30 November 2011

From the Small Publishers Fair

The fair was a couple of weeks ago; I'm trying to catch up with myself!

Treasures include a vintage ticket (from "my" station - to somewhere I'd never heard of) made into an entire journey by Hazel --
Of course I had to have the book that consists entirely of proofreading marks (The Ghost in the Fog) -

Rhiannon Williams' "cloth" is made of lottery tickets -

This group of tickets was an exchange - I contributed a short pink pencil from the Affordable Art Fair, with a note that it was better to make your own art -

Tony Hayward's books were irresistible - photos of wonderful objects -

Art I like - Jen Bervin's Dickinson Fascicles

Jen Bervin's "Dickinson Fascicles" are based on the punctuation (the "non-meaningful" marks) on the pages of the poet's manuscripts. She says on her website:
"I wanted to see what patterns formed when all of the marks in a single fascicle, Dickinson's grouping of poems, remained in position, isolated from the text, and were layered in one composite field of marks. The works I created were made proportionate to the scale of the original manuscripts but quite large—about 8' wide by 6' high—to convey the exact gesture of the individual marks."

These marks were omitted from typeset poems and only became available to scholars when a facsimile edition of the poems was published. Since then there's been a lot of literary theorising about them.

Bervin also says:
"I have come to feel that specificity of the + and – marks in relation to Dickinson’s work are aligned with a larger gesture that her poems make as they exit and exceed the known world. They go vast with her poems. They risk, double, displace, fragment, unfix, and gesture to the furthest beyond—to loss, to the infinite, to “exstasy,” to extremity."

She speaks about the work in the Threads Talks, writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Threads.php.

29 November 2011

Another hoop jumped through

The essay - "Between mark and script: reading ambiguity" - has been written, edited, checked, and handed in. (An electronic version is now hidden on my website.) The library books have been returned, and this heap of papers is about to go into the recycling bin -

Meanwhile, the house elves have been busy making the studio nice -
Tomorrow, or later this evening, I'll be in there sewing "travel bags" for the xmas pop-up at Artisan, London NW10, which opens on 8 December.

28 November 2011

Things found in books - an old thesaurus

I've had this old thesaurus for many years - it used to live on my desk at work. "Author's copyright edition", it says on the spine - 
The full title is "Thesaurus of English words and phrases classified and arranged so as to facilitate the expression of ideas and to assist in literary composition" and it's "by Peter Mark Roget, M.D., F.R.S., enlarged by John Lewis Roget, M.A., new edition revised and enlarged by Samuel Romilly Roget, M.A." - first edition 1852; this edition 1936; keeping it in the family!

 Nice page layout,  trying to start new pairs of words at the same place on the page, and getting the words with opposite meanings alongside -
 A card from a museum in Amsterdam -
 How the "original" thesaurus works - categories, from general to specific -
A "plan of classification" (abstract relations; space; matter; intellect; volition; affections) and a "tabular synopsis of categories" - from 1.Existence to 1000.Temple.

27 November 2011

26 November 2011


Love those old "scientific" images!

A key moment in Conceptual Art

Arguably Joseph Kosuth's best known work - One and Three Chairs, 1965 -
This static composition represents an idea three ways. It addressed what conceptual artists saw as a crisis of reconciling  the realisation of concepts with the concepts themselves - and it did this reconciliation by including not just a photo of the chair but the dictionary definition as one of the "actual" chairs - so that the text was both a literal and metaphorical focus in the work of art.

For decades thereafter, conceptual artists used text to convey their ideas.  Art and Text  (the book, 2009) will tell you so much more... a review is here. It's because of the overwhelming amount of information on the subject that my essay is confined to handwritten text in the first instance.

Art I like - Cy Twombly's blackboard paintings

[The final case study for my essay, Between Image and Text. It has a title! And it's now about 3000 words long. All that remains to write are the important bits - the beginning and the end...]

Untitled, 1968

Words - fragmented into almost indecipherable letters, giving hints of classical allusions - are sprinkled throughout Cy Twombly's work, but it is in the "blackboard paintings" of 1967-71 - that his "writing", or rather scribbles, is most gestural. (Despite their whispering quietude, these canvases announced a dramatic break with the heritage of Abstract Expressionism.) The label of blackboard paintings derives from the grey, painted background, with its lighter areas resembling erasure. The large linear marks (made in wax crayon - drawing suspended within liquid mediums) evoke the idea of a proto-text, "something almost being said". As these are not chalk marks on slate, the writing cannot be easily wiped away, leading to a temporal tension between permanance and impermanence.

