Why is the Wolverhampton School of Art in monochrome?

My current obsession is with all things black and white, turning things black and white, painting in black and white and taking photographs in black and white. I want to know more about black and white. I want to turn the world black and white. Why? Just for fun.

A black door reflecting a white wall

Today, walking around the Wolverhampton School of Art, I noticed something obvious, something I knew already. Everything in the Wolverhampton School of Art building is black and white (or various shades in between). The doors are black. The floors are grey. The walls are white. The stairs are black (with yellow safety strips). The sign for the cafe downstairs is black and white. The chairs are mostly black. The lift is grey. The outside walls are grey. The windows are grey. The paint splats are mostly white (oddly). There isn’t much that isn’t black, white or grey (except the people and the art perhaps, and the yellow safety strips on the stairs).

The cafe downstairs

It is an art school architecture that is devoid of colour. I wonder why.

Black and white lock

Is it in the hope that a blank canvas will inspire the bees inside the big grey hive to create?

Monochrome bins

Is it to act as a contrast to the colour that will naturally spill forth on canvases, in sculptures, in glass, ceramics and animation? 

Was it a conscious decision, based on a detailed study of the psychology of art students, or just a sign of the design of the times, based on late 1960s and early 1970s taste?

Here’s some history (not much, the Internet is oddly scant on this topic). The Wolverhampton School of Art began life in 1851 (although not in its current location). In 1970, the year before I was born, the current School of Art building was opened by someone called Sir Charles Wheller (or so the Internet tells me) so it was presumably designed and built in the late 1960s.

An arty photo of paint splats and a black wall

I’m guessing that the basic black-and-white interior and exterior design I see now is the same as that imposed in the late 1960s. It reminds me, interestingly, of Stafford and Coventry train stations, which were also redesigned in that era. They have (or used to have in my youth at least, I’m not sure about now) the same black shiny rubber floor and wooden handrails. My high school also had a similar design in places (the English department, the ‘Well’ and languages if my memory serves me correctly). I wonder if it still does. I am intrigued to know where this commonality comes from. Someone in the 1960s and 1970s, an architect or interior designer perhaps, who resided in the Midlands, obviously favoured this look. There may even be other public buildings out there with the same black rubber flooring and wooden handrails. I’d like to know if that is the case.

The iconic monochrome (except the safety bit) staircase

Despite the lack of colour and perhaps because I am currently living and breathing in monochrome, in my head and in my research at least, I am really rather fond of the Wolverhampton School of Art decor and overall look, both inside the busy hive and exterior to the busy hive. It is what it is. It is the Wolverhampton School of Art.

The grey exterior

It is iconic to me, to the city and to all the other bees who reside in it. I love it. Dare they ever change it, at least, while I am still a student here (so for at least the next two years).

At night, after we have all gone home, it shines

 

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I can’t believe I didn’t write about last year’s Turner Prize

So, let’s just ignore 2016, and jump straight to this year: 2017.

Before we jump, however, I will say that all I remember from 2016 is a pair of giant buttocks. I suspect that that magnificent image distracted me from the need to actually write about the giant buttocks (and indeed the works by the other nominated artists). I don’t think the buttocks won, in fact a quick google reveals that they didn’t. 

A giant bottom

The winner last year was Helen Marten, who’s sculptural work is fascinating for it’s pictorial intrigue and use of both found and fabricated objects which are used to express diverse thoughts and ideas. I like anything that blends objects, ideas and images. ‘Objects that blend’ as I have recently written on my studio wall in Wolverhampton. What does that mean? Aha, all will be revealed. 

‘Objects that blend’ on my studio wall

Damn it, I’ve somehow managed now to write about last year’s Turner Prize by talking about not writing about it. Let’s jump now anyway.

The winner of this year’s Turner Prize is due to be announced in two days from now. I hope I will be able to watch the announcement. I will be in Plymouth, imprisoned in the Premier Inn, but I’m sure there will be a TV in the room, so I am hopeful.

