I am a sculptor, printer, painter and an installation artist, and this is my critical review blog.
By way of a detour to starting my doctorate in Fine Art at the UEL I dropped in to see the Jasper Johns retrospective at the RA. I have admired Johns’s art for many years, and was lucky enough to see one of his flag drawings at the Barbican in the ‘Dancing around the Bride’ exhibition (2013) and then later ‘Flag’ (1954-5) at the MoMA, in New York. I was very excited to learn that so much of his work was being brought together in this retrospective and that it was coming to London.
Johns’s flag series was a massive influence when I created my painting of the Union Jack ‘Repatriation’… I appreciated his sense of impatience with oil paint, and the need to fix an idea, in his case one inspired by a dream. His use of wax paint (encaustic oil) was outmoded but enabled this, and it also allowed him to get off the surface of the canvas, building an image with texture. To assist in his textural creation Johns added newspaper to the substrate, which was sometimes overt and other times not so much, when he would use plain newsprint instead of old copies of printed papers, he always claimed that the content, and the edition was irrelevant. The iconic ‘Flag’ (1954-5) was made in three sections, presumably making it easier to isolate the encaustic oil, for his canvas he used old bed sheets mounted on wood.
In the mid 1950’s when Johns started to paint his flags, art was less impatient and yet more urgent; the Abstract Expressionists ruled the contemporary art world. Those who’d been heralded for nearly a decade by the art critic Clement Greenberg, artists like Pollock, Rothko, Newman and de Kooning were the then avant guard. They were fuelled with alcohol and the CIAs covert culture funding operation (which was outed in the mid nineties by Stonor-Saunders et al). The Ad Exers were arguably at their zenith, and primed ready to be knocked off their perches. So what does the next generation of artists do but prod and subvert. Robert Rauschenberg (Johns’s then partner and fellow artist) asked de Kooning for a drawing and then rubbed it out creating ‘Erased de Kooning’. Johns made a simulacrum of Americas most important symbol, the star spangled banner… In doing so he not only made the abstract form which could be used as itself I.e. a flag, Johns had also painted a flag, further to this he causes the spectator to consider the flag in a cultural setting. Johns then goes on to re-present the flag in various defamiliarised forms, all white ones and all black ones (possibly a comment on civil rights) where the texture and brushstrokes depict the form alone. This deconstruction and remaking is intended to encourage the viewers to reconsider their relationship with the flag, the establishment and with America’s identity. Johns went on to create a series of works that represented ‘things-in-the-world’ and challenged himself to use the artwork to engage the spectator; by getting them to count, look for patterns, tropes or motifs, and later representations of others’ work in his paintings.
Johns tends to find simple ideas and then return to them, reworking and developing the work to the point of saturation, with each pass his art becomes more complex yet further distilled. This said you suspect that if you only saw his last version it would be inaccessible. What I enjoyed most about the exhibition was seeing work that was completely new to me, yet still utterly familiar.
The exhibition includes 142 artworks, from painting to print, indexical trace to sculpture. The exhibition is on at the Royal Academy of the Arts in London until 10 Dec 2017.
The space in which I will stage my degree show exhibition was handed over on Thursday, and so I now have a week to setup my degree show. I’ve cleaned the doors and floor, painted the walls and the ceiling and I now have the requisite ‘white cube’ (well cuboid to be accurate) in which to present my work.
Although many things remain uncertain, my grain cube remains unchecked in its transit-crate (and may have been seriously damaged during its long journey: forklift, trailer, unloading down a ramp on a pallet truck and its relocation into its final space) the light cube is only half unwrapped and the lighting rig is yet to be tested and plugged in. I may also still replace the central sculpture, I have two options – the lead box with the single ear of barley, or the bell-jar containing a single grain of wheat.
The university is closed for the weekend so all I can do is prepare, print labels, and write this blog; which will be my last before my assessment.
For my label I need to finalise my title, I’d considered subtitles for each piece but I think that one overarching title unites the piece and makes it clear to the viewer that it is an installation and not three discreet pieces.
So what’s it all about? It’s autobiographical… backing on to our garden is a small field (last Year it was full of barley, this year it’s oil seed rape) beyond that there’s an ancient wood, to the right there’s a wild meadow and over the road there’s a larger field, basically I live in rural, arable, Suffolk.
