Monthly Archives: May 2014

Two sculptors–compare and contrast!

I have seen solo exhibitions of the work of two women sculptors in the last two weeks – and it is hard to imagine two more contrasting bodies of work!  Both inspirational; both fascinating to explore; both highly talented and renowned artists in their own right; and not without their points of similarity; but what different outcomes!

Ursula Von Rydingsvard, born in 1942 Germany, with a Polish mother and Ukrainian father, was mostly in refugee camps until the family emigrated to the USA, where Ursula has subsequently spent most of her life.  She has her first major European exhibition at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park – see here.  Joana Vasconcelos is a generation younger, born in 1971 in Portugal.  Her work is on show at the Manchester Art Gallery – see here.  The exhibition publicity describes Vasconcelos’ work as “… exquisitely crafted, monumental sculptures and installations …”; you could use the same words for Von Rydingsvard’s work, too.  Hers is also described as “… ranging from the intimate to the immense in scale …”, which could also be said of Vasconcelos’.  Other similarities can be found, with Vasconcelos “… inspired by the products and materials of Portuguese daily life …” and Von Rydingsvard producing “… sculptural forms, which at times reference … simple, rustic items such as shovels, spoons and bowls …” … “… her Polish heritage is vitally important …”.

However, whether it is the generational difference, the contrast between Northern and Southern European genes, or just two very different personalities, their creative outcomes are in sharp contrast.  Here, with apologies for the quality of the image, is a typical piece from Von Rydingsvard.

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She mostly works with cedar, constructing her forms from 2×4 or 4×4 beams, which are carefully, marked, cut, and assembled together – hundreds of individual pieces forming this type of abstract shape.  Using graphite to subsequently darken parts of the surface, she works with a very limited colour palate, and even said, in a short film, that she does not feel comfortable with colour, sensing that it overwhelms everything else.  (Where have I heard that type of comment before?!)  The surfaces are hard-edged and rough-cut, despite the apparently smooth form, and are marked with thick pencil lines, where she has matched edges and drawn lines where her ‘cutters’ (skilled guys using circular saws to her precise instructions) are to work.  The process is intense and serious – words that could also be used to describe the personality she portrays in interviews.  She refers to growing up in an environment where you were expected to work and work, where you smiled only occasionally and laughed only when appropriate.

This is one of the central pieces of the Vasconcelos exhibition.

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It is a (real) Bell 47 helicopter that has been covered with pink ostrich feathers, gold leaf, and Szarovski crystals; and has had an interior makeover involving intricate woodwork, embroidered upholstery, gilding and Arraiolos rugs.  It is the artist’s vision of what Marie Antoinette would be travelling in if she were alive today!  There was a 1950s Morris Oxford, full of cuddly toys and covered with toy guns, called ‘War Games’, and a piece called ‘Full Steam Ahead (Red, Green and Yellow)’, made from dozens of domestic steam irons.  Humorous, subversive, and with a light-hearted touch, her work is a “… critique of contemporary society, destabilising traditional views of female sexuality, the status of women and consumer culture …” (the exhibition brochure says).  As well as this type of appropriation of ready-mades, she also creates huge works, intricately constructed from textiles, embroidery, crochet work, etc, decorated with tassels and crystals, in vibrant colours – such as this partial view of an enormous special installation in the Manchester Art Gallery Atrium.

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These contrasting works are, of course, characteristic of the modernist/postmodernist comparison; with Von Rydingsvard firmly in the modernist ‘camp’ and Vasconcelos in the postmodernist.  The former creates intensely personal work, exploring process, form and material, that is deliberately ambiguous, “… with a feeling of intense humanity and sincerity …”.  The latter has fun, and playfully responds to the global society in which she has grown-up – provoking questions and subverting, certainly, but wilfully attracting our attention and seducing our eyes as well.

