Category Archives: Study Visits and Exhibitions

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.

The London Original Print Fair

The annual London Original Print Fair is held at the Royal Academy where the exhibition rooms are taken over by many galleries from all around the world which specialise in original prints.  This means that there is a huge breadth of work to see, spanning different ages and different artistic cultures, from Picassos and Bawdens to contemporary Chinese woodcuts and the latest Peter Bakes. I can’t imagine any other place where you could see works by such a wide range of excellent and emerging artists, all accessibly displayed and with knowledgeable people to tell you about the work. There is also every conceivable printmaking technique to examine, and it is even surprisingly affordable.

Here are just a few of the printmakers who caught my eye:

Anne-Marie James with her book pages sliced into slithers and interposed so that two images engaged in a dialogue. There is an image here (the second) and her other altered book art can be seen here.

Tom Hammick’s huge woodcuts are always interesting, especially how he layers colours.

Cornelia Parker’s polymer photogravure images of glass, particularly those of broken glasses.

Glenn Brown for his rather bizarre, affectionate but irreverent, take on art history

Victoria Burge brings together science, mapping and art. She used heavy embossing to create three-dimensionality in her prints.

Bill Jacklin creates monoprints in several layers with wiping and white spirit spattering, creating movement and atmosphere.

Alison Lambert was showing very large charcoal portraits where the surface had been torn and abraded to recapture highlights. She also makes some very strong monoprints.

Douglas Gordon’s offset lithographs of a solar eclipse juxtapositioned with Anish Kapoor’s etchings.

James Collyer’s Yamashiro Falls  married simplicity of design with technical complexity. This gallery picture is so poor that it hardly does it justice.

For inventiveness and originality, Thomas Gosebruch really stood out, and, wonderfully, he was there, happy to talk about how he made his work. I was intrigued by how he folded paper and then printed on each segment and how he got ink or paint to be 2 or 3mm deep.  The paper folding is an idea well worth stealing.

Basil Beattie’s prints were monoprinted using a silk screen, a process I have been experimenting with. The print studio representatives were really helpful with a discussion about papers, inks, mediums and screen mesh size. The prints were very tactile and heavily layered in oil paint, quite unlike run of the mill screen prints.

My very favourite prints were by Kate McCrickard. These were really complex, many layered monoprints using really bright luminous colours in the initial layers and muted colours on top, with an outline ultimately added to define the figures (I think). The gallery owner told me that she sketches in local cafes and then translates these sketches into monoprints. The whole process must be very drawn out, as each layer of ink dries, but I think she probably works on a group in parallel because the prints naturally formed sets with a rhythm of the same coloured layers between them. Another idea to steal.

I have to thank Rabley Drawing Centre for sending me a complimentary ticket for the Fair. How could I have missed Emma Stibbon’s Vent from my list of eye-catching prints? There was just so much wonderful stuff.

American Dream

The current American Dream exhibition at the British Museum is best exhibition of fine art printmaking I have ever seen. I have been to other exhibitions there, such as Picasso’s Vollard Suite  and the Japanese Shunga exhibition, both of which were really enjoyable and informative, but nothing matches the sweep of this exhibition. It looks at recent (since Pop art) and contemporary printmaking in America, with particular focus on how the artists are reflecting their contemporary culture. As you might expect, there are significant works by Rauschenberg and Warhol, but the scope of the works goes far beyond the obvious.

Some of the artists featured just happened to have made some prints and, because they are well known, their prints are included here, but I don’t think the prints inform their oeuvre or that they really exploited the unique possibilities of printmaking. Lichtenstein, for instance, does his usual stuff and it is indistinguishable from his paintings (though, of course, editioned). They could be giclee photographic prints. Other artists really pushed their work through the medium. For instance, Oldenberg’s etchings clearly relate to his more famous works but are uniquely themselves and Jasper John’s lithographs exploit the way oil based medium lies on the stone and can then be manipulated.

Rauschenberg was supremly inventive with printmaking, combining photographic imagery, lithography and screenprinting, all in the same monumental work. His life sized self-portrait ‘Booster’ (1967) is an object lesson in pushing an experimental approach and combining everything learnt into something new.

Jim Dine exploited the opportunities of printmaking by making a plate for the print ‘Five Paintbrushes’ (1972) and then developing the plate through subsequent ‘states’ to create a sequence of prints. The third state, fourth state and sixth state show how the plate was gradually enriched.

Two other stand-out works were Chuck Close’s colossal mezzotint ‘Keith’ (1972) both for its heroic endeavor (mezzotint is a very painstaking process, and most are, therefore, very small) and for the way he embraced the record of the process. Repeated trial printing reduced the tone around the mouth and exposed the grid system he used, and he chose to retain, rather than fight, this. The other work was Frank Stella’s ‘Cone’ (1987), a very large screenprint or a black shape, almost completely filling the canvas, with gently curved edges echoing his sculptures. The black shape is full of dense, raised, glutinous texture created by forcing oil paint stick through a silk screen; more inventiveness via the printmaking process.

