Monday and Tuesday have been devoted to studio crits
These were not formal crits as such, more checking in with people before the holidays. There is going to be a second year assessment two weeks into the spring term and the following module in reality is simply an extension of the module students are on now. The assessment will therefore be more a chance to do a mid-year test the waters. However the marks gained will go towards the students’ degree classification so there immediately comes into play a tension between what should be done to satisfy the educational requirements of assessments and what is the best thing to do if you are to progress with the work?
Some of the issues that came up on Monday:
One student had been working with animal skulls, building a musculature out of rolled lengths of clay which he had painted with PVA in order to stop them breaking up as they dried. The piece he brought to the crit consisted of two deer heads, one with horns, the bottom of the head made of the hornless skull, attached up-side down to the other skull, thus making a ‘carnivorous’ mouth and ‘active’ bottom jaw. These two skulls were then attached to an underlying framework and then lengths of rolled grey clay had been used to make an invented muscle structure that operated as a type of neck. The whole thing was about two foot six inches high. Most of the students in the crit felt this looked like a prop from a science fiction film. The student who made the object was happy with this association as he was also into science fiction and comic books. Quite a lot of time was spent talking about finish. PVA coated clay might be a short term solution to the cracking problem, but was the ‘look’ right? There were lots of suggestions from other students, including felting, rubbing in shoe polish, which the maker thought might be a good idea, especially if rubbed into crannies and highlights polished off. There was also talk of spraying with imitation metal etc. etc. Attention moved on to making using wax, casting possibilities etc. also what would happen if a mass of elastic bands had been used to imitate the musculature? The student was asked if he would be prepared to carve the skulls rather than just use found ones. (Incidentally, the two deer skulls had been given to him earlier on in the term when he had been on a bronze casting course in Scotland; one of the people they had worked with was also a ranger and he picked these deer skulls up on a regular basis). The student then showed us a pig’s backbone that he had stripped and rebuilt around a plastic tube which worked as its support. He wants to make full scale animals, and the conversation then turned to drawing. Drawing is a much more economical way of visualising three dimensional ideas, so it was suggested that he perhaps work from this existing piece, trying different approaches to drawing, until he had an appropriate language and then using that language to visualise his ideas for larger more ambitious pieces. The invention of the musculature was also an area that it was felt was not quite convincing enough and investment in on the one hand anatomy books was suggested, and on the other hand it was suggested that as there is a medical illustration course at one of the hospitals in Leeds, that he at some point goes and makes contact to see if he can have access to their resources. A general conversation about craft then started and this conversation came up again several times during the day. The issue was about particular skills. The student had mentioned when asked if he would be prepared to carve his own skulls, that at the moment he didn’t have the skills. It was suggested that this was a challenge and that he could be having a go at this just to develop those very skills he felt he was lacking. The general conversation centred around the fact that sculpture courses used to be seven years long, simply because there were so many skills to learn and that a three year course can sometimes seen too short to apply yourself to skill development because you can lose sight of ideas if you get too involved with learning a craft. It was suggested that audiences for art now wanted to see more craft in the making of things and that if as students they got far enough along with the process of learning particular crafts, they could continue to develop these skills as they matured. But if they didn’t make a good start, they wouldn’t know where to begin. This was of interest to several students and it does seem to me that there is a sea change coming. Where once students struggled with conceptual ideas, their lack of exposure to making things (I’m not sure whether this is to do with the rise of health and safety or simply that no one makes things anymore) means that they now struggle with using their hands or using their hands is novel and therefore interesting again.
Another student is one who attended the short drawing session I ran last week. He has been making plastic bag and plaster pieces, but he feels he has come to a dead end and now needs to find a new start. He has been musing on what his interests are and has decided that it is the senses, sight, smell, touch, taste etc. Initially his first thoughts are that he would like to work with ideas involving contradiction, smell contradicting sight etc. Before dealing with his wishes to move on his current work is considered and he is questioned as to whether or not he has made most of the possibilities. His drawings from last week are on the wall and what were plaster lumps in plastic bags now look as if they could be made of any material. It is suggested he sets off to carve these objects using the drawings as templates. It is also suggested that he wood-grain the drawings to get an idea of what these objects could be like. His interest in contradiction could it was pointed out come out this way. However he wants to make a fresh start. His first illustration is the smell of roast chicken and the only thing you can see in the room is a pile of shit. This opens out the group’s discussion into lots of other directions, in particular the nature of synaesthesia and related issues such as phantom limb syndrome. I.e. we get involved with what the collective group understands about how perception works and how the brain translates everything into neural impulses. Whether collectively we are scientifically right or not doesn’t really matter, the point being that collectively people are intimating that he needs to develop more research around the area before he decides on what he wants to do. One thought is that perhaps it is the difficult to understand connections that will become the most fruitful. What is the connection between weight and touch, what smell belongs to a red cube?
