Michelle Ramin | in real life

Michelle Ramin, 'Mona Lisa IRL' [Oil on Canvas, 26" x 38", 2016]

Michelle Ramin won the San Francisco Bay Guardian 2014 Goldie Award for Excellence in Visual Art. She has exhibited her paintings in San Francisco, New York, Portland, Nashville, New Orleans, and in the UK. She was born in North Central Pennsylvania and currently lives and works in San Francisco. Ramin studied at Penn State University and received an MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute. Her work has appeared in New American Paintings, SF Chronicle, SF Weekly, Beautiful Decay, 580 Split, and is included in the Jimenez-Colon permanent collection in Puerto Rico. A solo exhibition of Ramin’s work opened at the Duplex Gallery in Oregon on 2 June 2016.


Williams: I was in the Louvre probably decades before you, and before the space in which the ‘Mona Lisa’ is hung was renovated. Nothing important about the experience appears to have changed. There were no ‘smartphones’ then, but there were lots of cameras. A large group of people, which seemed to be moving as a pack from room to room, ignored every other picture in the Denon wing. Your painting, ‘Mona Lisa IRL’, does a number of interesting things with this scene, which must now be familiar to most tourists who visit Paris. To my mind, the most important thing you do is confidently announce that paintings are as good or better than photographs at contemplating our now surreal relationship with images and art. The virtual ‘Mona Lisa’, one we might see on the Louvre website, is somehow more real than the ‘Mona Lisa’ in real life.

Michelle Ramin
Michelle Ramin

Ramin: Yeah, I think that’s interesting—the idea of the ‘Virtual Mona Lisa’ vs. Mona Lisa ‘IRL’. She’s more famous as a replicated digital or printed image than as an actual painting. When I got into the room, I kinda stopped caring about the painting itself. In that moment, I was able to check it off my tourist list of things to see. I didn’t get very close and could honestly barely make out that it was the ‘Mona Lisa’, except for the huge crowd around her. It mattered to me more to be experiencing the way in which people experience her rather than getting close to the actual painting and observing the brush strokes, colors used, composition, size, etc. I studied all of that in school but all that knowledge didn’t mean a thing when I got into that room. It was then that I realised I wanted my next body of work to be about crowds of people observing famous pieces of art. It’s interesting to me that some people find the need to check certain famous pieces off of a list—as in the Louvre brochure—while others spend minutes or sometimes hours studying the same piece. It’s like this at concerts, too, and other cultural institutions and happenings. Something about hype and fame—the bragging rights involved—that really draws people, but perhaps for the wrong reasons. Then again, who am I to judge how people should and should not experience something?

Williams: Digital photography has become the standard method of certifying experience in a way that seems more reliable and objective than memory… until the drive fails or your cloud is hacked. Your paintings of subjects inside the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay are also about the spectacle of art and the hype surrounding it. To experience this as a tourist or art lover is one thing, but artists experience the spectacle and hype of the art world in a different way, as I suspect you are finding now you have several exhibitions of your own coming up.

Ramin: Hype is a very real and intimidating phenomenon, especially now with the advent of social media. As young as I am (thirty-four), I still remember the days without computers, cell phones, internet, etc. Word of mouth and the printed word were the only way to get information out there. Now, there are so many ways—so many websites, blogs, apps, etc.—I can’t keep up, nor do I want to. The popular way to virtually socialise changes constantly. A week out from the opening of my solo exhibition ‘Jet Lag’, at Duplex Gallery in Portland, Oregon, and I find myself full of anxiety over whether or not I sent press releases to the right people. Who are the ‘right’ people? Even a few years ago, it was so much clearer. All I’ve been seeing this week is an ocean of faceless art blogs and Instagram accounts. I find myself feeling very much like I did in the congested museums of Paris—alone in a crowded room, and very overwhelmed. This is all part of the process, of course. The art making is the easy part for an artist. It’s everything else that is so difficult.

Williams: The recent gallery paintings are unusual in your body of work because they have not edited out the architecture and environment of the subjects. In much of your other work, for example ‘Ben and Travis Find a Tube’ [Watercolor on Paper, 22″ x 30″, 2015], the setting is missing and only the subject and action is left. Something that may have started out being a photograph or a memory, or both, ends up being a pictorial distillation. Can you tell me something about your editorial process, about how you decide what gets left in and what gets cut out, about how you decide what your real subject matter is?

Ramin: I’ve always been a very focused person. I have a tendency to focus so much on one thing that I miss all the details surrounding the thing. Most of my work over the past five years has been intentionally editing out the background or surroundings of the figures—mostly because I, myself, only really cared about the subjects and their actions. The rest seemed superfluous. I wanted the viewers to see what I was seeing, which was the interaction and relationships between the figures, and nothing else. My newest body of work is about something a little different—still about people, their interactions with each other, but also their interaction with the unique space that constitutes a museum. There’s so much weight to a museum—historically, of course, but also architecturally. It’s contextually important for me to include this unique environment in the paintings. I didn’t want to introduce backgrounds again until I knew for sure it provided something important and relevant to the works’ content.

