Summer resort

‘People say that it is the real world, but it is only a surface of equilibrium and the place where the lowest points of I know not what corporal and spiritual system are found. The roses in the carpet spring to life again, and things, setting aside the things which they were, become again specialised beings adorned with substantives: piano, armchairs, persons speaking …’
— Simone Weil

Our studies are about to resume again in October.
It’s likely, if unfortunate, that we will be looking, more than ever before, at art on our screens. I thought it an opportune time for a reminder … things are not all the same.

A flower, and a photograph of a flower, are different from each other and from a drawing of a flower, and from the photograph of a drawing that has a flower as a motif — although they may have things in common.

Any drawing (art object) will be an object of scale and material. It will have physical properties, some of which may be unique to it; not least, possibly, its colour.
If a drawing is on exhibition there will usually be other work on either side of it, or objects in the space obstructing our view of it; sometimes influencing how we see and understand the object of our attention.
Unless otherwise designed the drawing will be experienced by the whole body, not just the eyes.
None of this will occur before the picture on a screen, in there, the drawing has been usurped by another that looks like the original, but which is missing many, or in some cases, most of its fundamental properties.
In other instances the pictures relationship to the original is scant at best. The drawing has been intentionally ‘enhanced’ … for the arid shoreline of a Pinterest mood-board or Facebook update … veracity, always, among the first of the casualties.
And I think we should remember this—our absence from the material world of the object; from time and place; from environment; from context—when we consider our responses to photographs of the drawing; form opinions about photographs of it, and shape our critique of photographs of it. The photograph is not the drawing. (1)

In early March just before Scotland went into lockdown I visited my step-daughter in Aberdeen where she studies at the University, and where, some forty years ago I studied at Gray’s School of Art. We were, on this occasion, able to visit the newly opened Aberdeen Art Gallery. (The gallery has been closed for the past three years for complete refurbishment.)
I was excited at the thought of being able to see works from the permanent collection again, works I had become familiar with as a student, and two in particular:
‘Seated Girl Holding Sewing,’ by Gwen John and a painting by Paul Nash, ‘Woods On The Down’.
Both were in an upstairs room. The John painting on the right, and the Nash on the left as I walked into the space. I went toward the John painting first. Almost forty years had passed since I’d last set eyes on it and it had lost none of its serene and calm beauty.
It was exactly as I recalled it.
And a near forty year old bridge of time—between the anonymous young model in the painting and my younger self who was then perhaps not much older—collapsed; my chest tightened with an unexpected wave of emotion and forty years of living washed me through me in an instant.
The Nash painting by contrast—a painting alongside many others by Nash that I have looked at and studied over the years—surprised me in a way that I couldn’t have expected. It was a much larger painting than I had remembered. Significantly larger. Four or five times larger. So different in fact from my memory of it that it was like seeing the painting for the first time.
Would such moments ever happen with a picture on a laptop screen? I suspect not. So where does this leave us?

I recall writing a essay a number of years ago (for COIL magazine) about a painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, ‘The Hunters in the Snow’. It’s in the collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria. At the time I was interested in it’s multiple ‘appearances’ seemingly everywhere—on postcards, in newspapers, on mirrors, and most significantly, in Andrei Tarkovsky’s film ‘Solaris’. Vadim Yusov’s film camera moves inside and through the painting making the black birds in the trees fly; brings it to a different life; directs time in a way that a painting is unable to do.
It’s fair to say that ‘I love’ the painting, and I know a great deal about it … but, I have never seen it. I have never been to Vienna. I have looked at photographs of the painting but I have never repeatedly sat with it in the gallery, quietly, studying, watching it. I have never devoted time to it as one would to a loved one; sitting with them, listening to them, watching over them … hour after hour on many different days, and different weathers.

It’s a conundrum, and one that I think can only be solved by our imagination, but for this to be possible we need to be thinking about it as we study this or that work for our studio projects.

The Gwen John painting, would in time, present a further issue.

Summer Resort (after Sergey Kozhemyakin) (2)
Watercolour, blue lead pencil and gold ink on 640 gsm. Saunders Waterford watercolour paper | 38 x 28 cms.

