Sunday, 8 April 2018

It deepens like a coastal shelf

An unidentifiable shape, compacted layers, an angular blob, a series of locked-together tessellated forms; seepage through the gaps, surfaces weathered and worn. Circles within blobs, within forms within forms. Earthy reds, yellow ochre, moss green, burnt umber, scraped, smeared and poured. Fissures. The cracked resistance between opposing surfaces.    

It was starring-up at the ceiling in the Royal Danish Library a.k.a the Black Diamond that I had my first, of what was to be many more encounters (in Denmark) with the work of artist, Per Kirkeby [1938-].

View looking up at Per Kirkeby fresco at the Black Diamond, Copenhagen
Mostly known for its sparse, angular architecture, the Black Diamond is not the first place you might expect to see a 210 metre squared fresco. Apart from the foremost connection the artist has with being Danish, the untitled piece is contrastingly colourful and wildly expressive in relation to its more formal, structured surroundings. Kirkeby’s fresco is expressively abstract but with a clear likeness in its painted forms and textures to rock strata, geological shelves and layers of shifting earth. The artist had previously trained as a geologist. I was interested in how these interpretations, within the context of the library, could also be read as symbolic of the processes through which knowledge is sought and acquired. Exploring ‘a subject in-depth’, ‘the layering of knowledge’, ‘sifting’ and ‘excavating’ to source the correct content being words that neatly link the geological with the ‘search for information’. Kirkeby’s painting, is visually similar to looking at a cross-section of coastal shelf, for me at least, it is a visual aesthetic that is in ways parallel to the library being its own kind of coastal shelf; the horizontal and vertical lines of books on shelves, different colours, each section, every shelf and row of books filed into separate categories like the layers of geological time. It takes time for collections of books to accumulate, as it does for new layers of mineral strata to form. Dozens of individual components that make-up a bigger whole. The shifting as things settle and move in a state of flux and uncertainty also echo some of the ideas within how information is edited and acquired. That is, at least, how I saw it.    

Portugalia (Portugalien) 2008 Oil on canvas. 300.5 x 500cm
In truth, I had been fortunate to see many of Per Kirkeby’s paintings nine years ago, in an exhibition at the Tate Modern. Though this was the first time I had seen so many new works (and been reunited with some of the ones I had seen) in the artist’s native country. Then as now, I feel that he is such a prolific and diverse maker, in painting, brick and bronze producing  so many large works that I should have probably written about him a lot sooner!

On a half-hour train journey through the bleak Scandinavian forests and coastline travelling to Humblebaek, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art I had a second insightful experience into how much of a contrast the grey, still and desolate Scandinavian winter landscape has in comparison to the lively, relatively rich, warm colours in Per Kirkeby’s paintings such as, Portugalia (Portugalien) 2008. Presumably, the titles of many of his works suggest that they were not all based on the landscape his native country? I admit, that I would have to do some more digging to find out the answer to this question. Generally speaking, Kirkeby’s art draws from his experiences as a geologist and his inspiration from images in both popular culture and art history. The 3 metre by 4 metre painting titled, Flight into Egypt 1996 was, in-part, based on German Romanticist, Philipp Otto Runge’s, The Rest on the Flight into Egypt 1805-6. It affirms Kirkeby’s interests in art to landscape as a subject matter within his own work. Though some of the implied seriousness of this connection to Runge is slightly lost on me and I am not entirely convinced that some of Kirkeby’s paintings need this explanation in order to carry institutionalised significance. His own writing offers a more spontaneous interpretation into the use of paint as a medium for conveying landscape that I am more inclined to believe in, 

“The world is a material of which one makes art: through a natural-historical process which, at its most profound cannot be controlled.”

Both Portugalia and Flight into Egypt are in many ways abstract paintings but share a sense of panoramic scale, as though either looking onto a landscape from above or from within. The territorialising of shapes become like mapping, reminding me of the compositions in paintings by Jasper Johns, yet neither appear static, instead they are enlivened by a huge element of gestural drawing and vigorous mark making on the surface and within the layers of the painting, creating a sense of movement or mimicking the textures of ploughed fields or sun-dried cracked earth. Both of these later works saw Kirkeby linked with in the 80s with Neo-Expressionists along with artists such as Georg Baselitz.  The drawn elements in many of Kirkeby’s works actually remind me more of Cy Twombly but I enjoy the way his work reminds me of all these other artists without being too-like any of them to make it repetitive.  

