4 Oct 2008

Maev Kennedy review in the Guardian of the Artist's Studio exhibition at Compton Verney

The ‘necessary insanity’ of chaos in the studio

There is a lot discussed about how artists work in the studio and what it means metaphorically, as a space for creativity; a state of mind of the artist etc. but ultimately, it is just a working space. Some people have an office or a potting shed that they retreat to; artists gravitate to a studio, through need. Look at the exhibition currently on at Compton Verney about Artists Studio's Compton Verney exhibition.

I have come to think a little more about how I work in my studio as I have had to do some renovations to the outside, I can begin to look objectively at it as a working space, however, I’d never consider it in terms of a romanticised space for the creative act, as it usually stinks of turps and I have to clamber over stuff to get to the paintings being worked on, and am usually unhappy with what comes from it.
However, in the words of James Elkins in his book ‘What Painting Is’ (Read a review of the book) you would believe that the painter in his studio works like this:
‘Working in a studio means leaving the clean world of normal life and moving into shadowy domain where everything bears the marks of the singular obsession. Outside the studio, furniture is clean and comfortable, inside, it is old and unpleasant. Outside walls are monochrome or pleasantly patterned in wallpaper; inside, they are scarred with meaningless graffiti. Outside, floors can be mopped and vacuumed; inside, they build up layers of crusted paint that can only be scraped away or torn up with the floor itself. The studio is a necessary insanity. Perhaps writers have insanities of paper, or of erasers, but they cannot compare with the multicoloured dementia caused by fluids and stone.’
A ‘necessary insanity’. I had not considered this as a way of looking at what takes place in the studio an ‘insanity’, and what is produced at the end, but Elkins is right. The reason for this is that you are only there for one thing, to paint. It is not about appearances, unless you have an immaculate studio, which would suggest little work being done (unless you are an obsessive-compulsive minimalist?) studio’s should be ready for action, get in, pick up where you left off and start painting..
Elkins goes on saying:
‘Waking each morning and going into a room suffused with the penetrating sharp odour of turpentine and oil, standing at the same table so covered with clotted paints that it no longer has a level to spot for a coffee cup, looking at the same creaking easel spattered with all the same colours-that is the daily experience of serious painters, and it is what tempts insanity. Some artists try to keep the studio at bay by keeping it neat, or by putting their easel in the corner of a larger room, but the effect is like cleaning an infection: no matter how well swabbed the wound may be, it is useless to pretend it is healthy, or that the infection does not exist.’
Well I’m not sure how many contemporary artists use easels rather than the walls or the floor, but I think we can get the point. The main thing is to ensure that your time in the studio is spent taking you somewhere..
As Brice Marden suggests, it’s how you exist in the studio that creates the works anyway, its already there:
‘The paintings come out of these studios really reflect the places. It’s not as if you are sort of conceptualists, going around applying some idea. Your idea is coming from how you exist within where you are. That is in the painting, its part of the whole expression.’
What interests me is how we look at painting and especially abstract paintings during the process of painting. There are a number of artists who have explored this, too numerous to mention, but ultimately this is what we seek, a visceral other-ness coupled with a physical object that a painting is. On page 88 Elkins explores this:
‘..it may be that the human mind can only think of one aspect at a time: either a painting is what it represents, or it is a fabrication done on a flat surface. Or perhaps it is possible to think of both the surface and what seems to be behind it at once, in a ‘twofoldness’ of attention that takes in both equally.’
But that requires much manoeuvring through conscious and unconscious understanding of where we are in the process:
Gerhard Richter talks about this in ‘The Daily Practice of Painting 1962-1993’ (Review of book by MIT press) in his entry for 18th May 1985, on page 121, he states:
‘When I paint an abstract picture, I neither know in advance what it is that I am aiming at and what to do about getting there. Painting is consequently an almost blind, desperate effort, like that of a person abandoned, helpless, in totally incomprehensible surroundings-like that of a person who posses a given set of tools, materials and abilities and has the urgent desire to building something useful which isn’t allowed to be a house or a chair or something else that has a name; who therefore hacks away in the vague hope that by working in a proper and professional way, he will ultimately turn out something proper and meaningful..anthing goes; so why do I often spend weeks over adding one thing? What am I making that I want? What picture of what?’

But to counterbalance Richter’s despair, we know why we are there in the studio, as the remarkable photographer Joel Meyerowitz has questioned in himself:
‘What are we trying to get to in the making of anything? We’re trying to get to ourselves. What I want is more of my feelings and less of my thoughts. I want to be clear. Whether you’re making images, poetry, painting, music or love, you should be totally enraptured by that, by the experience itself. That’s what it is about-the location of subject, it’s about the passage of the experience itself, in its wholeness, through you back into the world, selected out by your native instincts. That’s what artists do. They separate their experience from the totality, from raw experience, and it’s the quality of their selections that makes them visible to the world. What is the art experience about? Really, I’m not interested in making ‘Art’ at all. I never, ever, think about it. To say the world ‘art’ it’s almost like a curse on art. I do know that I want to try to get to myself. The older I get, the more indications I have about what it is to get closer to yourself. You try less hard. I just want to be.’
With that in mind, I want more of my feelings and less of my thoughts, it’s time for the studio..seeya

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