Research - Robert Rauschenberg by Ally McGinn

American painter, sculptor, printmaker, photographer and performance artist who lived and worked in New York.  Rauschenberg didn't identify with the movements at the time, often acting against them. In the case of Abstract Expressionism, the significant art movement of the time in New York, he thought that to be a good Abstract Expressionist you had to have “time to feel sorry for yourself,” something he considered a waste of time. (McEwan, 2008)

Rauschenberg was an inventive figure, he constantly worked at the edge of thinking, working against the norms of the art world at the time. He described his practice as one of “bringing the outside in” (Manufacturing Intellect, 2016) a process that involved the use of found materials, images and objects. His practice can be described as re-presenting and re-contextualising the everyday, which could be an argument for what art itself is.

Rauschenberg is an extremely influential figure most famously known for his ‘combines’ created throughout the 1950’s, which as the name suggests combined painting and sculpture.

Robert Rauschenberg (1960)  Pilgrim . Combine: oil, graphite, paper, printed paper, and fabric on canvas with painted wood chair. 201.3 × 136.8 × 47.3 cm.

Robert Rauschenberg (1960) Pilgrim. Combine: oil, graphite, paper, printed paper, and fabric on canvas with painted wood chair. 201.3 × 136.8 × 47.3 cm.

Rauschenberg positioned his work in the spaces between. Talking about his work, he said, "Painting relates both to art and life. Neither can be made – I try to act in the gap between the two." (McEwan, 2008) Which can be applied to the mediums he explored, he bridged the gap between more than painting and sculpture. No medium was out of the reach of his curiosity, which he saw as one of the most important features an artist can have. (Manufacturing Intellect, 2016) Rauschenberg was a man who saw interest and beauty in all areas around him and worked with those ideas to form new conversations.

“I really feel sorry for people who think things like soap dishes or mirrors or Coke bottles are ugly,” he once said, “because they’re surrounded by things like that all day long, and it must make them miserable.” (Kimmelman, 2008)

These gaps are undefined areas, albeit more extensively explored now than in the 1950’s, and that lack of definition gave Rauschenberg the freedom to explore with a light-hearted intelligence that comes through in interviews.

Rauschenberg avoided over-contextualising his works, preferring to deal with the issue of making rather than prescribing meaning. (Manufacturing Intellect, 2016)

Rauschenberg studied under Josef Albers, who had previously taught at the Bauhaus. Albers had a firm view of where he stood in the artworld, and what art is, which was translated into a preliminary course that offered little in the way of freedom. This stable standpoint allowed Rauschenberg to push hard against those ideas, and while Albers might not be considered an artistic influence for Rauschenberg in the traditional sense, he informed the artist Rauschenberg would become. (Manufacturing Intellect, 2016) (McEwan, 2008) (Kimmelman, 2008)

While Rauschenberg didn't associate with any particular movement he has been linked with the Dadaists; His work was sometimes called Neo-Dadaist.  (Robert Rauschenberg, 2016)

When asked “what guides you?” he responded with the beautifully dry, “A lack of purpose.” Which highlights his belief in the function of art, which is to say that it has less to do with the artist than the art itself. As he put it “I have a sense that when I'm working well, I'm invisible.”(Manufacturing Intellect, 2016)

He had an endless sense of what art is, in that it could be anything. Rauschenberg was asked whether he had suffered from a form of writer's block, the only answer, “no,” because he would “just go do something else.” (Manufacturing Intellect, 2016)

Rauschenberg was an avid egalitarian, believing in the equality of materials, subjects, and people. There is an honesty in this inclusion, which can be seen in the work. He was a man who was unafraid of challenging the paradigm.

Rauschenberg was an artist inspired by his surroundings and the people he met on his journeys. Reading about him and, more importantly, watching interviews with him hint at the fascinating way he saw the world. His prolific practice becomes more understandable when his perspective is appreciated, to Rauschenberg anything could be art with the right artist to pull strings.

Rauschenberg saw the potential of the materials he was working with, but more importantly perhaps saw the reality of what they already are. He worked with a surface of coloured pages from newspapers so that the painting wouldn’t have a beginning. (Robert Rauschenberg, 2016) He already had a surface to work on.  He then added to what was already there. It could be argued that paints already do this to a degree. If you begin with the possibilities of the material, and you then let them do what they want to do.  The artist becomes a bystander.

Robert Rauschenberg (1954/55)  Collection.  Oil, paper, fabric, wood, and metal on canvas. 203.2 x 243.84 x 8.89 cm.

Robert Rauschenberg (1954/55) Collection. Oil, paper, fabric, wood, and metal on canvas. 203.2 x 243.84 x 8.89 cm.

In his combines, the hierarchy of the materials is questioned and challenged. The use of found objects in his work was far from a new idea (he was working 30 years after Duchamp's’ ‘Fountain’) and was being explored by other artists at the time, however unlike some of the other artists Rauschenberg recognised that it is the relationships of the images he uses that have the most meaning. (Robert Rauschenberg, 2016)

Equally inspiring for Rauschenberg was the work of dadaist Kurt Schwitters, whose collages contained rubbish collected off the streets. (Unnamed, 2013) Rauschenberg combined found objects (often found in his local neighbourhood in New York), with collage and painting. In this approach, he combined the reality of the objects represented against the illusionistic nature of painting. The medium became the representation of itself.

NASA invited Rauschenberg to watch the launch of Apollo 11 in 1969 (The Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, Undated) and was an artist working with developing technologies. In 1966 he launched ‘experiments in art and technology’ a non-profit organisation to promote work between artists and engineers. (Tate, Undated)

Robert Rauschenberg (1961)  This Is a Portrait of Iris Clert If I Say So.  Telegram with envelope. 44.8 x 22.5 cm.

Robert Rauschenberg (1961) This Is a Portrait of Iris Clert If I Say So. Telegram with envelope. 44.8 x 22.5 cm.

As an example that could be considered both condescending and enlightened Rauschenberg submitted a piece to the Galerie Iris Clert, for an exhibition where the subject was the owner herself. Rauschenberg’s offering was a short telegraph stating “This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so.” I have read a few opinions of this piece as one of the signs of the size of the artist's ego, but I think it can be taken to mean far more than that, echoing the opinion of ‘Fountain’ in its original form. Regardless of the artist's intentions, the fact remains, that art through nomination has precedent, and this ‘artwork’ is seen as one because of the very reason stated on it. (Lippard, 1997)

Robert Rauschenberg (1951)  White Painting [three   panel  ].  Latex paint on canvas. 182.88 x 174.32 cm.

Robert Rauschenberg (1951) White Painting [three panel]. Latex paint on canvas. 182.88 x 174.32 cm.

In 1951 he created a series of ‘White Paintings.'  The antithesis of the emotional and colourful work being done by the Abstract Expressionists, this series has been said to have been a precursor to Minimalism, by a decade.

The works in the series are formed of groups of modular panels, each the same size, shape, and form. Their size is based on a simple mathematical formula; the width is half the length of the height. This is the limit of the prescribed control that the artist has, beyond which the works become something more. Conceptual paintings.

They were first shown in 1953, at which point they were not well received, but by the mid-1960’s, when Minimalism was a more accepted form, they were re-shown and regarded far more positively.  (SFMOMA, Undated)

Rauschenberg was friends with composer and artist John Cage, whose theories of chance were influential. (Painters painting, 1973) The ‘White Paintings’ have been compared to Cage’s musical piece 4”33’, in which the musician plays nothing, and the music is the ambient and other sounds in the space itself. The ‘White Paintings’ can be seen similarly, their uniform surface allows for an appreciation of the space in the gallery, and the shadows cast onto the paintings themselves become a focus, as opposed to any subject within the paintings themselves. These white panels reflect the light of the space and reflect the mute potential of a blank canvas while highlighting the features of the existing surface.

