Delving so deep, the world becomes black

To contrast with painting on a white background, I decided to try painting on a black background. I have found this incredibly difficult. It is much easier to get a smooth, even surface with white paint. Black paint is much more troublesome. I’m not sure whether my attempts to date are successful or not. I am erring on the ‘not’ side but I’m not going to give up yet. I don’t think I have got the technique right and I am frustrated by the unevenness of the black paint. There is potential for atmosphere with these paintings, but the objects are, rather than standing out as on the white background, flattened. They are devoid of life. They are dead.

The black background is more ‘black’ than it appears in the photograph. The highlights of the object blend into the black in the actual painting. In fact, it is hard to identify this object.

Black velvet

As food is a theme, I decided to go for a traditional still-life subject: the bunch of grapes.

Dead grapes?

Painting grapes in black and white has the effect of completely killing them. They don’t look at all appetising. I’m not sure that this painting works, though, so further experimentation is needed. 

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Delving even deeper into the darkness of the monochrome world

Black and white is still my obsession. The world in colour is starting to look quite odd to me when in my art and in my head it is firmly in black and white at the moment. I have become quite addicted to monochrome painting now and I can’t seem to stop painting without colour. I don’t quite know what it is about the ‘colours’ black, white and grey that fascinate me so much. I just love the challenge of taking out colour, not thinking about colour and blending with two shades. It is almost as if I am drawing with paint.

In this current journey, I have been deliberately selecting objects that rely heavily on colour as part of their identity. These objects have come to my mind randomly as I’ve been walking around the house, such as this one.

Rubik’s Cube

I quite like the idea of a monochrome Rubik’s Cube, with six shades of grey. 

I have also been looking at skin tone in greys, which has been more difficult than ordinary objects. The essence of the appearance of skin loses the qualities of warmth and life once you remove the colour from it. It is no longer ‘essence’ in fact, just skin. Taking away the colour ‘deadens’ the flesh, especially if the background, as in this case, retains colour. And indeed the background here is fleshy coloured and has a warmth to it. However, I think the monochrome skin has a new quality. There is an uncanniness about it. It is perhaps slightly abject, because of the sense of death it brings to mind.

You can tell I am left-handed

I have also continued to paint items of food devoid of colour.

Does this make your mouth water?

As well as painting on the linen surface, which I love, I have been looking at the effect of painting with a white, smooth background. Painting ‘colourful’ objects on a white background changes the effect, different from on the linen. It pushes the object much further out and creates a sense of the object being suspended in space.

Ikea bag at rest

There’s something very odd about food without colour. Can the viewer identify this object without colour?

Oven chip with ketchup

The colour of chocolate is extremely important to its identity and effect on the viewer, so removing the colour actually changes the object’s identity entirely. These could be any sort of curved disks. 

Chocolate buttons

I’m not sure yet where this is leading me, but I am thoroughly enjoying returning to the ‘basics’ of painting. I haven’t painted much since I started the Foundation Degree five years ago. But then my art has always been about the concept coming first, and in this case the concept leads me to paint.

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The legacy of the avant-garde – the essay I didn’t need to write

Is a 21st-century avant-garde possible?

The Book on which this essay is based

Introduction

“It is we, artists, that will serve as your avant-garde.” (Rodrigues Olinde, 1825, ‘L’artiste, le savant et l’industriel ‘, quoted in Matei Calinescu Five Faces of Modernity: Avant-Garde, Decadence, Kitsch, Postmodernism)

In this essay I will consider the traditional and contemporary definitions of the term ‘avant-garde’ and relate them to the possibility of an avant-garde in the 21st century. I will conduct my argument based on the conclusions of John Berger, as expressed in his book Theory of the Avant-Garde, in which he stated that any repetition of the original avant-garde is impossible and it would be a fallacy to hope for such an event. He firmly believed that the ‘historic’ avant-garde was a unique occurrence, and one which failed.

What is avant-garde?

This is not a radical question. Artists, business people, politicians, sociologists, historians, art critics and philosophers have been asking this question and pondering the answer for nearly two hundred years. However, despite the simplicity of the question, it is a difficult one to answer with precision.

