Art Criticism

Tate frames William Blake

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

Art Criticism

Review of 58th Venice Biennale

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.

Art Criticism

Frank Bowling
In The Presence Of A Significant Painter

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

Art Criticism

Cathy Wilkes
Resurrecting The Forgotten British Pavilion
Venice Biennale

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

Art Criticism

Chantal Joffe
Her Own Sense Of Being

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

Art Criticism

Diane Arbus
Street Of Secrets

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.

Art Criticism

All the Rembrandts
Rijksmuseum

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.

Art Criticism

Jock McFadyen
Interview

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.

Art Criticism

George Shaw

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.

Art Criticism

Deep in the Woods with
Cathy de Monchaux

“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.

Art Criticism

Christian Marclay
The Clock at Tate Modern

“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.

Art Criticism

Liliane Lijn’s
Seductive Psychic Drama

“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.

Art Criticism

What Is the point of the Turner Prize?

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.

Art Criticism

Life, Death and Reincarnation
with Boo Saville

“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.”

Credits:
All images courtesy Newport Street Gallery

Art Criticism

A Drama of Ideas
with Christo

“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.”

Art Criticism

Chantal Joffe

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.

Art Criticism

Gillian Ayres
My Fiercely independent Friend

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.

Art Criticism

Hughie O’Donoghue on
Van Gogh and
Terrible Beauty

“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

Art Criticism

Tacita Dean
Triple Header

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

Art Criticism

The Many Sides of
Eileen Cooper

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

Art Criticism

Rose Wylie
Duck, Duck, Goose

“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.

Art Criticism

On Pagham Beach
Photographs and Collages
from the 1930s

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.

Art Criticism

Sean Scully: Facing East

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
mamm-mdf.ru
All artwork images courtesy the artist © Sean Scully

Art Criticism

Stephen Chambers
The Court of Redonda

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.

Art Criticism

Matisse Studio RA

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

Art Criticism

Windows to the Future

“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.

Art Criticism

Howard Hodgkin
India My Somewhere Else

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.

Credits

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

Art Criticism

Confessions of a Biennale Virgin

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

Art Criticism

Mat Collishaw
Forms Of Illusion And Truth

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

Mat Collishaw
The Centrifugal Soul
Blain Southern

Art Criticism

Art Now, Lucy Beech and
Edward Thomasson
Tate Britain

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

Art Criticism

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

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.

Art Criticism

Crash Goes The American Dream c1930
RA Unveil Timely Painting Exhibition

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.

Words:
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

Art Criticism

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


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.

Art Criticism

John Baldessari: Miro and Life in General

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.

Credits:

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.

Art Criticism

James Ensor
Royal Academy of Art, London

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.

Credits

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

Art Criticism

Hell in Arcadia
Stanley Spencer at The Hepworth

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.

Art Criticism

Alice Maher
Purdy Hicks, London

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.

Credits:

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.

Art Criticism

Mark Wallinger, Self Reflection
Freud Museum, London

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

Art Criticism

Georgiana Houghton
Courtauld Gallery, London

“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.


Credits:

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

Art Criticism

Tate Modern
the Switch House and Brexit

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

Art Criticism

Down On The Farm
with Martin Creed


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.

Art Criticism

Susan Hiller
Communications From The Chthonic Unconscious

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?’

THIS INTERVIEW ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN ISSUE 26.

‘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.

Art Criticism

States of Mind
Wellcome Collection, London

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’.

Art Criticism

John Bratby

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

Art Criticism

Chantal Joffe
Victoria Miro, London

“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.

Credits:
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

Art Criticism

The Blue Rider

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.

Art Criticism

Javier Romero

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.

Art Criticism

Chantal Akerman: Now

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.

Credits:

CHANTAL AKERMAN
Photo Credit: Marthe Lemelle. Courtesy the artist estate and Marian Goodman Gallery

CHANTAL AKERMAN
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

CHANTAL AKERMAN
Now, 2015
8 channel, HD Video installation, colour, five sound tracks mono and stereo.
Courtesy the artist estate and Marian Goodman Gallery

Art Criticism

Frank Auerbach at
Tate Britain

“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.

Credits:

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

1959
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

Painting
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

Painting
Oil on canvas
660 x 610 mm
Private collection
© Frank Auerbach, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art

Art Criticism

Politics as Art, Art as Politics:
Ai Weiwei and William Kentridge

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.

Credits:

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)

Art Criticism

Barbara Hepworth
Tate Britain, London

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.

Credits:

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
Sculpture
Guarea wood, part painted, with strings
1067 x 787 x 813 mm
Ulster Museum, Belfast
©Bowness

Barbara Hepworth
Large and Small Form 1934
Sculpture
White alabaster
250 x 450 x 240 mm
The Pier Arts Centre Collection, Orkney
©Bowness

Art Criticism

Rachel Howard:
A Dedicated Unfollower of Fashion

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.

Art Criticism

Agnes Martin
Tate Britain, London

“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.

Credits:

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

Art Criticism

Sonia Delaunay
Tate Modern, London

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 


Credits:

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

Art Criticism

Dexter Dalwood:
London Paintings
at Simon Lee Gallery

“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.

Art Criticism

Hans Haacke Gift Horse
London’s Fourth Plinth Programme

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.

Images:

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

Art Criticism

Chantal Joffe
Beside The Seaside

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)

Art Criticism

The Path Less Travelled
Basil Beattie

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.

 

Art Criticism

Drawn by Light:
The Royal Photographic Society Collection

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.


Credits:

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

Art Criticism

Mirror City
Hayward Gallery, London

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.

Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre, London SE1 8XX

Art Criticism

Allen Jones
RA, London

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.

Images:

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

Art Criticism

London Calling:
Cerith Wyn Evans

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.

Art Criticism

Tracey Emin
White Cube, London

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

Art Criticism

Anselm Kiefer
Visit to Barjac

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.

 
 
 

Art Criticism

Dennis Hopper:
The Lost Album

“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’.

Credits:

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.

Art Criticism

Malevich
Tate Modern
London

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)

Credits:
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

Art Criticism

Nature Recast
Eliis O’Connell
London

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 sculpture touches on the universal need for harmony and transcendence in a largely uncertain and fragmented world.

 

 

 

Art Criticism

Martyrs
Bill Viola
St. Pauls Cathedral, London

It was a cold wet Bank Holiday Monday as I climbed the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral and made my way down the right hand aisle to the four screens of Bill Viola’s recently installed video, Martyrs, hoping, in the dank greyness, for a little spiritual nurture. I expected the screens to be bigger, more like those of his famous Nantes Triptych where the viewer is engulfed by the processes of birth and death being enacted out in front of them. Originally conceived to be shown in a 17th century chapel in the Musée des Beaux Arts in Nantes in 1992, it employs the triptych form, traditionally used in Western art for religious paintings, to represent through the medium of video, Viola’s contemporary spiritual iconography. But the individual videos in St. Paul’s, each based on the four fundamental elements and encased side by side in a simple metal frame like a modern altar screen, are much smaller, closer to the size of traditional paintings.

Encountering Bill Viola’s images within this bulwark of Anglicanism implies a certain ecumenicalism, as though the church no longer minds much whether art works are ‘traditionally’ Christian, so long as they are broadly ‘spiritual’. The canon chancellor of St. Paul’s, the Reverend Mark Oakley, describes the piece as “not explicitly Christian… but a Christian looking at it will find resonances”. A crucified man hangs upside down by his feet, as water pours over him, in the far right screen. St. Peter was crucified in this way and lived by water. The scene also suggests full baptismal immersion and subsequent redemption as the hanging figure ascends feet-first, arms outstretched like an angel’s wings. For non-Christians the image might elicit darker thoughts of water-boarding and torture. It’s a work open to interpretation by those of faith and those of no faith, and asks the prescient question: what is worth dying for?

Viola is one of the artists who must be credited with moving video into the mainstream. Three of this year’s Turner prize nominees use the form as their chosen medium. But he has his detractors as well as supporters. One critic savagely described The Passions, shown at The National Gallery in London, as “a master of the overblown…tear-jerking hocus-pocus and religiosity” and, it’s true, that he does walk a fragile line between the ineffable and the naffly bathetic. Yet the Nantes Triptych, which simultaneously features a woman in labour, a man submerged in water and an image of the artist’s dying mother has rarely been bettered as a visual expression of the cycle of life and death, while in Tiny Deaths, made in 1993 and again on show at Tate Modern, ghostly figures emerge in a darkened space, where light and sound bring about potent moments of drama.

Fire, Water, Air and Earth have long been used by neo-pagans and occultists to represent the forces of nature and spiritual aspects of ourselves and our relationship to the divine. Their physical properties were considered to be the outward manifestation of the Elements themselves. The human organism was supposed to contain all four elements. Disruption of their delicate harmony was believed to give rise to disease. These elements were also thought to form man’s character: choleric, sanguine, melancholic or phlegmatic. According to Galen, the prominent Greek physician, the four humours: yellow bile (fire), black bile (earth), blood (air), and phlegm (water) were used by Hippocrates to describe the human body. Fire was primarily hot and secondarily dry. Air primarily wet and secondarily hot. Water primarily cold and secondarily wet. Earth primarily dry and secondarily cold. This elemental system, was also adopted into medieval alchemy. The videos in St. Paul’s start in stillness. A crouched figure, reminiscent of Caliban, is hunkered amid a pile of earth. Slowly he stands up and unfolds like a flower as the soil blows off him. On the next screen is a woman, her feet and hands bound by rope. She wears a simple white shift. As a wind beings to blow she is wafted backwards and forwards by its force. In the adjacent video a black man sits on a chair. Gradually individual sparks drop down beside him before engulfing him in flames. Martyrs burnt at the stake as heretics come to mind, as do the cataclysmic events of 9/11 when so many died for so-called ideological beliefs. Ethnically motivated crimes such as the necklacing of South African victims during apartheid with burning rubber tyres are also invoked. As the video cycle concludes the inverted figure ascends into the air and disappears in a cascade of water, while the other three close their eyes and turn their faces heavenwards in beatific contemplation.

Viola has talked of having roots in “both eastern and western art as well as spiritual traditions, including Zen Buddhism, Islamic Sufism, and Christian mysticism.” He has travelled to meet the Dali Lama in northern India and while some may describe his as a pick-and-mix Glastonbury religiosity, others will find it refreshing that a contemporary artist eschews easy irony to engage with big philosophical ideas. Of course, what he is doing is appropriating the historic symbolism of great European religious art: the frescos of Giotto, the panels of Duccio, the paintings of El Greco. There’s a timeless quality to his images that looks back to the Quattrocento and Renaissance, as well as to the present day with its complex political events.

It has been argued that ritual is not a response to meaning, but a way of creating meaning in order to fill the Void. Viola explores the spaces between representation and reality, expression and experience allowing for critical and creative thinking that is neither dogmatic nor didactic. At his best he creates milieus that are inclusive rather than exclusive, where we are both subject and ‘other’, ‘other ‘and subject, beyond easy classification. In these spaces he gives us the chance to explore the ground between the body and the spirit, between other-worldliness and the material. In an era where we seem to have been left with only the eternal present of late capitalism, where nerves are frayed by the recent European political earthquakes, where the centre seems not to be holding and, as Yeats warned, the best seem to lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity, Bill Viola’s work appears to offer ways in which to consider the broadly sacred in a complex secular world.

Martyrs is on view at St. Paul’s Cathedral. Tiny Deaths is showing at Tate Modern, London SE1 until Spring 2015.

Art Criticism

The Power and The Glory

In this final look at the emerging dominance of women in the gallery network, Sue Hubbard meets three highly experienced apparatchikswith the power to influence how contemporary art is understood today.

THE PAINTERS ANGELICA Kauffman and Mary Moser were deeply involved in the formation of the Royal Academy in 1768. Yet when Johann Zoffany painted The Academicians they were nowhere to be seen. It was only male artists. The art world has historically been a male dominated place. But something has changed. Not only are women artists everywhere doing their stuff but women gallery directors are now running the show. Penelope Curtis presiding over the much talked about re-vamp of Tate Britain, Liz Gilmore at the new Jerwood Space in Hastings, and Victoria Pomeryaccepting the challenge of bringing art, via the Turner Contemporary, to Margate. STATE caught up with the directors of three important London spaces – Jenni Lomaxof Camden Arts Centre, Julia Peyton-Jones of the Serpentine and Iwona Blazwik of the Whitechapel – to discuss this development.

CAMDEN ARTS CENTRE

Jenni Lomax has been the director of Camden Arts Centre since 1990. She ‘never set out to be a director’, having studied Fine Art at Maidstone before heading up the Community Education and Public Programmes at the Whitechapel Art Gallery throughout the 1980s. Education is at the core of her philosophy.

‘There were few female role models when I was young,’ she says.  ‘Joanna Drew who worked for the Arts Council and was director of the Hayward Gallery from 1987 until 1992 was a massive influence. But I like to feel that being a woman doesn’t influence what I do. I think that my background in making art colours the sort of work I want to show. I’m not an art historian, so I discovered art history from a contemporary perspective at the Whitechapel. I find concepts and ideas more interesting than art historical perspectives. I start with something in the present. The shows we put on at Camden have a pattern woven through them between old and new, young and dead artists.  It’s important there’s a connection to the world in some way; that the work has something to say beyond the subject of art. We don’t have a target audience.

‘This is a community gallery and open to anyone and because of the studios it’s always been a place of making as well as showing. I’m concerned to help artists realise their ideas. They don’t have to be commercial. We don’t have the same pressures as the Tate. I like to think of us as the PhD of the art world. We can show mid-career artists. Those who’ve not shown in London or we can re-introduce artists who’ve been neglected. When I started there were very few galleries in London. It was all rather enclosed. The Whitechapel was pioneering in the 80s. Over the last 20 to 30 years, things have opened up. Become more European. There are much bigger audiences now. People are less intimidated.’

Can art make a difference? Can it be a life-changing experience? ‘Well I hate art that has to be coupled with something else – such as “art and science” – to make it palatable. Art should be about art. Not all artists are good people but, at their best, they help us see things from a different perspective.’

But when newness and shock have become the orthodoxy, doesn’t it become harder to be original? ‘Yes it’s harder to shock. But we can shock against prevailing taste and fashion. There are still possibilities for shifting people’s expectations. There are young artists and small galleries who make work between the cracks of commercial spaces. I’d like Camden not to be just a showcase but a place for thinking about and making work. We still have a ceramics studio here and everyone wants a go!’


THE SERPENTINE

Visiting Julia Peyton-Jones, the co-director of the Serpentine, the name of Joanna Drew comes up again. ‘She was a great influence, a marvellous leader, sensitive and sympathetic. I worked with her when I was a curator at the Hayward. Men are traditionally hunter gatherers. But we now live in a multi-tasking world and women are good at that.’

Like Jenni Lomax, Julia Peyton-Jones studied painting. She attended the Royal College of Art and worked as a practising artist in London and a lecturer in Fine Art at Edinburgh College of Art, moving to the Hayward Gallery in 1988 as curator of exhibitions. In 1991, she became director of the Serpentine, responsible for exhibitions, education and public programmes, as well as for the annual architecture commission, theSerpentine Gallery Pavilion, which she conceived. Recently she oversaw the renovation of the former munitions depot on West Carriage drive, with architect Zaha Hadid’s Bedouin tent addition, which has become the new Serpentine Sackler Gallery. It was under the patronage of Diana, Princess of Wales, that the gallery received a £4 million renovation in 1998. Does being a woman have an influence on her directorship?

‘Well, I don’t know what it’s like to be a man! But I see myself as a shopkeeper. I like the place to look as good as it can. The Serpentine is the size of a large house. Exhibitions need to communicate and I’m interested in an audience for whom art my not be the first interest. This is a broader, more open world than the one I entered. Though outside the privileged west there’s still a lot of female inequality. The arguments aren’t over. Life is still very difficult for some women. But we are a public institution and we need to engage the public.

‘I’m proud of the fact that the gallery has free admission. Only 18% of our funding is from the government, so we need to raise £6 million every year. We live in a celebrity culture and money is a double edged sword.  But I’ve always been comfortable with the relationship between public and private and believe that the positives outweigh the negatives. Certainly for some people the only thing they know about us is the Serpentine Summer Party and its celebrity guests. When I started, art was tribal. A tiny world of friends and family. There might be 20 people at a private view.  Art is a choice in a busy world. I’m concerned with how going to see an exhibition competes in terms of time with other things. Our role is to show artists who are part of an international debate and not usually shown in London and the UK. We are the 60th best attended gallery in the world.’

So what does she consider to be the role of contemporary art? ‘To reflect back the world in which we live against the cacophony of daily life. I’m attracted by the artist’s wonder at the ordinary. An artist such as Gabriel Orozco puts me in touch with what is all too easily forgotten. The challenge for the artist is how to keep things fresh in a commercial world and maintain a unique voice. It’s hard to remain untouched by the system. I think an artist like Phyllida Barlow manages that. But truly great artists are rare and the art world is fickle.’


WHITECHAPEL ART GALLERY

From leafy Kensington Gardens to the gritty streets of Whitechapel, with its very different demography. Founded in 1901 to ‘bring great art to the people of the East End of London’, the Whitechapel Art Gallery occupies a distinctive arts and crafts building designed by Charles Harrison Townsend. The first exhibition included the Pre-Raphaelites, Constable, Hogarth and Rubens and attracted 206,000 local people. But, by the 1960s and ‘70s, it was being displaced by newer venues such as the Hayward Gallery. Then, in the 1980s, it enjoyed a new lease of life underNicholas Serota and then Catherine Lampert. In 2001,Iwona Blazwick became director. One of her first responsibilities was to oversee a £13.5 million expansion of the building.

Iwona Blazwick studied English and Fine Art at Exeter University. From 1984 to 1986 she was director of AIR Gallery and then Director of Exhibitions at the ICA, before becoming an independent curator in Europe and Japan, and a commissioning editor for Contemporary Art at Phaidon Press. From 1997 to 2001, she was head of Exhibitions and Displays at Tate Modern. What does she think of this burgeoning of female gallery directors?

‘Well women, historically, weren’t represented in collections or museum programmes. Women painters were seen as second class. These exclusions make us aware of other exclusions. When I was a baby curator, the London art world wasn’t international. I feel feminism is one of the last avant-gardes. It became a consciousness raising exercise to confront all sorts of exclusions. Women’s work still doesn’t command the same prices as men’s. At one time women’s shows would draw comments. Now they don’t. Institutions aren’t static monoliths. Feminism was the virus that infiltrated institutions allowing them to change, enrich and evolve.

‘At the Whitechapel we have a very fruitful relationship with the private sector. The Max Mara Art Prize for Women, which is run in collaboration with us, celebrates the aesthetic and intellectual contribution women artists bring to the contemporary art scene in the UK. The winning artist is given a six month residency in Italy and the chance to show her work. And we’re involved with the Louis Vuitton Young Arts Project that embodies the brand’s creative spirit and its tradition of arts patronage.’

She also mentions Theaster Gates. Born in 1973 in Chicago, this African- American installation artist is committed to the revitalisation of poor neighbourhoods through combining urban planning and art practices.

‘This is an alternative strategy,’ she suggests, ‘to corporate art. A different way of doing things. I also believe galleries have a responsibility not to overexpose artists or show them too early. Our role at the Whitechapel is to navigate space in a crowded cultural terrain. We’re not the Tate or the Hayward. We try and keep a finger on the zeitgeist and show work that has some philosophical and intellectual dimension that repays analysis, work that is historic and geographic in scope. Our audience is our peers and aficionados but we’re also a public gallery and there’s been a broadening of audiences.

‘British culture has changed over the last 20 years. There’s been a move away from British iconoclasm, the sceptical and the fear of pleasure, along with an embedded hatred of modernism. Tate Modern, the Fourth Plinth and the Turner Prize have helped us all. We’re a betting nation. We all like to bet on the winner of the Turner Prize.’

Where does she think new influences will come from?  ‘I think the old is the new now. This generation is fascinated with the past. The repressed of communist Europe, the silenced of China, the history of South America.It’s a rich terrain. New economies are looking back at archives. Where there were distortions, where artists were excluded, they are now being rediscovered. It’s an interesting time.’

Art Criticism

The Maestà
Opera Metropolitana Museum
Siena

Siena, a mediaeval city of windy streets, dark alleys and red roofs is one of Italy’s jewels. It may now be full of school children and tourists eating ice cream as they wander amongst the stylish shops or stop to have a drink in the Piazza del Campo – which twice yearly is turned into a horse racetrack for that lunatic and partisan stampede, the Palio – but it was in the Middle Ages that Siena reached its zenith. Having been ruled by the Longobards, then the Franks, it passed into the hands of the Prince-Bishops. During the 12th century these were overthrown by Consuls who set up a secular government. It was then that Siena attained the political and economic importance that led to its rivalry with that other gilded Tuscan city, Florence. The 12th century saw the construction of many beautiful buildings: numerous towers, nobles’ houses, Romanesque churches, culminating in the construction of the famous black and white duomo.

The great age of Sienese art arguably started with Duccio. No contemporary accounts of him, nor any personal documents, have survived. Though there are many records about him in municipal archives: records of changing of address, payments, civil penalties and contracts that give some idea of the life of the painter. Little is known of his painting career. Many believe he studied under Cimabue, while others think that he may have actually traveled to Constantinople and learned directly from a Byzantine master.

As a young man Duccio probably worked in Assisi, though he spent virtually his entire life in Siena. He’s first mentioned in Sienese documents in 1278 in connection with commissions for 12 wooden panels for the covers of the municipal books. In 1285, a lay brotherhood in Florence commissioned him to complete an altarpiece, known now as the Rusellai Madonna, for the church of Santa Maria Novella. By that date he must already have had something of a reputation, which guaranteed the quality of his work.

At the beginning of the 14th century Siena was competing with Florence for political and artistic supremacy in central Italy. Duccio seems to have played an important role in this economic and artistic expansion. In 1295, along with other masters from the cathedral stonemasons’ lodge, he was appointed to a committee that was to decide where a new fountain should be installed. Seven years later, in 1302, he received payments for an altarpiece with a predella – now lost – which he was due to paint for a chapel in the Palazzo Publico, the seat of the municipal government. The last reference to him in any municipal archives is dated October 1319. In it his seven children declare they are foregoing their inheritance in favour of their mother. This implies their father must have died sometime around 1318.  But in 1308 the city of Siena commissioned him to produce a panel for the cathedral’s high altar. This work is now known as The Maestà.

It was on June 9, 1311 that the completed painting was brought into the cathedral. A contemporary chronicler wrote: “And on that day when it (the Maestà) was brought into the cathedral, all workshops remained closed, and the bishop commanded a great host of devoted priests and monks to file past in solemn procession. This was accompanied by all the high officers of the Commune and by all the people; all honorable citizens of Siena surrounded said panel with candles held in their hands, and women and children followed humbly behind. They accompanied the panel amidst the glorious pealing of bells after a solemn procession on the Piazza del Campo into the very cathedral; and all this out of reverence for the costly panel… The poor received many alms, and we prayed to the Holy Mother of God, our patron saint, that she might in her infinite mercy preserve this our city of Siena from every misfortune, traitor or enemy.”

The huge altarpiece was originally over 5 meters high and 5 meters long and painted on both sides. The whole panel remained on the cathedral’s high altar until 1506, when it was then displayed on a different altar. In 1711 it was dismantled in order to distribute the panels between the two altars. This is the reason for the work’s fragmentary state. At first the whole frame, the predellas and the crowning sections were removed. The panel was then sawn into seven parts. The two predellas were each painted on a horizontally laid piece of wood, and could easily be taken apart. But the main panel posed a problem. On the front are eleven boards arranged vertically, to which five boards, laid horizontally, were nailed from the back. These had been glued and nailed together so it was difficult to saw in two. In the process of this barbarism the picture-surface was severely damaged – particularly the Madonna’s face and robes. It was not until 1956 that it was fully restored.

This philistinism had additional consequences. Once the whole structure was dismantled, several individual scenes found their way to museums or private collections. Others simply went missing. So the picture we have today of the Maestà is built up out of reconstructions. This is incomplete as the frame and five individual pictures have been lost. And art historians, as is their wont, have been unable to agree on the sequence of scenes depicted on both predellas and the reverse side.

The front panels make up a large enthroned Madonna and Child with saints and angels, and a predella of the Childhood of Christ with prophets. The reverse shows the Life of the Virgin and the Life of Christ in a total of forty-three small scenes. Several of these panels are now dispersed or lost. The base of the panel has an inscription that reads: “Holy Mother of God, be thou the cause of peace for Siena and life to Duccio because he painted thee thus.”  

There’s no evidence, however, that Duccio painted frescoes. His known works are on wood panel, painted in egg tempera and embellished with gold leaf. Duccio was the master of tempera and used the medium with delicacy and precision. He borrowed from Byzantine art with its gold backgrounds and familiar religious scenes but was more expressive and experimental. His paintings are full of warm color and exquisitely observed details, sometimes inlaid with jewels and ornamental fabrics. His use of modeling – the play of light and dark colors – reveals the bodies beneath the heavy drapery; hands, faces, and feet which, under his brush, became more rounded and three-dimensional. There’s also a new, complex organisation of figures, breaking down the sharp lines of Byzantine art. He was one of the first painters to place figures in architectural settings, to investigate depth and space. They also interact with tenderness and convey real emotion. This was something new. What he gives us is no longer simply an archetypal vision of Christ and the Virgin. It is a mother with her child. Though Duccio flirts with naturalism The Maestà still remains an object of heavenly veneration with its beautiful colours, but one that is capable of showing not only the divine but also human love.

Art Criticism

Peter Doig
Early Works
Michael Werner Gallery

DOI 122It takes a certain chutzpah for an artist to dig out his early student work and put it on display for the world to access, especially in a rarefied Mayfair Gallery hidden away in a gracious Georgian house just yards from Claridges Hotel. In the case of Peter Doig, such confidence may well be underwritten by the fact that his White Canoe – a dreamy painting of a boat reflected in a lake like some post-modern version of Charon’s craft – fetched the staggering sum of £5.7m in 2007 when put up for auction by Charles Saatchi.

Doig is something of an outsider. Born in Edinburgh in 1959, the son of a peripatetic shipping accountant, he lived in Trinidad from the age of two to seven, then moved to Canada until he was nineteen, where he took up such northern rituals as skiing and ice hockey. After leaving for London DOI 179to study painting at St. Martin’s, followed by an MA at the Chelsea College of Art, he supported himself as a dresser at the English National Opera and became absorbed in the emerging club scene frequented by the likes of performance artist Leigh Bowery and experimental film makers such as Isaac Julien. Chelsea College was a very different proposition, then, to Goldsmiths, the conceptual kindergarten that spawned Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas and Angus Fairhurst under the éminence grise Michael Craig Martin. It was full of painters still interested in the possibilities of what paint could do, despite the popular mantra that painting was a dead form. Doig was never allied to the conceptualist YBAs, or included in Saatchi’s watershed show Sensation at the Royal Academy in 1997.  And, unlike many of the YBAs, he continues to work alone, without a studio full of assistants. It doesn’t appeal to him be surrounded by people he has to keep busy; to become a production line. He likes the “simplicity” of paint; “the directness, the dabbling quality”; and still believes in the possibilities of being able to surprise and innovate in this most ancient of media. People are always asking him when he’s going to make a film. But he’s not interested.  His outsider status has meant that like many émigrés, he responds best to places he knows when he is not actually there. Canada was painted whilst in London, the Caribbean from the vantage point of his Tribeca Studio.

DOI 123

His work is highly sought after and appears now in most major museum collections. But what makes him so popular? What is the magic mix? Well, partly, it’s that his work is beautiful and easy to comprehend – figures, dappled snowstorms, and forests evocative of Gauguin and Matisse – often stolen images that have spent years being re-arranged in his head or carried around in sketch books, before making it into the world in luminous seductive colour.  There is about many of his works a hippy-trippy quality; creation through the lens of a dream. His works of the early 1990s rely heavily on Symbolists such as Edward Munch and Emil Nolde. Other sources are as diverse as Chagall, the Chicago Imagists and A.R. Penck. Doig is a sophisticated visual thinker who appropriates not only from abstraction and narrative painting but from photography and cinema. That he has now made his home in Trinidad has led some to describe him as a latter-day Gauguin: white man on the run from the corporate metropolis. But that’s not quite fair. Trinidad has presented a challenge. As Stéphane Aquin wrote in his essay to Doig’s recent exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery, Doig understands Trinidad’s ‘post-colonial condition… ‘from the inside'”. Yet the question remains as to how a contemporary painter who acknowledges a debt to the expressiveness of modernism can create new work that is neither derivative nor kitsch? Doig often walks a knife edge between bravura and beauty. But there’s always the problem about his work as to whether Keats’ dictum that ‘beauty is truth and truth beauty’ holds. Certainly there is unabashed and luxuriant sensuality but at times this seems to be constructed and ersatz rather than ‘truthful’. This may be because he doesn’t paint from life and that unlike other so-called British greats of the 20th century – Freud and Auerbach for example – this creates is a distant between the artist and subject so that the result is more technical virtuosity than felt expression.

DOI 126

It is interesting, therefore, to find that his current pastoral oeuvres bear little resemblance to the work he did at the start of his career. Many of the 40 paintings from the mid-late 80s, when Doig was doing his bachelor’s degree and MA in London, on show at Michael Werner’s Gallery, are urban and metropolitan in contrast to the romantic landscapes that have established his reputation. New York is there in the nervy edgy lines of Sleepwalking, 1983 . A young woman seen from an aerial view point, paces the streets that are painted with raw, textured marks to denote the explosive energy of the city. It is there in Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom (the sublime) 1982, created through a mix of spraying, screening and pen-marking, where a large white car sits on top of the Chrysler building’s tall spire like some modernist religious relic.

In“I think it’s time…” 1982-1983 the city is picked out flatly in red, yellow and turquoise, and edged by a border of masks like an Egyptian frieze. While a cowboy appears in the foreground, a cigarette drooping from the corner of his lip.

DOI 141

Popular culture seeps from the pores of these paintings. Skyscrapers, burger bars and strippers abound. Doig, here, is an eclectic magpie with boundless cultural curiosity picking up things because they are shiny and appeal to his imagination. Cowboys are ubiquitous – Get off you High Horse, Roy Rogers, 1982. While Burger King, 1984  appropriates the motif of Hercules and the bull within a painting that has at its centre a black masked Tonto-like figure.

Doig’s habit of collaging images appropriated from a plethora of sources produces works that are enigmatic and ambivalent. But the effect can be alienating, closer to cartoon than to what is felt. That this is an artist interested in the physical qualities of paint, in its resilience and elasticity, is not in any doubt. To that degree he remains wedded to the modernist enterprise and its belief in materials, despite his eclectic subject matter. The only question is whether in this world of constructs he has anything really significant to say.


Credits:
“At the Edge of Town”, 1986
Oil on canvas
59 3/4 x 83 3/4 inches
152 x 213 cm
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“boom, boom, boom, boom (the sublime)”, 198
Oil on canvas
70 3/4 x 59 1/4 inches
180 x 150 cm
DOI 123
 
“Sleepwalking”, 1983
Oil on canvas
94 x 76 3/4 inches
239 x 195 cm
DOI 126
 
“Contemplating culture”, 1985
Oil on canvas
76 3/4 x 95 inches
195 x 241 cm
DOI 141
 
“I think it’s time…”, 1982-1983
Oil on canvas
71 x 93 3/4 inches
180.5 x 238 cm
DOI 179
 
All images are by Peter Doig courtesy of Michael Werner Gallery, New York and London

Art Criticism

Body Language
Saatchi Gallery

Painting is like the proverbial zombie. It’s supposed to be dead but it won’t lie down. The last 50 years in British art has been something of a paint-splattered war zone. Against the odds of prevailing abstraction, Pop and Conceptualism, painters such as Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud continued to paddle their own figurative canoes and create a dialogue with both art history and the body. In his über-gallery in Chelsea, that part of town which hasn’t seen any real artists since the ’60s and is now homeland to Russian oligarchs buying up swathes of London, Saatchi’s show, “Body Language,” explodes with a mix of the good, the bad and the ugly. There is, of course, a certain prurient irony in the title, given Saatchi’s hands around the throat of his now ex-wife Nigella Lawson, recently the subject of pages of press coverage.

Irony and cool still tiresomely dominate as in Dana Schutz’s Martin Maloney–style paintings of surreal picnics and self-devouring heads, or Michael Cline’s Otto Dix–inspired street scenes of societal breakdown and Eddie Martinez’ sloppy sub-Basquiat paintings, full of popular culture clichés, where art allusion supposedly meets the carnivalesque. In his bombastically large “Last Supper” (The Feast, 2010)—who does he think he is, Leonardo Da Vinci?—we are left sniggering (or sighing) as we spot Jesus as a red-nosed clown sitting amid Donald Duck and an alien. Everything reminds me of something else. Jansson Stegner’s elongated police ladies lying in languid poses, armed with phallic batons, are a cross between John Currin and The Death of Chatterton, an oil painting by the English pre-Raphaelite painter Henry Wallis. And Maikiko Kudo’s landscapes, with their lurking Manga pre-pubescents, borrow heavily from Peter Doig but with that added pedophilic twist so characteristic of much contemporary Japanese art.


Installation view, Marianne Vitale & Denis Tarasov
©Sam Drake, 2013
Image courtesy of the Saatchi Gallery, London

Western painting has a long historical tradition of depicting women. British artist Chantal Joffe’s derive from photographs but her fluid paint presents her subjects as wary and guarded rather than as objects for the male gaze. Particularly effective is her wall installation of small paintings, many of children, that mimics a photograph album. Uncanny and slightly disturbing, there’s a touch of Diane Arbus or Alice Neel about them. And there are a lot of U.S. artists, including the over-hyped Henry Taylor, with his flat, I-can’t-be-arsed-to-paint-any-better-than-this-or-it-just-wouldn’t-be-hip paintings. One shows two young black men strutting down the street with a disturbingly big dog. One has a towel over his shoulder, the other swigs from a bottle.

