The Loom of (mostly) Modern Art

‘If you want knowledge, you must take part in the practice of changing reality.’ Mao Tse-tung

‘My point is that transforming our reality is no longer a question of just making more art.’ Ian Burn

The Loom of Form and Meaning is a way of classifying connections on a 3x3 matrix, depending on whether a connection is based on identity, similarity or difference in form, and identity, similarity or difference in meaning/use.

Here I’m applying the classification to art, which is an activity of changing reality through defamiliarisation and dislocating, refamiliarisation and recasting. And as usual in these lists involving the Loom of Form and Meaning, I’m not suggesting all art can be categorised in this way, or even that the selective examples I give can only be categorised in this way on the Loom: different priorities and points of view would lead to different results. I’m just using art to illustrate again an application of the Loom in practice, in another domain involving form (here the work of art) and meaning (what it might be thought to represent or mean).

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La hora del té (oil on canvas) by Magda Torres Gurza. 2015.

Photorealistic and hyperrealistic art, from the Early Northern Renaissance masters to the present, aims to realistically represent a visual form, and is an example of A1 type art (same form, same meaning) on the Loom.

Impressionistic art, for example each of Monet’s celebrated paintings of haystacks (1890–91), Rouen Cathedral (1892–94), and Westminster Bridge (1900–04), is similar in overall visual form to its model in terms of variations of light and colour, without reproducing photorealistic detail. As such, it is an example of A2 type art (similar form, same meaning).

An Oak Tree, by Michael Craig-Martin (1973), is actually a glass of water on a high shelf, holding itself out wilfully as an oak tree. It declares itself insistently as A3 type art (different form, same meaning), but there is more going on than meets the eye. Since it forces an absurd interpretation of the glass of water as presented, it is C1 art (same form, different meaning), but as a representation of the work of art as a contract of faith between artist and viewer it is A1 art (same form, same meaning), while in the contrasting juxtaposition of a glass of water, of all things, as an embodiment of an oak tree, and not for example a bonsai oak, it is C3 art (different form, different meaning). Viewed, as it commonly is, as a metaphor for transubstantiation, it is B3 art (different form, similar meaning), but ultimately, at face value (‘the actual oak tree is physically present but in the form of the glass of water’), it remains a paragon of A3 art.

Wealth by Inovandu Katuuo. 2020. Photo: Toufic Beyhum.

In the painting Wealth (2020), Ovaherero artist Inovandu Katuuo has used a cattle food bag as a surface to work with fabric paint, wool, and spray paint to depict the cattle which traditionally stand for wealth in his culture, so the subject matter has a metonymic relationship to the title. The metonymic use of an actual food bag as a canvas for the painting, mounted on a wooden bar iconically reminiscent of a cow’s horns, and like a Herero woman’s headdress, gives it the character of B1 art (same form, similar meaning).

Dame im Kahn by Max Liebermann. circa 1911. Photo: Dietmar Katz (left); SK L 402–429, 432–439 by David Schutter. 2017. Photo: Jim Prinz (right).

David Schutter’s near-monochrome series of studies which interpret Constable, Watteau, Monet, and others, may not look very similar to the originals, but if you are expert enough to know, or interested enough to find out, they share similar painterly characteristics of technique and materials which are deployed to create a novel work, in contrast to copyists such as Antonia Williams who hopes (by making A2 type copies which lack only provenance) that ‘if Monet walked into the studio he’d think that my painting was one of his.’ Schutter zooms in on some particular aspects of another artist’s process, and produces new works which use the same techniques, tools or materials while very obviously varying or limiting other parameters (e.g. using only grey to represent a colour painting). He creates B2 type art (similar form, similar meaning), and though the artist no longer identifies individual models he has followed in each work, they are often created and exhibited in series which are associated with a particular artist.

I’m grateful to Mark Staff Brandl for providing (here: https://bit.ly/39cSgV8) a great example of metaphor in art, which is a type of B3 art (different form, similar meaning): ‘vanitas still life paintings in the 16th and 17th centuries, in Flanders and the Netherlands. These works generally included depictions of … rotten fruit, a metaphor for decay and thus death; smoke, clocks, … even bubbles, all of which point in some meaningful way to the briefness of life.’ Regarding the embodiment of similar sentiments in the ‘haptic, physical aspects’ of a work, rather than in its subject matter, to Brandl’s interesting examples I’d add Gustav Metzger’s auto-destructive art, which is said to have influenced Pete Townsend’s destructive stage antics.

