Nau mai, haere mai, welcome to eyeCONTACT, a forum built to encourage art reviews and critical discussion about the visual culture of Aotearoa New Zealand. I'm John Hurrell its editor, a New Zealand writer, artist and curator. While Creative New Zealand and other supporters are generously paying me and other contributors to review exhibitions over the following year, all expressed opinions are entirely our own.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Forget watercolour

Simon Esling: Constructs
Anna Bibby
8 July - 2 August 2009

The ten A4 sized watercolour works Esling presents here (occasionally with collage) could be illustrations on pages for a book, they seem so consistent, so purposeful and loaded with intent – and not open in interpretative possibility, or surrealist. The presence of sinews or bone in most implies the artist has a narrative in mind, some sort of reading involving bodily, muscular sensations.

If this is so, perhaps making delicate illustrative watercolours is not the bravest way of approaching a phenomenological content, to think about the mover’s prioperception. Why not consider Robert Morris, or Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and make an installation an audience can directly experience? Make a practice that embodies a theory (literally and viscerally incorporating movement), rather than trying to picture it. Something working with agency, and not passive or detached.

About half of these works on paper are framed and under glass. The rest are positioned under suspended clip-boards, with no logic distinguishing the two. The artist is sending out contradictory signals because frames and glass mean 'hands off' and clip-boards imply you can remove from the clip if you so wish.

There are also two sorts of image. One is collage-based and integrated spatially so that the picture plane and different depths of field lock in well together. The other has shallow and deep spaces awkwardly juxtaposed so that the transitions across edges are abrupt and jarring. Often there are images of trucks or planes as symbols for human bodily motion.

I don’t think this show is an aesthetic success but I admire its consistency and quality of exploration. There is a sense of a mind at work testing different symbols or codes with different illusory spaces. However the work is hampered by the restrictions of illustration, which it needs to abandon in order to be much more immersive. If only artist and audience could start wallowing in real space, to be consciously considering that, and aware of itself consciously considering that.


Simon Esling said...

Hi John,

I feel your review of my current show warrants some discussion. First off, you acknowledge there is intent in my work but almost entirely dismiss any ‘serious’ intent by suggesting they are like book illustrations (yes, I have taken this as pejorative, akin to calling them decorative). Then you say they are “not open in interpretive possibility.” Straight away your ‘critical review’ will not attempt to engage with the works and their content. And sure enough, by the next paragraph you’re suggesting what art forms I could, or should, pursue in order to successfully engage with whatever-it-is-I’m-doing.

I have been drawing a combination of architecture, anatomy and militaria for several years now. Is there nothing that you can read between these elements? No room for interpretation? I have noted your interest in installation art, and can understand that this may be a preference in terms of what engages you, but I wonder if you could not cast your interpretive mind (that is clearly capable of drawing together disparate everyday objects and reflecting upon them lyrically) onto the picture-plane of a suite of drawings and a suite of collages; and since when were two forms of artwork in one exhibition a necessary contradiction?

I see my drawings as schemata. But perhaps I need to publish a manifesto of sorts; to be more declarative (I do mean this genuinely, not facetiously). I understand from your review that the aesthetics of the works are jarring to you; fractious perhaps? Unsettling? You are almost talking about the actual work here. But then you turn around and measure their success (or clearly their failure) against the fact that they’re NOT an installation. This to me undermines the credibility of your review. I say this because you almost get what I’m doing: “There is a sense of a mind at work testing different symbols or codes with different illusory spaces.” But then you undermine this insight by bemoaning the (supposed) limitations of drawing in favour of an “immersive” installation.

The irony of all this is that I’m currently accumulating the resources and objects required to make a significant installation. So what has probably irritated me most about this review is the fact that you have deemed it necessary to suggest how I should go about doing things and thus pre-empting whatever it is that is unfolding in my studio anyway. I don’t think reviews should suggest how artists go about doing things… It is more insightful and respectful to critique the work at hand and, if need be, in relation to past works or similar forms of art.

Kind Regards,


John Hurrell said...

You write a damn good letter, Simon. I know I’m irritating; I’m proud of it – I see my role as a catalyst, not to win friends. I want to shake the tree a little.

So what shall we talk about? First of all, is not the ‘illustrative’ component a crucial part of your content, that the work is being shown as pages to be looked at? The word is accurate is it not? I was being descriptive, not being snide. As it happens some watercolour I really like and some installation I loathe. It was your treatment of space that grated with my own slightly modernist pictorial sensibility. I believe in an integrated picture plane. Some sort of spatial unity.

