Amartey Golding: Drawing the Line

By Sam Nallen Copley

© Amartey Golding
Contemporary art often sets out to polarise: post-modernist deliberate abstraction and laboured attempts to push boundaries versus ethnocentric pious anti-avant-garde conservatism. Although we hit this stalemate many years ago, clichés of what exactly constitutes ‘art’ continue to run rife, and allying oneself to one camp or another seems to be a necessary process in establishing some form of identity within the art world. In a culture riddled with almost uniformly dreary indie and exasperating political correctness, being shocking is often the best way to get noticed. By cutting an animal in half for art’s sake, or vehemently disapproving of those who do, we can at least garner some attention from others. There are those however with enough spark to draw in fans from both sides of the spectrum.

Amartey Golding is a London-based artist with a rousing, stark style. After studying at Central Saint Martins College of Arts and Design, Amartey showcased his work at three exhibitions in Dubai, achieving widespread acclaim throughout the Arab world, Scandinavia and Russia. Dickens describes two types of portrait in Nicholas Nickleby – the serious and the smirk – and Golding’s simple pencil sketches manage to tick both boxes. His expertly crafted and extraordinarily expressive figures are undeniably realistic in part, but his texturing is largely achieved through sharp geometric patches of light – a monochrome Picasso for the digital age. This balance persists throughout his work; his subjects’ terrifically detailed facial features typically countered with a fading effect towards the shoulders, resembling a Baugniet bust after an Escher makeover.

Golding describes his process in the following terms:

“For me drawing is the same as writing, in that it is the act of bringing an idea or ephemeral interpretation/impression into the physical realm. A drawing can be a whole story or single letter of the alphabet. The slightest mark can represent a complex train of thought and the most elaborate canvas can simply be the equivalent of a remark.”

This approach to drawing resonates strongly with the minimalists, for whom distillation is the key – a removal of non-essential elements with the hope of creating something pure. Agnes Martin, the Zen-enamoured Canadian abstract expressionist known for her less-is-more approach, explains, “Art is the most concrete representation of our most subtle feelings”. While Samuel Beckett’s plays and La Monte Young’s noise experiments continue to enthral persistent and patient fans, many of us can’t help but feel that sometimes it is nice to be able to sing along. Golding understands this entirely, and although there is noticeable restraint in his work, his skill is undeniable:

“I think the beauty of drawing is in its ability to allow you to put your innermost feelings out into the world. A million and one people could look, study and observe your drawing and get so many things from it, including the freedom to create their own piece of art within yours. And yet they still may not understand your innermost feelings.”

The same cannot be said with such conviction for the hardcore minimalist painters – perhaps some might recall Al Capp’s famous quip, “Abstract art: a product of the untalented sold by the unprincipled to the utterly bewildered”. Yet Amartey’s work is not only fresh and intellectually nourishing – never crossing the line into pretention or meaninglessness – it’s also, quite simply, bloody well drawn!

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Sam Nallen Copley was born in Cambridge in 1988, and became a chorister for King’s College at the age of eight. He later studied at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and Waseda University in Tokyo, while working as a translator for Cambridge Mechatronics. Sam went on to complete a master’s degree from Oxford University, and currently lives in Paris. His interests include literature, art, politics, music, the martial arts and film. He writes for Global Politics, New Business Ethiopia, the 1847 Press, the Somaliland Sun and Malawi Voice. sam.nallen.copley@gmail.com

Meditations on Art

By Sam Nallen Copley

The birth of art

Fifty-thousand years ago, a Neanderthal in what became south-eastern Spain took a seashell, coloured it with goethite and fashioned it into a necklace. Life was hard in the Middle Paleolithic Period, and if this jewellery designer had lived to the age of 30, it would have been quite an achievement. Food, preservation of body heat and sex would have been the focus of Neanderthal existence, yet something drove this visionary, a creature from a species separate to our own, to create what may have been the first piece of art. Is this an indication of a form of spirituality, or did the colours of the shell against the Mediterranean sunlight simply arouse pleasure in the hominid’s eye?

Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917)
Early humans and Neanderthals also forged tools and wore clothing – how are these items different from stained seashells? Debates continue to rage as to what constitutes art in student cafes and university bars worldwide. By my criteria, art must entail at least one ingredient of the following: 

1. A degree of aesthetic skill in design and craft,
2. A degree of vision and
3. A primarily artistic purpose – that is, to be observed rather than used.

Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917), a urinal he bought in New York, paved the path for conceptualists – artists for whom the aesthetic is secondary to the idea. We can call this art. The urinal was not originally constructed to become art, nor did Duchamp’s handiwork contribute to its construction, but his originality and intent ultimately render it a form of art, regardless of whether we like it or not. Performance art avoids being a misnomer via the same principle. By these criteria, a beautiful beach or accidental alignment of apples in a bowl resembling a cloud or a woman’s face, while undeniably holding aesthetic merits, should not be defined as ‘art’. This is of course an opinion – Aristotle, who did not mix with conceptualists, held that art’s primary function is to bring us pleasure not found elsewhere. As a scenic oceanfront is far more likely to elevate us to a sense of the sublime than a urinal, I consider his viewpoint redundant. There is however no right answer.

Historical uses


Over history, art has fulfilled a multitude of socio-cultural, commemorative, political and religious purposes. Propaganda is one such use; Henry VIII’s hugely accentuated genital area and colossal shoulders, as depicted by Hans Holbein the Younger (1536), enhance the image of a terrifyingly powerful monarch to be obeyed without question. The 20th Century saw this flourish – from rat-like Japanese soldiers gnawing on Alaskan soil (1941) to al-Qaeda operative al-Zarqawi imprisoned in a rat-trap (2003-2006). Creating art to express spiritual ideas was also a worldwide phenomenon, with Fra Fillipo Lippi’s Madonna and Child (1445) and the Five Deity Mandala (17th Century) in Tibet both delving into the realm of the supernatural. (Of course, religious art is also a kind of propaganda.) Before and even after the advent of the daguerreotype in the late 1830s, art was also quite simply used to document the world. From Vincent van Gogh’s Self Portrait (1887), we can know he had an orange beard – or at the very least, we can know he wanted us to think he had an orange beard. This is invaluable for historians and historiographers in constructing a coherent model of the past.

Alaska – death-trap for the Jap / Grigware. Propaganda Poster for Thirteenth Naval District, United States Navy, showing a rat wearing a rising sun fez, representing Japan, approaching a mousetrap labeled “Army / Civilian / Navy”, on a background map of the then-Alaska Territory. The poster’s graphics and its scripture reading “Death-Trap For The Jap” are aiming at Japan’s then-occupation of Alaskan islands in the Aleutian Islands Campaign.

Is the modern world killing artistic impulses?

Almost everyone in the developed world owns a camera-phone and the UK supposedly contains over four million security cameras. Visual stimulation is satiated by television, cinema and video games in the modern day, and very few of us spend time in art galleries. Have recent mediums of entertainment necessarily buried art? Clichés of what a cardboard box can offer the imagination of a prepubescent mind over that of an Xbox may be dismissed as luddite nostalgia for an undeniably darker age. Yet a cardboard box forces us to think, not just absorb or react. The effect of engaging exclusively in short-term gratification-based activities – watching a television show as opposed to reading a book – may not be fully understood in the present day, but attention span and focus, like muscles, need to be trained if they are to be used. The Age of Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution however were not born purely from these ingredients; when we consider Isambard Kingdom Brunel, it is not his attention span, but rather his imagination, his vision that fills us with awe. John Ruskin strongly believed in the connection between art and morality, describing it as “the expression of the spirits of great men”. Indeed Huxley and Orwell considered the dystopia of a future without this possibility.

Most of us are thankful for the benefits of the modern world. We can enjoy playing video games and watching television without having to worry about leprosy or bound feet. My conservatism is not directed towards the modern world itself, but rather our approach to it. Indeed, modern technology – notably the camera – can be conducive to the production of fine art. This is rather a question of attitude. Similarly, many TV programs can be considered art, and simply gazing at a Monet is no more profound than enjoying a fine film. Rather than launching an attack on modern entertainment mediums, I hope to question our contemporary habit of laziness with regard to effort and creativity. Art’s role in education is imperative to secure future innovation, the ability to conceive of a different reality and construct something in order to attain it.

Austerity measures within many academic institutions have twisted student attention towards areas of immediately obvious and ‘indisputable’ value. This money-mindedness can lead to contempt for the perceived non-essential fields of study. The Western European philosophical discussions of the 17th and 18th Centuries were often concerned with this notion of ‘the essential’. Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau all mused over man’s life in the state of nature, a realm devoid of the formal institutions of government. Without any form of welfare, survival would surely be the main concern of any inhabitant of this lawless world. And yet, before us Homo sapiens even set foot in Europe, our close Spanish cousin stained a mollusc shell and wore it as a necklace. Surely, there is something fundamental, an essential urge, in our need to create art? We should foster this, not suppress it.