Some of the most arresting work is not painting but photography, such as the large C-prints of Russian gravestones by Denis Tarasov. The deceased are shown as they would like to be remembered. Mobster suits and fast cars, headscarves and jewelry or sitting in front of abundantly laid tables with champagne and bowls of fruit, like some Renaissance vanitas painting. And there is some truly horrible sculpture by the American Nathan Mabry. A pair of pre-Columbian–inspired skeletons sit crouched on top of a Donald Judd–style base, playing tongue tennis with their little flappy brass appendages. One has an erect penis under his tunic. In an act of hubris this is cast in bronze—it will be here forever. Justin Matherly’s contorted body shapes that wrap themselves ambiguously around Zimmer walking frames are made of pock-marked concrete. Though effective, I couldn’t help thinking of Louise Bourgeois and Sarah Lucas. Elsewhere there’s a whole gallery of Marianne Vitale’s gravestones. Made from reclaimed lumber they retain the notches and burn marks of their previous history. Certainly they evoke human presence, a lost crowd of the deceased. But why so many? The point would have been made with half the number.


Andra Ursuta, Vandal Lust, 2011, Trebuchet: wood, plastic, cardboard, elastic, rope, metal;
Body: foam, plastic, fabric, leather, wax,
© Andra Ursuta, 2011
Image courtesy of the Saatchi Gallery, London

This is a mishmash of a show. As if Saatchi is hedging his bets, just in case one of the artists should become the next big thing. This makes it what it really is—a commercial exhibition, despite the museum grandeur of the building. But there is one work I did find affecting. It takes up the whole final room. Andra Ursuta has put together a giant jerry-built trebuchet from bits of wood and cardboard like a child’s construction model. Hanging from it is a broken rope harness, while the opposite wall is damaged as if by a blow. Below lies a prone babushka figure. What has happened to her? There’s a frisson here between the Buster Keaton humor and the implicit tragedy. Ursuta’s childhood in Romania was much affected by the antics of the Soviet Union. Across the gallery is Crush, a flattened body, dark and leathery as if found in some Iron Age peat bog. It is a cast of the artist’s own body and lies squashed and flat on its back. Naked except for childish braids and trainers it has been splattered with artificial seminal fluid. This prostrate figure, which reaches back into the bogs of history and is a reminder of the violence still raging in parts of the world, stands out strongly amid the narcissistic razzmatazz of the rest of the show.

Art Criticism

Hannah Höch

In the 21st century we have largely lost touch with the avant-garde.  In an age of rapid technological change, where the new is invariably seen as good, the shocks and surprises, the eclecticism and flattening out of postmodernism have become the new orthodoxy. No one is upset by a pickled shark or, for that matter, a pickled anything else being art. In-your-face and gritty is what we exare anymore, nothing much to lose, in a society where what is ‘shocking’ is mostly an ersatz construct quickly appropriated by the economic mainstream.

But at the beginning of the 20th century things were different. Establishment ideas held sway and there was plenty to be radical about. Epic socio-political changes were afoot. The growth of industrialism, photography, cinema and mass media, as well as the gradual emancipation of women, along with the decimation that was raging throughout Europe resulting in two World Wars, formed a potent mix.

In 1912 Anna Therese Johanne Höch, who had been born in 1889 in Gotha, Germany, left her comfortable upper-middle class home for the cultural melting pot of Berlin. There she attended the craft-orientated School of Applied Arts, an education not uncommon for young women at the time. Here her cultural interests and an astute eye saw her turn traditional craft into something quite new. During the turbulent years of the First World War she met poets and painters, publishers and musicians, including that guru of junk art, Kurt Schwitters, just as Dadaism was hitting town. In August 1920, her radical interests led her to take part in the First International Dada Fair.

Employed as a pattern designer, creating illustrations, shapes and designs for Ullstein Verlag and its magazines, which were distributed to a new mass audience of young women interested not only in fashion but also in modern life styles, she was emphatic that the purpose of art was not to ‘decorate’ but to document the shifting values of a generation. Her early works show an inclination for composition, colour and form. And she had a penchant for embroidery. But it was embroidery as a feminist crie de coeur: “…you,…modern women, who feel that your spirit is in your work, who are determined to lay claim to your rights (economic and moral)…at least y-o-u should know that your embroidery work is a documentation of your era”

This exhibition at the Whitechapel is the first major show to showcase her work in Britain and brings together over 100 collages, photomontages, watercolours, and woodcuts from the 1920s to 1970s. Her role in the fashion industry influenced the highly original photomontages of her Dadaist period. In Hochfinanz (High Finance) 1923 or Der Vater (The Father) 1920, she creates uncanny images full of disquieting wit and biting satire that deconstruct not only the relationship between high finance and the military but also traditional sexual and gender roles. It’s not surprising looking at her work that this is the period that saw the rise of Freud. For many of Hoch’s images are like the psyche laid shockingly bare.

During the late 1920s she travelled round Europe and became friends with the likes of Piet Mondrian. She also began a relationship with the avant-garde female poet, Til Brugman, with whom she lived for ten years. Perhaps her unconventional Sapphic leanings allowed her to think outside the conventional box and explore the concept of the ‘New Woman’ within Weimer Germany, presenting debates not only about gender but also ethnic identity in a series of potent collages. Her photomontages from 1920s and early 30s Aus einem ethnographischen Museum (From an Ethnographic Museum) are unconventional and adventurous but, from a postcolonial standpoint, somewhat problematic. Her juxtapositions of European female bodies melded with appropriated African masks and other ethnographic objects appear, to modern sensibilities, rather ambiguous if not dubious. Her relationship to the ‘primitive other’ is far from clear. To give her the benefit of the doubt, perhaps she was groping towards some understanding of different cultures but, while original and visually exciting, her images often seem to symbolise something essentialist and chthonic, the exotic seen through middle-class western (and racist?) eyes. Her image Bäuerliches Brautpaar (Peasant Couple) 1931that includes the head of a black man in a homburg placed, without a body, on a pair of long leather boots beside the face of what is, possibly, a monkey in a blonde wig balanced on a child’s pair of socks and shoes, is really quite disquieting.

That Höch stayed in Germany (albeit working away in the quiet suburbs of Berlin) under the Third Reich raises complex questions about her relationship to the Nazis. That her work was discredited as degenerate does not necessarily exonerate her. So too were the paintings of that wonderful artist, Nolde. And he was, at one time, an active supporter of the Nazis. There is a temptation to sanitise Höch’s work in the light of modern feminism, to read the fractured images through postmodern eyes and talk of irony and fragmentation. But we can’t necessarily assume that to be the case. She was certainly an exciting artist but not all artists purport liberal ideals – look at Ezra Pound or Wyndham Lewis, to name but two.

Hannah Höch carried on working prolifically for over thirty years after the Second World War.  She continued to make challenging and varied collages which became noticeably more abstract as she returned to the visual patterning of her early career. Whilst she pushed the boundaries of the medium of collage and her work was certainly more than just pleasing abstractions, it is the darkly clever, sometimes funny, often highly disturbing earlier work that packs a punch. She touches on so many taboos: racism, miscegenation, transgender issues.

Höch took the new art of photomontage and created images that were biting, cruel, pertinent and witty. It’s as if she lifted the lid on a number of repressed longings and desires. Works like Unvollendt (Antique Frieze) 1930, with their dislocate body parts, echo the dark erotica of Hans Bellmer. Elsewhere woman’s bodies transmogrify into skyscrapers and strange dolls. She liked tribal objects and black bodies for their strangeness and difference. To us it may seem politically incorrect but her fascination held a certain honesty. She was interested in what lay below polite surfaces. “The abject,” Julia Kristeva wrote in Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, “shatters the wall of repression and its judgements. It takes the ego back to its source on the abominable limits from which, in order to be, the ego has broken away….” 

Credits:

Rohrfeder Collage (Reed Pen Collage) 1922. Collage 28.5x22cm. Landesbank Berlin AG

Für ein Fest gemacht (Made for a Party) 1936. Collage. 36×19.8 cm. Collection of IFA, Stuttgart

Ohne Titel (Aus einem ehtnographicschen Museum) (Untitled[From an Ethnographic Museum]) 48.3×32.1cm. Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, Hamburg. Photo courtesy of Maria Thrun

Staatshäupter (Heads of State). Collage. Photomontage 16.2×22.3cm. Collection of IFA, Stuttgart

Art Criticism

Uproar! The First 50 years of The London Group 1913-63

In the autumn of 1997 the Royal Academy of Art mounted Sensation, an exhibition of artists promoted by Charles Saatchi that included Damien Hirst, Michael Landy and Marcus Harvey’s notorious painting of Myra Hindley. As the title of the exhibition suggested its aim was to shock. Many might be forgiven for thinking that such an act of épater les bourgeois was something new on the British art scene.  But a fascinating exhibition, Uproar! at the Ben Uri Gallery, which marks the centenary of the London Group, an artists’ exhibiting society set up at the beginning of the 20thcentury to provide a radical alternative to the staid intellectualism of institutions such as Royal Academy, (rather ironic given its later involvement with Sensation) shows that rocking the Establishment boat is nothing new.

Charting The London Group’s first 50 years, the show reveals its complex history, its arguments, schisms and ideological discords.  The choice of name signalled inclusivity, rather than the neighbourhood parochialism of the Fitzroy Street Group, The Camden Town Group and the Bloomsbury Group. Created at a time of exceptional turmoil in the British art world it brought together painters influenced by European Cubism and Futurism, and survived the early resignation of its founding fathers, the Danish-French artist, Lucien Pissarro, then living in London, and Walter Sickert, to continue to this day. From the onset the group’s radicalism enraged many diehard critics. The Connoisseur snottily complained that in the work of Epstein and others ‘the artistic tendencies of the most advanced school of modern art are leading us back to the primitive instincts of the savage.’ That many of the artists then panned now rank among the pantheon of British modernist greats might give some critics pause for thought.

From the start uproar raged both inside and outside the Group. There was press hostility to the ultra-modernists, rivalry between the Group and other exhibiting societies such as the New English Art Club, not to mention the warfare between Camden Townites and Wyndham Lewis’s Vortecists, between the Surrealists and realists, as well as differing political attitudes exemplified by Mark Gertler’s anti-war stance and Wyndham Lewis’s bellicose right-wing posturing.

At the Ben Uri Gallery curators Rachel Dickson and Sarah MacDougall have created a show that includes fifty works from fifty different artists who were members of the Group between 1913 and 1963. Composed mainly of pieces shown in past Group exhibitions, a significant proportion of the work comes from the gallery’s own collection. In contrast to the Bloomsbury aesthetic there is a strong Jewish presence. The ‘Whitechapel Boys’, who included Mark Gertler, David Bomberg and Jacob Epstein, were united by ethnicity and friendship and the need to find exhibiting alternatives outside the establishment rather than by style. Founded in July 1915, in the Jewish ghetto of London’s East End, the Ben Uri Gallery was set up in response to these restrictions. The London Group’s open submissions policy encouraged many Jewish émigrés to submit work, as it did many women. Among images of a lost Jewish way of life is David Bomberg’s savagely dark painting Ghetto Theatre, 1920, its vertiginous balcony crammed with shabbily dressed spectators with mask-like faces.

Hung chronologically the exhibition is an education in British Art history. It is also a record of social change and a desire to make sense of a complex, conflicted world in the midst of rapid flux. The exhibition starts with Harold Gilman’s Fauvist style portrait of Sylvia Gosse, followed by Ethel Sands delightful Vuillard-like interior that shows a lost upper middle class world of good taste, quiet and privilege. This stands in contrast to Spencer Gore’s depiction of Harold Gilman’s Letchworth house designed by the garden city architects Barry Parker and Stanley Unwin as part of a modernist utopian project. John Bratby’s 1955 Kitchen Interior stoked the uproar in the press with its depiction of the drudgery and squalor of much post-war British life. The domestic chaos, the black frying pan nailed to the wall, the Lux soapbox, the mean little gas stove depicted in thick gloopy paint, all speak not only of hardship but of a lost bohemianism.

But it was Mark Gertler’s 1914 The Creation of Eve which was the painting that caused most media uproar. Already up in arms against modernism, an increasingly jingoistic press considered this Blakian image with its Rousseau-style Garden of Eden and its cavorting Eve as ‘impertinence with a seasoning of blasphemy’. The Morning Post declared it ‘hunnishly indecent, while Gertler found, to his surprise, that ‘some people in a rage [had] stuck a label on the belly of my little ‘Eve’ with ‘Made in Germany’ written on it.’

Numerous other insights are offered into the period including Nevinson’s angular and disturbing 1916 Returning to the Trenches. Here men returning to the front seem little more than cannon fodder, part of a relentless military machine. While Charles Ginner’s 1916, Roberts, a depiction of a hospital ward where the moustachioed men stare into space from their iron bedspreads covered with cheerful floral bedspreads, shows the traumatic aftermath of war.  There are paintings from the Bloomsbury Group that now seem rather nostalgic, such as Duncan Grants idyllic Window, South of France, 1928 that depict a world recovering from the ravages of one war and not yet shaken by another.

There is a wonderful painting by Ruskin Spear of a dark London winter in 1940 when then only colour in the tenebrous street is a woman’s red hat and experimental abstraction from Victor Pasmore, Mary and Kenneth Martin. There are also numerous women. Some relatively well known, such as Eileen Agar, and others such as Dorothy Mead with her stunning Self-Portrait, 1960, who are surely ripe for reappraisal.

This is a fascinating exhibition that shows the ferment, the maelstrom of ideas and the rather undervalued richness of British art in the first half of the 20th century.


Credits:

Ethel Sands, The Pink Box, 1913, Oil on canvas,
Private Collection

John Bratbury, Kitchen Interior, 1955-56, Oil on Board, Williamson Art Gallery and Museum, Birkenhead; Wirral Museums Service, presented by the Contemporary Art Society

Mark Gertler, Creation of Eve, 1914, Oil on canvas, Private collection

C.R.W. Nevinson, Returning to the Trenches, 1916, Dry point etching, British Museum

Duncan Grant, The Window, South of France (A View from a Window), 1928, Oil on canvas, Manchester City Gallery, Gift of the Contemporary Art Society

Dorothy Mead, Self Portrait, 1960, Oil on canvas, Ruth Borchard Collection c/o Robert Travers Work of Art Ltd. Piano Nobile, London

Art Criticism

Jake and Dinos Chapman: Come and See

ScreenHunter_462 Dec. 16 09.50

In their last White Cube show it was nasty Nazis doing rude things in public. This time, at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery in Kensington Gardens, elegantly revamped by Zaha Hadid, it’s the Klu Klax Klan. Larger than life figures wearing hand-knitted hippy rainbow socks and Birkenstocks, watching us from behind their pointy hoods, watching them. The fact that the Princess Diana Memorial is just down the road might, for those of an ironic disposition, raise a wry smile. It seems that the professional bad boys of Hoxton, Jake and Dinos Chapman, are working their way through the list of clichéd baddies. What next? Members of Al-Qaeda in polka-dot bikinis?

They are very clever. Clever in the sense that they anticipate all criticism of their work and incorporate it into what they do. The whole point is to fart loudly in the drawing room, to épater le bourgeois, as if the bourgeoisie actually care very much, for we’ve seen it all before. Their comic book imagery looks tired and passé: the appropriation of and drawing on older art work, the sexualised manikins of children, the Boy’s Own Air Fix models of Waffen-SS killing fields – the piles of maimed bodies, the severed heads, the disembowellings and Nazi symbols ironized by the McDonalds logo – like some Disney version of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. That the self-appointed naughty boy of literature, Will Self, (forgive the pun) was asked to write their catalogue essay is no surprise. Boys like gangs.

When interviewed they are extremely articulate. They use all the right jargon. The bronze sculptures at the beginning of the exhibition play with modernist notions of the body as machine and bronze as the ultimate fine art material. Their Little Death Machine (Castrated) is a Heath Robinson contraption of hammers, circular saws, castrated penises and sliced brains.  It’s as if Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein had collaborated with Goya. Of course the whole point of these school-boy doodlings – as if under the desk, away from the teacher’s gaze, they’ve drawn the rudest and naughtiest things they could think of – is that they’ve been cast in bronze and are now ‘art’. You can almost hear the Chapmans guffaw in the wings as they watch visitors peer at each piece in deep concentration as though some arcane truth might be revealed. But the titles: I want to be popular, Striptease, I laughed in the face of adversity but it laughed back louder show their hard-wired cynicism. The Chapman brothers don’t do ‘meaningful’, though they do do irritating particularly well.

ScreenHunter_462 Dec. 16 09.50

But for all the fucking stuffed animals, the multi-headed infant manikins with their anal orifices, their real subject is not horror or shock but art. Don’t be fooled into thinking that they’re making sociological comments on violence, ecology, or cooperate business. They’re simply having fun at art’s expense, enjoying biting the hand that feeds them like teenage boys that piss off their parents who, all the while, are paying off their student loans.

Their position towards art is made clear in their Kino Klub (2013) film. I have to admit that it’s quite funny (even though very annoying). Particularly when Jake and Dinos’s adult heads graphically emerge from the vagina of their agonised mother, (Samantha Morton), and the scenes where the lives of Van Gogh, Warhol and Pollock are choreographed with paint-filled Marigolds. One of the funniest episodes is a sex orgy played out with inflated rubber gloves. But despite the laughs the real target is art itself and the romantic notion of the lone artist.  ‘Serious’ artists are seen as losers. In pseudo-documentary style their apparent former art teacher, played by David Thewlis – all bohemian black-rimmed glasses and polo neck jumper – gives an intense analysis of the ‘line’ straight to camera, as a class of life students do feeble drawings of the model in the background. Later he’s shown breaking down in his shabby bedsit as he destroys a painting that’s not turned out to be a ‘masterpiece’, unable to get to grips with Beckett’s mantra of modernism and expressionism ‘fail again fail better’ where art is taken to be a spiritual journey into the deep void of the self. Among the new stuff is a series of huge wooden knocked-together sculptures that mock the work of the less than successful (in his time) Kurt Schwitters and notions of isolated, hard-won creativity.

HG3_4864 Press Page

It’s the angst of creativity, its lonely failings, its uncertainties and wrong turns that is the Chapmans’ target. Failure and self-expression are the subjects about which they are most vituperative. Like bullies in the playground they can sniff it out and they don’t like the smell. Art for them is not a way of examining the world, of making social comment or deciding our place within the nature of things. They may want us to think so; though, frankly, as Scarlet O’Hara once said, they probably don’t give a damn. For them art has one function. It’s the path to fame, notoriety and riches and it’s probably a lot more fun than being a banker. They make their cynicism very plain. And if we’re foolish enough to be taken in by their work, to search for meaning or gravitas – well, then, that’s our fault for being duped and, presumably, they couldn’t be happier.

Credits:

Jake and Dinos Chapman
Installation view, Come and See
Serpentine Sackler Gallery, London
(29 November 2013 – 9 February 2014)
© 2013 Hugo Glendinning

Serpentine Sackler Gallery until 9th February 2014
information@serpentinegalleries.org

Art Criticism

Painting Now: Five Contemporary Artists
Tate Britain

Painting has now been declared dead more times than the proverbial cat with nine lives. Yet it refuses to lie down quietly and expire, unprepared to hand over the aesthetic reins entirely to competing visual art forms. Painting Now at Tate Britain aims to give wider exposure to five-British born artists. The exhibition in no way claims to be representative of any particular movement, nor is it an overarching survey. As one of the show’s curators, Andrew Wilson, claimed: “Painting is a many-headed beast, and we could have made the show with five other artists or ten or twenty”. Seemingly diverse, what these five all share is a concern with the language of painting itself. This takes place against the debate begun in the 1970s, which suggested that painting had little new to say in the wake of film, photography and installation.

Yet the traditions of painting go back to the cave. To draw and paint, to make marks, has long been a definition of what it means to be human. Yet within the arena of modernism painting became not so much a window onto the world or the soul – concerned with philosophical questions about origins and meaning – but a solipsistic investigation of its own forms and processes.

The exhibition starts with Tomma Abts, winner of the 2006 Turner Prize, and includes work by Simon Ling, Lucy McKenzie, Gillian Carnegie and Catherine Story.  An air of quietude and restraint runs through the galleries.  The arena in which these artists allow themselves to operate is tight and constrained. The works don’t suggest subterranean depths or passions. They are concerned with observation, technique and the distillation of composition. Measured and academic, they are intelligent, thoughtful and cold.

TA2012_03_Jeels_cropped2

Abts work might loosely be described as ‘abstract’ but, in fact, is not ‘abstracted’ in the sense that the imagery is drawn from the ‘real world’. Her compositions of wedges, triangles and wavy lines are not graphic, in that they suggest something familiar beyond themselves. Rather they have a sculptural presence and are concerned with pattern and illusion. Meticulously painted, without the use of masking tape or rulers, the language is, nevertheless, tight-lipped. Her works don’t open themselves to metaphor or allusion. There are no correlations with human emotion; though the play on different depths does create an atmosphere that is both unstable and edgy.

TA2012_03_Jeels_cropped2

There is also an uncanny stillness to Gillian Carnegie’s paintings. Whilst apparently figurative – vases of flowers, cats and staircases – the subject recedes to become simply the armature around which the painting is built.  Based on spaces that might be real her canvases have another worldly quality, like images in dreams. Her flowers nod at art history (Chardin). Though these series of stark bouquets are too hermetic to be an investigation on the passing of time or the change of light, in the manner of Monet’s Haystacks. Rather they speak of absence and isolation. The black cats on empty landings have something of the loneliness of an Edward Hopper.  A spiral staircase in monochromatic greys has a haunting quality. Where does it go? Where has it come from? But meaning is refused, as if altogether too dangerous. Enigmatic and silent, these works seem full of the shadows of death.

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Lucy Mackenzie who studied decorative art such as tompe l’oeil at art school in Brussels stretches the idea of what painting can be the furthest. Using her 3-D skills she has built a walk-in sculptural environment and created and an installation of images, drawings, photographs and diagrams, pinned to kitchen corkboards. Catherine Story’s paintings of half-familiar forms have a weird distancing quality. Film and cubism are strong elements, as is sculpture. But all autobiography and emotion have been erased so that looking at them feels a bit like sitting in front of a car park surveillance monitor. There’s little, here, that is animated, little that is human. Hers is an inert world.

Of all the artists Simon Ling is the most expressive and lyrical. His plein air paintings of non-descript urban areas such as Old Street roundabout (London’s Silicon Valley) and his elaborate tableaux fabricated in the studio, reflect traditional qualities of direct observation. A shabby shop front, half covered with a metal grill, its windows stuffed full of old computer screens, hard drives and obsolete electrical equipment, not only makes reference to the grid of modernist painting but creates a metaphor of loss, neglect and

Catherine_Story_Lovelock_I_20102

Catherine Story, Lovelock (I), 2010

abandonment.  His office windows are blank and the little shop selling cheap rucksacks and handbags not only provides him with an opportunity for some virtuoso painting but implicitly speaks of human desolation. The crumbling 19th century facades with their elaborate door pediments and modern replacement windows suggest the social changes overtaking this once close knit east London community. A painting that hones in on a battered security alarm suggests an underlying social anxiety.

This exhibition seems to illustrate that painting is still unsure what it might do in a contemporary world. Horizons are narrowed to its own academic grammar for fear of being ‘decorative’ or ‘narrative’. In so doing there’s a danger that it will cut itself off from the groundswell of human experience.

Credits:

Tomma Abts
Jeels 2012                                                                  
© Tomma Abts, Courtesy Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne

Gillian Carnegie
Prince 2011–12                                                                      
© Gillian Carnegie courtesy the artist and Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne

Lucy McKenzie
Quodlibet XX (Fascism) 2012
© Lucy McKenzie Photo: Galerie Micheline Szwajcer

Catherine Story
Lovelock (I) 2010
© Catherine Story Photo: Andy Keate

Simon Ling
Untitled 2012
© Simon Ling

Tate Britain, Millbank, London SW14RG until 9th February 2014.

Art Criticism

Adrián Villar Rojas
Sackler Serpentine Gallery


Adrián Villar Rojas: ‘Today We Reboot The Planet’

It was hard,
among the crowds,
not to feel some
empathy for his huge
elephant that, head down,
seemed bent on escaping

A queue of artists, press and glitterati snaked its way through Kensington Gardens waiting to be let into the private view for the opening of the Serpentine’s new Sackler Gallery this week, housed in The Magazine, a former 1805 gunpowder store, located a few minutes’ walk from the Serpentine Gallery on the north side of the Serpentine Bridge. The Serpentine Gallery, supported by the Sackler Foundation, an education charity, along with the Bloomberg Foundation, outbid Damien Hirst who wanted to use the Grade II listed building to show off his private collection by the likes of Jeff Koons and Francis Bacon.

Attached to the original building is a new structure designed by Pritzker Architecture Prize laureate Zaha Hadid that will function as a restaurant. A sort of large luminous wedding marquee, the sweep of its domed arches is somewhat marred by the fact that the “awning” (pictured below © 2013 Luke Hayes) has puckered in places and not been pulled quite taut against the underlying armature. The Magazine itself, which was in military use until 1963, is rather stunning. It comprises of two raw-brick barrel-vaulted spaces (where the gunpowder was stored) and a lower square-shaped surrounding structure with a frontal colonnade. The removal of all non-historic partitions has created a space where the flat gauged arches over the entrances have been reinstated and the historic timber gantry crane maintained.


This forms a sympathetic milieu for the inaugural site-specific installation by the Argentinian artist, Adrián Villar Rojas. Rowed on shelves like objects from a fantasy museum Villar Rojars has created sculptures that suggest artefacts from some invented antiquity or imagined future. Drawing on an eclectic mix of influences from comic books to quantum mechanics, clay is the chosen medium in which he plays with notions of history, narrative, and modernity. And it was hard, among the crowds, not to feel some empathy for his huge elephant that, head down, seemed bent on escaping from the throng (main image).

The floor, which has been laid with handmade bricks, looks striking. While it implicitly makes reference to a traditional brickworks in Rosario, in Villar Rojas’s native Argentina, and does worthy things such as flag up the politics of a global economy, it wouldn’t look out of place on the front page of Interiors.

Down the road at The “old” Serpentine Gallery is the first solo exhibition in this country of the artist Marisa Merz, born in Turin in 1926. The only woman to be affiliated with the poetic and influential Turin-based Arte Povera movement – where “poor” and “found” materials were used to make art, often with a basis of political protest – there is a subtle feminist sensibility to her work. Her series of Living Sculptures, suspended clusters of forms made up of moving aluminium shards, are both industrial and ethereal: a modernist agenda with a poetic edge.


Adrián Villar Rojas at the new Serpentine Sackler Gallery and Marisa Merz at The Serpentine until 10 November

Art Criticism

Australia
Royal Academy


Sidney Nolan’s ‘Glenrowan’, 1946, from the artist’s celebrated Ned Kelly series

As with early American painting there is a pioneering sense of wonder at this vast country with its antipodean light and unfamiliar palette

In The Importance of Being Earnest, first performed in 1895, Oscar Wilde wittily quipped that Algernon must choose between “this world, the next and Australia”. At a time when it took weeks to reach the other side of the globe most Britons, if they thought of it at all, thought of that far-flung continent as a convenient corral for undesirable fellow citizens. Baron Field, the first Justice of the Supreme Court of New South Wales, wondered whether Australia was, in fact, an aberration, calling it a “barren wood” and an “after-birth”. In 1906 an English geologist, J.W. Gregory, wrote a book named The Dead Heart of Australia, and that image, the Australian writer Thomas Keneally suggests, came to characterise a certain home-grown self-loathing and melancholy.

While for most contemporary Brits Oz probably means beach babes and Neighbours, starting life as a sort of annex for undesirables from the “mother country” left Australians with a sense of insecurity as to who and what they really were. This new exhibition at the Royal Academy attempts to construct a multi-faceted narrative of the continent by presenting more than 200 years of Australian art on the theme of land and landscape, dating from 1800 to the present day. From the works of the first colonial settlers, executed in a nation-building, pioneering spirit, to that of contemporary artists, Australia tells the story of a country that has slowly built an identity, no longer dependent on European tradition, through a relationship to its diverse landscape and peoples. To date it is the most comprehensive survey of Australian art to have been shown outside Australia.

 

As with early American painting there is a pioneering sense of wonder at this vast country with its antipodean light and unfamiliar palette

 

Although arranged in chronological order, the first image encountered is contemporary: a video of a motorcyclist in black leathers – Shaun Gladwell’s Approach to Mundi, Mundi, 2007 – following the central white lines down a road that runs through the barren outback, his arms held aloft as if to emphasise the vastness of the empty landscape surrounding him. While Mundi is a local place name, it is also the Latin for “world” and the piece acts as something of a prologue, for, of course, Australia was not some virgin territory awaiting Europeans, but a landscape that has been inhabited for over 40,000 years. Believed to have first been “discovered” by the Dutch in 1606, the East Coast was then claimed in 1770 by the British, disturbing millennia of indigenous culture.

The exhibition begins with a fine collection of Aboriginal art which, to this day, continues to describe the sacred forces of the landscape and the creation stories or “Dreamings” that have symbolic significance and underpin the science, religion, rituals and identity of the indigenous peoples. There’s a certain irony that the revolution in modern Aboriginal art, which had its origins in the Western Desert in the 1970s, and brought Aboriginal art to a wider audience, appeals so, with its abstract and simplified forms and monochrome earthy colours, to European modernist sensibilities. As Europeans it’s difficult not to respond to these beautiful and highly accomplished works without reference to modernist painting. Yet what we wrongly read as “stillness” is, in fact, animated totemic activity and ancestral power. (Pictured left: Sandhills of Mina Mina, 2000, Dorothy Napangardi; National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.)

The first British settlers to arrive in 1788 found Australia a bewildering and alienating continent. Early colonial artists focused on views of homely settlements rather than the, apparently, more threatening landscape. Gradually, however, the character of their adopted land was to become the main stimulus for Australian painting for the next 150 years. As with early American painting there is a pioneering sense of wonder at this vast country with its antipodean light and unfamiliar palette. Many painters, such as Arthur Streeton, created images of golden pastoral landscapes that were to become conventional expressions of Australian nationalism. But the Australian gold rush in the 1850s saw the population expand to include immigrants from Germany, Switzerland and France, who all brought their own native influences. Australian landscape painting was to change from the mainly British Romantic watercolour tradition to a German Romantic landscape tradition in oils, which reflected a sublime and philosophical relationship to the land. The most notable exponent was Eugene von Guérard (pictured below: Bushfire, 1859; Art Gallery of Ballerat.

Talk, for the first time, of an Australian tradition began with the Australian Impressionists who worked out of doors. Tom Roberts’ A Break Away, 1891, shows a quintessentially Australian scene of stampeding sheep in a parched landscape being rounded up by a heroic, horse-riding stockman. Modernity was to be summed up in the honed and architectural renderings of the building of Sydney Harbour Bridge that, after the Great Depression, became a symbol of hope for many. Some, such as Margaret Preston, did display in her landscapes a sensitivity to indigenous art, while others, such as Sidney Nolan, began to create new Australian narratives through the use of folklore and local legend, as in his famous series based on the Irish-Australian outlaw Ned Kelly (Main picture: Grenrowan, 1946).

As elsewhere, the 1960s and 1970s in Australia were broad-ranging and eclectic. This was a period of internationalism informed by self-evaluating texts written by the likes of the art historian and cultural critic, Robert Hughes. Formal aesthetic concerns emerged in Fred Williams’s flat afocal landscapes with their textured surfaces. Art also became political and feminist icons such as Tracey Moffat explored attitudes to race and violence. Younger artists, like artists everywhere in the developed world, have embraced multi-media. The exhibition includes photos, sculptural installations and videos. Disorientation is a common postmodern state and Rosemary Laing places an upside-down, horizontally askew house in the landscape, ironically playing with the idea that Australia is “down under”, while Fiona Foley’s seductive video, Bliss, shows fields of swaying poppy, as a critique of the hidden history whereby settlers paid indigenous people not in cash but, cynically, in narcotics. 

Visual art has been strong in Australia for more than 40,000 years and Aboriginal art still remains the most potent art form on the continent. But visual art was also developed by the settlers and over the last 200 years has come to tell the story of their “wilful lavish land”, not only to themselves but to the rest of the world.


Australia at the Royal Academy from 20 September until 8 December

Art Criticism

Alternative Guide to the Universe
Hayward Gallery

“Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else,” wrote Italo Calvino in Invisible Cities. In an “Alternative Guide to the Universe” there are many fabulous cities; creations somewhere between Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and William Blake’s Jerusalem. What unites these fictional spaces, which include Marcel Storr’s elaborate Megalopolis drawings with their sky-scrapping ziggurats and minarets in jewel-like washes of color, William Scott’s utopian, gospel-driven re-imagings of San Francisco and Bodys Isek Kingelez’s visionary Congolese cities, is the artists’ desire to understand the universe in ways that will not only unlock its secrets but propose new and more meaningful ways of organizing how we live.

William Scott
SFOs The Skyline People of Wholesome Encounters Of A New Science Fiction Future (2013)
© Creative Growth Art Center
Courtesy of Creative Growth Art Center

 

Most of the artists are outsiders in some form or another—autodidacts, fringe physicists, poetic engineers and dreamers—who have developed their “practices” and obsessions outside official institutions and beyond established disciplines. Breaking free from the strictures of conventional thought they have created the sort of parallel universe experienced by children or scientists working on the very edge of what is know.

What they have in common is a desire to make sense of the seemingly random and unknowable. Number systems abound. George Widener predicts that someday his work will be understood by super-intelligent machines. While Alfred Jensen’s grids, with their interplay of Mayan number systems, Pythagorean thinking, and ideas borrowed from Ancient Chinese and Egyptian culture, make arcane connections between number theories, color principles, philosophy, astronomy, the I Ching and religion. The complexity of his colored numerical grids seems quite arbitrary and mad until one remembers the endless pages and ribbons of numbers of the recently decoded Human Genome Project, which identifies all the 20,000-25,000 genes in human DN and determines the sequences of the 3 billion chemical base pairs that go to make it up. To a non- scientist these dense lists look just as impenetrable as Jensen’s grids, though one is defined as outsider thinking, while the other is now mainstream science.

Installation view of works by ALFRED JENSEN at ‘Alternative Guide to the Universe’ exhibition, Hayward Gallery 2013
©ARS, NY and DACS, London 2013, Photo: Linda Nylind

 

Here we are constantly reminded that the ideas of savants, the autistic, the visionary and the genius all sit along a moveable scale. As Paul Laffoley wrote in his 1991 publication The Bauharoque: “Religions, morality, mysticism and technology converge…” His Thanaton III is more than just a painting. After an apparent series of encounters with an extraterrestrial named Quazgaa Klaatu, the alien showed him how to make the painting into a phsyochtronic or mind-matter interactive devise for “balancing the forces of life and spirit; human and alien.” Mad? Who is to say? But Laffoley, grew up in Cambridge, Mass, and had a conventional enough education studying art history, philosophy and classics at Brown University, before a brief spell pursuing architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

Canadian Richard Greaves, who lives in Quebec, studied theology and hotel management (is there a clue in this eclectic educational pairing with his chosen path’?) Now he lives in the remote Beauce forest creating vertiginous Babel-like structures from found materials held together with knotted string. As opposed to the right angel, which is based on reason, Greaves architecture is one of the instincts and emotions. His constructs might be the remains of a lost civilization, an apocalyptic vision or simply a series of eccentric playhouses for children.  As he says, “It is my own story. Each house is a child I have made.”