Reviewing a 1995 retrospective at MOMA, Brooks Adams says: "these works don't really look like blackboards with random markings on them: they are, rather, carefully wrought field paintings that re-enact the Abstract Sublime on a megalomaniacal scale commensurate with the most bombastic 19th-century Salon machines. ...There is an implicit athleticism and an underlying calm to these tenebrous, stormy works, where every crackle of pictorial lightning and each exquisitely wrought drip is perfectly calibrated to give an effect of happenstance."
Untitled, 1970, Cy Twombly Gallery, Houston
Some of the works in the series use just one form of mark, amplifying it; others play off several kinds of line with each other. The paintings operate in a language that only some of the viewers speak: some elements are recognisable and categorisable; but even without writing a recognisable language, they act to evoke mysteries and emotion. Each work, says Roberta Smith (1987, p18) "is a kind of demonstration or rumination upon some isolated fact of gesture, movement or measurement. These paintings are...motion studies that diagram the action of air, water or the arm itself."

The repeated looped elements resemble handwriting exercises, yet making the paintings is an unpredetermined process aiming for any particular outcome, and the viewer's experience is not about any particular mark or line, but about the repetition of the process and the accumulation of lines. Within the gesture of the loop, the effect of layering seems almost random, yet it is this process that generates the complexity of the painting, balancing order and disorder, randomness and control. The accumulation of lines flattens the field of the canvas, not offering a focal point. Even so, the drawing-as-handwriting makes the large canvas into an intimate and personal space. The intimate scribble has been skillfully scaled up. This physical release of energy from the hand speaks about nothing, but communicates a tremendous amount.
Untitled, 1970
Here, the line is a visible action, liberated from the dictates of material; Barthes (1985) wrote that "however supple, light or uncertain it may be, [it] always refers to a force, to a direction; it is an energon, a labor which reveals - which makes legible - the trace of its pulsion and its expenditure."
Untitled, 1970. Oil-based house paint and crayon on canvas, 405 x 640 cm. MoMA, New York

The works are large - the one above is the largest - but the line is fluid, due to an unusual technique: Twombly sat on the shoulders of a friend, who moved back and forth before the canvas, allowing Twombly to draw continuously.

Early in his career Twombly undertook exercises to suppress virtuosity - drawing in the dark, drawing with his non-dominant hand - in order to arrive at what he called primordial freshness. Panorama (1955) shows the result, and is a precursor of the blackboard paintings -
 Of Twombly's one-man show in 1955, Frank O'Hara wrote: " A bird seems to have passed through the impasto with cream-colored screams and bitter claw-marks."

Deanna Petherbridge (2010, p418) sums up Twombly's strategies: "Twombly's practice, where drawing and painting media are combined, is a performative dance around assertion, revelation and concealment: he equally fetishes the actions of laying down, cancelling out and erasure and hints of ideas to arrive at apparently nonchalant non-bravura statements that aim at a poetics of subjectivity."
Synopsis of a Battle, 1968
After the 1970s, Twombly isolated, integrated and expanded word, mark and material - language, drawing and painting - in various ways, sometimes incorporating long phrases or entire poems that make various themes and readings unavoidable, and encouraging a sequential reading that gives even his abstract work a narrative character.

"Untilted (Bolsena)," oil-based house paint, wax crayon, lead pencil on canvas, 79 by 94 3/4 inches, 1969; sold in 2002 for $2,869,500

Untitled, 1967; Yale Art Gallery
Twombly's large paintings have been compared to grafitti; on this topic he has said: "Graffiti is linear and it's done with a pencil, and it's like writing on walls. But [in my paintings] it's more lyrical. In those beautiful early paintings like Academy, it's graffiti but it's something else, too. I don't know how people ­react, but the feeling is more complicated, more elaborate. Graffiti is usually a protest - ink on walls - or has a reason for ­being naughty or aggressive."
Cy Twombly gallery, Menil Collection, Houston, TX
In a review of his retrospective at MOCA, The Times’ art critic Christopher Knight wrote: “Twombly’s gestural mark-making inevitably evokes the problem of how to visually represent speech; the paintings’ most obvious likeness is to graffiti-covered walls, and he often uses pencil in addition to paint. The marks comprise an expansive lexicon of handprints, tracing, big sweeps of the arm, furious doodles, languid meanders, bored inscriptions, anxious erasures and more.”

