Thoughts about the course, Gesture and Meaning.

I am near to completing this course, the assignments have all been handed in and I’m in the process of tidying up some of the pieces for assessment in July. Several times my tutor has suggested I say something about how the work on the course might have a bearing on my future practice as an artist – I have resisted commenting for the reasons that will become apparent in this reflection. It is the reflective nature of my commentaries (amongst other things, but mainly so) that prompted my tutor to suggest I make some notes about how my work in this course will inform.

Before I make a start on that I would like to say a few words about the course and how much I have enjoyed the research aspect of it. I spent six months working on the first assignment alone – documentary. The investigations into feminism and feminist art have been at turns revelatory, depressing and uplifting. The work that I’ve done with the Echoes Group – I now have a have a contract with the NHS and I have made many contacts who are practicing artists; I have been offered gallery space for my work next year and have had my work with the Echoes Group exhibited at the Artscape Gallery, The History of Science Museum, The Pitt Rivers Museum and the Ashmolean Museum all as a direct result of that network which will continue to develop. It would probably not have happened without the spur of this course.

The breadth of genre on this course is ambitious, covering documentary, identity, feminism, fine art, portraiture, the commercial practice (and the practice of commercialism), it seemingly ran out of space and shoehorned the critical essay into the newly created assignment six which was supposed to be about getting ready for assessment. And it is this breadth of subjects that was partly responsible for me feeling somewhat disappointed despite my enthusiasm noted above. In several places in the course it is suggested that the student should decide on a subject they feel strongly about and produce some work to illustrate their reaction to it, and I wanted to but had no real comprehension about the depth of study required to do that strongly held perspective justice. The first assignment took only six months, it could have easily have taken another six, such was the level of activity I was engaged in – despite the assignment not counting, not being marked. The level of expectation being a very distant partnership with unlikely prospects of ever meeting. In the end I curtailed the work – unsatisfactorily  – and made my way to the next module. My overriding thoughts from early on in the course was that if these subjects meant something to me – and they did and still do – the means by which I was to provide a response for the assignments and consequently assessment, didn’t match my comprehension, they didn’t seem to be calibrated to what I felt about them.

I suspect it is difficult to write a course at this level, one must I suspect, assume all entrants are at the same level – mostly they are coming to a bricks and mortar university and aged somewhere between 17 and 20, but the students at this virtual school of learning have a much wider gamut of knowledge and that is something that I found difficult to manage. I have also studied the Documentary course which I found – despite it’s entirety being similar to that attempted by Assignment one (which does’t count and doesn’t get assessed in Gesture and Meaning) – engaging as a direction of travel, the one module seemingly leading naturally to the next. I am fully prepared to be challenged on any of this, but the Documentary course seemingly allowed for a development of expression whereas the disparate nature of the genre’s attempted in Gesture and Meaning seemed to hold those creatives in check by trying very hard to be a course for all students of all genre’s and practices. If the notion of considering a subject that is important to the student – maybe especially someone who has been around the block as many times as I have – then doing it justice will require more space than single assignments in this course. It was suggested to me by my tutor that I was placing too much emphasis on one particular area – the Echoes group – which he felt might not help me with assessment; now maybe I should have been more sturdy with my commitment and continued with that course, but I felt that I was trying to shove the Group into some of the assignment criteria and I would have needed greater levels of qualification to make my case more certain. However I felt in the end that the lightness of touch in the structure of the course might better be matched by my response to it in a similar vein.

All that being said, it is by no means a negative experience and my comprehension of certain aspects of art and art history, of the document and documentary, of identity and it’s relationship to the world has improved immensely, I just don’t feel I did them justice in the assignments – which by and large were received enthusiastically by my tutor. So how will this course inform my practice going forward? What aspect or aspects of these differing modules will rest with me and help light a path? It is interesting that the Documentary course has no such demand, or rather I wasn’t challenged continually on that question. With Documentary I feel/felt a natural evolutionary tread to my studies – I have no idea where it might lead, but I have a good idea where the next step might be and maybe even the one after that! With Gesture and Meaning with each module an end in itself it is difficult to discern a sense of direction and therefore a place to feel I might end up.

