Tuesday, 29 October 2013

On Paper

“Leonardo didn’t just think on paper: he thought through paper. Paper was not the pre-liminary to other work: it was the work.”

This post is a contradiction of sorts. Coming to you, sort of ‘live’ (in the sense that I am a living being, last time I checked) from the virtual pen, paper and ink that is my computer screen to yours. I’m sure you could see my point that it is not the most appropriate medium or convincing place to begin writing a post all about the joys and uses of paper. In fact the 'blog post' is actually a kind-of evolution of paper, the ugly (or not so) ugly stepsister of the good old papyrus minus the tree felling, mill and stationers’ shelves.
 Anyway I’ve done and continue to do so, consume my fair share of paper. For as long as I and many others continue to buy tickets, possess money, wrap presents, receive junk mail, draw, read newspapers, write lists, buy fish and chips, use loo roll, eat sweets, accumulate receipts we don’t need, then paper isn’t something that’s going to disappear anytime soon. And not to mention, of course when it comes to books I’m a self-confessed paper omnivore. The most versatile, light, durable, precious and yet throw-away of all materials; paper has a LOT going for it. Ian Sansom in his tactile papery book, ‘Paper: An Elegy’ quotes Derrida who remarked, “To say farewell to paper today would be rather like deciding one day to stop speaking because you had learnt to write.”
 In that vein, what this post lacks in actual paper it makes up for with plenty of pulp! When I came across an exhibition called, ‘Paper’ at the Saatchi Gallery in London a few weeks back, I could hardly resist.

‘Paper’ features over 40 National and International artists all of whom use some form of paper either as a construction material, surface or medium within their work. For some, the paper becomes the work itself; it is manipulated, folded, wielded, torn, cut and pasted and for others, paper becomes the surface from which the artist communicates. What was interesting for me personally was that there was a good variety of both the expected and unexpected and I walked away feeling that paper’s integrity as a medium for drawing on had been kept intact as well as having been presented some more innovative ideas in both how ambitious and creative some of the drawings were and seeing some of the more sculptural applications, innovations and uses of paper.
Josef Albers educated at the Bauhaus in the late 1920’s wrote on paper (on paper, hee),
“paper, in handicraft and industry, is generally used lying flat; the edge is rarely utilised. For this reason we try paper standing upright, or even as a building material; we reinforce it by complicated folding; we use both sides; we emphasise the edge. Paper is usually pasted; instead of pasting it we try to tie it, to pin it, to sew it, to rivet it. In other words we fasten it in a multitude of different ways. At the same time we learn by experience its properties of flexibility and rigidity, and its potentialities in tension and compression. We try to experiment, to train ourselves in ‘constructive thinking”.

 Ok, I know that’s all very Constructivist sounding in terms of art theory, but the nature of how Albers is describing the materiality of paper and its capabilities is still relevant today and I feel its influence is felt in the diversity of work in this exhibition. Below are a series of selected works from the exhibition and a few of my scribing's....

Dawn Clements (pictured here and in the image above) creates large scale pen and ink drawings as an act of remembering and documentation. They are incredibly detailed especially when you consider they are of remembered interiors, but it also explains why they are also staggered, fractured and in some places beams and doorways fade into nothingness. For me, what I found most interesting was the way she has used large sheets of paper, all different sizes, orientations and
overlapped them to create a work that has no fixed edge and inhabits the gallery space. It makes me rethink a habit, that I share probably with many others, of capturing space i.e. an interior within the rectangle of the paper (mostly because there's a practicality and manageability to doing it that way) when perhaps to really capture a 'sense of place' you need to leave the perimeters of the paper. As a result I viewed this work more like a stage set, or a sequence as the artist moved around the space she was drawing.

Spiralling bottles heading round and round in a seemingly never ending vortex. No wonder Tal R's drawings are described as 'visions of creative fecundity'. One of a series of relatively small line drawings which become ever increasingly depraved and disturbing. Looking at ideas of artistic genius the drawings are packed with distorted characters, featuring women giving birth to Picasso-like sculptures and more (you got one of the more boring images here, sorry!) Other than drawing I'm not sure this offers much of an insight into paper per sae but there was something in the cartoony, yet detailed nature of these crazed looking drawings that made me stop and think, 'Was it just rubbish drawing or was there something more going on here?' I'd probably side with the opinion that the 'quality' of the drawing becomes somewhat irrelevant and its actually more about the 'what' is being drawn that is more engaging.

