In this post I am going to examine ideas, questions and observations about my own practice in relation to work by Francis Upritchard, Matthew Craven, Hieronymus Bosch and Graham Hancock.
All these people have a common interest in the anthropological study of our history and the future of the human race. Some treat this subject in a visual manner while others take a philosophical approach in their writing and verbal discourse. At the base of it all lies many vivid imaginations questioning the reality we live in, have lived in or are about to live in.
“In the painted world of Bosch, imagination and reality intermingle and everything appears to meld together in a continuously inventive game of exquisite corpse. People turn into animals turn in to musical instruments and kitchen utensils and back again. Essences and forms are very fluid in this world, as though anything can somehow be possessed by a magical spirit or demonic force” .Kissick. D, Spike Magazine
Garden of Earthly Delights – Hieronymus Bosch 1503-1515
In the articles ‘What’s So Contemporary about Hieronymus Bosch’s Apocalyptic visions?’ By Dean Kissick and ‘How Hieronymus Bosch’s Hell Lives on Today’ by Nathan Dunne, both authors have just been to Bosch’s retrospective at Noorbrabandts Museum in Bosch’s hometown of S-Hertogenbosch and have come away focusing on two major points.
Firstly, a thread that runs through all the artist’s and writer’s works I am reviewing, the idea that nobody really has any idea. In this case despite Bosch being dead for 566 years, no one today can claim to have a complete understanding on what his work means. Kissick attended the exhibition to understand how this can happen, how someone so long ago can still resist interpretation despite making work that is still so contemporary. Dunne points out that due to Bosch leaving no paper trail explaining the intention of his works, there remains a fascination and appeal for generation after generation of artists to renew and try to create meaning out of his work..
Secondly, is the relevance of Bosch’s work in today’s Anthropocene epoch, the current age that is geologically defined as humans having the dominant influence on climate and environment. Both authors note how Bosch was obsessed with the end of the world. This obsession is relevant today with the destruction of the environment, the election of what some may refer to as an emotionally unstable man into the position of Presidency in the White House, racism escalating to violent measures, the wars over the worlds resources… the list goes on. Like Bosch, in his own time the popular culture seems to be embracing their own ideas of fantastical heaven and hell on earth as we see the rise in apocalyptic movies and series on television. On Netflix in one evening, I counted more than 14 new shows dealing with humans trying to survive in future, in parallel universes or in zombie or vampire infested realms. ( see my ‘Enid Blyton, Zombies and Rambling post)
In my own practice I am interested in the notion of life after the ticking time bomb of this existence, but I am equally interested in the idea of parallel universes, that perhaps this is not the only place to exist. When I look at work from Bosch I see alternate realms; not so much Heaven and Hell but realms of one’s own making, perhaps of the subconscious, like a dream. It is the possibility of these endless imaginative worlds that fuels my practice.
‘I want to create a visionary landscape, which refers to the hallucinatory works of medieval painters Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel’ Francis Uprtichard
Francis Upritchard Bearer 2012
Francis Uprtichard is a New Zealand artist known, like Bosch, for figurative work that is impossible to pin precise meaning to. While Bosch creates this mystery in bizarre hybrid creature filled paintings, Upritchard, a self-confessed fan of Bosch, generally has lone figures on plinths that create her landscapes. With these figures Upritchard mixes references to other times, places and cultures so one can never quite grasp where these figures belong. “Are her figures kabuki performers, red Indians, harlequins or hippies in technicolour dreamcoats? Are they gurus or imbeciles? Have they transcended history or been discarded by it?” Wellington Art Gallery
The Jealous Saboteurs press release from the Wellington City Art Gallery in 2016 during the current touring exhibition and ‘A conversation with Francis Upritchard’ by Rachael Vance for Ocula Magazine 30th March 2016. While the Wellington Gallery gives a brief but succinct run down on Upritchard’s history and major artworks, concentrating on her ties to New Zealand, Vance goes a step further in her interview by asking Upritchard questions that seem to hit on all the aspects of her work I am curious about.
