Tomma Abts (1967) is a German-born painter who lives in London. In 2006 Tomma won the Turner Prize and has since gone on to exhibit in many institutions around the world. In this Tomma Abts Serpentine exhibition review, I want to discuss her interesting static compositions and consider what I think the artist wants to say through the work.
Tomma Abts’s quiet and unique work could never be described as pretty. Her strange visual illusions at first glance look like 1950s wallpaper. Each painting contains zigzags, puzzles and twists on her trademark sized 48 x 38cm canvases. Tomma worked mainly on canvases of this size for the last 20 years, only recently introducing, different sized and shaped canvas. The title of her paintings were taken from a German dictionary of first names, Uphe, Zebe, Mehm, Veeke, Meko and Noeme.
Tomma was attracted to the Sackler gallery rather than the main Serpentine Gallery. She quickly realised that by leaving the powder rooms at the centre of the gallery empty with only the brickwork showing she could put her work in a sequence around the outside. Laying out the paintings in a precise order enables her to control the sense of movement for the viewer; and links her work carefully to the architecture. The positioning and lighting emphasises the relationships in each of her paintings between the contrast of the foreground and background.
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Tomma begins each painting without any preconceived ideas about what the picture will look like. The first task is to use a quick wash of acrylic paint to the canvas. This is followed by an evolution of intuitive decisions in oil paint to create sculptural paintings that add depth to the two-dimensional surface.
Tomma says, “not knowing what the outcome might be is what makes me want to start another painting. I have no plans, sketches or preconceptions when I begin; it is just decision after decision – an ongoing process of putting something onto the canvas and then editing it, then putting something down and editing it again – and in that way slowly constructing something…The making itself leads the way. The image is the manifestation of the process.”
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It is a common theme in painting that when an artist changes their mind about a previous decision they often feel compelled to hide that journey in the painted layers. There is a very long phase of searching and discovery, and trial error can be seen in each painting. In overpainting, there are submerged shapes turning the painting into a record of compressed time and space in flux. Each painting has a life of its own and eventually arrives at a lyrical composition of colour and illusory space. The obscured passages of rifts and forms are like previous states of mind hidden in the surface.
The result is a painting that uses the way forms catch the light and shadows. Tomma says, “I can’t really say what it will look like or how it will finish or what will make it work. It’s a different idea or moment for each painting.” Each painting has a unique relationship and balance of colour and form.
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There is no content, leaving you wondering what point Tomma is trying to make. The paintings are a reflection of a process. The viewer skids across the surface, trying to get a grip but failing. The emptiness of the paintings captivate the viewer and invite reams of commentary.
The whole exhibition feels like an artwork in itself. My mind wondered into the thoughts of Corbusier utopian dreams for Paris. The artworks around the outside of the gallery are like the suburbs in the peripheral areas of the city. The inner architecture, the brickwork of the powder rooms is like the working heart of the city. The intuitive paintings, where one step leads to the next, come from Tomma’s inner architecture and soul. The lines, forms and rhythms offer a kind of purity, with each painting having its own unique sensation.
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When I saw Christo’s new art project in Hyde Park London and read his quote, “A work of art is a scream of freedom,” I know I needed to tell you about how I see art contributing to society.
Every artist contributes to society in their own special way. Artists look to find ways to engage the wider pubic through their work to consider and reconsider the way they see the world. Whether it is contributing to overall health and wellbeing of our society by rethinking about what we are doing and considering in new approaches or by providing inspiration, interaction and joy to uplift the spirit.
Being an artist for me is a licence to look deeply; to follow my curiosity, to unpick and to make new connections with what I see. We live on this small rock in a massive universe without an accurate understanding of what it is all about. I perceive making art as a form of therapy to open up the world and open up people’s minds to a higher spectrum. To deal with and come to terms with everyday life.
“The first step to controlling your world is to control your culture. To model and demonstrate the kind of world you demand to live in. To write the books. Make the music. Shoot the films. Paint the art.” Chuck Palahniuk, American novelist and journalist
To my eyes painting is the best way to communicate and connect with others within a collective effort. I am not trying to convey the world as I see it. As an artist, I absorb it and try to communicate the world as it really is.
