UA1-WA:P4-p2-Exercise: Commission a portrait

This exercise asks for a personal memorandum for the commissioning of a portrait. The subject can be any person in history and possible portraitists likewise.

20120601_mumI would like a portrait of my mother. This photo was taken at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) a couple of years ago, and in the background is Ben Quilty’s portrait of Margaret Olley which has been mentioned in a couple of posts recently. I would like to celebrate mum and her life, and I think she would find the experience of having her portrait painted interesting and enjoyable, although possibly uncomfortable on a number of levels.

My first choice of possible portraitists would be Grace Cossington Smith (reiterating that there are no restrictions of space or time in the exercise).

Grace Cossington Smith The sock knitter

Grace Cossington Smith
The sock knitter
1915

Grace Cossington Smith Interior with wardrobe mirror (1955)

Grace Cossington Smith
Interior with wardrobe mirror
(1955)

To give a general idea of her work I’ve included thumbnails from some paintings at AGNSW – see www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/
collection/works/OA18.1960/
and www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au
/collection/works/OA11.1967/
. Although less common in her work, examples of portraits are Portrait of Mrs McGann (1944 http://www.charlesnodrumgallery.com.au/artwork.asp?id=43383) and Self portrait (1948 http://www.portrait.gov.au/site/collection_info.php?&irn=460&acno=2002.65). Grace Cossington Smith painted some of mum’s favourite works. There is also a slight personal connection – Cossington Smith lived in Turramurra and worshiped at St James’ Anglican Church, whose interior she painted a number of times. For years members of my family have rung the bells at St James, and when mum was spearheading the drive to raise funds for additional bells Cossington Smith gave her a sizeable donation. Finally I am attracted to Cossington Smith’s use of colour and light to describe form, the deep affection shown in her portraits and sketches of family, and the sense of space, peace and home in her interiors.

For this exercise I don’t suppose I should stop with a short list of one, although I think the fit of subject and painter is very good. Another choice could be Jenny Sages. There are a lot of images and a lot of information about Sages on the National Portrait Gallery website, including a video at http://www.portrait.gov.au/site/exhibition_subsite_jenny_2.php. Sages portraits are about relationships, making connections. She has to know the person, care about them, have rapport with them. In the video Sales talks about her relationship with her mother, which also drew me to her. Like my mother Sages was born elsewhere and has developed a relationship with this land. Sages has painted strong women, courageous and brave women, and I think she could show the strength and courage I see in my mother.

The portrait is intended for a domestic setting, so should not be larger than around 125 cm in height or width. It should be suitable to hang on a wall. Those are really the only absolutes. Oil on canvas on board is suggested, or the pigment and encaustic wax Sages often uses.

I have chosen artists who work with connections and relationships. The only potential sticking point to accepting the final work would be if a rapport and mutual respect did not develop between sitter and painter. I also believe it’s important to be able to trust the artist in their judgement of what makes a good picture. While my notes below suggest a possible focus and items that could be included, they are a starting point not a shopping list. The work should develop in the relationship.

Like all of us mum is a complex person with different aspects of her personality more apparent at different times. I would like the portrait to focus on her loves of travel, people, and history. I’m very fond of the story that as a young woman in the early 1950s, coming from a very conservative family, she spent her first pay cheque on a suitcase. She has been expedition cook on a dig in western NSW and general helper on a dig in Turkmenistan. For her 70th birthday she wanted to walk on the Great Wall of China and to visit a series of historical and archaeological sites not on a standard tour route – so she organised her own tour and gathered her own group. That zest for life and exploration and openness to adventure is still very apparent in today’s woman of 85. My idea for the portrait is of mum sitting comfortably in her home, surrounded by “treasures” (emotional, not necessarily monetary value) that connect her to places and people from the past. At the same time she should look ready to get up and launch into her next travels.

Some items that could link into this: mum_01jcj_map

  • Maps – mum has a large collection of old maps
  • Some antique furniture handed down through the family, including this corner cabinet filled with curiosities
  • jcj_samplermum_02

  • A sampler stitched by a great, great aunt
  • A small rug she commissioned when travelling in Turkey
  • mum_03

  • textiles and nick nacks picked up from here, there and everywhere.

In the past few years mum and I have stood on the beaches of Flinders Island off Tasmania, walked through the tree canopy in Western Australia and gazed out across Fogg Dam in the Northern Territory. I would like a portrait that celebrates her spirit and that wide streak of stubborn.
mum_04mum_05mum_06

UA1-WA:P4-p2-Exercise: Commission a portrait
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art
Part 4: Portraiture and figure painting
Project two: The artist’s self-portrait portrait
Exercise: Commission a portrait

UA1-WA:P4-p2-Annotation: A self-portrait

Margaret Olley Portrait in the mirror

Margaret Olley
Portrait in the mirror
1948 Oil on cardboard 56.3 x 72.0 cm board
http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/454.2001/


For this annotation I have chosen a work by Margaret Olley, an Australian painter best known for her still-life and interior paintings.

The artist is seen reflected in a mirror. This is of course the case in most self-portraits, but it is not often made so clear by showing the mirror itself. (Another more extreme example of showing the mirror is the Brett Whiteley self-portrait http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/1.1977/ which I mentioned 18-Apr-2014). We see part of the mirror’s frame, and reflections of the shell and postcards on the right-hand side. We understand that we are looking at a table strewn with fruit, flowers and other objects, and the reflection of Olley and the room behind.

Although there is a clutter of objects there is also a sense of space and calm. The curve created by the placement of fruit and so on reflects the curve of the necklace, framing the young woman’s face. Her head provides the classical triangular composition.

olley_02aI explored this further in gimp, first following the diagonals set in place with edges and shadow on the tabletop. The lines created correspond well to elements in the composition. They “happen” to cross directly on an orange flower that protrudes from the arrangement on the left.

olley_02bI copied and flipped the lines horizontally. Olley’s face emerges in the space created, and as I moved the lines around I found the diagonals repeated again and again throughout the picture.

olley_02cFinally I duplicated and flipped lines again, this time vertically. Every line seems to discover links and connections in the original picture, and above it all Olley’s face still looks out calmly. Every time I look at the picture I find more echoes – for example Olley’s necklace repeated in the postcard to the right, and the curves of the shells, and the petals of the yellow chrysanthemum, and even the curve in the body in the centre postcard.

olley_03None of the common visual clues of the artist as artist are included, no brushes, palette or easel, but the picture is filled with the objects and inspirations that fuelled Olley’s career. The fruit, flowers and shells are all seen in many of her works. I haven’t identified the works shown in the postcards, but her Homage to Manet (1987 http://www.artgallery.
nsw.gov.au/collection/works/458.2001/
), which includes still-life elements, is another example of her appreciation of and tributes to past masters. Even the idea of a mirrored self-portrait is revisited – see Self portrait with everlastings (1974 http://www.nag.org.au/collection/interpreting_
the_collection/poets_paint_words/artwork/margaret_olley_1974
).