An interesting note, I thought, was that the surface of these works is more important than any historical integrity for them. If the surface were marred in any way then it would be repainted, something Rauschenberg confirmed in a 1999 interview, so they become something beyond nostalgia. These panels have been repainted by some of Rauschenberg’s artist friends, including Cy Twombly and Brice Marden. (SFMOMA, 1999)

In the same discussion, Rauschenberg referred to the works as clocks, a way, if you were a sensitive enough viewer, to read the details of the space around you, using the surface of the paintings, in this sense they are mirrors that encourage the viewer to see beyond the work, to the world around them.

Robert Rauschenberg (1957)    Factum I and Factum II . Combine painting: oil, ink, pencil, crayon, paper, fabric, newspaper, printed reproductions, and printed paper on canvas. 156 x 91 cm. 

Robert Rauschenberg (1957) Factum I and Factum II. Combine painting: oil, ink, pencil, crayon, paper, fabric, newspaper, printed reproductions, and printed paper on canvas. 156 x 91 cm. 

In 1957 he created a diptych, which was displayed at a recent exhibition at the Tate Modern. (Robert Rauschenberg, 2016) ‘Factum 1’ and ‘Factum 2’ are collages that are identical in size and near identical on the surface. After creating the first, the second was made as close to the ‘original’ as the materials, and the artist's hand would allow. The pieces highlight the importance of the chance elements in the work, the drips that could not be controlled entirely for example. These aspects of the incidental and uncontrolled form a pause of sorts between the two pieces, a visual stutter as the viewer attempts to unpick the differences between the works. The external visuals Rauschenberg has used are identical, but other paint marks are not, which opens an interesting dialogue about the nature of accidents.

Robert Rauschenberg (1953)    Erased de Kooning Drawing . Traces of drawing media on paper with label and gilded frame. 64.14 x 55.25 x 1.27 cm.

Robert Rauschenberg (1953) Erased de Kooning Drawing. Traces of drawing media on paper with label and gilded frame. 64.14 x 55.25 x 1.27 cm.

The more I look into Rauschenberg’s extensive works, the more I find of interest, but it remains relatively simple to articulate my favourite. ‘Erased de Kooning Drawing.’ Rauschenberg asked himself if there was a way to create something with an eraser.  When he realised that rubbing out one of his drawings was not wholly satisfying, he decided that what he needed was a drawing that was already a work of art.  Although initially reluctant De Kooning was convinced, although he proceeded to find a drawing with a combination of marks that would be difficult for Rauschenberg to erase, it took several weeks for him to complete the work.

The work has been compared to Duchamp’s LHOOQ, in which Duchamp drew a moustache on the Mona Lisa.

While the drawing is sometimes seen as a negative comment by Rauschenberg, the artist meant it as anything but.  Firstly it was done with Willem de Kooning’s consent and is often considered both a performative and collaborative work, the title contained within the frame was written by Jasper Johns. (Painters Painting, 1973)

For me, the work is important on various levels.  The fact that Rauschenberg chose De Kooning, who was possibly the most prominent Abstract Expressionist at the time, that he was able to create something with something normally used for destruction, that the result is minimal, that he is deleting a drawing (which was still and is still seen as the vital prelude to painting) and most importantly for me, that he is questioning what is art.  Was it art before he started??  Is it art now?? Whether both are true, or only one is, the comment and the process remain essential for our understanding of what art can be, and what artists can do.

Robert Rauschenberg was a man who responded to the world around him with clarity and confidence. His works are creative, challenging and deeply communicative. To Rauschenberg art doesn’t come from art, it comes from the world around us, and it should reflect that.

Attempting to quantify the influence of Rauschenberg on the artworld, and the world in general, would be incredibly difficult, and this short text barely touches the surface of a man I find endlessly fascinating, however, it shows a few of the ideas that Rauschenberg worked with and part of his perspective. (it might be better to say ‘the perspective he was’because everything I've read and seen of the man shows that his art was such a part of who he was that he became Art.)

A short note about the Tate Modern Exhibition (2016) made after my visit.

Robert Rauschenberg (1955-59)    Monument . Combine: oil, paper, fabric, printed paper, printed reproductions, metal, wood, rubber shoe heel, and tennis ball on canvas with oil and rubber tire on Angora goat on wood platform mounted on four casters. 106.7 x 160.7 x 163.8 cm.

Robert Rauschenberg (1955-59) Monument. Combine: oil, paper, fabric, printed paper, printed reproductions, metal, wood, rubber shoe heel, and tennis ball on canvas with oil and rubber tire on Angora goat on wood platform mounted on four casters. 106.7 x 160.7 x 163.8 cm.

Being able to see works I have only appreciated either digitally or in print remains indescribable. The rooms are varied, and occasionally the single link between the work is Rauschenberg himself. His prolific practice is explored, though apparently not fully experienced, through a brilliantly curated show, which retains a coherence that is a risk when investigating such a massive and varied archive of works.

This exhibition seems to epitomise the man rather than focus on any single aspect of his work. This exhibition showed the variety and accomplishment of this artist. Rauschenberg is hugely inspirational to me, regarding his fantastic work and the way he worked and lived.

As a retrospective, it is incredibly successful, in my opinion, as it balances the variety and development of his work without losing coherence or contact.

Rauschenberg was an incredibly inspirational man and artist, one who claimed to never experience writers block.  In his work the line between art and life is diminished, understanding the artist it becomes more evident that this line was reduced in his life as well as his studio. Art was his life, and he continued to do it whether feeling inspired and productive or depressed and drinking. A restless, curious, passionate, talented and inspirational artist and figure, the exhibition is one I am singularly glad I was able to go to.


Kimmelman, M. (2008) ‘Robert Rauschenberg, American Artist, dies at 82’, New York Times, [Online] New York Times. Avaliable from: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/14/arts/design/14rauschenberg.html?pagewanted=all [Accessed 18.11.18].

Lippard, L. ed (1997) Six years: the dematerialization of the art object from 1966 to 1972…. London: University of California Press.

Manufacturing Intellect (2016) Robert Rauschenberg Interview (1998) [Online Video] Avaliable from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tDUbPqBRPvY [Accessed 17.11.17].

McEwan, J. (2008) ‘Robert Rauschenberg: Restlessly experimental artist whose career was a celebration of change’, Independent, [Online] Avaliable from:  http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/robert-rauschenberg-restlessly-experimental-artist-whose-career-was-a-celebration-of-change-828260.html [Accessed 18.11.17].

Painters painting: a candid history of the modern art scene. (1973) [DVD] Emille de Antonio. USA: Arthouse films.

Robert Rauschenberg (2016) [Exhibition]. Tate Modern, London. 1 December 2016 - 2 April 2017.

SFMOMA (Undated) ‘Robert Rauschenberg, White Painting [three panel], 1951’ [Online] SFMOMA. Available from: https://www.sfmoma.org/artwork/98.308.A-C [Accessed 17.11.17].

SFMOMA (1999) ‘Robert Rauschenberg, video interview by David A. Ross, Walter Hopps, Gary Garrels, and Peter Samis, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, May 6, 1999.’ [Online] Available from: https://s3-us-west-2.amazonaws.com/sfmomamedia/media/uploads/documents/research/rrp_sfmoma_rauschenberg_interview_may_6_1999.pdf [Accessed 17.11.17].

Tate (Undated) ‘Experiements in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) [Online] Available from: http://www.tate.org.uk/learn/online-resources/glossary/e/experiments-in-art-and-technology [Accessed 17.11.17].

The Robert Rauschenberg Foundation (Undated) ‘The Robert Rauschenberg Foundation’ [Online] Available from: https://www.rauschenbergfoundation.org/art/art-in-context/stoned-moon [Accessed 17.11.17].

Unnamed (2013) ‘Kurt Schwitters, inspiration of Pop Art’, The Telegraph, [Online] Available from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-features/9810512/Kurt-Schwitters-inspiration-of-Pop-Art.html [Accessed 18.11.17].