Many institutions now have an online gallery, or viewing room, where one can go and see art works—in ways that are seldom possible before the object itself, and frequently in ways that artists themselves would have been unable to experience in their own work at the time of making.

On the 12th of May this year the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam published what they claim to be the most detailed ever photograph of Rembrandt’s, ‘The Night Watch’. (3)

‘The Night Watch is currently being photographed in daylight. First, separate photos are taken, which are subsequently digitally assembled to form a single image. In total the robot will take more than 8400 photos at an extremely high resolution of 5 microme-tres, or five thousandths of a millimetre … Never before has such a large painting been photographed at such high resolution. In this way, features that cannot be seen with the naked eye, such as individual pigment particles, are made visible.’

On Google Arts & Culture one can ‘zoom in’ (yes, that word again) and see Albrecht Dürer’s studio window reflected in the eye of a ’Hase,’ a young hare. Prophetically perhaps, Dürer’s image, rendered in watercolour and gouache in 1502, came to be regarded as the high watermark of accuracy at the time.

Now we see things—and make things—that our eyes alone are not capable of seeing. Our vision is technologically dependent, while both the technology itself (the phones, camera’s, cars, ear buds …) and our perceptions of the world are relentlessly fetishised.

The technology that the Rijksmuseum is currently using is being used selectively—it is not by accident that it is a Rembrandt painting that is being subjected to this level of granular scrutiny and exposition. (4) Will this change? Hard to say. Technology tends to trickle down but only if there is money to be made in it doing so. Or in this case, perhaps some aesthetic reason beyond the mere gimmick. While other benefits from such  innovation may be felt as the technology is picked up or migrates into other fields of knowledge—medicine for example.

But it raises I think many questions about our relationship to works of art, particularly if you believe as I do, that we need to be more innocent in our response to works of serious culture, and less interested per se in the technology of detail; more interested in talking and writing about how we feel about, and feel for, those things that we’re being attentive of.

I said earlier that the John painting raised another issue—one that in the course of writing this I see is more relevant that I’d realised at the time.

Try and find online (or in a book) a reproduction of the John painting which might be deemed as satisfactory (we won’t concern ourselves with for what purpose just now), and keeping things simple, let’s just say in formal terms of the tonality and colour of the painting.

You will be disappointed, none (to my knowledge) exist—and I have looked; approximations yes, but these are so far from the reality of the painting itself to be of little value beyond simple illustration in a text, and would, even then run dangerously close to misrepresenting the painting where it to be seen without qualifying comments.

The John painting as we see it in Aberdeen Art gallery is protected behind glass. This ensures that we are self-conscious in our looking; we are reflected back to ourselves as we look at the anonymous model in the painting; we are simultaneously outwith (her) and beside others who stand or walk behind us. We are aware of the architecture of the room, the smell of floor polish, and in this case, the smell of fresh wallpaint—The painting is a much wider reflection on human experience than John’s could have perhaps ever intended.

These ideas about the relationship between the photograph and the art work are not knew.

In an era where images are always ‘in the present,’ always emerging, always in the realm of forming, becoming, always, obstinately rooted to potentiality, they—perfectly neatly for some—circumvent critique, and remain morally and politically ambivalent. If something is unfinished or incomplete, or always on it’s way to a destination that never arrives then it is almost impossible to say whether it is good or bad because it will always be met with the rejoinder of ‘well, it’s not finished yet.’

Both the photograph of the flower and the photograph of the drawing of a flower are things that we experience at a remove, on the glass screens of technology where we have learnt to ignore our own reflection. (I nearly wrote ‘our’ technology but nothing could be further from the truth than this—we own nothing.)
Are we content to look from a distance always … some of the time … on occasion … seldom …?
And what of the making—and the destination—of our own work?