This continuity could itself be a cause for concern. Olley is probably better known as an art celebrity than as an artist.

olley_01I took this photo in the NSW Art Gallery (AGNSW) a few weeks ago, and had to wait quite a while for the space to have so few visitors. On the left is the 2011 Archibald-winning portrait of Olley by Ben Quilty (see my analysis 13-Apr-2014). To its right is the 1948 Archibald-winning portrait of Olley by William Dobell. To its right, in the distance in the next gallery, can be seen Olley’s Portrait in the mirror. Olley is an Australian Art celebrity, who contributed in multiple ways. She mentored young artists such as Ben Quilty. Having made substantial amounts as a property developer, Olley was a philanthropist – a recent search of the Art Gallery of NSW website found 150 works with “Olley” in the credit line, either a direct gift or as a contributor through the Margaret Hannah Olley Art Trust (for example Vlaminck’s Sailing boats at Chatou – see my post 8-Dec-2013 and AGNSW website here). There are another six works “gift of the artist”, such as this post’s focus painting, plus major works where Olley was one of a group of donors, such as Cézanne’s Banks of the Marne (see my Assignment 3 study 28-Feb-2014). All that, and AGNSW is only one of the institutions Olley supported. Until researching this post I had no idea how much this one woman’s gifts had added to the richness of my current studies.

William Dobell Margaret Olley 1948

William Dobell
Margaret Olley
1948 oil on hardboard 114.3 x 85.7 cm board
http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/8164/

Olley’s awards included Officer of the Order of Australia (1991), Life governor, the Art Gallery of NSW (1992), official designation as an Australian National Treasure (1997), Centenary Medal (2001) and Companion of the Order of Australia (2006) ‘for service as one of Australia’s most distinguished artists, for support and philanthropy to the visual and performing arts, and for encouragement of young and emerging artists’. She was awarded honorary Doctorates from Macquarie University, the University of Sydney, the University of Newcastle, the University of Queensland, Southern Cross University, Lismore and Griffith University, Brisbane.

Olley was a gregarious person, enjoying visiting the galleries she loved, friends with many artists. Her home in Sydney was frequented by many involved in Australian arts. It was also visible to the general public through artworks by Olley herself and by other artists such as R. Ian Lloyd (see http://www.smh.com.au/news/arts-reviews/studio/2008/08/05/1217702008314.html) and Lewis Morely (http://www.portrait.gov.au/site/collection_info.php?searchtype=&irn=544&acno=2003.50). It was the subject of an exhibition in 2012 (http://sydneylivingmuseums.com.au/exhibitions/margaret-olley-home). Three rooms from the house have had all their contents catalogued and moved, becoming part of a recreation in a new extension at the Tweed Regional Gallery (supported with a contribution from the Margaret Olley Art Trust) – see http://artgallery.tweed.nsw.gov.au/MargaretOlleyArtCentre. Over 20,000 items are included – Olley’s home was filled with the subjects of her paintings, and a subject in itself.

All this visibility of the person makes it very difficult to see the art. Do an internet search on “Margaret Olley painting” and there is image after image full of colour, mainly still life and domestic interiors. Vibrant and beautiful, they invite you to spend time with them, to explore the world so lovingly shown. Yet given all the movements and schisms and explorations of art over the last 150 years the work appears like a charming cul-de-sac – very decorative, very pleasing, but not part of contemporary art nor part of the trajectory of art. Should this be seen as an indictment of Olley’s art, or of Art History and the emphasis on innovation and ‘progress’? There is a quest for new ground, new challenges (to the artist in processes, to society in themes explored and aesthetics), new ideas. Is there a place for integrity of vision, for a focus and intention that stays true? Olley was keenly aware of modern thought in art, but she was not distracted in her own artistic purpose.

Nelson (2011) wrote “Olley defied time, progress, change and innovation; yet even in an epoch impatient with orthodoxy and tradition, her work miraculously escaped the stigma of being labelled conservative… Each picture, though in some sense a bit like many others, has required the artist to make fresh and independent decisions about the logic of the colours that wrap around the volumes or spread themselves over the planes.”

I hadn’t spent much time looking at Olley’s work prior to researching this post. Her paintings seemed somehow too decorative, almost too visually appealing, not asking questions or challenging the viewer – and her personal celebrity made her art suspect. My mistake and my loss.

Resources

There is a huge amount of material about Margaret Olley available on the internet, including:

Masters, C. (2011) “Margaret Olley obituary” The Guardian 26-Aug-2011 [online] Available from http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2011/aug/25/margaret-olley-obituary (Accessed 19-Apr-2014)

Maunder, P. (2011) “A colourful life, celebrated frame by frame” The Sydney Morning Herald 27-July-2011 [online] Available from http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/art-and-design/a-colourful-life-celebrated-frame-by-frame-20110726-1hyhw.html (Accessed 20-Apr-2014)

Nelson, R. (2011) “The Magic of Margaret Olley” The Age 29-Jul-2011 [online] Available from http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/the-magic-of-margaret-olley-20110728-1i20h.html (Accessed 19-Apr-2014)

Thomas, J. (2011) Australian stories: Margaret Olley Australia.gov.au [online] Available from http://australia.gov.au/about-australia/australian-story/margaret-olley (Accessed 19-Apr-2014)

Tweed Regional Gallery ([n.d.]) Margaret Olley Art Centre [online] Available from http://artgallery.tweed.nsw.gov.au/MargaretOlleyArtCentre (Accessed 19-Apr-2014)

UA1-WA:P4-p2-Annotation: A self-portrait
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art
Part 4: Portraiture and figure painting
Project two: The artist’s self-portrait portrait
Annotation: A self-portrait

UA1-WA:P4-p2-Research Point: Artists’ self-portraits

This Research Point poses a number of questions about artists’ self-portraits.

1. Why might an artist choose to paint (or sculpt) a self-portrait?

My initial assumption here was cost and availability. Models may be hard to find and hard to afford. Only a limited number of sittings may be possible for a commissioned portrait. I’ve found there are many other reasons.

Albrecht Dürer (1471 – 1528) and Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606 – 1669) each painted many self-portraits throughout their careers. Dr. Andrea Bubenik has suggested their motivations include “social ambition, pride in artistic profession, preparation for posterity, experimentation, medical diagnostics, and self fashioning” (Bubenik, 2011). Artists in their time were still regarded as any other craft workers, and showing themselves in rich costumes could enhance their prestige and social standing. The portraits could act as a form of advertising, displaying the artist’s virtuosity. In a self-portrait the artist could experiment with techniques or compositions in a way not possible within a commissioned work, for example by using a convex mirror. An example of “medical diagnostics” is a sketch by Dürer in which he points to where he was experiencing pain in his side (the work is held at the Kunsthalle, Bremen. A link to an image is https://www.museodelprado.es/en/exhibitions/exhibitions/at-the-museum/the-renaissance-portrait/the-exhibition/self-portraiture/).

