The reality of juxtaposition.
It has been just over 3 months since my Degree Show at Wimbledon College of Art (UAL). I had so much planned once this was over, so many projects I wanted to get started but in truth I have been like a fly trapped in a milk bottle – buzzing around wildly but achieving very little. It has been said to me that in order to make progress it is best to focus on one thing at a time. This is all well and good, but I think for many of artists this is just not viable. I need to earn some income, I need (and want) to produce some art, I want (and need) to collaborate, exhibit and experiment. I also have a family, so hence have all the activities and responsibilities that entails. So my mission in respect to my art practice these days is to try and focus on just a few things at a time, and to try to relax into it more.
I have recently been playing with making small collages, physical and digital. They have tended to try and evoke a sense of place, a quick escape route in my head. One is based in Spain; Andalucia region. I have juxtaposed and transferred images of photographs I had taken on past holidays onto a solid oak wood block that I had previously primed with a mixture of rabbit glue and marble dust. It is relatively small; approximately 27 cm square. In keeping with my usual practice, I painted and drew upon this. I wanted the surface and image to be deliberately rough and incomplete in parts – as if an artefact with the surface showing through in places – like touching the walls of an old city, the heat of the sun bleaching the paintwork and drawing delicate cracks upon its history.
The other is a ‘New Zealand’ digital collage -in a wildish sort of state. I am from New Zealand originally but have not been back there for quite a number of years. Living in London, whilst I love it, there is a reassuring primal ruggedness about New Zealand which I miss and wanted to capture.
I have been asking myself ‘how do I develop my art?’ Is it a conscious or subconscious thing? I suspect it is actually a mixture of both. ‘What should I be doing more of?’ is a question I frequently wonder about. I read, I study other people art, I try to visit the many wonderful art galleries and take myself to exhibitions that wouldn’t be my natural inclination in efforts to shake things up a bit. Perhaps more importantly is that I try to keep experimenting and making work.
One thing I have noticed is that recently I think and plan in series as opposed to just working on a singular piece. This allows me room to explore a range of things over several works rather than try to encompass everything in one piece. It helps me relax and open up the work as it allows opportunities to go into a myriad of directions in a loose and instinctive manner. It is never definitive but tends to be roughly bound by a group of ideas that I want to try. These ideas never appear in isolation – they are never new. Very often art I have developed previously has considerable input into my new work in terms of the ideas and practices that I used.
To elaborate on this, I am currently working on an ‘Abstract City’ series. This will play with the everyday gritty aspects of a city and urban environment using my photography as a starting point. This is not new to me. I have done this before in various ways – my ‘Graffiti’ series being an example of this. I will also create montages and collages as I have done many times before.
I am keen to encompass the idea of bold colour, patterns and movement that I used in my ‘Patterns of New Zealand landscape’ (painting only) series – but using painting and drawing more in combination with my photography and montages. Now whilst my art practice frequently explores the ebb and flow of the painted versus the digital mark, I really want to push the physical mark making further in terms of colour, movement, shape and rhythm.
I have to ask myself ‘why do I want to do this at all?’ What I can say is that much of it comes back to my initial wandering around taking the photographs. These images are being captured very quickly on a compact camera as I’m walking down the street. They are not posed but very quick shots of things that catch my eye. I’m like a visual kleptomaniac, collecting anything that attracts me – it could be a street sign, or a piece of brightly coloured rubbish on the ground as equally as a beautiful carved column or pretty flower garden. It could be a pattern, a shadow, a texture, or a reflection for example. I end up with a large repository of images that define my impressions of that particular environment which I then bring together in various montages.
As I physically paint, draw, scratch and smudge onto these works it will be as a personal response to this recorded environment. I am tactically interjecting myself into these pieces – making my physical presence apparent, feeling the pulse, conducting the orchestra.
The works I display here show some of my new montages prior to painting and drawing within them.
I’m currently working on a drawing piece. It’s drawing in the wider sense in that it uses photographic images from the environment around us. These images are a mixture of man and nature creating marks, lines and movement in different ways. These include tidal lines, grass on a slide, railway tracks, tied up shoe laces, sand patterns, refracted light and a whole range of other things. With these photos I cut out shapes out of each image and then created a large montage as a type of line drawing which I then transferred onto canvas.
