Tuesday, 26 February 2013

A tribute to Ralph Hotere

On the 24th of February the abstract artist Ralph Hotere died, aged 82.  I can't honestly claim he was a big influence for my work, but he is widely regarded as very influential in the New Zealand art scene and I am quite partial to some of his black paintings.  I'm partial to op art in general.  In memory of Mr. Hotere, let us take a moment to appreciate some of his work.

Godwit/Kuaka, courtesy of the Auckland Art Gallery

Hotere liked luminous effects and he liked vivid contrasts between deep blacks and bright, highly saturated colours.  He frequently used car paints to get the effect he wanted, because artists' paints of the time didn't have the right level of intensity.  Godwit/Kuaka uses car enamel to produce this brilliant effect.

Dawn/water poem, Manhire courtesy of artnet.com

In the mid-20th century New Zealand's art scene was gripped by a craze for using words in paintings.  All too often, this involved scrawling some words on the canvas and calling it a day, but here Hotere shows us that the text based painting doesn't have to be lazy.  He's used a clever combination of colour, line, and words to evoke the effect of sunrise over the ocean. 

I have a theory that this type of painting was a by-product of six o'clock closing.  Some readers may remember this dark chapter in our nation's history, when the law required public bars to stop selling alcohol at six p.m. and kiwis had just one hour to leave work, get to the nearest pub, and consume as much alcohol as was physically possible before the barlord called time.  If you had to stay behind to finish something, you missed out.  Of course, paintings take a lot of work, and inspiration is a tricky little beast.  You can't turn it on like a tap and have good ideas whenever you want them.  So it's my belief that word painting began when someone wanted to finish up quickly in time to get a pint, thus generating the hasty, uninspired work that characterised many such paintings.  But Hotere showed us that you can do something interesting with word paintings.  If I'm right, paintings like Dawn/water poem, Manhire may be the only positive result of six o'clock closing.

White Drip To Mr. Paul Holmes courtesy of kjohnsonnz.blogspot

White Drip To Mr. Paul Holmes is a visual pun that makes me smile every time I see it.  In 2003 Paul Holmes (who was indeed white, and it's safe to say Hotere and I agree on whether the term "drip" was appropriate) made himself notorious for referring to Kofi Annan as a "cheeky darkie".  I suspect the remark was deliberately made to get attention, and it wouldn't surprise me if Hotere thought so too.  Either way, he answered Holmes with a rather more intelligent comment of his own.

Hotere often used art to express his political and social views.  Many artists do, but they don't all do it as cleverly as this, or with quite the same level of humour.  I particularly like how, having made his point, Hotere proceded to rub it in by including the red X: "you are here".

Pathway to the Sea/Aramoana from odt.co.nz

It's only natural that an artist who loved to work with light effects should produce work incorporating actual lights.  Pathway to the Sea/Aramoana is an installation designed in collaboration with Bill Culbert, using flourescent tubes and paua shells.  Light from the fluorescents transforms the far wall of the room into an abstract ocean. 

Although this is an installation it looks exactly like the kind of painting Hotere liked to paint, and it gives the effect of actually being inside a Hotere painting.

Haere ra, Mr. Hotere.

Monday, 25 February 2013

Some thoughts on Te Papa

Last week I was at Te Papa (the Museum of New Zealand) for the SAS Users of New Zealand conference, and I did manage to get a bit of time to check out some of Te Papa's exhibits.  Having a conference in a museum is the best idea ever; well done SAS.

Te Papa has come a long way in the last ten years.  In 2000 it was very accurately described as "an amusement arcade masquerading as a museum", but these days they've smartened their act up and even have dead things in jars on display.  And a colossal squid!  The wall of preserved creatures dredged up from the Antarctic ocean on level 3 is not to be missed.  This bristle worm is a fine example:

It's a surreal conference venue.  Every time you go to a workshop you have to navigate exhibits and tourists.  The internal architecture appears to be inspired by Kubrik's use of spatial anomalies in the Overlook Hotel; rooms and corridors open out in ways that seem to defy logic.   On the way to lunch I found myself in what I mentally labelled the Bad Taxidermy Hall of Shame, containing a selection of native and introduced species immortalised by atrociously unskilled taxidermists. 

Now, I'm a huge fan of taxidermy.  In my mind a museum is barely worthy of the name if it doesn't have at least a couple of stuffed beasties, but even so I question the educational value of some of these exhibits. Everybody knows what a rabbit looks like, or a pigeon, or a housecat. Why display stuffed ones? Because they didn't have enough critters to fill the display cabinet and had to make an emergency trip to the motorway with a paint scraper?  But some of the mounts are worth seeing.  This is a kuri - a breed of dog brought to New Zealand by the Maori.  It is a crappy mount, but that's not Te Papa's fault.  This is an old mount and the kuri is now extinct, so Te Papa has to work with what it's got. 

