Saturday, 12 November 2016

Anything but Ordinary

In anticipation of the Robert Rauschenberg [1925-2008] Retrospective exhibition at Tate Modern I thought it would be a good opportunity to familiarise myself with the late American artist’s work.
[NOTE: This post isn’t for preaching to the converted but to those who may be in need of reminding  or those yet to discover the work by this brilliant artist.]
Compiled here are my top five Rauschenberg’s; a list that is completely biased and my own but will hopefully offer an insight into my own practice and more significantly why I think the forthcoming exhibition is going to be an incredibly exciting and worthwhile event. Whilst I am aware he explored broad number of disciplines throughout his career, from performance, silkscreen printmaking to photography (to name a few) this list features his combine paintings as they are the works of which I feel have had the most influence on my practice. Listed in no particular order!
Charlene [1935]
Charlene. 1935. Oil, charcoal, printed reproductions, newspaper, wood, plastic mirror, men’s undershirt, umbrella, lace, ribbons and other fabrics and metal on Homasote, mounted on wood with electric light. 226.1 x 284.5 x 8.9cm.  It would be easier to type if Rauschenberg had simply said, ‘mixed media’! But then there was debatably no such thing as ‘mixed media’ when Rauschenberg was making his combination paintings in the 50s-60s. The term would also not have done the significance of the objects in the work justice and by listing them it is emphasising the point that these paintings included street signs, flyers, leaflets, shirts, ties, wheels, clocks, umbrellas and other everyday objects from the street, yet crucially were still ‘paintings’. This was part of a larger movement happening in America at the time reaching from Abstract Expressionism to the beginnings of Pop Art revolving around artists such as, John Cage, Alan Kaprow, Jasper Johns and Claes Oldenburg that sought for the ‘everyday’ in all its forms to be considered as catalysts for creativity and making art.

It is worth listing individually the components that make up ‘Charlene’ and the many ‘combine paintings’ that took their name from the combining of everyday objects, found fragments and things that are collaged onto (initially) flat 2Dimmensional surface(s) covered in paint and/or other substances ranging from mould to toothpaste. This was a relatively new concept, challenging both what ‘painting could be’ and the perceptions and limitations of aesthetics and formalism; preceded by the likes of Duchamp whose urinal opened the debate of whether mundane objects can be considered as art objects and Picasso in 1912 with ‘Still-life with Chair Caning’ believed one of the first uses of real 3D objects integrated or collaged into the picture-plane. Whereas Picasso’s use of an actual chair was illusionary, in the sense it became a surface within the picture that made part of the illusionary sense of an abstract still-life; Rauschenberg’s use of everyday objects is much more formalistic broken-down into shapes, tones, textures within the composition of the painting “An object such as a clock might be used equally for its circular shape, its ticking sound, and its suggestion of the shared framework of time within which our experience of it would necessarily be located.”
‘Charlene’ historically is an important landmark in Rauschenberg’s career as it is seen as the first work combining painting, collage and found objects in equal emphasis. The objects within it become formal components in the bigger composition of the work; the umbrella becomes a colour wheel, the plastic mirror a shiny rectangle next to another rectangle with stains and stitching that we recognise to be a folded shirt. It is all deconstructed into shape, texture and colour but as a result creates something that I feel is visually unexpected and often less contrived than human or artistic attempts to recreate these objects or their ‘found surfaces’ that appear worn, eroded or weathered. I find this approach to ‘looking’ timelessly refreshing and that the legacy of these paintings is an open-mindedness to the possibilities of ‘stuff’ that can elevate from its mundane perception into something remarkable or of great potential. In writing it sounds a little corny but probably matched some of the inflated sense of heroism and confidence that came out of American Abstract Expressionism. There is possibly also something appealing in from the idea of the ‘under-dog’ or rebelliousness first felt in using man-made everyday detritus. Jim Dine, as an artist making work at the same time best describes it as a kind of alchemy, “...turning shit into gold,” or “giving life to the lifeless”.

