Complex Identities | Howardena Pindell at The Fruitmarket Gallery

My first encounter with Howardena Pindell’s work was during a period of research for my degree show. I was knee deep in a google image search for Dieter Roth’s sketchbooks, when an image of one of Pindell’s ‘chad’ works, Untitled #7, popped up instead.

Untitled #7, 1973
Ink on punched and pasted paper, talcum powder and thread on paper
Howardena Pindell

The work was included in the exhibition Paper: Pressed, Stained, Slashed, Folded, held in 2009 at the MoMA, alongside Lucio Fontana, Robert Rauschenberg, Sol LeWitt, Richard Tuttle, Mona Hatoum and Martin Creed, and many others. My own work at the time dealt with themes of detritus and labour, with an attempt to tackle these through dealing with the abstract and the minimal. Pindell’s work encapsulated all of these ideas, and explored them more thoroughly than many of the other minimal, conceptual artists of the New York 1960s art scene that I had been looking at. Yet her work still seemed to be much less iconic in the canon than her contemporaries, so I was delighted to have the opportunity to see her work in person at the Fruitmarket Gallery this November.

Stupidogramm (Stupidogram), 1962
Pencil on printed paper
Dieter Roth

Looking only for aesthetic inspiration, my research into Pindell had been about her work, not on the artist herself, or even any of the rest of her oeuvre. When the show at the Fruitmarket opened, I was surprised to discover the Pindell’s work spanned so much further than the beautiful delicate abstract works that I knew – her voice taking on a strong resonance of personal and political frustration in video works such as Free, White and 21 (1980) Rope/Fire/Water (2020), but also to find out that Pindell was black.

Perhaps I was taken by surprise, not only because such politically rich video works seemed so distant from the delicate, tiny paper pieces, but because there is an overarching narrative (experienced by Pindell herself) that says black people must make work about the black experience, but those who are white are free to make abstract work independent of their identity. Guno Jones discusses the issue brilliantly in his essay, ‘Migrant Art and the Politics of Language’. He writes,

“The so-called migrant artist (or other marginalized subject, including female artists) is presumed to create art based on a select set of experiences, often informed by their origins, and knowing their background is somehow seen as a prerequisite for appreciating their work: “Now that I know where you are from, I can better understand the meaning of your art.” Conversely, the “Western” (non-migrant) artist—from the Netherlands or Germany, for example—does not need to identify with that place for us to understand their work. Rather their work comes from “nowhere”; it is “universal” by virtue of a presumed lack of difference or ethnic background. […] In this language we abstain from naming people as “non-migrant artists,” and by doing so we naturalize them as the norm, as belonging, as real citizens.”

Reading the essay, it feels as if Jones could have been writing about Pindell’s entire career trajectory, and many of the issues that the exhibition deals with. The solution he proposes suggests that:

“The challenge will be to balance respect for self-ascribed identity terminology while still questioning these when they become essentialist. How might we—whether policy makers, museum staff or general citizens—acknowledge that artists and artworks carry with them specific embodied experience and knowledge, while still acknowledging their universal nature, reflecting a shared humanity?”

Considering the exhibition, it’s important to emphasise that Pindell’s work is not defined by her identity or experience. It adds to it, certainly, but it cannot overpower it.

I am an artist.  I am not part of a so-called “minority”, “new” or “emerging” or “a new audience”. These are all terms used to demean, limit, and make people of color appear  to be powerless. We must evolve a new language which empowers us and does not cause us to participate in our own disenfranchisement.’

I actually began my journey through the exhibition backwards, beginning upstairs with her more recent works, but I want to begin talking about the works downstairs since they were my initial introduction to her, and they establish the building of a complex artistic voice over many years. Though I often disagree with the default chronological curation of exhibitions, in this case, I think it’s important.

Installation View of Howardena Pindell: A New Language
Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh
c. The Author (2021)

Pindell stated that she didn’t want to make work about the black experience, and though eventually she did, I think it’s essential to first establish her as an exceptionally talented abstract artist, with an incredibly deep aesthetic understanding, and whose work has undeniable universality. With that as a base, her later works do not define her by her identity, but build on her talent as an artist; whose skill stands regardless of identity or experience.

In the new publication released to accompany the exhibition, Howardena Pindell: A New Language (available at the Fruitmarket Bookshop), one of the essays refers to ideas on an article Mel Bochner wrote on serial art:

“Perhaps, some art historians and curators have argued, these readymade symbols and systems offered a retreat from the outside world into a pleasurable, delirious space of infinite possibility.”

1st Song, from the portfolio ‘Letter and Indices to 24 Songs’, 1974
Hanne Darboven

Though I’m wary to respect Pindell’s wishes that her identity not overpower the strength of her work, I found it interesting to consider that these repetitive and laborious works were an escape for her, a way to think about something other than her lived reality. As in the works of Bochner, and indeed Sol LeWitt, who at the time were making similar works around concepts of labour and repetition, her early pieces rejected the notion of the individual, so heavily emphasised during the time of the abstract expressionists, and instead looked at the universal, human and accessible qualities of the work.

Echoing other abstract, conceptual works that dominated the 1960s and 70s, such as pieces by Roman Opalka, Tching Hsieg, or Hanne Darboven, Pindell’s works such as 1-6031 with Additions, Corrections and Coffee Stain and Five emphasise the passing of time.

1-6031 with Additions, Corrections and Coffee Stain, 1973 (detail)
Ink on paper
Courtesy of the artist and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York
Five, 1973 (detail)
Ink on paper
Courtesy of the artist and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York
c. The Author (2021)

They suggest such monotonous experiences of sitting in a jail cell, or logging numbers in dull office work. Experiences such as these often do have relation to marginalised experience – after art school Pindell herself was forced to take up institutional secretary work in galleries after being rejected from 50 teaching job applications – but rather to view them through a depressing and political tone, I made the choice to view them as they were. The strokes repeating themselves over and over again feel light. Time slips away, being meaningless or nothing. They encapsulate time, but time barely feels present. The heavy intensity of the clock fades as my eyes trace each stroke after another.


In her works from the 70s there is an incredibly sensitive approach to the physical material. Each piece is composed of scraps of nothing, yet arranged so thoughtfully that they take on an elevated quality. Such ‘scraps’, when approached in the way Pindell does, overtake the possibilities of the most expensive Michael Harding oil paints. What her work demonstrates so brilliantly, as so much of conceptual art does, is that it is not the material that c

Parabia Test #4, 1974 (detail)
Ink paper collage on paper
Courtesy of the artist and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York
c. The Author (2021)
Untitled #6, 1975
Ink on paper collage
Courtesy of the artist and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York
c. The Author (2021)
clockwise from top left:
Parabia Test #3, 1974
Ink on paper collage

Untitled #7, 1975
Ink on paper collage

Text, 1975
Ink on paper collage

Untitled, 1973
Graphite, ink and collage on paper

Untitled #6, 1975
Ink on paper collage

Courtesy of the artist and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York
c. The Author (2021)

What I also love about her work is that it is not trying to be nothing, and it is not trying to disappear. The work is still very much there, but there is exists quietly. They just exist, as things in the background exist. As hole punches and scraps and graph paper exist. Not loudly, not boldly, but there. I could sit for a long time in front of a Pindell. They have that quality that so little art has – to allow you to think about your own life as you look at them. They are not about themselves, not about the artist. In so many definitions of the word, they are universal. We can look for meaning, but it would be wrong; their innate quality is what the defines them. The slight wonkiness of the canvas, or the way one dark blue chad stands out against the white, how the chads become entirely different material whether they are sitting on transparent graph paper or that of the handmade Japanese quality.

