Juliet Margaret Cameron and Francesca Woodman: Photographic Storytelling

Published in Artlyst

Art Criticism

As much seems to divide the photographers Juliet Margaret Cameron and Francesca Woodman as unites them. The former was a well-bred Victorian English woman from a privileged colonial background; the other American, born some hundred years later, lived through the height of feminist debates around women’s role in art and society. What unites them is their pioneering photographic work executed in short but highly productive periods. Each woman encompassed a singular female vision that used archetypes and myths to explore not only the worlds in which they lived but also something deeper and, on occasion, darker.

Cameron (1815-79) was self-taught. Using a wooden sliding camera box placed on a tripod, she made albumen prints employing the wet collodion method. She was given her first camera when she was 48, a gift from her daughter and son-in-law, so the bulk of her work was created within fifteen years. The medium of photography was still very new and largely dominated by men, pioneers such as Louis Daguerre and William Fox Talbot. Although the principle of the camera had been known from ancient times and artists from the Renaissance onwards had made use of the camera obscura, the chemistry needed to secure an actual image wasn’t available until the 19th century. From the daguerreotypes of the 1830s with their radically reduced exposure times to the development in the 1880s of George Eastman’s dry gelatine roll film, photographic techniques were continually being updated and improved even though photography was rarely dignified with the term ‘art’.

Woodman (1958-79) came from an arty family. Her mother was a ceramicist and her father a painter and photographer who gave her her first camera. She attended art school, displaying a precocious interest in photography when, at 13, whilst at boarding school, she produced her first self-portrait. Her body of work spans a mere nine years as, tragically, she took her own life at 22 (as did that other female photographer, Diane Arbus).

Victorian ideas collapsed women’s art into the realm of nature and the chthonic. According to Griselda Pollack’s Old Mistresses, women were “present as an image, but with the specific connotations of body and nature, that is passive, available, possessive, powerless.” To a degree, this exhibition shows the push/pull these two artists displayed towards and away from such essentialist ideas. Structured thematically under the headings of Picture Making, Nature and Femininity, Models and Muses, The Dream Space, Doubling, Angels and Other Worldly beings, we find both of them encapsulating and rejecting these tropes.

Woodman Cameron, National Portrait Gallery. Photo © Artlyst 2024

In various cultural histories, angels have been seen as able to move between spiritual and earthly realms, the conscious and the unconscious. From the Virgin Mary to Rilke’s terrifying angel, angels have been symbols of something otherworldly, often appearing in dreams. Juliet Margaret Cameron was a Christian believer, whilst Woodman encapsulates something of that vague spirituality which dominated the 1960s and 70s. Both women explored the image of angels as a symbol of transformation and, less overtly, as a sublimated image of eroticism. Cameron’s models share many characteristics of the Pre-Raphaelite women painted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Burne Jones: the flowing hair and the aloof virginal beauty. For the Pre-Raphaelites, women were often seen as sensual temptresses who challenged the viewer with their direct gaze. In many of Cameron’s photographs, eroticism and innocence are fused. A naked child wears a pair of feathery wings. Two little girls, all luxurious curls and white dresses cascading to reveal bare shoulders, kiss each other on the mouth. Cameron may have seen these as the epitome of unsullied childhood. Still, they are every bit as erotically charged as Sally Mann’s controversial 1990s images of her children photographed without clothing. Cameron claimed she was showing the ‘souls of her sitters’: cherubic children, sensitive melancholy female models, but to the modern eye, many of her images can be seen in a different, post-Freudian light.

There is also something of a charged eroticism about Woodman’s angels. In a bedroom full of shadows, a naked woman bathed in a stream of white light throws back her head, her mouth open as if in orgasm. It is reminiscent of the mouths of Francis Bacon’s subjects or that of the nurse in Battleship Potemkin. Underneath this image, Woodman has written in pencil: Angels. Haunting and ambiguous, this image conjures the well-worn tropes of women as hysterics, as carnal and primitive, held by nineteenth-century neurologists such as Jean-Martin Charcot.

Both artists are storytellers; Cameron favours the 19th-century taste for medievalism and borrows from Arthurian legends such as Viven and Merlin, while Woodman’s stories are more opaque. What is going on in the sexually ambiguous photograph of Charlie the Model, naked and kneeling, clutching his genitals beside a fuzzy female form? Or in the images of Benjamin Moore, who, for a number of years, was Woodman’s boyfriend and with whom she explored various creative concepts? Elsewhere, she flirts with (or turns on its head, depending on your interpretation) the essentialist trope of a woman being synonymous with nature by frequently locating her female subjects within the natural world.

If for no other reason, this exhibition is well worth a visit because of the sheer beauty of many of the photographs, though, at times, the links between the two women feel a bit tenuous and forced. Cameron’s images have the psychological certainty that befits a woman of her time, class, and Christian beliefs. Her gorgeous tableaux and allegorical images from Greek and Arthurian myths reflect the Romantic, bohemian 19th-century sensibility in Keats’ and Swinbourne, John Everett Millais, and William Holman Hunt. Woodman’s work is altogether more ambiguous and more edgy. The 1970s were when old certainties about women’s roles were breaking down. Often, there feels a sense of dissolution, of things dissolving and coming apart, the world not holding and old conventions dying. That her life ended in suicide is, perhaps, not surprising.

Francesca Woodman and Julia Margaret Cameron: Portraits to Dream
National Portrait Gallery until 16th June 2024

Tatiana Wolska: Leisure as Resistance

Published in Doris

Art Criticism

Born in Poland, Tatiana Wolska arrived in France in 2000 to find everybody talking about ecology. Under communism everything that could be was repurposed. In those harsh childhood times nothing was wasted. Inspired by the barter systems she’d witnessed, the transformation of material lies at the heart of her creative practice. The scarcity of goods experienced as a child and the recycling of today’s discarded, polluting materials – old plastic bottles, rusty nails and salvaged timber – merge in her work.

Leisure as Resistance, her show at MAC (Midlands Art Centre) features several new commissions, including sculptures constructed of scrap wood, alongside a sensual biomorphic form made from fused red plastic water bottles that hangs from the gallery ceiling like a giant scarlet appendix. There are also large scale drawings and a site-specific mural. Describing herself as a ‘junk collector’ Wolska fuses her concerns about ecology with the appropriation of recycled materials in a contemporary form of arte povera. Something of a magpie, she collects whatever takes her fancy from street garbage cans, while friends bring all sorts of detritus to her studio. In her abracadabra art, the discards of our wasteful global consumerism are conjured into new aesthetic forms highlighting our constant lip service to ecological preservation – the fact that we know that plastic bags, cotton swabs and non-biodegradable plastics take 500 years to decompose – she repurposes her found materials in a silent visual protest to highlight both our wastefulness and the creative potential of these abandoned objects.

Immersing herself in the material’s possibilities her work, particularly her drawings, evolve intuitively. Rising at 6.30 each day to draw, she follows, in this almost meditative practice, shapes and colours, letting them lead the way. A pink may suggest a certain shape. Then a shape will prompt the use of a grey pencil which, in turn, might lead her to painting. One of her favourite materials is biro. These drawings are soft and fleshy. Some resemble organs or internal body parts. Others biomorphic forms such as pods and flowers that give a nod towards Georgia O’Keeffe. Floating in the middle of their white paper sheets they’re reminiscent of 19th century botanical or medical drawings. She refers to them as her ‘lazy drawings,’ meaning that she doesn’t start out with any preconceived intellectual of aesthetic notions but simply follows where her hand and heart leads. She describes the process as completely freeing, almost therapeutic. It’s through the act of drawing that her ideas emerge. In a society where everything is controlled, regimented and categorised, she sees this process as a form of liberty.

mac, Tatiana Wolska, Lesuire as Resistance. Photographer, Tegen Kimbley

A key component of this exhibition is a makeshift shelter made from higgledy-piggledy wooden offcuts purchased from the Woodshack in Sutton Coalfield. Part Phyllida Barlow, part Mario Merz’s 1968 Giap’s Igloo, this temporarily constructed space is a refuge where people can relax and make a cup of camomile tea or lie on the bunk-like bed reading one of the available books on sustainability or ecology. This idea is adapted from a project done in the municipal gallery in Nice, which took the form of a ‘utopian vision of nomad, democratic and relational architecture.’ Birmingham is a city that lacks communal spaces, so she felt it important to create one where people could meet and relax and let their children play. A space that was welcoming to those who might not normally visit galleries. There’s an exchange library and a rack of pre-loved clothes that form part of a swap system. You bring in a work shirt and leave with a pair of sequin trousers. There’s also a seed bank where visitors can help themselves in order to propagate their window boxes and gardens. This cosy structure evokes memories of childhood hideaways and tree houses where play was paramount. There’s also a suggestion à la Thoreau (American naturalist and essayist), that we might all lead a more connected, simpler existence, that none of us need so much ‘stuff,’ that we’d all be better off connected not only to nature but to the wider community.

According to the American writer and critic Suzi Gablick ‘in Has Modernism Failed? the overarching principle of modernism [and one might add postmodernism] has been autonomy. It’s touchstone is individual freedom, not social authority.’ Tatiana Wolska’s work reaffirms art as a social activity rather than one which is ego-driven or a Romantic quest for self-hood. Capitalist society has separated us from one another and art and museums tend to be the provenance of the well-healed and the elite. To coincide with Leisure as Resistance exhibition MAC will be hosting a number of interconnected workshops run under the Public Programme. There’ll be a  Grafting Workshop by Fruit and Nut Village where participants can learn to graft fruit trees and take a cutting back home. There is a Composting Surgery and a Knit Social – an afternoon of stitching and chatting inspired by the exhibition – and a Repair Café where you can learn to fix household electrical appliances and textiles instead of throwing them away. It all sounds rather quaint but Tatiana Wolska attempts to reestablish the communal and the collective that has largely been erased by the overconsumption of late capitalist excess. It may be wistfully utopian, but there’s nothing wrong with that.

Tatiana Wolska: Leisure as Resistance MAC Birmingham, UK until Sunday June 2nd

Women In Revolt at Tate Britain

Published in Artlyst

Art Criticism

The women in Chandon Fraser’s black and white photograph of the Women’s Liberation Conference at Ruskin College, Oxford, in 1970, look familiar. With their earnest faces, hand-knitted jumpers and unkempt hair, they are my generation seen through the grainy-grey lens of 50 years.

“Talkin ‘bout my generation” – The Who

I wasn’t at that first meeting because I was, at the time, an archetypal earth mother living in the country, looking after babies and a flock of hens. But their ideas were beginning to filter through even to my hippy rural idyll. There was a heady list of injustices faced by women at the time (particularly married women). Apart from not receiving equal pay, we could be dismissed from our jobs when pregnant, did not receive statutory maternity pay, nor were we protected by sex-discrimination law so that jobs could be advertised just for men. Classed as the legal dependents of our husbands, we were not entitled to claim benefits in our own names nor secure a mortgage or bank loan without the signature of a husband or father. The law did not protect us from rape or sex on demand within marriage, and there were no rape crisis centres or women’s refuges. A court order could not be obtained against violent husbands. Domestic abuse was considered a private matter. Divorce – with all its implications – was the only way out. For women of colour, the situation was even worse. The first Race Relations legislation passed in 1965 had no teeth.

Margaret Harrison, Greenham Common (Common Reflections) 1989-2013

Some of Fraser’s photographs show meetings and marches that include the occasional male sympathiser, all cigarettes, long, unruly hair and sideburns. But they’re rare. What she does capture is the camaraderie. Women sitting around in discussion groups. We see Sue Crockford with her perm, bouncing her baby in its homemade bonnet on her knee while laughing with Juliet Mitchell.

The Nursery Campaign, Hackney on Mother’s Day 1976, photographed by Christine Vogue, pictures a group of women holding homemade placards. They stand amid striped baby buggies, demanding the right to nurseries and childcare that offered them a road to economic independence. It was in this landscape of nascent change that the infamous 1970 Miss World contest took place, and the comedian Bob Hope wisecracked: “It’s quite a cattle market. I’ve been back there checking the calves. I don’t want you to think I’m a dirty old man because I never give women a second thought. My first thought covers everything.” For his pains, he was pelted with flour.

Jill Poesner

Brilliantly curated and one of the largest shows mounted by Tate Britain, Women in Revolt is a complete archive of the period. It begins in 1970 and, for me, is like dipping a madeleine into lime tea. It brings it all back: the anger, the pain, the optimism. The belief that, through protest, things could be better. Much of the work in the exhibition has little commercial value, but its historic worth is priceless. There are films, posters and magazines. Old copies of Spare Rib and Shrew, one with an ironic take on the infamous Allen Jones sculpture of a crouching woman dressed in leather, designed as a coffee table. Much of it feels ephemeral and makeshift, having been cobbled together on kitchen tables. It’s photocopied, collaged and stapled together. This is very much a pre-internet, do-it-yourself world. There are leaflets for handing out in the street and flyers for sticking on walls put out by the National Abortion Campaign, the Birmingham Women’s Liberation and the International Marxist Group.

The 70s was a colourless era. Several of the winters were freezing, while rubbish piled up in the streets as a result of the three-day week. Often, the lights went out. Capitalism was being challenged on every front, including the miners’ strike, which we see being supported by Hackney Greenham Women, photographed by Maffei Murray. The most high-profile women’s group was the Greenham Common Women’s peace camp, occupied from 1981 to 2000. Visiting on several occasions with my young children, I saw how the women there were incorporating DIY methods of art into their protests by weaving spiderwebs of wool and objects into the fence. Embrace the Base, 1982 by Brenda Prince, shows a group carrying a placard to the then Prime Minister that reads: “Dear Margaret, Here’s your Christmas cheque. Don’t spend it on bombs for the children. Love Mother xxx.”

As the exhibition moves through the 70s to the 80s, it incorporates more than the white middle-class women who were most visible at the first WLM meeting. Queer women and women of colour begin to demand visibility. In 1979, the first National Black Women’s Conference was set up by the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent (OWAAD). The front of one of their magazines boldly states in green letters: Black Women in Britain Speak Out. The female body was throwing off its pinnies and duffle coast to become more sexualised. In 1976, Cosey Fanni Tutti performed her Women’s Roll naked at the AIR Gallery. In it, she explored the sexual body, particularly within the context of the sex industry. Leaning on pop art, Margaret Harrison, a member of the Women’s Workshop of the Artists’ Union, made a series of drawings that challenged the portrayal of women in popular culture. Suggesting that society reduces women to domestic sites of erotic consumption, she presents, in Little Women at Home 1971, a warrior woman dressed in a breastplate with pointy pink nipples. Wearing stockings held up by barbed wire, the heel of her silver stiletto boot is crushing a box of Brillo pads.

Protest and politics elide in this exhibition. The London Women’s film group depicts women demonstrating outside their workplace for Fair Pay, while FOWAAD, the newsletter of OWAAD, asks: BLACK KIDS….who cares. Alexis Hunter’s The Marxist Wife (still does the housework) packs a punch even now, ironically depicting a female hand continuously wiping away the face of Karl Marx. The late Susan Hiller’s work, Ten Months 1977, is particularly potent. As befits this highly intelligent artist who once trained as an anthropologist, she maps and documents the mound of her expanding stomach during pregnancy in ten frames containing twenty-eight individual photographs. The anarchic influence of punk is seen in the nudity and painted bodies of The Neo Naturists, a performance art group formed by Christine and Jennifer Binnie, with Wilma Johnson, that was linked to various subcultures. Formed to counter the effects of Thatcherism, they performed in nightclubs, as well as galleries, to broaden their audience. Elsewhere, butch gays make out in a uniform of vests and Doc Marten’s on Hampstead Heath in work by the Californian photographer Del Lagrace Volcano, who wanted to “display a solidarity with gay male subculture…..and reclaim their sexuality from the patriarchal gaze.” There are also strong paintings by Lesley Sanderson, a Chinese-Malaysian British artist who challenges the eroticised stereotype of the ‘oriental’ women, and a fearsome version of the goddess Kali waving a machete and wearing a garland of severed white male heads (an inverse reference to Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness?) entitled Housewives with Steak Knives 1985 by Sutapa Biswas that undercuts narratives of colonialism and imperialism.

Time is needed to look at all this expansive exhibition has to offer. What seems to be clear, looking back to the early 1970s, is that while there were huge restrictions on women’s lives, there was also an optimism that things could and should get better, A belief that by making the personal political things would change. In these hardened and more cynical times, there’s still plenty to do be done to create opportunities for all women. Yet, somehow, the belief that change can be achieved through will and protest seems less certain, the progress made over 50 years more fragile in our own dystopian times.

Frieze London And Frieze Masters 2023 – The Best And Some Of The Worst

Published in Artlyst

Art Criticism

Frieze London arrived in Regent’s Park two decades ago. In the ‘noughties’, it hit the London art scene running, bringing a new razzmatazz to the selling of art. On the opening night, anyone who was anyone was there. Even Anish Kapoor had to stand in the rain for an hour waiting to get in. London was buzzing with talent, and now that talent had a platform.

So what of Frieze, now, 20 years on? Well, it feels rather tired, a bit past its sell-by date, like a partygoer who doesn’t quite know that it’s time to go home. The opening day was packed, but everyone seemed to be on the lookout for other people rather than looking at the art. It’s still a hot ticket – Princess Beatrice was there in one of the many eateries having a late lunch with a group of friends – but the mood seems out of step with the times. In the early 2000s, Blair was still in power. The Iraq war and 9/11 hadn’t yet happened. Irony was still cool. Art was a mirror of aspiration and social change. But, now, walking around the hundreds of booths, it feels like being in a bubble, a parallel universe where art is piled high, money often speaks louder than talent, and you might never guess that Ukraine was at war with Russia, that there was a cost of living crisis and a conflagration in the Middle East.

Damien Hirst Gagosian

The fair opens with Gagosian’s booth, replete with huge floral Damien Hirsts. It’s fashionable to say that Hirst is a rotten painter, but they aren’t bad. Still, then again, they aren’t really that good either, pastiches of numerous better painters and all rather safe from the artist who once stuffed sharks and preserved cows in formaldehyde. Altogether, too big, the fair takes time to find one’s way around and discover stuff worth looking at. Though if you’re prepared to look, it’s still there.

Over at Sadie Coles, there’s a lovely series of works in pastel, ink and watercolour by the Italian artist Isabella Ducrot that borrows imagery from folklore, textiles and weaving.

Blindspot Gallery Hong Kong

At the Blindspot Gallery in Hong Kong, Angela Su, who represented Hong Kong at the 59th Venice Biennale, is showing her embroidery works—drawings created with a single line of hair. ‘Sewing together my split mind’ (2019-21) represents the sewing together of body parts as a gesture in protest at the suppression of free speech.weaving.

Chantal Joffe at Victoria Miro

Over at Victoria Miro, they’ve hung a Paula Rego next to a Chantal Joffe, showing the influence of the former on Joffe’s powerful painting. Some of the most interesting work is the quietest.

Barbara Chase-Riboud, for example, at Hauser & Wirth

Barbara Chase-Riboud, for example, at Hauser & Wirth, is an American visual artist, sculptor, best-selling novelist and award-winning poet who creates different formations by using white silk thread to pierce and sew white paper. These spare and barely there artefacts suggest automatic writing and hieroglyphics. Born in 1939, she has almost certainly been influenced by the French cultural theory, l’Écriture Féminine of Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray’s, which aspired to create a genre of literary writing that deviated from the masculine norm, to examine the relationship between the female body and language and text.

At Edel, Asanti Julianknxx is showing Black Room 2023, that merges film, poetry, performance, and music to explore Western society’s dependence on the unseen labour of Black communities. There’s also a witty series by Marina Abromović.

Marina Abromović (Detail)

Marina Abromović of digital pigment prints at the Viennese Krinzinger Gallery. Wearing a big pointy red Energy Hat (like a dunce’s cap), she’s seen in the garden doing the ironing in her dressing gown. In contrast, at Edinburgh’s Ingleby Gallery, there’s a lovely minimalist series (perhaps, by Frieze standards, rather old fashioned) of rondels by the Glasgow artist Katie Paterson, created with pigment made from the ash of 10,000 tree species, sand from deserts across the Earth, and salts collected from evaporated oceans.

Sophie von Hellermann

But the most immersive booth must surely be Pilar Corria’s showing of the Margate-based German artist Sophie von Hellermann’s painted diorama, Dreamland. Inspired by Margate’s funfair of the same name, it’s a dreamscape of whirling Ferris wheels and carousel rides that spill across the floor.

El Anatsui (Detail) Jack Shainman Gallery

The hot Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui is showing a large shimmery bright shield of recycled and repurposed metal, Silver and Gold Have I Not at the Jack Shainman Gallery, while Alvaro Barrington’s exhibition at Sadie Coles HQ is full of vibrant colour that celebrates the artist’s early memories of growing up in Granada.

Fontana 1965 with punched holes on an aluminium sheet at the Mazzoleni

Cross the park to Frieze Masters, and there’s a very different atmosphere. There’s more light and space, it’s quiet, and people look at the work. This ranges from a beautiful miniature Italian book of the Hours from c1500 at Les Enluminures to a fabulous 1965 Fontana with punched holes on an aluminium sheet at the Mazzoleni booth. Over at Annely Juda, there’s a stylish solo presentation of the 1950s pleated fabric sculptures by the Japanese artist Katsuhiro Yamaguchi.

Basically, Frieze is now whatever you want to make it. For many, it’s an annual corporate knees-up that attracts those with money to burn (who are not necessarily the same punters as the art lovers). Once an exciting event, it’s not much more than a supermarket for the super-rich. If you’re really interested in art, as opposed to being spotted in your designer togs and sipping the warm prosecco offered by a few galleries to those who count, then go and enjoy the quiet elegance of Frieze Masters. There is some beautiful work there.

Three More That Artlyst Liked:

Deborah Anzinger Nicola Vassell Gallery
Eddie Marinez Timothy Taylor Gallery
Gillian Wearing At Maureen Paley

Philip Guston Tate Modern – worth the wait

Published in Artlyst

Art Criticism

If you see only one show in London this autumn, then go to see the much-postponed Philip Guston at Tate Modern. After the George Floyd murder in 2020, many art institutions in the US got cold feet about his depiction of Ku Klux Klansmen, perhaps fearing that many Americans are unable to recognise irony and would see them as an advertisement for the Klan rather than as a savage critique. But this powerful exhibition shows that his hood paintings, even when tinged with humour, are a ferocious attack on white supremacy and all things fascist. Klansmen ride in goofy cars, holding cigarettes in their fat, pink sausage fingers- both figures of fun and fear. Though painted in the middle of the last century, they could not be more relevant to our dystopian times.

Guston challenges us to ask difficult questions: why are we here? What’s our point and purpose, what constitutes morality, and what makes us human?

It has been said that what is overwhelming and unnameable is often handed down over the generations, what we cannot bear, bequeathed to those who follow us. Philip Guston liked to tell people that his family came from Odessa. In fact, his parents probably came from Poland. But Odessa may have stood in his mind for all those lesser-known parts of Eastern Europe where Jews were being persecuted at the beginning of the last century. Almost penniless, his father, Leib, set sail in steerage for Montreal in 1905, followed by his mother with their four children. The family settled in an impoverished Jewish quarter of the city. Philip Goldstein, their seventh child, was born in 1913. It would not be until 1937 that he’d use the name Guston. In Montreal, his mother, Rachel, kept kosher and sent the children to religious school, but his remote and depressed father objected to this religious education. In 1922, the family moved to Los Angeles. In Canada, Leib had worked as a boilermaker for the Canadian Pacific Railway, but now, in Los Angeles, he was reduced to being a ragpicker. Devitalised and angry, he would, in 1923, hang himself when Philip was only ten. Rachel claimed to have discovered him hanging from a rope on the porch. Though, later, her son would profess to have found him. Whatever the truth, the trauma, along with the family’s escape from the dangers of those Eastern European pogroms, would sear themselves deep into the psyche of the young Philip to re-emerge as some of the most potent paintings of the late 20th century.

Philip Guston, Painting, Smoking, Eating, 1973

In 1935, he travelled to Mexico and met the great Mexican muralists, Diego Rivera and David Siqueiros, going on to paint his own tondo of Guernica. Despite being a keen cartoonist at school, the surrealist-inspired early paintings from the 1930s show a prodigious painterly talent. But such work was not in tune with the post-war times, unsympathetic to figuration. Subsequent experiments with abstraction won him a place in the New York school of the 1950s, alongside Rothko and his old school buddy Jackson Pollock. Pulsars of thick paint throb in the middle of his canvases as if about to explode with energy. But in the ‘60s, he came to feel that “there is something ridiculous and miserly in the myth we inherit from abstract art. That painting is autonomous, pure and for itself.”

So, going against the aesthetic shibboleths that made others heroes of American abstraction, he returned to figuration after more than a decade. His lexicon of cartoonish images would remain with him for the rest of his life. Perhaps he simply felt that what he had to say was too urgent, too raw and too painful for the inherent aesthetic purity of abstraction. Wracked with existential doubt, his imagination filled with the suffering of the death camps, his powerful paintings are entirely unlike any others of the period. Both an angry roar and a desperate whimper. It’s as if Giacometti and Sam Beckett had joined forces with Disney’s Goofy. Appropriating objects from the world around him – what he called crapola – trashcans, ashtrays, cigarettes – all become signifiers of angst and self-doubt in his hands. Over and over again, he asks: what would it be like to be evil? What separates me/us from those hooded Klansmen who ride around in their flash cars smoking big cigars, killing and terrorising? It’s as if humour and the cartoon allowed him to say what was unsayable so that the observer wouldn’t run away. Much affected by the Vietnam War of the 1960s, he endlessly worried: ”What kind of man am I, sitting at home…going into frustrated fury about everything then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue?”.

Elbows, watches, and ashtrays litter his paintings. His props are the objects of everyday life. Though it’s impossible not to see his stubby ladders as a bid for freedom or the piles of discarded hobnail boots as a reference to the mountains of shoes abandoned by those destined for the gas chambers or the tangle of red legs as the twisted limbs of the corpses piled high at Auschwitz.

But it’s the last room at Tate Modern that makes the heart skip a beat. There, lying in bed on his side, his knees drawn up under him, one eye visible, its spider-like lashes splayed out on the red cover, his top lid appears to be sewn shut with a row of black stitches as if the world is just too unbearable to look at directly. In Couple in Bed, he’s curled up next to his wife, the poet Musa McKim, who has just suffered three debilitating strokes. His bony red shoulder pokes pathetically above the bedclothes as he clutches a bouquet of paintbrushes in one hand whilst desperately clinging to her with the other. It’s as if he is saying, in this poignant, tender painting, this is all I have: my wife and painting. Without them, I am nothing. Over and over, as you walk around the exhibition, he challenges us to ask difficult questions: why are we here? What’s our point and purpose, what constitutes morality, and what makes us human? In front of his unflinching images, he dares us to stand and look, not to blink and turn away.

Philip Guston, Tate Modern 5 October 2023 – 25 February 2024, £20, free for members

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Dora Maar at Paul Stolper Gallery

Published in Doris

Art Criticism

Being one of Picasso’s women was a double edged sword. It ensured you a place in the pantheon of art history but always as the role of helpmeet to the great man rather than as an independently talented woman. Such has, mostly, been the fate of Henriette Theodora Markovitch, the only daughter of a Croatian architect. In 1910 her father left for Buenos Aires where he received a number of commissions before the family moved to Paris in 1926. There, under her chosen pseudonym of Dora Maar, Henriette took courses at the Central Union of Decorative Arts and the School of Photography, also enrolling in the École des Beaux Arts and the Académie Julian, which gave the same instruction to women as to men. Not the norm at the time.

It was at the École des Beaux-Arts that she met the surrealist Jaqueline Lamba and became associated with André Breton and the surrealists who hung out at the Café de la Place Blanche.
Later, Maar left Paris alone to visit Barcelona and London, where she photographed the economic knock-on effects of the 1929 Wall Street Crash. On her return to Paris she opened, with the help of her father, a workshop in the 8th arrondissement. It was there that she first met Picasso. She was to become his lover and muse. A role that has overshadowed her own singular achievements. One of these was running a workshop that produced commercial photography for fashion magazines and advertisements, reflecting the influence of surrealism in the use of mirrors and heavy shadow. She also had an affair with the filmmaker Louis Chavance and attended meetings with the October Group that revolved, after his break with the surrealists, around the poet Jacques Prévert. And she held her first solo exhibition at the Galerie Vanderberg.

Aligning herself with the political left, she demonstrated against Fascism and signed the Appeal to Struggle, supported by the likes of Simone Weil and Georges Bataille.  This, then, is the exceptional woman who, now, is mostly known to us as the Picasso’s Weeping Woman. Picasso liked to see her as the embodiment of suffering, emblematic of the war-torn Spanish people. But Dora Maar, who photographed and documented the successive stages of Guernica, insisted that “all portraits of me are lies. They’re Picassos. Not one is Dora Maar”.

But Maar was enthralled by Picasso.  The writer Jean-Paul Crespelle described the, now, legendary scenario that took place at the Café des Deux Magots. There, in front of Picasso, the pale faced young woman “kept driving a small painted penknife between her fingers into the wood of the table. Sometimes she missed and a drop of blood appeared between the roses embroidered on her black gloves”. Intrigued by this seductive, yet masochistic behaviour, Picasso asked her to give him the gloves as a memento. But during the nine years they were together, he never ended his relationship with Marie-Thérèse Walter, the mother of their daughter Maya. He also physically abused Maar, forcing her to fight with Marie-Therese for his affections. When her relationship with him finally ended, he bought her a house in Ménerbes where she lived alone turning, like that other talented woman spurned by a more powerful male artist/lover, Gwen John, to the comfort of the Catholic church. A later friendship with Jacques Lacan led her into years of psychoanalysis after she suffered a breakdown. Much of her photographic work was only found posthumously.


Paul Stolper has chosen to ignore this biography in his current exhibition that is showing a number of Maar’s silver gelatin contacts and posthumous silver gelatin prints taken during her most productive decade, the 1930s.  His argument is that he wants to show her in her own right and it’s hard to argue with the integrity of this decision but it does leave out something of the dramatic backdrop. The exhibition opens with stunning black and white silver gelatin prints of Inés Sassier – Picasso’s beautiful young housekeeper  – seated on an olive trunk arm chair. Her dark curly hair and black dress are sharply delineated, casting shadows against the tree trunk and ground. Another image of her seated in the same chair holding a cat, as it stares out at us with its big saucer eyes, has much of the disturbing drama of a Picasso painting. There’s also a fascinating photograph, La Zone, Paris, taken in about 1935 that depicts the vanished outskirts of the city: a couple of broken-down wooden huts, a picket fence and washing line and lots of mud, the sort of living conditions we now associate with the most deprived parts of eastern Europe. Beside the fence is a pile of discarded rubbish, including the disembodied head of a male manikin, which emphasises her eye for the uncanny and surreal. There are other photographs of her and Picasso’s dogs and melancholic pictures of the Jardin des Tuileries at twilight, circa 1935, as well as the prow of a Viking ship that could be seen either as large tear drop or an onion.


But of all the works in the exhibition the most revelatory is her one of Picasso. He is leaning, odalisque-style on a bed that has a heavily patterned cover and matching pillows. His dog lies curled beside him but he appears terribly ill at ease in his heavy tweed suit. It is still uncomfortably buttoned as if he didn’t mean to stay for long, the tweed rucked into ungainly angles. Beneath the half open jacket is a heavy watch chain and in the breast pocket, a folded handkerchief, so that instead of looking like the Spanish stud of modern art, this might be the picture of a little Spanish farmer in town for the day visiting his mistress. It was probably not meant as such, but this photograph might be Dora Maar’s posthumous revenge.

PABLO PICASSO AND HIS DOG, KAZBEK, AT DORA MAAR’S APARTMENT, 6 RUE DE SAVOIE, PARIS (PABLO PICASSO ET SON CHIEN, KAZBEK, CHEZ DORA MAAR, 6 RUE DE SAVOIE, PARIS) C. 1942, 2022, silver gelatin print on Baryta paper, 40 × 30 cm sheet, 26 × 26 cm image


Ryan Gander: A Principled Humanist

Published in Artlyst

Art Criticism

The one thing I know about Ryan Gander before we meet to look at his new show at the Lisson Gallery is that he doesn’t want to be seen as a disabled artist. He just can’t walk. That, he says from his wheelchair, doesn’t define who he is. What does interest him are ideas.

“Language is his subject, and art is simply the medium he uses to discuss it.”

In his baseball cap and cool black garb, he’s unashamedly intellectual. A conceptual artist who asks big questions about the modern world, about how we cope in societies driven by the need for constant economic growth and consumption. How we value our time when there are so many competing demands set against the continuous noise of the internet and social media. As we chat in the gallery surrounded by his work, I wonder if he’d have been just as happy being a philosopher as an artist. It’s not the making of artwork, per se, that captivates him, he says, but how he uses it to explore the nature of the self and how language plays a part in defining who we are.

Language is his subject, and art is simply the medium he uses to discuss it. He wants his work to be unexpected, to take people out of their comfort zones. He’s critical of the blue-chip nature of the art world and doesn’t want to make art just for the cognoscenti. To be elitist. I point out that he’s showing in one of London’s most prestigious galleries, but he assures me that he’s also about to show work on a boat and in a tattoo parlour.

Ryan Gander, Something that ‘is’ versus something that ‘occurs’, 2023 Acrylic lockers with different contents inside, bags, umbrella, items of clothing © Ryan Gander, courtesy Lisson Gallery

On entering the gallery, it might not, at first, be clear what his concerns actually are. A wall of Donald Judd-style Perspex lockers, all packed with umbrellas and other personal effects like office lockers, are the first thing you see. Each is identically arranged, reminding those old enough of Pete Seeger’s ’60s song: little boxes made of ticky tacky. Little boxes on the hillside. Little boxes all the same. A social satire on the conformity and aspiration of middle-class life. On one wall is a strange clock that merges two displays to create a sense of double vision. While across the room sits an unexceptional metal office desk and fan. Disconcertingly, there’s a distinct odour of damp and urine in that corner of the room. Hidden under the desk is a life-size, animatronic female gorilla – she’s called Brenda, apparently. With her moving head and darting eyes, she’s so engaging that I have to keep reminding myself she’s not real as she appears to be trying to communicate, using her fingers to count or figure something out. What that may be is not at all clear. The question posed here seems to be whether our closest, non-verbal relatives are able to understand language or count? Is an ability to do so the thing that defines us as human? Very touchingly, Ryan Gander tells me he has a four-year-old non-verbal autistic son. It’s quite clear that his child ‘understands’ what is being said to him even though he does not speak, forcing us to question and re-evaluate our understanding of language and communication.

Hung throughout the gallery are a series of steel plates that bear Gander’s poetic and typographic compositions. (I’m a terrible poet, he admits, on learning that I’m a published poet.) But ‘poetry’ is not really the point. You’re my best machine (Ee Ouw Arh 2003) presents the first sounds made by humans around 50,000 years ago, whilst a stainless steel door depicts different genres of language from official signage to graffiti.

It is linguistics rather than poetic imagery that attracts Gander.In one of the side galleries is a series made this year: Know not your place in the world. Here, two life-size bronzes of Gander’s eldest and middle children are dressed up in a collection of clothes and props. Their gaze is fixed on a couple of theatrical-looking masks painted in matt and gloss colours that have been strategically placed on the floor at their feet. This explores Gander’s interest in make-believe and play – those important devices in any artist’s toolbox –suggesting that if we don a mask, it allows us to present different versions of ourselves.

Among the most engaging pieces in the show is the re-worked documentary Only a Matter of Time. By wearing different hand-drawn masks inspired by Picasso – a reference to the 2017 exhibition at Remai Modern, Saskatoon, Faces of Picasso: The Collection Selected by Ryan Gander – Ryan Gander never has to reveal his true self. Like the heteronyms of the famous Portuguese poet, Fernando Pessoa, who wrote poetry in the guise of different poets, these masks allow Gander to be invisible and be whoever he chooses whilst conducting his interviews. He has, during his career, made work as eight other artists, including Aston Ernest and Santo Stern (an acronym). Some of these artists, he tells me, are more talented than he is. Others enjoy making deliberately trashy work. During the film, he explores the concept of the self/selves through that most contemporary of phenomena, the selfie. Narcissistic and always curated, the selfie encourages a discrepancy between who we say we are online and who we really are.

During the course of the film, he visits an Instagram influencer, and David Baddiel, who has a huge following on Twitter (now X), a man who cryogenically freezes the dead and another who is into trans-humanism and bionic body parts. He also visits Freud’s house in Maresfield Gardens to discuss the splitting of the self into the id, ego and super-ego. There is also a pilgrimage to a modern-day female hermit living in complete isolation in a hut in a Welsh wood. There, beyond the reaches of the technological world, she talks of connecting with the earth and blocking out the negative noise of contemporary society.Being enigmatic has long been part of the contemporary art game. It is, perhaps, what propelled Andy Warhol to fame. Ryan Gander is an exception among conceptual artists in that for him; there’s no disguising his moral alarm at the idea of being cryogenically resurrected like some Iceland Lazarus or his distaste at the endless narcissism of social media influencers being played out in this repetitive world of the present tense. In his film, he makes no bones that his empathy lies with the woman in her Welsh woods, cooking on an open fire and living close to nature. Despite the apparently playful, postmodern aesthetic of his work, Ryan Gander’s values, it turns out, are those of an old-fashioned, principled humanist.

Ryan Gander PUNTO!, Lisson Gallery, 27 Bell Street, London NW1 5BY,  Until 28 October 2023
Visit here

Lead image: Ryan Gander Only a matter of time, 2020, Video Still, video dimensions variable © Ryan Gander, Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Vermeer: Stillness and Light Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

Published in Artlyst

Art Criticism

Delft was Vermeer’s city. Stand in front of his small painting, The Little Street of 1658 and you will see cobbles and a gabled brick house with leaded windows, just as you still see all around you in the city today.

Unlike his contemporaries Vermeer was not interested in movement but in stillness – SH

A woman is sitting in a darkened doorway, sewing. Another stands in an alleyway, bent over a broom. In the foreground, a girl appears to be playing a game with a young boy on the pavement. Ordinary people going about their lives in the stillness of a Delft morning. There is a sense of order, of quiet domesticity in the red-bricked architecture and ordered rows of cobbles. Cleanliness appears, here, to be very close to Protestant godliness. The palette is constrained, our eye drawn to the central dark doorway by the white blob of the seated woman’s crisp bonnet and shawl. This is a whole world. Not the world found in Blake’s grain of sand, but in a morning of Dutch domesticity.

The Little Street 1659 Rijksmuseum

Not much is known about Vermeer’s life other than he lived most of it in Delft and that his father was some sort of art dealer. After his death, Vermeer married Catherina Bolnes, a young woman from a well-to-do, cultured Catholic family with whom he had fourteen or fifteen children, not all of whom survived. His output was comparatively small – he died in his early 40s – but he is one of those artists whose paintings, such as The Girl with a Pearl Earring, Women in Blue Reading a Letter or the Lacemaker, are almost more well-known than the artist himself. This wonderful exhibition, the first retrospective of Johannes Vermeer in the history of the Rijksmuseum, is not big. There are 28 paintings, (out of 36 in total) all beautifully hung in the darkly dramatic galleries.

Unlike his contemporaries Vermeer was not interested in movement but in stillness. Intense moments of revelation and quiet. A young woman in a dark room, lit only by the outside light spilling in from the window, fixes a row of pearls around her neck whilst she stares out into the larger world beyond. Inside and outside is a recurring theme. In the history of art, windows have a special significance as the painting itself is often seen as a ‘window’. In Young Woman with a Lute, a girl sits at a table tuning her instrument. Scattered in front of her are sheets of music. Others lie on the tiled floor next to a viola da gamba. Behind her is a large map of Europe showing the Netherlands’ place as a modern country interested in expansion and cartography. The young woman is dressed in a yellow silk jacket trimmed with ermine and is wearing a large pearl earring. (Though the fur may only be rabbit and the pearl, glass). The foreground of the painting is darkened, so in contrast, the girl’s face is highlighted. Her wide-eyed expression indicates that she is distracted by something going on outside that is much more interesting than tuning her lute. Elsewhere women write letters, sometimes watched over by a maidservant who, presumably, has greater access to the outside world and will be the person who will deliver the letter.

The Milkmaid 1659 Rijksmuseum

In another of Vermeer’s most celebrated paintings, The Milkmaid (or Kitchen maid), the slow stream of white milk being poured from her earthenware jug into a bowl, along with the highlights of her white bonnet and the reflected light on her bare, working girl’s forearm –again from a high window– give the painting its quiet spirituality. This is a libation. Her blue skirt and the blue tablecloth suggest the heavenly blue of more obviously religious paintings. You might almost be looking at an altarpiece by Pierro della Francesca.

There is the belief that Vermeer documented the domestic world of his time, but his is an invented pictorial world, an illusion of reality. Middle-class Dutch homes would not have had black and white tiled floors as in Woman Writing a Letter, with her Maid. His genius lies not only in the sensitivity of his compositions but in his ability to master perspective and to create optical effects with the sharpness and blurring of paint to reproduce different plays of light. Objects are created through colour and tonal values rather than graphically. Vermeer was the master of light. Yet however close you get to a painting, it’s hard to see the brush marks to discern how he did it. Lawrence Gowing described him as ‘all eye and nothing else….a walking retina drilled like a machine’.

Girl With A Pearl Earring 1667

Compared to our modern world, Vermeer’s would have been very quiet apart from the bark of dogs, the cry of playing children or a baby, the shouts of those selling goods in the market. You only have to look at Vermeer’s glorious View of Delft, painted between 1660-61, to see how empty and probably quiet the city was. A clutch of people stand by a boat; two women chat on the edge of the canal. The only sounds would have been their voices in the wind, the lapping water and the creaking of the wooden boats, broken hourly by a peel of church bells visible on the other side of the canal. But that comparative quiet would have been broken from time to time by music. Not only does Vermeer give us the girl with a lute, but we see the same girl playing a guitar. Elsewhere a woman stands at a virginal, while two other paintings show the young women seated at theirs. They look straight out at the viewer as if appealing directly to us and the world outside. These have been brought together for the first time in many a long year. One of these works comes from the National Gallery, London, the other from the Leiden Collection, New York.

So what is the huge appeal to us now of Vermeer? Why is he so popular? Perhaps it is because his work seems so modern. His subjects are not saints or heroes but family and close neighbours. His spare, minimal interiors are peopled by those with whom we can identify, ordinary people going about their daily lives, cooking, sewing, writing letters (love letters perhaps?), playing music, chatting, and being bored. Those in whom we can readily see something of ourselves and our own lives. And then, of course, there is the paint—Luminous, shimmering, almost otherworldly, applied by the hand of a master.

Words: Sue Hubbard
Photos: P C Robinson
© Artlyst 2023

Vermeer: Rijksmuseum Amsterdam 10 February – 4 June 2023 Daily 9 to 18h

Women Making Modernism A Revisionist History – Royal Academy

Published in Artlyst

Art Criticism

The title ‘Making Modernism’ implies that the artists included in this Royal Academy exhibition were at the forefront of the avant-garde. That they were an essential component in breaking the boundaries of 19th-century academic art for new freedoms. They would probably be very surprised to find themselves seen thus. It has taken more than a century for their importance to be re-evaluated and appreciated. Why? Because they were women.

By focusing on ‘analytical’ self-portraits…. these women explored new relationships to the making of art.

At the beginning of the 20th century, for a woman to be a serious painter (not just an accomplished ‘lady’ who painted flower arrangements and pretty views) was a near impossibility. Art schools and academies were closed to them. No dealers were interested. Those on show here did not form a coherent artistic movement. Some were friends or acquaintances. Others did not know each other. But what they did have in common was a new way of thinking about how to be both a woman and an artist. Subjects rather than objects in charge of their own artistic and emotional destinies. The exhibition focuses on the work of Paula Modersohn-Becker, Käthe Kollwitz, Gabriele Münter and Marianne Werefkin, along with works by other German women in their milieu and for whom Expressionism – as this new art was to become known – allowed for an exploration of the self. By focusing on ‘analytical’ self-portraits, where their bodies were used as maps into their psychological identities rather than as objects for the sexualised male gaze, on children, landscapes and still lives, these women explored new relationships to the making of art. In so doing, they were beginning – consciously or not – to investigate what it felt like to be alive during a time of entrenched sexual, social and colonial hierarchies, yet a time when everything was also on the brink of change.

In 1888 the conservative Kaiser Wilhelm II acceded to the Imperial throne and reigned until 1888. As a relatively new nation, he was keen that Germany should have a coherent, well-defined view of itself and that German art should remain ‘free of so-called modern directions and influences’. By this, he meant the pull of Paris and its inescapable aura of modernity. For many of these artists, the French capital was a mecca of intellectual, artistic and emotional freedom — a place where they could break free from the constrictions of bourgeois German life. The term Expressionism was one coined by the artist and President of the Berlin Secession, Lovis Corinth, to describe an exhibition of Fauvist art held in Berlin in 1911 and artists such as Gauguin and Cézanne, who had broken with Impressionism. Central to many creatives – from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring to Picasso’s appropriation of the African mask – was a rising interest in ‘primitivism’. The belief that the child, the peasant and those from ‘far-flung’ cultures were more connected to what was ‘authentic’ and ‘real’ to their true visceral and sexual natures. The new ethnological museums in Paris, Dresden and Berlin gave access to objects that were the bounty of recent colonial plunder. Attracted by the simplicity of line and chthonic quality, most western artists were unaware that these stolen artefacts were being shown largely divorced from their spiritual or ritualistic contexts. It was in this cultural flux that Kollwitz, Modersohn-Becker, Münter and Werefkin were working. Though ‘privileged white women,’ nonetheless, they were enormously disadvantaged by their gender. Identification with the ‘otherness’ of the ‘primitive’ gave them a language that allowed for an exploration, outside the strictures of middle-class femininity, of alternative representations of both themselves and others. It’s no accident that this was the era of Freud and the nascent ‘science’ of psychoanalysis and the first rumblings of women’s rights.

Käthe Kollwitz, Mother Pressing Her Baby to Her Face 1925

Käthe Kollwitz is the most overtly political of the artists in the show. Growing up in a vehemently socialist family, they viewed her future as a history painter (an exclusively male domain at the time). After five years of private education, she moved to Berlin, where she participated in the city’s vibrant café culture and intellectual life. In 1890 she made the decision to reject painting and embrace the graphic arts, believing that they could better carry her social and political message. At the age of 17 she met the radical young doctor Karl Kollwitz and witnessed the harsh conditions of the urban proletariat. Her two sons and members of her family acted as models for her lithographs and etchings that expressed her socialist sensibilities and led her to make print cycles such as Peasants’ War (1901-08). The results were tender, sensitive pencil drawings such as Head of a Child in Its Mother’s Hands, 1900, and the emotionally potent, black and white etching, Woman with Dead Child, 1903, in which she used herself as subject cradling her son, Peter. Peter was to die in action in 1914, and Kollwitz, haunted by the support she gave him to enlist, became a pacifist. Her visceral pencil and charcoal drawings inform her prints and sculptures; while stripped bare of ornamentation, her woodcuts combine romanticism with social realism. In a stark black-and-white self-portrait from 1924, she might be posing as the model for Bertold Brecht’s Mother Courage.

Gabriele Münter is perhaps best known – as so many women of that period were – for her relationship with a man. In this case, Kandinsky. Born to German parents in the USA, where she lived during her early years, her family later returned to Germany. The premature death of her father left her independently wealthy, a position unfamiliar to many other of these female artists, such as Modersohn-Becker. After a summer spent working alongside Kandinsky, Marianne Werefkin and Alexei Jawlensky Kollwitz, Münter wrote: ‘All at once it ‘clicked’ and I felt liberated.’ Heavy impasto, applied with short brush strokes, gave way to fluid, swiftly applied paint that created bolder, flatter compositions. Colour was used to reflect her inner world. Her paintings of Kandinsky sitting at a table and Paul Klee in an armchair abandon graphic ‘likeness’ for atmosphere and mood.

Born into an aristocratic family in Moscow, Marianne Werefkin studied realist painting at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture. A move, with her father, after her mother’s death, to St. Petersburg, where the academies were closed to women, led her to take private lessons and make connections with the city’s intelligentsia. During an unconventional relationship with the young painter Alexei Jawlensky, whose career she promoted, her own work took a back seat for a number of years. In her diary, she wrote, ‘I am not a man, I am not a woman, I am myself…. Being an artist does not mean possessing a faculty of combing lines and paints…but having a world inside oneself and individual forms to express it’. A meeting with the dancer Alexander Sacharoff led to a portrait, in 1909, of sweeping, stylised lines that reflected the current Japanese influence. With its simplified tonalities and mask-like face turned away like a geisha’s from a clutched flower, there’s more than an echo, here of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, which premiered at La Scala in 1904.

Paula Modersohn-Becker, Seated Girl, Her Legs Pulled Up c1904

But it’s Paula Modersohn-Becker who declares herself as the most avant-garde and innovatory of the painters in this exhibition. During the research for my novel, Girl in White – based on her life – I went to Worpswede on the north German moors to visit what had been the artists’ community to which she had attached herself. There she met the poet Rilke and Otto Modersohn, an academic painter ten years older than her, who would become her husband. It would be there, too, that she would find her soul, even if it were one that was constantly pulled towards the modernity of Paris. Unlike other artists in this group, Paula had no independent means and struggled to make a way for herself, breaking many of the social codes expected of a young bourgeois German woman at the time. Her approach was daring, determined and brave when, after marrying Otto Modersohn and feeling emotionally and artistically smothered, she left without funds to live and study in Paris. In her diary, she wrote, ‘To strive for the greatest simplicity by means of the most intimate observation. This is greatness.’ This show includes some wonderful paintings such as Seated Nude Girl, Her Legs Pulled Up, 1904 and Portrait of an Italian Girl, 1906. Here, the children are not romanticised but painted in their vulnerable essence, so unlike later clichés of round-eyed, tearful urchins sold to tourists by street artists in Montmartre. Other of her paintings are visceral, tactile, closely cropped compositions. One focuses on a small child in a red dress fiercely clutching a struggling cat. (We do not see the girl’s face, everything is said in the force of her clenched arm), another zooms in on a baby’s head suckling at its mother’s breast, taken from Paula’s daily observations of Worpswede peasants. Influenced by the progressive ideas on education by the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, this was the era of the child. With their matt surfaces, their textured paint and tonal compositions, Modersohn-Becker’s paintings are exercises not only in innovative ways to handle her medium but in empathy, compassion and new ways of seeing. Dead at the age of 32 from an embolism, six weeks after the birth of her daughter, one cannot help but wonder what she might have become had she lived for another 30 years.

Among the works of artists that make up the main focus of this show are those by artists such as Erma Bossi and a beautiful, intense (and, for the time, daring) study of a young girl, Beta Naked, by Otilie Reylaender, who also spent time in Worpswede. It has taken more than a century to acknowledge what these women brought to Modernism. To accept how the masculinised gaze of Gauguin and Picasso was given an alternative focus in these radical self-portraits and nudes that explore intimacy and self-hood from the inside out. Despite the many personal difficulties faced – grief, poverty and rejection – this exhibition re-evaluates (and not before time) the role of these female artists to create a (necessarily) revisionist history of Modernism.

Making Modernism: Paula Modersohn-Becker, Käthe Kollwitz, Gabriele Münter and Marianne Werefkin – Royal Academy of Arts 12 November 2022 – 12 February 2023

Brain Forest Quipu, Cecilia Vicuña, Tate Modern, Turbine Hall

Published in Doris

Art Criticism

Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall is a notoriously difficult place to fill. Sponsored first by Unilever and since 2015 by Hyundai, there have been some stunning commissions. Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds made of individually sculpted and painted seed husks. The Danish artist Olafur Eliasson’s Weather Project that had people lying on their backs to experience a huge sun rising out of a mist as if in a South London Nordic winter. Other commissions have been less successful. Rachel Whiteread’s sugar-cube Arctic installation, for instance, that made me think of Iceland packaging and Tino Sehgal’s pretentious choreographed encounters. This year the commission has gone to the Chilean artist, poet and activist Cecilia Vicuña. The simplicity of her Brain Forest Quipu is both moving and strangely beautiful.

Hanging at each end of the Turbine hall are two mobile cascades of knotted rope, mesh and plant fibres that stir softly in the air currents like strips of discarded bark. Interspersed with these are bits of bleached bone and river-worn glass collected from along the banks of the Thames by women from local Latin American communities. This mud larking extends Vicuña’s practice of using found, non-art materials, which she refers to as precarios or precious objects. Like the thick fronds or vines of some great jungle or rain forest, the trailing floor-to-ceiling ribbons are interspersed with natural sounds: water and birdsong, guitars and human voices, including that of the artist. These ghost-like apparitions create a threnody, a torrent of tears to the damage being done to our natural habitat that leaves coral reefs bleached and the bark of trees white with the ash of deliberate forest fires. The sonic element, directed by the Columbian composer Ricardo Galio, weaves the indigenous music of several regions together with a series of deliberate silences. The soft sounds drift through the cathedral vault of the Turbine Hall as you move through the space, creating moments of stillness, haikus of contemplation amongst the busy chatter. There is something shamanic about the work. It’s rather like listening to the lament of the world, to the voices of the rainforests that we’re busy destroying and to the animals and indigenous people who inhabit them.

Traditionally the people of the Andes didn’t write but wove meaning into their textiles and knotted cords to be read, one imagines, almost like braille. Five thousand years ago they created conceptual poems with their quipu or knots that reflected both the measurements of the body and the spirit of the cosmos. These physical song lines were banished by the Spanish conquerors, along with the ceque – sightlines that connected all the communities in the Andes. Like ghostly spirits risen from the dead Vicuña’s forms create eulogies not only to the destruction of our natural world but to the variety of cultures that inhabit it.

Now 74, since the late 1960s she has created poems, paintings and sculptures that explore alternative systems of knowledge, using the wealth of tradition to be found in her indigenous heritage. At 18 her poetry was published in Mexico’s El Corno Emplumando and at 23 she had two exhibitions at the National Museum of Fine Arts in Santiago. From the Escuela de Bellas Artes, Universidad de Chile, she found her way, with the aid of a British scholarship, to the Slade School of Art. After the right wing military coup against Salvador Allende in 1973 she became a founding member of Arts for Democracy whilst living in exile in London and working in a cold studio in Stephney. Now she divides her time between Chile and New York and was, at the 59th Venice Biennale, awarded the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement.

Of these heart rending works she has written: ‘the Earth is a brain forest and the quipu embraces all its interconnections.’ Using her poetic sensibilities of silence and sound and her visual acuity as an artist she has created sculptures that seem to sing of depletion and bereavement. At once both fragile and monumental each knot in these quipu installations speaks of blood and grief. Her original quipu sculpture was created in 2006, the year that Michelle Bachelet became the first female president of Chile.

Never didactic, her work lacks self-importance and hubris, gently mirroring all that has been lost and all that might further be lost if we fail to pay attention to this fragile web that is our world. Beautiful, ghostly and melancholy her work shows us that we can choose to be a part of the warp and weft of things, spinners and weavers rather than destroyers. In these sculptures Vicuña not only references the work of indigenous people but also of women with their traditional skills of weaving, knitting and sewing. There is also a nod to the netted and pendulous structures of the late Eva Hesse. Vicuña’s fragile materials echo our ephemeral existence and the vulnerability of our ecosystems. In a world dominated by technology and global greed she gives voice to the beleaguered Earth, to its flora, fauna and people.

Ai Weiwei Receives Praemium Imperiale 2022 Award From Lord Patten

Published in Artlyst

Art Criticism

Yesterday I battled through the streets of London thronged with the Queen’s mourners to make my way to Asia House, where Lord Patten of Barnes was announcing the recipients of the Praemium Imperiale Awards. Asia House stepped into the breach when it became apparent it was not possible to hold it, as planned, at the ICA due to the vast crowds gathering in the Mall. The prize worth £500,000 has been awarded annually since 1989 to honour those working in the categories of Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, Music and Theatre/Film, fields of achievement not recognised by the Nobel Prize.

The list is selected by six International Advisors. This year they included Hilary Rodham Clinton, Lamberto Dini (former Prime Minister of Italy), Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, one-time President of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, Christopher Patten, the last British governor to Hong Kong, and Jean-Pierre Raffin, one-time Prime Minister of France, and founder of the centre-right party UM. Past Laureates have included painters such as Cy Twombly and Anslem Kiefer, sculptors like Anthony Caro, Rebecca Horn and Christo & Jeanne-Claude. While the architects have included Renzo Piano, Richard Rogers, and Zaha Hadid, music has thrown up such names as Pierre Boulez and Leonard Bernstein. Among those nominated for theatre and film have been Athol Fugard, Martin Scorsese and Judi Dench. There is also a grant for young and up-and-coming artists. This year it has been awarded to the Kronberg Academy Foundation – a cultural organisation offering advanced training to exceptionally gifted young musicians.

Those nominated for this year’s individual awards include the Italian painter Giulio Paolini who has lived most of his life in Turin. In his work composed of a range of media, including painting, photography, and sculpture, he creates poetic, introspective spaces, often turning his hand to playful and through-provoking theatre and opera sets.

The Japanese partnership of Kazuyo Sejima & Ryue Nishizawa (SANAA) is this year’s nominee for architecture. Fluid lyrical buildings full of light and movement, such as the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa (2004), are their hallmark.

Renowned for combining expressive originality with a clarity and precision, the Polish-born Krystian Zimerman has been nominated for music, in recognition of the new heights to which he has taken piano performances. Combining innate talent with bravura technical skills he unlocks new meaning in the works of the great composers.

Wim Wenders has long been considered one of the most important post-war cinematographers. A director, producer, photographer and writer, his films such as Paris Texas and Wings of Desire defined the mood of the age. While his documentaries, including his Oscar-nominated Buena Vista Social Club, have taken him to a wider audience.

Most of the nominees were not able to attend the ceremony, but the activist, artist and filmmaker Ai Weiwei, winner of the award for sculpture, was in conversation with Lord Pattern discussing migration and freedom of expression. The son of a renowned dissident poet Ai Qing, denounced by the Communist regime, the Chinese artist’s early years were marked by hardship. Now one of the world’s most prominent advocates of human rights, he was detained in 2011 and held in secret detention for 81 days after gathering the names of more than 5,000 children who had died after the collapse of corrupt and faulty building work, which he then integrated into a powerful series of artworks.

The Japan Art Association, under the honorary patronage of His Imperial Highness Prince Hitachi, younger brother of the Emperor Emeritus of Japan, is Japan’s oldest cultural foundation. Previously known as Ryuchikai, it was founded in 1879, just as Japan, which had largely been closed to the outside world, was beginning to open its doors to western cultural influence. The Praemium Imperiale Awards remain unique in their recognition of five of the major arts, while its list of past Laureates reads like a Who’s Who in the arts of the 20th and early 21st centuries.

Words and photos Sue Hubbard ©Artlyst 2022

Carolee Schneemann – Breaking Artistic Boundaries At The Barbican

Published in Artlyst

Art Criticism

The so-called swinging 60s didn’t really get going until the Summer of Love in 1967, when thousands of young people in an eclectic mix of hippie gear converged on San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury to enjoy hallucinogenic drugs, sex and music against a background of anti-Vietnam War rhetoric. Until then, America and Britain, both recovering from the effects of war, were largely conservative, hidebound and patriarchal societies. This makes the work of the American artist Carolee Schneemann (1939-2019), now on show at the Barbican in the first major survey and the first show since her death, all the more remarkable. For before Feminism was even a thing, she was breaking artistic and social boundaries.

Before Feminism was even a thing, she was breaking artistic and social boundaries.

Born to a doctor and his wife in rural Pennsylvania in the 1930s, she had a conventional upbringing. Her parents wanted her to become a typist. But being able to draw ‘before I could speak,’ in 1952 she gained a full scholarship to Bard College in Upstate New York, only to be expelled two years later for ‘moral turpitude’. The college had no life models, so she made bold paintings of her own naked body. In 1954 she attended Columbia University and the New School for Social Research at a time when New York was a bubbling cauldron of new ideas. Work from this period shows the influence of both French post-Impressionism and American Abstract Expressionism (that mainly male movement of high modernism). Hovering between figuration and abstraction paintings such as Aria Duetto (Cantata No.78): Yellow Ladies c 1960-1 disrupt the surface of the canvas with rich gestural brush marks, displaying a visual panache that has all the confidence of de Kooning. Despite her later performative work, Schneemann always referred to herself as a painter.

As a child, she came across the term ‘gestalt’ in an art class. It was to become a ’60s’ buzzword, loosely referring to a unified whole that was more than the sum of its parts. Along with ‘happening’ – first introduced by the artist Allan Kaprow in 1959 to describe the theatricality of visual experiences that invited the viewer to be a participant as much as a viewer – it became a hallmark of the time. In 1962 to mark her emergence into New York City society, Schneemann hosted a ‘debutante party’ in her 21 Street loft. Later, she recalled ‘we celebrated anything/everything’ with ‘100 sweating rocking streaming rapturous stamping flying artists’ flitting between ‘rambling lofts’. Claes Oldenburg, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol were all friends, and their influence can be seen in the introduction of kinetic elements, the incorporation of found objects and the performative elements in her work.

Cartesian philosophy had long taken (the very male) view that there was a split between mind and body. Long before the phrase was taken up as a feminist mantra, the personal became, for Schneemann, the political. Using her own body, she challenged the binary view of reason versus instinct, the Apollonian versus the Dionysian. Just to look at the titles of her books displayed at the Barbican: Jung, Virginia Woolf, Adrienne Rich, Wilhelm Reich and The Gods and Goddesses of Old Europe, is to be presented with a reading list of a sexual warrior from the ’60s. For Schneemann, engagement with the body linked to global politics, to female exploitation and the environment, and challenged how the lives and bodies of women were perceived. Her understanding that painting was a dynamic and physical act lead her to question whether she could be both image and image maker? As early as 1962 (a year before sexual intercourse was invented according to the poet Philip Larkin), she staged a performance in her studio among works in progress. Painting on her body, she became an element in her paintings. It was to be a turning point. Although conforming to the American stereotype of being young, thin, white and beautiful, she challenged the conventionally ascribed role of wife and muse, realigning herself as a point of action and knowledge—an active maker rather than a passive subject. A 1963 gelatin silver print from Eye Body shows her lying naked on the studio floor as two snakes slither over her. She might be a Minoan goddess.

Carolee Schneemann, Still from Interior Scroll Peformance, 1975-77

Being a founder member of the Judson Dance Theatre – a group of choreographers, dancers, visual artists and musicians – allowed her to meld different art forms. Improvised and collaborative works were performed to experimental soundtracks in immersive, multi-media events. 1964 saw the debut Meat Joy in Paris. Untrained dancers, clad in feather and fur-trimmed underwear, tangled together in heaps of twisted limbs. As they rolled semi-naked around the stage, torn paper, raw fish, chickens, and hot dogs rained down, and buckets of paint spilt beneath them in a Bacchanalian orgy of movement and material. Yves Klein also used the female body, dragged across a flat canvas, to produce an image. But, here, for the first time, was challenging visual and physical theatre being created by a woman. Described by Schneemann as an ‘erotic rite,’ Meat Joy seems to hark back to an age of innocence before AIDS, when young people were throwing off the repressive shackles of an earlier generation in favour of free sexual expression.

Growing to artistic maturity during the era of Abstract Expressionism that promoted the myth of the male genius, Schneeman was one of the first to claim the female body as central to the painter’s process. No longer passive but carnal and erotic, it was shown as orgasmic, angry and sometimes broken. Long before such debates were common currency, her work challenged what it means to inhabit a gendered body and claim sexual freedom of expression, reminding us of what a pivotal era the 1960s were. Many other artists are echoed in her work – Eva Hesse, de Kooning, Warhol, and Yves Klein. But well ahead of the game, Schneemann’s groundbreaking practices paved the way for later female artists such as Mary Kelly, Tracy Emin and Sarah Lucas, who would focus on the female body and what living within that body means to be alive.

Carolee Schneemann: Body Politics, Barbican Art Gallery 8 September 2022 – 8 January 2023

Milton Avery, American Colourist

Published in Doris

Art Criticism

After years of painting romantic landscapes, the American painter Milton Avery produced, in 1945, Swimmers and Sunbathers. Divided into four horizontal areas, this small painting is a masterpiece of poetic nuance. In the distance, subtle olive green marks suggest a wood. In front of this is a strip, made up of pinky-grey shapes, that indicates the rocky edge of a lake. An intense black-blue stripe dominates the centre of the work, while the foreground consists of an area of Germolene pink. Here, the outlines of two female swimmers sit on the grey and beige pools of their towels, their backs to the viewer, looking out across the navy lake. The whole painting is jolted into life by a couple of vibrant red strokes set against the dark blue water. These appear to be abstract marks but a closer look suggests they are the limbs of a swimmer. All the zones are flattened, except for a few scratched marks in the trees. It is colour that gives form and emotion to the whole.

Or take a painting made the following year of two figures lying on a beach. Two elongated female forms (think Matisse cut-outs) recline on the mud-coloured sand. Each is propped up on her elbow facing a different direction. The further figure looks away from the viewer, the one in front towards us. Their jutted hips are like hills in the landscape and the palette limited to a few shades of earth colours. The far woman is blonde and painted in cool creamy tones. The near figure is dark and executed in hotter terracotta colours. So much is suggested – the languid ambience of the beach, the women’s stylish swimwear – by the bravura line of the drawing and blocks of flat colour. Imbued with gentle humour, the painting is a witty social observation.

Milton Avery, Two Figures on Beach. Milton Avery, oil on canvas, 30 by 40 inches, (76.2 by 101.6 cm)

Milton Avery is not much known in this country. His entry into the art world did not follow a conventional trajectory. Born in 1885 in Altmar, New York, his family settled in Hartford Connecticut, where he would leave school at sixteen for a blue-collar job in a factory. In order to improve his earning potential he enrolled in an evening class to learn commercial lettering but soon switched to drawing. After his father’s early death he became the financial mainstay of his family, only able to attend art school in the evenings. As a result, he was late to the table of American art, not painting full time until he was 40. Whenever he could, he and his wife, Sally, – ten years younger and his greatest fan who supported him through her work as an illustrator for the New York Times – would take vacations in various rural locations. He liked to work outside, using what he’d done as notes for paintings to be worked up later in the studio.

The first group at the RA, made between 1910 and 1945, consists of lyrical landscapes. There are deep wooded valleys, clear rivers overhung with leafy trees, tiny, dotted cows and sheep – depicted with no more than a flick of the brush – set in the Connecticut landscape that he loved. Looking at these early paintings one would not automatically predict the flattening, thinning and simplification of colour to come. They are romantic in feel, their dominant influence the work of American Impressionists such as John Henry Twachtman and Ernest Lawson. From the 1930s there is a shift from naturalism to something more daring: flat planes of arbitrary, pared-down colour and greater distortions of reality. It’s not surprising, therefore, that Avery is seen by many as the bridge between American Impressionism and Abstract Expressionism. A movement over which he had a huge influence. Yet, although he counted Mark Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb and Barnett Newman among his close friends, he was never affiliated to any particular artistic group but followed his own aesthetic inclination to find innovative ways to simplify nature through the balance of colour and form.

What is evident is that before he found his mature style he looked at a great deal of art. By 1926 he was living in New York and working full time as an artist. There are echoes in his theatre paintings of Degas, and of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec in his 1933 Chariot Race, circus painting. It was while living in the city that he began to paint crowd scenes at the beach such as Seaside and Coney Island. (1931). A man of few words, he was an observer rather than a participant, sitting quietly on the edge of things sketching scenes and people that would later be worked into paintings in his studio.

Milton Avery, March in Babushka, 1944. Oil on canvas, 34 x 26 inches. Private collection. © 2021 Milton Avery Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

But it is his portraits that are his truly innovative work. Paintings such as Husband and Wife (1945) and his daughter, March in Babushka, (1944). Here all sentimentality is stripped away. Features are minimal, the paint thin. Form and colour express everything. It was this breakthrough that was to establish him as a leading American colourist. One who was significantly to influence the next generation of painters to understand how colour could be used to create a sense of the sublime. In his late paintings, many of them executed during summers in Cape Cod in the company of Rothko and Gottleib, the work becomes larger and more abstract. Black Sea, (1959), painted on the diagonal, consists of just three colours. A triangle of black sea in the top left hand corner, frilled by a ribbon of flat white surf, then a completely flat area of sand. In its pared simplicity it combines something of both Rothko and Barnett Newman’s sensibility, leading the art critic of the day, Clement Greenberg to describe these paintings as ‘a late flowering.’ Yet, despite this move from representation to greater abstraction, these late works predominantly fulfil Milton Avery’s lifelong, personal quest to capture what he described as ‘the essence of nature.’

Milton Avery, Husband and Wife, 1945. Oil on canvas, 85.7 x 111.8 cm. Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut. Gift of Mr and Mrs Roy R. Neuberger, Photo: Allen Phillips/Wadsworth Atheneum, © 2022 Milton Avery Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London 2022
Milton Avery, Black Sea, 1959. Oil on canvas, 127 x 172.1 cm. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. © 2022 Milton Avery Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London 2022

Walter Sickert at Tate Britain

Published in Doris

Art Criticism

Who was Walter Sickert? Go to Tate Britain and you will find numerous self-portraits of this one-time actor turned painter in their current retrospective. In Juvenile Lead, painted in 1907,  he wears a bowler hat, wing collar and owl glasses. Elsewhere he poses as different biblical figures, including Abraham. In the Front at Hove, he is an elderly paramour seated on a bench chatting to a seemingly disinterested young woman in a little cloche hat. The surtitle Turpe Senex Miles Turpe Senilis Amour translates from the Latin as ‘An old soldier is a wretched thing, so also is senile love.’ This may have an autobiographical resonance but, on the whole, none of these images really tell us about the man. They simply offer multiple masks and personae that bring to mind the great Portuguese poet, Fernando Pessoa’s numerous ‘heteronyms’ adopted to explore  his response to the world, whilst offering emotional distance. As his first biographer rather despairingly asked when writing on Sickert: ‘Is there…no fixed point, no common denominator, that we may take hold of and say, “this is the real man”?

Turpe Senex Miles Turpe Senilis Amour, 1930, Oil on canvas, 63.5 × 76.2 cm

Sickert continues to remain unknowable, despite his self-portraits and the investigations of the American crime writer, Patricia Cornwell, who was convinced, on the ‘evidence’ of his Camden Town paintings of men and nudes in impoverished north London rooms, that Sickert was Jack-the-Ripper. To this effect she spent £2m buying up 31 of his paintings, a number of letters and his writing desk, even destroying one of his paintings in a desperate hunt for ‘clues.’ But the real Sickert has continued to remain as elusive as ever. Regarded by many as the finest British painter between Turner and Bacon, Sickert certainly had a fascination with the notorious murders. But Cornwell seems (remarkably for a writer) to have lacked the imagination to consider that what Sickert was most likely interested in was how paintings could tell stories and suggest multiple narratives. He was a man who refused to be pigeonholed, regularly changing his sartorial appearance as well as his accommodation. In 1893 he gave up a luxurious live-in studio in Glebe Place, Chelsea, to take a small room at 12 Cheyne Walk, one of six artisans’ dwellings in Milton Chambers. This deliberate life-style choice would continue for the rest of his life as he sought out similar modest studios.

As a young man, Sickert’s original aim was to be an actor (a profession of dissembling and disguise.) Never progressing beyond small parts, he took himself off to the Slade. He didn’t stay there long, becoming studio assistant to James Whistler, an artist who was to have a considerable impact on his style. Though the influence of the theatre, with its layers of artifice and fantasy,  would continue to loom large in his work. It was probably due to his meeting with Degas – a great ballet lover –  that he developed an interest in the music hall and popular entertainment. Tiring, also, of what he regarded as the limitations of Whistler’s alla primer (wet-on-wet) approach – where the pigments are laid down in one sitting – his meeting with Degas lead him into new painterly experimentations. The Laundry Shop, one of a number of small, dark intense paintings executed in France, uses of a grid-like composition that delineates individual components, unlike Whistler’s flatter style. Deciding, in 1898, that he couldn’t stand another winter in London – it was ‘too dark’ –  Sickert decamped to Dieppe. There he became au fait with the latest French movements of the Impressionists and the Fauves, along with artists such as Camille Pissarro.  Historic continental destinations were ideal settings for his internationalism, and his theatrical and symbolist leanings. In Venice, he painted the looming façade of St. Marks at sunset as if it were a stage set.

The Laundry Shop, Dieppe, France, 1885, oil on canvas, 50.2 x 39.4 cm

But it was the music hall that provided Sickert with his most distinctive vocabulary with which to observe modern urban life. At the turn of the twentieth century there were more than 300 hundred such venues in London. Sickert visited Collin’s Music Hall in Islington, The Bedford in Camden, the Oxford in Oxford Street, and the Middlesex in Dury Lane on a regular basis to watch popular female performers such as Marie Lloyd and Minnie Cunningham strutting their stuff and singing songs full of innuendo and double entendres. No doubt the music hall appealed because it provided a space where entrenched Victorian concepts of class were, to some extent, eroded. Though with their predominantly male and working class punters, the ‘respectable’ middle-classes largely considered them to be places of immorality, vice and prostitution. But for Sickert, all the world was a stage. Along with the female turns, he painted the musicians in the orchestra pit and the bowler hatted beaux in their boxes. In Noctes Ambroisianae, a bunch of working class, cloth-capped lads can be seen gawping and, no doubt, cat-calling up in the gods. Sickert loved the complex rococo architecture of the music hall and the relationship created between audience and performer. Mirrors placed at different angles allowed him to catch the complex perspectives, making visible what might not have been seen with the naked eye. There is something very modern about these paintings that ask who is doing the looking and who the watching? Ostensibly they privilege the male gaze, but often the viewpoint is more ambiguous, suggesting multiple scenarios and alternative narratives.

