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Archive for the ‘Art’ Category

Chris Burden.

In Art, Performance on May 11, 2015 at 6:56 am
‘Trans-fixed’, Venice, CA, 1974 Photograph © Chris Burden

‘Trans-fixed’, Venice, CA, 1974 Photograph © Chris Burden

Chris Burden is an art school staple. As you warily begin to ingratiate yourself into the world of modern and contemporary art, you soon realise that Burden is one of the world’s preliminary performers, perhaps because he’s done well to make sure you never, ever forget him. Whether you perceive his performances to be a destructive waste of time or whether you consider him a courageous genius, that’s up to you. Many people know him as ‘that bloke who kind of shot himself in the arm.’

Burden was born in Massachusetts in 1946. His early college works were sculptural, but early on he noted the potential for human interaction with the artworks. In reference to his untitled outdoor tunnel sculptures constructed out of plastic and steel, the artist claimed to have “realised that what I had made was not a piece of sculpture but something that had to be activated” (Horvitz 1976). It was the act of running through the 100 foot long tunnels that drew Burden towards processes more associated with physical activity than minimalist sculpture. And so a performance artist was born.

‘Shoot’, F Space, Santa Ana, California 1971

‘Shoot’, F Space, Santa Ana, California 1971

From then on Burden’s artistic explorations began to consist of sculptures that required physical triggers, thereby causing the viewer/performer (you essentially became both) to become an inherent aspect of the artwork. Then he went one step further with Five Day Locker Piece, where he confined himself to a 2’ x 2’ x 3’ studio locker for five consecutive days, apparently for reasons more to do with curiosity than anything else.

Burden’s work continued to embody these themes of tense and often claustrophobic anxiety, although in some cases he actually came to enjoy the isolation and deprivation. In Bed Piece (1972) he inhabited the corner of a room with only a bed and a portable toilet for him to spend 22 days of his time on. His visibility to the audience, however, prompted Burden to rethink his approach. He came up with White Light/White Heat (1975), in which he spent three weeks lying hidden on a raised platform in the Ronald Feldman Gallery in New York. When discussing the piece with Robert Horvitz, Burden elucidated:

I have this fantasy, which may or may not be realised, that someone will come in off the street, not knowing my name, just doing a gallery tour, come in and see the platform and be able to feel that something’s amiss. There’d be something that would nag at them and they could maybe feel my presence…” (1975)

Not all of Burdens work was so contemplative and quiet. In what are perhaps his most famous performances, entitled Shoot (1971) and Trans-fixed (1974), we are offered much more abrupt and violent artworks. In the case of Shoot, the statement goes: “at 7:45 p.m. I was shot in the left arm by a friend. The bullet was a copper jacket .22 long rifle. My friend was standing about fifteen feet from me.” Ouch. This overtly aggressive performance impelled journalists and the public alike to consider him as either a crazed man or as an artist presenting a commentary on modern-day gun use and warfare. Whichever stance was taken, it certainly got people talking about him.

Burden following ‘Shoot’ 1971

Burden following ‘Shoot’ 1971

In Trans-fixed (pictured in the title image) Burden was literally nailed onto a Volkswagen in the manner of a crucifixion. Whilst his palms were pinned to the car, the vehicle was displayed for a matter of minutes before it was placed out of sight and Burden removed. Whilst this performance and Shoot did not appear to outwardly resemble his subtler, durational pieces, references to religious themes such as voluntary seclusion and trial by ordeal were consistent throughout his entire practice (Horvitz 1975).

Other performances by Burden involved the artist electrocuting himself, not to mention all of the cutting, drowning, disappearing, (yet more) shooting and fasting that went on. On later returning to a literal sculptural approach he created artworks such as Medusa’s Head (1990), the monstrousness of which renders it almost irresistible to look at.

‘Medusa’s Head’ 1990.  Plywood, steel, cement, rock, model railroad trains and tracks, 14’ in diameter.

‘Medusa’s Head’ 1990.
Plywood, steel, cement, rock, model railroad trains and tracks, 14’ in diameter.

