Contextual Studies Essay

Eight months in Cyprus:  Discoveries and Observations
2009

In coming to Cyprus College of Art, I aimed to make a return to painting and overcome some of the issues that have been preventing me from painting over recent years.  I graduated in 2000 from the University of Leeds with a BA Hons Fine Art.  This was a highly academic course with an emphasis on theory guiding studio practice, which challenged me to really question the role of art in a cotemporary and conceptual context. I started this course as a painter, and not really a conceptual artist, but the focus of the course was very much on conceptualism as the dominant art form, and after four years, I came to believe that no artists of any merit really painted anymore, and certainly not on a stretchered canvas – unless they could come up with a strong conceptual idea as to why they would do so.  My own art practice focused largely on textual pieces, using photographic images of words, implying the text was referencing an image.  This work was a playful response to theories of semiotics and I was interested in the idea that the words themselves could equally mean everything and nothing.  I was however not fulfilled or satisfied by this work, and art became more of an intellectual activity than a creative one.  Attempts to return to painting in recent years were not wholly successful and I realised I needed an intensive period of study in order to rediscover my artistic practice. 

To return to painting and drawing has been a challenge, and I have struggled with my own criticism and a lack of confidence in the purpose of painting.  Technically I have some well-developed skills but the challenge to me was how to value and understand my place in the contemporary art world as a painter.  Before I could start, I was plagued with questions such as what it means to paint an image?  What is the reason for it?  What is worthy of being painted?  What style of painting is most relevant?  What is the meaning of painting on a stretchered canvas?  

In Cyprus, I have searched for the answers to these questions in several places; in discussions with fellow students and visiting artists, studies of artists in books and films, and in the actual process of producing my own work.  I soon realised that not all artists are bound by the concerns that have been holding me back, and that contemporary art is a diverse activity where there are always artists working in a range of art forms, even if that art form is not the popular or dominant art form of the time.  The more I read about contemporary art, the more I realised that the same issues arise again and again in terms of subject matter, artistic value, originality, conceptualism and technical skill.   Within all art forms there are the critics and enthusiasts, and the ‘fashion’ for a certain type of art is partly created by the critics and collectors, who seek the new and the exciting to replace the old, and then later‘rediscover’ what they previously put to death.  I discussed with Ken Hay, Professor of Fine Art at Leeds University, visiting artist at Cyprus College of Art and my former personal tutor at Leeds, that the art world today is so diverse, and that we are at a stage where really ‘anything goes’.  We concluded that it is therefore up to the artist to define his or her own practice and to be confident in this practice.  Being aware of the wider issues in art, to provide an intellectual support to the work is important, but perhaps most important is to produce work within your chosen art form to the best of your ability and to continue to challenge yourself within this practice.
I have reread many of the essays in ‘Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art’, by Kristine Stiles and Peter Selz, which I first read at Leeds, and have found I am able to read these from a new viewpoint, adding strength to my own internal argument for the value of continuing to paint.  I took particular pleasure in reading Kristine Stiles’ description of the work of Mel Bochner (b 1940, United States), a painter and critic who the late 1960’s abandoned painting on a canvas and began to work directly on the floor or wall, demarcating visual dimensions of space, volume, directions and measurements.  He stated, 

“No thought exists without a sustaining support.  The first measurement piece I did was because I was unable to put anything on the paper.  Nothing at that moment seemed meaningful enough to note.  I had two sheets of paper on the wall which I was just looking at.  Suddenly I saw the space between them.  I saw that it was as much the subject as the paper.  I measured that distance and drew it on the wall…. When I took down the sheets of paper I had the measurement alone.  I puzzled me.  It still puzzles me.  What does it mean to have 25 inches drawn on the wall?” (1) 

Stiles describes this statement as being a benchmark of the critical issues at the core of conceptual art.  She then goes on to state, 

“After exploring such questions for ten years, Bochner returned to painting” (2) 

Perhaps it isn’t the painters’ job to think too much about what it means?  Perhaps we should leave that to art historians and theorists and focus on developing our paintings?  Maybe the focus be less on art as a highly intellectual activity, and instead on the actual act of ‘making’ as a practical and emotional activity, something that doesn’t always need to be conceptualised? 

As I have become more confident in my ability to be a painter in the contemporary art world, the issue of what to paint became important.  I presumed I would start with landscapes and that my paintings would be big and bold and ‘drippy’ as they had been on my Foundation Course.  But I found I couldn’t go back to what I had done over twelve years ago, as my views and knowledge had changed so much.  I did however find the words of Lucian Freud, talking about what to paint in 1954, particularly useful starting point.  He stated, 

“A painter’s tastes must grow out of what so obsesses him in life that he never has to ask himself what it is suitable for him to do in art…The painter’s obsession with his subject is all that he needs to drive him to work”  (3) 

My environment, and the space and objects within it fascinate me so I began observing, recording and representing objects and settings around me.  I realised that celebrating the banal and the ordinary, and elevating these through the process of image making was something that really excited me.  Allowing myself to explore this has led on to a range of drawings and paintings, through which I have been able to answer some of my concerns for myself. 

