Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Tuesday BA Fine Art Second Year

It's Tuesday morning and we return to light boxes and in this case someone has been much more in control of the situation. He has been making circular boxes, cutting rings of wood from ply and has constructed the boxes so that they are in sections. The look and size reminds me of portholes. The images are made from what you might describe as ‘found’ filters. I have mentioned his work before; he has been shining light through thin layers of found materials such as a crumpled tissue or a scrap of silver paper from an old biscuit wrapper. The resultant images lie somewhere between Helen Chadwick’s ‘Viral Landscapes’ and a microscope slide. We talk about crystallography and diffraction patterns, the shining of light through tissue and other throwaway materials being an equivalent, both science and art finding ways to reveal hidden beauty by shining a light on the world. He has been looking at Helen Chadwick’s light boxes and some of the early tests for these are on display in the City Art Gallery, he is reminded that Chadwick’s archive is also available to research in the Henry Moore Centre. We look at light levels, whether or not these light boxes should be wall mounted and suggest he looks at Mona Hatoum’s ‘Corps ├ętranger’ piece. He has he says already thought that he could start using an endoscope to explore approaches to how to re-see different everyday materials. We then start to look at the quality of his transparencies and suggest that he needs to research this, perhaps slightly diffusing the light to get a better ‘glow’ and a more even read.
A French exchange student provides us with cupcakes, we eat then watch a headless video of these being made. (Carefully filmed so that the focus is on the making, her head is never in shot) She shows it to us speeded up, but I think we are supposed to experience it in real time. The point is that we are ‘digesting’ the information both literally and figuratively, the English word ‘digestion’ being a direct import from French at some time during the 14th century. She is also making a piece about the traditional English rural landscape, (she has photographs of the Dales) and counting sheep or in her terms, “compter les moutons”.  We discuss the fact that in some ways she is dealing with class and power and not just differences in translation; our word mutton reflecting the fact that the French conquerors would eat whilst the English peasants would provide the food. She is surprised to hear that we count sheep too when going to sleep. The whole issue of language and cultural difference is then opened out and we for some reason start to discuss the road movie and how the American language of the road was a cultural dominant (drive-by movies etc), then there is a reflection on the art world and the fact that up until the 1950s it had a French accent and that that accent then became American but what is it now?   The French student has black hair and a dark complexion, she has persuaded one of our main programme students who is blonde and very fair skinned to be filmed talking about her interest in rabbits. The French student is then filming herself miming and re-saying everything that is said in the short documentary. This includes hand gestures etc. for instance when student one plays with her hair, student two does as well. The French student thinks English voices speaking French can be very funny, we open out translation into regional dialects, the fact she is in Yorkshire now becoming very important.  Eventually we get round to presentation. How will all of these strands be brought together? Projected, on monitors, as performance, should the final piece be ‘Skyped’ from France? (She has to return soon as the exchange funding is coming to an end).   
The next encounter is with an immersive environment. We are asked to wear a paper cone over our heads. This is the cone of projection, and onto this is projected an animation consisting of geometric progressions that the student has discovered whilst researching the making of ‘op-art’ type imagery. The first part of the crit becomes about the best way to deal with this. Should the cone come from the ceiling? If so at what height and how would the audience get their head into it? It doesn’t seem right just to put the cone on. We think about turning it upside down and making it bigger so it becomes a sort of well with projections running around the inside. It also needs to be made with exactly the right materials, if white plastic, how thick, what type, how will it be joined etc. Environmental experience and exhibition assessment space are unpicked. It may be he can’t get the right sort of space to do this for the assessment, so how does he present in such a way that he doesn’t lose marks? Around the studio are earlier examples of the work he has been involved with. The conjunction of nature with ‘neo-geo’ has been an ongoing preoccupation, so he has potted plants about and geometric wallpaper. We move the plants into the projection.  It is pointed out that he should go to the Will Rose curated  ‘Illuminated room’ events on Thursday evening in the Vernon Street lecture theatre and that his work relates to something we used to call the ‘Expanded Cinema’. I remember reading the ‘Expanded Cinema’ by Gene Youngblood and it might be interesting to read a book from the early 1970s and explore how the context for this type of work was thought about then and how the utopian visions of the time have faded.
We move on to a student who is making pinhole cameras. She has recently made a very well crafted octagonal camera, each side pierced with pinholes and with a circular column centre that holds the paper. She wants to go on to make a variety of cameras, including re-using objects and turning them into cameras. We discuss Steven Pippin, film types and exposure rates. We look at lots of trail images, mostly black and discuss the aesthetics of failure, the duds being perhaps as interesting as ones that work.  Presentation and positioning becomes important. We discuss the possibility of attaching a tripod attachment fixture to the bottom of the camera, so that it can be both displayed well and used much more accurately instead of just being propped up on other objects. This project is only just getting started but it feels as if the student is totally engaged, so this is more about encouragement and support in going on and making more and more trials and experimental objects.
A student who was previously making jewellery that could also work as architectural extensions, (he is casting decorative mouldings from buildings and making these into rings), has recently made paper cut-out jewellery based on cartoon images, including cartoon sparkle. He has also persuaded a magazine to publish some do it yourself templates/nets and perhaps even a magazine cover. We talk conventions of photography, how is he going to realise these ideas? At the moment he is looking at conventions of jewellery photography, but it is suggested that he widen the research, perhaps looking at DIY conventions, building trade etc.  His ideas are though very clear and he really just needs to get on with it and make these things happen.