I have an intellectual curiosity and commitment to bring the truth to light. Through my art making, I want to be known for using my artistic creativity to widen and broaden the visual field. Therefore, reveal a whole new range of potential meaning.
There are many benefits of living in an exciting contemporary culture. I see myself as part of a community whose work can make a significant contribution to society and the world today. I want to contribute to human growth by joining into the conversation.
“If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him.” John F Kennedy
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As we grow up, there is lots of pressure on us to fit into society. We sometimes look with envious eyes at what others have achieved. At school, it is intellectual abilities that seem to count and in the media popular attractive pin-ups stand out. As we compare ourselves to others we can conclude that we are just not good enough. These thoughts can affect our ego and our spirit. If we withdraw we lose our footing, and then, when we try again, come up short. If we are not careful this can grow up into jealousy of other artist’s work and achievements.
When I was an art student I looked at a wide range of art. Enviability I was blown away by the work of successful artists. I compared my skills, talent, ability, knowledge and my output against what other artists produced. I ended up continually watching what others were doing. The outcome was inevitable. These thoughts began to limit my ability to think creatively, and they became overwhelming. I started to feel I didn’t deserve to be an artist and it threatened my self-worth.
A way forward without being jealous of other artist’s work
To be a successful artist I needed to figure out a way to unlearn what was causing me harm. A way was to stop comparing myself to others. It was counterproductive feeling. I realised that there was no way I was able to make the same work as another artist, and I didn’t want to.
I realised that l should not be competing with other artists, I needed to run my own race. It’s my process and my path. My work isn’t going to look like other artists. I am now fully aware that if I get distracted by looking at other artist’s outputs, I will lose my energy and focus. If l allow myself to become distracted then I will have to learn to refocus and listen to my inner voice again.
I now give myself artistic permission to be myself and make what I want. It is important to be acknowledged for my individuality and I have different strengths to my peers. I look at what makes me unique, and push it forward in my work.
Now when I need inspiration, I look in lots of places. I may look at other artist’s work to learn their processes but I don’t compare my output with their output. Instead, I feed off the creative ideas, take what l want and develop my own perspective and viewpoint. I avoid jealousy of other artist’s work because my own ideas are developing and growing.
A group of scientists recently looked into the most effective ways of learning. They suggested that long sessions and all-nighters don’t give us the best opportunity to learn. After reading about this 12 months ago, I changed my weekly studio calendar. I found from a simple change, there are advantages for developing your artistic practice and increasing learning in the studio. I now visit my studio multiple times in a week and do 2-3 hours, I not only achieve more, I also learn more.
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This is because our minds store information in many different places in our brains. This process strengthens the connections in our brain. With regularly spaced repetition we can make the most out of the way our minds work and achieve better retention of skills and knowledge.
It is mainly down to the frequency and the spacing of the intervals. So rather than visiting the studio once a week, try many shorter visits while repeating creative tasks. When you come and go you strengthened your knowledge. In the absence, your mind subconsciously works to resolve issues in your work. Ideas and solutions pop up when your away from the studio.
The moments in the artist’s studio are under our control. Anything that happens to your work outside the studio after it is made is out of your control. While opportunities to show your work are extra special they not supposed to be the reason for making the artwork. The reason why I am an artist and why I work on my artistic practice is focused on learning and advancing in the studio. By making something purposeful, I am feeding and enhancing my life’s work. I hope this piece of advice helps improvement at a faster pace. Afterall, the journey is the goal.
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‘All too human, Bacon, Freud and a century of painting life’ at Tate Britain, begins by following British painting after the Second World War. At this time in our history rumours about what had happened during the Holocaust were trickling into the media. During this period many books and essays were written as people tried to come to terms with what had taken place. This experience encouraged intellectuals to look inwards and ask hard questions about the purpose of human existence.
It was complexing to hear about the atrocities and then to consider how humans could behave in such a way. The central theme of this exhibition looked at what British representational painting achieved during this period. Artists including Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Stanley Spencer, Alberto Giacometti, Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff, R. B. Kitaj and David Bomberg amongst others explored whether painting life as it is had any answers. They took on the battle through the depiction of the figure, the flesh and the surrounding. The painters were asking, how after this experience, could art depict man with any conviction.
