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.
New work in 2017, thinking about people’s ideas for the future.. the monsters have pulled off their masks and are walking openly amongst us, there is new ugliness of heart and spirit…. the future is in danger of being fucked…. they will leave you with nothing… Your Children Will Witness This.
I’m painting away, trying not to think… act a bit, but with some goals, not too specific… and it’s been interesting… less direct.. and somewhat enjoyable.
So that’s the thing, I just found something… it doesn’t feel like pure experiment… or particularly radical, more just a case of taking an element of what you’re going and letting it runn away with itself, see what happens… maybe it’ll go no where… but possibly it’ll lead everywhere…
I haved mixed feelings about some more photorealistic work… I appreciate it’s technicality and it’s beauty, but often it just feels as deep as the layers of paint….. what’s it saying to me? it feels like, often, all it’s really saying is: Look how good I am at painting…. what else?…. I look at it, go wow, and move on…. and that’s disappointing… photography kinda has that sewn up for me..
Imagine if you had that level of skill and could apply it to pure creation, to exploration and invention…. what could be possible?
So I think, that, to just depict, isn’t interesting enough….. that’s just me… so I hope that I could see it combined into something more interesting and innovative…..
I was thinking that I didn’t start making art just to stand still, maybe I didn’t realise it at first, but now I see it… Keep moving… I’d be ashamed if I was still making the same art I made 10 years ago, not just because of quality, but also because of the thought processes…. couldn’t tolerate a rut….
I want to be creative, always, and I think to achieve that, there has to be constant movement, new thoughts and ideas, new mistakes…
Don’t keep making something that you’re good at, just because you’re good at it, try something unfamiliar and try to become good at something new…..
It may have been habitual to paint and create with a bit of music on he go, but for a while now I find I’m working in silence. When I’m painting, and I feel it’s an expression of a creative impulse, the presence of music seems to interfere, almost as if another’s creativity if bleeding in… everything from tempo to lyrical content seems to influence the way I work, so rather than being a gentle, wholesome place, the music makes the studio confusing and distracting….. it takes away the pure focus I find myself needing these days…. so for the most part, I am finding myself, more and more, in relative quiet, totally immersed in the work, with the hope that this facilitates purity if vision.
The question would always be, why are you making art? What’s the particular goal, and why this particular thing. Naturally, we have our reasons. We have our motivations. We have our goals.
whar I often find is, that as I make an artwork I am thinking to myself, this is the best thing I have ever done… now that May or may not last, minutes, seconds, days, forever. But, at that moment, as that creeps into your head, that’s the result… it’s nor about the subject, the technique, the awesomeness of ones skill…. it’s all about the intention…. that moment is when, you realise, that what you intended to do, ia being realised to the best of your current ability…. and it is to be savoured.
Today I potentially added to my, mostly limited, skill base, with some photo based screen printing…. so whilst these images are purely tests, it’s interesting and fulfilling to learn this technique, and hopefully it’s something I’ll get to utilise in future artworks…. consider this particular old dog. the possessor of a new trick…
I don’t know a lot of painter techniques, nor the tricks of the trade.. I don’t have that style of education, so I’ve often found myself inventing them myself, whilst secretly acknowledging that I’m probably going over previously trodden ground… but I enjoy often finding, by accident, something that works for me…
Lately I’ve found myself not cleaning a brush fully between colour changes, so as to let the original colour interrupt and interfere. This delivers equal measures of fun and frustration, but overall it’s interesting.
I suppose all this lark has been done, from sfumato to action painting, but sure fuck it, it brings me joy, and is all part of the journey… it may not be exacting, but at the end of the process it brings me results that I feel I set put to achieve. it’s just like taking different routes for the same journey, just for the sheer avoidance of routine…..