Is art a matter of distances?

I raised a question in a facebook group about whether artists sign their work or not and why. It led to a prolonged set of comments that at one point included an artist called Tommy Givnan sending me an image of his work and asking me what I thought of it.  He was to later confess that it was an image of where he scraped brushes clean when working on other work.  This got me thinking about a few things.  But first let me clear the air – my first reaction was to question if I was being tricked by this – what if I had committed myself to a string of supportive comments or offered some sense of meaning to it to find out that it was just a cleaning rag then I could have looked foolish.  Likewise if I had been dismissive about it I could have caused offence.  My actual response was to say that it looked like something that I could project meaning into.  Since then I have come to understand that what Tommy was doing was expanding a discussion through illustrative example.  However, it has been something that has left me thinking about things and wanting to write about it.

To start this off let’s look at these scrapings from Tommy and see if there is anything to say about them.


If we take the stance of trusting that this is a work of art one can begin to actually see certain things within it.  The actual construction of it has a good degree of symmetry and includes divisions by thirds – a practice that is balanced, pleasing and can have significance. Some holy orders have been known to use the diminishing scale of thirds (3:1) as a way of symbolically representing the holy trinity.  In fact the upper section of this piece can also be subdivided into a block that is also divided into thirds. 

The bottom right corner is darker whilst there is a significant brightness in the upper left area.  This is a construction method that can be employed to maintain interest.  The idea being that there can be a tendency to scan an image like one would when reading – when one gets to the bottom right corner there can be a tendency to move on like one would move on to the next page.  There are ways of dealing with this such as the use of diagonal lines or the use of bright colours in other parts of the painting so that the eye is drawn away from the ‘dark corner’ and interest is maintained for a bit longer.

If placed in landscape format one can see a sense of tonal perspective that could relate to an actual landscape just as one could see the blocking of colour as a compartmentalized portrayal of emotion not to mention the idea of the blocked colours referencing other artists.


The point being that it is possible to see things within this image – even if it is just scrapings.  The question is why?

The answer is that there is the ability to see into almost anything, the human mind will imagine faces within the swirly shapes on curtains and read meanings into the most random of events – it is part of the way in which we seek and understand the world we inhabit – often projecting our inner thoughts onto the things around us.  The artist does this in a clear way as does the art public.  In many ways it is to do with managing distances.


For the sake of simplicity lets take the example of an artist who has been commissioned to paint a portrait.  The artist will observe the subject and will find inspiration from it, they will be caught up in a dynamic of seeking and projecting and discovering  – it is one of the factors that gives the artist a unique style.  It is not a simple matter of plotting details and reproducing them – on its own that has no artistic merit and is a matter of craftwork rather than artwork and whilst there are artists who may work in such a way there are still elements of pose – position – setting etc that give scope for that artistic process.  What it is that the artist finds as the inspiration may be something public, known and obvious – the distance they have to travel to find it is very short.  It is possible that the distance is so short that it looses any sense of originality and becomes dull.  Whilst technically good the response may be ‘that looks just like him/her’ but little else is gained.  Conversely it may be that the inspiration is so deep seated and hidden that the distance is large – the artist uncovers something so deeply buried that it is inaccessible.  The image doesn’t seem right and gets rejected.


This is not the only distance that is being negotiated.  The artist also needs to express this, and there are times when the inspiration is not formed until or during the act of that expression – sometimes coming out in an unconscious way so that the artist reveals to him or herself or may not even be aware that they have done so.   It could be suggested that the more ‘abstract’ the form of the work then the more this may happen as the freedom from being tied to realistic form gives greater scope.  I doubt very much if I am the only one who has started a work not really understanding where it is going and finding that I am led into a number of works based around what I discover during the process.


