Category Archives: Reflection

Textbook–new chapter; addendum; scrap for the bin?

I thought I was working my way towards the end of this project.  I’ve been doing some research on ‘fire’ – in art, in photography – because I feel that will be the ‘end game’; burning the book!  But, inspired by the exhibitions in London – David Batchelor’s October and the Adventures of the Black Square (see here) – and by reading about Mel Bochner’s Misunderstandings (A Theory of Photography) 1967-70 (see here), I’ve produced two new images in the last few days.  They could take the project off on another detour, which might be a waste of time, but I’m quite pleased with them.  I can’t tell whether they ‘work’, in the sense of having the potential to be ‘read’ by a viewer in a manner that the viewer finds to be of any significance, but they do seem to be coming out of somewhere that matters to me – so I’m sharing them here and ‘reflecting’.  I’m not going to give them titles – not yet.

Untitled 1

Untitled 1

Untitled 2

Untitled 2

The aesthetic owes something to David Batchelor – shades of the colouring book and the doodle – with a hint of student’s studies (wonder why?!) and a touch of the ransom note thrown in for good measure! I’m reminded of the surrealist’s automatic writing – though it isn’t purely automatic of course.  There’s a linguistic ambiguity that seems to work alongside the visual ambiguity of the ‘constructs’ that I’ve made – hints of ‘meaning’ that never quite deliver, a search for certainty that was never there.

So I have a feeling that these have potential to add value to the project (and further delay the end game!); but they are new and raw, so not entirely sure, yet!

Duchamp’s Ghost

Self Portrait as Reclining Nude - Nat Essdee - 1982

Marcel Duchamp has put in a number of ghostly appearances in my reading of late; no great surprise, I suppose, since he haunts so many corners of contemporary art.  His ghost is in this image, my latest in the Portraits series; but I’ll come back to that.

One of his manifestations was in a two article series in Hotshoe magazine (Autumn and Winter 2014) by A. D. Coleman, on Photography and Performance Art.  Coleman discusses the photographic documentation of performance art and staged or directorial photography, and he questions whether there is much, if any, distinction any more.  He moves on to include the idea of ‘performance’ in life and/or the ‘amateur’ creation of photographic/film records of ‘performances’ – raising the question of how we distinguish between artists and non-artists.  He makes the comment that performance of the self has become a staple of contemporary art (which, unsurprisingly, struck a chord in the context of my own work), as has the theatricalising of just about everything.  It’s at this point that Marcel makes his appearance.  Coleman says that both these, we could say, “spring from Duchamp” – his refusal to paint representing symbolic action and a heightened awareness of self as actor in the field of ideas in art.  I wondered, briefly, about the theatricality of my self-portraits here, when writing about Thomas Demand, and Coleman makes me wonder again. Are these actually photographic records of my performances in the roles of particular characters?  At one level, the answer to that question must be ‘yes’, because that is, technically and in ‘reality’ what they are.  It’s back to intentionality.  The images, at a base level, record only that I took a photograph of myself playing a particular role.  In a series, though, supported with text, presented in an ‘art’ context, they may have new significance.

Which brings me to a second Duchampian haunting.  Rosalind Krauss’ Notes on the Index were written in 1977 and were reflections on American art of the seventies; but her consideration of indexicality discusses photography, and Duchamp lurks everywhere.  The ‘empty sign, or ‘shifter’ requires a physical relationship to establish meaning.  She uses the example of pronouns such as ‘I’ and ‘you’, which have no meaning unless used in relation to, say, a particular speaker or object of speech.  This is the category of sign termed the index, and it includes cast shadows, for example.  So she discusses the cast shadows of ‘ready-mades’ in Duchamp’s “Tu M’ “.  The ‘ready-mades’ themselves were signs arbitrarily extracted from their Symbolic significance and given new meaning by Duchamp; and in that painting, their shadows are the indexical signs – except that they aren’t, because it’s a painting, so they’re actually representations. Krauss credits Duchamp as being the first to establish a connection between the index and the photograph (including work with Man Ray, for example), and we get the assertion that every photograph has an indexical relation with its object.  But this is more than a technical issue based on the marks left by light on a sensitive surface.  The photograph isn’t the object it shows; it’s an empty sign detached from that object, symbolic only of the photographer’s act until the viewer is ‘pricked’ by something that goes beyond the merely Symbolic and enters the Imaginary, touches the Real.

