The squirrel

Hyndland house © Samantha Groenestyn, oil on canvas

Hyndland house © Samantha Groenestyn, oil on canvas

 

Sometimes it would be really excellent to have access to an art education, but sometimes you have to find a way to educate yourself. At times like this, the answer might come from Jack White, via a squirrel. ‘Take all your problems and rip ’em apart’: isolate, master, and finally, integrate.

Venus and Adonis ( / Jack White) by Abraham Janssens

Venus and Adonis ( / Jack White) by Abraham Janssens

Taking a class means you have a structure imposed on you, regularity and routine, and are fed ideas in a logical sequence. But in the event that you are not enrolled in a class, you can still find plenty to chew on, and with enough discipline you can create a solid routine. The important things are to be excited, to follow the trail and to be persistent. Travel affords one the perfect opportunity to get outside and work from nature, eyeballs twitching from all the spectacular new stimuli. But nature is hard: full of bugs, dogs, shrieking children, nosy people, trees, changing light and other painterly woes. One works with an urgency that can be shaken in the private peacefulness of the studio, but at the same time one finds the details mounting, crowding out the picture, looking rushed and untended to. I, for one, include too much, and struggle to keep the main design at the fore of my decisions.

Tree 1

George Clausen, whose Stone pickers (1887) I was fortunate enough to encounter in the Laing in Newcastle, expressed similar pains in his lectures to the Royal Academy (published as Six Lectures on Painting; 1904: 45): ‘Everything in nature is moving—not necessarily quickly, but nothing stands still for us; this sense of life and movement must be given in a picture with the measure of detail which may be necessary, and the result reveals the artist’s mind, showing on which qualities, and in what degree, his attention was fixed.’

Tree 2

So I have happened upon an approach that lets me both practice the elements and work at the broader design. Every afternoon I head out into the world with my sketchbook and choose something to devote my attention to. Perhaps a scene will strike me, and I will sit down for an hour, two, as long as it takes, and interrogate this setting from a design perspective. These drawings are fluid, scratchy, built of simplified masses, and usually paying attention to form, reducing trees to bulbous sphere-based monstrosities, and paying careful attention to perspective in the prisms of buildings. In these drawings I’m developing a notation for three-dimensional objects, as well as forcing them into pleasing arrangements. Many of these drawings go nowhere, but some form the basis of paintings. Mostly, they reveal what the smaller problems are, and demonstrate that tackling an entire landscape all at once is too big a bite just now.

Tree 3

Other afternoons I linger in a sunny park or bunker down by a swamp and draw the trunk of a tree. These organic forms produce surprising twists, and let me explore drawing quite fluidly and more freely than when drawing the figure with its predictable anatomy. Plus, they sit still for longer, so you can while away hours investigating in as much detail as you care to, and never run out of variations. As Harold Speed (1913: 106) reminds us, ‘Nature is the great storehouse of variety; even a piece of coal will suggest more interesting rock-forms than you can invent. … And it is never advisable to waste inventive power where it is so unnecessary.’

Tree 6

For reals, this tree exists.

Mornings, I like to start with a drapery study. My kind friend Elizabeth has let me pillage her scarf drawer which means I have an endless variety of fabrics—stiff, wispy, heavy, floaty, wiry and bunched—at my disposal. It’s a nice reminder that there’s not simply drapery, but that all fabrics have their own manner of drape; that they bunch differently, fall differently and fold differently. I started out with ‘drapery sculptures,’ complex creatures to test my accuracy. But I got more excited about the puzzles of fabric, and began to explore its incarnations: table drapery, hanging drapery, folded and twisted drapery; the little pockets and cones that form in it. And besides wrapping my head around the ‘mechanics’ of this mouldable form, I found these exercises to be an invaluable means of practicing modelling. My earlier drawings are harshly seeking out the cross-contours; my later ones, even after only a few weeks, are finding a more elegant way to express the softness of the surface of my subject.

Drape 1

And here comes the exciting bit. Having broken all my problems down and gnawed away at them, varying and repeating the tasks, following my nose and trying to solve the new puzzles that arise out of them, I see just how connected they are. For a tree is a person is a drape is a composition. The ripples of the surface of the drapery find their way into my trees, and the muscularity and counter rhythms of human limbs translate into those of trees. The design-oriented sweeps through boughs—always planted firmly on the ground—resurface in the capturing of a human pose, feet rooted just as surely. And a thin piece of cloth has forms as full as any living thing, and is not simply a web of shapes dovetailing together.

