Sunday, 26 July 2015

Make Mine A Double!

Friday 17th of July and ‘Double Take: Photography and the Garden’ opens at Hestercombe Art Gallery. Bringing together photographs by Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932) with work by leading contemporary artists Sarah Jones, Helen Sear and Mark Edwards (all of whom have recorded a garden or returned to the theme of plants and gardens). The exhibition, curated by Kate Best aims to shed new light on the photographs of Gertrude Jekyll in the context of Hestercombe, not the subject of her photographs but whose influence can be seen in the garden which she created. These images are presented alongside contemporary photographers that share Jekyll’s enthusiasm in relation to an on-going exploration and fascination photography has with the theme of the garden, plants and our intervention with them. In the form of a double take, the audience is invited to look and look again at these works noticing new things each time, their meanings layered through the variety of photographic processes on display.  The exhibition aims to add depth to our enjoyment of the garden and ‘help us to see familiar landscapes anew.’

One of the first things that struck me prior to this exhibition was just how little I actually knew about Gertrude Jekyll. Born in the Victorian era it surprised me how a woman living and working at that time could defy singular categorisation. Part horticulturist, garden designer, artist and writer it seems so logical to us now that these professions would naturally fit together, unquestionably one informing the other and so forth, but during the late 1800s and early 1900s I can imagine the notion of the artist as gardener or the gardener as artist was considerably ahead of its time. In the accompanying exhibition catalogue Jekyll wrote of gardening as, ‘painting a picture with living plants’, using ‘the colour of flowers as precious jewels’. It is a good analogy that neatly ties-in with the theme of the exhibition at Hestercombe which combines the formal artistic practices of looking, image, surface quality, size, perspective, colour, texture and tone with the sensibilities shared in gardening and gardens the photos capture.

Helen Sear 'Pastoral Monument' (2012)
Jekyll’s black and white photography is peppered throughout the show. Depicting scenes from her own garden at Munstead Wood and villages in West Surrey they act as the reminder, the double-take if you like, for reassessing how we look at Hestercombe garden (views of which are framed through the windows of the gallery as you make your way around) and the contemporary artist’s work. To me, they appear like drawings or etchings and I wonder if this is perhaps something to do with their age or the way in which they’ve been exposed. Either way, they have a small, quietly spoken and haunting appeal to them which beckons one to look closer with an attention-to-detail and fastidiousness that is so synonymous of the Victorian era. There are usually two reasons that make you look again at something, either that it has hidden detail or is unusual in some way. The images in this exhibition have both!

 It isn’t only Jekyll’s photos that have a ‘drawn’ quality to them in this exhibition with Helen Sear’s series titled ‘Pastoral Monuments’ have a similar look of having been drawn except with pencil crayon. A series of jug bound displays of plants and flowers is depicted as though on crumpled paper giving the images a blurred softness and ‘lightness’. In actuality the image had been crumpled before being photographed again, an image of an image. It is an interesting process as it feels like a simulacrum in the sense it is several steps detached from the original vase of flowers it depicts so that you could go as far to say it is in fact a photo of a photograph! Or is it a photograph of a sculptural intervention!? The detachment from what is ‘real’ becomes ever distanced and the audience is forced to think about the nature of ‘what is a photograph?’ and ‘how is a photograph formed?’ The pressing and smoothing of the original flower image also sharing reference to the pressing of flowers. I found the process of making these images more interesting than the jugs/flowers they depicted; their large scale and size not really associating them in my mind to the bodily-like quality they were perhaps intended to convey.

Helen Sear 'Chameleon' (2013)
Elsewhere in the exhibition Sear has a projection piece titled ‘Chameleon’ of a large sunflower head gently swaying against a dark backdrop (pictured). Betrayed by its seeming simplicity, for me, it is one of the most interesting works in the show and succeeds where the photographic images don’t quite in creating a sense of the bodily or otherness. It does this by its looming scale a ‘head-like’ presence of the sunflower with its watching, eye-like centre and fiery yellow mane. At the time I couldn’t work out why the piece was called ‘Chameleon’ until I read afterwards that the name chameleon is derived from the Greek, ‘lion of the ground’ which as it turns out is an incredibly fitting description for a sunflower.  Watching it sway by an invisible breeze in this film was almost hypnotically mesmerising and quite alien and a bit disturbing at the same time. I never thought I’d feel this way about the humble sunflower! I had never heard of Helen Sear until recently but have now come across her work twice in the space of two months at Venice Biennale and now at Hestercombe. Both times I have been surprised at how accessible her work is but also how thought-out and immersive it is. Either with light, colour or scale her projections or photos seem to draw the viewer in.

