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.

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

 

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.

Ellsworth Kelly, at last, and a new Dutch modern art museum

Ellsworth Kelly has always been an important artist to me, ever since I first encountered his work as a student in London back in the late 1980s. His use of line and form, coupled with intense colour, drew me towards an interest in abstraction. His reduced artworks had a beauty that engaged my attention and helped me resolve how I could deal with abstract elements in my own work. Kelly’s work continues to be a touchstone in my own studio practice.


Despite this interest in his work I have never seen a solo show of his paintings or sculptures. I have regularly come across pieces in London, Paris, Amsterdam and Otterlo near where I live, but normally only one or two at a time. So it was with considerable anticipation that I arrived at the new Voorlinden Museum, on the outskirts of The Hague to see that elusive solo exhibition, ironically enough, just a few months after the artist’s death.
Kelly himself acknowledged the connection of his work with nature and the world around us. The Voorlinden museum in this regard presents a fantastic context. The architecture itself is reduced and and lean, no decoration here, less still in Kelly’s work. Always close by is the natural world, seen through the expansive glass walls of the museum.
The paintings are given the chance to breath their intense colour, the geometry of the forms cutting across the immaculate walls.
There is an attention to detail in Kelly’s work that is at once simple and fascinatingly complex. An edge that to all intents and purposes looks straight, but just by the smallest of margins isn’t, or one of his curves resting, and seemingly waiting to pivot, on the most fragile of points resting on the ground. But above all in the difusely top-lit gallery spaces of the museum it is the colour that captures the attention. Immaculately laid down surfaces with a rich intensity.

There are many other interesting pieces on show elsewhere in the museum, but in the context of he Kelly show, Open Ended by Richard Serra and Skyspace by James Turrell are particularly enjoyable combinations. Serra’s huge curving arcs envelop you as you walk through them, the rusting steel surface of his sculptures share nothing of the immaculate surface quality of Kelly’s work. However, for both artists the geometry of the edge is crucial. In that regard the edges of Turrell’s Skyspace installation work could hardly appear sharper. From the reclining benches around the sides of the room you look up through the sharp square opening in the roof to the limitless space of the sky above. The awareness you have of the surface of the canvas in Kelly’s work is replaced by an abiguous sense of surface that you know, in reality, is completely absent.. The slowly passing clouds so carefully framed up by the work taking on a feeling of the most full-colour projection possible.

The Voorlinden museum

Gearing up for my first solo show in quite a while

The last couple of months I’ve been gradually getting ready for two exhibitions.  The first is a group show in the Dutch town of Nijmegen.  The second is a solo exhibiton, in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, the town that has been drawing all the attention the last few months for its Jheronimus Bosch exhibition.

The exhibition is going to give me the chance to dip back into work influenced by the very Dutch interiors made by Vermeer, that I was making when I first arrived in The Netherlands back in the nineties. This will be hung alongside more recent work that is  more orientated towards the Dutch landscape and our relationship with this most manipulated of environments.

Without giving too much away, I can promise a place for both of the painintgs below.

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Empty Room, Oil paint on canvas, 1993

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Untitled, Oil and acrylic on canvas, 2016

Kirchner in the Singer Museum in Laren

imageNever having made it to the Kirchner’s museum in Davos Switzerland Kirchner’s work has often been an experience of seeing one of his paintings amongst a group of German expressionist pieces in a museum collection. Seeing an extensive group of his work was reason enough to make a trip to another museum, much closer to home, that I’ve never quite made it to either. The museum in question is the Singer museum in Laren (the Netherlands).

The show consists of around a hundred pieces, paintings, works on paper and woodblock prints. We are taken on a journey from his expressionist roots and connections with Die Brucke group, his relocation to the Alps and finally to his depression and eventual suicide there. It was a period in the 1930s when his work was branded degenerate and 600 pieces were removed from German collections and were either sold or destroyed.
The paintings in the singer are almost all figure based work. The earlier pieces relying on aggressive brush work and strong us of colour. These are the sorts of pieces I have seen elsewhere in Die Brucke exhibitions. The more surprising part of the exhibition comes, for me at least, in the later work that displays perhaps more influences from the likes of Picasso and Braque but above all in the woodcut prints that are displayed.
The graphic limitations of the woodcut technique brings with it an economy of line that brings a simplicity of form coupled with the high contrast of black ink on white paper. This same simplicity returns in the later paintings in the exhibition.