Ideas such as why none of Uprtichard’s figure sculptures have pupils in their eyes and how this takes away the viewers ability to be completely engaged with them. Upritchard wonders if this decision is subconsciously made to make it easier for her to separate the works from reality, to make the point that they have no personality and they are from her imagination. I have admitted when asked, that my sculptures are my friends, believing there was nothing wrong with this, and that this would give the work the spark of life it needed. If I could see them as personalities, then others could too and possibly would feel the same bond or empathy I did. This fetishisation of the objects diminishes over time to the point that I can look at them objectively, often in surprise that I even made these obscure looking creatures which brings me full circle back to allocating a sense of sentience to them.
Another interesting discussion between Vance and Upritchard involves the use of materials and the mixing of art, craft and design techniques in her work. As a typically curious artist, Upritchard answers with a question on why people might choose the different paths, reflecting that perhaps it is an issue of class or education. Also she seems to think that they all cross over. I agree on this point and haven’t actually thought about the craft/ art debate since my undergrad degree 15 years ago when I covered a very large catapult with oyster shells which brought my practice into the craft realm. I found this comment below by a Fringe Magazine staff member (Philippines), written in September 2015.
The use of craft in contemporary art means a dedication to materials and processes, though not entirely as a path to perfection and polish. On the contrary, the craft approach to art production shuns aesthetic perfection. Art that comes out of craftwork is a celebration of individuality amidst the spirit of globalism. It provides a concreteness and tactility that cyberspace can only offer virtually. It is in contrast to certain tendencies in globalism that promote a sense of cultural uniformity. Fringe Magazine 2015
In my work I employ many craft processes, for example clay work, threading cotton around objects and mixing them in with more traditional art practices such as plasterwork and painting. I appreciate how the addition of craft can ‘shun the aesthetic perfection’. I find a beauty in the oddities and ‘mistakes’. It is the method by which I run my practice and most of my work comes from ‘ruining’ something and then setting about to ‘fix it up’. After clay work is fired there can be a smashing to creating new material to add to other materials or objects are purposely turned upside down to create a mistake to work from. I read years ago, in the New York Public Library how Robert Motherwell, the abstract expressionist painter, used the same process, I still remember what a comfort it was reading those words, how I felt I had just been granted permission to continue to work in this psychologically driven way. To use the platform of intentionally destroying something as a beginning to a work rather than setting out to create a perfect work from scratch.
Matthew Craven Arrangement 1 Unclassified
Vivian Hua, for Redefine Magazine, interviews Matthew Craven, a collage artist from New York in the article: Matthew Craven Interview: Getting Existential Through Pattern, History and Anthropology, October 2015
This interview begins with Craven questioning his creativity and his need to draw on everything as a child. I realised Cravens curiosity from his childhood underlined his practice, his need to know why people felt the desire to create things through the histories of time. This drives Craven’s deep existential exploration of the commonalties between humans from all different times and places and he explores this through the use of image and pattern.
I was excited to read about how he dealt with the ethnically sourced imagery he was using given his white identity and how would he deal with his critics?.
“People can read into the work how they want to – of me appropriating different cultures and different times and different aesthetics….I’m hoping people see it and they feel unified with humanity, and not segregated, “Craven states hopefully. “Some people see what I do and get confused about my intentions as a white male artist talking about history, and it’s really sad sometimes, when I’m like, ‘I’m talking about humanity, and people.”
This is something I can relate to and I find freedom in his words. I have been questioned about cultural appropriation on several different occasions. Like Craven and Upritchard I am heavily invested in anthropological research as my fuel to make life interesting, to be able to ask big questions, to be able to view humans in a historical sense, to see where we have been and perhaps get clues to where we are heading. I have always been drawn to indigenous practices and have participated in many. Is it not an artist’s job to observe the world around them and give an alternate view?
Francis Upritchard manages to fully borrow from different cultures – for example her Maori artefacts (think shrunken heads) and doesn’t seem to have any repercussions. I have read many articles about her work and this has never been an issue. Is it because by living in England she has distanced herself from any of the culture she is borrowing? Is it because her work is difficult to pin down and there are many different cultures happening at once? Is it because, as someone suggested to me, she has a whimsical hippie type persona and floats around unscathed? Perhaps and most probably it is because she takes a meta-level stance with the subject. I am not sure, perhaps all of the above. What I do know she is doing is taking visual elements from many cultures and very successfully creating something new. Is there a difference between ‘borrowing’ from a culture and ‘appropriating’?
