Jasper Johns at the Royal Academy, London

Jasper Johns’ work has always been an enigmatic presence at the back of my interest in painting. At the art school I attended (Wimbledon School of Art in south west London) he was a figure who regularly enough was referred to. But at the time he was also an artist who always seemed difficult to categorize and place in an art historical context. His early work was a reaction to and a moving on from, the abstract expressionists, taking painting into new areas. Yet in the art world of the sixties and seventies his work never falls easily into any of the dominant directions of the time. There are relationships to aspects of minimalism, conceptualism and pop art, but there are as many differences as similarities.

The retrospective show at the Royal Academy in London only underlines the slightly divergent route that Johns has taken throughout as he has built his own reference library of motifs and symbols that he draws on again and again in his work. Seen as a whole the work feels extremely autobiographical in the end, as he ends up almost coming full circle chasing his own personal and art historical story.

The title of the exhibition is “Something Resembling Truth“. In the early work it’s easy to see an observer at work, and one that questions the visual world around us. He asks us to reconsider the visual truths that we perhaps take for granted but are actually rather more layered and offer multiple interpretations, as in the early flag, targets and text work.

As you progress through the show that is arranged in a roughly chronological order you become increasingly aware that the visual symbolism and references that Johns makes use of are becoming increasingly personal. This might be in the form of being objects and items found around his studio, the trappings of his artistic practice as in the painted bronze that shows us a representation of his brushes. Or it could be the ‘devices’ that play a physical part in the manufacture of the image. Later it might be reference to his friend Merce Cunningham or is fascination with favourite artistic connections, be those Munch, Duchamp or Newman. The artist builds up a visual library that he continues to add to but he gets older increasingly dips back into, to reference himself.

In a sense it is the luxury of an artist of an older generation. Is there a continuing sense of visual exploration and discovery in the work? Perhaps not, or at least not as there once was. Previously the visual content had been refined to create full resolved and engaging pieces. Resulting in pieces, such as Between the Clock and the Bed, one of my own personal favorites, from the series featuring the crosshatching motif.

IMG-4056(1)

However what there is to see in the later work are paintings and prints that reference the artist’s own history, his own visual language and what it is to be an artist with such an extensive personal back catalogue. In that sense the exhibition is certainly offering something resembling truth.

From a personal perspective I do like the way Johns repeatedly explores a recurring motif for an extended period. It’s something I recognize in my own work and something I was encouraged to do back at art school in Wimbledon as a student by the then head of the painting school, John Mitchell…..John was, incidentally, another big Jasper Johns admirer.

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Mail art…….a nostalgic return

When I was an art student back in the late eighties and early nineties artists’ journals and magazines used to be full of mail art projects. The need to connect was clearly there long before we all got online. Some of the projects were initiated by large and recognized arts institutions, others were very much smaller in ambition being the work of individuals.Looking back I can’t actually remember taking part in any of it, although I did find the idea of linking up with others in some artistic way quite attractive. I think the problem I had though was that it was all rather invisible and seeing and experiencing the results was always rather a weak link in the process.

Mail art rather faded away with the arrival of the internet. All sorts of online forums offered so many possibilities to share, collaborate and exhibit. This blog itself is of course a good example of this sort of development.

Yet here I am, many years later, in our digital world, enjoying being a participant in a mail art project with a group of creative people spread round the globe. The project involves a black hardback drawing book making a journey from one artist to another. Each in turn fills a series of pages with a documentation of a single day, in whatever way they choose before sending the package on to the next participant in the series.


I received the book earlier in the week with it already having passed through Australia, Vietnam, Poland and Sweden. When I’m finished I’ll be sending it on to the next participant in Canada. Today I’m traveling from my home in the Netherlands to visit my parents who live just north of Cambridge in the U.K. It provides an interesting day to document as I make the trip using buses, trains and the boat across the North Sea.

So what has lead me to participate in the project? Well, Margot, the organizing strength behind the initiative asked me, and others, directly to participate….that certainly helped! But things have changed from the old days of mail art, because the digital world enables us to follow the project, chart its development and in the end to witness the results. A very informal chat group around the project has developed and Margot has set up Flickr pages for the depositing of imagery. All this has undoubtedly helped us all feel an engagement in the project.


Having said all this I was kind of surprised this week by the pleasure of having the book itself drop through the letterbox at home. To sit down with a cup of coffee an read and look at the work of the others in the group and to consider the journeys that these pages, as a visual document, have already made.

I have been adding my experiences of a day as I have been traveling. It’s been interesting to participate, and who knows, maybe there will be some form of a follow up project. I have to admit to having one at the back of my mind.

Surreal sculpture and the challenge of being creative with language

Art teachers are interested in creativity. That’s no surprise really.  We’re interested in squeezing new things and creative approaches out of our pupils in their practical work. Well yes maybe, but even in the most creative of classrooms over-reliance on examples/predetermined models and the pupils’ sometimes insatiable wish to do things the ‘right’ way has to be fought. In this sense, my own classroom is no different.

Occasionally a lesson situation presents itself where the pupils are confronted with an almost infinite number of choices or variables on offer.  It calls for thought, reflection and a spark that might lead to the pupils coming up with something that is their ‘own’, something that is maybe a little more original or creative. It can be a struggle, and a surprisingly difficult situation to actually teach.

