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Sean Scully: Paul 1984 – Significant Works

What is painting for? Since the advent of the camera in the 19th century, its role has no longer been to transcribe reality – the photographic lens can do that with greater accuracy – but to interpret, through paint, what verbal language cannot: what it feels like to experience the world through our visual senses. No contemporary painter does this better than Sean Scully.

His blocks of muted colour evoke people, places, emotions and memories – SH

Many have dismissed his work as a series of coloured bricks or stripes, seeing him as an exclusively abstract painter, but that is to misunderstand his simplified rectangular forms. I have interviewed him numerous times. Behind his gruff exterior is a storyteller. A mythmaker. Literature is important to him and informs his work. Many of the paintings take their titles from works that have influenced him, from Becket’s Molloy to Blake’s Tyger, Tyger. Though apparently abstract and influenced in the 1970s by American minimalism and the likes of Robert Mangold and Robert Ryman, his paintings moved away from this formal elegance and constrained minimalism to convey the emotional experience of being alive. Rothko, Scully argues, is a more important painter than Ad Reinhardt.

Sean Scully: Paul 1984 Collection Tate © Sean Scully

His blocks of muted colour evoke people, places, emotions and memories. Deceptively simple they are, in fact, highly sophisticated and considered. Not just aesthetically but psychodynamically potent, they thrum with restrained emotion. The relationships between them are uncanny and unsettling. The slim apertures between rectangles suggest that they’re simply the first layer in a complex palimpsest of vision and emotional revelation. Their deliberate lack of perfection and inbuilt flaws imply human vulnerability and depth, currents that go on beneath the quiet visible surface and sensual brush marks. Scully has said: “I reacted against the idea of perfection and the holistic masterpiece. I wanted to make realities that were more humanistic, where the problematic relationships between things could make a new kind of spirit and beauty.”

He has, in the past, talked to me about his paintings in anthropomorphic terms, in contradiction to Clement Greenberg’s strictures that all narrative must be expunged from abstract art. Like Morandi’s bottles, the negative spaces between his coloured blocks speak of the relationships between people and the difficulty of intimacy, communion and connection. He may present as a Modernist, but underneath lurks a Romantic, one who has deep knowledge of the canon of western art on which he draws to expand his grammar of contemporary art.

Perhaps no other painting exemplifies this compressed emotion more articulately than ‘Paul’ (1984), an elegy to his 18-year-old, estranged son who was killed in a car crash. The broad sand and black horizontal stripes on the left of the canvas are violently halted by two columns of three vertical stripes that form a solid wall. There’s a small black space between the horizontal and the vertical areas where the cream-white paint forms a jagged rather than a neat edge. It reads like a transitional space, the hiatus between life and death, between then and now, that moment and this. It is so subtle that it’s easy to miss but the distinction between the two states is palpable. The horizontal stripes in the left-hand panel are full of energy. They thrust forward with the verve of a young life moving into the future, only to be blocked and brutally curtailed by the unforgiving verticals.

All Scully’s paint surfaces suggest skin and, therefore, by implication, the body. The creamy paint, here, might be read as light, the light of a future that should have rolled out – full of possibility – ahead of an 18-year-old boy, only to be cancelled by a heavy bar of black. The rust-red, suggestive of a pulsating life force, is, again, cancelled by a thick black line. It’s hard, too, not to draw an analogy between that and the colour of dried blood or a wound.

The three distinct parts of the work suggest an altarpiece triptych, but one where grief has cancelled any narrative element. Close observation will reveal that the central vertical column has slipped, that the edges are not true at the top and the bottom, poignantly suggesting a young life prematurely slipping away. Normally Scully’s stripes open up a picture but here they violently shut it down. Despite its apparent formalism, the painting wrestles between light and darkness, past and future, night and day, life and its extinction.

But Scully is never didactic. He is too much of a Modernist for that. As with Agnes Martin, mood is suggested through the placement and subtle application of paint rather than spelt out. We, the viewer, are asked to be open and sensitive to his suggestions, reading his nuanced colours and blocks of paint like braille to reveal more than their simple shapes. There is, too, something filmic about the painting that can almost be read from left to right like a series of cinematic shots that move through time to reveal their narrative.

Scully makes works that deal with passion and grief, dreams and fears. What it is to be flawed, vulnerable and human. He wants his paintings to have impact, to speak viscerally to the viewer who will imbue them with their own stories, their own emotions and relationships. Like potent music, they catch a mood, speaking to what is universal. Even so, he believes that art cannot be popularised without robbing it of its central ‘difficulty’ and thus its ‘mystery and morality, which is crucial to its survival. Having long ago left behind the beliefs of his Catholic childhood (he is of Irish extraction), he retains some of its values, even though he states “that in a time of intellectual and spiritual anarchy the most we can aim for are degrees of similarity [of thought and belief]. Our sense of certainty is gone.” In the 1990s, he was trying to make his paintings as extreme as possible, saying that “my work is an attempt to release the spirit through formal strength and direct painting,” but slowly, they became less rigid. A hungry, restless yearning threads through his later work, which hold all the stories he would like to tell, all the emotions he’d like to share. These are compressed, in their painterly mark-making, into the rectangles of his paintings. and none more so than in Paul.

Top Photo: P C Robinson © Artlyst 2021

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Marc Quinn: Alison Lapper Pregnant 2005 – Significant Works

Marc Quinn: Alison Lapper Pregnant 2005: From gym ads to dating apps, from T.V. programmes on plastic surgery to how to look ten years younger, our contemporary obsession with the body beautiful is one that many ancient Greeks would recognise.

The idealised body found in Greek sculpture of the fifth century B.C. has been the most copied and influential artistic style in the west. Physical beauty for the Greeks was prized by both mortals and gods. At times it was difficult to distinguish between the secular and the sacred. Nakedness was seen as heroic, in contrast to the Judaic-Christian attitudes of shame and sin. The athletic male body with its rippling muscles and smooth boyish skin became the Apollonian ideal – the yardstick by which we have measured health and beauty for centuries. This stood in contrast to such pre-classical images as Minoan goddesses with their exposed breasts and serpent wands, or the Venus of Willendorf from the Upper Palaeolithic period, a small figurine with wide hips and no arms that represented chthonic female fecundity rather than honed masculinity.

Marc Quinn Alison Lapper Pregnant The Fourth Plinth 2005

Move forward a handful of centuries to the site around Trafalgar Square. Since the 1200s it has been an important London landmark. The present square, named after the British victory against the Spanish and the dastardly French on 21st October, off the Cape of Trafalgar, encompasses what was once the courtyard of the King’s Mews. After George IV moved these to Buckingham Palace, the area was redeveloped by John Nash. Around the central Nelson’s Column are four bronze lions by Landseer that speak, along with the surrounding buildings – Canada House and South Africa House, the church of St Martin in the Fields and The National Gallery – of British Imperial self-confidence Over the years the square has become synonymous with both New Year’s Eve gatherings and political demonstrations from the first Aldermaston march, to the poll-tax and anti-Brexit protests.

In each corner of the square is a plinth. On the southern two are statues of Henry Havelock – a Major General associated with the Indian Rebellion of 1857 and Charles James Napier – Commander-in-Chief of India 1839-40. The larger northern plinths, designed to hold equestrian statues, bear one of George IV, but the money ran out before the planned statue of William IV could be built on the fourth designed by Sir Charles Barry in 1841, that sits in the northwest corner.

In 2005 the Mayor of London, under the guidance of the Fourth Plinth Commissioning Group, commissioned the artist Marc Quinn to make a contemporary sculpture to fill the space. It was an inspired choice. There, in the heartlands of classical and imperial power, Quinn placed a torso of his friend, the artist Alison Lapper. Born with phocomelia (no arms and shortened legs). Quinn’s bold 13-ton sculpture, carved from a single twelve-foot hunk of Carrara marble depicting Lapper eight months pregnant, challenged received ideas of classical beauty and establishment power. Questioned what it means to place a sculpture on a plinth to tower above the populace and who it is we decide to honour.

Marble has traditionally been associated with mythical heroes and gods, Michelangelo’s David, or the statue of Abraham Lincoln. The pregnant, armless Lappin stood proudly as a metaphor for our times, a powerful contemporary Venus de Milo, whose broken beauty brought her dignified disabilities centre stage. Lappin stood not just as herself, but as a metaphor for all those who have combated often hidden difficulties. Here was someone who had overcome enormous obstacles – she gained a first-class degree in fine art from Brighton University and an MBE – along with societal prejudice to sit among this plethora of male leaders: Amazonian, vulnerable, female and pregnant. There, among the selfie-taking tourists and the ubiquitous pigeons, Quinn gave us a different kind of heroism, an image of the struggle to deal with whatever life throws up. Later, in the form of a large-scale inflatable, the work would become the centrepiece for the 2012 Paralympics opening ceremony.

