In memoriam

This week over at the Tate Gallery some idiot took it into his mind to deface a Mark Rothko painting with black ink. Fortunately curators at the Tate are optimistic that the work can be restored and will suffer no lasting damage. Sometimes things cannot so easily be put right. When Tracey Emin’s famous work Everyone I Have Ever Slept With, a tent in which the eponymous names had been appliquéd, was burnt in the Momart fire in 2004, it was impossible to repair. Emin decided that it could not be recreated despite a reputed £1m offer from Charles  Saatchi.

“To recreate it would have been morally wrong. It wouldn’t have that emotional input to it,” she explained at the time. “It wasn’t simply the names of everyone I’d ever slept with. It was about intimacy.”

Julia Mitchell (Jules)

So when does a restoration become a copy and lose artistic integrity?  How much of a work has to survive to remain an original after restoration? Is it 50%? 70%? More? Less? This week Julia Mitchell, whose work is signed simply Jules, faced that decision.

Jules is in my year group at Hastings College undertaking the course in Fine Art Contemporary Practice. Last summer her study 20 Polaroid Photographs earned her a distinction and was widely recognized as one of the most outstanding works of the year. She was invited to display it in the Corridor Gallery at the college and also in Sharon Haward’s Underground Studio Exhibition Out of the Frame as part of the Brighton Photo-Fringe festival in Hastings and St Leonards.

20 Polaroid Photographs  detail

20 Polaroid Photographs was an intensely personal work which Jules created as a memorial to a close friend who died early in 2012. It comprised, as the name suggests, of twenty Polaroid photographs each one covered in paper clay and fired, creating, fragile biscuit-like objects that were both beautiful and enigmatic. Each one was different; the way that Jules had applied the clay and the firing process produced effects that were subtly intricate. Displayed in a Perspex box, on top of a plinth, they appeared, as in fact they were, precious and unique.

20 Polaroid Photographs on display in Sussex Coast College

Covering photographs with clay might seem bizarre but it was in fact a logical progression of Jules’ earlier work. In February she had been responsible for clearing her friend’s possessions and had been struck by the way that when someone dies what remains are their shoes. She created an installation that was also in her memory, covering shoes with clay to signify the way that each of us returns to the earth.

It was later in the spring when looking at photographs of her friend, Jules realized that they did not reflect her memory of the time that they were taken. “They just seemed to be a record,” she said and so she began to experiment with materials to create something that better captured the moment. The result was striking because it reminded the viewer how impossible it is for any of us truly to capture memories and so, as well as being a memorial, the work became an exploration both of the nature of memories and of photography.

Last week there was an accident, the box was knocked from its plinth and a number of the Polaroids were destroyed. They will not be showing at the Photo-Fringe and you will not be able to see them, which is a shame as they were remarkable. Jules says she cannot recreate them; she currently believes there was too much emotion bound up in them. My personal view is that enough is left for the work to remain an original even if she were to create a few more of the strange clay Polaroids to take the number back to 20. I understand why she feels she cannot do it, but I hope she changes her mind.

Gary Hume – Flashback at the Jerwood


In a former lifetime when I was a civil servant, for a short time I had a management coach. Everybody was supposed to have so many days of training a year and they were the vogue at the time. So this bloke would turn up once a fortnight  I would moan about whatever it was that was bugging me at the time and he would always say ‘what could you possibly do?’ In the end it became internalised and was actually rather useful because listing everything you might possibly do to solve a problem occasionally brings up something you haven’t thought of, or, more often, makes you realize that every option is bad and it’s a matter of choosing the least dreadful and that at least stops you beating yourself up about it.

I have thought about him several times since starting the art course at Hastings College because the Head of Course, Patrick Jones, has a way of saying  – ‘what are you trying to say?’ or simply ‘why?’ and it is becoming internalized in the same way. It not just in me but with other students as well. Saying ‘well I thought it was a good idea’ or ‘why not?’ never seems a very satisfactory answer.

Having visited the latest Jerwood Exhibition which is showing Gary Hume, I have been thinking that perhaps – ‘I just thought it was quite cool’ might be legitimate after all. Why do we demand that artists not only create art but also tell us their innermost thoughts? Why should artworks communicate something rather than just be?

Six or seven hundred years ago it is unlikely you would have asked a medieval painter  ‘why?’ – the answer would have been self-evident:  the glory of God, or because his patron had commissioned  a portrait. But at that time there would have been a consensus about what constituted art and to a certain extent the standard to which artists should aim. Now with no real consensus about what constitutes good we demand something different – originality for sure, but  also that art is created in good faith.  There is something of a collective fear among non art aficionados  and collectors alike that when art can comprise a dead shark or the cast  of  a urine stream, that were it not created in good faith, we would be taken for fools.  Artist statements and the blurb that artists write about their work is all evidence that the art is, so as to speak, the genuine article.

