Understanding the ‘Oak Tree’ in conceptual art via Russian politics

Stuart Bush Studio Blog, Oak Tree, Conceptual art
©1973 Michael Craig Martin, An Oak Tree (1973) – All rights are reserved and are with the artist. 
 
Understanding the ‘Oak Tree’ in conceptual art via Russian politics
 
I have always had an intellectual curiosity about the principles and ideas behind conceptual art. In Michael Craig-Martin’s artwork, ‘Oak Tree’ (1973), I am interested in how he claims to transform a glass water into an ‘Oak Tree’?  How does the artist subvert people’s observations of the world?
 
I had fresh insight into understanding this artwork and mental concept after recently watching a film by Adam Curtis called, ‘How propaganda turned Russian politics into a circus.’ The documentary discusses and explains how Russian politics is using conceptual ideas from the art world to confuse people so that they are never sure what exactly is occurring.
 
Vladislav Surkov is an advisor to Vladimir Putin. Surkov was an aspiring artist who trained as a theatre director.  He has imported ideas from conceptual art into Russian politics and thereafter into Russian daily life.  

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This came to the attention of the UK after the Friday 2 March 2018 Salisbury attack.  Two men from the Russia military intelligence service, the GRU, entered the UK from Russia.  Police believe that the two men travelled during the weekend to Salisbury.  It is alleged that while they were there they contaminated the front door of the home of Sergei and Yulia Skripal. Sergei Skripal is a former Russian agent who has defected to the west. Sergei and Yulia Skripal were found collapsed on a bench in Salisbury.  They had been poisoned with a chemical weapon called Novichok.   Later DS Nick Bailey also fell ill after going to their home.
 
In Curtis’s film, he explains that the Kremlin is very calculating. They intended to create a sense of confusion and falseness where no one is able to find the truth. This is similar to the way the artwork, ‘An Oak Tree’ attempts to create uncertainty.
 

Further reading on understanding conceptual art

Marcel Duchamp 'Fountain' (1917)
The initiator moves the truth, like in the Salisbury attack and in the artwork, to wherever they want.  In the ‘Oak Tree’, Craig-Martin tells the viewer the glass of water on a glass shelf is an Oak Tree. In the Salisbury attack, Russia completely denies they had any involvement in the poisoning. However, officials in the UK are confident that the two Russian suspects were involved.
 
‘Gaslighting’ is the next stage of the process. This is a form of intimidation and psychological abuse where the offender denies everything, leading the victim to doubt their own perception of events.  The offender then responses like a school bully, telling everyone they are imagining things and laughing at them.  Then he draws attention to something else in order to undermine them. In this case, the Russian foreign Minister tweeted a funny video of the UK Prime Minister dancing.  In the ‘Oak Tree’ Craig-Martin draws attention to the mental conception through the questions and answers.
 

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A painting has to stand up by itself 
Last week the Russians released a film where the two suspects talk about their phoney interest in Salisbury’s history.  Their statement appears to come straight from Wikipedia. The Russians flatly deny any involvement. The outcome of this is that the UK officials to start to second guess their instincts. 
 
The whole Salisbury attack experience has given the UK and the world an insight into Russian daily life and the television they are allowed to view.  It shows to  Russian nationals who are thinking about defecting, that not only can the state find them anywhere in the world, but also that the state can leave traces back to Moscow.  If the state gets suspected or caught out they will then just laugh the problem away.
 

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Just like in Monty Python and the Holy Grail where the French taunt the English outside their castle.  The Russian state is saying that we know that you know we did it and we have come up with this absurd response to further humiliate you.  
 
Michael Craig-Martin said about an ‘Oak Tree’, “I was trying to work out what was the essence of a work of art. I thought it had to do with suspension of disbelief. You get it in theatre – why not in art?”
 
The Salisbury attack is very similar to the ‘Oak Tree’ (1973) artwork but with much more humiliation and an affront to the viewer.
 

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Michael Craig-Martin’s book, ‘On being an artist’ – book review

Tomma Abts Serpentine exhibition review

Tomma Abts, Hebe, Stuart Bush Studio Blog, Tomma Abts Serpentine Exhibition review
Tomma Abts, Fiebe, 2017 Acrylic & oil on canvas 48 × 38 cm, 18 7/8” × 15” Courtesy Private Collection
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.
Stuart Bush Studio Blog, Fimme, 2013 Tomma Abts Serpentine exhibition review
Tomma Abts, Installation view, Serpentine Sackler Gallery, London (7 June– 9 September 2018) © 2018 readsreads.info
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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Tate Audio and Video on Tomma Abts
 