This has been the case in a recent assignment I have been working on with my third-year pupils (aged 15 years). It was an assignment that required some creativity in terms of practical activity when the class working with plywood. But actually, the creative core of the assignment was more one of creativity of thought.

The assignment was linked to a series of lessons about Surrealism and involved taking an existing object and combining it with a second plywood constructed object that interacted in some way with the qualities or characteristics of the first object to present a slightly surreal combination. The idea for the assignments stemmed from various artworks like those of Salvador Dali, Man Ray and Meret Oppenheim.

 

 

The idea of placing two objects together or combining them visually is not complex, and by and large the process of constructing the second object from plywood is not too technically difficult. However, the simple act of deciding what to do is surprisingly difficult. Analyzing the qualities of the first object, with a little encouragement generally works out reasonably well. If we take the example of a fork, the sort of which you might find in the kitchen drawer.

A fork is:

Metal, silvery, shiny, hard, pointy at one end, more curved at the other, the overall form is kind of wavy, it’s for eating, for spiking food, comes as part of a set called cutlery, four prongs, fits in the hand, etc, etc.

How then to choose a second object that in some way combines or contrasts with these existing characteristics? That was difficult. It requires something of a ‘eureka’ moment, just a single idea that was going to engage the viewer, like Man Ray’s nails under the iron. Here is the creative challenge. Often I found myself sitting round a table staring at an object with a pupil, waiting, coaxing, edging them towards some possibilities, but at the same time trying to hold back from offering solutions. Testing creativity of thought in this way can at times be something of a painful process to watch!

It the end, in most cases, an idea came. Some rather predictable, others surprising, smart or downright funny. In the case of the fork the pupil settled quite quickly on working with the wave-like form of the fork when seen side on.  He decided he simply wanted to make a ship with masts and sails that by inserting it between the prongs of the fork could ‘sail’ through the wave-like form.

wThe second creative challenge came in the form of dreaming up a suitable title, one that somehow locked in on the complexities of these combinations. Can you spend a whole lesson waiting and hoping that pupils come up with an engaging, perhaps two-word title? Will that flash of an idea come?

The language abilities of my pupils are good, even working as we are in English, their second language. But that is not to say that they are going succeed at this difficult challenge. This stretches their creativity and knowledge of often multiple meanings for words to the limit. In the end, the language component of this assignment is finding just a handful of words, but they are completely integrated with the practical content. It that sense it is a good CLIL (content and language integrated learning) lesson, although not an easy one.

For more of this sort of language assignment read this:

The most difficult assignment of the year?

Second language communication problems in class

Sometimes all you can do is laugh when you are starting to teach a bilingual class using a CLIL (content and language integrated learning) approach. I have a class of Dutch twelve year olds that I have been teaching my art lessons to, essentially in English, for three weeks now. It’s going OK, but obviously there is still a long way to go and a lot to learn. This learning situation does occasionally throw up funny moments….

toilet door

A boy comes up to me near the end of the lesson, pauses, and then carefully asks in his most considered English:

“Mr. Sansom, can I go to the toilet?”

He’s only a first year so we won’t have the “can I” or “may I go to the toilet” discussion, not just yet. I look at my watch, only two minutes to go until the end of the lesson. I reply slowly and clearly:

“There’s only two minutes to go until the end of the lesson, can you wait two minutes?”

He listens carefully to my answer, a serious look on his face, and then smiles and runs out of the door, down the corridor and disappears through the toilet door without saying a word.

The first weeks of bilingual education is full of this sort of misunderstanding, it requires patience as you laugh inwardly to yourself and think “didn’t I just say that?” or “haven’t you been listening”. The truth is that they probably have been listening, it’s just that joining up the gaps in their understanding is sometimes just that little bit too challenging. That will change though, and soon……..

Learning through not understanding? – CLIL (content and language integrated learning) art project

Sometimes you just don’t need to explain……

Yesterday I used a short film in my lessons that I had not used before, ‘Donkey’, from 2011 by Keri Burrows. I said virtually nothing to introduce the film to the two classes that saw it. It’s a quiet and stylish seven minutes in the form of a reflective monologue. Both times I watched a a hushed attention fell over the room. I watched as the class of often quite chatty pupils were drawn in and as the titles rolled at the end the silence hung in the room. There really was little I had to say, the movie’s message, and it does have a serious point to make, had reached them.

Watching this short film was a part of a brief film studies series of lessons for the classes of fifteen and sixteen year olds that I teach. It’s an introduction to basic filmmaking techniques and approaches. I usually begin with a series of short films that highlight various aspects of film craft such as the role of the speed of editing, sound and music, the positioning of camera and so on.

So why had this particular film carried its message so well to my audience? Well, yes it is a stylishly made and in a way quite elegant film. It’s performed in a form of low key realism that is very accessible. But most of all, and without giving too much away, in terms of content it takes the viewer into a world that is only too recognizable to pupils at a secondary school. For all these reasons it is a short film worth watching in class.

For further analysis of the film see the following link:

Donkey – film analysis