Drinking Culture and The Portrait // 06/03/19 // Artist Influence (Semester 2)

A continuation of my project begun in my previous artist influence piece; “Politics and Street Art”

Wanting to capture a city’s culture is an impossible task, but one that I have taken exactly as such, and have focused my work towards a few key areas of culture that I see in and around Leeds at this time. The first is one i’ve touched on already; the incredible binge drinking culture of the UK as a whole – and one that is of extreme relevance in such a student city as Leeds. I wanted to develop some of the imagery I found to be successful from a previous project from my first semester in which I attempted to capture the consciousness of an individual through an abstracted image with heightened figurative shapes and unnatural colours attempting to show the ‘spirit’ (per se) of a human being – a spiritual x-ray (despite my secular view on the ‘soul’). Whilst these were a visual success, I feel few people I showed them to made the link between the image and the idea behind it, so perhaps a more particular focus on a familiar and yet controversial state of mind would aid in the development of this concept.

Untitled works from Semester 1 Project on the ‘Mind as a Portrait’ along with sculpture works by Safia Rezai

As I was attempting to capture the inebriated mind, I wanted to take a more grotesque view of the human spirit. The human being as an animal; a primitive being seemingly controlled purely by its own desires – but obsessive over nostalgia and social esteem. The alcohol for some being a way to cloud over the two of these as they represent both their worst fears and most difficult realities. Many suggest that the alcohol infused mind is one that is if anything more honest than the sober mind that is more easily hidden away with walls of all kinds of self imposed filters – self degradation, over-humility, anger, aggression, posturing, etc – however, to me that doesn’t explain the mind of the dependant drinker (of which there are 589,101 in the UK alone) – where the alcohol has become the only way they can physically function throughout a day. For them, true sobriety is surely the closest one they can reach to access an honest mindset.

Sigmund Freud’s theory of the Ego & the Id is one that can be easily applied to my thinking here; The Id is our unconscious mind, in Freud’s view self oriented and driven by the ‘pleasure principle’, and is present from birth. Our rational conscious is the next thing to develop and is driven by the reality that surrounds us (the ‘rational principle’), essentially works as a middleman between the super-ego and the Id, forming a compromise between their conflicting demands. The Super Ego is the last to develop and does so via socialisation – it is where we find our morality. Whilst this is obviously a clearly highly simplified version of a complicated theory which is a highly simplified understanding of the human consciousness, it is based on the ideas that have formed the basis for decades of psychological reasoning ever since its publication in 1926. In trying to decipher the alcoholic mindset for the sake of turning it into art, one must look at the effects of alcohol on this map of the mind.

In a very simplified form, an addictive alcoholic’s Id would crave alcohol over anything else and so it would be up to the Super Ego to balance that with the rest of that individual’s life and goals. A contemporary view on substance abuse suggests that it is a defence against anxiety – something noted to overwhelm the ego as defence mechanisms such as denial or regression are pushed forwards instead of ones normal moralisations. This would suggest that alcoholism is itself somewhat of a self defence mechanism against the pressures of modern society. But how about non addictive drinking? It is still done in extreme excess across the country, how dose the Ego and Id look in these situations? To me, drinking in extreme in a social situation is one in which the Ego and Id are likely to collide with one another directly, surpassing the Super Ego as people conflict their own needs and wants within themselves. Perhaps in this, this is where I find my ‘animalistic’ view of the drunken spirit, as we intentionally regress our mental abilities back to one more telling of a primitive being .

Early sketches linking the ‘big nose’ project to alcohol

For this reason, I wanted to portray the alcoholic spirit not as a necessarily unhappy one, but certainly one that is not desperate to live up to expectations of beauty or what we know as civilised living. I also felt it was key to show the social side to drinking that leads so many into the practice – for most I feel that the ‘best day of their life’ was probably high in alcohol content, be it a wedding, party, funeral of an enemy, or simply a romantic evening with one that they love. It cannot be denied that inebriation can unlock a level of openness between people – an unfiltered sense of desire or a love between friends, both to be handily “forgotten” the next day as it seems everyone happened to have blacked out that night for just the right amount of time. Some of the nights that are chosen to be remembered can change the course of ones life, however, as relationships of all kinds are forged, broken, or heightened to new levels in a foray of hugs, bad decisions, and tequila slammers.

