Exploring Theory and Practice MA Contemporary Art Practice

Panoply, Postscripts and Unpresentations

Panoply was the chosen name of our Symposium ( second year Fine Art MA students) on the 3rd December. We persued several different venues and finally agreed to book Partisan in Manchester; a volunteer-run collective with a large basement exhibition and performance space. We had worked successfully with them before and were familar with the space. We created a facebook page and I worked on some digital promotion platforms including: artrabbit, eventbrite and the press association.

After several dynamic meetings, we felt that Panoply was an ideal title as it included all of our idiosyncratic work. Panoply means:

A complete or impressive collection of things

A splendid display

historical, literary A complete set of arms or suit of armour

So this then was an aspirational title. I was intrigued by its meaning from history and literature as a complete set of arms or armour, and its implied meaning as our defences, coats of arms, posturing on the battlefield and protection. It could be translated to artwork, creative justifications and statements, logos and how we present ourselves on the battlefield of the artworld.

During the symposium there was a flowing combination of more formal presentations, musical experience, performance art, sculpture, film, installation, painting demo, expo and the printed image and text.

The Unpresentation

My presentation as such was in the form of a zine – the printed word and image. After all my research and work I was keen not to impede the primary experience of the viewer. This was in some senses an ‘unpresentation‘. Where viewers did seek me out I pointed them in the direction of the zine and asked them to fill the gaps themselves, the interstices; to shape their own meaning or experience. They talked to me about different positioning of the work creating a different narrative and that the narrative if any would change depending on the viewer. The most challenging aspect for me was not to overtalk the research and resources used.

When clearing the space we had an informal reflection together as a group. The overriding conclusion was that it had been a successful event with more attendees than last time and positive yet interesting feedback and discourse.

Did we create a Panoply?

You decide.

Exploring Theory and Practice MA Contemporary Art Practice

All that we see or seem is but a zine within a zine

Adaptation of quote from the poem A Dream within a Dream by Edgar Allen Poe (1849)

” All that we see or seem,

is but a dream within a dream”

Exploring a variety of zine formats within the lecture.

I was particularly drawn to the A5 folding out into the A3 ‘posteresque‘ format below. The idea of something beautifully made with a limited number yet that was free appealed to my sense of equality.

Following the link of interstice I wanted to create enough to communicate some of the process and background yet not too much to dictate the experience. This in effect would be my non invasive contribution to the symposium. My printed bridge of the gap between the paintings. A reflective experience for the viewer to absorb.

In a serendipitous collision of events the week before the symposium we had staff presentations 26.11.19 that included Alex Mitchell from the Archive & Special Collections of Salford University. She showcased the collections and the work of artists who had used archives such as Sarah Coggrave. This gave me the context for some of my source material; the family photo archive, particularly the women’s protest movement at Greenham Common that my late mum had wholeheartedly supported and documented.

I folded the sheet in a variety of ways to vary the experience and narrative of the zine. It depended which format was selected and how the viewer picked it up as to how the zine unfolded. The title could be Interstice or The Gaps Between the Stories. One became the story within and the other the story that enclosed it.

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

MA Contemporary Art Practice Real World Contexts

Reflection on Real World Context

Reflecting on Real World Context: I have considered curation, contemporary art, meaning and the place of painting through the Venice Biennale and subsequent creative work. Links with cultural partners have led to enlightening conversations with the Whitworth Curators and in-depth explorations with first-hand experiences of the collections of artists connected to mysticism which has cross-fertilised my own development and work. I have considered what painting is through asking and answering key questions and have begun to consolidate and develop key themes and ideas such as perception, interconnectedness and contemporary mysticism.

Collaborations with  Sue Debney (paper and pulp), Jake Holden (digital art) and Ben Holden (film) have been particularly successful as have the research and exchange of ideas with the curators. These are both areas that I aim to creatively evolve.

Other real world avenues I have persued have been:

•Training with Castlefield Associates on the new Arts Council Funding

•Application for Autism and Criminal Justice system mural at Salford.

•Application, acceptance and training as a volunteer at the Whitworth with potential to work with collections in Autumn.

The Artist of the Future Age: William Blake, Neo-Romanticism, Counterculture and Now . Blake event at the Rylands booked for October.

•Solo exhibition arranged at Hebden Bridge Visitor Centre next April ( Working title The Crow-ness Of It All)

Postscript on Contemporary Mysticism

During this semester I began to notice mystical elements in the real world and collected a series of what I came to term Incidental Mysticism.

