Perpetual questions, repetitive questions, necessary questions? The simple task of considering what is important about an artwork or particular set of artworks,, what sets them apart, what is the intangible or unseeable, the thing within the work that makes it special? It is often the task of the artist, to examine and explore these questions, within their own work and/or in relation to work which excites or inspires them. What is it, specifically that sets it apart and attracts the individual to it or makes it that much more relevant?
On examining work and artists that you would consider to be of the modern era, which for the sake of this particular conversation could be defined as those who really came to be recognised after the development of photography in the mid to late 1800s, it is easy enough to draw the conclusion that thus called “modern” art came from the circumstance wherein artists contemporary to that time felt free to represent the expression of a freedom which they found when unshackled from being the visual documentarians of their age. Whilst this could be considered a rather substantial generalisation, lumping artists together as if they co-existed en mass like a penguin colony huddling for warmth, there is, however, a light sprinkling of truth in this generalisation, more so, if you consider it a colony of creative critical thinking, not really a hive mind, but certainly a collective of interwoven contemporary thought. Therefore, there certainly could be an argument that, on a more subliminal level this was more specifically to the case, and that as a sort of overall conclusion based on a selection of circumstantial evidence framed within the basic thinking that society, at a given time would have elements within whose thinking is at a similar enough point in evolution that it could be considered to be related, however tentatively.
For me, at this point in this conversation, and out of a kind of necessity for the purpose of setting the tone of what I am currently examining, there is a certain convenience is considering the juxtaposition of the development of photography and the apparent unshackling of the contemporary artist as somewhat related, and whilst there were certainly artists who didn’t fit into the pure representationalist idea of painting prior to the advent of photography, they seem, rather, the maverick exceptions, even seemingly outlandish creators such as Hieronymus Bosch were examining subjects which at the time would have been very much considered to be completely real.
In this, very casual explosion, of new modes of expression explored in the years straddling the dawning of the 20th century there certainly would appear to have been a great desire to step beyond…
Considering this period and what developed, with remarkable vigour, especially in the shadow of substantial international and political turmoil, over what, historically could be considered a relatively brief period, it would seem to be that artists appeared to be willing to, or indeed be hungry to examine a variety of interesting concept, wherein they started to look at that which they subtract, avoid, ignore or leave out rather that the inclusive documentation previously the domain of their mode of visual media. And it is these wilful voids and spaces which I have come to be fascinated with, and have given considerable thought to. So, if this all really falls under the idea of abstraction, the idea of that which is not necessary or not present having, at least, equal significance to the stroke/.scratch/smudge/line, then, for me, that’s edging towards the truer identity, the absence, the suggestion rather than description, the question rather than the reply. It is when you start to examine the possible reasoning for the simple, the basic, the unresolved that the true identity has the potential to emerge.
Perhaps this is the learning, the reason that it is oft considered that a true painter reaches their peak towards their twilight, finally unshackled, and disinclined to formality, they open up like some rare flowering cactus, or impulse-frenzied salmon, in a burst of pure expression. Is it perhaps at that point, that they realise how much there is that can be left out, how finally they can ignore so much and simply do, maybe even, how there is no longer the time for the apparently frivolous.
It was only when I felt that these omissions and absences were significant that I was able to make sense of what I was looking at, for instance, viewing, with a fortunate abundance of time, work by artists like Patrick Graham. When I got to view Patricks solo show, Lullaby in Luan, Athlone in 2016, I really felt that I got to look into the spaces in his work, at what he felt he didn’t need to express or overtly render on the canvas/paper and how, the power to communicate wasn’t diminished by these voids in expression, not physical absences of paint or line, but rather a more succinct sense of the desire to simply let a certain space be. And, I think this is the true nature of the idea of abstraction, perhaps in an obvious way, but still, one, that when recognised, can draw sense from something that is often readily dismissed as nonsensical or indeed (worse still for an artist) irrelevant. I recently heard art historian/curator Kate Bryan, whilst she discussed Kandinskys “Last Judgement” painting, express that she felt that abstract art is something of, in her opinion, a misnomer and that perhaps it would be better classified as non-figurative, however, I feel that this, in itself, doesn’t really reach far enough into the idea of abstraction, and misses some of the point. For me abstraction is about removal, trimming, streamlining, sometimes to the detriment, but often to the point of pure clarity. It removes the fear, the noise, the argument, the clash, placing the beingness of the subject as central. It is the final stance which says not “look what I can do”, but rather is states, “look what is”. And this, in consideration of its concurrence with the development of photographic documentation, seems to be the heart, wherein one can examine the whole arc of the idea of the artist as storyteller and realise that a novel, or poem or painting, doesn’t necessarily (as modern photography has also found) have to describe ever grain, leaf, line, tone of the whole in order to create a narrative which begets reasonable understanding and insight.