Visually, I began with the idea of making a ubiquitous facial structure of these long nosed almost creature like beings as a way of representing this more primal side of the human psyche as it immediately tells the viewer that this is a human being – but not quite as we understand them on a everyday basis. In order to push this idea of alcohol being the reason for this deformity from reality, I leave the glasses and bottles that have brought our figures to this place visible in the image – being held up in celebration by some, being stared at in deep regret by others. I feel that the main think I wanted to get across here was that as in every social situation, not everyone feels the same way. It is notable that feelings of such high levels of joy and such deep pits of sadness can occur between friends, enemies, lovers on such a routine basis without them even realising. What’s more, it’s practically universally understood that someone will go home crying with sickness or sadness after drinking too much on a big night out , and yet it is seen as totally normal behaviour. The social pressure to ‘keep up’ with the amount of alcohol being consumed no matter your actual tolerance level is part and parcel with this experience to be sure, but I want to study the conflict of emotional states even just within the individual, not just the group, within my works if possible.

“The Three Legs, Leeds”

An artist that I feel certainly evokes a level of inner turmoil that I would like to see in my own pieces is Erik Van Lieshout who, like me, is an artist interested in discussing contemporary societal issues. Lieshout’s work, however, is more focused towards the conflict between consumerism and ones humanity as minorities and outsiders are pushed aside in favour of the perfect customer. I was first drawn to his works as their visual style is similar to one I have returned to a few times over the years – harsh charcoal portraits with elements of paint and ink to create a dark and twisted atmosphere. This is, however, something I wish to draw away from a little bit this semester as I have found myself becoming repetitive and uninspired in my work. I shall instead take his ability of turning a seeming ordinary subject- the portrait- and turning into a statement or retelling of the world he see’s around him by contorting the composition and subject matter into one of almost alien qualities.

Erik Van Lieshout

Untitled , 2008
An example of how Lieshout can touch upon a subject such as alcohol without losing subtlety or ambiguity whilst maintaining a strong atmosphere within the piece.

Erik Van Lieshout, I am in heaven

A very interesting side to Lieshout’s work is how he presents it; In order to create an atmosphere that suggests that his work is a mirror to reality rather than simply an idea of it, he often shows his work in large scale (sometimes elaborate) installations unusual for an artist if his format – generally flat multimedia drawings and paintings. This means he has control over how one approaches his work to an extent and thus disallows too much of a misinterpretation in regard to the ideas that he wants to push forwards. For instance, the 2015 “I am in heaven” installation (above) directly led its viewers through a dark tunnel to first view a film piece that set the tone for the works left out in the white space. This cutting away from reality into the dark and then back into the light forces people to become mentally involved in the artwork and not simply remain an idle viewer wondering what to have for dinner later.

It has struck me that perhaps I could do something similar in my work – bringing a 3D element to a largely wall based method of work. I began to draw my ‘big nose’ characters directly onto bottles previously containing alcohol, further pushing the theme as one of drinking culture and its normalisation. These bottles, whilst interesting on their own, could lift both sides of my practice if presented physically alongside my ‘haze’ portraits (that I shall get into later). It has also occurred to me that an element of this installation type work already exists in my poster project that I have been working on alongside. It would be possible to create a similar style of presentation if I were to create some form of moving ‘wall’ as my surface for the posters that I could later on move to a gallery space. Again, the bottles could come into effect here in much the same way. Or, just like Lieshout, I could spread every element of this project throughout a wider exhibition and allow the viewer to reach the same conclusions themselves.

Wanting to inject some elements of colour into my ‘nose’ images, I took inspiration from the colours and graffiti-like styling of my friends in the Skateboarding scene. Alastair Scarrott on my course in particular inspired me with his usage of found objects such as road signs or half working electronics as a canvas for his work – something that in part was what led me to pursue my ‘posters’ project. Not only did the art style itself grant me inspiration in this regard, it also led me to think about boarding culture as a whole given its prevalence in Leeds and the ever growing link between it and drinking/drug usage.

