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  • Writer's pictureHaydn Dickenson

CONCEPTUAL ART - WHAT IS IT AND WHAT DOES IT MEAN?



In 1929, René Magritte painted his iconic and justly famous painting, THE TREACHERY OF IMAGES, in which he depicts a beautifully executed image of a pipe. The painting is annotated in French which, when the words are translated, tell us: “This is not a pipe”. The painting technically pre-dates the coming of true Conceptualism, but Magritte's 'non-pipe' does draw the viewer into territories other than the obviously visual in a way not far removed from some conceptual exponents; namely, that we are invited to venture behind the immediate image, and think.


Copyright laws in my country apparently prohibit me from publishing a reproduction of Magritte's painting here. I am not so much of an anarchist as Magritte so, though I'm sure I'd get away with reproducing it, I don't want to jeopardise the future of this column! Perhaps I might argue that 'this is a series of pixels, a piece of data, not the original painting of something that is not a pipe', but I doubt that I would get very far!


Instead, let us open with an equally famous, even notorious piece, FOUNTAIN (1917) by Marcel Duchamp, the great Dadaist and conceptual artist.




FOUNTAIN (1917) - Marcel Duchamp


Duchamp's fountain is of course a urinal – or is it? It is not plumbed in, it does not invite being used as a urinal if for no better better reason than that its orientation has been altered. The apparent sanitary vessel bears an inscription, 'R Mutt 1917', the spurious signature being a reference to 'Mott', a contemporary maker of sanitary ware. The object carries a peculiar elegance, a certain utilitarian grandeur.


Maybe, in a similar way to Magritte's later painting, it 'is not a urinal'.


Conceptual Art is usually defined as art in which the concept is more important than the execution. Found items or everyday objects feature strongly. Some pieces may be interactive, where the visitor is invited to move or alter elements of their construction, or to add to the installation in some way.


Though I would never claim to be a conceptual artist, I do on occasions incorporate found objects within my pictures. In 2011 I created the piece illustrated below, a rather disturbing one of which I am quite fond; in it I have glued some kind of rough metal frame, found on a walk, onto the board before applying paint over and around it.




UNTITLED (2011) - Haydn Dickenson


In ALWAYS START WITH SILENCE (2021) I used significant objects pasted onto the canvas in a way that goes over and above the simple collage technique of which I am also enamoured. The objects include the receipt for a copy of Ernest Newman's 'Wagner Nights' purchased by my father from a London bookseller more than seventy years ago, scraps of antique music score bearing words present in the painting's title, and the sprocket-hole imprints in plaster of some 35 mm film used by my father in his PhD thesis. My ancestry, childhood and adolescence hold great significance to me – not in an altogether positive way – so the concept of the piece is, subjectively, at least as important as the impact of the picture as a visual statement.




ALWAYS START WITH SILENCE (2021) - Haydn Dickenson


I hold great admiration for Cildo Meireles' conceptual piece, BABEL, which resides in the Tate Modern, London. The massive structure, its solid presence towering in a semi-blue-darkened room, is built of hundreds of old analogue radios. Each is tuned to a different station, the various low-volume broadcasts emitting a low-level murmured hubbub. The effect of standing close to the piece is strangely calming and simultaneously energising. I recognise several of the ancient radios from my childhood and adolescence, and the title, BABEL reminds me of a few Reading University friends who belonged to the 'Babel Society' when I was a student there in the early 1980's , that society sounding deeply cool to me at the time though I never dared join it (and still do not what it actually practised!)




BABEL - Cildo Meireles (source Fred Romero from Paris, France, CC BY 2.0 httpscreativecommons.orglicensesby2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)


It seems to me that Conceptual Art and my own genre, Abstraction, are not a million miles apart.


Conceptual pieces deal, as mentioned above, with the process, the concept, the materials and the statement rather than the ultimate craft. The art critic Christopher P Jones has suggested that “It is common for viewers of Conceptual Art to wonder if the objects on display are perpetrating some sort of hoax, or at least sharing an inside joke that the rest of us are not allowed to understand.”


So we come back once more to that niggling word 'understand'. My readers are aware of my views on that shiver-inducing word, and that I wish to dispel the preconception that art must be understood in order to be appreciated and enjoyed.


Abstract art constantly holds the potential to be burdened by a similar stigma to that described by Christopher Jones, that we as artists are attempting to hoodwink the public, that we are fake or – an extraordinary statement, coming from a fine artist colleague - that artists turn to abstraction late in life because of a diminishing steadiness of hand!


Abstraction, in particular Abstract Expressionism, is about feeling, experience, emotion, and action. In my case, the process – in which I almost always feel guided and driven by energies outside my control – is at least as important as the final culmination, the result, the enduring image. In this aspect I feel solidly akin to my conceptual brethren.


In the gloriously tranquil artwork, AN OAK TREE by Michael Craig-Martin, we are presented with a glass of water set upon a glass shelf, in minimalist splendour. The text below the installation tells us “the actual oak tree is physically present but in the form of the glass of water.” The high placing of the shelf encourages us to look up, as if to the lofty canopy of the forest. The text continues “It would no longer be accurate to call it a glass of water. One could call it anything one wished but that would not alter the fact that it is an oak tree.”




AN OAK TREE - Michael Craig-Martin (source Pixel23 at English Wikipedia., CC BY-SA 2.5 httpscreativecommons.orglicensesby-sa2.5, via Wikimedia Commons)


Once again, I am reminded of university days, when friends and I would sit in earnest discussion on philosophical matters such as, for example, the Aristotelian question of what is it that makes a table a table. From Aristotle's standpoint, we arrive at the ability to call anything whatever we want.


I would refer my readers to the excellent book THINKING ABOUT THINKING, by Professor Antony Flew, which may assist in some of the contemplations thrown up by the above statement, today's present article and, perhaps, with life in general!


As a postscript, I have always been of the opinion that Art should provoke a reaction. Any reaction is valid; only indifference confirms the painting, the poem, the music, the drama, the novel or, yes, the conceptual installation as empty or worthless.


Laugh and smile if you wish – I love to do this in front of Art! Deride and scorn if you must, but remember that Debussy's PRELUDE A L'APRES-MIDI D'UN FAUNE and Stravinsky's LE SACRE DU PRINTEMPS provoked scandal and outrage in their day but are now both considered pinnacles of twentieth-century musical expression.


To speak of Conceptual Art as a genre designed to be capricious, facile or cynical is to misrepresent it grossly. A principal mission of the conceptualist, who is predominantly involved with the process, the approach and the choice of materials whether obscure or quotidian, is to lead the viewer into the work, to draw us deeper inside than a purely visual consumption of the piece permits. As such, we are encouraged to think, and that can never be a bad thing.




Copyright Haydn Dickenson 2023


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