The focus will be the struggle to put together work that reflects the crisis that Modernism represents and how artists find ‘authority’ for their work in a world dominated by a scientific rationalism that denies any truth value to art.

‘Defined by objects made in our own image,
through them we live our lives.
Meanwhile, deep down, there hides
a buried memory
of having once been Gods.’
Michel Houellebecq


This is a piece that has been around in my workshop for a long time. It began with an interest in Brutalist architecture and constructivist art, turned into a long struggle with form and meaning, and has only been of interest to a couple of people who liked the architectural references.


Rachel Whiteread and space.

Having been very interested in Anthony Boswell’s paintings (See attached, and blog ‘Beyond Painting – The Dream of Arcadia’), I’ve come to the conclusion that my fascination here stems from his work seeming to paint the space of the rooms he explores, rather than the subject matter of walls, windows, doors as such. It led me to reconsidering one of those artists whose work initially inspired me in a way that only modern art can. The artist is Rachel Whiteread and the work in question was ‘Table’ (‘Table and Chair’, a latter variant, is attached). This work originally astounded me because of what it seemed to do: it took a space that we have possibly never seem foregrounded in art before (and certainly not in sculpture) – that is, the space underneath a table and chair – casts that space (in plaster or resin) and puts this ‘space’ on show. It only takes a little reflection to see what is happening here. Historically, the ‘spaces’ represented in art are hierarchical in value – the spaces that sculptures take up are filled by religious figures or by figures that are chosen for their higher value, social or otherwise. It is a form of subjective and spatial discrimination that proposes that only ‘special’ or ‘significant objects or subjects are to be the content of art. Whiteread breaks all these received ‘rules’ – her subject is a space that is utilitarian, of little aesthetic value and one that is, in the hierarchy of value, pure functionality. In casting it, she carries this issue further. The cast itself is literally of the space (not the table or stool), and when taken out the art object comes to fulfil a traditional function of art as representation (it moves from BEING the space to representing it). This is a breathtaking artistic trick, but a significant one: Whiteread has moved away entirely from hierarchies of artistic meaning, as represented by traditional subjects and even artistic motives for artistic practice. A new appreciation of form is born as well as a new sense of what we do as artists when we CHOOSE forms and subjects.

A later ‘Tables (nine tables)’ adds to all this. Here a mass produced table, such as might be in a college examination room, has the space below it cast as a multiple, pushing further the anonymous nature of the subject of the work (an anonymous mass-produced space under an anonymous mass-produced table in an anonymous setting).

Conclusions? Not sure. It intrigues me that modern art has this interest in space itself, and has made space a subject of art. I have written before about the foregrounding of the materials of art practice (stone; paint, etc) in modern art. Here, in Whiteread, space itself is given a status that can only come from the abandonment of art as narrative, as illustration, and perhaps also, primarily, comes from an age that has focussed away from the human and given a new status to the objective reality of the material world. Space is a dimension now, not just a context for human action or drama. This ‘objectivity’ seems to have found its way into today’s art.

A kind of visual ‘democracy’ also seems to be present. We no longer seems to be able to arrange things in a hierarchy of value. Nothing is of greater value than anything else (and when we choose anything to be of special value it only goes to prove our subjectivity). A space under a table? It took the 20th century to shatter our belief in what everything from medieval religious art to Manet allowed us to do. This all reminds me of Matisse, of those complex painted interiors in which no object, or feature, has any more value than any other object or feature.


Kathleen Watkins and St Ives.

What a weekend! Went to St Ives, Cornwall, to leave in a new sculpture for the spring exhibition at the Penwith Galleries (the gallery of the Penwith Society of Arts). This gallery is very important to me because of its history, having been created by Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and other radical artists of the time, in a breakaway movement from the St Ives Society of Arts. Even today it has a Hepworth at the entrance. To top this I had my first long conversation with Kathleen Watkins, the Curator, who has been with the Penwith since the days of Hepworth and Nicholson, and went drinking with them in the ‘local’ at a time, as she says, when artists got together in this way. Her name is there in the history books, and as far as I can see her knowledge of the St Ives artists of the 1940-60s is an untapped historical document in itself. I liked her witty put down of historical writings on the St Ives artists, and the St Ives movement – a catalogue of inaccuracies, in particular at a personal level.

She spoke of a different era, in a sense, of artists who designed and sent their own Christmas cards and of a St Ives that had not yet succumbed to ‘tourist destination’ status. (The lack of sales in the art market? “People don’t come to St Ives to buy expensive art. They come for a holiday”).

I spoke to her of my recent discovery of Wilhelmina Barnes-Graham, and she was immediately able to offer some examples of her prints, right there in the gallery, lying around! Called ‘Willie’, Barnes-Graham was one of the artists who came to St Ives from elsewhere and became part of British Modernism (see attached image). I spoke of her because I’d recently seen references to a couple of exhibitions of her work and was just amazed at the work, in particular the drawings.

Then in the hotel I was staying at I came across an artist from Sweden, Asa Ardin Keyja. She was travelling around, and it interested me to find that she had the same experience as me with finding pieces of stone on isolated walks that were sculptures in themselves. Having just been thinking about this issue, I was startled to find that it is, it seems, a commonplace experience among artists – well, certain types of artists. (Presumably ‘installation artists’ don’t quite see things in the same terms (Do you?)).

