(a bed of smooth jazz funk)
Hello, hello, hello, and welcome to a podcast, presented by me, Jamie Crewe, an artist, writer and nightingale based in Sheffield, England. This podcast, which we’ll call ‘Sibyllic blemishes: Last Requests at Bloc Assembly, with an epilogue by Joni Mitchell’, is produced as part of Bloc Projects’ Discourse series, to accompany the afore-mentioned show.
Bloc Assembly is a series of one-off events at Bloc Projects, Sheffield, which seeks to provide a platform for new and emerging artists to show or perform experimental ideas and works in progress. Each show is themed, and past themes have included text, light, and time.
The latest show in this series makes a call (calls in) and asks the studio holders of Sheffield what their last request is. The exhibition wants something treasured, or at least valued, or at least strangely enduring, that does not gel with practice of the artist and cannot be incorporated into their body of work. It wants blemishes, anomalies and aberrations, which will be displayed without much curatorial intervention and certainly with no thematic filtering (beyond their status as anomalies).
The show is called Last Requests, but the promotional materials also mention ‘guilty pleasures’ and ‘desert island discs’. The language of radio, of rotation is brought into play, and onto the playlist. How can we fade between these charged phrases?
The inference of the text that introduces the show is that our ‘last request’, our ‘desert island disc’, the thing we call out for on expiry or rescue from the smouldering studio will be the anomaly, the ‘guilty pleasure’, rather than anything from our practice proper. This may be a surprising assumption; wouldn’t you rather take your brightest and best with you than something that doesn’t work? And if do choose the latter, why was it excluded from your corpus in the first place?
The needle hits on the question of legitimacy. By taking ‘guilty pleasure’ in a work, it is implied that the artist has a working conception of propriety and taste, and that there are boundaries to her oeuvre informed by this. Whether measured and analysed, or felt out moment by moment, a sense of her practice in totality must exist for works to registered as anomalous, incompatible or just plain wrong. A practice like this would require not only the work of generation, of creative production, but also the work of refinement, where the practitioner appraises her products and refuses them if needs be.
I’m tempted here to invoke Michelangelo’s description of sculpture, in opposition to painting, as an art form in which removal forms the image; I’m tempted to say the body of work (and it is a body, a figure which we find ourselves considering), which is aestheticised by the artist in its coherence, in its consistency, is formed by the paring away of works, features and rough (by which I mean inharmonious (by which I mean truly disturbing and unassimilatable)) edges. But the experience of making is more multifarious and diverse than this tempting metaphor allows, as the body of work is not a solid block to be excavated and honed, but something which is continuously refreshing, developing outwards and onwards. As such, removal does not whittle the work down to a steely core, but causes the practice itself to change its form. Missteps are not erased, even if they are abandoned, and their reverberations carry throughout the work as it develops. In such a practice, judgements of legitimacy help form not only the direction of the practice, but also its identity and its aestheticised presence, as well as the identity of the artist who makes it.
(the music changes)
Michael Atkins - Restored Aurora Tarpit (1971), 2011.
On top of a rotating structure (potentially rotating, not in motion) there is a plastic scene on a square wooden board. I first mistook the plastic for red clay, due to its blood-brown colour and matte patina. It’s not, however; closer inspection reveals that the pieces are separate, with hard edges, not smeared into union. There is a ragged, hollow tree stump that marks the far limit of a tar pit, out of which the head and shoulders of a prehistoric rhinoceros emerge. His horn is larger than his modern equivalent, and his animated expression is distressed.
(the smooth jazz funk returns)
So a practice such as this, which is formed through appraisal and reaction, is inevitably an industry that creates excesses. Outside the toned and honed body of work there are objects, acts and ideas which exist as overspill of the creative process, which seem to be necessary for development but without value on their own terms (or rather, in the terms of narrative and aesthetic of the practice-as-body that generates them). What is perhaps unexpected, however, is the endurance of certain of these excesses.