Always controversial (think of his recent Bristol sculpture of the Black Lives Matter Jen Reid raising her fist in a gesture associated with the civil rights movement of the 1960s that was almost immediately removed ) there were those that criticised Quinn for being an opportunist. An able-bodied artist who was making work about someone with disabilities. Lapper also had misgivings. Although she thinks the piece was fantastic, she’s said it would have been more remarkable if it had been a work by her that had been put on that plinth. At the time, despite being out of art school for 11 years, she had sold virtually nothing, while Quin was going from strength to strength.

So can art influence social attitudes? Perhaps. But nothing is black and white. The work no doubt, raised the visibility of those with disabilities and led to renewed debate. Would we have had Paralympians appearing on mainstream Strictly Come Dancing or acting as T.V. presenters before this? Yet another tragic truth is that Lapper’s son Paris – the child with whom she was pregnant on the plinth – was taunted and bullied throughout his childhood about his mother’s disabilities. Suffering with depression and anxiety, he was found dead in a hotel in Worthing, West Sussex, after a drug overdose. Art, it seems, can only change so much. Sadly, it did not manage to convince one young boy that the lives of both him and his mother were uniquely valuable.

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Mark Wallinger: State Britain 2007 – Significant Works

Brian William Haw lived for almost ten years in Parliament Square. He was a thorn in the flesh of the British establishment and became a symbol of the anti-war movement against the conflicts first in Afghanistan and then Iraq. An evangelical Christian, he’d served in the Merchant Navy, worked as a removal man and had a wife and seven children, whom he left to set up his protest in 2001. A one-man political protest, his camp and banners were erected on the grass in Parliament Square, creating a striking contrast to the 19th-century architecture and seat of power across the road. After legal action, the Greater London Council relocated Haw and his assemblage to the pavement that was administered by Westminster City Council.

An attempt to prosecute for obstruction failed. Pedestrians, it was deemed, could get past the banners. A long legal tussle then ensued over Haw’s rights to protest in Parliament Square. In the early hours one May morning in 2006, 78 police arrived to remove his makeshift placards and objects – many of which had been donated by the public and included paintings, graffiti, and traffic cones, along with photos and posters of maimed and burnt babies that screamed ‘Blair Lie, Kids Die’ and ‘Baby Killers’. A Banksy stencil and a wooden cross with an image of Haw wearing a T-shirt emblazoned ‘Bliar’ across the front were among the centrepieces.

Mark Wallinger 2016 © Artlyst

The operation to remove Haw cost the Metropolitan Police £27.000 and in 2007, the Channel 4 Political Awards voted him the Most Inspiring Political Figure. In the same year, the artist Mark Wallinger painstakingly recreated Haw’s weather-beaten placards, peace flags and banners, along with the many messages amassed from well-wishers to create an installation in the Tate Britain’s Duveen Hall. It even included Haw’s makeshift tarpaulin shelter and tea-making area.

During the fabrication of the forty-three-meter work, it became clear that the Duveen Hall of Tate actually fell within the circumference of the one-kilometer exclusion zone inside which, under the recently passed Serious Organised Crime and Police Act, protests against parliament could not take place without police permission. Wallinger taped a line on the floor of the gallery at the point where the exclusion zone ended, deliberately placing State Britain half in and half outside the zone. It was both a challenge and a provocation. By straddling this invisible boundary, was Haw’s collection of objects – now transmogrified into art – breaking the law? Mirroring the original assemblage in every detail, was it subject to the same legal constraints that it had been outside, or had it now been transformed into something ‘safe’, art displayed in an institution supported by taxpayers money for the consumption of the liberal elite? Was this a brave act by Wallinger – challenging questions around freedom of expression and the erosion of civil liberties – or an act of appropriation by a sophisticated, knowing artist at the height of postmodernism when everything was turning out to be a pastiche or simulacrum? Was Wallinger’s recreation a form of political solidarity, or did it turn viewers into cultural voyeurs? Was this collection of sanitised street ephemera, in fact, really the equivalent of crowds paying to gawp at the bearded lady in a fair?

Often associated with the YBA generation of artists who were grabbing attention in the early 2000s, Mark Wallinger was, in fact, older by nearly a decade. While for most of them, nothing much mattered except irony and high visibility, Wallinger had grown up in a political household and was politically sophisticated. While living and working in Germany in the early 2000’s he missed the big anti-war march in London but was much taken on his return by Haw’s presence and began to photograph what he felt was a daring, moving and informative assemblage that was making points few conventional news outlets dared to make at the time.

Once Wallinger had the idea of recreating Haw’s protest, he approached the artist, who gave him his full support. Copyright had to be obtained for the different photographs, but as Haw had made the majority of the banners himself, he was able to help Wallinger source the necessary material for their recreation. The Tate held a special opening for Haw and his family and the work was nominated and later won the Turner Prize.

But there were those who had difficulty with the piece. It included a copy of a painting by one Abby Johnson, a member of the Stuckist protest group that promoted figurative art in the face of postmodern conceptualism. She’d given it to Haw as part of the original protest and objected that Wallinger’s installation was simply a conceptual fake, insisting that she and the other people who had donated to the original display were the real artists. What, some asked, if Haw had gone to the Tate himself and said – look, Nick, the rozzers are about to obliterate my stuff, how about you find me a spot for it in the Duveen Hall? He’d likely have been thrown out with a flea in his ear. But when Mark Wallinger, the artist of ces jours-ci who’d just represented Britain at the Venice Biennale suggested it, it was given the go-ahead. It had now turned into edgy art in line with Duchamp’s idea of the readymade. Only this had the problem of not being readymade (or as Boris might say now, oven-ready) but a copy.

Yet might it be argued that its performative element fitted Derrida’s contention that ‘[i]terability requires the origin to repeat itself originally; to alter itself so as to have the value of origin, that is to conserve itself.’ (French philosophers had the habit of being that arcane and pretentious in the early part of the century). Perhaps, then, the justification for Wallinger’s ‘copy’ was that it added the potential for not just a new audience but for new modes of reading and interpretation. Wallinger’s drawing attention to the boundary line that would have rendered the piece illegal outside the gallery while it was tolerated within only served to emphasise the double standards of establishment power structures and showed State Britain to be a clever, radical and hard-hitting piece of work.

Haw died in Germany in 2011, where he had gone for treatment for lung cancer. Before he left, Wallinger went to visit him at Guy’s Hospital. He was, he says ‘the most obstinate protester you could imagine. The last protester really….it was like everybody else gave up, but he never did…. And he was proved right; we know we went to war on lie. Now he’s gone, who else have we got?’ Brian Haw was the last of a kind, and Mark Wallinger’s State Britain stands as a fitting memorial to his stubborn idealism.

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Cecily Brown: The Girl Who Had Everything 1998 – Significant Works

What would Turner think? Would he even have recognised the artist collectives nominated for this year’s prize in his name as art? His own concerns were for the luminosity and possibilities of paint, how it could be moved around the canvas to convey a fleeting moment, the changing weather, the turbulence of skies, the great storms out at sea, what it felt like to be part of this physical, sentient world. He even (probably apocryphally) lashed himself to the mast of a ship in the centre of a storm in order to experience it more fully.

The conceptualism that emerged in the late 1960s was a revolt against this romanticism that prevailed through the 19th century on into modernism, a movement Greenberg defined as the historic tendency of art towards autonomy, achieved by attention to the specifics of that practice, concerned with its traditions and materials, with its own set of practices that set it apart from other art practices. ‘Truth’ and ‘authenticity’ were the backdrop to this humanism. According to Victor Burgin “in post-modernist allegories ‘Truth’ has been replaced by the twins ‘Relativity’ and ‘Legitimation’. The collectives nominated for this year’s Turner prize are concerned with cooking, with the rights of QTIBPOC communities and other social issues that have come out of the pandemic – all worthy in their own way – but painting doesn’t get a look in. It’s as though it’s dropped off the artistic agenda. All through the 20th century painting was declared dead with predictable frequency, left playing catch up with Dadaism, conceptualism and other ‘isms’, scrambling to find a new, relevant language. Whether through the ocular distortions of cubism, the gut-felt intuition of Pollock’s drip-paintings or the spare minimalism of Agnes Martin, painting strove to re-invent itself, to stay new, to remain relevant. So what of painting now? Does it continue to have things to say that can’t be better explored in other media such as video, sculptural installations of even text? Has it run its course or is there still room for reinvention in this very limited and difficult medium concerned with making beguiling images on a flat surface.

Cecily Brown The Girl Who Had Everything, 1998

Cecily Brown is one such painter who has attempted to extend the life and language of painting. Born in London in 1969, she studied at the Slade School of Art, a college known for its historic connections to painting. Distancing herself from the emerging YBAs, she moved to NY in 1994 where she quickly gained attention for her work. Her major break came not long after her arrival when, in 1997, she had a solo show at Deitch Projects, ‘Spectacle,’ which featured a series of garishly coloured paintings of rabbits engaged in playful orgies. She soon become known for works that captured bodily sensation through the lush applications of paint. With true postmodernist panache she plundered ideas from Old Masters and the Abstract Expressionism of Willem de Kooning and Joan Mitchel Brown, poached with aplomb whatever took her fancy from Goya to British landscape painting in order to create highly wrought works with a sense of intuitive abandon.