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.
Stuart Bush Studio Blog, Tomma Abts Serpentine exhibition review
Tomma Abts, Installation view, Serpentine Sackler Gallery, London (7 June– 9 September 2018) © 2018 readsreads.info
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.
Stuart Bush Studio Blog, Tedo, 2002, Tomma Abts Serpentine Exhibition review
Tomma Abts, Installation view, Serpentine Sackler Gallery, London (7 June– 9 September 2018) © 2018 readsreads.info
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.
Stuart Bush Studio Blog, Tomma Abts Serpentine Exhibition review
Tomma Abts, Installation view, Serpentine Sackler Gallery, London (7 June– 9 September 2018) © 2018 readsreads.info
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.
Stuart Bush Studio Blog, Tomma Abts Serpentine exhibition review
Tomma Abts, Installation view, Serpentine Sackler Gallery, London (7 June– 9 September 2018) © 2018 readsreads.info

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How I see art contributing to society

Christo, The London Mastaba, Hyde Park 2018, Stuart Bush Studio Blog, painting blog
Christo, The London Mastaba, Hyde Park 2018
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.

Link to a review of Christo, The London Mastaba

Independent: Christo's latest sculpture weighs 600 tons (and it floats)
 
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.  
 
Stuart Bush Studio Blog, untitled sketch, in the city, How I see art contributing to society?
Stuart Bush, untitled sketch
“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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What l see in the work of Jeff Koons

Jeff Koons, Play-Doh, Stuart Bush Studio Blog
Jeff Koons, Play-Doh (1994—2012) Newport Gallery All right reserved by the artist
 
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 Balloon Monkey, Stuart Bush Studio Blog
Jeff Koons, Balloon Monkey (Blue) 2006-2013 Newport Gallery All rights reserved by the artist
 
 
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.”
 

What I see in Jeff Koons website link

http://www.jeffkoons.com
 
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. 
Jeff Koons, Acrobat, Stuart Bush Studio blog
Jeff Koons, Balloon Monkey (Blue) 2006-2013 Newport Gallery All rights reserved by the artist
 
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.
 

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The search for originality in the artist’s studio

©Stuart Bush, Nobodies fault, oil on board 70.2 x 50.4 x 3.6cm – enquiry

 

A space to play, where anything is possible is such an important place for a creative person.  Having a space to go to and process the world and its complexities is extremely valuable and I feel very lucky to have the freedom around my full-time job and family life.

 

There is something very special about making work with just a few strokes with an open mind in an instant.  A pencil or brush in my hand with an open mind allows me to be transported to a place where ideas are instinctive, intuitive and spontaneous.  Accidents from unintended footprints, rings from coffee cups, photocopiers, spills and accidents all have their place.   These studio sessions often leave my thoughts uncovered and on display in their raw state where my ego is left aside.

 

These ideas can be explored and refined but at this point, the conscious self comes back into the room.  The energy and emotions in the preliminary drawings and paintings that came from this outburst of freedom can often be lifted onto another sheet for further refinement. The open-ended problem creation can often be more prized than the problem solving finished work that follows.

 

I find that at this point, just after the preliminary studies, I don’t know what I have got.  I often find a place to store this work and revisit it at a later time.  This time-lapse helps me to realise what I have really got.  This is when l contemplate the potential and hopefully uncover original ideas.  After all, everything has been done before, very little is original.  New work is often a shadow or an echo of what the artist has seen or experienced before.  This process can also often lead to selecting, editing and reworking, to look for originality.  The artist’s studio is also a place for destruction, recovery and transformation.

 

Chuck Close, the New York painter, has this to say,  

“We often don’t know what we want to do, but we sure as hell know what we don’t want to do.  So the choice not to do something is often more important than the choice to do something.”  

I find problem creation as a process is much more effective in finding interesting art than a problem-solving approach.

 

If you like this post and the work above please comment about this post below or join my mailing list here to have these posts sent to your inbox in a newsletter once a month.

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When the needs to be creative gets inside you

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When the need to be creative gets inside of you

©Stuart Bush, The Quality of Absence, oil on aluminium panel 80 x 112 cm – enquiry
When you see a successful artist or creative person doing their thing, are you inspired and wish you could do what they do?  Instead of believing in yourself does self-doubt, or the risk of rejection, ridicule or humiliation stop you?  It might be the creative act itself or taking the artwork to the next level and letting other people see it that stops you.  However, the need to be creative is a powerful force.  When I haven’t been to the studio for a little while l feel its loss.  I’m sure many people reading this can relate to the need to be creative and also the need to hide their talents.
 
Have you heard about the sad story about a lady called Vivian Maier who lived in Chicago?  http://www.vivianmaier.com Vivian spent most of life working as a caregiver.  When she died, there were over 100,000 negatives found in a storage unit in her name. Throughout her life, she hid her passion from the outside world.  There is lots of speculation about why she did this, but no one will ever know for sure apart from Vivian herself.  Since her death, Vivian’s work has been compared to the world-renowned photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson.
 