Research - Exhibition trip - RA, and contemporary galleries. by Ally McGinn

Exhibition visits - Friday, October 20th


A group of MA students went to London to explore some exhibitions and get to know one another. We saw a total of 6 exhibitions;

  • Jasper Johns - RA

  • Dali/Duchamp - RA

  • Matisse - RA

  • David Zwirner Gallery

  • Sadie Coles gallery

  • Spruth Magers Gallery

I spent two days in London, and the combination of exhibitions, outlook and walking around London formed a perspective-shifting whole.

This, admittedly long, text combines an overview of each exhibition (with an emphasis on elements that are important to my practice rather than attempting to give an overview of the whole – which I would normally attempt to do) and a critical interpretation of different elements of the trip.

Unless stated the references for the following images are the works themselves and short paragraphs of text in the exhibition.

Jasper Johns : Something resembling truth.

I should start off by saying - what a wonderful title. A subject Johns has explored throughout his prestigious career, truth is a tricky thing to explore effectively. I can honestly say I didn't realise what a master of this Johns is until I saw this exhibition. The careful curation and interesting collection of works form a whole that explores our understanding of truth in painting and visual culture.

An exhibition covering the career, including very recent works, of Jasper Johns. I have researched Johns’s work in previous years, but I can now attest that it was never with the detail I should have. One positive result of that is that many of the works in this exhibition came as a shock, and I spent a great deal of time in the middle section of the exhibition, as it had the most correlation with my work and the works I felt most connection with.

The exhibition was arranged chronologically, but each room was a thematic exploration of his work. Johns’s career can be described to have followed a thematic development, there are clear areas of interest at particular times in his life. In the exhibition, the curators brought works from varying time periods together when the themes aligned.


As I walked around the exhibition I made a few notes of pieces to articulate at a later date. There are far more interesting things about the context of these works, but these are a few that stuck out to me.

‘Numbers’ (2008) This piece was a large re-creation of an older work, cast in metal. The reason i made note of this piece was the footprint in the top right corner, which was made by Merce Cunningham on the original. This directly references the original site of creation.

Jasper Johns (1958) Target. Encaustic on newspaper and cloth on canvas. 66 x 66 c

Jasper Johns (1958) Target. Encaustic on newspaper and cloth on canvas. 66 x 66 c

‘Target’ (1961). This piece is one of the first seen in the exhibition, hung opposite the entrance. It is an iconic piece, a recognisable form repeated often through John’s work.
The most striking thing, for me, when seeing this piece in person is the depth of the collage beneath the encaustic paint. This detail cannot be seen in reproductions of the work, and in reality, the eye is drawn around the work. The image is a target, designed to draw the viewer into the centre, but the way John’s has painted the work draws attention away from the centre point. Hidden reality.

The target and the flag are two of Johns most iconic visual signatures. His choice of subject was a controversial one but the reality of his works make us question the semiotic influence of the icons of our daily lives. Representing and using flags, numbers, symbols, tools, and words he questions our understanding of what these concepts are, and the visual symbols we choose to represent them. Johns use of these unfamiliar familiarities challenges us to re-look at “things the mind already knows.” (Jasper Johns : Something Resembling Truth, 2017)

One of the first rooms was inhabited by work done by Johns based on the number 0-9. He treated these images as symbols, separate from the meaning that we apply to them. (Jasper Johns : Something Resembling Truth, 2017) One drawing overlaid the numbers over each other, creating a semi-recognisable form that balances fiction and nonfiction. Johns reduces and expands the meaning of these symbols and highlights that they are in fact symbols representing something else.

Jasper Johns (1960)  Disappearance 1.  Encaustic and canvas collage on canvas. 101.6 x 101.6 cm.

Jasper Johns (1960) Disappearance 1. Encaustic and canvas collage on canvas. 101.6 x 101.6 cm.

‘Disappearance 1’ - This piece marks a shift in John’s style, with no recognisable elements on the surface. (Jasper Johns : Something Resembling Truth, 2017) I was drawn to it for the collaged canvas placed into the lower section of the work. Paint covers the entire surface, and from a distance the second layer is harder to spot, but close up the corners of the collaged canvas curl and distort, adding literal depth to the illusory surface. The additional canvas alludes to something further hidden, obscured from view by the act of this ‘patching’.

Jasper Johns (2002)  Study for a Painting.  Encaustic on linen and wood with metal and string. 160.7 x 198.8 x 15.2 cm.

Jasper Johns (2002) Study for a Painting. Encaustic on linen and wood with metal and string. 160.7 x 198.8 x 15.2 cm.

Study for a painting’. This piece is one of a series exploring John’s interest in ‘cantenary's’, (Jasper Johns : Something Resembling Truth, 2017) which is a word describing the curve created when a piece of string (or another length) is suspended from either end. A natural curve the strings are hung slightly in front of the canvas, bringing the literal space of the painting into the work in a subtle and effective manner. The strings move slightly as people move around the gallery and the shadow cast on the work constantly moves.

I found both the imagery of the catenary and the execution of this idea beautifully and simplistically complex.

Jasper Johns (1960)  Painting with Two Balls.  Encaustic and collage on canvas with objects. 165.1 x 137.2 cm. 

Jasper Johns (1960) Painting with Two Balls. Encaustic and collage on canvas with objects. 165.1 x 137.2 cm. 

'Painting with two balls'. Three large rectangular canvases are bolted together, a feature that recurs through Johns work form a large, colourful canvas. The top two are shaped to leave an elliptical gap between them, where the artist has placed two painted balls.
This work balances a painterly aesthetic with a direct challenge to the nature of paintings as objects. The viewer can see the walls of the gallery through the work, and the two balls rely upon the objecthood of the stretcher frame to exist in their location.

This piece was one of the first that exemplified John’s talent in merging content and context, into a single piece that both challenges and enthrals.

This piece was accompanied by a series of studies - painted and sketched - which are works of art in their own right. Done in various forms these studies explore the idea, and enhance the form (their almost blocked out colour is a vast difference to the chaotic surface of the final painting)

Jasper Johns (1956)  Canvas.  Encaustic and collage on wood and canvas. 76.3 x 63.5 cm. 

Jasper Johns (1956) Canvas. Encaustic and collage on wood and canvas. 76.3 x 63.5 cm. 

‘Canvas’ - The only feature on this canvas is the addition of a stretcher frame on the surface, which is then covered in an equalising collage - each piece is the same shade, almost the same size and with no recognisable features.
John’s creates a clever visualisation of the hidden reality of a painting. Paintings, traditionally considered, cannot exist without the stretcher that forms them, however this vital element is hidden, and in Modernist theory not part of the painting at all. John’s directly challenges this idea in this piece. With no other forms on the surface this piece articulates its message well.

Jasper Johns (1954)  Star.  Oil, beeswax, and housepaint on newspaper, canvas, and wood with tinted glass, nails. and fabric tape. 572. x 49.5 x 4.8 cm. 

Jasper Johns (1954) Star. Oil, beeswax, and housepaint on newspaper, canvas, and wood with tinted glass, nails. and fabric tape. 572. x 49.5 x 4.8 cm. 

‘Star’ - The subtle connection in this piece is almost impossible to appreciate second-hand. In three of the points of the titular star, Johns has placed glass fronts, echoing a picture frame. The entire object is shown inside its own white frame, without glass.
To me this interaction subverts traditional ideas of framing, and what is and is not part of the frame/work. The glass is polished, when combined with the white frames this has the effect of hiding the glass, until a light reflects off it - which was what drew me in for a closer look at this piece.

‘Painting with ruler and grey’ (Unfortunately all digital images i have found are terrible quality, which somehow seems insulting to the work.)
The ruler, and the colour grey, became a common tool and theme for Johns. (Jasper Johns : Something Resembling Truth, 2017) The inclusion of the ruler into the work speaks to the illusion of depth in painting. In this piece in particular, with the ruler mounted above the surface, hinged in the centre of the painting, the work appears to speak about illusion and depth. The literal size of the painting, which leads towards the illusional depth in traditional painting.