(1) Where ‘value’ is decided upon, discovered, given or placed—whether with the thing made, the original material if you like, or with the online simulacra—is in the end an individual choice. I’m not setting out a moral argument here. I believe however that unless an artist makes something specifically for reception or distribution through a screen then we ought to be going out of our way to get as close to the ‘real’ work—and I mean ‘close’ in the widest sense possible using all the tools of scholarship at our disposal—as we can, never forgetting however that the work itself is somewhere else, all but absent from us.
(2) Sergey Kozhemyakin’s photograph, ‘Presence,’ 1989–1992. ‘A man in a military uniform poses for the camera. He stands in a corner of an open terrace located somewhere high in the mountains. One of the man’s hands firmly holds the terrace’s railing; the other rests casually on his waist. Slightly off-centre, the vertical of the officer’s body is counterbalanced by the horizontal rows of bars. Far below, a sea merges with the sky. The portrait would have been a typical memento from a summer resort, except for one crucial detail: The officer has no head, for the figure is cropped tight across the shoulders. Despite this violent erasure of the subject, the photograph is disturbingly serene, and the officer, though headless, exudes confidence and even a sense of control.’
Serguei Alex, Oushakine. Presence Without Identification: Vicarious Photography and Postcolonial Figuration in Belarus. In ‘October’ NO. 164, Spring 2018 p.49-88
‘This article explores photographic works produced by key members of the Minsk School of Photography before and after the collapse of the USSR in the 1980s and 1990s. Mostly reworking found images from the Soviet past, these artists employed the visual language of that period to disassociate themselves from Soviet practices of photographic recording. Appropriating conventions of the portrait genre, the Minsk photographers used them to create a stream of obfuscated representations in which individuals are presented devoid of their originary contexts, biographies, and, frequently, faces. Through their de-facing tactics, these photographers visualized forms of indirect postcolonial presence. Erasing subjectivity and abstracting imprints of lived experience, their vicarious photography articulates a model of dealing with history that allows presence without identity or identification.’
(4) ’Student artists exhibit their final shows online – in pictures’
On the subject of selectivity is it worth noting that in a recent Guardian newspaper piece about student online degree shows:
‘Most universities and colleges have cancelled or postponed this year’s final degree shows as a result of Covid-19, to the frustration of art students who have worked toward them for years. Many have turned to virtual exhibitions instead. Here’s a selection of their work.’
It’s tagged: ‘Students, Higher Education, Art (Education), Arts, Painting, Art (Art & Design)’
all the work selected for inclusion is painting of one sort or another! There’s no design work, no sculpture, no installation art, photography, film or video, no animation, performance art documentation …
other Journalism
‘The future of the arts: The world is coming into visual art on a human scale’ by Laura Cumming
‘Looking for Texture in Online Viewing Rooms’ by Kyle Chayka

‘finished work’ — The Haloes

The Haloes, 2020
Fountain pen ink, pencil and coloured pencil on 300gsm Aquarelle Arches paper
(each) 19 x 28.5 cm
The drawing began with twelve ‘observations’ of a single tulip flower; the only one to grow in my garden. These ‘events’ were carried out on three non-consecutive days. You can see an example at the end of the piece ‘working drawings’.

‘Tell Sal I’ve no more time for flowers’
From a letter Piet Mondrian sent to a friend in 1930. I’ve lost the details of the reference which I noted from a library book and which I’ve been unable to track down in any online archive (The library is still closed because of ‘lockdown’.) It’s possibly from a letter written to Theo Van Doesburg …
’Sal’ is Sal Slijper, Mondrian’s long-time friend, collector and sometime dealer in Holland. It struck me when I came across this that even at the height of the avant garde ‘moment’ of Neo Plasticism, Mondrian—a ‘typical painting’ of his at this time would be Komposition mit Rot, Blau und Gelb—was still painting watercolours of flowers for his friend to sell back home.
‘The root of the matter is not in the matter itself’
is a line in a poem, The Root of the Matter, by Miroslav Holub
Translated from the Czechoslovakian by Ian Milner. ’Selected Poems’ (Penguin, 1967)
Letraset—Are you going on holiday?
The bleating of lambs arched a roof over their heads
Transfiguration II
is the title of a performance art work by the Polish artist Jerzy Beres.
The beautiful fields. The sun affectionately lights fires in their eyes. The top of the sky is warm. And it is empty of stars. Evening descends breathlessly
‘Evening descends breathlessly’
is the opening line of a poem, Cruz Alta, by Philippe Soupault
Translated from the French by Nick Moudry. ’Calque’ issue one January 2007

‘working drawings’

It’s the 26th of March. I walk into fields that have been turned. This marks the beginning.
The rag too caught my eye but unlike the immature fish that the angler returns to the river the rag will keep my eye.

