Thursday, May 31, 2012

Like clouds accompanying the rising summer sun

Here's an idea for an art installation.  You pass into a room between the trunks of two pine trees that show signs of having been cut into with a large axe and smaller one.  In front of you is a pond covered with lotus plants, lit so that the veins in their leaves stand out.  Placed on low plinths around the room are a torn net, hemp stalks, frayed rope, oxen fur and a lump of alum.  Vitrines contain horses teeth, thorns, split beans and broken bands.  And on the three walls facing you, video projections show silent footage of an eddying whirlpool, falling rain and roiling clouds. This installation would (as some readers will have recognised) be inspired by the various types of shaping lines (ts'un) used in traditional Chinese landscape painting.  For example, expand the image of Fan Kuan's Travellers among Mountains and Streams below and you can see his use of the 'rain dot stroke', which one source characterises as 'many perpendicular, forceful, short lines executed under a quick brush. Collectively, they look like the marks left by a heavy rain on a mud wall. This type of stroke is suitable for depicting the pocked appearance of the eroded loess plateaus of northern China.'  There are various lists of these brush strokes and the one I've reproduced below is in Fritz van Briessen's The Way of the Brush: Painting Techniques of China and Japan.

 Fan Kuan, Travellers among Mountains and Streams, c.1000
Luan ma ts’un – like tangled hemp stalks
     (also called luan ch’ai ts’un, like tangled bundles of brushwood)
Ho yeh ts’un – like the veins of lotus leaves
Chieh so ts’un – like unravelled hemp rope
P’i ma ts’un – like spread out hemp fibres
Ma p’i ts’un – like a tangled ball of hemp fibres
Luan yün ts’un – like rolling billows of cloud
Niu mao ts’un – like cow hair
P’o wang ts’un - like a torn net
Fan t’ou ts’un – like lumps of alum
Tan wo ts’un – like eddies of a whirlpool
Kuei mien ts’un – like the wrinkles on a demon’s face
Hsiao fu p’i ts’un – like the cuts made by a small axe
Ta fu p’i ts’un – like the cuts made by a big axe
Che-tai-ts’un – like broken bands
Ma ya ts’un – like horses teeth
Tou pan ts’un – like two halves of a bean
Yü tien ts’un – like raindrops
Tz’u li ts’un – like thorns
Mi tien ts’un – like the dots used by Mi Fei
In that imaginary installation I drew upon (rather than drawing with) all of these ts'un, except two which don't correspond directly to things we might encounter out in the landscape - the wrinkles on a demon's face and the brush stroke named after a specific artist, Mi Fei. The others all suggest ways in which the motion of the hand is akin to a natural process and seem to situate the artist in direct connection with animals, plants, rocks or water whilst in the very act of shaping a landscape painting.  I like the fact that these links are indirect and metaphorical - mountains, for example, can be constructed from clouds (with a luan yün ts’un, the brush is 'moved in an orbit, like clouds accompanying the rising summer sun.')  Placed in a gallery all objects prompt metaphorical readings: it would be hard to view a torn net or a pile of thorns as nothing more than signifiers of themselves, or reminders of how particular brush strokes have been termed. So it is with a painting like Travellers among Mountains and Streams, a Taoist vision of nature rather than a strictly topographical one: a symbolic journey through high mountains, their rocky sides mottled like the aftermath of a rain shower. 

The codification of style in painting manuals like The Mustard-seed Garden and the way landscapes could be built up from simple forms has prompted modern computer programmers to simulate the small axe cut, the hemp-fibre stroke and so on.  A paper by Way and Shih, for example, describes work on the synthesis of rock textures in Chinese landscape painting, aiming to provide tools for digital artists and allow the automatic rendering of Chinese-style landscapes.  Their mathematical models have no connection to physical objects or natural processes; but then it is also possible to imagine Fan Kuan dabbing his brush onto the silk scroll oblivious to the rain drops falling outside.  Can this gap between art and the world be closed?  In his New River Watercolours, John Cage took stones from a river and drew round them to create marks not unlike roiling cloud strokes: "with the involvement of the rock, the line is not so much me as it is the rock." And Brice Marden (as I was saying a couple of weeks ago) uses sticks in his calligraphic drawing to produce natural variations in the line.  These objects restrict the artist to a type of gesture whilst releasing the expressive potential of the brush stroke.  Cage said that as he traced the stones, "a slight turning of the brush on my part makes a big difference in the line. So, it's hard to explain, but I'm moving toward a freedom of gesture while at the same time using gesture."

