To celebrate the Jerwood Gallery being five years old, visitors to the gallery were invited to choose their favourite work from the collection and an exhibition of these pieces has been mounted.
Participants of this month’s Drawn to the Page workshop were invited to choose their own favourite from among these favourites and to consider what it was that stimulated this choice – what is it about a particular piece of visual art that appeals to us? Is it to do with what the artist has chosen to represent? Is it to do with the medium or style in which the artist has chosen to express themselves? How do certain works of art ‘whisper’ to us?
This idea of paying attention to what whispers to us is something we learned from the Eileen Agar works on display in a separate room in the gallery. Agar considered her own work (paintings and collages, mostly) a pursuit of personal form and content – it was others who categorised her as a surrealist. The words Drawn to the Page participants came up with in response to Agar’s work convey something of its energy – ‘vibrant’, ‘striking’, ‘angular’, ‘skew-whiff’
Given that surrealists were exponents of ‘automatic writing’ (spontaneous writing aimed at freeing the creative potential of the unconscious), it seemed appropriate to make our first exercise a free-write. We conducted this seated in front of the works each of us had selected as our favourite among the People’s Choice.
After this initial free flowing writing we turned our thoughts to important or significant choices we have made in our lives and/or choices others have made which we have been on the receiving end of. Again, it felt important to avoid thinking too much about the task, in order that we would be writing as much as possible from our unconscious mind.
In order to bring our conscious and creative selves to the resulting words, we thought about choices within choices and discussed what is known as the Droste effect (or in French, ‘mise en abyme’) in which a picture appears repeated inside itself. Workshop participants were invited to think of an image or a tableau which might represent an important moment of choice and describe the scene. Was there a way in which we could find ways of repeating the image or tableau inside itself? In text, perhaps? Or in a repeating image? A character? A story within a story, perhaps? Our aim was to allow the writing to take us spiralling inwards.
After intensely personal writing like this, we needed a break. There was a lively atmosphere at the Jerwood because it was May bank holiday weekend and outside the gallery’s windows the streets were full of Jack in the Green revellers. After resting and re-fuelling we re-convened in the room where Eileen Agar’s work is on display. As an antidote to spiralling inwards our brief for the next exercise was to explode our material outwards – in shape, colour, structure, form, text, image. We took the Surrealists’ ambition to unleash the unconscious mind via the use of juxtaposition as our cue to break up the writing we had done, interrupting it and introducing illogical sequences of image, character and story. We were guided by Agar’s spirit of playfulness and her maxim that ‘to play is to yield oneself to a kind of magic’.