Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Stale Art can’t even be toasted!

I’ve been reading a book called No More Secondhand Art by Peter London (1989). So much art seems to have a rather stale, derivative lifeless feel. A great idea, full of life, the sense of the moment and then somehow as you work it out in cloth it loses the spark. How to claim it?

John McQueen described his process in a poem that was displayed with his baskets at a show in New York.

Obviously everyone struggles with this: You go to a show ( I just went to a very good show at the UK National Patchwork Museum) and very little really moves you. And, at least 50% of what feels real, where you make a definite connection with the hopes of the maker, is the older work. There’s a piece in that museum that’s at least 200 or maybe 250 years old and it’s one of the most emotional pieces there. Of course age helps!! It definitely adds a patina! (Would that were so for bodies!!! That we became more polished and lustrous with affectation and pretence stripped away as the years go by. Though if you think about it, that does happen to the actual person, forget the aching joints, creak, groans and cracks!!!)

The importance of meaning, of zest, of catching and holding your eye holds true for all forms of art. Listen to the judges on those two dance shows we all love, how frequently they say – the steps are there, but the meaning is not, the emotion and the heart are not, the communication is lacking.

So what does Peter London have to say about “Secondhand Art”?

First – he asks a question: “why is it that dexterity, knowledge of art, and taste do not necessarily add up to what we seek in art?” What is missing? A good composition, a good colour scheme plus good craftsmanship are all necessary – but then how do we get life into a piece? How to achieve the fresh individual approach? The history of art shows us many examples of artists struggling with this: going off to the South Seas, looking at children’s drawings, working in isolation, trying mind altering drugs......


Peter London advocates getting into the activity itself as deeply as possible – playing, experimenting, discovering..

as Eva Hesse did in her little paintings of squares tumbling and reversing:

He gives some interesting suggestions: think about art as beauty but also about what it means, what is the meaning conveyed by your piece. The examples he gives are of looking at one of Monet’s haystacks – not just “a nice little picture of a haystack”…but more importantly the shimmer of the light, the glory of the sparkling constant changes of colour in the air. Meaning as well as beauty.

The bold black tree that dominates this painting by Bartlett forces the bright coruscation of sunlight into every sense:

London writes about the importance of an absence of formula. In art quilts we see that very clearly in the difference between quilts made from patterns, and those made from the imagination of the maker.

I think avoiding a formulaic approach can lead to the fresh and unexpected. This is something I love in paintings which I’ve tried to show with the following examples (drawn from internet surfings). I would be so thrilled if I could get some surprise into my quilts!

Mary Fedden's unexpected but balance grouping of objects whose essence is "seaside".

The unexpected angle, colour and multiple reflections of the de Laurentis painting:

Raise and answer the compositional question yourself, try not to look and see how another artist solved that problem. This might take some working out – but it will help you avoid the more expected resolution.

Another aspect that London emphases is that of meaning. To me this is best shown most clearly by simplicity and economy – look at the fragility and transparency of the dried flowers in Hirst’s little watercolour……

.the focus on atmosphere alone in the Katz painting.

see the economical lines of the harbour, boats and snow in Seahouses (also Hirst) in a wintry fog:

Cordova's lush and vital Greenness!

The brisk blustery sky and bleak trees and pond in Hockney's East Riding painting:

And this lovely painting by Casely that focuses on the power of steam with its sharp contrasts of color, line and value:

London does tend to give answers that are somewhat more expansive that this (!) but take his questions and bear them in mind when next you go into the studio.

And, if you have been, thanks for reading!


No comments: