Review of 58th Venice Biennale

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

48 War Movies by Christian Marclay

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

I Have Child’s Feet by Mari Katayama

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

For, In Your Tongue I Cannot Fit by Shilpa Gupta

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

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

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

Frank Bowling
In The Presence Of A Significant Painter

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Art Criticism

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

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

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

Frank Bowling: Installation Tate Britain, Level 2 Gallery

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

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

Frank Bowling: Installation Tate Britain, Level 2 Gallery

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

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

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

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

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

Cathy Wilkes
Resurrecting The Forgotten British Pavilion
Venice Biennale

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Art Criticism

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

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

Cathy Wilkes – British Pavilion Venice

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

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

Cathy Wilkes – British Pavilion Venice

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

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

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

Cathy Wilkes – British Pavilion Venice

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

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

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

Chantal Joffe
Her Own Sense Of Being

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Art Criticism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crash Goes The American Dream c1930
RA Unveil Timely Painting Exhibition

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Art Criticism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Baldessari: Miro and Life in General

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Marian Goodman Gallery, London until 25th February 2017.

James Ensor
Royal Academy of Art, London

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

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

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

From the first we are drawn into a series of gloomy drawing rooms filled with heavy mahogany furniture and dark fabrics, the sort of domestic interiors made familiar by the paintings of Vuillard and Sickert. In The Bourgeois Salon, 1880, a woman stands by a draped table in front of a marble fireplace, her face obliterated. On the mantelpiece is an ormolu mirror, a heavy marble carriage clock and a pair of porcelain urns. Dressed in a rust jacket and black skirt she seems to be dissolving into the heavy impasto, as if being swallowed by the claustrophobic patterning of the room. We might be looking at a Belgium Hedda Gabler trapped by the conventions of polite middle-class society. This, like the wonderful Afternoon in Ostend, 1881, in which two women sit in the very same room weighed down with ennui, implies a strong critique of the society in which Ensor lived.

Little is known of Ensor’s private life. He barely left Ostend, lived largely with his mother and sister and never married. A photo taken by an unknown photographer in 1895 shows him painting in the studio at the top of his parents’ house at a stage when you might well have expected him to have struck out on his own. Much of his life was spent caring for his widowed mother, his aunt, and his divorced sister and her child. The intense self portrait of 1883, with full red beard, dressed in a woman’s sun bonnet decorated with a long feather, might be a bit of playful acting but his near contemporary, Freud, could have had a field day analysing his relationship to women.

Ensor’s body of work is eclectic. A superb draftsman, as is obvious from in his many drawings, including the portrait of his aunt and the holly tree in his garden, he also painted still lives of the rich domestic landscapes he inhabited. A table packed with vegetables and a bunch of freshly picked rhubarb or the underside of a fleshy skate illustrate his sensual relationship to these subjects.

Ensor’s focus was chiefly on drawing and etching where his idiosyncratic language shows the influence of artists as diverse as Odiline Redon, Goya, Bruegal and Houkasi. Also a gifted cartoonist, he displays a lampooning wit worthy of James Gillray in his Seven Deadly Sins and Les Mauvais Medécins. A miscreant cast of strange winged fish and flying monsters in his etching Devils Thrashing Angels and Archangels undoubtedly pays homage to Breughel. But the biggest crowd, on my visit, was gathered around the black and coloured pencil drawing, The Baths of Ostend where, in front of bathing huts, boys French kiss, people fart and a couple of poodles copulate in the chaos of small figures. But it’s his stranger works that give him his unique visual voice.

Not only did he devote himself to depicting qualities of light, line and colour but he was intrigued by the grotesque and the macabre, as suggested by the masks and costumes of the carnival at Binche. Often he portrayed himself as a skeleton, hinting at what was transgressive, dark and other. It’s no coincidence that later Picasso would go on to plunder the ethnographic departments of museums in order to appropriate African masks to give his work a ‘savage’ authenticity. As in Freud’s writings there’s something ambivalent in Ensor’s relationship between the ‘primitive’ and the ‘civilised’, which so exercised the fin de siècle mind. Belgium, under King Leopold II, was, after all, one of the most vicious colonial powers of the late 19th century. The notorious Kurtz, in Joseph Conrad’s seminal Heart of Darkness mounts, in an act of extreme depravity and a terrifying demonstration of power, skulls on staves in a jungle clearing of the Belgium Congo.

So much of what went on at the end of the 19th century in bourgeois society was about keeping up appearances and covering things up that the mask became a metaphor for this with its illusions to the primitive, the chthonic, the deviant, the veiled and the hidden. The exhibition takes its name from the painting The Intrigue of 1890, which depicts a Mardi Gras carnival. Here masked figures can anonymously indulge in licentious and transgressive behaviour. Gradually Ensor’s studio was to become a theatrical space in which he played out his imaginary dramas that were part social commentary and part a mining of the Freudian subconscious.

It was The Intrigue that as a youngster of 16 Luc Tuymans, saw in the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Hunsten in Antwerp and which sparked his interest in the Ensor. This is certainly a valuable reappraisal of Ensor’s work but little is added to our understanding of this intriguing painter by the inclusion of a few carnival masks, a feathered headdress and a smattering of Tuyman’s own work. It’s simply a distraction. Ensor is intriguing enough to stand on his own.


The Intrigue, 1890
Oil on canvas, 90 x 149 cm
Antwerp, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten
Photo KMSKA © – Art in Flanders vzw.
Photography: Hugo Maertens / © DACS 2016

The Skate, 1892
Oil on panel, 80 x 100 cm
Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels / photo: J. Geleyns – Ro scan
© DACS 2016In

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Hell in Arcadia
Stanley Spencer at The Hepworth

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

Stanley Spencer, Self-portrait By Gaslight Looking Downwards, 1949, oil on canvas
© The Estate of Stanley Spencer / Bridgeman Images

‘To be a great artist one must first be a natural everyday human being.’
Stanley Spencer in May 1915

Although Stanley Spencer attended the Slade School of Art where he was a prizewinning student among other gifted students who included Dora Car­rington, Mark Gertler, Paul Nash and David Bomberg, and though his tutor, Henry Tonks, claimed that he had the most original mind of any student he had taught, Spencer’s four years at the Slade were not, according to his biographer, Fiona MacCarthy, altogether happy:

He was marked out as a misfit by his physical appear­ance: his diminutiveness (he was only 5 feet 2 inches), his heavy fringe, and pudding-basin haircut. His aura of other-worldliness…enhanced by the fact that he commut­ed daily by train from Berkshire. He was known jeeringly as Cookham (a name given him by C.R.W. Nevinson) and terrified by being put upside-down in a sack.

Parochial, idiosyncratic and visionary, Spencer was a quintessentially Eng­lish painter, though his work looked back to Giotto and the Italian Primi­tives while, in his unflinching, flesh-revealing nudes, foreshadowed the confessional intimacy of Lucian Freud, as well as the mind- altering ‘spiri­tuality’ of the 1960s counter-culture.

But it was his beloved Cookham, the small village on the banks of the Thames in Berkshire where Spencer grew up and lived most of his life – ‘avillage in Heaven’ as he called it- that proved his major source of inspira­tion. With its red-brick houses, neat gardens and Wind in the Willows atmo­sphere it became the backcloth for his religious visions where lumpen pro­vincials re-enacted the Bible as fireside narratives in local churchyards and back gardens. The Betrayal, which takes place in Cookham High Street, behind the gardens of the two Spencer family homes, shows Peter raising his arm to the High Priest’s servant, while the disciples cower behind a wall like curious village gossips. These biblical scenes of neighbours and fellow villagers were a visual expression of Spencer’s unconventional Christian faith and the desire to make his eccentric feelings ‘an ordinary fact of the street.’

As with William Blake, whose mantle he in many ways adopted, life and art were seen as sacred and entwined. Like Blake he believed that the divine was to be found in the everyday and the ordinary; that the world could be seen in ‘a grain of sand, and…heaven in a wild flower’. Writing from Twe­seldon Camp, near Farnham in May 1916 where, during the First World War he served with the Royal Army Medical Corps (his puny physique prevented him from enlisting) he gave a clue to this philosophy:

I think there is something wonderful in hospital life… the act of doing things to men is wonderful. Now I am sweeping…now I am cleaning dishes…now I am polishing. There is such unity and yet variety in it. I think this feeling is in those things (bas reliefs) in the Giotto Campanile.

The world that shaped Stanley Spencer has long since disappeared and with it a certain kind of Englishness embedded in the comforting coherence of cosy village life. His local home-spun bohemianism was part of an ‘is there honey still for tea’ nursery innocence that saw Englishness as a sort of pre-lapsarian utopia that was dismantled by the horrors of the First World War. The eighth surviving child of William and Anna Caroline Spencer, Stanley’s father, affectionately known as Par, was a church organist and music teacher who gave lessons at home. The family villa, Fernlea, on Cookham High Street, was built by Stanley’s grandfather, Julius Spencer. His parents were what, today, we’d call ‘de-schoolers’, with reservations about the local council school. Unable to afford private fees they arranged for Stanley to be taught at home by his sisters. As a result his education was fairly patchy, a fact illustrated by the odd stream-of-consciousness prose that proliferates his copious letters. He and his brother Gilbert also took drawing lessons from a local artist, Dorothy Bailey. When Gilbert was, eventually, sent to a school in Maidenhead the family didn’t feel this would be right for Stanley, a solitary teenager given to long walks, with a passion for drawing. So Pa Spencer arranged with local landowners, Lord and Lady Boston, that he should spend time drawing each week with Lady Boston. In 1907, she arranged for him to attend Maidenhead Technical Institute. His father agreed, on condition that he did not sit any of the exams.

The exhibition at The Hepworth Wakefield celebrates the 125th anniver­sary of Spencer’s birth and brings together more than seventy significant works spanning a forty-five year career. One of the highlights is the number of rarely seen self-portraits where the fresh-faced boy can be seen slowly transmuting into the bespectacled eccentric of popular myth. Presented thematically the richly detailed paintings reveal the apparent conflicts be­tween Spencer’s slightly off-the-wall religious beliefs and his sexuality, his relationship to nature and his passion for the domestic. Biblical allegories filled with bulbous figures with big bosoms and ample thighs that echo Georg Grosz or Otto Dix’s caricatures (but without their satire) are shown alongside evocative pastoral landscapes and studies of shipbuilding on the Clyde, executed while Spencer was a war artist at the Kingston shipyard Port Glasgow, in which he celebrates and mythologises the dignity and heroism of work.

Stanley Spencer, Self-Portrait, 1923, oil on canvas. Stanley Spencer Gallery Collection
© The Estate of Stanley Spencer / Bridgeman Images

The Resurrection was, for Spencer a reoccurring theme. After his first solo exhibition at the Goupil Gallery in 1927 The Times art critic wrote ‘What makes it so astonishing is the combination…of careful detail with the mod­ern freedom of form. It is as if a Pre-Raphaelite had shaken hands with a Cubist.’ Spencer repeatedly referred to the war as his inspiration for these paintings: ‘I had buried so many people and saw so many dead bodies that I felt that death could not be the end of everything.’ This melding of lived experience with biblical story telling is there, also, in his 1912 The Nativ­ity, inspired by his walks at Cliveden ‘along the path skirting Sir George Young’s fisheries’ with its deep grass and bent garden trellis, while a Cookham malt house provided the setting for the elongated figures of The Last Supper, seated around a U–shaped table, their legs and big bare feet poking beneath the white cloth. Started before the war, Spencer added the legs on his return. A detail with which he was particularly pleased. While Sarah Tubbs and the Heavenly Visitors, is based on a story told to him by his father. In 1910 the tail of Halley’s Comet created an exceptional sunset that caused old ‘Granny’ Tubb to fear that the end of the world was neigh, so that she knelt by her gate in the High Street to pray. Spencer’s painting shows her comforted by ‘heavenly visitors’ who present her with cherished items including a papier mâché text and a postcard of Cookham Church held by Stanley’s cousin Annie Slack, who worked in the village shop. Spencer claimed, rather mysteriously, that the fact he was now ‘sexually conscious added and increased the illusion.’

On his home-coming from Macedonia with the Berkshire Infantry he drew up plans to create a memorial chapel based on his war experiences and in 1919 met the artist Hilda Carline, with whom he settled in Cookham and had two children. But the marriage was sexually fraught, affected, perhaps, by Carline’s Christian Science beliefs and in the 1930s he began to pursue fellow artist, Patricia Preece, a lesbian who lived in the village with her partner Dorothy Hepworth. Naively Spencer wanted to be married to both Carline and Preece.

Although this exhibition is missing the infamous Double Nude Portrait: The Artist and his Second Wife of 1937 (often known as The Leg of Mut­ton), his 1935 Nude shows what he described as ‘the passionate intensity and meaning in her [Preece’s] loveliness’, and highlights the peculiarly sa­domasochistic flavour of their relationship. With her cold blue eyes, white skin and pendulous breasts, her pert mouth and look of disdain towards the artist, there can be little surprise that she left him to return to Dorothy.

Was Spencer simply a Holy Fool, a quirky Edwardian eccentric who went on painting his beloved Cookham until his death in 1959 – well into the age of rock n’roll, Jackson Pollock and Pop art – out of touch with the modern world? A man unable to move on beyond the consolations of childhood? ‘Mentally,’ he wrote, when in his forties, ‘I have been bedridden all my life,’ and ‘I wish all my life I could have been tied to my mother’s apron strings. It would have suited me, mostly in the kitchen or the bedroom…a long talk and plenty of cups of tea.’

Love for Spencer was a melding of the sexual and the domestic. Not for him the great romances of Troilus and Cressida or Abelard and Heloise. ‘The joy of this eternal home-coming,’ as he described the erotic, was de­picted in his archetypal lovers – the dustman and his wife – where the in­fantilised dustman is carried Pietà-like in his wife’s strong maternal arms. A teapot, an empty jam jar, and some cabbage stalks all provide an esoteric link to the mystery of the Trinity. ‘Nothing I love is rubbish,’ he said. ‘I am on the side of the angels and dirt.’

Although Spencer’s language is original and uniquely idiosyncratic it chimes with the mood of the English religious revival of the interwar years explored by Graham Sutherland and Eric Gill, by Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson in their Christian Science, and in Tom Eliot’s poetic flir­tations with high Anglicanism and Buddhism. Heaven, for Spencer, was always the village of Cookham, a sort of nursery limbo for his Peter Panish character. Yet despite his claim that ‘Sorrow and sadness is not for me’ there is a deep dysfunctional loneliness and existential alienation within his paintings. Looking at the crowds gathered on The Hill of Zion or escaping from their tombs in the Resurrection of the Good and the Bad it’s hard to decide whether his cast of characters have found their way to an eternal paradise in Berkshire or some Cookham version of Dante’s circles of hell.

Published in London Magazine

Alice Maher
Purdy Hicks, London

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

Ideas of shape-shifting are ancient. The possibility that a person can take the form of another being – usually an animal – can be traced back thousands of years, across diverse cultures, continents and religions. Shape-shifting appears in fairy tales and myths. In stories from Greek mythology, Zeus transformed into a swan, a bull, and an ant. The myths of the ancient Egyptians depicted gods with animal heads, such as Horus and the dog-headed Anubis, while those of the Norsemen showed the mischievous god Loki change into a giant and a woman, as well as various bestial forms.

Some of the earliest depictions of shape-shifting come from the Cave of the Trois-Frères, in southern France, where many believe that the drawings indicate a shamanic belief in the ritual of transformation. In later Christianity shape-shifting became a metaphor for the merely human to metamorphose into the divine. In the Mass bread and wine are miraculously transformed into the body of Christ.

The Irish artist, Alice Maher, has always flirted with notions of transformation in its many guises. In a series of autobiographical photographs in which she used herself as a model, she covered her face with a mask of snail shells, wore a necklace of lambs’ tongues, and covered her body and arms with birds’ wings and moss. These powerful images spoke of the slippage between the feminine and the chthonic, between nature and nurture, the sensual, the profane and the divine. Working with a diverse range of materials she has, in the past, created installations, drawings, sculptures and photographs.

Now, in a series of meticulously rendered watercolours, The Glorious Maid of the Charnel House, she continues to investigate the theme of metamorphosis, a world where the female body shifts between what is recognisably human to embrace elements of flora and fauna, as well as subvert notions of what is internal and external, what can be revealed and what must remain secret.

In the title work of her show – the inaugural exhibition in Purdy Hicks new South Kensington space – a delicately painted, rosy pre-pubescent girl stands barefoot and naked, her Medusa-like locks cascading in long tresses around her vulnerable body. Only this is not hair but a spill of visceral guts, fleshy and tumbling from her head, filled with what appear to be lumps of dark green faecal matter or, at least, something highly toxic. In countries where ground suitable for burial was scarce, corpses were interred following death to allow decomposition to occur. The remains, once stripped bare of flesh, would then be exhumed and moved to an ossuary or ‘charnel house’, allowing the original burial place to be reused. After a recent brush with cancer Alice Maher’s Charnel House works reveal not only a preoccupation with the corporeal transformations that occur with illness and death – from sentient body to a handful of bones – but also a fascination with our contemporary discomfort with the abject, with decay and deterioration. In these images the body sprouts alien protuberances, transforming what is familiar and healthy into something surreal and alien. Complex and painful emotions mutate to become visible and take on a physical form, so that what is normally hidden and taboo is revealed.

Elsewhere a girl has been part turned into a hind (perhaps by a spell?); while a naked woman with Japanese-like, witchy hair, crouches beneath the weight of a heart, strapped to her back like a giant ruck-sack. But this heart is not some romantic symbol but a fleshy object that’s been ripped from the body, as indicated by the severed arteries. The theme of Sisyphusian effort is further explored in the disquieting, Burden, where another woman carries a half-human, half-ossified load strapped to her back like an inverted doppelganger. Another figure sits with her back to the viewer, her naked torso covered with red eyes. Part wounds – or perhaps the resulting of some sort of homeopathic process such as ‘cupping’ – and part talisman (to protect against the evil eye), some have slipped from her back to gather on the ground like rose petals or dried pox scabs.

Other figures erupt in rivers of tears, in leafy fountains that pour from their guts. One, ceaselessly, bangs her head against a tower of bricks, while in the large charcoal and chalk work, Matrix, a woman sports an extravagant serpentine headdress fashioned from intestines into a Gordian knot. It’s as if there’s no room in her body for this burgeoning growth, which has been forced to extrude unnaturally through her head. In another scene a girl lies beneath a monstrous fury dog. Its presence is threatening and nightmarish, recalling the incubus in the 1781 oil painting The Nightmare by Anglo-Swiss artist Henry Fuseli.

Before making this series of work Alice Maher spent time looking at classical medical texts, the sort that show stylised drawings of women holding open their stomachs to reveal the structure of the uterus beneath the skin. This 19th century flavour permeates The Sick Rose, (the title, of course, is from Blake) where coral-like branches protrude from the ears of the female head in an imitation of fashionable Victorian curls.

The Maids of the title also cannot but fail to trigger thoughts of Genet’s 1947 famously transgressive play, where metamorphosis and transformation resonate throughout. In a luxurious bedroom, two French maids fantasise about killing their mistress, playing out dangerous and sadistic scenarios as they plan her violent death and try out different roles. Not for the faint-hearted, the play, as with Alice Maher’s paintings, is full of blood symbolism and explores the corruption of both body and psyche though the transformative power of the imagination. Whilst there is no suggestion of murderous thoughts in Maher’s work, there is, nevertheless, a sense of the grotesque, of a spectacle where borders are transgressed.

The subtly of Alice Maher’s work lies not only in its flawless execution but in her ability to weave narratives of personal trauma with references from fairy tale, psychoanalysis, anthropological myth and the history of botanical illustration. Her hybrid half-beings invoke the monstrous figures of Hieronymus Bosch, as well as the surreal transformations of Leanora Carrington and Max Ernst. Apparently quiet and rather beautiful these small watercolours celebrate not only the sacred and the profane but female anarchy, ambiguity, creativity and power.


Courtesy of Purdy Hicks Gallery:
Self 2015 watercolour Alice Maher
The Great Falls 2015 watercolour Alice Maher
The Sick Rose 2015 watercolour Alice Maher

Until 15th October 2016.

Published in London Magazine

Mark Wallinger, Self Reflection
Freud Museum, London

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.
Whatever I see I swallow immediately
Mirror —Sylvia Plath

Like many good ideas it is deceptively simple. The artist Mark Wallinger has installed a large mirror across the ceiling of Sigmund Freud’s iconic study in Maresfield Gardens. The effect is dramatic. Immediately the space is doubled, turned inside out so that top and bottom, reflection and reality all become blurred. What is real suddenly seems like an illusion. Everything is destabilised – the famous couch, the archaeological figurines and artefacts arranged on Freud’s desk, the leather books and densely patterned Turkish rugs. It is disorientating. Are we looking at an actual object or its doppelganger? With its heavy red velvet curtains and oriental drapes the room surrounds us like a womb and the couch, with its comfortable Persian cushions, and Freud’s chair at the head where he would have sat out of sight of his analysand, invites us to lie down and rehearse our infantile fantasies and dreams. As we look up we catch sight of our own small, isolated reflection peering into this complex double space.

The mirror has been used throughout art history as a metaphor for both revelation and philosophical conundrum. Some of the oldest drawings found on temple walls and papyrus scrolls depict images of Egyptian Neters gazing into hand-held Mirrors. In Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas, one of the world’s most enigmatic paintings, the artist melds the fabric of reality and the illusion of identity in a game of mirrors. While in his Rokey Venus, the goddess of Love, the most beautiful of all the goddesses, is shown lying languidly on a bed, as her son Cupid holds up a mirror – in an act that is at once both narcissistic and Oedipal. As Venus looks both at herself and the viewer the borders between self and other disintegrate.

Metaphors of doubling and reflection also abound in literature from Robert Louis Stephenson’s the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, to Sylvia Plath’s greedy annihilating mirror. While Jorge Luis Borges was terrified of mirrors as a child and remained afraid of their capacity for infinite regression that led to the “distortion of one’s own image.” The mirror is there, too, in therapeutic literature, philosophy and psychoanalytical texts. The implication being that the reflected image, either real or imaginary, helps to provide an insight within a clinical context. In Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979), Rorty wrote: “It is pictures rather than propositions, metaphors rather than statements that determine most of our philosophical convictions. The picture that holds traditional philosophy captive is that of the mind as a great mirror containing various representations – some accurate, some not – and capable of being studied by pure non empirical methods.” For Haglund (1996), “Part of the power of the mirror metaphor is that the single image captures many aspects of human development and human experience”. Shengold (1974) believed that the mirror was a metaphor for the mind, which reflected the image of self and others, while Pines (1984) described mirroring in group psychoanalysis as a process of objective self-reflection[1]. In western philosophies the psyche tends to be regarded as a mirror of reality, while in Buddhism, it’s the world that mirrors back who we are.

With its reflective polished surface the mirror provides us with an unique experience. Before its invention humans had no way of knowing what they looked like, no real sense of their individual identity, beyond the occasional distorted glimpse in a still pool of water. With the ‘invention’ of the mirror came the sense of individuation. We perceive our image as if we are “somebody else”, someone who can observe and judge us. But the image isn’t someone else (it’s our own). Yet it’s also another (for how can we be in two places at once?). Like Peter Pan’s shadow we are inextricably linked to our reflections.

With his mirrored ceiling Mark Wallinger has embodied something of the fluidity of the mind that is capable of slipping between external reality and internalised fantasy. As we plunge into its depths we move from the rational controlling super-ego, though the considering ego to the chthonic, elemental id. Yet nothing is stable. All can be changed by the dark cast of a shadow or a sudden ray of sunlight from the garden door that offers an escape into an alternative, external domain. And beyond the door, outside in the garden, visible behind Freud’s desk, sits the sculpture Self, based on the letter ‘I’ like a statement of self-hood and identity.

The development of identity was addressed by Erik Erikson (1902–1994) in his theory of psychosocial development. He saw an individual’s self-definition as residing in enduring characteristics of the self that included morals and ethics and saw the healthy ego as evolving through a process of self-discovery. For him this evolvolution of the ego identity takes place through stages of emotional and social development. At each stage the psychology of an individual interacts with the given social context in a challenge that brings about either a healthy resolution or an unhealthy, neurotic alternative.

Mark Wallinger is one of our most interesting and thoughtful contemporary artists around at the moment. Nominated for the Turner prize in 1995, he won in 2007 with his installation State of Britain, a dramatic re-creation of peace campaigner Brian Haw’s Parliament Square protest against the Iraq war. This consisted of a reconstruction of over 600 weathered banners, peace flags, photographs and messages from supporters, which Haw amassed over the five years he managed to occupy Parliament Square until, on 23 May 2006, following the passing by Parliament of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act prohibiting unauthorised demonstrations within a one kilometre radius of Parliament Square, his protest was removed. Now to celebrate the Freud Museum London’s 20th anniversary and the 160th anniversary of Sigmund Freud he has created this thoughtful iconic work of spare beauty and real depth. It is a fitting tribute.


Freud Museum, 20 Maresfield Gardens, London, NW3 5SX until 25th September 2016

Photographic Credits:
Freud Museum London: Karolina Urbaniak
Self Reflection Mark Wallinger Freud Museum: Alex Delfanne

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Georgiana Houghton
Courtauld Gallery, London

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

“Wonderful scribble-scrabbles”

England, for the Victorians, was a very different place to the irreligious, multi-cultural country we have become. Then we believed ourselves to be a ‘great’ Empire that would, forever ‘rule the waves’. It was a society where the majority still believed that God created the world in seven days, yet one in the midst of huge technological change where rural communities were leaving the land to work in Blake’s ‘dark satanic mills’, powered by new-fangled machines that threatened their traditional way of life. Steam, speed and noise came to represent modernity. It was a time of social rigidity as well as social upheaval, where the rich man sat back comfortably in his castle, while the poor man doffed his cap obsequiously at the gate. Fuelled by privilege, hypocrisy and secrets – as was evident in the treatment of women and children and its hidden sexual practices – Victorian society had not yet seen Europe torn apart by two World Wars. Yet death was an ever-present threat. It hovered over childbirth and the lives of infants who might, at any moment, be snatched away by infectious disease.  That the Victorians were obsessed with death is, therefore, hardly surprising.

It’s against this backdrop, along with the loosening of the bonds of the Anglican Church, the shifts in intellectual thought and the new range of scientific innovations that spiritualism took hold. Séances and mediums became popular as a way of making contact with the departed.  It would be easy for us to mock spiritualism as a bit of irrational 19th century jiggery-pokery conducted by the unscrupulous, in darkened rooms swirling with miasmas, in order to extract money from the naive and malleable. But its popularity was more significant than that.  The 19th century developed an especial interest in animal magnetism, in madness and criminality, as well in an attempt to discern where the real self resided, exemplified in Robert Louis Stevenson’s celebrated novel, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The studies of Frederic W.H. Myers (1843-1901), the Cambridge scholar who founded the Society for Psychical Research were, in many ways, precursors to Freud’s later investigations into the unconscious. In his posthumously published Human Personality and the Survival of Bodily Death, Myers discussed ideas of creative genius with special reference to automatic drawing, which, he suggested, sprung from the ‘subliminal’ as opposed to the ‘supraliminal’ of normal consciousness.  Spiritual mediums used trance and automatism to tap into this psychic reservoir. According to Myer artistic inspiration came from a ‘subliminal uprush’ when combined with a ‘supraliminal stream of thought’ – an idea that would later be developed in the language of James Joyce and the art of Surrealists such as André Breton.

It is this milieu that produced Georgiana Houghton (1814-1884), a single woman from a respectable middle-class family who created some of the most extraordinary art of the mid-19th century, a body of rich, abstract, symbolic works that have largely been forgotten today which, in her own words, were “without parallel in the world”.

Born on 20th April 1814 in Las Palmas, on the Island of Grand Canary, the seventh child of George and Mary Houghton, her merchant father was to lose most of his money in a series of misconceived commercial ventures.  Georgiana trained as an artist but gave up art after the death of her beloved younger sister, Zilla Rosalia, which followed only a few years after the loss of her nine year old brother, Cecil Angelo. It was during this period of grieving that she met a neighbour, one Mrs Marshall, a well-known medium, and attended her first séance. The experience was a revelation and Houghton spent three months ‘training’ as a medium. Soon she was practicing ‘table-tipping’ and began to make a series of small free-hand images of ‘spiritual’ flowers and fruit, led by a diverse range of ‘spirit guides’. The first of these was a deaf and dumb artist called Henry Lenny. Later her guides would become more exalted and include Titian and Correggio. Whilst her early work has something of the feeling of Victorian botanical paintings the content is never realistic but always imagined. For Houghton all the colours and shapes had a symbolic meaning, one easily understood by spiritual beings but that for “dwellers upon earth” required interpreting.

Houghton soon became part of an inner circle of influential spiritual practitioners. Those who became involved ranged from dabblers to those exploring spiritualism’s scientific significance. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was an aficionado and Queen Victoria was said to have tried to contact her dead husband Albert through a medium. For many female mediumship was seen as springing from the fevered imagination of an unstable mind, whilst for others it was a sign of female intellectual independence.  Spiritualism appealed to suffragettes and bohemians alike, including Dante Gabriel Rossetti and J.M. Whistler. Like many 19th century mediums Houghton was keen to show that the practice was compatible with her Christian beliefs, which were influenced by the Swedish visionary Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) who claimed to be able to see the spiritual world directly.

After beginning, in 1862, her “Sunday evening pen and ink drawings” under the direction of her spirit guides, she went on to produce a series of richly patterned compositions in watercolour and gouache that the Daily News was to liken to “tangled threads of coloured wool”. Having no real art historical context her work was little understood. Yet her mesmerising lines, bold colours and fluid forms, always produced with the aid of a spirit guide, are extraordinary precursors to the abstract art produced in the 20th century by artists such as Kandinsky. The back of many of these works are covered with complex drawings and closely written notations that explain their spiritual provenance and echo the otherworldliness of William Blake’s visions. Houghton was to remain single all her life and, it might be suggested, in Freudian terms, that her work was produced as a result of sexual repression or hysteria, not dissimilar to the ‘organismic’ ecstatic visions experienced female Catholic saints.

In 1871 Houghton organised a large exhibition of 155 of her sprit works. This was received with a mixture of bafflement and hilarity and nearly broke her financially.  Though there were those who had a more appreciative insight into what she did. The writer Margaret Oliphant described them as “wonderful scribble-scrabbles”, while a member of the art group set up by Houghton, entitled ‘Sisters in Art’, described her work as “some of the most delicate, beautiful drawings ever done by a woman’s hand.”

Until this current exhibition at the Courtauld she’d largely been forgotten, her work not seen in this country for 150 years. Today less than fifty of works are known and the majority of these – for no documented reason – have ended up in the collection of the Victorian Spiritualists’ Union in Melbourne, Australia. An  album, with a few further examples, is held by the College of Psychic Studies in London and a single drawing is part of the ABCD collection, a private ‘art brut’ collection based in Paris, with a further three in private hands.

Although the Christian context in which she made her work is of much less relevance to us today, her fluid forms and mesmerising colours have close connections with the way 20th century artists developed the language of abstraction and also reverberate in the work of contemporary women artists such as Susan Hiller and Chiara Fumai.  Georgiana Houghton’s work is unlike anything normally associated with female Victorian art. These rich spiritual visualisations not only reveal something of the Victorian mind but show a radical spirit way ahead of her time. This is a very welcome exhibition, one that will bring this extraordinary aartist to a wider public.


Georgiana Houghton (1814-1884)
The Flower and Fruit of Henry Lenny
August 28th 1861
Watercolour on paper, 51 x 42 cm
Victorian Spiritualists’ Union, Melbourne, Australia

Georgiana Houghton (1814-1884)
Glory be to God c.1868
Watercolour on paper, 49 x 55 cm
Victorian Spiritualists’ Union, Melbourne, Australia

Georgiana Houghton (1814-1884)
The Eye of the Lord (reverse) c.1864
Victorian Spiritualists’ Union, Melbourne, Australia
(The inscription names Titian as Houghton’s spirit guide)

Portrait of Georgiana Houghton (1814-1884)
Courtesy of the College of Psychic Studies,London

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Tate Modern
the Switch House and Brexit

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

It seems a long time ago since the Tate Summer party to celebrate the opening of the new Switch House adjoining the original Bankside Power Station. It was a different world then. On the 16th June, the date of the party, we were still in Europe. The architects Herzog & de Meuron, who did the conversion, are a Swiss firm based in Basel. They have worked with Tate for 20 years, originally to transform Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s power station. Since Tate Modern opened in May 2000 it has had more than 40 million visitors, many of them from abroad, coming to sample the unique cultural pleasures of this multi-cultural city. As a result of Tate Modern’s presence the surrounding area of the South Bank that includes Shakespeare’s Globe, has turned from a web of grey streets into a buzzing cosmopolitan hub filled with street performers and food stalls selling cuisine from around the world. It’s become a must-see landmark. To walk across the Thames on Anthony Caro’s lightening-flash of a bridge, with its vistas along the river east and west, is to feel that you are at the centre of one of the most exciting global capitals of the world.

The night of the party – despite the inefficiency of the lifts and mounting queues – I went with friends up to the viewing platform on the 10th floor. The panorama is stunning. The city laid out below in 360-degrees with views of the Shard, Westminster Abbey, the Post Office Tower, Saint Paul’s Cathedral and, down river, Wembley Stadium. This is a building designed and built in hope and optimism. A cultural temple that firmly puts us at the epicentre of the artistic world: inclusive, challenging, forward looking. At the opening party the place was awash with the great and the good: royalty, journalists and international art stars. The sense of possibility and optimism was palpable.

Then, to look more closely at the new displays, I went back the day after the news broke that we were to about to leave the EU and suddenly all the optimism I’d felt seemed to belong to different age. The past, it’s said, is another country, where they do things differently. If we’d stayed in Europe I might have written about the building and the galleries in slightly different terms; certainly describing the interior of exposed raw concrete shooting up from the subterranean world of ‘The Tanks’, the sweeping concrete staircase and the perforated brickwork that allows for an extraordinary play of light, as sensational. But I might also have described it as bit hubristic and have suggested that the building often seems more dynamic than the art it contains. But now I haven’t the heart.

Now I just want to rejoice in what the new Tate represents, its multi-culturalism, its diversity, its passion. Seventy-five percent of the art on show has been acquired since Tate Modern first opened. All of it may not be excellent – time will tell. But in place of ‘the panorama of art history’ dominated by Western European and North American art, the collection now takes a broader view, sharing multiple histories that don’t just focus on the cannon of Western modernism. The displays mirror the shifts and changes of the contemporary world, the flux of movement and migration across continents. There are emerging artists from Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe who embrace diverse religions and cultures not always sympathetic each to the other. But art is a language with fluid and permeable borders. Alternative histories and local narratives are reappraised through the prism of international awareness. Ibrahim El-Salahi, for example, who was born in The Sudan and studied at the Slade School of Art before returning to Khartoum, draws on avant-garde painters such as Picasso, who, ironically, borrowed from African primitive art, as well as from Islamic calligraphy. There’s also a good deal of work reflecting the nature of the modern city. In Kader Attia’s Untitled (Ghardaï) 2009, his cooked couscous citadel set among digital prints examines the social impact of colonialism through architecture. While Nil Yalter, who was born in Cairo but raised in Paris, investigates the sociology of ethnicity, identity, migration and class in his work Temporary Dwellings that explored, over a three year period, the lives of immigrant communities in Istanbul, Paris and New York.

There’s also a new and important emphasis on women artists with a powerful display of Louise Bourgeois’ matriarchal spiders and body parts, cages and womb-red drawings, along with a wunderkammer of her psychoanalytic fetishistic sculptures.

Digital technologies are represented by the Bloomberg Connects initiative in an array of new interactive spaces. Video as well as live performance has been given special prominence. From Tania Bruguera’s police on horseback to Tino Sehgal’s gallery attendants bursting into song. I’ve never been much of a fan of Sehgal’s work, which seems to emphasise that live art, which grew out of the counterculture of the 1960s, feels contrived when orchistrated in an official art gallery as opposed to spontaneously in some scruffy downtown industrial space but people were stopping to watch.

Before Brexit, I might have been more nit-picky about the apparent thinness of some of the art in the new Switch House, which can look dwarfed and second best to the magnificence of the building. But, now, I simply want to endorse, in this rather bleak, xenophobic new Britain that we find ourselves in, the Tate’s commitment to tell stories about modern and contemporary life which range across diverse histories and communities and make connections between artists across time and place. A discussion of how significant some of that art will be in the future, I’ll leave to another day. For now, what’s clear is that we’ve never needed galleries such as the Tate as much as we do now. Institutions that look out towards the world and show art that is inclusive, diverse, challenging and original. To visit Tate Modern and its optimistic new extension is a life affirming experience, one that stands in contradiction to the paranoia and xenophobia that is in danger of engulfing us.

Image Credits:

Switch House, Tate Modern © Iwan Baan

Ricardo Basbaum Capsules (NBP x me-you), 2000 4 steel capsules, fabric, polystyrene foam, vinyl wall texts, booklets and audio 800 x 1810 x 2640 mm overall display dimensions variable Tate. Presented by the Latin American Acquisitions Committee 2004 © Ricardo Basbaum

BMW Tate Live: Alexandra Pirici & Manuel Pelmus, Public Collection

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

States of Mind
Wellcome Collection, London

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

States of Mind: Tracing the Edges of Consciousness, Wellcome Collection, London, until 16 October 2016

‘. . . the unconscious is the real psychic; its inner nature is just as unknown to us as the reality of the external world, and it is just as imperfectly reported to us through the data of consciousness as is the external world through the indications of our sensory organs.’
Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams

There’s a point in childhood when we all ask: ‘Who am I? What makes me, me and not someone else?’ From the infant to the philosopher the need to understand consciousness has remained, despite the advances of science, an abiding puzzle. What does it mean to be a sentient individual, to have a subjective life? Can our essence best be found in the insights of neuro- science or art, poetry, philosophy or, even, religion? Where does the real ‘us’ reside? In States of Mind: Tracing the Edges of Consciousness the Wellcome Institute has produced another intriguing exhibition that melds different disciplines to examine the discourses around conscious experi- ence. The implication is that one discipline alone cannot provide definitive insight into this universal mystery. As the curator Emily Sargent suggests: ‘Consciousness . . . is as magical as it is everyday. We all know what it is like to be conscious, but it remains a challenge to truly define it’.

The first of four sections, SCIENCE/SOUL, takes as its starting point the emergence of neuroscience. The concept of dualism, the separation of Mind and Body that coloured Enlightenment thinking was first, formally, conceived by René Descartes in the seventeenth century. The division be- tween the inanimate body and the conscious soul in the last moments of

The Soul hovering over the Body reluctantly parting with Life, Luigi Schiavonetti & William Blake, 1808, etching on paper, 18.6 cm x 22.4 cm

The Nightmare, Henry Fuseli, 1781 Oil on canvas, 102cm x 127 cm 79 © Trustees of the British Museum © Trustees of the British Museum

Labour of love: Vladimir Nabokov’s Alphabet in Colour © Wellcome Collection

life is graphically illustrated, here, in a print by Luigi Schiavonetti, after William Blake, of The Soul hovering over the Body reluctantly parting with Life. Placed next to a sixteenth-century Jain textile, which illustrates in its map-like construction that the eternal soul is central to Jainism, and to a 1662 image: View of Posterior of Brain showing pineal gland in situ – Descartes suggested, in his last published work of 1649, The Passions of the Soul: ‘That there is a small gland in the brain in which the soul exer- cises its functions more particularly than in other parts’ – we are presented with a range of possible locations as to the soul’s whereabouts. Alongside these seventeenth-century gems are the papers of Francis Crick who was working, until his death in 2004, on the ‘hard problem’ of how an objective brain can produce the subjective experience of consciousness. Surprisingly, for a modern scientist, his 1994 paper has the unconventional title: The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul.

For many in the nineteenth century the search for the soul was synonymous with spiritualism. The Gelatin Silver Prints of Louise Darget (1847-1923), a one-time professional soldier, show an interest in ‘spiritual’ photography. His strange ectoplasmic black and white photo of 1896, The Eagle, was obtained by placing a photographic plate above the forehead of Mrs Darget while she was asleep. The discovery of x-rays also encouraged attempts to capture unseen phenomena. But the beautifully observed, late nineteenth- century drawings that depict the intricate structures of the brain, executed with consummate skill by Santiago Ramón y Cajal, the founder of modern neuroscience, emphasise a parallel desire for objective fact-finding.

Synaesthesia, an experience where one sensation may trigger another, has been used by many artists. Kandinsky explored perception and sensation in his Über das Geistige in der Kunst, which made connections between looking at art and listening to music, while Vladimir Nabokov experienced letters as colours. This is explored by Jean Holabird in his 2005 series of watercolours, Nabokov’s Alphabet in Colour, where, apparently, ‘A French A evokes polished ebony’.

Somnambulism, mesmerism, and sleep paralysis were an abiding fin de siècle fascination. In 1830 Robert Macnish, a Scottish surgeon, defined sleep as the ‘intermediate state between life and death’ and the second sec- tion of the exhibition, SLEEP/AWAKE, includes archive material from the first trial where ‘insanity sleep’ was used as a successful defence. At the beginning of the twentieth century Freud’s ideas of the unconscious were becoming widespread and the inclusion of footage of the 1920 film The Cabinet of Dr Caligari follows the destiny of a man apparently compelled to commit murder whilst asleep. The experience of sleep paralysis, where sleepers are mentally awake but the body remains immobile, is reflected in art works as diverse as Henry Fuseli’s 1781 painting The Nightmare, with its suffocating incubus, and Carla MacKinnon’s evocative contemporary installation Squeezed by the Shadows, where the viewer is invited to peer into peep holes bored into a large cylinder to observe inchoate black shapes and marks. The alienating effect of being on the outside staring in only emphasises the feeling of observing something barely understood.

