Monthly Archives: August 2012

Dieter Roth and the Symbolists

To Edinburgh at last weekend where we took in Dieter Roth’s diaries at the Fruitmarket Gallery and Van Gogh to Kandinsky, one of the ’blockbuster’ exhibitions for the Edinburgh Festival, on show at the Royal Scottish Academy.

Dieter Roth’s diaries has received excellent reviews. The first part of the exhibition is Solo Scenes, a set of 128 monitors playing videos of Roth, at work, sleeping, eating, in one scene he seems to be giving directions from his front door to a passing motorist. We even see him sitting reading on the toilet.

I’ve read tweets from people who have been moved to tears by the recordings, made during Roth’s last year before he died from a heart attack. I have to confess I felt somewhat less moved and found the display of notebooks and paper diaries in a room adjacent to the monitors and in the gallery upstairs to be much more affecting.

It’s a paradox of film I think, that it can show us what a person looked like, moved and sounded like but doesn’t give any sense of their physical being. For that you need to see the stuff they used. What they touched and handled or wore. Roth’s writing and drawing, his scribbles and doodles bring you much closer to the artist. I particularly liked his series of drawings, ’97 mutually accusing angel-destroyers and whiny swines’. It reminded me of surrealist automatic drawings and also Hans Bellmer’s although Roth’s drawings are not as obviously sexual in intent as Bellmer’s.

I’ve just watched a review of Roth’s diaries on BBC’s the Culture Show. It included an interview with Roth’s son who spoke about his fathers dislike of having his photograph taken and how difficult Solo Scenes was for Roth to make. Solo Scenes is his favourite work of his fathers. Perhaps I need to look again to see what I’ve missed first time.

As Alistair Sooke suggested in his Culture Show review, Roth is the kind of artist people think of when they complain about how rubbish contemporary art is. The proposition put forward in Kandinsky to Van Gogh appears to be that symbolist painting provided a stepping stone on the way to abstraction (abstraction being, if you adopt a linear approach to the story of modern art, a step on the road to conceptual art of the sort practiced by Roth and which neatly allows me to write about these two shows in the same blog).

At least that is how it appeared to me although I didn’t buy the catalogue, which doubtless offers a more subtly developed and maybe completely different argument. However, finishing on early abstract paintings by Mondrian and Kandinsky after rooms of fairly accessible landscape painting makes for a pretty clear proposition I think.

There are of course impressive works on show including a small, intensely coloured Van Gogh of a sower and Gauguin’s Jacob wrestling the Angel along with a couple of Munch’s (who is everywhere these days) However what struck me most forcibly was how much many of the paintings resembled, if not in handling or technique then in subject matter, idea and approach, the work in a local amateur art exhibition. In symbolist painting after symbolist painting the principle aim, by use of heightened colour, stylised drawing or dramatic perspective, appears to be to invest the landscape with a deeper romantic significance. And symbolist painting is, in part at least, about giving significant emotional resonance to certain colours or forms.

However it all seemed so reminiscent of the work you could typically see at the hanging of the annual art club show in the local library. Not that I want to appear sniffy about this. I largely agree with John Berger’s view that if such art is sentimental then it’s no more sentimental than much of the stuff you’ll see in a contemporary art show. And its probably a healthier sort of sentimentality. Berger defined sentimentality as a way of evading relevant facts. He doesn’t say what those facts might be but his essay does end with a call for revolutionary change. The conditions in a society dominated by capitalist interests and the inequalities and exploitation those interests give rise to are what was generally troubling Berger.

The symbolist painters may have considered that their art did engage with the wider social issues of the day (or not, I’m not sure if they were art for art types) but if they did it doesn’t now. And paintings that critique the iniquities in the system are not what art club painters typically produce. What the symbolists were doing was producing paintings because they were painters, just as Roth compulsively filmed himself or filled his diaries and notebooks because he was an artist and thats what he did. The question though is, is that enough?