It was hard at the beginning, still is …
reading the news … remembering to breathe … watching ‘at the end of the world’ as people compulsively fouled the nest. And just in case we thought that there was only one story abroad our shiny bits of not-so-smart glass (our mirrors) continue to show us that things for project-humanity are only getting worse … We exist (let’s call it that for now) in a time of constant emergence, but we seem to go nowhere.

I left my place of work at the University on a Tuesday afternoon near the end of March and I’ve been at home on my own, until recently, when the Scottish Government implemented Phase 1 of the easing of restrictions.
I’ve got to know the postman a bit better, a number of the courier drivers too, and I’ve spoken more frequently with those few neighbours whose paths I occasionally cross … I’ve frequently found the sheer volume of messaging-correspondence at times overwhelming.

Living always—on the crest of the present—is precarious, exhausting and, more often than not at the moment, frightening. And in isolation—is the prefix ‘self’ needed?—it is hard to establish any sense of proportion as life oscillates, or more accurately jump-cuts between global catastrophe and the quiet granular days of one’s own solitude.
We usually have some say over our way of living—if we are fortunate to live in a democracy—and I choose to make and study and teach art. But what of the intellect, what of culture at this time?

The idea of the ‘public intellectual’ is not one that flourished in Britain in the way that it did in other European countries after the First World war. Why not? The answer can be found in our education system, devolved or otherwise.
When you deal with words, with numbers, with pictures, with ideas, you are often dealing with dangerous stuff … it matters. Intellect matters; curiosity matters; knowledge matters. Culture, when it is (morally) serious is first and foremost an expression of human dignity.
John Berger was an exception. His essay’s … on art, on drawing … are never far from me. When I was making the things that you can see here I frequently asked myself the following questions: ‘What is this for?’ Is it a finished work? Who is it for? Is it a study for a fabric design; a ‘sketch’ for a tapestry or stained glass window; an illustration to a poem or a book jacket; is it an ‘instruction’ for a performance; is it to be ‘scaled up’ into a painting, or presented outdoors on a billboard …?

It was hard at the beginning, to understand … but they are not finished works, or things to be used for other reasons.
They are ‘working drawings,’ as Berger would understand the term. Drawings which are an autobiographical discovery of an event, of a thing—as opposed to a ‘finished work’ which would be an attempt to construct such an event in itself.
The drawings you see here are records of events, more akin to a journal or diary; drawings that contain within them in however an elusive state, the things I’ve been looking at, hearing, thinking, reading, listening to … while I was making them.

What is Drawing? | project reference and my notes

‘It’s not something we’re usually given to think about: What is it to draw? To make a drawing? To draw some thing, and to do so in some place. John Berger, in an essay in ‘Bento’s Sketchbook’ wrote: ‘We who draw do so not only to make something observed visible to others, but also to accompany something invisible to its incalculable destination.’ What do you think he meant?

The aim of this project is to encourage you to reflect on your current understanding and experience of drawing and to reconsider what drawing might be, as an activity in its own right, as well as what it might be used for.’

‘By starting out from one of the examples listed below we would like you to study and make a drawing from your discoveries.’—from the Project Brief: Albrecht Dürer, The Large Turf (1503); watercolour with body colour on paper | George Seurat, Femmes Avec Deux Filletes (1882-84); conté on paper | Piet Mondrian, Blossoming Apple Tree (1912); oil on canvas | Edvard Munch, Cabbage Field (1915); oil on canvas | Emma Kunz, Work no. 020 (1939); pencil, crayon and oil colour on paper | Mel Bochner, Wrap: Portrait of Eva Hesse (1966); pen & ink on graph paper | Ray Johnson, Nothing (1927-1995) | Mike Parr, 12 Untitled Self Portraits (1990); drypoint on paper | Janine Antoni, Butterfly Kisses (1996-99); Cover Girl Thick Lash mascara on paper | Alison Watt, Phantom (2008); oil on canvas | Joyce Cairns, Conversations with a Kestrel (2018); oil on board

Untitled|five eighteen – Vine black

BASP UK – Outdoor Emergency First Aid

As a boy he would sit on the carpet with his back against his bed and listen, with his eyes closed, to the singing birds.