Bird with a pink beak

Refreshingly, this is a game which Gary Hume refuses to play. “My paintings do not mean that or this. They don’t mean anything.”  He does not pander to our insecurities.  His pictures are what they are. Hume was one of the Young British Artists and exhibited  at the Freeze exhibition. His early success was of doors painted in gloss paint. His doors are doors – not gateways, not symbols but doors.  But the gloss is important – gloss paint reflects light. It is also utilitarian; it is not painterly. All his work glimmers; the Jerwood, with its wonderful natural light, shows them to advantage.

Four feet in the garden

In the  exhibition at the Jerwood there was a painting I particularly liked – Four Feet in the Garden. Though there seemed to be eight, it is still a painting of feet. But if there is no message, it remains an extraordinarily clever work.

At first you do not see the feet at all but the black space between the feet. Why called four feet if there are eight– have the feet moved? Then there is bird with a pink beak – that is what it is – it is complete in its birdiness. It is nothing else. But it easily passes the “I want one test.”

In a  fascinating video Hume  describes his technique in constructing his work. Often the images are found in books or other paintings or digital images. He spots a small part that he believes will make a picture. That is how he describes himself, as a picture maker. He explains how he found a sense of liberation in the realisation that after the work on the doors “I was unable to come up with a second signature piece; I had to accept the embarrassment of my intellectual failure. Embarrassment was what I was painting.”

American Tan

His sculptures show a similar simplicity. In the exhibition there is one of his snowmen ; they are quite extraordinarily tactile. The video showed larger examples; people were drawn to to them and and ran their hands over them. You long to do the same. They are featureless; each of them portrays not the front of a snowman but as it would appear from the back but there is a completeness which is deeply satisfying.  It would be nice to stroke the one in the Jerwood but Myles Calvert is there; he tells me he how he  had to struggle to prevent one woman touching it; I decide not to cause trouble but we both try blowing on American Tan; it faintly quivers.

Along one wall is a splendid painting comprising four panels; there is no explanation of what it is about. There are hands undoubtedly and possibly, or possibly not, snowflakes. In view of the snowmen, I’m pretty sure they are snowflakes but  you know it doesn’t matter.

Four panels and a snowman


Sussex Coast College Foundation Degree Show

What is the different between fine art and craft? The dividing line seemed virtually invisible at the Foundation Degree show in Fine Art Contemporary Practice and in Craft at Sussex Coast College. Traditionally craft has been applied to the creation of objects which may have utilitarian function or be decorative, which are hand produced and where the creation requires a learnt skill which adheres to certain standards, whilst the term art is applied to works which have a meaning, which express emotion and which communicates with viewers. There is supposed to be a difference in the way the objects are created; craft is more structured; art is more open-ended. As I looked round exhibition I found myself checking labels to see whether works were produced by Craft students or by Fine Artists.  There were some surprises: that is the way it should be. Here are a few of the works:

I particularly liked Gilles Buxton’s heads – somewhat eerily mounted on sticks as though severed from their bodies and acting as a warning to potential transgressors.

Robert Dennis’ work focuses upon the textures of the natural world, displayed through castings, rubbings and film. Both Dennis and Buxton were undertaking the FDA in craft.

The 100 lucky golden bears by Lyn Dale on the other hand were from the art side. I must admit to a partiality to the bears having found one.They were hidden about the college and the finders were invited to write in with their comments.

They are supposed to bring the holders luck and who knows perhaps they will. The 100th bear was splendidly presented gleaming under a glass box on a black plinth. The comments of the finders were displayed on a nearby screen and some can also be seen on the lucky bear website. My bear at least for the time being is sitting on the nose of the stuffed alligator on the mantlepiece. Here to prove it is a picture.

Two contrasting films caught my eye.  Deborah Ward’s Voices in Trauma shows a woman on two screens; in each case she appears gagged by something which we can’t quite identify – an insect perhaps; it juts out of her mouth; it is both fascinating and disturbing

Also exploring the idea of being trapped but in a very different way was Shammi Begum’s film about child brides. A figures moves inside what could be a bridal gown or perhaps a shroud and she cannot escape.

Film was part of Frith Lawson-Johnson ‘s A Marriage of Waves.  Wires have been stretched between two groynes; they mimic the pattern of her brain waves as revealed on an EEG scan. Lawson-Johnson suffers from epilepsy and the wires appear to oscillate alarmingly though how different they are from the brain waves of those who do not  have epileptic episodes I could not judge.  On the film we see the sea come in and engulf them. Lawson Johnson explains that in a world that has become so fast paced we have forgotten the forces around us that affect the way we think and act. By connecting her brain waves to the sea she is connecting with the power that nature has on us and is redressing the balance.


Wave meets wave

On your marks

My name is Sue McDougall; I am a mature student at Brighton University taking a foundation degree in Fine Art Contemporary Practice. The course itself is held at Sussex Coast College. Mature students are defined as all those over 21. If students were classified like cheese I reckon that would see me as level 6: extra mature, or possibly 5 on a good day. This site will mainly be about contemporary art, photography, exhibitions, artists and the projects I am working on. You might find you get mentioned too.