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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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
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
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 (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.
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?
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.
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
In the article ‘Ane Graff goes to Venice”, Ane Graff states:
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’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
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] Khio.no. Available at: http://www.khio.no/en/about/news/ane-graff-dreg-til-venezia [Accessed 17 Jul. 2019].
What is Real? What contexts are relevant for my work? Who are the lead practitioners and main agencies in these contexts? What strategies and methods can I develop and utilise in contextual research and practice? What is painting in the context of contemporary art?
These are some of the questions we have asked ourselves during our contextual dialogue with our colleagues. In order to move forward I need to assess where I am at present. Responding to critical feedback from my tutor is a valid place to begin and to use this to inform the process of exploration, insight and development.
Areas for development are to consider more contemporary artists and to consider different uses of paint. An exploration of the ‘mystical’ and similarly ‘symbolism and metaphor’. As I develop this blog I aim to explore these questions, ask and answer those arising with cultural partners such as the Whitworth and also to collaborate with professional peers in other fields such as film and digital art. I aim to explore different possibilities and contexts by employing diverse methods; some tried and tested and some new and burgeoning.