OK – a lot of theoretical, psychoanalytical stuff there!  Blame goes to Contextual Studies!  Actually, it’s another declaration of how CS informs and supports what I’m doing in this Body of Work.  There are many strands in those last paragraphs which can be applied to both of my projects.  And, as I’ve already said, there is the spirit of Duchamp in so much of it.  Which brings me to the latest ‘self-portrait’.  It’s entitled “Self Portrait as Reclining Nude 1982 Nat Essdee.  The ‘back story’ is this:

The only evidence of this work by the late American artist Nat Essdee is a scanned version of a photograph taken by his partner, British photographer Stan Dickinson.  Essdee died of an AIDs related illness in 1989 and it was never clear whether the work was lost, destroyed or sold to a private collector. Dickinson, who died two years later, had claimed that the piece was his idea and was actually a portrait of him.  The only surviving print of the photo is owned by the Dickinson family, who have allowed Tate Modern to scan and use it in publicity for their forthcoming Essdee retrospective.

So, there is a nod to Duchamp’s ‘ready-mades’ in the use of sieve, nuts and bolt; reference to the photograph as evidence; a question about authorship; and maybe even a small observation about the workings of the art market.  And that is to say nothing of the mingling of traditional photographic methods with digital images, implied by the scan of the print – presented digitally, here, of course.  A bit ambitious, perhaps, thinking I can get all of that into a single image!!  It’s what comes of so much background reading and study!  The brain becomes soaked in all that theory and creativity; hardly surprising that it seeps into the output.  (It is a scan of a print, by the way! Must have an authentic process.)

Putting it out there–tentatively!

A fellow OCA student, Tanya Ahmed, based in New York, sent me some information, a few weeks ago, about a call for exhibition entries by the Colorado Photographic Arts Centre.  In their 2015 Month of Photography, they have a theme of ‘Role Play’, emphasising self-portraits by artists who “embrace themes related to transformation of self; the exploration of social traits; race and gender identity issues; or simply for play.”  Firstly, many thanks to Tanya for passing it on and for spotting the connection with my own series of portraits.  Secondly, close as the fit might be, this was always going to be a very, very long shot!!  However, I did decide that it was an opportunity to put my work out there; to go through the process of entering something; to make myself think about presenting the work in some coherent way.  Unsurprisingly, I wasn’t successful.  They had 100+ submissions and have chosen eight artists, about half of whom were pre-selected anyway; and no great surprise that the majority are USA based.  There is information about the exhibition here – CPAC Role Play – I wish them well.  Wouldn’t that have been something – ‘Blackpool Stan’ and ‘Dick Stanley’ in Denver Colorado?

One outcome has been that the process made me think about an online way of presenting the work – so I have produced a website, using Weebly.  It was put together very rapidly over the Christmas period but could potentially form part of the final submission of the project, perhaps with a little refinement.  It is here:

where nothing is real

Thanks, again, to Tanya for thinking of me.

Thomas Demand–Constructedness, Madeness, Intentionality

Thomas Demand Gate Artslant

Gate, 2004, Thomas Demand (reproduced with the kind permission of the artist and The Design and Artists Copyright Society)

I can recall when I first encountered the work of Thomas Demand; it was this image, featured at the beginning of the book Image Makers, Image Takers by Anne-Celine Jaeger.  Like, I’m sure, many others who see it for the first time, I thought it was a photograph of an airport security gate.  Then one looks closely and it doesn’t feel right.  We begin to realise that it is something very different – a photograph of a model of an airport security gate, a model constructed life-size, by Thomas Demand, from a still from a CCTV camera.  The image was made not too long after 9/11 and the model was constructed from cardboard and paper – ‘realistic’ and yet not so, missing the little details that would finally convince the eye that it was ‘real’.  That’s what unsettles the viewer; what makes us start to ‘question’.  Demand photographs the model, carefully lighting it to mimic the original photograph; and then he destroys the model.  It is the photographic image that is the work of art, not the model.  (Worth mentioning, though, that Demand started out as a sculptor; and that when he chose to learn Photography, he did so with Bernd and Hilla Becher.  He resists the description ‘photographer’ and, so far as it matters, I suppose one should call him an artist who uses photography, rather than a photographer.)

I have been drawn back to Demand, partly, at the recommendation of Peter H, my Contextual Studies tutor – not that I’d forgotten him but I hadn’t made as strong a connection with my own BoW as I might have done.  The words ‘construction’ or ‘constructedness’ have cropped up more than once in my Level Three studies – the title of the Foam Magazine edition #38 from Spring this year – Under Construction – in which many of the contemporary photographic artists from whom I’ve drawn inspiration and context were featured.  My own reference to some of the Textbook series images as ‘constructs’.  It would, I think, be fair to describe Demand’s images as ‘constructed’.  But what are they?  How do we understand what he’s doing and why?

