Thursday 11 May 2017

Book Review of Girl on Girl. Art and Photography in the Age of the Female Gaze

Girl on Girl. Art and Photography in the Age of the Female Gaze.
By Charlotte Jansen
Hardback, 192 pages
ISBN 9781780679556
Published by Laurence King Publishing
£19.99 retail

“We see photographs of women every day, but we are used to looking at them in a few specific contexts,” writes editor Charlotte Jansen, in the introduction to her new book, Girl on Girl. Art and Photography in the Age of the Female Gaze. “On products and billboards, in shop windows and magazine covers, in erotica and pornography.” The premise behind the book, however, is that there is a rapidly growing number of women out there photographing women, creating images where both the subject and the “gaze” are female. “At times,” Jansen continues, “there seems to be little difference between how women photograph women and how men photograph women, but women have the right to self-objectify and to exploit without critique, just as men have been allowed to do since the earliest forms of art emerged”. And here, Jansen offers 40 international female photographers the opportunity to present their work, their aims and their motivations neutrally and without critique, albeit opening themselves up for critical response.

Read the full review here

Saturday 6 May 2017

Q&A with Nick Malone

Q&A with Nick Malone

Anna McNay: You started out as a writer and have published a couple of books. At what point did you decide to start making visual art?

Nick Malone: I went to art college as a mature student. From a very early age, Id really wanted to be an artist, but I took my A-Levels too early at 16 and gave in to pressure to go to university rather than art college, as I had an interest in writing as well at the time. So, initially I was a writer and supported myself with an academic career, although I did illustrate my own books. I had some success with the writing, winning prizes and getting some great reviews, and I had the opportunity to travel. Id always wanted to live abroad for a time and went as a visiting professor to Thessaloniki University in Greece and then Wisconsin University in the States, but that was in the field of contemporary literature, not art. However, the drive to be an artist was so compelling that I decided I had to go to art college. So I gave up everything and went, which, at the time, felt a rather scary thing to do, but I seem to have got away with it. Initially, I got a couple of businesses going to help fund things, which I supplemented with some activity that was very much on the edge. I do sometimes wonder whether putting myself on the line like that in a rather dangerous way was a kind of atonement for not having stood up for myself at 16, given that I always knew art was what I really wanted.

Initially, I went as an undergraduate to St Albans School of Art, on what was then a new degree. The course was great – they tried really hard. Their spiritual home was New York in the 1960s – Jackson Pollock and so on – but they were honest about this and, to be fair, they did invite in visiting lecturers from a very wide range of backgrounds. And they were ambitious in approach, which is a good attitude in art practice. The only drawback, in retrospect, was that their involvement with high modernism prohibited anything that had narrative or could be described as illustrative in any way. So I developed a pronounced sense of depth and possibility in the materials, but a whole side of me that dealt with story and speculation was repressed. It was only later that I learned to combine the two. I had intended to do an MA at the end of the course, but I was approached by galleries before I graduated, and I was tired of getting certificates, so I decided just to get stuck straight into painting.

Has your work always been mixed media and incorporated words as well as imagery?

No. Initially, alongside my involvement with the materiality of the paint, my first serious work emerged out of the cruciform. A lot of my training was very classical – my father was a portrait painter and I spent years working from the model. For a time, I had a studio in the West Country, and the elemental shapes of surrounding prehistoric trilithons somehow merged in my mind with the shape of the model with extended arms. I was very involved in work with the landscape at that time, so the T-shape became a way of organising the picture plane, with the top line of the T becoming the horizon line. It provided a very elemental structure within which to work, but even then I was dealing with ambiguity. A lot of those works are called Marches or Margins. The ‘marchesin medieval times were a kind of no-mans land, where you werent quite sure where Wales started and England ended. The works were deliberately elusive. Were they marine or terrestrial? Were they dealing with decay or resurgence?

This approach formed the basis for the exhibition Balkan Earth, which I put on for the British Council to celebrate their 50 years in Greece. It led to a very creative vein and a lot of corporate sales. Then I suddenly became aware of the danger of my work becoming formulaic. I couldnt see a canvas without painting black lines. I grabbed a manuscript that Id thrown into the back of a drawer before I went to art college and wrote the text on the canvas round and round in a big circle, so I was forced to change how I worked. And I decided to do that MA after all because I realised that Id been out of all critical debate for the last 10 years. This time, I studied at Central St Martins, which was then highly theoretical, so I decided to reinvent myself. I brought in the writing and ideas I’d previously suppressed and moved towards paintings that were non-hierarchic and non-structured, where chance could play a huge role.

