The power of the crowd (and small technical steps)

Many of my colleagues in school have something of a strained relationship with pupils working together in groups. It is probably also fair to say that many of the pupils themselves have an equally troubled experience with this educational approach. The main reason for this is the tendency for there to be children in almost any group who are just in there for the ride, benefitting from the efforts of others, without putting the effort in themselves.

I understand this problem and realize for many pupils and teachers that it is a thorny problem, but in the art department I have to admit to being a huge fan of group work. I certainly don’t continually pursue this route, but it is an approach that I regularly return to.

Maybe one of the biggest differences in the art department and a large-scale shared piece of work is everyone has to contribute, in a sense there is no place to hide! Failure to do your part is hugely visible and my experience is that very few pupils want to put themselves in that position.  It could be argued perhaps that working like this does put the less able pupils in a bit of a spot, the pressure is on, to perform to the level of the rest of the group.  My experience here though is that with careful teacher judgement and support even the most uncertain child gets the positive effect of having contributed to an in the end impressive whole.

But beyond that, there are several very positive reasons for my love of a group project:

  • It gives a chance to produce something really big, an artwork with a wow factor!
  • Pupils leave the project with a feeling of having played their part in producing something where the result often feels greater than the sum of the parts
  • It creates an energy and curiosity in the classroom, especially at the end of a lesson where the whole group are hungry to see the progress and how the total art is coming together
  • ‘Are our individual pieces going to be graded?’ is often a cry I hear after a while, ‘no’ I say, wondering the first time whether that would make a difference. My experience is that it certainly doesn’t, somewhat dispelling the thought that pupils only work when there is a grade in it for them.  The reward in this case clearly lies elsewhere, and not a grade that contributes to the next report.
  • Socially within the cohesion of the group involved there is undoubtedly a positive effect. On a small scale there are often discussions within the group about the connections with ‘neighbours’ in the group work.  These are often interesting to see as the contact takes an individual to all corners of the classroom group and not just their most familiar friends.  But beyond this and most importantly there is a total bond in the group, a completely shared activity to which they can all contribute, a true team performance.

With the case documented here, and its small scale individual sections, I have been given the chance to explore in a relatively controlled and defined way a small but important technical skill.  In this case it has all been about mixing colours and combining colours on the painted surface to get a more complex and interesting end result.  The twelve-year-olds with which the group was made are used to using colours direct from the pot, but a little less used to mixing colours and even less familiar with the idea of painting a single area with a multitude of different hues and shades. Certainly a very useful insight to give for future projects.

Click on the links below for related posts:

Larger than the sum of the parts

Tim Rollins and K.O.S.

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Capturing the imagination – a photographic remake

It is normally a pretty good sign if some colleagues in the staff room know about a project that you are working on before you’ve told them about it. It means that pupils themselves are talking about it!

This was the case last week. I had taken my fourth-year classes (15-16 year olds) to our local museum, the Jan Cunen Museum, to see an exhibition by the Dutch photographer Micky Hoogendijk. Most of the work on display were quite large-scale portraits with varying degrees of digital manipulation often in the form of overlays of other imagery imposed over the head or face. Three works stood out though as slightly different. These particular photographs didn’t have the same manipulation, but they did have a historical resonance with seventeenth century Dutch art.

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We talked about the set of photographs whilst at the museum, the clothing, the poses, the use of light and the restrained expressions on the faces. The linking with seventeenth century art was strong and something the pupils later explored in a homework assignment.

Whilst the Hoogendijk works don’t seem to have been based on specific images from the past they offered the pupils a contemporary route back to artworks that they often pass quickly over in other circumstances.

The photographs also offered me a chance to make use of a practical assignment that I have used in the past. This involves a photographic remake of an art historical portrait where the pupil plays the part of the subject of the portrait. It is a relatively straight forward assignment to explain, and maybe this helps in the way that it seems to have captured the attention of my pupils in the last couple of weeks.

