Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Drawing Water by Tania Kovats

  This is a book...that alters preconceived ideas about drawing
 Drawing Water is the catalogue and essays from the exhibition (of the same name) curated by artist, Tania Kovats held at the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh, May 2014.
I first came across Kovats's work in the form of her sculptures, cavernous voids that sat somewhere between natural forms and man-made pedestals. The environmental statement to her work was clear although until I discovered a copy of 'Drawing Water' in the bookshop I had no idea she was also prolifically interested and knowledgeable on drawing. In particular, Kovats uses drawing as 'a mechanism for exploration' or in her words,
'I draw to find my way out. Drawing fills the space when I'm not sure what I am doing. It's my mechanism for map-making and my search engine, even when I don't know what I am looking for.'
 'Fantastic!' I thought to myself. Wishing I had only found this insightful book before I completed my MA project report which was all about drawing as a 'drawing out'. Again some of the ideas I was exploring echoed by Kovats words in this book,
Hard to find, or difficult to see. Something gets found in the drawing-explained and measured and put into a language that can communicate beyond the failure of words. Drawing is a mechanism for exploration as much as a tool of representation.'
 Using the theme of the water in its many guises; the sea, the waves, rivers and rainwater, Kovats documents the diverse forms in which map-makers, writers, shipbuilders, whalers, soldiers, sailors, artists, archaeologists, cartographers, scientists, uranographers (mapping stars), engineers and dreamers have used drawing as a way of searching, understanding and looking. The book is a treasure-trove of curiosities and it is fascinating how the distinctions between scientific and precise drawings from map makers to that of artists and writers is blurred so that we almost view the maps as art and the expressive/representational work by the artists as documentation and record. Joseph Beuys's colour lithograph of a seal in the exhibition looks as though it could be an MRI scan of the same animal. There are a few artists that have intentionally adopted documentary style modes of presentation as part of their work, K P Brehmer's 'Sky Colours' (a series of watercolour shades or blue/grey recorded daily on graph paper) being one such example. From ancient carvings and maps to modern and contemporary art, Drawing Water also features work from, Francis Alys, Eva Hesse, Eric Ravilious, Gerhard Richter, Roni Horn, Tacita Dean, Alfred Wallis and many more. It is beautiful to look at as it is to read and I found it to be unpretentious largely due to the variety of drawing types it features, from the highly representational, to impressionistic and conceptual; there is something for everyone, but more importantly it demonstrates the diversity of drawing as a medium for communication and discovery.
Also read: Twice Drawn -Ian Berry, Jack Shear, Jean Fisher, John Berger,  On Drawing -John Berger, The Power of the Sea - Christiana Payne and Janette Kerr, Art as Experience -John Dewey

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Henry's cat explains

Had a clear out in the attic last weekend and found one of my childhood books, 'Henry's Cat -The Artist'. Turns out that this was perhaps more influential than I may have realised at the time. What's even better and why I include it here, is that in its child-like clarity it offers a highly perceptive definition of 'what art is' that I'd say is pretty spot-on (albeit in a succinct, philosophical sort-of way),
 "So it's just a matter of seeing the world differently."
If anyone wants me I'll be looking for more answers in a copy of 'Tank Engine Thomas Again'.

