So, the brain storming and planning of the 2015 exhibition is finally starting to happen and I’m realising quite how tricky it is to settle on a theme…
I know that the exhibition could just be ‘me’, in the way that I simply showcase a selection of my work irrespective of theme or subject matter as I know quite a few artists do this, but there are a number of reasons why I don’t want to do this. The main one being I think I’d enjoy creating work centred around something tangible and promotable. I’d love to have a title to go on flyers and posters, a theme to revisit every time I get stuck or have a block (so about 467291 times a day), something to compile a mood-board for a start hoarding images and ideas in folders and Pintrest boards… All these seemingly menial things make a huge difference for me personally when it comes to launching new projects. It’s this build up of ideas and the journey of figuring out what works and what doesn’t that’s so damn fun and frustrating at the same time. Without a solid theme or subject, I don’t think I could do all these things…
Also, I have a funny feeling the turnout and overall response would be better with a main subject than without. I’m not very well established within the illustration community yet, I think in order for a solo, self titled exhibition to work well you need to have a recognisable name or brand identity. People will see your name on a poster and the response would be “Ooh they’re exhibiting!” rather than “…Who?”. So that’s another major reason I don’t think a self titled exhibition would be as successful.
But now it’s all about finding this theme or subject. I can safely say that it will, in one way or another, incorporate my usual fascinations of natural history/world and some degree of a scientific influence but I want to try something a bit different. A hell of a lot of work of this nature went into my final project for my degree earlier this year (2014) so I’ve done a lot of illustration focused on this. It’s most definitely not that I’m tired of the subject matter, but for a project as big as a solo exhibition I want an equally big subject, something just as absorbing and enjoyable as my degree project. There’s a couple of ideas I’ve been fleshing out in my head recently, nothing too solid, but here’s what I have so far…
Continuation of Lavish
A few months ago, I dreamt up the idea of Lavish, a zine or small self-published book with some simple illustrations showing unpopular animals getting spoilt rotten. I’ve had great fun developing drawings and compositions for this and I’ve already got a few images at a print ready standard, so I would already have some material if I were to focus the exhibition on this theme. However, there are limits to the size of this project. It was originally written for a very small, limited run format; just a few zines to be sold and scattered about Norwich. So to transfer this small scale project into an exhibition intended to fill a room… I can see some obstacles building.
But the name and the core value of Lavish could still be used and the zine could be a small thing to purchase at the exhibition, like getting a little book at the theatre or at the end of an event. This would give the zine plenty of exposure as well as add another dimension, format-wise, to the exhibition itself. The word Lavish could be interpreted as something other than spoiling unpopular animals. I could take it further outside the box and explore a rather more vague and open ended definition. It could relate more to the aesthetic and materials used to create the illustrations than the narrative behind the illustration themselves. Deep, rich colour palettes, complex compositions and twisted, ever so slightly surreal, shapes could also represent this sense of Lavish just as well as any crown on a crocodile. A perfect example of this type of illustration would be the glorious work of Tomer Hanuka (below), especially those that feature my favourite beast.
Tomer Hanuka’s work has these twisted shapes and rich colours I mentioned, while also featuring the sort of subject matter – creatures – that I’d like to remind focusing on. This under saturated green against that amazing fuchsia pink inside the gharial’s mouth is what first drew me to the illustration, it was only after that did I notice the crocodile. And even though Hanuka’s work is primarily digital, and the exhibition will hopefully be featuring a lot of traditional work, I can still harness some of these techniques for both mediums. I have a funny feeling I’ll be referencing back to Hanuka’s work quite a bit in the build up to creating the exhibition pieces!
Another potential idea that’s been floating around in my head since university. One of the discarded ideas for my final project at NUA was centred around juxtaposing animals with contrasting situations and/or settings to create something not only visually striking & unusual but something that could potentially change the audience’s views about the animals featured in the illustrations. For example; seeing a crocodile (I know… I know… I have a crocodile problem.) curled up in a dog bed could help the audience see the animal as something more than a dangerous reptile but as something like any other animal that craves comfort and safety. Illustrations like this would, in no way, be factually accurate (crocodiles may well hate dog beds. I’m not sure it’s been tested…) which would move away from the accuracy of scientific illustration, but they would have more narrative and a more lighthearted approach to changing the opinions of people.
This idea eventually reminded me of how we treat the animals and wildlife we see all the time. Creatures like pigeons, foxes, mice, cows, all these animals are rarely worried about or mourned if they were to die and the main reason for this is we’re used to them. As I explored in this blog post from back when I was planning my final project, if a Nicobar pigeon were to somehow find it’s way to Norwich and begin to mingle with the collared doves and wood pigeons it would be greeted with awe and respect rather than the reception out greyer pigeons receive. On a more equal footing, if a Kookaburra were to land amongst our pigeons, they would also be received with awe and respect, whereas in their native Australia they are often viewed on the same level as we view our pigeons; as pests.