Sarah Jones 'The Rose Gardens' (Display VII) 2014
Continuing with the drawn-like qualities in photos theme, Sarah Jones’ series titled ‘The Rose Garden’ have the appearance of being almost painterly! In the same way in which ‘Chameleon’ used a dark background to bring out the intensity of colour in the sunflower Jones’ photos apply a dark background from which the flowers and their stems contrast. The reference to Dutch still-life or 'Vanitas' painting is clear and is what also probably gives them a painterly-like quality. Whereas artists once used brushes to capture the colour and detail in the botanical form they now have light and digital camera techniques to capture the image for them but in an almost forensic detail that almost goes beyond the abilities of what the human eye can see. Yet despite this detail they retain a flatness and a shine, brought on by the print of the image, that keep them in the realms of the pictorial, the illusion and Jones likens these photographs to the pressing of flowers, ‘containing within the image the record of the subject’s existence’. They capture a frozen moment in time neither dead nor living their existence theatrically immortalised as an image. Jekyll’s photos with children and people present in them take a slightly more unnerving feel in relation to Jones’ work which brings a psychological element of perception and the uncanny to Jekyll's photos.

Mark Edwards 'Table, Surlingham' (2012)

The most visibly noticeable with that in common to Jekyll’s photographs I feel is Mark Edwards who documents the often banal, reality of gardens and allotments and their mark upon the landscape. As Edward writes, ‘These are not landscapes of the sublime but of the overlooked and everyday.’ They share in common Jekyll’s honest presentation of ‘what gardens/gardening of the time were like’. Edwards images show use that same straight-talking but reflect gardening as we know it today in its much less formal and less structured design aesthetic. If I were a gardener myself, I would find Edward’s photos the most interesting as in their matter-of-factness they hold the most information and are relatable in that they look at the human element to gardens. In ‘Table, Surlingham’ a modest array of plants (including what I think appear to be strawberry and sweet pea?) are for sale on a table that is covered with a vibrantly floral patterned cloth. It is a humorous and sentimental image as the table cloth seems to act as camouflage with its surroundings but also to the over-the-top enthusiastic zeal shared by many gardeners for all things garden related.

Puns aside, this exhibition really did grow on me, I had limited expectations what an exhibition of photography could bring and was pleasantly surprised by just how conceptual and visual it was. It reaffirmed for me the difference between a ‘photographer’ and an ‘artist who uses photography’. There is a difference! I think that one or two more images could have perhaps been squeezed in (I am prone to a bit of overcrowding), but overall it was an elegant show that quite ambitiously weaved the work of three contemporary artists and that of Jekyll together. There was lots to be discovered in this exhibition and I expect more to discover if I were to visit again!

  ‘Double Take: Photography and the Garden’ is on at Hestercombe Gallery until October 18th 2015

Quotes sourced from Kate Best 'Double Take' catalogue that accompanies the exhibition (2015)
Images sourced from:

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Post Lozano

  If she were alive today would Lee Lozano be a blogger? I’d like to think so, as at the very least I think the medium would have been deeply interesting to her, its occupation with the ‘global audience’, exposure for the written word and debates on censorship and what constitutes public/private in an age when almost every aspect of people’s lives is documented online.  
But where are my manners?! Few people I know have ever even heard of the artist, Lee Lozano and to some extent that is exactly  what she wanted, self-creating her own infamy with a body of work titled ‘Dropout piece’ whose primary aim was to reject and create self-anonymity from the art world.
“She became competitively uncompetitive, ‘I will not seek fame, publicity or suckcess.’ That single declaration remains the cleanest summation of what Dropout Piece is actually amounted to: a total disengagement from all professional art world ambition.”1
In succeeding to do so, but still continuing to work privately and continue her practice (in the form of copious notebooks of thoughts and experimental performance pieces) she inadvertently created a legacy in the art of self-oblivion. Born 1930 in New Jersey she graduated philosophy and natural sciences before marrying and in four years divorcing, architect Adrian Lozano whilst studying towards her Bachelors in Fine Art. In the 60s she moved to New York befriending artists such as Stephen Kaltenbach and Carl Andre in which increasingly, due to the likes of artists such as Michael Heizer and Robert Smithson, the art was beginning to emerge outside the institution of the gallery/exhibition space. This was to be influential in the development of Lozano’s later performance and conceptual pieces.

IMAGE 1. Lee Lozano Installation view of the ‘Wave Series’ (1969) oil on canvas.