In her 1998 painting The Girl Who Had Everything, she melds the figurative and the abstract to create a new painterly grammar, filching the shiny bits of art history with magpie abandon. There’s an impudent irreverence to the voluptuous surface with its gut and blood reds and calamine pinks, its swirls of meaty colour reminiscent of Soutine and Bacon set alongside girly ice cream shades. A carnal sensuality to the explosive brush works and restless paint. A mix of tough knowingness and I-don’t-give-a-fuck, reminiscent of Cy Twombly’s chthonic Bacchus series. But where Twombly bought into the romanticism of classical myth, Brown’s lush carmine swirls swell and bloat erotically to suggest tumescent and menstruation with her tongue firmly in her postmodern cheek There’s sexuality and violence here, but it feels more porny, more playful, more Saturday night rave than distraught Bacchae.

And there’s a feminist edge. A bawdiness to the canvas similar to that expressed by the 18th century female sex workers in the racy TV series Harlots where they were distinctly mistresses of their own eroticism. Brown may be luxuriating in her fleshy tones, the sexuality of her visceral paint but there’s always something playful about the work, as if it’s giving you the wink and telling you not to take it too seriously. That it is fun, just glorious fun. And like all good feminist artists she’s busy inverting the male gaze, owing female sexuality from the inside out. There’s a constant change in perspective and tempo. Likened in the past to film that’s everchanging, her images coalesce, breakdown and fracture. Things morph and mutate like the music of a wild jazz musician pushing his discipline to the edge to see if it will collapse. Whilst she has said her paintings ‘are not usually a direct copy after one thing’, they metamorphose through the drawing process to ‘end up coming out in other twisted ways in the paintings’.

Painting may well have come close to needing life support in the last few decades, to have been left gasping on the gurney of an unappreciative artworld more interested in the instant gratification of video and performance, but Cecily Brown has shown that however many times it’s declared dead and the great gurus of art history called in to proclaim the last rites, there’s always an artist willing to find its pulse, to revive it into yet another lease of creative life.

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Rachel Whiteread: House 1993 – Significant Works

In Grove Road, Mile End, there’s a plaque on the north side of the railway bridge that commemorates the first flying bomb to fall on London on 13th June 1944, a week after D-Day. The VI bomb-damaged houses in Antil Road, Burnside Street and Bellraven Street and destroyed the train line from Liverpool Street to Stratford, killing 6 people and injuring 42. A local recalled that they were all sworn to secrecy but that “the news got out soon enough”. The plague was put up in Grove Road by the Greater London Council in 1985 following the proposal of Joseph V Waters, a lifelong Easter Ender, whose brothers had been injured by the bomb.

As late as 1993, some of the terraced houses in Grove Road that had survived were still standing

Rachel Whiteread, then a thirty-year-old artist with a growing reputation, approached the last tenant, retired docker Sydney Gale, who’d lived at 193, to explain her desire to make an artwork out of his old home before it was demolished to create Wennington Green ‘part of a grand scheme to form green corridors connecting the heart of London to the suburbs.’ With the help of the public art organisation, Artangel, a temporary lease was obtained for the plot. Inside 193 held a wealth of treasures: cast iron fire grates, original mouldings, old light switches and wooden cupboards. The house was used as a mould and filled with concrete to create an imprint of the building before the outer structure was finally removed. It was an audacious and brilliant idea. Part mausoleum, part memorial to a lost way of life that captured the vanished rhythms and resonances of a dying East End community, its hidden histories, preserving them like flies in amber.

Rachel Whiteread Untitled (House) 1993 Commissioned by Artangel © The artist. Photo: Sue Ormerod

The piece fuelled intense local debate, along with a plethora of graffiti – WOT FOR?, WHY NOT? HOMES FOR ALL BLACK +WHITE. THIS HOUSE IS A NICE HOME, demonstrating, as Gaston Bachelard writes in Poetics of Space, that a house is not simply a building. All inhabited space, he argues, bears the essence of ‘home’. “Our house is our corner of the world…it is our first universe, a real cosmos in every sense of the word.” Wherever humans find shelter, they attempt to create the illusion of protection. A house, however modest, is not just a physical space but a fortress against the rest of the world, the site of our daydreams and theatre of memories. Part of an ongoing narrative that tells us who we are, the screen onto which we project the chronicle of our lives. The storehouse and site for our longings and aspirations, disappointments and losses: birth, copulation and death, past, present and future.

When we dream of the house where we were born, it becomes a metaphor for our past. Vanished voices and lost lives are imprinted into the very fabric of the walls. For Bachelard, a phenomenologist with a strong sense of the psychoanalytic, the topography of the house with its cellars, attics, nooks and corridors acts as a bodily analogy. It’s the site of our most intimate lives, our hidden psychological dramas in which our memories are collected. Events and traumas are shut in dark basements, hidden in attics. Memories exist in spaces. We remember where things happened. The dark cupboard in which we hid in as a child. The house we built under a table. We only have to return to them in our mind’s eye to relive our deepest emotions. The smells and textures of childhood come back to us with Proustian accuracy. Was that room really so large? Ah yes, and there was that mustard coloured wallpaper, those diaphanous curtains. And what was that familiar smell?

Born in Ilford, Essex, in April 1963, Whiteread’s mother Patricia Whiteread was an artist who took part in the landmark feminist exhibitions Women’s Images of Men and About Time at the ICA in 1980. Her father, a geography lecturer, took her, as a child, on field trips. Hers was a home, a house in which she was surrounded by art, ideas and left-wing politics. It made her what she was to become. Later, she’d go on to study painting at Brighton Polytechnic and complete an MA in sculpture at the Slade. But it was at Brighton, under the guidance of Richard Wilson, that she began to learn casting. Disinterested in traditional techniques or in replicating objects, she was attracted to negative spaces, to the underneath of a table or the inside of a sink or a hot water bottle (these she cast for many years in pee-coloured resin and pink dental plaster). Two early works, Shallow Breath 1988 and Closet 1988, both recall the dark and dusty hiding places – the underside of a bed, the inside of a wardrobe – those bitter-sweet childhood games of hide-and-seek. Influenced by the austere minimalism of Donald Judd and Carl Andre, there is, however, always a sense of the flawed, the vulnerable and the imperfect. The ghostly presence of the original object lingers, for this is a poetry of the mundane: the ordinary, the every day, the barely seen.

It’s this potential for nostalgic recollection that made Whiteread’s House such a rich and original work and set the standard for her future public art commissions such as the austere and poignantly silent concrete Holocaust memorial in Judenplatz Vienna, built-in remembrance to the Jewish Austrian dead.

House stood for just 80 days and was a lightning rod for public debate around social issues such as redevelopment and housing, as well as public art. Unveiled on 25th October 1993, it led to Whiteread becoming the first woman and the youngest artist to be awarded the Turner Prize. Uncannily this was on the same day that Bow Neighbourhood Council refused an extension to the lease on 193 Grove Road. Despite a number of stays of execution (including a parliamentary petition), House was demolished on 11th January 1994 in what must amount to one of the great acts of bureaucratic vandalism by any local council. Yet, despite their collective philistinism, House had already infiltrated the cultural imagination, setting a new standard for public art to come.

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Paula Rego: The Policeman’s Daughter 1987 – Significant Works

In an era when modernism was dictating that painting should abandon all connection to narrative, Paula Rego defiantly continued to tell stories, influenced by the Portuguese folk and fairy tales of her childhood. Born in Lisbon in 1935, she grew up under the jackboot of the fascist dictator António de Oliveria Salazar, who seized power in 1926 after a military coup, as Europe slowly slid towards the right. Although her father was liberal and anti-clerical, the febrile atmosphere of the surrounding conservative society created a profound anxiety in her as a child, causing her to withdraw into art as a way of making sense of and reimagining a world where she perceived that women had little voice and even less agency.

Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you.

– Sylvia Plath, Daddy.

With their biomorphic shapes and Disneyesque figures, her early works show the influence of Surrealists such as Miro, along with the violent graphics of popular Portuguese comics, and feed into her ferocious sense of irony. Later, while living in London, Rego would take on Portugal’s political establishment and, in particular, its treatment of women. This reached its acme after the failure of the referendum to legalise abortion, in her searing landmark series painted between 1997-98. Here, women wracked with pain crouch on chamber pots and over plastic buckets or lie traumatised on their beds. As in most of Rego’s work, the idealised female of art history gives way to a lived, sentient reality. These are not the draped muses of the European canon offered for the male gaze but women with solid thighs and arms who bear children, cook and scrub floors, working women with their own sexual longings, vulnerabilities, subterranean angers and strengths.

