Recently I had the pleasure to collaborate with digital communications teams from Arts Council England and the British Council, as part of the No Boundaries conference. This saw me support a team of young journalists and photographers who documented and responded to debates across the conference. The aim was to develop the participants’ understanding of the challenges facing the cultural sector, but to also provide a space for them to examine the questions being raised at the conference. It was also an opportunity to create a space in which everyone could ask questions about how we work with young people in order to learn from them and promote their voices.

If you would like to read more about this project, please see my Arts Professional article.

When I started Upstairs Thinking, shortly after completing my MA in History of Art, it was to avoid becoming a vegetable, whilst I temped by day and applied for work with arts organisations by night.

I am now Projects Coordinator at Watershed, Bristol and am based within the Pervasive Media Studio – a vibrant collection of academics, artists and creative technologists exploring creative colloborations between the arts, cultural and technology industries.

Art history is still my primary passion but it has been very interesting to step into a slightly different circle and explore the relevance of an art historical education within different and emerging artistic contexts.


Jordi Ruiz Cirera, Margarita Teichroeb from the series Menonos, 2011

Ask ‘What is captured in a portrait?’ and more questions arise thick and fast. Successful portraits, if one believes Henri
Matisse, are contingent ‘on the projection of the feeling of the artist in relation to his model rather than in organic accuracy’.¹ What does ‘accuracy’ mean when a portrait is photographic?

These days to put faith in the photograph as a truthful document seems more than a little archaic.  We accept that images are not factual records, but what about the potential of a photographic portrait to communicate a feeling or emotion? Can we take something of the person’s personality from an image? Surely that’s open to subterfuge too? I’m reminded of Roland Barthes’s failed search for a photograph of his mother: ‘I never recognised her except in fragments.’²

I hated having my picture taken for years. In writing these notes it occurred to me that this was partly because I never really recognised myself in photos. The moment always seemed as if it had been caught and mangled by its record. Portraiture offers only an impression – regardless of whether the likeness is moulded in clay, paint, silver nitrate or, as is more likely the case today, in pixels.

This sense of impression often remakes us as characters or charactertures. At the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize,  figures turn and look out from the devices used to frame them. Trapped – viewing and being viewed – an exchange which has been, and continues to be, much commented on, and I see little to be gained from adding to those debates, except to ask: in theorising this experience what is lost? What escapes if, as I suspect, the act of responding to images in a binary form of language constitutes an act of elision?



Antonie de Ras, Displaced Migrant Worker From Libya #1 from the series Trapped in Transit, 2011

As part of an art historical education one learns to apply constructs and divides such as gender, class, race, and sexuality as cartographic techniques. And though I would not disagree that the production of these maps is important, the acts of layering them upon one another and stealing from other disciplines in order to reveal new territories for discourse is more productive. From this we may venture into terra incognita.

Portraits intervene in the categories that bind and separate people.  These categories, which constantly renew and reform, are our evolving territory. Trapped as we are in our boxes of skin and flesh, we view in relation to ourselves first. Perhaps, because of that, we are ‘boxes of deceit’ – a term artist Gustave Metzger directed at the museum, but I apply it here because I find myself wondering to what degree each of us are comprised of selves displayed and stored; lives lost and won.³ I cannot suggest how one might attempt to capture that in a portrait, but many of the entrants in the prize have succeeded in doing exactly that.


The Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize, on tour from the National Portrait Gallery, will be on display at M Shed, Bristol until November.

[1] Cited by John Klein, Matisse Portraits, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), p. 26.

[2] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucia: Reflections on Photography, (London: Random House, 1993), p.107.

[3] Metzger, Gustav ‘Manifesto World’ (1962) in Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists’ Writings ed. Stiles, Kristine and Selz, Peter (LA: University of California Press, 1996), p. 403.


