Category Archives: Research

Exhibition – Monochrome

Visiting this exhibition at the National Gallery yesterday, I have to admit that I was disappointed. I left not quite sure what the purpose of the exhibition was. On one hand it seemed to be emphasising the technical and cultural place of painting in black and white within the history of art, and on another, considering the power of monochrome to deliver impact.

The first three rooms of the exhibition explained the use of monochrome in religious imaginary of the Renaissance to show the material world in comparison to the richly jewelled colours of the spiritual scenes. We were shown how monochrome paintings were used for studies to explore tonal balances and modelling, how monochrome paint was used to draft out a large work and to under-paint the tonal areas. Multicoloured paintings would also be copied in monochrome which was then used as the basis for creating an etching for the mass distribution of an image.

Some of the most striking paintings were those produced to refute the idea that sculpture offered more to the viewer than painting by allowing observation from all sides and enhanced and changing modelling with light. This debate had resulted in paintings which were so indistinguishable from carved relief that you really wanted to reach out and stroke them to break the illusion.

This was all fairly interesting but very dry and there were only a couple of paintings in this section of the exhibition which really made my heart beat faster, firstly a  Rembrandt, ‘Ecco Homo’ 1635, actually a grisaille study for an etching. Rembrandt’s blobs of clay faces are masterful in their minimal, effortless evocation of character and the resulting etching had smoothed them out to idealised blandness. The other work was an enormous painting by Giandomenico Tiepolo, almost 3m by 2m, painted on a gold ground, the fourth of the images here. The effect of the gold in the sky and the gold under-painting was to make the work glow with an inner warmth. To stand  before it felt like standing in sunlight pouring through a stained glass window. It had the most astonishing physical presence. I know that copper is used as a support for this kind of glowing effect, but I can’t imagine the cost of a gold ground applied over this areas of six panels, never mind the technical difficulties. I have used gold tissue in printmaking as chine colle under ink and that is very effective, if by it’s nature not very gold.  I must try gold ink or gouache as an under layer. I had little success with gold leaf when I tried it as it floats off the plate or doesn’t hold the ink.

The next three rooms really puzzled me. These showed modern (well, mostly 20th century) monochrome works but I felt that many of them had been chosen almost randomly just because they happened not to use colour, not because they were using monochrome as a statement or to achieve a particular effect. There were paintings by Richter and Close which were reproductions of monochrome photographs, but I didn’t feel that the fact that they were monochrome added particular significance. It felt more that the curators were saying, ‘Look, monochrome painting can be as worthy as painting in colour’. I think it would have been much more powerful to have included a monochrome painting by Rothko, say, where the colour, or lack of it, has an emotional charge. Similarly, the works  included by Twomby, Kelly and Johns felt like they had just pulled out any old thing in black and white. The one work which I felt really made a point through its monochrome palette was one of  Vija Celmin’s ‘Night Sky’  etchings (this illustration is actually a drawing in the series). The black background creates an emptiness that the tiny white stars emphasise rather than fill and although her works are quite small (A3ish) they generate a much greater space. This is not just dependant on the subject, she achieves this when drawing waves or deserts, all in monochrome. The lack of colour is another component in her act of paring an image down to create vastness within it. 

That was my problem with the modern works; they happened to be black and white, but did it matter that they were? For one or two, yes, for instance Malevich’s ‘Black Square’, but for the most part, no. I think that they could have chosen much better.

I also felt that the exhibition confined itself too narrowly. It is called ‘Monochrome: Painting in Black and White’ but included quite a few etchings and one light installation. Only a couple of works had been made within the last 50 years. I think that, with profit, they could have included some of the amazing monochrome works being created now, especially drawings such as those by Julie Mehrethu or Anita Taylor, after all, the curators had already strayed beyond painting. Given that they included a room filled with orange light, the definition of monochrome could have been pushed beyond black and white. I do see however, that a red on red painting would have pushed the predominantly grey works back, and the orange room was navigated as you left the exhibition.

It was a good exhibition, and I am glad I went, but I think it could have been so much better. My work for Investigating Drawing is largely monochrome because I feel that it has a power and directness that colour does not, particularly in the context of my parallel project. All colours carry their own cultural significance and often, prettiness. In my increasingly non-iconographic work, I want to avoid these. I think that this exhibition made the point that monochrome work historically had a specific technical place, and even a cultural place in the Renaissance, but did not really drill down to the significance of the choice of monochrome in the work of contemporary artists.

