The Drawing Machine

Anybody who has creative friends knows the feeling.Your friend shows you a poem, the first draft of a novel, a painting or even the proposed colour scheme for the living room and there is that small pang of panic when you realise you don’t like it. And because it happens, not all the time, but often enough,  most of us have found a polite enough way to deal with it. Mine is to put my head on one side and say, “mmm; that’s really interesting.”  The beauty of it is that I sometimes say it when I do like something and genuinely think it is interesting as well. I am sure that I am not alone in using this particular formula, as I have had it said to me on quite a few occasions too.

Because I was away most of the summer, I didn’t catch up with some of the local exhibitions; in particular I hadn’t seen the De La Warr’s pick of the best offerings from the graduate shows from the University of Brighton and Sussex Coast College. With only a few days left to run, the staff were even uncertain whether it was still showing but, eventually, they directed me to the back stairs and there on the first landing was this.

Naomi Holdbrook: Drawing Machine 2

My husband snorted on seeing it. “I think it might be her’s,” I said. “She told me that she had created a drawing machine with the idea of taking herself out of the mark-making process.”  The label showed that it was indeed Drawing Machine 2 by Naomi Holdbrook.

Drawing from Drawing Machine 2

The drawings the machine had made, suggested that artists need not worry just yet about having their role usurped by robots. Elephants have done better. Immediately, the formula, “that’s really interesting,” was going round in my mind. Then we turned and, behind us, up a few more stairs, were a pair of screens showing films of the machine in action. You could suddenly see how the various broken bits on the floor must have worked.  I can honestly to say that it was one of the best and funniest art videos that I have ever seen.

In the video, we see Holdbrook attempting to control her fantastical machine as it whirrs and clunks. The pendulums sway; it runs for a time and then the various elements get out of sync;  bits fall off; the paper breaks. It is the perfect metaphor for the frustrations of artistic creation. My husband loved it. The exhibition runs only till November 1. If you have a chance, do go and have a look. I now want to see it running for real.

Naomi Holdbrook: Video Still, Drawing Machine 2
Naomi Holdbrook: Video Still, Drawing Machine 2

Platform Graduate Showcase 2015 at the De La Warr Pavillion closes on November 1

Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy

It was only the day before yesterday that a friend told me of her intention to make an artwork about the refugee crisis which set me musing about the role of the artist as political commentator. I felt that while there had been great paintings and sculptures in the past, the most effective points were now made by the photo-journalist, the documentary film maker, the cartoonist or graffitist. Then I visited the Ai Weiwei exhibition at the Royal Academy and did a complete 180 degree turn. The exhibition is everything you could want art to be: thought-provoking, moving, original and beautiful – and undoubtedly political.

It was brilliant timing by the Royal Academy to be running the exhibition at the same time as the visit by  President Xi Jinping. It proved that while the long arm of the regime was able to ensure that he was cheered the length of the Mall, and that although our leaders smiled and fed him turbot and venison, he would have been aware that not everybody in the UK had forgotten China’s record on human rights. Along with the pointed absence of Prince Charles, it maybe rankled a bit to know that less than a mile away were huge banners celebrating an artist that the regime had so ineffectively tried to suppress. If President Xi’s minions had passed on to him news of what was in the exhibition,  as surely they must, he would have known that it included tableaux of Ai himself being held in detention as well as pictures of the studio which the authorities first of all encouraged and then knocked down.

Ai Weiwei: Tree Sculpture

The exhibition starts with the impressive and somewhat ominous reconstructed trees in the courtyard and the grand scale continues inside. Nearly everything seemed out-sized. Unusually, photography was allowed for this exhibition, I imagine Ai Weiwei is against institutions forbidding things. Amid the visitors clicking away, the photo police, usually so diligent in the pursuit of their duties seemed at a bit of a loss, though one did manage to point out that I had got too close to these beautifully joined stools – I had missed a magic line on the floor; presumably you or the art turned into dust if it were crossed.

Ai Weiwei sculpture showing linked stools
Ai Weiwei: Grapes

Indeed, throughout the exhibition there is much carefully crafted joinery to admire. Ai has commissioned craftsmen to carve intricate metre high cubes, to intervene with antique tables so that they stood elegantly but uselessly on two legs. Work after work bore testament to a vanishing China but also made you question value in art both for the ancient and the contemporary.