Installation view of works by GUO FENGYI at ‘Alternative Guide to the Universe’ exhibition, Hayward Gallery 2013 © the artist
Photo: Linda Nylind

 

Within this alternative universe are a number of maverick photographers. The homeless Lee Godie’s poignant, yet somehow triumphant, photo-booth self-portraits stand out in their assurance and pre-figure the work of Cindy Sherman. While there are a number of woman artists, including Guo Fengyi, with her schematic drawings that chart the flow of energies, the majority are men. Given that aspergers, autism and OCD are more prevalent among males, this is perhaps not surprising.

Yulu Wu
Remote Controlled Cart with Clothing (Yao Kong Chuan Yi Xiao La Che) (2013)
© the artist

 

But to dismiss these brilliant mavericks as simply insane would be a mistake. Farfetched, outlandish and eccentric as their work may seem much of their thinking rivals that of scientists working on the wildest shore of science. We are invited to see the imagination as the jewel in the human crown. Art, mysticism and reason come together to create a visionary space beyond normal experience. For some of these artists their work may be a sane way of dealing with their demons but who are we to say that their visions are so different to those of Albert Einstein or Leonardo Da Vinci?

Art Criticism

Genesis: Sebastiao Salgado
Natural History Museum

The Wild contains answers to more questions than we’ve yet learned to ask.  There was a time when the wilderness never seemed far away. Life was a battle against its encroachment. It existed on the edge of our consciousness and our safe physical world: a place of danger and a space for the imagination to roam. It was in the 18th century, with the rise of industrialism that artists and poets began to see the wilderness as an alternative space, a place of wonder and awe, where man was but a tiny element, dwarfed by nature’s sublime mountains and waterfalls, its forests and snow-capped peaks. In 1798, at the age of 28, Wordsworth wrote in his great pantheistic autobiographical poem, The Prelude:

          Oh there is blessing in this gentle breeze,
          A visitant that while it fans my cheek
          Doth seem half-conscious of the joy it brings
          From the green fields, and from yon azure sky.
          Whate’er its mission, the soft breeze can come
          To none more grateful than to me; escaped
          From the vast city, where I long had pined
          A discontented sojourner: now free…

“Not until we are lost”, wrote Thoreau, “do we begin to understand ourselves”. For Freud the forest was a metaphor for the unconscious where the self could easily become lost in a welter of elemental fears. In Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness the jungle represented what was atavistic within the human psyche: the Id to the Ego, Caliban to Arial. For Marlow the Congo was chthonic, savage and elemental and stood in counterpoint to civilisation and his vision of the whited sepulchre of Brussels. For us post-moderns the wilderness represents a prelapsarian world, for so few of us, living in our suburbs and crowded cities have any real experience of the wild, which for many is as alien and remote as the moon..

The photographer Sabastião Salgado has a deep love and respect for the natural world and is concerned with how modernity is impacting on it with, often, devastating socio-economic and ecological implications. Born in Brazil in 1944, one of eight children, he studied economics before becoming an economist in the Finance Department of the São Paula city government. Moving to France in 1969 to study for a doctorate, he opted, instead, for a career in photography, joining the press agency Gamma. Research into the living conditions of peasants and the cultural resistance of the indigenous Indians in Latin America resulted in the book Other Americans. While Workers (1993) documented the vanishing way of life of manual laborers across the world and Migrations (2000) was a tribute to mass migration driven by hunger, natural disasters, and environmental degradation. Mythic, poignant and, seemingly timeless, his images of toiling mine workers could be Egyptians workers erecting the pyramids. An investigation into the lives of the inhabitations of the “4000 Habitations” – a large housing project in La Courneuvue, just outside Paris – continued his concern with humanitarian subjects. This was followed by Sahel, L’Homme en detresse, photographs taken in the drought ridden Sahel region of Africa whilst working with the humanitarian aid group, Médecine Sans Frontières.

During a bout of illness in the late 1990s Salgado returned to the ranch in Brazil where he grew up. To his dismay he found it much changed: the lush vegetation and rich wildlife he remembered from childhood had largely been decimated. With his wife and collaborator, Lélia Wanick Salgado, he decided to replant nearly 2m trees and watched as the birds and animals returned to the renewed landscape. Thus the idea for Genesis was born.

Eight years was spent travelling on the road, through 35 countries as diverse as Papua New Guinea, Alaska and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Already in his mid 60s he suffered real privation as he travelled for eight months a year. The title of the project is unashamedly biblical for Salgado’s aim is to show us the unblemished face of nature and humanity; landscapes, wildlife and human communities that still to live in accordance with their ancestral traditions.

It is a heroic enterprise. The pristine ice fields of the Antarctic, with their white castellated walls glistening above a virgin sea, are contrasted with the dense lush vegetation of the Amazonian rain forest. There are colonies of penguins, which however politically incorrect it is to do so, are hard not to anthropomorphize as they sit in rows and dive into the sea. There is the tail of a vast whale lashing against surf like some great Leviathan and a close up of the five fingered claw of an armadillo that looks like a medieval chainmail gauntlet, and reminds us that we are not so far removed from our animal cousins.

Human diversity and an ability to adapt to local environments can be seen throughout the project.  In Ethiopia Salgado travelled to a remote region to photograph one of the world’s oldest Christian communities, whose farming practices and ways of worship have remained virtually unchanged since biblical times. While in the frozen wastes of Siberia he has recorded the Nenets, an indigenous people whose extraordinary rhythmic way of life is defined by the migration of reindeer herds and has been endangered first by the ‘civilisation’ programme of the Soviet government and now by climate change and threats from the oil and gas industries. With the Nenets and their 7,000 reindeer he walked for 10 to 12 hours a day for 47 days in temperatures of -35C,-45C. For a Brazilian more used to tropical climes it was extremely tough. Worried about his survival the Nenets made him traditional clothing of natural fur.

Salgado has chosen to photograph in black and white, though his images are digital and not film. There is something nostalgic about this choice that suggests 19th travel photography and the Victorian passion for recording and documenting exotic places. Many of the sweeping landscapes, such as the glaciers of the Kluane Nation Park bordering Alaska, one of the largest non-arctic ice fields in the world, bring to mind the 19th century Hudson River School, paintings of the American sublime by artists such as Thomas Cole and Frederic Edwin Church. A symphony of tonal greys, whites and black photographs such as the Viedma Glacier in Patagonia become lyrical abstract compositions.

In a recent discussion for Newsnight Review on the BBC2 Salgado was criticised for his images of indigenous people. Some felt them to be voyeuristic, a vision of the exotic ‘other’ for the consumption of the western gaze. And sometimes it is hard for the viewer to know how to approach the images of plate lipped Surma teenagers from Ethiopia, their pubescent breasts decorated with scarifications, posing provocatively and knowingly for the camera.  The lives of the Zo’é people from the rainforest between the Erepecuru and Cuminapanema rivers, tributaries of the Amazon, seem untouched by the modern world. They hunt and butcher monkeys all completely naked except for their frilled, presumably feather, coronets and the decorative wooden plugs or porturu, which at puberty are punched through their chins to protrude from their bottom lips.  It is hard not to gawp in fascination.

Even so the photographs are visually stunning, taking us to places that most of us will only ever dream of visiting. It’s a commonplace of all religions, even the most primitive, that those seeking visions and insight should separate themselves from the herd and live for a time alone in the wilderness. Salgado has said that these photos are “a call to arms for us to preserve what we have. Of course, “he says, “it is not possible to ask people to go back to live in the forest, but we can preserve and protect this, our real heritage.” As the American writer and environmentalist Wallace Stegner wrote in The Sound of Mountain Water: “Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed … We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in.”

Images:
Image 8
North of the Ob River, about 100 kilometers inside the Yamal peninsula, fierce winds keep even daytime temperatures low. When the weather is particularly hostile, the Nenets and their reindeer may spend several days in the same place, doing repair work on sledges and reindeer skins to keep busy. The deeper they move into theArctic Circle, the less vegetation is to be found.
Inside the Arctic Circle. Yamal peninsula, Siberia. 2011.

Image 11
Marine iguana (Amblyrhynchus cristatus).
Like other ectothermal reptiles, the marine iguana must regulate its own body temperature: as soon as the sun rises, it lies flat, warming as much body area as possible until the temperature reaches 35.5° Celsius; it then changes position to avoid overheating. The marine iguana needs a high body temperature in order to swim, to move about and to digest.
Galápagos.Ecuador. 2004.

All images are © Sebastião SALGADO / Amazonas images.

Art Criticism

Gerard Byrne


A country road. A tree. Evening. Somewhere between Tonygarrow and Cloon Wood, below Prince William’s Seat, Glencree, Co. Wicklow, 2007, Courtesy the artist and Lisson Gallery, London, © Gerard Byrne

Gerard Byrne works from the premise that what constitutes the historic is constantly shifting and that there are a series of presents. In his artistic practice the interview and conversation become scripts to be performed in order to open up a number of critical possibilities. The texts he employs are found rather than, to use his word, “authored” and, therefore, considered devoid of baggage. He makes films and videos, working with actors, as a way of engaging in a critical debate around notions of representation. His subjects range from a conversation with Jean-Paul Sartre, to science fiction writers Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov discussing the future. For Byrne art is discourse rather than being the subject of discourse.

Over the last 10 years he’s made a number of works using text appropriated from magazines. These have allowed him to question how the mechanics of our collective now are constructed. Magazines are a barometer of a certain cultural moment. They encapsulate the zeitgeist, yet are transient and easily discarded. Using articles from the recent past he attempts to unlock ideas about the present. A piece from a 1973 issue of Playboy becomes both material and motif in the restaging of a discussion on the sexual mores of the day. But there are odd disjunctions. The cast speaks with Irish as opposed to American accents as the original participants would have done and the conversation about swinging and group sex now seems both anachronistic and naïve.

The installation “1984 and beyond” (2005) takes another discussion from Playboy. Here a group of famous science fiction writers muse about the future. It’s not only their rosy view of what lies ahead that seems outmoded but that watching ourselves mirrored through recent decades allows us new insights into the present. These re-examinations from our recent history illustrate that the past is palpable and that things might well have taken a different course. Time is presented not as linear but as palimpsest, something complex that can be manipulated.

Born in Ireland in 1969, Byrne graduated from the National College of Art & Design in Dublin before attending The New School for Social Research in New York and becoming a participant in the Whitney Independent Study Program there. In 2007 he represented Ireland at the 52nd Venice Biennale.

Now the Whitechapel Gallery has mounted the first major U.K. survey of his work from 2003 to today. This includes seven major film installations, a series of photographs and the U.K. premiere of his multi-screen installation, “A man and a woman make love” (2012), recently shown at Documenta 13. This is a reenactment of one of only two of the Surrealist group’s published roundtable discussions. The emphasis is on the masculine and misogynistic nature of the group in this restaging of the first of 12 conversations about sex and eroticism initiated by André Breton in 1928. Not a single woman takes part despite the discussion revolving around questions of sexual reciprocity. Men wave pipes in smoke-filled rooms and discuss the female orgasm, while musing on sex with nuns. Surrealist notions of masculinity have largely gone unchallenged but, here, Byrne reverses John Berger and Laura Mulvey’s articulation about the supremacy of the male gaze so that these men become central to the viewer’s attention. In his recreation Byrne uses humor and irony to deconstruct idealized notions of early 20th-century bohemianism, illustrating how we construct fantasies of the past. What the piece suggests is that, despite their perceived radicalism, the Surrealists were very much products of their time.

In A thing is a hole in a thing it is not (2010) Byrne’s five films trace Minimalism’s emergence and impact. The narratives often appear fragmented. Screens suddenly go dark and there is a sense that one is missing something crucial. There’s no clear structure, so you need to spend a while building up a sense of what you see. The work suggests that it was in the ’50s and ’60s, when criticism took on a newly influential role, that a new codependency was established between artist and critic.

Photographs of French tabacs or newsstands suggest their encyclopedic nature by catering for all tastes and interests. Yet their provisional nature is suggested by the constantly changing nature of their stock of publications. This transience is emphasized in that the title of the work is changed each time it is shown, leaving the problem of naming to the institution in which it appears. Byrne’s interest in theatricality is emphasized in the series of photographs that take their inspiration from the famous stage direction that sets the scene at the opening of that most famous of Irish plays, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot: “A country road. A tree. Evening.” Though there is a paradox here, for Byrne seems to be trying to suggest specific geographical locations in his brightly lit photographs, whereas Beckett was using these minimalist elements as universal symbols. And this is the problem with much of Byrne’s work. Informed, clever and witty though it often is, it does seem to strive very, very hard to insist that it is being intelligent and serious

Art Criticism

Rosemary Trockel
Serpentine Gallery


Rosemarie Trockel, Less Sauvage than others, Contribution for a children’s house, 2012, Bronze, © Rosemarie Trockel, DACS 2013, Courtesy Sprüth Magers Berlin London

The contemporary German artist Rosemarie Trockel, calls her current exhibition: “A Cosmos.” It’s a bold claim to announce that you have created a universe (though the title does take the indefinite article as opposed to the definite). Pre-Socratic thinkers used the word kosmos to signify “order,” though for us moderns it has come to mean the universe or outer space—”the set of all things that exist.”

This show at the Serpentine, which has just come from the New Museum, New York, is a veritable Wonderland of objects that would do Alice proud. Born in Schwerte, Germany, in 1952, Trockel is part of a generation of pioneering women artists who were concerned with developing a feminist language that was democratic and non-hierarchical. She came to prominence in the ’80s with her knitted paintings—produced by stretching threads of wool across canvas or wood in monochrome and patterned abstractions. Here she reconfigures relationships with the selected art works within that now-familiar 20th-century trope, whereby the viewer becomes a part of the artwork, and the artist the subject rather than object.

“A Cosmos” reflects her interest in creating a dialogue between different discourses. Her own work is placed in the company of other artists—both historic and contemporary— who have largely been ignored. Many of the pieces create an arena for inquiry within disciplines such as natural history, natural science and geography. Watercolors painted by the pioneering botanist Maria Sibylla Merian sit alongside intricate models of marine invertebrates crafted by Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka, initially created as research tools for naturalists who had no access to living specimens. Among the most intriguing of these “found” objects are a series of tiny notebooks from the Spanish artist, Manuel Montalvo. Full of microscopic OCD drawings of birds, fish, pigs, maps and people; they cover the pages of these Lilliputian volumes with an obsessive calligraphic language. Worn and leather-bound they look as if they might emanate from some 16th-century monastery. In fact, Montalvo, who was something of a recluse, only died in 2010. Works by self-taught artists, such as Judith Scott and James Castle, sit alongside Wladyslaw Starewicz’s pioneering 1912 animation, The Cameraman’s Revenge.

Juxtaposed with all these strange and exotic artifacts are Trockel’s own artistic contributions that defy any signature style. There is collage, video, photography, ceramics and a whole array of minimalist striped “paintings” made of bright lines of wool. Given that this tradition of abstract art was largely a male domain, and its language intellectual and heroic, Trockel has subverted these iconic works by creating objects of surprising beauty that are craft-based and relatively easy to make. The exhibition constantly reframes questions of classification and hierarchy, theories and bodies of knowledge, as well as issues of self-definition, to ask what art is and what constitutes an artist. What Trockel has attempted to create is a sort of map of associations that mimics memory and thought processes.

Walking beneath the rotunda of the darkened central gallery is like entering the Victorian Pitt Rivers ethnographic museum in Oxford. Strange objects abound in glass vitrines: a tacky Barbie-Doll style ballerina reminiscent of Degas’ little dancer, an array of roughly constructed paper birds, a prosthetic leg. On the wall are a series of “expressionist” paintings, entitled “Less Sauvages than Others,” that turn out to have been “painted” by the orangutan, Tilda. Presumably these have been included to question the nature of creativity, an action that we consider something unique to humans.

Trockel has produced a sort of psycho/art/geography, returning us to a kind of Kunstgeographie shaped by the German explorer and naturalist, Alexander von Humboldt, who created a wunderkammer for the 19th century American polymath Charles Willson Peale that is recorded in The Artist in His Museum, 1822, to be found in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia. This highlights the 19th passion for the categorization and understanding of the natural world. Eschewing a linear retrospective, Trockel’s concerns range from the insatiable curiosity of the Enlightenment to the readymades of Marcel Duchamp. This is an exhibition full of juxtapositions and allusions.

But it will not be to everyone’s taste; it will annoy some who’ll see it as pretentious and ticksy but delight others who will enjoy its surreal and surprising relationships. As single artworks what Trockel produces is not that interesting. But the sum of the whole is a real challenge. It speaks of inquiries into the very processes of human thinking, and asks questions about what it is that forms the body of knowledge that defines the western world.

Art Criticism

Turner Prize 2012


Elizabeth Price
still from The Woolworths Choir of 1979 2012
© Elizabeth Price 2012

It’s that time of year again. The clocks have gone back, the streets are strewn with fallen leaves and there is culture, culture everywhere. Not only is the London Film Festival in full swing but there is Frieze Art Fair—with ever more American and Asian galleries making a debut showing—and it’s the Turner Prize season too. Now in its 28th year, this once rather shock-horror affair has become as much a part of the British social calendar as Wimbledon or the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. Last year, when it decamped to northern climes at the BALTIC gallery in Gateshead, it added a certain frisson for those in need of maps and special travel equipment to leave the comfort of the metropolis. But this year it’s safely back in the hallowed portals of Tate Britain. Four very disparate artists—I was going to say “the good, the bad and the ugly”—but that doesn’t quite work—but you get the point, are up for the prize. Sometimes I wonder if anyone would care if it wasn’t set up like some beauty contest—with all the possibility for tears and gushing Academy-style acceptance speeches. But prevailing PR is that it’s the annual barometer of the newest and the best of British art; though in truth it’s really no more than the five judges’ current fave artists.

It kicks off with Paul Noble, the most obviously traditional of the contenders in that he makes graphite drawings on paper, producing works with the consummate skill of a surreally dystopian, fictional city called “Nobson’s Newtown.” Get it? ‘Knobs On.’ (For my American readers this is a bit of naughty British slang). Though, actually, it refers to the name of a blocky-looking typeface. Each drawing starts with a word at its center, spelling out its subject, which is then woven with a web of eclectic visual narratives. Intricate and scatological, from a distance they look like plans for a renaissance garden or a futuristic science laboratory. But get up closer and they’re full of rubbish bags and curious flora, as well as strange turd-like columns. Excreta seems to be a recurring theme. Noble’s is a futuristic world devoid of human presence so that it gives the appearance of being created by someone with Asperger’s syndrome but with inbuilt references to modernist art, including the sculptures of Henry Moore and the dreamscapes of Giorgio de Chirico.

Two of this year’s contestants are video artists and I found myself much affected and engaged by Luke Fowler’s work, All Divided Selves, 2011, the third in a trilogy of films that explore the ideas and legacy of fellow Glaswegian, the anti-psychiatrist R.D. Laing (1927-89). I’m just about old enough to remember the effect of reading Laing for the first time in books that radically challenged the orthodoxy of psychiatric practice of the day and placed “madness” firmly within the arena of “society.” The matrix of archival material, intercut with clips from his own life, is too long for The Turner Prize to do it justice but evokes this truly revolutionary period with its complex philosophical and, at times, moving discussions that were carried out in smoke-filled rooms by those who might now be considered in need a good wash, a shave and a haircut. Still only 33, Fowler has produced a thoughtful and complex work that maps changing social mores and ideas.

The clever money is on the relatively unknown Elizabeth Price and her 20-minute The Woolworths Choir. Price uses archive film, diagrams and sound to create a work that’s part power-point lecture, part computer game. Using different sources—an Open University film on church architecture, clips of a girl band and some 1970s news footage of a terrible fire, she creates a potent mix. The first part is an illustrated lecture on ecclesiastical architecture of the 13th century. Using black-and-white archival photographs and textbook illustrations to define the shifting meaning of terms such as choir, quire and misericord, she takes us on a virtual tour of a Gothic church. The second half of the film tells the horrific story of how the Woolworths fire started. A stylish and sophisticated work, it plays with the shifting entomology of words, making reference to the Greek chorus which transmutes into the church choir and is cleverly linked to the girl bands. Though highly original, in comparison to Fowler’s baggier and felt work, it feels cooler and more contrived.

That just leaves Spartacus Chetwynd—and with a name like that who needs to worry about the art? At the private view I just missed her performance and found her cast of characters standing around with smudged face-paint dressed as trees, root vegetables and monsters like lost children after the school nativity play. The worthless performance may have been fun on the night but going back to the gallery on a weekday there’s nothing left except the empty props.

Art Criticism

Coronation!
Westminster Abbery, London

The day I went to Westminster Abbey London was sweltering. Long queues of tourists stood in the broiling sun in their shorts and sunhats. Listless children looked as though they rather be anywhere else. Another June day 60 years ago, the Queen’s Coronation in 1953, was one of the coldest and wettest of the year. Perhaps there’s something about the Monarchy that the weather gods don’t favour. The Queen shivered through the recent sodden river pageant for her Diamond Jubilee.

As I made my way through the ancient cloisters to the Chapter House to find the small exhibition mounted to mark the 60th anniversary of the Coronation, I thought how strange it is that if you live in London you never come to these landmark locations and forget how redolent with history they are. Ostensibly the exhibition documents the energetic preparations undertaken at Westminster Abbey, the pomp and magnificence, and its prodigious transformation in the six months prior to the big day. The Ministry of Works, the government’s building department at the time, carried out extensive arrangements to re-configure the Abbey and recorded it all in meticulous detail. Some of the original Ministry of Works prints, which are now all stored at The National Archives, Kew, have been scanned specially for use in the exhibition. David Eccles, the minister responsible, can be seen with his slick Brylcreamed hair explaining his vision to a press conference on 28th March 1953.

The Coronation caught the imagination of a nation ground down by post-war austerity and the photographs show how deeply enmeshed the monarchy is within the fabric of British society. Over hundreds of years it became a symbolic, almost magical institution at the heart of the nation. By implication, these potent photographs also emphasise that during the last sixty years it has slowly turned from something mystical and sacred into a plebeian soap opera that fills the pages of Hello and OK.

The exhibition opens with a photograph of the young Queen and her husband Prince Philip in full coronation regalia, standing on the balcony of Buckingham Palace above the adoring crowds. Below is a replica of the invitation to the event. An intimate little do for 7,500 guests from the Commonwealth and ‘The Queen’s Realms’ – a reminder that the effects of the British Empire were, still, very much in evidence. Two hundred ‘tradesmen’ were employed on the site at any one time. Men posing amid the scaffolding, in flat caps, big boots and shabby working clothes, remind us that this was an age where the rich man still largely kept to his castle, while the poor man doffed his forelock at the gate.

A modern, rather ugly annex was specially erected at the West Door of the cathedral for the processions to assemble, while tiers of seats were built in the transepts and nave. A railway line was laid especially to transport the materials and the Abbey closed completely to worshippers for five months.  It took days for the ministry officials to clean the dust and debris from the organ.

There is an instant nostalgia inherent in these photographs with their plethora of officials in baggy suits, NHS glasses, moustaches and bad haircuts, and a photo of the Abbey’s boy choristers in short trousers, like the caste of Just William. They were part of the 480 musicians who took part in the celebrations. Music performed a central role under the auspices of Dr. William Mckie. Handel’s Zadock the Priestconjured a suitably sanctified atmosphere.

There are numerous photos of the Queen’s Maids of Honour – the nomenclature suggests a wedding – which in many ways it was, of a young woman to the nation. Dressed in white, like sparkly vestal virgins, they came from the foremost aristocratic families. The heels of their shoes were even adjusted so that they would all appear to be the same height as they carried the Queen’s sumptuous and enormously heavy train.

The ceremony itself was over two hours long, complicated and full of symbolism. There were those with arcane titles such as Mistress of the Robes and something called the Sword of Spiritual Justice, as well as a Sword of Temporal Justice. There was a Lord Privy Seal, an Earl Marshal and a Lord High Constable. Few probably knew what they actually did. It hardly mattered.

Like some sacrificial virgin, the young Queen wore a simple white robe for the anointing, which was done by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Geoffrey Fisher. She looks rather vulnerable sitting on the throne amidst all the pomp. The St. Edwards Crown weighed nearly 5 pounds and there was some concern that it would be too heavy for her to manage. We see her seated on the Coronation throne beneath its weight, ceremonial orb and sceptre in hand. This is in contrast to a more intimate image of the four year old Prince Charles, standing between the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret, looking extremely bored.

The whole ceremony was built around the Holy Communion, a service that had remained pretty much unchanged for hundreds of years. It included The Recognition, when the people acclaimed their new sovereign, The Oath, when the sovereign pledged to govern with justice and mercy, maintaining God’s laws (which is interesting as in our modern parliamentary democracy where the Queen does very little ‘governing’ at all), The Anointing, when the Archbishop anointed the sovereign with Holy Oil, The Investiture, when she was presented with the robes and regalia and actually crowned and then, The Homage, when the church and aristocracy pledged their loyalty. It was a piece of carefully choreographed theatre in which each played his or her allotted part, a drama to unite the country.

Many of the photographs show not only the pomp of the soldiers and carriages outside the Abbey but the celebrations of ordinary Londoners.  Children having tea and sports in Stepney, where the impoverished East End streets were decorated, despite the weather, with bunting. And there is a wonderful photograph of the women of the shoe makers, J. Sears & Co, of Northampton, sitting over their Singer sewing machines on the factory floor that is decorated with Union Jacks. Patriotic and affable there is a strong sense of community. Probably few of the woman were much over 40. But the majority look, to put it kindly, ample and worn. And, of course, there’s a shot of the journalist Richard Dimbleby, who became the official voice of the proceedings and brought the whole event live into households on flickering grainy grey TVs for the BBC.

The Abbey has joined up with Getty Images to produce this exhibition, which includes some of the best news pictures taken during the heyday of black and white photo-journalism. There are over 40 works, including those by the renowned Bert Hardy and John Chillingworth, along with iconic shots from thePicture Post. Given a 21st century digital make-over for the exhibition, these historic images recall a simpler media age. Now they can be seen in massive detail, as the latest techniques have allowed the pictures to be blown up to many times their original size and printed onto paper-thin fabric, and then dramatically backlit through giant light-boxes.

In many ways it is hard to believe that they are only 60 years old. The past, as L.P Hartley wrote in his novel The Go-Between, is another country. They do things differently there. What these photographs show is, in many ways, a more straightforward world. A world defined by class and deference, privilege and poverty, but where there was, also, what might now might seem, a rather innocent belief in the sense of Divine duty. One that would be taken seriously by a young woman, not born to the role, for more than half a century.

Art Criticism

Kiev Biennial

Phyllida Barlow, “Rift,” a site specific installation in three parts, 2012: Untitled: hoardings, 2012, courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, London, photo by Maksim Belousov, Mykhailo Chornyy.

DO WE NEED ANOTHER BIENNALE? CERTAINLY UKRAINE SEEMS to think so, with Kiev staking its claim on the international art scene.

From Liverpool to Venice, from Istanbul to São Paulo the world is awash with contemporary art. Is there really enough good work to go round, or, like nature, does art abhor a vacuum, growing to fill the ever increasing number of biennale-shaped holes? An attractive and sophisticated city, Kiev very much wants to be part of the international scene. “If we wait for the good times, we never start,” claims the immaculately coiffed Nataliia Zabolotna, director of Kiev’s Mystetskyi Arsenal, the 18th-century arms store which will become one of Europe’s largest art centers when completed in 2014. The Kiev Biennale’s English artistic director, David Elliott, said earlier this year that “Most exhibitions today are Eurocentric in their assumptions.” While not rejecting this, the Biennale tried to present another picture, one that also took into account the political and aesthetic developments that have shaped so much art of the present. “The international art community’s perception of Ukraine as some kind of a post-Soviet hinterland has changed,” said Elliott. That’s as may be, but E.U. leaders, led by the German chancellor Angela Merkel, threatened to boycott the Euro 2012 football championships held during the Biennale and co-hosted with Poland, in protest at the treatment of Kiev’s former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who was reputedly beaten up after her arrest in October. No doubt there was a touch of British irony in Elliott’s choice of theme taken from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities: “The best of times, the worst of times: Rebirth and Apocalypse in Contemporary Art.”

On my quick 24-hour visit, the city was busy sprucing itself up for the football. Grass was being laid and flowers planted. The organizers obviously hoped that these dual sporting and cultural events would raise the profile of the country—though it didn’t bode well that during our first tour to the National Art Museum of Ukraine, we found the installation Pipeline “Druzha,” a golden-foil spiral wrapped around the classical pillars of the building’s façade by the artist Olga Milentyi, being removed by the authorities. As one young translator muttered, “We have some problems here with democracy.”

Since the opening of the George Soros-funded Center for Contemporary Art (SCCA) in Kiev, which had its funding withdrawn after the Orange Revolution, it’s Ukranian steel magnate and former politician Victor Pinchuk— who is married to the daughter of the former president of Ukraine and whose estimated fortune exceeds $3 billion—who has become the backbone of contemporary art in Kiev, reminding anyone who was ever in any doubt that art and money often share the same bed. The Pinchuk Art Centre, the first private museum in the former Soviet Union, with its ubiquitous glass, concrete and steel, is every bit the stylish modern gallery. During the Biennale, it is showing work by Olafur Eliasson, Andreas Gursky, Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, though more interesting for a western viewer overfamiliar with these artists were the intense figurative paintings by the winner of the PinchukArtCentre Prize, Artem Volokytin.

But back to the Biennale. The opening was chaotic, the speeches long, the work not all installed, and we were severely delayed getting in. Explaining the lack of organization, Elliott said, “There are things that you can’t plan for, like having to install for 36 hours with minimal electricity and no light.” Inside paintings were languishing in their bubble-wrap, and wall markers were non-existent or left lying around haphazardly, while technicians drilled holes in the walls, ran out electric cables, and tinkered with the videos.

Despite the distractions, there was much that impressed. A new series of photographs, by Ukrainian Boris Mikhailov, of rusting factory plants that still scar vast swathes of the Ukraine landscape spoke of the collapse of the Soviet dream, while nearby Louise Bourgeois’ “cells” made reference to the repressed feelings of fear and pain underlining Elliott’s belief that “you have to understand the past to understand the present.” British artist Phyllida Barlow had specially created “Rift,” an impressive three-part site-specific installation of wooden scaffolding that stands like some dystopian cityscape responding to the massive columns and vaults of the imposing Arsenal building. Other new pieces included Yayoi Kusama’s site-specific walkthrough tunnel—studded with pink nodules, decorated with black polka dots, and titled Footprints of Eternity—and a vast projection of a letter written in 1939 by Mahatma Gandhi to Adolf Hitler, in which he urged the Führer to avoid war “for the sake of humanity.”

There were works from China (Liu Jianhua and the MadeIn Company), Korea (Choi Jeong-Hwa) and Turkey (Canan Tolon), as well as 20 artists total from Ukraine, including Vasily Tsgolov, Nikita Kadan, Hamlet Zinkovsky and the U.S.-based couple Ilya & Emilia Kabakov, whose trenchant pieceMonument to a Lost Civilisation (1999) reflects the false utopian dreams of those living under communism. The American painter Fred Tomaselli created two large new apocalyptic works, while British artist, Yinka Shonibare contributed paintings that continue his exploration of colonialism and post-colonialism. First shown at the 53rd Venice Biennale, Miwa Yanagi’s macabre 4-meter-high photographs of “goddesses” stood in a windswept landscape. The conjunction of old and youthful bodies—aging breasts on a young torso, with sagging legs beneath a taut frame—spoke of collapse, putrefaction and renewal.

Song Dong is known for his innovative conceptual videos and photography that reveal the changes in modern China and express his response to the country’s rapid development while retaining a spiritual connection to the past. The centerpiece of Song Dong: Dad and Mom, Don’t Worry About Us, We Are All Well was the large-scale installation “Waste Not,” comprising thousands of everyday items collected by the artist’s mother over the course of more than five decades. The project evolved out of his mother’s grief after the death of her husband and follows the Chinese concept of wu jin qi yong(“waste not”) as a prerequisite for survival. Vitrines full of dried soap and stuffed with cabbages created a powerful metaphor for the effects of radical change and social transformation on individual members of a family.

In part, the chaos of the Kiev Biennale was the result of the Ukrainian government’s failure to provide its half of the funding on time. (The other half was provided by corporate sponsors and private individuals.) The government seemed to hope that their involvement would fortify their claim to join the E.U., but the country’s problems with human rights make that far from certain. Catching David Elliott in the bar after the opening, I asked if he thought there’d be another such event—after all, there needs to be at least two to warrant the use of the term “biennale.” “Who can say?” was his enigmatic response.

The First Kiev International Biennale ARSENALE 2012 ran from May 24 to July 31
www.artarsenal.in.ua

Art Criticism

Judy Chicago and Louise Bourgeois, Helen Chadwick,Tracey Emin
Ben Uri Gallery, London

12-11529_The Return of the Butterfly

I remember seeing Judy’s Chicago’s The Dinner Party (1979) in a rundown Islington warehouse. It was 1985 and I had just arrived in London; a young single parent mother, newly divorced, and a fledgling art critic. The year before that the work had been shown at the Edinburgh Festival. The huge crates had crossed the Atlantic by boat, and then travelled by lorry to Felixstowe, to be carried up two flights of stairs in a 19th century building without a lift. Arranged on a triangular banqueting table, each arm of which measured some 48 feet, there were a total of thirty-nine place settings commemorating women from history. Each setting was laid with a china-painted porcelain plate on which there was a raised central motif – vulvae and butterfly forms – created in a style appropriate to the woman being celebrated. There were also embroidered runners, gold chalices and utensils and the names of another 999 women inscribed in gold on the white tile floor below the table. Disparaged and misunderstood by many at the time I was bowled over by its ambition and emotional reach. I’d never seen a visual art work that spoke so directly about female experience. There was nothing ironic, nothing deliberately sensational about the work. This was a female aesthetic based on the lives of important women, and on the oppression and devaluation of the feminine that had been the norm for centuries and was still current in contemporary society. The art historian, Griselda Pollock, suggested that the piece created “a feminist space of encounter”, where new explorations and new ideas about femininity, modernity and modes of representation could be examined. Its daring helped to open the door for women’s self expression on both sides of the Atlantic and gave permission for women to become real contenders in the art game.