Car Pictures 1964-5 Mixed media on Masonite. (detail)
Whilst in Copenhagen I also saw a lot of Kirkeby’s earlier paintings which are very different to these later ones. Equally they demonstrate the breadth of his 40 year career as an artist. Car Pictures 1964-5 [pictured right and below] is a series of four mixed-media works on masonite depicting traces of car-like iconography amidst, for me, what I can only describe as a  joyous cacophony of pop-art benday dots, gestured mark-making, flat areas of bright colour and a mixture of hard-edged shapes. Aesthetically speaking, there is a lot about the variety in surfaces in these four works that appeals to me, it is also their similarity to other favourite pop art-era paintings by Richard Hamilton such as Hommage à Chrysler Corp 1957 and Robert Rauschenberg. Whilst there is no fixed-narrative to these they could be read left to right as a series of comic-book style panels. Other paintings by Kirkeby during the 60s include The murder in Finnerup Barn 1967 [pictured below] which features imagery from Tintin comics, fairytale characters and a title that ‘alludes to the murder of King Erik Klipping in 1286’. This patchwork-like use of sources within one work should be disparingly chaotic but visually it seems to work. Kirkeby, I also learnt is a keen writer about art and artists and I think that this enthusiasm for knowledge, dualism of interests and collecting of sources comes across strongly in these 60s based paintings which seem to combine multiple ideas in the same way that a body of text might. Alternatively, they could also be experiments with another form of language, one that is visual and are more spontaneous than they are preconceived. As the artist himself states,  

Car Pictures 1964-5 Mixed media on masonite, 4 panels. Each 122 x 85cm

“Drawings are full of untrammelled thought and devoid of language. I have never drawn in order to produce a drawing. But simply in order to find something out.”

It is a fascinating philosophy to have towards drawing. I have long been a believer in the pragmatics of drawing as a way of ‘working out’ or ‘thinking’ through doing. I would probably like to be able to fully adopt Kirkeby’s statement in my own practice, but I am always usually more than conscious of the fact that I am producing a drawing whilst drawing-it! It would be interesting to try and ‘let go’ of that conscientiousness more often, if I can, to see what it may produce. I suppose it is then a question of whether you find out something you were expecting, wanted to know or not?! Seeing as how this post somehow began looking up at the ceiling in a library in Copenhagen, that is not a bad point to have come to some sort of realization!

Quotes:
Borchardt-Hume, A, Per Kikeby -An Introduction 2009: London, Tate Publishing p24.
Shiff, R, It doesn't reveal itself 2009: London, Tate Publishing p43


Sunday, 25 March 2018

The Race for Space



“Sometimes when I’m careless enough to turn in my sleep or call out or twitch, I am horrified to hear the books start to slide, because it would take little more than a raised knee or a shout to bring them all down like an avalanche, a cornucopia of rare books, and squash me like a flea.”

Like the obsessive collector of knowledge, Hanta in Bohumil Hrabal’s novel, “Too Loud a Solitude” I share, a slightly more rational, but real fear of the impending possibility that I could be swamped or crushed under the sheer weight of paper I have accumulated in the form of books (mostly), magazines, photos, postcards, drawings on paper and exhibition catalogues. I sleep in a bed towered by two rather large bookcases. It is a collection that is forever growing, even now, from having just sorted through an album of some 170 photos printed and chronicled into another album to sit on top of the ever groaning and increasingly bowing bookcase shelves. I have never tested their structural integrity, but am happy to keep adding to them, long may they hold!

I paint a dramatic hyperbole and it is of course true that much of this material could be digitised and made far smaller (and safer) but my reasoning for mentioning is that somewhere in my madness lies the bigger question of how we gather, store and access knowledge and information in a world that is consistently producing.   

“It took two centuries for the Library of Congress to acquire its 29 million books and 105 million other items...today it only takes 15 minutes for the world to produce an equal amount of information in digital form.”

Where does all of this information go? What happens when that storage is full? And how much knowledge can we possibly stand to lose or even be unable to re-call if it is forever increasing? I am emphatically not suggesting the solution is one of burning or saving books as the premise of Hrabal’s novel, but for me, it does raise the foremost questions as well as the notion of the personal archive versus the public archive and how they operate differently but share a similarity in that they are both dependent on issues of space in relation to time, accumulation and editing. 

 “According to a 2007 BBC report, the Vatican library (1.5 million books on 37 miles of shelving) was literally sinking under its printed burden.”

I do not aim to answer or resolve all of these ideas in this post, but felt that I had begun collecting too many thoughts and references on the subject to ignore it completely; it is a starting point from which hopefully I will revisit themes again at a later date. The origins of this post have actually come from those photos I mentioned earlier, specifically they document a recent trip to Copenhagen where in the Architecture Centre I came across a zine all about Archives and their relationship to space and storage. Titled MAP (Manual of Architectural Possibilities) and created by David A Garcia Studios on an A1-sized folded sheet of paper, printed on both sides in a poster-style format. Each issue deals with a different theme succinctly presented through text, quotes, stats, info-graphics and graphics.