Gustave Courbet, The Mill at Orbe, 1875, oil on canvas, 49.6 x 60cm, purchased with funds from the James Pyke Thompson bequest, 1912 (NMW A 2446)

Due to his involvement with the failed civilian uprising of 1871, more commonly known as the Paris Commune, the painter Gustave Courbet was arrested and imprisoned. Following his arrest and subsequent exile to Switzerland, his work remained popular but was boycotted by the French State until his death in 1877. The artist Jean-Louis Ernest Meissonier, in his role as a judge for the 1872 Salon, announced that ‘Courbet must be excluded from the Salons, henceforth; he must be dead to us.‘¹ Yet the controversy did not hamper Courbet’s ability to sell on the private market. Despite Courbet’s inability to sell at the Salon, the popularity of landscapes with the clients of private dealers led to his increasing dependence on the genre after 1873. Unable to keep up with demand for his work he turned to collaborators.

In 1875 the newly established Republican government charged Courbet with the cost of rebuilding the Vendôme column. Unable to meet these costs Courbet fled to Switzerland. He was joined by Cherubino Pata, who by this time had been assisting Courbet with the production of his works for several years. In exile his escalating alcohol problem, failing health, and looming debts meant it became necessary for several assistants to produce works in the artist’s style. Courbet would then only need to tweak and sign the paintings. As a result, Courbet’s late paintings are plagued by issues of attribution and The Mill at Orbe, in the collection at Amgueddfa Cymru/National Museum Wales, is no exception.

Several other factors exacerbate attribution of Courbet’s late works. It is difficult to establish a sense of stylistic evolution as he erratically changed how he painted. These changes are so pronounced that there is almost a sense that he painted differently depending on his mood, health, and sobriety. As his health declined, Pata took over the studio supervising copyists and arranging sales. Pata also continued to produce forgeries. In contrast with Courbet’s own work, two particular weaknesses in Pata’s painting style have been identified; these are his muddied grey tones and heavy-handed application of paint. These two issues are certainly present in The Mill at Orbe and this support the doubts over the painting’s authenticity. Yet the painting requires further study before one can pass a conclusive judgement on its attribution.

Courbet was certainly not alone in his deceit. There is a joke within the art history community that illustrates the issue, it goes something like this:  ‘Of the 1500 paintings by Courbet, 3000 are in the United States’. Not exactly side-splitting, I know. But it’s important to have a little perspective when it comes to art historical humour… I’ll stop now. It is not uncommon to find the joke’s figures altered and Jean-Baptiste-Camille. As with Courbet, it appears that Corot knowingly put his name to the work of others.  He is know to have signed the works of financially desperate artists – an act of charity that ensured them a quick sale.²

Screen shot 2013-07-29 at 20.18.55

Manner of Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, A Lake at Sunset, oil on canvas, 22.6 x 34.9cm, bequeathed by Gwendoline Davies, 1951 (NMW A 3494)

In spite of their authorship these works still serve to deepen our understanding of their social and political situation. Furthermore, our attitude to fakes and forgeries today is particularly interesting and reveals how we as a society have continued to define and value creative genius – despite the fact that these issues appear to be less of a concern for some of the artists who colluded in the process.

¹ Avis Berman, ‘Larger than Life’, Smithsonian Magazine (2008) <>

² Gary Tinterow and others, Corot (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1996), p. 389.

The Vatican Secret Archives

The Vatican Secret Archives. Photo credit: VdH Books

The title of this post is a question I was asked recently. I was being asked about archival research and the possibility of running into a dead end. Ever the tenacious and adaptable researcher I responded that silence can be as pedagogical as text and image, and one should simply ask whose silence it is; why it is that they are silent; whether are they being made to be silent, and by whom. The practice of history is shaped by such interventions.

We have been challenging master narratives for 30 years and yet there is still work to be done. What we archive (and how) is still significant but my interest is in what’s missing from the record or what has been destroyed. Granted these may not be the easiest materials to get to grips with but looking at what is omitted, brushed over or sidelined is a valuable practice – one which furthers academic and public understanding.

