Politics and Art

Fighting For Crumbs: The World Transformed @Black-e Liverpool

Fighting For Crumbs: The World Transformed @Black-e Liverpool

One result of the video we produced for Fighting For Crumbs (our recent joint show – with John Ledger, Corinne Deakin, Connor Matheson, Rebekah Whitlam, Jonathan Butcher) is that we were invited to participate in the World Transformed – the festival of Politics, Art & Culture that provided the fringe for the Labour Party conference in Liverpool this week. As you can imagine I was quite buzzed about this. Being invited to exhibit is always positive, being invited to show in a space that would see Jeremy Corbyn, Caroline Lucas, John McDonnell and Ken Loach speaking was amazing.

Our Corner of the World Transformed

Our Corner of the World Transformed

One result of the invite was that I got my work featured in Red Pepper, a Green/Left UK magazine – twice in print in two months, wow🙂, and of course neatly illustrating the subject of this blog.

Technicolour Nightmare in Red Pepper

Technicolour Nightmare in Red Pepper

We managed to put four installations, some of my paintings, one of John Ledgers drawings, and two of Jonathan Butchers poems in a neat little installation containing installations in one corner of the workshop/gallery area. We also managed to get more of mine, John’s and Connor’s work on the walls and divisions alongside the main thoroughfare into the area.

Whilst at the festival, I sat in on a panel session about Politics and Art. This could have been an interesting discussion but actually took the form of a series of presentations followed by Q&A sessions. This format limited the scope for exploration, as did the available time in a busy schedule of workshops, and so I thought I’d use this blog to look at the relationship that art and politics can have, and how this affects the ‘Art’ element.

The seminar was hosted by Natasha Josette from the Anti-PV group (of which more later). There were four presentations by practising political artists, (Jennifer Verson from Migrant Artists Mutual Aid (MAMA), Darren Cullen (Dismaland), Matt Bonner (Brandalism) and Momentum TV). The artists explained what their practice was, and what political aim they felt the work addressed. The first thing that struck me was that there was a gender difference in approach, both women on the panel talking of the value of using creativity to explore potential, rather than focus on making points about the dismal now. In constraint both the men on the panel utilised in your face approaches referencing the contradictions, hypocracies and wilful ignorance of the now.

Now, as someone who is fond of saying “I’ve got your point, where would you like me to stick it?” I have a lot of interest in the idea of art exploring what we could become, rather than being the mirror by which we examine ourselves. Momentum TV  has a focus on exploring the possibilities by encouraging local people to share their thoughts on their own communities and geographies. In doing so they facilitate the voices of so many who would otherwise be unheard. Clearly by involving larger groups of people directly in the production of art on this basis, it can facilitate a collective understanding of the world people would like to live in. I can see that this approach could be a powerful tool, but with the caveat that our idealised world is informed by the one in which we believe we live in. In consequence our collective imaginations are restricted by the prejudices, fears, and aspirations we associate with our internalised view of our current world. I was minded of this following a recent exhibition opening I went to, themed on exploring potentials, and led by women (sensing a pattern here). Part of this exhibition contained a document outlining the potential worlds revealed by a discussion with members of the public in York. Sadly, one of the ideal futures had the words ‘no chavs’ in its specifications, and at no point did money seem to dissappear from our future, both illustrating the point to which we are collectively restricted by our imaginations.

MAMA uses creativity at a practical level to campaign, support and engage with migrant women, and to enable them to engage with the wider community and have a voice while so doing. The focus is on both potential and reality, and creativity is used as a positive tool to bring people together, to share understanding and try to demolish myth. It can foster a sharing of experience that undermines the divisive rhetoric that we are daily fed. Participation in these activities can also help return a shred of dignity to those whose lives have become undignified through necessity not choice, and it is worth bearing in mind that one of the most political acts we can make as individuals is just this, the acknowledgement of another’s humanity, and the dignity that accompanies that status, regardless of circumstance. The impact of this should not be underestimated, people with a sense of dignity are more likely to be receptive to pro-social attitudes and even action.