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It’s about the idea – a start-up lesson with thanks to Rauschenberg!

Regularly I use a start-up lesson with my third years (age 14-15) that I know leaves them actually discussing the content of the lesson beyond the moment that they have left the room.

I’ve used the lesson twice this week and it has already served its purpose. I suppose that purpose breaks down into a number of parts:

  • To leave them curious about the future content of the lessons and hopefully feeling that they can expect the unexpected
  • To counter the feeling in most young teenagers minds that art has to always be beautiful or skilfully made
  • To introduce the fact that the ‘idea’ behind the work might actually be the most important thing
  • To open the door on a little art history

pencil stilllifeThe lesson plan could hardly be simpler.  Hand out a piece of paper to each pupil and make sure that everyone has got a pencil and a rubber. Next, ask the pupils to take a collection of small items out of their bags or pencil cases and arrange a still life on the table in front of them.

We then spend the next thirty minutes producing first a line drawing and then adding shading on and around the objects, I encourage them to try and make it the ‘best drawing that they have ever made’!

After thirty minutes I ask them to switch drawings with the person sitting next to them. I think most of them expect to be asked to carry on working on their partner’s drawing. But then comes the twist, I ask them to rub out the drawing, completely erase it, or at least as much as is possible.

It’s so interesting to watch how different classes react to this. Occasionally I get one where they just shrug their shoulders and get on with it. With most though it is a mixture disbelief and uproar, with some it almost becomes disobedience with some of them refusing to be so destructive! But in the end I persuade them to all pick up the eraser and get on with it.

In order to explain this rather unusual practical lesson at the start of the year and link up with the learning targets listed above I explain how this all connects up with what Robert Rauschenberg did to a Willem de Kooning drawing back in 1953. Rauschenberg spent two months gradually erasing the valuable de Kooning drawing before framing it and exhibiting it as his own work with the title ‘Erased Willem de Kooning Drawing’.

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For a more extensive explanation to the story click here.

Below you can see one of my pupil’s pieces of work.

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As I said at the start, this is a fantastic way to grab everyone’s attention during that first lesson back after the holiday, but more importantly it shows that:

  • An artwork can be a kind of documentation of a performance or occurrence, indeed the performance itself can also become the artwork
  • An artwork can be humorous and aimed at making us rethink our preconceptions
  • An artwork can be more about an idea and less about how it looks

Added to this I can underline the fact that artworks don’t necessarily have to

  • Look aesthetically beautiful
  • Be skilfully made

In the end it is quite a lot to take in, but a series of themes have been established that can be returned to during other lessons and lesson modules.

I normally end with a promise never to ask them to erase their work again!

Educational babies, bathwater and standardized testing

They say that every day in education is different. Generally that’s fairly true, but at the moment it doesn’t really feel like it. Alongside particularly packed timetable at the moment I am ploughing my way through my usual April extra task of being an examiner for the visual arts International Baccalaureate diploma exam. In the course of a month I mark seventy candidates.

The work is all done online and involves a long sit in front of my computer screen at home. Each candidate presents a 10-15 minute interview film where they talk about an exhibition of their work, a 300 word statement, documentation of 20-30 pages of their research/note books and 12-18 images of their main studio work. On the basis of this I have to give an overall grade ranging get from 1 to 20 and write a short report explaining the strengths and weaknesses of the work and justifying how I have applied the marking criteria. All in all, about a forty to forty five minute block for each pupil.

150925_510252105673439_1120982677_nAs I said earlier it’s a long sit. But it is actually, as marking of tests and exams go, it’s a really rather interesting test of endurance. The main reason for this is that the IB visual arts exam is perhaps one of the best examples of non-standardized testing. At no point in this exam are candidates tested on predetermined hard information/facts/skills that the exam board passes down as a requirement.

Let’s be clear here, we do examine on technical skill, sensitivity, creativity and imagination in the practical work candidates present, and we also examine on their research and knowledge of their ideas and how they apply them to the practical work. Alongside this we also look that the contextual, art historical and personal references in their work. Not only is the finished product evaluated, but also the working process that leads up to the work being produced.