In 2005 Burden revealed his project Ghost Ship, a yacht that is capable of navigating itself on the high seas. Whilst we may not have all been talking about it in our lunch-breaks, it is impressive that Burden had the momentum to keep his art practice up, especially when considering the fact that the prime question on everybody’s lips in 1971 was “will he even make it past 30?” Well, I”m glad he did.

Chris Burden passed away on 10th May 2015.


Signs That Say What You Want Them To Say: the art of Gillian Wearing.

In Art on May 10, 2015 at 8:51 am
‘I’m desperate’ © Gillian Wearing, courtesy Maureen Paley/ Interim Art, London

‘I’m desperate’ © Gillian Wearing, courtesy Maureen Paley/ Interim Art, London

Let’s say a person you didn’t know propositioned you to write a snippet about anything on a blank piece of paper – kind of like a tweet before any of us really knew what the internet actually was. Now let’s say that person then requested a photograph of you with your piece of worldly wisdom in order to exhibit it to the world. What would you write?

This is exactly what YBA (Young British Artist) and Turner Prize winner Gillian Wearing asked members of the London public to do from 1992-1993. Titled Signs That Say What You Want Them To Say and Not Signs That Say What Someone Else Wants You To Say, the resulting images range from the extremely jovial to the heart-wrenchingly poignant.

‘I have been certified as mildly insane’ © Gillian Wearing, courtesy Maureen Paley/ Interim Art, London

I have been certified as mildly insane’ © Gillian Wearing, courtesy Maureen Paley/ Interim Art, London

I have been certified as mildly insane’ © Gillian Wearing, courtesy Maureen Paley/ Interim Art, London

Wearing made it clear in an interview with Paul Judd that artworks such as Signs… are an attempt to “find out as many facets as possible about people. I’m interested in people more than I am in myself, maybe that’s what it is”.

In fact, almost all of her work involves the documentation of people other than herself. In Drunk (1997-99) she gave some of the more colourful characters from British society free reign in her studio in order to make a three-channel video projection. In 10-16 (1997) we see adult performers lip-syncing perfectly to the confessions of young children and teenagers. In Confessions (1994) we encounter the masked faces of those who responded to her advertisement in Time Out Magazine: “Confess All On Video. Don’t Worry You Will Be in Disguise. Intrigued? Call Gillian”.

‘Help’ © Gillian Wearing, courtesy Maureen Paley/ Interim Art, London

‘Help’ © Gillian Wearing, courtesy Maureen Paley/ Interim Art, London

‘Help’ © Gillian Wearing, courtesy Maureen Paley/ Interim Art, London

In many ways Wearing’s projects almost seem to be verging on therapy for the participants. This is not so surprising considering the subjects that she lists as influencing her practice, with reality television and fly-on-the-wall documentaries being two of her primary fascinations and concerns.

In works such as Signs… and in many of the videos that followed, the participants’ written and spoken revelations are often surprising and moving, be they shocking, disturbing or amusing in content. What is perhaps most enlightening, however, is how readily we seem to welcome the catharsis of releasing our stories and emotions to a stranger. Who knows what we’d find out about people if we just thought to ask?

This post was originally published on Guy.com

signs 4

‘I signed on and they would not give me nothing’ © Gillian Wearing, courtesy Maureen Paley/ Interim Art, London

Ode to a Painting: Wanderer above the Sea of Fog.

In Art, Painting on January 15, 2015 at 9:10 am
'Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer', Caspar David Friedrich, 1818

‘Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer’, Caspar David Friedrich, 1818

Painted in 1818, Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer (that’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog to you and me) is perhaps Caspar David Friedrich’s most recognisable painting. Friedrich has been established as one of the leading German landscape painters to emerge from the Romantic period. His depiction of human figures within vast and looming panoramas has prompted all sorts of arty types to list him as an influence, including Max Ernst, René Magritte and Mark Rothko.