Tacita Dean, who like Twombly is fixated with time, has made a film, Edwin Parker, of Twombly in his everyday life.

24 November 2011

Art I like - Ado Hamerlyck

Another of the (possible) case studies for my essay on writing/drawing arises from a chance find - an illustration in  Artist's BookYearbook: 2010-2011. It turned out to be the work of Belgian artist Ado Hamelryck, written as the first book for the new library of the city of Genk, Belgium. It is the symbolic foundation stone of the building - a blank book presented to him by the mayor, and when filled, the first book purchased for the library. This modern object acts as a historical marker and draws on a long tradition relevant to its destination.
Thus the book format is important not only in relation to the artist's practice. Close up, the writing turns out to be "nonsense" - or some sort of personal code - not readable to the uninitiated. Yet the blocks of text in swathes and columns signalling its meant-to-be-read function. Pages with many columns resemble magazine pages; often it looks like there is space for an illustration, as solid ground replaces the marks. The book is painstakingly handwritten, and imbued with the personality of the maker; it contains over 200 pages, and provides much variation, yet is a unified object. Sometimes the background breaks away from the rectangular shape, and the background emphasises the fact that the text is overlaid on a surface. In this work, the act of "writing" becomes a code for participation in literate (or even scholarly) culture - but the "nonsense" of the result would dismay a scholar looking for information and meaning. Yet to someone who can "read art", the book has many meanings or resonances - palimpsest, artefact, parody, aesthetic object. Its references are to the whole history and panoply of written and printed books.

Hamelryck's work is minimal but not minimalist. His paintings, drawings and reliefs consist of black marks, repetitively applied to a surface, creating seemingly monochrome black areas, but with an unexpected richness in texture and tonality. In the late 60s - the heyday of conceptual art - he started reducing the forms and colours in his work, until he came to work in only black. The mysterious quality of the work is important: "In our Western society we want to demystify everything. This is partly due to science. But especially fear. We want security. Art doesn't supply that."

He says: "Matter, space and time are very important in my work. The feel of the pen in the inkwell, air to the paper, then during the 'writing' it can drain - this is already an interpretation of these three dimensions. When I "write" I think even further into space, because the support onto which I pen characters, creates a physical boundary. But my 'writing' has no literary content....It has no narrative or decorative value. It's just what it is."
In 1998 the Flemish Parliament bought his "Five drawings on black paper" made with ink, conte crayon, and graphite. At first they seem to contain only noise, but the interaction between the two types of pencil, texture and brightness can only be the product of a deliberate, albeit intuitive creative process. The artist allows the observer to see the actions that form the basis of his drawings.

"In the beginning it was black." Black is dominant in Hamelryck's work - he is constantly looking for new ways to express it as a vivid colour.  "Drawing" does not perfectly describe these artworks; located on the border between drawing and text, they evoke associations with ancient, mythical writing, like Babylonian cuneiform. The series shows a clear intertextuality: the five drawings can be seen as a structured whole, with similarities and differences. All contain the same patient, diagonally structured, repetitive structure, and can be arranged from bright to dull.

In April this year he had a retrospective in Genk - entitled "Not a black, but blacks twenty-seven I assure you." - of his 35 years' use of the colour black (a colour with a turbulent history - the colour of the devil - formerly artists dared not use black; Hamelryck's whole career has been dedicated to overcoming the fear of black); also, he sees use of black as austerity and purification, a quest for essence. He talks about new audiences: "In all the years I am active, there was always only a selective audience for such exhibitions. Now a new kind of middle class has formed, who are also interested in art. It is too early to know what I think  of this."

The work is characterized by Hamelryck's involvement, repetitive motion and control of material and technique. The subtle relief operation, the repetition and the play of light and shadow beyond the level of minimalism and the mysterious writing are most strongly reflected in his beautiful pen drawings and books. They show a wealth of tone and texture and the endless possibilities and beauty of black.

He usually works on huge sheets of handmade Nepalese paper, but in 2000, and again in 2009, collaborated with ceramicist (and teaching colleague) Piet Stockmans. He has also worked on old printing plates with unconventional tools: hammers, screwdrivers, chisels and even nails, making thousands of repetitive notches, holes and dents. The plates are inked, and the ink is selectively removed. The making and printing of the plate are independent, but interact -

He was asked: "You draw with a balloon pen [a dip pen]. Until the sixties, that was used only in school for writing. Why the material?" to which he replied: "I think it's an extremely useful writing tool because by pressing more or less, you can control the exact thickness of your lines. Also it has an auditory aspect. The scratching of a balloon pen gives you an almost physical connection with your work." He gets these old (fountain) pens from antique markets.

