Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Relaunch of Arts Matrix

ArtsMatrix is the South West Skills development agency for the Creative Industries. ArtsMatrix was established in 2004 and has developed an outstanding reputation for the provision of expert, bespoke support for both personal and professional development within the creative industries. 
In 2010 Plymouth College of Art took ownership of ArtsMatrix with a new remit:
To be a creative catalyst supporting energising, ambitious and sustainable creative communities.

ArtsMatrix Relaunch
James A. Brown
On Thursday evening (22nd) Artsmatrix relaunched in some spectacular style. Ostensibly, the night was the first of a series of networking events for creative industries businesses, freelancers and artists. However, all who attended would agree that the evening was made memorable mostly through the presence of artist, critic and broadcaster, Matthew Collings.

Collings has always taken the position that an understanding of and access to fine art should be inclusive, and his books and television programmes bear this out. His style is anti-hierarchical, and makes subjects from renaissance painting to beat poetry accessible to a broad audience, but without patronizing or excluding any element of a potential viewership. This, I would imagine, is one of the reasons why Artsmatrix chose Collings to relaunch the organization, as Artsmatrix exists in order to support any and all who wish to forge out a career or start a business in the creative industries, regardless of prior experience or knowledge. The support offered by Artsmatrix is inclusive in that it includes courses and events aimed equally at those who are just starting out and those who are developing an already existing career

After a welcoming (and welcome) glass of Champaign and some early catching-up between friends and colleagues old and new, Collings launched the renewed and refreshed Artsmatrix with a talk focusing mainly on what he described as his ‘real work’, that is the painting on which he collaborates with his wife Emma Biggs. He discussed the nature and strength of collaboration, which felt apt as the evening provided an opportunity for the South West’s creatives to forge new professional relationships, and throughout the evening I overheard at least two conversations concerning current or potential future collaborative projects.

Collings went on to speak about the nature of contemporary art (and the contexts within which it is displayed and discussed), and about the task of the contemporary artist, which must be to differentiate his/her work from the ‘clamour for attention’ played out by today’s art of ‘desperate futility’. His and Biggs’s paintings, he suggested, ‘are capable of philosophizing the world, creating a metaphor of beauty for philosophy’.

As the celebration moved out of the studio theatre and into The Gallery and bar area, Collings stayed on to dispense more bon mots and advice to fellow creatives on subjects from painting and writing, to getting work into galleries.

That the work in The Gallery’s current exhibition, Lab Craft: Digital Adventure in Contemporary Craft is such a spectacular and enthralling show was an added bonus for those attending. Pieces such as Geoffrey Mann’s stunning candelabra provided talking points to accompany the wine provided by the Barbican Theatre’s mobile B-Bar.

The first night of Artsmatrix’s new life was undeniably a resounding success, with at least 80 or 90 South West artists and creatives mixing, meeting, talking and planning – not to mention celebrating the rebirth of an organization that is central to the creative industries in the region. If this evening, and Matthew Collings’s opening talk is a sign of things to come for Artsmatrix, then the future of the arts in the South West of England is surely in safe hands.

© January 2011 James A. Brown

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Sculpture and the (re)Branding of Tradition in Saatchi's 'Newspeak: British Art Now'

The following is the abstract for my forthcoming paper at the Henry Moore Institute, Leeds, for:

The New British Sculpture: Reviewing the persistence of an idea, c.1850 – present

After a sustained period within which sculpture has been defined by its questioning of – or resistance to – tradition, the literature accompanying Newspeak: British Art Now, both in the catalogue, and, especially, in the ‘picture by picture guide’, suggests a re-engagement of sculpture with both the histories and traditions of the medium, not so much as an ‘overthrowing’ of previous generations, than a recalibration of the relationship between generations.
It is indeed the case that most of the sculptural work in Newspeak does refer/relate to some notion of ‘tradition’, whether this is through the employment of recognisably historical visual tropes, or of ‘traditional’ materials. The author/s of the accompanying text, however, manipulate the languages of art history and criticism in a way that creates an interpretative closed circuit, preventing further interpretation of the work at the point of its encounter with the viewer and (re)‘branding’ the work as ‘traditional’. The process of ekphrasis is both instantaneous and absolute. Thus, there is a curious shift in the nature of the experience of the work as cultural artefact, in that it is indicative of a culture within which the notion of ‘criticality’ is usurped by the imperative for instant translation and explanation.
This paper, then, addresses the appropriation of art-historical language in order to claim some re-engagement with tradition which is not necessarily evident in the work itself. The true cultural and historical significance (and value) of the work is compromised in the process of isolating closed interpretations. This is not to suggest that this re-engagement is not occurring at all, but rather that the terms under which it may be occurring are muddied by the appropriation of art historical languages.

    Systems House,  
    Radial Construction in Space II

Wednesday, 16 June 2010


Draft reflections on a first visit to an ancient city


Athens is a city of contradictions. It is at once threatening and friendly, ancient and thoroughly modern, beautiful and crumbling, the monuments impeccably kempt, and yet the streets strewn with litter, grime and starving – or dead – dogs and cats. There is a sense, today, of both a strutting confidence in its history, yet at the same time a fragility brought about by extreme financial crisis and uncertain relations with neighbours near and not-so-near; Turkey, Cyprus, and now Israel (due to the storming by Israeli marines of a Greek-flagged ship taking aid to Palestinian camps) and the rest of Europe, who seem ambivalent about helping Greece out of the financial crevace upon which it finds itself precariously perched.