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Lipstick Traces

Earlier this month I received an email from cultural geographer Hayden Lorimer tipping me off to a Radio 4 programme he had written called 'The Perfumed Mountaineer': "Listeners are promised a potent brew: photography and perfumery, lipstick and landscape.  All of it beribboned in the story of one man's life-world."  This turned out to be an exploration of the 'double life' of Walter Poucher (1891-1988), a pioneer mountain photographer who also worked for perfumers Yardley, where he invented the Bond Street fragrance.  Producer Tim Dee describes his experience making the programme on the Radio 4 blog: 'Hayden does know his hills, he runs up and down Scottish ones for pleasure, he has also always seemed properly fragrant, so, I was very pleased to set off with him into the English Peaks and Scottish Highlands but also down Jermyn Street in central London to the back rooms of a perfumery in pursuit of people who either knew the man himself or knew about the life and works of Walter Poucher.'  The programme is no longer available to listen to but Hayden has sent me the script from which I quote below.

'The print titles of Walter Poucher’s photographic books run down their spines, and they’re just irresistible, toying with the topographical imagination: A Camera in The Cairngorms, The Backbone of England, Peak Panorama, The Surrey Hills, Highland Holiday, Lakeland Through the Lens. At the height of his photographic career, Walter Poucher functioned as the Great British viewfinder. Prolific and bestselling, across 50 books, most appearing in the 1940s and 50s, he compiled a picturesque geography of mountains, high hills and summit panoramas. If he had the magic eye, success didn’t tempt him to widen his range. "I was never interested in taking pictures of nudes, towns or churches because many people do it. I’ve never wanted to photograph anything but mountains"' Poucher used that iconic twentieth century camera, the Leica, but he was as precise at noting down and recommending viewpoints as an eighteenth century follower of the Rev. William Gilpin. 'At the back of each book appear technical notes and photographic data: what month of the year, what time of day, lens, exposure, aperture, filter. Even exactly where to stand: Click. Click. Click.'

So, Walter Poucher has a significant place in the history of British landscape photography, and his work for Yardley produced the three volume Perfumes, Cosmetics and Soaps (1923), now in its 10th edition. But what intrigues Hayden is the way Poucher didn't separate the two halves of his life: as he hiked over the uplands of Britain he would wear the make-up he had worked on - 'an extreme form of field-testing, and out of pure enthusiasm for Yardley’s products.'  The programme highlighted the funny side of this and re-told the story of Poucher's encounter with Liz Taylor, who 'wished more men took as much trouble with their appearance.'  But it also hinted at interesting questions around our assumptions concerning appropriate or expected behaviour out in the landscape.  In his academic work Hayden has been a key figure in cultural geography's 'performative turn', a shift from the study of representations (the kind of analysis that would highlight the absence of people in Poucher's wilderness vistas) towards an investigation of experiences and ways of being in the landscape.  He sees Poucher as 'someone who made the staging of self into his life’s work; even when it was mountain scenery that was his subject.'  And this is the context for Poucher's appearance in one of the most frequently repeated clips in British television history.  When Grace Jones attacks the chat show host Russell Harty it is for paying too much attention to his other guest: an elderly mountain photographer, seemingly from a different era, until you notice that he is wearing golden gloves and sky-blue eyeliner. 


Friday, May 18, 2012

Cold Mountain

I was at Tate Modern on Monday for the inaugural talk in a new American Artist Lecture Series, organised by the US embassy.  The ambassador's wife Marjorie Susman provided one of the four introductions that preceded Brice Marden's talk and Q&A with Sir Nicholas Serota.  Later in the week she was interviewed with Marden on Radio 4's Front Row, at the ambassador's official residence in an ornate state banqueting room: mahogany table, gilt decorations and, thanks to the State Department's ART in the Embassies programme, a large painting from Marden's Cold Mountain series.  This had recently served as the backdrop to a dinner in which the Obamas met the Queen.  Marden acknowledges that financial and political power can negate the effect of an artwork but thinks that this painting is 'in a position where it's allowed to try to do its work'.  I'm always intrigued by the choice of art works in places of power (No. 10 Downing Street for example) and in this case the choice seems at odds with the inspiration for Marden's painting, that mysterious T'ang Dynasty poet-hermit Han-shan ('Cold Mountain'), an inspirational figure for later Zen poets and painters.  In a brief digression on Monday, Nick Serota recalled showing the Queen around Tate Modern: when she got to the Rothko room she asked, to his surprise, whether "this artist was into Zen".  I like to imagine her at that state banquet, sitting under Brice Marden's painting thinking of Han-shan.  'The Cold Mountain trail goes on and on/ ... Who can leap the world's ties / And sit with me among the clouds?'

