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The New Materialisms class in term two really opened my eyes to a more holistic approach to my art and the things I learnt immediately filtered into my everyday art practice. One particularly meaningful class explored the ocularcentricity of modern western culture and encouraged us to think beyond the sensory hierarchy that priorities vision. I think this struck a chord with me personally as someone with poor eyesight that progressively worsens year by year; before this class I’d been quite closed minded to creative possibilities beyond the visual so there was something quite enlightening in being urged to think outside of that box. As a creative I think a short coming that I have is finding something I like and sticking with it rather than consistently pushing myself to try different approaches, I get comfortable in a particular medium or style very quickly and can be quite stubborn to venture into something new. My work this year was centred around the body, intimacy and privacy and I really seemed to stick to figurative depictions in drawing and paint, however there seemed to be an emptiness to a few of the pieces that felt more like I was just reproducing what I saw in the world rather than making visible the feeling and experience I wanted to get across. One quote from a text we studied in New Materialisms really resonated with me; “[Ocularcentrism] has left the body and the other senses, as well as our memories, imagination and dreams, homeless” (Pallasmaa, 2005, p. 18) I wanted to find a place in my work for the senses, imagination and memories I’d neglected in focusing on the visual.

To achieve this I combined my studies from Constellation with the Still Life work I had done in one of my Field labs and persued a project called ‘Sensory Still Life’ which can be found here. I blindfolded myself and felt an arrangement of random objects drawing with my eyes closed what I could feel, hear and smell. After each drawing was complete I used photoshop to overlay the individual drawings into an arrangement to create the “still life”. I was incredibly proud of how informing myself through my Constellation studies enabled me to push beyond my comfort zone and allow me to further push my understanding of the themes that interest me by exploring them in a different way creatively. I had known for some time that I had a habit of playing it safe and sticking to what I was used to but I think it took the push into researching new theories and ways of thinking for me to take that leap and try something completely different. Having a lesson totally devoted to the cultural phenomenon that creates these unconscious biases that prioritise the way things look over the way things feel, smell or sound, a bias that in some part will be contributing to my stubborn focus on the visual, totally helped break that pattern of behaviour.

While right now I still feel connected to drawing a painting as mediums I feel there’s something very changed in my approach to these mediums. I’d like to demonstrate by exploring two of my pieces, one from before New Materialisms and one from after:

Pedicure
Pedicure Acrylic on MDF (2ft x 2ft)
Lazy Sunday
Lazy Sunday Acrylic on Canvas (4ft x 6ft)

While both are acrylic paintings there are some notable differences between the two (of the same subject) that I think are mostly if not wholly influenced by my studies in New Materialisms. Firstly, the colour palette is much more vibrant and imaginative, after Constellation I was more inclined to choose colours that fit the mood and feeling I wanted to portray rather than choosing colours representative of the actual object or subject I was painting. I think this is an example of eschewing the visual accuracy of my painting in favour of capturing more of a feeling. Secondly, the scale. After Constellation I was more inclined to size my painting up, there was something in the physical experience of painting large that really resonated with me. As well as capturing the image, painting in a way that engages the entire body, in sweeping gestural strokes felt like it was capturing more of my presence as an artist within the image. There was something so much more open, enjoyable and honest in painting this way. I began to prioritise the sensory experience of creation where as before Constellation I prioritised the final outcome.

This final outcome focus was covered extensively in New Materialisms; how, as creators, we are taught to see creating as a project with a plan and then a method which is carried out to create the outcome. We were encouraged, instead, to think of creation as a process of growing. To grow your creation it’s a collaboration of equal parts between the matter you are shaping, the environment and you. Evolving an understanding that my materials and tools are not working for me they are working with me felt like a really pivotal breakthrough; that the creator is not a dictator the creator is a collaborator with matter and environment. One quote that really fast tracked my understanding of this: “I want to think of making, instead, as a process of growth. This is to place the maker from the outset as a participant in amongst a world of active materials. These materials are what he has to work with, and in the process of making he ‘joins forces’ with them, bringing them together or splitting them apart, synthesising and distilling, in anticipation of what might emerge” (Ingold, 2013, p. 21). The idea that the world around me is active and the materials I use have agency of their own totally changes the perception I had about what it means to be an artist. And while I can’t say that this is a habit I’ve broken this year it’s something I’m eager to push my understanding of and learn a lot more about as I grow as a creator.

