. Please be sure to check it out!

 

Can you say a little bit about your training/ art practice?

Well my MA was at the Ruskin which is Oxford. It was quite hard as we were mostly left to our own devices so it was kind of sink or swim. I spent the first two years floundering but by the third year I had found my feet and did well and enjoyed it. I was making sculptural objects mostly out of paper, scrunched up and gathered paper (paper made into textiles).

I then went to the Slade where I applied and got into the painting department, which may have been an error because I was never a painter. I don’t know why they accepted me, but they did. I could never make the things that were inside my head because I didn’t have the technical support. It was quite compartmentalized. I always seem to be a bit of an outsider, maybe that’s what I choose for myself.

After the Slade I won a really big prize – The Vordemberge-Gildewart Art Prize. He was a Swiss Constructivist Artist. It’s given annually in a different European country and I was nominated. I didn’t know what it was, I remember I had to take my work to the Annely Juda Gallery, but they wouldn’t tell me what the prize was so I just left my stuff there. I ended up winning it and received £18,000 which just came out of the blue. It was a really good thing, but I didn’t know how to become an Artist off the back of it. Maybe I was already too isolated; maybe I wasn’t speaking with my own voice.

You also previously trained as an Art Therapist at Goldsmiths. Can you say how this has informed your art practice?

I think my art education set up a lot of mental prohibitions; all the things it shouldn’t be. So, it shouldn’t be craft, it shouldn’t be narrative, it shouldn’t illustrative and I added a few more like it shouldn’t be detailed or decorative…. And I think by the time I got to thirty I reached a dead end, I couldn’t do anything. I remember my partner at the time saying that my work was so quiet it was virtually silent. Anyway we split up and in the emotional trauma that followed I reevaluated many things, including my art making self.

I did an Art Therapy foundation course at City University. It was very directive and I think the first or second session we had to make a mask to represent ourselves. Goldsmiths was so anti that, you’d never do anything like that there. But it was amazing. I remember going up and getting sugar paper, a feather, glitter and the pipe cleaners. I felt exciting and creative. I think I was quite surprised by what I did. It so expresses something about me, and nobody else could see how deeply it really resonated. I seemed to be able to get myself back into my work again after that but in a different way.

It sounds as though your art education narrowed your field of vision. And then, something about studying to become an Art Therapist kind of broadened it out a bit so you were less blinkered.

Yeah, nicely put.

Your exhibition is called The Transgression of Dolls (Exploring myth, fiction and its relation to self and identity – through material objects). Where did this title come from?

Well, I had a life coaching session (about the exhibition) with a new friend of mine who I met through the open studios. It was helpful to have someone I didn’t know ask me what I wanted to get out of it. She suggested that it would good to include some sort of provocative statement and ‘transgression’ does kind of hint at something a bit dark and potentially sexually alluring. I quite like that dirty world aspect of it. But it does have a link to play and play as transgression: an activity that, as an adult, it’s hard to find the time to do and it just feels a bit naughty. So, transgression has a link to play and getting a creative energy from not doing something that you think you should (being a trickster to yourself).

The subtitle is a bit labored. I’ve been working in solitude for such a long time, just allowing myself to do what I want to do. It’s very hard now to stand back and say, “this is what it is.”

A thread which seems to run through your work concerns the juxtaposition between concealment and exposure. Similarly, within your blog, you speculate on which side of yourself will be ‘seen’ at this exhibition. I wondered how it felt to show these works publicly for the first time.

I seem to be oscillating between a dogged, “I’m just going to do it” and sheer demented terror, but that’s under control. I think my friends and colleagues will be interested and that’s fine.

What relevance, if any, is there to showing your work at Waterstones?