I aim to explore the themes and connections further and am now developing my own definition of Mysticism as it relates to my contemporary art pratice.

MA Contemporary Art Practice Real World Contexts

Creative Process and Collaboration

My own work was now burgeoning and after much exploration, contemplation, research and development I began a period of collaboration.

Using the idea of time, perception, absence or death, what is hidden and what is revealed, inspiration (contemporary mysticism) : I worked with Sue Debney in the paper and print studio and created small pieces of crow paper. I used meaningful materials: the power of attorney – which is a dark legal document in my possession from nursing mum with cancer . I reduced it to tiny pieces, pulped it and trimmed a crow feather to include the fine hairs of the plumage in the pulp. I laid thread from mums sewing box on and then pulled them off so you can subtley trace the absence.

Crow Paper close-up

The Crow is related to death, the battlefield, war goddess, magic and transition as I have researched in previous work. It also holds personal symbolism as during my childhood, mum found an injured crow and nursed it back to health with considerable tenderness, to release it back into the wild. This tenderness was later returned when me and my brothers nursed her at the end of life. Following the thread of perception, mystical union with otherness, I imagined the crow’s experience of its own feather and instead of the golden ratio, I developed the Crow-ness Ratio:

With this key measurement I used pulp painting , which is painting with pulped paper so the action rather than the material is painting. When I was at the Whitworth I overheard a discussion about curation, labelling and the nature of painting. What is painting? Colours on a surface. Can an arrangement of objects be a painting? This ,we discussed in the symposium.

Again here I was considering the question:

Is it a painting if no paint is used?

How often do we look with a crow’s eye view?

How often do we perceive as part of Nature rather than separate in our otherness?

I discussed the Crow-ness of it all with my brother Ben Holden at Fleetfoot Studios.

I asked him to collaborate with me as the theme and experience is shared. Death in it’s own right is mystical; stepping into the unknown for those who depart and those who are left with the absence. We made a short film again using what Ben termed my ‘Shamanic Maths’ to find how a crow would experience a feather falling during it’s lifespan compared to ours. It also reads like a Zen Riddle:

The perception of time is relative.

Meanwhile I had had a dream about a large abstract painting I was doing in a hall. It was placed in different ways on the walls. the whole theme was Interconnectedness. This resonated with the work I had been developing and the sketches I’d made from Blake’s Ancient of Days. I felt this was a way of contemporising the mystical as the painting was abstract yet the inspiration came through a dream. I decided to try and create this using a smaller canvas as a squeegee (print-making tool) on 4 canvases linked together.

I asked my other brother Jake Holden who is a digital artist to collaborate and virtually place the finished work on a billboard where he is based in Tokyo. The idea of billboard art and advertising appealed as it is subverting the medium used for consumerism and capitalism and re-appropriating it as a kind of mystical or celestial advert for Interconnectedness.

I then visited Rome, searching for a good billboard in a classical location and asked Jake to repeat the image..

There is power in repetition.. the repetition of images or sounds or experiences.

There is power in contrast: Advertising & Mysticism, Light and Dark, Classical & Modern Consumer.

MA Contemporary Art Practice Real World Contexts

Curators , Collections and Conversations

The Whitworth is a prominent, long established gallery located in Whitworth Park, Manchester.   I approached them as I wanted to work with curators and specific collections there to develop my practice and forge new links to research certain themes. I initially researched the collections online and then sent a specific email to the fine art curator stating that I would like to study the Blake collection as a point of inspiration and contemplation to create a body of work exploring specific themes of time, symbolism and mysticism, to push my work forward and explore a context for it.  There was a prompt and courteous reply from one of the curators and the connection was set up. This has led to working over May, June and July with several different collections and conversations with two curators exploring and developing the above themes.  During this time I have been developing, discussing, drawing and researching specific ideas centred around mysticism, time and symbolism and tracing and identifying  the threads that are emerging in my own work. However there has been a lengthy gestation process in my own artwork as research, development, connections and collections has taken up much of my time and focus here, with some unexpected areas of creative  process and progress.