Sample of the layout of MAP 003 Archive 
For its size, the content and information within this zine is impressive and relevant to my current thoughts on the huge amounts of paper I personally hoard! Its utilitarian size also refers to its purpose of providing insight into the spatial implications needed for systems of organising information, i.e. collections, libraries, archives, servers etc.

Where do we store all of this info?” being the question asked that also seems to me to be intrinsically linked to the more written about question of, “how is it stored?” Much seems to be written about systems of categorisation , less so on where it is held. According to MAP, preserving information for the future seems to be closely linked with physical issues of context and space as much as it does with the organizational systems by which information is catalogued. Not to mention, of course, political implications of the institutionalisation of knowledge, i.e. how, when, by and for who information is gathered; a question for another day! 

“From antiquity to the present, and with an exponential impetus, we have been obsessed with systematically collecting and reorganizing what in effect already exists, in its own kind of order, or disorder. This desire for control and centralisation of our environment, has no doubt aided us in the past and present. Nevertheless, some think that archives have reached such epidemic proportions that, not only has the digital revolution not been able to solve the problem, but it has in fact aggravated it. All of this, of course, occupies space, an increasingly huge amount of space.”

It was interesting to discover that,

The British Museum exhibits 1% of its total collection of 7 million items.

The British Library exhibits 3% of its total collection of 14 million items.

The MOMA exhibits 15% of its total collection of 150,000 items.

The above stats highlighting, for me, the importance of circulating what is exhibited within these collections or making what isn’t shown ,accessible in other formats; either online or per request which many of them already do. It is really a question of who decides what is shown and when and whether some things are better not shown in order to protect/preserve them? I speculate that archivists, curators and librarians will also have their own set of either institutionalised or professional criteria for selecting work to be added or displayed within collections. I do not know and am curious as to what these are, but am more interested in the idea of what a creative or artistic practice could bring to the process of archiving that perhaps these other professions lack or are prohibited in some way from doing.   

I’m fascinated by the idea of archiving but I carry the suspicious mind of one who is easily bored: that dares to suggest that the very act of making an archive is already an admission of creative defeat...Others will argue that the very process of making the archive, devising the system...is in itself totally creative...What if the day-to-day circumstances may not be as neat as the parametric analysis? –Peter Cook

Inside The Black Diamond in Copenhagen
Artist as archivist, artists working with archives? Architect or designer as archivist? I am fascinated at the idea of a sort-of cross-pollination of disciplines between an artistic practice with its parameters of looking, deconstruction and analysis from a creative perspective could work with more traditional archiving systems. This isn’t the same as artists using archiving as a way of making work, this is about artists working with existing archives and what they could bring to how these collections are accessed and/or interpreted. Surely there is a need for creative solutions to future challenges faced by ever increasing demand for space in relation to what is being stored? It marks a shift in my own attitude from how I have had an art practice heavily centred on ‘producing’ and its capitalist implications of making a physical art work with the intent of owning/selling it; over to one of ‘engaging’ and working with things that are already in existence. I do not have a problem with either but feel that there is something more sustainable about the latter. Perhaps I also feel some responsibility to not keep adding to the pile as to working with what already exists...  

In an interview about, Collection (not) as curation: how exhibitions are different from libraries, artist and librarian, Andrew Beccone explains how collecting can function as interpretation,

“Absolutely, but many libraries don’t have the freedom to approach their own collections from such a standpoint. One of the things that I find interesting about the current trend of independent libraries is the attention that they often call to collection-as-interpretation.”

I think Beccoone’s statement implies  that by allowing more control in a curatiorial sense of what is admitted and omitted within a collection can become a means by which collections can be interpreted by what is in them and how it is organised. This seems to me a similar process to that of curating, when art objects are [collected] and [organised] into a new system, in other words exhibition, from which they can gain new meaning and interpretation as a whole as well as individual works within a bigger concept. The problem with the library as a collection is whether it becomes more about the overall interpretation or the sum of its parts?

He does however acknowledge that there is some overlap between the two,

“In library-speak, those who are responsible for acquiring materials and shaping collections are known as collection development librarians. These are probably the closest corollary to curators in librarianship, but there’s a difference (and this is speaking very broadly because there is an incredible range of conditions within which both librarians and curators operate), for instance, between a curator who is able to assemble a group of artists based on a particular idea of his or her own choosing, and say, a collection development librarian at a branch of the Brooklyn Public Library who is “curating” a collection based on a concrete set of criteria such as the demographics of the neighborhood, the library’s own circulation statistics, or some institutional policy.”