It is now, perhaps, hard for younger women to understand the impact that such a work had nearly 30 years ago, how much the role of women in society has changed. But between 1970 and 1980 there were only three woman heads of government across the world. In Britain it was not until 1967 that the Abortion Act, brought in by the liberal MP, David Steel, and subjected to much controversy and heated debate, allowed for legal abortion on a variety of grounds. And it was not until 1973 that abortion was made legal in every state across America. Even in June 2012 the State Legislature in Michigan expelled a female Representative for daring to mention the word ‘vagina’ three times during a debate on abortion.

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Born into a left-wing Jewish family in Chicago in 1939, Judy Cohen grew up in a household where political activism, human rights and the empowerment of the individual was a sine qua non. Her relationship with art began aged five when she was enrolled in art classes at the Art of Institute Chicago. In 1957 she moved to LA to study painting and sculpture at the University of California, legally changing her name in 1970 to Chicago in order to liberate herself from the perceived male dominance of the art-world. (She often found herself referred to as ‘Judy from Chicago’ – and thus took the name). In the early 70s she set up a pioneering course at California State University that looked at the work of women artists. This resulted in Womanhouse(1972). Along with her colleague, Miriam Schapiro, she encouraged students to fill the empty rooms of a house with art that expressed female concerns. Menstruation Bathroom was Chicago’s contribution. Seeing the black and white installation now, punctuated by the stain of discarded sanitary towels crammed into a plastic bin, is a reminder of just how transgressive and daring such an image was in the early 70s. This is not an idealised vision of womanhood as depicted by centuries of male artists but a picture of how women felt about and experienced themselves. Though with the coming of the more complex theoretical 80s Judy Chicago’s work fell prey to feminist guardians who saw it as essentialist with its connection of female achievement to biology, so that, for a while, she fell out of favour. Now her daring and boldness have established her as an icon of the feminist art movement of the late 20th century.

Viewer

Less known in Britain than in the States, the Ben Uri Gallery is giving audiences a chance to discover Chicago’s work beyond The Dinner Party. Recently her early abstract and semi-abstract paintings and sculpture have undergone something of a critical reassessment after their inclusion in the Getty Research Institute’s Pacific Standard Time in California in 2011-12. The works shown here are more personal and more intimate than the massive installations. Paintings, prints, drawings, film and photographs focus on a gamut of female experience from menstruation to sex, birth and ageing. The gallery has placed her in conversation with three other women artists: Louise Bourgeois, Helen Chadwick and Tracey Emin, though, here, they are something of a supporting cast. But what they do provide is an historical perspective, highlighting the concerns raised by generations of female artists.

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In an interview with Lucy Lippard in 2002, Chicago admitted that: “… my goal has been to mine my own experience as a Jewish female person, an American person, to go from that particular to the larger human experience. Along the way my work has become more modest in scale, though maybe not in underlying intention.” Hers is a confessional art with a strong autobiographical thread. She is, in many ways, the Sylvia Plath or Anne Sexton of visual art. Retrospective in a Box, the first work in the gallery, consists of 7 prints made in Santa Fe whilst working with Landfall Press between 2008-12, and it forms an emotional document of her career. The brightly coloured prints Into the Darkness and The Return of the Butterfly turn the female genitals into a combination of mandala, vagina dentata and exotic flora and fauna that owe something to the eroticism of Georgia O’ Keeffe, whom Chicago honours with a place at her Dinner Party. Alongside these Aging Woman/Artist/Jew (2012) presents a lurid self-portrait of Chicago in signature dark glasses in which she appears like Vitruvian man, naked and split from crotch to breast bone, with a Star of David emblazoned on her chest. Writ small in her open mouth is the word Truth, and scrawled across the print in large capitals are the words: EVERYONE WOULD SEE WHO SHE REALLY WAS. For a woman, for an artist, to be candid about ‘who one really is’ is not encouraged within a society where every article in Cosmopolitan or Grazia tells us how to shave, nip and tuck our bodies and our personalities to some media and male-ensnaring version of feminity.

TE The Last Thing I Said to You was Don't Leave Me Here II ,2000 Tate

In the 60s, in order to learn traditionally male techniques, Chicago enrolled in a pyrotechnics course, the only woman among 200 men. The result was The Woman and Smoke Series (1972) choreographed in the Californian desert with coloured flares and smoke in which images of naked women elide with notions of archetypal female goddesses, along with the feel of Michelangelo Antonioni’s seminal counter-culture desert film of the 70s, Zabriski Point. These works have been placed in the gallery near a series of photographs created in 1977 by the late British artist, Helen Chadwick. Here, daringly for the times, she stripped off and dressed in a range of soft sculptural kitchen appliances that she made and wore while reading a text that challenged the idea of the kitchen as a uniquely female space. Louise Bourgeois is represented by two pieces within the show, including Untitled (Sleep II) 1968, that addresses the masculine within the feminine and the feminine within the masculine. Her limp phallic sculpture also has the quality of a soft female breast.

The inclusion of Tracey Emin is more problematic. Certainly there is a very beautiful tiny painting entitled Masturbating in the Bath (from Memory) 2005 – a small pale work in graphite, watercolour and gouache, reminiscent of some of Joseph Beuys’ fragile paintings – which is both poetic and erotic But much of her other work suffers in comparison to the other artists. Where for Bourgeois, Chicago and Chadwick feminism was a political position in a world where women were largely invisible and seen primarily as sexual objects, carers and mothers rather than artists, Emin’s work seems solipsistic, self-centred and narcissistic. On the stairs is a work from 2007 in which she wears a Fawcett society campaign T-shirt that proclaims ‘This is what a feminist looks like’.Yet on her website under the same image is a caption in which she says: ‘I don’t actually adhere to that statement, – that to me is ‘old hat’. Emin is ambivalent about feminism. She belongs to a generation where ‘me’ rather than ‘us’ is the mantra. As a result the 9 hand written texts CV (1995) seem self-serving, a way of claiming special status as a hard-done by victim, rather than reading as the work of a woman who is fighting for creative, emotional and political visibility not only for herself but for her sisters.

At one end of the exhibition is a self-portrait of Judy Chicago taken by her husband in 2009 on her 70th birthday. It is gentle and humorous. She poses in her garden like a naked and contented Eve holding a red apple, the serpent represented by a pink plastic garden hose wrapped around her, still, slender body. The easiness of this image stands in contrast to one created some 40 years earlier when she was in the process of ‘becoming Judy Chicago’. In it she stands with cropped haired, dressed as a pugnacious boxer in the corner of a ring, ready to take on the world.

Armed with an inherent morality and work ethic inherited from her union-organiser father and artistic mother. Judy Chicago has used autobiography – whether in her Birth Project, her work on the Holocaust or even her Autobiography of a year to address the role of women in society as artists, as mothers and lovers. For her the personal is political; something that many younger woman artists such as Emin have forgotten. For Bourgeois, Chicago and Chadwick reshaping woman’s relationships not only to art history, but to the very question of what it meant to be a woman fighting for a visible place within society, was inextricably linked to their project of being an artist.

Art Criticism

A Terrible Beauty: Mat Collishaw

He, too, has resigned his part
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn,
Transformed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Extract from ‘Easter’, 1916, W B Yeats

Duty-Free-SpiritsSmall

When we meet to discuss his work we have to decamp from the pub in Camberwell, which is both Mat Collishaw’s studio and stylish home, to a local café, as his apartment has been let out to a well known London store for a shoot and is full of rampaging children. But before we leave he shows me his new paintings. At first glance they appear to be abstract, constructed on a modernist grid, though the lines, in fact, are folds, creases left in the small square wraps of paper used to sell cocaine. These wraps have been torn from glossy magazines; there’s a woman’s foot in a high-heeled shoe resting on a glass table, and adverts for Fendi and Gucci. The subtext seems to be that these aspirational trappings are the spectral presence of an endless illusion that functions much like an addiction to drugs. You’re always left wanting more. The work is about debasement; the debasement of modernist painting as a form and as a result of the recent financial excesses that have led to the current economic crisis. This tension between the beautiful and the abject, between the promise of a possible paradise and the profane is central to all Mat Collishaw’s work. As the Marquis de Sade once said: “There is no better way to know death than to link it with some licentious image”.

Bullet-hole-36052

With his big beard and soft Nottingham vowels there’s more than a touch of D. H. Lawrence’s Oliver Mellors about Collishaw. He may have been to Goldsmiths and be part of the YBA generation and have lived with Tracey Emin but there remains something of the outsider about him. There’s no doubt that he should be more well known than he is having made one of the signature pieces – a bullet hole in the head – for Damien Hirst’s Frieze, nearly 20 years ago, but his work has always favoured emotional complexity and philosophical resonance over ironic insouciance, and then there’s been his wild life style.

The Jesuits used to say that if you gave them a child for seven years they’d show you the man. But in Collishaw’s case it wasn’t priestly influence that cemented his youthful experience but the Christadelphians– a 19th century fundamentalist Christian sect that traces its origins back to one John Thomas who, in 1832, following a near shipwreck on the way to America, dedicated himself to God through personal Biblical study. For Collishaw this meant growing up without a television or Christmas celebrations in a home where the Bible was read nightly and everything else was considered a distraction from the word of God. One of four boys his father, a dental technician, is a keen photographer with a penchant for taking pictures of flowers. Attending the local comprehensive Collishaw wasn’t allowed to take part in morning assembly. Left to his own devises he’d distract himself by walking round the classroom with his satchel on his head or drawing. A shy boy his artistic ability became a way of commanding respect. Later he migrated to the library and discovered Dadaism and Surrealism. Like portals onto a forbidden world they showcased everything that he’d been brought up to reject –ideas, aesthetics, desire, sexuality and the unconscious. As many young people do, he spent time flirting with alternative religions, but then he came across Darwin and the world suddenly made sense.

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In the nineteenth century a tense debate between religion and science characterized the era. Natural history and the collecting of specimens were seen as ways of ordering and codifying the world.

TheWunderkammer or ‘cabinet of curiosities’ had been a Renaissance devise for containing types of objects whose classifications were yet to be defined but the Victorians used them to categorize objects as belonging either to natural history (created by God) or religious and historical relics and works of art (made by man). Entomology was a passion and lepidoptery a particularly Victorian pursuit. But the border between real and bogus sciences such as spiritualism and phrenology was thin. Fairy painting was very close to the centre of the Victorian subconscious framing many of the opposing elements in the 19th century psyche: the desire to escape the harsh realities of daily existence; the burgeoning new attitudes towards sex that were stifled by religion; a passion for the unseen, mirrored in the birth of psychoanalysis and the proliferation of spiritualism, a suspicion of the new art of photography and a deep fear of, yet fascination with, miscegenation between different races, classes and species. This palimpsest of attitudes, with its repressions and voyeuristic tendencies, where desire was veiled behind an idealised surface is territory that Mat Collishaw shares with the Victorian sensibility.

In 1917, two cousins, 10-year-old Frances Griffiths and 16-year-old Elsie Wright, produced photographs they’d taken showing them in the company of fairies and gnomes in a glen. Their mother gave the photos to Edward L. Gardner of the then-popular Theosophical Society. Through Gardner, the story reached Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who had become obsessed with spiritualism after the death of his son. Conan Doyle encouraged Gardner to give cameras to the girls, in the hope that they’d come up with new fairy portraits. The cousins produced three new photos which were accepted as genuine by Conan Doyle, who wrote about them in The Strand magazine. As claims and counterclaims about the pictures’ authenticity flew around, they became the centre of one of the greatest science-vs.-superstition controversies of the early 20th century. In the 1990s Mat Collishaw came across the Cottingley fairy books. His own Catching Fairies, 1996 shows him crouched in a murky East London canal in the guise of a fairy catcher trying to ensnare the uncatchable. In Duty Free Spirits, 1997 three cherubic tots stand in an abundant garden of saturated Pre-Raphaelite colour looking at a dead robin, which they might or might not have killed. There’s something obsessive and darkly malevolent about the image reminiscent of Richard Dadd, the schizophrenic Victorian fairy painter incarcerated in Bedlam for the murder of his father. In his exhibition Shooting Stars, 2008 at the Haunch of Venison, Collishaw used images culled from old photographs and books of Victorian child prostitutes in vulnerable, yet alluring poses, which he projected onto the gallery walls and mingled with those restaged with an older female model to disturbing and dreamlike effect. Fired onto phosphorescent paint the images flared briefly before slowly fading from view. These suggested the children’s brief lives, blighted by violence and sexually transmitted diseases. For many of these girls their existence was not much longer than the fleeting exposure of the camera shutter.

Elysium

There have been many other controversial images: a girl lashed to a cross, semi-naked pre-pubescent boys, after Von Gloden and based on Caravaggio as a way of getting around the censorship laws of the time, crushed butterflies whose velvety wings and smeared juices suggest something both sadistic and sexual, photos of exotic lilies and amaryllis, their beautiful blooms riddled with pustules from sexually transmitted diseases – Collishaw’s own version of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mals. The pull is always between the Dionysian and the Apollonian, the ego and the id, between metamorphosis, transformation and decay. As with the Pre-Raphaelites there’s always a dark underbelly, an ever-present flirtation with destruction, decadence and death. Beauty has, as Wilde so well understood, within it the seeds of its own destruction. An early self-portrait shows Collishaw lying in the gutter, naked to the waist, staring into a puddle like some modern-day Narcissus, again emphasising the pull between the ideal of the beautiful and sordid reality, for this Narcissus could well be a drug addict or a drunk lying deluded among the detritus of a city street.

An animated video of the Swiss Symbolist painter Arnold Böcklin’s The Island of the Dead expands this flirtation with death. Böcklin’s allegorical paintings, many based on mythical creatures, anticipated 20th-century surrealism. His early style consisted of idealized classical landscapes. In the 1870s he turned to German legends, inhabiting similar territory to Richard Wagner. Later works, such as The Island of the Dead, produced between 1880-1886, became increasingly dreamlike and nightmarish. Collishaw’s version at the Haunch of Venison had an LCD screen behind a two-way mirror , in which shadows passed like an eclipse during a 24 hour period. Caught like some alienated figure in a Caspar David Friedrich painting, looking out into an existential void, was the reflected image of the viewer. The lone figure from Böcklin’s original painting turned up in a recreated daguerreotype hung on an adjacent wall so that the negative image of the lost girl only appeared positive when passed over by the viewer’s shadow. The ectoplasmic smoke and mirrors nature of the work was reminiscent of the tricks used by 19thcentury spiritualists and lovers of the séance.

This yearning for dissolution could also be experienced in the flickering shadows of his zoetrope,Throbbing Gristle, 2008 a cylindrical device that produces the illusion of action from a rapid succession of static images. As early as the 1860s projected moving images were created using magic lantern zoetropes. Collishaw’s version spins so the small figurines – a Minotaur ravaging a maiden, the Three Graces, a she-wolf and a wine swigging cherub – move magically in their own corrupted Eden.

It could be argued that the world has never looked the same after Freud, that we are all now too aware of the worm in the apple and that an image can no longer be looked at without the filter of self-knowledge. Innocence, along with religion and belief, are dead; for we’re all in the know now. Although not an admirer of Freud Collishaw’s show Hysteria, 2009 at North London’s Freud Museum, explored the collision of scientific empiricism with superstition. Taking its title from the print above Freud’s couch of the neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot showing his students a woman having a hysterical fit – whom Charcot treated with hypnotism – Collishaw became interested in the dark and often dubious practices of these early psychological practitioners. Three gnarled tree stumps placed in Freud’s study, which seemed to grow surreally from the famous Persian rugs, doubled as record players. Emanating birdsong the needles, which began at the centre, spiralled outwards mimicking the rings of a tree and, perhaps, the way we remember through the process of endless repetition and recounting.

Decadent art, as Théophile Gautier suggested in his life of Baudelaire, is full of shades of meaning, always pushing against the limits of language, forcing itself to express the ineffable “the singular hallucinations of the fixed idea verging on madness… In opposition to the classic style, it admits of shading, and these shadows teem and swarm with the larvae of superstitions, the haggard phantoms of insomnia, nocturnal terrors, remorse which starts and turns back at the slightest noise, monstrous dreams stayed only by impotence, obscure phantasies at which daylight would stand amazed, and all that the soul conceals of the dark, the unformed, and the vaguely horrible, in its deepest and furthest recesses.”

Desire is at the basis of most human behaviour from sex and procreation to the pursuit of beauty and death. Our lives are held between the two conflicting points of Eros and Thanatos. What enchants also ensnares, poisons and kills. The sublime is bedfellows with the abject. Collishaw contrives nightmarish horrors with a great formal elegance, whether taking on subjects like inmates’ last meals on death row, the blood-spattered survivors of Beslan or crushed butterflies. For a series of photographs made in 2000, he staged scenes of Nazi couples post-suicide in their bunker decorated with gilt-framed oil paintings, leather chairs, and opulent candelabra. Strewn across the furniture in various stages of undress, the post orgiastic figures exemplify what Bataille calls, in his study of Eroticism, dissolution. “The domain of eroticism”, he wrote, “is the domain of violence, of violation….. The whole business of eroticism is to destroy the self-contained character of the participators as they are in their normal lives…. The most violent thing of all for us is death which jerks us out of a tenacious obsession with the lastingness of our discontinuous being.”

The‘divine’ and the ‘sacred’ have also always carried within them the undertones of frenzy and a flirtation with death. This violent aspect of divinity has been made manifest in sacrificial rites from Bacchanalian orgies to the celebration of the host. Even the Cross itself links Christian consciousness to the horror of the divine and the sublime. As Bataille argues “the divine will only protect us once its basic need to consume and to ruin has been satisfied”. Playing on notions of the forbidden and the abject Collishaw throws up complex questions about what defines personal and social morality to show that what appears virtuous is often corrupt and, what is defined as corrupt, may, indeed, have some virtue. The Victorians veiled their transgressions behind a veneer of pious morality and saccharine sanctity but Collishaw convincingly reveals that we are all, in fact, a libidinous mixture of dark and light.

Art Criticism

Francis Alÿs A Story of Deception Tate Modern, London

Francis Alÿs A Story of Deception Patagonia 2003–06
A Story of Deception Patagonia, 2003–06

The first work in Tate Modern’s retrospective of the Belgian artist Francis Alÿs is, fittingly, a chimera. Projected onto the wall is a 16mm film of a mirage shimmering on the horizon of a Patagonian desert highway. There is no sound, except for that of a tolling cathedral bell from another work in an adjacent gallery. Like the Yellow Brick Road, the image beckons with utopian possibilities. Yet, as modern sophisticates, we know, in our hearts, that such promises are unobtainable. It is at once a simple, seductive, sad and rather profound image. Entitled A Story of Deception 2003-06, it gives its name to the whole show.

So what is this ‘deception’ that preoccupies Francis Alÿs, a Belgian artist born in 1959, who trained as an architect before decamping to Mexico City in 1986? Essentially it appears to be the false hope and subsequent disillusionment at the heart of the modernist project, and the desire to find appropriate metaphors to reflect the urgent political, economic and spiritual crises of contemporary life. He invites us to assess the relationship between poetics and politics and question the underlying absurdity and ‘senselessness’ of everyday situations in order to create new spaces for alternative ways of thinking and doing.

Francis Alÿs Paradox of Praxis I 1997
Paradox of Praxis I, 1997

There is a lightness of touch about his work, a slapstick quality that, like Beckett’s knock about tramps, belies its seriousness. In Paradox of Praxis I (Sometimes Doing Something Leads to Nothing), 1997, the artist pushes a block of ice around the dusty streets of Mexico City like some Dadaist Charlie Chaplin, until after nine hours he is left with nothing but a puddle. Alluding to the unproductive hardships that constitute the daily reality for most people living in the region, Alÿs avoids heavy political didacticism in favour of his own form of the theatre of the absurd. Life as a Sisyphusian struggle is revisited in his video Rehearsal I, 1999-2001. Here a plucky little red VW Beetle climbs a dusty slop on the impoverished outskirts of Tijuana, accompanied by the sound of a brass band rehearsing. Each time the band pauses the driver removes his foot from the pedal so that the little car slides defeated back down the slope. As an allegory for those struggling to reach the US border from Latin America it is a poignant image. Like the clown in the circus, who continually goes back for yet another custard pie to be thrown in his face, we cannot help but admire the little car’s heroic stoicism as an enactment of Beckett’s famous “fail again fail better.” After all what else is there to be done? Structured around the recording of the brass band’s rehearsal, the film evolves into an apparent comic narrative that highlights the difficulties of Latin American societies to resist western models of ‘development’ before they regress back, all too soon, into another economic crisis.

Francis Alÿs Rehearsal I (El Ensayo) Tijuana, 1999-2001
Rehearsal I (El Ensayo) Tijuana, 1999-2001

Alÿs’s works have no fixed forms. They include videos, drawings, objects and documents, as well as some rather good little paintings. Many of them are modest in nature and simply involve walking through a city – as one work describes “as long as I’m walking, I’m not choosing, smoking, fucking or stealing – others require months of bureaucratic planning, the seeking of permits and volunteers, the hiring of equipment and cameramen. Unorthodox methods of dissemination have always been central to his practice. In the mid-1990s he contributed to Insite, an exhibition held in the border region between San Diego, California, and Tijuana, Mexico. Using his commission he travelled from Tijuana, across to Australia, north up the Pacific Rim and south through Alaska, Canada, and the United States, reaching San Diego without having to cross the Mexican- US border. The point of this extravagant journey was to emphasis the difficulties faced by Mexican citizens trying to enter the US. Although the ‘act’ was itself ‘the work’, Alÿs disseminated his ideas in a series of free postcards that challenged preconceptions as to what constitutes a work of art, implying that there are many forms of seeing and understanding. Through this process Alÿs emphasised the vulnerable and precarious nature of an artwork allowing it no greater value or right to survival than the multitude of logos, jpegs and ephemera that characterise what Maurizio Lazzerato terms an age of ‘immaterial labour’.1

Francis Alÿs When Faith Moves Mountains
When Faith Moves Mountains
(Cuando la fe mueve montañas) Lima, 2002

Among Alÿs’s most potent works is the video made for the Lima Biennale in 2002, When Faith Moves Mountains. Five hundred volunteers equipped with shovels were asked to form a single line with the intent of moving by 10 cm a 500 metre long sand dune from its original position. The cri de coeur – ‘maximum effort, minimum result’ – is an absurdist inversion of the lies told about contemporary productivity from the Nazi “Arbeit macht frei”, to communist and capitalist credos on the efficiency of labour. Yet the piece succeeds far beyond a piece of political polemic. For despite the fact that the task was hot and tiring, and the volunteers barely displaced the sand dune more than a few invisible paces, many of those taking part felt a sense of elation. Evoking the biblical parable about faith moving mountains, the work demonstrates the positive experience of collective endeavour, as well as posing questions about the enormous burden of establishing social and economic change in comparison to the paucity of the actual gains achieved. That the event took place on a barren slope on the edge of Lima, where many millions of displaced rural people migrated during and after the civil war of the 1980s, and that those taking part were mostly students whose lives are generally removed from such collaborative acts of physical endeavour, is not coincidental. It also implies a critique of 1960s Land Art such as Robert Smithson’s heroic Spiral Jetty, where land takes on a romantic role as opposed to one of nurture and sustenance.

Francis Alÿs The Green Line
The Green Line 2005
(Sometimes doing something poetic
can become political
and sometimes doing something political
can become poetic)

“There is no fixed line between wrong and right,/ There are roughly zones whose laws must be obeyed,” the American poet Robert Frost once sagely wrote. Although Alÿs has long maintained a studio in the old centre of Mexico City, and much of his work focuses on Latin America, he is also concerned with broader commentaries. Following on from a 1995 work in São Paolo called The Leak, in which he walked from a gallery around the town dribbling a trail of blue paint; he adopted a similar method in a poetically charged work made in Jerusalem in 2004. Walking along the armistice border, known as ‘the green line’, originally pencilled on a map by Moshe Dayan in 1948 at the end of the war between Israel and Jordon, which had remained the border until the 1967 Six Day War when Israel moved to occupy the Palestinian-inhabited territories, Alÿs casually dribbled a line of green paint from a can as he went. The trail emphasised the arbitrary nature of the border that had originally been drawn with a blunt pencil on a map, along with the implicit violence that such an act entailed. The fragile trail of green paint became not only a reminder of the 1948 armistice line at the very time when a new boundary – ‘the separation wall’ was marking the boundary east of the original green line, but also a reminder of Frost’s words, that such boundaries are neither preordained or morally fixed.

Francis Alÿs Tornado 2000-10
Tornado 2000-10

In Alÿs’s most recent work Tornado 2000-10, we see the artist running in and out of a series of tornados spiralling around dusty Mexican fields. Not only can this be read as a comment on the precarious nature of South American society, where catastrophe such as the recent swine ‘flu pandemic in Mexico and the huge loss of life from violent incidents connected with drug trafficking are ever present, but it demonstrates that nature is no respecter of artificial borders. History is shown as spiral of destruction. Walter Benjamin imagined it as a storm of ‘progress’ blowing the angel he had witnessed in Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus away from paradise, a storm so violent that even the angel could not mend the wreckage left behind. Since Benjamin the notion of ‘progress’ feels even less linear. The tornado has made an appearance in Alÿs’s work when the promises of modernism seem particularly meaningless in the light of economic crisis, global warming, famine and constant war. Yet Alÿs does not simply stand watching as an impartial observer. Running in and out of the tornados he becomes covered in its dust and dirt. He dirties his hands and makes a choice to be involved.

Alÿs never harries, his voice is never shrill. He simply creates complex visual metaphors that reflect the dilemmas of contemporary life and allows us to read them as we will, for poetry is as much in the thoughtful eye of the beholder as it is in the mind of the artist. He holds up a mirror on the world knowing as Walter Benjamin wrote that: “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism”.

2Francis Alÿs A Story of Deception at Tate Modern from 15 June to 5 September 2010
1 Maurizio Lassarato, ‘Immaterial Labor, in Michael Hardt and Paulo Virno (eds.) Radical Thought in Italy, Minneapolis 1996, pp.133-47

2 Theses on the Philosophy of History, VII (1940; first published, in German, 1950, in English, 1955)

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2010

Images © Francis Alÿs
Image 1: Courtesy Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zurich
Image 2&3: Private Collection Photography by Rafael Ortega
Image 4: Collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Image 5: Video Still

Art Criticism

Anxious Objects

Sue Hubbard ponders the perennial question of how to decide boundaries of art

Marcel Duchamp Fountain
Marcel Duchamp Fountain

The big question in art is: “Is it art?” Is an outsized Brillo box or a pickled shark art? Ever since 1917, when Marcel Duchamp’s porcelain urinal, scrawled with the pseudonym “R Mutt”, was submitted to the Society for Independent Artists in New York (and rejected) for exhibition as Fountain, the cognoscenti have considered such objects as art. The critic Harold Rosenberg called such works “anxious objects”. What artists made mattered less than what they thought. They now approach the condition of philosophers (I think, rather than paint, sculpt or draw: therefore, I am).

Artists see it as their job to refute what has gone before – especially as it is now impossible to say “avant-garde” before new examples become absorbed into the voracious maw of the mainstream and lose their power to shock.

In 1994 the racing fan and Turner Prize nominee Mark Wallinger bought and named a racehorse A Real Work of Art, with a view to entering it in races and causing his “art” to be piped into bookies up and down the country. This may not be the accepted “Royal Academy Summer Exhibition” view of art, but that it challenged perceptions was a large part of the point.

Mark Wallinger A Real Work of Art
Mark Wallinger A Real Work of Art

Recently, millions signed a petition calling for the Costa Rican artist Guillermo “Habacuc” Vargas not to be included in this year’s Bienal Centroamericana Honduras 2008. The reason? Well, Habacuc, as he likes to be known, also used an animal in his artwork Eres lo que lees (You are what you read), but this time it raised complex moral issues. The artist paid street children to catch a stray dog that was then named Natividad (“nativity”), which was chained up in the Códice Gallery in Nicaragua and, reputedly, left to starve to death.

Even if the dog did escape, as gallery and artist contend, there was nothing to indicate that this would be the case to the viewers, for the dog appeared ill, thin and dehydrated. But the point – if point there can be to pointless suffering – was that although a few visitors to the gallery requested that the dog be fed, they were banned from doing so, and no one actually intervened to release the suffering animal.

Animal rights campaigners went ballistic; and who, in their right mind, would want to see an animal suffer? The event smacked of bread and circuses and the decadence of throwing Christians to the lions as entertainment. It is also not hard to think of the Stanford Prison Experiment, in which psychologists designated students as either guards or prisoners, only to have to stop the exercise when the guards started living out their role with too much enthusiasm.

Guillermo Habacuc Eres lo que lees
Guillermo Habacuc Eres lo que lees

In the case of poor Natividad, did people not intervene because he had the authority and status of art? And what did the event say about that same audience, which every day passed by not only starving dogs but also children in the streets? Cowardly, self-serving, distasteful and immoral it may have been, but if it is the business of art to ask questions, this certainly raised a few.

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2008

Image1: © Estate of Marcel Duchamp. San Francisco MOMA

Images maybe subject to copyright

Art Criticism

Diane Arbus
Artist Rooms National Museum Cardiff

Diane Arbus’s striking portraits illuminate the small tragedies of life
Diane Arbus Puerto Rican Woman 1965
Puerto Rican Woman, 1965

“I really believe there are things which nobody would see unless I photographed them.” Diane Arbus’s photographs of people, many of whom were on the margins of life, were rooted in an understanding of the relationship between photographer and subject. Attuned to the small tragedies of contemporary life, she was to photography what Raymond Carver was to literature. As John Szarkowski, organiser of the Museum of Modern Art’s landmark 1967 “New Documents” exhibition, said: “The portraits of Diane Arbus show that all of us – the most ordinary and most exotic of us – are on closer scrutiny remarkable.”

Arbus was born Diane Nemerov to a wealthy Jewish family in 1923; her father was the son of a Russian immigrant and her mother the daughter of the owners of Russek’s Fur Store in New York. The large apartment, the cooks and chauffeurs led her to have a “sense of unreality”, further complicated by her father’s frequent absence at work and her mother’s depression. At the age of 18 she married Allan Arbus, an employee at her parents’ store, whom she had met when she was 13. It was he who gave her her first camera. They worked together in fashion photography until she went her own way professionally, after which their marriage broke down. In July 1971, at the age of 48, she ended her own life with pills and a razor. Like Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, she was beautiful, tragic and complicated.

Diane Arbus Burlesque Dancer Blaze Star 1964
Burlesque Dancer Blaze Star, 1964

By the 1960s her portraits for magazines such as Esquire and Harper’s Bazaar had assumed a distinctive look. She would frame her subjects in ordinary settings, posed looking straight at the camera. Unblinking and quizzical, they assumed an air of disquiet, as if some secret was about to be exposed. No sentimentalist, she began to seek out the people she wanted to photograph: young children and socialites, nudists and dwarfs, transvestites and circus performers.

Arbus has been accused of being interested only in aberration, a poor little rich girl getting her kicks from life’s seamy side, from tortured sexual identities and the shock value of mental feebleness and physical deformity. Even now, many of her images seem shocking, in that they bring the viewer up close to experience the damaged humanity behind the glitter, the showgirl outfits and socialite dresses.

Why did people agree to let her into the privacy of their bedrooms and reveal themselves at their most vulnerable?

In this exhibition there are plenty of such examples – the stripper with bare breasts in her sordid dressing room in Atlantic City in 1962, who sits in spangled armbands, not bothering to disguise her spare tyre; or the “naked man being a woman in his room in NYC” in 1968, posing provocatively with his hand on his hip and his genitals tucked away between his legs; or the nudist lady in a flower-petal hat and diamanté swan sunglasses. There is something complicit in these images, as if the subjects needed Arbus as much as she needed them.

Diane Arbus Tattooed Man at a Carnival 1970
Tattooed Man at a Carnival, 1970

Most of her photographs depended on her subject’s active participation; being photographed gave a moment of colour to their otherwise anonymous lives. People must have been flattered. Inside they simply felt themselves, and did not realise that, in front of her lens, whether they were Mrs T Charlton Henry, a raddled dowager from Philadelphia in a negligee, or a Puerto Rican woman with heavily painted eyes and a beauty mark, they would end up looking like axe murderers.

But it is her photographs of people in residences for what is euphemistically called “developmental difficulties” that are the hardest to look at. Those with Down’s syndrome or with other deformities are dressed in masks, their faces painted as if for some medieval pageant. Arbus loved “freaks”. As she explained: “There’s a quality of legend about freaks. Like a person in a fairy tale who stops you and demands that you answer a riddle . . . Freaks were born with trauma. They’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats.”

Perhaps, in the end, this is the true power of her images – that they not only throw light on those who seem odd and dispossessed, but that they illuminate our own responses when faced with the different and the damaged. In that sense Arbus is a revealer of souls.

Diane Arbus Artist Rooms at the National Museum Cardiff until 31 August 2009

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2009

Works of art acquired by the nation in 2008

Art Criticism

ARCO Madrid 2010

The day I arrived in Madrid with a bunch of international journalists, courtesy of the Spanish Tourist Board, there was a downpour. The streets glistened with puddles. As people scurried beneath umbrellas the city resembled a wet northern English town rather than the elegant Spanish capital about to host the 29th International Contemporary Art Fair, ARCO, where 218 galleries from 25 countries all hoped to buck the global recession. There were dinners galore that went on for many courses, and speeches that went on for even longer. The guests included girls in designer tops, short skirts and very expensive high heels, who didn’t necessarily look as though they knew a Picasso from a Picabia, or a Soutine from a Sarah Lucas but who certainly added a touch of glamour and class.

By definition art fairs are eclectic; selling everything from the sublime to the overpriced and ridiculous. Trying to detect trends is a mug’s game. Chillidas and Mirós jostled with contemporary art stars such as Ed Ruscha and Anish Kapoor, while there were plenty of dealers promoting young unknowns. Galleries from Seoul, St. Petersburg and Berlin rubbed shoulders with those from France, Spain, Ireland and Britain, but this year the spotlight was on Los Angeles. The idea was to showcase a cross-section of what’s happening in that city, replacing the fair’s previous focus on a country. But here again, there was no overarching trend. Diversity was the buzz word, mirrored by the 17 galleries that range from the established to new kids on the block.

