Scorch marks and Sol Lewitt in Maastricht

I’ve always been  a bit of a Sol Lewitt fan. He was an important artist to me in the sense that he was one of the first artists who challenged me to think about the role of the hand of the artist in making an art work.  I was aware that many artists in the past had worked with assistants to help them execute their work, but Lewitt’s conceptual pieces where he offered just a list of instructions were the first that I came across that took the physical presence of the artists right out of the equation.  An example of this approach is the Wall Drawing #118 made in Boston.

Since coming across his concepual, instruction based pieces I have regularly encountered his wall drawings and sculptures in numerous museums and galleries.

Here in The Netherlands we are lucky enough to have a number of venues than have from time to time featured his work.  One of these is the BonnefantenMuseum in Maastricht.  A few years ago they staged a fantastic four-man show featuring Lewitt, Mangold, Serra and Nauman.  Part of this collection was a returning  installation work in the dome of the museum that had been installed now for the third time, and for the first time since the artist’s death in 2007.

I visited the museum a couple of days ago and returned sttaight away to view the Lewitt Spiral. Its one of the monochrome works that the artist produced alongside the many colour based works he made. But somber it is certainly not. It has a truely geometric fizz, a sharpness of line that draws you in a integrates itself with the architecture of the building.

Alongside the Lewitt painted dome interior there is an exhibition of the work of Cai Guo-Qiang. It, like the Lewitt installation has something of a monochrome, even charred feeling to it. It includes many of the Chinese artist’s trade mark explosive paintings that were executed by igniting explosive charges on the surfaces of the works and displaying the scorched results.  The works undeniably have an abstract beauty to them and also have at times intense colour due to the chemicals added to the firework explosives that are used.

Alongside these more well known pieces there is an extensive documentation of Cai Guo-Qiang’s earlier work from before he turned his practice in the direction of explosive work.  These parts of the exhibition document sensitive paintings and drawings, portraits and self-portraits, family photographs and even drawings produced by the artist’s daughter as she has gradually become older. Seen altogether a surprisingly biographical insight into an artist’s existence, both inside and outside the art-world spotlight.

Once in a while something special comes along – Cartomania

I remember one of my lecturers at art school using the word ‘cartomaniac’ to describe herself. It struck an immediate chord with me because I recognized something of myself in the term. A gallery full of large scale map paintings at the Vatican museums that I had seen a few months before my teacher’s remark had truly captured my attention. The balance between the pictorial and the graphic qualities, the representation of landscape and yet the apparently abstract forms all come together to, form a type of image that engages and fascinates.

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It is the schematic representation of the world around us, everything so familiar, yet so different, the symbols, the lines and patterns, the place names. There is just so much to see. When I travel, a map is always a necessity, seeing where I am, what’s around me and where I can go. I, like most people, have a small collection of maps from various holiday destinations I’ve visited over the years. But perhaps my favourite is actually one closer to home, it is a very Dutch map indeed and one showing the most interventionist approach to the real landscape. It shows the 32 kilometer long afsluitdijk, a 32km raised causeway that was built across the North Sea to create a division between the sea on one side and the Ijsselmeer on the other.

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For a long while I’ve been planning to work with maps in my own teaching work (I continue also to ponder how I actually might one day include them in my own paintings too). The school plans though have made progress this year and resulted in a series of paintings made by my third year groups (age 14-15). While I feel that the project is still a bit of a work in progress and can be refined and developed next year, there have been some good results that I am posting here.

The assignment was built on top of an abstract drawing assignment where pupils explored ideas of movement and flow in an abstract design. There are also some very dominant conventions in map making, water is blue, more natural areas green and so on, one of my aims was also to break free from these more obvious routes.

Building on these ideas we were able to take map representations of cities around the world. Exactly which city plan was the basis us left to the pupils, for some it was a location they’d been to, for others it was an aesthetic choice and for still more it was place that they hope one day to visit.

The resulting works have an impact that catches the attention and has given us material that once displayed together on the printed banners we’ve made grabs the attention.

Alma-Tadema – an artistic love/hate relationship

The work of Lawrence Alma-Tadema didn’t feature heavily during my years at art school. No, maybe I should be more specific, as far as I can remember, it didn’t feature at all. Perhaps not surprisingly, for despite being one of the most financially successful artists of the nineteenth century and ending up being knighted and buried in St Paul’s cathedral in London, Alma-Tadema’s work and the works of the closely related Pre-Raphaelites were something of a forgotten sub-tributary in the flow towards a more modern world. Many would argue that it wasn’t even a tributary, and more of an isolated pool that was completely detached.

