It is fascinating to watch an artist at work, to see how they begin an artwork, a blank canvas or piece of paper in front of them. What are the first marks they make, how do they start, it is as if by watching you might be able to grasp and capture some of that inspiration and technique to be able to replicate in some humble way. I have been completely sucked into watching ‘The Big Painting Challenge” on BBC1, where each week amateur artists attempt to paint a still life or a portrait. I am intrigued by the process from where they start and what they finish up with. There is something very powerful about watching a piece of art being created, and the new contemporary exhibition at the Queen’s House in Greenwich allows the visitor to do just that – be the watcher.
“Unseen: The Lives of Looking” is a film and exhibition by artist, Dryden Goodwin. It is a really interesting concept that explores portraiture by focussing on three individuals. Goodwin has closely observed an eye surgeon, a human rights lawyer and a planetary explorer, his intimate access into their working lives has led to some intricately captured moments in time. By choosing three professions that centre around the ability to see and interpret he allows the visitor to really think about the act of looking and seeing.
The art work is complimented by a display of the tools and papers of each of the subjects trades. Curators at the Queen’s House have drawn out this theme by looking at a trio of historical Greenwich figures: The first Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed; Edward Maunder, who observed Mars from the Observatory; and the artist Willem van de Velde the Elder who made detailed drawings of naval battles in preparation for producing paintings in his studio at the Queen’s House.
The feature-length film allows us to expand on the drawings, seeing how they are created and their subjects at work. I found the sections that focused on the eye surgeon Sir Peng Tee Khaw slightly disturbing, I think I must be getting more squeamish with age. But it clearly displayed the fragility of human sight that we take for granted and the patient’s trust and reliance on the eye surgeon. His need to work in minute detail and reliance on pattern recognition to spot problems in once health eyes. The experience of seeing allowing him to instantly spot and recognise abnormalities.
The planetary explorer Professor Sanjeev Gupta, who uses his geological knowledge of the Earth to explore the Martian surface through the eyes of Curiosity Rover, took Dryden on a field trip to Dorset to examine coastal formations. His aim was to find the familiar in the alien and he highlighted how the skills of touch and sight combine in order for him to be able to interpret different landscapes.
Finally Rosa Curling, a human rights lawyer, took us on a brief but fascinating dip into the world of high-profile cases, governments who ‘see’ all and how we protect the rights to privacy. The sketches of Curling I felt were more varied and I wonder how working in the different environments, an intimate office, or the court room affected how Goodwin related to his subject and how that influenced his drawings.
Working in each physical location, a surgeon’s theatre, outside on a beach, a busy court room, must have brought different challenges. Goodwin’s work attempts to highlight the tension between intimacy and anonymity, after the film I returned to the sketches to try to see if I could find more intimacy in one over an other. It adds another dimension to experiencing the art work in this way, we are not just looking at art work on a wall, the film allows us to have an intimate moment of our own. By mirroring his observations of the subjects we can also be a part of this voyeuristic pattern, watching his first marks on paper, his pencil darting to and fro like a buzzing bee, the images speeded up to capture moments of creation.
In truth I found the film a little long at 95 minutes, I think part of that comes down to what my expectation is of an exhibition in a space like the Queen’s House. The best and most captivating part was the mesmerising work of Goodwin in action. I found sometimes watching his marks I could not make out their form, and then all of a sudden a face would appear. It made me question my own sight and view of what was unfolding in front of me. His work when quickly sketching strangers on a train in the palm of his hand was utterly compelling.
For me this was a perfect time to visit an exhibition that makes us think about the seen and unseen. When weeks before a white/gold or blue/black dress had gone viral, it has challenged many people’s perceptions of what they see and what they don’t. Suddenly I question everything before me, I have lost myself in the Wellcome Collection Reading room staring at Rorschach ink blots trying to decipher hidden images. I was fascinated listening on the Radio to a discussion of Homer and how his description of a “wine-dark sea” may not be an inaccuracy on his part but his own interpretation of nature’s colours laid before him.
The whole idea of trust in what we see and interpretation of what we see goes to the heart of what a museum is and what art can teach us. It is a great use of the beautiful Queen’s House to show Goodwin’s contemporary work alongside historical figures who can be linked in with this theme of trying to understand what the eye sees. Whether in art or science, human nature is to try to understand and it brings out the best of both worlds when they are allowed to collide in this way.
It is a privilege to see Goodwin’s work come to life before your eyes, and a wonderful opportunity to peer not only into the lives of three eminent individuals but also the unseen world of the artist. Marks on a page have never been so captivating, it is their birth and creation that makes for such a special exhibition.
Unseen: The Lives of Looking is on at the Queen’s House, Greenwich from 5 March to 26 July 2015. Free
For more information please see the website