Following this line of thinking I took advantage of my friends’ hobby and turned one of their spontaneous gatherings into a photoshoot that combines the elements of boarding that people enjoy so much together into one set of images; the fun, the challenge & the social bond of together doing something that is still held to the fringe of society to some extent. The alcoholic aspect of this set of photos is relatively minimal, but anyone familiar with the scene as a whole can’t help but be aware of the slew of icons within the culture who have struggled with drug addiction or alcoholism – either getting clean or dying far too young, these stories are perpetually cycled through the news feed. Perhaps this is due to the fact that boarding has forever to some extent been a rejection of what conventional society has to offer- seeking out danger rather than protection, and often tress-passing or breaking other laws for the sake of finding the best spot (this is likely where he link between boarding and smoking comes in too.) The sport of the unwilling members of society has, as a result, become a safe haven for people struggling through all kinds of issues, be they mental health related or simply difficult periods in ones life, and for me it thus acts as somewhat of a mirror to our society.

In taking these photo’s I began to become fascinated by the difficulty one must face as a professional sports photographer – timing is everything, and there is often very little time to go about setting up the ‘perfect shot’. What’s more, in a way similar to the challenges that one must face as a nature photographer, one has to spend hours and hours (if it is a difficult trick or stunt) waiting for the perfect moment to occur, and then they must take a technically and artistically successful shot of that exact instance. One such photographer is J. Grant Brittain who represents another aspect of the art that I find interesting; to become a skate photographer it’s highly unlikely that you didn’t begin in the scene to some extent or another beforehand. For that reason it’s one that seems to have a very limited viewer base and likely hasn’t much of a chance at becoming as widely respected as other subjects – in sport or otherwise – which to me suggests that to create this work one must have passion both about photography and skateboarding at the same time.

J. Grant Brittain

It’s time to talk about people’s bits. As can be seen in the bottle drawings above, my ‘grotesque’ drawings carry this theme of the uncivilised down to the last detail. I felt it was important to capture these aspects in an unfiltered and even ugly manner as a way of further dragging these images away from the polished version of reality we often see in both fine art and general popular culture – most prevalent in advertisement and film, but has certainly been a tradition throughout the history of art, especially in the Romantic and Pre-Raphaelite movements of the 18th and 19th century. These were movements specifically designed to reject what was a steadily more and more industrial society by focusing on the poetically beautiful rather than the more harsh realities of the time.

Jenny Saville, “Reverse”, 2003
A self portrait that I feel encapsulates the photographic age of fine art we live in – a work that could only be created with the aid of a camera, and a composition hugely inspired by photography over fine art paintings of before.

In contemporary art this fight between nature and industry seems to have been foregone for the sake of a dramatised or filmic retelling of reality instead – not ignoring the darker sides of contemporary life but rather viewing it through a lens of heightened reality. Much of this, I feel, comes from the widespread use of camera’s offering snapshots of a time without really offering any more than a surface level glimpse at a moment. As David Hockney says; “Photography can’t lead us to a new way of seeing. It may have other possibilities but only painting can extend the way of seeing.” […] “‘Photography can’t show time’”.

David Hockney, “My Mother, Bolton Abbey, Yorkshire, Nov 82”, 1982

Hockney’s response to this limitation of photography was to create his ‘Joiner’ photos that rather better capture a moment by stitching together a more natural field of view of a place in time or subject photograph by photograph. This one at a time process allows a small amount of time to pass in the process of its creation and thus feels like more of a living work than an ordinary photo taken on a fish eye lens for example. Even the way he names these photo’s suggests this want to capture a memory and a time rather than just an aesthetically pleasing image as he includes the name of the subject, the location, and the date in the full title – much like one would label a family photo album.