Jasper Johns (1961)  Painting Bitten by a Man.  Encaustic on canvas mounted on type plate. 24.1 x 17.5 cm. 

Jasper Johns (1961) Painting Bitten by a Man. Encaustic on canvas mounted on type plate. 24.1 x 17.5 cm. 

‘Painting bitten by a man’ - Another clever subversion of painting. The surface is made of clay, not paint, and yet the title leaves no doubt in the viewer's mind that they are in fact looking at a painting. The surface is marked by a single form, that we cannot help but recognise as teeth marks. Questioning our ideas of what constitutes a painting as well as ideas of authorship (those were not John’s teeth (Jasper Johns : Something Resembling Truth, 2017)) this piece made me smile in a very honest appreciation of a great work of art.

Jasper Johns (1963-65)  Skin with O'Hara Poem.   Lithograph. 55.9 x 86.4 cm.

Jasper Johns (1963-65) Skin with O'Hara Poem.  Lithograph. 55.9 x 86.4 cm.

'Skin with Ohara poem' - This piece has an inked imprint of the artists face, spread across the surface, forming a distorted representation that is no less real, and arguably more so. Looking at the work I couldn't help but mentally picture the action of the artist, which is an odd form of passive aggression.

Jasper Johns (1967)  Harlem Light.  Oil and collage on canvas (four panels). 198.1 x 436.9 cm.

Jasper Johns (1967) Harlem Light. Oil and collage on canvas (four panels). 198.1 x 436.9 cm.

'Harlem light' - This piece extends the reality of the work by challenging the rectangle. The subtle addition, or redaction depending on your viewpoint, draws attention to the shape of the work, and the regularity of the right angle.

'Field Painting' 1963-64. Oil on canvas with found objects. 182.9 x 93.3 cm.

'Field Painting' 1963-64. Oil on canvas with found objects. 182.9 x 93.3 cm.

'Field painting' - My reason for noting this piece was due to the inclusion of the tools of making in the work. It brings to mind the ‘box with the sound of its own making’ which played the sounds of itself being made. (Jasper Johns : Something Resembling Truth, 2017)

While the fact that these are the tools that were used might not be known without a helpful bit of context placed next to it, the idea has a self-contained autonomy of sorts. (Jasper Johns : Something Resembling Truth, 2017)

The piece is two vertical canvases, which together form a single whole, with metal letters intersecting the two. The metal letters become part of the painting while turning it firmly towards sculpture, and the line between the two (pun probably intended).

The letters spell out the primary colours, which are painted onto the canvas, forming painted ‘shadows’ of the words. The top letter, an ‘R’, is a red neon light, casting its own shadows in opposition to the painting, yet highlighting the illusionistic qualities of painting itself.

The tools of making are attached to the metal lettering, using magnets. The magnets and the neon light echo the dynamic brushwork, a feeling of energy combined with a literal representation of it.

Found objects are used regularly in Johns work. He was fascinated by the notion of the everyday, and it's implications in art. (Jasper Johns : Something Resembling Truth, 2017) The inclusion of the everyday in art highlights the intrinsic link between art and life while referencing the process of making, and nomination.

Johns uses found objects through a painterly lens and attributes the use of found objects as an extension of his interest in paintings as objects. (Jasper Johns : Something Resembling Truth, 2017) The use of objects in a painting draws attention to their “material qualities and formal properties.” (Jasper Johns : Something Resembling Truth, 2017)

Johns interestingly works with an expansion of the two dimensional into three but visa versa in many works. The reality of painting as object is a tool he utilises well.

Jasper Johns (1982)  In the Studio.  Encaustic and collage on canvas with objects. 182.9 x 121.9 x 10.2 cm.

Jasper Johns (1982) In the Studio. Encaustic and collage on canvas with objects. 182.9 x 121.9 x 10.2 cm.

'In the studio' - my personal, and very subjective, opinion of this piece is that it is very effective in terms of message but aesthetically unlikable

A painted plaster arm and a length of thin wood (with connecting string) adorn the surface of this painting. The painting shows the inside of Johns studio, with a representation of another work on the right side of the canvas. The plaster arm hangs in the centre, presented for viewing. A painting of that arm forms the foreground of the work, superimposing the viewer as the artist, as if the viewer is standing exactly where the artist stood, while painting a painting of a plaster arm.

The work is a skillfully executed conversation between viewer and process.

The plaster arm is painted with colourful tessellated diamonds, which directs the viewer not to think of this as something grotesque but as a tool in the artists' world.

Aesthetically I felt that the piece is missing something, the composition doesn't feel balanced in a way some would call ‘right’ and yet the work speaks to the viewer at another level, and the slightly jarring compositional effects enhance the space within the work, and more importantly the viewers' relation to it.

Jasper Johns (1974/75)  Corpse and Mirror II.  Oil on linen (four panels), with painted frame. 146.4 x 191.1 cm.

Jasper Johns (1974/75) Corpse and Mirror II. Oil on linen (four panels), with painted frame. 146.4 x 191.1 cm.

'Corpse with mirror' - Johns became fascinated by the symbolic form of the cross-hatch upon viewing it through a car window. John’s said  “I only saw it for a second, but knew immediately that I was going to use it. It had all the qualities that interest me—literalness, repetitiveness, an obsessive quality, order with dumbness, and the possibility of a complete lack of meaning.” (Painters Painting, 1973) It also shows that brush marks in different paintings and images that have different meanings.  It’s not just the marks but their relationship with their surroundings that makes meaning. The reading is different depending on context.  The marks are arbitrary, what gives them meaning is their relationship to their surroundings.

This piece is a series of dark cross hatches that are interlocked over a white surface. What drew me most to this work is that Johns has continued the painting onto the interior of the frame, directly linking the two in a way the viewer cannot ignore.

I would be tempted to argue that this subtle manipulation of a relatively traditional painting encapsulates two of John's main interests - painterly aesthetics (and the context therein) and the reality of the painting object.

Jasper Johns (1962)  Fools House.  Oil on canvas with objects. 182.9 x 91.4 cm.

Jasper Johns (1962) Fools House. Oil on canvas with objects. 182.9 x 91.4 cm.

‘Fools house’ - This piece has the unique quality of being reproduced larger than life on a banner outside the RA. It adorns all advertising about the exhibition and as such has gained a spike in existence, for a short period. It's not hard to see why this piece was chosen, it fits perfectly with the exhibition's title.

As with the other paintings in this room, Johns combined found objects with painterly process. In this piece, the main focus is a broom, used as a paintbrush. The use of what is basically an oversized paintbrush is a vivid association which Johns combines with the implicit action of the artist in the brushstroke and paint hardened bristles. The colour palette is refined and shows a harmony between object and paint.


This piece, and the others in this space twist the purpose of everyday objects. Using teacups as an artistic tool and then as an element in ‘Art’ itself challenges our understanding of the purpose of these objects. The use of them in painting questions the nature of representation and reality.

Jasper Johns (1960)  Painted Bronze.  Painted Bronze. 34.3 x 20.3 cm.

Jasper Johns (1960) Painted Bronze. Painted Bronze. 34.3 x 20.3 cm.


'Painted Bronze'

This is a sculpture, of a coffee can filled with paintbrushes, reproduced in bronze. This labour intensive task, to create something that already exists and is overlooked in its banality, is a brilliant visualisation of the nature of art; as a way to explore the reality of visual language. This work questions our understanding of what is true and what is false, we are left wondering which one is art, and why.

'Summer' and 'Fall'

Johns interests have shifted through the decades to a more introspective field. (Jasper Johns : Something Resembling Truth, 2017). His early works attempted to disassociate his emotions and feeling from the works. As he got older his rigidity in this stance lowered somewhat. A series of four paintings, ‘summer’, ‘winter’, ‘spring’ and ‘fall’ are allegorical works that explore the artist's life and the human condition. John’s interest in the human form is hardly new in his work, the inclusion of plaster body parts, inspired by a visit to Madame Tussauds, (Jasper Johns : Something Resembling Truth, 2017) speaks to an interest in the human in relation to art.
These works are full of metaphor and allusion and are quite stunning things to explore and understand.

