The Zone of Proximal Development

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It’s all research isn’t it?

Today we went to see the MA show at Birmingham City University’s School of Art in Margaret Street in the city centre. It is a very special place that becomes a very big part of you if you study there, or work there, or like me, lucky enough to have done both.

It has become an annual ritual, since before doing it myself. As I walk round I am curious – probably it’s the teacher in me – about what sort of marks the work gets, and to my shame, I find myself wondering if the given marks would coincide with my own thoughts, mostly not knowing the students, or the work that has led up to this.

As we walked round there were a couple of artists showing work using domestic settings, furniture, crockery… some of this is interesting, some of it bores me, in a “seen it all before” way. Of course I’ve seen it all before because the domestic is where much of my work is situated. It is familiar, and I have to look carefully in order to see the new, the different angle. I can’t help thinking that ebay sellers must do quite well out of art students looking for the perfect fire surround circa 1976. I don’t mean this to be a criticism of the work, I mean it to be a criticism of me. I am in awe of the marking tutors who remain open to these things, to enable them to see each student’s work as fresh, and treat it and mark it accordingly.

Then we go to see other work that is so far from what I do, I struggle with it. Often I struggle with paintings. Occasionally I see something that I can really relate to in terms of the artist having an affinity with the medium, and an obsession of some sort, and I get it. Otherwise I tend to walk past paintings in the manner of the regulation march required to see Van Gogh in the Royal Academy.

I also have difficulties with work produced very quickly using rubbish… enough of my prejudices…

What I’m getting at is work that sits between. This is why I go to the MA show year upon year… to find work in my Zone of Proximal Development. Something that will draw me in, where there is a point of access, but that which challenges me enough to make me think, and hopefully move me on a bit.

I usually go around looking for this magic combination, and declare work in this area to be my favourite. I also go around with an editor’s head on thinking “avoid tautology!” and there are often installations I stand in front of where I think “too much” and want to remove several items. Of course I have no authority, as I don’t really know why the artists have made those choices, but it is a game I find myself playing. It keeps me sharp. I am prone to overstating, so find myself in front of my own work being strict with myself and saying “What can I remove, that still allows the work to speak how I want it to?” It’s a difficult thing to do, because what I have found is that quite often, the piece that needs to be removed is the work that has taken the longest, or is the “prettiest”. These are hard to let go of, if like me, you have a craft background where Time + Skill = Worth.

This year I have come away feeling that I have actually moved on a way since my show. I have also I think found a voice and a vocabulary that works for me, and I have around me the sort of people that will continue to question me, and challenge any lazy thinking. I’m feeling a little smug, that four years on from my graduation, I am still working as an artist, I am earning a meagre living, I am with the people I want to be with, doing what I want. I have an amazing studio I share with an amazing artist in the top of another (rather tattier) Victorian building just a few miles away from Margaret St.

Looking at other people’s work is always challenging. Questioning your own work afterwards is even more so, if you look properly. So, tomorrow I will head back into the studio, look at what I have been making and doing and ask myself:

Is it too much?

Is it obvious?

Is it too comfortable and easy?

Is it all a waste of my time?

Is it pointless?

Is it juvenile nonsense?

Is it showing off?

Is it actually saying anything?

Is it smug middle class comfortable self-examination?

Is it getting me anywhere?

and probably a dozen more…

There will undoubtedly be a few uncomfortable answers, but hopefully I can be aware, and address them somehow.

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