Here’s the finished podcast, featuring the voices of Dan Coombs, Alfred Hitchcock, Tippi Hedren, and others.
What happens when a film behaves like a painting?
Can still images contain narratives?
Who is ‘the girl’?
Here’s the finished podcast, featuring the voices of Dan Coombs, Alfred Hitchcock, Tippi Hedren, and others.
What happens when a film behaves like a painting?
Can still images contain narratives?
Who is ‘the girl’?
I’ve been very quiet recently – in fact I haven’t said a word – about Suspicion, the current show at Jerwood Space. That’s not because I don’t have anything to say about it, am shirking responsibilities, or am more sinisterly indisposed (have been poisoned, for example…). I’ve decided to respond to the show with a podcast, and, in my experience, it takes a surprising amount of time to put a podcast together.
But a response to the exhibition is in the works, and is partly an attempt to capture, through sound, the foreboding atmosphere that many of the paintings share. The spine of the podcast will be an interview with the painter Dan Coombs, the curator of the show. I recently met Dan in the gallery, where we talked about painting, suspense, and Alfred Hitchcock, among many other things. As Dan explained to me, his idea for the show derived from a ten-second section of Hitchcock’s 1941 psychological thriller, in which the dashing playboy Johnnie Aysgarth (played by Cary Grant) ascends a mansion staircase carrying a glass of milk for his wife Linda McLaidlaw (Joan Fontaine). Hitchcock had his special effects department light the glass from within, which lends the object an otherworldly quality. It’s unclear whether or not the milk has been poisoned – we never find out, but the possibility is there – and this ambiguity charges this short sequence with the intensity, visual and symbolic, of a painting.
The podcast should be online in the next few days. In the meantime, here are a few screenshots from the scene in question:
Thanks to @matthewjmclean and @LizzieHom for (inadvertently, I’m sure) embroiling themselves in a mercifully brief but entertainingly awkward Twitter exchange with the author of these blog posts several days ago. I’m glad it happened, though: Matthew kindly recommended a number of recent articles that might otherwise have escaped my (inattentive, at times) attention. I’ll be drawing on some of those texts and images in the following post. And continuing in the open, generous spirit of ‘stealing other people’s research’, I’ll also be discussing a wonderful, and wonderfully understated, short film by Yvonne Rainer suggested to me by Kate Morrell following our recent email exchange.
I was excited (and a little humbled) to encounter Kerry Doran and Lizzie Homersham’s excellent piece ‘Digital Handwork‘ in Rhizome, published several months prior my post, unbeknownst to myself, in which the authors explore the various manifestations of hands in digital art: labouring hands, sensory hands, human connections. Although my ignorance of their text no doubt demonstrates the fact that it’s always good practice to Google your subject prior to going public with an article, I consider this blog an unfolding project – I think I said so at the start – and, actually, it’s as cogent and wide-ranging an essay as one could hope for: ‘In all cases,’ the authors argue, ‘hands act upon viewers, detached from bodies yet still enacting desire.’ The piece demonstrates how the advent of digital networks, augmented realities and technological bodies (engaged in labour or leisure, performance or play) have not rendered biological hands – already a familiar art-historical motif – an anachronism. These appendages have, in fact, permeated the ‘framing of human life by digital technologies, as well as the shaping and subversion of these technologies by humans.’ Humans, yes… But also, for our purposes, bears.
Peter Ole Rasmussen’s work in the Jerwood Drawing Prize 2014 is the self-explanatorily titled ‘4 Bears, 3 Standing, One Bending Down’. The ambiguity of the image – the slightly sinister aura of a clandestine congregation of muscular animal-men; the eyeless, inscrutable faces, one of which appears to have just this moment apprehended the viewer; the suggestion of stalled movement, of creatures paused in a journey east; the quivering outlines, the sketchily drawn and re-drawn lines – make the piece, for me, among the most intriguing in the exhibition. Some of the other drawings in the show – the works by Gary Edwards and Jonathan Huxley in particular – emphasise the gravity of carbon; the paper’s receptive surface warped beneath repeated applications of lead, the steady pressure of the artist’s hand. Rasmussen’s work in oil, by contrast, offers a more provisional vocabulary of gestures and marks, one which naturally extends to his depictions of (four-fingered) hands.