Of course studying feminism will inform me about inclusion, about the distance of ‘others’ and the need to find another view, to balance where imbalance is the norm. As far as the commercial aspect of the course is concerned I found it light, perhaps very light and that maybe because it has to be slim because it is only a short piece in the course and therefore the degree pathway as a whole. I shan’t be seeking a career from photography, nor from art. However I know that this course – as a whole – will, and is, providing a significantly broadened perspective on a range of subjects, but advertising and marketing aren’t them. I realise of course that I don’t know all there is to know about those twins of commercialism and some of the political theories were welcome additions to my research, but that wasn’t required by the course.

I will be happy to leave this behind me, I have spent a lot of time thinking about whether I should submit this work to assessment, I have discussed it with several people including OCA staff, friends and fellow students, though not my tutor. I have decided to submit, but like my assignment five I am unsure of it’s reception and expecting a low or maybe moderate mark. I’m not overly concerned about the mark, but I am now looking forward to the final course in this pathway, my transition from level 1 has been enormous, my comprehension of the subject has developed manifold and I am very pleased with what I have achieved in the couple of years on this course.

The Feminine Sublime

“To investigate the feminine sublime is not to embark upon a search for an autonomous female voice, realm of experience or language, although these categories may be valuable as a dimension of the strategic interventions of feminist practice. What is specifically feminine about the feminine sublime is not an assertion of innate sexual difference, but a radical rearticulation of the role gender plays in producing the history of discourse on the sublime and the formulation of an alternative position with respect to excess and the possibilities of its figuration.” The introductory sentences to Barbara Claire Freeman’s short essay on ‘The Feminine Sublime’ 1995.

These two sentences provided me with the twin insights into both the sublime and another aspect of feminism that I hadn’t expected but which illuminated so much of what I have been thinking about for some time. My own search into the meaning of the sublime has been helped by both the research and by the conversations I continue to have with fellow students on a regular basis. These images here are what I have called ‘pretty pictures’; lacking in substance and perspective, the sole intent was to ‘capture’ a sense of the scape of the land that provided an awesome response; controlling the media – film emulsion through development and then printing,  exposure – via the zone system, composition etc etc and then sales via exhibitions and commissions. In the digital era a negative might take a week to prepare before printing. Most of the images were captured on film, the whole process now feels like an act of virile expressionism – I certainly had to be fit enough to carry the ‘kit’ up some of these slopes and compose/wait for the light to adhere to certain constraints. I am still questioning the purpose of it all.

The sublime is of course a construct, “the awful, the lofty and the splendid” as Kant (1) described the three types of sublimity, but these constructs, including that of The Creator are all gendered perspectives – the notion of a landscape photographer/artist/painter is Male – see, what place is there for a Female? Most if not all the texts on the sublime are from that singular viewpoint, Longinus, Burke, Kant &c. Contemporary Sublime seems also to offer that same ‘maleness’ the Dusseldorf school being pre-eminent in supplying text after text of the awestruck male, Struth, Epstein, Burtynsky et al all striving to implant that same emotive response to the sublime (some maybe just by the size of their imagery leave alone what it is they are imaging).

Motionless and sterile, these images were all created without a sense of purpose other than demonstration of craft, clearly set in the mould of ‘modernists’ whose credo was set two generations ago. It is the image of one who wanted to express the biggest and the best, a singularly gendered stance that rejects an ‘other’. Freeman doesn’t suggest an answer but a discourse, and like Berger (Ways of Seeing) a generation earlier, doesn’t offer an answer. Berger’s stance is of course correct – what self respecting feminist would accept a solution from the ‘other’? Freeman offers a typical feminist response; discourse and engagement rather than hegemony and brute force.