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Provocation 4: How materials and tools hide from view.

Last week’s constellation session made me more aware of how the way I create my work is shaped and changed by the tools I use. In order to analyse this further I created two drawings using my two favourite implements of the moment; a regular pencil on paper, and an Apple Pencil in tandem with Adobe Draw on iPad Pro.

A regular pencil as you might expect is softer and looser, you can shade and create a sense of depth but it can be incredibly limiting especially if you’re drawing on a small scale. I increase pressure when I want something to be darker, adjust my wrist to make marks with the very tip of the pencil if I want something to be more precise, use the very edge of the graphite if I want to create shade; these tiny micro-movements come incredibly naturally without thought as my body works in tandem with the pencil as if it’s an extension of my hand. As Bateson acknowledges this “self-corrective (i.e., mental) process is brought about by a total system…” in this case; paper-eyes-brain-muscles-pencil-mark. (Or even as my practice involves another unsung tool; paper-glasses-eyes-brain-muscles-pencil-mark). The only time I become aware there’s a pencil there making the mark is when it’s blunt and can no longer be depended on to make the marks I rely on it to make (similarly I only notice my glasses are there when they need cleaning or it rains), it then requires sharpening so the system can resume. The fact we only appreciate a tools function when it can no longer perform it is only further evidence that tools are essentially an extension of the body, we notice how much our muscles move when we pull one, we notice how often we turn our head when we wake up with a bad neck; “When an axe of sheath knife is being used, the skilled user does not think of the hand and the tool as different and detached entities: the tool has grown to be a part of the hand.”, (Pallassmaa, 2009) and the same rings true for drawing implements.

The Apple Pencil is an incredible feat of technology in the sense it can function so much like a regular pencil or pen in the way it can digitally translate those micro movements of the hand and wrist. However the work I produce with the Apple Pencil is a world away from the work I produce with an ordinary pencil. There is a wealth of programmes and applications that work in tandem with the Apple Pencil to create a dramatic range of styles an effects. In that way the thing we’re drawing onto is much more heavily involved than pencil on paper. Imagine if paper came alive and asked you if you wanted to change the colour of the pencil or change it to ink or watercolour or charcoal or zoom in to create greater detail. I could very easily use the Apple Pencil with all the settings that allow it to function as an ordinary pencil, but because it can do so much more I choose not to. I zoom my drawings right in to create depth and detail, I keep my lines clean and graphic in a ways it’s hard to do with non-digital tools. The possibilities of the tool I’m using shapes the aesthetic choices I make. And this is all just as true when I pick up a paintbrush and canvas.

 

Orlan – Artist Research

‘The Reincarnation of Saint Orlan’ was a series of performance art pieces by the artist Orlan using cosmetic surgery on her own body to alter and reconstruct her own image appropriating features from allegorical and mythical female figures. The piece featured nine surgical procedures which took place between 1990 and 1993 in line with the artist’s ‘Carnal Art’ manifesto. ‘The Reincarnation of Saint Orlan’ is “about pleasure and sensuousness, it does not leave any place for suffering”. While each performance was different all are difficult to watch and all follow the artists insistence that they are about pleasure not pain. Orlan’s exploration of the multiplicity of our inner selves through new technologies challenges our views on identity and the the self and push debate into feminist discourse about identity and cosmetic surgery as a whole.