Paula Rego The Policeman’s Daughter, 1987
Photo P C Robinson Artlyst 2021

Choosing one painting for this series, out of so many powerful works, was hard, but The Policeman’s Daughter 1987 seems to sum up Rego’s iconoclastic storytelling, her ability to create powerful psychological dramas and mise-en-scènes. A girl in a white dress with muscular arms and a grim chiselled face, one foot curled beneath her on a wooden dining chair, the other shod in a child’s white buttoned sandal balancing her sturdy body against the floor, thrusts her thick arm into a big black riding boot, which she’s busy polishing. The title tells us that she is a policeman’s daughter, so, by implication, the boot belongs to her father. A black jackboot, an emblem of machismo authority, her arm has slipped inside almost to her armpit. With its stark colours, it hard shadows and almost monochromatic palette, the painting suggests a disturbing sexual inversion, a perverse act of penetration, a symbol of deflowering, even rape. There’s the uneasy sense of taboo sexual practices, of domestic abuse and yet…. who, here, really has the power?

In his 1933 analysis of Fascism, Wilhelm Reich wrote: “the sexual effect of a uniform, the erotically provocative effect of rhythmically goose-stepping, the exhibitionist nature of militaristic procedures, have been more practically comprehended by a salesgirl or an average secretary than by our most erudite politicians”. Reich showed Fascism to be an extremely libidinal form of politics – theatrical, mesmerising, seductive and sadomasochistic – in its appeal to its female adherents. Sexual bondage and a yearning for domination permeates its imagery. Men of power from every political creed have made use of their authority for sexual favours (Stalin and Mao both enjoyed a harem of women). Still, Fascism was peculiar in the submissive adoration it inculcated in its female adherents. At its heart is a fascination with cruelty. The cruelty of socialism sends millions to their deaths in the deluded hope of engineering a new utopia. Still, the cruelty of the fascist is unashamedly machismo with its need to assert supremacy and control. As Aldous Huxley noted in his foreword to Brave New World: “As political and economic freedom diminishes, sexual freedom tends to compensate to increase.” Sexual and political domination, it seems, go hand in hand.

Having spent more than 40 years in Jungian analysis, Paula Rego is wholly aware of the subversive symbolism she brings to her work. Yet, unlike Balthus’s images of pre-pubescent girls, her work is never voyeuristic or titillating. Not afraid to shock, she is never prurient but rather evokes our empathy and compassion. We, the viewer, do not gawp or gaze but identify with her subjects in all their multifaceted vulnerability and sneaky nastiness, their iconoclastic gleefulness at breaking free and subverting accepted norms. The sensual polishing of the father’s boot in The Policeman’s daughter suggests the forbidden delights of adolescent masturbation, the young girl dreaming of the handsome uniformed men who will dominate her as she pleasures herself. A black cat on the right of the picture standing on its hind legs conjures the slang word ‘pussy’ or the French ‘la chatte’, further adding a layer of sexual innuendo.

Allusive, multi-layered and enigmatic, nothing in Rego’s world is quite what it seems. Like the regulated religious Portuguese society in which she grew up, there’s what happens on the surface and there is what goes on behind lace curtains. The policeman’s daughter sits with her back to the window open onto a dark velvety night and the freedom it offers away from the claustrophobic constraints of the family. Yet, despite its allure, she goes on polishing. The sacrificial virgin is juxtaposed here with the authoritarian jackboot of Fascism, “the black shoe” to quote Sylvia Plath, “In which I have lived like a foot/For thirty years, poor and white,/Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.”

Despite these constraints, Rego’s girls and women are not victims but find ways to defy the sinister side of sexuality and family relationships. The Policeman’s Daughter isn’t cowered but defiant. By discovering her own sexual power, she gives voice to her simmering anger and sense of isolation, surreptitiously exacting revenge against a society that would keep her as a symbol of purity in her white dress, a virgin rather than a sexually knowing woman or a whore.

Drawing Paula Rego

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Mona Hatoum: The Light at the End 1989 – Significant Works

What makes a Significant Work? Not necessarily what is fashionable or new but an artwork that holds its own down the years, that continues to resonate and still has something to say. It seems extraordinary that I first saw Mona Hatoum’s installation The Light at the End at The Showroom in East London in 1989. I was a young critic and fairly new to London and it quite literally stopped me in my tracks. This is what I wanted from art. 

Mona Hatoum knits together the ethical and aesthetic tensions of the exile – SH

Here was a work made from the most minimal of non-art materials turned into a gut-wrenching metaphor. In the darkened industrialised space where the brick walls had been painted ox-blood red, an angle-iron frame and six vertical electric heating elements glowed in the darkness to form a gate at the end of the narrowing space that blocked off the corner of the room like a cell. Drawn towards the intense orange lines, the work seemed to offer both promise and danger as light gave way to heat and I was greeted by the glowing red-hot grill. The sublime grids of Agnes Martin, the emotional installations of Eva Hesse and the mythic works of Joseph Beuys all seemed to coalesce here, while the human scale provoked uncomfortable thoughts of torture and incarceration.

Born in Beirut in 1952 to a Palestinian family living in Haifa, Mona Hatoum settled in London in 1975, after war broke out in the Lebanon. This was a Britain that was seeing swift cultural change and widespread industrial action. The ‘Winter of Discontent’ under a Labour government was about to give way to the election of Thatcher in 1979. It was during Hatoum’s time as a student at the Slade School of Art that she began to submerge herself in feminist and political debate, in the counter-cultural discourses surrounding gender, identity and race that were being hotly debated by influential thinkers such as Edward Said in key texts like Orientalism (1978).

Even if I hadn’t known that Mona Hatoum was a Palestinian living in exile, the sense of menace and entrapment were palpable. But the work’s power was not that it was descriptive, but that it was ahistorical and attached not to a singular moment but spoke of all inhumanity from the Spanish Inquisition, through to the disasters in Syria. Here was a metaphor for political violence that carried a title ironically suggesting hope. The work pre-dates the abuse of detainees in Abu Ghraib under George W. Bush’s administration but now seems prescient of what was to come: the aggravated assaults, the electric shocks, the harsh and inhumane treatment of detainees. Hunkered in the corner of the space, its rectangular presence could be read as a secular altarpiece erected to pain and injustice. Death and hope, as in much great Christian art, are close bedfellows and the work conjures Rilke’s famous lines “for beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror which we are barely able to endure.”

For the viewer, the malevolent and the sublime, the abstract, the uncanny and the concrete all meld into an uncomfortable confusion. What are we supposed to feel? Fear, awe, excitement? And how can we get out of our heads the subliminal suggestion of internment camps or the cheap, unsafe accommodation endured by so many itinerant workers? Containing a play between the dark and the secret, the luminous and the redemptive associations of religious art, the work is closely rooted in contemporary culture. Mona Hatoum knits together the ethical and aesthetic tensions of the exile and the outsider to ask a series of open-ended questions.

Despite early experience of displacement, this is not an artwork with an autobiographical message but rather one concerned with issues and discussions of modernity. Both political and critical, it displays an awareness of the history of art, from the medieval altarpieces of great European churches to the sensory perception of arte povera and its use of adapted, often scavenged materials. Her theatrical iconography – elsewhere she uses cages, lightbulbs, iron bedsteads and even hair – challenges the viewer, wrong-footing them when they fall too easily into cliched interpretations. Her categories are constantly shifting. The body and psychology, the spiritual and the corporeal, are juxtaposed to create a poetic yet loosely political commentary on today’s crisis-ridden world. Made from the stuff of life, the stuff of the everyday – wire, wood, metal, light bulbs – Mona Hatoum creates a wholly contemporary, highly expressive grammar. Now, more than thirty years on, The Light at the End seems just as relevant, pertinent to the cultural debates around postcolonialism and postminimalism. In a world of flux and contradiction, with the rise of geopolitical tensions and the possible re-emergence of the cold war, this hard-hitting work forces us away from the chirpy irony and easy, ever-so-clever kitsch of the late 20th and early 21st-century art world’ into a realm of the turbulent, the authentic and the challenging. It is a reminder that art has a duty not to be just entertainment or an object for investment but to challenge, inform and make us think. Hard to bear, it reminds us of those who continue to be displaced, who suffer exile and deprivation. Offering little respite, it presents us, instead, with a poetry of sorrow and loss, forcing us to face the dark narratives of our turbulent and compromised epoch.

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Tony Bevan RA: Head 2004 – Significant Works

Western philosophy has long struggled with the relationship between mind and body. If the mind is ‘internal’ what is its relationship to the ‘external’ body? Is the invisible mind ‘private’, while the visible body ‘public? If this split exists, where does the ‘real’ reside? For Descartes, the proof of his existence was that he was capable of thought, that he could observe himself thinking. While Leibniz believed that ‘each single substance expresses the whole universe after its own manner’. While philosophers tied themselves in knots trying to define our essential essence and whether or not to include God in the equation, the history of painting struggled to find its own ways visually to describe what it means to be human. From the first cave paintings to the seductive doe-eyed gaze of the Egyptians, via the Michael Angelo’s figurative description of God in the Sistine Chapel, to Rothko’s colour fields that give us a ‘feeling’ of the sublime, painters have struggled with these same complex questions. Who am I? What am I?