I think we build up self-doubt in our heads and it becomes a mindset that is often overwhelming.  It seems that Vivian hid her gift from the world because of her vulnerability.  I have also been trying to find a way to overcome the self-doubt problem.  I found these words of advice from successful artists useful:
 
Vincent Van Gogh;
“If you hear a voice within saying I cannot paint by all means paint and that voice will be silenced”.  
Susan Hiller;
“To a young artist, I would say: just go day by day and see what happens. Don’t worry about other people’s judgment.”
Rachel Jones;
“Ultimately, you have to understand who you are making your work for: it should be for you, that is the first thing.”
This is all very good advice but life isn’t that simple.  Questions like how to find the time, how to keep positive while keeping your vision and integrity are extremely challenging.
 
In Eric Fischl’s book, ‘Bad Boy’, he gives some interesting advice,
“Art is a process and a journey. All artists have to find ways to lie to themselves, find ways to fool themselves into believing that what they’re doing is good enough, the best they can do at that moment, and that’s okay. Every work of art falls short of what the artist envisioned. It is precisely that gap between their intention and their execution that opens up the door for the next work.”
And Chuck Close said,
“Bread crumbs’, by working, stuff comes out of working.  That is very different from dreaming something up and executing it.  Inspiration is for amateurs, the rest of us show up and get to work.”
One further explanation from John Cleese.  
“Most of the time we are in a closed mind, think when we are at work.  There are a tension and pressure to get the work done.  There are lots to be done, and we have to get on with it so there is little humour.  It is purposeful time but not creative time.
 
Then there is the open mode, where we are relaxed and playful in what we do.  We follow our curiosity as we are not under pressure.  Through play, we find what we like and want to do.”
 
Do you have any thoughts on creativity?  What do you do to enable yourself to carry on when self-doubt creeps in?  Do you have any words of advice to help overcome self-doubt and procrastination?  Do you feel held back from following your creative instincts?

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©Stuart Bush, The Quality of Absence (in progress) – enquiry

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Book review – Eric Fischl’s ‘Bad Boy’

©Stuart Bush Blind boy (2007) oil on canvas 50 x 70 cm
©Stuart Bush Blind boy (2007) oil on canvas 50 x 70 cm

Eric Fischl was born in 1948 in New York City, his suburban upbringing and career as an internationally acclaimed American artist is presented in his book ‘Bad Boy’.

Fischl shares his deep wounds when discussing his personal relationships, especially with his depressed and alcoholic mother. These troubling experiences made their way into his artwork creating a dialogue about his personal wounds and ironically they ultimately lead to him getting into trouble.

The death of Fischl’s mother inspired the work he became famous for. It is interesting that after his first solo show in New York at the Edward Thorp Gallery in 1979 and the following success lead to him ‘going off the rails’ as the book title suggests and he enjoyed success a little too much.

Fischl’s book is informative and helpful to other artists. There are interesting advice and tips on how to deal with the process of being a successful artist and he discusses the issues and ideas in his work.

Eric Fischl says in the book, 

“Painting is a process that guides me back through complex experiences that I didn’t have words to describe or understand.  It relieves feelings and memories and brings them forward with clarity and resolution.  Each one of my paintings is like a journey, a process to excavate nuggets of emotion, artefacts of memory, the treasures buried in my unconscious. My imagery evokes feelings that were once too painful to ephemeral or too embarrassing to articulate or even to remember.”

Eric Fischl’s ideas are well developed and considered as you would expect from someone who has had international success as an artist. He uses clear, convincing and honest language. I think the book is a good read and has lots of information and advice about dealing with life an artist. I enjoyed reading it and strongly recommend it.

©1981 Eric Fischl, Bad boy, oil on linen, 170 cm × 240 cm - All rights reserved by Eric Fischl
©1981 Eric Fischl, Bad boy, oil on linen, 170 cm × 240 cm – All rights reserved by Eric Fischl

Link to the book on Amazon

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A painting has to stand up by itself

©Stuart Bush, A section of ourselves as a commodified object, oil on aluminum panel, 80 x 120cm

Often I think viewers look at works of art and immediately ask themselves why did the artist make this? Understanding the original idea or intention of why I made it defeats my ambitions for this artwork.  Instinct led me to paint this painting.  My aims are never going to be clear.

Braque said;

“the only thing that matters in art is what that cannot be explained.”

A person viewing an artwork comes to see the work with their own unique background, knowledge, and history. Art does not have a purpose and function like a design. It is not essential to try and understand why I made this artwork. The artwork now exists on its own, and it has to stand up by itself.

Everyone sees things differently.  Two things are put together, and they create meaning. The best artworks in my eyes mean different things to different people.

Like Duchamp said;

“the artist has only 50% of the responsibility and that is to get the work out, it is completed by the viewer.”

I’m interested in this part of myself where this artwork comes from. The parts of life I am curious about exploring and that I am hung up on.  I’m not in control of what comes out. Creativity is instinctive, and it is buried within me.

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