It may be a bit of a 'one liner' but 'Fragments of Time' by Miler Lagos has been incredibly well made, with each of these forms (that look like logs or branches) has been made from densely stacked sheets of newspaper and then sanded at the edges giving them their woody-like colouring/markings. So however cliché you may want to get analysing this as being a statement on paper coming from trees, waste material, recycling, unprocessed information etc. its innovative manipulation of the material is really quite exciting. A sheet of paper on its own is very light but put it in a pile and it can become very heavy; take it back to being a tree and its enormously heavy. Except the point made here is that once you turn the tree into paper there isn't really any going back, just illusion.

Sometimes the quietest, smallest and most unassuming things can have the most impact. Yuken Teruya with delicate precision and sensitivity transforms paper shopping bags into viewing platforms from which a paper tree has been cut from the roof of the same bag. There's nothing like a bit of curiosity in art to get people's attention and upon seeing rows of people starring into shopping bags lined on shelves on the gallery wall I immediately wanted to go in myself for a closer look. Again, the connections between consumerism and the cycle of tree to paper is perhaps all too obvious but nonetheless they were a joy to look at. And in terms of affect, they are probably all the more memorable because of it.

Paul Westcombe draws on coffee cups. If I was the kind of person who drank tea or coffee I'd like to think I would have started doodling on a cup at some point, it seems like a fun thing to do. Westcombe's cup works originated out of boredom whilst working as a car park attendant in London. They depict intense drawings that depict the artists thoughts as a series of lines, networks and shapes. These kind of doodles done whilst thinking, often on the corner or a receipt or letter are almost meditative ways of thinking. What I enjoy about these cups is that they have that similar treatment as the receipt doodle but instead of being thrown away they've been kept and added to so that the 'art' we make when we're not thinking about making it becomes the actual art itself.

Hundreds of colourful paper kite-shaped forms float and collide gracefully in the centre of gallery seven. This work is Marcelo Jacome's 'Planos-pipas' no 17 (the title, translates as 'kite-planes'). A real advocate of the Saatchi Gallery stereotype, its big, bold and ambitious; the 'show stopper' of the exhibition. Despite my initial cynicism it is very difficult for this piece not to appeal to my inner child-like sense of wonder and pleasing design, geometry, execution and candy-like colour palette. The dynamic chaos of all the shapes met with the gracefulness of its overall swooping form is quite musical and I want to criticise its 'niceness' but somehow feel incapable of doing so from smiling too much.

Han Feng's 'Flaoting City' presents a fictional utopia that is as intangible and transparent as the tracing paper it is made from. Images of buildings have been printed onto tracing paper then folded into cuboid shapes of different heights and scales. These have then been clustered together in groups, streets, islands and fragments hung from the ceiling inches off the gallery floor; perhaps as a reminder of the precariousness of life itself. Taking time to inspect each unique building is mesmerising creating a sense of being 'lost' in the city.

The last time I was this excited about paper as art was at the Liverpool Biennal in 2010 watching Sachiko Abe performing 'Cut papers' in the Blade Factory. It literally involved the artist, dressed in white on a raised platform cutting very fine slithers of white paper. The cut threads created a curtain down from the platform and onto the floor almost like strands of hair. It was beautiful and poignant to experience it and reaffirmed my understanding of how most simple, mundane actions if repeated enough can become not only contemplative but deeply meaningful. As an artist now I still feel there is something reassuring and grounding and a warmth in holding/using/working with paper that I have never felt using canvas, board, metal or any other surface. I enjoy its contradictions depending on how it is manipulated; of being both cutting and used to wrap/protect, light yet heavy, flat or sculpted. It occurs to me now that I have long had an infatuation with paper which explains the care and time I spent over my sketchbooks often pouring more hours into them than my studio work. Could the reason have been something to do with the intimacy and reflection space of having a book? Or was it the joy of working on paper? Same thing, perhaps.

I haven't mentioned half the artists and works in this exhibition, but hope this has given you an idea of what you can expect from 'Paper', so that next time you're rolling a Rizla, lining your cake tins, making paper aeroplanes, writing a love letter, wallpapering the house or simply wiping your bum spare a thought for the brilliance and potential of paper!