This may well be the case, and also the reason why his work fell so far out of favour in the twentieth century. But in recent decades there has been a renewed interest in Alma-Tadema’s luscious fantasy world.  My own first, and rather accidental encounter with his work was in 1996 when I visited the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam.  There was a temporary show of his paintings and now, twenty years later there is a second show in the Friesmuseum in Leeuwarden the capital of the Dutch province in which this Dutch-Anglo artist was born. The exhibition has attracted unprecedented numbers for this relatively small town in the north of The Netherlands, well over 100000 visitors in the first three of its four month run. The exhibition then tours to Vienna and onto London.

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The memories of my visit to the Van Gogh museum exhibition back in the nineties prompted me to make the trip up to Leeuwarden to renew my something of a love-hate relationship I have with the artist’s work. What I remember from my first encounter with the paintings was the colour, the light and the overwhelming lushness of it all.  At their best these are paintings that ooze an almost oppressive detail and rich colour.  Although, it must also be said that other works feel at times like the artist has beaten any life out of them through his astonishing eye for detail, whether it is pressed up against the picture-plane in the fore-ground or seemingly miles away in the background.

These reservations aside, there are some gems in the exhibition, paintings that are extremely difficult not to be drawn to; the likes of The Roses of Heliogabalus, Unconscious Rivals and A Coign of Vantage. Over the top the paintings definitely are, and also out of touch with the world and time in which they were made, but simultaneously they display a phenomenal work ethic, patience of execution and eye for detail.

The exhibition goes to some trouble to draw comparisons between Alma-Tadema’s work and the influence it has had on the visual styling of various Hollywood epics over the years. Fragments of films such as Gladiator and Cleopatra are also on display.  The artifice and escapism of the movies would seem appropriate. This whole exhibition and body of work is a quite huge display of the fantasy world that must have occupied the artist’s mind. He consistently painted image after image of a distant and mythical world, a world that spilled over into the high life of soirées and parties that were also known regularly to require costumes that fitted the artist’s visionary world.

Guardian article reviewing the exhibition

 

Danish visitors

From time to time I am asked to give presentations to and yesterday I did in The Hague so to a group of Danish teachers and head teachers who were interested to hear more about the form of bilingual education that we offer in our schools in The Netherlands.

I’d like to thank them for their active participation in my part of the day. I enjoyed the chance to share ideas and discuss future possibilities.

I promised to make my presentation material available as a reminder of some of the teaching activities I touched on.  The PowerPoint itself is quite brief, so also feel free to take a look elsewhere on this blog and in particular at the CLIL link higher up the page.

Click on the link below for the presentation:

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Can I justify copying someone else’s work?

matisse_nude-745x1024When my older brother and I were both art students me in my late teens and he in his early twenties I remember him telling me once of how his personal tutor at college had a live size copy of a Matisse paper-cut on his wall at home. It was constructed in exactly the same way as the original of loose fitting pieces of coloured paper, that had been roughly painted and arranged to complete the familiar iconic figure that we know from the art history books. If I remember correctly the tutor had gone to some trouble to even simulate the yellowing of the paper that the intervening decades has caused.

At the time I remember feeling rather perplexed as to why someone, and someone very capable of making their own art, should go to such lengths to reproduce an existing artwork. Now more than two decades later, I find myself close to doing the same. Not in my case with Matisse though, I don’t feel any inclination to do that. My remake would be of an artwork that at least superficially might appear easier to reconstruct, although that simplicity may in the end actually make it more difficult to reproduce well.

These were words that I actually wrote for this blog nearly three years ago. But the essence of the point it made still remain and I thought it would be interesting to repost it.

The artwork concerned is by the American abstract painter Robert Mangold and in particular a work from his fairly recent Ring series. The question is, and it is a question I am still pondering for myself, why should I go to all the trouble of reproducing a work by another artist?

I’ve always liked Mangold’s work a lot, ever since I saw it for the first time in the Saatchi Gallery in London in a show with Bruce Nauman, I’ve seen it also in shows in the Netherlands where I now live. But in truth Mangold’s lean and delicate abstract works aren’t seen so often in Europe, so much of my familiarity with his extensive body of work comes from books or the net. In the evenings I often find myself looking through these small scale reproductions.