Untitled (Talcum Powder), 1973
Mixed media collage on board
Courtesy of the artist and and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York
c. The Author (2021)

The room to the right on the downstairs floor of the gallery contained huge stretched canvases that I didn’t expect in the slightest when I came to the show. Paintings that really took me by surprise. Paintings that made me think of what might happen in the unlikely incident of Damien Hirst learning the art of subtlety, although these were painted 40 years earlier than those vaguely nauseating cherry blossoms.

Untitled, 1969-72
Acrylic on canvas
Courtesy of the artist and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York
c. The Author (2021)

I was surprised by these pieces in so many ways. Again, they are not really about anything, but become rich when you consider that they were painted at the same time that she was making the beautiful, quiet collages. These works appear so intensely made; so rich and colourful that they appear to emphasise the quality of detritus of the works in the other room. Perhaps they were a way to escape from the deep involvement in these paintings. To stand in front of one of the paintings is to be drawn entirely into another world, but to stand in front of a smaller chad work is to be placed very much inside your own. As well as chronological hanging, there are many issues I take with the white cube space, but these works seem to be made for it. Against the white wall their hue appears cosmological, taking on intense brilliance.

Returning now to the upper rooms where I began, the floor feels like a world of contradictions and contrast – a quality which I think is reflective of the artist herself and her multi-faceted and complex identity and approach to art making. Not just one thing or one approach, her work is so many things all at once. Works such as Plankton Lace #1 (2020) and Songlines: Connect the Dots (2017) respond to issues of climate change and the failing health of the planet.

Songlines: Connect the Dots, 2017
Mixed media on canvas
Courtesy the artist and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York
c. The Author (2021)

Yet, their abstraction of beads, glitter and pastel hues, which Pindell reasons is ‘an intense relief, a kind of visual healing, so that you get some distance from what you’ve seen’, feels almost jarring when seen against works such as Columbus (2020) or Diallo (2000), in their dark intensity and violent poeticism.

Columbus (2020)
Painting on Canvas
Courtesy the artist and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York
c. The Author (2021)

The artist complicates violence – be that against people or the planet – as something that it not easy to swallow and can be approached, dealt with, and viewed in myriad ways. The stark contrast of the glitter with difficult verse creates an exhibition of contrast that emphasises the uncomfortable nature of the experiences that Pindell deals with.

No work more so than Rope/Fire/Water (2020) encapsulates this. In his essay for the Fleming Collection, Greg Thomas writes that it is the exhibitions ‘crowning achievement’. In its blunt delivery, I think it might be, but I have to confess that I wasn’t able to sit all the way through it (the trigger warning outside is, I think, definitely important to heed.) A few minutes into the video, whose ticking metronome induced an added sense of urgency and anxiety to the accompaniment of vivid descriptions and images of Lynch mobbings, Pindell voices a description of violence enacted towards a pregnant woman; which was the breaking point that signalled I needed to leave. We are empathetic creatures. Whilst unbearable to listen to the artists describe mutiliations of people of colour, that is not my history, and I don’t see myself in them. But I do see myself in a woman, and that I can’t watch. This is, I think, the exceptional power that this work posses. Violence is uncomfortable, but often if it’s not our history, we do not confront ourselves with it. We should.

Greg Thomas, in his review, also refers to the exhibition as having ‘awkward synthesis’. I don’t agree. It is a show of contradictions, which are perhaps often difficult, but I do not think they are awkward. I think they add to the work, like all good contrasts, and emphasise qualities of each other. Against the black, the glitter is more glittery, which in turn, makes the violence more poignant. Pindell has always been an artist of confrontation; her work marks a separation between her own identity and experience and the art she wants to make – both facets of her, but neither defined by the other. She is an artist of so many identities – bold and abstract and political, all at once, and all independent.

Reflections on 30 Artists

Alejandro Cesarco

I first came across Alejandro Cesarco’s work via his beautiful film, Present Memory, in which he displayed the same moving image portrait of his father on three different levels of the Tate Modern to create a strange sense of déjà vu for the viewer. It is this strange sense of a fragmented and incomplete narrative, or memory, that I enjoy in his text works, especially these footnote ones. I am most drawn to traces of where the human presence has interfered and revealed its imperfections; where a word has been replaced by another, or where it might have been misspelled. Mistakes, errors, over sentimentality. I find footnotes endlessly fascinating, mostly to understand that the text is not a whole thing in and of itself, but is always situated in context, in the context of other texts; other writers’ stories; memories; titbits; experiences. I want to know where human presence interjects and ruins the white page.

Catherine Bertola

I was researching for my dissertation on the ‘artist as political subject’ and the Liverpool exhibition Further Up in the Air when I came across Bertola’s wonderfully subtle site-specific installations, using the detritus and discarded elements of the building, such as dust or peeling wallpaper. I love this piece, but what I love across all her work is the idea that art doesn’t have to require lots of tools and equipment and materials and studio – it is something intuitive and deeply personal and not dependent on these other things. I think I am mostly drawn to her work because that is how patterns started for me – drawing to keep my mind steady whilst I waited for a talk to start – and all I needed was a notebook and pen. Bertola’s work similarly comes out of the artist, not the art materials, and I find that powerful.

Gego (Gertrud Goldschmidt)

I am drawn to Gego’s work because of the way that she deals with the imperfect grid. Grids become fascinating to me at the moment of disruption – where one line becomes squint, or a corner where two lines don’t quite meet. I love this work of Gego’s because it reminds me of a broken fence with a hole in it. Intended to be infallible, yet it becomes distorted. The grid is at once both sacred and secular; the idea of it is a symbol for purity and perfection, but in reality, is mundane, broken, commonplace. Gego’s compositions really deal with this contradiction for me. Their pristine white background and their simplicity alludes to the aim for purity, but her constant distortion and disruptions allow an admittance of this impossibility.

Prabhavathi Meppayil

I first came across Meppayil’s work earlier this year. It was drawn to it because the way that it dealt with being on the edge of nothingness reminded me of a passage that I had just read in de Beauvoir’s ‘She Came to Stay’

“Before Françoise’s very eyes, and yet apart from her, something existed like a sentence without an appeal: detached, absolute, unalterable, an alien conscience was taking up its position. It was like death, a total negation, an eternal absence, and yet, by a staggering contradiction, this abyss of nothingness could make itself fully present to itself and make itself fully exist for itself. The entire universe was engulfed in it, and Françoise, for ever excluded from the world, was herself dissolved in this void, of which the infinite contour no word, no image could express.”

Jacob El Hanani

I came across Jacob El Hanani’s work in January 2020 during a moment that I’ll never quite forget. After I finished my semester abroad in Vancouver I decided to travel back home through various stop points in North America. My last one was New York, before I got on a plane back to Aberdeen. My this point I had pretty much run out of friends and travel companions, I was exhausted, and all my clothes were disgusting, having not had the time to wash them anywhere. I spent four days in New York, and visited five galleries – one of these was the Guggenheim. When I entered, I decided to start at the top of the spiral and work my way down and it just so happened that the exhibition room right at the top of the spiral was Marking Time: Process in Minimal Abstraction.