Williams: Some of your other projects, from 2011 and 2012—the installations ‘Mask Booth’ and ‘Try it on’—appear to invite or challenge people to try on something that in Australia we call a ‘balaclava’. It makes everyone look like a criminal, or like they’re on a polar expedition. What is this about?

Ramin: When I was in graduate school, I took up the mask, or balaclava, as a multi-layered, politically-charged symbol representing various identities. I used this metaphor as a way to discuss hidden identities, subcontexts, in each of our personalities. By putting on the mask, one takes on a new and very different identity. The body of work relating to masks centered around private vs. public personas and the existence of this doubling in everyone. This theme can be extended to include social media personas and public branding as well. At the time, 2011–2012, the Occupy Movement in the Bay Area was ramping up, the punk band Pussy Riot was very active politically and the film ‘Spring Breakers’ had come out. When I began the mask series, these cultural icons weren’t present, but by the time I was in the midst of the series they were. A form of the collective unconscious, I suppose. It seemed like the balaclava was on everyone’s minds, so it felt like a very relevant representation of that moment, especially following the 2008 recession and being an election year here in the U.S.

Williams: Yes, and by the time this zeitgeist filters through to your watercolor and pencil drawings, something else has happened. The hidden, masked self is perfectly domesticated and comfortable on the sofa. ‘Three aliases’ [Colored Pencil on Paper, 22 x 30 inches, 2011] is both funny and disturbing.

Artists have to be concerned about what other people think. At one end of the spectrum it’s ‘Will they like my work?’, and at the other it’s ‘Will they understand what it means?’ Are you a worrier? Are you on the side of authenticity or on the side of sincerity?

Ramin: I am absolutely a worrier! —In all aspects of my life. At this point in my career I care very much about what people think and how the work will be received. I want it to be accessible to everyone but I also want it to function on a higher level, where artists, critics, historians, etc., can gather more information from the work. I don’t want to choose sides. I want it all, really. Doesn’t everyone?

Williams: Maybe. The path we take to get to where we are seems less important at the start than when you get to near the end. That’s the difference between being thirty-four and fifty-eight.

We’ve touched on how technology now mediates how we experience art. This means that art is made by people who have seen more art than ever before. What have you been looking at recently? What have you discovered?

Ramin: The last art I went to see was at the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) and California College of the Arts (CCA) MFA thesis exhibitions. They are the annual displays of graduate students’ work. I love checking out the work of emerging artists coming out of graduate art programs. A lot of the work is missing steps but some is extraordinary. There’s such a refreshing feeling to young (in career, not necessarily age) artists’ work: the best of the showings can be invigorating and inspiring, like Laura Rokas and Robin Crofut-Brittingham. The worst is still really intriguing because it’s candid in its failure: no censorship, just letting it all hang out. I appreciate that on a lot of levels. That’s what graduate school is for… Experimentation and failure: something that should be encouraged more in post-graduate work and, honestly, in our daily lives.

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Welcome, Arjun! (Park the elephant anywhere.)

Among the people who have tried to arrive in Australia by boat in the last few decades were probably many, whatever their religion, who knew all the details of this story already, and knew its lessons …


Krishna reveals his universal form to Arjuna.
Krishna reveals his universal form to Arjuna.

Every Friday night Sebastian comes around for dinner and drinks. Last Friday he asked if he could invite Arjun to call in, late, and join us. I had not met Arjun before. I thought for a moment, trying to recall the name in the Bhagavad Gita. It has been a long time since I read it. A very long time. “Yes… Is it as in ‘Arjuna’?”

Sebastian sent the agreed-upon text message to Arjun’s phone… “Park the elephant anywhere. I’ll come out to show you in.” —As though anyone with a modern Hindu name would turn up for drinks on an elephant.

Arjun arrived later than expected. He had been to an exhibition and the art was ‘experimental’. “I went with an artist who tried to explain it to me. Apparently it starts off being a painting, and then it gets turned into a print, and then it’s projected. There were videos, too.” So, we talked about art.

Every long friendship is a secret place, a bolthole that is also a hall of mirrors where language, laughter and identity reflect on each other. We tell politically incorrect jokes about gays, women, blacks, politics, and then quickly straighten ourselves, pretending to worry that someone might be listening at the window or that there is a microphone hidden under the table. These jokes, to be fair, are often at our own expense. No-one gets out alive.