Tony Bevan’s heads meld an archaic charcoal line that might have been produced by a cave painter

Tony Bevan ‘HEAD’ 2004 71cm x 57cm.
Acrylic and Charcoal on Canvas (Private collection, Spain)

Among contemporary painters, none has investigated what it is that makes us individual and human more eloquently than Tony Bevan. Like Rembrandt, Soutine and Van Gough, he has turned to the self-portrait, not as an egotistical enterprise, but as a tool to explore humanity and self-hood. Portraiture has traditionally – particularly before the days of photography – been used to denote the social status of the sitter and, by implication, their relationship with the viewer and painter. Painted portraits were a way of telling the world who one was. How one wanted and expected to be seen by others. Where one fitted in on the ladder of social hierarchy. Later, photography was able to catch an ‘exact’ likeness and, as a result, ‘copying’ became less interesting to painters.

There is something atavistic about Tony Bevan’s heads that meld an archaic charcoal line that might have been produced by a cave painter, with the sophisticated semiotics of body, space and location. Drawing a stick of charcoal across the surface of a painting or drawing, he leaves a trail of debris like the cinders scattered from a campfire. This line roots us back to our ancient beginnings, whilst connecting us to the modern, aware painter making use of this most basic material. Working directly on canvas or paper pinned to the floor, the smeared detritus and incidental marks left by this process become embedded in the finished work. He then applies raw pigment and acrylic with a brush where the bristles have been cut down to an amputated stump. His signature colour is cadmium red. With its intense emotional charge, it suggests the ox blood of ancient ritual sacrifice and has all the frisson of the red used in Cy Twombly’s Roman paintings. His palette is restricted to red and orange, violet, blue and cream for colour, in Bevan’s work, is never employed simply to ‘illustrate’. It is always felt. Always carries an emotional charge. Grinding his own pigments, he is able to balance their different densities, while the charcoal he uses comes from willow, poplar and vine.

Sometimes, wrongly in my view, he is linked with Lucien Freud and other School of London painters, as well as Freud’s young acolyte, Jenny Saville. But they have little in common except an interest in the human body. For Freud, Auerbach and Saville the obsession is the difficulty of using paint to describe sentient flesh, whereas Bevan uses his line more like a cartographer to explore unknown lands and alien terrains that are spatial, architectural and psychological. That the metaphor of map-making is one commonly employed in psychoanalysis is highly apt, for Bevan’s line, like Theseus’ thread, is a vehicle for discovering the depths of human psyche.

In Head 2004, the scar-like black and red lines criss-cross the face as if inflicted by the ritual of tribal scarification or tattooing. Disembodied and lying precariously on a slope against an orange background, it conjures both Sisyphus’s’ stone bolder and the decapitated heads discovered in Joseph Conrad’s Congo. Taking photographs of himself in the studio from unconventional angles, Bevan uses these to emphasis his features from unnatural angles – flared nostrils seen from below, a thrusting chin – in order to map, not a likeness, but a psychological space. Perilously tilted, this rock-bolder-head looks as if it might roll away at any minute. The eyes are not visible so that like Tiresias, the prophet of Apollo in Thebes, made famous by T.S. Eliot in The Wasteland, it appears blind. Yet it is also heart-shaped like a pulsing organ recently cut from the chest. Both vulnerable and full of pathos, it is a shockingly arresting image.

The more I look at it, the more it reminds me of Giacometti’s floating heads with their framing lines containing a mass of whirly marks that bestow an overall solidity within that frame. Close to writing or some arcane language, these marks express both a nervy, edgy, existential anxiety and a chthonic sensuality, a feeling that is found in Bevan’s work. Like Giacometti, Bevan works on the edge of abstraction, whilst remaining a recognisably figurative painter, thus forcing us to identify with the human body, along with the fears, desires and emotions held within the nest of marks. Set against what might be an orange dystopian sunset, Head 2004 emerges from its series of whorls and swirls, disconnected from any other part of the body. It could be a mask from a Noh drama, or the head of John the Baptist held triumphantly aloft on a silver platter by Salome.

As well as heads, Bevan paints architectural structures, Roofs held up with industrial girders and ziggurats of studio furniture. Yet, as his heads resemble architectural structures, his architectural structures suggest the organic architecture of bodies and heads. Not only the girder-like skeletal forms but pathways of nerves and synapses, even the oriental meridian lines through which the life energy known as ‘qi’ flows.

For much of the late 20th-century art became obsessed with its own narrative of art-as-art and with the spatial qualities of flatness. Often these formal aspects became the dominant grammar of a painting. Whilst Bevan is acutely aware of these academic arguments – acknowledging the flatness of the surface, for example, by working on the floor – he has moved beyond painting’s recent solipsistic concerns to return to a sense of reverence for the human body, particularly that seat of the self, the site that defines who and what we are, the head.

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Richard Long: A Line Made By Walking 1967 – Significant Works

The word ‘aesthetics’ is derived from the Greek word meaning perception or sensation. The Scottish philosopher David Hume spoke of the refinement of (educated) taste. He, like Kant, believed that some artworks were better than others. But, while Hume spoke of ‘taste’, Kant was more concerned with ‘beauty’ – a difficult, slippery category for us postmoderns. For Kant, this meant emotions, intellect and imagination being stimulated by a sensuous object. Clive Bell furthered this thinking when he emphasised that what mattered in an artwork was ‘Significant Form’ rather than context and, by the time we reach Clement Greenberg, the definition of what made a good painting was that the astute viewer was able to appreciate its flatness, to understand that the painting’s surface was simply an arena for paint to explore the grammar of paint.

By the 1960s definitions of what made art ‘art’, had been broken wide open

In 1967, Richard Long a young Bristol artist made a line in the grass of a field by walking backwards and forwards and called it A LINE MADE BY WALKING. Barely visible, it was an ephemeral track worn by his boots in the grass. How could such a transient thing, if ‘thing’ it even was, be considered art? And yet didn’t this simple act encompass everything that art needs? Spare beauty. Metaphor and history.

A Line Made by Walking 1967
Richard Long born 1945 Purchased 1976

The beauty bit is easy. Any sensitive eye can discern the change in colour of the crushed grass, against that which surrounds it, can feel a sense of satisfaction at the trueness of the line. But metaphor and history? Well, to understand that we need to look outside the narrow confines of European art history. Such a line as Long made in the grass that day is an archetypal human mark. A record and trace of a journey, even a short one. A mapping point between A and B. It designates departure, experience, change and return. Like Odysseus setting out for home from Troy after the Trojan war, we are all changed by the journeys we undertake, be they physical or emotional. Odysseus’ journey is a metaphor for the human capacity to endure the unknown. To live by trust and inner strength. It stands for the universal journey that we all take, great or small, from birth to death. The symbolism is no less powerful in Richard Long’s line because the journey is a short, traced across a field. A journey of a thousand miles starts with one step.
The power of the journey, or at the least of the walk and the traces that it leaves, has been understood for years by the Aboriginal people who, though their Dreamtimes developed complex animist narratives that incorporated rocks, creeks and mounds into their internal creation myths. Not only do the timelines that they create on their walks through the outback ceremonially map the landscape through which they travel, but the very process is a mystical, transformative experience. The one who sets out is not the same as the one who arrives. As Eliot reminds us in his poem Little Gidding “And the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time”.

This path is known for the Zen Buddhist as the mushin or the Heavenly Way. While Christian’s journey in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and the sacred ways of Santiago de Compostela or the English Bede’s Way – which follows the route of Europe’s most venerated early medieval scholar, the Venerable Bede – all assume that the pilgrim/traveller will be changed by the experience. In Richard Long’s case, he created a virgin track. One undesignated and untrodden previously by others. His is a record of his particular walking body, moving through time like a sundial or a pendulum, backwards and forwards across an ordinary English field. Yet, as with a photograph, what is left with is the trace, the memory of the experience. It’s not the experience itself. We do not see him tramping his way across the field. The line etched in the grass embodies the history of his movement like the ancient tracks of a thousand herders and their animals found in the Pyrenees and Himalayas that mark the migration of men and flocks over hundreds of generations.

For an artist, the creation of an artwork is a journey. They set out often, not knowing exactly what route they will take. Surprised by the twists and turns along the way, both dispassionate observer yet embedded inside the very process.

Sir Richard Long Photo: P C Robinson © Artlyst 2017

Richard Long has said that places give him the energy for ideas. Like the great walker poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Wordsworth and John Clare he understands that the body moving through nature has a different awareness gleans different truths to one that is static. For the poet, the poem is made up of meter, rhythm and feet that emulate human movement. For Long, his works reflect the dimensions of the body. The span of his stride, how many steps it takes to cover a particular distance.

Classical landscape painting used the natural world as a stage, a commodity, but for Long the natural world is something of which he is an integral part, something with which he interacts through touch, walking and looking. Subject and object, viewer and landscape meld to become homogeneous. He may move a few stones, arrange a few sticks, but nothing didactic here, nothing arch and ironic, simply an invitation for us to slow down, look and respond from the deepest recesses of ourselves. What he creates are stopping points, similar to wayside shrines along those ancient pilgrim paths that give space for moments of reflection and contemplation. This sense of mindful awareness, of placing one foot in front of the other, of the inhaling and exhaling of breath, is comparable to the conscious meditations of the yogic traditions.

