A museum in place of the last lesson of the week

Friday afternoon and what better way to end the week than a quick trip with sixteen of my fourth years (15-16 year olds) to the local museum to see a little art first hand. The town where I work, Oss in the south of the Netherlands, is not that big, but it is lucky to have an excellent small museum, the Jan Cunen museum to give it it’s full name. At least is lucky to still have one for the time being, as the council are busy with plans that is likely to end with the museum being a significantly less interesting and educational place to visit. But for now though on this sunny Friday afternoon I have been able to visit a fantastic exhibition of photographs by the Dutch photographer Gerco de Ruijter. De Ruijter is a landscape photographer although not really in the usual sense. First of all most of his work is made using a camera that is attached to a kite that is being flown above his subject. We are of course more than a little used to the idea of viewing the world from above, be that from a plane or by using Google Earth. What makes the work more interesting is the choice of the specific sorts of landscapes he chooses. They are most often landscapes where the effects of man are quite evident and have resulted in an exposure of geometric quality in the composition of the photographs. The results are often stunningly close to the appearance to certain kinds of abstract geometric painting, a fact that the photographer is more than happy to acknowledge.

blog Gerco de Ruijter Untitled 2009 Dubai  (l. de Ruijter, r. Mangold)blog imageshandler  (l. de Ruijter, r.Marden)

It’s interesting to watch the pupils respond to the work. They see the abstract qualities in the design, a circle carefully positioned in a square in a fashion that to me is clearly reminiscent to the paintings of Robert Mangold, but in de Ruijter’s case a roundabout framed sharply be the edges of the photograph. Or perhaps it’s Brice Marden, Sean Scully or Agnes Martin that comes to mind when seeing a composition of rectangular geometry. Such references are of course lost on my fifteen year olds (although it will certainly be a subject in a forthcoming lesson). However they do often get to an appreciation of the abstract qualities via a different route. The photographs offer a high level of fine detail and you find yourself drawn into looking ever closer in an effort to decipher exactly what it is that you are seeing.  That might be irrigation systems in the U.S., a frozen lake that has been ice skated over or countless rows of small trees or saplings in a plant nursery. The pupils found themselves searching and enquiring as to what each photograph was showing. Once it became clear what exactly they were looking at, the next question was, ‘how do these small details come to combine to form such a pattern or design?’ and one that dominates the photographic composition. This in turn leads to a greater appreciation of the order (imposed or not) that we encounter in the world around us. It was a short but very good visit, the pupils left having had a break from regular lessons, but they also left with a new enthusiasm for a photographic form of art that probably quite surprised them.  I head for home with the feeling that eyes have been culturally opened just that little bit more.

A secret love

When I was at art school, one of my art history lecturers described herself as a cartomaniac. At the time I had to think for a moment about what she could mean, but as the lecture went on it became clearer, she had a love or at least a fascination for the world of maps. I can relate well to this. I too love a map.

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. 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.

Image

There are artists enough who have made use of maps in their own work. I fully expect one day to make paintings and drawings based around this particular view of the landscape, but up until now the right ideas in the context of my own work have yet to present themselves.

The same isn’t true though amongst the adults that I teach. I have regularly set assignments that are hung up around travel be that walking, running or biking routes through the locality or journeys round the globe. My angle has often been to try and encourage the participants to try and break away from the conventions of map making, get away from the idea that the sea has to be blue and polar regions white, simplify forms, think about what ideas of content you can use to help dictate the way the painting goes.

Last night while I was doing this I was struck a change in how this sort of assignment is now approached. I used to show up with a pile of black and white photocopies of the world map as a jumping off point. Now though, the iPads and tablets come out and the world quite literally opens up. Last night one group member opened up GoogleEarth, scanned around a bit, for some reason decided to focus in on Timbuktu, zoomed right in on the grid formation of the streets and buildings of the city, and proceeded to set to work on an abstract painting based on these forms. It really was wonderful to see, the instantaneous nature of it all. My black and white photocopies seem like such a distant memory.