READER | Talk notes
Talk given Sunday 27th October 2019 | Magdalen art Space, Oxford
'End Use and Factors of Production'
'I decided to use this exhibition opportunity to make new work, specifically for this space, and to explore some ideas that are a result of my interest in the history of painting and design generally, but in particular works by Edouard Manet and Bauhaus artist Gunta Stölzl. My plan for this talk is to give some background on myself and then share something about this project, and to then open it up for questions.
Questions and the role of questioning in the studio, and in life, are so interesting to me. Questions may lead to answers, or hopefully to options, directions or trails and quests.
I have included questions throughout this talk.
Question. What if this work is a quest?
My studio activity is painting and drawing, I could equally say drawing and painting, for the most part for me there is no difference between these activities, they are immersive and I move around and between them without too much consideration. I always seem to work on several, if not many surfaces at the same time - this is important. The surfaces need to be prepped and ready to catch and contain what may happen when I begin. I spend a lot of time on the preparation of the paper and canvas, it is the doorway into the making process. When they are ready and stacked, it’s me and them. No sketches.
Working from left to right I think about the act of writing. I remember hearing the writer Margaret Forster describing her working room; a desk, a pen and a pile of white paper. This feels familiar. As I work I want to look down and read something emerging in front of me that I haven’t seen before. I make the work, so I can read the work.
Question. If there is a type of writing going on in the work, what is being said?
Question. Is what I make a form visual text?
I begin with a grid which is a division of the surface and then make various geometric ‘moves’. I often give myself a few directions, ‘diagonal across two squares, horizontal curves only’, ‘the verticals must connect to another line’. These drawn movements come first, the blocking in of forms second. Form following action. The process of loose directions or ‘rules’ produces an almost ‘hands off ‘, detached way for the work to emerge. The multiple nature and speed at which I work negate ‘planning’, and I am often surprised by the outcome.
Sometimes actions direct the movements, for the series titled, The Point, they were, ‘Layer, Slide, Obscure, Reveal.’
I remember a display of drawings by the dancer and choreographer Yvonne Rainer at Raven Row a few years ago, seeing her directions plotted across a grid, the lines marking her movements across the performance stage and sensing a connection.
Question. How does, how can, the surface operate as a stage?
Question. If this work was a proposal for a stage production, what would the narrative be?
Usually the series of works have a sense of a place in mind. The mood of a city, a specific quality of a time of day as the light shifts; a season. The glimpse of a structure, or an ugly corner, the sensation of the light and shadow. An open aspect of square or place perhaps absorbed by sitting and observing my own stillness as others move around me. I’m thinking particularly about Paris as I write. The aim of the drawings I made there during several solitary visits over the last few years, was to express the softness of the Paris stone as it changes colour in the rain, the repetition of brutal concrete facades, the beauty in the ordinariness and flatness of routine, the movement of the buses, the in-betweenness of the streets.
Click through images >
I became fascinated by Parisian parks, with their formality and regulations and engaged by the patterns of movement. I sat and watched people reading in the parks, I saw their books as boundaried spaces that contained another layer of places and movements between the covers. Parks as pockets of gridded space and life.
Question. If my work was a book, what genre would it be?
If I was a tv programme I’d be an old school detective show. The detective detached from the main story, a perennial observer taking notes, asking questions, listening and looking for patterns. Connecting points, unravelling stories and as the plot progresses, via twists and turns to the final scene; the detective walks away out of frame to the next situation. When I’m back in the studio, I work a methodical way, shifting the clues around and working out what might have happened.
I don’t usually draw things I can see, I want to discover things, to read back something unexpected at the end of the process. I use materials to become part of the work, not simply as tools to visualise it. I like to see the elements of the materials, but I endeavour to transform them through the way I use them. I don’t want manufacture or technique to be the initial experience of the work, certainly for me as the first reader. I like to use quite ordinary materials, but perhaps in slightly different ways. Not to disguise but to slow down the viewing process, to alter the perception. To add mystery and to add the need to read, to invite the experience of looking and 'seeing through' to the subtext, for the viewer to see their own story.
