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.

Erica Baum: Dog Ear

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Erica Baum, 2009, Differently.

Not often, but sometimes, I see an image that just makes something catch in my throat, and I am trapped in a moment that’s kind of like a stolen epiphany.  It’s a complex emotion because it is a desperate admiration, but at the same time a horrible aching wistfulness, a silent regret that I didn’t make this, because I want so much to be connected to it.  This is how I felt when I saw Erica Baum’s work Differently (2009) in the latest Aperture magazine.

It is from a series called Dog Ear and Nat Trotman writes this about it:

Works like Differenty (2009) and Enfold (2013) draw attention to the physical layout of margins, page numbers line spacing, and font design while transforming their found texts into syncopated blocks of signification in potentia. The regular folds that cut diagonals across each square frame recall the formal rigour of Minimalism even as they reference the more subjective act of marking significant passages in old books.

(Trotman, 2014, p. 75)

 

The Dog Ear images are so simple and yet so surprisingly complex. There is a a formal beauty to the lines, the way they form a little arrowhead shifting the gaze along the diagonal, and out of the (implied) book. And there is a quirkiness in the random poetry they create, which is sometimes nonsensical, and at other times, perfect and eloquent:

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Yes?

Yes.

How

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I? I would not do that.

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There is a perfection to the discolouring and texture of the pages, and the occasions where hidden type is just visible as a trace through the page.  There is an element of the accidental in the make up of the work that gives it a square composition or clever sentence.  And they touch on all the things that excite me about finding old books, the paper, the typeface, the trace of past use, and the beautiful, clever, delicious words.

There is nothing I can learn from you Erica Baum, because I? I would not do that. differently.

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Erica Baum, 2009, Spectators.

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Erica Baum, 2009, Examined.

 

(And there’s a Dog Ear book too! I must have it!)

Shilpa Gupta

I Live under your sky too

Shilpa Gupta, 2013. I live under your sky too. [Animated light installation, 975 x 488cm]. Bandra, India.

There is no border here

Shilpa Gupta, 2005-2006. There is no border here. [Self-adhesive tapes, dimensions variable] Bristol, England: Bristol Museum and Art Gallery.

The alchemy of transformation.

No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.

-Heraclitus.

Simon Starling is an artist adept in weaving an intricate web of concurrence that is as rewarding as it is provocative.  His work operates within a fluctuation of time and space and deals with a multiplicity of meanings.  Starling appreciates the way workmanship adds to understanding of the story of an object, and displays mental dexterity pulling together ideas to sit alongside one another.

Starling’s success as an artist lies in his acute ability to identify connections and turn them into a narrative that defies linearity and plays deftly with our understanding of time and location. In a sense the work also offers an understanding of both movement and stasis: “His artworks tend to operate as both narrative (velocity) and objects (position)” (Rappolt, 2013, p. 75), due to the shifting territory within which his concepts reside.

What typifies the experience of Starling’s work is a sense of wonder in the encounter as the audience relives the physical or mental journey of the artist, and delights in the seemingly propitious relationship between his ideas. In an interview with Christiane Rekade for the Journal Art History Starling explains his process and how he makes discoveries:

Sometimes you just go looking, you take a journey, keep your head down and your eyes and ears open and look for that connection, that overlap of an idea and an object to occur.  Sometimes if feels like the objects find you – you just have to be aware of it when they do.  And on very rare occasions you have the feeling that the object is only there to be found because you wanted it to be – your imagination somehow forced it into the world.

(Starling as cited in Rekade, 2013, p. 642)

These connections require that the story, or documentary writing to be very much a part of the work, both in the text that accompanies the work (which explains the complexities) as well as the titling which serves to represent the idea as simply as possible.  For example Shedboatshed (2005), cleverly distills the artwork (and its journey) even without the backstory.

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Despite the ambitious scale of some of Starling’s projects craftsmanship is an important element in the work.  The evidence of the process of making is contained within the work as part of the story and its traces of the past.  So that the scarring of the wood in Shedboatshed is a document of its life as shed and a boat before it became a shed once again.

I’m really interested in what it means to make something in a culture in which our connections with making and manufacture are increasingly distant – we have become estranged from the things we use every day.

(Starling as cited in Rekade, 2013, p. 648).

The history of the artwork inherent in the making of the work becomes another layer to its temporal expedition: it references backward and forwards simultaneously. In addition the concepts usually employ a circular logic which creates a story that loops easily back to the beginning.  As a result the work avoids being tied to a particular timeframe, and so occupies a shifting territory between past, present and future: “Time constantly folds back on itself, is conflated or confused – so the future is always set in the present and is always misremembered” (Starling as cited in Rekade, 2013, p. 650).

This understanding of time as a fluid and non-linear entity was the premise behind the show Starling curated for the Camden Arts Centre in London, Never the Same River (Possible Futures, Probable Pasts) (2010). Starling chose a number of artworks previously shown at the centre from various exhibitions and displayed them in the same spot they originally occupied, according to a combination of research into documentation, as well as relying on memory, rumour and speculation (Starling, 2010, p. 33).

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The result of this process was a series of artworks connected over time and space and the strange juxtapositions they create through their mutual haunting of the gallery.  Starling’s strength in identifying relationships is showcased in the selection of the works displayed.