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Basquiat – Boom for Real

The Barbican is hosting a large scale exhibition of works by Jean-Michel Basquiat. I became interested in his work when I was studying sculpture and in particular, the contemporary take on African masks by artists such as Romauld Hazoume. It is not easy to access the work of artists who work outside the European tradition of art (although Australian aboriginal art is now well documented). Basquiat was self-taught using graffiti as his early means of expression and his Haitian Afro-Caribbean heritage gave him both subject matter and a cultural otherness in 1970s America. This is outsider art.

Basquiat’s works ranged from street art, through postcards to huge canvases. Through them all, text is an intrinsic element. He used text and symbols from all sorts of books and mass media and also wrote fragments of poetry or social commentary. All of these were mixed in a melting pot with his own or appropriated images, photocopied and collaged, painted, written and drawn.

Having begun as a graffiti artist, Basquiat devised postcards as a way of earning some money. He and his girlfriend would draw four on a page, photocopy it several times, cut them up, mount them on card and then sell them in the street, an early example of artists’ multiples. The postcards are both simple in execution and sophisticated in concept. They include many elements; drawing, painting, photography, collage, text, spatter etc and this might be all on the same, small postcard. It was when Basquiat plucked up the courage to approach his hero, Warhol, to sell a card, that his commercial career really took off.

His work often used the same motifs, especially skulls and skull-like self-portraits. In this work from 1982, he combines a skull headed figure with squiggles, possibly symbols and fragments of text. Typically, the work is in layers with original detail being obliterated or highlighted by overpainting. Often his writing and symbols are in oilstick, resisting the paint and further linear marks are scratched through the wet paint.

Sadly, as he became successful, his work seems to have lost some intensity of energy. This work from 1986 feels like a search for something lost. Music was an inspiration in his work, but the certainty, the crash of many things desperate to be said, seems to have disappeared. Perhaps this is inevitable when creating for a commercial appetite rather than being hungry with your own. He went from struggling to feted artist so quickly that it must have been very difficult to resist the temptations of this new world and drugs and alcohol claimed him in the end. His was a rock and roll story with a rock and roll end.

What I admire most about Basquiat is his fearless mark making. He was unconcerned (at least in his early works) with painterliness or sophistication. I am always concerned about how crude a mark might look and never, if I can avoid it, use handwriting because mine is so poor. He shows so clearly that this is a ridiculous preoccupation. It is the message that counts.

More Notes on UCA Online Library

Notes to self:

I continue to explore the UCA online library with reference to my critical review. I have identified several ebooks to read. Most of these are at ProQuest Ebook Central which has the option to create a ‘bookshelf’ of personally relevant books. This is very useful if you see an interesting book and want to note it for future reference. I am, however, having a problem getting to my bookshelf directly. Currently I get to Ebook Central by searching for a book that is on the bookshelf!

Once I have got to my bookshelf (at the right on a top bar), I can view my list of books, click on one and it will open. I have the contents on the left and a tool bar above which includes a download option. On my ipad, I can select download and a pdf will download for a requested length of time (I have been choosing 7 days). At the first download, I had to install an Adobe reader Bluefire, registering with Adobe, but this was straight forward. Yet another login and password to remember. This allows text highlighting and note taking which may be useful.

The Ebook Central toolbar also includes options to get citation (not great), highlight text and add notes. Currently, I am finding it more effective to copy the ISBN into EasyBib and let it generate the in-line citation and reference.

 

Research Using the UCA Online Library – Initial Trial

Yesterday, OCA students were able, for the first time, to access the UCA online library. Eager to explore how it might help me, I did some initial searches. Logging in was very straight forward. The portal is very bare, just offering a search bar, and I entered ‘artist’s book’. This yielded many results, most relevant to my enquiry, but, on closer examination, they included abstracts, book reviews and other references, rather than actual articles. However, to the right of the search box is an ‘advanced search’ tab which allowed me to select ‘full text online’ and deselect ‘abstracts’, ‘book reviews’, select discipline ‘visual arts’ and thus get a much more focused result set.

