30th March 2015

Reflecting with a candle



Begin with a flame.

Colour is never self-contained.

Image grows from light.


6th January 2015


The arts therapist and arts researcher Shaun McNiff coined the phrase about “dialoguing with the image” in 1992, when he was writing about art therapy and the images which emerge from it. He suggested that much could be learnt from engaging in a “conversation” with these art works as if they were independent objects, separate from the artist.   I find this idea intriguing in relation to many aspects of creativity.  This section of the blog will focus on experiencing works of art in exhibitions.

A few years ago, when the Ulster Museum reopened after an extended period of renovations, Sean Scully’s work was the subject of the first exhibition in the main gallery space on the 4th level.  I was overwhelmed by the large colourful canvases and charged by their energy.  I expressed my response in this textpoem, which I sent out on my mobile phone:


Wide-mouthed greedy images,

Tonguing the gallery spaces,

Fulljawed, drooling light.

Today I visited the MAC theatre complex in Belfast, curious about the current exhibitions in the art galleries on the upper floors. If you need an injection of thought-provoking contemporary art, the MAC’s the place.  Same goes for caffeine injections – the cappuccinos in the café downstairs are deliciously husky and creamy.

These days, I look at fewer pictures when I go to an exhibition, and spend more time with those which engage my vision.  Today I dialogued with a large oil painting, Thinking Inside the Box, by Andrew Cranston, and a series of photo images by Harri Pälviranta.

Thinking inside the box
Thinking inside the box

Standing in front of the first painting, I begin to make connections. These connections take different forms and happen on different levels.  I present them here in random order, because it’s hard to say what first drew me to this work: was my initial response aesthetic, intellectual, emotional, all of these or something else entirely?

My aesthetic eye is attracted by colours and shapes and looks for patterns. I notice the pink and yellow lines, depicting the light reflected on the tiles from the precarious lighting strip on the ceiling. I notice the blue and silver on the bed where the model lies in the centre of the painting. I notice the wall, divided into squares, and the shapes of the canvases.

I feel the isolation of the artist, on his knee in front of the model, surrounded by a ring of other artists. I wonder if the painting is about scrutiny and expectation.  I like the fact that this canvas is at the end of a wall, and that it’s the first painting I notice when I come into the gallery space. It seems to have been cleverly placed by the curator, as if it is setting up some questions about art-making and the spaces in which this art is made. I realise that this is all speculation, my subjective response to the painting, an interpretation which may well be completely different from that of others. I deliberately hold out against reading the exhibition catalogue. I’m glad there isn’t a blurb on the wall about the picture. I like creating my own story, my own truth, about what I see before I discover the “correct” version. I think about writing poems and how their meaning is not immediately obvious to me, the poet herself; I wonder if the same goes for visual artists. I think about the capacity for responsiveness, and how I try to cultivate it by immersing myself constantly in experiences of the arts.

newspaperpciturebig - Copy

The set of photographs, News Portraits, depicts four “school shooters” who have perpetrated massacres since Columbine in 1999. Each of these young men is from a different country, and their portraits are made up of hundreds of images of news articles and headlines in the relevant language about shooting, deaths and gun crime. The newsprint and the use of black and white make the faces blank and bland and add a layer of banality and anonymity to these terrible crimes. I like the way in which the use of newspaper text suggests that the identities of the killers are constructed by the press. I wonder how the artist came up with the idea, how the pieces were planned, where each one began.  I think about Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, how effective it was at evoking my revulsion, and how the images do something similar in a much more condensed manner.  I wonder what it is like to think as an artist, rather than a writer.

It takes me a while to withdraw from the world of both of the works, just as it does when I finish reading a book which has immersed me.  How important it is to have time to cultivate my responsiveness, to take the risk of disappearing into the ambiguities of someone else’s vision.


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