I worked at Waterstones myself for a very long time so I have a history with the company. I like the idea of doing it there because when I started writing my blog I didn’t realize that my inspiration comes so much about what I’ve been reading. I discovered that books seem to inform me more than the things I look at. It was interesting going through that Tate Etc. article you sent me [Are We All Anxious Now? By Jill Bennett] as she talks about how reading is between yourself and the book whereas as soon as you show and make work it’s immediately more sociable. Much more is revealed. So I feel quite good about the exhibition being in Waterstones. I had intended to have a little display of books and also a copy of The Doll Dossier which is featured on my website. This is a collection of images and quotations that I have gathered about dolls, puppets, transitional objects etc.

One’s association of dolls is that they are to be touched, held or handled in some way. Do you have any expectation as to how people should interact with your dolls given their materiality as objects?

Well because the space is not completely invigilated, I’ve made boxes for them. I’ve got a couple that I’ll bring out on the days when I’m there, but mostly they’re not going to be handled. They’ll either be in little boxes or there will be photographs of them. The thing that has really remained with me is this quote from the French feminist-thinker, Luce Irigaray who talks about using dolls as a handmade object between mothers and daughters to communicate what they can’t say (to take up a special relationship). I don’t think I really understand it, but for some reason it’s kind of stuck with me. There’s definitely something about the exchange and I really liked passing my doll around at the [peer mentoring group] meeting. They were envisaged to be passed around, but they’re not. They don’t fulfill their destiny in some way.

In my blog, I’ve been looking at a Brazilian Artist called Lygia Clark as she did happenings with objects which are passed around. People interact with them. Although, my dolls take a long time to make and if they are handed around they’ll be spoilt and dirtied. I don’t know how to get around that. Lygia Clark’s objects are things like rubber bands, balls, inflated plastic bags – quickly replaceable or mass produced things; not loaded with crafting hours like mine.

There’s also something quite erotic about other people handling something you’ve made. Maybe it’s an extension of yourself? There’s one doll that I showed at an open studio event, it’s the doll that’s disappearing into a horn shape. A woman visitor to the studio just pulled the doll out and I could feel it in my body, it was electric. It was as though she had touched me.

What would you like people to take away from this exhibition?

I’ve mostly invited people that I know, like people that I’ve lost touch with from Goldsmiths and from the Ruskin. I’m also hoping that I’ll have some nice conversations with people who just pop in. I sent an invite to UCL’s department of Psychoanalysis because that’s been a big thing that’s informed the work. I don’t know if anyone will come.

Because I haven’t really shown before, it’s like a big experiment. I’m thinking of it like a big laboratory of things I think are quite good and things that are maybe less good, but I’m still glad I made them. I don’t know how to articulate what I want someone else to get from it. I hope I will find out!

Will there be an opportunity for you to gain feedback?

Because I’m planning on being there for the tail end of the week I thought I might take some work, or sewing, and think about it almost like an open studio because those conversations are really nice. I would’ve liked to have had some workshops, but I can’t get my head around it at this point. Being there and seeing how people respond means that hopefully they’ll be an invitation to share (instead of it just all being about me).

 

The Transgression of Dolls…. will be showing from April 19th – 20th May 2017 at The Gallery, Waterstone’s, 82 Gower Street, WC1E 6EQ.

For more information about Rachel’s art practice (and her blog), please go to: www.quietmedusa.com

 


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Last time, I mentioned the importance of having the blog to share ideas and to strike up dialogues with other artists about things I’m working on. However, I must also highlight how helpful it has been to receive peer mentorship through regular meetings with other like-minded artists/ Art Therapists.

The artist peer mentoring group that I set up two years ago (loosely named Art + Me) was devised as a means of primarily identifying other Art Therapists, both trainees and fully-qualified professionals who would also call themselves active artists. The initial callout drew artists of various disciplines who share this dual role, although over the years we have relaxed our criteria to also artists who have an interest in Art Therapy or are training in other therapeutic disciplines.

Last month we had our 11th meeting together and the growing number of members means that we’re now looking to meet once a month. We’re also discussing options for a group exhibition together this year. The meeting was also an opportunity to give selected artists a space to talk about their work and to receive feedback from the rest of the group. On this occasion, I had an opportunity to share my work, a prospect that filled me with a certain degree of panic.