But it is, without doubt, his nudes and Camden Town paintings that have kept Sickert in the limelight. He wasn’t interested in painting ‘Summer Exhibition’ style nudes  – ‘vacuous images’ as he called them – but naked, mostly working women. Women with imperfect bodies and pubic hair, often forced by poverty to make their living through sex work. Their sickly, post-coital bodies, lie on brass beds in seedy rooms, exhausted among the crumpled sheets. In The Shoe with the Rose, the outline of the slumped figure is barely discernible except for a foot and a flung arm. Beneath the bed, centre stage, is a single high-heeled shoe with a cross bar. Has this been flung off in a fit of passion or violently removed? It’s hard to know. The lining is a deep rose pink, so it’s impossible not to read it as a gash or a wound, or the fleshy contours of an available female vulva. A number of these interior paintings set up scenarios and conversations. The Camden Town Murder or What Shall We Do for Rent, 1908 is full or Lawrentian tribulation and angst. Is the seated man on the bed next to a naked woman a punter, a desperate husband pimping his wife for a few shillings or a serial killer? Perhaps, Sickert is saying. It doesn’t matter. That for those in this social class with few financial choices, prostitution is its own form of murder.

The Rose Shoe, c.1904, oil on canvas, 38 x 46 cm
The Camden Town Murder or What Shall We Do about the Rent?, c.1908,
oil on canvas, 25.6 × 35.6 cm

In his final years Sickert continued to be attracted to the theatre, painting Peggy Ashcroft and Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies as Queen Isabella in Edward II, along with the high-kicking Tiller Girls. He also drew on the cinema, film and photography, as can be seen in the painting taken from the poster of the gangster film Bullets or Ballots, starring Edward G. Robinson and Joan Blondell, where Sickert’s Edward G. bears an uncanny resemblance to George Galloway.

Sickert lived in a time of great change and social turmoil. As a painter he is a bridge between numerous worlds – between the social constraints of the 19th century and the technological changes and comparative social freedoms of the 20th, between covert sexuality and apparent public morality and the strictures of English painting and French Impressionism, between the simulacrum and reality. His identification with Jack the Ripper has never completely gone away and will continue to fascinate. He lived in two of the houses where he claimed the Ripper had lived and it’s been suggested that some of the Ripper’s letters, especially the one where the phrase ‘catch me if you can’ is written in pencil and washed over with a brush stroke of red ink, is the work of a painter’s hand. But there is no proof and we may never know the truth.  What we can deduce from the paintings he left is that this was a man who liked to tell stories and use paint to create potent, often ambiguous scenarios of early 20th century life. A painter who not only broke new ground but who, it seems to me, had great empathy for the plight of the poor, especially women.

Theaster Gates – Black Chapel Serpentine Pavilion

Published in Artlyst

Art Criticism

The latest Serpentine Pavilion hunkers within the grounds of the Serpentine in Kensington Gardens like a dark grain silo transported from the prairies of the USA. But walk inside, and the eye is naturally drawn up to a circle of light. The open central dome frames the blue sky and scudding white clouds like a section of a Renaissance painting. It also brings to mind the Pantheon in Rome, a temple built by Hadrian, then turned into a Roman Catholic church dedicated to St. Mary and the Martyrs, where the light spilling from the central oculus invites us to contemplate the heavenly and the spiritual.

A sacred space for the 21st century

Built by the Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates, a one-time urban planner turned artist, in collaboration with the award-winning British architect Sir David Adjaye OBE, Black Chapel sits somewhere between sculpture and architecture. A sacred space for the 21st century, it encourages multiple meanings, uses and interpretations. Though the initial catalyst, Gates claims, was deeply personal, for the building is a homage to his late father – a skilled roofer – and draws on memories of the years spent attending church as a young boy. ‘ I wouldn’t,’ he said, ‘make a chapel unless I liked chapels.’

Theaster Gates © Sue Hubbard

Spare and minimal, with a severe beauty, it provides a space where in contrast to the isolation experienced during the recent pandemic, people can come together as they have always done in village squares and churches. Drawing inspiration from numerous architectural sources, from the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas, to the Musgum mud huts of the Cameroon and Kasubi Tombs of Kampala, Uganda, from the industrial kilns of Stoke-on-Trent to the onion domes of Russian and Greek Orthodox churches, its circularity echoes the rituals of voodoo and of Roda de capoeira, a circular formation used in a number of Afro-Brazilian dance forms. Outside, the sonorous tones of a bronze bell salvaged from St. Laurence, a landmark Catholic Cathedral that once stood in Chicago’s South Side, calls audiences to performances and events.

During their recent talk at the Serpentine, Sir David Adjaye suggested that it takes thousands of years to build a city and that later buildings interweave themselves with the palimpsest of that past history. Both he and Gates wanted Black Chapel to create the experience of being emerged in a space without the constraint of the language of structural engineering, for each believes that architecture is more than the sum of its technicalities and ideas, that it can have a profound effect on how we experience the world. We all yearn, Gates suggested, for meaning and ritual, which despite the loss of confidence in organised religion, is contained deep within our DNA.

Taking a cue from the Rothko Chapel that houses fourteen of Mark Rothko’s paintings, Gates created seven new tar paintings for the space in celebration of his father’s roofing skills, using tar and a blow torch to create black seams in the shimmering silvery tabla rasa. Success, he suggested half-jokingly, would be if you could stand beneath them and they didn’t let in the rain.

Black Chapel forms part of The Question of Clay, a multi-institution project that has included exhibitions at the Whitechapel, White Cube and the V&A. Since its inception in 2000, the Serpentine Pavilion Commission has produced some extraordinarily innovative works from the inaugural design by Dame Zaha Hadid to those created by Janya Ishigami and Olafur Eliasson. These dreamlike structures have, over the last 20 years, become as much part of London’s summer season as Wimbledon, allowing innovative structures to be enjoyed and experienced by the many rather than just the few in the art world.

London Art Fair 2022: A New Seriousness

Published in Artlyst

Art Criticism

The pandemic has wreaked havoc on the art world. Fairs have been cancelled, galleries closed and artists confined to their studios. The London Art Fair, which was supposed to have taken place in January, finally opened its doors on the 20th of April. The private view was not as crowded as in previous years (perhaps because it has oddly coincided with the Venice Biennale), but there was a sense of relief that it was finally happening at all. Whether it is actually a slimmed-down version of previous fairs, I’m not sure. But there seems to be a new seriousness. More beauty and less frivolity with the lower floor mainly catering to British Modernism – and contemporary work that sits happily beside it – and the upstairs showcasing younger, newer galleries.

There seems to be a new seriousness. More beauty and less frivolity.

On entering the fair, I was delighted to see that this year’s Museum Partner is the wonderful Women’s Art Collection, Europe’s largest collection of art by women that is normally housed in the Brut modernist Murray Edwards College (previously New Hall) in Cambridge. The collection contains some 550 works by such iconic artists as Barbara Hepworth, Cindy Sherman and Faith Ringgold. On display at the fair is a rather strange Maggie Hambling, Hebe and her Serpent, 1979, a vibrant Eileen Cooper of two flagrant dancing women, Perpetual Spring, 2016 and an interesting early Tracey Emin (interesting because she is not the subject), a coloured lithograph from 1986, entitled Sixty A Day Woman based on a character met in Margate who reputedly smoked 6o cigarettes a day.

At Purdy Hicks, I discovered a couple of floral archival pigment prints by Kathrin Linkersdorff. The transparent Les Fleurs du Mal beauty has a sense of entropy about it. At Rebecca Hossack, best known for showing aboriginal art, there’s an abstract version of the Thames – part map, part abstract painting – by Barbara McFalane, London Cobalt, Teal and Emerald that, despite her Scottish name, shows the influence of aboriginal art in its mark-making. The Zuleika Gallery has a whole stand dedicated to the elegant minimal works on paper and sculptures by Nigel Hall, while Advanced Graphics has a delightful little Craigie Aitchison print, Crucifixion with Dog 2003, created in his bold colours and naïve style. There are Winifred Nicholsons, Sickerts and Prunella Cloughs to be had, and some real delights among the plethora of the mediocre. One gem was an early painting by my late friend Gillian Ayres. An uncharacteristically small work dated 1957, painted in ripolin on a small vertical strip of board in her early tachist style.

Tiffanie Delune, Ed Cross Fine Art

But it’s the upper floor that gives the fair its pizzazz. Now in its 17th year, Art Projects brings together international ventures – curated solo shows and group exhibitions. Domobaal has a fascinating series of unique photographic transfers on lime logs by Alice Wilson depicting woods, paths through forests, anonymous sheds and warehouses, alongside some equally enigmatic oil on wood works by Fiona Finnegan, including When the Levee Breaks, 2020, a black feathery eruption set against what might be a rosy sunset. Over at Ed Cross Fine Art, Tiffanie Delune uses warm colours to create exotic, playful images that depict her roots and family memories, while MADEINBRITALY artists have been fashioning their own ‘Hortus Conclusus,’ ‘an enclosed garden’ that functions as a space in which to ferment new ideas. At IMT Gallery, collaboration is the name of the game. Works by Paola Ciarska, Frankie Robers and Orphan Drift (Ranu Mukerjee and Maggie Roberts) are housed within a scaffolding structure that functions as a physical metaphor for the collaboration required to stage an exhibition.

Topical issues, especially Brexit, followed by the Covid pandemic, along with the global climate emergency, have informed Rodrigo Orrantia’s curatorship of Photo50. The first work encountered is that of a small sailboat with dark sails, which appears to be heading to the shores of some utopian paradise. This forms part of a powerful installation, Journey, by Esther Teichmann and is set alongside Alexander Mourant’s mesmeric A Vertio Like Self, made, originally, as a Super 8 film of a silent voyage by sea out to an island.

The second aspect of the exhibition, following on from the theme of water as a liminal space, focuses on Borders. These can be interpreted as both geographical limits and the space between the flat world of photography and the three-dimensionality of the sculptural object.

In its fourth edition, Platform, curated by Candida Stevens, presents 10 galleries whose artists have created new work that explores the intersection between the visual and music. There’s work, here, that makes reference to the improvisations of jazz, with its destabilised, off-kilter imagery, along with that by figurative artists who represent the process of composition, both in musical and visual forms.

Alongside all these different elements, the fair is presenting a series of talks that range from Artistate: Art, Death & Legacy: Managing Artist Estates in the 21st Century, to what promises to be an interesting panel discussion on The Women’s Art Collection at Murray Edwards College – A ‘Feminist’ Curatorial Model’.

The London Art Fair may not have quite the international fizz of, say, Frieze, but it has, over the years, settled into its own format. One displaying works by well-known names, alongside a healthy display of new and experimental work.

London Art Fair 2022, Business Design Centre, Islington London N1, 21-24 April 2022

The Mechanics of Memory

Published in The London Magazine

Art Criticism

Hughie O’Donoghue: Deep Water and the Architecture of Memory, Marlborough Gallery, London (10 November 2021 – 15 January 2022) and Hughie O’Donoghue: Original Sins, National Gallery of Ireland (12 March – 19 June 2022)

History painting was traditionally regarded as the highest form of Western painting in the hierarchy of genres that included portraits, scenes of everyday life, landscape, animal painting and still life. This hierarchy was based on the differences between art that ‘render[ed] visible the universal essence of things’ (imitare) and that which was mere ‘mechanical copying of particular appearances’ (ritrarre). In his De Pictura (About Painting) 1441, Alberti argued that (multi-figured) history painting was the highest of the genres because it required the most mastery. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries allegorical painting that took on religious, mythical, historical and allegorical subjects was valued above other forms of history painting. By the nineteenth century these categories had begun, with the new movements of Romanticism, Impressionism, Fauvism and Surrealism, to breakdown. For most of the twenntieth century and the current, history painting has barely existed within British art which has favoured the domestic and the familiar, the playful and the pop. Seriousness has long been de trop. Irony and iconoclasm the name of the game.

But towards the end of the twentieth century history painting took on a new lease of life, not in this country, but within German art with artists such as Georg Baselitz and Anslem Kiefer. In his powerful works Kiefer confronted German history and national identity, including the legacy of the Holocaust. His symbolic motifs and elemental landscapes use myth and archetype to provoke complex emotional and psychological effects. In this country the only artist working with similar gravitas is the painter Hughie O’Donoghue for whom history and cultural memory form the backdrop to his body of work. In an interview in 1989 – when I first met him – with Michael Phillipson for his show ‘Fires’ at Fabian Carlsson Gallery, he said: ‘We can’t escape history. Almost as soon as you pick up a paintbrush you place yourself in some kind of dialogue with tradition. It is important to understand the context in which one works…in many ways great paintings or great works of art have crystalised certain universal sensations of what it means to be human.’ After his first encounter with Georg Baselitz’s Model for a Sculpture at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1980, he remarked that: ‘To remain ignorant of the past is to remain always a child.’ Like Kiefer, O’Donoghue intermingles the mythic and the real, mixing events from history with a sense of personal guest.

Although younger than the German painter he, too, has dug deep into the cataclysmic imagery of the two World Wars in order to explore time and memory, travelling through the ravaged war-torn zones of Europe with the retreating forces during the Fall of France in 1940 and the crossing of the Rapido in the 1944 Battle of Monte Cassino, following the wanderings of his soldier father, Daniel O’Donoghue. His trajectory has been different to many other contemporary artists, moving back from abstraction to figuration. His paintings grow in slow accretions, organically, like the alluvial layers left by a repeatedly flooding river. Whilst the paintings in his most recent exhibition ‘Deep Water and the Architecture of Memory’ do not directly refer to the great conflicts of the twentieth century; they do, through their lingering photographic traces and painterly accretions, emphasise the mechanics of memory and the passing of time. Painted in lockdown, that strange, discombobulated hiatus gave him the opportunity to plunge deeper into the recesses of memory, to draw on childhood recollections. One such image is that of the MV Plassy, a vessel wrecked in a storm off the Irish coast near Inisheer in 1960 that has been a recurring motif in his work for the past twenty years. Rising like some portentous Leviathan from the deep on a huge tarpaulin, rather than canvas, in Wake II, it seems to act as tragic witness to its own demise, its rusting hulk glowing phosphorescent with shades of yellow and red, worn away by time and the onslaught of the ocean.

Whilst O’Donoghue claims that it has no allegorical function and that the ‘ship is just a ship’ and not, as in previous work, a reference to the Little Ships of Dunkirk, it’s hard not to read the battered vessel as standing for some sort of grounded Ship of Fools or a reminder of those barely seaworthy craft that set sail across the Atlantic for the New World filled with impoverished Irish migrants. His use of silver Verdigris reflects the light, emphasising the god-like, tomb-like nature of the vessel. Corroded, decayed and skeletal, it conjures both the plague ship that haunts Nosfertau in the film by the German director F. W. Murnau, and the steamship hauled in Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo over a steep hill though the rubber-rich Peruvian rain forest in an act that’s both gloriously idealistic and hubristic.

Hughie O’Donoghue, Wake II, mixed media on prepared tarpaulin 48,1-2 x 90,1-2in., 123 x 230 cm
Hughie O’Donoghue, Cargo I, 2021, mixed media on prepared sackcloth 39,3-4 x 28.5-8in., 101 x 73 cm
Hughie O’Donoghue, Creek (I), 2021, mixed media on prepared sandbags 77 x 74,1-2 x 6in., 193 x 189 x 15 cm
Hughie O’Donoghue, Prow, 2019, mixed media on prepared tarpaulin 96,3-4 x 118,3-4in, 245 x 302cm

As a graduate of Goldsmiths, O’Donoghue’s work has always been ‘knowing’, conscious of the debates around the death of painting, irony and populism. Whilst, in the past, his handling of paint has been influenced by the masters, especially Titian, Velasquez and El Greco, with its dark tonalities, its blacks and greys juxtaposed with dramatic flashes of primary colours, in this new body of work he has moved away from the immediate sensuality of paint and bravura impasto to work with a complex process of superimposed photographic images built up with layers of resin, acrylic and oil paint on surfaces such as sackcloth and sandbags, reminiscent of a map grid or those plaques of jade found covering certain ancient oriental figures.

Deptford Creek pulsates with history. Once the Royal Dockyard created by Henry VIII, it is where Queen Elizabeth I knighted Francis Drake on the Golden Hind after his return from circumnavigating the globe in 1580. It is also situated between Hughie O’Donoghue’s Greenwich studio and a studio a fifteen-minute walk away that he commuted to daily during lockdown. The Creek triptych is the most urban of his recent paintings. Made on sandbags stuffed with newspapers printed during lockdown to form a time capsule, it depicts a scene at low tide, ‘like a cross section of the earth,’ full of stones, shards and flotsam, surrounded by a cityscape of old wharfs, industrial buildings and new tower blocks. It’s grid-like structure, similar to the staked sections of an archaeological dig, emphasise the historic palimpsest of the city, and we’re reminded of the great English literature set on the Thames from Bleak House, to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Archaeology here, of course, is not simply a plumbing of the city depths but a psychoanalytic metaphor for exploring the dark recesses of our shared histories. The sack, too, reaches back into O’Donoghue’s own personal history, His grandfather was a railwayman who shouldered such loads at the Oldham Road goods depot in Manchester for a living, the city where O’Donoghue grew up. The paint here is minimal, a resin glue that holds the sacks together in a technique reminiscent of Japanese kintisugi that uses gold to mend broken ceramics.

Much of O’Donoghue’s life, certainly before the pandemic, has been split between his home in Co. Mayo and Greenwich. Painted on individual sacks the ‘Cargo’ series create vistas of grey ocean that suggest journeys across the Irish sea, which during this period of confinement could only be imagined. There’s also a connection, here, to the sublime, to a sense of immersion and yearning, that oneness that Freud describes as an oceanic feeling.

To call O’Donoghue a modern history painter would not be quite accurate, even though history, memory, archaeology and the past all inform his work. It is not so much the recording of a particular event that interests him, as the metaphorical resonances: how history and a sense of place can tell us who we are and connect us to our collective unconscious. Through his powerful works he grapples not only with the use of new materials but how he can employ them to explore what it means to be human in this complex world.

Francis Bacon: Birth Copulation And Death – Royal Academy

Published in Artlyst

Art Criticism

If there is one image that Bacon made his own above any other, it is the mouth contorted in a scream or grimace. It is not Munch’s shrill scream of terror. Bacon’s mouth is cavernous, the lips curled in a snarl to reveal rows of potentially castrating teeth. Sometimes it is a gaping black hole, at other times a fleshy orifice. It is always sexual and often animalistic and dangerous.

“Birth, Copulation and Death. That’s all the facts when you come down to brass tacks. Birth, copulation and death.” T.S. Eliot Sweeney Agonistes

In this exhibition at the Royal Academy, brilliantly curated by the art historian Michael Peppiatt, the first image the viewer encounters is Bacon’s monochromatic head I painted in 1948 in oil and tempera on board. Thin white perspectival lines suggest an enclosed space. A dock? A prison? A figure dominates, its thick white neck poking from a torn garment. The top of its head is missing. Its face seems to have been torn off and is hanging, flapping almost, like a ripped mask, the mouth open to reveal an array of teeth. But these are not human teeth – there is a huge, bared incisor on display – and yet the shape of the figure is human. The pink lips appear smeared with froth or saliva. It’s a terrifying, ambiguous image. Who or what is this? Man or beast?

Francis Bacon Head I 1948 Photo © Artlyst 2022

Born in 1909 to English parents in Dublin, the second of five children, Francis Bacon not only suffered asthma as a child but was beaten and abused by his sadistic, racehorse trainer father for whom he came to have inappropriate feelings. He also lived through some of the most turbulent events in history. The Irish Easter Rising. The First World War with its millions of dead in the mud of the trenches. The rise of Fascism and subsequent death camps. These were the backdrop that turned this one-time interior designer into a prophet of existential doom. As a young man, Hitler and Mussolini barked their speeches into microphones, their mouths contorted with hatred. While in 1925, the film director Sergei Eisenstein made an iconic film, the Battleship Potemkin, about the Russian Revolution where, in one of the most famous cinematographic scenes of all time, a screaming nanny, the glass of her Penz-Nez shattered into her bleeding eye emits, what Bacon described, as ‘a human cry’ from the black cavern of her mouth. The mouth, fringed with teeth, returns again in numerous other images throughout this exhibition – in the centre of a ghostly hybrid/human owl in Fragment of a Crucifixion, 1950, and the contorted and distorted figure of a ‘Fury,’ 1944 arched in an orgasmic scream gushing red roses from its throat, or in the studies of caged Baboons and Chimpanzees rattling their cages.
francis-bacon-man kneeling-artlyst

Francis Bacon Man Kneeling In The Grass 1952 Francis Bacon Head I 1948 Photo © Artlyst 2022

As a young gay man in London, when homosexuality was illegal, Bacon, conditioned to the sexual masochism instilled by his brutal father, explored the gay haunts of Soho. Rough sex was to his taste. Bodies were disposable. Muscles, flesh and available orifices were all that mattered. After leaving Ireland, he’d spent time in Paris and seen the meat markets and abattoirs, also discovering the visceral, fleshy paintings of Soutine. Like the French philosopher and theoretician Georges Bataille, Bacon came to explore the duality within man’s nature between the ‘irrational’ sacred and the ‘rational’ profane, that dichotomy of terror and awe within the human psyche. For Bataille, the ‘scared’ encapsulated ‘inner experience’ that disrupted order and incited both disgust and veneration. Nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than in Bacon’s 1960 painting Pope and Chimpanzee, where the gesticulating animal morphs into a pontiff with an ape-like face. Here, the normally subsumed animal nature of man hidden beneath the niceties of a red clerical gown is made visible. Bacon had been fascinated by seeing wild animals hunting since visiting, in 1951, his mother and sisters who had moved to South Africa. He haunted the streets of Soho like a predictor, the low-life drinking dens, the gambling salons, the queer pubs. Man Kneeling in Grass, 1952, a nude male, buttocks raised in an inviting sodomistic pose, takes on the quality of prey camouflaged by the zebra patterns of the savannah scrub and recalls William Blake’s mad and defeated Nebuchadnezzar crawling naked on his hands and knees, his wild beard dragging along the ground.

Myth played a central role in Bacon’s iconography. He incorporated echoes of the art and literature of the ancient world into his allusive imagery, such as his Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus, 1981 with its blood-soaked reverberations, and the Second Version of Triptych, 1944. He once admitted that ‘The Furies’ often visited him. These vengeful goddesses seemed to function as harbingers of guilt, malevolence and destruction in his godless world. But Bacon never really explained his use of imagery and, like the great Egyptian art he so admired, held precise meanings close with the enigma of the sphinx.

Francis Bacon Triptych 1987 Francis Bacon Head I 1948 Photo © Artlyst 2022

Movement was another thing that fascinated him. Dogs, men having sex and the stark image of a Paralytic Child Walking on all Fours, 1961 were taken from Human and Animal Locomotion, the photographic studies made by Eadweard Muybridge in the 19th century. In Bacon’s hands, Muybridge’s wrestlers become men copulating, underlining Bacon’s penchant for violent sex. By the 1960s, his preoccupation with the body in motion had led to increasing distortions in the figures that he painted, including his few female studies of Henrietta Moraes. Among the most disturbing is the portrait of his lover George Dyer Crouching – he died of an overdose on the toilet two days before the opening of Bacon’s triumphant and career-making retrospective at the Grand Palais – standing on what looks like a diving board, enclosed in some strange circular pit like an animal waiting to be fed.

Towards the end of his life, Bacon became fascinated – like his hero Picasso had been – with the bullfight. In his late 1987 Triptych, he shows the wounded and bandaged legs of a nude matador, the wounds raw as sexual orifices, the bull’s horns a final brutal phallic symbol. The bull was to be the subject of his final painting. Unusually painted in monochrome, with dust added from the studio floor, the animal seems to be dissolving into the dark, merging with the void behind the white walls as it, finally, loses its power.

Words: Sue Hubbard Top Photo: RA Installation P C Robinson © Artlyst 2022

Francis Bacon: Man and Beast Royal Academy 29 January 2022 – 17 April 2022

Study of a Dog – After Francis Bacon – Sue Hubbard From Ghost Station (Salt) 2004

Beyond the date palm
and ribbon of hot sand,
the electric zip of blue sea
and strip of burning highway
where cars black as ants
flow liquid in the heat,
and petrol fumes catch
in the throat like rags,
the midday sun bleaches
colour from the concrete boulevard,
and a patch of back-street dirt
a brindled dog,
sinews taut, elastic,
turns and turns
in its own shadow,
red-prick tongue hanging
from frilled chops,
chasing its own tail.
Flea ridden, the stink of gutter
clotted in its fetid fur.
It is, behind its black snout,
and milk-filmed eye,
behind its helmet of bone
and knowledge of the human,
returning to what is
vicious, taboo, feral,
to what is dangerous.

Lubaina Himid: So Many Competing Ideas Tate Modern

Published in Artlyst

Art Criticism

She’s the oldest artist to have won the Turner Prize (she is now 67). Born in Zanzibar, Lubaina Himid returned with her Lancastrian, textile-designer mother to Maida Vale when little, after her African father died from malaria. They moved in with her aunt, a music teacher, who made sure that her niece could read by the time she was four, while her mother took her on trips to the V&A. Fast forward to Wimbledon School of Art, where she studied theatre design, only to realise that, in those days, ballet and opera were largely dominated by white men.

The exhibition as whole is rather baggy and lacks focus – SH

By the age of 36, she’d moved to Preston to what is now the University of Central Lancashire and eventually became a professor of contemporary art. Part of a generation of emigres who, for a variety of reasons, came to this country and wove their differently lived experiences into the warp and weft of post-war Britain, enlivening it with new music, food and ways of seeing, it was a shock to discover that the streets and institutions were blighted with racism. Art, for Himid, became political. Along with other young black British artists in the 80s, she used her platform to highlight these concerns. Unlike her contemporaries – the YBAs, primed by the 80s zeitgeist of Goldsmiths to learn how to appeal to the uber-collector of the day, Saatchi – these young black artists – many from the provinces – tackled subjects such as institutional racism and the lack of opportunities offered to talented black youth.

Lubaina Himid Tate Modern

Now Tate Modern is presenting her largest solo show to date, giving her the chance to demonstrate that all the world’s a stage and meld her interests in theatre, opera, architecture and painting in the bunker-like spaces of the Blavatnik building. At the gallery, entrance are a series of banners designed to look like East African Kanga fabric, inscribed with phrases and homilies. Overall, they are entitled How Do You Spell Change? Painted in a frieze around the top of the wall in sugary pink are the words Our Kisses are Petals, Our Tongues Caress the Bloom. This, presumably, is to set the tone for the exhibition within. Credited with being one of the most powerful political voices in British contemporary art, my hopes were set high. Himid has woven a series of questions throughout the exhibition in which she asks us to consider how history and the built environment shape our lives. A form of visual Socratic questioning, the aim is to encourage viewers to engage with alternative discourses and challenge long-held prejudices and mindsets. It’s an interesting idea, but let down by the blunt lack of subtlety of the questions – as if there’s an easy, black and white answer to these complex issues.

As we enter the first space, we encounter Metal Handkerchiefs, a series of nine vibrantly painted metal sheets which appropriate the ubiquitous language of health and safety that so often dictates how we use architectural spaces.

Moving further into the exhibition, Jelly Mould Pavilions for Liverpool is an imagined competition to design public monuments for the city in order to celebrate the contribution of its African diaspora to the city’s history and wealth. Using Victorian jelly moulds as architectural models, she wittily reflects in her imagined cityscape the entangled web between the consumption of sugar, the slave trade and Liverpool’s prosperity. It’s a clever, engaging piece but not shown to its best advantage in the vast gallery. It demands a more intimate space.

Lubaina Himid Tate Modern

And that’s much of the problem. The exhibition is simply too large and overblown -with paintings, installations and sound pieces – and, as a result, feels unfocused. In her sound pieces, Reduce the Time Spent Holding, Himid recites from health and safety manuals to the rhythm of tools and machines, while in Blue Grid Test, patterns from around the world are woven with memories of the colour blue, spoken in three languages. Then there’s the sound of the sea and creaking wood – presumably to remind us of slave ships – juxtaposed with a wave-like sculpture. But so many competing ideas simply dilute the whole. One wonders whether this is a bad curatorial decision or Himid’s choice. Many of the individual works are powerful, but less would have amounted to more.

Among her most striking works is A Fashionable Marriage, first shown in 1986, a cardboard-cut-out installation that revisits Hogarth’s Marriage A-la-Mode: The Toilette – a biting satire on the moral corruption of the elite and wealthy in the 1700s. In her witty reconstruction, one half focuses on the art world – the castrato becomes critic, the flautist, the dealer, while random other figures are artists, including the de rigueur feminist. The other half of the work includes political figures of the day: Thatcher and Regan, along with the National Front. On the floor is a little girl – who, like the boy in the story of the Emperor with no clothes, blurts out the truth that he’s naked. The little girl is saying to the artist: ‘Stop negotiating and being polite. We have to fight. We are part of a big political battle’. This is one of the works where Himid’s political message and the artwork potently meld to significant effect.

I wanted to love this exhibition. After all, who could possibly fault an artist of colour for wanting to point out what she and her generation have been up against it and that they had to battle to have any degree of visibility or a voice? But ethical sympathy isn’t enough. Yes, there are some potent works here, but the exhibition as whole is rather baggy and lacks focus. Everything has been thrown in, including the kitchen sink. Whether this is the Tate’s fault or Himid’s, I’ve no idea. It’s a pity because a tightly focused exhibition of her best work would have been a very potent thing, indeed.

Lubaina Himid Tate Modern Until July 2022

Living on the Margins – Joan Eardley at the Scottish Gallery

Published in The London Magazine

Art Criticism

Joan Eardley Centenary, The Scottish Gallery
30 July – 28 August 2021

Lonely people are drawn to the sea. Not for this artist the surge and glitter of salons

‘Flood Tide’, Joan Eardley

She has often been described as a forgotten Scottish painter. Neither of those things are quite accurate. Joan Eardley, who died in 1963 at the age of forty-two, has always been admired by the cognoscenti for her soulful portraits of Glaswegian children and her fluid, expressionistic landscapes. She was not Scottish but English, only moving to Scotland by chance. But what is undoubtedly true is that for a socially awkward, young gay woman, the male-dominated 1950s artworld, and Glasgow in particular, was a difficult place in which to make a mark.

Born in 1921 in Sussex, on a diary farm run by her father, she was five when her mother took her and her sister to live with her grandmother and aunt in Blackheath. It’s not completely clear what happened but it seems the farm failed and was sold. Three years later in 1929, her father, who had been gassed in the Great War, committed suicide. War was, again, to colour her life when, in late 1939 at the outbreak of the Second World War, she, her mother, grandmother and sister all relocated to Bearsden, a comfortable middle-class suburb just north-west of Glasgow.

In London, Eardley had briefly attended Goldsmiths College of Art and from Bearsden she, now, began to commute into the city to attend classes at the Glasgow School of Art. It was to became her creative hub for a decade, providing her with evening classes and, eventually, a travelling scholarship that enabled her, in 1949, to visit France and Italy to broaden her art historical knowledge. As an adult, she could have moved back south and become part of the Soho art scene – drunk with Francis Bacon and the two ubiquitous Roberts, Colquhoun and MacBryde – but Glasgow suited this cripplingly shy young woman who seemed to feel she didn’t quite belong anywhere. During her time at Glasgow Art School, she began to make frequent visits to the studio of the Polish artist Josef Herman, who happened to be living in the city. His political images of Welsh miners and loose brushwork were to become influential to her future work, perhaps giving her permission to broaden the scope of both her style and subject matter.

Girl with a Poke of Chips, Joan Eardley, oil on canvas with newspaper, 68 x 50 cm
© Estate of Joan Eardley. Provided courtesy of The Scottish Gallery
The Striped Cardigan, Joan Eardley, 1962, pastel on glass paper, 26 x 24 cm
© Estate of Joan Eardley. Provided courtesy of The Scottish Gallery
Grey Beach and Sky, Joan Eardley, 1962, oil on board, 56 x 107.5 cm
© Estate of Joan Eardley. Provided courtesy of The Scottish Gallery
Catterline Landscape, Joan Eardley, c.1962, oil on board, 94 x 104 cm
© Estate of Joan Eardley. Provided courtesy of The Scottish Gallery

By temperament she was drawn to the marginal and the liminal and felt at home among the condemned tenements of the Gorbals. An outsider, she was attracted to those on the wrong side of the tracks, to a fast disappearing Glasgow, to the gypsy camp at Bearsden, the cranes and bomb damage of Clydebank, to the city’s tight family clans and street life, seeing the place as a rich, vibrant entity. Setting up her studio in Townhead – by any stretch of the imagination a soot-blasted slum – close to George Square and the City Chambers, she befriended the Samson children. With their raw cheeks and snot encrusted noses, they epitomised a warmth and authenticity she seemed to crave. She was, by all accounts, ‘a lovely, lovely person’, though quite ‘mannish looking’ who used to give the ‘wee sketches’ she tacked to her studio wall to the children who posed for her, often to be used by their mothers, later, as kindling.

Like that other perennial artist outsider, Van Gogh, Eardley had natural empathy for the dispossessed. She felt at home among those who were too busy surviving to make judgements about her, simply accepting her for who she was. She loved the vibrancy of the Samsons. ‘They are full of what’s gone on today,’ she said in a taped interview:

– who has broken into what shop and who has flung a pie in whose face – it goes on and on. They just let out their life and energy… I do try to think about them in painterly terms…all the bits of red and bits of colour and they wear each other’s clothes – never the same things twice running – they are Glasgow… as long as Glasgow has this I’ll always want to paint.

These relationships, without the need for social niceties, suited her down to the ground.

An aura of poverty clung to the children she painted, The Girl with a Poke of Chips (1960-63), with her dirty snagged hair and rosy cheeks, the eczema-raw lipped little girl with the pudding basin hair cut in The Stripped Cardigan (1962). Eardley made thousands of quick sketches of these rag-tag-and-bob-tail children who’d only oblige her by staying still for so long. Many of the drawings were made in pastel on sandpaper to catch as many pigments as possible. Her hasty dark drawings share something of the raw immediacy and compassion of Van Gogh’s Potato Eaters that depicts the harsh life of those in the coal mining district of the Borinage, Belgium. Other paintings, such as the dominantly blue Girl and Chalked Wall, (c. 1959-62), where a small girl is subsumed into the pattern of graffiti on the wall behind her, elide a sense of place with the people of that poverty-hardened community, in much the same way as Paula Modersohn-Becker did with the peasant children she met in the village of Worpswede on the north German moors. At her best, these are moving, insightful portraits but, at times, perhaps due to the sheer number she did, they slip into a mawkish sentimentality that smacks of the Montmartre pavement artist’s wide-eyed urchins.

Eardley’s first paintings of Catterline date from the 1950s. Catterline was a fishing village with a population of around eighty: ‘just vast waste, and vast seas, vast areas of cliff.’ Eardley visited the village for ten years, staying with her friend Annette Stephen (née Soper) who offered her the free use of her property, before renting a cottage and eventually buying her own in 1959. It was in Catterline that she found her real subject in the wide fields and shoreline, the panoramic views from the cliffs. Although mostly domestic in scale, these paintings have the immersive drama of larger works. The gnarled trees blasted by spray and wind, the land honed by centuries of agriculture and the pounding rhythms of the sea give the viewer the sense of being immersed in the landscape, as one might be in the rich language of a Gerard Manley Hopkin’s poem. There’s a visceral immediacy here that verges on the spiritual, an attempt to represent what cannot be said in words. As René Girard wrote in Violence and the Sacred, (1984) ‘Violence is the heart and soul of the sacred’.

Like Turner, who allegedly lashed himself to the mast of steamship for four hours during a nocturnal storm in order to recall it with greater accuracy, Eardley strode out into snowstorms and gale force winds in her RAF flying suit and boots, her Sybil-Thorndike-Joan-of-Arc haircut soaked against her broad face, to paint in all weathers, her easel held in place with rocks and rope to stop it blowing away. The result was a set of extraordinary elemental paintings where the expressive handling of paint lead not only to an intense drama but animated the pent up maelstrom within her, the depression, the outsider status at her ‘inappropriate’ female loves.

Yet Eardley became a valued part of the village community, finding a place for herself on this edge of the land and sea. She worked tirelessly, walking around the untamed windblown countryside with a sketchbook. With its dirty light and dark cloud-laden sky that threaten the salt blown tree in the left of the canvas, Catterline Landscape (1962), is a work of great sensibility. While Grey Beach and Sky (1962) has all the painterly and emotional spectacle of Constable’s Rainstorm over the Sea (1824-28), with its thunderous black clouds and torrential downpour that captures, as does Eardley’s own painting, the atmosphere in a few hasty sweeps of the brush. The sea’s turbulent movement is achieved by the pulled white paint sweeping in a wave of spume up the dark beach to the small white cottage. It was, as she describes it: ‘A big sea – with lovely light – greyness and blowing swirling mists – and latterly a strong wind blowing from the south, blowing up great froths of whiteness of the sea, like soap suds into the field behind out wee house.’ Yet a male critic criticised her for not being able to free herself from representation and embrace pure abstraction, comparing her unfavourably to the Cornish Peter Lanyon. But this was to misunderstand her work and the equivalent of complaining that Emile Nolde wasn’t Picasso.

If Joan Eardley hadn’t been a shy gay woman, who hid herself away in the depths of Scotland, but had been part of the bohemian Soho set – and more conveniently for the times – a man, she would have, undoubtedly, been better known. But because she was a woman, her fate, like that of her contemporary, the artist Sheila Fell, who painted the Cumberland landscape, was not to be taken seriously. Despite her outsider status, she was a natural painter with the equivalent of perfect pitch. Paint was her language, one in which she could give voice to her quelled passions and love of nature for, as Van Gogh once wrote: ‘Art is to console those who are broken by life.’

Published in The London Magazine

Turner Prize 2021: A Collective Experience

Published in Artlyst

Art Criticism

For reasons lost in the mists of time, the city of Coventry is where you’re purportedly sent when socially ostracised, as well as where the first British car was built by Daimler in 1897.

It’s also the city forever linked with the original Peeping Tom who, in the eleventh century as Lady Godiva reportedly rode on horseback naked through the streets in protest against her husband’s repressive tax demands, peeked while the other townsfolk turned away. In World War II, the city – it manufactured cars, bicycles, aeroplane engines and munitions – was decimated by German bombing. The 14th of November 1940 saw the single most concentrated attack on a British city in the Second World War. Hitler’s retaliation, it was said, for an RAF attack on Munich. The city lost its central library, market hall, hundreds of shops and the 16th century Palace Yard, where James II once held court. The fire at the city’s huge Daimler works was one of the biggest of the war in Britain. But, most devastatingly, the city lost its medieval cathedral.

The times reflect a national moment of togetherness, empathy and collectivism

In 1940 Sir Basel Spence’s great modernist replacement rose like a phoenix beside the ruins. It’s a glory of post-war art and architecture with its huge tapestry by Graham Sutherland, its dazzling Baptistry window designed by John Piper and constructed by Patrick Reyntens, a lectern in the form of an eagle by Elizabeth Frink and the huge candlesticks by the potter Hans Coper. This year Coventry has been voted the UK City of Culture and is host to the Turner Prize, now one of the world’s most celebrated contemporary art prizes established in 1984 to promote public debate around new developments in art. It has a lot to live up to in this city.

In a year dominated by the pandemic, it was decided not to award the prize to an individual but to a collective. Those chosen include the Belfast-based Array Collective that makes work around ideas of national culture, myth and folklore. B.O.S.S. who organise events focused on a collectively built sound system that brings together “queer, trans and non-binary black people and people of colour”, Cooking Sections, a London-based duo whose films and installations explore the ethical issues surrounding ecology and the mass production of food. Gentle/Radical, centred on Cardiff’s Riverside neighbourhood, that shares experiences of ‘culture’ in its broadest sense and Project Art Works, a Hastings-based enterprise that helps ‘neurodivergent’ artists develop their creative practices. All, we are told, “share a belief in art’s capacity to replenish our reservoirs of hope”.

This seems a tall order and one that the great thinker, George Steiner, disavowed when he suggested that intelligent Germans had been quite happy listening to Schubert in the evening whilst gassing Jews by day and that culture and art actually change nothing. But we live in different times. The Cultural Director of the Herbert Art Gallery – this year’s host to the prize – suggested that the times reflect “a national moment of togetherness, empathy and collectivism.” But is that really the case? Of course, the work takes us back to that hoary old chestnut, the question: ‘but is it art? Is political and social activism the same thing? It can certainly be creative and artistic but isn’t it, well, different? There’s a danger that art made by a collective rather than an individual undercuts the essential existential quest that’s a fundamental characteristic of most lasting art.

Gentle/Radical Photo: Sue Hubbard

Gentle/Radical was established in 2017. A collaboration of activists, faith ministers and youth workers etc.., they have filmed monologues and conversations in which they discuss issues such as how to raise children beyond the nuclear family and they come together to sing Welsh Gorsedd bardic prayers, written in the 18th and lost to the colonising English culture. There’s no doubt it’s all very worthy, very heartfelt, but it seems rather the stuff of the documentary film, closer to Old Mass Observation projects than to art.

Array Collective Photo: Sue Hubbard

Array Collective is slicker. An imagined síbín (a pub without permission) has been installed in the Herbet. It’s wonderfully atmospheric with fags stubbed out in the ashtrays and packets of crisps on the round tables, along with all the nick-nacks associated with an Irish pub. Whilst sitting there, we’re invited to witness the Druthaib’s Ball – “a celebration of life and death, a wake for the centenary of Ireland’s partition”. There’s some evocative and melancholy traditional singing by a woman in floaty robes with a rather good voice and lots of storytelling, fiddle playing and dancing. Everyone seems to be having a great time. That Northern Ireland and the Republic have been scared by sectarian division is beyond doubt, but, again, the film feels like a documentary and there’s the sense that the viewer is an outsider, simply watching other people have fun.

lack Obsidian Sound System (B.O.S.S) Photo: Sue Hubbard

The weakest offering in the show is Black Obsidian Sound System (B.O.S.S). Bringing together queer, trans and non-binary black people and people of colour, the exhibition features two distinct but connected spaces. The inner space is a reconfiguration of The only Good System is a Sound System, an immersive environment of film, light and sound, already shown at FACT for the Liverpool Biennial. The work claims to reflect “ways in which marginalised groups have developed methods of coming together against a background of repression and discrimination.” No one could deny that this is an admirable aim and of value to those involved in setting it up, but does such a ‘woke’ agenda produce good art or simply political or social activism? It’s a coldly techno piece, considering it’s about something with which so many feel passionately engaged. By making everything ‘art’, aren’t we in danger of making nothing art, of taking away art’s philosophical and existential core?

Cooking Sections Salmon: Traces of Escapees. Cooking Sections, 2021 (film still)

Perhaps the most slickly professional work is that produced by Cooking Sections made up of duo Daniel Fernandez Pascual and Alon Schwabe, who use food as a lens with which to explore the impact that commercial food practices have on both humanity and the environment. Beautifully presented in a darkened gallery space, an audio and film installation explores the environmental impact of salmon farms in Scotland. A series of round open-net pens are projected in big blue circles on the gallery floor. Excrement, drugs, synthetic colours and parasites billow out into the surrounding sea waters. CLIMAVORE is a long term project that questions how humans change the environment and the pair have been successful in persuading many restaurants to take farmed salmon off the menu. This would have been an important outcome in its own right, but the piece goes beyond activism. The words and images suggest allegories of human behaviour. These may be salmon they are talking about, but the work metamorphoses into an exploration of contemporary existence becoming more than its subject matter.

Project Art Works, Hastings Photo: Sue Hubbard

Project Art Works, based in Hastings, collaborates with people who have complex emotional and physical needs, challenging paradigms of inclusion whilst working towards a greater understanding of neurodiversity. A film showing a group of users in a bothy in Scotland is extremely moving as we watch them respond to the beauty of the wilderness despite their individual challenges. A number of their drawings and paintings are on display. By any standards, many are highly accomplished; in a Turner Prize built on notions of the collective, these unique voices, born out of individual struggle and a desire for expression, emphasise the fact that, in the end, art is a solitary act, not something made by a collective or a committee. As Gaston Bachelard suggests, it’s an process of daydreaming. Truth is a constellation of ideas, not a didactic statement, A way of discovering what we don’t know about the world and ourselves. An exploration. A journey. Not a political manifesto.

Words/Photos: Sue Hubbard © Artlyst 2021

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Hannah Collins, El Tiempo del Fuego at Maureen Paley

Published in Doris

Art Criticism

HANNAH COLLINS Salt (5), 1996 silver gelatin print mounted on canvas 220 x 263 cm
© Hannah Collins, courtesy Maureen Paley, London

Photography is a kind of language that has its own vocabulary. It might be black and white or colour. A modest holiday snap or a snatched press photo. By its nature black and white photography is an abstraction of reality that allows for the dramatic modification of tonal contrasts and densities, a distilling of the world. In today’s culture it announces itself as serious, in contrast to the gaudy razmataz of coloured imagery that shouts out from every advertising hoarding, every video game.

Born in 1956 Hannah Collins came to prominence in 1993 with a Turner prize nomination. Collective memory and the spaces that mark our social and cultural history are the hallmarks of her work, as is history, transformation and loss. Her photographs have a rare authenticity in a world dominated by indifference or irony. Ten years ago she discovered that she had cancer. Lying in hospital, hooked up to machines, she longed for the healing properties of nature. A year later she found herself in the Columbian Amazon where she worked with a small group from the Cofan tribe, learning about the plants used to sustain their lives. During the dark days of lockdown, she revisited the images of the forest that had offered healing and transformation.

One evening, whilst walking through the jungle with a local shaman, he’d cut a groove in a copal tree and lit a small, flickering flame that gave light but didn’t burn the tree. As they walked he continued to cut and light trees to illuminate a path back after their night-time excursion. In Collin’s silver gelatine print, Small Flame Copal Tree 1, 2001, the flickering flame stands as a beacon in the psychic dark of illness. Whilst Flaming Forest 2001, a large pigment print on paper suggests, with its heightened black and white contrasts, the uncanny, the chthonic and the dark forest of the Freudian unconscious. What the viewer experiences is a world of heightened senses where the mysteries of existence might be revealed.

To take photographs is to name what we don’t always understand and cannot articulate. As Susan Sontag suggested. “Photography [is] one of the principal devices for experiencing something, for giving an appearance of participation.” Fire, for Hannah Collins, is a metaphor for transformation that emphasises the fleeting fragility and interdependence of all life and stands for the flame that burns within the human imagination, even in our darkest of times.

Ash, charcoal and salt. It’s as if Hannah Collins is creating her own alchemical lexicon of base elements. A cone of salt, Salt (5) 1996, stands like Lot’s wife, white against a deep black ground. Made in Barcelona, when she lived 30 years ago, ‘ before globalization when trade and commerce were visible through accumulation rather than packaging’, the naturally dried salt from the Mediterranean took many months to crystalise before being photographed. After the shot it was returned to the sea from whence it came, thus emphasising our cycles of interdependence with the natural world.

Displayed throughout the exhibition is a series of wax candles in vitrines, each carved with leaves and exotic Amazonian flowers. All have charred wicks. Not listed as art works, they sit like votive offerings protecting what feels to have been turned into a sacred space. Throughout, ashes and fissures suggest entry points into other dimensions, other realms. In the Mexican State of Michoacan, a farmer experienced the eruption of a volcano that was initially gushing smoke and flames from a small fissure in the earth. In her silver gelatine print Paricutin 2021, Collin’s shows the classical tower that emerged to stand like an altar piece or a sacrificial table.

The alchemical properties of fire are further explored in a very different geographical location. In the Course of time (12) Small Fire 1966, documents a redundant industrial setting in Silesia, Poland, created during the old Soviet regime. With the fall of the Berlin wall and the end of the Cold War, coal dependent factories fell into disrepair. Many were abandoned, left to a lone caretaker to oversee, who’d burn bits of these huge ghost buildings to stay warm. Bricks were stolen and used for other purposes. Once the power houses of the Soviet regime, like Shelley’s Ozymandias, these buildings decay so eventually nothing will remain. Kings, political regimes, and industrial might, all fall away to become so much ash in a constant cycle of metamorphosis.

In the silver gelatine print, 120 Years Ago Today, 2019-20, extra-terrestrial bodies flash across the heavens over the Atacama Desert, the driest place on earth. These pathways of starlight connect us to time past and time future, to eternity and nothingness. As Roland Barthes noted in his seminal Camera Lucida, all photography is an agent of death. ‘Death’, he observes ‘must be somewhere in a society, if it is no longer (or less intensely) in religion, it must be elsewhere, perhaps in this image which produces Death while trying to preserve life. Contemporary with the withdrawal of rites, Photography may correspond to the intrusion, in our modern society, of an asymoblic Death, outside of religion, outside of ritual, a kind of abrupt dive into literal Death. Life/Death: the paradigm is reduced to a simple click, the one separating the initial pose from the final print.’

Hannah Collin’s photographs function like dreams, like shamanic devises with which to explore other states of consciousness. To use Barthes description, they are similar to haikus, for the haiku, is ‘undevelopable: everything is given, without provoking the desire for or even the possibility of rhetorical expansion.’ The photograph is trapped in the past, without a future, it is a sort of embalming, a sort of death. It’s this mournful poetry that Hannah Collins illustrates in these sparks and flames, the shooting stars and pillar of salt.

HANNAH COLLINS 120 years ago today, 2021 silver gelatin printframe: 61.8 x 49.8 x 3 cm
© Hannah Collins, courtesy Maureen Paley, London

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Brash Is Beautiful – Yinka Saves The Day At Royal Academy Summer Show

Published in Artlyst

Art Criticism

When the Royal Academy was founded in 1768, one of its key aims was to establish an annual exhibition open to all artists ‘of merit’ (as long, one might add, that they were white, male and mostly middle class). Held every year since the Summer Exhibition is the world’s oldest submission exhibition with works selected and hung by Academicians. Originally all work was figurative. Paintings were hung from dado to cornice, abutted and tipped towards the viewer and arranged symmetrically. History painting dominated, along with vanity portraits by artists of the day. Celebrity painters such as Joshua Reynolds got the best spaces, whilst the work of the lesser-known was hung almost at ceiling height. It was, also, coincidentally a period when Britain’s involvement with the slave trade was at its height.

The exhibition starts with a bang – SH

Since then, the exhibition has been a marker in the establishment’s social calendar, along with events such as Henley and Wimbledon. A favourite of ladies who lunch and those up for the day from the shires. For years it was the zenith for Sunday painters who’d religiously send in their cat paintings and flower arrangements. But, in the topsy turvy world of Covid, this year’s exhibition had to be delayed. This may not signify very much, other than that we’ve been in the midst of a pandemic, but with this shift, there’s been a further breaking of old moulds. The exhibition starts with a bang, mirroring the changes within contemporary society and the role played by those from diverse ethnic backgrounds.

This year’s show has been coordinated by Yinka Shonibare RA, who has stamped it with his mark, the explorations pursued in his own work into colonialism and post-colonialism, race, class and cultural identity. Marginalised voices have been restored, and many artists are showing here for the first time. There’s a strong visceral feel to the show, which includes quilting, knitting and sculpture made from non-art materials, as well as more traditional painting, and the parameters have been expanded to include sound works. There’s a sense of things finding their rightful place, of the marginalised finally being included and brought into the fold.

Lecture Room, RA Summer Exhibition 2021

This year’s theme, ‘Reclaiming Magic’, not only celebrates the joy of making art but also its transformative potential, marginalised practices and ritual powers. The journey begins with the work of Bill Taylor, an African American artist born into slavery in 1854, who didn’t start making art until he was 85. Self-taught, his work inspired the idea of looking beyond the conventional boundaries of western art history. Shonibare has invited a number of international black artists to exhibit, including Michael Armitage and Betye Saar. Ellen Gallagher’s Elephantine, a map of Africa, has an elephant’s head embedded in the colours of the Belgium flag, while Kudzania Chuira’s single-channel film, We live in Silence (Chapters 1-7), is a cross between The Last Supper and a Bacchanalian orgy with militaristic overtones. One of the most disquieting works is an offset print by the black American artist Faith Ringgold, The United States of Attica. A red and green map of the United States, it is dedicated to the men who died in 1971 at the Attica prison for demonstrating against deplorable conditions. Written across each state are descriptions of various unspeakable acts – witch hunts and lynchings – that took place. At the bottom of the work is a direct appeal to viewers to update the poster.

RA Summer Exhibition 2021

This year’s curators include Humphrey Ocean and Bob and Roberta Smith, Vanessa Jackson and Eva Rothchild, and the energy remains high octane throughout with a shiny lipstick red painting by Gary Hume and a vast red and white floor-seated pineapple by Rose Wylie that has all the wacky playfulness of the outsider artist. There’s a great work by Frank Bowling made from what can only be called rubbish and strong paintings by British academicians such as Basil Beattie, Tony Bevan and Mali Morris, with some lovely little figures by David Remfry. But it is the energy of those artists who would have never got a look in during Joshua Reynold’s day, who’d have been serving the drinks to their bewigged ‘masters’, that gives this summer exhibition its freshness and vitality. Finally, it is they who get to go to Varnishing Day and the RA dinner – it’s almost grounds for optimism.

Photos: PC Robinson © Artlyst 2021

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Shape Chroma: Katrina Blannin, Caroline List, Laurence Noga At Tension Fine Art

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Art Criticism

Shape Chroma: Tension Fine Art London: Newton and Goethe famously disagreed on the genesis of colour. Most commentary assumes Goethe was wrong. But this is true only if you accept that colour can simply be described by physics and that psychological and conceptual components have no influence on the way that we see.

The highest goal a man can achieve is amazement – Johan Wolfgang von Goethe

Goethe was a philosopher who understood the drift of thought in 19th century Europe. He was a romantic who’d grasped an important flaw in empiricism: the impossibility of objectivity. In the 19th century, the art historian Charles Blanc explored the laws of ‘simultaneous contrast’, drawing from the theories of Michel Eugène Chevreul and Eugène Delacroix, to suggest that optical mixing would produce more vibrant colour than the traditional process of mixing pigments. Science, psychology and, particularly, contemporary technology have moved on since then, but the fundamental dichotomy remains. How do we see and respond to shape and colour? As Jules Olitski wrote in Artforum in 1967, “the development of colour structure ultimately determines its expansion or compression – its outer edge. I think…of colour as being seen in and throughout, not solely on, the surface”.

Laurence Noga, construction / assemblage, collage, paint, mixed-media – 2020

Shape Chroma is a ‘trialogue’ curated by the artist Caroline List between three painters: herself, Laurence Noga and Katrina Blannin, who bring these questions into the realm of contemporary aesthetics with different explorations into colour, shape and spatial illusion. No single issue has been more fundamental to modernist painting than the acknowledgement of flatness or two-dimensionality, but the power of the mark to suggest illusion and depth belongs not so much to painting as to the eye.

Exploring chromatic interactions, constructed and illusionistic space, each artist has created new painterly conversations in the light of Modernist abstraction and contemporary digital influences, highlighting the Goethe/Newton dichotomy between reason and the poetic.

Katrina Blannin’s meticulously layered geometric forms focus on complex systems of repetition and mathematics. Palindromic and isochromatic structures are used to produce paintings full of logical clarity that re-examine the history of colour theory and early Renaissance painting, which she explores within the context of 20th-century constructivism. Working with acrylic on a medium-textured linen, she generates fresh debates around the possibilities for the painted surface.

Nostalgia collides with a synthetic colour palette in the work of Laurence Noga, combining an industrial aesthetic with pure geometry. Layering collage, colour and mixed media, he plunders memorabilia from his father’s garage – tools, packets and washers – to evoke Proustian memories. An interest in the Bauhaus influences his choice of colour, setting up unpredictable surfaces and depths of field that draw the viewer into his discombobulating world.

Working on linen, board, paper and aluminium Caroline List creates luminous paintings full of sensuous hues that explore the spatial qualities of colour in relationship to form and ground, defined by their differing absorbances. Drawing on early 20th-century abstraction and virtual screen photography, her work implicitly refers to landscapes, organic shapes and atmospheric light. Using high key pigments and fluorescents full of transparency and opacity, her works, despite their sophisticated geometry, create links to the saturated colour fields of Rothko and the spiritual, otherworldly light of Caspar David Friedrich.

Katrina Blannin, ‘Piero Sequence #5 (P)’ 2019, acrylic on linen, diptych 2 x 40cm x 40cm

Colour is not ‘out there’ in the world – painted onto roses and snowdrops – but formed in our eye, mind and, even our hearts. Our perceptual apparatus creates colour filtered through our emotional state and cultural biases. An ambitious, visually intelligent show, Shape Chroma revisits art history to revivify what’s gone before in order to construct a new 21st-century grammar in which to re-examine these questions of colour theory and form. So whilst knowing physics is, undoubtedly, technically useful, it’s on the other side of perception that meaning and artistry reside, as is articulately illustrated by these three.

Shape Chroma: Katrina Blannin – Caroline List – Laurence Noga – Tension Fine Art – 17th September-16th October 135 Maple Road London SE20 8LP

Top Image: Caroline List, Oil & black gesso on linen, ‘Chroma Shape’ series (2020)

Tension Fine Art is a gallery dedicated to showcasing the work and raising the profiles of emerging and mid-career local, national and international artists. They show a mixture of contemporary & experimental art that questions what art is and what art could be.

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Imagining Landscapes – Paintings by Helen Frankenthaler, 1952-1976

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Art Criticism

‘A really good picture looks as if it’s happened at once.’
Helen Frankenthaler

The history of modern painting is that of a form which spent much of its energy on detaching itself from illusion in order to acquire its own frame of reference. As that guru of Modernism, Clement Greenberg, wrote: “The essence of Modernism lies… in the use of the characteristic methods of a discipline to criticise the discipline itself…” Art was to be rendered ‘pure’ in its independence and self-definition, freed from the painterly dissembling of Old Masters with their illusionistic tendencies. As Greenberg insisted, “Where Old Masters created an illusion of space into which one could imagine oneself walking, the illusion created by a Modernist is one into which one can only look, can travel through only with the eye.”

Revisiting Helen Frankenthaler’s saturated paintings at Gagosian, Grosvenor Hill, it seems that Greenberg was only partly right. The human mind makes associations, sees shapes and colours in terms of memories: objects and places, landscapes and wide skies. In his bid for purity, his desire to decouple painting from any possible narrative that might not be implicit within the medium itself, Greenberg’s strictures forgot the power of poetic metaphor that was to be explored in the 1960s in the phenomenological writings on perception of Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

Helen Frankenthaler’s art career was launched in 1952 with the exhibition Mountains and Sea. During the 50s her works tended to centre around pictorial incidents that took place in the middle of the picture space, where the edges were of little consequence. Slowly she began to experiment with more linear and organic shapes, eventually using single stains and blots of solid colour against plain white grounds, moving in 1963, to work in acrylic paint that allowed for a greater opacity.

Whilst intellectually acutely aware of the risks of placing a mark on a blank canvas, the influence of Jackson Pollock encouraged her away from her formal art training towards a fluid spontaneity. This allowed shapes and forms to develop on her canvas, to flow so that unconsciously they transformed into an image. Despite her awareness of spatial possibilities, of the pushed and pulled effects of the thinned pigments, the adjustment and blurring of her edges, it’s the emotional quality of these flooded works that give them their power. They are not simply intellectual exercises but felt, sentient works. Shapes open and close, coalesce and dissolve. Light is vibrant, then dematerialises, as in the luminous Sea Goddess, 1963 or Narcissus of the same year, suggesting the sense of being in the work, in a landscape or a sunset rather than describing a landscape or sunset of itself.

Sea Goddess, 1963, Oil on unsized, unprimed canvas, 70 x 94 in, 177.8 x 238.8 cm © 2021 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / DACS, London, Photo: Robert McKeever, Courtesy Gagosian

It was in the 1960s that the term Colour Field painting was used to describe Frankenthaler’s large areas of saturated colour. By the 70s, the soak and stain technique had given way to a thicker, brighter, almost Fauvist use of colour. The physical act of painting – as for Pollack – was an emotional one as she knelt on the floor, pouring and soaking her unsized duck cotton – manipulating the paint in her own personal choreography. Like Pollack, her paintings express her bodily relationship with the canvas – the stretch of an arm, the heft of her shoulder. Her soak-stained technique doesn’t portray the world in any graphic or photographic sense – though at times they do read like aerial views and it’s hard not to see a figure or landscape emerging from the pools of colour – but make demands on the viewers’ perception. Nothing feels quiet complete. There’s an invitation for the mind and the eye to take the image further, to run with it towards an, as yet, undefined totality. Frankenthaler’s art is one of incompleteness. Its signature is openness. It is not proscriptive, rather it’s a process, a reaching towards. There are the echoes of Rothko and Barnett Newman, of that Jewish mystical sensibility which permeated so much post-war American Abstract Expressionism. As in Rothko, there’s a sense of otherworldliness that goes beyond simply formal concerns. Though in Frankenthaler these states tend towards the joyful and the lyrical rather than dark introspection. As for many other modernists, accident played a big part in her process. A photograph in her studio on West End Avenue, New York, in 1957, shows her crouched over her canvas on the floor, a tube of paint in one hand, applying it with the fingers of the other. It’s a lyrical image. A beautiful young woman completely absorbed in the making of her art.

Born in 1928 to a wealthy, cultured and progressive Jewish family – her father was a New York State Supreme Court judge – unusually, for the period, Franthenthaler was encouraged to have a professional career and studied at the Dalton School under the muralist Rufino Tamayo and at Bennington College in Vermont. Pollock, Cubism and Ashile Gorky were all influences of her early mark-making. A five year romantic relationship with Clement Greenberg, then marriage to Robert Motherwell – they were known as the ‘golden couple’ – assured her a place at the high table of modernism in an era when American abstraction was largely seen as a male affair. This allowed her to develop a language of her own, with its liquid forms and dissolving edges, its challenging spatial and perceptual innovations that extended the boundaries of painting for future generations of women artists, allowing them the space to create a multiplicity of visual possibilities.

Imagining Landscapes: Paintings by Helen Frankenthaler, 1952–1976 , installation view 2021 © 2021 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / DACS, London Photo: Lucy Dawkins, Courtesy Gagosian

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Cacophony: Four Iranian Artists AB-ANBAR Cromwell Place

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Art Criticism

Few in the West will have been to Tehran. We are either likely to think of an exotic Persia full of sultans and hareems – the sort of orientalism debunked by Edward Said in his celebrated essay – or a modern-day Iran, a strict theocracy run by repressive Ayatollahs not too keen on our western ways. In fact, during the last century, few societies have experienced such a period of rapid modernisation as Iran. This is demonstrated by the rich flow of artistic ideas from within and without the country.

AB-ANBAR serves as a conduit between Iran and a broader global culture

In 2014 AB-ANBAR was set up in Tehran to create a platform for emerging cutting-edge artists and serve as a conduit between Iran and a broader global culture. The aim was not just to give voice to these artists but to create a dialogue with their occidental counterparts. In Tehran, the gallery’s primary audience consists of local artists and collectors, so the aim here is to introduce contemporary Iranian art to a wider world.

Situated at 4 Cromwell Place, AB-ANBAR’s current exhibition Cacophony is a showcase for four contemporary and modern Iranian artists, Sonia Balassanian, Majid, Fathizadeh, Mohsen Vaziri Moghaddam and Timo Nasseri. The underlying concept is the inherent chaos and turmoil embedded within contemporary societies—the white noise of conflicting values and points of view. The wide range of work, from the chaotic painterly scenes of Fathizadeh to the experimental films of Balassanian and the modernist compositions of Timo and Vaziri, emphasise this diversity.

Majid Fathizadeh

Sonia Balassanian is a multimedia artist living and working between New York and Armenia whose practice took a dramatic turn after the 1979 events in Iran, turning an abstract painter into a political activist whose work has evolved to address issues of identity, gender and cultural contradiction. Here, her work consists of two diametrically opposed forms: video and abstract paintings made up of layers of acrylic paint or mixed media marks on photographic paper that contain echoes of Agnes Martin. But whereas Martin or Balassanian ’s compatriot, the painter Shirazeh Houshiary explore the spiritual sublime and the ineffable, there’s a sense that Sonia Balassanian ’s marks are more an act of erasure, a cancellation of something much darker. A deliberate deletion or form of emotional redaction of what is unsayable. The stanza structure of her lines references her practice as a poet, implying both rhythm and metre. Alongside these are three powerful videos: Chain, 1995 that emphasises her interest in ritual with a tough black and white close up of a Shia adherent engaged in the repetitive act of flagellation; 1555, 2009 a cacophony of three intoning voices that speak of the Armenian genocide in Farsi, Armenian and English and Haghpat 2, 1999, a stark, grainy video of naked bodies emerging from deep ceramic pots buried in the ground that seems to imply disappearance and re-emergence.

The modernist works of Mohsen Vaziri Moghaddam stand in stark contrast to this psychodynamic output. The large aluminium, wood and painted wall construct, Untitled 1968-2015, conjures the fenders of shiny American Cadillacs and speaks of the ubiquitous optimism of modernity during that period. It evokes a world of shiny skyscrapers, American diners and jukeboxes, of new buildings and new possibilities. In contrast, his aluminium and yellow-painted wall sculpture, with its Fontana-like slashes, castes subtle ribbons of shadow in the negative spaces, playing with notions of inside and out to create a severe minimal beauty.

Born in Berlin in 1972, the son of a German mother and an Iranian father, Timo Nasseri grew up between two radically different cultures. Living and working in Berlin, drawing lies at the heart of his practice. He uses the influence of Islamic art, mathematics and geometry to explore systems of patterning and the architectural structures within infinity and chaos. A series of small black magnetic cut-outs – the silhouettes of frogs, axe heads and bats – displayed in a group on a white wall have something of the ethnographic museum about them. Entitled The Order of Everything, it suggests some sort of arcane hieroglyphic language which, if only the code could be cracked, might reveal the mysteries of the universe. Repetition is a strong aesthetic stimulus in Nasseri’s work reflected in his steel towers held together only by magnets, one of which is suitably entitled Babel #3. While his ‘totemic’ paintings in flat blacks, blues and reds take their inspiration from the ‘dazzle’ camouflage used for warships in World War I.

Majid Fathizadeh is based in Iran and employs the language of European Old Masters to explore not only the disasters of war but of the destruction of the biosphere. Pool Table 2021 is a painting full of dark sepia tones and tenebrous shadows. At once, absurdist and bleak, his cast of Goyaesque characters crawl around upturned, broken pool tables wearing strange masks and what appears to be a dunce’s cap. While Tendon shows a rabble of figures – refugees or outlaws, it’s hard to say – huddled on a hilltop overlooking a benighted landscape that appears to be the city of Tehran. A highly skilful painter and draughtsman, he encapsulates the diversity and reaches of contemporary Iranian art.

Cacophony AB-ANBAR June 2, 2021 – June 13, 2021 An exhibition featuring the work of four contemporary and modern artists from their gallery programme; Sonia Balassanian, Majid Fathizadeh, Mohsen Vaziri Moghaddam, and Timo Nasseri. Founded in 2014, AB-ANBAR is one of the leading independent galleries in Tehran.

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Eileen Agar:
A Surrealist Trailblazer

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Art Criticism

As a new young arts writer, I once went to Eileen Agar’s flat in Kensington. I honestly didn’t know who she was at that time. The flat was quite conventional, except for a few collages on the walls and her famous Bouillabaisse hat – constructed of cork and decorated with a large orange plastic flower, a blue plastic star, assorted shells, glass beads and starfish – sitting on a stand. Sadly, this was before the digital age and I’ve lost what I wrote about her. So, it was with real curiosity that I went along to the Whitechapel to see Angel of Anarchy and realised not only what an interesting artist she was, but how underrated she’s been.

Eileen Agar was one of the most adventurous of her generation.

Surrealism was not kind to women. Despite the creativity of the likes of Dorothea Tanning and Leonora Carrington, the work and even the names of many female surrealists are either lost or unknown. Surrealism was a man’s world despite its ‘high priest’, André Breton writing in 1944 that “it is high time for women’s ideas to prevail over man’s, whose bankruptcy is clear enough in the tumult of today.” Many talented female artists had to battle against their role as muses: Meret Oppenheim standing nude next to a printing press in a Man Ray photograph, the artist Unica Zürn depicted as a tied-up doll by Hans Bellmer. But women were fighting back, beginning to explore their own imaginations and psyches, refusing simply to be repositories for the male gaze and male desire.

Eileen Agar was one of the most adventurous of her generation. Born in Buenos Aires into a privileged family, a rebellious child, she was sent off at the achingly young age of six to board at Heathfield school in England. It was there that her teacher, Lucy Kemp-Welch RA, persuaded her to ‘always have something to do with art’. The rift with her parents grew and she took up a place at the Slade that was, at the time, the acme of traditional, figurative English painting. In 1929 she travelled to Paris, ripe for the conversion to Surrealism, and met André Breton and Paul Éluard, embracing the movement’s sensuality and irrationality, its explorations into the subconscious and the imaginative freedom it gave to explode existing norms.

The show at the Whitechapel opens with a series of stunning works on paper and board in watercolour and pencil, including Self Portrait 1927 and the previously unseen painting of her partner, Joseph Sleeping 1929, that show the influence of her art school education at the Slade. It was in Paris that she learnt the principles of Cubism which, along with Surrealism, were to become the hallmarks not just of modernism but of her future work. These influences can be seen in early works such as Autobiography of an Embryo 1933-4 and Quadriga 1935.

Collage and its sculptural twin, assemblage, were the two techniques that allowed her to collide unconnected images in ways that were witty, beautiful and at times insightfully disturbing. She became a magpie, rummaging in flea markets, and the collector of natural forms – shells, bones, leaves and fossils – that she used alongside cut-outs and drawn elements. “I surround myself”, she said, “with fantastic bric-à-brac in order to trigger my imagination. For it is a certain kind of sensitive chaos that is creative, and not sterile order”.

Fascinated with the natural world, she used this ‘sensitive chaos’ to juxtapose the manmade with the natural world to create provocative collages such as Erotic Landscape 1942. It is hard, now, to see just how radical some of her images would have seemed at the time. Attracted to the coastal rock formations “sculpted by the sea” when she travelled to France, these infiltrated her work in the manner of her contemporary Barbara Hepworth. A Rolleiflex square-format camera became her constant companion. This passion for photography led to some wonderfully intimate photographs of her relaxing on the beach with her surrealist friends, including Roland Penrose and a virile looking Picasso.

Ceremonial Hat for Eating Bouillabaisse, 1936

In 1936 Agar achieved overnight success when she took part in the first International Surrealist Exhibition in London at New Burlington Gardens, though the war was to interrupt her artistic output. A pacifist, she enlisted for war work in a canteen in Saville Row and as a Fire Watcher but “felt it impossible to concentrate on painting when you could turn to look out of the window and see a Messerschmitt flying low over the treetops.” After the war, she was ‘exhausted’ and visited both Cornwall and the Lake District in an attempt to replenish her artistic imagination. One of her most eccentric and charming works was her Ceremonial Hat for Eating Bouillabaisse. A black and white 1948 Pathé Newsreel shows her wearing it as she strides through Soho, past giggling delivery boys leaning on bicycles and gawping women with tight post-war perms and even tighter lips who can’t quite believe their eyes, all accompanied by a chirpy voiceover in BBC Alvar Lidell tones.

For the rest of her life, Agar went on experimenting, travelling in the ‘50s to Tenerife, a trip that was to become a watershed in her life. Later, she moved to a much larger studio that allowed her to paint on a scale she’d not been able to before and to work in acrylic. Although many of these later works show the characteristic Agar motifs -shells, fossils and silhouetted forms – they’re more deliberate and lack the verve and playfulness of her early work. Prolific until her death, she was a trailblazer with her experiments in Surrealist fashion design, modelling for Issey Miyake at the age of 87.

Surrealism both infantilised and empowered women. Male Surrealists often portrayed the female form as an object of violent erotic imaginings whilst idealising women as beautiful, mysterious muses. Eileen Agar was able to find her own way through this male terrain, relying less on the Freudian themes beloved by other female artists such as Meret Oppenheim and Leonora Carrington but rather on the opportunities that Surrealism gave her for playful and innovative visual juxtapositions. Long overdue, this retrospective at the Whitechapel will rightly secure her reputation, bringing her to a new generation of viewers.

Eileen Agar: Angel of Anarchy, Whitechapel Gallery until 29 August 2021

Published in Artlyst

Matthew Barney at Hayward Gallery

Published in Doris

Art Criticism


At around 2 hours and 15 minutes it’s virtually as long as a modern production of King Lear but without the breaks. At the beginning of the press view a cluster of other socially distanced critics in masks gathered in the Hayward’s dark space to watch Matthew Barney’s new film Redoubt but by the end I was, so to speak, the last person standing, the rest having slowly peeled away. During this marathon I went through a variety of emotions. Struck by the sheer beauty of Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountain range and the stunning photography I was, at first, captivated by the silence of the snow, the clusters of pristine pines like something from a Freudian dream or a German Romantic painting and the wildlife – wolves, pumas, eagles in their natural habitat – but, as time dragged on, I simply couldn’t decide whether this was a masterwork or a giant exercise in extended hubris. Why did it need to be so long?

The seed for Redoubt (a military term for a form of defensive fortification often improvised in natural areas to which an army can retreat) was first planted in the 1980s. As a teenager Barney grew up in Boise, Idaho and witnessed the debate between re-wilders and local farmers about the reintroduction of wolves into this remote area. The debate ran along political fault lines. Wolves had been hunted to extinction in the United States as early as 1926. In the 1980s and 1990s a federal wolf recovery team began their reintroduction to the anger of local farmers who feared for their livestock. More recently ‘American Redoubt’ has become the term favoured by American survivalists in the north western US, including Idaho, that has among the most relaxed gun laws in the country.

