Posts Tagged 'UWA-P3-exercise'

UA1-WA:P3-p4-Exercise: Visit an artist’s studio

For this exercise the course requires a visit to an artist’s studio, looking for two things – information about the technical means of professional practice, and a sense of the artist’s source of inspiration. I visited Peter Griffen and Denise Lithgow in their shared studio / home space. Denise and Peter were very generous with their time and it was very interesting as we sat together to hear them talk about each other’s work as well as their own and to see how they each learn from, support and challenge the other.

Peter Griffen and Denise Lithgow

Peter Griffen and Denise Lithgow
Sitting at the dining table in their studio / home

I’ve visited and written about their space in the past when I did a weekend workshop with Peter (see 2-March-2012). From my post then:

griffen06It’s an amazing, exciting, inspiring, overwhelming place. Formerly a factory, Peter and Denise gutted the building and it’s basically one huge room with a mezzanine and some closed areas at each end (bathrooms, storage, their bedroom). This photo was taken from the back mezzanine. The kitchen area is down to the right, left you can just see a corner of the lounge area, but not the dining table which is closer on the left. Middle right is a display area for Denise’s work and the front mezzanine is her studio – but the main space is Peter’s studio and workshop area.

Peter Griffen
peter_griffen_02Peter’s studio is large and airy and well lit with a series of sky lights supplemented by banks of florescent lights. The large open space and long high walls allow him to keep many works on view at one time and he is constantly moving things around as work progresses. There is also plenty of space for multiple tables for workshop students.

peter_griffen_04Peter has traveled extensively in Australia and he sketches and paints en plein air. This work is one of a series from a 2013 trip to the Flinders Ranges in South Australia (more of the series can be seen on his facebook page Peter Griffen Art – click here). He also takes reference photographs which he may or may not refer to as a source for particular details or ideas, but isn’t interested in working directly from a photo. In fact he likes to continue working on the paintings away from the source, back at his studio. There he can only look at the painting, concentrating on making it better – as a painting, not a copy of something seen.

peter_griffen_06The combination of studio and home supports Peter’s working methods. Works may begin on a location with the source before him or in the studio in a chaos of poured, painted and scrapped paint. Many then undergo a long period of development including extensive editing and blocking out as areas of interest are identified, and the application of multiple layers of glaze. In this example the work was at one stage red and busy, then blocked out to reveal a classic Australian narrative of the bushranger. The many glazes have created a luminous, rather eerie, pearlescent surface.

peter_griffen_03This process of editing, discovery, analysis, development and transformation can take years in some cases. Living constantly surrounded by his work Peter is able to consider the possibilities, to make a change or apply a glaze, then work on other paintings while he ponders his next move. He may find a mark or a rhythm which he hangs on to, develops, which drives the whole composition. However he is also willing to let it go if it becomes a negative, limiting his freedom.

peter_griffen_05Probably the majority of Peter’s work is in acrylic paint on canvas or paper, but he also uses oils, charcoal, gouache… He may collage paper previously painted or incorporate found objects – paintbrushes, chop sticks, gourds, whatever meets his current purpose.

Most often Peter uses a brush with his canvas on the floor or an easel, but he’s always open to other opportunities. An episode of Landline shows Peter pouring paint, dragging it across the canvas with a board, using a palette knife or his hands, even stamping a canvas into a sand dune near Birdsville.

peter_griffen_07Much of Peter’s inspiration comes from the Australian landscape and it can be an underlying source in abstract works. The Australian sun – light and heat – pulses from some paintings, the strong colours vibrating. These aren’t the literal colours of the Australian landscape, but an emotional reaction to it. They are theatrical, exaggerating the truth, but being based in truth are accepted by the viewer as “right”. Peter sometimes works from memory and emotion rather than a specific landscape. When travelling overseas it can take a few days of frustration before Peter gets the colour “right”. Similarly studio work needs to be completed soon after his return, before re-acclimation.

Peter’s is an intuitive approach, where a shape can be a cliff or sounds or a bird, or just a shape. I’ve focused on the landscape and abstract in Peter’s work, but his oeuvre includes figure and still life works.

Peter’s knowledge of art history allows him to reference many other artists in his paintings or in his thinking and writing about his work. Links can be made to Australian artists including Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd, Guy Warren and Rosalie Gascoigne as well as artists from elsewhere such as Jean Dubuffet, Anselm Kiefer, Paul Klee and Henri Matisse.

denise_lithgow_04Denise Lithgow

denise_lithgow_01Denise has a dedicated studio in the front mezzanine area of the building. It includes a very large work table, dedicated space for the sewing machine, shelves and plastic storage tubs full of fibres and fabrics, a couch, mannequin form, areas to hang works in progress, and hanging on a wall are textile pieces created by family members. Denise uses the main floor area when working on large felt pieces. Also downstairs is her rocket steamer, critical equipment for her silk painting.

denise_lithgow_02denise_lithgow_03denise_lithgow_06denise_lithgow_05The combination of home and studio allows Denise to maximise her creative time while continuing to work four days a week in a busy busy and demanding role in a hospital. She will often come home from the day job and work until the early hours of the morning in her studio.

Denise uses a variety of textile techniques in her work. The work shown to the right is from her painting gallery, a collage incorporating fabrics, threads and free machine embroidery. To my eyes the colours and shapes clearly reference Australian landscape and flora, but I am less sure of the title “Distant Hills” given on her website.

The second photograph shows a vessel created in felt. Denise is currently working on a series of large vessels to be included in her upcoming solo exhibition at the Muswellbrook Regional Arts Centre. For any reader coming from an art history rather than a textile background I should explain that to create these vessels Denise uses drifts of wool fibres (and possibly other inclusions), laid out in careful order and then manipulated by hand using soap and water to create a thick felted mat shaped in the desired form. Shrinkage during this process can be extreme, hence the need for additional studio space.

A wide range of materials can be found in Denise’s work. The dress on the right includes recycled tyvek packaging taken from surgical equipment. The main technique used here is knitting, which has been combined with other processes to achieve the desired result.

