Assignment Three–done

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Nothing to do with Assignment Three (pic) but ‘Happy Christmas’!

And … Assignment Three is submitted and has had very positive feedback as being ‘VG – well done!’ I wrote up two ‘work experience’ case studies, in the end, and it seems to have worked well. It has helped bring home how much I’ve done in the last twelve months – especially when I really got ‘motoring’ with the galleries etc in the last six months or so. There is a link to the essay, below, and one of the conclusions is that it demonstrates that I have, more or less, been working as an artist, latterly, which is what this module is all about. There are other opportunities out there if I choose to push on and make them happen. For the time being, though, it is all focussed on getting my assessment submission ready (oh, and there’s Christmas, of course!).

Assignment Three – ‘Work Expereince’ Case Studies

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Artist Presentation–Castlefield Gallery

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(Image courtesy of Castlefield Gallery)

On Tuesday evening, I had the opportunity present my practice, and specifically ‘New Photographic Chemistry’, alongside three other artists, at a meeting of the Castlefield Gallery Associates group, in Manchester. It took the form of a 10 minute presentation followed by five minutes of questions. The meeting was attended by around 16 members of the group.

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(Images courtesy of Castlefield Gallery)

These are some of my reflections following the event:

  • Once again, the value of time spent in planning and preparation was evident. I had a slideshow (under my control rather than running independently) and a ‘script’ that I had rehearsed – so it was no surprise that the timing worked out more or less exactly. It took the form of a slightly extended version of the video from my website – here – covering the grounding of my practice; the origins and development of ‘New Photographic Chemistry’; and the various forms in which it has, to date, been brought to an audience. So, I covered a lot of ground in a short time but that didn’t seem to be a problem.
  • Everything seemed to be well-received by the audience, in terms of attention and body language during the talk, questions that followed, and responses during the tea interval and at the end of the evening. Most of those in the audience (and all of the other three presenters) were practicing artists with multiple exhibitions, commissions, residencies etc; so there was the potential for a ‘credibility gap’. But I didn’t sense it, and the interest seemed to go at least a little way beyond the merely polite.
  • Questions/comments immediately post-talk covered – printing onto fabric; choice of colours; time to produce; size of output (with a suggestion that I might go bigger … a lot bigger!); and praise for the way I managed to create a sense of depth and dimension in the images. I was pleased when, after the talk, one audience member compared the images of text manipulation (below) to the work of David Batchelor (which had been part of the original inspiration, as blogged here. It was also good to find some connection with the presenter who preceded me – Roger Bygott – who was talking about a recent residency during which he produced some work that physically deconstructed and subverted Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida.

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Sulphur Sensitizers (2015)

Perhaps most importantly, I enjoyed doing it and felt confident in the work and my ability to talk about it. Artists tend to be supportive of each other and to have genuine interest in what others are doing; and the CG Associates scheme offers plenty of opportunities to develop and maintain contacts. As I have observed before in various contexts, the basis for a sustainable practice is there and its future is entirely dependent on how much I want it and how much I am prepared to commit.

Oh – and my image featured in the e-mail to all associates about the evening …

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Dark Matter–the unseen world of artist-led activity

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On Saturday, I spent the day in Liverpool, attending this event, Dark Matter, run by local artist-led organisation The Royal Standard.  Many thanks to them for organising the symposium. A few weeks ago I floated a preliminary proposal for Assignment Three past my tutor; to be based around an exploration of artist-led organisations/spaces in my part of the country. She is encouraging me to focus down the scope somewhat from that preliminary idea, which makes good sense; and it has, to an extent, been ‘parked’ whilst I focus on the Bank Street exhibition (about which Assignment Four was submitted late last week). However, via social media, I spotted that this event was happening and decided, at very short notice, to attend. I’m glad that I did – the organisers know something about their ‘world’ by coming up with the title ‘Dark Matter’! There is a lot that goes on in this ‘world’ that is hard to identify and track down; so attending an event devoted to the subject has provided a good starting point.

This post isn’t going to attempt to draw firm conclusions or define a potential project more tightly. The intention is partly to record the fact that I went and to draw out a few reflections from the day.