You obviously see your images as transparent codes that can be easily deciphered like a rebus, that that process and a resulting ‘correct’ conclusion is what they are ‘about’. That you can control the reading of your practice and that there is a right way and a wrong way. No ‘death of the author / birth of the reader’ rubbish for you, eh? Well I’d impulsively say ‘dream on’ but I vaguely sympathise. Perhaps there is a very apparent semantic structure that most people notice, not just the artist and his pals?

With the two separate modes of presentation, how do I know that you didn’t decide at some point to cut costs and use clipboards instead of framing? Is there a consistent logic within the imagery of each type that I missed? Something obvious? It is possible.

I agree though with your main point. I did go too far with the installation suggestion but there was a rationale behind it and besides, I’m pleased you responded. However criticism is not just about interpretation. Saying something should be done in such and such a way is part of it. Don’t blame me however if I have second-guessed some exhibition strategy or game plan. That just means I am observant. Once you open the doors to your show, all the material you present on those walls comes under speculation.

Simon Esling said...

Ok, it might be splitting hairs to want to refer to my work as technical drawing rather than illustration. But perhaps your terminology in this regard is apt, suggesting that they resist a conceptual reading because the overall expression is too refined, too graphic – thus more like illustrations elucidating a text than technical/architectural drawings inviting contemplation. In the past I have floated my imagery on a white void, like a sterile laboratory table, that has allowed for a close reading of the combined elements as fluid concepts. But then this brings us to the idea of pictorial space.

So I’ve moved from a neutral white background to coloured washes and geometric forms without going so far as to create a true pictorial space (i.e. horizon lines and/or landscapes). This has been a conscious decision on my part. I have been wary of creating such imagery because, ironically enough, I’ve not wanted my drawings to be read in terms of authorial illustrations, or as having a pictorial narrative.

Of course there are no ‘correct’ conclusions to my work (and obviously no transparent codes or we wouldn’t be having this discussion) but, yes, I do believe there is/are enough semantic structure(s) in each work to engage a viewer and draw them into some compelling thought processes (irrespective of what I might have had in mind when I made the work). I do control the drawing process, no denying this, but no artist can presume to control the viewer. Perhaps I control the work too much? Making it visually restrictive? But then I am also resisting the temptation to (self-consciously) lay claim to conceptual authenticity through (ironic) slap-dash image-making.

You have my word that the use of clipboards was a formal decision, not monetary, and, as you rightly noted, the intention was to make the collages more like objects: removable and changeable. Even the uncontrollable way the paper buckles from the glue makes them more interesting as objects (to my eyes at least). Finally, there is most certainly consistent imagery between the two modes of presentation: Look with your eyes John, not your body. And rest assured, I’ll get to ‘immersive installation’ when I’m good and ready.



John Hurrell said...

I wonder if there are other readers who have seen this show? Is Simon convincing in his distinction involving clipboards -or is he deluded?

What of the works in the windows with an extra layer of glass? How would you read those?

gnute said...

I very much enjoyed this exhibition.

That half the show is displayed on clipboards did not give me the impression that the artist ran out of money for framing, because these works are markedly different from the framed ones. (By the way, John, the framed works are not A4-sized as you write in your review; only the clipboard works are, which further differentiates the two series.) For one, they are collages done on what appear to be 'found' pages from an architecture magazine, so they seem to be working drawings, or perhaps finished works intentionally made to look like thinking tools. Yeah, the clipboards slightly overstate that concept, but I have no problem with these drawings sharing the same space as the framed paintings. However, I did think the two clipboard works displayed in the window are too small for viewing from the street.

What interests me more in Esling's work is the formal plays within the images, and I would have appreciated in a review of this exhibition a discussion on Esling's visual codes. Sometimes they downright boggle me, such as the weird DPM-like patterns appearing here and there. And the Kino-Eye painting is just plain bizarre. I don't seek any deep meaning in the mix of regularly appearing imagery, and immediately read most of them as visual games - the show is titled 'constructs', after all. Still, would've been interesting for me to find out other people's take on the images.

The pieces I enjoy most are the ones where he plays with the idea of weight: the implied weight of certain objects often play against flat, geometric planes: a house balancing on two flatly-rendered rectangles, for eg, in 'Haunch'. A house on its side. A steamtrain balanced on a billow of cloud ('Greenhouse').

There's also this recurring theme of truncation: the billowing cloud, for eg, is abruptly cut. So are the sinews in 'Haunch'. But mostly I think he truncates the viewer's expectations of what is supposed to happen. In that sense, I find a lot of the works playful and humorous. I get the feeling the artist is not taking himself too seriously, and I really like that. (I mean, a flying bone house??)

Thank you, John & Simon, for your discussion.

gnute said...

^^That was me

Lydia Chai

John Hurrell said...

Good to hear from you once more, Gnute.