Have just finished two solid days of crits. This time with second year BA Fine Art.
These are particularly interesting sessions. Students are about six weeks into the course and they are starting to establish personal directions. Some of them I met for the first time last week when I came in to hold tutorials, so I’m aware that I have to be careful I don’t repeat myself.
It’s the first crit of the year, so a reminder of the ‘rules of the game’ are given. Twenty minutes each, no more than five minutes for individual student presentations and no one to be negatively critical. This should be an experience about potential and possibilities, but first of all it should be about each individual owning the experience and helping the group in directing the focus of the crit into fruitful areas. Therefore everyone reads the crit text, (similar to the one I posted earlier) before the crits start as a reminder of some of the issues they may try and deal with.
Practice is pretty wide, from performance to painting, through traditional sculpture to film making, each group is composed of six students.
The particular mix of students and disciplines can lead to very different approaches. For instance one afternoon session was dominated by painters. This led to a much tighter group involvement. One key theme that was dealt with was how does anybody start to develop an individual practice? Painting is not as ubiquitous as it used to be, but it seems to me that interest is returning. Joseph Beuys’s comment when walking through the old Vernon Street studios of, “Painting, painting, everywhere I see painting”, not being as true now perhaps as then but the reality underlying his comment still persists. Why continue to do it? Why continue to use an age old method of making images in a digital world?
There were two camps, one where the painters were coming from a very abstract position, developing personal approaches to colour, form, application etc. and one student coming from a figurative tradition. The more abstract people presented before the figurative painter; one other student was engaged in social sculpture, but he was pretty interested in painting himself, so once his crit was finished (he was first on) he engaged with everyone else’s with enthusiasm.
This particular session is of interest to me because it is very easy for me to compare and contrast it to a session from thirty-five years ago. A particular language would have been used then and the job of the tutor would have been to show how it worked and point out ‘failures’ in its application. It would have been assumed that painting was a valid occupation and that formal issues were central to the debate.
This session starts with students introducing their approaches. Student one has painted large swathes of colour bands, which he calls roads. One orange, painted through a stencil onto paper, about five feet in height, the ‘road’ of colour approximately one foot six to two feet wide. This is a single layer application of a mid orange, occasionally flecks of white showing through, bottom edge sharp, top edge ragged. One gestural mark cuts it in the centre. This is done with a stick of charcoal, the mark having a slight curve, so it looks as if it’s done ‘from the shoulder’. The other image consists of three ‘roads’ of colour, all vertical of the same width as before. This time two dark green stripes frame a yellow one which is in tone very close to the paper support. This time the green bands are modulated and there is more visual texture. No single mark, just the three vertical bands of colour.
The student has much more work in his studio at home, work requiring much patience seems to go on there. For instance he describes a painting with a gesso ground which he has sanded and re-laid several times. However we can only really respond to what is in front of us, but his description makes us aware of his ability to craft and maintain focus.
The first issue is this use of the term ‘road’. He is searching for what he calls an ‘honest mark’. I introduce the road outside into the argument. How honest is the yellow line painted by the council? Is this as honest as the black rubber lines made by skid marks? What constitutes authenticity? This engages the others; he shows a drawing done in anger after a fall-out with a girlfriend. Some students feel this is really ‘authentic’. The single line dashed off across the orange slab is apparently of a similar character. We struggle to find ways in to this. I point out the emotive drawing is on A1 and this is about the same size as a torso and we could look at this drawing as a punch-bag. A receptacle for anger venting, marks as a result of striking an imaginary torso. This seems to echo or chime with something. I open out the embodied mind hypothesis. Trying to ground the meaning in direct physical experience, a more phenomenological approach.
Something about the way colour is talked about makes me realise that these students have not had an old fashioned Foundation course. I ask them all to stare at the orange slab, let their eyes defocus for about three minutes and wait for the blue afterimage to start glowing around the orange edge. Then once it appears to shift their vision to one side of the orange. They do this and are amazed, one student thinks it’s like having an imaginary door open. Such a simple thing, but something that needs pointing out in order to take it on board, now we can start talking colour experience more precisely. How are warms mediated by cools? What sort of neutral is this or that? We start looking at other paintings around. Where does the moment of ‘life’ or energy come from? This is an old debate, which I was fascinated to find being re-thought within a very post-post-modern environment, also lots of debate as to when one colour might start moving off ‘centre’ and how afterimages from simultaneous contrasts could be used to generate optical movement.
The crit returns to the emotional issues surrounding the break-up. A relationship can take a long time to build, you become familiar with the other person and then in one brief moment it can all fall apart. Can we approach a painting’s development in the same way? Perhaps days of careful preparation, sanding, priming, layering etc. careful glazing and undercoating, all blasted away by paint being splattered or thrown or dumped on the surface,or paint being applied thoughtlessly or badly?