Denise is inspired by the Australian landscape, most evidently in her paintings. She uses a travel sketchbook to capture colours as much as sketches. Denise showed me a commissioned wall piece in its final stages – based on the view towards the sea from the client’s home, but not trying to be a literal representation. It is an emotional response to the inspiration – “how could I translate that…?” She generally works quickly and intensely, with a clear image in her mind of the outcome, always pushing herself further.

When describing her work Denise avoids the well-worn art / craft debate. She wants to be part of the general scene, not in any way limited. For her textiles are part of art mainstream. She creates paintings and vessels. She enters the same shows and prizes as Peter, and is enjoying growing success.

The combination
While each artist maintains a healthy, active, independent artistic practice, as a team they become truly formidable. The combination of a shared studio and home allows them to support, encourage and critique each other.

griffen_lithgowOccasionally they collaborate, as in the work shown here.

They bounce off each other, sharing ideas and techniques but each in a way that suits their individual work. For example both take photographs of work in progress as well as when completed. Denise may use progress photos in an article, while Peter may want to re-install a shape previously blocked out, adding to the layers and embedded richness. In our conversation Denise grabbed that idea to explain her layering of stitch. She has learnt from Peter to keep going, to work through challenges and get a result.

In such an open, shared space it is also important that each respects when the other needs space and quiet to work in their own way. For example Denise becomes absorbed when laying out fibre for felt. She needs to be at peace and can’t talk.

Both artists are committed to creating opportunities for themselves and each other. Peter has written and published a book on his work. They open their studio / home to visitors – there’s an open day coming up on 8th/9th March (see for details). They go to opening nights both to see and to network. It’s easy to get so focused on practice that one forgets the need to market and sell to maintain that practice. Working together Denise and Peter multiply the impact of their efforts. I really appreciate the time and support they have given me for this exercise.

All photographs (other than my snaps of the artists and the lower studio) are copyright of the artists and used with their kind permission.

ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) (2009) “Desert Dauber” On Landline [online] Available from (Accessed 21-Feb-2014)

Denise’s website:

Griffen, P. (2011) in and out of abstraction Sydney: la Fabrique.

Peter’s website:

Peter on facebook:

UA1-WA:P3-p4-Exercise: Visit an artist’s studio
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part three: Modern art and still life
Project four: Still life after 1900
Exercise: Visit an artist’s studio

UA1-WA:P3-p4-Exercise: Notes about still life

The course notes ask for comments on anything I found particularly interesting or surprising about this genre.

Generalising (since of course there are always individual exceptions), I love the human scale and interest, the sense of the person. The artist has chosen this particular group of objects to observe carefully, to spend time with. There’s often a meditative feel, giving a moment to stop rushing about and to see what is around us all the time.

Given what I saw in Cézanne (see 30-Jan-2014), still life also gives a lot of scope to bring in theory, to experiment. In a sense it is the most obvious non-abstract form which reduces the importance of the subject of the painting – a key element in the movement towards abstraction. In that light still life was a bridge to many the developments of the twentieth century, but it remains an important area of work in its own right.

I want to show a few still life works I’ve seen in recent months and found particularly interesting.

Matthew Smith Jugs against vermillion background

Matthew Smith
Jugs against vermillion background
1936 – 30. Oil on canvas

This painting is just pure excitement. That incredible strong colour! And to put that little strip of green top centre!! The table top is tilted and unsupported, there are red shadows but not for the blue jug. ‘Most’ still life pictures are their own little world, but the one I looked at by Cézanne showed a little of the studio around him, and here Smith shows just part of a nude woman. Smith plays with the seen and unseen, and with space – is that a mirror frame at the back, suggesting depth and a wall? In person the direction of brush strokes and the paint texture is very important. The most surprising thing in viewing this picture is the balance. There is so much information and action on the right, and on the left… I’m not sure how well it shows in the photograph, but that red on the right is so intense, so solid, while the red on the right hand side is just a bit darker, not quite so saturated – and it works.

Giorgio Morandi Still life

Giorgio Morandi
Still life
1957. Oil on canvas

This work by Morandi is such a contrast, but once again colour is so important. I don’t know if it was the artist’s choice or later framing (I notice it’s not included in the photo on the gallery’s website), but that little surround of orange brings a glow and life to the painting and really emphasizes that patch of orange inside. This work feels deeply contemplative, austere and refined. That division line – the edge of the table? – is quite high, and doesn’t seem to quite line up from side to side, while in the centre lines on the largest jug/bottle almost continue it. There is careful, subtle shading, perhaps only one highlight. Colours are subdued, but still give me a sense of richness. It looks timeless.

John Brack The Breakfast Table

John Brack
The Breakfast Table
1958. Oil on canvas

The colour and patterning of this work draws you across the room. The thin vertical format of the picture combines with the wobbly vertical trail of the knives and the long shadows of the glassware, and is held in place by just a couple of strong horizontals at the top. The table is so colourful – that amazing yellow, even more amazing with the spots of colour from the jam jars. I like the sly little glimpse of the black and white floor, linking to the black and white which I think is reflections in the window. The scene is domestic and lively and energetic – I can imagine the family who just shared a noisy breakfast and are now racing off to their busy days.

John Bokor Kitchen table

John Bokor
Kitchen table
2011. Pencil, gesso wash on thick textured white paper (oil paper)

Another exciting table! This feels much more spontaneous, unlike the careful compositions of most still life. The layers of wash and drawing create movement and life and urgency. Bokor keeps building and constructing layer upon layer. This drawing and others in the series feel fresh and young and invigorating.

The multiple lines and layers made me think of pentimenti (traces of alteration) in older works where the artist may have changed his/her mind, then the multiple lines in Cézanne’s work where he kept seeing slightly different parts of an object, and the tail of the bull in Matisse’s L’Enlevement d’Europe (see that I wanted in my bedroom in the Finding Affinities exercise (see 9-Dec-2013). I haven’t got to the end of this train of thought, but it feels like something I want to explore further.