Premier Inn in Plymouth – I simply cannot wait

I’ve had a quick look at the nominees and my overall impression is underwhelmment (is that a word?). I wonder, perhaps, whether this is because I cannot find anything that relates to my own practice in the work of the nominees or whether I just don’t feel excited by their work. This feeling isn’t based on quality of the work. In the words of Alan Bennett: ‘You don’t have to like everything’. 

The artwork seems to be much more international in perspective, and more political than previously selected works, yet oddly more mainstream too. I appreciate it all for it’s value and importance, and meaning, yet it just doesn’t excite me.

Here’s an interesting quote from Alex Farquharson, the chair of the Turner Prize judging panel: ‘Perhaps a few years ago we were in that avant-garde narrative of one generation breaking the rules of a previous generation, but I don’t think that’s where we’re at any more. There is a recognition that these newest developments are often from the hands of artists of an older generation.’

I’m not sure I’d describe the nominees work as ‘avant-garde’ having recently read up an awful lot on the topic recently as part of my MA. Original and thought-provoking, perhaps, but not avant-garde. At least, not avant-garde from the traditional understanding of the term.

I’m not going to write about the individual nominees work, as I prefer big buttocks and combinations of eclectic objects turned into sculptures, but I will nevertheless watch with interest to see who wins.

This painting by one of the nominees, Andrea Büttner, intrigues me

 

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A world devoid of colour is a rich one

I’ve recently been painting using just two tubes of paint: black and white. I want to see how painting without colour, and with just shades and light to manipulate, affects how I paint and affects how the viewer sees objects which are familiar to them.

One of my black-and-white paintings

The act of painting in black and white has had a liberating effect on me as an artist. I feel that it has freed me from the constraints of making colour decisions. I’m finding myself rather addicted to it now.

As a by-product to that, I now have an urge to surround myself in a world devoid of colour. I need to know: why do we envisage that a world devoid of colour is a world devoid or richness or joy? I am finding new richness and joy in my desire for a black and white world. Why is that? Is that contradictory? Is it just me?

In addition to the effect this new monochrome art-making has on me, I like the effect it has on my relationship to objects (and the output I’m producing). It has allowed me to look at objects in a new and interesting way. I hope that the viewer of my art feels that way too. I am seeing objects that I paint as richer, more textured, more real, more solid and more tangible. I can’t explain why this is so, as that seems contradictory. If you take away an element of an object (such as colour) in theory it should lose some of its richness and depth.

If you took away a different element (such as shape or form) surely it would lose some of its richness and depth? That seems obvious. However, I’m now starting to doubt that this is necessarily so and to question why we think this would be so. I want to consider what happens when we take away any element of an object. For example, what happens if you take away the tangibility of an object (i.e. show it in online only or in photograph form), would it then lose depth? Why do we assume it would? Where has this assumption come from? I am coming to believe that the process of element elimination in fact adds a new element which we don’t have a name for, something intangible, something as of yet unknown, something fascinating. Is this just another one of those Western philosophical hang-ups we have inherited from the likes of Plato? 

I was able to test this idea of the richness of a black-and-white world for real when I went to the Monochrome: Painting in Black and White exhibition at the National Gallery in London yesterday. At the end of the exhibition there was an installation piece by Olafur Elaisson called Room for one colour. The room, originally conceived by Elaisson in 1997, was sparse but vibrantly lit with what appears to be a bright, painful-to-the-eyes yellow light. It is in fact lit by a single frequency monochromatic sodium-yellow lighting system that suppresses all other colours in the spectrum, transforming any objects (human or otherwise) in the space into shades of black and white. 

