One of the first sessions I taught on Foundation was with Gavin Stuart. Gavin had been there a long time and had worked under Harry Thubron. He was very intense and at times hard to understand but he totally believed in looking as a moment of perceptual wonder. The session lasted a full half day, we used easels, with A1 paper fixed onto drawing boards and we got through a lot of charcoal.
The students were introduced to the concept of figure and ground, then an initial charcoal mark was made on the surface of a piece of paper and students were initially asked to consider it. We spent some time reviewing these marks. What sort of energy did they have? Were they directional? (I.e. implying movement) How did they sit on the paper? Did they sit behind the surface or on top of it? Did the mark have an illustrative quality? (If it did, this was a bad thing).
The next step was to consider the energy field that the mark occupied and to extend the mark out to the limits of this field. Students returned to the drawing carefully growing the mark, it was becoming more blob like now, a shape rather than a mark. After a while they would be asked to stop and we would again look at the results.
The focus of this stage became more about the form and shape of the expanded image. What was the dialogue between it and the edges of the paper? Was it still moving off in any one direction, was it attracted to or responding to one edge of the paper more than another?
Finally regard was centred on the positive and negative issues. As the blob expanded was it making you more aware of the white paper? At this stage the white paper was still dominant, so once thoughts as to dynamic and energy were considered, how far could the blob be expanded, taking care to never let it become the dominant? Students were asked to seek the point whereby the blob form as image, started to oscillate with the white ground in such a way that image and ground could begin to flicker between each other.
Again students would grow the form, carefully expanding it, rubbing in the charcoal to create dense blacks and then cutting back the edges if it was felt one side had more attraction than another to a particular edge. All the time Gavin and myself would circulate pointing out overly dramatic forms that threw attention on to the blob and not the image as a whole.
Finally we would have a crit; pointing out which forms sat in perfect tension between positive and negative and the dynamics of those forms that didn’t. The differences in blobs would be considered, edge qualities, form changes as the organic shape had to reconcile itself with the rectangle, each blob like form being of a family of form not unlike the forms discovered when students had had to find shapes between a circle and a square (see the Hawk and Handsaw post).
Then of course there was the charcoal dust issue. Working at easels meant that as students worked up the surface of the drawings a cascade of charcoal dust was falling and making traces of itself as the drawing progressed. The dust would pile up on the easel’s ledge and sometime leave a line at the bottom edge of the paper. This issue would become part of the debate around awareness and process. I must admit I was more interested in this than Gavin. Coming from a more conceptual background, the embedding of process within art works was fascinating, and in particular the traces of situations as a type of physical memory was of particular interest. I don’t think Gavin was at all interested in this; it was an optical engagement he was looking for not a conceptual one.
Readings such as is the black a hole in space, or is the white the space and the black the object, were debated and finally Gavin would pick out what he considered the ‘authentic’ images.
This is another fascinating issue and one I think students found very hard to follow. Gavin was looking for the form that ‘found itself’. That wasn’t too self conscious in its making. This meant that any student ‘over designing’ the image would be told that their drawing was inferior to another where the image had just ‘happened’. It was often the brighter students who over designed, simply because they had twigged what was going on and they were following the principles as they understood them. I would have probably done this myself if I had joined Gavin’s class, so it was hard on them to see Gavin picking out some poor lost student’s work as being the best example of what he was looking for. I sort of got it, but it was counter-productive in some ways. There was this need for naivety and therefore freshness and rawness and yet there was also a call for a very sophisticated awareness of visual language. The two were a hard fit; therefore some students who couldn’t reconcile this were disenfranchised. Sometimes labelled ‘designers’ and not ‘artists’ which was pretty dam awful really as this was a diagnostic course, the very diagnosis at times being a value judgement that regarded design as an inferior occupation. This didn’t happen that often but enough for those students who chose the design route to feel like second class citizens.