From making A LINE MADE BY WALKING Richard Long has continued to make work embedded in the natural world. He has built stone circles, painted with Avon mud and created texts based on the distance covered by his walks. He takes nothing more sophisticated with him than a length of string with which to make circles, a camera for records, paper and a pencil. He has made work in Dorset and Ireland, on Dartmoor and as far afield as the Sahara and Texas. Yet the process is essentially the same. To walk, to look, to experience and record with minimal intervention and disruption. To quote from a Japanese Noh play, “uncertain the journey’s end, our destination; uncertain too, the place from whence we came.” In the time of a pandemic, we would do well to look again at Richard Long’s apparently simple A LINE MADE BY WALKING. We may learn a lot from this elemental, chthonic work.

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Jenny Saville: Propped 1992 – Significant Works

She sits balanced on a high stool naked in front of a mirror, her white sling-backs hooked around its slender neck to balance her heavy body. Her bulbous breasts hang to her waist. Her head is thrown back, eyes closed, hands clawing at the flesh of her ham-like thighs. Scribbled into the paint, in mirror-writing like graffiti reminiscent of Cy Twombly’s scrawls, are gobbets of text by the Belgium feminist writer, Luce Irigary that say: If we continue to speak in this sameness – speak as men have spoken for centuries, we will fail each other.

I first discovered this painting in a group show – I can’t remember where

Not long after Jenny Saville had left art school in Glasgow. As yet she was unwritten about and unknown. I was taken aback by its power and wrote a short review for Time Out. The work was determined, muscular and quite literally ‘in yer face’. It was obvious, with its Freudian undertones (both Sigmund and Lucien) that this young artist was destined to go far. So it’s interesting to revisit the work that brought Saville to the attention of the artworld, nearly 20 years later.

Jenny Saville Propped 1992
Photo Courtesy Sothebys

For a young woman, at the time, to insert herself into the male canon of Titian and Rubens was highly audacious. Few women had painted the female nude with such candour, though the likes of Suzanne Valadon and Paula Modersohn-Becker had dared to explore the female form with an honesty few male artists could muster. But most women painters simply painted their female subjects clothed, in drawing rooms and gardens. Throughout art history women artists struggled for the same recognition as their male counterparts, but until the late 19th-century entry into art schools was denied and nude models unavailable to most of them.

During the last two decades of the 20th-century female art, students were avidly reading not only Lucie Irigary but other French feminists such as Julia Kristeva and Hélèn Cixous. Debates around socially constructed attitudes as to what it meant to be a woman – sexually, economically and intellectually – took centre stage. Feminist artists such as the Guerrilla Girls or Barbra Kruger tended to go down the conceptual route rather than expressing themselves in paint. What defined female beauty was also being deconstructed. Everyone had read John Berger’s Ways of Seeing and his analysis of the male’s gaze. Everything that, supposedly, defined what it meant to be a woman was being rethought through a feminist and mostly Marxist lens: our bodies, our sexuality, race and class.

In 1982 Susie Orbach wrote her seminal text Fat is a Feminist Issue

Following a path beaten through the jungles of patriarchy by predecessors such as Simone de Beauvoir and Germaine Greer. Orbach examined how the psychology of eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia nervosa had little to do with greed, but rather more to do with women finding themselves caught up in a compulsive need to please, to create models of perfection. This was the time when we were led to believe that women could be femmes fatales in the bedroom, Hovis-toasting Mums in the kitchen and high-flying career women in the boardroom. Food became a means of nurture for when we fell short of this perfection, a way of filling the void that many felt but did not have the language to express. Too much food was how we both punished ourselves and healed what was wounded—feeling stressed? Can’t cope? Have another chocolate biscuit. Rather than speak of our pain, there was always another slice of hot buttered toast to be had, even if what we really wanted was self-esteem and love.

Saville spent several of her youthful summers in Venice. Her uncle showed her Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin, the altarpiece in the Friary. She was struck by its scale and dynamism which, she has since said, may well have had something to do with her own feelings about her size. She was excited by the possibility of ‘largeness’, the space it gave for her paint marks to travel both in a figurative and an abstract way. In Propped, the paint becomes flesh; at once beautiful, vulnerable, excessive and verging on the abject. It delivers a punch that is at one and the same time, psychological and physical. As a self-portrait, the work is revealing and brave, but it also has a raw vulnerability. Saville’s fingers scratch at the ample flesh of her thighs as if to draw blood, do harm and in, someway, punish herself. There’s self-hatred here, as well as self-confidence – all expressed through that most classical medium – paint.

Saville has said that painting and drawing are mediums in which she feels comfortable. That she likes the journey of making something that is ‘only itself’. Because it is not an algorithm, the same mark can never be made twice. Each one has to be felt in the mind and the body. There is always a tussle between form and space. Like Bacon, paint is used explore human emotion without resorting to standard academic techniques.

It’s interesting to note what has changed in the 20 years since Propped was painted. Certainly, the category of ‘woman’ has become more fluid and complex than it ever was when this was executed. However, Saville’s interrogation of what constitutes beauty still remains insightful, particularly in its mirroring of an ubiquitous cultural aversion to corpulence. One of her greatest achievements was to reclaim the female body from the male gaze, to paint the experience of being a woman from inside out, whilst using all the tools that she’d learnt from the masters, from Rubens to Rembrandt, from de Kooning to Freud, for her own ends.

Words: Sue Hubbard © Artlyst 2020
Photos Jenny Saville Propped 1992 Courtesy Sothebys

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Jock McFadyen RA: Popular Enclosure, 2005 – Significant Works

Jock McFadyen is the psycho-geographer of the visual art world. ‘The laureate’, as Ian Sinclair has suggested, ‘of stagnant canals, filling stations and night football pitches’. His natural milieu is the East End where he’s lived for many years.

He inhabits its interstices between traditional past and discombobulated post-modern present

The derelict 1970s post-war city is the backdrop to many of his paintings of place, its liminal spaces before the rash of high-rise glass and steel developments, the influx of young bankers to Canary Wharf and Limehouse. His is a city of abandoned warehouses and neglected canals, home to drowned supermarket trolleys, and alkies with a can of Tennents wrapped in a brown paper bag. Artists, searching for cheap spaces to live and work, moved there in the early 1980s to set up shop in short-life, run-down terraces such as Beck Road. The East End, then, was as different to its glitzy sibling the West End, as East Berlin was to its twin West Berlin. Thatcher, squatting, Punk, graffiti, street markets and poverty were the mood music of this bleak post-industrial landscape.

Born in Paisley, Scotland in 1950, near Glasgow, McFadyen’s grandfather was a boat builder, his father a draughtsman in the Clyde shipyards. A natural rebel, McFadyen made an effigy of his school Head which he set on fire when, after a stint in the hospital due to a motorcycle accident, he returned to find that the school art course had shifted from painting towards design. Soon after, he packed his bags and left with his then partner, Carol, for London to try his luck and got himself into art school. Chelsea, no less. The art school of the day when the King’s Road was the place to be with its boutiques and antique shops frequented by the likes of Marianne Faithful and Mick Jagger.

McFadyen was ambitious, argumentative and bright. He lived in squats. Had a son. Worked as a van driver, before becoming artist-in-residence at the National Gallery. It was when he split with Carol and hit rock bottom that he had an epiphanal moment. Shrugging off the weight of centuries of old master painting, he decided to paint what he saw around him. As he says: ‘I dumped all the clever bollocks and decided to work from observation’. Unlike other British figurative painters of his generation – Peter Howson and John Kirby, for example, who painted though a lens of sentimental nostalgia – McFadyen depicted skin-heads, prostitutes and Hawksmoor churches with the grit of an Otto Dix.

In 1990, when I first met him, he’d just been commissioned to paint scenes of Berlin after the fall of the wall for an exhibition at The Imperial War Museum. He was on his way. It was while working on the set for Kenneth MacMillan’s ballet, The Judas Tree at Covent Garden in 1991 that he realised he’d been painting landscapes all along. He began to take a sketchbook and copy graffiti off walls, to draw local authority tower blocks and Hawksmoor churches, and take photographs (though he had to be selective before digital a reel of film only had 36 shots) to record the streets around him. He painted Roman Road at night, spotted with street lights dissolving into the dark ground. The drab grey mouth of the Thames with its wide horizons and container ships. The no man’s land of the A13 that runs from the City towards Southend-on-Sea. His unique originality made it hard for him to fit into any current ‘ism’. Favouring the company of writers and filmmakers, he has always dipped into a wide cultural pool.