It would be hard to imagine these cartoonish hands fondling smart-screens to upload selfies or fling revengeful birds across cartoon terrains. Yet the ‘inaccuracy’ of Rasmussen’s bears’ hands, their protruding, balloonish chubbiness, points towards an obvious rift between the physical hand and the surface image, the digit and the digital. Fundamental to the development of Apple’s first ‘multi-touch glass display’ – the tactile screen that to a large extent defines the operation of iPhones and iPads – during the early 2000s was an acceptance of the fact that fingers are, by computational standards, massively inaccurate, and that any technology premised upon the encounter of fingertip and computer chip would need to be built from scratch (partly, one assumes, to secure a new patent on any such technology, and thus greater market share). Who wanted a stylus? Not Steve Jobs, for one – he could not countenance that fiddly mini-pen. Retiring the stylus was an elegant and necessary design choice, to be sure, but it presented Apple with a problem. Rather than modify an existing hard- and software, a whole new operating system had to be written; one built around the fact that fingers, in relation to pixels, are fat. On this point Jobs may have been inspired, but probably wasn’t, by the episode of The Simpsons in which Homer gains weight in order to work from home.
Homer Simpson’s fatness, like his low IQ, is a running joke. By conventional Western liberal standards, he is a ‘bad father’ – stupid, capricious, lazy, self-involved; a neglectful protector and scatterbrained disciplinarian – and therein lies his satiric potential. The fact that he’s a cartoon and not a real person means that his excessive corpulence to be exaggerated for grotesque effect, milked for parody: the ‘inaccuracy’ of his representation (yellow skin, bulging eyes) makes him, counterintuitively, a perfect vehicle for exacting observation.
I first saw Rasmussen’s drawing at the Jerwood Drawing Prize 2014 private view, a matter of days after attending the private view for Paul McCarthy’s current show at Hauser and Wirth. McCarthy himself was there – haggard of beard, wicked of grin, but sporting a beautiful pair of spectacles, he resembled a gin-swigging uncle made good – in a hot room thronged with the requisite quota of perma-tanned millionaires, chatting with the (immaculately attired, to my mind) curator H.U.O., and although I was not close enough to eavesdrop it was clear from his (Obrist’s) genuflecting body language that the work was being lavishly praised. Among the lurid paintings on display was one memorable piece in which a skinny nude woman with vivid, wound-red nipples and oversized head could be observed squirting a long brown streak of liquid faeces onto the eyeless, open-mouthed supplicant below, while, elsewhere in the image, yet more pink and eyeless creatures gave and received fellatio – for all its apparent dynamism, it was a strangely numb-seeming debauch.
McCarthy’s new works were vaguely fun in a deviant, Johnny Ryan-ish way, but they were not shocking; and without the shock, there was little interest. And so, as we finished the final millilitres of our complimentary beers (Becks, the labels loosening off the bottle with condensation), we moved into the final room, which was filled with drawings.
If McCarthy’s paintings presented the ‘headline act’ in all its predictable fullness – an excess that you predicted prior to seeing the works on show; an excess that fails because it fails to exceed your anticipation of it – then the drawings possessed a virtual quality inherent to the medium of the sketch: a form which by its nature is unable to produce a ‘finished’ work. Instead of the paintings’ wisecracks and punchlines, these drawings – messy, gestural, seemingly the product of a minutes-long tantrum – were less resolved, and thus more openly suggestive. The best of these works did not present pornography as pornography (McCarthy-the-painter’s modus operandi, it would appear) but hinted towards the grim rituals by which the body is rendered object, and abject, without asserting such contexts blatantly. Hands and other body parts were caught in tangled webs of scrawling lines, carbon swirls of malignant energy.
