Exploring Theory and Practice MA Contemporary Art Practice

John Moores Painting Prize

The John Moores painting prize is a biennial exhibition held at the Walker gallery. For over sixty years this prize has showcased contemporary painting including Peter Doig, Rose Wylie, Mary Martin and David Hockney. The changing movements of art can be traced through its exhibits such as; realism, figurative work and pop art.

When I attended however, I overwhelmingly perceived abstraction. Maybe this is why the figurative work seemed to stand out or perhaps my interests were developing along these lines.

Using the scheme of analysis from the art students critical writing bible How to write about Contemporary Art (Wilson, 2014) I asked the following key Questions:

“What is it?

What might it mean?

What might this add to your thinking or the world at large?

(section 3:1)

“What is it?

This was a large primitive style figurative canvas by Andrzej Jackowski, inspired by a real-life event; the birth of his son and entitled using Sylvia Plath’s poem  The Beekeeper’s Daughter (Plath, 1960).

What might it mean?

The use of the unusual motifs and fantastical positioning of the figure , complete with the story behind it alludes to the coming journey of life, unknown potential and unknowable path ahead for the youth of the title.

What might this add to your thinking or the world at large?

The positioning of the large figure in the sky with the landscape beneath or as part of the landscape struck me as very different from the other works surrounding which were large abstracts. This was in some ways more intimate and held resonance for me with the use of poetry as a reference.

“What is it?

Large oil on canvas by prominent artist Peter Doig. Figure of his brother absorbed and reflecting in a frozen landscape created in 1993.

What might it mean?

Although Blotter appears as an ‘outscape‘ in that it refers to the paint permeating the canvas during the creative process. It can also be understood as an ‘inscape’ in that it is contemplative. It conveys the idea of contemplation; th unknowable inner thought processes to the viewer, yet we can relate to the moment. The inwardly absorbed solitary figure both reflecting and reflected on the ice amidst a beautiful winter landscape.

What might this add to your thinking or the world at large?

Many facets of this work intrigued me such as the idea of customizing the landscape almost like a theatrical production. In order to attain the desired image the landscape has been designed and altered by water to enhance the reflective qualities for the artist. The solitary figure absorbed in his reflection with the viewer in turn absorbed and reflecting upon it articulates layered levels of perception. The title having a double meaning for the painter’s own process. The use of colour is powerful with a limited palette of cooler colours. The primary source being a family archive photograph – which I can relate to having used them as source material myself. These were all powerful elements within the work and experence of the work for me.

“What is it?

Oil on canvas, painted in 2006 by Martin Greenland of an imaginery landscape of heaven scaled to our human perception.

What might it mean?

This could be construed as a visionary painting using naturalistic elements and places meaningful to the artist. The positioning of Nature in the foreground, painted in a focused and detailed manner, could be a comment on human endeavour on the planet as the space occupied by the town is minimal compared to landscape and sky. Putting our human place in perspective.

What might this add to your thinking or the world at large?

Martin Greenland has used classical as well as local
references and combined these with the imaginery to create a higher synthesis. I find the combination of these elements inspiring as in some respects they are unlimited, yet they retain recognizable references for the viewer.

From my collected triad, the elements that inspired me and I found powerful and meaningful were the visionary yet classical concept; the use of family archive and poetry- which I am developing; the idea of layered perception and what we ourselves bring to the painting experience.

Are we the narrators?

Do we ascribe meaning or are we receptacles for the artistic vision conveyed?

Does the answer lie in both fields?

Exploring Theory and Practice MA Contemporary Art Practice

Exploration of Process

What I intended to paint and what I actually painted were two different things entirely.

Following a tutorial where part of the discussion was around whether introducing an image or object created a narrative or whether we attributed a narrative to it; I began to ask other questions during my practice.

A return to the source

I was exploring the idea and process of abstract and figurative work. Initially I started questioning the way in which paint was applied. In an attempt to vary the tools of application, I downed traditional tools (brushes) and took up others including; screwed up foil, recycled plastic, old clothes, and board to squeegee on paint (part of the printmaking process). Some of these were the source materials I had used for paper making in the last two semesters.

