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Gallery Thirteen ( Sarah's Art Paper )

Personal Study by Sarah A.
Title 'Imaging the Alien'

Visual art begins with the formulation of an image in the artist's mind, composed of components derived from direct observation of the natural world, and components supplied by the artist's intellect, imagination and mood. The task of the artist is to instantiate this image in some external medium so that others may see it. This transfer of the image from the mind to an external medium naturally creates a host of technical difficulties which must be overcome if the work of art is to be comprehended by its viewers. With all art mediums there are certain limitations, but also ways of deceiving the human eye in order to create something emotional and real.

Each era of the history of art is associated with technical innovations in the process of transferring the image from the mind of the artist to external media, and those innovations invariably throw up new problems for the artist. For instance, the Italian Renaissance is associated with the development of the "realistic" representation of three-dimensional space through the "discovery" and application of the rules of perspective drawing. In the 20th century many artists have attempted to transcend the, by now traditional, single perspective view (the cubists for instance) by representing individual objects from multiple "perspectives" simultaneously. In each of these cases, the artist was confronted with finding means to "do the impossible" in representing more than two spatial dimensions on a two dimensional surface. Traditionally, these issues have been addressed using media such as paper, canvas or plaster overlaid with pencil, charcoal, or paint. During the second half of the 19th century developments in chemistry were combined with optical theory that had been known since the 17th century to produce a new two-dimensional visual medium - the photograph. Since then there has been enormous progress in camera and print technology, and in the theory and practice of photography as an art form. From a na�ve perspective photographs are often regarded as being more "realistic" than drawings or paintings, but a moment's thought (or the examination of a photographic print through a microscope) reveals the falsity of this notion. The original photographic product (the negative) is, in a purely physical sense, nothing more than a layer of specks of photoreactive material overlaid on celluloid. These specks are transformed by the developing process into a new series of specks with a colour or grey scale distribution typically resembling that of the original object, most commonly laid on paper. However, no matter how automated the developing process, repeated developments of the same negative quickly reveal that this translational developing process is subject to substantial variation. It is then the eye and brain of the observer that recreates an image of "something" represented by the end result of this technical and chemical process, just as it is the eye and brain of the observer that recreates an image of "something" from brushstrokes of paint on canvas.

Indeed, many artists working with paint and canvas have explored the process by which specks or dots of paint can be used to create images. The pointillistes of the late 19th century (for instance, Seurat) are a case in point. The work of Roy Lichtenstein, though dealing with visual parameters introduced by printed media, addresses similar questions. Other artists have dealt directly with the essential malleability of photographic images. Andy Warhol's enormously famous silk screen series of Marilyn Monroe and Campbell's soup cans are the best known examples. In the last twenty years the post-production manipulation of photographic (and other) images has become much easier with the development of personal computer technology that permits the digitisation of images and the manipulation of those images in every conceivable way. Indeed, photography no longer necessarily depends on photochemical reactions, because cameras that directly digitise images are now available. However, the practical (though not the theoretical) resolution of readily available digital cameras leaves a good deal to be desired.In my study, I aim to compare different ways of imaging the underwater world through various artists. I will examine the ways in which these artists have overcome the problem of portraying an environment that isn't easily accessible to us and discuss the merits of their pictorial interpretations of 'the alien'. Furthermore I aim to determine whether the modern and more 'realistic' representations of the subject (for example in the photograph) are necessarily more valuable. It will be interesting to discover how the development of alternative styles and methods, through both the innovations of technology and the creative mind, (ranging from surrealism to photography to sculpture to underwater painting) will lead to similar or very different results.

'Imaging the Alien'

Firstly I have studied the medium of photography. Although underwater photography is an art which requires great creativity, the success of an artist's images is dependent upon knowing the technicalities of the medium. Adjustments must be made to the camera to allow for varying external conditions and obtain the optimum chemical reaction on the film leading to the desired result. Ideally, the amount of light striking the film should always be the same for the clearest and most defined picture, and it is possible to achieve this by altering the camera's components in the right way. As with all art mediums, there are certain limitations, but also ways of deceiving the human eye. For example, many artists strive to create an impression of three-dimension on a two-dimensional surface, when painting a portrait say. The camera can also be used to create illusions with light, proportion and distance in order to obtain more striking results. The more specific challenge of underwater photography is to solve problems that the environment (i.e. being underwater) poses and produce clearer, more interesting and more aesthetic pictures.

Martin Edge is arguably Britain's most famous underwater photographer. He describes his art form as a 'tool to capture all the amazing things we see while diving' and indeed his pictures are amazing!