We have had the opportunity to travel to Cologne on several occasions, usually in late November or early December, to visit the impressive selection of traditional Christmas markets, , when it can sometimes be cold enough to pinch you raw through your layers, or surprisingly warm enough to sit pondering the vistas over the Rhine with a blanket on your knees and a glass of Kolsch. Generally, though, it seems to hover around the lower single digits celsius, and you find you can only tolerate the weather with hand (and torso) thawing Glugwien, the occasional wurst and a touch of childlike glee at the sheer beauty and charm. The focal point of the city itself is the astonishing Kloner Dom Catholic Cathedral, a gothic edifice of such imposing spectacle that it almost swallows you whole unnoticed, and when you consider its age, a seemingly impossible building. Sitting next to the cathedral is the impressive Ludwig modern art museum, swollen with classics of modern art, in many ways as overwhelming as the cathedral in its range of content. The visitor could almost swoon in one of its many rooms.
It was on one visit, a not-too-cold spell easing our days, we passed through the various markets, heading in from the area around the Chocolate Museum (everything that you could imagine it should be) with the intention of ending up at the Ludwig, but we were unexpectedly, though ultimately quite thoroughly, sidetracked. Spotting a small and rather simple street sign directing visitors discretely to the Kathe Kolwitz museum, a casual discovery, but, as one who had initially discovered Kollwitz as a curious teenage, a direction too enthralling to avoid. Following the small signs, almost missable in their discretion, our trail finally brought us to what basically felt like a 5 storey shopping mall, in which you took the lift up to the top and into the museum.
This encounter, notwithstanding the patently mundane approach route, was one of absolute and profound emotion. And, in some ways, the very mundanity of the location seemed to amplify this emotional response, as if you bend to examine a flower for the basic purity of its beauty and discover it to be a bejewelled brooch. To finally be standing in front of the grim simplicity and visceral power of these drawings, an experience which was like a firm hand on your shoulder, compelling you to sit down, whilst also reassuring you that you are in a safe place, with ample time to contemplate. The museum itself was remarkable quiet, calm, and sparsely visited on that particular day, a perfect storm of happenstance.
The collection itself comprised of hundreds of drawings and prints and also some sculptures. It feels comprehensive, it is expansive and fully rounded, it is brutal and beautiful. Again, I found myself drawn to the simplicity, the seemingly basic forms, the almost crude depictions, with a deceptive technique, grinding out the pure humanity from grades of black and the neutral base of the surface.
But the basic purity of technique she employs seems to be what allows the space for the juggernaut sized emotional punch to blast through. It is a strange experience, an odd sensation, to witness a collection of strokes on paper manifest themselves into a deep soul-wrenching blast of emotion. Some of the images come at you like a storm, others press you back, gently, but with an unrelenting force, until you feel yourself sink into the wall behind you, like soft clay.
It will always seem that Kollwitz is the arch documentarian of that time, location and circumstance, that coal dust poverty, grim, black fingered, squat and hunched, suffering the cold and poor winter daylight. You envisage peasants in fields, struggling to keep dry, ankle deep in mud, fearful for the hunger and disease, the tuberculosis and coal smoke, dragged down in grey raindrops. Poorly lit homes, with small damp children, coughing and grubby, struggling to grow and thrive, and all rendered in the tacky smears of ink and charcoal, the artists hands and clothes in union with the artwork, the artwork in union with the subject, as if the medium of expression itself takes its look from the very subject. Her work feels like a body, like a collected history, not individual works but flowing back and forth, between the images, like pages, like hieroglyph, pictograms, a gathered history, a museum of human anguish. And all of this, in many ways filtered through her own lens of depression, loss and anguish, the infinite pain of the loss of her son Peter early in World War 1, a weeping wound that no parent can recover from, bleeding out ink onto the page, eaten up by the cold loss, lit by dim candles. Her treatment of light and shadow, the way she dresses her subject, carved and scraped woodcuts, full of hard angles and stark contrasts, it is as if every element of their execution are in themselves the image, the story being scratched out. And all of this maelstrom of emotion perched on the higher floor of a nondescript building in Cologne, calmly waiting to be stumbled upon by someone who just might fall into the deep black pools of art and remember, always, to hold onto the history of an ugly time that demands recall. These works should stand as warnings, a parent created these, losing her son in a war, and then her grandson, his namesake, in the next war, one that so many who had lived through the first never believed would happen. Her work, such a strong social critique that the National Socialists were uncomfortable and afraid of it. But she has produced this bleak and powerful body of work, an ink monument to the suffering of countless millions, the potential for the triumph of the spirit, the defiance in the face of grim reality.