Searching down the list of offerings, I came across ‘From Democratic Multiple to Artist Publishing: The (R)evolutionary Artist’s Book’ (White, 2012: 45-46). Clicking on the title took me to another portal (EBSCOhost) with the search already completed and showing me the abstract for the journal article. I was able to click on ‘PDF full text’ and read the article which discussed how initially artists’ books (multiples rather than one-off objects) had been produced as part of a relationship with a gallery, rather than a subverting step outside the gallery system. Subsequently they evolved away from that dependence as technological developments provided increased opportunities for self publishing in small runs at a reasonable price. This creative arc is still continuing, with access to internet publishing and online book producers such as blurb.

This was an interesting and relevant read. It has left me with a slight dilemma as to how to reference the article. The OCA referencing guidelines have changed as the college has abandoned its own guidelines and adopted the UCA format, which is subtlety different.  The EBSCOhost portal offers a downloadable reference but not in a format I can use. I used to use a Harvard referencing generator into which I could just paste a weblink or even scan a ISBN with my phone in a library, to create references as, being dyslexic, I get into a muddle with lists of letters and numbers. This has now been discontinued as a free resource and is too expensive for my level of use. In any case, is it of any use to give an online reference for a journal when that reference is via a portal which cannot necessarily be accessed by the reader? It seems to me to be more useful to reference the original journal, and that is what I have done here.

Continuing to explore, I entered the wide term ‘drawing’. This yielded an interesting list of articles which I shall have to explore over time. One which caught my eye is tangentially relevant to the current projects looking work evolving over time. This journal article, ‘Drawing Time’ (Lajer-Burcharth, 2015 pp.3-42) is presented via a different portal, this time MIT, and it is necessary to scan around the screen to discover how to view the text, in this case via a ‘download options’ tab on the right. The article looks at drawings by Watteau in which he has drawn the same model from different angles. Not only has he rotated the model but his own angle of view changes. The article describes how he used these studies and how he used a sticky, oily sanguine stick to draw so that he could transfer the drawings by offset-printing them, a useful idea for monoprinting. I had not realised how prolific his drawing was, nor how young he died.

I tried restricting this search to ‘ebooks’ hoping to find less specialist publications. I was pleased to see that the search returned ‘Drawing Now: Between the Lines of Contemporary Art’ (Downs et al. 2007), essential reading for Drawing 2. This was available via yet another portal which initially offered me a virtually blank page with just  the book details repeated on the right. However, below this was a tab ‘open content in new tab’ which rewarded me with a further page (yet another portal) where I could view the contents, read limited sections online or download the complete book for a limited time.

I am excited that the online library will be useful, not only for more detailed essay writing but also for wider ranging surveys.

As I have explored the new library access, I have also looked a new referencing software and have discovered EasyBib. This offers limited, but good enough, free referencing on ipad, iphone and online. It can scan bar codes and search online for books, so you don’t have to type in all the details. You can select the referencing preferred by individual institutions from a very long list which includes UCA. I shall give this one an extended trial.

References

Downes, S. Marshall, R. Sawden P. and Selby, A., (2007) London: I.B.Tauris

Lajer-Burcharth, E. (2015) ‘Drawing Time’ In October Magazine,  Massachusetts Institute of Technology Winter 2015 pp.3-42

White, T (2012) ‘From Democratic Multiple to Artist Publishing: The (R)evolutionary Artist’s Book’ In Art Documentation: Journal of the Art Libraries Society of North AmericaUniversity of Chicago Press 31(1) pp.45-56

Workshop – Miniature books

Since my ‘Experimental Drawing’ workshop was only three days, and Oxford Summer School runs for six, I booked into a second short course on making miniature books with the future project of making an artist’s book in mind. Also, I generate a huge pile of works on paper which are never going to be framed or presented for assessment and which I would like to use to create more 3-d works.

The workshop was highly prescriptive in contrast to the drawing workshop, but I guess this is the nature of a more exacting making process. We learnt quite a few book forms, concertina (or zig-zag) in rectangular or triangular forms, flag books, pop-up books and the beautifully simple but satisfying origami book.

We also tried out a number of techniques for embellishing the books and covers including making simple stamps from craft foam, marbling and creating textured paper using wood blocks or other tools and a coloured paste of acrylic paint, corn flour and glycerine.

This paste was very effective, producing strongly textured, thick, strong cover papers.

Marbling was fun, and I had taken some of my own papers, so I tried it on delicate (but strong) Japanese washi. This is very absorbent, and rather than picking up the ink on the surface, it absorbed it, producing very delicate, subtle effects which might be excellent for an artist book.