Over a number of years Edge has sought the advice, guidance and influence of other artists, well known in their fields. Peter Rowlands and Ken Fisher were particularly involved with the technical side of Edge's training, both with the camera itself and in the dark room. The ideas and innovative creations of graphic designer Ian Ratcliffe inspired Edge to experiment with unconventional and often fascinating compositions and perspectives. More recently, Edge has been working with computer expert Stuart Jones, exploring the endless possibilities computer graphics programmes provide, though this work is not exhibited at present.

While all art demands technical skill and ability, photography perhaps more than other mediums requires the understanding of basic rules in terms of lighting and composition as well as the operation of the camera. A successful photograph can only be obtained when the artist has grasped the way in which these rules can be effectively applied to create the desired result.

This abstraction of a Red Sea humphead wrasse is a perfect example of the way in which Edge combines technical know-how with exciting creativity. A small portion of the fish's face is isolated, and our attention is particularly drawn to the eye which is fairly central to the composition. The eye contains a fantastic array of colours, from cold blues and greens to fiery oranges, though the pupil is deep and dark. The head of the fish is upright and this creates an interesting diagonal slant of the front of the face against the black negative space behind. The bold black lines beginning next to the eye, which run parallel to the line of the front of the face stand out because of their contrasting colour, drawing our vision into the staring eye.

The maze-like pattern on the fish's face and it's beautiful colours, combined with this 'macro' close-up composition work extremely well to create an image that is enjoyable on a purely aesthetic level. When we realise that the image is of a real creature, it seems even more amazing!

Gary Penca is another artist who uses marine life as his theme. However, unlike the realist photographic impression I have studied, Penca portrays many of his subjects in a surrealist style. While both he and Edge strive to add character to their subjects by portraying them at the 'optimum moment' (the moment at which the subject has most character e.g. when it opens its mouth), Penca takes great care to give his paintings a 'meaning'. Through surrealism, he expresses ideas and opinions and leads us to address the issues he brings forward.

'The Bubble', was inspired by a trip to the local pet shop! Penca was struck by the fragility of nature when he saw a crate of fish being loaded out of a lorry. The fish were in individual polythene bags, which looked rather like bubbles but unfortunately many had not survived the long haul from the other side of the world.

Having taken billions of years to develop and evolve, parts of the coral reefs and the sea life that lives there are destroyed by man in seconds. The delicacy of the bubble reflects the fragility of the marine environment, which can be burst in seconds. The fish's unnatural setting, in an alien environment where its chance of survival is small, mirrors the cruel and artificial new habitat of the fish at the pet shop. While on one level Pecna is commenting on this specific incident and his experience, his work also draws to our attention our threat to the ecosystem in general. It is no coincidence that he incorporates air and water into his painting as these are two of the greatest natural resources, which all living creatures rely on for survival and man is depleting. Penca is particularly concerned about the adverse effects of pollution, over fishing and the increasing demand for tropical fish in the UK on the future of beautiful sea creatures and their habitat. The angelfish in his painting has an unmistakably mournful look and we are aware of its probable fate. Penca feels very strongly that 'every one of us must take a personal responsibility to protect our oceans and the extraordinary life within it', and this is very much reflected in the reproachful representation of the fish in 'the bubble'.

Another artist who makes bold statements through his art is Damien Hurst. I saw his work displayed at the Royal Academy's 'Sensation' exhibition in 1997 and was immediately struck, as were many, by it's crude vulgarity. This young British artist cut up and preserved cows, fish and in this case a whole shark, presenting their mutilated bodies in formaldehyde filled glass containers. As one might expect, this 'outrage' was extensively covered by the media and numerous critics with conflicting opinions. ADD QUOTES While there was uproar from The Vegetarian Society and various animal rights groups at what they felt to be disturbing cruelty, others found Hurst's work fascinating and revealing. Hurst justified his creations, pointing out that this killing was no different to the slaughter of animals for food, except that the pleasure of the product was long lasting. However, whether killing to eat and live can be compared to killing for aesthetic interest is a debate over which there has been immense controversy.

Nevertheless, I feel it is useful to step away from issues of personal morality, in order to examine and attempt to understand what Hurst is trying to convey. These animals' lives really are wasted if we simply dismiss the exhibits altogether!