Drape 2

As ever, trusty old Bammes accompanies me on my explorations, and a little such guidance never goes astray. For it’s nice to work independently, but it’s also nice to receive tested wisdom and gentle reminders: ‘If skull drawing is not practised as if it were architecture, with a perpetual ordering of primary and secondary aspects—if it is not done with awareness—it will degenerate into nothing more than clever copying and will not provide any gain in knowledge or vision’ (2010: 222).

Drape 3

Clausen empathises further (1904: 54): ‘The student’s greatest difficulty is to find himself; what it is that he really wants to express.’ He observes that we are more inclined to seek our place amongst our contemporaries, to stay attuned to current creative trends and market-driven demands. But Clausen urges the student in her ‘search for general principles:’ ‘He should try and arrive at principles, and to that end study also the work of the old artists, who have travelled the whole road; depending on nature for his inspiration, while referring to them for guidance.’ Clausen suggests a delicate balance between personal encounters and struggles with the natural world, with observation and private deduction—just as a mathematician might privately prove axioms to himself as a sure footing for further creative problem solving—and a devoted study of the masters. In this light it is not simply a dreamlike privilege to be in Europe, with daily access to world-class galleries, but a minimum requirement of the student of art. One does oneself no favours by remaining in a cultural backwater, relying only on reproductions in one’s investigations into the great work of the past. Clausen (1904: 54) argues that such study gives us a belt of tools—of insights, ideas and trains of thought—to bring to our own battles of taming nature to the canvas. ‘For we train ourselves to see and understand, by studying the work of the masters, which help us to form our judgement before nature.’

Drape 4

This idea that we distill the principles for ourselves is, to my mind, paramount. No master of any field simply reads the elementary textbooks and gets on with making bold discoveries. Many a physicist has divulged to me that they have returned again and again to the foundational principles, oiled their minds with them, looked at them from every angle, picked them apart and pieced them back together unaided, and, after a number of years working on highly abstracted concepts, have seen these principles in a new light as their specialised understanding deepens. We need the surest, securest foundation for our endeavours, and however elite and respected and coveted our school, it can never simply feed us such a foundation. We must work through the smallest of problems for ourselves, and make each discovery, have each profound epiphany, at our own hand.

Drapes

And no less than the mighty Leonardo da Vinci will back us up on this. In his notebooks he admits to being no scholar, but to owing all to the mistress of experience. ‘Though I may not, like them, be able to quote other authors, I shall rely on that which is much greater and more worthy:—on experience, the mistress of their Masters. They go about puffed up and pompous, dressed and decorated with [the fruits], not of their own labours, but of those of others. And they will not allow me my own. They will scorn me as an inventor; but how much more might they—who are not inventors but vaunters and declaimers of the works of others—be blamed.’ (1888: 16-17).

Gnarly tree

In having the humility to search out general principles for ourselves, and becoming familiar with them inside and out, da Vinci argues that we will face our creative problems with clarity of mind. ‘These rules will enable you to have a free and sound judgment; since good judgment is born of clear understanding, and a clear understanding comes of reasons derived from sound rules, and sound rules are the issue of sound experience—the common mother of all the sciences and arts.’ (1888: 19) And so, artist or scientist, let’s not neglect the small puzzles, or rely on others to hand solutions to us. Let’s tear apart and then rebuild our own enduring foundations, one little acorn at a time.

 

You can snag most of the books cited free online!

Bammes, Gottfried. 2010. Complete guide to life drawing. Search: Kent.

Clausen, George. 1904. Six lectures on painting. Methuen: London.

Speed, Harold. 1913. The practice and science of drawing. Seeley: London.

da Vinci, Leonardo. 1888. The notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci. Trans. Jean Paul Richter.

Standard

The punch

Confessions (oil on linen) © Samantha Groenestyn

Confessions (oil on linen) © Samantha Groenestyn

I’ve been chewing over the role of a ‘conceptual rationale’ in art. Firstly, let it be recognised that I am not against concepts in art. Paintings should move us, and when they do they are more than mere decoration. But I am not interested in the types of concepts that only resonate in words, and that are swallowed whole in little capsules of artists’ statements, no chewing required. The real punch, the real power of art, is that it can make us sense something, consider something, meditate on something, and even feel something, just by channelling carefully composed signals through our eyes. I want to argue that while many a painting lacks a punch line, or fails to explain itself in words, it may still be about something, still built on an idea, and it may still speak softly to us, and perhaps even resonate fiercely with us as our history with it deepens. In Delacroix’s (p. 41) words, ‘What moves men of genius, or rather, what inspires their work, is not new ideas, but their obsession with the idea that what has already been said is still not enough.’