Perhaps the next question is an ethical one: at what cost does one make an interruption in silence?

For further reading on the disposal of archives, I would highly recommend Dr Costanza Caraffa on the photographic archives at Tate & the V&A.

Despite having written interpretation for a national museum and studied on a course which largely equated accessibility with interpretation (textual and otherwise), I made an effort to approach the newly hung Tate Britain with an open mind. It helped that at last year’s Association of Art Historian conference I attended the keynote speech delivered by Tate Britain’s Director, Penelope Curtis, in which the changes were discussed at length. So it is fair to say I had some idea as to what to expect but I was still unconvinced.

Labels have been reduced to tombstone information: artist, title, date and medium. Not all interpretation has been removed and anyone touting the idea that the new hang is interpretation free is wrong.  Key works (such as Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, c. 1944) are still accompanied by text and further interpretation is supplied by AV terminals. Of course one argument against this form of cherry-picking is that it propagates a version of art history which is pliable to a museum’s agenda. It’s important to be aware of this but subscribing to such a view too forcefully might leave one largely ignorant of ongoing debates regarding the historiography of art history. These are discussions which began in the history discipline, and there is an increasing and wholly justified push to understand history, and the writing thereof, as a process of interpretation rather than the act of committing facts to paper in the name of posterity.

The Mud Bath (1914) by David Bomberg, one of t...

David Bomberg, The Mud Bath, 1914.

What does this mean at Tate Britain? Well for a start chatter now fills the galleries. Instead of visitors engaged in solemn processions from work to work, an act characterised by a swift look at a painting followed by an extended glance at the text panel, I watched an elderly gentleman attempt to recreate the stance of a horse, overheard school pupils debate amongst themselves whether David Bomberg could have worked as a graphic designer (whilst stood in front of The Mud Bath, 1914) and witnessed many others discussing features of works with their companions. Playful, commercial, socio-political and formalist readings were not lacking. When more information was required I heard two separate parties seek out a member of staff. If staffing levels and training can be maintained and funded in line with demand, then I think that this direct dialogic approach is an excited one. Tate Britain has extended past facts and interpretation sanctioned by professionals; it now offers a creative exchange with its visitors – one that feels both dynamic and timely.


‘These new images belong to the iconography of despair, or of defiance….Here are images of flight, or ragged claws “scuttling across the floors of silent seas”, of excoriated flesh, frustrated sex, the geometry of fear’ – Herbert Read

When I wasn’t stalking the galleries and eavesdropping on visitors there was the new hang to enjoy. When executed with sensitivity, the juxtaposition of works from different periods provokes enquiry and fosters thematic links across chronology. However Tate’s new chronological layout allows the climate of artistic production to surface without the need for tautological language. I found this most striking when confronted by a group of works from 1949 (pictured above). These works prefigure Herbert Read’s critique of the British Pavilion at the 1952 Venice Biennale, in which he coined the term the ‘geometry of fear’. Granted my art history education provided this context for me but the works chosen to reflect the period visually resonate with bleak post-atomic uncertainty.


Background left: Francis Bacon, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, c. 1944. Near right: Henry Moore, Maquettes for Madonna and Child, 1943

Elsewhere contrast is used effectively to suggest context. Henry Moore’s Maquettes for Madonna and Child, 1943 are beside Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion. Such a placement articulates the idea that many different forms of artistic production occur simultaneously, and this serves to strengthen the idea that there are multiple modes of reception and consumption. photo

Eric Gill, Ecstasy, 1010-1911.