The Wanderer above the Sea of Fog encapsulates all the themes generally associated with Friedrich’s work: spirituality, nature, contemplation, the passage of time. His depiction of Germanic landscapes even drove the Nazi movement to appropriate his work for patriotic propaganda. Fortunately, the resulting stigma didn’t endure throughout the mid-twentieth century and Friedrich’s paintings are valued once again.

Wanderer above the Sea of Fog is a masterful depiction of nature and our philosophical contemplation of it – not to mention the rugged manliness of a lone ranger who goes hiking in what looks like his Sunday best. As far as landscape paintings go, it’s pretty damn sublime.

After the Woods: Ernesto Caivano.

In Archetypes, Art, Drawing, narrative on January 5, 2015 at 9:19 pm
Philapore Tug (Due Tension), 2009 4.25 x 5 Inches. Ink, marker and graphite on paper © Ernesto Caivano

Philapore Tug (Due Tension), 2009
4.25 x 5 Inches. Ink, marker and graphite on paper © Ernesto Caivano

If there’s one thing we all have in common, it’s fondness of a good yarn. Stories are passed down for generations, sometimes over the course of centuries. We read them in magazines and see them performed on television, in the theatre and on the big screen. We read novels and biographies, picture books and comics. We sing them and celebrate them.

So what place does the fictional narrative have in Fine Art? While most people’s thoughts will immediately flicker to the rapturous brushstrokes of the Pre-Raphaelites or the classical painters, contemporary artist Ernesto Caivano has striking and enigmatic methods of putting his own epic narrative on paper.

Philapore Tug (Due Tension), 2009 4.25 x 5 Inches. Ink, marker and graphite on paper © Ernesto Caivano

Philapore Tug (Due Tension), 2009
4.25 x 5 Inches. Ink, marker and graphite on paper © Ernesto Caivano

It seems that all Caivano needs is some paper and ink. Give him these materials and the outcome will be a delicate, complex and alluring image, both in technique and concept. Take, for instance, Breathing Through the Code, in which we see one of the protagonists in the artist’s ongoing story After the Woods. Her name is Polygon, and one can assume here that she is communicating with her lover-from-afar – the knight Versus – via what Caivano has titled Philapores (they are the birds that you see in the images).

According to Caivano, Polygon and Versus are lovers who were separated a millennia ago. His drawings depict their attempted reunification in the near future on a cosmic, geometrically ambiguous world. Versus’ powers reside in the growth and evolution of plants, Polygon’s in the capacity and possibilities of technology (she herself is epitomised as a spaceship). Their only communication relies on the Philapores. It is these narratives that Caivano illustrates within the scope of Versus’ and Polygon’s wider universe.

Suspension of Elements (A Kind of Reassembly), 2009 18.25 x 45.25 Inches. Ink and graphite on paper © Ernesto Caivano

Suspension of Elements (A Kind of Reassembly), 2009
18.25 x 45.25 Inches. Ink and graphite on paper © Ernesto Caivano

Innumerable possible interpretations lie within each image, as is the case for the narrative as a whole. Brian Sholis writes in Vitamin D: New Perspectives in Drawing (2005) that “the story can be seen as a metaphor for our attempts to reconcile technological development with non-human life and the natural environment”. Visual allusions to molecular physics and fractal geometry reside alongside more literary medieval references, forming an almost archetypal narrative that brims with nostalgia and trepidation.

And yet despite this apparent complexity Caivano is far less ambiguous than his artwork. As to the fate of his protagonists, of the Philapores and of the beautifully sinister cosmos in After the Woods, he is deliberate about not stipulating direct connotations and meanings. Even he doesn’t know how the narrative will end. I suppose that’s the success behind any good story. We can only look on and wait to see whether or not longing will be transformed into reunification. But whilst After the Woods may resemble fairy tales in some respects, fairy tales by nature are not as delectable as one may first assume. After all, there’s nothing more boring than reading a story and seeing the words ‘happily ever after’ written at the end.

You can find more images of Ernesto Caivano’s artwork at the Richard Heller Gallery website.

This post was originally written for Guy.com’s Daily Slice.

A Little Book Review: Ruin Lust by Brian Dillon.