A single important element that I found visually arresting are the painted hands included in ‘Summer’ and ‘Fall’. In both a handprint forms the representation of a hand, the arm is a blocked line that continues from the edges of the print. Neither of these things is a hard or an arm, and yet we read both as such. John’s combines these with an arrow, symbolising movement through the careful application of symbols.

I made a few notes about certain works being next to each other, and have subsequently not been able to find images of the works in question. This exhibition was brilliantly curated, and while the possibilities of curation are almost as far reaching as the possibilities of art, there were some insightful connections between works of disparate times.

I have a single image of the sort of connections I mean (below) in which we see a physical work with a cantanery, next to a sketch of one (done years earlier) with a painting of one. Each of these iterations forms a conversation from a slightly different perspective and the relation between them in this exhibition serves to highlight the artist's intention and the meaning attributed to the works.

Ally McGinn (2017) Installation View  'Something Resembling Truth' 

Ally McGinn (2017) Installation View 'Something Resembling Truth' 

The following is a note I made that I have been unable to place. ‘Screen piece 3’ alludes me. This is one of the problems of not being able to take photographs of works and yet having no catalogue of them without purchasing one.

“No - shown next to - screen piece 3 - Very important”


While this text is formed of a few notes and thoughts it's shear word count and importance to my practice leads me to want to write a conclusion of sorts.

Johns clever use of semiotics is part of what makes his works so complex. The pieces speak of things we already know, making us question our own perceptions.

I cannot currently sufficiently articulate the importance of this exhibition. I can see myself in alignment with Johns (although obviously at very different levels). Johns was concerned with a different subject, albeit a linked one, and his ‘style’ is skillful, unique, and undeniably painterly where I work with installation, yet the way he works, the way he views art and, especially, the brilliantly executed works in the ‘painting as object’ room, are something I can honestly say I aspire too.

The medium and message are balanced brilliantly by an inspirational artist.

Exhibition View. Matisse.

Exhibition View. Matisse.


This exhibition was in a much smaller gallery, with far more sculptural elements, which made the rooms feel far more crowded and moving around a collaborative experience.

The curation of this exhibition was themed towards the objects that inspired Matisse, often from his studio, and the corresponding works. (Matisse in the Studio, 2017)

Each ‘object’ was surrounded by sketches, tests, paintings and collages, creating implicit connections between inspiration/subject and artwork. Being able to see these connections gave the viewing of this exhibition more of a museum-like quality.

Many of the things we would consider artworks were not alone on a wall, waiting to be contemplated. The reading of them was directed towards a comparison between object and representation. The process highlighted through the viewing of the works.

The objects themselves are not only revered by the artist in his creation of work but by the curators in the creation of this exhibition and the collectors who have archived them.

Exhibition poster

Exhibition poster


Duchamp has long been an interest and influence of mine. I have seen his work in various places over the years. I am in the process of pulling together a text about the importance of his works, especially ‘readymades’, and the implications in terms of nomination, deskilling and the everyday, so I won't go into great detail about these things here.

This exhibition explored and presented the friendship, respect and mutual admiration of Salvador Dali and Marcel Duchamp. (Dali / Duchamp, 2017) I found the exhibition extremely interesting, for the relationships between the works of these vastly different men.

The rooms were ‘shared’ between the two artists, with works shown with relational significance to one another. Many of Duchamp’s cubist paintings were in the first few rooms of the exhibition.

Marcel Duchamp (1917, replica 1964)  Fountain.  Porcelain. 36 x 48 x 61 cm.

Marcel Duchamp (1917, replica 1964) Fountain. Porcelain. 36 x 48 x 61 cm.

In the penultimate room was a large cabinet containing a variety of sculptural works and texts, the majority of them by Duchamp. Amongst other readymades, images and objects sat ‘Fountain’ the iconic readymade of 1917. It isn’t the first time I’ve seen this work but once more I am struck by the shine on the surface and the fragility of the material.

A short background - this piece was ‘found’ by Duchamp in a shop window, it was commercially available at the time. He entered it into an open exhibition in 1917, and it was denied. (Dali / Duchamp, 2017) Duchamp argued that it was the choosing and nomination of the object, the additional paint added seems to be almost irrelevant in this argument, by an artist that defined this work as art. (Dali / Duchamp, 2017) The fact that it was an everyday object, that someone could walk to a shop and buy the same thing Duchamp did, was an important fact in its creation and importance.

In all honesty, seeing the work is best described as disappointing, but the interesting thing is the reason why. The work is no less important for the viewing of it but in this case, knowledge causes the viewing to be diluted, and I am sure I'm not alone in that stance. Knowledge allows the understanding that the piece behind this glass is a replica. (Dali / Duchamp, 2017) The original was destroyed and the manufacturer no longer made that model. Due to its status, the ‘artwork’ was reproduced and there are now four in existence.

This quartet of physical reproductions can be compared to an image in a book. That is not to say that there is no difference between seeing the image of this work on a screen/paper and seeing it in person but there is certainly a change when knowing the reality of the object in front of us.

Its original context was reliant on the nature of its creation, manipulation and nomination by the artist. This object represents that idea and that work, but it is not it. I suppose there is an argument that the reproduction of this object, on the grounds of its status as a masterpiece, turns it into something else.

In the same cabinet as ‘Fountain’ and many other works ‘Bicycle Wheel’ stands in a corner. Closer to the viewer (because the viewer can directly access 270 degrees of view.) the piece is slightly more removed than some of the others.

The curation of this room groups readymades together behind glass, which I instinctively dislike, however, the purpose of the exhibition is not a view of Duchamp but a relational conversation between him and Dali, and so the display can be rationalised in this sense.


The single most emotive piece in this exhibition, for me, was not an artwork but a note.

In the final room of the exhibition, the viewers walk in to see the piece ‘The bride laid bare by her grooms’. (Dali / Duchamp, 2017) The piece is a large sheet of glass which Duchamp spent 8 years planning and painting. The viewer can see through the work (and at first sight another doorway is visible) which questions and confronts the viewer with the space of the work and its situation.

Accompanying the work is a book, created by Duchamp, containing pages of notes, drawings and information that forms the contextual foundation of the work. The book was shown in a corner of the room, closed, with a few pages copied in a cabinet, and 6 of the original notes framed on the wall above.(Dali / Duchamp, 2017)

One of these notes contains and objectifies the moment Duchamp had the idea to paint on glass. This small piece of paper, written in blue pen, with a line crossed out in haste or mistake, was more fascinating to me than the work it preceded. There, contained in a small frame, with the translation on the wall beside it, is the moment of the idea. This monumental idea that would occupy 8 years of the artist's life, on a small ripped scrap of paper. (Please note - I have attempted to find an image of this note, but again the internet is not a friend in cases like this.)

There are many who argue that the idea is the important factor in an artist's work, and just as many who argue that it is the process that is important. Whichever is true, this note remains important, and for me was as interesting as seeing some of the works in the exhibition. Seeing the work of someone as famous as Dali or Duchamp is often a game of recognition, we see a work in person and remember where we have seen it in reproduction. One of the pronounced effects of seeing a work in person is the knowledge that it is ‘authentic’ or ‘original’ or somehow more ‘real’ than seeing it reproduced. I would argue that seeing the note by Duchamp has the same ephemeral quality, and given its inclusion in the exhibition it must be a common thought.

Ally McGinn (2017) Exposed wall in the RA staircase

Ally McGinn (2017) Exposed wall in the RA staircase

The Seismographs and other observations about the RA

Two of the most impressive parts of the visit to the RA had nothing to do with the work being shown, and everything to do with space itself.