Alien abduction narratives have often been associated with sleep and re- lated, by psychologists, to false memory syndrome. Communion: A True Story, published in February 1987 by American ‘ufologist’ and horror au- thor Whitley Strieber, claimed that the author’s experience of ‘lost time’

Squeezed by the Shadows, 2013, Carla MacKinnon 82 © Wellcome Collection

Squeezed by the Shadows, 2013, Carla MacKinnon

and terrifying flashbacks were the result of an encounter with aliens. This, apparently, was revealed under hypnosis. There is something truly eerie about much of this section that includes disturbing nineteenth-century im- ages of mesmerism and Animal Magnetism being practiced on, largely, fe- male patients, who seem to be showing ‘predictable’ signs of ‘disinhibition’ and ‘hysteria’.

To imagine an individualised self without language and memory is well- nigh impossible and the third section includes extracts from Post-Partum Document, a six-year exploration of the mother-child relationship by the artist Mary Kelly first shown at the ICA in London in 1976. At the time the work provoked tabloid outrage because Documentation I dared to show soiled nappies. Each of the six-part series concentrates on a moment in Kelly’s son’s linguistic development and her own sense of loss, moving be- tween the voices of the mother, child, and observer. Informed by feminism and psychoanalysis, the work has had a lasting influence on the develop- ment of conceptual art. Here we see a series of black ‘tablets’ inscribed with both the child’s first attempts to form letters, alongside adult obser- vations. Beside this A. R. Hopwood’s False Memory Archive, previously shown at the Freud Museum, explores where the truth lies in a ‘false’ recol- 83 © Wellcome Collection 84 lection, while questioning how fact and fiction blend to challenge assump- tions about memory.

One of the most disturbing exhibits is by the so-called Binjamin Wilkomir- ski. Wilkomirski was the name adopted by Bruno Dössekker (born Bruno Grosjean in 1941) in order to construct a false identity as a Holocaust survi- vor. His fictional 1995 memoir, published in English as Fragments: Memo- ries of a Wartime Childhood, was debunked by Swiss journalist and writer Daniel Ganzfried in August 1998. The whole episode raised philosophical problems about authenticity, fact, fiction and imagination, posing questions as to who owns memories and historical narratives.

The final section BEING/NOT BEING (a title that surely echoes Sartre’s famous work on self-hood) gets to the existential nub of what it means to be human by considering what happens when consciousness is disrupted fol- lowing injury or trauma. If we are in a persistent vegetative state are we any less the person we were before that happened? FMRI scans of patients who are minimally conscious reveal imaginative activity. This raises ethical de- bates around how we treat those in need of persistent care. If, as seems to be suggested, they are still, in some way, able still to ‘think’ then, according to a Descartian view, they still are very much ‘themselves’. Alongside these, Aya Ben Ron’s film Still Under Treatment (2005) documents the moment that patients fall unconscious under general anaesthetic, the state closest to brain death (yet reversible) that we can experience whilst still alive.

An imaginative and thought-provoking exhibition, States of Mind looks at the twilight zones between sleep and wakefulness, feeling and anaesthesia, awareness and oblivion, to remind us that neither art nor science has a monopoly of insight into what it means to be a conscious human. We may be able to reach out and explore the further reaches of space or investi- gate the microcosmic world of quarks and protons, to make art, poetry, and music, but consciousness still remains a mystery. As the cognitive scien- tist, psychologist, and linguist, Steven Pinker suggests, ‘nothing gives life more purpose than the realization that every moment of consciousness is a precious and fragile gift’.

John Bratby

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

Until 17th April, 2016
Jerwood Gallery, Hastings

The past is, as L. P. Hartley wrote, another country where they do things differently. In 1950s Britain evidence of the Second World War was still everywhere to be seen in the urban bomb sites, the clusters of, supposedly, temporary prefabs and the many gardens that had been turned into allotments. Military bases peppered the countryside and coastline. Young men were still called up for National Service, while Two-Way Family Favourites played over the airways on the Home Service to Our Boys serving in Germany, as the Bisto simmered on the Rayburn. There was a Cold War, poverty, rationing and no contraception pill. Nearly half the population lived in private rented accommodation – often dingy rooms or bedsits, with little privacy, comfort or warmth. Buildings were traditional. New high rise concrete blocks, the result of slum clearances, only began to make an appearance in the early 1960s. Britain was a cold, drab ‘make-do-and-mend’ place of strong tea and boiled cabbage, coal fires and damp washing. It is this world, depicted in John Osborne’s play, Look Back in Anger, which gave rise to the concept of the Angry Young Man, a new breed of youth that felt an impatience with the status quo, an instinctive solidarity with the working class, and a sense of inchoate antagonism towards all things establishment.

The quality of life for the British working classes was, in the 1950s, poor. It is this pre-consumerist, post-war world that is captured by the English painter John Bratby.  Along with playwrights such as Osborne and Sheila Delaney, of Taste of Honey fame, and novelists like Alan Sillitoe (The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner) and John Braine, (Room at the Top), Bratby and other realist artists – including Derrick Greaves, Edward Middleditch and Jack Smith, who became known as the Beaux Arts Quartet – documented the everyday life of ordinary people.

The term ‘kitchen sink’ was originally used as the title of an article by the critic David Sylvester in the December 1954 issue of the journal Encounter in which he wrote that these artists’ work ‘takes us back from the studio to the kitchen’. Their subject was, he claimed: ‘An inventory which includes every kind of food and drink, every utensil and implement, the usual plain furniture and even the babies’ nappies on the line. Everything but the kitchen sink – the kitchen sink too.’ Sylvester emphasised that these kitchens were those ‘in which ordinary people cooked ordinary food and doubtless lived their ordinary lives’. In contrast to the prevailing neo-Romantic fantasies of painters like John Piper, Eric Ravilious, and David Jones, this raw work implied a new social, if not political, commentary.

John Bratby was born on July 19th, 1928 to a lower middle-class family who lived in Wimbledon. After attending Tiffins Grammer School in Kingston and Kingston School of Art, he would end up, in 1951, at the Royal College of Art. Having also been accepted by the Slade, which he saw as too cultured and intellectual, he chose the Royal College, which James Hyman describes in his book, The Battle for Realism, as being “passionate, earthy and crude”. It was there that Bratby became interested in the work of Carel Weight and the introverted gay painter, John Minton. In 1953 he married fellow student Jean Cooke and camped out in the attic of the V&A, where the RCA was then based, to be easily detected in his eerie by the cooking smells that emanated from a Valour heater. There he drew a good deal. A number of these works are on display in The Artist’s Room at the Jerwood Gallery.

In 1954, fresh from the RCA, the legendary dealer, Helen Lessore offered Bratby a show at the Beaux Arts Gallery, a converted mews (then unfashionable) in Bruton Place, where she slept above the shop. Among the other artists she championed were Bacon, Auerbach and Kossof. In the first week of Bratby’s show she sold ten out of his twenty-five paintings. This period was to prove, in retrospect, the high point of his painterly career. As John Berger wrote in 1954: “To enter The Beaux Arts Gallery is to enter Bratby’s home. This is partly because his subjects are his wife, his sister-in-law, his kitchen table, his dogs, his groceries, but far more profoundly because you are compelled to share his most profound emotions… he paints a packet of cornflakes as though it were part of the last supper.” In Jean with Dog, where am apparently disconsolate Jean sits in a cardigan, undies and red wellies patting the dog, the table is littered with domestic detritus: empty milk bottles, packets of Daz, Rice Crispies and Corn Flakes.  “I used the same table every time, and eating equipment from the kitchen of the house”.  Bratby claimed, when they were living at Jean’s parent’s house in Greenwich. “The works were, therefore, absolutely contrived and artificially set up.” His Three Lambrettas and Two Portraits of Jean, painted in his Dartmouth Row studio in 1958 at the height of his fame, presents the new Italian scooters as the epitome of cool and freedom. For the young, especially those from an impoverished working class, a lambretta promised a degree of previously unknown autonomy, mobility and potential sexual freedom. Bratby’s palette of dingy browns, creams and greys is in contrast to the iconic maroon machines sitting amid the clutter and chaos of the studio, while the large canvas suggests a desire to move from a domestic scale to experiment with complex pattern-making that a smaller picture surface would not afford. All Bratby’s paintings of Jean have an authenticity and rawness. Yet despite the thickness of the paint there is something chiselled and sculptural about his Reclining Nude, 1963 that lacks the sensual fleshiness of Stanley Spencer’s paintings of Patricia.  One of the most potent works in the show is Rain in June, 1961, also known as Sunlight in Abandoned Bathroom.  Here Bratby depicts his grandmother’s bathroom: the shabby white tiles, the dirty sink and wooden towel rail, the floor the colour of damp green mould, which conjures a Proustian sense of cold childhood mornings and the dash to the freezing bathroom for a quick lick and promise.

By the 1960s Bratby had become well known. The angry young man had bought a house, a car, a snooker table and appeared on Desert Island Discs. Money always mattered (perhaps having been brought up with very little) as did celebrity. He got into the habit of writing to the glitterati and literati of his day and asking them to pose for him. Many agreed and the results are mostly depressing: the mannered painting of Paul McCartney, the awful portraits of Michael Palin, Malcom Bradbury, the late agony Aunt Clare Rayner and comedian Arthur Askey, which all lack psychological insight and emotional finesse. For despite Bratby’s claims to be concerned with the loss of ‘individualism’ in contemporary society, all are moribund clichés of contemporary painting of the time. The politician Ian Mikado refused his invitation, calling Bratby’s letter “a monumental piece of flatulent Neanderthal nonsense”.  

Whether this falling away of authenticity was due, as his biographer Maurice Yacowar suggests, to the affair with Diane Hills, one of Jean’s pupils from the RCA, there seemed to be a new pretentiousness artificiality to his work. This archness is demonstrated in his self-consciously Fauvist painting, Diane with Sunhat (1974). Like Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst, it seems that Bratby ended up selling his artistic soul for a mess of celebratory pottage. Though in 1963 he was still capable of painting an intense and poignant portrait of his young son, David.

In 1974 he placed an advertisement in Time Out Lonely hearts: Very famous artist, 45, divorce pending, wishes to meet artistic girl under 30 to love. Patti Prime, a Canadian actress, 5 years his junior replied. Their relationship was tempestuous from the start and fuelled by alcohol.  In the final gallery at the Jerwood there’s a collaged collection of photos of a distinctly middle-aged Patti dressed in tacky black PV trousers and shiny red jackets, baring her breasts in a variety of matronly soft-porn poses.

Extremely short sighted Bratby painted close up to the canvas with unmediated colour straight from the tube, which may explain the strong patterning and thick impasto of much of his work.  By the late 80s the hard drinking had taken its toll and his appearance, with his cloud of white hair and beard, was a cross between Alan Ginsberg and Moses. He enjoyed the fruits of the money he’d made, travelling to Venice, buying Patti outrageous clothes, playing the part of the successful artist. But the work did not continue to develop. Like his contemporary John Osborne, who became a right-wing literary shadow of his younger self, Bratby never really grew as an artist. Yet there was a moment, during the1950s, when he produced a clutch of paintings in which we can almost smell and touch the bohemian austerity of that decade; and it is for these that he will be remembered.

Gilleman, Luc (2008). “From Coward and Rattigan to Osborne: Or the Enduring Importance of Look Back in Anger.” Modern Drama: Vol. 51, No. 1: 104-124. 104

Chantal Joffe
Victoria Miro, London

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, Leo Tolstoy famously wrote in Anna Karenina.  But what Tolstoy might, actually, have been implying is that the effects of happiness tend to be bland, the results ubiquitous. It’s those who are not entirely comfortable within the all-encompassing duvet of family life that prove to be interesting. Their quirks and idiosyncrasies lead them to become artists and writers or simply that awkward, interesting child who doesn’t want to join in but rather watch clouds, read a book, draw or make up stories. Tension and a degree of discord between siblings, between mother and daughter, father and son are meat to the creative juices. As the essayist and psychoanalyst, Adam Philips writes: “From a psychoanalytic point of view, one of the individual’s formative projects, from childhood onwards, is to find a cure for….. sexuality and difference, the sources of unbearable conflict… Adolescents,” he goes on to say, “are preoccupied by the relationship between dependence and conformity, between independence and compliance.”

It is these struggles for self-hood and authenticity, these deconstructions of old constructions, the fissures and cracks in the public face of relationships that Chantal Joffe translates with such insight in her picture making. In her studies of writers, of mothers and daughters, her canvases are a way of marking moments in the story of a life. Paint is the language she uses to translate these shifts and observations. Her daughter Esme is shown in that awkward transitional zone between puberty and womanhood, among a cast of cousins and friends who have long provided Joffe with her subjects. In this exhibition we see her transformed from little girl to awkward teenager. Watchful, defensive, full of adolescent antagonism. In Esme in Haggerstone, 2015, her green eyes dart defiant under the defence of a heavy fringe as she sets up emotional and physical boundaries. In New York, with one hand assertively poised on her hip, she stands in a checked mini-skirt, her sidelong squint avoiding her mother/artist’s gaze in a psychic retreat from childhood into sexual being. Her expression is quite clear. Her mother is barred from being part of the journey.

“Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest?” Joffe’s Birthday Self-Portrait, 2015 (surely influenced by the semi-nude self-portrait of the German expressionist artist, Paula Modersohn Becker, painted in 1906 on her sixth wedding anniversary) shows her naked from the waist up, dressed in an open flowered kimono, looking grumpily at the viewer.  Despite the bare breasts this is not a sexual image but one that confronts the artist’s own slow erasure of youth and impending mortality. The daughter blooms as the mother fades.

While a student at the Royal College of Art Joffe was always trying “to inhabit” other artists. Like many young women she was influenced by the American confessional poets Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, who studied under the poet, Robert Lowell, at Boston University. Lowell’s 1959 book Life Studies, which won the 1960 National Book Award, “featured a new emphasis on intense, uninhibited discussion of personal, family, and psychological struggles”. This was an inspiration and catalyst for Sexton and Plath. Both women were perfectionists and had complex troubled relationships with their mothers. Lowell’s writing gave them permission to mine their traumas and narcissism as subjects for verse. At the Royal College Joffe created a series of collages, superimposing her own head on the body of Plath kneeling on a beach in a white two piece swimming costume, and of Anne Sexton sitting in a car in her mother’s fur coat. A more recent (2015) painting of Ted Hughes and Plath, taken from a celebrated photograph, presents them as poetry’s successful power couple, glowing and smiling. Yet there is a stiffness to Sylvia’s awkwardly placed hands that gives a lie to this constructed public version of themselves which, as we know now, was damaged by her suicidal anger and depression and his compulsive infidelities.

Also at Victoria Miro are new works of Anne Sexton and her daughter Linda. Anne Sexton, was a troubled, flamboyantly confessional poet who underwent psychiatric treatment from 1956 until 1964, then died by her own hand 10 years later. She once described herself as “so oversexed that I have to struggle not to masturbate most of the day.” The painting of Sexton and Linda, where the mother holds the shoulders of the gawky bespectacled daughter, takes on disturbing reverberations when one knows the allegations of incest, a theme that repeatedly surfaced in Sexton’s work. She is alleged to have sexually abused Linda, whilst also claiming that she, herself, had been molested by her father, Ralph Harvey, and by her great-aunt.  Another painting of Robert Lowell with his wife, the writer Elizabeth Hardwick, and their daughter, Harriet (Robert, Harriet and Elizabeth 2015) presents a public face. Yet here, too, the tensions are palpable.  After Hardwick’s death in 2007, The New York Times, in a very public portrait of the Lowell marriage and divorce, described it as “restless and emotionally harrowing”.

The photographic snaps of family and children that Joffe uses as the catalysts for her paintings are, in her words, “a distillation of the everyday.” But while, consciously, this might be the case what she produces are not simply casual paintings of family life. Like the seemingly innocuous Freudian slip, the gap between photograph and painting creates fissures through which deeper meanings leak. It’s as if the actual paint, diluted with thinners – the acid greens and flamingo pinks, the violets and aquamarines – applied so apparently carelessly with broad thick strokes, seeps out to reveal some concealed significance. Meaning is not overt but suggested by painterly distortions of the figure and the juxtapositions of tones, as in the bruised purplish flesh echoed in the red jumper in Joffe’s 2015 Self-Portrait.

Highly personal and individual, yet embedded within the sisterhood of other painters from Paula Modersohn Becker to Joan Eardley and Alice Neel, Joffe’s mark-making emphasises not only the psychological mood of her subjects but the materiality of her medium. Unlike her American contemporary, Elizabeth Peyton, whose work Joffe’s superficially resembles, her portraits are without irony or pop culture glitz. In her paintings of writers she reminds us, time and again, that paint is a language, one that she manipulates to create portraits that are often uncomfortable and uncanny. Although she paints quickly, the process is akin to a form of mining where she drills down through the exposed fissures and cracks of her subjects’ subterranean depths to reveal what is not immediately visible in the broad light of day.

Courtesy the Artist and Victoria Miro, London
© Chantal Joffe

Esme in the Beach Hut, 2015
Oil on canvas
45.8 x 36 x 2.5 cm
18 1/8 x 14 1/8 x 1 in
(CJ 1038)

Anne in her Study, 2015
Oil on board
40.8 x 30.5 cm
16 1/8 x 12 1/8 in
(CJ 1063)

Ted and Sylvia, 2015
Oil on canvas
50.4 x 40.8 cm
19 7/8 x 16 1/8 in
(CJ 1068)

Victoria Miro, 14 St. George Street, London W1s 1FE
Until 24th March 2016

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

The Blue Rider

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

The Blue Rider, Wassily Kandinsky, 1903

A small figure in a blue-hooded cloak gallops through a green meadow on a white horse like a character escaping from a Romantic opera. The Blue Rider is one of Kandinsky’s most important early expressionist paintings, a painting that gave its name to a whole art movement. The horse has a red bridle and the rider seems to be cradling something in his arms. Perhaps a child. The blue of his cloak is reflected in the shadows on the hillside.  In the distance it occurs again between the fringe of trees to suggest depth and mystery. In German folklore the forest traditionally stood for the unconscious. As the trees are golden it is, probably, autumn. The white trunks suggest silver birch. It is an enigmatic painting open to a myriad interpretations.

Born in Moscow, the son of a rich tea merchant, Kandinsky spent most of his childhood in Odessa, subsequently studying law at Moscow University. As an artist he was influenced by the writings of the controversial Russian spiritualist Helena Blavatsky (1831-91), co-founder of the Theosophical Society, a quasi-religious sect that claims all creation is a geometrical progression expressed by a series of circles, triangles and squares. Kandinsky was fascinated by colour, saying that his childhood memories of Moscow were of the sun melting “into a single patch of colour: pistachio-green, flame-red house, churches – each colour a song in its own right”. These ‘patches’ recur time and again in his work. Kandinsky painted The Blue Rider before he turned fully to abstraction but it already indicates mood and movement through the use of colour rather than precise details. He wrote that he wanted to: “dissolved objects … so that they might not all be recognised at once and so that emotional overtones might thus be experienced gradually by the spectator”.

Blue, for Kandinsky, as for his fellow painter Franz Marc, was the colour of spirituality, just as it had been for medieval painters to whom it had represented heaven. The denser the blue, the more it awakened a desire for the eternal, according to his 1911 writings On the Spiritual in Art.  “Every work of art is the child of its time”, he wrote, and “pure” artists wanted, above all, to capture “the inner essence of things”. In this painting the rider appears to be escaping the autumnal landscape – the past – carrying the infant into a new and uncertain future on a horse that represents power, freedom and pleasure. As the Austrian critic and writer on Expressionism, Herman Bahr, wrote in 1914: “All that we experience is but the strenuous battle between the soul and the machine for the possession of man. We no longer live, we are lived, we have no freedom left, we may not decide for ourselves, we are finished.” The Blue Rider might, therefore, be read as a metaphor for a different sort of creativity, a symbol of the artist traveling beyond realistic representation towards a cultural rebirth.

Javier Romero

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

Javier Romero is an artist, a pilot and a practicing Buddhist. Perhaps the only one to have manoeuvred the controls of a light aircraft with his knees whilst taking photographs. He makes about 10-12 solo flights a year across the Atlantic, mostly from Spain to Chile, in his small single-engine airplane. Due to its limited speed and range the trip takes 4 days if the weather is good, flying for about 10 hours a day before landing for fuel and sleep. Usually the weather is clear, the skies and sea blue. But then he enters the Intercontinental Convergence Zone, a wall of permanent clouds and thunderstorms close to the Equator known, by sailors, as the doldrums. Of these spectacular cloud formations, which he photographs from the plane’s window, he says: “You’re alone with yourself. You could die at any moment. At night it’s even more intense. In the middle of the ocean it’s like being inside a black hole, without even the blue for company. And then the moon comes up over the sea, and is big, and blindingly shiny, and is the most amazing thing in the universe, and you feel like crying….” Nowadays he’s set up a tripod with a remote shutter cable so that he can take photos without putting the airplane in jeopardy. (He has had his share of scary moments).
Philosophers, poets and artists have sought to evoke the Sublime for centuries. There is Wordsworth’s Prelude, J.M.W.Turner’s fiery skies and John Martin’s cotton-wool clouds bathed in heavenly light. For the Romantics the Sublime was an expression of the spiritual force of the natural world. Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) explores ideas of the ‘terrible beauty’ (to quote the poet Yeats) experienced in the face of Nature’s turbulence. For the Romantics towering mountains, erupting volcanos, violent seas and storms represented this awesome beauty. For believers they demonstrated God’s divinity, whilst for the increasing number of 18th century sceptics, they represented the autonomous power of nature.

Javier Romero started his education as a painter with the Nicolaides method at the Art Students’ League of New York.  After working on oils, he moved to watercolour and acrylic. Now he uses photography as he’d use a brush on canvas to create Romantic, lyrical works.  He believes that contemporary society has lost its way. “Deep inside,” he says, “we know it’s not right to spend our lives in an artificial place pretending to be ‘an architect’, ‘a doctor’, ‘a salesman’…. And things are getting worse, technology helps the body, not the mind”.

The conventional rules of landscape photography dictate that the photographer needs to place an object in the foreground to prevent the viewer from getting lost. But that’s precisely what Javier Romero wants us to do in his luminous cloudscapes, these secular visions of heaven where, if we’re lucky, we might discover something of the mystery of being alive.

Chantal Akerman: Now

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

The Belgian filmmaker and artist Chantal Akerman died suddenly on October 5. It is said to have been suicide. Maybe it was her nationality, the nature of her death or her multi-screen installations with their themes of alienation, interiority, conflict and violence that drew me, in these complex de-centred times, to write about her now. A self-imposed death, whether of an artist or a suicide bomber, is always an enigma and the nature of her demise can’t but help colour our view of her work, which seems to echo the mood of these sombre days with uncanny prescience. 

Born in 1950, an adolescent viewing of Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou (1965) decided her career as a film-maker. After moving to Paris she took part in the seminal events of May 1968, then in New York met the cinematographer Babette Mangolte and hung out in avant-garde circles with the likes of Jonas Mekas and Michael Snow. Mostly widely known as a film-maker, her Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, made in 1975 when she was 24, is said to have influenced film makers from Michael Haneke to Todd Haynes. But it was to the cavernous underground industrial space of The University of Westminster’s Ambika P3 gallery that I went to see, what has turned out to be, her swan-song exhibition. The central work, NOW, was commissioned for this year’s Venice Biennale. Akerman was working with curators on the show until close to her death.

Her work requires patience, like the reading of a complex modernist poem. It unfolds slowly, so there is not an obvious sense of a coherent whole but rather images that fit together to create associations and metaphors. Maniac Summer (2009) is a disquieting piece that explores, among other things, the passing of time. A digital clock counts the seconds of each recording, evoking Hereklitian notions of being unable to step into the same river twice. Though, of course, the irony is that the technical innovation of video allows for a constant revisiting. Shot from the vantage point of her surprisingly bourgeois Parisian apartment, the camera is left unattended so we see her at her desk fiddling on her mobile phone and taking care of daily appointments, pottering around her kitchen amid normal domestic clutter, or isolated alone in dark silhouette. Outside children play in the park and the camera pans along empty streets, their pulled shutters closed like eyelids. Some of the images are manipulated, moving from colour to black and white. Shadows appear smudged on the wall like the afterglow of a nuclear holocaust. There is singing or, perhaps, chanting. Doors bang. This is the minutiae of life. Yet there’s a sense that everything is vulnerable, everything transient. That all we will leave behind are traces.

Manic Shadows (2013), a four channel video projection shot within the confines of a New York apartment, shows Akerman sorting domestic clutter for disposal into plastic bags, while the frenzy of the Obama election is played out in another section of the screen. The artist’s mother, Natalia, a survivor of Auschwitz who died last year, can be seen in the kitchen, whilst elsewhere Ackerman seeks sanctuary in her bedroom.  Her voice-over intones her text, My Mother Laughs. The piece is full of poignant hiatuses and non sequiturs, unresolved longing, guilt, yearning and anxiety. Her mother’s presence, though seemingly marginal, is all encompassing and ubiquitous; yet the overwhelming emotion is one of isolation.

Commissioned by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, D’Est: au bord de la fiction (1995), was initially put on hold but Akerman decided to go ahead anyway and film a trip through Eastern Europe before the fall of Communism, re-editing it when the commission finally went ahead, for 24 monitors, divided into eight blocks of three. It is a strong, evocative piece and perhaps the easiest in the exhibition to read. People in fur hats, heavy coats and boots gather in groups and queue and wait for, who knows what, huddled grim-faced against the cold. It is dark and the ground is covered with frozen slush. No one smiles. The numerous screens only emphasise the separateness of the individuals depicted. Life feels bleak, something to be survived. There are also shots of people in their homes, which now look impoverished and dated and, another, of a cellist receiving applause after a concert. But the whole with its juxtapositions of light and shade, stillness and flux, is a bleak image of existential alienation. Like a musical composition, each abutted image is counterpointed with its neighbour. And, perhaps, it is not too far- fetched, twenty years on from its making, to read these estranged individuals as victims of some sort of displacement, refugees even.

But the central work of the exhibition is the title piece, Now. Entering a black box in the middle of the gallery you cross a threshold of neon lights to be confronted by 5 screens filled with flickering images of rocky desert terrain and scrub. This seems to have been shot from a car window whilst travelling at speed. There is the sound of gunfire, of car breaks and wheels screeching, shouts in what might be Arabic mingle with animal cries The implication is that this is a war zone and this a high speed escape (or possibly attack). As we watch our adrenaline pumps and our hearts pound, though nothing ever happens, this endless frenetic movement creates both a sense of panic and exhilaration. Yet we don’t know the reason for this flight or even where this is taking place. No narrative is offered.  Just raw sensation. Occasionally there are gaps between the harsh sounds broken by bird song.

The cavernous underground arena of Ambika P3, with it harsh industrial Kafkaesque anonymity, is the perfect setting for this work.  The sense of dislocation is pronounced as we wander through the dark concrete space, trying to locate ourselves in a continuingly shifting and unstable world.

On the 30th October, the Regent Street Cinema will posthumously premiere her new, and now last, film No Home Movie, 2015.


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

D’est (From the East), 1993
16mm film, 110 min. colour, sound.
Production : Lieurac Production, Paradise Films Brussells, La Radio Television Portugaise
Courtesy the artist estate and Marian Goodman Gallery

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

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Frank Auerbach at
Tate Britain

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

“These fragments I have shored against my ruins”
― T.S. Eliot: The Waste Land and Other Poems

From the young painter who, in July 1948, sold his canvases from the pavement in the LCC ‘Open-Air Exhibition’ on the Embankment Gardens, Frank Auerbach has become one of the most important and challenging painters on the British landscape. Despite his great friendship with the priapic and party loving Freud, Auerbach has, by comparison, lead the life of an aesthete; a monk to his chosen calling. He hardly socialises, preferring the company of those he knows well.  He drinks moderately, wears his clothes till they fall apart and paints 365 days a year.

Though he rarely gives interviews and does not like to talk about his work, he has said of painting: “The whole thing is about struggle”. As Alberto Giacometti contended it is “analogous to the gesture of a man groping his way in the darkness”…”the more one works on a picture, the more impossible it becomes to finish it”.

It is out of this creative darkness, this complexity and unknowability of the world and the self that Auerbach has conjured his series of extraordinary heads, nudes and landscapes. Whilst the past for him may be a foreign country where they do things differently, one that he doesn’t choose to revisit – “I think I [do] this thing which psychiatrists frown on: I am in total denial” – it’s hard to walk around this current exhibition at Tate Britain and not feel that his dramatic early years had a profound influence on his work.

Born in Berlin in 1931, the son of Max Auerbach, a Jewish patent lawyer and Charlotte Nora Auerbach (who studied art) Frank was born into the maelstrom that was to be the Third Reich. In 1939 he, with five other children, was sponsored by the writer Iris Origo and sent to school in England. Though he’s never enquired exactly what happened to his parents (they perished in a concentration camp) Auerbach claims that he was happy among the collection of refugee children and offspring of conscientious objectors at Bunce Court, which had been started by a German Jewish-Quaker. There has, he says, never been a point when he wished that he had parents.

Yet it’s difficult not to see the monochromatic, thickly layered paintings of the 50s as being touched by the loss and the legacy of the Holocaust. In the charcoal Head of EOW of 59-60, the eyes are hollow, the face heavy with sadness, and there’s a strange rectangular patch on the forehead that appears to cover some hurt or wound. In the 1955 head, also of EOW, the paint is so heavy and dark that it seems to have been mixed from earth and ash. In EOW nude on bed 1959 the prone form doesn’t read like a living, sentient body but something mummified or in a state of rigour mortis that recalls Sickert’s dark Camden Town paintings. While the extraordinary, Building Site, Earl’s Court Road, Winter, 1953 is so tar-like that it might have been painted with London smog. Looking at it I couldn’t help wondering if Kiefer had studied early Auerbach.

Giacometti, Beckett, Art Brut, Existentialism – the 50s was a period culturally overshadowed by the legacy of war and by questions about the futility and meaning of existence. “Life has no meaning”, wrote Jean-Paul Sartre, “the moment you lose the illusion of being eternal.” Yet Sartre and Camus also believed that the absurdity of life could be given meaning through a freedom of will and the process of creativity.

Although associated with that lose group The London School, Auerbach’s sensibility is essentially mittle- European. It’s no coincidence that he was taught at Borough Polytechnic Institute by the Jewish painter David Bomberg. Along with Freud and Kitja in London, and Rothko and Barnett Newman in the States, his work is imbued with a Jewish-European melancholy, a rabbinic need to ask questions.  “The object of art”, as Giacometti wrote, “is not to reproduce reality, but to create a reality of the same intensity”.  This could be Auerbach’s credo. He has never been interested in producing pictures – the world, he says has enough of those already. His project is to be visually aware moment by moment, as the light changes and the subject shifts and breathes, to move from picture and illusion and to translate the experience non-verbally through the medium of paint.

By the 60s and 70s there was an explosion of colour – the citric yellows and futurist zig-zags of reds in Primrose Hill, Autumn Morning, 1968.  There is huge energy as if he is wrestling with nature, trying with the umbrella spokes of the bare branches in the foreground of Winter Evening, Primrose Hill 1974-5 to fix and pin down the landscape. The winter light, with its juxtapositions of deep crimsons and greens is atmospheric, dark and moody, abbreviated only by the white blobs of the distant street lamps that pierce the gloom.

Auerbach has said that that the marks on the surface of his paintings are “never something of their own interest”. They are never graphic, not ‘descriptive’ but a process of liquid thinking. His marks and gestures are only of interest “in so far as they suggest something else.” “Painting”, he has said, “never wants to be like music.”

It is perhaps his portraits that present many with the most problems for they are very seldom a likeness of the sitter. They are difficult but profoundly intelligent and require time. Standing in front of Catherine Lampert’s 1997 profile, suddenly, something of this woman I’ve spoken with many times emerges from the apparently random swirls and marks – an essence, a presence.  Auerbach demands that we see, really see, as a process of thinking, as a form of philosophical debate. Beauty is not the point but a reaching towards truth is.  Painting and drawing are his way of exploring and attempting to make sense of the world. All his subjects are simply a jumping off points, the start of a process, of a series of propositions, an existential argument about existence conducted through the language of paint.


Building Site, Earl’s Court Road, Winter 1953

Oil on hardboard
915 x 1220 mm
Private collection
© Frank Auerbach, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art

E.O.W., Nude on Bed

Oil paint on board
775 x 610 mm
Private collection, courtesy of Richard Nagy Ltd., London
© Frank Auerbach, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art

Mornington Crescent 1965

Oil paint on board
1016 x 1270 mm
Private collection, courtesy of Eykyn Maclean, LP
© Frank Auerbach, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art

Head of J.Y.M ll 1984-85

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

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

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

Ai Weiwei: Royal Academy, London until 31th December 2015
William Kentridge: Marian Goodman Gallery until 24th October 2015

The Chinese artist, designer and architect, Ai Weiwei has come to be regarded as a creative figure of global stature, largely because of his personal bravery and strong social conscience in speaking out against the repressive Chinese government. He has been imprisoned for his pains and galvanised a generation of artists. On his return to China in 1993, after twelve years in America, his work began to reflect the dual influences of both his native culture and his exposure to western art. He cites Duchamp as “the most, if not the only, influential figure” in his art practice. As a conceptual artist Ai Weiwei starts with an idea – for example China’s relationship to its history – addressed in this major show at the Royal Academy by Table and Pillar, 2002, and made, as part of his Furniture series. A salvaged pillar from a Qing dynasty (1644-1911) temple has been inserted into a chair to form a totemic work. Having spent a month in China in 2000, I can confirm that Ai Weiwei has every reason to be concerned about the destruction of his cultural heritage which, when I was there, was daily being destroyed to make way for ‘modernisation’. Coloured Vases, 2015, further questions notions of value and authenticity by illustrating that fake antiquities are made with exactly the same techniques as authentic vases. In classic postmodernist style Ai Weiwei’s objects take on the characteristics of a Barthian ‘text’ to be deconstructed by those who are able to ‘read’ and decode them.

In an interview in Studio International in December 1972, Joseph Beuys suggested that: “Most people think they have to comprehend art in intellectual terms – in many people the organs of sensory and emotional experiences have atrophied”. Beuys, himself, was the master mystic and shaman. What made, and continues to make his work resonate was his ability to transform inert material into poetic metaphor, to set in train an alchemical process whereby physical substances metamorphosed into archetypal myths. It is this ‘translation’ that elevates his work from political didacticism into art.

And this is the problem with Ai Weiwei. It is impossible to separate his biography from the way we view his art. But this is politics as art, rather than art as politics. It is, in the most sophisticated sense, illustration rather than a process of transformation and metamorphosis. A pair of jade handcuffs and sculptures such as Surveillance Camera and Video Camera, 2010 are the result of an idea rather than having grown out of a process of discovery. The result, for the viewer, is an intellectual rather than a felt experience.

The most emotionally powerful piece is Straight 2008-12 related to the Sichuan earthquake of 2008. It is fabricated from ninety tonnes of bent and twisted rebar (the steel rods used in the construction of reinforced concrete buildings) that collapsed because of cost-cutting corruption and resulted in the deaths of thousands, especially school children. These iron bars were painstakingly collected by the artist and straightened by hand in his studio by assistants. The futile process speaks of the low value of labour in China and the pointless, often mindless, bureaucracy of the regime, as well as being a testament to those who died. But the Carl Andre influenced arrangement of rods on the floor needs the accompanying explanatory video and wall texts to evoke a full emotional response. Take these away and I wonder if we would read the work with the same pathos.

A series of dioramas, complete with spy holes, recreates Ai Weiwei’s prison conditions – the ever-present guards in a room inexplicably completely covered in plastic. Seeing these chilling scenarios it is impossible not to admire Ai Weiwei’s integrity as a man but as an artist there is something strangely dispassionate and derivative about the work.

Across town, at the Marian Goodman Gallery is another political artist, William Kentridge. Born in Johannesburg in 1955. Kentridge studied politics and African studies before doing fine arts at the Johannesburg Art Foundation, then studying mime at the famous Ecole Jacques Lecoq in Paris. Originally he hoped to become an actor; however was, he says, so bad that he was reduced to becoming an artist. Since then he has worked in theatre and in television as an art director and in 1999 won the Carnegie International Medal. Best known for his animated films, his evocative, powerful and disturbing works are constructed by a process of filming and drawing. A few years ago I was lucky enough to interview him. A fast talker, he has a formidable intellect. Born into a cultured Jewish family, his father was a well-known anti-apartheid lawyer.

The downstairs gallery at Marian Goodman is devoted to a new series of paintings where Tang dynasty poetry and adapted Cultural Revolution slogans such as ‘Long, Long, Long Live The Mother(Land)’, ‘Eat Bitterness’ and ‘Sharpen Your Philosophy’ are interwoven with vast ink images of flowers painted on found texts. Links are made between the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the events of May 1968 and the Paris Commune of 1871. A large diptych pairs the silhouette of a single iris with a transcribed page of propaganda from the Paris Commune, eliding the French Revolution with China’s Cultural Revolution. Here Kentridge explores the misuse and exploitation of language, while making a reference to Manet’s late paintings and asking why the man who painted such a fervent political work as The Execution of Emperor Maximilian (1868-69) should have devoted his last years to flower paintings.

The core of the show, More Sweetly Play the Dance, is a stunning eight-screen danse macabre that encircles the upper gallery. The African figures, seen in silhouette, move in a continuous procession across the screen against a bleak charcoal landscape. Priests swirl in voluminous robes, others carry wands of lilies. Women in 19th century skirts pull heavy wagons, melding the image of Brecht’s Mother Courage with that of a crusaders’ pageant. Some of the participants hold up drawings of heads mounted on sticks: a female worker, a miner, while men in dinner jackets gesticulate wildly. A black ballet dancer spins around on points holding a Kalashnikov. There are walking secateurs and machines made of crutches, along with a phalanx of invalids hooked up to saline drips that barley seem to be keeping them alive. They might be refugees or AIDS victims. It is impossible to know for sure. Meaning is slippery but what seems certain is that they are Everyman/woman who has ever suffered deprivation or loss. There is also a group of dancing skeletons and a brass band dressed in Ruritanian- style military uniforms playing a wailing, defiant anthem This is a post-apocalyptic vision – part pagan, part Christian – a cortege of dispossessed pilgrims on the march and on the move, to whom something cataclysmic has happened and who are attempting to create forgetfulness and meaning through this hypnotic ritual.

Downstairs the three-screen film installation Notes Towards a Model Opera grew from research for a recent exhibition in Beijing and conflates, dance, martial arts, absurdist theatre with Madame Mao’s Model Revolutionary Operas. Plundering ideas from Dada, Goya and the Chinese infiltration of Africa things emerge and transform to reveal Kentridge’s odyssey through a landscape scared by apartheid and post-colonialism. His is an art of ambiguity. Existential, rooted in surrealism and the Theatre of the Absurd meaning is not fixed but discovered through juxtapositions in the process of making. The strength lies in its searing visual potency and the metaphors he creates to reveal both the despair and triumph of the human condition.


Ai Weiwei, Table and Pillar, 2002
Wooden pillar and table from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), 460 x 90 x 90 cm
London, Tate. Purchased with funds provided by the Asia Pacific Acquisitions Committee, 2008
Image courtesy Ai Weiwei
© Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei, Straight, 2008-12
Steel reinforcing bars, 600 x 1200 cm
Lisson Gallery, London
Image courtesy Ai Weiwei
© Ai Weiwei

Copyright: William Kentridge
Courtesy: The artist and Marian Goodman Gallery
William Kentridge
More Sweetly Play the Dance, 2015
8-channel video installation with four megaphones, sound
HD video 1080p / ratio 16:9 duration 15 minutes (includes end credits)

William Kentridge
Notes Towards a Model Opera, 2014 -2015
3-channel video installation, sound
HD video 1080p / ratio 16:9
Duration 11 minutes 14 seconds (includes credits)

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Barbara Hepworth
Tate Britain, London

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

In praise of the Divine

In the early 20th century alternative philosophies were beginning to permeate western culture. Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophy, the teachings of the Armenian mystic, G. I. Gurdjieff and the American Christian Science, spread through the works of Mary Baker Eddy: Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, were gathering momentum. As was an interest in psychoanalysis. The hold of the Anglican Church, in which the sculptor Barbara Hepworth had been raised, was losing its grip. Many artists and intellectuals were looking for alternative means of spiritual and artistic expression.

At various times throughout her life Hepworth identified herself as a Christian Scientist. (Broadly, in Christian Science, spirit is understood to be the meaning and reality of being, where all issues contrary to the goodness of Spirit – God – are considered to originate in the flesh -‘matter’ – understood as materialism where humanity is separated from God).

Hepworth’s beliefs were fluid rather than constrained by doctrine and changed throughout her life. Yet what is clear from her archives is that spiritual concerns were central both to her life and work. With its emphasis on an infinite and harmonious intelligence, Christian Science provided her with an alternative lens through which to reassess orthodox Western beliefs. When, after her failed marriage to the sculptor John Skeaping she met the artist Ben Nicholson who was to become her second husband, the fact that he was a Christian Scientist gave their romantic and artistic relationship a charged metaphysical perspective. In an interview in 1965 with the Christian Science Monitor, Hepworth asserted that: “A sculpture should be an act of praise, an enduring expression of the divine spirit’.