I provided a large selection of images for the classes to search through to find something that they thought that they could work with. I gave strict instructions for the photographs that they were going to take, and these were going to become my marking criteria when evaluating the work:

  • The pupil really has to play the part, the expression involved and displayed was important
  • Composition and the arrangement of figure and attributes were important
  • The use of light in the painting had to be followed as much as possible in the photograph
  • The pose of the figure should be used as a basis in the photograph
  • The clothing can be updated but should show a relationship to the original painting   Providing the framework
  • Cardboard box office
  • Related posts:
  • All photographs shown above are included with the pupils’ permission.
  • Looking back on the results that were finally handed in, I feel that the effect of that having seen high quality photos in the exhibition had a positive effect. I feel that it made them approach their own work in a more ambitious way. It definitely seemed to help them in taking a step away from the idea that this was just going to be a relatively unconsidered snap shot, an approach that is the dominant feature of most of a teenagers photographic output.

Beyond these instructions I left my pupils to it. Sending them off with a two-week deadline to produce this practical homework assignment. Although I did also stress that this was perhaps not an assignment to work on in a hurry on a dark Tuesday night…..they were to try and make use the of the natural light that the weekend offers.

 

Looking back on the results that were finally handed in, I feel that the effect of that having seen high quality photos in the exhibition had a positive effect. I feel that it made them approach their own work in a more ambitious way. It definitely seemed to help them in taking a step away from the idea that this was just going to be a relatively unconsidered snap shot, an approach that is the dominant feature of most of a teenagers photographic output.

All photographs shown above are included with the pupils’ permission.

Related posts:

Photographic frames of reference

Cardboard box office

Gregory Crewdson: Cathedral of the Pines

The silence is almost deafening. Crewdson’s frozen moments in time are peopled views of small town America on the fringes of the mysteries and secrets of the forest. They are immaculately constructed compositions with a huge amount of attention given to detail both in terms of their technical achievement but more significantly the way in which each of these large-scale photographs are packed with elements that seem to be so consciously placed. Where and who do those footprints in the snow lead to? Why are there so many apples in the grass when there is not a single apple on the tree and what, if anything, has just been said?

In this collection of work at The Photographer’s Gallery in London the human relationship with nature seems often to be present, but is not wild and beautiful nature, it is nature that seems always to disclose a human resonance, a production forest, remnants of a previous human industrial intervention or simply the detritus of daily life left discarded.

The photographs draw a variety of parallels from the simple domesticity of a woman at a sink in front of a window, that has more than a little Vermeer about it, to the visual connections with Edward Hopper’s often equally silent interiors. But it’s more than compositional parallels, the rather dark sense of mystery that hangs around these carefully positioned individuals brings more than just a little connection with my memories of watching David Lynch’s Twin Peaks all those years ago.

But for me, viewing them from a perspective that includes twentieth century Dutch art history I am reminded also of the work of Carel Wellink, with their seemingly film set like sense of reality, a disquieting sharp focus where you struggle to feel comfortable with the view that you have stumbled on.

Crewdson’s work is, for me at least, a fascinating discovery and offer some food for thought for future education based projects.

A Curious Expressive Juxtaposition

Intentional or not, there is a strange coming together of art at the Fundatie Museum in Zwolle in the Netherlands. Two quite separate exhibitions, one of Die Brücke and Der Blaue Reiter the German movement of expressionist art from the begininning of the twentieth century, the second by the Dutch artist Rob Scholte create this contrast.

imageThe display of the German expressive paintings from a century ago features many of the names that you might expect, Emil Nolde, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, August Macke, Franz Marc and Max Pechstein are all to be found. The museum website documents the show well as does the second link here on Wikipedia:

Museum de Fundatie

Die Brücke

The paintings displayed have many expressive hallmarks. Free and aggressive use of the brush and the marks it can make for example. There is also an abundant use of non-naturalistic colour and a freedom in the way the creation of form is approached and faces and figures are manipulated, stretched and adjusted to fit pictorial purposes.
It is all very much what you might expect from expressionistic art, a cutting loose from the art that had gone before that had become too self conscious of itself.
With this as a visual background it is interesting to then move on to the Scholte exhibition. The display of many hundreds of embroidered artworks is undoubted a creation to the Dutch artist, however the individual artworks themselves technically speaking aren’t. Spread out in expansive clusters are embroidered artworks that the artist has been collecting over the years. Picking them up from flea markets, jumble sales and second-hand shops.