The process generally seems to start (as well as end) with a photographic image.  Other examples include Saddam Hussein’s kitchen, an office in Hitler’s HQ after the failed attempt on his life in 1944, Engelbert Humperdinck’s display of his best-selling records, the tunnel where Princess Diana was killed, the barn where Jackson Pollock was photographed making one of his paintings, and so on – a decidedly eclectic collection of starting points.  In this interview, Demand explains that if he knew what it was about certain images that strike him, he would stop!  He doesn’t know what it is.  Clearly, there could be a political angle in our interpretation of some of the subject matter above.  In the same interview, he more or less denies it – or at least he says that any such connection is indirect and he would be careful about making too much of it.  I think he is acknowledging that others might understandably read the work that way, but he doesn’t see it as art’s role to give an answer.

And so, back to the question of what he is actually doing and what its significance might be.  Here I head back to another book that I originally read some time ago – Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before by Michael Fried.  Here, Fried devotes most of one chapter to Demand, and a comparison with two others from the ‘Becher school’ – Thomas Struth and Candida Höfer.  He relates Demand’s images to the concepts of ‘theatricality’ and ‘antitheatricality’ – originally associated with Diderot but used by Fried, earlier, in his essay Art and Objecthood, published back in 1967, in which he defined Minimalist art as ‘theatrical’.  I certainly don’t have the time and space here to get into the detail but, as I understand it, Diderot argued that Painters should seek to create work in which the ‘beholder’ does not get any sense that what he/she sees has been staged for them.  Otherwise the work is merely ‘theatrical’.  Fried’s 1967 essay laid this description on Minimalist Art.  However, what interests me here is that he also uses the concept – and its opposite ‘antitheatricality’ to analyse Demand.

Fried argues that Demand’s images demonstrate “sheer artistic intention”, leaving the viewer no space other than to register their “madeness” (not a typo, by the way; though there could be some who would say madness!).  The ‘photograph’, having frequently been defined as ‘weak on intention’ is exploited by Demand to ‘represent’ or ‘allegorise’ intendedness.  This is complex; the reference to photography’s weakness on intention can be linked with Barthes’ ‘punctum’.  Barthes seems to identify the punctum as something that is outside the photographer’s intention – Fried (in another essay, 2005 – Barthes’s Punctum) uses the example of the dusty road in a Kertész photo of a violinist that is featured in Camera Lucida.  The photographer cannot avoid including it (possibly debateable today, but that’s of no consequence here) yet it is the feature that evokes Barthes’ travels in Hungary and Rumania – the punctum.  Fried also mentions Lee Friedlander’s declaration that photography is a “generous medium”, for all the things that it includes in an image that he did not choose to put there.  So, returning to Demand, Fried is arguing that he exploits this weakness in the sense that he is making photographic images that are “sheer artistic intention” – and it is this intendedness/intentionality that makes them matter as art.  He uses two more Demand images to further develop the argument.

Thomas Demand Poll MCA Chicago

Poll, 2001, Thomas Demand (reproduced with the kind permission of the artist and The Design and Artists Copyright Society)

In Poll, Demand is working from a photograph of the process of determining voter intentions in the US Presidential Election – the famous ‘hanging chads’.  But, in Demand’s version, the ballot papers are pristine, devoid of detail like everything else; so being “the bearers of no intention other than the artist’s own”.

Thomas Demand Sink liveauctioneers

Sink, 1997, Thomas Demand (reproduced with the kind permission of the artist and The Design and Artists Copyright Society)

Fried looks at the circumstances surrounding the making of Sink.  Demand thought of making a model of his own sink but realised that he could not avoid arranging items in it knowingly.  So he telephoned a friend and asked if they would take a photograph of their sink. Circumventing his own sink, Fried says, put the emphasis squarely on conscious process.

So now I am prompted to consider if/how this is relevant to my own Body of Work.  The ‘constructs’ from the Textbook project seem like the obvious place to start.  I have referred to them as being devoid of meaning but seductive (a word Demand uses about models in another interview), tempting a viewer to look for meaning.  I suppose the same could be said of Thomas Demand – the only reading, in the end, might be that someone has made a model and photographed it.  We search for signs of ‘reality’ but all traces have been removed, leaving an image about itself.  Interestingly, Demand also, apparently, leaves small traces of his construction work, which can be found in the detail of the image.  So, the only ‘reward’ for looking in detail is confirmation of his intent.  Perhaps the tentative links back to the old textbook are my equivalent of Demand’s ‘link’ to an original image.  But the link is broken – my appropriation of the ‘outmoded’ signifiers – so what is left signifies nothing other than that I made it.