Many of these motivations have remained relevant to artists through to the current day. However I think the two most common are the idea of a self fashioned or constructed persona, and the expression of the world view or personal concerns of the artist.

2 (a). How do artists explain themselves when portrayed as an artist? What visual clues do they give?

Information on the Museo Nacional Del Prado website (link above) suggests that it was not common for an artist to portray themselves as an artist until the late sixteenth century. Calling attention to their tools of trade could hurt their social position.

Judith Leyster’s work (c. 1630; http://www.nga.gov/content/
ngaweb/Collection/highlights/highlight37003.html
) shows the young woman turning away from her work to smile at the viewer. She appears confident and competent, dexterous with her brushes and palette. The canvas on her easel shows a unfinished genre painting of a musician, thus displaying the artist’s skills in both portraiture and genre painting. Leyster’s clothing shows fine lace and gleaming fabrics – not the most practical of outfits for painting, but further demonstrating her technical skills.

Adélaïde Labille-Guiard Self–Portrait with Two Pupils http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/53.225.5

Adélaïde Labille-Guiard
Self–Portrait with Two Pupils
1785 Oil on canvas 210.8 x 151.1 cm)
http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/53.225.5

In 1785 Labille-Guiard is seen at her easel. While the unfinished canvas cannot be seen, the portrait itself shows her command of composition and colour. She is confident with her tools – brushes and palette in hand, crayons and paper on the footstool nearby. All three women are shown in very fashionable attire and it has been suggested that this, together with the statue of the Vestal Virgin in the background, could display the artist’s feminist agenda, teaching and advancing women and seeking equal rights in the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture (Metropolitan Museum of Art [n.d.]).

Marie-Denise Villers

Marie-Denise Villers
Charlotte du Val d’Ognes
1801 Oil on canvas 161.3 x 128.6 cm
http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/437903

It is not clear whether my next example is in fact a self-portrait. The catalogue entry presents a rather confusing sequence of attribution and re-attribution, but the work “may be a self-portrait”. I have included it because the artist’s tools shown are so much simpler than my earlier examples. A large sketchbook is propped in the young lady’s lap. She holds a brush, and another may be stuck in her hair, but there is no sign of paints or any other painting paraphernalia. The interior shown is also very simple, but there is a rather strange view through a cracked window, showing a couple in conversation in the distance. The artist is backlit, her face brightened by light reflected from her sketchbook. Her gaze is intense and serious. Could there be a questioning of the choices available – her art or marriage?

Nora Heysen’s 1932 selfportrait (http://artsearch.nga.gov.au/Detail.cfm?IRN=204031) pares the visual signs of the artist down to a minimum. She is seated and holds her palette (apparently gifted to her as a child by Dame Nellie Melba) and brushes. Her strong hands, her direct, searching expression, are all that are needed to show a modern, confident, independent artist. There is a blue curtain behind, the artist and her palette fill the frame. A few years after this painting Heysen became the first woman to win the Archibald Prize.

A great contrast to this is a more recent winner of the Archibald, Brett Whiteley’s Self portrait in the studio (1976 http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/1.1977/). Virtually the entire picture space is filled by the room and the view of the harbour outside. Whitely’s hands can be seen, one holding a small mirror, the other in the early stages of painting his head. His face is visible reflected in the mirror. The room is full of visual clues about the artist and his work, but the work as a whole challenges the concept of portraiture itself.

2 (b). How do artists explain themselves when portrayed in a role other than artist? What visual clues do they give?

I have found two self-portraits by Artemisia Gentileschi in which she shows herself in a different character. The first is Self-Portrait as a Lute Player c. 1615 was recently acquired by Wadsworth Atheneum (see http://nordonart.wordpress.com/2014/03/27/wadsworth-atheneum-acquires-an-artemisia-gentileschi-self-portrait/). The artist is playing a lute. The instrument itself is beautifully detailed. The artist’s hands with their long fingers are in the act of playing. She herself is voluptuous in a low-cut gown. She could be the personification of Music – or just possibly a courtesan.

The second work by Gentileschi has a odd twist because it shows her as the allegory of Painting – see http://www.royalcollection.org.uk/eGallery/object.asp?maker=12024&object=405551. The Royal Collection website explains “Artemisia follows the standard emblematic handbook of the period, the Iconologia of Cesare Ripa, where Painting is described as ‘a beautiful woman, with full black hair, dishevelled, and twisted in various ways, with arched eyebrows that show imaginative thought, the mouth covered with a cloth tied behind her ears, with a chain of gold at her throat from which hangs a mask, and has written in front ‘imitation’’” (Royal Collection [n.d.]). The only item missing is the gag – Painting may be dumb, but this artist has a voice – for of course as well as allegory this is also a self-portrait of the artist, complete with brushes and palette.

3. Can you find new insights in artists’ comments about their own self-portrait?

Nell, winner of The University of Queensland National Artists’ Self-Portrait Prize 2013. Without her comments I would not have been able to interpret her work. A performance, a video, the destruction of one work in the creation of a new one – it defies my description, so I suggest you look at http://www.artmuseum.uq.edu.au/nell.

One of the things I particularly like about this prize is the associated UQ Art Museum’s Selfie Comp. The short list can be seen at https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.747970175229375.1073741830.108507249175674&type=1. The “selfie” has become so common and normal – it seems so relevant, but I haven’t been able to frame any questions or challenges it may pose to portraiture.

While looking through the associated documentation I found “Judge Blair French said good portraiture was inextricably bound with a consciousness of time and transience, and could embrace its complexity and hold on our experience.” (University of Queensland, 2013) I’ve only ever done rough self-sketches, never attempted a self-portrait (another of the Research Point questions). I would like to think on French’s quote for a while, and perhaps make a later attempt.

References

Bubenik, A. (2011) “Dürer and Rembrant: The relevance of Early Modern Self-Portraiture” In Portraiture/Self Portraiture/Identity: UQ Art Museum Learning Resource [Seminar] University of Queensland [online] Available from http://asset.artmuseum.uq.edu.au/interpretive-resources/UQAM-Learning-Resource-CPD-Portraiture-2011.pdf (Accessed 17-Apr-2014)

Metropolitan Museum of Art [n.d.] Self-Portrait with Two Pupils, Marie Gabrielle Capet (1761–1818) and Marie Marguerite Carreaux de Rosemond (died 1788): Adélaïde Labille-Guiard (French, Paris 1749–1803 Paris) [online] Available from http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/436840 (Accessed 17-Apr-2014)

Royal Collection ([n.d.]) Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1652/3): Self-portrait as the allegory of Painting (La Pittura) [online] Available from http://www.royalcollection.org.uk/eGallery/object.asp?maker=12024&object=405551&row=0&detail=about (Accessed 18-Apr-2014).

