A discussion on process and presentation with Jill & Alison

A MANY SIDED THING: A Residency of Collaborations is the first of four exhibitions in the 2017/18 Wimbledon Space programme, along the theme of Against Static: Technologies and Processes of Drawing. Mon - Fri 10am - 5pm until Fri 27 Oct. WIMBLEDON COLLEGE OF ARTS Merton Hall Road London SW19 3QA

As a beginner at Wimbledon College of Art I was excited to see the ‘A Many Sided Thing’ exhibition as an introduction for what to expect as the years progress. The intent of the exhibition is to examine what drawing can be, an investigation of collaboration. Prior to the exhibition I decided to interview Wimbledon alumni Jill Evans and Alison Carlier, after noticing them drawing what appeared to be those intoxicating spring door stoppers that, once bent to its elastic limit, flick back into position, emanating a deeply satisfying and cartoonish “BOING”. After informally discussing one of the nostalgic highlights of my childhood, we talked about the intent of A Many Sided Thing. Our discussion held interesting opinions over the exhibition’s idea and exhibiting as a concept.  

Jill studied her BA at Chelsea in Fine art, then furthered her study with an MA in drawing at Wimbledon. She told me her and the notable alumni were asked to submit “an avatar to show what we were about as individuals.” This ‘Avatar’ was to be an example of who they are and what they do. Alison, an MA graduate for Wimbledon College of Arts in Drawing, previously having a BA in Fine Art at the Surrey Institute of Art and Design, furthered this by defining the work as a need for physical presence, of being “here”. Despite the brief, Jill found the use of the word to be absent, “It gives me a feeling of being false”. ‘Avatar’ implies aesthetic without substance, as represented in many mediums; film, TV shows, twitter profiles and so on. So, does their work, created for representation itself, hold substance? Jill described her piece as, “A thing I see every time I go in and out of my studio… It’s there, it’s always there, it’s something I’ve always wanted to do.” Countering the prior argument, the avatar is not a detached imitation to her, rather an opportunity to fill a space with something conceived long before A Many Sided Thing became opportune.

Afterwards, I challenged the exhibition itself. Wimbledon is, to say the last, distant from Central London, a less favourable commute for art lovers. However, Jill believed that it adds to the quality of the exhibition, “All of the people here have studied in Wimbledon. This gives us freedom to be more inventive and to not worry too much about the show – it’s us working, and who we are as a group. If it was in a big showy glossy London gallery, everybody would be more nailed down. It’s about exploring, not ‘this is a finished thing.’” Alison mentioned further, “The nature of the work needs to be open ended. It can’t be polished or finished, that wouldn’t fit with the way we’ve been working”. Location and presentation do not come one before the other, rather simultaneously to create the desired exhibition. If you make the commute to a quieter end of West London, expect to find an informal, active occasion such as this. With exhibitions nearer the centre of London displaying works for sale over presentation, is that a form of presentation in itself, or a lacking of one? “It’s harder to get into that mind set at the commercial gallery” Jill proposed. Alison followed, “It becomes art as product, a different dynamic. In those gallery spaces, is the work as meaningful or would it have been more meaningful in the studio it was painted in, or photographic studio where they were developed” and so on, following with a quote from Zambian born British artist John Latham, “The context is half the work.” 

With that in mind, the works now become dependant on the setting designed with the context as priority over the commercial. However, what if there is no better representation, rather different ways of presentation and the quality of approach to those ways? In response, Alison described what made her art worthwhile, “The participant owns the work, it’s theirs, it’s not mine really. It’s everybody’s experience. It’s like you set the work off across the ocean on its own journey, to be interpreted in different ways.” This suggests works are left to interpretation entirely by the observer. Before the interview began, I told Jill and Alison about how I remember hiding behind the door to my grandma’s living room, flicking the stopper to achieve the famous “BOING” sound effect.  I had no such discussion on my mind. Yet, upon arrival, seeing the door stopper being flicked, it was all I could think about. Our memories give us a totally individual experience. Whether commercial or intricately designed, both presentations are impactful as a result.