I first saw ‘Charlene’ in the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam in 2014, drawn to it as a result of my own dabbles with using umbrellas to make sculptures. I never quite embraced the full formalistic properties of the objects I used in my own practice (with a few exceptions) tending to remain more grounded in the connotations and psychological properties of the objects I was using. My work never became fully abstract, always grounded in some recognisable form or association to their original state. I think I found the boldness of Duchamp’s placing the object unaltered in the gallery too arrogant and lacking in creativity and Rauschenberg’s deconstruction of objects into painted surfaces is sometimes too disguising of that objects natural aesthetic qualities (though in later work this tends to become less).  
Bed [1954]
Bed. 1954 Oil, pencil, toothpaste and red fingernail polish on pillow, quilt and bed-sheet mounted on wood supports. 191.1 x 80 x 20.3cm.  Until I saw this piece in the MOMA, New York I did not think it possible to become quite as excited as I was by a paint and toothpaste smeared bed sheet hung vertically on a gallery wall! I still find it difficult to articulate exactly what it is about ‘Bed’ that causes such a reaction. For a painting it is almost sculptural, a landscape with mountains created in its rhythms and folds from the top to the patterned graphics of the bed sheet below. It is successful for its use of variations; busy areas against quiet ones, murky colours against bright contrasting ones; it is this that makes it all the richer for looking at. Rauschenberg was an incredibly visual artist and knew what it meant to have someone look at your work and how to make them want to look at it for longer. ‘Bed’ is unique as it hovers between being a ready-made and a painting to which Duchamp said of Rauschenberg’s paintings, “Since the tubes of paint used by the artist are manufactured and readymade products we must conclude that all the paintings in the world are ‘Readymades Aided’ –and also works of assemblage.” Yet here Rauschenberg, is still operating in the confines of the art gallery by mounting the work vertically on the wall (as opposed to flat on the floor as you would expect to see a bed) as it is more confrontational, more ‘bodily’ and obviously makes the viewer consider it as artwork by its mere being hung on the walls of the gallery like a painting, not a bed. Rauschenberg does however challenge this in later combine paintings which become free-standing in ‘Gold Standard’ and floor, ‘Monogram’.