Blacks call each other ‘nigger’. Gays take back ownership of ‘queer’ and ‘faggot’. But in our colonial outpost at the end of Asia, surrounded on all sides by water, Muslims, Hindus, Maoris and ice, people who look and speak like ‘foreigners’—non-Anglo, non-Euro foreigners—are still having a gruesome time.

It is not difficult to perceive a shrill panic in Australian language in 2015. Online newspapers are stuffed full of (mostly) anonymous complaints about fake refugees. “Surely everyone knows that the countries refugees want to live in are white countries.” “The refugee convention does not guarantee that refugees can only be resettled in the wealthy country of their choosing. Yet, many refugees seem to want only to come to Australia and reject safe harbor in other countries.” And so on. Genuinely racist urges are easily camouflaged with concern that we should not allow refugees to drown at sea.

Australia has developed a heap of festering prejudices. “Why do these people have to come here.” “They’ve spoiled their own countries,” “ruined their own cultures with religious wars.” “We don’t want that sort of thing here.” “There are Muslim countries they can go to. Why don’t they go there?” “The Indian student who faked an attack on himself.” “Oh, God, they’ve taken over the Seven-Eleven stores…” “Asians. I think they’re aliens. I mean really aliens. From outer space.” 

I like to think I know a thing or two about art, but the truth is I do not know very much at all. Asian art, for example, is a mystery to me. I think I am not alone. All the Catholic and Christian stuff I have down pat, rehearsing it since childhood. To my deeply prejudicial frame of mind, Muslim art is easy: they don’t like images. What’s next? Ah, the Hindus: statues with many heads and way too many arms. I have no idea what it means.

What does it mean? I acknowledge it simply as a symbol of exotic excess. Those asian artists, you know, they just do not know when to stop. And there appear to be different versions of the same thing: one is a Krishna, the other a Shiva; some of them are dancing and some not. It’s all just too complicated—and alien.

Properly motivated, it does not take long to find out what it means.

With apologies to Hindus who may be offended by a clumsy contraction of several million words into these few paragraphs…

Hindus, like Catholics, believe in a god who transcends everything in time and space. Brahma is the supreme god of creation (alongside Vishnu the preserver and Shiva the destroyer—making the Hindu trinity). It is Brahma who is the father of Manu, from whom all human beings descend.

The central, though not by a long way the oldest, texts of Hinduism are the Mahabharata and Ramayana. Composition of both began around 400 BCE, and the texts finalised around 400 CE. The Mahabharata is the great story of the ‘Bharata’ dynasty—a history of the contest for accession between the Pandava princes and the Kaurava princes. At the core of the story is the recounting of the Kurukshetra war in which the armies of the branches of the dynasty fight each other. (In this and all the other Hindu texts, the ‘story’ is accompanied by much philosophical and devotional material.)

The Mahabharata is the longest verse epic in world literature. While the centrepiece of the poem is the description of the eighteen day battle, the Mahabharata also contains, just before the battle begins, one of the key texts of Hinduism—the Bhagavad Gita.

Arjuna, the Pandava prince, arrives in a chariot to the place where the Kurukshetra war is to start. Krishna, in human form (he is the eighth incarnation of Vishnu), is Arjuna’s charioteer. Arjuna looks at the army opposing him and is paralysed by the thought that many of the people there are beloved members of his family and his teachers.

Arjuna asks Krishna for his advice. Krishna does not hold back. He tells Arjuna his duty and reminds him that there is no point delaying taking action. The fate of the Kaurava princes is already determined—by Krishna himself.

To prove his point, Krishna reveals his universal form to Arjuna. This is the moment (chapter 11, verses 10 and 11) we see depicted in the paintings of the (often blue) deity with many heads and many arms. Krishna sees everywhere, and his hands guide everything in the universe.

Arjuna’s dialogue with Krishna is crucially important to Hindus—personally, culturally and politically. It is a narrative about fate, courage, the necessity for action, and the role of heroism in personal and social life. Its influence runs deep in Hindu culture. Political leaders, past and present, including Mohandas Gandhi, interpreted the narrative of the Bhagavad Gita to clarify their own ideas and actions.

Careful readers will have noted that Arjuna does not arrive on an elephant.

Among the people who have tried to arrive in Australia by boat in the last few decades were probably many, whatever their religion, who knew all the details of this story already, and knew its lessons. It takes some courage to get into a wooden boat and try to cross hundreds of miles of ocean, does it not?

I understand there are many Australians who believe there is an imperative to preserve life; to keep straight the lines and the lengthening queues of people wanting to come here; and perhaps even to sort through those queues for the kinds of people we would prefer.

Australia is filling up with believers who are concerned to do the right thing.

Speaking only for myself, I have decided that it is not necessary to pretend to judge whether someone is actually a refugee. I do not believe we should pretend it is moral to punish someone who seeks a better life with alienation, abuse and rape; and to promise it will be punishment without relief.

