Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Creative Arts Today…Learning about Contemporary Fine Art.


Part One; Contemporary Fine Art 

Hello Kitchen Table Writer fans. 
There's been a huge pause in my blogposts, and you can probably guess the reason...I'm wrting another book.
But just to add to my busy time, I've started a course in art as well.

I'm a bit of a philistine art-wise, a sort of 'I know what I like' person (which often means… 'I don't know a thing, and I can't be bothered to find out'). So I enrolled for one the the courses offered by the Open College of the Arts on art appreciation. This course doesn't expect the student to actually 'do' any art at all, which is a relief! I may know what I like, but I certainly couldn't emulate it myself. I can't even sew, let alone draw, paint, or take a good photo. 

better understand your strengths and weaknesses
identify and question your underlying values and beliefs
acknowledge and challenge possible assumptions on which you base your ideas, feelings and actions
recognize areas of potential bias or discrimination
acknowledge your fears, and identify possible inadequacies or areas for improvement.

I think my bed would be an excellent example of conceptual art; not in the same way as Tracy Emin’s though. At the start of the night, it looks so inviting, all dressed with cushions and pillows and throws, and warm inside because of the electric blanket. By morning it’s a mess. But between those two points, there is a creative process and a descent into another place. Even before I dream, I’m dreaming, losing myself first in books, sometimes in notebooks, then in the dark, drifting into a trance, then…the various stages of sleep, light, deeper, into the depths… 

Cathy Stocker is a friend on mine, and kindly allowed me to interview her about contemporary art.

She’s predominantly a painter, although some of her work she describes as ‘craft items’, and these include a series of birch bark artworks to hang, which represent Swedish soldiers and which sold very well. One of her first points when I went to see her was that she would not consider making further of the birch bark pieces. “I’m in a position now where I can create what I want and I don’t want to sell my soul…although I do want to sell my work!”

This is her in her studio, in front of one of a series of paintings about seaside memories. The artwork is entitled, 'Close your eyes, feel the heat. Remember’. She says, “The narrative in my recent seascape paintings attempts to unlock childhood memories and how these memories inform how we perceive the world as adults. A world we see when we allow ourselves space and time to ‘be present’, a child’s way of looking. I aim to create a dialogue with my work. This may be done through posing a question in the title. Or via a topic or theme I consider an important springboard to discussion. I think it is important to always question what you are doing, why you are doing it and whom you are doing it for.”

I asked her about mentors, and she’s lent me a book of George Hainsworth’s paintings, saying that, at Leeds, he taught her that you needed courage as an artist to break away from the mould. “I like to work with some fear in me. If it’s too safe, you don’t feel afraid and it won’t be a driven piece. There always needs to be an element of fear in making work.

Cathy showed me some of the work she’d made prior to the seaside pictures. These were called Brechfa, 1,2,&3. These are small paintings onto board, which represent a local forest, which I’d waked through myself. It’s partially a conifer plantation, and I immediately connected to these pictures, bearing in mind the skies in Wales are often a mixture of cloud and blue. These can be viewed on her website

Also on her website, in their incomplete form, are the six pictures she’s working on at the moment – Roots. They were on the studio floor. 
Cathy’s method usually starts with her sketchbook, and while out walking, she’d come across a high bank that had crumbled away, exposing the roots to ancient trees. She sketched them without further thinking, and when she transferred the sketches to the next stage. I use acrylic a lot, wiping off or erasing paint, the process of building up and taking away, laying the paint bare and staining the canvas rather than adding thick layers of impasto. I try not to be too precious as I work.” Even so, she didn’t instantly like what she’d produced, and put them away for a while.

Between that time and this moment, things escalated on the world stage, especially remembering when people were fleeing Syria, and the welcome they did or did not receive as they left their country.  Roots, of course are symbolic of one’s initial culture. Cathy wanted exposed roots to represent the way people are torn away. “In times of increased intolerance to immigration, I’m trying to demonstrate that our nation is made up of immigrants and we should be proud of this fact and look after our people and celebrate in this. Diversity is what we should be championing.” She added shining colour to remind the viewer that they had not lost their identity, personality and individuality,  even if it was not evident from their situation.