The lead curator Elena Crippa, and assistant curator Laura Castagnini from Tate Britain, laid out the show in chronological order. The hanging of the show highlights how the artists were influencing each other. The relationships and rivalries between teachers, mentors and friendships runs throughout this exhibition. The whole show contains approximately 100 works tracing the startling impact of this shocking time and the coming effect on following generations.
In the first room, I was drawn to the works of David Bomberg and Stanley Spencer. David Bomberg painted the rugged landscape of worn-torn cities capturing the light on structure and scenery. With his speciality handling of paint he tries to get a grip on the subject, simplifying what he saw. He records memories and emotional states in almost abstract shapes. Meanwhile there is forcefulness of the work of Spencer. He paints a representation of the life, of a person in the flesh. The direct and honest painting opens up the sitter to the viewer. The painting becomes about looking more deeply at the painting itself and the process of applying it.
Freud, ‘In Girl with White Dog by Lucian Freud’, 1950-1 sees life for the mystery it is. Freud highlights the estrangement and coldness of the body. He once said, ‘I want the paint to work as flesh does.’ It indeed does that under his intense observation. The romance is undoubtedly removed, and there is a feeling of distress in the compelling moment of the life of his sitter.
In Frank Auerbach’s painting, ‘Head of Jake,’ 1997 Auerbach tries to find a new way to depict life and capture the horrifying experience. He uses shapes and colours as symbolism to show what he saw. He created a vibrant, profound visual language that extends beyond the outer appearance. There is deep emotional charge in thick impasto style penetrating loss and depths of physical structures into evidence of the forgotten moments.
A lot of the work in this exhibition is influenced by the existentialist view that we live to suffer. Francis Bacon’s ‘Study for Portrait of Lucian Freud,’ 1964 depicts going beyond surviving and suffering through painting. Bacon sees art as “about trying to make something out of the chaos of existence.” He looks into the human condition like we are carcasses. He focuses on our alienation and disorientation of the visible world to stir emotions and tell the truth about the darkness of human characteristics.
At the end of the exhibition after seeing many great revealing and fascinating works of art, I felt I had learnt something about our purpose as humans in this world. For me, this exhibition highlights our existence while words can only fail to define it. When words are used to try and explain the physical experience they often come up short. Painting and art, in general, adds to our understanding in a substantial and meaningful way. Any outcome to these big questions without art is missing a truly more profound understanding.
The show concludes with a Lynette Yiadom-Boakye painting, ‘The Host Over a Barrel’ 2014 and Celia Paul ‘Painter and Model,’ 2012. Yiadom-Boakye invites the viewer to construct their own view of what she sees and ask questions about what painting is. While Paul’s meditative self-portrait captures herself as an artist contemplating and scrutinising her own form and presence as a painter of life.
I thoroughly enjoyed what this exhibition says about the human experience. This exhibition to me says yes to life. It questions life’s purpose and is like going into therapy. I would be interesting to know what the impact would be on an individual who has lost his way in life and whether they would say yes to life after visiting the show.
One of the artists that I found the most inspiring as a student was the inspirational work of Egon Schiele. At aged 16, Egon enrolled in the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. He died at the young age of 28. In those few years, he made some of the most enduring and intriguing work. I am very interested in understanding what it is in Egon Schiele’s work that encouraged me to follow my interest in art.
Egon Schiele was known for drawing mainly portraits and self-portraits. He worked in a striking graphic style that challenged the notion of beauty. Egon had a concise way of working, similar to a poem to conveys rich experiences and emotions.
It would be easy to have a fleeting look at Egon drawings and mistake them to be only about sexual arousal or pornography, but that misses the intent and the reason why I am drawn to his work. Egon not only shows sex as beautiful, but he also demonstrates how he questions and adores life through his work.
Egon was a prolific artist making over 3000 works over his short life. There is satisfaction from the artistry, extracting something from the seductive delights of life. Each one has an intensity and beauty capturing our physical existence and our desperation in being a person.
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Egon showed a unique and anguished look at our situation. I enjoyed the cropping of the frame with low direct angles in his drawings. The tortuous crooked fingers and appendages ask questions about our function, design and purpose. Each artwork generating meaning in its own way I have really enjoyed returning to look again at the work of Egon Schiele. I understand why his work gave me a purpose to be an artist. Egon Schiele’s fact-finding mission to record evidence about what life really with anger, sexual frustration and bewilderment helps you to remember how you saw the world as a young adolescent. Creating a porthole to a greater understanding of the human condition and the beauty of life.
