Creative serendipity – the art of finding what you didn’t know you were looking for

The current trend of tidying up and throwing away is all about creating order and simplifying your life.  De-clutter and your life will be happy. Japanese writer Marie Kondo, author of “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” (the KonMari method – only keep things that give you joy and fold your underwear origami-style) and more recently “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning” by Swedish grandmother, Margareta Magnusson, have been trying to impress on us the need to pare back to make life easier for ourselves and for others.

While I acknowledge that I need to de-clutter – I have a garage full of boxes of things and stuff that are no longer used but perhaps one day will be and often feel a stifling sense of being hemmed in; I have way too many clothes and shoes that I no longer wear and a study full of books, some of which are re-read or picked up or used as reference material; shelves of beautiful art books and art magazines and boxes full of work/teaching material.  Then there are storage boxes full of art-making material: oil paints and mediums, acrylic paints and mediums, gouaches, brushes for all the different types of paints, pastels, charcoals, a printing press, paper (drawing paper, watercolour paper, printmaking paper), printing inks, copper plates, etching tools.  And then there are many small boxes full of bits and pieces, mostly paper, that I have collected and used in my collages including Japanese Chiyogami paper, old letraset sheets (typeface transfers), images cut from magazines, gold leaf, stick-on dots and stars, old rubber stamps.  A wondrous mix of odds and ends.

I’m sure if I had a proper studio things would be better organised and arranged for easy access.  As it is, I rely on having to put things away into large plastic tubs and a variety of boxes once I’m done with a project which does make finding things difficult.  A short while back I spent days looking everywhere for my gouaches and then thinking I must have thrown them out in the last move, went and bought some more only to find my box of gouaches the very next day.

Sometimes though in my searches for things I find visual art pads and sketch pads with collages I’d completely forgotten about, or partly-finished. They often inspire me to do something else.  For collage work it’s often a case of coming across random items and thinking they might work well.  It’s whatever catches your eye and your fancy. Making a collage is all about putting together a range of disparate elements on a page.  There is often no plan, it simply evolves. It’s what I love about working in collage.

American collage artist, Lance Letscher avoids organising his boxes of source material so that he can find unexpected things when he starts searching; he depends on the chaos of stuff, of things lying around. Irving Welsh is also in favour of chaos and deliberately doesn’t organise his music collection:

“I don’t organise my CDs and vinyl by genre or alphabet anymore …. Having it all haphazard means I can never find what I want, but the benefit is that I always find something else, which is cool.  I believe that art is as much about diversion as focus and planning”. In her autobiography Agatha Christie talks about the importance of messiness when re-visiting her chaotic notebooks:

“ [If] I had kept all these things neatly sorted and filed and labelled, it would save me a lot of trouble.  However, it is a pleasure sometimes, when looking vaguely through a pile of old notebooks to find something scribbled down, as Possible plot… with a kind of sketch of a plot.  What it’s all about I can’t remember now; but it often stimulates me, if not to write that identical plot, at least to write something else.”

So by all means, de-clutter and organise, but let’s not forget about the value of creative serendipity.

With acknowledgement to Austin Kleon’s weekly newsletter – a perfect example of randomness and coming across things you didn’t know you were looking for or were interested in.

David Hockney – a master colourist

I first came across David Hockney’s work through the lithographs of Celia Birtwell, wy back in the 70s when I was an art student studying printmaking. I loved these images, the simplicity of the line work with its subtle wash – stylised but capturing a moment.

On exploring Hockney’s work further I saw an exhibition of his LA Swimming Pool series and again I was struck, not just by the naturalness of the image/subject matter but at the complexity of the structure and composition that made these images so alluring; they were so quintessentially modern.

David Hockney, Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) 1972

Many decades later I was fortunate to see a wonderful exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia which showcased the work of Dale Chihuly as well as featuring Hockney’s A Bigger Grand Canyon. For me it was one of those ‘wow’ moments. Coming out of the wonderfully curated Chihuly show – which was akin to walking through Aladdin’s Cave – to see this incredibly strange painting consisting of many small canvas boards in the strangest colours was one of the highlights of my art viewing.