So why should I make my own Mangold Ring artwork. Perhaps I should first of all say that much as I would like a real Robert Mangold creation, on my part time teachers’ pay that is never likely to happen, a quick survey of the internet tells me that a screen print can be had for $7500.

I can well imagine that the artist himself would probably rather I didn’t have a go at this sort of homage. But I really would like to have one to look at on a daily basis, for absolutely the same reasons my own works appear on the walls around the house, so I can live with an image, so I can think about it and so I can come to better understand it. Robert Mangold’s work has already influenced my own from time to time. It could be argued that in this pattern of influence all art is a sort of homage to the art that preceded it. But this would be different, this would not be my work, nor would it be Robert Mangold’s, put like that it sounds like a undefined object caught in some no-man’s land of classification, hardly a very honourable existence! But reason enough not to do it?

Will I do it? Or should I say, will I get round to it? Studio time is precious, sandwiched between so much other work. In the end the real cost of making such an artwork would be the time spent not making my own paintings. Only time will tell whether that cost is too high!

The fact that now three years after writing this originally, I still haven’t got ‘my’ Mangold on the wall at home probably speaks volumes about the amount of time I have and that, thankfully, actually making my own work seems to be more important! But as I work my way through a recently bought catalogue of the artist’s one, once again I am wondering…….

Alice Neel exhibition…. Portrait painter

Let me start with a confession; the paintings of Alice Neel had largely passed me by until a few months ago. My attention was then drawn to them by an image that was sent to me by my colleague artist and art teacher, Pasi, in Finland.  We’ve been busy setting up a photography project between my pupils in the Netherlands and his in Finland. (For more information about this use the link below).

Netherlands-Finland photography project

One aspect of the project has involved drawing some comparisons of photographic portraits and painted ones.  Within this context Pasi sent me a collection images, including a self-portrait painted by Neel when she was in her eighties. It’s an unusual and somewhat eye catching representation of the elderly artist, sitting naked in a chair whilst painting her self-portrait.  It was this very portrait that you encounter as you walk into the extensive Alice Neel exhibition at the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague at the moment.

img_3164The exhibition walks you through a large body of this relatively forgotten artist, an early life surrounded by revolutionaries and political activists before nestling herself amongst the cultural life of New York. Unusually for a portrait artist Neel didn’t document herself in her work until right at the end of her life, instead the focus lies on partners, lovers, children, friends and others she came across in the circles she moved in. The result is a fascinating journey through the muted early work into the increasingly colourful and expressive work that came later.

Constant throughout the exhibition is a feeling of focused intensity, both from the artist and the subject. The sitter often stares out of the image with large penetrating eyes.

I enjoyed the show hugely and found myself unusually reading everything on the gallery walls building up a picture of a very colourful and varied life. It’s clear to see how the artist drew on the work of Munch and Van Gogh for her inspiration. It is also evident why Dutch artist Marlene Dumas finds her interesting. Personally I see a strong connection to the work of David Hockney.

The texts that accompany the exhibition make much of a feminist agenda that perhaps caused Neel to be neglected. That may well be the case, but it also has to be said that when the artist was producing some of her best work, in the fifties and sixties she was close to where she needed to be, painting portraits of gallery owners and others within the cultural world.  Her fringe position within the cultural scene must surely also been down to the fact that the American art world of this period was pre-occupied by very different things. Yes, it was a very male dominated and macho place to be, but also one focusing on abstraction, minimalism, Pop art and conceptual art, there was little space for an essentially traditional portraitist, no matter how good and how intense her work was.

Digitalization – finding the right fit

Forcing digitalization into education can be a painful affair. Some people might say ‘yes, that’s what they’re trying to do to the education situation that I work in!’  But that would be to misunderstand what I mean by forcing digitalization. I am absolutely for the use of digital technologies in education. What I mean though is that the use of computers, laptops, tablets and indeed phones have a place, of that I’m sure, but exactly what that place is may take time to find.

The school I teach at took a decision a few years ago to move to a form of computer aided education where every pupil works with their own iPad. I’ve been teaching art lessons with the possible digital dimensions that this offers for two and a half years now. Despite being one of the most progressive minded in the school when it comes to the iPad, I would also say that I am still finding my way with the device and uncovering the possibilities. It’s a fascinating process for me, and I think for my pupils.  Searching out for the opportunities where it offers extensions to a project, or perhaps simply something new and previously unconsidered.

