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

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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…….

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

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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Reaching a conclusion, and reading a poem in public

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I’ve posted before about the commission that I’ve been working on this year. A piece involving three canvases that together are close to four metres wide. This week finally saw the installation of the work in their new home, the Max Planck Institute for Psycholingistics in Nijmegen.

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You never quite know how artworks are going to look in a new location so it is always just a bit of an edgy moment when you pull them out of the packaging and lean them up against the wall and step back to look. On this occasion the result has proved to be undoubtedly a move in the positive direction. The work itself of course hasn’t changed, but the location it has received is on a beautifully spacious white wall that is positively flooded with light. I could have asked for little more, the three panels do look, even if I say so myself, beautiful.

The paintings were given an official  presentation moment on Wednesday afternoon, along with the also recently purchased work by Alex Dima. It was a chance to thank those involved, but also a moment to say something about the ideas and intentions behind the paintings. I am always a bit wary to say too much in such circumstances, I don’t want to give the idea that there is just one route to go. However I am also keen, if I can, to offer the viewer a way into interpreting the work. On this occasion I chose for a short poem, it touches on a number of ideas and reference points that have been important whilst creating the work, but does so in a way that hopefully opens doors to interpretation rather than closing them.

I do not pretend to be a writer or a poet, but I have to admit to being quite satisfied with the resulting three verses, it was certainly well received at the opening!

 

Flight and escape, contemporary themes

Uncertain destinations, safety behind barriers

I look to the landscape

The backdrop of our lives

A rush of wings

Movement passing

 

A narrow aperture opening

Reduced geometric architecture

Refined beauty in our man made line

Engaging the serene beauty beyond

Crisp, hard edges marking space

Illusions in the décor

 

Nature meets the line

Clear blue sky and searing heat

A solitary cloud drifts

A rush of wings move the air

Lost in the colour

Swift movement passing by

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Learning through not understanding? – CLIL (content and language integrated learning) art project

Yesterday I worked together with twenty three twelve year old pupils and two of their teachers (thanks Roderick and Wap!) on an long (8 hours!) and intensive art and language workshop day.  For the children this was just the start of their second week at secondary school and perhaps more significantly the start of the second week where these Dutch school children are getting most of their lessons taught to them in English.

This was the reason that I was brought in to lead the workshop. As a native speaker of English I can provide a kind of immersion day where all the pupils hear is English.  It’s a big language challenge for the children, and for me something of a challenge too as I try to hold back from allowing a single word of Dutch to slip out!

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We hear a lot about short spans of attention in the children of today and such a day as yesterday kind of puts that theory to the test a little. The children are more used to switching from one activity, subject, teacher or classroom at regular intervals, how will they cope with being in one room, with one project and one project leader (supported by a couple of others)?

Well on the experience of yesterday I would say just fine.  Yes the overall project was broken down into a number of smaller parts.  This is important for boosting and re-boosting the energy and focus of the class. Also important is that they could see what they (as a group) were achieving, this is undoubtedly a luxury of an art project, but a quality that surely can be simulated in other subject areas.  But above all, the opportunity not to be continuously interrupted by the school bell announcing that the class must clear up and move on to their next lesson offers new chances for ambitious work and prevents so much time being wasted in the day.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think we should do away with the fragmented timetable of ten or twelve different subject areas, but I would certainly be a fore stander for more occasional project days, as long as the lesson material, plans and teaching are strong enough to maintain a greatly extended lesson.

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Another interesting point of reflection after a day like yesterday is the question of what exactly is going on in the heads of the pupils on such a language ‘immersion’ day.  I think that the results that the group made yesterday show that the group as a whole understood the project pretty well.  But I am realistic enough to acknowledge that these twelve year olds in their first week of lessons that are being taught in their second language are likely to struggle at times. Yesterday I translated nothing into Dutch to make it clearer or easier to understand. This approach forces a couple of things to occur:

  1. They have to listen hard, probably harder than they have listened to a teacher before
  2. They have to learn to cope with missing or failing to understand some parts of the instructions that I give
  3. They inevitably and importantly starting to ‘train’ their ear in the listening skills that are going to be crucially important in the coming months

Points one and three are obviously very desirable elements of this sort of teaching strategy.  The second one sounds rather less positive.  Although as an adult who has learnt to speak a second language since leaving school this kind of ‘joining up the dots’ in speech is a skill I remember being so important to me. It is about having the confidence to make little conceptual leaps to link up elements of content when sections of language interpretation are missed for whatever reason.  Put me in a noisy environment, where everyone is speaking Dutch and I still find myself having to consciously try to do this.

Studio day – walls and birds commission

I’ve been working for a for a few weeks now on a commission project.  Progress is inevitably just steady as I try to fit studio days in amongst other commitments.  Its and interesting project as the three paintings that I will ultimately be making are all pretty much existing work, only they are much smaller.  Some colours are changing in the larger works, and the birds will inevitably turn out differently but the basic wall structure across the three canvases that together will be about four metres wide will remain true to the smaller versions.

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So far with the first two canvases under way progress is fine.  The physicality of the curving wall in the empty landscapes is particularly satisfying to see develop as that seems to be working in quite a different manner to the smaller versions.

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Birds, birds and more birds in art

For a while now birds have featured in my own paintings as a kind of metaphor for nature and our relationship with the environment around us.  In fact I am in the process of scaling up a number of my bird compositions for a commission that I am currently working on.  The studio wall shows the early days of this process.

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matissebirdsMy birds are somewhat panicked flocks flying across empty landscapes filled with curving walls that carve up the space and flow from one canvas to another.  Whilst working on this project I have been coming across other birds in art, firstly Matisse’s paper cuts in the Stedelijk museum in Amsterdam, but then also the sound and video installation made by Marcus Coates at the Fabrica Gallery as part of the Brighton festival. The installation makes use of recordings of people imitating the sounds of the bird dawn chorus that have been greatly slowed down. The human recordings are then speeded up to produce a bird like sound.  All interesting stuff, but when combined with the video that has also been speeded up it really makes for a fascinating combination.

The film below documents the process and gives an impression of how it all fits together. It is well worth a look.

End of the school week

IMG_20150114_201740603It’s the end of the school week and in my studio a canvas is ready, primed and the initial preparation work is done for the beginning to be made on an idea for a painting that has been rattling around in my head for the last six weeks. My working process is often quite slow and methodical paintings tend to unfold over weeks and months rather than hours and days. I’ve learnt to be patient in this regard. Studio time is always a balance between my three days a week educational work and any number of other commitments.

I feel excited by the work ahead. The concept for the painting is incredibly clear in my head, I’ve worked the plan out in a series of drawings and plans on the computer. In many ways it is simply a question of execution of the idea. Although ‘simply’ is a little deceptive.  The plan as it stands looks likely to be quite a labour intensive process and as anyone involved in the creative arts all sorts of things will, and do, happen along the way.