Kauru Katayama Te Quiero Mucho
Kauru Katayama Te Quiero Mucho (Video Stills)

Art fairs beg the question as to what all this stuff is for. Aesthetic expression, investment or entertainment? You can take your pick. Art has become the new religion filling gaps left by other forms of more conventional belief. Dealers are there to proselytise to the unconvinsed, to act as missionaires among the philistines. Certain works pulled the crowds. An audience gathered around Eugenio Merino’s tower of life-sized figures: a Rabbi standing on the shoulders of a Christian cleric, standing on top of a praying mullah, at the ADN Gallery from Barcelona. Like some Madame Tussaud’s wax work effigy it had an ‘oh look at that’ sort of curiosity but rather less appeal than the uncanny Dead Dad in a similar vein by the British artist Ron Muek on which it seemed to have been based. Elsewhere people stopped by Japanese artist Kaoru Katayama’s video at the Galeria Thomas March from Valencia, drawn by a voyeuristic fascination to a video of couples in an LA gay bar dancing to chirpy Latin music, their expressions deadpan under their cowboy hats.

Bruno Peinado Revolving Mirror Glass Skull / Albano Afonsos Skull - Diamante version, with companion bones in a glass case
Left: Bruno Peinado’s Revolving Mirror Glass Skull Right: Albano Afonso’s Skull – Diamante version, with companion bones in a glass case

Skulls were ubiquitous. Though after Damien Hirst’s £50 million diamond encrusted affair, For the Love of God, Bruno Peinado’s huge revolving mirror glass skull at Mario Mauroner Contemporary Art Vienna, and the Brazilian artist, Albano Afonso’s diamante version, with companion bones in a glass case, at the Sāo Paula Gallery Casatriângulo, seemed like rather cheesy derivatives. Wasn’t this really a question of plagiarism rather than influence? A common complaint among a number of the jaded journos was that there was nothing much new. But newness, nowadays, when there is no longer a valid avant-garde, is a rather overworked concept, as things become absorbed into the mainstream quicker than you can say boo to a goose.

Vitaly Pushnitsky
Vitaly Pushnitsky

So what was I looking for? Well, work that engaged aesthetically, intellectually, and on a human level, whatever the medium; whether it be a delicate little drawing, a painting, a video or a powerful set of photographs. Often it was the quiet things that demanded attention in the hurly-burly: the small modernist drawings by the Irish artist Patrick Michael Fitzgerald at Dublin’s Rubicon Gallery, which melded classic abstraction with an idiosyncratic vision of the everyday, or the work of Erlea Maneros Zabala, a Basque artist, at the Erica Redling gallery from LA, who created subtle Zen-like images that resembled black endpapers by floating ink on water and then taking a print, or the moving monochromatic paintings by Vitaly Pushnitsky at the Frants Gallery from St. Petersburg, which had the quality of aged photographs and took as their subject matter children abandoned in orphanages or a nurse sitting in a white tiled ward, in order to explore issues of truth and memory.

Ana Teresa Ortega Cartografías silenciadas, Targarins Ingressats Al Camp De Concentració De Miranda de Ebro
Ana Teresa Ortega, Cartografías silenciadas, Targarins Ingressats Al Camp De Concentració De Miranda de Ebro

If, on the other hand, you were feeling in a rather more playful mood then there were some zany, ironic little works by Maria Eastman at the cherryandmartin gallery from LA, made from glitter, oil, and flashe on paper that seemed to have been ripped from a teenager’s notebook. But it was the work of Ana Teresa Ortega that caused me to pause among the yards of art booths. Her spare black and white photographs of jails and death spots used by the Franco regime – a concrete bunker in Barcelona, a bridge in Galicia where the rebels where thrown to their death into the gorge below – articulately reminded us of the darker side of recent Spanish history and illustrated just how far modern democratic Spain has come in sixty years.

Apart from ARCO itself the city was awash with art. There was Just Madrid, the new contemporary art fair housed in La Lonja and Nave de Terneras, two converted industrial buildings, where the focus was on young galleries promoting up and coming artists. This was set up after a series of major disagreements between Arco’s selection committee and Ifema, the fair organisers. “Arco, reinvent or die” screamed one El Pa´s headline.

At the Ivory Press, the stylish building designed by the British architect Norman Foster, where his Spanish wife, Elena Ochoa Foster, produces fine artists’ books, the gallery space was showing The European Desktop, sculptures by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen. This was a slightly odd exhibition of oversized quills, blotters, text and inkpots that appeared to have fallen from the sky. It was claimed, though not altogether convincingly, that it was a comment on the displacement of European cultures.

Thomas Schütte Retrospective Reina Sofia Museum of Modern Art
Reina Sofia Museum of Modern Art: Thomas Schütte Retrospective

The German sculptor Thomas Schütte, whose successful Model for a Hotel, an architectural structure in specially engineered red, yellow and blue glass, was unveiled on Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth in November 2007, was showing at Reina Sofia, where he continued to illustrate that contemporary art is unpredictable, fluid and inclined to ask difficult questions rather than supply answers. While at the Centro de Arte Dos de Mayo, the exhibition SONIC YOUTH etc: SENSATIONAL FIX the focus was on the multidisciplinary activities of the groundbreaking experimental guitar band, Sonic Youth who, since 1981, have explored collaborations with musicians, visual artists and film makers.

Gonzalo Díaz Al calor del pensamiento
Gonzalo Díaz, Al calor del pensamiento

The stunning exhibition space at the Fundación Banco Santander, just outside the city, was host to Works from the Daros Latinamerica Collection, established in 2000 by Hans-Michael Herzog and Ruth Schmidheiny. With 70 pieces by 22 artists using painting, sculpture, drawing, photographs, video and installation the exhibition represented a wide range of artistic approaches. The title Al calor del pensamiento was taken from the piece by the Chilean artist Gonzalo Díaz, inspired by a line from the 18th century German poet Novalis: “we seek the unconditional in everything and find only things”. ‘Written’ in heated electrical elements that glowed red hot against ceramic plates it was a potent piece. As I walked through the galleries I was struck not only by the aesthetic quality of the work in this collection but by its obvious social engagement. The photos by the Columbian artist Miquel Ángel Rojas of a young soldier, a peasant, who had lost his leg in combat, posing as Michelangelo’s DAVID, were a searing commentary on war without any trace of sentimentality. In contrast Oscar Munoz’s poetic Aliento (Breath), where the viewer was invited to peer into a series of highly polished metal discs attached to the wall at eye level so the surfaces were smeared with his or her exhalation, turned the observer into the observed and the audience into a performer. Elsewhere the collographic, textured prints of the Afro-Cuban artist Belkis Ayón employed a variety of materials such as paper, cloth and vegetable matter to create black and white silhouettes that deconstructed gender narratives within Cuban society.

Miquel Barceló la solitude organisative
Miquel Barceló la solitude organisative

The CaixaForum is located in the heart of the city’s cultural district, facing the Paseo del Prado, near to the Prado, the Reina Sofia and the Thyssen-Bornemisza museums. Housed in a converted 1899 power station, this museum is one of the city’s few remaining examples of historically significant industrial architecture, and was acquired by the Caixa Foundation in 2001. A 24 meter high vertical garden, designed in collaboration with the botanist Patrick Blanc, takes up one wall of the square, supplying a pallet of green hues against the industrial brick. Designed by architects Herzog de Meuron the building is separated to create two worlds; one below and the other above the ground. Outside a monumental sculpture of an elephant standing on its trunk invited the visitor in from the public square to Miquel Barceló’s huge exhibition curated by the British curator, Catherine Lampert. Its subtitle la solitude organisative referred to a recent painting by this Majorcan artist of a pensive gorilla, which had been exhibited at the Venice Bienniale. Here Barceló explores his relationship to the human and animal world. “My life,” he says, “resembles the surface of my paintings” and is a reminder that his use of unorthodox artistic techniques has led him to equate the process of painting with cookery.

Hannah Collins Current History 2009
Hannah Collins Current History, 2009

But it was the exhibition by the British artist Hannah Collins that really caught my attention at CaxiaForum. Emigrants, exiles and nomads are her subjects. Touching, engaging and powerful her panoramic photographs and multiple projections are on a monumental scale and investigate the relationship betweeen loneliness and rootlessness. The scenarios varied to reveal the fractured geographies of economic migration. In a gypsy encampment Collins focused on the decorated interiors of the spoitless shacks and the powerful music that welded those marginalised by ‘mainstream’ society into a coherent social group.

Pierre Gonnord Terre de Personne
Pierre Gonnord Terre de Personne

But perhaps the biggest surprise was the exhibition Terre de Personne, by the young French artist Pierre Gonnord, who lives in Spain and won the Culture Award of the Regional Government of Madrid in 2007. The 39 works on display at the Alcalá 31 Exhibition Hall, many of which had not been shown before, grabbed me by the throat the second I walked into the gallery. These intense portraits with their effects of highly contrasted light and shade conjured the ascetic 17th century religious paintings of Francisco Zubarán. Yet Gonnord only ever uses natural light to photograph his cast of characters, mostly the elderly from isolated rural communities in northern Spain and Portugal, where the daily rituals have hardly changed for centuries. Accustomed to hard labour in the fields, at sea, or down the few remaining European mines, these individuals are the bastions of a fast fading way of life, one that is given dignity by their skills. Age is encountered in a way that we hardly ever see in this youth obsessed era. There was Filomena who, at 99, was out working in the fields with the cattle and had to finish her tasks before allowing Gonnord a few minutes to photograph her. (He never takes more than 10 minutes, not wanting to turn ordinary people into self-conscious models.) There was Fidel in his black beret and grey polo sweater with a face like a furrowed field, and Magdalena with her gnarled hands, wrinkled whiskery face and clear blue eyes that shine out from beneath her shawl with a biblical beauty. Then there are the coal miners who stare straight out from behind their smeared black masks with the dignity and assurance of knowing exactly who they are.

Pierre Gonnord Incendio II and XI
Pierre Gonnord Incendio, II and XI (Video Stills)

For the first time in his career, Gonnord has turned to landscapes, to the places where these people work and spend their lives. The sublime is conjured in these fields of burning stubble with their painterly veils of smoke. Aware of his art history Gonnord makes oblique reference to painters from Monet and Turner to Anslem Kiefer. Wind, rain, sun, sweat and labour have shaped the faces and hewn the lives of those in these powerful portraits. Tough, rooted and beautiful the knowledge of and struggle with the land has made moulded them. Few artists, except Rembrandt, have had this sort of empathy for old age. Within the razzmatazz of an urban art fair these images reverberate with an authenticity that reminds us what it is we are in danger of losing.

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2010

Images: 1&2 © Kauru Katayama
Image: 3 © Bruno Peinado. Courtesy of Mario Mauroner Contemporary Art Vienna
Image: 4 © Albano Afonso Coutesy of Sāo Paula Gallery Casatriângulo
Image: 5 © Vitaly Pushnitsky
Image: 6 © Ana Teresa Ortega
Image: 7 Courtesy of Reina Sofia Museum of Modern Art
Image 8: © Gonzalo Díaz
Image: 9 © Miquel Barceló
Image: 10 © Hannah Collins
Images: 11-15 © Pierre Gonnord

Art Criticism

A Tribute to Eva Arnold
Halcyon Gallery

Eve Arnold

No photographs of me please.

Eve Arnold

Eve Arnold Potata Pickers Daughter
Potata Pickers Daughter

Eve Arnold’s photographs of the twentieth century have so seared themselves into our collective unconscious that they have become the lens through which we understand much of that recent past. To be a documentary photographer is to record the world. An event that has been photographed instantly becomes more real than it would have been without being caught on camera. When her shutter clicked down on Marilyn Monroe, Malcolm X, Jackie O, Joan Crawford or Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor sitting in a pub during the filming of Becket nursing a couple of pints and a packet of pork sausages they were about to cook for dinner, Eve Arnold sealed them forever within those transient moments like flies encased in amber. Photography, as Susan Sontag writes, is ‘an elegiac art, a twilight art’.1 The subject in front of the camera is touched with pathos because we know when we look at the resulting print that that particular instance has already passed and can never be regained. Like Marcel Proust dipping his madeleine into a spoonful of lime-blossom tea, the photograph acts as a catalyst that returns us to a lost past which, in retrospect, so often seems gilded. All photographs are, therefore, a kind of memento mori. The images that remain linger like ghosts, giving their subjects a kind of immortality. By freezing a particular event, the photographer lays down evidence through which we try, like an archaeologist brushing the dust off a bowl, to make sense of history.

This is a nostalgic age and photographs are elegies to nostalgia. They act as still points in the flux, making seeming sense of the chaos of wars, of social upheavals, of the highs and lows of lives and fractured careers. They imply that we can get close to a celebrity or a politician so that we feel personally acquainted with them, that we can know what is true about this shifting world because the camera has recorded it. Even though the image we encounter is often second or third hand we believe that the photographer has acted as a witness to some event to which we may not have been privy. Thus the photograph takes on an iconic, magical reality.

Eve Arnold Charlotte Stribling
Charlotte Stribling

Eve Arnold came late to the profession, when she was nearing 40. Born in Philadelphia on 21 April 1912 (her age was never mentioned until she reached 90, when she stopped concealing it), she had wanted to be a writer or a dancer. Her Russian-Jewish immigrant parents, Velvel Sklarski and Bosya Laschiner, had changed their names to the more American-sounding William and Bessie Cohen. Working as a bookkeeper for an estate agent during the Second World War, she answered an advertisement in the New York Times for an amateur photographer which led to a job in a printing and photo-finishing plant in New Jersey. Her only formal training was a short but tough six-week course at the New School for Social Research under the auspices of Alexey Brodovitch. The rest of her art was acquired, as she says, from a lifetime of ‘learning by doing’.

Her first photo-story covered fashion shows in Harlem. Her 1950 portrait of Charlotte Stribling, a young black model known as ‘Fabulous’ – her blonde hair twisted into braids on either side of her head, her eyes wide open and lips parted in anxious anticipation as she gathers up her skirts to go on stage – is classic Arnold. Full of empathy, she has simply allowed the subject to be herself. Looking back from these early decades of the twenty-first century it is, perhaps, difficult to appreciate just how different those times were. Not only was America still racially segregated, with the Civil Rights Movement yet to gather pace, but this was a pre-feminist world where a young middle-class woman (Arnold was a Long Island housewife with a small son) was generally expected to do no more than a little light stenography or stay at home and bake cookies. To launch herself as an independent documentary photographer was far more exceptional than it might appear today. It took stamina, steel and determination. ‘It was’, she says, ‘daunting to bring my pale face into that all-black audience … My hands were shaking, from fear not of the people but of my ability to bring forth pictures.’

Without any consultation her story was syndicated by Picture Post in London and, as a result, was taken up in Europe. In 1951, with this and another piece on an opening night at the Metropolitan Opera in New York under her belt, Arnold decided to approach Magnum Photos, then the foremost photographic agency in the world. For a rank beginner this was a daring move. Magnum had been founded as a co-operative in 1947 by Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger and David ‘Chim’ Seymour, all of whom had been affected by what they had seen during the war. Now that there was peace they were keen to set about exploring a changed world. Magnum was unique in that it was to be an agency run by and for photographers. Although Arnold was one of the earliest women members ever to be admitted, her natural modesty meant that she never claimed to have been the first. For at the same time as she joined the New York office, Inge Morath (who would later marry Arthur Miller) joined the Paris office. For its members Magnum became a family. Arnold not only made important friends but also gained a great deal of technical and artistic know-how from fellow photographers such as Erich Hartmann and Ernst Haas, who were themselves to acquire significant reputations. At the time she was working with a larger format than normal: 2 ¼ -inch square, taken with a $40 Rolleicord. Having no money she had to make these images, shot on an inferior camera, express what she wanted them to express. Over the years this led her to conclude that it wasn’t so much the instrument used but the eye and the mind behind it that counted. Through her involvement with Magnum she began to meet movie stars and it was at a party given by John Huston at the ‘21’ club that she met her most famous subject, Marilyn Monroe.

Eve Arnold Marilyn Monroe
Marilyn Monroe

In 1944 Norma (after the silent-screen actress Norma Talmadge) Jean (after Jean Harlow) Morteson (later to be christened Baker) took a job on the assembly line at the Radio Plane Munitions factory in Burbank, California. Norma Jean had never known her father and had had a disruptive and painful childhood. A fabulist and storyteller, she found an emotional escape route in the movies and film magazines. It was whilst working on the assembly line that she was discovered by the photographer David Conover, who was taking pictures of women contributing to the war effort for Yank magazine. Using her for the shoot he then began to send modelling jobs her way. On her first magazine cover ( Family Circle , spring 1946), she poses as a homely brunette in a pinafore, cuddling a lamb. But Norma Jean dreamed of Hollywood and enrolled in drama classes. She dyed her hair blonde, changed her first name, took her grandmother’s surname and posed for a number of pin-up shots for girlie magazines. Then on 26 August 1946 she signed her first studio contract with 20th Century Fox and Marilyn Monroe was born. She was paid $125 a week. Her first movie role was a bit part in The Shocking Miss Pilgrim, 1947, followed by a series of equally inconsequential films.

When Eve Arnold met Monroe at John Huston’s party she was still an unknown starlet and Arnold a relatively inexperienced photographer. Neither of them knew much about their respective crafts and this became a bond between them, so that later Arnold would say, ‘I don’t know where she ended and I began or I ended and she began. We fed each other for ten years.’ Having seen Arnold’s images of Marlene Dietrich in Esquire , in which Dietrich was unposed, singing the song that made her famous, Lili Marlene, Marilyn was canny enough to realise that here was a photographer who was attempting something new: natural, informal shots that were a departure from the stylised and retouched studio portraits used to promote stars at the time. She approached Arnold, suggesting that ‘If you could do that well with Marlene, can you imagine what you can do with me?’ Thus began a unique professional friendship. Was she manipulating Arnold? No, she insisted, they were manipulating each other: ‘She couldn’t have done it without me and I couldn’t have done it without her’.

Eve Arnold Marlene Dietrich

Eve Arnold’s gift was to recognise Marilyn’s raw talent. Monroe had a sensual, luminous presence in front of the lens and a genius for self-promotion. This was a pre-television age and she was hungry for more exposure and aware that the still photographs reproduced in the magazines of the day were her route to fame. According to Arnold, the image she projected was what she wanted the world to see. She was the one in control. The walk, the wiggle, the pout – they could all be switched on for the camera. Eve Arnold photographed her six times during the decade that they knew each other. The shortest session took two hours and the longest lasted for two months on the film set of The Misfits, Marilyn’s final film, when they met daily. At various times Arnold caught her poised beneath an umbrella on the steps of an aeroplane, her white broderie anglaise shift cinched in tightly at the waist and, elsewhere, in the same white dress in front of a washroom mirror doing her hair, her skirt, knowingly, hitched up around her thighs. Such frank, intimate shots were then highly unusual, humanising the subject and giving a glimpse behind the spangled mask. Marilyn trusted Arnold and allowed her free rein, in contrast to most of the other photographers who shot her – the very word conjures images of hunting and male violence – who were men. In many ways Marilyn wanted Eve Arnold to be the mother she never had, a role Arnold refused. Nonetheless, her calm, unassuming presence gained Marilyn’s confidence, resulting in some of the most intimate images of her on record. Arnold caught her in quiet moments engrossed in James Joyce’s Ulysses in a bid for self-improvement and struggling to learn her lines on the set of The Misfits, where Monroe always felt her acting skills to be inferior to those of the more seasoned actors. She photographed her with Laurence Olivier promoting The Prince and the Showgirl, leaning coquettishly over a balcony to expose her cleavage, wearing a radiant smile, while elsewhere she captured her off guard, seated on a bench beside her playwright husband, Arthur Miller, in a wonderfully domestic moment eating a picnic lunch off a tray.

Eve Arnold Mikhail Baryshnikov Yves St Laurent Terence Stamp
Mikhail Baryshnikov Yves St Laurent Terence Stamp

Interest in The Misfits was, at the time, voracious. Look and Life magazines expressed an interest even before shooting began. Magnum negotiated an exclusive deal whereby a roster of their members would visit the set. Eve Arnold was required to keep a record of the day-to-day filming. At the time Marilyn was already well advanced in her addiction to drugs and alcohol. Devastated by the break-up of her marriage to Miller, she claimed to be hearing voices and suffering from constant exhaustion. Yet despite her subject’s instability, Eve Arnold’s discretion and gentle presence produced some of the most memorable images in Magnum’s archive. Being essentially a documentary photographer allowed her to reveal something of the person beyond the icon and sex-bomb, to portray Marilyn in all her complex vulnerability. Even so, Arnold counsels against believing that she caught the ‘real’ Marilyn; a sixth sense always told her there was a camera about. ‘The idea’, Arnold says, ‘of the candid shot, the actress unaware, was impossible with her’. Eve Arnold’s Marilyn is a woman of many moods: seductive, playful, winsome with pigtails on the set of The Misfits and a 1950s vamp lying in long grass on Mount Sinai, Long Island, in 1955, dressed in a leopard-skin bathing costume like some lithe wild animal. To be photographed was, for Marilyn, the evidence she craved that she existed, that she was somebody. ‘I wanna be loved by you’, she sang in Some Like It Hot : Sweet, funny, sexy and innocent, she needed approval and acceptance. The actor Dean Martin once said of Monroe, ‘She was a good kid. But when you looked into her eyes, there was nothing there … it was all illusion. She looked great on film, yeah. But in person … she was a ghost.’ Eve Arnold was able to see beyond the void and capture the complex essence of this wounded child-woman.

In 2005 Halcyon Gallery worked with Eve Arnold to produce an exhibition and book featuring almost 100 photographs, including 28 previously unseen images of the star, revealing sides to her personality rarely portrayed through the lens or witnessed by the public, which established an enduring relationship between the photographer, Magnum and the gallery. Due to the overwhelming success of these images Arnold’s career has been in danger of being overshadowed by the Marilyn phenomenon. But she has been very much more than simply a celebratory photographer. It was Arnold’s husband who pointed out, in the early 1950s, the plight of the migrant workers toiling in the fields near their home on Long Island. Making their way up through the farming strip known as ‘Migrant Alley’, starting in Florida and working north picking strawberries and sorting potatoes, they spent their nights in overcrowded, insanitary, ramshackle camps. Picking up her Rolleiflex Arnold went out into the fields and into the homes of these workers, revealing not only the shocking conditions they had to endure but recording, with empathy and humanity, their tough daily lives.

Eve Arnold Malcolm X
Malcolm X Chicago, 1961

But it was in 1961 that she faced one of her biggest challenges, when photographing the leader of the Black Muslims in the United States, Malcolm X. The so-called Nation of Islam was closed and suspicious, especially towards white people. Despite the air of menace at many of the meetings, Arnold managed to build a rapport with Malcolm X who was, she said, quite ready to manipulate the situation to his advantage. At the time he was under threat from Elijah Muhammad, the head of the Black Muslims, and wanted to be seen by the wider press – particularly Life magazine – so he wouldn’t be murdered, which, in the end, he was. One of the most disquieting images from this period is of George Lincoln Rockwell in 1961, flanked by members of the American Nazi Party in full regalia, at a Black Muslim meeting in Washington DC.

In 1969 Eve Arnold produced her series Veiled Women. These pictures taken in Oman, Dubai and Afghanistan revealed a hitherto largely secret world where veils and burkhas then had a more exotic resonance, for Islamic fundamentalism was still several decades away. What Arnold’s keen eye caught was a tantalising glimpse of these women’s individuality, as in the wonderfully insouciant image of a veiled woman puffing away on a cigarette, a tail of ash trailing from the stub between her stained fingers decorated with silver rings.

Arnold came to live in London with her son in 1962 and remained here permanently. She seems to have had a keen eye for a certain kind of Englishness, as is evident in her 1978 image of an elderly working couple in Cumbria where the woman, wearing a flowered dress, sits on a print sofa in their highly patterned living room, or in a photograph of the celebration for the Queen’s Jubilee in 1977 with a crowd gathered around a piano at a street party. In the early 1970s she created hard-hitting images of South Africa under apartheid and translated the ‘kind of bleakness’ she encountered in the Soviet Union into equally stark images. Yet it was not until the age of 67 that she took on the exhausting schedule of a long-awaited assignment to visit China. Since the early 1960s the Sunday Times , for whom she worked, had applied yearly for a visa for her to visit but had been routinely turned down. Then in the late 1970s Arnold befriended Sirin, a Thai girl who had been brought up by the Chinese premier Zhou Enlai, and a visa for three months was forthcoming. Arnold travelled extensively in that vast country at the dawn of rapid change. After an era of secrecy the Chinese government was opening up to the outside world and promising its people a period of rapid industrial growth. Her photographs of the inhabitants of Inner Mongolia, especially of a young girl lying in the grass with a white horse that she is training for the militia, catch, with their harmonies of red, green and white, a world little known to the West. The images are so memorable because what she shows us are real people. For a previously black-and-white photographer her sense of colour is almost painterly. This is manifest in her 1979 photograph where the turquoise tunic of the Mongolian musician is vividly set off against the reds and greens of the Golden River White Horse Company Militia as he accompanies them singing a folk song.

Eve Arnold In China
Eva Arnold In China

Three years after her seminal book In China , Eve Arnold returned to her home country to look at the land of her birth with the eye of a visitor yet with a sense of familiarity. The result was In America , a rare collection of photographs that illustrates the diversity of American life and culture. Arnold shows us the industrial landscape of Milwaukee and a flea market in Illinois, Chicago; she photographs a prison chain gang in Texas guarded by a pair of mounted police in Stetsons and takes a portrait of the Imperial Wizard of the Klu Klux Klan in his witchy red robes. She is particularly sympathetic to the old: the ageless Navajo matriarch from Window Rock, Arizona, in her fine turquoise and silver jewellery and the old lady asleep in a wheelchair at the Motion Picture and Television Home and Hospital, Los Angeles, her sparse grey hair tightly curled in pink rollers. Arnold’s America is a rainbow nation, a land of extremes, at once beautiful and strange, familiar and curious.

In a long life she photographed world leaders and movie stars, artists and dowagers, political militants and the dispossessed. Common to all Arnold’s photographs is an unsentimental curiosity tempered with compassion. Her subjects, whether the translucent young Isabella Rossellini or a Latino bar girl in a brothel in the red-light district of Havana in 1954, are simply allowed to be themselves. She never imposed her own agenda. When early in her career she photographed Hopi Indians dancing, she related that they grabbed her camera and wrecked it, believing that the taking of a photograph plundered their souls. Photography, she admitted, is essentially an aggressive act, but ‘if you’re careful with people and if you respect their privacy, they will offer you part of themselves that you can use, and that is the big secret’.

Eve Arnold Bar girl in a brothel in the red light district, Havana, 1954
Bar girl in a brothel in the red light district, Havana, 1954

Arnold published numerous books, often accompanied by her own texts, and had worldwide exhibitions, while her work appeared in magazines and newspapers across the globe. Her time in China led to her first major solo exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum in 1980 and, in same year, she received the National Book Award for In China and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Society of Magazine Photographers. In 1995 she was made a fellow of the Royal Photographic Society in Britain and in 1996 she received the Kraszna-Krausz Book Award for In Retrospect . 1997 saw her granted honorary degrees from the University of St Andrews, Staffordshire University and the American International University in London. She was also appointed to the advisory committee of the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television (now the National Media Museum) in Bradford, receiving an honorary OBE from her adopted country in 2003. That year she was also elected Master Photographer – the world’s most prestigious photographic honour – by New York’s International Center of Photography. Then in 2010, just one day after her ninety-eighth birthday, she was honoured with the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Sony World Photography Awards. Her extraordinary career has spanned most of the twentieth century, sealing that turbulent, troubling, progressive era in our consciousness to create an unmatched legacy of compassionate, honest and poignant photographs that render the transient iconic.

1 Susan Sontag, On Photography. Published by Penguin Books, 1979

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2010

Eve Arnold Photograph Camera / Snowdon

Images © The Estate of Eve Arnold

Art Criticism

Artes Mundi 3 Wales Inernational Arts Prize

Lida Abdul White House 2005
Lida Abdul White House, 2005

The biennial Artes Mundi, the Welsh international art exhibition and prize, has become a hub of serious contemporary art. This third competition is no exception.

Lida Abdul was born in Kabul in 1973 and fled after the Soviet invasion, living in Germany and India before moving to the United States. Her lyrical films, set in the rocky wastelands of Afghanistan, use damaged architecture as a poignant metaphor for human destruction and suffering. Brick Sellers of Kabul shows a line of windswept boys selling bricks gleaned from ruins to build new buildings.

In contrast, the Portuguese artist Vasco Araújo employs a mix of media to investigate different aspects of the human condition. Porcelain figurines from junk shops have been placed in museum cases alongside texts from the Marquis de Sade, in a sort of mock-salon setting, to talk about incest; meanwhile, a video shows a young girl in a white dress playing with dusty bones in a deserted children’s sanatorium that dates from Salazar’s regime, in an evocation of lost histories.

Vasco Araújo Hereditas
Vasco Araújo Hereditas

The most knowing of the works is one by the young Romanian artist Mircea Cantor. His film, Deeparture, depicts an empty gallery in which a wolf and a deer circle each other suspiciously. Making reference to Joseph Beuys’ notorious performance with coyotes, it subverts expectations of what would normally be a predatory scene.

Another of the nominees is the Scottish collaboration Dalziel and Scullion, who use photography, video and sculpture to explore the relationship between humanity and the natural environment, and encourage the viewer to experience nature as if they were part of the flora and fauna.

A degree of humour is provided by the Indian artist NS Harsha, whose six-panel painting Come Give Us a Speech looks like an Indian miniature writ large. Not only does it contain details of daily life but, on closer inspection, witty references to world events and art history.

NS Harsha Come give us a speech 2007-08
NS Harsha Come give us a speech, 2007-08

Abdoulaye Konaté was born and raised in Mali, then went to Cuba to train as an abstract painter. Now, he has turned to making large-scale textiles as a pragmatic response to the availability of cotton and the difficulty of obtaining oil or acrylic. Using traditional materials with a sophisticated eye, he brings together both Western aesthetics and local concerns.

Susan Norrie is an Australian artist whose powerful video work, HAVOC, depicts a town in East Java made uninhabitable by a ceaseless, and apparently unstoppable, geyser of hot mud, which appeared after drilling for gas and oil. The work melds documentary footage with large videos that borrow from Romanticism and myth.

Elsewhere, the work of Rosângela Rennó from Rio de Janeiro explores people from the margins of society through old images gleaned from newspapers, police files and family albums. Her installation – made up of 39 photographs of Cuban newlyweds from the Eighties – turns an intimate moment into something staged.

From the outset, Artes Mundi decided to celebrate artists whose work discussed the human condition. Such a baggy definition might have been risky. In fact, it has allowed a broad spectrum of mostly emerging artists to make work that is brave, subtle and demanding, and that addresses human truths and political dilemmas free from easy art-world clichés. An overall winner for the £40,000 prize will be selected from the shortlist by an international panel.

Artes Mundi 3 at the National Museum, Cardiff until 8 June 2008

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2008

Image 1: © Lida Abdul
Image 2: © Vasco Araújo
Image 3: © NS Harsha

Art Criticism

Conrad Atkinson Talks to Sue Hubbard

With a solo show currently at the Courtauld Institute, Conrad Atkinson talks to Sue Hubbard about the evolution of his career – a practice rooted equally in the political and the personal.

Art literally changed Conrad Atkinson’s life. As a young Catholic of Irish descent growing up in the 1950s in the northern town of Cleaton Moor there were few career opportunities for a working class boy: “It was either down the pit or Sellafield nuclear power station.” Art college provided “a short window of escape for kids who were not too academically bright”.

Conrad Atkinson Excavated Mutilations
Excavated Mutilations

After school he got into Carlisle College of Art. From there he went on to Liverpool and bought an easel from a fellow student, John Lennon, for thirty shillings. “I thought Lennon was a loser, that he was just messing around with music because he couldn’t hack art school.” Now he wishes he had got the easel signed. Atkinson’s childhood was steeped in politics. His grandfather was involved in the Independent Labour Party in the 1930s and acted as a political agent for the miners “but by the age of seventeen I had had it with politics”. Later at the Royal Academy he began to see the possibilities of painting as a political act. To be a painter was to be at the cutting edge of intellectual investigation “though, in those days no one ever got into the academy doing abstract paintings”. The great watershed was in1968 when he became involved with the student protests at the London School of Economics. Everything was changing; the last shackles of post-war constraint were being overthrown; the personal became the political. He became disillusioned by painting, felt there was “too much disparity between his family background and what he was doing”. But there was no chance of an arts council grant to support work unless it was painting and his tutor had told him he didn’t regard video as an art form. Atkinson was offered a show at the ICA on the strength of his paintings, but when he went back to his village he found himself making a video Strike at Brannans, highlighting the plight of the workers at a thermometer factory in Cleaton Moor. The work was raw and deeply felt though he wasn’t sure if it was art. There were meetings of the factory workers in the gallery, along with workers from the south London branch who turned up out of the blue. Since then Atkinson has built his reputation on an art that dares to act as a catalyst to discussion on social issues from nuclear war to 11 September. Atkinson does not, he insists, favour a particular ‘style’. Rather he uses whatever materials he feels best suit his subject, everyday objects such as shoes or newspaper in which he might paint over the text to make a point about being mute or silenced. How, I wondered, could he continue as a political artist in an age of commodification, where what is supposedly radical is so quickly absorbed by the mainstream. “Not all of us make corporate art, not all of us think art should shock the English middle classes, not all of us are more interested in our own blood than the blood of those dying in Iraq and Iran. Perhaps art can’t really make a difference but it can highlight alternative ways of seeing and living. We don’t know if art, which nowadays is so quickly appropriated by advertising and entertainment can change things, but we never know when we might need it, where it is going to come from next, what it might look like.” He senses that people are tired of being shocked, that there are signs that young curators are excavating the work of 1970s artists. So what advice would he give to artists setting out. “They must desperately want to do it, but that doesn’t mean they have to touch their caps to the big institutions all the time. To be radical you need to know where to insert work, where to place it and at what level.”

He was invited to show in Bond Street Gallery in his second year at the RA and until 1986, Atkinson managed to survive by selling work. In 1970 he and others founded the Artists’ Union to help artists negotiate their way through the gallery system and in 1972 he was awarded the Churchill Fellowship and also taught part time at the Slade. Now largely based in California, Atkinson was recently appointed Distinguished Visiting Professor to the Courtauld. His new work, Excavated mutilations, has been made in response to the Courtauld collection and investigates how we respond to images, unpack and control their meanings. He still passionately believes that art can have an impact on life; he’s not interested in ‘autobiography’ or confession but in constructing alternative cultural meanings. Other artists might do worse than take a leaf from his book.