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Thus the show operates to highlight strange commonalities of forms and ideas, but breathes unexpected new life into the work by altering the context with which they are read.

Context is everything, and the history and provenance of an object is as important to Starling as the object itself, perhaps sometimes more important as seen in the paired works A Charles Eames ‘Alumunium Group’ chair remade using the metal from a ‘Marin Sausalito’ bicycle/ A ‘Marin Sausalito’ bicycle remade using the metal from a Charles Eames ‘Aluminuim Group’ chair (1997).

Simon Starling chair bike

Here Starling plays with the relationship between two objects which at first seem very different.  However the title illuminates the fact that each started out as the other and have undergone a transformation so that over the course of their making they switch places.  Each object is convincing, and yet, they both bear the invisible history through the title, and subsequently become more fascinating.  The transformative nature of their existence, though past, compels the viewer to consider the similarities of the objects.  Both are designed to hold stationary and moving bodies (Rappolt, 2013, p. 73).

Starling’s work is as embedded with histories as it is with transformation and temporal shiftiness. The traces of past lives haunt within their new contemporary contexts. Starling is not only a storyteller, but an alchemist.

Simon Starling: In Speculum

Over Easter I managed to visit the Simon Starling exhibition In Speculum at City Gallery in Wellington… I left it a little bit in love.

Starling’s practice is research driven, his artwork is not only the artefact/s on display, but is also inextricably linked to the story of how the artefact came to be. Without the contextualising artist statement, the audience is only seeing part of the work.

In his catalogue essay on Starling, Justin Clemens notes the links between modern science and modern art and provides the following list to sum up the similarities in how these two disciplines operate, both Modern Science and Modern Art:

  1. make the invisible visible;
  2. make the visible invisible;
  3. make the visible visible;
  4. make the invisible invisible;
  5. make the visible an abyss of visibility;
  6. make all beliefs about the visible and invisible unbelievable;
  7. make all knowledge about the visible and invisible partial and temporary.

(Clemens, 2013, p. 18)

This dizzying logic compliments that of Starling himself, the backstory, the narrative is a cluster of stars that make up a constellation.

One of the works, Three White Desks (2008 – 09), incorporates three desks sitting on top of packing crates, two of the desks are white, and one is in natural wood tones. Although there are similarities, such as the number and location of drawers, they are three fairly different desks.

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This work was inspired by an obscure story about how Australian writer Patrick White who was living in London commissioned a young Francis Bacon (prior to his painting career) to make him a writing desk. He was very pleased with the result. White later sold the desk in preparation for returning to Australia, but he regretted doing so and tried to have a copy made from a photograph only to find it a disappointing mimicry of the original (Clemens, Leonard & Gillespie, 2013, p. 65).

Starling took this story and commissioned his own replica of the desk by a cabinetmaker in Berlin. The Berlin cabinetmaker was then instructed to send a photograph of his finished desk to a Cabinetmaker in Sydney, who in turn sent a photograph of his own version to a Cabinetmaker in London. The locations were chosen for their relevance to the story (Berlin being where Bacon encountered modernist designers, London where the desk was bought and made, and Sydney where White commissioned the replica).

Starling’s desks, likened to a game of Chinese Whispers, show a progression of variations. Each desk references the one before it, but with unique characteristics, and all reference of course the absent desk built by Bacon, which only exists in a photograph.

Another work in the exhibition, Wilhelm Noack oHG 2006, is a film (and projector) that explores a metal workshop in Berlin. The Wilhelm Noack oHG has a long history in Berlin that connects it not only to the Bauhaus but also the Third Reich.

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The film shows a combination of still archival imagery alongside moments of action in which the workshop is revealed. Starling employs a sort of self-referential logic; the shots inside the workshop were created by placing the camera on the moving machinery, so it is, in fact, the machinery that films itself.

In addition to this a spectacular projector is displayed, and it vies for attention with the film.

The machine is so extravagant and absurd that our attention is split between watching the film and watching the projector, between looking at the representation of machinery and the machinery of representation.

Leonard, 2013, p. 37.

The projector somewhat resembles a spiral staircase and the film is looped up and down along protruding arms, so that as the images play out on the wall, the film itself is seen moving up and down this specially made apparatus… an apparatus produced in the very same Berlin workshop.

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This exhibition highlights Starling’s deft conceptual concerns and his intricately connected logic. It operates to open up a wonderland of information that connects anecdotal science to storytelling, but more than that, it lingers.  Starling seems to have a knack for opening up just enough information, whilst a vast continent of knowledge is left for our own discovery.

Sophie Jodoin: Open letters.

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Sophie Jodoin, 2013, Letter 4 [conté on mylar, 35.5 x 28 cm]

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Sophie Jodoin, 2013, Letter 8 [conté on mylar, 35.5 x 28 cm]

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Sophie Jodoin, 2013, Letter 7 [conté on mylar, 35.5 x 28 cm]

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Sophie Jodoin, 2013, Letter 9 [conté on mylar, 35.5 x 28 cm]

Jodoin feels she is drawing “the last remnants of something.  They represent the loss of a gesture, of a way in which we used to communicate.  The new generation has never even written a letter, so for them it is not even nostalgia.  The letter is a relic.”