The increasing evidence of a reaction against the constraints of politically correctness and the effective demonisation of the poor leaves the uncomfortable reality that many people have yet to “get the point” and face a barrage of tools designed to ensure that they don’t. The question is how art can address this. Both Darren Cullen and Brandalism’s direct action approach, subverting the language of advertising to expose the realities behind the public face of products/companys/attitudes is effective, immediate, and often relies on (albeit dark) humour. However, it’s also sometimes misunderstood, and Darren’s PTSD Acton Man figures, despite being endorsed by veterans for peace have come in for a lot of internet bile, some of it from what were respectable sources. This is art designed to evoke a specific response, and relies on its immediacy to work. How effective this can be at achieving cognitive change is open to question though, and I often wonder whether using humour de-emphasises the significance of its object to the point that though we can see how awful it is, we can also live with it because it’s funny?

Let me stress that I am not diminishing the importance of any of the approaches mentioned by highlighting the inevitable problems each faces. All these approaches in their own way show how art can be an effective political act and tool. The underpinning message of potentials is about art showing a brighter future rather than highlighting our dreadful present, this struck a chord and will force me to examine my own practice and output. I am however also interested in other approaches that through individual creativity (even as part of a collective) can address some of the caveats I have raised. There is also the thorny question of ‘Art’ to consider. Two members of the audience asked whether the panel saw a role for abstract or high art in political art, and one trotted out the time worn ‘the working classes don’t engage with art’ mantra, and this got me thinking.

Art, the process of holding a mirror up to the world, of using lies to tell the truth – or in these days of post-structuralism a collection of forms textures and colours that can mean whatever you want it to regardless of the artist’s intent – relies on engaging with and evoking a response in the viewer. Despite the post-structural paradigm, I stick to the idea that this is a designed response, and of course the techniques of Brandalism and Darren Cullen rely on their use of graphic design and advertising elements, which no-one doubts are designed to elicit a specific response, or what that response might be. The fact that they can misfire is an indiciation of the resistance to the designed response in the viewer. In this respect their obviousness may hasten the cognitive dissonance that often results when attempting to sway attitudes. On the other hand abstract and semi-abstract contemporary pieces with a vaguely dark undertone and vaguely suggestive titles abound in collections and galleries, as installations, films, sculpture and paintings. Many are beautiful and well executed pieces, but their intent is too elusive, the response they evoke too unfocused, for them to be effectively political.

For the would be political artist wishing to adapt their practice to the struggle there are a number of problems to be faced. The first of these is being seen. At a practical level, this means finding space to show which people will visit. Anti-PV (private view) seek to place works in public spaces and the art within the festival is an example of the approach. Here the volume of potential viewers hopefully offsets the low level of engagement, and it is more likely that work will reach the gaze of those who would not seek it out.

Being seen does not mean being digested. Conventional art forms often require contemplation to be appreciated, but we live in the culture of the soundbite, the tweet, the easily digested, easily consumed and easily discarded media of Warhol’s vision; Brandalism works well in this environment, perhaps too well, as the reactions to it seem often to be equally hasty, as though the image has gone in but the message has stumbled. High art perhaps lacks the hook to engage with people so far removed from its cultural referencing. The work of the political artist, in order to engage, must pay heed to the cultural references of the people it is aimed at, and here lies a harder task. To contradict the mantra, the working classes do engage with art and they produce it as well. Just like any other group what they engage with speaks to them and often of them. To do this it needs must reference their experiences, landscape (both physical and cultural) and circumstance. To be a true expression of the artist, that suggests that the artist needs to express themselves in those terms and frames of reference naturally, and if not from experience, from genuine empathy. It may be worth considering Anselm Kieffer’s work here, of which it is said that style is less important to the work than content. As artists we try to communicate, and it is on the effectiveness of the communication that the success of political art relies. It is also worth noting that it is not just the working classes that are the targets of political art, and that the same caveats apply when trying to for example evoke a response from someone in a comfortable circumstance.

The biggest problem by far though lies in to what end the work is being produced. Is it to make a specific point, or to sow the seeds that will lead to the viewer acheiving that realisation by themselves?  In terms of cognitive effect, the latter, whilst slower, is far more effective. It is also far harder to achieve, unlikely to lead to artistic plaudits, or pecunary success. None of these are reasons for not trying.