  It is a compelling mystery that she is so unheard of given the prolific nature of work she actually produced. Her decision to disappear from the art world was not made out of apathy or an act of attention-seeking but a rebellion, a protest piece against the disillusionment and superficiality of the art world. Additionally it was met with shared adversity amongst many of the artists Lozano associated herself with along with the anti-war protest and feminist movements in America at the time. Prior to ‘Dropout Piece’ Lozano was gaining recognition for her series of large ‘Wave’ paintings that share a similar flat, minimalist sense of abstraction and use of colour to Barnett Newman (IMAGE 1) but becoming increasingly frustrated at the schmooze-filled pomposity of the art scene and after undergoing an extensive period of psychoanalysis she revolted against ‘expectation’ and resorted back to her earlier ‘word’ works; conceptual pieces handwritten in copious notebooks. This almost cataclysmic shift to something different in her practice, I feel has so much in common (but so little written about it) in relation to Philip Guston’s own choosing to retract from his success in the art world as a abstract expressionist painter to pursue his own path, his own re-invention as an artist. A bold thing to do and one that is not without risk nor always successful. Lozano herself very aware of the pressures and expectations put upon artists by both themselves and, more significantly for the motivation for ‘Dropout piece’; the expectation that the art world places upon the artists it is so reliant on. Lozano expresses this quite honestly and refreshingly defiantly at a lecture she gave on creative production,
“For example, what is expected of any artist or any creative person, as opposed to what really happens? Everyone knows that an artist’s best work often covers a very short period of time, yet the artist is expected to function on a high, high level of performance at all times. And, if an artist does very good work at one period in life, he or she is always, actually competing with their own great period of work. It’s almost very rare that an artist does high quality work and maintains this great period throughout their career. Yet it’s expected of him.”2
Prior to any of this however she had been making drawings, gestural paintings and caricatures of tools, screws, nails, flexi-pipes, sharpeners and mechanical objects which she collected off the streets and her ‘former’ studio floor (IMAGE 2). And for me, personally, it is her tool work made between 1964-67 that is particularly interesting...
IMAGE 2. Lee Lozano ‘Untitled’ (1964) Graphite and crayon on paper. 23 x 16”
IMAGE 5. Lee Lozano ‘No Title’ (1963-64) graphite and crayon on paper. Dimensions unknown.
In her series of tool drawings and large paintings tools are depicted with great intensity, often in extreme close-up with a very physical use of mark-making.
“In Lozano’s hands, screws are no longer a neutral means to hang a painting or set a bookshelf but rather explicit euphemisms of sexist logic: anthropomorphized machines aggressively screwing in and out of each other in acts of overdetermined functionality, regardless of pain or pleasure.”3
The concept of anthropomorphising tools being one reason I am interested in Lozano’s work,
"Given life they automatically become frenzied beings – clamps, pliers, screwdrivers and hammers fondling and struggling with each other in a kind of dangerous courtship."4 (IMAGE 3)
IMAGE 3. Lee Lozano ‘No Title’ (1963-64) graphite and crayon on paper. Dimensions unknown.
In my own work (IMAGE 4) the tools I depicted were nearly always unconsciously in groups or sets. I like to think this was a compositional decision; that the positive and negative shapes created by layering/overlapping the tools more interesting visually than drawing them statically or in rows. However, the large scale and intensity with which I drew them dictated otherwise, making them often more intimidating or, similarly to Lozano personified in some way. Tools are objects of character, their patina giving them unique surfaces and whilst I did not directly respond to imbuing them with the courtship and coupling in Lozano’s drawings I accept that other people could read into them in this way. If anything it makes me want to make new work that specifically explores these ideas. 'Tools and their relationships'! Ha!

IMAGE 4. Natalie Parsley. Tools 2. 2008. Oil and gloss mono print on paper. 250 x 220cm.

 Lozano’s tool works aren’t exactly comfortable viewing aside from the fact they aren’t always particularly accurately drawn, their composition of being squashed and almost perverse intimate close-ups of these familiar objects that creates feeling of claustrophobia or threat; met with the large scale of some of the paintings,
“The huge formats of many of the Tool Paintings give these dynamic images an overpowering forcefulness.”5
These are paintings that intend to intimidate and are as aggressive as they are sexually direct and full of double entendre and masculinity (IMAGE 5). In their exaggerated extremity they also have many parallels with comic books that both influenced Lozano and whose word-play inspired her written pieces. But the fact Lozano is a woman depicting these heavily masculinised objects with equally masculine connotations gives them a sort of anarchic sense of taking claim or ownership of them.
"Lozano’s early work was irreverent and unabashed, propelled by an overt and oversexed drive to misbehave as much as possible for a woman in the early 60s."6
As a woman myself, conveniently, who has depicted tools in her art for many years now it is incredibly liberating to discover Lozano’s tool work as it openly challenges stereotypes and throws an interesting perspective on my own relationship with tools that had previously, relatively gone unconsidered.  Perhaps being in a more liberal age of equality than America in the 60s I don’t see gender-equality as much of an issue regarding my own work in the sense it isn’t driven out of a desire to protest or misbehave but none-the-less after spending the majority of my tool-based art career looking at the prints of Jim Dine it is refreshing to counterbalance this perspective with a female artist. Dine and Lozano’s drawings have a similarity in their intensity of looking and use of drawing as a means of expression and almost cathartic ‘drawing-out’ which I too have frequently referred to in my own practice. This and the fact that each of them underwent bouts of psychoanalysis is evidence that there is more that unites the likes of Lozano and Dine other than just in their representation of tools.