  • There were representatives there from 10 or more organisations that I could identify, with reference during the day to several others, and the first point to note is the huge variety of formats, structures and intentions for this loosely defined concept of ‘artist-led’. From the ‘one-man-band’ organisation seeking, temperamentally, to find a place for contemporary art in a provincial town that was barely interested; through the multi-site, voluntarily run, provider of extensive studio space, developmental mentoring, collaborative and exhibition opportunities, etc; to the site-less but vibrant curatorial project-based organisation set up by a group of graduate friends; and touching on pretty much everything along the way, including both the commercial and the subversive.
  • Precariousness seems to be both/either an inevitable consequence of operating within the ‘dark matter’ world and/or a principle by which the organisations must operate if they are to retain their independence. The ‘wobbly chair principle’ was an idea that came up in the morning panel discussion and remained a theme for the day. In essence, creativity is better achieved whilst ‘sitting on a wobbly chair’ – a state of uncertainty in which one is never really still and must be permanently attentive/responsive. Space itself is one of the drivers of this precarious state – so many artist-led activities taking place in temporary space. It’s no surprise that those which seem to have survived longest frequently have either a founding member who owns the property or a particular relationship with a supportive landlord. Funding is, naturally, the other source of vulnerability – much activity depending on voluntary/low-paid organisers. Willingness to learn the skills of filling out grant applications is important to many organisations – but retaining a degree of ‘alternativeness’ is also important to others.
  • There is a ‘wealth’ (perhaps a questionable word to use) of talent, energy, creativity, drive, and so on through which ‘artist-led’ does what it does. And this ‘hidden’ world is providing opportunities for those involved and those it recruits/supports that would never be achieved through public institutions or the commercial art world. One or two simple benefits that I noted during the discussions – the way in which simply coming together and having a ‘name’ can open up dialogues that are hard to achieve on one’s own; the flexibility and responsiveness of these organisations in comparison to institutions with corporate constraints; the genuine commitment within organisations that are led by those for whose purpose they have come into existence to serve.

At a personal level, I remain interested in the idea of structuring an Assignment Three project around this area – maybe, as my tutor as suggested, focusing on a small number of case studies (and there is enough potential amongst those attending on Saturday). I made one specific new contact with a locally-based organisation of which I hadn’t previously been aware. But I also have to admit to a sense of ‘otherness’ that I felt, too. It is perhaps best summed up by the thought that I don’t, and perhaps never will, sit on the sort of wobbly chair that is an essential aspect of this ‘world’. Then again, ‘artist-led’, as I said above, can mean all sorts of things and I reflect, not for the first time, as to what sort of ‘artist-led’ might work for OCA graduates in a comparable way to those set up and led by graduates from other art schools and colleges.

Castlefield Gallery–Amelia Crouch

Castlefield Gallery - Amelia Crouch

A first-time visit to Castlefield Gallery, Manchester, yesterday, presented an opportunity to see the work of Amelia Crouch. Castlefield runs a ‘Launch Pad’ scheme that provides short opportunities for its associates – on a selective basis – to present a solo show; and this is, apparently, Amelia Crouch’s debut solo exhibition. I experienced a very positive response to her work, and even found some encouragement for myself, so this is a reflection on why.

Starting, though, with the artist and her work, Crouch is based in West Yorkshire, has BA & MA in Fine Art, and has a number of public commissions to her name, as the website illustrates. She works with language – and, significantly, I found that short sentence a difficult one to construct, perhaps still haven’t got it quite right, which has a lot to do with the ‘work’ (and why I responded positively). Although deceptively simple (several pieces have close associations with puzzles, games and wordplay e.g. Double Over and Ifs & Butts and Ayes & Knows), her work addresses some deeply fundamental issues around language and the way its structure/use impacts on everything to do with our perception of life. Playful and accessible, it is also conceptual, with complex contextual sources in semiotics and philosophy. Even the supporting essay by art writer and historian, Lara Eggleton, keeps up the linguistic performance, as it includes annotations by the artist that occasionally question the language itself.