(1) Introductory essay by Simon Morley ‘The Sublime’ pub’ Whitechapel Gallery 2010


The fifth assignment calls for a ‘PowerPoint’ presentation on any of the genre’s in the course, I have taken a little time to decide on what subject, but have come down on Feminism. I have been interested to explore this genre for some time and perhaps because perversely, most of what I have heard has been rather negative to the notion of feminism and feminist art – a term that itself apparently has connotations to the opposite extreme for some.

However I feel a slight antipathy for the means of communication.

I distinctly remember my first presentation, to somewhat over 100 electronic engineers that I felt, despite being able to call myself one and the same, knew more about the subject – Cmos and bipolar mixed signal silicon design – than I. However I felt that I had had a good grounding in performance for prior to that first presentation I had been designing integrated circuits in Texas Instruments; a company sure of it’s place as the premier supplier of integrated circuits worldwide and steeped in the machismo of late 1970’s and early ’80’s corporate, so clear about it’s destiny that any thought of allowing a female voice above that of Operator (machine) would have been a sure sign of weakness. Weakness, or any evidence of it, wasn’t tolerated in anyone who thought of climbing the ladder. Bravado, machismo and bullshit were the order of the day and the development of the ‘presentation’ was one of the measures by which the size of your balls were tested. Every three months came the P&L review and all the lead engineers, together with their teams, presented to the MD. The start of the proceedings usually began at least a month prior to the event, the ‘back-up’ slides (on acetate) would start to be sketched out and junior engineers would be given the task to print them out, draw them, research for them. The actual presentation would be limited to about twenty slides, usually less – however the back-up slides could be unlimited and it was the back-ups that reflected the virility of the presenter. It wasn’t unusual to see anything up to five hundred supplementary slides. You want an answer – it will be there.

Without Software these presentations would often not hang together aesthetically, similar data would be required but it would be delivered in a range of colours/styles and often (if not always) in manuscript form. The entry into the automated office of personal computers, most notably Apples, allowed the introduction of what later became PowerPoint to provide that standard, the ‘gold’ standard, well to all intents and purposes the only presentation software which has found its way from California in the late 80’s to probably most companies with an ambition to ‘communicate’. The ppt. is a male dominated sport. The ppt. ‘jockeys’ are both revered and reviled almost in equal measure from one department to another; the size of the file is one of the defining characteristics of the medium as much as the slide count and the image source material, the presentation animation, the feature set, the transitions, the template. I suspect the I will need to have ‘impact’, but maybe I’ll try and soften the piece and provide more of a pinkish tone.

I need to check whether I film myself delivering the prevention, or whether the presentation will be delivered from a file embedded in a blog-post, either way the missing ingredient is an audience. A presentation is best served to someone – an audience, there would be no point in the ‘back-ups’ if there were no-one to question/query. Slides are static devices, despite the introduction of animations of various sorts, slides are digital – on or off – the progression of the narrative on the slide will inexorably roll-on until it ‘flips’ to the next one and without an audience to interrupt it’s flow and develop the narrative it is essentially, a dumb waiter whether adorned with video or audio. I need to check this with my tutor and then just get on with it.

I have found the research into feminism quite contrary. My initial forays at the beginning of the course yielded very little engagement, most women I spoke to had either discounted it’s value to them or condemned them (the feminists) as either out of date or meaningless. The recent discussions I have had with other artists have developed my thoughts, but it has been my personal research, books, articles that have started to shape a fuller understanding both about the nature of feminism – which I suspect I had a natural affinity for (though it now appears rather roughly hewn), about the nature of feminist art. I have trod very carefully into this genre, for I have no doubt that I am institutionally sexist, that despite my being surrounded by women seemingly all my life and instinctively feeling a great deal of empathy for their cause, my perspective is coloured by a society that is as structurally sexist today (and some may say more so) that it was a generation or two ago. That the twenty first century’s opportunity base for women in the west is being challenged in a way that the first second and third wave feminists could not have foreseen. The the expressions of artists wanting  to explore this phenomena of status equivalence are finding it both more and more difficult to become heard and less and less easy to combat economically structured barriers to that engagement. The odds seem stacked against them, but the more I research the more I feel the need for them to be heard becomes greater.

