Saturday, 25 March 2017

How did it come to this?

I've been a little bothered recently by the wonky and not so convincing line that's appeared in my current images, and thought I would look back over my breadcrumb trail to remind myself of how I got to here.

The images above were done about four years after I left St Martin's School of Art, London. I left because what they were teaching me (abstract, conceptual and performance art) made no sense to me (I was 18). In my previous year, at the Berkshire College of Art, I had had a good basic training in drawing techniques and colour theory, and had taken a course in the history of 20th century art and architecture. What was going on at St Martins was alien territory, and it didn't smell right.

I understood the principles of 'Western' aesthetics, had studied the development of ideas about paint and representation; the movement and counter-movements of painting in recent times. I remember very clearly the day our lecturer introduced Malevich's 'white on white', painted in 1918, which is essentially a white square on a white ground. Something jerked me awake and I thought, oh, ok, that's it for painting, I guess. Now what?

After that, I lived in Italy for three years, painting and drawing, while working a day job as an English language teacher. I was in the middle of the Umbrian countryside, drawing and painting one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world. And with every single thing I did, I thought, no, not this... no, not this. It was an unconsciously driven process of experimentation leading to elimination; a working through of all the traditions I had been given, and finding nothing in them that interested or excited me.

At the end of the three years, I got a job teaching Tibetan refugees in North India. One day, early on in my time there, I was sitting in my bedroom, looking out at the monsoon clouds gathering across the valley. I was suddenly compelled to make the first drawing in the collage below.

At a certain point in the drawings that followed, my line finally broke free. This was what I had been waiting for, without realising it. Western representational techniques, for all their majesty and wonderful use of paint, simply didn't interest me, for reasons that were a total mystery. But this lively line suddenly dancing on my page was the most exciting thing I had ever seen (reading left to right, pictures 3, 4, 5, and 6.).

I didn't know it at the time, but I was unconsciously searching for one of the principles at the heart of Indian traditions of aesthetics; the idea that a painted or drawn image must convey prana, life-force or breath. Many years later, when I was doing a degree in Indian art and architecture, I would come across a quote in an ancient treatise which said that the painter needed to be able to show with the movement of their line whether a figure lying on the ground was alive or dead. The idea took my breath away.

Some years before that, however, when I was back in India again, I met a young painter who had been studying in England under a painting teacher who taught 'old master' techniques. She reminded me about tonal drawing and taught me some of the things she'd learnt from him. I learnt a lot from her (the last three drawings in the collage above).

And then there was a twenty year break, during which time I did a degree at SOAS in Indian Art, Philosophy and Architecture, and went to India to do two field-based projects in Tamil Nadu. One of these was an architectural project, which involved a lot of drawing (the bottom two pictures on the right in this collage):

During a holiday break from my job as a lecturer in Adult Education in the university sector, later still, I participated in an Earthwatch project which involved documenting old Turkish houses in Kula, Turkey, for an American architectural study (the other drawings in the collage above). Somehow drawing kept raising its head and looking at me.

When I came back to painting in 2008, the work that first appeared was abstract. As I've said before, I was more than a little surprised. I was convinced that I was completely finished with trying to make art, and had always found abstract art quite difficult to respond to.

I'd been using  complexity theory (chaos, fractals...) as a theoretical framework for my critique of adult learning models, so perhaps the appearance of these images is no surprise. I used to say that Complexity was my way of getting Indian philosophy into my theoretical work in Education; perhaps it was also my way of staying connected to the one kind of visual form that had always made sense to me, the shapes and repetitions of the natural world.

A year or so later, I remember wondering on this blog about how my studies of Indian art and philosophy, and my interest in Indian aesthetics (the idea of conveying the movement of life through forms, as opposed to the proportional and muscular accuracy of my own Greek-influenced tradition...) were going to come together.

Eventually, after two trips back to India, and an intensive study of Hoyshala temple carvings and Jain murals...