BIA1

A humble painting of an interior sits shyly beside an unlovely outburst of so-called modern conceptual art. Without being punched in the face by unpleasant truths and by the sheer disgustingness of waste in our culture, the modern art viewer can find no meaning to lock on to when confronted with a work of art. Our time certainly is not one for subtlety, and images that demand too much of us are bound to be dismissed. Perhaps we feel an attraction to a still life scene, but sense that it would be too much work to justify this attraction—and, further, perhaps we feel a certain impatience with the painter for not simply being more clever about it so the painting’s relevance was immediately obvious. Whichever way I look at it, we are faced with a paradox: the painter wants to speak in a language that no one wants to learn. And even when he gets through to us, we cast off his whisperings as meaningless.

Yet, ‘If images don’t do anything in this culture, if they haven’t done anything, then why are we sitting here in the twilight of the twentieth century talking about them?’ art critic Dave Hickey (in Poynor, p. 43) asks. Hickey argues that the power of many images can be traced to beauty, ‘to the iconography of desire,’ but I want to return to beauty shortly. It seems to me that while many paintings certainly are beautiful, they appeal to us in another even simpler way. They permit us to look at ourselves.

BIA2

In the words of Jacques Pienaar, ‘If ever art had a job to do, it’s to make humanity look at itself.’ This might be as literal as a portrait of a known individual. It might be a nude—revealing our physical form at its simplest and most honest, unadorned, plump or bony, asymmetric, uniquely proportioned, secret toilet parts included (unlike the false view of ourselves afforded, for example, by much pornography). It might be the warmth of the painter’s home, traces of their life left in the arrangement of their living quarters. It might be a five-hundred-year-old Dutch breakfast, which can fill us with envy as much as the meals at the table next to us in a café today. Whatever else a painter may have intended, when painting from life he or she has done humanity a marvellous service in making a visual record of our temporal intersection with the physical world. Our cumulative knowledge has been recorded by philosophers and scientists; our successive sensory experiences have been recorded by artists—and what a vault of lived human experience remains! And further: no amount of adding to this collection is redundant, for we live in ever changing times and our present experiences are just as valid, as is the recording of them.

Of course, art is not always truthful, but there is also meaning in this. Where a representational painting sweeps some things away and introduces others, or chases a particular light or settles into a particular mood, the painting itself becomes a sort of bridge to the future. We see the world now, but we are also permitted to see a possible future through the vision of the painter. Frank Chimero (p. 68) argues that ‘every time we tell an untruth, we confess that the world is not yet done.’ He cites art historian George Kubler (p. 122): ‘The moment just past is extinguished forever, save for the things made during it,’ adding, ‘All of these creations linger, and they echo across the long line of time and speak to what those people were able to build and what they believed.’

BIA3

Let us return to Dave Hickey and his efforts to direct our attention ‘to the language of visual affect—to the rhetoric of how things look—to the iconography of desire—in a word, to beauty!’ Wendy Steiner (xxi) analyses the twentieth-century discomfort with beauty, the prevailing suspicion that beauty is the villain—‘a siren or a whore.’ Steiner suggests we might be more comfortable with our experience of beauty, remarking that since we all succumb to it, ‘it would be well if we could recognise the meaning of our succumbing as a valuable response, an opportunity for self-revelation rather than a defeat.’ Given our positive response to a meaningful arrangement of temporary objects, let us dwell a little longer on why these things speak to us, even though they are not clever and satirical and politically charged. Perhaps Anna Karenina doesn’t speak to us because of the incisive political claims made by the main characters—perhaps it’s because of the humanity of the people portrayed, the similarity of their hopes to our own, and the impact of their historical situation on those hopes. We long to feel with each other, and in art, we can.

BIA4

Delacroix (p. 66) felt keenly that too many artists were swayed by trends—the market, or popular opinion perhaps, or government demands. ‘A great number of talented artists had never done anything worthwhile because they surrounded themselves with a mass of prejudices, or had them thrust upon them by the fashion of the moment.’ I feel that while much art that is considered ‘classical’ and hence antagonistic to concepts in fact grows up around more slowly-unravelled concepts, perhaps this obsession with concept-above-all-else is the sort of fashion that we must brush aside and simply carry on working. We know that we are not subverting everything that has gone before, but we know that we are building on a meaningful history and connecting with people in inexplicable ways. And Delacroix (p. 43) urges us on:

You who know that there is always something new, show it to others in the things they have hitherto failed to appreciate. Make them feel they have never before heard the song of the nightingale, or been aware of the vastness of the sea—everything that their gross senses can perceive only when someone else takes the trouble to feel it for them. And do not let language trouble you. If you cultivate your soul it will find the means to express itself.

Chimero, Frank. 2012. The Shape of Design. (Self published).

Delacroix, Eugene. 2010 [1822-1863] The journal of Eugene Delacroix. Trans. Lucy Norton. Phaidon: London.