University of Queensland (2013) Sydney artist Nell wins $50,000 UQ National Artists’ Self-Portrait Prize [online] Available from http://www.uq.edu.au/news/article/2013/10/sydney-artist-nell-wins-50000-uq-national-artists-self-portrait-prize (Accessed 18-Apr-2014)

UA1-WA:P4-p2-Research Point: Artists’ self-portraits
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art
Part 4: Portraiture and figure painting
Project two: The artist’s self-portrait portrait
Research point: Artists’ self-portraits

UA1-WA:Research: The Stripe – Jim Lambie

Jim Lambie Zobop 2014   vinyl tape, varnish

Jim Lambie
Zobop
2014 vinyl tape, varnish


You imagine what you desire, the 19th Biennale of Sydney, is on at the moment and Jim Lambie’s work fills a large gallery on the ground floor of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA). “Fills” is an interesting word, because it seems this work is all about space – making it move, stretch out, pull in, making it a huge pulsating mass. In the gallery I was conscious of moving through space rather like moving through water in a swimming pool – it was somehow more solid, more real, more present. The gallery space didn’t contain the work, it was made part of it. It’s a joyful, exhilarating and somewhat vertiginous experience to walk through the gallery.

lambie_04Lambie, or assistants, has created stripes on the floor using vinyl sticky tape. Taping started around the perimeter, and you can see here how it respond to the slightest jag in the line of the walls (and this gallery is very irregular in shape, full of jogs and nooks and crannies, interrupted by columns).

A strong conceptual base of “trying to fill a space while still leaving it empty” has been suggested of Lambie’s Zobop works (National Galleries Scotland, [n.d.]). Writing about another work (at Inverleith House Edinburgh) Lambie explained “covering and resurfacing objects” in his works could come from different conceptual bases – in the case of a striped floor “[it's] primary concern was a more psychological description of architectural space” (quoted in Triming, 2003, p. 103). He goes on “of course, we can start to open up many layers which I believe exist within these works, but you have to start somewhere, and I think that most good art starts from a simple place”.

lambie_05Limek (2011) has found a joke in such works – “Lambie plays with the preciousness of the gallery space (Don’t touch the art! Oh, wait. You’re standing on it).”

It’s interesting and probably not really a coincidence that like Sol LeWitt (see 6-Apr-2014) Lambie has a strong interest in music (he’s a DJ) and also is happy for the individual Zobop works to be created by assistants – the concept is set, the architecture defines the work (although there are choices made during progress on colour and width of the next stripe) and “I don’t need to be there” (Lambie, in a great video produced in 2011 by Bass Museum – http://vimeo.com/30498019). In the same video Lambie describes the work as “a massive collection of edges melting and merging to make one whole”, which links to the commentary in the Biennale catalogue “…they all seem to dissolve, merging into a unified landscape of energy. Lambie’s floor installations are completely transformative and encompassing, yet transient, ending up as giant piles of twisted tape in the garbage” (Biennale of Sydney, 2014, p.183)

Can I find a message for weaving in Lambie’s stripes? Don’t begin by overcomplicating – find a start, ask a question. Perhaps it’s also to be less precious, to cut the handwoven cloth, combine it, use it, abuse it, be ready to throw it away at the end. Weaving is a tool, or a process, or a material – an input, not an end.

Jim Lambie Psychedelic Soul Stick

Jim Lambie
Psychedelic Soul Stick 68
2007 bamboo, wire, coloured thread, ladies necklace, green feather, Marlboro Light packets

Having done my duty by stripes and weaving, I want to show one of Lambie’s other works in the gallery.
lambie_03It’s an eclectic mix of found items, carefully listed (the spelling in the caption follows the gallery signage). I love the way the wrapping of the different objects unifies them, conceals them within those multiple very fine stripes of thread. It reminds me of Judith Scott’s work (see http://www.judithandjoycescott.com/ ), although at a different scale and from a different starting point. I know there’s a “reveal and conceal” section in the next Textile module, so perhaps I can take forward some of these ideas in future.

References

Biennale of Sydney (2014) “Jim Lambie” In You imagine what you desire: 19th biennale of Sydney Sydney: Biennale of Sydney Ltd

Limek, P. (2011) “Techno Colored: Jim Lambie at Goss-Michael” In D Magazine, May 4, 2011 [online] Available from http://www.antonkerngallery.com/system/press_pdfs/78/original/2011-05-04_D_Magazine_Lambie.pdf?1345756684 (Accessed 15-Apr-2014)

National Galleries Scotland [n.d.] “Jim Lambie” [online] Available from http://www.nationalgalleries.org/collection/artists-a-z/L/15903/artist_name/Jim%20Lambie/record_id/2335 (Accessed 15-Apr-2014)

Triming, L. (2003) “Jim Lambie: Low kick and hard bob” In Flash Art May, 2003 pp. 102 – 105. [online] Available from http://www.antonkerngallery.com/system/press_pdfs/83/original/2003-05_FlashArt_Lambie.pdf?1345757411 (Accessed 15-Apr-2014)

UA1-WA:P4-p1-Exercise: Analyse a formal portrait

Although this exercise suggests further analysis of one of the works seen at a portrait gallery, I would like to celebrate the great Sydney institution of the annual Archibald Prize at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. This is awarded for the best portrait entered, ‘preferentially of some man or woman distinguished in art, letters, science or politics, painted by any artist resident in Australasia’. It was first awarded in 1921 and was established by a bequest from journalist Jules François Archibald to foster portraiture, support artists, and commemorate great Australians. The Archibald Prize is a huge event, complete with controversies, Packing Room and People’s Choice awards and a Salon des Refusés. It has generated ongoing debate on the nature of a portait, with one prize-winner being disputed in court as a caricature and distortion (the challenge failed). An often seen quote from Dobell, the artist involved, was that he was “trying to create something, instead of copying something. To me, a sincere artist is not one who makes a faithful attempt to put on canvas what is in front of him, but one who tries to create something which is living in itself, regardless of its subject. So long as people expect paintings to be simply coloured photographs they get no individuality and in the case of portraits, no characterisation. The real artist is striving to depict his subject’s character and to stress the caricature, but at least it is art which is alive.”

Ben Quilty Margaret Olley oil on linen 170 x 150cm

Ben Quilty
Margaret Olley
2011 oil on linen 170 x 150cm


Ben Quilty won the Archibald Prize in 2011 with this portrait of artist Margaret Olley.

quilty_02The large scale and tight framing of the face give an almost overwhelming sense of a dominating presence. On the face large areas of smooth white-primed linen support thick, generous, yet precise sweeps of rich paint, and dense, textured impasto fills the background. The work seems close to the boundary of representation and abstraction.

