How to write about contemporary art – Gilda Williams

How to write

Artists and art writers take note: No matter how good you are at writing, you could probably do with reading Gilda Williams’ How to write about contemporary art.  Williams book details the dos and don’ts of art writing.  She identifies common pitfalls and highlights good writing (by usefully pointing out what it is that makes it good).

Williams’ own writing style is accessible, she divides the text into neat sections covering key points, and breaks up the text with bullet points, quotable sentences in red, and samples of other peoples writing. While recognising that good writing often breaks the rules, Williams lays out a concise framework to hone your art writing style.

This is the kind of book I would like to keep close, to remind myself not to be complacent about writing.

Christina’s World


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.


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.


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.


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.

Untitled: The art of James Castle.


When I happened upon this book at the public library, Untitled: The art of James Castle, I was drawn in by its title Untitled (having never heard of James Castle).  Opening it I fell in love with his curious drawings. Castle (1899-1977) was a self taught artist from Idaho. He was born deaf and never learned to speak, he was also functionally illiterate.  His drawing are made in notebooks or on found ephemera, including packaging, envelopes or other scraps, and some were created using soot and saliva applied with tissue or sharpened sticks.  The contents of his drawings appear to have been inspired not only by his surroundings (scenes from the farm he lived on, portraits of his family) but also by other images he saw, as well as advertising, and text often as mundane as calendars.


It appears that Castle considered the landscapes and interiors to be the public or shared part of his practice and the text works were more like private musings (Bell, 2014, p. 22).  There is a strange notebook filled with an odd calendar, which starts out with recognisable months “… but these are quickly joined by murky abbreviations for new months, XERM, for example. Some months have thirty-one days but most have thirty-three, -four or -five days (always recorded in proper numerical order). About halfway through the notebook, numbers give way to months populated by letters, first in the same calendrical format, then in a reoriented, elastic grid, hinting at Castle’s effortless departure from the ordinary” (Bell, 2014, pp. 29 – 30).



When I first excitedly told Julie about my initial investigation into the pilcrow, she smiled, knowingly, and said, “Oh it’s one of your rabbit holes.” In the two years of supervising me in the MFA programme she’s probably quite accustomed to my crazed enthusiasms, certainly enough to recognise them as the rabbit-holes I follow in the hopes of glimpsing that elusive Wonderland.  There’s been many an occasion where I’ve told her that although I don’t know what it means yet, I’ve stumbled upon another morsel, a little something, like a trail of breadcrumbs.

I like things that have a story, or history, but one that points in many directions. I like things that are suggestive, or secret, unknown, or invisible.  The things I collect are things that could just be ordinary, except there is something that makes them not… they glow with an unacknowledged importance, an unrevealed significance; they whisper to me, and ask me to recognise them.

I found the pilcrow by accident, which is to say, it has been there before me, unnoticed, until suddenly it wasn’t.  And if you are unfamiliar with the word ‘pilcrow’ don’t worry, I was completely in the dark too.  It’s a typographical symbol, which you may well recognise even if you don’t know what to call it, as I didn’t initially (it’s an interesting task googling something you don’t know the name of, but the internet will find it for you eventually).

The pilcrow is this:

Yes, it’s that handy little symbol you can find when you’re word-processing and you need to figure out how many spaces you’ve put in and where.  With the click of a button it can appear and disappear.  Now you see it, now you don’t. Hey presto, abracadabra!

I loved it for its beautiful vanishing act, but I loved it even more when I researched further. By far the best source of information I found was Keith Houston’s book Shady Characters: The secret life of punctuation, symbols & other typographical marks (I requested it from the public library and showed so much nerdy excitement about reading it that I completely bewildered the librarian I picked it up from: “Well, I guess if you’re into that sort of thing” she’d said, smiling politely but dubiously).

The pilcrow is not a mere typographic curiosity, useful only for livening up a coffee-table book on graphic design or pointing the way to a paragraph in a mortgage deed, but a living character with its roots in the earliest days of punctuation. Born in ancient Rome, refined in medieval scriptoria, appropriated by England’s most controversial modern typographer, and finally rehabilitated by the personal computer, the pilcrow is intertwined with the evolution of modern writing. It is the quintessential shady character.

(Houston, 2013, p. 3).

From Houston’s book I learned that the pilcrow evolved from a C (which stood for capitulum) that indicated the beginning of a section or chapter. The ornamentation of the C over time slowly turned it into the pilcrow symbol (Houston, 2013, p. 13).

During the Middle Ages, when monastic scribes were reproducing handwritten scriptures, the pilcrow was considered special enough that it was added subsequently by a specialist rubricator (who inked the headings and initial letters and so on in red). So the scribe would ink all the black parts, the main text block, but left spaces where the red characters could be added (p. 14).

Later when the printing press was invented, the pilcrow was still important enough that it was added in by hand, the type-setters would leave a space for it just as the scribes did.  Only this is where the pilcrow began to vanish.  The rubricators just couldn’t keep up with the pace of the press, and so the convention became that a paragraph is indicated with a blank space or an indent… an empty place that was waiting for a never-to-be-added pilcrow (p. 16).

The pilcrow indicates a transition of ideas, so it could be said to be symbolic of a shift in direction, or new thought, perhaps even a revelation. But its function is that of separating paragraphs, so maybe it more aptly symbolises a brief pause, a breath, the heartbeat before the punchline.

From its heyday of being highlighted in red, the pilcrow is now spectral. It has a position, but that position is filled with a blank. It haunts the spaces in-between. It may just be the ultimate rabbit-hole.

Peter Mendelsund: What we see when we read

My flatmate, (a high school English teacher with a weakness (?) for purchasing strange books from a range of genres), being a sometimes captive audience to my madness research, has become adept at recommending me interesting texts.  The latest one was Peter Mendelsund’s What we see when we read (2014).