Science and art

“Do not all charms fly / At the mere touch of cold philosophy?’ – John Keats’ Lamia (1819) goes on to suggest hard science unweaves the rainbow.

Are discussions of ‘the sublime’ and the discovery of unworldly plains of reality outdated or even superstitious? In our technologically driven age, the previously mysterious qualities of colour and light are easily explicable through unflowery science. Can we talk of magic with any meaning in 2012?

The beauty and the curse of science is its ever-evolving and necessarily incomplete nature. Unlike religious ideologies, science does not claim to have ‘the answer’. Indeed, Popper’s theory of falsifiabilty promotes the rejection of exclusive absolutism and Einstein famously stated, “No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right”. Being proved wrong, conversely, is not impossible. Newtonian mechanics were considered undeniable until the formation of the theory of relativity and electromagnetism – arguably the most significant force in daily life along with gravity – was not discovered until the latter half of the 19th Century. As neuroscience develops, our complex emotional sensations will undoubtedly become explicable through detailed analysis of chemical processes within the brain. What does this increased knowledge of the physical world do to our understanding of art? Light, with a wavelength range of 630 – 740 nanometres, evokes the colour of ‘red’ – Anger? Communism? Father Christmas? To the Baruya tribe in Papua New Guinea, it symbolises the sun and life, while during the Spanish Inquisition, redheads were associated with death, their hair a souvenir from the fires of hell.

Our perception of phenomena depends on our context as interpretive observers. In our only semi-enlightened age, it is meaningless to use purely hard-scientific terminology to describe certain experiences. The attractiveness of the female body is determined by mass in many cultures – from stick-thin to hugely fat – and anthropologists offer a range of socio-cultural explanations for this spectrum. While this may become the jurisdiction of hard science in time, many believe quantitative data (generally the when, where and what) is insufficient to provide us with the why and how. There are phenomena, such as elegance or jealousy, we cannot measure with any form of meaningful consensus.

Science concerns what is, art concerns what could be. The Spanish philosopher Jorge Santayana phrased it more poetically, “An artist is a dreamer consenting to dream of the actual world”. Through the beauty of a fine piece of art we can reach ‘the sublime’, a higher realm traditionally considered beyond calculation. Most of us have been there, perhaps through gazing up at the magnificent fan vaulting in Cambridge’s King’s College Chapel, or maybe through the bewitching subtlety of Sesshū Tōyō’s brushstrokes. Some pieces don’t aim directly upwards, but take us elsewhere – Duchamp’s Fountain perhaps challenging our sense of order, or maybe simply shaking our tendency to categorize. Nonetheless, an effective piece of art should take us out of our everyday reality.
Romanticism, the artistic and literary movement of the 18th Century was born precisely to combat the rationalization of the natural world. With the Age of Enlightenment, these Romantics felt intuition, sensation and perhaps most importantly, imagination, were under serious threat. Despite the reductionist chemical explanations for most phenomena in the modern day, the pleasure we can feel through art is no less real than it ever was, and feels no less magical. 

“Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings / Conquer all mysteries by rule and line’– John Keats’ Lamia (1819)


Does art matter?

The fifty thousand year old necklace tells us art predates the Homo sapiens’ occupation of Europe, East Asia, North America and Australasia and the very existence of the Sahara Desert. Without the invention of the boat, Neanderthals were unable to travel back to Africa, their homeland, and yet from Gibraltar the continent would have been visible. We may never know what the ‘Spanish’ artist was thinking, but we can imagine.

Video cameras and microscopes document and explain reality more scientifically than paintbrushes. Solving disease, ending economic insecurity and resolving political crises may be considered more important by some than developments within the art world – although advocates of Joseph Nye’s theories of international relations may see a false distinction here, the so called ‘soft power’ of cultural phenomena playing a crucial role in politics. Art does matter however. As children, all of us blur the boundaries between the magical imaginary and profane everyday worlds – a tree can become a goblin or a dog can develop skills in the English language. The majority of us lose this flexibility as we grow up, allowing our creative impulses to dry out; this can either be considered maturing or yielding, as “art urges voyages, and it is easier to stay at home” (Gwendolyn Brooks). Yet those who do not, and have the skills to manifest their creativity, can touch us in places that money, mathematics and medicine cannot.   
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Sam Nallen Copley was born in Cambridge in 1988, and became a chorister for King’s College at the age of eight. He later studied at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and Waseda University in Tokyo, while working as a translator for Cambridge Mechatronics. Sam went on to complete a master’s degree from Oxford University, and currently lives in Paris. His interests include literature, art, politics, music, the martial arts and film. He writes for Global Politics, New Business Ethiopia, the 1847 Press, the Somaliland Sun and Malawi Voice. sam.nallen.copley@gmail.com