The building is steeped in history, and everything about it gives visual signs to that effect. Gold and plaster details line the walls and space is preserved and combined with modern elements. Walking up the main staircase there are two large bare sections of wall, one either side of the stairs. There is a small plaque on the left side, up another section of stairs, that explains that some work has been removed during the redevelopment of parts of the building (the assumption being that this is to protect the works) the works are due to return in 2018.

Accompanying text explains that the revealed walls date back to the original Burlington building from the 17th and 18th century. The juxtaposition of unrestored, raw, brick wall against the expertly finished presentational walls of the RA is utterly beautiful.

These hidden walls are artworks in their own right, and I am extremely glad that I visited the RA while they were on show. Walking up the grand staircase to see these beautiful things, made me (and I hope others) question whether it was an intentional ‘artwork’.  Part of me hopes that some people see the small text set up the next stairs and assume that they are.

Of all artworks in the RA there is one that is more prevalent than any other, it is in every exhibition, and remains mostly unseen by visitors.

In each of the rooms, there is a small drawing machine in one corner, mounted just above eye height. The primary function of these machines isn't to draw, but a drawing is produced as a result of their process: Seismographs.

These small, slightly ‘retro’ looking, machines are functional parts of the gallery, but their inclusion in every exhibition held at the RA combined with their placement on a wall, argues for their nomination as ‘Art’.

Photography isn't permitted in the RA, and so I couldn't get a photo of one of these wonderful hidden artworks, and trawling through images on google doesn't seem to yield any results. I endeavour to keep looking.

Ally McGinn (2017) Exposed wall in the RA staircase

Ally McGinn (2017) Exposed wall in the RA staircase

Spruth Magers Gallery

The main exhibition at this gallery was by British artist Gary Hume. The feature I enjoyed most in these works was the realisation of their material. The type and application of the paint combined with unstretched paper forms an almost ceramic appearance. Indeed we had to get the information document to find out whether they were ceramics or not. (Gary Hume : Mum, 2017)

The works therefore become hybrids without leaving their specified medium. This is a wonderful effect, and the misconceptions about material add to the questions that the works invoke. Through the balance of materiality they speak about more than the pictorial illusion that is represented.

One of the pieces balanced the misconception well through a small gap between the fields of colour on the surface, through which the paper, and initial pencil marks, are visible. I particularly enjoyed this feature and it was one that drew more of an interaction; I got closer to the work to explore the small gap.

Gary Hume (2017) ' Mum '. Spruth Magers Gallery, London. 

Gary Hume (2017) 'Mum'. Spruth Magers Gallery, London. 

David Zwirner Gallery

This gallery was showing work by Sherrie Levine (see blog post ‘authorship’ for a bit more about her work). The first piece is ‘from Van Gogh’ a series of modular painted panels. Each panel is painted in a single flat colour, taken from Van Gogh’s original. The resulting twelve panels are hung equidistant horizontally. They are the only piece in this room and demand focus.

Adjoining the first room are two gold sculptures and twelve glass covered pieces. In this room, I was struck by the reflection of the sculptures in the glass on the other works. I couldn't say if this was an intentional effect but it was nonetheless an interesting one, and one I plan to use in my work.

Upstairs showed a series of photographic works by Levine. (Interesting this ensemble of photographs were where most of the other students spent most of their time - there was more to look at - this is an important note for my installations)

Like the RA this gallery had a small, functional, visual quirk. At the base of each wall was a small, but wide, recess. I lacked the guts to bend down in the gallery to see what was inside the recesses, something I now regret, but when talking to tutors about it later we concluded that they are for ventilation. I'll admit I became slightly obsessed with these functional interactions with the space, necessary because it is an art gallery.

Sherrie Levine (2017) Exhibition Shot. David Zwirner Gallery, London.

Sherrie Levine (2017) Exhibition Shot. David Zwirner Gallery, London.

Sadie Coles Gallery

The first thing I have to say about this gallery is an appreciation of the space. Unlike the other galleries, this one is a large open space on the first floor. (along with another smaller room and space downstairs)

The work in this show was an eclectic mix by the same artist, which was a brilliant example of the varied practice an artist can have.

The works were very interesting and thought-provoking and I think this is the exhibition that we appreciated the most, as a group. We certainly all seemed a bit more animated in this gallery. (Although it might be because it was the last one after 6 hours of exhibitions and we knew we were about to sit down)

Through a separate door of the gallery is an installation that reproduces a small shop, complete with working cash register and staff. The artist has gathered real products, and then removed all of the product, before resealing the packaging to place it on the shelves. Thousands of psudeo-products are for sale in the ‘shop’ for the same price as their original. I was, and still am, in awe of this piece. It questions capitalist society, our desire to ‘own’ things and the advertising industry in an experiential way that is accessible if only due to price.

'Zhongguo' (2017) Exhibition Shot. Sadie Coles Gallery, London.

'Zhongguo' (2017) Exhibition Shot. Sadie Coles Gallery, London.

Contemporary Galleries - other points.

These galleries were carefully presented, in addition to curation. This included, in some, the repainting of the gallery walls to produce the most effective experience for viewing the works.

The main thing to strike me about these careful presentations were the empty walls. Emphasis was placed on a few pieces, occasionally a single piece in a large space. I note this most because of my tendency to over-fill. Redaction is an important idea this year.

With the exception of the Sadie Coles gallery the spaces were split between relatively small rooms, with the artworks having no extra information that could compete with the contemplation of the works. This extra information can be obtained through guides and price lists. Which are admittedly helpful for remembering the exhibition.

Entrance to most of the galleries was via buzzer, and the spaces were quiet and still.

Ally McGinn (2017) Installation in progress. London.

Ally McGinn (2017) Installation in progress. London.

I cannot remember which of the galleries this image was taken from, I believe it was Spruth Magers, but I'm not 100% on that. However, I was struck by the process of protecting the base of this work - a foam brick. I'm sure I can make use of that in my studio practice.

Comparison of RA with other galleries

Something that we were encouraged to pay attention to was the differences between the curation and settings in commercial/contemporary galleries and the exhibitions at the RA.

While the more contemporary galleries are more relevant to our own practices, and how we might want to display the work or situate ourselves, I noticed another difference that might work with the subject of my work.

In the RA all works were shown with relevant information, often including contextual information. Each room was accompanied by a short piece of text displayed on the wall. While not all visitors stopped to read these words, many did, and the majority of those did so before looking at the work.

Each thematic text worked to situate the work in the viewer's mind, or at least situate the artist at the time the work was made. The viewers were then contextually primed to look at the work and understand what the artist intended. Whether they agree/disagree/like/hate/understand/misinterpret, or form any other opinion, or simply move past - the information is available and presented with the work.

An obvious reason for this presentation/inclusion of information is that these are retrospective exhibitions. These are artists we already consider masters, and we care about the meaning of the work because it has achieved validation.

However the important point for me was the way this work was shown, and i am going to experiment with this dynamic in my studio work.

The inclusion of notes and preliminary sketches is another marked difference in the RA. We are interested in how these masterpieces were made, and so the evidence of making is carefully curated (especially in the case of Matisse) to reflect that interest.

In the commercial galleries, there were no titles or names. Visitors have to collect information sheets, and press releases, to gather the information they need. This could be argued to be a clearer experience, but I was drawn to the RA more, simply because there is no possibility of buying the works.

The art market is a vital symbiote of the art world, and I note again here that my interest in this contrast is in terms of subject rather than presentation, but there is an element of purity in the rise beyond commercialism in the RA.

( A note should be made of course that this subjective opinion is from the perspective of a poor art student, and there could be those who see the RA from a commercial perspective.)

So I suppose one way to explain my dual interests here is a preference to the RAs curatorial method in the subject in my work, and a study of the curatorial method of other galleries in the presentation of my work.

Ally McGinn (2017) Thames view, London.

Ally McGinn (2017) Thames view, London.