I should say that I thoroughly enjoyed looking at both women’s work.  I am endlessly fascinated to watch the creative processes of artists – and the films of Von Rydingsvard studio were particularly interesting in that respect.  She speaks very honestly and openly about her approach.  As a student of Photography, I do find sculpture particularly interesting.  I’m not saying I always understand it, fully, but the physicality and three-dimensionality have something extra to offer, and I think my own interest in collage and assemblage is informed and inspired by sculptural work.  I looked at the way Von Rydingsvard layers and builds up her forms and wondered whether there is something else there to try out with my ‘cut-outs’ – layering them to give extra sense of dimension and physicality.  Not sure whether I can recall seeing anyone else do that – but I’m certain someone must have!

The Hanging at Bailey’s Stardust

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In the context of my ‘Self-Portraits’, it was useful to visit the David Bailey ‘Stardust’ exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery on Sunday.  Bailey isn’t a photographer who comes in for much close examination in the realms of academia (so far as I know) but he is a significant creator of images in popular visual culture in the second half of the 20th century – and I have chosen to use his ‘style’ for one of my first self-portraits.  There were no great surprises in this extensive presentation of his work; I had seen a TV preview with Bailey himself (who also curated the exhibition), so pretty much knew what to expect.  It is, though, interesting to see the ‘documentary’ work that he has done in, for example, India and Papua New Guinea, alongside the celebrity and fashion images, for which he is best known.

The aspect on which I feel most keen to comment is the ‘hanging’ and, in particular, what I can only describe as ‘display walls’.  It is the tendency to hang images high on the wall, which I also noted at some the Paris exhibitions last month, that fascinates me.  This ‘family wall’, chiefly featuring photographs of his wife, Catherine, is the best example.

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THESE IMAGES ARE NOT MEANT TO BE LOOKED AT!

It is physically impossible for anyone to look at most of the photographs on this wall and so the only conclusion is that he does not want us to look at them closely. (I might say, in passing, that the larger prints in some of the other rooms were also well above natural eye-level, for an averagely tall person.)  One can only step back, as I did in taking this photograph, and stare at the ‘spectacle of the display’.  I am tempted to compare this approach to the barrage of visual images we see every day online and in publications – individual images are ‘devalued’ by the impact of quantity, so that it becomes impossible to actually ‘read’ anything from them.  In this case, I would suggest that they neither say anything individually nor as a series.  It’s more like something done by an interior designer than an an exhibition of photographs.

In the Sky Arts interview referred to previously, Bailey pays tribute to Catherine, his wife and muse, so, speculating about Bailey’s purpose in presenting them like this, I tend towards the idea that he sees the ‘spectacle’ as a kind of physical and visual tribute, an expression of pride in his family perhaps.  The room is specifically titled ‘Catherine Bailey’.  However, it is not a style unique to this show.  There was evidence of the same approach in both the Cartier-Bresson and Mapplethorpe exhibitions in Paris.  And whilst that might lead one to think of it as a modernist trope, glorifying the images display, I then recall that it also happened in the more contemporary context of the Ponte City exhibition at Le Bal.  As I say, ‘spectacle’ is the word that keeps coming to mind – impressing with the overall impact rather than homing into either individual images or, say, the narrative of a series.

So, it was particularly interesting to compare the same approach again, next day, at Tate Modern, but in a rather different context.

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These are street posters from the Russian Revolution.  They are specifically about display and propaganda, of course; about creating an impression rather than passing on information or illustrating something specific.  They are also intended to be viewed from afar.  So the overall impression of style and colour comes together well in these big, multiple displays, which cover three walls of a single room.  I am, I have to say, rather less convinced by the effectiveness of the ‘wall-filling’ approach when used for 40-or-so smallish black & white framed prints on a high wall at the NPG.

