Sculpture and Artwork by Tony Cragg. Photography Copyright Catherine Oughtibridge 2017. All rights reserved.
On the way to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park for the champagne opening of Tony Cragg’s exhibition, A Rare Category of Objects, which has taken over the underground gallery and formal gardens, the Grandfather asked me what sort of sculpture I liked.
What I don’t like
Occasionally, I find piece of art which I particularly dislike. One of my diaries is filled with half a dozen or so pages complaining about a few select pieces of art from the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art (MACBA). The one that stands out in my memory is a pile of Egyptian newspapers neatly stacked and weighted down with rocks in a white room. The idea of capturing something of Cairo’s street life, showing what media distribution looks like to the typical Cairo citizen and making a political statement about the freedom of the press, seemed reasonable enough to me. But I’d only a few months previously I’d been in Cairo. Egypt’s capital is not neat. It has an abundance of atmosphere. Comparatively, the well-meaning stacks of newspapers on the gallery floor looked clinical.
The only feeling I had, was of how disjointed art can be from reality.
Sculpture that feels like home
I’m a Yorkshire lass, and I’m lucky that my grandparents have always been happy to take me to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.
On the hill, rolling down from the formal gardens, is Barbara Hepworth’s Family of Man. These shapes, did not look anything like a family, or human beings. They have some familiarities, as if joined on one level, but they’re shaped differently, and stand apart, as if lost in their own thoughts. They became familiar friends to me, I saw them year on year.
Now my grandparents refer to a sculpture (one of many) by Henry Moore called Mother and Child, which as a very small child I was apparently fascinated by. In fact, so fascinated that I insisted on bringing the Father to see it. By which time it was gone.
But it’s Hepworth’s Family of Man that called to me at a slightly older age and was some of the first art that struck me on an intellectual level. It was called a family, but it wasn’t anything like my family. Who was the father? Who was the mother? I wanted to know, definitively, how the pieces related, where they can from. Whether they liked one another. If they were a family, which one was most like me?
If I like it, I don’t know why I like it. All I know is that Hepworth’s family sucks in my attention.
Maybe it’s in my blood, but the appreciation of Moore and Hepworth feels ingrained. Their work, that feels so familiar, even pieces which I’ve never seen in my life, talks to me like a familiar song might soothe you.
Sculpture as touch from a distance
When I was in Pompei in the autumn, I was met by a calm face, which stared past me, in a serene peace, like an Ancient Greek sculpture, but it wasn’t carved from marble, its face was blue, not white, and some liberties had been taken with its positioning in the Roman forum.
Igor Mitoraj’s sculptures, huge, light, elegant, struck me with mythical enchantment that still returns when I cast my mind back.
Our social structures, deeply ingrained sense of ‘personal space’ and what is inappropriate, keeps us at a safe distance from each other most of the time. Whilst small children cling, touch and cuddle, if you’re like me, you’ll not relax to most people’s touch but tense slightly. There are very few people whom I’d be comfortable leaning up close against whilst watching a film say.
And yet, it’s this sense of touch I feel when I see such a sculpture as Igor Mitoraj’s colossal characters of mythology. Tony Cragg’s wooden sculptures are similar. They invite you to touch and explore their shapes, but you’re forced to do it from a distance, in your head. They create a sense of longing, an echo of loneliness.
What sort of sculpture do I like?
Sculpture that, whether in a conscious or subconscious way, makes some sort of connection with me. It can be completely abstract, or it can be representative of something or someone specific. I can’t say this sort of sculpture or that sort of sculpture. There’s no definitive answer.
All I can say is that now, in this moment, that sculpture in front of me connects, or doesn’t connect.
And even then, even when I feel a connection with a piece of work, I might not know if I like it.
Take, not sculpture, but the well-known ‘Weeping Woman’ painting by Picasso. It makes a deep connection with me, but it reminds me of feelings which although not pleasant or comfortable, are significant and meaningful to me. I like that it talks to me, but it doesn’t mean I like how it makes me feel.
Art is complex, it has to be, because the messages it tries to show are complex.
What sculpture do you like?
It’s somehow the everyday nature of these doors that fascinates me quite so. Not that they are everyday doors, they’re the doors on the passion facade of the Sagrada Familia, but the objects that are captured in the doors are everyday. It’s not what you expect to find at church. It’s intricate, detailed and above all, surprising.
Anyway, I was mesmerised.
I paid a visit to the Picasso museum in Malaga.