I didn’t look yellow as I appear here – photography changes the effect

The effect of walking into this room is profound. I’m not sure whether I’ve experienced anything so all-over physical before. The closest I can think of is when I went on a BBC tour in Manchester and was taken into the sound-proof room, which made me feel really unwell as it almost completely removed sound. That was painful on the nerves, for me, in a negative way. Eliasson’s room was also painful on the nerves but in a positive rather than negative way. It created for me a hyperreal sensitivity to sight. I felt almost as if my brain was going to explode. The appearance of myself and others as black and white was both surreal and hyperreal. It was mesmerising. It was just plain odd, for want of a better word. It was like seeing yourself and others in a science fiction movie. I found it quite addictive. If it hadn’t been for the pain in my head of this sensory overload I would have stayed in that room for longer.

The brain struggles I think because it has to digest the sudden change in visual stimuli and I suspect it tries and battles to add colour, yet cannot, so it is working very hard. It is also overwhelmed by the new detail it sees in the colourless world, in faces, objects, contours, shades and contrast. The suppression of one element of visual data resulted, for me at least, in a heightened sensitivity to form and light. 

The soundproof room at the BBC

By removing an element, such as colour, from my art I want to force the viewer to look at the ordinary with a new perspective, see the mundane without one of it’s vital elements.

Initially, at least, I would like to continue removing colour, perhaps create a black and white world of familiarity. How? I don’t know yet.

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Does InstaFaceTwit make everyone an artist?

Joseph Beuys famously declared on a number of occasions in the 1970s that ‘Every human being is an artist.’ 

I’m an artist, are you?

I wonder what he would say in 2017? I think he’d say the same thing. Everyone is an artist. Oh yes indeed, everyone really is an artist.

Or, at least, I would modify that with: everyone can be an artist. Creativity is in everyone, I feel. What distinguishes those who make it their life’s work and those that don’t are different levels of drive to get the creativity out. As someone who seems to be trying to make art her life’s work at the moment I feel that desperate drive to get it out almost every day of my life.

However, that hasn’t always been the case with me. From the time I went to university in 1990 until a few years after I had had my first child (around 2006) I didn’t do much that could be described as creative. I studied my degree (economics and politics), I worked for a locksmith, I taught English in Japan, I was a temp for six months, I worked in academic reference publishing and then I had babies. During those years I didn’t do much beyond doodling in meetings and a one-week painting course at Oxford College. So I have been the artist who both has the urge to create all the time, every day, and who has previously suppressed it for the greater desire to get educated (in a subject other than fine art), earn money and look after small humans. 

A doodle from my temping days in Oxford

I firmly believe that there is no difference between me now (someone studying for an MA in art who creates something every day and shows the world via social media) and me then (someone who doodled occasionally and didn’t show anyone anything). I’m the same person. I have the same urges (I’ve just allowing myself to follow them now). So is everyone like me?

Earlier this week I created a a-minute-of-my-life video and challenged friends on Facebook to create their own and post online (this is my attempt). I had about six responses, which wasn’t quite as many as I had hoped, but they were all different, creative, quirky and artistic. It might not have been many but it was still six responses which proved to me that I could encourage creativity out of people who would not describe themselves as artists necessarily and who might not have otherwise pursued anything creative on that day. 

I’ve recently read a book by Gregory Sholette called Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture which talks about the huge amount of art activity that takes place beyond the art institutional world (art schools, art galleries and the like). I see on social media that most of this so-called ‘dark matter’ exists there (and indeed there is more beyond social media). I see it in the people I know, the people I am friends with or related to and by assumption the people they know, the people they are friends with or related to and so on and so on. It spirals outwards. I like the analogy used by this book of ‘dark matter’ because like ‘dark matter’ in the science sense we know it exists, yet we cannot quantify it. 

Dark Matter

Another observation I have about this art by ‘everyone’ is how transient it is compared to most of the art seen in the art institution world. Instagram is littered with very creative and thought-provoking images and videos many of which have that elusive essence  that all artists want to portray, yet they appear, they are ‘liked’ and then, they are gone, out in the ether of the virtual archives in computer and server land.

I love scrolling through Instagram and Facebook and seeing the comments, quotes, poetic words, images, videos and ideas of ordinary people. They move me. They inspire me. They  inform my own art practice. The world is saturated with creativity and artistic activity (saturated in a good way). I love the virtual world for that.