Question. What is the subtext in my work?
Colour is used very strategically. During my Fine Art degree work was multi-layered and multicoloured, I was trying to achieve an ambiguity in the colours, colour that was difficult to name. The final painting I made there in 2012 was a monochrome of sorts and that is still generally how I use colour. Each series, if not solely black. will work with or alongside one colour as a glaze, Magenta, Cyan, Ultramarine, Viridian. Over black or next to black and usually, if not always, translucent. There is an industrial or institutional association with the colour that is pleasing to me. I deliberately do not work with a domestic interior colour palette. Colour for me is light, mood, tone. Its role is musical, its key is important. Dissonance is exciting, operating as dynamic first sentence in a novel.
I name my works in groups after places or with corporation road names, The Link, Service Road, The Point, or after studio equipment. Push Pad, Repeat Copier, Primer, PowerLine. These titles collate the thoughts and ideas that are present whilst making work. This series is titled after a Manet painting, The Reader 1861, University of Missouri - St Louis.
I’ve have been thinking about the Bauhaus and reading about it this year, it’s the centenary of the influential German art school. I have always felt a connection with its ideas, art, life and aesthetics. When I was 16 I studied on a 2 year art foundation course at Croydon School of Art , I discovered later how much this was modelled on the Bauhaus preliminary course. Drawing solidly, working on Joseph Albers colour theory exercises and texture and balance sculpture modules, photography and print making. I was then directed towards studying textile design and ended up on a 4 yr Carpet Design and textile degree course in the Midlands. It was quite an open course and in my final project I made large ‘floorcloths’, these were painted, varnished canvases, some shown on the floor some on the wall. I wasn’t a weaver and I wasn’t interested in designing for industrial production. I went on to work for companies that worked with interior designers on custom projects and became skilled at designing things that end-user desired. Matching to specific colourways. Harmonising.
As a mature student on the Fine Art Degree course I needed to find my own visual language, my own colour palette. To find out why painting and why not design for me.
One of the books I read, Manet and the Object of Painting by Michel Foucault
Foucault focusses on three elements of the paintings, Manet’s use of space, light and and the role of the viewer.
Manet compresses space, by shortening the depth in the painting, bringing things forward creating a frieze effect as in Music in the Tuilleries Gardens, 1862 ( National Gallery, London). There are many repeated vertical and horizontals in Manet’s paintings, Foucault sees this as a reference to the warp and weft of the canvas,
‘It is as if the weave of the canvas was in the process of starting to appear and show its internal geometry, and you see this interlacing of threads which is like a sketch represented on the canvas itself’ (pg 42)
Pointing hands, railings, umbrellas, yacht masts, all these reproduce the axes of the canvas in the picture...
'...you have the whole game which consists of deleting, erasing and compressing space in terms of depth and on the contrary intensifying the lines of verticality and horizontality….the canvas is really, in effect a surface which has a horizontal and vertical, but moreover a surface of two faces a verso and a recto, which […} Manet will set in play.’
Foucault speaking about what is represented in the paintings,
‘Really in a sense it does not represent anything in so far as it offers nothing to see’ the people are gazing out of the picture, or to the back of the pictures at things we as the viewer cannot see.
‘These gazes turned towards the invisible, showing nothing but the invisible and doing nothing but indicating the direction of these opposing gazes something which is necessarily invisible since it is in front of the canvas or behind the canvas. From one part of the canvas to another you have two spectacles which are seen by the two figures but at is root the canvas instead of showing what is to be seen, hides and conceals it. The surface with its two faces recto verso, is not a place where visibility manifests itself; it is the place which assures the contrary, the invisibility of what is seen by the figures that are in the foreground.’
