Saturday, April 30, 2011

Meditation on 'The Rock' by Peter Blume

Number 67 in the series of webby talks on art for the internet machine is a direct response to taking some students to the Art Institute of Chicago, last Thursday.

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Friday, April 29, 2011

More on the 100 page accordion book

Phew! Or as the Usa-nians say, 'Whew'! It's been a busy week, what with teaching two classes, getting a residency application together, going to the editorial job for a Chicago-based magazine that I do two days a week, keeping updated on TwitFace, etc. So here are some more pictures of the 100-page accordion book that I also spent a few hours taking shots of on Tuesday:

The box is an almost-the-correct-size  thing that I made last year, out of bookboards and blue + brown bookcloth.

I posted a picture of the book with cat Pablo the other day. I thought it was only fair to post one with the other cat, Mr. Enrique the bruiser, as well:

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Thursday, April 28, 2011

Book of the Week: Benjamin Britten - A Biography

This week I have been reading a biography of the British composer Benjamin Britten, whose music finally clicked for me a few years ago after I saw the Met Opera's production of "Peter Grimes".

For British people of a certain age, it's difficult to think of Britten without interference from Dudley Moore's wicked parody, where he plays a Britten-style arrangement of 'Little Miss Moffet' and sings it like Peter Pears. Pears was Britten's lover for many decades, and a singer who performed in the premieres of many of Britten's works. Carpenter's biography is very good on the dynamics of their relationship, its ups and downs, and ins and outs, as it were. The portrait he paints of Britten is of a musical genius who could be pretty ruthless, collaborating with librettists, organisers of the Aldeburgh festival, and other musicians for years, and then suddenly dropping them or firing them with no second thoughts. But it's clear that Carpenter likes Britten, despite his faults, as did many of the people whom Britten treated badly.

There's a lot of detail about British musical life in the post-war era, sometimes too much of it. Two things are particularly striking. One is that Britten and Pears lived together, shared music, a house, and a bed together, and made absolutely no attempt to hide their homosexuality, despite the fact that until the late 1960s, consenting male adults could be sent to prison for long stretches for this 'crime'. Perhaps they were insulated by Britten's fame, protected by it, but nevertheless I think they were courageous. At all times, Carpenter strikes the right balance between our prurient interest in these details of Britten's life, and the thing that ultimately matters most: his wonderful music.

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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

First pictures of the 100 page accordion book ...

... with the pages all joined together and laid out on a floor:

Pablo was as helpful as ever in this process:

I was actually taking photos for an application that I am submitting this week for an artist's residency. I tried to  tell Pablo that the judges might not want to see a cat in every shot, but he wouldn't listen.

Details of the images on the individual pages are here.

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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

On Pablo in Love

On the end of a long era in printmaking

Niall Ferguson, writing in Newsweek, has this to say about the global supply of copper:

"[T]he key to the copper story is soaring Asian demand. Asians want modern houses with Western-style wiring and plumbing. They want cars. They want electronic gadgetry. So they want copper. In 2005 China accounted for 22 percent of global copper consumption. In 2009 the figure was 39 percent. Try as they may, the copper miners can’t keep pace. And the supply of copper in the world isn’t limitless. Indeed, if the rest of the world were to consume at just half the American per capita rate (1,386 pounds a year), we’d exhaust all known copper reserves within just 38 years."

What does this have to do with art? In printmaking, experienced practitioners know that a copper plate is the most luxurious metal for working with. It's a soft metal, so it's easier to work with than steel or zinc, yet it's much tougher than aluminium, which is cheap in most senses of the word. Plus, you can get a wider variety of plate tone from a copper plate, including the brightest whites. Rembrandt worked on copper plates:
So did Picasso:

And so did I when I first learned printmaking. In fact, it was my love for the etchings of these past masters that led me to printmaking in the first place. Here's one of my 'Circe' prints, which uses the same series of techniques as the Picasso print -- aquatint, scraping, hard ground etching, and drypoint:

So when the global supply of copper disappears, one casualty will be a traditional printmaking material that has been used for more than four centuries. Artists will always find other means to express themselves, of course, but I know that I, for one, will miss holding the copper plate out on the flat of my palm, breathing in the oily smell of the ink, slowly wiping the excess ink from the plate with a cloth held in my other hand, and gradually watching as the etched image slowly emerges from a black cloud, like a photographic image rising out of the developing fluid (another process that has virtually died out!).