Gary Snyder's translations of Cold Mountain, 
A Tokyo National Museum postcard showing a scroll painting of Han-shan and Shih-te,
A Serpentine Gallery postcard showing Brice Marden's Cold Mountain 2 (1989-91).

In addition to Cold Mountain, Brice Marden mentioned on Monday his admiration for Chinese calligraphy, the landscape painter Shitao's treatise on painting, and the tradition of scholar's rocks, several examples of which he now owns.  He has also been inspired by Chinese and Japanese gardens, with their capacity to distill "the energy of the landscape".  A recent canvas uses a shade of blue used in 11th century Chinese pottery, the "colour of sky after rain." It is a colour he may well glimpse here in wet and windy London: a bit of a shock after the Greek island of Hydra, where he has been spending time relaxing at his studio, sitting in the sun and reading Cavafy and Seferis.  He described to Serota another of his studios in upstate New York, at Tivoli, not far from Olana, the former home of Frederic Edwin Church.  Marden was unapologetic about his admiration for the Hudson River landscape, despite its familiar place in American art history: "going through Spring up there is so incredible you just have to make paintings of it."  He said "I love going out drawing in nature, although I don't draw trees and stuff".  Instead he uses trees and stuff: sticks dipped in ink which allow accidental marks and natural variations in the line.  Harder ones are best - it is, he said with a twinkle in the eye, a drag when your stick goes soft.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Margate Walk

We made it to Margate on Monday for the last day of the Hamish Fulton exhibition.  As you can see from the picture above, it was paired with 'Turner and the Elements'.  I won't say anything about the Turners aside from concurring with the views of Iain Sinclair on Front Row: "magnificent paintings worth crawling on your hands and feet to Margate to see" (although you only have three more days to see it, so you may need to start crawling now). Turner's late period will be examined in another show this year at Tate Liverpool, alongside late works by Twombly and Monet.  Whether Hamish Fulton's recent art could be described as a late period may depend on how his practice develops - I should think he is so fit from the walking that he'll be literally scaling new heights for many years to come.  But there's certainly a sense in some of the pieces that he is looking back over a lifetime's work, as in 'WALKING COAST TO COAST COAST TO RIVER RIVER TO COAST RIVER TO RIVER 31 WALKS 1971-2010'.  Other recent text works look back to his earliest hitchhiking and group walking experiences (which I discussed in an earlier post).

For this exhibition Fulton organised a participative walk on Margate Sands around the rectangular Marine Bathing Pool wall.  Imagining I suppose that Fulton might have mellowed into a kind of conceptual art scout leader, my wife wondered if the participants were allowed to talk to each other - but the instructions were strict: to 'walk slowly, in silence'. The point of this was to focus attention on the process of walking itself and the video of the event conveys this contemplative quality, with silhouettes constantly moving whilst the outline of the walk and the mirror-like surface of the water remain still.  It made me reflect on the shapes Fulton has himself traced over the landscapes he has visited, lines visualised for example criss-crossing the map of Europe in 'WALKING COAST TO COAST...' The Margate walk participants interviewed in the video clip below describe the experience as 'cold', 'interesting', 'Zen-like', 'mesmerising', 'therapeutic', 'disorientating', 'cold'...  One says that all he could look at was the bloke in front's shoes, and then spent the whole walk wanting to tell him that his laces had come undone.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Gone fishing

I've been getting interested in the work of Finnish artist Caroline Slotte, who aims to reveal 'the poetry of everyday objects' by reworking found objects, mainly second hand ceramic items. In the examples below, she has cut into and sanded down the dream-like ideal landscapes to be found on discarded plates.  Writing on the V&A blog, Glenn Adamson describes her work as evoking 'the sense of loss and memory that old china often carries in our lives, as it sits silent and half-forgotten in the cupboard.' The museum has an example of her Rose Border Multiple series, in which a set of plates has been cut through and stacked to evoke the 'historical recession of time'.  Looking into these tiny stage sets, like paper theatres, an awareness of their history as mass-produced objects gives way to early childhood memories in which blue and white china plates were an exotic and unfathomable feature of the dining room, with figures that seemed capable of coming to life and landscapes that might allow themselves to be entered into.