In Art, Books, Exhibition, Fine Arts on March 5, 2014 at 5:49 pm
Ruin Lust by Brian Dillon, 2014. Published by Tate to accompany the exhibition Ruin Lust at Tate Britain, 4th March - 18th May 2014.

Ruin Lust by Brian Dillon. Digital Image © Tate, London 2014. Published by Tate to accompany the exhibition Ruin Lust at Tate Britain, 4th March – 18th May 2014.

It’s very lazy of me to talk about a book when that book is about an exhibition. However, the exhibition’s in London and I am far away from there, with hardly a penny to my name. So I spent what pennies I do have on this charming little book.

It’s beautiful. It fits into a (large) pocket. It takes about half an hour to read from cover to cover. Perfect!

I was actually working when I discovered Ruin Lust. It appeared when I lifted another book out of a box that had just been delivered to the shop. Obviously, I had to stop working immediately and see what ‘ruin lust’ actually is.

Ruin lust – or ruinenlust – is a term coined by novelist Rose Macaulay in 1953 and refers to our ongoing fascination with remains, whether architectural, mechanical or otherwise, in both rural and urban settings. The author, Brian Dillon, explains that ruins “allow us to set ourselves loose in time, to hover among past, present and future” (p6). Perhaps this is why I get in such a sombre mood when I walk through the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey: there’s the tumult of the past to consider, beauty to admire, and the corrosive passage of time to acknowledge.

I’d have been happy to read this book if it was three times its actual length. Saying that, it’s a succinct introduction to an intriguing and visually alluring subject. But don’t take my word for it – go and see the exhibition at Tate Britain.

A superfluous afterthought:
My only real bug with Ruin Lust – this is where it gets petty – is Dillon’s reference to the Zone as “a derelict territory whose name derives from Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker” (p41). Stalker is based on the Strugatsky brothers’ novel Roadside Picnic, published in 1971. Although the screenplay was adapted by the brothers, I think it’s a bit cheeky to claim that the Zone originates from the film. I only say this because I’m sad that such a good book gets neglected so often!

…And I’m Back.

In Art, Books on February 21, 2014 at 6:59 am

It turns out I couldn’t stay away for too long after all.

Coming up over the next few weeks are some book reviews (Martin Gayford, Victoria Finlay, Tove Jansson) and some general art appreciation.

First up, this wonderful tome I found in the British Heart Foundation bookshop:

Published by Abeville Press Publishers, 2003.

Published by Abeville Press Publishers, 2003.

The fetching lady on the cover is the Countess Golovin, painted by – wait for it – Marie Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun in 1800.

This is an amazing book for many reasons. Firstly, it’s very thorough, beginning with the Renaissance and ending in the nineties. Secondly, it’s in full colour (unusual for art books). And lastly, but most importantly, the artists in it are exceptional.

Ta ta for now and see you soon!


In Art, Books, Children's Books, Drawing, Painting, Writing on April 3, 2013 at 3:00 pm
'Das Geschenk Der Weisen', the German translation of O. Henry's 'The Gift of the Magi.' Transformed into an wondrously beautiful children's book by Lisbeth Zwerger's watercolour illustrations.

‘Das Geschenk Der Weisen’, the German translation of O. Henry’s ‘The Gift of the Magi,’ transformed into a wondrously beautiful children’s book by Lisbeth Zwerger’s watercolour illustrations. I couldn’t read a word of the story but the pictures had me captivated as a child.

“A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” C. S. Lewis.

One constant when you toil as a lowly bookseller is The Sudden Recollection: the jolt of memory as a customer hands you a picture book and your brain goes ‘hey, didn’t someone read that to me once?’ And you look over the counter and see their child gleaming at the book in your hands.

The picture book that got me thinking: Jill Murphy's 'Peace at Last,' published by Macmillan Children's Books.

The picture book that got me thinking: Jill Murphy’s ‘Peace at Last,’ published by Macmillan Children’s Books.

Pictures have power. Stories have power. This is why I am a genuine believer in the universal appeal of picture books.