Emma White Still life with objects

Emma White
Still life with objects
2011. Archival inkjet print

This is a truly dreadful photo, taken in low light with lots of reflections in the glass, so please, Please, PLEASE click on the link below the photo or the photo itself to go to the gallery website. This is another recent and exciting work exploring the world of still life today. The artist’s methods and materials are right up to date and I love the way this still life is right back on the edge of abstraction.

George Baldessin Pear - version number 2

George Baldessin
Pear – version number 2
1973. Sculpture, corten steel: 7 forms

I saw this work by George Baldessin when I visited Canberra late last year. Cézanne played with the artificiality of a three dimensional form on a two dimensional canvas. Here the fruit is once again three dimensional – but at huge scale, rigid and hard, so unlike a juicy, ripe, easily bruised pear. It’s wonderful to walk up to and around what seems like a classic still life composition.

20140120_posterI’m continuing my personal attempts with still life. I like this best of what I’ve done so far. I like some of the textures created by the posterizing of the image. I think perhaps it needs some other little thing with a hard reflection like the ginger beer bottle – maybe a little hard round reflective shape catching the light just in front of the deeply shadowed side of the bowl. You can see more of my struggles in my sketchbook (click here).

UA1-WA:P3-p4-Exercise: Notes about still life
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part three: Modern art and still life
Project four: Still life after 1900
Exercise: Notes about still life

UA1-WA:P3-p3-Ex Attempting a still life

A throwaway line in the course notes suggests having a go at a still life image if we haven’t before. Scary, but nothing ventured nothing gained.

First a review of anything relevant I’ve done in the past. If there is any such thing it could only be as part of Textiles 1: A Creative Approach.

sketch_20120213In February 2012 I played around with a painting by Cézanne’s, Still-Life with Apples and Biscuits. That was while doing a section on design development and I somehow tried to combine elements with some sketches of shells and it all went rather strange. If you really want to you can see more here.
sketch_20120416Not long after that I was playing around trying to get ideas for a class piece. This is based on an old jug, permanently borrowed from my mum, which has a lovely complex shape and interesting little illustrations all over it. You can see the initial sketch here and then scroll down to see the various bits and bobs I did to develop it.

p5s4_03This_is the final work, documented as part of Assignment 2 Project 5 (see post 26-Apr-2012). The photo doesn’t show it but this was printed on a very fine, shiny silk with a beautiful drape (but rather delicate).p5s4_02 All the little elements are based on the decoration on the vase. I was (still am) pretty pleased with the result. I think it could qualify as a still life, or least as a potential component of one. It doesn’t work as a standalone composition at the moment – a bit of a lump in the middle of the “page” – but of course that weakness is one of the reasons I wanted to study Art History. My tutor’s comments included it “had some very subtle and delicate effects combined with collaged effect and then enhanced by over printed sections which added depth. But looking at it as a flat piece of design work, I didn’t find it quite as interesting [as an earlier sample]. However, once it was draped and folded it became quite beautiful and design really worked well on the silk fabric.”

sketch_20120427My next attempt had its genesis straight after in the sketchbook on 27-April-2012. First up was an unsatisfactory sketch of some fruit on a shiny piece of paper.
fruit2_edgeA photograph that I took and manipulated was much more interesting in both colour and texture.
sketch20120508We’re back to unsatisfactory with some dreary experiments meant to explore texture (by now in sketchbook 4).

sketch20120511cA couple more versions followed here.sketch20120511d With colour I found I couldn’t see shapes. In the black and white version I thought maybe I was getting somewhere.

sketch20120629I did a final sketch just before attempting an interpretation in applique for Assignment 3 Project 6. My post (30-Jun-2012) notes that I wanted to keep focus on curves. Looking back I think I was trying to follow my preference of finding echoes of shapes/lines/… across an image – see for example comments 13-Jan-2014 discussing Laurens Craen’s still life, although there I saw that the contrast of a few straight edges provided a welcome contrast and interest.

p6s3_18On 30-Jun-2012 I posted the final work – and it didn’t work (although it looks a little better in real life). There’s more discussion in that post, but one thing I remember particularly was trouble with determining the borders or framing. I think there’s a pattern that I start with some objects I think might be interesting, arrange them thinking of the negative space between them, but never come to grips with the composition as a whole. My tutor’s report at the time commented “Compositionally, I think that the strawberry shape needed a bit more emphasis perhaps in the treatment of the leaves and stalk, using more angular shapes in contrast to the curves. If you look back to the original, the composition is very effective, but it is the highlights created by quality and varied emphasis of the lines, that make a visual liveliness. With your textile version, the colour balances on the shapes are all very similar …”

My conclusion from all the above is that I want now to focus on the composition as a whole, and within that more variation.

Step two was to review some still life works I’ve seen in recent months. I’ve collected quite a few images, but will save the full set for a question in the next project. For now just a brief look back at my recent annotation and analysis of Laurens Craen’s work.

craen_02craen_03Much too complex in the detail of course – and the course notes particularly suggest caution for this first attempt. I looked back at the other Laurens Craen works I’d found (in my files but not here since they’re not my photos). Pretty much all of them are based on a triangular arrangement (although none of the lines straight) on a table top with one corner and part of the front edge exposed.

All of the above was written before I started working on the new drawing.

sketch_20140117I drew out a very much simplified form, then hunted around the house for items and started arranging. And rearranging. I was hoping with the preparation this would be easier, but it was painful. In the end I remembered this is a learning exercise. A start.

sketch_20140117bThis is probably the best I came up with. Potatoes. Not brilliant, and it was only when uploading the photo that I realised I hadn’t got my planned triangle.

In morning light the next day I noticed an angle which seemed more interesting, and got out graphite pencils and paper. Easing into this I wanted to concentrate on careful observation, shapes and relationships.

sketch_20140118bsketch_20140118There was a false start, and a slightly less false version number whatever I’ve got to now.