I know that I am skimming the answers to many of the points raised here, but part of the way to solving or addressing them is in recognising them, the future of the archive in relation to space is highly topical and one I think will become increasingly important in years to come. MAP offers one last and final insight into future storage possibilities, 

The brain has also been discussed as a medium of data storage and it has been estimated that the brain has the equivalent digital capacity of 1-1000 terabytes…1 terabyte is the equivalent to 50,000 trees made into paper and printed...

Occupationally speaking, having worked as a Bookseller, now, within a Library and in my spare time continuing to make works on paper as an artist, it seems and I hope that my own relationship with collections both physical and digital is set to continue. Of course, as long as there is space!

Friday, 23 February 2018

Out of Line Online!

Exciting news everyone! Thanks to the Graphic Design production skills of Rob Watts, I am pleased to reveal the first online version of HIVE, available to view online here and as a pdf on Scribd.
Previous issues will be available to view online soon (it is our ambition to have a HIVE website sometime in the, hopefully not too distant future...?!) but, until then, please cast your eyes over this issue of HIVE 3#. This is the issue I co-edited on with Nina Gronw-Lewis in 2016 and saw 14 artists make work in response to the theme, 'Out of Line'. I wanted to use this as an opportunity to test what it would look like online and of course practice sharing it with those interested! Let me know what you think!
Hive 3# (June 2016) Visual Arts Zine, Edited by Natalie Parsley and Nina Gronw-Lewis.
Featuring work by; Rico Ajao, Frank Edmunds, Jon England, Nina Gronw-Lewis, Kevin Hawker, Tim Martin, James Marsden, Natalie Parsley, Stuart Rosamond, Eileen Rosamond, Ruby Rowswell, Chris Taylor, Deborah Westmancoat and Rob Watts.
All work is Copyright of the Artists ©2016


For more info about what HIVE is and some of its history then please refer to some of my previous blog posts for clues.... http://spannerintheworkz.blogspot.co.uk/search?q=hive

Ahem, and if you really like what you see and are interested in procuring your very own CD digital copy of the latest HIVE V, meeting the artists and celebrating then please come along to the launch of HIVE V on Friday 23rd March at 06.00pm. Info on poster below and via our Facebook event page; https://www.facebook.com/events/407305959707446/

Edited by Chris Dart and featuring the creative stylings of: 
Chris Dart, Frank Edmunds, Jon England, Martin Jackson, Tony Girardot, James Marsden, Tim Martin, Rashid Maxwell, Anna Newland-Hooper, Eileen Rosamond, Stuart Rosamond, Natalie Parsley and RobWatts 



Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Land of Plenty

It isn’t every day that one dons a pair of wellies to go visit and art gallery, but you’d have a pretty slippery time getting to Hauser and Wirth in Bruton, Somerset if you didn’t (unless of course you came by car, but this way is infinitely more fun)! Whilst I am unsure how gratefully received the mud I tramped-in to the gallery was, in my mind, it was the best possible start to viewing an exhibition about ‘Land’ by bringing some of it with me! You’re welcome!
 
Carston Höller ‘Giant Triple Mushroom’ [2015] Polyester
paint, synthetic resin, acrylic paint, wire, putty,
polyurethane, rigid foam, stainless steel.
By pure coincidence, around the time of seeing this show I had just started reading for the first time, Graham Swift’s novel, Waterland [1983], in it Swift writes, that “Only nature knows neither memory nor history.” Implying that it is forever changing and has been there long before us and will continue to do so long after we have gone. I thought this was a good connection to the exhibition titled, ‘The Land We Live In – The Land We Left Behind’ at Hauser and With Somerset, whose key themes include an exploration of, ‘society’s relationship to the rural’ featuring work, projects, reportage and documentation in response to land; food production, consumption, sustainability and nature in the urban environment. These are just some of the concepts explored by over 50 artists and creative groups of people from the past (as far back as the 14thand 18th Century) up to the present. I meant it when I called this post, ‘Land of Plenty’! Whilst writing this review I kept going back to my copy of Waterland and reading things that related to what I saw in this exhibition, with John Burnside’s introduction including the following useful quote from Dorothy Canfield, 
 
“Art is considered as the expression of any people as a whole, is the response they make in various mediums to the impact that the totality of their experience makes upon them, and there is no sort of experience that works so constantly and subtly upon man as his regional environment.”
 
What is interesting about the ‘land’ exhibition at Hauser and Wirth is it is a diverse collection of people’s responses to their ‘regionalness’ from where they are from and so includes work from all over the UK and the world, yet despite this the common theme that unites them all is a very human one and that is the desire to create, explore and understand, on a social, political, spiritual, scientific, bodily, biographical [delete as appropriate/the list goes on..] level the land and how we connect to it.
 