A few of these curriculum enrichment situations have been exactly what I have been experiencing in the classroom this week and observing in the pupils results.

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Last year I worked for the first time on a children’s book design project with the fourteen to fifteen year olds that I teach. In short, the pupils write and make an illustrated story book in which an artwork that they have previously researched plays a starring role.

Last year, each group of three produced and entirely handmade book. Illustrations were made, text was added either by writing it out by hand or printing it out on the computer and collaging it on to the illustrated pages. The results were satisfactory and in some cases good, but the problem we encountered in integrating the text was a bit of a puzzle. The classes worked well, but without the luxury of having the iPad to combine the language element with the illustrations.

This year though the situation is different and it is fascinating to watch. Groups are sharing tasks, stories are being written, handmade illustrations are being produced using the traditional materials, the artworks are being photographed, digitally enhanced where necessary before being inserted into page layouts and finally the text from the story is then laid on top.

I’m not quite finished with the assignment yet, but I’ve seen enough already to know that this is an example of digitalization extending a project into new areas. Groups are working genuinely as groups, sharing tasks and discussing what they are doing and working with a high level of engagement to produce and end product.  What was a good project has become an excellent one through a well-fitting digital extra element.

For those who are interested, the app we are using for the layout is the excellent Design Pad By Quark.

Average???

Pupils sometimes say things in class that prompt a reaction in me. It might be instantaneous, a sort of verbal ping pong if you like. It might leave me pondering the pupil opinion in the train on the way home, or it might even cause me to write something, as in this case.

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The pupil concerned was a boy in one of my third year classes (ages 14-15).  Let us call the pupil Jack. Jack said something that didn’t so much make me angry as unsettled when he expressed an opinion that is certainly shared by many of his peers I suspect, but in Jack’s case it was just so up front, it confronted me. I reacted by writing the following text on the train on the way home, initially with the full intention of mailing it to the whole class just to get it off my chest. In the end I didn’t preferring my own brand of ‘slow burn’ solution of classroom persuasion and enthusiasm. It does however make quite a good blog post though.

The written reaction I wrote to Jack’s provocation goes like this:

I’m not picking on you Jack, but your comment about producing work of ‘average’ quality being OK has set me thinking on my way home today….thanks for that! Let me share a few of my thoughts with you all.

I tried to make clear to you this afternoon that I didn’t see ‘average’ effort being quite enough in my lessons. Let me enlarge on this….

Imagine at the start of the school year, your form teacher is telling you your new timetable and who your new teachers are going to be.  Do you want average teachers, or would you rather have all the best ones all week?

On a Saturday morning would you rather play in a football or hockey team of players who just gave ‘average’ effort? Or would you rather play in a team of players who are trying to do their best?

Your mum or dad need their car fixed, do they want an ‘average’ mechanic who does just enough to get the car on the road again, or would they rather have one who understands fully what they are doing and can carry out the work to the highest standard?

Would you be happy with a dentist doing work of an ‘average’ quality on your teeth? Personally I’d like to have one you knows exactly what they are doing and works to the highest standards!

I guess I also like to work with others who are trying to produce their best work. That goes for my colleagues, but also for the pupils I work with. I see myself as being part of a team with my colleagues, but also as part of a team with you….dear pupils 😉

I don’t give you a great deal to do outside of my lesson time, but what I do expect/require is a focused and ambitious attitude in the lessons. This is equally true for pupils with enormous creative talent and for those who find my subject, let’s say, more challenging!

Jack’s initial point of being average might often seem enough on the short term (getting you through into the next school year). But increasingly showing you can do more and shine in what you are doing is going to become important.

I could have ranted on a lot further, but it’s a problem that most of those who work in education will recognize to a lesser or greater degree. In the Netherlands we call it the ‘sixes culture’. Scoring five out of ten is a fail, scoring a six isn’t, although it is only marginally better. But when you can pass with a six, why bother going for an eight?

Much has been written and discussed about this problem. It does seem to be a problem that particularly afflicts boys, but by no means all boys.  The peer group does often to be playing a significant part. Sometimes it almost reminds me of the middle distance (1500m to 5000m) athletics races that my son runs.