We also look at scratching images out of super 8 film, using a magnifying glass to see and therefore creating animations based on the original footage.

Another Erasmus exchange student arrives for the critique. (They tend to be older that the average English student). He has been making variations of possible permutations of a four centimetre square consisting of 16 squares, each square crossed by a diagonal. The rotation of these diagonals can generate four possible triangles within each square. Therefore with a full rotation of possible triangles within each of the sixteen squares there are billions of possible configurations. I.e. it would take millions of years to make by hand all these permutations, a Sisyphean task. He is also drawing these by hand using black ink on fine graph paper. (During the time of making he has already run out of his initial paper stock, so has had to photocopy the graph-paper, this means that the black of his ink reads slightly differently when inking in the graphs. He likes this and sees it as a necessary part of this long drawn out task. He doesn’t want to use a computer programme to do this; it has to be done by hand. We discuss the possibility of his drawing up a contract to say that he will continue to do this all of his life. (How serious is he?) Could he ring galleries and speak to them about possible exhibitions for 20 or 30 years time, setting up contractual agreements to the effect that he will undertake to continue doing this work for the amount of time agreed. Should he develop a ‘gold standard’ or the equivalent? One student brings up the idea that the standard metre is kept in Paris under temperature control. Perhaps the first square should be made special in some way and kept under lock and key.  He has a piles of notes as to possible variations and permutations, should these notes be presented as a book, as something similar to Duchamp’s ‘Green Box’, who’s  ‘Three Standard Stoppages’ is on display in the Henry Moore Institute at the moment. The debate centres on how to extend the activity into other activities that cement the reality and importance of the process. Perhaps papers need to be published, research proposals submitted, correspondence started, a documentary video made?
As a complete contrast another student is dealing with some odd logics. He first of all appears to be making just bad art. He appears clumsy, he stands on things in and around his area and breaks them as he moves about.  He talks with a very broad accent, approaching his decision making in a blunt Yorkshire manner. Never tongue tied he has a reason for everything. But we get no fake voice here, I wonder if he is The Karl Pilkington of art. Everyone seems to feel we are getting somewhere with this description. Bad paintings are screwed to bits of furniture; a broken toy piano is attached to a small painting that has itself been screwed to a chair. We ask about the piano, will it play? He says it did, until he tried to ‘fix it’ and he shows us the remains of the electronics dangling from something else he has been making. Some paintings are part of devices that were meant to ‘draw’ marks on the canvas, but they seem to have failed or broken down and are now just half-working remnants of former ideas that didn’t work very well in the first place. The clutter in his area starts to ‘add-up’ somehow. He has been working on a child’s plastic guitar and has already broken it, but part of this has now attached itself to another painting. Nails stick out of things where perhaps he had tried earlier to attach something but either changed his mind or he has simply wondered off the idea, who knows. It is suggested that he takes these odd things out of their scrap heap environment and photographs them in the photographic studio with beautiful clean surrounds, making use of the plate cameras and high definition shots. People want to see these things in a ‘clean’ environment. They tell odd narratives, stories that somehow lie on the edge of being convincing. Just as in the same way we are never quite sure how clever Karl Pilkington is, we are never sure how far we ourselves are being set-up to believe that he is quite as dumb as he appears. Is this art to sucker us in? It’s interesting to see that everyone is still engaged with this, no one says we are being taken for a ride and the student in question is deadly serious, in a sort of Bill Maynard cum Geoff Boycott way.
It’s the last student of the day and we move on to looking at ‘gay’ images; paintings and collages of naked men. The student is interested in how to maintain an edge between sensuality and sensationalism.  The photocopies are quite ‘graphic’ but have been put together as patterns, thus making it hard to initially read what they are. He has recently done the paint workshop. We talk mainly about how paint itself could perhaps be investigated until the colour and application had the sensuality required and then to try and apply this sensitivity to re-making the images. Perhaps the paint had to want to be “licked” off the canvas. Maybe it needed to be like ice cream? The paintings done so far are a bit dull or tight, no real sensuality coming through as yet. He needs to find out what he can do with paint.
It’s these individual encounters that are the real core of fine art education. All the other things are superficial. These one to one and group engagements around bodies of work and the narratives that open out around these encounters are where the real work is done. It seems easy and fascinating, who wouldn’t want to be spending time being paid having these conversations?  Over the years I must have had thousands of these encounters and they are always illuminating, always at least one will lead off into unknown territory.  It is perhaps these conversations I need to spend more time recording, as they probably form the bulk of the work I do. They are also the one thing that has remained constant throughout my time in education.
I spent the last part of the day being interviewed by the two second year students who are making a film about art education, they asked me questions such as, “What do I think art is for?” “How do you define art now?” Can’t remember what I replied, perhaps that’s a good thing.
Then finally on to an opening of Chris Wood’s work at the university Gallery. Chris is an ex student and I had also agreed to meet up with Terry there. Great to see Chris still painting, always lovely to see Terry and Beryl, but he is worried about me. In this blog he recognises the painful act of separation from the College. I promise to keep an eye on myself. So anyone else looking at this, read this blog as part of the exit strategy, for me life is as much an emotional dilemma as something to be rationally understood.