In addition to the artists you would expect to be represented, there where many I was interested to be introduced to such as Kara Walker, Kiki Smith and the exquisite woodcuts of Veja Celmins. There were others whose work I love and was delighted to find represented here such as Louise Bourgeois and Julie Mehretu. Women are increasing represented in the exhibition as the time line progresses.

If, of the hundred’s of wonderful prints, I could take one home it might be Eric Fischl’s ‘Year of the Drowned Dog’ (1985). This series of etchings is full of the glittery light of the west coast and the sparkling colours familiar from a Hockney painting. There is mystery in the possible narrative around the body of the dog and the groups of people. From a technical point of view, the combination of techniques (aquatint, soft ground etching, scrapping and drypoint) to achieve the rich tones and then the outstanding inking make this a printmaking tour de force. The  six prints  can be combined in different ways to vary the narrative and I would never get bored of rearranging and enjoying this work.

This is undoubtedly the best exhibition of prints I have ever seen, and I think it may well be the best I will ever see.

 

Drawing Workshop at the British Museum

Yesterday, I was privileged to join a study day organised by OCA  in conjunction with the Bridget Riley Foundation. The Foundation’s Project Officer at the Museum had again selected an interesting group of about 12 drawings, on the theme of environment and landscape, for us to examine in detail and draw from. She gave an excellent introduction to the works and their relevance to their time and to each other.

The works we looked at are listed below, together with my quick sketches:

Artist: Barbara Hepworth
Subject: St Rèmy: Mountains and Trees I, 1933
Media: Graphite on paper

It was interesting to feel how her marks started much tighter and more controlled at on the left and became freer moving to the right. Some of the loopy contour lines are repeated for the right foreground and the hills in the background, and that feels almost like a signature, a line completely natural to her.

Artist: Frank Auerbach
Subject: Study for ‘Another Tree in Mornington Crescent’, 2007 
Media: Charcoal, coloured crayon, felt tip pen

I really wish that I had had coloured pencils with me to try and record how he used colour to record density of mass. Here, I have tried to use weight of line for the same purpose, but, of course, he used both. I really like the way both Auerbach and Kokoschka used coloured pencils; I explored this a bit in Drawing 1 and must revisit it.

Artist: Thomas Girtin
Subject: Eidometropolis (Blackfriars bridge and St Paul’s), 1800-1801
Media: Pen and brown ink, with watercolour; squared for enlargement

 

 

Artist: Henry Moore
Subject: Shelter sketchbook
Media: Pen and black ink and graphite, with wax crayon and watercolour

Artist: Paul Signac
Subject: Still life with bowl of fruit,1926
Media: Charcoal and watercolour

 

Artist: Jan Breughel the Elder
Subject: A tazza-shaped vase with flowers tumbling over the bowl, 1583-1625
Media: Pen and brown ink, with brown wash

In both the Breughel and Snyder drawings (Snyder being a pupil of Breugel’s) are, at first glance very detiled, controlled and representational, but close observation of details shows how gestural, free and assured their drawing was.

Artist: Gabriel de Saint-Aubin
Subject: The interior of the artist’s studio, 1780
Media: Black chalk

Artist: Frans Snyders
Subject: Game and fruit, 1594-1657
Media: Pen and brown ink, over black chalk

Artist: John Napper
Subject: Dried plants, 1958 (no image available)
Media: Black and pink chalk, touched with bodycolour and white

Artist: Eugène Louis Boudin
Subject: Groups of figures near Planches, Trouville, 1866
Media: Graphite, with watercolour

Artist: Vincent van Gogh
Subject: La Crau from Montmajour, France, May 1888
Media: Brown ink drawing over black chalk

This is an immense, unbelievably detailed drawing, in ink, using a variety of nibs. The foreground looks like a reed pen used very freely and the far distance is very fine, precise marks using, I imagine, a fine steel nib. Then chalk under-drawing can be seen. He has put, if possible, even more detail into the distance than the foreground. I find the drawing of the train naive compared to the rest with less well observed perspective and proportions. This may of been because he could only observe it briefly as it passed, or that he was consciously or unconsciously recording how discordant he found it in the environment. 

Artist: Margaret Stones
Subject: “Helianthus Annuus” drawn at Kew Gardens, 1973 (no image available)
Media: Graphite and watercolour

Meticulous, scientific record drawings.

Subjects which were touched on in the discussions included the different purposes which drawing and making studies can have, how sketching on location effects choice of size and media, the differences in ways of looking before and after the invention of photography, and how different artists approached the analysis and portrayal of mass.

I found it particularly useful to discuss how, as an artist, I might approach copying a work and the different things I might be trying to explore and understand by doing so. For instance, I might be trying to understand their choices about weight of line or how marks are used to build mass. Our guide advocated copying a work multiple times, copying details, copying lots of works by the same artist, copying, copying and copying to understand and appreciate.