Good art and good narrative translates into adulthood. The preconception that picture books are only for children is absurd. After all, who reads children all of these books? Adults – of all shapes, sizes and minds. I’m still young enough to be terrified by the prospect of having children but I already know which books I will be reading to them because (selfishly) I enjoy reading them myself. A customer summed up this excitement for me last week when I sold her a copy of Judith Kerr’s ‘The Tiger Who Came to Tea’ (another staple of my literary diet as a toddler) and she exclaimed, ‘I can’t wait to get home and read this to my daughter!”

So I think we can all agree that picture books are also for adults to enjoy, but why exactly? What is it that separates stories and illustrations that have an expiry date from those that are timeless? I re-read a few of my favourites to try and pinpoint the answers and came up with a few suggestions:

A picture book can express the trepidation and excitement that you feel when you meet the friend you’ve been waiting for all along…

'Leon and Bob' by Simon James, published by Walker

‘Leon and Bob’ by Simon James, published by Walker

…A picture book can delve into a world where dreams and real life are indistinct, where magic is still genuine to a person and where logic exists but does not overpower or corrupt…

'The Whales' Song' by Dyan Sheldon, published by Red Fox Picture Books

‘The Whales’ Song’ by Dyan Sheldon, illustrated by Gary Blythe, published by Red Fox Picture Books

…A picture book can paint how creativity can transform the world we live in…

'Rabbityness' by Jo Empson, published by Child's Play

‘Rabbityness’ by Jo Empson, published by Child’s Play

…And a picture book can remind you of your childhood; it can make you think of your children, your grandchildren, your nieces, nephews and godchildren; a picture book can make you want to draw your own pictures.

A good picture book will stay with you for life.

The titles I’ve mentioned here are an infinitesimal drop in the vibrant ocean of children’s picture books. What picture books do you remember most?

I Like People.

In Art, Drawing, Fine Arts, Life Drawing on November 25, 2012 at 5:54 pm

I really do like people, especially if I’m drawing them.

As I’ve made the decision to start painting again I thought it would be prudent to actually take pencil to paper and see if my approach to drawing has undergone a miraculous transformation in the last six years. It hasn’t, other than the fact that I cannot remember how to draw (properly, that is; the pencil landed on the paper just fine).

I can’t draw hands and feet any more. I can’t make hair shine. I can’t gauge perspective. But one thing that did resurface like a drowning man who just found the hole in the ice was the lines. Lines are great; I could draw the line of a waist or an arm all day. Forget tone; forget chiaroscuro; just the outline.

It’s no wonder that I’m fond of Matisse’s figure drawings and of Schiele’s writhing pencil marks. There are whole archives of renowned and forgotten scribblings that I’ve amassed onto my hard-drive over the last ten years, and yes, lots of them are faces and bodies cast in shadow. But give me a Chillida drawing over a Singer-Sargent study any day.

Drawing, like any other skill, requires persistence in order to maintain high standards. I’m not the arty swot I once was as a pre-university adolescent, but it’s still a bit of a shock when you realise that your current self can’t do something with half as much dexterity as your fifteen year old self could. For now, however, the joy is simply in the act of drawing.

With no intention of sounding over-sentimental, sitting and knocking elbows in a badly lit, crowded room and drawing mostly-naked people felt liberating. I almost felt younger, no doubt because I was doing what I did best as a teenager, having for some reason shirked the ‘classic’ artistic skills since adulthood.

The life drawing class that I attended on Tuesday was casual with some experienced artists and some beginners. Drawing advice was given if asked for, and offered competently when desired. Don’t be scared of a nude stranger standing in front of you; give life drawing a chance. If nothing else it will send you home feeling relaxed and, most importantly, with a sense of having done something different, productive and exciting.

While there isn’t a UK-wide website listing the times and whereabouts of local life-drawing classes, try local art schools and colleges or indie bars and cafés – there’ll be something happening close by. For those of you in the US, Art Model Book’s website is an amazing resource for finding your nearest life drawing class.

The Problem with Self-Portraits.