imageSome of the groupings are of rather kitsch hunting scenes, flower arrangements and the like. Perhaps the most engaging collections are the embroidered versions of icons from the worlds museum collections. Multiple versions of Rembrandt, Vermeer, Fragonard and Millet can all be found. It should be underlined just how many of these images that there are to see, spread across the museum walls in loose grid arrangements.
The variations in the various version of the same base image is one of the engaging aspects of the exhibition. These variations are rather greater than you might expect, you might think that one embroidered version of Rembrandt’s The Night Watch would be much the same as another, the whole point of this form of embroidery being to meticulously execute the sewn version of the original and as accurately and evenly as possible.

image
imageIt is here that Scholte provides the twist, by displaying the reverse sides of the embroidery rather than the front sides. The variations and irregularities are fascinating to see. It is also here that a surprising parallel with the German expressionist work arises. These painters from the beginning of the twentieth century were interested in a looser and less self-conscious approach to there image making, less lethargic and more expressive. When you look at the reverse sides of the embroideries you are struck by the “unselfconscious” way many of them are made. This is of course hardly surprising when the makers’ attention has been so fully engaged with the other side of the image. Many of the resulting images have an extremely expressive quality as abundances of loose threads cross cross one another leaving an often chaotic, reversed and yet recognizable end result.
It is tempting to describe the work as being almost accidentally made, but that is to go a step too far, for in most cases it is functionally that governs. The loose threads are knotted off and twisted away. It is how this is done that creates the expressive and loose qualities. Although even here there is the extra variation in the way one work rapidly secures loose ends, whilst another applies a rigorous system of neatness to the back as well as to the front.

Gearing up for my first solo show in quite a while

The last couple of months I’ve been gradually getting ready for two exhibitions.  The first is a group show in the Dutch town of Nijmegen.  The second is a solo exhibiton, in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, the town that has been drawing all the attention the last few months for its Jheronimus Bosch exhibition.

The exhibition is going to give me the chance to dip back into work influenced by the very Dutch interiors made by Vermeer, that I was making when I first arrived in The Netherlands back in the nineties. This will be hung alongside more recent work that is  more orientated towards the Dutch landscape and our relationship with this most manipulated of environments.

Without giving too much away, I can promise a place for both of the painintgs below.

vermeer

Empty Room, Oil paint on canvas, 1993

gery

Untitled, Oil and acrylic on canvas, 2016

Getting closer to Mondriaan…..

I should start by saying that love was my main reason to move from England to the Netherlands back in the 1990s. But having said that, there were other reasons I was enthusiastic to travel over the North Sea and experience life here. Top of that list at the time was the affinity and fascination I had, and still have, for Dutch art. Top of my list was Vermeer, I’d grown to love his work from the four of his paintings that can be found in London at the National Gallery, the Queen’s collection and Kenwood House. But along with Vermeer there was Rembrandt, de Hooch, van Doesburg and Mondriaan to name but a handful. It is a very rich land when it comes to painting. Two decades later I am still discovering new things and perspectives on this particular piece of the history of art. Today being one such day of discovery. mill Two friends from England were over and staying near Amsterdam in a windmill on the eastern side of the city. Whilst looking up where exactly we had to get to in order to visit them I was coming across information that suggested that there was actually a Mondriaan connection. Having visited there today it was confirmed, this was a windmill that the artist painted in the days before he had settled into his more well-known abstract style of later in his career. In the early days though he was very much a painter of the flat Dutch landscape. mondriaan And so from close up I came by a little more insight into this little corner of Dutch history of art, it’s kind of a nice feeling to have lunched in a place that seems to have changed very little since the artist painted his work back in the first decade of the twentieth century. Did Mondriaan also lunch in the subject of his work…..? Probably not I guess, but the sense of place is nice to take with me, next time I visit the painting in the Rijksmuseum or one of the other museums who have other paintings he made of the same mill.