I cannot promise it will make any sense to you because I hardly understand it myself: the story of Arjuna is about how to act, and the need to act, even though we are quite certain that no matter what we do we will cause suffering. These ideas are permanent and universal. They were the same in Asia two thousand years ago as they are now in Greece or Italy.

At around the same time that the Mahabharata was being composed, on the other side of the world, a bronze statue of a boxer was being created. This statue was unearthed on the Quirinal Hill in Rome in 1885 by the archaeologist Rodolfo Lanciani. The bronze has copper inlays that make the flesh of the boxer look bruised. When the figure was cast the sculptor took a chisel to his work and gouged scars in its face.

The creators of the Mahabharata and the statue of the seated boxer were both trying to tell us something about human suffering and heroic action.

Statue of a seated boxer, 3rd century BCE, Palazzo Massimo. Photograph by F Tronchin (2007).
Statue of a seated boxer, 3rd century BCE, Palazzo Massimo. Photograph by F Tronchin (2007).


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Cry babies and bloggers

Jill Greenberg slagged off the bloggers. They apparently have too much time on their hands, because why else would anyone, looking at the photos in her latest exhibition, End Times, at the Paul Kopeikin Gallery on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, reach the conclusion that she was a monster who had abused the children who were her subjects?

Thomas Hawk thought she should be arrested and charged with child abuse. Jeremiah McNichols weighed in then from a visual arts perspective.

The curator, Paul Kopeikin, is complaining about the hate mail and Greenberg has made it all the way to BBC podcasts in what is, without any doubt, an advertising coup for her exhibition and her career as an artist. At last—she can now breathe a sigh of relief—she is famous, and her photographs are, if Kopeikin’s suggestions can be believed, walking out the door. And there won’t be any police enquiries into child abuse—not unless there are some facts we don’t yet know about, or perhaps the parents of the cry babies have some startling revelation about the unauthorised use of electrodes.

Greenberg pointed out in interviews broadcast by the BBC that babies cry all the time, at the drop of a hat, so to speak, and stop crying just as quickly. Babies cry, she told us, because lollypops have been taken away from them. In fact, that is how she got many of the babies in her photographs to blubber: she took their lollies away from them. When that didn’t work, and some other method was needed, the childrens’ parents were taken out of the room.

Before looking closely at these photographs—they claim to be art, after all, so we must look closely at them—there is one more thing I think it is important to note about this exhibition: Jill Greenberg has already told us what it means. I heard her talking about the meaning of the photographs before I had seen them. When she reminded me that children cry very easily, I felt sympathy for her position immediately. (She is being accused of child abuse, which is a serious thing to say about anyone.) The most striking thing about the conversation with her, though, was her completely straightforward manner in informing me what the meaning of the photographs was.

Jill Greenberg wants to show us how upset these two and three year old children would be if they “realised the world they would inherit” (BBC Radio Newspod 27/7/2006). She feels upset, herself, about the environmental policies of George Bush, and is ‘depicting’ this distress through pictures of children that are upset. Greenberg has two children herself, a one year old and a three year old, so, naturally, she’s been thinking about these issues. The photographs were taken with the permission and co-operation of the children’s’ mothers; so there seems to be no question that, if Jill Greenberg was abusing these children, we are bound to hear about it from someone closer to the crime than the bloggers who want to put Greenberg away. Greenberg takes several swipes at the bloggers, saying of them that they obviously have too much time on their hands, that they hide behind a screen of anonymity, and have been careless with her reputation while putting nothing of their own at risk. (Or words to that effect.)

The question of the treatment of the subjects during the photographic session threatens to derail the stated artistic objective of the pictures, possibly because the stated artistic objective of the photographs is weak. It really is striking and ironic that in an age of very sophisticated understanding of art theory it should seem acceptable that a photographer-artist tells us what her photographs mean. Possibly it is just because we do not have direct access to the intentions of artists that they must now tell us what they mean. It is even stranger, really, that having heard what the photographer tells me the photographs mean, I don’t believe her—and, actually, I think, the meaning of the pictures is, at least as stated, more than a little bit silly. Greenberg cuts the legs from under the theorem she posits about her own pictures by immediately attempting to demystify the childrens’ apparent agonies. Children will cry about anything, and can cry almost all the time, so we shouldn’t be worried. Greenberg took their lollies away from them and, if that didn’t work, she took their mothers away from them.

