EM15: Notes From A Group Critique

Yelena Popova is an artist based at Primary who did an MA in Painting at the RCA. She sees painting as a wider subject and is making video shorts as a curatorial proposition about the transfer or record of her thoughts when painting in abstraction. She asks questions about what painting can do politically and what it is all about. It has reference to Greenburg’s formalism as a language but she feels that we cannot speak this language in today’s context. It is not about what you are saying but how. The modernists broke the narrative down. She is looking for her own way of doing things with painting. It is difficult to make an image without references but there has to be 1% of freshness. She has her own way of working.

We talked individually in a circle as a group about our work.

Sian described her work as being about the materiality, processes and technical aspects of painting but taking reference from colour field and action painting of the past. She uses oil paints  thinned with white spirit, working on a slick surface; she exploits elements of chance and viscosity to produce her images which lie on the spectrum between abstraction and representation. She finds that not all her work is ‘successful’ and that out of 30 paintings, she would only show 5.

Yelena asked about the destiny for Sian’s work or the intended audience. The contemporary versus the commercial markets and the aesthetics of the work. Sian also has an interest in the graphic and design forums which have possibilities for her work but would like to see her work in a private or public collection.

In terms of destinations for the work Craig talked of his work relating to perhaps a theatre setting or community hall type of venue.

Mike feels that his work has no commercial value but would like his work to move into outdoor spaces and as public art.

Ben has similar destinations to Mike and he thinks that so long as the work is seen it could be even situated on the streets. For the interaction with a kinetic sculpture, he believes that the viewer must be present.

We proceeded from this discussion to go and look at everyone’s work individually for discussion and critical reflection.

Alison presented her work in relation to the work previously done for the degree. She is now mixing the context of place with her imagery and is using photographs she has taken in Sneinton.

Yelena felt that the images themselves were strong but she felt that they would work well as an artist’s book or as a video digital display. Alison has considered this and has had a vision of the work being displayed on a monitor with images flashing through at different speeds and rhythms but on the ground in a reflective container and under moving water. Her mother has dementia and she visualises her mum as being like running water flowing relentlessly down a plug hole and that Alison imagines that she is trying to stem the flow with her bare hands unsuccessfully. She also imagines that her mother is like a spider who has gone through the plug hole and is gripping to its under-surface looking up to the light. What is it with spiders and mothers?

The group and Mike talked about projection of the images and that the water installation could be done with mirrored Perspex to make such a container to look into. Alison had had reservations about attempting this previously due to the technical challenges.

Yelena described that personal triggers such as these were powerful tools enabling something extra to be channelled into the work. She felt that the realms of mental health would be a destination and that this was Proust type territory. She said that it would be good to connect with a previous artist in residence at Surface EM14- Christine due to her background in mental health and art.

Ben’s work was looked at and seen as playful, inventive and parodying DIY. The kinetic installation is humorous with the notion of factory production and consumption. Ben has also been looking at the costumes or work wear with a white one piece work overall hung on the wall. Yelena talked about drawing the costumes, building a set and documenting the project nicely. She emphasised the importance of defining the audience as being crucial and the possibility of designing something for perhaps a children’s playground.

Craig’s work is about performance in relation to the ideal utopian world of the fiction in Trumpton. Craig has taken reference from this ideal utopian community of figures that have no mouths and cannot talk, whose words and actions are under the control of the narrator. Yelena talked about asking questions as to why this work was being produced and contextualising it to the 1970’s when it was produced. What was happening now and then? Craig showed us an impressive drawn and detailed timeline that he had created through research into the world of Trumpton with all the interesting events on the timeline in Trumpton which had been taken into the future. This is an amazing work of art in its own right which could be displayed with actual drawings incorporated of the Trumpton events and world.

Mike’s work is the synthetic version of the natural world with 3D projection which he produced working alongside a PhD researcher and expensive equipment whilst at NTU. He is currently working to create a fake environment with soil on a light box and synthetic wind created with wind chimes and a fan. His work encompasses digital landscapes and he has created a 3D scan of a tree at NTU. There is the element of push/pull within Mike’s work, deconstructing and simulating nature in a fake way.

