Monday, February 25, 2008

After Hours

It’s a building, it looks like a church… there’s a lot of orange - hot colours - and the brush strokes; there are big splodges of colour…'
A student discussing one of Piet Mondrian’s paintings using an anti-intentionalist approach

Nigel Warburton’s seven-week course at the Tate Modern is aptly titled Seven Ways of Thinking About Art and to get a feel for the course I’ve parachuted in for the second session Art as Intentional.

The class meets in the Seminar Room on Level 2 – a womb-like room with blood red walls – before the students put theory into practice through engaging with contemporary art in situ. I’ve already visited Nigel's website, downloaded the course outline and last week’s notes and am now looking forward to meeting the group of students. But what I don’t expect is to come face to face with a friend of a friend who also happens to have been at school with Nigel. London may be a metropolis with a population of 8 million but the six degrees of separation concept appears to be alive and kicking at the Tate. What’s more, during one of my thirst-for-knowledge phases, I signed up to the Open University’s A211 Philosophy and the Human Situation course where Nigel is a senior lecturer. He’s also the author of numerous books on philosophy and I met him briefly at a one-day seminar in 2000.

I must admit, it’s nice to walk in and discover that I already know someone. However, by the end of the hour and a half class, it would be hard not to make friends. The class is lively and the discussions are stimulating. If I wasn’t writing about the class, I’d be enrolling for it or suggesting that some of my friends enrol. With ages ranging from late 20s to early 60s and a good mix of men and women, with perhaps a slight skew towards women, it’s also a refreshing break from the demographics of formal day time education.

Tonight we take on art appreciation positions which meet each other head on. The Anti-Intentionalist approach championed by art critic Clive Bell in his book Art (1914) - he was married to painter Vanessa Bell, who was a member of the Bloomsbury Group and the sister of writer Virginia Woolf - versus the Intentionalists, for example, Richard Wollheim with a nod to Jerry Fodor’s Virtual Intentionalism. There’s no need to go into detail here as Nigel’s website has links which take you to comprehensive class notes, further explication and feedback. Through careful class management Nigel gets students into anti-intentionalist and intentionalist groups and we take our ideas into the After Impressionism room on Level 5, where we discuss the paintings, including Pierre Bonnard’s, The Bowl of Milk, circa 1919.

‘We looked at the harmonics of the colours, and the light and the form in terms of a series of verticals… the use of contrasting colours and how they work harmonically - the blue with the warm, mustardy ochre colour, they are opposites but they work together. We only noticed the cat about halfway through - we didn’t realize until we read the text that it was anything to do with the bowl of milk. Is it referring to the bowl of milk on the table or the one in her hand?’
Students’ feedback taking an anti-intentionalist approach

We wanted to know about the artist’s theories of painting and did s/he have any theories of colour? What kind of life did s/he live and was that significant in choosing a closed domestic interior? Did s/he train with anyone?
Students’ feedback considering some of the questions an intentionalist may ask

Having access to the collection out of hours is fun, as is the complimentary drink which is included in the price of the course and served after class in the Members' Room on the fifth floor. This is a chance to get to know the students and I find that they represent a broad sweep of people from those who have previously taken courses, such as art history degrees, to people working in the arts and those who want to extend their knowledge. As I head home, I think about how the reviews I write employ a mix of the extreme positions we have discussed tonight and how I dip in and out of them to take on what I can only call a pluralist approach. Next week, I’m taking part in the Physical Thinking class and have been warned to avoid wearing a dress or a skirt. I go to sleep with visions of us somersaulting through the Tate and down the chasm of Doris Salcedo’s site-specific work Shibboleth.
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Sunday, February 24, 2008

Encounters with the Iconic

Marcel Duchamp Fountain 1917 Tate © Succession Marcel Duchamp/Paris and DACS, London 2007

When visiting Tate Modern's Duchamp, Man Ray, Picabia exhibition up until the 26th of May 2008 , it occurred to me that there is something mind-boggling about encountering an iconic work of art in the flesh. It is indeed flesh that we are referring to because the combination of paint, marble or any other material the artist might have used has become so familiar that it echoes the jolt of recognition usually associated to a friend's face. You feel that you know them if only for having read about them and for having seen reproductions.

But as I discovered when I came face to face with Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 and the Fountain signed R. Mutt, encounters with the seminal works are akin to bumping into a famous actor. There is first a sense of recognition that lingers as you stare at the individual. You recognize him yet you can't quite recall the details of this familiarity. Did you meet him at an opening or was it at your cousin's wedding? What's more, there is a slight sense of inadequacy in this recognition. You know this person, yet they should be taller, slimmer, younger. While all of these thoughts are racing through your mind, he will most likely have the time to walk right by you, not even glancing in your direction. The recognition is unrequited and you're left with the impression that you were snubbed in some obscure way.

The infamous Duchamp works credited for an irrevocable change in the production and understanding of art are quite recognizable, even in a room laden with other works by Man Ray and Picabia. They're familiar because such a cult has been built around them over the years that you've most likely encountered some version of them, and that might also be why the experience of actually seeing them leaves a bit to be desired. Is that urinal really what changed the course of history? Well, not exactly because the Fountain that you can see at Tate is actually a reproduction made in 1964 rather than the 1917 original and because it's not so much the object itself that has changed our understanding of art but rather the surrounding debates it generated.