That’s as far as I’ve got. I don’t think it’s worth discussing in detail. I need to keep working at this – not the specific thing but sketchbook work in general. The goal isn’t good drawing or painting as such, but if I can’t create a satisfying composition, if I can only critique others, how can I ever make good textile art? I’d also like to sharpen my observational skills.

So this post is recording a start. I’m hoping to continue having goes at still life images although not necessarily write about it here. However for a number of reasons I like having a searchable, reviewable record so I’ll quietly add to a new sketchbook page at

UA1-WA:P3-p3-Ex Attempting a still life
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part three: Modern art and still life
Project three: Introducing still life
Exercise: Attempting a still life

UA1-WA:P3-p2-Ex A symbol for the present

I’m not confident that I understand the requirements for this exercise. We are asked to return to the idea of art as a symbol, choose a symbol “for this year” and consider what is being symbolised, the symbol chosen and who I’d choose to design/make it. The course notes illustrate this with an image of The Long Man of Wilmington by Eric Ravilious, so I’ve decided the requirement is steps towards an artwork incorporating the symbol rather than a graphic like a company logo.

What I’m symbolising
My symbol for the age is the smartphone and the access to communication and information which it offers. It has transformed the way people interact, keeping in touch with frequent and brief calls and texts, simplifying arrangements to meet. It makes it easier to find others with similar interests and views, and to participate in wide-ranging group discussions. It allows for greater mobility for both business and personal users, providing a continuity of connection. The many apps available simplify and support busy lives, a trivial example being one that records one’s yarn stash and keeps impulse buying focused and effective. It allows fast and easy access to all the resources on the internet. It supports better health with exercise-tracking apps and access to information on pharmaceuticals. It impacts the way we access news, and the news available (not just that filtered by major newspapers). I use mine to take photos of great textiles I see being worn on the streets, to record oral history of WWII with my mum, to set alarms, listen to educational talks (eg, check how long to the next bus, send a grocery shopping list to my husband, and sometime even to talk to people. All that and my younger work colleagues tell me I’m only scratching the surface. It’s been used in art works – in the 2013 Bondi Sculpture by the Sea Simon McGrath provided an “augmented reality app” which allows users to “view” a melting iceberg in the ocean (see There is so much more, but the two fundamentals are communication, in particular social networking, and information.

There are certainly negatives, but there are overwhelming positives and the positive is the focus for this exercise.

The symbol I’ll choose
This is where I’m a bit shaky on the requirement. There’s the slim rectangular shape with colours and buttons that we use but that doesn’t seem very interesting. In any case the focus is the facilities the smartphone provides, in particular communication, networking and information. So my symbol should be realised as an installation that allows people to use their smartphones to interact with the artwork and each other, with results that surprise, delight, inform and challenge them – that presents the world in a way that they hadn’t thought about before. It should be multi-faceted and distributed because that’s the smartphone experience. Perhaps people could send photos and soundclips to a central system where they are organised and combined according to a sequence designed by the artist.

While thinking about possibilities I imagined the final sequence displayed in lights on a building, like Vivid Sydney – – a site which seems to offer more possibilities than I can take in at the moment. It’s much more than I realised. I don’t know what’s possible or what’s already been done. Perhaps my smartphone symbol could involve people providing their input, then while watching the output on a huge building the crowd could hear and share music on their phones. Many, many years ago I went to a prom (music concert, not a coming out dance) and one piece used the audience as a huge choir. The conductor taught us sounds – one section of the audience hissing, say, another a short sequence of wowing or whatever – then conducted us through the piece and it was exhilarating. Could the technology send different sounds to different phones so the audience becomes a huge orchestra?

I can imagine a kind of feedback loop over a festival period, so people take photos one night which feed into the next night’s performance. Or perhaps smaller groups could collaborate over their phones to create something that goes into the mix.

I can also see these ideas being integrated in a gallery setting, or at specific locations or at indeterminate locations depending on those interacting.

I think it would be important to have a conceptual edge, a theoretical underpinning to make the total thing a work of art and not just a lot of stuff.

Who I’ll choose to design/make it
I need an artist with the skills and the artistic vision to take all these elements and create a work which both uses smartphones as a material and symbolises all that smartphones mean in our society. As already mentioned it needs a solid foundation of theory and concept to make the whole more than the parts.

I don’t have any specific artists to suggest since I’m imagining beyond my knowledge or experience. A good place to start in identifying an artist or group of artists would seem those who have participated in past Vivid programs, or similar events in other locations.

I seem to have strayed well beyond course concept in writing this – but really it is a logical progression from my choice of symbol. If it’s a symbol for this age it ought to create art which uses the technologies of the age, which stretches boundaries.

UA1-WA:P3-p2-Ex A symbol for the present
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part three: Modern art and still life
Project two: From 1945 to the present
Exercise: A symbol for the present

UA1-WA:P3-p2-Ex Visit a public square

This exercise requires a visit to a public square and review of the sculpture there. I chose Martin Place which cuts across the centre of Sydney, from George Street and the GPO in the west up to Macquarie Street – a total of over 450 m, although broken up into five sections by cross streets. I originally intended to focus on the first section outside the GPO (General Post Office – now a hotel, restaurants, shops etc), but widened my search when I discovered that this major city space has very little sculpture.

Martin Place looking from the west end (George St)

Martin Place looking from the west end (George St)

Martin Place from the east end (Macquarie St)

Martin Place from the east end (Macquarie St)

I used to think of this extended space as the centre of Sydney – literally as distances are measured from the GPO at one end, but also used as a gathering place and connecting business, shopping and government areas. The city is more complicated now, and when I visited this week it seemed rather lost and forlorn – many offices are closed or scaled down for the holiday season, the big end of year sales are a block or two to the south, and most temporary structures have been removed ready for the New Years Eve crush.