Ai Weiwei: Bed
Ai Weiwei: Bed

This work Bed is made of dismantled temples and represents a map of China which you can apparently only see by looking at the cross section. My geography was not up to identifying the similarities: I was just bowled over by the extraordinary skill with which it has been put together.

Ai Weiwei: Bed (detail)
Ai Weiwei: Bed (detail)

Of course Ai does not take out a chisel himself. If there is a debate about the role of the artist as political commentator, he is also a prime subject about that other perennial debate about whether an artist should make his or her own works. Ai’s skill lies not in his making abilities but in his extraordinary powers of conception. By harnessing armies of artisans he can create on a truly monumental scale.

At the centre of the Royal Academy, in the grandest room, was the most moving work. It was made out of steel reinforcing bars and is a memorial to all those who died in the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province, where some twenty schools collapsed, killing more than five thousand students. Ai clandestinely purchased the substandard steel that should have saved them and had 200 tonnes transported to his studio where it was painstakingly straightened by hand. The result is Straight. Around the walls are the names of the students who died.

Ai Weiwei: Straight
Ai Weiwei: Straight

Before signing up China to build nuclear power stations in the UK, David Cameron and George Osborne should visit the Ai exhibition; they should look at the pile of straightened steel and read the 5,000 names on the wall. They should think of the children who had died because corrupt officials had skimped on earthquake proofing for personal gain. If China has such a poor regard for its own citizens, and if, rather than tackle corruption, it would prefer to muzzle an artist of Ai’s stature, why does our Government imagine they will have any regard for the well-being or safety of people five thousand miles away?

They should also note one of the smaller works: two books about art published by Phaedon. They appear identical, and are open at the same page. Then you notice that they are not the same: in the Chinese edition, the entry on Ai Weiwei has been omitted and replaced by another artist. Dealing with the Chinese comes at a price.

Ai Weiwei is showing at the Royal Academy until December 13

Putting the visitors in the picture

After a hectic weekend, Artmasters 2015 at the Old Truman Brewery is finally over; I wrote about my work Calcium Wave on October 16 in the post below. With so many strong works on view I also wanted to show you some of the others. Although we all came from an academic background, having recently completed Master Degrees, and with about half the artists undertaking doctorates, our work was highly diverse.  There was Lucy AndrewsVestiges; she produced fascinating patterns on aluminium by allowing ink in water to evaporate. There was Lucinda Burgess’s work Differences, in which cut steel rods treated in the same way showed different patterns of rusting. There was photography, with Natalia Zazova’s striking photograph Black Swan, while Ali Darke’s scuptural installation of long eared creatures which had suffered a mishap with spilt milk, attracted lots of attention. There were paintings of course and I particularly liked Suzi Morris’ work Trojan Horse about the effect of virus on the body as well as Asiya Clarke’s Pareidolia

We have now packed up the works, exchanged cards, made promises to keep in touch and then braved the traffic jams of Brick Lane, before heading off to different parts of the country to return to another week in the studio. If you missed it,  you can see more examples of work on Artsthread as well as an interview with our clever curator Anna Fairchild, whose own work Decoding Dissonance is about memory and absence.

Was all the hard work worth it? Nobody sold, but most of the people there were not interested in selling; but we certainly got feedback. I had heard the exhibition attracted huge numbers of visitors.  On Friday morning I wondered where they were;  by Sunday, with the nearby markets in full swing, we had no shortage.  Some of them admittedly may have been lured in by the hope of charging their phone, using the gents, or taking a short cut to the stalls of honey and leather belts in the market beyond, but there is nothing to say that people with those needs can’t be interested in art.  Certainly the pile of post cards of my work and my business cards all disappeared, as did a glossy book showing my work. I was uncertain whether to be furious somebody pinched it, or flattered that they wanted it. Possibly the most useful part of the occasion was meeting other artists, making new contacts, swapping tips as well as having the opportunity to see how our audience reacted to the different works.