There was an Agnes Martin painting, an artist with whom I’d recently fallen deeply in love with, alongside so many beautiful time-based, minimal works – the most captivating for me of which was Jacob El Hanani. I must have spent several hours in that room with those intricate, humming pieces, and taking out my own sketchbook to meditate by making similarly little marks that would eventually fill the page. 

Jacob El Hanani was born in Casablanca, Morocco, in 1947 and grew up in Israel. His work draws upon the tradition of micrography in Judaism, a technique utilized in decoration and transcribing holy texts. El Hanani creates highly intricate works through the painstaking repetition of minuscule marks, often Hebrew letters repeated thousands of times using ink on paper or canvas.

The repetition represents a prayer, or Tehilim. Tehilim refers to a collection of 150 Psalms that express thanks, beseech, praise, love, and fear, for God. He draws these images without magnification; in order to reduce eye strain, he rests every ten minutes. The end result is a work of extraordinary detail that appears to be a pattern from a distance and speaks of the passage of time and the link between the microscopic and the infinite. 

I have been heavily influenced by his work since, particularly by this technique in which the process of art becomes something almost spiritual and important for more reason than the marks on the page. I have been thinking a lot recently about how concepts of God and prayer exist in so many more forms than they do just inside the church, and El Hanani has been instrumental in helping develop this understanding.

Roman Opalka

Another artist that I encountered in this exhibition ‘Marking Time: Process in Minimal Abstraction‘ was Roman Opalka. 

Opalka spent 46 years of his life painting a chronological sequence of numbers over 222 canvases, reaching the number 5,607,249 before he died. He started with the number 1 in 196 5, and he would dip his paint in white ink and paint the numbers until it ran out, which is what creates the effect of flux and depth in his work.

The idea of having a task to work through is what draws me most to Opalka’s work; not caring ultimately what the piece looks like, but the way it is made taking centre point. Thinking about how things are made is a much more powerful and emotional tool for understanding art with. His dedication to his work takes on the quality of a monk, much like El Hanani. Seeing this work, understanding art in this way, has moved my work much further away from the aesthetic for me.

Sophie Calle

Sophie Calle is an artist whose work I first came across in second year at Glasgow School of Art. I was really interested in Time at that point, as I still am, but I hadn’t yet figured out how to properly let go of traditional observational painting and so I was all in a muddle. I find myself returning to the same themes now, but with a lot less complications, and so recently I have gone back to Calle’ s work, which two years ago felt too conceptual for me to access properly. I am really drawn to this series in which she found herself a job as a hotel maid and would then photograph and document people’s possessions and their unmade beds and write extensive descriptions. I am drawn mostly to Calle’s fascination with the mundane and her methodical and meticulous recording of everyday routines. In another work of hers, she hired a private investigator to follow her around and record her movements and habits. I have begun a lot of research into the archive, and Calle’s archivisation of the mundane self is fascinating to me.

Zarina

Zarina is an Indian American artist whose work I also came across at the Guggenheim’s ‘Marking Time’ exhibition. I want to feature an extract from an interview with one of the museum assistants about her work that was on show there. 

How did Zarina make Untitled? 

She began by gluing two sheets of paper together with wheat starch paste to make them a little stiffer and then traced out a faint grid pattern on the back, in graphite. Sometimes she would use graph paper, instead, and lay that over the back. Next, she used various needles, some quite large, to puncture the paper through the back, sometimes following and sometimes diverting from the initial grid or graph paper. She worked with the paper laying over a sheet of Styrofoam to provide just the right amount of resistance to produce a more pronounced puncture without it getting flattened. In this way, she varied the quality of the punctures-some large, some small-and imparted a pronounced surface pattern in an otherwise white sheet of paper. 

How did she choose the type of paper for this piece? 

Like many who are interested in printmaking, Zarina collects paper-she has drawers and boxes full of different papers. Zarina has talked a lot about her fascination with paper, equating it to skin. It has similar qualities. It ages. For this work, she used a classic printmaking paper called Rives BFK, a popular French mould-made wove paper. It is often prized for its rich and velvety-smooth surface texture that eloquently reflects light.

What do you find most fascinating about Untitled? 

When you approach these drawings, you see this blank slate from a distance. As you get closer to them, or as you move from left to right, they change. You see something different in them that you didn’t originally see as the pinholes catch shadows and come into focus. These pieces are hard to photograph because they become very two-dimensional. In person, they’re constantly changing. You have these seemingly white slates, and as you get closer, you realize there are patterns. They’re essentially drawings that are made of shadow -caught in the interstices of each fine hole. When fit properly in the gallery, the shadows can register as drawing ink.

Often, you’re bombarded with so much in an art museum. It’s hard to have an intimate moment with a work of art. And these pin drawings sort of require that. They’re Minimalist white objects that you can easily miss. To me, what’s always interesting is this multifaceted way they can engage you. But you have to take a moment and move closer. 

The piece I included previously is not Untitled, large because it is so difficult to photograph. But Zarina, who sadly passed away last year, works in such a way that reminds me of an archive, which I am really drawn to which is why I included that work specifically.

Zarina’s whole body of work is really inspiring to me. She works in such a beautifully quiet and minimal way. Her prints are so simple and yet so powerful at the same time. I think what I am most drawn to about her work is how it all works together in a set. As I was fairly limited in scale last year, working from home with little energy, I began thinking more about my work as series, rather than individual pieces. Zarina does this very well. Her pieces need each other, or at least their sense becomes stronger as they multiply. I love the way that she is able to do so much with so little colour, so little lines, and such simple compositions.

Tehching Hsieh

Tehching Hsieh’s works, especially Time Clock Piece (One Year Performance 1980-1981), which involved punching a time clock every hour for a year, demonstrate acts of extreme commitment and pushing his physical and mental capabilities to the limits. It’s a concept I begin to grapple with more and more as my art became increasingly entangled with my day-to-day activities (especially as I started to make it in my living room). I always said that I didn’t want to be Gilbert and George, and that I wanted to separate my art from everything else. Hsieh provides a more nuanced approach to this debate in that his art, to some extent, becomes his life, and yet it is only the acts that he designates – i.e., the hole punch – that is the art, rather than the stuff that surrounds it.

Dora Mauer

Timing (1973-1980)

The film starts with an image of a white, rectangular cloth with creases visible where it has been folded. In the following sequences the cloth is shown being folded – at first only once, before being unfolded and shown at full size again. Successive shots repeat this action, adding an additional fold and then returning to the open position before adding yet another fold, until the cloth cannot be folded further. Each movement has the same duration. This sequence of seven folds is then repeated in numerous different takes, filmed using a camera masking technique, where alternating portions of the film stock are exposed. The resulting image is a composite of multiple performances of the activity, inevitably unsynchronised in their timings despite their attempt at uniformity. Appearing to divide the frame into two, then four and then eight parts, the composite image mirrors the act of folding. As the cloth is folded, it unveils the presence of the artist, who is holding it. Her black silhouette is almost invisible, and it is only her palms which mark her participation in the event.

Dieter Roth

I like these works by Dieter Roth particularly because they are in book form. There is something interesting to me about the way that the books have a theme of pattern, and each page shows a slightly different iteration. I think that seeing the grid, or the pattern, in context of the book does something intangible and captivating. Rather than, say, an Agnes Martin, who presents the grid as the whole and complete thing, these books place it in the context of a diary – something variable, continuing, ongoing, never finished.