Excavated Mutilations New Work by Conrad Atkinson at the Courtauld Institute from 25 October 2002 to 19 January 2003

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2003

Images © Conrad Atkinson 2003

Art Criticism

After Auschwitz
Responses to the Holocaust

Christian Boltanski Altar to the Chajes High School (Autel Chases), 1987
Christian Boltanski
Altar to the Chajes High School (Autel Chases), 1987

Theodor Adorno, the philosopher and musicologist, famously stated that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” For how can we do other than face such an abyss with silence when words and images are all in danger of ending as morbid, bathetic clichés? How can art stand against the facts of history? As the Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize winner, Elie Wiesel’s irresolvable paradox puts it, “how is one to speak of it? How is one not to speak of it?” And yet is not the very act of making art – particularly by those who did so in the camps, in secret and without materials thus further endangering their lives – a liberating action of free will and resistance? For to make art – then or today – is to hold to a future, to believe that the permanent state of the human condition is not the dark void but a desire to reach towards the light.

By making art, by ‘speaking of it’, as opposed to being silenced either by horror or indifference, the Holocaust does not become a dusty footnote in the annals of history, ossified in images that have become blunted by over use, a unique point fixed in time. It is through the challenge of finding a meaningful response that our ethical and political sensibilities are constantly renegotiated and re-evaluated, not only in the light of Europe’s darkest decade but in the context of current political events to which we, in the West, would all too easily turn a pragmatic blind eye. It is to acknowledge that the Holocaust was not just a ‘one-off’, an aberration of history, but an act on the spectrum of human activity.

Monica Bohm-Duchen, the curator of After Auschwitz: Responses to the Holocaust in Contemporary Art, considered several hundred works from artists of different geographical, cultural and religious backgrounds for this exhibition, some of whom were not even born until after the war. Her intention was to avoid what she calls “a kind of Holocaust kitsch”: an over reliance on striped uniforms, barbed wire, and skeletal figures that can have an alienating effect on the viewer and can, all too easily, become an easy short-hand to be filed and forgotten on the library shelves of history.

Magdalena Abakanowicz Seated Figures, 1990-94
Magdalena Abakanowicz, Seated Figures, 1990-94

The work in this exhibition is wide ranging. Yet all the artists share a desire, an obsession even, to make sense of that which it is almost impossible to understand. Some, like Magdalena Abakanowicz, born in Poland to an aristocratic Catholic family, witnessed Nazi atrocities firsthand. Her subsequent life under the Communists led her to speak of the vulnerability and dehumanisation of the victims of all totalitarian oppression. Her seated, larger-than-life figures – faceless, limbless, and anonymous – sit, their backs curved towards us, in silent protest, dignified by their suffering. As with Shirley Samberg’s work, the body becomes an image not only of terrible physical endurance, but of mental torment. Samberg’s abstracted human forms, bandaged in sacking, are filled with a sense of menace and Brechtian despair. As in Mother Courage we are presented with casualties of war who are both universal and forever with us.

Fabio Mauri Wailing Wall
Fabio Mauri, Wailing Wall

Both Christian Boltanski and Fabio Mauri are installation artists of international renown. For Boltanski – French, of Catholic/Jewish parentage – memory has long been his subject. His rusty tins boxes, trailing wires, electric lights and photographs – enlarged, blurred images of four student graduates from the Viennese-Jewish high school in 1931 – create a poignant shrine to these lost children. Fabio Mauri works in a similar vein using everyday objects that resonate with loss and which are all the more poignant for the implied absence of their previous owners. His Wailing Wall, constructed of suitcases, alludes not only to the piles of luggage collected with Teutonic precision at Auschwitz but also to the wall in Jerusalem. The rolled canvas bags are references to the practice of placing prayer scrolls between its stones, whilst the coil of ivy suggests a tentative symbol of hope and renewal.

Daisy Brand, born in Czechoslovakia in 1929, survived no fewer than seven camps, including Auschwitz. Working as a potter in the USA she makes small scale ceramics that juxtapose skill and subject matter. Recurrent, yet highly restrained motifs of railway tracks, gateways and corridors, embellished with symbolic scrolls refer both to the inmates’ striped uniforms and the Old Testament Scrolls of Law.

John Goto Rembrandt in Terezin
John Goto, Rembrandt in Terezin

Melvin Charney provocatively explores the Nazi death camps as examples of modern architecture. Better if they think they are going to a farm … is a suggested reconstruction of the notorious gateway at Auschwitz-Birkenau, which he proposed to build for the 1981 Kassel Documenta, only for it to be rejected. Another work draws ironic parallels between the architecture of Auschwitz and the Temple of Jerusalem. The lack of human presence builds, in these Piranesi-like structures, towards the sense of nightmare.

John Goto, born in Manchester in 1949, is an artist who takes images from Eastern Europe to explore forgotten interstices of history and their relevance to the present. His photo montage Rembrandt in Terezin illustrates the problematic relationship between barbarism and culture, referring to the Nazi practice of forcing the artist inmates of Terezin to paint copies of old masters. Deborah Davidson, born after the war in the USA, is a book artist. Her pages of handmade paper, each linked to the next by a thread and hung from the ceiling in five ‘vertical’ chapters, explore both her shattered family past and create a memorial to the Jews of Turin, including her mother and great-grandmother who both perished. The fragmented text serves to remind us of the orgies of Nazi book burning and gives expression to these lost voices and the power of the word.

Shimon Attie, Almstradtstrasse 43 (1930), 1991
Shimon Attie, Almstradtstrasse 43 (1930), 1991

Shimon Attie, born in the USA in 1957, now lives in Berlin. His photographs, archive material of pre-war German Jewish street life slide-projected onto the very buildings in present day Berlin where they were originally taken, return the ghosts of the murdered to reclaim their lost homes. Two other photographers who deal with the subject in very different ways are Henning Langenheim, a German, born in 1950, and fellow compatriot, Susanna Pieratzki, who was born in 1965. Langenheim set out to ‘document’ with total ‘objectivity’ as many sites of Nazi atrocities as possible. It is the apparent ordinariness of these places that is shocking. Rendered anodyne by the passing of time and the need to be sanitised for tourist consumption, his cool black and white image of a grounds man mowing the grass in shirt sleeves with a fly-mow beside the rails tracks at Dachau, is chilling. Susanna Pieratzki’s response is more personal. The daughter of two Holocaust survivors, her black and white series entitled Parents is searing in both its restraint and intimacy. Using symbolic props such as two small shoes (her own) placed on her father’s head photographed in profile, and a picture of him in ordinary striped pyjamas (the association with camp uniform is unavoidable) set beside eight empty wire hangers representing his eight lost siblings, we are reminded of how the effects of the Holocaust reverberate through the generations.

Lean Live, born in Russian in 1952 and now living between Italy and Israel, also evokes childhood images as synonyms for loss. Toys – a horse and a ball – simple artefacts from a different age carefully crafted out of paper pulp, allude to the loss of innocence. Her reference to Ariadne and the Minator employs the labyrinth as a metaphor for the unconscious, locating it as the site of repressed and painful memories. The universality of these objects reminds us that displacement and tragedy are no respecters of history. Nancy Spero, an American born in 1926, responds to the Holocaust by foregrounding the victimisation of women. Printed on sacking is the savage poem by Brecht Ballad of Marie Sanders, the Jews’ Whore, a reference to a woman tortured for her relationship with a Jew. The link between violence and pornography is implied by the bound and naked woman printed beside the poem, which echoes a photograph found in the pocket of an SS officer.

Kitty Klaidman, Hidden Memories: Attic in Sastin, 1991 and The Crawl Space, 1991
Kitty Klaidman, Hidden Memories: Attic in Sastin, 1991 and The Crawl Space, 1991

Although much of this work is made up of conceptual installations that rely on metaphor rather than on direct representation, there are several painters in the exhibition. A non-Jew, Zoran Music, was incarcerated in Dacha for his resistance activities and managed to save two thousand drawings from that period. Recently he has returned to his obsession with “the tremendous and tragic beauty” of the piles of dead. His expressionistic works are filled with an unresolved tension between beauty and horror. Meanwhile Natan Nuchi, born in Israel and the son of a Holocaust survivor, isolates single figures of camp victims, setting their white skeletal bodies against a darkened backdrop so they seem to emerge from the surface like X-rays. Mick Rooney, born in Britain in 1944, is a non-Jewish artist whose awareness of the Holocaust dates back to his exposure as a boy to the shocking newsreels of the camps and his readings of Primo Levi. Spatially claustrophobic, his work invites the viewer to fill out unstated narratives. Sally Heywood, one of the youngest artists included, born in Britain in 1964, now lives and works in Berlin. The Burning has its roots in a visionary experience when she saw a glow emanating from a building she later learnt had been one of the largest synagogues in the city. For Kitty Klaidman, a child-survivor, it was necessary for several decades to pass before she felt able to return to the storeroom in Slovakia where she’d been kept hidden by a local peasant. Her painting shows the attic space above the storeroom where the flood of light acts both as a symbol of hope and a reminder of imprisonment. Although not part of the Festival Hall exhibition, Kita’s painting, which was included in the touring show, is also pre-occupied with what it means to be Jewish in a post-Holocaust world. His Passion makes the link, as other artists have done, between the persecution of the Jews and the crucifixion.

One of the most poignant pieces in the show is by Ellen Rothenberg, born in the USA in 1949. The Combing Shawl refers to one of the few personal objects of Anne Frank’s to survive – a cape placed by women over their clothes, to protect them whilst combing their hair. The lush cascading locks are made of strips of vellum onto which have been printed the unexpurgated text of her diaries. Around these tresses lie piles of cast metal combs. The collision of images is unbearably arresting. Not only are we reminded of a girl’s youthful ‘crowning glory’, but also of how women in the camps were forced to have their heads shaved, their shorn hair afterwards being sent to Germany to make wigs. There is an uncomfortable reminder of the link between sadism and sex, as well as a reference to archetypes such as Rapunzal, and the golden-haired Margarete and the ashen hair of Shulamith in Paul Celan’s Death Fugue, who were an inspiration to the German artist Kiefer. Anne Frank’s words defiantly transcend and defeat history as they tumble in a heap onto the floor demanding to be read.

Ellen Rothenberg, Anne Frank Project: A Probability: Combing Shawl, 1994
Ellen Rothenberg, Anne Frank Project: A Probability: Combing Shawl, 1994

So we are forced back to the question of how to speak of the Holocaust. There is no absolute answer. Perhaps, to borrow the words of the poet Wilfred Owen, when referring to that other war that was supposed to end all wars, “the poetry is” quite simply “in the pity.” What is important is that the apparently unsayable continues to find expression. For such exhibitions are testimonies of remembrance. It can only be hoped that the touring show is accorded more respect than that at the South Bank. That Fabio Mauri’s Wailing Wall should have been placed only feet away from the FM jazz band performing to disinterested lunch-time office workers and commuters snatching a quick drink is an unfortunate juxtaposition. Yet, perhaps, there’s a chilling irony, pointed out by an anonymous contributor in the comments book that: “no doubt they drank and danced as the Jews were being herded to Auschwitz.”

After Auschwitz Responses to the Holocaust in Contemporary Art at the Festival Hall London from Feb to April 1995

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 1995

Image: 1 © Christian Boltanski. Gift of Peter and Shawn Leibowitz, New York, to American Friends of the Israel Museum In memory of Charles and Rosalind Leibowitz and Leila Sharenow
Image 2: © Magdalena Abakanowicz
Image 3: © Fabio Mauri. Courtesy of Associazione per l’Arte Fabio Mauri, Rome
Image 4: © John Goto. Courtesy of Derby Museum and Art Gallery
Image 5: © Shimon Attie. Courtesy of MOMA
Image 6: © Kitty Klaidman
Image 7: © Ellen Rothenberg

Art Criticism

Gillian Ayres
Interview

Vital, anarchic, bold and immoderate Gillian Ayres is Britain’s grande dame of Abstraction, says Sue Hubbard


Gillian Ayres
Gillian Ayres

When I last stayed with Gillian Ayres at her home in Cornwall one of her dogs peed on the carpet before dinner and then died in the night. When I came down in the morning it was lying in the wheelbarrow, in her pretty three-bears cottage garden, stiff with rigour mortis. It is sometimes hard to believe that some of the best-loved contemporary British paintings have been produced at the end of this wooded lane in this warmly chaotic milieu full of books and pets. Now there are fewer animals and a cleaner, who also happens to be a painter, controls some of the domestic muddle. And there are no more cigarettes. It used to be forty a day untipped Senior Service. But then there was the heart attack and she was forced to be sensible and moderate.

Moderation is not an Ayres characteristic. Even as a child growing up in bourgeois Barnes she was, by her own admission, “a brat”. When she was 10 she rode round on her bike collecting bomb cartridges, walking back, one day, through Barnes High Street with an unexploded shell. In her early teens she announced to the headmistress at St. Paul’s Girls’ School, where Shirley Williams was among her best friends, that she didn’t believe in God and would no longer be going to prayers. At 16 she walked out of her exams and threatened that if she was not allowed to go to art school she’d run away to Scotland. Her kindly but slightly bemused parents agreed; maybe, she says, they thought it would help her choose nice curtain fabrics. Though her headmistress warned of “the sort of men you get in art schools.” Nevertheless she enrolled at Camberwell. To start off with her mother took her on the bus. It might, she thinks, have been different if she’d been a boy.

Born in 1930 she is, today, one of the grandes dames of British painting. Highly intelligent, feisty and fiercely independent her compulsive creative energy and generosity are reflected in her lyrical yet muscular works. Staying with her in 1997 at The British School in Rome when she held the Sargent Fellowship, I was struck not only by her knowledge of art history but also by the breadth of her reading. She is a committed modernist, part of a generation that, after the war, subscribed to the possibility of a ‘brave new world’, to the affirming power of a creativity based on a restless and vigorous questioning. She has always eschewed fashion and “followed her nose”, believing in the humanistic value of painting and is also deeply committed to the intellectual and emotional freedoms – a legacy perhaps of 50s Existentialism – inherent in abstraction. Having a conversation with her is like inhabiting one of her canvases. Ideas and words flow and swirl in all directions. You think you are in the equivalent of a red square only to find she has plopped you down in a blue arc.

In 1943, while still at school she discovered monographs on van Gogh, Cezanne and Monet and thought “my god, so this is what painting can do.” In those days there was huge suspicion of ‘modern art’ and she was desperate to find people who shared her interest. This she did at Camberwell where demobbed servicemen, such as Terry Frost and Harry Mundy (later her husband) were studying as mature students. Ayres temperament soon led her to reject the muddy English colours and “the measuring thing” of the dominant Euston Road School aesthetic. When Coldstream one day remarked condescendingly in her presence that “Matisse can pass me by” she answered with characteristic brio “He may pass you by but he won’t pass me by”. As she says, she could be an argumentative brat. But it was her involvement with the AIA Gallery, which in 1951 mounted the first post-war exhibition devoted to abstraction with artists such as Hepworth, Roger Hilton and Victor Passmore and her discovery of American Abstract Expressionism, of Pollock and Rothko, that was to define her own idiosyncratic visual language. She experimented with Riplon, a household paint, and other ‘non-art’ materials, working on hardboard to create an abstraction where not only the visible traces of her actions but the characteristics of the material itself were apparent. It was around the time she was commissioned to make a mural for South Hampstead High School for Girls that she also started to paint on the floor pouring and tipping paint in pools of colour. She had certainly seen Hans Namuth’s famous photo of Pollock dripping paint but was, at this point, not that familiar with his work. But Ayres was interested in something deeper than mere experimentation. She was interested in visual truth. She is not an intellectual aesthetician; her influences are other painters such as Titian, Rubens or Turner and her love of colour and light, which she appropriates from the natural world to create works full of movement and energy like polychromatic jewels.

Elements in her paintings – she later returned to oils – often resemble natural objects such as stars or leaves, petals and moons. But it is not nature she is attempting to paint but a comparable feeling of pleasure and awe evoked through the paint itself. She works intuitively, creating arcs with the sweep of an arm, pulling her fingers through the thick paint. She also spends a great deal of time looking and this visual intelligence is translated into the variations of light and colour, the vitality of movement that characterises her work. Despite ill health she paints ceaselessly when not rushing around making wonderful meals for family and friends. While I was with her the papers were full of the New York disaster and talk of impending war and there was much discussion about moral certainties and the role and value of art. Yet for her painting is about the fact of being alive. The very act of ‘doing’, the endless intuitive creative search, the “condensation of sensation to perception” that can be shared between artist and viewer, is utterly life affirming. Her work is, like her, vital, anarchic, bold and generous spirited. In the end, she says, “The act of painting is an act of belief.”

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2001

Image © Roger Mayne

Art Criticism

Gillian Ayres
Paintings and Works on Paper
Alan Cristea Gallery, London

There is no mistaking a Gillian Ayres painting. You enter a room and there it is like a voluptuous jazz singer in mid-riff, drawing you in with its improvisations, its loops and swirls of melodic colour. Gillian Ayres is, along with Sandra Blow, Prunella Clough and Bridget Riley, one of our most significant post-war woman abstract painters; having said that she is probably one of the most significant British abstract painters. Part of a generation of women artists for whom feminism was not a debate, for whom it was simply painting that mattered. In a hard drinking, male dominated art world they just got on with it, staking out their claims based solely on talent and determination. In the last three decades she has, regardless of the vagaries of fashion, produced a body of work that with its loosely biomorphic forms and thick gloopy paint, reveals what it is to be a sensual, sentient being alive to the vividness of the visual world.

Gillian Ayres Piper at the Gates of Dawn 2007
Piper at the Gates of Dawn, 2007

I first met her in 1984 and, as a young critic, was rather scared of her reputation but found a shy, feisty, kind, self-deprecating, witty and wonderfully knowledgeable painter. Born in 1930 she attended St. Paul’s Girls School, where her best friend was Shirley Williams, then went on to Camberwell College of Art. Now despite a degree of ill health she has produced, in two years, a glowing body of new work which is among the most vivacious and exciting she has done yet.

The 1950s saw her closely involved with the leading British abstract artists of her day, such as Roger Hilton, but she was soon seduced by European tachism and American abstract Expressionism, for a time following Pollock’s gestural involvement with the canvas by painting flat on the floor. She has been through a number of styles, all essentially abstract, but it was in the 80s that her work really began to glow. Like some enormous firework display, where by accident the whole box had been let off at once, her paintings were a wealth of stars, loops, zigzags and rainbows.

Gillian Ayres Tender is the Night 2006
Tender is the Night, 2006

Now she has moved on again. She has always insisted that she is an entirely abstract painter but recently she has allowed subtly figurative elements to re-enter her work. There are fronds and seed heads, leaves and hearts all embedded in a marvellous cacophony of vertiginous loops and swirls. It is as though she is so engaged with the actual world that she can’t quite keep it out. And the colour? Well the colour is sublime. A strong black, mottled with red, abuts a line of umber, which then moves into a swirl of fleshy pink, which wriggles its way into an area of crimson that flows into a wave of orange that has been placed next to an amoeboid patch of purple, in her large canvas Maritsa. And so it goes on in painting after painting. There are lozenges and ribbons of colour that, of course, are reminiscent of Matisse or Howard Hodgkin. But they are never simply decorative, for to stand in front of these works, particularly the gem like carborundum etchings painted by hand, where a blue and vibrant red bleed into the surrounding yellow with bravura confidence, is like listening to Beethoven’s Symphony no 9 in D minor, Ode to Joy.

Sadness and melancholy are so often the stuff of art. What is so rare about Gillian Ayres’s work is that it is about the life force. Her titles, such as Tender is the Night and Piper at the Gates of Dawn, reveal her love of literature and poetry. So it is, perhaps, not inappropriate that this wonderfully affirming work should remind me of the lines of the great American poet, Walt Whitman, who wrote out the sheer exuberance and love of life “I celebrate myself, and sing myself, and what I assume you shall assume, for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”

Gillian Ayres Paintings and Works on Paper 2005-7 at Alan Cristea Gallery, London from 17 May to 16 June 2007

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2007

Art Criticism

Francis Bacon Retrospective
Tate Britain

The impact of Francis Bacon’s disturbing paintings has not diminished one jot

Francis Bacon Head VI 1949
Head VI, 1949

With his pimento-shaped face, reminiscent of an overstuffed hamster, Francis Bacon appears in photos taken by his contemporaries and in a famous portrait by his friend Lucian Freud – stolen in 1988 never to be seen again – as one of the most recognisable artists of the 20th century. Doyen of Soho drinking clubs, he led a reprobate life that has been well documented, from an Anglo-Irish childhood, with a repressive father who threw him out for showing an overdeveloped penchant for stable grooms and for his mother’s underwear, to his sadomasochistic love affairs with numerous men of the demi-monde.

The new Bacon retrospective at Tate Britain, the first since 1985, allows for a reassessment of his work in an age when shock and violence are common fare, in the art world and in daily life. An avowed nihilist and atheist, he was fraught with contradictions. “You can,” he claimed, “be optimistic and totally without hope … I think of life as meaningless; [but] we create attitudes that give it meaning while we exist.” Painting, alcohol and sex were the ways he sought that meaning.

Bacon, widely regarded as Britain’s greatest painter of the figure, aimed to inherit a place in the pantheon beside Michelangelo, Velázquez and Rembrandt. He insisted that his pictures “were to deserve either the National Gallery or the dustbin, with nothing in between” – and undoubtedly won that gamble. Yet despite his extraordinary innovation and recasting of the human form, he cannot be seen as a true modernist. He was, for most of his career, sidelined by the American critics, who saw him as too figurative, too narrative, and too concerned with European art history and Christian iconography. Neither did he share their boundless optimism nor care much for the abstract expressionism promoted by the American critic Clement Greenberg. As he said: “I do not believe in abstract art because you must have a starting point in reality.”

Francis Bacon Study for the Head of George Dyer 1967
Study for the Head of George Dyer, 1967

Today, as one looks back, more than a decade after his death in 1992, Bacon’s sensibility seems supremely European. His postwar angst springs from the same ground as that of Giaco metti and Jean Dubuffet, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Jean Cocteau, whose bleak dictum “If you see your whole life in a mirror, you will see death at work” Bacon admired. His 1955 painting based on the life mask of William Blake, that great outsider of British literature, nails his colours to the mast of iconoclasm and individuality. He lived by his own rules, both in his art and in his relish for the bohemian lowlife (homosexuality was still illegal) of Soho and the Colony Room. T S Eliot was a huge influence. The poet juggled with religious imagery for a secular age, whilst Bacon was a committed atheist, but both caught something of the existential isolation and abjection that defined postwar Europe.

Francis Bacon Study for Figure II 1945-46
Study for Figure II, 1945-46

Yet Bacon strongly denied a narrative message. He wanted his paintings to address the viewer’s “nervous system directly” and to “unlock the valves of feeling” with his distorted forms, derived through chance, accident and appropriation. His paintings, he claimed, were a form of “exhilarated despair”, and mankind “nothing but meat”. He rejected the idea that his screaming popes, based on Velázquez’s Portrait of Innocent X, shut in their claustrophobic glass cases, had anything to do with the image of the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, standing in a glass witness box during his trial in Jerusalem, or that his mauled, contorted bodies were born out of the horrors of the Second World War. Yet the famed detritus of his studio, posthumously saved by his heir John Edwards, reveals not only Bacon’s passion for photography and film, but that his paintings were informed by images as diverse as illustrations from medical textbooks on diseases of the mouth, or the nanny’s blood-spattered face from Battleship Potemkin. They were not, in other words, totally intuitive. It has long been acknowledged that Eadweard Muybridge’s early photographs of movement were fundamental to Bacon’s work.

So where should we place him now? To stand in front of his Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, painted in the 1940s, is still a deeply visceral and gut-wrenching experience. Bacon had come to know Aeschylus’s Oresteia through Eliot’s 1939 play The Family Reunion. The artist’s three writhing Eumenides are barely recognisable as human figures. They have no eyes, only silently screaming mouths, bespeaking the fascination of that first generation of post-Freudians with the id and “the hidden presence of animal trends in the unconscious”. Bacon’s screaming baboons, sniffing dogs and bulls all blur the line between culture and abject nature.

Francis Bacon Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion 1944
Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, 1944

There is also something prescient about both the popes and Bacon’s men in suits. Study for Figure II, 1945-46 shows a solitary man with blank eyes and gaping mouth, in a jaundice-yellow suit, isolated on some sort of platform against an empty, black space. This figure, which bears an uncanny resemblance to George W Bush, is one of Eliot’s hollow men, heads stuffed with straw, whose “dried voices, when/We whisper together/Are quiet and meaningless”. There is nothing, Bacon seems to be saying, so isolating and dehumanising as power. His impact has not diminished one jot.

Francis Bacon Retrospective at Tate Britain until 4 January 2009

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2008

Images © Estate of Francis Bacon

Art Criticism

Francis Bacon
Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion

Francis Bacon Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion 1944

Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion were painted over the course of two weeks in 1944 in the ground floor flat at 7 Cromwell Place, South Kensington, which had once been the studio of the artist John Everett Millais. During the day the converted billiard room served as Bacon’s studio, and at night as an illicit casino.

Bacon recalled that at the time he was drinking heavily and that he painted the studies in an alcoholic haze. Later he was to admit that he hardly knew what he was doing, though he believed that alcohol had loosened his style. Yet, despite this unpromising genesis, the triptych of three writhing, anthropomorphic figures, with their featureless, scarcely human faces contorted into what might be either pain or exquisite ecstasy, set against a background of visceral oranges, reds and blacks, marks a watershed in British painting.

Bacon had been painting the Crucifixion since 1933, commissioned by his then patron, Eric Hall, but he considered the works unsuccessful and destroyed them, and, for a while, abandoned painting. When he did return to the subject of the Crucifixion 11 years later he was influenced by his reading of Aeschylus’s savage drama The Oresteia (itself a trilogy) which tells the tale of the curse of the House of Atreus and the pursuit, by the avenging Furies (or Eumenides), of those responsible for murder. Generally considered to be his first masterwork, Bacon was at some pains to suppress the showing of any paintings that pre-dated the Three Studies.

Executed in oil and pastel and, for economy, on light Sundeala boards rather than canvas, Bacon’s Eumenides are barely recognisable as human figures, for they have no eyes but only gaping, silently screaming mouths. The creature on the left, seated on a table of sorts, is the most recognisably human. Partially draped in a length of cloth, this bent form, with its hunched white shoulders, its stumpy, malformed arms and bowed head topped with a mop of dark hair, might be a mourner at some unnamed wake, while that in the central panel, with its grimacing mouth set directly into its elongated neck, is blindfolded by a white cloth – a motif taken, perhaps, from Matthias Grnewald’s Mocking of Christ – and resembles some large, flightless bird. The figure on the right appears to have most of its upper face missing. Its head is thrown back, its mouth stretched open to reveal its teeth, as if in the grips of some bestial orgasmic spasm.

The heads of all three figures point downwards, following a series of converging lines that radiate out from the central plinth and imply a room or an enclosed space. The mood is one of bleak isolation and violent angst. This work is to painting what Sartre’s Huis Clos is to literature; a paean to existential despair.

This is also a Crucifixion with a difference, for there is no evidence, not even a shadow, of the actual event. No trace of Christ or his cross, though Bacon did say in a letter in 1959 that Three Studies were, “intended to [be] use[d] at the base of a large Crucifixion which I may still do”. Yet how genuine this remark was is hard to gauge from the bleakly nihilistic non-believer who once said, “I think of life as meaningless; but we give it meaning during our own existence …” “we are born and we die, but in between we give this purposeless existence a meaning by our drives.”

Distortion and fragmentation are the tools that Bacon used to explore these elemental states, for he was at enormous pains to eradicate what he saw as any figurative illustration. What he wanted to convey was something visceral, a presence beyond mere likeness; of beings controlled by chthonic urges and base instincts, the Dionysian Calibans of human existence rather than the Apollonian Ariel’s; his territory was what Freud would have called the id.

The sense of futility that Bacon was trying to capture is not surprising, given that it was 1944, and that rumours of the Nazi death-camps had begun to leak out. Such nihilism is also present in much of the work of TS Eliot. Bacon had come to know Aeschylus through Eliot’s 1939 play, The Family Reunion, in which the central character, Harry, is haunted by “the sleepless hunters/ that will not let me sleep.” Here the Furies embody the guilt and remorse felt by Harry, who harbours a dark secret.

Like many other artists and writers of the early 20th century, Bacon had read Nietzsche, and shared something of his hypothesis of “a strong pessimism”. He had been particularly attracted to The Birth of Tragedy. Nietzsche’s passionate rejection of Christianity, and his passion for life resonated with Bacon, who said: “… you can be optimistic and totally without hope. One’s basic nature is totally without hope, and yet one’s nervous system is made out of optimistic stuff.”

The American critic, Donald Kuspit, thought Bacon’s figures were “sick with death – not necessarily literal death but rather the feeling of being nothing.” Their loneliness, he suggested, depicted a “general sense of oblivion.”

Bacon had always been fascinated with images of the mouth, in particular diseased mouths, after he found a second-hand book in which these were illustrated in a series of coloured plates. He spoke of “the glitter and colour that comes from the mouth”, and said that he “always hoped in a sense to be able to paint the mouth like Monet painted a sunset.” He was also taken with a photograph by the Surrealist J-A Boiffard in the radical magazine, Documents, in which the editor, the French writer and philosopher of the abject, Georges Bataille, had written a short text on La Bouche. Bataille rejected traditional literature and considered that the ultimate aim of all intellectual, artistic or religious activity should be the annihilation of the rational individual in a violent, transcendental act of communion.

For Bacon, as for Bataille, the open, gaping, screaming wound of the mouth expressed something of our most intense emotional experiences and brought us close to our bestial selves. The linking of the noble and the base, of man and beast so as to blur the distinction between them, was part of Bataille’s attack on the “idealist deception” that man practices upon himself. The open mouth of Bacon’s right-hand figure ends in a savage, snarling, snout of teeth. For the promiscuously gay and sadomasochistically inclined Bacon the mouth had obvious sexual connotations. He was also, almost certainly, thinking of the scene in Battleship Potemkin where the wounded nursemaid stands screaming on the Odessa steps; in addition to making a reference to the despairing mother in Poussin’s Massacre of the Innocents.

First shown at the Lefevre Gallery in 1945, the triptych caused a sensation. The critic John Russell was shocked by “images so unrelievedly awful that the mind shut with a snap at the sight of them. Their anatomy was half-human, half- animal…” Yet by 1971 he was able to write, “there was painting in England before the Three Studies, and painting after them, and no one… can confuse the two.” More than 60 years later it has still not lost any of its power.

About the Artist

Francis Bacon was born in Dublin in 1909 of English parents, the second of five children. He was asthmatic and had no conventional schooling. In 1925 his father threw him out for wearing his mother’s clothes. In London he worked as a decorator and began to paint. In 1936 he submitted work to the International Surrealist exhibition but was rejected as “not sufficiently surreal”. Between 1941-4 he destroyed all his work, and was pronounced unfit for military service. In 1945 he resumed painting. In 1953 Three Studies was acquired by the Tate. In 1955 he had his first retrospective at the ICA. In 1960 he had his first exhibition at Marlborough Fine Art, London. In the early 1960s he and George Dyer became lovers and he painted Three Figures in a Room.

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2007

Image © Estate of Francis Bacon. Courtesy of the Tate

Art Criticism

John Baldessari
Pure Beauty
Tate Modern

Words, Images And Playing Games

John Baldessari Pure Beauty 1966-68
John Baldessari Pure Beauty, 1966-68

Language and text are also essential elements in the work of the Californian artist John Baldessari, who has been described as “a cross between Walt Whiteman and a redwood tree”. Born in 1931, an imposing figure of six feet seven inches tall, with a white beard and halo of prophet-like hair, he is widely regarded as the granddaddy of conceptual art. The current exhibition Pure Beauty at Tate Modern brings together more than 130 art works in this most extensive retrospective of his oeuvre in this country. With iconoclastic wit and irony, Baldessari deconstructs the shibboleths that underlie much contemporary artistic practice and questions the accepted rules of how art should be made. In the 60s he began to use words as most artists use images saying “a word can’t substitute for an image but is equal to it.” Beguiling his viewers with humour he aims to be as “disarming as possible.” Instructions from art manuals, quotes from celebrated art critics painted onto the surface of his canvases drew attention to the prevailing aesthetic attitudes of the period. By painting words on canvas he signalled that ‘text’ paintings were just as much a ‘work of art’ as a nude or a still life.

John Baldessari God Nose 1965
John Baldessari God Nose, 1965

It’s hard not to chortle at his 1960s Tips for Artists who want to Sell and the deliciously tongue in cheek canvas that simply says: Everything is purged from this painting but art, no ideas have entered this work. Baldessari has often said that semiotics and, in particular, Claude Lévi-Strauss’s structuralism, were major influences on his treating language as sign and on his deliberate play between word and image, though it’s not hard to imagine that he might easily have had an alternative career as a stand up comedian. From the 1970s he married his humorous pursuit of a new visual language to film. I Will Not Make Anymore Boring Art, 1971 sees him record himself on videotape repeatedly writing the lines over and over again in a notebook. In 1970 he stopped painting to focus on photography and film, but not before he had burned all his paintings in Cremation Project, which was accompanied by an affidavit, published in the San Diego Union. His approach to teaching was equally playful and unorthodox, promoting what he called “post-studio art” based on the idea that “there is a certain kind of work one could do that didn’t require a studio. It’s work that is done in one’s head.” In his 1972-73 set of photographs called The Artist Hitting Various Objects with a Golf Club he takes repeated swipes, in a form of intellectual crazy golf, at objects found in the city dump. There is also a set of photographs of him blowing cigar smoke to imitate a picture of a cloud, and another series Choosing (A Game for Two Players): Carrots, a sort of absurdist chess made up of arcane carrot moving rules. It is both mad and rather funny.

Baldessari’s work is full of paradox. It liberates, irritates, inspires and disarms and has been an enormous influence on a whole generation of younger artists. Like looking through a kaleidoscope, he presents us with what is familiar with an unfamiliar twist so that we are forced to think about things in a slightly different way. We are continually confronted by images that ask ‘is this art?’ and if so does such a definition matter as long as the work prods us and makes us look at the world afresh. Baldessari’s own disarming answer, given in an early painting that escaped the Cremation Project, is God Nose.