His work in graphite has a sensual side, tempting the unsuspecting view to touch it - and have their hands blackened. The obsessiveness of the work, he said in an interview, takes him "to a certain stage of rest" - and he works from 9 to 5, a disciplined schedule, needing no muse.

Art I like - Robert Grenier

Robert Grenier is a visual poet - his work consists of language, but in his later work you may not realise it at first glance.  He set out in the 1970s to see what kinds of immediate, instantaneous effects he could achieve with a few words at a time http://jacketmagazine.com/34/faville-saroyan-grenier.shtml. His masterpiece is probably Sentences, a series of micropoems written - or rather, typed - on index cards; see a digital version here. 500 poems are presented in a fold-down box and can be read at random.

These poems are "about" how we actually “feel” language at the point of impulse. They are pointers to the psychological qualities of the mind that perceived them. they explore the "sixth sense" - wherein the imagination discovers mysterious connections between reality and “saved” referents, connections that were not apparent under normal syntactical practice, as the mind worked at organising data from ongoing reality. They become "no longer “poems” as such, but a coded short-hand for the cognitive verbal processes underneath the layers of habitual practice and daily presumption"http://jacketmagazine.com/34/faville-saroyan-grenier.shtml

His "scrawl poems" are also referred to as "illuminated poems" (in the sense of illuminated manuscript) or "holographs" (handwritten documents). In the past two decades Grenier rejected type in favour of "drawn" poems, moving on to exploring a new formality: colored-line designs of three and four word poems, in notebooks. They need to be drawings - the heavy layering of textures, via colour, helps reading (and communication); their richness comes from this reduction.

The sense of any of these poems is not its significance - hence they cannot be "translated" into typeface, or deciphered quickly enough (even by Grenier himself at times) to be read out loud, even though the limited space of the page limits the amount of linear elements. Each letter is expressed through the effort of its formation, and reading requires minute attention to form - the reader, in seeking to comprehend these unknown glyphs, must re-compose the words, the poem with almost as much effort as the author used.

These poems take understandable written language towards an extreme - the syntax makes deriving an exact meaning difficult (though this may be desirable in a poem), and the "drawn" nature of the originals conceals the letter forms, making any "reading" into an obstacle course. There comes an instant when the word in the scrawl poem pops into consciousness - and it's interesting how the graphic format of these poems plays with making that moment explicit. Reading reveals a secret. The poems also play with the notion of the private and the public, with admission into a select circle. (They may even have a certain smugness.) Certainly their fragmentary nature works as a metaphor for the fragmentation of our vision and perception, as James Davies says here, and the form of the poem is part of its content.

Of the scrawl poem above, Grenier says: "Whether drawing poem texts like 'the one about crickets' (no. 39) accomplish (or help accomplish) whatever it is they are otherwise 'saying'—so that seeing/reading "crickets" a reader may hear 'crickets themselves' (& even be able to literally go ('by ear') "across/the/road"?)—remains an animating question."

23 November 2011

Visual encyclopedia of an unknown world

Strange and wonderful - the Codex Seraphinianus shows non-existent things, described in a language that can't be read. It was written in 1976-8 by Luigi Serafini - see more pix here. You could buy a facsimile - but it's pricey!

22 November 2011

Last week at college

On Tuesday, a tutorial. I should be trying to stick with one concept - making a series of "pages" rather than different little books - pushing one concept along, developing it.

On Wednesday, pure pleasure - a bookbinding workshop - 
sewing over tapes -
In the finished book, the tapes are visible under the endpapers - a possible site for other inclusions and shadowy effects -
At the last moment something went awry with endpaper gluing, and one end of my book's spine ... has "character" -
In the afternoon's Research Methods lecture, Johanna Love talked about her PhD work - starting with the notion of drawing on the surface of digital prints, she then scanned in prints at different distances from the scanner, resulting in fuzzier and darker images with increasing distance. The surprise was the intrusion of dust particles disrupting the surface, and it is this dust effect that is at the centre of her research.

Another "narrative of the surface" was given by Jim Threapleton, whose PhD work is also on the degradation of the surface, this time in removal of paint from the surface, like these which are oil on steel -

An albatross, of sorts

These are some sources for my essay. I've read them and marked passages (faintly with pencil or - mostly - with post-it notes) and sometimes typed out the notes. Unfortunately, on coming back to the book (or print-out), I've almost completely forgotten what I'd read a few days before! But somehow it will all come together.