As you may be able to see in the overview photos there is a lot of street furniture in Martin Place – seating, kiosks with flowers, newspapers or drinks, various banners and signs, trees, also an amphitheatre area. However I was surprised at how little sculpture I could find.

martin_place_01The Cenotaph, built as a memorial to soliders in the First World War and now a memorial to so many more, stands prominently in the space outside the GPO, arguably at the heart of Sydney. The bravery, mateship, determination, skill and intelligence of the Australian troops in action in WWI, and particularly at Gallipoli (ultimately a costly failure), has come to have iconic significance in Australian cultural identity – the “ANZAC legend” (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps). A Dawn Service is held each year in Martin Place on April 25th (ANZAC day), the anniversary of the landing of the first wave of Australians at Gallipoli in 1915.

martin_place_02The Cenotaph’s base is Moruya granite. The two bronze sentinel figures, a soldier and a sailor, are by Sir Bertram MacKennal. This sculpture is a clear statement of national identity and civic pride. War by its nature is an expression of power, but this memorial’s focus remains personal. The figures are based on individuals, the Dawn Service is not about dignitaries, and I have seen many personal bunches of flowers among the wreaths.

Behind the Cenotaph can be seen part of the GPO, including some of the extensive carving and many statues. Constructed between 1864 and 1891 the building was intended to symbolise Sydney, rather like the Houses of Parliament in London. The marble sculptures, designed by Tomaso Sani and carved in Italy by Giovanni Fontana, caused an outcry when unveiled, with both naturalistic style and representations of real people seen as unsuitable. Questions were asked in Parliament and removal of the figures considered. The uproar over the sculptures seen as crass and low-brow shows the aspirations of the establishment of the time. The intended political and economic message may have been temporarily lost, but after only a short time few passing this large and imposing building would be aware of the lack.

martin_place_03At the other end of this first section of Martin Place there is currently a Christmas tree, which could be seen as a sculpture and an indication of influence of a sub-section of the community. This area is often used for temporary displays and sculptures – not so long ago gigantic snails in neon coloured recycled plastic. My impression is that the works are often ones that appeal to the young or young at heart – a little lightness and fun in the centre of the city.

martin_place_06Crossing Pitt Street to the next section of Martin Place one comes to a curved wall of water, the Lloyd Rees fountain (1972, rebuilt and moved slightly in the mid 1990s). Lloyd Rees (1895-1988) was a prominent landscape painter and is quoted on the fountain’s plaque “what else is a city – if it’s not a gallery of beautiful buildings”. The fountain also had a difficult initial history. Planned as part of a series of works pedestrianizing the block the City Council dropped the proposed fountain due to budgetary concerns. Rees responding by leading a public subscription to raise the necessary funds.

martin_place_07The fountain now serves a number of needs. Structurally the wall of the fountain serves as the back of the amphitheatre behind, taking advantage of the slope of the land. It brings sparkling light and the sound of running water to the area, and it is clearly a popular spot to sit. I didn’t actually know the name of the fountain until preparing for this Exercise, and I suspect the fountain is not particularly effective as a memorial to Rees.

martin_place_04There is not much else of note in this section of Martin Place. There are a couple of building sites – one with the hoarding used by a local art school to advertise their end of year show.

martin_place_09This photograph is taken from the third section, looking back (you can see the clock tower of the GPO at the very right of the photo). In the foreground is another aspect of the site’s functional purpose – one of the entrances to Martin Place railway station. Also of note is the break formed by the MLC centre and the mushroom of the Commercial Travellers’ Association premises in the wall of buildings stretching along Martin Place. At this point of my exploration I found the mix of textures and shapes in the cityscape of more interest than any sculpture visible. The narrow fourth section of the Place is even more featureless.

martin_place_10The final section of Martin Place has a number of items of interest. The thumbnail shows the Commando Memorial dedicated in 1982 in memory of members of Australian independent companies commando squadrons and special forces in WWII. I like the brisk and practical presentation of the memorial as seating, as well as the splash of colour and texture in the area.

martin_place_11Passage by Anne Graham was created in 2001 as part of the Sydney Sculpture Walk. With its deep bronze bowls the sculpture references to the location’s past, including the domestic use of water (the lower part of Martin Place was built over the Tank Stream, a significant water source in the early colony). There is also a mist function which creates ghostly outlines of demolished houses, but I can’t recall ever seeing that in action. This work in a gentle and understated way celebrates the social and domestic history of inner Sydney. The separate elements are sensitive to the needs of pedestrians, while allowing the sculpture as a whole a larger footprint and presence. I’ve read that the mist of water can cause difficulties to passersby and this may be behind its relatively infrequent use. On a sunny day it seemed a missed opportunity.

martin_place_14The final sculpture I identified here is actually on the forecourt of the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) Building – Free standing sculpture by Margel Hinder (1964). Its abstract but rather gothic form contrasts and responds to the clean International Style architecture of the building.

martin_place_15Although named “Free standing” the sculpture closely wraps the external pilaster, almost like ivy up a wall.
martin_place_16The sculpture reaches virtually the full height of the portico and for what is actually quite a large item (2 tons of copper with a solid steel core) it seems almost self-effacing. I think this is due to the relative shadow under the building and the height difference from the level of a pedestrian in Martin Place up to the sculpture itself. In an RBA publication there is a rather nice reproduction of a cartoon by Paul Rigby, where Hindel’s sculpture has become an overbearing bank manager leaning intimidatingly over the desk towards the overdrawn (ho ho) Rigby – see, page 17. The sculpture is an effective expression of the importance and economic might of the RBA, and of its confident, modern and progressive stance at the time built.

martin_place_13I think this upper section of Martin Place is the most successful in the combination and placement of sculpture – the Commando memorial, Passage and Free standing sculpture. Each work has its own place and identity. The space overall has plenty of interest and variety, while the needs of people moving through are treated considerately. Even the shadows contributed to the overall effect, providing extra layers of visual texture.

