Part 5, Assignment 5 – preparatory work

In a favourable time and situation, never neglect the unfavourable potential. In an unfavourable time and situation, never act abruptly and blindly. And in adverse circumstance, never become depressed and despair.

From the Tao of I, quoted by Alfred Huang in his translation of the I Ching, 2010.

My further translation, for this year of all years: don’t take anything for granted, never react to bad things without thought, and if life throws you lemons …

___

The brief for this assignment is to make a series of images – including any or all executed as paintings, prints, photographs, and film – concerning our own environment. The exercises have focused on the domestic and the local and mostly relied on traditional approaches but for this project, looking back to previous methods and materials is part of the more expansive scope of the work.

For me, the key environmental impact throughout this module has been the demolition and reconstruction of what used to be my somewhat ancilliary conservatory, now revitalised as a studio. Building work started promisingly in October despite COVID but with rigorous safety precautions in place; and we were within a week of completion when the supplies of double glazed panels and the all-essential roofing material dried up. So, with a promise of supplies soon which I’ll believe when I see, this is the environment that most takes up my emotional and intellectual energy.

Luckily, I’ve learned over the three Level 1 (or 4) modules that documenting things can be worthwhile. Photos form a cannon of imagery and information so they have value for a time in the future. Consequently I’ve been snapping and videoing whenever anything has changed and this is the catalogue I will be using for the assignment.

There are three main elements to this context: the building site; the room next to it where a pair of French windows used to lead through into the studio and where half the trolleys and one easel occupy interstitial spaces between table, TV, walls, and the window; and the garden where the other half of my equipment is housed in tents. It’s space, Jim, but not as we know it.

I am aiming to tell the story of this space and these interstitials, the way they’re rubbing along together and finding a way to let the right things happen at the right times, and so I have begun with an elementary storyboard.

This takes us up to today, December 20th, the first images showing the clearance of the original structure built across a patio corner formed by the back of the house and an extension. The last images show footings deeper than the house itself, an internal and an external skin with insulation, and a biscuit tin protecting what had been in internal socket from the weather. It gives the surreal appearance of a car port with a charge unit which must mean I’ve somehow ordered a hover Tesla for delivery.

Obviously, I hope to include a ‘happy ending’ but with COVID currently running at dangerously high levels again and half the population under severe social restrictions, this may not be imminent.

24th/25th December. Looking for a piece of A2 card or cartridge to contemplate as part of the initial painted sketch process, I came across some polystyrene packing foam, wafer thin and semi-transparent and if this course has taught me anything it’s that almost any surface is fair game whether or not paint adheres to it. I broke it into two A2 pieces and placed them side by side on my easel. My idea was to make a paint sketch of one of the images I had identified as candidate paintings on the story board but in I had a diversionary thought as a result of the smoothness of the surface – building is a gritty business, not a smooth one and there was an opportunity here to register that contrast. I took some sand from the bag outside and mixed it with T. buff acrylic then made some broad simple shapes on the foam.

From the image fourth from the left, second row in the montage.

Then I made a rough mirror image in more dilute paint, which included a dab of copper, on the other piece of foam and pulled out the shapes with a flannel and added broad brush strokes in T. white to both.

Next I added some areas of Payne’s grey with a toothbrush to reduce detail and precision and printed it onto the original surface.

Painted surface. The red just happened to be on the palette.
Printed surface.

What surprised me then was how much it reminded me of Chinese/Japanese image structures and colours and I wondered what it would look like with light coming through it in the manner of so many of those parchments. The first two are the pieces against the front window with the bright sun behind them and the shadow of a tree integrating its own pattern into the primary ones; in the second pair of images, they are against the darker, north facing, back window.

It’s apparent from this exercise that both back lighting per se and the spectral quality of that light influence separately and in combination the way the images appear. Back light darkens the paint as it creates its own shadow, and the red is lost along with the texture. This reduces the far eastern feel to the images but adds an unexpected dimension via the external shadow, and there is something architectural about the broad bands of paint across the top of the print images.

What does come across to me, at least initially, is that the more actively painted piece on the right makes a bulkier and less interesting image, while the print, albeit on a minimally painted surface, feels simple and almost symbolic.

These surfaces are fragile and so I’ll have to store them once dry rather than leave them out for reference. I’m going to hold onto the thoughts about style, the limited palette, and the integration of building materials with the work.

27th December. These are some preliminary sketches (from photos) to try out a palette and find some shapes. They are on A3 cartridge primed with transparent primer and then layered with gloss varnish to bring the surface closer to that of the styrofoam.

The media comprise T. buff + builder’s sand, T. white, Payne’s grey, and Cad. red. These are semi abstract and smeared, making use of the smooth gloss surface.

At the moment I’m not thinking of imitating Chinese art (and the words ‘fat chance’ spring to mind!) but using some of the form and ideas along with that more western approach to sliding paint across a surface.