In Art, Identity, Painting on November 6, 2012 at 1:33 pm

‘The Painter’s Studio: A Real Allegory of a Seven Year Phase in my Artistic (and Moral) Life’ by Gustave Courbet, 1855.

For this marvellous, stupendous book I’m writing, I have somehow made the scenario ‘paint self-portrait’ imperative to the progression of the narrative. This is terrifying. Below is a list I’ve put together in order to dissuade myself from embarking on such a silly flight of fancy:

  1. You have to look at yourself for ages. This can be very boring, unless you are Gustave Courbet (as evidenced above).
  2. You risk looking like a puffed up narcissist with too much time on their hands. Of course, if you don’t care what people think, you can always make yourself look quite sad and then your self-portrait is not masturbatory, it is deep.
  3. Wanting to paint a self-portrait for non-narcissistic reasons probably means you’re searching for what some people call ‘meaning’ or ‘truth.’ Beware of learning more than you need to know, or of learning nothing at all.

These are the criteria that go through my head when I toy with the idea of painting another self-portrait. I was a regular mirror-searcher as an adolescent, no doubt due to my friends’ quite appropriate hesitance to sit for me while everyone else actually did useful stuff; I had to make do instead.

Painting a self-portrait is painful. It can be like ripping out a page from your diary and tacking it to the wall. OK, so maybe it won’t specifically say ‘started period today, life is OVER’ or ‘have reached Quarter Life Crisis, life is OVER,’ but something significant will have undoubtedly reached the canvas after repeated dark nights spent with yourself, a mirror and the romantic aroma of turpentine. Sure, the impact is probably reduced somewhat by our over-saturation in everyone’s self-portraits *cough*facebook*cough*, but I can’t be bothered to bitch about social networking.

Poet and Children’s Laureate Michael Rosen describes self-portraits as ‘a lonely exploration’ of the artist. Egotists like Gustave Courbet aside, self-portraits also seem to reek of the age-old desire to outlive our smelly, saggy bodies. Young people take more pictures than the old. At least the ones I know do. And it seems there is no escaping the revelation of your darker depths to those who may only know you from a self-portrait; as journalist Laura Cummings phrases it: ‘No matter how fanciful, flattering or deceitful the image, it will always reveal something deep and incontrovertible.’ Damn.

It’s no wonder people like looking at self-portraits. But painting them…I’m still not so sure. For some people there seems to be an urgent need to imprint themselves all over the place. For others it isn’t as simple as that. When Cummings asked in her book A Face to the World: ‘who is this in the mirror: myself or another, I or he?’ she was asking the question that keeps pattering through my head when I look at old self-portraits: who the hell is that? I don’t know if I’m ready to start finding out.

The Exhibition Must Go On.

In Art, Exhibition, Fine Arts on August 16, 2012 at 5:31 pm

Laura Lillie at Howard Gardens Gallery, Cardiff 2012

The summer is nearly over. June’s smorgasbord of students, private views and liquor-soaked celebrations has dissipated. Now graduates, they hunt for employment, perhaps returning to the nest or living in packs in the city. But for a small handful of people the show is only just beginning: Masters students everywhere are preparing for their autumn exhibition.

Having forgotten how to make art myself I’ve decided to live vicariously through friends that have remained in art school. At this very moment I’m listening to a woman noisily scraping underglaze pencils across what can only be described as ‘plate-cones’ and watching another student tie and hang spherical bulges of latex from a shelf. At the moment we’re the only ones inhabiting the modest white cube gallery that we’re sitting in; in three weeks’ time it will be teeming with works of art, observers and free booze.

It’s a strange activity, exhibiting your work to tides of people. It can be exhilarating but it can leave you feeling exposed. When I ask one of the women, Laura Stevenson, how she feels about the impending exhibition she looks up from her ceramic plate-cones and grins. ‘Fiiiine! We’re miles ahead, it’ll be fine.’ Laura’s an artist after my own heart – expertly prepared – but there will no doubt be mania simmering in the warren of every art school. It’s just more expertly dealt with because the students are older, wiser, and more acclimatised to the way exhibiting makes you want to bang your head on the wall instead of hanging your painting on it.