John Baldessari at Tate Modern until 10 January 2010


Sophie Calle
Talking to Strangers

Whitechapel Gallery

Words, Images And Playing Games 

Sophie Calle Take Care of Yourself 2007
Sophie Calle Take Care of Yourself, 2007

What do you do when your lover jilts you by email? Take to your bed and forget to wash, wander around in your pyjamas, cut up his suits or send him a poison pen letter? If you are an artist there is another option. You can shame him by turning his self-justifying text into a large scale conceptual art work using over 100 different women as allies. That is just what the French artist Sophie Calle does in her work Prenez Soin De Vous (Take Care of Yourself) where she has invited lawyers, actors, accountants, singers and psychologists to comment on her lover’s text though the lens of their professional vocabulary . A composer turns the letter into a musical score; a translator asks why her ex-partner uses the formal vous rather than tu, and what this says about their relationship, whilst a rifle shooter peppers the email with bullet holes.

From this single text Calle weaves a web of female support. Spinning out the threads of the painful missive in which her lover admits that he is again seeing the ‘others’, thereby breaking their contract in which he agreed not to make her the ‘fourth’, she creates a complex polyphony of female voices rather like that of a Greek chorus. Using photographs, text and video the result is a complex multi-layered narrative which arouses both distaste at her lover”s self-indulgent musings and a sneaking sympathy for his obvious inability to make any meaningful emotional commitment. As a clinical psychologist says: “He is an intelligent cultivated man from a good socio-cultural background, elegant, charming and seductive with a fine, fairly subtle rather abstract intelligence. He is proud, narcissistic and egotistical”.

Sophie Calle
Talking to Strangers
Sophie Calle

Part photo-novella, part psychoanalytic text, fact and fiction, reality and artifice, here, are continually blurred. Like Cindy Sherman Sophie Calle is a mistress of disguise. Never actually present within her work she leads us to question the validity of the narrative ‘I’. Who knows whether there really was a lover and an email or if this is simply an intriguing artistic construct? The work treads a fine line between turning us into voyeurs, conspirators and dupes, never letting us settle into a single role. As with the novelist Paul Auster, who wrote one of the essays in the Whitechapel catalogue, she is concerned with how a subject sits within a constructed social and artistic framework, whilst always remaining very much the omniscient narrator. One of the underlying themes of her work is that of surveillance whereby she uses photographs and texts to create a body of reportage and apparent documentation.

The first work she made in 1979 was only shown in book form. Having come back to France after seven years travelling she felt lost in her own town and took to following people in the street because she didn’t know what else to do with herself. Choosing people at random she let them dictate the course of her actions and neither wrote anything nor took photos. Following a man to Venice, she shadowed him for two weeks. A photographer himself she tried to duplicate the kinds of images she imagined he might make and created a book, Suite Vénitienne, about the experience. In her next work The Sleepers she asked people she didn’t know to come and sleep in her bed for eight hours and then be woken by someone who would take their place. For the day shift she invited those such as bakers who would normally sleep in the day. Staying by the bedside she photographed these strangers every hour and wrote down what they said. This continued for eight days. The results are like the field notes and photographs of an ethnographer or anthropologist; objective rather than intimate.

Sophie Calle
Talking to Strangers
Sophie Calle

This objective control is a central element of her work making her into both auteur and conductor. In L’Homme au carnet, 1983 (The Address Book) she reportedly finds a fancy red note book in a Parisian street and constructs the personality of the owner, Pierre D, through a series of meetings and interviews with those whose addresses she finds written in his book. Detailed descriptions were then published in the Libération during the August of 1983. When Monsieur D returned from Norway and recognised himself in the articles the result was outrage and distress. He claimed it was a callous invasion of his privacy and demanded the right of reply. This was printed in the paper beside a photo of Calle, naked in a domestic environment, her features masked like those of a criminal. Who then was the victim? Calle or Monsieur D? And is any of it true or do these Borgesian threads simply function as so many open ended possibilities in a postmodern narrative? Chance, so beloved by the surrealists, also plays its part in Calle’s piece When and Where? Berck, a creative game based on a journey of uncanny synchronicities dictated by her clairvoyant.

Her work is also about lack. About the lack of her central characters – her lover and herself in Take Care of Yourself, of Monsieur D in the address book piece – who are always off stage, hovering in the wings. It this void that Calle fills with her complex, allusive narrative threads, standing in the middle like the spider weaving her complex designs. The persona she gives us is the one she wants us to see rather than the ‘true’ Sophie Calle. But not all her work is so detached. The poignant tribute to her dead mother in Souci captures, in text and works of black pigment, sandblasted paper, lead and hair, her mother’s last hours. It records her final pedicure, the final book she read, the last music she heard and her last smile. But, try as she might, Sophie Calle could not record her last elusive breath, which occurred somewhere between 3.02 and 3.12, and proved impossible to capture: perhaps like truth itself.

Sophie Calle Talking to Strangers at the Whitechapel Gallery until 3 January 2010

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Image © John Baldessari. Courtesy of Baldessari Studio and Glenstone

Images © Sophie Calle. Courtesy of Whitechapel Gallery

Art Criticism

Miroslaw Balka
Topography
Modern Art Oxford

Into the shadows


A refreshingly earnest look at Europe’s dark past

Miroslaw Balka Bambi (Winterreise) 2003
Bambi (Winterreise), 2003

It is, in case you didn’t know it, Polska! Year, an official campaign aiming to introduce Polish culture to the British public. One of the highlights is Topography by the artist Miroslaw Balka, who is also the creator of Tate Modern’s current Turbine Hall exhibit: a black box that is luring crowds into its dark centre. How we remember and how we choose to forget are his subjects. “Every day,” he says, “I walk in the paths of the past.” The grandson of a gravestone carver, Balka claims: “Contemporary time does not exist. We cannot catch the continuous.”

In the flickering, black-and-white shadows of his videos, projected on to the gallery walls at Modern Art Oxford, images return, again and again, like troubling dreams. Born in 1958, the shadow of the Holocaust haunts Balka’s work. On the far wall of the gallery, there is a projection of a frozen pond surrounded by trees in a snowy landscape. The uncanny stillness and apparent silence tap into the romanticism of Caspar David Friedrich and those half-remembered illustrations from childhood fairy tales. It is a genuine shock, then, to learn that this idyll is the site of the concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. Suddenly, we are forced to ask what this place has witnessed, what it remembers or keeps veiled behind this neutralising blanket of snow. In Bambi, 2003, young deer forage in the snow looking for food. They leap over the ribbons of rusting barbed wire that encircle the ghostly vestiges of the camp’s prison compound. The title implies the danger of Disney-fying history, of turning away from the truth by making such places into “Holocaust theme parks”.

Miroslaw Balka Flagellare A, B and C 2009
Flagellare A, B and C, 2009

In recent works, such as Flagellare A, B and C 2009, Balka offers a more physical, less literal expression of both ritual and violence, drawing parallels between the two. Videos inserted in the floor show the shadow of a leather belt whipping the gallery floor, which seems to have transformed into a canvas of skin. The repeated swish suggests not only brutal torture but also Christian flagellation, with its motifs of guilt, redemption and reparation. There is something painterly about the way the soft, blue-and-yellow light flits across the surface.

It is no coincidence that, within classical religious art, light implies the spiritual and the divine. These are complex, multilayered works. Sound accompanies a number of the videos: the burr of a truck driver’s foot on an accelerator accompanied by a Polish lullaby or a clockwork wind-up toy shuffling around the studio. These desensitise and disorientate.

Talking with Balka, I suggest that in Polish contemporary art such soul-searching is much less common than among postwar German artists such as Anselm Kiefer, Joseph Beuys or Georg Baselitz. He tells me that, being younger, he has had to educate himself about the Holocaust and that, having done so, he now has a responsibility to communicate this knowledge through his art. It is an idealistic and refreshingly uncynical view. “We are,” he says, “so close to the erasure of the subject that, by making such work, maybe there can continue to be an honest dialogue.”

Miroslaw Balka Topography at Modern Art Oxford until 7 March 2010

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2010

Images © Miroslaw Balka

Art Criticism

Andrey Bartenev
Disco-Nexion
Riflemaker London

Riflemaker, London

The old gun-makers of Soho are probably turning in their graves. For in the window of Riflemaker, a former gun shop in Beak Street, is a psychedelic installation by one of Russia’s campest artists. Queues formed outside last summer’s Russian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale to see Andrey Bartenev’s coloured lake of 50 LED mirrored light spheres where the message “lost connection” circled in endless orbit.
Andrey Bartenev Disco-Nexion
Disco-Nexion

In Soho this has been “remixed/remodelled” by the artist with the words “disco” and “nexion”. Enclosed in a “glass discotheque” of fairground mirrors, this kinetic colour field of lights appears infinite as it bleeds into the darkening Dickensian street and on to the surrounding buildings.

Embedded within each sphere is a tiny heart, “to symbolise the frustration that awaits us all in this world of virtual and passive communication”. And it does, indeed, capture something of the loneliness of the dance floor, where revellers dance together yet somehow remain alone and disconnected; as a metaphor for the alienation of techno-culture it works rather well.

Inside the gallery this mood is echoed in the three TV monitors Disco-Nexion and Disco-Nexion Red and Blue (the titles are borrowed from Krzysztof Kieslowski’s French trilogy of films Trois Couleurs)

Born in 1969 in Norilsk, reputedly a bleak filthy city, in Russia’s Arctic Circle, Bartenev must have had a hard childhood. His grandparents were apparently exiled to this most northerly city for some minor misdemeanour. A psychoanalyst would presumably have little difficulty in understanding his love of display and excess against such a background.

Andrey Bartenev Disco-Nexion
Disco-Nexion

As a student he attended the Krasnodar Institute of Arts where he studied stage design. Since then he has worked in every medium from graphic art to painting and from three-dimensional sculpture to performance art – including a performance with burlesque dancer Dita von Teese – and one with the theatre director Robert Wilson.

With his penchant for the enigmatic and the kitsch, Bartenev seems to fit the bill as the former Soviet Union’s answer to Andy Warhol. “If I weren’t an artist,” he has said, “I would want to be a kind of dancing pianist.

When I’m not creating art, I enjoy swimming in the pool at night. People who know me best might describe me as a Russian from the Moon. They might be surprised to learn that I’m from Venus.”

His collages such as And like Miso Soup, constructed meticulously of hand-cut images from sources as diverse as culinary and porn magazines, are an eccentric mix of geometric patterns of pink and green and orange.

Andrey Bartenev Disco-Nexion
Disco-Nexion

In I’m from another world and everything passes me by, a strange shamanic priestess with a feathered headdress stands amid rows of domestic clutter of shower heads, sprockets and Hoover nozzles next to a rank of soap powder boxes unbelievably called New Abracadabra.

Other collages have been worked into light boxes. Dressed in an exotic piece of head gear, Nick Kamen of Levi ad fame has been collaged to a green rectangle from which sprout a pair of woman’s legs in gold sandals. The result is rather like a gay grasshopper lost in a swirly op-art background. In this essentially camp world of spectacle it’s as if Disney has had a run in with Russian Constructivism.

With London friends such as Zandra Rhodes and Andrew Logan, Bartenev has plenty of chances to be outrageous. But he does seem genuinely to want, in this commodified world, to be iconoclastic and avant-garde.

It’s not that he really has much to say, but that you can’t help but enjoy the way that he says what he does. It’s no surprise to learn, therefore, that his life’s philosophy is “to laugh while your organs allow you to”.

Andrey Bartenev Disco-Nexion at Riflemaker, London until 16 February 2008

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2008

Images © Andrey Bartenev 2008

Art Criticism

Jordan Baseman
The History of Existentialism

Wigmore Fine Art, London

Jordan Baseman, Untitled (Hackney Hospital), 1995
Jordan Baseman, Untitled (Hackney Hospital), 1995

Wanting to make the grand millennial statement must be tempting. But it’s probably better resisted. Jordan Baseman is an artist I’ve always rather enjoyed. I remember a piece, some years ago, made of black latex and huge dressmaker’s pins. It resembled a sado-masochist’s lavatory brush crossed with a fox’s tail. It was its witty ambiguity that made it appealing. Poignant, too, was a piece shown in 1995 at the abandoned psychiatric hospital in Hackney. A rack of children’s blue school shirts, each with a hallmark tuft of hair, stood in mute isolation. Neither work attempted “the big statement” and was all the better for it. Meaning was fluid and the viewer left to fill in the gaps. But “The History of Existentialism” aims at the big theme. (And what bigger than the end of a millennium?) But it comes across as rather contrived. Existentialism is a loaded word, conjuring intense Sixth Form debates on Sartre and the meaning of life while being cool in Juliette Greco black. Here Baseman leaves us in no doubt as to his theme with a single slide projecting the words “THE END” just above the skirting board. In the basement, three video monitors show a McDonald’s paper cup blowing in an anonymous industrial landscape (the evils of capitalism?), a mangy old crow pecking in a park (ecological devastation, perhaps?) and a defunct fountain in a run-down urban locality over which the words of a lullaby are played (urban decline and the collapse of rooted society?). Next to these is “a modified carbon dioxide dispenser, its tubes ready for insertion into the nostrils” – necessary, no doubt, as we gasp our last, hurtling towards the end of history, and a bottle of sulphuric acid, which sits ominously on a large wooden table, presumably in case we don’t think it’s worth it and want out.

Jordan Baseman The History of Existentialism at Wigmore Fine Art, London until 14 Jan 2000

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 1999

Art Criticism

Basil Beattie
Paintings from the Janus Series II
Abbot Hall Art Gallery Kendal

To find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist now
Samuel Beckett

He was the Roman god of beginnings, the guardian of gates and doors who presided over the first hour of each day, and the first day of each month and, as his name, suggests, over January. Depicted on Roman coins with a double faced head, one side bearded, the other clean shaven, Janus represented both sun and moon. A sort of Roman ying and yang he symbolised the light and the dark within human experience. Facing both East and West, the doors of his temple at the Forum marked the beginning and end of each day, whilst many Romans began their morning with prayers to him. Worshipped during the time of planting, he was also evoked during rites of passage such as birth and marriage. Throughout Rome a number of freestanding structures – ceremonial gateways known as jani – were used as thresholds to make symbolically auspicious entrances or exits. Emblematic not only of new beginnings, Janus represented the transition between primitive life and civilisation, between the rural and the urban, youth and old age, whilst having the ability to look back at the past and simultaneously into the future. So what relevance does this obscure Roman god have for a contemporary British painter?

Basil Beattie When Night Sidles In 2007
When Night Sidles In, 2007

Born in 1935, in West Hartlepool in the north of England, Basil Beattie is often referred to as ‘an artist’s artist’. Such a phrase denotes a high degree of respect among peers, whilst tactfully acknowledging that his is not a name that tumbles freely from the lips of the general public. Beattie’s work has never received the recognition that it deserves, despite his being described as “one of the most significant of bridges in the generations of contemporary British painters” and that, as a teacher at Goldsmiths College, he taught some of this country’s most successful young artists such as Gary Hume and Fiona Rae. In 1994, the Tate Gallery, where director Nicholas Serota is a long-term admirer of Beattie’s, bought two of his paintings, while Saatchi, who planned to mount an exhibition of neglected, older British artists, bought three. But for some reason the exhibition never materialised. Though in 2007 Beattie did show work at Tate Britain as part of the BP New Displays.

Basil Beattie’s career spans the emergence in Britain, in the late 1950s, of abstract expressionism, through to his more recent emphasis on figurative signs that meld gritty northern muscularity with a voluptuous sensuality towards the painted surface. Yet his uncompromising, expressive canvases, with their ambiguities and ironies, their depth and intelligence are, perhaps, too demanding to be ‘popular’ in these times that insist on easy access and constant novelty. In many ways his sensibility is that of a 50s existentialist. His work feels more akin to Giacometti or Philip Guston than to the, now, not so Young British Artists. Best known for his evocative abstract paintings featuring architectural motifs, Beattie typically employs a muted palate of earthy colours and expressive, gestural brushstrokes to create an array of archetypal images and pictographic signs such as stairs, steps, ziggurats, ladders, gateways and tunnels. These are not intended to be read literally, but to act as psychological ‘thresholds’ into the subconscious, much like those Roman jani. “Landscape”, as Fernando Pessoa’s heteronym, Bernardo Soares, writes in The Book of Disquiet: “is a state of emotion.”

Basil Beattie Touching Distance 2007
Touching Distance, 2007

An only child, Beattie missed a lot of school. Often ill with bronchitis his mother worried about ‘lung disease’. Yet he knew that he could draw and remembers listening on the wireless to the BBC Home Service’s broadcast of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, whilst copying pictures from adventure stories. He can still recall the embarrassment of being in the same room as his parents when Myfanwy Price dreamt that Mog Edwards, “a draper mad with love”, would “warm her sheets like an electric toaster”.

As a student at the Royal Academy he painted like de Kooning, though, he says, he was looking at Rothko. The problem he had with English painting of the period was that it always felt “too well done”. He admired the way Guston stuck his neck out, embracing an idiosyncratic figuration when abstraction was considered to be the only possible language for a serious painter.

It was in the late 1980s that Beattie began to relinquish the influences of American Abstract Expressionism, with its formal grammar of colour, gesture and relationship to the flat surface. The titles in the Janus series: No Known Way, Been and Gone, Dancing in the Night, Beginnings and Endings, Touching Distance, The Approaching Night, Night Embrace, read like lines from a Samuel Beckett text and function as poetic and philosophical underpinnings to his imagery, whilst all the while refusing literal translation. There is an inert silence about these canvases, where the only evidence of human presence is the linear traces incised across the empty landscape. One senses that Beattie might well be tempted to substitute the word ‘painting’ for ‘writing’ in the Sam Beckett’s 1969 statement that: “Writing becomes not easier, but more difficult for me. Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness”.

Comprising of a purposefully limited repertoire of stacked domes tiered in threes and, occasionally, fours like a series of ‘portals’ that open out onto an illusionary space, the images in the Janus series act as a framing devise and suggest a car mirror in which the viewer cannot be certain whether he or she is looking at a reflection or an actual view. As in Plato’s cave, there is a confusion as to what is real; or what simply a reflection or shadow of reality. It is as if, speeding through these barren terrains, we are forced to witness our lives unfurl in front of us as in a silent film, so that Janus-like we find ourselves looking both back at the past and forwards into the future.

Basil Beattie Approaching the Night 2007
Approaching the Night, 2007

“Birth was the death of him,” Beckett once wrote with ironic black humour. Drawn into Beattie’s series of vistas, where horizon lines, ploughed fields and railway tracks disappear into a series of classical vanishing points, we are made aware, in the underlying existential emptiness of this Godless landscape, of the continuum from birth to death.

Eschewing easy autobiographical interpretations Beattie, nevertheless, talks of being a young boy visiting his father’s signalman’s hut and watching for oncoming trains down the distant track, as his father pulled the lever. There are, too, other dim memories of listening to the disembodied voices of war correspondents on the radio as they recounted the chilling evidence of the death camps. For it is impossible not to see the incised lines, cutting aggressively across these scrubbed fields towards a distant tower on a far horizon, as anything but the railway lines that ended beneath that infamous iron gate, topped with the words: Arbeit macht frei. Then, too, there were journeys Beattie undertook as an impressionable young soldier, whilst doing National Service in the mid 1950s, across Germany on the way to training exercises.

“I wonder if my apparently negligible voice might not embody the essence of thousands of voices, the longing for self-expression of thousands of lives, the patience of millions of souls resigned like my own to their daily lot, their useless dreams and their hopeless hopes,” wrote Fernando Pessoa. Looking at these lyrical paintings, in which the whole of life appears to unfurl as we head towards inevitable extinction, Beattie’s visceral canvases seem to echo Pessoa’s bleak words.

Yet despite the allegory and allusion inherent in these works, their meaning ultimately resides in the physical reality of the paint. Clotted, thick and deceptively casual in its application it emphasises both mass and absence. Whilst offering a basic illusion, the tension in Beattie’s work comes from the constant attempt to deny that illusion, whilst simultaneously accepting that the viewer is already reading his lines, as they disappear into the horizon, as journeys.

Basil Beattie Paintings from the Janus Series II at Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal from 22 January to 6 March 2010

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2010

Images © Basil Beattie 2010. Courtesy of The Eagle Gallery, London

Art Criticism

Sandra Blow
Space & Matter
Tate St Ives

She came, she saw, she painted it in lots of blobs Veteran abstract artist Sandra Blow has had a long love affair with St Ives. She confesses all to Sue Hubbard

Sandra Blow Space & Matter 1959
Space & Matter, 1959

On a Sunday it takes seven hours to get from Paddington to St. Ives by train. A reminder of how far away both geographically and psychologically it is from the metropolis. As early as 1884, when Whistler and the young Sickert spent part of a winter there, it became, for a group of British artists what Brittany had been for Gauguin; a place of escape, set in wild landscape, at the margins of civilized urban culture. Rivalled by Newlyn across the narrow Penwith peninsular, St. Ives achieved prominence in 1939 with the arrival of Ben Nicholson, Hepworth and the Russian Gabo. D.H. Lawrence had already written The Rainbow in nearby Zennor during the First World War, when gossips took his German wife to be a spy and Katherine Mansfield and Middleton Murray had briefly been neighbours. Later, escaping from the drabness of post-war London, a second generation of painters began to gather; Peter Lanyon, Roger Hilton, Terry Frost, Patrick Heron, attracted by cheap living and the luminous light of the bay.

Born in 1925, the painter Sandra Blow was trained at The Royal College and had spent a year working in Italy, when in 1957 she went to Zennor to visit Heron and his wife and took a cottage in nearby Tregerthen. Although for most of her career based in Sydney Street off the Fulham Road, in one of those wonderful 19th century artist’s studios that are now so expensive that only architects and film-makers can afford them, she moved back to St. Ives, buying up an old furniture warehouse as her studio, in 1994. A painter of gleam and shimmer, space, texture and light, it is not surprising that Blow has made her home there. She is not a gestural painter like Pollock or Ayres, nor does she make work full of ironic references, or ‘art about’ art. An unabashed Modernist, colour, balance, rhythm are what motivate her. Whilst never figurative or illustrative, she strives to create a visual equivalence of moods and feelings encountered in the natural world; a glimpse of light on water, the drift of tides, the spatial relationship between sea and land. Her work is, as she says, “of the world.” Whilst she would not use spiritual words, she concedes the power of those such as ‘balance’ and ‘harmony’. “I wait for pictures to ask for things,” she explains as we stand in a beam of winter sunlight in her studio, amid the preparations of her new show at Tate, St. Ives.

Her work has changed over the years. Early on there was a hint of Hilton’s line and palette, while the earth colours and addition of sand and sacking, showed the influence of Alberto Burri. Burri, an Italian doctor, had gone through the war in North Africa and been a prisoner-of-war. His use of charred sackcloth and other non-art materials shared something with Beuys’s of being expressive of inexpressible experience. Ten years older than Blow, he became her lover for her year in Italy. “We travelled from Sicily to Venice. I saw work through his eyes. I also lost my virginity in a vineyard in Assissi.”

Sandra Blow Vivace 1988
Vivace, 1988

After the year she came back to England. She was, she says a passionate and intense young woman, who fought tooth and nail to put her work first. She also needed to break free of Burri’s influence. She has never been married or had children, the lack of which she now occasionally regrets. “But, she says, as if not to seem ungracious, “I’ve had a very good life.” Perhaps such single-minded dedication was understandable in the male-dominated art world of the 50s and 60s. Established at Gimpel Fils at the age of 26, she remembers William Geer turning to her one day and saying caustically, “Every time you sell a painting you take bread out of one of my children’s mouths.”

She still works tremendously hard and is, for a woman in her mid-seventies, surprisingly youthful with her kohl-smudged eyes, in leggings, big paint-spattered shirt and woollen native-American style hat. This new exhibition will include paintings and collages from the 50s up to the present day. She has been working on what she calls a new installation, a wall piece consisting of 12 small interrelated square canvases. It is above all about colour. Each canvas is monochromatic with geometric spaces revealing the ground beneath. These are decided by moving around bits of paper on the surface of the canvas before she paints. Ice cream pinks, acid yellows, peppermint greens, the thin translucent acrylic zings. You could go on and on experimenting” she says, “it’s very difficult to get spatial effects with colour. I don’t feel I’ve got where I want to be yet.” In a beam of bright November sun the paintings shimmer, optimistic and youthful. “There is a joy in colour,” she says.

Sandra Blow Space & Matter at Tate St Ives, London from 11 December 2001 to 10 March 2002

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2001
Images © the Estate of Sandra Blow
Courtesy of the Tate

Art Criticism

Christian Boltanski
Les Abonnés du Téléphone
South London Gallery

Absence makes the art grow stronger The disappeared, the dead, the lost … Sue Hubbard finds that Christian Boltanski’s work draws potency from what is not there, as well as what is.

Christian Boltanski Les Abonnés du Téléphone 2002
Les Abonnés du Téléphone, 2002

In Language and Silence, George Steiner talks of being a “kind of survivor”. There is a way that I, even born some years after the war, am still implicated by the might-have-beens that link me, as someone who was born Jewish, by an invisible thread to others who were less lucky. Like Boltanski, I do not really know anything of Judaism’s festivals, orthodoxies or theology but know that like him, for the Nazis, I would have been defined as such. And because of that label history places on us, I and he are inextricably united to that past.

Boltanski’s work is much more subtle than simply being about Jewish history, the Holocaust, or even guilt and survival. Yet it is the fact of this cataclysmic event that gives colour and shade to his work. As the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard said, “We are all Jews after the Holocaust”. By this he meant that we are all capable of being caught up in atrocities, in the events of Bosnia and Rwanda, in the conflict in the Middle East. More than anything, Boltanski’s work is about the fact of dying. In his work, death becomes an aspect of life. When we meet he reminds me of Christ’s last words, “Father why have you forsaken me?… It is finished”. He finds it both incredible and beautiful that a whole religion should have been built on a moment of weakness and despair. Christian narratives are embedded in his work as much as Jewish history, he explains. If he had to choose a religion, it would be Christianity. This, I believe, is because his work is also about redemption and love.

“I am nobody. The more I work, the more I disappear”, he reflects. We are sitting talking amid thousands of telephone directories in the South London Gallery, where he is installing his new show. With his shaved head and unshaven face, this small nervy Frenchman in a grubby black jumper, obsessively poking strands of tobacco into his pipe with stubby stained fingers, is the epitome of Gallic Existentialism – an escapee from a Camus novel. Boltanski is a bundle of paradoxes, a quintessentially 20th-century artist working in the 21st century, a Judeo-Christian artist who has no belief in God, a man who describes himself as a painter, yet who makes installations, a Communist sympathiser who was never a Communist but rather a romantic sceptic.

He first came to prominence with major exhibitions in the mid 80s and early 90s at the Georges Pompidou Centre, Paris and at The Whitechapel Gallery, where he created magical installations using personal objects presented as archival artefacts, which acquired an iconic status. His use of non-art materials – school photos, family albums, rusty archives and biscuit tins, along with piles of old clothes – memorialises the unnamed and unknown: the dead citizens of a Swiss town, the workers of a Halifax carpet factory, as well as the erased children of the Holocaust. These are the traces left by individual, yet anonymous, lives. Beneath flickering shadows and bare light bulbs, the spaces in which he works take on something of the hushed reverence of a church or theatre to generate poignant evocations of loss. He prefers factories and churches to galleries, and has made work in Grand Central Station, New York and La Chapelle de l’Hôpital de la Salpêtrière, Paris. He creates, he says, “small memories” that give substance to the unofficial histories of the ordinary. It is as if this collection of ephemera might ward off death, keep its final, all-encompassing anonymity at bay. Like the makeshift shrines at the site of a crash, these works ritualise grieving and create ways of coming to terms with the most modern of taboos, death.

All work, he claims, begins with a kind of trauma. Child psychotherapist Melanie Klein talks about art being a form of reparation for infantile rage at the abandoning mother. She describes how, out of the smithereens of anger, something new can be reconstructed. Born in France in 1944, the son of a Jewish father and a Catholic mother, Boltanski experienced a childhood that was coloured by experiences of anti-Semitism. His father had spent much of the war hiding in basements. His is the enduring angst of the outsider. Early on, he pretended to speak of his childhood, though the reality disappeared in a construct of false mythologising. He cannot now remember what was true and what a fabrication, having created a kind of universal childhood that binds him to the mass of humanity. This humanistic web is central to his vision.

Whilst he implicitly deals with big themes such as the Holocaust, his art can also be read as a psychoanalytic journey; a process of mourning, not only for the victims of the Shoa, but for the death of his own childhood or, maybe, for the lost child within us all. His is a search for self-forgiveness. It is no coincidence that Freud was also a Jew. Western culture is, for Boltanski, about stories. We create our own myths. Stories are attached to objects and to the small moments and memories that, like Marcel Proust’s madeleine, they yield. A photograph, an old dress – each detonates its hidden histories. These are traces not only of something lost, but also of something shed. This shedding implies transformation; a movement from state to state, from unconsciousness to some greater consciousness.

For Boltanski, who is not conventionally religious, art is the religion of our day. And art, like religion, is a form of ritual, a way of ordering and making sense of the world. It is, he says, about recognition. That’s why he uses familiar objects such as biscuit tins. There is always a moment when something clicks in the mind or the heart. What philosopher and writer Roland Barthes called the punctum, that “Ah yes, that’s it!” moment that pierces the consciousness. Boltanski also works within the tradition of Christian art using the icon, and the sense of mystery, theatre and kitsch so beloved by the Catholic Church. He has said he no longer knows what it means to be an artist. Since the collapse of the Berlin wall, we have lost all sense of utopias. For him, art either works or it doesn’t. Aesthetics no longer mean anything. It is not a question of good or bad. “What I make, is something different to art”, he says. He tells a story of setting up an installation in Santiago de Compostela when an old lady asked what he was doing. “Commemorating the dead Swiss”, he said, and she seemed quite happy. If he had told her he was making a piece of conceptual art, she might have felt he was defiling the place.

A child of the 60s, he was part of that decade’s radical zeitgeist, influenced by the magical, priestly rituals of Joseph Beuys and the mutely enigmatic silences of the Catholic Andy Warhol. In the late 1960s and early 70s, he made little balls of modelled clay, along with small makeshift knives and roughly carved lumps of sugar, which he exhibited with bits of recycled string. This essentially non-hierarchical and democratic art followed the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss’s model of bricolage: art made from the ad hoc. Art, he feels, has to struggle against what is established. For many years, he was a member of a lose network of Parisian artists that included his partner Annette Messager, for whom art was a form of resistance against the strictures of bourgeois society. In 1970, invited to illustrate the cover of an American poetry magazine, ‘Blue Pig’, devoted to the poet George Tysh, he supplied a photo of a single, bare, electric light bulb and a few balls of earth. Tysh gave the issue the title ‘Cheapness means forgiveness’, an apt epigram for Boltanski’s work. There is a lack of preciousness about what he does and the objects he uses. If he had been an Italian, he might easily have been part of the arte povera movement. In a way, he is a deeply unfashionable artist. Committed and involved, he believes in issues.

He has claimed that the displays of inconsequential little objects – their use and function now long forgotten – in the big metal cases of the Parisian anthropological Musée de l’Homme were a major influence on his work. In 1973, he began a 15-year series, ‘Inventories’, which involved displaying all the household objects of a deceased person, without any commentary. In another work, using the archives of Michel Durand-Dessert – Durand being the most common French surname – he placed photos from the family album in a plausible chronological order, which, of course, was different from the narrative attributed to them by their owners. Photographs, with their implicit associations with loss, absence and death, have become a potent vehicle in Boltanski’s work. For memory is fragile, dependent on the icon and the relic. We need evidence, such as The Mandylion of Byzantium or The Veronica of Rome, it seems: rational explanations for the mysterious. Boltanski never takes photographs himself, and claims to feel more like a recycler than a photographer.

In 1988, he was invited to make an installation in Toronto. He called it ‘Canada’. The name not only referred to the host country, but also to the euphemism used by the Nazis for the depot where the effects – clothes, shoes, spectacles, even hair – of their victims were deposited before recycling. The piece consisted of thousands of articles of clothing acquired in flea markets, and was followed, at the end of the 80s, by other works such as ‘Reserves: The Purim Holiday’. In the vocabulary of psychoanalysis, the word “phantom” describes the secret pain passed from generation to generation without ever being made explicit. Boltanski refutes Theodor Adorno’s claim that it is not possible to make art after Auschwitz. These works represent the slow labour of mourning, the coming to terms with guilt and the secrets buried, not only at the heart of nations, but of families.

His 1991 installation, using photographs of dead Swiss (a people who have never been involved in war), poses questions about the uniqueness of suffering. Photos of Nazis, photos of Jews, of dead Swiss, they are all, he claims, just people. As viewers, we cannot assess who is a victim, who a torturer. All of us have the capacity to be both. He photocopies the photographs again and again, so that they become reproductions of reproductions and individuality becomes lost in a sea of humanity. What these works force us to do is face the mechanisms that made the Holocaust possible – misanthropy, abstraction, self-loathing, objectification. These things do not just belong to history. They are with us every day: now. He claims that he finds it hard to accept that dying is part of life. He acknowledges that we are each unique, yet but a speck in the flow of history. He quotes Napoleon’s infamous remark as he looked down on the carnage of Austerlitz – both shocked at its cold-blooded callousness, whilst also acknowledging its truth – that “A night of love in Paris will replace everybody”.

When the Tate Gallery bought Dead Swiss on Shelves with White Cotton, they amused him by asking what they should do if the cotton went yellow after a few years. He told them to change it. When asked what to do if the photos faded, he replied that there were always more dead Swiss. Then when they complained that the shelves would not fit, as they had been made for a different room, he told them to get more shelves. When a slightly exasperated curator asked just what it was that the gallery had actually bought, Boltanski responded that they had bought photos of dead Swiss, and shelves with white cotton: an idea not an object.

When he first introduced biscuit tins into his work, he peed on them to make them rust. But he used so many tins that he had to switch to Coca Cola. When they were exhibited in Hamburg and Oslo, the curators unpacked them wearing white gloves. This was ridiculous as the gloves immediately became rusty and red. The biscuit tins weren’t precious and should never have been treated as such. They could easily have been replaced. Boltanski’s work is about relics. In fact, it shares a similarity with the art of other cultures, such as Africa, where religious or ritual masks have no financial or material value and, when no longer used ceremonially, are, often, left to rot.