The artist is not the only one involved in this process, the art public also have to deal with a distance as well.  The art public has to engage in the work, they need to make the investment of taking from it and projecting into it – they understand the smile by feeling the smile – by remembering smiling or seeing it.  The distance they travel depends on many things.  The accessibility of the work is a key factor in this – not only how available the image is to see but how easy it is to understand.  The realistic image of a persons face can be easy to understand at a simple level.  Again if it is too easy to understand it has limited interest – that’s a good likeness – aren’t you clever – move on.  It may be a safe level of understanding – the smile may remind us of the kind nature someone had.  But once more – when the distance is too far it is ignored and rejected – ‘he never had horns! I never saw him as a devil – this is rubbish’.  The other way that the distance can be difficult to negotiate is when the form is in a way that the public is not so familiar with or have prejudgments about.  The random splattering of paint or blocks of solid colour can be open to a wide range of approaches and meanings.  Many years ago I painted a wall mural that had a degree of red in it that represented rawness.  On seeing this someone told me that it was a very angry painting – because red meant anger.  The person was not willing to discuss it at all and was clear that I needed to know that that is what red meant, I think for her she was maybe right.  The less realistic art forms can be problematic.  The level of simplicity that is possible in their construction can leave them open to claims that ‘anyone could do it’ – as if that was an issue.  Likewise there can be the view that a simplistic form is only allowed if one can demonstrate a skill in complex forms first.  My own view on this is that the technical skill is only a small part of it – please hear me out on this – If I want to travel from a to b in a car that I drive then I need to know how to drive the car – I do not need to know how to build one to make that journey, especially if I know a mechanic who can help me if needs must.  However, if I do know how to build the car I will get more out of the journey and will also find other gains from that knowledge.  With art I find that the desire to create something is the main thing, finding the focus for that comes next and the actual technique comes much further down the line. I want my technical skill to rise to meet the need of my potential rather than my potential being hampered by my current skill set.  I do not want to be the best technical painter in the world but have nothing to say. I want to find new things to say and new ways of saying them.  Having said that I will also acknowledge that having the skill to say them is also important – skill gives options – if I want to paint symmetrical red eyes it is a lot easier if I know how to paint eyes – the problem can be that once one knows how to paint really good eyes that everyone says are really good eyes it can be hard not to paint really good eyes when it is not the time to do so.  An example of this is my series ‘The darkness’ about ‘depression – recovery – mania – relapse’.  In this series I not only wanted the images to be relevant but the way they were formed to also relate to that.  The closed down depressive stage was done with very limited technique and colour – literally a pencil and paper.  The manic phase of the work was full of colour and manically hand painted ie using the hand with no brush or preparation or plan.

The less realistic forms can pose a threat to the art public – ‘what if I get this wrong’ ‘what if this is a con’ are some of the concerns that can prevent people from beginning to negotiate the distance on an artistic journey that has few sign posts.  I also have to say that I find that a lot of educated discussions on such works are not always helpful as they can lead one to consider that one may be wrong or ignorant although they can also raise the ability to do so.

The ‘splattered’ image is a challenge with many obstacles for both the artist and the public – it involves trust, openness, vulnerability, the risk of being ridiculed and a new language every time.  Soon after the Baltic centre opened in Newcastle there was an exhibition of the work of Öyvind Fahlström.  I visited the show and fulfilled a life long ambition of looking at a work in a gallery and asking one of the staff if there was a problem-


A problem sir?


In what way?

I think that this artwork has been hung upside down

I do not think so sir

No seriously – I think it is upside down

Why on earth do you think that?

Because the overall balance of the work doesn’t appear to work as well as it would the other way up – because it contains small motifs that are present in other works of his but are normally the other way up – but the main clue is that he has signed a lot of his work in the bottom right corner as many people do but on this one he has signed it on the top left corner and his signature is upside down.

I will go and get my manager sir…


After a while a group gathered around and the manager arrived – we were also joined by a university professor of arts who also agreed with me that it was upside down and added that it should be put right – the problem was that they couldn’t do so without the consent of the curator who was an external curator based in London.


To cut a long story short the art was never turned round because whilst it was upside down Öyvind Fahlström himself had left clear notes that this particular work should be displayed upside down.  Once the realistic is left behind the world changes.  I am a keen fan of all forms of art as they bring so much potential, it is easy to scrape paint onto a rag but once the technique is learnt it is also easy to reproduce an image.  What is not easy is finding, discovering, taking risk, exploring and being open.  To paint a canvass just one shade of blue is simple To stand as an artist and say – I have done this as an artist – I am not playing, I believe that what I have done has merit – to do that is not simple.  To look at a painting and say ‘that’s pretty – like’ is simple – to invest time and emotionally and mentally explore a work – to have the trust to do so and take the risk that one may find things that others do not – whether that is in a canvas covered in scrapings or in a wonderfully realistic landscape that shows a testament to the value and heritage of a treasured area – that is not simple.  Much of art is to do with distance – the space one is willing to emotionally or mentally travel to find inspiration – to discover and express – to develop – to see – to project and understand.  It is one of the things that make art so special.  When I was a young man someone read a poem to me.  It was short and simple and full of upset about being away from home – it was written over 2 thousand years ago by a woman from a different land and yet over all those distances we connected.


I am unsure about the scrapings of Tommy Givnan – there is the chance that as he worked on his painting the scraping rag mirrored his palette – that there was a residual expression, that at an unconscious level he formed an image that came from a distant part of himself or it could be that it was just a rag – but one that he felt was worthy taking the image of, worthy of sharing. That deep inside there was a part of Tommy that saw the balance – the symmetry the thirds.  Maybe this rag is but a rag and it is I as an artist that treats it like a found object and relates to it – maybe there is the potential of a raw uninhibited expression peeking through from somewhere that defies the technical standards that we can be limited by. – or maybe not and that is also part of the wonder of art. Yes the splattered paint and the unmade bed can be easy to do – the words ‘I do’ are easy to say but that does not take away meaning and as a side note I have met a few people who trace over photographs to create realistic images and take no risk at all.


Art = distance = journey = change = discovery = art

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