The fact that this is all examined with a non-standardized test is absolutely right and correct, how else could you examine such a two year process of artistic development? Well there are of course other ways to do this, you could standardize large amounts of the curriculum and also of the test. Tell the teachers and pupils which parts and details of art history they must learn about in order to be able to have a central test for it. You can also have standardized testing for practical work too, I remember doing a, I think, four hour drawing paper at school in the UK and an even longer painting paper spread over a number of days, all based on a series of standardized questions.

The Dutch educational system where I teach uses the variant where the subject teacher in the school examines the practical work and there is a national written paper for the (very specified) art and cultural history syllabus that has to be followed. I have two main issues with this approach, firstly the balance of theory and practical, it’s about 50:50 but I know the pupils end up feeling like the theory work is in the ascendancy. Secondly, and hugely important, the theory and the practical are way too detached.

This is where the IB non-standardized approach shows its strength. Instead of detachment, the art and cultural context MUST be integrated with the practical work. Exactly how, or what, is not specified. If, for example, a particular candidate is particularly interested in environmental issues and has decided to make artworks about such a theme, they are expected to carry out research into this area, the issues involved and other artists who might be making work related to this field. This is all with the aim of stimulating the pupils’ interest by letting them seek out themes that are interesting and relevant to them. Yes, this might mean that they may never stop to study the work of Rembrandt. But does that matter? If a young person and their creativity can be engaged and nurtured into a love and appreciation of art and culture they’ll find out about Rembrandt soon enough.

As I work my way through all my exam candidates (from all over the world) there is great diversity. Diversity in work process, themes and quality. The quality of teaching is important, possibly even more important in this non-standardized approach, as I should perhaps also point out, is the quality of the examining! But the gain is, and it’s a big gain, that candidates have a focus and ownership of their work that is different from a more standardized approach. The creativity, insight and self-motivation that is asked of them is also of huge relevance to them as they continue into higher education, whether that is in an art and culturally related field or not.

Mark Rothko in the ‘side chapels’ of Gemeentemuseum in The Hague

I studied in London and as an art student made regular trips to the Tate as it was then known, before the setting up of the Tate Modern and Tate Britain. On these trips I became only too familiar with the brooding presence of the large dark reddish canvases of the Seagram murals made in the late 1950s. These are I think the only examples of Rothko’s work that I have seen clustered together in a group, otherwise it has generally been just isolated artworks that I have come across in various European museums and galleries. So the chance to see a whole show of his work in the Gemeentemuseum, alongside the paintings of Piet Mondriaan, an artist who in many ways paved the way for Rothko and the other abstract expressionists, has been noted down in my diary for some time.

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The Tate paintings ooze a depth in their mood and indeed in their colour. I am very familiar with Rothko’s work from secondary sources such as the internet and books. I knew that there are plenty of paintings that make use of a higher range of palette, and yet, this was still the surprise in The Hague exhibition.  Often there is that familiar depth in the tone and the colour, but layer on top of this is are second or third colours that deliver a feathery intensity shimmering in the indistinct ground colour.

Also included in the exhibition are a number of works on paper made close to the end of the artist’s life. One in particular that catches the attention is an untitled work from 1968. It’s a relatively large piece, on a sheet of paper that is maybe 140×100 cm and shows a ground of two deep shades of blue, part of which edges towards black. The second quarter of the painting moving downwards glows an almost golden yellow. It’s a composition that seems to sum up so much of Rothko’s work, a deep, almost menacing depth, complimented so often with areas that lift themselves out, calling for our attention. The painting has a quite heavily worked surface, and in some ways gives away more of the artist’s process than many of the larger canvases do, we clearly see the traces of the artist’s brushes as he works across the surface. This particular work, hangs near a doorway, not necessarily in a space that lends itself to catching the museum viewer, yet it is fascinating to watch it do just that as visitors move from one space to another.

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The spaces of the Gemeentemuseum lend themselves enormously to the show.  There are rooms that display the work in groups, with uncluttered space to move around in, the classical museum experience if you like. But there are a number of spaces that function almost as a side chapel in a cathedral and have been given a single large Rothko canvas, with a seat in front of it, an ideal space for contemplation.