There are also some beautiful pieces of Maori art, like this carved ship's prow:

And there's an exhibition on 20th century New Zealand culture, to enlighten anyone who wasn't already aware that "20th century New Zealand culture" is largely an oxymoron. Seriously, where does Te Papa get some of this shit?  Do they have some kind of auto-bid on TradeMe's $1 reserve section?*

Up on level 4 there's an exhibition of military uniforms and civilian clothes inspired by military uniforms.  It culminates in a display of modern t-shirts with images and slogans on them, showing how modern people express their identity and their politics through clothes.  I didn't take any photos because I ran out of time, but in any case I don't need to.  You see people wearing shirts like these in the street every day.  I'm conflicted about this display.  I get the point Te Papa is trying to make.  It's a valid concept and as a concept I actually like it a lot, but at the same time I don't go to a museum to see a bunch of the kind of shirts I've got in my own drawers at home.

Conclusion: ten out of ten for the surreal architecture, and there are definitely some cool things to see.  There are also some things that would be more at home in a garage sale than a museum, but overall the ratio of crap to coolness is trending in the right direction.  Oh, and like all museums, they light their exhibits in such a way as to make photography difficult.

* For my readers outside NZ, TradeMe is equivalent to Ebay.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Cardboard elephant foot stool is finished

And here are the photos.  From the front:
From the side:
And a photo from the top, showing the seat:
It's very comfortable to use.  Here's a shot of me with my feet up on the elephant foot watching YouTube.


Saturday, 16 February 2013

DIY upholstery tutorial

Obviously, if you're making a chair you want a comfortable seat on that thing.  Today's post is going to look at how you can do this yourself at home.  You'd use much the same method to re-upholster a chair you already have, and this is a great way to turn a knackered old piece of furniture into something useful that looks good in your home.  When you're done, you'll have a nice comfy upholstered seat like this one:

Upholstery is one of those things you don't want to pay someone else to do.  Upholsterers charge through the roof and it's not a difficult job.  I've started off with a piece of MDF cut to the shape of my chair seat, because I'm making my piece of furniture myself, but you can easily use this method to re-upholster a chair you already own.  If this is the case, the method becomes even easier because you will already have the shaped piece of MDF that held the original cushion - you'll just need to remove the old fabric.  The foam may be salvageable too.  I bought a piece of upholstery foam from Spotlight.  It's a good thick foam intended for making cushions, and I've made sure it's large enough to wrap around the edges of the MDF.

I also have a piece of upholstery fabric.

You'll need to place the foam and MDF board on top of the fabric (wrong side up, naturally), and cut a piece of the fabric large enough to wrap around over the MDF board. You then take your staple gun and staple the fabric to the MDF.  Don't worry if you don't have a staple gun, that just gives you an excuse to visit the hardware store.

Work your way around the cushion, pulling the fabric over the foam and MDF, and stapling it in place.

Cut away the excess fabric as you go.

This job takes about five minutes and it's not remotely difficult, so you'll be glad you decided to do your own upholstery.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Painting that cardboard furniture

Now that I have a nice elephant foot shaped cardboard stool, it needs an appropriate paint job.  I'm not using any special paint here, just the garden variety artists' acrylic I use on all my projects.  The base coat is dark chocolate brown, with a slosh of Janola in the paint mix.  This is a trick commercial painters use to prevent mould developing on walls, and it works just as well in any other context where mould prevention is important.  Wherever you use flour glue, mould prevention is important*.  You could, of course, use wallpaper paste with a fungicide in it, but flour is what I used because I have a big sack of it in the kitchen anyway.
That's Arwen the cat on the chair in the background.  She's still in bed, the lucky sod.

The top coat of paint is brown-grey with plenty of colour variation.  I've used black and white, but also burnt umber, raw umber and even a touch of burnt sienna.  The toenails also have a little yellow ochre and burnt sienna to give them that lighter, horn-like colour that you see in photos.

Elephant skin is a fairly dark grey-brown - the lighter colour you often see is a result of the elephant smearing mud on itself to act as sunscreen.  For that reason I went with a fairly dark paint job.  It lightened up a lot as it dried, because when titanium white is involved you're never really sure what the final colour will be.