Fountain by Marcel Duchamp. 1917/1964. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris / Estate of Marcel Duchamp

Marcel Duchamp’s notorious Fountain (1917) is clearly a direct precursor of An Oak Tree, but in my view it is best characterised primarily as C1 art (same form, different meaning). The choice of a urinal as the found object to be presented to the viewer as art is an immediate surprise on first encounter, and thereafter a persistent disturbance to the aesthetic sense. The incongruity of this repurposing remains in the foreground, while the title of the work, and any suggestion that the urinal actually is a fountain (perhaps passively awaiting its wellspring), is an ancillary feature, rather than an explicit and indispensable element of the revelation of the work as in An Oak Tree.

Photo from The ‘Australopithecine’ Cobble from Makapansgat, South Africa by Robert G. Bednarik, The South African Archaeological Bulletin, Jun., 1998

Another example of ‘found’ art, some 3 million years old, is the ‘Australopithecine’ Cobble. This ‘manuport’ – a natural object which has been moved from its original context by human agency but otherwise remains unmodified – is also the world’s first known C1 type art, and its resemblance to a human face presents the first evidence of pareidolic graphic matching in hominids.

Balloon Dog (Magenta) by Jeff Koons. 1994–2000. Photo: Achim Hepp.

A modern example of the ancient trompe l’oeil technique, Jeff Koons’ Balloon Dog series (1994 – 2000) has all the appearance of metallic inflated balloons, taut with pressure. But the 11 metre high Balloon Dog is made from precision-engineered, mirror-polished stainless steel with a translucent coating designed to trick the eye and surprise the senses when the trick is recognised. This is C2 art (similar form, different meaning) in which the unexpected revelation of false similarity is a magic ingredient.

Southend High Street Bridge Commission: ‘Fantasias’ by Elisabeth Wild. 2018. Photo: Anna Lukala

Not all collage and cut-up art is C3 type (different form, different meaning), but Elisabeth Wild’s abstract Fantasias epitomise the category with the juxtaposition and contrasting of found images from glossy magazines, stripped of their former meaning, and recontextualised in brilliantly polychromatic arrangements, shown here on a large scale commission on Southend High Street, representing not homogenised diversity which conflates individuality into one-ness, but celebration of difference which stands undisturbed.

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I’ve given a more nuanced analysis of only a few of the above examples, but I expect the same can be done for all the others. For example, Magda Torres Gurza has achieved more here than simply representing a tea set with dazzling technical mastery of oil on canvas. Are the brilliantly executed reflections a B3 type metaphor for representational art itself, and its domestication into a homely and civilised ritual? Or a surprising C1 type statement on the erasure of the artist and creative process in the final work, as neither are explicitly present in the reflections of what appears to be a clinically modern drawing room of a type in which the painting may ultimately aspire to be hung.

Hopefully I will write soon, more generally, about how sometimes different and even opposite parts of Loom can come together, like looking at the obverse of the same woven design can reverse the figure and ground to give a contrasting appearance, or just as the fun in a game of Charades can be generated by one player’s (in-)ability to re-express an idea in different terms from the original (an A3 type phenomenon), and the other players’ (mis-)interpretation of the re-expression (a C1 type phenomenon). These different views don’t invalidate the classification system, but just demonstrate that the classes are fluid depending on point of view, and are not mutually exclusive.

My point of view in all the above has also been limited to the ‘meaning’ aspect of art on the vertical axis of the Loom, rather than ‘use.’ I’m generally with Wittgenstein when he said ‘The meaning is the use’ (quoted in Art after Philosophy by Joseph Kosuth, 1969). Even by the time Kosuth restated this, Robert Rauschenberg had already presented his Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953) in an art context, creating new art from a found object in a way that was far beyond de Kooning’s original intended meaning or use. Was Rauschenberg ‘just making more art’ or changing reality by erasing it? But I think it better to leave both de Kooning’s and Rauschenberg’s intentions aside, and consider that it is the form itself which has meaning and use, which will surely both continue to evolve as long as it is considered as art, and as long as art is considered to transform reality in different ways.

Glass Bead Game designer