Eric Sjödlin ‘The Azolla Cooking and Cultivation Project’ [2017] Azolla weed.
 It is an ambitious and plentiful exhibition, each room of the gallery hosting anything between forty and fifty small works on the walls, in vitrines and in one instance as a feast set-out on a grand dining room table (but more on that later). Read it as you might read a book, with each room responding to a different theme and idea within the overall totality that it is a [book] about the human relationship and impact on land or vice versa. In the first room, ‘the rural as a laboratory for the development of ideas’ greets visitors with the overwhelming smell of cheese in Fernando Garia-Dory’s, ‘Mobile Dairy School’ and plastic-lit water tanks growing pond weed in Eric Sjödin’s ‘The Azolla Cooking and Cultivation Project’. It genuinely feels like a laboratory, elsewhere ‘Sweetwater Foundation Aquaponics system’ houses fish and grows salads at the same time whilst Tom Philipson’s eggs and pickles in jars form a calendar of sorts and CarstonHöller’s botanical cross-sections of mushrooms are inquisitive and precise scientific looking spectacles that render large the architectural and alien-like fascination people, not limited to mycologists, have with beholding the natural world. During the exhibition’s running time these exhibits also act as working models for social engagement and participation, supported by live demonstrations of cheese and bread making as well as goat milking.
 
Tom Philpson ‘Shelf’ [2018] Wood, eggs, vinegar, glass, pickles.
Other [chapters] of this exhibition include two rooms exploring the rural utopia, the religious, the spiritual and ritualistic through a historic and joyous plethora of artefacts; featuring exquisite tiny Samuel Palmer prints to work by William Blake and John Ruskin. A Kate Greenaway study of rock, moss and ivy and drawings by Beatrix Potter remind visitors of how their published illustrations helped educate and inspire an interest in the natural world. They are a treat to spot in a room nearly bursting with work by Henry Moore, David Nash and Kurt Schwitters to name a few! There is a Grayson Perry print (because he’s everywhere!) hung above a door, too high to see and two excellent photographic works by Paul McCarthy, ‘Use a Shovel to Throw Dirt in the Air’ and Roni Horn's, ‘Becoming a Landscape’ that document a performance or moment-in-time. The art in these rooms generates conversations through the sheer variety and on-going obsession artists have had in depicting how we relate to earth, not only in reproductions/descriptions of it, but crucially how art has evolved to make work that reflects the  philosophical idea of being of and in the land. None more so, is this present and grounded than in the farm tools hung throughout the entire exhibition, donated by Richard Hollingberry. I salute you!
 
Nikolaus Geyrhalter ‘Our Daily Bread’ [2005] Dvd.
One of the more powerful rooms is the darkened Rhoades Gallery in which a film projection titled, ‘Our Daily Bread’ [2005] by Nikolaus Greyhalter dominates showing scenes of food production; from the heavily mechanised more gentle crop-harvesting to the graphic slaughter of cattle and chickens in an abattoir. For vegetarians and meat-eaters alike, it is highly emotive and likely to cause much debate and possible controversy in its harsh, but starkly honest, documentation. Before it, lies a banquet of art works on a table, reminiscent for me of Hestercombe Gallery’s, Buffet d’art’ [June 2017] in which a host of artist’s make table and/or food-based work to be metaphorically consumed by the viewer. The theme for this room of, ‘transformation, transition and transubstantiation’ presents work that is largely about food production and consumption. Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s, ‘The Four Seasons’ feel oddly at home here, their message of ‘you are what you eat’ and slightly sinister, strangeness alongside a mountain of decaying compost and Karen Guthrie’s 'House of Ferment' [2016] act as a reminder of the cyclical-nature of our relationship with food. Marcus Coates’Anchorhold’ [2015] offers a more spiritual and contemplative form of transformation through a performance inside an architecturally bespoke, apple-store in which participants are invited to eat an apple and address the artist, ‘As the Apple Service Provider’ with a question[conversations of which will later be played as audio in the space].
 
Giuseppe Arcimboldo ‘The Four Seasons’ [1572] Oil on canvas.
The final room of this exhibition ends similarly to how it began, with working examples of participatory projects, but this time in more urban settings. Projects highlighted such as, ‘What will the harvest be?’ and an Honesty Shop selling items hand-made by people living in Bruton are two examples in which communities have been brought together through a creative activity. It is an uplifting end to the exhibition, aided by Simon Fairlie’s haystacks and Bedwyr Williams’ ram/bicycle hybrid. Visitors who enjoy this exhibition should also note that with this show Hauser and Wirth is doing what exhibitions at Hestercombe Gallery, under the curation of Tim Martin, has been doing for the best part of three years; bringing local and national artists who work with rural, environmental residencies and programmes into the context of the gardens and house at Hestercombe. Their current exhibition, ‘Odyssean Topographies’ is well worth a look if you enjoyed this one!
 