Poynor, Rick. 2006 ‘The beauty part.’ In Looking Closer Five: Critical writings on graphic design. Ed. Michael Bierut, William Drentel and Steven Heller. Allworth: New York.

Steiner, Wendy. 2001. Venus in exile: The rejection of beauty in 20th-Century art. University of Chicago: Chicago.

Standard

Risk

Nausea © Samantha Groenestyn

Nausea © Samantha Groenestyn

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A government employee once said to me, upon learning of my aspirations to make a career of art, ‘Oh, so you’ll be getting used to a life of applying for and living off government grants.’ He said it so off-hand, as if this were a completely unremarkable way to earn one’s living. I had never considered applying for a grant, and didn’t know this was really considered a viable lifestyle choice.

In fact, I was disturbed that anyone could consider it unremarkable that I could leave my livelihood to chance. That I could work full time, ever more skilled, and merely hope to get awarded a prize, or a share thereof, rather than simply be paid what I’d earned. I was utterly disgusted that as a painter, producing good work might not be enough—I must also grovel to the government, who pays its staff $50 000 to $100 000 (perhaps more) to agonise for days over the specifics of selection criteria in grant applications for a share in a few thousand dollars. After a more senior government colleague and I spent a week on one such application and our department awarded us $3000 between us for the effort, we finally awarded the measly $3000 grant to some struggling community-led organisation with a whole swag of conditions. I spent my share on books and beer. The thing about getting paid for your work is, you spend your money as you please. The thing about getting a grant is, the government wants a say. And it’s far less money than a regular wage. Even some of the best awards are less than working part time on minimum wage for a year—and at least part time work is more or less guaranteed.

'But how can I possibly choose just one?' - Nationalbibliothek, Wien

‘But how can I possibly choose just one?’ – Nationalbibliothek, Wien

 

 

 

 

 

 

One likes to think a good government would support the arts; that it would conceive of its cities as shining cultural milieus, filled with clever and productive citizens in a whole variety of fields. It doesn’t have to be out of the ordinary to go to the ballet of an evening after work, nor does it have to be out of the reach of even the unemployed. Vienna certainly worries after its unemployed folk, and ensures their entry to museums, galleries and operas should they desire it, so as not to forcibly disconnect them from their city’s proud cultural heritage. Hell, you can bring your fold-up chair and sit and watch the opera in the square on a big screen, live, free, of a summer evening.

Wiener Staatsoper

Wiener Staatsoper

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But the idea that the government has a hand in how art is conceived, produced and viewed is a little bit worrying. There is something undeniably prescriptive in the grants offered by the Australian government, which demand strict budgets, stipulate that projects must be interdisciplinary, and expect full proposals of what will be produced. One must conceive one’s artwork from the perspective of that faceless entity of the government. And there is one thing the government does not abide: risk. The most frightening thing about government involvement in your creative project is that ‘creative’ and ‘risk’ might just mean the same thing.

A recent development in the largely funding-dependent world of physics is the Fundamental Physics Prize, established by Russian entrepreneur Yuri Milner. Unlike governments, Milner has no qualms about handing out millions of dollars at a time to people of excellence to dispose of as they please, and he annually awards multiple physicists with $3 million each, plus some other negligible amounts far greater than any artist dares contemplate more than momentarily. The Fundamental Physics Prize Foundation’s website declares that the organisation is ‘dedicated to advancing our knowledge of the Universe at the deepest level.’ The prizes are awarded to ‘provide the recipients with more freedom and opportunity to pursue even greater future accomplishments.’ Significant discoveries might snap up the award, as might promising young researchers with less results under their belts. In an interesting twist, each year’s collection of winners chooses the following year’s recipients.

Milner is an entrepreneur. He takes risks. He knows that no one ever achieved anything out of the ordinary by playing safe. And it’s extremely unreasonable to expect that people with limited resources will achieve excellent things in a predetermined (and limited) timeframe. An archaeologist can’t guarantee she’s going to make the most significant discovery of the decade on her next dig. A playwright can’t determine whether or not the play will flop in advance, or there would be no bad plays. Every time we try to bring something amazing into the world, we expose ourselves and set ourselves up to fail. Every creative person knows that their work takes time, effort and persistence, and that it doesn’t pay off every time. Government asks the impossible of us, demanding to know the (positive) outcome at the outset.

Nationalbibliothek, Wien

Nationalbibliothek, Wien

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If artists must take risks and governments must minimise risk, the funding paradigm seems fundamentally flawed. We want our governments to appreciate art, and to instil such an appreciation in the population insofar as they are able. But perhaps to get the freedom we need, we’d be better off financially supporting ourselves, or finding entrepreneurs who believe art can ‘advance our knowledge of the Universe at the deepest level.’ And just you try to sit in front of a Vermeer and say he didn’t advance just that.