The film opens with drone shots of a snowy wilderness where eagles soar in an empty sky and the mountains are speckled with dark pines like a Peter Doig painting. It’s so beautiful, so ‘pure’ its takes the breath away. The stary night skies and soaring white peaks evoke the American sublime, painters such as Thomas Cole and Frederic Edwin Church who explored the awe and terror experienced in the untamed American outback and the spiritual quiet found there where a modern soul could come face to face with themselves, as all true Romantics must.

But this is no David Attenborough eco-fest but a film that uses myth, dance and art interwoven with the ‘story’ of six hunts to say something about creativity versus nature, destruction versus regeneration and transformation. Whether you think it succeeds is in the end, I suppose, a matter of taste. Barney draws on cosmology, Greek myth (the three Graces) and American First Nation traditions. At the centre of the film is the (loose) story of the Greek goddess, Diana, deity of hunting and overseer of innocence and purity and Acteon, the hunter who invades her privacy and is punished for his pains. Charting the movements of six characters the film creates a web of overlaps and intersections. Diana, in Barney’s version, is a sexy sharp-shooter dressed in figure hugging camouflage attended by her acolytes the Calling Virgin (often seen making chthonic wolf cries) and the Tracking Virgin. We find them first sleeping in their camp site. The two ‘virgins’ hung high in a hammock amid the trees wearing just white vests and long johns curled in a variety of semi-erotic poses. Interwoven with their actions – preparing ammunition, making fires and tracking the wolves on horseback through the snow – is the role of the Engraver (played by Barney himself) who also appears to be a Ranger, driving around in a US service pickup truck to strap a night vision camera on the trunk of a tree. Later we see him in a remote trailer, the apparent home of the sixth character (and dancer) the Electroplater. Here the two, in a rudimentary laboratory of acid baths, wire pulleys and books on electroplating work together, wordlessly, on a series of copper plate etchings that seem to suggest transformation and alchemy. Copper, used in the making of bullets has been found throughout the Rocky Mountains and was once mined in central Idaho where the film is shot. The theme of cosmology is touched on when the Electroplater builds a model of the Lupus constellation identified by Ptolemy in the 2nd century AD. Her role seems to be to act as a transforming conduit between the constellations and earth.

Over the course of the film we follow the Engraver as he sets up his stand in the snow to etch the copper plates that he takes back to the trailer. Meanwhile Diana and her Virgins continue their antics, at one point the pair bathe erotically in a stream, their white long johns and vests becoming fashion-shoot, nipple-revealingly transparent, while Diana sits on a rock watching. Elsewhere there are sequences of them doing Martha Graham style movements in the snow, falling down mimicking the kill of a hunt and the skinning of prey, rather hammering home the point that ‘culture’ and ‘nature’ often stand in opposition. Dance and movement are the emotionally expressive language, here, that hold this silent film together. The one time it shifts away from the wilderness is when the Engraver goes to a bar in the grim settler town and we see a Hoop Dance performed by Sandra Lamouche (Bigstone Cree Nation) inside the gloomy American Legion building. Flapping her red hoops like an eagle’s broken wings the dance, performed in this soulless civic space, seems to imply something of the sad diminishment of indigenous American culture. But it is the wolf that is the real hero of the work. Towards the end a pack goes on the rampage in the trailer, pulling everything apart. Nature reeking revenge perhaps?

Throughout the rest of the Hayward there are the ‘spin off’ artifacts from the film. Engravings on copper in charred pine frames, the artworks created by the voyeuristic Engraver who we saw engraving his plates on a tripod shooting bench out in the deep snow. Barney made five unique ‘states’ of electroplated copper plates, adjusting the electroplating variables of current, temperature and duration. Elsewhere a huge sculpture based on a charred pine dominates the space. The core of the tree was removed and spiralled channels carved into its surface. Encased in a mould, it was then burned away to create a hollow form in copper and brass. The resulting vast sculpture lies on the floor, its roots like coppery veins, part felled tree, part giant rifle, part in-yer-face phallus.

There’s no doubt that the ambition and reach of this show is immense and at times, it’s certainly beautiful, but the film seems overlong and rather full of its own self-importance, and does the world really need so many huge copper sculptures? The smell of commercialism, it seems, is never far away. As I left, I couldn’t help thinking of William Blake’s famous lines:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity for an hour

Published in Doris

Woman with Her Throat Cut – Alberto Giacometti, 1932

Published in Doris

Art Criticism

‘A fetish is a story masquerading as an object’
Robert Stoller

This morning I heard on the radio that the body of Sarah Everard, a young woman missing for a week, has been found in undergrowth and that a member of the Metropolitan police has been arrested. We may never know the disturbing back story to this murder but, yet again, a woman’s life has been cut short by a man. A man full of anger and hate. Yet again women will feel unsafe walking home from a night out with friends, just as they so often feel unsafe in the workplace among those who use their sexuality as a form of control or, too often, particularly during lockdown, in their own homes with an abusive partner. Despite the MeToo movement nothing has really changed. It’s 50 years since the campaign to Reclaim the Night, yet women remain in danger.

In 1932 Alberto Giacometti made an enigmatic and perplexing sculpture, Woman with Her Throat Cut. At the time he was living in Paris, a part of the Surrealist group. The shocking image reflects Surrealism’s fixation with the irrational, with sexual duality and archetypes. Juxtaposition and aggression were a part of the Surrealist language used to mine the new(ish) interest in the hinterlands of the psyche and the chthonic depths of the unconscious. As de Sade wrote: “there is no better way to know death than to link it with some licentious image”.

Led by André Breton and Max Ernst, the largely male group were well versed in the writings of Freud. Art allowed them to give voice to long submerged desires, to explore the connection between death and sexual excitement. At the beginning of the 20th century the ‘primitive’ held a fascination for intellectuals and artists expressed as an interest in African art and in the ‘dark’ urges uncovered by psychoanalysis. These instinctual drives were perceived to stand in contrast to the mundane behaviour displayed by the bourgeois world; to be the cross-roads between ‘civilization’ and the ‘savage’. Freud’s map of the psyche placed the ego (the Ich, the I) at a point between the civilizing super-ego and the primitive libidinous id. Surrealism provided a visual language with which to break through the niceties of daily existence to explore feelings that were more ‘authentic’ than those encountered in polite society.

“The domain of eroticism”, wrote Bataille, “is the domain of violence, of violation… the most violent thing of all for us is death which jerks us out of a tenacious obsession with the lastingness of the discontinuous being.” Death reminds us that we are alive. For Bataille, it was a state of dissolution that mirrored the transition from what was ‘normal’ to what was erotic. In these encounters the female was the essentially passive partner transformed into a deviant sexual object of male desire.. “The whole business of eroticism is to destroy the self-contained character of the participators as they are in normal life,” wrote Bataille. Such detached thinking allowed men to act out their inner fantasies and explore repressed taboos.

Woman with Her Throat Cut is an emotionally highly charged work. The first of six bronze casts acquired by Peggy Guggenheim from the artist in 1940. Approximately three feet long and nine inches high it loosely depicts a woman lying on her back. Her throat appears to have been slashed and there are signs of rape, even of attempted murder. Yet she still seems to be alive, moving and sexually available. A spidery arm reaches out. Her legs are spread open. Her long neck arches backwards in what could either be agony or ecstasy. A reminder that the French phrase for orgasm is ‘le petit mort’. Full of ambiguity and contradiction the work is violent and cruel, yet playful and ironic. The jagged neck suggests not only the marks of a razor blade but the frets of a violin. This woman is a musical instrument on which the male can play his misogynistic tunes. It may be a coincidence, but in 1932 the aristocratic Donna Madina Gonzaga visited Giacometti in his studio prompting feelings of embarrassment and shame at his humble surroundings. Afterwards he became obsessed with her long, elegant neck.

Part animal trap, part vagina dentata, Woman with Her Throat Cut conjures a strange nightmarish mutation reminiscent of Gregor Samsa’s beetle in Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Or a praying mantis – the female of the species consumes the male after sexual congress – favoured, Michael Berison suggests, by the Surrealists to illustrate the dangers of female sexuality. Stretched and elongated the figure appears to be in her death throes, breathing her last, dying alone.

Like Picasso, Giacometti came from a society that held very conservative views about women. Born in the mountain hamlet of Borgonovo in Eastern Switzerland in 1901, he enrolled in 1915 at the Evangelical School in the town of Schiers. It would be surprising, therefore, that this early upbringing, which presented women in stark contrast to those he’d meet later in the sophisticated artistic circles of Paris, didn’t have some effect on his conditioning and create numerous contradictions about his attitudes to women.

Yet beyond the imagery of gender politics, the jagged points evoke the barbed wire of the First World War trenches and are a painful reminder of a conflict that devastated the psyche of a generation, and of the young men slaughtered in their thousands on the battlefields of northern France. Perhaps it’s not too great a leap to consider that the hard metal surface depicts something of the feel and smell of heavy artillery, for the mechanisation of warfare made the 1914-18 conflict the most destructive the world had seen to date.

Along with other of Giacometti’s uncanny sculptures such as Suspended Ball (1930-31) a phallic form trapped in a metal cage; Woman with Her Throat Cut belongs to a period of distinctly Surreal work. Yet just as Giacometti was finding fame as a Surrealist he turned his back on that thread of Modernism to return to the tradition of the human figure. As a result he was excommunicated from the movement by André Breton. Knowing and clever, surrealistic sculpture was dependent on the juxtapositions and absurdities thrown up by dreams but Giacometti felt the need to abandon this theatricality to investigate the alienated feelings of the human subject experienced in the depression of the post-war years. Along with Beckett, Giacometti was to become one of the great exponents of existentialism, exploring notions of social isolation and anxiety, creating figures that Sartre described as “always mediating between nothingness and being.”

Asked by Genet why he approached male and females differently, Giacometti admitted that it was because he didn’t understand women, that they seemed more remote. As an adolescent he’d suffered badly from mumps, which had left him infertile as well as, partly, impotent. A state most easily cured by detached sex with prostitutes. Looking at Women with Her Throat Cut a century after it’s making – particularly in the light of the tragic murder of Sarah Everard – it still has the power to shock. Men of Giacometti’s generation were brought up to believe that women were either Madonna’s or whores. But the real outrage is the realisation that little has changed. ‘Give us a smile’, ‘you know you want to’, ‘don’t you have a sense of humour?’ men still quip as if by divine right, while women continue to be perceived as sexual objects. Objects of male fantasy, desire and hate that, even now, can be the catalysts to unspeakable murder.

Alberto Giacometti
Woman with Her Throat Cut
1932 (cast 1940)
23.2 x 89.1 x 60 cm
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, 1976

Published in Doris

Mary Wollstonecraft: A Lumpen Statue By Maggie Hambling

Published in Artlyst

Art Criticism

It’s been quite a year for statues. Normally no more than street furniture that no one bothers to look at – old white men standing on plinths in all weathers extolling some arcane ‘victory’ of the Empire – statues have, recently, taken centre stage. First Edward Colston was toppled and thrown into the Bristol docks. Now Maggie Hambling’s homage to Mary Wollstonecraft is creating a furore on north London’s Newington Green.

A lumpen statue that is neither thought-provoking nor well-executed

Yesterday her breasts and pudenda were covered with gaffer tape by outraged feminists. Over 90% of London’s memorials celebrate men, so this addition is significant. The Wollstonecraft Society’s stated aims were: ‘to promote the recognition of Mary Wollstonecraft’s contribution to equality, diversity and human rights and promote equality and diversity in education and stimulate aspiration and thoughtful reflection’.

Public sculpture is always a problem. It has to do many things for many people and is generally art commissioned and approved of by committee, rather than the free expression of a single artist’s imagination. In this case, Jude Kelly, the one-time director of the South Bank, and Shami Chakrabati are patrons, among many other well-known supporters from the arts. Unfortunately, there seem to be several briefs going on at once and none of them is really being fulfilled. On a recent Newsnight, Emma Barnett – no art critic – seemed to get a schoolgirl thrill from repeatedly talking about ‘tits’ on prime time TV while, at no point, discussing the work within a serious context of other contemporary artworks or even art history.

Mary Wollstonecraft was born into a family of straitened means. Her violent father made her acutely aware of the vulnerability of women. She would receive only a scanty education when formal education for women was not considered a right, yet would go on to write extensively about education for girls, establishing a boarding school on Newington Green.

Her writing career consisted of translations, reviews and books for children, whilst her travel writing influenced a number of early Romantic writers. But it was A Vindication of the Rights of Women(1792) that was her most crucial work; the first significant feminist tract. During her life, she had two important relationships. The first with the American adventurer and spy Gilbert Imlay, with whom she had a daughter during the French Revolution, and the anarchist and thinker, William Godwin, who fathered her second child who would become Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein and the wife of the poet. Mary Wollstonecraft counted among her friends the likes of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine who came to Newington Green when in London to attend the Unitarian Church. She was, without doubt, a heavyweight in the feminist pantheon.

Mary Wollstonecraft – Maggie Hambling

If nothing else, Maggie Hambling has succeeded in raising the visibility of Wollstonecraft among those who perhaps did not previously know of her existence. Speaking on Woman’s Hour today, she gave an articulate explanation of her work. But art is not a question of persuasive argument or language but of visual, emotional and intellectual impact. It has failed if it has to be justified in words. Language can only expand an artwork. In this case, the work needed to contain a sense of homage to its subject AND be a fresh and innovative artwork. It doesn’t really do either.

Today I went to Newington Green to see it for myself. It was a beautiful autumn day and I really wanted to like it ‘in the flesh’, so to speak, but it was worse than I expected. The problem is, not as many feminists seem to be objecting, that it incorporates nudity but that it is conceptually lazy, piling on cliché on well-worked cliché. A lumpen piece that is neither thought-provoking nor well-executed. If nudity is used, it needs to be the expressive language that carries the narrative weight of its subject. Think of the emotional charge of an edgy Klimt nude that no amount of linguistic explanation can replicate. It’s not the nudity that’s disrespectful to Wollstonecraft but that she’s been commemorated by the second rate.

From a distance, the oddly glitzy silver surface looks like one of those mascots that used to decorate the bonnets of posh cars or a chunk of amalgam recently extracted from a painful tooth. The sense of scale is off balance. The amorphous flow of ‘feminine energy’ leading to the tiny Barbie-doll figure standing on top like a sort of female Jack-in-a-box, crude. The simplified/idealised form with its gym abs and pert breasts carries no expressive resonance or historic charge. It’s not Everywoman, more Everyman’s wet dream. There is no sense of metaphor. No sense of history. Coming across it by chance it would offer up little of its point and purpose.

In his seminal text, Ways of Seeing, the late John Berger deconstructed the way that women were traditionally seen in art, suggesting that they were largely there to satisfy the male gaze. Revolutionary at the time, this insight meant that we could never go back to looking at a nude again without asking who it is for and what it is trying to say? That Maggie Hambling – who is really not a sculptor but a painter – should produce something so old fashioned and so ill-considered is a missed opportunity to put an iconic woman on the map. She might have chosen to make an abstract piece or a book on the lines of one of Anslem Kiefer’s great lead books or a realistic sculpture such as Gillian Wearing’s powerful commemoration of the Suffragette, Millicent Fawcett, in Parliament Square. Many have argued that the piece is being criticised simply because it’s new’ and that that is the fate of all ‘modern’ art. But that’s really not the case. It fails because it’s ill-executed because it doesn’t catch the spirit of Wollstonecraft and doesn’t employ the grammar and language of sculpture with originality, imagination or panache with the result that it looks rather more like something that’s just escaped from an up-market garden centre than a longed-for commemoration of a great historic heroine – and that’s a real pity.

Published in Artlyst

Zanele Muholi Explores A Black Queer And Trans South Africa

Published in Artlyst

Art Criticism

“I am re-writing a Black Queer and Trans visual history of South Africa for the world to know of our existence, resistance and persistence” – Zanele Muholi

Before you get too excited, this exhibition was set to open at Tate Modern 5th November but due to COVID19 restrictions will be postponed until a future date has been decided.

As a white, middle-aged, middle-class, heterosexual woman I am, perhaps, setting myself up to write about the South African artist Zanele Muholi. Yet, when I first encountered their (preferred pronoun) work, I was, without knowing anything of their sexual orientation or political activism, simply bowled over by their powerful, strong and beautiful images. That is how it should be.

Zanele Muholi

Good art speaks beyond its target audience and touches something universal. Muholi’s black and white portraits of women emphasise the richness of their ebony skin highlighted by chalky lips, white lace mantillas and hair-combs, presenting them like great Kaberion goddesses (a site located several miles outside the Greek city of Thebes), where the African features of Hera, Minerva and Aphrodite regularly appeared on ancient Greek skyphos, a large ceramic cup used by ancient Greeks for the consumption of copious quantities of wine. For the Greeks, these faces were considered ‘exotic’. But, unlike the patronising otherness associated with this term within contemporary culture, they saw the exotic in nature as having great power, especially to ward off evil. The depiction of Olympian goddesses as African was a ‘positive’ form of the ‘radicalised other’. A view borne out by the pioneering scholar, Frank Snowden, [1] who claims that racial prejudice didn’t exist in ancient times but evolved only with the advent of slavery in the early modern period. Muholi’s formidable, self-decorated subjects stare out confronting the viewer with their white eyes set in jet black skin. Serpent’ ruffs’, bejewelled hairpieces and large beaded or raffia necklaces are worn like regal accessories. These individuals fill the picture space with all the presence of a Cleopatra or Queen of Sheba, undermining both the dominant male view and the colonial white gaze.

Zanele Muholi

Zanele Muholi uses their photographs to create a Black History of Now. Often much of this everyday reality has gone unseen by the rest of the world. The emphasis on Black LGBTQIA+ culture, not as some fictional past but as lives lived and visible in the here and now, is a challenge to any latent complacency. South Africans (no doubt aided by the history of apartheid) have traditionally seen ‘black queer bodies as threatening, un-sacred and tragic’. Muholi documents these people and their stories to reconfigure ideas of history/normality/acceptability. In so doing, they not only challenge how the mainstream views’ alternative’ sexualities, but how this mirrors how we read and interpret the past, what is made visible and by whom, and what is given agency to be brought centre stage.

Not only a highly gifted photographer but a long time queer activist, Muholi asks in their images how far we are prepared/ able to go to detach Black (and queer) representations from the historic voyeuristic repository of the western gaze. They seem to be creating a new grammar outside the binaries of black/white, heterosexual/homosexual that more accurately depict the experience of individual lives. An emphasis on exteriority gives voice to hidden interiorities.

Not all the subjects are regal. Muholi depicts young women binding their breasts with bandages and having sex, naked bodies lying lovingly entwined on tousled beds and Black queer individuals – both trans men and trans women – taking pride in beauty pageants and photo shoots. A particular influence on Muholi’s work was that of Joan E. Biren, a photographer associated with the second-wave of feminism and gay liberation in the 1970s. Biren’s credo was ‘collaboration, not domination,’ an approach that defines Muholi’s own photographic position. There’s an insistence on ‘participant’ rather than viewing the other as a ‘subject’, of giving voice and agency to the lesbians, gender non-conformists and trans men who appear in these photographs. In this work, Muholi continues the slow repositioning of black women within the art arena championed by artists such as Maud Sulter and Lubaina Himid.

Christian missionaries implanted the belief that homosexuality was un-African. Research has shown that binary notions of gender and sexual relationships were, to some degree, enforced by colonial powers. For Muholi’s participants, seeing themselves portrayed has often been both healing and transformative, bringing lives that may have been lived unwillingly in the shadows into the light. Muholi’s unflinching eye challenges the dominant views that surround not only transphobia and racism but the lives of all those disenfranchised and pushed to the margins. In so doing this remarkable body of nuanced, strong and compassionate work re-writes the visual history of South Africa, as well as challenging how we look at art.

Zanele Muholi
5 November 2020 – 7 March 2021
Tate Modern, London

Before Color Prejudice: The Ancient View of Blacks Harvard University Press.

Published in Artlyst

London Art Fair

Published in Artlyst

Art Criticism

London Art Fair’s Positive Spin On A Diverse Range Of Work

Being asked to write about an art fair is a bit like being commissioned to write about Waitrose and compare tins of baked beans with sardines or chocolate biscuits. These items have little in common, except they are all food and sold in the same venue. Pretty much the same can be said of the modern art fair if you substitute art for food. The variety is enormous from the good, the bad, to the merely ugly. Occasionally, if you’re lucky, you may come across something outstanding.

The 2020 London Art Fair Museum Partner is the Southampton City Art Gallery

For many years the London Art Fair, once the big hitter in town, seemed to suffer an identity crisis after the arrival of that parvenue Frieze. But over the last few years under the direction of Sarah Monk it has settled into a valuable role promoting Modern British Art, whilst also cultivating an interesting Art Project space on the upper floor – now in its 16th year and featuring 18 galleries from 5 countries – where younger artists and innovative dealers can exhibit.

There’s a diverse range of work this year. At the Eagle Gallery/EMH Arts, the painter on show is not young. Natalie Dower is in her 80s, but her work is worth looking at because it’s fresh and intelligent, embracing the vocabulary of Thirties Vorticism, along with colour theory and geometry. These have been hung in conversation with a range of younger artists that includes an abstract paperwork by Andrew Bick. At the other end of the visual spectrum, Standpoint is showing sculptures by Anna Reading. At once both familiar and odd, they sit somewhere between architecture and biomorphic forms. While in the Arts Project Screening Room the exhibition, Playtime, topically asks how we assess and commodify contemporary ideas of leisure.

This year Alister Hicks has guest-curated Dialogues, which pairs international contemporary galleries in conversation around the theme Talk! Talk! Talk! that focuses on the battle between text and image. Domobaal has included Christopher Hanlon. an interesting painter trained at the Royal College, who paints everyday objects, including stones and aspidistra. These have an uncanny feel. Rooted in the tradition of painting, they engage the viewer in a conversation that subverts the very genre in which they have been fabricated. In contrast, on Division of Labour’s stand, Rosie McGinn’s inflated figures bop up and down like demented, hipsters, challenging you to either love or hate them. The second edition of Platform, Threading Forms curated by Candida Steven, demonstrates the variety of fine art textiles with work that includes the hand-stitched and the machine-made, tapestry, deconstructed fabrics and collage. While Photo50, inspired by Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space, focuses on three main issues: how women occupy space, the psychological effects of space, and how time affects space.

Charlie Smith London Painting
Left Geraldine Swayne Middle Hugh Mendes

The 2020 London Art Fair Museum Partner is the Southampton City Art Gallery. Anyone interested in Modern British art is in for a treat. The works selected reveal the depth and variety of the collection, which has been ‘designated’ by the Arts Council of England as having ‘pre-eminent national significance’. It includes paintings from the Camden Town Group and St. Ives, through to works by Turner prize nominees and winners. Some of the gems on show here are Mark Gertler’s poignant The Rabbi and His Grandchild, 1913, C. W. Nevinson’s tautly modernist Loading Timber Southampton Docks 1917, and a gloriously ebullient Roger Hilton, Figure 61. In the commercial galleries, there are still a number of fine Modern British paintings for sale such as Ivon Hitchens’ Yellow Autumn from a Terrace 1948 at Osborne Samuel.

Other works that caught my eye as I wandered through the many booths were the fine seascapes by Irish artist Donald Teskey at Art First, and the exquisitely detailed pigment prints of trees by Santeri Tuori at Purdy Hicks. While at Giles-Baker Smith there were some rather beautiful tondos of imagined landscapes and cloudy moonlit nights, inspired by photography and English Romanticism, by Gill Rocca.

This is an art fair where, if you are a novice collector, you can still find things worth buying for under a thousand pounds. While for those of you feeling flush there are some very good examples of British Modernism to be had for your walls.

Published in Artlyst

Charlotte Salomon at Jewish Museum London

Published in The London Magazine

Art Criticism

And Still the Flowers Grow
Life? Or Theatre?

Charlotte Salomon, Jewish Museum London
8 November 2019 – 1 March 2020

Although the scientific jury is still out on the matter, there is evidence that trauma can leave a chemical mark on a person’s genes, and then be passed down through subsequent generations. There is no measurable mutation. Instead the mark appears to alter the mechanism by which the gene is converted into functioning proteins. The change is epigenetic rather than genetic. This might go some way to explain the life and work of the German artist Charlotte Salomon (1917-43). For she was, to use the art historian Griselda Pollock’s words, ‘a transgenerational carrier of encrypted trauma, of undisclosed secrets.’

So, who was Charlotte Salomon and why should we remember her work? Well, the first part of the question is easier to answer than the second. Born in Berlin, her family was Jewish, well-to-do and assimilated. Her father, Albert Salomon, fought for Germany in the First World War, later becoming a surgeon. The household was musical, cultured and enjoyed a comfortable life. They celebrated Christmas and went skating. But at the age of eight tragedy hit. Charlotte’s mother died, apparently from influenza, and her father re-married a well-known opera singer, Paula Lindberg. For a while Charlotte attended art school in Berlin, one of a tiny number of Jewish students admitted due to her father’s status as a war veteran. There she won a prestigious prize with her work Death and a Maiden. Though, as a Jew, she was unable to claim it and left soon after.

A shy, introverted girl she was sent, after Kristallnacht, to stay with her grandparents in Villefanche, in Pétain’s France, not yet annexed by the Nazis. In 1940 she and her grandfather were interned in a concentration camp. On their release they went into hiding, helped by a generous American, Ottilie Moore. It was during this period that Charlotte produced her huge, enigmatic and multi-layered artwork Life? or Theatre? She also married the Romanian Jew, Alexander Nagler, before being re-arrested and sent to Auschwitz. Such are the bare bones of her biography. But what is Life? or Theatre?

Put simply it is one of the most original art works of the mid-twentieth century (though it only came to light in the 1970s) and one of the hardest to classify. A visual autobiography where the authorial voice functions like a Greek chorus, the work was created from hundreds of numbered gouache paintings with textual overlays, conceived to be accompanied by musical interludes. A memoir of becoming akin to a self-conducted Freudian analysis, it is an Orphic journey into an underworld of trauma and a fight for psychic survival against the dark forces of a family’s history.

But Life? or Theatre? is no naïve outsider artwork. Rather it is a project of extraordinary ambition and complexity. For all its idiosyncrasy and refusal to be pinned down by fixed meanings, it is firmly rooted in the work of Modernist painters such as Kirchner, Nolde, Käthe Kollwitz, Munch and Van Gogh, as well as the silent Expressionist cinema of German filmmakers such as Fritz Lang. Filmic in its unfolding, it employs the narrative tension of a Greek drama or Bildungsroman. Yet, it is steeped in the tradition of German satirical musical theatre – Singspiele – such as Brecht and Kurt Weill, it can be read as a theatrical ‘happening’, a visual anthem to memory and a mission to find meaning in life through the making of art; all created under the shadow of the Holocaust.

Charlotte Salomon’s family carried many secrets. Her mother, Franziska Grünwald, did not in fact die of influenza, as her eight-year old daughter was led to believe, but by suicide. One of eight female and two male relatives to die by their own hand at a time when suicide was regarded as a sign of degeneration that could infect whole families. Other relatives included Charlotte’s aunt and grandmother (who, like her mother, threw herself out of a window, in an event witnessed by Charlotte). Remembered by those who knew her as a shy, taciturn girl, it was her friendship with the penniless singing teacher, Alfred Wolfsohn, who gave singing lessons to her stepmother, that provided her with a philosophical and artistic road-map out of the slough of despond that she inhabited, of which she wrote: ‘If I can’t enjoy life and work, I will kill myself….’

Wolfsohn had served at the front during the First World War and had been traumatised with shell-shock. To cure himself he developed a mechanism that utilised the voice as a restorative vehicle, suggesting that there was a connection between death, the human soul and artistic expression. It was he who taught Charlotte to look death and trauma in the eye, in order to become free of fear. As a result, she fell deeply in love with him. A love which, despite some evidence of a physical relationship between them, was largely unrequited. Although Wolfsohn played stepmother and stepdaughter against each other, he believed in Charlotte’s artistic ability and gave her the emotional courage to embark on a cathartic journey that led to her death-denying, life-affirming creation Life? or Theatre?

It was in the South of France during the summer of 1940, that she found, with the support of Ottilie Moore, the space to delve deep into her psyche to produce over a thousand images. Divided into three parts: ‘Prelude’, ‘Main Section’ and ‘Epilogue’, not unlike the acts of a play, the ‘actors’ in Life? or Theatre? are types whose naming serves an ironic purpose. They list her dramatis personae, painted in capital letters of red, blue and yellow gouache, approximate to those who peopled her life. In the transparent overlay for The Monster, a blue and red skeleton with huge hands fills the sheet of paper, looming above a row of Lilliputian figures drawn in red. The accompanying text reads in the third person: ‘And whenever she has to walk along the endless wide high dark passage in her grandparents’ home, she imagines something terrible, with skeleton’s limbs that have something to do with her mother. Then she is filled with panic and begins to run- run-run….’ This skeleton is the quintessence of a child’s night terrors. It is Nosferatu, or the German bone man, Knochenmann, a bogeyman that stands in contrast to the daytime images of children playing with hoops in the park or building snow men.

It is only when we are drawn further into the drama, into the image of a copulating couple in The Night Struggle, or the anxious Munchian painting of Charlotte Kann in the bathroom, or the red painting where her alter ego the artist Charlotte Salomon (who signs herself CS) has written, in urgent capital letters, ‘Dear God please let me not go mad’ that we begin to suspect that death, desire and lust are closely interlinked in the destabilisation of this family. Though mythic and elusive, we start to see a history of dysfunction in these texts and images that runs through the generations centred, for Charlotte, on her grandfather.

The young Charlotte Kann kneeling on her bed, dreaming of love. Charlotte Salomon, gouache on paper
The young Charlotte Kann is shown waiting for the angel of her mother to arrive. Charlotte Salomon, 1941–42, gouache on paper
Nazis in the street, Hitler is named chancel- lor of Germany, 30 Jan 1933. Charlotte Salomon, 1941– 42, gouache on paper
‘And from that came: Life or theatre?’ Charlotte Salomon, 1941–42, gouache on paper

At the start of the ‘Prologue’ the paintings are whimsical and full of period detail – a cross between Chagall and the illustrator Edward Ardizzone. But as the work progresses, they become looser, more immediate, more frantic and expressionistic, as if the artist knows that she is running out of time. In several images from the ‘Main Section’, rows of bodies lie inert or half-sleeping, unconsciously prophesying the piles of dead later to be discovered in Auschwitz.

The manuscript of Life? or Theatre? was found safely in the hands of Ottlie Moore. She presented it to Charlotte Salomon’s father and stepmother who had managed to survive the Holocaust in Amsterdam. Not knowing what to do with it, they took advice from Anne Frank’s father, and presented it to the city’s Jewish Museum. It was not, though, until 2012, when Franz Weisz made his film Charlotte, that the ‘Postscript’ pages, written in energetic painted block capitals, which had not formed part of the original donation, were brought to light. In them was the, apparent, shocking confession that Charlotte Salomon had poisoned her grandfather with an omelette laced with the barbiturate Veronal. The case, made by Griselda Pollock, in her enormous Yale Study on the artist, is that we cannot be certain whether this was true or if Charlotte was acting out of a repressed psychic desire. What, perhaps, we can be more sure of in this complex palimpsest, a monumental Modernist artwork that witnessed the rise of fascism, is the familial sexual abuse and domestic incest, which contributed to the many suicides within this family.

The great irony is that the final painting of Life? Or Theatre? shows a young female sitting in a bathing costume painting and looking out towards the blue Mediterranean (a hopeful future?). Inked directly on her back, like a tattoo, are the words Leben oder Theater – minus the question marks. The poignancy of the image is that it suggests, against the odds, that Charlotte Salomon had found a way to confront her traumatic memories through her body of work. That she chose life – only to be sent to Drancy internment camp and then, on the 7 October 1943, to Auschwitz, where on the 10 October, at around four months pregnant at the age of 26, she was gassed – is all the more tragic. Its complex richness Life? or Theatre? remains open to multiple readings. At one and the same time it is a theatre of memory, a confession, a study of gender roles and Jewish subjectivity. A fantasia. But most of all, it is the history of the struggle of one young woman to find, through the practice of painting, a continued reason to live.

Charlotte Salomon painting in the garden of L’Hermitage, c.1939
Collection Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam, © Charlotte Salomon Foundation, Charlotte Sa- lomon®.

Published in The London Magazine

Dora Maar: Shedding The Muse Label

Published in Artlyst

Art Criticism

In 1998 the first sales of the Dora Maar collection were put on sale in Paris. They revealed a life dedicated to photography, painting and poetry, executed in the city’s avant-garde milieu of the 1930s.

Like many female artists, she is best known for her biography as helpmeet to a more famous male artist

Pablo Picasso The Conversation 1937

Maar’s friends included the poet Paul Eluard and the painter Balthus. At the time, the international art market was buzzing with excitement about the Picassos up for auction that season. In comparison, Maar’s work met with relative indifference. For most, her chief claim to fame was – with her dramatic dark hair and smouldering eyes – as a surrealist icon and the ‘muse’ to Picasso’s eternally lachrymose ‘weeping woman’. Like many female artists, she is best known for her biography as helpmeet to a more famous male artist and for her psychological and emotional difficulties. As a result, her artistic output has been overshadowed by Picasso’s giant oeuvre and personality.

This autumn Tate Modern redresses this art-historical redaction with the first UK retrospective of Maar’s surreal photographs, provocative photomontages, and paintings. Her incisive eye spanned six-decades of commercial commissions, social documentary and street photography, moving from Picasso influenced paintings through to abstraction.

Born Henriette Théodora Markovitch in 1907, she preferred to be called Dora. – Her father was an architect and her mother ran a fashion boutique. Raised between Argentina and Paris she had a cosmopolitan childhood, attending one of Paris’s most progressive art schools. In her 20s she turned to commercial photography, as it gave greater security than painting, sharing a darkroom with the photographer Brassai. Young and ambitious, her first photographic commission in 1931 was for a book by the art historian Germain Bazin, followed by publications in a range of magazines from the literary to the commercial. In 1932 she set up a studio with the respected set designer Pierre Kéfer, under the name Kéfer-Dora Maar.

Female photographers were rare between the wars. Maar was described as a ‘brunette huntress of images’. Such language classified women photographers as explorers traversing the boundaries of a society where their autonomy was still largely restricted. Beginning to compete for jobs in fashion, traditionally the domain of men, they were also breaking taboos to work in nude photography and erotica. When Maar entered the workplace, photography was replacing hand drawings in advertisements to promote shampoo and cosmetics such as Ambre Solaire, used for the newly fashionable pastime of sunbathing,

In these interwar years, the idea of the liberated modern women was promoted by advertisers and magazine editors. Maar liked to subvert the idea of a woman’s conventional role by slipping in imagery that was considered daringly modern, such as women wearing trousers or smoking. In two photographs taken for L’Art vivant, she uses photomontage and the insertion of a female model to destabilise the scale of the object advertised – a car – that most modern women could neither afford to own nor were able to drive. Her pictures were created by combining layered negatives to produce a single image that, according to the critic, Rosalind Krauss, ‘ensures that a photograph will be seen as surrealist…and always constructed’. Shots, such as those of Jane Loris, (Prévert) in a bathing suit doing callisthenics, or the erotic experimentations with the model Assia Granatouroff – the model who exemplified the 1930s nude – highlighted the growing interest in health and fitness that had been gaining popularity since the First World War.

Dora Maar Nusch Éluard

The 1930s in Europe saw the worst economic depression in modern times. It was in this climate that photographers used their new art form to document the social deprivation they were witnessing. Some of Maar’s most affecting images were taken in Barcelona and London. Committed to left-wing politics, she not only showed compassion for a lot of those she photographed but had a keen eye for irony. This can be seen in her image, a city businessman down on his luck and looking for work while selling matches. Dressed fastidiously in cravat and pince-nez, holding a bowler hat, he might be off to his Mayfair club.

It was in the winter of 1935-6 that Dora Maar met Pablo Picasso who was emerging from the breakdown of his relationship with Marie-Thérèse Walter, with whom he had a child. He and Maar collaborated together in the darkroom, she teaching him specialised photographic techniques that enabled him to explore the possibilities of cliché verre, (painting combined with photography), while he encouraged her to paint. Her painting, The Conversation 1937, in brown and rust tones, addresses her relationship with Picasso’s former lover. The two women sit at a table. The blonde Marie-Thérèse, with whom Picasso remained close, facing the viewer, the brunette Dora Maar her back turned to them.

After learning of the attack on Guernica, Picasso began making preparatory sketches for his most famous painting, which Maar documented as a commission for Cahiers d’art. In contrast to her photography, her painting is much less known. In the dark war years, during which her father disappeared to Argentina, her mother died and her relationship with Picasso began to break down, she returned to painting, creating melancholy landscapes and still lives of jugs and pears, painted in grey and brown tones that mirrored the dreariness of her solitary life under the Occupation.

Dora Maar and Pablo Picasso

In 1945 Maar began to divide her time between Paris and a new home in the South of France. This saw a period of looser mark making and gestural impressions of nature made in ink, oil and watercolour. Though photography still interested her, the social documentation of the world outside her studio did not. She became more involved in seeing what she could create in the darkroom by laying household objects on photo-sensitive paper or tracing light across the surface. These works were only revealed after her death. In 1946, on the verge of making her name, she had stopped exhibiting. The psychic distress following her breakup with Picasso led to a decade long silence when she did not show her work, though she did continue to create in the privacy of her studio.

And how should we rate her now? While her painting is always in danger of being compared with the great talent of her lover Picasso, it is her witty, stylish and compassionate photographs that caught the zeitgeist of the times in which she lived, that are likely to be her true legacy.

Top Photo Dora Maar (detail) “The years lie in wait for you” (c. 1935). (Portrait of Nusch Eluard). Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper

Published in Artlyst

Rembrandt-Velázquez and de Hooch: Two Major Autumn Exhibitions

Published in Artlyst

Art Criticism

If you are planning an imminent trip to the Netherlands, there are two must-see exhibitions on at the moment. Pieter de Hooch in Delft: From the Shadow of Vermeer at the Museum Prinsenhof, Delft and Rembrandt-Velázquez: Dutch & Spanish Masters at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Known as the Golden Age of painting, the 17th century was artistically an enormously fruitful time

By 1650 the bustling, prosperous city of Delft had emerged as one of the country’s leading artistic centres. Among its residents were painters such as Johannes Vermeer, Carel Fabritius and Hendrick van Vliet. It was then that Pieter de Hooch, the son of a bricklayer from Rotterdam, moved to the city of his mother’s birth to begin a radically new tradition of painting. At the start of his career, he painted primarily soldiers. Guardroom scenes of drinking and card games in a muted palette, often with a serving girl in attendance. In these genre works, he paid little attention to defining the surrounding space and architectural elements – something that would later become his hallmark. Domestic interiors were often crudely depicted in brown and grey brush strokes, in contrast to the bright colours and details of the figures. In A Seated Soldier with a Standing Serving Woman, for example, the bright red of the woman’s dress and the reflections on the metal of the soldier’s cuirass, stand out against the indistinct dark background, demonstrating De Hooch’s growing skill of capturing the effects of light.

Pieter de Hooch Card Players in a Sunlit Room 1658

However, it was after 1655 that he began to portray the domestic life behind the facades of Delft houses. This was an innovation. He was 29 years old and producing stunning works of courtyards and interiors full of warmth and saturated light. What is so pioneering about these paintings is not, simply, the exact rendering of detail – the brick walls and tiled floors painted with separate brushstrokes as if to make his bricklayer father proud or the experimental perspectives and radiant light beaming into these spare, tranquil domestic settings through open doors – but the prominence of the feminine. Over and over again, De Hooch produces scenes of great tenderness where women and children are the central protagonists. A woman in a white bonnet holds the hand of a small girl. Their gaze is both sensitive and mutual — one of caring familiarity. A bucket and broom caste on the brick floor of the courtyard suggests ongoing domestic chores. The woman may have been a maid. In the left-hand of the painting is another woman – possibly the lady of the house – with her back to the viewer. She is standing in an archway that leads through to another courtyard flooded with light. On loan from the National Gallery of London, this painting is one of six dated 1658 and is, rightly, among De Hooch’s most famous works.

Along with The Mother, that depicts a woman unlacing her red bustier to feed an infant lying in a crib on the floor beside her, and A Mother Delousing her Child’s Hair, known as ‘A Mother’s Duty’, it shows an astonishing empathy with the lives of women. De Hooch presents 17th century Delft as a place where one would have liked to live. Life, here, is comfortable, bourgeois, unhurried and orderly. Dogs wander in an out. Men and women chat companionably. In A Mother’s Duty, the fur of the small mutt sitting on the brick floor staring out into the garden is illuminated by the light from the open door. He is both a doggy dog and a symbol of fidelity. It is, perhaps, not too far-fetched to say that in these mother and children scenes De Hooch presents a secular vision of Madonna and Child. Later, he was to move to Amsterdam and paint a more affluent clientele, in more opulent interiors. However, it is the paintings executed in Delft that created his reputation. The aim of this one-off exhibition is to bring him out from beneath the shadow of the more famous Vermeer, to restore his affectionate, beautifully observed paintings of light and perspective to their rightful place within the canon of 17th-century Dutch art.
Rembrandt Self Portrait

Rembrandt Self Portrait as the Apostle Paul 1661

Over in Amsterdam, there is a special collaboration between the Rijksmuseum and the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid to mark the Year of Rembrandt, 2019 and the 200th anniversary of the Prado. The exhibition presents an outstanding selection of paintings by 17th century Dutch and Spanish masters including Rembrandt, Velázquez, Murillo, Hals, Zubarán and Vermeer. Known as the Golden Age of painting, the 17th century was artistically an enormously fruitful time for both the Netherlands and Spain. Although there was no direct contact between south and north, it is fascinating to see the stylistic and intellectual synchronicity between the different artists. Paintings of these masters have been displayed in pairs. This extenuates both similarities and divergences. Themes range through religion and faith, wealth and love, to the use of light and shadow.

Nothing tells us more about the personalities and differences of Rembrandt and Velázquez than their self-portraits. Velázquez with his handsome head of dark hair, waxed mustache and courtly white ruff sits beside Rembrandt with his beefy pug nose, in a black velvet beret and jerkin. Though they inhabited very different social milieus, their bravura artistic skill, along with their understanding of human nature, renders them supreme among artists of their time. Though, for my money, it will always be Rembrandt, with his existential gaze, which turns the emotional screws the tightest to bring tears to the eyes.

Catholic Spain and the Protestant north are exemplified by Zubarán’s symbol of Christ’s suffering, the ‘Mystic Lamb’, which is shown alongside a spare and sparsely decorated Protestant Church by Sendredam. Here iconoclasm is banished as the Word of God resounds from the pulpit. One highly imaginative paring is that of Zubarán’s St. Serapion, 1628 set beside the Threatened Swan 1650 by Jan Asselijn. The former shows the saint, his arms raised and bound in flowing white sleeves, sacrificing himself for his faith while the fluttering white wings of the swan become a symbol for Johan de Witt, who was assassinated in 1672 for his political beliefs.

Velázquez The Buffoon El Primo 1644

Two outdoor scenes by Velázquez and Vermeer, View of the Gardens of the Villa Medici in Rome circa 1650 and Vermeer’s View of Houses of Delft circa 1658, illustrate their interest in the use of horizontal and vertical effects within the picture plane. However, if this was a competition, the Vermeer wins hand down for atmosphere and intimacy. Meditation and religious reveries are explored in a pairing of Murillo and Rembrandt. While Murillo shows Christ before his crucifixion as a Man of Sorrows, Rembrandt paints his own son Titus as a Franciscan monk bringing secular love into the work.

During this period Spain and the Netherlands were very different, though yoked together by war for much of these artists lives. Spain was a long-established Catholic world power, while the Netherlands was a nascent small Protestant republic, with an emerging middle-class. Nevertheless, for both these countries, the 17th century proved to be a Golden Age for art.

Top Photo: King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands and King Felipe VI of Spain officially opened the Rembrandt-Velázquez exhibition. Photo courtesy Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam Inset photos 2-4 by Sue Hubbard ©

Rembrandt-Velázquez: Dutch & Spanish Masters 11 October 2019 – 19 January 2020 Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam – Pieter de Hooch: From the Shadow of Vermeer Museum Prinsenhof, Delft October 11, 2019 through February 16, 2020

Published in Artlyst

Susan Hiller
An Appreciation

Published in Artlyst

Art Criticism

On my way to Tate Modern in the rain, last night, I smiled, thinking just how much Susan Hiller would have liked that there was to be an evening there in her honour. Susan could be famously grumpy and the last time we had lunch together she spent much of it complaining that the Tate didn’t support her or women artists. She was, justifiably, cross, too, that she’d never been made an RA’ ‘Some of my students have, but I don’t fit. I’m not part of the establishment.’ But this grumpy aspect was but a small part of her complex, generous personality. Erudite, eclectic, well-read and curious she was one of the most original minds I’ve had the privilege of knowing.

Her brilliance was both critical and aesthetic

I first met her in 1999 when I and the artist/critic Simon Morley invited her to be part of an ambitious touring show, Chora, which had the paradoxical goal of representing the unrepresentable and naming the unnameable, grounded in the Platonic concept of the chora as explored by Julia Kristeva. This notion sought to name a ‘receptacle of becoming’ or a ‘placeless place’ that was central to chart – using psychoanalytic methodology – a level of consciousness that lay beyond the ‘prison-house of language’.

Susan Hiller & Robin Klassnik, ‘Running on Empty’, 2017. Stills from single channel video on monitor with sound. Courtesy of the estate of Susan Hiller and Matt’s Gallery, London

Susan was immediately interested in the idea and offered us Study for Alphabets I, 1989. C-Type photograph on Agfa lustre. These luminous ‘graphisms’ (as Barthes called such ‘words’ in his writing on Cy Twombly) looked like delicate Chinese ideograms. Automatism was, for Hiller, a means of escaping the hierarchies of a male language system into a more ‘feminine’ ‘fruitful incoherence’. She was, to her core, a feminist and champion of the female voice. Language, gender and desire were the terrain of her work. Going where few artists of her generation and even fewer of the current generation dared go, she stretched boundaries between disciplines, ideas and concepts. The marginalised, the ephemeral and the everyday, were represented in ways that were strange, surprising and uncanny.

Her brilliance was both critical and aesthetic. An American by birth she studied at Smith College and did graduate work in anthropology. Having completed her PhD, she became disillusioned by academia and, during a lecture on African art, according to her friend the writer Lucy Lippard, began taking notes in pictures rather than words, an experience she called ‘an exquisite sensation’. Thus, began her exploration of the dialectics of inside and outside, her pursuit of both ‘analysis and ecstasy’ sought in the space between the ‘rational’ and ‘irrational.’ Inhabiting the ground between the spiritual and the mundane, she was continuously searching for a new language outside that of the dominant culture.

Dream and psychoanalytic investigations were of huge importance. From her Dream Mapping (1974) to her stunningly original installation From the Freud Museum 1992-94, (commissioned by the Freud Museum and later shown at the Tate). The Sisters of Menon, originally shown in 1973, was a received ‘dictation’ that arrived in a dream. Menon being an anagram for both ‘no men’ and ‘nomen’ or ‘name’.

Susan’s cultural interests were enormous, as was the range of materials with which she chose to make her work from photographs, films, videos, books and ashes. She played with the dynamics of a Punch and Judy show, investigated science fiction and UFOs. In Belshazzar’s Feast, the 1983 video installation acquired by the Tate, she explored through her tongues of flame – that in themselves resemble a form of automatic writing – the rehabilitation of a dormant collective imagination, whilst managing to evoke images of home and hearth and the holocaust.

Susan Hiller: Ghost / TV
25 September – 27 October
Matt’s Gallery London

Published in Artlyst

Tate frames William Blake

Published in The Art Newspaper

Art Criticism

Nearly two centuries after his death, the visionary artist’s work has a new relevance in a fractured and febrile Britain

LONDON. Major exhibitions are a long time in the making but Tate Britain’s survey of William Blake’s (1757-1827) work, the largest in the UK for a generation, could not be more prescient. The British poet and painter’s exploration of the narratives of Albion—the ancient, mythological name for Britain—point to a central question for our times: what does it mean to be British?

Living in London’s Soho and Lambeth in the late 1790s, he was well aware of the atmosphere of febrile radicalism. The outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 gave a political urgency to his views, while new radical groups were emerging in the British capital, demanding political change. Blake was employed as an engraver by the Unitarian bookseller Joseph Johnson, which became a centre for prominent radicals including Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft.

Out of this intellectual ferment, Blake created some of the most emblematic images in the history of British art and has been an inspiration to numerous artists and writers.

Tate Britain will bring together more than 300 of the artist’s rarely seen works and re-imagine his output as he intended it to be experienced. Vast frescos that were never fully realised, such as The Spiritual Form of Nelson Guiding Leviathan (around 1805-09), will be brought to life by being digitally enlarged and projected onto the gallery walls.

Vast frescoes that were never realised will be brought to life by being projected onto the gallery walls in a new light

Blake’s colour engraving Albion Rose (around 1793) is loosely based on Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man

The exhibition will include a recreation of Blake’s ill-fated 1809 exhibition in a room above his family hosiery shop, the artist’s only significant attempt to enter the public arena as a painter, and will open with Albion Rose (around 1793), a nude male figure loosely based on Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, that explores the founding myth of Britain. This ideal is set against the prevalence of what Blake saw as the evils of populism and austerity that have their parallels in our own current politics. This extraordinary seer, who foreshadowed Surrealism and Expressionism, has found a fresh relevance in our moment of national crisis nearly two centuries after his death.

The exhibition is supported by Tate Patrons and Members.
William Blake, Tate Britain, London, 11 September- 2 February 2020

Published in The Art Newspaper

Review of 58th Venice Biennale

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

Venice, that city of dreams and the inspiration for artists and writers from Turner to Italo Calvino, sees its 58th art biennale. As thousands flock to the event the gorgeous palazzi sink ever further into the lagoon, damaged by the huge commercial cruise ships that daily disgorge yet more tourists into the fragile infrastructure. A fitting image of our propensity for self-destruction in these dystopian times.

Arriving in the Giardini I found clouds of vapour enveloping the main pavilion, courtesy of the Italian artist Lara Favaretto. It’s an appropriate metaphor for this year’s event, in which narratives seem to dissolve in a white mist of nebulous noise. Curated by Ralph Rugoff of London’s Hayward Gallery, May You Live in Interesting Times sees degradation and dissonance played out around every corner. Ice caps melt, oceans are polluted, bombs are thrown and the emotions expressed frequently turn out to be those from ersatz non-humans. And if it all that gets too much there’s always dance or a touch of shamanism to take your mind off things. As the world collapses we can bop along in the Swiss Pavilion with five performers whose backwards motions generate ‘new, alternative forms of resistance and action’ or we can read the runes with a Korean female medium. If there’s nothing left to believe in we can always grasp at straws.

The long queues for Laure Provost’s installation in the French pavilion show that there’s an appetite for doom-laden imagery. Entering through an underground dug-out of piled earth, we’re invited to climb the metal staircase onto a sea-green resin floor littered with detritus and interspersed with sea-creatures made from local Murano glass. This turns out to be the prelude to a perplexing but vibrant video that starts in the banlieues of Paris and ends in Venice. A postmodern Odyssey in which migrants look longingly out to sea and sing. Dancers and acrobats do their stuff and a slithering squid climbs the steps to the pavilion.

Next door, in the British pavilion, Turner prize nominee Cathy Wilkes’ offering looks superficially similar. There’s more debris. A wooden frame covered with stretched muslin is strewn with dried flowers. A twist of silver paper, a two pence coin, an empty toilet roll and a grubby hairband – the sort of stuff found at the back of the kitchen drawer – sit around the edge. Wilkes’ work isn’t about the impending political or global disaster but evokes the Proustian echoes of her suburban childhood. Standing around the gallery, like a watchful chorus, are a collection of small, bald-headed ET figures, each with a stuck-on pregnant belly. Elsewhere disembodied arms poke from a white washing-up bowl. A reminder, no doubt, of women’s work and the Sisyphean task of endless domesticity. Yet for all the apparent feminism and poeticism of Wilkes’ installation, it never quite gets to grips with the space.

Move next door to Canada and you’ll come across a fascinating but lengthy video – videos dominate this year’s biennale and there’s simply not enough time to sit and watch them all, this is not, after all, a film festival – set in a wasteland of ice. Isuma means to contemplate in the Innuit language and is the name of the first Innuit art collective that comes together to breath new life into stories and traditions that hover on the edge of extinction. In Finland there’s yet more ice. MWC’s collective film The Killing of Čáhcerávga poses questions, among lonely snowy plains, about itinerancy, movement and borders. When you’ve had enough of the frozen north you can always wander to sunnier climes, to Brazil, where a two-channel video, Swinguerra (swing and war – oh do keep up!), pulses with the energy of a transgender, non-binary dance group clad in lycra and mini-shorts. Started as a grassroots movement, there are some excellent dancers here, but it’s more of a documentary feature than an artwork.

Over in the Korean pavilion, we’re asked to consider who writes history and decides what should be remembered through the work of three women artists – Siren Eun Young Jung, Hwayeon Ban and Jane Jin Kaisen. Jung, the winner of the Korea Art Prize 2018, shows film footage of Lee Dueng-woo who performed mainly male parts in a 1950s all-women theatre troupe, while Kaisen explores ancient female shamanistic rituals handed down through the generations. In the Danish pavilion, you’ll find one of the most affecting works (for my money) in the Giardini by the Palestinian artist Larissa Sansour. Heirloom is a stark rumination on memory, history and identity. Her two-channel, science-fiction black and white film, In Vitro, is staged in Bethlehem decades after an eco-disaster, where the dying founder of a subterranean orchard speaks with her young successor who was born underground and has never seen the city. Beautifully weaving myth and reality, Sansour explores themes of inherited trauma, exile and collective memory.

In contrast to all this time based-work, the American pavilion is a haven of calm. African-American sculptor Martin Puryear has created elegant forms that play with notions of American identity. Outside the pavilion, Swallowed Sun (Monstrance and Volute) consists of two parts. A perforated pale-wood mesh screen, like something from a cathedral, stands in front of a vast black serpentine tube inspired by the detail of a Greek column, suggesting the play between dark and light. American history and liberty are explored in A Column for Sally Hemmings with its references to the horrors of slavery. Meticulously crafted in pine and steel, Puryear’s work carries the sense of the artist’s hand that’s largely absent elsewhere.

48 War Movies by Christian Marclay

This year the number of artists in the biennale has shrunk. Those taking part each have two works, one in the Giardini and another in the Arsenale. Over in the cavernous Arsenale (Venice’s former naval yard), the dystopian vision continues. Ed Atkins installation – rows of theatrical costumes hung alongside CGI videos with a caste of emoting waxy-faced characters – is uncanny and disturbing. Though quite how this links with his gouache works of hands, feet and tarantulas in the Giardini is not immediately obvious. Elsewhere, Christian Marclay of The Clock fame has produced an uncomfortable work 48 War Movies (2019) in which war films that both assault and weary, sit one inside another in a tingling nest of rectangles.

I Have Child’s Feet by Mari Katayama

Move on to the work of the Japanese artist Mari Katayama who, born with a rare congenital disorder has had her legs amputated at the age of nine, and there’s a degree of uncomfortable ambiguity. In I Have Child’s Feet, she poses in seductive lacy underwear in a boudoir crammed with home-made cushions and fabrics, along with her small outgrown prosthetic legs (suggesting the Japanese tradition of foot binding). This might either be read as a peon to overcoming physical adversity or as a sexualised fetishization of the amputee in the manner of J. G. Ballard’s Crash. Take your pick.

For, In Your Tongue I Cannot Fit by Shilpa Gupta

Much of the work in this biennale feels glazed with a coating of political posturing but, in the Arsenale, one work (for me at least) stood out; For, In your tongue I cannot fit by Mumbai artist Shilpa Gupta’s. In a darkened space, a thicket of 100 microphones hangs above a 100 metal spikes, each of which pierces a white page of printed poetry written by a jailed poet. A single microphone plays these verses, echoed by the other 99, to create a haunting recital of loss and repression based on a poem by the 14th-century Azerbaijani poet, Nesimi. It’s an affecting, spare and quietly powerful work.

But the talk of the biennale has been the Lithuanian pavilion, which won the Golden Lion for an international presentation. On the day I went, it was pouring with rain and there was a two hour wait to get in. People were getting very angry as others tried to jump the queue in the downpour. We even managed to get the pavilion shut down for several hours when accosted by a man with an Eastern European accent who kept cursing us ‘Europeans’ and appeared to have some sort of device in his pocket. So was the wait worth it when we finally did get in? Well, the opera Sun & Sea (Marina) with its cast of 20 presented by Rugilė Barzdžuikaitė, Viava Grainytė and Lina Lapelytė, set on an artificial beach, is certainly engaging. From a high balcony of an old Venetia warehouse, viewers look down on performers of all ages and sizes who loll around on the sand, eat pasta salad from Tupperware boxes, scroll through their phones and sing about climate change as seagulls screech and ice cream vans sound in the distance. The suggestion is that the end of the world may not come to end with a bang but a whimper while we’re lazing around and looking the other way. It’s an arresting piece that melds opera, theatre and installation but reading through the libretto it seemed rather weak, albeit a translation.

Perhaps the piece that best sums up the ambiguities of this year’s proceedings is not even an artwork but the rusted and torn hull of a fishing boat stationed outside the Arsenale. This was the boat that sank in the Mediterranean in April 2015 on its way from Tripoli with its migrant crew of 800. All but 27 of those on board died. The artist Christoph Büchel has installed it, without labels or comment, as a project named Barca Nostra’ (Our boat). Viewing it is an extremely uncomfortable experience. It’s hard not to imagine the panic, the cries of despair and terror of those on board as the boat went down. Placed outside one of the Arsenale cafes where people sip Aperol spritz and espresso, it illustrates not only the prevailing concerns of the art world but something of the detached insouciance and ersatz engagement posing as concern that seems to dominate this year’s biennale.

Frank Bowling
In The Presence Of A Significant Painter

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Art Criticism

It’s rare to walk into an exhibition and be bowled over (forgive the pun). To encounter work that touches the heart as well as the mind in these insouciant times. Frank Bowling’s exhibition at Tate Britain is one such rare show, reminding us of what painting can do. We can only wonder why it has taken six decades for him to have this sort of recognition. That he is black, that his primary influences came first from Francis Bacon and then from America abstract expressionism, at a time when the art world was shunning depth and existential exploration in favour of surface and irony, must have something to do with it. His acceptance at the Royal College of Art in 1959, a year after the Notting Hill race riots, is not only a testament to his talent but a reminder of the tone of the times in which he found himself an art student.

Abstract Expression has had a bad press for the last few decades. It’s been seen as the art of white males busy climbing on pedestals.

From the moment you walk into the Tate show, you know you are in the presence of a significant painter. Born in 1934 in Bartica, British Guiana (now Guyana) Frank Bowling grew up in New Amsterdam where his mother ran a successful store. At the age of 19, he moved to London to become a poet. A period in the Royal Air Force as a regular serviceman was to have a big impact. It was there he met the artist Keith Critchlow who introduced him to the London art scene. After studying at Regent Street Polytechnic and Chelsea School of Art, he was awarded a scholarship to the Royal College where he studied alongside David Hockney, Patrick Caufield and Pauline Boty. Initially rejected because he didn’t have a background in life drawing, he was rescued and funded by the head of painting, Carel Weight. But where Bowling’s contemporaries turned to Pop art, he embraced the poetry of abstract expressionism. A move to New York in 1966 was seminal. His influences became Rothko and Barnet Newman, his concerns history and the exploration of space and time, rather than the iconography and irony of the everyday.

Frank Bowling: Installation Tate Britain, Level 2 Gallery

Bowling has said he dislikes the fact the Tate show is chronological but for those who are not that familiar with his output it makes sense. Bowling’s early work is filled with figurative elements. In Birthday 1962, a contorted figure lies on a bed, framed by an open window. The raw isolation, the movement of paint and muscular tension all suggest the influence of Francis Bacon. In Big Bird 1964, we can see the push-pull between the gestural and the abstract. The grid-like background, suggestive of Piet Mondrian on whom he wrote his graduation thesis, creates a formal tension with the violent Bacon-like movement of the wounded birds.
Move to Middle Passage and this large painting, with its melting sunset reds and yellows overlaying bilious greens – the colours of Guyana’s flag – is a reminder of the tragic journeys Europeans forced millions of enslaved Africans to take across the Atlantic. The repeated screen prints of his mother and children are virtually submerged by the fiery colours, suggesting JMW Turner’s 1840 Slave Ship, originally titled Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying- Typhoon Coming On. The veils of paint and use abstraction provide a way to speak of the unspeakable. In 1971 he produced the extraordinary Polish Rebecca, one of six paintings presented at the Witney Museum of American Art show that year, which refers to the Polish heritage of Ad Reinhardt’s wife. With its loose representation of the continental shapes of Africa and Europe, it makes poignant reference to both Jewish and African diasporas.

Around 1973 Bowling started to pour paint onto his canvases as a response to Clement Greenberg’s stance on formalism. This spilling resulted in works such as Tony’s Anvil 1975, dedicated to the late sculptor Tony Caro and the lush Ziff of 1974. Joyful and less angsty than Pollock, they’re a celebration of the texture, sensuality and possibilities of paint. His use of colour is quite simply gorgeous, perhaps almost too gorgeous for modern tastes. The pinks and purples of Devil’s Sole 1980 and Bartica Bressary are like Rothko’s Seagram murals upped a notch to let in more light, life and pleasure. Yet an interest in the existential, infinity and space are there too, especially in the muted surface of Vitacress 1981, with its suggestion of galaxies, distant planets and dark voids.

Frank Bowling: Installation Tate Britain, Level 2 Gallery

In Great Thames IV 1988-9 the canvas is covered in gloopy acrylic gel, paint and foam that shimmers like the accumulated debris gathered on the surface the great river. Found objects – lighters, bottle tops, bits of his grandson’s girlfriend’s dress – litter these light-filled paintings that pay homage not only to Gainsborough and John Constable but also to Turner and Monet. This magpie approach implies generosity and inclusivity. Everything, Bowling seems to be saying, as if he were the Walt Whitman [1] of paint, is of value if only we can see it.

Abstract Expression has had a bad press for the last few decades. It’s been seen as the art of white males busy climbing on pedestals. Bowling has rescued it from their clutches, bringing to it his unique voice, melding debates on modernist practice with the vibrancy and freshness of his Guyanan background. Thus turning it from an essentially European movement into a global one.

At 85 he is increasingly frail. He orchestrates his bevy of helpers, including his grandson, from a chair in the middle of the room like a conductor, directing the action with his keen eye and his laser pointer. In a world obsessed with youth, too many significant artists tend to be overlooked in their middle years. Some continue in obscurity, but for others, advanced age gives a fresh chance for visibility. When she was in her 90s, a callow young journalist asked Louise Bourgeois what it was like to become famous so late in life. ‘I have’, she answered acerbically, ‘been here all along’.

Frank Bowling has also ‘been here all along’, painting his gorgeous, intelligent light-filled paintings. It‘s just we have been too blind, to distracted by irony and kitsch until now, to give them their due. Luckily recognition has come in his lifetime. It is justly deserved.

Words: Sue Hubbard © Artlyst 2019 Photos Courtesy Tate Britain
Frank Bowling Tate Britain 31 May – 26 August 2019

Cathy Wilkes
Resurrecting The Forgotten British Pavilion
Venice Biennale

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Art Criticism

May you live in interesting times is the overarching theme of this year’s Biennale. Dystopia and dissonance are everywhere played out in the themes of climate change and post-human CGI that take us to some dark places. This 2019 Biennale could well be the last when Great Britain (as we are still called in the Biennale catalogue) is a part of Europe. So the choice for this year’s Pavilion being a Northern Irish artist, who lives in Scotland, is interesting. Working across the media of sculpture, painting and installation Cathy Wilkes was nominated for the Turner Prize in 2008, won the inaugural Maria Lassnig Prize in 2017 and has already represented Scotland at the Venice Biennale in 2005.

At her best Wilkes brings a nostalgic resonance to the ephemera she appropriates from daily life.

Cathy Wilkes – British Pavilion Venice

In contrast to the big political statements of many of the other pavilions, she has stuck with determinedly autobiographical themes. There is no mention of Brexit, of global warming or the rise of the far right. Instead, using the most fragile of materials, she returns to that creative well-spring, which has fed artists and writers from Louise Bourgeois to Proust, childhood. Her uncanny installations evoke places of loss transformed through the prism of memory. Often they are occupied by beings of unspecified age or gender.

Constructed with ‘non-art’ materials, in the tradition of arte povera, her sculptures are distinctive and personal. In the first gallery, the viewer is confronted by a wooden frame covered in thin white muslin. Placed on and around this are tiny objects: a dried grasshopper, a twist of silver paper, a two pence coin, an empty toilet roll, and a grubby hair band. This is the sort of detritus found when cleaning out the kitchen drawer. The discards of the domestic, the things we forget. Strewn over the muslin are sprigs of dried flowers and grasses that conjure Ophelia’s offerings of rue and daisies to Hamlet, “withered all when my father died.” Small tokens of memento mori not, here, for a lost father but for a past self. Also surrounding this empty muslin tomb are several enigmatic figures who, with their bald-baby ET heads and clip-on pregnant stomachs, appear like a chorus of detached, yet observant witnesses.

Cathy Wilkes – British Pavilion Venice

Elsewhere a pair of amputated arms clutch a dirty white towel. They might be mopping up a muddy kitchen floor after a stream of children, or the dog has just marched in from the rain. Another arm pokes from a cheap washing up bowl. In its hand is a well-used Brillo pad. This mirrors the daily ritual and oppression of women’s work, creating a reflection of the unsung actions that make up domestic life. A vintage green dress sits on a tailor’s dummy in the centre of the gallery covered in small photos. They show a child in a handmade knitted hat sipping soup. The same image appears on the wall opposite, a homage perhaps, to the relentless nurturing of the feminine.

Throughout the pavilion, the props and ephemera of suburban life: cheap crystal jugs and bowls, flowered crockery and grubby net curtains, a broken sheet of glass reminiscent of the kind to be found in many a modest suburban front door, have been decontextualised and used to invoke the melancholy of nostalgia. The past, this work seems to imply is, indeed, another country where they do things differently.

Wilkes own statements concerning her practice are somewhat gnomic. She’s said that “I solemnise and dignify the ghosts of interference which proceed from their origin and whip themselves up before me. I observe, they nucleate and propagate. If I could disappear, how fluid, how graceful and unending, how undisturbed and unpredictable would be the changing patterns thereabout.”

Cathy Wilkes – British Pavilion Venice

I’d very much hoped to interview her as her subject matter is close to my own heart as a poet, but she does not give interviews. This is a pity. For exploring the thought processes of an artist through mutual dialogue can often provide a deeper understanding of their practice. I did, however, manage to catch up with Emma Dexter, Director of Visual Arts at British Council for a quick word in a quiet spot behind the pavilion. Did she, I wondered, feel that the sense of personal loss implicit in Wilkes’ work could be read as a wider metaphor for the national losses of Brexit? In response, she insisted, the British Council’s role was not political and that Wilkes was chosen by a team of curators solely for ‘the urgency of the work’. Her elected mutism could, she suggested, be considered as an extension of her ‘non-hierarchical’ practice, in which she is concerned with ‘the erasure of information’. ‘There is,’ she added’, a certain musical quality in the different registers of her found objects’.

At her best Wilkes brings a nostalgic resonance to the ephemera she appropriates from daily life, giving voice to what has been discarded and ignored. In her hands, the Brillo pad becomes a madeleine that resurrects the forgotten, and half-remembered. In contrast, the paintings included here seem unnecessary and a bit laboured. This is a mixed show. There are, indeed, some quiet, reflective, poetic moments but they would probably be more suited to the intimacy of a smaller space. Over six rooms, the whole is spread too thin and never quite gets to grip with the architectural scale of the pavilion.

Words: Sue Hubbard © Artlyst 2019
Top Photo: Cathy Wilkes by Martin Brown ©
All Other Photos P C Robinson © Artlyst

Chantal Joffe
Her Own Sense Of Being

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Art Criticism

Chantal Joffe Victoria Miro London: In his seminal 1972 book Ways of Seeing, the late John Berger claimed that: ‘A woman must continually watch herself…From earliest childhood, she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself…She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because of how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another…One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at…Thus she turns herself into an object — and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.’

Joffe asserts her right to be herself, someone who inhabits her unique presence, her own skin not for another, least of all for a man.

Berger argued that the ongoing connection between post-Renaissance European painting of women and contemporary sexualised posters and images in girly magazines determined our understanding of femininity. The contemporary woman portrait painter, therefore, has to deal not only with the mechanistic and aesthetic problems of paint and picture surface but with the weight of this legacy. She has to ask who and what she is painting and who that painting is for.

The artist Chantal Joffe takes this conundrum by the painterly horns in her two new Victoria Miro exhibitions, held across both galleries, in Mayfair and Islington. The Front of My Face in the West End presents a series of self-portraits in all their unflattering, existential angst. Looking at them reminded me of Martin Luther’s proclamation at the 1521 Diet of Worms: ‘Here I stand, I can do no other’. Whilst Luther was asserting his Christian faith, Joffe a 21st-century woman painter, asserts her right to be herself, someone who inhabits her unique presence, her own skin, not for another, least of all for a man. She is simply there. Being. Thinking. Feeling. Even for a male painter such as Freud, in his defiant Painter Working 1993, where he stands with his old man’s body, naked in a pair of unlaced boots, artist’s palette in hand, such candidness is rare.

Chantal Joffe documents her face and its changing moods. She lurks behind the sculptural slabs of paint, the eyes both sad and watchful, confrontational yet fearful. The mouth is downturned. The lips sealed as if in a refusal to give anything away. She appears to be collapsing under the weight of herself. Her flesh sags. There are deep grooves around her nose, imperfections and bags beneath her eyes. At times, as in Self-Portrait V January, she seems to transmogrify into a man. This is not some gender-bending exercise but a refusal to conform to perceived notions of prettiness and femininity. She presents us with uncensored versions of how she feels on any particular day: sad, wistful, fearful, anxious, ugly, defiant. Each of her paintings is a meditation of sorts, her face a barometer of fleeting and ever-changing moods. There’s also a defiant humour as she presents herself against the grain of the ubiquitous self-enhancing selfie that always attempts to show its subject in the most flattering light. There’s a refusal to glamorise, titillate or flatter.

Having interviewed her in the past, I know that we share a common interest in the work of the early 20th-century German Expressionist artist, Paula Modersohn-Becker, about whom I wrote a novel. Modersohn-Becker, both in her self-portraits and depictions of peasants from the north German moors, sought truth over conventional beauty, psychological insight and empathy over aestheticism. Her influence on Chantal Joffe, who has many postcards of her paintings around her studio, has been considerable. As has the work of the American painter, Alice Neel, not only in the way Neel loosely applies paint but in how she empathises and identifies with her subject.

Over in Wharf Road, Joffe presents a series of large-scale paintings of teenagers that document their mixture of vulnerability and insouciant, ‘whatever’ cool. The gaze of these young women is not so uncompromising as those of the self-portraits. They glance sideways or look at the floor from beneath heavy-lidded almond eyes. In a full-length portrait of a girl (her daughter) in a white shirt and grey mini-skirt, her arms hang awkwardly by her sides as though she’d much prefer to be elsewhere. The large horizontal portrait with plaits, lying on a dark grey sofa, chunky legs exposed beneath a checked green mini-dress, presents her as part sexualised odalisque and part vulnerable bolshie teenager. It’s in the portrait on the beach, hands on hips, dressed in a checked skirt like the grid from a Modernist painting, carrying a black handbag and wearing a little round, rather 1950s hat, that we sense her defiance. Ironically, the most vulnerable portrait is the single painting of a young man. With his hairless baby-pink chest and brown nipples, he looks uncomfortably at the floor with a sidelong stare.

The subject of Joffe’s painting is always life, which she gives us warts, anxiety and all. She charts the process of living and ageing, tracing the difficulties, disappointments and small victories it throws up like a series of maps on the landscape of the faces she paints. Few do so with such disarming honesty.

Chantal Joffe Victoria Miro 14 George Street, London W1S 1FE and 16 Wharf Road, London N1 7RW Until 18th May 2019

Diane Arbus
Street Of Secrets

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Art Criticism

My favourite thing is to go where I’ve never been’ wrote the photographer Diane Arbus, the poor little rich Jewish girl who walked on the wild side. Though the journeys she took were not just physical adventures along the boardwalks of Coney Island or to gender-bending night clubs but those in which she explored the rocky terrain of self-definition. From the start of her career she saw the street as a place full of secrets and reflected her subjects – whether children, the rich or poor, it didn’t matter – as isolated and adrift, remote from society and the world around them, caught up in their own reveries and physical space.  Her caste of characters appear like metaphors for themselves; each striving to make him or herself the starring role in their own private psychodrama.

Arbus was one of the first to give equal weight and value to all her subjects

Born Diane Nemerov to a Jewish couple who lived in New York City and owned Russek’s, a famous Fifth Avenue department store, she was insulated during the 1930s Depression by their wealth. Raised by maids and governesses, with a mother who suffered from depression, while her father was mostly absent with work, her early years coloured her emotional landscape. At the age of 18, in 1941, she received her first camera from her husband, Allan Arbus, and started making photographs, which she continued to do sporadically for well over a decade. During the early years the couple were engaged in a moderately successful career in fashion photography—she as the art director/stylist, he as the photographer/technician—using the credit line “Diane & Allan Arbus.” In 1956, she left the business partnership and committed herself full-time to her own work.

When she first took to the streets her photographic landscapes, which included Time Square, Coney Island and the street fairs of Little Italy, were similar to those of her predecessors and contemporaries such as Paul Strand and Lee Friedlander. But her photographs, snatched through doorways and shop windows, display a dispassionate voyeurism, rendering her something of an urban anthropologist who objectively observed the strange customs and happenings that she stumbled upon. Through her eyes, the mundane became edgy, whether she was photographing an ample naked woman in a white bathing hat showering on the beach at Coney Island or, what looks like, one of Sweeny Todd’s potential victims through an ordinary barbershop window in 1957 New York. It’s as though she was on a permanent lookout for the odd and the transgressive. As she wrote to a friend in 1960, “I don’t press the shutter. The image does. And it’s like being gently clobbered.”

