Sunday, 27 March 2011

How? and Why? ... Questions to ask Artists

Some art makes you immediately ask yourself “Why?” Why on earth did the artist decide to make that? To put those materials together? To rearrange, to construct in such a way etc?

Other art makes you ask “How?”

Michael Rowe is an artist whose work makes me ask “How?” You could say that that’s because he is an applied artist working at the top of his field. An artist where knowledge of his chosen material, metal, is supreme.

I was rushing along a busy pavement in London when I was stopped in my tracks by Square the Block by Richard Wilson.

The question this time was “Why?” The answer? “Why not?” or “Because I can” or “Because it will get the reaction of making people stop in their tracks, smile, ponder, laugh etc.”

There are some schools of though that say that if you are a fine artist then the questions that people will ask about your work will be more of the “Why?” ones and that if you are an applied artist then the questions will be much more of the “How?”

In the British art scene especially there seems to be an insistence on labeling an artist as either applied or fine.

I am an artist who wants my work to say something but I am also concerned with the method and quality of construction.

What if you have a passion for materials, you enjoy understanding construction methods and also being involved in the physicality of making? Does that put you completely in the applied artist camp? No I don’t think so.

I bumped into Mike Gallagher, gallery technician at New Art Gallery Walsall on the opening night of the recent show, The Life of the Mind: Love, Sorrow and Obsession. I asked Mike questions about the construction of these wooden letters. (Bob and Roberta Smith had mentioned his appreciation of the help of the technicians in his speech that evening.)

Mike had really enjoyed working with Bob & Roberta. Starting with a sketch for the letter ‘E’, the technicians worked using graph paper, a sense of playfulness and a knowledge of wood work to make the complete piece. Mike was bemused when I asked about mitred joints.

This was probably because most people had asked the “Why?” questions: e.g. “Why all this talk about Walsall’s Mona Lisa?” but I was asking the “How?” questions about the actual construction of the wooden lettering. In this instance it was because I knew that the idea for the piece was actually Bob & Roberta’s but that Mike had made it and also because I have a fair knowledge of woodwork and cabinet making and am always looking to extend my skills.

There was no artist to ask when I spotted this bit of rather unusual boxed in pipe.

The person who decided to use fake rustic dark wood beam cladding to clad the toilet pipes in this 16th century cafe in Stafford probably didn’t see himself as an artist.

But really! The craziness!

The reaction in my mind that this wonderful juxtaposition of fake plastic aged timber alongside a 20th century toilet cistern is worthy of an artist.

I’m asking myself “Why? What possessed you?”

Joana Vasconcelos is an artist whose work has made me ask both “Why?” and “How” questions.

Red Independent Heart was one of the pieces that she showed in her solo show at New Art Gallery Walsall back in 2007. Knowing that it is made from plastic cutlery I ask myself lots of questions about construction, but that is only one aspect of her work.

She is an artist who uses materials for their meaning and there are very definitely stories behind each piece.

However, her work can be read on several levels. You don’t need to know that Red Independent Heart refers to the famous filigree jewellery from the town of Viana do Castelo in Portugal. The heart shape is also a traditional shape for this jewellery.

Joana Vasconcelos is an artist who works on a huge scale and although I am interested in her subject matter, national identity and female identity, I am especially interested in how one gets to the stage she is at now.

What I ask about Joana Vasconcelos now is how do you get to the stage where you have a team working for you, an atelier of your own and working on such huge commissions?

One of my absolute favourites of Vasconcellos’ is A Joia do Tejo (2008). Perhaps it’s the direct interaction with architecture and also the story that I immediately start to compose around this piece. It has much of the fairy tale about it.

I’ve also enjoyed looking at images of some of her metal frames being constructed. This is especially pertinent for me as I am currently on an AA2A residency at Coventry University.

Since October I have been challenging myself to work on a significantly larger scale and also to learn how to weld.

In my practice I definitely enjoy the period of creation, but actually a lot of this is the creation that takes place in my head.

I like the thinking, the research, the searching for materials, the pondering, the decisions about form. So much of this happens before I have even put pencil to paper. I have a fantastic visual memory.

I like to work intuitively and try not to analyse why I am putting various materials together. I like to keep a lot of my creative decisions in my subconscious.

It seems to work for me.

Learning how to fabricate in steel has been exciting. Read my AA2A project blog here.

When I made Cyril in 2007, I paid some metal fabricators to make the internal frame. Back then I could see the potential of this technique for making more sculptural pieces.

When I made Madeleine I used copper pipe and MDF to make the frame myself. This way I could make decisions and adjustments during the process.

Since October I have asked several artists “How?” questions. Specific questions about working in metal and also working on a larger scale.

Richard Bett has been especially supportive.

Working hands-on is absolutely the best way to learn a technique. Spending the day with Richard on the construction of one of the frames for a new being was absolutely invaluable.

But when these new beings are exhibited next year I want people to be asking “Why?” questions way before they even think about “How?”

This spiny looking cage will be quite different once she is clad in dusky pink very fine tweed, white wet look PVC and a sort of spinach coloured shaggy frayed fringing.

I know why!