Vermeer

Detail of The art of painting, Vermeer; Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien

Standard

In defence of drawing

I had the excellent good fortune to be gifted this well-considered, eloquently written book which I am currently reading for the second time—

Nelson

Robert Nelson’s The Visual Language of Painting: An aesthetic analysis of representational technique.* Nelson, who works in Monash University’s Faculty of Art and Design in Melbourne, embarks on a project of writing about painting in a way directly connected with, though not wholly confined to, technique. Where art historians have gone ‘into a heady reverential transport which strives—fatefully, I think—to clinch sentiments exceeding comprehension,’ painters—‘the people who know it best’—generally fail to explain that mute something and rely on visual language rather than verbal language (p. 1). Nelson, himself a painter, suggests that rather than insisting that painting is a purely sensual experience or that it forms a text through symbolism, painting itself may be ‘a vehicle for discourse’ (p. 10). He elaborates (pp. 27-28):

I would like to see a philosophy of technique which positions technique as the necessary correlate of poetic vision and the basis of visual language, a philosophy which is non-instrumental and anti-mechanistic. I would like to cultivate a discourse which deals with the motivation, the aesthetic benefits, the almost physiological processes of perception, but also the wilful staging, the theatricality of expressing what happens in the mind, the eye and the hand. … The project, if it could be pursued as I hope to demonstrate, would bring studio technique into the heartland of scholarship in the humanities.

His firm belief in the interrelation between thought and practice resonates deeply with me, as I have cobbled together an education by pursuing art through traditional atelier-based studies and pursuing ideas through academic studies in philosophy. If we could only talk about painting, its cadences and phrasing, its potency when well-executed, divorced from meaningless statements about transcendence and manifestations.

Recent life drawings in Conte crayon

Recent life drawings in Conté crayon

The chapter on drawing and perception is a particular favourite of mine. Drawing holds a special place in my heart. The precision of drawing, the intimacy of exploring a subject, the sensitivity of lines that investigate the flow and movement and the form, the gradual build-up of tones, the plasticity of the image and the things it reveals to your slowed, deliberate gaze is all a little bit intoxicating. Nelson (p. 52) esteems drawing highly in a modern world that seems to have lost interest in good draughtsmanship: ‘Drawing was (and still is) the tool by which sophisticated societies get things done,’ he argues. ‘Drawing in the sense of design has authority. It determines what is to be done. It is the organ by which instructions are passed down the line of command.’ He refers to this sort of drawing—the kind that precedes construction or manufacture, as synthetic drawing. It allows us to bring new constructs into existence through our ability to imagine and to accurately notate our intentions to change our physical environment.

Back

He equally esteems what he refers to as analytic drawing: the kind that investigates a subject, when one draws from life. He captures the excitement and challenge of drawing from life when he says, ‘There are psychological forces that lead the eye through space. A plethora of mutual directions vibrates between hand and eye as the brain figures out a reasonable and sometimes inspired compromise between what the eye sees and the hand can express’ (p. 82). But beyond this, he talks about the extreme importance such analytic drawing had in a world without easy mechanical or digital reproductions. Drawing was then (and still can be, for those dedicated enough to sit down and give time and thought to it) ‘almost … a way of seeing’ for artists who depended on it every day (p. 61). This captures something distinct about drawing. While it can produce visual records, it is not necessarily the product, the drawing-as-noun, that is of the most significance. Rather, the drawing-as-verb, the process, is a particular kind of engagement that the artist has with the physical world. The drawing artist is afforded a special kind of appreciation of the world, because her seeing is active and bound up in her response, not simply in the receiving of light on the retinas. Nelson (p. 61) asserts: ‘The level of scrutiny that drawing affords is hard to match, and the comprehension that it yields cannot easily be replaced.’

Barbara 1

When we recently held a book club discussion on Annigoni’s defence of drawing, the question came up of what makes a good drawing? What entitles us to make such a judgement, and on what authority do we distinguish between a pleasing drawing and a good one? While open to many styles and interpretations of the physical world, there is undeniably something that makes a drawing good, and there are a great many drawings of questionable quality out there. It is not simply a matter of realism, or of beauty. A fluent line doesn’t always cut it. What tends to set good drawing apart is the evidence of this scrutiny, of a grappling with the information received through the senses, of an application of knowledge about a subject—whether anatomy, or depth, or form, or light.