In truth, we are being asked to suspend our disbelief for a little while, and consider what a child might do, how a child might behave, if it had an understanding of its parent’s generation was doing to the world in which it had to live. Very specifically, the meaning of the photographs is a kind of joke: this is how we should react, Jill Greenberg seems to be saying to us, when we hear that the American military apparatus is torturing prisoners in Guantanamo Bay; and the appearance of the crying child in the photograph entitled ‘Torture’ is merely the weak, almost irrelevant, punch-line of the joke. We look at the poor girl’s face, the corner of her mouth falling off her face, and read the title—’Torture’ or whatever is underneath the next photograph on the wall—the same lame joke repeating itself over and over again.

It’s very strange, then, to be confronted with both a claim about the photographs in End Times and an obvious truth about the same photographs that are completely incompatible.

The children in End Times are presented to us in much the same way as the apes of Greenberg’s previous exhibition. Each child seems to be positioned carefully in front of a bluish, neutral screen, lit so that it is whiter at the centre. The children are lit like commercial objects, their skin and hair displaying a tremendously effective sheen, as though they’ve really been polished up for presentation to the camera. Some of the children have great rivers of tears flowing down their cheeks. Some look a bit dry. They are all, of course, without their lollies or mothers, a bit emotional; and Greenberg appears to have done a good job capturing the great variety of expressions that have enabled her to label the photographs so creatively. I can’t say that I laughed out loud when I read the titles, so perhaps the titles are meant to be amusing in the ‘Oh, that is deep, yes, how could anyone disagree with those sentiments’ sense, rather than the ‘O, God, please make it stop—I’m laughing so much it hurts’ sense. Greenberg has managed to keep the children positioned for the camera with great effectiveness, just as she did with the apes. Perhaps there is a technique she hasn’t let on? Were they (the kiddies or the apes) restrained in some way?

Most importantly, the sympathetic impulse one feels when seeing these pictures is qualitatively no different to the impulse one feels when seeing any child cry. There is nothing in the photographs about the state of the planet’s ecology, about the betrayal of public trust. Nothing whatsoever. There is just the title, hanging limply off the bottom of the image.

The children in End Times do not look like they are contemplating a terrifying legacy or some ineluctable, depressing future. Actually, they look like young children who have been bitch-slapped by a photographer. They look like exactly what they are.

Just in case you haven’t caught my drift, here is a truly disturbing photograph, taken in 1990 by James Nachtwey, of a child confined to a filthy cot in a Romanian orphanage for ‘incurables’:

Child in a Romanian orphanage, photograph by James Nachtwey (1990).
Child in a Romanian orphanage, photograph by James Nachtwey (1990).

There is tremendous artfulness in this picture; all of which has been put to the service of underlining the horror of its subject’s predicament.

Looking at a picture of this kind, we do not sense that there is any trail of evidence leading from the child’s cry to the photographer. The photographer is irrelevant. Instead, we immediately find ourselves standing in the place of the camera, while very basic impulses rush to the front of our minds.


More:

Multiple monotypes: Riccardo Angelo [exhibition September 2005]

Modern art, art critics, and bad artists, are obsessed with the ‘new’. What else is there? Well, there’s the history of techniques, for a start …


Exhibition catalogue (→ PDF opens in new tab)

Riccardo Angelo‘s art seems very accessible when he paints identifiable figures and poses, but inaccessible when his private thoughts and knack for surrealism take over the imagery. The theory, popular amongst critics of literature, that ‘the author is dead’ means that we do not have access to the intentions of artists. It is an idea that attempts to dislodge artists from the centre of their own work. It may be an effect of that dislodgement that art dealers—auction houses and galleries—encourage us to think of artists as in or out of fashion and, themselves, engaged in a struggle to stand for a while at the head of an advance guard. It is to everyone’s advantage that some artists appear to be at the cutting edge of taste, where investments will show a good return, and it is also completely irrelevant to the artwork.

Art criticism has a long list of well-worn words that are useful support critical claims to seriousness, and often before such claims to seriousness are warranted. Artists learn at art school and sometimes remain in the habit of obscuring what they know with what they learned.

It is a curious thing that the art world, the public language of visual artists, is saturated with artistic “intentions”. “What I mean by this is…” “In this picture I was trying to achieve…” “This is a painting about…” “So-and-so is trying to…” We lap up the intentions of painters in a way that we would find intolerable with, say, novelists.

However, I can not reconcile this effect with the knowledge that no artist I know talks to me about their art that way. (This, I have to admit, may simply show how I made the world I live in!) The more closely I get to know an artist, the less the conversation is about the apparent content and motive of the work than about the struggle to make it—about techniques, methods, materials, errors, frustrations and experiments.

This all amounts to saying that the artist’s history of art is very different to the art critic’s history of art. This is a fact worth noting. To an artist, the history of art is principally the history of the mastery of techniques and the struggle with materials: what is passed on, what is forgotten, what remembered, what can be seen or inferred from the surface of a painting and what must be imagined, what is discovered and what has to be re-invented, what he can do and what he cannot do. No-one who has spent any time with artists, listened to their conversations, and shared their practical daily concerns about their work, could deny that this is a basic truth about being an artist.