She uses video presentation extensively, sometimes with sound, and there are prints too. If I was looking for an area to criticise, it would be the somewhat deadpan nature of both the visual and audio experience. In the context, I can see exactly why it is that way, but it could perhaps be a tad more eye-catching – but that is no more than a quibble. Two of the most recent works, not on the website but in the show, were Untitled (Prepositions) (2015) and Attention is rarely directed to the space between the leaves (2016, I’m guessing) – both video presentations. The first involves various containers – bowl, jug, dish etc – and several small balls, all but one of which are white, the one being bright orange. The artist manipulates them physically and linguistically, questioning (undermining? subverting?) the simple prepositions ‘over’, ‘in’, ‘on’ etc. Visually, as well as conceptually, this worked successfully, for me, as a short, simple, small-screen video that used a very limited colour palate. The second also involves wordplay and word association, featuring a child’s voice, animals, the sounds they make, and leaves (plus the spaces between them!), and was presented as a large projection onto a wall. I’m less sure that this piece had as clear a conceptual focus as the others – and, ironically, the nature of its projection lessened its visual focus too – form and meaning!

However, minor quibbles apart, the work made a positive impression and the reasons are there in the previous paragraphs – playful; conceptual; both simple and sophisticated at the same time; accessible and attractive, but also contextually significant; a touch subversive (and/or deconstructivist); more analytical than personal. In many ways, these are all characteristics I strive for in my own work. I have sometimes reflected on whether work such as New Photographic Chemistry is too detached, too analytical, and whether I should be doing something more personal; so it’s reassuring to see an artist like Amelia Crouch who is, in many ways (and more successfully than me, I must emphasise!) working in a not dissimilar manner. (Good, also, to add Castlefield to the list of ‘local’ galleries; and their Associate Member scheme looks worthy of further investigation.)

Saatchi Gallery ‘UK/Raine’

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Restore to Factory Settings, 2014, Felicity Hammond (C-type print, acrylic, glass wool, paint) – installation at Saatchi Gallery December 2015

A couple of weeks before Christmas, I spent 2-3 hours at the Saatchi Gallery; it was interesting timing, juxtaposed with the previous experience of contemporary art on display at various locations in Sheffield.  One couldn’t but reflect on the comparison of scale, for example, between the Saatchi in its grand setting, just off the Kings Road, and the small rooms at Bank Street Arts, Sheffield, or the semi-industrial Site Gallery, Sheffield.  Then again, in terms of physical scale, Sheffield Cathedral could give Saatchi a run for its money (though not much of a run on the scale of the ‘money’ itself, one suspects!) – and I referred in my earlier post to the different significance attributed by viewing contemporary art in that particular setting (Previous Post). The Saatchi spaces are ‘grand’ but, understandably and appropriately, can supply none of the sense of ‘other-worldness’ that the Cathedral setting gave – well, other than the presence of the great God ‘money’, perhaps! That said, one can’t ‘knock’ 10 large spacious rooms of contemporary art, thoughtfully displayed, highly accessible, and all for free.  Another comparison with that previous post, the significance of philanthropic capital in supporting new contemporary art – “Many artists showing at The Saatchi Gallery are unknown when first exhibited …” a quote from their website. ‘Unknown’ might need clarification, I suppose, but the main exhibition on show last week certainly seems to support the notion that this institution is targeting the work of emerging artists.

It was this UK/raine (‘pronounced’ as ‘UK-Ukraine’, I was informed). The show is a presentation of the work of shortlisted artists in a competition aimed at finding “… the most imaginative and talented young artists … who live and work in the UK or Ukraine …”.  Entries cross five ‘categories’ – Installation, Painting, New Media, Street Art and Sculpture – with a winner for each and one overall winner sharing £75,000 of prize money. I thoroughly enjoyed the variety of inspiration on show, though I wouldn’t necessarily have agreed with the chosen prize-winners. ‘Twas ever thus’, I guess.  Hard (and somewhat false) to choose a ‘favourite’ but I did enjoy the installation pictured above, from Felicity Hammond.  I hadn’t seen her work before but, interestingly and coincidentally, a couple of days later she was announced as one of the winners of a BJP Photography Award, and it was for the image displayed on the wall in my illustration.  It is a large-scale image that uses form – the blue tones, with all sorts of connotations around ‘blue screens’, blue-prints, and so on – and content – an elaborately constructed waste strewn industrial landscape that seems eerily and irrationally attractive – to prompt potential reflections across a  wide range of issues around progress and, as she says when describing the work on her website, ‘error’ (Felicity Hammond).  In the gallery, the blue is emphasised with the painted angular shape on which stands that sickly toxic yellow plastic column containing what appears to be some of the discarded waste from the image, bringing it into our presence and leaving one appropriately confused between attraction and revulsion.  In the context of my own practice, I was interested by the mixing of media – the combination of the ‘photographic’ (because, although constructed, it uses Photography’s magic realism to evoke a viewer response) with installation in a way that seeks to subvert (I think) the perceived flatness of the photographic surface.

