This assignment was, for me, the best part of the module. Expansive and liberating, it contrasted sharply with the more insular and prescriptive exercises that preceded it but which, nevertheless, I was able to employ in this series of paintings.
The environmental theme was perfect for my situation, trapped as I have been in a small space while my re-purposed conservatory/studio was demolished and rebuilt. That space to my right as I sit here has been the most important environment in my personal world since mid October and its proximity has permitted close, almost obsessive, documentation over the weeks as I’ve watched it leave and then gradually return like a cluttered, gritty tide. This longitudinal observation has lent itself to one of the points I was asked to consider – the notion of time in art – as I have not only painted alongside the changes, I have also used styles and texts that reflect a gradual shift from ancient Chinese philosophies to information drawn from contemporary space exploration.
The prevailing objective I had in mind though, was simplicity. Resisting the temptation to over-work and to know when to stop. I have not always been as successful at this as I would wish, and it is clear from my ambivalence about the second pair of paintings featuring the tents in the garden that, while I re-worked this in a much more spare and graphically clean way, I found the original darker, more painted version attractive when it came to presenting this section in the assignment submission. I am also less satisfied by the third pair, which I presented as one piece rather than two, because it looks weak, although I can see it has some satisfying ‘moments’ to it here and there.
My personal preferences lie in the first, fourth, and fifth pairs. The first because it came from nowhere, had its roots in audio featuring Nils and Mary Anne Hobbs referenced in an earlier piece, and drew on ideas about Chinese art that may be less accurate than impressionistic. I like the primary palette, the way the lines work, and the impact of the splashes of red. I also found that the text added meaning to the image even though it was effectively random.
The fourth pair maintains the stripped down palette but for me is something of a triumph of perspective as this quasi-architectural piece needed to be relatively accurate. The pair also work as a single entity as a piece of film used to make some of the primary painting encroaches on the fold and binds the two in the centre. I had trouble with the text though, trying to write at an angle and reflect the perspectives on sills and walls.
The fifth pair was entirely serendipitous. I had taken photos, with permission, of all the work and the builders throughout and while I knew I wanted a grand finale as it were, I had no ideas for it. Then one of the builders posed at the bottom of a ladder and there it was – the giant leap for mankind just days before NASA’s projected landing of its Mars rover. Here are my two environments – space in far-reaching and also very local terms, and colours reflecting the building materials I have lived with these last months and the ones the rover will send back to earth should it (please!) land safely. There is also the sand and the grit which gets everywhere and which I have incorporated into some of the primer I have been using. These pieces are also gritty but this time with deliberate manipulation of the acrylic primer and the way that affected the soft pastels.
I know I have consciously thought about light and how to make it in paintings. I am a demon for small lights and three strips of LEDs sit waiting to be stuck into place in the studio, but actually making light out of paint is not so easy. I went to Degas because of the way he makes magical light shine from his dancers. Those tutus and the glowing faces above the layers of nets, the stage lights – all of them luminescent. I copied one to get a feel for the process, and as is my habit, brought it into the present day in an animation. My solution was to use dry brush T white acrylic over a pink wash and then to drag soft pastel over the textured surface, and again simplicity was the key strategy. This time though, when friends seeing the earlier ‘draft’ said it was stunning and to stop now, I knew had more to do. Then when I had done the ‘more’, people wanted to buy it, which probably says at least as much about the look of a halfway decent knock-off Degas as it does about me, but that pleased me nonetheless.
I have also thought quite a lot about edges, a subject that came up with my tutor vis a vis some earlier work when I had let the paint escape from the primary area of the painting. In the past, I thought paintings had to have neat edges and to be contained, but latterly I have seen so many pieces that leak out of their nominal boundaries – often as textiles or projections – and I find I like this sense of movement. It feels as though the image may be capable of acting under its own volition, that leaving it alone might give it the opportunity to change its form in some way. Like damp or mould, or the quiet progress of a spreading mycelium. Organic. The edges of this series of paintings are sometimes loose, sometimes contained, and occasionally re-purposed in the interests of the single images or the pair. Those liminals are parts of a painting I had not thought much about before, beyond slapping on a nice frame and wondering if it will sell at the next craft fair.
The same applies to the notion of how paint operates in conjunction with ground. This is something I do think about, often priming surfaces before using them and sometimes texturing the primer with other materials such as sand (the first pair), dabbing with a towel (fifth pair), and using brush strokes to influence subsequent paint layers or pastels (almost all the paintings). Much of this module has been directed towards the application of surfaces and media in counterintuitive combinations and I have enjoyed trying out gloss on film, watercolour on gloss, and many other combinations. But I have found that without having a clearer sense of what is coming next, sometimes these textures and combinations have worked against me so now I am deliberating more strategically in that regard.
Ironically, that lack of direction and finding myself fighting the textures has led to greater abstraction than I might have sought to make otherwise. Abstraction is a style I find less appealing than more representative styles and that is because I believe it excludes viewers who need a clue in order to make sense of contemporary art. This comes from my personal/professional background in learning (intellectual) disability services where exclusion is painful and debilitating for people and the impact of clarity of communication absolutely liberating. I sometimes feel there is an exclusivity about art; that it isn’t meant for the masses, only the aficionados who somehow ‘get it’, and my aim is to at least make my own accessible. I want to say something in my work and so I want to make that readable in some way.
This brings me to the animations. I had been making these playfully with an enthusiasm driven by what I see as the role of technology in democratising art and I was encouraged latterly by my tutor to make more of them. People use their devices to find information, to preserve information, and to make their own information. Artists are increasingly engaging viewers with images often predicated upon something physical but extended in value and accessibility with words (stories and poetry), film, augmented reality, and virtual reality. This to me is the gallery of the future and the inventiveness of galleries seeking to engage locked down audiences with virtual tours, artist interviews, and online front window exhibitions, shows that it is possible. I have collected all my OCA animations onto their own padlet where they’re no longer the side show and that pleases me very much indeed.
Research and integration of other artists’ practice is still somewhat hit and miss. My ideas are not coming out of the blue but, at a guess, the influences have been sloshing around in my unconscious for decades, inseparable now from the multitude of other influences from literature, films, music, and conversations. I forget almost immediately the content of any research I do or write about although the sense of it remains and often appears in what are at the moment rare conversations. During my first degree, rote learning of the names of past psychologists and key dates of movements and theories was de rigueur and we did it without thinking in the refectory over coffee and beans on toast. We made up songs and rhymes and jokes together. None of that is possible at any level at present, partly because this is a distance course but critically because we are distanced in a much more significant way with no prospect of this easing soon. Still, I know I know more than I did, and I know it can be triggered by conversations so there is hope. I just can’t quite trigger it for myself yet.