In Egon’s drawings, he cultivated his own unique view to add to deepen our understanding of life. I continue to find his work easy to identify with and through writing this, I have a better understanding of why I followed the path into becoming an artist.
Please share with me the artists that have given you direction, purpose and sense who you might become. I recommend you check out Egon Schiele’s if you haven’t already.
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Every day I paint I have an adventure into the unknown.
Every day I am excited by the possibilities in the work.
Every day I paint I enjoy the production of novelty the most.
Every day I paint, I decide what I want to work on the night before. My unconscious mind thinks and contemplates it overnight. The next day I effortlessly to know where to start.
Every day I paint I don’t make it overly complicated.
Every day I paint my studio has to be free from distractions so l can get into a creative flow and stay in it. I get completely caught up and saturated in what I am doing. The painting leads the way, my hand and brush are in control rather than my brain. I have a deep involvement with the activity and time becomes distorted.
Every day I paint, it is not clear what needs to be done. The solution is elusive and an accident. Only when I am in a flow of creativity, unconscious decision making takes place. I surprise myself and produce work I am happy with.
Every day I paint, I try to be satisfied when the work is complete. If I put unnecessary pressure and stress on myself and let my perfectionist outlook win, the results are never good enough to meet my standards.
Every day I paint I hope something good will come, but if it doesn’t I don’t worry. Whether it is good or bad, that really doesn’t matter. When I finish, I always turn the work towards the wall and quickly move on to the next task.
Every day I paint I consider the work from previous sessions and give myself feedback. This enables me to move forward. I have to decide which ideas can be developed and which direction to take and then l know what to work on during the next session.
Every day I paint I am unsure if I am getting anywhere. Often I take one step forward, two steps sideways and one backwards. Every little while I stop and look back. Over months and years rather than days I learn something new and l know l am growing as a painter and as a person.
Every day I paint I am not interested in money and fame. It’s the pursuit that counts, not the attainment. I always enjoy and have fun within the process.
Every day I paint I work towards achieving something meaningful. My lifelong ambition is to make a significant contribution to culture. In doing so, I hope to help the human condition.
Every day I paint I love what I do. I love the process of making art more than the work I produce.
When I enter my studio I often have times when I need to be inspired. No matter what l do l meet resistance. I walk around the room, or I sit feeling frustrated with a closed mind. My mind doesn’t feel like being creative. Fighting this situation never works. All that happens is that l waste the day. I have to get out. I need to find a place to go to for inspiration.
Over time, l have learnt to embrace these moods and seek solace and inspiration elsewhere. Near my studio, I have a lovely country walk. Whatever the weather, I put my shoes on and head off.
While I am walking, I can consider all my unfinished business and jobs. Then I begin looking at the things around me. I try to move my mind to focus on my breathing and relax. I notice the sounds of the birds, the footsteps in the gravel and the beauty of my surroundings.
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My primary objective is to cultivate a happy mind. I might sit down on a bench and watch people walk past. Or I might pop out a sketchbook and draw whatever comes into my mind. If I don’t fancy a walk or if I return and my mood hasn’t shifted, I look through some of my art books. I start sketching from what seems interesting.
If I’m feeling at a loss about where to start when that pencil hits the page just start by moving it. I start with anything from a circle to scribble. Like a child, I try to create without judgement or expectations.
I see my job as an artist is to record what I see. For this to work well, and to be able to translate what I see in a new unique way, good quality inspiration is essential. I try to visit the museums and galleries in London at least once a month. I also look for opportunities for collaboration and to engage in useful and uplifting and stimulating discussions. Sooner or later I return to the studio with inspiration for my next step.
It is easy to be impressed by the work of Jeff Koons. He has an impressive art career and has gained international success. Koons has developed a secure grip on the art market and he can make whatever he wants. He often turns the popular; Michael Jackson with his pet monkey or scoops of Play-doh; into an expensive ceramic or stainless steel sculpture.