Duchamp’s famous Fountain ‘artwork’ had a revolutionary impact on the notion of what an artist is in the early 20th century (an artist changed from a skilled practitioner to anyone with a concept and the means to display it with or without skill). Could we argue that Instagram and Facebook have had a similarly revolutionary effect now? Have they enabled the mes from 1990-2006 to find channels for their creativity that perhaps didn’t exist prior to 2006? So not only can anyone be an artist in the art institution world, anyone can be an artist anywhere now?

Just an old urinal?

Surely this ‘dark matter’ on the internet is the new avant garde, is it not? I would argue that it is as revolutionary as Duchamp and his urinal. Peter Burger, the author of The Theory of the Avant Garde, who argued that the historic avant garde was unique and ultimately doomed to fail in its aim to subsume art into the ‘praxis’ of life should take note here (except the fact that he is no longer with us): social media has successfully subsumed art into the praxis of life. Or at least I think so. The historical avant garde has been successfully replicated and will continue to thrive. This avant garde hasn’t yet been adopted by the art institution or bourgeois society, so it is working, is it not? It is both art ‘ahead of the rest’ and art integrated – just like the dictionary definition of ‘avant garde’.

It has, in my opinion, created an avant garde revolution, just so with gradual splash rather than a sudden big bang. The dark matter is there, it is huge, it will continue to grow.

The Book

Walter Benjamin might pipe up at this juncture and say something along the lines of ‘well, this is all well and good but do these virtual arworks you see have the aura that original art has?’ I think I need to leave that debate for another blog entry. Watch this space. 

He’s pondering the aura

 

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My favourite tool isn’t a paintbrush, it’s my iPhone

Creativity comes to me in bursts. It acts just like the proverbial busses. I sometimes go for weeks without much of a creative thought or idea passing through my busy, anxious mind and then suddenly they all come to me at once: tidal wave after tidal wave, and oddly, when they do, the anxiety subsides. It is a bit like taking a drug or suddenly waking up after a long, dreamless nap. When ideas come, I feel euphoric, excited and energised. I see everything clearly. There are colours. There are shapes. The world is ace. I am desperate to get ideas out.

This is how I feel this morning and I didn’t expect to feel this way. I’ve had a very busy few days. 

One of today’s creative thoughts was about my iPhone. I realised today that I cannot live without my iPhone. It is by my side all the time. It travels with me. It keeps me company. It sleeps near me. This love of my iPhone isn’t related to connectivity with the world via social media and the Internet (although it does do that for me and I love all that), this love is to do with the iPhone as art medium.

If an art idea strikes me, such as, photographing something I spot on my travels, or making a video, then my iPhone is my medium of choice. It can do both. I don’t even need to use PhotoShop or Adobe AfterEffects. 

Or if an abstract thought comes to me, or I see a poster for an art exhibition, I reach for my iPhone to explore the web like the cyberflaneur that I am. And doing that leads to other things and other things, more thoughts, even more thoughts and perhaps a concrete art concept. A good example is the day I saw an abandoned balloon in Wolverhampton. That lead to a year-long project.

My iPhone is my sketch pad too. I use the Notes application for noting down ideas, thoughts, words or urls to read later. I also include here book titles, magazine article references and key words for searching later. I write poems, I sketch out ideas with words and I use it for all sorts of note taking. In fact, it is a jumble of thoughts and ideas.

I love Notes

 

My iPhone is my portal onto feedback for my ideas too. I use Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Messanger to get feedback and discuss ideas with friends. I have friends who I talk to who offer me an invaluable reciprocal relationship for creative ideas generation and discussion that may be virtual in nature but is no less important to me than any discussions I have in the real world.

My iPhone is my best friend in a way, as it is my route to so much potential. I know there are many who have written and talked about the dangers of living in a virtual, hyperreal, ethereal world rather than in the here-and-now real one of real people. In the virtual social sphere we interact with people we cannot see or touch through typed words and uploaded pictures but for me, this world, is very real, very vital and has helped me over the last few years get to where I am with my art practice.