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In progress

These two objects are made from plaster poured into moulds and selectively gouged whilst the material was still soft. The plaster is still drying out, hence the darker colour of the cylinder shape. After they have dried out fully I plan to paint them. It would be good to have them cast into metal, which would give them a weight and permanence they lack in plaster. But that’s unlikely to happen anytime soon.
The objects are a pair, to be shown together.

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Colour, shape, line

I’ve been working on two paintings over the past few months that could be seen as being at opposite ends of the ‘art’ spectrum, one being more or less figurative, the other more or less abstract. I don’t see the distinction as hard and fast as others might and for me there are more similarities than differences between the two. Not least the underlying aim of both, which is to try and use paint in such a way that it materially becomes, through the application, texture and rhythm of the paint,  what it describes. Whether that is a head or a figure or the more generalised forms such as in the second painting.

The photos below, taken on my phone, aren’t particularly good. The colours have been overexposed and you might wonder what the fuss is about. But the question I’m asking myself now is whether to concentrate of one approach or the other. The second painting is an attempt to realise in paint the approach and forms I’ve been using in a series of large charcoal drawings (two of which are in the third photo). The painting isn’t entirely unsuccessful I think and it would be worth exploring further how to use paint in this non-figurative way. I’ve also been making some sculpture recently using abstract forms and so the paintings and the sculptures might begin to inform and feed off each other.

I might even begin to arrive at a body of work, using a variety of media but which has a consistent look to it so that it is all obviously from the same hand. On the other hand, the prints I’ve been making recently are figurative and even have a flicker about them of the illusion of 3 dimensional space. I’ve no interest in the moment of trying to make abstract prints and I still have  ideas about further figurative paintings.

Does it matter if various apparently conflicting styles are used in one body of work? Some artists get away with it (Gerhard Richter for one) but I do remember reading about artists who have ‘made it’ or are on the way to doing so, who complain of frustration with demands to produce work only in the style that first gained them the attention of the market. I’m unlikely to be bothered by that problem anytime soon but does oscillating between abstract and figurative styles indicate a deeper confusion or lack of focus about what you’re trying to do? I don’t that is necessarily so but…

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Mariner 9

Hanging over Whitley Bay, like many British seaside towns, is the slow, slightly suffocating atmosphere of a long Sunday afternoon. Walk around and people may be out enjoying themselves in the sun but there is a sense that all the real fun happened yesterday, whilst in a few hours everybody will pack up, go home to prepare for Monday morning.

Signs of past (if modest) splendour are all around; the disused outdoor pool now filled with rocks, the large railway station at Tynemouth clearly built to cope with workers and their families during trades and factory holidays but now serving commuters shoppers to Newcastle. And Spanish City once home to a permanent funfair and with a theatre and ballroom capacity of 2000 seats.

From 3 to 19 August Spanish City is host to Canadian artist Kelly Richardson’s 12 metre long video installation Mariner 9. Richardson has combined technical data from NASA with software used by filmmakers and game designers to create a Martian landscape some hundred or so years into the future, strewn with the debris of human exploration.

Lamps flash on and off, the arms of seemingly abandoned vehicles occasionally move up and down, back and forth. Over to the right are pipelines perhaps drawing gas or oil out of the ground or maybe heating a subterranean city.

Mariner 9 could be a long establishing shot for a Ridley Scott science fiction film (appropriate as the piece is commissioned by Tyneside Cinema) and Richardson admits to drawing on the genre for her ideas. But there are no monsters appearing here. Instead Richardson is commenting, I think, on our tendency to carelessly exploit and wreck our environment. As agent Smith tells Morpeus “You move to an area and you multiply until every natural resource is consumed. The only way you can survive is to spread to another area. Human beings are a disease…”

 Whether it’s the exploitation of physical materials, minerals, gases, oils or the changing patterns and expectations of holidaymakers the result often appears to be the same.

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More woodcuts

In the studio today and making some prints from a woodcut made last week.

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