The research is the best bit - coming across something interesting and looking deeper into it. Of course you risk losing your grip on where the essay itself is going. Structure, structure, structure...

My case studies may consist of a painter, a calligrapher, a visual poet, a sculptor - though it's hard to choose! There are many others whose work is fascinating (Chris Drury, Tom Phillips, Hanne Darboven, Robert Grenier, Henri Michaux, Christian Dotremont, Brion Gysin - not to mention the drawings-on-writing here, ) but one must be ruthless.... I also have some theoretical underpinnings, and, most important,  the glimmer of a conclusion. Every critical/analytical essay needs a conclusion. After all, "the learning outcomes will be evidenced in the following way:
- Ability to formulate a specific research question. 
- Ability to contextualise that question within a critical framework. 
- Ability to form an independent conclusion.
- Professional presentation of the research paper adhering to the academic structure and the Harvard convention."

My research question goes something like this:
"If writing and drawing inhabit a continuum, when a painting or drawing contains marks that look like letters, are we  reading it or perceiving it?" (The difficulty of formulating this question exactly gives rise to a suspicion that we could be heading for stormy waters....) Maybe it's the wrong question; probably the way forward is to write  the essay and reformulate the question to reflect what's been written. As it stands, does it help structure the rest of the work? What issues does it raise that need to be clarified?

"If..." first catch your rabbit - do drawing and writing inhabit a continuum? I think so: look at how children start by drawing letters, before using letters for writing words.

How do marks come to look like letters? Can we be "fooled" by marks that look like letters in non-roman alphabets?

What do we mean by reading - what sort of information, and what sort of knowledge on the part of the reader, is needed? How does looking (and seeing) work? Are there forms of perception other than the visual that come into play? (Maybe not, but you can't overlook that possibility.)

I'll be using social anthropologist Tim Ingold's conception of writing - what might be called his theory of linearity - to examine this question, and will be considering asemic writing; visual poetry; "life writing"; and gestural painting [though this list might change...]. The analysis will incorporate various theoretical views of drawing and/or writing (Derrida, Barthes, Krauss, Benjamin) and (might) include a short discussion of reading as a cognitive process for deriving meaning. The conclusion involves the role of reading and of "understanding art" in a historical and contemporary context, and draws on Bourdieu's notion of cultural capital.

That precis is a long way from the mind map I drew some weeks ago. Many things on that map won't go into the essay - this topic could be enormous. I'll be keeping away from non-alphabetic writing (though it's tempting to look at work by Xu Bing or Gu Wenda) and from pictograms in general. The interrelation of illustration and text - eg captions to photos - is off the list. As are calligrams and modern musical scores, shorthand and codes. Ditto typography used in a pictorial way (eg in concrete poetry), and "words as art" (eg Laurence Weiner). Perhaps there will be a little section with exact reasons for excluding these - if so, that section will be added right at the end, once I've figured out exactly why...

Bibliography, 300 word abstract, 5 keywords, Harvard style references - such are the hoops we jump through! But we can rejoice that the technical aspects of producing the final copy have come a long way since the pre-tippex, cut-and-paste (literally) days of typewriters, carbon paper, and midnight oil. (I used to type theses before the days of word processing - with footnotes at the bottom of the page, and many pages retyped because the footnotes didn't fit.) Hurrah for the automatic footnote and for Track Changes. Start by getting the bibliography ready, and you're well away.

But the words, the words; oh, the words ....4,000 are needed. I'm using blog posts to trick myself into getting some of them down in sequence. The bare bones at least. (Editing is easier than writing...) Also, writing the posts (succinctly) does rather focus one's thinking ...and reveals gaps in it. 

For many of the full-timers on my course, English is not their first language. Later in the year they too must jump through the essay hoop. Hats off to them. 

21 November 2011

Birds live on in art

A deceptively leafy corner of E2 is the setting for the Ghosts of Gone Birds exhibition - and very satisfying it is! Much diverse work ... papercuts by Ian Penney -
 knitted wire by Anita Bruce -
 this "lesser akioloa" by Abigail Brown -
 pastel ducks by Dafila Scott -
Bachman's warbler stitched on bark by Cally Higginbottom -
and printed feathers by Rebecca Jewell -
Ralph Steadman had an entire roomful, including some automata (by Keith Newstead) -
If you can't get to the show in its remaining day or two, another review, with more and different photos, is here, and links to many of the artists' websites are here.