The lower part of Martin Place also meets ceremonial, practical and to an extent aesthetic needs. However the middle three sections from above the Lloyd Rees fountain are a wasteland with utility apparently the major goal. It’s true that often the amphitheatre is in use and the area just above filled with temporary stands and activities, however this is the area I would focus on if commissioning a new sculpture.

Most of the current furnishings of Martin Place are low, with only banners and trees breaking above human height. Certainly nothing challenges or even directly relates to the tall buildings around. I would like to introduce something with height, which would also allow the footprint of the work to be relatively small, useful in a busy area with high pedestrian traffic. Many of the surrounding buildings are fairly old and built in sandstone, so a contrast in materials could be effective. Martin Place can also be quite dark and overshadowed by the buildings around, so a sculpture that reflects light around could brighten the area.

While this overall brief is quite general and could be interpreted by an artist in many ways, there is a work already available which would meet requirements. In fact it was designed for this exact location.

martin_place_19Pyramid Tower (1979) by Bert Flugelman won a 1978 design competition organised by the Sir William Dobell Art Foundation and the city council. I’m not sure of the precise location where it was installed in 1979 as things have been moved about a little, but close to the Lloyd Rees fountain. Even before installation it was controversial, seen as too large for the space (see Glascott, 1979). It was quickly nicknamed “the shish kebab”. One woman I knew, the art teacher mother of a friend, believed it was too derivative (I think she may have been referring to the work of David Smith – eg The sculpture was removed in 1996 – the area was being remodelled and the mayor of the time seemed particularly negative to the work. After a few years of uncertainty the sculpture was re-established a few blocks further down Pitt Street.

martin_place_20martin_place_18Pyramid Tower now sits on a small traffic island surrounded by buildings and rarely catching the sun. I think it sits well in the area, sharing reflections with the buildings around and giving a different perspective to passersby. It seems strange that a work that was considered to need more space than Martin Place should now be in such cramped quarters, but it seems flexible enough to give pleasure and interest in its new surroundings. There have been suggestions of reinstatement (see links below), but I can’t see it getting any traction.

That still leaves a large section of Martin Place in the wilderness in sculptural terms. The City of Sydney Council has an active arts and cultural program, but it seems to have bypassed the heart of Sydney.

More information

The Cenotaph –
GPO sculptures – and
Works by Lloyd Rees –
Lloyd Rees fountain –
Redevelopment including Lloyd Rees fountain –
Passage water sculpture –
Pyramid Tower – Glascott, J. (1979) “Controversy over site for sculpture” in The Sydney Morning Herald 11-April-1979 [online] Available from,3540518 (Accessed 30-Dec-2013).
Pyramid Tower relocation – and
City of Sydney Council arts and culture program –

UA1-WA:P3-p2-Ex Visit a public square
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part three: Modern art and still life
Project two: From 1945 to the present
Exercise: Visit a public square

UA1-WA:P3-p2-Ex Reflecting on abstract expressionism

This exercise asks for thoughts on some questions on abstract expressionism.

To what extent does a concern with elemental humanity represent a reaction to the cataclysmic events of 1939-45 and the displacement of so many Europeans, including a number of artists, in the wake of the Second World War?

The impact of war on twentieth century art was seen well before the Abstract Expressionists. Picasso’s Guernica of 1937 (see may be the best known example. Before that, the searing brutality of works by Otto Dix (for example, George Grosz and Max Beckmann and the grief of Käthe Kollwitz ( responded to WWI. Denvir (1975, p. 55) described Grosz as “using visual violence to excoriate the establishment and propagate his own democratic ideas”.

The words of some artists show the impact of the war. Newman recalled “in 1940 some of us woke up to find ourselves without hope – to find that painting did not really exist” (Newman, [n.d.]) In a radio broadcast in 1943 Rothko and Gottlieb claimed tragic content was the only response as “in times of violence, personal predilections for niceties of colour and form seem irrelevant” (Rothko and Gottlieb, 1943). Another quote from Rothko: “I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions – tragedy, ecstasy, doom” (Rothko, [n.d.] a)

American artists in this period were turning against the previously accepted traditions of Old World painting and I think it is possible that this was influenced by a perception of failure of the traditional systems in politics as well as art. They may also have felt able to venture away from recent European-based movements such as Surrealism because of the sense that the cutting edge of culture and artistic development was now in America, and particularly New York. There was a feeling of “immanent self-importance” and “a common goal was perceived to be the mystery, violence and spontaneity associated with the modern experience on all its levels” (Anfam, 1990, p. 79).

Another indirect impact of WWII was felt when Cold War supporters in America promoted Abstract Expressionism, the movement becoming “enshrined as America’s aesthetic ambassador to the world and a symbol of its superior freedoms” (Anfam, 1990, p. 174).

Rothko said that, ‘The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point’. Does it matter if viewers of art works ‘miss the point’ provided that they take something from it?

This question connects back to earlier discussion on myths as a subject in art – see 2-Nov-2013 – and Rothko himself used symbolism from myth, “totem forms and hieroglyphic annotations [to] evoke such grand themes as conflict, sexuality and death” (McAuliffe, 2013, p. 28). In my November post I suggested that meaning could be shared without knowing the specifics of a myth, that some gestures are universal and speak to shared humanity.

To me that argument doesn’t seem to hold when considering abstract expressionism, but this is at odds with a conviction spreading in the late 1930s “that meaning could be conveyed through the physical primacy of the medium” (Anfam, 1990, p. 55).

Rothko also said “It is our function as artists to make the spectator see the world our way – not his way”, but I don’t think I can bridge the distance of time and culture. I spent time with two works by Rothko in Canberra – Multiform 1948 ( ) and 1957 # 20 ( maroon_treeI have no notion whether my emotions and thoughts overlapped in even the smallest way with Rothko’s as he painted. Perhaps there was some direct connection – who could ever say? I don’t believe it invalidates my experience one way or another. I spent time looking at the painted surface as a painted surface, and in a less focused reverie. On my walk to the gallery the next morning I saw this tree a bit differently. It seems trivial, but to me it is real and meaningful.