Studio crits second year Fine Art

Monday and Tuesday have been devoted to studio crits
These were not formal crits as such, more checking in with people before the holidays. There is going to be a second year assessment two weeks into the spring term and the following module in reality is simply an extension of the module students are on now. The assessment will therefore be more a chance to do a mid-year test the waters. However the marks gained will go towards the students’ degree classification so there immediately comes into play a tension between what should be done to satisfy the educational requirements of assessments and what is the best thing to do if you are to progress with the work?
Some of the issues that came up on Monday:
One student had been working with animal skulls, building a musculature out of rolled lengths of clay which he had painted with PVA in order to stop them breaking up as they dried. The piece he brought to the crit consisted of two deer heads, one with horns, the bottom of the head made of the hornless skull, attached up-side down to the other skull, thus making a ‘carnivorous’ mouth and ‘active’ bottom jaw. These two skulls were then attached to an underlying framework and then lengths of rolled grey clay had been used to make an invented muscle structure that operated as a type of neck. The whole thing was about two foot six inches high. Most of the students in the crit felt this looked like a prop from a science fiction film. The student who made the object was happy with this association as he was also into science fiction and comic books. Quite a lot of time was spent talking about finish. PVA coated clay might be a short term solution to the cracking problem, but was the ‘look’ right? There were lots of suggestions from other students, including felting, rubbing in shoe polish, which the maker thought might be a good idea, especially if rubbed into crannies and highlights polished off. There was also talk of spraying with imitation metal etc. etc.  Attention moved on to making using wax, casting possibilities etc. also what would happen if a mass of elastic bands had been used to imitate the musculature? The student was asked if he would be prepared to carve the skulls rather than just use found ones. (Incidentally, the two deer skulls had been given to him earlier on in the term when he had been on a bronze casting course in Scotland; one of the people they had worked with was also a ranger and he picked these deer skulls up on a regular basis).   The student then showed us a pig’s backbone that he had stripped and rebuilt around a plastic tube which worked as its support. He wants to make full scale animals, and the conversation then turned to drawing. Drawing is a much more economical way of visualising three dimensional ideas, so it was suggested that he perhaps work from this existing piece, trying different approaches to drawing, until he had an appropriate language and then using that language to visualise his ideas for larger more ambitious pieces.  The invention of the musculature was also an area that it was felt was not quite convincing enough and investment in on the one hand anatomy books was suggested, and on the other hand it was suggested that as there is a medical illustration course at one of the hospitals in Leeds, that he at some point goes and makes contact to see if he can have access to their resources. A general conversation about craft then started and this conversation came up again  several times during the day. The issue was about particular skills. The student had mentioned when asked if he would be prepared to carve his own skulls, that at the moment he didn’t have the skills. It was suggested that this was a challenge and that he could be having a go at this just to develop those very skills he felt he was lacking. The general conversation centred around the fact that sculpture courses used to be seven years long, simply because there were so many skills to learn and that a three year course can sometimes seen too short to apply yourself to skill development because you can lose sight of ideas if you get too involved with learning a craft. It was suggested that audiences for art now wanted to see more craft in the making of things and that if as students they got far enough along with the process of learning particular crafts, they could continue to develop these skills as they matured. But if they didn’t make a good start, they wouldn’t know where to begin. This was of interest to several students and it does seem to me that there is a sea change coming. Where once students struggled with conceptual ideas, their lack of exposure to making things (I’m not sure whether this is to do with the rise of health and safety or simply that no one makes things anymore) means that they now struggle with using their hands or using their hands is novel and therefore interesting again.
Another student is one who attended the short drawing session I ran last week. He has been making plastic bag and plaster pieces, but he feels he has come to a dead end and now needs to find a new start. He has been musing on what his interests are and has decided that it is the senses, sight, smell, touch, taste etc.  Initially his first thoughts are that he would like to work with ideas involving contradiction, smell contradicting sight etc.  Before dealing with his wishes to move on his current work is considered and he is questioned as to whether or not he has made most of the possibilities. His drawings from last week are on the wall and what were plaster lumps in plastic bags now look as if they could be made of any material. It is suggested he sets off to carve these objects using the drawings as templates. It is also suggested that he wood-grain the drawings to get an idea of what these objects could be like. His interest in contradiction could it was pointed out come out this way. However he wants to make a fresh start.  