Facebook idea generation

Thank you, little iPhone. I couldn’t live without you.

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MA Show 2017 – review

Today, I took my seven-year-old son to see the Wolverhampton Art School MA Show 2017 at the Wolverhampton Art Gallery

My youngest son and me

We spent an hour looking around the artworks on show. 

Later, over lunch, I asked him what his favourite piece had been. I predicted incorrectly. I thought his favourite piece would be by Travis Booth, who has just finished his MA in Digital and Visual Communications. One of his pieces of work is a Virtual Reality motion device, to be held against the eyes, which my son appeared to love exploring.

In fact, his favourite piece had been the same as mine, more anon.

My main focus in this review is on fine art so most of my comments here refer to the pieces exhibited by the fine art students. The overall feeling I had from the fine art pieces in the show was an impression of size, or lack of it, of the works on display in comparison to the recent BA in Fine Art Degree Show, which I took part in as a graduating student. However, one very important lesson I have learnt in my art journey so far is that size isn’t everything; quantity is not the same as quality (unless part of the message is quantity perhaps). What counts, is the research, the message and the effect.

The pieces I saw showed depth of thought, a lot of it, and depth of research, and most of all, originality in a specific aspect. What I mean by this is that the graduating students seemed to be attempting something ‘new’ using something ‘old’. The media and techniques were not new, but the desired effect, perhaps was. There was a feeling of tentativeness about their work, but also courage.

Back to my son’s favourite piece, which happened to be also mine. We both were most taken by a set of four paintings by fine art soon-to-be graduate Roman Malinowski. My son and I agreed that we found these paintings utterly absorbing. We spent quite a long time looking at them. Examined up close, they were works of pattern, line, shape, form, abstraction. Examined from a distance, they were works of figures, light, sense, essence and mood. We kept standing first up close, and then away; close, and away, just to look and think and look some more and think some more. We were absorbed. These paintings definitely had that rather elusive quality of ‘essence’ so well-described by Jacques Derrida as far as both of us were concerned.

Up close

From a distance

One phrase in the description that accompanied these paintings struck me as pertinent to what we thought is the following: ‘The paintings seek to build the light on the canvas by painting matter as specks of colour as if dispersed in the air.’ All I can say to that is: yes!

We also both quite liked the work of Richard Bruce. We didn’t quite understand the concept, but we like the interesting depiction of not-quite numbers in interesting configurations. I asked my son to describe what he saw in the paintings and he immediately was able to describe various types of figures and shapes. It intrigued me that he felt it natural and not at all strange to imagine a narrative out of the images. It is a child-like quality that perhaps many retain as adults, but not all perhaps. I hope that I do.

Richard Bruce’s work

The final pieces I want to highlight were by David Fletcher. His work explores death and decay, but the resultant drawings and sculptures were haunting in their impact, and very beautiful and moving.

Images that will stay with me for a while

There were other pieces we felt an impact from, including some digital ‘paintings’ and sheets of painted metal with perspex embedded into them. Many works appeared to be attempting to merge the boundaries of 2D painting and 3D art, doing so very effectively.

I left the MA Show feeling inspired and energised. I will be exhibiting here in two years’ time. I have no idea what I might be showing, either what concept I will be following or what media I will be using, but that’s a good thing and it is that which is what is getting me energised right now. The great unknown lurks ahead for me, and it is exciting and frightening and that’s a great combination to be facing. 

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The story of the red-and-black silk pants

On my travels around Newport today, looking for beauty, I came across a pair of red-and-black silk pants.

The mysterious pair of pants

The paints had been left / flung / abandoned next to Travis Perkins Builder’s Merchants at some point before 11.18am on Monday 2nd October 2017.

Where I found the pants

These pants have since been on my mind. They are not cheap and nasty pants. They are good-quality pants. They are not dirty. They are surprisingly clean. I think they had recently found their resting spot. I can’t stop thinking about these pants.

