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.

Advertisements

Jasper Johns at the Royal Academy, London

Jasper Johns’ work has always been an enigmatic presence at the back of my interest in painting. At the art school I attended (Wimbledon School of Art in south west London) he was a figure who regularly enough was referred to. But at the time he was also an artist who always seemed difficult to categorize and place in an art historical context. His early work was a reaction to and a moving on from, the abstract expressionists, taking painting into new areas. Yet in the art world of the sixties and seventies his work never falls easily into any of the dominant directions of the time. There are relationships to aspects of minimalism, conceptualism and pop art, but there are as many differences as similarities.

The retrospective show at the Royal Academy in London only underlines the slightly divergent route that Johns has taken throughout as he has built his own reference library of motifs and symbols that he draws on again and again in his work. Seen as a whole the work feels extremely autobiographical in the end, as he ends up almost coming full circle chasing his own personal and art historical story.

The title of the exhibition is “Something Resembling Truth“. In the early work it’s easy to see an observer at work, and one that questions the visual world around us. He asks us to reconsider the visual truths that we perhaps take for granted but are actually rather more layered and offer multiple interpretations, as in the early flag, targets and text work.

As you progress through the show that is arranged in a roughly chronological order you become increasingly aware that the visual symbolism and references that Johns makes use of are becoming increasingly personal. This might be in the form of being objects and items found around his studio, the trappings of his artistic practice as in the painted bronze that shows us a representation of his brushes. Or it could be the ‘devices’ that play a physical part in the manufacture of the image. Later it might be reference to his friend Merce Cunningham or is fascination with favourite artistic connections, be those Munch, Duchamp or Newman. The artist builds up a visual library that he continues to add to but he gets older increasingly dips back into, to reference himself.

In a sense it is the luxury of an artist of an older generation. Is there a continuing sense of visual exploration and discovery in the work? Perhaps not, or at least not as there once was. Previously the visual content had been refined to create full resolved and engaging pieces. Resulting in pieces, such as Between the Clock and the Bed, one of my own personal favorites, from the series featuring the crosshatching motif.

IMG-4056(1)

However what there is to see in the later work are paintings and prints that reference the artist’s own history, his own visual language and what it is to be an artist with such an extensive personal back catalogue. In that sense the exhibition is certainly offering something resembling truth.

From a personal perspective I do like the way Johns repeatedly explores a recurring motif for an extended period. It’s something I recognize in my own work and something I was encouraged to do back at art school in Wimbledon as a student by the then head of the painting school, John Mitchell…..John was, incidentally, another big Jasper Johns admirer.

A tale of two sketchbooks

Artists have always had notebooks, drawing books, sketch books, call them what you will, the place where ideas, impressions and notations are set down. The links below take you to records of my own favourites:

Georges Suerat         Richard Diebenkorn

Many artists value them more highly than the actual finished pieces of work, they form a chronological document of a creative life, record a working process, a document full with potential, waiting to be developed.

I can relate to much of that, I have a collection of hard back books of various sizes that go back to my teenage years. To call them a diary would be wrong and create a different sort of impression, however they are records on my creative life and when I open them up I see notations that carry me back to where I was in by creative activities, but often a whole lot more beside. A particular page may conjure up recollections of people I was with at the time, where the drawing was made and maybe particular circumstances that led me to take a particular approach.

However, during the last eight years or so there has been a development in my sketchbook use. I now have two quite distinctive sets of books. The first is a book of plans, doodles, experiments and thoughts that relate to my main studio practice. They contain notations and instructions to myself that will help carry me towards the type of work that is documented in the ‘My own paintings’ link at the top of the page.

Within these pages I am puzzling out ideas and arrangements, recording plans and trying to find my way in this section of my creative output. This is undoubtedly the most important part of my work as an artist. The pages of these books rarely have a very aesthetic appearance, that’s not the point, they are about recording, experimenting and hopefully avoiding dead ends and the pursuing bad ideas when studio time is precious.

Alongside this I have a second set of books. These are mostly a little smaller, A6 or A5 format. I call them my ‘recreational’ books. For that is what they are. The very first one in this series was made in 2009 during a month-long family trip to Orkney in northern Scotland. I decided it would be interesting to somehow record this family expedition. It felt like a big adventure, my wife and me travelling with our children aged 9 and 11 at the time, on trains, boats and buses, with two small tents in rucksacks on our backs.

The resulting A6 sketchbook became filled with forty or fifty drawings and watercolours of the expansive skies and glistening horizons that we encountered. Since this trip I have continued the practice, whenever we travel the latest book comes with me, also if it is just a day trip. I enjoy the process, and over the years I do seem to have got better at rapidly capturing, mostly the landscapes, that we pass through.

So, I have two seemingly quite distinct set of documents in these compact books on my shelves. I have often found myself wondering about other artists who might have similar split creative outlets. One that springs to mind is perhaps Ellsworth Kelly. On the surface, his elegant and deceptively simple line drawings of plants seem to have little connection with the large scale geometric abstractions. But look a little more carefully and the connections are there, lines and edges, intersections and an economy of information.