Lee Lozano

My favourite thing about Lee Lozano’s notebooks is that they’ re reproduced like postcards. You can buy them for about £20 – not images of the pages in another book but a reproduction of the thing itself. For something so personal, and so intimate, not to be mediated by a variation in font, surface or context is something that I find really moving. I am becoming more and more interested in the archive, the ephemera that makes up an artist thinking process rather than the finished piece itself, but I think that began with the Lee Lozano show at the Fruitmarket in 2018. I was initially put off my her big, sexually charged painting downstairs. They felt too crass, too uncomfortable for me at the time. But they began to make more sense as I looked through the notebooks upstairs.

Richard McVetis

I included this bio from McVetis in my last submission and its really stuck with me: 

The mapping of space and marking Time and form are central themes. Using a range of media, McVetis explores how Time and place, experienced and constructed. Ideas are often developed in response to or created specifically to a moment, visualising, and making this a tactile and tangible object. Drawing as an act is what occurs in everything that he does. Drawing as a dialogue; a process that goes beyond the flat surface and into the space around.

McVetis’ practice is deeply rooted in process and hand embroidery. He records Time and space through multiples of dots, lines, and crosses. These meticulously rendered stitches reflect a preoccupation with the repetitive nature, exploring the subtle differences that emerge through ritualistic and habitual making. The inscribed stitches mark the hand’s rhythms, a delicate performance of obsessive intricacy, refinement, and physical activity. They record human presence, Time and decay, each stitch acting as a marker for lived Time, an embodiment of thought and patience. There is intimacy in this labour­intensive way of making; the ritual and repetition create an in-depth focus and an internal Space-Time specific to the artist. The process of execution is just as, if not more, necessary.

Recent explorations of the cube and grid format are an attempt to organise, control and rationalise the infiniteness of Time. Structures, motifs, and patterns reference the urban landscape; they introduce the idea of Time as architecture, how our lives are built and housed in a construct of Time. McVetis is interested in how process, specifically stitch, can reveal a world seen from within and from a scale that can tell us much more about ourselves, our trajectories in space, and the transitory relationship to the world build around us.

I was initially drawn to his practice for the obvious ties to grids, textiles and embroidery. In all honesty, I suppose there was some narcissism in it – it feels validating to see someone working with similar visual language to you, especially as he’s so successful. It feels reassuring to recognise yourself in an established artist’s work. But the more I have delved into his practice, the more I have found; I have begun experimenting more with the idea of maps and scatter graphs after his London series, and I think most of all, what I have taken from his work is the presence of empty space and how this becomes just as powerful as where the stitches are. It’s not a new concept and has been present throughout the entire art historical canon, but to see how the lack of presence – communicated through marks – is used in a similar aesthetic to my work has been really important in my work.

Cornelia Parker

This work, Measuring Niagara with a Teaspoon (1997), mostly interests me because of the title and ideas of artistic licence and lying. The implication from the title is that we are supposed to believe that the length of wound string equals the same height of Niagara Falls, but such a measurement is hard to conceive, and the two materials are so different it’s hard to tell. I’m interested in the situation created in which we must place our trust in the artist that they are telling the truth. As I am working a lot now with data, statistics and logs, and when sometimes I forget to fill a day out, instead of skipping that day I have a bad tendency to just make it up. As it’s buried in amongst real statistics, it doesn’t jump out like a sore thumb, but living alone in a pandemic makes me reflect on the idea that I could fabricate all the productivity of my days and nobody would be any the wiser.

Vija Celmins

I adore Vija Celmins for an acceptance of slowness. I used to believe that the more you made, the better an artist you were. I remember watching a documentary in second year about Time that she featured in, and I didn’t think much of her work because I believed being creative had to be messy and exciting and passionate. A lot of my work this year comes back to revisiting artists that I dismissed in second year during my investigation of ‘time’ – those artists that I now love. I saw a Celmins retrospective at The Met Breuer in January 2020 and it was an incredibly spiritual experience. After months of reflection, I realised that that was the kind of art I wanted to make – slow, deliberate, meditative. I suppose I wanted time to think as I worked. I love these constellation pieces especially because in the context of my own work, they become more than stars – they become scraps of paper, dust, detritus – infinitely large and infinitely tiny.

Susie Wilson

I’ve been working a lot recently with the artist’s book and the archive, and I’ve become really interested in Susie Wilson’s practice during this investigation. I think that the main reason I really enjoy her work is that she looks at artwork as a collection or body – with small and large pieces, instruments, all informing each other. The intimacy of holding the book, each page hiding then revealing the next, creates an atmosphere that is deeply personal. I am interested in this sense of revelation. Layers of translucent paper, stitched and cut into, obscure the forms and images creating a tension between the various areas reflecting the delicacy, fragility, and subtlety of the subject.

Miriam Mallalieu

In my thinking about the ‘archival turn’ and drawing on Foucault and Derrida as well as publications from Cheryl Simon and Sara Callahan, Mallalieu presents a new perspective on these ideas. A lot of art that is situated within the archival simply presents object as archive, as artwork. Mallalieu’s work, however, marks the shift more concretely. By translating the forms using scanning, photography, printmaking and book binding, the turn in archival turn feels more present in her work.

Richard Long

I distinctly remember learning about Richard Long, as well as Andy Goldsworthy, in the art history part of my foundation course. I became really frustrated because I didn’t really understand how you could sell the idea of a walk, or some lines drawn in the sand. This was before I realised artists didn’t make any money anyway through their work, no matter how physical it was. I have returned to Richard Long recently, in thinking about documentation of processes and of the body – in particular looking at very factual statements that tell you nothing of the emotional experience, but instead let it be. I don’t know if can describe why I like it, or what has changed in me. I am drawn to these works in an indescribable way.

Carolee Schneemann

This work is titled Up to and Including her Limits (1973-76). In it, Schneemann makes marks across a canvas laid across the floor, á la Pollock, but in this reworking, her movements are restricted by a harness to which she is attached, rather than free and loose like Pollock. She makes big statements about restraint, feminism, freedom, limitations in this piece and discusses huge topics. But I love this piece because of the way it talks about the small, the local, the body. What are the limitations of our bodies, and specifically, how does this relate to art? Art is not as free as it appears, but is determined and withheld by our circumstances. Canvas size ultimately determined by wall space; that in turn is determined by what you can afford; or how much energy you have, and so it continues. The artist’s conditions determine the work.

Sol Lewitt

I have this great plan to make a Sol Lewitt mural on my wall. I’m not sure if I will manage, but I just quite like the concept that I could ‘have’ a Sol Lewitt without paying £££££££, given that he was one of the most important 60s New York artists (my favourite period in art history). I also quite like the fact that I can at once be making it and also connected to the canon. I am inspired by his connection between these two, almost as isolated incidents. The image informs the text, and vice versa, but they are not one and the same. I also really like the idea of instruction – I first came to this dilemma in Canada when I got stuck and felt like I had ‘run out’ of things to paint, but I still wanted to paint.

Hanne Darboven

I find Hanne Darboven’s work interesting, but it’s difficult to get a lot of background knowledge as a lot of the interviews are in her native German. I’ve always really liked maths, and I’m interested in the way that she applies it to her work, although I’m still struggling to grasp how exactly she does it. I’ve started to approach her mathematical method more as a way of thinking, rather than as a definite set of numbers or processes. I’m trying to remember what doing maths was like, and I return to ideas of problem solving, of trying out, crossing out, showing your working. I remember about maths that we would understand the basic premise and follow the pattern through, making allowances for variables.

