Fine Art – Reflections on an Improvisational Practice, 2011
The current perverse phenomenon within ‘Fine Art’ of conveying expression primarily through dubious rationality, stilted verbalizing and hermetic terminology, devoid of any trace of sensory vernacular is contaminating, and seems to relegate still further into oblivion the exercise of those very faculties which it is Art’s function to stimulate and nourish for the common good.
i. Well-being and the nourishment of the senses
Visual and sensory awareness are part of our evolutionary process, probably thousands of years preceding the development of faculties of speech and rationality. This helps to explain the importance we instinctively and universally accord to the arts without bothering to perceive why and on what grounds. The primary function of ‘fine art’ is still and perhaps more than ever to nourish and sustain these sensory faculties ultimately necessary to our wellbeing and hence to our survival. The headlong ‘civilizing’ process we have chosen to lock ourselves into via technology places these faculties under constant threat of impoverishment, decline and even of extinction. As I see it this is a perverse phenomenon within fine art. It identifies itself through dubious rationalisation and stilted verbalising. Its effect is to marginalise and suppress still further those faculties of sensory spontaneity and involuntary response which it is art’s function, now more than ever, to stimulate and nourish.
The long-term affect of the starvation of sensibility amounts to a diminution in the range and depth of our general awareness as human beings. It should surely form part of forward thinking and policy to check and rectify this threat to wellbeing with its already clearly discernible consequences and its alarming increase in the number of casualties in terms of psychological distress.
ii. A Process of Improvisation
This work is produced by a process of improvisation rather than by preconception and planning according to traditional practice. It is obedient to the intervention of unconscious promptings, risk-taking and impulse as work proceeds. Thus the activity is not subject-driven. It is the gradually evolving outcome of a series of choices stimulated by a rotating process in search of the further formal development of the object, in the light of personal inclination as to orientation, shape and visual impact. The construction, which for technical reasons has to be hollow, consists in the assembly of a variety of simple, non-representational ‘elements’ formed out of pieces of clay, cut randomly from sheets of this material.
The Process is simple but rigorous, demanding the full attention of the maker but keeping at bay all reference to subject matter and focusing exclusively on formal considerations until such time as an image or images begin to emerge from the structure. With practice this procedure, uncovering as it does hidden inner resources, builds in the maker humility and wonder. It can produce objects with multiplicitous implications as to ‘meaning’ or ‘content’ in both the engaged sculptor and the attentive, open-minded viewer. Thus it can be claimed that as an activity it serves to arouse and utilise the frequently dormant yet life-enhancing faculties possessed by human beings.
Essential to the appreciation of this exploratory process is the acceptance of the delayed gratification by both artist and viewer once curiosity has been aroused by the formal impact of the work, its shapes and its composition. These must address fundamental sensibility which deep down we all possess and which in the sculptor plays a fundamental part in the process of building the piece. Yet in quick succession the question arises: ‘what is it?’ or, ‘what is it of?’ or merely, ‘what is it supposed to be?’ characterising an instant leap from the sensory mode into the specific ‘certainties’ of a description or name. Hopefully, the sculpture stands its ground as a Presence in the realm of the sensory, inviting scrutiny and open-minded attention to be brought to bear from many directions and distances thus offering multiplicitous messages or sensings of content. As a result of the intuitive making process these may have accumulated spontaneously from no more conscious motivation on the sculptor’s part than to arrive, eventually, at a situation where embedded within strong formal relationships there is a perceptably figurative and thus potentially empathetic if indefinable outcome to the activity.
iii. How my work and process came about
Involvement with sculpture had arisen from the gradual uncovering of a sense of creative potential, hitherto overlaid by a somewhat suppressive ‘afterthought’ upbringing and by a strictly prescriptive education.
The process had begun at the beginning of the 1950s after a spell of Reichian therapy in Norway undertaken to relieve a sense of total impasse. Thence the decision to move away from the idea of engagement in academic teaching and to embark on some form of practical, creative work.
Then there began a still continuing love affair with clay, the material I have persistently chosen to work with, and nine years of pot-making. Then came a further occupational crisis: discontent with the repetitiveness and seemingly limited scope of the potting process, relative to my dawning aspiration.
While training as a potter at Camberwell and Farnham Schools of Art I had already had negative experiences in life-modelling class. Nevertheless aided briefly by a sculptor friend Jack Greaves I seized the opportunity of a delve into sculpture.
A period of enthusiastic ‘conformity’ ensued: figurative work within the generally recognized tradition centering round the wide-ranging theme of communication. However, concurrent involvement in therapy had eventually given rise to an aversion to ‘the pre-conceived idea’ as a necessary starting point. It felt like a barrier blocking off access to inner sources of creativity, all the more so because it usually involved the limiting use of an internal armature.