In this context, I think that Riccardo Angelo’s Nineteen monotypes exhibition was a litmus test of how to look at art, since its subject was not only the familiar figures that filled up the white space of the paper the monotypes are printed on, but also the technique itself. The nineteen monotypes were made specifically to draw attention to how they were made, and to the fact that the process of making them involved various, sometimes unexpected, stages of work.

The monotypes

Monotypes, as the name implies, should be one of a kind. Ink is applied to a plate that can be made of metal or glass, and may be flexible or rigid. The ink may be drawn on the plate; or painted on; or painted on, then rubbed and scratched off to make negative details. Plate and paper come together, sometimes, though not necessarily, in a press (a burnishing tool will suffice for some variations of the technique). The paper is peeled off the plate to reveal the image. The plate is wiped clean and the process starts again. Degas was a master maker of monotypes and he invented several distinctive variations of the technique, including making further images off the already used plate and hand-coloring the fainter second impressions. The beautifully luminous dancers’ tutus in Degas’ monotypes were made by first rubbing solid black ink on the plate and then rubbing away the ink with brushes and cloths to leave a blank area in the form of a white dress.

Riccardo Angelo’s nineteen monotypes were exhibited at a small, fine art gallery in Melbourne in September 2005. Angelo has made hundreds of these monotypes, usually in groups of about six to twenty. They are all organised by date. They do not have titles. The titles of the nineteen monotypes, taken randomly from superficially appropriate passages of the book of Genesis, were added to the monotypes at the request of the gallery director. The dates tell the viewer that some of the nineteen monotypes were made months before many of the others. Most, according to the dates, were made on a few days around the middle of December 2004.

First impressions: the meaning of ‘monotypes’

A monotype is one of a kind. However, the technique of making them encourages an artist to experiment with how the ink is applied and removed, repeating patterns, shapes and content in evolving sequences. Almost all monotypes are an instance of an evolving process and, of course, sometimes, failed prints are thrown away.

Many of the pictorial elements of the whole exhibition are in these first monotypes, made in August 2004. Birds. Wings. A squatting child. A snake. Two figures kissing. A figure kneeling, legs forming the shape of an inverted ‘V’.

In exhibition, the prints are not presented in any particular order. The first impression is confusing. Few viewers appear to spend more than seconds in front of each of the prints. You may look at the details of any print and become lost it its suggestiveness—the ‘drawing’ that forms the basis of the prints is apparently wild, undisciplined, free. Indeed, it is hard to imagine how it would be possible to control the materials to produce a fine effect: the viscous ink, brushes and glass are not ideal instruments with which to draw. Angelo is an excellent draftsman, but his abilities don’t appear, at first viewing, to be on show here.

It is only when viewing the prints from a distance and as a group that revealing patterns begin to appear.

Techniques and variations

Why do many of the monotypes present us with a figure that has fallen to its knees to form an inverted ‘V’ shape with its legs? Man, woman, dog, and creature—they are all the same—all reduced to the same pitiful position. The supplicant, bowed shapes of all living creatures in this world, Angelo seems to be saying, should tell us about something they all share. It is hard to pin down what he might be referring to. Most of the monotypes have some explicitly sexual content, but they are definitely not erotic. It is not even, really, a human theme. In the world of these drawings, man and dog suffer in the same way, men and women are equally exposed, and all nature becomes part of the muddled, expressive, psychological moment of the work and of the exhibition.

Then there are the groups of two or three monotypes that belie the individuality of the print process. It is clear from these prints that Angelo does not always clean the glass plate he uses before beginning work on the next impression. He reworks an image he has already made by making new layers of ink stick to the half-dried layers underneath, and he adds new details.

The monotype process produces unique prints, but Angelo has rediscovered something that Degas knew: the plate, whether flexible metal or inflexible glass (other materials can be used), becomes an anchor that keeps the work on theme. The plate remembers the structure and some of the details of the drawing, and always provides a useful departure point for the next drawing, if one is needed. The process itself is also telling us that the work is not random; not as random as we first thought.

These three prints demonstrate something different. Between one print and another the details may change dramatically, but the underlying structure of the picture can remain the same. On the right hand side of the three prints there is a group of trees, or a tree. On the left hand side: a much larger tree, a female figure (perhaps like a sphinx), and a child’s face with its mouth open, crying. Of course, there are birds, beaks, animals and snakes everywhere, making it difficult to see these figures. Look at the prints for a while and you begin to realise that deep patterns have repeated themselves.

The next two prints reveal another variation in the technique.

The second print is a reverse print of the first. This means that the second print must somehow have been printed from the first print, or the image reversed on the plate and re-printed.

