White gloves at the ready!

It is a truth universally acknowledged that quilt shows must have invigilators of some sort. You see them at shows all around the world.

melbourne

White glove ladies (and quiltmaker) at Melbourne Modern Quilt Guild, Australia (via)

QuiltAngel-houston

Quilt angel at Houston show, Texas (via)

 

white-glove-california

White glove helper at Road to California quilt show (via)

Taking up positions at Festival of Quilts, Birmingham, UK (via)

Taking up positions at Festival of Quilts, Birmingham, UK (via)

Call them white glove ladies, or quilt angels, stewards or quilt guardians – they are there to keep an eye on the quilts, to keep them safe. They can make sure no-one simply walks off with one (it has happened! remember this?) and that visitors obey the Do Not Touch The Quilts signs.

whiteglove

At Glendale, CA, quilt show (via)

 

These helpers also get to share their love of quilting in conversations with interested visitors. (They don’t even need to be an expert on the techniques as there are usually samples or statements that can be looked at and read for the details, to which visitors can be referred.) They might need (in smaller shows) to keep a tally of visitors, or take money for items being sold. When things are quiet, they have a chance to chat with other helpers and get to know them better.

That last consideration is important in a large regional or even national group, in which members don’t meet face to face very often. My own experience is of Contemporary Quilt in the UK – we communicate with each other through a yahoo group, and see other members mainly at Festival of Quilts each year. It makes a difference to be able to put a face to the name.

san diego

Men in tuxedos did the white-gloving at San Diego Quilt Show’s “It’s a Zoo Out There” Preview Night (via)

 

ireland12

Kilted white glove helper at the International Quilt Festival of Ireland (via)

 

With all these positive aspects, and no training needed (you just need to smile, be pleasant, use common sense) – why are people so reluctant to volunteer to help out in this way?

Some, of course, live too far from the show, or have health issues or conflicting responsibilities that make this impossible. For shows in big national venues, the hassle of travelling to get there and the costs involved, and then the time that needs to be set aside, can deter volunteers.

Some are shy or afraid of the public; others don’t feel they know enough to be able to answer questions.

Some – usually the same people time after time – will help out at the drop of a hat and travel for one or two hours to do so.

What about the rest … are they lost causes? Is this reluctance to volunteer for a simple task a part of a general lethargy and apathy?  When stewarding slots need filling, how can these people be “incentivized”?

One incentive for doing several hours of minding the quilts is to get a day pass to the (large) show, which allows several hours of looking around at other displays and traders.

Collectible “quilt angel” pins are a tangible reward. For example, the“Roadie” bar is earned by volunteering four hours or more at the Road To California quilt show. Each year “Roadies” receive a year bar to add to their special pin. At Houston, the “quilt angels” earn an Angel pin for a three-hour shift, and if they serve two shifts, they earn priority registration for the next show.

The "Roadie" pin (via)

The “Roadie” pin (via)

A rather compelling incentive is pressure from others in the group – the sense that every member makes a contribution, not just of their membership fee but of something else, which can be helping run the organization or doing one of the behind-the-scenes jobs – or contributing by looking after the quilts at shows near them.

 

 

Suffering for art (by Margaret Cooter)

It is a truth generally acknowledged that artists must suffer for their art. Also, it is widely believed, in the art community at least, that good art has its basis in the artist’s unique personal experience – and, especially among artists and critics, that a viewer is needed to “complete” the work, in that they will bring their own experience to their perception of the work.

 “An exhibition of multimedia pieces created by two artist sharing a professional knowledge of medical environments. This exhibition brings together a series of process driven interrogations into the deconstructive and reconstructive nature of disease.”

“An exhibition of multimedia pieces created by two artist sharing a professional knowledge of medical environments. This exhibition brings together a series of process driven interrogations into the deconstructive and reconstructive nature of disease.”

In “Black & Blue”, an exhibition at the Freespace Gallery in Kentish Town Health Centre, London , two artists have taken the notion of “suffering for their art” to great lengths. For Chris Day, it is voluntary; for Penny Clayden, it is inescapable.

