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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Since moving house last summer, I was a bit unsure about how to manage the peer mentoring group now that I was no longer living in London. I wondered whether it might be best to coordinate the meetings around the school holidays, thus still meeting up though less frequently. I also considered handing the reigns over to someone else if I was going to be able to around. Following resounding support from some of the others I was encouraged to keep everything going myself. Last month was out first meeting together since the move and a strong reminder of the importance of maintaining support networks with other artists.

The peer mentoring group is made up of core group of 4 or 5 people that I’ve gotten to know well over the last 2+ years. They know me and they have an in-depth understanding of the themes that drive my work. Since moving to Surrey, all my art stuff is still boxed up (awaiting another house move). I haven’t made any real inroads into engaging with other art communities in Surrey and I have a limited awareness of what opportunities there are for other artists here.

Meeting with everyone recently was extremely helpful and well worth the fare into London. I presented drawings and notes from my sketchbook and a new video piece I’d been working on. In keeping with the theme of identity I presented a couple of doctored self-portrait images that I’d printed from my computer. The images were black and white but, due to my altering of their opacity, were barely visible to the naked eye. The group struggled to see them, holding them up against the light to see a faint grey halo, perhaps the contours of my face or hair. The images sparked a lot of interest. It was originally my intention to print 100 of these images onto acetate sheets to make some sort of composite image. I hadn’t planned on printing them onto paper, but others like their translucent quality nonetheless. Through discussion we talked about the difficulty with being able to visually register these images and see ‘me’. I commented about how these had been themes within my own personal therapy – a sense of being unnoticed. This was certainly my perception when I was younger even though I enjoyed my childhood in the main.

In the weeks that followed the group discussion, it has been interesting to revisit some of these thoughts and feelings I had about myself when I was growing up. I thought about whether this feeling of being unheard might have spurred me on to become an Art Therapist with children – to be to clients what others hadn’t been for me (consistent, attentive). I’ve also thought about my position as an artist and, like other artists, wanting my own artwork to garner more attention then it does already, viewing the artwork as an extension of the self.

These thoughts and ideas are in no way new, at least not to me, but I’ve been surprised by how these themes are now emerging through my art work. I feel that whilst some of the things I’ve made before are crying out for attention, others (like the image above) are hard to find or are seemingly invisible. Perhaps that says a lot about my own ambivalence about being an artist.


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I have started to compile a list of ‘I’ statements that describe who I am. I thought that if traditional self-portraits were too limited in scope to say something meaningful about who I am; beyond what I look like, then what about a series of statements that comprehensively describe everything about me (both seen and unseen).

  1. I am a son
  2. I am a brother
  3. I am an uncle
  4. I am a father
  5. I am a cousin
  6. I am a son-in-law
  7. I am a Christian
  8. I am mixed-race
  9. I am a brother-in-law
  10. I am a husband
  11. I am an employee
  12. I am a manager
  13. I am teetotal
  14. I am a registered voter
  15. I am an Art Psychotherapist
  16. I am a driver
  17. I am an organ donor
  18. I am 33
  19. I am tax payer
  20. I am a British citizen
  21. I am a university graduate
  22. I am a commuter
  23. I am a Londoner
  24. I am football supporter
  25. I am a worrier
  26. I am a daydreamer
  27. I am a pacifist
  28. I am an introvert
  29. I am a non-smoker
  30. I am male
  31. I am a cyclist
  32. I am heterosexual
  33. I am a godfather
  34. I am right-handed
  35. I am slow
  36. I am medium build

What was interesting about this exercise was that these descriptions only make sense as a compilations of statements spoken or read together. As individual statements they say very little about me or recount general descriptions that might be true of anyone – male, average build, mixed race). Their power lies in in their grouping/ combination as well, as the statements that are left out or left unsaid. Writing these descriptions down also makes me wonder if each of the 36 statements have equal weighting or if some statements are more important than others. If so, does the list need to be reordered in some way?

Given more time, I also wonder what other things I could think to say about myself or how this list might change over time.


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My current work seems to be about the insufficiency of self-portraiture to capture someone’s true likeness. The images of myself are only partial. From briefly glancing at them, I wonder what assumptions or judgements someone might make about me?

Linked to this question is also the theme of memory and how people are remembered in the minds of others.


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“Under this mask, another mask. I will never finish removing all these faces.”

(Claude Cahun, 1930)

I recently went to see the Gillian Wearing and Claude Cahun: Behind the Mask, Another Mask at the National Portrait Gallery. This exhibition brings together work from the French artist, Claude Cahun and British contemporary artist, Gillian Wearing. Although they were born almost seventy years apart and came from different backgrounds, remarkable parallels can be drawn between the two artists, most notably a fascination with self-portraiture (2017).