Semiotics and the ‘Textbook’ Project

 

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I attended an OCA Lecture day in Leeds at the weekend – delivered by OCA Art History & Visual Studies Tutor, Gerald Deslandes. Reflections on the day, which was devoted to the origins and development of Modernism & Postmodernism, are better suited to Contextual Studies but, as I said to Gerald as I was leaving, much of what he covered helped me to feel more confident about some of the work I’m doing in Body of Work.  I’m not sure that it was the lectures, specifically, that made me think afresh about my ‘Textbook’ project this morning, only partially I suspect, but something has led me to what feels like a better understanding of what this project is about.

In my previous post about it – here – I put it in the context of Analogue and Digital photographic processes, and that is certainly valid, but I realised this morning that it is also – more so, maybe – about Language and Signs.  The words, diagrams and images from this 1963 publication have lost, for me, their original meaning.  They do not signify what the writers intended.  For me, they signify an unintelligible, dead, language.  But, rather than approaching them like an archaeologist, seeking to decipher their original meaning, I appropriate them as unattached signifiers.  I construct something new, something whose ‘meaning’, for me, is the investigation and expression of my own creative use of digital methods, and which is an expression of the ‘ambiguity’ I discussed here.

The image above is a good example – and includes a ‘text’ based element, too.  Reading the image, as it is presented here, one might start with a formal analysis.  It is, clearly and obviously, a construction.  There is a ‘cut-out’ image in the foreground and some other ‘cut-outs’ in the background, with a slight background difference between the top third of the frame and the lower two-thirds, which together seem to suggest that this is a representation of a ‘landscape’.  the colour of the background (and the image of a polar bear in the foreground) appear to be specifically representing a ‘polar’ landscape, further confirmed by the suggestion of what appears to be snow around the boots of the two men in that foreground ‘cut-out’ image.  This foreground image seems to have been cut from an old photograph, its surface suggests the graininess of such an origin, and the dress of the two men also seems to signify the early part of the 20th century.  Each man is holding a rifle at his side, resting the butt on the floor and grasping the barrel.  They stand, slightly apart from each other, looking down at what must be a dead polar bear – and we almost certainly reach the conclusion that they shot it.  Two men, in the early part of the 20th century, shot a polar bear in a polar landscape!  They were photographed with the carcass, and I have now chosen, in the early part of the 21st century, to cut out their images from an old print of some nature!

Then we come to the other cut-outs, in the background.  There are four triangular shapes, each with a kind of bulge on the side. Three, positioned right at the back of the ‘landscape’ and to the left, are coloured light blue, with their ‘bulges’ in purple; the fourth, a little closer and larger, is coloured purple, with a black bulge.  They look as though they have been cut out from a printed source; each has a thin black outline and there are black spots printed inside each triangle.  Some also have other printed symbols – plusses and minuses, and arrows, in one case.  They have a diagrammatic look about them, though there is nothing to suggest what they might represent.  One of the blue triangles also has symbols outside its cut out shape – arrows pointing down to its left hand side and minus signs around its purple bulge.  All four of the triangles are slightly out of focus – though the arrows and minuses just identified are quite sharply defined.  Although the colours and diagrammatic qualities of these four triangles does not support such a conclusion, one might suppose that they have been placed to loosely suggest mountains in the polar landscape.  The ‘trained’ eye might read these diagrams as having some scientific significance, but there is little or nothing to explain what that might be.

Finally, within the frame of the image, there is a printed ‘caption’, which reads ‘Fig. 24. Stability of the latent image’.  The ‘content’ and the style of presentation of this text would seem to suggest that the image is either from, or we’re asked to consider that it might be from, a book, maybe an academically oriented book, given the use of ‘Fig. 24.’ and the specific nature of the language of the text.  All these symbolic elements – the foreground cut-out; the four triangle cut-outs; the ‘landscape’ background; and the caption – have been deliberately brought together for some purpose.  The ‘formal’ analysis of the image doesn’t necessarily lead to a clear conclusion and probably raises as many questions as it answers.  Contextually, presented as ‘art’, the image would probably be identified as having characteristics of the postmodern, and so the questions are about the artist and his purpose.  In any other context, the image is likely to be seen as curious and/or meaningless.  Printed large on a gallery wall, it would invite a close examination of its aesthetic qualities, which would (hopefully) lend it some ‘art-context’ credibility – the signification associated with a large, high-quality print and curatorial support.  As one of a series of images in a gallery (with supporting ‘artist statement’ and curatorial text) or, similarly, in a book of images, all based around some linking theme (perhaps all images made from the ‘Textbook’ for example) and with supporting text, it may begin to have some ‘significance’ in the analogue/digital context.