Here are some scenes from the exhibition that also puts some of our visitors in the picture. I am including some shots of the works I liked the best

“It’s interesting but is it interesting enough to pause?”


Lucy Andrews: Vestiges
Clare Thatcher looks at Namiq Ozturk’s Punch Without the Bag,
Clare Thatcher: Transitions of Place
Natalia Zazova: Black Swan  and a visitor who has already seen it
Careful – You on the right. Mind you don’t kick over Differences
Lucida Burgess: Differences (detail)
Suzi Morris: Trojan Horse
Ali Darke: Installation Detail
“You look at us – we can look at you.”
Asiya Clarke: Pareidolia
Visitors look a Calcium Wave

Being part of Artmasters

“No matter how much the art establishment doesn’t like your work, there will always be enough people who will love it and will buy it and so enable you to keep going.” These were the encouraging words from Jenny Judova who runs Art Map. She had come to talk to exhibitors at Artmasters 2015, at the Old Truman Brewery, about developing contacts and getting gallery representation. Such encouragement was necessary as watching visitors look at your art is uncomfortable.

Just think about your own behaviour on entering a new art gallery where you don’t know much about the artists. You idle about giving most of the works half a glance; occasionally you see something you love but often you don’t; you move on to the next one and then drift out of the door. We all do it; it is natural. As a visitor you feel you are behaving well if you refrain from rolling your eyes over some work you don’t like, or on reading some particularly arty bollocksy piece of prose.

If you are the artist it is completely different. You want attention; you want to say, “stop; look at mine. Tell me about it. Do you like it? Or even, if the visitor clearly doesn’t, “tell me what you don’t like about it.”

It can be nearly as disturbing if you see somebody stay and look at your work for a reasonable length of time. How uncool is it to rush across the room and ask, “what do you think?” Uncool or not, I did see one chap studying my work and wandered nonchalantly, I hoped, towards him to give a friendly ‘hello’. He moved off without saying a word.

Why put oneself through it? Well, on top of the Private View, where you are insulated from the real world by friends and family, artists at the exhibition were encouraged to stay around and meet visitors.  Last week I enjoyed talking to those who were exhibiting at the Photomasters. Getting some feedback is always useful, so in theory I was up for it.  Of course some people have been interested in my work and that has been great. But by and large I would rather not be around. So here, where I cannot see your reaction, is the piece I have on show. It is called Calcium Wave.

calcium wave (2)
Sue McDougall: Calcium Wave

This piece has two main influences; in part I have wanted to question why paintings are normally rectangular with straight edges and so have been experimenting with irregularly shaped paintings that have a sculptural element. The idea behind this specific work is that I find extraordinary that we are in essence a number of chemical reactions of which we are mostly unaware. Calcium waves occur in the brain and are thought by some neuro-scientists to enable the glial cells, which have been associated with imagination, to communicate with each other. I have depicted the waves as being partly like the sea. When I was younger I used to do a lot of caving in limestone caves which are made mainly of calcium carbonate; the waves are also reminiscent of some of the deposits you get in these caves. I hope that people looking at the piece will start thinking about their own brains and so set off their own calcium waves among the glial cells.

If you are around in Shoreditch over the next couple of days why not drop into the Artmasters Exhibition? And if you see me, do say hello.

Artmasters 2015  runs until 6pm on Sunday October 18 at the Old Truman Brewery, Ely’s Yard, 15 Hanbury Street, London E16QR.

Photomasters at the Old Truman Brewery

I have just come back from visiting the Old Truman Brewery in Shoreditch. I am exhibiting there next week in the 2015 Artmasters Exhibition and wanted to see the space I had been allocated.   It looked somehow much smaller in reality than when I had measured it out on the studio floor.  So I am currently pondering whether to plonk one work in the middle and give it plenty of room to breath and, if so, which one?  Or, should I save myself the agony of choice and go with what I had planned and put in there and risk them looking cramped. That is my dilemma for the week. Of course, I really know the right answer: I just don’t like it.

While I was there, I was able to look round the Photomasters, which is the photography equivalent of the exhibition that I am in. While the Artmasters will shows work from a selection of MA Fine Art graduates from across the country, the Photomasters brings together a selection of recent MA photography graduates.  It was coupled with a more conventional photography exhibition, but it was the MA work which I found particularly interesting.The works I liked best, whilst produced by photographic means, could all just as easily have been classified as fine art.