Monday, 8 September 2014

You don't have to like it all

“Perhaps the most shocking tactic that’s left to artists these days is sincerity.” –Grayson Perry
A year ago on October 15th I tuned in to Radio 4 for the first time. Make of that what you will, but to my young ears even the thought of listening to anything other than music on the radio (even with the annoying adverts) seemed like a waste of airwaves. Fortunately, such is my commitment to art and attempting to understand it better that I was willing to change stations that day to listen to a Turner Prize winning transvestite potter (as he calls himself)  speculate for an hour on the age old debate of ‘what is art’ amongst other things. How wrong I was not to tune into Radio 4 until then, I’m so glad I did and I’m sure that if Grayson Perry knew (or even cared) that I was adjusting my preset music channels on my radio to listen to him discuss the subject of taste in art, would be slightly amused (or perhaps horrified) by the irony of my decision.
 At the time when I listened to these weekly, four-part lectures (known as the Reith Lectures) I felt quite productively riled by it all, it felt more like a manifesto, a ‘call to arms’ than a lecture. I was strongly in agreement with many of his views, from the intimidating nature of commercial galleries, self consciousness in making art, the difficulty of irony and conflict between seriousness and amateur in art, to how anti-establishment loses its edge when it becomes popular. It was as though he had so entertainingly and eloquently voiced many of the opinions and thoughts I’d contemplated or more often heard voiced by my friends and peers (artists and non artists alike). And like many I spoke to at the time, I identified with his delivery of plain speaking, honest observation, wit and impassioned rhetoric. So much so, that I made copious notes on it all with lots of circling and heavy underlining of things which really struck-a-chord or had resonance. There were a lot! I never published these thoughts into a post, until now, probably because at the time it was so popular I felt I’d only be regurgitating what everyone already felt and knew.
Nearly a year later and the riling and irony continues as I’ve retreated to the confines of my room to escape the tawdry blare of the X Factor to read the newly published book, ‘Playing to the Gallery’ which is almost word-for-word a transcript of the Reith Lectures Perry gave last year. I have no problem in knowing which I prefer, which I undoubtedly enjoy the most and which I think is a steaming pile of trash, but paradoxically, as Perry in the opening chapter of the book mentions, there are problems in knowing what is good taste and which is bad. Is taste purely subjective? Where do ideas of quality and authenticity sit when deciding a work’s value? Perry argues that in the same way beauty can be determined by a familiarity of reinforced ideas, is similar to how we assert and measure taste with popularity, or in other words, the myth of ‘if it’s popular it must be good’. However, as he also acknowledges, popularity and the arts don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand with some artists choosing to reject the idea altogether. What is in agreement is that there is a certain set of criteria or ‘boundaries’ as Perry names them which determine whether a work of art is a work of art, although this in-turn depends on the right people saying or deciding it is....it all gets a bit woolly; and if we are to start judging whether the X Factor is good or poor taste then we might as well start asking is the X Factor art?
“ ‘We’re all bohemians now’. And if you think about it, all the things that were once seen as subversive and dangerous like tattoos and piercings and drugs and interracial sex and fetishism and other-ness –they crop up on X Factor now on a Saturday night for family viewing.
As a creative person/artist (albeit someone who has studied it and now remains drifting, a wandering purveyor on the outskirts of the world that is art) much of  Perry’s discussion is preaching to the converted but offers a refreshingly honest critique of the art world, its challenges and its pitfalls; advice in tenacity and commitment, for both aspiring, ‘emerging’ and practicing artists alike.
“As an artist the ability to resist peer pressure, to trust one’s own judgement, is vital, but it can be a lonely and anxiety-inducing procedure.”
And on the subject of angst, there’s a lot of it in this book, which is probably why I related to it so much, Perry addresses the angst felt in viewing and creating art, in particular how difficult it is to remain un-cynical when, he argues, the legacy of art history has already covered so many acts of rebellion, discovery, shock and protest that it leaves current generates of artists without a ‘cause’...what is art if it is no longer about storytelling, mass communication or pushing boundaries? And is that in itself something to make art about?
“Because of course art’s primary role is not an asset class and it’s not necessarily about being an urban-regeneration catalyst, Its most important role is to make meaning.”
This is one of those art books that will probably end up on a first year reading list on Fine Art degree courses, like ‘Ways of seeing’ by Berger or ‘But is it art?’ by Cynthia Freeland.  Rightly so, it covers much in the way of art history by offering how it has affected or how we can interpret contemporary art today. However all of these books are very much starting points to these wider debates and Perry is particularly good at provoking in an informed way but slightly holds back from being the academic that he is probably through fear of alienating people.
If anything it points to the fact that educating people about art is essential to both its survival and future development, which isn’t necessarily about making more artists but equipping people, even the most tentative art gallery tourist with the confidence to question and talk about art. True you can still experience art without having any education on the subject, but I think that experience is all the richer and more rewarding when there is some understanding of why, when and how a work was created. That’s not the same as saying people should be comfortable around art, it usually works best when it’s the opposite, but should be about encouraging people that if they think, look, experience or talk about art then they will be rewarded with alternative world views, new perspectives on things or ways of seeing. I still find looking and understanding a lot of art incredibly difficult, but the difference is that I’ve learnt how to enjoy that challenge and have subjected myself to as much as I can so I am familiar with how to go about trying to understand it if I want to. This may have also come at a cost of becoming increasingly sceptical and cynical about a lot of art, but it is all the more exciting when I find something that unsettles that perspective. Art is a challenge and a question and as Perry acknowledges, needs people to keep questioning it and the subjects it deals with. 
In some ways in Perry's initial resisting the arts establishment only to have now become part of it derives from his own experiences and so I wonder if his central polemic of, ‘anyone can enjoy art’ and explanations for doing so is lost if the audience that would have most to gain from hearing this message is also the least likely audience to be reading a book on art. At least through his determined, angst ridden acceptance into the art world, Perry has become more widely known, dare I say, more ‘popular’ and in being broadcast on Radio 4 reached a wider audience than what it would have in book format alone? Clearly even more if it had been aired on the X factor! Although I often wonder if everyone accepted and understood art then would it still be art? Or would it somehow loose its mystery or its pompousness and in its familiarity become dull or breed contempt? Maybe art's greatest asset, its key to longevity is the search to understanding it...?Instead of trying to make sense of it all I suppose I should try to embrace art in its many contradictions, challenges and on-going changes as they're the reasons I still want to find out more. An extra addition to the book is that it contains several amusing cartoons drawn by Perry that dryly illustrate some of the opinions in the book, but above all it reads like any good lecture should, it informs you, it provokes you, it amuses you and ultimately it lifts you,
"At this point I may risk a dark sincerity. I feel it is a noble thing to be an artist. You're a pilgrim on the road to meaning."
My own dark sincerity is that despite how good it was I haven't listened to Radio 4 since, but I have continued to make and see a whole lot of art.

