Julianne Thomson’s Spin Exhibition at Yale-NUS College

Julianne Thomson artist Yale-NUS College Singapore
Julianne Thomson’s The Leanover

As an art student, how do you navigate the perennial tension between the ‘rules’ you are taught and the thing that drew you to art in the first place—the ability to express yourself creatively? For that matter, how does any student navigate the tension, learning from the past without mindlessly and slavishly copying?

Julianne Thomson is a final-year art student at Yale-NUS College, and Spin is a body of work she produced for her ‘capstone’ project, the last work all seniors complete before graduating. If there is ever a time when those tensions between individual creative freedom and the strictures of an educational environment come to the fore, this is it. Yet what makes Julianne’s work fascinating is the self-consciousness with which she broke the artistic ‘rules’ she was taught—she subtly pushes the rules and eventually breaks them, but all the while does so knowingly and overtly. This is much more nuanced than youthfully railing against your professors’ strictures. It is at once a nod to the professors and a nod to the students, a foot in both camps. 

Spin was conceived from the depths of autobiography—a tragedy at a beach in Indonesia involving a close friend—but no autobiography is needed to approach these works. The Leanover (2017-18) is the star of the show. Moving fluidly between abstraction and representation—you see a face one minute, nothing but swirls of colour the next, and a body a minute later—this work is a statement of colour and texture. A background pushes forward against the flowing, emerald-like lines of blue, but then seems to draw back again. Yellow, red and blue dominate the canvas but are applied in such a way that they still appear wet and liquidy, drips flowing from top to bottom, and ‘waves’ moving laterally. Part of this is to do with the ‘rules’ Julianne is breaking by applying acrylic (‘lean’) over oil, which helps her gain such a marbling effect: technically, art students are taught the ‘fat-over-lean’ rule where acrylic should always be applied under oil for the sake of the longevity of the work. Breaking the rules were necessary for the watery effect Julianne needed: the art student moves from student to artist. 

Blue Spin is a more gestural and emotional work than The Leanover, colours less gentle and brushstrokes stronger. Again a sense of liquid is overwhelming, the swirls, shapes and textures emphasising the fluidity of the paint. But then you see it: bottom-right, a vertical slice through the canvas. This is no Lucio Fontana-like meditation on the nature of space and the canvas, however: this is a mark of aggression and pain, not the studio-conceived minimalism of Fontana’s works. Near the puncture in the canvas one can still make out the marks of Julianne’s feet which stood on this canvas, stomped on it, in frustration. This painting bears some of the pain from which it was conceived, for those who look carefully.

A year is not all that long with which to produce your first complete body of work—the first time, too, that you have to hang your own gallery space, with all the decisions and logistics that involves—and there is an expected unevenness to the exhibition. Some works, like The Thick, the largest canvas in the exhibiton—a low-hung, horizontal banner—are as individual works still needing resolution. We can still see the process and the struggle taking place before time ran out and the works needed to be hung. But to find anything else would have been disappointing: this is the very beginning of an artistic journey, the somewhere-between-primordial-and-emerging marks of the early stages of an artistic career. In this context, the visible search for resolution in some works is a reminder of how much more there is to come, ultimately with the more general resolution, polish and power of The Leanover.

Walking around Spin I had the overwhelming impression of liquid and water both as subject and form—liquid as in a sense what these works are about, but also liquid as what enabled these works. From the emerald-blue marbling in The Leanover, to the repetitions of wave-like forms horizontally in The Thick, to the sense of looking through a layer of liquid in Over The Archipelago, it is fluid and water that seems to wash over the room. Fluid kills, and it gives life: remember the pain in Blue Spin, but the sense of joy some of these paintings give. So as you then walk out of the exhibition and see the pond at the heart of Yale-NUS College’s campus, and as you join the stream of people flowing around, this meditation on liquids and surfaces seems all the more pertinent.

Spin is the exhibition one hopes for from an art student about to become simply artist. Its reflections and its lessons on learning as a student and knowing when to move beyond your lessons are ones relevant to all of us in such a context—and they are, when looking around the exhibition one last time and glimpsing The Leanover, inspiring.

Julianne Thomson Spin Yale-NUS College The Leanover

Julianne Thomson’s Blue Spin, left foreground.

The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Ubiquity

If what was lost from a work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction was its ‘aura’, then what is lost today in the age of digital ubiquity? Few works of art are reproduced at all, but most are made digitally permanent and multiform—created not with paints and canvas or woodcut or lithography, but often with strokes of the finger upon a screen. In those cases where oil paint is still revered, the artwork is photographed once and then seems to exist not in space but within a billion screens. 