It was a real privilege to see and examine these works close up, especially the Van Gogh.  My personal favourites were the Signac and the Auerbach but everyone enjoyed being introduced to the work of John Napper.

After the study visit, I decided to visit the current exhibition ‘The American Dream‘ looking at contemporary and modern printmaking in American, and which I have written about here.

 

Exhibition – Rodin Drawings

I was excited at the prospect of this exhibition at The Courtauld because I had been enthralled by Rodin’s drawings which I discovered whilst studying Sculpture 1 and it is unusual to find an exhibition concentrating on a sculptor’s working models and drawings rather than final works.

The central element of the small exhibition is a series of small plaster models which he had cast from clay forms which he made. These are rather like the traditional artists wooden model in that he made a pointing arm, say, and had multiple copies of it made which he then combined with different other body parts to create small figurines in different poses. This gave some of the figures a rather peculiar look but others a rather abstract one.

The exhibition was in two small rooms, lined with his drawings. These included some drawn from the models but also life drawings with his famous drawings of Cambodian dancers the most interesting. These were executed during performance with a hand, say, drawn in multiple positions as the dance progressed.

He added to the sense of mood and movement of his drawings with later additions of watercolour. I was surprised to learn that he also collaged them, in this example, two separate sketches together to make a new arrangement.

Ultimately, I was disappointed in this exhibition as I felt the drawings on show were some of his poorer works and many did not have the excuse of being relevant to the models. The exhibition did include. one small sculpture of Nijinski, which was exquisite.

Normally I enjoy sketching in exhibitions, but on this occasion my dominant hand was in a splint and drawing was a frustrating experience as I had no fine control over my pen or pencil. Here are my poor efforts.

rodin-1-of-6 rodin-2-of-6 rodin-3-of-6 rodin-4-of-6 rodin-5-of-6 rodin-6-of-6

 

 

Exhibition – Abstract Expressionists

The ‘Abstract Expressionism’ exhibition which has just closed at the RA was nicely timed to coincide with the research point on Jackson Pollock. I was curious to see his work in the flesh, having previously seen only reproductions, and to see it in the context of those working around him in America at the time. The current exhibition echoes  ‘The New American Painting’ exhibition of 1959 at the Tate after which Prunella Clough said ‘everything changed’ (Spalding, 2012).

The first room was dedicated to Arshile Gorky whose work reminded me of De Kooning with its curvaceous shapes in which you might recognise a form but then it melts away again. I found his watercolour and graphite sketches full of movement with easy lines and transparent washes. The oil paintings seemed, in comparison, heavy and laboured.

Then came the Pollocks. So many, in several rooms. The impact of the real paintings over a reproduction can’t be overstated. Size really does matter and a Pollock 6 metres long is an immersive experience. In reproductions, the texture of the paint and the way different paints have mixed on the canvas isn’t apparent. The paintings have absorbing details and massive overall impact. However, so many, placed together, detracted from each other and created an atmosphere of frenetic  anxiety. In contrast , the room hung with half a dozen or so Rothko’s was calm and subdued, reinforced by the lower lighting levels. Unfortunately, the angle of the lighting created reflections on the surface of the paintings, rather spoiling the effect of an opening up of space through the picture plain. Even in such a busy environment, I found the Rothko’s gave me a profound feeling of spiritual peace.

I was unprepared for the effect that Barnett Newman’s painting would have. In reproduction I had found these rather uninteresting but in their physical presence I found a subtlety and depth that is lost in photographs. The successive washes of paint that he used create a rich and luminous surface and the straight lines and edges between colours are less exact and more complex than a photograph can show. Standing in front of one of the large paintings was rather like standing in the light from a stained glass window; I felt I could bathe in the dense colours.

After Rothko and Newman, I found the De Koonings rather light-weight and lacking profundity. The pretty colours and plastic bodies suffered for being in the presence of such intensity. Not so the Kline’s huge calligraphic marks. These sizzled with energy. It is as though Rothko and Newman were thoughtful and deeply considered during the execution of their works but Pollock and Kline did all their deep consideration before starting work and then just let it all flow out in impulsive gestures, actions. Indeed, Kline had a discipline of drawing and his apparently completely abstract marks are based on selected, enlarged and distorted details of representational drawings (The painting techniques of Franz Kline, 2013).

The exhibition included a number of less well known abstract expressionists such as Clifford Still and Joan Mitchell, but the other stand-out artist, for me, was the photographer Aaron Siskind whose work I only recently discovered and greatly admire. This exhibition included some photographic prints of details of graffiti which echo the paintings of Kline.

References

Spalding, F. (2012) Prunella Clough: Regions Unmapped. United Kingdom: Lund Humphries Publishers.

The painting techniques of Franz Kline (2013) Available at:
https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/art-1010/abstract-exp-nyschool/abstract-expressionism/v/moma-painting-technique-kline    (Accessed: 12 January 2017).