'Paper' at Saatchi ended on the 3rd of November but the paper catalogue is still available.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Another fine mess

As far as the visual part of ‘visual art’ goes Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ retrospective of ‘Maintenance Art Works’ at the Arnolfini can only really be described as ‘boooooooooring’ (she said summing up every last reserve of maturity she had left). That is a sad (but also probably quite honest) opinion as I am, in fact, a fan and interested in Ukeles’ work; its the presentation of that work being shown in a gallery context that is boring (but more of that later). I initially learnt of Ukeles through Suzi Gablik's 'The reenchantment of art' and several times more from an environmentally conscientious tutor whilst studying my degree. It was the first time I'd come across an artist whose 'performance' wasn't really to perform in the stereotypical 'actor on a stage' kind-of-way I was (at that point in my younger naivety) familiar with, for Ukeles it seemed that life and all its everyday domesticity is an event and that everyday performances of work are as significant, if not more so in altering how we engage with the world particularly our relationship/impact on our environment. An American artist from Colorado working in the 70’s-80’s in New York (she described herself as an artist, a woman, a wife, a mother (Random order) and swept clean the streets of New York, heightened our attention to domesticity of everyday activities to be seen as important and essential processes, empowered the individual as a catalyst for change, sorted socks, dusted an artwork and attached a mirror to the side of a garbage truck to reflect the makers of the waste. Awesome.

Questions arise when one thinks about how to represent her work to today's audience. When what remains are the legacies from such events whose responsibility is it to ensure they are remembered, learnt from and documented? Does the ‘art’ begin with the actual, original event itself, the documentation of that event, the legacy of the event or (and most likely) a combination of all three?

I see the exhibition of Ukeles work at the Arnolfini struggle to inspire a new generation to become more environmentally/socially responsible in the way I can imagine the original event had when it began in 1977. The need for more positive community involvement and environmental awareness is still, of course, very relevant today (if not worryingly more so) which should make Ukeles’ work all the more poignant, but the exhibition at the Arnolfini  (bar a few documented photographs) fails to recreate any sense of the spectacle, the event and performance that, I imagine, made the original events so empowering and motivational. It takes more imagination (than perhaps I unfairly give audiences credit for) to be not left cold by a room full of manifestos and letters, it certainly left me feeling bored. For those not familiar with what I’m talking about, the exhibition at the Arnolfini presents the documentation, writings and manifestos of Ukeles’ work made between 1969 – 1980 including the ‘Maintenance Art questionnaire’, photographs of early community involvement as well as public and private maintenance projects, maps and copious documentation of ‘Touch Sanitation’ [1977] and the artists ongoing residency with New York City Department of Sanitation.

The fact is, that whilst the work shown is authentic and places an ownership on the work, ideas and events being very much Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ and sets it up historically etc etc. the ideas within the writing (and what is exciting) are as topical now as they ever once were. Hence, what I really have a problem with is that, in my opinion, the nature of the ‘event’ and the ‘performance’ translates so poorly in order to comply with the exhibition system which centres around the presentation of ‘stuff’, physical artefacts or environments of which doesn't have the same impact. Whilst letters, maps and writing are still capable of being 'art' in their own right, collectively they feel somewhat lost or redundant in the enormity of the Arnolfini gallery context. Does the work actually need the gallery in order for it to have an impact/communicate to a wider audience? What’s the purpose/what does the work gain by putting it into a gallery? Or do we [as artists] need the gallery as a voice of authority, mark of approval in order to give work like Ukeles’ credibility or exposure? I’d like to think not but realise it is a bit of a double edged sword and that there is something ironic in the way in which Ukeles’ work aims to question the hierarchies of different forms of work which (as  food for thought) could also extend to the hierarchies of the places that work takes place/is exhibited in.

 In defence of the exhibition one could argue what better way to present the ‘Manifesto for Maintenance Art’ than with a distinctly no frills, functional, utilitarian approach to documenting the performances/community involvement of sweeping streets, sorting socks, dusting objects and taking out the garbage? The exhibition itself has become a parody of the piece Ukeles’ once created titled; ‘The Maintenance of the Art Object’ which looked at the transference of a vitrine being cleaned by a maintenance worker and then as an art work would be cleaned by a conservator. The same thing has now happened with Ukeles’ work and her letters, notes and questionnaires that were once sent, like regular post, to officials and the public are now artworks and have to be preserved, dusted and maintained by art curators and their teams.