Kathy Slade

She trumps the D.I. Y. rulebook by using machine production to create her “handcrafted” embroidered tab chords, producing friction between masculine and feminine social norms and art-historical cliches (think Judd’s “manly” fabrications versus Eva Hesse’s “womanly” constructions, for example). Basic guitar tablature or tab is a simplified pictorial representation of guitar chords. It is utilitarian, a useful didactic device for musical self-learning. With access to one of these archives or a tab chord book, a record collection, time, and practice, most everybody is able to learn at least elementary guitar, probably more.

Robert Irwin

I remember going to Canada and saying to my painting tutor (a very patient woman who had to continuously deal with me declaring that I was done with painting, only to go on and paint) that I was really interested in the way that we perceive things, to which she responded that I should read Lawrence Weschler’s book on Robert Irwin: ‘Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of The Thing One Sees’. I had it out from the library for the whole semester and bought it when I came home. It became my bible. I can’t really include pictures of Irwin’s work or talk about how his visual elements influence me, because they rest on their not-being. I am more inspired by Irwin’s trajectory, by his systematic dismantling of the visual work over his life and the idea that if you try and find the answer to art, or the pure art form, it will disappear, and so you must accept a point at which you’re happy, and not try to ‘solve’ art.

In that way, if art was maths, the answer would always be 0. You have to leave the equation as it is at some point and declare that the answer. I think different artists have different stop points. To make a painting or a traditional sculpture is quite an early stop point – leaving the equation as quite technical looking, with lots of symbols and technique. What Duchamp did was to rest the equation just before completion; just before it disintegrated into 0. It’s been helpful for me to understand and approach art in this way – to assess how much each artist has pushed art towards that point where it becomes so pure it turns back into life. This idea has implications when dealing with participatory art, which arguably does turn back into life, but that’s a bigger topic for another year.

Yayoi Kusama

I am inspired by Kusama because of her use of a lifelong motif. She used the dots throughout her life, they informed her work, and are dependent on her circumstances. Now that she is older, she paints these beautiful canvases, much smaller because of her physical limitations, but still featuring her ever present dots. I am drawn to the idea that an artist can have one small, simple symbol that informs and inspires them throughout their life, and changes based on where they’re at. Kusama also inspires me on a more personal level because of her commitment to keeping herself healthy to work. I take great issue with the idea that artists must be living on the edge of their mental problems to thrive – Kusama turns this on its head by deliberately making sure she is looked after and healthy as a precursor to working.

Margaret Salmon

Housework (2014) 

In Housework, Margaret Salmon captures the uncanny, beautiful and at times hysterical moments in an alternative domestic cosmos. Highlighting the current state of female domestic roles as well as the status of women in larger society and referencing techniques from screen classics as varied as Hans Richter’s Ghosts Before Breakfast, and Mary Poppins, amongst others. Salmon’s film portrays daily household chores being completed by themselves, without human interaction, as supernatural phenomenon. 

I’ve become really interested recently in the mundane, the boring, the tedious – the tasks that allow us to then make the creative work. I can’t work in a messy home. The men in Daily Rituals have more time because they don’t do the laundry.

Eva Hesse

I always enjoyed Eva Hesse, but as I wasn’t so interested in sculpture, she never really found her way into my research. I came across these drawings by accident, but I think that they’re beautiful. More recently, I’ve been really drawn to circles, and investigating this drawing has offered me the chance to really reflect on why. As I’ve been delving into the grid over the last few years, I’ve really been investigating harmony and the disruption of harmony. The circle is a very harmonious form, like the grid is, but there is one main difference for me. The way that I draw the grid is expansive – I start with a zig zag line and it can grow indefinitely from there. The circle is necessarily pre-determined and cannot be expanded. I also am just really interested in the drawing because of resistance to harmony due to the way that the circles rendering is incomplete.

Helen Mira

Textile art is something that I never thought I would do, but I’ve really enjoyed investigating it and leaning into it this year. I am currently reading Fray: Art and Textile Politics by Julia Bryan – Wilson, and in it she includes this quote from Stephen Knott that summarises my interest: 

Amateur craft is inherently dependent on the routines of everyday life … the division of labour, entrepreneurship, the adulation of productivity, and the accumulation of capital. Yet it simultaneously constitutes a spatial temporal zone in which these structures can be stretched, quietly subverted, and exaggerated.

On Kawara

I think I came across On Kawara’s work around the same time as Teching Hsieh, and I encountered a similar phenomenon in which I was really drawn to the ideas of the work and they really resonated with me, but at the time it felt too conceptual, and I couldn’t really find my own way into it. For whatever reason, I have begun to find a lot more peace and contentment in repetitive tasks and have slowly started to move away from the idea that art making is pure creativity and instead realise that a lot of it is just labour. To do that, I have begun to isolate ideas of labour, and for me, a huge part of that has been Kawara’s work. His ideas are so simple, but they allow the time and labour to exist in singularity, no longer impeded by external aesthetic decisions.

Richard Wright

The installation that I created last year at the Glue Factory was massively informed by Wright’s work, in particular the way that he uses repetitive patterns to draw attention to architectural spaces. Returning to his work has been an interesting reflection on the conditions of this year. Wright’s installations are most effective in huge, expansive, empty rooms where the works can be used to pull the eye to little corners that may otherwise have been missed. That doesn’t really work so well in small, intimate, familiar spaces. You don’t need to be drawn to surprising spaces when you are staring at them all the time. So I have thought a lot more about Wright’s process of making – that meditative task that allows you to become inti mate with a surface – and how that might be translated to fabric or paper.

Robert Morris

Working on a typewriter last semester, creating little typed out cards, has largely been informed by this Robert Morris piece, as well as Lucy Lippard 1 s card exhibitions. There is not really any universe in which I would refer to Robert Morris as a feminist artist, but he’s led me towards feminist reflections within my own work. As I create these little typed out cards of data – not even creative writing, or any form of creativity really – and then spend hours scanning them in and turning them into PDFs, I feel a bit like a secretary to my other self as an artist, and there is a playing out a role of a more oppressed woman. What I think is brilliant about Robert Morris, and his other contemporaries of the 60s and 70s in New York is the way that their work pointed to labour – whether their own, or paid labour of other skilled workers. Art moved away from a mystical vocation and was instead presented, equal to other jobs, as work.

Art Is Work: Rethinking The ‘In Kind’ Funding Model

For a lot of recent graduates, art school education has been commonly characterised by a dawning realisation that ‘artist’ is not a job. For four years students are fed a myth that somehow it is all going somewhere, that there would be something on the other side. Yet by the time graduation comes around, they are prolonging the inevitable by pursuing a masters, hanging out at the job centre or working in a minimum wage role unrelated to their degree.

Paid work in the arts is infrequent, and any payment that is offered seems such an unusual privilege that the morally right thing to do is to refuse it, since there doesn’t seem to be enough to go around. What in any other sector would be called ‘jobs’ are instead usually listed as ‘voluntary opportunities’ and remain highly competitive. At art school, this appears to just be the territory of desperate students, easily taken advantage of. However, upon graduation, they are to find that it not only keeps happening, but is legitimised and even has a name: ‘In Kind’.

‘In Kind’ is often the phrase used to describe the model of ‘pay’ for the work of artists. Arts Council England states:

Support in kind means a non-cash contribution to your project, such as materials or services that are provided free of charge or at a reduced rate. This can contribute to the success of your project and shows support for your work.

