Art in odd places

I’ve got a lot of art at home. Some on the walls in the house, and a lot in my studio space upstairs. At least 95% of it is my own work, possibly more. I like living with my own work on the walls, it gives me a chance to look at it and to think about it.  However, that is not to say that I wouldn’t like to have the work of others in the space around me.

I posted a while back about a vague thought I have, to one day make a hugely accurate copy of an original artwork that I really like. How would that be to have around? A Matisse for company, that would be quite strange in my familiar (and fairly small) domestic space.

Famous art for at home

The context around an artwork has an impact on what we see and think.  The white cube type gallery space is an attempt to offer some sort of purity and isolation to the art as we view it. But as a context this sort of immaculate wall space brings a context of its own and a particular sort of serious art world baggage.

Numerous artists have played and experimented with artistic and environmental contexts.  It is the basic exhibition space for street artists and urban hackers and the likes of Alexy Kondakov have experimented with ripping high art subject matter from its usual location before depositing it in a new and contemporary environment.

Displacement of art and its subsequent relocation is certainly nothing new, Lord Elgin and the British Museum (plus countless others) have excellent examples.

But to return to the more domestic environment that I started with.  Another artist, responsible for a considerable output of manipulated photographs in this area is Paul Kremer, with his project Great Art in Ugly Rooms.  The images are packed with humour as the reverence that is normally given to these famous artworks is torn away as they are deposited in the trashiest, kitsch, chaotic or yes, just plain ugly spaces. What does it change in the artworks?  Well, quite a bit in many of the examples….we’re really not used to observing how the Rothko matches the curtains or how the huge gestural work or Franz Kline seems oddly to cope somewhat better against the back wall of a garage.

It is all entertaining stuff, but to can’t help thinking at the back of your mind about how many great works in private collections around the world must do battle with their own domestic interiors. How many are squeezed between a plant and over-sized lamp fitting, lost in a cluttered kitchen, or indeed become forgotten and left against a wall in the garage?

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My colleague says she loves her job……

My colleague app’ed me the other day to say that she loved her job. I love my job too. We both work in the art department. This admission came in the context of a particular assignment that we are working together at the moment.

The project is part of a street art related theme and is centered in particular on the Little People Project by the British street artist Slinkachu.

Slinkachu’s own website

We were preparing the figures, similar to those used by Slinkachu to give our pupils the chance to work in a similar way when they visit The Hague for a day in a couple of weeks’ time. We were both doing the preparation work simultaneously on a Saturday afternoon apping photos of what we were doing to each other.

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We’d sourced our own simple plastic figures and had them mailed from China. We wanted to deliver our fifteen year old pupils high quality painted figures with which to work and had decided to do the painting ourselves.

Why were we enjoying the preparation so much? Well, it was fun to do. Slinkachu’s art has a childish playfulness to it. Having presented the idea of the assignment to our pupils this week it is clear to see that they too recognize the element of childish play that is involved here.  Even fifteen year olds love the chance to play…..sometimes there almost seems to be a nostalgic view back to their own childhood activities! If I ask them to bring in the LEGO from in the box under their bed for an animation project, they love to do just that, and the excuse to play.

Picasso once said:

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”

In this regard our assignment certainly seems to connect with Picasso’s thought.  But I think that it also relates strongly to why my colleague and I enjoy our work.  All creativity involves an element of play and experimentation.  An open minded involvement to our activity as art teachers has a free wheeling playfulness to it. When, as a teacher you are able to awaken this sense of playfulness in your pupils, the rest generally takes care of itself.

 

The power of the crowd (and small technical steps)

Many of my colleagues in school have something of a strained relationship with pupils working together in groups. It is probably also fair to say that many of the pupils themselves have an equally troubled experience with this educational approach. The main reason for this is the tendency for there to be children in almost any group who are just in there for the ride, benefitting from the efforts of others, without putting the effort in themselves.