He views his work as a musical score. Akin to a musical composition, the piece he creates has no real existence until it is brought into life by a new performance or installation. It is, in a way, about reincarnation. For when a pianist plays a work of Bach, it is always Bach, though it might be Bach interpreted by Artur Rubinstein or Daniel Barenboim, just as a Boltanski might be interpreted by curator “Mr. Jones”. His work is unlike, say, a Willem de Kooning or a Mark Rothko, where the autograph of the artist is paramount. He also sees himself as closer to the geometrical abstraction of Piet Mondrian and Kasimir Malevich than to the emptied Modernism of Donald Judd and Carl Andre. Like the 19th-century French writer Gabriel-Desire Laverdant, he believes that avant-garde art is an “attempt to lay bare… all the brutalities, the filth, which are at the base of our society”. It seems impossible now to imagine an artist of a younger generation having such a politically engaged response to art.

This new installation, Les Abonnés du Téléphone, transforms the space into a huge reference library with some 3000 telephone directories collected from around the world. Visitors can sit at tables and browse through the directories beneath the stark light bulbs, searching for lost friends abroad or trying to interpret the arcane listings in a language such as Japanese. Accompanying this is a sound piece in which the names of 12,000 registered voters living within a 10-minute radius of the gallery are emitted from shelves around the space. Central to this work are the implicit tensions between the global and the local, the individual and society, the included and the dispossessed. For, like all archives, this, by definition, is incomplete and flawed. How many of those whose names appear in the directories have died since their printing, and how many disappeared? In the theatrical semi-darkness a number of other more disturbing resonances are suggested: the efficient lists of the Nazi exterminators, of psychiatric patients and prisoners.

As Boltanski fiddles with his pipe, he emphasises that his work is a resistance to what he calls the “post-human”. I ask what he means, and he says cloning, genetic engineering, science that takes away our individuality and uniqueness. This piece, he says, nodding at the telephone directories, is a very Christian work. It is about community. These people are his brothers and sisters, just like the dead Swiss, the children of the Holocaust, and even the Nazis. He never, he says, suggests answers, only poses questions. Like Janus, he manages to look in two directions at once, turning to history whilst trying to make sense of the present.

Christian Boltanski Les Abonnés du Téléphone at the South London Gallery from 27 March to 5 May 2002

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2002

Images © Christian Boltanski 2002

Art Criticism

Christine Borland
Lisson Gallery

It was the Victorians who were obsessed with classification. Flora and fauna, criminal personalities and sexual deviants; to categorise and collect was to tame and understand the world. This was the era of the great museums, of Kew Gardens, of the mapping of dark continents. For the 19th century thinker science provided the empirical means to do this, the rational discourse that stood in opposition to prevailing superstitions and orthodoxies – Darwin and evolution rather than the church and God. Science was modern, rational, ‘good’. It meant progress; the conquering and understanding of disease, the speeding up of travel, new methods of communication. At the beginning of the 20th century artists flirted with notions of modernity, exemplified most graphically by the Futurists love of technological science. Two World Wars dented such uncritical belief in its utopian benefits. By the turn of the century AIDS, BSE and genetic engineering have all done their bit to turn us into scientific sceptics. During the 20th century there had continued to be a division between art and science that had started in the Enlightenment. The argument basically went that artists would look after the soul and the imagination, whilst scientists would take care of the nitty-gritty, the nuts and bolts of the hows and whys.

Christine Borland Small Object Save Lives
Small Object Save Lives

Much of the Scottish artist Christine Borland’s work appropriates this 19th century obsession with collecting and classification. It is as if by accumulating enough bits and pieces she might be able to chart and make sense of this disparate modern world. Between 1991-99 she created an installation entitled Small Objects that Save Lives. These were items received by post after a letter sent out requesting a response to her project. The resulting objects: a packet of hair dye, a paper-back of W.B Yeats’s poetry, a finger stall and floppy disc, to name but a few, were the collected ephemera of modernity that told us in great detail about the specifics of contemporary life, without giving any sense of what it was actually like to live it. It is in these interstices between meaning and interpretation, between the organic and inorganic, fact and fiction that Christine Borland works.

Christine Borland Bison Bison 1997
Bison Bison 1997

In 1997 she re-examined a recipe taken from Gray’s Anatomy on how to reduce bones to their mineral components. By soaking them in a weak solution of nitric acid she extracted the compounds that made bone hard, leaving malleable yellowing objects that looked like dog-chews, which could then be bent into loops and knots. The bones were those of a bison, offered to her by the National History Museum in New York. Twisted and bent they were laid out in rows alongside the stone-like nuggets of vertebrae on trestle tables, in the manner that an archaeologist might lay out the remains of an excavated corpse. That they came from the nearly extinct bison, via a National History Museum, is a nicely ironic piece of synchronicity, which touches on essences, documentation and history. Arranged according to their size and colour, like the ephemera in Small Objects, the bones told us about the skeletal make-up of the bison (it might just have easily been a human being) without imparting any sense of what a bison is actually like. What we were left with was the trace of the bison, its mineral constituents, but nothing that could illuminate for us its essence. We could discern its physical make-up, but nothing of its ‘soul’. In this installation Borland created the perfect post-modern symbol; fragments that did not add up to an interpretable and perceivable whole, a work of poetic effect, rather than of simple observation, of philosophical discourse rather than of narrative explanation.

Her installation for the Turner Prize, 1998 continued this notion of the ‘trace’, the memory of the object rather than the thing itself. Two skeletons from the Huntarian Museum, one of a giant over eight foot long and one measuring only nineteen inches, were placed on glass shelves and then powdered with dust and removed, leaving only a ghostly imprint. Here again Borland’s concerns lay in the broken narratives that could be constructed between the normal and the freakish, between what is classified and unclassified, between fantasy, fact and fiction.

Much of her work over the years has been loosely collaborative, appropriating for her own ends the specialist knowledge of forensic and medical researchers. It has lead to many questioning whether what she does is really art, or whether it relies too heavily on its source material, not transforming it sufficiently into the realm of metaphor. But Christine Borland is an ‘investigative’ artist, the Sherlock Holmes of the art world. She looks for clues and signs to explain the complexity and fragility of human existence rather than presenting her audience with finite statements. For a number of years she has shot things; sheets of glass of roughly human height, crockery, tailor’s dummies dressed in homemade cotton-wool bullet-proof vests. (One that made reference to the assassination of the last Tsar’s family had jewels sown inside.) The exact meaning of these pieces is enigmatic, as is much of her work, but they construct discourses between such binaries as permanence and impermanence, fragility and solidity, life and death, subjects over which, at the beginning of the 21st century, we tend to hold rather slippery, fluid views. The bullet-pocked glass of Webs of Genetic Connectedness, 2000, for example, not only implies the vulnerability of the human body, but, with its fragile fractures and webs, creates a poetic map of apparent organic interconnectedness.

Christine Borland L'Homme Double 1997
L’Homme Double 1997

Genetics have been a long-running concern of Borland’s which have lead her to make works as disparate as L’Homme Double which included six sculpted busts of the Nazi doctor, Josef Mengele, infamous for his experiments on concentration camp victims in the name of science, and a piece based on the skeleton of a murdered Indian woman whose cadaver had been sold for medical research. In the late 1990’s she collaborated with the geneticists of Glasgow’s Yorkhill Hospital. One of the controversial works to result from this was Hela Hot, 1999. Here a TV monitor showed the division of cells on a slide mounted on a microscope. These were provided by the Wellcome Institute and were the cells of a black woman who had died of cancer in the American south in the 1950s. Doctors had extracted the tumour and kept it growing in a cell depository to provide material for medical research. The woman’s family then subsequently launched a legal battle for a share of the profits. Borland’s piece sets up an uncomfortable discourse around notions of exploitation both by art and science of the human subject and asks questions about appropriation and the rights and dignity of the dead. Another piece, made at the same time, Spirit Collection: Hippocrates, 1999 took the leaves from a sapling growing in the grounds of the genetic department at Yorkhill, a gift from the Greek government. The seeds came from a 2000-year-old tree on the island of Kos, beneath which Hippocrates is said to have taught medicine. The bleached leaves, from which the chlorophyll had been removed – Victorian botanists were keen on this process as a way of seeing the structure of the leaf and preserving them as curiosities – were suspended in alcohol in tear-shaped glass vessels covered with foil, each one entrapping the ghostly presence of its individual leaf. Hung from the ceiling they had the poignancy of memento mori or those little iconic hearts made as offerings against disease in Orthodox churches. When these were originally shown at Dundee Contemporary Arts in 1999 Borland also included a phial in the exhibition, retrieved from thousands at the hospital, which contained liquid taken during a routine test for Down’s Syndrome, which she underwent during her pregnancy with her daughter. It was then that it came home to her that work with genetics was something that affects us all and not just some arcane process confined to a laboratory. Working right at the edge of science she also made a video using moon jellyfish, having become fascinated with them on a visit to the zoo in Berlin. But it was the revolutionary biotechnology done with these creatures, whereby their dayglo green florescent protein can be spliced into other cells, that recently placed the little monkey with bright green finger-nails on the front pages of many morning newspapers, that really intrigued her.

Christine Borland A Treasury of Human Inheritance 2000
A Treasury of Human Inheritance, 2000

For her new one person show at the Lisson Christine Borland has made a number of new works. A Treasury of Human Inheritance is a mobile based on the idea of a family tree which she uses as an image to investigate inherited disorders, specifically those depicted in a series of volumes published by the Galton Institute in the 30s showing Mynotic Dystrophy and Huntington’s Disease. Many of the family pedigrees were done during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in Denmark. Each person involved is represented by a slice of agate; the different coloured agates relating to the differing symptoms of the individuals concerned.

In the main gallery she is showing a video projection of the large golden orb weaver spider being ‘silked’. The silk thread produced by the spider is one of the strongest materials known and is now being genetically cloned by scientists who intend to use it in the production of new bullet-proof vests. The whole process has the clinical air of a surgical procedure. The piece is accompanied by a soundtrack of the Tarantella – a dance that legend has it evolved in the Dark Ages in response to the bite of a tarantula (in fact, is was probably the bite of the more lethal Black Widow Spider.) Alongside this is a companion piece, an installation of ‘bronchial trees’ that have been wrapped in silk thread. Not only does this suggest an image of congestion and suffocation but it also makes reference to the protective padding of the artist’s on-going ‘homemade bullet proof jacket’ series. Her other installation of the ‘ebolic garden’ (ebolic means ‘inducing abortion’) develops some of the ideas of Spirit Collection: Hippocrates. On examing the records of the sixteenth century Apothecaries Garden of Glasgow, which was closely associated with the Cathedral, it was discovered that a large proportion of the plants grown, such as wild parsnip, tongue savoury, forking larkspur and penny royal, had an ebolic effect and were probably sold to local prostitutes. Today many of the same herbs are used in homeopathy for quite different conditions. Borland has taken a leaf from each plant, placed it in a glass vessel with bleach and an alcohol solution, so that the colour has been drained away and only the skeletal structure of the leaf left like some sort of ghostly presence.

Christine Borland Ecbolic Garden 2001
Ecbolic Garden Winter, 2001

It might be argued that some of Borland’s work is rather arcane and too dependent on a knowledge of the scientific data that it appropriates, too heavily laden with complex references and unable to cut free from its original source material and ‘be’ in its own right. Whilst this is occasionally a failing, Borland – like a number of other artists such as Mona Hatoum and the late Helen Chadwick who also worked in a similar area – sees science and the body as valid sites for investigating not only the mechanics of how we function, but also as an arena for a new metaphysics. In this Brave New world of genetics and cloning huge ethical questions are raised that go way beyond mere scientific debate. We stand on the brink of being able to decode and deconstruct the very essence of human existence. Perhaps, therefore, it is entirely appropriate that these huge issues are not left entirely in the hands of the scientists but are reflected back to us through the eyes of artists and the debates of philosophers. In this commitment to social issues, Borland is unusual among artists of her generation more usually addicted to easy irony. If her work has value beyond its formal artistic concerns and merits, it is in its insistence on asking difficult questions and probing areas that many are all too happy to leave to the experts.

Christine Borland at the Lisson Gallery, London from 27 March to 5 May 2001

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2001

Images © Christine Borland 2001. Courtesy of the Lisson Gallery

Art Criticism

Louise Bourgeois
Beyond the Body

Louise Bourgeois Arch of Hysteria 1993
Arch of Hysteria, 1993

“The mastering gaze [renders] the passive image of woman fragmented … dismembered, fetishised and above all silenced”, wrote Griselda Pollock in Vision and Difference in the eighties, while Angela Carter vigorously claimed that “Picasso liked cutting up women.”. In the seventies, the reclamation of the passive female body from the dominant male gaze became one of the major enterprises of feminist art. Artists such as Judy Chicago, Cindy Sherman and Helen Chadwick all identified the body as the site for self-exploration and self-definition. By laying claim to their own bodies – by ‘being in control’ – women turned the hitherto commodified female body into the active site of sexual discourse and gender politics. Ten years ago it was still a novelty to have ‘all women’ art shows. Now, a generation on, women artists from Mona Hatoum to Jenny Saville have grown up being identified with work on the body. The title of the classic seventies self-help health manual Our Bodies, Ourselves gives an historic insight into how control over our reproduction (the pill had only been in existence for a decade), our sexuality and, above all, over how women were viewed by men, was central to an emergent feminist identity.

Louise Bourgeois The Destruction of the Father 1974
The Destruction of the Father, 1974

In her short story Dans la maison de Louise, Louise Bourgeois describes her own body as a house of several storey. “I”, familiar with that body … I’ve lived in it”, she writes. Bourgeois, now in her eighties, has always been an artist’s artist. Her extraordinary work – inventive and fresh enough to be shown alongside any Turner prize artist – plunders body imagery as the starting point in an exploration of what Julia Kristeva calls “the braided horror [of] the abject.” re-appropriating traditional female skills such as needlework, Bourgeois investigates the webs we weave within the psychodynamics of relationships, particularly our primal Oedipal relationships. Her Red Room works of 1994 evoke the conjugal scene of the parental bedroom. Childhood trauma and its implications for adult sexuality are explored through the coupling of her freakish, headless figures, often fitted with prosthetic devises denoting psychic damage. The processes of ageing and decay in the female body are encoded in the presence of bare bones acting as macabre coat-hangers for sexualised and fetishised female underwear.

The complex primal relationship with the mother is signified by the recurring motif of the spider lodged at the centre of her web. The power, the subversive vision and raw paint that characterises Bourgeoi’s work has had its effect on numerous younger female artists/ Paula Rego may well have glimpsed Bourgeois’ early engraving of cat-woman (which combined femininity with the feline) before making her own Dog Woman works, and perhaps Jana Sterbak had seen Bourgeois’ sewn garments before making her Flesh Dress. The assemblages of Annette Messager and the prostheses and body extensions of Rebecca Horn all touch upon themes deal with in Bourgeois’ oeuvre.

Louise Bourgeois Red Room - Parents 1974
Red Room – Parents, 1974

Bourgeois’ work may yet come to exemplify the twentieth-century struggle for a coherent, autonomous female identity but, as we move into the twenty-first century, where do women turn now? It is perhaps time to move on, to engage in other discourses or there may be a danger that we corral ourselves into a new ghetto where autobiography is our only narrative. It was not always thus. A ‘transitional’ generation of women born in the thirties and making work ‘prefeminism’ – such as Bridget Riley, Gillian Ayres and Elizabeth Frink – felt that to make art as a woman required no special positioning. Whilst for most feminists autonomy the knowledge of who we are, is a prerequisite that enable them to engage in wider discourses, there is a growing number of women artists who are investigating philosophy, history, the sublime, memory etc., – exploring what it means simply to be human.

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2001
Images © the Louise Bourgeois
Courtesy Cheim & Read, Galerie Karsten Greve, and Hauser and Wirth

Art Criticism

The Boyle Family Scottish
National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh

The sixties according to Philip Larkin, did not really start until 1963 around the time of The Beatles first LP. Before that the world had been different; hierarchical, class ridden, culturally conservative and circumscribed. Slowly the old order had begun to crumble. Politicians were found sleeping with call girls who were considered a threat to national security, Kenneth Tynan said fuck on TV, censorship was abolished, Jimmy Porter got angry and respectable students at the LSE grew their hair long. Welcome to the permissive society.

Boyle Family Tidal Series
Tidal Series

In the mid-50s Mark Boyle, son of a Scottish lawyer, enrolled at the University of Glasgow to study law, leaving the following year to join the Scot’s Guards. Meanwhile Joan Hills had just left her course in architecture at Edinburgh College of Art to get married, set up a beauty parlour and paint on the side. When Joan and her husband split up she went to live in Harrogate in a small flat above a café, where the young Boyle, who organised supplies for the Ordnance Corps, went to write poetry. Thus was born an artistic collaboration that has lasted until the present day and now includes the couple’s two children, Sebastian and Georgia. In his first published statement in 1965 concerning his artistic practice, Mark Boyle said, “My ultimate object is to include everything in a single work…In the end the only medium in which it will be possible to say everything will be reality.”

In 1964 Boyle and Hill invited an audience to an event at a venue in London where they were led through an entrance marked “Theatre” and seated in front of a curtain. When the curtain was raised the audience found themselves looking through a shop window at passers by who, in turn, stared back at them. Thus the boundaries between viewer, actor and event were erased and the hierarchy of looking broken down. This ‘performance’ followed on the heels of the first Happening in Britain on the final day of the International Drama Conference at the Edinburgh Festival in September 1963 (they exhibited in Edinburgh on a number of occasions with Richard Demarco at the new Traverse Art Gallery). The conference had been turned into a spontaneously anarchic event during which, rather than ‘discuss’ drama, a drama had been ‘created’ and the ‘actual’ material of the world presented as ‘art’. Such subversive action grew out of the Dadaist philosophy that saw the world and humanity as nihilistic and without purpose – a position that accorded with the 60s zeitgeist and a desire to break down old taboos and constraints. This ‘total action’ was to become very much part of Boyle and Hill’s aesthetic. Art was to include everything, to avoid any form of preferential selection. The artist had to become as objective as the scientist in order to portray ‘reality’.

After spending time in Paris the Boyles returned to London where they had begun, in the summer of 1962, to make a series of assemblages. Without funds or conventional art training they pillaged the demolition sites – the results of bombing and slum clearance – that covered swathes of west London. This use of detritus fitted with their ‘inclusion of everything’ aesthetic. It also acted as a potent anti-art and anti-establishment metaphor. Assemblages that included bedsprings, doors from an old wardrobe, shoes and rusting paint cans needed no special skill or equipment to put together. This methodology owed much to Kurt Schwitters and paralleled the spirit of other artists working with non-art materials such as those within the arte povera movement in Italy and Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns in America.

Boyle Family Skin Series
Skin Series

When the Boyles chanced upon a discarded grey television surround, it was radically to alter their working methods. Throwing it like a dice they decided that whatever portion of a site it framed would became the subject of their next work, even if it fell on a patch of bare earth. Chance – which had so appealed both to the Dadaists and Surrealists – was to become a major component of their work. Resin was now used, onto which they pressed the collected surface material. But beyond saying that, it impossible to explain how they make their ‘paintings,’ for they resolutely refuse to discuss their working methods. It is probable that they make some sort of caste – so that the subject is at the same time both real and replicated. Their first experiments were made in Camber Sands, East Sussex in the late 60s where they recreated the tidal patterns left on the beach over seven days. Sites for subsequent works in London, around Notting Hill where they lived, were chosen by throwing darts into a map. The darts would select sites in a way that was entirely random. A carpenter’s right-angle was then thrown into the air to delineate the bottom edge. A series of printed cards claiming that they were members of the Institute of Contemporary Archaeology usually prevented any unnecessary official interference. In 1968 they took the project to its natural conclusion and invited friends to throw darts at a map of the world. The aim was to “take the actual surface coating of earth, dust, sand, mud, stone, pebbles, snow, grass or whatever. Hold it in the shape it was in on the site. Fix it. Make it permanent.” So huge was the project that it is still unfinished.

From their early childhood the Boyle offspring, Sebastian and Georgia, have been involved in the making of work, accompanying their parents on all their trips. It has taken the family to Norway to create snow pieces, to a German coal mine and to stony escarpments in Sardinia and to Israeli and Australian deserts. Unlike Christo, the wrapper of buildings and landscapes, who seeks the permission of officials and dignitaries, the Boyles tend to work in secret.

And what is it that they have ended up making? Are they paintings or sculptures? Well they are, in fact, closer to painting than sculpture, for primarily they are about surface; the surface as earth, the surface as skin, the surface of a mundane object that was once horizontal but which now hangs vertically on the wall as an art object. They have made work that replicates potato fields and paths – the sort that lead to countless London houses, complete with intricate Victorian mosaic – they have fabricated gutters and pavements where the yellow stripes painted on the road read like the zips in a Barnett Newman painting or the regular concrete slabs of a sidewalk like a minimalist Carl André. They have taken sections of Mark’s magnified skin and blown it up so that it looks like cracked mud or a lunar landscape. Like magicians they have produced a series of stunning tricks, illusions that ape reality. It is as if by collecting numerous specimens of the actual, material world, that like crazy Victorian fossil hunters or palaeontologists, they can make sense of it. Despite the fact that their work is composed of fragments it has little to do with post-modern sensibilities. There is no irony here, nor is their work a metaphor for anything, for it stands for nothing other than itself.

Boyle Family London Series
London Series

Art made by committee raises all sorts of questions and hackles. There are Gilbert and George, of course, that Derby and Jones of Brit Art, and Art and Language. But a family? Artistic endeavour is historically seen as male, heroic and the struggle of an individual psyche to create a unique aesthetic. The Boyles describe themselves as four argumentative individuals, but mostly it is Mark who talks on video about the work. So do they divvy out the tasks, do they all work on the same piece at the same time, do the younger Boyles have any life of their own? Didn’t they ever want to run away to become accountants? Perhaps these questions are not pertinent to the work but they are the ones everyone wants to know.

Mark and Joan are now in their seventies and this is largest show ever mounted of their work; a retrospective spanning 40 years. Comparisons have been made with photography, with that eternal frozen moment when the shutter closes. Yet somehow their work is more visceral than that; its physical presence, the memory of its previous state more insistent. What grew out of the alternative counterculture of the 60s – the ideology that nothing was of greater value than anything else, that chance was as good a ‘belief’ system as any other on which to base human destiny – has evolved into a unique way of seeing the world. Such a vision has its limitations. For it accepts as axiomatic that art is always amoral and objective. Yet despite this insistence on objectivity, something else happens – perhaps something over which they have no control – in the making of this work; a form of transformation of the mundane into the aesthetic. The ordinary suddenly becomes elevated to the extraordinary when our eyes are opened to the world, to a world we largely take for granted or ignore. As Francis Bacon said, a friend and a fan of the Boyles, “If only people were free enough to let everything in, something extraordinary might come of it.”

The Boyle Family at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh from 14 August to 9 November 2003

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2003

Images © The Boyle Family 2003

Art Criticism

British Art Show 7
Hayward Gallery London

The poster for the British Art Show 7 promises a naked young man poised on a metal bench tending a live flame. The day I went to the Hayward Gallery there was only Roger Hiorns’ empty bench – which was a bit of a disappointment. Young men in the nude are still something of a rarity even in the most outré of contemporary galleries. There wasn’t even a flame. Still there was the compensation of work by 38 other very diverse artists, three-quarters of which has not been seen before. Since its inception in 1979 the British Art Show has presented a five yearly snapshot of the UK art scene. Not a thematic exhibition, as such, the curators Lisa Le Feuvre and Tom Morton, have linked a disparate array of art forms created between 2005-2010 under the subtitle, In the Days of the Comet. This is taken from the title H.G. Wells’ 1906 novel in which Wells imagined the rarely seen comet releasing a green gas over Britain instigating a ‘Great Change’. As a result Mankind was deflected from war and exploitation towards rationalism and a heightened appreciation of beauty. The implication of this utopian vision is that the comet’s reoccurrence has the power to draw together past, present and future; thereby suggesting that Britain has always lived ‘in the days of the comet’.

Roger Hiorns Untitled, 2005-2010
Roger Hiorns Untitled, 2005-2010

Conceived as a ‘a dynamic shape-shifting exhibition that would renew itself as it travelled’ through four cities, 11 venues and more than 12 months of national touring there is no dominant house style. Boundaries are blurred between fine art and found object, between anarchy and formalism, between irony and a striving towards a more authentic aesthetic grammar. There are a lot of videos; some very long, and that makes it a difficult show to get round unless one has several days to spend. Anja Kirschner and David Panos’s new feature-length film The Empty Plan – made in German – juxtaposes Bertolt Brecht’s writings in exile with preparations for different productions of his play The Mother, staged in a variety of contrasting locations. In another arena this may have proved rewarding, but ,here, it is simply hard work. In contrast Duncan Campbell’s archive footage highlighting the 1970s Irish political campaigner Bernadette Devilin’s rocky relationship with the press, for whom she was at first a saint thena sinner, is highly evocative of those unsettled times.

Duncan Campbell Bernadette (Film Still), 2008
Duncan Campbell Bernadette (Film Still), 2008

Elizabeth Price has made a wonderful tongue in cheek film, User Group Disco where text borrowed from corporate power-point presentations has been melded with dollops of French critical theory to materialise on screen as porcelain dolls and other kitsch ephemera rotate on an LP turntable to the music of a Norwegian band. It is a clever, iconoclastic dig at inflated institutional rhetorics.

But most captivating on the video front is Christian Marclay’s deftly constructed The Clock, (previously reviewed on this site here) a mesmeric work of thousands of fragments of found film of clocks and watches taken from a variety of movies that forms an actual time piece. Despite the array of arbitrary sources a new philosophical narrative is suggested, so that as viewers we inhabit two worlds: real time and the imagination.

Sarah Lucas NUD (3), 2009
Sarah Lucas NUD (3), 2009

Seasoned artists such as Sarah Lucas, who was one of the British artists to emerge in the early 1990s under the rubric of the YBAs, (Young British Artists) are working at the height of their powers. Though not a fan of her previous rather facile cigarette sculptures, here she is exhibiting an array of lumpy fleshy forms constructed from tan nylon tights stuffed with fluff. Isolated on breeze block plinths like something beached on a butcher’s block or a “patient etherised upon a table”, to coin T.S.Elliot’s phrase, they have a desolate poignancy that barely conceals their coiled emotional violence. Suggestive of bodies and entwined limbs their antecedents are Picasso’s sculpture of his lover Marie-Thérèse Walter, Head of a Woman, 1931, the Surrealist Hans Bellmer’s erotic dolls and Louise Bourgeois’ psychodynamic works. Perverse and uncomfortable they imply not only secret sexual shame but the psychological ‘knots’ that emotional relationships are apt to create. As the Scottish psychiatrist R. D. Laing, author of the book Knots, claimed: “We are effectively destroying ourselves by violence masquerading as love.”

Stretching along a section of wall is Wolfgang Tillmans’ Freischwimmer 155, 2010 a dense green abstract photograph that looks like a painting and conjures something of H. G. Wells’ green vapour cloud. Alongside this are nine display tables that present material gathered in Britain throughout 2010. Tillmans juxtapositions question received shibboleths and notions of truth, as articles on the Vatican’s attitude to homosexuality and paedophilia are placed next to shocking newspaper clips on teenage boys about to be hanged under Sharia Law in Iran for their ‘crime’ of homosexuality.

Milena Dragicevic Supplicant 77 2008
Milena Dragicevic Supplicant 77, 2008

The show is strong on painting. Milena Dragicevic’s uncanny portraits are both revelatory and a form of disguise. Often there is a prevailing sense of absence, as in Supplicant 13, 2000 where the face appears to have shrivelled to an unidentifiable husk or in Supplicant 77, 2008 where the opening of a red pillar box has replaced the mouth. That Dragicevic was born in a Serbian enclave in former Yugoslavia, which ceased to exist with the post-war reconfiguring of borders to become part of Croatia thus rendering her emotionally, if not actually stateless, informs these paintings with their language of doubles and mirrors.

Charles Avery’s graphic skills have been used to different effect to present an idiosyncratic parallel universe: the Lilliput de nos jours. His central character, the Hunter, searches for philosophical truth in strange lands. Avery’s texts, sculptures and drawings have long charted the topology and cosmology of an imaginary island and his intricate drawing of the Port of Onomatopoeia, 2009-2010 is populated not only by people but by curious Alephs, Avatars and One-Armed Snakes. These strange fantasy worlds that function as scenarios for examining western philosophical thought, are much more effective than the overblown vitrine that encases a life-sized mannequin of his fictional character Miss Miss.

Maaike Schoorel’s atmospheric paintings give up their secrets slowly. At first glance they appear to be minimalist abstract paintings in the vein of Robert Ryman’s white on white paintings. In fact, they contain ectoplasmic figures that emerge and float out from the picture surface the longer the viewer spends with the painting. Inviting us to slow down, they ask us to consider how we look at animage, how it is informed by memory and what it is we expect to see.

Spartacus Chetwynd The Folding House
Spartacus Chetwynd The Folding House

It is perhaps hard to take too seriously someone who has chosen to market themselves under the nomenclature Spartacus Chetwynd. The Folding House, 2010, a Heath Robinson contraption made from discarded window frames and other recycled building debris not only provides a venue for her performance-workshop but gives a nod to the Dutch modernist architect Gerriot Rietveld. However a more interesting though, perhaps, unintentional reading is the reference to the slum dwellings built from recycled artefacts gleaned from the more wealthy sections of society, which can be found in so many third world slums.

That contemporary British art is still inventive, stretching from Brian Griffiths, literally, rather empty body of a carnival bear splayed on the gallery floor (the tent-like head having already been exhibited in Nottingham is not present) to Varda Caivano’s abstract explorations of colour, texture and mark-making, is made evident in this show. The diverse works pose questions about the nature of artifice and authenticity and, implicitly, ask what art is for in a period of flux and change. There are things here to annoy, others to enlighten, to ponder and reflect upon. There is work that will be forgotten in an instant and work that will linger in the mind long after leaving the gallery, proof that contemporary art can infinitely expand to reflect the diversities and complexities of modern life.

British Art Show 7 is on at the Hayward Gallery from 16 February to 17 April 2011

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

1 Image © Roger Hiorns 2005-2010. Photography by Kieron McCarron
2 Image © Duncan Campbell 2008. Courtesy of the Hotel Gallery, London
3 Image © Sarah Lucas 2009. Courtesy the Artist and Sadie Coles
4 Image © Milena Dragicevic 2008. Courtesy Galerie Martin Janda, Vienna
5 Image © Spartacus Chetwynd

Art Criticism

Edward Burra
Crane Kalman Gallery London

Edward Burra was a true English upper-middle-class eccentric. He could be waspish, camp and difficult. In 1961, while painting at home, the Royal Academy rang to ask if he would consider becoming an associate. His acerbic response was to shout downstairs to his manservant, who was speaking to them: “Tell them I’m busy.”

Edward Burra Birdmen and Pots 1947
Birdmen and Pots, 1947

The eldest son of barrister Henry Curteis Burra and Ermentrude Anne Robertson-Luxford, he was born on 29 March 1905 in South Kensington. An attack, at the age of 13, of anaemia and rheumatic fever cut short his education and his parents, considering him too sickly for regular employment, encouraged his interest in art. After studying at home he went, in 1921, to Chelsea Polytechnic and then subsequently to the Royal College of Art.

Although not openly gay, he visited gay bars and had gay friends such as the dancer and theatrical director William Chappell, with whom he, reputedly, had an affair – though some accounts of his life suggest that he always remained celibate. He also had a camp sensibility and his copious writings have the astringent wit of an arty Kenneth Williams. A prodigious letter writer, he wrote to one friend that “I’m taking up my pen for Sunday venom, dearie, it relieves me.” A visit to London from his home in Rye, where he lived all his life, was referred to as a trip to “TinkerBell Towne”.

Best known for his paintings executed in the 1920s and 1930s of seedy urban scenes, he stands outside the modernist tradition, though among English painters there is an obvious affinity with Stanley Spencer and, to some extent, Paul Nash, who was his mentor. At a time when the avant-garde were obsessed with abstraction, Burra was more interested in painting people; whether big blondes in the local boozer, zoot-suited gangsters on Harlem streets, or musclebound sailors.

Today Burra is a rather neglected painter. His work has always been hard to define – perhaps because he worked not in oils but watercolour (it was easier on his arthritis) and because his credo was “always join the minority”.

Edward Burra Frogmen 1959-1961
Frogmen, 1959-1961

He had six paintings in London’s International Surrealist Exhibition in 1936, but was never formally a Surrealist, and for most of his life he was represented by the Lefevre Gallery. From his 1930s Harlem pictures to the late landscapes, Burra’s view of the world was unlike that of any of his contemporaries.

His vivid paintings of Harlem in the 1930s captured a moment in history epitomised by jazz and street life and have an affiliation with de Chirico and George Grosz. The current Tate exhibition The Life and Times of Edward Burra concentrates on this, his most celebrated period.

To coincide with this, and the publication of a recent biography, the Crane Kalman Gallery is showing 30 rarely seen watercolours, primarily on loan from private collections. They span every decade of the artist’s career, from the 1930s Burlesque performers in Harlem and Marseilles, to the Surrealist images painted on the brink of war, and the later rural scenes executed in the 1960s and 1970s, redolent of Nash, which presaged the decay and demise of traditional English rural life.

These works emphasise his idiosyncratic, often rather macabre, vision and his rich sense of colour. He was a painstaking draughtsman and a great traveller. Not only did he visit Harlem and Marseilles but also Barcelona, Seville and Morocco, where he painted scenes influenced by the Spanish civil war, as well as New York, Dublin and Paris. When he became too ill to travel abroad he concentrated on England.

His work during the late 1920s to the 1940s recorded, with a sharp eye and a trenchant satirical wit, the soft underbelly of a society of cabarets and music halls, tottering towards war. His later work never quite lived up to the early panache.

Edward Burra Crane at the Kalman Gallery, London from 10 April to 10 May 2008

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2008

Images © the Estate of Edward Burra. Courtesy of the Crane Kalman Gallery

Art Criticism

Sophie Calle Talking to Strangers
Whitechapel Gallery London

Sophie Calle Take Care of Yourself 2007
Sophie Calle Take Care of Yourself, 2007

What do you do when your lover jilts you by email? Take to your bed and forget to wash, wander around in your pyjamas, cut up his suits or send him a poison pen letter? If you are an artist there is another option. You can shame him by turning his self-justifying text into a large scale conceptual art work using over 100 different women as allies. That is just what the French artist Sophie Calle does in her work