Fundamentally, though, it is a somewhat ambiguous collection of signifiers that are unlikely, without further information or context, to communicate much beyond the fact that I, the artist, chose to put them together and create this image.  Those who look at it – tutor and fellow students, for example – may be sufficiently drawn to begin speculating about my purpose/process and the origins of the individual parts of the image – but they will probably have to construct their own conclusions because there is little in the image itself to help.  Hence my own conclusion that I am appropriating these unattached signifiers and presenting them in a construction that has no significance beyond its own construct!  Interestingly, though, because I do know exactly where these individual elements of the image came from, I also know that they are not quite so unconnected as they may seem.  The triangular diagrams (which were not coloured in their original form) represent crystals of silver bromide, each with a speck of silver sulphide attached, and the sequence represents the process of formation of a ‘latent image’.  The foreground image was taken on a fatal polar expedition in 1897 but the exposed film lay in the icy environment for 33 years before being discovered and developed; that’s why it was included in a section of the book entitled ‘The Stability of the Latent Image’.  There, I’ve spoiled it now!

Through ambiguity to seeing more clearly

An Image Without Meaning

Image without meaning

I have reflected positively before in here about the ‘thinking with’ approach that appears in the module notes.  The notes also encourage the use of a notebook in which to write regular thoughts and get rid of the “boring stream of consciousness” (which I have always done anyway).  It also says “Please don’t put all the boring stuff on your blogs!”.  Spoken from the heart of a tutor/assessor, I think.

A few weeks ago, I had one of those ‘stream of consciousness’ sessions; it came out of a ‘what the hell am I doing?’ moment; and I did grab a piece of paper and write on it – before stuffing it into the notebook and forgetting about it.  Today, coincidentally, I took it out and re-read it a few moments after I had been re-reading Chapter 8 of ‘Visual Culture’’’ by Howells and Negreiros, for Contextual Studies.  It’s a chapter on Photography and, amongst other things, it looks at the relationship between photography &reality and runs through the arguments around photography as art.

So, here, in summary, is what was in my notebook reflections from a few weeks ago:

What am I doing?

I am constructing images (maybe not photographs?).

My images may …

  • attract attention;
  • invite further investigation;
  • provoke questions;
  • encourage thought and speculation;
  • seem to promise meaning and truth;
  • entertain;
  • please;
  • frustrate.

But, like all images (maybe) …

  • lack substance;
  • hold no answers;
  • provide no solutions;
  • be ‘unreal’;
  • fail to satisfy.

Ambiguity – I am creating ambiguity.

There was more, but I’ll adhere to the module author’s request!

As I said, the Howells & Negreiros chapter looks at the photograph’s relationship with reality.  Personally, I long since abandoned any notion that photography presents truth and/or reality; and I recognise the need to question the meaning and relevance of those two concepts – certainly to recognise that they are open to interpretation.  However, the chapter does acknowledge that but argues, even accepting what I’ve just suggested, that photography does have a “special relationship” with reality.  They suggest that the photograph manages to be an “… hallucination which is also a fact …”.  That idea certainly is important and relevant – the potential for a photograph to be read as real, or as a representation of the real, or to seem/feel real when it isn’t; the possibility of knowing that it isn’t what it seems to be yet being drawn to look and read and take something from the process – even just speculation about intent or process.

So, I combine a dip into my own stream of consciousness with a spot of contextual reading and seem to feel that something significant has been distilled out of the process.  I was right – I am creating ambiguity.