As mentioned previously within my blog, I have really struggled to stay motivated as an artist. Prior to the peer group meeting, I felt as though I had lots of ideas or things that I had started on, but very little to show since our last meeting together. As a result, I decided to present the group with an appraisal of my artworks-in-progress to date so that I could disseminate my energies in the upcoming months. As an artist, it can often be difficult to give a concise summary of what it is you do, or your overriding themes, but talking about my practice within the group always feels safe and encouraging. I enjoy the discipline of retelling people what my work is about.

Since 2015, my practice has been split between multiple works that explore my own identity, primarily through self-portraiture. These works encompass a range of media including video, drawing and assemblage. Although, they are all derived from the same source material – a vast compendium of photographs I’ve been taking of myself over the past two years. I now have an archive of nearly 900 images and I’m still going!

One work that I decide to show was my ‘post-it portrait’ – a large scale wall drawing of myself in pencil, made up of hundreds of post-it notes. However, the enormity of the task has left me feeling demotivated. I recently calculated that the final image will be made up of 609 post-its. Thus far, I have only completed about 180, less than a third. One suggestion from the group was whether the artwork could be developed as a collaborative exercise undertaken by close friends and family in which each person is sent a square to complete independently and sent back. I really liked the idea that the artwork’s construction might become some sort of participatory event. Making an artwork in this way would mean that I would have even less autonomy over what the final image might look like.

I also showed another artwork I’d been working on, a composite image which alludes to the constraints of traditional self-portraiture to capture one’s identity, in any kind of fixed way, due to the way our appearances change with time.

The work started out as an experiment, overlaying multiple self-images which were blown up to A3-size photocopies. Each of the images were then cut into thin strips (3mm wide) using a metal ruler and scalpel and then layered on top of one another. The resulting artwork initially looks like streamers, or a beaded curtain, as one group member described it. However, on closer inspection you start to discern the basic outline of face. I also discovered that when I held the artwork in front of a mirror, and shook it gently, the image would shimmer slightly. It was as if I’d seen my reflection in a pool of water, an allusion to the myth of Narcissus.

I quite liked that the image moved or could be animated in some way, and presenting this work to the group was useful in terms of thinking about how it could be developed and exhibited.

As it was, feedback from group members was mixed. For instance, some identified that they liked the size of the work whereas others felt it should be much bigger. One suggestion was to recreate the image on a much larger scale whereby viewers could pass through the artwork. This idea really captured my imagination and shares similarities with another artwork – Threshold, that I made 9 years ago whilst at Wimbledon College of Art. That artwork was inspired by themes of ritualism and the connections held between physical action and transcendence. It took the form a large curtain, hung from the ceiling, that individuals were invited to pass through. The idea was based on Biblical descriptions of the Holy of Holies – the inner sanctuary within the Tabernacle where God is said to have dwelt. The Holy of Holies was set apart by a veil, and no one could enter except the High Priest, and even he could only enter once a year. These descriptions also provoke comparisons with the Black Lodge – the extradimensional space featured in the television series Twin Peaks, perhaps another unconscious influence at the time.

It is interesting that this veil/curtain motif has arisen within my practice again, although this time in relation to themes of identity. Drawing on the feedback of the group, I liked the idea that the work could be interactive and people could pass through or ‘go behind the veil’ to discover something else about me that might otherwise be hidden. What this might be, I’m still unsure. I feel that the next stage will be to think about how the art work might be developed as some type of installation or environment that others can interact with. Within the peer mentoring group, there was a discussion about whether my self-image needs to be an integral part of the curtain or veil or, alternatively, could it be a projected image. In terms of next steps, it might be worth making some form of small model or prototype to help me make sense of what this might look like.