I suppose that, if the Portraits look like a performance for the viewer, then they will be ‘theatrical’.  And, when viewed by people who know me, they could be entertaining.  And, when I combine them with text that tells the back story in a light-hearted manner, the result could be entertainment, too.  But I have been striving to make them capable of ‘working’ as ‘straight’ photographs – that would be read as signifying a ‘real’ identity if seen in isolation.  However, viewed ‘straight’, as a series, by someone who doesn’t know me or anything about me, their individual (indexical?) links with reality are devalued.  At that stage, I guess, they demonstrate nothing other than that they have been made.

And then I reflect that it is not up to me to find answers to such questions!  Context – be it theoretical or in the works of other artists – may inform and even inspire the work I produce.  It is useful, essential perhaps, to be able to talk about one’s work in a context and to see what kind of questions it might raise.  But it is not up to the Body of Work to supply answers.  My Portraits (Self-portraits?  Or whatever they are?) express something about my response to some aspects of life, my life, the world I encounter.  If they are any good, others will look at them and see something that is of interest to them, relevant to them in some way.  If they were really good, someone might choose to analyse them and write about them.  In a fantasy world where they came into the consciousness of Michael Fried (!), he might choose to consider whether they are ‘theatrical’ or ‘antitheatrical’!  And no doubt that question might hover around in the back of my own mind … maybe even influence, to a slight extent, the way my mind is working when I set up the next one and stand in front of the camera.  But, in the end, the work will be the work … no answers, but hopefully a few interesting questions.

Portraits–Contextual Research & Reflection

As part of my Contextual Studies (though ‘Struggles’ might be a better title!) I have been in e-mail exchange with my tutors for both modules over the last few weeks.  I don’t propose to get into the detail here, but the essence of it is a continuing difficulty that I seem to have in clearly articulating the link between the Body of Work that I’m producing and the relevant and appropriate ‘Context’.  I don’t have a problem with the work I’m producing; I don’t have a problem with the background ‘theory’ that I’m studying; I don’t have a problem with finding photographic, and other, artistic comparisons; but wrapping all of that together into a structured form for all aspects of my Body of Work is proving tough (for me, anyway!).  One agreed action is that, as part of my next BoW Assignment, I will produce a ‘draft’ Artist Statement/Proposal that might, for the time being, focus on the Portraits. (I have pretty much concluded in my own mind that these are Portraits that happen to feature me, rather than portraits of me.)

Looking for a way to get into that statement, I was reflecting on the Portraits’ relevance to, or relationship with, the billions of photographic images that are being used to represent ‘identity’ across the internet.  The line I was taking was … ‘Google my name and some of these versions of my identity come up … so why do we attach any credence to the images that come up against any other name Googled …?’  Needs expanding, but it is a possible line, at least.  To back that up with a bit of further research, I ‘created’ eight ‘random’ names (by writing various first names and surnames down on pieces of paper and combining them at random).  It certainly wasn’t scientific, but I thought I would then enter each of those names into Google Images and see what came up.  I simply copied the photos of each of the first three or four under each name, into a document, as follows:

Images - others-1

Images - others-2

Images - others-3

These names were, I stress, created randomly.  I had guessed, and this confirms, that one can quickly generate a range of posed portraits, publicity shots, selfies created on the phone, scanned images from the archive, snapshots, news photos etc (as in my own Portraits).  I haven’t included any supporting text here, but the range of backgrounds is enormous, for such a small sample – business, academic, sport, broadcasting, ‘celebrity’, glamour model (try picking that one out!) and (amazingly) serial killer!  And, naturally, many are simple social media images with little or no supporting information.  Strangely, I also sense some degree of ‘pattern’, if that’s the right word, under each name!  If you want to be famous, don’t use the name Fiona Kerry, for example – though Chris Lewis might be a promising choice!

Does it help me to contextualise my own Portraits?  It is certainly part of my purpose to explore the manner in which the photographic portrait image is used to present identity in the 21st century.  Studying the psychoanalytical angle on identity – Lacan, particularly – tells us that the whole formation of our ego/identity is based on the image, and a misread image, at that.  This little piece of work demonstrates something of the way in which we present ourselves, visually, to the ‘rest of the world’ (as loosely defined by the internet!).  And, superficially at least, the perceived indexical photograph is at the heart of matters.  Yet Photography is going through an uncertain, self-conscious process of navel-gazing – certainly in some quarters – and is perhaps even less ‘reliable’ than it ever was as a basis for representation (of ‘reality’, ‘truth’ etc).  My own Portraits hope to demonstrate how easy it is to represent ‘identity’ through digital photographic processes, yet how unreliable they are at representing something to which we can lend any credence at all.