A work that had a strong resonance with aspects of my ‘Textbook’ project was this one:

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Scorch of the Real, 2015, Installation, paper, fire; Roman Mikhaylov; Saatchi Gallery December 2015

It is a very large piece, comprising several layers of paper through which the artist has burned holes of receding size. It is the use of fire, of course, that I am comparing with my own project e.g.

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I don’t think Mikhaylov burned his holes with the sun and a magnifying glass (!); the scale is, obviously, very very different; and his work is made in the context of his country’s recent history of war and destruction, giving it very much more significant connotations than my own. However, when I first embarked on my own little piece of “creation through destruction”, I was struggling to find contextual examples of the use of fire in creativity – though I did find some see here. Mikhaylov (on the Saatchi website) says that it was the events of recent Ukrainian history that started his experiments with fire in his practice and that war had never been a theme in his art before. The title of the piece Scorch of the Real seems to reflect that – the piece becomes a kind of formal representation of the way in which those dramatic events ‘burned’ their way into and through all aspects of the lives and existence of the people, shifting the experience of reality. Therein is another link to a reflection that I have made about my own work.  I do question the lack of ‘emotional resonance’ – is my work’s detachedness indicative of the shortage of scorching reality in my own experience or of a personal resistance to it?

Moving on … a third artist whose work I was keen to see was Jonny Briggs.  Jonny is one of the people with whom I’ve made contact in my networking and I had hoped to see his solo show whilst in London but the gallery wasn’t open.  However, he was shortlisted for the New Media Prize at UK/raine and had three works on show:

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Three works by Jonny Briggs – Saatchi Gallery, December 2015

I find his work particularly interesting because of the way that it ‘plays’ within the whole photography/reality context. There is reference to the conditioned perception of reality into which he was (we all were?) formed through the family and an attempt to explore the idea of a constructed version of reality – be that the one constructed from these childhood influences or the new version that he constructs in his imagery.  The latter often takes account of the post-digital and post-internet notion that images are easily manipulated and reconstructed, using that pre-conception to challenge the viewer by not using those methods to make the images but creating ‘real’ constructs that look as though they may be have been digitally manipulated. “I find the mistrust in lens based media an interesting preconception to work with, in exploring my own relationship to deception”, he said, in an e-mail response to my Contextual Studies research. Seeing this small sample of his work ‘in the flesh’ confirmed that, when viewed large, the ‘reality’ of his constructed images becomes clear e.g. the monochromatic ‘still life’ in the centre, which has clearly been carefully ‘made’ to look ‘unreal’.  I reflect that none of this would be possible were it not for some ‘unconscious’ expectation of reality in a photograph.  Without that expectation, there is no notion of deception in the first place. Digital methods don’t necessarily change or undermine that residual idea in the unconscious, but they do offer further scope for the artist to ‘play’ with the viewers’ perception.

Study Visit–‘Going Public’–Sheffield Nov 2015

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Lunchtime – ‘Going Public’ Study Visit – Nov 20th 2015

‘Going Public’, which runs at five sites in Sheffield from 16/09 to 12/12 2015, is a city-wide event that brings, to public exhibition, contemporary art from a number of major international collections – see here ‘Going Public’.  The locations include the city’s well-established Graves Gallery, the much newer (and significantly titled) Millennium Gallery, the University-based Sheffield Institute of Art Gallery, a very recently established new venue Site Gallery, and, perhaps most significantly, Sheffield Cathedral.  I include that list to demonstrate diversity and volume, but also because the context of the event was explained to students on the recent OCA Study Visit by the Dean of Sheffield, the Very Reverend Peter Bradley.  Sheffield lost its funding for contemporary art some 4/5 years ago and had to part company with its curator of contemporary art.  The city needed to consider how it might present relevant contemporary work for public view in those circumstances; and the outcome was a series of approaches to private collectors who were known to be committed to lending their collections for public exhibition.   This impressive event is the outcome and includes works from four private collections.