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Monday, April 25, 2011

Day 37: Artist's Book-A-Ganza

I spent hours in the studio collating pages of an accordion book, and taking photos of other books for a residency application that I'm submitting soon (click on any of the images to display a much larger version):

I also added some images to a book that I made last year:
Click to embiggen
Sometimes a thing isn't finished: you just stop working on it. Which is clearly not yet the case with the above book.

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Saturday, April 23, 2011

On Philadelphia's Magic Garden Mosaic of Recycled Materials

On Matthew Collings - critic, presenter, artist

It's a busy Saturday, when I'm going to see the Met Opera live in a local 'moovy theeder', so I'm posting a clip of my new Facebook friend, Matthew Collings. He's cornered the market in the UK in the last 15 years in tongue-in-cheek but ultimately very serious considerations of art. This is from the opening of a TV series called 'This Is Modern Art', which is amusing, as he always is, but asks lots of pertinent questions.

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Friday, April 22, 2011

On a print by Tracey Emin

Normally I don't go negative in these, but this one on the minutely talented British former 'infanta terible' starts on the dark side, before I manage to say something positive about one of her prints.

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Thursday, April 21, 2011

Book of the Week: 'Oskar Kokoschka: A Life'

Starting today, a new feature in which I write about an arts-related book that I am reading. First, "Oskar Kokoschka: A Life", by Frank Whitford (Atheneum, 1986).
This biography of the Austrian Expressionist artist Oskar Kokoschka is a good introduction to the artist and his life. It’s a little unbalanced, devoting half of its pages to the first thirty years of his life, and then squeezing the succeeding decades into the remaining pages. But the author may have taken that decision because Kokoschka lived into his nineties, and all the interesting stuff happened to him by the time he was in his mid-thirties.
And Kokoschka’s early adulthood was fascinating. I’ve known the outlines of his biography since I first got to know his work when I was a teenager, but this book told me lots of stuff I didn’t know. For example: his first training in art school was as a printmaker, and not a painter; when he exhibited his paintings for the first time in about 1908, his first plays were also staged, and for a little while his contemporaries thought he might become a writer and not an artist; he fought bravely in the Austrian army in the Great War, and was invalided out after being shot in the head and subjected to a slow, excruciating bayoneting in one of his lungs.
The most bizarre thing that sticks in my memory is the story of the doll. Starting in about 1911, Kokoschka had an affair with Alma Mahler, widow of the composer. It was stormy, filled with arguments, shouting, smashed vases, mutual betrayals and recriminations. After Kokoschka went into the army, Mahler transferred her affections elsewhere. When the war ended, Kokoschka, still obsessed with her memory, ordered a life-sized doll of her to be made by a top-of-the-line German doll-maker. The project took months, and this biography contains extracts from the letters K. sent, filled with minute details about the shape of her body, how the skin should feel, how the clothes (particularly her undergarments) should fit—even how the downy hair on her arms should feel. The doll-maker took this last instruction a bit too far, for when the doll was finally delivered and K., no doubt with trembling hands, began to undress his porcelain mistress, he discovered that Alma Mark II was more werewolf than cougar. Apparently this didn’t stop K. from taking her with him to cafes and restaurants in Berlin, to the annoyance of the post-war German bourgeoisie.
So if you like Expressionist art, the whole early-twentieth century late-Austro-Hungarian empire vibe, and the work of Oskar Kokoschka, this book, particularly the first half, is worth a read.

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Wednesday, April 20, 2011

On printmaking at Interlochen College of Creative Arts

This summer, you can join me for two printmaking classes at the Interlochen College of Creative Arts in northern Michigan, near the beautiful Leelenau peninsula. I've already blogged about the reduction linocut class. To whet your appetite further, here is a slideshow of images from the relief printmaking class I taught there in 2010. One of the great things about a printmaking studio is this: not only are the processes so absorbing, but there is always an atmosphere of communal art-making and fun that develops among the participants. There's still nearly two months to sign up, but class sizes are limited, so don't leave it too late.

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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Monday, April 18, 2011

On reduction linocut

I’m teaching a five day class in reduction linocut this summer, and I want to tell you what a wonderful technique it is.