At another level, many, if not all, of these images, circling the hyper-real world of the internet, are never meant to be anything more than superficial representations anyway.  The selfies on social media get changed regularly; the publicity shots of any celebrity are myriad, so take your choice of identity.  At which point, these images and the billions of others in the ‘soup’ from whence they came, might become representative of the fruitless search for the lost ‘something’ to which we are all, again according to psychoanalytics, condemned.  I have already documented that one original drive for these self-portraits (deliberately dropped that word back in) came from a personal observation that nothing had ever happened to me, none of the (supposed) trauma that artists often point to as the source of their inspiration for a particular piece of work, or indeed their whole body of work.  And another was the ‘disconnect’ between the stories in my old Newsbook and the person I seem to be now.

I have, though, resisted – and continue to resist – the idea that these Portraits are about ‘me’ (beyond the simple notion that there is something of all of us in all of our creative work).  They could also, though, be read – rather like the collection above – as a random cross-section of characters from ‘today’.  Whilst they are masquerade/fiction, they could, because they retain a loose link to ‘reality’, be interpreted as a commentary on where the ‘baby-boomers’ are today.  Coming almost full-circle, I have always intended that the images themselves would be just ‘seductive’ enough to tempt the viewer to see some element of ‘reality’ in there, be it about ‘me’, themselves, their generation, or friends and family.  And we return to the seductive yet unreliable photographic image.

I don’t know whether this is getting me closer to resolving matters. It’s proving to be a tough journey – perhaps no tougher than I expected but certainly tougher in a different way.

One for Harry

I have nine (self) portraits now and, with the exception of ‘Old Stan’, the drunk, (maybe even that one, too, to an extent) there has been an element of fun about most of them.  They have certainly provided some amusement to most people who have seen them.  It has never been my intention to avoid that, but it has always been my intention that there would be a serious element, too.  I could envisage that, in whatever form they are eventually presented, there would be some images that would puncture the fun, reflecting life, I guess.  ‘Old Stan’ would be one of those; and my next planned portrait could be even more powerful, if I get it right.

I am, though, aware that I can begin to step into sensitive areas.  I have already shelved one planned image because it was going to cause concern to some family members – that of the retired teacher accused of indecent assault.  Even the fiction was potentially uncomfortable to some family members; and I understand & respect that.  I am planning that my next image will be of a stroke victim – ‘Granddad Stan’, a birthday snap, photographed by his young grandson.  More than 150,000 strokes happen every year in the UK – mostly to over 65s (my next birthday).  When I was 60 I was (like many) identified as having high cholesterol and have been taking ‘statins’ since then.  That significantly reduces my stroke risk – but it might have happened and does happen to those of my age.  It happened (admittedly at a slightly older age) to my Uncle Harry.

Harry & Ed 1985

This is Harry, with our son, photographed in the summer of 1985.  In the photograph, he is about 71 and a more cheerful, gregarious, talkative, active septuagenarian would have been hard to find.  Interested in pretty much anything, always teasing, he loved to stay up-to-date, liked to get out and about, and was very involved with, and supportive to me when I was a child.  Not long after this photograph, whilst on his way to or from (I can’t recall which) Blackpool, by bus, on his own and surrounded by strangers, he had a huge stroke.  He lived until around 1994, when he died, aged 80 – but he never went home again, to the cottage where he’d lived all his life (apart from serving in the Merchant Navy); he only ever walked, with assistance, around the care home; and, most devastating, he never spoke or smiled again.

I have told Harry’s story to emphasise that I will be producing this next image with serious intent.  ‘Granddad Stan’ will have suffered a stroke within the last twelve months.  It will have damaged the left side of his brain, meaning that his right side has been paralysed, his speech has gone, and there is a lack of expression in his face.  There is every prospect, with therapy, that he may eventually recover some or all of his faculties, but in the short term, he often feels hopeless and depressed – even on his birthday, with his grandson visiting.  It requires a ‘performance’ from me, as have all the others; I have done my research, but I don’t yet know when I’m going to shoot it.  This is by way of a statement of (serious) intent, lest anyone get the impression that I am being light-hearted about it.

Nice one, Joan!

Surface Charge Theory 4

Surface Charge Theory 4

As the tumbleweed rolls across the screen of this blog and I peer through the cobwebs …!