We didn’t make it to the Ludwig that day, it really didn’t seem necessary to see anything else at that moment.
one of the more interesting things I regularly peruse is collaboration with other artists…. as a musician this is, of course, a fundamental, but also working with film makers, poets and other visual artists is interesting, challenging and rewarding…I’m aware, from practice, that it doesn’t suit everyone, but the very act of entering into someone else’s sphere of practice can be educational and almost always leads to an examination of new thinking….
Often art is a somewhat lonely persuit, so getting involved in these other processes of though can enlighten and lead you on to examining your own methodologies,.. and no matter how lacking in physical results (though generally, they are positive) the exercise might seem, it’s highly likely that you will learn something somewhere in the adventure that will certainly illuminate your creative path…
so, another new year, they seem to come around so quickly that you don’t often notice how the years past. But, then again, they are just an arbitrary tick tick in the background as you plod along…..
I could talk about change, about how I’m going to do lots of different new and exciting things, that’s what you always do it this time year, but whether or not it happens it not always important… sometimes it’s just nice to have plans and goals, so I tried to keep this in mind and look forward to what might happen in 2018.
I do have some new ideas, some new people to work with, some new goals and exhibitions so I think it’ll be definitely interesting and I’m looking forward to see what happens.
So, it marches forward, tick tock, it’s interesting…. I’ve looked at what I needed to change, to do better, to stop, to start, this year, and slowly I’m starting to recognise what works and what needs renewing…. some of the painting and drawing techniques I was using, and considered redundant, now seem quite important, other stuff I hoped to do now seems unnecessary.
I got back to print a little recently, and some of my older work seems relevant and fresh…
so I’m stirring the pot and keeping the flavours fresh, but not too much new spice….
I hurt my back again , or rather to be more specific it would be easier to say my back is hurting, it’s the injury, it’s always there, and right now it’s right here, chipping away.So I’ll stand down in the studio and wonder if I can channel the discomfort into what I’m trying to do, into the changes I’m trying to make, to not just indulge my own cliches but the express the core of what I’m trying to put into my work. I’m not even sure if the discomfort of this spinal injury is something that can really express itself through art or indeed whether it should all be indulged.
But then, on consideration it has always there, informing my practice in less obvious ways, sometimes slowing me down or stopping me, sometimes ensuring that I can’t work in the style or at the pace that I would desire, and sometimes it’s even right there on the canvas. So, just like the sarcoidosis, or dreary days or petty annoyances it is it important part of what I am and therefore an important part of what I do.
I realised at a certain point on certain works that I was looking at the painting from the wrong perspective… thinking, realising…. there is a goal,, that’s to see when a painting Is finished, gather than looking finished… and that, oddly, when you consider it should be obvious, was a wee bit of a revelation. So now, I’m reviewing, re-viewing, reconsidering what I am looking at at any given moment and hoping that this new clarity will lead me somewhere interesting……
As I’ve said, I’ve been looking at changing things in my art practice. It really felt important, and necessary…. I’d often gotten to a point where I feared I’d just run around in circles, or indeed, get bored with what I was doing or just feel that it wasn’t exciting enough… just one of those things, when you’re sitting somewhere, looking at or merely thinking about what’s happening, and you just think…. this is shite and pointless… so then it’s time to make some sort change…, I kinda feel, if you’re doing the same thing a few years down the road, then you’re doing nothing….
So I hit a landmark birthday, I felt it, it didn’t slip by, it was like a big old train steaming through… I looked out of its window, and I desired that fresh view. This was great, I actually felt that it was a good time to change, to reevaluate…
So I decided, on one hand and it kind of happened on the other, but change was engendered. I didn’t want to keep approaching my practice in the same way, I wanted to reexamine…. everything about how I was painting, drawing, printing, I wanted to look at, and not waste time with it…. and this was very interesting, because it made perfect sense to me.
I’ve been peeling back, chipping away, scrubbing ideas and, when it comes down to it, trying to make everything new and fresh, challenging myself, a new approach, and to be honest, it’s great, and fun, and finally, today, I got stuck into some new work, and it’s joyous…..