I understand this problem and realize for many pupils and teachers that it is a thorny problem, but in the art department I have to admit to being a huge fan of group work. I certainly don’t continually pursue this route, but it is an approach that I regularly return to.

Maybe one of the biggest differences in the art department and a large-scale shared piece of work is everyone has to contribute, in a sense there is no place to hide! Failure to do your part is hugely visible and my experience is that very few pupils want to put themselves in that position.  It could be argued perhaps that working like this does put the less able pupils in a bit of a spot, the pressure is on, to perform to the level of the rest of the group.  My experience here though is that with careful teacher judgement and support even the most uncertain child gets the positive effect of having contributed to an in the end impressive whole.

But beyond that, there are several very positive reasons for my love of a group project:

  • It gives a chance to produce something really big, an artwork with a wow factor!
  • Pupils leave the project with a feeling of having played their part in producing something where the result often feels greater than the sum of the parts
  • It creates an energy and curiosity in the classroom, especially at the end of a lesson where the whole group are hungry to see the progress and how the total art is coming together
  • ‘Are our individual pieces going to be graded?’ is often a cry I hear after a while, ‘no’ I say, wondering the first time whether that would make a difference. My experience is that it certainly doesn’t, somewhat dispelling the thought that pupils only work when there is a grade in it for them.  The reward in this case clearly lies elsewhere, and not a grade that contributes to the next report.
  • Socially within the cohesion of the group involved there is undoubtedly a positive effect. On a small scale there are often discussions within the group about the connections with ‘neighbours’ in the group work.  These are often interesting to see as the contact takes an individual to all corners of the classroom group and not just their most familiar friends.  But beyond this and most importantly there is a total bond in the group, a completely shared activity to which they can all contribute, a true team performance.

With the case documented here, and its small scale individual sections, I have been given the chance to explore in a relatively controlled and defined way a small but important technical skill.  In this case it has all been about mixing colours and combining colours on the painted surface to get a more complex and interesting end result.  The twelve-year-olds with which the group was made are used to using colours direct from the pot, but a little less used to mixing colours and even less familiar with the idea of painting a single area with a multitude of different hues and shades. Certainly a very useful insight to give for future projects.

Click on the links below for related posts:

Larger than the sum of the parts

Tim Rollins and K.O.S.

Friday afternoons….

The last lesson of the week on a Friday afternoon.  Not the best moment to have to teach, but somebody has to, or are we to shut all schools on a Friday after lunchtime?  For me this year this has meant teaching H2P (13-14 year olds) as my final session of the week.  I’ve always had a last lesson of the week of course, but this one has felt a little different.  This has been the case for a couple of reasons:

  • Most of my classes I see twice a week, but for H2P I only see them once, so everything has to happen in the 60 minutes that we have together!
  • They are quite a jumpy bunch and come to my classroom shortly after having had their physical education lesson, making them a little extra tired, a bit more jumpy and a ever so slightly sweaty!
  • Before this school year I hadn’t taught any of them, meaning I had to get to know their own little ways and of course they had to get to know mine

It’s fair to say that they are a class that you have to learn how to handle.  My teaching style is not to dominate my pupils, I prefer to sweep them along with enthusiasm…yes, even on a Friday afternoon.  Having said all this though discovering how exactly to do this in our one hour a week has been a bit of a process of experimentation and discovery.

We’ve drawn, we’ve painted, done some collage and designed for the 3D printer.  It all went OK although it did take a while before I actually had the whole class traveling with me on our artistic journey.  Some of the boys seemed to be testing me out to see if it was acceptable to do, well the absolute bare minimum.  As the weeks went by even this group started to up their game.

 

The 3D printer idea was one that I thought would trigger the enthusiasm, it did for a few, but a significant number were blocked by the intellectual leap that is needed for working digitally in three dimensions.  To be honest I was surprised, but teenagers can really be as irritated by computer software as their grandparents!