The process we’ve sketched out designates these aberrations as aberrant, things that aid the development of the practice as a whole through their consideration and exclusion. So why then should they be held in any affection, since they point in the wrong direction? It seems unlikely that the reverberations of their negation are enough to keep their little candles burning in our hearts, no matter how much they might have informed the direction of our legitimate work.
Despite this, the ‘guilty pleasures’ we see in Last Requests have endured for their makers. The rejection of the anomalous work is not always informed by disdain (and look how much nicer anomalous sounds than aberrant (which sounds like abhorrent)). In the pursuit of a body of work, things can be rejected with affection, with bafflement or with regret, and exclusion doesn’t necessarily imply a hierarchical or value judgement (I myself have no idea what’s good or bad, ever). The boundaries of a practice and the criteria by which works are assessed could be informed by many things; current tastes, past tastes, prejudices, fashions, theoretical positions or the dictations of process. There is no conclusive or immutable barometer of value against which to measure these anomalies, and so the reasons why they don’t work cannot always be articulated or explained. This is why the objects themselves cannot always be cast off.
(the music changes)
Dale Holmes - Halkidiki Balcony Picture (sun-tanned legs), 2008.
Dale Holmes provides us with a text, which is unusual. He has submitted an oil painting, a pair of legs against a balcony draped with colourful fabrics (he calls them sun-tanned - I might say burnt); it is vibrant and fluid. He credits an ‘over-enthusiasm for the works of the French Intimist painters’ and an ‘exuberant flush caused by the Greek sun’ for the creation of his original watercolours. The oil versions were then produced ‘during the bleakest December days of a Northern winter’.
(the smooth jazz funk returns)
There is also a conflict between head and hand to consider. For an artist working in some way conceptually, process will always be charged and must always be interrogated. When her hand wanders, and she finds herself making things sensually, with tactile attention, it may cause a dissonance. She may enjoy the act, and even the product, but what’s the worth of it? This enjoyment can be folded back in to the conceptual, considered and absorbed, made cohesive if she’s lucky (and if she wants to do it); the two are not diametrically opposed. The excess created here, however, is process-as-pleasure, which continues to be a disturbing presence, and whose originating products must remain outside her practice, even if their imprints appear in her legitimate work.
(the music changes)
Lesley Guy and Neil Webb - Spinel, 2009.
These are some drawings and jottings on a newspaper; it should be noted that Guy’s practice also includes drawings and jottings on newspaper. The intention and the effect are very different though. These were made on a train journey, to pass the time and entertain. An incomplete phrase declares ‘NEIL SPINEL’ and there is the tantalising suggestion that ‘Neil sucks cock’. A double-ended dildo in black ink hovers next to an obscene suit manipulation.
(the smooth jazz funk returns)
If the works seen in this exhibition have been excommunicated from the practice, disavowed as authentic expressions of the artist’s industry, then how have they been allowed to be shown? How have the artists been able to release these entries? The answer is that Last Requests has positioned itself as a safe space for the airing of these selections.
Firstly, the call is open, addressed to any studio holder in Sheffield, meaning social links and expectations are not relied upon. Secondly, the content of the show is explicitly unfiltered, meaning anxiety about quality and proper representation is minimised. Thirdly, the theme demands that contributors disassociate themselves from their submissions; covered by the proviso that these are not ‘real’ works, the playing field is levelled, and no prestige is at stake. Indeed, prestige can only be gained - imagine the look on a visitors face as they exclaim ‘This is the work they feel guilty about? Imagine how good the rest must be!’ And finally, the exhibition runs for one night and one day only, coming down almost as soon as it goes up, avoiding intense scrutinisation. With Last Requests, Bloc has wiped the slate clean and established a place which demands no justification for the work on show. A negated show of negated impulses, Last Requests has undoubtedly attracted mediocrities, trinkets, trivial works, works that pander to the theme, but more significantly it has created a space of potential.
(the music changes)
Karen Logan - Untitled, 2008.
This is an embroidered handkerchief. The accompanying text tells us that the pale pink words that puncture the cloth are from a letter belonging to Logan’s father. The words are still hot with shame.