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Thought I’d borrow a line from Kate Murdoch’s blog, Keeping it Going. It pretty much sums up my creative output since the beginning of the year which has has almost come to a grinding halt. In an effort to gain some much needed momentum I thought I’d recommit myself to the blog as it’s always been a useful means to gather my thoughts and ideas and engage with other A-N users/ artists who are a continual source of encouragement.

This week I forced myself to write a blog post, if only to say that I had! It just so happened that Candid Arts Trust are currently hosting a Portrait Exhibition from now until this weekend so I hiked it up to Angel to go see it. I thought this would be a good opportunity to reignite my interest in the theme of self/ selfhood and identity, even if my own focus was on self-portraiture as opposed to portraits of other people. The exhibition was nonetheless useful in thinking about the sheer number of artists who engage with portraiture in one way or another. Most artworks on show were 2D and a mixture of figurative and abstract responses to the theme. I was especially interested in a work by Adam Hogarth, called The Great Wave of Kanagawa because it had a particular aesthetic sensibility – a cropped black-and-white image of a face that had been distorted in some way, which I felt loosely resembled my own work (see Wringer). The work was a photo etching, a process I was unfamiliar with, but involves the act or process of making designs or pictures on a metal plate, glass, etc., by the corrosive action of an acid instead of by a burin.

 


Something else that has caught my attention was video that I discovered via Facebook of a series of robots that are programmed to draw human portraits in different ways. Well worth a watch if you haven’t already seen it.


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As a continuation of some of the ideas posted in my last blog post, I started to develop and work with the video footage I’d generated of me touching my own face and head in an investigative fashion. The original video was completely improvised and inspired by Gustave Courbet’s The Desperate Man, a self-portrait of the artist manically holding his own head. I wanted the video to convey this same sense of emotional turmoil; of Courbet’s own existential wonderings. I’m not sure if my own video does this; it feels a little muddled. I wonder whether it would be good to have some distance from the video, for now, and to be able to return to it with fresh eyes in the future. Perhaps it needs to be shelved for the time being. On the hand, I did it feel it might be useful to share what I’d done so far with the footage through this blog even though I’m not completely happy with it. It’s great to have this forum to speak confidently about things I’m doing or things that I’m interested in, but it’s also good to be able to voice doubts and uncertainties too. This particular work doesn’t fully resolved, although I’m glad I’ve wrestled with a bit so I can move on to something else now. I’d be keen to get other people’s views on the video, especially if you’ve read my previous post.


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I feel as though I have a lot of balls in the air at the moment – the first time in a long time. My interest in self-portraiture as encouraged me to develop a body of work in various different mediums. I am currently working on an ongoing video piece called Self though, as I mentioned in my last post, I have also started work on a large scale drawing of my own self-portrait in which I used a grid to intimately study the formal properties of my face.

In addition to making artwork, I have also found myself reading a lot and have been indebted to my local library for aiding in my research. One book that I’ve particularly enjoyed reading is James Hall’s The Self Portrait – A Cultural History as it gives very comprehensive overview of the genre, from the Renaissance up to the twentieth century. It also feels like a particularly poignant book to be reading when one considers our own current cultural obsession, and ambivalence, towards notions of identity in the age of the selfie. As Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry, Glynn Harrison points out:

‘It has never been easy to answer the question ‘Who am I?’ but increasing social pluralism, the fast-changing world of social media, and easy access to cosmetic surgery make it more difficult than ever.’

(2016: 1)

Harrison’s descriptions maybe a cautionary warning of how present confusions related to personal identity may affect wellbeing and threaten social cohesion. Though for me, the issue of self-representation has a very tangible link to the cultural history of self-portraiture and, the growing celebrity of the artist.

Hall describes that the genre of self-portraiture did not exist in the Middle Ages or medieval period (lasting from the 5th to the 15th century) though became more prominent during the ‘Renaissance’ of the fifteenth century, an age of exploration and discovery. Prior to this,  the ‘science’ of physiognomy – the classical belief that character could be interpreted by a person’s face, had been undermined by the Neoplatonic and Christian belief that the imperishable, invisible soul rather than the corruptible visible body is the true measure of man (2014, 17). Artists of this time were also regarded as ‘anonymous dogsbodies’ whose activities were largely liturgical in subservience to the church and to the will of God.