Monday, 1 September 2014

Yello from Liverpool

This year’s Liverpool Biennial is very yellow and no, not yellow submarine yellow, just yellow everywhere yellow! From the yellow themed marketing and banners adorning the city, a yellow and white themed exhibition space curated and designed by French architect Claude Parent at the Tate Liverpool, the yellow fabric canopy and beige walls in an exhibition of Whistler’s etchings at the Bluecoat (don’t let the gallery name fool you, it’s currently yellow inside!), the yellow painted decaying walls of the former Blind School on Hardman Street to the Biennial name itself, ‘A needle walks into a haystack’ (haystacks being yellow). Is it intentional, is it a conspiracy or is it all a dream.... maybe I’ve got some weird yellow synaesthesia, jaundice or yellow fever. Who knows?

Now in its eighth year the 2014 Liverpool Biennial has a central exhibition curated by Mai Abu ElDahab and Anthony Huberman and four solo shows taking place over sixteen weeks, presenting work from national and international artists past and present in museums, galleries and spaces across the city. All of it is free to visitors and runs alongside its partner exhibitions, the John Moores painting prize and Bloomberg New Contemporaries (from Sept 20th). 2014 marks my fifth Liverpool Biennial, it is a date on the art calendar that I look forward to every two years and I absolutely love it!

Judith Hopf 'Flock of Sheep' (2013) at 'Needle walks into a haystack'

You will be forgiven for being distracted by the walls, ceiling, doors and floor around the painting.
The highlight of the Liverpool Biennial’s for me is the opportunity to explore the city itself. The exhibitions are temporary and (aside from the museum/gallery venues) are often shown in abandoned, decaying and disused buildings making no two Biennials the same. Previous venues have included an old postal sorting office, pubs, factories, theatres, offices, churches and shops. Equipped with a Biennial map finding these places and then navigating their many staircases, halls, dimly-lit walkways, basements and rooms can often feel more like urban exploration than an art exhibition. This is a double-edged sword for Liverpool itself as it brings in tourism but also highlights some of the neglect of its inner city buildings in stark contrast to the multi-million pound shopping district.  The Biennial showcases these spaces, gives them new use and new life, forcing these disused spaces not to go ignored. These spaces are consequently later turned into flats, halls of residence or offices (it’s debatable whether this is in fact a good thing or not). Overall it does act as a positive case study for urban renewal generated by art and artists unlocking the potential/opening-up these disused, neglected spaces. If they could be invested in to preserve the history and character of these buildings, in my opinion, would be better under artist's use rather than demolishing in order to rebuild.