Walking around London - a personal reflection.

London makes me nervous, it always has and I have previously struggled with spending time in London, which has had a massive impact on my ability and experience with exhibition visits.

With this in mind, I attempted to perceive London differently from the outset. I had a few hours before meeting the others at the RA, which I spent walking around, ending up in Hyde Park.

We then walked from the RA around all the other galleries we visited.

I spent the Saturday walking more.

Experiencing London in this way, often walking without a particular destination in mind (inspired by the idea of the flaneur) made me view the city in a very different light.

I cannot currently articulate what that experience means, and part of the perspective shift I have felt leads me to realize that I don’t have to, at least for now, in this document.


This is not an academic observation, but a very personal one.

I have been struggling since starting the MA, which is to be expected to some degree. I am an obsessive, self-driven and passionate person, which often manifests in an overwhelming sense of pressure – which stunts creativity and the work being made. I have found it difficult to break from this sense of pressure (which was comparable to the pressure at the end of the BA) and this trip was the first time I have felt free of it.

The combination of exhibitions (RA and contemporary), observations (of the space and my interactions with it) and freedom to wander worked together to form an experience I couldn’t quantify or separate. This document is an attempt to mark the moment, begin deconstructing the individual elements and examine the experiential whole.



Dali / Duchamp (2017) [Exhibition]. Royal Academy, London. 7 October 2017 - 3 January 2018.

Gary Hume : Mum (2017) [Exhibition]. Spruth Magers Gallery, London. 30 September - 23 December 2017.

Jasper Johns: Something Resembling Truth (2017) [Exhibition]. Royal Academy, London. 23 September - 10 December 2017.

Matisse in the Studio (2017) [Exhibition]. Royal Academy, London. 5 August - 12 November 2017.

Sherrie Levine : Pie Town (2017) [Exhibition]. David Zwirner Gallery, London. 4 October - 18 November 2017.

XUZHEN Supermarket (2007/2017) (2017) [Exhibition]. Sadie Coles Gallery, London. 21 September - 4 November 2017.

Zhongguo 2185 (2017) [Exhibition]. Sadie Coles Gallery, London. 21 September - 4 November 2017.


Duchamp, M (….) ‘The Richard Mutt Case’. In: Harrison, C and Wood, P. eds. Art in Theory:1900-2000 An Anthology of Changing Ideas. Blackwell: 252.

Painters painting: a candid history of the modern art scene. (1973) [DVD] Emille de Antonio. USA: Arthouse films.

Tompkins, C. (2013) Marcel Duchamp: The afternoon interviews. Brooklyn: Badlands Unlimited.


Research Methodologies - Exploring methods by Ally McGinn

I have a few books on research on hold in the library, the MA cohort at Bath Spa is keen and the wait might be a few weeks. In the interim I've found a few great sources of information online and I'm going to attempt to use some of the methods introduced on Tuesday to explore a few ideas.

Research Methodologies - methods

Before getting into the meat of what I’m going to research, I thought it might be a good idea to have a firmer grasp of the how.

'-ology' means there has been a debate or study. So in Methodology there has been a discussion and study about the methods themselves. Decisions made. Arguments defended. (How you completed the study.) These decisions add up to your approach – the outcome of your methodology or your methodological considerations.

A research methodology is the combination of methods, perspectives, and understandings around the way we research (the study of the methods/research itself). Understanding the variety of methods that form a methodology can help to formulate questions and direct research into new directions. (The other elements of my methodology, including the theoretical perspective, will be explored in the next post)

Different approaches can form different results, especially when the methodology isn’t understood. There are things that can affect the results of research we are doing that are assumed to be true or false. Those assumptions can refute the data/information if not explored and accounted for.  Exploring the methodology can allow an understanding of those assumptions and an incorporation of them into the research.


A research method is a tool or structure used to explore the research. They are usually explainable (to an extent) and I struggled to find an exhaustive list of them, as their inclusion can be as subjective as their processes. Roughly put; it is the way the research happens.

Data gathering, and the forms it takes.


Three methods have struck me as being interesting for my own research at this stage (although I may end up using others later) and I have arguably been using these in some form in my research to date, albeit unknowingly and in an incomplete sense.

  • Haptic (primarily involving touch, and the physical interaction with the subject) in hindsight I can say that this is a common research method in the studio, which is a place for the haptic.
  • Objectivism (Seeing the reality of the object in its component parts, and understanding the object to take it further) this logical approach seems like something I would enjoy and echoes the Derridian theory of deconstruction, which I use as a source of inspiration when none is readily available.
  • and, Semiotic (concerning the relationship between image and meaning. Communication through recognised signs and symbols) which I've always found as interesting as language - both are agreed upon constructs that we use in daily life, often without being consciously aware of it.

As an exercise I’m going to use these three methods to understand how we might explore different elements of research.

In this case;

  • a well known artwork (Duchamp’s Fountain),
  • a piece of my own work,
  • a theory (Derrida’s parergon),

There are far more topics, subjects and ‘things’ that could be explored like this, but this is a short exercise to help me understand the terms and the, potential, practical uses of them.


Before continuing to the exploration, I’m going to solidify my understanding of a few words and terms. Ones that might come up again.

Epistemological vs ontological

Not methods in themselves these words are more concerned with the theoretical perspective and understanding the type of questions being asked.

Epistemology is the way we know things, about the understanding of knowledge and the methods of finding it, primarily useful to understand the biases and perspectives when researching. The –ology of knowledge.

Ontology is about the reality of the thing being studied, relating to the question “what is it?” and personally most often in my life this is a practical research method.

Note – Epistemology comes from the Greek for ‘knowledge’ and ontology from the Greek for ‘being’ or ‘to be’.

Plato saw a difference between ‘episteme’ (knowledge worth knowing) and ‘doxa’ (everyday knowledge).  Interestingly when thinking about the entemology of these words I found myself interested in the balance between the two. If we take the everyday knowledge as implicit knowledge, or knowledge that goes without saying, then an argument can be made that my studio practice is an exploration of the doxa of artistic practice. If those assumptions can be taken as true then it is arguable that once we focus on doxa it becomes episteme. Many artists take this approach in a practical sense, using the everyday to explore deeper ideas.

Qualitative vs quantitative

These terms are associated with the nature of the research being done. In the most simplistic terms the distinction is set upon the balance between tacit (qualitative) and explicit (quantitative) data.

The two overlap in many ways and we can make them overlap in more by directing primary research. The suitability of each is related to the aims and objectives of the research, as well as the availability of data.


A dense subject, and one I cannot profess at this stage to completely understand, but for the purpose of this exploration, semiotics, as used here, can be described in the following way.

Semiotics gained popularity towards the late 1960’s and two key figures are Roland Barthes (particularly his collected essays Mythologies, which I am planning to discuss in a separate post) and Ferdinand de Saussure (generally considered a pioneer of linguistics and semiotics itself). A study of tacit and explicit signs experienced in daily life with other humans. These signs can be the obvious functional signs found in our lives, but are more commonly the subconscious and more subjective interpretation of information found around us. The location of these signs is seemingly only limited to where a researcher might look.

“semiology aims to take in any system of signs, whatever their substance and limits; images, gestures, musical sounds, objects, and the complex associations of all of these, which form the content of ritual, convention or public entertainment: these constitute, if not languages, at least systems of signification” Barthes (1967) pg. 9

The sign can be dissected into two parts, as defined by Saussure, the ‘signifier’ and the ‘signified’.  The signifier is the form of the sign (often the physical form of it), and the signified is the concept we understand it to represent.

The sign is the combination, and relationship between the two. A single signifier can have different meanings, when seen in different locations, which is a simple example of how this complicated subject becomes much more so in practice. By definition semiotics is subjective, an interpretive method.

Umberto Eco has taken it to it’s most basic “semiotics is concerned with everything that can be taken as a sign” which could arguably be anything.