Bedwyr Williams ‘Wooly Back’[2010] Bike, rams horns,
skull, wool.
‘The Land We Live In – The Land We Left Behind’ is the exhibition that Hauser and Wirth in Bruton have always needed; a chance for it to utilise its unique feature of being located in a rural setting and community. I am surprised it has taken this long for it to happen, but the breadth of work in this exhibition has made it worth the wait. Conceptually, it is a show that is almost self-gratuitously proud and flaunting in telling the themes and ideas within its curation, perhaps it’s a little too much in some places... The positives are, that its potential for social influence is good; it inspires and aspires that communities can have a significant and mutually beneficial relationship with their environment and that artist’s have a very active role to play as pioneers of change, instigators of activity as well as practical doers and credible researchers. ‘The Land We Live In – The Land We Left Behind’ reminds that change begins at home, we do not need to go further than our front door in order to have a connection with a sense of place. It can begin with the land right under our feet.
 
 
The Land We Live In – The Land We Left Behind at Hauser and Wirth, Somerset until 7th May 2018

Text Copyright Natalie Parsley© January 2018

Sunday, 7 January 2018

Through a Glass Darkly

Despite her popularity I have never really looked at CorneliaParker’s work in as much detail as it perhaps deserves; until now, that is! It seems logical that on my quest to research artists that use the everyday in their work that I would have written more about her compressed wind instruments, exploded shed, unravelled spoon, deconstructed silverware and other works in which Parker transforms ordinary objects into something unexpected or compelling. I’ve seen her work in several places, so overcoming my reluctant adversity to the obvious I visited ‘One Day This Glass Will Break’ as part of entry to the exhibition,‘Women with Vision’ at the RWA in Bristol.

The exhibition features approximately twenty prints of various sized and arranged glass vessels that have been photographically captured on paper using a process inspired by 19th Century photography pioneer, William Henry Fox Talbot; whose experimental techniques we learn in this exhibition, have had a significant and reoccurring influence on Cornelia Parker’s practice since the 70s. The objects in these images selected because of photos Fox Talbot produced featuring a similar subject matter and compositions of objects. Cornelia Parker's images to me look like drawings, they are charcoal black and hazily soft whilst holding a weighty sense of definition, so that the cut and characteristics of each glass vessel remain visible. It was almost surprising to discover that they were photographic positives, created using a process called photogravure and solar printing which are loosely, as I understand it, made when objects are placed on a plate and exposed to ultraviolet light to create a positive image of the light that travels through a glass vessel rather than of the physical vessel itself… Clever stuff!

'Fox Talbot’s Articles of Glass (bottoms up)' 2016
For me, it is a philosophical reminder of the dichotomy between the illusion of objects reproduced in 2D processes and their physical known reality; I have always found the illusion of the thing to reveal more of an understanding of its shape, form, weight and ‘existence’ in terms of how we perceive it, far more than the placing of the actual object on a plinth for consideration. Whilst shadow, X-ray or ghost-like, the glass jugs, decanters and bulbs in this series of prints are a manifestation of the void spaces within objects rather than the thing itself and are in-fact an attempt to capture the image of light that passes through. Negative made positive in an almost RachelWhiteread-like move but without the literal physicality of turning negative space into a solid; these are turning a negative space into a photographic representation of a solid! There is a second layer of mental gymnastics if one also considers what the presence of the glass through which we view the image of the glasses does to how we interpret it, i.e. can we ever see an image clearly if through glass with all its reflections? The plot thickens!

'One Day This Glass Will Break' 2015
Cornelia Parker’s work often literally flattens objects, such as the trombones in the wittily titled, ‘Breathless’, so it is interesting here to see that process is used again but taken into a flattened representation and trace of the original object itself; sometimes from unusual or unfamiliar angles such as the view of the underneath or bottom of a glass or of several shot glasses stacked within one another (pictured). For personal reasons I was particularly drawn to how the image opposite looks like an X-ray of a spine. These alternative, flattened and groupings of objects are unexpected and amusing; in some ways I think they almost create a sense of animation or potentiality to their expected static presence. Parker’s work has often been likened to using actions of cartoon-like violence in their creation; other prints in the exhibition demonstrate this with explosion like areas of splatters and blots created from the artist spitting tequila onto a prepared photo plate. An abstract expressionist meets punk form of expression that turns something repulsive and aggressive into something arguably beautiful but also echoed in the title with the implication that these things will break (by age or by violence? It is left to us to decide). These double-meanings through the production, titling and execution are present in many of her works.