On discussing what Jill and Alison wanted to see on the event night for the exhibition, we were brought back to our idea of the exhibition allowing already conceived ideas to be created. “My avatar is not a finished thing” Jill told me, while Alison followed, “The practice of art is going on all the time in your head, you just choose when it actually arises as work”. In regards to the deadline date of the exhibition, Jill said “Because there’s an end, it brings us together, but the work never ends. I don’t think it is wrong for a thing to arrive for a moment and then it’s gone, nothing to sell, just blown away”. “It’s like people, they don’t last forever” Alison concluded. Upon talking to Jill and Alison, I can conclude for now that any exhibition space can be learnt from. The variation of display, along with our minds, collaborate, granting us new experiences and perspectives. By the time this discussion is public I’ll have attended the ‘A Many Sided Thing’ drinks reception, hopefully having met other interesting artists with more to say on the matter of presentation in art.

Charlie Davison

The Inner versus The Outer Life

Jasper Johns: ‘Something Resembling Truth’, The Royal Academy of Arts, until 10 December 2017

Basquiat: Boom for Real, Barbican Art Gallery, until 28 January 2018

The two exhibitions in London this week (concurrently with the Frieze Art Fair, which is just ridiculous, Frieze that is, not the week) worth seeing (though expensive) are Basquiat: Boom for Real at the Barbican and Jasper Johns: ‘Something Resembling Truth’ at the Royal Academy. Both employ the colon; both are blockbusters; both are American (the artists that is, in case that needed to be said); both feature paintings worth lots and lots of money. They, whether they like it or not, are major art brands.

Jasper Johns (he is, so called, the Greatest Living Artist) is about 30 years or so older than Jean-Michel Basquiat, or would have been had Jean-Michel lived. It’s hard not to think of Jasper Johns as the 1960s avant garde exemplar, collaborator extraordinaire with Merce Cunningham (avant garde dancer), John Cage (avant garde composer) and, of course, Robert Rauschenberg, his quondam lover and the brighter sun by which he was in some ways a little eclipsed.

Jasper Johns was born in 1930, Jean-Michel in 1960. Jasper Johns is white. Jean-Michel was part Haitian, part Puerto Rican, in other words, black. Jasper Johns is a very knowing, considered, educated, clever artist. Jean-Michel was a force of nature, talented, driven, a product of the 80s, just like punk banking and junk bonds. It wasn’t where you started that mattered, it was what temperature of chutzpah you brought to the table (or the canvas) that conveyed your worth. And that worth was measured strictly in dollars. In fact it still is.

It’s kind of interesting to contemplate the idea that some of the 60s subversives, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, the Situationists in France, foresaw the multiple categories of disaster that have subsequently overtaken the world, the fact that we are all in thrall to brands of one sort or another, that we live life vicariously via images rather than at first hand, that we are all living inwardly, that our only lives are our inner lives, that we are increasingly isolated as a consequence.

But, in a way too, they are to blame for this sad state. For a long time, two hundred years at least, artists have been searching for a language to describe what it’s like to be us, to be a person, to find a way of describing, recreating, our inner lives, that mysterious space underneath our skins, behind our eyes, under our clothes, inside our skulls. And the energy devoted to this search really took off for the generation, including Jasper Johns, who came of age after the Second World War. Suddenly the world was full of money and advertising slogans and stuff to buy, which meant brands. Money, slogans, stuff, brands, this was the raw material which art could employ to describe that elusive inner life. Here was the language, here the metaphors, the stage setting, the context for the revolution, the rise of the ‘Me’ generation.

For Johns, Warhol, Rauschenberg, et al, this was a two edged sword, to be wielded with devastating precision. These guys knew very well where they (as artists that is) ended and their art began. Warhol particularly had a real life, wherein he lived with his mother, went to church and volunteered at a soup kitchen, alongside his life in public, at the Factory, where he was ‘An Artist’, and, it’s pretty safe to say, had little but contempt for those who bought into (and bought) his art on face value. And this hard edge, this fundamental satiric bent, was fatal, metaphorically and truly, for those who came after, such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, for whom art and life bled into each other in ways that were not sustainable then and now have us all heading straight to hell in a handcart.