William Blake Collection

William Blake is a well known great British visionary poet and artist. I requested to work with the Blake collection held at the Whitworth,which was accepted and began in May. There is to be a Blake exhibition later on in the year from September to February at the Tate, London. I had the great privilege of working with a selection of drawings and the Ancient of Days before it was shipped off to the Tate. The drawings themselves were moderate in size and the Ancient of Days was a surprisingly small relief etching with gouache, gold and watercolour measuring 23.4 cm by 16.8 cm, yet with great impact. As a child we had had a large copy on our living room wall and I currently have a copy of it in my studio inherited from my mum. It was a work with power and personal significance over time.

I found that there is a great difference between appreciating a copy of the image and working with the original. There is no substitute for being in the presence of the artist’s creation and being able to see their hand in the work. The curator gave me some relevant and insightful reading. According to Peter Ackroyd in his book BLAKE(1995) this was one of the most powerful visions Blake had and was ‘ one of the last images upon which Blake worked, in the hours before his death’ (Ackrpyd P, p357) interestingly he  describes  it as perhaps being an ‘idealised self-portrait’ (Ackroyd P, p358), a fusion of who we are in our dualistic earthly state with who we want to be or rather our finer qualities; our fallible imperfectness fused with the godlike. It holds the possibility of metamorphosis, of a mystical evolution for the human state. ‘He remained half in love with it all his life’ (Ackroyd P, p358).

I actually spent a considerable amount  of time looking, seeing, contemplating, questioning, discussing, photographing and sketching. The composition with the radials from the cloud and the compass to measure and navigate with I found powerful and symbolic. They would later influence my own work on Interconnectedness.

Blake also created two sets of illustrations to Milton’s Nativity Ode. One of these is part of the Collection which I was able to study.  There was also one drawing in particular  which stood out from the collection; Blake’s early poem Tiriel in which like King Lear “a tyrant curses his children before going into internal exile. Blake converts the bleakness of the poem into a raw, elemental and primitive composition.” The curled, withdrawn and foetal figure drew my attention as a signifier for the theme of time and how at times we return to this state during our human experience. Working with Blake’s originals and reading the recommended texts I was given was a powerful and insightful experience. This was feeding into gestating ideas about time, mysticism , interconnectedness, symbolism and perception that I would later develop.

Blake, W. 1827. Ancient of Days.  Etching, pen and ink, watercolour and gold bodycolour on paper, 232 by 170 mm. Whitworth Gallery, Manchester.

Blake, W. 1789. Study for ‘Tiriel Denouncing his Sons and Daughters’ (recto); Studies of Hebrew Characters in human Form (verso).  Pencil on paper, 178 by 238 mm. Whitworth Gallery, Manchester.

Odilon Redon, Edward Coley Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti Collections

The works of Redon, Rossetti and Burne-Jones were then recommended to me through written dialogue with the curator to follow the thread of mysticism and symbolism.

Odilon Redon

Odilon Redon came to colour later in life after fifty and before this worked mostly in monochrome describing black as :“the most essential of all colours. Above all…it draws its excitement and vitality from deep and secret sources…One must admire black.”

In some ways I felt I was doing the opposite of this and coming to monochrome later in life through work I will show in the next post.

Edward Coley Burne-Jones

 The study for the female figure in The Lament, I chose for it’s connection to the theme of time and the passing of all things including youth and it’s asthetic value.

According to the Whitworth , Burne-Jones wrote in a letter “I mean by a picture a beautiful romantic dream of something that never was, never will be – in a light better than any light that ever shone – in a land no one can define or remember, only desire – and the forms divinely beautiful“. Mystical in an almost unimaginable sense. The face fascinated me as a connection to the self or possibly a disconnection as the face was turned away to the left.

The repeated heads in Redon’s work with the contrast of colour and form possess a mystical quality and  a transcendental connection to some otherness that I felt mystical art was trying to bridge.

It was from this work and being shown the archives including Rossetti’s work stored there ; also from discussing the question with the curator “Does mysticism still have a place in contemporary art?” that I was asked a key question that seemed to consolidate my unknown intent.

“Are you seeking to contemporise mysticism?”

This was a key insightful moment for me, a clarifying question that illuminated my purpose.

According to the Lexico online dictionary

Mysticism means:

1Belief that union with or absorption into the Deity or the absolute, or the spiritual apprehension of knowledge inaccessible to the intellect, may be attained through contemplation and self-surrender.

2Vague or ill-defined religious or spiritual belief, especially as associated with a belief in the occult.

(Lexico Dictionaries | English, 2019)

This realisation followed discussion of my work and the collections at the Whitworth . In the artistic sense I felt like I was developing a new definition of mysticism. If we take the occult to mean that which is hidden and sprituality to be connected to the original latin root word of inspirare (breath) -inspiration. Then this is a term that could be developed and defined in terms of my own practice and current creative context.