The way in which paint was applied to create the abstraction, with systems of both chance and intention both fascinated me and sparked my imagination. Where does one end and the other begin? As my practice expanded its boundaries; this was a development point I was keen to pursue and perhaps combine the two.

Note written to myself whilst in the studio

Could work be both abstract and figurative? I had worked recently in an abstract vein yet previously figurative work made up the main body of focus.

Considering the merging of fields or the seperation. The idea of a figure on a back / middle gound that was abstracted began to emerge; the two worlds colliding or justaposed.

In the article by Stanley Marcus for American Artist(1997) Combining abstract art and figurative imagery . The American visionary artist Sheila Isham describes herself:

” I’ve continually been on the cusp between realism and abstraction.”

(Marcus 1997)

Interestingly in the 2004 exhibition Sheila Isham: 50 Years of Creating , at St Michael’s Castle, the  State Russian Museum St Petersburg. Her body of work is described as ‘abstract’. which it broadly is yet has figurative dimensions to it as described by art critic M.J.Link:

Such figures are reminiscent of shadows recalled from our ancient collective subconscious and caught in an ongoing hallucination where they exist in a bizarre suspension between reality and dreams.

(Link, 2019)

The concept of being in a state between linked back to the idea of the viewer and the artwork; the ascribed meaning or felt experience and the significance (if any) for the creative.

Can we create this state by combining the two fields and blurring the edges between them?

Could this then be a contemporising of the mystical?

In this sense it could be related to the otherness of art. the transcendent space we try and define in words. Is it a wordless experience rather than an academic one to be deconstructed? Does this process elevate or destroy the meaning or experience? Are all artists visionaries; expressing that which is hidden?

There could be said to be a mystical element to all artwork without accompanying text. It is then the communion or direct experience of the viewer with the artwork that bears fruit. On the one hand the artist may prefer the work to be inexplicable or unexplained; on the other hand they may prefer to elucidate, deepen our knowledge and experience of the work through rendering it finite by means of an explanation.

Now, where I began and where I finished were two very different places. When I began to paint (applying straight from the tube and creating an abstract surface). The figure that I originally sketched out , taken from a family photo of Greenham Common started to morph and change. It became a reverse. Instead of looking outwards it looked within the painting.

snapshot of original paint sketch on canvas

It began to take on a life of its own and I allowed it to emerge. Reflecting back at this point on the process: in some ways, the previous small studies were like a freeing up; an idiosyncratic warm-up exercise for this bigger piece. Additionally, this was a purposeful way of ridding myself of the initial ‘blank canvas fear’, beginning with an explosion of colour and creating something to work with and subsequently react artistically to. I was engaging more with the elusive feeling rather than the outcome which had previously driven me.

The Gaps between the Stories

The gaps between the stories

We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us freedom.

We lived in the gaps between the stories

(Atwood, 2012, p57)

As the work was emerging and evolving I was reading the Handmaid’s tale by Margaret Atwood. The above quote leapt out of the book at me. I had been exploring the potential of figurative and abstract whilst questioning the limits of a narrative. Here were five words that seemed to capture the essence of what I was aiming to distill into paint. I used them around the edge of the painting. Perhaps a title; perhaps a meaning; perhaps a question.

Golden Apple

(Taken from The song of Wandering Angus)

Though I am old with wandering

Through hollow lands and hilly lands,

I will find out where she has gone,

And kiss her lips and take her hands;

And walk amongst long dappled grass,

And pluck till time and times are done

The silver apples of the moon,

the golden apples of the sun

W.B. Yeats

(Yeats and Webb, 2000 , p45)

I continued with the same strong yet limited palette as a link and developed my own visual language ( some of which was hidden below the hem of the cloaked figure. Using literature as a source and connection was a natural progression for me – it was also my academic background.