It is well documented that sociologist Comte Henri de Saint-Simon was the first to conceive of the artist as a visionary. His hope was that the artist could work hand-in-hand with the scientist and the industrialist, to inspire humanity to imagine a better world (Margolin, 1997, p. 1). Rodrigues Olinde, a disciple of Comte Henri de Saint-Simon, argues Matei Calinescu, was in fact the real founding father of the concept of the avant-garde as he was the first to talk more conclusively of the role of art in uniting people with a new future (Calinescu, 1997, p.103). In a world that is fragmented and segmented, he believed that an imagined future was vital.

The term today is used to refer to any unorthodox and radical undercurrent of creative activity. I argue that a true avant-garde is generated from within itself, it cannot simply rely on external forces. It looks inwards and absorbs itself and causes a vertiginous feeling in anyone who tries to analyse it. It is the highest possible expression of revolutionary consciousness. For each major epoch since, during a period when culture, society and politics has been in crisis, an avant-garde of sorts has emerged, each one different from the previous.

In addition, the avant-garde is a kind of infantilism. The poet and performance artist Tristan Tzara wrote in 1936 that Dada, ‘was born of a revolt that was shared by all adolescents’ (quoted by Alex Melamid, 2017).  

A stronger definition of the avant-garde comes from Guy Debord. To him, the avant-garde is an overcoming of the current societal totality and development of an alternative organisation of reality. As he states: ‘The first realization of an avant-garde today would be the avant-garde itself.’ (Guy Debord in a letter dated March 15 1963 to Robert Estivals).

Given the legacy of the original avant-garde, I argue that part of what makes something avant-garde is in its inward-facing outlook, the ability to self-criticise, self-question and ask: what are we, are we avant-garde? The historical avant-garde self-created, rejecting all traditional media and methods and subjects. It turned the question ‘what is art’ on its head. I believe that this can be replicated as this question has not yet been resolved and the nature of the question changes with time.

Any sort of avant-garde is about challenging power and renewal, recycle, change, crisis, repetition, time and resistance through a seemingly infantile, rebellious means. A key word is repetition, in terms of originality borne out of the difference in repetition.

What is the legacy of the historic avant-garde?

Fundamentally, the historic avant-garde questioned authority and aimed to do this from within life. According to Peter Burger, an avant-garde is only possible when ‘art and the praxis of life are one’ (Burger, p. 51). Burger claimed that the original achievements of the avant-garde were unique, and that they could not be replicated and were therefore doomed to failure. The historic avant-garde sought to sublimate art with life, in the Hegelian sense, and according to Peter Burger’s theory it failed: ‘…the sublimation of art that the avant-gardists intended, its return to the praxis of life, did not in fact occur’ (Burger, p. 58).

The avant-garde was unable to achieve what it set out to achieve, according to Burger, for two fundamental reasons. Firstly, it was unique and therefore in the future it is impossible to replicate something unique. Secondly, because the definition and scope of the category ‘work’ expanded at the same time as the avant-garde flourished. The objet trouvé which was a chance discovery, a way of uniting art with the praxis of life, according to Burger, became to be recognised as the work of art. The objet trouvé, he argues further, stopped being anti-art but became an autonomous work with everything else that previously existed. In this way, then, he argued, the avant-garde as it was originally conceived, was inevitably historical and could never be replicated. The effect of the ‘historical’ avant-garde quickly diffused and the shock value was lost.

Marcel Duchamp’s contribution to the avant-garde was to question the notion of originality. He was, arguably, the first to put forward with one piece of art the following questions: what is art? What is not art? Is there a value in a copy? He facilitated artists to ask: how does that value compare to the value viewed as inherent in the original? He also questioned the notion that art necessitated time, effort and skill. His contribution to the avant-garde was to fire a revolution in art, which coincided with a global revolution in politics.

The historical avant-garde, or, the original avant-garde, by its happening, has allowed artists since to question art without controversy. It has become a fundamental principle of nearly all art now to question and self-criticise. The struggle for artists today is that they are preceded by a great number of significant movements. But it is a common misconception that the questions based on what art is have either been resolved, or left as unanswerable. It is easy to apportion blame on the historical avant-garde for this. The historic avant-garde has provided artists with a multitude of ways to approach art, including readymade, assemblage, performance, happening, documentation, image and installation. However, the greater legacy of the avant-garde is philosophical, and that is to question.