Eventually we move on. The next student has made a variety of approaches to painting, some very gestural, some colour squares looking for his ‘colour’ combinations, a ‘palette’ of wood consisting of a plywood off-cut about four feet long and nine inches wide, a roll of wall-paper, gestures running up and down it, a single squiggle of blue moving along the centre, making a sharp contrast with warmer paint gestures below. He also has a large charcoal drawing, which one of the other students is very engaged with. Again what comes out of the introduction is this search for a personal language. The student is one I had a tutorial with last week and I had suggested he was getting over complicated, that he should focus on one clear issue at a time, be it colour, form, application, surface etc. He had done the colour square painting as a response to this and felt he had ‘found’ some of his colours.
Again this issue of authenticity, I suggest once you are lost in the process you don’t worry about it. The search for personal approaches to colour is interesting and we focus on this. The question as to where our colour sensibility comes from is debated. Is it forged by early years’ experiences, like the colour of the nursery wallpaper, dad’s car, the landscape you grew up in? Is it culturally specific? Is it something from nature or nurture? I suggest one approach is to look for the colours you hate. Love and hate are very close emotionally and perhaps what you find as a young painter is that no matter how hard you mix, you can never find a wrong mix. In fact the more you mix the more interesting the range of colours are invented. I wish we had a full set of Munsell’s colour sphere samples available, because I could demonstrate how all the colours being mixed so far are within a pretty narrow range.
However the debate soon moves on to the other pieces. The paint on un-primed plywood becomes the centre of interest. The student calls this a ’totem’. It started life as a pallet but he soon realised that the marks and paint surfaces were ‘authentic’ or ‘honest’, again we return to these two terms. We all agree that the way these marks are made gives the plywood shape an unselfconscious ‘honesty’. The range of mark qualities is interesting too. From ragged and transparent, to thick and clotted; heavily oiled to dry, chalky marks, where the ply has sucked out the paint’s life.
Finally we wonder if all the various paintings could be treated simply as palettes. The painter always to be working towards an unknown painting that would only come into being once a decision to stop using a painting as a palette was taken. This could ‘renew’ the life of a painting and perhaps be a type of process whereby we could catch it off guard.
The student shows us a drawing he did. A large charcoal drawing about five feet across. A landscape is suggested by a line that wavers horizontally across the centre. Then the line breaks off and becomes engaged very loosely with echoes of the female form. To the top left some scratchy marks next to a ‘sun’ composed of roughly drawn circles, in the centre a charcoal ‘rubbed’ area of grey. It is a very open ‘lyrical’ drawing. I suggest that the control of charcoal comes naturally and that in comparison the paintings are a struggle. We talk about riding a bike. It might take some time to feel comfortable and all of them needed to spend more time with their materials and colour mixing in order to be familiar enough with them for it to become easy. Then, paintings could be as lyrical as this drawing.
Another student starts to show us his work. These paintings are gestural too. Last week he was also at tutorial and was making paintings using large blobs of paint. I had suggested he look at removal as much as application and as the paint was industrial had suggested industrial removal techniques, paint strippers and blow guns. However he has gone off on another tack.
Large paintings on un-stretched and I think un-primed canvas. I stand in front of this and try and mime the marks, the student is left-handed, we consider the marks as the record of a type of ballet. We go back to the characteristics of the marks and colour choice. In this case there are large neutral areas, so I question him on his mixes, he hasn’t really thought about this. Are these perhaps, yellow/violet mixes or green/red or blue/orange? If so what sort of green/red? I introduce the idea of discords. An old debate hovers in the back of my consciousness, but I try and hold it back. Again though what constitutes ‘life’ for a painting is considered.
Eventually we get to the figurative work. Two paintings, both from photographs, one on paper and a larger one on board. The student talks about the emotional content of the initial engagement with photographs. It would appear that painting was a way to heighten the emotional ‘feeling’ tone of the images. Looking at these two images it’s clear that some passages of paint are engaging and lively, whilst others are ‘dead’ and overworked. Most of these passages are around the facial areas and it becomes apparent that in the struggle to get verisimilitude paint becomes tied up and over killed. It is suggested that the student in future tries to work up-side-down. Lots of framing passages of paint is done. By using sheets of white paper, the paintings can be converted into ‘abstracts’. Some of the earlier issues regarding ‘authentic’ marks return and it’s a way of bringing all the painters into a dialogue with the meaning of different paint surfaces.
Finally we return to grounds, applicators, colour mixing and content. Where is content coming from? Is the figurative painting more content rich or not? Above all it is suggested they all need to put hours in learning their trade. Know what grounds can do, know how different types of under-painting change the perception of upper layers, understand why and how different brushes, knives and applicators such as squeegees are used, understand glaze technology, mix paints from scratch, understand how to make shop bought paint have more ‘bite’ by carefully adding pigment etc etc.
Finally students are asked to make a list of doable actions and the session finishes. This is approximately three hours in total, so I have missed out lots of stuff, such as which artists people are looking at. In fact I tend to try and avoid other artists at this stage, as if they have a powerful individual language, this can be so hard to get away from.
The end result is hopefully something usable by everyone. It is though a totally different approach to the 1970s. At one point I did introduce the idea of open and closed forms, not as an illustration of what is right or wrong but simply to give them a bit of language as to how to articulate certain forms and their relationships.
These students have to find an answer. I have no answers for them. I might have thought once that I did but experience tells me that they are more likely to find their own way if they have confidence in themselves and the worst thing I can do is destroy that.