Hepworth and Nicholson moved to St. Ives in Cornwall at the outbreak of the Second World War. It was to become a refuge for many international artists and provided Hepworth with light, air and an unmediated landscape. She was to live there until her death in a fire at her home in May 1975. The 1952 film, Figures in a Landscape, shown at the Tate exhibition, with its rather florid commentary by the poet Jacquetta Hawkes spoken by Cecil Day-Lewis, may not have been completely to Hepworth’s taste, but it emphasises, as the camera pans over megalithic stones and the sea pounds the Cornish coast to leave holes and abrasions in the rock, the atavistic influences of the landscape on her work, and the importance of harmony with nature.

For many Hepworth has come to be associated primarily with St. Ives but this Tate exhibition aims to broaden that reading, following the trajectory from her smaller carved figurative works of the Twenties to the larger cast abstract bronzes of the Fifties and Sixties – when she represented Britain in the Venice Biennale. It also includes a number of bronzes made for Gerrit Rietveld’s pavilion at the the Kroller-Muller Museum in the Netherlands in 1965.

An Act of Praise, the essay in the exhibition catalogue by Lucy Kent, which explains Hepworth’s work in terms of her beliefs, is a revelation. That the Tate did not choose to build the show around these ideas rather than somewhat academically illustrating how Hepworth’s work was presented in the media, is a lost opportunity. Christianity is now so unfashionable in this country that it’s almost impossible to imagine a contemporary artist admitting to such influences or working in this way. What becomes apparent is that form for Hepworth was not simply a theoretical concern but a search for spiritual harmony, for the transcendental within the nature of things.

Direct carving rather than modelling in clay was always her preferred method, one that was supported in the writings of her contemporary, the art critic Adrian Stokes, who under the influence the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein was concerned with the relationship between the internal and the external. Stokes, who was also to make Cornwall his home, wrote: ‘‘Whatever its plastic value, a figure carved in stone is fine carving when one feels that not the figure, but the stone through the medium of the figure, has come to life’. He added: ‘The communion with a material, the mode of eliciting the plastic shape, are the essence of carving.’

Emphasising the relationship to carving the Tate exhibition opens with a number of works by Hepworth’s contemporaries. These include lesser known female sculptors, such as Elsie Marion Henderson, as well as Henry Moore, and her first husband, John Skeaping, who claimed to have taught her how to carve. Hepworth’s early carvings sit poised between figuration and abstraction. In her white marble Mother and Child, 1933 the figures can hardly be differentiated one from the other. Two crude heads emerge from the same lump of stone full of tender intimacy like those of Siamese twins.

In 1932 she produced her first ‘pierced’ sculpture. It is no coincidence that this was at the height of her commitment to a religion that denied the reality of material existence. To pierce the composition allowed her to sculpt not only with matter but with space, to elide inside and outside, the formal with the spiritual. Air and light were integral to her compositions and the aperture lead to a ‘place’ beyond the physical confines of the material. In 1933 she and Nicholson spent time in Paris with other abstract artists who were also showing an interest in transcendental matters. Brancusi and Braque were exploring Zen Buddhism, Mondrian and Arp Theosophy, while Naum Gabo was engrossed with Einstein’s investigations that ‘destroyed the borderlines between Matter and Energy, between Space and Time’.

In her Two Forms 1935 carved in white marble, Hepworth reveals her absorption in the relationship between space, texture and weight. Yet despite the evident formal concerns of these ovoid forms – how they sit next to each other, how they cast shadows – the smoothly polished surface is as inviting as skin. Her sculptures describe, in abstract terms, deep human emotions, feelings of connectivity to other people, to the divine and to the landscape in which she chose to work and live. In 1937 she claimed that: ‘Vision is not sight- it is the perception of the mind. It is the discernment of the reality of life, a piercing of the superficial surfaces of material existence that gives a work of art its… significant power’.

It too easy to dismiss Hepworth’s work as dated, the sort of sculpture with its holes and strings that was satirised in Punch magazine in the 50s and 60s as ‘modern art’. But re-visited with a fresh eye and understood within the context of her religious beliefs, we come to understand the ‘affirmative’ power that fostered spiritual and social harmony within her art, Hepworth bridges a gap between the personal and universal, the transcendental and the chthonic to deal with the ineffable in a way that few artists would consider doing today.


Barbara Hepworth with the plaster of Single Form 1961-4 at the Morris Singer foundry, London, May 1963
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
Photograph by Morgan-Wells
© Bowness

Barbara Hepworth
Curved Form (Delphi) 1955
Guarea wood, part painted, with strings
1067 x 787 x 813 mm
Ulster Museum, Belfast

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

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Agnes Martin
Tate Britain, London

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

“Beauty is the mystery of life, it is not just in the eye. It is in the mind. It is our positive response to life.” —Agnes Martin

Over the last few years Tate Modern has paid homage to a number of important women artists including, amongst others, Eva Hesse, Frida Kahlo, Louise Bourgeois, Yayoi Kusama, Marlene Dumas and Sonia Delaunay. That the psychodrama of Frida Kahlo and Louise Bourgeois, the theatre of Kusama and the eroticism of Marlene Dumas should have had wide public appeal is not surprising. All provide the means for the viewer to identify with the artist, to ‘feel her pain’ and be drawn into her emotional maelstrom and visual world. But the current exhibition of work by Agnes Martin is an altogether more difficult affair. It makes demands on the spectator who, if willing to engage, will be rewarded by moments of Zen-like stillness and clarity.

To sit among Martin’s white paintings, The Islands I-XII, 1979, is akin to being alone with Rothko’s Seagram paintings. Though while Rothko is chthonic, the colours womb-like and elemental as he wrestles with the dark night of the soul, the subtle tonalities of Martin’s pale paintings are, in contrast, Apollonian. She is Ariel to Rothko’s Caliban. Full of light and air, her paintings quieten the busy mind, provide space, tranquillity and silence. Yet each of these silences is subtly varied, broken by differing accents and rhythms. The tonal shifts, the small variations and delineations of the sections of the canvas demand attention and mindfulness. These works offer not so much an experience of the sublime – that form of masculine awe and ecstasy – as a dilution into nothingness, an arrival at T. S. Eliot’s “still point in a turning world.” Here we find stasis, where everything, as in meditation, has been stripped away, so that we are left with nothing more than the rhythm of the world, with what simply IS.

It took a long time for Agnes Martin to develop her singular vocabulary. Deceptive in its simplicity, with its language of grids and stripes, she acknowledged that she borrowed much from the lexicon of her near contemporaries Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. This Tate show examines the two distinct periods that define her career. The first shows her rarely exhibited early work, begun during her brief stint as a student at Columbia University, New York, along with the biomorphic forms developed during her time in New Mexico, and the delicate geometric abstractions made in New York in the 1960s. With their duns and fawns, their colours of rock and stone, things are reduced to their elemental forms. Squares and circles become signs to which the viewer needs to bring sensibility in order to read and understand them. Found objects adhered to a piece of scrap board make incidentals meaningful as they are placed within a system that creates order from what is random. Elsewhere her insistent, stich-like marks, her dots and dashes, might suggest Morse code or Braille, or even an ancient language that could be decoded.

Born in Saskatchewan, Canada in 1912 to Scottish Presbyterian parents, Agnes Martin spent her childhood on a farm before moving to Vancouver in 1931. Calvinism ensured that even years after she had left it behind, her key themes continued to be humility, obedience and praise. As a child she had been introduced to Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. She was also an admirer of William Blake and, like Blake, was influenced by the geometry of Plato and Pythagoras, who believed that the ideal is more actual than the real. It was only when she was 30, after training as a teacher, that she decided to become an artist and enrolled on a course at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque (made famous in the paintings of the American Richard Diebenkorn). It was then that she began to explore a burgeoning interest in East Asian philosophy. For unlike the autobiographical solipsism of many other female artists such as Frida Kahlo, Martin insisted that her art was not about herself. “The value of art is”, she explained, “in the observer”. For her the work of art was not an object or an event but a state of mind. Like Walt Whitman she wanted a “sense of oneness with the universe”. The goal of art, she claimed, was happiness.

Her happiness, though, was, in many ways hard won. She did not like to talk about herself, her homosexuality or her encounters with mental illness. In the early 1960s she was found wandering the streets of New York, catatonic and was hospitalised and diagnosed with schizophrenia. After a period when she ceased to paint at all, she began again in the 70s, during her self-imposed exile in New Mexico. She was to find an organising principal in that modernist form, the grid.  Used by friends such as Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt, by way of Mondrian, the grid represented what was non-hierarchical and egalitarian, though for Martin it primarily stood for innocence.

The paintings from 1963, including Flower in the Wind, and A Grey Stone, are all more or less six feet square, their colour fields veiled across a grid drawn onto the canvas. The tiny repetitive marks of a painting such as Falling Blue, evoke weaving. For Martin’s delicate, obsessive mark making is as labour intensive as the stitching of any carpet maker. Repetition becomes the route to sublimity, as if through re-enactment, she might arrive at some, as yet, unidentified place and know it for the first time. Martin travelled extensively, taking cruise ships through the Panama Canal, travelling from Vancouver to Alaska and Hamburg to Norway, Sweden and Iceland, as well as to Greece and Turkey. Although she insisted her paintings were not about landscape, she constantly sought new experiences in nature. Her work, though not descriptive, is imbued with her felt experience.  Her exquisite paintings Untitled #8 1974, and Untitled, 1977, along with a number of the untitled works from the 1990s, though formally dependant on grids and squares, evoke with their saturated blues and the pinks that ineffable moment when dawn breaks and the sky turns to pale-misted morning. These soft tinged paintings, with their sense of renewal and awakening are the painterly equivalent to the yoga pose Salute to the Sun in their embrace of life’s simple beauty.

In this time of razzmatazz galleries and blue chip art it is refreshing to return to the work of an artist who, literally, took herself off into the desert to find out what was important to her. In so doing she became a modern-day Julian of Norwich, a woman concerned with spiritual growth rather than fame or fortune. Her paintings could be read as spiritual exercises in their hard won simplicity and restricted discipline.  “It is from our awareness of transcendent reality” she wrote, “and our response to concrete reality that our minds command us on our way….”  Thus she concludes, “The function of art is the stimulation of sensibilities, the renewal of memories of moments of perfection”. This lovely show offers us just that.


Agnes Martin (1912-2004)
Friendship 1963
Museum of Modern Art, New York
© 2015 Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Untitled #3 1974
Des Moines Art Center, Iowa, USA
© 2015 Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Untitled #10 1975
Private collection, Private Collection, New York
© 2015 Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Gratitude 2001
Private collection
Photograph courtesy of Pace Gallery
© 2015 Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

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Sonia Delaunay
Tate Modern, London

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

You really do wonder, sometimes, just how long some women artists have to be around before anyone takes notice. When asked by a callow journalist how she felt, in her 90s, at having recently become famous, the artist, Louise Bourgeois replied acerbically: “I’ve been ‘ere all along.”  

That this current show at Tate Modern, by the artist, Sonia Delaunay, should be her first retrospective in the UK, despite her 60 year-long career, is surprising. Though not a household name, long before such things were au courant, she created a hallmark style as an avant-garde painter, and an innovative fashion and theatre designer. Anyone born in the 40s or 50s, whether they realise it or not, will be familiar with the influence of her abstract designs on post war fabrics. To be a woman artist during the height of modernism was something of a paradox. Modernism and its playground Paris certainly gave women new freedoms in terms of art education, living arrangements, travel and relationships. But art history has, despite inroads made in the 70s by feminist critics, been a narrative written largely from a male perspective.

Born Sara Élievna Stern in 1885, the youngest of a modest Jewish family from Odessa, Delaunay’s life reads like that of the heroine from a 19th century novel. Sent by her parents to live with her wealthy uncle, Henri Terk, she adopted the name Sofia Terk (though was always known as Sonia). Through her uncle she was introduced to the great museums of St. Petersburg, spent summers in Finland, and became familiar with European culture. At the age of 18 she went off to study art in Germany. Seeking to emancipate herself from her middle-class background she went in search of artistic freedom, reading books on psychology and philosophy, including the book of the moment, Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil. She also developed a passion – one shared with her contemporary the poet Rainer Maria Rilke – for all things Slavic, perhaps as a way to stay in touch with her childhood. And she started to sew.

In 1906 she went to Paris where she discovered, with the help of her first husband the homosexual gallerist Wilhelm Ude, the Fauvism of Matisse, Vlaminck and Marquet. In 1910 she married the artist Robert Delaunay and later had a child. Fluent in several languages she was in her element among poets such as Guillaume Apollinaire and Blaise Cendras, with whom she collaborated. Exiled to Portugal and Spain during the First World War the Dalaunays became friends with everyone who was anyone, from Diaghilev to Tristan Tzara. Ruined by the Russian Revolution of 1917, she proceeded to open Casa Sonia that sold not only decorative household items but fashion. It was a move far ahead of its time.

Such eclecticism may well have worked against her being seen as a serious painter. Yet her wonderful portraits of young Finnish girls show not only the radical influence of the Fauvists, with their dramatic colour that emphasises their primitive quality, but also her roots in German pictorial modernity. Muscular, raw and unflinching there’s more than a passing resemblance to the work of her young German contemporary, Paula Modersohn-Becker. In 1908 Sonia Delaunay painted Nu Jaune, an erotic nude infused with influences as diverse as Manet’s Olympia, Gauguin’s Tahitian figures and the provocative nudes of the German Kirchner. With its angular, almost pre-pubescent limbs painted in a sickly yellow and heavily outlined in a tubercular tinged turquoise, it must, at the time, have seemed quite shocking.

Sonia Delaunay had an instinct for the new. Her experiments with technique and material, would, with her husband’s involvement, lead to the development of the theory of Simultaneism – a utopian fusion of abstract compositions that had its roots in Romanticism and created an equivalence between emotion and colour. “Abstract art,” she claimed, “is only important if it is the endless rhythm where the very ancient and the distant future meet.” She used these abstract forms and shapes in both her paintings and her decorative objects, the elevation of which to the status of art, was seen as radical.

The innovations of the early 20th century are everywhere in her work.  Electric Prisms, 1914, with its fragmented circles of colour, represents the pools of light from the new electric street lighting on Boulevard Saint-Michel. Movement, light, and energy are all there, too, in Le Bul Bullier, 1913, (the dancehall frequented by students, artists and hangers on) with its tango dancers flattened into curved forms swaying beneath the overhead lights. In her Parisian atelier Simultané, Delaunay was also producing avant-garde designs for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes productions, as well as clothes for stars such as Gloria Swanson. Excitingly this Tate show includes her huge murals: Motor, Dashboard and Propeller, created for the 1937 International Exposition in Paris, which have never before been shown in the UK.

This exhibition reveals that what made her truly innovative was that she did not create a false division between high and low art, between painting and decoration. She worked with poets to create stunning visual texts, made fabrics, wallpaper, parasols and tapestries, as well as strange baggy bathing costumes, with the same passion. She designed covers for Vogue and a bookcase for a student bedroom. Art and design permeated her life.  She did not die until 1979 and was working until the end. The previous year she’d collaborated with Patrick Raynaud to design costumes for Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, playing at the Comédie-Française. In a documentary made by Raynaud towards the end of her life she said: “Everything is feeling, everything is real. Colour brings me joy”. It is fitting that, at last, her legacy should have been brought to a wider audience.

Until to Aug 9th, 2015 


Sonia Delaunay
Simultaneous Dresses (The three women) 1925
Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid
© Pracusa 2014083

Sonia Delaunay
Yellow Nude 1908
Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes, Nantes
© Pracusa 2014083

Sonia Delaunay
Electric Prisms 1913
Davis Museum at Wellesley College, Wellesley, MA, Gift of Mr. Theodore Racoosin
© Pracusa 2014083

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Hans Haacke Gift Horse
London’s Fourth Plinth Programme

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

It was an early spring morning. The sky deep blue and the wind cruel as journalists and international camera crews gathered for the unveiling of the tenth sculpture commissioned for Trafalgar Square’s empty fourth plinth. A stylish coffee vendor on a vintage bicycle, peddling for all he was worth to provide the necessary power, was producing very slow cups of coffee to the freezing press throng.

The Fourth Plinth is in the northwest corner of Trafalgar Square and was originally intended to hold an equestrian statue of William IV. But in 1840 the money ran out before it was completed. For over 150 years the plinth’s fate was debated. Then in 1998 the Royal Society for the Arts commissioned three sculptures intended for temporary display and the then, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Chris Smith, set up an enquiry to elicit opinions from public art commissioners, critics and members of the public as to its future. The recommendation was for a rolling programme of temporary artworks. In 2003, the ownership of Trafalgar Square was transferred from Westminster City Council to the Mayor of London. This marked the beginning of the Mayor’s Fourth Plinth Commission, which has been occupied over the years by artists such as Anthony Gormley, Marc Quinn, Yinkae Shonibare and Katarina Fritsch. Most have been British, with a smattering of Germans.

This new commission, Gift Horse by the German artist Hans Haacke, was unveiled by London’s current Mayor, the colourful Boris Johnson, and the press scrum seemed every bit as keen to catch Boris’s witty bons mots as his tousled blond hair blew in the wind, as to watch the statue’s unveiling. The sculpture portrays a skeletal, riderless horse – an ironic comment on the William IV equestrian statue originally planned for the site. Tied to the horse’s raised front leg is an electronic ribbon, like a birthday bow, which displays live prices from the London Stock Exchange. Its louring bronze frame is reminiscent of the dinosaurs in South Kensington’s Natural History Museum, though the piece was, in fact, inspired by the engraving, The Anatomy of the Horse 1766, by that master of equine painting, George Stubbs, housed in the nearby National Gallery.

Etched against the blue sky, it is a powerful work; a deconstruction of traditional equine sculptures, as well as an implicit critique of the relationships between power and money, business and art. In 1970, Haacke’s Museum of Modern Art piece, MoMA Poll, which claimed to be the first conceptual art exhibition mounted by a US museum, caused ructions during the re-election campaign of Governor Nelson Rockefeller – a major MoMA donor and former museum president whose brother was chairman at the time – when two plexi-glass ballot boxes were placed in the gallery to allow people ‘to vote’ on his policy towards the Vietnam war. A subsequent work about the business of a notorious New York slumlord was dropped by the Guggenheim museum. Haacke is not afraid of the big political statement.

Born in Cologne in 1936, he has made paintings, taken photographs and written texts. He’s had solo exhibitions at the Paula Cooper Gallery, New York, at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, as well as in Berlin. His work has been included in four Documentas and numerous biennials. In 1993 he shared a Golden Lion Award with Nam June Paik for the best pavilion at the 45th Venice Biennale, while in 2000 he unveiled a permanent installation in the Reichstag, Berlin. Yet when the 78 year old artist, who has lived and worked in Manhattan for the last 50 years, was invited to submit a proposal he assumed it was a joke and that his often contentious work would never be accepted.  However, the plinth project appealed to him and he began to work on an idea for a 13ft-high horse skeleton cast in bronze. He has stated that he believes inequality to be one of the major issues of our time, so was ‘flabbergasted’ when selected for the Trafalgar Square project. Particularly as his work has made no bones about exposing the clandestine interconnections behind money, politics and art.  He has uncovered the Nazi background of prominent collectors and of the German Venice Biennale pavilion, revealed numerous links between art institutions, British Leyland and apartheid South Africa, tobacco and oil companies. As his work habitually draws on its location, Gift Horse’s references to the City of London are hardly surprising.

Waving his arms around, as if to give gravitas and validity to his art criticism, Boris described the skeletal sculpture as a metaphor for the “vital importance of transport in our great urban infrastructure”. Horses, he suggested, had been central to our transport for hundreds of years and the tubular structure mirrored the underground tube network in our great global cultural capital. It was a clever sleight of hand. His witty delivery allowed him to enthuse about the piece without ever acknowledging that it is a critique on contemporary economic and artistic culture. Perhaps as a politician he lost a golden moment; to come clean about the interconnections instead of offering yet more hollow rhetoric. Instead he looked a gift horse in the mouth.

Hans Haacke
Gift Horse
Commissioned for the Mayor of London’s Fourth Plinth Programme
Boris Johnson in Trafalgar Square being interviewed by Channel 4 News
Both images © of Sue Hubbard

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Chantal Joffe
Beside The Seaside

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

Chantal Joffe made her reputation as a painter with work inspired by pornography and fashion, based on images torn from magazines. She is friends with the fashion designer Stella McCartney, has painted Kate Moss and Lara Stone, collaborated with the fashion photographer, Miles Aldridge, painting his wife the model, Kristen McMenamy, in her Islington studio, while Aldridge filmed the process.  She enjoys what clothes do to the body, the excuse they give her to paint zig-zags, polka dots and Matisse-like patterns. Her work, mostly of women, questions how images are constructed and presented, subtly challenging the objectification of the female form, wrenching it back from the traditional ‘male gaze’. Recently she’s moved more towards painting friends and family – her daughter Esme, her niece Moll and her partner, the painter, Dan Coombs. The results are works of disquieting intimacy. It’s no surprise to learn that she has long been a fan of the emotionally jagged photographs of Diana Arbus, whose studies she describes as having: “everything about the portrait of a human that you can ever want.”

Joffe was born in 1969 in St. Albans, a small town in Vermont, in the US. When she was 13 years old her family moved to England and she went to school in London. But it was not until her foundation course at Camberwell School of Art that she began to find herself by ‘discovering Soutine, and all that paint.’ Now she has been invited to show at the Jerwood Gallery in Hastings, the beautiful seafront gallery with a view over the beach full of working boats. Beside the Seaside features a number of new and unseen works made especially for this show and reflects her long-standing links with Hastings where she frequently visits family who live in the town. She often draws on the beach, though photographs commonly provide a starting point. She’s not interested in literal truth but rather in what goes on under the surface, the awkward emotions that are held in check and frequently remain unconscious, only to leak through the publicly presented face. Just outside the main gallery is her 2008 painting of Anne Sexton with Joy. An American confessional poet, writing in the 1950s, Sexton was attractive, ambitious, manic depressive and suicidal. Like Arbus she penetrated shallow and socially conventional facades to reveal a brew of anger and suicidal thoughts. Here she is shown with her daughter and we can see just how imbalanced that relationship is. Joy looks away as her glamorous mother clings to her, voracious and needy.

The costal landscape provides the backdrop to many of Joffe’s portraits. But the horizon line and solid areas of sea, beach and sky trap and imprison rather than allow room to breathe. In Vita by the Sea, they emphasise the isolation of the subject with her defensive gaze, tight mouth and bruised watchful eyes, her androgynous, baggy, green checked shirt. In Brunette with Clouds the short-haired model stares out rebellious and passively aggressive. Is this a boy or a girl, hunched with hands in pockets? Brunette is a term usually applied to the female but a denim shirt open down the front might or might not be covering a flat chest or concealing breasts. While in Brunette by the sea, the subject stands against an unforgiving wall of blue sea, naked from the waist up, arms protectively clasped across their chest.

Defiance is mixed with discomfort in the portrait of Moll where she wears a mustard jacket over a black and white zig-zag skirt. Her hands are simply and roughly painted. Though there seems, no doubt, that they are clenched. She sits staring out from under heavy hooded lids, her blue eyes like lasers. In a painting done some three years before she’s sitting on the sea wall in a black patterned bathing suit, her knees locked self-consciously together. Joffe has caught that moment on the verge of puberty where Moll is neither quite child nor adolescent. Yet, in her face, we can discern the signs of the woman she will be in 30 years. In another small painting a group of young girls, including Joffe’s daughter Esme, stand with their arms around each other’s shoulders. They stare at the ground or off into the distance, keeping their own counsel, innocent and knowing, grouchy and enigmatic.

There’s a touch of Gwen John or Celia Paul in the wistful, slightly melancholy portrait of Megan in Spotted Silk Blouse. Though the application of paint is less ethereal, more assertive and visceral. The black and grey spots of Megan’s short sleeved blouse have been painted over a green ground, which has run down and dripped across the flesh tones of her bare arms revealing vulnerability. I read that Joffe is a great fan of the German painter Paula Modersohn Becker (1876–1907) about whom I recently wrote a novel, Girl in White. Immediately I can see the influence – the raw materiality and harsh brush strokes, the powerful, honest emotions, the distortions of scale and perspective for psychological effect. Joffe has said that ‘I paint to think’ and there’s a strong sense that her portraits are an exploration, not only of what it means to be a contemporary painter, but of the process of making an image of another person. Often executed on a large scale her works have a formidable presence.

Now she is getting older her concerns have shifted. Narratives are never explicit. Though the emphasis on age and generational difference are apparent in Self Portrait with Esme on the Promenade, 2014, where mother and daughter stand stiffly, the child apparently bored, the mother clasping her proprietorially.  In Pinky, painted the same year, a middle-aged woman, face shaded by a blue sun hat, sits on a promenade bench, holding a small dog on a leash. Her shoulders slump as she looks out across the empty strand. Beside her stands a young black girl in a short white dress. We can only see her lower half, which in contrast to the wilting mood of the older woman is sassy, free and sexual. Beyond the slab of pink promenade appears endless and unrelenting. Despite being flesh coloured it seems to yield nothing, reminding us that in the end paint is just that, paint. But there is also tenderness in Joffe’s work, as in Naked Dan, 2010. Here her partner reclines like some sort of pagan Bacchus, all beard and rotund stomach, on a blue bedspread speckled with red roses. It made me think of Freud’s studies of Leigh Bowery. But this is softer, less confrontational, as Dan’s nipples and rosy scrotum echo the flowers on the floral counterpane.

Like the American painter Alice Neel, Chantal Joffe has an unfashionable capacity to reveal vulnerability and humanity. Through her nuanced depictions of body language and fleeting facial expressions, along with her mastery of the possibilities of paint, she creates ‘portraits’ that are perceptive, truthful and always slightly unsettling.

Images: Courtesy of the artist and Victoria Miro © Chantal Joffe
Anne Sexton with Joy, 2008, Oil on board, 244 x 183 cms, 96.14 x 72.1 inches, (CJ 518)
Brunette with Clouds, 2013,Oil on canvas, 182.9 x 121.9 cm,72 1/8 x 48 in, (CJ 827)
Megan in Spotted Silk Blouse, 2014, Oil on Canvas,182.9 x 121.9 cm, 72 1/8 x 48 in, (CJ 937)

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The Path Less Travelled
Basil Beattie

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

BASIL BEATTIE IS OFTEN referred to as ‘a painter’s painter’, which marks the respect he’s held in by his peers. He is an artist who has kept to his vision without compromise. A show at Hales Gallery – Above and Below: Step Paintings 1990-2013 – followed hot on the heels of a successful exhibition at the Jerwood Gallery in Hastings.

That Beattie became an artist at all is, perhaps, surprising. Born in 1935, he grew up near Hartlepool. His father was a signalman on the railway and there was not much access to art. It was a strongly protestant upbringing. His grandfather was a lay preacher and the young Basil sang in the local church choir. At his secondary modern school, art was taught by the teacher who also oversaw English and gardening, and art books were few and far between. At home Beattie copied images from Picture Post and drew what he saw out of the window.

‘I remember going shopping with my mother in West Hartlepool and across from the bus terminus was the art school. I decided that’s where I wanted to go. There was lots to draw. The shipyards and steel works. There was a steep stairway down to the sea. People used to collect sea coal. I saw a man coming up carrying his bicycle and balancing a sack. I was taken by the struggle and drew him in red and green inks. I used to go to the Odeon on Saturday morning but then started going to art classes. The art school was an oasis. I began to buy the Modern Painters series on Paul Nash, Victor Pasmore and Graham Sutherland. The plan was always to get to London. I wanted to go to the Royal College but wasn’t accepted, so I went to the Royal Academy.’



Beyond the obvious physicality of Beattie’s paintings, there is the question of the complex metaphors he creates. ‘Well, I have been working this way for a long time. In the early 1960s, I saw an article in Life Magazine on Rothko. I realised he was trying to say the unsayable, to calibrate something inchoate. He wasn’t using colour in a decorative way. And I sensed that there was something else going on in these works.’

Beattie’s paintings are full of his signature pictograms or hieroglyphs that create their own semantics, though he’s at pains to point out that he wouldn’t want them to be to read as literal symbols or signs. His architectural shapes – towers, doors, steps and ziggurats – his tunnels and passage ways teeter and go nowhere. Everything is precarious, everything tenuous and on the point of collapse. These almost archetypal images seem to come from deep within the unconscious. ‘It gets harder with age,’ he says, ‘wrestling with what you think you have learnt. You still doubt. You have to circumnavigate what you’ve learnt in order to arrive at things obliquely. I wouldn’t want anyone to think I was particularly interested in architecture per se. I’m always trying to subvert the things I know.’

His images are both assertive and evasive. Full of uncertainty, there is a struggle for identity that seems almost anthropomorphic. A ziggurat begun as a grid turned, as he subtracted elements, into a shape with a broad base and something that might be read as a head. It was a coincidence that he was prepared to accept. Doubt and possible failure run like the bass-note through these works. There’s something atavistic about them. Whilst he is very well versed in contemporary movements – he taught for many years at Goldsmiths – they feel as though they could be understood by ‘primitive’ peoples who would relate to their darkness and references to death. Even the earth on which his steps are based seems unstable. There’s a strong sense of claustrophobia and entrapment; the grids, the shut doors beyond which there seems to be nothing, the tracks that lead into infinite tunnels are nightmarish. It’s hard not to be reminded of Auschwitz with its railway lines leading to that infamous watch tower, and Beattie admits that, as young man, while doing national service in Germany, he visited Belsen and it had a profound effect. Mostly he remembers the silence. That no birds sang. Germany was his first trip abroad. It was there, too, that he encountered Picasso. Running up the museum steps in Cologne he came face to face with Guernica. His work has often been yoked to that of Philip Guston, and the Abstract Expressionists are an obvious influence, but there’s also an edgy existential quality suggestive of Giacometti. It’s there in the nervy movement and the sense of doubt. Although he often works from drawings, a painting is largely ‘found’.

‘You struggle on with it, finding it, losing it. You also have to be prepared to obliterate it. Often you’ll say to yourself, why didn’t I do that before? But you couldn’t. You had to get to that point. Often expunging something is as significant as adding something. But there isn’t a formula. The spaces where the cotton is left bare are just as important as those covered with paint. When the paint is thick it fills the weave of the canvas like a skin. The absence of paint allows the painting to breath.’ Does he paint on the floor? ‘I did when I used thinner acrylics. Now I paint on the wall.’ What tools does he use? ‘Brushes, screwdrivers, squeegees, my hands. But I couldn’t ever tell anyone else how to paint my paintings.’ That, one might suggest, would be like telling someone how to live his life. In his Janus series, where a shape that resembles a car mirror allows the viewer to look both forward into the future and backwards towards the past, the formal structure is paramount. These works are full of illusionistic space, as if life, itself, was an illusion and the only destination and certainty: death. They are among the most existential of his paintings.

He is emphatic that a painting only becomes a vivid experience though the process of being made. He is concerned to try and place physical things, such as a door, within a painting, to describe something that has a recognisable quality but that is not actually the thing itself.

‘What I’m trying to do is parallel certain experiences in life but there is no obvious known way of doing it.’

The result is a form of alchemy. An essential relationship between the viewer, the artist and the heart of the work. That place, he says, feels like another zone. ‘It is essential to remain directionless but alert to what is happening in order to discover what I am feeling.’

For a painter who never directly paints the figure, his work is redolent with human emotion. It is the sense of human absence that makes it so keenly and vividly felt. There is a sense that what he depicts are the traces left behind, clues to human activity. Samuel Beckett’s lines reverberate: ‘Where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.’

For many years, Beattie had a demanding and complex life as a tutor at Goldsmith’s, a single parent bringing up his young daughters, and as an artist. It was, he says, a struggle to find the time he needed in the studio and for a long time he felt like a Sunday painter. Now he is one of the most recognised painters of his generation. Recently there’s a new vibrancy to his work with the introduction of brighter colour and a move away from exclusively earthy tones. ‘Oh, the colours just happened,’ he says. ‘Lots of people don’t like them. They prefer the muted ones. But the colour is never used decoratively. There is a symbolic force behind it.’

He is very keen to deny elements of autobiography in his work, yet looking at his paintings is like inhabiting someone’s mind. They seem to be maps of sorts, of how to find one’s way out of the existential crisis of living. Some of them are terribly sad, like the Steps to Nowhere. The staircase sags as if utterly defeated. It almost seems to be weeping. After having climbed all that way, the view from the top is, apparently, no clearer than from the bottom. They suggest a Sisyphean struggle to ascend and never an arrival at a destination. His endless corridors that lead nowhere conjure Robert Frost’s lines in The Road Not Taken: ‘I took the one less travelled and that made all the difference.’ Yet, for all their bleakness, his paintings seem tentatively to adopt the language of shelter, to be a search for some sort of structure, dwelling or resting place, however inadequate.

In an age when painting struggles to hold its own against other media such as installation and video, Basil Beattie continues to revivify the form – both technically and emotionally – with his personal pictorial dramas. The work touches on those most serious of subjects, the meaning of human existence and mortality. As Jung wrote: ‘Only paradox comes anywhere near to contemplating the fullness of life.’

Basil Beattie’s paintings are abundant with paradox, ambiguity, doubt and uncertainty and it is this that makes them deeply, movingly, human.


Drawn by Light:
The Royal Photographic Society Collection

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

Media Space, Science Museum, London: Until 1 March 2015
National Media Museum, Bradford, UK: 20th March- 21 June 2015
Reiss-Engelhorn-Museen, Mannheim, Germany: 2017

Photography is quite, literally, a miracle. In this technological age we forget how much, forget what the world was like before we could capture the fleeting, the momentary and lock it with one single click of the shutter into eternal aspic.  Before the photograph memories were just that. Memories.  To look at old photographs is to have a direct worm hole into the past. They are not the same as paintings. There, in front of us, is often the actual living plant, view or person as they were, maybe, 150 years ago. That is the way the light fell on a particular day, those are the actual clouds or dirt under the fingernails. It is not so much an interpretation but a preservation. Even a re-incarnation, and it often seems magical.

Founded in 1853, the Royal Photographic Society began making acquisitions following Prince Albert’s suggestion that the society should collect photographs to record the rapid technical progress in photography. Royal approval soon followed. The 1850s were a moment of unprecedented optimism in Britain as we stood on the edge of a new, modern industrial world. There was a belief in the unlimited possibilities of science and technology, symbolised by a new young Queen on the throne. The RPS was modelled on the Victorian ideal of the learned Society. These existed all around the country to discuss literature, philosophy and the natural sciences and bring about self-improvement. The aim was to promote both the art and the science of photography. Today this unique collection contains over 250,000 photographs and is one of the most important in the world. Drawn by Light: The Royal Photographic Society Collection is the first co-curating enterprise between The Royal Photographic Society, the Science Museum and the National Media museum and the Reiss-Engelhorn-Museen. The title provides a delightful pun – for, of course, photography is pure light. The exhibition not only reflects the development of camera technology but the psychological, philosophical and aesthetic trends of particular eras and includes works not only by the greats such as Julia Margaret Cameron, Paul Strand and Don McCullin but also by many less known photographers.

But from the very first things were not always quite what they seem. Many of the canonical images of early war photography turn out to have been staged. After arriving by horse-drawn carriage in the much shelled valley approaching Sebastopol, where the Charge of the Light Brigade took place, Roger Fenton organised a little additional scattering of cannonballs on the road for dramatic effect. Equally Henry Peach Robinson’s 1858, Fading Away, and his 1842 Wounded soldier have the air of being staged. This intervention can also be witnessed in the 1917 First World War scene of railway goodbyes by Francis James Mortimer, which is in fact a collage or Fred Holland Day’s depiction of himself as the crucified Christ. (A theme, incidentally, returned to some years ago in the mock crucifixion of the late performance artist, Sebastian Horsley). While Frances Frith’s self-portrait, in supposedly Turkish costume, underwrites Edward Said’s take on orientalisation of the exotification of the East by western artists. For Firth never actually visited Turkey. But there are other historic images, such as the Count of Montizón’s 1852 giant hippo reclining by its pool in the zoological gardens, or The Onion Field taken in Mersea Island Essex in 1890 that do take us directly into the past.

There are curiosities, too, such as Muybridge’s 1887 Daisy trotting saddled that went some way in revealing the true nature of a horse’s movement and the bizarre 1927 Content of an Ostrich’s Stomach by Frederick William Bond that includes a couple of handkerchiefs – one embroidered, one plain – various, coins, bits of rope and metal nails.

Many of the early photographs veer between the desire to set up mise-en-scenes and creative narrative tableaux as in Henry Peach Robinson’s 1858 scenario of Red Riding Hood and a desire to document subjects never before recorded such as the ghostly faces, captured in salt prints in 1852, of those incarcerated in the Surrey County Asylum.

The exhibition is full of iconic images. Stieglitz’s immigrant Jews arriving in the States as steerage in 1907, their heads covered in the prayer shawls. Arthur Rothstein’s Steinbeckian 1930’s image of the Oklahoma dust storms and the long-haired naked ‘streaker’ at a 1974 UK football match, his privates decorously covered by a Bobby’s helmet as he’s escorted off the pitch in front of the amused crowd. The photographer Terry O’Neill claims that when he picked up a camera over 50s years ago, he didn’t really know what he was doing but his photographs of Frank Sinatra in performance and in rehearsal capture the singer both casually in his dressing room and during performance, documenting a now departed show business legend that will allow future generations to be familiar with his presence in a way that was never possible before photography.

Writing this piece reminds me of the wonderful television drama, Shooting The Past, by Stephen Poliakoff about the threatened closure of a photographic archive. As it unfolds we become immersed in a world of memories. The past, we are reminded, is another country where they do things differently. As with the RPS collection, Shooting the Past tells the extraordinary stories of the lives of ordinary people, as well as those that became icons of their generations.

The Hippopotamus at the Zoological Gardens, 1852, Juan Carlos Maria Isidro, Count Montizon de Borbon©NMeM
The Gate of Goodbye, 1917. Francis James Mortimer©National Media Museum Bradford
Father& sons walking the face of a dust storm, Cimarron County, Oklahoma, 1936 Arthur Rothstein©Arthur Rothstein
Frank Sinatra, London 1989. Terry O’Neill. The RPS Collection, National Media Museum Bradford © Terry O’Neill

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Mirror City
Hayward Gallery, London

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Art Criticism

London is one of the world’s leading centers for contemporary art and also has a history that reaches back beyond Roman times. It’s a place of contradictions, home to great financial and cultural institutions, fine universities and wonderful buildings, as well as to a range of diverse ethnic communities that rub shoulders with the privileged rich. Fragmented, loud, glittering, unknowable and dark in equal measure, like Calvino’s Invisible Cities, London presents itself as a series of interlocking dreams. So it was with a sense of anticipation that I visited the Hayward’s exhibition hoping for some reflection of this complex utopian/dystopian palimpsest. How would 23 different artists explore how digital and actual space meld and crossover in this ancient city? What would they reveal about the effects on our everyday lives?

The first work encountered on entering the gallery is Lindsay Seer’s Nowhere Less Now. Screened inside the upturned hull of a fabricated ship her video touches on her seafaring background, interwoven with the narrative of a fictional seaman. More stage set than artwork the effect is unnecessarily overblown, which is really how one might describe the whole exhibition. A baggy, over-curated smorgasbord of a show, coherence is heavily dependent on the copious wall texts that strain to link art that in other circumstances might not actually be linked at all. It’s hard to see what Ursula Mayer’s film about a transgender model, shown alongside an array of glass dildos and cabinets that includes tributes to Ayn Rand and Margaret Thatcher, has in common with the work of last year’s Turner Prize winner, Laure Prouvost’s The Artist, where a series of signs announce “Keep Left” or “Don’t Look Up.”

Fracture and collage seem to be the hallmarks of this show as in Tim Etchell’s wall of fly-posted headlines that create fictional scenarios such as “Delirium Tremens Orchestra Play New Songs by Silvio Berlusconi and Dmitry Medvedev” and Susan Hiller’s audio collage of disembodied voices describing extra-terrestrial phenomena. While John Stezaker’s uncanny and witty photographic creations, welded together from old film stills, marry the dissonance of surrealism with postmodernist fragmentation.

Lloyd Corporation sounds like the name of a multinational business but is, in fact, the nomenclature of the art duo Ali Eisa and Sebastian Lloyd Rees whose work claims to focus on the fall-out from the corporate world. Their practice includes sculpture, installation and video, though for this show they have devised a performance entitled The World for Less, which takes place each Saturday at different locations around the Hayward and features actors performing as street vendors.

Amongst this collection of very disparate work is Emma McNally’s intense and beautiful Choral Fields 1-6 (2014) in graphite on paper. The title suggests both music and a field of vision or activity. Inventing new ways of using graphite and carbon, which she erases with sandpaper, she creates drawings that allude to space and the microscope, to navigational charts and the stars, in work that is both tense and gestural, muscular yet lyrical.

A special newspaper Mirror City has been edited by the novelist Tom McCarthy and written by the artists to accompany the show. Presumably rather tongue-in-cheek—it suggests that the sport coverage can be found on page 42 when, in fact, the paper only consists of 23 pages. Though reading it doesn’t—and perhaps is not meant to—clarify anything about what we are seeing. Walking through this exhibition veers between the stimulating, annoying, mystifying and pretentious, the whole edifice being over dependent on a hypothesis that’s not really borne out by the whole. Like a fairground hall of mirrors there are numerous distortions of “reality.” The implication seems to be that the city is a series of chimeras. That’s an interesting and valid position but one not really supported by this sprawling rather forced show.

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Allen Jones
RA, London

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

Some years ago I was commissioned by the Royal Academy magazine to write ‘a feminist appraisal’ of Allen Jones’ work. As an RA, Jones had the privilege of reading the piece before it went to press. Although he’s referred to himself as a feminist on a number of occasions he seemed uncomfortable with this perspective. He vetoed the article and it was never published. I decided, therefore, to take the opportunity to revisit the work of this 77 year old pop artist to see if my response was any different a number of years on.