Poetry deals in essences as does painting

Yeats’ poetry draws on and reweaves Irish history, legend, and literature with threads of gold. On an ancestral level his subjects at times connected to my own Celtic lineage . Cailte is the Irish version of my surname and is the warrior and stoyteller of the Fenian cycle in Irish mythology from which my family traditionally claim descent.

These strands are able to be both universal and personal at the same time. A tantalising segment of words. The edges of meaning.

The Deep Heart’s Core

Taken from The Lake Isle of Innisfree

I will arise and go now, for always night and day

I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;

While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,

I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

W.B. Yeats

(Yeats and Webb, 2000 , p29)

This poem spoke to me of resonance, longing, and connection to a place remembered, a decision and an impending journey. The profound inner feeling of awakening and inner compulsion. As the paintings emerged, they appeared to be connected through subject, colour and diminishing fields. The idea of three starting with a large canvas in sequence flowing to a medium and then a small one formed as the work developed. An arrowhead of paintings

A non-traditional triptych

Visual poetry, essences and images.

Glimpses of something personal and universal.

Something other.

Exploring Theory and Practice MA Contemporary Art Practice

The Artist of the Future Age: William Blake, Neo-Romanticism, Counterculture and Now

William Blake (1757 – 1827) : the enigmatic and inspirational , visionary artist and poet was reimagined during this conference as a kind of time- transcending ‘ influencer’ , a counter-culture spark , revolutionary and predictor of future visual arts developments.

How did I come here?

In Summer , following a thread of enquiry into mysticism , I worked with the Blake originals at the Whitworth, drawing, painting, researching, questioning, reflecting, seeing and listening. I wrote about my experience in the post Curators, Collections and Conversations. During this time, the curators at the Whitworth recommended I attend this conference at the Rylands Library as it had some of the leading Blake scholars and specialists including: Colin Trodd (The Univeristy of Manchester), Sibylle Erle ( Bishop Grosseteste University) , Martin Myrone (Tate Britain) and also the poet Michael Horovitz in converation with Bryan Biggs ( The Bluecoat , Liverpool).

Who now remembers Edward Young?

I arrived early and was whisked into the bible room with the special collections curator to have an eyes on experience with some beautiful original works by Blake and those influenced by him such as Jeff Nutall in Bomb Culture.

The most striking and powerful book for me was a copy of Night Thoughts written by the poet Edward Young . When asked, the curator told me the etchings had been hand coloured in water colour by Blake. According to the Blake Archive the book has 537 watercolour illustrations.

Young, Edward, ‘The complaint, and the consolation; or, Night thoughts’ (London: printed by R. Noble, for R. Edwards, 1797)

The curator asked us ” Who now remembers Edward Young?” which made me consider the power of the art and the fact that even though Blake was a poet these were not his words, yet the work visually speaking is held in his name.

There is no substitute for proximity to the original hand of the artist. What struck me was the sheer volume and quality of the watercolours. Some of the repetition of bodily poses , arms reaching upwards, others down appeared almost like an intersecton of realms. Figures were prostrate, kneeling, reaching, expressing; they seemed both classical and mythic. Colin Trodd in conversation with Miriam Dafydd Deep England: Blake & Neo-Romanticism (1pm1.20pm) later described Blake’s work as a “body-centred art” and as “a series of hieroglyphs” which resonated with me as the figure is part of the essence of his work and occupies a liminal space at times between realities. This thought had connections with my own developing use of figures in visual art, in the context of abstraction.

Questions and concepts continued to develop and blossom as I later worked in the studio.

Exploring Theory and Practice MA Contemporary Art Practice

Beginnings, Endings and Continuations

My practice underpins my research. During this MA I am making a concurrent blog to support this. The creation of my art comes first with all research stemming from this and in turn feeding into it. I seek to identify and explore the position I hold within a contemporary and historical context through research and the creative process. This work will culminate in a symposium with seven other fine artists, showcasing work developed in the studio accompanied by a zine. The final submission will include this work together with a blog and contextual statement.


acrylic on 4 canvases
120 cm by 160cm

It is impossible to end something abruptly as the work is continuously developing. The above work was created over the cusp of the semesters following a thread of interconnectedness and mysticism. It developed from a small study that was photoshopped onto a billboard in Rome and Tokyo. It could be described as an abstract mystical piece: it could be also be experienced in its own right without labelling, which is how I presented it for the studio crit.