Fox Talbot’s Articles of Glass (three decanters) 2016
Ironically the glasses in ‘One Day This Glass Will Break’ as images will never break, as such, immortalised by the photographic process. The original ones of course will eventually age, decay and break. In that way these images share something with museum-style preservation with some images even composed in a way that includes identification tags on some of the glasses. The vessels become metaphorical shadows that are both twin and opposite of its original, they represent the relationship photography philosophically has with capturing a moment in time as associations with death and mortality. The title of this post, ‘through a glass darkly’ refers to the idea that we have an obscure or imperfect vision of reality which to me seemed to fit with the ideas of 'what is real' and 'what is not' at play in these prints and the literal take that the prints exhibited in ‘One Day This Glass Will Break’ show glass which is dark, rather than light and transparent. Those were at least my initial thoughts into this body of work, maybe in time I will see things more or less clearly.

You can see Cornelia Parker’s ‘One Day This Glass Will Break’ (ticketed as part of the exhibition ‘Women with Vision) at the RWA until January 28th. Further details on the link here:


Text Copyright Natalie Parsley© January 2018

Monday, 11 December 2017

Seeing is Believing

Writing is a way of making sense of things.
 It is a way to collate, consider and consolidate thoughts.
Writing is my way of making sense of things I see and experience.
 There is a lot of repetition and revisiting of ideas in what I write from which the things that hold the most resonance are visited again and again in new ways as I attempt to find out more.
 
Painted bronze (1960) Bronze and oil paint
Therefore it is perhaps surprising that it has taken me almost two months to write about the Jasper Johns retrospective exhibition that I saw at the Royal Academy in London. It was the first time I had ever seen so many of Johns’ work in one place in the UK and I was even more excited to see so many of his paintings up close, the tones of his grey paintings and encaustic surfaces only previously imagined from what little information can be photographed of these works in books or art lecture slides. To see the ‘real’ (if that is the correct word for a representation cast in bronze of the real thing) Savarin Coffee can with paintbrushes (pictured left) was a personal artistic highlight of my year! For me that piece encapsulates the on-going dichotomy of the representational versus the real, truth versus illusion, written language against visual language and ways in which it is still so important to consider how we look, generally speaking, and how we perceive the everyday. It is also the reason why it has taken me so long to know how to write about it; I felt a little intimidated by its significance! In the past when I have written about other big retrospectives such as, Robert Rauschenberg or Kurt Schwitters I felt that no matter what I wrote it was unlikely to be anything new and had to some way hold up to the scrutiny of those who know far more about his work than me. What can I write about that hadn’t been echoed or articulated in some way by someone else throughout the thousands of reviews written about their work throughout history? There is so much known about Jasper Johns that the only way I can offer anything different is by writing about my own experience of seeing his work with maybe a few interjections of research along the way...
 
LEFT; Target (1961) Encaustic and collage on canvas RIGHT; White Target (1958) Encaustic and collage on canvas
The ‘havoc of sameness and difference’ as quoted from an article about the Jasper Johns exhibition, by Paul Keegan in the Times Literary Supplement is at play in both my own anxiety to offer something new or stick to what I know in the writing of this post, and in context here, to the repetition and use of familiar motifs throughout Jasper Johns’ career. From the 50s to the present day, the American artist now in his eighties has prolifically explored the visual and pictorial language of painting and mixed media through reoccurring imagery such as flags, numbers, letters, words, body parts, targets, shapes and colour. There is a progression of themes in the exhibition, aptly titled ‘Something Resembling Truth', each room explores a different obsession that Johns had in which the works are similar but different, a reference to the repetition within Johns’ own work and the play of the real against the representational, abstract and illusionary. An example of which is pictured here in two examples of Johns’ Target paintings. These are paintings as objects and as illusion both at once; the way the paint is applied to the surface is almost 3-dimensional (using wax added to paint), the large scale of some of these paintings only adding to their presence as 'painting as a physical object' in the room and not merely a representation of, in this instance, a target. Similarly, in his flag paintings the work occupies a duality between representation and object, i.e. it is a representation of the American flag but it is also a series of stripes and stars rendered in paint so as to become a new object in itself, “...between seeing and language, between what we see and what we know.” The language of visual art as a way of communicating and the literal nature of written language and symbolism is further layered in the number and alphabet pieces for example in ‘0 through 9’ [1961] the numbers, unsurprisingly from 0 to 9 are layered one on top of another so that they become almost unreadable and obscured into the abstract.
 
LEFT; Small Numbers in Color (1959) Encaustic on wood RIGHT; 0 through 9 (1961) Oil on canvas
Johns is quoted as once saying, “a picture ought to be looked at the same way you look at a radiator”. It may come as no surprise to some of you that I have actually spent some time looking at radiators, or heaters at this side of the pond, and never found them to be quite as interesting as many pictures but the implied sentiment from Johns is a good one, in that the act of looking should be inquisitive and exploratory, as though looking at something [a radiator] with consideration for its familiarity but for the first time due to its invisibleness for the fact it is so often overlooked. This should be the same treatment with which one sees a picture or painting (discuss). Conversely, it can also mean that a picture should be regarded with the same banality as that of a radiator which is amusing and neither a bad thing to remind us not to take the act of looking, too seriously. It is a provocative statement to make and reflects Johns’ philosophy to take what the ‘...mind already knows and make us look again’.
 