As I walked through the Royal Academy I remembered how the Viennese painter, Oscar Kokoschka, returned from the First World War to find that his lover Alma Mahler had married the founder of the Bauhaus school, Walter Gropius. To deal with his unrequited passion Kokoschka ordered the doll-maker Hermine Moos to make an exact, life-size replica of his ex. When the mannequin finally arrived, Kokoschka was horrified to find that, far from being life-like, it had furry limbs. Yet despite the doll’s hirsute appearance they made trips to the opera, took long carriage rides and, it was said, had intimate rendezvous. Eventually Kokoschka threw a champagne party and afterwards wrote: “When dawn broke – I was quite drunk, as was everyone else – I beheaded it out in the garden and broke a bottle of red wine over its head.”

In 1939 Salvador Dali was commissioned to create a display window for New York’s fashionable department store, Bonwit Teller. A claw-footed bathtub was lined with Persian lambskin and filled with narcissi floating in muddy water. Arms from disembodied white mannequins reached from the bath. Each held a hand mirror, tilted to reflect a turn-of-the-century wax mannequin with a doll-like features, about to step into the bath. Chicken feathers were glued to her naked body and her cheeks covered in blood stained tears. Her long blonde hair was crawling with artificial bugs. Shoppers were aghast. By noon the scandalous mannequin had been removed and Dali had pushed the bath tub through the plate glass window onto Fifth Avenue.

The word ‘fetish’ comes from the Portuguese. A term given to heretical talismans in the Middle Ages. Historically the artists’ mannequin, far from being an inconspicuous studio tool such as the easel or palette became, in the early 20th century, a fetishised object, eventually, becoming a work of art in its own right. Erotomania (another term for fetishism) has clinically been described as the behaviour of individuals who suffer extreme erotic fixations.

Alan Jones is part of a male generation for whom women were ‘chicks’, ‘birds’ and ‘bunny girls’. Like their animal counterparts these young women were seen as fair game. Sex was considered by many males as sport and a form of conquest. To speak of the 1960s as a sexual revolution is to misunderstand those times. A liberating period for men, women who slept around were described as ‘easy lays’ or ‘slags’.  And, in those pre-pill days, were very likely to be left holding the baby.

It is pretty well impossible to read Alan Jones’ Hat Stand,1969 as anything other than a fetishist object. An expressionless mannequin holds up her hands to take, presumably, her male clients’ hats. Her purple bolero is pulled tight over conical tits. She wears a dog-collar, a G-string, and tightly-laced, thigh-high boots. Her coiffed hair is blonde and immaculate.There’s nothing satirical here. This is woman as object. Her role is to serve. She is a hat stand. Elsewhere three pairs of crossed legs in tightly laced thigh boots poke through a wall, along with a right arm in a glove. These are entitled Secretary. The message, here, is that these women are subservient, compliant and sexually available. There is no head, therefore no brain. No body, therefore no heart.

Jones’ 1969 Chair and Table attracted a good deal of feminist ire when they appeared. The female figures are trussed and bound. The figure in Chair lies supine, her legs in the air. She wears long black boots, black gloves and little black leather pants. A seat is strapped to her thighs so that she’s contorted into a position of constant availability: a chair in more than one sense of the word. Table kneels on all fours on a white fleece rug. A sheet of glass is secured to her back to form the table top. She is staring down into a small hand mirror. I was reminded of Meret Oppenheim’s fur tea cup. But no irony or social critique is intended here. These pieces are what they always were: fetishistic objects fashioned for the male gaze. What’s interesting is that while I was walking around the exhibition I noticed how insouciant contemporary viewers appeared to be. There seemed little outrage. Most smiled indulgently. Whether this is due to post-feminist fatigue or sophisticated ennui, it’s hard to say.

A Model Model, made as recently as 2013, depicts a woman with both her arms and legs encased in a sheath dress like a mermaid’s skin. While the hard sparkly gold Body Armour that entraps Kate Moss offers more of the same. In an era of ubiquitous cosmetic surgery these bland depictions of women, without any trace of expression, personality or imperfection are little more than soft porn. Barbie dolls for grown men

It is unfortunate that the publicity surrounding these one dimensional works has obscured the fact that Allen Jones is a rather good painter, a fine colourist and a skilled draftsman. The most interesting works are also the most ambiguous such as Interesting Journey, 1962 and Thinking About Women, 1961-2, with its areas of flat red and brown paint and fluid, semi-abstract patches of colour. Male, Female Diptych 1965 explores the territory of sexual duality. The lips, bras, green stilettos, male shoes and a Fedora seem to belong neither exclusively to the male nor female figure. There is a strong sense of colour, design and movement in these 60s paintings. At the time when British painting was full of sludgy khakis and browns they must have seemed vital, daring and fresh. The world is presented as a stage. Dance is a continual reference. The canvas becomes an arena of performance full of hedonism, energy and colour. There is a nod to Picasso with the plethora of acrobats and dancers. The early ambiguous paintings are the most interesting. Later,when the colour becomes flatter and more sugary, the images of women just props as with the golden body of the girl in Levitation, 2000, they become more predictable.

Among the most vital work are Jones’s sculptural cut outs. Red Ballerina, 1982 has all the well observed movement of a Degas balletic figure. What a pity that the sensitivity shown here is later reduced in the red figure of Stand In and the horrible yellow, blue and pink fibre glass mannequin that is Waiting on Table to sexual cliché and stereotype. Jones might have been celebrated as a significant British painter of his generation. But his fatal flaw has been, not so much the manner in which he depicts women, but that he has never questioned this approach and cannot see why it gives offence.

Allen Jones RA, Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington Gardens, London W1S 3ET.


Interesting Journey, 1962. Oil on canvas, 61 x 51cm. LONDON, PRIVATE COLLECTION. © Allen Jones. Photo: Private Collection

Stand In, 1991/2. Oil on plywood and fibreglass, 185 x 185 x 63 cm. Banbury, Private Collection. Image courtesy of the artist. © Allen Jones

Hat Stand, 1969. Mixed media, 191 x 108 x 40 cm. Private collection, London. Image courtesy the artist. © Allen Jones

First Step, 1966.Oil on canvas, 92 x 92 cm. LONDON, COLLECTION ALLEN JONES. © Allen Jones. Image courtesy of the artist

Tracey Emin
White Cube, London

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

She’s come a long way, our Tracey, from the days of teenage sex behind the beach-huts in Margate, the seedy Kent sea-side town where she grew up, famed for its 1960s beach battles between rogue gangs of Mods and Rockers and as JMW Turner’s hidey-hole, where he snuggled up to his landlady, Mrs Booth, in her seafront guest house.I first met Tracey in the 90s when I was at Time Out and interviewed her at the ‘shop’ she had started in Waterloo with Sarah Lucas. She was friendly and slightly out-to-lunch as she tripped around in, what I assumed, to be a state of post-prandial zaniness.  Self-obsessed and rawly talented, she came across as both worldly and vulnerable. Since then she has repeatedly been in the limelight – for her tent enumerating all those she slept with, that drunken display on TV and, of course, her notorious bed that didn’t actually win The Turner prize but earlier this year sold for £2.2 million. But nowadays she’s not so much wild child as grande dame. There’s the very healthy bank balance, the M&S adverts with Helen Mirren modelling clothes for middle-England. The support for the Conservative party and the dresses by Vivienne Westwood. She is professor of Drawing at the Royal Academy. You can’t get much more establishment than that.Now she’s in the news again, not only for her exhibition: The Last Great Adventure is You, at White Cube, Bermondsey but because she recently announced that, for her, motherhood was incompatible with being an artist. “Having a child would be a substitute for my work”, she said. “There are good artists that have children…They are called men.” 

Of course, this is nonsense. We don’t live in the Middle Ages when that was certainly true. Barbara Hepworth had triplets, Nancy Spiro had children, as do many of Tracey’s contemporaries such as Eileen Cooper (Keeper of the RA Schools) and Jenny Saville. Rachel Howard has four and a very successful career.  But such black and white statements attract attention. No one denies that having a child is an individual woman’s choice. But in this age of celebrity gossip what people love is to identify with Tracey’s Hello! life-style; her abortions, her hopeless love-life and, now, her concern with the onset of the menopause and middle-age. It’s not so much that her art has made her famous but like a one-woman confessional, her feminism-lite perfectly captures the narcissism and self-indulgence of our contemporary society. We love that she’s a bit like us – only richer and better dressed, that like many we know she’s not had the luck to find the right man and that now, after the abortions, it’s too late to reproduce. But we seem to have forgotten that in the 70s and 80s many women artists made genuinely ground breaking work about the body and womanhood: Judy Chicago, Mary Kelly and Ana Mendieta to name but three. All had much more radical social and political agendas that formed part of a universal dialogue and a collective struggle. Kate Walker even stitched her experiences into everyday domestic objects and made a work called ‘The Other Side of the Blanket.’ Who remembers that now? Little acknowledgement is given to the legacy of these pioneering women.

Despite looking elegant in the beautiful White Cube gallery with its acres of polished concrete floors, The Last Great Adventure is You only goes to underline Tracey’s solipsism. The large scale embroidered figures (done by assistants), the bronze sculptures, the gouaches, paintings and neon works are, despite the ‘you’ in the show’s title, as usual, all about her. The nudes are the result of life-drawing classes she’s been attending in New York, while the sculptures have evolved from recent lessons in how to cast bronze. Yet despite the years of public angst and the recent admission that she expects to remain single from now on, they feel curiously unemotional. Much of the work lacks her direct touch. The large-scale embroideries have been sewn by other hands so that they feel like expensive interior decorations rather than the heart-wrung expressions of a woman grappling with the meaning of life. Even the small paintings, which do have a certain charm individually, when seen in a group, become weak and formulaic, full of the same gestural marks and clichés. There appears to be little real emotional or artistic struggle here. You feel you could order one up to suit your colour scheme. What’s supposed to feel intuitive and expressionistic has become designed and calculated. It’s all rather polite and tame. All rather Sunday morning life-drawing class.

Tracey has made her name as a confessional artist. But the problem is that there’s actually not enough Sturm und Drang, not enough soul searching. Unlike Louise Bourgeois there’s no real psychological insight or like Chaïm Soutine or Munch not enough nail-biting angst. She asks us to ‘feel her pain’ but we are not able to do so either emotionally or in the raw execution of her materials that, in the end, give an art work its voice. If her work was taken out of the magnificent space of White Cube and shown without all the razzmatazz in some shabby student studio, would we still be interested? There’s something moribund about it, as if she’s still paddling in the same pond as 25 years ago and moving no closer to the shore.

Perhaps if Tracey had had more of ‘real’ life looking after children: mopping up sick at midnight and balancing the parent’s evening with the studio opening, whilst also remembering to buy nappies and fish fingers on the way home, rather than flouncing around in a new Vivienne Westwood outfit at the opening of yet another envelope, her very real talent wouldn’t have become subsumed by her life-style and she might have developed as a serious artist rather than the media personality she has become. She is certainly right about one thing – you can’t have it all.

White Cube Bermondsey till 16th November 2014

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Anselm Kiefer
Visit to Barjac

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

Courtesy of Elephant Magazine and images from the web

“…we gaze at it in wonder, a kind of wonder which in itself is a form of dawning horror, for somehow we know by instinct that outsize buildings cast the shadow of their own destruction before them, and are designed from the first with an eye to their later existence as ruins.”
― W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz

Although Anslem Kiefer’s primary site of production is Croissy, near Paris, he moved to Barjac, a former silk factory in the South of France, in 1992. The land supplies many of the materials habitually used in his work. The sunflowers that grow seven meters tall from seeds especially imported from Japan, the thousands of tulips that are dried for their petals to be used in paintings devoted to Arab poets, the trees that are dipped in plaster and coated with clay from the estate. It is a strange place; with its sheds housing huge individual paintings, often covered in arcane text, and its vertiginous towers – a cross between Pisa’s leaning turret and concentration camp sentry boxes – constructed in concrete castes taken from shipping containers. There are overgrown paths and vast glass houses filled with sculptures of planes and books created from detritus and rubble, an underground crypt and a huge concrete amphitheatre reached by a labyrinth of tunnels like a catacomb. The place is mythic, hubristic, obsessive, extraordinary, profound and unique in its imaginative scope. A place of dreams, it attempts to give voice in visual language to the mood and cataclysmic shifts of the 20th century, as well as to the cyclical nature of existence itself. It’s as fantastical as Calvino’s Invisible Cities, as obsessed with the cycles of history as the writing of Kiefer’s late compatriot, W.G. Sebald, and is a matrix of the intellectual and aesthetic concerns that have obsessed the artist for half a century.

Born in 1945 in Donaueschingen, on the Danube, Kiefer always knew he wanted to make art, despite initially studying law. He is part of a generation of German intellectuals that includes Joseph Beuys, Georg Bazelitz, Gunter Grass and Bernhard Schlink who, as they attempted to come to terms with the catastrophe of the Third Reich and the Holocaust, had Theodor Adorno’s words ringing in their ears that to persist with the production of art (primarily in Germany) after Auschwitz – (though Adorno uses the world ‘poetry’) – is to participate in the perpetuation of that barbaric culture and in the denials that rendered criticism of it impossible. 

When he first settled in Barjac everything Kiefer created was with materials brought from Germany: books, photographs, old paintings, even bits of lead from the roof of Cologne cathedral. He claims to feel like an outsider in this soft French landscape that has inspired countless other painters, says that he’s never felt prompted to make work about it. Instead he needed to take possession of the place in order to make sense of it. Part home, part laboratory and workshop, he has built roads and buildings, planted trees and vegetation, created enclosures. Then one day he started to dig. 

After completing his first tunnel he hit on the idea of the Seven Heavenly Palaces of the Jewish mystics and set about fashioning seven buildings and constructing a series of greenhouses connected by tunnels. What he has created is a sort of reverse archaeology, a psychic map, a form of visual philosophy that materialises the ideas of the Markavah in the Sepher Hekhalot that relate to man’s ascent through the Seven Heavenly Palaces. During this journey man’s hands and limbs are gradually burnt away until all that is left is his spirit. As he descends further he plunges into his own psyche. So, in Barjac, the viewer having wandered in darkness through this underground labyrinth, will come to a staircase that leads to a room flooded with light, where another stairway will lead to another tunnel and so on. There is nothing picturesque here. It is a harsh, elemental, magisterial place, like some archaic burial site. Industrial pipes and ducts connect the underground passageways. Their function is uncertain. As you wander you may glimpse daylight but there’s a danger of getting lost, of going back the way you came, of discovering yourself in a room with a pool and lead walls where no sound reaches and its gravity – the mass attributed to Saturn, the planet of melancholy – creates a sensory annihilation. Elsewhere you might glimpse, if you look up, what could be bookcases, paintings or jars – just lit sufficiently to feel their presence and experience them as abstract objects. 

The core of the building is the amphitheatre built from concrete casts of second-hand shipping containers. It stands 15 metres high and has five levels and three sides. The outline was traced on the ground with a mechanical digger, then dug it out. The space beneath, as with the construction of many cathedrals, was filled with sand to avoid the use of scaffolding, before being removed when the ceiling was in place. The soil at La Ribotte is clay and clings to the concrete so that the place looks like some ancient crypt or the Mithras temple below the basilica of San Clemente in Rome, hewn directly from the earth. The amphitheatre is the hub from which, through other tunnels – just as in the Châtelt metro in Paris – the visitor can travel in different directions. Constructed without an architect or engineer, with the aid of only a couple of assistants, Kiefer is aware it will eventually collapse like the bunkers found along the Normandy coast. The metaphor of entropy pervades his work. Various installations are housed in the surrounding spaces. One contains a number of reels of film. This is a paradox. For the normally opaque film is made of lead onto which Kiefer has pasted obscure 30 year old photographs. Another underground chamber is dedicated to the Women of the Revolution. Filled with lead beds. Water stagnates in the hollow body-shaped indentations to form a sort of membrane or skin.

Barjac is not an exhibition venue, a gallery or a workshop but a map of the imagination – a Gesamtunktwerk – that illustrates Keifer’s belief that the etymology of wohnen (to dwell) is derived from the ancient Germ baun/bauen (to construct or build). “Building and living are the same”, he says referring to Martin Heidegger. “Man can only dwell, that is exist, when he builds…..creation and destruction are one and the same”. Poetry and philosophical texts have always been a seminal influence. These have been as various as the poetry of Paul Celan and Ingeborg Bachmann, Jewish Cabalistic texts, Roland Barthes, Nietzsche, and tracts on alchemy. Kiefer’s domain is the liminal; the interstices in history and the psyche. The palette is a recurring motif, a symbol of the potency of art to bridge the external physical world and the internal world of the imagination. As T. S. Eliot says: “What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.”

Kiefer has often been accused of being grandiose (which at times he is), and neo-Nazi, which he certainly isn’t. What he is, is a complex, driven artist with a brilliant visual imagination and a fierce intellect. Shaped by the moment of his birth amid the rubble and devastation of the Second World War, just as Hitler’s ‘thousand-year Reich’ was collapsing, his career he has been an investigation of the borders between form and chaos, between matter and spirit, horror and beauty. He is not a populist. “Art”, as he says, “is something very difficult. It is difficult to make, and it is sometimes difficult for the viewer to understand.” In his creative crucible boundaries are dissolved, the solid becomes fluid, space and linear time are dissolved and matter re-configured. W.G. Sebald gives voice to Kiefer’s imagination in his novel Vertigo. “The more images I gathered from the past … the more unlikely it seemed to me that the past had actually happened in this or that way, for nothing about it could be called normal: most of it was absurd, and if not absurd, then appalling.”

At present Barjac is not open to the public. But there is hope that it will one day become a foundation. If so it will be a monument to a vigorous and powerful imagination, along with the flow and flux of history and the deepest questions explored by the human mind.


Dennis Hopper:
The Lost Album

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive/But to be young was very heaven,” wrote Wordsworth on the eve of the French Revolution. Though his words could equally have been describing a very different time and place and another, later, revolution where to be young was, also, ‘very heaven’. This revolution was expressed not through chopping off aristocratic heads but through drugs, sex and rock n’roll. And, as with the French revolution, its utopian values of freedom grew out of the restrictions and constraints of the dominant culture.

I was at school in the 1960s and remember going to see Easy Rider. It’s hard to explain, coming from my bourgeois English background, just how mesmerising it was to sit in the dark and watch this anarchic road movie. Cool, sexy and intense, its saturated colour, naturalistic shots and long lonely vistas of desert highways seemed to embody a sort of frontier freedom that was primarily American, something I’d only previously encountered in the writing of Jack Kerouac. Easy Rider was wild, thrilling and a little frightening. It encapsulated the restlessness of the 60s counterculture, the feelings of a generation increasingly disillusioned with organised government and the political conflicts that surrounded Vietnam, poverty and issues of race.  The film stared three men who would go on to become iconic anti-heroes:  Peter Fonda, Jack Nicholson and Dennis Hopper.

Mad, bad and, no doubt, dangerous to know, Dennis Hopper became a cult figure. He embodied the restless mood of those emotionally charged times with their major social shifts and changes in moral values. Good-looking, self-confident and iconoclastic – part outlaw, part artist – he was the sort of guy who was always going to be something even if he didn’t know what that something was going to be. By the age of 18 he was under contract to Warner Bros and became fascinated by the creative potential of film,  co-starring with that other American icon, James Dean, in Rebel without a Cause (1955) and Giant (1956). By the late 50s Hopper was living in New York and studying acting under Lee Strasberg. He was also taking photographs of street signs, walls and ripped posters, material not yet commonly the subject of art. At 25 he married the actress Brooke Hayward, daughter of the photographer, Leyland Hayward. On Hopper’s birthday Brooke went to her father and borrowed the money to buy him a Nikon camera. From 1961 to 1967 he carried it everywhere until he began work on Easy Rider and put it away.

The necessity to take photographs (and make paintings) came, he said, from ‘a place of desperation and solitude’. He hoped that taking photos would fill the void. In his own words he was “an Abstract Expressionist and an Action painter by nature, and a Duchampian finger-pointer by choice.” (Duchamp had said, ‘The artist of the future will merely point his finger and say it’s art – and it will be art.’) By his own admission, Hopper didn’t read a lot. But he had a compelling sense that he wanted to “document something. I wanted to leave something that I thought would be a record…whether it was Martin Luther King, the hippies, or whether it was the artist.” His black and white photographs, taken from the full negative, were uncropped and shot in natural light. He photographed flat so there was no depth of field and the images became like a wall, or a painted surface. Living in LA there was, he claimed, not much to look at. Driving along endless highways walls gave a point of interest.

The Lost Album: A Treasure Trove, now on show at the Royal Academy, presents a selection of the 400 pictures that were stored and forgotten in five boxes and not unearthed until after Hopper’s death in 2010. They are believed to be the ones that he selected for his first major show at Forth Worth Art Centre Museum, from the hundreds taken between 1961 and 1967. As well as being visually talented, Hopper was also, according to Rolling Stone magazine, “one of Hollywood’s most notorious drug addicts” for 20 years. The 1970s and early 1980s were spent living as an “outcast” in a small town in New Mexico. In The Taos Incident Walter Hopps, co-founder of the Ferus Gallery, describes how in the mid-70s he transferred the photographs from ‘the biker gang, lesbian, drug and hippie nest of Taos’ into the protected space of his museum. What they show is that this enfant terrible had a rare artistic sensibility and empathy.

Dennis Hopper captures a series of uniquely American moments. He is the Walt Whitman of celluloid. So many faces of the United States are here: the celebrities, the heroes, the poor, and the crazy. There are images of the downtrodden and ordinary New Yorkers: kids climbing a tree, two women in head- scarves seated in an all-night diner, a middle-aged seamstress, as well as photographs showing both the poetry and the poverty of lives on the streets of Mexico and in Alabama. There are hippie girls dancing and Hell’s Angels with their chains, Nazi insignia and biker jackets, and a 1967 photo of ‘Flower Children’ – girls, one nursing a baby, sitting under a tree on a hot summer’s day with garlands in their hair, looking like members of some fundamentalist religious cult. And there’s a picture of that guru of gurus, Timothy Leary, reaching out and shaking the hand of a follower like some sort of Messianic priest.

But it’s the photographs of the young Andy Warhol (before the wig), the boyish, owl-eyed David Hockney, of Jasper Johns and a gamine Niki de Saint Phalle, along with the snappily dressed Robert Rauschenberg sticking out his tongue for the camera, that are truly Proustian. Then there’s the dashing Ed Ruscha standing in front of a neon sign that looks like one of his paintings, and an iconic image of Jane Fonda and Roger Vadaim – all European chic – at their wedding in LA in 1965, and Paul Newman looking amazing, sitting on a lawn in the shadows of tennis court netting, ensnared like some sultry beast. They are all so young, so golden. They must have thought they would be the first generation to live for ever. But most poignant of all are the photographs of Martin Luther King and the Kennedy Funeral taken from the television. In these it’s as if time has stood still for a moment. With their brutal assassinations came the loss of the dream. ‘Bye, bye miss American pie’ this was ‘the day the music died’.


Dennis Hopper
Leon Bing, 1966
Photograph, 17.68 x 24.59 cm
The Hopper Art Trust
© Dennis Hopper, courtesy The Hopper Art Trust.

Dennis Hopper
Irving Blum and Peggy Moffitt, 1964
Photograph, 16.69 x 24.92 cm
The Hopper Art Trust
© Dennis Hopper, courtesy The Hopper Art Trust.

Dennis Hopper
Andy Warhol, Henry Geldzahler, David Hockney and Jeff Goodman, 1963
Photograph, 17.25 x 24.74 cm
The Hopper Art Trust
© Dennis Hopper, courtesy The Hopper Art Trust.

Dennis Hopper
Martin Luther King, Jr., 1965
Photograph, 23.37 x 34.29 cm
The Hopper Art Trust
© Dennis Hopper, courtesy The Hopper Art Trust.

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Tate Modern

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

021Iconic is a much overused word but there are certain artworks that have changed the course of art history. Without them what we take for granted as contemporary art might have been totally different. Picasso’s 1907 Desmoiselles D’Avignon reconfigured the human form. His chthonic women act as a metaphor for psychological insecurity and the breakdown of old certainties rather than as a description or likeness. Duchamp’s Fountain, 1917, introduced the readymade and challenged the concept of elitist craft-led art, while Andy Warhol’s early 1960s soup cans appropriated banal everyday commodities, placing them within the sanctity of the museum and gallery.  But without Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square, 1915, what he called ‘a bare icon… for my time’, contemporary abstract painting, as well as contemporary architecture, sculpture and design might have taken another direction altogether. It’s rare that an artist does something completely new. But Malevich, it might be argued, did. After him, painting no longer represented the world but became an end in itself, a new reality.

Born of Polish stock in Kiev in 1879, Malevich moved to Kursk in 1896. By the age of 27 this talented young man was living in the dynamic city of Moscow where successful merchants were collecting works by Cézanne, Gauguin, Matisse and Picasso. Malevich was to find himself – like Russia – balancing on the cultural fault line between Eastern and Western Europe. Should artists look back to traditional icon painting to create an authentic national art form or to the new movements coming from France?

060From the start Malevich was keen to assert his modernity and toyed with ‘isms’ from Post-Impressionism to Fauvism, from Futurism to Cubism.  Slowly he created his own vocabulary, painting traditional Russian peasants inspired by his upbringing outside Kiev, with colourful cubist verve. Symbolist painters and writers played an important part in his early development but he was slow to align himself to any one style. Gauguin, whose work he saw in Moscow, was a powerful influence as can be seen in his dynamic Fauvist-style Bather of 1911, with its primitive movement and heightened colour. You can almost hear Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring thumping away in the background. Alternative spiritual and religious attitudes such as Theosophy, a mystical movement founded by the eccentric Elena Petrovna and much favoured by European bohemians, also had an input.

Malevich’s career evolved against this cultural backdrop during one of the most turbulent periods of history. He was 26 when a horde of angry workers stormed the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg to deliver a petition to the tsar demanding better working conditions. The ensuing massacre became known as Bloody Sunday. After the defeat of the Russian army during the First World War life for most Russians was bleak – food, money and fuel were all in short supply – and by October 1917 the Bolshevik revolution had forced the tsar to resign. The old order was crumbling.

C019The current Tate exhibition tells the story of the development of art during these revolutionary upheavals and its dreams of creating a new social order. In a unique collaboration with the Khardzhiev Collection, Amderstam and Costakis Collection SMCA-Thessaloniki, along with drawings from public and private collections around the world, the show starts with Malevich’s early landscapes and mystical religious scenes. His 1908 Adam and Eve gouache on cardboard might almost have been painted by William Blake. There are Gauguin-inspired peasants and a self-portrait in which he looks like Valentino painted by Matisse. Moving through this range of styles it’s possible to trace his journey towards abstract painting and his iconic Suprematist compositions. The show includes most of the surviving paintings from the legendary The Last Futurist Exhibition 0.10 in St. Petersburg in 1915 hung as closely as possible to the original. Famously his Black Square was placed high in the corner of the room, at once nullifying ideas of Renaissance perspective and making reference to the icons hung in the holy corner of Russian Orthodox homes. It is in this iconoclastic void that Malevich presents a search for a new spirituality based on humanistic and artistic values.

There is also an emphasis on the interplay with architecture and theatre, including Malevich’s designs for the avant-garde opera, Victory over the Sun, intended to indicate the future triumph of technology over Nature. Written in Zaum, a Dadaist nonsense language created from neologisms by a number of Russian poets, it challenged the birth of a unified Russian language in a system of signs and sounds. This helped inspire Malevich to free painting from the shackles of representation and to create a new visual language based on shape and colour – ‘suprematism’.

117rtThe re-enactment of his opera in video form seems to modern eyes slightly silly and dated, with all the characters dressed in machine-like and cubist inspired costumes. In contrast the stunning suprematist paintings such as Suprematist Painting (with black Trapezium and Red Square) from 1915 seem fresh and vibrant.  Here solid blocks of primary colour float against an angled black plane to create compositional tension and a sense of weightlessness that appears to defy gravity. In his text ‘Non-Objective Art and Suprematism’ written for the Tenth State Exhibition in Moscow, Malevich said: ‘Suprematism is a definite system… new frameworks of pure colour must be created, based on what colour demanded and also that colour, in its turn, must pass out of the pictorial mix into an independent unity, a structure in which it would be at one individual in a collective environment and individually independent’. From this point on colour becomes both subject and object. The Tate show also includes fascinating work by his students and colleagues from his time as a teacher in Vitebsk such as El Lissitzky and Illya Chashnik.

After 1927 the trajectory of Malevich’s work fundamentally changed. This was, no doubt, a concession to the political pressure of the times and the rise of Social Realism as the accepted and dominant form. Perhaps he also felt the short comings of pure geometrical abstraction as he returned, between 1928-39, to what are now known as his ‘Second Peasant Cycle’. Here his subjects are not individuals but ‘everymen’ or budetlyane – ‘men of the future’ – the same characters that can be found in the costume designs for Victory over the Sun.

Malevich never abandoned ‘the quest for God’, which he equated with truth. To this end his return to painting the down trodden Russian peasantry is understandable. Despite the social and political upheavals he faced he never stopped trying to make sense of man’s existence in the new political order. The Tate exhibition ends with a strange self-portrait from 1933. Part social realism, part, perhaps, tongue in cheek, the artist presents himself in medieval garb as if creativity was a constant in a shifting world. But it’s through Malevich’s pioneering treatment of colour and its embodiment in form that his work has had a major impact. Rediscovered in 1973 by a new generation of minimalist artists such as Donald Judd with the 1973 exhibition in New York, Malevich left an unequivocal language that sought to construct a ‘philosophical colour system’ set against white as the ‘representation off infinity’ that has gone on reverberating through the work of today’s contemporary artists.

* * *

Sue Hubbard is a freelance art critic, novelist and award-winning poet. Her latest books are Girl in White (Cinnamon Press) and The Forgetting and Remembering of Air (Salt)

Kazimir Malevich (1878 – 1935)

Self Portrait 1908-1910
State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia

Suprematist Painting (with Black Trapezium and Red Square) 1915
Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam

Black Square 1929
© State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Head of a Peasant 1928-29
The State Russian Museum, St Petersburg

Nature Recast
Eliis O’Connell

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

What is it about the work of the Irish sculptor Eilís O’Connell that has led to her having created, in this most difficult and masculine medium, over thirty permanent site-specific installations in Britain and Europe, including the sensual, orchid-like Unfurl (Fig 1), a bronze commissioned by Kensington Borough Council and the residents of Kensington Gate, to celebrate the Millennium?

O’Connell subtly combines a number of different elements that give her work both a sense of physical vitality and poetic metaphor. It is monumental yet intimate, atavistic yet contemporary. From discarded agricultural tools to birds’ nests and whale bones she appropriates the quotidian and the natural to create dynamic forms in stone, steel, resin, plaster and bronze. Like her poetic compatriot, Seamus Heaney, O’Connell looks to the archaeology and topography of her Irish homeland for inspiration but the ideas she finds there are filtered through a considered relationship to architecture and geometry. The work is never soft: emotion is always tempered by intellect and painstaking technique to combine something of the muscularity of Richard Serra with the female sensibility of Barbara Hepworth. Science and mathematics meet the natural world within her organic and biomorphic forms. Inside and outside coalesce. In the layered and slippery space of contemporary culture she has created objects that generate a unifying narrative and suggest a philosophy of interdependence rather than of confrontation, an openness and desire for contact and inclusivity, rather than a brittle postmodern autonomy, which unapologetically recalls the timeless resonances of Brancusi.
In the layered and slippery space of contemporary culture she has created objects that generate a unifying narrative

Having spent her childhood in Cork, then long spells in London and abroad, before returning to work in her converted Cork dairy, Eilís O’Connell is perfectly geared to negotiating the complexities of the international art world. In England her work has been championed by Wilfred Cass at Goodwood Sculpture Park and, more recently, in a major exhibition curated by Anne Elliot at Canary Wharf. A sense of interconnection imbues her sculptures. Even within London’s Jubilee Park at Canary Wharf, a favoured lunch-time spot for city workers, where many of the larger pieces such as Atlantic Oak (Fig 2), a cast taken from an oak seasoned for thirty-three years in a cove on the west coast of Ireland, and Whale Bone were sited, her works eemed to preserve within them a sense of memory and place that remains embedded deep within their fabric, even in their unfamiliar urban setting. It is this primordial quality that connects the viewer, often unconsciously, to a sense of something elemental. Thus O’ Connell manages to tap into a sense of common origin within the fragmentation of the city. Sacrificial Anode, cast especially in bronze for this exhibition, now has a permanent place in the park after having been bought by Canary Wharf (Fig 5). The wonderfully poetic title, which suggests a metaphor of corrosion and decay is, in fact, a metallurgical term. An anode attached to a metal object, such as a boat or underground tank, is put there to inhibit the object’s corrosion. The anode electrolytically decomposes while the object remains free of damage. That Eilís O’Connell was trained, unusually for a woman, in the tradition of working with industrial materials has provided a fruitful extension to the more feminine side of her sculptural language, to her relationship with intimate spaces, and to the curves and folds of the body.

In counterpoint to her scaled-up, monumental works the lobby at Canary Wharf included a series of clear resin works. Using found objects and those given to her by friends – a vulture’s feather, a whale’s vertebrae, a lump of coral – O’Connell cast these organic objects in clear resin to give them, like flies trapped for thousands of years in amber, a timeless quality. The resin has no colour, no inclusions or bubbles, yet surrounds the object as if barely there. Part relic and votary, part object of scientific interest, these specimens remain suspended within their clear casting at the point of dissolution and on the brink of decay.
In a culture rife with sluggish melancholy that has lost access to the transpersonal dimensions of existence, Eilís O’Connell’s sculpture touches on the universal need for harmony and transcendence in a largely uncertain and fragmented world.




Bill Viola
St. Pauls Cathedral, London

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

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.

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The Power and The Glory

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

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.


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!’


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.’


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.’

The Maestà
Opera Metropolitana Museum

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Art Criticism

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.

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Peter Doig
Early Works
Michael Werner Gallery

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Art Criticism

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.

“At the Edge of Town”, 1986
Oil on canvas
59 3/4 x 83 3/4 inches
152 x 213 cm
DOI 122 
“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

Body Language
Saatchi Gallery

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Art Criticism

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.

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Hannah Höch

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

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….” 


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

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

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Art Criticism

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.


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

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Painting Now: Five Contemporary Artists
Tate Britain

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Art Criticism

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.


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.


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.


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), 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.


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.

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Genesis: Sebastiao Salgado
Natural History Museum

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Art Criticism

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.”

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.

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Turner Prize 2012

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

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.

Westminster Abbery, London

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

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.

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

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

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

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.

Immolation IV low res

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.


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.

Sleep low res

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.

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A Terrible Beauty: Mat Collishaw

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

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


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”.


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.


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.


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.

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Francis Alÿs A Story of Deception Tate Modern, London

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

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

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

ARCO Madrid 2010

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

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

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

A Tribute to Eva Arnold
Halcyon Gallery

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

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

Conrad Atkinson Talks to Sue Hubbard

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

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

After Auschwitz
Responses to the Holocaust

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

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

John Baldessari
Pure Beauty
Tate Modern

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

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

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

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

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

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

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Christine Borland
Lisson Gallery

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

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

Louise Bourgeois
Beyond the Body

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

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

British Art Show 7
Hayward Gallery London

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

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

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Sophie Calle Talking to Strangers
Whitechapel Gallery London

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

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

John Baldessari
Tate Modern

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
Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011
Images © Sophie Calle. Courtesy of Whitechapel Gallery
Images © John Baldessari. Courtesy of Baldessari Studio and Glenstone

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Helen Chadwick
Changing the Landscape of Sculpture

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

It is said that those whom the gods favour die young. Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Frida Kahlo, Jackson Pollock and James Dean have all achieved iconic status. But would this have been assured if we had had to witness their dull levelling into middle-age? Does untimely death – the erasure of the still nubile body, the restless imagination brimming with unfulfilled promise – ensure like some dreadful Faustian pact, certain artistic canonisation?

Helen Chadwick

It is only months since the artist Helen Chadwick died unexpectedly on Friday 15th March 1996, at the age of 42. The art world was reduced to a state of shock that one so apparently energetic and youthful, “with her smooth, light, bendy epicene body and her signature Louise Brooks haircut”, as her friend Marina Warner described her, should have been so tragically snatched from their midst. She was described in The Sunday Telegraph as “one of Britain’s leading modern artists”, in The Independent as “one of contemporary art’s most provocative and profound figures”. Though she appears to have had a heart attack or some rare virus, the notion is fermenting that she died of overwork, of dedication to her art. Friends were grief-stricken. Her funeral, according to Judy Collins, curator of twentieth century art at the Tate, and one of the organisers, had all the sense of occasion and theatre Helen would have wanted. “It was”, she says, “a bit like a Greek drama.”

To write about an artist’s work so soon after her death is a delicate affair. Those who loved her – and there were many, both men and women, talk of her generosity of spirit, and her influence as a teacher – naturally want to ensure her place within the pantheon of art history, and some have written passionately and eloquently about her work as a result. I hardly knew her. I met her only twice, briefly, at private views and was struck by her immaculate, boyish, Peter Pan elegance and her small stubby artisan’s hands bedecked with silver rings. But we only exchanged social niceties. So it is to her work that I must return in trying to evaluate this all too brief life.

Helen Chadwick Ego Geometria Sum 1982-84
Ego Geometria Sum, 1982-84

The first work of hers I saw and wrote about was Ego Geometria Sum, 1982-84. Titles were important to her. She valued erudition and read widely, sometimes in arcane and obscure realms. Here, as she was to do again and again, she confronted the mysteries of the life-cycle. The Pythagorean thesis that a number of regular geometric solids could account for all Nature’s constructions was the central tenet of this installation. Ten sculptural polyhedral treated with photo-emulsion bore the imprinted image of her naked body. Each object – an incubator, a font, a pram, boat, wigwam and bed – acted as a Proustian trigger, stimulating memories and sensations from her childhood. Around these hung ten photographs showing her as the naked Atlas bearing the heavy sculptural forms, while in Labours she appeared to be struggling with the weight of accumulated memory or, curled in a foetal shape, about to give birth to her own image. It was as if she was striving to find some mathematical formula to synthesise loss with her self-fashioning as an artist.

Her opus magnum was the ambitious installation created for the ICA, Of Mutability, 1984-86. Made of two parts, The Oval Court and Carcass, it extended her preoccupations with the body and mortality. The Oval Court consisted of twelve naked women – made from photocopies of her own body laid on a Canon photocopier – floating and twisting within a pool of amniotic blue. A marine version of an eighteen-century painted ceiling, it illustrated her fascination with the fantastical interiors of Austrian and German rococo churches. Where Ego Geometria Sum contained, these swimmers broke free from the remembered restrictions of childhood into the limpid waters of post-pubescent pleasure in an aqueous ‘Garden of Delights’. Literally bathing in a ‘stream of consciousness’, theirs was a dance of carnal desire, a cornucopia of forbidden pleasures. For floating beside the artist were the forms of a skate, a lamb, a goose, a crab and rabbit. Chadwick’s lost innocence and androgynous eroticism were high-lighted by a pair of white school-girl socks and frothy trails of ribbon and lace. Like some macabre Ophelia she floated, a string of pearls about her neck, bubbles billowing from her mouth, surrounded by animal forms representing her various alter egos. Having washed, groomed and cleaned these torpid carcasses with a lover’s attention, a necrophilic bond was created. She spoke lovingly of the monkfish’s mouth and the skate’s ample genitals. Her body cascading towards the lamb proffered it her lips, while the goose’s head reached towards her breast, its webbed feet brushing her stomach in a simulacrum of Leda and the Swan. In a virtual act of sympathetic magic she ate, after the completion of the work, those carcasses still fresh enough to be consumed. In the original installation photocopied images of undulating columns formed a colonnade around the periphery of the pool. At their apex was the artist’s weeping face. The apparent grief at being driven from this paradisal space is all the more poignant with the knowledge of her untimely death.

And, as if in counterpoint to the idealised body of The Oval Court, a large vitrine filled with fermenting waste matter stood in an adjacent room. The glass column of Carcass functioned as a metaphor for bodily process and acquired a strange beauty during the transformation from wholeness to putrefaction as the bubbling mulch slowly turned to a noxious pigment. Daily acquisitions of rubbish recorded, like the strata of rock, the unique history of the work within real time. Both pieces were heavily influenced by the Vanitas tradition of painting where morbidity is seen as the price of decadence and material desire.

Helen Chadwick Of Mutability 1984-86
Of Mutability, 1984-86

Whereas The Oval Court presented the playground of an autonomous, sexually potent goddess as an alternative to the predominantly patriarchal, Judaic-Christian myth of the Fall, Lofos Nymphon, 1987 used a more Kleinian schema. Here, in a series of photographic projections, Chadwick appeared on the balcony of the family home with her Greek mother set against a backdrop of Athens. Both women were naked; the small, boyish body of Chadwick clinging to her ageing mother’s sagging flesh in an apparent desire for reunification with the denied utopian space of the nursing breast.

