A short two week show at the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists starting this week gives me pause to consider divergent steams in my own practice and cause to celebrate the societies ‘Highly Commended’ endorsement and the diversity of art in Birmingham. First of all I have to say how delighted I am to be recognised for anything other than being a ‘bit difficult’ at parties! And to receive this from, whom I consider to be the respectful ‘old guard’ of Midlands art, gives me occasion to jubilate! But it’s got to be said that I’ve squared off with Birmingham’s historical art scene in a post before (Concept vs Skill Axiology…) and I’m not usually very kind to Ford Maddox Brown for ‘Pretty Baa Lambs’ (1856-9) or Arthur Hughes for ‘The Long Engagement’ (1854-9), and I sometimes feel a bit combative about Holman Hunt’s ‘Our English Coast’ of 1852. Don’t get me wrong, there’s always been plenty of ingenious people in the city, not that London wants to know about any of it – or inferiority-complex Manchester for that matter; maybe it’s an issue of the craft method I struggle with. I like to think that perhaps it’s an etiquette of dynasty, not just the occasional descent into corny Victoriana, but for the occasional desultory exaltation of technique over content that intimidates the capital . I suppose I should see those works in the context of a milieu of hand manufacturing, attention to detail and the obsessive work ethics of a creative method that grew out of global industrial dominance and downright hard graft. That I was a part of the industry in the British Midlands gives me a sense of identity, pride (sort of) and a masochistic nostalgia for ‘getting my hands dirty’.
Nevertheless, because of some of the syrupy output of past Pre-Raphaelite grandees I find it difficult to come to terms with the idea of ‘skill’ in my own practice as apart from that association; so this time the Friends show at the RBSA finds my practice in a discordia concors of its own. On one hand my practice has moved ventrally after 10 years of art scholarship into the academic atmosphere of the conceptual – almost away from the hand skill completely (my MA piece was a video installation), while the other hand gleefully persists in slavish detail and immersion of technique, toil, dust and grind. I look at the genealogy of the pieces I’ve submitted in order: Squiffy Aerolith then Aesthetics and Industry and wonder how it stacks up to another HC piece in the show, then I’ll have a look at Mike Nelson’s piece ‘M6’ currently in the Eastside Projects gallery in Digbeth; who incidentally I have just joined as a member of their ESP program, to try and make some sense of the direction I’m headed.
Mostly abstract the work is inspired by the desire to catalyze forms found in the non-human world with a vernacular design that occurs when form follows function. My first drawings for this came from trips to Portland in Dorset and areas in Avon where you can find many white horses drawn into the chalky hillsides. Mainly bronze age in origin but some may be older, some younger, they always fascinated me and I think it’s the locations and landscape they’re found in that first piqued my interest. Here’s some sketch book material from ’94 – ’95 that charts my interest in these landscape features and how the design has progressed to the current piece in the RBSA show.
I worked on these plans intermittently for a couple of years during which time I produced ‘Hobby Horse’ from steel in 1994, it stood 9 feet tall and 9 feet long and was first shown at a combined art college show in the Custard Factory in Birmingham that year. Later it was sited at Dunchurch Park after my graduation from Loughborough College of Art and Design in ’95 as part of a project to help graduates starting out to get established. However, financial reality struck and I, like many graduates who were being hounded by the bank to pay back over-draughts and loans, got a job (after a year of wondering what the hell to do to avoid it). Firstly back in the factories of the black country, then constructing boats for Sealine and on to commercial interior design in ’97. BY then a career in art seemed a long way off!
What mattered to me most when I was working on this was an engagement with the landscape, or some way of expressing this as a symbiosis, especially in the cultural engagement of earlier civilisations. I wrote my BA thesis, titled ‘The Symbols of Celebration’ on the iconography of pre-Christian cultures in Britain – it was pretty awful! But it did contain the nascent themes I have it seems, despite myself, continued throughout my work. And also establishes the theme of human/non-human/landscape – vernacular, that has driven the second piece in the RBSA show: ‘Aesthetics and Industry’.
The piece is carved from the same type of Portland limestone as the first, its been in my garden for a summer and has weathered quite nicely – it now has quite a marked ring to it when tapped – nice and tough and I wouldn’t want to try and carve anything else on it now. I wasn’t too consciously considering it’s theoretical implications, although at the time of starting I was working my way through a set of ideas drawing from a range of identity theories from Freud, Lacan, Foucault, Sartre, Nietzsche, Heidegger and Nagarjuna, so I suppose this work may have been a pre-concious attempt to concretize an expression of identity by circumspectly locating Celtic and Mediterranean influences together. This was not a work I intended to tell my tutors about as it seemed too…conventional, too close to the work I had been doing formerly to demonstrate much evolution accountable to the MA program. One thing I have learned about a theoretical engagement transferring influence within the creative process: it’s affect is assured but it’s effect is unquantifiable. You can’t make art by numbers however much the critics and commentators of conceptual art try and convince us. As Proust put it in 1927: ‘a work of art that contains theories is like an object on which the price tag has been left’. Good art embodies philosophy without deferring to it.