‘Aura’, the attachment of an art object to its tradition, is certainly lost, but what more? What is lost when works of art are primarily viewed not as material objects—whether reproduced as a print or as a painted ‘original’—but through a 4-inch screen? What is lost when the principal means of viewing art is through Instagram posts? (I was planning to fly to Art Basel, the centre of contemporary art, but decided not to since the galleries displaying there had posted photos of their booths online).

I’m asking about the gulf between an artist’s print like a photograph or a lithograph and that same lithograph viewed through an Instagram post. Even a film has lost its material existence on a tape or a slide. Benjamin could write those fifty years ago that “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” But now in the age of digital ubiquity this fragment seems to hold true to our own day and not Benjamin’s: the digitally reproduced artwork is severed from time and space in a way that a perfectly reproduced lithograph is not. The roll of tape that holds a Dziga Vertov film still has its unique existence at the place where it happens to be, as does any number of reproductions of, say, Goya’s Caprichos. But a photograph of that same Capricho? Just where, exactly, does it happen to be?

Maybe it’s something like spirit—aura, but with feeling and heart. A mechanically reproduced artwork seems to me still to have something like spirit, even if it has less aura than the ‘authentic’ painting it is based on: you can pick it up, you can move it, you can hang it, you can damage it, you can gift it. Even a printed photograph carries with it the material traces of its existence, though it may not have the authenticity or the aura of seeing Guernica, say, in the flesh (the room at the Reina Sofia in Madrid even seems to smell of the paint). But an artwork discovered through a screen has lost more than ‘aura’, more than the connection to its tradition, as Benjamin describes it—in losing its materiality, even the materiality of a print or a copy, a work of art in the age of digital ubiquity has lost all relationship to the artwork’s past or its future. It’s as though it has been severed from time itself, bound to exist forever and everywhere, but refusing to carry with it the history of its creation or its existence. 

National Gallery, a Film by Frederick Wiseman: A Brief Review

I happened to read a review in The Guardian of Frederick Wiseman’s 2014 movie National Gallery before I saw the film. That review’s title is devastatingly brutal: “A crushingly dull documentary that lacks an eye for art.” It is such a harsh  headline that I almost decided not to spend the three hours watching—but I’m grateful I ignored it, because Wiseman’s National Gallery is a masterfully subtle meditation on the role of the world’s great galleries. The film can even be called art itself.

Wiseman’s genius with National Gallery is to document the institution, on the one hand, but on the other to demonstrate the experience of being at such a gallery. The scenes change quickly, and we never really quite get shown a painting for long enough to take it in. The camera angles are at times awkward, or someone happens to wander in front of a painting at the wrong time. There is a lot of talking. There is no music. There is bickering among gallery administrators, and some of these scenes run on for absurdly long lengths of time. But far from being boring, Wiseman gets in subtle humour, letting glimpses of paintings speak for him. A rapid montage of a range of facial expressions in paintings had me laughing out loud, so perfectly were the expressions timed to correspond to the at-times absurdity of such an institution—or simply the beauty of the constant looking-at and being-looked-at. All of this, down to the person wandering in front of a painting at just the wrong time, is exactly the universal and unalterable experience of being in a museum like the National Gallery.

Wiseman’s is a respectful but honest documentary of the National Gallery, and it is artful in how it gets across the essence of the experience of the world’s great museums. Ignore that review in The Guardian—if anything, the reviewer lacked an eye for the subtle art of this film. Far better is the review in The New Yorker; and better yet, just go watch the film.

On Te Papa’s Toi Art / New Zealand’s Need for a National Art Gallery

New Zealand National Art Gallery - Te Papa Toi Art - Parekowhai Detour
Michael Parekowhai’s Detour and Colin McCahon’s Northland Panels installed in the foyer to Te Papa’s new Toi Art on the day of its opening in March 2018.

To be clear, Te Papa’s recent expansion of its dedicated art space for displaying the national art collection is an improvement on the old space. The 35% expansion was needed and is to be celebrated, as are the thoughtful spaces and details designed by Warren and Mahoney Architects. But the improvements are, in the end, a bit like expanding and redecorating a leaky home—it does not matter what you do on the inside when the institution and structure itself aren’t serving their purpose. So Toi Art, as Te Papa has termed the redesigned art gallery, does absolutely nothing to negate the need for a stand-alone national art gallery; and in fact, after seeing the institution’s choices of what art to display there, it becomes a glaring symbol of why we need one.

A National Art Gallery must serve a specific function, and it is a function very different to the role that both private museums and smaller galleries play (to say nothing of dealer galleries). A local gallery, whether it be the Suter in Nelson or the City Gallery in Wellington, must provide for the dual need of displaying the visual tradition of its place as well as reflecting the times that its visitors now live in. Most of the time, especially in rural communities, the institution may well be the only dedicated art space in the town or city, and so must provide multiple functions. The Auckland Art Gallery is an exemplar of a local gallery, with a permanent international collection and exhibitions, rotating exhibitions of New Zealand art, and the constant addition of contemporary exhibitions from New Zealand and abroad.