What made it so special was a short film that accompanied the work: David Hockney talking about his process in constructing this amazing piece. Not just the footage of him driving his convertible along mountain rides listening to Bach, but also his using photographs of multiple viewpoints and then the process of colour selection. I finally sat down right in front of that painting and it took my breath away. I was able to experience it from so many different point of views (perspectives) that it wasn’t a static image, it was an alive and deeply moving colourful experience. Sadly, the NGA has now hung this masterpiece on a wall over the escalators so that it’s impossible for anyone to really see/view/experience it, or indeed understand what all the fuss is about. I don’t understand why this decision was made as I think it remains of the true great works in the collection.

David Hockney, A Bigger Grand Canyon” 1998

One of Hockney’s ‘tricks’ is to eschew traditional perspective – a fifteenth century construct which is fixed  – and opt for a more subjective view. He sees his objects from multiple perspectives, from many views and many sides and angles and manages to capture the visual experience of being in the presence of the depicted image. Masterful.

So it was with great anticipation that I wanted to see the NGV’s exhibition of Hockney’s new works: Current. And yet, when I expressed my interest and asked if people wanted to go see it with me, the response was lukewarm: ‘nah’, not really interested.
I had talked to a friend who had seen it and she related how impressive the digital/iPhone images were and Hockney’s discussion of his art making on video. I definitely wanted to see this. I had also seen a very short interview with Hockney on SBS about this show and the glimpse of the images impressed me with their bright colour and sheer joyfulness. I was going to see this show.

And so I did. I managed to convince a friend to see it with me – he and I went to uni together to study Art History and although he was sceptical about the show, he was gracious enough to come. I’m extremely pleased to say that he was blown away and thought it one of the best shows he’d seen. Hockney is not just a master of colour he is a master of invention.

Hockney’s use of the iPhone (and then the iPad) to create ‘pictures’ is mesmerising. His use of colour is breathtaking and his skill, well, I think he is one of the greats. And at age 90 he is making inroads and creating works that not only astound but delight. If ‘joy’ was something I had expected to experience, I found it to be so much more than I could ever have contemplated. There were so many ‘wow’ moments in viewing those works; so many mouth-gaping ‘how is that possible?’ that I came away convinced that I had seen one of the greatest shows of the 21st century (second only to an exhibition of Anselm Kieffer that I saw at the Royal Academy of Arts in London).

Modernism in Queensland

In a post-post-modernist world, how many people are familiar with the amazing accomplishments of the modernists?  They were the pioneers of colour, form, daring simple styles and subject matter previously deemed unworthy of artistic endeavour.

I was a bit sceptical about going to see Modernism at Queensland Art Gallery, an exhibition showcasing the work of Georgia O’Keeffe, Grace Cossington-Smith and Margaret Preston.  Putting those three women’s work together seemed a bit like an afterthought – we’ve managed to secure paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe but not enough for a stand-alone show, or curating a show out of whatever’s not recently been seen from the stockroom.  Certainly it seemed odd to show O’Keeffe with the other two Australians – Margaret Preston and Grace Cossington-Smith.

But each artist has transformed traditional still-life into a more vibrant and modern aesthetic.  Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings fill the canvas with close-ups of magnificent blooms, their bright colours and abstract quality conveying a distinct sensuality. Margaret Preston’s graphic paintings focus on design and pattern and remind me of the early Russian modernists with their focus on constructivism and utilitarian design as well as the still-life paintings of Giorgio Morandi. One of my favourites is a very minimalist painting of a tray of cups Implement Blue (1927), highly stylised and beautiful in its minimalist, industrial design. I love the play of light and use of geometric pattern and colour.  I’m not a fan of Preston’s later work where she appropriates colour and design from a quasi-Aboriginal aesthetic – all these strike me as being works of design rather than landscape painting.

