Sunday, May 19, 2019

Flashback #1 - BA (Hons) Fine Art Degree show 1984

I recently had the idea to spend a few minutes every so often looking back at selected exhibitions in order to review what my ideas were at the time, which materials I was engaged with and what techniques or processes I was employing.

The natural starting point seemed to be my Fine Art degree show. Although this wasn't the first exhibition I had been involved with (in my first year I had participated in a show of art student work at the Callerton gallery in Ponteland, Northumbria as well as a show of work by second year Fine Art students, held in the Polytechnic foyer), it was the first time I had worked on a body of work that would be shown together as a group.

Following my Foundation years at Jacob Kramer College of Art, Leeds, UK in 1977-78 & again in 1980-81, I studied for a BA (Hons) Fine Art degree at Newcastle upon Tyne Polytechnic from 1981-84.
Since those days Jacob Kramer has been renamed first Leeds College of Art and then finally Leeds Arts University. Similarly, Newcastle upon Tyne Polytechnic has been renamed Northumbria University.

I mainly studied sculpture as a student although I did develop a healthy interest in printmaking, which grew from a desire to find a way to make more physical, drawn images. In sculpture I was very interested in the language of immortality and that took the form of memorials or funerary architecture - realised or imaginary. Through my research I encountered the work of Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Etienne-Louis Boullee, Claude Nicolas Ledoux, Edwin Lutyens, Charles Sergeant Jagger, Alfred Stevens, Alfred Gilbert, George Frampton, Jacob Epstein and especially Michael Sandle who I had the great pleasure of meeting at the opening of his solo retrospective exhibition at The Whitechapel Gallery in 1988.

In order to investigate this language I set myself the task of creating a series of works that may be regarded as memorials for chosen persons from history. The choice of subject was very personal and for each subject I attempted to create a suitable memorial that would draw upon certain aspects of their life story. Visual aspects of their life story were crucial for this project and I was not intending to fully represent their entire life or even to pass judgement upon them as individuals. This was an exercise to enable me to explore this language of immortality.

My Fine Art degree show was held in 1984 and I took photographs of the pieces using my old Pentax K1000 (a fantastic camera, fully manual). The photographs were all taken on slide film and the following images are what I have managed to rescue from the slides I could find from those days 35 years ago. Here I must apologise for the quality of the images. If I subsequently discover better quality photographs or photographs of pieces not included here, I will add them to this article as soon as they are unearthed.

Initially I have chosen the following pieces to discuss as they share a common theme:


The first piece, 'Outlaw' considered the film mogul Howard Hughes and the visual elements I manipulated were an art-deco period cinema, the 'Spruce Goose' flying boat, ceramic tiles and a polished wood plinth.

The model cinema was made by combining the found part of a bakelite vacuum cleaner with a wooden structure and transformed to resemble an Art Deco style building seen in a magazine. The cinema faced the colossal flying boat, which Howard Hughes created but which, due to its great size, never saw production and only flew once for a few hundred metres. To reflect this failure I cast the model flying boat in solid lead. 

Instead of a runway I set the flying boat onto a field of ceramic tiles, which were a powerful memory of the two years I had spent working in the operating department of the St. James Hospital in Leeds, UK. Somehow I had the feeling that setting the aeroplane in this white, ceramic environment created the metaphor for 'investigative research' that was at the heart of the work conducted in the operating theatre. The white ceramic tiles subsequently became an important motif for me in later work.
The bakelite cinema and the polished wooden podium referred to the materials and design of Art Deco buildings and furniture of the time.
The name 'Outlaw' was borrowed from the film produced by Howard Hughes, starring Jane Russell, and which seemed a particularly apt name for a piece about Howard Hughes. 

'Monument to Glenn Miller'

This piece was made after I became fascinated by both Glenn Miller's music and by his mysterious disappearance. The best selling recording artist between 1939-43, he had more number one's and top ten hits than Elvis Presley or The Beatles during their careers. Miller created a unique sound by having clarinets and saxophones playing the same melody to the accompaniment of 3 other saxophones harmonising within the same octave.
Glenn Miller was arranging for his band to move to Paris in order to play for the troops stationed there when his plane disappeared over the English Channel.