Chris and Penny are familiar with suffering and pain through their work – Chris is a respiratory therapist, treating cardiac patients, and Penny is a nurse, now training other nurses how to look after their backs, for she has long had chronic back pain herself.  They are both nearing the end of their art MA at Farnham, brought together by their medical background and their search for how to integrate their creativity and these concerns with pain, suffering, healing, harmony, natural rhythms.

As well as their working lives in health care, they share textile-related backgrounds and families in which people were always making things, by sewing or otherwise. Chris’s family included tailors and pattern testers; her father and grandfather stitched tapestries. Penny’s forebears worked in couture and costume making; she was given a sewing machine at the age of 4 and was making clothes for people, that they wore, by the age of 8.

With this emphasis on clothes and cloth, stitched creativity, it’s no wonder that they are both undertaking a textiles MA. For Penny, sewing and art have been an adjunct to her working life; some years ago Chris took time out from work for a textiles degree. At the MA level, each student’s experience starts from the project they propose on applying to the course – they have already narrowed down the possibilities to something relevant and absorbing for them. During the course, tutors and mentors help them focus even further, as well as broadening their wider view. It is here that individual experience becomes so important, not just for finding a process of making the art but also in determining the content of the artworks.

Night Waves (2013) Chris Day. Acrylic ink, sea water.

Night Waves (2013) Chris Day. Acrylic ink, sea water.

Chris’s focus is on the interaction of man and nature over time, and the work she shows originates in her relationship with the sea. She has used ink and seawater to produce a series of drawings, often through wetting the drawn lines by taking  the paper into the breaking waves. She works at the seashore throughout the year, and has also drawn while immersed up to the neck, unable to see the drawing on her board through watching for the next wave so that she can jump to stay above it.

 Intervention 1 (2013) Chris Day. Linen, pre-rusted wire, sea water.

Intervention 1 (2013) Chris Day. Linen, pre-rusted wire, sea water.

Her stitched work doesn’t imitate surgical sutures – surgical procedures are presented in a more abstract form, for instance in “Intervention 1” by the incorporation of  wire into a linen cloth that sat in evaporating sea water for more than a year, rusting the metal and precipitating salt crystals as it dried.

Chris also makes felt pieces, using her hands intuitively through long practice with this process, just as she uses her hands intuitively in her work, the intuition developed through years of experience.

 Redacted Revealed (detail) (2014) Penny Clayden. Silk organza.

Redacted Revealed (detail) (2014) Penny Clayden. Silk organza.

Everyone who suffers pain sees it differently, say Penny – her own pain is black – and it was this interest in perception of pain that led to her MA project, which was initially to discover other people’s perceptions of pain. She found, though, that she didn’t understand her own perceptions, so has narrowed her focus to her personal experience. One of the resulting works, Redacted Revealed, is a series of prints on freely hanging silk organza, a fabric that had been used inside plaster casts to prevent rubbing from damaging the patient’s skin. The fabric is stained with myrobalans, which as well as being used in tanning leather in India are made from trees that have healing qualities. Hung around a large space, the series of prints represent a day in the life of Penny’s pain, which changes over time and throughout the day. The shapes on the cloth bear some resemblance to structures found on x-rays; some cloths are double, and move across each other in the air currents as people walk past.

Fragmentation series (2014) Penny Clayden. Porcelain, cloth, thread, loofah

Fragmentation series (2014) Penny Clayden. Porcelain, cloth, thread, loofah

Other fabrics used in the medical setting include calico and gauze, bandages and garments, and Penny has dipped these into black porcelain slip. The fabrics are burnt away during firing in the kiln, leaving the hard, but fragile, porcelain; even when the pain goes away, Penny says, she can feel very fragile.

 Fragmentation series (2014) Penny Clayden. Porcelain, bone china, loofah

Fragmentation series (2014) Penny Clayden. Porcelain, bone china, loofah

Penny is aware that these fragile works are likely to disintegrate through handling, so for the life of the exhibition she has put them in drawers and in jars sourced from office and kitchen suppliers. The jars resemble those used for anatomical specimens, with no need for the formaldehyde preservative. The tallest jar holding pieces of her Fragmentation series contains porcelain-dipped pieces of loofah– the soft, spongy shapes, made rigid, resembling vertebrae in various stages of decomposition.