In a way, Grace Cossington-Smith is the odd one out; her paintings seem more post-impressionist rather than modernist – apart from The sock knitter (1915) – and her subject matter less interesting. The sock knitter is a portrait of her sister knitting socks for soldiers fighting in France.  The interesting thing about this painting is it’s emphasis on compositional structure: the play of horizontals and verticals through the misalignment of the cushions on the back of the sofa which sit at odds with the intimate and commonplace subject matter.  It’s one of Cossington-Smith’s best (if not the best) paintings). A tension between subject matter and surface, which reminds me of Matisse.

Christopher Allen in his review of the exhibition (when it showed originally at Heide) wrote: The exhibition includes a number of abstract or semi-abstract works from O’Keeffe’s earlier period, including the years when she shared a home with Stieglitz at Lake George. These are finely painted with a sensuous pleasure in surface texture and a love of seductive, even sexual forms, even if the notoriously vulval flowers are barely present here. And it is this erotic vitality that separates her so starkly from the rather spinsterly sensibility of the two Australians.”  And it is indeed this aspect that made me sceptical of seeing this show.

I first came across Georgia O’Keeffe when I was a young art student in the 70’s. Back then she was very much a feminist icon – her bright paintings of canna lillies and other exotic flowers were often described as images of vulvas, though O’Keeffe always denied this.  In some way O’Keeffe’s work became conflated with that of Judy Chicago’s (one of the “first-generation feminist artists,” who was part of the Feminist art movement in Europe and the United States in the early 1970s to develop feminist writing and art and at the time and who were heroes to many young women seeking to advance their own artistic practices). 

Chicago’s famous installation The Dinner Party was a collaborative piece that made no hierarchical distinction between art and craft, indeed it was the very inclusion on some of these crafts (hand women settings, pottery, embroidery etc) that made the installation so significant. I was lucky enough to see it in the 80’s at the Melbourne Exhibition Building, which was still functioning back then.  The Dinner Party is considered as one of the first epic feminist artworks, serving as a symbolic history of women in Western civilisation. It consisted of three large tables put together to form a triangle, covered in white tablecloths on which were 39 elaborate place settings, each representing a significant mythical or historical woman of whom O’Keeffe was one.  Each of the plates was beautifully hand painted depicting a flower or butterfly image evoking a vulva.

The works on display at QAG are actually well curated and worth the visit.  Depending on your individual taste you’ll find one artist’s work more interesting than others.  For all my misgivings about a show on modernism that consisted of these three seemingly disparate female artists, I think it’s interesting to re-visit this long-forgotten aspect of early twentieth century art making and remind ourselves of the trajectory.  Certainly some of O’Keefffe’s beautiful pastel works seem like a precursor to colour-field painting, especially the paintings of Helen Frakenthaller and I loved some of her dark almost abstract landscapes. I also found resonance with Tim Maguire’s beautiful close-up paintings of flowers, especially tulips. Whatever the connections, whatever the inspirations, it’s always good to see some art and be reminded of how it’s an ever changing landscape (pardon the pun).

 

 

Pastiche or homage?

On a recent visit to the Queensland Art Gallery I was intrigued by a number of images and realised that they reminded me of works by other artists.

First up was a small group of photographs in the Asian section which I found striking in their simplicity and in the power of their gaze.  They were by an Indian photographer – Pushpalama N, – whom I’d never heard of – whose images are  very much like those of Cindy Sherman.  And like Sherman, Pushpalama N. explores narrative figuration and uses herself as the model, in a variety of guises.

She was born in 1956 in Bangalore and originally trained as a sculptor then went on to work in performance photography and film using elements of popular culture to explore place, gender, history. According to artsy.net, Pushpalama N. is a “photo-and video-performance artists [who] plays the subject in images that critique female stereotypes in India and the reductive classifications furthered by ethnographic documentation.”  Hmmm.  Not sure what that means but essentially she re-enacts historical representations of women in order to subvert them.  Just like Cindy Sherman.

