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

So why do teachers want smaller classes?

Many of the classes I teach are groups of thirty pupils. Much is written in the media about the significance of large classes and the negative effect it has on the quality of education offered to pupils. My own personal opinion is that thirty is for most teachers in most situations simply too many.

As a teacher of a practical subject that involves an assortment of materials, setting up at the start of a lesson and clearing up at the end this is definitely the case. Add to this that fact that teachers are encouraged to offer lesson material that reflects varied abilities in a class, allowing individuals to play to their own strengths, resulting in even more one on one teaching being necessary and, well, I’m sure you get the picture.

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With this being the prevalent situation there is one particular type of assignment that often falls victim to this pressure of numbers. That assignment being the three dimensional assignment.  Whether you are working with clay, wood, papier-mâché or some other material, the sheer logistics of it is hard enough in a one hour lesson, let alone when you are trying to shepherd and guide thirty thirteen year olds…..and this is of course before we even get onto the potential safety issues that arise from such a group working with band saws, sanding disks, knives or other tools.

With all this in mind it can be incredibly refreshing when through a quirk in the timetable you unexpectedly end up with a radically small class, as is the case this year with my group of 14 year olds in 2hvq. It is a class of just sixteen children and has opened the door on a chance to try out a few things that in a larger class I might not have embarked on.

With a larger class the temptation is to often rely on assignments that the whole class can work through step by step together. This is all well and good but such an approach often places limitations on the creativity that pupils themselves bring to the project. My smaller 2hvq class has allowed me to put such limitations aside and we have worked on an insect building project that grown and developed through ideas that the group themselves have brought to the table. A large range of materials have been used, conventional and found materials. The resulting work has been surprising to watch develop and interesting to see just how engaged the class has been.

So why would I generally like smaller classes? It really is pretty simple, my pupils would be better served by it. In most lines of work you deal with one customer at a time, in teaching it is often thirty, it would be fine if they all wanted the same thing at the same time, but believe me this is not the case, and in the art room I wouldn’t want it to be either.

War and conflict in a school art project

There they stood, there they were…. is the name of a group artwork that I have been working on with three groups of 14-15 year olds that I teach, sixty-five pupils in total. It has been made within the framework of a cross-curricular project that we run at school. During these projects we take one global theme and explore it in various ways in the context of a variety of timetabled lessons. For our third years the theme is War and Peace. For my part, as an art teacher I use the project to take a look at how the war has been presented in the visual arts through the centuries and how the media deal with it today.

It provides a good opportunity to show the pupils how art can tackle the most serious of topics, how it can be quite shocking at times and how artists can use their artistic practice as a form of protest. After such a project there can be little doubt in the minds of the pupils that art offers important communicative possibilities even with the heaviest of subject matter.

Having said all that, I have been quite taken aback by the impact of the practical artwork that the pupils have just finished working on. The starting point for the whole project are the piles of shoes (and indeed other objects) that can still be seen at the site of the Auschwitz prison camp in southern Poland. A couple of months ago I spent time showing pupils these heaps of ‘left overs’ from the victims of the camp. I showed them photographs of the piles of shoes, suitcases, glasses, artificial limbs and even hair that is still displayed there. The images were greeted by a attentive silence. I visited Auschwitz a number of years ago, everything about the place is in many ways quite overwhelming, but it was without a doubt these traces of actual victims that left the greatest impression on me.
The reaction of the pupils left me in no doubt, the work form that I had in mind was going to be the right one. Each pupil worked on and over an old shoe, first covering it with paper and paint and then a layer of imagery, text and paint. Each shoe became a three dimensional collage that documented one of the many conflicts and it’s victims from war zones around the world in the post-Auschwitz period of 1945 up until the present day. Vietnam, Korea, the Arab Israeli conflict, Afghanistan, Yugoslavia, Iraq, Syria and others all featured in the work. Photographs, artworks, newspaper articles, maps and details of the destruction of each conflict featured on the shoe.
On the sole of each shoe a poem was added that the pupil had written about one of the artworks or photographs that we had discussed in the lessons. Images such as Picasso’s Guernica, Goya’s 3rd May or the Eddie Adams street execution photograph from Vietnam.

I have been able to display the resulting heap of shoes in a glass case at school that is, in its way, not unlike the glass cases in the actual prison camp, although the pupils’ version obviously being of a much smaller scale. The shoes trapped there, behind glass, and in the film shown here have gained a weight, a charge, that I had hoped for, but if I am honest has been more powerful than I had expected. Watch the film, judge for yourself, the music helps of course, but it is a charge that the pupils themselves can identify and relate to once past the initial excitement of seeing their own particular shoe in the documentation.

War memorial artwork continued

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The work of an art teacher is at times one that requires considerable patience. When you see a given class for two hours a week, on separate days and the project you are working on requires a certain of setting up time at the start on each session and clearing up time at the end, then the ‘big picture’ is sometimes very slow to unfold.

This is certainly the case with the war memorial shoe project that I’ve been working on. It feels like months of lessons have passed since the beginning of the big project, whereas I know from my diary that it is actually just a matter of a few weeks. But now as the project, spread across three classes, nears its completion things things are starting to fall into place.

Teenagers level of activity is interesting to watch in such circumstances. When you announce “and this is the last lesson working on this” inevitably the level of activity rises. Sustaining engagement and activity is the key. This particular project has had a number of different phases, a certain amount of donkey work preparing the shoe for the relatively intense, in terms of content part, that comes at the end. Maintaining interest in what becomes an over familiar object over the weeks requires strategy to freshen things up. The poetry element for these pupils who are being taught in their second language provided such a break and a good reminder of the seriousness on the content.

The photos here show the work of the first of the three classes to reach thr conclusion of the project. It is not the complete pile of shoes, but I am definately not unhappy with the way it looks.

War memorial artwork

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I’ve been working for a few weeks on an inter-curricular project with my three classes of 15 year olds that I teach.  The whole project has been hung up around the theme of war and peace and has involved contributions from the art, physics, English, geography and history departments and possibly a few others too.  My art part of the project was based on a couple of main points.  Firstly that art can be used as a carrier of a serious message or opinion.  Secondly, beauty is often a criteria that seems rather dominant in the minds of the pupils, but in this case, due to the seriousness of the subject matter, it wasn’t really appropriate or even relevant.  And finally I wanted to try and make the work about real issues and real history.

With all this in mind and with the experience of a visit I made to Auschwitz in Poland a number of years ago I set about making an assignment that turned around the shocking sight of the mountains of shoes of the victims of the extermination camp that can still be seen by visitors.  Lists of names of victims, the huge numbers involved and the scale of the camp make an impact, but these ‘leftovers’ marking individuals who died was truly shocking to me.

The resulting project, that is nearing completion now, has involved pupils using a shoe to make a three dimensional collage that documents conflicts in the period since the second world war. The photos here show the Auschwitz shoe stacks and the progress of the work of a few of the pupils.  More documentation will doubtless follow when the project is complete, but the working process and the tone of the collages that the pupils have made has been great to see.  This attitude has been reinforced by the poems that they have written on the themes we explored in the lessons, such as Goya’s 3rd May, Picasso’s Guernica and photography from Vietnam.  These poems too will find a place in the project when they are finally added to the sole of each shoe.