 

The true watershed in the activity of this jumpy group of teenagers came in an intense drawing session, using charcoal that we had one afternoon.  In 45 minutes of drawing each child produced a series of six to eight drawings.  Which the following week I immediately rolled into the beginning of a lino-printing project.  Suddenly there was so much energy in the class, and all being channelled into the practical activity.

The last few weeks I have presented the necessary materials at the start of the lesson, the ink, the rollers, the paper and the lino, and then I have largely stood back and manned the drying rack making sure we start loading it up at the bottom and work our way upwards (why do teenagers always fail to work that out for themselves?).  The drying rack aside we have enjoyed a series of lessons where kids have been wandering with fully loaded inky rollers, others have been head down over their lino block, whilst others are frantically rubbing the backs of their paper trying to get the best possible prints.

Yes, we’ve had messy tables, messy children and occasionally messy floors. But we have also had children standing back at the end of the lesson, the end of the week, thinking wow, did we just do that.

The challenge for all teachers is of course to try and carry this energy into the next assignment…..I still have some thinking to do about how I’ll approach that!

Studio day

Sometimes I find myself battling with an idea for an extended period of time, searching for that visual solution fits the various components that I want to include.  It can go on for weeks or months without anything significant coming out of it all.  That was kind of the state of things towards the end of last year, but then suddenly things started to change and develop and suddenly the possibilities seem endless.  Technically it is not quite a return to the Renaissance ‘tondo’ painting, but a ring painting is as close as I have even been.

It is at moments like this I feel I could do with an assistent to make my rather time consuming round canvases. But without such help it is simply a question of getting on as best as is possible.

 

 

 

 

Magical Miniatures

I have never been someone who has made large artworks. For me above, let’s say, 60cm in any direction and you already have reached one of my larger works. I feel an affinity with smaller artworks, The intensity and intimacy that they offer draws us in in a different way to how larger scale work often tries to dominate us.
The work of the miniaturist portrait painter takes us into this area, but for me at least such portraits have always felt like a compromised, shrunk down version of the work of the full scale portrait artist.
The small format work on show at the Museum Catharijne Convent in Utrecht certainly doesn’t have this problem and it overflows with intensity, craftsmanship and meaning.


The exhibition Magical Miniatures displays in its carefully lit glass cases an array of thick and immaculately bound Medieval manuscripts. Each individual book is of course in itself almost enough for a complete exhibition that once open displays just two carefully chosen pages from the binding that potentially offers so many possibilities more.
The fineness and intricacy is extraordinary, the amount that can be crammed onto a page of perhaps 15x10cm quite mind blowing. You can’t help but wonder about the world from where these books come and the hands that created them. The consistency of the work and the shear quantity make you wonder about the rituals and devotions for the makers. It is highly appropriate to see the books lying open in the halls of a former convent, a building with its own history that has so many parallels with the displays.
The museum in a series of film offer insights into their processes and techniques. These leave you even more baffled by the degree of commitment and knowledge of the working contexts that these unnamed artists found themselves working in. In our world of fast moving imagery and sound bites the contrast could hardly be greater.

Capturing the imagination – a photographic remake

It is normally a pretty good sign if some colleagues in the staff room know about a project that you are working on before you’ve told them about it. It means that pupils themselves are talking about it!

This was the case last week. I had taken my fourth-year classes (15-16 year olds) to our local museum, the Jan Cunen Museum, to see an exhibition by the Dutch photographer Micky Hoogendijk. Most of the work on display were quite large-scale portraits with varying degrees of digital manipulation often in the form of overlays of other imagery imposed over the head or face. Three works stood out though as slightly different. These particular photographs didn’t have the same manipulation, but they did have a historical resonance with seventeenth century Dutch art.

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We talked about the set of photographs whilst at the museum, the clothing, the poses, the use of light and the restrained expressions on the faces. The linking with seventeenth century art was strong and something the pupils later explored in a homework assignment.

Whilst the Hoogendijk works don’t seem to have been based on specific images from the past they offered the pupils a contemporary route back to artworks that they often pass quickly over in other circumstances.

