I was excited about this study visit, as works on paper have a special appeal to me as a printmaker. Often art seen in galleries is on canvas in oils, if 2D, as if paper is too unfinished , too unprofessional.
Our study visit was lead by Gerald Deslandes, who, as a History of Art tutor, had a different approach to viewing the art to we students who are concerned with making art. The artists stand up close to a work to see how it has been achieved, the art historians stand back to soak in the full effect.
We approached the exhibition in two forays, with group discussion and presentation at the end of each. Gerald also took the time to talk to many of us individually about our response to particular pieces. I found his direct questioning helped me articulate what I was thinking.
The first works we saw were a series of drawings by Dawn Clements on huge, joined pieces of paper, so huge that they went around corners of the gallery. An educator explained that the first piece was based on a 50s movie, which Dawn had watched obsessively, pausing and drawing the interiors from the scenes. These progress from a railway carriage to a house and the drawing is like a dream where all the images are continuous and the different perspectives melt into one another. There are no figures, but they are felt as an unseen presence. The drawings are notated with comments on the film, time intervals etc. It is as though we are listening to the artist think, or perhaps wandering through her dream. I cannot imagine quite how she physically worked on these huge supports which are then glued together and the joins worked over. The only medium is a brush pen, and I have never seen one used so effectively as at this scale. I found it really refreshing to see drawings exhibited, in the ‘raw’.
In the whole Paper exhibition, I found every work interesting. I didn’t necessarily like them, but they were are really thought provoking or technically interesting or both. I was particularly drawn to works which escape a rectangular 2d frame. There was paper sculpture, some suspended in space, 2d works over meaty, curved, overlapping pieces of paper. There were McDonald’s bags converted into tree dioramas.
The most thought provoking were the delicate, water colour, childhood portraits by Annie Kevana.
At first glance, these seem poignant, possibly vulnerable children, perhaps drawn from id photos which might have been taken in refugee camps, but then you read the caption, and find these are Hitler, Pol Pot, Mao, Mugabe; a depressing litany of tyranny and death.
You are required to do a double take and confront your initial impressions. But were they wrong? Are these innocents ? Were they corrupted later in life? Is there Original Sin or only life experience, nature or nurture? If you look into the eyes, you are confronted with an uncompromising, direct stare. They are both passive and confrontational. Pretty cool for simple water colours.
In a group discussion, we decided that we found the exhibition refreshing in its lack of cynicism. By which, I think I meant that we found the art genuine. The artist hasn’t tried to produce a sensationalist potboiler, like an actor playing to the audience; always having one eye on the paying public.
When I came home, I discussed the exhibition with my teenage son, who had already seen it. He utterly disagreed with me on this cynicism point. He felt that Annie Kevans work so depended on the observer doing a double take that it was by definition cynical. I am still trying to square this in my head. Clearly a piece of work needs to draw a response from the viewer, but how much should it be designed to do so? As observers, we want to be involved in the artist’s own experience and emotion, but do we want to be outright manipulated by them?