Caroline Slotte, Rose Border Multiple, Double Blue II,
reworked second hand object, 2007 
Source: Caroline Slotte, used with permission

Other Caroline Slotte pieces work through a process of erasure, leaving only boats in the Gone Fishing series and cloud patterns in Under Blue Skies.  The former are particularly poignant, where seemingly everything has been forgotten but the presense of a fishing boat. They seem to have sailed into the kind of misty emptiness we associate with Chinese landscape painting, a Taoist void.  In the example below, the tiny vessel appears to be heading past a stain on the plate resembling a low sun seen through fog. (Writing this reminds me that in the previous post here I referred to Leonardo's comment that the artist could turn stains into imaginary landscapes...)  But in Gone Fishing, the landscape, which was nothing more than in fantasy in the first place, has disappeared, and any memories of the plate itself and the story of how it sustained that crack are unrecoverable.

Caroline Slotte, Gone Fishing,
reworked second hand object, 2007 
Source: Caroline Slotte, used with permission

Caroline Slotte is one of several contemporay ceramic artists re-working found objects.  Another is Paul Scott who (like Slotte) features in  Edmund De Waal's The Pot Book, with a piece called Cumbrian Blue(s) Trees in a Fenced Garden (made in collaboration with Ann Linnemann).  The trees are on two porcelain cups and look as if they could come from a Willow pattern landscape but for the small silhouette of an aeroplane above.  The fenced garden is a tray printed with a rolling landscape but surrounded by the kind of railings you would expect to find in a municipal park.  This kind of anti-pastoral pastiche has been used in recent years by designers in various media: the toile wallpaper patterns, for example, of Timorous Beasties and Jessica Smith.  Paul Scott's other designs include Foot and Mouth, Dounreay and Three Gorges After the Dam - a theme addressed by other artists I've mentioned here, in which a Spode bone china Willow pattern plate is mostly submerged beneath the waves.  Pieces like these may provoke a reaction in the spirit of eighteenth century satire, but they have little of the haunting quality to be found in Slotte's reworked objects.  As Edmund De Waal says, her work is engaged in uncovering a mystery, whilst simultaneously contructing a new one.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Strange ridges and shadowy craters

In 1973 Gerhard Richter made a series of paintings based on close-up photographs of oil paintings.  According to Mark Godfrey in 'Damaged Landscapes' (an essay I've referred to before) Richter 'chose images where the swirls of paint seemed to recede from the plane of the painting.  These Details therefore appear like fictitious landscapes with strange ridges and shadowy craters.'  Leonardo da Vinci famously suggested in his Notebooks that 'when you look at a wall spotted with stains, or with a mixture of stones, if you have to devise some scene, you may discover a resemblance to various landscapes, beautified with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, plains, wide valleys and hills in varied arrangement.'  In an earlier post I wondered whether Thomas Jones' A Wall in Naples could be considered a landscape painting, but perhaps I wasn't looking closely enough.  As you can see from the detail below (another sketch made from the roof terrace above the rooms he rented in Naples), the crumbling masonry painted by Jones starts to assume the semblance of a landscape.  But Richter's Details provoke the thought that landscapes might be discerned at some level of magnification in the folds of a velvet dress, the shadow beneath a bowl of fruit or an angel's wing. And I can almost imagine a kind of fractal landscape painting that would depict a view simultaneously at the level of the canvas, the brush stroke and the pigment (which would then need to be exhibited outside, in front of the landscape itself).

Thomas Jones, Rooftops in Naples (detail), 1782

Thomas Girtin, The White House at Chelsea (raking light detail), 1800

The terrain of the paper underneath Thomas Girtin's The White House at Chelsea becomes visible at close range, in raking light (see Peter Bower's essay 'Tone, Texture and Strength: Girtin's Use of Paper' in the Tate's 2002 Girtin retrospective catalogue).  Curators often show us explanatory photographs that resemble geological sections through the paint layers of old masterpieces.  Microscopic images of pigment return us to the basic stuff of landscape - ochre, sienna, umber. Of course this 'thingly substructure', as Heidegger called it in 'The Origin of the Work of Art', should not be confused with the the actuality of the art work.  The quality of the paper in Girtin's painting need not especially interest us (although it is less easy to argue that appreciation of an actual landscape requires no interest in its natural history, an issue I've discussed here before).  Nevertheless, the scrutiny of both detail and overall effect has always been one of the pleasures of landscape art.  In the paintings of Girtin's friend, Turner, the image always seems to be both abstract and naturalistic, however you crop it.  His View of the Arsenal (below) is a vivid reminder of how artists release colour from pigment, so that it comes, in Heidegger's phrase, to shine forth. It is through this process that an art work 'lets the earth be the earth.'
J. M. W. Turner, View of the Arsenal (detail), c1840