Art in Oxford


This is a piece of Art

Last week I went to three exhibitions in Oxford. The first was to the O3 Gallery where they have an exhibition entitled ‘Fashion Stories’ – part of ‘Oxford Fashion Week’, the blurb goes on to say “An exhibition of photography that showcases fashion in an unexpected setting and which, in various ways, can challenge our conceptions about fashion.
The way we present ourselves to the world tells a story. A story about how we see ourselves, how we want others to see and how we feel. Oxford Fashion Week presents an exhibition of photography and sculpture that invites the viewer to journey into that story.

I think ten photographers, each with one print. Two of those photographers were women, none of the models were women; one of the women photographers had an image which seemed to proudly state that her model was a thirteen year old who was made to look fully sexually mature. I asked the Gallery for an explanation, I was referred to the Director of Oxford Fashion Weeks – who they felt sure would come back to me. I’m still waiting and somewhat incredulous that the Gallery had no comment to make on the subject.

Moving on to Modern Art Oxford which had two artist’s work: Hannah Rickards and Roelof Louw.

Louw has exhibited at MAO before – in 1969 – and his “Pyramid (Soul City) (1967) has been remounted for this exhibition. It consists ”  ... of 6000 oranges in a pyramid and invites viewers to take a piece of fruit, until, eventually they disappear.” The orange above is an image I made of the orange that I took from the exhibit. “He envisaged visitors participating in the work, “serially changing its order, all the time“.

I asked one of the museum staff to pose by the oranges and indicate the height she thought the pyramid of oranges had been. I was told that the oranges are periodically cycled (within the confines of the wooden base) in order that they remain fresh. I was reminded of Jason Evans whose exhibitions had ‘giveaways’, that he wanted the viewers of his work to take something of that work with them. I’m not sure that Louw had the same intention, but I shall consume the orange. It will be recycled. The work will be disseminated.

Hannah Rickards work was complex and varied. 

And whilst Louw’s work was orange tinted, colour was also very important to Rickards’ work, at least inasmuch as it seemed to anchor a good deal of it. There were six pieces of work on the gallery floor. If art relies, to a greater or lesser extent on the senses, then these pieces all seem to want to relate to those senses in a particularly singular way.  One part of the gallery space was given over to green. The skylights and windows were covered in a green gel, the prints had green ink:


Green wallc2

Green floorc2

Green2c2This last image depicts the outer of one of the two video installations that I found particularly interesting: Inside were two large screens each with a video projection of conversations between different people on what they remembered about some images they had been invited to view and then respond to, I think, some questions unheard or unseen. These responses all seemed to discuss narrative; how the viewers, there were eight or nine of them, would try and interpret what they remembered of the images they had seen, wanting to fill in the ‘gaps’ of their comprehension – make the images make sense. These people weren’t artists, they didn’t possess the vernacular of the artist, but they were able to describe what it was they thought they remembered and tried to make sense of it. This seemed interesting to me in the work I have been doing on ‘Light‘, how narratives will be developed independently by the historical perspective of the viewer, something I’m also researching with “The Open Work” by Umberto Eco.

The work at Art Jericho was a show by Kim Shaw. Of all the work I saw on the day this set of images had the most beauty about it. Monochrome images printed with great dexterity and craft using a variety of camera mediums, but sticking with film these images were a joy to look at. However they did seem to me to be ‘pretty pictures’. I have nothing against ‘pretty pictures’ and their prices ranged from £500 up to £1500 each – though there were some smaller reproductions around £200 each. Whether these images are just a paean to the physicality of the medium of film image making I’m not sure, but they didn’t go any deeper than that for me. I was glad that these images were the last I saw and not the ‘new way to see ourselves’ that the O3 gallery was mounting. If I thought this was how I looked, if I thought this was the way we, as a society was trending towards, than I think we are plummeting in a downward spiral.