Was that when you started to pour the paint on to the canvas?

Yes. I began doing things that were uncontrollable, putting down bits of wood underneath the canvas, and pouring liquid acrylics from a height to create a 3D landscape – mountains with valleys of paint – and I then intervened with marks and writing. I started to see figures and elements I’d been thinking about for a long time – they were there by chance, but I began to perceive them and pull them out.

Around this time, I also received a grant from Arts Council England to complete a book I'd been working on some years previously that engaged in different ways, through adventure and poetry, with issues that run through all my art practice – an inner mythology operating within a wider context of visual dynamics, dissolution and change.*

A few years later, I extended this approach, effectively drawing three-dimensionally in wood to create a third space between sculpture and drawing. This presents different planes, dissolving and providing ambiguous visual armatures, which allow engagement with these issues in new ways.

Where does your interest in ambiguity stem from?

Early on, I started corresponding with the writer and critic, William Empson. In fact, he wrote the introduction to my first book. When I met him, he was a grand international man of letters who’d changed the course of 20th-century literature with his book Seven Types of Ambiguity. Later on, I transferred some of these ideas from literature to painting, although I didn’t foresee that at the time.

I think his approach anticipated deconstruction. You can deconstruct something this way, but you could also do it another way, and so forth. The experience of being influenced by somebody in literature may show now in my general ideas of ambiguity – and, from that, in approaches to change and metamorphosis. Here we are, sensate blobs of jelly in this inchoate cosmos – how do you make sense of it? I dont know why its important to me to do this, but it is. Everything is changing all the time, a life force pushing its way into different forms. Each form has its own identity and is trying to protect that, but then it consumes or dissolves into these other forms as one massive cycle. Bacteria decomposing the tiger corpse, and so on. Everything only exists through ambiguity, metamorphosis and change. It may be seen like this, it may be seen like that, but finally it exists only as an act of perception – the owl is a flower, the goat is a flame.

How did the idea of creating a graphic novel come about?

Graham Crowley, a highly significant artist who had been Professor of Painting at the Royal College, suggested it: ‘Why dont you write a graphic novel about your life?At first, I didnt take him seriously, but, as I thought it about, I realised the genre had changed and was no longer just like Batman and so on. Graham referred me to a graphic novel by Richard McGuire, called Here, which uses the device of windows, to show exactly the same place at different points in time. You can cross timelines and even go back to prehistory. Apparently he got the idea from Microsoft developing Windows. I was attracted to what he was doing. I produced a timeline of my life, but the way that I constructed it was to make it a thriller or detective story, centred on the disappearance of my childhood friend, Makepeace, who personifies that part of us that constantly opens trapdoors of imagination; by cutting windows in the pages, the inner and outer worlds of our life look out to each other through the book. 

It is a compelling read, and part of me wants to ask you all about it and try to elicit which parts are true and which are invented, but part of me feels that would be too disingenuous, and would also spoil the lasting enjoyment of the story.

Well, there is a sense in which it is all true. Even the bits that are manifestly not true are true in a metaphorical sense. In a way, therefore, it’s just a trope with which to engage, but, at times, the excitement of the narrative takes over – its all true in imagination. Fundamental to everything is that any significant work can cross art forms and allow for endless revisiting and reinterpretation.

*Jason Smith’s Nocturnal Opera, published by Cinnamon Press, 2007

Published in the catalogue to accompany Nick Malone: A Tale of Two Lives at Art Bermondsey Project Space, 14-25 March 2017

Also available on Nick Malone's website

Images all © the artist:

Ascend on light the sleeping stair
charcoal, acrylic and wood on canvas

Disappearance I
charcoal and acrylic on canvas

Nick Malone's studio, 2017

Essay on the work of Nick Malone

Travelling through Time and Space: Meaning and Interpretation in the Work of Nick Malone