I sought to devise an intuition-friendly process more suited to my temperament and inclinations, by beginning to examine the possibility of producing larger scale works from scratch avoiding the necessity of enlargement and constituting an exciting additional challenge.
Alongside this the realisation dawned that to achieve its most communicative power sculpture must embody, and in the making be dominated by, a distinct formal language of its own. Paradoxically the elements of ‘subject matter’ and/or content must subserve this formal dominance. Only then could their interest or significance convey themselves powerfully to the viewer, because only in this way are the viewer’s sensory faculties alerted and fully involved in the experience.
Thus two objectives came into my sights: to dig out of myself a clearer awareness and understanding of this formal vocabulary, elements of which I soon realised lie latent yet scarcely acknowledged within us all. (Probably these began to develop in infancy at the mother’s breast.)
A sensory ‘vernacular’ could quickly revive in us if and when we are called on to work or perform non-representationally – (in my opinion a further indication of the primordial nature of this resource). From the basic procedures (of taking away and of building up) two simple but stimulating exercises were devised which would bring into revived awareness many of the formal expressive possibilities which sculpture can throw up.
The second objective was to devise ways to dispense with the use of an internal armature without sacrificing the possibility of making large pieces in clay. Addressing these two tasks and finding solutions provided the practical foundation for the explorations that have followed.
It became clear that this way of working with its unrestricted focus on form could acquire ingredients put there in unquestioning obedience to sensory impulse. ‘How do I know what I want until I see what I do?’
With large pieces the building process could be lengthy and puzzling. Nevertheless the discipline of delayed gratification together with the challenging multiplicity of viewpoints inherent in working fully in the round could lead potentially to a richly communicative outcome. The sculpture could have accumulated libidinal elements beyond ‘representation’ and without intention could have become aligned with aspects, however subtle and fugitive, of the Paradigm, demonstrating and honouring the unique relationship between the observer and the observed.
Could this possibly signal a direction in development for the art-form which, both by its rejection of the sensory and its attachment to a frigid avant-gardism seems to be trailing irrelevantly at a distance from an underlying need of our time; the reconsideration of the ingredients of well-being.
iv. The Making of Sculpture
To cope with the state of ’emergency’ created by embarkation on a first piece of unpremeditated work requires a series of simple supervised activities which reveal to the student the elements of formal criteria and understanding already in their possession. This allows an exciting exploratory process to be embarked upon.
By inviting, indeed seeking, open-ended scrutiny from various directions and distances the work can evoke libidinous responses and sensings of content which have accrued spontaneously from the construction process itself, by-product of the excitements attendant on the building of related forms without primary concern for subject matter, in a ‘space’ where content can accrue spontaneously and devoid of intention: from no more specific aspiration perhaps than to arrive eventually and within arresting formal relationships at a figurative outcome to the activity.
Inherent in this exploratory process is the acceptance of the delayed gratification, a forbearance required of the viewer as well as the maker. The viewer’s attention is first alerted by the undifferentiated formal impact of the piece (which has been the primary focus for the building process) and rewarded subsequently by the willingness to open up to the possibly hair-raising multiplicity of signals presented to the sensory faculties.
v. Drawings and Difficulty as Stimulus
I believe there is a certain advantage in not having too much facility in drawing; indeed: the attempt to overcome difficulty can be quite productive.
Drawings have been made over a long period, in pursuit of a wide-ranging awareness, cohesion of vision and the realisation of delight. With hindsight the practice came to provide a substantial contribution in developing the ‘dare’ to tackle daunting projects and the seemingly ‘impossible’. May the sight of them, such as they are, be a source of encouragement to others, diffident in one way or another about their capacity to draw.
The great advantage of drawing objectively is that it stimulates curiosity and becomes life-enhancing through the constant use of one’s eyes in looking at people, landscape, objects or situations.
vi. Personal Objectives
- Self-discovery – towards authenticity.
- To bring latent propensities, capacities, limitations and temperament actively into operation.
- All-importantly to employ rigour in making the Language of Form the dominant expressive factor, in which the subject matter is embedded.
- To practice delayed gratification in relation to early glimpses of emerging imagery; to be grateful but to look away and continue the work on the forms.
- To have faith in the process and the possibility of unforeseen and gratifying, possibly wondrous outcomes.
- To keep the practice free from the pressures of fashion and fame. To find some other way to ‘make a living’ that does not sap energy or conflict with one’s direction and purposes, but preferably nourishes them: for example practical pursuits of many kinds and teaching.