Hazel Davies, who studied at Kingston University produced these intriguing abstracts by taking a apart a Polaroid camera and playing about with the chemicals inside on light sensitive paper. They were then printed on aluminium to produce these strange organic effects. The work was partly a reaction to the digital revolution, Davies explained, she felt it had become ubiquitous and so  decided to experiment with taking the camera away.


It was hard to believe that they were not photographs of something, small sea creatures perhaps, under the microscope.


Nigel Tribbeck’s background was sports and fashion photography but he has just completed an MA at Brighton and has also moved towards the abstract, also experimenting with light. He is interested in how the digital camera reacts and interprets light in different situations. His striking colour pieces were achieved by photographing what you might have thought to be the dullest of subjects, florescent lighting tubes. In the finished pieces, nothing of the tubes remain just extraordinary colours.


If Davies and Tribbeck’s works have the quality of abstract paintings,  Anna Radchenko’s photographs seemed so painterly.that it was hard to believe that a camera was involved. Radchenko, who took an MA in fashion photography from the London College of Fashion, wanted to produce works to which people could relate and so specialised in these meticulously staged scenes where the tones and colours are carefully controlled but where the effect is completely surreal.  These are from her project Melancholy Rooms  and are based around the theme of mother’s love. Just look at the expressions on the faces of the mother and daughter. I liked them enormously.003


A further photographer who caught my eye was Pietro Catarinella who achieved an MA from St Martin’s College. He divides his time between Rome and London. He used a totally different technique building up images he has taken from the internet to create strange, complex, abstract collages. They are all visually pleasing but at the same time disquieting.


Photomasters is held at the Old Truman Brewery Ely Yard, 15 Hanbury Street, London E16QR and closes at 6pm on October 11; Artmasters 2015 is open for the Private View at 6pm on October 15 and runs until 6pm on Sunday October 18.

You can paint a sculpture

In my first year of the MA, a tutor at Brighton told me, “you can’t paint a sculpture.” There was quite a lot of other stuff about honesty of materials and that whereas paintings created an illusion, viewers did not grant the same freedom to sculptures; they had to be the real thing.  The tutor was absolutely right that my attempts to paint the damn thing was a failure. (I add in my defence that I knew it myself,  but believed it was not the painting per se that was the problem, rather that I had run out of time and not applied enough paint) but he was absolutely wrong about the principle. Why, the Greeks and Romans did it, and you cannot look for better credentials than that.

Such proclaimed rules always evoke in me the, usually silent and internal, response of “oh yes I can.” I had a similar reaction on being told by somebody else that the detail had to be contained by the form and spent days trying to sketch out intricate but fuzzy and indistinct outlines. I must admit that didn’t work terribly well either. But I was reminded of the prohibition against mixing painting and 3d when a few days ago I saw this wonderful sculpture by Sean Henry at the National Portrait Gallery. It is of Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the world wide web. It is rather pleasing therefore, that you can Google him, look at images and see both more pictures of the sculpture and some photographs of the man himself and so compare the two.

berners lee
Sean Henry’s portrait of Sir Tim Berners-Lee at the National Portrait Gallery

I find this work fascinating. The size is in itself unusual; it is just slightly smaller than four feet high. This gives it a curiously intimate feel. Although on a plinth, he does not tower above you and you can get close enough to study the face. But it is the painting of the bronze that makes it seem so characterful. Henry has avoided attempting to produce a super realistic finish.but has allowed the brush strokes to be visible in an impressionistic style.  This enables viewers to apply their familiarity with that form of portraiture to this work. I think this is why Berners Lee seems so alive particularly if you compare it with typical wax works which you might have expected to be more realistic – right size, life-like colouring, but which always seem so dead. The impressionistic tradition continues in the way that the brush strokes become even loose, the further they are from the face. Look at the rucksack in which Berners-Lee used to carry his laptop and the brush strokes are particularly fluid, So if you also tend toward the view that you cannot paint a sculpture, go to the National Portrait Gallery and allow yourself to be proved wrong.