Highland, to plant limes beside the spring, to purify and sweeten the water.
Shaun Prescott, The Town (Brow Books, 2017)

The world, as wide as your sides, but masked by fashion and comfort.
‘Twice five, twice five, twice five …’
Vine black – rushlight.
Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Ivan the Terrible and Ivan the Fool. Translated by Daniel Weissbort (Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1979)

Untitled|four eighteen – The silence of a plane going through a fir tree contains everything within itself.

‘If I look at a cup I can name it, I can describe its design. I may be able to guess its value or describe its particular use. This is the everyday shorthand by which I orientate myself and make sense of the world around me.’

‘… In another vein of thought I may look at a cup and think of breakfast – a kind of first order association by which I logically connect a cup with a process or event of which a cup is a part.’

‘The most beautiful part / of your body is wherever / your mother’s shadow falls.’ (O.V.)

A wavy line of geese on the cool surface of the sky, like drops of water on black.
Donald Judd Writings (Judd Foundation & David Zwirner Books 2016)
Frost light on the slates of the helpless barn.
One day the patterned rug will go on without.

‘ … Things.
When I say that word (do you hear?), there is a silence; the silence which surrounds things. All movement subsides and becomes contour, and out of past and future time something permanent is formed: space, the great calm of objects which know no urge.’ (R.M.R.)

That life, perhaps, is no more than preparation for the hour suddenly stilled.
Talking to myself … the cherry tree’s going to blossom soon …

‘… Lastly I may look and see mainly a white curving shape. It might remind me of a bath or a seagull. I suspend my habits of vision – I let the object settle in my mind as an object and allow images to well up around it.’

It Never Touches The Ground | I left a cup under our sky / overnight to measure how much / it rained in my dream, with you.

The cup shifted on its saucer – by the nothingness of a bird – helpless.
Perfect day – Scotland, rain, ozone.

Untitled|four seventeen

‘And now she cleans her teeth into the lake …’ (William Empson)

‘The events of my life would fill more than a novel. It would take an epic, the Iliad and the Odyssey, and a Homer to tell my story … I won’t recount it today, I don’t want to sadden you. I have fallen into an abyss. I live in a world so curious, so strange.  Of the dream that was my life, this is the nightmare.’ (Camille Claudel to Eugène Blot| Montdevergues Asylum)

‘Camille Claudel: A Life,’ Odile Ayral-Clause—A life, romanticised in print and in film; this work of scholarship dispels some of the myths that have been woven around Claudel’s life, not least around her relationship with Auguste Rodin; it offers a more considered picture of her achievements as a major sculptor in the Paris art world of the late-nineteenth-century.

A morning in spring, 1895’| 2017

At night he dreamt| the smell of apples heaped on barges floating down the river| rough studies sleeping under some cloth.

‘He was unwrapped by her breathing; by the rise and fall of her eyelids.’ (Eugène Blot)

‘Conscious of sleep a moment, and stars, turned over, once in the night.’| 2017

Littlemill, Fortnightly, Ardlach, Coulmony, Ferness …| Flo – requiescat

Bento’s Sketchbook

We sense and experience that we are eternal. For the mind no less senses those things which it conceives in understanding than those which it has in memory. For the eyes of the mind by which it sees things and observes them are proofs. So although we do not remember that we existed before the body, we sense nevertheless that our mind in so far as it involves the essence of the body under a species of eternity is eternal and its existence cannot be defined by time or explained by duration. (Spinoza, Ethics, Part V, Proposition XXIII)

We who draw do so not only to make something observed visible to others, but also to accompany something invisible to its incalculable destination. (Berger)