Nelson (p. 46) approaches the discussion of drawing through the question: is it well drawn? His conclusion is that a well-drawn drawing shows evidence of intelligence. Simple mimicry of outlines does not convey understanding. Direct aping of tones does not demonstrate an investigation of objects receding in space or reflecting light in ways consistent with physics—or of a true appreciation of the configuration of a knee, built of specific and descriptive lumpy bits. We must be honest: are we drawing to fool an ignorant audience, or are we drawing to actively engage with the physical world, audience be damned? Drawing thus becomes firstly a very personal thing, bound up with the act of seeing, and the artefact appreciated by others is but a by-product—not created for them.

Barbara 2

When drawing becomes a function of the person drawing, not a thing for show, it becomes an intellectual exploration and an argument—a personal conviction. Nelson (p. 54) says it ‘manifests your will to possess intellectually.’ When an artist owns what he sees through the act of drawing, he asserts an authority through the marks he makes. This brings Nelson to the conclusion that ‘the best drawings are those which have a look of commitment about them.’ And, futher, ‘we are justified in rating as lesser the drawing which resiles from such commitment. We may be disappointed that the perception or feeling is not accorded such dignity; too little ceremony has been bestowed upon the subjective; the intuitive has not been promoted to the institutional. Drawing can do this’ (p. 55).

Barbara

Drawing is a means of responding intelligently and with dignity to what we see. It isn’t the poor cousin of painting; nor does its relevance stem only from its role in design. As Annigoni himself asserted, ‘The truth is that the deformations of contemporary painters very seldom arise from stylistic requirements forced on the artist by his vision. They merely spring from a confused desire to be controversial, a surprising indifference to the human being and, one might add, a lukewarm commitment to life itself. The result is absolute indifference to form, lack of proper preparation and a heavy dose of sheer ineptitude. This last quality has today, it seems, acquired full rights of citizenship in the realm of art.’

* Nelson, Robert. 2010. The Visual Language of Painting: An aesthetic analysis of representational technique. Australian Scholarly Publishing: Melbourne.

Standard

Where I’ve been

I’ve been feeding my brain and it’s full of thoughts on painting: Lambert’s lively portraits and Sorolla’s vibrating edges, Antonio Lopez’s severed ghosts hovering over crockery, Nelson’s seductive descriptions of shadows, Freud’s sexualised understanding of the unconscious set beside Klimt’s sensual drawings and paintings of strong women. Vienna in 1900 and the melting pot of neuroscience, art and psychology. Russian aristocracy and infidelity. Too much coffee. Too much wine. Cemeteries. Lace knitting.

Secret drawings and secret paintings are in progress.

Reading frenzy Vintage knitting

SewingCoffee

Book painting

The owls are not what they seem

The owls are not what they seem

Standard

The unsayable

Lambert sketches

Copies after George W Lambert, at the Art Gallery of NSW and at the Julian Ashton Art School

An especially excellent thing about spending all my time at the Atelier is that I get to rub shoulders with a host of talented artists who have approached their careers in a variety of ways. The Salisbury Studios are aligned with and located at the school, and on any given day I can wander into someone’s studio and learn something about their work, and their approach to their work. Since I’ve become a part of the furniture there, no one seems to mind my evident curiosity and occasional (invited) snooping.

I recently spent a little time pottering around Kay Kane’s studio, admiring a portrait of an academic she had recently completed, as well as some lush, misty landscapes at various stages of layering. Kay’s work is usually on a large scale, very grounded in drawing from life, and the often multi-panelled works are carefully composed arrangements of enclosing shapes echoing real Queensland landscapes, painted in oils in airy hues. The vastness of the paintings envelope the viewer, drawing you into Kay’s peaceful haven.

Venus

Three panels from The Restoration of Venus © Kay Kane

Kay works at the Queensland College of Art (QCA), where her representational approach to art is, as I understand it, not especially respected. It’s alarming to learn of the battles a representational artist faces in the modern art world, but reassuring to see skilful and established artists like Kay standing their ground and being true to their convictions regardless. Her career, then, has been an academic one as well, which sees her jetting off to California to present papers on misogyny in art, as well as teaching at a university and submitting exegeses of her own. She gave me a copy of her Doctor of Visual Arts exegesis to read, which made for some pleasant breakfast reading in Sydney, and gave me plenty to think about.

Kay's thesis

Titled The restoration of Venus: The nude, beauty and modernist misogyny, her paper largely deals with the place of beauty in art, and whether the modern artist can include the undeniable beauty of the female nude in her visual repertoire to any meaningful end. The project grew out of her ‘persistent interest, not only in pursuing traditional modes of art practice, but in creating works intended to be beautiful. … If I seek beauty in my own work,’ she explains, ‘it is because it is there in the world to be found’ (p. 29)—and, perhaps, to be found for a reason. I would add to her sentiment that of Elaine Scarry (p. 81) in her treatise On beauty and being just: ‘It is as though beautiful things have been placed here and there throughout the world to serve as small wake-up calls to perception, spurring lapsed alertness back to its most acute level. Through its beauty, the world continually recommits us to a rigorous standard of perceptual care: if we do not search it out, it comes and finds us.’