Orlan’s surgeries took place while she was conscious but numbed by local anaesthetic, she retained a position of control over the surgeons and the operating table was dramatically reconstructed as a baroque theatre and the resultant performances were broadcast live in galleries to the viewers that could stomach it. As Carey Lovelace acknowledges in her first hand review of one of these live-streams a number of people left while those who stayed were held in an ‘entranced revulsion’ this inspired relationship between audience and performer is best summarised by transgender cultural theorist Sandy Stone; “It’s a fine edge to walk between holding one’s audience in thrall, or sending them rushing to the exits, or making them puke on their shoes. The trick is holding them in thrall and still having them puke on their shoes” . The Reincarnation of Saint Orlan captivates through disgust; her use of the body artistically completely rejected what viewers had come to expect from even the most groundbreaking of performance art. It reverses the old artistic cliche, while Orlan has local anaesthetic to mask pain it is her audience, not her, that ‘suffers for her art’. Ince talks about the series of performances as “an unsustainable sadomasochistic contract between performer and spectator” which suggests that the relationship between artist and performer is that of an assumed agreement; the audience turns up to watch and the artist provides them something to watch, what happens, then, when the artist provides something that is unwatchable? Here we see the artist playing with that dynamic, Orlan has publicly commented on the fact some viewers walk out of her performances and lectures, an acknowledgement Ince feels demonstrates a sense of accomplishment in discourse and reaction her work provokes.

It is unsurprising to me, with the knowledge that plastic surgery generally in feminist discourse is seen as the epitome of succumbing to patriarchal standards of appearance, that Orlan’s work with surgery as a medium met some feminist critique. Despite the fact Orlan’s Carnal Art Manifesto expressly lays out that carnal art is and must be feminist there was a clear misunderstanding about the objectives of ‘Reincarnation’. A prevailing thought was that because she was appropriating the features of other ‘beauty icons’ her motives behind cosmetic surgery were still within the normal parameters and ideology that governed the practice; she is changing her facial appearance to resemble a series of beautiful women and therefore her work must be about a desire to resemble another image. In actual fact the features of Mona Lisa, Diana, Venus, Europa and Psyche were selected by Orlan on account of the qualities and attributes these mythical women possessed.

Orlan writes in The Carnal Art Manifesto “Carnal Art is not interested in the plastic-surgery result, but in the process of surgery, the spectacle and discourse of the modified body which has become the place of a public debate.” The art therefore is found not in the finished body, but in the act and the discourse generated in response. The performance, then, becomes even more than simply reflecting the inner self outward, the result isn’t important, instead Orlan wants to show us the body in flux. If plastic surgery can be interpreted as a way to close the gap between the internal and external self, Orlan suggests it’s a reality that can never be reached; she shows us an internal self that’s always in motion. Therefore to be critical of Orlan’s work as vainly concerned with cosmetic appearance and sexual passivity is to miss the point.

‘The Reincarnation of Saint Orlan’ invites an audience to watch the naked flesh of the female body opened, manipulated and transformed. Orlan’s carnal art, is building on a foundation of feminist performance art that has played with female exhibitionism in the quest for sexual and political freedom. But to what extent can we reduce the art of Orlan, Carole Schneeman, Karen Finley and countless others as complicit to the same tropes that govern conventional voyeuristic depictions of women? In standard sexualisation of the female body we can say it utilises a power dynamic where an exhibitionist act is met by a controlling voyeuristic gaze, however the sadism and aggression of the feminist performances discussed here creates a shift in the power relationship between performer and audience. Instead of the passive exhibitionism and active voyeurism you’d expect to see in say a classical painting of the female nude, ‘Reincarnation’ instead displays an active exhibitionism to a passive audience.

Trip to Abstract Expressionism exhibit at the Royal Academy

With the After Modernism constellation group we visited the Abstract Expressionism exhibition at the Royal Academy in London. The vist was incredibly informative in putting into context the research and analysis we’ve done on many of the works featured in the exhibition.

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One particular work that was interesting to see again was Jackson Pollock’s Mural which I’d seen before in the Guggenheim in Venice, it was interesting to see the work in a different context with a different group of people. It’s a piec of work I particularly like, I prefer Pollocks more gestural work to his drip paintings, the shapes and the movement of the colour seem to have more of a quality to them.