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.
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.
My my, we are well into February aren’t we. Art-wise what have I got to show for it? It certainly has been a patchy month. Having received 2 bits of news, (one bad and one sad), I have to confess I have been very distracted. It’s probably easier just to list the art stuff I have done with a little explanation for each.
I have very slowly been working on my ‘Home’ series. I introduced these late last year. I have started a couple of them again from scratch as I wasn’t at all happy with them. They are mixed media pieces of work as normal but much more figurative than I would normally produce and I have had a tendency to overwork them. I have to keep reminding myself what I am trying to achieve with these. This being as I have discussed before, a modern day interpretation of the paintings of Vilhelm Hammershoi – focusing on the simplicity within the home with an emphasis of light, shadow and space. Ironically I seem to have to give them space after working on them for even just a bit. I think this is because silence and time are the true essence of these pieces.
I have collected a few bits of rubbish and primed them ready to use them as surfaces but I would like to collect more before making a concerted start on them. The idea of what I am going to do with them is growing and morphing in my head and I need it to brew for quite a bit longer. Currently one thing I plan, is to continue with the idea of pattern that I used in my ‘Migrants’ and ‘Jewels’ work, but maybe this time introduce some of my own New Zealand heritage into them.
Text and drawing
Also I like the idea of introducing text into the work. In another life time I did a Humanities degree in New Zealand and alongside this studied literature and poetry, including New Zealand poetry. It spoke to me. James K Baxter, Bill Manhire, Hone Tuwhare… All these years later and their words still reverberate. I have no idea of recent day New Zealand poets – this is definitely something else to explore. But I like the idea of including words and poetry within my visual art – kind of like the past and famous New Zealand painter ‘Colin McCahon’ who did this. I’m not quite there yet – it’s slowly fermenting. I need the words and the connections to manifest themselves and the news I have received lately would appear to have temporarily silenced me. So I am letting myself write and draw more with pen, without thinking, just doing. I like the freshness and naivety of this approach.
I’m back to collecting rubbish. Strangely the streets are relatively rubbish free at the moment so I will have to give it time. The reason I am back to collecting local debris is because of what I am currently doing art wise.
I had been feeling particularly uninspired since Christmas. In fact I haven’t written for a couple of months. It had been a busy November and December as I was involved in a couple exhibitions plus Christmas at my home is a bit of a festival of cooking art event in itself.
Come January I entrenched myself in the studio to see if I could kick start myself into anything but it hasn’t been easy. One of the big advantages of this type of situation is that I get so frustrated that I get to the point I think ‘to hell with it’ and just get started on anything.
A few months ago I had begun work on my refugee series and this had come as a complete standstill. It wasn’t that they weren’t working as such, but more that my initial ideas for developing them felt flat. Looking back at these small pieces on canvas I started to paint into them. I realised as I worked how inspired I was by the ‘Making and Unmaking’ exhibition by Duro Olowu that was on at the Camden Arts Centre last year. It certainly had lingered on in my head and I think that perhaps the vibrancy and positive vibe of this exhibition was just the thing I needed to propel me into a new art year.
My initial work had originated from internet and media images of refugees and migrants. I then had digitally manipulated these images to focus on the small things, blurring the faces of the individuals concerned as an utterance about invisible voices. Whilst this premise is as valid and importance as ever, I needed personally to have a different focus and to cut loose a little.
I started playing with the patterns, shapes and colours within these pieces. I seemed to be abstracting the abstract. I like the idea that I was using the materials and textures of the clothing of the refugees as a way forward, celebrating the beauty and preciousness of cultural diversity.
They are very small so physically hard for me to work on. It was easier to work on them all at once so I didn’t get too tied up with them. It also meant that I was continually refreshing my aspect with them and seeing new potential every time. Some of them have lost their original visual context but I think this has made them more successful.
I tried not to think about them too much but just enjoyed the doing. It has helped me think about my next steps and how I would like to work on the same basis but using the debris that I find around me. So we are back to the rubbish….