Eric Gill’s Ecstasy, 1010-1911 appears to need little interpretation. One struggles to think of a text that would not seem twee or, worse, rather dry. Just past Ecstasy were several Henri Gaudier-Brezska sculptures nestled around Jacob Epstein’s Female Figure in Flenite, 1913. Tate’s impressive collection of early twentieth-century direct carving benefits from being viewed en-masse. The chronological arrangement draws attention to the fact that this was a group of artists informed and influenced by each others’ work. My only bugbear were the perspex boxes which surrounded much of it. The terrible glare they inflicted interrupted the spatial qualities of the sculptures.

photo photo

Left: Henri Gaudier-Brezska, Singer, 1913.  Right: Jacob Epstein, Female Figure in Flenite, 1913

I left Tate Britain eager to see how the changes are managed long-term. I then made my way to ‘Bowie is…’ at the V&A. Upon entering the fittingly theatrical and elaborately staged exhibition the following quote greeted me:

All art is unstable. Its meaning is not necessarily that implied by the artist. There is no authoritative voice. There are only multiple meanings. David Bowie, 1995

Penelope Curtis certainly keeps good company.

Currently on show at Bath’s Victoria Art Gallery is a Hayward Touring exhibition which showcases the Art Council’s collection of Henry Moore.

Being that I am interested in the relationship between drawing and sculpture, I was immediately drawn to a series of sketches with titles that began ‘Ideas for Sculpture’. These reveal the influences that underwrite the primary motifs within Moore’s work. Pencil studies of conch shells betray Moore’s interest in interior and exterior forms. Ideas for Sculpture: The Transformation of Bones, 1932 rejects the properties of breast, flesh and femur. Irregular dots, nipples, attempt to add a spatial reference but the disorder is too complete.

Heavy set reclining figures, another defining feature of the artist oeuvre, remind one of the large scale works that dominate Moore’s post war production. But the more intimate scale of the works in this exhibition and the deft integration of works on paper are a reminder that the artist was certainly no slave to scale.

The exhibition at the Victoria Art Gallery runs until 23rd June and is £3.50 well-invested.



Top: Exhibition view.
Bottom: Ideas for Sculpture: The Transformation of Bones, 1932





Flora, 2012

Flora, 2012

JH: As we are both recent graduates, I wanted to begin by asking if it feels different to make work outside of the safety net of university?

CP: Making work does feel slightly different now. I would say I still work with the same intensity and with the same motivation I had at University, but I think there is much more freedom to experiment. I was always quite shy about showing my work to other students as it was very different from everyone else on my course.

JH:  That’s understandable, revealing your work to others is a process of exposure that can leave you quite vulnerable. When the content of the work is so personal it must be heightened. For me, your images seem aware of the spectator’s encounter with them but they also feel intensely private. Could you tell me a bit about your decision to make self-portraits?

CP: I’m aware of the audience, but like to keep a sense of privacy within the image. My main concern is my face. I like to cover or shield it so that the audience cannot fully see it.I decided to take self-portraits in my second year of University because it allowed me to express myself and to deal with an emotion. The act of taking a picture allowed me to let out my frustration, without a confrontation. The self-portrait offered a way of producing something good out of a bad emotion or situation and then once it’s taken moving on.

JH:  It’s interesting that you say your work allows you to deal with frustrations without confrontation given that you conceal your face. In hiding your face you inhibit the opportunity for the viewer to look you in the eyes, which can be quite a confrontational act. Was this combination intentional?

CP: The combination of hiding my face and not looking the viewer in the eyes was my intention. I think this came about because even though I make my work knowing it will be viewed, I feel the need to conceal my face. It’s like the viewer is looking in on a private moment, like they are looking at my diary. If I were to look the viewer in the eyes, that would be too confrontational. Looking straight at the camera is something I am unable to do.Unless I’m portraying another character, I find it very hard to look at the camera with my eyes open.

Mother, 2012

Mother, 2012

JH: Would you give an example of a work where you feel like you played a character? When I look at a self portrait I’m always conscious that the artist might rely on an element of subterfuge. Which might be a harsh way of putting it – but I always wonder whether it is a depiction of how an artist believes the world sees them or how they see themselves. Do you identify with either approach?