- To aim for ‘genuine expression’ i.e. for work that includes contributions from unconscious sources and is therefore able to withstand the test of time, provoking a multiplicity of responses in the viewer, whilst sometimes amazing the maker in the detection of ingredients insinuated quite unconsciously into the work.
Explanatory Notes on CLAY exhibition, Barking 1967
An Explanatory Note supporting CLAY: An exhibition of Ceramics by 12 Foundation Course students of the Department of Design and Printing, Barking Regional College, Essex; June 30 – July 11th 1967
Much of the work these Foundation Course students have produced and are producing seems to be intensely alive and abounding in evidence of personal discoveries made in the act of working, about the nature of form and the laws of connection and growth. It is as if, when they work, they tap into some invisible source of knowledge and experience which is contained in themselves in their unconscious minds and is released and made accessible by manipulating the material.
There is nothing new about this process, which accounts for the timelessness of the best in art and our involuntary response to it. But the liveliness, variety and the ‘knowledge’ which some of this work seems to contain constitutes a quality with which no one can at present complain of being surfeited. So much of education, including art education, is concerned with the acquisition of knowledge, but the potent element of personal discovery is possibly undervalued in favour of the supposedly more positive notion that knowledge must be imparted by instruction. The thing that strikes one about the work in question is how much these students know about fundamentals if only they can get at their memories. It is not so much a question of discovery as of rediscovery; teaching not a matter of imparting knowledge to them but eliciting from them the concrete evidence of the riches they themselves possess to do this and allowing them to do this in an order and so far as possible in a manner of their own unconscious choosing.
The crux of the teaching process has been introducing them to the feel of the act of working. As distinct from activity, productivity, painstaking perseverance in the application of acquired skills or known rules, working signifies: engagement of all the faculties in the act of exploration from which every extraneous consideration is eradicated and the eventual conclusion of which is unknown.
The act of working in this sense embraces the learning process. It becomes a self-regulated autonomous procedure in which the intrusive and invariably destructive aspects of the big-brother, know-all environment are largely held at bay.
Learning by exploration involves a posture of humility we are reluctant to assume and muscles we are loath to exercise; but the experience, because it contains freedom, creates an appetite which makes us uneasy if we ignore its promptings.
To help a student to know what working in this sense really feels like is perhaps as much as can be done for him. It introduces him to a new dimension of gratification and to the source of divine discontent. He will for ever know when he is not pulling out all the stops. Since our basic function whether or not we are intending artists is to survive by continually growing – that is by reaching out continually towards our limits, this is an invaluable irritant to acquire.
Everyone agrees that the first stage of any art training involves an assault on the habits of knowing by recognition, recognising by relating experience with preconceptions, that in pursuit of survival we have developed from infancy. Recognising precedes seeing as a functional development and outspeeds it as a mechanism of orientation; while preconception tames the frightening environment by allowing us to think we have it under our control.
Students arrive at the outset with half‑baked head-knowledge about how things are and what they ought to look like. The task is to remove the clutter centred on the cranium and gradually ease the inert senses so that they can operate alongside and eventually supplant the head as the primary agent.
Gradually it becomes less essential for the student to know beforehand what the object he is about to make is going to look like or indeed what object he is going to make. The essence of the creative process is that it is exploratory rather than imitative. The necessity to know in advance precludes exploration. But gradually this dissolves and the element of ‘not knowing’ comes first to be tolerated and soon to be welcomed. The nature of the activity changes from blinkered imposition stemming from the head‑begotten idea to a wide‑eyed and rapt exploration of the possibilities in which all the faculties can be involved. This stage can be described as the move towards the void; crucial to it is the nurturing of confidence that this void can be filled, that something not preconceived will materialise through the act of working. In the simplest terms the student has to learn to tolerate the absence of ideas, without panic, without a paralysing sense of destitution. There is the material and there are his potential responses to it springing from his Unconscious, and there is the possibility of establishing on this personal level a dialogue between the material and him or herself which will be gratifying.
This ceramics Course, which has evolved spontaneously out of the struggle with preconceptions, has involved the teaching of a few simple techniques of handling and building with clay, the fostering of confidence in manipulating the material: firstly by making in an exploratory way objects of which the student has necessarily some preconceived notion. Then as confidence and minimal skill increases, the ingredient of reference to what has been done before, or of utility, is eliminated. The stimulus and the challenge have then stemmed from suggested methods of working, from the material itself, from the growing confidence that ‘something good will come’, and, not least, from curiosity as to what it will be like? The students have been asked to do nothing more specific than make an object to displace space in a mainly horizontal or a mainly vertical dimension, using for example cylinders of clay or sheets of clay.