For much of her working life she kept notebooks in which she recorded ideas and incidents gleaned from books and newspapers, tabloids and the telephone directory, incidentals that caught her imagination and could be used as potential subjects: morgue; freak at home; jewel box revue; roller derby women; dressing rm; women’s prison; weird women; paddy wagon; meat slaughterhouse; tattoo parlor; taxi dance hall-before hrs; lonelyhearts club; Happiness Exch.; lady wrestling; beggars-blind; place-waterfr. hotel; ladies room-coney-subway; daughters of Jacob dying. crime; despair; sin; madness; death; fame; wealth; innocence.

Alongside these jottings were extracted from a wide range of ancient and modern sources: Plato, Zen literature, Bram Stoker, Jean Cocteau (on Pablo Picasso), Fyodor Dostoyevsky, as well as Allen Ginsberg.

Her early chance encounters, which resulted in photographs such as Woman in a mink stole and bow shoes, N.Y.C 1960, and the image of a hirsute man in pork pie hat, boxer shorts and black shoes and socks standing on the beach in Coney Island, gave way to photographs such as Jack Dracula at a bar, New London Conn, 1961 in which the heavily tattooed young man sits in front of his glass of beer staring confidently at the viewer. From the ghoulish curiosity shown in a pair of Siamese twins preserved in a glass jar in a New Jersey carnival tent, Arbus’s role as a curious observer changed to one of privileged insider. She claimed: “I have learned to get past the door from the outside to the inside. One milieu leads to another.” There’s the sense that in The Human Pincushion, Ronald C. Harrion N.J. 1961 – where a middle-aged white man stands pierced with hatpins like some downtown secular Saint Sebastian – or the moustachioed Mexican dwarf striped to the waist beneath his little trilby in his N.Y.C hotel, are complicit in the making of the image. That Arbus’s half of the bargain was to make them visible and feel singled out from the crowd. There’s a strong sense running through all these images – particularly those of the many ‘female impersonators’ – that self-worth comes from being seen and recorded – even if harshly. But it often feels, despite her unerring eye, as though there is not much compassion in these photos. As she said: Freaks was a thing I photographed a lot…There’s a quality of legend about freaks….. You see someone on the street and essentially what you notice about them is the flaw’.

Today we’re used to public debates around gender, difference, race and sexual identity, used to the play between surface and depth, artifice and reality but Arbus was one of the first to give equal weight and value to all her subjects whether transsexuals, elderly matrons dressed in white furs, twins or Jewish giants. As early as the age of 16 she wrote that she had glimpsed ‘the divineness in ordinary things’. But, in truth, it is not ‘divineness’ that comes across but a transgressive solidarity with those that she saw as marginalised and reflected something of her own damaged psyche.

And her legacy? Arbus took us through keyholes to show the soft, vulnerable underbelly of other lives. She exposes the abject and the strange, the dull and the sad and, in so doing, finds fleeting moments of something akin to beauty.

Published in Artlyst

All the Rembrandts

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Art Criticism

With his Bob Dylan mop of curls and pug nose, he looks every inch the rebellious teenager that he was. The second youngest of ten children, three of whom died in infancy, Rembrandt was the son of a Protestant miller and a Catholic mother. Despite being sent to the Latin School in Leiden during his early years, he was soon chomping at the bit against formal education and was, at the age of 15 apprenticed, in 1621, to Van Swanenburg from whom he received intensive artistic training. Rembrandt would go on to become an innovator and a provocateur who’d turn the Dutch Golden Age of art upside down.

With a few scribbles and scrawls, he caught the tiny dramas of everyday life

History painting was considered the highest form of art. The French theorist, André Félibien, claimed that the human form occupied the pinnacle of artistic endeavour because the painter reproduced ‘the most perfect work of God on earth and thus is God’s follower’. To capture the ‘passions of the soul’ was a painter’s greatest achievement. To this end, self-portraits were practised in front of mirrors. With his eighty or so works – drawings, etchings and paintings – Rembrandt held the title of the artist with the most self-portraits well into the 19th century.

This wonderful exhibition at the Rijksmuseum, held to mark the 350th anniversary of Rembrandt’s death, is part of a yearlong celebration. For the first time, they are showing all 22 paintings, 60 drawings and more than 300 of the finest examples of the Rembrandt’s prints in their collection. It explores different aspects of Rembrandt’s life and works through a variety of themes. The first section is predominantly made up of self-portraits. The second focuses on his surroundings and the people in his life: his mother, his wife Saskia as she lies ill and pregnant in bed, as well as beggars, buskers and vagrants that illustrate Rembrandt had an ability to depict poses and emotional states with great empathy. The last section demonstrates his gifts as a storyteller. Old Testament tales inspired paintings such as the exquisite Isaac and Rebecca, more commonly known as The Jewish Bridge c 1665-1669, a work of such consummate skill in its handling of paint and one imbued with such deep tenderness that it takes the breath away, even after countless viewings.

Walking into the first room of this exhibition, it’s easy to see why Rembrandt holds such appeal across the centuries. His acute observation is evident in the tiny etchings that depict him dressed in a fury cap holding down his rebellious curls, bending forward, shouting, frowning, and with a ‘broad nose’. By turns, he looks startled, wide-eyed and surprised. He seems to have possessed a substantial collection of headgear – caps, berets and even oriental headdresses – that he variously used as props. But these are no social portraits. Here is an artist who shows us what it means to be an individual. What it is that constitutes the idea of ‘self’. A self that was, during the Renaissance, being newly defined as uniquely human rather than the result of divine creation. And he made detailed drawings of animals. A lion, and a pig, possibly seen in an Amsterdam market, also show their unique individuality as sentient beings.

Above all Rembrandt was interested in people. Not stereotypes or ideas but real living flesh and blood characters. Salacious depictions were hardly unknown in the 17th century, but his etchings of a man and a woman pissing go beyond mere voyeurism into a form of social realism. His wife Saskia is shown in numerous poses. His fluid lines suggest that often he drew directly onto the copper etching plates. He’d cover the plate with a mixture of resin and beeswax, then draw through that surface with a needle to expose the metal. The plate would then be immersed in acid, inked and put through a printing press. One of the most touching is a small etching of his young son, Titus as a 15-year-old, executed in a bare minimum of lines. Titus’s shock of hair and pensive gaze are particularly compelling. Etchings rarely came into being in a single session. In the early years, when still gaining experience, he might begin with the head, move onto the torso and finally add the background. A master of light and dark, he used contrasts to add emotional depth and range.

Poem by Sue Hubbard
From the beginning of his career, Rembrandt took on pupils for a fee. An essential part of their training was drawing lessons. Students drew from plaster casts and live models. Rembrandt often participated in these sessions and many of the drawings and etchings on show here originated this way and give a unique glimpse into the daily practices of his workshop.

The big draw of the Rijksmuseum is, of course, the Night Watch. Painted in 1642 it portrays, in almost cinemascope detail, Amsterdam’s ‘militiamen’, the city’s civic guard, which was commissioned for their guild headquarters, the Kloveniersdoelen. That he depicts the crowd in action was exceptional. Until then the subjects of group portraits were either shown standing or stiffly sitting side by side. Again, we see that Rembrandt is the master of light and shadow, which he uses to emphasise the captain’s hand gesture. Light also floods onto the small girl in a white dress standing, with a chicken hanging from her belt, in the central part of the painting. This was added, no doubt, as was the drummer on the right and the running boy on the left to convey immediacy, tension and drama.

To look at Rembrandt now, nearly 400 years after his death, is to be reminded of his keen observations, his vitality and realism. With a few scribbles and scrawls, he caught the tiny dramas of everyday life: a street woman making pancakes, a mother lifting the tunic of her small child so that he can pee in the canal. Technically astonishing in the way he conveys lace and cloth or portrays a landscape, his greatness lies not simply in these bravura skills but in the compassion, humour and truth that he shines on our frailties and vulnerabilities that show us, with deep tenderness, what it is to be human.

Published in Artlyst

Jock McFadyen

Published in Artlyst

Art Criticism

Jock McFadyen is late for our meeting in the Academicians Room at the RA. Very late. He was stuck on a bus. I’ve known him for more than 20 years and figure that if we don’t have time to talk now we can always meet up in his home in Bethnal Green where, for ages, a group of us met to watch films on a Friday night.

We’re here to discuss his selection as the overall coordinator of the 251st  RA Summer Exhibition. It’s an honour. A mark of having arrived in the hierarchy of the art world. But Jock is a maverick. Charming, mercurial, opinionated, witty, well read and a highly accomplished, original painter. A true Glaswegian, he has a wild streak. The RA may be in for a surprise. In Jock’s company sometimes you just have to hang in there for the ride.

“So, what’s going to be your theme”?

“Well, I want to show art that describes the world”. He mentions our mutual friend Trevor Sutton. “He paints very beautiful abstract paintings but they’re based on landscapes in Ireland. That’s what I mean. They’re engaged but absolutely concerned with paint. I hope to include John Davies’ piece that was shown at the Turner Contemporary and work by Kenny Hunter. I can’t name all the artists yet as they haven’t confirmed. But I’m interested in texture and form. People think I’m a figurative artist but I see myself as an abstract painter, someone concerned first and foremost with paint.”
Jock McFadyen RA with Sue Hubbard January 2019

Jock McFadyen RA with Sue Hubbard January 2019

And what does he want the Summer Exhibition to look like? After all Michael Craig-Martin painted the walls pink. “Well I’m going to have a menagerie. There’s a tradition of animal painting from Stubbs to the more amateur cat paintings traditionally submitted to the RA summer show. Our interest in depicting animals goes back to our first image-making in caves. But the truth is that you don’t know what is going to be submitted and it’s a committee decision. This year’s committee is made up of: Stephen Chambers, Anne Desmet, Hughie O’Donoghue, Spencer de Grey, Timothy Hyman, Barbra Rae, Bob and Roberta Smith, the Wilson twins and Richard Wilson, so it’s quite a cross section.”

I ask about the popular appeal of the Summer Exhibition. “Well,” he says controversially, “I don’t believe in art that reaches out, that talks down or that it’s the artist’s job to make art accessible. I think it’s our job to do what we do and seduce viewers into being interested. Back in Turner’s day it was all professional artists. It’s a difficult concept isn’t it? I don’t like amateur art. Being an artist is a job. You don’t have amateur architects or brain surgeons. Art is, as I think Clement Greenberg suggested, essentially a metropolitan activity. You need to be connected to the debates and the arguments if you are serious.”

“But”, I ask, “what about exceptions such as Alfred Wallis?”  “Well Wallis is wonderful. I suppose that’s what we are hoping for. The exceptions.”

Born in Paisely in 1950. His trajectory to Royal Academician was not a straight path. He was a bad boy, fearless and contrary. His grandfather, who was a boat builder, drew cartoons in his spare time. His father was a draughtsman in the Clyde shipyards and taught him to draw”. Both a Glaswegian edge and a visual curiousity are intrinsic to who he is both as a man and an artist.

He was rebellious at school. In those days art schools offered pre-foundation courses which you could start when you were 16. “Listen, if you say to a teenager – would you rather go to school in uniform or to art school with long hair, Cuban heels and motorbikes? – well it’s not much of a contest is it?”

When he was 15 his father got a job with the Michelin tyre factory in Stoke-on-Trent. Art school in Newcastle-under-Lyme was followed by a motor cycle accident. When he got better the course had changed to typography and graphic design. He wasn’t interested. “I wanted to make life drawings. So I made an effigy of the principal and set it on fire and was thrown out. I had a black mark on my file for ages that counted against me when I tried to apply for other courses. And my Dad went ballistic. He thought it was rubbish that I was doing art anyway: ‘All you do is sit around painting women’s tits.’ ‘All you do is make tyres, I replied.’” He also managed to fit in a youthful marriage, have a son and work as a dustman, before finally making it to Chelsea Art School where he rubbed shoulders with the likes of Anish Kapoor, Helen Chadwick, Shirazeh Houshiary and Christopher Le Brun.

But even being at Chelsea was not straight forward. He was living in a north London squat with his first wife. “It was really vile. Counterculture turned bad – Hells Angels, junkies, people riding motorcycles in an out. And at art school then, to be a painter meant you had to be an abstract painter. Figurative painting was an embarrassment.” But in 1978, after he’d finished, things started to go well. He had his first show – jointly with Peter Smith – at the Acme Gallery, then the following year got a dealer, Blond Fine Art.

It was when he had his solo show in 1991 at the Imperial War Museum, in response to the collapse of that Berlin wall, that I first met him. Already known for his portraits of the sad, the mad and the bad of East London he was the unanimous choice of the Artistic Records Committee to record that historic moment. The gritty images of the crippled accordion player, the woman in the puppet booth, the apparently three-legged prostitute in Savignyplatz took my breath away with their hard-hitting poignancy. Though I remember him saying with a typical forthrightness that he wasn’t interested in “wanky, sentimental, political-prisoner kind of art.” And he was, I realised, a wonderfully original sculptor. The rag-bag of human destitution that made up his cast of characters in Procession were put together from his old clothes and those found in East End markets, which he’d covered in wax and plaster. Slightly smaller than life-size this trail of somnambulant dwarfs might have escaped straight from Brecht’s Mother Courage.

Jock McFadyen  Kill Matthew Barney 2007-2008

He’s also a strong landscape painter – if landscapes you can call them. There is nothing of the pastural tradition about them. He paints what’s around him and has become known as a painter of the East End. But he dislikes being labelled a social commentator – he’s too much of a contrarian for that. Rather, like his friend the writer Ian Sinclair, he’s a chronicler of the down-and-out, the skinhead, as well as the Hawksmoor church and stray urban dog. He also paints remote Scottish islands, motorways and bits of road near his house in northern France. What he chooses is never the picturesque but rather the incidental, the marginal, the thing that until he paints it most people won’t even have noticed. In 2010 he started his After Sickert series: small erotic scenes charged with some of the shock of Sickert’s original paintings. He also designed sets and costumes for Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s last ballet The Judas Tree at The Royal Opera House.

It’s obvious that he’s enjoying his well-earned success but he’s critical of the commercialisation of the art world. Not that he is a purist. He needs to sell but, as he says, for his generation of art students what counted was critical rigour not ‘are we going to sell to Saatchi?’ I suggest that this commercialisation of art is dangerous, that it skews what is made. That it can stifle originality. He agrees there’s a hazard that art becomes of ‘no consequence’, that there’s a move to make it all too crowd-pleasing and curator-friendly. He expresses worries about the singularity of the art market and how it pushes artists to make signature works that sell.

Jock McFadyen is an artist who is not easy to pigeon hole. His work is eclectic, singular and raw. It reflects both the edginess of ‘real’ life and his intellectual concerns about the possibilities and fluidity of paint. He’s a rebel yet a conservative. A detail highlighted by the fact that he’s shown work in his East End Acme studio and at Wapping Project, as well as The National Gallery, Agnews and the Fine Art Society. He is that rare thing in the modern art world – an original. His vision is unique, idiosyncratic and muscular and reveals a detached humanity that throws light on the liminal and marginal aspects of the world we inhabit, which so many of us miss. As his friend Ian Sinclair says: ”the world is always static in the sense that you’re a mass observer and you can’t afford to care whether people are busy or not. You are a witness.”

This year’s Summer Exhibition is lucky to have Jock McFadyen to act as singular and fearless witness. It promises to be an interesting show.

A monograph on Jock McFadyen is due from the RA in May 2019.

Published in Artlyst

George Shaw

Published in Elephant Magazine

Art Criticism

The English painter has long taken inspiration from the Midlands estate where he grew up, conjuring visions of comfort, nostalgia and, more recently, right-wing rumblings. Shaw talks to Sue Hubbard about his father, life at the Royal College in the early nineties, and the place he will always know as home.

Scenes from The Passion: The Black Prince, 1999. Courtesy Anthony Wilkinson Gallery

I last saw George Shaw in the small, crowded upstairs room of a Soho pub where he was singing the Morecambe and Wise signature tune, Bring Me Sunshine, while his friend accompanied him on the ukulele. We were there for the Yale University Press book launch of A Corner of a Foreign Field, a big and learned tome on Shaw’s work. The title comes from Rupert Brooke’s famous poem The Soldier. Although Brooke never actually saw active service in the First World War, his lines: “If I should die, think only this of me/ That there’s some corner of a foreign field/ That is for ever England” are the patriotic outburst of a young man contemplating the slaughter of tens of thousands in a cruel and pointless war. Since then, his words have acquired a more flag-waving, UKIP-esque resonance. It’s these complex shifts in English life that Shaw mirrors with a forensic clarity, tinged with tender romanticism, in his meticulous paintings.

Mum’s, 2018

Today, we’re meeting in Soho House and he’s dressed more like a prosperous young farmer from the West Country where he lives—in a smart tweed jacket and waistcoat—than a cutting-edge artist. Sitting by the real wood fire we both mention that the newly decorated room retains something of the old Soho. History, nostalgia and authenticity are important to Shaw. For more than twenty years he’s walked round the same small corner of the Tile Hill council estate in the Midlands where he grew up, taking photographs to create an encyclopaedic reference library that he uses for his paintings.

For Proust it was a madeleine dipped in lime tea. For Shaw it’s Tile Hill Estate’s run down terraced houses with their sagging net curtains, the playing fields and lock-up garages where bored youngsters hang out to kick footballs, sniff glue and look at girlie magazines that bring his childhood gushing back. But his is not a bleak dystopian vision, rather it’s a nostalgic, elegiac image of an all but vanished England, “a dream of Britain, an island I have come to know as a landscape of ghosts and haunted houses, of fair to middling weather and stony prehistory but also a backdrop for injustice, criminality, humour, suspicion and sparse grace.”

The Old Religons, 2017

It is, he says, “a homely and unsettling vision”. This contradiction between the homely, what Freud called (heimlich) and the uncanny (unheimlich) is central to Shaw’s paintings. Although he left Tile Hill at eighteen (his mother still lives there) to study art, the estate remains the emotional core and catalyst at the centre of his work.

“As an artist you can’t just rely on style. You have to rely on intention but it’s hard. As Beckett knew there’s a lot of potential for failure but you just have to keep going”

What, I ask, did it feel like to grow up there during the Thatcher years that badly disrupted the cohesion of such communities? His dad, he tells me, worked in a storeroom of the Standard-Triumph Motor Company in Cranley Coventry, which was swallowed up by British Leyland in 1968 and then closed in 1980. After that he never worked again. But far from giving up, he took the opportunity to educate himself.

“My dad read Pinter and Beckett. We watched TV together on our little black-and-white telly, discussed the kitchen sink dramas, and endless repeats of Hammer horror films. He was a clever man, my dad, aspirational, but he had few opportunities. His motto was ‘question everything’. Mum was Irish and worked in the local pub and saw education as a way out. My sister learned Latin and somehow Dad bought us a piano. He saved money in a box file. Put away £5 a week for Christmas. He’d start doing that the previous year. We always had presents.”

Ash Wednesday: 8.00am, 2004/5

And school? “Well I suppose I was a bit weird but I was never ostracized. There was a lot of violence around then with skinheads and racism around Coventry. But I was mostly up in my bedroom reading. It was a bit of a disappointment, then, when I eventually got to the Royal College expecting this rich cultural life to find that no one much read. My dissertation was on the body in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man. Before that—in 86 to 89—I was doing my BA in Sheffield. I’d been painting in my room since I was ten, life drawing since I was eleven. After my degree I got a job as a medical illustrator at Charing Cross and Westminster Medical School, because I could use a video camera. Then I moved back to Sheffield, worked as a secondary school teacher, teaching children with learning difficulties and had a small studio. Loads of the people there were applying for the Royal College. So I thought, I’ll have a go. I can do that. Though the work I was doing then was closer to Rauschenberg than anything I do now.”

The Man Who Would Be King, 2017

From an early age Shaw had a natural talent for drawing (his uncle was a gifted self-taught artist). At the time the Royal College of Art was a bastion of painting under Paul Huxley, but he didn’t want to offer Shaw a place, saying he’d be depriving kids of a good special needs teacher. Shaw’s response was to demand “a fucking place”. He got in. This allowed him, even as the 1997 Sensation opened at the Royal Academy showcasing the slightly older YBAs, to follow his own trajectory. It was at the Royal College that he embraced Tile Hill as his core subject. At first he’d treat the graffiti he found on a garage door, say, in a gestural way. Then someone suggested he just paint the door instead of pretending to be an expressionist.

The result has been an extraordinary body of work famously created with Hombrol paints—enamel paints traditionally used for painting model airplanes—which has become a love song to the suburbs. An acute observer of the shades of English life, he’s made poetry from the council estate and odes from playgrounds and wasteland. This is a world where the slow erasure of the pastural dream has gone almost unnoticed, as woods become liminal spaces between suburb and country, between then and now. His sylvan scenes from the Passion series resonate with the romanticism of Caspar David Friederich. While others from the same series, such as The Blossomiest Blossom, reflect the spirituality of his lapsed Catholicism. His rows of modest houses also speak of loss. Of a post-war utopianism, expressed through architecture, that believed in social change and a fairer society.

“There’s a way that this place is always home. I had a happy childhood there. I remember watching the play A Voyage Round My Father with my dad in our living room”

There is a strong desire to create narratives from Shaw’s work. Yet the most recent story, suggested by the Cross of Saint George flag sagging in one of the windows of the estate, is a tougher and more despairing one than the warmth expressed in his earlier more wistful paintings. This is the tale of the hubris and xenophobia that is Brexit. Entitled The Man Who Would Be King, the painting resonates with a sense of collapse and spiritual dilapidation.

Scenes from the Passion: The Blossomiest Blossom, 2001

“When I went back to the estate,” he says, “I wondered what I was doing there. I thought I had nothing more to say. I resisted doing the flag paintings for a year. I worried I might seem condescending or even right-wing. Might be criticized for living in a nice house on Dartmoor and painting a shithole. But there’s a way that this place is always home. I had a happy childhood there. I remember watching the play A Voyage Round My Father with my dad in our living room. It’s a strong memory. I suppose we’re all continually looking for our home, even though we know ‘the past is another country’. Still, we try and find the unfamiliar though the familiar. As an artist you can’t just rely on style. You have to rely on intention but it’s hard. As Beckett knew there’s a lot of potential for failure but you just have to keep going. I think it was Novalis who said, ‘Philosophy is really home sickness: the urge to be at home everywhere.’” The same might be said of George Shaw’s paintings.

Published in Elephant Magazine

Deep in the Woods with
Cathy de Monchaux

Published in Elephant Magazine

Art Criticism

“Art is never about just one thing. Good art can be read on many levels.” Sue Hubbard visits Cathy de Monchaux in her studio again after twenty years—and discovers a change in the British artist’s practice from the “profane and pagan” to her latest series of twisted woodland works.

Studio portrait by Anthony Lycett

The last time I visited the sculptor Cathy de Monchaux she was holed up in her huge Peckham studio. “Was it really twenty years ago that you came to see me there?” she asks. “The commute was doing my head in, so I left,” she says bringing me her brand new spotty Bengal kitten to admire, which immediately starts attacking my shoe laces.  She works, now, in her home in Hoxton Street and as the kitten does battle with my shoes, her assistant sits twisting bunches of copper fuse-wire into tree-like shapes at the kitchen table. Downstairs in her studio, where the walls are covered with large charcoal drawings and sculptural maquettes, is a big double bed covered with rich velvet drapes. “I love sleeping down here. If I’m worrying about a piece of work I can get up in the middle of the night and deal with it.”

It was soon after we met that her 1997 one person show at the Whitechapel led to a nomination for the Turner Prize. Although at Goldsmith’s during the 1980s, the same time as Damien Hirst, she was never really part of the YBA gang. Leather straps, brass and red velvet were bolted, riveted and lashed together into uncanny, erotically charged objects that borrowed their imagery equally from fairytales and the Marquis de Sade. With their spikes and festoons of black ribbons they tapped into feminist debates, at the time, around female eroticism. Embracing the burlesque they equally suggested a sense of saint-like  religious rapture, with a nod to Georges Bataille’s view that: “Of all problems eroticism is the most mysterious.” Both a celebration of female sexuality, and a mirror of repressed and guilty female desire, her sculpture was profane and pagan, Gothic and theatrical, and touched on what Kristeva called the abject. Or to use the words of the poet WB Yeats, there was “a terrible beauty” about her work.

Raft, 2016

Now, as we sit and munch on our Pret sandwiches, I ask if there’s been a change in her practice, whether she’s left behind feminist debates about the body. “Well,” she replies, “as human beings and artists we change and move on. My imperatives at fifty-eight are different to those of twenty years ago. When I was younger it was an optimistic time. As women artists we thought we had an open space to do whatever we wanted. That it would all be fine. I was like, ‘Bring it on’. But twenty/thirty years later it just doesn’t feel good enough. We haven’t really arrived. Look at the #MeToo campaign. In many ways to be a feminist now is to be marginalized and side lined. And galleries have changed. I’m not represented by anyone now. I work mostly for commissions. When you’re young you’re establishing a reputation. There’s a commercial imperative to keep making work but some of my pieces take years. I’m happier now that I can work at my own pace, supported by some wonderful collectors. In many ways it gives me greater creative freedom. It’s a choice I’ve made. It’s harder and harder to be true to the work.”

“When I was younger it was an optimistic time. As women artists we thought we had an open space to do whatever we wanted”

Did she feel, I ask, that having become a mother to her son had affected her career? She thinks for a long time before answering. “I think it probably did,” she says. “It’s complicated all that juggling between work and picking up from school. I had an abortion at thirty-two, which affected me much more deeply than I could have imagined. When I got pregnant again, accidentally at thirty-nine, I knew there was no question about having the child. As to my work? Well I think the process, the rhythm, has become slower. It’s not about chasing shows any more, of producing one piece after another for a gallery.”

Looking around the studio I detect a shift from the sexualized body of her early sculptures to an exploration of the unconscious imagination. Forests abound and its not hard to see in her sculptural panoramas references to Paola Uccello’s The Hunt in the Forest, and to Shakespeare’s forest of Arden.

Migration, 2016

It’s no accident that traditionally so many fairytale characters found themselves lost in forests. At one time Europe was covered by dense woodland that presented all sorts of unknown dangers. In more modern times the forest has provided symbolism to the likes of Jung, Freud and Bruno Bettelheim to explore what lies lurking in the unconscious. Cathy de Monchaux’s forests of painted copper wire, twisted into gnarled and knotted trees, are full of half-hidden unicorns. Each is handmade and placed within these dense trees. They allude to the dreams we aspire to and can’t reach, the chivalry of mediaeval hunts and tapestries, even My Little Pony. “Art is never about just one thing,” she insists. “Good art can be read on many levels.” She also makes the point that these are threatening places that people have to cross. This very night, she reminds me, there’ll be people in Europe waiting on the edge of a forest somewhere, trying to cross a border, running for their lives, running from hunters and dogs. All these people must have their own dreams of unicorns.

The copper wire she uses for her scenarios is so thin and flexible that it’s almost like drawing in 3D. It allows her to arrange the trees however she wants and for them to stay put. Her work inhabits a territory that’s hard to define, somewhere between sculpture, drawing, painting and even needlework. In earlier scenarios she was using small female figures instead of unicorns. With their lack of features and rotund bellies they stand in rows like a female army, chthonic goddess rooted to the earth through their fecundity.

Photo by Sue Hubbard

More recently she’s been embroiled with the Guardian about headline that described her new work Beyond Thinking (the title is taken from Virginia Woolf’s landmark essay “A Room of One’s Own”), commissioned for Newham College to celebrate the seventieth anniversary of the first degree ceremony for women graduates, as a “two-storey vulva”, a description which she and the college strenuously deny. “It so lacks insight and sensitivity. The college is a place of learning for women from all sort of backgrounds and faiths and it’s just an inappropriate and lazy description,” she says angrily. This towering artwork that runs up the side of the new college extension resembles, if it resembles any body part at all, a spine or back-bone, a much more apposite image for the struggles of women attempting to achieve equality through education.

“Art is never about just one thing. Good art can be read on many levels”

Cast in bronze it’s made of individual sections that reach up the side of the building. Far from being a series of vulvae, they show tiny female figures emerging from a thicket of branches laid across the pages of a book. It’s as if these tiny women are coming into being, emerging into visibility through language and learning. Forests are symbols of transformation. Boundaries between what is human and animal, plants and trees, the physical and the metaphorical world. As Duke Senior says at the beginning of Act II in As You Like It, “Our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything.”

Looking back over the development of De Monchaux’s work these twenty years or so, what I see is an artist who has continued to expand her vocabulary from the young woman concerned with the aesthetic resonances and politics of female sexuality, to one who is discovering new ways of being, delving deeper into the creative unconscious to explore the ongoing processes of birth, creativity, life and death.

Published in Elephant Magazine

Christian Marclay
The Clock at Tate Modern

Published in The London Magazine

Art Criticism

“Time present and time past”, as T.S. Eliot famously claimed in Burnt Norton, are “both perhaps present in time future, and time future contained in time past.” So, “If all time is eternally present”, he suggests “All time is irredeemable.” These celebrated lines from The Four Quartets might well describe The Clock by the American Swiss artist, Christian Marclay, a work that is both a cinematic feat and a philosophical conundrum. A 24 hour montage, The Clock is made up of thousands of carefully researched moments of cinematic and television history spliced together to depict the passage of time. Functioning as a real timepiece, it marks the actual flow of time over a 24 hour period and is synchronised to function in whatever time-zone it’s shown.

Marclay, originally, developed the idea whilst working on his 2005 piece Screen Play. With the support of the London-based White Cub gallery he assembled a team to engage in the herculean task of finding relevant footage, which he edited over the course of three years. Six people watched DVDs and searched for scenes that contained clocks or watches. Marclay, himself, was often unfamiliar with the source works so Google spreadsheets were used to record the copious clips. Originally, he wanted to include more outlandish episodes but began to worry that it would be too exhausting to watch over a long period. Instead he chose to focus on incidental moments. His head assistant, Paul Anton Smith, has said that Marclay wanted scenes that were “banal and plain but visually interesting.” One assistant who focused too much on violent scenes was fired, while those remaining began to specialise in particular film genres. The final version contains around 12,000 films clips.

First shown at White Cube’s London gallery in 2010, The Clock won the Golden Lion at the 2011 Venice biennale. In his acceptance speech Marclay ironically invoked Andy Warhol, thanking the judges for “giving The Clock its 15 minutes”. It’s six editions have been purchased by major museums and attracted a widespread following. It’s now being shown at Tate Modern, in the Blavatnick Building extension. Marclay declined to show it in the Turbine Hall because of poor acoustics. This space is equipped with comfortable soft sofas so that viewers are able come and go. Marclay didn’t want conventional cinema seating where those getting up and leaving would disturb other members of the audience. An inherent element of the work is the decision made by individual viewers as to how long he or she will stay. Once there, it’s certainly addictive. Though made of fragments that have no apparent narrative relationship, there’s a sense of tension and an irrational desire to find out what ‘happens next’.
Christian Ernest Maracly, to give him his full name, was born in San Rafael in California in 1955 but grew up in Switzerland where he attend the École Supérieure d’Art Visuel in Geneva. (It’s perhaps not fanciful to suggest a youth spent in the country that Orson Wells famously proclaimed had produced nothing but the cuckoo clock during five hundred years of democracy, might have had some influence on his subject matter). After Geneva, Marcaly continued his education at the Massachusetts College of Art and Cooper Union in New York, where he spent his student years exploring noise music, influenced by the neo-Dadaist movement and artists such as Joseph Beuys and Yoko Ono. He also listened – if that’s the right word – to John Cage, borrowing his philosophy “that if you listen, and keep listening, eventually you find something interesting.” A pioneer of the use of turntables and gramophone records – often found in junk and thrift shops –  as musical instruments to create sound collages, Marclay was described by the critic Thom Jurek as the “unwitting inventor of turntabalism.”

These anarchic works allowed Marclay to explore human perception and what it means to experience sensory data. Starting out, as so many artists have done, as a musician, in the band Mon Ton Son, he would often play records starting from the middle, breaking them and gluing them back together to disrupt harmonies and create a stream of noise that dissolved into disorder. Melding different technical media – sound, photography, film and video – as well as a range of artistic references, he created rich fusions that synthesised into more than the sum of their separate parts.  In the spirit of those more utopian times, Marcaly’s interest was in ‘pure art’ that had no obvious commercial value. In The Clock he explores – just as Eliot did in the Four Quartets (in a different medium and a different century) –  how time is experienced by the human mind. What it feels like to be caught in its relentless, irredeemable stream. Time is shown to be both an abstract construct, yet also integral to our diurnal and nocturnal rhythms, to our biology and sense of what means to grow older.

The research is brilliant and one wonders how his team managed to find so many clips that show exactly the right time. Though drawn mostly from mainstream cinema, there’s an obvious influence of experimental filmmakers of the 60s and 70s who played around with structure and found footage. A great deal of the pleasure to be had in watching The Clock is to be found in ticking off a list of familiar films. Great for cinema buffs. There’s also the enjoyment of recognising actors, especially in their youthful incarnations. The young Robert Redford, Tom Courtney, Jack Nicholson and Sidney Poitier, for instance. And it was particularly poignant to see the late Robin Williams but impossible not to see Bill Crosby through the lens of recent sexual allegations. There are also some really funny moments. Peter Sellers waking in a hotel room in a bright red eye mask and hair net, is a gem. As is what, I assume, to be a Buster Keaton clip of some slapstick goings on on a vertiginous clock tower.

There are iconic clocks everywhere. Big Ben and the Waterloo station clock, as well as an array of period wristwatches, early digital models, grandfather clocks and pocket watches. The passing of time is also experienced though forgotten period details. Things seen through a glass darkly: a 50s watchstrap or a Blackberry. Who uses those short-lived status symbols now? And throughout there’s the ubiquitous cigarette smoke, along with ashtrays full of stubs. Another aspect of time and memory is that we forget old habits.

I went to see The Clock at 2.pm and was surprised at how many people were in bed. Between 4.pm and 5.pm characters appear to be travelling on planes, trains and in cars. Then, as the evening sets in, they eat dinner, become involved in shootouts and attend parties. Mid-evening they go to the theatre and shows. Although I wasn’t watching at midnight, I gather Orson Welles is impaled on a clock tower in The Stranger, and Big Ben explodes in V for Vendetta.  After that people begin to drift into bars to drink and search for intimacy. Others are annoyed at being woken up by the phone. In the small hours, unsurprisingly, many are sleeping. While between 3 am. and 5 am there are a number of dream sequences. Then around 7 am. people begin to wake up and from 9 am. to midday eat breakfast and have morning sex. As noon approaches, the bells ring out in High Noon.

As I sat in the dark I found myself constantly checking my watch to see if it was in sync with what was happening on the screen. I was also aware that it’s only been in the last 100 years – since the beginning of cinema – that we are able to look back and see life as it actually was; taking place in real time. Before the invention of film people had to rely on memories and stories. Now we can experience the past in all its incidental details, just as it was before we existed.

The Clock is an epic feat that both reveals and hides the mysteries of time. Watching it felt like being on a train and staring out of the window as the world flashes by and you catch segments and incidents of unknown lives, fleeting glimpses of small mini-dramas without ever knowing how they end. It is a masterful work that reminds us that life is not a linear narrative but a series of broken fragments. Not everything has a beginning, a middle and a clear end.

Published in The London Magazine

Liliane Lijn’s
Seductive Psychic Drama

Published in Elephant Magazine

Art Criticism

“My feelings about science—in particular the physics of light and matter—are that they are pure poetry.” American artist Liliane Lijn discusses the intersection of language, science and art with Sue Hubbard.

Liliane Lijn, Striped Koans, 1995-7 © the artist

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void: and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, let there be light and there was light.

No, I haven’t gone all religious. But as a metaphor for knowledge over dark ignorance, for intellectual enlightenment over a lack of curiosity, for the development of language out of silence, you can’t beat this old quote from Genesis. It also symbolizes the spirit of Liliane Lijn’s eclectic work which, for more than forty years, has explored our phenomenological relationship with the world we inhabit and our sense of being and becoming. From the microcosmic to the macrocosmic, from the human body to the physical properties of light, she investigates, through her far-reaching visual language, what it means to be sentient and alive.

Liliane Lijn, Get Rid of Government Time, 1962 © the artist

I first came across her work more than twenty years ago when I was writing for Time Out and discovered her kinetic Poem Machines (1962-8) that pioneered the use of rotating poetic texts, initially cut from newspapers and Letraset. I can’t remember, now, where I first saw them. Simply the sense of excitement that I felt as a young female poet discovering a woman artist working at the intersection of the visual arts and language, myth and philosophy and the hitherto largely male world of technology and science. Since then I’ve got to know her and her diverse body of work. The early expressive paintings and explorations of the body, the kinetic sculptures and projects that involve complex physics, often undertaken in collaboration with top scientists.

Liliane Lijn, Am I Who, 2010, © the artist

Today I’ve come to her large elegant studio in north London. It’s a lovely space. Full of books and sculptures and, this afternoon, flooded with balmy late September light. Her assistant works away quietly in a far corner, filing and doing essential paperwork, while we talk. Well-read and with a wide-ranging intellect, Liliane Lijn was born in the US in 1939, four months after her mother and grandmother, of Russian Jewish descent, arrived from Antwerp.
“My feelings about science—in particular the physics of light and matter—are that they are pure poetry”

Her parents’ early divorce lead to school in Switzerland where she became fluent in both French and Italian, leading her to study archaeology at the Sorbonne and art history at the École du Louvre. But these academic subjects were soon given up in order to pursue the life of an artist. In Paris she met André Breton, the French poet and surrealist, and later, back in early sixties New York, she moved in the same hip circles as beat poets such as William Burroughs and Gregory Corso.

She has, she says, always been interested in language and writing but that changing languages from English to Italian interrupted the flow somewhat. This, she suggests, might be why she chose to express herself primarily visually. Though she sees the disciplines of writing, visual art and science as permeable. Moving between them creates a dialogue, a way of asking questions and investigating the world. “My feelings about science—in particular the physics of light and matter—are that they are pure poetry,” she tells me.

Lilian Lijn, Mars Koan, 2008 © the artist, photo Richard Wilding 2015

As we sit in the autumn sun at a glass table held up by legs made from her multi-coloured cones, she describes her work as “a constant dialogue between opposites. My sculptures use light and motion to transform themselves from solid to void, opaque to transparent, formal to organic.”  She’s just come back from Athens, she tells me, where she’s been installing Cosmic Dramas at Rodeo Gallery. It’s an interesting and timely revisiting of her early work. The bold choreography of the Conjunctions of the Opposites: The Woman of War (1985) and The Lady of Wild Things (1983)—two looming kinetic “figures” that stand more than three meters high and use LED light, smoke, lasers and brushes—touch on ancient ideas of the female goddess, though constructed with modern industrial materials. Although made at different times, she doesn’t think of them as set in opposition.

Liliane Lijn, Woman of War, 1986 © the artist

They are, she explains, neither male nor female, but cosmogenic gods. Hermaphrodites that are bisexual in nature and through whom we experience the strongest and most striking opposites. When set side by side they create a seductive psychic drama. “They’re spiritual archetypes. Powerful, angry sexual pieces. The Woman of War sings a bold, audacious song. A song, that when I wrote it, seemed to come into my mouth straight from the earth. The idea came to me when I was a young student in Paris and living on the sixth floor in an empty apartment which I was using as a studio. Standing on the balcony one evening I had a vision. The sky was lit by an extraordinary sunset and I saw the image of a goddess in the clouds. Woman of War grew from an attempt to reconstruct that experience.”

Liliane Lijn, Lady of the Wild Things, 1983 © the artist

I ask if she thinks feminism has changed since the works were made, at a time when women were looking for new narrative models to describe their lives. Did she think that they could be easily understood by the #MeToo generation? Populism, she says, concerns her. There’s a sense of dumbing down. A need to jump on bandwagons. She feels people are afraid of complexity and ambiguity. But, she adds, it was interesting that so many of those who came to the opening in Athens were young. “They were excited. They seemed to get it. And it wasn’t just young women but also men.”

Anyway, she insists, she was never a typical feminist. What interested her was the intellectual pursuit of subjects seen as predominantly male. Her work in the late 1970s to the 1990s was largely based around the body and feminine archetypes: The Wife, The Medusa, The Lady as Bird, The Darkness. But then there was a pivotal moment when she decided to stop making art that was autobiographical and expressive, to move outside and dematerialize the body. That’s when she began working with light. Her approach to the use of light is, she suggests, less architectural, less mechanistic than that of many male artists. For her light is liquid and has an almost anthropomorphic quality.

Liliane Lijn, Heavenly Fragments, 2008 © the artist

This summer she’s been busy working on Sunstar, a large-scale daytime “spectroheliostat” art installation sited on the top of the historic 150-Foot Solar Tower on Mount Wilson in Pasadena. The work is a collaboration with the astrophysicist John Vallerga. A beam of diffracted sunlight is projected onto the Los Angeles landscape, making the solar spectrum visible at specific locations.  “The spectrum is broken down. It creates a single incredibly bright point of light. It’s very small, very brilliant like a star or a jewel that can be seen in the day.
“What interests me is scientific discovery. What it means to be alive, to live in this world”

Normally we can’t really look at the sun. But this allows us to look at a tiny fragment of it. Would she have liked to study physics? “No, I don’t think so. I like what I am. I have a lot of freedom. But I’ve read up about it over the years. You can only get to the kernel of things through physics and chemistry.” They help her, she continues, explore the issues that really interest her such as: what is essence, what is something’s essential character. “I’m not really interested in finance or politics. That’s all such a mess, anyway, and there’s little as individuals that we can do to influence them. What interests me is scientific discovery. What it means to be alive, to live in this world.”

Converse Column, new public art commission, University of Leeds, autumn 2018

Recently she was commissioned by Leeds University to create a nine-metre high revolving drum of transforming words, Converse Column, which will be sited next to the university’s new design centre, Nexus, that opens this autumn. Words and phrases were suggested by students around the concepts of knowledge and interconnection. These were then cut up so that the text and light used becomes fluid in these spinning drums. The aim is to create a work that provokes questions and encourages debate. She was inspired by the concept of Nexus. “So much of my work is about just that: connections relation, conjunction, invention and research.”

As we talk I can detect no signs that Liliane Lijn is slowing down in her eighth decade. There’s a youthful, restless intellectual hunger about her that continues to spur her on to make original eclectic work—work that challenges the very paradigms of what constitutes art.

Published in Elephant Magazine

What Is the point of the Turner Prize?

Published in Elephant Magazine

Art Criticism

It’s that time of year again. As the Turner Prize exhibition opens at Tate Britain with four film works, Sue Hubbard asks “Is there any validity in awarding a prize for art?”

Charlotte Prodger, BRIDGIT, 2016. All images courtesy of the artist, Koppe Astner, Glasgow and Hollybush Gardens, London

It’s that time of year again. Our summer suntans are fading, the nights are drawing in and the leaves are turning. The children have gone back to school and the art world has that beginning of term feel. There’s the jamboree that is Frieze art fair, as well as the opening of the Turner Prize exhibition. Two events that have become as synonymous with autumn as bonfire night. But what exactly is the Turner Prize for? And is there any validity in awarding a prize for art? Imagine a year when Picasso, Braque and Modigliani were all competing. Who would you give the prize to then? How can a prize evaluate unique creative voices, one above the other?
“In a world of the social media we seem to crave shock and awe and soundbites”

But prizes have become a ubiquitous feature of modern cultural life, from the Man Booker Prize and the National Poetry Competition to the John Moores Painting Prize. But art isn’t an Olympic sport where timed performances or superior physical prowess will give you a clear winner. In many ways these prizes distort the cultural landscape, simply promoting flavour of the month by curators who, themselves, are trying to find a place in the limelight. In a world of social media we seem to crave shock and awe and soundbites.

Charlotte Prodger. Portrait, 2017. Photography © Emile Holba 2018

First awarded in 1985, the prize, named after the English painter JMW Turner was founded by a group called the Patrons of New Art under the directorship of Alan Bowness. Their aim was to encourage a wider interest in contemporary art and assist Tate in the acquisition of new works. Between 1991 and 2016 only artists under fifty were eligible, but this flirtation with youth was removed in 2017. Usually held at Tate Britain, the prize has tried to counter criticisms of metropolitanism by being staged in other UK cities, but this year it’s back in London.

From the start it needed commercial sponsors. These have included Drexel Burnham Lambert, Channel 4 and Gordon’s Gin. And where there’s money involved, those who invest want value and visibility for that money. And visibility in the art world usually means “controversy”. The artists are chosen based upon an exhibition in which they have shown during the previous year. Nominations from the public are invited but this is largely cosmetic, as the journalist Lynn Barber confirmed when she was a judge in 2006. The process is arcane. The prize is not actually awarded based on the accompanying Tate show, but on the original exhibition for which the artist was selected, and the real power lies with the panel of judges, which includes fashionable curators and critics.

Naeem Mohaiemen, Tripoli Cancelled, 2017. Single channel film. Commissioned by Documenta14. Co-commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation and Art Jameel. Additional support by Locus Athens, Hellinikon AE and Experimenter.

In 1985, although the conceptual group Art and Language was nominated, painting was still considered central enough that the prize was awarded to Howard Hodgkin. This year any pretence that painting is at the forefront of contemporary art has been abandoned. All four artists work with either video or film. Much of my criticism of previous Turner prize shortlists has been the tired reliance on postmodern irony but, finally, this year—a year when we face Brexit, a migration crisis, the rise of the right wing across Europe and a very real threat to our democracy—the art does appear to engage with current events and cock something of a snoop at the financial trillions of international art dealers and collectors. But is it any good? Well, yes and no.

Luke Willis Thompson, Autoportrait, 2017. Installation view, Chisenhale Gallery. Commissioned by Chisenhale Gallery and produced in partnership with Create. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Andy Keate.

That the work is worthy is not in doubt. But good art also needs to engage the viewer. Charlotte Prodger’s statement that her “installations and performances look at what happens to speech and other representation of the self as they metamorphose via time and space and various technological systems…” made my heart sink. Mainly about sexual identity and queer politics, her rather disconnected ramblings lack any narrative cohesion though she tries to ally them with the Neolithic stone circles and ancient cult of the mother goddess found in her native Aberdeenshire. Whilst there are some lovely painterly shots of rust and purple Scottish landscapes, and her cat, the whole feels like the filmed version of a rather over-complicated dissertation.

Luke Willis Thompson, _Human, 2018, depicting the artwork of Donald Rodney My Mother, My Father, My Sister, My Brother, 1997. Commissioned and produced by Kunsthalle Basel. Courtesy of the artist, Hopkinson Mossman, Auckland/Wellington; and Galerie Nagel Draxler, Cologne/Berlin

The same could be said of Luke Willis Thompson’s 35mm Kodak Double-X black-and-white film, that gives a whole new meaning to the word slow. At thirty, he is the youngest nominee. His Autoportrait was based on the shooting of Diamond Reynolds’ partner Philando Castile by a police officer during a traffic stop in Minnesota. Also showing is his filmed study of Donald Rodney, entitled _Human (1997). Rodney was undergoing treatment at King’s College Hospital for sickle cell anaemia and, before he died, made a small architectural model of a house from his own skin held together with dressmakers pins. This can be seen at the beginning of series of the ten-minute films—we see it from every angle. Then Willis Thompson hones in on the silent faces of his protagonists who seem, in some way, to be bearing witness. Their gazes are intense as painted portraits. But the whole is arcane and lacking in narrative connections that might grab the viewer.

Forensic Architecture, Killing in Umm al-Hiran, 18 January 2017 (still). Annotations by Forensic Architecture on Israeli police footage

The other two works are more direct. Forensic Architecture is a fifteen-member collective of architects, investigative journalists, software developers, scientists and filmmakers based at Goldsmiths in South London. Their aim is to use technology and art to uncover various human rights abuses around the world. Here, together with the collective Activestills, they’ve attempted to unravel official statements about the events of 18 January 2017 when a nighttime raid by the Israeli police on a Bedouin village in the Negev/Al-Naqab desert resulted in the death of two people. It’s a powerful and shocking piece but I question how elastic the definitions of art should become and whether this would have been more suited to a documentary film award.

Naeem Mohaiemen, Two Meetings and a Funeral, 2017. Three-channel installation, Hessisches. Landesmuseum, Kassel, Documenta 14. Commissioned by Documenta 14. Co-commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation and Ford Foundation/Just Films. Supported by Arts Council, Bengal Foundation, Tensta Konsthall. Additional support by Experimenter and Tate Films. Photo by Michael Nast

For me, the work by the British-Bangladeshi artist Naeem Mohaiemen is the most satisfying. His first fiction film, Tripoli Cancelled, follows the daily routine of a man who lived alone in an abandoned airport for a decade. Wandering among the detritus of this empty building in a crisp tan suit and white shirt is like watching someone lost amid the shards of the twenty-first century. Picking up a phone in a smashed phone booth in an attempt to call his wife, he is unable to get through and tells the operator that he’ll try again the following week. Then sitting on the steps of a frozen escalator he quietly sings Never on a Sunday as a tear rolls down his cheek and he lights up a cigarette. With poetic sensibility Mohamiemen suggests a sense of dislocation and the plight of refugees trapped in stateless limbos. Call me sentimental, but I had a lump in my throat.

Published in Elephant Magazine

Life, Death and Reincarnation
with Boo Saville

Published in Elephant Magazine

Art Criticism

“Before I was always wary of the idea of beauty.” Boo Saville talks to Sue Hubbard about finding solace in her colour field paintings, following her mother’s death.

Boo Saville at True Colours, Newport Street Gallery

Boo Saville is a rarity among painters in that she’s both a figurative and an abstract artist. She has, in the past, been labelled as new gothic because her work has long dealt with death. As we sit down to lunch in the Newport Street Gallery in London, where she’s part of the group show True Colours with two other artists, Sadie Laska and Helen Beard, I ask how she developed such a mawkish interest.

Like many children, she tells me, she thought about death a lot. It might have been something as simple as a pet dying that stimulated her young imagination. She can’t quite remember. It’s not that she came from a religious household or believed in heaven and hell. It’s just that at an early age, she realized that at some point we’re all going to die. At art school she made a secret painting of a mass grave, like those in Auschwitz, that released something in her. Skulls, ghosts and decay became recurring symbols.

She used to go to museums to draw and just take a biro, working in layers to build up the surface like an old master painting. Butter Skunk, for example, featured biro recreations of photographs of mummified bodies found in Danish bogs the 1950s. But, more recently, something’s changed. She’s making large colour field paintings like those in True Colours that, for the viewer, create a kind of sublime immersion. In 2014 her mum died, and she was poleaxed by grief. Something changed, she says, in her vision. The way she saw the world went through a transformation.

Installation view, True Colours

“As I walked around it was a bit like being on ecstasy, as though all the love and emotion I felt for my mum was somehow being reabsorbed. It was really important when planning her funeral that everything was beautiful. This experience stimulated a new relationship with colour. Before I was always wary of the idea of beauty, somehow skirting around it.”

“If I’m making an 11-foot painting up on a scissor lift, I have to really believe in it”

I ask where she gets her ideas. If she’s influenced by what she reads, but she admits that she hardly reads at all, except for books on mental health or people like Fred West. “Though I do spend a great deal of time online and when I’m working I listen to playlists. I like movie soundtracks. Stuff that’s varied and emotional. I don’t have a telly. I work all the time. If I’m not working I don’t get out of bed for days. It takes it out of me. If I’m making an 11-foot painting up on a scissor lift, I have to really believe in it. It’s a big commitment. I listen to music on my earphones and paint to the soundtrack. There’s a performative element to it. I can’t hide behind anything. It’s so uncool, so uncontemporary to work like this but I just want to connect with people, to create works that bring people together and make them feel.” She likes, she says, the idea of her audience reflecting on her paintings, projecting their own thoughts and feelings onto them, filling them in with their lives.

Boo Saville, Ain (Eye of the Bull), 2018. Photo Prudence Cuming Associates

And while working, a word, a completely extraneous word, may just float into her head such as “tiptoe” that will trigger all sort of associations and images. “It’s like drawing a map in one’s own brain.” The big paintings, though, are essentially intuitive. “I might think this time I’d like a dark one, but the process is very fluid. The paintings themselves dictate the directions that they take. But they’re hard work. I want them to look as though they’ve just appeared, not that they’ve been worked on.” She talks of them as if they were cheeses. Some, she says, are young. Others more mature.

I ask about her life. She tells me that she and her husband Adam, who’s doing a PhD, used to live in one room in a shared house. Then, after her parents died, they moved to a one bedroom flat in Margate near where she has her studio. “It’s on an industrial estate behind B&Q, between a roofer and a sign maker. Not at all trendy,” she says. She’s the only woman in the place and the only artist and has to share a communal loo. When she first moved in she found a note saying: “A lady’s moved in. Put the seat down and mind your language boys.”

“Making this work is a mix of intuition and rigorous technique”

But she loves Margate and hasn’t looked back since she left London. She starts her working day at about 8am with coffee, puts on music, checks her brushes are dry enough to work with and selects which ones she’s going to use. “I love mixing paint and I’m very obsessional about my brush-cleaning habits because they have to be super-soft and not leave any brush marks, as each layer needs to be completely smooth. Between each one the canvas is sanded and washed. So, making this work is a mix of intuition and rigorous technique”.

Installation view, True Colours

She doesn’t work with an assistant and does everything herself. “I don’t want another person in the room with me. I’m completely at home when making work. I’m never lonely when painting. I was on my own a lot as a child”. Has she ever wanted children? I ask. Well, it’s just not happened, she says, and work has just taken over, become more important.

And how does she see the future? “Well, I dream of being in my seventies and at the top of my game like Phyllida Barlow. I love the sense of freedom in her work but I’m still too anxious to be that free.”

Installation view, True Colours

So, did she know she always wanted to be an artist? “Yes, I told my mum aged six that’s what I was going to be. I had a little plastic glow worm toy—mine was an artist one—so I’ve been on that path ever since. You could say I’ve had tunnel vision. Mum was a primary school teacher and my dad did a PhD in education. We had a little primary school at home where we could draw on the walls. I put so much of what I do down to my mum. The truth is that she’s completely there in these new colour field paintings.”

So, I ask, are they a form of reincarnation, a secular form of life after death? “Yes”, she says, “They wouldn’t exist if I hadn’t lost her. I cried when I saw the show. It was like losing her and finding her all over again.”

All images courtesy Newport Street Gallery

Published in Elephant Magazine

A Drama of Ideas
with Christo

Published in Elephant Magazine

Art Criticism

“I love the heat and air, wet and cold. I’m not very interested in the clinical space of the gallery.”

Christo discusses his literally monumental practice with Sue Hubbard, as his latest work of art is unveiled at the Serpentine Lake in Hyde Park.

It’s a beautiful chmmer morning as I make my way past the lakes and fountains, towards the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, where I’m to meet Christo, one of the few contemporary artists to be known only by one name. The wild heron balanced on top of the lakeside Henry Moore seems propitious. A collision between art and nature in an urban setting; a theme that runs deep through Christo’s work. The day before our meeting marked the opening of The London Mastaba, his temporary sculpture of 7,506 horizontally stacked blue and red painted barrels set on a floating platform in the Serpentine Lake, like a great pyramid.

I have my questions carefully prepared. What was the effect of his communist upbringing? Does he consider himself a land artist? How does he see his legacy? But, before I can get out the first question, he’s off—his sentences running as fast as a greyhound out of the starting box. This isn’t so much an interview as a private lecture by one of contemporary art’s most genuinely original artists.

“I owe everything to my parents,” he tells me. “My father was half Czechoslovakian, half Bulgarian. My mother, Macedonian. From the age of seven they encouraged me. I had private art lessons, real painting, real sculpture, real architecture. It was not so much that I escaped Communist Bulgaria in 1956,” he says, “rather that I went to live with relations in Prague. The world was chaotic. There was a lot of violence. Austria was divided. We feared WWIII. I’d done four years at the academy and the curriculum was very nineteenth century. We studied the decorative arts and even did two semesters of anatomy.

“I belonged nowhere. I was young and had never seen any real contemporary art so headed for Paris”

The course was eight years, but I left after four. I became a stateless person. I had no means, nothing at all. I had a “white passport”, a Nansen passport issued by The League of Nations. I belonged nowhere. I was young and had never seen any real contemporary art so headed for Paris where I did all sorts of odd jobs. It was in Paris that I met my late wife and life-long collaborator, Jeanne-Claude.”

I ask if he believes his comprehensive art education was of value. After all, his beautifully drawn plans have the precision of an architect’s project. “Well, the first critic who wrote of the wrapped Reichstag was an architectural critic. Space is such an important element in this work.”

“It’s an adventure, a drama of ideas but also very physical. I used to have huge arguments with Jeanne-Claude”

Where does he get his ideas from? They’re quite unlike anyone else’s. “I’m interested,” he says, “in the things we don’t know how to do, that engineers don’t yet know how to make. I work with a pool of people in the small hub of my nineteenth-century building. It’s an adventure, a drama of ideas but also very physical. I used to have huge arguments with Jeanne-Claude. We’d argue all the time. That’s how we developed our ideas. I’m not interested in modern technology. I can’t drive. I don’t use a computer. There is no elevator in my block. I spend six or seven hours a day standing in the studio. I like what’s real. I love the heat and air, wet and cold. I’m not very interested in the clinical space of the gallery. We call the thinking time the “software period”.

Educated as a Marxist, he set up a corporation to fund his projects largely from the proceeds of his drawings and other permanent artworks. He’s never had public funding and feels this gives him total aesthetic freedom. “Anyway,” he says, “in the early days no one was interested in our work.” He develops several projects simultaneously and emphasizes that he makes the work entirely himself and has no assistants. But he does need teams to help with the complex logistical planning and installation. It’s very expensive. The London Mastaba will have cost around £3,000,000. And it’s hard to get permissions. Twenty-three projects have been successfully made; forty-seven never happened.

“We work with the urban and the rural but in places touched by human habitation… Everything is based in the real”

Does he know what a work will look like when it’s finished? “Oh, yes. We find places to make them in secret, test the materials. For the Pont Neuf piece, we went to a small French village where the mayor owned a Monet and asked to wrap up his bridge.”

Does he feel connected to the tradition of land artists, such as Robert Smithson and his Spiral Jetty? “No. We work with the urban and the rural but in places touched by human habitation. We need the lamppost or church to give comparative scale. Everything is based in the real”.

How does a work evolve? “Well, in the places where people or collectors support us.” In the 1980s Miami was a place of race riots, refugees and violent crime. He and Jeanne-Claude arrived in town attracted by the flatness of the landscape, intending to dress the islands, built from piles of trash in Biscayne Bay, with hot-pink skirts. The result was lyrical and visually stunning. The idea was Jeanne-Claude’s, he reminds me, and it’s evident that he still misses her.

On 9 October 1991, their 1,880 workers began to simultaneously open some 3,100 yellow and blue umbrellas in Ibaraki, Japan and California. Why umbrellas? “Ah,” he says, “the work is like a diptych based in two of the richest countries in the world, but that have huge cultural differences. There’s a comparison in the space. Japan would virtually fit into California, which is much less densely populated. California is essentially flat, Japan mountainous. We started with the idea of shelters, but that was too difficult. Then tents.

We wanted to incorporate the idea of the nomadic. In the end it became umbrellas: roofs without walls. Yellow for California where the grass becomes burnt. Blue for Japan where there are rivers. We placed them near churches and gas stations. Real places. The umbrellas had bases where people sat. Families picnicked there. But in Japan, they took off their shoes. That’s a cultural difference. People think umbrellas were invented in Japan, but it was in Mesopotamia. Our umbrellas were eight meters wide and nine meters high. The size of an average two-storey Japanese house.”

Next, I ask about a typical Christo day. “I like to start the morning hungry. I might take a little yoghurt with garlic, a banana and some coffee. I need to feel edgy and alert, so I eat in the evening. The day is for creativity, the evening for classifying and ordering.” He doesn’t read anymore. “Because I’m running out of time,” he says. “The only thing that matters, now, is my art.”

And his legacy? Well, the work is all temporary, fragile. Like people striking a camp in the desert. It’s there one minute, then taken down. “In the end, what do we know about ourselves? What remains are ruins and memories. We can make a sort of archaeology, but reconstruction isn’t real. The computer chip is the most reliable way of recording what’s real. These will give the only true records of the present in the future. But I don’t like nostalgia. I love life too much. I’m not interested in retrospectives. I have too many new projects in mind.”

Published in Elephant Magazine

Chantal Joffe

Published in The London Magazine

Art Criticism

I have long been interested in the work of Chantal Joffe and have written about her on several occasions. Her figurative paintings of family and friends are routed in a gritty, observed reality which makes her unusual in an art world full of insouciant irony. She’s interested in people, their inner landscapes and what makes them tick. She’s also interested in the materiality and language of paint which she uses with verve and vitality. She’s obsessed with what paint can be made to do and what it can tell us.

There are many influences to her work. The American artist Alice Neel. Renaissance portraits of the Madonna and child. But there’s one influence that connects us directly, as writer and artist – the little-known German painter, Paula Modershon-Becker (1876-1907). There is a self-portrait of Paula in the Courtauld but you’d be hard pressed to see any more of her work in this country. Most of it is in Germany. Joffe’s new exhibition at The Lowry, which uses a quote from Modersohn-Becker as its title is, in many ways, a homage.

“Paula is a bubble between two centuries”, Joffe tells me.

In 2012, I wrote Girl in White, a novel based on Modersohn-Becker’s relationships with those she met when she settled in Worspwede, a remote artists’ colony on the North German moors. There, she mixed with others who wanted to live a life dedicated to art outside the strictures of 19th century German bourgeois society. These people included the older painter Otto Modersohn, who was to become her husband, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, with whom she had a passionate friendship, and the sculptor Clara Westhoff, who, disastrously, became Rilke’s wife.

The Worpswede colony was very much part of the mood-music among late 19th century European artists who wanted to ‘return’ to nature. Essentially a Romantic movement, this nostalgia for a prelapsarian existence was precipitated by the growth of industrialisation and the effects of urban modernisation. Many believed these were destroying their relationship with the landscape and their folk traditions. When Paula arrived in Worpswede she too initially painted landscape but, as she grew intellectually, emotionally and artistically, she developed a different agenda. Her subject became people. She painted the old in the local poorhouse, breast-feeding women and the children of peasants with an empathy close to that of Van Gogh’s. It’s hard for us to realise just how radical such a decision was, especially by a young middle-class girl. Paula sought out the raw, the authentic and the marginalised in a way that was completely modern. There wasn’t a smack of the drawing-room sentiment anywhere to be seen.

Talking to Chantal in her studio, on the battered sofa among postcards of Paula’s work and her own half-finished paintings, it becomes more and more evident that our interests overlap. We’re both mothers and creative women who, like many others including Paula, have struggled to find a balance between home, art, motherhood and career and, for whom, the intimacy of everyday life is central to our work. Though separated by more than 100 years, Paula’s intensity of vision and her commitment to the fullness of life, as an artist and a woman, reverberates throughout Joffe’s work. Like Freud, Joffe paints those from within a tight circle of family and friends. She not so much produces portraits, in the sense of a photographic likeness, but investigations – a sense of what it is like to inhabit the subject’s skin.

“I was”,  she says, “hesitant, mindful of the danger of placing myself alongside such a strong painter. I was worried it’d be seen as a form of self-aggrandisement, but I’m interested in the intimacy Paula creates. Personal feeling is always the main thing. That’s why I love her. There’s never anything unnecessary, nothing extra or extraneous. Only what is needed. The work’s so strong, so modern, so ahead of its time. My decision to go ahead was helped by the fact that she’s poorly known here and that maybe, through this exhibition, her work will become more celebrated. She’s just so good.”

I ask why she chose Paula and she says that she was attracted to a painter she’ d never seen before – a woman who was both tough and romantic, vulnerable yet determined. She loves the works of Picasso and Bonnard but here was a painter she could relate to directly and in a very personal way. She wanted to explore what they shared. Her paintings, like Paula’s, are intimate and domestic. She’s painted fellow artists, such as Ishbel Myerscough, and charted the passage of her daughter Esme from new-born infant to adolescent, with many of the blips along the way. These works map the passing of time, the minute changes that occur day to day within emotional connections and bonds.

As we sit talking, with our tea and biscuits, about our mutual concerns – just as Paula did with her friend Clara in her Worpswede studio – it strikes me how similar Joffe looks like Modersohn-Becker. She has the same broad intelligent face, pulled-back hair and snub nose. I tell her my thoughts and she blushes. Of course, she has seen this herself, though she does not admit it. It’s there in her Self-Portrait as Paula II where she looks inscrutably over her shoulder with her back naked to the viewer. Self-Portrait at 21, with its Matisse-style patterned robe, echoes something of the background of Paula’s Self-Portrait on the Sixth Wedding Day.

Paula Modersohn-Becker had an uncanny sense that she was going to die young. Her quest, at the century’s turn, was ‘to become something.’ Her whole life was a struggle between the binaries of domesticity and artistic fulfilment, duty and self-determination, the security of home and the stimulation of adventure and new experience. She longed for a child. She would paint herself holding her stomach as if she were in a phantom pregnancy. She would then claim that she was actually pregnant with art. Despite Modersohn-Becker’s bourgeois upbringing, she had a restless sensuality which is mirrored in Joffe’s work. You can see it in her unsparing nude self-portraits that show her, for example, sitting naked on a striped chaise lounge. There’s nothing romantic about the dark circles under her eyes, her sagging breasts and stomach and the unflattering long black socks – the only things she wears. And, there is nothing flattering about the ¾ Length Self-Portrait where she stands against a barren, leafless tree like some menopausal Eve. There are also a number of paintings of pregnant women and women with children, and there’s an especial poignancy to those of her daughter, Esme, when we know that Paula died tragically at the age of 32 from an embolism – only weeks after giving birth to her own daughter, Mathilde.

Paula Modersohn- Becker’s life was brilliant but sadly her career cut short. Her passionate female nudes and portraits of prepubescent girls, which sought for ever-more simplification, are extraordinary, considering that convention demanded she was a wife first and a painter second. Spirited, brave, tender and fierce, Paula understood that ‘personal feeling’ is always the main thing. Fashions in art come and go but there’ll always be a place for what is authentic, for what is true.

It’s as if Joffe, with her broad strokes of expressive and nervy paint, has picked up Paula’s baton and is running with it into the middle of the 21st century.

Chantal Joffe’s artwork exhibition ‘Personal Feeling is the Main Thing’ is running at The Lowry Art Gallery until the 2nd September. You can find out more about the artist here.

Published in The London Magazine

Gillian Ayres
My Fiercely independent Friend

Published in Artlyst

Art Criticism

Yesterday the art world not only lost one of its finest and most loved abstract painters, but I lost a great friend. There will be plenty of well-deserved plaudits and obituaries for Gillian Ayres, who died yesterday at the age of 88, after a bout of illness. But I want to add something more personal.

I first met her in 1984 when, as a young arts journalist, I was sent to interview her in her Three Bears cottage in a remote glade of a Cornish valley. It was a long way to go, and I was invited to stay. Warm and chaotic, the place was full of animals, cigarette smoke and, I believe, followed the Quentin Crisp approach to housekeeping, which was that after four years the dust never got any worse. I found it amazing that Gillian was able to produce such an array of stunning, jewel-like canvases from her small studio. We hit it off right away. Feisty, opinionated, fiercely intelligent and well read, we discussed everything from art, to Shakespeare and religion, which she hated. And she cooked delicious meals.

Independent and feisty Gillian was, actually, very shy and hated to talk in any public capacity about her work

Born in 1930, she grew up in Barnes, then still semi-rural with its wooded common and market gardens where, many years later I, myself, was to live. It was a comfortable middle-class existence. She attended St. Paul’s Girls school where her best friend was the future politician Shirley Williams. She once sent me a photograph of them sitting on a haystack. With her long golden locks, she was a stunning teenage. But it was on a day in 1943, she told me, as she was going up to the school art room, that she discovered some illustrated monographs on van Gogh, Gauguin and Monet. Already well versed in poetry and music, she had excelled at drawing and painting since she’d been a small child, but this was the moment she knew she wanted to be an artist.

Gillian Ayres ‘Untitled’ Oil on Canvas – Private Collection – Photo: Courtesy Sue Hubbard

At St. Paul’s a social conscience was encouraged. Many of her teachers had been suffragettes. Just before D-Day, when she was 14, the brother of a friend who’d been serving in the army arrived ‘out of the desert’ and took them both for a treat to a Knightsbridge hotel. Previously Head Boy at Winchester, he was, as Gillian put it with characteristic understatement, ‘bumped off’. She remembered then, in the midst of war, thinking that art was all that we human beings leave behind.

Fiercely independent she determined, in 1946, to leave school early and go to art school, despite her head mistress’s portentous warning to her mother about the sort of men her daughter would meet there. Too young at 16 for the Slade, she gained a place at Camberwell—though her kindly parents would have preferred her to marry a respectable doctor. Having no grant and, though she received 30 shillings a week from her family, her need of money to fund her voracious smoking habit led her to model (nude) for the Camera Club. She never told her parents. She was, she said, pretty bloody-minded when young.

It was at Camberwell that she rejected what she referred to as the prevailing Euston Road ‘measuring thing’ and found her tutor, William Coldstream, dictatorial— ‘it was dot and dash and measure.’ So she began to attend Victor Pasmore’s Saturday morning classes where he talked of ‘feelings’ and embraced abstraction. In 1950, two months before her finals she walked out of Camberwell— ‘What should one have taken it for and for whom?’—and caught a train to Penzance where she spent the summer working as a chambermaid. Back in London she turned down an allowance from her father and an offer to go to Paris and did a series of uninspiring jobs. An opportunity to work at the AIA gallery gave her the chance to meet some of the most original artists of her day. It was there that she began to find her own creative vision.

It’s hard, now, in these artistically eclectic times, when anything goes, to understand just how hostile then the general public was to abstract art and how dominated art schools were by an academic approach. As Herbert Read said of abstraction, it was ‘met with almost universal resistance in England’. But the 1956 Tate exhibition Modern Art of Abstract Expressionism was a creative watershed. Gillian revelled in the freedom and energy of the Pollocks, the de Koonings and Klines and determined that from then on, she’d leave the traces of her painterly actions on the canvas and allow the paint to speak for itself. After this, she began to paint on the floor. It was at her last show at Alan Cristea, which even in her 80s, was a triumph of originality and invention, that she said to me: ‘I love obscurity in modern art. I don’t want a story. There are no rules about anything. I just go on doing what I do. I want to do nothing else.’

Gillian Ayres  ‘Untitled’ – Private Collection – Photo: Courtesy Sue Hubbard

I have so many Gillian stories. There’s the time I was staying at Tall Trees, and one of her dear (and I have to say very smelly dogs) died in the night from kidney failure. In the morning I came downstairs to find it lying stiff on its back in the wheelbarrow covered by the beautiful Persian rug it had peed on during the night before – and a very distraught Gillian. I remember, too, the wonderful week I spent at the British School of Rome as her guest and companion, much of it also in the company of her son Sam Mundy. We looked at art, we ate wonderful meals, saw friends in a remote farmhouse in the hills. She was always enormously generous, and I left Rome carrying a painting fresh from the studio which, in those days before security checks, I carried onto the plane still wet. When I got it home, I realised I’d pressed my thumb into a layer of thick turquoise paint. I rang Gillian appalled. Oh, don’t worry, she said, in that unpretentious way of hers, just squash it over. I did, and in so doing, went down to the next layer of pink paint. Of course, these many years later it has dried. My thumbprint now a part of its history. Then there was the time when my own mother died, and I received, through the post, two beautiful artist prints rolled up in a tube. I was overwhelmed. When I phoned to thank her, we joked that she could now be my surrogate mother.

Gillian worked enormously hard. She more or less supported her two sons when they were growing up through teaching at St. Martins, where she was appointed Head of Painting in 1978, the first woman in this country to hold such a post, and teaching at Winchester. Always one to live by her own rules, with no regular income, she ended up living in a rambling 18th rectory in Wales in a complicated ménage a trois with her husband Henry Mundy and lover, the Welsh painter, Gareth Williams.

In 2004 she rang me to say that there’d been a fire at the Momart warehouse and that much of her middle period work, along with that by painters such as Patrick Heron and Barry Flanigan, had gone up in flames. Not only was this a huge financial loss but it left a big hole in the narrative of her life’s work. But with characteristic fortitude Gillian made very little of it. She was never one for self-pity.

Independent and feisty she was, actually, very shy and hated to talk in any public capacity about her work. Yet her life-affirming paintings, with their references to Shakespeare, music and Egyptian art, continued to push against their own limits to speak, not only of a passion for paint, but of the light, lyricism and sensuality of the natural world. ‘The act of painting,’ she once said to me with total conviction, ‘is an act of belief.’

Through my friendship with her, I had a vision of a fast disappearing bohemian world. One where one did what one did because of passion and love and not career choices, where what other people thought just didn’t matter. Gillian Ayres changed the face of British painting, and I shall miss her greatly. It was a privilege to know her.

Published in Artlyst

Hughie O’Donoghue on
Van Gogh and
Terrible Beauty

Published in Elephant Magazine

Art Criticism

“You must give yourself up to the process. Subjects emerge slowly, like archaeology.”Hughie O’Donoghue’s hazy works are viscerally dreamy, rich in colour and texture. Sue Hubba rd speaks with the painter about the sacrifices of Van Gogh and the dangers of irony.