Yelena said that the creation of designs or proposals for a public space by the use of SketchUp or 3D printing would be a strong direction to consider.

Sian talked about the various aspects of her work – the contrasting techniques, exploiting viscosity, transparency or opacity and the element of chance involved. There is less control with larger works and Sian has enjoyed working in this way on to glass. The empty spaces are important in the work and Sian has tried the use of varnishes and juxtaposing matt and gloss effects. Her choice of colours as being personal through the experience of working with them and the way they behave. Indigo cracks up. Yelena wanted to explore more about the colour schemes and whether they were something personal, comfortable or spiritual even.

The context and triggers for the work are the thrill and excitement of the endless array of techniques and possibilities that come with this way of working.

Yelena and Sian had real commonality and connection talking about how they manipulated the paint. Sian uses pipettes to drop in the colours and Yelena talked about the use of different brushes to create different marks, new marks and scribbles.

How long can you continue doing what you are currently doing and not get bored of it, if ever? Perhaps in a year’s time with painting you could change to a different brush or even a nail and then set off again, it’s endless! It is good to find a tool and your unique way of using it, Yelena, observed.

Contextually, Yelena described an artist called Christopher Cook to look at. On further research, he is a British painter known for works since 1998 in graphite powder and resin which have been almost exclusively monochromatic. They are painted and drawn in graphite powder suspended in resin and oil, onto coated papers, aluminium sheet or linen. The surfaces of what he terms ‘graphites’ are extremely thin, and involve much reworking but almost no layering.

The images have considerable range in terms of subject matter. Formal connections to Daguerreotype, Photorealism, lithography and Surrealism have been noted in reviews. In some works, especially those arising from an Arts Council residency at Eden Project, there is a strongly microscopic component, emphasised by the intricacy of the graphite surfaces and sometimes likened to Baroque architecture.

Yelena talked about a door in for the audience for Sian’s work and the Whitechapel book on the abstract as a reference. Subjects beyond the surface itself to connect to.

Yelena talked to Sian about where she could go with her painting in terms of an MA in painting, the RCA as a good destination for painting or into the world of design, contemporary print and textiles. Work can easily be transferred onto silk. NTU and Loughborough are good destinations for textiles.

Billy presented his folded up frames intended to stick out from and float from the wall, fixed with mirror plates and painted black referencing painting and canvases. Sculptural forms referencing painting and the relationship between 2D and 3D. Yelena questioned the use of mirror plates rather than directly screwing them invisibly to the wall and that they were more frames than canvas stretchers. Billy’s work in the degree show had been on a larger scale and more architectural as he likes the way that you can bodily engage with the work.

Yelena suggested a proposal for a public sculpture or gallery and Billy wondered about the use of wood in this context.

On the references for Billy’s work, there were Sol Lewit and minimalism evident to Yelena. Billy takes reference from Modernism and the Brazilian artist Helio Oiticica. Yelena said that the reference to modernism was fine but that the work had to connect to our current society and culture in same way to create a connection, meaning and interest for today’s audience. The work has to be positioned in this culture essentially. To do this required a personal, energetic and individual vision of something to reference.

A reference to contemporary architecture and design would be interesting to consider. There are all these smart flat packed houses popping up and there is Grayson Perry’s fantasy, dream house to look at. A proposal for this would be progressive.

Proposals are clearly important for every artist and they recurred during the critique as a theme. The proposals themselves had to be quality proposals that would take time to produce and consider.


We all gained a great deal from this critique session with Yelena and learned a lot that will help us to move on as artists beyond this residency experience. The key points or themes that recurred during the session were the following considerations. A door in for the viewer, the consideration of the destiny or intended destination for the work which included the obvious gallery context, but Yelena opened our eyes as to the other less obvious and sometimes more commercial interfaces.  The initial triggers that led to us creating the work, personal or otherwise and the references we had or sought. The work and references had to connect or to relate to the here and now, in today’s culture and society, was seen as essential and key to its ultimate success.

Notes by Alison McCulloch