“I added further acrylic to the work, in bright colours,” she explained. And today she had been slurping clear resin over the colourful middle ‘ball’s of the pieces, which had the effect of clarifying and highlighting the bright colours. But I noticed that the effect also, at angles where the resin caught the light, made those patches black and mirrored, as if the bright colours had become faceless.

The six root pictures will be displayed as one painting, raised up, and slightly separated from the edges of a deep black frame. Cathy makes her own frames, partly to save costs and partly because she can experiment as she goes and change the framing if she pleases. “I think the frame is part of the picture.”

She’d just heard that a portrait she’d entered for a London Prize had reached the short list. This picture, Mr Foster from High Wycombe was still on her wall; it’s also on the link above. “It’s a portrait of my brother,Karl,” she said, “We’ve been family since we met when we were 17 – my brother from another mother. He used to love to visit my great grandmother, Athene, with me; they formed a bond. She was a Ealing Comedy actress  in her day. She’s dead now, but she was born in 1898, so she was actually Victorian. She would insist on calling him ‘Mr Foster from Barbados’, although he was born in High Wycombe. She wanted to honour his roots. But when I did his portrait from a live sitting, I wanted to fix its name in the reality of what Karl actually is. I started with a line drawing directly onto canvas. I like that the paint represents physically a fleeting moment in time, something caught, then gone, a shadow perhaps or a trick of the light. Something you can only get from a sitting from life. And I always leave some part of the canvas completely bare to remind the audience this is a painting, a creation from looking, not from a reproduction.”

Cathy really inspired my understanding of how art is made, right from the conception - in fact before the conception, back to the moment Cathy just ‘sketched what she saw’. The more I looked at her work, the more I fell in love with it. She also lent me  John Berger’s Ways of Seeing.

 First of all, I have to sort out in my mind what ‘contemporary art’ is, and even reading the course materials, defining it is troublesome. Even the exact starting point of the genre is debated; the Tate Gallery’s website says that the Institute of Contemporary Art was founded in 1947, while many art historians go for the late 1960s. The New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York chooses the later date of 1977. My course book takes it further back again, to 1917, when a chap called Marcel Duchamp exhibited a urinal to an art exhibition in New York. The piece was a bog-standard piece of porcelain  from a men’s loo (pun intended!)  signed "R.Mutt" and titled Fountain. The work is regarded by art historians and theorists of the avant-garde, such as Peter Bürger, as a major landmark in 20th-century art. In my coursebook, I’m asked to think what I make of this; is it art? I believe it’s going to take me all of this course to answer that question. 

In the papers is a fascinating, not to mention timely article that raised the question,  Was Marcel Duchamp's 'Fountain' actually created by a long-forgotten pioneering feminist’ came into my sights today. First, I heard a snippet on Radio Four news, then found this on line;

The article suggested that a woman called Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven actually sent Duchamp the urinal he later exhibited as his own conception. She was born in 1897, so was the generation slightly before Carrington  while Rega came after her.She  seemed at least as wonderfully mad a woman as both of them. She was interested in making ‘life art’ and using her own experiences, direction and even the clothes she wore to excite interest in the artistic. Here’s an excerpt from the article; In March 1917, the Philadelphia-based modernist painter George Biddle hired a 42-year-old German woman as a model. She visited him in his studio, and Biddle told her that he wished to see her naked. The model threw open her scarlet raincoat.
Underneath, she was nude apart from a bra made from two tomato cans and green string, and a small birdcage housing a sorry-looking canary, which hung around her neck. Her only other items of clothing were a large number of curtain rings, recently stolen from Wanamaker's department store, which covered one arm, and a hat which was decorated with carrots, beets and other vegetables.

It excites me that women were able to throw off the modes of behaviour that were expected of them and behave in  completely outrageous ways, and it’s a relief too. It’s all to do with our attitude of modernity, I think…we’re always believing that we were the ones who discovered everything that seems modern, but perhaps just the outward expressions are the things that change. Perhaps it’s the numbers who allow themselves that expression that change.