The other point I would like to touch on from Cravens interview is how his studio practice extends outside the four walls of his studio. Foraging around second-hand shops is as much part of the art process as is gluing the images onto paper. With his set of rules such as never use National Geographic Magazines or any others with glossy paper and do not use images to make up a whole ‘psychedelic’ image, Craven relished inclusion of collecting in his art practice.
It is interesting comparing how each of us, Upritchard, Craven and myself approach sourcing our materials. Upritchard knows what she would like to source and I find her collecting very purposeful. Craven has his parameters, he knows he would like to collect magazines, though not glossy and the older the better. These need to be hunted down and he enjoys this process. I probably have the loosest method of collecting, I pick things up and if they speak to me, whether it is an old pair of slippers or a plastic dog’s hotdog toy, I have a knowing that I will someday need that item. I used to try and guess what it would be made into, nowadays I trust that there is no way I can predict what the object will end up as. In the case of the fluffy slippers, they have so far been a head and a hat on 2 different sculptures. Craven brings up an interesting point in that he likes his materials to speak of history but also have their own history. This is something I haven’t given much thought to and really I am not sure if I would like to know whose feet have been in the slippers.
Lastly I would like to touch on Craven’s need for his works to look seamless. He takes great care of detail and choice of paper is particularly important to him. I mentioned the appreciation of imperfection of my work when referring to the ‘crafting’ of Upritchard’s work. I do not go out of my way to create these (now that I have stopped dripping paint everywhere) but I am not a person who has the desire or temperament to execute a polished finish. I do find this disturbing when I show my work and am always grateful for the pristine white walls of the gallery which can usually give the work the contrast of a polished background. This can gift the objects a high art feel as well as the fact that the white cube of the gallery space brings with it the history of high art.
So far I have looked at three different artists and found similarities and dissimilarities to my work. While these artists inspire me, nothing quite fascinates me as the ultimate existential questions of who are we? are why are we here?…and what exactly is here?
‘But there were survivors – known to the later cultures by names such as ‘the Sages’, ‘the Magicians’, ‘the Shining Ones’, and ‘the Mystery Teachers of Heaven’. They travelled the world in their great ships doing all in their power to keep the spark of civilisation burning… Everywhere they went these ‘Magicians of the Gods’ brought with them the memory of a time when mankind had fallen out of harmony with the universe and paid a heavy price.’ Graham Hancock (2015)
The above quote is part of the blurb from the back of Hancock’s latest book Magicians of the Gods, it is one of those bits of writing that for me creates a visual experience. I immediately try to imagine what these ‘Sages’ looked like. The fact that Hancock really does believe in these Magicians of the Gods makes it even more appealing. It makes them part human, part superhero, but also because Hancock is an avid historian, it would seem to place them as earthly beings of some distant past, like those that had survived an apocalypse. All Sages, beings that possess great knowledge, wisdom, are different in my mind and this has been a starting point for my work on many occasions. The idea of several odd looking humans, each with their own powers that have kept the human race alive through their wisdom and know how. This possibility excites me.
Mikayla Dwyer has created a work that reminds me of this idea, although very far removed from what is in my mind. I think for me, it is a good representation of the idea, though obviously not her intention
The Additions and Subtractions (2007) Mikala Dwyer
Hancock’s idea of the Magicians of the Gods reminds me of all three artists work. Are the ‘Sages’ hidden amongst Bosch’s creatures? Are they some of Upritchard’s figures? Could they be represented by Cravens collages? There is a thread of the unknown that runs through all of these works. This leaves them all open to interpretation, Craven and Upritchard’s even more so as they either don’t name their work or give very generalised names like Nincimpoop (Upritchard). This was something that came up for me in the last seminar, titles. I realised for the first time the huge effect of how a title can completely change the reading of a work. This happened with the work ‘Rose of Winnemucca’
Rose of Winnemucca Paula Friis 2017
I had named this work Rose when I came to the seminar but hadn’t voiced it. A enlightened person said it looked like Melania Trump. I thought this was fantastic and changed the name without thinking it through. Putting the sculpture in a box or a category felt quite claustrophobic after a day or so. Would I now have to be an expert of all things Trump? How would the other sculptures sit with it? Have I just created a hierarchy? I changed the name back referencing a person I knew thus leaving it open for the viewer to see their own meaning within the sculpture, or not. Titling is definitely something to play around with in the future, it is still a very new process for me.
Hancock, G (2015). Magicians of the God (back blurb). London, England. Hodder & Stoughton