The bright colours reflect the colours of Olley’s own work, which is often still-lifes of her own home – an eclectic, colourful jumble of treasures and inspiration. Margaret Olley, a grand dame of Australian painting, died only a few months after this work won the Archibald. Her home and its clutter were so well-known, seen as so central to Olley’s work and legacy, that it has now been recreated within the Tweed Regional Gallery (see http://artgallery.tweed.nsw.gov.au/MargaretOlleyArtCentre). The straw hat which frames her face in the portrait is classic Olley, as is the general expression – compare for example Greg Weight’s 1991 photograph (http://www.portrait.gov.au/site/collection_info.php?&irn=811&acno=2004.62). Here she looks to me a touch tired, but alert, determined, opinionated, colourful… I would say that both the features and the character would have been clearly recognisable to most visitors to the exhibition.

This portrait was painted for the specific purpose of entry in the Archibald Prize. The artist, Ben Quilty, is a young star of Australian painting. His work is often gritty and masculine, so the portrait showed a new side to his work. Margaret Olley was a very successful and highly respected painter who has also contributed greatly to Australian art both by mentorship of younger artists and through philanthropic gifts. Olley was one of the judges who selected Quilty as winner of the Brett Whiteley Travelling Art Scholarship in 2002. Their mutual affection and respect could be seen in footage taped at the time of the Archibald award (see http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/exhibitions/archibald-wynne-sulman-prizes-2011/video/).

The portrait was clearly very successful in that it won the Prize it was created for. It still hangs in a place of honour in the New South Wales Art Gallery. Whether it is successful as a portrait or was the “best” work in competition is a matter of debate – as is every Archibald. The competition has a strong populist slant and this was a popular selection. The Archibald, Wynne and Sulman Prizes together form an annual exhibition that gets a lot of press and a lot of visitors (The Wynne Prize is for landscape painting of Australian scenery, or figure sculpture; the Sulman Prize is for a subject or genre painting or mural.)

This exercise asks for a “formal portrait” and I have wondered if my selection fits. Being so tightly cropped it has virtually none of the additional identifying marks of the subject. The painting style, level of detail and type of finish don’t match the standard row of heads one sees in a boardroom or the corridor of some institution. However as a portrait by a modern painter, intended for a popular, celebrity-focused portrait competition, capturing not just the features but the character of a well known and admired icon of recent Australian painting, I think it is a very good example of a formal portrait.

Resources

Archibald Prize, including past winners: http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/prizes/archibald/

Australian Story profile of Quilty: http://www.abc.net.au/austory/specials/onthewarpath/default.htm

Ben Quilty’s website: http://www.benquilty.com/

Discussion of the Archibald and other 2011 entrants: http://theconversation.com/archibald-argy-bargy-as-ben-quilty-wins-populist-prize-841

UA1-WA:P4-p1-Exercise: Analyse a formal portrait
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art
Project one: The portrait
Exercise: Analyse a formal portrait

UA1-WA:P4-p1-Exercise: Visit a portrait gallery

npg_01For this exercise I visited the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in Canberra – http://www.portrait.gov.au/. This is a fairly new institution in a new building. NPG’s first exhibition was held in 1994, but it was under the management of the National Library of Australia. It became an institution in its own right in 1998 and was housed in Old Parliament House until the purpose-built gallery was opened in 2008.

npg_02In the entranceway to the gallery is this work, Geo Face Distributor by James Angus (2009, enamel paint on cast aluminium) (NPG link). The Gallery website catalogue entry refers to “our innate capacity to recognise and respond to the faces of others”, and I think this work fits the location very well.

I have already written about two works in the NPG – the busts of Trucaninny and Woureddy by Benjamin Law (see 13-Mar-2014). The National Gallery of Australia (NGA) is about 200 metres away and also has casts of the busts. The NGA pair are on plinths of equal height, set at either end of a Regency period double-end sofa (NGA link). In my eyes the formal setting combined with the distance between the two busts turned these significant works into decorative items. Probably this is reflective of their original use, but the arrangement at the NPG – the busts on unequal plinths, the closer space between them – create hugely greater emotion and meaning. This could be in keeping with the purpose of the two Galleries, NGA presenting art, and NPG telling a story about people, their identity and culture.

I chose three focus paintings at NPG. The first is Portrait of Captain James Cook RN by John Webber (1782; oil on canvas) (http://www.portrait.gov.au/site/collection_info.php?irn=143&acno=2000.25) (unfortunately photography is not permitted and the Gallery declined my request for photographs to use). Cook died in 1779, so this work was posthumous, however Webber had travelled with Cook and painted at least two other portraits of him, so knew the subject well. Cook of course was a great navigator, and in 1770 as a lieutenant took formal possession of the east coast of Australia on behalf of England. A biography can be found at http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cook-james-1917, and includes the information Cook “was also severe on uncompliant natives whom he met on his voyages, and his readiness to use force contributed to his untimely death” at the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii).

Cook is seen in uniform, including a sword. He has signet (seal), suggesting the official documents he wrote. His right hand is gloved, showing the personal knowledge of Webber (Cook’s hand had been injured by an exploding horn of gunpowder). He looks confident and relaxed, at home and in control in any environment.

The sea, so long Cook’s home, is in the background on the left. An overgrown hillside is on the right, symbolic of the lands he “discovered”, explored, and in some cases claimed. The sky is dark, with pinks and grays in the clouds and glimpses of lighter blue, including one to the right of the face which provides contrast the the modelling shadow.

The OCA course notes ask about where the portrait was originally displayed and who would have seen it. Strangely enough it seems it may have remained in Webber’s possession until his death, then possibly passed through the hands of William Segieur (first Keeper of London’s National Gallery), spent 150 years or so in Hull Trinity House (for infirm seamen), before a complex sequence involving failed high-flying business men and a mysterious stint in Switzerland. An odd history, but certainly this formal portrait of a famous seaman would have been very appropriate at Trinity House. (Information from Huda, 2008).

My second focus work is Dame Mary Gilmore by Lyall Trindall (c. 1938; oil on canvas) (http://www.portrait.gov.au/site/collection_info.php?searchtype=basic&irn=196&acno=2001.42). Gilmore (1865 – 1962) was an Australian writer and a social crusader. She campaigned on “a wide range of social and economic reforms, such as votes for women, old-age and invalid pensions, child endowment and improved treatment of returned servicemen, the poor and deprived and, above all, of Aboriginals” and wrote about “such diverse subjects as the English language, the Prayer Book, earthquakes, Gaelic and the immigration laws, the waratah as a national emblem, the national anthem and Spanish Australia” (Wilde, 1983). She is featured on the Australian $10 note and there is an annual poetry prize in her name, among many other legacies of her contribution to the country.