In fact art (capital a) has now become so enamoured of the language of the inner life, the metaphors of consumption, the alignment of person with possessions, that there is no other language available to describe anything else. A life lived outside the personal seems nothing but quaint, unsophisticated, childish, naive, a bit soft, in no way the stuff of art. Art is gritty, ugly, real, full of feeling and impact, it packs a punch. Just like a brand. Just like a product. A Bentley might have comfortable leather seats but you better believe the guy driving it is an animal, a money making behemoth, bestriding the world, a roiling, boiling wonder, never still, on his way to make a killing on a Picasso or an IPO, whose feelings are a credit to him and his family. Only art can encompass such a giant.

Where, oh where is the outer life? The life beyond empathy, the life which says, ‘I am you and you are me’. Where is the language to describe that life?

Watching the documentary about Jean-Michel Basquiat on the BBC last week, Theaster Gates, an artist whose ethos I very much admire, spoke up for Basquiat’s importance, especially his place as a prominent black artist, a trailblazer, who broke through into the white art world on his own terms. But the real (and present) danger is that the white art world has embraced him on its terms, and this embrace is sailing very close to exploitation, not acceptance.

In the 1980s I saw, briefly and tangentially, the attempt to discover an Australian Basquiat, a search for an ‘authentic’ artist of innocence and naivety but with a direct and burning connection into him or herself, who could paint with unselfconscious energy. In hindsight this too looks like exploitation; an art market scouring for the artist who wasn’t going to make trouble, who wasn’t really sufficiently self-aware to torpedo any success that may be bestowed on them. Don’t bite the hand that feeds you is the rule. (And don’t even get me started on the way Australians have strip mined Aboriginal art.)

For Basquiat to appear with Warhol, as he did, was to present himself as a brand. Warhol knew this. And, I guess, for Basquiat this was an opportunity to do something really radical, for the mentee to turn on the mentor. But maybe this wasn’t in Basquiat’s nature, which is really a way of saying he was a much better, perhaps gentler, more outward looking, more instinctively collaborative, person than that.

Jasper Johns fits nicely into the tradition of the individual genius, and more power to him. Basquiat belongs in a different tradition, with different language. Theaster Gates argues that Basquiat’s success in the secondary art market, Sotherby’s et al, is a vindication of his worth. I think the multimillion dollar price tags are simply cheapening his achievement, as much as his extraordinary financial success cheapened the work when he was alive.

Paul Corcoran

The Mysterious Magic of Things

The Wallace Collection

The Victoria & Albert Museum

You Are the Product by John Lanchester, London Review of Books, Vol. 39 No. 16 · 17 August 2017

It’s funny that John Lanchester should use a train analogy in his dissing of Facebook. He quotes Flaubert, writer of that quintessential novel of marital infidelity, Madame Bovary, who thought, Flaubert that is, trains just gave people no more than the ability to be silly (or unfaithful perhaps) in different places. Sometime later in the Nineteenth Century, fictionally speaking, a train was the undoing of Anna Karenina, also unfaithful, also perhaps silly, in a variety of locations.

But trains have been the catalyst for something else much more profound: trains changed the way we all thought about time. It made the idea of time something that was no longer incidental and local, but profound and ubiquitous. Time became a concept that connected us. Einstein used trains in his famous thought experiments about time and relativity. To progress, science, mathematics needed a new concept of time. Time and trains - inextricably linked. (And time is, of course, the bane of the life of trains.)

Technology can have unexpected outcomes, and maybe old fogeys like Gustav Flaubert and John Lanchester are the least qualified to predict what those outcomes might be, not that I can talk. Maybe the hint is in the title of his review, You Are the Product. The product. We, he and I, (and Flaubert for that matter), come from an age of products. It could almost be said that, in our time, now, products have been brought to a kind of transcendence. They are so perfect and so useful they are destroying the oceans, and wrecking the atmosphere. Indeed, they are beginning to learn for themselves, and will soon be taking all our jobs.