Nick Malone would rather think of his current practice as that of a painter who writes, than a writer who paints. His career trajectory has taken him from writer, with a sideline as a literary academic; to painter; to painter employing fragments of text in his works; to, most recently, author (does one say author, or artist?) of a graphic novel, purporting to tell the (abridged) story of his far from mundane life. For his exhibition at Art Bermondsey Project Space, Malone will bring together this graphic novel, as it currently stands, with a soundscape bringing to life its final, dramatic sequence, and some of his recent, large three-dimensional paintings, all of which draw from what he describes as his ‘personal and private mythology’. In such a scenario, without knowing the artist’s story in advance, one might well wonder how the visitor is to pinpoint any meaning in the work, or, more importantly, whether there even is such a thing. What can one hope to find? ‘They do have meanings,’ says Malone, of the assorted works that will be on display. ‘And they all emanate from this common vision. But there is no absolute […] There are differences in emphasis.’

Using a model, whereby the subject matter and artist’s intention are external to the work of art as an aesthetic object, Virgil C Aldrich delineates a difference between an artist’s intention and the meaning of the work.

‘Just as someone might say something he did not intend to say, so may an artist fail to get his intended message across. […] Thus do the material and the medium have their own powers of expression which may run counter to the intention of the user, depending on how he deploys them.’[i]

He concedes, however, that knowing both the subject matter and the artist’s intentions ‘tends to assist one to grasp what is in the work’. Malone, however, would not see such a difference in intention and received meaning as a failure. The ‘differences in emphasis’ he refers to are, if anything, quite deliberate, stemming from his deep-seated intrigue with ‘ambiguity, and the possibilities of multiple significance in meaning’[ii].

Malone’s paintings deliberately eschew a hierarchic structure, as he seeks to introduce chance into his practice, initially by pouring paint over hidden objects, creating a 3D landscape, and it is their mixed-medial nature, in which word and image simultaneously elucidate and obfuscate one another, ‘sharing the same space, though remaining clearly distinguished in terms of spatial relations, kind of intelligibility and often the division of labour,’[iii] that engenders what Simon Morley terms ‘topographic’ space, namely space subsuming both time and space.[iv] Accordingly, as well as subverting hierarchies, Malone’s works breach the boundaries of painting, considered since GE Lessing’s seminal essay, Laocöon: An Essay upon the Limits of Poetry and Painting (1766), to be a medium concerned solely with space:

‘Painting, by virtue of its symbols or means of imitation, which it can combine in space only, must renounce the element of time entirely, progressive actions… cannot be considered to belong among its subjects. Painting must be content with coexistent actions or with mere bodies which, by their position, permit us to conjecture an action [ie. imply a narrative].’[v]

In Malone’s work, both space and time play a role, and a certain level of ambiguity necessarily arises depending in part on which plane you view it from. In the graphic novel, the level of diachronicity, or ability to travel back and forth through time, is made explicit by the use of windows cut from one page through to the next (and back), an idea developed from Richard McGuire’s Here (Pantheon Books, 2014). This time travel might also be seen as space travel, however, but specifically space travel between inner and outer worlds. As Malone explains, drawing inspiration from the lines of TS Eliot’s The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, with which he opens his graphic novel:

‘There’s always the “you” and the “I”, and the “you” is the Makepeace [a character in the novel], who opens the trapdoor into another world. […] The two worlds co-exist and you can go between one and the other. There’s this constant dialogue between the inner and the outer worlds. Imagination comes from this. It’s the human psyche.’

By employing word and image side-by-side, or, rather, interwoven and meshed, one on top of the other, Malone’s works insist upon two distinct modes of information gathering – one involving the visual scanning of the image and the other the reading of the words. The former mode allows freedom of interpretation and uninhibited mental and sensual movement, while the latter confines the reader to a predetermined route, constructed from a row of letters to be deciphered from left to right or top to bottom.[vi] According to bi-lateral models of the brain, image interpretation takes place in the right brain, the site of non-logical, intuitive skills, while language is sited in the left brain, which shows a bias towards the rational, logical and discursive. Morley concludes, therefore, that the interpretation of word and image not only occurs at quite different speeds, but, involving different orderings of perception, ‘we simply cannot do both simultaneously’.[vii] Thus returning to Aldrich’s discussion of the origin of meaning, the material and the medium of Malone’s work clearly exploit their own ‘power of expression’, with word and image each drawing the viewer down its own route. Bringing the overall picture together in one’s mind is not so much a process of discerning the meaning as of creating an interpretation, and it is this interpretation that offers the full aesthetic experience.[viii]

While Malone’s work may arguably have one central subject matter (recall: ‘they all emanate from this common vision’), his use of multiple media and materials means that there is no direct mapping of meaning to interpretation. This situation, of a ‘quantitative abundance of the forms […] correspond[ing to] a small number of concepts’, is equally a result of the model employed by Roland Barthes, in his analysis of myth as a metalanguage,[ix] and this model might be carried over to explain, in greater depth, the presence of ambiguity and multiplicity of interpretation in Malone’s work – work dealing, as we have heard, with his ‘personal and private mythology’.