The portait shows a woman of keen intelligence, one willing and able to speak her mind, with a direct gaze and a firm mouth. Gilmore is seated and appears relaxed but alert. The clothes suggest the period and that she was neither greatly wealthy nor poor. There is a wedding ring but no other jewellery. There is a sense of authority and a no-nonsense approach. However there are few other details provided, unlike for example Gilmore’s 1943 portrait by Joshua Smith (http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/7619/), which includes books, Gilmore writing, native flowers and that same direct gaze. Another portrait of Gilmore painted by Tindall is held at the State Library of New South Wales (see http://acms.sl.nsw.gov.au/item/itemLarge.aspx?itemID=433038) and shows the same alert stance, steady gaze and firm mouth, but this time holding a book, perhaps (patiently?) dealing with an interruption before she returns to her reading. I haven’t been able to find any detail on the painting’s provenance, but it seems the sort of work that could be hung in a school to inspire students (a number of schools have a “Gilmore” house).

The final focus work is Eddie Mabo (after Mike Kelley’s ‘Booth’s Puddle’ 1985, from Plato’s Cave, Rothko’s Chapel, Lincoln’s profile) by Gordon Bennett (1996; synthetic polymer paint on canvas) (www.portrait.gov.au/site/collection_info.php?&irn=67&acno=1999.27). Information from the NPG website: “Koiki (Eddie) Mabo (1937-1992) was a leader of the indigenous population of Townsville, where he established a pioneering Black Community School, before he initiated a legal case for native title against the State of Queensland in 1982. Along with his fellow Meriam people, Mabo was convinced that he owned his family’s land on Murray Island (Mer) in Torres Strait. By contrast, Queensland Crown lawyers argued that on annexation in 1879, all the land had become the property of the Crown. In 1992, the High Court found 6-1 in favour of Mabo and his co-plaintiffs, overturning the accepted view that Australia had been terra nullius (empty land) before white settlement. Mabo died before the historic decision, which was permanently to alter the way Australians think about Aboriginal land ownership.”

Unlike Trindall’s portrait of Gilmore, Bennett’s portrayal of Mabo is dense with symbols and indicators. Frustratingly I haven’t been able to learn much about Kelley’s work in the time available – such a specific subtitle would surely help me to understand quite what Bennett is telling us. The NPG website has “Gordon Bennett said ‘To me the image of Eddie Mabo stood like the eye of a storm, calmly asserting his rights while all around him the storm, a war of words and rhetoric, raged.’”, but that seems only a part of what is being shown.

Hinkson (2010) suggests “Simultaneously, a transformative set of events and an ongoing unresolved tension at the heart of Australian identity are galvanised in this picture. Rather than portraying Mabo the man heroically, Bennett’s picture is a powerful statement about the nature of our mediated public culture and the processes through which we grasp and indeed produce images of persons, the events with which they are associated and the ideas they come to stand for in the present… [The work] conveys a sense of the myth making we, the nation, undertake when we turn a person and his achievements into an element of public imagination.” It’s not a portrait of a man, but a wish or dream?

To be honest, I feel overwhelmed in writing this report. There is so much I don’t know or understand, of art and art history of course, but much more importantly of Australia’s history and place and people – and possible future(s).

I have a developing theory, heavily influenced by recent viewing of Hannah Gadsby’s Oz (see 14-Mar-2014), that Australia as a nation, Australians collectively and individually, are struggling with identity. It’s a theme many artists around the world explore in their work, but it seems to be a particular obsession here. To test this sweeping generalisation I went looking at Mission Statements of various national portrait galleries – surely they show the level of comfort of a people with their national stories. I’m throwing in a couple of basic statistics for support.

Under Corporate Policies and Operational Information on the NPG website I found “The purpose of the National Portrait Gallery is to increase the understanding and appreciation of the Australian people – their identity, history, creativity and culture – through portraiture” (National Portrait Gallery, [n.d.]). Searching for a more formal charter I found in their Corporate Plan: “The purpose of the National Portrait Gallery is to increase the understanding and appreciation of the Australian people – their identity, history, culture, creativity and diversity – through portraiture” (National Portrait Gallery, 2012, p.2). How significant is the extra word?

Both versions seem to give possible support to my theory. Based on recent data, 27% of the Australian population were born overseas and 2.5% are indigenous.

To test the theory further I checked National Portrait Galleries in other countries. In the UK the National Portrait Gallery (established 1856): “The Gallery’s overall aim (derived from the provisions of the 1992 Museums and Galleries Act) is ‘to promote through the medium of portraits the appreciation and understanding of the
men and women who have made and are making British history and culture, and … to promote the appreciation and understanding of portraiture in all media’.”(National Portrait Gallery, 2009, p. 1) (their ellipsis, not mine). The UK has 13% of the population born overseas.

In the USA “The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery tells the history of America through individuals who have shaped its culture” (Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, [n.d.]). While there is no single succinct statement in their Strategic Plan the Introduction includes its “purpose is to illuminate the American experience and help people understand it” and in more general text there is reference to “important questions about our shared identity, our individual place within it, and about what it means to be an American” (Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, 2011. [not paginated]). 13% of the USA population were born overseas while American Indian and Alaskan Natives make up 1.6% of the population.

The New Zealand Portrait Gallery te pukenga whakaata (established 1990) website includes “Our Vision: Portraying New Zealanders and our cultural heritage to all New Zealanders”, and in later text “Our aim is to present portraits of our peoples who, from various cultural or political standpoints, have shaped our country’s development or influenced the way we think about ourselves” (New Zealand Portrait Gallery, [n.d.]). 17% of NZ population were born overseas, 15% are Maori.

Possibly suggestive, certainly not conclusive.

When I had written most of this post I came across an article quite critical of aspects of the NPG and its effectiveness in telling the Australian story. Given the timing I haven’t integrated the information here – so see At the National Portrait Gallery: Art or history? by John Thompson http://recollections.nma.gov.au/issues/vol_5_no_1/notes_and_comments/at_the_national_portrait_gallery_art_or_history (2010).

Resources

‘Cook, James (1728–1779)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cook-james-1917/text2279, published in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 10 April 2014.

Hinkson, M (2010) “Seeing More than Black and White: Picturing Aboriginality at Australia’s National Portrait Gallery” In Australian Humanities Review (49) [online] Available from http://www.australianhumanitiesreview.org/archive/Issue-November-2010/hinkson.html (Accessed 11-Apr-2014).

Huda, S. (2008) Pedigree and Panache: A History of the Art Auction in Australia Canberra: ANU E Press [online] Available from http://press.anu.edu.au/?p=75451 (Accessed 10-Apr-2014)

National Portrait Gallery (Australia), [n.d.] Corporate Policies and Operational Information [online] Available from http://www.portrait.gov.au/site/corporate_info.php (Accessed 6-Apr-2014).

National Portrait Gallery (Australia) (2012) Corporate Plan 2011-2014 [online] Available from http://www.portrait.gov.au/UserFiles/file/CorporatePlan2011-2014-2012-07-24.pdf (Accessed 6-Apr-2014).