The Great Wave, 180 years on

By Sam Nallen Copley

The Great Wave off Kanagawa 
Around 180 years ago, Tokitarō (the birth name of Katsushika Hokusai), an elderly man from Eastern Japan embarked on a new project. His second wife had just passed away, his first having died in the early 1790s, and both his health and funds were in a state of precarious decline. He had dedicated his entire life to fine art, adopting a monk-like fidelity to his all-consuming passion – refraining from alcohol and tobacco and supposedly eating just one bowl of noodles a day, Tokitarō’s days consisted simply of painting. Ten years earlier, while he had been in his late fifties, he had relished a fair amount of success through a collection of his sketches known (perhaps somewhat confusingly to modern readers) as ‘mangadepictions of animals, ghosts and landscapes compiled in 15 volumes of prints. As his exhausting professional life began to slow down, Tokitarō’s retirement plan was shattered when his grandson gambled away the family fortune, forcing the aging artist back to work. With his prints selling for around 20 mon, the price of one meal, Tokitarō was in an desperate situation. In a city of around 600 woodblock artists, he needed to create something utterly remarkable if he was to escape an impending death from impoverishment.

Amid the grime of his notoriously filthy dwelling, Tokitarō took a sheet of washi, a type of paper made from the bark of Japanese gampi trees, and started to sketch what would become his masterpiece.

The collection was to be a series of woodblock prints, or ‘pictures of the floating world’ (ukiyo-e) depicting Fuji Japan’s tallest mountain and an active volcano 100 kilometres southwest of modern-day Tokyo – from a variety of perspectives. Tokitarō was utterly infatuated with the mountain. The 10th Century folktale, ‘Princess Kaguya’, maintains the peak of Mount Fuji contains the elixir of life – was the elderly frail artist starting to consider his own mortality? Certainly his life had been tiring by any standard. By the time of his death in 1849, Tokitarō had changed his name nearly thirty times and had lived in ninety-three different lodgings. Amid the unrest, his fascination with Fuji remained constant.

Once the sketch was finished, a lengthy process had to be carried out before it could yield any mon. After gluing the washi to a plank of cherry wood, the block would have been chiselled away based on Tokitarō’s designs, inked and pressed against a sheet of paper creating a monochrome image. With the outline fully formed, specialists added the rich textures using colour-specific blocks, creating a finished product ready for publication. At this point, it was up to the public as to whether Tokitarō would be able to feed himself. Thankfully for him, they loved it.

Many years on, critics would remark on Tokitarō’s astonishing creativity in this series; from an icy teahouse in Koishikawa to the paddy fields of Owari Province, he painted farmers, herons and rock climbers, subtly weaving his beloved Fuji into every piece. It was his very first piece in the series however that would immortalise him internationally as one of the greats, a print known as ‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa’, signed, using his best known pseudonym, ‘Hokusai’.

Shiba Kōkan’s ‘Seven League Beach’ (1796) 
This was neither his first nor his last wave, and there is no sense of this piece as being definitive for Tokitarō. He undoubtedly drew inspiration from Shiba Kōkan’s ‘Seven League Beach’ (1796) and ‘Distant View of Mounts Fuji and Satta from Suruga Bay’ (early 19th Century), Dutch-style oil paintings depicting the sea with a rare degree of realism for Japanese art in the period. Indeed several of Tokitarō’s earlier works display a touch of the occident – borders painted to resemble picture frames and signing his pieces horizontally suggest he had an inclination towards European aesthetic traditions from a young age. Tokitarō had sketched several scenes of the ocean in his thirties and forties, one from around 1805 bearing striking resemblance to his ‘Great Wave’. What then sets this 1830 piece apart from his earlier work?

The image presents three fishing boats riding the turbulent waters at the mouth of Tokyo Bay, light pouring in from the eastern position of the observer suggesting the action is taking place in the early morning.

