Real Life in the Frame

Introducing Howard Litchfield, Artist and Art Historian. Howard is my first guest blogger and I look forward to reading his contributions with interest.  I’m sure you’ll agree that varied contributions from expert guests will make for a richer reading experience.  I hope you find this as interesting and as useful as I do, piece starts immediately below … thanks – Framing Fairy…

Since the 1960s or so the practice of both art and art history has paid as much, if not more, attention to what happens beyond the actual physical matter of a painting or sculpture to what goes on around it, its placement in a gallery, the web of myths, ideologies and opinions that crowd around it and its historical background.

In this world, context is king and bearing this in mind it seems odd that we pay so little attention to the boundary between the artwork and its environment – the frame. Look through any catalogue or coffee table monograph and you’ll see colour plate after colour plate of the pictures themselves, but rarely will you see the frame.

In some cases this can lead to a surprise when you encounter a painting face to face for the first time. I remember going to a Mondrian exhibition as a teenager seeing Composition 3 with Red, Yellow and Blue not as I expected hanging as a raw canvas on the wall, but carefully shielded behind glass in a minimalist box frame. With the benefit of hindsight I think part of my shock derived from the fact that this was the 1980s and Mondrian’s grids and primary coloured squares were everywhere, on hair gel packaging, bed linen, mugs; even the fashionable furniture of the time seemed to owe a debt to the abstractionist’s signature style. Mondrian’s work seemed so much a part of everyday life that to see it hermetically sealed away like a relic came as a shock.

This separation of art of and life was something that some artists since the Second World War had fought against. The staunch socialist and Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko when awarded a career defining commission to make a series of large scale canvases for the executive canteen in the New York Seagram’s building expressed his intent to make a series of works that would “ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch that ever eats in that room”. Given this intention, it is perhaps unsurprising that the works, now hanging in a number of national collections including the Tate Modern, are unframed. Great slabs of oppressive colour they hang monolithic pushing their way into their dimly lit, claustrophobic rooms, dwarfing the viewer and elbowing real life out of the way.

But a frame, like its sculptural equivalent – the plinth – can have the opposite effect, rather than separating life from art it can be used to take the very stuff of life and transform it into art. In the 1910’s Marcel Duchamp placed a series of mass produced everyday objects – a bottle rack, a snow shovel and most infamously a urinal – on plinths in galleries, suggesting that an artist could transform an object into art merely by declaring it to be so.

Now some have argued that Duchamp was asking the viewer to find an aesthetic quality in the mass produced stuff of the modern world, and certainly, if we stop for a moment and examine items in our everyday life we can find beauty in the most mundane objects; even when buying a teaspoon we consider the way it looks as much as its functionality. Indeed some designers place a higher priority on the way a utensil looks than how well it works – the famously good looking but utterly impractical Phillip Starck lemon squeezer springs to mind. But I think the more important thing to take from Duchamp’s ‘Readymades’ is the part that presentation plays in making an artwork, removed from their usual context and placed on a plinth or in a frame they invite and provoke a different kind of attention from the kind we usually give them.

Duchamp’s strategy was deliberately provocative and, despite having influenced artists from Picasso via Warhol to Emin, it still elicits, disbelief, intrigue and a flurry of outraged letters. And yet it’s a strategy that has crept quietly unnoticed into our homes, schools and workplaces, we take traces of our romances, holidays and successes and, without thinking, transform them into artworks –  nostalgic relics ripe with meaning that they would never have had if we left them pinned with magnets to the fridge; an old gig ticket or beer mat becomes a record of a first meeting with a loved one, a child’s first drawing becomes part of the story of our family life. Like Marcel Duchamp we take the unnoticed and unloved detritus of our lives, change their contexts and, raising their status by framing them, invite our friends and family to look at them in a different way.

Duchamp said anything could be art, and the artist Joseph Beuys said that everyone was an artist.  No matter what our opinion of them, when we take that postcard that we bought on our honeymoon, place it in a frame and hang it on our wall, we prove them both right.

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