No matter the text (or for that matter the sub-text), the works are striking and powerful and well worth checking out.  I have to praise the curator of this little show for the strength and vision here; I browsed the web for images of Pushpalama’s work to illustrate this blog and mostly I was unimpressed with what I saw.  But the selection of black and white photographs at QAG is quite stunning and well worth a look.

There’s a large show of recent Cindy Sherman works at QAGOMA which I had seen on a previous visit but had to see again. I’m a Cindy Sherman fan; her earlier photographs remind me of stills from film noir but more than that I’m fascinated by her craft: her skill in creating narratives and in transforming herself into highly constructed character studies.  They are performance pieces. Interestingly, according to QAGOMA, “Cindy Sherman is one of the most recognised and influential artists of our time”.  Yet no-one really knows what Sherman looks like.  She uses herself as a model for all her works, but through the use costumes, makeup, prosthetics (and more recently digital photography) Sherman transforms herself into highly stylised characters. There are no depiction of Cindy Sherman.

The images in this current show are very different to previous ones – in content, scale and in Sherman’s use of digital technology, especially Photoshop.  But the biting satire and commentary are still there.  There is a wonderful series of 5 metre-tall ‘society portraits’ from 2008, and two rather subversive fashion house collaborations, the Vogue-commissioned ‘Balenciaga’ 2007­–08, and ‘Chanel’ 2010–2013 in which Sherman clothes her everyday women in haute couture, placing them in incongruous settings.   They’re not fashionable or stylish and the result makes you re-think the whole notion of ‘fashion’, of who it’s for and how it ends up. It’s also a commentary on our society’s fascination with aspiration, narcissism and the cult of celebrity.”

The other works that impressed me (and that I had to come back for another look) are by Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori (my spellcheck’s having difficulty here so I’ll refer to her as Sally Gabori), a Kaiadilt woman (from the Gulf of Carpentaria, off north-western Queensland) who began painting at the age of 81.

Large intensely coloured canvas, bright and block like.  Powerful images.  This was new indigienous art and I was impressed.  I’m not sure that anyone’s really game to talk about indiginous art except in very traditional non-formal terms.  For some reason (the ovious ones) aboriginal/indigenous art isn’t scrutinised and critiqued in the same way as other art.  What I found so refreshing about these works was not just their vibrant palette but their intensity and the way the paint was applied – not a dot or line to be seen – let alone a smudge of ochre.  It was almost colour-field and indeed reminded me very much of the huge fluid painting of Helen Frankenthaler. Interestingly, the little extended labels (the things that people most usually look at longer than the art work) said not a thing about the construction of the work.  Instead it was all about ‘country’.  I didn’t really understand what the relationship of country was to the visual representations on these framed canvases but I was keen to find out.

This exhibition is a retrospective; it includes her early paintings, her large collaborative works with other Kaiadilt women, and her almost monochromatic recent paintings and works on paper. The experts say that the paintings are “depictions of her homeland …. abstract in nature, but retain representational elements which map traditional country and cultural identity in monumental paintings.”[Jeremy Eccles,SMH]  One thing is certain:  in both the design and the boldness of her colour Gabori’s work is unique in Aboriginal art.

What’s striking to me is the (apparent) lack of traditional iconography (though again, I think it’s interesting that the labels speak about country rather than the painting).  Nicholas Evans in his obituary  in The Australian wrote that: “Beyond the names she gave them, Gabori was reticent about revealing the exact interpretation of her paintings. My view is that they are worked up from distinctive blocks of light or colour, emanating from the land and sea at the locations she names; the landscapes are transmuted so radically that they are barely recognisable.”
So why can’t we just read them as abstract paintings and critique them in the same way we do other similar (i.e. abstract) works?  I suspect it’s the artistic equivalence of political correctness. Interestingly,  there is a painting by Australian abstract artist Tony Tuckson just around the corner from the Gabori, and if you didn’t know you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a Gabori painting.  I was (again) struck by the similarities.  And again, I have to wonder: why can’t we talk about these works within the same terms of reference?  They’re clearly very similar.  Ah, the art world.  When it adopts political correctness, it’s anyone’s guess.