Hypothetically, if we were to recreate any given activity from Ukeles’ manifesto today, the fact is many of us already do by simply cleaning toilets, sweeping and removing our rubbish, would that not present Ukeles’ work more effectively and serve more purpose than a room full of documents of past events?  Or if we took 'taking out the rubbish' through the entire process instead of just leaving it on the curb outside our home. As Ukeles said herself, “My working will be the work”.  I think perhaps the Arnolfini missed the opportunity to give its building/surrounding area a thorough communal clean in the way of a performance working with the cleaning staff it already employs and community to create a 'real' event that would have both humour and make a point....

And if Ukeles had done this piece for the first time in 2013, then I’d like to think it likely that she’d be emailing, blogging and using social networking to demonstrate her cause which would instantaneously communicate her art to many people without the need of ever having to use the gallery. Would the material presented in this exhibition serve better/work as well in a book/digital format as it would in a gallery? Ukeles’ is an excellent writer and I have much admiration for her open, clear and honest ways of communicating that inspires and motivates,
“Mister Sanman! Actually, you are a model of the man of the 21st century. You already work in the NEW way we will have to act on planet Earth since cities’ natural and fiscal resources are becoming increasingly limited, where there’s no more “out” space. We’re all “in” it together, and we must all take part in caring for our living places, and ultimately the whole earth. Or we will destroy it. YOU ARE THE BALANCING AGENTS.”
The act of writing, writing as protest, writing to persuade, writing to document are also part of the work, I just think it’s a little dry when its hung page by page on a wall in a gallery. I saw many of the same artefacts in an exhibition called, ‘Dirt’ at The Wellcome Collection in London about a year ago and because it was a small part of a bigger context about waste, dust, mess, detritus etc it was a lot more intimate and easier to focus your attention on than the Arnolfini show with its large white walls and vast space seemed to almost eat these documents and anyone that leaned in to have a closer read.

Anyway enough now of this written procrastination. Time for some real work, “it's time to take out the trash.” Literally!

Make up your own mind, Mierle Laderman Ukeles -Maintenance Art Works is on at Arnolfini until 17th November 2013.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Bhaam, the corvids and the marvellous Magnet Man of Alma St

This week's action-packed episode sees our heroine reunited with the Combat Art Kid as they venture into the depths of uncharted Chard and further afield. Be prepared to gasp in awe as they do battle with the sat-nav, puppetry and the unexpected in search for the rare, beautiful and mysterious contemporary arts of the Somerset vale!

Or at least that's one way of explaining my Saturday afternoon spent visiting three Somerset Art Weeks venues...
What this post lacks in the way of images I hope to make up for in words. No mean feat when you've spent an entire Saturday afternoon seeing rich plaster-clad surfaces, painted and sewn into; 10ft charred wooden poles laden in Indian-ink dipped teasels, pots, hand woven fabrics, pantone chart poetry, corn dollies, wooden collages and rags transformed into wolves and women. It doesn't really quite do it justice! Where to begin? But then that's Somerset Art Weeks for you and I am pleased that once again there was the usual mixture of the weird and the wonderful on top of three fantastic locations in some of the remotest parts of Somerset that I'm sort of glad I'd probably never be able to find again!

Without further ado, whistle stop tour number one of the day was 'Corvids at the Jackdaw Studio' (Venue 67) in Wambrook, Chard. It's a diverse exhibition of photography, mixed media, pottery, paintings, drawings and books featuring the work of artists Alice Crane, Michael de Friez, Hilary Dixon, Sarah Hitchens and Nigel Vincent. It was exciting to see a theme used for this group exhibition. Each artist had work around the theme of corvids that were (in most cases) directly present in each of the artists work. Personally I particularly loved Alice Crane's mixed media pieces which were created on pillow cases with stitching and paint; the surfaces were mesmerising to look at and generated a few ideas of things I'd like to try myself. The playful addition to the outside of the gallery space (pictured above) created by a local shepherd, Nigel Vincent was also particularly charming and fun making for an overall good exhibition. If truth be told, I'd have liked to have seen as well as the more representational work some more challenging work that maybe presented a different way of thinking about corvids other than what they look like. Then, that's probably more a reflection of how I have changed in my art tastes over the last few years as I am always now kind of hoping to see something more from the representational or abstract painting that has become so familiar in Somerset. Alas, if you've not grown as cynical as me (thankfully few are) then you'll be in for a treat. 