Like with Kelly’s work, I am starting to feel increasingly that these two streams of creativity do in some ways show tendencies to converge. Geometry in the landscape has always fascinated me. Where is this geometry ever stronger than in the hard edge of the horizon of the sea on a clear day….a scene that I have often enough recorded in the travel notebooks. And more recently trees as a motif are finding their way repeated into the studio work and I would certainly be inaccurate to say that my experiences of drawing trees in the landscape in my ‘recreational’ books hasn’t in some way been feeding through into what I consider to be the ‘real’ work.

Finally after seven years an exhibition

I don’t write posts often about the adult groups that I teach. I’m not sure why, it’s certainly not because they’re not interesting enough, on the contrary, they often throw up the most unexpected things as the very first post I ever wrote for this blog points out:

When the cat’s away…

Over the last few years I’ve taught one particular group that has grown into a very productive and sociable Thursday evening session.  At the moment, it is a group of around fifteen, ranging in ages from early twenties to around eighty. Many of the group have been following the lessons for six or seven years and in that time, have been open to trying any sort of assignment that I throw to them.

IMG_3708

We talk about art a great deal, I help them with technical and content challenges, we laugh a lot, especially when I stumble badly enough in a Dutch sentence…. yes, even after twenty-five years here that does still happen!  There is also something of a running joke about how I, once every couple of weeks, come with a new assignment, they all listen carefully and then they all go and do something else.

All in all it’s become a group of friends who paint together once a week. Each summer I make a book of photographs of some of the work that has been produced the previous season as a kind of record of where the group are at that moment.  The one thing that we’ve never done though, is to have an exhibition of paintings in a public space. Until that is, this week. Today I spent the morning with Nynke, one of the group, installing an exhibition of nearly thirty-five paintings in the exhibition space of our local library.

The exhibition includes a variety of paintings including a large group painting that marks a number of the recognizable landmarks from our town of Wageningen in the Netherlands.

Why do I have the feeling that not everyone in the English department is going to approve of this art inspired (clil) writing assignment?

Surreal poetry assignment

This might not be a lesson idea for language purists, but in my defense, I would say that encouraging learners to play with language can be an important aspect of language acquisition. I remember the satisfying buzz I started to get when my mastery of the Dutch language reached a level where I could crack a joke or maybe use a little irony. It makes the using of the language more pleasurable and dare I say it, more fun. So if my surreal poetry assignment takes us into areas of confusing and sometimes conflicting interpretation….well…..that is actually the point of it.

If you would like a little more context and history on the Surrealists, their forerunners the Dadaists and how text and language featured in their work a good place to start is the excellent The Art Story site through the links at the bottom of this post.

So how does the assignment work? I should start by saying that there are plenty of variations on these poetic themes to be found on a variety of websites. The one that I sketch out here is based on an idea from one on a wikihow.com page.

The initial task is to find an existing poem; this could perhaps be one that has been made use of in an English lesson or one that you as a teacher feel is particularly appropriate. Alternatively, allow your pupils to search for a starting point themselves in books or on websites, one that they themselves find interesting…..reading a bit of poetry can never be a bad thing!

Once a suitable poem has been found ask the pupils to identify the nouns, verbs and adjectives in the poem by underlining them with three different coloured pens. Again, this is a useful language exercise for pupils of any level to try to complete.

Then comes the creative part, ask the pupils to replace the existing nouns, verbs and adjectives with new ones of their own choice. It helps if they have already grasped the fact that in the world of the Surrealists not everything is quite as it seems. To make this point clear the paintings of Rene Magritte are my own favourite.

The challenge is to create new poetic lines that are grammatically correct, but have an intriguing and perhaps perplexing connection…..complete randomness though, doesn’t seem to engage the writer or the reader in quite the same way.

 

The examples below illustrate the process:

 

Is the Moon Tired?

By Christina Rossetti (1830-1994)

Is the moon tired? she looks so pale

Within her misty veil:

She scales the sky from east to west,

And takes no rest.

Before the coming of the night

The moon shows papery white;

Before the dawning of the day

She fades away

 

Is the (noun) tired? she looks so (adjective)

Within her misty (noun):

She (verb) the sky from (noun) to (noun),

And takes no (noun).

Before the (verb) of the (noun)

The moon shows (adjective) (noun);

Before the (verb) of the (noun)

She (verb) away.

(Noun – Verb – Adjective)

 

A new version might go:

Is the ink tired? she looks so weak

Within her misty streak:

She swims the sky from pen to book,

And takes no second look.

Before the consuming of the text

The moon shows uncertain perplex;

Before the burning of the hay

She withdraws away.

