Don’t step backwards

I have been suffering from flashbacks ever since my visit  a couple of days ago to the Project 78 Gallery in St Leonard’s on Sea. The gallery was set up by Patrick Jones who heads the Contemporary Fine Art Course at Sussex Coast College. He sets out to show works of a standard and originality that you would normally only find in a London gallery. But it was not the art that has been giving me the flashbacks, though it was good,  but the fact that I nearly,  inadvertently, destroyed it.

I am not normally particularly clumsy in galleries; I associate that with my husband who, a few years back, managed to trip over a little pile of stones which unaccountably had got into the final of the Jerwood Drawing Prize. He did it not once, but twice.  In his defence, if you put a little pile of stones in the middle of a wall-based exhibition, you have to expect somebody will trip over it, though you might hope that having done it once, he or she would not do it again.

But Neil Ayling’s exhibition, Facet, was exemplarily displayed; no trip hazards at all.  Ayling’s work is inspired by the details of architecture that are so easy to overlook. His works involve photography but are, nonetheless, three dimensional. Imagine you had a photographic image on paper and then folded it into origami type forms or cut it up and and repositioned the pieces. His sculptures work like that, only they are made not from paper but from a variety of materials: bronze, plywood and concrete.  I was just trying to photograph the work below which is cast in bronze but is still reminiscent of folded paper, when I stepped backwards to get a better shot.


Ayling 002
Neil Ayling: Facet

My shoulder just nudged the piece behind me, which was made of plywood. To my horror, it detached itself from the wall. Amazingly and fortunately it did not go crashing to the ground; my reflexes are apparently in pretty good shape because I managed a rapid half twist and was left supporting it with my shoulder until help arrived and we put it back.

Ayling 006

Regular readers of this blog will know my lack of sympathy with the photo police you find in many galleries and that I have often been guilty of trying to sneak a shot from under their noses. On this occasion, my photography was fortunately authorised.  That has not prevented my imaginings of an alternative universe, in which I see Ayling’s work splintered and wrecked.

I am so glad that it did not happen like that because apart from the appalling embarrassment that would have ensued,  it is an interesting piece.  Even having been there and seen it and taken the photograph, I still can’t quite see how he achieves the effect of this composite image of the capitals of a classic column from plywood.

Ayling’s apparently attributes his multi faceted take on architecture  to his youthful love of skateboarding. As he sped, twisting and turning along pavements, he would view his surroundings in a series of short bursts, when details, often at unexpected angles, would come briefly into focus, blur and then change to the next sharp snapshot. As an adult, he has continued to walk through the city searching out those angles.

Ayling 005

In the plywood work, the capitals of the columns are clear enough but with other pieces, such as this work in concrete and polystyrene, you feel you are close to identifying just what it is, but can’t quite put your finger on it. I want to go back and have another look. Next time I will be careful not to step backwards.

Facet runs until 5 December at Project 78 Gallery in Norman Road, St Leonard’s on Sea, TN38 OEJ. The gallery is open from Thursday to Saturday between 12.00 – 17.00 or by appointment Monday – Wednesday.

Winning the Hackney Road Sculpture Prize

Of course, winning anything is nice but it is particularly pleasing when you know  that your fellow contestants were good.  So I was totally thrilled to learn this week that I had won the Hackney Road Sculpture Prize. On Thursday the three short-listed candidates, of which I was one, were brought together at the art charity Eastside Educational Trust, to hear the results,  meet the judges, Robert Suss, Simon de Friend and Chris Enticott as well as the Speaker of Hackney, Sade Etti. It was also a chance for us all to see each other’s work. It must have been a very hard decision for the judges; I thought Sam Neal’s design, Sedulus, and Katie Surridge’s Seeing Tree were both excellent.

pcitures autumn 2015 349
I show my design to Hackney Speaker, Sade Etti

It was Eastside that organised the competition for Regal Homes which is undertaking the redevelopment of the area in a project which will create 1,000 new local jobs and 200 new local homes as well as workshop spaces. The process started back June when artists were asked to offer a submission for a new and unique sculpture to be included in the regeneration plans.

The brief explained that the winning sculpture would be placed at the heart of the new development and would have the potential to become a future local landmark. It was to be no more than two metres high and have a footprint with no dimension greater than 1.5 metres and it should be on the theme of regeneration.

Approaching this challenge, I spent a lot of time thinking about regeneration, what it meant and what made it successful and I came up with three themes:

  • That it needed to involve the whole community
  • That it didn’t just happen at one point in time; it was a continuing process that could be likened to a living thing; and
  • That it linked the past with the future.