Onwards now and up, down and around several ever more labyrinthine country lanes and we arrive Bhaam! 'Skills Unearthed' (venue 66) is an exhibition from the Blackdown Hills Artists and Makers (Bhaam) in (an old favourite of mine) the spectacular, Cotley Tithe Barn. Intrepid Art Weekers' beware this ain't the easiest of places to find, but it is ALWAYS well worth the perseverance as when you do get there you're efforts are rewarded by a truly impressive exhibition venue and, perhaps more importantly, some researched, rewarding and contemporary art! Hurrah!

So what's the deal? You ask. Well,  ten artists received commissions to make work in response to the theme, 'Skills unearthed' exploring the crafts and industry of the Blackdown Hills encompassing the interests of those living and working in this area of outstanding natural beauty (in their words not mine). The chosen artists were, Carly Batchelor (Photography), Catherine Bass (Music), Ruth Bell (Contemporary Dance/Film), Louise Cottey (Textiles), Jon England Painting/Film), Sarah Hitchens (Ceramics), Tim Martin (Film/Drawing), Bryony Tidball (Sculpture), Andre Wallace (Sculpture) and Gillian Widden (Sculpture). Individually the artists created work around, nature in industry (teasel cultivation and hand weaving), local folk traditions (corn dolly making), farming history (managing the land), ecclesiastical architecture and World War Two (airfields past and present). The results make for a diverse and rich show which did an impressive job at filling and contending with the overwhelming presence of the Tithe Barn itself (and I should know, I exhibited in it twice for Art Weeks myself, it's difficult to not let the barn swallow your work whole!).

I was particularly interested in Louise Cottey's work, a hand woven fabric made using  traditional (nearly all but lost) techniques which showed great commitment, time and skill that to me represents some of the loss in our patience and dedication to making things that has been replaced by the demand and need for quicker, more economic means of production. Gillian Widden's teasel poles can really only be described as epic, because they are physically huge things and whilst I cannot get out of my mind the association that they look like gigantic burnt corn on the cobs are also completely fascinating sculptures. Historically they also educate about the lost art of teasel picking and I enjoyed looking to see where moths had emerged from the teasels seemingly surviving their Indian ink dipping (a testament to nature!). My patient and generous chauffeur for the day, Jon England presented new portrait works in this exhibition using his trade mark quality of finding authentic and poignant materials to create images of World War Two soldiers on bandages using iodine. The resulting image on the bandage, like the wounds it was once intended to heal, eventually fade away leaving a ghostly trace or scare of what was once there. The haunting process is also captured in a stop-motion film alongside the original work.    


And last, but by no means least we come to 'Stitched' (venue 54) starring Gary Dickins, Nina Gronw-Lewis, Emma Riley and Susan M Wallis. Do you know the Magnet Man? He also goes by the name of Gary Dickins and is somewhat of a prolific (some might say obsessed) maker of unique hand collaged magnets made from magazine cut outs and accompanying (often subtlety subversive) text. In a conversation with the artist I couldn't quite make up my mind whether he is mad or a genius, but is perhaps a bit of both, for never have I spent so long looking through a box of magnets with such joy at their witty, surreal and plain bizarre juxtapositions of phrases with images. I love it! I only wish I had some photos to show you, but rest assured they are a cross between Dada and punk and are probably one of the funniest and most original things I've come across in Art Weeks in a long time. Such a joy to see so much work with an element of humour to it and all of Gary's work is witty but also demonstrating an enthusiasm for process (in this case stitching) as well. In the 'Cunning Cavaliers' (detail pictured above) series of works, Gary has used antique silk brocade that he has hand stitched over the wear and tear from behind which we see glimpses of a scene depicting the cavaliers plotting away.

In keeping with the wit and stitched theme, Nina Gronw-Lewis presents hand sewn and knitted works that are beginning to edge out of the frame and take on a life of their own inhabiting the wall and space that surrounds them as cloud-like forms rain down fabric raindrops directly on the floor and woollen jumpers unravel spelling out worn. Alongside these are  Emma Riley's ceramic, tessellated tiles that have been stitched together. Topping off an eventful day was a performance by Susan M Wallis done with great aplomb to her audience as she animated and told a story with her sewn-together puppet creations. Admittedly, watching a one woman wrestle with several puppets to create a performance was impressive and the heightened weirdness of it all (coming from someone, like me that takes themselves probably far too seriously) certainly made me smile.

And what more from Art Weeks could I ask for?

Thus ended a remarkable day and indeed our tale for the time being.

* Image from Somerset Art Works : http://www.somersetartworks.org.uk/venues/bhaam-skills-unearthed  
** Image from Gary Dickins: http://www.garydickins.com