Study event review: Lisbon 2020
It’s International Women’s Day today (8 March 2020) so it seems fitting to post about a recent study event that as it happened involved a group of 15 creative ladies in Lisbon. Over the coming weeks we’ll share some of their experiences but to get us started here is Steve Cussons’ thorough account of the trip. Grab a cuppa and enjoy the read!
A group of OCA students and two OCA tutors (Michele Whiting and Diana Ali) met in Lisbon for three days of study, gallery visits, cultural immersion and exchange of ideas. We based ourselves in the delightful coastal resort of Cascais, most of us gathering the evening before for dinner and informal introductions. Our group included students at Foundation level and all degree years, studying Textiles, Drawing, Illustration, Painting and Creative Arts. Most were from Britain but we were also joined by two students from wider Europe.
After formal introductions on the first morning we all walked along the Corniche to Estoril, getting a feel for the atmosphere and enjoying some much needed sunshine. The train which runs along the estuary then took us to Belem with its complex of monuments, parks, monastery and Museu Colegao Berando. We spent an hour sketching around the gardens before entering the Museu for a conducted tour.
Museu Colegao Berando houses a privately owned, extensive collection of modern and contemporary art. Our tutors had asked for a tour which addressed ‘artistic practice’ and which was intended to be two hours, but our delightful guide extended it to nearly three and a half hours because we were all so engaged.
The first floor of the gallery presents a chronological perspective on art movements since the wide scale adoption of photography when, as our guide put it ‘everything changed in art’. The rooms reflected movements through time from early abstraction to Pop Art, but also demonstrated a contagion of ideas from one artist to another and from one country to another. This thematic presentation also demonstrated how the social concerns of an era are reflected in its art, be it revolution, war or commercialism.
One piece which I found particularly interesting was Duchamp’s portfolio which unfolded, slid out and unfurled as a mini gallery; a great idea to steal.
We also had a discussion about the use of the square in abstraction, divorcing an image from any preconceptions of landscape or portrait implied by a rectangle. All my recent non-representational work has been square and this discussion helped me to realise why I was instinctively using this.
Another thought provoking work was ‘Indian Chief (1961), a sculpture by Jean Tinguely which is activated by a motor, shaking the components which are suspended from a looping frame. Each time it is activated (not often, and we were lucky to have it activated for us) it rattles into a new position, shedding fragments of itself as it gradually disintegrates over time. I love this idea of creating work which is deliberately non-archival and which will change over time.
Other works relevant to my own enquiries into materials were ‘Tot Negre amb Clivelles/ Negro con Grieta’ by Antoni Tapies (1962) and ‘Rauchbild’ by Otto Piene (1962), the former with complex details from layering mixed media and the latter with subtle simplicity derived from using smoke.
We then moved to the contemporary art galleries where works from the collection were juxtapositioned with relevant contemporary pieces. Here I was particularly drawn to the similarities and contrasts between two works presented together, ‘Point Load’ Richard Serra (1988) and ‘Documented (belong #10)’ by Diogo Pimentao (2017). The first work is two massive (about 100cm sq but with a lot of mass) self-supporting pieces of steel. One rests on a corner and the other rests on the first, constrained by an adjacent wall. All the weight of both pieces rests on a single point, and the work has had to be moved to a stone floor area, having destroyed a wooden floor.
Pimentao’s work plays with us. It looks like two heavy sheets of bent metal but, in fact, is two pieces of paper which have been so coated with graphite and then burnished, that they look like steel. I enjoy the playfulness of this and the surface quality of the graphite is lush. Pimentao is Portuguese but now based in London and I must try and see more of his work and his use of graphite. His approach resonates with my ambition of allowing my materials their own voice.
This part of the Museu included a room dedicated to female artists which prompted an interesting discussion about the appropriateness of giving female artists a dedicated space and whether this ghettoised them. I think that I would be more comfortable with space dedicated to feminist and anti-misogynist art by artists of either or any gender (but likely to be predominantly female). I most certainly think that the room should not have been painted pink. I think gendering childrens’ clothes with colour is undesirable and the use of pink for grown women is belittling (whilst I acknowledge that many women choose this themselves).
In the context of my own work and interests, the highlight of the Museu was a discrete exhibition, ‘The Last Poet‘, by Joana Escoval, which took the form of a meandering, organic path formed by walls which curved creating a number of linked cells which housed installations. The exhibition space was a major component of the exhibition and encapsulated a pilgrimage or path of discovery through some spiritual space.
These installations were diverse; moving image, sound, a rock, wire, but all shared subtle simplicity, an appreciation of nature and materials, and the ability to identify the key detail and isolate it. Some, for instance looped wire, were designed to respond to the presence of the viewer, moving gently in the air and the viewer has to change course to find a path through them. It was not clear at first what one video represented until you tuned in to three rhythmic waves of moving hair and realised that it was a blond woman riding a pale horse with just the three ‘manes’ lit.