Next we are looking at small paintings made on wooden blocks, approximately two inches square and three-quarters of an inch thick. These are ‘abstracts’ made from satellite images of the land; the student has the originals pinned up on the wall in a grid. The blocks are also presented in grid format, about one inch between each block. Discussion opens with the paint quality. The paint has been applied quite tentatively and not very attuned to the possibilities of paint. This is someone who didn’t attend the painting workshop that was on last week and it is very apparent that the techniques introduced would have been of use, so these techniques are pointed to as things you can teach yourself and that as a course we stock the necessary ingredients if someone wanted to have a go. Attention moves to the grid of images cut from magazines and images printed off from internet searches. These are all satellite images of geographical formations, which looked at from the air are reduced to texture and colour. The forms are interesting as they suggest materials in liquid movement frozen into various states. Could paints be made to operate in the same way? Ways of making lakes, river valleys, plateaus etc of paint are suggested and it is further suggested that the student gets more involved with an understanding of the physical processes at work and that this understanding might feed an approach to the material handling of paint. The actual location of the images is also discussed, could materials sourced from these sites be ground down into pigments? One suggestion is to set out a series of travel locations and trip itineraries, the final work becoming a mixture of travelogue and recipe book. Eventually focus changes again and the way the blocks are set out is questioned, what happens if there is only one block, where would it go? What if there was an apparently random organisation of them, what if they were located at points on an invisible grid?Someone else who did last week’s drawing workshop has been looking at languages. During the workshop she developed a language using a sharp scalpel making cut outs of ‘letters’ from coloured tape. These tiny letters (about 6 to 8 point in size) are randomly distributed on an A1 sheet of cartridge paper and lengths of coloured tape that the letters have been cut from are also stuck onto A1 sheets, about a quarter of the way down a portrait view. On a table in front of this work she displays some paper cubes on which she has drawn the ‘letters’ in felt tip as well as using the scalpel cutting techniques. She has also made some grids using ‘snapped’ string, which slightly spatters ink around itself as lines are made by printing and again cut coloured tape letters are inserted within the grid. The discussion opens with issues of quality. The cartridge paper is standard low grade 100gsm and has no presence in comparison to the cut letter forms. What research has been done on papers? The conversation moves into papers and their different qualities. This is a general conversation now and becomes simply about how important it is to know about one of the most basic materials that everyone uses nearly everyday. I throw in information relating to what manufacturers there are out there to look at, such as Arches who make mould-made, 100% cotton fibre papers , hot pressed or cold pressed, warm or cold-white in colour. It is then suggested that she send off for samples and that perhaps this sort of research is something that can be done over the Christmas break. The conversation eventually turns towards making your own paper. You can do this at college and the equipment is readily available. However finding the right approach to this is going to be important. One suggestion is making paper from white wood-pulp and stirring in the ‘letters’ (again scalpel cut but this time from paper or perhaps keeping them made of tape) as the mix is being made, just before the mesh is pulled up through the mix. These ‘letters’ would then be totally embedded and part of the paper. How craft becomes part of decision making is important here and how it can lead to precision in visual thinking. It looks as if this work is using the Phonecian first phonetic alphabet as a base. The student doesn’t yet know what the letter forms sound like, however it is suggested that there is a website whereby you can get an idea of how they might be voiced. Could these become sound pieces? What would be the text? How would a script be written? It is suggested that she look at an old ‘Eye Music’ catalogue and the visualisations of sound produced by John Cage for musicians to play. One student suggests that her texts could be filmed, animated and projected. Another suggestion is to use an old lectern and replace the area where a book would be with a grained screen, images projected up from a hidden projector in the lectern’s base. It starts to get all too prescriptive, so we close.
One student has been making small light boxes. She wants to use the boxes to view images transferred onto glass. These images are about memory and the transfer method is part of a degrading process that is supposed to reflect how memories fade with time. There is however a technical problem to solve. These light boxes have glued bases and no way of getting back into them to change a battery and no thought about how they might be fixed to a wall or how and where batteries might go, light fittings attached etc. We discuss how to research light boxes, (there are ‘how to’ videos on YouTube etc.) and then look at how to do an isometric drawing, so that if you are going to talk to technicians about what you want, you have a drawing that has actual measurements and is something easy to understand. The artist’s responsibility to be clear about what is needed is opened out and what the relationship with technicians is. This feels really important, as there is a tendency for students to rely on technicians to make decisions for them. Even a simple box has many possibilities and we discuss the difference between butt ended joints, mitre joints, mortise and tenon, dowel jointing etc and how to show them on a drawing. I end up doing a rough isometric; the advantage of drawing that that you can explain differences clearly. Eventually we get back to the idea and discuss other ways of illustrating memory and how it fades, perhaps projecting images and taking them out of focus and then re-photographing them.
At the end of the day the conversation moves to responding to a piece that consists of a mattress that has been cut in half. The two halves are joined by what appear to be turned wooden table legs, (these have been made rather than just cut from a table) and the legs separate the two halves of the mattress by breaking through the white fabric cover. The student is interested in sex and its messiness and has been considering pouring oil over the mattress to stain it. The table legs penetrate in an obvious sexual metaphor and the language of these materials is linked to the language of coupling. There are lots of issues to consider here, most of which are about getting the components into a space that allows the student to see clearly what is happening. The work literally fills the space she is working in and so the first thing is to identify an area to take the work to. We also discuss how to re-see the the elements. Do we raise them up, turn them on their sides etc. One suggestion is to think about how a work like this might be transported and to build a travelling box that can also operate as a sort of plinth. The use of oils to stain the mattress is also opened out. There is of course a health and safety aspect to this, but even more important is ‘look’. “Does it have to be oil?” is the key question. If it was honey or resin would these materials work? I.e. does the material itself have a metaphorical association, or is it the ‘look’. There is a computer right next to the space, so we look at Edward Kienholz’s pieces where he has painted clear resin over the forms to give them a used seedy feel. The next day I notice she has found a better space and has separated the elements out, the work is starting to look less contrived and all the better for it.