In Mythologies, Barthes takes Ferdinand de Saussure’s model of the linguistic sign,[x] as composed of the signified (the underlying mental concept or form) and the signifier (the arbitrary material aspect of the sign, with which the signified becomes associated) and proposes a secondary or meta-system, whereby the mythical sign (the myth) is composed of a signified and then a signifier, itself comprising a pre-existing sign, the meaning of which is already complete.

This mythical signifier ‘postulates a kind of knowledge, a past, a memory, a comparative order of facts, ideas, decisions. […] When it becomes form, the meaning leaves its contingency behind; it empties itself, it becomes impoverished…’[xi] The essential point, however, is that the form does not suppress the meaning entirely, it is still there, albeit at a distance, to be drawn on.

‘The meaning will be for the form like an instantaneous reserve of history, a tamed richness, which it is possible to call and dismiss in a sort of rapid alternation: the form must constantly be able to be rooted again in the meaning and to get there what nature it needs for its nutriment…’[xii]

Thus, in the case of Malone’s work, putting pre-established fragments of text together with fragments of imagery is like building a doubly complex myth and creating a metalinguistic sign from two or more pre-existing signifiers, each of which may draw on multiple pre-determined meanings. Depending on which features one calls up, and in which combination, the resulting interpretation might be infinitely construed – a rich plethora of ambiguity. Barthes concludes:

‘Myth is a pure ideographic system, where the forms are still motivated by the concept which they represent while not yet, by a long way, covering the sum of its possibilities for representation.’[xiii]

Since Malone’s work, like the mythical concept, has at its disposal an unlimited mass of signifiers (words and images), and since ‘there is no regular ratio between the volume of the signified and that of the signifier’,[xiv] so there is no limit on possible routes to and outcomes of interpretation. Aldrich’s conclusion therefore holds: both form and content (or, in his terms, medium/materials and content/subject matter) are key to the aesthetic experience and interpretation, and this, with his rich variety of mixed media, is an understanding that Malone exploits to the full.

© Anna McNay, February 2017

Published in the catalogue to accompany Nick Malone: A Tale of Two Lives at Art Bermondsey Project Space, 14-25 March 2017

Also available on Nick Malone's website

[i] Virgil C Aldrich, Philosophy of Art, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc, 1963, p92
[ii] Owing to a long-term friendship with the writer William Empson
[iii] Simon Morley, Writing on the Wall. Word and Image in Modern Art, London: Thames & Hudson, 2003, p10
[iv] ibid, p17
[v] GE Lessing, Laocöon: An Essay upon the Limits of Poetry and Painting (1766) (trans with introduction and notes by Edward Allen McCormick), Baltimore, MD, 1962, p77. Cited in J Dixon Hunt, D Lomas and M Corris, Art, Word and Image. Two Thousand Years of Visual/Textual Interaction. London: Reaktion Books, 2010, p15
[vi] Morley (2003), p9
[vii] ibid
[viii] Aldrich (1963, p94) elaborates on this, using Dylan Thomas’ poem, The Ballad of the Long-Legged Bait, as an example:
‘Suppose […] you ask […] what does it mean? This could be taken as a question about content and subject matter […]. But to press the question in this direction would be to turn your back on what counts perhaps even more, which is the texture of the medium of the composition; and that is what a good interpretation […] will draw attention to. How does the interpreter do this? How does he help you to the aesthetic experience of this property of the medium? He reminds you of the materials of the poem, not its subject matter.’
[ix] Roland Barthes, Mythologies, (selected and translated from the French by Annette Lavers), St Albans: Granada Publishing Limited, 1973, p120
[x] F de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, New York: Philosophical Library, 1959
[xi] ibid, p117
[xii] ibid, p118
[xiii] ibid, p127
[xiv] ibid, p120