National Portrait Gallery (UK) (2009) Strategic Plan 2009 – 2015 [online] Available from http://www.npg.org.uk/assets/files/pdf/strategic-plan/NPGStrategicPlan2009-2015.pdf (Accessed 6-Apr-2014).

New Zealand Portrait Gallery, ([n.d.]) About New Zealand Portrait Gallery [online] Available from http://www.nzportraitgallery.org.nz/about-us/about-new-zealand-portrait-gallery (Accessed 6-Apr-2014).

Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, [n.d.] Visiting the Museum [online] Available from http://www.npg.si.edu/inform/visit.html (Accessed 6-Apr-2014).

Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, (2011) Beyond the frame: National Portrait Gallery Smithsonian – Strategic Plan 2011 – 2016 [online] Available from http://www.npg.si.edu/docs/npgsp2.pdf (Accessed 6-Apr-2014).

Wilde, W.H. (1983) ‘Gilmore, Dame Mary Jean (1865–1962)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gilmore-dame-mary-jean-6391/text10923, published in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 10 April 2014.

UA1-WA:P4-p1-Exercise: Visit a portrait gallery
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art
Project one: The portrait
Exercise: Visit a portrait gallery

UA1-WA:Research: The Stripe – Sol LeWitt

As part of the final assignment I must produce an illustrated report of around 2,000 words on a subject of my choice. I have chosen The Stripe. Loom weavers spend a lot of time designing stripes or fighting / hiding stripes. There’s a lot more to weaving of course, but that fundamental step of warping the loom has you making decisions about all those parallel lines. Painters have so many options, yet for different reasons some choose stripes. In my initial list I have Barnett Newman’s zips, the stripe flags of Jasper Johns, the conceptual of Sol LeWitt, Bridget Riley’s op art, Daniel Buren, in Australia David Aspden (colour field)… Over the coming months I’d like to explore their approaches and along the way perhaps get some ideas or questions that have me approaching the loom differently.

The series of posts will be my research notes for the final report and as such they will be sketchy and incomplete, an overview of things I think might be relevant or that interest me despite being irrelevant.

Sol LeWitt Wall drawing #1091

Sol LeWitt
Wall drawing #1091: arcs, circles and bands (room)
2003 synthetic polymer paint
www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/
works/352.2011/

Non-geometric form (splotch) #3 – #6
1999 painted fiberglass

lewitt_02Starting with a bang – Sol LeWitt. The Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) has quite a large collection, much or all the gift of the John Kaldor Family. This work was first installed in the Kaldor residence. Imagine that as a room in your house. I think I’d furnish it with a single sun lounge and spend an hour a day basking in colour :)

Originally associated with Minimalism (not a label he would accept) LeWitt was a major theorist of Conceptual Art. In 1967 LeWitt wrote: “In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.” (LeWitt, 1967) Start with an idea (simple is good). Choose a form (simple is good). Select some rules. Then the fewer decisions the better.

cubeFor example, select a cube. There are 12 edges in total (on the left of the diagram). That’s the basic form. You can take away an edge and still see it’s a cube, even if incomplete – so 11 edges on the right. What are the variations of an incomplete cube? That’s it – except I used too many words. LeWitt developed very terse but sufficient ways of documenting his concepts.

Sol LeWitt Incomplete open cube

Sol LeWitt
Incomplete open cube
1974 baked enamel on aluminium
www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/
works/349.2011/

Some of the results can be seen on the left. I find them … satisfying … to look at. They are crazy and obsessive. An irrational pursuit of a rational idea? Vice versa? When you start following the rules it turns out you need at least 3 sides – to give height, width and depth – otherwise it’s not an incomplete cube. Don’t you think that’s kind of a nice idea – plus that someone was focused enough to lay out 122 variations? (Bullock (2014, p. 21) records LeWitt consulted a mathematician when finalising the sequence).

It’s strange to see these incomplete cubes, each in a sense a separate (autonomous?) work, in a gallery setting. They now form a series, parts of a larger work, and the spacing between, the lighting and cast of shadows on the polished flooring, become part of the whole for the viewer.

lewitt_04Adding further complexity are the other works in the exhibition. On the wall in the background of this photograph is Wall structure 123454321 (1979) (www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/L2011.62/). A different but kindred idea, this time mounted on the wall in a hybrid not entirely three dimensional but not a flat surface way.

Work on the walls brings me back to focus on The Stripe – which I now see can refer to lines or bands.

Sol LeWitt Wall drawing #337’ and ‘Wall drawing #338

Sol LeWitt
Wall drawing #337 and Wall drawing #338
Both works 1971. #337 – pencil; #338 – coloured pencil
http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/350.2011/
http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/351.2011/

LeWitt wrote “The form itself is of very limited importance; it becomes the grammar for the total work. In fact, it is best that the basic unit be deliberately uninteresting so that it may more easily become an intrinsic part of the entire work. Using complex basic forms only disrupts the unity of the whole. Using a simple form repeatedly narrows the field of the work and concentrates the intensity to the arrangement of the form. This arrangement becomes the end while the form becomes the means.” (LeWitt, 1967). A straight line makes an ideal basic unit.

lewitt_06On the AGNSW website the full title of one of the works above is “Wall drawing #338: Two part drawing. The wall is divided vertically into two parts. Each part is divided horizontally and vertically into four equal parts. 1st part: Lines in four directions, one direction in each quarter. 2nd part: Lines in four directions, superimposed progressively.” A diagram drawn on the wall next to the work shows how this has been implemented. At the bottom are the four directions and colours of line used, with identifying numbers. Above are the combinations of lines used in each section of the work.

lewitt_07My detail photos of the wall drawing are very fuzzy, so here I’ve shown a page from a book with a related sequence. The book is included in the current AGNSW exhibition Sol LeWitt: Your mind is exactly at that line (www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/
exhibitions/sol-lewitt/
).

The work invites viewing as a sequence. Haxthausen (2012, p. 17) suggests that LeWitt felt “thwarted by the nature of the easel picture as a single synchronous image, a spatial rather than a temporal structure”. Adopting a serial approach, and the wall, LeWitt challenged this. (Another approach, seen for example in works on Arachne, is to combine scenes of multiple times in a single picture – see 8-Jul-2013).

Kaiser (1992) wrote “LeWitt employed [abstraction] with a view to simplifying, rendering unambiguous, even encoding visual language. He sought a kind of basic vocabulary, in the fashion of musical annotation”.

lewitt_10

lewitt_09This first piece of research is already testing the borders of my topic. The thumbnail on the right shows Wall drawing #1274: scribble column (horizontal), graphite (2006). The detail at the left shows it is indeed “scribble”. In LeWitt there is line (often straight and orderly), band, grid (superimposed straight line), and in this example disorderly line organised into forming orderly line. Probably I’ll find very few if any artists whose works remains entirely within “the stripe”. I should still be able to find a range of approaches within those who use stripe on occasion.