What I need to know is: how did they get there? 

When I find an abandoned object (whether it be a balloon or an odd shoe) I have this odd desire to construct a narrative for it. As I can’t find out the true narrative, at least not easily, I have to come up with my own (and that is the fun part for me). I suppose I could stand in the area over a 24-hour period, by the object in question, and ask everyone who passes by whether they either own the pants, know who owns the pants, witnessed the arrival of the pants or have any way of finding someone who might be able to help with one of the above.

Since I haven’t got time to be a sleuth, I simply must rely on my imagination. This is the story I have come up with for these pants.

I think that the pants were thrown out of a passing car window. It happened on the night of Sunday 1st October 2017, at approximately 8.22pm. It was dark when it happened. There were no passers by to witness the flying pants. The pants arrived just to the soundtrack of a passing car.

I came across the pants at approx. 11.18am. The pants must have been spotted, and ignored, between the hours of 8.22pm and 11.18am. I suspect I am the only person to stop and photograph the pants. I expect that if more than one person saw the pants, they might have exchanged a few words of amusement about the pants, wondering at their circumstances, but left it at that and moved on. Nobody else, I don’t think, went to the extent that I am now going to go to to create a history for the poor, abandoned, unloved pants.

Here is my story.

As I have already said, I believe that the story of the pants started at 8.22pm on the night of October 1st 2017. Picture this.

A car is driving down Station Road in Newport on the way to Waitrose carpark. It is maintaining a steady speed. There are two people in the car. The car is dark blue. I don’t know what make it is, though, as I don’t really do cars. I see a middle-aged couple in the car, on their way to an anniversary dinner. She is dressed elegantly, with a bit of bling. He is wearing a smart suit. I think it is their 14th wedding anniversary. They don’t have any children. As we see them pass by at 8.22pm, they are both feeling cross and hurt. Here is why.

For their wedding anniversary, he had bought her what he imagined was a thoughtful gift. He had previously hid the gift in the glove compartment of the car as an odd, romantic gesture. At 8.12pm, he had told her to look in the glove compartment. She had easily found the gift. She had been delighted to find a gift in the glove compartment, and so beautifully wrapped as well. She had been touched at his spontaneity. He isn’t usually a romantic soul.

Shortly before 8.22pm she had opened the prettily-decorated package. He had beamed at her with a sideways glance, not wanting to take his eye off the road for too long. He had thought the gift would be perfect; he had thought she’d look stunning in the expensive red and black underwear he had bought her from Rackhams in Birmingham. He adores her and this gift had meant to be a sign of his long-lasting deep love for her. However, the mood had soon changed. The gift hadn’t had the desired effect. Rather than with warmth and desire, she had reacted with anger. Her face had reddened. Her neck had reddened. She had turned to him, accused him of not knowing what she needs or wants. ‘Red pants it is not!’ She had shouted.

So as the clock strikes 8.22pm and as we join the couple, she angrily and haltingly opens the car window and flings the offending garnet out of the window in disgust. They fly through the air, high, over towards the pavement, and land, ironically softly, by a sign for Travis Perkins Builders Merchants. The car keeps going. It doesn’t slow. He stares ahead, fighting the confused emotions he feels, drives on, feeling misunderstood and hurt. Exhausted by her burst of anger, she slumps to the side, feeling exactly the same as he does. All that remains is silence, the air in the car pregnant with years of unsaid desires.

This is the first of my one-finger narratives.

There are many possible narratives for these pants. This is just one of hundreds of scenarios, like those that could occur in parallel universes. Perhaps there really are parallel universes at play here and the spot where the pants landed is a portal to all of them. Perhaps there were hundreds, thousands, millions, an infinite number of pairs of pants that all landed in that very spot at the same time.

Whatever the truth of the matter is, all stories end in a single pair of pants lying next to a sign for a builder’s merchant in Newport, Shropshire. 

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