It is almost two months since I last posted on here.  It has not been an unproductive period; there is progress on some further portraits and more studio-based work has emerged, including the image above.  But it has also been a period of mental struggle; primarily with Contextual Studies and how to articulate some meaningful connection between what I have read/studied and the work I am producing.  It isn’t that I haven’t been able to deal with what I’ve read/studied (though it can certainly be demanding at times); and it isn’t that I can’t feel a connection with my Body of Work (I certainly can feel it, and quite powerfully at times).  It is the structuring and articulation that has been a problem – and remains so, to an extent.  I can identify any number of reasons – the differences between the two broad strands of my BoW, which might fit differently into a theoretical/critical context; an excessive concern with the clarity of articulation when, in a creative context, such issues are inevitably far from clear; a tussle with moving from the general to the specific in a complex situation; plain old muddled thinking, maybe (or maybe not …)!  Whatever the reason (or reasons), it has been heavy going at times, but I am making some progress.

Which brings me to Joan Fontcuberta.  A few weeks ago, I bought the new translation of his book of essays Pandora’s Camera, and I’ve just finished an initial read through.  I had sensed that it might help with my contextual struggles, partly because of Fontcuberta’s oeuvre, which frequently operates within the spaces in and around photography and fiction, but especially because these essays deal with the digital technological shift and, as the title suggests, explore the extent to which it spells calamity for some and liberation for others.  (I have not, as yet, been able to see ‘Stranger Than Fiction’ at the Science Museum, but it is coming up to Bradford eventually.)

This post is prompted, primarily, by the last essay in the book, entitled ‘Why do we call it love when we mean sex?’.  It has nothing to do with either love or sex, of course, but (having got our attention!) it does focus on the challenges/opportunities for photography today – and it seems to link effectively with some of my other reading/studies, so helping to confirm and clarify where I am going.  For, as he puts it, “… artists and other toilers in the vineyard of the image …”, photography, at its birth, could be seen as a pure translation of visual reality onto a surface, in an instant, extraneous to the human will (beyond a ‘superintendent’ role performed by the photographer).  The history since that point has not, Fontcuberta asserts, been well-written – notably in its apparent failure to successfully integrate pictorialism into a coherent narrative.  Photography has retained its documentary association.  The hybridisation of image-making in the postmodern context in the 70’s/80’s provided a new challenge to that old association but it is the introduction of digital technology and image processing software that has “… transformed the original paradigm …”.

The essay compares the pixels to a painter’s brush-strokes and suggests a return to “… the iconic structure of painting and writing …”.  Indeed, he goes a step further and asserts that “… analogue photography is inscribed and digital photography is written …” – inscription and writing being two stages of epistemological competence, from description to story.  Hence, he says, the crisis of the documentary in photography.  The essay has opened with a provocative quote from artist Christian Boltanski, addressing a meeting at an Arles Photo Festival – “Photography is photojournalism; everything else is painting”.  So, at his conclusion, Fontcuberta accepts that we may be ‘post photography’ and that (for once) finding the right nomenclature for what follows could be important.  But, until an angel appears to give us the answer, he wonders why we insist on calling it love when we mean sex!

The notion that digital image manipulation has much in common with painting compares directly with another article – Lucas Blalock, writing in Foam Magazine, in the Spring of this year, where he compares his work to drawing.  It’s why I put Surface Charge Theory 4 at the top of this article.  This image pushes my appropriation and manipulation of material from A Textbook of Photographic Chemistry to another level, so that it begins to look more like a Bridget Riley painting than a photograph.  It may yet go through further stages of development that bring it back into the still-life/photographic/realism space – but these creative processes, like those of Blalock and others, are concerned with the very edges of what is ‘photography’.

It seems possible that, as I had hoped, Joan Fontcuberta has helped bridge the gap.  I have Hal Foster in The Return of the Real explaining the recurring role of the avant-garde in shifting art into new directions;  I have Vilem Flusser in Towards a Philosophy of Photography extolling the role of the ‘experimental photographer’ who is “… playing against the camera …”;  I have Fontcuberta confirming that the original paradigm has been transformed; I have Charlotte Cotton (in that same Spring edition of Foam magazine) writing that the works of Lucas Blalock and others “… are active contemplations of the role of the artist and the meaning of the photographic within the evolution of our visual and cultural climate …” (and also referring to signs of human mark-making and painterly gestures when describing the work).  I am, perhaps, beginning to find relevant contexts through which to articulate what I am doing and where I am going with my Body of Work.