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Moore and Dartmoor.

Went for a walk on Dartmoor today, and as usual spent as much time inspecting the shape of stone rubble on the moorland pathways as anything else. The stone around here is always intriguing, and I’ve wondered at times if there are patterns to the breaking up of stone by natural erosion – I seem to see many shapes repeatedly, and have also come to love many of the shapes that nature throws up seemingly randomly. Henry Moore seemed to have a similar experience on beaches, with his obsessive pebble collecting (And anyone who has been to the studio at Much Hadham will see many of his sculptures there in the shapes collected). So it may be a common experience to be seduced by shapes of stone that have no particular visual reference, but which draw us to them inexplicably (whilst others do not). I’ve also taken to having a camera with me to record pieces that I feel should become sculptures (or already were sculptures in all but completion by me!). In part, I’m intrigued by the power of abstract forms that seem to have no intentional design to them, and in finally pursuing this I have been to a local quarry and am having 200k of good variegated Cornish slate delivered for me to work on. I spent a few hours choosing shapes that already were quite stunning to me, and the intention is to finish the pieces with minimal intervention, perhaps emphasising shapes or bringing some forms to a fine finish, etc. (We’ll see!). This kind of slate, however, is brittle and fractures easily, so all the work will be with diamond discs and polishers. Hopefully I can end up with a few pieces that contain that element of randomness to balance much of my present work, which is, I feel, over-designed. One extreme to the other, perhaps….

Attached: a couple of pebbles in the hands of Henry Moore, and some emergent drawings. (With Moore, of course, one always feels that, even at its most abstract, there is an anthropomorphic element to the pieces. Here the pebbles in his hand could become another Reclining Figure, or another of the sculptures that echo bone structures).


One of the important aspects of Modernism, for me, has been the idea of the Western Tradition. As an undergraduate I took courses that covered the arts and literature, studying everything from Homer and the arts of ancient Greece to Virgil and later Dante, Chaucer, the Renaissance, and so on. For many of us, this great tradition was what Modernism is sitting at the end of, representing a crisis in how we see the world and ourselves. I’m put in mind of all this by the writer Malcolm Bradbury. I’m currently re-reading his novella/essay ‘Mensonge’, which explores in a satirical manner the loss of this tradition and the crisis Stucturalism and Deconstruction represent for it. I’m offering here a passage from the book, which begins by looking back at the Western Tradition and what it has meant. (Might not be so funny as a snippet):

‘Over that two thousand years, an entire lineage of philosophy, starting in the Eastern Mediterranean, spread westward and northward through then primeval forests by very bad routes, some of them still in use today, to bring home to people the notions of monotheism and conscience, deism and transcendentalism, the basis of western culture. The thought enlarged to incorporate evolutionism, materialism, scientism, psycologism, and then modern relativism, existentialism and Kierkegaardian fear-and-trembling. Yet it all had a common basis founded on the mind-body dichotomy, sometimes called the Cartesian cogito, though at other times not. Through it we learned, in a series of prodigious feats, how to dominate nature, build culture, master the organisation and structure of the universe, invent the collar stud and discover how to use the cellular telephone. We also learned how to write string quartets and make a fairly good soufflé, so perhaps it has not all been wasted.

But this tradition depended upon a stable concept of the self, and a reasonable firm notion of a reality out there, dense enough for us to be able at least to put a nail into it, and hang up a picture when required. It is nothing less than this whole tradition that Structuralism and Deconstruction are helping to bring to an end, opening up new and confusing opportunities. In this it has been the culmination of a process. Karl Marx demystified capitalist ideology, and showed how history worked, if we followed the instructions properly. Sigmund Freud undermined the rational ego, and showed us how the unconscious functioned…. Albert Einstein undermined traditional science showing that the world was a non-Euclidian four-dimensional space-time continuum…. Now Structuralism and Deconstruction have come along to complete the process, demythologising, demystifying and deconstructing our entire basis of thought, and suggesting other ways to use it. They have required us to redefine all our values and transform all our epistemologies, or at the very least to take a two-week holiday in the sun with someone we love very much and work out all future priorities very carefully. They have dismantled our preconceived framework of consciousness and perception, removed all our ideas of the transcendent and the everlasting, and dismantled the concept of the ‘subject’, or, as it used to be known in the old days, the person, so making table-setting for a dinner party very difficult indeed. They have done this by challenging our sense of essence and reality at its very root, in language……….In brief, Structuralism and Deconstruction are and remain important because they have quite simply disestablished the entire basis of human discourse’.

It is this sense of loss that sits behind a lot of Modernist art, I think, and, although it is not much discussed, it is one reason why abstraction developed – the loss of faith in what is ‘out there’ is balanced, in abstraction, by a focus on what our own engaged minds reveal as we go, disengaged from ‘things’. If Picasso’s multiple perspectives represented a loss of faith in how we see, then abstraction joins with science, geometry and abstract thought in the attempt to work out what might be there ‘behind’ the appearances that we can no longer believe in.

Attached: a piece that plays with some Cubist norms, with some constructivist leanings too. Yes – art that is unhappy about ‘out there’. Insular. Detached.