CP: I agree with you, it’s hard to know sometimes how truthful a self-portrait is. I would say I identify with the approach of showing how I see myself; personally I’m not sure how the world sees me. Though saying this I do not think that I clearly show myself to the viewer, so to some extent I do rely on concealing. An example of a piece in which I think I have played a character is Mother because I was portraying ‘Mother nature’, a universal woman rather than simply myself. Though, in the majority of my work I do not feel like I am playing a character.

 JH: I detect the influence of  Francesca Woodman. There is a similar sense of using the photographic image for emotional release. What I love about Woodman is her projection of very ambiguous emotions. I find this contradictory to the fact that when we encounter a camera in everyday life it’s often a prompt to paste a smile across our face; so often that feels deceitful.

 CP: I love Francesca’s work and have been obsessed with it since I discovered  her. She’s so different to any other photographer I’ve ever seen. I admire the way that she used her work as an emotional release and this is something that has really influenced my own work.

JH: You have said that your practice offers a cathartic release and your titles indicate that the feelings associated are quite bleak. A viewer might expect to pick up on traces of anger or resentment but in contrast your images have a sense of grace and beauty. Yet this feels precarious as though a dark edge might quickly seep in if you let it. Would you agree and do the images feel as serene to you?

CP: Yes, I agree even though my work is formed by emotions that, as you pointed out, are quite bleak my images do feel quite serene. I think that even within our negative emotions there can be a sense of beauty and I wanted to make something positive come from my unhappiness and frustration. When I am producing my work it’s almost like an escape for me so I guess there is a beauty in that.

Delirium #2, 2012

JH: Quite and given how you describe them, there is a meditative quality to your work. The combination of the soft focus and vignette format creates a very ethereal dreamlike quality. What drew you to that style of printing?

CP: I love the look of film photography and am fascinated by how beautiful photography looked in the past, for example Victorian photographers such as Julia Margaret Cameron and Lady Clementina Hawarden. Julia Margaret Cameron has really influenced my use of ovals/circles with her beautiful oval pieces. Digital can be really sharp and I just don’t really like using it. I feel more in touch with my work when using film. I like the tactility of loading, developing and printing. I think that both film and digital have their merits I really like some digital photography and tried it myself but I’ve found it’s just not for me. I suppose what I do to my images, the colouring, could be compared to Photoshop editing.

JH: That brings me back to our discussion of concealing. Your use of netting and even to a certain extend the hand colouring –  which one might liken to a form of  post-production  ‘costume’ – operate as devices which both highlight and conceal.  I sense that there is a certain amount of playing with adornment, which  still seems to run throughout your work. Is it something that you’re continuing to experiment with?

CP: I agree with you that my hand colouring could be linked to a form of post-production costume as like using props or costumes. I am highlighting with the colour in certain areas and by doing so choosing what I want to make more of an emphasis on. I always conceal my body or hide it in some way, with the usage of either hiding my face or as you mentioned the usage of netting. It’s like a barrier which allows me to share enough to the viewer but also to keep some back. This is something I will always experiment with and I am currently using wallpaper a lot in my work. I also paint a lot of my backdrops, so even though I think my work represents myself truthfully, there is an element of creating something that is not already there.

JH: I last saw Julia Margaret Cameron’s photography at Tate Liverpool’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ Exhibition. Often it is tied to an argument about photography as an interesting and technologically advanced medium for women to use in the period but I find that approach a bit tired and, to be honest, rather unfruitful in terms of understanding the practice in its own right.

CP: Yes I agree. From photography’s infancy woman photographers, such as Julia Margaret Cameron whose deliberate soft focus was criticized at the time as inability, were pioneers whose work equalled and in some cases surpassed male photographers.

JH: Of course each age has its challenges! What are your priorities right now?

CP: Certainly. At the moment I’m working toward strengthening my portfolio, expanding my gallery representation and I hope to secure a place on a MA course. As a recent graduate I feel that it is important to continue develop my work and keep pushing myself.

