The American Dream – Drentsmuseum, Assen

Is it a sign of the times, is my perception of the land across the Atlantic shifting? I was brought up on the art world of the U.S. It was a constant point of reference during my years at art school. For me it was, and still is, the abstract art that was the focus, large scale, often very lean and reduced. But the exhibition The American Dream spread across the Drentsmuseum in Assen, the Netherlands, and the museum in the northern German city of Emden, the focus is on figuration. Assen has responsibility for the twentieth century up until 1965.

The title The American Dream makes use of an often heard phrase, a dream, or an ideal perhaps. Either interpretation hints at a positive view of America, its people and way of life. From a distance I have often viewed this as maybe a bit brash, larger than life, a very ‘in your face’ view of the reality being depicted. However, and this may be being influenced by the current political and social shifts going on, the feeling I gain from seeing this exhibition is one of melancholy. This doesn’t feel like a land of hope, possibilities and of dreams, it’s just as much about suffering, disappointment and often loneliness. There seem to be figures adrift in the world, or at the very least, adrift in a sort of introspection and battles with the city, the landscape and nature.

 

Even when an image of a brash, attractive surface is to be found, in this day and age it seems only too inviting to prick through its shiny surface and ask what is the reality playing out beneath. Is it a world that we might aspire to be part of? Is it a dream or is it even a dream that is sliding into something closer to a nightmare.

Melancholy can certainly be found in the single or isolated figures that people many of the pieces but at times it seems to take on an almost David Lynchian menace, with concealed narratives seeming to be lurking in the background. A link that is never any clearer than in Catharine Murphy’s painting In the Grass. In this case the snake that is approaching from the top left. But the hose pipe takes me in this context instantly back to the opening sequence of Lynch’s Blue Velvet and it’s tale of what lies beneath the tranquility of suburban America.

Even Roy Lichtenstein’s Crying Girl seems to have become charged with a sorrow that I haven’t ever felt before!

The star turn of the exhibition is Edward Hopper’s painting Morning Sun, a painting modeled of the artist’s then 68 year old wife. It’s a beautiful, serene image, but as with many of the artist’s works there hangs a series of questions. What are the thoughts being contemplated? Has something happened? What is playing out just beyond the frame of the painting? The very same questions I find myself asking about multiple artworks in the exhibition.

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Street art in the classroom, or just outside it

Teenagers are fascinated by graffiti and street art, they love the scale of it, they love the youthfulness of it and they love the illegality of it. To find ways to draw on this enthusiasm is a challenge for educators. Obviously that last point is something of a problem for education. The moral code of teaching doesn’t really accommodate defacing other people’s property! So how to circumvent this restriction?

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Is painting on large sheets of paper the solution, spray painting canvases or seeking permission to use a specially designated wall somewhere? These are possibilities but none of them really engage with the way that this form of art engages with a location, a real location that was there already and has been added to by the artist, or in the case of a school, by the pupil.
It is with this in mind in have been doing a kind of site specific/street art project with my youngest pupils (age 12) this week. It’s a little bit of street art with a site specific content, a little bit of Michael Craig Martin and maybe a little bit of Claus Oldenburg or Roy Lichtenstein too, but above all it is about working together, working on a large scale and changing the way a familiar place looks through the addition of a creative intervention.
Working with coloured tape the group work receives a unity through its consistent quality of line. It’s a rapid approach (two ninety minutes sessions in my case), that gives fast results but also allows for adjustment and corrections.
But above all the two fantastic qualities this work has, and that it shares with most street art, is that it is large scale and that it adds to an existing environment. Both qualities bring with them a kind of element of surprise for the pupils and an excitement that is quite different to working on a sheet of paper at a table.

Update:  Some comments form a question I had on Facebook as to how I approached the assignment practically….

It was all relatively intuitive. First a little drawing work on a sheet of paper. My requirements were that it had to be an object that had something to do with the art dept and that it had to have a three dimensional appearance. There was no too conscious scaling up, it was more a question of just starting. The great thing about the tape is that it allows easily for corrections, if two lines aren’t parallel when they were meant to be, it’s just a case of pulling one of the lines off and repositioning. As I say above, just make sure that the tape isn’t too sticky. School won’t thank you for stripping the paint off the wall! Working on a glass wall would be great too…..from inside and out. I think that looking at Michael Craig Martin’s work helped quite a lot too.

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