Notes from not in the studio

This text was written in lock-down, as part of a research group on the artist’s studio with the Irish Museum of Modern Art

That line of Adorno’s, that to write poetry after Auschwitch is barbaric (1949), keeps drifting into my head. I think about it differently now than I did before. 

A friend of mine, a curator, has asked me and a number of other artists to make a piece of work responding to our hands, as part of his ongoing project. He is posting the resulting images/videos on instagram, thinking about hands in terms of connection, intimacy, and contagion. I feel so overwhelmed by this simple request. Immobilised by the pressure to make a work about ‘hands’. All my ideas feel contrived, literal, desperate, ridiculous… Many of them halt due to my lack of materials and equipment, but in my belly I fear that I am failing the quarantine creativity test. 

I confide in an old tutor, via email, that I miss my studio desperately, and am struggling to feel motivated to do serious notebook work at home. Instead, filling the time with other, simpler activities. She writes back that this is a truly traumatic situation, that in being artists everything we do, know and even our ways of thinking and seeing are called into question. She advises that I give myself time now, as we will need masses of energy for practice when we reach a sense of aftermath. As being observant and sentient is a big part of our normal jobs as artists, we may feel this time of change and trauma particularly deeply. She writes that the studio is always where you are, even if this is sitting on a park bench.

I gain such a sense of relief and space from this email. I think about what will happen, for us as artists, when we reach a sense of aftermath. Is this when the art-working begins? Perhaps as a tool to process the trauma, for ourselves and on behalf of the public. Or will art hold a dual position as a space both of escape, and of reflection and response. I have never made art in a crisis before.
I also think about the studio always being where I am, and I wonder if this is true. She is speaking, of course, to the studio as concept, as a metaphorical structure. I am slowly beginning to identify the studio in me, but still I ache for the studio as physical space.

It is a white-ish room with four walls, a little under 4 square metres perhaps. It has a door with a lock, a large sash window with a small black leather armchair in front, a slab coming out from the wall to the right of the window which serves as writing desk, shelves above (piles of old notebooks, statements from exhibitions) – the research corner. It has an extendable table with piles of watercolour tubes, scraps of sandpaper and normal paper, a couple of notebooks, and research images pinned to the wall above (currently japanese scrolls and rain-sculpted limestone), then an easel, a storage trolley with three levels (brushes, paint-tubes, miscellaneous), a second trolley with a slab of perspex across the top (palatte), and bottles of mediums and white spirits on the level below. Then the largest wall hung with partially-finished paintings, stretched linen canvases leaning below. The wall paper, which I painted white, is patterned with bumps and ridges, which always show through when I make large drawings against the wall. There is a slab of metal in the floor against the opposite wall (under the extendable table), where there was once a fireplace. I can peer down between the large gaps in the old, uneven floorboards (painted grey), where I’ve lost many nails.
My studio is up three flights of rickety stairs that gradually narrow as your ascend, a Victorian-era building I think. There is a comforting musty smell as soon as you enter downstairs, which is replaced by the sharp tang of white spirits, or the smoother aroma of linseed oil when you reach my studio, always slightly out of breath from the stairs. In the afternoon the sun circles around and shines through the sheer, gauzy hanging in my window, casting delicate gold patterns across my reference images and partial-paintings. This is when I sit the black armchair and do little more than watch the light, and take photos on my phone, sometimes post to my instagram story, always captured by the prettiness.
This is the room where I slowly move towards making an artwork, where I read and make notes, where I drag pastels and ink across notebook pages, where I hammer together canvas bars, boil rabbit skin glue on my hot plate, where I cut linen to size and wrap it around the frames – squatting and stretching to staple. Layers of gesso followed by layers of marks, layers of paint.
Moments of intense action, followed by periods of inaction – thought, research, doubt.

To have a practice is to repeat, to do it again and again.

Where is my practice now? Is it in the studio, frozen in time, waiting in the partial-paintings. Or is it wherever I am, on the park bench or in this cramped apartment.

When the Arts Council announced funding to support artists making new and original work for online dissemination with the aim of engaging and benefiting the public during the COVID-19 crisis, it seemed to reinforce a myth that artists cannot help but produce work constantly, regardless of the conditions we are in. That despite the fact we are in our homes, perhaps without our own space, materials or equipment, despite the trauma of the events unfolding around us, even with a two week deadline, even if our practices have never come from or occupied virtual spaces before – new and original work would somehow burst forth from us, because we are unstoppable creative forces. All of this artwork would emerge to fill the void this crisis has created, to decorate the silent space, to entertain the public. 

But what if art practice is not a relentless waterfall of creativity and resourcefulness that will always find a way to flourish. What if it’s a little more delicate, and needs specific conditions in order to function, to reproduce itself. Essential conditions, specific to individual art practices.

Yesterday evening I joined an open Zoom call with a large group of peers (some known to me, some not), organised by an initiative to visit exhibitions in groups and discuss them afterwards, to listen to an audio performance by Isadora Epstein in response to Gabriel Kuri’s exhibition in the Douglas Hyde. It had been scheduled to happen in the gallery shortly after lock-down, and was adapted to online with images of the exhibition, graphics and audio. The hosts say that we now need to find new ways of engaging with art online.

My friend says she is happy to just wait until art can happen again in real life, and wonders if that’s bad of her. 

Irit Rogoff states that “meaning is never produced in isolation or through isolating processes but rather through intricate webs of connectedness” (2002).

What does that mean for meaning now? What and where are the webs of connectedness? She is referring to the art space as a zone of potential collectivity, “collectivity is something that takes place as we arbitrarily gather to take part in different forms of cultural activity such as looking at art”. She insists that ‘we’ is central to the experience of art. Right now I don’t really know how to talk about art without the we, and without the art.
But I have started drawing again. 

Published by nataliepullen

Dublin-based visual artist, writer and researcher. Visual art practice: MA Art in the Contemporary World (1.1), National College of Art and Design, 2019

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