The Parthenon looks down upon the new Athens like a sandstone metaphor, propped and suspended by steel rope and girders, very gradually crumbling under the weight of time and the keen feet of the tourists whose Euro are now, more than ever, so essential to the city’s economy.

The archaeological endeavour – which was finally done justice by the improvements made to its presentation prior to the 2004 Olympic Games – has uncovered the most astounding historical sites in the Western world. The technologies of the aquaduct and the drains, along with the complex and precedential social and political structures revealed by the material structures only confirm the school-learned characterisation of the ‘cradle of civilisation’.

However, the tourist experience of Athens is also one of contradiction, as the museumified experience can only render the Acropolis, the Agora, their fabrications and sculptures, pure third order simulacra. They are all simply copies of the images of television, guidebooks and cinema represeatations of “Ancient Greece”, signs which signify the equally short-circuited and now seemingly empty notion of ‘democracy’.

Reading the Surface

Abstract for a paper presented at the 1st International Conference of Fine & Performing Arts, Athens Institute of Education and Research, Athens.

Reading the Surface: The Subjective Voice in the Criticism of Stuart Morgan


In his lecture ‘Homage to the Half Truth’, the critic Stuart Morgan argued the case for an art criticism that, although adhering to certain historical precedents with regard to objectivity, also allows for the creativity of the critic as writer (as subject and expert) to supplement and add perspective to the critical task of interpretation. Although this position would seem to go against a century of critical theory and debate, it could be argued that Morgan’s position is compatible with Clement Greenberg, in that criticism should be, above all, interesting. Morgan’s less objective position generates writing which retains a relevance to the culture within which the work’s meanings are exchanged, responding to – and celebrating – the surface as the site of manifest meaning(s), and the catalyst for the critic’s own ‘capacity for intuition, sympathy and imagination’.

This paper addresses Morgan’s criticism as an approach which offers a greater latitude to criticism in the face of the unavoidable problem of subjectivity within the present context of radical relativism.
Writers have now struggled for decades to find a way to provide a model for criticism that possesses an authority that leaves the reader in no doubt as to the (singular) meaning and value of the object. Perhaps it is now the writer who (at least, partially) disregards the battle for objectivity in preference of the celebration of the aesthetic or performative nature of the written word in relation to (the surface of) the contemporary art object, who brings a relevant and valuable perspective to criticism.

(c) 2010 James A. Brown

Telling Stories

The following is a piece which accompanied an exhibition of work by lecturers at Plymouth College of Art, in which each artist exhibited a current piece, and a piece produced either when a student, or early in their creative career.

Telling Stories

We must all be critics as we stand before the work, for to encounter is to interpret and to judge. Greenberg stated that ‘it is the first responsibility of the critic to make judgments of value’, and Lawrence Alloway expanded on this, claiming that the task of the critic is the ‘interpretation and evaluation of new, or at least recent, art’.

In describing Diderot’s reviews of the Salons, Alloway states ‘it is clear that his working method was to… react to the works with a mind well stocked with prior ideas, some of them habitual, some of them fresh’. This was the early model for criticism, but should also be our model for experiencing and thinking about our experiences of art.

In a sense, Diderot was describing his personal response to art, but it was a response informed by an absolute affinity to art’s past. Subsequently, the Modernist critics followed in his wake – Greenberg, Rosenberg, Fuller et al. Although they would claim an absence of any subjectivity from their interpretations and judgments.

In his 1991 lecture, ‘Homage to the Half-Truth’, Stuart Morgan argues the case for a model for criticism which returns to Diderot’s ‘walking-thinking-writing’. The work, he suggests, reveals only part of the story – the task of the critic is to tell the rest. But wherein does the story reside? In the work, or in the fallacic intention of the artist? Perhaps we need only look into the space between the artist, the work and ourselves.

The subjective response remains, and this time in relation to the critic’s own story, as well as to his understanding of the histories and traditions within which the artist is located and/or locates him/herself. This model suggests the opposite of Bell’s entreaty to “leave all knowledge of the outside world” at the doors of the gallery. Morgan’s repost seems to be that the only answer is to bring everything of ourselves to the work.

The works in the current exhibition seem to speak of Morgan’s more creative model, as we are presented with the artists’ earliest and most recent works – the “once upon a time…” and the “…happily ever after”. Between these poles lay the mystery of meaning. As critic, surely my role is to fill you in, provide the rest of the story, and to make it a good one.

I know these artists, and their work, and I have spoken to them at length about their practices, their motivations and their lives, so I would seem to be in a privileged position with regards to meaning, if we were to apply the older models. The stories their work reveals, then, lie somewhere between the private (theirs and mine) and the public (yours). The stories speak of lives spent making, but also, of a life spent looking.

(c) 2009 James A. Brown