Plus, Koons is not afraid to make work that could potentially alienate him. It is easy to sneer at his works based on topics like guilt and shame. After all, we are all bound by our own unconscious and conscious signals. He openly encourages opinions on his art saying there is no right or wrong interpretation. His art challenges the idea that art needs emotional depth and taste. Koons work, whether your ambivalent about it or not, it clearly reflects our age and society especially his gazing balls and balloon dog.
Jeff Koons describes Balloon Dog: “It’s very mythic. There’s a sense of the interior to the piece, which is a bit like a Trojan piece. It’s very now – it’s like a balloon from a birthday party, and because it’s inflated, you imagine the birthday party was recent, not 20 years ago. A normal membrane of a balloon from 20 years ago would be completely deflated. At the same time, there’s a mythic and ritualistic quality; you can imagine people going around Balloon Dog in a sort of dance. A tribalistic quality.”
However, instead of just enjoying his work I am often distracted by the hype that surrounds it. He takes a couple of things from contemporary life that are somewhat one dimensional then puts them together to try to create a new meaning. They become carries or cyphers as Koons seeks to get you to think. Nevertheless, I feel his work lacks empathy and intellectual curiosity. Once you understand the idea behind a piece of his art, there is no hidden depth. For me, his wealth has become the spectacle and not for the right reason.
Koons has taken the idea of turning art into a business to a whole new level. He has developed a style of work that does not include the ‘original’ artistic hand. Instead, he employs specialist highly skilled artists and craftspeople to bring his concept to life while he focuses on micromanaging the output.
In doing so, Koons creates a new religion for art that celebrates the shallowness of capitalism and celebrity as his ego seeks to promote himself as the modern-day equivalent of the great artists of the past.
Whether you like his work or not his art does come across as uplifting and joyful. But I am sceptical about the broader intentions of such art. This leads me to find what he does and his unflinching confidence and self-belief admirable, while at the same time, disagreeable.
Sarah Sze is well known for her sculptures of large-scale installations. When l walked into the exhibition I was immediately meet by the flood of ideas. Sarah stimulating installations take the detritus from the frame, and her work appears to explode as if trying to escape. She instinctively relies on her painter’s instincts, as ‘Afterimage’ takes a closer look at the artist’s working practices as she looks at the relationships between objects in space and the contradictions between them.
Sarah Sze international art career started in the 1990s. In 2003 she won the won the MacArthur Fellowship. In 2013 she represented the USA at the at the Venice Biennale. She has exhibitions in many countries and her work is in many museum collections around the world.
The exhibition starts with her two-dimension work. These images are laid out like a collage on the wall. Everyday items from roughly torn images, photographs, string, sketches and more overlap. They are taped and stuck together as they continue to generate new thoughts and ideas. They gradually accumulate to turn the collage into part of the canvas. The paintings start with no definite beginning or end. They form a vast assemblage of content allowing thoughts to take off in many different directions at the same time.
One of the most intriguing parts of the exhibition for me is the presence of time and space. I realised the artist must have added to her works while in the room. This is engaging and stimulating. I felt like I was able to explore Sarah’s train of thought before, during and after the work was created. Sarah is communicating and documenting how we live in the present moment, how we are meant to focus on the present, but our thoughts are often elsewhere.
I found the contradictions in Sarah’s work absorbing. Not only do they show how time continues forward and backwards with videos, plants growing and decaying but also the presence and absence of form in the construction. As I interrupted the video projectors on the walls, I saw myself in the mirror and my silhouette appeared on the wall. However, Sarah is not interested in the objects themselves; her interest lies in the relationship between elements and what they say about us. She is showing us evidence, evidence of humanity’s impact. Giving an overall feeling of a laboratory where you are the witness. It reminds me of what Picasso once said, “Art is the lie that reveals the truth.”
In Sarah’s artwork, the individual objects have no value. However, Sarah creates value in the way the collage, painting and sculpture come together and the way the items are treated and placed. The physical relationship to the objects is familiar but this intimate experience of development and demise, in time and space, is encouraging us to reconsider everything again.
I found the exhibition very revealing about Sarah’s working practices. The exhibition asks questions about what we experienced before we arrived, what have experienced during the show and how this will change what we will see after we leave. The show left me thinking about the human race as a species and what evidence we are really leaving behind. I thoroughly recommend a trip to Victoria Miro to take a look.
External links to the Sarah Sze ‘Afterimage’ exhibition;