...the free line managed to find its way back in. One morning my dancers just quietly took off from their Indian roots and began doing their own thing.

Suddenly, they were everywhere. They just would not lie down.

I've always been full of admiration for European and American traditions of using paint; the techniques of using oil and acrylic, building up layers, using tonally blended colour etc. But I've never wanted to do it for some reason. Instead I've always been drawn to translucence, the way that light shines through the paper in watercolour, for example. Light, shining through things... in a way that isn't quite the same as when you add white paint to oil and acrylic pigments.

When I'm painting figures now, I have to keep consciously steering myself away from European drawing habits like seeking out the light source, or wanting to convey that light source using tonal values that are linked to light sources in life. My aesthetic always rejects it. It has to be thin, translucent veils of pure colour, rather than blending and tones.

Sometimes I deliberately mess with the light source...

I have no idea where it's going. I try to simply follow; some fugitive trail laid down by aesthetic experience, study and sensibility that can only be seen/felt if I get out of the way. There's some kind of embodied knowing; an invisible, accumulated store that has accrued through decades of looking and feeling and being. I have to keep going.

In October last year, I came back from my workshop with Paul Oertel in France, and things took a slightly different turn.

It was easy at first. The images just came without thought. But then they started to lose the freshness of line and colour that had so beguiled me when it first appeared. For a while I studied the earlier ones and tried to reproduce that quality. But it was impossible. The minute I start trying to do something, everything turns to lead.

At the moment I've decided that it's evolution and there's nothing I can do about it. I often don't like what comes out, but I've decided to accept whatever it is, and stop trying to make it capture something from an earlier stage.

I've been aesthetically offended by many things that have appeared recently. But then some days later I've sometimes seen something new that's trying to come through.

I feel a kind of relief now that I've stopped trying to constantly trick myself into the conditions that allow for the emergence of the free unconscious line. It's still wonderful when that happens, as it did the other day...

But there are other forms of image coming. This is the latest, in progress...

I can see here how I was trying to get into the state that I know can generate the free line, but it wasn't entirely working. Probably because I had an image (a detail from a carving, for example) in front of me; the quasi-copying process 'from life' seems to be deadening somehow.

This is ironic, if it's true - that working from life, for me, kills the life force in my images!

My current idea is that I need to work with a process that isn't quite this; in fact with the process that I've just realised is what generated the dancers in their freedom. This means that I draw from my image of the carving (either a photo or a drawing done in situ in India); I draw to study,  to learn and internalise the forms and the expression and the things that I love. But then I need to put the source image away, and work with the residue of it, with what's left in memory, mind and heart...

That's my current theory, anyway. Let's see what happens next.

(If the early part of this post seems familiar, I took part in a facebook challenge a year or so ago that involved exploring these same ideas in the history of the evolution of 'the free line'...)

Monday, 13 March 2017

There's more to art than the art world...

Today I read an interview on Hyperallergenic called 'Goodbye to all that: Why do artists reject the art world?'

'Everyone I know thinks the art world as it's set up now, and as it has evolved over the last half-century, is a deeply flawed system, and these artists [those being discussed in the interview]- diversely, sometimes at self-sacrificing cost and sometimes to their benefit - highlight that fact or call it out. Whereas most of us develop our own variant on "oh well". It's possible that the idea of walking out of this world at all, where there's an unspoken assumption that everyone engaged in cultural work is a de facto lifer, strikes some people as "mad"'.

If this was an academic essay, I could go to town on this question. Who do you mean by 'artists'?; are they all doing the same thing?; which art world are you talking about?, what is 'the' art world? etc etc. There's definitely not one art world, and people use the term to mean many different things.