Here are some prints made with the ‘reduction linocut’ method that I’ve found from a quick internet search:

Ellen Starr, 'Birds of a Feather'
Sherrie York, 'Ptarmigan'
Traditionally, coloured block prints were created from separate blocks. So in a landscape, for example, the background would be cut out of one block, the birds and clouds from another, the trees from another, and so on. Each would be inked separately, and then printed one after the other on the same sheet of paper.

I believe it was Picasso, some time in the late 1940s, who started making multi-coloured block prints from just one block of linoleum (left).

The process was as follows: Cut a few shapes from the block, ink it in a light colour (yellow, say), then print it. Now you have a yellow rectangle with some white shapes on it. Clean the block, cut away some more shapes, ink it in another colour (red, say), then print that on the yellow page. The red ink overprints the yellow, EXCEPT where the block has been cut away in the previous stages. So you now have an orange-y rectangle, with some yellow and white shapes showing through. You can repeat this process until you’ve cut away most of the block, leaving only a few shapes.

Hence the term ‘reduction linocut’: between printing each colour, you’re cutting away more lino and reducing the printable area. Usually you would leave some ‘outline’ shapes on the block last, and print these in the darkest colour.

It’s a little tricky to grasp until you do it. But once you do your first one, and get used to the little bit of extra mental planning required, it becomes a hugely enjoyable, satisfying, and addictive way of making prints. You can also combine the reduction printing with other techniques, such as ‘rainbow roll’, in which you blend two or more bands of colour on the block, or chine collĂ©, where you combine collage and ink printing.

Not only will I be teaching this for five days in the summer: I will be doing it here:

This is the Interlochen College of Creative Arts. It’s on the campus of the Interlochen Arts Academy, the world-renowned arts high school which for nearly 50 years has produced generations of classical musicians, dancers, actors, and more recently visual artists and creative writing students. I’m always meeting people who say they attended high school at Interlochen, or that they attended the summer music camp, or had children who did so. The campus is surrounded by thick woods, and sits between two lakes in northern Michigan, near Traverse City and the Sleeping Bear Dunes. So you can study and create your art surrounded by a lot of natural beauty, too.

The ICCA offers classes to adults, in a beautiful purpose-built building. The summer classes there are particularly good fun, because in addition to making prints in a new classroom, and walking for miles through trails in the woods, you’re surrounded by all the young people attending the summer camps. And we’re talking about gifted young musicians. It was a great pleasure last year to walk from the ICCA to the lake, passing by the rehearsal cabins in the woods, and hear the most wonderful music floating out over the warm evening air.

It’s tempting, isn’t it? We had someone from Texas in the Introduction to Printmaking class last year, so wherever you are reading this in the USA, go to the ICCA page and think about registering for the class. It will truly be the experience of a lifetime.

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Sunday, April 17, 2011

Day 36: Making 12 more pages of the accordion book

Trying not to throw out my recently-much-improved back, I spent the day in the studio printing 12 more pages of the 100-page accordion book for the Lucerne Project. I will post the other pages over the next week on the Lucerne Project blog.

This is the press that I use for the task:

It's a small but very excellent table-top printing press, with a 12" x 18" bed, and a wheel for hand-cranking the rollers. I also have a gigantic Dickerson combination press, but that's in storage at the moment. The table-top press accompanies me to Interlochen, where it's able to handle the demands of a busy printmaking class.

Oh, and by the way, you can sign up for summer printmaking classes with me at Interlochen here. And also here.

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Saturday, April 16, 2011

Making books in the Journal & Sketchbook class

On Thursday afternoon in the second half of the Journal and Sketchbook class, I demonstrated some basic techniques for making artist's books:

Here are the students, absorbed in the process of making accordion fold books, star books, snake books, and some origami-based designs, and then starting the process of filling in their books with images and text.

One fiction writing student is now so addicted that he wants to apply for an MFA in Book Arts.

You, too, can spend a whole week with me making artist's books this summer at the Interlochen College of Creative Arts. Details here.

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Friday, April 15, 2011

Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei was arrested by the Chinese authorities last week, when he was trying to leave the country, possibly to set up permanent base in Berlin. He's the most well-known out of scores of artists and dissidents who have been rounded up since the unrest in the Middle East commenced. It's a reminder that the regime that we in the West depend on to supply our consumer economy, and which the international art market somewhat disgustingly relies on to keep its own oily wheels turning, is still at heart a brutal dictatorship.