. I would welcome feedback and discussion on anything I’ve raised in this, and thankyou if you have read this far🙂

 

 

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More from the Hamlet

Carved From Stone

Carved From Stone

Some more works from my residency at Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet. These days the site is grass covered, has stone slab paths and safety rails, and only the foundations of the old boiler and its shed remain. In ‘Carved From Stone’ I have tried to depict the site as it looked in its heyday, with a packed earth floor and 120′ high brick chimney.

Grinders

Grinders

In responding to the site I’ve tended to the realistic, though I have adopted a looser approach where the atmosphere has demanded it, as in Grinders.

Grinding Swords

Grinding Swords

It’s been really interesting working at the Hamlet, and I’ve learnt a lot about the industrial processes in use during the 19th/early 20th Centuries as well. The site is a working museum, and these days is used to grind and finish sword blades for the UK’s armed forces. Grinding Swords shows Peter demonstrating the process by working on a blade for the Royal Navy, awesome to watch, and an interesting challenge to capture in paint.

I’ll be working at the Hamlet for another 8 days, completing paintings showing ingot pouring, working below the furnaces, Crucible making, and the recently restored gardens of the Managers house. It’s a fascinating place, and if you can I thoroughly recommend a visit. You can find out more about the site here Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet and in my next post I will be giving details of the exhibition.

Thanks for your interest🙂

 

 

 

 

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Fighting For Crumbs

As part of our recent exhibition, we made a video. It’s always unerving seeing – or more accurately hearing – yourself as others do, but nonetheless really pleased with the result, it encapsulates the underlying theme of the show very effectively. Hope you can find the time to watch🙂

 

 

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Abbeydale residency – midterm report

End of the day

End of the day

I have been the resident artist at Sheffield’s Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet, which is an industrial museum, since April (and will be until Oct), working on site for 2-3 days a week, creating 14 paintings evoking understanding of what the site was like 120 years ago. These works will be exhibitied in Nov/Dec (date to be finalised). The residency is a voluntary one; I approached the museum with a proposal which they were able to faciliate. My motivation for taking this approach was to present myself with a challenge, both creativily and in terms of output/deadlines.

My main body of work has all been studio created. It occupies the uneasy area between representation and abstraction, wandering between the two as I believe the language of art is not as important as what I say with it. Deadlines for me have been having a sufficient body of relevant work to show in one of my themed exhibitions, and artistic development has been driven more by what I am trying to evoke than the landscape I am using to speak through. Whilst I have been working effectively in this manner, and the work has been well recieved, it has not really provided the sort of challenges I need to develop my creative approach.

The residency has effectively overturned both of these problems, I have a decent but ultimately limited time to produce 14 paintings, and these have a specific end which itself places limitations on how far I can drift from representation. The challenges have been in responding to just one site, understanding how it looked, felt and was used in it’s heyday, and how I can convey all that through works that are recognisably drawn from indivdual elements of the site. In responding, I have been going back to basics, drawing and paint sketching, and working outdoors in all weathers. I have conducted extensive research, both through records and reading peoples experiences of industrial work at the time. I’m 7 paintings into my goal, and have another 3 planned.

Painting outdoors is great fun, the ever changing light presents an interesting challenge, and of course I’m constantly in the public gaze. The reponse from visitors to the site has been encouraging, with many people watching, asking questions, and expressing interest in seeing the completed body of work. It is a fantastic experience, and I feel that my work and practice has developed as a result. I would recommend a residency as part of creative development, and would love to hear from others about their experiences.

‘End of the day’ is my latest piece from the site (70 x 62cm acrylic). Hope you enjoy it and thanks for reading🙂

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Fighting For Crumbs

flier 1

Another project I have been involved in is coming to fruition. Fighting For Crumbs (Art in the shadow of neo-liberal Britain) is a group exhibition featuring video, installation, 3D wall art, crafted art, paintings, photography, poetry and performance. The main exhibition is taking place in Sheffield, and ties in to an exhibition of John Ledgers work at the Redshed in Wakefield, as part of their 50th anniversary celebrations.