Reading this book causes me to think about the metaphysical space between the surface and the back of the canvas as a place for the ideas and the content of the painting, and my painting activity to inhabit a fictive space. It confirms my interest of the surface as the place of dynamic tension.
Manet uses light that does not have its source located in the picture, highlighting to the left side or from a window in the painting, for example, but it is frontal and perpendicular and from the space directly in front of the canvas; that is the space that we are in, it is we the viewer that render it visible, it is our light that is illuminating the painting, hence the scandal of Manet’s Olympia.
Question. What can happen in the space either side of the invisible picture plane, what is behind what is on the surface?
Question. What is happening at the back?
I started to take more of an interest in looking at Manet paintings, and reading about his life, about how he promoted himself, thinking about his desire to be a modern painter, and his use of black and light.
I have never painted like a 19 century French painter with the choppy, 'painterly' brush marks, and I would rather look at renaissance painting or geometric abstraction. A large second hand Manet book I bought has been in the studio for a few years and I often find myself reading it and, so it would seem, at a certain time its influence it finds its in way into the work.
The small canvasses were made after the works on paper and for the ones on the left I was thinking about the idea of looking out from the back of the canvas and the ones on the right I was thinking about coloured light flooding onto the canvas.
Click on images >
I have a small book on the Bauhaus in the studio and regularly kept landing on the design for a jacquard woven wallhanging (1928-29) by Gunta Stölzl. I wondered how she would have made a painting.
The female students were not permitted into the painting workshops at the bauhaus, Stolzl's daughter, Monika Stadler, in a lecture given at the Barbican 2012, talks about how these young women, all competent artists, signed up to the new art school with its avant-garde aspirations because that’s how they regarded themselves as artists and they were attracted by the promise of working with Kandinsky and Klee. They were directed, with a couple of exceptions, to the weaving workshops and Stölzl, who in time became a young master there, made a distinction between the textiles she designed for commercial reproduction and the wallhangings which she regarded as paintings or intended to ‘rival paintings’ - according to Andrew Kennedy, For this project I only looked at this one image of this watercolour on paper. It has a dazzle effect and movement and although to me it feels very different to my work, I connected to it.
I decided for this show to make one hundred drawings as a nod to the centenary and worked on them in groups of ten, first for the gridding up and then for the black lines, you can see the ones that share elements were worked in the same ten. The idea to paint snippets of the Manet brushwork onto the forms that appeared through the drawing, came to mind, I made one and thought that’s quite weird and wondered what they would look like if I kept going, I committed to it as a direction.
I love the light next to the dark as often occurs in Manet paintings, especially ‘The Luncheon in the Studio' 1868 (Neue Pinakothek, Munich, Germany).
I haven’t mixed gouache paint together to colour match since my design days, or to directly ‘transcribe’ to a brief, and it felt very strange for me to be doing this on current work. The multicoloured nature of the work is a departure, something from the past coming onto the now which I think has possibly developed into a beginning. I have deliberately kept away from direct textile references since returning to art, or at least I think I have, it will be interesting to see what happens now when I take this work down and back to the studio.
Manet and Stolzl is an unexpected pairing. They both shared ambition, were active at the forefront of their communities and pushed themselves to work amidst and artistic and cultural rejection and restrictions. Who would have thought, the beauty of connecting clues perhaps?'
Gunta Stölzl 5 March 1897 – 22 April 1983
Edouard Manet 23 January 1832 – 30 April 1883
I have really enjoyed exploring my work through them.
Thank you Magdelen Art Space for this opportunity to develop new work.'
I will develop my responses to questions asked at the event in later blog posts.
Manet and the Object of Painting, Michel Foucault Tate Publishing; Reprint edition (March 1, 2012).
Bauhaus, Andrew Kennedy, Flame Tree Publishing; First Edition edition (2 Feb. 2006)
Moniker Stadler Bauhaus: Art as Life - Gunta Stölzl: A Daughter's Perspective https://youtu.be/7HWDWr1RKe8