McCarthy’s pencil-drawn hands, like Rasmussen’s pencil-and-oil ones, have a sketchy quality that invites multiple readings. The subjects and subtexts that these artists explore are clearly worlds apart, but share a resemblance in terms of technique. Indeed, the best drawing in the McCarthy show – a drawing which I did not take a photo of, have been unable to track down online, and therefore cannot present here – contains a number of bear-like creatures huddled, if I remember, in a sinister group. In the absence of that particular piece, here (and above) is ‘Mad House Drawing 3′, a work from 2011 that wasn’t actually in the show. But it gives a general idea.
Conceptually and visually, sketches have an open texture that leaves them open to dismissal – vulnerable to those who disregard ‘incomplete’ work; who like to see the labour on the page. It is equally possible to fetishise the sketch, its perpetual deferral of finality, its teasing refusal to close the circle. It’s only once you get up close to Rasmussen’s work that you notice that the darker, more immediate lines, rendered in black oil, are secondary to the delicate underlying pencil. The ‘double vision’ effect draws attention to the relative importance of pencil and oil in the hierarchy of artists’ materials. The pencil marks are swifter, lighter, less consequential. The ink retains a sense of quickness, but is certainly more considered, more final. Artists’ hands always speak through prosthetic extensions, tools which have social histories; tools which in turn create a sense of motion in the hand, the foot –
– and the head.
(I never got round to the Rainer film. I’ll save it for next time.)
Hands are not neutral appendages. They shape and alter what they touch, leaving residues of sweat, salt and DNA; expose the fragility of protected things; surround static objects with choreographies of encounter and display; reveal the continuity of material culture through time (in touching an ancient artefact, you are, in a sense, ‘touching the past’); suggest the presence, and absence, of gendered authority; and portray the human body in ambiguous relation to the things it seeks to possess and protect.
All of these resonances are at play in the work of Kate Morrell, a multi-disciplinary artist who produces books, sculptures, installations – and drawings. Throughout her work there is an emphasis on tactility, from the uncoated paper stock and risograph ink of ‘Alpine Spoilers‘, which emphasise the textural pleasures of handling books, to her ‘Stone Axes (Group II)‘, which with their scalloped ridges and handy sizes suggest an ancient ergonomics translated into contemporary materials.
Her piece selected for the Jerwood Drawing Prize 2014, ‘A.V.M, 1954, Screenshot 2013-12-10′, is one of the reasons I’ve chosen to pursue the theme of hands. The deep ambiguity of the image – this ghostly, black-clad figure emerging from the right of the frame to put down (or pick up?) what appears to be a fairly plain, unremarkable chunk of rock – invites multiple readings. This complexity or uncertainty of perception is underscored by the pointillistic technique the artist has used. Seen from across the room, the picture has a soft and hazy, almost underwater appearance; up close, however, the image resolves into billows and gusts of tiny black marks of extraordinary precision. These marks enhance the Giclée-printed image across which they move, but also suggest a newly mediated encounter with the source material, distorting what is brought to light. The nested histories the drawing contains – the ancient world of the artefact itself; the TV programme in which the object is displayed; and finally Kate’s present-day (for the time being) drawing – are connected by the presence of hands: hands that sculpt, handle and draw.
I spoke to Kate via email.
Firstly, I’d be interested in hearing how the A.V.M. drawing sequence came about. What drew you to the subject? Did it emerge from ongoing research, or a chance encounter?
The work is part of a series of four drawings which were made for the solo exhibition ‘Pots Before Words’ at Gallery II, University of Bradford. The project was the result of my research within the Jacquetta Hawkes Archive, which is held at Special Collections, University of Bradford. Hawkes (1910-1996) was a writer and archaeologist who played an important role in popularising archaeology through her writings and radio and TV appearances. Much of the work produced for my show focussed on Hawkes’ interest in prehistory, and her humanist approach to archaeology. There are images of the show on my website.
The screenshots are selected from early episodes of a BBC panel show produced around the 1950s. It was one of the first examples of archaeology within popular media and Hawkes was one of the few women to appear on the programme as an expert in her field. The programme featured a panel of male ‘experts’ and a female assistant, or object handler. Objects were displayed on a slow-turning circular display wheel. Through the process of logical thought, experts identified the objects for the audience. Other than her hands and wrists, the female assistant is never shown.