However, with the artistic renaissance of Europe in the fifteenth century there was a renewed interest in classical learning and values, and the Roman cult of individual fame. At the same time, the middle classes sought to imitate the aristocracy and elevate their own status by purchasing art for their homes. In addition to sacred images, many of these works portrayed domestic themes such as marriage, birth and the everyday life of the family. Artists began to occupy a heightened status in society and with that came a need to endorse one’s unique artistic credentials, or brand identity, amongst potential commissioners. A means by which many artists achieved this was to covertly supplant subjects within their paintings that looked like them or bore their likeness. In the fifteenth century this was particularly true of artists lending their likenesses to characters within iconic biblical scenes or depicting themselves strategically placed amongst the upper social strata (see Little Art Talks).

One particular painting that I feel is deserving of a special mention is Michelangelo’s Last Judgement, a fresco painted on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel. The artist rejected the Vatican’s ideas regarding subject matter, replacing the existing decoration of a simple starry night with something far more dramatic (Farthing, 2010: 178). His design instead depicts the Second Coming of Christ and the final and eternal judgment by God of all humanity. Within the artwork, Michelangelo’s likeness is glimpsed at through the flayed skin held by St Bartholomew, hovering between heaven and hell.

Whilst these artworks might not have been considered self-portraits in the conventional sense, they do at least offer a prelude to how artists would break away from the established order of things – making devotional images and artefacts for the church, having started to garner the kind of autonomy that would enable them to pursue their own self-interests.

Another art work that speaks to my interest in self-portraiture is Gustave Courbet’s The Desperate Man. Like many other artists, Courbet cast himself in a number of his paintings. However, this particular artwork presents a cropped close-up of the artist with bulging eyes and hands clasping his head. It epitomised the Romantic era of the eighteenth century in which it was commonly believed that paintings could convey more than a person’s wealth and social standing. As the philosopher Hegel points out in his Lectures on Aesthetics:

‘…. the Romantic arts of painting and music could not only express ‘the particular spirit of nations, provinces, epochs and individuals’, but also the subjective life of the soul – ‘Grief, agony , both spiritual and mental…. deep feeling fear and emotion’

(1975: 788, 813 cited Hall, 2014: 201)

Inspired by Courbet’s painting, I started to meditate on my own portrait and what that might look like – head, shoulders, facial features – a cropped close-up similar to The Desperate Man. In response, I decided to film myself exploring my own face and head in an improvised fashion, using a stills camera. Initially, my improvisations were slow and tentative – feeling my nose, ears, lips – before eventually focusing on the contours of my face and the weight of my head in my hands. I found that by holding the palms of my hands against my ears (like a vice), or pressing my fingers into the hollows of my cheekbones, I could get a much more tangible sense of my head’s shape and size than by simply looking. I also found that undertaking this rather unusual exercise sparked all sorts of other thoughts about human anatomy and the importance of one’s head, not just in self-portraiture, but in relation to life generally.

From a relational standpoint, our heads and faces are a form of identification and convey to others how we’re feeling through our expressions. No other body part; when viewed in isolation, has this same unique ability. Our heads are also important because of their links to the brain and our sense of consciousness. You can lose any other part of the body (e.g. limbs, internal organs, skin) and still be alive, and inherently you, though no human being can live independently from their head. For this reason, the image of Courbet manically clasping his own head is perhaps as much an existential crisis – am I alive, am I real? – as it is about portraying the archetypal tortured artist. Perhaps I am edging towards this understanding of myself in my own way.

 

References:

Farthing, S. (2010). Art: The Whole Story. London: Thames & Hudson.

Hall, J. (2016). The Self Portrait – A Cultural History. London: Thames and Hudson.

Hegel, G. (1973). Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art. Translated by T. M. Knox, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.788, 813.


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