One of his most iconic paintings of this period is the doomed Walthamstow dog track. An Art Deco building that exemplifies one of the East Ends abiding traditions, betting. The ground, originally built and used by the Walthamstow Grange Football Club became known, by 1929, as the Crooked Billet Greyhound and whippet track. Winston Churchill addressed 20,000 people there in the 1940s while canvassing for re-election. The stadium has had a checkered history as a motorcycle speedway, a car racing track and the home to Charley Chan’s nightclub that was built under the clock tower. In Jock McFadyen’s Popular Enclosure, 2005 the building is shown at the end of its life, standing against a streaked sky like a once beautiful film star who cannot quite believe she’s no longer in vogue. Its grimy desolation rings with the lost voices of those who came to spend the day ‘at the dogs: the second-hand car dealers moved out to Essex, in for a flutter, the trainers in flat caps urging on their whippets to come in first. It’s as though their ghosts have been absorbed into the defeated fabric of this once bustling building that stands as a metaphor for the fluctuating fortunes of a dying community.

Yet for all the work’s potent social and emotive resonance, McFadyen is first and foremost a committed painter, concerned with the language of paint. He likes to work wet on wet. A technique that gives the oil paint something of the transparency and mobility of watercolour and there’s an ongoing debate between figuration and abstraction taking place in the horizontal white striations of cloud and the formal grid of empty entrance gates. As with his A 13 road paintings or Pink Flats 2000, there’s a raw desolation that suggests the lost narratives of those who once came to this place for entertainment, easy gain and companionship. The large expanse of cold blue sky, contrasted to the architecture of the seedy building, conjures a place both of dreams and despondency: a dilapidated cathedral to a wasted urban sublime.

Forthcoming exhibitions (Dates could vary due to COVID)

14th November 2020 – 11th April 2021 Jock McFadyen Goes to the Pictures, City Art Centre, Edinburgh
6th February – 11th April 2021 Jock McFadyen: Tourist without a Guidebook, Royal Academy, London
11th June – 25th September 2021Jock McFadyen: Lost Boat Party, Dovecot Studios, Edinburgh
Dates TBA 2021 Jock McFadyen Goes to The Lowry: A Retrospective, The Lowry, Salford

Read More About Jock McFadyen RA

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Rachel Howard:
Suicide Drawings – Significant Works

Rachel Howard’s Suicide Paintings/drawings were first shown at the Bohen Foundation in NY, in 2007 and the following year at London’s Haunch of Venison gallery. Left shocked and devastated by the suicide of an acquaintance who was found kneeling in an almost prayer-like position, suicide was, she realised, one of the last taboos.

Why do I write all about suicide and mad people? – Virginia Woolf

Research has shown that there are a number of gender differences. While males are more likely to succeed in taking their own lives and to use more violent methods, women are three times more likely to attempt suicide than men.

Female ‘hysteria’ has a long history. Centuries before Freud – who considered its driving force to be repressed sexual aggression – ‘inappropriate’ sexual desire, frigidity, fainting and shortness of breath were all considered symptoms. From the ancient Egyptians to the Greeks who believed the female uterus was a living creature that wandered – no doubt, hobbit-like – throughout the female body ‘blocking passages, obstructing breathing and causing disease’, via Hippocrates who thought a woman’s ‘semen’ turned venomous if not released through regular marital climax, women’s sexual, emotional and psychological health has been defined by men.

Rachel Howard – Suicide Drawings

In the last century, suffragettes who didn’t accept the patriarchal status quo were imprisoned and forcibly fed till their mental and physical resistance was broken down. While, well into the 20th century, a man – however obnoxious, violent and drunken – had a legal right to lock away his perfectly sane wife or daughter in a mental asylum. It was not until the 1970s that the writings of post-structural feminists such as Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva that female desire and consciousness was linked to language, tied to and coloured by how we communicate as a society. In the 1950s and 60s clinicians were still taught that women suffered from penis envy, were morally inferior to men, dependent and passive. Young physicians were instructed that women had a tendency to be child-like, manipulative, smothering, and driven by their hormones, rather than, as so often, being the subjects of domestic abuse or post-partum depression.

Breaking the social mores about depression and self-destruction became a theme of 20th-century women’s writing. Some thirty years before her death by self-drowning, Virginia Woolf was asking in her marginalia, ‘Why do I write all about suicide and mad people?’ While, in her only novel The Bell Jar, written in 1963, Sylvia Plath confessed ‘It was as if what I wanted to kill wasn’t in that skin or the thin blue pulse that jumped under my thumb, but somewhere else, deeper, more secret, and a whole lot harder to get’. Dorothy Parker wrote graphically in one of her autobiographical short stories: ‘She pounced upon all the accounts of suicides in the newspapers. There was an epidemic of self-killings — or maybe it was just that she searched for the stories of them so eagerly that she found many’.

When the poet Anne Sexton ended her life, her fellow poet Adrienne Rich called her suicide a feminist issue, suggesting that ‘poetry is a guide to the ruins, from which we learn what women have lived and what we must refuse to live any longer. Her death is an arrest: In its moment we have all been held, momentarily, in the grip of a policeman who tells us we are guilty of being female, and powerless.’ Powerless is what women have mostly felt throughout history.

Of course, it hasn’t only been writers who have killed themselves. Invisible, everyday woman with unwanted pregnancies and abusive partners, those who face homelessness have been pushed to the brink to take their own lives. Even the brilliant, the rich and the beautiful have often not been helped by a patriarchal psychiatric institution. Marylin Monroe, Margaux Hemingway and Jean Seaberg – ‘successful’ women – did not feel good enough behind their gilded masks to live up to the expectations of ‘perfection’ in a male-dominated society. According to the writer and physician, Phillis Chester, in her book Women and Madness, 1972, these judgements amounted to ‘a form of psychiatric imperialism’. No diagnostic categories existed for male sex predators or paedophiles. As Donald Trump still likes to exemplify: ‘boys will be boys’ so that grabbing a woman by the ‘pussy’ is normalised as laddish rather than gross pathological behaviour.

As the late 20th century continued, feminists such as Suzy Orbach and Kim Chernin saw much of women’s distress through a prism of eating disorders. In contrast, 21st-century social media has exacerbated the demands on young girls to be thin, seductive and sexy, even before they reach puberty. Facebook is more likely to encourage them to change their bodies than to change the world. Bullied, often to the point of despair, many teenage girls have been shamed into ending their lives.

Whilst the subject of women and ‘madness’ has been dealt with extensively in literature, it has been less visited in the visual arts. In the early 2000s, Rachel Howard made a hard-hitting series of Indian ink drawings. Trawling through the internet, forensic magazines and sites dealing with suicide, she found that women used a variety of methods: rope, scissors, a ladder. In one of her drawings, an anonymous victim lies draped across a bed in a lonely room after an implied overdose, recalling the erotic violence of Walter Sickert. In another of her most potent images, a faceless, silhouetted figure hangs lifeless as a doll, from a noose. In her anonymity, she has become a universal signifier of the inner despair felt by so many women who never actually go on to commit suicide. Slumped against a bleak background, she’s drained of individuality. On the verge of slipping from the picture frame and reminding us that we, too, will soon put her out of sight and out of mind as one of society’s discards. Any minute she will disappear, to become no more than a footnote, a smudged trace like the irradiated victims of Hiroshima. Howard’s stark black ink lines bleed into the paper losing their figurative distinction like an act of self-erasure.

Culture has always maintained the illusion of the sacred female over the profane and ‘the purity of the categories that define sexuality as ‘normal’ as opposed to ‘deviant’. Yet Rachel Howard does not shy away from the eroticism of violence, its beauty, fetishism and erotomania. In her raw, quickly executed calligraphic marks, she poses questions about what it means to be human. To think, feel, desire, and what it takes for the psyche to breakdown and reach a point where, as T.S Eliot says: ‘Humankind cannot bear too much reality’.

In Suicide and the Soul, James Hillman writes that: ‘we are…ultimately what we become, what we are in death. In one sense, death is more real than birth in that all beginnings are behind us.’ Besides being an object, the body is also the site and container of our experience and internal sense of reality. It is this that Rachel Howard’s fiercely simple drawings subtly reveal. The body as memory, the body as our individual story and the complexity behind the despairing act of suicide that, even nearly twenty years after her first investigations, remains largely a heart-breaking taboo.

Top Photo: P C Robinson © Artlyst 2020

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Peter Doig: White Canoe 1990/1
Significant Works

Peter Doig: White Canoe 1990/1: According to the critic Harold Rosenberg, writing in 1952: ‘At a certain moment, the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act…What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event’. In 1987 Michel Leiris suggested that the canvas was ‘a theatre of operations for the assertion of certain values’ rather than simply a pleasing picture. Cy Twombly, Jackson Pollock et al, spilt their pent-up energy in ribbons and ejaculations of frantic paint. When finished, their bravura traces left something of their essential selves behind like a stained bedsheet after a night of passion. But for those growing up in the 70s and 80s, Modernist abstraction began to seem suggestive of bourgeois idealism and macho mystification. According to Frederic Jameson a new mood – Postmodernism – could be identified by works that ‘abjure all pretence to spontaneity and directness of expression, making use instead of forms of pastiche and discontinuity’ (my italics.)

