Assignment 4

Way back, we had a maths teacher who is said to have advised students, ‘If you can’t answer the question, draw an elephant’. This is the obverse; a series of art questions I find I can’t answer because of their physical or material requirements. Warhol used his own urine in some of his work; another artist took the hair, bits of clothing, and sometimes fingernail clippings of her sitters for their portraits; the use of food stuffs to make art feels unethical in a world where so many people still starve, and where many of us found ourselves experiencing food insecurity for the first time in our lives not so long ago as shops closed and delivery services were limited. Many other options such as household paint, varnishes, and industrial fluids have odours and toxicities that I don’t regard as acceptable in an enclosed, domestic space.

So, having merged the first two projects, I am swerving round the last two with my ‘Elephant’ answer.

The first thing to say about it is that it would never have emerged the way it did if I hadn’t learned about materials and something of how they work during this and earlier course units. I would never have had the ‘minds eye’ necessary to choose which media to begin it with, nor the actual ‘eye’ to help me stop and think between pieces of action. I had two ideas to work with, maths and elephants, and it could have gone any direction at all from an infographic about the loss of so many to a rolling landscape with elephants dotted along a green and gold horizon and a few numbers showing increasing temperatures and migration routes.

Instead, an image from the film ‘Good Will Hunting‘ struck me. The young school dropout janitor working on a maths problem in the university’s corridor; it’s out there for the brightest and best to solve and no one has. Yet. He fills in bits each evening, anonymously completing the solution. If you haven’t seen it, please do; there’s a lovely line from one of his street gang mates who tells him he has to ‘do it (go to university/be something) for the rest of us who can’t’.

The board is like the ones we had in school and which was covered in equations chalked up by our maths teacher. Those equations terrified me but I don’t think any of us ever dared follow his advice to ‘draw an elephant’. Finally, its time has come:

This is the result of several episodes drawing in the shape of the elephant from a reference photo and writing in various equations I found on the internet. I’ve no idea what they mean never mind how to address them. The tools are white acrylic pen, white conte, black charcoal, black soft pastel, 8b pencil, and graphite pencil. The photograph pulls out the pencil marks so that they’re more visible than in the real world.

I found more equations in an old statistics book – these are at least recognisable! -and added some of those. I also muted the ones I’d used to outline parts of the elephant, (discovering then that nothing much sticks to acrylic pen so several applications were required), because this is the obverse of the earlier instruction and the presence of the elephant is just an echo.

I began to like the smudges; this made it look more like an actual chalk board, a living thing that people might make marks on, rub out, smudge, move on from, then return to later to see what else had happened.

‘If you can’t answer the question, draw an elephant’. Attributed to Mr Nuttall, maths teacher, Whitcliffe Mount GS, 1960s.

I was tempted to fill up the spaces with more equations in white but quite suddenly I felt that doing this in graphite pencil to ‘shadow’ the ones already there might give a sense of previous work, previous students, previous Will Huntings finding their own solutions.

Again the camera equalises the image, bringing forward tones that are designed to stay back. Black on black carries its own message from ‘look closely’ to ‘don’t look at all’ with many other points of mystery in between. Bowie used it to remarkable effect on the covers of his Black Star album – gloss and matte black on some, silver and black on others, text barely discernible. It was his final album and one that resonates in every way with the blackest blackness in the universe.

Running a google search for ‘black on black’ I came across several instances, one an entire exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery in 2015 which I would have liked to see, several in a ‘for sale‘ collection by Saatchi Art, and a number by Alan Green, one of which looks almost like black fur. There is something quite restrained in black-on-black art work; a kind of quietude that also feels as though it contains depths into which you might fall. It clearly requires a range of skills with different media; understanding their properties and using them to deliver a subtlety of presence that never overstates itself. The Manchester gallery is almost shockingly black in its whole presence but still sets up its black-on-black exhibits within that darkness as individual works with their own weight. It doesn’t look easy, but it’s a thing to remember for later and to then assemble materials with planned selectivity.

I can’t say how I arrived at this or where the inspiration came from, and this isn’t unusual. I’m never aware of influences; I don’t ‘see’ the work of another artist and think about how I might incorporate something of their approach into a new piece. What I do know is that there will be elements of everything I’ve seen in my life, from films to record sleeves, TV to art exhibitions, literature to comics; and that everything I do, think, write, paint is on the shoulders of what has gone before. But, like a good casserole, over time the constituent elements have changed their nature and become a sustaining whole rather than a collection of disparate ingredients.

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