Events occur in a given space-time, therefore myself in my work is depicted using the crops I see everyday, which surrounds my existence. Each year the crops are harvested, rotated and new crops are planted. A cycle, occasionally the field is left fallow allowing the soil to rejuvenate. The farming cycle of planting seeds and harvest is an annual event, a life-death-life cycle, and the seasons are an established metaphor for life.
As previously mentioned in my BLOG, ten years ago I was diagnosed with leukaemia, and given a prognosis of 8 years.
The way a prognosis is determined is by analysing past cases, to determine a probable statistical likelihood. The greater the sample population, the more accurate the prediction will be. Therefore outliving ones prognosis is not uncommon, especially when the sample population is as small as the one for my form of leukaemia.
The only cure that is available (to date) is a myeloablative bone marrow transplant which would risk my life with pretty short odds of 50:50. A bone marrow transplant involves disabling my immune system with heavy chemo and radiation before implanting my brother’s stem cells which would hopefully graft, and as a result I would become a Chimera (a creature made up of more than one being) having two DNA profiles. Whilst an aberration (a break) in my DNA caused my illness, the cure is simply, more good DNA.
Since I was informed of my diagnosis, prognosis, and potential cure – I have felt as if my life is on hold. At first I focused on my deadline, now that I’ve outlived that, I’m waiting for the time when my doctors feel it is the most opportune time to press the reboot, and go ahead with a transplant…
Žižek wrote: –
“A lack of emotional engagement, profound indifference and detachment; it is a subject who is no longer ‘in-the-world’ in the Heideggerian sense of engaged embodied existence. This subject lives death as a form of life.”
(Žižek (2014) Event)
It’s not so much that I feel like I’m living in limbo (although I have read Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’ as research) as it is abeyance. To further investigate this I have read up on myths relating to the afterlife, learning about the Elysium Fields and Asphodel Meadows. I also learned about Loki’s daughter Hel (Norse goddess and one of their afterworlds not the Judeo-Christian Hell) which lead me to fate, the three fate goddesses, and pre-destiny. I found the Norse version of the fates most compelling, as they handled the future in a less deterministic manner. More like some of our contemporary theories of causal space-time such as that proposed by Minkowski, where multiple futures exist which narrow in a cone like fashion as they approach the present, solidifying into reality as one’s future reaches the present.
There are three elements in my installation echoing the three fates, the first depicts the present where wheat is held in suspension (as stated I have two possible pieces that represent this, yet the bell-jar one also works independently). The other two pieces future and past are fairly interchangeable in their interpretation. One consists of a 1m cube of grain, cast in a wooden box. The second is a 1m cube frame, with layers of fabric acting as a screen on which a projection of wheat fields (at three stages of growth) is cast.
Above the installation, lighting the scene, is a rig of dimmable lights, and below there is a bed of grain on which the viewer walks, mindfully aware of the unusual surface (we humans all stand on our past, like Newton said we are standing on the shoulders of giants, our predecessors). This instability creates work for the viewer, and energy is spent just walking around the installation. The sound of my heartbeat and breath sounds further focuses the viewer on the present.
Red = my lights (dimmed) Green = existing light (off)
[Since I’ve installed my work I have further reconsidered the lighting adding a single light above the projector.]
So regarding a title I considered the following:-
- Fate (tbc)
- Extant (tbc)
- Pre-destiny (tbc)
- Pre-determinism (tbc)
- Ones determinism (tbc)
- Causal-determinism (tbc)
- Indeterminance of being
- Singularity of uncertainty
- Existential Abeyance
(tbc) standing for To Be Confirmed suggesting that either the preceding word, or that words meaning is uncertain. This idea developed accidentally, since I added tbc in an early draft to highlight my own uncertainty of the title, when I re-read it, I liked it.
These titles are aligned with the Norse mythology, and therefore somewhat contradicting our modern understanding of fate, determinism, etc. With the tbc caveat creating an oxymoron with the preceding statement.
“The three traditional mental faculties of reason – perception, conception, and comprehension – are all carried on deterministically in a physical brain where quantum events do not interfere with normal operations.”