Here are some of the ones I'm aware of, in hierarchical order... At the top, there are galleries where no-one expects anything to sell; where the host space has already bought the work and put it into a collection and is simply putting it on display. Then there are galleries that sell to big investors, because there's an investment market. Then there are galleries that sell to people who are not necessarily looking for an investment, but which take up space in an expensive part of town and charge very high prices. Then there are galleries which try to represent artists who don't sell in the either of these first two types of gallery, which sell at more reasonable prices. There are also galleries who look primarily for things that will sell to tourists and passersby, who don't try to represent anyone in particular but simply want to find what they can sell the most of. And then are various types of online art site, where anyone can post anything and sell to anyone who finds them on the internet.  All of this could be see as 'the art world', and much more that I haven't mentioned.

However, when people refer to 'the art world' in something like the interview above, they're referring to something a little more specific.  This is what I would call an (albeit highly varied)  establishment art world.  That an establishment art world exists is the first thing that confuses me, because I thought that art was meant to be quite a wide and free kind of thing, existing at least in part to mock and challenge institutions and establishments. But as far as I can see there is definitely an establishment thing going on.

It operates and perpetuates itself through 'top galleries', and also through the institutions we know as art schools/colleges. Where you go to learn how to be a free artist, right? Well, no, actually, not really. Art schools are educational institutions. Whether or not you realise this in your first flush of youthful hope and desire (I'm talking here about people who want to be 'fine artists', which in the past would have meant a painter, or sculptor, but which now means something much wider...), you go to art schools to be schooled.... in some version of the prevailing institutional/establishment views about what 'art', or 'contemporary art practice', is. To learn, amongst many other things, what is allowed and what is not allowed in 'serious art'.

When I went to St Martins, London, in the late 1970s, if you were serious about becoming a painter, there was an unspoken rule which said that you could not go anywhere near the life room, or do any other kind of work 'from life'. The real/proper/serious students all worked on very large canvases, and everything they did was abstract.

More recently, I was interested to see in an article on 'Ten Threshold Concepts In Fine Art' that one of the assumptions of a fine art art education in 2011 was the need to move your students from 'aesthetic to conceptual awareness'. There's nothing unreasonable about this idea, and it's perfectly in line with the aims of 'higher' education.

But let's consider it for a moment. Your students most likely arrive with a love of the aesthetic; a desire, perhaps, to work with colour and paint and line and shape... propelled by a big, unexamined soup of visceral and emotional responses to the world. According to the threshold concepts article, it's your job, as their art school lecturer, to shift them away from the soup that brought them to you and teach them:

' understanding of the creative process as one which requires critical thinking and idea development through research and reflection conducted using a variety of approaches, methods and materials.'

And there's nothing at all wrong with this. It's exactly what some people want. But this statement reflects a particular view, not only of the purpose of higher education (to develop critical thought etc), but of art as a primarily conceptual affair.  No problem, in principle, unless this becomes an orthodoxy. And that is more or less what has happened; the idea that 'the creative process' should be conceptual  is a highly prevalent institutional/ establishment view. I'm not trying to get into a discussion about what art education should or should not be, my point is that there are certain ideas that are acceptable within current institutional/establishment thinking, and certain ideas that are not.

In the context of higher education institutions, and presumably the preoccupations of different forms of conceptual art (both of which are concerned with how you think ), what is often not so acceptable are things associated with the messy feelings and urges of the physical body (and, dare I mention, the yearning spirit?). I don't mean ideas about the body, which can willingly open themselves up for a wee bit of postmodern deconstruction and contestation. I mean the actual, visceral experience of getting messy with paint. The intense, physical yearning to make marks or form symbols, often without knowing why. The sensation of standing in front of a painting and feeling worlds open up inside your chest. That kind of stuff.

When I left art school and started working abroad, I began to discover some new and different purposes and orientations towards colour, and making, and images, and art, to those I had been schooled in.  In India, for example, I saw that a great deal of art was not made for the purposes of self-expression; it was not something that you made because you were special and had a calling; it was often not made to sell, and in many contexts it was produced without a sense of individual ownership, of either the process or the final product. People were making art everywhere, in temples, in cities, in villages, in shops, on roadsides, in the dust, onto cow dung, into mud. It was the same in Bali. Everyone was making things, for all sorts of different purposes. Art in these places was aesthetic, it was narrative, it was symbolic; art was visceral, and it came out of and affected people's bodies, often in the service of things that were not so physical.