Conditions necessary for a new avant-garde art

‘The dreaming collective knows no history.’ Walter Benjamin (Benjamin, 1999, p. 546).

It has since been argued by many, irrespective of the ‘uniqueness’ of the historical avant-garde, that merging art with life can never be fully realised, as indeed it wasn’t at the first attempt. This idea that the historical avant-garde was doomed to fail has become very influential since Peter Burger theorised about it. The basis of that argument, one followed by Frederik Jameson (1992) and Perry Anderson (1984) is that the socio-economic-political conditions for the success of an avant-garde are no longer with us. I question: is that true?

If we argue that the conditions for an avant-garde include political and / or economic turbulence, then the events of last few years exhibit critical tendencies, for example, the collapse of banks and financial markets, depletion of economies, ecological disasters, wars and the occupation and movement of people. It could be argued that we are at a turning point, a time of interruption. The current social and political conditions are different, perhaps even opposite, to those that spurned the historic avant-garde. Ironically, there is a strange similarity, in that private interests of capital have managed to permeate the whole of society again. So why shouldn’t another similar revolutionary avant-garde idea come now, during a time of global political revolution?

Frederic Jameson and Perry Anderson both see the avant-garde in purely historical terms. They have both questioned why we cannot have a genuine avant-garde today. The original avant-garde came about when the tension between capitalism and older forms caused a rift. But today, they both argue, the world is saturated by capitalist conditions. The socio-economic conditions which brought about the historical avant-garde cannot be replicated. However, I would argue that there is scope for a repetition of sorts.

If we argue that the industrial process has, as Theodor Adorno and Clement Greenberg have claimed, diluted the arts, can it now be debated that this same industrial process has actually created possibilities for cultural production to fight against the current path of progress of liberal capitalism? Can that reaction touch the lives of more people, in other words, blend art with life? The question to ask now is: what might be possible if community democratic participation in the cultural and aesthetic realm became a reality. Perhaps what is needed is to turn the cultural life of current capital upside down giving ordinary people the ability to control it, or, in other words, become artists of everyday life. The notion of class needs to be deconstructed again at the same time as tensions in the discrepancies in wealth in society should propel the direction of history. Intellectuals, philosophers, critics and artists are re-examining the role of labour in the creative economy. Artists, collectively at least, are starting to reassess again the relationship of art to work.

Instead of eradicating work, the current stage of commodification, argues Mackenzie Wark, has eradicated leisure (Wark, 2017). All of our movements and activities, he further argues, are part of a huge rhizomic network of data gathering and algorithm generation. He supposes that the next stage after Guy Debord’s predicted integrated spectacle might be what he calls a spectacle of disintegration. This describes a world where nobody, of any class, knows themselves (or looks inward on themselves). In other words, everything has become completely fragmented.

The role of time and history

Is being ahead of one’s time ever possible? What are the cultural conditions necessary for a new avant-garde? Moe Angelos argues that current artistic practices, such as the production of things and ideas, that may describe themselves as so-called avant-garde are ‘garde’ but not ‘avant’ (Angelos in Leger, p. 86). By which she means that we can see what the garde is but not what is ahead of it. The future is elusive, we only have the present. ‘The avant garde is not dead, yet at the same time it is dying,‘ (ibid., p. 87). In her argument, what occurs can, and does, die at every point in time in which we live. However, in the future, the ‘avant’, is always available and we can always see it. The ‘avant’ is the potential. In reality, we can only ever experience the future as the present, as we cannot actually imagine a future that isn’t in the present. This is reminiscent of Gertrude Stein’s notion of ‘the continuous present’, in which our knowledge of the world and our experience of the world can only exist in the present and not the future (Stein, 1926). The present is deeply compelling. But, we have developed many ways to escape the discomfort of the present. Our desire to live in the moment still drives us. However, I would argue that this has always been the case and this isn’t something unique to art and thinking about art now. What is something is able to liberate us from the supposed eternal return of history?

Rosalind Krauss argues that the idea of practicing ‘vanguard’ art (what avant-garde art is) aims to show originality as a basic assumption and one that emerges from the premise of repetition and recurrence (Krauss, p. 151). This may come across as a criticism of the originality of avant-garde art but in fact it can be viewed as an acceptance of the validity of an avant-garde as a force of originality (the difference in repetition).