I admit that I find the architecture, mouldy walls, peeling paint, period features and loose parquet floorboards somewhat of a more captivating distraction from looking at the art itself. The old Blind School and former Trades Union Centre in this year’s Biennial is a particular example of this. Exhibiting the work of seventeen artists I often found their work over shadowed by the effortlessness beauty present in the surfaces of the walls created by the natural wear, decay and use over many years (enviable to anyone who has ever tried recreate them). The building itself is a rabbit warren of rooms, corridors and staircases that all somehow intersect and fold back on each other without you even noticing (disappointingly this building is due to become a block of flats so see it whilst you can). Still, I wouldn’t be there if not for the art and neither would I linger so long looking at the work if not for viewing it in the context of this remarkable space.

One of several staircases at the Blind School in Liverpool

I’m a bit sceptical at the blurb, ‘a needle walks into a haystack is an exhibition about our habits, habitats, and the objects, images, relationships and activities that constitute our immediate surroundings. It is about effecting larger questions facing contemporary life and art, from an intimate and tangible scale that’s within everyday reach.’ Or in other words, ‘this exhibition could be about anything’ instead of trying to be more specific, I'd say they've left it very broad, open and up to interpretation.  The problem with this is that when an exhibition tries to be all encompassing it actually ends up being about nothing and is difficult to grasp its overall theme/meaning. Researching after seeing the exhibition it is supposedly a show about 'our everyday routines and how they can become disrupted', but this was sort of lost on me at the time. If you can cast that worry aside you’ll still find lots of interesting works such as Paul Watchler's amusing and honest animation of a pair of crutches sliding through the mud as it complains, lost in an internal monologue of misery and Judith Hopf's sculptures of bronze tree branches, coiled rope and sheep that encroach and interact within the building well animating the space rather than being placed within it; Rana Hamadeh's powerful, interactive and theatrical installation of props and sound reinterpreting a case study of the Shiite ritual of Ashura is intense and challenging to experience. There are sadly too many not so inspiring paintings in the exhibition, but I won't dwell on those.

William Leavitt 'Arctic Earth' (2014) at 'Needle walks into a haystack'

Peter Watchler's animation of a pair of crutches sliding across a muddy terrain whilst ranting in a fit of despair at 'Needle walks into a haystack'

Marc Bauer 'in June Bauer decided to move his studio into a dingy hotel in Liverpool, where he thought he could potentially become part of the story of the place, Marc draws and re-draws the images he finds in his own personal materials.' These small drawings were fairly linear in their meaning, but I was interested by what Bauer had to say about the process and 'need' to draw which was displayed on the wall alongside these images, "I draw and I forget everything. I have to do it everyday, and this routine brings me freedom. I can create a world on the sheet of paper, something to submerge myself in. I had an epiphany about which direction to follow, but in a way it's too late; I can only follow the logic of the drawing. There is a thin line I have to preserve, I don't know where it leads me."

There are still more surprises that this exhibition and building have to offer that I have refrained from showing in this post, as discovering them for yourself is really rewarding and exciting.

Elsewhere the Tate Liverpool has an exhibition featuring the work from artists like, Naum Gabo, Edward Wadsworth and Francis Picabia in a unique environment designed by Claude Parent. Taking the form of ramps, balconies, walkways and netting the architect attempts to create new awareness in how we view and engage with individual artworks in response to their surroundings. The whole thing looks like a Naum Gabo sculpture crossed with a futuristic skate park, the ideas of which are reflected in the choice of artists presented within this space. More incredible architectural shapes can be found in the newly opened Liverpool Central Library which is a stunning, curved modern space with an exhibition from Japanese artist in residence, Aiko Miyanaga. Miyanaga has taken the reading room as her site to install several pieces of work in the form of resin and napthalene casts of books, keys and tonks (little square metal plates used to hold library shelves) which are presented in piles or hiding in drawers. All a bit cliché for my liking, but I was glad to visit the library itself.