I am floating on my back in the swimming pool with the painting I’m working on above me, thinking also of Mr. Berger’s practice of floating with whatever story he is thinking about, “above him” as he, we, float, looking at the ceiling. The painting is small, in oils, and is of a view of a hay bale in a field, one of the oblong-shaped ones familiar at this time of year. This one had been left where it had broken apart in the field, sagging into its own weight as gravity tries to suck its bulk back into the ground – as gravity tries to pull me to the floor of the pool. Berger’s stories have the quality of this particular kind of silence. For me they are touchstones for distinguishing between – in Spinoza’s terms – the inadequate and adequate; the false and the genuine. Berger’s writing continues to be, above else, an ethical, as well as intellectual example, as he explores the practice of drawing – the human body, flowers, bicycles – and how art guides our seeing and understanding of the world: how it may protest, may establish forms of resistance to ‘the pitilessness of the new world order’. One protests, he writes, by demonstrating, by striking, by hunger strike, by taking up arms, by occupying, by shouting, by writing, by drawing. One protests because to not to would be humiliating, and would result in an enforced and degrading silence. To draw – rose hip, a cherry leaf, a pebble beach – is to indelibly save the present moment from predatory global capitalism – a fusion of democracy and the free market – and its weak, constricted imagination which is focused almost entirely on maximizing profit. History may be indifferent, but Berger cares, he still has hope, and believes and writes of that sense of belonging to the what-has-been and the yet-to-come. Nowhere perhaps is this more explicit than in the story of his visit to a public library to get a copy of Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov. It’s not on the shelf, and after a discussion with the librarian, he is led to understand that they have two copies, but “they’re both out”. So he starts to think: ‘I wonder who’s reading The Brothers Karamazov here today. Do the two of them know each other? Unlikely. Are they reading the book for the first time? Or has one of them read it and, like myself, wants to reread it? Then I find myself asking an odd question: if either of those readers and myself passed one another – in the suburban market on Sunday, coming out of the metro, on a pedestrian crossing, buying bread – might we perhaps exchange glances that we’d both find slightly puzzling? Might we, without recognising it, recognise one another? … What I’m trying to define is more idiosyncratic and personal than a mere cultural inheritance; it is as if the bloodstream of the read story joins the bloodstream of one’s life story. It contributes to our becoming what we will become and will continue to become … Somebody in this Paris suburb, perhaps sitting tonight in a chair and reading The Brothers Karamazov, may already, in this sense, be a distant, distant cousin”. And on the next page, the right-hand page of the book – ‘A recollection from childhood, a question of hope?’ – is a sketch of an empty chair done in pencil and watercolour.

‘… of ghosts among fern and dogwood before they turn their backs / and drift down the garden path, as if the dead / really had somewhere to get to, as if the life-long burden / of things unsaid might be dumped in such a place’ (Harsent, Night)

I start on an ink drawing of sweet William in a vase. I prefer ink that is of the non-waterproof kind; it is softer, more responsive to water, and less blood-like than “permanent” ink. I make marks, I make corrections and the drawing gets darker, moves closer and closer to the edge (of what?) where I hope it will teeter (from the Old Norse, titra, ‘shake, shiver‘) in perpetuity.

John Berger, Bento’s Sketchbook (Verso, 2011) The philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) – generally known as Benedict or Bento – earned his living as a lens-grinder and spent his short life writing On the Improvement of the Understanding and the Ethics, both of which were only published posthumously. He was also a sporadic draughtsmen and according to friends carried a sketchbook around with him. De Hooch, Vermeer, Jan Steen were his contemporaries and biographers have suggested that it is likely he met Rembrandt. Following his sudden death his friends found his letters, manuscripts and notes but no sketchbook and for years, Berger has imagined a sketchbook with his drawings in it being found. “I wasn’t expecting great drawings in the sketchbook, were it to be found. I simply wanted to reread some of his words, some of his startling propositions as a philosopher, whilst at the same time being able to look at things he had observed with his own eyes”. Then a friend gave Berger a virgin sketchbook, covered with suede leather the colour of skin and he heard himself saying: “This is Bento’s!” The result is this book – containing Berger’s stories and drawings and extracts of Spinoza’s propositions and notes – an exploration of drawing inspired by the philosopher’s vision.

David Harsent, Night (Faber and Faber, 2011) Harsent’s latest book of poetry begins with a remarkable sequence of poems about a garden in which he explores how, when the lights go out, we variously rage against, weep, regret and rejoice our day-lit selves: our hopes, weaknesses, those that we set out to love and our darker instincts; the night-dreams, the insomnia and shape-shifting desire that accompanies our journey in the shadow-lands as we move inexorably towards the spectre of death. Hallucinatory.