Firstly, we should not ignore the certain merits of Hurst's new method of expression. His efforts are undoubtedly unique, encouraging us to consider art more open-mindedly, beyond the canvas or traditional sculpture techniques. While we may be shocked, we are also made aware of the infinite possibilities held by the world of art and Hurst challenges, even provokes us not to shy away from reality, which can often be distasteful or horrific. He evidently feels contempt for censorship and revels in controversy.

His work is not pretty; indeed many find it unbearably repulsive, yet I find his energetic contemporary creativeness enlightening. There is huge scope for a diversity of interpretations, and while Hurst leaves his message very open, I wonder whether we have the right to impress our ethical opinions upon him.

It must not be assumed that Hurst is advocating the fruitless killing of animals. On the contrary, it seems to me that his intention to shock can only be a way of highlighting the brutality of today's culture. In a world torn apart by futile war and the merciless torture of innocent and defenseless humans, where violence and destruction are an accepted part of our culture, it is interesting that we are still appalled by the relatively painless deaths of a few anesthetized animals. Surely Hurst wants us to put our judgements into perspective and realize our own hypocrisy. While many are prepared to condemn his work, are they also prepared to protest against the killing in the Far East... and more importantly do something constructive about it? The dissected animals are fascinating and educational - war has no such merit.

I don't see Hurst's work as bloodthirsty desire for death - if this were his motivation he would surely not have taken so much care to preserve his victims. Rather, Hurst escapes from the 'tasteful' fascard of society and invites people to question their underlying morality. The truth is often disturbing, and so is our world.

Having studied underwater photography, surrealism and sculpture, I have found it fascinating to compare Mona Atmadeo Quedou and her artwork.

Born in Grand Baie, Mauritius in 1967, Mona grew up by the sea. She was a noticeably artistic child and enjoyed drawing her surroundings from a very early age. Despite a relative lack of art facilities at her schools, Mona became interested in oil painting. This type of paint is one the few which is easily obtainable on the tiny and remote island of Mauritius.

Mona's early work mainly depicts the sea, traditional Sunday regatas and Mauritian life in general. However after marrying a French artist, Antoine, in 1991, Mona took up scuba diving to gain a different perspective of her locality.

Keen to translate her underwater experiences into a form that could be enjoyed by all, Mona began to combine her love of painting with her new hobby, taking her canvas and oils underwater to paint up to forty meters below the surface!

The results are a somewhat blurry, smudgy set of paintings, which nevertheless recreate the atmosphere of being underwater quite successfully. Although they are not an intricate portrayal of the coral, fish and other sea life, they still give a realistic impression of the underwater world.

In fact, Mona's paintings, although accomplished in a unique and somewhat absurd way, can be compared in style to those of the famous impressionists. Claude Monet's latter works depicting his water garden and water lilies at Giverny are particularly reminiscent of Mona's representation of the sea. Both artist use directional brush strokes and vivid colour to create movement and an atmosphere which is peaceful. The thickly layered paint gives an interesting texture and the impressionist styles of the paintings are remarkably similar.

However the more fundamental similarity between the two artists is their determination to overcome the obstacles of producing their art. While it is known that Monet struggled physically with poor eyesight and emotionally with the death of his wife, one can easily imagine the numerable difficulties of painting under water!

It amazes me that Mona is able to concentrate on art when she is underwater, while also facing the difficulties created by currents and awkward equipment, weighing an enormous amount. This is not to mention the time limitations of breathing pressurized air, which can cut short Mona's 'bottom time' to 20 minutes, plus the obvious difficulties of using oil paints underwater!

It would seem that Mona relishes the challenge of 'defeating the elements', as she has refused to let the alien environment in which she paints put her off.

When asked why she had chosen such a peculiar and problematic method of portraying the underwater world, Mona's response was: 'It's human nature to push boundaries -that's what I'm trying to do.'

Nick Paul Peters is another artist who has adopted this somewhat peculiar method of painting. He too felt the desire to expand the experience of scuba diving by recording the things he saw. Beginning in the studio, Peters felt his efforts were lifeless and drab, devoid of the excitement of the marine experiences he was having. It was as a result of this disappointment that Peters began to think of alternative ways to paint beginning in the kitchen sink and progressing to the sea itself!

'Environmental Abstraction' is exactly that! Despite the similar painting technique, Peters portrays the underwater world much more 'solidly' than Mona does. By this I mean that Peters' objects are generally large, defined and fairly well focussed, whereas Mona tends to provide only a suggestion of a large group of objects rather than separating each one. For example, the breeds of fish in 'Environmental Abstraction' are identifiable, as well as a piece of coral and a number of sea anemones. In contrast, 'Grande Baie Aquarium' depicts a few schools of fish and a couple of areas of plant-life: we cannot tell the species.