What does it all mean?

One of the reasons I wanted to write about this exhibition, and why I wanted to publish a permanent record in print of these nineteen monotypes, is that it allows me to discuss an unresolved question about the relationship between artists and their critics. I include in ‘artists’ all kinds of artists, though I realise that, increasingly, it is used to refer only to visual artists.

So much of what one reads about art is shallow, ideological or self-serving. Is there an appropriate way to write about art at all? I’m not really sure. I would align myself with Susan Sontag, if anyone. I am not interested in producing another interpretation, but in what I see and in transmitting some of that excitement about what is visible.

This is, itself, a philosophical manoeuvre, of course. An ‘interpretation’ cannot avoid being, at some level, an attempt to master and comprehensively remake the art it is talking about. Interpretations come to stand for the works of art themselves. There is nothing intrinsically wrong about that. In fact, in life as in art, an interpreter is exactly what we need sometimes.

However, it is undeniable, I think, that certain critical ‘positions’ or theories seek to remove artists from a privileged relationship to their own work. The effect is strange. The public discussion of art is carried on as though art itself were an ‘effect’ or by-product of the history of ideas. Artists are made to line up while an -ism is pinned to their lapels. At some point the unreality of it may strike you as itself meaningful.

Riccardo Angelo’s Nineteen monotypes exhibition invited us to view ourselves in the act of looking, and to notice how many of the artist’s intentions and meanings could be traced from one moment to the next.

Doubtful knowledge: recent paintings by Shane Jones, 1999–2001

Drawing falls and folds of cloth has been a standard exercise for student artists in their teachers’ studios. Along with perspective, chiaroscuro, flesh, and hundreds more particular painterly ‘rules’, mastering this painting exercise is a foundation of depicting human reality. Without it, it would be impossible to present any image of a man or woman in his or her social reality. It is not only the depiction of our clothing that the painter has to master—the space in which it appears, the volume it contains, the sources of light playing on its infinitely varied surfaces. There are also beds, furniture, curtains, and all the rest.

Shane Jones was apprenticed to the depiction of reality in paintings for twenty years before his own peculiar ‘take’ on realism began to emerge in his work. Virtually all the early paintings—still lives, street scenes, rooms and objects—have been destroyed. It is strange, now, that everything he has learned about painting is pressed to the task of depicting a reality that none of us has ever seen: a realism that looks like pure psychology.

A man dressed in a gray suit and a woman in a long, deep red dress stand with their backs to us. Behind them is a white curtain which reaches from somewhere out of the top of the painting to the surface the figures are standing on. There are actually two curtains: one for each of the figures. We can see, in the middle of the painting, that the two falls of curtain meet and overlap—except at the very bottom, where a small, triangular, black space, tells us that there is nothing or something on the other side of the space in which the figures stand. If you knew the artist, you would immediately recognize the male figure as the artist himself. However, for the purpose of the picture, it is just a man. There is nothing very special about him at all. We cannot see his face. We do not know whether he is anxious or calm, handsome or ugly. His companion, the woman in the red dress, may not be his companion at all: the two figures have adopted the same pose before us, turned away from our gaze, but they are not standing together. Well, they are not necessarily standing together. She has no feet. The dress is just long enough—just the right length—for the feet to be hidden. She seems to hover on the stage. Is it a stage? If it is a stage, are we also part of the performance that is about to begin, or that has just ended? Should we feel relieved and happy that the drama is over, or apprehensive because it just about to begin? The curtain may not be the curtain of a stage at all—perhaps it is only a curtain, a white sheet hanging in a gallery, much like the room in which the picture itself is hanging.

For the past four years Shane Jones has been methodically emptying his paintings of unnecessary clutter. In 1996 he won the Norma Bull Prize for a self-portrait. He emptied the room in which he painted himself by lowering the point from which the viewer seems to look on him: only the ceiling and an empty wall are visible in the background.

In 1997 Shane Jones saw the paintings of Avigdor Arikha (1929-), in particular ‘Slippers and Undershirt’ [1979]. The discarded clothing in these paintings, arranged like abstractions, seem heavily laden with their absent human bodies and activities. Shane Jones began to paint articles of clothing and falls of cloth. But these paintings are not copies of the effects Arikha achieved, any more than Arikha’s ‘Self-Portrait in a Raincoat, Peering’ (1988) is a copy of Joshua Reynolds‘ ‘Self-Portrait’ (c. 1748-9). Jones emptied his paintings of any discernable background and, as well, of perspective: handkerchiefs and cloths were unfolded and flattened to reveal their commonplace designs. These objects, sometimes painted at ten or twenty times their natural size, sometimes at ‘actual size’, were presented as though emptied of their function. No longer useful or used objects, they became simply something to look at: reality magnified. Articles of clothing, male and female, were presented to us neatly, often actually on their hangers, but floating in black space. Dresses, shirts and jumpers are the ghosts of their owners.

