Christina’s World

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I often find, quite by accident, a book in the library that I haven’t seen before. Despite its smallness, there are still unexpected treasures to be found among the stacks.

I picked up Christina’s World because I’ve always liked the painting of the same name, but don’t know much else about the painter Andrew Wyeth.

This book is not at all what I expected, written by Wyeth’s wife, Betsy James Wyeth, it tells the story not of the artist, or so much his paintings, but of the subject, Christina, and her world that inspired Wyeth.

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I’d always seen the figure in the painting as girlish, a teenager perhaps. Her position is curious, out in a field looking back at a house on the hill. Something about the tension in her skinny arms and torso, versus the stillness of her feet suggests her disability.

I was astonished to discover that Christina would have been 55 years old when this was painted in 1948.

The book tells Christina’s incredible story from childhood to death, through the perspective of Betsy Wyeth (who met the adult Christina when she was ten), cobbled together from her own experience of Christina, the stories told to her by Christina during her lifetime, or recalled by childhood friends later on, as well as letters that reveal Christina’s own voice.

Limited geographically by her inability to walk, Christina’s world was a small one one, made rich by the impression she left on those around her. She certainly inspired devotion in her younger brother Alvaro, who was her life long companion.

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This world she lived in provided seemingly endless inspiration to Wyeth whose paintings and drawings fill the book and create echoes of Christina’s story.

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It’s perplexingly difficult to catagorise this book as it isn’t really a biography of Christina, nor is it a monograph of Wyeth’s work, but something between the two, and all the more intriguing for it.

Christina’s life story and her relationships with (in particular) her brother, the house, and the landscape give a chokingly emotional backstory to the dark, earthy paintings and haunting drawings. With author, Betsy Wyeth, being wife to the artist and friend to the subject, I’ve not seen a book put together in quite this way before.

From my subconscious: Quote from a dream

People get upset and disagree because they want to think in binaries; either something is simple or it is complex, but often things are both simple and complex. Simple: you shouldn’t do drugs because it is destructive to your body. Complex: maybe it’s not just about a conscious decision not to.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yes, I’m kind of horrified asleep me is handing out advice about things I don’t understand properly, just interested to wake up remembering something coherent rather than surreal.

An interview

Why Rhubarb Pyjamas?

I don’t think it really mattered what I called the blog, it would become whatever I named it. Before you name something it’s a bit of an enigma, a nothing, once you put words on it, it gets pinned down, but in turn the thing you name changes the meaning of the words.

For example, think of someone you know with a really common name, then think of someone else who also has that name.  Each of those people give the same name a different flavour.  Words need context.

Rhubarb Pyjamas is nonsensical at first, but they’re comforting things, and they’re ordinary things.  I needed to anchor myself in the everyday.  I could have called the blog Ethereal Wasteland which also sounds nice, but then I probably would have blown away on a cloud of vagueness. Continue reading

William Kentridge: The Refusal of Time

The City Gallery, Wellington, presents William Kentridge: The Refusal of Time.  In collaboration with composer Philip Miler, director and editor Catherine Meyburgh and Professor of Science and Physics Peter Galison, Kentridge has created an immersive art installation consisting of five simultaneously playing films, and a moving sculpture, the Elephant.

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The Refusal of Time (2012) incorporates five video works that are projected on to the back of metal facings (criss-crossed with the metal struts and supports). These surfaces have the traces of paint, paper stuck on and ripped away, as well as irregular shapes cut from red card that have been taped on and left. The projected videos are linked but not identical, and are further interrupted and transformed by playing out across this patchy canvas that has been created for them.

A number of wooden chairs (like those I remember from high school) are set out seemingly at random, but actually, they are placed carefully, directed at different screens and underneath megaphones that seem to play slightly altered soundtracks, here talking is heard more clearly, there the music takes over, so that the experience of the viewer is different depending on where they choose to sit.

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It begins with five metronomes keeping time, until they don’t, and the consequent syncopation sets the scene for the duration, where the five screens alter between working in a series (movement happening across all screens in sequence, left to right, or outwards from the middle) to showing similar scenes slipping out of synch with each other creating the effect of moving forwards and backwards in time, or being stuck in a single moment replayed.

Kentridge interrogates the abstract notion of time, and its ownership by the West through the theories of Newton and Einstein to the central control of the Greenwich Meridian.  While the music sets the pace, the soundtrack also incorporates a voiceover lecture (the viewer’s position in the room determines which comes to the fore, and which becomes background), that at one point wistfully tries to take us backward, ‘to undo, to unsay, to unhappen, to unremember.’

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The visuals alter constantly throughout.  Here is Kentridge walking, stepping over a chair, walking, stepping over a chair.  Is it the same chair or a series of chairs endlessly laid out before him? Is the motion circular or linear or somehow both?