Generally, I thought the techniques were more suited to personalised cards than artists books, but I did take away a lot of information which will be useful in a freer context.

At home I took an old sun dye test print and, thinking about the editing and recombining ideas from the drawing workshop, made a very simple two direction, concertina book in kraft card, and applied selected portions of the print.

     

I think that the unimaginative print has been recombined into something much more interesting, though still more of a gift card than an artist’s book. A serious limitation is the conflict in requirements between paper that can be  crisply folded and thick printmaking paper. However, there are some ways around this such as here where the 160gm paper has been mounted in a thinner, fold-able paper. Alternatively, thread or fabric could be used as a hinge between sheets.

Ideas for development

zig-zag book, doubled where the zigs of one sheet are sewn to the zags of the other, leaving an internal space

windows cut into concertina books to fold the opposite way

cut holes (linked design/shape) to show portion of following page

prints collaged onto pages, small squares rearranged

multi paper stitched as sheets into Japanese stab binding book

concertina book section joined at right angles

cyanotypes mixed with drawings, paint, emboss etc, common theme or image

fabric covers

paper combined with stitch

small books stitched into larger books

pockets for small drawings

origami book which folds flat out of a hard cover, details on one side (each page) large drawing on back

 

Drawing with Light

I want to do some research into drawing with light. This arises out of a review of earlier work and selecting light motes as intriguing found drawings. It also plays into future Part 5 themes of drawings developed over time and  my parallel project looking at absence/presence and traces.

There are various ways one might draw with light. Perhaps the most obvious is to make cyanotype prints using light sensitive paper on which an image can be made in several ways. Light can be excluded from the paper by stencils of various sorts, paper, thread, object, or the paper can be used in a pin hole camera to record traces of the sun or environment. 

Alternatively, the path of a small, powerful light can be traced in a longer exposure photograph, as in Gjon Mili’s photographs for Time magazine, where he attached lights to a figure skater, or those he famously took of Picasso drawing in space (Page, 2017).

Another way of harnessing light might be to prick pinholes in a support, possibly in reference to some image on the support and back-light it so that small, selective highlights are created.

I wanted to see if I could capture the light motes in a more direct way than photographing them. I have some Jacquard Solarfast light sensitive dye left from a textile project a few years ago which could be pressed into service. I had no success with this on paper in the past but decided to have another go. The fluid was applied to paper in a darkened room. Not being sure how best to apply it, I started with a sponge roller but progressed to a sponge brush as the roller produced an uneven orange peel effect. I chose a very bright day and set up an exposure bench outside with a cutting mat, a sheet of glass and my reflective object, a copper kettle.

My initial exposures produced solid blue sheets. I had thought that a long exposure would be necessary, but quickly realised that the background light was burning out any image and that the copper light motes were not very bright. A large card board box was positioned to shade the paper whilst allowing the light motes to be reflected back on to the paper. An exposure time of about 2 minutes allowed the light motes to be exposed before the whole paper was completely exposed and the marks were lost. However, only the strongest are captured and the delicacy  and extent of the whole is not recorded.

Perhaps I could produce a better image by using a uv light source in a darkened room with stronger light motes produced by cut glass. Unfortunately, this failed to develop at all, probably due to my led torch not producing enough uv. The dye only develops when wet, and the paper dried out before any development at this light level.

The glass light motes are much stronger than the copper, so I tried producing these with the sun as the light source. The light has to go through the glass rather than reflected back, so shading the paper was not possible, and you can’t project just the light mote.

Initial results were uninspiring, but I did get better at exposure, subject selection and dye application.

Old, heavily cut glass worked best at scattering the light. A flower bowl with internal holder probably produced the best image. All these glasses are really old and inherited it from my grandmother 40 years ago. This gives these pictograms added layers of trace and significance for me. They have a connection to Cornelia Parker’s images of glasses.

I did manage to record some light motes but I would much rather not have recorded the glass objects producing them. The light motes have a mysterious beauty about them which is negated by showing the objects. Since the light has been concentrated, rather than excluded, by the subjects, these images will always be low contrast.

This has been an interesting piece of research for a very sunny day. If I want to pursue it further, I think I have to invest in proper cyanotype chemicals and be able to expose dry paper using a focused light source.

References

Jason D Page. 2017. Light Painting Photography History. [ONLINE] Available at: http://lightpaintingphotography.com/light-painting-history/. [Accessed 8 July 2017].