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On gesture in art

Until I went to see the exhibition of J.M.W. Turner’s late work at the Tate Britain, I hadn’t thought that much about the physical gesture involved in painting. Turner was a name I’d vaguely heard thrown around (“a master”) but, not going to a British school, he wasn’t one of the big names I’d studied in school and I had no mental picture to associate with his work.

Inside the exhibition, I spent a good long time leisurely inspecting Turner’s work – poring over the incredible landscapes and admiring his capturing of light and evocative use of colour. However, I quickly found myself particularly caught by his quick watercolour studies – many of which were sketches for grand oil paintings to be made in the studio. They were so dynamic and expressive, so deft and assured in their ability to depict a landscape without even a hint of a pencil outline. You could see Turner’s hand in each one – the strokes and dabs of the brush clear to the eye.

J.M.W. Turner - Venice, moonrisethe sketchbook 'Grand Canal and Guidecca' (1840)

J.M.W. Turner – Venice, moonrisethe sketchbook ‘Grand Canal and Guidecca’ (1840)

Painting is a physical act of making marks as expression – whether it is abstract or pictorial – and I found I had a little envy for that physical expression of the artist inherent in the work. (I can imagine a future me putting in the time to learn how to paint. I would like that.)

Perhaps this is why so much photography can feel a little removed or impersonal. I recently read a fantastic essay by photography writer Francis Hodgson called Making a Mark, which I’ve been thinking about ever since. He writes about the speed at which photos can be consumed and get their message across. This is really useful for commercial applications, but what about for art? How do you create something that slows the viewer down and invites them to look further? I’ve been pondering on how to produce images that are a little removed from the mass-produced and mass-reproducible images of advertising and tourism.

This idea of making a mark, or introducing texture, or some physical gesture into the process, into the physical piece of art that you have, to make it less reproducible, is an intriguing one. Is it possible to take photography into the realm of the older art forms, where the in-person experience cannot be so readily replaced, and the “original” exists in physical space instead of as a piece of data?

Of course, as Hodgson explores, physical mark-making on the surface of an image is not the only way of sustaining a viewer’s gaze. He goes into other ways of creating visual texture, or making images where the scale must be experienced in person, but for now, I am thinking about physical gesture and how it can be applied to photography.

When thinking of gesture in painting, it’s hard not to immediately think of Pollock, whose work is of course all gesture, and cannot be really appreciated in reproduction. I didn’t understand the appeal of Pollock at all until I was able to see one of his paintings at MOMA last year. It was enthralling.

'Modern Art' by Craig Damrauer

‘Modern Art’ by Craig Damrauer

There’s something very attractive about art that is not readily duplicated. A certain amount of unpredictability or uncontrollable circumstances adds a lot to both the process and the product of making art, and helps to sustain engagement. It is a big part of why I like working so much with natural and “found” light; it’s why I keep making Can’t Sleep photos. Often, the messiness and unpredictability of things is what makes them beautiful. (Somebody remind me to look further into the Japanese concepts of wabi-sabi and shibui.)

I sometimes wonder if painting is in some ways more personal to the artist than photographs can ever be. Of course, photographers develop personal styles by nature of making choices, like any artist, but I still can’t help but feel there is that removed quality.

I love making things with my hands and I don’t do it nearly enough. Often the times when I feel the happiest and most accomplished are when I actually make something in the physical world (a fairly universal feeling, I think), and I enjoy using photography as way of directing, informing and capturing the desire to make. Even creating simple things like a headdress made of straws, or using found materials to turn a human into sculpture, or making a little box set – these works are for me often the most satisfying and most expressive.

'Untitled (straw headdress 1)'

‘Untitled (straw headdress 1)’

It is why too I enjoy photographing myself. It is not about having lots of pictures of me, but about exploring what I can convey through the silent aspects of costume and gesture. As a model, I still have a lot to learn regarding poses and expressive body gestures (indeed, one could spend lifetimes on the study, as do dancers and physical theatre artists), but it is another way by which I can feel totally involved in what I’m making.

I recall, for example, being astounded at how much emotion Art Spiegelman’s cartoon mice could convey through gesture and interactive body postures, entirely unaffected by their lack of facial features.

So, as the artist, I like being able to experiment with making gestures as the photographic subject, and it’s also just plainly an enjoyable process to make work unselfconsciously in this way. (Though I really do need to practice the skills of directing others, and more importantly, getting them at ease enough to play creatively as a subject.)

So that is one use of physical gesture in photography, but let me jump back to thinking about mark-making, and how gesture could be further incorporated into the physical art object that results from the photography. In his essay, Hodgson gave some great examples of artists combining photography with other, more physical media. (I was particularly taken with ones that use embroidery, perhaps because they reminded me of these powerful works by Ana Teresa Barboza, which I love.) It’s a route I would like to explore sometime, perhaps expanding upon work I’ve already made, like the new Growth series, to make it a more considered body of work.

‘Embroidered 2’ by Ana Teresa Barboza

There are a lot of questions surrounding the ease of creating photographic images at the moment, and thus their ubiquitousness, disposability and loss of meaning. In the early days of photography as an artform, there was an emphasis on the artist choosing to draw our attention to something. That choice, that capturing, made it art. But now – we’re overloaded with images, and each gets but a glance – many do not need further consideration.

I think finding ways to turn photography into physical work that must be experienced personally is an interesting direction to go in, especially in the attempt to make something meaningful, something that forms a connection between the viewer and the artist.

(As always, though, there is a market for more affordable, reproducible art and, as ever, a blurry line between art created for “expression” and art created for a variety of commercial uses, not least of which: feeding the artist.)

I’ve got a lot to ponder about making gestures in photography, but for now I’m excited at the prospect of exhibiting my work next month. I’m looking forward to seeing what I’ve made exist as a physical entity for the first time, to be experienced on a different scale and in a different context than on a computer screen.

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