A work I particularly enjoyed was a slight network of copper wire hung from the ceiling, ‘I would rather be a tree’ (2017-20), obviously referencing tree roots seen from underground, but designed to verdigris overtime and change its nature and appearance.
There was much to be learnt from the exhibition in terms of inspiration for work, but also thematic linking and presentation; taking the viewer on a journey through ideas. I am extremely grateful to have seen it.
The day finished with an excellent meal and a lively discussion about our own art practices. Ideas, references and relevant artist names were swapped.
Our second day was the highlight of the trip, for me, and revolved around a visit to PADAStudios, a local artist residency and gallery, situated in a disused industrial park in Barriero.
PADA is a situated in an old milk powder factory which has been converted into work spaces for resident artists, workshops and a gallery. One of the founding artists, Tim Ralston gave us a tour, introducing us to the artists present. We were able to see work in progress and talk about the process of being an artist and presenting work. Tim talked about his exhibition, opening the next day, and the practical problems of creating, hanging, moving work etc. I found the discussions very informative and I know that I will find the information useful in the future. It is not enough to make work, you need to think about its presentation, transportation etc.
Out tutor, Michele Whiting had enjoyed a residency at PADA and was able to give us great insights into the residency process and value, as well as acting as our guide around the area.
I enjoyed walking through the industrial area, party decayed, partly being refurbished, with its patina of age, on the way to the ‘no go’ area along the river where massive concrete structures are in the process of being pulled down.
The long walk back to the ferry was memorable for the views on one side and the graffiti on the other.
There is a lot of graffiti in Lisbon, but happily much of it goes beyond merely tagging, and is a genuine asset to the environment.
Crossing back over the river, some of us sat and sketched in a cafe whilst others climbed Alfama to explore the old streets, before we all headed to a Fado restaurant for supper.
Having walked 20 miles in the previous two days, we were all happy to be staying in Cascais to visit the Museu Paula Rego: Casa das Historias where our tutors had arranged another guided tour. The Museu mostly houses works on paper which document Rego’s thoughts and development from art school onwards.
Whilst I knew that she draws on her domestic background and folk law for her images, this was greatly enlarged on by the guide. Rego’s relationship to the recent history of Portugal and its political ebbs and flows, the self imposed exile of the family during the dictatorship, were unknown to me. The links between recurring themes in her drawings and the complex relationships with her father, his early loss and with her controlling mother were explained, along with other life events.
Much of the exhibition comprises sketchbook work and studies, and it is always rewarding and informative to see this perspective of an artist’s work. I have always liked the sculptural qualities of her drawing and printmaking which I think is created by her bold, assured lines and careful mapping of shadows. In places the shadows are given softer edges, for instance here on the cheek, but others, neck, shoulder, chest, have crisply defined boundaries.
Rego makes fanciful, full scale manikins or dolls as drawing references for her characters, who often represent ideas rather than specific people. In her current practice, these have now become an end in themselves and have a darkly surreal attraction.
This recent manikin features in a series of works examining the plight of refugees and immigrants, and modern slavery. A rucksack is a recurring theme in these works signifying the dis-rootedness of these victims.
In these and other works, a doll-like figure is entwined with what looks like a sail of a windmill. This looks like an archaic form of torture but I wonder if it has a specific significance in Portuguese history. Whilst I now understand a lot more about the narrative content of Rego’s work, I still feel as though I need the elements of each of these complex images explaining to me.
The visit to the Museu was followed by a comparison and critique of sketchbooks, and then a walk to a nearby botanical garden for more sketching.
If I was based in Cascais for a while, I could enjoy doing a project around the azulejos, especially old ones.
Our explorations ended at the bottom of the park, originally the garden of this grand house which fronts onto a sea inlet and the beach. Its rendered walls are painted in the traditional ‘amarillo tostado’, toasted yellow, which also appears in the blue tiles. These two colours will always summon up a visual memory of this trip for me.
This study visit was a once in a life time opportunity to explore many works of art in their context and with the input of guides and tutors. However, much of the value of the trip lay in the conversations, particularly with tutors, around practice, research and the practicalities of getting your work out there . Our tutors were unstintingly generous with their time, energy and insights. In particular, I gained a huge amount from seeing how the artists at PADAStudios worked and exhibited. It has given me a huge appetite to try and find an artist’s residency which fits with my work.
As always, it was delightful, but also useful, to meet a group of students whose practices are widely different. All the discussions lead to thought-provoking exchanges of ideas and we can all learn something from each other. Many of us plan to keep in touch through regional groups.
This is a long post, but necessarily superficial. I could have said so much more, and apologise for serious omissions.
Sufficient thanks cannot be given to our tutors, Diana Ali and Michele Whiting and also to the staff at the OCA office who facilitated the trip, in particular, Joanne Mulvihill-Allen. It was a life-changing, life-affirming event.