As part of the research and development process for a new artwork, THE MIND MANAGEMENT CLOSET, I have recently been reading about Neuroscience, specifically the field of Neuroaesthetics which explores what happens in the brain when we view an artwork that inspires. It is now established that a pleasurable reward occurs in the form of a chemical change. In his book, The Splendours and Miseries of the Brain: Love, Creativity and the Quest for Human Happiness (John Wiley and Sons Ltd, 2008), Neuroscientist Semir Zeki. connects this change with a subjective experience of perfection that both viewer and artist are seeking.
It doesn't surprise me that a chemical change is involved. When I describe my viewer's response to Keifer, the language I use is about physical sensation: heartfelt, breathtaking, heart stopping... At a certain moment when I am making a new work, I become infatuated with it, I am drunk on its possibility, my heart races, I am on a high. Then there is the real downer when I start to see it as just something else I made. Semir Zeki cites Lucien Freud on this subject. "A moment of complete happiness never occurs in the creation of a work of art. The promise of it is felt in the act of creation and disappears towards the completion of the work...Were it not for this, the perfect painting might be painted, on the completion of which the painter could retire. It is this great unsufficiency that drives him on...The process is habit forming."
Any artist reading the less than glowing reviews for Maggi Hambling's show, also at the National Gallery, will have winced at the viciousness of some critics. Hambling drew accusations of what many of us fear the most: inauthenticity, expressed (in the case of Jonathan Jones), in some of the most furious language I have ever read from a critic. I am yet to see the show, but I know that my experience of it cannot be identical to Mr Jones' because that's not how it works.
It has been an interesting first year as a blogger. Articulating and sharing my experiences as both artist and viewer is sharpening my thinking. Here's hoping that we all have many heartfelt highs in 2015.
I have just spent a few days in the handsome city of Glasgow, with its stone tenements, good people and vistas of mountains - even from the city centre. I spent most of my time exploring the university's Stirling Maxwell Collection* of early printed books, manuscripts and emblem books, finding intriguing images or series' of images that cannot be fully 'read' /understood without their accompanying text. I love the many nature-related maxims: a crab with the world on its back is accompanied by the text "Sic Orbis Iter" - The Way of the World. Text and image combined suggest that it is the nature of the world to go backwards.
*Although did see an amazing Hamlet at the Citizens Theatre.
In London the work on my own image series' continues. Moving on from DeTOXIFY-ME, I wanted to continue joining pictures into story using some kind of object rather than a flat canvas as my starting point. Working on wooden boxes in the Detoxify series flagged up several advantages. A box opens and closes like a book and offers a continuous series of surfaces that can be walked around as a story is told. After spending many a long hour looking at junk shops and e-bay curiosities, I hit on the idea of using printers' trays, those drawers used to store printing blocks, and discovered that these fabulous constructions offer all kinds of narrative potential. I am now busily, building trap doors between images, breaking down walls to connect them, erecting new walls to separate them and chiseling the occasional tunnel. There is so much potential for storytelling in the opening, closing, echoing and mirroring of one image with another. I am thinking of it as a new kind of joinery and have begun to make an atheist vision of EARTH, HEAVEN AND HELL.
It's an experience to carefully gild a swastika and paint the faces of murdered children. On the whole I am looking forward to moving up to Earth!
When Renee Rilexie, curator of EVOCATIVE at The Menier Gallery, asked contributing artists to explain what the word evocative meant to them, this was the image that instantly sprang to my mind. A still shot from the classic Film Noir The Third Man, where a beam of light briefly illuminates a man's face and the key plot twist is revealed. The Third Man is the greatest ever Film Noir. I should say 'arguably the best' but I don't believe there is a case to be argued.This film is a breathtaking piece of cinematography for which Robert Krasker won the Academy Award. In terms of story, character, score and production it is an extraordinary play of light and dark.