Thirty years later, after living and working in Italy, North India, Japan and Australia, I started to paint again. No-one was more surprised than me. Not only that I was painting, but with the images that started to appear.

'It's also the case that nobody begins with a withdrawal [from the art world], or without somehow 'earning' the right to leave

Strangely, I did. I began with a withdrawal.  And though I did almost no work for those thirty years, somehow my connection to image and colour and texture and paint only went to sleep, it didn't die. I wrote a story when I was 16 called 'Stuck in Thick Red' which was about a man who got into a bath of paint every day just for the joy of it. Aesthetic, visceral, emotional, bodily. Completely unfashionable then, and pretty much still unfashionable now.

I never tried to join the establishment art world, and I don't want to join it now. I'm not interested in whether or not I'm moving art history on, or whether or not someone in a New York gallery thinks that my work will 'fit'.

I'm following a breadcrumb trail, and at each step, it satisfies me to share what I find, with anyone who cares to look.


Friday, 3 March 2017

'People will think I can't draw'

I quite regularly have a little conversation with myself as I make my work. It goes something like this:

A. 'But look how wonky that line/hand/leg is!'

B. 'I know, that just seems to be what happens when you don't draw first in pencil... when you just draw in a kind of free, unthinking way, in response to an idea or an image...'

A. 'Well, you could practice, so that when you draw free like that with a pen your line would be more accurate'

B. 'You just don't get it, do you? I've done loads of drawing 'practice'. I can make something very accurate if I want to. But I've never wanted that kind of drawing. It seems pointless to me. Of course it's what people who look, and perhaps people who don't draw, love. They're culturally conditioned to be impressed with factual accuracy in drawing, they can't help themselves. It's probably them I'm thinking about as another wonky line comes out.

A. 'But why do you think of them, who cares?

B. 'Now you're talking. The minute I think about them, I just step in front of that thought with another one, which says. Oh for fuck's sake! Why on earth would you want to make a technically impressive accurate-in-some-way drawing? Millions of people already do that. Millions of people have spent years improving their hand/eye coordination until they can do that just perfectly.

As 21st century culture we can do accuracy, we can do sophistication, we can do cleverness. We go on doing it, over and over again, and it's technically and aesthetically satisfying to us, to do, and to see. But the question for me, and it's only for me, is what's the point of that? Another pleasing, accurate image. It still impresses me when it's done by others. But as a maker of images, that bores me.

I'm interested in images not as cultural markers of a dedication to cleverness, but as expressions of human experience. What happens when the human hand picks up a stick and goes free, in response to an idea, a dream or a body-shaking fear? What can images be as expressions available to anyone, with  or without years of technical practice? It's something quite contrary in me, that, despite 'being able to draw' a lot of what I make suggests that 'I can't'.

It's something to do with that thing in classical Indian traditions about images expressing life-force, breath - the line or image as an expression of something living, experiential. For me that's also about wonkiness and imperfection; and also about the message potentially encoded in a symbol or a visual idea which leaves the image open to interpretation by the viewer, rather than simply feeling wowed (and often alienated from the world of creativity) by reproductive accuracy.

I sometimes think about offering workshops that would provide this opportunity for anyone at all to work free with symbols and imagination; for the sheer joy of the sensation of making a pen move through ink, or of making a field of colour.  I'd like to find a way to take away ordinary people's fear of working with definite, symbolic imagery. So that instead of saying, 'oh, I don't know how to draw an eye' and feeling depressed at the lack of accuracy in their marks (people think accuracy is gift or talent, but it's not, anyone can learn to draw...), they would be able to dive into the world of their lived, embodied experience and create out of that without fear. '