Outsiders: Madge Gill, Adolf Wolfli and John Bunion Murray Collections

Madge Gill, John Bunion Murray, Adolf Wolfli. The Whitworth Study Centre.

The next session, following recommendations, was one with a collection of Outsiders work and with two curators who pointed me in the direction of articles, books and talks to further develop this theme and to deeper understand the context.

The Whitworth holds a collection of Outsider Art with around 1200 works of art by more than 120 artists collected by curator Monika Kinley and gallerist and curator Victor Musgrave over a period of 30 years (1979-2010). This is the Musgrave Kinley collection. Outsider art is a term with several meanings: self-taught, visionary, those with mental health problems and those outside the mainstream artworld. In the past I had exhibited with a group of these Raw Artists in London.

The curator recommended the works of Adolf Wolfli, Madge Gill and John Bunion Murray as being particularly fine examples of visionary artists from the collection.

John Bunion Murray

John Bunion Murray used colour symbolically. He was a self-taught artist from Georgia. Murray was a tenant farmer for most of his life. Born in 1908: He had eleven children and his wife left him in his fifties. In his sixties he had a profound religious experience and began to express himself through creating protective and spiritual art. The three primary colours bore significant symbolic meaning. Red was an evil force or torment, Blue was positivity or the force of good and yellow was God or divine presence. White was spiritual purity and black a transitional state. The symbolism of black linked to the description by Redon of his use of it and prompted me to consider whether colour has any inherent meaning or is imbued with meaning over time and context. The context was important and as I discussed with the curator art is experienced or read differently depending on the context or exhibtion.

Madge Gill

Madge Gill (1882-1961) was a British spiritualist artist, whose work entered the Whitworth’s collection as part of the Musgrave Kinley Outsider Art Collection in 2010.

Gill considered she worked in collaboration with the spirit world;  in particular with  her guide called Myrinterest.  Her work included knitting, weaving, crochet, drawing, writing and playing the piano. According to the curator she used a variety of materials and sizes and would work on roles of calico up to 100 feet long unrolling a bit at a time so the work in its entirety was not revealed until completion. There was a female figure that was repeated in her work that could be a reference to children that she lost. The idea of a work evolving without specific idea of where it would end is one that fed into my own work I was beginning to create. Also the repetition of symbols and images giving them a kind of rhythm and prominance in time.

Through this research and development work at the Whitworth. Through the John Bunion Murray symbolism of colour; the evolving spiritual process of Madge Gill; the mystical portraits and profiles of Redon, Burne Jones and Rosetti. Through Redon’s transition from monochrome to colour; time, symbolism and the mystical experiences and processes of Blake. Through the conversations about the importance of context and the contemporising of the mystical; my own work, which had been gestating in the form of developing ideas and influences, began to emerge.

MA Contemporary Art Practice Real World Contexts

May You Live in Interesting Times – Venice Biennale 2019

In order to explore the work of contemporary artists, curation, to better understand the current mulitiplicity of visions and voices and to consider my place and development in this context; I attended Venice Biennale in May.

This was like the ultimate contemporary art experience of current creative thought and processes. I was determined to immerse myself in it in order to consider the works that had an impact on me and held meaning and influence and the threads connecting these .The lens through which I chose to reflect is taken from Gilda Wilson’s book How to Write about Contemporary Art.

It is composed of three reflective questions:

“What is it?

What might it mean?

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

(section 3:1)

Barca Nostra, Installation. Buchel, C. Venice Biennale:2019.

Barca Nostra, 2018-2019 : a collaboration between the Italian government and artist Christoph Buchel . This is a fishing boat that tragically sunk in the Sicilian channel in April, 2015 with hundreds of migrants on board, the wreck of which was raised and exhibited without signage at the Biennale Arsenale in order to provoke thoughts and questions.

In the Biennale Arte 2019 Short Guide it was described as “ A collective monument and memorial to contemporary migration, is not only dedicated to the victims and the people involved in its recovery, but also represents the collective policies and politics that create these kinds of disasters.” – (N.M. 2019, p.60)
It’s looming presence and sense of sadness and horror struck me in the stomach. Like the painting at the Louvre: The Wreck of the Medusa ( Shipwreck, Gericault ,T. 1818-1819) it has caused considerable controversy. Is it Art or sensationalism? Shameful capitalism , a trojan horse or simply a monumant to a tragedy at sea?