I first came across Hughie O’Donoghue’s work as a young critic when, in 1989, I went to review his solo show, Fires, at Fabian Carlsson. I can still remember the profound effect his intense semi-abstract paintings, with their old master blacks and fiery oranges, had on me. The late eighties were the high point of irony. Goldsmiths, where O’Donoghue did his masters, was the driving force behind this knowing, often conceptual approach to art. But these works were different. They hit you in the solar plexus. Clutched you around the heart in a way that completely eschewed fashion. Here was someone who cared about painting. Not only the substance and materiality but also the emotional, poetic and philosophical depths that paint could explore. In an age of the too-clever-by-half, here were works that, unapologetically, looked back to art history, pitting themselves against the greats. Edgy, authentic, visceral, they reverberated with that sense of “terrible beauty” referred to by WB Yeats in his poem, Easter 1916.

Since then I’ve got to know O’Donoghue and his wife, Clare, well. I’ve written about him on several occasions, talked to him for hours about his work in his different studios, always impressed by his deep knowledge of and commitment to painting.

“The conceptual context in which I grew up killed painting. Van Gogh talked of himself as a painter, not an artist. You can’t make a conceptual painting, it’s a contradiction”

Today we are speaking about his new show at Marlborough Fine Art in London, Scorched Earth, which takes as its starting point Van Gogh’s lost painting—The Painter on the Road to Tarascon—which O’Donoghue believes was destroyed in a fire during the Second World War. The exhibition is a tribute to Van Gogh, to the idea of Van Gogh and his passionate, idiosyncratic commitment to painting.

“It’s the last two years of his life that were so significant,” O’Donoghue says. “If he’d died before the final paintings we may well not have known who he was. Those last paintings are truly revolutionary.” Van Gogh is, for him, the painter who stands in contradiction to so much in the contemporary art world: the commercialization, the razzmatazz, the conceptual theory. “Van Gogh painted without fear,” he says. “The conceptual context in which I grew up killed painting. Van Gogh talked of himself as a painter, not an artist. You can’t make a conceptual painting, it’s a contradiction. You must give yourself up to the process. Subjects emerge slowly, like archaeology. Van Gogh felt that he sacrificed his sanity for his painting. He had a brilliant intellect but was plagued by mental health issues. He might have been bipolar or suffering from the effects of syphilis, but he still managed to peruse his painterly vision. Painting provided solace, but it was also visceral, felt, direct. Conceptual art developed with Marcel Duchamp as a response to the slaughter in WWI. It grew out of a loss of certainty, a loss of faith. It represented the end of an era.”

The figure of Van Gogh, walking alone on a hot day is, for him, that of the everyman. He makes no real attempt to paint a portrait or capture an exact likeness but rather attempts to distil or capture Van Gogh’s essence. “The lonely figure striding out down the road represents the individual journey that we all make, particularly the artist, through life.” In his large tarpaulin painting, Hammering the Earth, the model is O’Donoghue’s son Vinnie. He wears his father’s suit and is carrying his great-grandfather’s cardboard case and his grandfather’s cane as he makes his way along the road outside the studio in County Mayo, Ireland. There are layers of meaning here: the solitary quest of the artist, the image of migration from rural Ireland. O’Donoghue’s own grandfather left Kerry to work on the railways in Manchester in 1911. From the hot orange of the painting Lavender Field, the image of what might be a soldier emerges. The figure is that of a French Poilu, an infantryman, a farm worker from the fields—the nickname means hairy one—which mirrors his own father’s wanderings through wartime France. Thus son, father and grandfather form a web of connection between O’Donoghue and Van Gogh.

Among the most powerful works at the Marlborough are the series of heads. Bald, wild-eyed or covered in a bandage, these expressionistic paintings show what it might have been like to inhabit the mind of the disturbed genius. I mention Dostoyevsky’s Idiot. “Yes”, says O’Donoghue, “there’s something of the innocent savant about them.”

For O’Donoghue, being a painter is a serious business. The subject is important as it acts as a trigger, an anchor point. Van Gogh is a valid subject because he’s an example of what is purest in art. “He always called himself a painter, not an artist. When I was at art school irony was the only show in town, but painting establishes meaning differently to conceptual art. It’s visceral and physical. There’s a quote by George Bernard Shaw that’s relevant here: ‘Revolutions have never lightened the burden of tyranny, they have only shifted it to another shoulder.’”

It was as a teenager that O’Donoghue first saw Van Gogh at Manchester Art Gallery. “They happened to have on loan one of the first pictures he made in Arles.” A tree in blossom in the snow. Then, at twenty, he made a pilgrimage to Arles. Since then Van Gogh has been his barometer. “A touchstone, a real painter, with a sense of the material: the mud that is paint. What’s so important is that he invented new genres. The painting of his chair, for example, is a portrait. No one had done anything like that before. These aren’t conceptual paintings. They deal with memory, the resonance of ordinary things. Van Gogh imaginatively reconstructed the world and defined what it is to be a modern painter.”

Photography © Anthony Hobbs

Published in Elephant Magazine

Tacita Dean
Triple Header

Published in Artlyst

Art Criticism

Film is Tacita Dean’s medium. Not that catch-all of so many contemporary artits, video, but analogue film with all its implicit nostalgia and history. Although Tacita Dean emerged in the 90s, at the height of conceptualism, she’s always been essentially a Romantic. She’s the daughter of a circuit judge and granddaughter of Basil Dean, the theatre and film director and producer who founded the first sound studio in Britain in Ealing in 1931. Landscape has always been central. Her beautiful anamorphic film, Disappearance at Sea, 1996, measures time by the regular clank of the revolving lighthouse lamp at St. Abb’s Head, in Berwickshire. It’s a mediation of sorts, slow, rhythmic and primal. She doesn’t do slick. She doesn’t do fast. There’s a ritualised magic about such works where the film frames are composed like paintings. A branch of a tree lifts in the wind; the sun slowly turns orange on a far horizon. Now she’s been offered what few artists have achieved, unprecedented simultaneous exhibitions at the National Portrait Gallery, The National Gallery and, later in May, The Royal Academy. This has given her the opportunity to explore the different genres of portraiture, still life and landscape. It’s a big ask.

These two exhibitions, despite some engaging moments, feel drawn too thin

Walking into the National Portrait gallery, you enter a small claustrophobic space where there’s a film of David Hockney smoking. Smoking is intrinsic to his creative practice, and he’s often been a grumpy and staunch defender of his right to continue the practice. In the sixteen-minute film taken in his Los Angeles studio, surrounded by a series of portraits he did for his 2016 exhibition at the RA, he puffs away on five cigarettes as he thinks about painting. Occasionally he laughs a little uncomfortably as the camera lingers over his face. This is accompanied by the rackety sound of the film reel that made me think of being a child, sitting in the dark and watching those jerky family holiday ciné films when the picture would suddenly run out, and only a whir in the blackness would remain.
Tacita Dean

There are also ‘portraits’ of Cy Twombly, Mario Merz, Claes Oldenburg, Merce Cunningham and the poet and translator, Michael Hamburger. Stillness and quietness run through these works. In the film about Hamburger, he barely appears at all. We mostly see his gnarled hands turning his collection of apples from his apple orchard in fractured English autumn light, as a poet might turn over single words. You can almost smell the withered musty skins.

The multi-screen piece of Merce Cunningham is even stiller. In six films of six different ‘performances’ he hardly moves, while elsewhere Claes Oldenburg is shown organising and fiddling with objects and artefacts in Manhattan Mouse Museum. Upstairs, in the Stuart room, among the sublime Nicholas Hilliard and Isaac Oliver miniatures, Dean has placed a tiny film diptych. The title is taken from a line of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, His Picture in Little. It depicts three actors of different generations, David Warner, Stephen Dillane and Ben Wishaw, all who have played the Danish prince. The miniature anamorphic film pays homage to the new ideas of the Renaissance. Through the use of special stencils, slipped into the camera’s aperture that exposed different parts of the film frame, Tacita Dean was able to invite the actors to sit side-by-side without them having to meet. It is the most successful piece in the show. Less successful, for my money, is the display of still photographs GAETA, fifty photographs plus one, 2015 taken in Cy Twombly’s studio. It is the distilled presence of Cy Twombly that gives them power, rather than anything intrinsic in the images.

Over at the National Gallery, Dean is primarily a curator. In STILL LIFE she has organised work ranging from 17th-paintings to recently completed pieces in a variety of media by contemporary artists. Among the Gwen John bird cage and Roni Horn’s Dead Owl, she has placed, high on the gallery wall, Ear on a Worm, her film of a small bird flickering in a square of painterly blue sky as it sits chirping on an overhead wire.
Tacita Dean

She has said that she is interested in objects in the landscape and has included some wonderful paintings of 1814 by Thomas Robert Guest of Bronze Age and Saxon Grave Goods, excavated from a Bell Barrow in Wiltshire.. Her own passion for the painter Paul Nash is underlined by the inclusion of his Event on the Downs of 1934, with its gnarled tree stump and mysterious tennis ball, which has been set between her diptych Ideas for a Sculpture in a Setting, inspired by one of the many flints collected by Henry Moore and kept in his studio. Shot is black and white the object becomes part vertebrae, part talisman, echoing the rock formations and stone henges to be found in this part of the countryside.

LANDSCASPE, which opens later in the spring at the RA will be the first exhibition to be held in the new Gabrielle Jungels-Winkler Galleries since the redevelopment of the gallery and will explore landscape in its broadest sense, from botany to cosmography. With an eye on the traditions established by landscape artists such as Constable, Gainsborough and Turner, who championed the genre, Tacita Deane has created works for these new spaces, including a large-scale photogravure, Forty Days, a series of cloud chalk-spray drawings on slate and a monumental blackboard drawing, The Montafon Letter. The exhibition culminates in an ambitious new 35mm Cinemascope film, Antigone.

And does the work really justify all this space in three public institutions simultaneously? Well, yes and no. Dean is an interesting artist. At her best quietly poetic, as in the painterly The Green Ray, 2001 where we can glimpse, if we are patient, the brief refractive green flash caused by the sun setting over the sea. Here she captures something atavistic, in real time, something sublime that could not be caught on anything other than film. Though her use of light she touches on the history of painting, on the primal and creates a sort of truth.

But these two exhibitions at the National Portrait Gallery and The National Gallery, despite some engaging moments, feel drawn too thin. One intense exhibition would have been enough, though it will be interesting to see the third show at the RA. Still, you have to be very big to carry the weight of these three august institutions and good as she is, she is, after all, not the only show in town.

Tacita Dean Landscape, Portrait, Still Life The National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, And Opening In May At The Royal Academy

Published in Artlyst

The Many Sides of
Eileen Cooper

Published in Elephant Magazine

Art Criticism

Artist, mother and now first female Keeper of the Royal Academy Schools, Eileen Cooper reflects on the challenges and triumphs of her remarkable career.

As I sit with Eileen Cooper on the roof terrace of the NED hotel looking over the London skyline, large snowflakes swirl outside the plate glass window and we calculate that the first time we sat down together to discuss her work was thirty-three years ago. The circumstances were rather different then. I was a young art critic and poet, a single mother new to London, writing for Time Out. Eileen was an “emerging” artist. She had a gallery in the West End and was getting noticed. Her work was much favoured by women writers for their book covers. I, myself, used a powerful charcoal drawing Carefully (1993) on the front of my first poetry collection, Everything Begins with the Skin. At that first meeting we sat huddled in a bedroom of her south London home that was then being used as a kitchen, while the downstairs was slowly being converted. We talked about art and the struggle to be both mothers of small children and creative women. It’s a long time ago now. But those times shaped who we are. The lives of women, relationships, fertility and sexuality have long been the enduring themes of Eileen Cooper’s very human work.

Breathing Space, 2016

As I sit with Eileen Cooper on the roof terrace of the NED hotel looking over the London skyline, large snowflakes swirl outside the plate glass window and we calculate that the first time we sat down together to discuss her work was thirty-three years ago. The circumstances were rather different then. I was a young art critic and poet, a single mother new to London, writing for Time Out. Eileen was an “emerging” artist. She had a gallery in the West End and was getting noticed. Her work was much favoured by women writers for their book covers. I, myself, used a powerful charcoal drawing Carefully (1993) on the front of my first poetry collection, Everything Begins with the Skin. At that first meeting we sat huddled in a bedroom of her south London home that was then being used as a kitchen, while the downstairs was slowly being converted. We talked about art and the struggle to be both mothers of small children and creative women. It’s a long time ago now. But those times shaped who we are. The lives of women, relationships, fertility and sexuality have long been the enduring themes of Eileen Cooper’s very human work.

Interval, 2016

Born in the Peak District, Derbyshire in 1953, she went, as she says, to an ordinary comprehensive. It was a long journey from there to become the first female Keeper of the Royal Academy Schools since the RA began in 1768. Drawing has always been the basis of her practice. She’s an organic, intuitive artist who discovers things through the process of making, through experimentation in the studio. Her drawings, prints and paintings are peopled with strong, independent women. Often, they are the main nurturers among a cast of men, boys and animals that range from cats to tigers. Monumental and assured, many of her women are nude. Some dance. She’s not interested in the naturalistic but in symbols and implied narratives.

Totemic and wild, her women are closely allied with nature. Halfway between humans and goddesses. In The Two Gardeners (1989) a pair of naked females, painted in bright vermillion, swing from a scroll of vines above their gardening fork and spade, while in Enchantress (2000) a woman covers her face with a mask of leaves like some sort of ecological dance of the Seven Veils. There’s an ecstatic, chthonic quality to her movement, as though she’s just escaped from the Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Primitive, shamanic and atavistic, T.S. Eliot’s clodhopping dancers come to mind: “Leaping though the flames, or joined in circles, /Rustically solemn or in rustic laughter/Lifting heavy feet in clumsy shoes,/ Earth feet, loam feet lifted in country mirth….”

Her figures pulse with energy, part of the matrix of life in which we all find ourselves entwined. They are living, breathing, sensing bodies that draw their sustenance from the soil, from plants and animals. Of late she’s been making sculptures but says she’s happiest working in two dimensions. Her influences are Indian miniatures and mediaeval painting. The German expressionists from Nolde to Kirchner. Picasso and the Fauvists. Like these artists she is a powerful colourist.

Pussy Willow, 2017

Has she always been a feminist? Yes, she answers. But it’s only now, when she looks back on her time as a student in the early 70s at Goldsmiths, that she realises how often she was excluded from core activities. Then she hardly noticed. She just got her head down and worked. She only had male tutors. Though some, like Basil Beattie and Bert Irvin, were supportive of women. When she started teaching she was unusual: both a woman and a figurative painter.
“Networking is so important to success as an artist. But a gap opens up for young women with families.”

Is her work autobiographical? “Not directly”, she answers. But it does “draw from my experience. It’s about movement and balance. About juggling. The figures are contained within a rectangle. I think of it like theatre where I explore issues of creativity, work and family relationships. Networking is so important to success as an artist. But a gap opens up for young women with families. Going to private views is out because that’s children’s tea-time. It’s hard to keep going.”

Hear the Wind Cry I, 2017

I ask what she thinks about the current #MeToo campaign and, like many women of our generation, she is ambivalent, feeling that the slogan is too simplistic. “I tend,” she says, “to put the past behind me and live in the present. Class was, in fact, as much an issue for me as being a woman. I didn’t come from a background where people went to art school.” She feels it’s important to help students find their way through a system that’s always favoured the privileged and the male. Even now, she claims, there are far fewer women in major collections than men. “And that,” she says, “is in modern collections, not just historic ones” But, she passionately believes in the value of a liberal arts education, whether or not students go on to be artists, and feels that it’s in danger of being cannibalised. “Education is a thing in itself. It’s not just about qualifications.”
“I try not to take myself too seriously. There’s so much pomposity in the art world.”

And now that she’s handed on the baton of Keeper, I ask, what does she plan to do? She’s lucky, she says. She has the time to take her practice in new directions. As a process-based artist, she likes to work outside her comfort zone, experimenting with new materials and ideas. “I try,” she says, “not to take myself too seriously. There’s so much pomposity in the art world. Of course, in the studio, I’m deadly serious, but I like to take a step back, to help young artists. Education changed my life. I’m proud of my time at the Academy Schools. It’s a centre of excellence.”

Body Talk 3, 2017

Centre Stage 2, 2017

And now there’s a new development. She has a gallery in Beirut, Lebanon. Going there has given her fresh ideas. She’s fascinated by the ancient mosaics she’s discovered, experimenting with how she can incorporate them into her work. She likes how, when we walk on them, they connect us to the past, give us a direct route back through time to older civilizations. She’s always trying to improve as an artist but admits there’s probably only so much work inside her. Now, for the first time, she can take things a bit easy. She might take longer on an individual work or spend more time preparing. If she’s working on paper she often draws flat on the table, beginning with a charcoal outline. Other times she’ll work on an easel, changing and experimenting as she goes along, rubbing out with tissue paper and rag, then transforming and rebuilding. Drawing will always be central, but she is working on three new big canvases. And she loves printmaking. The co-operation, the sociability. Working in a team.

Like Paula Rego, who is a decade and a half older, Eileen Cooper shows us the world, after centuries of seeing it through the male gaze, through female eyes. She creates narratives of the collective female experience in a universe peopled by women, their partners and children. Her work is intimate and accessible, concerned above all with how we make sense of our lives as mothers, wives and friends. But it’s also knowing, informed and packed full of influences from Giotto to Matisse, and as much about the process of being an artist—the use of materials, the medium etc—as it is about exploring the experiences and adventures of being a modern woman.

Pause, 2017

Published in Elephant Magazine

Rose Wylie
Duck, Duck, Goose

Published in Elephant Magazine

Art Criticism

“What you remember is what was special and significant for you as a child.”
War, football and family homes are threaded through the latest exhibition of work by celebrated British painter, Rose Wylie.

All images: Installation view, Quack Quack at Serpentine Sackler Gallery, London © 2017 Mike Din

“I see you like dark lipstick too. It’s great, isn’t it? Not really like lipstick at all, more like paint,” Rose Wylie remarks as we settle down in an ante-room of the Serpentine for a chat about her new exhibition, Quack-Quack. “It’s nice to meet you. I feel as though I’ve known you for a long time from your writing.”

“The paintings remain fresh, curious and playful. Age is just a number. Imagination and curiosity are all.”

Born in 1934, Rose dresses like an art student. Grey hair cut into a bob that flops over her round Harry Potter specs. A baggy tweed jacket worn with a short skirt over tights and trainers. And, of course, the dark red lipstick. She is very friendly, very unaffected and tells me she’s enjoying her new-found fame. I remind her of Louise Bourgeois’s acerbic comment to a journalist on becoming a celebrity in her nineties that she’d been “‘ere all along”. Rose Wylie laughs. Yes, she’s been here all along, too, busily painting away. Though, as a second child, she says, she’s used to being put in her place. “So, when something finally happens that’s funny and surreal, it’s really rather nice.”

She’s been accused by detractors of making “childish” images. But that is completely to miss the point of her work. It takes a good deal of insight and self-awareness to paint this freely. Unlike a child there’s a sophisticated editing process. Decisions have to be made as to what to use and what to discard based on an instinctive sense of aesthetic “rightness”. An endless evaluation of what works and what doesn’t. The past, for her, is not so much another country but one that is continually alive and present in her work. She does not “depict” things “as they are” but rather creates memory-maps. Rosemount (Coloured), 1999, reframes some of her early childhood memories. A central black house sits surrounded by a front lawn and privet hedge, allotments and chicken run, all signposted in her loopy handwritten script. She had difficulty, she says, remembering which side of the house the chimney went. So first she had to remember which door she’d used, where the fireplace was, where the cat sat and the chickens lived. Only then, by going through all these things in her mind’s eye, could she be sure to which side of the house the chimney belonged. “What you remember,” she says, “is what was special and significant for you as a child.”

Park, Dogs and Air Raid, 2017 grew from memories of living for a short period, when she was five, close to Kensington Gardens during the Second World War. Dogs, ducks and lakes, along with the present-day Serpentine Gallery, are all thrown pell-mell into the mix, as Messerschmitts and Spitfires lour overhead in the Blitz. The Quack-Quack of the exhibition title onomatopoeically mixes the memories of ducks in the park with the more sinister sound of “ack-ack” fire. There’s an extraordinary physicality and fluidity to her paintings that remind me in their delightful irreverence of early Paula Rego or Philip Guston’s loose cartoonish shapes. I mention Cy Twombly’s use of text and she pulls a face. “Too highfalutin, too erudite,” she says.

Usually, she tells me, she paints what she sees. A work often starts with a drawing, a close observation. Though the scale may change and she may fiddle with the rules of gravity. Repetition is also important. Going at things from different perspectives and angles. It’s as if she’s grappling not to describe how things actually are, but rather what they feel like. As though the physical act of painting becomes a mechanism for remembering.

“Her use of language is anarchic and wayward. Sometimes words are misspelt or slip over the edge of a painting to remind us that they’re really a form of painterly mark-making.”

There’s a strong sense of place in her work and the text helps to detonate and to fix memories. She’s a fan of the poetry of JH Prynne, the Cambridge poet, also in his eighties, known for his powerful, dense and experimental poetry. Her use of language is anarchic and wayward. Sometimes words are misspelt or slip over the edge of a painting to remind us that they’re really a form of painterly mark-making. Her sentences are not captions but an intrinsic part of the visual whole. They may look as though they have been written by a first-year infant, but there’s a knowing physicality to them. She labels the parts of a horse in Irreverent Anatomy Drawing, 2017 in the way a child at school may label them in a biology lesson: sternum, femur, tibia, etc. Her paintings are scruffy and messy as though the one element of childhood that hasn’t abandoned her in her eighties is the ability to play.

Football—Yellow Strip, 2006, with its Eadweard Muybridge sense of sequential movement—and film are also important influences. Many of her paintings can be read like cinematic storyboards. Kill Bill (Film Notes), 2017 explores one scene from the Tarantino film from slightly different points of view. While NK (Syracuse Line Up), 2014 evokes a freeze from antiquity, Knossos, say, or an ancient wall painting from Pompeii, as well as the frames of a film. Her love of cinema is also alluded to in ER & ET, 2011, in which a generic Liz Taylor lies languidly in skimpy swimwear, surrounded by a plethora of eyes and ears. These were appropriated from the decoration on a cloak belonging to Elizabeth I and suggest that we all become voyeurs and spies when we gawp at the famous and their personal lives become public. The two parts of Pink Table Cloth (Close-Up) (Film Notes), 2013, inspired by the 2005 film Syriana directed by Stephen Gaghan, are based on a panoramic long shot and a close-up of a meeting in the desert that takes place at a table draped, rather surreally, in a pink table-cloth. As in this work, Wylie often adds sections to her paintings, another panel, say, to run along the bottom, building them into almost sculptural forms.

There’s a wonderful anarchy to her work that seems to reach back to make connections with early cave paintings—the desire for human beings to chart and explain the world—while also embracing popular culture.  Above all Rose Wylie is a testament to “doing one’s own thing”. To the integrity of individual vision rather than the slavish following of fashion. She may be in her eighties but the paintings remain fresh, curious and playful. Age is just a number. Imagination and curiosity are all. And, no doubt, she will still be sporting the dark red lipstick when she is in her nineties.

Published in Elephant Magazine

On Pagham Beach
Photographs and Collages
from the 1930s

Published in The London Magazine

Art Criticism

It is hard for those brought up in a world of gender fluidity, with debates about who has the right to use which bathroom, to imagine the veil of secrecy and repression that prevailed during the first half of the twentieth century around sexual encounters between men. The Sexual Offences Act that decriminalised homosexual acts in private between two men over the age of 21 did not become law until 1967. A full 13 years after the Conservative government had asked a committee, chaired by John Wolfenden, to look at legislation that related to homosexuality and prostitution. It had taken more than 80 years for the notorious Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885, introduced by Henry Labouchère, in response to largely beefed-up tabloid ‘scandals’, to be repealed. Section 11 had prescribed 2 years hard labour ‘for gross indecency between males in public or in private.’ Oscar Wilde and the brilliant Enigma code mathematician Alan Turing were both tragic victims.

For the artist Keith Vaughan, as for most ‘ordinary’ homosexuals during much of the twentieth century, life was lived between two worlds–the closet and that of fleeting, furtive, sexual encounters. Vaughan learnt early ‘the fear, tension and repression that surrounded everything to do with sex’. For a high-society set it was somewhat different. The ‘eccentric’ behaviour of those who were ‘artistic’–the photographer Cecil Beaton and his circle, which included the actor John Gielgud and the composer Lord Berners, and the left-leaning group of poets and musicians who gathered around Auden, Isherwood, Spender and Britten–was largely tolerated. A love of the ballet was shared by many homosexual men, allowing a safe milieu for the contemplation of beautiful male bodies. ‘Is he musical?’ became something of a code for assessing someone’s sexuality. Vaughan, an accomplished pianist, developed his love of ballet after seeing Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes production of Prokofiev’s Le Fils Prodigue at Covent Garden and becoming close friends with several prima ballerinas. Yet he never quite fitted into these homosexual elites, remaining something of a loner and an outsider.

Abandoned by his father at the age of eight and left with his convent educated mother and timid younger brother Dick, he was bullied and miserable during his time at Christ’s Hospital School. Later he would become openly attracted to younger working-class men with a rough edge (echoing Francis Bacon’s sexual preferences). Those such as Len and his brother Stan, the grocer’s boy Percy Farrant, and the small-time criminal and boxer Johnny Walsh, would become his photographic models.

After leaving school Vaughan joined Lintas (Lever International Advertising Services) the advertising department of Unilver which, during the depressed 1930s, attracted a number of talented artists, including Graham Sutherland, John Piper, and John Banting. Vaughan had already started to take photographs while at school with a medium-format reflex camera and by 1932 had set up his own dark room in the family home. As a trainee layout artist, he was persuaded by another member of the team, Reg Jenkins, to buy a Leica camera. It’s this he used over the years to shoot ‘hundreds of feet of camera roll’ of both the ballet and Pagham beach. It was his affair with Harold Colebrook, whose aunt had a converted railway carriage at Pagham, that led to this piece of West Sussex becoming his own prelapsarian playground.

Just before the outbreak of war, at the age of 27, Vaughan decided to keep a journal, which he did until his suicide some 40 years later. Edited by his close friend the painter Prunella Clough and the one-time editor of The London Magazine, Alan Ross, who published an edition of Vaughan’s Journals and Drawings in 1966, it gives insights into many of his concerns, though the diaries sadly postdate the period of the 1930s covered by this exhibition.

Boy in Fishing Net,
1939. Printed on postcard paper, 8.7 x 13.8cm

A Male Figure in Silhouette Holding Wet Cloth, 1939.
Printed on postcard paper, with pencil marking, 8.7 x 13.8cm.

Two Male Figures on a Beach, c. 1938-9.
Gouache and photography on card, 30 x 25.5cm

Dick (Solarised), 1930s. Photographic print on Agfa Brovira paper, 30.2 x 25cm

But what we do have in the Austin/Desmond exhibition is the photographs. Full of silver grey tonalities they exude a utopian sense of optimism and freedom. Often only of postcard size, they tap into a nostalgic sensibility that has all but been lost in our modern world; a mixture of childlike innocence and homo-eroticism. The boy standing on a rock with his back to the camera holding a shrimping net might, almost, be Christopher Robin. Reminding us of the complexity of J.M Barrie’s own relationship with the Llewelyn Davies boys and the idealised, often repressed relationships between many other men of that era for whom the most ‘real’ relationships – in a world of public schools and the armed forces – were those with their own sex.

Of course, these photographs of boys wrapped in fishing nets, sprawling naked, except for ‘posing pouches’, on the shingle, doing acrobatics on folding deckchairs or standing godlike beneath the rusting hulks of ships were not taken in naïve isolation. Vaughan displays an obvious awareness of current contemporary social and artistic movements. During the 1930s nude photographs were often published in ‘respectable’ body building or naturist magazines such as Health and Strength and Health and Fitness. This interest in nakedness–as an expression and symbol of freedom from bourgeois social constraints–was not simply a homosexual obsession. It was just as much a cult among Rupert Brooke’s mostly heterosexual Neo- Pagan’s who saw nude swimming and sunbathing as a way of asserting their bohemian credentials. While in Germany naked gymnastics held in the open air was considered to be beneficial in alleviating the effects of urban poverty on children and young people. In1929 Adolf Koch organised the Congress of Nudity and Education. Though his work would soon be banned by Hitler, the cult of the body beautiful still infiltrated Third Reich ideology through the lens of Leni Riefenstahl and an obsession with the perfect Aryan Olympic athlete. Naturism had long been valued during the nineteenth century as part of traditional male bonding, a philosophy that was revisited by the Wandervogel–a back to nature movement–which exalted in the cult of body-building and mass displays of gymnastics. Without any sense of irony, the approval of these ‘homoerotic’ events, in which the male body was on public display, sat alongside more punitive views about degeneracy and sexual ‘inversion’ to create a complex binary tension.

It’s not possible to be sure whether Vaughan took these photographs simply for his own enjoyment or as part of his studio practice, as aides-memoire for future paintings. A standing nude posed as Michelangelo’s David, and the shot of a bather throwing a ball in which the angle creates a dynamic heroic image, suggest that Vaughan must have been aware of the photographic propaganda from the new USSR and the work of photographers such as El Lissitzky and Rodchenko. His use of collage, as well as his tendency to draw directly onto his photographs to create surreal spatial and perspectival contradictions, indicates an interest in the possibilities of the medium in its own right. What is clear is that his artist’s eye led him to experiment with different photographic genres: the close-up, the body in movement (which surely must have been influenced by looking at Eadweard Muybridge), the action shot, along with the occasional still life. But, above all, what the camera seems to have given Vaughan, the young man who found ‘fear’ ‘tension’ and ‘repression’ in ‘everything to do with sex’, was the chance to look, to be a voyeur. As a natural outsider the camera gave him protection, gave him permission to be an observer. As Prunella Clough commented: ‘when Keith had a camera fixed to his eye, it legitimized his gazing at another unclothed human being’.

What Vaughan presents in these photos is a kind of nostalgia. One that records the ‘pagan’ pleasures of sun-worship and nudity, the hedonistic delights of young men at play. They are extremely British. Nothing is really outrageous. Nothing is there to shock. Of Len, Vaughan would later reminisce:

I could only touch his body through the lens of my camera…he liked to know the importance of his body and sunbathed for this reason…Len stripped and moved about with his copper-varnished limbs. I followed with my camera obsessed with the colour and the intangible beauty of the scene.

In these interwar years photographic portraiture was still largely portrayed in terms of class and status. The subjects of Cecil Beaton stood in obvious contrast to the working-class subjects of Brandt or Bert Hardy. But Vaughan’s youthful subjects, near naked and stripped of any identifying social accoutrements, offer something more classless and democratic. What they encapsulate is youth, desire and the freedom to be oneself; qualities that as the twentieth century progressed would become the hallmarks of a more liberally permissive society.

Published in The London Magazine

Sean Scully: Facing East

Published in Elephant Magazine

Art Criticism

Sean Scully finds a suitable setting for his work at Multimedia Art Moscow, where he draws welcome parallels with the great Russian works of Kandinsky and Malevich.

Wall of Light Blue Black Sea
, 2009, oil on aluminium

All human life is defined by boundaries—from the garden fence to the border between states. Boundaries tell us who we are. Me and not you or them. They divide the physical from the metaphysical, one side of the river from the other. Sometimes they involve choice. Other times war. Sometimes they are permeable. On other occasions rigid. We create them for our physical safety and, occasionally, we are brave enough to let them dissolve when we want to get close to others either personally or politically.

“Where does he belong except to the language and landscape of paint?”

Moscow, then, could not be a more pertinent city for Sean Scully to show his work in Facing East, this first major exhibition at Multimedia Art Moscow. Not quite Europe, not quite Asia, the fault line for so long between the so-called free world and communism, the city provides, with its backdrop of extraordinary art—from the Kremlin frescoes to the stunning Impressionists in the Pushkin Museum—the perfect mise en scène for Scully’s work. The notion of borders also reflects something more personal, Scully’s comparative statelessness. An artist of Irish origin, he grew up largely in London and went to English art schools, though he has lived and worked much of his life in Barcelona, Germany and New York. How, then should such a peripatetic artist define himself? Where does he belong except to the language and landscape of paint?

Backs and Fronts, 1981, oil on linen

Scully is a painter who divides artists and critics. There are those who see him simply as painting grids in the modernist tradition, or as a Romantic whose beautiful brush marks continue to seduce the viewer in an age of hard-edged conceptualism. But that, I believe, is to misunderstand the timeless metaphysics of these paintings. The struggle, the journey. Like a Russian Orthodox monk who sings the limited repertoire of notes of a Gregorian chant over and over, or a Japanese haiku master who constantly returns to the same poetic form of 5/7/5, Scully uses the constraints of the grid to go deeper and further into the terrain of the metaphysical. In the early twentieth century, Alexander Rodchenko tried to uncover the very foundations of painting and explore its molecular and atomic components in line and colour. Kandinsky saw music “as the ultimate teacher” of the painter, ideas that he explored when writing about his Christian eschatology in Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Whilst Scully’s work, by comparison, is secular art for a secular age, he is still compelled by what Kandinsky called “an internal necessity”, where one boundary presses up against another with a sense of purpose or dissolves and shrinks away from its adjacent companion.

The thirty paintings, watercolours, mixed-media compositions and pastels featured in Moscow chronicle Scully’s rise to artistic heights. As the art critic and cultural philosopher Arthur Danto insisted, he “belongs on the shortest of shortlists of the major painters of our time.” As we move through the exhibition, from the sole figurative study undertaken in 1967 to the comparative sparseness of the Landlines created half a century later, we travel with the artist as he develops his thinking and approach. The cartography of these deceptively simple latitudinal and longitudinal stripes, refined over a period of fifty years, transcend the materiality of paint to become coordinates that map inner landscapes. To appropriate John Berger’s famous phrase, they provide the viewer—if the viewer is willing or able to engage with an open mind—new “ways of seeing”. For as Kazimir Malevich remarked: “Reality can never be attained or perceived.”

Installation view, Facing East, 2017 at Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow

The Moscow space heralds the visitor with Scully’s large wall of tight horizontal and vertical stripes, Backs and Fronts from 1981. This painting, comprising eleven separate panels of different dimensions and proportions of stripes, started out as four musicians in a homage to Scully’s friend Pablo Picasso, who painted three musicians. But three were not enough for Scully, so he made it four. Slowly other panels were added like performers joining a band. Finally, as it evolved over time, the painting acquired its new name, suggestive of the buildings in New York where Scully has lived for much of his life. Like Grey, 1973, with its strict diagonal logic and Black Composite, 1974, Backs and Fronts denotes a more rigorous formal period of Scully’s work, which is tighter and more constrained than the humane fluidity of his later work. In Moscow, Passenger Red White (1999) has been hung high up alongside Backs and Fronts in acknowledgement of Malevich.

“They display the confidence of one who has developed a fluency in his own chosen language that allows the viewer to conjure imagined horizons and landscapes.”

By 1991, Facing East shows a greater relational association between the lines and rectangular forms than is in evidence in the complex layered grid of, say, Backcloth, 1970. In Facing East, there’s a binary tension between dark and light, between what is disclosed and kept hidden. The central ochre rectangle in the left half of the painting and the black bars that cut across the lighter yellowish tone emitted from the central rectangle in the dark right-hand section imply, as in a Rothko, a place beyond the flatness of the surface. As viewers we are invited into other dimensions, into perspectival depths. While in Red Chamber, 2012 the Guston-like pinks and reds take on an altogether hotter, more sensual tone. One that suggests flesh and speaks obliquely of the body and human connections.

Installation view, Facing East, 2017 at Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow

When we come to the Landline paintings these show the thinking of a mature artist who no longer worries about debates around formalism or the battle between pure abstraction and figuration. They display the confidence of one who has developed a fluency in his own chosen language that allows the viewer to conjure imagined horizons and landscapes. Here we see the blue-blacks of darkening evening abutted by the shadowy green horizontals of the land where the light is fading. Flickers of yellow break through this dimming veil like the last moments of the dying day. While in Four Days, each period is defined by the almost synaesthesiac colours that express the mood of individual days to remind us that vision is, in fact, a complex sense, one that relies on memories of smell, atmosphere, touch and even hearing, as well as what we absorb with our eyes.

Facing East, 1991, oil on linen and steel

In Arles-Abend-Vincent 2 we become witnesses to the struggle of each rectangle and colour to hold its own, to speak in its distinct voice beside that of its neighbour. There is the insistence of separate blocks both to their unique and separate individuality, as well as the need for connection. Although entirely abstract, these slabs of colour and the negative spaces between them speak as much about human relationships as Morandi’s delicate anthropomorphic bottles.

That Scully, like Kandinsky, wants his art to aspire to “something like the condition of music” is hardly a surprise.  He rarely works without listening to music, for music is at one and the same time the most abstract and inchoate of the art forms, the most sinuous and fluid, yet also the one that can most directly pierce the psyche. This piercing is what Roland Barthes calls a punctum, that sudden stab of recognition sharp as a wound that comes with all good art. For Scully it is apparent that paint allows something of the same freedom as music to explore philosophical and poetic ideas, emotions and experiences, without ever having to express or name them directly. It is this depth of emotion that Sean Scully—a big, laconic, physically forbidding man who was once a judo black belt—reaches towards with such delicacy and sensibility.

Red Chamber, 2012, oil on linen

Facing East
Until 10 December at Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow
All artwork images courtesy the artist © Sean Scully

Published in Elephant Magazine

Stephen Chambers
The Court of Redonda

Published in Elephant Magazine

Art Criticism

As I do battle with the delays on the District Line to arrive flustered at the Academicians’ Room in the Royal Academy to meet Stephen Chambers and discuss his forthcoming exhibition, he is already comfortably ensconced. Snuggled into a big woolly jumper, he’s working on his iPad, having beaten the rush-hour traffic by travelling into central London on his ubiquitous scooter. Although for many years Chambers has been a near neighbour, this is the first time we’ve sat down to have a serious discussion on art. He asks me what I’d like to drink. “I don’t normally drink whe n I’m doing interviews, ”I tell him.“ Well, it is cocktail time,” he says. “I’m going to have a mojito.” So I join him.

Elected an Academician in 2005, Chambers’s trajectory to Burlington House and his show The Court of Redonda, curated by the Eagle Gallery’s Emma Hill as a collateral event to this year’sVeniceBiennale,wasfarfromcertain.His mother was a book illustrator and his father a building surveyor, and Chambers was brought up in what he calls “the privileged bohemian west London of the sixties”. He went to school with Tony Benn’s son. Holland Park Comprehensive was much favoured by sixties intellectuals. “But I left with no exams. Just Art ‘O’ level, and not a very good grade at that,” he tells me as our drinks arrive. “I was a posh fat boy at the local comp and just fell behind.When my parents split up I was sent to a grammar school in Hampshire but felt out of my depth academically. I did, though, learn German.”

Was he brought up with art? “Well,therewere reproductions of Bruegel, Degas and Dufy on the walls.The usual stuff.” But it was a founda- tion course at Winchester that, eventually, led to an ma from the Chelsea School of Art and a clutch of scholarships and awards, including a Rome Scholarship, the Mark Rothko Memorial Trust Travelling Award, and, in 1998–99, the post of Cambridge Fellow at Kettle’sYard and Downing College. Throughout his career Chambers has paddled his own idiosyncratic canoe, eschewing fashion to remain a resolutely figurative and decorative artist, whose immediately recognizable works create esoteric myths and narratives.

So how, I ask, did he get the idea for The Court of Redonda? “Well,” he says, “I decided to step outside the commercial gallery system. I’m not really a club person, despite the fact that we are sitting in the RA. I began to find making paintings for exhibitions less and less interesting. I wanted to explore bigger themes. My only regret is that I didn’t do it years ago. I like to work in different places and in 2014 had a studio in Brooklyn. Just down the road there was a very interest- ing bookshop. I was on my own so hung out there two or three times a week and did a lot of reading. I discovered the Spanish novelist Javier Marías, whose best-known work in this country is A Heart So White.” Marías also wrote a novel, Todas las almas (All Souls), which includes a por- trayal of the poet John Gawsworth, the third king of Redonda.

Redonda is, in fact, a tiny, uninhabited island in the eastern West Indies. “A round lump of rock,” according to Chambers, “that’s good for nothing.” Discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1493, who claimed it for the Spanish Crown, it was named Santa María de la Redonda. In 1865, it came into the possession of a merchant trader, Matthew Dody Shiell, who claimed it as his own personal fiefdom and later crowned his fifteen-year-old son, Matthew Phipps Shiell (1865– 1947), as monarch. The latter subsequently moved to England, where he had some success as a science-fiction writer, popularizing the legend of his royalty to the level of an “alternative fact”. Before his death in 1947, Shiell decided that the crown should not be hereditary but passed down through a literary line, and appointed the English poet John Gawsworth as his succes- sor. He assumed the title of Juan I Gawsworth. “Nobody else wanted the place,” Chambers says. “It has no history of substance, no independent raison d’être.” Permanently impecunious, John Gawsworth discovered that selling Redondan knighthoods in a variety of London pubs was a good little money-spinner. He bestowed honours on numerous literary friends to create an eso- teric court of writers, poets and ne’er-do-wells.

Although the fate of the Redondan monarchy was contested after the death of Gawsworth, the “reigning” king, Jon Wynne-Tyson, abdicated and passed the crown to Marías in 1997; a title he held until 2012.These events were chronicled in his “false novel”, Dark Back of Time, inspired by the reception of Todas las almas. Many claimed —  falsely, according to Marías — that they were the source for characters in the book. “A pub in Southampton,” Chambers says, “even tried to get round the smoking ban by declaring themselves to be the Redondan Embassy in Britain, insisting that people could smoke on ‘foreign soil’. They took their case to court but lost.”

He became, he explains, intrigued by the idea of creating a court of Redonda.To date he has painted around a hundred portraits on wooden panels of 48 x 39 cm—“a convenient size to pack in a suitcase”. Painted in oil on wood, they hark back to the archaic panel-painting techniques of the sixteenth century. “There is,” he continues, “a degree of narrative within each paint- ing. Some people have hands and hold hats or pens. Others are more truncated. I wanted them to be visually seductive but not too well-bred or elegant.” The narratives are largely oblique. I suggest that they conjure up the alternative narratives and fantastical stories of writers such as Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges and Jeanette Winterson, that they don’t quite feel modern. “Well,” he replies, “I remember a conversation with Paula Rego, when she said that if you set something now it’s out of date tomorrow. I took that on board.These paintings exist in some recent fantasy past.”

He envisages them as a single work, an invitation to the viewer to speculate not only on the various relationships of those portrayed but a chance to create a silent communication between individual subject and viewer. Never didactic, Chambers wants them to act as cata- lysts for the fabrication of possible narratives. Executed in his hallmark style, they pay tribute, in their formal construction, to the flattened perspective of il Sassetta and the naturalistic expression of Masaccio, and reflect his many visits to Italy. Although he could, he says, have sold individual “portraits” many times over he has always refused. He’s chosen, he says, to show them behind glass in order to give them a certain gravitas. He enjoys that the glazed sur- faces induce a slight reflection of the viewer so he or she becomes a part of the work. Roughly lifesize, his cast of characters invite immediate eyeball-to-eyeball communion between viewer and viewed.

He starts by using charcoal on a coloured ground when the images are, to use his words, “quite raw”. He’s keen that they should not be too generic. “I’m not a portrait painter but I want them to have their own character,” he says. “The job of artists is to be curious and take risks, to make decisions. I don’t want the images to look too finished or contrived. I just do the best I can, with all the inherent awkwardness that entails. I want the work to have a not-quite- good-enough quality, otherwise it’s simply craft. Virtuoso painting is boring.”

The installation in Venice will be arranged in the shape of the island on the walls of the piano nobile of a seventeenth-century palazzo, Ca’ Dandolo, in order to reflect the kingdom of Redonda.The “court” is counterpointed with three large canvases entitled The State of the Nation, which, with their tumbling rider, hint at the precarious state of contemporary poli- tics. “The first painting,” he explains, “is about Brexit, the second takes place during the campaign and the third reflects the result.”

I suggest that Venice and its associations with travel and crossroads, with literature and art, is an interesting environment for this exhibition. He agrees. “The umbrella theme is migration and Venice is the perfect location. A port, a hub, the starting point for adventures. These works are the ignition point of unresolved narratives, a web of fact and fiction, a meeting of East and West.” Drawing on a range of narrative influences Chambers has created an extraordinary parallel universe filled with his imaginary courtiers — a world where past and present intersect; where myths and fiction hold up a mirror to a labyrinth of infinite creative possibilities.

“The Court of Redonda” continues at Ca’ Dandolo,Venice, until November.

Published in Elephant Magazine

Matisse Studio RA

Published in Artlyst

Art Criticism

The artist’s studio is both a practical workshop and the workshop of the mind, a place of reflection and play, of doubt and hard work. At first a modest collector of modest means, Matisse filled his studio with objects collected on his travels to create a stage-set of languid sensuality, returning to the same paintings, prints, sculptures and textiles for inspiration over and over again like old friends, each time finding new points of stimulation. It was in 1917 when he moved to Nice that he began to feel frustrated with the lack of sensuality in his work. Nice provided the perfect backdrop for a reappraisal. His purpose became “to render my emotion. This state of soul is created by the objects that surround me and that react in me: from the horizon to myself, myself included…I express as naturally the space and the objects that are situated there as if I had only the sea and the sky in front of me; that is to say the simplest thing in the world.”

The objects Matisse collected from Asia, Africa and the Middle East emphasise Modernism’s global reach

There’s an alchemy created by the objects he collected. The Roman torso, the African masks, and Chinese porcelain were the props he used to explore the theatre of his creative imagination.  Walking around this wonderful exhibition at the RA I was reminded of another famous room full of oriental and African antiquities, Freud’s study. Freud too had a passion for collecting, seeing archaeology as a metaphor for psychoanalysis. For Matisse, the ‘primitive’ art of Africa and the Orient gave him a means of escaping the strictures and academicism of Western culture. The practice that dominated in the École des Beaux-Arts, at the time was dominated by copying and an illusionistic realism. African art seemed to offer spontaneity and sensuality, hedonism and authenticity. The objects Matisse collected from Asia, Africa and the Middle East emphasise Modernism’s global reach. Without colonialism, there may well have been a very different form of Modernism. For despite the gorgeous abstract patterning and sensuality of colour, so essential to our narrative about western modern art, Matisse (and Picasso) really understood very little about the cultures from which they were appropriating objects, about the lives and traditions of the faceless makers of these artefacts. For Matisse tended, as did other western ‘Moderns’, to homogenise non-Western cultures in ways that now seem both essentialist and politically incorrect. Often the relationship between pornography and the ‘primitive’ was uncomfortably close. Yet African and Oriental art was to provide energy, vitality and new ways of seeing that changed the face of western art.  His nudes bristle with languid sensuality and sexual energy. What he created were works not only of delicious colour and abstract design but ones that perhaps, inadvertently, emphasised racial, sexual and cultural difference.

Matisse believed African art offered access to hidden realms of human individuality, that it somehow tapped into a “deep gravity.” The African masks he collected thus had a profound effect on his own portraits, where he simplified and peeled away layers to get to, as in the case of Marguerite 1906-7, or the 1913 Portrait of Madame Matisse with its empty mask-like eye sockets, to the subject’s ‘true’ self. While the richly patterned textiles he collected allowed him to create theatrical mise-en-scène, full of chromatic intensities and kaleidoscopes of decorative patterning in which perspectival space dissolves around his Odalisques.

In Vase of Flowers, 1924, which includes as its centrepiece the green Andalusian glass vase purchased in Granada in the winter of 1910-11, also included in this exhibition, we find a number of Matisse’s favourite motifs: the open window, the sea and sky, a vase of flowers, patterned wallpaper, a striped cloth, and a net curtain flapping like a translucent veil emphasising the boundary between inside and out. The vase not only functions as a ‘souvenir’ of his travels but underpins memories of the Islamic interiors that had so impressed him on his visit to the Alhambra on the same trip. This sublime painting, full of Mediterranean warmth, air, and light, captures the prelapsarian mood created within his studio with its tapestries and paintings, flowers and furniture, such as his favourite Venetian chair that he painted on numerous occasions.  But his studio was not only a sort of lost Eden but ‘a working library’ of objects that had an almost anthropomorphic relationship one with the other. “To copy the objects in a still-life is nothing; one must render the emotion they awaken…” he said. The object became an ‘actor’, so that his much-loved silver chocolate pot is alive to its neighbouring objects whose reflections are caught shimmering in its rotund belly. Based on dialogue and connection these objects cannot be seen in isolation but reflect an almost human sympathy one with another. The ‘reality’ is no longer a purely visual one, arrived at by copying. The object has become an emotional vector. As for Freud, Matisse’s objects reflect an inner mental and emotional reality.

From 1906 still life became the focus of interest in Matisse’s decorative painting, which played with a concept of ‘democratic’ all-over space as in his Interior with Young Girl Reading 1905-6. This approach was influenced by his interest in Islamic art and Oriental aesthetics. This is immediately evident in the blue arabesques of Still Life with Blue Tablecloth, 1909. “It’s the relationships that interest me – me, my model, this or that object”, he wrote, “they all form little worlds that have to be in tune.” Yet unable to find a satisfactory solution to bring together diverse objects in a single composition, he cut out coloured shapes, which he moved around and held with pins.

During the mid-1930s Matisse’s art underwent a radical transformation, in which drawing played a crucial role. Here the energy seems to flow so that people and things appear to float within abstract space, rendering everything of equal weight and value. This dynamic freedom was further explored within the suggested rectangular grid cut-outs such as Panel with Mask, 1947. As he said in 1951 the cut-out became, “the simplest and most direct way to express myself.” With these flat, bright forms he created a series of signs, dependent not on the recognition of an object but on the emotional charge created through shape and colour.

The beauty of this exhibition is that it can be enjoyed simply as a box of sensual delights in which we can wallow in these wonderful paintings full of light, pattern and colour, or we can begin to unpack some of the debates around the origins of ‘modern’ western art. However we choose to look at it there is a greedy hunger in Matisse for the sensory, for the life affirming. It’s this appetite, this passion that he had till the end that makes him so irresistible.

Photos P C Robinson © Artlyst 2017

Published in Artlyst

Windows to the Future

Published in Elephant Magazine

Art Criticism

“It might well depend on your age as to whether you experience this exhibition as an exciting vision of a tech-utopia or some sort of nightmarish dystopian hell.” Sue Hubbard visits ARS17 at Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma; a show that explores the digital present and a potentially terrifying future.

Recently I was in Finland to take part in the LIWRE international literary festival as a poet. At this time of year, Finland is a land of midnight sun. With a few days to spare in Helsinki, I decided to check out the contemporary scene. As an art critic, as well as a poet, I’m like a homing pigeon when it comes to new cities. Find my way to a gallery and I feel instantly in familiar territory. So I headed for the Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma where, by chance, they were hosting ARS17 Hello World! Windows to the Future, which celebrates the hundredth anniversary of Finnish independence (Finland, a small nation of some five million people, has been part of both Sweden and Russia). The ARS exhibitions are a series of international contemporary art shows that have taken place in Finland since 1961. ARS17 is the ninth in the series and the fourth to be held at the Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma. The building itself is striking. The result of an architectural design competition held in 1992 and won by the American Steven Holl.

Dedicated to exploring the digital present, the exhibition also looks to the future with an exploration of state-of-the-art technology, images from the internet, and digital games. There are artists from thirteen different countries and three generations, from the children of the sixties to millennials born in the eighties who, unlike their older counterparts, have grown up in a burgeoning digital world and for whom the physical and virtual seem to merge quite naturally into a single reality. As I belong to the first age group, I experienced a good deal of what was on show with a sense of angst, as if I was seeing through a porthole into a post-human world. It might well depend on your age as to whether you experience this exhibition as an exciting vision of a techn-utopia or some sort of nightmarish dystopian hell.

We live in an age permeated by the digital. Just how much so we are made aware when we walk into this exhibition. In our Western consumer society the digital revolution has infiltrated and shaped our relationships on social media, as well as the way we buy and consume, find sexual partners, or learn about politics. Many individuals even develop identities that are entirely technology driven. What this exhibition does then, whether we like it or not, is capture the mood and cultural practices of the early twenty-first century by emphasising how the digital is embedded, in ways to which we’re often oblivious, in the objects, images, and structures that we encounter on a daily basis. In his 2013 book PRESENT SHOCK: When Everything Happens Now, Douglas Rushkoff argues that we no longer have a sense of a future, of goals, or a direction because we seem to be living in a constant now. Life is but one click away. This is underlined by Nina Canell’s sculptures and installations where the cut wires of internet circuitry are displayed like archaeological fragments on traditional white plinths, reminding us that today’s technology becomes tomorrow’s obsolescence. These surprisingly beautiful aborted bits of technology seem to suggest a departure from the word, from logos, from the forms of communication that have hitherto been associated with human interaction.

Elsewhere the artist Julia Varela litters the gallery floor with broken, bent, and distorted plasma screens, which she describes as “an act or resistance”, a “hijacking”. Lying contorted and twisted they seem to evoke the end of something, as Joseph Beuys’s iconic work once signalled the End of the 20th Century. This detritus, only very recently used to do something–transmit information, news, and entertainment–is now presented as redundant, a collection of mediaeval relics as technology moves on its inexorable course.

Cécile B Evans, Jacolby Satterwhite and Hito Steyerl’s visual language graphically encapsulates the atmosphere of today’s digital ubiquity. Satterwhite’s works that fuse video, 3D animation, drawing, and performance explore the history and the future of the relationships between different media. While Cécile B Evans’s avatars, dancing in server farms where memories have become detached from human individuals, create a spine-chilling dystopian vision. In Factory of the Sun (2015) and The Tower (2015), Hito Steyerl fuses documentary footage with video games and speculative fictions to expose the aesthetics and politics of digital capitalisation. Ryan Trecartin’s video Temple Time (2016)—the artist likes to refer to his works as “movies”–has characters who explore an eerie empty building, talking about what they see rather than what they feel, to create flat one-dimensional identities, more comic-strip video construct than human.

Art has always posed questions and forced us to face uncomfortable verities, challenged the status quo, and smashed existing categories to question who and what we are. This new digital art explores the intersections between the personal and the corporate, along with ideas that surround personal identity as it exists within both actual and virtual physical space.

Among the four floors of images there is one that has stayed with me, one that made me feel truly uncomfortable: Charles Richardson’s Headbone (2015). In front of a homely floral sofa floating on the screen is a 3D photo-scanned image of two hyperreal male figures twirling in space. One is seated on the sofa dressed in a woman’s sundress. The other, a legless torso, slowly spins to reflect the male figure cradling both a pregnant belly and a mobile phone. His arms and stomach appear completely realistic, the skin white and covered with fine hairs. His head and upper body are wrapped in African fabrics and taped with a strange array of detritus, from gardening gloves to Elastoplast and felt-tip pens. Dangling down his naked back is a cheap 1950s diamond paste necklace. But what is so uncanny is that as the figure turns and pivots we can see right through its centre into an empty void. It’s completely hollow despite its admittedly bizarre lifelike appearance. This apparently “real” gender-bending figure not only subverts received notions of masculinity but seems to question whether an actual sentient individual will, in future, be the source of procreation, whether such a thing as a flesh and blood human will even exist. This might be exciting if you’re under twenty-five. But I found it terrifying.

Please stop the world. I want to get off.

Published in Elephant Magazine

Howard Hodgkin
India My Somewhere Else

Published in Artlyst

Art Criticism

Everyone has a “somewhere else” in their lives Howard Hodgkin said in 1992. “My somewhere else is India”. Howard Hodgkin was 32 when he first visited that vast country. At Eton, he’d been shown a 17th-century Mughal painting by a teacher and in his 20s had become, despite modest means, something of a collector of Indian art. A meeting with Robert Skelton, then the Deputy Keeper of Indian Art at the V&A, led to his first visit in 1964. India was the place he continued to go back to until his recent death, a place that fed his visual imagination and become an increasingly important part of his painterly vocabulary.

One of this country’s great colourists Hodgkin has not always been flavour of the month, being too decorative, too gorgeous and too painterly for many postmodern tastes. His are greedy paintings. They’re greedy for life, for colour, for sound, sense, touch, and smell. For the tactile experience of being alive. There’s a profound eroticism in the movement of his paint and the sensuality of his colour. At The Hepworth Wakefield, where the work is displayed in chronological order – the first gallery being dedicated to some of his collection of Indian art so that we can see the development of his visual thinking –  it is shown to full effect against the white walls of the Chipperfield building. The sandy browns and oranges set against the sage green, the undulating chestnut haze that seems to shimmer in the heat, bleeds into the saffron yellow horizontal of Bombay Sunset (1972-73) so, as viewers, we become totally immersed in the experience.  In 1987, Hodgkin said “I think the striped ocean and the dotted sky… is simply part of the language that I was trying to evolve for myself, using very simplistic means…A sunset in Bombay really does – curiously enough – look like that… It’s the only thing I can think of in any of my pictures which has a specific likeness to an Indian miniature”

In another painting from the same decade, In a Hotel Garden (1974) we can virtually feel the fierce midday sun pulsing beyond the suggested window frame, the patches of cool air circulating beneath the abstracted blue and white stripped awning, the filtered shadows penetrating the arched leaves of the palm tree. But Hodgkin isn’t a realistic painter. He doesn’t describe. He immerses himself in a particular time and place to recapture it later in the studio, like Wordsworth recollecting his emotions in tranquillity. In 1967, after several days spent in Delhi with the British Council representative and his wife, he painted Mrs. Acton Delhi (1967-71), possibly his most figurative painting. The odalisque-style figure of Mrs Acton, made up of spheres and curves, reclines languidly on the left hand side of picture space. It was during this period that Hodgkin decided to move from painting on canvas to wood, saying, “I want to be able to attack again and again and again, and the trouble with canvas is that if you attack it more than once or twice, there’s nothing left.”

By the 1980s he had travelled to India more than a dozen times. His friend the travel writer Bruce Chatwin noted that “India became an emotional lifeline.  Each winter he travelled all over the subcontinent, sopping up impressions – of empty hotel rooms, the view from a railways carriage, the colour of cowdust in the evening, or the sight of an orange sari against a concrete balustrade…” Slowly the paintings of this decade became much less what he described as ‘voyeuristic’ paintings’ and more reflective. Intangible feelings, emotions, and sensations are conjured to become metaphors for his state of being. Equivalences of emotional moods. In the Studio of Jamini Roy (1976-79) the ‘pointillism’ of the sand-coloured dots set against the black ground achieves an apparent harmony that once arrived at seems as if it could never have been any other way. The brushstrokes become increasingly gestural. This immediacy was facilitated by the adaptation of Liquin, a quick drying medium which allows multiple layers to be applied in quick succession and permitted him to create glazes, adding a sense of transparency. Sweeps of colour evoke times of day and atmospheric conditions.  Some of the fiery intensity of Turner pulsates in the small painting Nightfall 1995-96. Here the deep furnace-red that spreads right over the picture frame appears to be slowly obliterated by the descending blackness of night. Only a thin sliver of green remains along the inner edge of the picture frame. While in Afternoon, 1998-99 there’s the sense of entering through a proscenium arch into the deep perspective of gathering heat.

As Hodgkin grew older and painting became more physically demanding much of the thinking took place primarily in his mind. Even so, he managed to produce some emotionally powerful paintings where the mood is suggested in a just a couple of judicious strokes. What we are presented with is the artist’s mind turning over and processing thoughts, feelings, and moods. These works are aimed beyond what we see in the everyday world. They transform experience into something that transcends knowing and feeling to some intangible awareness that is the catalyst behind so much important art. The monochrome immediacy and the lack of decoration of Night Thoughts (2014-15) suggests the bleak existential despair of a sleepless night, and the process of aging.  While Over to You (2015-17) recalls Stevie Smith’s ironic poem Mr. Over:

    Mr Over is dead
    He died fighting and true
    And on his tombstone they wrote
    Over to You.

In an essay I wrote about Hodgkin some years ago, I mentioned Edward Said’s essays, On Late Style and considered how they “examined the idea that late artistic works are not always serene and transcendent but, on the contrary, often unresolved and contradictory. Not so much a pipe and slippers summing up, but a ‘raging against the dying of the light’”. Looking at these final paintings in Wakefield this seems even truer, now, after Hodgkin’s recent death. There’s a savage ‘raging’, a refusal to put down the brush, a determination to go on thinking and recording the human condition, his human condition, to the very end through his chosen medium, paint.


The artist and Hepworth Wakefield © 2017
Top: Howard Hodgkin In the garden of the Bombay Museum, 1978–1982
Middle: Summer Rain 2002 – 2013

Published in Artlyst

Confessions of a Biennale Virgin

Published in Elephant Magazine

Art Criticism

Although I’ve been an art critic for more than twenty years, I admit to being a biennale virgin. I’ve been to Venice before but never to the biennale, which is almost as phantasmagoric as the sinking, labyrinthine city itself. Chaotic, glitzy and impossible to manoeuvre, it nonetheless yields up, among the dross, some wonderful surprises.

The 57th Venice Biennale, entitled Viva Arte Viva and curated by Christine Macel, opened to the public on 13 May. Marcel has called it an exhibition “designed with artists, and for artists”. In a world shaken by terrorism, economic crisis and right-wing populism she believes strongly in art for art’s sake. A single theme was thought to be too limiting so she worked closely with artists putting their practices centre stage. Viva Arte Viva is divided into nine “Trans-pavilions” including the Pavilion of Earth and the Pavillion of Shamans.

My first full day was spent in the Giardini trying to make sense of so much creativity. In the Central Pavilion and Pavilion of Artists and Books, Macel seems to be saying that in this frenetic contemporary world we need time to think. There are wall-mounted book assemblages by John Latham and beautiful, quiet book-works by Liu Ye, as well as 30 years of small notebooks by Abdullah Al Saadi packed into sardine cans and cigarette packets.

In the British Pavilion, Phyllida Barlow has produced a massive, complex installation. There’s an apocalyptic feel to this monumental work that evokes something of Joseph Beuys’s The End of the 20th Century. A sense of things collapsing and falling apart. When I caught up with her she said she’d been working on it throughout the Brexit debate, which had deeply depressed her. From there it is a quick hop to the German Pavilion where Anne Imhof brings together in a spare, brutal space, a choreographed performance that confronts the “rapid and fundamental political, social, economic pharmaceutical and technological changes that we are currently facing” with her brand of “hard” realism. While in the US Pavilion, Mark Bradford’s pertinent contribution feeds on his understanding of the crisis in US social and political life. In April he opened a shop in the Frari district of Venice where prisoners make and sell products alongside a local co-operative that has coloured his abstract and collage-based works.

Questions about displacement, “them and us”, colonialization and the refugee crisis abound. In the Australian Pavilion, Tracey Moffatt’s work exists somewhere between fiction and history. Using photography, video and film Moffatt constructs theatrical scenarios and has created two new photographic series—Body Remembers and Passage—and two videos—Vigil and The White Ghosts Sailed In under the collective title Horizon. Evocative and poetic they deal with loss, longing and a desire for a sense of home.

The Romanian Pavilion has produced a strong show of both old and new work by the 91-year-old Geta Brătescu—much of it unseen outside her native Romania. Full of colour and invention this is a wide-ranging survey of her multimedia work that deals with issues such as memory and femininity. In complete contrast, Xavier Veilhan, assisted by the Swiss-American artist Christian Marclay, is hosting in the French Pavilion around 70 invited musicians who perform in a plywood studio, inspired by Kurt Schwitters’s lost Merzbau. With no delineation between performer and visitor, there’s a continuing sense of risk about the ongoing process of creativity. The Russian Pavilion presents Theatrum Orbis featuring artist Grisha Bruskin, Recycle Group and Sasha Pirogova, alongside contemporary Russian composers, in a powerful interlinked theatrical installation that includes sculpture and video.

Though the Swiss Pavilion was built by Alberto Giacometti’s brother, Bruno, Switzerland’s most famous artist flatly refused to show his work at the biennale. His absence is felt in the mesmeric The Women of Venice by the Swiss-American duo Teresa Hubbard/Alexander Birchler. An evocative, double-sided film/video installation, Flora is based on their discoveries about the tragic life of the largely forgotten American artist who, for a time, was Giacometti’s lover and muse. Presented through the voice of her 81-year-old son this potent, painful work asks multiple questions about the male artist and female muse, about talent, sacrifice, personal relationships and art.

Over at the labyrinthine Arsenale, you have to have stamina not to be overwhelmed by the amount of art on offer. Of the numerous pavilions, it was the Pavilion of the Shamans that stood out. Following on from the legacy of Joseph Beuys, it presents the idea of the artist as visionary. The Brazilian artist, Ernesto Neto, journeyed to meet the Huni Kuin people in the Amazon jungle and has created work around their rituals. As I lay with an aching back in their shamanic tent, two native Brazilian women sat beside me doing traditional face painting, while small children drummed and played the maracas.

One of the most potent works in the Arsenale is by the Chilean artist Enrique Ramírez, Un Hombre que Camina—a symphony of sea and open sky filmed in the salt pans of the sacred landscape of Chile. Dressed in a shamanic mask a man pulls behind him, through briny ankle-deep water, a raft of floating suits towards the distant sun, followed by a traditional South American brass band. Mesmeric and powerful this work illustrates how ritual and art can both give meaning to life and death.

Another poetically charged work in the Arsenale is the Georgian contribution Living Dog Among the Dead Lions by Chachkhiani. In an abandoned house purchased from the mining town of Chiatura, water pours continually through the roof soaking the rotting floorboards and faded blue paint of the porch. In this modest interior, which shows signs of having been recently abandoned, the continual sound of the rain dripping onto the floor, the bed and into a tin bowl suggests lives attacked from the outside by social historical circumstances and is a potent metaphor for death.

Ireland at Venice is presenting a powerful work grounded in history and myth by Jesse Jones. Entitled Tremble Tremble it’s inspired by the 1970s Italian wages for housework movement, during which women chanted “Tremate, tremeate, le streghe sono tornate!” (Tremble, tremble, the witches have returned!) Jones’s atavistic work emerges from the rising social movement in Ireland that calls for a transformation of the historic relationship between church and state.

Supported by the Arts Council of Britain and opened by Sir Nicholas Serota, the Diaspora Pavilion, outside the main event at the Palazzo Pisani at Santa Marina, showcases the work of eleven emerging UK-based artists from racially and culturally diverse backgrounds, along with ten leading artists from similar backgrounds who have acted as their mentors. Artists, among others, include Sokari Douglas Camp and Isaac Julien, whose video installation is set in the landscape of Visconti’s masterpiece, The Leopard, juxtaposed with images of the deadly journeys made by migrants. There’s also a superb piece by Yinka Shonibare, The British Library, made of books covered in his hallmark Dutch wax-printed cotton batik that display the names of immigrants who have made a significant contribution to British life.

Also outside the main event at Il Capricorno, San Marco 1994 30124 is Victoria Miro’s Poolside Magic where Chris Ofili is showing a suite of watercolours in which a man in tails serves a naked woman beside a swimming pool. These dream-like images that might have been spawned by a meeting between Francesco Clemente and William Blake touch on sexuality, mutability and the occult.

Staying with narrative themes I moved to the collateral event curated by Emma Hill of the Eagle Gallery, London at Ca’ Dandolo Grand Canal, where Stephen Chambers, RA is showing his The Court of Redonda. Chambers has produced a series of fantasy portraits hung on the walls of a beautiful private palazzo that depict a cast of 101 characters from a legendary tale based on the fate of the tiny uninhabited West Indian island of Redonda. In 1865 the rock was claimed by a merchant-trader Matthew Dowdy Shiell, who elected himself monarch. Perfect for this dreamy mercantile city Chambers has woven a wonderful “collision between fact and fiction” worthy of Italo Calvino.

But, for me, the highlight of the biennale was the exhibition of Philip Guston and The Poets at the Galleries dell’Accademia that illustrates the relationship between the humanistic themes of writers including D. H. Lawrence and Wallace Stevens and the imagery and philosophical reflections of Guston. It is an exhibition that demands time. More time than I had.

After three footsore days, there was still much I hadn’t seen. But the queues were growing and my energy waning. I didn’t see the epic Hirst, for example, preferring to spend the final morning away from the razzmatazz of the biennale in the quiet of the stunning Galleria Giorgio Franchetti, with its spectacular mosaic floors covered with watery shadows from the sunlight outside and superb exhibition of rugs and carpets that are a reminder of Venice’s role as a crossroads between east and west.

Installation view, folly, Phyllida Barlow, British Pavilion, Venice, 2017.
Photo: Ruth Clark © British Council. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

Installation view, folly, Phyllida Barlow, British Pavilion, Venice, 2017.
Photo: Ruth Clark © British Council. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

Teresa Hubbard / Alexander Birchler, Flora 2017, Synchronized double-sided film installation with sound, 30 mins, loop, Installation view: Swiss Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2017
Courtesy the artists, Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York and Lora Reynolds Gallery, Austin
Photo credit: Ugo Carmeni

Vajiko Chachkhiani, Pavilion of Georgia, 57th Venice Biennale install.
Photo: Maria Nitulescu. Courtesy: The Pavilion of Georgia / Vajiko Chachkhiani

Vajiko Chachkhiani, Pavilion of Georgia, 57th Venice Biennale install.
Photo: Maria Nitulescu. Courtesy: The Pavilion of Georgia / Vajiko Chachkhiani

Xavier Veilhan, Installation view French Pavilion, Biennale di Venezia
Photo © Giacomo Cosua © Veilhan / ADAGP, Paris, 2017

Xavier Veilhan, Installation view French Pavilion, Biennale di Venezia
Photo © Giacomo Cosua © Veilhan / ADAGP, Paris, 2017

Published in Elephant Magazine

Mat Collishaw
Forms Of Illusion And Truth

Published in Artlyst

Art Criticism

Desire is at the basis of most human behaviour from sex and procreation to the pursuit of beauty and death. According to Freud our psyches see-saw between the two conflicting points of Eros and Thanatos. Mat Collishaw has always been interested in origins and in what goes on behind the veil of social givens and norms. He understands that what enchants also ensnares, that the sublime is bedfellows with the abject. Whether taking on subjects like an inmate’s last meal on death row or crushed butterflies, there’s always a formal Gothic beauty to his haunting work, even when dealing with the most profane of subjects.

In 2011 his installation, Shooting Stars, appropriated found images of Victorian child prostitutes in vulnerable, yet alluring poses, projected onto the gallery walls. Fired onto phosphorescent paint they flared briefly before fading from view, suggesting fragile lives cut short by violence and disease. Not only did the installation underline his interest in history and the complex truths behind its public facade, but it also signalled his interest in photography.

This spring he has turned his attention, once again, to photography with a new exhibition, Thresholds, at Somerset House from 18th May- 11th June, which will celebrate the work of the early photographic pioneer, William Henry Fox Talbot. Although a member of the YBA generation Mat Collishaw has never favoured easy irony or the sassy one-liner. His work is informed by research, an interest in the past and a search for existential meaning.  Using cutting-edge VR technology he’s created a virtual reality portal back into 1839, when Fox Talbot, the British photographic pioneer, first presented his innovative photographic prints to the public at the King Edward’s School in Birmingham, a high Victorian edifice designed by Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin.

Visiting Mat’s Collishaw’s south London studio, housed in an old pub, to see the installation, I donned headset and goggles to be immediately transported not only to a different city and century but, to experience in full sensual detail the architectural features of the original room in King Edward’s School. There were the vitrines containing Fox Talbot’s light-faded prints, the glass cases full of scientific instruments, even the heat and sound of a coal fire burning in the grate. Infrared sensors tracked the movements of others in the room. These ghostly avatars not only stopped people bumping into one another but also enhanced the feeling of travelling back through time, conjuring the countless dead who have inhabited the space.

Staged by the British Association for the Advancement of Science, the aim of the original 19th exhibition was to promote technological innovation. This was met by riots from Chartist protestors in Birmingham’s Bullring. Frightened, angry and discombobulated by the rise in these new-fangled technologies, the Luddite riots reflected the uneasy economic split that was beginning to occur between old crafts and new industry.  As I looked out of the ‘window’ of the virtual room into the virtual streets, policemen in white trousers were marching back and forth as Chartists with swords, pikes and flaming torches gathered and shouted, throwing eggs at the window. It was hard, during this immersion, to escape the parallels with today’s politics, where increasing unemployment is being generated by new technologies that render numerous jobs obsolescent. That many, today, blame ‘experts’ and the ‘intellectual elite’, seems little different to the emotions motivating the crowd hurling insults at Fox Talbot and his scientific friends ensconced in King Edward’s School.

The atmosphere in the virtual room was palpable. Moths flew towards the light of the chandeliers, a reference to the presence of moths in Collinshaw’s previous work, as well as a metaphor, perhaps, for the self-destructive behaviour of the Chartists. The virtual vitrines, full of new-fangled technological instruments, such as magic lanterns and microscopes, only served as a reminder of the inevitability of technological advance. Within this informed and innovative work, Collishaw has created layers of reality. A historic palimpsest where those outside watch those inside, as they, in turn, look back into the past at a painting of King Edward as a child.

Until the 27th May, Mat Collishaw is also showing work at Blain Southern. In The Centrifugal Soul, he draws, yet again, on forms of illusion and truth. Working with the evolutionary psychologist, Geoffrey Miller – who believes that the origins of art stem from natural instincts of courtship and reproduction – he has created a zoetrope with stroboscopic light that animates the mating rituals of bowerbirds and birds of paradise and emphasises our insatiable appetite for exotic visual stimulation.

On the walls of the gallery are 12 trompe l’oeil paintings of British garden birds –blue tits, bullfinches, sparrows, and a robin – all tethered by small golden chains to their perches in the manner of Carel Fabritius’ The Goldfish (1654) – also the subject of Donna Tartt’s prize-winning novel of the same name. Set against the graffiti-tagged walls the birds struggle to differentiate themselves from the manmade decoration that seems to confuse their sexual signalling.