One of the foundational principles of an avant-garde is finding connection between artistic experiment and political commitment. The question now is: is this now possible? Artistic avant-garde and the political vanguard have been scooped up by capitalism, and this in turn has integrated culture with capital, argues Mikkel Bolt Rasmussen.

Burger warns in Theory of the Avant-Garde against trying to reinstate the avant-garde and his caution is backed up with much intellectual rigour. However, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try for a new avant-garde, one that is relevant to history being created now. Gregory Sholette concludes that to realise a ‘history from below’ as he calls it, means generating a platform which is apart from the market (Sholette, p. 188). Alain Badiou argues that what takes the most courage is to ‘operate in terms of a different durée to that imposed by the law of the world’ (Badiou, p. 41). There are pockets of resistance, but they are as of yet fragmented and not unified enough.

Contemporary conceptual art is not truly avant-garde. It is about experimentation but it is not trying to create the world or culture anew. It tries to effect change, but that change is not radical or original.

Art now: Can we move from the continuous present to the ‘future’?

‘To make people free is the aim of art, therefore art for me is the science of freedom.’ Joseph Beuys

Is originality still possible, given that originality is derived from random generation of existing ideas and concepts?

Gregory Sholette in his book Dark Matter makes much use of the analogy which titled his book to question whether an avant-garde art can exist today. ‘Dark matter’, or missing mass, describes for him a mass of artistic activity produced in the current post-industrial society. He supposes that all genres play a role in the modern art economy. What once was a missing mass of creative activity has more recently undergone changes, cycles and mutations. His ‘dark matter’ includes artists who chose to work on the margin of the mainstream art world as a form of social, cultural, economic or political critique. These artists embrace inadequacies and barriers to the art institution, choosing to live in the dark matter. Instead, they use their relative invisibility and marginalization to their benefit and they feel able to challenge the norms of the art institution.

However, he further argues, these artists aren’t yet a strong enough political force. They appear to be effective locally and on the outer reaches, or in the short term, but so far, their activity, he explains has had just a small impact. The issues are to do with matters of scale. The ‘dark matter’ needs to be more united and a greater cultural mass. There is potential, perhaps there needs to be a greater global economic and cultural epistemological crisis (the economic and political conditions) to allow the dark matter to become truly avant-garde.

The post-internet art world has an important connection to the legacy of Dada and Duchamp, in terms of finding new ways of shifting art from pictorial representation. ‘Random’ has once again become a means of expression, as it was for Dada. Much internet and post-internet art relies on seemingly random acts of content generation, in the form of algorithms.

The message of a contemporary avant-garde should be that there is no message. The recipient of the avant-garde art may expect a message or a narrative. He or she will try to seek a meaning. He or she will feel unease at the lack of meaning and realisation that there isn’t a message. The message becomes that there isn’t a message.

One significant artistic body which could be described as avant-garde today is Metahaven, which is a design studio and art collective based in Amsterdam. Metahaven comprises of artists Daniel van der Velden, Vinca Kruk and Gon Zifroni. Interviewed by Eye Magazine, Daniel van der Velden stated: ‘If you hammer too much it becomes too much like noise, and if it becomes too poetic you lose the tension of the density of ideas.’ (van der Velden, Eye Magazine online, 2009). It would be easy to dismiss the art practice of Metahaven as chaotic experimentations which are far removed from the realities of art practice. However, Metahaven as a group produce artworks that are theoretically and intellectually researched and strategically played. They show a level of intellectual sophistication and conviction that gives them credibility. They may not seem coherent, but in actual fact they are. Another similar artistic avant-garde body is Chto Delat, which translates as: What is to be done? This group was founded in early 2003 in Petersburg by a number of artists, thinkers, philosophers and writers. The goal of this group is to merge artistic practice with political theory and activism. The group also runs an art school called the School of Engaged Art. This group can be argued to be avant-garde in many ways including the way it produces art, the media it uses, the way it operates beyond the art institution and its philosophy of existing within life in a contemporary way. These are just two examples of what I argue to be current, or potential, avant-garde art practices today. There is also Gregory Sholette’s ‘dark matter’ of art practice, which constitutes too many examples of creative output, much of which aren’t documented, to mention. If this ‘dark matter’ can grow in strength and form a more cohesive whole, a strong, new avant-garde could emerge.