Lee Lozano ‘No Title’ (1964) oil on canvas (two parts) 275.2 x 168.5 x 5.2cm.

  Where Lozano differs, is that Dine’s tools are relatively more static but ‘sexually’ charged by the mark-making that surround them (IMAGE 6); Lozano’s tools are cropped so that the moving-parts of the tool, the parts with teeth, which cut, which flatten and squeeze are amplified so have this feeling of being  more menacing, at times perverse and certainly more physical. In a precursor to Sol Lewitt, Lozano wrote her own list of verbs and used these ‘doing’ words as titles for her tool paintings, further underpinning associations with action/use.  
In my own practice an ongoing thread has been the idea that the function of objects is to be ‘put to use or be possessed’ and my MA explored someway into unravelling what it means to ‘use’ a tool and/or ‘possess’ one. Specifically I was interested if drawing could be a form of use and possession largely fuelled by a quote by Jim Dine who of his tool prints stated, "I wanted to possess them and what better way to possess them than to draw them"7. Whether Lozano was trying to possess them or not she was encapsulated in a form of ’Tool Mania’ and possessive lifestyle mixed with periods of casual and heavy drug-taking. It was as though she was seeking of ways in which to escape reality and thinking through frantically making work,
"...concerns shaping her practice, involving intimacy and exposure, the incommunicatability of living in your head and the psychological state of possession, whether taking possession or being possessed."8
IMAGE 6. Jim Dine ‘Untitled (C Clamp)’ from Untitled Tool Series (1973).
The idea of ‘incommunicatability of living in your head’ struck me as yet another example of the similarities that Lozano’s tool drawings have to Guston’s later works (IMAGE 7). They share the similarity of being inwardly bodily; ‘living in your head’ which Lozano conveyed with her treatment to thickly apply paint like a skin and make marks with a frenzied intensity, expression and physicality that are comparable to Guston’s fleshy, skin-crawlingly pink, eyeball filled figures. A depiction of what it feels like on a very sensorial level, to be inside a head. As cartoonist, Chris Ware writes of Guston’s work so succinctly,
"...these paintings are not what it looks like to see a human being, but what it feels like to inhabit one. Philip Guston is the first painter, ever, to truly paint a portrait from the inside out."9
There is, I feel without doubt a rawness of emotion in both Lozano's and Guston's drawings aside from their subject matter that warrants further research than I have gone into here. I see this post as the beginning of an on-going enquiry into Lozano's work.

IMAGE 7. Philip Guston ‘Rug’ (1980) Lithograph on paper, 495 x 736 mm.

Lee Lozano ‘Untitled (Be this occasionally)’ (1964) Graphite and crayon on paper. 13 x 18.5”
Lozano’s tool drawings and paintings only made for a short span of her artistic career which evolved from the early tool works to minimalist paintings and later written conceptual pieces performed often in private. Despite the diversity and shifts within her practice her reasoning and resistance to any sense of categorisation within the art system and nonconformity prevailed seeking recognition and appraisal amongst her peers rather than public.
Her work highlighted the dangers of expectation and assumption and demonstrated that artists are able to reinvent themselves and take on many evolutions within their practice, but most of all being admirable for not being afraid to stick two fingers up at the symbiotic, superficial relationship between artist and the art world, in fact making it into the catalyst for creating work. This path consequently led her down an incredibly self-destructive path and at times reliant on the support of friends and family which she continued to rely on up until her being diagnosed for cervical cancer which she died from in 1999 (she was 69).  Yet despite her elusiveness and relatively premature death her work went on to influence a generation of conceptual and performance artists working in America and thanks to the preservation of many of her works, countless since. I have known of her work since 2011, first discovering her in a book on drawing –since then I have felt obliged to unveil some of the mystery and have continued to seek her work out in exhibitions and in books. I still want to find out more, captivated by both the shifts within her practice, her mystery and determination met with anarchy against the establishment.
 That and the tools, of course!  

1 LEHRER-GRAIWER, S (2014) Lee Lozano ‘Dropout Piece’ Afterall Books: London p57
2 IBID p59/60
3 FOLIE, S (2011) ‘Lozano Tools’, An Art Service Publications; Minneapolis
6 LEHRER-GRAIWER, S (2014) Lee Lozano ‘Dropout Piece’ Afterall Books: London p28
7 DINE, J (2005) Jim Dine: Tools and Plants Alan Cristea Gallery: London p5.
8 OpCit p18