Ironically, the artwork I am showing in the EVOCATIVE show this August is very colourful. However, I am also leading a workshop on drawing with pen and ink. Admission is free, materials provided, and all ages are welcome. For those who cannot make August 23rd, here are a couple of trade secrets that I will be sharing on the day:
1.The black and white choice you face is to make the mark, or leave a space. Blank areas are
every bit as active as drawn, so be aware of their shape.
2. Doodle at all times. It is very important, whatever your teachers told you.
I have recently finished the series of diptychs: DETOXIFY-ME, using egg tempera for the first time and recording the work in progress.
To make the exterior of the fourth diptych: THE CURE FOR MADNESS, I wanted to set a medallion-style copy of Bosch's "Stone of Folly" on a faux-leather background.
In the end I decided that Hieronymous would have to settle for a textured and less than jewel-like tribute.To seal the box, I sprayed the surface with fixative and added a thin, temporary varnish.
As ever with a new medium, I felt simultaneously frustrated by my lack of mastery and excited by the different ways tempera behaves. When making the exterior of the second box, SHOCK THERAPY, I began to play around with scratching into the gesso surface with an old school compass, creating a faux-snakeskin texture, then washing semi-transparent colour into the grooves. I will definitely be using this medium again.
There is a stage in a child's emergence as a writer when no separation is made between writing and drawing. When drawing is writing (and vice versa), letter and number-like forms are scattered among other marks representing parents, planets, vehicles, rainbows, superheroes; the things that mean the most in that individual child's world. Very young children may have little to say about a drawing once it is finished but speak to them while they draw and they will tell long, involved stories that reveal how meaningful these apparently random marks are. Usually around the age of four, an awareness of the differences between letter and image develops. At this point, the education system starts to focus hard on literacy skills; referring to writing as the capacity to encode. Sometimes I feel that it is at this moment, when image and alphabetic code separates, that we may be missing a trick. Children spend many subsequent years learning the correct rules of language and number systems and often become disconnected from explaining themselves in images altogether.
Recently I have been looking at an old coded system: alchemy. The word alchemist conjures images of hapless men in dungeon laboratories trying to turn dirt into gold, but, although a controversial practice, alchemy was practiced seriously in England between the 12th and 18th Centuries. The alchemist experimented on 'base' materials, putting them through various chemical processes, heating, cooling, distillation etc and observing how their properties changed as a result. Where their work differs from modern science is that symbolic images and ideas were also attached to the process. On a material level the aim was to transform 'base' matter into gold but there were loftier aims: the philosophers stone, the elixir of life...
Alchemical texts of the medieval period are rich in visual and symbolic imagery. Every element in the process, or 'magnum opus', has myriad identities. The glass vessels, used to contain the matter, might be known as the coffin, grave, ship, womb, nest, bed or garden, depending on what chemical process was occurring within it. Alchemists investigated 'divine' geometry and astronomy, linking their work to religious and magical traditions, colour coding the progress of refinement from base to gold was colour coded: black becomes white, white becomes green, green becomes red. Red, the 'rubedo', is the colour that represents the ideal state: often depicted as a red lion, king, or rose.
By far the most striking alchemical texts, from a visual perspective are the works of English alchemist, cosmologist and mathematician Robert Fludd (1574-1637). It is surprising that Fludd's diagrams are not better known because they are certainly works of art. And, for those of us who still explain themselves in images, they are a feast of ideas.
Work in progress .DeTOXIFY ME: White Green & Red ~ Portable Diptych, gold leaf & mixed media on wood
I learned over time that abstraction didn't suit me. I remained fascinated with stories, ideas and the images they provoke. I came to understand that, if I wanted to communicate, I would have to make work that was far more specific. It was at this point that I began to make figurative work, sometimes exhibited with long, detailed labels. I also worked as a screenwriter, collaborating with the playwright Paul Sirett (yes, a relative), and filmmaker Neil Hunter. Screenplays are, after all, stories told in pictures.
Recently I have begun to combine words and pictures more freely, writing on the wall beside images, engraving text into gesso panels, lettering in gold leaf.