Peter Doig is widely considered one of the most renowned contemporary figurative painters of his generation

As the pendulum swung away from raw emotional revelation, many began to see the efforts of conceptualists, in the line of Du Champs, as ‘works of art’ that carried greater weight than painting. Rugged individualism in both economic and social affairs had become synonymous with the expression of an ‘unrestrained self’ that dominated culture. In reaction, artists such as Mary Kelly, Jenny Holzer and Damien Hirst favoured soiled nappies, graffiti, neon and sharks, over the autobiographical possibilities of paint. Again and again, painting – especially expressive painting – was declared dead. Postmodernism insisted that the goal of ‘originality’ so beloved by Modernism was a form of idealisation. That in so far as it had any meaning, it only did so because of its relationship to other voices. From the Enlightenment on there’d been a belief that art and science might, in some way, lead to moral progress, justice and human happiness, but the late twentieth century was to shatter such optimism. The aesthetic of Modernism was one of nostalgia and the sublime. In contrast, Postmodernism presented the unpresentable as a representation of itself.

Peter Doig White Canoe 1990/1

Eclectic, appropriating and promiscuous its only aim was to express itself in the now, picking up whatever it fancied from art history like a magpie collecting shiny bits and pieces.

Born in Scotland and raised in Trinidad and Canada, Peter Doig is widely considered one of the most renowned contemporary figurative painters of his generation. In 1991 he was awarded the Whitechapel Artist Prize followed by a solo exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery. In 2007 his ‘White Canoe’ was sold at Sotheby’s for 11.3 million dollars, setting a record for a living artist. Doig, perhaps, more than any other painter of his generation has reclaimed painting in this fractured postmodern age.

Drawing on personal reminiscences and found images he has explored the slippage between reality, imagination and memory. The material properties of paint and the expressive possibilities of colour have been used to conjure the opaque, inarticulate sensation of remembering. Maintaining a thin line between abstraction, landscape and the figure, he’s appropriated photographic imagery to suggest remembrances that are both real and imagined. The photos he chooses aren’t he says ‘ always that interesting or distinguished. That’s deliberate – I like the fact they’re bland: they leave a lot of space for invention. Painting is about working your way across the surface, getting lost in it…’.

Among his most iconic and haunting paintings is White Canoe 1990/1, part of the series of ‘canoe’ paintings begun after leaving Chelsea School of Art in the early 1990s. While these works might, at first glance, appear to be of traditional subjects, a closer look reveals the diverse influences that have gone into their making. Not only film and photography drawn from popular culture, but the memories of a rural Canadian childhood. For all its seeming nostalgia and romanticism this isn’t a painting made lovingly en plein air in order to capture the inchoate within nature. Rather, it’s a self-conscious construct based on a still taken from the 1980s film Friday the 13tth that shows Camp Crystal Lake at the end of a terrifying 24-hour emotional ordeal.

The canvas contains a single white canoe. Floating on tranquil moon-lit water, it seems to be carrying a single unidentifiable figure. It might be the Lady of Shalott, Ophelia or even a Viking hero. The scene is a magical and mysterious tapestry of paint and would be easy to read through a romantic, pre-Raphaelite lens, as a work that speaks of the isolation and loneliness of the individual. But look more closely and it’s a masterclass in postmodern painting. Here landscape – a traditional subject explored by the romantics as a way of accessing the ‘sublime’ – has been used to demonstrate a knowing understanding of the physical nature of paint. The reading is dependent on the viewer understanding the intended irony of the juxtaposition between the appropriation of an image from an American cult horror movie and the apparent tranquillity of a romantic image – a reflection on water.

Thus the painting isn’t an existential discussion about isolation but rather one that explores the works’ process of making and the viewer’s role in looking at it. The myriad reflections distort our understanding to create a dreamlike world in which we’re unable to arrive at a definitive meaning, as in Velasquez Las Meninas. In true Postmodern style, Doig plunders art history, including such diverse sources as Monet’s waterlilies, Pollock’s mark-making, and Richter’s own photographic appropriations. The ripples and stitches of paint, the veiled layers and splotches of impasto speak not of a lost human psyche but of the nature of painting in the 21st century: the limitations of a flat canvas and the immutability of paint. This, then, is less a painting that addresses the heart but one that knowingly speaks to the eye and the mind, reminding us of the seams of understanding from both the artist’s craft and the history of painting that have gone into its making.

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Kara Walker: Fons Americanus 2019 – Significant Works

Kara Walker Fons Americanus: In this new series, Art Critic, Poet and Novelist Sue Hubbard discusses seminal contemporary artworks.

History moves fast. A great deal has changed since the American artist Kara Walker’s Hyundai Commission Fons Americanus was first shown in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall back in October 2019. The world has been hit by a killer pandemic unprecedented since 1918. Art galleries, theatres and cultural venues have been closed. The world economy is in freefall, and a black man has been brutally killed by the American police (not, sadly, a usual event in itself) but this time captured on video for all the world to see and shared on a thousand Twitter feeds and FB pages. No one can claim they didn’t know; that it was a Communist plot against white America or an accident. It was murder. Homegrown white on black American murder.

Fons Americanus becomes a focus for reflection. A place where we can consider the ongoing legacy of xenophobia and economic corruption

Kara Walker: Fons Americanus Photo: P C Robinson © Artlyst 2020

And the result? Well, it’s hard to know whether this will finally be the turning point for black rights, along with an admission by the west as to just how much of its wealth is dependent on the legacy of slavery. It is difficult to know whether the Black Lives Matter campaign, and the ensuing spate of iconoclasm – including throwing the 1895 bronze statue of slave-trader and Member of Parliament, Edward Coulston, into Bristol harbour, has changed how we view history. Will we now read memorials differently? Should they all be removed? Coulston was a philanthropist as well as a slave-trader, but sadly the statue only commemorated the former fact, not the unpalatable truth as to how he acquired his ill-gotten gains. Will the pulling down of such ‘undesirable’ memorials lead us to be more truthful in our analysis of history from now on? Will imperialist veils be pulled back to reveal the many ugly truths that have been buried about our past for too long? Or will such acts simply contribute to a further whitewashing and erasure of history, as has been suggested by the Nigerian-British historian David Olusoga?

When the doors of Tate Modern are re-opened, Kara Walker’s sculpture will resonate with an added frisson because of recent events. It will, no longer, be ‘just’ a comment on ‘history’, a worthy academic analysis of the ‘past’, but an artwork that forces us to accept that racism remains endemic, not merely the heinous crime of a crumbled empire. That it belongs to now, not just to then and, is, therefore, all of our responsibility.

Before the killing of George Floyd and the toppling Coulston, Walker’s work could be read as a clever contemporary comment on imperialism and slavery. A postmodern pastiche on the Victoria Memorial that stands confidently outside of Buckingham Palace and, a nod to the pomposity and sense of entitlement of the Albert Memorial and the many, now, unknown generals riding high around the city on their tall plinths. Walker has claimed that her work functions as a one-person version of the 19th century World Exposition. These glorified trade fairs, filled with works of art, exotic zoological gardens, and the latest scientific wonders, told the approved story about the economic might of Empires and their colonised subjects. The four-tiered fountain explores, with both wit and poignancy, how we have chosen to create historic narratives through stereotypes of race and gender.

Water becomes a binding theme: oceans, waves, journeys from Africa to Liverpool, from Bristol to America, in which millions of Africans were forcibly transported to the New World. Thousands of men, women and children died in this exchange known as the Middle Passage. Ships departed from Europe for African markets with our manufactured goods that were traded for kidnapped Africans. Flesh became a commodity. Lives were turned into objects of commercial exchange.

A black woman stands three meters above the gallery floor spouting jets of water from her mouth and breasts into the shallow shell-like basins bellow. The empire, it’s implied, was literally fed by the milk and blood of those it enslaved. Below are a cast of characters, caricatures of black pop culture and images of blackness borrowed from the 19th and 20th centuries. There are echoes of Turner, and the 24 Negro Melodies composed by the English mixed-race composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, whose father came from Sierra Leone. So many are implicated as beneficiaries of the slave trade in this story of coercion, cruelty, economic manipulation, murder, rape, and ecological destruction.

Kara Walker unpacks the stories we tell ourselves about the past in order to feel good about who we are to see ourselves as heroes rather than villains. Fons Americanus becomes a focus for reflection. A place where we can consider the ongoing legacy of xenophobia and economic corruption that still remains embedded in our modern world. It also, implicitly, suggests an alternative to the destruction of historic monuments; the creation of new more truthful ones that shed light on different, more educated versions of the past.

Art can’t change the world, as George Steiner made clear in his essay: To Civilise Our Gentleman. The Nazis were made no less bestial because they butchered Jews by day and wept over Rilke at night or were moved by concerts given by the inmates of Theresienstadt who the next day would disappear up the chimneys as ash. Picasso’s Guernica didn’t stop the bombing of the Basque city of that name, or Goya’s Disasters of War change the course of the Peninsular War. Neither did John Singer Sargent’s painting depicting the line of wounded soldiers shuffling towards a dressing station after a mustard attack during the First World War, save the lives of young men sent like donkeys to the front. And yet? Such works mirror ourselves back to ourselves, not as we might like to see ourselves, but as we actually are.

Words: Sue Hubbard Photos Photo: P C Robinson © Artlyst 2020

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