After being asked to stare at a toilet, we moved on to  cans of soup. Pop Art, staring in the 1950s through the 1970s but having it’s payday in the Swinging Sixties, was pioneered by artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein who wanted to portray mass culture through art. It lasted roughly. And thanks to artists like Jeff Koons, it was reborn as Neo-Pop Art in the 1980s.
Andy Worhol,
Photo: José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro, 
via Wikimedia Commons

Ai Wei Wei, ‘COCA COLA VASE’ (2011)
Photo: Sotheby’s
In turn, Pop Art also art helped shape Conceptualism, which fought against the idea of art as a commodity. Though this experimental movement is rooted in art of the early 21st century, it emerged as a formal movement in the 1960s and remains a major contemporary art movement today. In conceptual art, the idea behind a work of art takes precedence. Major conceptual artists include Damien Hirst, Ai Wei Wei, and Jenny Holzer.

Sol LeWitt, ‘Wall Drawings’ (2006)
Photo: Lisson Gallery

Like Conceptualism, Minimalism materialized in the 1960s and is still prevalent today. According to the Tate, both movements “challenged the existing structures for making, disseminating and viewing art.” What sets Minimalism apart, however, is that its simple, abstract aesthetic invites viewers to respond to what they see—not what they think a given work of art represents. Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, and Dan Flavin are some key Minimalist artists


One of the first contemporary art paintings shown in the course materials is a picture of green.  My first thought (very unoriginal) was “even I could do that. Thick paintbrush, thin the colour out as you move up the paper.”
So I had to work out what this was about and why a picture of  green hues might be ‘art’. On going to Izabella Godlweska de Aranda’s page, I could see she was drawn to green There was a lot of it and the one the OCA had chosen was one of the least interesting, in my view. Certainly, the green painting feel as if it come from nature, except nature is rarely formed in straight lines. I preferred the Kensington Garden series, there was more to look at. I’d never heard of the painter, so I looked her up.  She took painting classes with Jozef Pacewicz, then in 1959 she married the Spanish diplomat Eduard Aranda y Carranza and moved to Madrid. She began to experiment with colour and horizontal strips. After her husband's death she worked in sculpture. I found this quote from her. "I try to understand the abstract as infinity in the concept of the absolute. An unrivalled absolute where imagination connects with the vision of reality known to us. It is a vision of nature, landscape, sunrise and sunset, moonlight, the ultimate and only truth, which is also infinity. It is the specific language of the world around us who seeks its own expression to find a way to reconcile destiny. (Wikipedia It reminds me of the night, in a strange way. The memory of waking up under canvas before, or at the point of first light, when the colours are muted to grey. 

It was hard to find anything in English about this artist, but the subtext of what I found intrigued me. The fifties was my mother’s time; it was a repressed time for women, even though they now had full suffrage and were able to go to work, especially prior to marriage or babies. It must have been hard to become an artist, but perhaps one could ‘do them at home’, which, like writing, might have allowed housewives to secretly practice their art. I began to wonder about the female artists pre-equality times. I’d just listened to A Good Read, the longstanding programme on reading and books on BBC Radio Four, when I first heard about The Hearing Trumpet. “This is a bonkers book,” said one of the programme’s guests, who’d been asked to read it. “It’s mad. Utterly bats in the belfry.” I rushed to Amazon and ordered a second-hand copy. I had to find out if he was right. 

Leonora Carrington was born in 1917 in Lancashire to a strict Catholic family, and began to paint when she first came into contact with surrealism through her lover, painter Max Ernst. But she also wrote; her stories are as surrealist as her paintings, original, imaginative and charming. The Hearing Trumpet  is a classic of fantastic literature, reminding me of a childhood favourite, Alice in Wonderland, but rather than falling down a rabbit hole, we view the world through ninety-two-year-old Marian Leatherby’s ornate hearing device. Marian’s family commit her to a sinister retirement home, with buildings shaped like igloos and birthday cakes. The occupants have  to endure the twisted religious sermons of the proprietor while they eat their weird meals overlooked by a portrait of a leering Abbess. Marian happens upon a book detailing the life of the Abbess, and the book’s pace, remarkably, hots up into a magical adventure of escape. The guest on A Good Read was perfectly right. This book is bonkers, but such fun to read. The cover was her own work, and it sent me off to find more of her work.