The photographs also offered me a chance to make use of a practical assignment that I have used in the past. This involves a photographic remake of an art historical portrait where the pupil plays the part of the subject of the portrait. It is a relatively straight forward assignment to explain, and maybe this helps in the way that it seems to have captured the attention of my pupils in the last couple of weeks.

I provided a large selection of images for the classes to search through to find something that they thought that they could work with. I gave strict instructions for the photographs that they were going to take, and these were going to become my marking criteria when evaluating the work:

  • The pupil really has to play the part, the expression involved and displayed was important
  • Composition and the arrangement of figure and attributes were important
  • The use of light in the painting had to be followed as much as possible in the photograph
  • The pose of the figure should be used as a basis in the photograph
  • The clothing can be updated but should show a relationship to the original painting   Providing the framework
  • Cardboard box office
  • Related posts:
  • All photographs shown above are included with the pupils’ permission.
  • Looking back on the results that were finally handed in, I feel that the effect of that having seen high quality photos in the exhibition had a positive effect. I feel that it made them approach their own work in a more ambitious way. It definitely seemed to help them in taking a step away from the idea that this was just going to be a relatively unconsidered snap shot, an approach that is the dominant feature of most of a teenagers photographic output.

Beyond these instructions I left my pupils to it. Sending them off with a two-week deadline to produce this practical homework assignment. Although I did also stress that this was perhaps not an assignment to work on in a hurry on a dark Tuesday night…..they were to try and make use the of the natural light that the weekend offers.

 

Looking back on the results that were finally handed in, I feel that the effect of that having seen high quality photos in the exhibition had a positive effect. I feel that it made them approach their own work in a more ambitious way. It definitely seemed to help them in taking a step away from the idea that this was just going to be a relatively unconsidered snap shot, an approach that is the dominant feature of most of a teenagers photographic output.

All photographs shown above are included with the pupils’ permission.

Related posts:

Photographic frames of reference

Cardboard box office

Are we all romantics at heart?

The exhibition ‘Romanticism in the North’ at the Groningen Museum in the north of the Netherlands presents an extensive collection of landscape paintings, mostly from the early nineteenth century, and features work by the likes of William Turner, Casper David Friedrich, John Constable and Johan Christian Dahl. It is a succulent collection of paintings that ooze technical quality and present, not unsurprisingly, a romantic view of, predominantly, the landscape. The effect of light and dark on our surroundings is a recurring theme as is the weather and in particular an inclination for the slightly threatening nature the weather can take.

But it is the locations that the paintings show and how they are framed up that catches the eye. There is beauty and drama, and it is all so carefully composed. I find myself almost wanting to be there. These are the sorts of places in the busier and more hectic moments of our day to day existence that we might wish to escape to.

Romanticism in art regularly encouraged a sort of reflective escape, an escape from the present and a look back to the past. A reaction to a period to change perhaps, the hints of a more modern world lay on the horizon.

Now, two hundred years later we can still relate strongly to these images. These are still the sorts of places we like to visit and document for ourselves, although nowadays that is more likely to be using a camera whilst on a day trip out or further afield on a holiday. We still love the landscape and still have a pretty romantic view of it. We like to frame up a photograph of a lighthouse in the breaking waves, a mountain stream or the descending sun that is turning the whole sky a burning shade of orange.  In these paintings human activity is held at arm’s length, we view any figures at a distance, there is little engagement. It all feels a little individualistic.

And yet in the romantic landscape there is an understated side dish, that takes us away from a sense of idealised tranquillity. This more unsettling edge comes in the form of weather at its more extreme. An impending storm gathers on the horizon, a lone figure battles with the wind, mist or darkness descend on the landscape, a ship is dashed on a coastline or a waterfall plunges from a dizzying height. All of these would have brought an edge of danger to the viewer more than two hundred years ago, a danger in these sorts of environment that they were maybe more familiar with than we are today. Yet of course, when viewed by way of a painted image then there is little actual danger involved. It was an experience more comparable perhaps with the way we approach, and love the safer sort of danger, as it is presented to us in an adventure or disaster movie.