The last two names are more about the central sculpture. However as previously mentioned the bell-jar sculpture may be presented independently outside the space, if that is at all possible.
Although I like many of these titles I’m leaning towards my first:-
Progress up to Friday evening looked like this (panoramic photo):-
So what’s left to do… here’s my Gantt chart which started from the 24th April when I started to get concerned about what I had left to do prior to the assessment date.
I hope to post some photos of the completed installation which I’ll take on the degree show evening: –
1st June from 18:00 at the University of Suffolk… everyones welcome!
Having kicked the wheat cube idea into the long grass, I’ve combined two ideas, simplifying and concentrating the installation in one failed swoop.
The (after LeWitt) cube frame was begging for a new purpose, and I needed to project my triptych video of wheat-fields at different stages of development on to something more interesting than a wall or a traditional screen.
I’d already considered projecting on to objects and layered fabrics. Researching artists who had done this in their own practice, such as Tony Oursler (who typically anthropomorphises 2D and 3D shapes) and Bill Viola (who has projected on to multiple layers of scrim). Xinran Yuan has used muslin to project on to. I was most taken with Robert Rauschenberg’s recent retrospective at the Tate Modern, which included a piece where he’d layered up screen-printed silks and scrims. There was also the amazing ‘Infinite Mix’ exhibition where Rachel Rose projected onto a screen which was in front of a window, which at times enabled the viewer to see both the cityscape and the projection.
So this week I’ve been using the cube as a body for different layers of material, here are some of my findings:-
- Veil fabric (Ivory)-
too thin, providing an ephemeral effect but insufficiently defined and a bit chintzy, with obvious wedding connotations. Up to 10 layers possible.
- Jute scrim (Natural Jute)-
too open a weave and the thread was too thick. The threads cast too darker shadows on the subsequent layers dulling the effect rapidly. The material was a natural beige colour which didn’t help, it provided an agricultural or possibly military look. Maximum of 3 layers.
- Muslin (Natural cotton)
The thread count was too high creating a dense surface which didn’t let sufficient light through. However it provided great definition. I might use this as the backing. Maximum of 2 layers, and even then the 2nd is poorly defined.
- Combination of Veil and Jute scrim
This worked ok, combining the positive effects of the two materials, however it also combine the negative effects too. And it might suggest an unwanted gender/relationship reference. Maximum of 3 layers.
- Cotton Scrim (Natural cotton)
I think this is what Viola used, it’s fine and flows beautifully. The light penetrates and enables the projection to be visible. The natural colour help with this too. Maximum of 5 layers, although 3 seemed to be the most effective, and works with my theme.
This resulted in the conclusion that the suitable material is white cotton scrim, it is also called cotton gauze and suggests a medical reference…
As part of my degree project I have been investigating the growth of wheat. In an earlier blog (Oct) I wrote about ploughing and farming as a metaphor for the seasons and life, a momento mori inspired by swaying barley fields. Last year I videoed the fields around my house, throughout the growing season and during the harvest. This work is influenced by some philosophical thinking around the ‘Event’ as described by Slavoj Žižek (2014) and Rancière’s book about Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr, who’s films deal with a time “of pure material events against which belief will be measured for as long as life will sustain it.”
I considered others who’ve used growing plants in their art such as Agnes Dene who planted a field in her work ‘Wheatfield’ (1982)
And Newton & Helen Harrison whose installation ‘Full Farm’ (1972) comprised raised beds.
Then there was Vong Phaophanit (the Turner Prize nominee) who created an installation of furrows of rice grain (1993) incorporating neon lights which caused the rice to warm, giving off an evocative aroma.
I also looked into the Svalbard Seed Vault in Norway, and the British NIAB seed archive.
Mariele Neudecker’s ‘Things Can Change in a Day’ (2001) was a series of installations that depict a dystopian future, a submerged landscape in an aquarium.