I am reposting the web-talk I did about Ai Wei Wei, above. Here is a link to an online petition you can join, calling for the release of Ai and the other detainees:

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Meditation on 'Sunset' by John Marin

Ever heard of John Marin? I hadn't, until I started living in the USA. And not many people here would either know his work or bother with it once they saw it. Medi-web-talk-Tation number 65 is a small contribution to changing that.

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Thursday, April 14, 2011

On what Jackson Pollock teaches us

There’s a student in my Journal & Sketchbook class who produces these ornate automatic drawings in a constant outpouring of mark-making. He always uses black pen, but after a conference last week in which I suggested that he use colour, he’s started doing drawings with coloured pencils. It’s clear he’s discovered new things, among them the realization that you can overlay shape on shape when you move to a different colour. The latest things that I saw in his sketchbook reminded me of de Kooning, or maybe early Jackson Pollock.
J&S student automatic drawing
The obvious point of comparison is the looping movement of the lines, all over the picture plane, and the way that the abstract swirls and scribbles at certain stages trigger recognition in the mind, making the hand add representational elements, such as eyes or faces. Pollock’s earlier work, just before he broke completely into the world of Action Painting, does this all the time—inserting symbols of the real world into the maelstrom, as if he was trying to impose a little order on the chaos.

'Eyes in the Heat', Jackson Pollock, 1946
Rather than flattering my student, I’m trying to say that it’s intriguing to see how Pollock’s discoveries have a solid foundation in the human psyche. It’s like a scientist who generates a theory, and the theory gets confirmed in experiments conducted by other scientists. The Surrealists were the first visual artists who tried to give themselves over to the Unconscious—that newly discovered submerged continent—but it was Jackson Pollock who cut himself loose entirely from the reality of forms (maybe Kandinsky was the earlier, first pure abstract artist, but I would maintain that there are still nods to representation in his work.) Mejor dicho: instead of producing his pictures by an ordering of the symbols of the Unconscious, Pollock presented us with the purest form of artistic Unconscious, which is the movement of the arm and hand, the gesture, limited only by the size of the canvas, its edges, and human stamina. There is nothing really to ‘see’ in a Pollock Action painting, but they are exhilarating nonetheless.

Of course, Pollock was nagged by the accusation that his work was formless, completely random, and on different occasions he made statements trying to correct that impression:

“When I am in my painting, I'm not aware of what I'm doing. It is only after a sort of 'get acquainted' period that I see what I have been about. I have no fears about making changes, destroying the image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through. It is only when I lose contact with the painting that the result is a mess. Otherwise there is pure harmony, an easy give and take, and the painting comes out well.”

So he’s simultaneously unaware of what he’s doing (the Unconscious) yet he tries to see what he’s been about (the Conscious). The painting has a life of its own (the Unconscious) yet he will make changes, he will try to keep in contact with the process (the Conscious). It’s exactly as he puts it in that last line: his process involved a give and take between knowing and not knowing, control and chaos.

And when I do automatic drawing, or I see a student doing automatic drawing, it’s clear that the same push and pull is at work. We make the same discovery of how liberating gestural mark-making can be, and how throwing out random abstract marks leads us to start seeing new things, whether inside our mind or outside it.
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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Day 35: Collating pages of the accordion book

On a brief visit to the studio, I added more layers of goo to some panels, and then collated the signatures of the 100 page accordion book that I'm working on. Shown above are the first 50 pages. I will have to separate it roughly in the middle and reattach them, because as you can see they're slightly out of line, when they should form an even column when closed.

This was the first moment, too, when I got a sense of how big a box I will need to make to house the book. I'm thinking of a clamshell box, about six inches by four inches, and about six inches deep.

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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Interview with 365 Jars Project artist Kirsty Hall

Jar 96: paper, pencil, nettle yarn.
Yesterday I published a blog post about Kirsty Hall and her 365 Jars project, a fascinating idea in which this UK artist is 'releasing into the wild' a glass jar containing a small piece of art every day for a year.  I asked Kirsty for an interview on the project and her other art, and her answers provide more insight into a most unusual participatory public art project.  

Philip: What made you want to start this project?

Kirsty: It’s really a cunningly disguised exercise regime. I wanted to walk every day and knew that the only way I’d do it was to incorporate it into an art piece.

There were other motivations too. Towards the end of last year I was working very hard on my consulting business and started to feel that my art was being pushed to one side. I wanted to replace art in the centre of my life and achieve a better balance. Of course now I don’t have enough time for the consulting business!