Central to the show is a mythical new installation: Albion that takes as its subject the Major Oak in Sherwood Forest, Nottingham. With its hollow core, the centuries-old tree has, since the Victorian era, had its spreading branches supported by a system of scaffolding and been voted Britain’s most loved tree. Legend has it that was here that Robin Hood took shelter with his band of Merry Men. Weighing some 23 tonnes, it has a girth of 33 feet and a canopy of 92 feet and is estimated to be between 800-1000 years old. Albion is a literary term used for Britain, particularly England in ancient times.  A name made famous by the complex mythology of artist, poet and seer, William Blake. The word is presumed to be of Celtic origin and related to the Latin albus ‘white’ (an allusion, perhaps, to the white cliffs of Dover). Beautiful, evocative and ghostly, this iconic work subtly asks questions about what it means, in these post-Brexit times, to be English, if the concept continues to have any validity.

Employing a diversity of media, Mat Collishaw continues to make work that is fresh, meaningful and insightful. Using the latest technological innovations he asks complex and prescient questions. It might have taken him a while longer to come to prominence than some of the other YBAs but the slow burn has been well worth it.

The Centrifugal Soul Blain Southern until 27th May
Thresholds Somerset House 18th May-11th June

Published in Artlyst

Art Now, Lucy Beech and
Edward Thomasson
Tate Britain

Published in Artlyst

Art Criticism

The other night I went to the private view of Lucy Beech and Edward Thomasson’s performance that forms part of Tate Britain’s Art Now, an ongoing series of contemporary exhibitions.

Performance art was the starting point for some of the most radical ideas that changed the way we think about contemporary art. Artists turned to performance as a way of breaking down accepted categories and exploring new ideas and directions that could not be expressed through conventional means. As the artist Allan Kaprow suggested:  “The line between art and life should be kept as fluid, and perhaps indistinct, as possible.” The roots of performance art are to be found in the avant-garde movements of the twentieth century, particularly the anarchic movements of Futurism, Dadaism, Surrealism and Fluxus. A discontent with painting and traditional forms of sculpture led artists to use performance as an alternative form of expression and protest, often presented outside the confines of the conventional gallery. The 1960s, that decade of upheaval and change, saw a flowering of performance art that mirrored the loss of faith in modernism and Abstract Expressionism.  Primarily focused on the body it reflected the mood for the “dematerialization of the art object,” and a flight from traditional art materials that reflected the political ferment of the time. Central to its heart were feminism, with its merger between the personal and political, and anti-war activism, often centred on protests about Vietnam.

Performance art sought to challenge accepted aesthetic as well as political conventions. Its seeds often lay in other activities such as ritual or, in the case of Dada, cabaret and vaudeville. Joseph Beuys liked to call his performances ‘actions’, a term that distinguished his shamanic performances from more conventional kinds of theatrical entertainment. The label could be said to be something of a reinterpretation of the phrase “action painting,” in which the object of art was no longer to paint on canvas, but something else – often the use of the artist’s own body – as in the case of Yves Klein or Yoko Ono. Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece, first performed in 1964, was a direct invitation to the audience to participate in the unveiling of the female body, much as artists had been doing throughout the history of painting. During this live experience, Ono hoped to erase the neutrality and seeming indifference associated with society’s objectification of women in both art and life. Instead of providing entertainment, the intent of performance art was to challenge the viewer, often provoking them to participate in a way that made them uncomfortable and, therefore, becomes a part of the work. Since the 1960s the genre has been absorbed into the mainstream and welcomed into museums and galleries from which it was once excluded, largely castrating its purpose and function.

It is against this background that Tate Britain have just unveiled Lucy Beech and Edward Thomasson’s new performance project that claims to “explore ideas of cooperation and independence through new live work”.  And what a dreary thing it is. In a bright studio, the audience sat in rows opposite a blank white screen where there were 8 performers, paired off in couples, all mic’d up and wearing knee-pads. A woman with short hair and a Cheshire-cat-grin finger-clicked the mic of another performer, which she recorded. Then, continuing to beam, she announced that she was going to play this back to us with the forced enthusiasm of a kindergarten teacher.  What then ensued was a series of moves that resembled an elementary Pilates class. There was the oyster, the sideways sit-up and down-dog. But these were no Ballet Rambert dancers. These moves were then followed by a number of pantomime actions: simulated slappings and kickings that mimicked aggression and violence, accompanied by some chirpy disco music. The supercilious grins never left the performers faces.

I don’t often quote press releases in reviews but the Tate’s claim that the: “performers construct a safe space where they can reject social standards and express unspoken feeling…..As their actions play out, the gradual build-up of theatrical illusions seems to operate as a therapeutic exercise.” Really?

Two minutes in it was obvious what it was about. The ‘normalisation’ of violence. It didn’t need another 20 minutes to illustrate this single point. The piece had not grit, not edge, no frisson. It posed no questions. If it had been done by a GCSE drama group, you might have said: good effort. This was performance art-lite. The performance with its teeth pulled, without any social or political backbone. We are living in a time of extreme political ferment. Fascism is on the rise, the planet is warming, there is global mass migration. Now is the time to be making passionate, visceral work that pierces the participant/viewer in the gut in line with Barthes notion of the punctum; that moment of stabbing recognition when a work strikes a nerve. There was nothing outré or avant-garde here. Just a rather pale corporate shadow of a once anarchic practice. In these worst of times, young performance artists should be shouting from the roof tops, challenging and engaging their audiences, making the hair stand up on the back of our necks. The Tate should be offering better than this.

Photo: Alice Rawsthorn,‏ Art Now via Twitter

Published in Artlyst

Unhappy Families
Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932
RA, London

Published in Artillery Magazine

Art Criticism

Remake everything. Organise it so as to make everything new, so that our false, dirty, boring, ugly life becomes just, clean, happy and beautiful.
Alexander Blok, The Intelligentsia and the Revolution, 1918

One hundred years after the Russian Revolution, with insurgency stirring across the contemporary world from the USA to the Middle East, the Royal Academy’s exhibition, Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932 could not be timelier. It is almost impossible not to look at it through the lens of con- temporary events. But what, if anything, can we learn from the past? Does culture produced a century ago teach us anything about propaganda, lies and the use of art as a coercive tool to hoodwink the masses? Or do we have to muddle through history, like Tolstoy’s unhappy families, each generation in our own particular way?

The Russian Revolution was one of the most turbulent periods in modern history. Centuries of autocratic rule, along with the grip of the Orthodox Church, were swept away in October 1917 when Vladimir Lenin and the socialist Bolshevik Party came to power, leading to a civil war between the Communist Reds and the Tsarist White Russians. Initially there seemed to be a sense of euphoria that promised a sunlit proletarian future. But, with the rise of Stalin after Lenin’s death, the early elation and creativity were crushed under his repressive dictatorship. Avant-garde artists origi- nally embraced the revolution and, with it, the potential to create new art forms for a new world order. But by the late 1920s many of them were con- demned by the Soviet authorities—who favoured propagandist forms of Social Realism to avant-garde innovation—to the gulag. Others were shot.

The Royal Academy exhibition is an enormously ambitious show with works borrowed from Russia that many of us have never seen before and are unlikely to see in this country again. It takes as its starting point the major exhibition of 1932 at the State Russian Museum in Leningrad curated by the art critic Nikolai Punin that showcased art from the rst fteen years of the Revolution. Arranged in thematic sections it explores the complex and often shifting relationship between art and politics. The Bolshevik government urgently needed to create new myths and stories in order to reach the largely illiterate population previously ruled by an absolute Tsar. ‘Cultural legacy’ became the Bolsheviks’ priority. By April 1918 Lenin had mounted his Plan for Monumental Propaganda. Brightly painted trains covered with populist slogans travelled the vast swathes of the USSR spreading radical ideas. Sculptures, banners, slogans, textiles, photographs and even Grayson Perry-style ceramic pots, decorated with revolutionary scenes and portraits of Lenin, were used to propagate Com- munist ideas. Vera Mukina’s Valkyrie-like bronze female gure, Flame of the Revolution, 1922-3, a monument designed for Yakov Sverdkiv, Chair- man of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee, not only fetishizes the revolutionary ideal also illustrates the importance of women during this landmark moment in history.

With the start of the Revolution the existing cultural frameworks collapsed. Many artists saw this as an opportunity to create a Brave New World where they could construct an entirely new culture. In the early years there was an extraordinary exchange of ideas between East and West. Cubism can be seen in Lyubov Popova’s Braque-like constructions, while the speed, excitement and bravura of Futurism in ltrates throughout. This momentary freedom and the euphoria it produced spawned some of the most innovative talents in theatre, the visual arts, music, literature and architecture. Talents such as the architect and artist El Lissitzky, painters like Kandinsky, the theatre director Vsevolad Myerhold and poets Akhmatova and Mayakosky, as well as Shostakovich and Proko ev, whose portraits are shown here in a stunning array of gelatin silver prints.

Russia was a profoundly religious (and superstitious) country. When the Orthodox Church was banned religious icons were replaced by images of Lenin who, on his death, was enshrined like a saint in a mausoleum in Red Square. The many portraits of him shown here range from the intimate but academic by Isaak Brodsky, to those printed on kerchiefs, presumably for the masses.

Kazimir Malevich, Peasants, c. 1930. Oil on canvas, 53 x 70 cm. State Russian Museum, St Petersburg 

Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, Fantasy, 1925. Oil on canvas, 50 x 64.5 cm. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

Marc Chagall, Promenade, 1917-1918. Oil on canvas, 175..2 s 168.4 cm. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

Alexander Deineka, Textile Workers, 1927. Oil on canvas, 161.5 x 185 cm. State Russian Museam, St. Petersburg

By the time Stalin rose to supremacy his principal goal was to make the Soviet Union a powerhouse of industrial production and in 1928 he intro- duced his rst Five-Year Plan. The section ‘Man and Machine’ presents some of the exhibition’s most fascinating images and insights. Black and white photographs of fresh-faced young workers–both male and female– are set dramatically against cranes, crankshafts and power cables–all that was, then, new and modern. Photography, unlike painting, could be easily reproduced and widely distributed and technology was presented as the sal- vation of the masses. Komsomal at the Wheel 1929 depicts a young worker in a singlet standing astride a mass of impressive pistons. Both anonymous and god-like, he clasps a great iron wheel in his hands conjuring both Leon- ardo’s Vitruvian Man and an idealised Greek sculpture.

One of the most poignant sections of the exhibition is dedicated to Kazimir Malevich, who had a fraught relationship with the regime, precariously caught between success and failure. In the late 1920s his abstract paintings were denounced. A mystic and innovator of geometric abstraction Mal- evich was wedded to notions of spirituality, which he expressed through Suprematism, epitomised by his iconic work Black Square that represented ‘zero form’. The RA has reproduced the original room from the 1932 ex- hibition where Supremastist works are shown alongside his later gurative paintings that attempted to conform to the representation demanded by So- viet dogma. Nevertheless the blank faces subversively suggest the loss of personal identity under Communism. Hung above an altar-like table where he assembled his arkhitektoniki–prototypes for buildings without windows and doors, the tallest of which is topped by a tiny model of Soviet man–he created a complex installation that attempted to meld his internal creative world with what was acceptable to the regime.

When the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917 they promised the peasants their own land. A pledge they had no intention of keeping. (It’s hard not to see parallels between those betrayed peasants and Donald Trump’s deceived rust-belt voters assured fantasy jobs.) The Soviet emblem of a ham- mer and a sickle promoted the notion of equality between industrial and agricultural workers. But the industrialisation of agriculture couldn’t easily be achieved with old farming methods. Crops failed and millions starved. Idealised paintings such as Alexei Pakhomov’s Harvest, 1928, showing a woman reaping golden sheaves of corn, belied the truth that famine was stalking the land.

A number of artists retained a nostalgia for the pre-Revolutionary Russia of the Tsars with its landscape of birch trees and onion-domed churches. Those such as Vasily Baksheev and Igor Gravar expressed a longing to return to this romanticised idyll and lost way of life. Such images stood in stark contrast to the modernist prototype of Vladimir Tatlin’s 1932 ying machine, which in the RA has its own ante-room. Letalin evokes not only Leonardo’s bird studies but stands as a metaphor for both political and imaginative freedom and all that was deemed possible after the Revolution.

As did the Nazis, the Communist party regarded sporting prowess and physical tness as a way of developing healthy minds and bodies. As early as 1922 Gustavas Klucis and El Lissitzky, two artists associated with con- structivism, produced work that celebrated sport. Alexander Samakhva- lav’s paintings Sportswoman with a Shot-put and Girl in a Football Jersey from the early 1930s demonstrate not only the democratisation and sexual levelling inherent in sport but also re ect, following a 1932 resolution, that all art would, henceforth, be in the approved style of Social Realism and directed to ‘the service of building socialism.’

Perhaps no other art form was better suited to the times than lm. As Lenin said: ‘of all the arts, for us the cinema is the most important’. While the Oc- tober Revolution was triumphantly proclaimed to the west through Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, lms such as Days of Struggle and Sickle and Hammer were shown on the agit-trains and river ships that carried the Bolshevik message to far ung corners of the continent and became inte- gral to the Soviet cinema’s romanticised founding mythology.

After the 1932 exhibition, ‘Fifteen Years of Artists of the Russian Soviet Republic’, when Stalin’s leadership became absolute, avant-garde art van- ished, to be locked away in basements and storerooms. In the early years ,Constructivists had decried painting as bourgeois but, now, only Social Realism was tolerated. Any artist who deviated from the Party line was deemed a formalist and could be sent to the Gulag.

The exhibition ends with a chilling lm made up of mugshots of victims of the purges. There are engineers, teachers, railway workers, writers and actors. No information is given as to their so-called offences. Only the stark facts are noted. The date of their arrest, the length of time they were held and when they were shot or, in very rare cases, released. Any one of them might have been Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s model for Ivan Denisovich. Begun in a blaze of fervour and utopian idealism the Russian Revolution produced some of the most innovative art of the twentieth century. But it was not long before that avant-garde, like many of the dissonant voices that exposed the reality and brutality of the Soviet regime, was crushed. The grand utopian visions of the nineteenth and early twentieth century are now out of fashion. What is spreading today is repressive autocracy led by rulers motivated by greed and pro t. Such leaders rely less on terror than Stalin and more on rule bending. But ‘alternative facts’, lies and propaganda are common to both. That Donald Trump has started to cut the National En- dowment for the Arts should, perhaps, be a timely warning.

Published in Artillery Magazine

Crash Goes The American Dream c1930
RA Unveil Timely Painting Exhibition

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

Exhibitions in major galleries are usually planned years ahead. So it is the Royal Academy’s good fortune that their two excellent shows Revolution: Russian Art 1917-32* and American After the Fall: Painting in the 1930s, should be so in tune with the current political zeitgeist, which could not conceivably have been guessed at the time of scheduling.

After the Fall covers the period from the late 1920s up to the US’s entry into World War II.  The ‘fall’ of the title refers to the stock market crash of October 1929 and embodies not just a vision of economic crisis but, also, a loss of innocence and the collapse of the American dream. After the Wall Street crash disillusionment set in. And, with it, a desire to reassess democracy and question what it meant to be American, as Fascism took hold in Europe, and Communism in the Soviet Union. The 1930s was a critical decade. A time when the character of America was changing. A period marked by mass migration from the countryside to the cities. Millions were forced, as John Steinbeck in his novel, Grapes of Wrath, so graphically evoked, to flee the parched and devastated dust bowl areas like Oklahoma, as debt threatened the viability of small farms and homesteads.

American is not homogeneous
and never has been. It is a nation
constantly in search

The exhibition opens with Charles Green Shaw’s iconic painting Wrigley’s 1937, in which a packet of spearmint gum floats against a background of tall rectangular shapes, reminiscent of the New York skyline. It is an iconic image. One that suggests a homogenous America: consumerist, capitalist, confident, primarily urban and modern. But the lesson of this exhibition, and its relevance to the current political climate, is that American is not homogeneous and never has been. It is a nation constantly in search – like Pirandello’s six characters – not of an author, but of an identity. Even the Midwest, which harboured the myth of the pioneer farmer-settler from the first days of the republic was, in fact, a pluralist society made up of many ethnic groups and cultural identities that included Irish, Germans, Swedes and African Americans. And that pastoral identity then, just as now, was diametrically opposed to the other America exemplified by the metropolitan seaboard cities such as New York, with their taste for innovation, intellectualism and inclusivity.

This cultural duality is nowhere better illustrated than in two works, Aaron Douglas’s 1936 modernist painting, Aspiration, in which the silhouettes of two black men and a young woman look towards a city of skyscrapers set on a hill, like some golden Jerusalem. One of the men holds a set square and a draftsman’s compass. The group’s stance is confident and optimistic as they gaze into the brightly lit future. Below them, reaching from the subterranean darkness of the lower picture space, are the chained hands of anonymous black slaves. The implication, here, is that the past may have been tragic but that with talent and hard work a shimmering future awaits. This image stands in stark contrast to Joe Jones 1933 American Justice, in which a group of hooded Klansmen have just set fire to a homestead where, in the foreground, a traumatised, half-naked black woman lies beneath a noose swinging from a tree in a shocking visual illustration of Billy Holiday’s song Black Fruit. These works illustrate the two strands of 30s America: as the land of freedom and opportunity for all, and a nation of conservative values espoused by those who saw themselves as connected to the original settlers.

The strong narrative vision of Grant Wood’s painting, Daughters of the Revolution, 1932, places three steely-haired, tight lipped, bespectacled ladies – full of zealous righteousness and a sense of entitlement – in front of a copy of the 1851 triumphalist painting Washington Crossing the Delaware by the German-American Emanuel Leutze.  While the impetus for the show’s most famous painting, American Gothic, came from a visit Grant made to the small town of Eldon in his native Iowa. There he spotted a little wooden farmhouse made in a the Carpenter Gothic style and wrote: “I imagined American Gothic people with their faces stretched out long to go with this American Gothic house”. Using his sister and his dentist as models, he dressed them up as a farmer and his daughter, like “tintypes from my old family album”, the formality of their pose inspired by the Flemish Renaissance art he had discovered on his travels in Europe during the 1920s. Many read American Gothic as a satirical comment on Midwestern values. But it is more likely that Wood intended it to be positive; a mirror reflecting the unchanging values of rural life in a period of dislocation and disillusionment. Within this world of harvest and handicrafts, white churches, red barns and Shaker style interiors, the figures in their old style dress, with their three tine pitch-fork, cameo and steel rimmed spectacles represent hard-core survivors. In his 1935 essay, Revolt against the City, Grant wrote that the Midwest “stood as the great conservative section of the country”; a symbol of unchanging America against the eclecticism of the cities. A view that remains just as true today among most of Trump’s supporters.

This dichotomy between urban and rural, avant-garde and conservative, abstract and figurative is further played out in the style and subject matter of the paintings on display and in the diverse ways artists responded to the promise and disillusionment of the American dream. To express the mood of these rapidly changing times and forge a uniquely American (as opposed to European) language, many turned away from the romanticised landscape of Grant and idealised scenes such a Doris Lee’s bustling Thanksgiving preparations in a Midwestern kitchen, to urban subjects. Charles Sheeler’s 1930 hyperreal vision of Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge Plant illustrates the hope invested for the future in industry, and Charles Demuth’s 1931 …And the Home of the Brave attests to the influence of European Cubism and Modernism. While the vibrant life of urban blacks is graphically presented in William H. Johnson’s 1939 Street Life, Harlem.

As in America today, fears of social collapse were fired up during the Depression by the media. The kidnapping of the aviator (and Fascist supporter) Charles Lindbergh’s young son, and the many gangland assassinations and lynchings were presented as evidence of a dystopian society in steep decline. Urban life, though, was, like much else, not homogenous. Paul Dadmus’s 1934 The Fleet’s In, demonstrates something of its liberating release from the strictures of life on the prairies. With its knot of smoking, drinking sailors, some in buttock-clenching trousers that pin-point to them being gay, others flirting with girls of easy virtue, it dared to show a bawdy scene of sailors hanging out in New York’s Riverside Park. As a result it was confiscated by Franklin Roosevelt in order to uphold – on the brink of war – the navy’s reputation.

By the 1930s dance marathons had become a popular part of the ‘culture of poverty’. These commercially driven endurance tests, which might last more than eight hours in the hope of a monetary prize, were graphically illustrated in the 1969 film, directed by Sydney Pollack, They Shoot Horses Don’t They?, based on the 1935 novel of the same name, by Horace McCoy. In his disturbing 1939 painting, Dance Marathon, Philip Evergood echoes the decadent glamour of the Weimar Republic mythologised, in Germany, by Max Beckmann, as well as referencing the exaggerated figures of Toulouse-Lautrec’s demi-monde.

This artistic sparring between differing visions and styles continued to be played out between those who wanted an American art rooted in realism and those who were attracted to abstraction as a universal language that pushed beyond the boundaries of class and nationalism.  European movements such as Surrealism also caste their influence on the Magical Realism of the likes of O. Louis Guglielmi and Morris Kantor. Generally uplifting subjects, painted in a realistic style, were preferred by the support programmes of Roosevelt’s New Deal, administered through the Public Works Art Project. Though not all rural visions were conservative and sentimental. New Mexico attracted modernists such as Georgia O’Keeffe who used the language of landscape, as opposed to that of farming, to create quasi-abstract paintings that explored the atavistic character of the natural environment.

The 1930s began the process of defining American culture; asking what that culture was, and who it was for. Was America still the same place envisaged by the Founding Fathers? What mattered now? History and myth or modernity and progress? Industrialisation or the farm? A monoglot Anglo-Saxon culture or a multi-ethnic one? Perhaps the lesson for our contemporary world is that nostalgia – then as now – is usually a form of deceit. The much vaunted myths of rural self-reliance failed to adapt to the new interconnected global world. People did not, as Grant predicted, “revolt against the city” and return in their droves to their little houses on the prairies. By the 1940s Edward Hopper and Jackson Pollock exemplified the two poles of American painting and the tensions between the local and the global. For many, American art would become defined by the heroism of Abstract Expressionism and, later, Pop art, with its elite avant-garde of urban intellectuals and hipsters. Post-war America found that it had less of an appetite to look back to its pioneer roots as it became increasingly involved economically and militarily in the global web of events. Yet the question of what constitutes America and who owns its cultural and political soul has not gone away but resurfaced with Trump’s victory. It will be interesting to see if, during this 21st century crisis, a new art emerges that reflects something of this ongoing schism in the American psyche.

Sue Hubbard Photos Courtesy Royal Academy London
Main Photo: Charles Green Shaw Wrigley’s 1937

America After the Fall: Painting in the 1930s
The Royal Academy until 4th June 2017

Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s
Photographer’s Gallery, London

Published in Artillery Magazine

Art Criticism

Karin Mack /DACS, London, 2016 / The SAMMLUNG VERBUND Collection, Vienna

The day after the American election that put Donald J. Trump in the White House and the morning I heard of Leonard Cohen’s death, I went to the exhibition of 1970s feminist avant-garde photography at the Photographers’ Gallery. What a difference forty-odd years makes. In the 1970s issues concerning gender equality, female sexuality and civil rights became part of the mainstream public discourse. We believed that with education and the breakdown of patriarchy the future would be equal and free. That women would be able to reach for the stars. Now more than forty years on we are to have an American president who boasts of grabbing women by the ‘pussy’ and surrounds himself with advisors intent on refusing abortion rights and dictating, once again, what women can and can’t do with their bodies And there’s to be a new FLOTUS in the White House; not the gracious first lady who fought for civil rights and encouraged poor communities to grow vegetables in order to beat childhood obesity, but a former glamour model more used to the accomplishments of the courtesan than to burning her bra in political protest over women’s civil liberties. History, it seems, is not always linear.

The ground-breaking work in this exhibition by artists such as Cindy Sherman, Judy Chicago and Martha Rosler (who found a platform alongside the writing of Betty Friedan, Germaine Greer and other second- wave feminists) illustrates how they extended the late twentieth century debate beyond issues raised by the first wave of feminists around voting and property rights, to focus on matters of identity, domestic violence and rape. The photographs, collages, videos and performances produced during the 1970s show female artists galvanised into political engagement. A 1961 report from the American Presidential Commission on the Status of Women had found discrimination against women in every aspect of American life.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled (Lucy), 1975/2001 / © Cindy Sherman. Courtesy of Metro Pictures, New York / The SAMMLUNG VERBUND Collection, Vienna

The exhibition starts with a series of photographs by Helena Almeida, born in Portugal in 1934. Hands, many decked with  wedding  rings,  reach from behind metal railings and locked gates, through grills and half-open windows, emphasising the sense of isolation felt, particularly, by creative women, during Salazar’s political dictatorship but, also, by many women trapped in suffocating or unhappy marriages. Over and over again the same questions are raised though out the exhibition: what does  it mean to be a woman, what are the limits of that role within society?   Are these roles dictated by nature or nurture? Can a woman be an artist and a mother and have a sex life without being a sex object? Many artists such as Cindy Sherman and the Italian, Marcella Campagnano, play with multiple identities, swapping from bride to prostitute, from cleaning lady to professional, from pregnant mother to female geek like children trying out various disguises from the dressing up box. The overriding question at the time seemed to be: could women have it ‘all’ and what, in fact, did that ‘all’ actually mean? And were these perceived freedoms just for white college- educated women and if not, how would they be achieved by women of colour and those living in poverty in the developing world?

Many of the artists included, here, such as Teresa  Burga, born in 1935,  are themselves from developing countries (in her case Peru). Her practice revolves around themes of representation and mass culture that explore  the construction of a superimposed feminine ideal. Her drawing Sin Titulo (Untitled 1979) borrows from an advertisement for Cotelga toothpaste that features an attractive model and critiques the flawless beauty unobtainable by so many women (particularly those with very little money) that is being promoted. A sense of not being heard, of not having a voice, of being repressed – something that Tillie Oulson so graphically expressed in her wonderful collage of voices Silences, published in 1978 – is given visual form by the German artist Renate Eisenegger in her eight-part photo series Isolamento (1972). Here she’s seen sticking cotton wool and tape over her mouth, her nose, her ears and eyes before covering her head completely.

Housework is shown to be a vexed political arena. In 1957 Betty Friedan was asked to conduct a survey of her former Smith College classmates for their fifteenth anniversary reunion. What she found was, that despite comfortable financial circumstances, many were deeply unhappy, a situation she would describe in The Feminine Mystic, as ‘the problem   that has no name.’ Freidan described the typical 1950s suburban family   as a ‘comfortable concentration camp’ in which suburban housewives were encouraged to become ‘dependent, passive, [and] childlike’. One of her solutions was that women should be paid for housework. In Martha Rosler’s celebrated grainy grey video Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975) the artist challenges the prevailing attitude that a woman’s place was primarily in the home. Wearing an apron in front of a table full of kitchen utensils, the artist stands like a primary school teacher before her class re-defining each object in alphabetical order – from apron to tenderiser – though a lexicon  of feminist anger and despair. Elsewhere Letícia Parente, born in 1930 in Salvador, introduces a racial as well as gender perspective in her 1982 video Tarefa (Task) where the black hands of a faceless maid iron the body of a white woman lying passively in a cotton dress on an ironing board. While Karin Mack, an Austrian artist born in 1940, presents Destruction of an illusion (1977), a series of photos that underline the drudgery of domestic work. In the first image we are shown a neatly coiffed woman cradling a jar of bottled fruit next to her face, against a backdrop of floral wall paper – the perfect homemaker. Yet as the series progresses her image is stabbed with an array of roasting skewers and is gradually destroyed, so that by the last one she’s been completely obliterated and there is nothing left except torn paper and bent needles.

Renate Eisenegger, Hochhaus (Nr.1), 1974, Renate Eisenegger / The SAMMLUNG VERBUND Collection, Vienna

Perhaps the most important site of debate during the Seventies was the body as exemplified by the publication in 1973 of Our Bodies Ourselves. Originally put together before mainstream publication by the Boston Women’s Health Collective, it went on to become a bestseller and a how- to manual for women trying to understand the mechanics of their bodies and emotions. Judy Chicago’s Red Flag (1971), a close up of a bloody tampon protruding from a luxuriant bush of pubic hair (hair was a political statement, no self-respecting feminist would go for a Brazilian, let alone shave their legs) seems to align feminism and self-determinism with the red  flag  of  Marxism. While  the  Cuban Ana  Mendieta  and  the Serbian artist Katalin Ladi both broke with traditional modes of representation by pressing rectangular panes of glass against their faces in order to distort them. Not only did these performances question ideals of western female beauty but they suggested – by their use of the frame – a critique of the normal presentations of the feminine within western painting. Aging is tackled in the work of Ewa Partum. In Change (1974), which took place in front of a gallery audience, she had a makeup artist transform one half of her body into her older alter ego, declaring that her body was now an art work. This prefigured the more extreme surgical interventions on her own body in the 1980s by the French artist Orlan.

Francesca Woodman, Self-deceit #1, Rome, Italy, 1978/1979 / © Courtesy George and Betty Woodman, New York / The SAMMLUNG VERBUND Collection, Vienna

‘One is not born but rather becomes a woman’, Simone de Beauvoir  wrote in The Second Sex, but the questions remain: are women physically autonomous or constrained by the rules laid down by religion and patriarchy? Masquerade, parody, and many forms of self-representation are employed, here, to deconstruct preconceived notions about identity, to discuss whether it is constructed by social convention or imbibed with our mother’s milk. What so many of these artists illustrate is that identity is multi-faceted and multi-layered and that the roles assigned by society do not have to leave us in a state of conflict. Their work shows that we have choices, that we can be what we want to be. Yet looking back, now, over forty years, what seems to have been lost is a sense of common cause. That collective spirit has dissolved. Individualism has become more blatant and identity just as likely to be constructed through surgical intervention and Botox as sought through shared political goals.

So will Clinton’s failure to shatter that glass ceiling, despite the hopes and expectations of many, be the end of the feminist dream? Will we be forced back into the role of Hausfrau, mindful only of the demands of Kinder, Kuche, Kircher? Now Trump is to be president there’s a danger that his misogyny will give permission for a more general abuse and hatred of women. Suddenly this exhibition looks very pertinent indeed.

Published in Artillery Magazine

John Baldessari: Miro and Life in General

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

This is my first art review of 2017 and, in the last few months, the world has changed dramatically. It’s hard not to look at everything through the prism of Donald Trump’s election as leader of (for now, at least) the free world. Culture is taking on new metaphors and resonances. Optimism, hope and humour? Can there still be a place for them? Are such emotions still possible or even appropriate as we stand on the cliff top looking out, like stout Cortez on a peak in Darien, towards the stormy seas of the future?

Born in 1931 the Californian artist John Baldessari was honed by the zeitgeist of the 1960s, that decade of revolt, revolution, muddled thinking and creativity. The granddaddy of conceptual art he’s known for his magpie appropriations of painting, photography and language. In an increasingly prosperous post-war world his concerns were to dismantle old shibboleths and stretch early 20th century artistic boundaries to see how elastic they could become. Iconoclasm was the name of the game. By the early 1990s he was a celebrity. A 1990 retrospective organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), Los Angeles, travelled across the United States and Canada.  With wit and irony he deconstructed the processes of contemporary artistic practice to include language. “I guess”, he said, “it’s fundamental to my work that I tend to think of words as substitutes for images. I can never seem to figure out what one does that the other doesn’t do, so it propels me, this kind of bafflement.” His aim has been to be as “disarming as possible”, whilst establishing or deconstructing meaning through juxtaposition. By beguiling his viewers he’s offered his own laconic visual commentary. Often citing semiotics and, in particular, Claude Lévi-Strauss’s structuralism, as a major influence on his treating language as sign and on his deliberate play between word and image, he’s taken phrases from art manuals and quotes from celebrated art critics and painted them onto the surfaces of his canvases. For him there has been no reason why a ‘text’ painting shouldn’t be just as much a ‘work of art’ as a nude or a still life. Everything has been up for grabs.

Looking at this new show at the Marian Goodman Gallery in London I couldn’t decide whether John Baldessari is, now, a dinosaur – irrelevant to the current political and social landscape of this new autocratic post-truth world – or a sensitive barometer of it.

Juxtaposing sections of Miro paintings with what the artist calls an image of ‘Life in General’ – black and white Hollywood film stills accompanied by single words such as ‘Reliable’, ‘Right’, ‘True’ and ‘Necessary’ – he creates rebus puzzles whose meanings remain tantalisingly elusive. In the 1960s and 70s obfuscation and cool were de rigour. Warhol talked of being a machine, while David Bowie assumed a palimpsest of different personae that never allowed us to discover the real man but acted as screen onto which his followers could project their wish fulfilments and fantasies. To be committed, to take a stand or be seen to care was just not very hip. Art became a game of dissembling, of ‘blurring boundaries’ and mixing media. A code, a puzzle, understood by some and vilified by others.

In a number of the film stills used in this exhibition Baldessari has painted over their surfaces with acrylic, blotting out faces with blank areas of skin coloured paint and erasing other figures completely. Everything is reduced in these inkjet prints to the same texture as though history, itself, was being erased. The paint surface and idiosyncratic brush strokes of the Miros are no different in intensity and quality to the pixilations of the reproduced film stills. Everything appears to be of equal value (or no value). Meanings are not common but open to individual interpretation. There can be no shared readings.

In his seminal essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin talks of the effects of modernity on original art works. Film and photography shared a role in this change. For Benjamin mechanical reproduction creates the loss of the aura of a work of art. This aura represents a work’s originality and authenticity. A painting has an aura while (for him) a photograph does not. The photograph is an image of an image, while the painting is unique. Looking at Baldissari’s new works, where the playfulness of Miro’s individual mark making is reduced to a series of trademark signs, juxtaposed alongside the obliterated faces of many of the film characters, I couldn’t help but think about Benjamin’s thesis. The question that came to mind was: is this witty iconoclasm, with it endless deadpan obfuscations, relevant now? Or are we in need of a new art that stands in opposition to the current political and ecological narratives springing up at an alarming rate all around the world?

There’s an argument that it’s never been more important for art to rediscover something more visceral, that artists are not machines but eloquent citizens in a society in crisis. Others might postulate that these self-referential works are important exactly because of what’s left out and obliterated. That what is obscured, hidden and erased – the gaps in the possible ‘readings’, the possible alternative ‘truths’ – function as a perfect metaphor for the new world order. Maybe what Baldessari is showing – whether he meant to or not – is that in this post-truth world there can be no coherent story. That truth, like the fluctuations of a kaleidoscope, depends on how you turn the lens and who’s doing the looking.


Miró and Life in General: Reliable, 2016
Varnished inkjet print on canvas with acrylic paint 95 11/16 x 49 in. (243.1 x 124.5 cm) 
No. 19348
Courtesy of Marian Goodman Gallery

Marian Goodman Gallery, London until 25th February 2017.

James Ensor
Royal Academy of Art, London

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

In 1933 the Belgium artist, James Ensor, met up with Einstein, when the latter was on his way to the States, for lunch on the coast near Ostend. Walking along the beach Einstein tried to explain the theory of relativity to the bemused artist. “What do you paint?” Einstein asked. To which the painter of masks replied “Nothing”. Whether this response was existential, bombastic or simply bloody minded it’s hard to say but it does illustrate something of the enigmatic complexity of one of Belgium’s most celebrated artists who, despite a British father, is barely known in the UK.

That father was a bit of a wastrel and a drunkard who married beneath him and, with his Belgium wife, ran a souvenir and curiosity shop in Ostend filled with an array of parrots, exotic masks, and even a monkey. These curios were to have a profound influence on his son’s later imagery, imagery that has continued to intrigue as well as baffle. Opposed to ideas of classical beauty, James Ensor was equally infuriated by any notion that an artwork might need to have a social function. An outspoken exponent of ‘the prestige of the new’, he considered the greatest artistic sin to be banality. Although he’d go on to have a profound effect on Expressionism and Surrealism, the orthodoxies of Modernism held little interest for him and, when he spoke of them, it was with limited understanding. Yet he produced many stunningly original works. Now the Belgium artist, Luc Tuymans, has curated a show at the Royal Academy that brings this enigmatic artist to a wider international public.

From the first we are drawn into a series of gloomy drawing rooms filled with heavy mahogany furniture and dark fabrics, the sort of domestic interiors made familiar by the paintings of Vuillard and Sickert. In The Bourgeois Salon, 1880, a woman stands by a draped table in front of a marble fireplace, her face obliterated. On the mantelpiece is an ormolu mirror, a heavy marble carriage clock and a pair of porcelain urns. Dressed in a rust jacket and black skirt she seems to be dissolving into the heavy impasto, as if being swallowed by the claustrophobic patterning of the room. We might be looking at a Belgium Hedda Gabler trapped by the conventions of polite middle-class society. This, like the wonderful Afternoon in Ostend, 1881, in which two women sit in the very same room weighed down with ennui, implies a strong critique of the society in which Ensor lived.

Little is known of Ensor’s private life. He barely left Ostend, lived largely with his mother and sister and never married. A photo taken by an unknown photographer in 1895 shows him painting in the studio at the top of his parents’ house at a stage when you might well have expected him to have struck out on his own. Much of his life was spent caring for his widowed mother, his aunt, and his divorced sister and her child. The intense self portrait of 1883, with full red beard, dressed in a woman’s sun bonnet decorated with a long feather, might be a bit of playful acting but his near contemporary, Freud, could have had a field day analysing his relationship to women.

Ensor’s body of work is eclectic. A superb draftsman, as is obvious from in his many drawings, including the portrait of his aunt and the holly tree in his garden, he also painted still lives of the rich domestic landscapes he inhabited. A table packed with vegetables and a bunch of freshly picked rhubarb or the underside of a fleshy skate illustrate his sensual relationship to these subjects.

Ensor’s focus was chiefly on drawing and etching where his idiosyncratic language shows the influence of artists as diverse as Odiline Redon, Goya, Bruegal and Houkasi. Also a gifted cartoonist, he displays a lampooning wit worthy of James Gillray in his Seven Deadly Sins and Les Mauvais Medécins. A miscreant cast of strange winged fish and flying monsters in his etching Devils Thrashing Angels and Archangels undoubtedly pays homage to Breughel. But the biggest crowd, on my visit, was gathered around the black and coloured pencil drawing, The Baths of Ostend where, in front of bathing huts, boys French kiss, people fart and a couple of poodles copulate in the chaos of small figures. But it’s his stranger works that give him his unique visual voice.

Not only did he devote himself to depicting qualities of light, line and colour but he was intrigued by the grotesque and the macabre, as suggested by the masks and costumes of the carnival at Binche. Often he portrayed himself as a skeleton, hinting at what was transgressive, dark and other. It’s no coincidence that later Picasso would go on to plunder the ethnographic departments of museums in order to appropriate African masks to give his work a ‘savage’ authenticity. As in Freud’s writings there’s something ambivalent in Ensor’s relationship between the ‘primitive’ and the ‘civilised’, which so exercised the fin de siècle mind. Belgium, under King Leopold II, was, after all, one of the most vicious colonial powers of the late 19th century. The notorious Kurtz, in Joseph Conrad’s seminal Heart of Darkness mounts, in an act of extreme depravity and a terrifying demonstration of power, skulls on staves in a jungle clearing of the Belgium Congo.

So much of what went on at the end of the 19th century in bourgeois society was about keeping up appearances and covering things up that the mask became a metaphor for this with its illusions to the primitive, the chthonic, the deviant, the veiled and the hidden. The exhibition takes its name from the painting The Intrigue of 1890, which depicts a Mardi Gras carnival. Here masked figures can anonymously indulge in licentious and transgressive behaviour. Gradually Ensor’s studio was to become a theatrical space in which he played out his imaginary dramas that were part social commentary and part a mining of the Freudian subconscious.

It was The Intrigue that as a youngster of 16 Luc Tuymans, saw in the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Hunsten in Antwerp and which sparked his interest in the Ensor. This is certainly a valuable reappraisal of Ensor’s work but little is added to our understanding of this intriguing painter by the inclusion of a few carnival masks, a feathered headdress and a smattering of Tuyman’s own work. It’s simply a distraction. Ensor is intriguing enough to stand on his own.


The Intrigue, 1890
Oil on canvas, 90 x 149 cm
Antwerp, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten
Photo KMSKA © www.lukasweb.be – Art in Flanders vzw.
Photography: Hugo Maertens / © DACS 2016

The Skate, 1892
Oil on panel, 80 x 100 cm
Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels / photo: J. Geleyns – Ro scan
© DACS 2016In

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Hell in Arcadia
Stanley Spencer at The Hepworth

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

Stanley Spencer, Self-portrait By Gaslight Looking Downwards, 1949, oil on canvas
© The Estate of Stanley Spencer / Bridgeman Images

‘To be a great artist one must first be a natural everyday human being.’
Stanley Spencer in May 1915

Although Stanley Spencer attended the Slade School of Art where he was a prizewinning student among other gifted students who included Dora Car­rington, Mark Gertler, Paul Nash and David Bomberg, and though his tutor, Henry Tonks, claimed that he had the most original mind of any student he had taught, Spencer’s four years at the Slade were not, according to his biographer, Fiona MacCarthy, altogether happy:

He was marked out as a misfit by his physical appear­ance: his diminutiveness (he was only 5 feet 2 inches), his heavy fringe, and pudding-basin haircut. His aura of other-worldliness…enhanced by the fact that he commut­ed daily by train from Berkshire. He was known jeeringly as Cookham (a name given him by C.R.W. Nevinson) and terrified by being put upside-down in a sack.

Parochial, idiosyncratic and visionary, Spencer was a quintessentially Eng­lish painter, though his work looked back to Giotto and the Italian Primi­tives while, in his unflinching, flesh-revealing nudes, foreshadowed the confessional intimacy of Lucian Freud, as well as the mind- altering ‘spiri­tuality’ of the 1960s counter-culture.

But it was his beloved Cookham, the small village on the banks of the Thames in Berkshire where Spencer grew up and lived most of his life – ‘avillage in Heaven’ as he called it- that proved his major source of inspira­tion. With its red-brick houses, neat gardens and Wind in the Willows atmo­sphere it became the backcloth for his religious visions where lumpen pro­vincials re-enacted the Bible as fireside narratives in local churchyards and back gardens. The Betrayal, which takes place in Cookham High Street, behind the gardens of the two Spencer family homes, shows Peter raising his arm to the High Priest’s servant, while the disciples cower behind a wall like curious village gossips. These biblical scenes of neighbours and fellow villagers were a visual expression of Spencer’s unconventional Christian faith and the desire to make his eccentric feelings ‘an ordinary fact of the street.’

As with William Blake, whose mantle he in many ways adopted, life and art were seen as sacred and entwined. Like Blake he believed that the divine was to be found in the everyday and the ordinary; that the world could be seen in ‘a grain of sand, and…heaven in a wild flower’. Writing from Twe­seldon Camp, near Farnham in May 1916 where, during the First World War he served with the Royal Army Medical Corps (his puny physique prevented him from enlisting) he gave a clue to this philosophy:

I think there is something wonderful in hospital life… the act of doing things to men is wonderful. Now I am sweeping…now I am cleaning dishes…now I am polishing. There is such unity and yet variety in it. I think this feeling is in those things (bas reliefs) in the Giotto Campanile.

The world that shaped Stanley Spencer has long since disappeared and with it a certain kind of Englishness embedded in the comforting coherence of cosy village life. His local home-spun bohemianism was part of an ‘is there honey still for tea’ nursery innocence that saw Englishness as a sort of pre-lapsarian utopia that was dismantled by the horrors of the First World War. The eighth surviving child of William and Anna Caroline Spencer, Stanley’s father, affectionately known as Par, was a church organist and music teacher who gave lessons at home. The family villa, Fernlea, on Cookham High Street, was built by Stanley’s grandfather, Julius Spencer. His parents were what, today, we’d call ‘de-schoolers’, with reservations about the local council school. Unable to afford private fees they arranged for Stanley to be taught at home by his sisters. As a result his education was fairly patchy, a fact illustrated by the odd stream-of-consciousness prose that proliferates his copious letters. He and his brother Gilbert also took drawing lessons from a local artist, Dorothy Bailey. When Gilbert was, eventually, sent to a school in Maidenhead the family didn’t feel this would be right for Stanley, a solitary teenager given to long walks, with a passion for drawing. So Pa Spencer arranged with local landowners, Lord and Lady Boston, that he should spend time drawing each week with Lady Boston. In 1907, she arranged for him to attend Maidenhead Technical Institute. His father agreed, on condition that he did not sit any of the exams.

The exhibition at The Hepworth Wakefield celebrates the 125th anniver­sary of Spencer’s birth and brings together more than seventy significant works spanning a forty-five year career. One of the highlights is the number of rarely seen self-portraits where the fresh-faced boy can be seen slowly transmuting into the bespectacled eccentric of popular myth. Presented thematically the richly detailed paintings reveal the apparent conflicts be­tween Spencer’s slightly off-the-wall religious beliefs and his sexuality, his relationship to nature and his passion for the domestic. Biblical allegories filled with bulbous figures with big bosoms and ample thighs that echo Georg Grosz or Otto Dix’s caricatures (but without their satire) are shown alongside evocative pastoral landscapes and studies of shipbuilding on the Clyde, executed while Spencer was a war artist at the Kingston shipyard Port Glasgow, in which he celebrates and mythologises the dignity and heroism of work.

Stanley Spencer, Self-Portrait, 1923, oil on canvas. Stanley Spencer Gallery Collection
© The Estate of Stanley Spencer / Bridgeman Images

The Resurrection was, for Spencer a reoccurring theme. After his first solo exhibition at the Goupil Gallery in 1927 The Times art critic wrote ‘What makes it so astonishing is the combination…of careful detail with the mod­ern freedom of form. It is as if a Pre-Raphaelite had shaken hands with a Cubist.’ Spencer repeatedly referred to the war as his inspiration for these paintings: ‘I had buried so many people and saw so many dead bodies that I felt that death could not be the end of everything.’ This melding of lived experience with biblical story telling is there, also, in his 1912 The Nativ­ity, inspired by his walks at Cliveden ‘along the path skirting Sir George Young’s fisheries’ with its deep grass and bent garden trellis, while a Cookham malt house provided the setting for the elongated figures of The Last Supper, seated around a U–shaped table, their legs and big bare feet poking beneath the white cloth. Started before the war, Spencer added the legs on his return. A detail with which he was particularly pleased. While Sarah Tubbs and the Heavenly Visitors, is based on a story told to him by his father. In 1910 the tail of Halley’s Comet created an exceptional sunset that caused old ‘Granny’ Tubb to fear that the end of the world was neigh, so that she knelt by her gate in the High Street to pray. Spencer’s painting shows her comforted by ‘heavenly visitors’ who present her with cherished items including a papier mâché text and a postcard of Cookham Church held by Stanley’s cousin Annie Slack, who worked in the village shop. Spencer claimed, rather mysteriously, that the fact he was now ‘sexually conscious added and increased the illusion.’

On his home-coming from Macedonia with the Berkshire Infantry he drew up plans to create a memorial chapel based on his war experiences and in 1919 met the artist Hilda Carline, with whom he settled in Cookham and had two children. But the marriage was sexually fraught, affected, perhaps, by Carline’s Christian Science beliefs and in the 1930s he began to pursue fellow artist, Patricia Preece, a lesbian who lived in the village with her partner Dorothy Hepworth. Naively Spencer wanted to be married to both Carline and Preece.

Although this exhibition is missing the infamous Double Nude Portrait: The Artist and his Second Wife of 1937 (often known as The Leg of Mut­ton), his 1935 Nude shows what he described as ‘the passionate intensity and meaning in her [Preece’s] loveliness’, and highlights the peculiarly sa­domasochistic flavour of their relationship. With her cold blue eyes, white skin and pendulous breasts, her pert mouth and look of disdain towards the artist, there can be little surprise that she left him to return to Dorothy.

Was Spencer simply a Holy Fool, a quirky Edwardian eccentric who went on painting his beloved Cookham until his death in 1959 – well into the age of rock n’roll, Jackson Pollock and Pop art – out of touch with the modern world? A man unable to move on beyond the consolations of childhood? ‘Mentally,’ he wrote, when in his forties, ‘I have been bedridden all my life,’ and ‘I wish all my life I could have been tied to my mother’s apron strings. It would have suited me, mostly in the kitchen or the bedroom…a long talk and plenty of cups of tea.’

Love for Spencer was a melding of the sexual and the domestic. Not for him the great romances of Troilus and Cressida or Abelard and Heloise. ‘The joy of this eternal home-coming,’ as he described the erotic, was de­picted in his archetypal lovers – the dustman and his wife – where the in­fantilised dustman is carried Pietà-like in his wife’s strong maternal arms. A teapot, an empty jam jar, and some cabbage stalks all provide an esoteric link to the mystery of the Trinity. ‘Nothing I love is rubbish,’ he said. ‘I am on the side of the angels and dirt.’

Although Spencer’s language is original and uniquely idiosyncratic it chimes with the mood of the English religious revival of the interwar years explored by Graham Sutherland and Eric Gill, by Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson in their Christian Science, and in Tom Eliot’s poetic flir­tations with high Anglicanism and Buddhism. Heaven, for Spencer, was always the village of Cookham, a sort of nursery limbo for his Peter Panish character. Yet despite his claim that ‘Sorrow and sadness is not for me’ there is a deep dysfunctional loneliness and existential alienation within his paintings. Looking at the crowds gathered on The Hill of Zion or escaping from their tombs in the Resurrection of the Good and the Bad it’s hard to decide whether his cast of characters have found their way to an eternal paradise in Berkshire or some Cookham version of Dante’s circles of hell.

Published in London Magazine

Alice Maher
Purdy Hicks, London

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

Ideas of shape-shifting are ancient. The possibility that a person can take the form of another being – usually an animal – can be traced back thousands of years, across diverse cultures, continents and religions. Shape-shifting appears in fairy tales and myths. In stories from Greek mythology, Zeus transformed into a swan, a bull, and an ant. The myths of the ancient Egyptians depicted gods with animal heads, such as Horus and the dog-headed Anubis, while those of the Norsemen showed the mischievous god Loki change into a giant and a woman, as well as various bestial forms.

Some of the earliest depictions of shape-shifting come from the Cave of the Trois-Frères, in southern France, where many believe that the drawings indicate a shamanic belief in the ritual of transformation. In later Christianity shape-shifting became a metaphor for the merely human to metamorphose into the divine. In the Mass bread and wine are miraculously transformed into the body of Christ.

The Irish artist, Alice Maher, has always flirted with notions of transformation in its many guises. In a series of autobiographical photographs in which she used herself as a model, she covered her face with a mask of snail shells, wore a necklace of lambs’ tongues, and covered her body and arms with birds’ wings and moss. These powerful images spoke of the slippage between the feminine and the chthonic, between nature and nurture, the sensual, the profane and the divine. Working with a diverse range of materials she has, in the past, created installations, drawings, sculptures and photographs.

Now, in a series of meticulously rendered watercolours, The Glorious Maid of the Charnel House, she continues to investigate the theme of metamorphosis, a world where the female body shifts between what is recognisably human to embrace elements of flora and fauna, as well as subvert notions of what is internal and external, what can be revealed and what must remain secret.

In the title work of her show – the inaugural exhibition in Purdy Hicks new South Kensington space – a delicately painted, rosy pre-pubescent girl stands barefoot and naked, her Medusa-like locks cascading in long tresses around her vulnerable body. Only this is not hair but a spill of visceral guts, fleshy and tumbling from her head, filled with what appear to be lumps of dark green faecal matter or, at least, something highly toxic. In countries where ground suitable for burial was scarce, corpses were interred following death to allow decomposition to occur. The remains, once stripped bare of flesh, would then be exhumed and moved to an ossuary or ‘charnel house’, allowing the original burial place to be reused. After a recent brush with cancer Alice Maher’s Charnel House works reveal not only a preoccupation with the corporeal transformations that occur with illness and death – from sentient body to a handful of bones – but also a fascination with our contemporary discomfort with the abject, with decay and deterioration. In these images the body sprouts alien protuberances, transforming what is familiar and healthy into something surreal and alien. Complex and painful emotions mutate to become visible and take on a physical form, so that what is normally hidden and taboo is revealed.

Elsewhere a girl has been part turned into a hind (perhaps by a spell?); while a naked woman with Japanese-like, witchy hair, crouches beneath the weight of a heart, strapped to her back like a giant ruck-sack. But this heart is not some romantic symbol but a fleshy object that’s been ripped from the body, as indicated by the severed arteries. The theme of Sisyphusian effort is further explored in the disquieting, Burden, where another woman carries a half-human, half-ossified load strapped to her back like an inverted doppelganger. Another figure sits with her back to the viewer, her naked torso covered with red eyes. Part wounds – or perhaps the resulting of some sort of homeopathic process such as ‘cupping’ – and part talisman (to protect against the evil eye), some have slipped from her back to gather on the ground like rose petals or dried pox scabs.

Other figures erupt in rivers of tears, in leafy fountains that pour from their guts. One, ceaselessly, bangs her head against a tower of bricks, while in the large charcoal and chalk work, Matrix, a woman sports an extravagant serpentine headdress fashioned from intestines into a Gordian knot. It’s as if there’s no room in her body for this burgeoning growth, which has been forced to extrude unnaturally through her head. In another scene a girl lies beneath a monstrous fury dog. Its presence is threatening and nightmarish, recalling the incubus in the 1781 oil painting The Nightmare by Anglo-Swiss artist Henry Fuseli.

Before making this series of work Alice Maher spent time looking at classical medical texts, the sort that show stylised drawings of women holding open their stomachs to reveal the structure of the uterus beneath the skin. This 19th century flavour permeates The Sick Rose, (the title, of course, is from Blake) where coral-like branches protrude from the ears of the female head in an imitation of fashionable Victorian curls.

The Maids of the title also cannot but fail to trigger thoughts of Genet’s 1947 famously transgressive play, where metamorphosis and transformation resonate throughout. In a luxurious bedroom, two French maids fantasise about killing their mistress, playing out dangerous and sadistic scenarios as they plan her violent death and try out different roles. Not for the faint-hearted, the play, as with Alice Maher’s paintings, is full of blood symbolism and explores the corruption of both body and psyche though the transformative power of the imagination. Whilst there is no suggestion of murderous thoughts in Maher’s work, there is, nevertheless, a sense of the grotesque, of a spectacle where borders are transgressed.

The subtly of Alice Maher’s work lies not only in its flawless execution but in her ability to weave narratives of personal trauma with references from fairy tale, psychoanalysis, anthropological myth and the history of botanical illustration. Her hybrid half-beings invoke the monstrous figures of Hieronymus Bosch, as well as the surreal transformations of Leanora Carrington and Max Ernst. Apparently quiet and rather beautiful these small watercolours celebrate not only the sacred and the profane but female anarchy, ambiguity, creativity and power.


Courtesy of Purdy Hicks Gallery:
Self 2015 watercolour Alice Maher
The Great Falls 2015 watercolour Alice Maher
The Sick Rose 2015 watercolour Alice Maher

Until 15th October 2016.

Published in London Magazine

Mark Wallinger, Self Reflection
Freud Museum, London

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.
Whatever I see I swallow immediately
Mirror —Sylvia Plath

Like many good ideas it is deceptively simple. The artist Mark Wallinger has installed a large mirror across the ceiling of Sigmund Freud’s iconic study in Maresfield Gardens. The effect is dramatic. Immediately the space is doubled, turned inside out so that top and bottom, reflection and reality all become blurred. What is real suddenly seems like an illusion. Everything is destabilised – the famous couch, the archaeological figurines and artefacts arranged on Freud’s desk, the leather books and densely patterned Turkish rugs. It is disorientating. Are we looking at an actual object or its doppelganger? With its heavy red velvet curtains and oriental drapes the room surrounds us like a womb and the couch, with its comfortable Persian cushions, and Freud’s chair at the head where he would have sat out of sight of his analysand, invites us to lie down and rehearse our infantile fantasies and dreams. As we look up we catch sight of our own small, isolated reflection peering into this complex double space.

The mirror has been used throughout art history as a metaphor for both revelation and philosophical conundrum. Some of the oldest drawings found on temple walls and papyrus scrolls depict images of Egyptian Neters gazing into hand-held Mirrors. In Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas, one of the world’s most enigmatic paintings, the artist melds the fabric of reality and the illusion of identity in a game of mirrors. While in his Rokey Venus, the goddess of Love, the most beautiful of all the goddesses, is shown lying languidly on a bed, as her son Cupid holds up a mirror – in an act that is at once both narcissistic and Oedipal. As Venus looks both at herself and the viewer the borders between self and other disintegrate.

Metaphors of doubling and reflection also abound in literature from Robert Louis Stephenson’s the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, to Sylvia Plath’s greedy annihilating mirror. While Jorge Luis Borges was terrified of mirrors as a child and remained afraid of their capacity for infinite regression that led to the “distortion of one’s own image.” The mirror is there, too, in therapeutic literature, philosophy and psychoanalytical texts. The implication being that the reflected image, either real or imaginary, helps to provide an insight within a clinical context. In Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979), Rorty wrote: “It is pictures rather than propositions, metaphors rather than statements that determine most of our philosophical convictions. The picture that holds traditional philosophy captive is that of the mind as a great mirror containing various representations – some accurate, some not – and capable of being studied by pure non empirical methods.” For Haglund (1996), “Part of the power of the mirror metaphor is that the single image captures many aspects of human development and human experience”. Shengold (1974) believed that the mirror was a metaphor for the mind, which reflected the image of self and others, while Pines (1984) described mirroring in group psychoanalysis as a process of objective self-reflection[1]. In western philosophies the psyche tends to be regarded as a mirror of reality, while in Buddhism, it’s the world that mirrors back who we are.

With its reflective polished surface the mirror provides us with an unique experience. Before its invention humans had no way of knowing what they looked like, no real sense of their individual identity, beyond the occasional distorted glimpse in a still pool of water. With the ‘invention’ of the mirror came the sense of individuation. We perceive our image as if we are “somebody else”, someone who can observe and judge us. But the image isn’t someone else (it’s our own). Yet it’s also another (for how can we be in two places at once?). Like Peter Pan’s shadow we are inextricably linked to our reflections.

With his mirrored ceiling Mark Wallinger has embodied something of the fluidity of the mind that is capable of slipping between external reality and internalised fantasy. As we plunge into its depths we move from the rational controlling super-ego, though the considering ego to the chthonic, elemental id. Yet nothing is stable. All can be changed by the dark cast of a shadow or a sudden ray of sunlight from the garden door that offers an escape into an alternative, external domain. And beyond the door, outside in the garden, visible behind Freud’s desk, sits the sculpture Self, based on the letter ‘I’ like a statement of self-hood and identity.

The development of identity was addressed by Erik Erikson (1902–1994) in his theory of psychosocial development. He saw an individual’s self-definition as residing in enduring characteristics of the self that included morals and ethics and saw the healthy ego as evolving through a process of self-discovery. For him this evolvolution of the ego identity takes place through stages of emotional and social development. At each stage the psychology of an individual interacts with the given social context in a challenge that brings about either a healthy resolution or an unhealthy, neurotic alternative.

Mark Wallinger is one of our most interesting and thoughtful contemporary artists around at the moment. Nominated for the Turner prize in 1995, he won in 2007 with his installation State of Britain, a dramatic re-creation of peace campaigner Brian Haw’s Parliament Square protest against the Iraq war. This consisted of a reconstruction of over 600 weathered banners, peace flags, photographs and messages from supporters, which Haw amassed over the five years he managed to occupy Parliament Square until, on 23 May 2006, following the passing by Parliament of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act prohibiting unauthorised demonstrations within a one kilometre radius of Parliament Square, his protest was removed. Now to celebrate the Freud Museum London’s 20th anniversary and the 160th anniversary of Sigmund Freud he has created this thoughtful iconic work of spare beauty and real depth. It is a fitting tribute.

1. http://arts-health.com/themirrorproject/?page_id=16

Freud Museum, 20 Maresfield Gardens, London, NW3 5SX until 25th September 2016

Photographic Credits:
Freud Museum London: Karolina Urbaniak
Self Reflection Mark Wallinger Freud Museum: Alex Delfanne

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Georgiana Houghton
Courtauld Gallery, London

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

“Wonderful scribble-scrabbles”

England, for the Victorians, was a very different place to the irreligious, multi-cultural country we have become. Then we believed ourselves to be a ‘great’ Empire that would, forever ‘rule the waves’. It was a society where the majority still believed that God created the world in seven days, yet one in the midst of huge technological change where rural communities were leaving the land to work in Blake’s ‘dark satanic mills’, powered by new-fangled machines that threatened their traditional way of life. Steam, speed and noise came to represent modernity. It was a time of social rigidity as well as social upheaval, where the rich man sat back comfortably in his castle, while the poor man doffed his cap obsequiously at the gate. Fuelled by privilege, hypocrisy and secrets – as was evident in the treatment of women and children and its hidden sexual practices – Victorian society had not yet seen Europe torn apart by two World Wars. Yet death was an ever-present threat. It hovered over childbirth and the lives of infants who might, at any moment, be snatched away by infectious disease.  That the Victorians were obsessed with death is, therefore, hardly surprising.

It’s against this backdrop, along with the loosening of the bonds of the Anglican Church, the shifts in intellectual thought and the new range of scientific innovations that spiritualism took hold. Séances and mediums became popular as a way of making contact with the departed.  It would be easy for us to mock spiritualism as a bit of irrational 19th century jiggery-pokery conducted by the unscrupulous, in darkened rooms swirling with miasmas, in order to extract money from the naive and malleable. But its popularity was more significant than that.  The 19th century developed an especial interest in animal magnetism, in madness and criminality, as well in an attempt to discern where the real self resided, exemplified in Robert Louis Stevenson’s celebrated novel, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The studies of Frederic W.H. Myers (1843-1901), the Cambridge scholar who founded the Society for Psychical Research were, in many ways, precursors to Freud’s later investigations into the unconscious. In his posthumously published Human Personality and the Survival of Bodily Death, Myers discussed ideas of creative genius with special reference to automatic drawing, which, he suggested, sprung from the ‘subliminal’ as opposed to the ‘supraliminal’ of normal consciousness.  Spiritual mediums used trance and automatism to tap into this psychic reservoir. According to Myer artistic inspiration came from a ‘subliminal uprush’ when combined with a ‘supraliminal stream of thought’ – an idea that would later be developed in the language of James Joyce and the art of Surrealists such as André Breton.

It is this milieu that produced Georgiana Houghton (1814-1884), a single woman from a respectable middle-class family who created some of the most extraordinary art of the mid-19th century, a body of rich, abstract, symbolic works that have largely been forgotten today which, in her own words, were “without parallel in the world”.

Born on 20th April 1814 in Las Palmas, on the Island of Grand Canary, the seventh child of George and Mary Houghton, her merchant father was to lose most of his money in a series of misconceived commercial ventures.  Georgiana trained as an artist but gave up art after the death of her beloved younger sister, Zilla Rosalia, which followed only a few years after the loss of her nine year old brother, Cecil Angelo. It was during this period of grieving that she met a neighbour, one Mrs Marshall, a well-known medium, and attended her first séance. The experience was a revelation and Houghton spent three months ‘training’ as a medium. Soon she was practicing ‘table-tipping’ and began to make a series of small free-hand images of ‘spiritual’ flowers and fruit, led by a diverse range of ‘spirit guides’. The first of these was a deaf and dumb artist called Henry Lenny. Later her guides would become more exalted and include Titian and Correggio. Whilst her early work has something of the feeling of Victorian botanical paintings the content is never realistic but always imagined. For Houghton all the colours and shapes had a symbolic meaning, one easily understood by spiritual beings but that for “dwellers upon earth” required interpreting.

Houghton soon became part of an inner circle of influential spiritual practitioners. Those who became involved ranged from dabblers to those exploring spiritualism’s scientific significance. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was an aficionado and Queen Victoria was said to have tried to contact her dead husband Albert through a medium. For many female mediumship was seen as springing from the fevered imagination of an unstable mind, whilst for others it was a sign of female intellectual independence.  Spiritualism appealed to suffragettes and bohemians alike, including Dante Gabriel Rossetti and J.M. Whistler. Like many 19th century mediums Houghton was keen to show that the practice was compatible with her Christian beliefs, which were influenced by the Swedish visionary Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) who claimed to be able to see the spiritual world directly.

After beginning, in 1862, her “Sunday evening pen and ink drawings” under the direction of her spirit guides, she went on to produce a series of richly patterned compositions in watercolour and gouache that the Daily News was to liken to “tangled threads of coloured wool”. Having no real art historical context her work was little understood. Yet her mesmerising lines, bold colours and fluid forms, always produced with the aid of a spirit guide, are extraordinary precursors to the abstract art produced in the 20th century by artists such as Kandinsky. The back of many of these works are covered with complex drawings and closely written notations that explain their spiritual provenance and echo the otherworldliness of William Blake’s visions. Houghton was to remain single all her life and, it might be suggested, in Freudian terms, that her work was produced as a result of sexual repression or hysteria, not dissimilar to the ‘organismic’ ecstatic visions experienced female Catholic saints.

In 1871 Houghton organised a large exhibition of 155 of her sprit works. This was received with a mixture of bafflement and hilarity and nearly broke her financially.  Though there were those who had a more appreciative insight into what she did. The writer Margaret Oliphant described them as “wonderful scribble-scrabbles”, while a member of the art group set up by Houghton, entitled ‘Sisters in Art’, described her work as “some of the most delicate, beautiful drawings ever done by a woman’s hand.”

Until this current exhibition at the Courtauld she’d largely been forgotten, her work not seen in this country for 150 years. Today less than fifty of works are known and the majority of these – for no documented reason – have ended up in the collection of the Victorian Spiritualists’ Union in Melbourne, Australia. An  album, with a few further examples, is held by the College of Psychic Studies in London and a single drawing is part of the ABCD collection, a private ‘art brut’ collection based in Paris, with a further three in private hands.

Although the Christian context in which she made her work is of much less relevance to us today, her fluid forms and mesmerising colours have close connections with the way 20th century artists developed the language of abstraction and also reverberate in the work of contemporary women artists such as Susan Hiller and Chiara Fumai.  Georgiana Houghton’s work is unlike anything normally associated with female Victorian art. These rich spiritual visualisations not only reveal something of the Victorian mind but show a radical spirit way ahead of her time. This is a very welcome exhibition, one that will bring this extraordinary aartist to a wider public.


Georgiana Houghton (1814-1884)
The Flower and Fruit of Henry Lenny
August 28th 1861
Watercolour on paper, 51 x 42 cm
Victorian Spiritualists’ Union, Melbourne, Australia

Georgiana Houghton (1814-1884)
Glory be to God c.1868
Watercolour on paper, 49 x 55 cm
Victorian Spiritualists’ Union, Melbourne, Australia

Georgiana Houghton (1814-1884)
The Eye of the Lord (reverse) c.1864
Victorian Spiritualists’ Union, Melbourne, Australia
(The inscription names Titian as Houghton’s spirit guide)

Portrait of Georgiana Houghton (1814-1884)
Courtesy of the College of Psychic Studies,London

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Tate Modern
the Switch House and Brexit

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

It seems a long time ago since the Tate Summer party to celebrate the opening of the new Switch House adjoining the original Bankside Power Station. It was a different world then. On the 16th June, the date of the party, we were still in Europe. The architects Herzog & de Meuron, who did the conversion, are a Swiss firm based in Basel. They have worked with Tate for 20 years, originally to transform Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s power station. Since Tate Modern opened in May 2000 it has had more than 40 million visitors, many of them from abroad, coming to sample the unique cultural pleasures of this multi-cultural city. As a result of Tate Modern’s presence the surrounding area of the South Bank that includes Shakespeare’s Globe, has turned from a web of grey streets into a buzzing cosmopolitan hub filled with street performers and food stalls selling cuisine from around the world. It’s become a must-see landmark. To walk across the Thames on Anthony Caro’s lightening-flash of a bridge, with its vistas along the river east and west, is to feel that you are at the centre of one of the most exciting global capitals of the world.

The night of the party – despite the inefficiency of the lifts and mounting queues – I went with friends up to the viewing platform on the 10th floor. The panorama is stunning. The city laid out below in 360-degrees with views of the Shard, Westminster Abbey, the Post Office Tower, Saint Paul’s Cathedral and, down river, Wembley Stadium. This is a building designed and built in hope and optimism. A cultural temple that firmly puts us at the epicentre of the artistic world: inclusive, challenging, forward looking. At the opening party the place was awash with the great and the good: royalty, journalists and international art stars. The sense of possibility and optimism was palpable.

Then, to look more closely at the new displays, I went back the day after the news broke that we were to about to leave the EU and suddenly all the optimism I’d felt seemed to belong to different age. The past, it’s said, is another country, where they do things differently. If we’d stayed in Europe I might have written about the building and the galleries in slightly different terms; certainly describing the interior of exposed raw concrete shooting up from the subterranean world of ‘The Tanks’, the sweeping concrete staircase and the perforated brickwork that allows for an extraordinary play of light, as sensational. But I might also have described it as bit hubristic and have suggested that the building often seems more dynamic than the art it contains. But now I haven’t the heart.

Now I just want to rejoice in what the new Tate represents, its multi-culturalism, its diversity, its passion. Seventy-five percent of the art on show has been acquired since Tate Modern first opened. All of it may not be excellent – time will tell. But in place of ‘the panorama of art history’ dominated by Western European and North American art, the collection now takes a broader view, sharing multiple histories that don’t just focus on the cannon of Western modernism. The displays mirror the shifts and changes of the contemporary world, the flux of movement and migration across continents. There are emerging artists from Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe who embrace diverse religions and cultures not always sympathetic each to the other. But art is a language with fluid and permeable borders. Alternative histories and local narratives are reappraised through the prism of international awareness. Ibrahim El-Salahi, for example, who was born in The Sudan and studied at the Slade School of Art before returning to Khartoum, draws on avant-garde painters such as Picasso, who, ironically, borrowed from African primitive art, as well as from Islamic calligraphy. There’s also a good deal of work reflecting the nature of the modern city. In Kader Attia’s Untitled (Ghardaï) 2009, his cooked couscous citadel set among digital prints examines the social impact of colonialism through architecture. While Nil Yalter, who was born in Cairo but raised in Paris, investigates the sociology of ethnicity, identity, migration and class in his work Temporary Dwellings that explored, over a three year period, the lives of immigrant communities in Istanbul, Paris and New York.

There’s also a new and important emphasis on women artists with a powerful display of Louise Bourgeois’ matriarchal spiders and body parts, cages and womb-red drawings, along with a wunderkammer of her psychoanalytic fetishistic sculptures.

Digital technologies are represented by the Bloomberg Connects initiative in an array of new interactive spaces. Video as well as live performance has been given special prominence. From Tania Bruguera’s police on horseback to Tino Sehgal’s gallery attendants bursting into song. I’ve never been much of a fan of Sehgal’s work, which seems to emphasise that live art, which grew out of the counterculture of the 1960s, feels contrived when orchistrated in an official art gallery as opposed to spontaneously in some scruffy downtown industrial space but people were stopping to watch.

Before Brexit, I might have been more nit-picky about the apparent thinness of some of the art in the new Switch House, which can look dwarfed and second best to the magnificence of the building. But, now, I simply want to endorse, in this rather bleak, xenophobic new Britain that we find ourselves in, the Tate’s commitment to tell stories about modern and contemporary life which range across diverse histories and communities and make connections between artists across time and place. A discussion of how significant some of that art will be in the future, I’ll leave to another day. For now, what’s clear is that we’ve never needed galleries such as the Tate as much as we do now. Institutions that look out towards the world and show art that is inclusive, diverse, challenging and original. To visit Tate Modern and its optimistic new extension is a life affirming experience, one that stands in contradiction to the paranoia and xenophobia that is in danger of engulfing us.

Image Credits:

Switch House, Tate Modern © Iwan Baan

Ricardo Basbaum Capsules (NBP x me-you), 2000 4 steel capsules, fabric, polystyrene foam, vinyl wall texts, booklets and audio 800 x 1810 x 2640 mm overall display dimensions variable Tate. Presented by the Latin American Acquisitions Committee 2004 © Ricardo Basbaum

BMW Tate Live: Alexandra Pirici & Manuel Pelmus, Public Collection

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Down On The Farm
with Martin Creed

Published in Artillery Magazine

Art Criticism

Martin Creed, Work No. 2656, Understanding 2016, Digital Film
TRT 3:11, © Martin Creed, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

Hauser & Wirth have galleries in Zurich, London, New York and now Los Angeles, but in rural Somerset, England, Iwan and Manuela Wirth have created a mini-Eden in which they bring all their interests together: art and architecture, conservation and food, community and family. They’ve already had some notable exhibitions by the likes of Phyllida Barlow and Jenny Holzer. A love affair rather than a purely commercial venture, Durslade Farm in Bruton, Somerset, restored by Argentinean-born architect Luis Laplace, has had over 130,000 visitors from July 2014 to July 2015. Durslade Farm may yet turn out to be to the west of England what the Guggenheim is to Bilbao.

Martin Creed, Work No. 2661, 2016, © Martin Creed. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, Photo: Hugo Glendinning

It’s a bucolic scene among the green fields, hedgerows and lovingly renovated stone barns. Invited guests gather in a marquee to listen to Martin Creed’s band promote his new album, Thoughts Lined Up, as rain lashes down in a cliché of an English summer. The great and the good of the London art world have decamped to the country for the day and are bringing a touch of razzamatazz to rural England for the opening of his new show. With his man-bun and ’70s gaucho moustache, Creed has a lugubrious air: a cross between an encyclopedia salesman and a small-town American preacher. In the video for his new single, “Understanding,” he dresses in various retro getups: a garish Hawaiian beach shirt, a patterned geometric jersey, and a woman’s skirt and jacket, all worn with his afro-frizz arranged in a variety of styles from pigtails and braids to chignons. It’s funny, doleful, silly and quirky, like observing an adult child playing at dressing up and dancing around without realizing he’s being watched.