So here you find yourself, in the presence of what looks like the famous actor without the costume, lighting, make-up and applause that contribute to elevate him above and beyond a mere human status, but it's in fact his stand-in. Where did the illusion go and why is the encounter so disappointing? Is that what Duchamp meant when he stated:
'The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.'
Marcel Duchamp, from Session on the Creative Act, Convention of the American Federation of Arts, Houston, Texas, April 1957

Is art powerful only if we invest it with the knowledge of its history and with symbolic transformative powers? If, like myself, you have no answer to these questions, perhaps the Against the Avant-garde? Duchamp, Man Ray, Picabia study day on the 8th of March will be a good platform to discuss your beliefs or disbeliefs in the power of art. I will certainly try to challenge my visions of the not quite sublime encounters with the icons of the avant-garde.
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Saturday, February 23, 2008

Being Cadmium Red

Last Monday, I danced in front of a Pollock, moved around a stark room as if I was melting and attempted to embody the matte maroon of a Rothko by rolling around on the floor of a gallery. That was quite a start to the week! Why was I not unceremoniously thrown out of the museum for aberrant behavior?

Long gone are the days when I could get away with that kind of conduct in public with a gap toothed smile and a twirl of the pigtails. I am not even part of the ilk that is expected to disregard such petty considerations as socially acceptable conduct for the sake of art: the performance artist. My frenzy of non-verbal expression was legitimized by the context of the Physical Thinking course led by visual artist Liz Ellis and Suzy Willson, Artistic Director of the Clod Ensemble. They take it upon themselves to teach something simple, so simple in fact that we rarely ever think about it: movement. Liz and Suzy are offering a platform to question the fact that the way we move in galleries has very little to do with the way we are moved by the art we encounter. Actually, they skip the questions, the qualifications and the descriptions in favor of physical expression so the participants move, run, jump, crawl, twirl and leap their interpretation of art.

Chances are, you haven't had such an experience of the museum in a few decades yourself because this is just not usually behavior expected from your average museum audience. What's more, if we were all to launch in spontaneous arabesques in the middle of a crowded gallery, chances are some people might be left with the scarring experience of a crushed foot rather than the elating feeling of expression freed from analytical constraints. But, other than that, who's to say the physical response would be less valid than silent contemplation or a comparative analysis between the work and the information related in the exhibition catalog?

Although I spend most of my time doing the latter, I sometimes find that whatever I might read or say about a work doesn't come close to expressing all that I feel about it. So next time you see someone looking weighted down in front of a Judd or shimmying in front of a Vasarely, just know that it might be me, at a loss for words.
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Friday, February 22, 2008

Models, Muñoz, and Little People

A very long time ago, I used to take Life Drawing instruction at the National Academy Museum of Fine Arts in New York. The course followed the traditional atelier method; students arranged their easels and drafting boards in a wide semi-circle or ring around the periphery of the room, like the audience of an enclosed, miniature amphitheatre. Attentions were affixed to the center of the room, where our instructor created mise-en-scene as environments for the models to pose by combining odd bits of domestic furniture with an equine bust cast in plaster, or plinths of various sizes; there was almost always fabric of some sort, draped alternately from a platform or partition.

Prior to last Monday it had been over ten years since I’d last taken part in an instructor-led drawing course with live human models, and I decided to drop in on David Price and Anne Noble Partridge’s Life Drawing workshops when the opportunity arose, just to see if I still had it or not. The evening I arrived at Tate Modern for classes, David Price and an assistant were setting up boxes of drawing charcoal, paper and portable drawing boards at various positions throughout the galleries on Level 4, where the Juan Muñoz Retrospective is currently on view. The galleries were otherwise empty as classes began well after museum open hours had closed. Two nude models (one male, one female) struck 5, 10 and 20-minute poses, lit dramatically by David’s positioning of key lights, to dramatic affect. He encouraged the class to imagine narratives between the live models and Muñoz’ cast, iconic monochrome human figures which inhabit much of the artist's sculptural installation -- I tend to call them “little people”.

One particularly memorable pose consisted of a model seated on a gallery bench, facing the work called Ventriloquist Looking at a Double Interior (1988-2001). The work consists of a lone anthropomorphic figure perched atop a plinth, affecting consideration of two large drawings of empty domestic interiors on the opposite wall. The little sculpted figure is facing away from the viewer, and from my particular vantage point this position echoed the human model’s pose; creating the startling affect of one single image projected along multiple planes, which receded toward some distant, unseen vanishing point beyond the gallery wall. It was a difficult composition to capture in writing, and just as challenging to capture in a 10-minute charcoal sketch.

The exhibition catalogue quotes Muñoz as having once said that, amongst his figurative sculptural installations, “the spectator becomes very much like the object to be looked at, and perhaps the viewer has become the one who is on view.” The drawing course provided my first view of the Muñoz Retrospective at Tate Modern, and facilitated an experience in which I found myself on the gallery floor, drawing the back of another person, himself looking away at the back of another seated figure, which is looking at a drawing. It was in a way, perhaps, somewhat closer to the kind of encounter between viewer and work that Muñoz himself might have preferred.
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