Sometimes it seems arrogant to me, the expectation placed on viewer by the artists combined with minimal support. On the other hand, perhaps it was a combination of a belief in the power of their medium and a meaning that they couldn’t express in words. Speaking about She Wolf (1943) Pollock remarked it “came into existence because I had to paint it. Any attempt on my part to say something about it, to attempt explanation of the inexplicable, could only destroy it” (Pollock, 1944). Speaking about the same painting, an audio commentary on the MoMA website comments on the “rather frantic notations as if there were some message being transcribed … this urgency of human communications and yet you don’t know exactly what that communication is” (MoMA, [n.d.]).

Thaw (1986, p.43) wrote “While the Abstract Expressionists as a group have overwhelmingly proved that abstract art can serve as a vehicle for the revelation of the unconscious, and therefore be a means to communicate artistic content of urgency to humanity, such meaning cannot be forced and must remain unspecific, untranslatable into words”. Perhaps I am showing my inexperience in Art and Art History by expecting to verbalise the communication of a painting.

Is it possible to make any sort of formal analysis of these artists’ works – or of Pop Art?

The ambiguity inherent in abstract expressionism creates a difficulty in analysis. De Kooning said “That’s what fascinates me – to make something that you will never be sure of, and no one else will either” (de Kooning, 1972).

Basic visual elements remain, or their absence can be noted: lines and their nature, use of colour and tone, texture, depth of space, ground, shapes. There may be patterning, rhythms, differing density, stresses, different marks.

Modern art may try to stress its autonomy, but there is always context – other work by the same artist, works by other artists, social and political conditions. Art may be responding to or commenting on consumerism, or exploring the artist’s own psyche, or experimenting with optical effects or the way materials interact.

Much of this is open to description, comparison and evaluation – analysis. However “meaning” is more difficult.

What do you make of Clement Greenberg’s assertion that ‘Realist, illusionist art had dissembled the medium, using art to conceal art. Modernism used art to call attention to art.’?

I mentioned Greenberg when writing about Blue Poles (26-Dec-2013). Greenberg championed Pollock when the work met his (Greenberg’s) theories about focus on surface and materials, then withdrew support (“shaky”) when Pollock stepped outside the theoretical boundaries. Honour and Fleming (2009, p. 844) conclude their discussion of Modernism and Formalism “[Greenberg’s] extreme version of Modernism can now be seen as belonging essentially to the Cold War years and in some respects limited by its reflection of that ideological and political climate”. Greenberg’s assertion quoted in the question is arguable true – “art” itself was the subject of some of the Abstract Expressionist art – but it isn’t complete. That was the concern of some artists of that time and quite possibly today, however other artists then and now have other concerns, and of course the same artist may have different concerns at different times. If art is an autonomous field of practice then any theoretical limits have to be provisional. That last bit came mostly from Glenn Adamson’s thinking through craft which I wrote about in a post 6-July-2012, so I won’t repeat here, however I will repeat a quote from John McDonald (2012) – when considering contemporary art “one can be a fashion victim rather than an art historian and no one will notice the difference”.


Adamson, G. (2007) thinking through craft, Oxford: Berg.

Anfam, D. (1990) Abstract Expressionism. London: Thames & Hudson

de Kooning, W. (1972), quoted in Anfam, D. (1990) Abstract Expressionism. London: Thames & Hudson, p. 179.

Denvir, B. (1975) Fauvism and Expressionism. London: Thames and Hudson.

Honour, H. and Fleming, J. (2009) A World History of Art (revised 7th edition). London: Laurence King.

McAuliffe, C. (2013) “America: Fascinating background to the works on show” in Look 12(13)/ 01(14) pp. 26-29. Sydney: Art Gallery Society of New South Wales.

McDonald, J. (2012) “In with the new” The Sydney Morning Herald 23-June-2012 [online] Available from (Accessed 6 July 2012)

MoMa (The Museum of Modern Art) ([n.d.]) Jackson Pollock The She Wolf 1943 multimedia. [online] Available from (Accessed 21-Dec-2013).

Newman, B. ([n.d.]), quoted in Anfam, D. (1990) Abstract Expressionism. London: Thames & Hudson, p.77.

Pollock, J. (1944), quoted in Anfam, D. (1990) Abstract Expressionism. London: Thames & Hudson, p. 87.

Rothko, M. ([n.d.] a), quoted in Anfam, D. (1990) Abstract Expressionism. London: Thames & Hudson, p. 184.

Rothko, M. ([n.d.] b), quoted in McAuliffe, C. (2013) “America: Fascinating background to the works on show” in Look 12(13)/ 01(14) pp. 26-29. Sydney: Art Gallery Society of New South Wales.

Rothko, M. and Gottlieb, A. (1943), quoted in Anfam, D. (1990) Abstract Expressionism. London: Thames & Hudson, p. 78.

Thaw, E. (1986) “The Abstract Expressionists.” in The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, 44 (3) (Winter, 1986–87). [online] Available from (Accessed 25-December-2013)

Other resources Website of the MoMA Abstract Expressionist New York exhibition October 2010 to April 2011.

UA1-WA:P3-p2-Ex Reflecting on abstract expressionism
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part three: Modern art and still life
Project two: From 1945 to the present
Exercise: Reflecting on abstract expressionism

UA1-WA:P3-p1-Ex Finding affinities

This exercise asks for the floor plan of a building – real or imagined, public or private – designed between the wars (in the context of the course, clearly assuming World Wars I and II). We then develop a wish list of art works, the only proviso being their creation between 1900 and 1939.

I have decided to imagine a home for myself, reflecting my own tastes and environment. As always I prefer to select works that I have seen in person, and for the past few weeks every gallery visit has had an element of a shopping expedition.

