Sunday, 12 November 2017

The American Dream

Just before Christmas last year, I received an email at work looking for volunteers to train as art guides for an exhibition we would be sponsoring as part of our celebration of 40 years in the UK.  I filled in the entry form and wrote my 100 words explaining why I thought I would make a good art guide.  A month later, I got confirmation that I had been selected.  The exhibition in question was The American Dream at the British Museum which ran from March to June.  My role was to act as a guide at a number of corporate events, hosting clients, the press and employees.  Each guide was allocated a room within the exhibition (I was in Made in California) and we spent the next two months learning about the artists, the pieces in the room and about the printmaking techniques they used to produce the work.  On the night before the exhibition opened to the public we hosted our first event and we put months of training and preparation into practice.  The evenings themselves flew by and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute I spent there.  I wanted to put some of what I learned into practice and so I started a series of paintings inspired by the work in the exhibition.  I don't have a printmaking studio so I turned instead to a medium often favoured by the pop art movement and used acrylics.  And because this all happened because of work, my office was the obvious place to start when looking for subjects.

Wayne Thiebaud was one of the earlier pop artists and is well known for his depictions of cakes and confectionary using bright, bold, somewhat synthetic colours and geometric shapes.  Early in his career, he worked at a Long Beach fast food joint and this inspired much of his work, Boston Cremes (1970 linocut) being an example.  Thiebaud often worked from memory and so, following his lead I started on donuts.  Trays of donuts are a regular feature around the office and are usually a hint that someone nearby is celebrating a birthday or other significant event.  One of the things that struck me with some of the pictures we were looking at was how effective relatively few marks can be.  In Ed Ruscha's OOO (also 1970), the use of a shadow and highlights make the words appear liquid although the image itself is remarkably simple.  I tried to use this approach to put the glossy icing on my donuts. 

Having got myself started with a reasonably simple image, I turned my attention to a theme that ran right through the exhibition - every day objects of mass consumerism.  One of Thiebauds most iconic images is Gumball Machine (1970, linocut).  Thiebaud described this as a reward system, you put something in and you get an instant reward.  With the office coffee machine we simply select from a baffling array of options, press a button and out it comes.  We don't even have to wash up afterwards, preferring instead to fill up landfill sites with our disposable single use cups.  Of course there's always one (you know who you are) who thinks this is all far too easy and insists of grinding his own coffee beans every morning for an altogether more satisfying coffee experience.  It would have been rude not to acknowledge his efforts here.  I worked from memory again on this one and I noticed that this approach was starting to make me pay more attention to the things around me.  I'd never really thought about the different shaped cups on the pictures on the machine before.  Or about how pointless that is when you have to put a standard sized cup on the tray so the machine can squirt the correct amount of liquid in without it overflowing.  By the time I had finished I never wanted to see another paper coffee cup for the rest of my life but it was worth putting the time in to get it right. 

Moving on from California, one of the images that struck me in the rest of the exhibition was Richard Estes 560 which was a part of his Urban Landscapes series of screenprints from 1972.  I was particularly interested in the reflections in the glass of the somewhat anonymous office building.  It was pretty obvious where I needed to go next.  Estes worked from photographs so I allowed myself some source material this time.  I took several pictures of the front of our office and printed one in black and white so I wouldn't get too distracted trying to make the colours match.  Much to my surprise, once the initial drawing was complete, I didn't actually use the photo much.  The lack of people in Estes picture makes the place feel eery and unwelcoming. While I wanted to capture an element of that, I did want to have some human presence so there are 3 people in my finished piece although one of them has faded into the background so much that I'm starting wondering if he's gone for a coffee.  The reflections in this picture were hard to do, particularly once I got to the revolving doors.  I lost my way a bit when I got to that point and abandoned the picture for several months over the summer.  It was a return visit to the museum last week that sparked my enthusiasm again and triggered me to finally finish it.

The artists featured in The American Dream used a multitude of printmaking techniques and having finished my paintings, I am left in awe at the level of skill and patience required to turn these images into successful prints.  It's easy for me to make a correction with acrylics when something doesn't go quite the way I wanted it to.  If I had spent months cutting a series of templates out of a sheets of lino, a mistake would have been hugely frustrating.  Being an art guide was an incredible experience.  The research we did and the training we were given, combined with my own project exploring some of the themes of the exhibition has given me an appreciation of a whole genre of art that I'd never paid much attention to before.  Thank you to everyone involved who made this happen for us.