Installation view, “Martin Creed: What You Find,” Hauser & Wirth Somerset, 2016, © Martin Creed, courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, photo by Jamie Woodley; Opposite: Martin Creed, Work No. 2661, 2016, © Martin Creed, courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, photo by Hugo Glendinning

For Creed there’s no real distinction between his art and his music or, indeed, between life and art. An heir to Duchamp, his work relies on context and the viewer’s desire to engage. He’s concerned with minute interventions rather than large gestures. Either you get them or you don’t. Since 1987 he’s numbered each piece, such as Work No. 79: some Blu-tack kneaded, rolled into a ball and depressed against a wall, or Work No. 88, a sheet of A4 paper crumpled into a ball. In 2001 he registered in the public consciousness with his Turner Prize–winning Work No. 227: The lights going on and off. This consisted of lights being switched on and off at 5-second intervals in an empty room. Whether you thought it poetic or absurd depended largely on your frame of reference. Many questioned whether something so minimalist could be considered art at all.

Work No. 2693, 2016, Fiat camper van, Fiat Dino, Fiat Panda, acrylic on canvas

Only recently back from New York where he was installing a huge rotating red neon sculpture, commissioned specifically for Brooklyn Bridge Park’s Pier 6, Creed was making much of the work for the Somerset exhibition until the 11th hour. Even at the private view there’s still no press release, and many of the works remain unnamed. In the first gallery is a neon sign that simply reads CHEESE. Creed, apparently, has a phobia about the stuff. Elsewhere there are piles of detritus—bits of plastic and cardboard—and the windows of one gallery are covered in drippy paint à la Jackson Pollock. There are sculptures “constructed” from cardboard boxes and “minimalist paintings” made from striped cloth, which hang alongside actual— surprisingly good—geometric paintings. And there are some “naïve” figurative paintings, including a portrait of Antonio Banderas, taken from a second-hand description of a photograph, rather than from the photograph itself. As Creed says: “I feel like I’m then free of comparing my work to the reality.” There’s also an array of sound pieces and a collection of old Fiat cars, plus a green camper van. Outside in the courtyard a tree flaps with plastic bags. There are, also, two rather serious videos: one about borders and the other about refugees and, in a showcase, a solitary wig or pile of hair.

Martin Creed, Work No. 2683, 2016, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, Photo: Hugo Glendinning

For the last year Creed has been making garments from long pieces of cloth. These have lots of buttons and are displayed on tailors’ dummies. He wanted, he says “to make clothes because I wear clothes and clothes are good examples of something which you have to live with, and I don’t think these paintings are. To me paintings and sculptures are basically the same as clothes, you know. You have to live with them and hopefully they can help you a little bit, cover you up.” What you make of these gnomic utterances is largely up to you. It’s easy for the “call-that-art?” brigade to dismiss Creed. He may not be Rembrandt but his work is playful and full of dismissive wit with which he flags up the invisible structures that underpin and shape our lives.

Martin Creed: What You Find
at Hauser & Wirth, Bruton, Somerset, through September 11, 2016

Published in Artillery Magazine

Susan Hiller
Communications From The Chthonic Unconscious

Published in Elephant Magazine

Art Criticism

Despite making the first video installation to be bought by the Tate, SUSAN HILLER—an American long resident in the uk—says she has never quite felt ‘at home’ here. Likewise, her startling artistic investigations of the irrational and uncanny refuse to be domesticated or comfortably explained away. ‘If talking and thinking and working with ideas were enough,’ she tells SUE HUBBARD, ‘then why should we make art?’


‘And I reason at will, in the same way I dream, for reasoning is just another kind of dreaming.’
Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet

I first got to know Susan Hiller around 1999 when I included her work in my exhibition, Chora (co-curated with Simon Morley). Recently, when we met for lunch, after seeing her 
debut show at the Lisson Gallery, she told me how much of an outsider she continues to feel despite a major show at the Freud Museum, a retrospective at the Tate and recently joining this prestigious gallery. ‘For example, I’ve never been invited to join the RA’, she says over our green tea and satay. ‘Some of my students have, but I don’t fit. I’m not part of the establishment.’ With her multimedia practice of over 40 years, she is one of the most original and influential artists of her generation. But, perhaps, there’s some truth in her self-assessment. An American who has lived in London since the ’6os, she’s never felt quite ‘at home’ in her adopted country. ‘I’d never heard a woman called a cow before I came to England,’ she says, a phrase incorporated in her installation 008: Cowgirl from the Freud Museum, London (1992–94).

First trained as an anthropologist (a fact that, if given too much weight, annoys her), Hiller displays the intellectual rigour and curiosity of the academic, counterpointed with the ‘irrational’ explorations of the artist. Her work poses complex questions about identity, feminism, belief and the role of the artist. Never cynical or market-driven, it remains uncompromising, erudite and complex. The sort of art that forces you to think. She describes it as ‘a kind of archaeological investigation uncovering something to make a different kind of sense of it’, focusing ‘on what is unspoken, unacknowledged, unexplained and overlooked’. She explores what, to many, may seem irrational, sidelined and marginal aspects of human experience. She is interested in the traces we leave behind, be they the automatic writing generated in Sisters of Menon, a work made in the ’70s that investigates the permeable boundaries between conscious and unconscious utterance, or the investigations in Lucid Dreams (1982), where the presence or absence of her own face, photographed inside a photo booth, underlines the fragile nature of identity and the transience of existence like a series of grungy, do-it-yourself vanitas paintings. For the J Street Project (2000–05), she searched for every street sign she could find in Germany that included the word Juden (Jew). A chilling reminder that these are places from which whole populations and histories have been erased.

Her sources are eclectic, ranging from arcane texts and psychoanalysis, to popular culture. In her 2002 lecture at the Edinburgh College of Art, she quotes Freud who, in 1921, wrote: ‘It no longer seems possible to brush aside the study of so-called occult facts; of things which seem to vouchsafe the real existence of psychic forces… which reveal mental faculties, in which until now, we did not believe.’ Freud, she writes, claimed ‘that an uncritical belief in psychic powers was an attempt at compensation for what he poignantly called “the lost appeal of life on this earth” and that the problem with believers in the occult is that they want to establish new truths, rather than scientifically “take cognisance of undeniable problems” in the current definitions of reality’.

Her Lisson debut, which occupied both gallery spaces, interwove these tensions between the scientific and the rational with our desires and instinctual drives, in four ongoing themes: transformation, the unconscious, systems of belief, and the role of the artist as collector and curator. The presence of rare and unseen early works from the ’70s and ’80s underlined her interest in alchemy and psychological transformation. The 1970–84 Painting Blocks—made from cutting up and reassembling old paintings into sculptural ‘books’, labelled with the dates and dimensions of the original work—were shown alongside the small, ash-filled vials of Another (1986). Packed with the remnants of burnt paintings, these illustrate the reconfiguring of objects (or identities) in a transmuted form, one that echoes the theories of the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein on reparation and creativity.

Belief and the boundaries between the unconscious and the paranormal are examined in another work on show, Belshazzar’s Feast (1983–84), the first video installation ever to be bought by the Tate. As with much of Hiller’s work, the readings are fluid. This new bonfire version (which surely evokes notions of burning heretics and witches at the stake) is built from a stack of television sets that each frame a flickering orange flame. Accompanied by Hiller singing, whispered reports from people apparently seeing ghostly images on their TV screens, her young son’s reminiscences of the biblical story and Rembrandt’s painting of the same name, it creates a work that evokes primitive uncanny feelings.

In her 2012 Emergency Case: Homage to Joseph Beuys—that quintessential shamanic artist—Hiller extends her investigations into faith, the irrational and reason. Vials of ‘holy’ water, from as far afield as the Ganges and an Irish sacred spring, allude to traditional beliefs, as well as to contemporary ‘alternative’ systems of healing. Clustered in reclaimed wooden cabinets picked up in antique markets, the installation is reminiscent of a medieval apothecary’s shop, as well as Damien Hirst’s medicine cabinets, suggesting that faith and reason are, to a large extent, cultural and historical.

It was in the eighteenth century that Carl Linnaeus devised a system of taxonomy, that branch of science concerned with classification which drew together species into rational groups and gave meaning to the modern world. This desire to define and categorize is inherent in A Longing to Be Modern (2003), an installation made up of 32 ceramic vases from the old East andWest Germany, along with 18 recycled cast bronze letters from gravestones, arranged on a kidney-shaped table in the gallery.

The role of curator and collector has long been part of Hiller’s practice. In the ’70s, a seminal work, Dedicated to the Unknown Artists (1972–76), consisting of a collection of over 300 postcards by unnamed artists, all bearing the words ‘Rough Sea’ and picturing stormy seas around the British coast, used the methodology, labelling and tabulation of a scientific research project. The investigations of this highly conceptual work have, more recently, been revisited in On the Edge (2015), a piece that presents 482 views of 219 locations along the coast of Britain where rough seas meet the land. Not only does this work tap into notions of English landscape and sea-scape painting, with its Romantic penchant for untamed nature and the sublime, but, in the use of ephemeral postcards, evokes that very British love of the untamed and unspoilt; that need to get away from the hurly-burly to become immersed in the authentic, raw and unmitigated. The phrase ‘on the edge’, of course, carries multiple readings—on the edge of sanity, of mainstream society, and of artistic or psychological breakthrough (or down). The relentless stormy tides battering this small island could easily be understood as the chthonic unconscious beating at the doors of reason or anarchy pommelling the gates of polite society.

Over lunch Susan Hiller is cautious about explaining too much about her work. ‘If talking and thinking and working with ideas were enough,’ she insists, ‘then why should we make art?’ She has no overarching authorial narrative and does not provide resolutions but simply offers the viewer a complex palimpsest of ideas. What is unique about her work is that her past anthropological studies help to frame a series of questions that are then translated through the sensibility and language of art.

A prodigious writer herself, Hiller is mindful of the possible interpretations, in our de-centred world, between the discourses of art, anthropology, religion and psychology. Her evocation of the work of Joseph Beuys seems to emphasize a belief that the traditional ways in which artists make and speak about their work are largely exhausted. She does not seek definitions or clarifications but rather reflects the ambiguities of the society in which we live. Like psychoanalysis, these are built on a chain of associations that are often slippery and fluid. ‘Truth’, a principal allegorical character in the discourse of modernism and humanism, has within this postmodern narrative been replaced by notions of relativity and legitimacy. Hiller refuses to pander to established tastes or prejudices but, to some extent, creates the audience she needs to respond to her work. Never nostalgic or self-consciously poetic, her archeological rummaging through the iconography of the past results in a series of investigations into the arbitrary and the marginal that run like fault lines though the contemporary world.

Published in Elephant Magazine

States of Mind
Wellcome Collection, London

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

States of Mind: Tracing the Edges of Consciousness, Wellcome Collection, London, until 16 October 2016

‘. . . the unconscious is the real psychic; its inner nature is just as unknown to us as the reality of the external world, and it is just as imperfectly reported to us through the data of consciousness as is the external world through the indications of our sensory organs.’
Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams

There’s a point in childhood when we all ask: ‘Who am I? What makes me, me and not someone else?’ From the infant to the philosopher the need to understand consciousness has remained, despite the advances of science, an abiding puzzle. What does it mean to be a sentient individual, to have a subjective life? Can our essence best be found in the insights of neuro- science or art, poetry, philosophy or, even, religion? Where does the real ‘us’ reside? In States of Mind: Tracing the Edges of Consciousness the Wellcome Institute has produced another intriguing exhibition that melds different disciplines to examine the discourses around conscious experi- ence. The implication is that one discipline alone cannot provide definitive insight into this universal mystery. As the curator Emily Sargent suggests: ‘Consciousness . . . is as magical as it is everyday. We all know what it is like to be conscious, but it remains a challenge to truly define it’.

The first of four sections, SCIENCE/SOUL, takes as its starting point the emergence of neuroscience. The concept of dualism, the separation of Mind and Body that coloured Enlightenment thinking was first, formally, conceived by René Descartes in the seventeenth century. The division be- tween the inanimate body and the conscious soul in the last moments of

The Soul hovering over the Body reluctantly parting with Life, Luigi Schiavonetti & William Blake, 1808, etching on paper, 18.6 cm x 22.4 cm

The Nightmare, Henry Fuseli, 1781 Oil on canvas, 102cm x 127 cm 79 © Trustees of the British Museum © Trustees of the British Museum

Labour of love: Vladimir Nabokov’s Alphabet in Colour © Wellcome Collection

life is graphically illustrated, here, in a print by Luigi Schiavonetti, after William Blake, of The Soul hovering over the Body reluctantly parting with Life. Placed next to a sixteenth-century Jain textile, which illustrates in its map-like construction that the eternal soul is central to Jainism, and to a 1662 image: View of Posterior of Brain showing pineal gland in situ – Descartes suggested, in his last published work of 1649, The Passions of the Soul: ‘That there is a small gland in the brain in which the soul exer- cises its functions more particularly than in other parts’ – we are presented with a range of possible locations as to the soul’s whereabouts. Alongside these seventeenth-century gems are the papers of Francis Crick who was working, until his death in 2004, on the ‘hard problem’ of how an objective brain can produce the subjective experience of consciousness. Surprisingly, for a modern scientist, his 1994 paper has the unconventional title: The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul.

For many in the nineteenth century the search for the soul was synonymous with spiritualism. The Gelatin Silver Prints of Louise Darget (1847-1923), a one-time professional soldier, show an interest in ‘spiritual’ photography. His strange ectoplasmic black and white photo of 1896, The Eagle, was obtained by placing a photographic plate above the forehead of Mrs Darget while she was asleep. The discovery of x-rays also encouraged attempts to capture unseen phenomena. But the beautifully observed, late nineteenth- century drawings that depict the intricate structures of the brain, executed with consummate skill by Santiago Ramón y Cajal, the founder of modern neuroscience, emphasise a parallel desire for objective fact-finding.

Synaesthesia, an experience where one sensation may trigger another, has been used by many artists. Kandinsky explored perception and sensation in his Über das Geistige in der Kunst, which made connections between looking at art and listening to music, while Vladimir Nabokov experienced letters as colours. This is explored by Jean Holabird in his 2005 series of watercolours, Nabokov’s Alphabet in Colour, where, apparently, ‘A French A evokes polished ebony’.

Somnambulism, mesmerism, and sleep paralysis were an abiding fin de siècle fascination. In 1830 Robert Macnish, a Scottish surgeon, defined sleep as the ‘intermediate state between life and death’ and the second sec- tion of the exhibition, SLEEP/AWAKE, includes archive material from the first trial where ‘insanity sleep’ was used as a successful defence. At the beginning of the twentieth century Freud’s ideas of the unconscious were becoming widespread and the inclusion of footage of the 1920 film The Cabinet of Dr Caligari follows the destiny of a man apparently compelled to commit murder whilst asleep. The experience of sleep paralysis, where sleepers are mentally awake but the body remains immobile, is reflected in art works as diverse as Henry Fuseli’s 1781 painting The Nightmare, with its suffocating incubus, and Carla MacKinnon’s evocative contemporary installation Squeezed by the Shadows, where the viewer is invited to peer into peep holes bored into a large cylinder to observe inchoate black shapes and marks. The alienating effect of being on the outside staring in only emphasises the feeling of observing something barely understood.

Alien abduction narratives have often been associated with sleep and re- lated, by psychologists, to false memory syndrome. Communion: A True Story, published in February 1987 by American ‘ufologist’ and horror au- thor Whitley Strieber, claimed that the author’s experience of ‘lost time’

Squeezed by the Shadows, 2013, Carla MacKinnon 82 © Wellcome Collection

Squeezed by the Shadows, 2013, Carla MacKinnon

and terrifying flashbacks were the result of an encounter with aliens. This, apparently, was revealed under hypnosis. There is something truly eerie about much of this section that includes disturbing nineteenth-century im- ages of mesmerism and Animal Magnetism being practiced on, largely, fe- male patients, who seem to be showing ‘predictable’ signs of ‘disinhibition’ and ‘hysteria’.

To imagine an individualised self without language and memory is well- nigh impossible and the third section includes extracts from Post-Partum Document, a six-year exploration of the mother-child relationship by the artist Mary Kelly first shown at the ICA in London in 1976. At the time the work provoked tabloid outrage because Documentation I dared to show soiled nappies. Each of the six-part series concentrates on a moment in Kelly’s son’s linguistic development and her own sense of loss, moving be- tween the voices of the mother, child, and observer. Informed by feminism and psychoanalysis, the work has had a lasting influence on the develop- ment of conceptual art. Here we see a series of black ‘tablets’ inscribed with both the child’s first attempts to form letters, alongside adult obser- vations. Beside this A. R. Hopwood’s False Memory Archive, previously shown at the Freud Museum, explores where the truth lies in a ‘false’ recol- 83 © Wellcome Collection 84 lection, while questioning how fact and fiction blend to challenge assump- tions about memory.

One of the most disturbing exhibits is by the so-called Binjamin Wilkomir- ski. Wilkomirski was the name adopted by Bruno Dössekker (born Bruno Grosjean in 1941) in order to construct a false identity as a Holocaust survi- vor. His fictional 1995 memoir, published in English as Fragments: Memo- ries of a Wartime Childhood, was debunked by Swiss journalist and writer Daniel Ganzfried in August 1998. The whole episode raised philosophical problems about authenticity, fact, fiction and imagination, posing questions as to who owns memories and historical narratives.

The final section BEING/NOT BEING (a title that surely echoes Sartre’s famous work on self-hood) gets to the existential nub of what it means to be human by considering what happens when consciousness is disrupted fol- lowing injury or trauma. If we are in a persistent vegetative state are we any less the person we were before that happened? FMRI scans of patients who are minimally conscious reveal imaginative activity. This raises ethical de- bates around how we treat those in need of persistent care. If, as seems to be suggested, they are still, in some way, able still to ‘think’ then, according to a Descartian view, they still are very much ‘themselves’. Alongside these, Aya Ben Ron’s film Still Under Treatment (2005) documents the moment that patients fall unconscious under general anaesthetic, the state closest to brain death (yet reversible) that we can experience whilst still alive.

An imaginative and thought-provoking exhibition, States of Mind looks at the twilight zones between sleep and wakefulness, feeling and anaesthesia, awareness and oblivion, to remind us that neither art nor science has a monopoly of insight into what it means to be a conscious human. We may be able to reach out and explore the further reaches of space or investi- gate the microcosmic world of quarks and protons, to make art, poetry, and music, but consciousness still remains a mystery. As the cognitive scien- tist, psychologist, and linguist, Steven Pinker suggests, ‘nothing gives life more purpose than the realization that every moment of consciousness is a precious and fragile gift’.

John Bratby

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

Until 17th April, 2016
Jerwood Gallery, Hastings

The past is, as L. P. Hartley wrote, another country where they do things differently. In 1950s Britain evidence of the Second World War was still everywhere to be seen in the urban bomb sites, the clusters of, supposedly, temporary prefabs and the many gardens that had been turned into allotments. Military bases peppered the countryside and coastline. Young men were still called up for National Service, while Two-Way Family Favourites played over the airways on the Home Service to Our Boys serving in Germany, as the Bisto simmered on the Rayburn. There was a Cold War, poverty, rationing and no contraception pill. Nearly half the population lived in private rented accommodation – often dingy rooms or bedsits, with little privacy, comfort or warmth. Buildings were traditional. New high rise concrete blocks, the result of slum clearances, only began to make an appearance in the early 1960s. Britain was a cold, drab ‘make-do-and-mend’ place of strong tea and boiled cabbage, coal fires and damp washing. It is this world, depicted in John Osborne’s play, Look Back in Anger, which gave rise to the concept of the Angry Young Man, a new breed of youth that felt an impatience with the status quo, an instinctive solidarity with the working class, and a sense of inchoate antagonism towards all things establishment.

The quality of life for the British working classes was, in the 1950s, poor. It is this pre-consumerist, post-war world that is captured by the English painter John Bratby.  Along with playwrights such as Osborne and Sheila Delaney, of Taste of Honey fame, and novelists like Alan Sillitoe (The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner) and John Braine, (Room at the Top), Bratby and other realist artists – including Derrick Greaves, Edward Middleditch and Jack Smith, who became known as the Beaux Arts Quartet – documented the everyday life of ordinary people.

The term ‘kitchen sink’ was originally used as the title of an article by the critic David Sylvester in the December 1954 issue of the journal Encounter in which he wrote that these artists’ work ‘takes us back from the studio to the kitchen’. Their subject was, he claimed: ‘An inventory which includes every kind of food and drink, every utensil and implement, the usual plain furniture and even the babies’ nappies on the line. Everything but the kitchen sink – the kitchen sink too.’ Sylvester emphasised that these kitchens were those ‘in which ordinary people cooked ordinary food and doubtless lived their ordinary lives’. In contrast to the prevailing neo-Romantic fantasies of painters like John Piper, Eric Ravilious, and David Jones, this raw work implied a new social, if not political, commentary.

John Bratby was born on July 19th, 1928 to a lower middle-class family who lived in Wimbledon. After attending Tiffins Grammer School in Kingston and Kingston School of Art, he would end up, in 1951, at the Royal College of Art. Having also been accepted by the Slade, which he saw as too cultured and intellectual, he chose the Royal College, which James Hyman describes in his book, The Battle for Realism, as being “passionate, earthy and crude”. It was there that Bratby became interested in the work of Carel Weight and the introverted gay painter, John Minton. In 1953 he married fellow student Jean Cooke and camped out in the attic of the V&A, where the RCA was then based, to be easily detected in his eerie by the cooking smells that emanated from a Valour heater. There he drew a good deal. A number of these works are on display in The Artist’s Room at the Jerwood Gallery.

In 1954, fresh from the RCA, the legendary dealer, Helen Lessore offered Bratby a show at the Beaux Arts Gallery, a converted mews (then unfashionable) in Bruton Place, where she slept above the shop. Among the other artists she championed were Bacon, Auerbach and Kossof. In the first week of Bratby’s show she sold ten out of his twenty-five paintings. This period was to prove, in retrospect, the high point of his painterly career. As John Berger wrote in 1954: “To enter The Beaux Arts Gallery is to enter Bratby’s home. This is partly because his subjects are his wife, his sister-in-law, his kitchen table, his dogs, his groceries, but far more profoundly because you are compelled to share his most profound emotions… he paints a packet of cornflakes as though it were part of the last supper.” In Jean with Dog, where am apparently disconsolate Jean sits in a cardigan, undies and red wellies patting the dog, the table is littered with domestic detritus: empty milk bottles, packets of Daz, Rice Crispies and Corn Flakes.  “I used the same table every time, and eating equipment from the kitchen of the house”.  Bratby claimed, when they were living at Jean’s parent’s house in Greenwich. “The works were, therefore, absolutely contrived and artificially set up.” His Three Lambrettas and Two Portraits of Jean, painted in his Dartmouth Row studio in 1958 at the height of his fame, presents the new Italian scooters as the epitome of cool and freedom. For the young, especially those from an impoverished working class, a lambretta promised a degree of previously unknown autonomy, mobility and potential sexual freedom. Bratby’s palette of dingy browns, creams and greys is in contrast to the iconic maroon machines sitting amid the clutter and chaos of the studio, while the large canvas suggests a desire to move from a domestic scale to experiment with complex pattern-making that a smaller picture surface would not afford. All Bratby’s paintings of Jean have an authenticity and rawness. Yet despite the thickness of the paint there is something chiselled and sculptural about his Reclining Nude, 1963 that lacks the sensual fleshiness of Stanley Spencer’s paintings of Patricia.  One of the most potent works in the show is Rain in June, 1961, also known as Sunlight in Abandoned Bathroom.  Here Bratby depicts his grandmother’s bathroom: the shabby white tiles, the dirty sink and wooden towel rail, the floor the colour of damp green mould, which conjures a Proustian sense of cold childhood mornings and the dash to the freezing bathroom for a quick lick and promise.

By the 1960s Bratby had become well known. The angry young man had bought a house, a car, a snooker table and appeared on Desert Island Discs. Money always mattered (perhaps having been brought up with very little) as did celebrity. He got into the habit of writing to the glitterati and literati of his day and asking them to pose for him. Many agreed and the results are mostly depressing: the mannered painting of Paul McCartney, the awful portraits of Michael Palin, Malcom Bradbury, the late agony Aunt Clare Rayner and comedian Arthur Askey, which all lack psychological insight and emotional finesse. For despite Bratby’s claims to be concerned with the loss of ‘individualism’ in contemporary society, all are moribund clichés of contemporary painting of the time. The politician Ian Mikado refused his invitation, calling Bratby’s letter “a monumental piece of flatulent Neanderthal nonsense”.  

Whether this falling away of authenticity was due, as his biographer Maurice Yacowar suggests, to the affair with Diane Hills, one of Jean’s pupils from the RCA, there seemed to be a new pretentiousness artificiality to his work. This archness is demonstrated in his self-consciously Fauvist painting, Diane with Sunhat (1974). Like Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst, it seems that Bratby ended up selling his artistic soul for a mess of celebratory pottage. Though in 1963 he was still capable of painting an intense and poignant portrait of his young son, David.

In 1974 he placed an advertisement in Time Out Lonely hearts: Very famous artist, 45, divorce pending, wishes to meet artistic girl under 30 to love. Patti Prime, a Canadian actress, 5 years his junior replied. Their relationship was tempestuous from the start and fuelled by alcohol.  In the final gallery at the Jerwood there’s a collaged collection of photos of a distinctly middle-aged Patti dressed in tacky black PV trousers and shiny red jackets, baring her breasts in a variety of matronly soft-porn poses.

Extremely short sighted Bratby painted close up to the canvas with unmediated colour straight from the tube, which may explain the strong patterning and thick impasto of much of his work.  By the late 80s the hard drinking had taken its toll and his appearance, with his cloud of white hair and beard, was a cross between Alan Ginsberg and Moses. He enjoyed the fruits of the money he’d made, travelling to Venice, buying Patti outrageous clothes, playing the part of the successful artist. But the work did not continue to develop. Like his contemporary John Osborne, who became a right-wing literary shadow of his younger self, Bratby never really grew as an artist. Yet there was a moment, during the1950s, when he produced a clutch of paintings in which we can almost smell and touch the bohemian austerity of that decade; and it is for these that he will be remembered.

Gilleman, Luc (2008). “From Coward and Rattigan to Osborne: Or the Enduring Importance of Look Back in Anger.” Modern Drama: Vol. 51, No. 1: 104-124. 104

Chantal Joffe
Victoria Miro, London

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, Leo Tolstoy famously wrote in Anna Karenina.  But what Tolstoy might, actually, have been implying is that the effects of happiness tend to be bland, the results ubiquitous. It’s those who are not entirely comfortable within the all-encompassing duvet of family life that prove to be interesting. Their quirks and idiosyncrasies lead them to become artists and writers or simply that awkward, interesting child who doesn’t want to join in but rather watch clouds, read a book, draw or make up stories. Tension and a degree of discord between siblings, between mother and daughter, father and son are meat to the creative juices. As the essayist and psychoanalyst, Adam Philips writes: “From a psychoanalytic point of view, one of the individual’s formative projects, from childhood onwards, is to find a cure for….. sexuality and difference, the sources of unbearable conflict… Adolescents,” he goes on to say, “are preoccupied by the relationship between dependence and conformity, between independence and compliance.”

It is these struggles for self-hood and authenticity, these deconstructions of old constructions, the fissures and cracks in the public face of relationships that Chantal Joffe translates with such insight in her picture making. In her studies of writers, of mothers and daughters, her canvases are a way of marking moments in the story of a life. Paint is the language she uses to translate these shifts and observations. Her daughter Esme is shown in that awkward transitional zone between puberty and womanhood, among a cast of cousins and friends who have long provided Joffe with her subjects. In this exhibition we see her transformed from little girl to awkward teenager. Watchful, defensive, full of adolescent antagonism. In Esme in Haggerstone, 2015, her green eyes dart defiant under the defence of a heavy fringe as she sets up emotional and physical boundaries. In New York, with one hand assertively poised on her hip, she stands in a checked mini-skirt, her sidelong squint avoiding her mother/artist’s gaze in a psychic retreat from childhood into sexual being. Her expression is quite clear. Her mother is barred from being part of the journey.

“Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest?” Joffe’s Birthday Self-Portrait, 2015 (surely influenced by the semi-nude self-portrait of the German expressionist artist, Paula Modersohn Becker, painted in 1906 on her sixth wedding anniversary) shows her naked from the waist up, dressed in an open flowered kimono, looking grumpily at the viewer.  Despite the bare breasts this is not a sexual image but one that confronts the artist’s own slow erasure of youth and impending mortality. The daughter blooms as the mother fades.

While a student at the Royal College of Art Joffe was always trying “to inhabit” other artists. Like many young women she was influenced by the American confessional poets Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, who studied under the poet, Robert Lowell, at Boston University. Lowell’s 1959 book Life Studies, which won the 1960 National Book Award, “featured a new emphasis on intense, uninhibited discussion of personal, family, and psychological struggles”. This was an inspiration and catalyst for Sexton and Plath. Both women were perfectionists and had complex troubled relationships with their mothers. Lowell’s writing gave them permission to mine their traumas and narcissism as subjects for verse. At the Royal College Joffe created a series of collages, superimposing her own head on the body of Plath kneeling on a beach in a white two piece swimming costume, and of Anne Sexton sitting in a car in her mother’s fur coat. A more recent (2015) painting of Ted Hughes and Plath, taken from a celebrated photograph, presents them as poetry’s successful power couple, glowing and smiling. Yet there is a stiffness to Sylvia’s awkwardly placed hands that gives a lie to this constructed public version of themselves which, as we know now, was damaged by her suicidal anger and depression and his compulsive infidelities.

Also at Victoria Miro are new works of Anne Sexton and her daughter Linda. Anne Sexton, was a troubled, flamboyantly confessional poet who underwent psychiatric treatment from 1956 until 1964, then died by her own hand 10 years later. She once described herself as “so oversexed that I have to struggle not to masturbate most of the day.” The painting of Sexton and Linda, where the mother holds the shoulders of the gawky bespectacled daughter, takes on disturbing reverberations when one knows the allegations of incest, a theme that repeatedly surfaced in Sexton’s work. She is alleged to have sexually abused Linda, whilst also claiming that she, herself, had been molested by her father, Ralph Harvey, and by her great-aunt.  Another painting of Robert Lowell with his wife, the writer Elizabeth Hardwick, and their daughter, Harriet (Robert, Harriet and Elizabeth 2015) presents a public face. Yet here, too, the tensions are palpable.  After Hardwick’s death in 2007, The New York Times, in a very public portrait of the Lowell marriage and divorce, described it as “restless and emotionally harrowing”.

The photographic snaps of family and children that Joffe uses as the catalysts for her paintings are, in her words, “a distillation of the everyday.” But while, consciously, this might be the case what she produces are not simply casual paintings of family life. Like the seemingly innocuous Freudian slip, the gap between photograph and painting creates fissures through which deeper meanings leak. It’s as if the actual paint, diluted with thinners – the acid greens and flamingo pinks, the violets and aquamarines – applied so apparently carelessly with broad thick strokes, seeps out to reveal some concealed significance. Meaning is not overt but suggested by painterly distortions of the figure and the juxtapositions of tones, as in the bruised purplish flesh echoed in the red jumper in Joffe’s 2015 Self-Portrait.

Highly personal and individual, yet embedded within the sisterhood of other painters from Paula Modersohn Becker to Joan Eardley and Alice Neel, Joffe’s mark-making emphasises not only the psychological mood of her subjects but the materiality of her medium. Unlike her American contemporary, Elizabeth Peyton, whose work Joffe’s superficially resembles, her portraits are without irony or pop culture glitz. In her paintings of writers she reminds us, time and again, that paint is a language, one that she manipulates to create portraits that are often uncomfortable and uncanny. Although she paints quickly, the process is akin to a form of mining where she drills down through the exposed fissures and cracks of her subjects’ subterranean depths to reveal what is not immediately visible in the broad light of day.

Courtesy the Artist and Victoria Miro, London
© Chantal Joffe

Esme in the Beach Hut, 2015
Oil on canvas
45.8 x 36 x 2.5 cm
18 1/8 x 14 1/8 x 1 in
(CJ 1038)

Anne in her Study, 2015
Oil on board
40.8 x 30.5 cm
16 1/8 x 12 1/8 in
(CJ 1063)

Ted and Sylvia, 2015
Oil on canvas
50.4 x 40.8 cm
19 7/8 x 16 1/8 in
(CJ 1068)

Victoria Miro, 14 St. George Street, London W1s 1FE
Until 24th March 2016

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

The Blue Rider

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

The Blue Rider, Wassily Kandinsky, 1903

A small figure in a blue-hooded cloak gallops through a green meadow on a white horse like a character escaping from a Romantic opera. The Blue Rider is one of Kandinsky’s most important early expressionist paintings, a painting that gave its name to a whole art movement. The horse has a red bridle and the rider seems to be cradling something in his arms. Perhaps a child. The blue of his cloak is reflected in the shadows on the hillside.  In the distance it occurs again between the fringe of trees to suggest depth and mystery. In German folklore the forest traditionally stood for the unconscious. As the trees are golden it is, probably, autumn. The white trunks suggest silver birch. It is an enigmatic painting open to a myriad interpretations.

Born in Moscow, the son of a rich tea merchant, Kandinsky spent most of his childhood in Odessa, subsequently studying law at Moscow University. As an artist he was influenced by the writings of the controversial Russian spiritualist Helena Blavatsky (1831-91), co-founder of the Theosophical Society, a quasi-religious sect that claims all creation is a geometrical progression expressed by a series of circles, triangles and squares. Kandinsky was fascinated by colour, saying that his childhood memories of Moscow were of the sun melting “into a single patch of colour: pistachio-green, flame-red house, churches – each colour a song in its own right”. These ‘patches’ recur time and again in his work. Kandinsky painted The Blue Rider before he turned fully to abstraction but it already indicates mood and movement through the use of colour rather than precise details. He wrote that he wanted to: “dissolved objects … so that they might not all be recognised at once and so that emotional overtones might thus be experienced gradually by the spectator”.

Blue, for Kandinsky, as for his fellow painter Franz Marc, was the colour of spirituality, just as it had been for medieval painters to whom it had represented heaven. The denser the blue, the more it awakened a desire for the eternal, according to his 1911 writings On the Spiritual in Art.  “Every work of art is the child of its time”, he wrote, and “pure” artists wanted, above all, to capture “the inner essence of things”. In this painting the rider appears to be escaping the autumnal landscape – the past – carrying the infant into a new and uncertain future on a horse that represents power, freedom and pleasure. As the Austrian critic and writer on Expressionism, Herman Bahr, wrote in 1914: “All that we experience is but the strenuous battle between the soul and the machine for the possession of man. We no longer live, we are lived, we have no freedom left, we may not decide for ourselves, we are finished.” The Blue Rider might, therefore, be read as a metaphor for a different sort of creativity, a symbol of the artist traveling beyond realistic representation towards a cultural rebirth.

Javier Romero

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

Javier Romero is an artist, a pilot and a practicing Buddhist. Perhaps the only one to have manoeuvred the controls of a light aircraft with his knees whilst taking photographs. He makes about 10-12 solo flights a year across the Atlantic, mostly from Spain to Chile, in his small single-engine airplane. Due to its limited speed and range the trip takes 4 days if the weather is good, flying for about 10 hours a day before landing for fuel and sleep. Usually the weather is clear, the skies and sea blue. But then he enters the Intercontinental Convergence Zone, a wall of permanent clouds and thunderstorms close to the Equator known, by sailors, as the doldrums. Of these spectacular cloud formations, which he photographs from the plane’s window, he says: “You’re alone with yourself. You could die at any moment. At night it’s even more intense. In the middle of the ocean it’s like being inside a black hole, without even the blue for company. And then the moon comes up over the sea, and is big, and blindingly shiny, and is the most amazing thing in the universe, and you feel like crying….” Nowadays he’s set up a tripod with a remote shutter cable so that he can take photos without putting the airplane in jeopardy. (He has had his share of scary moments).
Philosophers, poets and artists have sought to evoke the Sublime for centuries. There is Wordsworth’s Prelude, J.M.W.Turner’s fiery skies and John Martin’s cotton-wool clouds bathed in heavenly light. For the Romantics the Sublime was an expression of the spiritual force of the natural world. Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) explores ideas of the ‘terrible beauty’ (to quote the poet Yeats) experienced in the face of Nature’s turbulence. For the Romantics towering mountains, erupting volcanos, violent seas and storms represented this awesome beauty. For believers they demonstrated God’s divinity, whilst for the increasing number of 18th century sceptics, they represented the autonomous power of nature.

Javier Romero started his education as a painter with the Nicolaides method at the Art Students’ League of New York.  After working on oils, he moved to watercolour and acrylic. Now he uses photography as he’d use a brush on canvas to create Romantic, lyrical works.  He believes that contemporary society has lost its way. “Deep inside,” he says, “we know it’s not right to spend our lives in an artificial place pretending to be ‘an architect’, ‘a doctor’, ‘a salesman’…. And things are getting worse, technology helps the body, not the mind”.

The conventional rules of landscape photography dictate that the photographer needs to place an object in the foreground to prevent the viewer from getting lost. But that’s precisely what Javier Romero wants us to do in his luminous cloudscapes, these secular visions of heaven where, if we’re lucky, we might discover something of the mystery of being alive.

Chantal Akerman: Now

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

The Belgian filmmaker and artist Chantal Akerman died suddenly on October 5. It is said to have been suicide. Maybe it was her nationality, the nature of her death or her multi-screen installations with their themes of alienation, interiority, conflict and violence that drew me, in these complex de-centred times, to write about her now. A self-imposed death, whether of an artist or a suicide bomber, is always an enigma and the nature of her demise can’t but help colour our view of her work, which seems to echo the mood of these sombre days with uncanny prescience. 

Born in 1950, an adolescent viewing of Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou (1965) decided her career as a film-maker. After moving to Paris she took part in the seminal events of May 1968, then in New York met the cinematographer Babette Mangolte and hung out in avant-garde circles with the likes of Jonas Mekas and Michael Snow. Mostly widely known as a film-maker, her Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, made in 1975 when she was 24, is said to have influenced film makers from Michael Haneke to Todd Haynes. But it was to the cavernous underground industrial space of The University of Westminster’s Ambika P3 gallery that I went to see, what has turned out to be, her swan-song exhibition. The central work, NOW, was commissioned for this year’s Venice Biennale. Akerman was working with curators on the show until close to her death.

Her work requires patience, like the reading of a complex modernist poem. It unfolds slowly, so there is not an obvious sense of a coherent whole but rather images that fit together to create associations and metaphors. Maniac Summer (2009) is a disquieting piece that explores, among other things, the passing of time. A digital clock counts the seconds of each recording, evoking Hereklitian notions of being unable to step into the same river twice. Though, of course, the irony is that the technical innovation of video allows for a constant revisiting. Shot from the vantage point of her surprisingly bourgeois Parisian apartment, the camera is left unattended so we see her at her desk fiddling on her mobile phone and taking care of daily appointments, pottering around her kitchen amid normal domestic clutter, or isolated alone in dark silhouette. Outside children play in the park and the camera pans along empty streets, their pulled shutters closed like eyelids. Some of the images are manipulated, moving from colour to black and white. Shadows appear smudged on the wall like the afterglow of a nuclear holocaust. There is singing or, perhaps, chanting. Doors bang. This is the minutiae of life. Yet there’s a sense that everything is vulnerable, everything transient. That all we will leave behind are traces.

Manic Shadows (2013), a four channel video projection shot within the confines of a New York apartment, shows Akerman sorting domestic clutter for disposal into plastic bags, while the frenzy of the Obama election is played out in another section of the screen. The artist’s mother, Natalia, a survivor of Auschwitz who died last year, can be seen in the kitchen, whilst elsewhere Ackerman seeks sanctuary in her bedroom.  Her voice-over intones her text, My Mother Laughs. The piece is full of poignant hiatuses and non sequiturs, unresolved longing, guilt, yearning and anxiety. Her mother’s presence, though seemingly marginal, is all encompassing and ubiquitous; yet the overwhelming emotion is one of isolation.

Commissioned by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, D’Est: au bord de la fiction (1995), was initially put on hold but Akerman decided to go ahead anyway and film a trip through Eastern Europe before the fall of Communism, re-editing it when the commission finally went ahead, for 24 monitors, divided into eight blocks of three. It is a strong, evocative piece and perhaps the easiest in the exhibition to read. People in fur hats, heavy coats and boots gather in groups and queue and wait for, who knows what, huddled grim-faced against the cold. It is dark and the ground is covered with frozen slush. No one smiles. The numerous screens only emphasise the separateness of the individuals depicted. Life feels bleak, something to be survived. There are also shots of people in their homes, which now look impoverished and dated and, another, of a cellist receiving applause after a concert. But the whole with its juxtapositions of light and shade, stillness and flux, is a bleak image of existential alienation. Like a musical composition, each abutted image is counterpointed with its neighbour. And, perhaps, it is not too far- fetched, twenty years on from its making, to read these estranged individuals as victims of some sort of displacement, refugees even.

But the central work of the exhibition is the title piece, Now. Entering a black box in the middle of the gallery you cross a threshold of neon lights to be confronted by 5 screens filled with flickering images of rocky desert terrain and scrub. This seems to have been shot from a car window whilst travelling at speed. There is the sound of gunfire, of car breaks and wheels screeching, shouts in what might be Arabic mingle with animal cries The implication is that this is a war zone and this a high speed escape (or possibly attack). As we watch our adrenaline pumps and our hearts pound, though nothing ever happens, this endless frenetic movement creates both a sense of panic and exhilaration. Yet we don’t know the reason for this flight or even where this is taking place. No narrative is offered.  Just raw sensation. Occasionally there are gaps between the harsh sounds broken by bird song.

The cavernous underground arena of Ambika P3, with it harsh industrial Kafkaesque anonymity, is the perfect setting for this work.  The sense of dislocation is pronounced as we wander through the dark concrete space, trying to locate ourselves in a continuingly shifting and unstable world.

On the 30th October, the Regent Street Cinema will posthumously premiere her new, and now last, film No Home Movie, 2015.


Photo Credit: Marthe Lemelle. Courtesy the artist estate and Marian Goodman Gallery

D’est (From the East), 1993
16mm film, 110 min. colour, sound.
Production : Lieurac Production, Paradise Films Brussells, La Radio Television Portugaise
Courtesy the artist estate and Marian Goodman Gallery

Now, 2015
8 channel, HD Video installation, colour, five sound tracks mono and stereo.
Courtesy the artist estate and Marian Goodman Gallery

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Frank Auerbach at
Tate Britain

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

“These fragments I have shored against my ruins”
― T.S. Eliot: The Waste Land and Other Poems

From the young painter who, in July 1948, sold his canvases from the pavement in the LCC ‘Open-Air Exhibition’ on the Embankment Gardens, Frank Auerbach has become one of the most important and challenging painters on the British landscape. Despite his great friendship with the priapic and party loving Freud, Auerbach has, by comparison, lead the life of an aesthete; a monk to his chosen calling. He hardly socialises, preferring the company of those he knows well.  He drinks moderately, wears his clothes till they fall apart and paints 365 days a year.

Though he rarely gives interviews and does not like to talk about his work, he has said of painting: “The whole thing is about struggle”. As Alberto Giacometti contended it is “analogous to the gesture of a man groping his way in the darkness”…”the more one works on a picture, the more impossible it becomes to finish it”.

It is out of this creative darkness, this complexity and unknowability of the world and the self that Auerbach has conjured his series of extraordinary heads, nudes and landscapes. Whilst the past for him may be a foreign country where they do things differently, one that he doesn’t choose to revisit – “I think I [do] this thing which psychiatrists frown on: I am in total denial” – it’s hard to walk around this current exhibition at Tate Britain and not feel that his dramatic early years had a profound influence on his work.

Born in Berlin in 1931, the son of Max Auerbach, a Jewish patent lawyer and Charlotte Nora Auerbach (who studied art) Frank was born into the maelstrom that was to be the Third Reich. In 1939 he, with five other children, was sponsored by the writer Iris Origo and sent to school in England. Though he’s never enquired exactly what happened to his parents (they perished in a concentration camp) Auerbach claims that he was happy among the collection of refugee children and offspring of conscientious objectors at Bunce Court, which had been started by a German Jewish-Quaker. There has, he says, never been a point when he wished that he had parents.

Yet it’s difficult not to see the monochromatic, thickly layered paintings of the 50s as being touched by the loss and the legacy of the Holocaust. In the charcoal Head of EOW of 59-60, the eyes are hollow, the face heavy with sadness, and there’s a strange rectangular patch on the forehead that appears to cover some hurt or wound. In the 1955 head, also of EOW, the paint is so heavy and dark that it seems to have been mixed from earth and ash. In EOW nude on bed 1959 the prone form doesn’t read like a living, sentient body but something mummified or in a state of rigour mortis that recalls Sickert’s dark Camden Town paintings. While the extraordinary, Building Site, Earl’s Court Road, Winter, 1953 is so tar-like that it might have been painted with London smog. Looking at it I couldn’t help wondering if Kiefer had studied early Auerbach.

Giacometti, Beckett, Art Brut, Existentialism – the 50s was a period culturally overshadowed by the legacy of war and by questions about the futility and meaning of existence. “Life has no meaning”, wrote Jean-Paul Sartre, “the moment you lose the illusion of being eternal.” Yet Sartre and Camus also believed that the absurdity of life could be given meaning through a freedom of will and the process of creativity.

Although associated with that lose group The London School, Auerbach’s sensibility is essentially mittle- European. It’s no coincidence that he was taught at Borough Polytechnic Institute by the Jewish painter David Bomberg. Along with Freud and Kitja in London, and Rothko and Barnett Newman in the States, his work is imbued with a Jewish-European melancholy, a rabbinic need to ask questions.  “The object of art”, as Giacometti wrote, “is not to reproduce reality, but to create a reality of the same intensity”.  This could be Auerbach’s credo. He has never been interested in producing pictures – the world, he says has enough of those already. His project is to be visually aware moment by moment, as the light changes and the subject shifts and breathes, to move from picture and illusion and to translate the experience non-verbally through the medium of paint.

By the 60s and 70s there was an explosion of colour – the citric yellows and futurist zig-zags of reds in Primrose Hill, Autumn Morning, 1968.  There is huge energy as if he is wrestling with nature, trying with the umbrella spokes of the bare branches in the foreground of Winter Evening, Primrose Hill 1974-5 to fix and pin down the landscape. The winter light, with its juxtapositions of deep crimsons and greens is atmospheric, dark and moody, abbreviated only by the white blobs of the distant street lamps that pierce the gloom.

Auerbach has said that that the marks on the surface of his paintings are “never something of their own interest”. They are never graphic, not ‘descriptive’ but a process of liquid thinking. His marks and gestures are only of interest “in so far as they suggest something else.” “Painting”, he has said, “never wants to be like music.”

It is perhaps his portraits that present many with the most problems for they are very seldom a likeness of the sitter. They are difficult but profoundly intelligent and require time. Standing in front of Catherine Lampert’s 1997 profile, suddenly, something of this woman I’ve spoken with many times emerges from the apparently random swirls and marks – an essence, a presence.  Auerbach demands that we see, really see, as a process of thinking, as a form of philosophical debate. Beauty is not the point but a reaching towards truth is.  Painting and drawing are his way of exploring and attempting to make sense of the world. All his subjects are simply a jumping off points, the start of a process, of a series of propositions, an existential argument about existence conducted through the language of paint.


Building Site, Earl’s Court Road, Winter 1953

Oil on hardboard
915 x 1220 mm
Private collection
© Frank Auerbach, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art

E.O.W., Nude on Bed

Oil paint on board
775 x 610 mm
Private collection, courtesy of Richard Nagy Ltd., London
© Frank Auerbach, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art

Mornington Crescent 1965

Oil paint on board
1016 x 1270 mm
Private collection, courtesy of Eykyn Maclean, LP
© Frank Auerbach, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art

Head of J.Y.M ll 1984-85

Oil on canvas
660 x 610 mm
Private collection
© Frank Auerbach, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Politics as Art, Art as Politics:
Ai Weiwei and William Kentridge

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

Ai Weiwei: Royal Academy, London until 31th December 2015
William Kentridge: Marian Goodman Gallery until 24th October 2015

The Chinese artist, designer and architect, Ai Weiwei has come to be regarded as a creative figure of global stature, largely because of his personal bravery and strong social conscience in speaking out against the repressive Chinese government. He has been imprisoned for his pains and galvanised a generation of artists. On his return to China in 1993, after twelve years in America, his work began to reflect the dual influences of both his native culture and his exposure to western art. He cites Duchamp as “the most, if not the only, influential figure” in his art practice. As a conceptual artist Ai Weiwei starts with an idea – for example China’s relationship to its history – addressed in this major show at the Royal Academy by Table and Pillar, 2002, and made, as part of his Furniture series. A salvaged pillar from a Qing dynasty (1644-1911) temple has been inserted into a chair to form a totemic work. Having spent a month in China in 2000, I can confirm that Ai Weiwei has every reason to be concerned about the destruction of his cultural heritage which, when I was there, was daily being destroyed to make way for ‘modernisation’. Coloured Vases, 2015, further questions notions of value and authenticity by illustrating that fake antiquities are made with exactly the same techniques as authentic vases. In classic postmodernist style Ai Weiwei’s objects take on the characteristics of a Barthian ‘text’ to be deconstructed by those who are able to ‘read’ and decode them.

In an interview in Studio International in December 1972, Joseph Beuys suggested that: “Most people think they have to comprehend art in intellectual terms – in many people the organs of sensory and emotional experiences have atrophied”. Beuys, himself, was the master mystic and shaman. What made, and continues to make his work resonate was his ability to transform inert material into poetic metaphor, to set in train an alchemical process whereby physical substances metamorphosed into archetypal myths. It is this ‘translation’ that elevates his work from political didacticism into art.

And this is the problem with Ai Weiwei. It is impossible to separate his biography from the way we view his art. But this is politics as art, rather than art as politics. It is, in the most sophisticated sense, illustration rather than a process of transformation and metamorphosis. A pair of jade handcuffs and sculptures such as Surveillance Camera and Video Camera, 2010 are the result of an idea rather than having grown out of a process of discovery. The result, for the viewer, is an intellectual rather than a felt experience.

The most emotionally powerful piece is Straight 2008-12 related to the Sichuan earthquake of 2008. It is fabricated from ninety tonnes of bent and twisted rebar (the steel rods used in the construction of reinforced concrete buildings) that collapsed because of cost-cutting corruption and resulted in the deaths of thousands, especially school children. These iron bars were painstakingly collected by the artist and straightened by hand in his studio by assistants. The futile process speaks of the low value of labour in China and the pointless, often mindless, bureaucracy of the regime, as well as being a testament to those who died. But the Carl Andre influenced arrangement of rods on the floor needs the accompanying explanatory video and wall texts to evoke a full emotional response. Take these away and I wonder if we would read the work with the same pathos.

A series of dioramas, complete with spy holes, recreates Ai Weiwei’s prison conditions – the ever-present guards in a room inexplicably completely covered in plastic. Seeing these chilling scenarios it is impossible not to admire Ai Weiwei’s integrity as a man but as an artist there is something strangely dispassionate and derivative about the work.

Across town, at the Marian Goodman Gallery is another political artist, William Kentridge. Born in Johannesburg in 1955. Kentridge studied politics and African studies before doing fine arts at the Johannesburg Art Foundation, then studying mime at the famous Ecole Jacques Lecoq in Paris. Originally he hoped to become an actor; however was, he says, so bad that he was reduced to becoming an artist. Since then he has worked in theatre and in television as an art director and in 1999 won the Carnegie International Medal. Best known for his animated films, his evocative, powerful and disturbing works are constructed by a process of filming and drawing. A few years ago I was lucky enough to interview him. A fast talker, he has a formidable intellect. Born into a cultured Jewish family, his father was a well-known anti-apartheid lawyer.

The downstairs gallery at Marian Goodman is devoted to a new series of paintings where Tang dynasty poetry and adapted Cultural Revolution slogans such as ‘Long, Long, Long Live The Mother(Land)’, ‘Eat Bitterness’ and ‘Sharpen Your Philosophy’ are interwoven with vast ink images of flowers painted on found texts. Links are made between the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the events of May 1968 and the Paris Commune of 1871. A large diptych pairs the silhouette of a single iris with a transcribed page of propaganda from the Paris Commune, eliding the French Revolution with China’s Cultural Revolution. Here Kentridge explores the misuse and exploitation of language, while making a reference to Manet’s late paintings and asking why the man who painted such a fervent political work as The Execution of Emperor Maximilian (1868-69) should have devoted his last years to flower paintings.

The core of the show, More Sweetly Play the Dance, is a stunning eight-screen danse macabre that encircles the upper gallery. The African figures, seen in silhouette, move in a continuous procession across the screen against a bleak charcoal landscape. Priests swirl in voluminous robes, others carry wands of lilies. Women in 19th century skirts pull heavy wagons, melding the image of Brecht’s Mother Courage with that of a crusaders’ pageant. Some of the participants hold up drawings of heads mounted on sticks: a female worker, a miner, while men in dinner jackets gesticulate wildly. A black ballet dancer spins around on points holding a Kalashnikov. There are walking secateurs and machines made of crutches, along with a phalanx of invalids hooked up to saline drips that barley seem to be keeping them alive. They might be refugees or AIDS victims. It is impossible to know for sure. Meaning is slippery but what seems certain is that they are Everyman/woman who has ever suffered deprivation or loss. There is also a group of dancing skeletons and a brass band dressed in Ruritanian- style military uniforms playing a wailing, defiant anthem This is a post-apocalyptic vision – part pagan, part Christian – a cortege of dispossessed pilgrims on the march and on the move, to whom something cataclysmic has happened and who are attempting to create forgetfulness and meaning through this hypnotic ritual.

Downstairs the three-screen film installation Notes Towards a Model Opera grew from research for a recent exhibition in Beijing and conflates, dance, martial arts, absurdist theatre with Madame Mao’s Model Revolutionary Operas. Plundering ideas from Dada, Goya and the Chinese infiltration of Africa things emerge and transform to reveal Kentridge’s odyssey through a landscape scared by apartheid and post-colonialism. His is an art of ambiguity. Existential, rooted in surrealism and the Theatre of the Absurd meaning is not fixed but discovered through juxtapositions in the process of making. The strength lies in its searing visual potency and the metaphors he creates to reveal both the despair and triumph of the human condition.


Ai Weiwei, Table and Pillar, 2002
Wooden pillar and table from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), 460 x 90 x 90 cm
London, Tate. Purchased with funds provided by the Asia Pacific Acquisitions Committee, 2008
Image courtesy Ai Weiwei
© Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei, Straight, 2008-12
Steel reinforcing bars, 600 x 1200 cm
Lisson Gallery, London
Image courtesy Ai Weiwei
© Ai Weiwei

Copyright: William Kentridge
Courtesy: The artist and Marian Goodman Gallery
William Kentridge
More Sweetly Play the Dance, 2015
8-channel video installation with four megaphones, sound
HD video 1080p / ratio 16:9 duration 15 minutes (includes end credits)

William Kentridge
Notes Towards a Model Opera, 2014 -2015
3-channel video installation, sound
HD video 1080p / ratio 16:9
Duration 11 minutes 14 seconds (includes credits)

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Barbara Hepworth
Tate Britain, London

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

In praise of the Divine

In the early 20th century alternative philosophies were beginning to permeate western culture. Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophy, the teachings of the Armenian mystic, G. I. Gurdjieff and the American Christian Science, spread through the works of Mary Baker Eddy: Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, were gathering momentum. As was an interest in psychoanalysis. The hold of the Anglican Church, in which the sculptor Barbara Hepworth had been raised, was losing its grip. Many artists and intellectuals were looking for alternative means of spiritual and artistic expression.

At various times throughout her life Hepworth identified herself as a Christian Scientist. (Broadly, in Christian Science, spirit is understood to be the meaning and reality of being, where all issues contrary to the goodness of Spirit – God – are considered to originate in the flesh -‘matter’ – understood as materialism where humanity is separated from God).

Hepworth’s beliefs were fluid rather than constrained by doctrine and changed throughout her life. Yet what is clear from her archives is that spiritual concerns were central both to her life and work. With its emphasis on an infinite and harmonious intelligence, Christian Science provided her with an alternative lens through which to reassess orthodox Western beliefs. When, after her failed marriage to the sculptor John Skeaping she met the artist Ben Nicholson who was to become her second husband, the fact that he was a Christian Scientist gave their romantic and artistic relationship a charged metaphysical perspective. In an interview in 1965 with the Christian Science Monitor, Hepworth asserted that: “A sculpture should be an act of praise, an enduring expression of the divine spirit’.

Hepworth and Nicholson moved to St. Ives in Cornwall at the outbreak of the Second World War. It was to become a refuge for many international artists and provided Hepworth with light, air and an unmediated landscape. She was to live there until her death in a fire at her home in May 1975. The 1952 film, Figures in a Landscape, shown at the Tate exhibition, with its rather florid commentary by the poet Jacquetta Hawkes spoken by Cecil Day-Lewis, may not have been completely to Hepworth’s taste, but it emphasises, as the camera pans over megalithic stones and the sea pounds the Cornish coast to leave holes and abrasions in the rock, the atavistic influences of the landscape on her work, and the importance of harmony with nature.

For many Hepworth has come to be associated primarily with St. Ives but this Tate exhibition aims to broaden that reading, following the trajectory from her smaller carved figurative works of the Twenties to the larger cast abstract bronzes of the Fifties and Sixties – when she represented Britain in the Venice Biennale. It also includes a number of bronzes made for Gerrit Rietveld’s pavilion at the the Kroller-Muller Museum in the Netherlands in 1965.

An Act of Praise, the essay in the exhibition catalogue by Lucy Kent, which explains Hepworth’s work in terms of her beliefs, is a revelation. That the Tate did not choose to build the show around these ideas rather than somewhat academically illustrating how Hepworth’s work was presented in the media, is a lost opportunity. Christianity is now so unfashionable in this country that it’s almost impossible to imagine a contemporary artist admitting to such influences or working in this way. What becomes apparent is that form for Hepworth was not simply a theoretical concern but a search for spiritual harmony, for the transcendental within the nature of things.

Direct carving rather than modelling in clay was always her preferred method, one that was supported in the writings of her contemporary, the art critic Adrian Stokes, who under the influence the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein was concerned with the relationship between the internal and the external. Stokes, who was also to make Cornwall his home, wrote: ‘‘Whatever its plastic value, a figure carved in stone is fine carving when one feels that not the figure, but the stone through the medium of the figure, has come to life’. He added: ‘The communion with a material, the mode of eliciting the plastic shape, are the essence of carving.’

Emphasising the relationship to carving the Tate exhibition opens with a number of works by Hepworth’s contemporaries. These include lesser known female sculptors, such as Elsie Marion Henderson, as well as Henry Moore, and her first husband, John Skeaping, who claimed to have taught her how to carve. Hepworth’s early carvings sit poised between figuration and abstraction. In her white marble Mother and Child, 1933 the figures can hardly be differentiated one from the other. Two crude heads emerge from the same lump of stone full of tender intimacy like those of Siamese twins.

In 1932 she produced her first ‘pierced’ sculpture. It is no coincidence that this was at the height of her commitment to a religion that denied the reality of material existence. To pierce the composition allowed her to sculpt not only with matter but with space, to elide inside and outside, the formal with the spiritual. Air and light were integral to her compositions and the aperture lead to a ‘place’ beyond the physical confines of the material. In 1933 she and Nicholson spent time in Paris with other abstract artists who were also showing an interest in transcendental matters. Brancusi and Braque were exploring Zen Buddhism, Mondrian and Arp Theosophy, while Naum Gabo was engrossed with Einstein’s investigations that ‘destroyed the borderlines between Matter and Energy, between Space and Time’.

In her Two Forms 1935 carved in white marble, Hepworth reveals her absorption in the relationship between space, texture and weight. Yet despite the evident formal concerns of these ovoid forms – how they sit next to each other, how they cast shadows – the smoothly polished surface is as inviting as skin. Her sculptures describe, in abstract terms, deep human emotions, feelings of connectivity to other people, to the divine and to the landscape in which she chose to work and live. In 1937 she claimed that: ‘Vision is not sight- it is the perception of the mind. It is the discernment of the reality of life, a piercing of the superficial surfaces of material existence that gives a work of art its… significant power’.

It too easy to dismiss Hepworth’s work as dated, the sort of sculpture with its holes and strings that was satirised in Punch magazine in the 50s and 60s as ‘modern art’. But re-visited with a fresh eye and understood within the context of her religious beliefs, we come to understand the ‘affirmative’ power that fostered spiritual and social harmony within her art, Hepworth bridges a gap between the personal and universal, the transcendental and the chthonic to deal with the ineffable in a way that few artists would consider doing today.


Barbara Hepworth with the plaster of Single Form 1961-4 at the Morris Singer foundry, London, May 1963
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
Photograph by Morgan-Wells
© Bowness

Barbara Hepworth
Curved Form (Delphi) 1955
Guarea wood, part painted, with strings
1067 x 787 x 813 mm
Ulster Museum, Belfast

Barbara Hepworth
Large and Small Form 1934
White alabaster
250 x 450 x 240 mm
The Pier Arts Centre Collection, Orkney

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Rachel Howard:
A Dedicated Unfollower of Fashion

Published in Elephant Magazine

Art Criticism

A nineties graduate of Goldsmiths, unlike many of her contemporaries Rachel Howard has tended to eschew the limelight. Not that that has hampered her development or the steady growth of her reputation. ‘I feel happiest in a state of failure,’ she tells Sue Hubbard. ‘I need fire in my belly to get up in the morning.’

It’s a freezing day and Rachel Howard is up from Gloucestershire, where she lives when she isn’t working in London. We meet at the Society Club, hidden down a back street in the heart of Soho. A café, cocktail bar, bookstore and art gallery where poetry collections line the walls, it feels a bit like your auntie’s rather dated front room. A throwback to 1950s bohemianism. The choice is no surprise, for Rachel Howard is an avid reader and claims that poetry gives her the same inexplicable buzz as a good painting.

She is an unusual person: a successful, sociable artist with four children (though, as she says, this would probably not be newsworthy if she were a male artist) and a close friend of Damien Hirst, for whom she once worked as an assistant. She, though, eschews the limelight and dislikes talking about herself. We have known each other for a number of years and recently did a show together, Over the Rainbow at 11 Spitalfields, which included my poems based on her powerful suicide paintings.

So we agree, as we chat over our coffee, that it feels rather odd to be doing a formal interview. I ask about her childhood and she tells me that she grew up on a farm in the north of England next to a now-redundant coalmine. ‘It’s been grassed over like Teletubbyland,’ she says, ‘as if it was never there. A whole culture wiped out by Thatcher.’ I wonder what it was like growing up in the country. ‘It gave me a taste for freedom and allowed me time to be bored, to be alone and understand what sets us apart from animals and makes us human.’ There she witnessed ‘birth, life and death. Blood, shit and guts.’ Sitting on the back of her father’s combine harvester, she could, she says, just be, just exist. ‘Nature makes you live in the moment. It just ticks away, doing its own thing.’

So how did she become an artist? ‘Well, it’s not that I woke up one morning and decided to be one. It was always there.’ Her aunt was a fabric designer and her uncle, the painter Jonathan Trowell, taught her to paint in oils. When she was 11 he introduced her to t.s. Eliot. Being a painter at Goldsmiths during the high-water mark of conceptual art must, I suggest, have felt as if she was swimming against the tide.

‘I loved that, or, more to the point, sticking with what I wanted and not changing to suit fashion. I feel happiest in a state of failure, having something to fight about. I need fire in my belly to get up in the morning. It seems ludicrous to have been a painter there at that time, but it was an incredible training ground because of the rigorous critical dialogue. I’ve never been anything other than a painter, so wasn’t in a quandary as to what medium to use. Though 24 years on, I’m now flirting with sculpture.’

Unusually she is both an abstract and a figurative painter. Is there, I ask, any difference between the two approaches? ‘No,’ she says. ‘No difference. It’s all painting. One informs the other. I paint what I want, when I want. I’m absorbed by the world around me, the human and the natural, the political and the personal, the internal and external. How we clash and harmonize. When I painted the suicide paintings it was because I had to. When I paint about human cruelty it’s about getting things off my chest. My two recent series, Repetition Is Truth and Paintings of Violence—Why I Am Not a Mere Christian, are about the political and the human, as well as the nature of painting.’

In the past she has predominantly used household gloss, but she is now returning to oils. Why’s that? ‘I think I used household gloss because I knew about oil from an early age—what I could do with it—and wanted to flout convention. Household gloss is wonderful but limited and unforgiving. I wanted to make it do what it wasn’t supposed to do. To layer it, using the varnish and the pigment separately, as I did for over a decade. But I knew I’d always go back to oils. Oil is a beautiful medium. That’s why it hasn’t been usurped. It gives the artist more time to work on a painting, to build up layers or remove paint. It’s altogether a slower process, with a less aggressive surface. Moving on from household gloss was like leaving a lover. But I was ready for change and had gone as far as I felt I could with it.’

One of the features of her work, I suggest, is its physicality—from the suicide paintings to her abstracts in oozing red paint. ‘Thinking back,’ she says, ‘this visceral quality was probably embedded in me at Goldsmiths. I’m not at all interested in being shocking but I’m not afraid of saying what I want. Not having moved in very painterly circles, I don’t have any particular constraints. I’m free from any notion of how a painter should behave.’

So who has influenced her? ‘The American Abstract Expressionists have always given me a frisson. American painting of that period is bold and brave. I love the simplicity and power of Franz Kline, for example. I’m really influenced by everyone and no one. I love painters such as Soutine, Auerbach, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Whistler and Walter Sickert. And I’m drawn to the We Are Not the Last drawings of Zoran Music.’

Recently she’s been asked to curate an exhibition at the Jerwood Gallery in Hastings. At Sea will open in July and consist of a number of new works made especially for the show, juxtaposed with those chosen from the permanent collection. ‘I feel really honoured to be hanging out with the likes of Keith Vaughan, John Hoyland, Walter Sickert and Prunella Clough, whose Back Drop 1933 bears a strong resemblance to the patterning in my own title painting for the show. Though I’d never seen hers before I made mine, so imagine how excited I was when I found it.’

Colour has been removed from her work, here, in order to return to the line; pushed to the background and edges so that it peeps through but doesn’t draw attention to itself. Removing colour, she suggests, is like the purity of returning to the word. It takes her back to the essence of painting. There’s something fragile, almost dreamlike, about these paintings that mirror the metaphorical, as well as literal, meanings of the show’s title. Faded memories seem to linger in Rutting Shed and Lean-to, where the ghostly presence of the buildings evokes the pitch-black net drying huts that stand on the Hastings foreshore, adjacent to the gallery. When she was growing up on the farm, the sea was only two fields away. The constant horizon line became very important, and it’s this feeling that there’s a constant truth that line never changes, which informs the exhibition at the Jerwood.

This is the first time that she has curated a show in a major public space, and I wonder what it is that she’s hoping to achieve. ‘A sense of balance. Not unlike painting a painting or creating an installation where the eye keeps moving but finds intervals of rest. This is a show by a group of painters—some alive, some dead—who share a love for painting.’

She is not afraid to experiment with new techniques. A recent visit to her studio revealed draped curtains of lace, which she’s been using as ‘stencils’ to create complex textures on the surface of the canvas. I ask if she thinks these are softer, easier than the suicide paintings. ‘In theory they are not dissimilar. They started as a homage to the invisible. Like the suicide works, they are a celebration of the unseen. A way of bringing the background into visibility. They are atmospheric. Less an exercise in what a painting can be but more an exploration or metaphor of uncertainty and instability. It’s this pursuit that’s so exciting. Not knowing what will come next: if what I’m doing will be lost or brought back from the brink. It is a very solitary endeavour. Wherever I’m working, London or Gloucestershire, I’m always alone with the thing in front of me.’

She has a busy year ahead. There is a group show in Vienna and she is working with the Bohen Foundation at a major US institution on an exhibition that will concentrate on her abstract alizarin oils on canvas: Paintings of Violence—Why I Am Not a Mere Christian. The name of the series is constructed from the title of a tract by the philosopher Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not a Christian, merged with that of C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. Howard attended a Quaker school in York, and in these paintings she explores issues of ‘controlled violence’, such as 9/11. For her, ‘intelligent violence is the antithesis of Bacchanalian violence. There are ten paintings that echo the Ten Commandments.’

As she gets older she finds she looks inwards more. ‘You can paint in two ways,’ she says, ‘looking in or looking out.’ Like the Roman god Janus, she looks in both directions, to the outer world and inwards into our often hidden psychological depths. The range and variety of her work—her haunting, ectoplasmic portraits taken from photographs of family and friends that were shown in 2008 at Museum Van Loon, Amsterdam, the hard-hitting suicide paintings and the visceral abstracts—give her the widest vocabulary possible to explore not only a wide range of emotions but also what it means to be a painter in the modern world.

Published in Elephant Magazine

Agnes Martin
Tate Britain, London

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

“Beauty is the mystery of life, it is not just in the eye. It is in the mind. It is our positive response to life.” —Agnes Martin

Over the last few years Tate Modern has paid homage to a number of important women artists including, amongst others, Eva Hesse, Frida Kahlo, Louise Bourgeois, Yayoi Kusama, Marlene Dumas and Sonia Delaunay. That the psychodrama of Frida Kahlo and Louise Bourgeois, the theatre of Kusama and the eroticism of Marlene Dumas should have had wide public appeal is not surprising. All provide the means for the viewer to identify with the artist, to ‘feel her pain’ and be drawn into her emotional maelstrom and visual world. But the current exhibition of work by Agnes Martin is an altogether more difficult affair. It makes demands on the spectator who, if willing to engage, will be rewarded by moments of Zen-like stillness and clarity.

To sit among Martin’s white paintings, The Islands I-XII, 1979, is akin to being alone with Rothko’s Seagram paintings. Though while Rothko is chthonic, the colours womb-like and elemental as he wrestles with the dark night of the soul, the subtle tonalities of Martin’s pale paintings are, in contrast, Apollonian. She is Ariel to Rothko’s Caliban. Full of light and air, her paintings quieten the busy mind, provide space, tranquillity and silence. Yet each of these silences is subtly varied, broken by differing accents and rhythms. The tonal shifts, the small variations and delineations of the sections of the canvas demand attention and mindfulness. These works offer not so much an experience of the sublime – that form of masculine awe and ecstasy – as a dilution into nothingness, an arrival at T. S. Eliot’s “still point in a turning world.” Here we find stasis, where everything, as in meditation, has been stripped away, so that we are left with nothing more than the rhythm of the world, with what simply IS.

It took a long time for Agnes Martin to develop her singular vocabulary. Deceptive in its simplicity, with its language of grids and stripes, she acknowledged that she borrowed much from the lexicon of her near contemporaries Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. This Tate show examines the two distinct periods that define her career. The first shows her rarely exhibited early work, begun during her brief stint as a student at Columbia University, New York, along with the biomorphic forms developed during her time in New Mexico, and the delicate geometric abstractions made in New York in the 1960s. With their duns and fawns, their colours of rock and stone, things are reduced to their elemental forms. Squares and circles become signs to which the viewer needs to bring sensibility in order to read and understand them. Found objects adhered to a piece of scrap board make incidentals meaningful as they are placed within a system that creates order from what is random. Elsewhere her insistent, stich-like marks, her dots and dashes, might suggest Morse code or Braille, or even an ancient language that could be decoded.

Born in Saskatchewan, Canada in 1912 to Scottish Presbyterian parents, Agnes Martin spent her childhood on a farm before moving to Vancouver in 1931. Calvinism ensured that even years after she had left it behind, her key themes continued to be humility, obedience and praise. As a child she had been introduced to Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. She was also an admirer of William Blake and, like Blake, was influenced by the geometry of Plato and Pythagoras, who believed that the ideal is more actual than the real. It was only when she was 30, after training as a teacher, that she decided to become an artist and enrolled on a course at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque (made famous in the paintings of the American Richard Diebenkorn). It was then that she began to explore a burgeoning interest in East Asian philosophy. For unlike the autobiographical solipsism of many other female artists such as Frida Kahlo, Martin insisted that her art was not about herself. “The value of art is”, she explained, “in the observer”. For her the work of art was not an object or an event but a state of mind. Like Walt Whitman she wanted a “sense of oneness with the universe”. The goal of art, she claimed, was happiness.

Her happiness, though, was, in many ways hard won. She did not like to talk about herself, her homosexuality or her encounters with mental illness. In the early 1960s she was found wandering the streets of New York, catatonic and was hospitalised and diagnosed with schizophrenia. After a period when she ceased to paint at all, she began again in the 70s, during her self-imposed exile in New Mexico. She was to find an organising principal in that modernist form, the grid.  Used by friends such as Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt, by way of Mondrian, the grid represented what was non-hierarchical and egalitarian, though for Martin it primarily stood for innocence.

The paintings from 1963, including Flower in the Wind, and A Grey Stone, are all more or less six feet square, their colour fields veiled across a grid drawn onto the canvas. The tiny repetitive marks of a painting such as Falling Blue, evoke weaving. For Martin’s delicate, obsessive mark making is as labour intensive as the stitching of any carpet maker. Repetition becomes the route to sublimity, as if through re-enactment, she might arrive at some, as yet, unidentified place and know it for the first time. Martin travelled extensively, taking cruise ships through the Panama Canal, travelling from Vancouver to Alaska and Hamburg to Norway, Sweden and Iceland, as well as to Greece and Turkey. Although she insisted her paintings were not about landscape, she constantly sought new experiences in nature. Her work, though not descriptive, is imbued with her felt experience.  Her exquisite paintings Untitled #8 1974, and Untitled, 1977, along with a number of the untitled works from the 1990s, though formally dependant on grids and squares, evoke with their saturated blues and the pinks that ineffable moment when dawn breaks and the sky turns to pale-misted morning. These soft tinged paintings, with their sense of renewal and awakening are the painterly equivalent to the yoga pose Salute to the Sun in their embrace of life’s simple beauty.