Passage (1962) Encaustic, charcoal and collage on canvas with objects
My personal favourite Johns works are his paintings that combine objects on or into their surfaces. Made during the same time when artists like Rauschenberg were doing a similar thing, these paintings such as ‘Passage’ [1962] combine abstract expressionistic use of gesture and formal qualities with the placing of physical objects such as a fork, a ruler and a letter. For Johns however an extra dimension is added with the inclusion of words such as ‘iron’ and ‘red, yellow, blue’ as signifiers for colour and an object but without really being present creating layers by which the literal, metaphorical and representational are operating all at once in different parts of the painting. Stencilling the word ‘yellow’ in green and partially obscured by grey paint confuses what we read and know yellow to be and makes one think again. It’s playful but as full of intent or meaning as you as the viewer want to bring to it. Chronologically these works Johns explains came as a progression of the flag and target paintings being considered as an object,
 “My use of objects comes out of, originally, thinking of the painting as an object and considering the materialistic aspect of painting......”
 
Fool’s House (1961-2) Oil on canvas with objects attached
The broom in ‘Fools House’ [1961-62] is both structural protagonist of the painting as well as the means by which the sweep of paint was manipulated across the canvas. The objects in these paintings take on new purpose as formal components of the paintings they reside in; a broom becomes a straight line, a can becomes a cylinder, a neon light becomes a colour to work with that isn’t physically present like paint, a fork becomes a ledge from which a chain can hang from, a ruler is a line of yellow that implies a sense of order and precision that never comes to fruition. I am a huge fan of these works and find their unexpectedness and visual variables a pick and mix-like indulgence or a welcomed disruption to the eyes that jazz music is to the ears. Both make seeing these works now still relevant and exciting!
 
Going back to the bronze paintbrushes in the Savarin coffee tin, I hope I have explained some of the context as to why I think it is a significant work. In being cast in bronze the brushes and tin are less real because they have been made with the purpose of looking in mind and not use, they have been made to be looked at; the point in time in which they came to be inside that tin captured forever. Whilst they are convincingly painted (right up to their stains of use and wear) and realistically proportioned, they don’t sit in the way that real paintbrushes do when residing inside a pot or can, their bronze-cast rigidity makes them almost too static and they lack the differences in texture of metal versus wood that the eye can distinguish. It is like exposing an imposter and my eyes enjoy the visual conundrum and illusionary trickery it plays. It summarises why I enjoy much of Johns’ work, seesaw of real and unreal, truth and deception; the double-take, counterbalancing visual language with that of written language. It makes you think without being convoluted or too pretentious. The bronze in the exhibition sits alongside two drawings; one in ink and one in graphite of the same display; they are all different versions of the same thing but operate in different ways. The drawings place the paint brushes in full centre becoming the artistic equivalent of a vase of flowers whereas the bronze becomes a fake prop and a new surface on which to apply paint.
 
From the Exhibition, ‘Something Resembling Truth’ at the RA 2017
For me personally, these works symbolise the moments of inactivity within art, when the contemplation happens and the tools reside their work carried out until such time when they are used again. There are two specific lasting memories I have of paintbrushes in cans and they are; a photo of brushes in two used dog-food cans in the window of my grandfather’s tool-barn on his farm and of the paintbrushes of a painter who taught me during my degree who had his brushes in a pot placed on his coffin at his funeral. In both instances it struck me how deeply poignant the reverence I place upon objects has with their association to the people who used them. I remember the way the light was hitting the weather-beaten and algae-coloured corrugated Perspex window of my grandfather’s tool-barn against the silhouette of these two paintbrush cans being something celestial, almost like stained-glass within a church such was its importance to me and how I remember my grandfather. It tied into my research into tools during my degree, but nonetheless is an image, like Johns, I have reproduced and come back to more than once but never fully realised yet. It also brings me back to the discipline of writing and how it offers a way into processing exhibitions that I see. I cannot be sure if I looked at every piece in the Jasper Johns retrospective in the same way that I would look at a radiator but much has made me want to look and look again. 
Jasper Johns ‘Something resembling truth’ ran at the Royal Academy of Arts from September 23rd – December 10th 2017

Includes quotes from ‘The only one seeing things’ by Paul Keegan published in the Times Literary Suppliment 24th November 2017.
Images of Jasper Johns work sourced from https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibition/jasper-johns; http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/johns-0-through-9-t00454