Interestingly some of the comments were:

Straight away I want to figure out what it is! Makes me think of space/ the universe/ stars/ sun. Feels warm and welcoming on first look, but upon reflection makes me wonder if that is really the case.


Love the use of colour, composition and technques, a real sense of lght , subtlety


They make me feel like I’m ascending upwards


Imagery provokes heaven/ rebirth/ space-like and ethereal qualities


This work or a series of paintings have a strong spiritual effect on the viewer. Uplifting light , birth or rebirth.

Anon. 12/11/19

The viewers seemed to perceive the meaning which was not objectively apparent as no literature, title or ostensible ‘clue’ accompanied the pieces. This I found fascinating and wanted to explore the space between the painting object or image, the meaning , the viewer and the artist. Do we attribute meaning? If so why are we concurring or attributing similar meaning to a work that is for all appearances abstract?

I began to explore the work of artists working in a similar field, that I felt would develop my understanding of imagery, visual language, artistic expression and concept; some of whom were suggested by my tutors.

Hilma af Klint

(1862 -1944)

The Swedish artist who painted a series of spiritually inspired abstracts.

Hilma af Klint: Painting the Unseen

The exhibitions “Painting the Unseen ‘ at the Serpentine, London in 2016 and in 2018-19 “Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future’ at the Guggenheim, New York showcased her work that had been unseen until 1986. Through mediumship with a group of five af Klint believed she had a spiritual commision to create esoteric works for the future. Her large abstracts seem to contain spiritual geometry and symbolism with the spiral being a central meaningful motif, indeed her vision was to exhibit her work in a spiral temple representing spiritual ascension. This in part was achieved in the Guggenheim. Her abstract work began in 1906 and predates others such as Mondrian and Kandinsky working in this field.

Elements that resonated with me were: the scale and symbolism ; the idea of visual ascension and access to an artistically ephemeral realm; the long gestation of the artwork and prerequisite that it would not be shown until at least twenty years after her death which I felt added to the mythology of it. She created her own timescale and symbolism, now being viewed in future ( contemporary) light. I, and it seems the viewers, perceived some of these elements in my own abstract work

Gerasimos Floratos

Whilst reading an article about Hilma af Klint in Art Review I encountered a contemporary New York artist Gerasimos Floratos also using his own idiosyncratic symbolism such as: logos , trainers, cigarettes, rabbits and the globe. Floratos spoke of his process and environment:

GF I don’t meditate much but sometimes when I have pain, I’ll close my eyes and picture my body as an empty shell and there will be this intense colour in the places that are causing me stress or pain. And I’ll just picture that flowing out of my fingertips or my head, and it helps. I’ll visualise all the tendons and ligaments, and I’ll remember that while I’m painting. Sometimes I’m trying to describe that in the paintings.

Using meditation as a source of visualisation is a creative process that I use and return to, however I would extend this to include dreams as a visual resource and bank for metaphor. The idea of being solitary within the customised environment to create the work is another important facet partly so I can follow ideas to their visual conclusion without getting distracted and losing the golden thread ( though I appreciate that being hijacked can be a valuable part of the process) and partly to create “personal magic” as Floratos here states:

GF I don’t want people to know my shit. I want to be alone in there. My studio environment feeds my impulses. I want to be able to have a vision and get it on canvas as soon as possible. For me that means not having things in perfect places: blues in this corner, reds in that corner. I don’t want any obstructions. My studio is like my bedroom. If you make your space and touch all those items, I feel I might be making a place where I can get some personal magic.

Similarly to af Klint, Floratos discusses the time involved and the connection with the work, putting everything into it. Creating his own visual language which is one of the aspects I am developing now.

GF Part of the confidence comes out of the fact that I did everything I could to make this thing mine. Whether that’s sitting in front of it for two days, two months… It’s my connection to the work