Aiko Miyanaga at Liverpool Central Library
Carlos Cruiz-Diez 'Dazzle Ship' (2014) Canning Graving Dock

On the whole, I thought this year’s Biennial was much smaller than previous years with far fewer outdoor commissions and events. I wonder if this is an affect from the arts cuts nationally? Interestingly the work in the Biennial doesn't really comment on its own economic situation or respond to the devastating cuts directly. This makes the overall tone of the Biennial (apart from being ‘yellow’) quite cautious, often avoiding the politics of the present by referring to the past as a way of presenting ‘postmodern’ ideas or thinking; the main outdoor commission being Carlos Cruz-Diez’s Dazzle ship, a homage to Norman Wilkinson and Edward Wadsworth’s camouflage technique; an exhibition of the American born painter, James McNeill Whistler’s work shown because he was an artist who challenged the art community, was greatly concerned with how his art was received and considered the entire exhibition space as an environment not limited to the work itself and two retrospectives of  Belgium documentary filmmaker , Jef Cornelis and painter/poet Adrian Henri, active in the pop art, music and performance scene in Liverpool during the 60s and 70s. These artists are being shown as their ideas and ways of working are relevant to today’s ways of working. I stress that these are good exhibitions, Whistler’s etchings of Venice and Adrian Henri’s Raushenberg-inspired combine paintings are worth seeing alone but in terms of what they bring to the Biennial as a whole feels too much a representing of old ideas. Fine in moderation, but there is a lot of it in this Biennial. The most challenging and interesting work to be found is in the Old Blind School group exhibition (and potentially the Bloomberg New Contemporaries, but it isn’t open yet), whereas in previous Biennials there was much more on offer in the way of spectacle, ambition, imagination and a looking to the present and future rather than the past. This year’s Biennial is good but lacking in bite.

Rodrigo Moynihan 'The Shelf, Objects and Shadows -Front View' (1982-3) at Tate Liverpool
What can say, I like this painting. It reminds me of a more precise Morandi, Andre Derain or Chardin. Part of the exhibition at the Tate that explores themes of domesticity, routine and the domestic environment. I should have loved this exhibition but it was all a bit 'same old', featuring Richard Artschwager, Kurt Schwitters, Richard Wentworth, Susan Hiller and others as well as one too many Patrick Caulfield's even for my liking. The greatest surprise in this exhibition was a series of woven rugs by Francis Bacon when he was an interior designer, I honestly never knew!  

Other Liverpool highlights include this, an exhibition of artist, Rutherford Chang's 1000 first pressings of The Beatles vinyl White Album. The exhibition located in a former record store (right next door and part of FACT) was an exciting surprise that reaffirmed why the city itself is always the highlight of the Biennial. Every album subtly different, its cover described by the artist, as 'the perfect canvas' marked with the use, coffee stains and wear from its previous owner(s) since its release in 1968. Some have been drawn or painted on, others including lyrics, dedications and more. This is a great piece of social history for what is an iconic album both musically and for its design. I really enjoyed looking at them.  http://www.fact.co.uk/projects/we-buy-white-albums.aspx

Critics have accused the Biennial as being bleak, understandable if you look at the exhibition of photographs documenting protests at the Venice Biennale in 1968 at Open Eye Gallery and Sharon Lockhart’s films shown at FACT, documenting the play of several children in Poland, oblivious to the dilapidated city/poverty they find themselves in. However, there is much humour and wit to be had too, largely in the group show at the Blind School building. It is still relevant and great fun to explore with some inspiring work on show. My criticism is that as in previous years the Biennial could afford to be bigger, braver,  more challenging and well, just a whole lot less yella!

The Liverpool Biennial 2014 is on until 26th October