1. Detail Revisions Installation: N.Sirett, etching and penciled text, 3.5m x 2.5, 2010-2013
2. Detail Revisions Installation: N. Sirett, etching and penciled text, 3.5m x 2.5, 2010-2013
3. Revisions Installation: N. Sirett, etching and penciled text, 3.5m x 2.5, 2010-2013
4.A Small Thing But My Own: Howard Hodgkin, oil on wood 1983-1985
"Home is the girl's prison and the woman's workhouse." George Bernard Shaw 1903
A WOMAN'S PLACE?
A few months ago I was invited to take part in Espacio Gallery's exhibition Time=Change, a show designed to mark Women's History month. I decided to use the opportunity to explore contemporary relationships to the home. Home as the antithesis of World is in it's nature a predictable place, inhabited by the timid, the self-sacrificing, the weak, the 'feminine'. Conversely the World is unpredictable, it's big, it's wide, inhabited by the fearless, the 'masculine', the wise. Yet I keep encountering people, both men and women, who have an intense connection to Home, whether they see it as a physical place or something they carry within themselves. It seems to me that it's time to challenge these fundamentally sexist associations! So I devised a questionnaire:
Most striking is the fact that almost everyone who filled in the form associates home with nature. Being 'at home' next to water, or in a forest, or on paths under open skies. One person wrote that if they could build a home it must have three views, one of mountains, another of a forest, the third of a city. The work I am doing in response to A WOMAN'S PLACE? is coming along. I have made several etchings and I am also working in oils. It's been a while since I used this medium. I am absolutely loving combining thin, coloured glazes with thick, impasto paint strokes. Some canvases have reached a point where I feel they are in charge of what to do next. Times like these, I feel very much at home!
My dear friend, Steve Hornibrook died from HIV Aids at the Middlesex hospital twenty-one years ago next month. He was ambitious and brilliant, a promising philosopher, he was 28 years old. Steve's image hit the front pages when he met Princess Diana. He loved the publicity and the opportunity to share in Diana's stand against the 'Gay Plague' hysteria of early 90's Britain. Yet the experience was bittersweet, 15 minutes of fame was a poor exchange for the work he would never make.
Just before his death, Steve remarked that if 100 people came to his funeral, they would bury 100 Steves. It is an idea that has intrigued me ever since. Can we be objective about the past or do we always have our own subjective present tense agendas that we impose upon it?
Picturing the past is the theme of my largest project to date, the installation REVISIONS which plays with traces of my own family handed down in both stories and objects. My Mum now owns two cups and two saucers that belonged to my great grandmother (sharing a woman's wedding china among the daughters is a Scots tradition). I wonder what happens once all the whole pieces of china have been shared. Will cups and saucers sub-divide like cells? Or is the sharing altogether more brutal, the china smashed down into smaller and smaller pieces so that in a hundred generations the baby girl inherits a crumb, a speck of porcelain, traces of her great, great, great, great, great, grandmother, too small to see but there all the same?
So, since you are to be retold and remembered in objects or anecdotes, what do you think they might they be? As far as I am concerned, my descendants have carte blanche to make of me what they will. This is a process of invention and I am all for creativity!
I finish with a favourite example of the beautiful unreliability of family folklore, the inspiration for my artwork Crossing the Wall. I was told that whenever a Communist Party comrade travelled to Moscow in the '20s, they took Agatha Christies and Alka Seltzers for Great Aunt Lillian (Lillian and her husband had moved to the USSR after the revolution). My Aunt Judith declares it was Milk of Magnesia, while Auntie Ruth says Dr. J Collis Browne's Chlorodyne and neither remember any mention of crime fiction. However I am the teller of this tale and the comrade in my etching is taking Agatha Christies and Alka-Seltzers to Lillian. Firstly because I love the alliteration and secondly because the irony of young Lillian taking time out from building the new Soviet State to read about country house murders is just too good not to pass on...
1. Steve Hornibrook with Princess Diana, 1990
2. Shared Among the Daughters, Photo-Etching 325mm x 540mm, 2012
3. Crossing The Wall, Photo-Etching & Spitbite 450mm x 560mm, 2011