There are strange overlaps, and distortions of scale, for example where the action of full scale figures (Kentridge himself doubled) appear as if on the pages of a book and is overlaid by a giant hand writing and drawing over the top.

There is a sequence where we see the night sky appear like chalk on dark paper, creating the spinning cosmos, engulfing the room in the boundlessness of space and then diminishing it again as the artist hands are exposed.

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There is a sense of being overwhelmed, of not being able to keep up with what is happening in the space.  With the screens positioned on three walls, it is impossible to have them all in view and as a consequence the viewer must choose to either look in one direction (aware that they are missing out on something behind them) or to constantly move their head, from one screen to the next as movement catches the corner of the eye.

The soundtrack builds from the initial rhythmic ticking of the metronomes into an eventual cacophony of sound: turbulent, almost triumphant as silhouettes dance into the abyss.

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Throughout it all the sculpture, The Elephant, resolutely keeps time. It is truly the elephant in the room: it is giant, but its consistent rhythm settles it easily into the background.  It is a breathing apparatus, a stand-in for our own lungs, keeping time for our body. The forgotten, but vital, underlying percussion.

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In the pocket between the door outside and the door into the gallery, that odd threshold, that no-mans land between coming and going, I meet Riley.  Opposite doors open at the same time and in that strange synchronicity that life sometimes throws our way (as if to mock the order of time and space) we meet in a doorway in a city that neither of us calls home.

The blue of longing, the blue of distance

The world is blue at its edges and in its depths. This is the light that got lost. Light at the blue end of the spectrum does not travel the whole distance from the sun to us.  It disperses among the molecules of the air, it scatters in water.  (Solnit, 2006, p. 29).

So begins the chapter ‘The Blue of Distance’ in Rebecca Solnit’s book A field guide to getting lost. In the chapter she talks about the atmospheric conditions which create the impression that things seen from a great distance appear to be blue. Like distant mountain ranges. This blue is an illusion. Solnit compares this to the emotion of longing, as something that is ever in the distance, and never within close reach.

Both the blue of distance and the blue of longing are always far away, and can never be reached, because as soon as you get to the mountain ranges the blue will appear somewhere else on the horizon, always just out of reach. Rather like the rainbow, whose mythical pot of gold can never be found because the end of the rainbow is perpetually further away.

In 1690 Isaac Newton split white light with a prism into the colours of the spectrum, and noted these colours as: Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo and Violet. Newton claimed there were seven distinct colours where most would see only six. His inclusion of the colour Indigo, has been controversial. Named after a dye produced in India and valued highly in Europe (being called Blue Gold, to indicate its desirability), Indigo is described as being a colour on the spectrum between blue and violet, but is it only a shade of one or the other and not a distinct colour of its own?

It is thought that Newton, due to the conventions of alchemy, mysticism, and the science of the time (for which seven was a significant number) expected the spectrum to divide into seven distinct colours, and therefore perhaps invented Indigo in order to fit that assumption (Holtzschue, 2011, p. 135). When Johann Wolfgang von Goethe later wrote about colour theory, he revised Newton’s seven colours to the six we are accustomed to seeing in the colour wheel. (Holtzschue, 2011, p. 137).

A description of Indigo is usually as a dark blue (remember Newton’s contemporaries called the dye Blue Gold), or a blue-violet or purply-blue. It is contested territory.

Indigo is a colour that may not really exist. Perhaps it is an illusion, like the blue we see at the horizon, it disappears under close scrutiny.

A few reflections on some random out-of-context stuff from the seminar.

I think I’ve identified the problem I’m grappling with and that is finding a balance between intuition and being purposeful in my art making. A phrase I wrote down twice in my seminar notes was: ‘understanding the consequences of our thoughts’ which is a pretty apt piece of advice for me at this stage of my study.  The problem is, it’s a bit of a conundrum also, because it is all too easy for me to get caught up in the thinking and second guess all of the making to the point of crushing it altogether!  I have to understand the consequences of my thoughts without getting trapped inside them. Understanding the problem isn’t the same as having a solution… but I’m working on it!

On the last day of the seminar there was a really interesting discussion around the division between form, subject and content in artworks.  I’m a bit of a slow burn on this kind of thing so bear with me (and correct me if I’m wrong). As I understand it:

FORM is the materials, what it looks like, how it is made up.

SUBJECT is what it is about, the ideas it explores.

CONTENT is what it does, what the audience reads in the work, what it refers to.

If I’m right, and that is the case then it would seem that in every artwork the artist has control over the form and the subject, but not the content. The artist should understand what the content might be, and perhaps even aim for a particular content to come across, but this is the slippery part because they cannot guarantee a specific content to successfully come across to the viewer. I think maybe it only happens when the form and the subject are very cleverly aligned. Maybe this is what Anthony means when he talks about something humming?  Perhaps also content could be aligned to the artist’s intentions… a work is successful when the content and intention are very close, and less successful where the intentions and content don’t match?