Much of my work is not just about presenting what I view and how I view it, but also how I respond to it. The detail within these drawings may not made by me but I experienced them. I want to record a personal response to these lines and marks. I plan to do this by using pastels, pens and pencils to create my own subtle markings to sit alongside and interact with the montage drawing.
When we are out and about at one with the environment, we are an integral part of it, not separate. The wind not only swirls the leaves around the ground and flaps a plastic bag caught on a tree. It blows my hair around my head, over my eyes and necessitates me holding my jacket shut. As I walk across the wet grass, I flatten it down, leaving a very faint imprint on where I have been. I interrupt the shadows on the ground as I walk across them and briefly my own shadow may appear. My fingers sometimes leave indistinguishable marks on surfaces I touch, and when combined with the finger marks of many they create dull and smudgy prints. Flowers have dropped onto the footpath from a nearby bush. They will of course decompose over time but will be altered and moved about by the wind and the rain, by the tread of my feet and others. I observe the flyover slicing through the sky above. I briefly see and hear the vehicles speeding past and imagine the people inside these vehicles. I absorb the graffiti on the buildings I pass, wondering who made it, when and why. Water runs down the drains and when it is dry, the remnants of nature and man hover over the metal coverings. My presence is felt in this environment and this environment is felt within me.
I am in awe of the British artist Richard Long whose land art encompasses some of what I am getting at. His extensive walks along the countryside and resulting interactions, creations, records and narratives are a more comprehensive expression of what I am trying to suggest where time and distance play an important part of his mediations. I see my piece as smaller and responding more to that which is created and becomes apparent in the fleeting moments in the personal space around us. It focuses more on the mark making, be it something that is clearly visible or residual or something that is incredibly transient that only exists in a split second of time. I see it as a natural occurrence of man, nature and self, creating a kind of collaborative collage as a type of drawing.
The image I display here is the work at a very early stage. After having drawn within it for a bit, I felt that something was lacking so I have physically begun to build upon the montage drawing part of it again. It may be that it becomes an iterative process where I continually do this until I feels it is time to stop.
Over the last week and a bit I haven’t done much art. There’s plenty I could be getting on with and whilst I am feeling somewhat tired from my current radiotherapy treatment it’s more to do with the fact I’m just not in a ‘doing’ mood. I suppose I have been very contemplative recently, preferring to read, sleep or do nothing in my spare time.
I stare out the window of my home at the flourishing (another word for overgrown) garden and quite happily look at the birds. I wonder at how the overladen springtime pink blossom has changed to an abundance of green foliage, at how my pathetic gardening attempts are superseded and surpassed by nature itself. I like watching the man-made structures dry out after the rain, the pavement with its crevices of small determined pools of water, the outside chair cleansed of its dirt and decorated with remaining droplets of rain hanging from its edges. When I am out and about I love how in a busy city, against all odds wildflowers announce themselves quietly between the paving stones and concrete walls. Reflections through train windows reveal layers of lights, shadows, buildings, graffiti, ivy and weeds. In my little microcosm, the world is capable of displaying both delicate and dramatic detail and form. It pulsates with incredible pattern and rhythm yet at the same time be capable of demonstrating an appropriate silent repose.
I used to take a lot of photos of such things. Not so much these days but I haven’t picked up my camera for a while. Very often my art work grows out of these photos one way or another and I have been revisiting some of these photographs. A new idea may be forming – not sure how yet but it has to do with how man and nature can create striking compositions and mark making – individually or as a united effort. Flowers on the ground – patterns of the way things fall, kind of like a beautifully choreographed ballet, perfectly composed with just the right amount of space in between. Dynamic colours of the green grass on a blue plastic slide with playful dappled sunlight in-between. Wall cables mimicking wisteria branches; their shadows crisscrossing and slicing up the space. A photo of a light through a bus window at night is unrecognisable and becomes something completely other. The patterns in the sand appearing as a detailed pencil drawing that an Old Master would have been proud of.
I think of the trilogy of films by Godfrey Reggio, more specifically the first – ‘Koyaanisqatsi: Life out of Balance’ – an onslaught of images and music depicting different aspects of the relationship between humans, nature and technology. I also think of Wolfgang Tillmans – an artist I revisit frequently who sensitively and lovingly portrays the way he sees the world in his art.
Chances, Decisions and Possibilities
As I continue on with my treatment for breast cancer, I can’t help but think about how things happen and why. Also how it is approached and presented to you by the medical profession.
