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Saturday, 6 October 2018

Spotlight: Artistic choices of addition or subtraction. Is everything already there?

This Spotlight outlines a way of thinking about one’s practice, and each stroke decided and made.

If you put an infinite number of monkeys in front of typewriters - or in front of keyboards, or paper and a quill pen - one of them will produce the entire works of Shakespeare.

Billy Shakespeare, probably

This is no idle theory, because one monkey already has. That one was called 'William Shakespeare'. He penned lines on a white-ish background, using ink. That ape descendent created plays and sonnets, which gain life by being enacted or read, or simply by being thought about.
Give the monkeys chisels and white marble, and they will create Michaelangelo's ‘David’. We know this, because it happened.
These miracles of chance have been done. Inky curves and carved shades.
Some of Michaelangelo's 'David' from one angle, in a certain light

This got me wondering. Does blank paper, or the white marble, contain within it the finished object that we admire and cherish? Are the words already in the paper, or perhaps in the ether, waiting to be revealed? Is there always an equivalent of “The Works of Shakespeare” or “The Works of Frida Kahlo” somewhere in a space unseen, waiting to be made into reality by one of us monkeys with our brushes and pens and chisels? How do we summon these exquisite creations?
Frida Kahlo: 'Roots', 1943

What is the act of revealing? Are we adding something, or removing blinkers and barriers to something which was already there? In sculpture, are we removing marble, or are we adding dark shadows, to create form? In literature and sculpture and painting, we think that we are adding words, or removing marble, or adding paint.
But is it really that simple?
Consider music: the canvas of sound, we think, is silence. We believe that notes and voices are added to silence to make music. As if silence is a blank sheet, upon which to add sounds.
But sounds are already there: babbling water, birdsong, and the howls and laughter of monkeys. Volcanoes. Wind on an island... It may be that the infinity of sounds is the canvas from which music is carved. Suppose that a musician is acquainted with the plethora of sounds of nature, cities, instruments, voices, and all that is out there. When they create music are they adding sounds to silence, or are they carving from a cacophony to shape more succinct soundscapes?
When we paint, there are a lot of things that we are not painting. A lot of strokes we do not make. Sometimes it feels like a reductive process, as much as it feels like an additive process: “There are many shapes that this brushstroke could have taken, and I removed the other options in order to keep just this possibility of shapes which I want.”
Like selecting clothes, or choosing a meal from a menu, we add to our selection only by removing from the choices. In love and friendships, when we meet someone and build a relationship, is it adding love to nothing, or revealing an underlying connection that is already there between every living thing? Are we removing barriers and blinkers?
In sculpture this yin and yang notion is quite tangible, in considering where the forms are, and the choices we make of presence and absence in space.
This image is of something which happened by accident. At least, to me it was not consciously deliberate. What do you see?
Do you see a head-like form just slightly north-east of centre, flying towards the left? This is a picture I took of the white plastic board which I used to protect the floor when I was working with black-pigmented polyester resin. The shapes in the image are accidents: a by-product of making something else entirely. This image may be better than what I deliberately constructed that day. If the aspiration is an as-yet unknown “Complete works of something” then it is difficult to tell.
...Her head flies from the cliffs that shatter into the sky. She was made by chance, spills of dark resin, at the hands of this monkey. Or she was always there, and the dark splash is what it takes for us to see her.    We Monkeys... ourselves made by chance, choosing what we add and what goes? Do we start with nothing? Or do we start with everything?
Pablo Picasso: Carnet Dinard, 1928.  Ink on paper.

Of course, this philosophising misses the point. The existence of Shakespeare’s plays is not on the page. It is in the theatre, and in hearts and minds. They exist through being experienced. If never seen or read, their wonder would not be manifest. Similarly a painting is only really active if it is seen and experienced. Michaelangelo’s ‘David’ would not be ‘David’ if it had remained in a crate in a warehouse somewhere near Rome, gathering dust and spiders.
Warehouse scene still from 'Citizen Kane'

Indeed the piece is not really the word “‘David’“, or the marble shape. It is also very much the experience, and perhaps the context. So, whether or not we are adding or removing, our works will thrive through being shared.
In which case I’d best get on with building things and getting them out there. Personally, I have some pieces out there in the world at the moment this month, but I have, as yet, built nothing. There is a yin and yang to be balanced.
'The Great Divide' opening at OVADA, Oxford, September 2018

How is your practice going, and does any of this ring true for you?
Happy painting and drawing, and making, and singing and sharing, everyone.