He’s not everyone’s favourite artist, but he’s cast a spell upon me. He doesn’t tell you what exactly is going on in his paintings, he makes you work. You can’t just look at a Picasso and think, what is this? A man’s face? He’s got a weird nose and what’s up with his deformed eyes? Next painting.
It’s easy to quickly make many assumptions about what it is we’re looking at, first impressions are given excessive weight because they’re all we have. At least in the beginning. We draw conclusions without knowing we’re doing it, every day, all the time.
I watch them. The people listening to their audio-guide about one painting, whilst walking the length of the gallery staring at the other paintings as they go. I’m sorry, but this isn’t how to get your money’s worth from an art gallery, especially one with paintings as potentially powerful as Picasso’s are. You have to put the work in.
It’s like going to the opera wearing earplugs.
There’s one particular picture that resonates with me, but I’m not sure why. I stare at is so long my audio-guide gives up. It resets back to start and asks me to select a language. Some paintings are too painful to look at for too long, others I stare at wide eyed, grinning like a small child given a chocolate ice-cream with sprinkles and a flake. I already have the feelings. The paintings just act as a map showing me how to feel. All I have to do is be there, with my mind in the present and without too much prior judgement.
I need that map. Sometimes I keep everything I feel so carefully walled in I get stuck trying to decipher how I actually feel.
Picasso’s paintings take you stage through stage of different aspects of emotion. Each one shows you something different about yourself.
How did I learn to stop and look like this? I know that my parents and grandparents taking me to galleries when I was small certainly helped. A little part is schooling, a practical understanding that there are different artists communicating the same messages of love and hurt but through different mediums, different techniques and different perspectives. Life drawing teaches you to focus on what it is that you really see, not just what you believe you see. I know that if I spend two hours staring at the same scene, I’ll see it differently to if you just take a quick glance.
And then there’s my paintings. When I’m just creating with no purpose other than the compulsion to do so, I find myself creating something that tells me more about how I feel that I had been willing to admit.
Other people use music or stories.
Yet despite taking the time to wait for a picture to talk to me, when the face is animate, when it’s a real person I’m looking at, my immediate assumptions dictate everything. I leap to conclusions and pretend to myself that I understand, which might well be a useful survival instinct, but when you’ve passed the ‘is this person intending to do me harm’ stage of analysis, these quick conclusions begin doing more harm than good.
Left long enough they begone ingrained as beliefs.
It’s impossible to understand all that a person’s face is fighting to tell and hide. You can live with them for many years, and still be stunned by how they behave. The Mother, for example, left my car radio on loud when I collected her from the station one afternoon recently. I would have bet a whole week of washing up on her turning it down. I was wrong.
Picasso can make the simplest construct of a few lines and some bright colours appear to have depth. It isn’t a false depth. It isn’t an illusion. People really aren’t all they appear at first sight. If you want to see depth, you have to be patient, even if it means eventually having to ask for help because your audio guide got bored.
I might be delirious.
On Monday I hit my head on the shelf by my desk. My head hurt, but I didn’t think too much of it. This was followed by a cold, which has been annoying. Tuesday came around and the combination of the lump on my head and the sneezing and sniffling mean I wasn’t feeling all that great.
Yet, I had an art class. And art classes don’t exactly come in cheap, so I drove to the village to join the small group of people to learn to draw or paint.
My art teacher has this amazing knack of saying nothing and yet conveying his message exactly. I imagine great psychologists and coaches have a similar way with words.
He works with the model to find a position that’s reasonably helpful to us students. He suggests to the man stood to my left that he’d get a good composition from the other side of the room. What he’s saying is that drawing the model from the angle that he’s currently at (mostly the model’s back) is going to be frustrating because the young woman is laying at such an angle that she doesn’t look entirely real.
Have you ever looked at a word you’ve written excessively and suddenly wondered why the spelling looks odd. When you’re drawing from a model, they start off looking human, and then become this peculiar amalgamation of shapes that feel like they aren’t quite real. Shoulders are just weird.
He looks at me, and tells me I’ll be fine.
I start painting, gouache, and our tutor wanders around asking questions like, “Which eye is higher from where you’re standing?” and saying useful things like “It’s a lovely long curve along the rib cage isn’t it.” Clear indicators that the eyes shouldn’t be level and the curve along the ribcage needs to be longer.
He says none of these things to me but looks at me and then at the painting and then at me again.
“You’ve used more paint today than all of the other weeks so far.”