Not only did she write in this surreal way, but she also painted and sculpted. Perhaps, this was due to her association with Ernst, but I wonder about life experience, too, because during the war, Ernst was taken by by the Nazis and Leonora had a nervous breakdown. She fled to Spain, but was incarcerated in an asylum. In her memoir she describes the brutal regime, the use of hallucinatory drugs sexual assaults and filthy conditions. This feels pretty surreal to me, and her response was both to write and create art. She has a big following in America and Mexico, where she lived for many years, but Britain has ignored her for most of her life, until an OBE in 2000 when she was 83; I had certainly never heard of her and can only thank A Good Read for the introduction.
Searching the BBC site for anything similar, I came across Paula Rego. After the Spanish links of  Izabella Godlweska de Aranda and the Mexican/European links to Leonora Carrington, there was quite a frisson of interest when I realised that Paula Rego, born in 1935 was Portuguese, but studied at the Slade. Her work, especially her early work, filled with animals in association with humans, reminded me of the hyena paintings and short stories by Carrington. The fact that both women are attracted to magical realism, which to me, feels like ‘grown up fantasy/fairy story, seems to link them in my mind, although their styles and the sense of the work couldn’t be more different. Rego is described as producing ‘art of the beautiful grotesque’, while Carrington’s work is almost fey in its fantastical aspect, using muted colours and softened outlines.

In a video made by Rego’s, Secrets and Stories it became clear, that, in a link to Carrington, she loved to paint story and she’d started early in her life. She’d paint next to her mother, but, she explained on the video, once her father started reading stories to her at bedtime (including Dante’s Inferno),  the ideas came fast,and she wanted to get them down as images. She suggests that folk tales are an imaginative source; images that we have inside, giving a reflection of what the imagination is.

In 1965 she had first exhibitions in London and Lisbon. When she returned to Lisbon in1957, it was to have her lover’s baby. The father, Victor Willing followed her, divorced his wife and they married and settled outside Lisbon, where she continued to work prolifically. At the same time, she was raising 3 children. In Secrets and Stories, she says…It was brush or baby, not part of the same lifeies and art are separate parts. painting pictures is the part of you that is The Man. After the revolution in
the 70s, she came back to London. In the 90s she created a series of works that seemed to suggest images of women undergoing abortion (it was, she explained in Secrets and Stories, the way the female students at the Slade managed their sex lives), and this became part of the move for  a referendum in 2007 to legalise abortion in the very conservative Portugal. Here, at the British Museum round room she began to read folk tales. The Portuguese tales were particularly cruel - and the most close to her. Out of this research came a new phase. One of  Rego’s most famous series of paintings are from the 80s, when she began to paint  dogs with women.. Finally, after Vic’s death from MS, she had a show at the Serpentine, which presented a complete, but whole dark narrative. “Let me paint you a story” said one newspaper report, but that story seems to be of childhood fantasies, vicious and sexual. At that time, she met Marina Warner. In an interview, Warner says that it was thanks to artists like Rega that the female artists now are in a very different place, although not an easy one. (Although I suppose it was never easy to be an artist. Despite using a model, many of the paintings seem to depict a caricature ‘Paula’. Or, rather than charicature, ‘hated’, perhaps. She’s a slim woman who was a desirable beauty in her youth, yet the images show stumpy, thick-set women with masculine faces and berry-brown, almost grimy skin.
At this time, she produced her ‘ostrich’ paintings of stumpy women dancing in (mainly) black tutus, with Disney’s Fantasia as her influence . I have no idea why, but I like these. Perhaps the incongruity is too much for me.  I much prefer the story pictures, like The Blue Angel talks to Pinocchio. In one series, the women in them behave like dogs – the ‘dog women’ paintings, in which the women are      
Dog Woman doing what men tell them, often on all fours, biting their own flesh or being kicked under the bed, with titles like ‘Waiting for  Target, 1995, shows a woman undoing her dress zip and exposing her bra strap as if readying herself to be attacked.
One thing I’ve learnt as I looked particularly at Carrington and Rega’s work, is that you get to like an artist’s work as you study it. The more you understand it, the more attractive it is on the eye, the mind and the soul. I believe I’ll look for further female artists’ stories in the future

There was a local exhibition at the Mwldan Theatre in Cardigan, just half an hour from me.  Lea Sautin’s “Through the Paper Window”, Sautin’s work made me feel wide-eyed. She started with wire and paper, to  create little models of creatures from the Mabiniogion. I love this book of Welsh Myth, in fact, I’d say I was a bit obsessed. Then, Sautin took her models and moved on - that was the really exceptional part of her work. I’d’ve been happy with just the little paper models because they are quite exquisite but she used photography and woodcuts, dry and photopolymer etching, (I must look into these more to understand just how she used these and what they are! I’ll ask Cathy when she’s back from her travels in August). With these mediums, she produced what was the actual ‘art’, I guess – wall-hung pictures of  two and three visual representations. Inside the frames, the pictures had a cubist feel; here and there you spotted little bits of the mythological creatures from the sculptures against the wonderful welsh landscape backgrounds – an eye, a foot, a tree branch. 