My art work is then, I suppose, an attempt at also capturing a moment – not one that actually exists or can be seen, but rather one that subsists in every alcohol befuddled mind; the unfiltered, conflicted, and confused soul. To an extent I have been inspired by how Anthony Gormley treats the human body – especially in his drawings, in which the penis is very often depicted without any of the remorse you find in a 16 year olds’ life drawing sketches. It isn’t grotesque as such, but simply very unabashed in its usage. As Gormley says; “[…] I’m interested in the body as a zone rather than an object, or as a process rather than a thing. I’m not so interested in the body as an image […]” suggesting that he doesn’t view the human body with the same taboos that most people do in general. It isn’t unusual for an artist in general to support nudity in their work given the huge back catalogue of nudes to be seen throughout the world from pretty much every conceivable figurative art movement, however, it’s the lack of reverence or even care for the subject that is what makes him stand out in this field. In regards to his work, Gormley states that “What you see looks like a body but I’m interested in what lies at the other side of the skin.”. In a sense I am doing the same thing, depicting an almost skeletal exhibit of the inebriated soul.

Anthony Gormley

Returning to the photography discussion punctuated by David Hockney’s ‘joiner’ pieces, I have also attempted to respond to our modern photographic culture through painting in these works in which instead of a crisp image I have attempted to maintain the haziness one associates with the memories of a heavy night out. It almost goes without saying that in a modern social event there will be at least as many camera’s as people actually in attendance given the rise of small scale high quality phone camera’s. The interesting aspect of this is the way in which a human being is likely to shape their memories of a moment to suit the photo’s themselves rather than what was organically left in their mind – an entirely common phenomenon that human’s have experienced throughout time as your brain adapts to new information about some aspect of your past and adapts what you can visually recall in your minds eye in response (The same reason why eye-witnesses are relatively useless in difficult court cases). In order to cement these works as a response to this photographic culture, I have used actual photos i’ve taken of my drunk friends on such nights as my sources to add a further level of authenticity.

Kaye Donachie

In practice these works were not so inspired by Hockney’s paintings but rather by the work of rising contemporary Kaye Donachie – a Glasgow born artist working in London- whose works have an intriguing level of ambiguity about them due to their sophisticated rejection of fine detail in exchange of a more fleeting feeling gestural style. The real achievement in these works is her ability to maintain a definite character in each of these pieces without over working each subject. All of this lends towards a certain aesthetic that puts in ones mind the feelings of a dream or half retained memory – often all one is left with after one of the nights I am attempting to capture in my painting.

Since my last post, I have continued with my ‘poster’ project inspired by the methods of Shepard Fairey and his usage of postmodernist aesthetics and ideas in order to promote dissent. I have also more recently found relevance in the work of British filmmaking collaborators Oliver Payne and Nick Relph who are well known for their digital and handmade works designed to reflect the urban environments in which we live – making a book designed to look like the seat of a London underground seat and which emits the ringing of a mobile phone when opened. While my work is rather less of this Oeuvre, it has to some extent worked in achieving my goal of inspiring a response from the people of Leeds. A large number of the posters have either been completely torn down or simply left up but a few have had responses of more obvious intent. One such example is that of Jeremy Corbyn who has had his eyes dramatically removed in a clearly intentional move. The most pertinent examples I think, however, are those of Nigel Farage and Kanye West who simply cannot survive for more than 24 hours without being torn up, destroyed or written all over. It is strange how two seemingly so different individuals have been grouped together by the people of Leeds, however, they are probably the two most active supporters of Donald Trump that I put out onto the streets (I somehow seemed to either get caught pasting or ran out of glue every time I had a chance to ruin a view with his image). Perhaps Trump has divided America but united the north of England in a way no politician in the UK can. This brings me to my main finding of this artistic experiment; the people of Leeds are not of one mind. As with any group of people, opinions of course differ over all kinds of points, however, what I found to be resoundingly true is a total disregard for the politicians of this country at this time. Be they Left, Right, or politically homeless, the people of Leeds are not happy with the way their country is being run at the moment (Brexit is, of course, the epitome of this sentiment.)

It is perhaps unsurprising that a project largely inspired by the work of dissident artists and the drunken brazenness of the writings one finds on bus stop windows and pub toilets would result in such an outcome, however, I am quite pleased with the set of photographs they have yielded and I believe that this has in every aspect been the most cohesive and successful aspect of my work this semester.

Thombs, D. and Osborn, C. (n.d.). Introduction to addictive behaviors.

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