Surrounded by artists who feel similarly about beauty, it’s easy for me to forget that the broader art world is concerned with things it might consider ‘higher’ than beauty, wrapped up as I am in my philosophical ideas on truth, beauty and good. Scarry (p. 58) writes of the fear that beauty distracts from real issues, from political injustices that art could help rectify if we weren’t so busy admiring the world and others, an argument she seeks to knock down. While her reasoning is less than rigorous, her intentions are noble, and align with my view that there is a place for creators of beauty in a world polluted with injustice: ‘It seems almost inconceivable that anyone with affection for human beings could wish on them so harsh an edict, permitting only perceptions that bring discomfort’ (p. 60). We must live towards some end, some beautiful end, not be forever evading an unpleasant present.

Kane recognises that art need not be beautiful to constitute art, but argues that shunning beauty in preference for these harder issues ‘did not succeed in expunging the human desire for and responsiveness to beauty.’ Further, as beauty was pushed aside in fine art, it resurfaced elsewhere, and the female form was carried along with it: becoming ‘more blatantly deployed, often in debased form, in popular culture. … It has never ceased to exert its power and fascination at the level of popular consciousness’ (abstract; p. 24). She seems to imply that were artists not ashamed to embrace the genuine beauty of the world and of people, to present something powerful and moving in a positive sense, to appeal to the visual hunger of the broader public for something delightful to the eyes, though not shallow and not a flashy veneer, that such artists would be responding to something very real and relevant in the human condition. Taking up this mantle might even prevent this desire from falling to cheaper, more vulgar incarnations. In denying something so fundamental to human nature, art has itself contributed to the devaluation of beauty. Art, then, is in a position to restore meaning and worth to beauty, and to bring it again before our eyes in a more intellectual and enduring way than popular culture might.

Drawing after Isabel Bishop

Copy after Isabel Bishop

Aside from considering the role of beauty in art, Kane describes at great length her actual method of creating her works, an enlightening insight. Much attention is given to composition, with ‘links in chains of bodies’ sweeping through and connecting the landscape and figures. These links ‘may be obvious continuities like linked hands, successions of arms, clusters or groups of forms. They may also be articulated by tonal pathways or continuities or echos of colour from one shape to the next’ (p. 40). Other compositional links are ‘purely notional’ or ‘invisible connectives’: ‘the vector of a pointing finger, or a glance bridging a wide interval, or a particular patterning of feet’ (p. 40). Kane’s deliberations on these connectives recalls to my mind Robert Nelson’s (p. 12) claim that ‘composition is an expressive resource, not a formalist absolute, … it relates not just to the subject matter but to the construction of space and hence drawing.’

Drawing is, for Kane, fundamental to art. ‘It is in drawing above all that one learns to see,’ she asserts, citing Robert Henri: ‘It is harder to see than to express’ (p. 30). There is an intentionality to drawing, in that it forces one to internalise what is seen and to reconstitute it on paper by a series of decisions. Nelson (p. 54) argues that ‘drawing is all about decisions,’ and, further, that it ‘involves authority.’ One draws to elucidate, to describe, to understand, and in so doing one must make decisions about what the crucial elements are that lay before one’s eyes. ‘Your decisions about what is important and your choices to manifest this or that designate your power to stipulate what must be seen’ (p. 54). Kane’s project is grounded in perception of, observation of and representation of the external world and the beauty it continually sets before us, rather than some inward ideas or unbridled expression.

This brings us to the least tangible, but perhaps most profound element of her work: the notion of the unsayable. This idea strikes a chord with me, as well it might with anyone with a deep love of music. Any musician can testify that music is compelling in its capacity to say things without words. It doesn’t say clear or mundane things, like, ‘can you please wash the dishes,’ unless you set such lyrics to it. But notes and timbre and chord progressions speak to a languageless part of us and say those things which we struggle to put into words. Art can have this quality. While some art is intended to represent words or concepts, or to narrate a story (and I am thinking of illustration), some art speaks to us in purely visual ways. Something about a painting can just sing. This is not to say that words are irrelevant or less important, but simply that there are other ways to connect with people. Kane (pp. 29-30) cites Walter Sickert who aptly remarks: ‘If the subject of the picture could be stated in words there would be no need to paint it.’