I was interested in the different ‘handlers’ within the show and their role in the production of object-meanings. I found the handling by the silent assistant quite compelling – particularly these performative (but un-choreographed) gestures for display and interpretation that were created.
In the series, three of the drawings feature the (female) assistant, and one drawing shows the (male) archaeologist reaching into shot, to remove the object from the display wheel for inspection. Only the male hand features in the Jerwood Drawing Prize 2014 exhibition. It’s a shame all four drawings were not able to be shown.
It would be good to hear a little about the experience of making the drawing. How long does each drawing take, for example? What is it about this specific way of working that appeals to you?
The drawings are roughly A2 size. They are made with drawing ink and paintbrushes used for miniature painting. Each drawing took around 20 hours to complete. I used 7 paintbrushes to make the series – each one was eventually discarded once it begun to disrupt the uniformity of the lines. I might have achieved greater precision with a technical drawing pen, but I like the fact that brush and ink reveals evidence of the hand, and tools, used in the process.
I’m quite conscious of the time invested in drawings. In the previous blog post you talk about ‘the work of art as a vessel of invested time, the lasting relic of ephemeral gestures’, which I think resonates with this series too.
Are you interested in this relationship between tactility implied by the image of hands, and the tactility of drawing?
A few (fragmented) thoughts:
I think this tension between protection and possession, implied by object handlers in the drawings, is also reflected in the archaeological approach to excavation and collecting. Archaeologists aim to protect and preserve, but the act of excavation itself can be destructive. It’s interesting that people who care for archives are often called the ‘keepers’ of a collection.
In handling, objects become free from their fixed interpretations assigned within static museum displays. In the process of scientific interpretation, the knowledge of the past is undergoing continuous reconstruction. The repetitive drawing technique has a transformative quality. I wanted it to depict these object-meanings to be in a state of flux.
The brushes used to make the drawing indicates the microscopic, scientific lens and a transformation of matter under close scrutiny. Lithic drawing is used by archaeologists as a process for recording finds. When illustrating stone tools, the structure of the rock, including its tactile ripples and fractures, are documented using finely-drawn black lines. It’s thought to be one of the best ways to understand the method of its production (other than through flint knapping). I think it’s an interesting use of drawing within a scientific discipline – one that relies upon direct handling and re-interpreting.
Alongside this idea of drawing as a kind of science, I wonder if you would consider your drawing sequence as a form of ‘interpretation’, another ‘layer’ in the histories of these objects?
Yes, drawing is used to add another layer to the interpretation of objects, although I didn’t want the new layer to feel fixed or definitive. Much of the original image remains under the shadow.
Is there a connection between the A.V.M. drawings and your earlier sculptural work ‘Flint’? The markings on the surface of this work are quite similar.
I began the ‘Flint’ series in 2010. The markings are quite similar, but they are applied to the surface of large pieces of flint stone. They both demonstrate the transforming quality of this repetitive drawing method. This additional layer of interpretation both overwhelms and enhances the original surface markings.
Do hands appear in your work more widely?
I’m planning to make a new piece of work using a stone turntable I produced: ‘Lazy Susan: Portable Toolkit’. It’s a stone apparatus which functions as a portable, table-top display. I’m going to approach various archives and collections with the sculpture, in order to play host to a series of female archivists and archaeologists and the chosen artefacts of their profession. Objects will be re-animated by the hands of archaeologists, geologists and archivists and the object presentations will be filmed.
In this context, the Lazy Susan device is a counterpart to the potters wheel – on both surfaces, matter is re-modelled, displayed and performed.
Are you also drawn to more recent non-archaeological examples of ‘handling’ and display? I’m thinking in particular of infomercials and game shows, which often feature (silent) female assistants.
The (mostly unintentional) humour of these outdated formats appeals to me. The lo-tech lazy susan device still makes appearances on these game shows too.
I also look out for instances within printed matter, although I don’t see many contemporary examples in print. Below is an image that I picked up at a car boot sale. It was part of a portfolio of advertising images by an unnamed photographer.