These visual ways of explaining pain were well received by patients who happened to be in the health centre while the show was being hung. One said that this reminded her that people outside the health setting were caring for her in a different way; another, who had been looking very dejected, seemed revived by the activity around him.

The arts in healthcare settings are acknowledged as contributing to patients’ welfare and recovery, and enriching the lives of staff and visitors. A literature is building up on the active use of art in hospitals and health centres, not just traditional pictures as something to look at while waiting, but as part of signage and for orientation within the building; as a focus for conversations between visitors and patients; making the building interesting for children; introducing the healing benefits of nature; and involving patients in creating art themselves. Funding for such art is usually from private and charitable sources.

In both art galleries and health centres, space is becoming more fluid – used for different purposes by different groups of people – for example, to meet for coffee rather than look at the art, or to see the art rather than attend a medical appointment. The gallery at Kentish Town Health Centre is not separate from the treatment areas. It shows art that can be comforting, or can present a challenge to the viewer. When the art is based in an experience that patients can relate to, even a difficult experience like pain, it is their own experience, their perception and recognition of that commonality in the art work, that makes the work complete.

 

Black & Blue is showing at Free Space Gallery, First floor, 2 Bartholomew Road, London NW5 2BX, until 16 January;  see freespacegallery.org.

Messing about with books (by Margaret Cooter)

Artists who alter books by using their contents, rather than making books from scratch and filling them with their fresh ideas, have a material starting point: a physical book, or its text and/or images. This post deals with three artists (one Canadian, one American, one British) whose theme is to explore the ambiguities of communication, and who use textile techniques to alter texts.

 

 

Sylvia Ptak makes faux-texts.

An experienced weaver, she removes threads from fabric and adds simulated script. Plucked, ink-stained, and distorted “weave structures” become word shapes.

ptak1

For this image, from a 2008 exhibition called The Unicorn and The Date Palm, based on renaissance herbals, she used heat-transfer to add the illustration after the thread “writing” is in place. At other times, she has used inks, or coloured threads.

(photo from here)

(photo from here)

 

ptak3In “Commentary”, a 2004 exhibition at the University of Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library,  she slipped between the pages of a number of the library’s rare books her own “pages” of abstracted, text-like shapes carefully woven into sheets of gauze. You can see from the image above (via) how they mimic the ancient pages of the real tomes.

Close-up of gauze with its “text” (via)

Close-up of gauze with its “text” (via)

Sylvia Ptak says she is interested in “the multiple meanings that texts generate” – the incomprehensible language of her texts reads like everything and like nothing. “We have such faith in the printed – or handwritten – word that we feel it must be saying something,” said the reviewer of her show in the Globe and Mail. The “handwritten words” are something other than text – they are drawing, literally, in that a thread is drawn out of the fabric.

Victor Hugo, 2013, gauze, pigment, 10 1/2 x 7 1/2 in. (via)

Victor Hugo, 2013, gauze, pigment, 10 1/2 x 7 1/2 in. (via)

Her new body of work (2013) is inspired by manuscript pages, handwritten and extensively edited, by authors including James Joyce, Marcel Proust, and Virginia Woolf – pages that bear witness to their creative process, showing additions, deletions, and corrections. As well as gauze, Sylvia Ptak has been using a variety of paper, such as vellum and player piano rolls, to translate manuscripts into gestural marks, which although not legible, still retain the essence of each author.

 

Jen Bervin has removed words, rendering the remaining text in stitch.

bervin1Her “Dickinson Fascicles” are based on the punctuation (the “non-meaningful” marks) on the pages of Emily Dickinson’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 feet (240 cm) wide by 6 feet (180 cm) high—to convey the exact gesture of the individual marks.”

Jen Bervin in front of a Dickinson Fascicle; sewn cotton batting backed with muslin (via)

Jen Bervin in front of a Dickinson Fascicle; sewn cotton batting backed with muslin (via)

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.

Jen Bervin, detail of The Composite Marks of Fascicle 19. Cotton and silk thread on cotton batting backed with muslin

Detail of The Composite Marks of Fascicle 19. Cotton and silk thread on cotton batting backed with muslin

Jen 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 spoke about her poetry and how her work is made in 2010 at  writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Threads.php; you can listen online.  “The Desert” was created as an editioned work, for which she hired sewers via Craigslist; they worked shifts in her apartment on as many sewing machines as she had available.