This will be a modest home on the lower north shore of Sydney, looking out over bush and with harbour glimpses. The eaves should have a deep overhang to control summer sun and I would like an internal courtyard to bring light and any breeze into the centre of the house (also to cater for one of my chosen artworks).

planThe floor plan is heavily based on the Salter House by Walter Burley Griffen in Toorak, Victoria (c. 1925). It met all my requirements with the bonus of being by an architect with strong links to Australia. It is on one level, which is standard for Australian homes (or was!). The layout is very forward-thinking, with the living area largely open. I would make the entire house slightly larger in all dimensions. I’ve also combined the study and second bedroom to create a large workroom/studio, and added an external door there. If building today I would take down the wall between kitchen and dining room.

A plan and perspective view of the Salter House is at An internal view from the 1920s is at

For the public areas of the house I chose works which combined structure and curves. There were two key pieces from which I started my selection. The long chair designed by Marcel Breuer and manufactured by Isokon Furniture Company, c.1936, bent and laminated plywood ( sits in the centre of the house beside the courtyard. The second key is in the courtyard itself – Constantin Brancusi’s L’Oiseau dans l’espace [Bird in space] c.1931-36, displayed just as I saw them at the National Gallery in Canberra – see There are two “birds”, one black marble, white marble ‘collar’, sandstone base, the other white marble, limestone ‘collar’, sandstone base. They are set in a shallow pool of water which appears still but is actually falling over a concealed edge to provide the lovely sound of trickling water. I have some concerns about exposing these works to the elements, so will have to get some clever solutions from the architect and conservator.

Guests arriving would first see Kasimir Malevich’s Stroyuschiysya dom [House under construction] (see This Suprematist work may seem angular and boxy, but when actually standing before it the eye moves in smooth curves around the picture. I also find it welcoming and centering, there seem to be stopping guards that keep the eye in the frame, while the fine near-horizontal lines in the lower left somehow make it lively and light-hearted.

Moving further into the reception room one comes to Red and orange streak by Georgia O’Keeffe (1919) which is currently in Sydney in the America exhibition. This is a strong work, not at all restful, but I think appropriate in the most formal and public area of the house. Providing some balancing softness and texture is a rug on the floor designed by Roy de Maistre in the early 1930s (see The lines of the rug also link back to the Breuer chair, easily visible from the front door.

Moving into the less formal living room one’s attention would be taken first by The Bridge in-curve which was painted by Grace Cossington Smith in 1930 (see This celebrates the curved structure of the bridge, continuing the theme of the reception room in a softer and more varied palette. It grounds the room in its location and I can imagine glimpses of the harbour in the windows on either side. This wall – painting and view outside – provides the major colour in this room. On the righthand wall is a smaller work, the photograph Tea cup ballet by Olive Cotton circa 1935 ( The photograph combines structure, curves and movement in an unexpected way, an underlying domestic thread in a very sophisticated and sharp presentation. I imagine it as the focal point of an arrangement on the wall including bookshelves and family photographs. The work by Cotton is a gelatin silver photograph, so somewhat warm metallic monochrome.

On the opposite wall is another work in a related palette, Guitar, 1924, painted metal by Pablo Picasso (the best photo I found is The curves and structure are obvious. Thoughtful hanging and lighting would provide shadows to link with Cotton’s photograph opposite. Standing in the centre of the living room one could face the single wall of colour, then turn to the Picasso, Brancusi’s monochrome birds and the natural colour of Breuer’s chair, Olive Cotton’s photograph then back to the bridge and Grace Cossington Smith. I think they would live happily together.

Implement Blue Margaret Preston 1927 oil on canvas on hardboard

Implement Blue
Margaret Preston
1927 oil on canvas on hardboard

Moving through into the dining room one would first see Implement Blue by Margaret Preston. Depending on position one would be able to see this work and Cotton’s at the same time and it would provide an interesting comparison. I like the very controlled element of domesticity, the limited palette, curves and structure of course, and I feel a still life is very appropriate in a dining room. (Note there is an annoying reflection in the photograph I took, so it is particularly worth going to the Gallery’s website.).

Still life: apples and jar Samuel John Peploe circa 1912-circa 1916 oil on canvas

Still life: apples and jar
Samuel John Peploe
circa 1912-circa 1916 oil on canvas

The second work in this room is another still life, Still life: apples and jar by Samuel John Peploe. It could be endlessly fascinating to compare and contrast the two works. While the dining room is a public space, I can also imagine sitting at the table eating breakfast, eyes going from one work to the other while I think about the day ahead in the studio.

Moving to the private areas of the house and the bedroom, Henri Matisse’s large work L’Enlevement d’Europe [The abduction of Europa] (1929) would be wonderful. A work on this subject was the topic of my annotation of a sixteenth century Italian painting (28-July-2013), and it would seem entirely inappropriate in a bedroom. However Matisse’s work shows a moment later in the story and in fact I think is quite misnamed – “The seduction of Europa” would be more accurate. The scene is not the aftermath of an act of violence. The woman lies relaxed and satisfied, phallic symbols abound and the bull, triumphant tail aloft, appears to be winking at the viewer.

Dancer looking at the sole of her right foot  Edgar Degas bronze, cire perdu (lost wax) 1900-1910 cast 1919-1921

Dancer looking at the sole of her right foot
Edgar Degas
bronze, cire perdu (lost wax) 1900-1910 cast 1919-1921

On a small table in the corner between two windows is Dancer looking at the sole of her right foot. This is a lovely and inviting work with lots of interesting shapes and angles as you move around it. With light of different direction and intensity coming through the two windows some complex shadows could be formed.

The final work I have selected would be hung in the workroom / studio. Femme nue lisant (Nude woman reading) by Robert Delaunay (1920) is full of colour, full of curves (see It was one of three versions of this composition hung together in the Paths to abstraction exhibition a few years ago. I particularly like the stretch of her back in this version and the tilt of her foot. It seems energetic and purposeful and I think just right for my muse and companion in my workroom.

UA1-WA:P3-p1-Ex Finding affinities
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part three: Modern art and still life
Project one: Into the twentieth century
Exercise: Finding affinities


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