joanne lee


spheres of influence

May 2012

I was invited to write a text Spheres of Influence to accompany the exhibition Under the Influence, which ran at 10 - 12 Exhibition Road, London, 11 - 16 May 2012 and included work by Mel Cole, James Edgar, Cadi Froehlich, Rose Gibbs, Peter Nencini, Flora Parrott & Jessica Voorsanger. The beautifully designed and risograph printed catalogue also contained an essay from artist/lecturer David Cross.

Contemporary artists have a rather vexed relationship to the question of influence. At art school, there is often a strange tension between the desire to know, and yet also to remain ignorant of, other artists practicing in a similar field. Artists are encouraged to discover those whose approach can be used to ‘support’ their own practice and many students express their frustration if they can’t find examples they deem ‘relevant’: in such cases, perhaps a sense of creative isolation makes their own work somehow vulnerable? At the same time, they dread discovering that ideas very close to their own have already found a form in someone else’s work. There’s a special horror reserved for realising that the work with which they are so enamoured derives from previous decades, and thus that distant predecessors have in some sense already overtaken them. Whilst copying the ‘Masters’ was once an essential part of any artistic apprenticeship, these days learning one’s trade requires a careful dance of proximity and distance: the work must surely acknowledge that of one’s peers or forebears, but yet at the same time it must not approach it too closely in content or appearance.

Such anxieties are most familiar from those at the very beginning of their creative career (foundation students, undergraduates...) as they struggle to find their own place within the vastness of art practices, theories and histories, but they surely persist in a more dilute form amongst those whose career is much longer established. What if one’s work is too similar or too different to that of one’s forebears or contemporaries? What if the critical and curatorial gatekeepers dismiss it as old hat, or fail to spot that one’s novel production is in fact art at all? Despite the apparent heterogeneity of contemporary practice, the possible territory for making art sometimes appears to be surprisingly circumscribed.

Current consensus has it that artists are expected to be aware of other practitioners’ use of the ideas, processes or materials with which they are themselves engaged. Not to know that others are working in a similar territory is to reveal oneself as naïve and otherworldly (from the art world, at least), or worse, liable to ignorantly mimic pre-existing work that would be well known to the cognoscenti. Ignorance is the grave sin here; intentional copying (or indeed, knowing allusions to Jorge Luis Borges’ ‘Pierre Menard’) is quite another thing…

For a time, art was much exercised with ideas of intertextuality and practices were developed that explicitly sought to problematise ideas of originality; pastiche, parody and irony were preferred to outdated notions of artistic purity or authenticity. But what began as a necessary critique often became reduced to unhelpful binary oppositions: work was ‘good’ if it cleverly referenced other art/genres and borrowed knowingly from a broad cultural milieu, and ‘bad’ if caught in romantic notions of originality and art for art’s sake. These days, however, a more laissez faire attitude prevails and the lingering echoes of postmodernity’s relativist Big Bang resonate in the very lack of any really dominant mode. Only one approach would be considered unacceptable within the norms of the scene, and that would be to work in isolation, cutting oneself off entirely from the discourse of historical or contemporary art; beyond that, it seems anything goes.

So where does this leave artists in our relationships with each other and with work past and present? Nowadays each artist is expected to make and remake their own genealogy as they negotiate their sources, sometimes piecing together practices or theories that others might consider to be unrelated or profoundly contradictory. This activity seems the manifestation of a very human need to cultivate creative and critical friendships; and just as one’s real world friends are often a miscellaneous bunch, so too are the makers and thinkers with whom we bring our practice into conversation.

The current exhibition acknowledges just such dialogues through its revival of the idea of homage. The word has been less common in the art lexicon during recent years - perhaps homage sounds somehow too uncritical? too much the result of a spot of loved-up adoration? – but were one to check the dictionary, one would discover that to make homage to something or someone is in fact simply to demonstrate one’s respect. Paying respect in this way requires that one offer one’s full attention, alert to the nuances and complexities of the matter under scrutiny. The artists here who recognise that they are ‘under the influence’ have chosen to focus directly upon the creative and critical relationships that variously nourish or trouble their work and this exhibition is a space within which the vexed but valuable conversations can be made audible to a wider audience.