Friday, 23 June 2017
I'm busy hanging a show at the moment, so no time for the blog. But if anyone is about on Saturday evening or Sunday during the day, do come over and look at what I've been doing lately. There will be drawings and ceramics to see.
The Gallery is at 10 Back Newton Grove, Chapeltown, Leeds, LS7 4HW.
See the link below for details as to how to get there:
Saturday, 17 June 2017
Pieter Bruegel the Elder - The Tower of Babel
Last year when I was making drawings of tower blocks, I began looking around at other artists who were dealing in the same territory. I was looking for images that suggested the power of the modern city, and at the same time I was searching for an idea that would suggest a hollow monument.
For an earlier drawing project I had drawn impossible spirals, an allegory I had decided that referenced the impossibility of certain aspirations, but of course the ideas were related.
As I began looking for other drawings I became more and more interested in what the purpose was for these impossible buildings, they all, because they are impossible, are designed to carry messages, and what interested me was that in being so 'impossible' they in some ways carried their messages that much more forcefully.
Gerard Horenbout: Tower of Babel
Athanasius Kircher 1679 Tower of Babel,
The Tower of Babel comes with it's Biblical story, a story about the hubris of mankind, of our propensity towards self aggrandisement. But it's also about the fact that we find it hard to understand one another because of the proliferation of tongues.
In Russia during the economic recession in the 1970’s communist rule was still in place and architects had little chance to express themselves through their buildings. This repressive situation bred what we now know as the paper architecture movement. In particular the images made by Brodsky & Utkin epitomised for me that ability of the impossible vision to carry messages.
Tatlin: Drawing for Monument for the Third International
After the Russian Revolution, Tatlin was given a task by Lenin to remove the figurative tsarist monuments. He proposed an abstract monument 1,300 feet high to commemorate the revolution. It was however never realized, but as an idea it had an enormous influence. Brodsky & Utkin would have been very aware of Tatlin's Tower. During the 1970s 'Paper Architecture' began to produce Utopian architectural proposals that questioned the relationship between the design proposal and realities. These imaginative proposals by Brodsky & Utkin were perhaps more meaningful and concerned with the human condition, than real buildings. Like Tatlin's, their ideas remain on paper, however a visual idea is still an idea and ideas are powerful things.
Brodsky & Utkin’s Paper Architecture
Paper architecture was created as a response to the recession in the 1970’s, and a lack of creative freedom under the communist rule. Their drawings were produced as large etchings, images as much about the internal struggle for creativity, as about possibilities for new worlds.
The concept of making drawings that are both political statements and poetic images has a powerful history, one that is perhaps seen at its most heightened in the work of Etienne-Louis Boullée’s sublime vision of a cenotaph for Sir Isaac Newton.
Etienne-Louis Boullée: Cenotaph for Sir Isaac Newton: Ink and wash
Boullée stated, “In order to execute, it is first necessary to conceive… It is this product of the mind, this process of creation, that constitutes architecture…” The purpose of his drawings was to envision, to inspire, to visualise a conceptual idea though the geometry of spatial form. His drawings are monumental poetic hymns to the power of the Enlightenment. The wonders of science being raised to a religious and spiritual height, and meant to inspire people to aspire to a higher status.
The introduction of steel framed building techniques in the late 19th century meant that as the twentieth century unfolded a new type of building could be constructed, buildings that by their very size and height could inspire an idea of what it was to live in a modern city. The city as idea being the logical progression of Boullée's thinking. However, it was soon realised that if architects were to design buildings above a certain height, no light would reach the ground, therefore in 1916 the state of New York set out what were called 'set-back' laws. Hugh Ferris’ architectural drawings that were made to illustrate how the step-back would look, were drawn using very low perspective vanishing points. In order to visualise how these laws would shape new proposed architectural developments, Ferriss used a particular drawing process of blocking out a building’s form in a greasy crayon, using a paper stump to achieve halftones, and producing highlights by erasing, therefore pushing light masses into dark spaces. These drawings have informed our collective unconscious minds as to what futuristic cities should look like and were for myself key images that lay behind the evolution of how I was to shape an imagined other world.
The Phantom of Liberty: 2016
However Ferris' work was not the only artist I had in mind when I was producing images like the one above.
Cesar Pelli: Indiana Tower 1981
Architects still continue to envision huge monuments for modern cities, such as Cesar Pelli's Indiana concept above and Eero Saarinen's now built, 1948 proposal for St. Louis.
Eero Saarinen: Drawing of Monumental arch for St. Louis
Eero Saarinen: Monumental arch for St. Louis
The difference of course with the Monumental arch for St. Louis is that it was actually realised.
A building that is still in the process of being realised, and which has been in construction since 1882 is Gaudi's 'Sagrada Familia' in Barcelona.
Gaudi: Drawings for the Sagrada Familia
What is interesting about Gaudi's drawings is the introduction of a much more organic idea of growth and natural forms into a construction that is both spiritual and from the earth. This organic ideology, being a concept that would appear to have more and more relevance as we move into the anthropocene, a period whereby human activity has become the dominant influence on the world's climate and environment. Again though what interests me is the fact that a design for a building can be both a proposed reality and an idea at the same time.
One artist that has used these concepts to reveal a different type of truth is Claes Oldenburg. He uses the ability of a drawing to suggest monumental scale to help us re-see objects that we would normally walk past without a second glance. A dropped ice cream cone, or a peg, when drawn using a low perspective, can appear as large as a building. He forces us to change our 'point of view'.
Oldenburg's drawings of monumental proposals based on ordinary everyday objects, often rely on that low perspective point to give an effect of the viewer's insignificance in front of a huge structure. Point of view is key to all these drawings, the artist is controlling the viewer by using a technical system (perspective) designed to build a relationship between the viewer and what is viewed.
The contemporary British artist Ian Chamberlain draws and makes prints of often disused monuments left over from the Cold War. These monolithic reminders of times of unease such as the Cuban missile crisis, operate as images of lost power. I find it fascinating that Chamberlain doesn't use that very low vanishing point, but gives us images that feel more as if they were initially photographed from distance. The 'distancing' that a camera lens gives, is very different to trying to draw an object of this sort whilst standing directly underneath it. There are no other clues in Chamberlain's work as to size either. Boullée would have included trees in order to give a clue as to size by using comparison.
Ian Chamberlain: MirrorIII
Reminiscent of Boullée’s Cenotaph for Sir Isaac Newton, this image of a concrete listening mirror uses a language of etched marks to suggest the corrosion and decay of what was once a monumental product of the Cold War imagination, it's more photographic viewpoint chosen I would suggest to document a past fiction, rather than imagine a future ideal.
Once again we are left with an issue about communication. How do you as an artist control the relationship between yourself and an audience? Is there in an age post the 'death of the author' for an artist any form of control? Roland Barthes wrote that every artwork is "eternally written here and now", each reader or observer of the work performing a re-reading, the meaning coming from the construction of the language used to make the artefact and its impressions on the reader. Impressions which of course will be based on the particular conceptual framework that the audience brings to the encounter. My own understanding of this is that what I can do as an artist is offer to the reader or viewer a particular construction that has, as far as I can make it, a coherent language of forms that then become open to interpretation, and the more I can make that language coherent the more the audience will be able to make sense of it. What I can't do is work outside of the audience's frame of reference. However the Greek poets understood that certain human traits are common to us all, ideas such as love and death or destiny, arrogance and hubris, these are all concepts that help us define what it is to be human, and as I get older I see that I am more like others who have been before me and less like the individual I thought I was.