“The Desert” uses stitch to erase passages of text, making a new meaning with what remains.

The Desert, Granary Books, 2008 (via)

The Desert, Granary Books, 2008 (via)

Jen used a text erasure technique in “nets” to make new poems out of Shakespeare’s sonnets – see an excerpt here.

 

 

Sylvie Killgallon is “translating” Homer’s Iliad into coloured stitches.

kilgallon1

Book 1 took 73 days to stitch (via)

Each greek letter will be a stitch (a cross-stitch), with colours changing throughout the books, starting with red and moving letter by letter so that the final book is blue.
Book 1 – of the 24 books – is finished; she’s now working on Book 2, and it’s the longest book. “I need to stitch faster” she says on the project blog, Stitched Iliad.

In progress - any embroiderer would love to see the back (via)

In progress – any embroiderer would love to see the back (via)

From the Guardian newspaper’s article:

“I started the project in response to a curator showing me a newly built, empty gallery space and asking me what I would put in it,” she said.

“My mind immediately sprang to the Iliad.I’d been researching translation, transmission and reception of text issues, so my immediate question to myself was ‘Can I produce a translation of the text that allows an audience of non-classicists to appreciate it without understanding the text itself?’ The colour translation was my solution.”

The initial red colour scheme was inspired by the war, anger and bloodshed featured in the Iliad, which is believed to have been written between 750 and 650 BC.

Research has shown that cultures generally follow a similar order in developing names for colours. Black, white and red appear first, while blue is one of the last colours to be named.

Kilgallon said this was the reason the project starts in the primal colour of red before transitioning to blue, a colour indicative of a more technologically developed society.”

 

 

Silvie works on her Iliad in public places, “prompting conversations and interactions with an audience receptive to both the story of the Iliad and the story of the stitched Iliad.”

Previously, for a project starting in 2011, she stitched Book I in various ways, aiming to do it “twenty-four times, each time highlighting a different method of analysing the text. My first translation is a simple letter-for-colour substitution, which each letter of the alphabet being substituted for a different colour. When the Iliad was first written down all those years ago, it would not have had the breathings, accents, spaces, or lower case letters which modern classicists would now be familiar with; thus, my translation contains no spaces, punctuation marks, accents, or breathings. Later translations will focus on syntax, metaphor, location, character, etc. Hopefully when it is finally complete, it will be a work of spectacle, aesthetic beauty and complexity worthy of the title of epic.”

For instance, here is that work in progress in March 2012 –

kilgallon3The colours are to do with names of characters and their interrelation through family trees.

Later in the process, doubts set in … “The aim of the first translation and the aim of all the rest is also different: the first translation dealt with metaphor, and how it reveals but also obscures, it dealt with appreciation and understanding. At the moment, I feel like all the rest are just… infograms. They’re just colour-coded charts showing the frequency of names and places. They’re analysing the text in a way which is supposed to be understandable, which seems almost completely at odds with my intentions in the first piece. … Why do the same thing 24 times, unless you feel the idea is developing further each time (and I don’t think it will)?”

And so the project changed. It will look amazing when it’s finished – perhaps this sample of two of the Book I’s will help you imagine it –

kilgallon4

 

 

Artist twins who meld traditions (by Margaret Cooter)

The Singh Twins, Amrit and Rabindra, have pioneered a new development of the traditional Indian miniature in modern art. Their work addresses important areas of critical debate, challenging stereotypes of heritage and identity.

The twins, who grew in in the United Kingdom, use the language of Indian and Persian miniature painting to depict the contemporary world. Their 2010 exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, London,  had a room of family scenes and another of the complex world outside the home. It’s intriguing to see how social commentary and political satire fit into the modern into the classical framework, for instance this teenager’s bedroom, rendered in the Indian miniature tradition, with a strong narrative, symbolic content, and eye for detail –

I particularly liked this idol-worshipper, her traditional shape in modern garments –

Apart from wit and skill, the work requires tenacity – it takes four hours to finish a stamp-sized section of the paintings, and the works on show were up to a metre high. The twins’ work is identical to the untrained eye, and in real life they dress alike to the last detail. In this podcast they talk about the concept of being “women artists”.

“1984” shows the notorious storming of the Golden Temple in Amritsar – read more about the painting, and see a larger version, here.

One aspect of the artists’ commentary is the blindfolded reporters … but they are very hard to find in the online version.

In another mix of traditions, they received MBEs in 2011, and posed with the Queen’s Beefeaters –

singh-twins

 

Why fabric? (by Margaret Cooter)

Why quilts – rather than paintings … do you sometimes wonder? Whenever SAQA’s Art Quilt News pops into my inbox (you can subscribe here, it’s free) I ponder this question – the quilts shown in it are each part of an exhibition somewhere. Of course, seeing the work on screen is nothing like seeing it for real, whether its a quilt or painting or other medium … so the quality of the photography for what we see on screen is going to make a difference, especially for quilts, with the texture of the quilting often so very important in the design concept.

This week, thumbs up for fabric in this quilt, Yellow Pod, by Colleen Ansbaugh

The fabric is monoprinted, which at first made me think – “why not on paper” – but here the quilting adds that necessary something to complement and enhance the lines and colours of the print.

K Velis Turan’s “Please Stand By” is screenprinted, and the reverse applique will make some elements pop, which again seems to enhance the design … and wouldn’t work as well in paint or print on paper. The visible quilting is a graphic element in itself (closeup is here) –

Nancy Crow‘s “Double Mexican Wedding Rings IV” (1988-90) could be a zingy print on paper, but this piece is “so quilty” because it comes right out of the quilt tradition – the blocks need to be pieced, not painted … fabrics, not hues, need to be used.

Would you say much the same about this next quilt? Does it need fabric and stitch to bring the design to life, or would it work equally well in paint, print, or collage?

Alicia Merrett, Blue Harbour

Quilted sea … that makes sense to me – the sea itself has a visible texture … but when it comes to quilted skies, what do you think – does the quilting evoke the feel of the wind or enhance the look of the clouds? Or are skies best left “just” painted?

Photorealism on fabric is another stumbling block for me – it makes me ask “why?”  Perhaps “because I thought it would be interesting” is good enough an answer?

It seems to me that sometimes the use of fabric is either an indulgence, or else a power struggle: the materials need to be vanquished, they need to be bent to the will of the maker.

There’s a further consideration, and I rather hesitate to mention it, but here goes….  What do you think – could it be that some people using fabric because they haven’t developed skills in other media?

Behind the scenes at the RA Schools

A visit to the degree show at the Royal Academy Schools got me thinking about the history of art education for women, and the Royal Academy and the position of women within it.

A working environment

A working environment

The Schools are tucked in behind the grandeur of the main RA building – the studio skylights look like a series of sheds that have been tacked on.

Schools corridor (via)

Inside, the corridor is dark, cluttered and a few centuries old. Most of the statues have bits missing (not always just the naughty bits). This place has seen heavy use since the RA moved to Burlington House in 1868.

The life drawing studio in 2010

The life drawing studio in 2010

The bare bones of the life drawing studio, and the collection of casts, look pretty much as it always has, and tucked in along the hallways are other necessities.

A library is housed in locked bookcases

A library is housed in locked bookcases

Other cases house skeletons

Other cases house skeletons

The Schools were founded in 1768 as part of an institution with a mission: “to promote the arts of design in Britain through education and exhibition.” The Royal Academy went on to dominate the art scene of the 18th and 19th centuries, but along the way it somehow lost its women members… first by attrition, and then, says the RA website, “In 1879, the Council of the day came to the conclusion that our original Instrument of Foundation did not allow for women RAs. Eventually, they relented and passed a resolution to make women eligible, but only on the condition of restricted privileges.”

The Summer Exhibition in 1800 (via)

The Summer Exhibition in 1800 (via)

For a long time the RA Schools  was the only established art school in Britain. (Why “Schools”? – because when the RA was first founded, students were required to master a number of different artistic elements in a particular order – eg, drawing from casts before moving on to life drawing. Each element was known as a separate ‘School’.)