My work has begun to develop in two ways, firstly in observation and discovery.  Discovering how objects exist within certain environments and how they appear to take on a life of their own within these spaces.  Starting with a specific object or setting, the process of observation is recorded through drawing.  Images are built outwards from the central focus and details are included until the end of the page causes me to stop.  Objects therefore appear off centre, or disappear off the page, as other objects enter from another area, reducing the design in the composition and embracing the informality of the process.  I am interested in how this creates a suggestion of a narrative, through the relationship between the different elements, and through the placement or selection of objects within the image. The images I paint are to me typically Cypriot, as in my explorations around Lemba, I have come across plastic chairs, tables, discarded motorcycles, falling down buildings, concreted paths and then tree and plants breaking through.  My paintings are developed from the initial drawings from life, and the objects or scene are recreated in the same way as I discovered them in real life.  My work does not look entirely realistic, and the mundane settings become almost graphic, with highly contrasted colours or tones, to create an almost plastic reality or digitally enhanced image.  In Cyprus there are many property magazines and adverts promoting villas or hotels, which paint a rather surreal image of a world digitally enhanced beyond reality.  
Realism is not something I am striving to achieve in my painting. It could be easy to presume that I am using photographic or digital processes in my work, but my images are not created through photographic or digital processes however, and the ‘snapshot’ I create is the result of an extended period of observation and response. 

The second strand of work I am developing focuses on the single object.  Using stylistic conventions associated with promoting design products as well as the convention of placing conceptual objects within a white cube, I am trying to elevate a mundane object into something special and worthy of observation, creating permanence in something that is really only intended to exist temporarily.  In many cases this has been a plastic stool or chair, something that is visible all over the countryside in Cyprus.  I present it as a perfectly functional form, almost as a promotional poster, but this perfection is illusory in several important ways:  the illusion of objectivity is true to the surface texture only, as the forms themselves often contain inaccuracies and distortion.  It would not be possible to sit on these plastic chairs and when seen against the actual object they reference, they actually represent the object in a hyper-real way.  

In a way, this elevation of the object is also a response to the accepted formula of conceptual art.  Matthew Collings, in ‘This is Modern Art’ discussed the fact that many conceptual pieces need to be big, shiny, and professionally produced and exhibited within a perfect white cube.  I am playing with the canvas being this big white cube, and how the canvas relates to the object depicted.  I have experimented with the white background, creating a sense of space, or a flattened surface with white, and explored how the background can either elevate the object or consume it.  I have also played with the fluidity of paint which allows the object to become believable as a painting again, or allows the painting to become part of the object. 
     
Reviewing my work in Cyprus, I can see how it relates to my interest in the fact that so much of our world is mediated through enhanced digital imagery.  The strong contrasts of colours and airbrushing that take place in many of the images we see affect our understanding of how the world really looks, and therefore must effect the production and interpretation of my images.  I enjoy having the ability as the artist to play with my composition or my material, by enhancing colours and contrasts and by allowing paint to drip from an object or employing a wandering fragmented ink line, to remind the viewer that what they are seeing is not ‘reality’ or a ‘hyper reality’ but is my interpretation of this through the process of drawing or painting.  Lucio Fontana felt that the mechanical age meant artists had to respond to a new spirit, he claimed, 

“the quiet life has disappeared.  The notion of speed is constant in human life.  The artistic era of paints and paralysed forms is over”  (4) 

But perhaps painting has a greater relevance to our world today in the digital age? Images are so readily available to us, and a non-tangible digital world has created a second reality where objects have less significance, and information is distributed and exchange instantaneously.  But in a sense, I feel the act of painting and the existence of paintings as objects in a specific time and place, can slow the pace down, allow time for reflection and create a connection and understanding for the artist and viewer to the world. 

Whilst I am still burdened with niggling doubts about my work, I am much more confident, and enjoying what I am producing.  My time at the Cyprus College of Art has been particularly useful to me, and I have begun to understand that the ‘conceptual’ element of painting, the justification for the work, actually develops naturally alongside painting, not be the precursor of it.  I feel inspired to move on from here and continue my painting practice and I don’t feel as much need to challenge the convention of painting or to justify wanting to paint.  I have realised that while art courses in the university system in England may be dominated by conceptualism, there are many artists working in studios who are painting – many of whom would have been pushed toward conceptualism within their degree courses, but on leaving have decided they want to continue what they really want to do, what feels most natural to them.  Whilst they may be seen by some as traditionalists, as uneducated about the contemporary art world or ‘stuck in the past’, I would argue that there are actually many artists today who are accepted as contemporary artists for their conceptual pieces, who actually are quite unaware of the wider context of art, and are simply creating works that fit the ‘conceptual formula’.  They don’t’ have to question its’ value or fight for its’ place in the art world, because conceptualism has become the accepted practice of the British Art Schools.  I have come to conclude that conceptual ‘non traditional’ art is just another convention that is likely at some point to fall out of favour.  And as for all my initial questions, I feel now like they don’t really matter, what is important is that I am responding to a need within me to make art, and to respond to the world around me through painting and 
drawing. 

Footnotes 

1. Mel Bochner, Page 807, Documents and Theories of Contemporary Art, Kristine 
Stiles and Peter Selz, University of California Press, 1996 
2. Kristine Stiles, Page 807, Documents and Theories of Contemporary Art, Kristine 
Stiles and Peter Selz, University of California Press, 1996 
3. Lucian Freud, Page 219, Documents and Theories of Contemporary Art,  Kristine 
Stiles and Peter Selz, University of California Press, 1996 
4. Lucio Fontana, Manifesto Blanco (1946), Page 48, Documents and Theories of 
Contemporary Art, Kristine Stiles and Peter Selz, University of California Press, 
1996 


Bibliography 

1. Documents and Theories of Contemporary Art, Kristine Stiles and Peter 
Selz,University of California Press, 1996 
2. This Is Modern Art, Matthew Collings 
3. Ways of Seeing, John Berger, Pelican Books, 1972