 

Two possible extensions to this project could be:

  1. Ask pupils to try to produce an illustration based on their own new version of the poem
  2. Give pupils an example of a surreal artwork (such as one by Magritte) and ask them to write a poem about the painting from scratch. The visual material that the painting offers provides a clear direction and material enough for an interesting exploration and simultaneously requires them to look long and hard at an image from art history.

The story of Dada

The story of Surrealism

Wikihow page used

Studio Day

The fact that I’m sharing the progress of these paintings is an indication that I’m feeling pretty content with the progress.  In the photograph it does all look very graphic, a quality that comes over a little less in the actual work. Inevitably the smaller scale works on paper progress at a higher tempo.

FullSizeRender(7)

Showing images of violence to teenagers

We live in a world full of violent imagery. Some of this is factual some of it fictional. Our teenage children are as much submerged in this world as any of us. Some fifteen year olds are immensely sensitive to this aspect of our visual world, others seem immune to it, whilst others seem almost to crave it.

As someone who teaches art and visual culture I see at least part of my task as helping the young people I teach to engage and understand the nature of the images that they are constantly bombarded with, be that through the news media, social media, art or advertising. It is a form of visual literacy, developing an appreciation and understanding for the visual world around us.

Particularly when referring to images of violence in war this brings me and my pupils into a sensitive areas and raises questions about what I can show them in a lesson situation and what is appropriate. I was confronted this week by exactly this dilemma. It came within the context of a cross-curricular project week on the theme of war and peace. Most timetable subjects participate and twist their lesson material in such a way that it touches on this shared theme in one way or another.

In my art course I had planned a couple of lessons. The first one of which was simply to take a look at how the presentation of conflict has changed through the centuries and how we the viewer are affected by what we see and what the creator of the artwork or photographer wanted us to think.  We talked about battlefield images ranging from those on Ancient Greek ceramics, the Bayeux Tapestry, the Medieval conflicts depicted during the Renaissance. I gradually brought the developments through the centuries and reached the hugely significant moment around the beginning of the nineteenth century where we go from the heroic images of Napoleon on the battlefield to the victim of war being pushed to centre stage in Goya’s 3rd May. From then on the nature of the imagery becomes a whole lot more confrontational as we move through the First and Second World War.

Most of what I show my groups of fourteen and fifteen year olds are paintings. But by the second half of the twentieth century it is difficult to ignore the place of photography and to help me cover this I have an interesting film about World Press Photography award winning images.  The film discusses a number of photographs, but two in particular are dealt with at length. Firstly, the iconic image made by Eddie Adams of a street execution in Vietnam. It’s a shockingly confrontational image, and one that I remember thinking long and hard about in the past as to whether to show it to my pupils or not. It is also an image that is embedded in our visual culture and I know now that many in the class will have come across the photograph in other contexts. Seen alongside Goya’s image of execution it presents an excellent opportunity to consider how the tools of the painter and photographer allow to experience moments of extreme destruction, what are the advantages and disadvantages of the different media? Why do we feel what we do when viewing the images?

Perhaps more importantly though, it is a particular land mark in the sort of journalistic photography that we (my pupils included) are confronted with all too often in a news reporting context. Offering the pupils, a greater understanding of how we respond to these sorts of images is certainly worth doing. It raises a plethora of questions that can be discussed and the pupils themselves have plenty to opinions and ideas to bring to the discussion, the place in our lives of imagery of real and fictional violence being a particularly interesting one to have.

But does this mean that I can show my pupils anything and everything? The second photograph in the film, David Turnley’s helicopter interior form the first Gulf War back at the beginning of the 1990s. It’s a powerful image that doesn’t show the violence as much as the results and consequences of the violence as a fully kitted out American soldier sits crying next to the body of his friend that is concealed in a body bag. I wouldn’t hesitate to show and discuss this image with my fourteen and fifteen olds. Yet in the same film there is a twenty second sequence where I turn the screen off. It shows the results of the bombing of the Iraqi column of vehicles that were bombed when they were fleeing Kuwait. I draw the line at showing the graphic images of this monumental destruction with its burnt bodies and unimaginable suffering.

My action of turning the screen off (and explaining why) always prompts discussion. Like I said at the start some teenagers seem almost to crave this sort of imagery. I feel no inclination to feed this craving in my lessons, but I do want to lead my pupils to seriously consider the journalistic photographs that report the world around us. It is a fine line to tread on occasions, a point that was brought home to me this week by a pupil who expressed nervousness when searching for her own images to be used in a related project didn’t want to be confronted by shocking photographs from the battlefield. A reason to tread cautiously, but not one to step away from the subject.

Other war and art related projects:

There they stood project

Guernica project

Studio day

Since Christmas I’ve been working on a series of drawings that merge elements of geometry with the more chaotic side of nature. Nature, you could say is being checked and controlled by hard edges being imposed on it.

The drawings have been progressing well, and at speed, so the point has been reached of scaling the up a little to see how they work in a larger form.fullsizerender5

fullsizerender6

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…….

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