I created the piece in the form of a small, private auditorium. On the bandstand (made from layers of wood coated with a mixture of grey acrylic mixed with sawdust for texture) I placed a smaller podium that had been cast in bronze and coloured black. On this small podium, besides the music stand (copied from one seen in an old photograph of Miller's band playing) there is a microphone and a stylised saxophone. Both of these these elements have been made by modifying the shape of a G-clef in thick, metal wire.
The audience section of the piece features a surface covered in small glass tiles that had been found in a damaged pedestrian subway in Newcastle late one night and two classically-shaped seats. The enigmatic part of this arrangement is the question as to whether the seats are human scale and the bandstand podium is smaller than life-size or whether the bandstand podium is life-sized and the seats are too large for the audience. I was attracted to this contradiction as it introduced a disturbing, disorienting element to the piece. These elements were all attached to a thick key-hole shaped plinth made of wood (coloured black using shoe polish) and resting on a larger, rectangular plate clad with blue-grey roof slates. 
All of the materials had been chosen to be sympathetic with one another and because I felt that they possessed a certain melancholic atmosphere that was appropriate for this piece.

'Monument to Amy Johnson'

Amy Johnson had always fascinated me after having read about her amazing flying exploits. As she was born in the East Riding of Yorkshire,  a permanent exhibition had been established in Sewerby Hall near Bridlington on the best coast of Yorkshire and I enjoyed looking through the artefacts and photographs.
She was the first aviatrix to fly single-handed from England to Australia in 1930. Unfortunately while flying in bad weather in January 1941, she bailed out just before her plane crashed into the Thames Estuary. A unsuccessful rescue attempt was made and her body was never found.

I created a cast cement-fondu globe to represent the world, resting on a stepped plinth cast in bronze and around this I wrapped a copper tube showing the trajectory of her flight to Australia, On the copper tube I mounted a small cast bronze aeroplane that been coated in a green patina to represent the colour of her famous plane - 'Jason', which now hangs in the Science Museum in London. This structure was placed inside a ring-like base fabricated from interlocking layers of wood, polished to refer to the furniture and decoration of the period (similar to the 'Outlaw' piece).

The theme that connects these 3 pieces of work is relatively straight forward. Both Glenn Miller and Amy Johnson disappeared in mysterious circumstances and their bodies were never recovered. Howard Hughes on the other hand mysteriously disappeared while he was still alive, becoming a successful recluse due to his seemingly inexhaustible wealth.

I felt quite satisfied with these pieces of work and realised that these were merely the first steps in my working life. Unfortunately, however, my tutors didn't feel the same way. For the degree show I was allocated what was effectively a corridor in which to display my work. Added to this, two nearby displays of work by my classmates employed arrangements of similar materials, bronze, polished wood etc. albeit for very different reasons but I felt that the visual impact of this work had an adverse effect on mine due to this proximity.

On top of this I was unlucky with the choice of the assessment panel. One of the panel was a stone carver who believed that carving was the primary language for creating sculpture, assemblage therefore became a much lesser form of expression. This was a bad start and things went rapidly downhill as the next member of the assessment panel turned out to be a political media artist. In his eyes my work was seen as superficial because I had not devoted my time to investigating the political aspects of my chosen topics, such as the alleged involvement of the Hughes corporation in the Vietnam War and the assassination of Robert Kennedy. It didn't go well in the assessment and I received  a very disappointing grade from the panel. To be honest I still feel the pain of this disappointment even after all these years.

'An Heraldic Emblem'

During the years 1978-1980 I had spent 2 years working in an operating theatre in St. James Hospital and as I was only 18 years old when I started it had a huge impact upon me.
The heraldic emblem was an attempt to create a visual representation of my self during that time. The white, ceramic tiles and dark wooden frame was inspired by the interiors of the operating theatres and the small, round objects were simplified versions of the lights that were used to illuminate the patients during the operations. I changed the middle bulb of each lamp to represent a red green stop-sign. Sometimes the operations I saw were so crucial that whatever transpired during that time, it defined whether the patient's life continued or ended.
The cruciform shape deliberately suggested Christian symbolism. Although I am not religious, I was raised as a Catholic until I was 10 or 11 years of age and the associated symbolism has remained within me, for better or worse. The shape can also be read in a more representation way. The 3D vertical, nimbus shape stood for the operation site, and the framing mechanism was derived from the metal clamps that are used to hold open the patient's body. The body cavity obviously is represented in a convex format rather than concave, as would be expected. I made it this way because as I working on the piece I began to feel that I was searching within myself to discover what value these images and forms held for me. In a way I was conducting an exploratory operation on myself, albeit a psychological one.

A photo of me contemplating the future, taken during the foundation year 1980-81 
in the studios of Jacob Kramer College of Art, Leeds - later to become Leeds Arts University.
I attended the foundation year twice, in 1977-78 and 1980-81

Setting up my corner of the communal studio in the sculpture annexe of 
Newcastle Upon Tyne Polytechnic during the first semester of the first year, 1981. 
My alma mater would later become Northumbria University.

I hope to be able to add to this post as more photographs are found.

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