Attending Gilda Williams’ course on How to Write About Art

Yesterday I attended Gilda Williams’ ‘How To Write About Art’ course at the Whitechapel Gallery. It was a brilliant and highly informative day – Gilda gave lots of good advice about ways to develop (and spot) good writing, which she supported with clear examples. She also asked the class to write a short piece about one of the works in the Whitechapel’s current exhibition, ‘Electronic Superhighway (2016 – 1966)’, and encouraged everyone to give each other feedback. My text is below. I chose to focus on Jonas Lund’s contribution, entitled ‘VIP (Viewer Improved Painting’), 2014, consisting of a self optimising digital painting, 50″ monitor TV and a gaze tracking camera. View it on his website page here.

What is your favourite colour? What is your preference, blue or pink? After standing for several seconds in front of Jonas Lund’s work, ‘VIP (Viewer Improved Painting’), 2014, it becomes clear that we are being asked this old and clumsy question. Perhaps it reminds us of similarly black-and-white questions we used to receive from peers in the school playground.

Whether we know the answer now or not, Lund’s ‘VIP’ sets out to tell us. It does this by presenting us with two luxuriously long flat-screen television screens that have been turned on their sides and stick assertively from the wall, jostling for the viewer’s attention. They slowly feed us fuzzy blocks of colour, splodges of dark blue are surprised by splashes of sunburnt pink. The edges of different  blocks blur together in a way that is reminiscent of Rothko’s abstract paintings.

Our eyes naturally dart towards the changes in colour, the areas of movement and energy. As we are fed these colours, the monitor, parked confidently on top of the screens, records which we are drawn to and starts to only show those that we like. Rarely do we see an artwork that takes such pains to please us and offer up its images for our own individual delight. Lund’s work is, after all, entitled ‘VIP’. We expect special treatment.

And yet, a sense of unease pervades this experience. We are aware of being watched, our actions are obviously  recorded by a camera and our personal preferences broadcast on a public screen. Over time it is obvious we are only given a limited number of colours to choose from, so our preferences are manipulated by this robot, just like they were by our friends back at school. Peer pressure has not gone away. Instead, as this artwork suggests through its mechanisms and media, it has exploded with the copious amount of technology and online interactions that surround us every day.

 

 

 

What’s in an image? – Marlene Dumas at the Tate

Tate Modern handout for their Marlene Dumas exhibitionMarlene Dumas, ‘Naomi’, 1995, oil on canvas, 130 x 110cm

The title Naomi doesn’t determine the identity of the face in the painting, but it does invite a certain intimacy with the viewer. Naomi. Is this Naomi Campbell, one of the supermodels of our century? If so, this is our chance to really see her up close and even to be offered her full, sensual lips. However, there could be scorn in her narrowed eyes, emphasised by the sharply arched eyebrows. She could be rising defiantly out of the shadows away from our mundane world, although, equally, they could be consuming her. Like many of Dumas’s paintings, it is not clear and we are left to experience this uncomfortable position of not knowing or being able to confidently react to an image, even an image of a person whose form we know so well.

The purposeful lack of clarity to many of Dumas’s paintings partly stems from the fact that she often paints from second hand images, particularly those from the media. This makes her work similar to the result of Chinese whispers; the subjects evolve every time they are captured and communicated through an image that is not their original. Does this allow Dumas – and the viewer – to think about the image rather than the person and the emotions that surround them? This would certainly allow for a more critical engagement with the work.

Naomi seems to be a disturbing cross between a fashion illustration, a fashion photograph and an abstract figurative painting. The conflation of these different types of visual communication suggests that this painting is as much about how we construct and present images, particularly those of women, as it is about what the images themselves represent. It does prompt us to consider what sort of image of ourselves we present to the world each day.

 

Tate Modern currently displays the most significant exhibition of Marlene Dumas’s work ever to be held in Europe, open until 10 May 2015.