His first illustration is the smell of roast chicken and the only thing you can see in the room is a pile of shit. This opens out the group’s discussion into lots of other directions, in particular the nature of synaesthesia and related issues such as phantom limb syndrome. I.e. we get involved with what the collective group understands about how perception works and how the brain translates everything into neural impulses. Whether collectively we are scientifically right or not doesn’t really matter, the point being that collectively people are intimating that he needs to develop more research around the area before he decides on what he wants to do. One thought is that perhaps it is the difficult to understand connections that will become the most fruitful. What is the connection between weight and touch, what smell belongs to a red cube?
Next we are looking at small paintings made on wooden blocks, approximately two inches square and three-quarters of an inch thick. These are ‘abstracts’ made from satellite images of the land; the student has the originals pinned up on the wall in a grid. The blocks are also presented in grid format, about one inch between each block. Discussion opens with the paint quality. The paint has been applied quite tentatively and not very attuned to the possibilities of paint. This is someone who didn’t attend the painting workshop that was on last week and it is very apparent that the techniques introduced would have been of use, so these techniques are pointed to as things you can teach yourself and that as a course we stock the necessary ingredients if someone wanted to have a go.  Attention moves to the grid of images cut from magazines and images printed off from internet searches. These are all satellite images of geographical formations, which looked at from the air are reduced to texture and colour. The forms are interesting as they suggest materials in liquid movement frozen into various states. Could paints be made to operate in the same way? Ways of making lakes, river valleys, plateaus etc of paint are suggested and it is further suggested that the student gets more involved with an understanding of the physical processes at work and that this understanding might feed an approach to the material handling of paint. The actual location of the images is also discussed, could materials sourced from these sites be ground down into pigments? One suggestion is to set out a series of travel locations and trip itineraries, the final work becoming a mixture of travelogue and recipe book. Eventually focus changes again and the way the blocks are set out is questioned, what happens if there is only one block, where would it go? What if there was an apparently random organisation of them, what if they were located at points on an invisible grid?
Someone else who did last week’s drawing workshop has been looking at languages. During the workshop she developed a language using a sharp scalpel making cut outs of ‘letters’ from coloured tape. These tiny letters (about 6 to 8 point in size) are randomly distributed on an A1 sheet of cartridge paper and lengths of coloured tape that the letters have been cut from are also stuck onto A1 sheets, about a quarter of the way down a portrait view. On a table in front of this work she displays some paper cubes on which she has drawn the ‘letters’ in felt tip as well as using the scalpel cutting techniques.  She has also made some grids using ‘snapped’ string, which slightly spatters ink around itself as lines are made by printing and again cut coloured tape letters are inserted within the grid. The discussion opens with issues of quality. The cartridge paper is standard low grade 100gsm and has no presence in comparison to the cut letter forms. What research has been done on papers? The conversation moves into papers and their different qualities. This is a general conversation now and becomes simply about how important it is to know about one of the most basic materials that everyone uses nearly everyday. I throw in information relating to what manufacturers there are out there to look at, such as Arches who make mould-made, 100% cotton fibre papers , hot pressed or cold pressed, warm or cold-white in colour. It is then suggested that she send off for samples and that perhaps this sort of research is something that can be done over the Christmas break. The conversation eventually turns towards making your own paper. You can do this at college and the equipment is readily available. However finding the right approach to this is going to be important. One suggestion is making paper from white wood-pulp and stirring in the ‘letters’ (again scalpel cut but this time from paper or perhaps keeping them made of tape) as the mix is being made, just before the mesh is pulled up through the mix. These ‘letters’ would then be totally embedded and part of the paper. How craft becomes part of decision making is important here and how it can lead to precision in visual thinking. It looks as if this work is using the Phonecian first phonetic alphabet as a base. The student doesn’t yet know what the letter forms sound like, however it is suggested that there is a website whereby you can get an idea of how they might be voiced. Could these become sound pieces? What would be the text? How would a script be written? It is suggested that she look at an old ‘Eye Music’ catalogue and the visualisations of sound produced by John Cage for musicians to play. One student suggests that her texts could be filmed, animated and projected. Another suggestion is to use an old lectern and replace the area where a book would be with a grained screen, images projected up from a hidden projector in the lectern’s base. It starts to get all too prescriptive, so we close.