Maybe it’s an obvious thing to say, but when I think about drawing, I think about hands – hands as ‘authentic’ appendages, contraptions of tactility and communication, brutality and sensuality, through which we shape the world. Drawing suggests a progenitive link between maker and art object; a link embraced by some proponents of a conservative, craft-conscious art that stands in opposition to the realities of the contemporary art market, with its armies of underpaid interns and fetish for high-spec industrial sheens. But we could see it another way. In the mid-60s Allan Kaprow articulated the idea that painting might be considered as a record of a performance, rather than the eschatological terminus towards which all art-making must tend. In shifting emphasis from materiality to temporality – by figuring the work of art as a vessel of invested time, the lasting relic of ephemeral gestures – he suggested a different model of engagement with pictorial representation, in which all marks are unavoidably the record of their maker.
We like to watch Picasso draw because Picasso was ‘a genius’. Witnessing his body at work, his guiding hand, confirms the authorship of the mark, his mark, on the page. This romantic view of artistic production is reminiscent of divine paternity: the hand that reaches out to Adam, shaping him from dirt; the male maker’s hand as an echo of God’s. Picasso’s fluid and instinctual use of the charcoal (he doesn’t appear to be deciding which marks to make; they simply happen) also illustrates Heidegger’s notion of the ‘ready-to-hand’, which, to oversimplify, describes our practical relation to things that are ‘handy’ or useful.
And then there’s Matthew Barney, who twists the idea of drawing as an expression of bodily skill into a bizarre and self-regarding display in which the drawing (as in the noun, the art object) is the tortured product of an athletic overcoming of obstacles he built himself. Barney’s Drawing Restraint works are fundamentally silly, but their will to mastery illustrates an important etymological point. ‘Hand’, from the Old English ‘hond’: power, control, possession.
It would follow, then, that the loss of the hands means the loss of control. There’s a scene in the film version of Akira (1988) when we enter the mind of Tetsuo, the traumatised orphan struggling to deal with the onset of psychic powers. The world around him begins to crack and shatter, fissures shooting through the concrete like Lichtenberg Figures, but this is no ordinary earthquake. When the cracks invade Tetuso’s body (and by extension, his mind), the first things to go are his fingers, his hands, his wrists. Dissolving hands prefigure the dissolving self.
Dissolution isn’t always bad. Ben Lerner’s new novel 10:04 contains a passage in which the author compares two depictions of disappearing hands, and extrapolates from them a mediation on possible futures. He analyses Joan of Arc (1879), by the French naturalist painter Jules Bastien-Lepage, in which the future saint is shown haunted by angels, gazing towards her destiny as a martyr. (Lerner also wrote about the painting for frieze.) Bastien-Lepage was criticised at the time for his failure to reconcile the spiritual and concrete dimensions within the painting – the floating figures of transparent saints and the rural realism of the world in which they appear – but for Lerner this creates a ‘glitch in the pictorial matrix': Joan’s searching fingers become transparent at the tips, intimating her future transformation, through death, into a saint. Lerner contrasts this with the scene in Back to the Future (1985) in which Marty disrupts the prehistory of his family, making his siblings fade from a family snapshot. Lerner deploys these images as symbols for the presence and absence of certain futures, and the hands motif neatly echoes the language of clocks: hands are how we measure time.
And there are hands that persist after the death, the collapse of an individual’s futures: uncannily active body parts, like Thing from the Addam’s Family, say, or the twitching, seemingly reanimated CGI hand that features in Heads May Roll (2014) by Benedict Drew, recently on show in Matt’s Gallery. HD technology allows us to extend the human image into screen-space, creating ambiguous forms of imagined embodiment that thrive in the ‘uncanny valley‘. Drew’s work harnesses fragmentation – bodily, but also formal – to make a point about the strange abjection/empowerment (virtual) images produce in relatation to (actual) bodies.
If hands suggest tactility between bodies and objects; they also symbolise wider forms of apprehension and communication. Drew’s hand is evocative of ancient, ghoulish tropes of Horror fiction, Frankenstein in particular (note the eerie green background of the image above, reminiscent of Hammer Horror lighting effects); they also suggest forms of embodiment beyond the cyberpunk dream of the human corpus infiltrated and enhanced by gadgets, nanotechnology, wires and nodes. At the end of Terminator II, the cyborg’s complete moral conversion, from murderous machine to surrogate father, is communicated his final, dying gesture as he is consumed by molten metal. The universal hand-signal of approval, affirmation, positivity and friendship constitutes the ludicrously poignant crux of the film, its non-verbal emotional payoff.