As the rules allowed you to put in three entries, I decided to create  designs round these themes. The community theme involved casts of hands of local residents; I designed a kind of plant cum flame thing in coloured ironwork but the design I liked the best of my three, and which the judges chose, was Regeneration takes the Past into the Future. It comprises 70 acrylic rods of different lengths set on a mirrored surface.  I have never thought drawing was my strong suit so I was particularly pleased that the judges could visualise the idea from the sketch which I did, shown below.

rods cropped image
Sue McDougall: Regeneration Takes the Past into the Future

I believe it will be striking. I like acrylic as a material.  It is basically the same stuff from which shop fronts are often made.   It’s tough and weatherproof. It can even be used for water features.  Acrylic rods can be clear like glass, translucent or opaque.  They can be coloured with varying degrees of transparency.  I am using  clear, blue, red and purple coloured transparent rods. I have had samples knocking round the place at home; I love the way they catch the light,  pick up reflections from their surroundings and glow in the sunshine. Putting the rods on a mirrored surface will give the impression that they not only reach up to the future but also come out of the ground, representing the past. The way they are arranged also resembles something living a reed-bed perhaps or a thicket, signifying the continuing and developing nature of regeneration.

acrylic rod samples
Acrylic rod samples

rods clear

While I was delighted to win the cash prize, the real prize for me is that the work will be made. This is something I could never have done speculatively. The materials would have been too expensive; the finished work, which will make full use of the allowed dimensions, would have been too large and putting them together requires chemical welding so it’s not a job for the studio; I will use a specialist fabricator. It will be some time before the sculpture can be put in place; a lot has to happen; Regal Homes has to get planning permission, and the development has to be built. But I will be working with Eastwood and Regal Homes over the next year to ensure that my contribution is as good as it possibly can be. I am greatly looking forward to it and I very much hope the new residents will like the finished result.



Moved by Alexander Calder

Back in the summer of 2014 I admired an installation at the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Nice, by Belgian Artist Arnie Quinze, a Tribute to Alexander Calder. In one way the work did not seem particularly about Calder at all. After all, it was Calder who invented the mobile; the work in Nice was static. But having just visited the Calder exhibition at Tate Modern, I believe I can see the connection.

Calder was born in 1898 in Pennsylvania;  his parents were both artists but knowing the insecurity that this can bring, they encouraged him to  train as a mechanical engineer. So, his artistic career did not really start until his mid twenties. The Tate exhibition concentrates on the early works and mobiles, many of which have not been on public display  for decades.  The result is both playful and joyous. Just what anybody needs to help counteract a week of grim news. Until now, my knowledge of Calder had been almost entirely through photographs. That is no way to see any sculpture but particularly not sculptures such as these where the relationship with the surrounding space is so important.

Before going, I would have expected the defining feature of Calder’s work to be in the movement, as the name mobile suggests. This expectation was heightened  by the title of the Exhibition – Performing Sculptures. The movement is of course there; very gently, at times almost imperceptibly, the different elements sway and twist in the air currents. For me, it was not the movement which I found so arresting, though of course it was important, but the shadows. As I walked round the exhibition, I found myself concentrating on the shadows on the wall, rather than the solid and coloured hanging shapes that made them. In some cases the shadows somehow seem more convincing that the real thing; a piece of twisted wire becomes a man’s head.

I suspect this may have been what fascinated Quinze as well, for it was the shadows and reflections of his soaring wood constructions that I found so interesting in Nice. Of course with shadows, the creative achievement is shared in a small part by whoever sets up the lighting. The works will inevitably behave differently in the gallery than in Calder’s studio. But the Tate has done a splendid job.  In some cases, the shadows were sharply defined. In others they appeared absent until you noticed that they were falling on the floor rather than the wall. In others the positioning of the lights allowed some, but not all, parts of the sculpture to cast a shadow, so that what you saw on the wall and the metal and wire reality appeared as two different works in dialogue.

Unfortunately the shadows do not appear in the available photographs – perhaps it is the flash photography that eliminates them. The day I went, the photo police appeared particularly diligent so frustratingly I cannot show you examples. To see what I mean you will need to visit.

Black Widowsmall
Alexander Calder:Black Widow 1948

For me one of the tests of a good art exhibition is whether it has the ability to make you perceive things differently. As well as being cheering, the Tate exhibition meets that criterion.  In his later works Calder moved from the geometric to more organic forms. Sitting here as I write this, I can see the shadow of a tree on the wall opposite, though not the tree itself. The unseen tree must be moving. I look at it and think of Calder looking at something similar.