 

One day I must do this in class…

It’s been a while since I’ve visited the Cardboard box office blog. For any film lover it is worth dropping by to Lilly and Leon’s site. Although, nowadays it is also Orson (yes really!) and from the most recent posts, also little Elliot. The new arrivals do perhaps give an understandable reason for rather less frequent posts than in the past.

Ever since stumbling on the site a few years ago I have been toying with the idea of how I might do something similar in a school/education setting with a heap of cardboard, some lamps and a whole load of duct tape. Maybe in some sort of a project week, because trying to build such scenery spread over twice a week art lessons for a number of weeks is one sure way to fall out with colleagues as they battle their way past all the cardboard in the store room!

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Scan through the site, and you’ll soon find you’ll have your own few favourites. I think that my own personal favourite is King Kong, but there are so many others that catch the eye.

I think if I stop to analyse it a little there are two main things that I like so much about the ‘installations’ that Lilly and Leon construct. Firstly, there is just the lovable silliness of it all. They clearly love the film world and want to use their own creativity to engage with it in some way. And that leads nicely onto the second reason, that being the amount of creativity and inventiveness they show in making their ‘screen shots’.

As an art teacher creativity is an often talked about subject. We like to encourage our pupils to be creative with their materials, you try to design lessons and assignments that challenge your classes creatively. But Lilly and Leon’s installations display a visual inventiveness that requires a particular mindset that teenagers enjoy seeing but find surprisingly difficult to dare to explore in their own work.

I saw this inventiveness a little during an animation project that I did with groups of fifteen-year olds last year, once they realized that they had to go looking at home for suitable materials to animate, a bit of a creative lid did seem to come off.  I’m hoping to see something similar with a forthcoming project where pupils will be photographically reconstructing old master portrait paintings.

Visages Villages (Faces Places) – a film review….and educational possibilities

Agnes Varda film maker and JR the French photographer and installation artist make an unlikely couple. One is an 89 woman who originally made her name as a filmmaker during the French New Wave, the other a 34-year-old photographer/installation-maker with a well-established name in both the world of street art and the more conventional art circuit.

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But in the film Visages Villages or Faces Places if you prefer the English title, a couple they certainly are, travelling around the French countryside in their van that is dressed up to look like a giant camera.  They visit a variety of places discussing, bickering and interviewing before getting down to the business of creating and installing a series of artworks using JR’s preferred installation method of pasting often huge scale photographs on exterior walls, sea-containers, trains and even a disused and crumbling relic from the second world war.

The film presents a fascinating insight into the working process.  JR largely takes the lead, but the constant input from Varda deflects and contributes to the creative development.  She brings the perspective of a long life, creative insight and a certain historical perspective that clearly fits well with the younger artist’s own interests.

The passage through the film builds a heart-warming picture of what seems to start with as a rather unlikely friendship.  There is a certain about of teasing that goes on between the two, but also a tremendous amount of respect and warmth as they discuss their work, their lives and their differences.

Technically the film is a documentary and has seen as that when it has won various film festival awards.  But it is also very much a road movie as we travel along with the leading characters on their journey of discovery.

As an educator I think that there is a good chance that I will be showing my older pupils this film in the future.  It gives a revealing view into the artistic process.  My pupils are interested in street art and the way it intervenes into the world around us.  Perhaps slightly unusually for this sort of public space work though, these are images that often provide us with a subject, an ordinary person, to look at and think about.  JR and Varda often choose the humdrum, the ordinary person and the elevate them to often quite huge scales.  Yes, I feel sure that this film and JR’s other work can be an interesting route to explore with my pupils.

There is also no doubt at all that I see possible practical assignments that may be possible to challenge my pupils with.  Certainly, photographic installations that we could make virtually on the computer, but who knows, maybe a few real installations could follow.

Related JR links:

JR Photographer

JR street artist

Previous street art related blog posts:

Street art and illegality

Street art in the classroom