At the initial diagnosis, I was told it was low grade, small and requiring breast conserving surgery followed by radiotherapy. As time went on, the certainty of this scenario starts to waiver and one suddenly finds oneself having to consider the chances of more serious interventions. Through the various meetings prior to surgery, I hear about percentages and likelihoods, each time edging the goalposts in a slighter more unstable place so that by the time I have had surgery, I wake up not really knowing just how things will be and what further treatment will take place. Margins, nodes, blood vessel invasion….new terminology introduced to suggest a much more complicated landscape.
Thankfully, the odds worked in my favour so catapulted me pretty much back to my original diagnostic hammock of safety. However, radiotherapy treatment kicks in a whole new gambit of chances and statistics in terms of risk of damage to the heart, lungs and further cancer. What I don’t understand (and even more worryingly, it seems neither do the medical profession) is why the unfortunate few individuals who are the recipients of the ‘bad statistics’ are so unlucky in the first place. What are the criteria that brings this about? Presented with a rather long list of ‘very unlikely’ bad statistics’, I can’t help but feel it all sounds a little like a game of Russian Roulette.
Thankfully chances, decisions and possibilities in painting is a much more joyful prospect.
My new paintings start from deciding upon certain colour combinations that I have seen used in travel and interior design books. I was looking for striking, very non-British combos. Using these colours I created marks on canvases emulating the patterns from the New Zealand landscape (using a NZ landscape photography book). I was very strategically trying not to focus on the actual physical structures within the landscape, but the movement and pressure revealed in these dynamic patterns.
These paintings were started very instinctively and produced with some speed compared to the way I would normally work. I have to force myself to snap out of it when I start to get a bit precious so that I don’t freeze up and restrain the development of the work. It is a case of constant slaps across my face (metaphorically speaking) to avoid any preconceptions of how it will turn out and to try and play with any errors along the way. To see these as possibilities and a chance to take the work into a new place thus allowing new decisions. Percentages and statistics don’t come into it and the leaps into the dark are indeed pleasurable. Clearly some works end up becoming more successful than others and I have learnt a thing or 2 along the way. The paintings I show here are probably still work in progress, but aren’t we all.
Where do I start? It appears that my art musings are somewhat patchy yet again. However I do feel that there is a connection and a convergence in a way which I will try to explain.
I was recently diagnosed with Breast Cancer and whilst I am very fortunate that it has been caught early, it does completely screw with one’s brain. As I was waiting in one of the BC sub-waiting rooms in a NHS hospital, my eye was drawn to a piece of art on the wall – the only piece of art on this particular wall. It was a print by Helen Chadwick, and beautiful as one would expect from this deceased artist’s work. She often combined landscape and body in her work and this piece was no exception. However this piece looked like a breast cancer lump. I don’t care how apt this is, and maybe to the medical specialists within the premises this was an artwork that appealed to their combined intellectual and aesthetic senses. But to a BC patient, stuck in an incredibly silent room where this work is the only thing to look at instead of into the eyes of the other very subdued BC patients, this did not feel good.
Anyway, the only positive thing that has come out of this unpleasant encounter was that I started to think about what I do want to look at in my current predicament. I am still having a play with pattern, surface, text and mixed media. I alluded in last month’s blog about trying to explore my roots a bit, namely my New Zealand background. I have been continuing with quick drawings of patterns within the landscape using old New Zeland photography books. I have also been looking at patterns and colours from Morocco and other Arabic and oriental references. The lush and exotic colour combinations appeal to me and I am keen to try to emulate these in my work.
It is clearly indulgent escapism on my part and my explorations on Aotearoa are probably a nostalgic yearning to revisit my country of birth; no doubt enhanced by my recent increased conversations with friends and family over there. Here in the UK; even in liberal and culturally diverse London, it feels like that the non-English are being marginalised and that this is a noose that is becoming tighter. However I like to resist and actually try to consider myself global rather than profess to a narrow definition of who I am by nationality, as to me that feels reductive and unfortunately these days kind of anti-humanist. This is not to denounce or devalue in anyway the richness and importance of cultural heritage.
Anyway, I digress. What this all means is that I am having a lovely time focusing on the patterns, textures and colours of this diverse and wondrous world as I prefer to see it – in a rather random and unapologetic way. I am keen to explore and combine these cross culturally and joyfully. Prior to my surgery I bashed together a couple of stretchers with canvases and as I recover, my non-sore side has been happily sealing and priming these surfaces in readiness for future playful endeavours.