There is way too much to describe in any detail but highlights, for me, would be: some of the minimalist conceptual works from the Millennium Gallery (Cattelain Collection – artists such as Sol Lewitt and Anthony McCall); the Marcel Duchamp works at the Graves Gallery (from the Marzona Collection – not so much art as artefacts from the Surrealist/Dadaist period, and needs another visit with much more time to absorb it all); and the whole concept of (sometimes controversial) contemporary art in the Sheffield Cathedral (Sandretto Re Rebaudengo Collection, including the Chapman Brothers’ Cyber Iconic Man (1996) – see here Artnet News). In the latter case, it was as much, if not more, about the use of this particular space as it was about the art itself – the unexpected juxtapositions and the questions that raised.  And, for me, it isn’t particularly about the religious context as the actual nature of the space itself. A Cathedral, whatever one’s beliefs, is always likely to generate a contemplative mood, a sense that one is in the presence of something ‘other’.  My own feeling is that it probably brought a degree of profoundness to the Chapmans’ piece that it would not necessarily evoke if exhibited in a plain white cube.

The Going Public event is described as a catalyst for debate about the relationship between public galleries and private collections – and that is where my own reflections have mostly taken me; partly in the context of this module and the need to develop an appreciation of the ‘market’ into which I seek to take my own work.  One is led to wonder ‘who are these collectors?’ and ‘what are their motivations?’. (And there are video interviews with some of them available, for example dsl collection and Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo.)  ‘Private Collectors’ is not, of course, a single, unified group with common aims and objectives! They must share one characteristic – significant wealth – but their motives might include (in no particular order) some/all of financial gain; philanthropy; addictive obsession; the dream to unearth/discover; a desire to leave their legacy; a genuine interest in art and its development … etc.  They are influential, whatever their motives. By making choices – often, it must be said, informed by others ‘in the know’, critics, curators, academics – of what to buy, who to support, they are influencing whose art is most likely to have the chance to develop and gain publicity (and value!).

The question of what they do with their collections is also important – and will also vary between collectors. Do they keep it and view it in their own space for the exclusive benefit of them and their contacts?  Do they store it in vaults until the price is right for a re-sale? Do they work closely with others to ensure that the work is on public display wherever and whenever possible? Do they create/maintain their own, controlled means of public display? All of these approaches exist and they relate to the varying motivations, of course, producing different reactions un ‘us’ the public viewers. And one needs to consider whether these artworks would have been on show in Sheffield over the autumn of 2015 without the existence of such private collections. Peter Bradley, in his talk to the OCA students, referred to the difficulty – impossibility, more likely – of public galleries and collections being able to afford to buy such art. (Which would, anyway, be another form of selective choice, by the way.)  Perhaps if there was no powerful international art market driving prices upwards for speculative purposes, the public bodies would be more able to buy art.  But then, many of these collectors are looking to uncover, support, buy to keep/display – essentially, patrons who are helping art/artists to work.  And, after all, such supportive patronage has been part of art for a long time.  The dsl collection itself has set out to uncover Chinese contemporary art within an environment where, previously, art, such as it seemed to exist, was presumably that selected by the government.  Motivations are, perhaps, as significant for public funding of art as they are for private.

I guess, though, we must recognise that there is a market in operation – no great surprise, since we are in an age of global capitalism – and private collectors have an important role in that context. They are enabling the creation and display of art, but they are also making highly influential decisions; which puts a lot of power into the hands of relatively few people, with varying motives for what they do and how they do it.

it is also worth reflecting on the significance of digital developments, and the internet in particular. How does that impact on this ‘collectors’ market?  And are we in a position, yet, to understand what the outcome might be? Walter Benjamin’s The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction comes to mind – the loss of aura, maybe, but with art more widely seen and appreciated. There is the potential, at least, for artists to take their work to a public audience, distribute it digitally, and obtain their support directly from that audience (consider recent developments in the music industry, for example).  How could this work for the visual arts?  One feels that it can make, almost certainly will make, and probably already is making a difference.