It’s not enough to simply use philosophy as a formula for art, it only becomes really useful when fully digested at a deeper level. In my case, a reciprocation between artwork and theoretical position can take decades – and that’s no good if you’re doing a PhD as I was! I found this out when the (brilliant) sociology professor Matt Badcock at BCU, gave me the ‘Lancaster questionnaire’ while doing a HE teaching certificate: I came out as a ‘deep, unstructured learner’ – the only one in the room of 30+ PhD candidates, apart from Matt himself. He groaned, rolled his eyes and told me it had taken him 9 years to complete his PhD and It may take me longer(!) Sometimes one has a light-bulb moment, as I did when planning Standing Reserve, I awoke one morning after weeks of having my head buried in Heidegger’s ‘Being and Time’ (1927) and ‘Heidegger’s essentialist response to technology’ (Tabachnik, 2007) and knew exactly what I was going to do about it. Compared to that Aesthetics and Industry has been a slow-burner I had started it in ’07 partly for fun, partly as a teaching project and continued it for about 18 months, on and off. I came by the material on a spoil heap at one of the quarries on Portland. I am interested in the ethics of value in places like this and how natural materials or trees (or livestock) for example are inscribed in a sort of casual vernacular, demarcating them for use or refuse
I had one learner who struggled to communicate so I used the piece to both negotiate with him and to foster verbal and non-verbal communication. I had a problem with the piece: the main design was extant and I have come across it at various times but nowhere was there a design for the pattern to negotiate a corner. I sat my student on one side of the paper and I sat on the other and we attempted to meet in the middle somewhere.
After a couple of attempts it worked and the problem had been solved – who was the author? We both were, sometimes creative partnerships in the classroom can really be beneficial and achieve a positive outcome for both parties.
The whole work took just as long to produce as Hughes’ The Long Engagement’, I’m not saying it competes with that but that it operates not only on a decorative level – for me any way. I guess when the RBSA members voted and skill, graft and detail still cut the mustard in Birmingham, and I’m glad I feel at home somewhere. I had a good look around at the other works and another artist who received the HC was Kay Fletcher for her Rhodedendron Walk a pen and ink sketch of quite astonishing skill and intensity, I could lose myself in that work for hours and I’m very tempted to buy it apart from the fact that I made a promise to myself to only spend money when I had earned it, a legacy of post-crash new reality!
So how do I feel about the RBSA and it’s legacy of worthy art and Pre-Raphaelite presidents? Great actually, more than that the members have made me feel welcome and have accepted the work I’ve submitted on it’s face value. The hard work has spoken for itself and has not been judged by the size of it’s philosophical lunch box, I may not sell but I feel at home and that’s worth a lot to me. But how does this sit with a practice that also aches for the new, the raw, the academic, the political and the noise of contemporary art? That’s the question. I went to the Eastside Projects to see the mike Nelson Exhibit M6. If one only compared the printed material from these two shows it would be clear from the outset that they are two completely different beasts. In the nicely polite printed booklet of the RBSA programme it states simply that:
The RBSA is an artist led charity which supports artists and promotes engagement with the visual arts through a range of inclusive activities: exhibitions, workshops and demonstrations.
This belies all of the potency of the work you might find inside, a case of what is left unsaid and a call to read between the lines and look a little deeper. Kay Fletchers painstaking execution of Rhododendron Walk above, reveals to us an intimate woodland landscape bereft of life other than that of the plants, of flora without fauna. A space emblematic of some future triumph of a green-edge nature-as-self-censure to exterminate humanity. A place unimaginable trauma is codified by this absence, but it’s also a magical and virgin space in which one could easily place Richard Dadd, happy to extend the boundaries of his imagination and re-populate this beautifully rendered garden from his sepulchral ark of chimerical goblins. Neil Evernden (2003) might comment of this view: ‘not only are we not part of an environment we are not even part of a body, and the real us resides in some disputed region of the body; and that we, in the west, since Descartes hoard our precious self as tightly as we can’. Creepy enough for me. So what’s going on down at Eastside? The knowing and overly understated materiality of the gallery release info sheet tells us that:
‘M6’ acts as an invocation of the highways and their concrete islands, memorialising their past production and the shifting economies of spent resources and also that: utilitarian objects have been collected as if they were trophies of an ignored parallel world – a dark abject monument. I like that. And most tellingly: The anthropomorphic conjuring of a scorpion or an eagle…The human, the climatic, and the elemental combine in these momentary offerings mimiking the death and disfigurement that we fear.
There’s some poetry here but note the use of anthropomorphic and The human here, this is nature-as-object, – the cause-célèbre of a societal, anthropocentric narcissism that resonates in an analogous way, to those bands of tarmac surrounding the city: providing banks to contain the reflective pools we crave. This aside, the work is at once profound in the Kantian sense (see my post on Kant in Concept vs Skill axiology) and aesthetically roars of the energy spent in the tumult of activity that has left us with this awe-inspiring index. I love it, one of the tyres was locked up so hard during heavy braking that a hole was worn right through it – there must have been a moment of sheer terror as the driver of this megaladon of road traffic jackknifed, and for a moment lost control; as Freud, following Gustave Le Bon might anatomise as the loss of conscious boundaries that could occur when an individual was caught up in a unified, fast-moving crowd. Our boundaries here, may have been breached by our own narcissism and outside, the environment (which is now us) has entirely replaced anything non-human.
It’s this fast moving crowd element of contemporary art that intrigues and repels me. I have always found myself socially between groups that, for whatever reason hate each other! I’m not sure what kind of reception I’ll get at the ESP gatherings after writing my next post on M6 and Robert Smithson, but I have always existed artistically with one foot in either camp but without a full commitment to either, time will tell.