Colour, geometry, art and context – James Turrell and Amish quilts exhibition in Tilburg

I have quite a soft spot for the minimalist, post-painterly abstract paintings of the 1960s and 1970s. I’m too young to have memories of the work as it happened and made its way into museums and galleries in the period, but it was important to me particularly during my years at art school where it was a regular reference point to many of my teachers.

From this perspective it was interesting to visit the de Pont museum in Tilburg (the Netherlands).  Alongside the permanent collection they have a temporary show, not of the aforementioned abstract work from forty to fifty years ago, but of a curious juxtaposition of light installations and graphic work by the American light artist James Turrell and historical Amish quilts that are all eighty or more years old.

turrell

It is a strange combination, an extensive collection of beautifully made bed quilts and a documentation of Turrell’s extensive sky observatory work at Roden Crater in Arizona, alongside a number of his museum space installations of projected light creating geometric forms. I love Turrell’s work, and oh how I would like to make a trip to Roden Crater. The intensities of the colour he makes use of, the manipulation of geometric form, but above all the ambiguities of surfaces in his work draws you in and keeps you asking questions about the nature of visual perception.

In quite close proximity to the light installations in the de Pont museum hang the Amish quilts. They are of varying sizes but many share an intense, but unstated use of colour.  I think my biggest problem with the quilts is how they have been displayed. As I have already said, I like looking at geometric abstract paintings. De Pont has the same beautifully sharp spaces and walls that many a modern museum has. Onto these walls the quilts have been hung, with generous white spaces around them, like paintings. It is very difficult (for me at least) to escape looking at them as paintings. And yet, they are not paintings, they are quilts, built up of separate sections of fabric, immaculately stitched together. They have the added charge of a history, a personal narrative and a domestic craft. They are designed to be decorative and to lay flat over a bed as a blanket, at least in part as a functional object.

amish

I am used to encountering functional objects in a museum context, where they are to be looked at, contemplated and definitely not touched. I don’t normally have a problem with this, here though it is simply the overwhelming tendency to try and view these objects like they are something that they are not that I find problematic.

This is clearly a deliberate strategy by the museum, the hard geometry on Turrell’s work, alongside the equally hard geometry of the Amish quilts. It’s all very interesting, but is it a reasonable comparison to be asking us to make?

Turrell’s work is designed for the museum space, the quilts very definitely were not. They were designed to add decorative qualities to the Amish home, with its otherwise quite frugal appearance and a surrounding life focussed on family and God. They were also designed to lie flat, in a different plane than the way they are displayed in the museum.  In the museum, they are not only removed from their context, but displayed in a way that deposits art historical baggage onto them that seems to be pushing a point that in my view isn’t really there.

I liked both parts of the current installations, each for its own merits, but the shared importance of geometry doesn’t make the two parts, if you’ll excuse the Amish quilt context pun, easy bedfellows.

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iPad education and looking for Creativity

A year into the experiment of digital enriched education at the school where I work and I am becoming increasingly interested by the place creativity has in this new form of teaching. As a device the iPad, or any other tablet for that matter, offers so much. Each pupil has on the desk in front of them a camera, a video camera, a microphone and countless apps that seem to open so many doors. The creative possibilities would seem to be so extensive, more than I could have ever dreamed of just a few years ago. And yet I have a niggling doubt, a dissatisfaction at the back of my mind.

ipad creativity

Many friends and colleagues are enthusiastic at the new possibilities on offer in their lessons. But maybe it is the duty of the art teacher to look and ask questions about creativity and whether we are getting the most out of these digital devices. Are we actually developing in ourselves as teachers and in our pupils a creative and critical edge in our judgement of what we are doing and making?

If we focus for a moment on the use of the camera, both video and still. These tools are so immediate and easy for our pupils to use, just point and shoot. Equally easy on their phones too, this is the generation that has grown up totally used to documenting everything in their lives, and why take one photograph or one fragment of film when you can shoot ten or twenty or thirty?

This sort of costless freedom is fantastic, but at least in the hands of the teenagers I teach there does seem to be a creative trade off. Do I observe them making critical and formal judgements in the images they are capturing? Well, no not really.  And this fact is often exacerbated by the apps that are then used to present or rework the visual material. In no time the pupils throw the images and film fragments into iMovie or some other app, make use of the ready-made formats, themes and stencils on offer and have in no time a slick final product. But the question the art teacher must surely ask is, “are they actually being creative?” It is equally true when you ask them to present their photographs, a few filters may be applied to make the image more eye catching in some way, but they don’t even stop to think if cropping the image in some way could actually improve it.

Don’t get me wrong, I am absolutely not against working digitally. I am a great fan of working with Photoshop or other similar software. The wealth of choices on offer provide fantastic creative options. And there in that word options or decisions perhaps you have an important distinction. Creativity is about decision making and a critical evaluation. Does too much of the app market rely or a quick fix within a too restricted range of choices? It certainly does seem to encourage and invite an over reliance on essentially ready-made solutions.

There are undoubtedly apps that allow an extensive range of creative possibilities, I have made use of a number in the last year, and seen some good results. There is also nothing to stop a young photographer or film-maker setting about using their camera in an incredibly creative way. There lies perhaps the new challenge for the art departments in schools to stop and consider how they can instruct and encourage the use of the tablet computer or other device to extend creative possibilities. This would seem both desirable and necessary. My observations of my pupils up to now certainly don’t give me the feeling that this will take care of itself.

So in conclusion, a note to self for this coming school year; start to work out strategies and places in the educational material for more creative use of the chances on offer.

If anyone has particular favourite apps that seem to encourage the sorts of options that I am talking about here I would be only too glad to hear about them.