Chadwick moved beyond the female body with Meat Abstract and Meat Lamps, 1989. Here she transcended gender to discuss inner and outer and the androgyny of sexuality which denied the western philosophical view, held from Aristotle to Freud, that woman is synonymous with nature. Within these works Chadwick rejected an Apollonian vision of beauty for the Dionysian. As Camille Paglia claims in Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickenson, “Dionysus was identified with liquids – blood, sap, milk, wine. The Dionysian is nature’s chthonian fluidity.” Essentially pagan the chthonic is where sex and sado-masochism meet. The hourglass form of The Philosopher’s Fear of Flesh, with its slippage between the human and animal – two tear-shaped pendants enclosing a male stomach and a plucked chicken’s breast – were reminiscent of a momento mori or reliquary enshrining the desiccated bones or foreskin of a saint. In Glossolai Chadwick created a cruelly revengeful, ‘below the belt’ attack on the linguistic dominance of patriarchy, spending two days stitching together fleshy lamb’s tongues, which she referred to as “a hundred tiny penises”; thus endorsing Nietzsche’s claimed in Beyond Good and Evil that “almost everything we call ‘higher culture’ is based on the spiritualization of cruelty”.

And no doubt she knew, when making Nostalgie de la Boue, 1990 with its hairy anal orifice and circle of entwined earthworms, of Bataille’s claim in The Solar Anus that “ the world is purely parodic, in other words, that each thing seen is the parody of another, or is the same thing in a deceptive form”. In Bad Blooms this imagery is extended, albeit more playfully, with her cibachrome photographs of floral wreaths and various viscous fluids. In these exotic nosegays – strange matings of buttercup and orchid, Swarfega and Germolene with their fleshy plum and oyster centres, their phallic stamens and cunts of white fur – she played games with traditional sexual signifiers, delighting in images of bisexuality.

Helen Chadwick Piss Flowers 1991-92
Piss Flowers, 1991-92

Chadwick’s most notorious work was her Piss Flowers made with her partner David Notarius during a residency in Alberta. Peeing in the snow the flow of her urine made, when caste, an erect penile shape, in antithesis to the softer pistillate forms created by Notarius: an inversion of human genitalia. But this game of icy sexual politics failed to produce objects with the equivalent impact of her earlier work. Whilst the literary and psychoanalytic associations of her chocolate fountain Cacao were fairly obvious – earth, shit, coprophilia – creating a suspicion that main role of these pieces was a desire to shock.

Last year Chadwick worked in the Hunterian Museum and the Wellcome Pathology Room at the Royal College of Surgeons. There, in an echo of the carnivalesque bestiary she’d employed in The Oval Court, she photographed medical specimens – infants and pickled foetuses beyond the outer reaches of what passes for normality – for her series Cameos. Selecting a Cyclops baby, chimpanzee and pygmy, she was, according to Marina Warner, in her element. “She found no revulsion to overcome, but found her imagination began instantly to play on [the Cyclops’] features with a kind of passionate sympathy like love.” For Chadwick these discards of human reproduction were reminiscent of the hybrids of myth – dragons or three-headed Chimera – onto which humanity projects its fear of difference and otherness. Like Beauty towards the Beast, she felt both moved and titillated by their difference, by the very qualities that made them repellent to others. These unformed faces with their soft spongy flesh, these ‘monsters’ to whom every mother fears giving birth, floated in their formaldehyde in a suspended state of becoming. Within these grotesque forms she touched upon the Darwinian paradigm of the survival of the fittest and on nineteenth-century fears of miscegenation, not to mention late twentieth-century debates surrounding abortion rights and our preoccupations with genetic manipulation and bodily perfection.

Helen Chadwick Self Portrait 1991
Self Portrait, 1991

There is a great irony that just before her death she was investigating the very beginning of life, having been given permission to work in King’s College Assisted Conception Unit where she was drawn by the parallels of ‘artificially’ creating in vitro eggs for fertility programmes and the manipulations involved in making art. This continued her preoccupation with mapping the self through the cartography of the body and echoed her use of internal organs in earlier works such as Self Portrait, 1991. There, her small stubby hands framed a human brain, echoing Hamlet holding Yorrick’s skull. Implicit were all those fundamental questions about the nature of individuality. What is the essence of me as opposed to you? Unnatural Selection pushes these questions back to the moment of conception. As she wrote in Lofos Nymphon, “as a modern, with no centre, no core of belief, it is possible to encounter the void of Origin, to give it form and a body, and so return to the site of beginning”. This was her preoccupation when she photographed human pre-embryos that would otherwise have been left to perish. Within these images the maternal body is ever absent, raising one of the most disquieting questions of our age about the cultivation of foetuses outside the womb.

Helen Chadwick Monstrance 1996
Monstrance, 1996

In these final works she created a vision of the pre-embryo’s interdependency, whilst presenting it as a valued jewel. The lozenge of Monstrance is reminiscent of a momento mori ring in which the plaited hair of the dead is set with tiny seed pearls beneath a dome of glass; the pearl string of Nebula and the cluster of Opal all make reference to the scientist’s grading and selection of viable cell clusters, done with the naked eye in the manner of a jeweller selecting flawless gems. In Christian ritual the ‘Monstrance’ is also the chalice in which the host – the body of Christ, present but not actual – is venerated. In Nebula the transparent beads, containing both cells and fragile dandelion heads, glimmer in the surrounding blue like the Pleiades floating in the emptiness of cosmic space. While the soap bubble forms recall the Vanitas tradition that emphasised the transience and fragility of earthly life, and stress, with a poignant irony that these last works, made just before Chadwick’s death, involved looking at the moment of creation.

Now that she has gone it is too soon to say how her work will stand up over time. Some of it was beautiful, intelligent, daring and iconoclastic; sometimes it seemed thinner, narcissistic, less sure of its intellectual footholds. As a woman artist, working and teaching over the last two decades, she has challenged the way we think and feel about the body and extended the boundaries in which it is described. Her charismatic presence was felt by all those she taught and with whom she came into contact giving permission to many younger women artists to be expansive, bold, dashing and brave.

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 1996
Images © the Estate of Helen Chadwick
Image 2: Photography Philip Stanley
Image 3: Courtesy V&A Museum, London
Photography Edward Woodman
Image 4: Photography Anti Kuivalainen
Image 5: Courtesy Zelda Cheatle Gallery
Image 6: Photography: Edward Woodman

Jake and Dinos Chapman
White Cube London

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

They are the Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee of the YBAs (the now not so young British Artists) that brought Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Sarah Lucas et al to international fame, the minimes to those original Bad Boys of Britart for whom they worked as studio assistants, Gilbert and George. Insouciant, iconoclastic, fiercely intelligent, puerile and irritating in about equal measure, the Anglo-Greek siblings imbibed the importance of self-promotion with their mother’s milk. For the past year Jake and Dinos Chapman have been stirring up press interest by implying there has been a rift. Has it simply been a media-savvy hoax? Who knows? But for the current show at both the White Cube galleries in Piccadilly and Hoxton they have been working in separate studios to produce a series of works in isolation from each other. When I asked Dinos who had done what, he waved his arm proprietorially and claimed he had done the lot. As Jake was being interviewed by someone else at the time I was never able to get his version. Anyhow, the show is ambiguously entitled “Jake or Dinos Chapman,” leaving us guessing about the possibility of fraternal divorce; just as they like it.

Jake and Dinos Chapman

They have made a career out of épater la bourgeoisie. There were those naked penile-nosed children that upset the ladies who lunch at the Royal Academy show “Sensation” in 1997, and the gory dismembered figures à la Goya, hanging life-size from a fiberglass tree. Then there was Hell, which turned the Third Reich into a plastic theme park, featuring 5,000 hand-painted Nazi figurines, which was bought by Charles Saatchi for £500,000 before, ironically, being burnt to ash in the notorious MOMART warehouse fire.

At Mason’s Yard the viewer is lulled into a false sense of security by the 47 painted cardboard sculptures like something from Sesame Street arrayed on the ground floor. But walk downstairs and you are assaulted by a room full of larger-than-life mannequins in black Nazi uniforms, crisp white shirts and black ties, and a smiley face arm band where a swastika might have been expected. They stand around in conspiratorial groups. All their hands and faces are black – not African black, just black – and they have glass eyes and real teeth. One stands with his trousers round his ankles sodomizing another, others watch. Elsewhere a taxidermied pigeon splatters bird shit down the back of another guard. On the walls are hand-colored etchings from their “Human Rainbow” and 80 blackened etchings from the Goya series, and a series of dot-to-dot pencil drawings with arcane titles. Outside there is another mannequin dressed in a Technicolor Ku Klux Klan robe that covers a huge erection. He is standing in front of Oi Pieter, I can see your house from here! 1607-2010, a painting à la Breughel.

Jake and Dinos Chapman

Whizz across from the Piccadilly to the badlands of Hoxton and you will discover bronze sculptures like tacky tourist versions of primitive art. A series of oil paintings with titles such as Georg’s House, George Paints the Bunny, One Rabbit Contemplating the Moon cover the walls. These Disney-style cartoons seemed to have crossed with something out of a David Lynch movie so that when I first walked into the gallery I was shocked to see a class of small primary school girls in brown tracksuits absorbed in one of the paintings. But the laugh was on me. As I walked closer I saw that each one had an animal snout or duck beak protruding from her face and was wearing a Cub Scout badge bearing a swastika and the motto: “They teach us nothing.”

The top gallery has been designed – complete with peeling walls, old tiles, cheap lamps and battered furniture – like the sacristy of some rural French or Italian church. Religious paintings have been overlaid with what look like an incipient skin disease while the furniture is topped with religious reliquaries. A Madonna has had her lips stapled together, while the child in her arms spews out a mouthful of octopus-like bloody tendrils. Elsewhere a statue of Christ appears to have lost his nose to either amputation or leprosy. He has an elongated bloody animal tongue and a swastika engraved on his forehead.

What you make of all this will depend on what it is you want from art. If you believe in its transformative powers you won’t find much transformation here, but if it’s shock you’re after, well, against the odds, Jake and/or Dinos still come up with the goods. They are so media savvy that there’ll always be column inches written about them.

Jake or Dinos Chapman is at White Cube, London from 15 July to 17 September 2011
Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011
Images © Jake and Dinos Chapman
Photo by Ben Westoby, Courtesy of White Cube.

Published in Artillery Magazine

Tacita Dean
Turbine Hall Tate Modern

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

Dean claims that she is no Luddite and is not anti-digital technology

Tacita Dean Presents 'Film' at the Turbine Hall

It is a “big ask” of any artist to create a work for the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern, the onetime hub of the old power station with its cathedral like proportions. The Unilever Series was launched in 2000 with Louise Bourgeois’ I Do, I Undo, I Redo, a giant spider full of malignant, maternal intent. This was followed by one of the most successful installations of the series in 2001, Double Blind, by the late Juan Munoz. Other artists have had mixed success. Rachel Whiteread’s Embankment, (2005), a take on the Arctic created with piles of white boxes that might have been filched from the fish market, always felt like that – just a pile of boxes. While Olafur Eliasson’s 2006 Weather Project, with its vast sun was popular with both adults and children and last year, Ai Weiwei’s Sun Flower Seeds, with over 100 million hand-made porcelain black and white seeds, was given added poignancy by his disappearance and arrest.

Now the Turbine Hall has been plunged into darkness for the 12th commission by the artist Tacita Dean. Simply entitled Film it is a hommage to the dying art of filmmaking. Shot on 35mm and painstakingly edited by her alone, it is both an act of love and of mourning for the analogue, photochemical, non-digital medium of film that is slowly and painfully being put to death, in a Darwinian battle of the survival of the fittest, by digital filmmaking. For, according to Dean, the number of laboratories left in the world capable of printing film is now in single figures and “this beautiful medium, which was invented 125 years ago, is about to go.”

The fragility of film’s future was highlighted by a near disaster, just before the Tate opening, when an inexperienced Dutch laboratory technician cut the film incorrectly. This would have resulted in white spaces between the images. The project was saved at the eleventh hour by a British technician from Professional Negative Cutting, who drove through the night to Amsterdam to help rectify the mistake.

Tacita Dean Presents 'Film' at the Turbine Hall

Dean is an artist I have long admired, both for her seriousness and her poetic and metaphorical imagery, as in the beautiful Disappearance at Sea II (Voyage de Guèrison), 1997, filmed at two light houses on the Farne Islands, Fernsenhtrurm, 2000, taken from the top of Berlin’s rotating TV tower, and her portraits of Cy Twombly and the late choreographer Merce Cunnigham. Now using CinemaScope turned on its side, she has created a portrait of film itself – a memento mori to a dying art. And just as a painter might leave traces of the original drawing visible under the layers of paint to show the process of making, so she has left the sprocket holes clearly visible on the edge of the film.

By blocking out sections and running them back through the camera, she has created a visual discourse that juxtaposes history and modernity, romanticism and industrialization. Arcadian images: leaves on water, waterfalls, a snail, and a pink flower appear against the windows of the old power station. A cascade of soap bubbles suggests not only the vulnerability of the medium of film but of all art in a digital, postindustrial age. References to modernist painters such as Mondrian are conjured in the color grids and circles that appear and then disappear.

Dean claims that she is no Luddite and is not anti-digital technology. It is just that digital filmmaking relies on what happens post-production rather than in the moment. In that sense this is a lament that goes beyond being a paean to the survival of film to highlight the paucity of contemporary values. It poses the question: is everything that is slick, packaged, honed and manicured always preferable to that which is experienced in the here and now?

Tacita Deam Presents Film at the Tate Turbine Hall from 11 October 2011 to 11 March 2012

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Images © Tacita Dean. Photo Credit: Lucy Dawkins. Courtesy the artist, Frith Street Gallery, London; Marian Goodman Gallery, New York/Paris

Visiting De Chirico’s home

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

de Chirico Le Muse Inquietanti 1974
Le Muse Inquietanti, 1974

It was the week after Easter in Rome and the sun was out. The Spanish steps were heaving with tourists and ice cream sellers. Algerian immigrants hawked cheap leather goods. For most the steps simply provided a place to rest; as one ample lady from Texas put it: “ok, so I’ve seen them now, is that it?” Clearly she wasn’t impressed. Relaxing with their maps and bottles of water wondering what to do next few seemed to realise that just yards away from where they were sitting the 26 year old Keats had died a horrible death from tuberculosis (the wonderful museum was practically empty when we visited) let alone that one of the 20th century’s most puzzling artists, Giorgio de Chirico had lived over the road.

The Giorgio and Isa de Chirico Foundation was founded in 1986 by Isabella Far de Chirico, the painter’s widow, who in 1987 donated 24 of her husband’s works to the Italian state. Upon her death, in November 1990, the Foundation inherited the painter’s apartment in the Piazza di Spagna – the 17th century Palazzetto dei Borgognoni – where he had lived and worked until his death in 1978. In November 1998 it opened as a museum filled with his late paintings, drawings, sculpture and lithographs, along with manuscripts and photographs.

It is a strange place,a haven of quiet above the crowded street below. I had expected something rather more bohemian from this ‘metaphysical’ painter, but found, instead, an airy bourgeois apartment full of antique furniture, comfortable sofas and rugs. Not what I had predicted from this one time friend of Apollinaire, Picasso, and that arch surrealist André Breton, who had hailed de Chirico’s early dream-like cityscapes as pivotal within the development of Surrealism. Most odd was the tiny monk-like bedroom, Spartan in its decor except for a few books, with its narrow childlike bed under a white cover, where the ‘maestro’ slept across the hall from his Polish second wife, the intellectually and emotionally powerful, Isabella Pakszxwer, whose rather large double bed sported a flamboyant red counterpane.

de Chirico Orfeo Trovatore Stanco 1970
Orfeo Trovatore Stanco, 1970

The enthusiastically hailed period – the pittura metafisica – on which de Chirico’s reputation is based, lasted until around 1918. Then his work changed. Why? The official version is that he was paying homage to the Old Masters of the Renaissance, pitting himself against the greats of art history by going to Florence and studying techniques of tempera and panel painting. As Robert Hughes wrote rather pithily, “he imaged himself to be the heir of Titian”.1 Denounced by the French avant-garde de Chirico counter-attacked with diatribes on modernist degeneracy signing his work Pictor Optimus (the best painter.) But why should an artist who had written: “It is necessary to discover the demon in all things…to discover the eye in all things – We are explorers ready for new departures,” turn his back on contemporary aesthetic discourses in favour of producing second rate paintings that would not, if it weren’t for the significance of his early work, get a look in within the annals of art history?

It was as if de Chirico was running away. But from what? Had he, simply dried up or lost inspiration? Did he genuinely believe in what he was doing when he pastiched and copied his own earlier Metaphysical paintings, signing them with false dates? Was it financial greed? He knew that there was a market for these self-forgeries and that his rare early works fetched many times the price of his later ones. Or was it, as his defenders would have us to believe, that he was playing some kind of early postmodern game with issues of authenticity? Robert Hughes tells the tale of how Italian art dealers used to claim that the Maestro’s bed was so far off the ground in order to accommodate all the ‘early work’ that he ‘discovered’ beneath it. What was the role of his wife in all this? His apartment speaks of convention rather than bohemian radicalism. Was he really searching for approval from the establishment? Whatever his motive Breton referred to him as a “lost genius” and he was expelled from the surrealist circle in 1926.

de Chirico Autoritratto nel parco 1959
Autoritratto nel parco, 1959

Guiseppe Maria Alberto Giorgio de Chirico was born on 10thJuly 1881, in Volosos, Thessaly, a seaside town, where legend has it, the Argonauts ship set sail. His Italian father, Evaristo de Chirico, worked as an engineer building the Thessaly railway. His mother, Gemma Cervetto, came from a noble Genoese family. In 1900 Giorgio, as he was known, did his first painting of lemons and was registered, in order to fulfil his obvious vocation for art, at the Athens Polytechnic. After the premature death of his father, at the age of 62, the family moved to Munich and he attended the Academy of Fine Arts where, along with his brother Andrea (who was later to paint under the pseudonym Alberto Savinio) he cultivated an interest in music. Fascinated by the neoclassical city he spent a good deal of time in its museums studying the work of Arnold Böcklin and Max Klinger. Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and Otto Weininger were among his favoured reading material. So what made him step from the vanguard into the relative safety and order of classism, leaving, as Robert Hughes claims: “Picasso and the rest behind in their “primitive” darkness and wilful modernist regression”? 2

Loss affects people differently. For some it makes them strike out, become rebels and do what they would never have dared to do previously. For others it makes them play safe, constantly guarding against life’s random disappointments. The loss of his father dominates de Chirico’s early work. Trains, stations, towers and cannons in frozen landscapes all pay testament to the absent father. They are not so much about nostalgia as about fixing time, forcing it to remain still. In La stazione di Montparnasse 1914 a phallic cannon, topped by two stone balls, points at a pair of desolate, unmistakably breast-like artichokes. In the background of this industrial dreamscape is a large clock. The scene is frozen, timeless in that it belongs to no time, as well as being outside the normal experiences of daily measurable time. Auden’s famous eulogistic lines spring to mind3:

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message. He Is Dead.

I accept that it is speculation, but it is speculation suggested by the paintings themselves that de Chirco never got over the trauma of his father’s death. Perhaps he reached the point when he had had his fill of Freudian dreamlike introspection, of probing his psychic hurt in ossified, inert landscapes. The death of his father had been his main theme and it is possible that he took to Classicism, through the iconography of Greco-Roman archaeology and the Renaissance, with its emphasis on form, as a way of embracing the outer physical world rather than remaining trapped within a landscape of oedipal anger and grief. There is the sense in his early paintings of the boy in search of his father. Later he would give himself up to a marriage with a woman whom he painted obsessively. The Foundation is full of images of Isobella in the style of Renoir, Ingres and Titian. In a 1940 portrait she is glamorously attired in a leopard-skin coat and matching pill box hat like something from the pages of Vogue rather than the studio of a radical artist. Did de Chirico paint her like this because this was how she wanted to be seen? He said that “her intuition with issues of painting is always precious to me. There is nobody like her who succeeds in immediately judging both the quality and defects of a painting upon first sight.” Just how much influence did she have over his change of style? Not only was she his wife and companion until his death but she was also his manager and became the ‘voice’ through which de Chirico spoke to the outside world, even signing essays that he himself had written.

Ritratto di Isa, vestito rosa e nero, 1934
Ritratto di Isa, vestito rosa e nero, 1934

There is something deeply inward looking about de Chirico’s late work, as if he had turned away from the modern world, as if safety and comfort might be found within antiquity and history. In Anthony White’s essay4 White discusses Keala Jewell’s book The Art of Enigma: The Chirico Brothers and the Politics of the Modernand the theory that the de Chirico’s “qualities of multiplicity, ambiguity and mixedness” might be interpreted as “an attack on idealist concepts of unity and purity.” He argues that although “the brothers’ hostility to unity and purity can be interpreted as an aversion to fascist politics, the de Chiricos were not simply interested in destroying values; they had strong ideas of the Italian nation which they promoted in their work.” This is slippery ground leading White to argue “the peculiar strangeness and alienation at the heart of the Metaphysical project took the de Chirico brothers into terrain that was amenable to the ideologies of cultural legitimation and anti-Semitism favoured by European fascism.” The landscapes and architectural terrains favoured by de Chirico – alongside his bananas, horses and windows – are almost exclusively Italian; the piazza, the classical fragment, the tower. Italy is seen as a dreamscape, a place of cultural privilege, a space that accorded with contemporary ideas of utopian nationalism. Robert Hughes is quite right when he talks of de Chirico’s work as being “morbid, introspective and peevish.” The city is his therapist’s couch; it is here that he works out his feelings of alienation, of abandonment and death. No wonder he could not bear to inhabit this dreamscape for too long. No wonder he preferred to paint mediocre self-portraits of himself as a Renaissance noble or undemanding bowls of flowers that made a passing nod to Chardin.

Fiori 1960-1968
Fiori 1960-68

De Chirico’s late works have divided scholarly opinion. His detractors charge him with retrenchment, conservatism and fraud (though he won’t have been alone, Dali was another great self-forger), while his supporters offer his late works as evidence of a discerning modernist critique, a form of games playing. The trouble is that it is hard to read the works as ironic. They lack humour and take themselves too seriously and are just not self-consciously bad enough. Like a Sunday painter he seems to be trying too hard to ‘get it right’, to justify himself as the Pictor Optimus dressed in that rather silly, pompous red velvet fancy dress. But de Chirico’s self delusion does not make the paintings any less mediocre. Tied onto his easel behind an unfinished canvases in his very tidy studio, with its fascinating array of books and kitsch objects, is an old horseshoe and a good luck horn. Perhaps de Chirico knew that his moment of brilliance had passed and that only luck and a fair wind would restore his former inventiveness. Once hailed as an originator of avant-garde modernism, his later kitsch offerings were defined in the 80s as precursors of postmodernism. Yet despite these attempts to give these works gravitas they remain flat, irrelevant and rather sadly bombastic. In his brilliant early works de Chirico made visible the workings of the unconscious. Dreams according to Freud were the “royal road to the unconscious”. It was when de Chirico left this road to pursue the academic and the formulaic that he lost his way.

1 Giorgio de Chirico. Nothing if Not Critical, Robert Hughes.
2 Ibid.
3 Stop all the Clocks. W.H. Auden
4 Anthony White: Papers of Surrealism. Issue 4 winter 2005
Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2010
Images Courtesy of Fondazione Giorgio e Isa de Chirico

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Marlene Dumas
Frith Street Gallery London

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Art Criticism

Marlene Dumas Ecco Homo 2011
Ecco Homo, 2011

The Eurhythmics may not be considered the philosophical fount of all wisdom but the insistently recurring line that: “Everybody’s looking for something”, from their 1983 hit, Sweet Dreams, kept swirling round my head as I walked round the exhibition Forsaken, the first in the UK since 2004, by the controversial South African artist Marlene Dumas.

Better known for her provocative, eroticised images of woman painted in runny reds and watery blues that highlight the dichotomy between art and desire, pornography and more socially acceptable depictions of female beauty, Dumas’s work can be found in the Tate, the Pompidou Centre and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Normally derived from Polaroids of friends and lovers, or borrowed from glossy magazines and porno pictures she has, here, used the words of Christ dying on the cross: “Eli, Eli, lama sabachtain?” “My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” to explore the feelings of existential despair so prevalent in this solipsistic, secular age. Although in Judaism and Islam God is considered both unknowable and too holy to be depicted in figurative form, within the Christian tradition the image of the crucified Christ soon became the icon onto which all human suffering, rejection and longing were projected. Marlene Dumas’ crucifixions are of a sober northerly bent; more Mattias Grunewäld than Rubens. Her emaciated Christ is depicted as utterly alone – there are no jeering crowds, no weeping women, no thieves or Roman soldiers – painted against very dark or bleached backgrounds. Ecco Homo, 2011 is a moving portrayal of total abjection, whilst the monochromatic Forsaken, 2011 has some of the ghostly luminescence of the Turin Shroud.

Marlene Dumas Forsaken 2011
Forsaken, 2011

Interspersed among these religious paintings are portraits of infamous celebrities. The musical impresario Phil Spector, known for his Wall of Sound and some of the most successful pop music of the 20th Century, peers furtively from beneath a shaggy wig. Now serving 19 years for murder, another small portrait in the down stairs gallery shows him stripped and unadorned of his pop world accoutrements. It is, in its way, a shocking painting, his small bald pink skull and his pinched, rat-like features are revealed as if a curtain has been pulled back on reality.

Amy Winehouse is, no doubt, being fast tracked at this very moment to that pantheon in the sky inhabited by torch song singers and ‘troubled’ stars such as Monroe, and Michael Jackson, who – forever young and forever suffering- are ensured the status of eternal martyrs. In two small, iconic portraits Winehouse is depicted with her trademark wings of eyeliner as a suffering saint, a frail victim to the voracious appetites of western culture. In the downstairs gallery is a paintings of Osama Bin Laden hung next to one of his son, who distanced himself from the deeds of his father in his book Growing Up Bin Laden, and two portraits of Lawrence of Arabia – one of the British army officer who convinced the sheikh of Mecca to fight on the British side against the German/Ottoman alliance in the Second World War and wrote the classic, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and another of his celluloid, ironically more famous surrogate, Peter O’Toole

Marlene Dumas Amy - Pink 2011
Amy – Pink, 2011

These juxtapositions pose questions about belief, cults and charismatic leaders and what, in this post-Nietzscheian world, we do with what Lady Macbeth referred to as ‘immortal longings,’ when the pragmatism of western intellectuals such as Richard Dawkins leaves little room for any misty eyed ‘return to the sacred’. According to Henry Veatch 1 Nietzsche, rather surprisingly, believed that the conceptual death of God was actually a causal factor in the decline of European morality. He, and later Sartre, felt that “the loss of faith in a moral order is in fact consequent upon the loss of faith in God”. Modern thinkers undercut what they consider to be ‘irrational’ phenomena by suggesting that they are all traceable to a failure of reason. This exhibition shows that it is not only nature but also the human psyche that abhors a vacuum. God may have been declared dead but the need to fill the space he has left still persists, proving Voltaire right. Though, I rather doubt that the God Voltaire imaged humanity inventing for itself would take on the carnal form of Amy Winehouse. But her chaotic life and lack of moral compass seem to have proved both Nietzsche and Sartre right. There are consequences to getting rid of God. In one small oil and ink drawing of Winehouse tacked to the wall in the lower gallery, Dumas has hand written across it in pencil: ‘The main said ‘why do you think you are here?’ I said ‘I got no idea.'”

Marlene Dumas Phil Spector 2011
Phil Spector, 2011

The notion that the modernist self as ‘subject’ is, in fact, largely derived from ideas a transcendent God is not new. For like Pirendello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author we are constantly on the lookout for of another grand narrative to replace what we have discarded. With the disintegration of western religion and the collapse of that other great belief system, Marxism, there has been a fervent desire to construct other mythologies to stand in their stead. In the west the ‘God-shaped hole’ has been filled by the cult of celebrity and consumerism, while the east has seen the rise of fundamentalist Islam. The conundrum of poststructuralist pragmatism is that having deconstructed one ‘Truth’, it seems incapable of offering reasons as to why any other should be preferable. All we are left with by the pragmatists are reason and the mind – and they do not seem to explain human emotions such as love or a feeling for beauty.

Marlene Dumas does not claim to have any answers to these questions. Her pick and mix philosophy explains a certain lack of coherence to what, in many ways, is an interesting exhibition. Doubt is what drives her, which is, perhaps, understandable having grown up under the despotic certainties of Apartheid. Yet there is a sense that this show has been a bit thrown together so that the juxtapositions, though potentially moving, feel rather arbitrary, a little like a primary school class in humanism. Perhaps the answer is that painters stray into the quagmire of philosophy at their peril and should, largely, stick to making images.

On a practical level, these individually rather beautiful and delicate works are not shown to their best advantage in the cavernous space of the new(ish) Frith Street Gallery. These are fragile paintings that would be better seen in a more intimate setting, perhaps, ironically, something similar to the beautiful 18th house in Soho that the gallery previously inhabited. Bigger is not always better.

1 Veatch, Henry B. Rational Man. Indiana University Press, 1962.

Marlene Dumas Forsaken at the Frith Street Gallery London from 14 October to 26 November 2011
Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011
Images © Marlene Dumas 2011. Courtesy of the Frith Street Gallery

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Tracey Emin
Love is What You Want
Hayward Gallery

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

Tracey Emin Love is what you Want 2011
Love is what you Want, 2011

Full of iconoclastic verve they filled the Royal Academy for Charles Saatchi’s infamous 1977 exhibition Sensation with unmade beds , pickled sharks and an image of the serial killer Myra Hindley painted using children’s handprints. Now their waist lines are thickening and they face the slow decline from the excitement and glamour of being YBAS (Young British Artists) to MABAS (Middle Aged British Artists). In the case of the Queen of the Britart pack, Tracey Emin, she has also renounced her role as official enfant terrible by recently coming out in support of the Tories as “natural patrons” of the arts. There can be few artists in recent years in Britain, except Damien Hirst, who can be so readily identified in the public consciousness by a single work. Everyone has an opinion of her 1999 Turner Prize exhibit My Bed with its sex-tossed sheets, stained knickers, spent condoms and cigarette stubs. As with her igloo-like tent appliquéd with the names of all the people she has ever slept with, (lost in the MOMART fire), the subject is herself. It is her only subject. Her work chronicles the child abuse, the teenage rape, the broken relationships and her botched abortion. In this, her first London retrospective, the solipsism is evident in titles such as Conversation with my Mum, 2001, Details of Depression When you’re sad you only see sad things, 2003, The first time I was pregnant I started to crochet the baby a shawl, 1998-2004 and Those who suffer love, 2009.

I first met Tracey Emin when I went to interview her for Time Out at her audaciously named The Tracey Emin Museum on Waterloo Road in the mid 1990s. She was young, slightly cookie and evidently suffering from a bit of a hangover but there was something engaging about Mad Tracey from Margate with her Tammy Wynette sentimentality and her wonky teeth dancing around the space in her short skirt and bare feet amid pieces of unfinished art and scraps of confessional writing. Fresh from running a shop on Bethnal Green Road in East London with her fellow artist Sarah Lucas where they sold decorated key-rings, wire penises, T-shirts emblazoned with “I’m so fucky”, or “fucking useless”, her work seemed confrontational and challenging; shoving her dysfunctional private life in everyone’s faces. She wore her heart and her hangovers on her sleeve, hitting a wider public consciousness when, in an arguably brilliant (if unintentional) PR stunt, she mouthed off drunk on live TV. It was not that she was saying anything particularly original in her work but that she has had a genius for voicing the emotional concerns and obsessions of young women. This was Bridget Jones and Amy Winehouse made visual.

Tracey Emin Hotel International 1993
Hotel International, 1993

Emin’s work grew from the fertile cultural soil of 70s feminism that produced novels such as Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time or Mary Kelly’s installations displaying soiled nappies. Other women responded to the work not because it was high art but because it reminded them of the emotional chaos of their own lives. Her early blankets made and stitched herself rather than, as now, by assistants – the first Hotel International 1993 was made in response to a request for a CV – have a genuine rawness. Like a teenage girl’s private diary they are full of self-pity, anger and poignancy as they assault the viewer with phrases in dyslexic script such as ‘youre good in bed’ or ‘at the age of 13 why the hell should I trust anyone. No fucking way.’ In Pysco slut, 1999, where she announces she hasn’t had sex for three days, a damaged psyche can be seen trying to make sense of an unforgiving world through the medium of art. While I do not expect, 2002 is a painful meditation on motherhood (Emin is childless) where she says “I do not expect to be a mother but I do expect to die alone.”

Further into the Hayward Gallery there is a case containing her used tampons. In an accompanying text she tells how she never bled much to begin with, and now bleeds even less. That’s because she is now 47 and verging on the menopause. But there is a queasy feeling that this is all just too much information. The truth is I don’t honestly care very much about Tracey’s waning menstrual cycle while other less privileged women (she is now very rich) of the same age are worrying about whether their kids are going to pass their exams or are smoking too much dope. At an age when it might become her to do otherwise Tracey is still fixated on Tracey.

In the early performance pieces Singing Sculpture and Underneath the Arches, made between 1969 and 1971, Gilbert and George appear as “living sculptures”, part Flanagan and Allen, part Vladimir and Estragon. This set their signature for the next 30 years, with drinking, violence, gay culture, racism and graffiti-scrawled streets forming a grubby backdrop. Photographs of a performance at a railway arch in Cable Street encapsulate certain themes running through the later work: an iconoclastic identification with the outcast, a linking with a specific locality of London and a particular take on Englishness. But, most of all, these pieces show how Gilbert and George became the subjects of their own art.

Tracey Emin Running Naked 2011
Running Naked, 2011

Her genius for self promotion is evident in the project when she sought financial support for her work by sending out 80 letters asking friends to invest £10 in her creative potential. In return subscribers received regular pieces of correspondence that along with other personal ephemera have become art works that are displayed here and are now, no doubt, worth a great deal of money. But it is the body that is her true territory as in the photograph of her shoving coins into her cunt like in an demented version of Titian’s Danaë and the Shower of Gold or the video of her masturbating, long legs splayed, like some animated Egon Schiele drawing. It is also her less sensational paintings that are the most resonate and serious works. She is, in fact, an interesting painter. In these small-scale subdued, yet expressionistic works, where the subject (herself) is often faceless, there is a subtlety and poetic ambivalence rarely achieved in her more ‘sensational’ installations.

Tony Blair once declared another brilliant self-publicist, who caught the imagination of the public with her maudlin self-pity, Princess Diana, the People’s Princess. I would now like to offer a similar title to Tracey Emin: stand up the People’s Princess of Art.

Tracey Emin Love is What You Want at the Hayward Gallery from 18 May to 29 August 2011
Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011
Images © Tracey Emin 1993-2011
Image 1: Photography by Kerry Ryan

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Exposed Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera
Tate Modern London

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

Harry Callahan Untitled (Atlanta) 1984
Harry Callahan Untitled (Atlanta) 1984

Little could the British inventor, William Henry Fox Talbot, have imagined, when in 1841 he developed the calotype, an early photographic process using paper coated with silver iodide, where this nascent technology would lead; the ethical and moral questions that photography would raise. From Fox Talbot’s point of view the camera was about producing ‘natural images’. But more than 150 years later we know that the photographer’s relationship with his subject is more complicated. As Susan Sontag perceptively put it in her seminal book On Photography: “like a pair of binoculars with no right or wrong end, the camera makes exotic things near, intimate; and familiar things small, abstract, strange, much further away. It offers, in one easy, habit-forming activity, both participation and alienation in our own lives and those of others – allowing us to participate, while confirming alienation.”

Walker Evans Street Scene New York 1928
Walker Evans Street Scene New York, 1928

Voyeurism and its cousin, surveillance, have been one of the unforeseen consequences of photography. We take it as a given of modern life that the celebrity is both hungry for photographic coverage, whilst feeling that the paparazzi (as in the case of the late Princess Diana) is constantly hounding them. One of the most complex questions raised by photography is what constitutes private space, provoking slippery questions about who is looking at whom and the degree of surreptitious pleasure and exploitation of power involved. Since its invention the camera has been used to make clandestine images and satisfy the desire to see what is normally hidden or taboo. No one knows exactly how many CCTV cameras are spying on us in the UK as we go about our day to day lives. A figure of 4.2 million cameras has been cited. That’s about one for every 14 citizens and means that most of us will pass an average of 300 cameras a day. Mobile phone and digital cameras are now ubiquitous, making voyeurs of us all.

This summer Tate Modern’s massive show Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera, takes a look at photography’s voyeuristic role from the middle of the nineteenth century to the present day. Taking as its starting point the idea of the unseen photographer the exhibition includes a wide range of images, from the impromptu to the intimate, taken in a number of ingenious ways. For when the camera moved out of the photographic studio into the street – where originally no one expected to find it – it was easy to take a subject unawares. By around 1870 advances in technology meant that the gelatine dry-plate had virtually eliminated the cumbersome wet-plate process which had evolved from the daguerreotype and salt print. Movement became easier to record. With the dry plate’s increased sensitivity came the invention of the shutter, which regulated the passage of light into the lens to hundredths of seconds, allowing for a reduction in camera size. Soon cameras became small enough to hide and use covertly. These early portable examples known as ‘detectives’ were often more fanciful than useful. On display at Tate Modern is an (undated) pair of men’s black brogues with a camera hidden in the heel. It seems uni-bombers are not the only ones to favour shoes. Others were concealed in canes or umbrella heads. Among the most practical was the early ‘vest pocket’ camera designed to be worn on a man’s chest with the lens located in a cravat or tie, where a stick pin might have been, leaving the hands relatively free.

Shizuka Yokomizo Stranger No. 2 1999
Shizuka Yokomizo Stranger No. 2, 1999

By the 1880s George Eastman’s Kodak, which needed little or no focussing, allowed the man or woman in the street to shoot (note the violent terminology alluding to the stalking of prey) their own ‘snap’ shots. Walker Evans Street Scene The photographer became a potential violator of private space, snapping bathing young women like some latter-day version of Susannah spied upon by those biblical elders, and intruding on moments of public tragedy, as well as private grief. Divided into five areas the exhibition explores street photography, the sexually explicit or implicit – pictures we normally associate with voyeurism and pornography, celebrity stalking, death and violence, along with surveillance in its many forms. Some of the viewing is uncomfortable, turning us and not just the photographer into a voyeur. There is Auguste Belloc’s 1860s image of an unknown Victorian woman (covering her face with her hand, whilst lifting her voluminous petticoats to expose herself), Jacques-André Boiffard and Man Ray’s 1930 fetishised Seabrook, Justine in Mask with black stockings, high heels and a dildo, as well as more contemporary shots by Kohei Yoshiyuki of Japanese men, unaware that they are being photographed, gathering a dark park around copulating couples to indulge in their oniastic pleasures, and Robert Mapplethorpe’s deliberately provocative 1980 image of a Man in Polyester Suit exposing his amble manhood. But it is not images such as these, or the one of a group of fat bellied guys gathered in a tent in Presque Isle, Maine around a masturbating female on a platform, as if watching a performing circus dog, that are as disquieting as the images of extreme poverty: the bum sleeping on a sidewalk in the Bowery NYC or the appalling conditions suffered by lodgers in a crowded, filthy Bayard Street tenement in 1899, where it cost ‘Five Cents a Spot’ to share a louse ridden mattress and huddle round the solid fuel stove.

Photography is particularly good a catching fleeting moments of despair when the subject is unaware of the camera. Paul Strand’s Man, Five Points Square, New York taken in 1916, stares ahead from beneath his battered homburg, his face unshaven, and his eyes full of disappointment, like one of Beckett’s tramps. Perhaps it is all to do with the photographer’s intent. During the summer of 1936 Walker Evans worked with the writer James Agee on a project for Fortune magazine. The conflict between being intruders and compassionate artists was one of which they were constantly aware. Their photographs of the humble dwellings of the impoverished tenant farmers whom they befriended in Alabama are full of painful dignity, creating a sense of the sacramental from the modest lives of these ordinary people.

Georges Dudognon Greta Garbo in the Club St. Germain Paris c.1950s
Georges Dudognon Greta Garbo in the Club St. Germain Paris, c.1950s

But it is the images of violence that are the hardest to look at and raise most questions. What right does a photographer have to snap the last desperate moments of a woman jumping into the street to escape the fire that engulfed the Hotel Ambassador in 1959, or the brutality of a Viet Cong Officer executing a terrified civilian, or William Saunders’ 1860s picture of a Chinese Execution, which is made no less chilling through the lens of history? Two of the most unsettling pictures are Malcolm Browne’s Vietnamese monk immolating himself in 1963 before American TV cameras in protest against the government’s torture of priests, and the disquieting 1928 record of Ruth Snyder hooded and strapped ready for execution in the electric chair. Can the photographer justify intruding on these last desperate moments? Are we lessened by such images? Or do they become such a potent part of our moral landscape and cultural heritage that they are worth having at all costs?

Perhaps all subjects who are taken without their permission are, in some way, victims. Though as celebrities, willing engaged in a Faustian pact with the photographer, this makes the situation more ambiguous; the moral here might be, be careful what you wish for. The interest in Liz Taylor and Richard Burton was such that they could not enjoy a private canoodle as they sunbathed on the deck of a boat in 1962, without the intrusive lens of a long distant camera seeking them out. Greta Garbo famously wanted to be left alone as we can see from the hand raised in front of her face in a St. Germain night-club, while Andy Warhol was more than happy to reveal the scars of his near fatal stabbing by “Vox Superstar”, a mentally disturbed young woman by the name of Olga Kulbis, who developed an unhealthy obsession with Warhol and vampires whilst hanging around his studio, the Factory. His ease with celebrity is such that he simply colludes with the photographer to turn his wounds into art.