Kane suggests that an artwork’s meaning, far from resting in a lengthy artist’s statement, might lie solely in this wordless, purely visual resonance. She urges us to accept that some things are simply unsayable and we ought to let art step up and do what only it can do. ‘By trying to reduce what is essentially unsayable to handy formulas of trite categorisations,’ she argues, ‘one risks being untrue to work whose meaning, if it has any, lies wholly within itself and nowhere else’ (p. 1). I think she really wants to say that art is eighty percent science, twenty percent magic—and this captures something very profound and too often disregarded.

Kane, Kay. 2010. The restoration of Venus: The nude, beauty and modernist misogyny. Queensland College of Art, Griffith University (Doctor of Visual Arts exegesis).

Nelson, Robert. 2010. The visual language of painting: An aesthetic analysis of representational technique. Australian Scholarly Publishing: Melbourne.

Scarry, Elaine. 1999. On beauty and being just. Princeton University Press: Princeton.

Standard

Art as philosophy, or, I am going to marry Bammes

I am rapidly descending into an all-consuming art obsession. Not content to pass my time in simple painting frenzies, I’m taking more drawing classes and beginning to investigate anatomy. Ryan has introduced me to my new love: Gottfried Bammes. Ryan loaned me his German copy of Bammes’ Gestalt des Menschen for a while, and I declared I would never give it back unless he demanded it back, then was overcome by an all-consuming desire to have a Bammes of my own. Yesterday, my shiny new (English) copy of Bammes arrived by post, after a day of struggling with a painting study of an arm and hand that left me exhausted.

The main difference between my artistic method now and my self-taught method of the past is that I don’t simply copy shapes as I used to. This is difficult to explain, and it was initially difficult for me to grasp that it was possible to draw or paint in any other way. I have painted many a painting convincing enough to the untrained eye which skims unsearchingly over an image, taking in only the overall effect. It’s easy enough to do: one merely looks at the subject or the photo to be painted, carefully imitates the flat shapes in the correct colours, and pieces them together like a patchwork quilt. Some shapes are inexplicable—it’s not at all clear from the photo what they are, but if you are true to their two-dimensional outlines and get the colours and tones near enough, the eye fades out this lack of visual information and the picture simply works.

The day it dawned on me that I was copying flat shapes, ignorant of their meaning, was a big day. My first realisation was that I drew and painted shapes more intuitively than lines, and that I merely used lines to divide up shapes, and was not in fact making linear constructions. This knowledge slowly opened up to the realisation that I was still blind to the object (or subject!) in front of me: Ryan encouraged me to draw contour lines wrapping around the body I was drawing, and I found myself stumped until I picked up a useful tin can lying about the studio. ‘I’ll explain it to you,’ my newly enlightened self announced to Ryan, tilting the tin slowly in the air to mimic the torso, arms and legs of the sculpture in front of us. The sculpture’s limbs tilted away from or towards me, and my eyes either looked down on or up at the tilted forms, changing the direction of the contours accordingly. The scales fell from my eyes—I was looking at a form and no longer at a shape. The body has a depth I could never see in any meaningful way before. ‘The job of artistic anatomy is to clarify the nature of details, which has nothing to do with mindless copying,’ argues Bammes (p. 11), as he deftly injects meaning into those forms.

Bammes has some beautiful ways of describing the powerful experience that is drawing the human form: ‘When we draw people,’ he opens his book Complete guide to life drawing*, ‘we are growing towards others and ourselves and we reveal things that were lost before to our fleeting glances and inaccessible to our experience’ (p. 10). I think to my reflections the other day on Hannah Arendt and her idea of performative action, the kind of tasks that exist in process rather than output, that are ends in themselves. I am so careless with my drawings at the atelier that I have laboured over many an hour—I crumple my pages and smudge them and feel no real pain at this. These drawings, for me, exist in the experience. Their true value is in the doing of them, the intersection of pencil and paper and mind at a point in time. The finished drawing is a sort of record of that experience, but it cannot be recaptured by someone simply viewing it as a nice picture. I have accessed something through the experience of drawing that one cannot access by viewing alone. I am satisfying that practical side of me that wants to devour the world by doing. One can study academically with vigour, but to study with one’s eyes and hands is an entirely different way to come to terms with the world.

Bammes has a beautiful way of wording this, too: he writes of ‘thinking visually’ (p. 11). Graphic design places a lot of emphasis on ‘visual communication,’ and the profound power of imagery as a communication tool. But thinking visually is a deeper, more personal thing. It is like philosophy that transcends words. And (to me at least) philosophy is not about impressing people with outlandish concepts, but about making sense of the world and one’s place in it. In art I have found a purer philosophy.

Bammes, Gottfried. 2010. Complete guide to life drawing [Menschen zeichnen Grundlagen zum Aktzeichnen]. Trans. Cicero Translations. Search: Kent.

Standard