One student has been making small light boxes. She wants to use the boxes to view images transferred onto glass.  These images are about memory and the transfer method is part of a degrading process that is supposed to reflect how memories fade with time. There is however a technical problem to solve. These light boxes have glued bases and no way of getting back into them to change a battery and no thought about how they might be fixed to a wall or how and where batteries might go, light fittings attached etc.  We discuss how to research light boxes, (there are ‘how to’ videos on YouTube etc.) and then look at how to do an isometric drawing, so that if you are going to talk to technicians about what you want, you have a drawing that has actual measurements and is something easy to understand. The artist’s responsibility to be clear about what is needed is opened out and what the relationship with technicians is. This feels really important, as there is a tendency for students to rely on technicians to make decisions for them. Even a simple box has many possibilities and we discuss the difference between butt ended joints, mitre joints, mortise and tenon, dowel jointing etc and how to show them on a drawing. I end up doing a rough isometric; the advantage of drawing that that you can explain differences clearly. Eventually we get back to the idea and discuss other ways of illustrating memory and how it fades, perhaps projecting images and taking them out of focus and then re-photographing them.
 At the end of the day the conversation moves to responding to a piece that consists of a mattress that has been cut in half. The two halves are joined by what appear to be turned wooden table legs, (these have been made rather than just cut from a table) and the legs separate the two halves of the mattress by breaking through the white fabric cover. The student is interested in sex and its messiness and has been considering pouring oil over the mattress to stain it. The table legs penetrate in an obvious sexual metaphor and the language of these materials is linked to the language of coupling. There are lots of issues to consider here, most of which are about getting the components into a space that allows the student to see clearly what is happening.  The work literally fills the space she is working in and so the first thing is to identify an area to take the work to. We also discuss how to re-see the the elements. Do we raise them up, turn them on their sides etc. One suggestion is to think about how a work like this might be transported and to build a travelling box that can also operate as a sort of plinth. The use of oils to stain the mattress is also opened out. There is of course a health and safety aspect to this, but even more important is ‘look’. “Does it have to be oil?” is the key question. If it was honey or resin would these materials work? I.e. does the material itself have a metaphorical association, or is it the ‘look’. There is a computer right next to the space, so we look at Edward Kienholz’s pieces where he has painted clear resin over the forms to give them a used seedy feel. The next day I notice she has found a better space and has separated the elements out, the work is starting to look less contrived and all the better for it.