I can still, however, express a word or two of caution – such as whether this is still all too general to work effectively in Contextual Studies (though that should be for consideration elsewhere, of course) and whether my portrait work does really sit comfortably in the context described.  But the very fact that I am articulating something in the ‘public domain’ is progress.

Whoof … there go a few more cobwebs!

Double Androgyny

Firstly, a ‘thanks’ to Peter, CS tutor, who pointed me in the direction of the work of Roni Horn.  It wasn’t a name familiar to me but she is a fascinating artist who works in a variety of media, including sculpture, drawing and photography.  There isn’t a convenient link that shows off her work – hardly surprising, given its variety – but, on Peter’s recommendation, I got hold of a copy of the catalogue of “Roni Horn aka Roni Horn” her Tate Modern retrospective of 2009 – link to exhibition site – from the library.  It’s some catalogue!  Two sizeable hardback books, one with images of the works and the second, called ‘Subject Index’, with a series of alphabetically indexed writings that include short quotes from her, short essays on her work by a variety of people, interesting references that she has chosen to share, the occasional poem, more illustrations, and a whiff of tongue-in-cheek humour along the way.  Her work has taken a bit of fathoming, but I understand why Peter suggested I look at it because there is a lot about identity, which links well with my ‘self-portrait’ work.  I’ll come back to that later.

I’m actually going to start with some photographs that appear in both books and were used at the introduction to the exhibition.  They’re not taken by her, however; they are photographs of her, taken at various stages in her life, and presented in pairs in this context.  That idea of pairs, and the consequent questions of comparison/difference, is a theme throughout her work – including the drawing and sculpture.  I can’t find all the portrait pairs on the internet, so I’ve been a little cheeky and photographed the book.  here is one example.

Roni Horn aka-1

From – ‘Roni Horn aka Roni Horn: Subject Index” – Whitney Museum of American Art 2009

The mono portrait of the little blonde girl in her frilly dress and cardigan alongside the blurry image of (probably) a teenager, peering from behind a rock and almost obscured by a mass of red hair; we know it’s the same person but, interestingly, the child holds us with a kind of winning, knowing combination of gaze and wry smile whilst the teenager recedes and hides, shyly, behind her protective rock.  Turn over the page, and we get this pair.

Roni Horn aka-2

From – ‘Roni Horn aka Roni Horn: Subject Index” – Whitney Museum of American Art 2009

The order switches round – older then younger.  On the left is a ‘cool’, ‘sharp’, androgynous individual in shades, with close-cropped hair, smooth skin, and turned-up collar, glancing at us, slightly open-mouthed but expressionless, as she/he is photographed in a city street.  Whilst on the right, a younger version of the ‘teenager’ smiles willingly but a little falsely, eyes narrowed and barely visible under a tangle of hair – all soft, uncertain edges and with no clearly discernable profile.  (And, are those dark, troubled patches under the eyes?)  Then, at the back of the book (these images are used as untitled end-marks), is this wistful pairing.

Roni Horn aka-3

From – ‘Roni Horn aka Roni Horn: Subject Index” – Whitney Museum of American Art 2009

A slightly older version of the little girl sits, arm tucked over the back of a chair, giving us the quietly confident, knowing stare again, besides an older version of the androgynous she/he.  Without the shades now, the portrait on the right fixes us with that same knowing look, but with a hint of weariness, the head lolling against a wall.  Knowing, as we do, that all these photographs are of the same person, we go searching for signs of similarity, difference, development, change.  Interesting, then, to see what Roni Horn has to say about ‘identity’.  The word gets more than one entry in ‘Subject Index’, and in one of them she says “The mutable version of identity is not an aberration … the fixed version is the aberration”.  Later, she speaks of “… the impossibility of pure identity … you will always be a form of me”.  In an interview (here), she talks about life as a ‘labyrinth’, which may have a way in and a way out but also has lots of routes that don’t lead to either.  She says “… that is your life: you don’t arrive anywhere”.

I suspect that, potentially, much of her work, of whatever form, involves questions about identity – even the sculptures and drawings – and the pairings appear everywhere e.g. ‘Things that happen again’; but another photographic project that is of particular interest to me is ‘Portrait of an Image (with Isabelle Huppert)’.  Horn invited actress Isabelle Huppert (as far as I can tell, they didn’t particularly know each other before) to be photographed  ‘impersonating’ herself in film roles that she had performed over the 30 years of her career.  In the same interview linked above, Horn says there was “something about the absurdity of impersonating yourself, which I think is actually real because self is not a singular thing – it never is” and “… the idea that you could impersonate yourself isn’t an absurdity, but a real active way of being present in the world”.  So, Huppert was being asked to reflect back, in performances for Horn’s camera, to find expressions, attitudes, feelings, gazes that belonged to those roles.