The issue currently is that these pockets of avant-garde-like activity need to build momentum and unite.

Conclusion

‘The artistic experimentalism and anti-bourgeois attitude of the vanguard successfully turns the raw directness of popular genres into searing political irony and satire, but only because the popular in these cases acquires a political function with respect to the avant-garde, forcing it to maintain a self-conscious honesty about mass destruction and oppression. The popular here is essential to preventing the avant-garde from folding in on itself and hiding its face from those who most need to receive its message. The “popular avant-garde” avoids the divorce of art and praxis, or everyday practice, of which the avant-garde has been accused.’ Renée Silverman (Silverman, 2010, p.11)

Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’ was a watershed in the way we view art, but will artists using social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram have the same impact for the 21st century that Dada did in the 20th century?

The continued supremacy of capitalism has been made complete as a result of the dominance of images in liberal capital culture. A new avant-garde needs to reject these images in their entirety. Perhaps nobody has quite achieved this yet. Change has been affected gradually by contemporary art practices which would like to describe themselves as avant-garde, the commodities of image replace and reinvent themselves in an endless repetitious cycle that is spiralling in the wrong direction, or perhaps parallel to the direction they should be going in. Capitalism has survived so well as it has been able to morph itself gradually to fit changes in the every day. The capitalist economy is a world of images, slogans, logos. This means that we do not perhaps yet see a true avant-garde, as argued by Mikkel Bolt Rasmussen.

Mackenzie Wark argued that once the situationalists have been fully absorbed into the spectacle, the way will be clear for a new avant-garde. Has that happened? Avant-garde artists today need to live in the near future, not the present. If they can do that, they earn the title ‘avant-garde’. These artists have to deal with diffusion, decentralization and similar dispersing forces that are pushing them to look progressively to less traditional ways of expressing creativity.

Why should the avant-garde be restricted to an historical definition? Repetition is innate in the way we create. History is full of repetition, albeit with that vital slight difference each time a repetition occurs. Therefore, a new avant-garde is possible, and it can’t possibly be the same, but it is just as valid, or more so, than the original ‘historical’ avant-garde.

Each ‘repetition’ of avant-garde should be viewed as an individual act of rebellion and not compared directly with what precedes it, unless it is examined in terms of difference. Perhaps the only way to stop art being co-opted into the art institution is to not present it as art and not allow it be adopted by the market. The ‘dark matter’ of the art world needs to create an art that puts common and radical, democratic reinvention at its core.

Avant-garde artists have always used whatever the current ‘media’ is as their medium. However, perhaps it is in a future of invisibility that the ‘avant-garde’ lies. Maybe contemporary artists need to refuse any visibility, or exist purely in code.

A barrier to artists today who regard themselves as avant-garde in their practice is the prevalence of online critics. The consequence is that art shown online quickly becomes categorised and once it has been categorised or even touched by criticism, it becomes less avant-garde. One way to bypass this is for artists to curate their own work or act in a group or movement so that they can work with the modern media and concepts in a new and interesting way.

For as long as we have difference in repetition, societal, economic and cultural change, distress in the system and revolution of history we will always have the potential for a new avant-garde. It isn’t here yet, but might be soon.

Bibliography

Anderson, P. 1984. Modernity and Revolution. New Left Review I/144. March–April

Angelos, M. ‘The Avant Garde is Present’ in M. J. Léger. ed. 2014. The Idea of the Avant Garde and What It Means Today. Manchester: Manchester University Press

Badiou, A. 2010. The Communist Hypothesis. London: Verso

Benjamin, W. 1999 The Arcade Project. Translated by Kevin McLaughlin. Eds Rolf Tidermann and Howard Eiland. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Billet, A. 2017. A 21st-Century Popular Avant Garde. In Red Wedge [online]. 3 March. [Accessed 4 November 2017]. Available at: http://www.redwedgemagazine.com/online-issue/a-21st-century-popular-avant-garde [last accessed 8 January 2018]

Calinescu, M. 1987. Five Faces of Modernity: Modernism, Avant-Garde, Decadence, Kitsch, Postmodernism. Durham: Duke University Press

Jameson, F. 1992. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. London: Verso Books