Friday, 7 December 2012

Still-life (part three)


The relationship between light and pigment colour was an important one to get across. In order to do this we would sometimes set up a white still-life that would be illuminated by spotlights with coloured filters attached.
As an introduction to this session, before the lights were turned on students would be told that the only thing we ever see is light, colour exists only in our minds.
An introduction was then given to the fact that pigments are chemicals that selectively absorb and reflect different spectra of light. This subtraction of wavelengths produces the appearance of different colours. Red, yellow and blue are the subtractive primary colors historically used by artists, which is something as a printmaker I was very interested in as it could be argued that cyan, magenta and yellow are more accurate subtractive primaries. I would have some examples of colours made by printmaking. For instance cyan and magenta overlapping produces blue (for a printer a secondary) and a yellow and magenta mix produces red, (another printer’s secondary). Cyan and yellow of course producing green, secondary for both artists and printers. Once the students were properly confused we set off to explain light.
Starting with the black box or area which would become the still-life, we would explain that this absence of light was also black. We would then add light’s primary colours, red, green and blue by switching the lights on one by one. As each light is switched on new colours are formed in the shadows. With the three lights we would make shadows of seven different colours: black, blue, red, green, cyan, magenta, and yellow. If you block two of the three lights, you get a shadow of the third color: Block the red and green lights, for example, and you get a blue shadow. If you block all three lights, you get a black shadow. And if you block one of the three lights, you get a shadow whose colour is a mixture of the two other colours. If the blue and green mix, they make cyan; red and blue make magenta; red and green make yellow. We would then take some objects out and move others around.
Once an interesting composition was in place the strange thing was that we would then have students working using their subtractive pigments (paints, pastels etc) to create images abstracted from the still-life. I used to find this counter intuitive, because all it seemed to do was to get already confused minds more confused. Some of the images were of course interesting and it made everyone aware that perceptually shadows are just as important as the objects that cast them.
There was sometimes at this point an extended conversation about ‘black’ light. Patrick thought you could have a black-light torch. I had an idea this was something from Flann O’Brien, it was I thought, perhaps a confusion Patrick had with the omnium, which in the Third Policeman, was contained in a black box. This was OK by me as I was convinced that what you might call ‘Pataphysical Fiction’, fiction such as that written by Alfred Jarry and Raymond Roussel, whose book Impressions of Africa had deeply influenced my own work, was one of the keys to how to understand contemporary art.
O’Brien and his molecule exchanging bicycles are no doubt behind the new definition of the omnium. For the 2012 Olympics the omnium as defined by the Union Cycliste Internationale consists of the following six events: a flying lap, points race, elimination race, individual pursuit, scratch race and time trail. I watched these races with intense curiosity, all the time expecting something miraculous to happen, something like a slight time shift or the actual realisation of bipolar mathematics and anti-gravitational shadow vectors as circling bikes created an antispace zero field. None of the athletes were tested for time dilation at the end of the event, only the standard drugs were searched for, perhaps there has been a cover up.

I digress, but only to point out how stories get elaborated and reality and art start sliding into and out of each other.

Back to black light. Another incoming at the time was ultra-violet also known as black light and therefore of great fascination to the foundation staff. This seems a bit naive now but at the time it felt exciting. If you turn on a black light bulb in a dark room, what you can see from the bulb is a purplish glow. What you cannot see is the ultraviolet light that the bulb is also producing. Our eyes can see visible light in a spectrum ranging from red through orange, yellow, green, blue and violet. Beyond violet is ultraviolet light, which we cannot see. So it is not outside the bounds of possibility that this ‘black light’, which does exist, could be actually used for all sorts of things, especially those sorts of things usually only found within the pages of science fiction books. Black light is normally used to stimulate radiated phosphor, I went to a Russian exhibit at last year’s Venice Biennale which relied on exactly this principle. It’s why your teeth glow strangely in some night-clubs lit by ultra violet bulbs. At that time we just showed people what happened when a bulb was turned on in the dark and everyone just went “wow!”.