There is an article about Horn’s work on the Tate website, by art critic Elizabeth Lebovici – ‘Faces that speak volumes’ – in which she makes a comparison with another artist who ‘performed’ for the photographic apparatus – and one who defined herself in a ‘third gender’ – Claude Cahun.  By one of those quirky coincidences, two weeks ago and before I had been introduced to Horn’s work, I saw an exhibition of Claude Cahun’s images at Leeds Art Gallery (and had first encountered her in the ‘Angels of Anarchy: Women Artists and Surrealism’ exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery some years ago).

Cahun - Leeds

As Leborici points out, Cahun’s photographs, particularly those of herself in a variety of roles/identities, are actually the outcome of collaborations with her life-long partner, Marcel Moore. She was usually, it seems, the person behind the camera.  These works provoke some questions that are also running through my own mind in relation to my ‘self-portraits’.  (The now frequent use of inverted commas is no coincidence!)  Is her art performance art?  Given that she is in roles other than her own, can they be self-portraits?  (And that question can be extended, particularly, if we acknowledge that she didn’t look through the camera and press the shutter.)  But, given that Cahun was born Lucy Schwabb yet spent most of her life being Claude Cahun, does that alter the notions of performance and self?  What was her own identity?  Which leads us back to Roni Horn’s view that identity is impossible to pin down in any pure sense.

At present, in so far as it matters, I am inclined to think that my own work involves the use of photographic processes, together with my own body and some ‘props’, to create portraits which evoke the sense of ‘real’, recognisable (through all sorts of signification) identities.  These are not portraits of any version of ‘Stan’ that has ever existed, or ever will exist.  They are fictitious ‘real’ identities.  That could lead me to the view that I should refer to them as ‘portraits’.  Of course, it would be possible to take the view that these are portraits of me performing in the roles (back to the Horn/Huppert collaboration) and, since I have organised the whole set-up and, in all cases so far, pressed the shutter, they might be ‘self-portraits’.  However, I tend to feel that the question of ‘intent’ comes into play here.  And I do not intend them to be representations of any identity that is directly connected to a ‘Stan’ that I ‘perform’ or ‘have performed’ or ‘intend to perform’ – other than in this creative process.  Once my ‘authorship’ is complete, some viewers will no doubt read some element of ‘truth’ into the images; that is the nature of photography (and art).  But that is outside my control.  (And – if they don’t read at least some degree of ‘truth’, my process will not have succeeded in its objective!)

Assignment Two–Feedback

I have received my feedback for Assignment Two and the message seems to be broadly along the lines of ‘Young Mr Grace’ from “Are Your Being Served?”, who used to visit the Grace Bros store with his voluptuous (not sure if that word is acceptable these days!!) nurse and announce “You’re all doing very well!”.  Not that I would compare Clive with ‘Young Mr Grace’, of course!

A little more seriously, the feedback is that I seem to be heading in the right direction so keep on with it.  I’m happy with that and also agree with the more significant point from the feedback, which is that I will, eventually, need to be able to present and explain a more direct and coherent link with the theoretical context in Contextual Studies.  I am beginning to see some broad direction in that but it needs more focus and some drilling down into how it specifically links with my projects.  Those reflections are, however, for elsewhere.

One point worth recording here is that I am beginning to sense that the two broad project areas – loosely defined as the Self-Portraits and the Studio Work – are actually not so different from each other, and might turn out to be closely related aspects of the same overall project.  Photography seems to work in creative spaces that are ideal for subversion and avant-gard questioning of the ‘norms’ associated with visual art and culture.  Digital developments make the ground beneath those norms seem even less secure.  All the images that I have been producing seem to work in this (good grief, I am about to borrow a phrase from the world of cricket! Geoffrey Boycott no less!) ‘corridor of uncertainty’.  Images that may evoke the ‘real’, that may quote from the familiar forms of cultural representation, which may tempt the viewer to look and reflect, but which, fundamentally, have no meaning.  At this stage, I don’t want to go any further than those general observations.  I have some notions of where this is taking me but it is through more reading and reflection in my Contextual Studies that I may hope to progress.

At which point, quietly congratulating myself on managing to quote from “Are You Being Served?” and “Test Match Special” in one short blog post, I will get my nose into some books!

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.

IMG_0227

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.

IMG_0219

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!