In this time of razzmatazz galleries and blue chip art it is refreshing to return to the work of an artist who, literally, took herself off into the desert to find out what was important to her. In so doing she became a modern-day Julian of Norwich, a woman concerned with spiritual growth rather than fame or fortune. Her paintings could be read as spiritual exercises in their hard won simplicity and restricted discipline.  “It is from our awareness of transcendent reality” she wrote, “and our response to concrete reality that our minds command us on our way….”  Thus she concludes, “The function of art is the stimulation of sensibilities, the renewal of memories of moments of perfection”. This lovely show offers us just that.


Agnes Martin (1912-2004)
Friendship 1963
Museum of Modern Art, New York
© 2015 Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Untitled #3 1974
Des Moines Art Center, Iowa, USA
© 2015 Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Untitled #10 1975
Private collection, Private Collection, New York
© 2015 Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Gratitude 2001
Private collection
Photograph courtesy of Pace Gallery
© 2015 Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Sonia Delaunay
Tate Modern, London

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

You really do wonder, sometimes, just how long some women artists have to be around before anyone takes notice. When asked by a callow journalist how she felt, in her 90s, at having recently become famous, the artist, Louise Bourgeois replied acerbically: “I’ve been ‘ere all along.”  

That this current show at Tate Modern, by the artist, Sonia Delaunay, should be her first retrospective in the UK, despite her 60 year-long career, is surprising. Though not a household name, long before such things were au courant, she created a hallmark style as an avant-garde painter, and an innovative fashion and theatre designer. Anyone born in the 40s or 50s, whether they realise it or not, will be familiar with the influence of her abstract designs on post war fabrics. To be a woman artist during the height of modernism was something of a paradox. Modernism and its playground Paris certainly gave women new freedoms in terms of art education, living arrangements, travel and relationships. But art history has, despite inroads made in the 70s by feminist critics, been a narrative written largely from a male perspective.

Born Sara Élievna Stern in 1885, the youngest of a modest Jewish family from Odessa, Delaunay’s life reads like that of the heroine from a 19th century novel. Sent by her parents to live with her wealthy uncle, Henri Terk, she adopted the name Sofia Terk (though was always known as Sonia). Through her uncle she was introduced to the great museums of St. Petersburg, spent summers in Finland, and became familiar with European culture. At the age of 18 she went off to study art in Germany. Seeking to emancipate herself from her middle-class background she went in search of artistic freedom, reading books on psychology and philosophy, including the book of the moment, Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil. She also developed a passion – one shared with her contemporary the poet Rainer Maria Rilke – for all things Slavic, perhaps as a way to stay in touch with her childhood. And she started to sew.

In 1906 she went to Paris where she discovered, with the help of her first husband the homosexual gallerist Wilhelm Ude, the Fauvism of Matisse, Vlaminck and Marquet. In 1910 she married the artist Robert Delaunay and later had a child. Fluent in several languages she was in her element among poets such as Guillaume Apollinaire and Blaise Cendras, with whom she collaborated. Exiled to Portugal and Spain during the First World War the Dalaunays became friends with everyone who was anyone, from Diaghilev to Tristan Tzara. Ruined by the Russian Revolution of 1917, she proceeded to open Casa Sonia that sold not only decorative household items but fashion. It was a move far ahead of its time.

Such eclecticism may well have worked against her being seen as a serious painter. Yet her wonderful portraits of young Finnish girls show not only the radical influence of the Fauvists, with their dramatic colour that emphasises their primitive quality, but also her roots in German pictorial modernity. Muscular, raw and unflinching there’s more than a passing resemblance to the work of her young German contemporary, Paula Modersohn-Becker. In 1908 Sonia Delaunay painted Nu Jaune, an erotic nude infused with influences as diverse as Manet’s Olympia, Gauguin’s Tahitian figures and the provocative nudes of the German Kirchner. With its angular, almost pre-pubescent limbs painted in a sickly yellow and heavily outlined in a tubercular tinged turquoise, it must, at the time, have seemed quite shocking.

Sonia Delaunay had an instinct for the new. Her experiments with technique and material, would, with her husband’s involvement, lead to the development of the theory of Simultaneism – a utopian fusion of abstract compositions that had its roots in Romanticism and created an equivalence between emotion and colour. “Abstract art,” she claimed, “is only important if it is the endless rhythm where the very ancient and the distant future meet.” She used these abstract forms and shapes in both her paintings and her decorative objects, the elevation of which to the status of art, was seen as radical.

The innovations of the early 20th century are everywhere in her work.  Electric Prisms, 1914, with its fragmented circles of colour, represents the pools of light from the new electric street lighting on Boulevard Saint-Michel. Movement, light, and energy are all there, too, in Le Bul Bullier, 1913, (the dancehall frequented by students, artists and hangers on) with its tango dancers flattened into curved forms swaying beneath the overhead lights. In her Parisian atelier Simultané, Delaunay was also producing avant-garde designs for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes productions, as well as clothes for stars such as Gloria Swanson. Excitingly this Tate show includes her huge murals: Motor, Dashboard and Propeller, created for the 1937 International Exposition in Paris, which have never before been shown in the UK.

This exhibition reveals that what made her truly innovative was that she did not create a false division between high and low art, between painting and decoration. She worked with poets to create stunning visual texts, made fabrics, wallpaper, parasols and tapestries, as well as strange baggy bathing costumes, with the same passion. She designed covers for Vogue and a bookcase for a student bedroom. Art and design permeated her life.  She did not die until 1979 and was working until the end. The previous year she’d collaborated with Patrick Raynaud to design costumes for Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, playing at the Comédie-Française. In a documentary made by Raynaud towards the end of her life she said: “Everything is feeling, everything is real. Colour brings me joy”. It is fitting that, at last, her legacy should have been brought to a wider audience.

Until to Aug 9th, 2015 


Sonia Delaunay
Simultaneous Dresses (The three women) 1925
Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid
© Pracusa 2014083

Sonia Delaunay
Yellow Nude 1908
Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes, Nantes
© Pracusa 2014083

Sonia Delaunay
Electric Prisms 1913
Davis Museum at Wellesley College, Wellesley, MA, Gift of Mr. Theodore Racoosin
© Pracusa 2014083

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Dexter Dalwood:
London Paintings
at Simon Lee Gallery

Published in Artillery Magazine

Art Criticism

“To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it the way it really was,” wrote Walter Benjamin. “It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.” Dexter Dalwood, a previous nominee for the Turner Prize, examines in this new exhibition how history is constructed, interpreted and remembered through the making of paintings and how it might continue to be painted. London provides a topos for this exercise in representation. It has long been a setting and subject matter for the artist but here he gives an idiosyncratic take on the city as specific sites and locations are reconstructed from a collage of personal, as well as cultural memories, and political history.

Dexter Dalwood, Thames below Waterloo Bridge, 2014

Born in Bristol, UK, in 1960, he was a member of the Cortinas, a punk band, before studying at Central St. Martins and the Royal College of Art. Many of his past images have been culled from popular culture, including Kurt Cobain’s greenhouse and Lord Lucan’s hideout. The “London Paintings” signal something of a shift from a rather formal stance to one that is more fluid and interpretive. From the first there are interwoven quotes from art history; from Picasso, Walter Sickert and the Camden Town painters, as well as Patrick Caufield. The Thames below Waterloo (all works mentioned are 2014) not only nods at Monet’s paintings of London but, with the inclusion of the area of bright swimming-pool-blue at the bottom of the canvas, to David Hockney’s California paintings. To walk around Dalwood’s exhibition is a bit like a game of painterly charades or guess the artist. There are hints, references and seductive clues that make demands of the viewer in an unstable and slightly inchoate world. Interpretation is never quite within reach. In Half Moon Street, a bunch of flowers in a vase on a small round table in a predominantly blue room seems to suggest late Picasso, while the seedy Interior at Paddington, with its cheap brocade-red glow from a lamp, might be a brothel as well as a reference to the Camden Town painters and a bow to Patrick Caufield. One of the most beautiful paintings (if that’s a word that Dalwood would accept about work that remains in its fluidity and eclecticism relentlessly postmodern) is Old Thames. The outline of a black barge against the gray river suggests not only Whistler in its unassuming intensity but, in the repetition of the small waves, something of the mark-making of a Japanese woodcut.

Dexter Dalwood, Half Moon Street, 2014 

Typically Dalwood’s works depict imagined or fabricated interiors devoid of the human figure. His canvas of the Old Bailey shows the high court emptied of both the accused and the judiciary. Suggested by the recent Murdoch phone-hacking scandal, its fiery hell-furnace reds and seat like a biblical throne of judgment, seem all the more potent. Another version of the court is depicted at night in black and white. Not only does this appear to make reference to newsprint and something rather filmic and Hitchcockian but suggests, with its flat areas of impenetrable darkness, the hidden shenanigans that go on in high places. There is humor too—as in 1989—Dalwood is not afraid to take on big and controversial subjects. Here the tail-end of a statue of a horse on a stone plinth is set against a pale London sky.

The date is the clue, for it refers to the Poll Tax riots, when miners and anarchists climbed on scaffolding and sculptures during the protests that affected British towns and cities during dissent against the poll tax (a local tax officially known as the “Community Charge”) introduced by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government. There’s a certain wit and irony that the backend of a horse, a conventional 19th-century statue of a General or member of the establishment set on a pedestal high above a London street, depicts the rump of the ruling class in retreat.

Dexter Dalwood, 1989, 2014

There is a persistent loneliness and sense of alienation at the heart of Dalwood’s work in these atmospheric, silent interiors devoid of human presence. They are dreamscapes; romantic, melancholic and enigmatic. Poetic intensity is continually undercut with the work’s postmodern rawness and insouciance of assembly, the flat, often scruffy and casual-looking surfaces and areas of color.

Dalwood is concerned about finding meaning in lived and shared experience, a sort of social realism that creates mythical narratives though the appropriation of different viewpoints and sources of knowledge. Unusually for an artist influenced by and steeped in our transient consumerist society, he has said that “by making connections between all areas of visual culture I find that there is the possibility of presenting a worldview which prioritizes what is important, while at the same time including, or making space for the insignificant.” To return to Walter Benjamin, he “seize(s) hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.” Past and present coalesce in transformative scenarios that not only question the processes of memory and our relationship to the past but continually scrutinize the power of painting to examine these themes.

All images courtesy of the Simon Lee Gallery and the artist.

Published in Artillery Magazine

Hans Haacke Gift Horse
London’s Fourth Plinth Programme

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

It was an early spring morning. The sky deep blue and the wind cruel as journalists and international camera crews gathered for the unveiling of the tenth sculpture commissioned for Trafalgar Square’s empty fourth plinth. A stylish coffee vendor on a vintage bicycle, peddling for all he was worth to provide the necessary power, was producing very slow cups of coffee to the freezing press throng.

The Fourth Plinth is in the northwest corner of Trafalgar Square and was originally intended to hold an equestrian statue of William IV. But in 1840 the money ran out before it was completed. For over 150 years the plinth’s fate was debated. Then in 1998 the Royal Society for the Arts commissioned three sculptures intended for temporary display and the then, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Chris Smith, set up an enquiry to elicit opinions from public art commissioners, critics and members of the public as to its future. The recommendation was for a rolling programme of temporary artworks. In 2003, the ownership of Trafalgar Square was transferred from Westminster City Council to the Mayor of London. This marked the beginning of the Mayor’s Fourth Plinth Commission, which has been occupied over the years by artists such as Anthony Gormley, Marc Quinn, Yinkae Shonibare and Katarina Fritsch. Most have been British, with a smattering of Germans.

This new commission, Gift Horse by the German artist Hans Haacke, was unveiled by London’s current Mayor, the colourful Boris Johnson, and the press scrum seemed every bit as keen to catch Boris’s witty bons mots as his tousled blond hair blew in the wind, as to watch the statue’s unveiling. The sculpture portrays a skeletal, riderless horse – an ironic comment on the William IV equestrian statue originally planned for the site. Tied to the horse’s raised front leg is an electronic ribbon, like a birthday bow, which displays live prices from the London Stock Exchange. Its louring bronze frame is reminiscent of the dinosaurs in South Kensington’s Natural History Museum, though the piece was, in fact, inspired by the engraving, The Anatomy of the Horse 1766, by that master of equine painting, George Stubbs, housed in the nearby National Gallery.

Etched against the blue sky, it is a powerful work; a deconstruction of traditional equine sculptures, as well as an implicit critique of the relationships between power and money, business and art. In 1970, Haacke’s Museum of Modern Art piece, MoMA Poll, which claimed to be the first conceptual art exhibition mounted by a US museum, caused ructions during the re-election campaign of Governor Nelson Rockefeller – a major MoMA donor and former museum president whose brother was chairman at the time – when two plexi-glass ballot boxes were placed in the gallery to allow people ‘to vote’ on his policy towards the Vietnam war. A subsequent work about the business of a notorious New York slumlord was dropped by the Guggenheim museum. Haacke is not afraid of the big political statement.

Born in Cologne in 1936, he has made paintings, taken photographs and written texts. He’s had solo exhibitions at the Paula Cooper Gallery, New York, at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, as well as in Berlin. His work has been included in four Documentas and numerous biennials. In 1993 he shared a Golden Lion Award with Nam June Paik for the best pavilion at the 45th Venice Biennale, while in 2000 he unveiled a permanent installation in the Reichstag, Berlin. Yet when the 78 year old artist, who has lived and worked in Manhattan for the last 50 years, was invited to submit a proposal he assumed it was a joke and that his often contentious work would never be accepted.  However, the plinth project appealed to him and he began to work on an idea for a 13ft-high horse skeleton cast in bronze. He has stated that he believes inequality to be one of the major issues of our time, so was ‘flabbergasted’ when selected for the Trafalgar Square project. Particularly as his work has made no bones about exposing the clandestine interconnections behind money, politics and art.  He has uncovered the Nazi background of prominent collectors and of the German Venice Biennale pavilion, revealed numerous links between art institutions, British Leyland and apartheid South Africa, tobacco and oil companies. As his work habitually draws on its location, Gift Horse’s references to the City of London are hardly surprising.

Waving his arms around, as if to give gravitas and validity to his art criticism, Boris described the skeletal sculpture as a metaphor for the “vital importance of transport in our great urban infrastructure”. Horses, he suggested, had been central to our transport for hundreds of years and the tubular structure mirrored the underground tube network in our great global cultural capital. It was a clever sleight of hand. His witty delivery allowed him to enthuse about the piece without ever acknowledging that it is a critique on contemporary economic and artistic culture. Perhaps as a politician he lost a golden moment; to come clean about the interconnections instead of offering yet more hollow rhetoric. Instead he looked a gift horse in the mouth.

Hans Haacke
Gift Horse
Commissioned for the Mayor of London’s Fourth Plinth Programme
Boris Johnson in Trafalgar Square being interviewed by Channel 4 News
Both images © of Sue Hubbard

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Chantal Joffe
Beside The Seaside

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

Chantal Joffe made her reputation as a painter with work inspired by pornography and fashion, based on images torn from magazines. She is friends with the fashion designer Stella McCartney, has painted Kate Moss and Lara Stone, collaborated with the fashion photographer, Miles Aldridge, painting his wife the model, Kristen McMenamy, in her Islington studio, while Aldridge filmed the process.  She enjoys what clothes do to the body, the excuse they give her to paint zig-zags, polka dots and Matisse-like patterns. Her work, mostly of women, questions how images are constructed and presented, subtly challenging the objectification of the female form, wrenching it back from the traditional ‘male gaze’. Recently she’s moved more towards painting friends and family – her daughter Esme, her niece Moll and her partner, the painter, Dan Coombs. The results are works of disquieting intimacy. It’s no surprise to learn that she has long been a fan of the emotionally jagged photographs of Diana Arbus, whose studies she describes as having: “everything about the portrait of a human that you can ever want.”

Joffe was born in 1969 in St. Albans, a small town in Vermont, in the US. When she was 13 years old her family moved to England and she went to school in London. But it was not until her foundation course at Camberwell School of Art that she began to find herself by ‘discovering Soutine, and all that paint.’ Now she has been invited to show at the Jerwood Gallery in Hastings, the beautiful seafront gallery with a view over the beach full of working boats. Beside the Seaside features a number of new and unseen works made especially for this show and reflects her long-standing links with Hastings where she frequently visits family who live in the town. She often draws on the beach, though photographs commonly provide a starting point. She’s not interested in literal truth but rather in what goes on under the surface, the awkward emotions that are held in check and frequently remain unconscious, only to leak through the publicly presented face. Just outside the main gallery is her 2008 painting of Anne Sexton with Joy. An American confessional poet, writing in the 1950s, Sexton was attractive, ambitious, manic depressive and suicidal. Like Arbus she penetrated shallow and socially conventional facades to reveal a brew of anger and suicidal thoughts. Here she is shown with her daughter and we can see just how imbalanced that relationship is. Joy looks away as her glamorous mother clings to her, voracious and needy.

The costal landscape provides the backdrop to many of Joffe’s portraits. But the horizon line and solid areas of sea, beach and sky trap and imprison rather than allow room to breathe. In Vita by the Sea, they emphasise the isolation of the subject with her defensive gaze, tight mouth and bruised watchful eyes, her androgynous, baggy, green checked shirt. In Brunette with Clouds the short-haired model stares out rebellious and passively aggressive. Is this a boy or a girl, hunched with hands in pockets? Brunette is a term usually applied to the female but a denim shirt open down the front might or might not be covering a flat chest or concealing breasts. While in Brunette by the sea, the subject stands against an unforgiving wall of blue sea, naked from the waist up, arms protectively clasped across their chest.

Defiance is mixed with discomfort in the portrait of Moll where she wears a mustard jacket over a black and white zig-zag skirt. Her hands are simply and roughly painted. Though there seems, no doubt, that they are clenched. She sits staring out from under heavy hooded lids, her blue eyes like lasers. In a painting done some three years before she’s sitting on the sea wall in a black patterned bathing suit, her knees locked self-consciously together. Joffe has caught that moment on the verge of puberty where Moll is neither quite child nor adolescent. Yet, in her face, we can discern the signs of the woman she will be in 30 years. In another small painting a group of young girls, including Joffe’s daughter Esme, stand with their arms around each other’s shoulders. They stare at the ground or off into the distance, keeping their own counsel, innocent and knowing, grouchy and enigmatic.

There’s a touch of Gwen John or Celia Paul in the wistful, slightly melancholy portrait of Megan in Spotted Silk Blouse. Though the application of paint is less ethereal, more assertive and visceral. The black and grey spots of Megan’s short sleeved blouse have been painted over a green ground, which has run down and dripped across the flesh tones of her bare arms revealing vulnerability. I read that Joffe is a great fan of the German painter Paula Modersohn Becker (1876–1907) about whom I recently wrote a novel, Girl in White. Immediately I can see the influence – the raw materiality and harsh brush strokes, the powerful, honest emotions, the distortions of scale and perspective for psychological effect. Joffe has said that ‘I paint to think’ and there’s a strong sense that her portraits are an exploration, not only of what it means to be a contemporary painter, but of the process of making an image of another person. Often executed on a large scale her works have a formidable presence.

Now she is getting older her concerns have shifted. Narratives are never explicit. Though the emphasis on age and generational difference are apparent in Self Portrait with Esme on the Promenade, 2014, where mother and daughter stand stiffly, the child apparently bored, the mother clasping her proprietorially.  In Pinky, painted the same year, a middle-aged woman, face shaded by a blue sun hat, sits on a promenade bench, holding a small dog on a leash. Her shoulders slump as she looks out across the empty strand. Beside her stands a young black girl in a short white dress. We can only see her lower half, which in contrast to the wilting mood of the older woman is sassy, free and sexual. Beyond the slab of pink promenade appears endless and unrelenting. Despite being flesh coloured it seems to yield nothing, reminding us that in the end paint is just that, paint. But there is also tenderness in Joffe’s work, as in Naked Dan, 2010. Here her partner reclines like some sort of pagan Bacchus, all beard and rotund stomach, on a blue bedspread speckled with red roses. It made me think of Freud’s studies of Leigh Bowery. But this is softer, less confrontational, as Dan’s nipples and rosy scrotum echo the flowers on the floral counterpane.

Like the American painter Alice Neel, Chantal Joffe has an unfashionable capacity to reveal vulnerability and humanity. Through her nuanced depictions of body language and fleeting facial expressions, along with her mastery of the possibilities of paint, she creates ‘portraits’ that are perceptive, truthful and always slightly unsettling.

Images: Courtesy of the artist and Victoria Miro © Chantal Joffe
Anne Sexton with Joy, 2008, Oil on board, 244 x 183 cms, 96.14 x 72.1 inches, (CJ 518)
Brunette with Clouds, 2013,Oil on canvas, 182.9 x 121.9 cm,72 1/8 x 48 in, (CJ 827)
Megan in Spotted Silk Blouse, 2014, Oil on Canvas,182.9 x 121.9 cm, 72 1/8 x 48 in, (CJ 937)

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

The Path Less Travelled
Basil Beattie

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

BASIL BEATTIE IS OFTEN referred to as ‘a painter’s painter’, which marks the respect he’s held in by his peers. He is an artist who has kept to his vision without compromise. A show at Hales Gallery – Above and Below: Step Paintings 1990-2013 – followed hot on the heels of a successful exhibition at the Jerwood Gallery in Hastings.

That Beattie became an artist at all is, perhaps, surprising. Born in 1935, he grew up near Hartlepool. His father was a signalman on the railway and there was not much access to art. It was a strongly protestant upbringing. His grandfather was a lay preacher and the young Basil sang in the local church choir. At his secondary modern school, art was taught by the teacher who also oversaw English and gardening, and art books were few and far between. At home Beattie copied images from Picture Post and drew what he saw out of the window.

‘I remember going shopping with my mother in West Hartlepool and across from the bus terminus was the art school. I decided that’s where I wanted to go. There was lots to draw. The shipyards and steel works. There was a steep stairway down to the sea. People used to collect sea coal. I saw a man coming up carrying his bicycle and balancing a sack. I was taken by the struggle and drew him in red and green inks. I used to go to the Odeon on Saturday morning but then started going to art classes. The art school was an oasis. I began to buy the Modern Painters series on Paul Nash, Victor Pasmore and Graham Sutherland. The plan was always to get to London. I wanted to go to the Royal College but wasn’t accepted, so I went to the Royal Academy.’



Beyond the obvious physicality of Beattie’s paintings, there is the question of the complex metaphors he creates. ‘Well, I have been working this way for a long time. In the early 1960s, I saw an article in Life Magazine on Rothko. I realised he was trying to say the unsayable, to calibrate something inchoate. He wasn’t using colour in a decorative way. And I sensed that there was something else going on in these works.’

Beattie’s paintings are full of his signature pictograms or hieroglyphs that create their own semantics, though he’s at pains to point out that he wouldn’t want them to be to read as literal symbols or signs. His architectural shapes – towers, doors, steps and ziggurats – his tunnels and passage ways teeter and go nowhere. Everything is precarious, everything tenuous and on the point of collapse. These almost archetypal images seem to come from deep within the unconscious. ‘It gets harder with age,’ he says, ‘wrestling with what you think you have learnt. You still doubt. You have to circumnavigate what you’ve learnt in order to arrive at things obliquely. I wouldn’t want anyone to think I was particularly interested in architecture per se. I’m always trying to subvert the things I know.’

His images are both assertive and evasive. Full of uncertainty, there is a struggle for identity that seems almost anthropomorphic. A ziggurat begun as a grid turned, as he subtracted elements, into a shape with a broad base and something that might be read as a head. It was a coincidence that he was prepared to accept. Doubt and possible failure run like the bass-note through these works. There’s something atavistic about them. Whilst he is very well versed in contemporary movements – he taught for many years at Goldsmiths – they feel as though they could be understood by ‘primitive’ peoples who would relate to their darkness and references to death. Even the earth on which his steps are based seems unstable. There’s a strong sense of claustrophobia and entrapment; the grids, the shut doors beyond which there seems to be nothing, the tracks that lead into infinite tunnels are nightmarish. It’s hard not to be reminded of Auschwitz with its railway lines leading to that infamous watch tower, and Beattie admits that, as young man, while doing national service in Germany, he visited Belsen and it had a profound effect. Mostly he remembers the silence. That no birds sang. Germany was his first trip abroad. It was there, too, that he encountered Picasso. Running up the museum steps in Cologne he came face to face with Guernica. His work has often been yoked to that of Philip Guston, and the Abstract Expressionists are an obvious influence, but there’s also an edgy existential quality suggestive of Giacometti. It’s there in the nervy movement and the sense of doubt. Although he often works from drawings, a painting is largely ‘found’.

‘You struggle on with it, finding it, losing it. You also have to be prepared to obliterate it. Often you’ll say to yourself, why didn’t I do that before? But you couldn’t. You had to get to that point. Often expunging something is as significant as adding something. But there isn’t a formula. The spaces where the cotton is left bare are just as important as those covered with paint. When the paint is thick it fills the weave of the canvas like a skin. The absence of paint allows the painting to breath.’ Does he paint on the floor? ‘I did when I used thinner acrylics. Now I paint on the wall.’ What tools does he use? ‘Brushes, screwdrivers, squeegees, my hands. But I couldn’t ever tell anyone else how to paint my paintings.’ That, one might suggest, would be like telling someone how to live his life. In his Janus series, where a shape that resembles a car mirror allows the viewer to look both forward into the future and backwards towards the past, the formal structure is paramount. These works are full of illusionistic space, as if life, itself, was an illusion and the only destination and certainty: death. They are among the most existential of his paintings.

He is emphatic that a painting only becomes a vivid experience though the process of being made. He is concerned to try and place physical things, such as a door, within a painting, to describe something that has a recognisable quality but that is not actually the thing itself.

‘What I’m trying to do is parallel certain experiences in life but there is no obvious known way of doing it.’

The result is a form of alchemy. An essential relationship between the viewer, the artist and the heart of the work. That place, he says, feels like another zone. ‘It is essential to remain directionless but alert to what is happening in order to discover what I am feeling.’

For a painter who never directly paints the figure, his work is redolent with human emotion. It is the sense of human absence that makes it so keenly and vividly felt. There is a sense that what he depicts are the traces left behind, clues to human activity. Samuel Beckett’s lines reverberate: ‘Where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.’

For many years, Beattie had a demanding and complex life as a tutor at Goldsmith’s, a single parent bringing up his young daughters, and as an artist. It was, he says, a struggle to find the time he needed in the studio and for a long time he felt like a Sunday painter. Now he is one of the most recognised painters of his generation. Recently there’s a new vibrancy to his work with the introduction of brighter colour and a move away from exclusively earthy tones. ‘Oh, the colours just happened,’ he says. ‘Lots of people don’t like them. They prefer the muted ones. But the colour is never used decoratively. There is a symbolic force behind it.’

He is very keen to deny elements of autobiography in his work, yet looking at his paintings is like inhabiting someone’s mind. They seem to be maps of sorts, of how to find one’s way out of the existential crisis of living. Some of them are terribly sad, like the Steps to Nowhere. The staircase sags as if utterly defeated. It almost seems to be weeping. After having climbed all that way, the view from the top is, apparently, no clearer than from the bottom. They suggest a Sisyphean struggle to ascend and never an arrival at a destination. His endless corridors that lead nowhere conjure Robert Frost’s lines in The Road Not Taken: ‘I took the one less travelled and that made all the difference.’ Yet, for all their bleakness, his paintings seem tentatively to adopt the language of shelter, to be a search for some sort of structure, dwelling or resting place, however inadequate.

In an age when painting struggles to hold its own against other media such as installation and video, Basil Beattie continues to revivify the form – both technically and emotionally – with his personal pictorial dramas. The work touches on those most serious of subjects, the meaning of human existence and mortality. As Jung wrote: ‘Only paradox comes anywhere near to contemplating the fullness of life.’

Basil Beattie’s paintings are abundant with paradox, ambiguity, doubt and uncertainty and it is this that makes them deeply, movingly, human.


Drawn by Light:
The Royal Photographic Society Collection

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

Media Space, Science Museum, London: Until 1 March 2015
National Media Museum, Bradford, UK: 20th March- 21 June 2015
Reiss-Engelhorn-Museen, Mannheim, Germany: 2017

Photography is quite, literally, a miracle. In this technological age we forget how much, forget what the world was like before we could capture the fleeting, the momentary and lock it with one single click of the shutter into eternal aspic.  Before the photograph memories were just that. Memories.  To look at old photographs is to have a direct worm hole into the past. They are not the same as paintings. There, in front of us, is often the actual living plant, view or person as they were, maybe, 150 years ago. That is the way the light fell on a particular day, those are the actual clouds or dirt under the fingernails. It is not so much an interpretation but a preservation. Even a re-incarnation, and it often seems magical.

Founded in 1853, the Royal Photographic Society began making acquisitions following Prince Albert’s suggestion that the society should collect photographs to record the rapid technical progress in photography. Royal approval soon followed. The 1850s were a moment of unprecedented optimism in Britain as we stood on the edge of a new, modern industrial world. There was a belief in the unlimited possibilities of science and technology, symbolised by a new young Queen on the throne. The RPS was modelled on the Victorian ideal of the learned Society. These existed all around the country to discuss literature, philosophy and the natural sciences and bring about self-improvement. The aim was to promote both the art and the science of photography. Today this unique collection contains over 250,000 photographs and is one of the most important in the world. Drawn by Light: The Royal Photographic Society Collection is the first co-curating enterprise between The Royal Photographic Society, the Science Museum and the National Media museum and the Reiss-Engelhorn-Museen. The title provides a delightful pun – for, of course, photography is pure light. The exhibition not only reflects the development of camera technology but the psychological, philosophical and aesthetic trends of particular eras and includes works not only by the greats such as Julia Margaret Cameron, Paul Strand and Don McCullin but also by many less known photographers.

But from the very first things were not always quite what they seem. Many of the canonical images of early war photography turn out to have been staged. After arriving by horse-drawn carriage in the much shelled valley approaching Sebastopol, where the Charge of the Light Brigade took place, Roger Fenton organised a little additional scattering of cannonballs on the road for dramatic effect. Equally Henry Peach Robinson’s 1858, Fading Away, and his 1842 Wounded soldier have the air of being staged. This intervention can also be witnessed in the 1917 First World War scene of railway goodbyes by Francis James Mortimer, which is in fact a collage or Fred Holland Day’s depiction of himself as the crucified Christ. (A theme, incidentally, returned to some years ago in the mock crucifixion of the late performance artist, Sebastian Horsley). While Frances Frith’s self-portrait, in supposedly Turkish costume, underwrites Edward Said’s take on orientalisation of the exotification of the East by western artists. For Firth never actually visited Turkey. But there are other historic images, such as the Count of Montizón’s 1852 giant hippo reclining by its pool in the zoological gardens, or The Onion Field taken in Mersea Island Essex in 1890 that do take us directly into the past.

There are curiosities, too, such as Muybridge’s 1887 Daisy trotting saddled that went some way in revealing the true nature of a horse’s movement and the bizarre 1927 Content of an Ostrich’s Stomach by Frederick William Bond that includes a couple of handkerchiefs – one embroidered, one plain – various, coins, bits of rope and metal nails.

Many of the early photographs veer between the desire to set up mise-en-scenes and creative narrative tableaux as in Henry Peach Robinson’s 1858 scenario of Red Riding Hood and a desire to document subjects never before recorded such as the ghostly faces, captured in salt prints in 1852, of those incarcerated in the Surrey County Asylum.

The exhibition is full of iconic images. Stieglitz’s immigrant Jews arriving in the States as steerage in 1907, their heads covered in the prayer shawls. Arthur Rothstein’s Steinbeckian 1930’s image of the Oklahoma dust storms and the long-haired naked ‘streaker’ at a 1974 UK football match, his privates decorously covered by a Bobby’s helmet as he’s escorted off the pitch in front of the amused crowd. The photographer Terry O’Neill claims that when he picked up a camera over 50s years ago, he didn’t really know what he was doing but his photographs of Frank Sinatra in performance and in rehearsal capture the singer both casually in his dressing room and during performance, documenting a now departed show business legend that will allow future generations to be familiar with his presence in a way that was never possible before photography.

Writing this piece reminds me of the wonderful television drama, Shooting The Past, by Stephen Poliakoff about the threatened closure of a photographic archive. As it unfolds we become immersed in a world of memories. The past, we are reminded, is another country where they do things differently. As with the RPS collection, Shooting the Past tells the extraordinary stories of the lives of ordinary people, as well as those that became icons of their generations.

The Hippopotamus at the Zoological Gardens, 1852, Juan Carlos Maria Isidro, Count Montizon de Borbon©NMeM
The Gate of Goodbye, 1917. Francis James Mortimer©National Media Museum Bradford
Father& sons walking the face of a dust storm, Cimarron County, Oklahoma, 1936 Arthur Rothstein©Arthur Rothstein
Frank Sinatra, London 1989. Terry O’Neill. The RPS Collection, National Media Museum Bradford © Terry O’Neill

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Mirror City
Hayward Gallery, London

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

London is one of the world’s leading centers for contemporary art and also has a history that reaches back beyond Roman times. It’s a place of contradictions, home to great financial and cultural institutions, fine universities and wonderful buildings, as well as to a range of diverse ethnic communities that rub shoulders with the privileged rich. Fragmented, loud, glittering, unknowable and dark in equal measure, like Calvino’s Invisible Cities, London presents itself as a series of interlocking dreams. So it was with a sense of anticipation that I visited the Hayward’s exhibition hoping for some reflection of this complex utopian/dystopian palimpsest. How would 23 different artists explore how digital and actual space meld and crossover in this ancient city? What would they reveal about the effects on our everyday lives?

The first work encountered on entering the gallery is Lindsay Seer’s Nowhere Less Now. Screened inside the upturned hull of a fabricated ship her video touches on her seafaring background, interwoven with the narrative of a fictional seaman. More stage set than artwork the effect is unnecessarily overblown, which is really how one might describe the whole exhibition. A baggy, over-curated smorgasbord of a show, coherence is heavily dependent on the copious wall texts that strain to link art that in other circumstances might not actually be linked at all. It’s hard to see what Ursula Mayer’s film about a transgender model, shown alongside an array of glass dildos and cabinets that includes tributes to Ayn Rand and Margaret Thatcher, has in common with the work of last year’s Turner Prize winner, Laure Prouvost’s The Artist, where a series of signs announce “Keep Left” or “Don’t Look Up.”

Fracture and collage seem to be the hallmarks of this show as in Tim Etchell’s wall of fly-posted headlines that create fictional scenarios such as “Delirium Tremens Orchestra Play New Songs by Silvio Berlusconi and Dmitry Medvedev” and Susan Hiller’s audio collage of disembodied voices describing extra-terrestrial phenomena. While John Stezaker’s uncanny and witty photographic creations, welded together from old film stills, marry the dissonance of surrealism with postmodernist fragmentation.

Lloyd Corporation sounds like the name of a multinational business but is, in fact, the nomenclature of the art duo Ali Eisa and Sebastian Lloyd Rees whose work claims to focus on the fall-out from the corporate world. Their practice includes sculpture, installation and video, though for this show they have devised a performance entitled The World for Less, which takes place each Saturday at different locations around the Hayward and features actors performing as street vendors.

Amongst this collection of very disparate work is Emma McNally’s intense and beautiful Choral Fields 1-6 (2014) in graphite on paper. The title suggests both music and a field of vision or activity. Inventing new ways of using graphite and carbon, which she erases with sandpaper, she creates drawings that allude to space and the microscope, to navigational charts and the stars, in work that is both tense and gestural, muscular yet lyrical.

A special newspaper Mirror City has been edited by the novelist Tom McCarthy and written by the artists to accompany the show. Presumably rather tongue-in-cheek—it suggests that the sport coverage can be found on page 42 when, in fact, the paper only consists of 23 pages. Though reading it doesn’t—and perhaps is not meant to—clarify anything about what we are seeing. Walking through this exhibition veers between the stimulating, annoying, mystifying and pretentious, the whole edifice being over dependent on a hypothesis that’s not really borne out by the whole. Like a fairground hall of mirrors there are numerous distortions of “reality.” The implication seems to be that the city is a series of chimeras. That’s an interesting and valid position but one not really supported by this sprawling rather forced show.

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Allen Jones
RA, London

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

Some years ago I was commissioned by the Royal Academy magazine to write ‘a feminist appraisal’ of Allen Jones’ work. As an RA, Jones had the privilege of reading the piece before it went to press. Although he’s referred to himself as a feminist on a number of occasions he seemed uncomfortable with this perspective. He vetoed the article and it was never published. I decided, therefore, to take the opportunity to revisit the work of this 77 year old pop artist to see if my response was any different a number of years on.

As I walked through the Royal Academy I remembered how the Viennese painter, Oscar Kokoschka, returned from the First World War to find that his lover Alma Mahler had married the founder of the Bauhaus school, Walter Gropius. To deal with his unrequited passion Kokoschka ordered the doll-maker Hermine Moos to make an exact, life-size replica of his ex. When the mannequin finally arrived, Kokoschka was horrified to find that, far from being life-like, it had furry limbs. Yet despite the doll’s hirsute appearance they made trips to the opera, took long carriage rides and, it was said, had intimate rendezvous. Eventually Kokoschka threw a champagne party and afterwards wrote: “When dawn broke – I was quite drunk, as was everyone else – I beheaded it out in the garden and broke a bottle of red wine over its head.”

In 1939 Salvador Dali was commissioned to create a display window for New York’s fashionable department store, Bonwit Teller. A claw-footed bathtub was lined with Persian lambskin and filled with narcissi floating in muddy water. Arms from disembodied white mannequins reached from the bath. Each held a hand mirror, tilted to reflect a turn-of-the-century wax mannequin with a doll-like features, about to step into the bath. Chicken feathers were glued to her naked body and her cheeks covered in blood stained tears. Her long blonde hair was crawling with artificial bugs. Shoppers were aghast. By noon the scandalous mannequin had been removed and Dali had pushed the bath tub through the plate glass window onto Fifth Avenue.

The word ‘fetish’ comes from the Portuguese. A term given to heretical talismans in the Middle Ages. Historically the artists’ mannequin, far from being an inconspicuous studio tool such as the easel or palette became, in the early 20th century, a fetishised object, eventually, becoming a work of art in its own right. Erotomania (another term for fetishism) has clinically been described as the behaviour of individuals who suffer extreme erotic fixations.

Alan Jones is part of a male generation for whom women were ‘chicks’, ‘birds’ and ‘bunny girls’. Like their animal counterparts these young women were seen as fair game. Sex was considered by many males as sport and a form of conquest. To speak of the 1960s as a sexual revolution is to misunderstand those times. A liberating period for men, women who slept around were described as ‘easy lays’ or ‘slags’.  And, in those pre-pill days, were very likely to be left holding the baby.

It is pretty well impossible to read Alan Jones’ Hat Stand,1969 as anything other than a fetishist object. An expressionless mannequin holds up her hands to take, presumably, her male clients’ hats. Her purple bolero is pulled tight over conical tits. She wears a dog-collar, a G-string, and tightly-laced, thigh-high boots. Her coiffed hair is blonde and immaculate.There’s nothing satirical here. This is woman as object. Her role is to serve. She is a hat stand. Elsewhere three pairs of crossed legs in tightly laced thigh boots poke through a wall, along with a right arm in a glove. These are entitled Secretary. The message, here, is that these women are subservient, compliant and sexually available. There is no head, therefore no brain. No body, therefore no heart.

Jones’ 1969 Chair and Table attracted a good deal of feminist ire when they appeared. The female figures are trussed and bound. The figure in Chair lies supine, her legs in the air. She wears long black boots, black gloves and little black leather pants. A seat is strapped to her thighs so that she’s contorted into a position of constant availability: a chair in more than one sense of the word. Table kneels on all fours on a white fleece rug. A sheet of glass is secured to her back to form the table top. She is staring down into a small hand mirror. I was reminded of Meret Oppenheim’s fur tea cup. But no irony or social critique is intended here. These pieces are what they always were: fetishistic objects fashioned for the male gaze. What’s interesting is that while I was walking around the exhibition I noticed how insouciant contemporary viewers appeared to be. There seemed little outrage. Most smiled indulgently. Whether this is due to post-feminist fatigue or sophisticated ennui, it’s hard to say.

A Model Model, made as recently as 2013, depicts a woman with both her arms and legs encased in a sheath dress like a mermaid’s skin. While the hard sparkly gold Body Armour that entraps Kate Moss offers more of the same. In an era of ubiquitous cosmetic surgery these bland depictions of women, without any trace of expression, personality or imperfection are little more than soft porn. Barbie dolls for grown men

It is unfortunate that the publicity surrounding these one dimensional works has obscured the fact that Allen Jones is a rather good painter, a fine colourist and a skilled draftsman. The most interesting works are also the most ambiguous such as Interesting Journey, 1962 and Thinking About Women, 1961-2, with its areas of flat red and brown paint and fluid, semi-abstract patches of colour. Male, Female Diptych 1965 explores the territory of sexual duality. The lips, bras, green stilettos, male shoes and a Fedora seem to belong neither exclusively to the male nor female figure. There is a strong sense of colour, design and movement in these 60s paintings. At the time when British painting was full of sludgy khakis and browns they must have seemed vital, daring and fresh. The world is presented as a stage. Dance is a continual reference. The canvas becomes an arena of performance full of hedonism, energy and colour. There is a nod to Picasso with the plethora of acrobats and dancers. The early ambiguous paintings are the most interesting. Later,when the colour becomes flatter and more sugary, the images of women just props as with the golden body of the girl in Levitation, 2000, they become more predictable.

Among the most vital work are Jones’s sculptural cut outs. Red Ballerina, 1982 has all the well observed movement of a Degas balletic figure. What a pity that the sensitivity shown here is later reduced in the red figure of Stand In and the horrible yellow, blue and pink fibre glass mannequin that is Waiting on Table to sexual cliché and stereotype. Jones might have been celebrated as a significant British painter of his generation. But his fatal flaw has been, not so much the manner in which he depicts women, but that he has never questioned this approach and cannot see why it gives offence.

Allen Jones RA, Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington Gardens, London W1S 3ET.


Interesting Journey, 1962. Oil on canvas, 61 x 51cm. LONDON, PRIVATE COLLECTION. © Allen Jones. Photo: Private Collection

Stand In, 1991/2. Oil on plywood and fibreglass, 185 x 185 x 63 cm. Banbury, Private Collection. Image courtesy of the artist. © Allen Jones

Hat Stand, 1969. Mixed media, 191 x 108 x 40 cm. Private collection, London. Image courtesy the artist. © Allen Jones

First Step, 1966.Oil on canvas, 92 x 92 cm. LONDON, COLLECTION ALLEN JONES. © Allen Jones. Image courtesy of the artist

London Calling:
Cerith Wyn Evans

Published in Artillery Magazine

Art Criticism

In a brick-arched space of the Serpentine Sackler Gallery—a Grade 1-listed 19th-century building in the middle of Hyde Park, originally designed to store gunpowder during the Napoleonic wars—a strange noise is being emitted. It comes from a pair of transparent cast-acrylic flutes that hang suspended from the ceiling, calling and responding one to another. The sounds from Interlude (A=D-R=I=F=T) (2014) suggest wind and dripping water, with the odd clack of what might be bamboo knocking against bamboo. The effect is Zen-like and rather ethereal. It infiltrates the whole gallery space, drawing together disparate elements—rather as a melody might draw together the different sections of an orchestra. While the ear is seduced by this strangely hypnotic music, the eye is drawn by a long strip of arcane poetic/philosophical text in neon tubing that runs round the upper walls of the gallery like a glittery postmodern version of a classical frieze. Spare and cold, it has a stylish elegance. Some of the works on show have been created especially for this site-specific installation by the Welsh artist Cerith Wyn Evans; others have been shown before at White Cube in London and Bergen Kunsthall, Norway.

Among the latter is S=U=P=E=R=S=T=R=U=C=T=U=R=E (Trace me back to some loud, shallow, chill, underlying motive’s overspill …) (2010) the first work encountered on entering the gallery. Its references are classical and architectural. The pillar-shaped “drums” are made from light bulb filaments bound together to suggest Doric columns that emit both light and heat. Beside this is H=0=S=T ‘Backstage at Bunraku by Barbara C. Adachini’ (1985) (2014)—which, apparently, is a text on a behind-the-scenes look at Japan’s traditional puppet theater. (Why the endless equal signs in the titles? Not sure what they’re supposed to add, other than a spurious gravitas.)  Here sputnik-style chandeliers direct a Morse code program that stutters and stops on a nearby computer screen. Wyn Evans claims his inspiration came one night while looking down from a hotel window at the lights of Tokyo, which he says “was like an enormous matrix of signs and circuits that was somehow alive, a body in a sense … communicating with itself.” Among his accumulated newspaper clippings was one announcing that the military would no longer use Morse code. In effect, it would become a decommissioned language, an obsolete linguistic ghost. The implication seems to be that communication is complex and difficult. Otherworldly contact and parallel narratives are suggested, meanings are not fixed but slippery and elusive.

Elsewhere there’s an installation of amethyst geodes set among a bunch of somewhat sickly looking plants, and a number of chandeliers that dim and then flare, as if inhaling and exhaling breath. One is made of exotic Venetian glass and has an equally exotic title: We are in Yucatan and every unpredicted thing (2014), another, Taraxacum (2014) is constructed like a bubble from large light bulbs. Across the space images flicker on silk screens. One appears to come from an old photograph of a Victorian prostitute sitting naked on her client’s lap as he paws her, money strewn around their feet. Make of that what you will.

In the 1980s Wyn Evans was a filmmaker, part of the countercultural generation that included filmmaker, Derek Jarman for whom he worked as an assistant, before moving on to make his own short experimental films. By the 1990s, he had recast himself as a shimmering Young British Artist. His work is characterized by a focus on language and a conceptual approach that grows out of his relationship to the exhibition space. In his own words, “the site of the gallery, the perception of sight, the citation of references are multiple and swarming.” His references range from John Cage, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Gilles Deleuze, Marcel Proust and Andy Warhol.

A collection of previously unpublished black-and-white photographs—atmospheric, minimal and rather beautiful, full of light and shadows—has been produced to accompany the exhibition. This elegant catalog is introduced with a rather obtuse text entitled “Neveralreadyseen” by the French feminist philosopher Hélène Cixous. Oh those French, how they do love to obfuscate!

Poetry is increasingly important to Wyn Evans; not Romantic lyrical poetry but that of experimental poets who break down language—David Antin, John Cage, e. e. cummings and James Merrill, who takes words from an Ouija board. It’s been suggested that Wyn Evans installations function as catalysts: reservoirs of possible meaning that unravel in a number of interpretations on different discursive journeys. Elegant and evocative, they nevertheless sometimes seem to try too hard. Still, the haunting flute music did stay with me as I walked out of the gallery into the mellow autumn afternoon in Hyde Park.

Published in Artillery Magazine

Tracey Emin
White Cube, London

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

She’s come a long way, our Tracey, from the days of teenage sex behind the beach-huts in Margate, the seedy Kent sea-side town where she grew up, famed for its 1960s beach battles between rogue gangs of Mods and Rockers and as JMW Turner’s hidey-hole, where he snuggled up to his landlady, Mrs Booth, in her seafront guest house.I first met Tracey in the 90s when I was at Time Out and interviewed her at the ‘shop’ she had started in Waterloo with Sarah Lucas. She was friendly and slightly out-to-lunch as she tripped around in, what I assumed, to be a state of post-prandial zaniness.  Self-obsessed and rawly talented, she came across as both worldly and vulnerable. Since then she has repeatedly been in the limelight – for her tent enumerating all those she slept with, that drunken display on TV and, of course, her notorious bed that didn’t actually win The Turner prize but earlier this year sold for £2.2 million. But nowadays she’s not so much wild child as grande dame. There’s the very healthy bank balance, the M&S adverts with Helen Mirren modelling clothes for middle-England. The support for the Conservative party and the dresses by Vivienne Westwood. She is professor of Drawing at the Royal Academy. You can’t get much more establishment than that.Now she’s in the news again, not only for her exhibition: The Last Great Adventure is You, at White Cube, Bermondsey but because she recently announced that, for her, motherhood was incompatible with being an artist. “Having a child would be a substitute for my work”, she said. “There are good artists that have children…They are called men.” 

Of course, this is nonsense. We don’t live in the Middle Ages when that was certainly true. Barbara Hepworth had triplets, Nancy Spiro had children, as do many of Tracey’s contemporaries such as Eileen Cooper (Keeper of the RA Schools) and Jenny Saville. Rachel Howard has four and a very successful career.  But such black and white statements attract attention. No one denies that having a child is an individual woman’s choice. But in this age of celebrity gossip what people love is to identify with Tracey’s Hello! life-style; her abortions, her hopeless love-life and, now, her concern with the onset of the menopause and middle-age. It’s not so much that her art has made her famous but like a one-woman confessional, her feminism-lite perfectly captures the narcissism and self-indulgence of our contemporary society. We love that she’s a bit like us – only richer and better dressed, that like many we know she’s not had the luck to find the right man and that now, after the abortions, it’s too late to reproduce. But we seem to have forgotten that in the 70s and 80s many women artists made genuinely ground breaking work about the body and womanhood: Judy Chicago, Mary Kelly and Ana Mendieta to name but three. All had much more radical social and political agendas that formed part of a universal dialogue and a collective struggle. Kate Walker even stitched her experiences into everyday domestic objects and made a work called ‘The Other Side of the Blanket.’ Who remembers that now? Little acknowledgement is given to the legacy of these pioneering women.

Despite looking elegant in the beautiful White Cube gallery with its acres of polished concrete floors, The Last Great Adventure is You only goes to underline Tracey’s solipsism. The large scale embroidered figures (done by assistants), the bronze sculptures, the gouaches, paintings and neon works are, despite the ‘you’ in the show’s title, as usual, all about her. The nudes are the result of life-drawing classes she’s been attending in New York, while the sculptures have evolved from recent lessons in how to cast bronze. Yet despite the years of public angst and the recent admission that she expects to remain single from now on, they feel curiously unemotional. Much of the work lacks her direct touch. The large-scale embroideries have been sewn by other hands so that they feel like expensive interior decorations rather than the heart-wrung expressions of a woman grappling with the meaning of life. Even the small paintings, which do have a certain charm individually, when seen in a group, become weak and formulaic, full of the same gestural marks and clichés. There appears to be little real emotional or artistic struggle here. You feel you could order one up to suit your colour scheme. What’s supposed to feel intuitive and expressionistic has become designed and calculated. It’s all rather polite and tame. All rather Sunday morning life-drawing class.

Tracey has made her name as a confessional artist. But the problem is that there’s actually not enough Sturm und Drang, not enough soul searching. Unlike Louise Bourgeois there’s no real psychological insight or like Chaïm Soutine or Munch not enough nail-biting angst. She asks us to ‘feel her pain’ but we are not able to do so either emotionally or in the raw execution of her materials that, in the end, give an art work its voice. If her work was taken out of the magnificent space of White Cube and shown without all the razzmatazz in some shabby student studio, would we still be interested? There’s something moribund about it, as if she’s still paddling in the same pond as 25 years ago and moving no closer to the shore.

Perhaps if Tracey had had more of ‘real’ life looking after children: mopping up sick at midnight and balancing the parent’s evening with the studio opening, whilst also remembering to buy nappies and fish fingers on the way home, rather than flouncing around in a new Vivienne Westwood outfit at the opening of yet another envelope, her very real talent wouldn’t have become subsumed by her life-style and she might have developed as a serious artist rather than the media personality she has become. She is certainly right about one thing – you can’t have it all.

White Cube Bermondsey till 16th November 2014

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Anselm Kiefer
Visit to Barjac

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

Courtesy of Elephant Magazine and images from the web

“…we gaze at it in wonder, a kind of wonder which in itself is a form of dawning horror, for somehow we know by instinct that outsize buildings cast the shadow of their own destruction before them, and are designed from the first with an eye to their later existence as ruins.”
― W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz

Although Anslem Kiefer’s primary site of production is Croissy, near Paris, he moved to Barjac, a former silk factory in the South of France, in 1992. The land supplies many of the materials habitually used in his work. The sunflowers that grow seven meters tall from seeds especially imported from Japan, the thousands of tulips that are dried for their petals to be used in paintings devoted to Arab poets, the trees that are dipped in plaster and coated with clay from the estate. It is a strange place; with its sheds housing huge individual paintings, often covered in arcane text, and its vertiginous towers – a cross between Pisa’s leaning turret and concentration camp sentry boxes – constructed in concrete castes taken from shipping containers. There are overgrown paths and vast glass houses filled with sculptures of planes and books created from detritus and rubble, an underground crypt and a huge concrete amphitheatre reached by a labyrinth of tunnels like a catacomb. The place is mythic, hubristic, obsessive, extraordinary, profound and unique in its imaginative scope. A place of dreams, it attempts to give voice in visual language to the mood and cataclysmic shifts of the 20th century, as well as to the cyclical nature of existence itself. It’s as fantastical as Calvino’s Invisible Cities, as obsessed with the cycles of history as the writing of Kiefer’s late compatriot, W.G. Sebald, and is a matrix of the intellectual and aesthetic concerns that have obsessed the artist for half a century.

Born in 1945 in Donaueschingen, on the Danube, Kiefer always knew he wanted to make art, despite initially studying law. He is part of a generation of German intellectuals that includes Joseph Beuys, Georg Bazelitz, Gunter Grass and Bernhard Schlink who, as they attempted to come to terms with the catastrophe of the Third Reich and the Holocaust, had Theodor Adorno’s words ringing in their ears that to persist with the production of art (primarily in Germany) after Auschwitz – (though Adorno uses the world ‘poetry’) – is to participate in the perpetuation of that barbaric culture and in the denials that rendered criticism of it impossible. 

When he first settled in Barjac everything Kiefer created was with materials brought from Germany: books, photographs, old paintings, even bits of lead from the roof of Cologne cathedral. He claims to feel like an outsider in this soft French landscape that has inspired countless other painters, says that he’s never felt prompted to make work about it. Instead he needed to take possession of the place in order to make sense of it. Part home, part laboratory and workshop, he has built roads and buildings, planted trees and vegetation, created enclosures. Then one day he started to dig. 

After completing his first tunnel he hit on the idea of the Seven Heavenly Palaces of the Jewish mystics and set about fashioning seven buildings and constructing a series of greenhouses connected by tunnels. What he has created is a sort of reverse archaeology, a psychic map, a form of visual philosophy that materialises the ideas of the Markavah in the Sepher Hekhalot that relate to man’s ascent through the Seven Heavenly Palaces. During this journey man’s hands and limbs are gradually burnt away until all that is left is his spirit. As he descends further he plunges into his own psyche. So, in Barjac, the viewer having wandered in darkness through this underground labyrinth, will come to a staircase that leads to a room flooded with light, where another stairway will lead to another tunnel and so on. There is nothing picturesque here. It is a harsh, elemental, magisterial place, like some archaic burial site. Industrial pipes and ducts connect the underground passageways. Their function is uncertain. As you wander you may glimpse daylight but there’s a danger of getting lost, of going back the way you came, of discovering yourself in a room with a pool and lead walls where no sound reaches and its gravity – the mass attributed to Saturn, the planet of melancholy – creates a sensory annihilation. Elsewhere you might glimpse, if you look up, what could be bookcases, paintings or jars – just lit sufficiently to feel their presence and experience them as abstract objects. 

The core of the building is the amphitheatre built from concrete casts of second-hand shipping containers. It stands 15 metres high and has five levels and three sides. The outline was traced on the ground with a mechanical digger, then dug it out. The space beneath, as with the construction of many cathedrals, was filled with sand to avoid the use of scaffolding, before being removed when the ceiling was in place. The soil at La Ribotte is clay and clings to the concrete so that the place looks like some ancient crypt or the Mithras temple below the basilica of San Clemente in Rome, hewn directly from the earth. The amphitheatre is the hub from which, through other tunnels – just as in the Châtelt metro in Paris – the visitor can travel in different directions. Constructed without an architect or engineer, with the aid of only a couple of assistants, Kiefer is aware it will eventually collapse like the bunkers found along the Normandy coast. The metaphor of entropy pervades his work. Various installations are housed in the surrounding spaces. One contains a number of reels of film. This is a paradox. For the normally opaque film is made of lead onto which Kiefer has pasted obscure 30 year old photographs. Another underground chamber is dedicated to the Women of the Revolution. Filled with lead beds. Water stagnates in the hollow body-shaped indentations to form a sort of membrane or skin.

Barjac is not an exhibition venue, a gallery or a workshop but a map of the imagination – a Gesamtunktwerk – that illustrates Keifer’s belief that the etymology of wohnen (to dwell) is derived from the ancient Germ baun/bauen (to construct or build). “Building and living are the same”, he says referring to Martin Heidegger. “Man can only dwell, that is exist, when he builds…..creation and destruction are one and the same”. Poetry and philosophical texts have always been a seminal influence. These have been as various as the poetry of Paul Celan and Ingeborg Bachmann, Jewish Cabalistic texts, Roland Barthes, Nietzsche, and tracts on alchemy. Kiefer’s domain is the liminal; the interstices in history and the psyche. The palette is a recurring motif, a symbol of the potency of art to bridge the external physical world and the internal world of the imagination. As T. S. Eliot says: “What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.”

Kiefer has often been accused of being grandiose (which at times he is), and neo-Nazi, which he certainly isn’t. What he is, is a complex, driven artist with a brilliant visual imagination and a fierce intellect. Shaped by the moment of his birth amid the rubble and devastation of the Second World War, just as Hitler’s ‘thousand-year Reich’ was collapsing, his career he has been an investigation of the borders between form and chaos, between matter and spirit, horror and beauty. He is not a populist. “Art”, as he says, “is something very difficult. It is difficult to make, and it is sometimes difficult for the viewer to understand.” In his creative crucible boundaries are dissolved, the solid becomes fluid, space and linear time are dissolved and matter re-configured. W.G. Sebald gives voice to Kiefer’s imagination in his novel Vertigo. “The more images I gathered from the past … the more unlikely it seemed to me that the past had actually happened in this or that way, for nothing about it could be called normal: most of it was absurd, and if not absurd, then appalling.”

At present Barjac is not open to the public. But there is hope that it will one day become a foundation. If so it will be a monument to a vigorous and powerful imagination, along with the flow and flux of history and the deepest questions explored by the human mind.


Dennis Hopper:
The Lost Album

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive/But to be young was very heaven,” wrote Wordsworth on the eve of the French Revolution. Though his words could equally have been describing a very different time and place and another, later, revolution where to be young was, also, ‘very heaven’. This revolution was expressed not through chopping off aristocratic heads but through drugs, sex and rock n’roll. And, as with the French revolution, its utopian values of freedom grew out of the restrictions and constraints of the dominant culture.

I was at school in the 1960s and remember going to see Easy Rider. It’s hard to explain, coming from my bourgeois English background, just how mesmerising it was to sit in the dark and watch this anarchic road movie. Cool, sexy and intense, its saturated colour, naturalistic shots and long lonely vistas of desert highways seemed to embody a sort of frontier freedom that was primarily American, something I’d only previously encountered in the writing of Jack Kerouac. Easy Rider was wild, thrilling and a little frightening. It encapsulated the restlessness of the 60s counterculture, the feelings of a generation increasingly disillusioned with organised government and the political conflicts that surrounded Vietnam, poverty and issues of race.  The film stared three men who would go on to become iconic anti-heroes:  Peter Fonda, Jack Nicholson and Dennis Hopper.

Mad, bad and, no doubt, dangerous to know, Dennis Hopper became a cult figure. He embodied the restless mood of those emotionally charged times with their major social shifts and changes in moral values. Good-looking, self-confident and iconoclastic – part outlaw, part artist – he was the sort of guy who was always going to be something even if he didn’t know what that something was going to be. By the age of 18 he was under contract to Warner Bros and became fascinated by the creative potential of film,  co-starring with that other American icon, James Dean, in Rebel without a Cause (1955) and Giant (1956). By the late 50s Hopper was living in New York and studying acting under Lee Strasberg. He was also taking photographs of street signs, walls and ripped posters, material not yet commonly the subject of art. At 25 he married the actress Brooke Hayward, daughter of the photographer, Leyland Hayward. On Hopper’s birthday Brooke went to her father and borrowed the money to buy him a Nikon camera. From 1961 to 1967 he carried it everywhere until he began work on Easy Rider and put it away.

The necessity to take photographs (and make paintings) came, he said, from ‘a place of desperation and solitude’. He hoped that taking photos would fill the void. In his own words he was “an Abstract Expressionist and an Action painter by nature, and a Duchampian finger-pointer by choice.” (Duchamp had said, ‘The artist of the future will merely point his finger and say it’s art – and it will be art.’) By his own admission, Hopper didn’t read a lot. But he had a compelling sense that he wanted to “document something. I wanted to leave something that I thought would be a record…whether it was Martin Luther King, the hippies, or whether it was the artist.” His black and white photographs, taken from the full negative, were uncropped and shot in natural light. He photographed flat so there was no depth of field and the images became like a wall, or a painted surface. Living in LA there was, he claimed, not much to look at. Driving along endless highways walls gave a point of interest.

The Lost Album: A Treasure Trove, now on show at the Royal Academy, presents a selection of the 400 pictures that were stored and forgotten in five boxes and not unearthed until after Hopper’s death in 2010. They are believed to be the ones that he selected for his first major show at Forth Worth Art Centre Museum, from the hundreds taken between 1961 and 1967. As well as being visually talented, Hopper was also, according to Rolling Stone magazine, “one of Hollywood’s most notorious drug addicts” for 20 years. The 1970s and early 1980s were spent living as an “outcast” in a small town in New Mexico. In The Taos Incident Walter Hopps, co-founder of the Ferus Gallery, describes how in the mid-70s he transferred the photographs from ‘the biker gang, lesbian, drug and hippie nest of Taos’ into the protected space of his museum. What they show is that this enfant terrible had a rare artistic sensibility and empathy.

Dennis Hopper captures a series of uniquely American moments. He is the Walt Whitman of celluloid. So many faces of the United States are here: the celebrities, the heroes, the poor, and the crazy. There are images of the downtrodden and ordinary New Yorkers: kids climbing a tree, two women in head- scarves seated in an all-night diner, a middle-aged seamstress, as well as photographs showing both the poetry and the poverty of lives on the streets of Mexico and in Alabama. There are hippie girls dancing and Hell’s Angels with their chains, Nazi insignia and biker jackets, and a 1967 photo of ‘Flower Children’ – girls, one nursing a baby, sitting under a tree on a hot summer’s day with garlands in their hair, looking like members of some fundamentalist religious cult. And there’s a picture of that guru of gurus, Timothy Leary, reaching out and shaking the hand of a follower like some sort of Messianic priest.

But it’s the photographs of the young Andy Warhol (before the wig), the boyish, owl-eyed David Hockney, of Jasper Johns and a gamine Niki de Saint Phalle, along with the snappily dressed Robert Rauschenberg sticking out his tongue for the camera, that are truly Proustian. Then there’s the dashing Ed Ruscha standing in front of a neon sign that looks like one of his paintings, and an iconic image of Jane Fonda and Roger Vadaim – all European chic – at their wedding in LA in 1965, and Paul Newman looking amazing, sitting on a lawn in the shadows of tennis court netting, ensnared like some sultry beast. They are all so young, so golden. They must have thought they would be the first generation to live for ever. But most poignant of all are the photographs of Martin Luther King and the Kennedy Funeral taken from the television. In these it’s as if time has stood still for a moment. With their brutal assassinations came the loss of the dream. ‘Bye, bye miss American pie’ this was ‘the day the music died’.


Dennis Hopper
Leon Bing, 1966
Photograph, 17.68 x 24.59 cm
The Hopper Art Trust
© Dennis Hopper, courtesy The Hopper Art Trust.

Dennis Hopper
Irving Blum and Peggy Moffitt, 1964
Photograph, 16.69 x 24.92 cm
The Hopper Art Trust
© Dennis Hopper, courtesy The Hopper Art Trust.

Dennis Hopper
Andy Warhol, Henry Geldzahler, David Hockney and Jeff Goodman, 1963
Photograph, 17.25 x 24.74 cm
The Hopper Art Trust
© Dennis Hopper, courtesy The Hopper Art Trust.

Dennis Hopper
Martin Luther King, Jr., 1965
Photograph, 23.37 x 34.29 cm
The Hopper Art Trust
© Dennis Hopper, courtesy The Hopper Art Trust.

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Tate Modern

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

021Iconic is a much overused word but there are certain artworks that have changed the course of art history. Without them what we take for granted as contemporary art might have been totally different. Picasso’s 1907 Desmoiselles D’Avignon reconfigured the human form. His chthonic women act as a metaphor for psychological insecurity and the breakdown of old certainties rather than as a description or likeness. Duchamp’s Fountain, 1917, introduced the readymade and challenged the concept of elitist craft-led art, while Andy Warhol’s early 1960s soup cans appropriated banal everyday commodities, placing them within the sanctity of the museum and gallery.  But without Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square, 1915, what he called ‘a bare icon… for my time’, contemporary abstract painting, as well as contemporary architecture, sculpture and design might have taken another direction altogether. It’s rare that an artist does something completely new. But Malevich, it might be argued, did. After him, painting no longer represented the world but became an end in itself, a new reality.

Born of Polish stock in Kiev in 1879, Malevich moved to Kursk in 1896. By the age of 27 this talented young man was living in the dynamic city of Moscow where successful merchants were collecting works by Cézanne, Gauguin, Matisse and Picasso. Malevich was to find himself – like Russia – balancing on the cultural fault line between Eastern and Western Europe. Should artists look back to traditional icon painting to create an authentic national art form or to the new movements coming from France?

060From the start Malevich was keen to assert his modernity and toyed with ‘isms’ from Post-Impressionism to Fauvism, from Futurism to Cubism.  Slowly he created his own vocabulary, painting traditional Russian peasants inspired by his upbringing outside Kiev, with colourful cubist verve. Symbolist painters and writers played an important part in his early development but he was slow to align himself to any one style. Gauguin, whose work he saw in Moscow, was a powerful influence as can be seen in his dynamic Fauvist-style Bather of 1911, with its primitive movement and heightened colour. You can almost hear Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring thumping away in the background. Alternative spiritual and religious attitudes such as Theosophy, a mystical movement founded by the eccentric Elena Petrovna and much favoured by European bohemians, also had an input.

Malevich’s career evolved against this cultural backdrop during one of the most turbulent periods of history. He was 26 when a horde of angry workers stormed the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg to deliver a petition to the tsar demanding better working conditions. The ensuing massacre became known as Bloody Sunday. After the defeat of the Russian army during the First World War life for most Russians was bleak – food, money and fuel were all in short supply – and by October 1917 the Bolshevik revolution had forced the tsar to resign. The old order was crumbling.

C019The current Tate exhibition tells the story of the development of art during these revolutionary upheavals and its dreams of creating a new social order. In a unique collaboration with the Khardzhiev Collection, Amderstam and Costakis Collection SMCA-Thessaloniki, along with drawings from public and private collections around the world, the show starts with Malevich’s early landscapes and mystical religious scenes. His 1908 Adam and Eve gouache on cardboard might almost have been painted by William Blake. There are Gauguin-inspired peasants and a self-portrait in which he looks like Valentino painted by Matisse. Moving through this range of styles it’s possible to trace his journey towards abstract painting and his iconic Suprematist compositions. The show includes most of the surviving paintings from the legendary The Last Futurist Exhibition 0.10 in St. Petersburg in 1915 hung as closely as possible to the original. Famously his Black Square was placed high in the corner of the room, at once nullifying ideas of Renaissance perspective and making reference to the icons hung in the holy corner of Russian Orthodox homes. It is in this iconoclastic void that Malevich presents a search for a new spirituality based on humanistic and artistic values.

There is also an emphasis on the interplay with architecture and theatre, including Malevich’s designs for the avant-garde opera, Victory over the Sun, intended to indicate the future triumph of technology over Nature. Written in Zaum, a Dadaist nonsense language created from neologisms by a number of Russian poets, it challenged the birth of a unified Russian language in a system of signs and sounds. This helped inspire Malevich to free painting from the shackles of representation and to create a new visual language based on shape and colour – ‘suprematism’.

117rtThe re-enactment of his opera in video form seems to modern eyes slightly silly and dated, with all the characters dressed in machine-like and cubist inspired costumes. In contrast the stunning suprematist paintings such as Suprematist Painting (with black Trapezium and Red Square) from 1915 seem fresh and vibrant.  Here solid blocks of primary colour float against an angled black plane to create compositional tension and a sense of weightlessness that appears to defy gravity. In his text ‘Non-Objective Art and Suprematism’ written for the Tenth State Exhibition in Moscow, Malevich said: ‘Suprematism is a definite system… new frameworks of pure colour must be created, based on what colour demanded and also that colour, in its turn, must pass out of the pictorial mix into an independent unity, a structure in which it would be at one individual in a collective environment and individually independent’. From this point on colour becomes both subject and object. The Tate show also includes fascinating work by his students and colleagues from his time as a teacher in Vitebsk such as El Lissitzky and Illya Chashnik.

After 1927 the trajectory of Malevich’s work fundamentally changed. This was, no doubt, a concession to the political pressure of the times and the rise of Social Realism as the accepted and dominant form. Perhaps he also felt the short comings of pure geometrical abstraction as he returned, between 1928-39, to what are now known as his ‘Second Peasant Cycle’. Here his subjects are not individuals but ‘everymen’ or budetlyane – ‘men of the future’ – the same characters that can be found in the costume designs for Victory over the Sun.

Malevich never abandoned ‘the quest for God’, which he equated with truth. To this end his return to painting the down trodden Russian peasantry is understandable. Despite the social and political upheavals he faced he never stopped trying to make sense of man’s existence in the new political order. The Tate exhibition ends with a strange self-portrait from 1933. Part social realism, part, perhaps, tongue in cheek, the artist presents himself in medieval garb as if creativity was a constant in a shifting world. But it’s through Malevich’s pioneering treatment of colour and its embodiment in form that his work has had a major impact. Rediscovered in 1973 by a new generation of minimalist artists such as Donald Judd with the 1973 exhibition in New York, Malevich left an unequivocal language that sought to construct a ‘philosophical colour system’ set against white as the ‘representation off infinity’ that has gone on reverberating through the work of today’s contemporary artists.

* * *

Sue Hubbard is a freelance art critic, novelist and award-winning poet. Her latest books are Girl in White (Cinnamon Press) and The Forgetting and Remembering of Air (Salt)

Kazimir Malevich (1878 – 1935)

Self Portrait 1908-1910
State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia

Suprematist Painting (with Black Trapezium and Red Square) 1915
Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam

Black Square 1929
© State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Head of a Peasant 1928-29
The State Russian Museum, St Petersburg

Nature Recast
Eliis O’Connell

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

What is it about the work of the Irish sculptor Eilís O’Connell that has led to her having created, in this most difficult and masculine medium, over thirty permanent site-specific installations in Britain and Europe, including the sensual, orchid-like Unfurl (Fig 1), a bronze commissioned by Kensington Borough Council and the residents of Kensington Gate, to celebrate the Millennium?

O’Connell subtly combines a number of different elements that give her work both a sense of physical vitality and poetic metaphor. It is monumental yet intimate, atavistic yet contemporary. From discarded agricultural tools to birds’ nests and whale bones she appropriates the quotidian and the natural to create dynamic forms in stone, steel, resin, plaster and bronze. Like her poetic compatriot, Seamus Heaney, O’Connell looks to the archaeology and topography of her Irish homeland for inspiration but the ideas she finds there are filtered through a considered relationship to architecture and geometry. The work is never soft: emotion is always tempered by intellect and painstaking technique to combine something of the muscularity of Richard Serra with the female sensibility of Barbara Hepworth. Science and mathematics meet the natural world within her organic and biomorphic forms. Inside and outside coalesce. In the layered and slippery space of contemporary culture she has created objects that generate a unifying narrative and suggest a philosophy of interdependence rather than of confrontation, an openness and desire for contact and inclusivity, rather than a brittle postmodern autonomy, which unapologetically recalls the timeless resonances of Brancusi.
In the layered and slippery space of contemporary culture she has created objects that generate a unifying narrative

Having spent her childhood in Cork, then long spells in London and abroad, before returning to work in her converted Cork dairy, Eilís O’Connell is perfectly geared to negotiating the complexities of the international art world. In England her work has been championed by Wilfred Cass at Goodwood Sculpture Park and, more recently, in a major exhibition curated by Anne Elliot at Canary Wharf. A sense of interconnection imbues her sculptures. Even within London’s Jubilee Park at Canary Wharf, a favoured lunch-time spot for city workers, where many of the larger pieces such as Atlantic Oak (Fig 2), a cast taken from an oak seasoned for thirty-three years in a cove on the west coast of Ireland, and Whale Bone were sited, her works eemed to preserve within them a sense of memory and place that remains embedded deep within their fabric, even in their unfamiliar urban setting. It is this primordial quality that connects the viewer, often unconsciously, to a sense of something elemental. Thus O’ Connell manages to tap into a sense of common origin within the fragmentation of the city. Sacrificial Anode, cast especially in bronze for this exhibition, now has a permanent place in the park after having been bought by Canary Wharf (Fig 5). The wonderfully poetic title, which suggests a metaphor of corrosion and decay is, in fact, a metallurgical term. An anode attached to a metal object, such as a boat or underground tank, is put there to inhibit the object’s corrosion. The anode electrolytically decomposes while the object remains free of damage. That Eilís O’Connell was trained, unusually for a woman, in the tradition of working with industrial materials has provided a fruitful extension to the more feminine side of her sculptural language, to her relationship with intimate spaces, and to the curves and folds of the body.

In counterpoint to her scaled-up, monumental works the lobby at Canary Wharf included a series of clear resin works. Using found objects and those given to her by friends – a vulture’s feather, a whale’s vertebrae, a lump of coral – O’Connell cast these organic objects in clear resin to give them, like flies trapped for thousands of years in amber, a timeless quality. The resin has no colour, no inclusions or bubbles, yet surrounds the object as if barely there. Part relic and votary, part object of scientific interest, these specimens remain suspended within their clear casting at the point of dissolution and on the brink of decay.
In a culture rife with sluggish melancholy that has lost access to the transpersonal dimensions of existence, Eilís O’Connell’s sculptu