Ron Galella, What Makes Jackie Run?
Ron Galella, What Makes Jackie Run?
Central Park, New York City, October 4, 1971

For those who have seen Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s film The Lives of Others, that charts an agent of the secret police in 1984 East Berlin conducting a surveillance on a writer and his lover, the emotional and ethical questions around spying are brilliantly played out. War has long fed the drive for new surveillance technologies to gain advantage over the enemy. But today such covert prying has become an ubiquitous part of everyday modern life, most often taken by unguided machines that simply watch over us like some omniscient deity. There are photographs, here, of Russian missiles sites in Cuba in 1962, built in a characteristic Star of David pattern, that made an irrefutable case when Adlai Stevenson, the U.S. Ambassador to the UN, presented them as evidence of Russian aggression in America’s backyard, and there is a threatening image of the Golf Five Zero watchtower (known to the British army as ‘Borucki Sanger’) in South Armagh, a potent symbol of the northern Irish troubles at the end of the twentieth century. There is also work by the contemporary French photographer Sophie Calle who has used the camera to explore how surveillance destabilises notions of public and private space.

This fascinating exhibition asks if we have unavoidably become a society of voyeurs. Images which were never intended to be seen by a wider audience that have now entered the collective public imagination such as that of the kidnap of the toddler James Bulger being lead away by two ten year old boys, who would later murder him, in an anonymous shopping mall, and the infamous pyramid of naked Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, watched over by two American soldiers in green rubber gloves, giving the thumbs up. Along with the proliferation of camera phones, reality TV, You Tube videos and photographs of private events plastered on public sites such as Facebook, go the debates about terrorism and personal safety. The ubiquitous security camera has, it seems, become an unintended icon of our age. Big Brother is alive and well.

Exposed Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera at Tate Modern from 28 May to 3 October 2010

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2010

Image 1: © The Estate of Harry Callahan. Courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York
Image 2: © Walker Evans Archive. The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Image 3: © Shizuka Yokomizo
Image 4: © Estate of Georges Dudognon
Image 5: © Ron Galella, Ltd.

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Laura Ford
Days of Judgement
Roche Court Sculpture Park

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

Roche Court is one of those well kept cultural secrets like Garsington Opera at Wormsley in the Chiltern Hills, or Charleston, the former home of the painter Vanessa Bell; loved and valued by those in the know as something unique and rather special. Just off the main A30, it is easy to miss the unassuming sign that directs you to the private sculpture park a few miles outside Salisbury. But as you turn into the driveway that leads through the idyllic Wiltshire countryside you are in for a surprise. In the middle of a field, at a height of more than 17 feet and measuring more than 25 feet across and 75 feet from end to end, stands a huge Cor-ten steel sculpture, Millbank Steps by Sir Anthony Caro, commissioned originally for Tate Britain in 2004, and comprising of four huge, stepped arches. This heroic form, like some great prehistoric henge, frames the clouds and sky, along with the surrounding fields, in a way that is quite magical, creating a dialogue between sculpture, architecture and even landscape painting, so that seeing the work here is a completely different experience to encountering it in a gallery. And that is the whole point of Roche Court; to experience contemporary sculpture within a rural setting.

Laura Ford Days of Judgement
Days of Judgement

Founded in 1958, the original New Art Centre was located in Sloane Street, London. Then in 1994 it relocated to Roche Court , a nineteenth-century house in rolling parkland, built in 1804 for Admiral Nelson, reputedly for trysts with his mistress Emma, though these were apparently cut short by his premature death at Trafalgar. Traces of Iron Age and Roman farms and two Saxon cemeteries have been located nearby on Roche Court Down. In the twenty acres or so of parkland and garden with its ha-ha and scenic views, sited amid the walled vegetable garden with its Victorian glass houses or dotted in wooded dells and hollows, are around 100 works by 20th and 21st century sculptors. From the terrace of the house a pair of huge bronze hares by Barry Flanagan can be seen leaping in the cleft of the valley. Roche Court also represents various artists’ estates including those of Barbara Hepworth, Kenneth Armitage and Ian Stephenson.

In the autumn of 1998 the architect, Stephen Marshall, added the new gallery that now joins the house and the Orangery which, along with the award-winning Artist’s House, has proved to be a perfect addition to the park and won six architectural awards including the RIBA Stephen Lawrence Prize for best small building. This allows for an ever-changing programme of exhibitions. The present show is by Laura Ford.

Laura Ford Days of Judgement - Cats 1-7
Days of Judgement – Cats 1-7

Ford is well known for her sculptures that appropriate childhood imagery and re-interpret it within a post-Freudian light. She has, in the past, made not quite life-size sculptures of small girls brandishing guns and trees with feet in little red shoes. There has been a badger dressed as an urban down-and-out, a Mrs. Tiggy Winkle hedgehog disguised as a bag lady and a malevolent black bird that, disturbingly, has a child’s legs clad in school shoes and baggy stockings. Ford’s territory is that of the nursery rhyme and fairy tale, to which she gives an idiosyncratic and slightly disturbing twist. Although not explicitly narrative her work captures something of the pre-cognitive emotions of the child: anger, jealousy and a desire for revenge. Her animals are never completely cosy, though they have an anthropomorphic quality; a reminder that behind the veneer of culture untamed passions still lurk, especially in the child. And there is dark humour. In her early Bang-Bang – a small gun-toting girl in a frilly dress of white plaster, with a hand-knitted head –appears full of gleeful murderous intent. Like Paula Rego, Ford understands the power of childhood passions and the darkness of the Id.

Trained originally at Bath Academy of Art in the 1970s she was included in the New Contemporaries, 1983, before taking up a place a Chelsea Art School when, whilst still a student, her work was included in The Sculpture Show at the Hayward and the Serpentine. For this current exhibition at Roche Court she has taken as her unlikely starting point Masaccio’s fresco, The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, from which she has borrowed the pose and sense of abjection. Pacing the gallery floor that overlooks the garden are a group of larger than life skinny black cats with very long tails in various states of anxiety and distress. Part cat burglar, part cartoon characters they not only evoke Dr. Seuss’s absurdist Cat in a Hat illustrations but conjure something of T.S. Eliot’s anxious office workers in The Waste Land streaming over London Bridge wracked with existential angst or, possibly, today’s bankers ground down with the worry of financial and social collapse. Completely black there is also something of the malevolence of the witch’s companion about them. In medieval European superstition it was thought that one way to identify a woman as a witch was if she owned a cat. This was believed to be a demon or evil spirit in disguise that acted as her familiar and aid. Outside in the park, two further bronze cats stalk the grounds, their blank faces concerned only with their own thoughts and rituals as they appear to search out their potential prey in the surrounding fields and woods.

Laura Ford Days of Judgement - Limited Penguins
Days of Judgement – Limited Penguins

In the Orangery, Ford has installed a group of sculptures that look like a class of primary school children dressed up as penguins, for underneath their black costumes with their orange beaks like those of a medieval plague doctor, are pairs of small feet in black gym shoes. Ford has described these as sculptures dressed as people, dressed as animals, so that the incongruity and ambivalence seem to add to a sense of the uncanny. Whilst initially comical and cute there is something intrinsically disturbing about these small figures as if, like Gulliver in Lilliput, we, the viewer, are walking through a crowd of not too welcoming midgets. Clustered together and apparently marooned and displaced in the incongruous setting of a gallery they also seem to suggest our confused attitudes to global warming, whereby on one hand we Disneyfy and anthropomorphise wild animals, whilst allowing their real habitats to be destroyed.

Through humour, wit and a sense of play Laura Ford’s reconnects us to our lost childhoods. Not the saccharine, innocent childhood of the Victorian storybook or of modern advertising but that which was understood by story tellers such as The Brothers Grimm or that master of the fairy tale Charles Perrault, a childhood that reveals the dark, often complex emotions that remain embedded in the deep core of our psyches often well into adulthood and can here be seen in a cluster of apparently innocuous penguins or a group of sleek black cats.

Laura Ford Days of Judgement at the Roche Court Sculpture Park, Wiltshire from 24 November 2012 to 3 February 2013
Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2012
Images © Laura Ford and Roche Court Sculpture Park

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Frieze Week 2011

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

Recession? What recession? The collapse of the Euro-zone? Who’d have guessed? One in ten Londoners unemployed; never? It’s Frieze art week in London and the glitterati are out on the town. My email in box is awash with invitations to private views, post opening parties, and champagne brunches. Everyone is hurrying somewhere, being terribly, terribly busy and in demand. Apart from Frieze itself there is the Pavilion of Art and Design in Berkely Square, a sophisticated boutique fair that brings modern design and the decorative arts together and Multiplied at Christies, the only fair devoted to art in editions, as well as Sunday – young, cutting edge and more alternative than the main event. Lisson Gallery held a magnificent party at 1 Mayfair, in a deconsecrated church filled with strobe lighting, while Blain Southern’s do after Rachel Howard’s opening show, Folie A Deux in Derring Street, was in a beautiful 18thcentury town house just down the road. (Howard, who used to paint Damien Hirst’s spots, is a fine painter in her own right). There are dinners and receptions for collectors, art historians, journalists and pretty much anyone who can blag their way in. Getting into Frieze itself is made as difficult as possible to keep the tension high. Being there and being seen is the name of the game. This is a parallel universe to the one most mortals inhabit and light years away from the life of the young woman, interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this week, who’d been made redundant, applied for 140 jobs without success, and was, now, with her daughter, living on job seekers allowance of £67.00 per week.

Rachel Howard Folie a Deux
Rachel Howard Folie a Deux

Whatever the private qualms of the art world movers and shakers about the future prospects of the art market really are, they’re not letting on. From all the parties, the flowing champagne and the PR babes in their short, short skirts and high, high heels arriving at yet another opening, you might be forgiven for thinking that the ’90s had never ended; art is the new rock n’roll.

Since its launch in 2003 by Amanda Sharp and Matthew Slotover, the publishers of Frieze magazine, the fair, held each autumn in Regents Park, has gone from strength to strength to become the byword for edgy contemporary art. In fact, it’s been so successful that it’s about to spawn two new versions, Frieze New York and Frieze Masters (which will deal with traditional works), giving it, as Matthew Slotover suggests, “a contemporary view on historical art.”

Contemporary art has a way of changing the socio-economic structure of a city. It’s happened in New York and Berlin, as well as in London. The previously rundown area of Shoreditch, off Old Street roundabout, found a new lease of life when infiltrated by artists looking for cheap studios, to be given the seal of approval by the opening of Jay Joplin’s de luxe White Cube in Hoxton Square, the gallery that represents artists such as Jake and Dinos Chapman, Damien Hirst and Anslem Kieffer.

White Cube


Not content with venues in Hoxton and St. James, Piccadilly, White Cube has now opened up in Bermondsey, in the badlands south of the river known for its ancient antique market, but now awash with little bars and designer boutiques. The private view resembled a Cup Final, with queues snaking down the narrow street. Anyone who lives there must be rubbing their hands at the instant increase in the value of their property. This new palace to art is extremely beautiful, with highly polished concrete floors and yards of ubiquitous glass and white walls. And it is huge, more like a museum than a commercial gallery. I asked one of the directors, Tim Marlow, if they were trying to give the Tate a run for their money. “No,” he smiled with enigmatic charm, “all of us in London are working together to ensure this remains the best city in the world for art.”

Kitty Kraus Untitled 2007
Kitty Kraus Untitled, 2007

Bermondsey will be the largest of White Cube’s three London sites. The building, which was primarily used as a warehouse before the current refurbishment by the architects Casper Mueller Kneer, now includes three principal exhibition spaces, substantial warehousing, private viewing rooms, an auditorium and a bookshop. The ‘South Galleries’ will provide the principal display area for significant exhibitions, while three smaller galleries, collectively known as the ‘North Galleries’, will feature an innovative new programme of exhibitions.

As a space it is perfect for strong conceptual work; work that is likely to be bought by blue chip businesses and collectors with private galleries. But it is not a place for the feint hearted artist; one who wants to explore the small, the poetic and the understated. Everything about the place says, ‘art is big business and don’t you forget it.’ The inaugural show ‘Structure & Absence’ is a group show that features the Chinese scholar’s rock as an organising device or motif and features work by, among others, Andreas Gursky, Damien Hirst, Gary Hume, Agnes Martin, Gabriel Orozco. While Kitty Kraus’s work looks spectacular, some of the painting looks a bit lost.

But back to Frieze. Frieze New York, scheduled for next May, will export the London model to the Big Apple. They already have an office in New York and 170 top flight international galleries will show contemporary work in a purpose built structure on Randall’s Island Park, overlooking the East River. With the downturn in the fortunes of the Armory Show, Frieze New York looks like an act of opportunistic artistic colonialism.

Michael Landy Credit Card Destroying Machine 2010
Michael Landy
Credit Card Destroying Machine, 2010

And this year’s Frieze in London? Well everyone is biting their nails to see what the sales figures will be like. This year’s fair is bigger than ever with 33 different countries participating and 173 galleries. And what is there to see? Well just about anything that you ever dreamt that art might be, including a pair of caged live Toucan birds at the Max Wigram Gallery to Ewan Gibbs subtle pencil drawings on paper of San Francisco at the Timothy Taylor Gallery. Gió Marconi have devoted a whole booth to Nathalie Djurberg, who currently has a show at Camden Arts Centre. Here she has a new video The Woods (2011)which is surrounded by her surreal puppets: goats and hippopotami, writhing crocodiles and beasts with large bollocks, all guaranteed to haunt your dreams. And in case you’re confused about the relationship between money and art, as part of Frieze Projects – a series of special commissions – the artist Christian Jankowski (of the Lisson Gallery) has joined forces with CRN and Riva, two luxury yachting brands of the Ferretti Group, to create The Finest Art on Water, a limited edition boat The Aquiriva Cento, a sort of floating penthouse with every luxury imaginable.

The fair is, as usual, full of the mad, the bad, as well as some extremely good work but, as always, it has to be searched for. Richard Ingleby’s stand from Edinburgh with works by Calum Innes and Ian Hamilton Finlay is a rare model of restraint and good taste amid the brouhaha, as is the elegant Frith Street stand that includes Tacita Dean (currently showing her new work at the Tate Turbine Hall) and Cornelia Parker’s 30 Pieces of Silver (With Reflection), 2003, where pairs of silver objects, one flattened, the other complete and whole, hover above the floor like yogic flyers. Pensive and reflective they encourage the viewer to consider notions of mortality and permanence.

But perhaps the last word should go to Michael Landy’s absurd Heath Robinson Credit Card Destroying Machine, 2010, which as its name implies chews up and spits out credit cards. Now presumably that is ironic. For what would the art world be without those all important little bits of plastic?

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Image 1 © Rachel Howard Courtesy BlainSouthern Photography: Peter Mallet
Image 2: © Kitty Kraus
Image 3: © Michael Landy

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Ryan Gander
Locked Room Scenario
Artangel London

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

I’m tempted, by way of a review, to leave this page blank. After all I don’t want to be too directive. I’d like to feel that you, the reader, are free to make whatever contribution you consider appropriate. All you need do is apply your imagination. Come on; I’m sure you can do it if you try. The possibilities are endless and as valid as anything I might come up with surely? What’s the point of bothering to spend all day putting a review together when you can write anything you want? Who needs critics? Who needs artists anyway? After all skill is so passé.

Ryan Gander Locked Room Scenario

Ryan Gander’s Artangel project is called Locked Room Scenario. The Chester born Ryan first grabbed art-world attention with his Loose Associations originally performed at the Rijksakdaemie in Amsterdam, when he was a student there in 2002. His talk took circuitous routes through “desire lines” (imaginary paths across public spaces) to imagining fake furniture and, even more esoteric, Christine Keeler’s Connection to Homer Simpson. His Alchemy Boxes contained models of work by other artists, as well as personal items including Truffaut DVD covers and books. His output has been, to say the least, eclectic and idiosyncratic: drawings, sculpture, films and customised sportswear, a chess set, jewellery and a children’s book have all been spawned by his copious imagination. He describes himself as a storyteller. His work is spun from the personal and the cultural in a complex web of narratives and subplots. It’s as if he is aiming to become the Jorge Luis Borges of the visual art world, leaving us clues where ever he goes. It’s not surprising to learn that he has a passion for Inspector Morse and Sherlock Holmes.

When I arrive at an unprepossessing modern industrial warehouse in the mean streets of Islington, London, just between fashionable Wharf Road – where the exclusive galleries Victoria Miro and Parasol Unit reside – and the canal, I’m met at the gate by an invigilator with a list of names and am checked in. I ask where the exhibition is and he waves his arm vaguely. I enter the building and find a young couple sitting on the stairs listening to their i-pod and wonder if they’re part of the exhibition. I ask, but they don’t reply.

Ryan Gander Locked Room Scenario

The smell of old office carpet permeates the building and it’s very dark. I turn right down a white painted corridor with a grey painted floor and encounter some blue cinema ropes, the sort that cordon off celebrities from the hoi polloi at film openings, and walk into more empty office space. The building has obviously been abandoned by its previous inhabitants for something more appealing. I wander, rather lost, through a maze of corridors and shabby rooms still expecting to come upon some art work. I poke through piles of abandoned junk mail and old post and I’m still looking for the exhibition when it dawns on me that this is it. I come to a door where the glass partition has been concealed with sheets of newspaper so I can’t see through it. There is a light on inside. I peer in. There is a gallery bench and I can hear a projector clicking away. The projector is throwing patches of white light onto the wall in the corridor. They might be anything: a vase or a breast, or they might just be patches of white light. Through another small internal window, the glass reinforced with wire, is a room I can’t reach lined with white tiles.

I make my way down another terribly dark corridor, worried I’ll trip over in the gloom, to find another locked door. I hope that I will be able to read my notes later as I can’t see anything I am writing. Beyond is an old office chair with a workman’s yellow waterproof slung on the back. Is this part of the exhibition or something I have just stumbled upon? On the seat are a newspaper and a pack of cigarettes. Painted in large letters on the wall above it says: London Newcastle Depot. I’ve no idea what this means. Is this location significant? Or simply the place where the caretaker goes for his tea break? I’m now completely lost both physically and aesthetically.

In another space there seems to be an exhibition of sorts but it’s hard to tell whether or not it’s over. The press release lying in a discarded pile on the floor tells me that Kimberling Gallery ‘is delighted to present the work of seven artists whose significance to the development of European Conceptualism has been hugely overlooked in recent years. Field of Meaning brings together key works by Spencer Anthony, Mary Aurory, Rose Duvall etc. etc.’ The supposed show includes lots of worthy looking text that I’m not inclined to read. By this stage I don’t really care very much and the artists have probably been invented anyway. And I’ve never heard of the curator, the androgynous sounding, Marsh Tinley. Offstage I can hear voices and the names Mike Nelson and Martin Creed whispered from somewhere I can’t identify and realise that I’m probably suppose to understand this whole thing as some sort of wry comment, full of arcane in-jokes, on contemporary art. I think of Martin Creed’s notorious light going on and off, and the pretentious theatrical pieces devised by Tinho Segal. On the whole this is territory – one full of clues, double meanings and non sequiturs – that is so much better covered by writers such as Paul Auster.

Ryan Gander Locked Room Scenario

I wander round some more and wonder if the fire extinguishers and array of plugs and power points on the wall are part of the work. After all there are plenty of metaphors I can think of for both extinguishers and plugs, so why not? And does it matter anyway? The boundaries between ‘art’ and ‘reality’ are blurred to the point of confusion. Should I care?

I wander outside and stand in the windblown yard among the weeds and bits of drifting paper. In one corner is a skip full of builders litter and old palettes. Only a rather incongruous, and strategically placed, hairy blue nylon rug makes me realise this, too, is art. Locked Room Scenario claims to invite the viewer to adopt a detective’s approach to the available clues, scrutinise detail, and imagine what cannot be seen. Now that I’m in the day light I find that my notes, written in the dark, have dribbled down the page like a drunken spider and are barely legible. But then if this is about telling stories, about false clues and hiatuses, it shouldn’t really matter should it? The fact that my notes are mostly illegible is just another consequence of the ‘work’.

As I leave it starts to rain and I’ve just missed the bus. It feels like a fitting end to a very down-beat morning. If art has become so insouciant, so minimal, so afraid of passion and engagement with difficult emotions and the real world does it really amount to more than a subculture for those in the know?

Ryan Gander Locked Room Scenario at Artangel from 30 August to 23 October 2011

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Images © Ryan Gander
Photography by Julian Abrams

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Gauguin, Maker of Myth
Tate Modern
National Gallery of Art Washington

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

There can be few artists who have been as lionised and lambasted as Gauguin. Condemned by many as a colonial pederast who bought the syphilitic worm into a South Seas heaven, an arrogant self-promoter who abandoned his wife and children for the life of a lotus eater, he represents for others the archetypal painter who gave up everything for his art, breaking away from the bourgeois strictures of a career as a stockbroker and the dab-dab of Impressionism to create paintings full of flat vibrant colour that pre-figured German Expressionists such as Nolde and Kirchner. For his champions he has long been held up as the hero of modernism, a painter who released art from the confines of the naturalistic world and liberated colour to create works of universal symbolism and mystery.

So much of the narrative that surrounds Gauguin is myth, often of his own making. He has been the subject of countless representations from Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence to Mario Vargas Llosa’s historical novel The Way to Paradise. One of the first artists to have the media savvy to exploit the narrative of his own life, the Faustian pact he made with posterity finally came back to taunt him when, in 1902, isolated and ill, he dreamt of settling in the Pyrenees. “You are,” his friend Daniel de Monfreid wrote, ” at the moment that extraordinary, legendary artist who sends from the depths of Oceania his disconcerting, inimitable works, the definitive works of a great man who has disappeared, as it were, off the face of the earth… In short, you enjoy the immunity of the great dead; you belong now to the history of art.”

Gauguin Vision of the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel) 1888
Vision of the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel), 1888

That he had an extraordinary life is not in question. His father was a political journalist and his mother Aline the daughter of the writer and political activist, Flora Tristan, a pioneer of modern feminism. After the 1848 revolution his family left France for Peru and political exile, where his father died of a heart attack leaving Aline to bring up her two young sons in Lima at the residence of an elderly uncle. It was here that Gauguin spent the first five years of his life, which would later allow him to claim Peruvian heritage and caste himself in the role of a ‘savage’. “The Inca, according to legend,” he wrote in a letter to his friend Emile Schuffenecker in 1888, “came straight from the sun and that’s where I will return.” Yet his mythic, archetypal images of Polynesian women and his ‘essentialist’ stereotypes of Breton peasants have often proved problematic for contemporary audiences in these more politically correct times.

As a young man he enlisted as an Officer’s Candidate in the Merchant Marines where he served for six years, followed by military service in the French Navy from 1868 to 1871. “As you can see,” he wrote, “my life has always been very restless and uneven. In me, a great many mixtures. Coarse sailor. So be it. But there is also blue blood, or, to put it better, two kinds of blood, two races.” On release from military service he became a stockbroker and married the young Dane Mette Gad, settling in the 9ème arrondisment of Paris, which was then a hub of artistic activity, becoming a Sunday painter and gaining enough ground to show in the Paris Salon in May 1876. His time in Martinique after the breakup of his marriage, his stay in Pont-Aven, his infamous relationship with Van Gogh and his subsequent withdrawal to Tahiti have all been well documented.

Gauguin Teha 'amana has many Parents 1893
Teha ‘amana has many Parents, 1893

Yet to understand Gauguin’s life as a painter it is important to see him not simply as some devilish deviant but as a part of his times. The thinking that drove Gauguin to Tahiti, that lead Joseph Conrad to write about the Congo and D. H. Lawrence to become fascinated with Mexico was the same. The development of the idea of the ‘Orient’ as an unspecified local, an imaginative space fed by explorers’ tales and the visions of poets and artists, fitted very much with the mood of the late 19th century. Such ‘exotic’ locations stood in opposition to the restrictions and repressions of bourgeois (largely white) western society. Here the real and the imaginary, the civilised and the primitive could be woven together into a construct where erotic drives and sexual impulses, normally buried beneath a veneer of civilised behaviour, could be legitimised. Post-colonial studies have given the idea of the ‘primitive’ an understandably bad press. Yet for Gauguin the notion offered the possibility of breaking free from the constraints of naturalism and from the ubiquity of Impressionism. He had already been looking at Japanese prints and images d’Éoubak (i.e. popular 19th century prints depicting idealised scenes of French life) as well as absorbing the ‘authentic’ character of a people and place while staying in Brittany. There he had written: “I love Brittany. I find the wild and the primitive here. When my clogs resonate on this granite ground, I hear the muffled thud that I’m looking for in painting.” Whilst such views may seem rather naive, if not a little dubious in the 21st century, for Gauguin and other contemporary artists, as well as for the poet Victor Hugo who, in 1829 published his second book of poems Les Orientales, this ‘going away’ represented a voyage of discovery, not only into new ways of making art but also into the terrain of the unconscious.

In The Question of Lay Analysis Freud wrote in 1926 of women’s sexuality as a ‘dark continent’. The evocative phrase connotes a geographic space that is murky and deep, one that defies understanding. Freud borrowed the expression from the African explorer John Rowlands Stanley’s description of the exploration of a dark forest-virgin, hostile, impenetrable. This elision between sexuality, the unexplored and the primitive became a way of investigating instinctual drives that had no legitimate place within late 19th and early 20th century western society. For Gauguin the ‘dark continent’ – a mix of the sexual and the geographic – represented an escape from European civilisation, which he had begun to hate. In his writings and paintings he constructed a mythical vision of Tahiti as tropical paradise – an unspoilt utopia both savage and sexual – that was being destroyed by Western civilisation. “May the day come (and maybe soon)”, he wrote, somewhat tactlessly, to his wife Mette, “when I can run and escape into the woods of an Oceanic Island, living there on rapture, calm and art. Surrounded by a new family, far from this European struggle for money.” This rapture in the woods was, of course, largely an illusion. The ‘elsewhere’ that Gauguin was seeking did not exist. As he later wrote to Mette: “Tahiti is becoming entirely French.”

Yet such journeys were less about discovering geographical and anthropological truths than an opportunity to establish formal and aesthetic shifts away from a naturalistic European art based on the play and observations of light. “My artistic centre is in my mind”, he wrote, “what I desire is a corner of myself that is still unknown.” Whilst his first trip to Tahiti might be seen only as a journey, the second was a true exile, an escape from his lack of success, his financial problems and, to a large extent, from himself. His ‘dark continent’ can be viewed, therefore, as essentially an internal one, his journey a psychological voyage into the centre of himself where he sought to create a place of spiritual harmony through a sensual awareness of the colour and light of Polynesia. The deliberately exaggerated and simplified lines, colours and local religious cult objects – often of his own invention – aimed to produce a charged spirituality. Whilst he vehemently rejected Christianity, sacred themes permeate his art.

Gauguin Christ in the Garden of Olives 1889
Christ in the Garden of Olives, 1889

What Gauguin really discovered was that his study of the ‘primitive’ brought him back to himself and that by defining what was ‘other’ he could begin to unpick who he really was. This enduring quest for self-hood is emphasised in the single room at Tate modern that has been dedicated to his self portraits in the first major exhibition in London to be devoted to his work in over half a century. Here paintings such as Self-portrait as Christ in the Garden of Olives 1889 (Norton Museum of Art, Florida) and Self-portrait with Manau tu papau 1893 (Musée d’Orsay, Paris) dramatise his aptitude for solipsism, self invention and role-playing as he adopts the various guises of victim, saint, Christ-like martyr and sinner.

The Exhibition traces his approach to storytelling bringing together over 100 works from around the world in an attempt to challenge commonly held assumptions about his life, revealing his narrative strategies and exploring the myths and fables that were central to his creativity. Included are many of his iconic works such as Vision of the Sermon 1888 (National Gallery of Scotland), inspired by a prayer meeting of Breton women, and Teha’amana has Many Parents 1893 (Art Institute of Chicago). Watercolours, ceramics, decorated walking sticks and his very large carved clogs, alongside rarely-seen illustrated letters, sketchbooks, memoirs and journalism all provide an insight into his character, working practices and thinking.

Despite the fact that the curatorial hand lies rather heavily over this exhibition it goes a long way to re-contextualise Gauguin, allowing him to throw off some of the labels coloured by contemporary morals and thinking, that of colonialist, self-mythologizer wayward husband and painter who simply filtered his version of the ‘primitive’ through Western fantasy. That he was arrogant, opinionated and a useless husband is probably true but there is no moral obligation on an artist to be nice. By definition the self belief needed to continue against the odds can often make them very difficult human beings. Gauguin chose to turn his back on mainstream Impressionism, using the language of symbolism in his own unique way to investigate fables and myths, much as Freud was to do with Greek legends, in order to understand his deepest and darkest desires. As he stressed in Diverses choses ‘pure’ colour could “facilitate the flight of the imagination, decorating our dreams, opening a new door into the infinite and the mysterious.

“Gauguin Maker of Myth at Tate Modern, London from 30 September 2010 to 16 January 2011 and the National Gallery of Art, Washington from 27 February to 5 June 2011

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

1 Courtesy of the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh
2 Courtesy of The Art Institute of Chicago.
3 Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

The Glasgow Boys Pioneering Painters 1880-1900
Royal Academy London

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

James Guthrie A Funeral Service in the Highlands 1881-2
James Guthrie A Funeral Service in the Highlands, 1881-2

The rather amorphous group of artists known as The Glasgow Boys emerged at the end of the 1870s to reject Victorian sentimentalism, staid academicism and the execution of idyllic Highland landscapes in favour of painting scenes taken from everyday life. The first significant group of British artists since the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood they consisted of twenty young artists, including twelve key painters who took their ideas largely from European artistic models. Whilst the French Impressionists may have seemed a little too outré for their taste, they were attracted by the naturalism and realism of Jean-Francois Millet and by James McNeill Whistler’s austere and limited palette. Now the Royal Academy has mounted a major show of their work, billing them as ‘Pioneering Painters’. The first large-scale survey of the work of ‘the Boys’ to have been staged in London for 40 years it reveals, to a largely new audience, the work of James Paterson, William York Macgregor, James Guthrie and George Henry, together with younger painters such as John Lavery and Thomas Millie Dow, who were among the group’s leading figures. Though, sadly, the Royal Academy has only 80 out of the 130 included in the original version of the exhibition, which had a hugely successful run at Glasgow’s Kelvingrove galleries earlier this year.

James Guthrie To Pastures New 1882-3
James Guthrie To Pastures New, 1882-3

Condemned by some critics for a lack of originality and plagiarism (The Observer newspaper accused James Guthrie’s opening painting A Funeral Service in the Highlands 1881-2 of being over reliant on Courbet’s A Burial at Ornans 1849-50, in fact, what is interesting about this work, is how much it reflects the political mood that was sweeping Europe at the time, one that portrayed peasants and farmers in a sympathetic but unsentimental light. In atmosphere and composition Guthrie’s funeral is very similar to Fritz Mackensen’s Sermon on the Moor 1895, which shows a group of German Lutheran peasants dressed in their Sunday best, listening to an outdoor sermon. It is unlikely that Mackensen would have known Guthrie or Guthrie Mackensen, who lived in an artist’s community in Worpswede on the north German moors that counted the poet Rilke and the painter Paula Modersohn-Becker among its participants. Guthrie’s work was actually inspired by a painting expedition to Brig o’ Turk in the Trossachs. The dark, almost monochromatic canvas is based on a tragic, real life incident, an outdoor Presbyterian service held for a young boy who had drowned in the river during the artist’s stay. The weight of the community’s grief can be felt in the stooped stature of the men who surround the coffin under the metal-grey sky.

James Guthrie A Hind's Daughter 1883
James Guthrie A Hind’s Daughter, 1883

By the beginning of the 1900s Glasgow was the fifth largest city in Europe and the second city of the British Empire after London. With its shipbuilding, smelting and heavy engineering it brought great wealth to a few and dire working conditions to many others. From the mid-19th century the avant-garde had been a primarily urban phenomenon but towards the end of the century that changed as artists looked for creative and intellectual credibility beyond the geographical peripheries of bourgeois society and began to explore, what they believed, were the more authentic and ‘primitive’ lives of those close to the land. Gauguin and his friends in Pont-Aven were one such example, while artists such as Van Gogh, and Modersohn-Becker claimed a spiritual identification with the poor and, in the case of Gauguin, with those disposed by Imperialism. Primitivism, therefore, became a central trope of modernism as the avant-garde sought to create a distance between what its participants saw as the gross materialism and artificiality of western bourgeois society and the manufacturing base that underpinned it and the ‘purity’ of peasant life; hence the Glasgow Boy’s penchant for rural scenes.

It is, therefore, all too easy for us as jaded moderns (or post-moderns) to dismiss a rustic scene such as James Guthrie’s Schoolmates 1884-85, in which three impoverished children make their way along a path, or the small girl guiding her flock of geese with a stick in To Pastures New 1882-3, as simply pleasing on the eye. There is no doubt that there was a middle-class market for sentimental fantasies about the countryside but Guthrie and his colleagues were influenced by the unvarnished depictions of rural labourers from mid-19th-century French painters such as Millet and Jules Bastien-Lepage. It would be hard, even for modern cynics, to condemn his The Hind’s Daughter as sentimental. Here a young girl stands cutting cabbages, her small frame obviously chilled to the bone by the harsh Scottish wind. These are not revolutionary pictures, they do not in their very execution, as do those of Van Gogh or Modersohn-Becker, create a new raw sort of art, but there is, here, a certain truth that stands in opposition to the bourgeois salon painting and portraiture of the time.

George Henry & E.A Hornel The Druids
George Henry & E.A Hornel
The Druids – Bringing in the Mistletoe, 1890

Less satisfactory are many of the sub-Impressionistic works executed when five members of the Glasgow Boys – Arthur Melville, John Lavery, William Kennedy, Thomas Millie Dow and Alexander Roach – travelled to France, where they spent time at the artists’ colony of Grez-sur-Loing, taking advantage of the weather to paint en plein air, enjoying the more vibrant southern colours and deep shadows created by the contrasting light and shade. George Henry and E.A Hornel went further afield to Japan where they painted enough geisha girls and silk markets to satisfy the fashionable tastes for anything Japanese or oriental. Arthur Melville also painted in Spain, Egypt and the Persian Gulf, producing vibrant coloured watercolours and oils that, although to the modern eye seem tainted with a certain Imperialistic vision, nonetheless employ astonishingly brilliant washes of colour to capture the Galician coast in The Sapphire Sea, Passages 1892. John Lavery chose not to return to France settling into painting scenes of middle class leisure – the novel sport of tennis that was popular because women could play and the new fangled mode of transport, cycling. These privileged scenarios stand in contrast to the more gritty urbanisation portrayed in George Henry’s Sundown 1887 that depicts the lights of warehouses and factories shimmering on the far banks of the River Clyde.

John Lavery The Tennis Party 1885
John Lavery The Tennis Party, 1885

George Henry and E. A. Hornel initially shared the Glasgow Boys’ commitment to naturalism but slowly abandoned this in favour of strong colour and an emphasis on pattern and heavy impasto. The decidedly odd painting The Druids – Bringing in the Mistletoe 1890 depicts Celtic priests in a sacred oak grove, their robes and head ornaments decorated with patterns of gold leaf that evoke the fashion for Japanese art and woodcuts. Its decorative style has an affinity with the highly ornate works of the Viennese Secessionists, especially Gustav Klimt.

The Glasgow Boys Pioneering Painters 1880-1900 at The Royal Academy from 30 October 2010 to 23 January 2011

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Images 1&4 Courtesy of Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museums
Images 2&5 Courtesy of Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums
Images 3 Courtesy of National Gallery of Scotland

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Eva Hesse
Camden Arts Centre

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

Eva Hesse Studioworks
Eva Hesse Studioworks Berkeley Art Museum

What is the purpose and function of art? The work of Eva Hesse challenges us to ask this question. Her history has been well documented. Born in Hamburg, in 1936, to a family of observant Jews, she was, at the age of two, put on a Kindertransport arriving first in Holland, then England and, finally, in America in 1939. A sense of tenuousness and the impermanence of things colours her work. The balls of screwed paper, the bits of flimsy gauze, mesh and cloth are like whispers rather than assertions, thought processes made physical, rather than finished objects. Her life was short. At the age of 34, when living in New York, she was diagnosed with a fatal brain tumour that cut short her career as a sculptor just as it was getting underway. The body of work she left was remarkable. Poetic, anxious and intense it made manifest her inner, often turbulent emotional life. A writer of diaries, autobiography was the base note of her work.

Eva Hesse No Title (s89)
No Title (s89), 1967

Like the poets Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton the trauma of Hesse’s early childhood strongly affected her emotional development, as did her parents’ separation and divorce, and her mother’s subsequent suicide in 1945. These events left her insecure and anxious, so that in 1954 she made a decision to enter therapy. Her subsequent analysis had a profound effect on her work as she began to examine herself more closely. “I think art is a total thing. A total person giving a contribution. It is an essence, a soul… In my inner soul, art and life are inseparable.” It is, also, not implausible to consider that on some level she must also have been haunted by the ‘what might have beens’ that would surely have befallen her if she had failed to leave Hamburg in 1936 and faced the fate of many other Jews of her generation. The ghost of the holocaust, as well as her own family traumas, shadows her work.

Hesse’s creative talent had been evident since childhood. At the age of 16 she graduated from the New York School of Industrial Arts, later attending the Pratt Institute of Design. But by December 1953 she had dropped out to study figure drawing at the Art Students’ League, whilst also working as a layout artist for Seventeen magazine. Then, in 1957, she graduated from Cooper Union in New York, going on to study at Yale with the assistance of a Norfolk Fellowship.

Eva Hesse No Title (s171)
No Title (s171), 1970

There she worked as a painter, studying colour theory under Joseph Albers. Influenced by Abstract Expressionism her work, during the five years from 1960 to 1965, was mostly small, and intensely personal. Her powerful drawings, with their circular and container like shapes, anticipated her later sculptural configurations; her interest in the metaphors of inside and outside, of what is contained and what is left open ended.

In 1962 she married the sculptor Tom Doyle, from whom she was later to separate, and moved to Ketturg-Am-Ruhr, Germany, where for a year they were guests of the textile manufacturer and collector F. Amhard Scherdt. When they arrived for their 15 month residency in the summer of 1964, Hesse was a painter who identified with Abstract Expressionism and the work of Arshile Gorky and Willein de Kooning, while Doyle described himself an “Abstract Expressionist sculptor.” This visit proved crucial to Hesse’s development. Becoming frustrated with painting, she experimented with combining paint, collage and drawing. Her imagery became infused with the shapes of the machine parts she found in an abandoned factory. These machine drawings were the breakthrough for which she had been searching. According to Doyle, “she really had something, she’d found herself.” Often humorous and reminiscent of the “erotic machines” of Picabia and Marcel Duchamp, these drawings explored Dadaist notions of the absurd, which later Hesse was to incorporate into her sculpture. “If I can name the content, then … it’s the total absurdity of life… Absurdity is the key word. It is to do with contradictions and oppositions… I was always aware that I should take order versus chaos, stringy versus mass, huge versus small and I would try to find the most absurd opposites or extreme opposites.”

Eva Hesse Ringaround Arosie 1965
Ringaround Arosie, 1965

Ringaround Arosie, 1965, a pink breast-like protuberance of cloth and wire on a Masonite panel, was unashamedly sexual in nature, illustrating her growing interest in exploring definitions of the self in terms of the body and female experience. At the same time she was beginning to break artistic convention and push against the prevailing dominance of the heroic and masculine influences of Abstract Expressionism, exploring the use of non-traditional materials such as plastic and industrial wire, in a quest for a more personal, immediate and feminised visual language. “My idea now is to counteract everything I’ve ever learnt or been taught about those things – to find something inevitable that is my life, my thought, my feelings.”

Her work defies categorisation but Joseph Beuys, Claes Oldenburg, and Jean Dubuffet might all be considered to have had an input as Hesse became increasingly interested in ideas outside the conventions of sculpture, rejecting its ‘male’ rigidity and the emptied forms of Minimalism, to follow her growing interest in the ‘female’ and the internal. The critic Robert Hughes has described her as ‘the artist who did the most to humanize Minimalism without sentimentalizing it’. Too interested in debates about the essence and materiality of art to want simply to be categorized as a woman artist, she retorted to a list of questions sent to her by a journalist that ‘the best way to beat discrimination in art is by art’ adding that ‘excellence has no sex’.

Now the Camden Arts Centre in north London has put on an exhibition that explores Hesse’s little known ‘test pieces’. Throughout her career, she produced many small, experimental works alongside her large scale sculptures. Constructed from a wide range of materials including latex, wire-mesh, wax and cheesecloth, these simple objects are not just technical explorations but the physical embodiment of Hesse’s creative thought processes. Previously considered peripheral to her main output they have been renamed, by Professor Briony Fey, the curator of the show and a Hesse expert, as ‘studioworks.’

Eva Hesse No Title (s105)
No Title (s105), 1968

After her death they posed something of a problem. What was all this ‘stuff’ left in her studio? Her friend Sol Le Witt tried to make sense of it, calling what he discovered a series of ‘little experiments’ or ‘studio leavings.’ Sometimes he insisted that what he found was ‘definitely not a piece’ whilst on other occasions he would pronounce: ‘Yes, this is a piece’. Yet, despite his close friendship with Hesse, maybe he was asking the wrong questions. Hesse was attracted to the modest, the discarded and the forgotten. Not only do these slight objects explore the limits of sculptural practice but they resonate with compressed emotion and lost memories. They are less statements than expressions of feeling. Like Giacometti’s tiny post war figures they leak existential anxiety and doubt, which is hardly surprising given Hesse’s childhood and background. As in Sam Beckett’s novel The Unnameable, 1953, where the last line insists that against the odds and the empty absurdity of life ‘things must go on’ , we intuitively feel Hesse’s fragile grasp, overlaid by her determination to find a path through the bleak landscape of modernity and the raw, essential stuff of the human condition. These flimsy pieces are a philosophically visual encounter with nothingness.