After some hesitation in the first instance most students have by this stage been able to relax sufficiently to respond to such a problem by, as it were, entering into their own field of study. The fact that they are actually free to do this (though it may not feel like it to them at the time) seems to release energy, concentration and avidity for work.
At this point they have been considered to be ‘On Course’, released of their preconceptions, autonomous, free to follow their own order of learning related to their own personal needs. The necessity now is encouragement to act on the impulses which crop up in the work process i.e. to exercise their new found freedom; and alongside this to develop an acute sense of vigour towards the quality of their activity.
In all this the presence of the Unknown has been a vital ingredient for the teacher as much as for the student. Work has had to be set to which there are broadly speaking no stock solutions and methods encouraged for which there are no clearly defined rules.
The debased conceptions with which the student embarks on the Course can, once eradicated, so easily be replaced by ‘exemplary’ standards which embody the cream of past traditions of excellence interlarded with a good few contemporary fads. But this short‑cut process has been regarded here as a pitfall to be avoided. The element of imposition inherent in the substitution of one standard for another can be fatal, since it so easily forestalls personal discovery, assumes a general relevance which is fallacious and imposes an arbitrary order of learning.
All this can and does maim creativity. In effect one form of bigheadedness has been superceded by another which claims to know what is best and which in the omniscience it arrogates to itself is in essence academic.
The work on the walls of many art schools and of many galleries too seems to bear witness to he stereotyped aridity resulting from this short‑cut process, in which academicism is continually changing its face but sustaining its nature. Work to rule: the very antithesis of working from the void towards the unknown: this is a process which is bound to be gratifying both to the doer and to the observer because it will contain the exciting ingredient of some personally rediscovered truth.
The kind of activity this is an attempt to describe is really pure research on a personal level, which is perhaps one definition of fine art. It is clear that the initial year of art training ought to contain a sizeable ingredient of this. But, in the field of ceramics, for instance, the Diploma Course syllabus in a number of schools seems to limit itself, where clay is concerned, to pot‑making for the two years of the course which immediately follow this initial training. There is the temptation to ask whether the pure research element in clay work might, continue to run side by side on an equal footing so that the student is not only necessarily learning the rules and acquiring the skills to apply them but at the same time nurturing the imaginative muscle to be able to sully and break the rules by keeping open the direct channel to his Unconscious. Isn’t this the only way to keep his craftsmanship alive in the long run and doesn’t the lack of it precisely account for deadness of ‘pure’ craftsmanship? Shouldn’t he be continually reminding himself, by actually doing it throughout his course of studies, that for all his acquired skills he can do better than he can ‘conceive’ of doing, that his capacity and potential spills over and runs beyond, if he will allow it to – exceeds his conceptions.
Educationalists seem to have decided a long time ago that this is a valuable material for their purpose. The amount of pottery equipment lying idle in schools up and down the country testifies to the degree of importance some high powered committee once attached to its use in education. But somewhere down the line a misconception has perhaps intruded. There is a superabundance of the machinery of production, as if the ultimate ambition of every schoolboy or girl can be assumed to be to go and work in Stoke on Trent. Wheels (of very unsuitable design to be found only in institutes of learning) litter the odd corner of practically every school in the country, either in total disuse because no available member of staff knows how to operate them, which often means that clay is not used at all except for purposes of the prospectus, or half-heartedly misused to pass on techniques of bodgery which it takes a whole year of unremitting bullying to divest the student of afterwards.
What has emerged for everyone connected with this course is a fresh realisation of the immense educational and visual rewards that still lurk in this currently unfashionable material. It is invaluable not for purpose of imitation or production, not for reinforcing our grip on what we have come to take for the environment, but for invoking and establishing our freedom and capacity to change it by contacting the realities that underlie it.
Because of its primordial unconscious associations, its flexibility, its capacity to respond and reflect back every nuance of our action upon it, because of its patience, clay is perhaps the supreme material for the direct exercise of our most powerful and slothful faculty, our imagination. The non-exercise of these muscles produces atrophy with disastrous loss of potential both for the individual and for our society as a whole.
Responses to the 1967 exhibition:
By freeing ceramics from a wholly craft-bound aspect to one that is much wider and more liberal, he has used the flexibility of clay to promote creative thinking that has become a basic feature of our student education.
Trevor Lakin Hall ARCA, Senior Lecturer, Barking Regional College
I saw the show of Mr. Thornhill’s students at Barking this summer and very much enjoyed it. I very much hope that other art students or art teachers in training will have the benefit of his insight into the nature of art and his obvious skill in communicating his vision.
Marion Milner, author and psychoanalyst. Drawings and Difficulty as Stimulus