This was important because the Four Branches of the Mabinogion are confused, lost, broken and probably retold in the 11th century from earlier tales. The broken and repaired pictures seemed to say that to me…”feel this, rather than think it, because, I am as lost and torn as the stories themselves, but my meaning, if you peer hard, is clear.”
Here are some of my own interpretations of these myths, written down in the 11th century, but with roots lost in the mists of time:


Men and their vile wands cause war and rape; 

A misshape child, hidden, was
Stitching up of all my flaws,
Chance for me to touch the stars.

In women’s wombs every child of the world;
            Lies unfurled. A whispering, mild ,
Cell, to grow, or be expelled...
Miss; expect to be reviled.

Men and their wands leave me cold. I possess 
A veiled caress, protective fold,
Hidden power, uncontrolled
Not cheapened or undersold.

Locked in a tower, do not quake, weep or wail,
 Spun in a wheel, do not break:
Look to the stars and partake
            Of the moon’s beams, ride their wake. 


 No one asked me;
Oak, meadowsweet and broom,
They fashioned a frock of floral gauze
And stood me ‘fore the sun
Legs up to my elbows, quivering like a fawn.

 No one asked me;
Oak, meadowsweet and broom,
Crushed petals bursting from the crystal trap 

He, too stood before the sun
The halo burning round him blurred his face.

No one asked me;
 Oak, meadowsweet and broom,
Slipping from the banquet hall, all aflush,
How you doing, Petal? 
A willowy sylph in a dress of flowers.

No one asked me;
Oak, meadowsweet and broom,
If he was tiring of my primrose laugh.
If my own gaze slipped or
If my pistils swelled as the fine gauze slid.

No one asked me;
Oak, meadowsweet and broom,
 Conspired assassination of a Prince – 
Were you both so desperate?
 Swift punishment; brutal, mocking, timeless.

No one asked me;
 How you doing, feather? 
Flight against the white moon,
Warm flesh swallowed whole. Downy love in the trees. 


 When did I know your pedigree was forged?
After battle, the great feast of victory,
/Toasts of mead and plates of boar our gathering gorged

Your watchet eyes a valedictory, 
Even the gold-tipped merlin-feathered crown
Hinted at departure, contradictory.

When did I first hatch my plan? My baffled frown 
Took me to my cousin, Queen of Annwvyn
 –You seem distracted, sweet, have you felt down?

 Her pale cheeks warmed like apples in the sun
 – He’s been distracted. Not for one full year 
Has he touched me. But, darling coz, I swoon...

Her breath was sweet, her lips soft on my ear
 –Last night was...rapture! Her smile told me all. 
The veiled and hidden secret became clear.

My head buzzed with my singing birds whose call
Shoos time away. My heart fluttered like wings.
My thighs wet with desire. Him, I’ll enthral.

I straddled my white mare, encircling 
The mound of wonders, miracles and harm.
In dreams he sat, saw this sweet fay appearing 

And rose, pulled to me by my whispering charm.
Enchanted hoofs restrained his mortal reach, 
 His face the colour of a farrier’s arm. 

My lady, will you rein in and have speech! 
I would, sir, for your horse’s better health.
For we are well-matched, therefore must well meet

I choose a man for character, not wealth,
Star fortune and star cross as my birds sing,

Will more befall? Our fates emerge with stealth...

I think that final reflection above, when I thought about it over some nights (in my Emin bed…) is how art works its magic on people. It’s why people spend a long time at galleries in front of one work. The more you know, the more you understand deeply, the more you can appreciate, and, then, on some occasions, appreciation transforms into love. But because love is unguessable and without logic, so one could not guess which works one appreciates more fully will turn into a love affair, and which will not. So I can now say I appreciate Carrington’s work, but I quickly loved Rego’s, and I still don’t know why, except to say that the solidity and opened-faced quality of what she says suits me better than the most unsettling of Carrington’s paintings.

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