When he’s trying to run a personal record in say a 1500 metre race it is all too important that he finds himself in with an appropriate group of athletes. Obviously the abilities in the group have to be reasonably well matched, competition is important in bringing out the best performances. Yet a too evenly matched field, particularly in a championship race where being the first over the line is everything can throw up a bizarrely slow race as everyone spends all their time watching what others are doing, the whole field clumps together and nobody seems willing to take the race on and show how fast they can run.

I understand fully why this happens on the athletics track, but it does kind of remind me about some behaviour that I sometimes see in the classroom, a behaviour that I remember experiencing myself and seems, as I said earlier, particularly to afflict boys.

Ambition to achieve well can be a strangely unpredictable measure in teenagers. It can run hot and cold. Working in the art room I certainly observe this. Triggering interest and engagement is the initial challenge, but sustaining this into often quite extended practical assignments is still more important, and that is what I will be working on with Jack.

(SELF)PORTRAIT PROJECT WITH MAASLAND COLLEGE

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Our 9th grade art course is participating in an international collaboration with the students of Maasland college in the Netherlands.

The aim of our project is to study (self-)portrait in social media, art history and contemporary portrait photography.

We started with an introductory lesson on the place of photography in our everyday lives and a closer look at the “art” of current selfie-culture in social media.

Then we study the art of (self)portrait in art history and the history of photographic art. After the historical tour we will bring students back to the present.

Assignment 1: Photography by description

Students chose a  portrait photo from a list of contemporary photographers in their own countries and write a 200-250 word description of it in English. We exchanged our descriptions with the Dutch students.Then our students try to copy, recreate a version or make an interpretation based on the descriptions. Original images are kept secret. After test…

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Stating the obvious – language as a tool of communication

Yes it might sound rather too obvious to write about, but often language isn’t quite as hard and definite as we might think.  How often have you left a business meeting or a discussion with friends or family, only later to wonder whether you have interpreted what was said correctly or encountered a creeping feeling that you, or they, have been misunderstood?

It’s just this kind of area that, my Finnish colleague, Pasi Kirkkopelto, and I are pitching into with the photographic project we are running between our art classes in Finland and the Netherlands.

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Photograph by Suzanne Jongmans

A couple of weeks ago I had my fourth year classes (aged 14-15) write short 200-250 word descriptions of an image from a set of photographic portraits made my Dutch photographers.  My pupils approached it in a quite nonchalant way, of course they could describe a portrait in such a short text. Even after completing the task they were quite confident of the quality of the description that they had produced. To them, working in small groups as they were, they had the feeling that they had produced a ‘bullet-proof’ description. They’d covered everything, it was clear, they had considered everything. I’m guessing that in Finland there was a similar feeling, maybe the Scandinavian counterparts were slightly less confident with their use of English than my bilingual Dutch pupils, but I suspect there was a comparable feeling of having covered all the necessary detail.

We subsequently swapped the descriptive texts over, without passing on the actual photographs to the pupils. The task that followed was then to produce a photograph of their own that was based on the text.  A direct copy was never likely to be the result, our aim and hope as teachers, was for a set of technically well made photographs, that had an interesting and engaging relationship with the original source image.

In this situation, the use of language is very much as a filter. In 250 words, a certain amount of information can be passed, but a very long way from the text covering every last detail. With the new descriptions in their hands my pupils soon started to discover for themselves the limitations of language and how it can fail to be an accurate and precise tool of communication.

Before they even picked up a camera for themselves I had them work on a simple composition sketch of the photograph to work out for themselves how the various elements fitted together. In no time there were puzzled faces, not because the English was poor, it was just that their interpretation of the text just didn’t quite seem to add up. I haven’t spoken to Pasi in Finland about his experiences with my pupils’ descriptions yet, but my guess is that he’ll have encountered comparable puzzles.

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For our art project this is an interesting way of diverting away from just making a reconstruction of an existing photograph. But there is also perhaps a more serious and important language issue at a stake here. Language is not as concrete as we might like it to be. Misunderstandings and misinterpretations continually interrupt and effect everyday life. Problems can of course arise when language is used by someone who does not yet have a full mastery of it. But equally difficult is when someone’s use of language is overly (and maybe unnecessarily complex) leading to problems of interpretation for others.  I read an article about just this point recently highlighting the problems of over complexity among native speakers of English in a university setting.

Native Speakers….always the right choice?

The message seems to be, keep it clear, keep it concise. But I would also say, in terms of expressive and descriptive content, overly basic use of language comes with its own set of risks!