Inspired by the film ‘Invisible Britain’ (based on the work of the Sleaford Mods), the  Sheffield exhibition will include new works by all participants, produced in response to the political and economic climate in the UK, and reflecting the position of art, and artists, in a period dominated by austerity. As part of the exhibition we have produced a video, which will be shown in Sheffield on the 8th, and Wakefield on the 13th of August.

Corinne Deaks and John Ledger are both producing installation pieces. One of Johns installations will be in collaboration wth the poet Jonathan Butcher. Rebekah Whitlam’s contribution will include both craft art and installation, as she explores the conflicts between economic survival and artistic expression. Connor Matheson will showcase his social-realist photography, and Nick Kilby will be performing a new piece especially created for the show. In addition we will have a number of John Ledgers superb wall pieces.

I will be showing at least 10 paintings as part of this show, including several new works. I hope some of you can manage to come along, I am confident that it will be a strong and intriguing show. Thank you for reading🙂

 

 

 

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Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet

image

Work in progress – untitled

 

As I mentioned in my last blog, I’m currently doing a residency project. This is at Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet in Sheffield, a working industrial museum that was donated to the city in 1935, and opened as a museum in 1970. I am there 2 to 3 times a week for most weeks until October 9th, and during my stay aim to produce 14 paintings. The works will mainly attempt to show the site as it was in its working heyday, engaging viewers with the working conditions prevelant at the height of the industrial revolution, though some will be drawn from the life of the Hamlet as a museum, and one or two will be my response to the various artefacts scattered around the place.

The plan is to hold an exhibition of the works during November/December 2016, subject to being able to mount the works securely without damaging the fabric of the buildings.

The site is a fascinating place to work, and I have been greatly enjoying working outdoors in the gaze of the visiting public. Capturing the place has been a challenge in many ways; I’ve been engrossed in historical research to establish missing architectural details and get a sense of the lives of the workers, and as an artist I’ve had to move away from my usual style and into the realms of realism – of which more in the next blog🙂 The response from the public has been gratifyingly positive, with many visitors taking an interest in what I’m doing, and admiring the result.

One of the exhibits is the Jessops Tilt Hammer, which was donated to the site in 1939. This behemoth sits at the entrance to the Hamlet, and is a complex mix of curves, lines and shapes formed in iron and wood, and painted black. The work in progress is the result of 3 days of sketching in pencil, charcoal and paint as I grappled with trying to capture the essence of the hammer. This is the first attempt I have had at depicting it on canvas, and I have chosen the colours of rust and the chaos of steam to express the shapes and vitality of this truly impressive relic of Victorian industrial technology. I hope you like the results so far🙂

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A whole lot going on

Development Opportunity

Development Opportunity

Wow, it’s been a busy 7 weeks since I last posted. Started or completed a group of new paintings – Development Opportunity is the first in a series I’ll be doing exploring the loss of social housing in the UK. I’ve introduced a couple of new techniques into this one, and am rather happy with it – so much so that I have another painting based on it on the go with a different subject.

I’ve opened an Artfinder shop which you can find here – My artfinder to which I’ll be adding more work over the next few months.

I’ve been busy at the studios in a different way as well. As the spring bank holiday approaches, so does our annual Open Studios event, and to prepare for it I and a couple of other members have repainted all the floors and had a huge clear out. We’ve also had the lighting upgraded, and the whole place almost looks respectable😉

Having a lot of work in stock means that I can respond quickly when the need arises, and I now have 7 paintings in an exhibition at The Gardeners Rest Pub on Neepsend Lane in Sheffield. A real pop-up this, got the call at 11.30am on Friday and had the work over there and installed by 12.30pm same day. The show will be up for a couple of months, so do pop in if you’re in the area🙂

Finally, I have negotiated and begun a residency at a Sheffield Industrial site, which I will write about in detail in my next blog. In the meantime, I can tell you that I will be producing 14 works from this, to be exhibited in November-December, including one feature work that we will record and share progress on over the period. It’s a good experience, and I have spent the past week working on drawings to capture the site, and help me decide what I will be doing for the feature painting from the residency.

Thanks for reading and I’ll be back soon🙂

 

John

 

 

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