Yet there is also something carnal, even scatological about the fragments on show in their glass cases. Over time the latex has darkened to the colour of tanned hide, other pieces look like trusses or prosthetic supports for repetitive strain injury. A latex, cheesecloth, plastic and metal stri p hangs from a hook on the gallery wall like a ribbon of flayed flesh. The possible interpretations are endless: a reference to Titian’s Flaying of MarsyasFlaying of Marsyas, the scourged body of Christ, or even Nazi lampshades made from Jewish skin. Meaning is never overt; the pieces entangle us in a web of questions and possible meanings about being and absence, art and non-art. Looking is an intense and uncomfortable experience. They make demands on the viewer. The pieces provoke, they needle, yet they resist interpretation. We can either see them as bits of junk or detritus, or if we look, really look and give our imaginations free reign, we can read them as potent metaphors for loss, memory and the tragedy of human existence. Like Melanie Klein’s part objects they seem to stand in for something else; though exactly what that else is is never made explicit. The fact that all the works have ‘no title’ – as opposed to that ubiquitous label of contemporary art ‘untitled’ – only adds to the feeling of uncertainty.

Eva Hesse No Title (s164)
No Title (s164), 1969

In one of the galleries husks of papier mâché lie like empty pods on a large central plinth. Made of brown paper they are dry and brittle; the apparent detritus of something left behind by a previous unnamed event, like shards of memory. Elsewhere two small pieces of stuffed canvas, covered with hair-like tendrils of string, lie hunkered in their glass case like some primitive copulating animal. Inside and outside, hard and soft; the pieces fold and collapse in on themselves. There are echoes of Louise Bourgeois’ small latex works from the early 1960’s, though it is uncertain whether or not Hesse saw Bourgeois’ work exhibited at the Stable Gallery in New York in 1964, but they both share the same sensual erotics of the abject, the same psychoanalytic undertow. The body is always implied. There are pieces that might be a string of coiled guts or turds, others made from latex, cotton and rubber look as though they could be used to administer an enema or for some other taboo bodily function. Bits are wrapped up in string, squashed and crumpled. Many look like objects from a 19th ethnographic museum, though it’s impossible not to think, also, of all those discarded leather suitcases and piles of shoes left at Auschwitz.

So what do these ephemeral objects, this body of ‘nearly but not quite art’, amount to? To try and make sense of them as individual objects is to misunderstand their purpose. They are like the working manuscript or notebooks of a poet. In them we can see Hesse’s concerns; her obsessions with the self, with the body, with material and the fragile metaphoric possibilities of art. Engaging with them is an intimate experience, like watching the process of an artist’s mind at work.

Eva Hesse Studioworks at the Camden Arts Centre from 11 December 2009 to 07 March 2010

Eva Hesse Studiowork is organised by The Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh in collaboration with Camden Arts Centre, London; Fundacio Antoni Tapies, Barcelona; Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.

The exhibition is supported by The Foyle Foundation, Columbia Foundation Fund of the Capital Community Foundation, Mike Davies Charitable Settlement, Brian Boylan and Cathy Wills.

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2009

Images © The Estate of Eva Hesse. Courtesy Hauser and Wirth
Installation image: Courtesy of Berkeley Art Museum
Photography by Sibila Savage

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Howard Hodgkin
Time and Place
Modern Art Oxford

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

Howard Hodgkin Home, Home on the Range 2001-2007
Home, Home on the Range 2001-2007

In his final collection of essays, On Late Style, the Palestinian critic, Edward Said, 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’. Said talked of the complexity of Beethoven’s late compositions and one only has to look at the raw innovation in Picasso’s late work to see what he means. Age, as Shakespeare said of Cleopatra, does not necessarily wither, nor custom stale infinite variety. Now 78, Howard Hodgkin is showing 25 paintings completed between 2001 and 2010 (the last only two weeks before the opening), and 11 which have never before been shown. The exhibition highlights Hodgkin’s desire for continuing and his Proustian relationship with time and place. He is essentially a poetic painter. Not because his works are lush and beautiful but because, like the poet, he understands that “The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art,” as T.S. Eliot wrote in his essay on Hamlet, “is by finding an “objective correlative”; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, In this exhibition the claustrophobic, highly sensual evocations of domestic interiors have given way to an expression of place, weather and landscape. Two of the most potent in the first gallery are small and painted on board (both are owned by Julian Barnes.) Dirty Weather and Mud were among the first to signal this new departure explored by Hodgkin in his sixties. The bare wood emphasises the ‘objectness’ of the painting, while the fluid brush strokes evoke those of Turner. But instead of glorious sunsets, these marks allude to stormy weather and, in the latter painting, to mud – the chthonic as opposed to the Apollonian, the stolid instead of the sublime. There are two other wonderful small paintings in this gallery, The Deep (After Ryder) in which Hodgkin celebrates the thick impasto and dense turbulent colour of the painter Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847-1917) which is contrasted to the three rough strokes painted on the reverse of a small breadboard in After Ellsworth Kelly, 2001, in which Hodgkin pays homage to Kelly’s large scale, geometrically shaped canvases, while emphasising the difference with his pristine surfaces free of brush strokes.

Howard Hodgkin Where Seldom is Heard a Discouraging Word 2007-08
Where Seldom is Heard a Discouraging Word, 2007-08

Privacy and Self-Expression in the Bedroom, 2004-06, in contrast returns us to a domestic interior. Here a dark brown-black rectangular veil of paint has been thinly laid over the hot splodges of yellow, orange and red beneath as if pulling a curtain over a private sensual act. Over the past decades Hodgkin has moved away from multi -layered over-painting to a more restricted palette and fewer brush strokes. In his tiny painting Leaf, 2007-09, a fluid oily stroke of fern coloured paint on a wooden board surrounded by a dark frame, acts like a Japanese haiku, capturing, with the minimum of fuss, a sense of life’s vitality, urgency and ultimate fragility. The monotone orange waves In Red, Red, Red, 2007-08, might be read as a form of script and evoke the mark making of the French artist Henri Michaux, whilst the economy of the blue strokes in Rough Sea, 2009 suggests the influence of Japanese wood cuts. In contrast Saturday sets up a dialogue between the baroque grandeur of the frame and the simple repetitive brushstrokes. This is Monet revisited for the 21st century.

Although known for his jewel-like colour the lovely painting Damp Autumn, 2001-08, shows Hodgkin favouring a subdued, almost monochromatic palette to evoke the season’s decay and moist mists. Since the mid-1970s he has incorporated frames into his paintings to become part of their aesthetic language. The type of readymade frames and boards collected over the years has broadened from the crude rough board used for Mud to the ornate gilded oval frame of Sky, 2005-09.

To have held fast to the principals of painting of the last decades takes guts in a largely conceptual world. Hodgkin has worked independently of vogues and movements, continuing to present us with profound and sensual works that reveal a multiplicity of meaning to those prepared really to look.

Howard Hodgkin Time and Place at Modern Art Oxford until until 12th September 2010

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2010

Images © Howard Hodgkin 2001-2008. Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery

Published in Saatchi

Invisible Art about the Unseen, 1957-2012
Hayward Gallery

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

Bruno Jakob Breath floating in color as well as black and white (Venice) 2011
Bruno Jakob, Breath, floating in color as well as black and white (Venice), 2011

Art is not what you see, but what you make others see“, Edgar Degas wrote. In many ways predicating the role of art within modernism where the sensibility of the viewer’s reading of an art object is every bit as important as the object itself.

Invisible: Art about the Unseen 1957-2012, currently at the Hayward Gallery in London, is the sort of exhibition that gets up the nose of tabloid journalists. You can virtually hear them snorting that this isn’t art, just as they once expressed their philistine opposition to the purchase of Carl Andre’s ‘pile of bricks’, Equivalent VIII, 1966. After all why spend good money paying to go to a gallery to look at nothing when you could stay at home and watch paint dry? It was in 1957 at the Galerie Colette Allendy in Paris, that Yves Klein opened an exhibition in which he presented an apparently empty room. You can see how it might have annoyed, for he claimed that the entirely white walls were infused with a “pictorial sensibility in the raw state”, maintaining that the space was actually saturated with a force field so tangible that many were unable to enter the gallery ‘as if an invisible wall prevented them.’ Was this a sleight of hand, a clever publicity ploy or a visual treatise on the existential ideas of being and nothingness? Jean Paul Sartre eat your heart out; an empty room, it seems, can speak a thousand words.

Carsten Höller The Invisible 1998
Carsten Höller, The Invisible 1998

Klein was further to explore invisibility in a number of ways by collaborating with artists and architects and applying for a patent for his ‘air roof’. A mixture of subversive showmanship and utopianism he believed that a ‘constant awareness of space’would allow humanity the chance to live in a state of grace outside the framework of repressive social conventions. It was no accident that he’d been a devout Catholic and was later to receive a black belt in judo at the Kodokan Institute in Tokyo. Genuinely fascinated by mystical ideas, by notions of the infinite, the indefinable and the absolute, he even became a Rosicrucian. For what he understood was that what is of most value often cannot be seen – faith and hope, for example – to be rather Christian about it. For Klein belief was as necessary to the practice of art as it was to religion; for art, like religion and love, requires a leap of faith.

By the late 1960s a number of Conceptual artists were making art that challenged the notion of the art object as something that is simply made by an artist for the viewer to look at. In 1967 the British duo, Terry Atkinson and Michael Baldwin, working as Art & Language, published an article in Arts magazine entitled ‘Remarks on Air-conditioning: An Extravaganza of Blandness’. It proposed that a volume of air in an empty, air conditioned gallery was actually a work of art. This was accompanied by a difficult and arcane text, which given the empty gallery, was the thing that constituted the art work.

A whole range of other artists have also explored invisibility in various ways. Yoko Ono first exhibited her written Instructions for Paintings in conjunction with a concert that she gave in Japan in 1962. Her instruction paintings, as she pointed out, made “it possible to explore the invisible, the world beyond the concept of time and space … . In your head, a sunset can go on for days. You can eat up all the clouds in the sky …” To make the point that the instruction paintings were not simply graphic images in themselves, she had the instructions typed. Her Hand Piece, typed in the summer of 1961 on a blank white page reads:

Raise your hand in the evening light

and watch it until it becomes transparent

and you see the sky and the trees through it.

In contrast you can feel a bit spooked when you walk through the thick wall of curtains into the pitch black room, The Ghost of James Lee Byars created by Byars in 1969, and have no sense of where you are, except for the faint glimmer of light around the exit and entrance that tells you you’re not being buried alive. Unnerving, too, is Tom Friedman’s empty plinth: Untitled (A Curse), 1992. For this he hired a professional witch to curse the space just above the pedestal. It was interesting at the private view to see just how cautiously some people approached. Superstition and the power of suggestion are, it seems, alive and well in the London art world.

There are also some invisible paintings by the Swiss artist Bruno Jakob, and a drawing that although it fills one of the huge galleries is virtually impossible to see as the Taiwanese artist Lai Chih-Sheng has traced near-invisible lines along the floor and walls to make a drawing that insinuates like a ghostly echo of the place.

Tom Friedman Untitled (A Curse) 1992
Tom Friedman Untitled (A Curse), 1992

If art is not just a mimicking and slavish copying of the world, then there’s more art here than at many a commercial art fair. Certainly this exhibition will not be everyone’s cup of tea but what it reminds us is that with the exhaustion and ossification of established art vocabularies and styles, that ‘emptiness’ forces us to think; to project ideas and to ask questions. It is perhaps no coincidence that it should have been put on now when prices fetched by certain art works are reaching stratospheric levels and, over at the Tate, they are showing that ultimate piece of decadence, glistening with the very best diamonds that De Beers could supply, Damien Hirst’s skull, For the Love of God. In the exhibition’s catalogue essay, Ralph Rugoff, the director of the Hayward, wonders if these are not the very circumstances that really make art invisible when he writes that ‘under these conditions, art disappears as a mere backdrop for flamboyant displays of social capital’.

This show is not going to have people queuing round the block. It is not a block buster or a money spinner. Can you imagine the merchandise? Blank tea-towels and T-shirts with nothing on them? It probably won’t be a big draw unless you have a Beckett-style sense of humour. But it does give us pause for thought. For as George Steiner wrote about language – though he might also have said the same of art: ‘Language can only deal meaningfully with a special, restricted segment of reality. The rest, and it is presumably the much larger part, is silence’.

Invisible Art about the Unseen, 1957-2012 at Hayward Gallery, London from 12 June – 5 August 2012

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2012

Image 1: © Bruno Jakob. Photo Linda Nylind
Image 2: © Carsten Höller. Photo Linda Nylind
Image 3: © Tom Friedman. Photo Linda Nylind

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Anish Kapoor
Royal Academy London

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

Anish Kapoor Yellow 1999
Anish Kapoor Yellow, 1999

Proof that the Tuner prize does sometimes get it right can be seen at the Royal Academy where the 1991 Turner Prize winner, Anish Kapoor, has one of London’s most outstanding exhibitions. There have been those who have complained that is sensationalist, too male and too reliant on gadgets and props. I admit that I never much liked his Masaryas that filled Tate Modern’s turbine hall – too much bravura engineering and not enough poetry. But this is one of the most evocative exhibitions I’ve come across in a long time. Not only technically brilliant and thought provoking, its scale is heroic. It starts in the courtyard with a major new sculptor Tall Tree and the Eye, inspired, according to Kapoor, by the words of the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke. Made of, apparently, precariously balanced steel balls that reflect back the surrounding Palladian architecture, this signals that Kapoor is not afraid of beauty. An unfashionable component in much contemporary art, there is much to be found inside Burlington House.

In the first room is a group of early pigment sculptures from the 70s and 80s, strongly influenced by his Indian origins, and which reinforce his reputation as a colourist. The unmixed heaps, built into pyramids and ziggurats of bright blue, cinnamon yellow and cayenne red, resemble rather sophisticated sandcastles and evoke piles of Indian spices in a way that, although not particularly demanding, stir a remembrance of things past.

Move through the galleries and you will find a barely visible pregnant lump protruding from the white gallery wall, and another huge large yellow wall where the indentation is concave. The effect is like standing in front of some Aztec shrine where one is seductively sucked into the sun-like void, and invited to think of beginnings and endings, origins and destruction.

Anish Kapoor Svayambh 2007
Anish Kapoor Svayambh, 2007

Then there is Shooting into the Corner, a new work where gobbets of red wax are fired from a canon through one of the Royal Academy’s elegant 18th century doorways. This happens three times an hour. Many visitors seem simply to have been taken up by the drama in a man-fired-from-cannon sort of way. But I found it very disturbing. A gallery assistant dressed in black stands with military bearing stuffing cartridges into the canon. The explosion, when it comes, is deafening. In this palatial setting, as the red wax splatters the white walls and the surrounding Adams style doorway, like the visceral effluvia of executed bodies, I kept thinking of the final moments of the last Tsar and his family or Manet’s Execution of Maximilian.

A multiplicity of readings can also be applied to the monumental work Svayambh, 2007. Already shown in previous locations this is probably its most dramatic setting. Svayambh means ‘self-generated’ in Sanskrit and the piece reinforces Kapoor’s interest in sculpture that actively explores this process. Again many viewers were taken with the theatre of the moving mechanism, running between galleries to watch as the vast block of red wax was slowly squeezed, like a great juggernaut, through the doorways of Burlington House. And certainly one is reminded of those huge Indian carts from which the name juggernaut comes, and of the annual procession at Puri in east-central India where worshipers throw themselves under the wheels of the huge wagon on which the idol of Krishna is carried. But for anyone with a poetic imagination, this red gash of an object, moving relentlessly along the rail tracks like a piece of raw meat, covering the doorways along the way with coagulated red carnage, must have historical resonances, evoking the trains that took thousands to their death in the Nazi transports or those who gave their life’s blood in acts of enforced labour to build railways in the Far East during the last world war. Huge and monumental, its movement almost imperceptible, it marks, as it slowly lumbers its way through the gallery like a slow birthing of the building itself, the passing of time. And yet despite all the layers of meaning that it invites, it is, ultimately, an abstract work of art, an act of the imagination and an exploration of the possibility of materials.

The exhibition is huge. There are beguiling sculptural mirrors that reflect the gold leafed ceiling and the self back to the self, blurring the lines between perceived and actual experience; and piles of coiled cement, which suggest the history of pot making and the touch of the human hand, but which, in fact, have been arrived at by a rough sketch being fed into a computer and attached to a cement-mixer, which, in turn, has been attached to a machine adapted from the food industry to excrete the cement like icing; and a vast, rusted steel Richard Serra-like sculpture Hive, an enormous pod, splayed open at one end to reveal a deep central void, which is at once both erotic and chthonic.

Kapoor is not a philosopher, nor does he claim to have anything, as a visual artist, particular to say. The power of this work lies in its ability to provoke questions about origins, perception, belief and self definition. Comparison can be made with the spiritual leanings of Yves Klein (homage is surely paid in Kapoor’s early blue pigment works) but where Klein’s spirituality was derived from the arcane complexities of alchemy and Rosicrucianism, Kapoor’s work is never didactic. There is an openness about his quest which is not wedded to a single belief system, but reminds us, as Keats once did, that there is, indeed, truth in beauty.

This year’s Turner short listed artists still have some way to go.

Anish Kapoor is at the Royal Academy from 26 September to 11 December 2009

The Turner Prize
Tate Britain

Many factors have lead to London’s pre-eminence in the contemporary art world: the importance of Goldsmith’s College to the Hirst generation of YBAs, Saatchi’s ubiquitous influence as a collector, Jay Joplin’s White Cube gallery, the founding of the annual Frieze art fair, and of course, the Turner Prize, that annual award set up in 1984 to celebrate new developments in contemporary art presented each year to a British artist under fifty for an outstanding exhibition in the preceding twelve months. It has always been a controversial affair. There was, of course, that bed (it didn’t win) and Martin Creed’s minimal light bulbs that simply went on and off. Last year, the shortlist was universally derided as opaque and pretentious. But looking back over its history, love it or hate it, The Turner Prize has become a barometer of the British art scene. Those nominated, often previously unknown outside the art world, usually end up as household names.

Lucy Skaer Thames and Hudson 2009
Lucy Skaer Thames and Hudson, 2009
including Leviathan Edge, 2009

This year the short list feels subtly different, not only is there an absence of videos (accident not design, it is claimed) but the work is thoughtful, complex, crafted and, in several cases, rather beautiful. There is little irony. Seriousness, it seems, is this season’s new black.

Glaswegian artist Lucy Skaer (the only woman) has named her installation Thames and Hudson, a reference to both those mighty rivers as well as to the celebrated art publisher. Yet, somehow, the whole feels made up of rather too many disparate parts. A dismantled chair has been used to make some rather obtuse prints, while her Black Alphabet is a version of Brancusi’s 1923 sculpture Bird in Space, caste 26 times in compressed coal dust – though her purpose and message remain rather a mystery. Her pièce de résistance, however, is the skull of an adult male sperm whale (a comparison with Damien Hirst’s formaldehyde shark is unavoidable) on loan from a Scottish museum. Suspended so that it is only partially visible through a series of screens, its sad bony hulk is reminiscent of those Victorian curiosities peered at through fairground peep holes.

Enter the second gallery and, at first, it seems to be mostly white. Yet, at the far end, a baroque style design made of gold leaf has been applied straight onto the wall. Standing in front of it patterns begin to emerge: a pelvis, a spine and even female genitals. Elsewhere the gold bursts into a sunray, which made me think of Louis XIV, The Sun King, which then started me musing about the transient nature of power and provoked the thought that this rather beautiful piece would last only as long as the exhibition, before being painted over and returned to being just another gallery wall. It could, therefore, be seen as a sort of contemporary vanitas painting. All this beauty, we are subtly reminded, will be erased to become so much white wash. Just as we, too, will eventually be erased. This is decorative art with a serious twist.

Enrico David Absuction Cardigan
Enrico David Absuction Cardigan

The next gallery comes as a complete contrast. Enrico David’s installation, titled Absuction Cardigan is fun, annoying and serious in about equal measure. I did not go much for his humpty dumpty black figures set on skis but his mis en scène, raised on a sort of stage, is deeply unnerving. A huge black, stuffed doll-of-a-creature, with a neck and tail the length of the room, lies draped over a variety disquieting props. Its face, a flat wooden mask, is comprised of nothing but bore holes. Part floppy toy, part dead animal and sexual playmate, it draws on Louise Bourgeois and Annette Messager’s transgressive figures, and on Hans Bellmer’s erotic dolls.

Roger Hiorn’s work inhabits the final space. Here lumpy sculptures of cast plastic have been injected with bovine brain matter, so that what was once sentient has been rendered inert and mummified. Metaphors of death are also strong in his beautiful, evocative landscape, in subtle shades of grey and black, made from an atomised passenger jet engine and scattered on the floor to resemble the Himalayas or the surface of the moon. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust; like all good art it evokes a number of readings that range from the disaster of 9/11 to a globally warmed and violated earth.

The Turner Prize Exhibition is at Tate Britain from 6 October 2009 to 3 January 2010.

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Images © Anish Kapoor. Courtesy of the Tate and the Lisson Gallery
Image © Lucy Skaer 2009. Courtesy of the Trustees of the National Museums of ScotlandPhotography by Sam Drake and Gabrielle Johnson, Tate Photography
Image © Enrico David 2009
Photography by David Parker

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Anselm Kiefer
Des Meeres Und Der Liebe Welle
White Cube Hoxton

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

In 1969 the German artist Anselm Kiefer compiled a book, Unfruchtbare Landschaften that brought together two disparate elements: landscapes and the pages of a medical textbook dealing with contraception. Placing the IUDs out of context on top of the landscapes seemed to imply sterility. Wrenched from their purpose and context these now alien objects brought with them not only traces of their own history but took on new metaphorical meanings. The beauty of the gesture of these juxtapositions lay in the attempt to say something beyond language.

Kiefer is one of the most significant and serious artists of the post war generation. Born in Donaueschinger in South Germany in 1945, in 1966 he left his law studies at the University of Freiburg to study art. A student of Joseph Beuys in the early 1970s he began to explore the fraught territory of German history and identity in a muscular visual language. His paintings, oversized books and performance art draw from literature, art and music, philosophy and folklore. Borrowing from Teutonic myth he has conducted investigations into the recent past, particularly the era of the Third Reich, exploring a post Nietzschian desire to establish meaning in a brutal Godless world. His painted landscapes of the ploughed and rutted German countryside, incorporating straw, ash, clay, lead and shellac, have become metaphors for the tragedy of recent European history. Engaged in an endless interrogation of the devastation and horror that his country wrought, he implies that the tragedy was a product of Germany’s intellectual and cultural heritage, a view endorsed in Michael Haneke’s superb yet disturbing film, The White Ribbon, based on life in pre-first world war Germany.

Anselm Kiefer Des Meeres und der Liebe Wellen 2011
Des Meeres und der Liebe Wellen, 2011

Kiefer has been accused of being that which he criticises: monumental, aggrandising, grand, even bombastic but to read his work in this way is to fail completely to understand that to enter the heart of darkness is not to embrace its legacy. As a student in the late 1960s he travelled round France, Switzerland and Italy where he was photographed giving the Nazi salute outside prominent buildings. His degree show, Bezetzung (Occupations), provoked both incomprehension and anger for daring to confront the taboos that had disfigured Europe.

Characterised by a monochromatic palette, stressed, depressive surfaces and monumental formats Kiefer’s explorations can be interpreted as a form of archaeological excavation. He digs deep into the collective unconscious of a nation, into the sub strata of fears that have all too often been concealed, as in his great painting Margarethe (oil and straw on canvas) inspired by Paul Celan’s extraordinary poem Todesfuge (Death Fugue), which highlights the fate of the blonde Aryan Margarethe and the dark-haired Semitic Shulamith. Poetry, along with the language of alchemy, the Hebrew Kabbalah and Egyptian history, has been a central catalyst.

Anselm Kiefer Des Meeres und der Liebe Wellen 2011
Des Meeres und der Liebe Wellen, 2011

Now Kiefer has a new show at White Cube, London and there is an uncanny synchronicity about the images. The turbulent waves and apocalyptic mass of water seem horribly familiar to those who recently watched the unfolding horror of the Japanese tsunami on their TV screens. The title Des Meeres und der Liebe Wellen (The Waves of Sea and Love), taken from a play by the nineteenth-century Austrian writer and poet Franz Grilparzer, re-tells the Greek myth of Hero and her lover, Leander, who swam the Hellespont for nightly trysts, before eventually drowning. It is a tale that has inspired writers and artists from Marlowe and Keats to Rubens and Turner, but for Kiefer the meaning is somewhat elusive. The vastness and ubiquity of the ocean seems to suggest not only timelessness but an inchoate element in which man is searching for meaning.

Twenty-four panoramic seascapes have been hung three deep like an ancient frieze on the walls of the main gallery. The huge scale evokes the sublimity of the ocean; the subject of many paintings such as Théodore Géricault’s Raft of Medusa, where human life is shown abandoned to its fate on a sea that is both terrifying, as well as a thing of great beauty. For Kiefer the ocean suggests a primal, amniotic, pre-linguistic space, something without beginning or end, where time and space take on cosmological and existential meanings familiar from quantum physics. Based on photographs – which have been subjected to various forms of transformation, including electrolysis – each work is an attempt at a moment of fixity in the continuous flux of the ocean. Gynaecological instruments superimposed on the surface of the works disrupt traditional Romantic readings and imply a desire for human intervention in the timeless cycles of birth and death.

Anselm Kiefer I hold all the Indias in my hand 2011
I hold all the Indias in my hand, 2011

Many of the works include hand written texts, often the title of the poem scrawled like a repeated mantra across the surface. Kiefer has said that poems are “like buoys on the high seas. I swim from one to another, and with them I would be lost in the middle of the ocean. Poems are moorings in the infinite void where something emerges from the accumulation of interstellar dust: a bit of matter in an abyss of anti-matter.” His oceans are infinite spaces where numerous meanings intersect. Elsewhere sketchbooks have been laid out in glass vitrines. Covered in Euclidean geometrical forms, like the workings of some desperate alchemist, they seem to be attempting to impose meaning on what is random and chaotic.

Upstairs is a separate but connected series of small scale works that takes its title I hold all the Indias in my hand from the seventeenth-century poet Spanish poet Fransisco de Quevedo, in which the poet writes of a man holding a ring that contains the portrait of his lover. Here Kiefer places himself centre stage and can be seen a lone bobbing figure cast adrift in a vast expanse of ocean as if liberated from any moral or spiritual limits. It is as if he is literally ‘at sea’, the centre of his own perceived universe, but of little more importance than a single atom or a grain of sand. Borders have been swept away leaving only an eternal void. In the most poignant work we see his arm disappearing below the surface of the waves as if in a final supplication.

Anselm Kiefer I hold all the Indias in my hand 2011
I hold all the Indias in my hand, 2011

In The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction Walter Benjamin explored how artistic reproduction simulates industrial production. The fabricated work of art does not merely mimic the mass-produced object but actually becomes a commercial product whose worth resides in its exchange value as in Warhol’s silk-screened photographs or Damien Hirst’s multi-editions of spot paintings. Here all is surface and no depth. There are no shadows, no darkness; meaning is contained in commercial power rather than in metaphorical depth.

Kiefer has said that: “in all the pictures in my mind, not even the most expert analyst could discover anything like a general idea or the God of living things. And without that, there is nothing.” He has been criticised for being theatrical – and it is a dangerous line that he walks – for there is always the possibility of falling into bombast and bathos. Yet in this increasingly frightening and unfettered world we need artists like Kiefer; artists with a seriousness of intent and vision who dare to look at the dark undercurrents of the human psyche, who are prepared to face what is tragic rather than endlessly celebrating what is glib, slick and ephemeral. In his essay Reframing Postmodernisms (1) Mark C. Taylor argues that abstraction in art, following Greenberg’s dictates on painterly purity, gradually became empty formalism, which through Pop art and other commercialised movements lead to ‘the death of God’, or to put it in a more secular way, the erasure of the Sublime from art. It is this territory that Kiefer investigates. Yet it is as if, in this postmodern, ironic world, we are all too often embarrassed by his earnestness.

Anselm Kiefer Des Meeres Und Der Liebe Wellen at White Cube from 11 March to 8 April 2011

(1)  Reframing Postmodernisms. Mark C. Taylor from Shadow of Spirit Postmodernism and Religion, Routledge London and New York, 1992

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Caroline McCarthy
Green On Red Gallery Dublin

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

There once existed a specific class of objects that were allegorical, and even a bit diabolical, such as mirrors, images, works of art (and concepts?)…but they were transparent and manifest…they had their own style and characteristic savoir faire. In these objects, pleasure consisted more in discovering something ‘natural’ in what was artificial and counterfeit. Today, the real and the imaginary are confounded in the same operational totality, and aesthetic fascination is simply everywhere“.

Jean Baudrillard: The Hyper-realism of Simulation
Caroline McCarthy Floral Still Life 2007
Floral Still Life, 2007

According to the French philosopher Baudrillard, “there is no longer a fiction that life can confront…reality has passed over into the play of reality; radically disenchanted, the ‘cool’ cybernetic phase [has supplanted] the ‘hot’ and phantasmatic…” In layman’s language this seems to suggest that art no longer has a privileged status; that it is whatever we choose it to be. To borrow John Berger’s phrase, art is a way of seeing rather than a form of making. From Duchamp’s urinal, through to John Baldessari’s word-games, non-art objects have become a familiar part of the language of art because the artist presents them as such. As the American critic, Hal Foster, has suggested the primary concern in much contemporary art is not with traditional aesthetics. The artist becomes a manipulator of signs rather than a producer of ‘original’ artefacts, while the viewer, no longer simply a passive voyeur, becomes actively engaged in decoding those objects’ messages.

This is the territory of the young Irish artist, Caroline McCarthy, winner of the 2001 AIB Art Prize, whose work is in constant dialogue with the world around her. It was during her MA at Goldsmith’s that she abandoned her training as a painter to experiment with new materials. Rooms filled with leopard skin covered objects, installations made from swimming-pool blue cut-outs taken from holiday brochures paired with potato crisps, and still lives constructed from lavatory paper have all formed part of her repertoire. Floral Still Life, 2007 a work of meticulous craftsmanship, used 20,000 dots punched from blue, orange, yellow and black bin bags to create a gem-like flower ‘painting’ inspired by the 17th century Dutch painter, van der Ast. Displayed alongside the original bin liners the piece suggests an illusionist’s sleight of hand. One minute there are four bin bags, the next a ‘painting’. In McCarthy’s work ordinary things, the inconsequential ephemera of everyday life, escape their familiar constraints in a constant flux of aesthetic translation.

Caroline McCarthy Escape 2002
Escape, 2002

Re-aestheticising the banal is fundamental to her practice. It is as if she is turning Walter Benjamin’s theory on The Art of Mechanical Reproduction on its head. Here the specialised art object is not transformed into a multiple for mass production but rather, as in Shelf Arrangement, 2011 a set of B&Q shelves produced in their thousands, is reconfigured as something unique. Placing the full range of white, brown and toffee veneered planks in a biscuit-like arrangement on especially cast bronze brackets renders these ubiquitous objects of the DIY store visible so that we are forced to question their function and our response. As with Duchamp or Michael Craig Martin’s An Oak Tree, 1973 – a glass of water set on a shelf that the artist stated was an oak tree – the work addresses fundamental questions about what we understand to be art and our faith in the transformative powers of the artist.

Group Co-ordination, a work in progress when I visited her Hackney studio, extends the idea of Escape, McCarthy’s 2002 leopard skin room, to create a total environment of found red objects. Here a sun lounger, a brush and pan, a CD shelving unit and a wire waste bin act as supports for a ‘drawing’ made from a scribble of interconnected drinking straws that never touches the floor, thereby addressing the relationship between the objects and the negative space between them.

Caroline McCarthy Arrangements 2011
Arrangements, 2011

Straws are also a fertile source of inspiration for another ongoing work, Broken Head. Having traced generic profiles from magazines McCarthy follows the outline with 12 coloured straws, which she then paints very carefully using acrylic ink, pencil and masking tape. This is then paired with a second drawing, where the same straws are scattered across the paper to create a shattered image where any semblance of personality is erased.

These generic objects – rugs from IKEA, shelves from B&Q, straws from the supermarket – are so ubiquitous that their value within our consumerist society is only fleeting. Through their re-casting Caroline McCarthy invites us to look at the world afresh, transforming the banal and the abject into artworks prompting both phenomenological discourse and the re-appraisal of the marginalized and familiar.

Caroline McCarthy Arrangements at Green On Red Gallery, Dublin until 6 August 2011

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Images © Caroline McCarthy 2002-2011

Elizabeth Magill
Green Light Wanes
Kerlin Gallery, Dublin

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

But when from a long-long distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more immaterial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.

Swann’s Way: Marcel Proust.

Elizabeth Magill Turn 2010
Turn, 2010

‘The vast structure of recollection’ forms the subject of Elizabeth Magill’s paintings, though unlike Proust, what is broken and scattered is not recalled by taste and smell but through her dreamlike visual memory, through a non-verbal language that equates not so much with a specific event but with an emotion or a mood, not with the facts of the past but with its essence. In her intense, jewel-like paintings meanings are suggested and memories stirred as if seen through a glass darkly. Each thinly diluted veil of poured paint creates yet another layer of the palimpsest, the dense ground that provides the screen onto which she can project her thoughts. Images are discovered and found rather than preordained. Although she has lived in London for more than twenty years it is the glens and coastline of County Antrim where she spent most of her childhood that constitute the landscape of her mind. Her paintings are, therefore, constructs, formed through an amalgamation of memory, photographs and a poetic imagination. She has said that in recent years she has become interested in bringing things back to what she knows, to the mulch of childhood; those images that were unconsciously absorbed before adult interpretations were placed upon them.

Thought is not sequential. Joyce, Proust and Virginia Woolf all attempted to articulate the process of thinking and remembrance by giving texture to the looping, fractured nature of consciousness, to the series of images and ideas that run through the mind of an individual. Memories and half memories float up from the unconscious like stains of oil on water; shadowy, dark and often ill-defined. Forests have traditionally stood as symbols of the unconsciousness. Their bleakness in winter, their lushness in the spring, followed by autumn’s brilliant display, renders them apt metaphors of renewal and change. As J.C. Cooper wrote in An Illustrated Encyclopaedia Of Traditional Symbols: “Entering the Dark Forest or the Enchanted Forest is a threshold symbol; the soul entering the perils of the unknown; the realm of death; the secrets of nature, or the spiritual world which man must penetrate to find the meaning.”

Elizabeth Magill Pencilled Love 2010
Pencilled Love, 2010

In The Uses of Enchantment: the Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, Bruno Bettelheim argues that “Since ancient times the near impenetrable forest in which we get lost has symbolized the dark, hidden, near-impenetrable world of our unconscious. If we have lost the framework which gave structure to our past life and must now find our way to become ourselves, and have entered this wilderness with an as yet undeveloped personality, when we succeed in finding our way out we shall emerge with a much more highly developed humanity.” Dante, he notes, wrote in The Divine Comedy that: “In the middle of the journey of our life I found myself in a dark wood where the straight way was lost.” The forest, therefore, becomes a metaphor for a psychic death allowing for the possibility of rebirth.

Forests and trees feature heavily in Magill’s work. A solitary pine stands broken and windswept in her painting Tinged. With its twisted trunk and branches like arms it suggests a desolate, bowed human form. Blobs of orange and green paint on the picture surface act as counter points to the figurative image pushing it further back into the depths of the picture space, creating both a physical and emotional distance between the viewer and the tree, thus increasing the sense of isolation. There is an intense feeling, here, of something being put to the test, of unknown perils and a dark loneliness. The universal religious significance of the tree is subtly conjured: the baobab under which the Buddha received enlightenment, and that used to construct the cross for the crucifixion of Christ.

In Mending Wall a crop of lonely blue pines thinly stains the canvas. Ghostly and evocative they seem unreachable, something far off in the distance and evoke Robert Frost’s famous lines from Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

The poem, of course, refers to the final big sleep, while the woods beckon seductively promising oblivion.

Elizabeth Magill Bully Mule 2010
Bully Mule, 2010

A small figure emerges from the richly coloured paint, half hidden by dark, tangled boughs in Sylvan Man. He has a beard and wears a Victorian bowler hat. His likeness to Freud is uncanny, though Magill tells me, when we speak in her Hackney studio, that she had not thought of Freud but, rather, of Roger Casement and the isolation which surrounded him at the end of his life. In a companion portrait entitled Casement, (Magill talks of him as a great humanitarian) we see his shadowy profile lost in thought. A controversial figure who testified against human rights abuses in the Congo, a gay Irish nationalist executed prior to the First World War for his association with Germany, he takes on the mantle of the wanderer or outsider.

Surfacing out of an ethereal green light, like ectoplasm at a Victorian séance, The Ghost of Stephen evokes Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus as a young man. Here the phantom of his own youth seems to float up through the mists of memory to suggest that there is no such thing as a true or single recollection, only multifarious distortions that come to us from that other country, the past. These new paintings of Elizabeth Magill’s are more populated than her larger canvases, which explored something of the sublime wilderness evoked by Caspar David Friedrich or the great 19th century American Hudson River School painters such as Thomas Cole and Frederic Edwin Church. To place a figure within a large picture space, she feels, attracts the eye too directly. In these smaller works they become integral to the whole surface of a painting. Though mostly rudimentary and featureless, these figures seem to suggest the trace of human presence rather than an actual person, what it is we remember of an individual’s essence rather than their precise characteristics. In Pencilled Love an embracing couple, scratched in rough graphite marks beneath a row of pink raked blobs dotting the surface like Chinese lanterns, emerges from the movement suggested by the paint. Magill is interested in the enigmas that make a painting work, what it is that is suggested to the artist by the process of laying down paint on the canvas. In this sense her works become an ongoing internal dialogue, voyages of discovery to destinations unknown rather than precisely mapped journeys.

Elizabeth Magill Magic Car Pet 2010
Magic Car Pet, 2010

The sense of reaching towards something not quite known is further explored in Horsehoop, where a white steed stands in an indeterminate landscape tentatively framed by a large hoop of spectrum hues; part rainbow and part victory arch. Ghostly against the dark splattered paint the horse appears insubstantial and otherworldly, like some magical apparition conjured in a dream. Another horse makes an appearance in the humorously titled Ballymule. Here a pack-horse weighed down by saddlebags, its bowed frame recalling that of the statue of the forlorn nag outside the Basilica de San Francesco in Assisi that carried St. Francis, is bearing a pert ballerina. With her leg extended in pirouette she is not quite real but reminiscent of those little dolls that twirl on top of musical boxes beloved by small girls. The image conveys something of the ‘unbearable lightness of being’, suggesting the dualities of despair and euphoria involved in the creative process. Sam Beckett’s artistic credo about failing again, yet failing better comes to mind. As the horse trudges on accepting the difficulties of daily life the imagination still manages to soar free.

There is a mantra beloved in the creative writing class about ‘showing’ and not ‘telling’. Good fiction, it is argued, does not report but creates a scene through close observation and the capturing of mood; so too with Elizabeth Magill’s paintings. The scenarios she shows us are not a slice of the real but evocations of darker, more complex responses. Pushing her paintings to the point of collapse she investigates, the half-remembered, the repressed that flickers on the inside of the mind like the movements of a Javanese shadow puppet. Like all good modernist painters she is not so much interested in perfection as in ‘some sort of tarnished beauty’ that mirror the vulnerabilities of the human condition. In a painting such as Many Moons Ago the single stilled figure stands forlornly in the landscape beneath a sky dotted with five moons. Not only do these moons work formally, giving balance to the picture surface, but they seem to suggest the very mechanism of memory itself. Was the moon there, or there or there, we ask ourselves when trying to remember a particular scene on a distant occasion. In Vessel a boatman emerges from the Turneresque swirl of colours. The painting is of Venice but this Venice is no more real than that of Calvino’s Invisible Cities. Like the proverbial ferryman Charon, who rowed the souls of the newly deceased across the river Styx that divided the world of the living from the world of the dead, Magill’s figure surfaces from the mess of painted gloom hovering just out of focus like a memory we can’t quite retrieve. It is this insubstantial, shadowy terrain that Magill makes so entirely her own.

Elizabeth Magill Green Light Wanes at the Kerlin Gallery, Dublin from 26 November to 23 December 2010

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2010

Images © Elizabeth Magill 2010. Courtesy of the Kirlen Gallery

Christian Marclay
The Clock
White Cube Mason’s Yard

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

Down at White Cube in Mason’s Yard, the artist Christian Marclay, who was born in California but now lives in London, has also been involved in a major new project The Clock, which investigates how we experience and understand time. Constructed from myriads of cinematic clips that feature clocks, someone looking at a watch or simply a clue such as a meal to indicate a particular time of day, Marclay has ingeniously edited thousands of filmic fragments so that they flow in real time. The experience of sitting in the gallery, which has been turned into a cinema, is both destabilizing and, surprisingly, absorbing. Scenes change so that disrupted narratives flow off in different directions.

Christian Marclay The Clock
The Clock

And yet, somehow, there seems to be a real narrative tension to the piece. Each snippet pulls us in to its individual drama, which we glimpse, only in part, rather like a view out of the window of a moving train. Nazis from a 1950’s war film are juxtaposed with modern American movies, a snippet of French film or a sequence from James Bond, black-and-white comedies are spliced with continental art-house films, sci-fi and horror movies. As characters check their watches and clocks tick anxiety mounts and waiting becomes the overarching theme, underlain with frustration, anxiety, trepidation and disappointment. Time passes and there is nothing we can do about it. Relentless and unforgiving, it is indifferent to the lives that unfold within it.

