Day 7 Presentations: where my ideas come from

Looking inside and outside the train, reflecting on what I see. For more see the rest of this year’s blog.

  • Ideas from words
  • Things I’ve enjoyed visually from the past imprinted on my brain
  • An artist I admire, William Kentridge
  • Two more artists working in charcoal

Station to Station, a book by James Attlee
As I’ve said frequently on this blog – I’ve found this book and its ideas have helped to form my ideas about what I am doing.

Station to station, James Attlee ‘It is hard not to feel that some part of myself is left there, permanently in motion back and forth, a pale reflection in the carriage window overlaid on the …skies and buildings rushing past.’

‘People from all walks met each other in newly constructed social spaces.’

‘The window in a train is an optical instrument that converts the view from the carriage into a series of frames. We are used to this, but it is worth remembering that train travel introduced human beings to an entirely new way of seeing. Never before had we been able to slide through the landscape, watching it endlessly, panoramically unfold. Never before had we experienced ‘optical flow’ –the rushing and blurring of objects near the track and the apparently slower, statelier movement of scenery further away.

I used video, charcoal drawings and collage to begin with to develop my project. Later Jon Ross suggested I project my video over a drawing and take stills from that process. These images are interesting in their own right, but I have also made large charcoal drawings of them, six so far, suggested by Tony.

The joy of Joy Division
Over Christmast I was watching a documentary about the late 70s post punk band Joy Division – and I had a real jolt of recognition when I saw some of the videos made at the time with their music. I didn’t have a TV at the time, and not a colour one, so wouldn’t have seen these videos, but I suppose they set the standard for so much that followed.

In particular the scenes of urban decay, the strong figures (in this case of the band, almost like German expressionist figures and faces against the back drop of the verticals and horizontals of the city flashing by.

Adam Piper says they were among the first bands to create videos of this kind. I’ve  strung together a few bits from the documentary and also put some of my stills from a second film I made into another very short, unfinished piece I did using one of their tracks called Shadowplay.

My video’s not well done, just a fragment because I ran out of time and was just playing anyway.
Joy Division fragments

The full documentary can be viewed at

My video

William Kentridge
William Kentridge is a South African artist best known for his prints, drawings, and animated films. His earlier work related very strongly to his political background and responses to the horrors of apartheid in South Africa, especially the horrific experiences of mine workers. His politics I think are revealed less directly now.

He tends to produce films or installations. “My drawings don’t start with a ‘beautiful mark’,” writes Kentridge, thinking about the activity of … getting the hand to lead the brain, rather than letting the brain lead the hand. “It has to be a mark of something out there in the world. It doesn’t have to be an accurate drawing, but it has to stand for an observation, not something that is abstract, like an emotion.”

He says:

Drawing is a non-verbal thinking process. One of the things about charcoal drawing is that it is instantly alterable – you can change it as quickly as you can think. One wipe of a cloth and the image disappears or is smudged and you can rethink it. The flexibility of drawing is important. There’s an immediacy of drawing, of thinking in drawing, which is vital for me.’

‘For me, the drawing is the process of arriving at this image. This process is usually very fast to begin with. I work with charcoal and charcoal dust, and within the first minute, the large expanse of white paper can be turned into a dirty grey. I’ll put lines across it, finding vague geographies of where things will go, and then the process of drawing is the remaining hours or days it takes to work through the drawing. The art is to try to finish at the same speed you begin with – to not let the drawing become more and more cramped, to try to keep a looseness and an open-endedness right to the end.’
These quotes from a Guardian interview

Comments from an academic paper which I found interesting:

‘Figuration and narrative became a way of relating the inner landscape (personal memory) with the outer landscape of social and political events at large.’ (Bakargiev)

Significantly, the artist renounces the picturesque and the sublime landscape because he finds both genres morally undefendable. Specifically the sublime landscape is problematical because in it, pain and danger make way for a sensation of delight. A delightful effect is precisely what Kentridge wants to avoid, as it paralyses the spectator’s capacity of action in reality.

(Visual storytelling: a Progressive Strategy? The Animated Drawings of William Kentridge, Elisabeth Van Caelenberge November 2008)

More artists working in charcoal
A US artist friend of mine suggested that I look at the work of Leon Kossof because he also draws ‘railroad and subway stations’. I really like his free style mark making.

Leon Kossof b 1926
The main thing that has kept me going all these years is my obsession that I need to teach myself to draw. I have never felt that I can draw and as time has passed this feeling has not changed. So my work has been an experiment in self-education.” He still feels the same, he says, as we wander among his works. “I don’t seem to be able to do a drawing,” he says, mournfully. “I’ve never felt … oh, never mind.” To call this gentle and modest man reticent about his work would be to understate the case (this is the nearest he has ever got to what you might call giving an interview, though he insists that we are merely conversing). Eventually, he concedes: “I suppose I feel I might have done a few drawings.”

Jane  Joseph
Although she isn’t ‘drawing railroads’ I feel a strong connections to her mark making. She is primarily a printer and I’m looking forward to exploring some of my images through printmaking.

Jane  draws from observation. “A drawing by Jane Joseph is a meeting place of three fidelities: fidelity to the place observed; fidelity to her feelings about that place; fidelity to her chosen materials”.

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