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Creating art for exhibitions

Let’s reflect upon the process of creating art for exhibitions. The first few months of each year seem to be, what I have now named, ‘Call’ Season. Many national and international exhibitions and competitions call for new work to be submitted. As that period is passing (soon to be followed by ‘Rejection/Acceptance’ season) I thought I would reflect upon the process.

Generally, I have been working on something over the past year, and often that work is suitable for the ‘Open Calls’. In these circumstances it may just be a question of choosing the best of a series, to fit in with the number of submissions allowed, and ensuring that the titles fit the brief.

In the last 4 months I have entered selected works from my Pandemia Project to a few different competitions. The project attempts to process and reflect upon the felt emotions from our last pandemic year. One of my favourite photos from this series is ‘Global Sharing’, which like the rest of the project was created by using multiple exposure techniques in my local countryside. This one made use of extreme blue and green white balance settings create the ‘global’ feel.

Global Sharing

Some exhibition call outs though are themed. The Centre organisation, based in Santa Fe, had several different awards and categories this year. I chose to enter the ‘Personal’ one and created some new multiple exposure images in the style of Pandemia. This time however, to meet the ‘Personal’ theme, I chose to combine some of my existing multiple exposures as a double exposure in Photoshop. ‘Confined Freedom’ below is my favourite example of that, using simple visual metaphors and dynamic colours to convey the conflicted emotional experience.

Confined Freedom

I did feel at the time that I had reached an end with this particular themed work. However, it was a great experience of attempting to use your chosen approach to a particular brief. Sometimes this experience flows easily. Other times it feels a little forced. I believe that the stronger work is created when the experience flows, maybe not easily, but hopefully in a naturalistic manner.

Summer Exhibition 2021

I have entered the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition for the last two years. Initially, I was inspired by visiting the show curated by Grayson Perry in 2018. Walking round the oldest open art exhibition in the world I thought, I could enter something for this!

In early 2019, I went out for a walk with my camera, with the intention of finding a scene that could represent how I felt about Brexit. I was not looking for a photo, but one found me!

There was an old closed down pub on my route and I wandered over to have a closer look at it. The Cricketers stood facing the St Helen’s Cricket and Rugby Ground in Swansea. The pub was famous for being in shot when Garry Sobers hit 6 sixes in an over on the ground, at least one of the huge strikes sailing down the road next to the pub.

I was unprepared for the chaos inside that greeted me, when I looked through the only ground level window not boarded up. The floors were all gone, the low winter light that poured through the upper windows lit a scene of havoc. The main wall facing me was daubed with some graffiti that looked like two warring penises created in blood. It reminded me of the in-fighting, personal battles and arguments of the Brexit debate. Then I noticed that if a leant back a little I could capture some of the reflected clouds in the window, hinting at the possibility of the currently hidden hope of a resolution. The final version below has also had a change of artist’s name. The graffiti tag being replaced by the name Eris – the Greek goddess of strife and discord – a fine maker of the mess we found ourselves in.

Where’s the Brexit?

The experience of creating the art took a few minutes. Everything fell into place; seeing the opportunity, noticing the graffiti, light, chaos and reflection all happened immediately. Pressing the shutter only twice, I moved on, knowing that I had the photo. Later that Spring I was notified that my photo had been selected for the exhibition, and was displayed in the main hall. This was fortuitous, as the curator, Jock McFadyen, is an artist who works with urban chaos. It even sold to a collector from the Netherlands. Result!

Summer Exhibition 2019

Last year’s submission was a different experience. I definitely forced the development of my work to fit the brief and it was not selected. So, this year I determined only to select what felt right, although I did have a hankering to submit one piece from the Pandemia Project. And then brief dropped in. Here it is.

“The show is to be titled ‘Re-claiming Magic’ and will transcend a singular Western art history’s point of reference to focus on magic and a return to the visceral aspects of art-making. The exhibition will be a celebration of the transformative powers of the magical in art, a return to the ritualistic and the sheer joy of making. Western Renaissance art education, Modernist and Conceptual Art practices led to the devaluing of art practices from other cultures in their unmediated forms. This exhibition seeks to restore value to marginalised practices, to reclaim the magic of those works in the context of the Royal Academy. I seek to propose a new pride in the concept of ‘Primitivism’ as an equally valid form of enlightenment alongside other Art practices”. Yinka Shonibare CBE RA

I had already bought my entry before I read this properly. My initial reaction was, What? A few days of reading about primitivism and considering how it could be interpreted by a photographer, I came to three conclusions. One, this was gonna be a little out of my comfort zone and that was good. I needed to move on from Pandemia. Two, I had some techniques that I felt might work. Three, the work needed to be quite flat, celebrate shapes rather than forms, use bright colours and it required human presence.

One of the potential weaknesses of my Pandemia Project is that there are very few people in it. Moving on from that work, I felt that even my abstract multiple exposure work needed to have more human presence. The obvious model was me!

I decided that I would submit one photo from Pandemia, one that was full of colours, shapes and was visceral! I created ‘Go to work. Don’t go to work’, right after the conflicting advice from Boris Johnson in May 2020. His confusing and unhelpful advice incensed me, even though there was no direct impact. I went out on a mission, to echo those strong feelings in a photograph. Here it is.

Go to work. Don’t go to work

However, I had bought two entries to the Summer exhibition. Another photo was required. I decided to buy a new lens to help. In responding to brief I had explored older photo techniques and found out that I could buy a Pinhole zoom lens for my Fuji X-T4. The benefit I knew this would provide was a scene all in (soft) focus, thereby accentuating the shapes, rather than forms. It also meant that I could use extreme white balances to create bright colours in multiple exposure (ME) mode.

I decided that I wanted a park scene with a tree; a return to nature, but that the colours would be almost garish. I started in the centre of Singleton Park with a basic scene of one tree, me in a mask (an uncomfortable nod to primitivism and our recent experience) and a park and sky background. I tried different ME modes, settling on Bright, and then various combinations of poses and white balance colours. Some of the final combined images seemed to work, but nothing really popped, so I changed location.

Whilst I was walking towards a new potential location, I put my camera and tripod down in a tree’s shadow, to review what I had created. I looked over at a large oak tree and immediately knew I had my location. A few experimental images later I had my final image, a reflection of the shielding experience of last year and the future to come. It’s called Shielded Man, here it is.

Shielded Man

I do feel that this time I have responded to the brief in an authentic way that builds upon what I have previously created and pushes it further. Of course, the selection process is notoriously difficult to get through. It’s in two stages, from 16,500 original entries, down to a final few hundred. But I am learning and this brief has pushed me to look at other ways of creating photos that align my eye, my head and my heart. And this all that I aim to do.

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