During a tutorial the other day my lecturer hung my work in a small show space. He asked me what I thought of the work now that it was in a different space. I noticed that the context had changed and the work instantly looked more professional and substantial, yet the first words that left my lips were: ‘well actually, you’ve put them upside down!’
That is when he told me something very useful, which I already know, but sometimes forget. He told me that I am not making pictures, I am making paintings, and there is a difference.
I am not making paintings of things to look like things that end up as pictures of things, I am making paintings that are things. So why does it matter if they are upside down? Yes, if it is painted in a certain way and you want the eye to meet it that way hanging it to achieve this is important, but for the purposes of critical evaluation and analysis, and for works in progress, hanging the wrong way up can help. It can decontextualise the image; it can put space between you and the image that you have been so closely working with, so that you have time to breath, step back, and view it as an outsider would.
Who knows, maybe it even looks better the wrong way up, so that the wrong way becomes the right way and no one ever knows there once was another way? It’s all trial and error.
A good artist to reference here is Georg Baselitz, because Baselitz turns the world upside down, quite literally.
Baselitz hangs his work upside down deliberately so the viewer has no choice but to react.
The most instinctual reaction, I think, is for one to turn their head in the direction that one thinks the painting should be facing. Ie) if the painting looks like it is 180 degrees the wrong way, one will try to bend themselves 180 degrees to make it right. Of course, unless one has the ability to stand on ones own head, one only gets so far, perhaps to a right angle, before turning back to the trusted head-at-the-top & feet-at-the-bottom position. This ritual probably then leaves one feeling more confused than they did before they tried such tilting in the first place.
I don’t know if you can tell, but I think it’s pretty funny the way we are so sure of ourselves: we (think we) know what we see, we (think we) know what things should look like, and we (think we) know when something is the wrong way round.
(A tree is a tree is a tree is a tree)
We think we’re looking at pictures, but we’re looking at paintings.
That is the success of Baseltiz’s work; he forces the viewer to consider the image as it has been presented, and not as we think it should be presented. That is to say that we view the image as an unknown form and one that is the right way up. The overlap between the understanding of pictures and paintings is probably quite often forgotten; the jolt we get from Baselitz reminds us to look outside the box and accept a form without trying to assign an identity to it.
Some of my work does actually look better upside down. It becomes more ambiguous and opens up new possibilities. The right way up, the painting is a [head], the wrong way up the painting could be a [head].
This idea also makes me think of Pollock and Tony Bevan who lay their work on the floor. Treating it like an installation or sculpture they move around the whole of it, working on it from every angle, so that really, there is no right or wrong way to view it, and the process of making the work becomes a part of viewing it.
I suppose really I need to be less precious, or more to open to the possibilities of my work, and when I’m painting from a photograph, I need to remind myself that I’m not making a picture of a photograph, I am just making a painting.