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'SPACES / PLACES': Assessment (sumitted to MoMA course on Modern Art & ideas)

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Monday, 5 Feb 2018, 09:04

I’ve always been intrigued by the terms, space’ and ‘place’.

Places are spaces with other qualities, like names & meanings. These bind us to them, lending us their security at what can be the prices of entrapment in a fixed identity or over-localised constraint. Here I consider their relation to art.

Space is a concept related to both infinite expansion and enclosure in a boundary or frame simultaneously. In painting it suggests a flat surface in two dimensions, which sometimes thickens in mixed media like collage. But even in painting, space is not only framed by two material dimensions but also optical illusions of depth, which might be regulated (by perspectival illusions) or merely subjectively layered by colour contrasts as in my view of Mondrian.

This course made me look at Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’. A small section depicts a place in reserved space that we might think of as provincial Saint-Remy. The town is only a set of straight lines and contained shapes, but its surrounding is not that place but space itself: space that extends from the cypress in the picture plane to the mountains and beyond. For a moment refuse to see the skies above the town as a projection of Van Gogh’s inner conflict and pain. Why isn’t turbulence here seen as not pain but merely unconstrained pleasurable play in and on space? In fact, to me it celebrates space. We lose the sense of spatial perspective around the town and see the play of paint on a flat surface, mocking the supposed solidity of Saint Remy and displacing it with arabesques and rococo swirl.  They increasingly lose any sense of trying to imitate reality as they swell and flow multi-directionally because somehow the illusion of seeing a space moving from front to back no longer holds. So that cypress tree dances with the sky and queries the sense of solidity that must be felt inside the houses of comfortable Saint-Remy.

When we see places as spaces, they become disturbing because free space makes us insecure: perhaps any sense of freedom must be insecure. When Rachel Whiteread makes an empty interior space solid – as in House – she shows us that a place is a monument to something we think we are not what we can be. I think something similar goes on in Wyeth’s Christina’s World.

Home, constriction and enclosure – neatly packaged on the horizon - drowns in space that defies conventional perspective. Looking from a worm’s-eye-view, as we seem to do at the base of the picture frame, we would never really be able to see the exaggerated expansiveness around Christina – nor its intricate patterns of colour. Space expands to accommodate the viewer’s eye as it travels up from that grass – and is beautiful, hopeful and fearful.

Matta-Clark’s Bingo similarly transform the signs and frameworks of the most contained of places (the home) into spaces that lack ordered relationships which makes them comfortable. We notice frames – stair frames, door frames but displaced from utility and function in maintaining security. Just space containing meaning!

Some months back I saw Kurt Schwitters’ work for the first time near home in Newcastle (UK). I’ve chosen him as my one art-work in the next exercise. 



Whole wall Merz Barn wall Kurt Schwitters

Schwitters became an artist who investigated interactions between places and spaces long before he was exiled from Nazi Germany and was interned in the UK. Megan Luke says Schwitter’s life was continually displaced and that produced art which we enter like experience: ‘a space wherein we no longer take our perception of something for granted.’ (Luke 2014:161). Schwitters life was punctuated by envisioning and creating different kinds of living space into Merzbau – spaces in which boundaries were deceptive. Artistic vision was a matter in which the viewer’s motion within the internal spaces of his art confounded all framing of that vision. Interiors and exteriors, accessible and non-accessible spaces or cavities (or grottoes as he called them as if he were an eighteenth-century landscape artist) were confounded.

His later art-spaces were consciously abandoned places in which space and waste came together as a means of ‘making space’ self-conscious. His last was unfinished and took the last of his life: an abandoned barn on a patron’s land in Cumbria. On his death, it was abandoned with most of the interior transformation of the barn unfinished or ‘unstarted’, but included diagonal dividing walls and hanging objects and sculpture that enriched the view of the remaining mural – known as the Merz Barn Wall. The Wall was transported to Newcastle University and is now a proud permanency in the Hatton Museum.

Merz was a word taken from half of the word ‘Kommerz’ and from the verb to obliterate. It became the name for Schwitter’s whole work and even for ‘himself’. It combines ideas of the disposability and death of objects as well as their loss in constant exchanges of meaning. What does that mean for places and spaces. Always impermanent, until absorbed into a Museum, they are always also places that both become and lose purpose over time.

The Barn-wall now is splendidly beautifully but not with the drama of light, viewing position and motion it would have had, although the place of the barn’s original skylight is recreated. This is a wall where boundaries and cavities, which is what a wall is, become part of its the boundaries and frames that are sunk ‘in’ or built ‘out’ from it – including a grotto of small objects whose meaning is impossible to recreate.

One cavity appears as a mouth-like shape on a smooth face-like structure and contains a visible small piece of green twine that feels on observation an uncomfortable memory of the undigestible experience. As you look, you see the cavities and projections are made up not only of materials but shadows and that doubling distorting shadows are a function of the work and begin to suggest fragmentary new meanings for the whole work. One projection of steel wire and rock as a shadow mimes a phallic figure.

Some depths are smaller than they look and, as you look, you see that Schwitters transformed and deformed shadow shapes by addition of painted shadows. Thus, places may not reassure us in Schwitters, but they do become spaces where we recognise and do not recognise the doubles of everything that makes up our placed – unplaced species – ‘Poor unaccommodated (wo)man is more than this’. Or that is what, at least, I am nearly thinking if this thinking ever gets formed into thoughts.

Details of wall Merz Barn wall Kurt Schwitters

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