Now dark matter is for real. You can’t see it but it is detectable by the bending of the light of the galaxies behind it.  When I was a PreDip student at Wolverhampton, Bill Kimpton, the then head would take us in small groups into his office and with a beautiful specially designed brass lantern, prism and metal slit demonstrate the splitting a light beam into its constituent colours, we would then be sent off to carefully copy the colours taken from sweet wrappers, soap boxes and pharmaceutical products. Science and art both full of wonder. Ars longa, vita brevis. 

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Surfaces of desire


That last post was a reminder to me of how much emotional energy I’ve invested in the college over the years. It’s not a surprise really because the business is highly emotionally charged, you have to believe in it to stay with it.
Patrick always had ways to make you aware of how deep things went, art, life and teaching all fused into one. His attachment to landscape was one of motorbike romance, mired in cow-pat green. When he tried to communicate this to students, you realised that he could do this because he knew his land as an emotional weight, millions and millions of tons of millstone grit covered in cow shit. Paint and sediment converged, becoming silver-tongued observers of the bike-man’s passing. The colour of his corduroy trousers mimicking the slosh of mud he waded through, the dry stone walls a solid drawing of the hollow of the sky-space mold that takes its daily cast.  
Patrick’s emotional attachment to paint was however not as straightforward as you might think. Running alongside his commitment to a green sludge of oil paint was an equally fierce celebration of commercial yacht paints. He would take me down to the ship’s chandlers that stood on a corner by Leeds Parish Church, not just to buy paint but to admire their stocks of copper nails, ropes and pulleys and other wonderful things that you immediately wanted to use as part of something you were making.  The colours too were strong, strong oranges and blues, colours designed to standout in the murk of the North Sea. Back in the studio Patrick would set to, sanding, underpaintng, painting and layering and polishing wood planks until he could recreate that colour surface that he wanted, a surface “deep like a Rolls Royce paint job”. This depth seemed to fuse on the one hand his interest in cars and on the other hand in landscape. The journey through landscape was always in a vehicle (motorbike or car) but the moments of rest always seemed to coincide with those when you got out of the car and put your foot in a steaming cow-pat.  The point being it was all emotionally charged and built from attachment and feeling, in no way was this a logical construct. Meaning seemed to arrive out of the poetry of association, never out of careful deductive reasoning. Grass is eaten, then digested, eventually being washed down into the soil, becoming soon the land the grass grows on, becoming an emotional hook for man with paint, who met another man with paint who would one day fly and die. Both now dead and in the land, both now returned to dust and rust.
So how can these feelings and associations be turned into pedagogy? As I get older I romantically believe art can still be read as a mirror of life. A mix of half understood art readings, is matched with half understood life readings, the one informs the other. Art has given me a reason to keep going, a reason to keep coming back and having another go, no matter how far I’ve mucked things up or lost the plot in the real world. Emotionally that’s a strong tie and one I still hold on to. This is why I’ve not given up the teaching or the art; still too many things to get off my chest, too many connections still to make, too many open endings to leave untied.
When Patrick had to retire from teaching we all thought that in some ways he would find it a relief and that he would return to painting. He moved back into his beloved Yorkshire Dales but never painted again, his motor skills went and he was confined to a wheelchair. I didn’t want to think about it really and rarely visited him, when I did I was amazed at how he had coped, how his mind remained sharp through it all. He had met Val when she was a mature student and she was the person who eventually would have to cope with his slow decline, they married and I got on with my messy life, in the period just after he left teaching nothing seemed to matter any more. Looking back on that time now, I realise that I was just depressed, but the thing with depression is that you can’t think your way out logically.

Enough of this, I will return to more prosaic issues in future posts, but sometimes it’s useful to be reminded of how the emotional mess that is life gets all tangled up with what it is to work in an art college.