(a bed of ‘I Get Along Without You Very Well’ by Nina Simone)
I received the open call of the exhibition, and I made a note in my notebook, trying to think what I might submit. Nothing sprung to mind; my practice is precise, sometimes to a fault, and I could think of no work that I hadn’t fully embraced at the time of completion, even if I subsequently abandoned it. It would be nice to show something, though, I thought, and there must be something I can submit. It was hard; the works I’d made and since rejected held no cherished place for me, as I was pretty much done with them. The pieces that had been successful had been canonised, put into the archive, presented in portfolios and added to my dormant website. I didn’t have anything to add, I thought.
And after the deadline, three books jumped up and slapped me in the face. I had made them in 2009 as the start of a series which I had intended to continue but which had ossified in the end; three volumes, around twenty copies of each, called Number One, Number Two and Number Three. Each had some combination of image and text; photographs from Venice with my thumb over the lens paired with the lyrics of ‘I Get Along Without You Very Well’; museum dioramas paired with the dates of saved MSN Messenger conversations; a statue with its face sprayed red and the weather conditions in Austin, Athens, Venice and Sheffield on the day he left. At the end of my BA, and the forced end of a relationship, I had made these, and I had allowed instinct and association to carry them through. I would not have let a work get out without thorough interrogation usually, but perhaps because they were framed in a satisfyingly formal presentation, or because of the pain of heartache, or the relief of finishing a demanding project, these three books manifested, and then the series stopped in its tracks.
My practice continued much as it had, though clouded by the demands of work and post-University life, and I continued thinking as thoroughly as I was capable. I still liked these books, but a vague sense of adolescent shame surrounded them. Had I said too much, too obtusely?
I regretted not thinking of them sooner for Last Requests, but looking at them again recently, I saw something else. Their associative nature, putting charged fragments of image and text against each other, chimed with recent revelations in my ‘main’ practice, my legitimated work, my idealised body. Suddenly they seemed to articulate something I had missed at the time of making them, presaging new developments and hidden currents that had recently risen.
What Last Requests presents, in this context, is a space where, stripped of the demands of a practice and the pressures of judgement, these inexplicably persistent works can be viewed again. While it’s impossible to call anywhere neutral, Bloc becomes at least deregulated for the length of this exhibition, open to re-viewings, developments and diversifications that are not dictated by the narrative of artistic development.
The fascination with the anomaly is not simply based on affection, sensual pleasure, or perversity; what these works offer is an untapped potentiality, quivering on the edge of vitalisation. They may be low, flippant, mediocre, or unexpected and even frightening, but they return our gaze with unfamiliar eyes. It is this uncanny, unrecognisable element that endures. The anomaly touches on what may have been, but also on what preoccupations run beneath the conscious making of art, contrary to the active forming of a practice. Who knows when a guilty pleasure may drop its veil and reveal itself as a prediction of future revelations? Who knows when we’ll recognise these works? In the folds and eruptions of time that create some of the most thrilling moments of artistic creation, these anomalies are charged with a mystery that may yet catalyse unknown expansions and terminations.
When I use the phrase ‘sibyllic blemishes’, I’m calling up dramatic classicism again. In Greece, and indeed in Libya, Persia, Phrygia and elsewhere, the sibyl was a prophetess connected to chthonic forces. She spoke for subterranean deities (at Delphi she was even perched over a deep fissure in the ground, from which vapors of the rotting earth-dragon Python rose and intoxicated her), voicing in ecstatic tongues obscure prophecies. On the body of work these blemishes, portentous port wine stains, announce hidden things in dialects we may not understand. If time and development allows, however, we may find ourselves in a position to hear the words they speak.
Now this song isn’t entirely appropriate, and you certainly shouldn’t take this as a summation, but it’s the one I keep coming back to when thinking about these things. And return visits are important, wandering is significant, and refrains should be listened to. This is Joni Mitchell with ‘The Boho Dance’…
(‘The Boho Dance’ by Joni Mitchell plays)
With thanks to Becky Bowley, Lesley Guy and all at Bloc.
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