A beginner’s simple exercise in contemporary art: Leger, entropy and me

The initial question in my head was ‘Can there be the idea of Progress in contemporary art?’ Turning this upside down (or back to front) you get: Can there be a contemporary piece of art that can have its layers slowly peeled away, as in some kind of archaeology, to reveal influences below the surface?

As part of a series of workshops on Understanding Contemporary Art I attended a workshop at the University of Birmingham’s Barber Institute. The theme was collage and the workshop covered a number of ideas: appropriation/borrowing; assembling found elements; using contemporary media for sources; what the artist brings to the work; how hard to expect the viewer to work; postmodernism, playfulness and the lack of grand narratives etc..

At the same time there was an exhibition of selected ‘best’ contemporary work by new (2013) graduates from West Midlands art schools – spread over three sites in Birmingham, with several pieces on display at the Barber.

On a pre-workshop visit to the Barber I simply walked round the gallery as fast as I could noting which works of art, if any, made me look twice at them. There were two: One from the New Art West Midlands exhibition (‘Entropy’ by Lindsay Booker) and one from the Barber Institute’s permanent collection (‘Composition with Fruit’ by Fernand Leger).

A very quick internet search suggested that Leger developed his early work in the context of cubism – his own style being called ‘tubism’ because of his focus on cylinders etc.. His work became increasingly abstract, with blocks of primary colours. He spent the first two years of World War 1 at the front and this influenced his art, making it into something mechanical (‘machine art’). After the war he was part of ‘Purist’ art – flatter colours, bold black outlines; and later, as part of the postwar trend to ‘return to order’ his work became more organic. By 1938, when ‘Composition with Fruit’ was painted his work was warmer, less over-mechanistic but with some remaining hint of machine parts. ‘Composition with Fruit’ followed in the tradition of Still Life but transposing it via techniques that were contemporary at the time – geometric forms, blocks of colour, incorporation of items from consumer culture, celebration of machine age tempered with organic imagery (the worms in the fruit, hinting at impermanence etc).

The ‘Entropy’ picture from the New Art West Midlands exhibition was large (240cm x 120cm), monochrome, pen and Japanese ink on paper. There were two levels to the picture: the overall image and the intricate, elaborate detail. It was intriguing and a bit disturbing; confusing to the eye. The nonlinear marks cascaded, lava-flow like. It has resonances of earthquakes, tsunamis, tectonic movements, detritus, apocalyptic reshaping of landscapes. The text from the exhibition described the picture as alluding to ‘The Great Wave off Konagawa’, 1830, by Hokusai – a painting that I had used as part of training programmes and which held some significance for me.

The Tate Modern was, at that time, promoting its exhibition by Saloua Raouda Choucair (b Beirut 1916). She studied in the studio of Leger and was a pioneer of abstraction in Lebanese art. The picture that caught my eye was ‘Paris-Beirut 1948’ – blocks of pastel orange, green, blue. In some accompanying text this picture was described as ‘a picture as condensed as a sonnet’, which appealed to me. Her work was disrupted by the later civil war in Beirut (some canvases having shrapnel holes in them). All of this created links with the pre-workshop thinking I was doing.

The other artist in my mind at that time was David Hockney – because of the way his work had moved into a quite different phase: drawing/ painting trees and pathways in his native Yorkshire. I had seen some of this startlingly impressive work at an exhibition in London. The press was still full of black&white/colour pictures of his paintings and drawings. The Hockney imagery was clearly trees, hedges, natural landscape as opposed to the unnatural uncertainty of ‘Entropy’.

I had my choice of materials for the workshop – and it was material that (to me at least) had a number of connections across time and place.

So, going back to the idea of building up layers that might then be open to some form of analytical archaeology:

The collage I worked on in the workshop was built up on a template from Leger’s ‘Composition with Fruit’, with some blocks of colour coming from a magazine reproduction of Choucair’s ‘Paris-Beirut, 1948’ pasted into the lower corners. The worms and fruit from Leger’s picture were kept, by pasting in cut-out prints from a print of Leger’s ‘Composition with Fruit’. The rest of the template was covered with cut-outs from a print-out of a photograph of ‘Entropy’, together with parts from newspaper/magazine pictures (from press photographs) of various Hockney pictures. When I sensed that I had at least a good-enough end-product. the finished collage was photocopied to provide prints.

Reading backwards from my work of art I see the natural landscapes of Hockney balancing the collapse of landscape from Entropy; the ‘forgotten’ art of the Middle East resting on the pivotal work of Leger; the steps back from Contemporary/ postmodern, through 20th century concerns with form and line and colour, to cubist representations of the older tradition of Still Life. So, in one sense, I had a piece that was open to archaeologies. I was less convinced that there was a comparable forward reading that might indicate any sense of progress.

The whole process had, however, engaged me in a chain of thinking: What to do in the workshop, what materials to work with, how to combine disparate (but sort-of-linked) elements, how to build something up in layers of interest, and so on. I have tried to set out above some of the things that I brought to the activity. There wasn’t a simple linear set of decision-makings. There were elements of determination and elements of randomness. I had a sense of what the end-product might look like (based on the shapes and blocks from Leger’s painting) but not a step-by-step recipe for which bits of collaged fragments went onto which part of that template. I worked that out as I went along, bringing to it some of the ideas about nature/machine; order/entropy; building up ‘layers’ from the past – with the final object and my in-process thinking interconnecting as I went along.. I knew when I had arrived at something I was satisfied with.

There wasn’t an overall ‘message’ that I wanted to viewer to ‘get’. Having said that, did the final image communicate anything? Did it matter that the viewer didn’t know anything about the thinking gone through to get to the finished product? In this way it threw up interesting questions for me as I went along. The people who saw the final product were positive in that they ‘liked it’, ‘thought it was good’ etc. but it is less sure how far it prompted them to ask interesting questions themselves.

If it raised any immediate questions within the workshop, these were the usual ones faced by much of contemporary art: that of ownership and the ethics of appropriating other people’s imagery. The process had involved taking an artist’s painting/drawing; finding a representation of that in a newspaper/magazine derived from some reporter’s photograph of the original (or taking my own picture); photographing that copy to provide a copy of the copy, and printing that out as a copy of a copy of the copy – and cutting/rearranging that to get selected fragments; finally assembling fragments into a new arrangement and producing a final print in which rearranged elements were fragments of copies of copies of copies …). In all of this where do original ownerships get lost and new ownerships get created?

At the end of the workshop it felt as if the picture I ended up with fell in the category of ‘opens possible lines of thinking; acts as a bit of an on-going puzzle’ rather than pretended to be some sort of finished answer. Enjoyable all the same!

The final product was titled ‘An archaeology of sorts’ (2013)

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