Mendelsund is a designer and a writer, and the book is as much a visual text as it is a text text.  Which is refreshingly easy on the brain (although that might be the Masters hangover talking) despite some of the ideas being quite conceptual. Perhaps it feels that way because there is more of a left brain / right brain sharing of the load?

What is brilliant about the book is that it so easily and eloquently points out what should be the bleeding obvious (but isn’t) so that I found myself racing through it thinking, “yes, yes, yes” and feeling like I completely understood in a series of those “light bulb” moments, helped along by his images (oh hello pictures, I’ve missed you so).

Mendelsund exposes the completely different way we “see” when we read, which allows us to imagine characters or scenes without having to pin them down to exacting detail.  He points out how personalised the reading experience is, and the way in which an author will describe a character or scene in a way that is suggestive, allowing the reader to be party to the creation of the experience:

Words are effective not because of what they carry in them, but for their latent potential to unlock the accumulated experience of the reader. Words “contain” meanings, but, more important, words potentiate meaning…

(Mendelsund, 2014, p.302).

In her book Faraway nearby (2013) Rebecca Solnit expresses a similar thought on text as potential:

The object we call a book is not the real book, but its potential, like a musical score or seed. It exists fully only in the act of being read; and its real home is in the head of the reader, where the symphony resounds, the seed germinates. A book is a heart that beats in the chest of another.

(Solnit, 2013, p. 63).

The experience of writing then is to create art that is finished by the reader.  Writing isn’t meant to replicate reality, it can’t replicate reality can it? Because text is always dependent on what the reader does with it in the realms of their own thoughts and imagination. Mendelsund even suggests that perhaps in mimicking the real world, literature draws attention to its inauthenticity (2014, p. 356).  There are some really lovely passages in this book, that I could have gone a bit quote-crazy over (but I managed to resist! Hurrah. Go read the book and find your own quotes) and the accompanying imagery for the most part strikes a good balance of being suggestive without being too illustrative.

What we see when we read made me think about how words can deliver meaning without dictating it, and made me consider the way in which we weave meaning out of the slightest of cues.  Not just when reading, but in how we view art, and how we construct identity (of ourselves and others) through the stories we tell.

When research collides.

He later developed a cocktail of drugs made up of amphetamine, LSD and a pinch of cannabis. He wanted especially to see the colour indigo, which Isaac Newton had rather arbitrarily included in the colour spectrum. After taking his cocktail he faced a white wall and demanded: ‘I want to see indigo – now!’ He was rewarded by ‘a huge, trembling, pear shaped blob of the purest indigo.’ It was, he thought, the colour of heaven.

(Corballis, 2014, p. 142)

I feel a bit as though my research is haunting me.  Or maybe just rewarding my fascination with inter-contectedness. I recently finished reading The Wandering Mind by Michael C. Corballis, which, to my shame, has been sitting half-read on my night stand for some time (but in good company!) and was in equal measures delighted and disconcerted to read the above quote which describes Oliver Sacks (whose book The man who mistook his wife for a hat I read last year) and Newton’s inclusion of Indigo as colour in the rainbow, which I became interested in more recently!  I can’t decide if its a message from the universe that I’m on to something, or its a message from the universe that everyone else is onto something and I’m just late to the party.  I rather suspect the latter.



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.

Untangling Drawing. Part One: Tracing shadows.

An investigation into the language of drawing is a hairy endeavour. At the heart of it are two main questions: What is drawing? And what does it do?

Tracing Shadows

In Michael Newman’s essay for the book The stage of drawing: Gesture and act (2003), he starts by exploring Pliny’s story about the potter’s daughter who traces the outline of her beloved’s shadow on the wall in order to preserve a memory of him when he goes away. The focus of Pliny’s story is that her father then presses clay to this outline in order to create relief portrait, but Newman draws attention to the daughter’s original act as being the primary representation.

What the daughter does is depict something that is fleeting, a shadow, and does so in the most immediate way she can. Her impetus is not to create a portrait of her lover, but to capture a silhouette he has temporarily cast on the wall. Newman suggests that she may use this as memento and therefore as a substitute, but I disagree with this statement, a shadow is not a person (Newman refers to Pierce’s “indexical” sign – that is a sign that refers to what it signifies by virtue of being related to it), when she drew it on the wall the daughter would have already been turned away from her lover. In the act of copying his shadow she holds on to her lover in a way she already realises is tenuous. It is an imperfect double, even before she draws it, and so is a recognition of her understanding of the implication of absence. “Drawing, with each stroke, re-enacts desire and loss” (Newman, 2003, p. 95). There is no substitute, only a trace.

So what is a trace exactly? Tim Ingold, author of Lines: A brief history (2007) defines it in this way: “In our terms the trace is any enduring mark left on a solid surface by a continuous movement” (p. 43), Newman however struggles with the definition, questioning whether traces and marks are the same thing or not:

Is the mark itself a trace? Or the trace of a trace?  Or a mark from which the trace withdraws?  Or the effacement of the trace? At stake in these questions is the relation of the drawn mark to the one who leaves it and the one who receives it. (Newman, 2003, p. 94)

Newman goes on to suggest that the mark is a prescise gesture that obliterates the trace (2003, p. 95) but perhaps that is a subtle difference, could it be that the mark is the lasting visual manifestation of the trace, and therefore related very closely and almost indistinguiable from it?

To me the trace is a haunting, it is a copy, but not a substitute. In the act of re-presentation, the subject is re-created (translated) and becomes something other. It refers to what is absent, at the same time as being present as something different. The trace is irrevocably linked to drawing because both operate within a liminal space, the knife-edge between presence and absense.

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.


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.


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).

Never the same river 2

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.

Never the same river 1

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.