[This, by the way, is what’s going on just to my left and that’s only three of them ]

I mentioned the Tao Te Ching in the previous exercise and drew on that to make the found poem I wrote around the edges of the image. I can feel that influence here too, along with the I Ching which is an ancient Chinese method of divination that uses coins or sticks to throw combinations which go to make up hexagons. These are interpreted in the text and act as guidance.

While I don’t subscribe to the mystical elements of predictive guidance (leaving aside Philip Pullman’s* physicist demonstrating the mapping of dust onto dark matter and using the I Ching to communicate with it), I do think this might be a way of randomising interpretations of the structures of my paintings. Thereafter, the style may owe a little more to 21st century grunge by incorporating building materials into the various media and smearing or dragging paint across the surface.

28th December. I’ve moved now to full images in the A3 sketchbook, primed with transparent primer and then with gloss varnish. The T. buff is mixed with builders’ sand; the other pigments are Payne’s grey, T. white, and Cad. red.

Painted. I’ve used a pebble to scrape paint vertically in some areas, and horizontally in others with the aim of indicating brickwork and other structural materials. The red takes the place of white as light while the white makes space between blocks of shape. The whole image is straightened in comparison with the original photo so that it resonates more with stylistic features of Chinese art.
Printed. This image is as expected much more sparse than its primary source, and the paint has a texture resulting from the effect of being pulled off that primary.

29th December. I have experimented with text, taking a random page from the I Ching to apply to the painted piece after adding fine lines (in fineliner) to anchor the image in an architectural context.

The horizontal and vertical lines reflect the bricks and blocks represented here as sweeps of paint. The placing and directionality of the text reflects the way in which Chinese text or pictograms are often placed in images.
Detail.
The text this time is from the Tao Te Ching; the smudges are unintentional.

I noticed that the random** page I’d picked from the I Ching is a number most computer aficionados will know well as one of the multiples of units by which various aspects of computer technology operate – RAM and hard drive capacity for instance. So instead of using the same random method or taking the same page with the Tao Te Ching, I divided the number by four, which also accommodated the lower page count in this volume. I’ve arranged the text so that it mirrors in essence but not detail its counterpart. The draw of a volume like this is exemplified by the line ‘A nine story building rises from a pile of earth’ which would seem to fit exactly the context it’s placed in thereby giving it situational weight. I could have chosen others though, and didn’t, but I don’t think that diminishes the potential for guidance of sorts for anyone who might be seeking it. There are wise words here.

Edit 1st January. I have been adding animations of physical pieces of work more as afterthoughts than legitimate parts of this process; bits of fun not to be counted as ‘work’. But my tutor brought up the ones I posted in Part 4, suggesting I made more of them, which was a completely unexpected delight. We’ve talked a lot about light and the impact this has on my work and while I’m not a film-maker or thinking I might become one, I see the integration of the digital with the physical an almost inevitable product of the way people generally consume media.

Sometimes the animations I make (usually via MotionLeap which was originally Pixaloop but also in the video editing software, Filmora) are completely frivolous and as much about exploring the potential as relating the effect to the original painting. But increasingly as I find my way around the available elements, I’m able to be more focused and direct them towards a point to be made.

This one takes a piece of text drawn randomly from the I Ching and remarkably pertinent given the context – a pile of earth where my rebuilt studio/conservatory should be – and the animations, swimming swirling text and a searching eye, remark on everyone’s currently desperate attempts to keep their eyes on the ball of confused words coming from governmental and health sources as to what can and can’t be done in our COVID tiers.

December 30th. I have shifted my attention to a different image to avoid over-working the first but also because this requires a different palette, one involving more of the greens and browns often used in Chinese landscapes. From the image of two tents third from the left, top row, in the montage.

Again, I’ve painted on a surface primed first with transparent primer and then with gloss varnish, and mixed builders’ sand into the T. buff acrylic.
This is the print from the primary source above, showing more translucence than the original and also some texture from the primer. The brown dots are sand.

I have blocked in first some layers of dilute paint (Hooker green mixed with Prussian blue hue then later with Payne’s grey), then T. white, and T. buff applied with a flat brush then dragged and shaped with a pebble. The dots of Cad. red are minimal and there to connect this image with the previous ones.
The print shows some of the lines I’d made on the source with the pebble.

Once dry, I’ll be making lines with fineliner as before and inserting text, possibly using a white pen as much of the coverage is dark.

This didn’t lend itself to fracturing with horizontals and verticals and the texture of the paint, along with its greater coverage, was unkind to the fineliner and also the acrylic paint pens I also used. I think this points to over-painting in comparison with the simplicity of the first set. The text again comes from the I Ching (P118) randomly chosen, and below from the Tao Te Ching on P29 which is the closest number (other than 30) to 118/4.