I thought that the exhibition would be relevant to my own preoccupation with identity and self-portraiture. Prior to seeing the exhibition, I was familiar with the video and photographic work of Wearing although less so with Cahun. Within my own practice, I have increasingly employed photography as a means of making sense of my own identity. In these images, my facial expression is always expressionless (deadpan), like a passport photograph. Cahun and Wearing’s approach to self-portraiture is far more playful and performative in origin. This is best exemplified in Wearing’s Dancing in Peckham (1994) in which the artist dances publicly in a shopping arcade in South London, seemingly without music or inhibition. The same could be said of Cahun who is not averse to masquerading as different personas or roles. In one photograph entitled I Am in Training Don’t Kiss Me (c.1927), Cahun poses as a strong man with painted face and lips with a fake barbell resting across her lap. Wearing emulates Cahun in her own version of this image, entitled Me as Cahun Holding a Mask of My Face (2012).

Gender subversion features frequently in both artist’s work, particularly in the photographs of Cahun who is often cast as an androgynous figure with short, cropped hair and masculine clothes. I was especially struck by Self-Portrait (Reflected Image in Mirror with Checkered Jacket) (c.1928) whereby a boyish-looking Cahun standing by a mirror casting a curious reflection of 2 individuals standing next to one another, an allusion to her own duality. Cahun described herself as ‘neuter’, putting herself outside the usual categories of gender. Her adopted name, ‘Claude’ is also one of the few names in French that can be used for women and men with the same spelling and pronunciation (Emelife, 2016).

Something else that sets Wearing and Cahun’s work apart from my own is their penchant for masks and masquerade. Wearing is well known for her use of masks within her photographs. For her, the mask becomes a substitute for the past self that was once there, although the difficulty in tracing this person suggests the complexity of fixed identities. Wearing has previously worn masks to pose as earlier versions of herself and even different members of her family (see Album series). Wearing’s first masks were rigid and made of hard plastic whereas her most recent masks are made of silicone which, although more prone to tear, are certainly more life-like.

If there is a thematic link between Wearing and Cahun’s respective practices and my own it is perhaps a curiosity with the transient nature of life and the effects of time. Within the blog I have previously spoken about the term ‘palimpsest’, which means something reused or altered but still bearing visible traces of its earlier form. Walking around the exhibition, I started to see parallels with my own work, most notably through the hundreds of images she’s taken of herself in her series My Polaroid Year 1988-2005 or in the bizarre Me as a Clock (1990), in which the hands of time pass across a blurred self-portrait as a literal reminder of the ageing process. The final room functions as both a memorial to Cahun and memento mori to Wearing. As Celia White describes:

‘An entire wall is covered with Wearing’s Rock ’n’ Roll 70 Wallpaper (2015-16), featuring computer-generated and constructed scenes showing the artist as she imagines she might age, along with Rock ’n’ Roll 70 (2015), a triptych showing Wearing at 50, Wearing as she imagines she might look at 70, and a space for an actual photograph of her 70-year-old self to be added in 2034’.

(White, 2017)

Cahun’s allusions to time are equally macabre, reflecting her own ill health and eventual death at the of age of sixty. Within one of her later photographs, she adopts the guise of an angel in the graveyard where she would later be buried. Wearing pays homage to the late artist in the chilling Cahun’s Grave (2015) in which drapes herself over Cahun’s gravestone, her face shrouded in black material.

As these descriptions suggest, there are definite correlations between the work of Wearing and Cahun in this exhibition. However, I feel as though it is Wearing’s work that grabs the greatest attention. Cahun’s photographs seem to mainly to supplement the work of Wearing, but this does not overtly detract from my enjoyment of the show. The multiplicity of masks and disguises that Wearing adopts are wonderfully disorienting; an effect only heightened by the exhibition’s lack of printed literature, to be able to discern the two artists. Wearing manages to ape Cahun, her heroes, her family and even herself. Even when you see a rare unmasked picture of the artist (in the final room), you become distrustful as to whether it’s actually her. You start to question whether the picture you have in your head of the artist is accurate and to what extent has she aged. I was half-tempted to google search ‘Gillian Wearing’ just to be sure of what she looks like now! As you can imagine, I came away from the exhibition feeling very confused, but in a good way.

 

References:

Emelife, A. (2017). Claude Cahun: The trans artist years ahead of her time. [online] Bbc.co.uk. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/culture/story/20160629-claude-cahun-the-trans-artist-years-ahead-of-her-time [Accessed 12 Jun. 2017].

Gillian Wearing and Claude Cahun: Behind the mask, another mask – Who was Claude Cahun?. (2017). Gillian Wearing and Claude Cahun: Behind the mask, another mask – Who was Claude Cahun?. [online] Available at: http://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/wearing-cahun/explore/claude-cahun/ [Accessed 12 Jun. 2017].

White, C. (2017). Gillian Wearing and Claude Cahun: Behind the Mask, Another Mask, Studio International. [online] Studio International – Visual Arts, Design and Architecture. Available at: http://www.studiointernational.com/index.php/gillian-wearing-and-claude-cahun-behind-the-mask-review-national-portrait-gallery [Accessed 12 Jun. 2017].


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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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