And finally, a piece that made be laugh out loud (particularly in it’s quotidian pasticheness)  was a 3-D glass and metal sculpture  in situ outside the art gallery:  a mini pyramid, paying homage to The Louvre’s Pyramid. l I have no idea of who this is by – or for that matter, what it is – but I thought it was imminently fitting that it was there.

Pyramid_small

So next time you’re in sunny Queensland wandering what to do – go take a wonder around the galleries.  You’ll be surprised at what you find.

Cool Art on a HOT Day

Yesterday we set off to the NSW Art Gallery to have a look at the exhibition from the National Gallery of Scotland.  We’d been there a number of times and its an amazing collection worth seeing time and time again. My husband was keen to see the show because he grew up with so many of those works – having spent many trips there as a kid. A bit of nostalgia.

It was a long weekend and very hot and we had planned a picnic to follow the show.  It was hot.  Very hot.  A burst of Australian summer heat in Spring.  So of course the gallery wouldn’t be crowded.  However it still surprised me that we could both find a park directly in front and that inside there were no queues. ?? Turned out the Scotland show wasn’t yet on – we were just fooled in thinking it was because of all the advertising (nb:  read the fine print – or at least the pertinent details).

No matter, it gave us an opportunity to wander about and look at the collection.  We all went our separate ways, looking at whatever took our fancy, drawn from one work to another.  The AGNSW has a wonderful collection, much of which isn’t shown (hence their proposed expansion) but they do curate shows from their collection and these were wonderful.

Here are just a few of the works that made me smile.

From the John Kaldor Family Collection:

Paul Chan, Oh Why So Serious, 2008

Paul Chan’s “Oh why so serious”, 2008. I loved this – the keyboard comprising of gravestones which looked very much like those very old keyboards we used to use before there were colour computer screens – but when I noticed the title I literally laughed out loud.

In the same collection was another ironic comment on our technologically driven age and a comment about how these devices have been relegated to the graveyard or prehistoric era. Petrified petrol pump is made from fossil-filled limestone.  It is a provocative memorial to the ancient life forms whose decomposition, over the course of many millions of years, created the fuels that underpin contemporary society.  Its form also resembles a tombstone, alluding perhaps to our doomed reliance on fossil fuels that threaten the extinction of countless species.

Petrified petrol pump
Jennifer Allora & Guillermo Calzadilla, Petrified Petrol Pump, 2010,

 

 

I don’t usually go into the Asian galleries but some rather beautiful contemporary porcelain ware caught my eye.  And I was very glad I wandered in. Conversations through the Asian collections brings together old and new works in a series of dynamic conversations where contemporary artists treat the art of the past as resource and spur to imagination. Contemporary works are placed beside the historical art that inspires and informs them.  Some are laugh out loud clever, some are ingenious others are just amazing to look at, like this ancient Japanese warrior.

Japanese-warrior

 

TV Buddha
Nam June Paik, TV Buddha, 1976
Buddha game
Nam June Paik, Buddha Game, 1991

Nam June Paik’s TV Buddha  is another lol moment; the Buddha perpetually gazes at the TV screen, on which he sees an image of himself recorded by the closed-circuit camera.  In a later piece, Buddha Game, two Buddhas sit in front of a screen inside an old-fashioned television set. The box that houses the work is a television cabinet within which miniature videos operating are watched by two bronze Buddhas. Confronting the spiritual dimension of Buddhism with new technologies is a continuing aspect of Paik’s work. The space of the screen where so many people “meditate” every day is provocatively juxtaposed with the sublime attention of Buddhist meditation. The cabinet is covered with pages from an old Korean book making the modern exterior of the appliance seem strangely antique.

The other thing that struck me was just how interestingly this show had been curated bringing together a broad survey of old and new and by turn, reinvigorating them.