Bringing a weaverly eye to the discussion, the simplified notation appears equivalent to a pattern draft, which gives an unambiguous, succinct description of structure.

Fairbrother (1992) wrote “LeWitt’s serial exercises produce objects for contemplation that may strike views as both structurally intriguing and abstractly beautiful, regardless of whether they understand the guiding parameters and variables”. That’s more of a challenge for weaving. The structure which is so important to the weaver is generally not even seen, let alone understood, by the viewer. Scale is clearly key here, but also the underlying sequence and basic unit – not just line but the unit of the draft – is virtually never revealed to the viewer. That could be an interesting sequence in a “New Weave” type exhibition.

In much of loom weaving a lot of calculations and decisions are made up front, with little decision making during the execution – although as a weaver I would say the final outcome is generally a very important part of the process, and rather than being cool and without emotion like some Conceptual Art, the tactile nature of cloth and all its cultural meanings (wrapping / protection…) make emotion of some kind almost inevitable. lewitt_08 The focus on the concept supported LeWitt’s practice of allowing assistants to realise works following his written instructions. I happened to be at AGNSW while the current exhibition was being prepared and took this photo of work on LeWitt’s Wall Drawing 604H, cubic rectangle with color ink washes superimposed (1989). The two men were working as fast as they could, one working from the bottom the other from the top, rubbing on the ink. As they finished one gave feedback, presumably training, looking for even more speed and a slight change in rubbing technique. lewitt_11The thumbnail at the left shows part of the finished work a month or so later.

There can be similar division in design and execution in weaving – Liz Williamson (see 24-Nov-2012) is one example of a highly experienced and proficient weaver who frequently has her designs realised by others. I suspect this is more a matter of time management than a basic conceptual division of process.

Fuschs writes of LeWitt’s “precise, lucid principles”, that he “ceased to rely on inspiration and coincidental impulses”, and “it is a way of doing and approaching without a real aesthetic premise” (Fuschs, 1992). The further I have gone with this investigation, and despite finding a few parallels, I think in the end LeWitt’s objectives make no sense at all in the weaving world – just a meaningless coincidence of a basic form. Perhaps we arrive there from different directions. Kaiser suggests “this extreme reduction [straight lines] was countered by an expansive use of the basic elements as a regularly repeating module” (Kaiser, 1992). Weaving isn’t a reduction to straight lines, it builds from them – so always expanding?

From Fairbrother (1992): “LeWitt’s first structure announced his reciprocal concerns to reduce subjective expressivity and to give the clearest exposition of ideas concerning basic form, modularity, gridding, stacking, extending, containing, repeating, and amplifying. To these ends he exercised the strictest economy with regard to color, surface, texture, and shape”. Obviously there was later development, particularly in color and shape, but again this seems totally opposed to most weaving. What would weaving look like if one tried to bring the same concerns? Can there be weaving without surface or texture? On the other hand Bonin (2012, p. 35) suggests “LeWitt exemplified his interest in two-dimensionality, in the plane’s physically flat surface. Gradations in wall texture became gradations in pencil lines. Subtle changes in the wall’s surface are made internal to the drawing’s form. The surface fluctuations lend the work a gentle dynamism, as if a barely noticeable, sheer cloth has been swept over parts of the wall”.

Some more brief notes and thoughts:
* “Successful ideas generally have the appearance of simplicity because they seem inevitable.” (LeWitt, 1967). True in so many areas! A lot of thought and effort is needed to achieve strong, simple, obvious, even “inevitable” results.

* “New materials are one of the great afflictions of contemporary art.” (LeWitt, 1967). I’d say that’s very relevant to today’s textile work. There are really exciting new materials and tools and techniques coming available all the time. The trick is to use them meaningfully, to take them beyond ‘look at this flashy new thing’ (“gaudy bauble”, as LeWitt put it).

* Scale. LeWitt devotes a paragraph to scale and placement. I’ll have more on that in an upcoming post.

* LeWitt’s comments about art. First a selection of sentences from 1971:
“10. Ideas can be works of art; they are in a chain of development that may eventually find some form. All ideas need not be made physical. …
17. All ideas are art if they are concerned with art and fall within the conventions of art.
18. One usually understands the art of the past by applying the convention of the present, thus misunderstanding the art of the past.
19. The conventions of art are altered by works of art.
20. Successful art changes our understanding of the conventions by altering our perceptions.”
The above I take to provide an overall understanding of what art is and how it changes over time – or at least a conceptual form of art. In his Paragraphs LeWitt mentions that this isn’t for all artists. Sentence 18 seems very relevant to art history studies. I wonder about the magnitude of misunderstandings due to time compared to all the other differences in context and knowledge when viewing works. Elsewhere LeWitt comments that the artist can’t control a viewer’s perception and also that the artist may perceive another’s work better than his/her own. I suppose that links back to the difference between conception and perception.
Another LeWitt statement, originally from 1974 and reprinted in Fairbrother (1992): “Each person, being different, conceives of art differently. There is no high or low art or good or bad art, but different kinds of art to satisfy the aesthetic needs of all. Whatever one understands to be art is art”.

References

Bonin, C. (2012) “Between wall and paper: rethinking LeWitt’s wall drawings” In Haxthausen, CW (ed) (2012) Sol LeWitt: The well-tempered grid. Williamstown: Williams College Museum of Art, pp. 27 – 43.

Bullock, N. (2014) “Sol LeWitt: An overview and a preview” In Look 0414 Sydney: Art Gallery Society of New South Wales, pp. 20 – 23.

Fairbrother, T. (1992) “Sol LeWitt’s drawing and the art of ‘logical statement’” In Singer, S. (ed) (1992) Sol LeWitt drawings 1958 – 1992. The Hague: Haags Gemeentemuseum.

Fuschs, R. (1992) “Sol LeWitt” In Singer, S. (ed) (1992) Sol LeWitt drawings 1958 – 1992. The Hague: Haags Gemeentemuseum.

Haxthausen, CW (2012) “The well-tempered grid: On Sol LeWitt and Music” In Haxthausen, CW (ed) (2012) Sol LeWitt: The well-tempered grid. Williamstown: Williams College Museum of Art.

Kaiser, FW (1992) “Drawing as notation – or just as drawing” In Singer, S. (ed) (1992) Sol LeWitt drawings 1958 – 1992. The Hague: Haags Gemeentemuseum.

LeWitt, S. (1967) “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art” originally published in Artforum, June 1967. [online] Available from http://radicalart.info/concept/LeWitt/paragraphs.html (Accessed 22-Mar-2014).

LeWitt, S. (1971) “Sentences on Conceptual Art” originally published in Art Now 3 (2), 1971. [online] Available from http://radicalart.info/concept/LeWitt/sentences.html (Accessed 23-Mar-2014).

UA1-WA:Research: The Stripe – Sol LeWitt
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art
Review: The Stripe
Research: Sol LeWitt


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