According to the arts council, professionals that are offering their services, such as artists, curators, and builders, should have their time valued as if they were being paid. Yet for most people, they are treated like free labour, and as if it is the organisation doing them a favour. 

If used at all, working ‘in kind’ should be something that professionals can offer on top of their paid work, to support smaller and less well funded organisations as a charitable contribution. However, Janie Nicoll and Ailie Rutherford’s ‘In Kind’ project at Glasgow International revealed that many professional artists worked for weeks or even months for free to prepare, put on, and staff their exhibitions throughout the festival. Through this project they demonstrated that the festival and the wider industry actually relies on this model to meet their funding goals, which is further backed up from statistics taken from the Scottish Artists Union 2016 Membership Survey:

81% of artists are self employed

50% of artists are full time practitioners

73% of artists work from home

83% of artists earn less than £10k per year from their art; and 80% believe they will earn the same or less next year

59% of artists have never received public funding

88% of artists do not get contracts consistently

61% of artists often receive less than the industry standard rates of pay for paid professional work and only 11% regularly receive the industry standard rate of pay

75% of artists seldom or never receive an Exhibition Payment Fee

53% of artists do not believe the sector is healthy and viable for their practice

Art is often thought of as a space to work outside the capitalist model and its foundation of competition, and yet with the current funding climate, it is very much rooted inside it; constantly competing for limited resources. In an ideal socialist world, ‘in kind’ might function as a system for trading skills and knowledge, but unfortunately there is no socialist utopia, and capitalism is the context that informs life: artists need very real money to pay rent and survive. 

We’re all creative. If you don’t think you are, it’s probably because you haven’t had the chance to explore your ideas beyond daydreaming. The creative process takes time, space, and energy. Trial-and-error is necessary to discover anything new, but this is a time-consuming luxury most of us can’t afford. Instead, we’re forced to prioritise going to work and earning enough money to pay the bills.

The above was written by Toby Lloyd, an artist and PhD student, working to advocate for a Universal Basic Income. UBI is an unconditional regular payment given to everyone to create a minimum income level that is the same across the country. But what UBI really offers, other than cold hard cash, is time.

It’s become clear that a radical change in approach to funding is needed, and a UBI provides a valid and obtainable solution to many of the injustices within the current funding system. By meeting everyone’s basic needs, it frees up their time and space to take a seat at the table and make real change happen. The current gig economy in which we all fight for scraps isn’t functional, and its resulting stress and resentment leads to violence, prejudice, and isolation. By creating more time for people for them to choose what to do with, they can dedicate themselves to things that matter to them, without having to worry so much about getting paid so they can have a roof over their head or pay the bills. 

This can also free up more space, time, and energy to pursue additional funding for arts projects. Leah Black, chief executive of WHALE Arts in Edinburgh, proposes that a new model of funding should be; long term (5-10 years), unrestricted, trust-based (allowing organisers to do what they feel is best for their community), designed in partnership with those for whom it’s for, and ‘administratively light’. 

Another way that we can approach new ways of funding is to try and increase the amount of core funding for smaller organisations. The Institute for Voluntary Action Research (IVAR) have published a useful report on core funding, which lays out both its benefits and challenges. They define core funding as financial support for ‘non-project costs; general operating costs; core costs; central costs; running costs; management, administration, and office costs; and overhead and support costs’. In the same vein as the proposal for a UBI, an increase in core funding would mean that organisations would be well enough resourced to carry out tasks such as funding applications to secure better pay for artists, and it would mean that all their time, instead of being taken up with keeping the organisation afloat, could be put towards doing the work that they set out to do in the first place.

A positive example of successful core funding is found in Tinderbox Collective in Edinburgh, but their experience lays out the difficulties of creating demonstrable results before being able to access this funding.

Tinderbox started as a voluntary organisation, essentially the same as ‘in kind’, and over 10 years it has established a track record of producing positive outcomes in various areas which has meant that we have attracted funding to keep doing what we’re doing. This enables us to pay as many people as we can for the work they do. But we are constantly assessing how this works and what is fair. We’re aware that volunteering and opportunities to volunteer are also a really important part of the ecosystem of the third sector and the arts. This means that there are often blurry situations where it’s difficult to decide what should be voluntary and what should be paid. The key is good communication, and we really try to maintain that.

Black’s proposal for the need for more trust-based funding is an integral part of reassessing core funding, since qualifying for core funding requires these years of ‘in kind’, which perpetuate the set-up of a privileged system. If organisations were trusted at the beginning, they could build up results alongside viable voluntary hours to work in the most efficient way possible. 

By remodelling funding, we can ensure a path to eradicating the exclusion of those who cannot afford to work for free. To be able to volunteer your time, in a capitalist society, is a luxury. This continues to strengthen the narrowed canon, since it is often those most privileged by society – white, middle class, cis, heteronormative, able-bodied people – that are rewarded. People of colour; those with disabilities and/or neurodivergent people are often those with much lower levels of income, and they rely on payment to survive and be able to give this time, which leaves them left out by a system that is built upon free labour. Briana Pegado, in conversation with the Scottish BAME Writers Network, writes: 

Throughout my time working across the arts, it has become more apparent how many of the organisations that are successful only work due to personal finance, personal privilege, access to the right people, or favouritism from Creative Scotland.

‘In Kind’ work effectively functions as way to get your foot in the door; opportunities to work for organisations that might ultimately result in paid work. Because of this, the ‘in kind’ is a system primarily designed to benefit the privileged – those with their needs met and time to spare. It is a system that does not value those just trying to survive in an unjust society that actively works against them, and there needs to be a better understanding within the art world that to have free time is not a given and therefore cannot be given out freely. 

Voluntary work within the arts can be incredibly valuable and useful and there should be a place for it, but currently it cannot be justified in its perpetuation of a bias towards the privileged.  To create a place for it, we need to make sure everybody’s needs are met so that it can be a luxury that everyone can afford – whether they choose to use it is then up to them, not their circumstances. 

Resources:

Creating Change: Industria on advocating for fair pay (Jamila Prowse)
https://www.1854.photography/2021/06/industry-insights-creating-change-industria-on-advocating-for-fair-pay/

Funding Utopia – Five Years Unrestricted…. (Leah Black)

https://leah-black.medium.com/funding-utopia-five-years-unrestricted-c7aeecfebbd0

UBI and Creativity (Toby Phipps Lloyd)

http://tobyphipslloyd.co.uk/ubi-and-creativity/

Exploring Arts Class Problem (Hailey Maxwell)

https://www.conter.co.uk/blog/2018/5/10/exploring-arts-class-problem

In Coversation with Briana Pegado (Scottish BAME Writers Network)

https://scottishbamewritersnetwork.org/in-conversation-with-briana-pegado/

In Kind and Out of Pocket: The Impact of Artists Working for Free (Jessica Ramm)

www.a-n.co.uk/news/kind-pocket-hidden-costs-artists-working-free

The Art World is Overwhelmingly Liberal But Still Overwhelmingly Middle Class and White – Why? (Hettie Judah)
https://frieze.com/article/art-world

Examining The ‘In Kind’ Economy at Glasgow International
www.creativescotland.com/explore

In Kind? Artists Call for Rethinking on Unpaid Art Festival Work (Karin Goodwin)
www.heraldscotland.com/news

In Kind Project Website

https://inkindproject.info

Scottish Artists Union 2016 Membership Survey

https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/artistsunionscot/pages/450/attachments/original/1559738218/sau-membership-survey-report-2016.pdf?1559738218)

Information Sheet: Support In Kind (Arts Council England)

https://www.artscouncil.org.uk/sites/default/files/download-file/Information_sheets_Support_in_kind_Project_grants.pdf

Thinking About… Core Funding (IVAR)

https://www.ivar.org.uk/our-research/core-funding/

Eight Commitments from Flexible Funders (IVAR)

https://www.ivar.org.uk/flexible-funders/

Industria Instagram Account
https://www.instagram.com/we_industria/

Industria Website 
https://www.we-industria.org

Artist Leaks Open Source Data – Responses (Industria)
https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1WDMSt8uKjpnMU18m62uQEIZoErd6HLnxfKR7EPNrYmM/edit#gid=0

Artist Leaks Open Source Data – Form (Industria)
https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSf8uYJiyVcWynttNBfYizu3ZFyrpKisOcX-vjtndTVT47dwlw/viewform

UBI Lab Network

https://www.ubilabnetwork.org


Documentation or Lack of Imagination?