Proud of this

Memories Project with the Echoes Group

Memories Project with the Echoes Group

I had a meeting with the Artscape Manager today to discuss the next exhibition and was very proud to see this in the Artscape Gallery next to my prints which form the basis for Assignment Two. The next exhibition will likely be in the Fusion Arts Centre, Cowley Road as well as the replacement to the current exhibition. and will likely be hung towards the end of the month. The Fusion Arts piece will be for around two weeks and the Artscape one will likely be up for a few months.

Richard Hamilton at the Tate Modern

No entry

No entry

Overwhelming in many ways this huge retrospective provides as many excursions as there are rooms, and there are a lot of rooms! The exhibition catalogue is around 350 pages of images (including many not on show), sketches and essays which will provide a resource for some time to come. To take in all that was there would be a vainglorious exercise, if not impossible for one with so limited a vocabulary. What I will concentrate on is how I see Hamilton’s view of gender and the ‘other’ (female) as identity.

This image stopped me short. In it I recognise myself; I saw the institutionalised image of my desire – I wonder whether it was how Hamilton saw himself. The title ‘Fashion-plate study (a) self-portrait’ 1969 suggests that maybe he did but I haven’t found any direct reference to it as yet in the accompanying tome. I see the image of what I should expect from a societal perspective, from a female; a projection of how a beautiful sexually available female is represented: big lips, blond hair, suggestive wink, staring dilated pupil, ‘made-up and bare shouldered – she’s mine, should I desire. And of course as an object d’arts I can – just pay the man!

And here we have the ‘object’ stripped down to the bare essentials, the breasts are physical projections (providing the shadow detail on the image), she is displaying for the spectator, no expression to be concerned with, representative arms that are unlikely to fend away, stiletto shoes, stockings and the reflective glass connecting the viewer to the object. “Pin-up’ 1961 entering into the decade that suggested if you could remember it you weren’t there, the decade when sex began when for most it was still an illusion and was until the mid seventies (but that’s a different story). This image for me is a salutary lesson in the representation of the female, it seems to castigate the male for what it has done to the ‘other’ in diminishing it’s identity to a series of objects connected to perform a singular function. And talking of singular functions:

I seem to see another representation of the female, entitled ‘$he’ 1958-61, maybe this one is slightly more nuanced in that not only can she screw you but she can cook too, real dimensiality! A lot of his work around this period connected the female form to a presence within the domestic environment or to the boudoir. Looking at this through twenty twenty hindsight it appears to this viewer that Hamilton wasn’t wilfully mis-representing the female by subjugating them rather he was pointing out the frailties of the male perspective in that time, and then re-facing the present I wonder how far we have come? The Harry Callahan show that I took in on the same day as this certainly had the female in a passive role and those photographs were made in a similar period in history as these by Hamilton. The tube-ride to Marylebone had a number of men reading tabloids, the ‘page three Stunner’ is still there I noticed, the bill boards on the escalators have more explicitly sexually available women to gaze at as I rise at forty five degrees to the summit.

Un des effets des eaux de Miers

Un des effets des eaux de Miers

But I still remain confused at my reaction to this, or rather three images. This first, a study really, the title referring to an old British traditional view of the the foreign ‘other’ – don’t drink the water! has a recently formed steaming excreta purportedly on a piece of Jeyes toilet paper. Well ok.

But then this:

The study is introduced to the upper image. Is this irony? A study of confidence or a depiction of vulnerability?

It is further used in this:

‘Sunset 1975’. Well I can agree that most sunset pictures are (scatalogical references omitted) tedious and very regular in the photographers canon, but if that association is made then what association for the former images of the two young, attractive women. Not sure Richard, it’s a bit tricky Dickie for me, unless it is an equalising image? Trousers can, skirts can’t……

There were many very interesting rooms at this show; it asked a lot of questions of me as well as of the art on the walls, and on the floor. I have a very strong feeling that I shall come back to the catalogue again and again.