Though Peters' work is somewhat more abstract, the influence of Vincent Van Gogh can be seen in the style of 'Environmental Abstraction'. The use of bright colour is reminiscent of much of Van Gogh's work though the colour scheme is not particularly similar to any specific piece. The brush strokes in 'Environmental Abstraction' are bold, reminding us of Van Gogh's 'Wheatfield with Crows' (1980) and 'The Starry Night' (1989). In fact, Peters claims the very idea of painting underwater was inspired by Van Gogh, working outside at night with candles attached to his straw hat!

Though Peters does not acknowledge Henri Matisse as a particular influence, I was stuck by the similarities between 'Environmental Abstraction' and Matisse's 'The Open Window, Collioure'(1905). There are obvious likenesses in the use of colour and thick brush strokes but in addition, the colour schemes are not altogether dissimilar, incorporating blues and reds with hints of lilac, yellow and black. Neither painting contains detail, though the subject is distinguishable. Both paintings capture a sense of movement, though Matisse's boats are swaying in the breeze rather than being swept by the current! Most of all, both artists have a simplistic style, which is almost childlike, though we are aware of the skill required for such composition and 'life' in a piece. Peters' style seems very similar to the fauvist's and much of his work can be compared to Matisse's early experimentations between 1905 and 1908, which includes 'Interior at Collioure' (1905) as well as 'The Open Window, Collioure'.

Matisse's revolutionary use of colour and the wild style of the Fauvist 'beasts' can be seen in Peters' work as he deliberately discards the conventional methods, rules and perspectives of painting in order to create something unique and fascinating.

Peter's work also reminded me of Helen Frankenhaler's 'Mountains and Sea'. It is true that the latter's work is far more abstract, as she avoids Matisse's decisive outline so that her lines do not define edges or mark contours, rather break up areas of watery colour. In fact the subject is unidentifiable in much of her work. However, the colours in 'Mountains and Sea' are rich and her style is uninhibited and fluid like Peter's. Though Frankenhaler's painting is fascinatingly complex, the overall impression is somewhat comparable to Peter's 'Environmental Abstraction' in terms of its innocent, childlike expressiveness.

Therefore, though the results are quite different, we can see that both Mona and Peters stray from photographic realism, and turn to abstraction, exaggeration and distortion to create a painting full of movement. While the process does not lend itself to accurate detail, Mona insists that her method produces the most 'realistic' impression of the underwater world. Painting enables these artists to translate their emotions about what they see onto paper, so that the final product is not just a picture of fish, but a blast of excitement that being underwater creates. In this way, it is arguable that this method of capturing the alien environment is more realistic than the photograph because it helps us to understand how being underwater really feels.


I am fascinated by the way ideas can be combined, almost like chemicals, and translated into a product of visual art, to create something dramatic, emotional and original. I believe that art is about much more than aesthetics; it is a form of expression and therefore fundamental to life, assisting us in our interpretation and comprehension of ourselves and the world around us. Though their styles and methods vary - some are traditional and some less so - all the artists' representations of 'the alien' are valuable as they convey emotion and passion for the subject. Rather than viewing the portrayals as 'right and wrong' or 'realistic and unrealistic', we should consider that each artist has recreated the subject in the way that he/she saw them. We are all individuals with different experiences, influences and minds. If it is acceptable that we all think differently, it may be reasonable to suppose that we see differently too. Each artist expresses his or her feelings about the subject matter: while Penca aims to teach us through poignant surrealism and Hurst endeavours to shock us into thought, Peters and Mona try to convey their excitement about being underwater and Martin wishes to educate non-divers about the beauty of the underwater world through aesthetic photography. So while all the artists have different 'motives', what they have in common is their desire to translate something inside of them into visual art for others to appreciate. And it is not necessarily realism which captures the imagination (though it may be). For example while some find the photograph's realism amazing, others are disgusted at what they believe to be a misuse of progressive technology in the case of Damien Hurst's work. The artist's success is dependent on the personal taste of the observer and the way in which they are able to relate or otherwise to the art. Following vast developments in technology and also the way we think, the progression of art and artists over just the last few hundred years has been phenomenal and the huge diversity of imagination and method is proof of this. I am excited to discover where the world of art will go from here and can't wait to be a part of it!

The Underwater photographer - Martin Edge.
The Shock of the New - Robert Hughes.
The Story of Art - E.H. Gombrich.
The Impressionists.
The Art Book. Phaidon.

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