The point about a product is that it has defined characteristics, specific boundaries. Facebook may make money from something, as Lanchester says, ‘profoundly bathetic’, showing ads for products, but Facebook isn’t the internet (as Facebook discovered when their attempt to become the internet for some parts of the Indian sub-continent was roundly rejected by their target market), just one particular window onto it.

The internet, like the trains before, is a utility. It isn’t so much a product as a group of technologies and things, working together to make something we can all use. (That’s really stating the obvious.) What prompts Lanchester to quote Flaubert is the suggestion, by Mr Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, that Facebook’s ‘mission’ is to make the world ‘more open and connected’. (Is Zuckerberg making a claim for Facebook that is really more about the internet as a whole?) Whatever the rights and wrongs, Lanchester is moved to ask: is being connected an inherently good thing? Thus Flaubert and his trains.

Whether being connected is a good or bad thing, it’s a reality. Whatever Gustav and John may think, it’s not possible to put the jack back in the box, the genie back in the bottle.

So, you ask, when is he going to talk about The Wallace Collection and the V&A, both of which are much more interesting than Facebook? Is he ever going to get to the point?

Yes, both are wonderful, amazing, a little overwhelming, and in the case of The Wallace, maybe a bit oppressive. Which painting is supposed to be good again? And those horses that had to carry all that armour, wow.

But these portmanteau museums, these fabulous collections, they suddenly look like the past, or rather that the objects on display have been stripped of meaning, or at least of the meaning they may have had only a few short years ago.

A product, something man- (or woman-) made is never just a product, or thing. It always has some kind of meaning, connotation, implication, nuance, some link to someone’s inner life, their beliefs, thoughts, hopes, aspirations (ah, lists of words, so satisfying!) The product served a purpose, it projected something of the maker, and something of the subsequent owner. It was a communication, a connection, to others, to the world. Things had that purpose.

In the absence, that is, of other forms of connection. Connectivity, in the old days, could be a bit intermittent, fitful. You could connect with George Wallace, or his forebears, the Marquesses of Hertford, while you were around at his house, but when you left, you left, no matter how profound an impact his art collection might have had while you were there. Similarly, Henry VIII’s three miles of tapestries would have been pretty awe inspiring while you were in their presence (probably not all at once) but the awe would have gradually ebbed away, the longer you were away, so to speak.

To go back to trains and time for a minute (here we go again) a train isn’t a metaphor or simulacrum of time, but was a catalyst for a re-conceptualising of time. The industrial revolution was a powerful driver of change, particularly in the way we conceived and defined ourselves. Not only did people become a part of the machines that made the products, in some senses people became products, with defined and specific characteristics and boundaries.

This is where John Lanchester comes in. His worry, profound fear really, that Facebook is well on the way to becoming the incarnation of Orwell’s Big Brother, is based on the conception of those who use it do so as discreet, individual products, like so many bottles or dishes; or computers or robots for that matter.

But the connectivity of which he is so dismissive, is changing the way we, the users, see ourselves. The internet is becoming a catalyst for a profound change. Our edges are dissolving. Suddenly things, with their hard boundaries, are no longer a useful metaphor for people or how they interact. Not only are The Wallace and the V&A packed with stuff, they are also the repository for some ideas about us, about art and culture, that seem terribly old-fashioned and irrelevant.

I don’t disagree with John Lanchester, Facebook (and others) are evil, tax-evaders, but I do think that he has missed what is a profound and far-reaching change wrought by the internet as a whole.

I think we all struggle with the fact that so much of our daily lives involves abstract thought, abstract concepts, and the way we deal with this is to anchor those abstractions to concrete metaphors, to link money to stuff, to property for example. Even down to the way we see ourselves, the way we conceive of our own consciousness. We express and conceive of ourselves through stuff, property, the mysterious magic of things. This magic is losing its potency. It is mysterious no longer.

The mystery and the magic have moved on. We are going to need a new metaphor.

Paul Corcoran