It’s a bit of a brain teaser, but it’s possible probable that I am over thinking it.

David Thomas talked about the benefit in ‘wasting time’ which is not the same as squandering time, rather allowing for time without intention and just being in the world.  I’m resolving to do more of this.  Some of my better ideas have popped into my head, fully formed, out the blue when I’m in the middle of something else, so making time to waste time is probably very valuable for an over-thinker like me.

Copies… in no particular order

  • remaking
  • taking
  • borrow
  • steal
  • adopt
  • duplicate
  • use
  • imprint
  • imitation
  • repetition
  • reenactment
  • redrawing
  • repainting
  • rewriting
  • replica
  • double
  • twin
  • mirror
  • ditto
  • doppelgänger
  • aide mémoire
  • recreation
  • interpretation
  • transcription
  • translation
  • mimicry
  • restoration
  • fake
  • faux
  • counterfeit
  • facsimile
  • likeness
  • reflection
  • mirror
  • shadow
  • ghost
  • portrait
  • photograph
  • print
  • clone
  • counterpart
  • impression
  • reproduction
  • reconstruction
  • appropriation
  • plagiarism
  • forgery
  • quote
  • paraphrase
  • imitation
  • publication
  • piracy
  • representation
  • duplication
  • trace
  • repetition
  • simulacrum
  • feign
  • simulate
  • echo
  • rework
  • photocopy

Circular logic… or something to do with drawing circles.

In 2009, on a brief trip to London I visited the Science Museum where two things made a lasting impression on me: Charles Babbage’s brain (or half of it), and a pantograph.

C Babbage brain

Charles Babbage (1791 – 1871) is largely credited as being the father of computers, due to his invention of the Difference Engine, which was basically an enormous mechanical calculator, and the Analytical Engine, which was a more refined machine that was programmable. He never actually completed a machine, but subsequent engines built from his plans, using technology that would have been available to him were made and work! (Science Museum, 2014). When Babbage died his brain was removed in an attempt to sate Victorian curiosity about what made him so smart, and half of it sits in a jar in the Science museum. It was my first encounter with a preserved brain.

Also on display at that time was a Pantograph, and it fascinated me with its ingenious simplicity. Struck with enthusiasm I was determined to come home and make my own, but as it happened it got stored for later in my own brain and largely forgotten. It was only recently through a deeper research into drawing and reproduction that I got to thinking of drawing machines and I revisited the pantograph idea.

Through my research into the pantograph I discovered references to The Turk, a chess-playing automaton invented in 1770 by Wolfgang Von Kempelen (1734 – 1804), because part of the armature of the automaton uses the scissoring mechanism of a pantograph (Buchanan, 2013, p. 21).

Mechanical Turk

Built to impress Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, this mechanical player was a source of fascination for over 80 years before it was destroyed in a fire in 1854. During that time many people tried to discover how it worked, most concluding that there had to be a human chess player cunningly concealed within. The Turk famously bested Benjamin Franklin, Catherine the Great, and Napoleon Bonaparte -when he tried to cheat, the automaton responded by sweeping the pieces off the board (Standage, 2004).

Charles Babbage played it twice, and though he was positive it was a hoax, the Turk inspired him to work on his computing machines, convinced that a machine capable of calculating could, in fact, be done (Standage, 2004).

One of the tricks the Turk performed was the Knight’s tour, a mathematical problem in which the knight (moving in its characteristic diagonal moves) must travel to every square on the chessboard just once. It turns out that there are endless solutions to this problem (although it is difficult), however there are a limited number in which the tour ends in a way that a final move would place it on the square on which it began, a ‘closed’ tour, and this is the performance the Turk was known for.

Knight's tour

Currently on my reading list is Georges Perec’s Life a Users Manual, which I was delighted to discover follows the format of a Knight’s tour (Gidley, 2000). Using the tour as a literary device, Perec builds the story by investigating, chapter-by-chapter, the rooms of characters living in an apartment building – a ten by ten block.

Life a user's manual

When I was growing up my dad was always trying to teach one of us to play chess. Arguably the most patient of our pack, he must have torn his hair out to discover that I had no interest in learning what seemed like endless rules. I remember he had an electronic chessboard that was designed so you could play chess alone. What a melancholy thought! I could just barely remember what it looked like, but with a little research and the help of two siblings I discovered it was called the Chess Challenger 7.