Corinne Perry has recently been accpeted on to the Masters programme at Central Saint Martins and is currently developing a new series of self-portraits that explore how we become part of the spaces we inhabit.

This interview previously appeared on uk.untitled – the first rung for young artists and critics.



I was given this text, produced by a writer who sat outside the performance room throughout, to take away – along with another piece of writing produced by Kulesh’s collaborator, Laura McLean-Ferris. These texts are the only extant documentation of the piece.

Before attending Leslie Kulesh’s HD: High Dissolution I wrote some notes in preparation for this response. In hindsight that was an utterly stupid idea – confirmed entirely by the following sentence (taken from those notes):

I was worried that I would be climbing the walls within an hour but at the very least I’ll leave having experienced a ‘curated tea break’.

It would have been more truthful to start this way: I think it is really important to do things that scare you. A little over forty-eight hours ago the idea of meditating for 6 hours as part of a performance artwork scared me. Despite being a meditation novice, I am drawn to combinations of endurance and participation within performance art. I am interested in the implications of making a sustained commitment to the production of an artwork and as I have mentioned before I like to experiment with the way in which I view or interact with artworks. So having missed the opportunity to take part in Marina Abramović Presents at the Manchester International Festival in 2009, HD: Dissolution seemed like an opportunity to expand my experience of art, overcome my fears and sate my curiosity.

Admittedly, the night before I had a vivid dream that I had overslept and missed the start time. In my dream this filled me with a palpable sense of relief. But I awoke (on time) from the mind games of my subconscious and I set off in the direction of the Arnolfini filled with porridge and no small amount of trepidation.

I emerged later that day buzzing. As her playful title suggests, Kulesh’s work asked me to reject the screens that dominate my daily life and instead turn my attention inwards. Set apart from the main gallery space, it did not possess the self-consciousness or theatricality of Relational Aesthetics. It was intensely personal. My experience was, at times, like watching the static built up in my mind wash over my consciousness and then dissipate. I came away sharper. My senses felt like they had been rebooted. It was an intense 6 hours where everything you have been thinking about or refusing to think about is, as Kulesh pointed out, ‘right there in your face’.

When I mentioned my plans to a friend the previous week, I was interrogated as to why such an experience constituted art. In response I explained that many performance artists are playing with what an artwork can be and that I found this type of artistic creativity interesting. Such experiments serve to remind us that art’s purposes are varied; it is the flexibility and the scope for experience which art permits that keeps me addicted to it.

‘Why is that art?’ is an old question and it is easy to tire of answering it but it is important not to be dismissive and use it as an opportunity for an open debate – not eye rolls. In order to support a cultural landscape that truly touches on the issues faced by individuals, communities and wider society it is vital to maintain non-hierarchical conversations on the value of the arts. * If you believe, as I do, that art is primarily about experience (however varied) such a belief is contingent on the generation of creative and critical conversations. Meditating for 6 hours as art questions the relationship between artist, gallery and audiences. It opens up new channels for creative experience.

Experimental and investigative practices, like HD: Higher Dissolution, diffuse the processes of production, reception and consumption. Never has this been so pertinent to how we live our lives on a daily basis, as the piece is borne of the changes underway in society as a whole. Digital media inspires and offers modes for experimentation but ultimately it has made broadcasters of us all. Such changes call for a reevaluation of how we think about and assign value, not only to art, but also to many forms of communication, which we have at our disposal. In light of this, a little bit of silence and personal reflection never hurts!

HD: Higher Dissolution formed part of 4 Days, an exciting programme of performance art held quarterly at the Arnolfini in Bristol.

* It is also equally important to stand by the values that exist outside the proven economic benefits; I followed this week’s ‘What Next?’ conference with interest. It was heartening to hear secondary school pupils declare that ‘one person’s passion is another person’s inspiration’, but emotive rhetoric can only do so much. I sincerely hope that the salient aims of the movement are successful. I’m not aware of a Bristol group and exactly how open these sessions are, but if you do know please get in touch.


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