The Exploration

The following exploration is short in places, and longer in others. It is far from complete but instead served as a chance for me to attempt to unpick these ideas and see what they might look like. These are subjective interpretations, based on my knowledge, perspective and research.

I found that the objectivist method, involving treating the subject objectively, listing its details and understanding its parts to know it further, most accurately described the subject, so those are listed first to understand the reality of what we are looking at.

Ally McGinn (2016)  Even babies lie.  Acrylic, oil and ink on canvas, 144 x 99 x 3 cm

Ally McGinn (2016) Even babies lie. Acrylic, oil and ink on canvas, 144 x 99 x 3 cm

A piece of my work - Even Babies Lie (2017)

Objectivist - This piece is part of a larger series of works called the ‘Working Surfaces’ series. Canvases are placed in functional studio or workshop spaces and left to record the evidence of making and process. The resulting paintings are then stretched, functional canvas, nominated as art.  This piece spent nearly three months covering the worktop in the paint workshop at Sion Hill. Other than myself and the paint technician the purpose and eventual use of this canvas as art was unknown.

They are intentionally misleading, pretending to be something they are not, but in the act of pretending they become it anyway; Art.

They can be said to simultaneously reject and celebrate the artists’ ego, and therefore the artist themselves. The division of labor and deskilling question the value of these as artworks.

The titles of these works are taken from an element on the surface on them, a further dissociation from the artist.

They objectify time. A record of a period in an artist’s studio, containing a variety of signatures, they are naturally narrative and unintentionally expressive objects.

As an object this piece is 144 x 99 x 3cm’s in size, the canvas is not totally taught on the stretcher (a result of stretching something used functionally is sometimes a loosening of the weave) and is made of canvas, pen, acrylic and oil paint, primers and other substances used in the creation or experimentation of art.

Haptic - in the first sense the haptic experience of this work is rooted in the texture of the surface. With no change from functional worktop to stretched canvas the surface is covered in dust, paint, glue and pen marks. The piece looks rough and real.

Semiotic - there are a few obvious symbols on the surface of the piece. Including the titular graffiti, a sketch of a design and other numbers and words. The graffiti is obvious as such due to the time taken to write it (which we can see evidence in the depth and width of the pen marks). Fainter notes indicate working through an idea, a rough note taken quickly to visually understand it. Including the diagrams these are marks of explanation, a communication of an idea that is paused for a moment in this surface.
Other visual signs are condensed in the bottom right corner of the piece, paint and other substances that show the edges of other works created on top of them. The marks, the right angles and jagged brushstrokes, are a sign that we can interpret to show where work once sat, because these marks are incidental they are all signs of other activity, and can be read semiotically.

In this case the methods show very different elements of the work.

Marcel Duchamp (1917, replica 1964)  Fountain.  Porcelain. 36 x 48 x 61 cm.

Marcel Duchamp (1917, replica 1964) Fountain. Porcelain. 36 x 48 x 61 cm.

A well known artwork - Marcel Duchamp, Fountain (1917)

Objectivist - looking at this piece objectively is relatively easy. The purpose of this work is to encourage these questions.

Created 100 years ago the piece was Duchamp’s first readymade - A series of everyday objects, transformed into art through nomination, readymades are defined not by their aesthetic qualities but their conceptual ideology. Characterised by their lack of interaction from the artist these objects inspired challenge.  The challenge was implicit, although not necessarily totally intentional.  

This piece was a shop bought urinal, with a single interaction from the artist, the name ‘R Mutt’ and the year roughly drawn on the side.

Objectively the object is mostly, unchanged, but through the nomination of it as art, and the subsequent change in perspective, the perceptions and purpose was forever altered.  

Haptic - I saw this piece at the Tate Modern earlier this year. The haptic experience in this case has similar observations to the objectivist method. When looking at the work I was struck by the reality of it. The curves of the porcelain and the weight of it cannot be conveyed through an image. (although the weight was obviously based on a visual examination and intuitive feeling) Given that the object is arguably the point of Duchamp's readymades this piece shows the importance of the haptic method of examination.

Semiotic - The biggest sign of this piece is the fact that it is a urinal. We read the shape, material and cultural understanding of the object and read it as something we would normally find in a men’s bathroom. Again I find that this method perfectly describes the ideology of the work. It is in reading the ordinary object as art that we understand the work.

The semiotic meaning of the writing is far more debatable. Duchamp was known for misleading information, but is quoted as saying himself that it was a humorous allude to the makers of the urinal, a newspaper cartoon and a play on the idea of poverty.

Each of the approaches in this case yield similar results, possibly due to the simplicity of the object and idea. Each however shows a different element of the whole.

A theory - Derrida’s Parergon

Objectivist - Jacques Derrida was a French philosopher best known for his theories on deconstruction. In his 1978 text, The Truth in Painting he discussed the frame, coining the term parergon, to explain why when looking at the work the frame is part of the wall, and yet when looking at the wall it is part of the work.  Refused by each to be considered as part of themselves the frame exists between the two, as a separate entity.

Derrida said about the parergon, “neither inside nor outside, neither above nor below, it disconcerts any opposition but does not remain indeterminate and it gives rise to the work.” The function of the parergon, then, is to create a framework that contextualises (and re-contextualises) what is being framed. The parergon is both a literal framing or placement and a metaphysical concept that denotes context.

Haptic - this is the main reason I wanted to undertake this exploration. To understand, or at least articulate, how we might explore a theoretical concept, haptically.  Upon reflection, and quite a few deleted paragraphs I can only conclude that the exploration of this concept haptically is what I am exploring in my studio practice. Haptic research as practice.

Semiotic - The semiotic reading of this theory seems to relate to our understanding of the purpose of a frame. We have a way of reading something in a frame, and there are artists who have taken this often subconscious reading to their advantage.
A frame can be seen as an instruction to look through the lens of art.

Exploring a theory certainly seems to be simplest when done with a quantitative method, like the objectivist interpretation here, at least verbally.

This section has taken the longest to write, while being quite short, but has had the most impact on me. My contextual research to date, including my dissertation from last year, has been similar to this, a deductive objective exploration of theories and artists, which has then been combined with an intuitive haptic method of research in my studio practice.


At the end of this post I've solidified my understanding of the purpose and potential uses of three methods, and I can see the benefit of looking through different methods, to get a more solid grounding about the chosen subject. For future research I plan to use the three used here to research in a similar way, or at least to ask myself “How would I describe or explore this objectively, haptically, and semiotically?” noting the different answers from the different methods.

In the next post - I'm planning to attempt to unpick my theoretical perspective, understand the paradigm and answer a few questions about my own research methodology at the beginning of this exploration.


Selected Bibliography

Barthes, Roland (1957) Mythologies

Barthes, Roland ([1964] 1967). Elements of Semiology (trans. Annette Lavers & Colin Smith). London: Jonathan Cape

Camfield, W A. (1987) ‘Marcel Duchamp's Fountain: Its History and Aesthetics in the Context of 1917.’ Dada/Surrealism (16): 64-94.

Chandler, Daniel (2004) Semiotics: The Basics. London: Routledge

David James (2015) David James: How to get clear about method, methodology, epistemology and ontology, once and for all [online video] Avaliable from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b83ZfBoQ_Kw&t=999s [Accessed 6th October 2017]

Derrida, J. (1978) The truth in painting. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Whiting, M (2017) Research Methodologies. MA program. Bath. 3rd October 2017

Saussure, Ferdinand de ([1916] 1983): Course in General Linguistics (trans. Roy Harris). London: Duckworth. Page 67

Tate (January, 2017) Fountain, Marcel Duchamp [Exhibition visit] London: Tate Britain.

Tate (undated) Marcel Duchamp: Fountain, 1917 [Online] Tate. Available from: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/duchamp-fountain-t07573 [Accessed 07.10.17].

Tompkins, C. (2013) Marcel Duchamp: The afternoon interviews. Brooklyn: Badlands Unlimited.