I can’t say I’m fond of either of these and although they might liven up with a coat of varnish, I intend to try this one again with a more minimalist approach in terms of brush strokes and coverage.

This animation, with birds formed from the edge of the painting and flying upwards like a wall and across like a diaspora accompanied by an instruction to ‘PLAY’ from digital legacy, began playfully but consolidated into commentary on the context – the birds are the garden, liberation both from the global situation and my very local one; and the Play imperative both the sense many of us have of being trapped in an endless looping Black Mirror production of Groundhog Day and the Pause in building work caused by that. What I wouldn’t give for a Play button to get this all moving again!

December 31st. I took another run at this and still managed to over-work the painted version despite deployment of the emergency jeye cloth, albeit not as much as before .

What has worked best here, I think, is the sponge reduction on the blue tent. The rest looks heavy and over-fed.
This is the print version, very minimalistic and with two clumsy shapes in the centre.

I think I’m beginning to resolve some thoughts now about how to proceed and this includes keeping the palette even if the subject indicates other colours, planning the horizontal and vertical lines more carefully to ensure they don’t cross a rough patch of medium so that the text is compromised, settling some of the symbolism – triangular shapes for foliage, horizontals and verticals for architectural features (the building element), placement of lines to indicate the fragmentation consequent to the building work, and whether or not to stay with handwritten text or go with printed and pasted typed text.

The next phase will focus on scale and use A2 sheets of cartridge primed for substance and with a layer of gloss varnish to loosen adherence of any medium I might want to pull away with a scraping tool or damp cloth. The paint/print pairs will be separate this time, or just folded so no lumpy book bind in the centre to interrupt visual comparison and lines. All references and comments listed here will apply to this next post.

Areas of further research:

Chinese art. Chinese visual art before 1965 – Art & Culture – The Jakarta Post

Architecture and modelling. Forensic Architecture Agency ← Forensic Architecture (forensic-architecture.org) This is an academic group based at Goldsmiths university. Their commissions include detailed analyses of international-scale events, including those such as Grenfell Tower, the Beirut port explosion, and the movement of shipping in the Mediterranean at the time of multiple attempts by refugees to cross and the ships that could have prevented deaths by drowning but did not. They use images, satellite, phone and audio records to build 3D models to show how, for instance, a fire progressed, and who was where in the scene. The relevance to this project is as yet unclear to me beyond the constructive elements of their work and the mapping of one communication medium onto others to expose the story of an event.

*Pullman, P. His Dark Materials; a trilogy written between 1995 and 2000 and published by Penguin Books. The recent BBC TV series (2020) has high production values commensurate with the writing and visualises some of the more complex concepts of the books.

**Active and knowing randomisation is a difficult thing to achieve, when it’s numbers people tend to avoid the extremes and don’t believe it if lottery numbers for instance come up with a sequence: 1-2-3-4-5, 9-8-7-6-5 and so on, so trying to be random is tricky. The I Ching has some complicated methodology involving 50 yarrow sticks if spending an hour or so on a search is what you feel is best, but more commonly people use three coins thrown six times to make the hexagrams. This probably still has a lot of potential permutations but then boils down to the number of heads/tails in each row. I have deliberately chosen not to do that because I am not using the book as a guide, but I wanted to avoid active selection because this seemed likely to illustrate both the fallacy of applicability*** and the undeniable wisdom of the words.

***The fallacy of applicability applies to the tendency to see relevance in something, often a horoscope, that describes ones own self when it has been labelled as a category with which the person identifies. An experiment some years ago distributed astrological readings to participants, each reading labelled with that participant’s star sign. Participants agreed (to the point of statistical significance) that their reading described them, whereas in fact they were all identical. [This is called the Barnum effect and while the 1989 Glick et al paper isn’t the one I recall, it does illustrate the phenomenon].

Latterly, one of Facebook’s more amusing moments came as NASA’s newly discovered constellation, Ophiucus (you try pronouncing that politely), displaced all the others and shortened Scorpio to just a few days. The upshot was, on my newsfeed of totally objective, wouldn’t-touch-a-horoscope-with-a-bargepole, scientist friends a good two days of voluble resistance to being booted out of ‘their’ star sign into another with which they had ‘nothing in common’! Me? I’m one of those evicted from Scorpio and dumped into Libra which is obviously quite ridiculous and so I’ve self-identified as an Ophiucus on the grounds that a serpent has much more in common with a venomous insect than some woman with a set of scales.

Huang, A. (translator) 2010. The Complete I Ching: the definitive translation. 10th Anniversary edition. Inner Traditions, Canada. P xx.

Tao Te Ching. Attributed to Lao-zu circa 100 BCE. Translated by Stephen Addiss and Stanley Lombardo and published by Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis/Cambridge 1993.

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