She was smart.

She gave off that impression anyway.

She had big glasses and spoke slowly and carefully, like she actually considered her words.

The artist who told me to video myself drawing grids.

And suggested that I photograph my journey to the post office when I said I wanted the works to exist in people’s intimate lives; in their bedrooms.

She asked if my drawing work was performance art.

I tried to appear intellectual when she asked that.

“Yes”, I said.

I suppose it is. In that it’s about the process. When I look at it, I imagine myself performing it.

“Could you do it in front of an audience?”

Aside from the fact that it’s a pandemic and I live alone, no. In any circumstance.

I could.

But what would be the point?

Looking at it is enough performance. What would change to watch me do it live?

Apart from emphasising the fact that it takes a long time.

I think it says that itself.

Child Artist

Asked

When did you become an artist?

By a stranger who doesn’t know me.


I started studying art full time four years ago, so then, I suppose. But I wasn’t an artist then. I didn’t have an interior vision or a belief system. I didn’t even know who Grayson Perry was when I started. I had to google him. I made the work I was given briefs for, and flailed without.

So not then.

I started painting grids just over a year ago. That was the first time I had made work that felt true. I was no longer searching for a composition, and the compositional agony has felt at least somewhat resolved since then.

So, a year?

That’s what I told her – a year.

But I’ve been drawing pictures since I could hold a pencil (probably). I made a finger painting in nursery (that my mum still has framed), so possibly even before then.

I think about the work I made when I was 16; terrible pastiches of artists who weren’t even very good, and I cringe. So I couldn’t really call my 16 year old self an artist.


The stranger asked

What did you do at high school?


I didn’t know how to respond. I didn’t have a choice – to be an artist or not. And when I think about high school, art is secondary; background noise. I think of J. Alfred Prufrock and integration equations. Those were the things I enjoyed.

So I couldn’t really call myself an artist then.

When did it start? When did it stop?


She asked

Did you draw as a child?


Didn’t everyone?

Does that qualify me to be an artist?

I don’t buy into Joseph Beuys and ‘everybody is an artist’, so … no.

I don’t remember drawing as a child. I don’t remember loving it more than everything else. Perhaps I did. I never felt very successful at it until I realised that I could make pencil lines look like the objects in front of them. The everybody was impressed.

But I didn’t draw for pleasure. I didn’t have an imagination.

I couldn’t draw until drawing became about copying.


She paused. Said nothing


I kept going.

I didn’t have anything I wanted to draw as a child. I had no compositions, no images in my head. Drawing always felt… stunted. Forced. False.

Until I began to draw grids. Until I began drawing motions instead of images.

Is that an artist?

Is it a copycat? A doodler?


When did you become an artist?


When I had something to draw?

White on White

There is no form or style in words, only what is in my head.

Even I am not sure of what that it.

Writing is the only way to find out.


White on white.

Why do I like it so much?


I think I would make my best work if I could make the picture disappear entirely.

An eternal Robert Irwin.

What bothers me so much that makes me want to wipe it clean with hard work?

To labour the invisible.

Condemning myself to perpetual eradication.


Is it eradication if it takes you 100 hours?

Robert Irwin, Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Morris.

Masters of the disappearing act.

Must I change my name to Robert then?


If all that matters is the surface; the trace,

What good is a photograph?

Do words have any say at all in the matter?


I will write down every word I know

Until I have learned how to put them all together.


Is it all an undoing?

A laying out of ideas, a build to the righteous finish,

Only to embark on a slow and steady dismantling.

Until you’re back where you started

With slightly more poise.


I believe the only answer is the admittance of its own lack.

Topography

Cerne Abbas Walk 1975 Richard Long

I loathe to begin with a dictionary definition, but as a hypocrite comfortable with my own identity, then topography is defined as;

  1. the arrangement of the natural and artificial physical features of an area.“the topography of the island”
  2. the distribution of parts or features on the surface of or within an organ or organism.
Richard McVetis. MAP OF EVERYTHING
Ink on paper. 21 x 13cm. 2017

I often think of topography as a somewhat neutral or distanced method of description. A topographical map can tell you that that there a big mountain to climb, a steep drop or a small stream without telling you how tired your legs will feel when you heave yourself to the top, the fear you’ll feel as you’ll look down, or that the stream will appear just as you’re gasping for water.

Those have nothing to do with the map.

Ilana Halperin. Physical Geology (a field guide to new landmass). Etching on Fabriano Artistico paper, 2013. Photograph: Dundee Contemporary Arts Print Studio. Courtesy of Patricia Fleming Projects.

It is topographical works of art that I am most drawn to. Her topographical approach is why I was drawn to Agnes Martin’s work in the first place. She simply marks what is there, marks out the landscape of the canvas; marks out the process of her pencil and rulers; marks out the process of her hand and it’s tiny mistakes. As a viewer, I can take from that what I like from that.

My experience might mimic Martin’s and become one of beauty and sublime heavenly perfection. Within those lines I might find peace, and calm and tranquility; a respite of order within mental chaos.

Or I might perhaps see reflected in it my mundane experience. Sewage grates; cutting mats; graph paper; contstruction fences. There is peace in that too – in having my exterior world become interior as it is extracted and laid in front of me.

Despite this, she remains maps her terrain with indifference.

The only thing that really exists on her canvas is the traces of her hand, ruler, pencil. That is all. Anything else is the viewer’s experience.

Morning (1965), Agnes Martin

I talk of art like this because it seems to me the most truthful. I am wary of works that want me to feel, that guide my experience, that push me to feel something.

To map a surface, or a paint stroke, or a walk, or a human population is merely to record and to describe. There is a kind of inexplainable beauty in this, and to become devoid of emotion feels to me to reject fetishisation. I visited a room exhibition of 70s painting when I visited New York in January. It was in the Guggenheim I think. In it there was Frankenthaler, Louis and Noland.

Their works intrigued me because they were just about paint, but they didn’t make me feel nauseous like most paintings about paint do.

Instead of adoring it to the point of near religious fanaticism, they instead seemed to map it, to test it, to see what it could do. Louis especially. His works don’t love paint, but rather question it; test it. How does it function as a material; how does it interact with itself; what boundaries can it to be pushed to before it disappears into a dark, murky brown oblivion?

Richard McVetis. TOKYO BAY
Hand stitch on wool 50 x 50cm. 2017.