Deborah Klein and Shane Jones.
Deborah Klein and Shane Jones.

An untitled painting of 1998 went so far as to show only what appeared to be a white sheet suspended in black space, the upper left-hand corner hinting at something that could not be seen—a hook or nail holding everything up. We are forced to acknowledge our first ideas are often wrong when we notice the white sheet is, in fact, full of color—pinks, mauves and greens.

Underneath the thin veils that now hide his subjects’ faces, Jones has painted a real portrait of himself, a model or a mannequin. There is a Japanese flavor in the spatial arrangements and blank interiors that owe much to James McNeill Whistler.

Asked about the meaning of his paintings, Jones sometimes quotes Benjamin Disraeli: “To be conscious that you are ignorant is a great step to knowledge.” Or, at other times, he will say: “When I was twenty I thought I knew everything; at forty I thought I didn’t know anything at all…” This is really Jones’s subject: the feeling that we do not know very much about other people or about ourselves: uncertainty and ignorance painted with pared-down, formalised and quasi-realistic effect: the suspicion that commonplace certainties might some day turn out to be doubtful knowledge.

Comments on a drawing by Martin van Meale

Of the scene of a rape, first published in the third issue of La Grande Danse macabre des vifs, Charles Carrington, Paris, c. 1908.

from Martin van Meale's La Grande Danse macabre des vifs, published by Charles Carrington, Paris, c. 1908
from Martin van Meale’s La Grande Danse macabre des vifs, published by Charles Carrington, Paris, c. 1908

At the far right of the drawing, a bend of road, telegraph poles and wires, a low hedge, a small bush; near the centre, a tree, and behind the tree, partially obscured and in the distance, a hay-stack; beneath the tree and beside the small bush, a girl is lying on the ground, face up, clothes torn open, legs apart; on the left, a bearded man, probably in his fifties, stands above the girl; at the bottom of the drawing, a book; and in the bottom left corner, the words “a F. Duroze”.  It is late afternoon.  The sky is darkening.  The tree is in leaf but does not provide much cover.  It may be late winter or early spring.  The young girl has been brutally raped and may be dead.  She has light-brown or honey-blonde hair.  Her head lolls toward her right shoulder.  Her left arm is extended — the hand at the end of it clenched to form a fist in the shadow of the small bush.  Layers of dress and petticoat rest on her belly, where they have been pushed to get them out of the way.  One of her undergarments has been torn downwards; one end of it caught around her left ankle and the other end lying over the right knee.  Leg stockings with a fine, horizontal stripe are fastened above both knees by a plain band, though only the left knee is visible.  A bonnet that was on her head has fallen off at the last moment of the struggle and stands up on its rim like a halo around her hair.  Leg stockings, dress and bonnet appear to be made of matching materials.  Blood drips from a wound in the left side of the girl’s lower abdomen, down the inside of her left thigh; and perhaps, also, from her vagina — beneath which, between left thigh and undergarments, a puddle of dark blood has formed.  The white garments pushed up onto her belly also have blood smeared on them.  The man is standing not-quite-upright, his body, from the side and turned away from the frame through which we look, forming a slim ‘S’, like a standing snake with its head in the air; or, he is simply arthritic and crooked.  All his clothing is dark: a black, wide-brimmed hat; heavy, rough waistcoat and ill-fitting trousers; black, narrow shoes.  His shoulder-length, dark, greying hair is mostly hidden under the hat and behind a satchel that has been flung over his right shoulder.  The pit of his right arm holds a thin walking stick, about three feet long, sharp at the end that is behind him.  His right hand disappears in the front of his trousers, which are a little baggy at the rear — and perhaps he has just pulled them up.  He has a bony, hooked nose.  His eyes look out through the right edge of the drawing, startled, worried.  The book in the foreground of the drawing is closed, like the scene.  Some small objects, pens and pencils, have been secured in the concavity of the opening edge of the book with a strap.  A small, rectangular object shaded with the same stripes that can be seen on all the girl’s outer clothing, lies beside the book; but this small object was, probably, hidden inside the book.  Everything hidden has been revealed.  A rape has occurred.  A pretty, young girl, twelve or thirteen, was walking home from school and was raped and killed.  Just at the moment distilled in the drawing, a man looks down the road and, apprehensive that he will be suspected, standing crookedly at a scene of rape, rehearses a simple explanation: “I am poor and have no home. I had been sleeping near a hay-stack by the road, heard sounds which woke me, decided it was time to seek shelter for the night nearer the town because, as you can see, it will rain tonight. I found the girl’s body.”

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Originally published in Skew Whiff, Number 1, 1994.