However there was no demarcation of what this was and as it was situated on the side of the Arsenale near the sea channel it could have been mistaken as simply a wreck or meant that if you did not have prior knowledge, you may well walk past it as many did on the way to the cafe. Was it then succesful at provoking thought or questions? Having experienced this in person, I felt prior knowledge or some kind of knowledge of the ship’s aweful history was needed to fully understand and feel the impact of the wreck, the loss of life and the legislation that makes this sadly possible. It made the context or lack of context and it’s narrative an issue or dilemma.

Image result for Jill Mulleady this connection is not private
This Connection Is Not Private, Oil on Linen. Mulleady, J. Venice Biennale:2019.

The Swiss-Uruguayan artist Jill Mulleady exhibited a series of paintings called This Connection is not Private.(2019) in oil on linen.Inspired by historic works of Munch,the paintings were figurative yet shared a landscape, imaginative in the landscape setting and yet the figures were contemporary, everyday folk occupied by a personal moment such as having a smoke.

This could mean a moment of shared intimacy and the darkness of human contact combined with the narcotics contrasted with the landscape. I Imagined it with a wall in the background and then realised the sweeping landscape juxtapostioned with the figures in the foreground gave it a different context: Dark and furtive reality set in an expansive land and seascape where the boundaries meet.

This led me to consider edges, the liminal spaces in air, sea, land and points in time. Liminal could be a point or place of transition or a threshold.

Of all the pavilions in the Giardini the Nordic Countries (Finland – Norway – Sweden) held the most impact for me.Weather Report: Forecasting Future highlighted the interspecies dynamic we share and the threat of mass extinction. In fact the current climate crisis and dystopian view was echoed in other pavilians such as the film ‘Heirloom’ in the Danish pavilion.

Weather Report: Forecasting Future

The States of Inflamation, Installation. Graff, A. Venice Biennale: 2019

In the article ‘Ane Graff goes to Venice”, Ane Graff states:

“I focus on human and non-human relationships; viewing human beings as part of an expansive, material network, stretching inside and outside of our bodies.”

I found the connection between the elements chronicling our decline extremely poignant. A pathos to our situation. The beauty and delicacy of the cabinet contrasting with the reality of change we are driving as a species. The connections between human economic growth and the destruction of the environment both internal (microbes) and external. The whole experience was highlighting the interconnectedness of all life . My thoughts were developing along these threads.

Shilpa Gupta

Image result for shilpa gupta venice biennale
For in your tongue, I cannot fit. Installation. Gupta, S. Venice Biennale: 2019.

Shilpa Gupta’s sound installation in the Arsenale For in your tongue , I cannot fit (2017-2018) appeared to be a half-lit poetry garden which on closer inspection was filled with the voices and work of 100 poets spanning 13 centuries who had been imprisoned  for a range of reasons. The poetry was speared on spikes and the hanging microphones were reverse wired to act as speakers so that when I walked amongst them the voices and poems sounded as I passed by. They were in several languages, some in English, so I understood and others in Arabic, Azeri, Hindi and Russian, so I listened to the intonation of the voices.

Of all the works at the biennale this had the greatest impact. It was altogether magical, strange and at times poignant walking amongst the poetry fragments. The experience of it was greater than the sum of its parts. It managed to be both expansive over time and yet it had deeply personal and almost ephemeral looking sheets of spiked poetry paper.

The elements of time and the delicacy and power of the paper and word were elements that I wanted to develop in my own practice and thought. This whole experience had made me question my concepts, my practice, my direction. It was like an unravelling and at the same time a kind of distilling of ideas.

The experience led me to consider the place of painting in contemporary art as most exhibits here were film or installation. It seemed like painters were perhaps the outsiders. Elements of curation, artistic creation and the distictive conveyance of ideas led me to develop ideas of working with collections and curators around the key themes of time, perception, and to further explore mysticism, symbolism and interconnectedness.

Wilson , G. (2014). How to Write about Contemporary Art [kindle]. London:  Thames and Hudson. (Section3: 1).

Margutti, F& M,N. (2019). May You Live In Interesting Times. 1st ed. Venice: La Biennale di Venezia 2019.

Graff, A. (2019). Ane Graff goes to Venice – Oslo National Academy of the Arts. [online] Available at: [Accessed 17 Jul. 2019].