If hands can communicate the inner emotional truths we (or Arnold Schwarzenegger) can’t quite put into words, in the context of crime and punishment they more straightforwardly confirm our identity, and, by extension, guilt. Towards the end of Seven (1995), Kevin Spacey’s character John Doe walks into the police station of the unnamed city in a Christ-like pose of surrender, in broad daylight, wearing a white shirt splattered with blood. His arms are ribboned with red streaks; his fingertips are swaddled in surgical tape. Detectives Mills and Somerset have been hunting Doe for months, but have thus far been bamboozled by their failure to identify him by his fingerprints (Doe leaves plenty at the scene, but they aren’t on any databases). This is because he doesn’t have any: John Doe slices the skin off his fingers between every murder, and the skin grows back in different patterns each time. This small if brutal act of self-mutilation effectively renders him invisible in the eyes of the law.
These preliminary thoughts – most of which aren’t actually related to drawing at all – will frame later investigations into the works in this year’s Drawing Prize. In a few days I’ll be posting an interview with Kate Morell, whose drawing A.V.M. 1954 screenshot 2013-12-10 (3) confronts the politics of touching and display in relation to archaeological objects.
In the meantime, here’s the customary cringe-inducing, mildly funny, tangentially related YouTube clip. (This is the internet, after all.)
The 20th annual Jerwood Drawing Prize opens later tonight. It’s the first exhibition I’ll be covering as Writer in Residence and I’m looking forward to looking at, and writing about, the work. But before we begin, a confession. I’m not a big fan of drawing.
Perhaps I should clarify. I don’t have anything against individual artists who draw, much less against drawings themselves, but the idea of drawing as a discipline – Drawing with a capital D, an institutionalised medium – makes me slightly suspicious. Traditionally the qualitative judgements in drawing are premised on verisimilitude, on the level of accuracy attained by visual facsimiles of real-world things. There’s an attendant perception of drawing as an authentic craft, something that sorts the wheat from the chaff, a litmus test of artistic skill. But skill is a boring concept. Its relevance evaporates at the horizon of capability: some people have it, others simply don’t. I also feel uneasy about reinforcing the idea of drawing as a politically ignorant medium, a species of formal purism that tends to overlook its own commodity status while producing highly desirable, decorative objects. Drawings are small and transportable; they are easy to frame and sell. Commercial gallerists love them. So does the general public: the Drawing Prize is Jerwood’s best-attended annual exhibition.
I do not air these prejudices in order to mount a pre-emptive critique of the exhibition I’ll be writing about over the coming weeks, but merely to assert a position I can’t really defend in the first place and which I hope will grow and alter over that time. It is apparent to me, though, that drawing qua drawing – a medium ring-fenced from the myriad of interchangeable genres and modes contemporary artists operate through, from sculpture to film to tumblr feeds – has an anachronistic flavour in the context of contemporary art, at odds with the post-discipline, post-internet, post-everything zeitgeist. But this may be precisely where the strength of drawing lies: its outsiderness to current forms, construed as a form of freedom. And judging from a brief glimpse at the work on display from this evening onwards, ‘drawing’ comprises a great variety of mediums, subjects approaches and tones.
You can find out a little about myself and my work at my website. Over the coming weeks I’ll talk to various artists, attempt to decipher out the narratives encoded in individual works, and think about the show as a whole, as a collective entity. I’ll also consider what place drawing has, or might have, in the wider framework of artistic and economic conditions that currently surround the Prize. Hopefully, I can lay some unexamined assumptions to rest by doing so.
One final thing: the image above. I haven’t yet worked out how to caption jpegs on this blog yet, so I’ll have to include a credit here. Plan B by Lexi Strauss. Acrylic on paper. Photography: Benjamin Cosmo Westoby