Tag Archive for art based writing

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 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

Mastering contemporary art: If these were the answers, what were the questions?

Over the late summer/early autumn I went to exhibitions of work by students just completing their Masters degree courses in contemporary art. Their final submissions, assessed for successful completion of the course (ie a sign of some mastery of contemporary art ideas and practices?) were accompanied by notes describing the work, how it was made, the ideas behind it, and so on.

The works on display were of interest but what I was more fascinated by were the texts used to accompany the works. If texts used by successful students captured something of their ‘mastering’ of the process – if they were their final answers – what questions were they being asked: What was being demanded of them in their quest for mastery of contemporary art?

I noted around 60-80 statements that, although overlapping, were unique statements of outcome for the range of students involved. These could be clustered into linked ideas/themes. Other people may well come up with different configurations from the same basic text statements. The version below is mine, and is captured by an umbrella sense of moving on, being on a journey, progressing, becoming, transforming:

Individuality; notions of selfhood


Multiple identities; multiple opportunities

Acknowledging the unknown, unrecognised things inside each person

Part of diversity

Being part of networks

Language of relationships

Intercommunity relationships

Perspectives, cultures, traditions

Hopes and dreams


Unique life experiences

Memories and emotions

Repetitions leaving patterns

Traces of incidents

Transitional changes

Stresses and processes

Controlled change; anxiety of change


Moving into place

Frozen moments

Reliability/unreliability of memory


Authorship and ownership

Personal narratives


Marginal aspects/ main aspects

Cerebral/reality; conceptual/functional aspects

Role of text, language, speech

Glimpses of meanings

Translating meanings, questions and puzzles


New ways of working and thinking

Expressing notions as images

Mapping new territories; challenging preconceptions

Engagement with ideas

Engagement with materials – experimentation; renewal

Internal/external influences

Things as living entities

What may be missing: presence and absence


Mapping, planning, deciding

Designs and clarifications

Scale, pace, time

Technologies, sciences and handmades

Social contexts; environments

Social change

Choices and oppositions:

Simulated/real; conflicts/harmonies; patterns/ambiguities; shape/formlessness; deconstructed/recontextualised; literal/abstracted; learning/teaching; fixed/moving.


Working backwards, then, from this analysis of the explanatory texts used by emerging artists to explain their various ‘masteries’, we get the main themes of making contemporary art. These describe mastery as being a journey that can be charted as it moves along. The main constructs of this ‘becoming a master of contemporary art’ flow from a deep self-awareness by the artist – of who they are, and are not; the gaps, the linkages, the shapings. This allows the artist to draw on residual traces of life events and translate versions/interpretations of these into imagery – successfully, if the artist is reflexive, critical, willing to engage with new ideas and test out new materials – in well-thought-through ways that are aware of the choices being made, of what is being left out, and of how the work sits in context.

The above was derived from a consideration of masters level students. They were at the end of a course: It was understandable that they would have been expected to explain what they had learnt, show development, demonstrate progress. They were, after all, trainee artists .. potential artists .. people on a learning journey. What about established artists (those recognised as already having a degree of mastery) – are they still expected to explain themselves, to record their ongoing journey, to demonstrate progress?