Winter Pool [1959]
Winter Pool. 1959 Oil, paper, fabric, wood, metal, sandpaper, tape, printed paper, printed reproductions, fragments of a man’s shirt, handkerchief, handheld bellows and found painting on two canvases conjoined by wood ladder. 229.9 x 151.1 10.2cm. To write about Rauschenberg’s paintings is to have a thesaurus of synonyms close to hand as it becomes all too easy to run out of adjectives to describe the range of ways in which paint is applied or actions and gestures made in the creating of his combine paintings; dribbled, poured, smeared, scrapped, brushed, pushed, scratched, layered, spread, sponged, daubed and mixed –to name but a few! ‘Winter Pool’ is another Rauschenberg I have had the pleasure of seeing at the MET, New York and it has made my top five list because it shows a thought process by which elements of the studio have been used to influence the visual outcome of the work. In pure aesthetic terms whether you are an abstract or figurative painter sometimes in the process of making work there are almost instinctive visual elements to any work where you, as the artist, think you need ‘something red’ or a ‘curved shape’ in the bottom left corner for example in order to balance or 'finish' a piece of work. Almost like a chef adding seasoning to a dish, you're not sometimes quite sure why or what a dish [art work] needs but a good chef [artist] can often tell when it is missing something. What I like about ‘Winter Pool’ is that the ladder in the centre is both part of the painting visually but can also be a means of linking two paintings or a space in the middle together. This is what I referred to earlier in saying about the visual awareness of Rauschenberg as a painter and it is something, whether I am successful at it or not, I am at least conscious of in my own work.
Reservoir [1961]
Reservoir. 1961 Oil, pencil, fabric, wood, and metal on canvas with two electric clocks, rubber tread wheel, and spoked wheel rim. 217.2 x 158.8 x 39.4 cm. The only Rauschenberg on my list that I haven’t actually seen in person (I think its in Washington) but ironically it is the first image of his work I’d ever seen back in 2005 studying on my art Foundation year spotted in a peers sketchbook. There is nothing particularly more sentimental about it than that, but what ‘Reservoir’ does that is so different to the other paintings on this list is that it adds a performative element in the form of two clocks set at the time the painting was started, the lower when it was finished; that reflects some of the more conceptual/performance based work around the same time it was created. In some ways it is almost an absurd idea that there can even be a start or finish time to a painting that is  relatively abstract and so subjective that it can only really ever be ‘finished’ when the artist and only the artist decides it is. The use of empty space in Reservoir also reminds me of early Richard Hamilton paintings such as ‘Hommage a Chrysler Corp’ done in 1957 and I speculate it could have had an influence.
First Landing Jump [1961]
First Landing Jump. 1961 Oil, cloth, metal, leather, electric fixture, and cable on composition board with automobile tire and wood plank. 226.4 x 182.9 x 22.5 cm. The circular form of the tyre in ‘First Landing Jump’ does for this combine painting what the straight vertical and horizontal lines of the ladder did for ‘Winter Pool’ and becomes both a shape and a weight to the overall composition. Interestingly, Rauschenberg wanted others to be able to read into his use of everyday objects so that they could have this duality of being both a formal component in the work and an object with meaning; it was that during the process of creating the work he had to try ignore the connotations of the objects he was using, “So a found object such as a tyre was not simply a material for Raushenberg: it was a social object with possibilities and connotations, even if the connotations he was trying to forget or “unknow”. They [objects in his work] “...retain ghost impressions of context with utilitarian aesthetic...” In other words the tyre is still recognisable as a tyre due to its urban surrounding materials, such as the lights, whilst also being a ‘shape’. The materials in these combine paintings also say something about the appetite for cars in America, the rising emergence of consumerism in the postwar period and how easy they were to find literally discarded in the street. I first saw this piece at MOMA in New York and it is one I have written about in relation to my work more than any other and I think that is largely due to the reasons above in that this piece is more assembled than painted which related to several works I was making at the time.
To be interested in mundane objects is to also be interested in the people/lives those objects inhabit and I think in the Rauschenberg’s of the 60s there was less painting in the ‘combine’ works and more collage, placing of objects/materials so as to retain some of that integrity of the original things but also, I speculate, because of Rauschenberg's exploration into performance art alongside these works, they [the objects] become like actors on a stage, each object responding to another in relationship to where they are placed within the work, "We are all actors, but it's a 'we' that includes the teeming plethora of things with which we share the world's stage."  
That’s it for now. To conclude, I hope to visit the exhibition soon when it opens in London on December 1st and to reiterate what I said at the beginning that this is merely one aspect of what was this artist’s overall very diverse career. I think it very inspiring to revisit his work as it continues to remind artists to be inventive and creative within their practice and not grow complacent with ways of depicting and perceiving. Ultimately, for me however it is his testament to the mundane that I find the most encouraging, ‘Asked in 2004 why he liked mundane imagery he replied, “It is overlooked. Most artists try to break your heart or they accidentally break their own hearts. I find the quietness in the ordinary more satisfying.”
On that quote it is not necessarily a literal ‘quietness’ of objects that Rauschenberg is referring to but a sort the ‘unassuming’ quietness; there is great expectation for a painting of the Grand Canyon to be as awe inspiring and rapturous as the real thing itself but there is little or no expectation that the coffee percolator or umbrella to do the same so when you see those objects transformed or put in view onto the metaphorical pedestal of ‘art’ it is all the more surprising and wonderful. This is certainly a significant factor of what has led my motivation over the years and whilst the art world and public are more accepting of objects/the mundane in art now than they would have been in Rauschenberg’s era, the shock or surprise factor is considerably less; I still think there is a place for the everyday in art that doesn’t have to fall into recycling or nostalgia but a sort of awareness that these things are still around and they can still be fascinating, pertinent and as unexpected as they ever have been.
Robert Rauschenberg is at Tate Modern from December 1st 2016 - April  2nd 2017

*All images sourced from:
*Quotes sourced from 'Rauschenberg' [2016]. Tate Publishing. London.

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