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 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 post-war trend to a 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. Read more