Fourteen things I have learnt from cleaning the studio

Back when I was doing my MA, I promised myself that when I finished, I would really clean the studio. It’s not that over the past two and a half years I never tidied it up – just not very much.

papier 010
The studio in June
tubes 004
Wax is waxy

Then I was away for the summer and over the past ten days I have been really trying to get to grips with it, These are some of things I have learnt.

  1. Gravity applies to paint. This means that paint that starts as interesting runnels on a canvas ends up on the floor. It also end up on the tops of shoes.
  2. There is little point in deciding that paint topped shoes will henceforth be painting-shoes; changing shoes before painting seems unnecessary when you start: that is why in the cupboard downstairs there are lots of shoes with paint on them; that is why in the corner of the studio there are  pairs of trainers  which were meant to be painting-shoes
  3. Paint, like dog poo, is attracted to the bottom of shoes; that is why there are little patches of. paint across the floor and down the attic stairs.
  4. Paradoxically, paint can also defy the powers of gravity and can travel horizontally and even vertically; that is why there is paint on the walls.
  5. Glue, resin, insulating foam, varnish and wax all have the same travelling properties as paint, only more so.
  6. Newspaper and tissue paper are among the inanimate object that appear to have a desire to be art; in their case they would like to be a collage on the floor; that is why they take every opportunity to become attached to any paint, glue, resin, wax, insulating foam etc that they can find.
  7. Paint brushes do not improve for soaking for six months particularly if the water or white spirit has evaporated. Maybe they just need longer.
  8. Three tins of red gloss paint is plenty.
  9. Ditto six drawing pads.
  10. Mouldy mugs also have artistic ambitions:   “in their performance, ‘five coffee mugs and half a cheese sandwich’, the six artists allude to the futility of life, yet, at the same time, point to the restorative power of nature.”
  11.  If you find a the top of a paint tube it never matches any of the tubes without tops.
  12. A brush wrapped in clingfoil does not stay usable forever.
  13. You do not find more things after tidying the studio: just different things.
  14. A tidy studio is like a blank sheet of paper – it is difficult to get started on anything; that is why it is not worth getting it completely tidy

One thing I have yet to learn:

whether  you can tip brush restorer down the sink. The label on the bottle says ‘do not put it in plastic containers’: presumably it dissolves them.The waste pipes are plastic and I have visions of painty brush restorer cascading through the house a bit like the acid in the bath scene in Breaking Bad.

Oh well, maybe it will do the brushes some good to stay soaking for a few more months!

A few more months should do it
Not perfect but better

On the respectability of materials

Google glow-in-the-dark art and you find that most of the works are aimed at kids: stars on the ceiling, grinning skulls that kind of thing, or they can be categorised as novelty paintings, featuring something like the Aurora Borealis or a waterfall that would not have looked out-of-place in a Chinese restaurant circa 1980. Jules Ward, who has a BA in Graphic Design from Liverpool University, has taken fluorescent paint and used this somewhat unpromising material for intricate works that are inspired by the aboriginal paintings she saw on a visit to Australia. In daylight, the patterns have a rhythmic and meditative quality but in the dark, under a black light, which emits ultraviolet, their character changes and they glow and become three-dimensional.

Finding them in a little pop-up gallery in Charlotte Road in Shoreditch, I was both drawn to them, and at the same time found myself wondering if glow-in-the-dark was quite respectable. I was surprised by my reaction. Abject materials, such as industrial dirt, rags and cardboard have become mainstream due to the Arte Povera movement, but should the serious artist use materials which are just a bit naff? I have a similar dilemma; I like working with aerosol insulating foam; I take a delight in watching the stuff grow and bobble up but I also have reservations about it and so, judging from their reaction, do some viewers, “is that insulating foam?” said in a Lady Bracknell type voice leaves you in no doubt that it is also considered not quite respectable, a material that should have been abandoned after Foundation Level.

Of course reason insists that all materials are in fact neutral and it is what you do with them that matters, but we all have our prejudices. I only came round to the possibilities of cardboard after seeing Michelangelo Pistoletto’s Labyrinth at Cent Quatre in Paris.

Looking at Ward’s work, the adult in me much preferred her sombre, intricate, black and white works such as Mindplay Lisa, though I believe these glow as well under black light.

Jules Ward: Mindplay Lisa

But downstairs in the gallery where it was dark, the inner child was delighted by the green glowing swirls of Mindplay Dream On.

Jules Ward: Mindplay, Dream On

I reflected that, unlike aerosol insulating foam which can never be disguised, the beauty of this kind of painting is that if you owned one and had a Lady Bracknell coming to tea, you could always turn off the ultraviolet light and she would never know that your taste was less than perfectly respectable.