Shi Zhiying, born in Shanghai in 1971 re-produces ancient Buddhist monuments into contemporary works.  In Cave of ten thousand Buddhas no 3, a Buddhist stele is used as the basis of her large monochrome painting. Her work is very much informed by her reading of Buddhist scriptures and her deep understanding of Chinese history and traditional culture.

Shi-Zhiyang
Shi Zhiying, Cave of Ten Thousand Buddhas no 3, 2013
Buddhist-stele
Buddhist stele c525-30
Shi-Zhiyang_3
Shi Zhiying, White marble figure of Buddha no 3, 2014

And finally, I was really taken with this work by Aida Makoto (Japan, b1965) Groups of girls 1997, mixed media on plywood.  At first glance I dismissed it as being not very interesting but on closer inspection I thought it was brilliant. There are four panels depicting school girls. There are two groups – one from the countryside and the other from Tokyo – congregating on subway platform following an excursion to Tokyo’s Disneyland.  The girls are evenly mixed over the confined pictorial space, creating a rhythmic uniformity.  What you notice are the distinct differences in their appearance and behaviour.  The girls from the country are in full uniform, correctly attired, neat and dowdy and somewhat old-fashioned looking.  The city girls are like city girls everywhere – skirts as short as they can possibly be, socks worn in a fashionably slouchy manner, hair loose and accroutrements of mobile phones, cigarettes and jewellery.  Their interactions with each other are also very different.  I also love the way that Makoto uses images of Japanese kitsch (Hello Kitty and Kero Kero Keroppi) as the background that unifies these groups.  Brilliant.

Aida-Makoto_2 Aida-Makoto_3 Aida-makoto_4 Aida-makoto_5 Aida-makoto_6Well worth a stroll through on a day when there’s nothing else to do.  Amazing what you discover.

 

James Turrell – an experience in light and space

James Turrell is a master of light, colour and space. His work mesmerises and instils a sense of wonder  along with, at times, a sense of fear because you can’t always tell where the boundaries are in the light-space. It can be a perplexing experience. Standing in a room with a wall that was illuminated with a pinkish light, forever morphing in tone and intensity – I turned to complete darkness and realised I couldn’t see anything, nor could I understand where I was in space or have any sense of distance or depth. I could hear other people in the room but I couldn’t see them – not even as shadows or outlines. I stood stock still. The attendant had told me that there was a bench at the back of the room but I honestly couldn’t move because I didn’t know or understand where I was in relation to the back – or for that matter the side.   So I ventured closer toward the light and put my hand out. There was a wall. And along this wall I slowly inched my way across until I felt the corner and the further wall. I can’t fully explain my sense of relief. At last I felt that I was grounded and could once again negotiate my way through space. But interestingly too, at this vantage point I watched the light move and change. The light began to look like a huge rectangle of pure colour and reminded me of Mark Rothko’s beautiful series of red paintings at the Tate and his Stations of the Cross. Around the edges of the form (though form is a concept that is very tenuously applied to Turrell’s work) was an outline of white – or the absence of colour. And what this does to your eyes – or vision – is amazing. Light is made up of colour and you see all these variations in that space. Finally I turned away and slowly made my way out, now feeling much more comfortable with the darkness. And of course the closer I got to the entrance/exit the less there was of a sense of absence of all light. To exit the room was another revelation/experience. Your eyes adjust and automatically produce the complementary colours – in this case green.

“My art is about your seeing, like the wordless thought that comes from looking into fire,” he says. He uses light as a material to influence and affect people’s perception, blurring the boundaries between flat and 3D geometries.“I put you in a situation where you feel the physicality of light,” says Turrell. “I am interested in this new landscape without horizon.”
James TurrellThe Retrospective at the National Gallery of Australia explores almost 50 years of Turrell’s work – projections, holograms, purpose-built installations, photographs and prints. Turrell’s works are amazing because they just keep on keeping on. They are an entirely solitary experience and one that at times made me smile with delight. How wonderful is light and colour and how blessed we are to be able to experience it in all its purity and glory.

To learn more about James Turrell, visit his Artsy page.