1808, drawing by gaslight

1808, drawing by gaslight (via)

Other art education was through private schools and tutelage, which is how any women in Britain who aspired to be an artist got training, unless she went abroad to study. In 1860 the RA started admitting women students – almost by mistake. Selection was by submitted drawings, and when L. Herford turned up, what was assumed to be a Lawrence turned out to be a Laura.

By 1862 there were seven women among an intake of about 25 students a year, and before long they outnumbered the male students – who had migrated to Paris, where the drawing instruction was superior (says Stuart Macdonald in The History and Philosophy of Art Education, 1969) . All students at the RA Schools “spent five or more years in tedious imitation” – and women were banned from life drawing until 1893.

Cast collection in the life drawing room, 2010

Cast collection in the life drawing room, 2010

By the beginning of the 20th century the RA Schools had further competition in the form of the Slade and the Royal College of Art, and the quality of its students declined. Attempts to widen the curriculum to include decorative art got nowhere – it was confined to life-sized painting from the head, and painting and drawing from the nude figure.

Lecture to art and architecture students, 1953 (via)

Lecture to art and architecture students, 1953 (via)

The course lasted up to 10 years before 1853; it runs for three years now, and there are about 60 students in the Schools at a time, doing this postgraduate course. In 1769, 70 students were admitted; then as now, they do not pay fees.

 

Angelika Kauffmann's paintings on the ceiling in the entrance of the RA are hardly noticed by visitors (via)

Angelika Kauffmann’s paintings on the ceiling in the entrance of the RA are hardly noticed by visitors (via)

Spring by Mary Moser (via)

Spring by Mary Moser (via)

Two women, Angelika Kauffmann and Mary Moser, were among the 36 founding members of the RA, but for a long time (until Annie Swynnerton became an associate in 1922, and Laura Knight a full member in 1936) there were no women academicians. Up to 80 practising artists are elected to be academicians ; these currently include 26 women.

 

Academicians are involved in teaching in the Schools and give lectures as part of the RA’s education programme. In 2011 Tracy Emin and Fiona Rae were the first women to be appointed professors, of drawing and painting respectively.

Tracey Emin

Tracey Emin (via)

fiona rae (via)

fiona rae (via)

And now, some work from the current graduates. They’ve had three years with free tuition … but first had to be chosen from some 1000 applicants!

Hold (hole and Plexiglas pole) by Ariane Schick … with a view through to the corridor

Hold (hole and Plexiglas pole) by Ariane Schick … with a view through to the corridor

 

Natalie Dray, part of Zone Heater

Natalie Dray, part of Zone Heater (feel the warmth…) and of 6 Sheet

Hannah Perry, Feeling It, wall-based sound sculpture (it shakes, rattles, and rolls)

Hannah Perry, Feeling It, wall-based sound sculpture (it shakes, rattles, and rolls)

 

Work by Alex Clarke

Work by Alex Clarke

Up the stairs and you’re in the public part of the RA’s grand building … a different place.

ra-stairs

 

When artists become collectors (by Margaret Cooter)

“Like the making of art itself, collecting reminds me of prospecting. Some perceived sparkle makes you start to dig and then a seam can be followed.”

Julian Opie is a British artist I’ve never looked at twice. His flat, graphic style always got the “so what?’ reaction. But reading about his art collection has changed that.

Opie has put together an exhibition* of his collection and his own work – and what strange bedfellows they are – portraits from the 17th and 18th centuries don’t, on the surface, connect with his “sculptures”.

Julian with T-Shirt (2005).  LCD screen with integrated software.  "LCD screens are now so flat and high-resolution that they are quite similar to pantings or prints. Like the portrait in the haunted house that moves its eyes, there is a humour to movement when it's unexpected."

Julian with T-Shirt (2005).
LCD screen with integrated software.
“LCD screens are now so flat and high-resolution that they are quite similar to pantings or prints. Like the portrait in the haunted house that moves its eyes, there is a humour to movement when it’s unexpected.”