This sense of familiarity and ‘I’ve seen this animal a lot so I’m bored of it’ should not translate itself into how we weight up which animals should be protected and which shouldn’t. We should actively avoid using such frivolous reasons, like the appearance of an animal, how often we see it or how we personally feel about it, to determine how much value we place on them. But… I’m going to stop now, once I get into this rant there’s no stopping it.
To go back to the exhibition idea… taking these previous ideas, ‘City Beasts’ could explore actually placing these tropical unusual animals into the surroundings we’re so adapted to and used to. This could be achieved using both photographs/photo collages of the locations as a base for the animal illustrations, location illustration done from reference or on site, or a combination of the two. I have yet to explore this method on paper and the idea needs a lot more fleshing out and problems worked through. For example; how could I generate enough work to fill an exhibition while avoiding the work becoming repetitive? How many formats and materials could I use to avoid this? What scale should the illustrations be? Should I focus it on Norwich or should I explore other UK cities/towns to widen my potential audience?
There’s lots to think about, but it’s definitely in the maybe pile.
I very rarely find myself coming across exhibitions either specifically about, or vaguely about, scientific illustration. It could either be that I’m just not looking hard enough or there aren’t enough of them. As I explored in my dissertation (available to read/download here) scientific illustration still has a strong standing in the sciences and the arts, even if it isn’t as strong as it used to be. Even if it’s usefulness and necessity can be argued, if anything else scientific illustration is also incredibly visually pleasing and has so many potential aesthetic directions it can be taken along.
I find myself particularly drawn towards illustration which harnesses the visuals and (sometimes) accuracy of scientific illustration while maintaining a it’s main purpose of being visually striking. The image to the left shows the sort of combination I mean, (I couldn’t find the name of the artist, but their blog – where I got this image from – can be found here) the medical and scientific focus of the plucked birds body in the deeper blue, the details on the skull and the translucent bones of the wings all create the sense of a diagram or scientific study. But the overall composition, the way the image has been laid out and the colours chosen communicate an image made to be visually appealing and striking rather than functional or to be used for referencing. This contrasting between functional accuracy and aesthetic considerations, like palette and negative space, has always hugely appealed to me in both it’s appearance and how it has become a branch of the evolution of scientific illustration as a practice.
This idea would leave plenty of room for different narratives and subjects for each of the pieces featured, so long as they all featured some element of the sciences within their aesthetic. This could be achieved by looking at many elements of the subject, the main one of course being the area I focus on; the anatomy and biology of living things. Since I’ve had extensive experience in studying the anatomy of various creatures and people – for both specific projects and building a general knowledge of anatomy for my practice as a whole – it means I’ve been able to play around with ideas and compositions prior to any exhibition piece planning, so I’ve been able to work out a few ideas which won’t work.
By focusing on this, it also opens more doors for different formats of work. As I found for my final project at university, it’s relatively easy but extremely effective to utilise objects to add an extra dimension to scientific focused shows and exhibits. I realised that by doing this, it merges two prominent settings; a museum and a gallery. Now, as strange as it sounds, I really don’t like galleries very much. I’ve never found them to be particularly inspirational or enjoyable when compared to a good museum, so by added museum-like elements to the set-up not only will it be something relatively original amongst the many thousands of other art exhibitions, but I’ll also enjoy it more! I feel it’ll also widen the potential audience to some degree; those who aren’t too fussed about art can come to enjoy the exhibit as more of a cabinet of curiosities.
These ‘objects’ could take many forms. They could be organic materials, like the bear humerus I used for my degree show, or it could be found objects to add context to the illustration work. Purchasable objects like the zines, printed products etc would also add to this other, more tangible part of the exhibition allowing for interaction from the audience that goes beyond ‘stand and look at artwork and pretend to be interested’.
I would also really enjoy bringing another element to the scientific illustration world; narrative.
By adding character, story and a bit more life to scientific illustrations or vice versa it will not only help add a stronger sense of originality and something to stand out amongst what’s already floating around in the world of illustration, but it may draw the viewer in more, helping the image and the images message stick with them for longer.
I particularly like the image above by Japanese artist ‘Sleepy‘. It may not directly feature any scientific focus but images such as this have a huge potential to do exactly that. The minimal colour palette and earthier tones bring some of the earlier scientific artists to mind such as Robert Hooke or Hermann Dittrich. It also has a sense of the unusual or surreal about it, contrasting with the stark realism of scientific illustration, something that sounds just plain fun to recreate!
So, with all this in mind and simply how much I enjoy injecting a bit of science and biology into my work, having an exhibit focused around scientific illustration is a very strong possibility. A bit more research, image testing and picture hoarding is needed first though.
Basically, I’m pretty damn excited about this possible exhibition. Every other thought in my brain right now is of what I could create for it, what I could do which would make it different, how I could use the space and event to promote conservation, and so many more things so expect lots more extensive blog posts like this one as I spew it all out of my brain.
Thanks for reading and bravo if you read it all, this is a big ol’ post.