I wanted to hydroponically grow some wheat with the intention of incorporating it into my degree show as part of the life cycle. This element represented a future yet to come. I created some seed trays with drain holes, as they were hydroponic there was no soil. The grain required extensive washing and was left in a dark, warm place to germinate. When it was sprouting I transferred the grain into the prepared trays and watered them each day. I covered half with tin foil to prevent light from getting to the wheat, this helped to encourage stronger, taller growth, similar to forcing rhubarb. Both trays of wheat grew quickly at first, but after about 4 week the light exposed wheat started to yellow due to a lack of nutrients. I carried out further research and ordered supplements, as without soil the wheat couldn’t search for it’s own nutrients. The wheat “greened up” and continued to grow strongly for a further few weeks. However the wheat did not grow to full maturity as the process is not sustainable with the materials and resources at my disposal. Most people grow wheatgrass in this way to create the raw material for smoothies after 4 wks and I’d grown the wheat for 8 weeks, the tops started too wilt, the grain became mouldy and the wheat died.
However, even in this state the wheat had interest, although this was not the message I wanted to purvey. This was supposed to be about growth, future and life, and not another reminder of death!
This decision comes after forming a plan to grow the wheat to its optimum height in trays which I had already created out of zinc, trays that were to sit in the bottom of a framework cube I’d taken 4 weeks to create, utilising a hydroponic leaking pipe and pump system, with a waste water capture vessel, all of which I’d designed and already had purchased the materials for. However, I no longer think that this is as I’d wished, the trial highlighted a number of feasibility issues especially timing and the final look did not meet my objective, although interesting in its own way.
This week I’ve been tasked by my tutor to create a pared down, simplify sculpture, whilst still capturing the essence of my work. So I have considered an artist who has made incredible, minimalist works dealing with an enormously complicated and traumatic event.
I first saw Miroslaw Balka’s ‘Kategorie’ (2005) at the White Cube (Mason’s Yard) in the exhibition ‘New Order’ (April 2011), and it left a deep and lasting memory. The installation consists of a tunnel, or corridor, constructed of plain, gray-matt concrete, slightly taller than it is wide. Down the centre of the ceiling runs a row of five lights and five motors. From each motor hangs a single (barely visible) piece of thread which slowly rotates, each strand is dyed a different colour.
The simple design causes the viewer to wonder what it is they’re looking at, first I noticed the artist’s name, which sounds eastern block, European maybe? I thought that it was possibly something to do with the Balkan conflict, a direct leap from the name I suppose, but no he was from Poland, it said so alongside his name.
I read on and learned that : –
“The colours of the strands – red, violet, green, pink and black – are the colours assigned to uniforms identifying different categories of prisoner in the concentration camps (red for political prisoners; violet for Jehovah’s Witnesses; green for criminals; pink for homosexual and bisexual men; and black for Romany people, alcoholics and individuals with learning disabilities, among others).”
Susan May (2011) ’New Order’, White Cube, London
It’s clear to me from this and the rest of the catalogue text that the artist processes his cultural trauma from the wartime atrocities through his post-memory (being part of the “generation after”) generating this response. The work is strangely beautiful, and alluring, yet it is not until you read about the artist and his references that the true nature of the work is revealed. Therefore with all it’s aesthetic simplicity it is actually an extraordinarily complex piece which requires a codex to decipher, that is the galleries catalogue…
So what is my work about, and how can I simplify it’s appearance?
My art contains self-referential metaphors which are about my illness, prognosis, and my awareness of my own mortality (something typical of nearly all people at one point in their life or another, but my experience is earlier than that of most, at the age of 32 I was given 8 years to live). I’m now 42, therefore living on borrowed time and hoping for a breakthrough cure before I have to have a risky bone marrow transplant. Like Balka, I consider threads in my work, well at least the mythological threads woven by the fates. Time is also critical. As is existing in a state of limbo. The materials lead and gold leaf tend to feature in my work, which is a hint towards transcendence.
So maybe I’ll make a sculpture with a bobbin, or a reel, wound with lead thread or tape. It would be jammed so that it doesn’t turn, or possibly snapped from being jammed, and the end would be gilded…
I created this maquette this afternoon, I call it ‘Allotted 14/9/14’ indicating the day my prognosis ran out, normally I hate to miss a deadline but…
The wire needs some more work, I left it looking a bit like a walnut whip…
This is a better look… what do you think? I guess I’ll find out my tutor’s opinion tomorrow.