Philip: How much work does it require each day?

Kirsty: It’s usually at least two hours of work every single day and I frequently have whole days when I do nothing but the jar project. Basically it never leaves me.

Not only do I have to make the jars, go on my Jar Walk, document the placing of the jars with photographs, I also have to edit and upload the photos and write the daily blog post.

Then there’s all the hidden work: ordering materials; testing out ideas that don’t work; updating the jar databases; revisting jars to see if they’re still there; blogging about found and missing jars; answering emails and comments about the project.

It’s a bit relentless, to be honest. Fortunately I mostly enjoy it.

Jar 96 in situ
Philip: How do the pieces that you put inside the jars relate to your previously exhibited work?

Kirsty: Some relate very strongly – I’ve been consciously making ‘mini versions’ of some of my larger sculptures with the underlying idea that I’m having a year-long retrospective in jars. Several people have said that they appreciate being introduced to my back catalogue in this way. Certainly you could look at the jar project and get a very accurate feel for my work.

From my point of view, the project has a certain ‘decluttering’ quality to it. For example, I’m getting rid of a lot of old drawings and having a chance to use up lots of my art supplies. It’s also a way for me to explore all those niggly little ideas that didn’t seem big or important enough to justify a large, time-consuming sculpture. It feels as though I’m clearing space for new work to take root and I sense that this project is going to be a pivotal point in my art.

Jar 95: wire and red sand
There are a lot of new ideas in the project as well. Because the jars are small and happen on a daily basis, they’re a license for me to be playful and inventive. And undoubtedly some of the newer ideas that are coming up in the jars are ones that I will develop more fully in the future.

Philip: What was a) the most negative and b) the most positive response you’ve had so far?

Kirsty: The vast majority of people have been overwhelmingly positive. I love my Jar Fans, they’re wildly enthusiastic about the project and keep me going on the days when it’s a real struggle.

I think the most positive reaction has come from Mark, The Intrepid Jar Hunter. He’s a Bristol guy who found one of the earliest jars by accident and then started actively and somewhat obsessively hunting for them. It’s become a hobby for him. He’s found 21 jars to date and his passion for the project is obvious in the detailed, entertaining and insightful jar forms he submits. My international Jar Fans particularly adore him because he gives them a window into what finding a jar is like – they can’t get out to find jars themselves so they tend to live vicariously through Mark.

Amazingly I’ve only had two openly negative reactions so far and one of those later apologised and retracted what he’d said. So the most negative reaction was when someone raged at me about what I was doing. He just hated it, thought it was litter and that I was interfering with people’s appreciation of nature. It was clear that I’d triggered some kind of knee-jerk reaction because he hadn’t even realised that the vast majority of the jars are released in urban areas. He was so aggressive about it that I deleted his comment from the site: I don’t mind disagreement and being challenged about my ideas but I won’t stand for trollish behaviour and name-calling.

Philip: Quite right too! What were your expectations about the project before you started it, and have they changed in any way?

Kirsty: Well, it’s definitely been far more work than I anticipated!

I honestly thought I could continue several other projects and even start some new ones whilst doing the jars but that hasn’t been the case at all. I didn’t realise how epic and all-consuming it was going to be and I’ve had to massively readjust my plans for the year.

Jar 95, close-up.
I didn’t have much of a run up to the project. I only decided I was going to do it in December of last year so I didn’t have time to form too many expectations. But the project constantly throws up challenges and surprises for me; it’s partly what keeps it interesting for me.

The Jar Walks themselves have been a delightful revelation. Even on days when I can’t walk very far because of poor health - I’ve been diagnosed with ME/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and have a dodgy immune system – it feels so good to get out and walk. I’ve learnt so much about my local area and I feel connected to it in a way I didn’t before: I have a much more cohesive internal map of it now.

One of my biggest surprises was how quickly it took off. I was expecting to have a month or two where no one paid very much attention but that didn’t happen. I’ve had decent visitor numbers right from the start and I’ve not done much promotion, so it’s real word-of-mouth stuff.

Another surprise has been how Jar Finders engage with the project. For example, some people decided to replace the jars back outside in new spots. It hadn’t occurred to me that people might do that but I think it’s wonderful. People have really thrown themselves into the spirit of the project and that’s been so exciting, it feels as though the whole thing has a momentum and a meaning that’s far beyond me.

Follow the project at 365 Jars.

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