So if you have made some cardboard furniture and you want to paint it, what paint should you use?  Well, anything you've got should be fine.  House paint is good, artists' paints are good, spray paint is good.  Just don't be gulled into thinking you have to pay extra for "higher quality" artists' paints.  In my experience the difference in quality is not great enough to justify the increased price.  You'll want to put a coat of protective varnish over the top anyway.  Do make sure you varnish with a good quality polyurethane or epoxy.
While we're at it, here's an interesting little diversion about colour and lighting.  The photos up top there were taken in daylight, but this one was taken at night with a flash.  You can see how different the colour looks when a flash is used.  That's certainly not what it looked like to the naked eye at the time the photo was taken, but once the flash comes into play we get this very pale colour. 

* I understand that if you're following the progress of my cardboard chair you probably feel like I'm harping on about bleach quite a lot, but I really do think it bears repeating.  I've experienced some truly vile student flats in my time, and my significant other used to repair leaky houses for a living.  I live in Wellington.  If you picked Wellington up and squeezed all the water out you'd have enough to keep the Sonora irrigated for a year.  I know about mould prevention, is what I'm saying here.  And trust me on this, it basically just comes down to using plenty of bleach.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Sculpting a paper mache chair

If you remember last time I blogged about the elephant foot stool, it didn't really look like an elephant's foot at all.  That's because what I showed you last time was the internal structure.  Once I had that structure I sculpted skin and toenails over top.  It looks a lot more like a foot now, see?  I told you it would look better soon.

The toenails were made separately, and glued in place.  They're made from corrugated cardboard with paper clay on top.  After that I smoothed the clay around the toenails and sculpted wrinkles in the skin.  Elephants have very thick skin around their feet, and it forms lots of folds and wrinkles.  As a sculptor I find this texture very interesting, which is why I wanted to do this project.  Elephants' feet are fascinating.  They're digitigrade, meaning they walk on their toes like a cat or dog, but they have an enormous "platform sole" arrangement made of fat to cushion their feet.

The bottom of the stool got textured as well, to make it look like the sole of an elephant's foot.

The final layer of skin is made from crumpled paper towels, pressed tightly against the foot so that the bumps and texture of the paper clay comes through.  This makes a roughened, pebbly texture that works quite well for elephant skin.

Friday, 8 February 2013

Finished Gkykon photos

At long last, Glykon is finished.  And looking good, if I say so myself.  Take a look...
Close up of the scales, so you can see the texture

Glykon's head was based on a hypnagogic hallucination I had last month - see here for details.  I promised you I'd show you the head I saw.  Well, here it is folks.  Minus the body, this is what I saw.
You have to admit, that is one top-notch hallucination.

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Paper clay: making furniture with it

What I've got here is a basic structure for my cardboard chair, which is a cylinder of cardboard.  It's very sturdy and will happily support all the weight it needs to.  But it doesn't have quite the right shape.  So I've used paper clay to build up the surface until it resembles the overall shape I want.  Once I have that rough shape, I can refine it. It's easy to add more clay in some areas and cut it away in others with a box cutter.  Next time, I'll show you how the final sculpt goes, at which point it will actually look like an elephant foot.

Not very exciting yet, but it will be soon.

UPDATE:  Here's the finished sculpt.  Much more exciting than that last photo.

Paper clay is an easy recipe.  You soak a toilet roll (minus the cardboard tube) in hot water for a few hours, squeeze out the water, and add flour paste until you have a sticky lump.  There's also a range of different additives people use to stop mould developing.  Since I don't have any kids who might eat the stuff and the cat is far too sensible to eat paper clay, my preservative of choice is bleach.  I would suggest that unless you absolutely can't stop your kids getting into it you really do want to go with bleach, if you want your project to last any length of time.  Paper pulp and flour glue are very prone to mould infection, and there's no point spending hours on a project only to find it's sprouting furry green fungus a couple weeks down the track.  Do yourself a favour and bring out the big guns early.

There's a reason you use flour glue for this clay instead of mould-resistant PVA.  PVA shrinks too much as it dries, leaving a lumpy surface, whereas flour glue shrinks a lot less and you can make it as thick as you like.  For this purpose your glue needs to be really thick - about as thick as Ken Ham ought to do it.

Paper clay doesn't really stick all that well to an armature, I find.  In general I have to suppliment its natural stickiness with PVA, or wrap it all round the armature and hope it will shrink down to a nice tight fit as it dries.  That's why, if you remember (and if you don't here is the link), I wrapped wire around my cardboard core.  These wires act like the steel inside reinforced concrete.  They keep everything together and strengthen the paper clay.

It’s at this point that I sat back and thought, “hmm, the foot seems very large.”  I realise elephants are big animals, but even so it seemed suspiciously large.  So I asked Professor Google for clarification.  Turns out my foot is not too big, elephants are just really large animals.