This series looks at the pattern created at a macro scale by humans and their interaction with the landscape, highlighting their physical form and our impact within the altered landscape. McVetis investigates traces of human presence and the relationship to the built environment.

The works included here deal with mapping in a much more typical way, dealing with maps and data as expected. It’s pure information. A testing – an experiment.

I am drawn to topographical art because to me, that seems to be a way in which we might truly give the experience over to the viewer. I’ve written at length about practices ranging from the 1970s to contemporary sculptures that attempt to give ownership over the the viewer and fail as the artists cling on to their works.

Topography offers a solution to this problem. If we merely describe what is there and set up a plan for discussion, then the experience, rather than being preconceived, is opened up for us as an audience. Maps become imprinted with our lives, thoughts, dreams. We find what we want to in a grid, it’s presentation guiding us only as a form of meditation rather than gospel.

Ilana Halperin. Towards Heilprin Land (near ittoqqortoormiit). Hard ground copperplate etching, 2007. © Ilana Halperin. Courtesy of Patricia Fleming Projects.

The Mythological Artist

I was thinking about that scene in Spaced, when Daisy and Tim move into the flat and they ask Brian;

“What kind of art do you do?”

He replies “Anger…. pain….fear….aggression…..”

An exaggeration perhaps, but one that taps into the general perception of artists. As strange creatures, who crawl into their studio dungeons, do odd activities for hours and hours, and emerge with a multi million pound masterpiece.

In many cases, Damien Hirst’s self image being one in point, I would refer to it as fetishisation.

I’ll admit that I’ve been there. When I first went to art school I subscribed to such a mentality. I remember that the first exhibition that I saw at the Fruitmarket Gallery (the first ‘contemporary’ gallery I had ever really visited), was Jac Leirner’s ‘Add it Up’.

I found it frustrating because I didn’t understand the production. To me, an artist was somebody who spent all day in the studio; making, making, making. Artwork to me, then, had to demonstrate or reveal it’s effort. I had to see that I certain amount of labour had gone into it, that the artist had slaved away. I wanted to see layers and evidence. I wanted to see that the artist had painted it, rubbed it back, painted it again.

Maybe it was down to the nature of my education at that point. Painting was a practice imposed on us as necessarily laborious. We would be given a week to complete a painting. It couldn’t take more or less. So, with that embedded in my mind, looking at Jac Leirner’s painting, they looked to me like they could be done in half an hour. If I had gone to my tutors with a painting I had done in, what I thought, only took half a day, I assumed they would have laughed me out of the room.

Looking back, I didn’t give them enough credit. I think if I presented something that looked like that, they would have taken it. But my expectations at the time were different. Art was supposed to be hard, it was supposed to be difficult, it was supposed to take a long time.

I didn’t understand the Jac Leirner exhibition because if you could go just just pin up 120 cords that you had found on a gallery wall and call it art, what exactly did you do in your studio? To be, being an artist was rooted in that studio labour of making. Of making stuff, all the time, as much as you could.

At the beginning of my education, I was in the studio every day until 8:30am until 6pm, because those were the hours that it opened. Sometimes, I beat the receptionist who opened up, and had to stand outside and wait. I’m not saying this with any great kind of pride. But at the time, I thought that made me a good artist – that I spent the most time in the studio.

And everything I did in the studio, in my mind, had to be inherently creative. Anything I could do back in my flat, I refused to do in the studio. That included writing, work in my sketchbook, writing up notes, documentation. Every day I would lug the huge A3 sketchbook home, and haul it all the way back down Leith Walk again the next day.

Because studio time was precious making time. I had to make as much as possible in those hours. I used to plan my time meticulously to make the most of them. When the school shut because of a snowstorm and my schedule for my final project was disrupted I panicked. When a friend asked me to accompany her to an interview because she had broken her arm, as much as I wanted to be a good friend, I couldn’t comprehend losing a single day in the studio.

I had this mythological idea of the artist who needed to be in the studio and who, as a good artist, needed to be constantly creative. I couldn’t drop the ball for a minute. I barely stopped making art for a second and ended up at the doctors from the resulting anxiety.

It also made me dependant. Studio practice didn’t belong to me, it belonged to that particular space. When the year ended and I had to go home for the summer, I became incredibly depressed. I couldn’t make any work. I didn’t understand how to make work now that I was separated from that space.

Being an artist does not mean, necessarily, the burying of the artist in a studio and being creative all day. For one thing, there are so many facets to what an artist has to be. There’s applications to open calls, funding, exhibitions. If you’re at art school, there’s the documentation of your work, the writing of notes, attending crits and tutorials, writing about your own work, researching work, going to galleries, reading texts. Just sitting and thinking. Sitting and looking.

These take up most of the time, and they are a necessary part of the creative practice. In fact, I would go so far as to call them the integral part.

These parts are the maintenance.

As Mierle Laderman Ukeles said, ‘maintenance takes all the fucking time’. And it does. But it’s necessary.

Jac Leirner’s work is beautiful. No, she probably didn’t spend that long on the making of the work. But she probably spent a hell of a long time on the maintenance. I doubt she did nothing in the studio all day. And all of that extra work was necessary to what she did.

I wish art school’s taught that. That the maintenance is not extra, not an add on, not something you have to do at home once the studio day is done. It is part of an art practice.

According to Marx, the “means of production belonged to the private realm” In order for the emancipation of the workers, they needed access to the means of production in order to gain control.

We can think of studio practice as a sort of means of production. In holding it as a mythology, the elite take control. The means of production, or the studio practice, is not privy to the populist masses. They do not understand it, and therefore have no control over it, and it is out of their grasp.

It seems to me that in revealing the means of production or the studio practice, that is how we might make art democratic. To allow people to see that it is not some pure creativity, inaccessible to the masses but instead actually just maintenance. Maintenance becomes accessible. Community art propels what Marx criticised. Marx wrote that power and domination lay within the withholding of means of production, we can still see this in community projects – the artist is still a mythological hero and it is not clear what they do. Requires an example.

Think about other professions – scientists do not ‘do science’ all day long. They spend a small amount of the time doing the experiment, but nothing would become of it if they didn’t write up the results, analyse them, compare the data. A scientist is also not mythological. We understand what they do. It’s still impressive, and still might not be for everyone, but we at least understand it.

Lastly, I want to talk about studio conditions that are necessary for the artist. The studio conditions are a large part of what constitutes an artist. Virginia Woolfe wrote about them in ‘A Room of One’s Own’. That we require a room. That is true. Maintenance of a studio is important. The space is important. But to be an artist that room needs to be flexible. That studio practice must be embedded within the artist. It is their studio practice, something they carry within them. The space is only a means to an end.

Studio’s as spaces are interesting at the moment. When the virus meant we couldn’t go into our studios, the tutors claimed that the studio was a practice, not a space. In a way that’s true. And yet it’s not. We need a space.

Thinking about the figure of the artist as mythological. I have never really been so horrified when I first came to Glasgow and attended a lecture by Ross Sinclair where he insisted that we all stood up and followed him in chants along the lines of ‘I brush my teeth; I am an artist. I make breakfast; I am an artist.”

The pandemic has shown that this is not really the case. The beauty of the studio is the ability to switch off and on. Studio practice, or the being an artist is a mindset, yes. But the studio acts as a dividing line – a space to put your thinking brain on and be an artist. No, the artist doesn’t become a creative genius in the studio, a la Brian from spaced. But they do have to have that distinction. Or I can’t think clearly and my head turns to mush.