Geometrically, the piece is constructed with both triangular and circular shapes across three plains – the distance, the main wave and the foreground. The primary triangle, Mount Fuji, is visible in the centre, occupying the most distant space. This is amplified through the similarly coloured triangular sub-wave in the foreground, its various bumps accurately depicting the mountain as seen from a different angle. The great wave itself is where Tokitarō makes most use of circles, even the claws emulating from the crests are constructed from minute crescent shapes. From a technical perspective, one feature that renders the piece noteworthy for the time is the use of ‘Prussian blue’, a tone synthetically created in 1704 by chemists in Berlin. Aside from its striking quality as a colour, unlike other inks available in Tokugawa Japan, Prussian blue does not fade easily – a perfect hue for depicting the immortal and awesome power of the ocean. While these methodological factors help create an initial impact, Tokitarō’s true prowess lies in conveying something far deeper.

The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife

Tokitarō’s range of subject matter was stupendous. From a bunch of irises by a still pond to a fisherman’s wife engaged in sex with an octopus, no topic was off limits. Perhaps due to his own humble origins, the bastard son of a lowly mirror maker, Tokitarō was keen to depict the lives of ordinary citizens engaged in everyday activities – of course this heightened his appeal within the popular market. ‘The Great Wave’ presents around thirty fishermen onboard ‘oshiokuri-bune’, boats used to transport live fish to market. As mentioned before, the scene takes place during the early morning, and from the snowline on Fuji we can deduce it is springtime – the season for skipjack tuna fishing, extraordinarily expensive pelagic fish that men would risk their lives to sell at markets in the capital. The three fishing vessels appear to be rushing coastwards to flaunt their catch, and yet from the position of Fuji, we can tell they are leaving Tokyo Bay, as if en route home to the numerous ports in the region. A possible explanation offered by some analysts involves Japanese script – as the language is traditionally read from right to left, Tokugawan observers would have faced the wave, rather than surfed with it.

So the work can be appreciated within the framework of social history, a peek at daily life for the ordinary citizens of early 19th Century Japan. Yet as a fervent follower of the Nichiren Buddhist sect, is it possible Tokitarō was trying to express something deeper? The wave is on the brink of crashing down and the fate of the fishermen is unclear. This snapshot of a fraction of a second, while not only being extraordinary within the ukiyo-e repertoire, evokes a sense of chaos, the overwhelming strength of nature over man. Is this a celebration of human courage, or a comment on the insignificance, impermanence and futility of our lives? Tokitarō’s future seemed secure until his grandson financially ruined him and his second wife died. Mortality and disaster are constantly lurking, inescapable forces that he would have certainly linked to the divine.

Within this natural realm, there is clear solidarity between the sea and the mountain, not just in shape but also in a more elemental sense. As established, the peak of Mount Fuji legendarily contains the elixir of life – in a more worldly sense, locals had used the snow at the summit as a water supply for thousands of years. Is it purely coincidental the drops of spray from the wave resemble snowflakes, or is Tokitarō tapping into the Buddhist concept of interconnectedness? The central ideology of the ‘floating world’ (ukiyo) in which he flourished was ‘to live for the moment’, a carnal ethos of risking everything for pleasure and sensation. Whether ‘The Great Wave’ is advocating this lifestyle on account of impending universal human demise, or lambasting the insignificance of carnal pleasures in light of nature’s omnipotence, is a matter of interpretation.

Tokitarō’s series was a bestseller. Indeed, so successful were his views of Fuji, in particular ‘The Great Wave’, that many of the copies contained broken lines – the mark of serious wear on the printing blocks. He had not only rescued himself from poverty, but had formed his masterpiece, securing his place in the artistic canon. Among his many adoring fans after his death, Monet, Debussy, Warhol, Lichtenstein and Van Gogh perhaps stand out as his most celebrated supporters. Yet in his filthy house in the Japanese capital, Tokitarō refused to revel in the glory, and continued to paint until he passed away at the age of eighty-eight. ‘Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji’, while revered as the pinnacle of his work by others, seem not to have affected the humble old man. Shortly before his death in 1849, he supposedly exclaimed, “If heaven would only grant me ten more years, or only five, I might still become a great artist.”


Editors’ note: Also read “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” by Linda Whittenberg, published in the March 2012 issue of Cha.

 

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Sam Nallen Copley was born in Cambridge in 1988, and became a chorister for King’s College at the age of eight. He later studied at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and Waseda University in Tokyo, while working as a translator for Cambridge Mechatronics. Sam went on to complete a master’s degree from Oxford University, and currently lives in Paris. His interests include literature, art, politics, music, the martial arts and film. He writes for Global Politics, New Business Ethiopia, the 1847 Press, the Somaliland Sun and Malawi Voice. sam.nallen.copley@gmail.com