I look at the mess on the paper in front of me. If he can see the shape of the human figure on the page then I’m impressed. I can’t identify anything human about it, and I painted it.
I continue painting.
“Why don’t you try a more fluid motion, like Catherine’s doing, with all that energy.”
I have to pause painting, because I’ve just had my painting technique used as an example and I’m in shock. I look back to the paper. It resembles a 5 year old’s painting, of a whirlwind done, with their toe.
I knock over the water pot and have to do a quick, silent panicked clean up. Feeling a little shaken, I add some red, and blue. If in doubt I add colour. I look back at the smooth skin of the Caucasian model and contemplate that I’m going to have to tone it all down quite a lot.
Sometime later, my art tutor asks what has happened to me. He’s looking at me as if my identical twin has come and taken the class instead of me. He seems flabbergasted. He wants to know what has caused a complete turn around in my painting style.
“It’s good.” he says.
I blink. These aren’t words I’ve heard him say before, at least not about my painting.
“10 minutes left.”
Whatever is left on the palette gets liberally applied to the paper, and then I stop. The model sits up and stretches. My tutor is standing behind me.
“Can I put it on the wall?”
I mumble “Yes.” I’m in shock. I don’t even have my phone with me so I have no way of taking a picture of the painting.
“I really like it. What you’ve done tonight.”
Shock I say, shock. I smile politely, whilst inside my mind’s dancing with elation.
I drive home, singing loudly to Taylor Swift (Holy Ground).
I get home and ring the Mother to tell her.
I tell the Boyfriend.
I’m so incredibly happy.
Then Wednesday happens. At some point, I bump my head on the shelf above my desk. I reach to feel the damage and blood sticks to my hand.
At some point I snapchat the Boyfriend a picture of the scar.
At some point I try to lower the whirly chair that’s by my desk whilst holding a cup of tea. It ends badly.
At some point I realise that I’m not entirely sure what I’m doing. I feel like a small child lost in a supermarket on Christmas eve.
At some point I call 111.
The Boyfriend arrives home and drives me to the doctors. The doctor asks me to count backwards from 100 in sevens.
“93,” pause, “86, 79” pause, “72, 60-, 65” I pause. Finally, on 44 she can stand it no longer.
“Hows your maths normally.”
“I have a physics degree.”
She diagnoses a concussion and suggests that I’ve probably had a concussion since Monday and I really really must do something about that shelf because I must not bang my head again. I shouldn’t be working, I can’t do sport, shouldn’t drive and I’ve got to take it easy.
The Boyfriend drives me home. I’m feeling a tad stupid.
And I’m worrying that my concussion was the cause of the artistic success.
[People with concussion can’t be blamed for not proofreading.]
Sometimes, people don’t change. By which I mean I’m sitting on the floor drawing pictures.
Today’s illustration is an adaption of ‘Red Sonja’ a.k.a. ‘She devil with a sword’. The original artist is some chap called Jim Lee.* I’ve never heard of him, but his illustration features in Stan Lee’s book on how to draw comics and ‘Red Sonja’ captures a certain momentum which I’m trying to mimic.
Action can be difficult to draw. Red Sonja appears to be the sort of woman who’s never caught standing still. If she did pause, she’d get very cold.Ten years ago, I spent rather a excessive amount of time drawing faces with Disney-like features. This excess has plagued me ever since. Unless I’m drawing from a picture or a model, every face I draw looks like a distant cousin of Belle. The real Red Sonja has an expression that suits the tag line ‘she devil with a sword’. Her eyes are proportionally grown woman rather than ginormous Disney eyes. Her face is angular, and her hair reminds me of the Pokemon Ponyta – but angrier.
Somehow, my Red Sonja looks more like she’s beating the dust out of a carpet than killing things. She’s sweeter and slower. I don’t know why. I’ve drawn her multiple times. I’ve given her this amazing long sword. Yet when my Red Sonja wakes up each morning, it’s going to be to the song of bluebirds.
Maybe it’s because I decided that she ought to at least wear a skirt. Or that I really couldn’t deal with each of her thighs having more muscle than both my legs combined.
In fact, if you just switched the sword for a wand…
*So after some research, Jim Lee is just one of many artists of Red Sonja, which explains why the Red Sonja on the following page to the one I was drawing didn’t look anything like the first. In fact I didn’t realise that there were three pages of Red Sonjas. The original artist, according to Wikipedia, was a chap called Barry Smith. His illustrations gave her clothes and less back ache. They didn’t last long.