Krauss, R. 1986. The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press

Léger, M. J. ed. 2014. The Idea of the Avant Garde and What It Means Today. Manchester: Manchester University Press

Léger, M. J. 2012. Brave New Avant Garde: Essays on Contemporary Art and Politics. London: Zero Books

Margolin, V. 1997. The Struggle for Utopia: Rodchenko, Lissitzky, Moholy-Nagy 1917–1946. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press

Poynor, R. 2009. ‘Borderline’. Eye Magazine Online. Available at: http://www.eyemagazine.com/feature/article/borderline [last accessed 8 January 2018]

Rasmussen, M. B. ‘The Self Destruction of the Avant Garde’ in M. J. Léger. ed. 2014. The Idea of the Avant Garde and What It Means Today. Manchester: Manchester University Press

Sholette, G. 2006. Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture. London: Pluto Press

Silverman, R. ed. 2010. The Popular Avant-Garde. Amsterdam: Ropodi.

Wark, M. ’60 Years of Recuperation: Are the Situationists still Relevant?’  Art Review. October 2017,  pp. 74-79

 

Appendix

Question for Facebook: What does ‘avant-garde’ mean to you?

  • The 1920s
  • A font used in the 1920s
  • Art that is eccentric, or art that most would be cautious to display
  • Unorthodox
  • Art deco
  • Pretentious
  • Bonnie and Clyde
  • We are all avant garde: freedom, free and fun
  • Stravinsky for music and Duchamp for art
  • Art that breaks the rules or is very strange, it is usually arty, stylish and brave
  • Jazz
  • New and quirky
  • Unusual, possibly exotic or risqué
  • Art in any medium that takes the current technology and techniques and pushes them in new, interesting and sometimes uncomfortable ways. Before then being quickly consumed by advertising and marketing, only for the process to have to repeat onwards.
  • Punk rock is avant garde
  • To see, feel and hear things differently, a different angle of what others don’t see
  • Half a cow

 

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Surprise criticism in the real world

One of my interests in my art practice is the use of the Internet as a forum for art engagement. I use Instagram, Twitter and Facebook extensively for engagement with regular people in my art. I use it more than any other method (it’s a lot quicker to post an image on Facebook than it is to arrange an art exhibition). I also, and perhaps more so, use it as part of my research. Every time I paint or draw something, or come up with an idea that might lead to a piece of artwork, I go straight to social media. Most of the time, the feedback I receive is fairly instant, both positive and negative, and also via the medium of social media. I use the feedback I get for further research. However, very occasionally, I receive feedback in person. And when I do, I am somewhat thrown by it and on how to react.

Recently, I posted a photograph of a painting I had made as a study of black-and-white depiction of an ‘object’ that relies on colour. This week while socialising in the pub, I had some feedback on that painting delivered to me in person. This feedback was not connected to the artwork itself, rather, it was personal to me as the artist. The comments that were made made me feel uncomfortable. I don’t blame the person who made the comments, this person was rather inebriated at the time. However, that doesn’t change what was said or my internal response to it (my external response was to recoil).

Alcohol makes everyone an art critic

Initially, I was a little perturbed by this exchange. A couple of days later, and after I’ve had time to reflect, I have started to analyse the situation. Now I am mostly curious to know why this feedback made me feel so uncomfortable. It was partly the nature of the comments (which you could argue I left myself open to), but it was also the fact that the feedback was delivered face-to-face and directly. Not many artists get such immediate feedback or in person. When an artwork is in a gallery, it is rare that the viewer will get to meet the artist. If the viewer connects the artwork to the artist and the artist’s personality or lifestyle, they are unlikely to have the chance, unless they know the artist personally, to make a judgement.

As an ‘ordinary’ person, posting my artwork online, it reaches an audience which includes people who know me personally and who see me frequently in the real world. I see that this can both be a positive, and now a negative.

I realise that sometimes I forget that when I post images on Instagram or Facebook, my audience is quite close to me and able to approach me in real life as well as comment online. I use social media for artistic engagement because it affords me distance, yet, it seems, ironically, it doesn’t at all. 

The lesson I have learnt from this experience is twofold: to develop a thicker skin when feedback comes back to me in the ‘real’ world and to remember that the Internet doesn’t necessarily act as a barrier between artist and audience, in fact, ironically, it can be a bridge.

 

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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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