A National Gallery meets a different need, and its functions must therefore be very different. Its role is to reflect the tradition of the nation (showing, too, how that tradition is derived from elsewhere in a long history) and to make this visual tradition accessible to both citizens and foreign visitors. It is necessarily located in a specific place, and that this place is the capital city is taken for granted. But its function is practically irrespective of both its time and its place since it reflects the needs of the nation as a whole. The National Art Gallery of New Zealand should, at heart, be concerned with making our visual culture plain. It is necessarily an historical institution, because it is only with the passage of time that the cultural tradition can be understood and assessed—it is only with the benefit of hindsight that we can determine what has made us who we as a people now are.

Toi Art, out of some perverse need to be seen as “relevant” and “contemporary” (never mind that those are goals antithetical to organising and making accessible our national cultural tradition) has viewed as its competition the Auckland Art Gallery, forgetting entirely that it exists in a category with no competition. There is, after all, just one National Art Gallery. And so, to open the new exhibition spaces, Te Papa commissioned Michael Parekowhai to create a contemporary conceptual piece that would comment on museums and their role, as if it were a local gallery needing to fulfil many different functions at once. Parekowhai’s Détour dominates the single entryway to Toi Art: a visitor will see an array of metal tubing, like construction scaffolding, attached to which (hanging down, or being thrust forward) are paintings and artworks from the National Gallery vaults. Between the artworks are giant plastic creatures—an elephant, for one, and what seems to be a monkey-cum-Tiki.

No less an artwork than Colin McCahon’s Northland Panels are attached to Parekowhai’s Duchamp-inspired contraption, amidst Frances Hodgkinses and Theo Schoon photographs, to name just a couple. This happened to be my first time seeing the Northland Panels in its material form, after having grown up seeing reproductions—an exciting moment for an art historically interested New Zealander. Far from making McCahon’s inspiring and emblematic canvases accessible to New Zealanders and to visitors, Toi Art’s choice of display both interfered with any clear view, and risked the material future of McCahon’s canvases for generations after mine. The way the scaffolding structure was placed meant that visitors to Toi Art are ducking under and between different metal poles to see different artworks, and one of these poles was placed directly in front of McCahon’s canvases. The panels are “paintings to walk past”, as McCahon described them, but Parekowhai’s artwork seems determined to make this impossible. Even worse, in the time I was there I witnessed a shoulder brushing the fourth canvas (they are displayed completely unprotected), while the only docent nearby was busy telling frustrated visitors that they could not duck under a nearby pole lest they damage the Hodgkins hanging from it.

My criticism, to be very clear, isn’t about Parekowhai’s artwork, which, in a different context and with different artworks attached to the contraption, I might thoroughly enjoy. My criticism is that Te Papa’s confusion of its role not only hinders New Zealanders from being able to clearly and directly access and understand the kind of visual culture that artworks like McCahon’s Northland Panels represent (and I certainly could not enjoy or understand the panels as they deserved to be), but the institution’s choices even risk those artworks’ existence for future generations. Détour is, quite simply, an enormous and glaring symbol of the problem with the National Art Gallery’s inclusion within Te Papa. Parekowhai’s giant plastic elephant (appropriately titled Standing on Memory), which rears itself up on top of the contraption, seemed to me in the end to represent the weight of the institution risking crushing all the art beneath it—and, if not crushing it, then being simply so distracting as to render all other traces of our visual culture irrelevant. (I wonder, even, if Parekowhai has used his commission to subvert Te Papa with this kind of message; but if so, that idea seems to have been largely lost).

And there we see that the problem with the National Gallery’s inclusion in Te Papa isn’t about space or budget at all. It is instead that the very role of a National Gallery has been forgotten and confused within a larger institution, and that the context of viewing our visual culture within a larger museum—after you visit the Earthquake House, before you go see the Giant Squid—undermines the very goals of promoting and making accessible that culture. There is a legitimate criticism of the common ‘sealing off’ of ‘high’ art from the rest of culture, but if there is one place where this sealing off might be defended it is at the National Gallery. It is necessary there because the National Gallery is the preserver of visual culture of last resort—there is nowhere else to finally understand what it means to be a New Zealander through our art, or to study and research a collection as large, broad and significant as the National Gallery’s. Most of us will see the Northland Panels and other masterworks of our culture just a few times in our lives, and having McCahon’s work levelled to the same status as the giant squid does no viewer any favours, nor does it do New Zealand any favours in the eyes of the many foreign visitors who come through Te Papa’s doors.

Toi Art does nothing to reduce the need for a stand-alone national gallery. It simply brings into relief the absolute necessity of one.