I want to call it the Turk of its day (1970s rather than 1770s), but that’s problematic of course, as it owes more to Charles Babbage than it does to Baron Von Kempelen, being more about technology and less about misdirection and illusionism. Writer Arthur C. Clarke said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” (Clark as cited by Arthur C. Clarke Foundation, 2014). A chess playing machine from the 70s is very old hat when you consider the technology of, say, a smart phone, and yet, I couldn’t even build you a chess machine, let alone tell you how a smart phone actually works on a technological level. So despite the fact we take these things for granted a little, particularly now that chess games like this are obsolete, they really do represent magic to people like me.  Even though the Turk was just an elaborate disguise for an uncomfortable chess master, the mechanics of the hoax seem far more magical to the modern eye than the electronics of the Chess Challenger 7… in fact I find my memory wants to make it more magical than it was: “I can’t remember, did it talk?” I asked my sister.  In retrospect we’re fairly certain it didn’t, but somehow I can almost hear it say “Check Mate!” in robotic tones.

Chess Challenger 7

The Chess Challenger 7: was it possible Mum still had it tucked away in storage? When I asked, my mum was confident it was long gone, probably to a school fair, but as a consolation she offered me a smart leather folder belonging to my dad that housed a note pad and a calculator.

I’ve been thinking a lot about truth and fiction, hoaxes, copies and substitutes, and the serendipitous connections that link this to that. With all that in mind it seems fitting that I should go home to find the Chess Challenger 7 and come back with Dad’s old calculator.

Why drawing?

Last year I had a particularly difficult critique session characterised by a lingering deathly silence. It panicked me, because all I could think of was that the work was so alienating that no one could get any reading from it at all, and as a result I was jumpy and defensive, and terrified that I’d been found out as a fraud. It was during this frustrated and uncomfortable silence that the question “why drawing?” was levelled at me in what I took at the time to be a confrontational manner. The question knocked all the wind out of me (what wind was left!) and I cannot for the life of me recall what my answer was except that it was stuttered out in with all the gawkish awkwardness I had, I thought, hidden away carefully.

Why drawing? Later it made me angry. Why not drawing? No one asks a photographer ‘Why photography?’ I told myself. Drawing is my medium, I thought, perhaps slightly possessively, jealously, as though to hold it tight to my chest and sooth myself with its familiarity. But I knew that wasn’t good enough truly. Even through the anger. And later still it came to me late at night, why drawing? Like a haunting.

I didn’t set out to be an artist that draws. A drawer. It’s an ungainly, unflattering word, especially spoken out loud. I never intended to draw specifically; I had always secretly hoped to be a painter really. I tried on other things at first, flirted with other mediums and methods, made things, objects that I was never quite comfortable calling sculpture. At one time I was quite convinced I was a printmaker. But eventually I fell into drawing because I thought it might lead to painting. I figured it was the start of things, the beginning, and maybe it could have been, or should have been, if only I could bring myself to move on.

I got sucked in to drawing thinking that once I’d mastered it I could logically make the next step. But it was a trap! There is no mastery of drawing. No matter what you do it can always be better, sharper, cleaner, more precise, and when you are done with that (and I am not yet!) it can always be more expressive, looser, smudgier, softer, harder, bigger, smaller. It can copy, create, demonstrate, elucidate! The more I studied drawing the less sense painting even made to me, how could I commit to colour, to texture, to brushstroke when there are so many questions still lingering around line and tone? Why complicate the language when there is so much that can be said with adding and erasing?

The more enamoured I grew with drawing; the more it became not only my medium, but also my subject. There hidden away at the bottom of my investigations was that drawing was one of the simplest expressions of trace. Suddenly my fascination with the connections between different people, and between people and objects, and the connections between past and future, left hemisphere and right hemisphere, text and image and text as image; my fascination with reproduction and reconstructions could only be answered in the simplest, sparest, most modest mark making. It seemed unnecessarily complicated, cruel even, to burden these thoughts with all the baggage of the historical pedigree of painting (or printmaking, or sculpture…); or to encumber these ideas in the heavy trappings of traditions, technical craftsmanship, or the controversies of the fashionable. Other mediums seem so laden with baggage from the past. Drawing I find deceptive in its simplicity and universality. Drawing is the wallflower, the quietest voice with the most to say. Drawing is the ancestor of everything, and yet because it has always been there, somewhere, minding its own business, it has escaped the limitations of other art forms with their standard expectations and their rules, rules, rules.

That sounds unfair, like I’m dismissing out of hand all other ways of working, but I’m not, I promise. I suppose I am really trying to figure this out, in a verbose outpouring, which is primarily a stream of consciousness, just why it is that drawing appeals to me, and why I feel so strongly that it is the best way to say what I want to say. The truth is… What is the truth? What do I think drawing can do differently? Why choose drawing as the vehicle of my ideas? Is it honest to think that no other medium could possibly do the job?

Why drawing? I don’t have an answer that will necessarily satisfy that question, and I suspect it will continue to haunt me, because in truth my answer is simply because I haven’t finished yet…