In an article** about his show (and collecting habit) he says: “A chance encounter with (and purchase of) a ‘School of Godfrey kneeler’ portrait opened up the whole of 17th- and 18th-century portraiture or me. The painting caught my eye due to its powerful purposefulness and sense of being an object…When I started to investigate where it had come from, however, I began discovering a world of art parallel to, but quite separate from, the contemporary art world. … The list of artists kept growing as I found one who taught another or competed with another. … I began to understand the period in a way I had never done before … numerous brilliant, exciting artists I had never heard of, describing a whole world, evoking a whole scene. “

Cornelis Johnson (1593-1661), Portrait of an Unknown Gentleman (1631). "Johnson is particularly known for placing the head close to the centre of the canvas, lower than most artists would. This has a very odd and endearing effect."

Cornelis Johnson (1593-1661), Portrait of an Unknown Gentleman (1631).
“Johnson is particularly known for placing the head close to the centre of the canvas, lower than most artists would. This has a very odd and endearing effect.”

“It is tempting to see the present as special, but it is also exciting to realise that he past was once today. To me, the art of different periods brings those worlds parallel,” says Opie.

Subsequently he became interested in “ancient art”, buying a small marble Aphrodite and going on to learn more about the whole ancient period, from Roman statuary and portraiture to Tanagra Greek figurines and to all things Egyptian.

A pattern is evolving – stumble on the art, like it, (buy it,) get curious, investigate…  “After the heated frenzy of having found and caught the work there follows a sense of calm. I look forward to having it on view.”

Jean-Marc Nattier (1685-1766), Portrait of a Lady "The dashing clothes and posture do more than the rather blank features to evoke the sitter's character and presence. To me, Nattier's pictures are perfect and an epitome of a certain, doomed moment."

Jean-Marc Nattier (1685-1766), Portrait of a Lady
“The dashing clothes and posture do more than the rather blank features to evoke the sitter’s character and presence. To me, Nattier’s pictures are perfect and an epitome of a certain, doomed moment.”

How does his collection inform his own art?

“Looking at other artists’ work gives me clues in terms of materials, composition, subject matter, colour – everything really. But it also reflects what my interests are, making me feel connected, giving me confidence. [Compared with ancient artists] artists now don’t really know what they are doing and have to invent or find this sense of obviousness and purpose for themselves.”

It works the other way round, too, Opie says. “Making art is in part a conversation with people about whom you can make certain assumptions of sameness. I assume my viewers are living in the same world as I am, that their picture of themselves and their surroundings is built of much the same material as mine. What art looks like, what images we have already seen, has great bearing on how we see new art. What we see is structured and defined by what we know, and a lot of that h=is to do with art from the past … I have always aimed to make my work with all that in mind, as part of its meaning and promise. If I make something that looks a bit like and 18th-century painting or reminds one of an information screen in an airport, it is because I mean it to.”

At Home with Maria 4 (2011) "The focus in a painting is naturally the face and the eyes. By eliminating these, the viewer is free to take in the pose and costume, to read the space that is suggested, t see the whole as a sign, an invention and yet to feel, I hope, the reality of the image."

At Home with Maria 4 (2011). “The focus in a painting is naturally the face and the eyes. By eliminating these, the viewer is free to take in the pose and costume, to read the space that is suggested, t see the whole as a sign, an invention and yet to feel, I hope, the reality of the image.”

“…because I mean it to”…  Through being informed about the history and context of art at different times, as Opie has done via his own art collection, the “meaning to” becomes something wider, deeper than the technical aspects of producing the work.

Telling the readers of this blog about the joys of learning about areas of art outside their own field of practice is unnecessary – you’ve read this far, after all! – but I can’t help thinking that this sort of interest or knowledge seems to be rather lacking in other parts of the textile-art field. Prove me wrong?

And, tell me … what’s on your walls? How does it  influence the art you make?

Aniela Bathing 4 (2013) Black enamel on white marble, 95x95cm. “A song is about neither words nor music but a perfect relationship between the two, the meaning lying somewhere in between and beyond. Subject matter and materials in a painting have a similar relationship.”

 

 

*’Julian Opie Collected Works’, The Holburne Museum, Bath, 22 May to 14 September; Bowes Museum, Durham, 4 October to January 2015.

**Published in Art Quarterly, Spring 2014; a draft is at julianopie.com. Images and captions in this post are drawn from those in the published article.

 


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