Not only does The Clock create a history of film but it functions as an actual timepiece. It is as if all these collaged, multifarious celluloid lives reflect the world as it actually is: a palimpsest of stories and parallel existences that happen simultaneously, weaving in and out of each other, to create the onward flow of history. We are also reminded that time is a human construct. There is, of course, ‘measurable’ time marked by clocks, but time can collapse or elongate in those moments when we receive bad news, have to make a snap decision or are forced to wait anxiously for some crucial information that might change our lives. Time is not just a continuous chain of events or a temporal sequence. It has the potential to shrink and to expand, particularly in dreams where whole lives can flash before us in a matter of seconds.

Christian Marclay The Clock
The Clock

The film also mirrors how we remember events – as collages, outside time. Facts are abridged and re-written as we replay past scenarios in our heads and piece together lost fragments. Marclay’s clock is synchronised to the time zone in which it is being exhibited so that as we sit through the ‘performance’ we are made highly conscious of the real time: of how much we have left before our next meeting or until lunch. To ease the filmic flow he uses a variety of devices to move from one scene to another, so that a sense of cinematic reality is built up. If a character opens a door the next scene may begin with someone entering a room. Phone calls, rain, the sound of a ticking clock all link scenes, so that although we know they come from different movies the viewer makes connections between events. Sound, according to Marclay is the glue that sticks the images together, that supplies the linking thread.

We often talk of ‘becoming lost in time’ and The Clock allows for that sense of suspension whilst also making us acutely aware of actual time passing. Watching it is rather like standing still in the centre of a busy station concourse as events unfold around us without us ever knowing their conclusion. As T. S. Eliot wrote in Burnt Norton:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.

Christian Marclay The Clock at White Cube, Mason’s Yard from 14 October to 13 November 2010

James Turrell
Light and Time

Gagosian London

This morning I had what felt like a near-death experience. I also underwent something that possibly resembled a re-birthing. No I was not on LSD, nor have I joined a hippy-dippy cult. I was looking at or, rather, was totally immersed in the art of James Turrell. After walking up the steps to a spherical chamber in the Gagosian Gallery in Kings Cross, a young woman in a white coat invited me to I lie on a bed and put on a set of earphones. I was then trundled inside the machine like a patient about to have an MRT scan. As the door closed l felt like a mummy in sarcophagus. I tensed, my breathing became quick and shallow, and I experienced a wave of panic. Clasping the escape button close to my chest I had been told that on no account must I sit up. Although I had signed a disclaimer that I didn’t have epilepsy, the white coated young woman suggested that, as I suffer from migraines, I should opt for the soft, rather than the hard version, which had less intense flashing lights. As ambient sound played through the head phones I tried to relax despite the sense of claustrophobia.

James Turrell Bindu Shards 2010
Bindu Shards, 2010

Then, opening my eyes I was surrounded by a heavenly blue light. No, not surrounded, enveloped; for I had no sense of space or scale. There was no horizon. The blue seemed infinite. As I lay there I felt as though I was floating – in space, in water, even in amniotic fluid. Then the lights changed, pulsing from a central nebula. I couldn’t watch as I couldn’t bear the intensity of the flashing – what, I wondered would the hard version have been like? – and had to shut my eyes, though I could still see the lights through my closed lids. I half opened my eyes and was bathed in a deep red. It was like being in the womb. Then things went dark and the bright lights pulsed again. Sometimes it felt as if I was hurtling through space or deep under the sea. Was this what it had felt like to be born? I knew that I was in the capsule for fifteen minutes so tried to estimate how much time had passed in order not to panic. Towards the end the light turned blue again, then slowly faded and darkened leaving me feeling strangely calm. So this, I thought, is what death will feel like.

Bindu Shards, 2010, was developed from the Ganzfeld sphere entitled Gasworks built in 1993 at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds. The phenomenon experienced will be familiar to any mountaineer who has ever been caught in a snowstorm whiteout unable to distinguish whether what they are seeing is real or in the mind. This, of course, poses huge questions about the nature of perception and, even, religious or spiritual experience. What does it mean to see something or to ‘know’ that you have seen something? Is this what a vision is?

James Turrell Dhatu 2010
Dhātu, 2010

Next I took off my shoes and queued for Dhātu 2010. Climbing the steps I entered a room where the curved walls and hazy atmosphere made it impossible to estimate the dimensions of the space. Ahead was a screen size aperture of blue light. It felt as if I was standing at the gateway to heaven and might fall into the rectangle of light in front of me and disappear into another dimension. As the colour changed, so did my emotions. Born in California in 1943, James Turrell has been working with light and optical phenomena since the 1960s. With a degree in experimental psychology and a masters in art, he explores the extremes of human perception. Both these works at Gagosian feed back into his body of work Roden Crater, one of the most ambitious landworks of contemporary art and an ongoing project. In the late 1970s Turrell purchased a three mile chunk of desert near the Grand Canyon and, through a feat of engineering wizardry worthy of the ancient Egyptians, aligned the movement of the sun and the moon, allowing viewers to experience solar and celestial phenomena. He has claimed that: “Two thousand years from now it will be perfectly aligned and 4,000 years from now it will be as accurate as it is today but from the other side”. For everything, he says, is moving: the earth from the North Star, even the terrestrial plate on which the volcano sits.

Turrell’s investigations of the sensations of space and perception, what he calls ‘the architecture of thought’, fit into a new kind of art by the likes of Anish Kapoor and Olafur Eliasson that meld science, art and theatre in order to pose questions about the nature of existence and ask who we are and where we fit in this material universe.

James Turrell Light and Time at Gagosian London from 13 October to 10 December 2010

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Images © Christian Marclay. Courtesy of White Cube
Images © James Turrell. Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Jonas Mekas
Serpentine Gallery

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

Jona Mekas
Jona Mekas

How do we remember? Before the invention of the camera most people never possessed a likeness of themselves or those they loved – a lock of hair, a letter, were the heart’s most treasured possessions, the artefacts that conjured the past. Photography democratised the ownership of images. A portrait need no longer be in watercolour or oils, it could be an informal snap taken on a box Brownie: a casual moment sealed in the proverbial amber of memory. With the technological advances of the 20thand 21st centuries, with film, video and digital technology and the predominance of surveillance equipment it might, theoretically, be possible to record a whole life from the moment of birth till the second of death. It was only a decade or so ago that the French Postmodernist social theorist Jean Baudrillard argued that the images which assault us – on our TVs, in film and advertising – are not copies of the real, but become truth in their own right: the hyperral. Where Plato had spoken of two kinds of image-making: the first a faithful reproduction of reality, the second intentionally distorted in order to make a copy appear correct to viewers (such as a in a painting) Baudrillard saw four: the basic reflection of reality; the perversion of reality; the pretence of reality, and the simulacrum, which “bears no relation to any reality whatsoever”. Baudrillard’s simulacra were, basically, perceived as negative, but another modern French philosopher, Gilles Deleuze, has described simulacra as the vehicle by which accepted ideals or a “privileged position” can be “challenged and overturned”. Reality has become a complex issue.

Jonas Mekas was 90 on Christmas Eve, which means that the film-maker, artist and poet, often referred to as the godfather of avant garde cinema, has lived through a lot of history. Born in Lithuania he spent part of the war in a forced labour camp, then after the hostilities ended, another four years in various displaced person’s camps such as Flensburg, Hamburg, Wiesbaden, Kassel – first in the British Zone, then in the American. With nothing much to do and a lot of time he read, he wrote and went to the movies, which were shown free in the camps by the Americans. So began his long relationship with film. Later, when he commuted to the French Zone to study at the University of Mainz, he met André Gide who told him to “work only for yourself,” and watched a lot of French cinema. After arriving in America he bought his first Bolex camera in 1950, which he used to film everyday scenes in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and the Lithuanian immigrants who lived there. Describing himself and his brother as “two shabby, naïve Lithuanian boys, just out of forced labour camp”, it was not until some 10 years later that he decided to assemble the footage into a film.

Jona Mekas World Trade Center Haikus 2010
Jona Mekas World Trade Center Haikus, 2010

His has been a radical vision. He has said he wanted “to celebrate the small forms of cinema, the lyrical forms, the poem, the watercolour, etude, sketch, portrait, arabesque, bagatelle and little 8mm songs. I am standing”, he went on, “in the middle of the information highway and laughing, because a butterfly on a little flower somewhere just fluttered its wings, and I know that the whole course of history will drastically change because of that flutter. A super-8 camera just made a little soft buzz somewhere on New York’s Lower East Side and the world will never be the same”. In his ‘first draft’ of the Brooklyn material, Diaries, Notes and Sketches (Walden), he was already employing his signature documentary style: using intersecting time-planes, and linking memories associated with the loss of his home, alongside current footage of NYC, making associations between images that he overlaid with a palimpsest of poetic observations and direct emotional commentary. His fist script, written in 1949, entitled Lost Lost Lost Lost (as opposed to 3 Losts3 Losts in the title of the 1979 remake) was an angry piece that drew attention to the fact that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania had, after the war, been sacrificed by the West to the Soviet Union. Captured simply and directly, all the footage was taken with just one or two flood lamps with no attempt to be ‘artistic’.

As a published poet he has brought a particular sensibility to his films; a sense of loss and homelessness experienced when driving through snowy city streets or Central Park or, as in his more recent 365 Day Project, 2007, a lament to a Brooklyn tree felled by a storm. Such points of view have become his hallmark. His poetry is written in Lithuanian – for he believes that one can only write poetry in the language in which one grew up – so that his films have become a more expansive and direct ‘Esperanto’ expression than his writing. Very quickly after arriving in America he became a key player in the bohemian arts community of his adopted city, alongside those who would become his friends and collaborators, including Andy Warhol, John Lennon, Allen Ginsberg and film-makers Kenneth Anger and Maya Deren.

Jona Mekas Lavender Piece 2012
Jona Mekas Lavender Piece, 2012

His diary format is more than simply an art form. Not only does it unite art and life but life becomes art and not just reportage though a process of recording, selection, editing and framing. His work constantly asks ‘what do we remember?’, ‘what do we forget?’ Returning to the displaced persons’camp, he discovers the factory he worked in is still there – but like our memories – it has been transformed. The mundane and everyday become art by virtue of their preservation and framing. It is as if he has redrawn Descartes principal about perception to become: I record, therefore, I am, as if it is the very act of witnessing and remembering that makes us human. To record becomes not only a facet of memory and history, but a process of metamorphosis and transformation.

Mekas’s work at the Serpentine represents a broad range of his activities. It covers his passion for film, his relationship with artists and cinematographers, his involvement as co-founder of Film Culture magazine in 1955, and his commitment to avant-garde and underground film, as well as his activities as a writer, with his manifesto-style texts and collections of poems. As early as 1968 he had radical ideas about screening films in places other than cinemas, where viewers could decide how long they wanted to watch a particular film, making it an interactive, democratic affair between viewer and film-maker. “We cannot,” he has said, “judge the length of a film today at all […] because we go by imposed length conventions, we are conditioned to lengths …we walk into a theatre, and we are supposed to sit for an hour and a half […]we still insist on a ‘one sitting’ movie”.

In this sense Mekas is a true postmodern. He understands, exactly, the fragmented, impressionistic, and conditional nature of the world in which we live. In Birth of a Nation, 1997/2007, which documents portraits of friends and acquaintances – both famous and less well known – to his 365 Day Project, 2007, he shows us that art is less about ‘a subject’than about ‘a sensibility’ and a way of seeing the world. The everyday, the ordinary become art through a process of framing and selection. Time and history do the rest.

Jonas Mekas at the Serpentine Gallery, London until 27 January 2013

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2013
Image 1: Photograph: Liz Wendelbo
Images © Jonas Mekas and Jerry Hardman-Jones 2012

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Henry Moore
Sculpture and Drawings
Tate Britain

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

Henry Moore Stringed Figure, 1938
Stringed Figure, 1938

When Henry Moore’s sculptures were first displayed, they were considered so shocking, says the art historian Hilary Spurling that opponents not only daubed them with paint but decapitated them. Yet during the 20th century Moore’s work became so ubiquitous within the public domain that familiarity bred a benign contempt. From Harlow New Town to Hampstead Heath, from the UNESCO building to the Lincoln Centre every new ‘modern’ public building had to have its signature Moore. Nowadays there is a tendency to see him as an avuncular Yorkshire man, with an ee-by-gum accent, who made sculptures with holes in the middle that became the easy and acceptable face of modern art, much lampooned in the cartoons of the late lamented satirical magazine Punch. How did this shift from earthy radical to the country’s artistic maiden aunt come about? A revaluation of Moore’s work at Tate Britain attempts to redress this balance.

It is hard for those born in the last 30 years, who have lived through the technological change and economic prosperity of the Thatcher and Blair years, to imagine a post war Britain; grey and ground down by bombing and rationing, a mono-cultural society where white skins predominated, the class system prevailed and poverty was, for many, a daily reality. Divorce was rare, sex outside marriage kept secret and homosexuality a criminal offence. After all, according to Philip Larkin, who was then a young poet:

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(Which was rather late for me) —
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.” (1)
Henry Moore Recumbent Figure 1938
Recumbent Figure, 1938

This was a country where the food was bad, central heating unknown and, as the wonderful painter the late Prunella Clough once told me, no one was much interested in ‘modern art’, so that a black and white photograph of a Korean pot on the front of The Studio magazine was considered rather bold. Moore’s gently rounded female forms; his family groups, mothers and children abstracted from natural shapes – rocks, pebbles and bones – can all too easily seem to us, now, as they sit in their city centres and sculpture parks, as easy, undemanding and quintessentially English. Pastiche examples of his work abound in every little St. Ives craft shop and gallery. And yet this exhibition reveals a Moore who is darker, edgier and altogether more radical than these seemingly familiar images would suggest.

Henry Moore Mother and Child 1924-25
Mother and Child, 1924-25

It has become the norm in this depoliticised, postmodern world to assume an urbane insouciance towards both politics and culture, a wearily sophisticated ennui where, at best, things are seen as ironically amusing, a little shocking (if, indeed, shock is still possible) or simply not relevant to our immediate pragmatic or consumerist concerns. Yet in the 1920s and 1930s, when Moore began to make his mark, the world was very different. After the nadir of the Great War civilization appeared to be in crisis and a sense of trauma and shock prevailed. “Paralysed force, gesture without motion” as T. Eliot wrote in The Hollow Men. Not only had worst war in human history just ended, but another lurked on the horizon. The mood was anxious, philosophical and inward looking; psychoanalysis was in vogue, as was ‘primitive’ art. The writings of Joseph Conrad and D. H. Lawrence had created associations between the female, the primitive, sexuality and death. A study of the ‘primitive’ was to enter, as Picasso found when trawling through the exhibits in the Musée d’Éthnographie at the Trocadéro in Paris, into dark, liberating realms. ‘Primitives’, as Marianna Torgovinick writes (2) were equated with “our untamed selves, our id forces – libidinous, irrational, violent, dangerous.” Whilst for those of us born since the war and touched by the awareness of post colonial studies, such views might seem a little essentialist, at the time they were radical; a reaching towards freer connections with the body and sexuality outside the dictates of constrained social mores. The primitive equated not only with subterranean Freudian drives, but also with Jungian ideas of the timeless archetype.

Henry Moore Mother and Child 1932
Mother and Child, 1932

Moore claimed not to be particularly interested in psychoanalysis, only getting half-way through the first chapter of The Archetypal World of Henry Moore, Eric Neumann’s 1959 Jungian study of his work. But he did understand his own obsessions and that “there is no doubt a deep psychological exploration of the fascination of the hole”, not just because of it obvious erotic connotations but because of it its return to the atavistic and the chthonic. As the critic John Berger observed of Moore’s work in the 1950s, “one can’t go back further than he has”. Whilst Moore said of his figures “I suppose [they] could be explained as a ‘Mother complex’. In fact, what he seems to have been doing is discovering new ways to illustrate what it meant to experience a body from the ‘inside’ – its urges, its desires, its vulnerabilities and pre-linguistic memories – rather than as something simply observed from the outside by another. In Moore’s hands the body becomes less an object and more of a site for psychological investigation. In his Suckling Child, 1930, the mother’s body has been reduced – abstracted – to a pair of Kleinian ‘good’ and ‘bad’ breasts. The featureless maternal shape is simply a mammary site to fulfil the child’s libidinous demands. Moore’s mothers and children return us not only to a Rousseau-like sense of origins, but become catalysts for self-exploration. Mother and Child images represent something like a quarter of Moore’s work. He saw it as “a universal theme from the beginning of time”, addressed in Western art by the Madonna and Child, as well as in carvings from other cultures such as Africa and North America.

Henry Moore Two Sleepers Underground 1941
Two Sleepers Underground, 1941

Before he became known as an artist revered for his grand (and some might argue of the later work, grandiose) archetypal human forms that graced such places as Lucio Costa’s 1960s modernist utopia, Brasilia, Moore produced some of his most outstanding work in the form of prints and drawings. The pivotal moments that shaped this work were the Spanish Civil War (1936-9) and the Luftwaffe’s bombing raid on London in 1940-1 when he was moved by “an extreme experience of peril”. On the way home to Belsize Park, Moore and his wife witnessed, from the interior of a Northern Line underground train, the crowds seeking shelter on the platforms from the mayhem above ground. Huddled beneath blankets, these reduced forms inspired a series of drawings and sketches that would embody a sense of British resilience against Nazi aggression, as well as, intuitively, prefiguring the abject figures to be found during the Liberation at death camps such as Auschwitz. Like a vision of Dante’s Inferno, Moore portrays the odoriferous slum dwellers, the small shop keepers and the bewildered children of the London poor like ghosts; ectoplasmic images of death and putrefaction that seem to have been reduced to little more than x-rays. In a 1983 interview in The Washington Post he recalled the spectacle on the tube platforms: “they bathed and undressed their children as though they were in private. And, oh! The stench – very unsanitary conditions. It struck with me – the sight of it.”

Henry Moore Tube Shelter Perspective 1941
Tube Shelter Perspective, 1941

Born on the 30th July in Castleford, Yorkshire, the son of a miner and the youngest of seven, when his mother “was no longer so very young,” Moore was always political and his views can be seen as the key to much of his art. Against the backdrop of the First World War he read Thomas Hardy, Dostoevsky and D.H. Lawrenece. Between 1917-18, he enlisted and served on the Western front, where he was gassed during the battle of Cambrai. In 1921 he became a student at the Royal College of Art. He travelled to Paris and Italy and met T.S. Eliot and E. M.Forster. But he remained true to his roots, solidly on the left; some even claim a communist sympathiser. More likely he was a humanitarian, galvanised in his political beliefs by the plight of the urban poor and the rise of totalitarian Fascism in Spain and Germany. In the 1950s the existential anxiety generated by the nuclear threat of the Cold War lead to him to create works such as Helmet Head No 1. 1950. A founding member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in 1958, his Falling Warrior was proposed by the writer and critic John Berger as the organisation’s emblem. Like Giacometti, Moore wanted to create figures that embodied fragmentation and anxiety, that were not part of the classical tradition but symbols of eroticism, irrationality and disharmony. As with Giacometti his ideas were linked to those of Georges Bataille and to the surrealist movement, and he was to add his name to various political tracts issued by the British Surrealist Group.

Henry Moore Helmet Head 1 1950
Helmet Head 1, 1950

For us, a generation so used to post 60s freedoms, where sexual imagery seeps from every hoarding, computer and TV screen, it is hard to appreciate that Moore’s figures were a reversal of Enlightenment ideas of progress, a reframing of the Cartesian split between the mind and body, where new attitudes towards bodily urges and sexuality were placed back centre stage. In his works the body, as well as the psyche, are reconnected to the mystical, the irrational and the largely repressed. Many of his sculptures – especially those that use string or wire to create tension between revealed and enclosed spaces – exhibit the sense of anxiety and entrapment associated with the troubled 1930s and the Cold War, as well as a personal existential angst. In such works as Head and Ball, 1934 or the Fourpiece Composition Reclining Figure, 1934 in Cumberland alabaster, the fragmented forms speak implicitly of dismembered war torn bodies, metaphors that embody the anxiety of yet another global conflict.

Henry Moore Four-piece Composition Reclining Figure 1934
Four-piece Composition Reclining Figure, 1934

In many ways Moore has suffered from his own success. His later works became de rigour for so many new public spaces, and lost, in their capacity as official ‘modern art’, much of their early edginess and physicality, which owed a good deal to the investigations of Freud and Jung, as well as anthropologists such Margaret Mead and Malinowski. This Tate exhibition ends around the middle of the 1960s, when it might be argued that Moore’s work began to lose touch with its roots, and become increasingly self-referential. For many it became the ‘acceptable face’ of 20th century art that would soon be supplanted by the anarchy of Pop, performance and conceptual art. Yet if we bother to look at Moore’s early work with an historic eye, rather than through a postmodern lens, where glittering surfaces have replaced troubling depths, and understand something of the atmosphere of those grim and tragic times in which he worked, his oeuvre begins to look like a challenge to reason; a celebration of the uncanny, the unconscious and the absurd. His figures of the human body became sites to explore the loosening of rigid social ties and generations of strict repression. From now on it would mean that from Doctor Spock’s liberal ideas on potty training, to the Beat generation’s embrace of easy sexuality, art and society would never be the same again.

1 Philip Larkin (1922-1986), British poet. (Written June 16, 1967). Annus Mirabilis, st. 1, High Windows (1974)
2 Marianna Torgovnick. Gone Primitive: Savage Intellects, Modern Lives (The Uinversity of Chicago Press) 1990

Henry Moore at Tate Britain from 24 February to 8 August 2010

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2010

Images: 1 & 7 Courtesy of the Henry Moore Foundation
Images: 2 5 6 8 Courtesy of the Tate
3 Courtesy of the Manchester City Galleries
4 Courtesy of the Sainsbury Collection, University of East Anglia. Photo: James Austin.
The All images reproduced by permission of The Henry Moore Foundation.

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Lygia Pape
Magnetized Space
Serpentine Gallery

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

Lygia Pape Livro do tempo 1961-63
Livro do tempo 1961-63

‘All truths,’ the philosopher Alain Badiou writes, as quoted by the psychoanalyst, Adam Philips in his Five Short Talks on Excess, ‘are woven from extreme consequences1‘. Philips then goes on to quote the dramatist Mark Ravenhill: “art that isn’t driven by this basic impulse to create an unbalanced view of the world is probably bad or weak2.” ‘Extreme consequences’ then, in an artistic context, might be considered to be both a drive and a passion; the very qualities that stimulate artists to make new and iconoclastic work.

Lygia Pape Eat Me 1975
Eat Me 1975

Breaking moulds, disturbing structures of thought and established relationships between North and South, the New World and the Old in order to create an ‘unbalanced view of the world’ and discover who we are and what we think are the hallmarks that were brought to the burgeoning Brazilian art scene in the nineteen-fifties and sixties by the Brazilian artist, Lygia Pape (1927-2004). Through their re-reading of, and reaction to European abstraction, a group of young Brazilian artists pushed aside the boundaries of the Old World and colonial art to create an indigenous, pluralistic and democratic body of work. Neo- Concretism (as it was dubbed) is often seen as the beginning of contemporary art in Brazil and Lygia Pape’s oeuvre, with its rich mix of aesthetic, ethical and political ideas helped to form Brazil’s nascent artistic identity. This expansion from Old to New World was not only geographical. The territories that were now being explored and exploited were no longer simply the exotic terrains and lands described by the great nineteenth century travellers and writers but also those closer to home, as the relatively new ‘art’of psychoanalysis was showing. The area of exploration had become not only a physical terrain but the geography of our own psyches and internal worlds. Art was mapping a new relationship between body and mind.

Writing of the Latin American avant-garde novel, the scholar, Vicky Unruh, has suggested that a frequent characteristic has been “the artist’s lament, calling to mind once again the stresses between cosmic aspirations and the pulls of a contingent world.” This dichotomy, this switching between states is also a characteristic of Lygia Pape’s practice and “is linked with her insistence on the freedom to experiment, driven by her rebellious spirit3.”

Lygia Pape Trio do embalo maluco (Crazy Rocking Trio) 1968
Trio do embalo maluco (Crazy Rocking Trio), 1968

Pape’s was a utopian project and the truths she wove ‘from extreme consequences’ were a refusal to classify fine art according to its forms of drawing, painting, performance or sculpture. The Neo-Concrete revolution, in tune with the zeitgeist and spirit of the revolutionary mid-20th century, overturned categories and taxonomies. Art stepped from the rarefied gallery to become inclusive, democratic and, by implication, political. Borders between disciplines, between intellect and intuition, between body and mind, male and female, were traversed. Popular culture, political life, film, street theatre; all became ripe for inclusion. For decades Latin America had been synonymous in the European psyche with the chthonic and the primitive, a continent of exotic magical realism. But Latin American artists were not isolated from events in Europe and the US, and geometric abstraction was to provide them with an alternative, vibrant language with which to explore new social and political freedoms. The Brazilian Neo-Concrete movement was not the result of: “deforming anything gleaned from the real world. Our objective was to create from three basic forms: the circle, the square and the triangle4.” These archetypal shapes acted as signifiers for the origins of the universe and the evolution of life on earth, which are the subject of Pape’s Livro da criaçâo (Book of Creation) 1959, and of time, in her Livro do tempo (Book Time) 1961-63.

Now The Serpentine Gallery has mounted the first major exhibition of Pape’s work to be shown in the UK, Magnetized Space, that brings together an array of known and previously unseen works, including sculpture, performance, paintings, films, poems, engraving and collages, and includes early drawings and poems such as her Neo-Concrete Livros (Books), and performances like Divisor (Divider) and O ovo (The Egg).

Lygia Pape Livro da criaçâo (Book of Creation) 1959
Livro da criaçâo (Book of Creation), 1959

The nature of Pape’s trajectory has somewhat defied categorisation. She has talked of her work as being circular rather than having stages. There is an almost Japanese economy of form about the Desenhos (Drawings) which she produced in the nineteen-fifties. Between 1953 and 1959 she created a series of remarkably beautiful woodcuts, Tecelares that invoked Stephane Mallarmé’s connection between whiteness and silence. (According to Mallarmé, meaning is always the effect of a play between words. The white of the page is thus charged with meaning; and the white silence is a precondition of any meaning that might emerge.) A tender, almost anthropomorphic relationship exists between the shapes in these works that speak of both absence and presence, male and female, inside and outside. These were followed by the creation of various books: Livro do Tempoand Livro da criação that expanded the idea of a book, opening it up to architecture and the silent spaces and possibilities suggested by Mallarmé.

Painting, poetry, the sculptural object and film sit in a non-hierarchical relationship within Pape’s work to create (in her words) a “magnetized space” between artist and viewer, that is open ended, fragmentary and in a state of perpetual flux. Her work is not didactic but a fluid exploration. By removing the status of ‘them’ and ‘us’ and of artist and viewer, she claims a new democracy for art, which fitted exactly with the mood of those iconoclastic times The aim among those in her circle in the 1940s and 50s was to break with severely cerebral categories such as geometric abstraction, which reduced colour and line to elements of science, and to make paintings and works of art that were barometers of the actual modern world. Pape had studied philosophy and favoured Heraclitus’s notions of movement and flux over Platonic perfection.

Lygia Pape Divisor 1968-85
Divisor (Divider) 1968-85

By the 1960s as the Neo-Concrete group began to break up Pape turned her attention to film. What was important was that these should communicate ideas “through the skin, in an essentially sensorial way… and not by formal discourse5.” The Serpentine exhibition begins with a series of performances filmed on Super 8 and more recently transferred to DVD. The video has become such a ubiquitous tool within contemporary art that it comes as a shock to realise that some of these date back to 1967/8. Here the formal exercises of the drawings have given way to excess and transgression. The heavily moustachioed female mouth in Eat Me, mimics the desire and movement of female genitalia, whilst also playing with notions of patriarchy, while the body bursting from the white cube in O ovo (The Egg) 1967 implies, not only a personal and political rebirth, but a movement away from restrictive geometric forms to something more participatory, anarchic and felt. In Divisor 1968 a 30 x 30 metres white sheet yolks together a crowd of people whose heads poke through evenly spaced holes in the fabric. Reminiscent of the wrapped buildings of Christo that negate irregularities to create a unified whole, the metaphors created here are ambivalent. They might refer to collective endeavour where individuals strive towards a common, collective goal, or they might imply the loss of autonomy felt under the blanket of political repression. Blood is also a recurring symbol both in Roda dos prazeres (Wheel of Pleasures) 1968 and Wampirou (Vampire) 1974 where it seems to imply not only female desire (and menstrual blood) but also to be a transgressive form of secular transubstantiation. “To be a devourer or to devour is the process of mutual incorporation,” Pape wrote in her notes Sobre o canibalismo (On Cannibalism), adding that “the womb is the poetic shelter of all matter involving fetus and form6.”

The pièce de résistance at The Serpentine show is a version of Ttéia 1, C (Web) first made in 1976. Created from copper wires, wood and nails, and shown in a blacked-out room lit to magical effect, nowadays it would almost certainly be achieved with the aid of a computer.

Lygia Pape Ttéia 1 C (Web) 1976
Ttéia 1, C (Web), 1976

Pape’s oeuvre is remarkably diverse and hard to categorise and can best understood through her abiding passions. In her life time she was concerned with both pure abstraction and the pressing problems of the politics of contemporary Brazil. The military coup of 1964 had been a major setback for twentieth-century Brazilian society and its project of modernity. Her work mirrors the utopian aspirations of the times in which she lived; the loosening of established frameworks and the desire to establish a de-centred world free of nationalistic domination. Art for her involved a multiplicity of ideas – that was its strength. It allowed for a dialogue between the cerebral, the sensual and the world of objects. Anything and everything could be art. Art was a process rather than an achieved state. It was simply a question of being open and prepared to look. “ As you can see, all is connected. The artwork does not exist as a finished and resolved object, but as something that is always present, permanent within people7.” Her passionate ‘unbalanced view of the world’ rejected the notion that art was something that simply belonged to the academy or to professionals. As for Joseph Beuys, who famously declared that ‘Everyone is an artist’, it was about inclusion. The artist Hélio Oiticica described Pape as a “permanently open seed,” whose work did not abandon the sensual, the chthonic and the tactile for the rarefied and the cerebral.

Not widely known in the UK but she was part of a generation of artists who helped to change the way that we both see and interact with art. Her work is political, extreme, and iconoclastic and belongs to a period when art was far less about making an object of desire for exchange or consumption than creating a form of visual thinking. Her participatory works such as Divisor and O ovo are ephemeral. They exist in the moment. At the height of the military regime in Brazil, she commented: “I note that the problem today is ethical8.” It is a phrase that one is unlikely to hear on the lips of many artists today.

Lygia Pape Magnetized Space at the Serpentine Gallery from 7 December 2011 to 19 February 2012

1 Five Short Talks on Excess. On Balance. Adam Phillips. Penguin 2010
2 Ibid.
3 Vicky Unruth,Latin American Vanguards: the Art of Contentious Encounters, Berkeley: University of California Press, referenced in Guy Brett’s catalogue essay, A Permanently Open Seed. Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid. Serpentine Gallery, London and Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo, 2011
4 Lygia Pape, interview with Angélica de Moraes, O Estado de Sâo Paulo, April 22, 1995, quoted by Guy Brett.
5 Quoted in Denise Mattar, Lygia Pape: Instinsecamente Anarquiesta, Rio de Janeiro, 2003. From Guy Brett’s essay.
6 Lygia Pape, On Cannibalism, São Paulo: São Paula International Biennial, volume 1, p.46
7 Lygia Pape, Ascanio MMM, Rio de Janeriro: Galeria do Grup, B, 1972, n.p.
8 Lygia Pape, Ascanio, MMM, Rio de Janerio: Quoted by Paula Herkenhoff in The Art of Passage. Serpentine catalogue. 2011.

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2012

Images © Projeto Lygia Pape

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde
Tate Britain

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

Collected by Andrew Lloyd Webber, and the inspiration for a number of rumpy-pumpy TV costume dramas, it’s hard to think beyond the flowing hair, the luxurious silk dresses and the rich nostalgia of the Pre-Raphaelites to see them as anything other than the acceptable face of establishment art. Having missed the opening of the current show at Tate Britain, I paid a visit to the exhibition during the week and was hardly able to move for the throng. The Pre-Raphaelites, it seems, have lost none of their popular allure. But their works were not always a subject for tea towels and art shop merchandise but constituted an inventive avant-garde that not only tells us a good deal about the Victorian fear of modernity and industrialisation, but about the social order, attitudes to sexuality and the role of women in the mid-19th century.

Founded in 1848 the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a reaction to a recognisably modern world of dramatic technological and social change. In many ways there are parallels with our own times: the newly globalised communications, the rapid industrialisation and turbulent financial markets and the hitherto unprecedented growth in the expansion of cities that threatened old agrarian ways of life and the natural world. London, like now, was the centre of a world economic system. Traditional patterns were changing; the social order was in flux, feudal belief systems were crumbling. There was the rise of a new middle class, who were making their money from trade, as well as a decline in old religious certainties. This was the era that spawned Darwin and Nietzsche.

William Holman Hunt The Awakening Conscience 1853
William Holman Hunt
The Awakening Conscience 1853

It was in this shifting terrain that the young John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Homan Hunt joined forces, along with the slightly older Ford Madox Brown, who was never formally a part of their group but shared many of its aims. Looking back what characterises the Pre-Raphaelite movement is a desire to create an alternative future based on ideals gleaned from the past. The medieval world was seen as providing a set of values based on beauty and spirituality, which contrasted with what appeared to be the coarsening and debasement of life created by the new industrial cities. The Pre-Raphaelites turned to the past, to what was seen as ‘a golden age’, to find alternatives to the moral, political, social and aesthetic problems thrown up by modernity. The dignity of the ‘workman who struck the stone’, as John Ruskin described the medieval craftsman in The Stones of Venice , contrasted with the brutalisation of industrialised faceless labour and the mass market products that it was beginning to produce. Despite the apparent familiarity of their imagery today, through a thousand posters and cheap reproductions, the Pre-Raphaelite’s radicalism lay in a refusal to accept society and its established conventions. They held the belief that they could sow the seeds of social reform through attitudes to art and design and, that by returning to the uncorrupted art found in Italy and Northern Europe in the 15th century before the painter, Raphael (1483-1520), they could re-establish something pure and untainted. Both the Aesthetic Movement of the 1860s and the Art and Crafts movement have their roots embedded in Pre-Raphaelitism.

The very name of the Brotherhood declared a link with the distant past (distant enough that the inconvenient realities of disease, feudalism and poverty didn’t impinge too much on the imagination) to produce radically revivalist strains of writing, design and art that scandalised the Victorian world. Inspired in part by photography the Pre-Raphaelites developed a new language of pictorial meaning. In the forensic detail of the claustrophobic parlour in Holman Hunt’s The Awakening of Conscience, a ‘kept woman’ sees the error of her ways. Although the painting suggests an acknowledgement of the sexual exploitation and double standards of the times, it’s significant that it is the young woman who ‘sees the light’ and and the error of her ways, who is the one considered in need of saving, while the young roué remains apparently completely unreconstructed.

Women were essentially objects of display for most Victorians. They had little autonomy and their style of dress and passive mode all played a part in defining them as objects that would advertise their father’s or husband’s social status. They were depicted as static; sitting, reclining or standing pensively. Thus they became emblematic assertions of the idea that a woman’s ‘natural’ role was passive rather than active. It was a woman’s ability to be decorative that made her worthy of the attentions of the painter. The psychology of a woman who was only able to see herself through the eyes of others as an object of display is the wonderfully described character of Lily Bart in Edith Wharton’s dark novel, The House of Mirth.

John Everett Millais Ophelia 1851-2
John Everett Millais Ophelia 1851-2

A largely a male invention, Pre-Raphaelitism was initially premised on the exclusion of women. It was a movement where the image of the women as the seductress and femme fatale became central. Whilst the unconventional personal lives of many of the Pre-Raphaelites gave a whole new meaning to the word bohemian, women were, in fact, in a very subordinate role. Lizzie Siddal, known for her luxuriant red hair and pale skin, was the model for Millais’s immensely popular, Ophelia. Here, her necrophiliac beauty has something of the demure countenance of a Raphael Madonna. While posing she lay in a bathtub full of water. Millais painted her daily into the winter, filling in the blank space he had left on the canvas afteralready painting the surrounding landscape. Although he put lamps under the tub to warm the water they went out and the water slowly chilled. Millais didn’t seem to notice and Lizzie didn’t complain. Afterwards she became very ill, possibly with pneumonia, and her father held Millais responsible, forcing him to pay compensation for her doctor’s bills.

Though an accomplished artist in her own right Siddal’s life was to end tragically at the age of 32 with an overdose of laudanum,. Like the other Pre-Raphaelite muse, Jane Burden, who married William Morris, she came from a working-class family and Rossetti feared introducing her to his parents, while she was the victim of harsh criticism from his sisters. The knowledge that his family would never approve their marriage contributed to his continuing postponement of their nuptials. Siddal also believed, with some justification, that Rossetti would always look to replace her with a younger muse, which contributed to her depressive periods and ill health.

John Everett Millais Christ in the House of His Parents (The Carpenter's Shop) 1849-50
John Everett Millais Christ in the House of His Parents (The Carpenter’s Shop) 1849-50

A strongly narrative movement, many Pre-Raphaelite paintings recast old stories in a new light. Millais’s Christ in the House of His Parents created a rumpus by showing the Holy Family as everyday and working class amid the paraphernalia of the carpenter’s workshop. Such views followed current ideas of Christian socialism, where the poor could be redeemed not only through faith but by education or the dignity achieved by manual labour and honest toil. It’s no surprise that Rossetti and Brown, as well as Ruskin, taught art classes at the Working Men’s College and that Ruskin College in Oxford should owe its existence to this legacy.

Encouraged by Ruskin the Pre-Raphaelites looked to nature and natural history, which coincided with the Victorian enthusiasm for geology and botany, as a way of comprehending the present. “All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small, All things wise and wonderful: The Lord God made them all,” wrote C.F. Alexander in his famous hymn of 1848. Many paintings such as Dyce’s Pegwell Bay underline humanity’s place in the natural order of things. In the foreground the painter’s family collects fossils and shells. The painting seems to show the pull between the old certainties of religious belief and the order of God’s universe, and the new insights brought about by science, taxonomy and collecting.

William Dyce Pegwell Bay, Kent - a Recollection of October 5th, 1858 1858-60
William Dyce Pegwell Bay, Kent – a Recollection of October 5th, 1858 1858-60

Looking again of these extraordinarily familiar paintings in this exhibition at Tate Britain, with their ‘shrill colours’, as the art historian Ernst Gombrich once described them, their rich interiors that defined class and social order, their pageantry and nostalgia, I was struck by the contradictions inherent within Pre-Raphaelitism that here was a movement that was trying to find radical answers to the problems of modernity, social upheaval and the role of women by returning to a highly romanticised notion of the past. In many ways it was not until the grim realities of the 1914-18 war impinged that the dream was finally over.

Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde, Tate Britain until 13 January 2013

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2012
Images: © the Tate

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Thomas Ruff
Gagosian London

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

When is a painting not a painting? When it’s a photograph. Many of Thomas Ruff’s images might, at first glance, be paintings by an American abstract expressionist. There is an irony that while so much contemporary painting aims to look hyperreal much current photography has the gestural appearance of painting. The old chestnut that the camera never lies is stood on its head by Ruff’s work. “A photo journalist has to be really honest. The artist does not”, he says. “The difference between my predecessors and me is that they believed to have captured reality and I believe to have created a picture.”

Ruff has been taking photographs for more than thirty years and is one of those responsible for photography’s enhanced status; its shift from the twilight zone of the art world to high priced commodity. His studies at the Düsseldorf Kunstakademie in the 1970s coincided with the political terrorism waged by the anarchic Red Army Faction and his ensuing Portraits made during this period reflect a preoccupation with surveillance. It is as if his subjects had been shot by Big Brother’s camera. No emotion is shown, no flicker of a thought is revealed.

He has always had a passion for technology, for both cameras and telescopes. His fascination with astronomy started young though, as a boy, he was always rather disappointed by how little he could see through his own small telescope compared to what was visible in the professional photographs taken at observatories such as Mount Wilson in Pasadena. In 1989 he presented Sterne, his first images of the night sky based on archival photographs acquired from the European Southern Observatory in Chile. Almost twenty years later he has again returned to contemplate the mysteries of the universe. In his Cassini Series, 2008, in which he caught Saturn’s hazy moons and rings, he enlarged the images to breaking point, so that they collapsed pixel by pixel as if disappearing into a vast black hole. He works, he claims, like a scientist, beginning with research and creating a thesis or concept that he has to prove. As he can’t prove anything with just one photograph he makes groups and series in order to explore his ideas.

Thomas Ruff ma.r.s.15 I, 2011
ma.r.s.15 I, 2011

A regular visitor to the NASA home page, this was the inspiration for his recent series ma.r.s. Here he has created monumental photographs, manipulating the raw black and white scientific images taken from their website, digitally altering their angles and adding saturated colour so that they resemble abstract paintings. Textures and surfaces become ambiguous. In one we might be looking at sand dunes in a desert, a planetary mountain range or a crumpled cloth stretched taut. In another the black splodges on a yellow ground could be the pitted indentations on a rock face or mutating cellular forms. What is already strange becomes stranger, as science mutates into art.

In addition to these large C-prints he has experimented, in the smaller side gallery, with photos of Mars that can be viewed with cheap red and green 3D glasses. This technique of 3-D imaging is actually quite old, resulting in an anaglyph image where flat surfaces suddenly become precipitous rocky terrains and steep ledges hang over plunging crevasses. Starting with the raw scientific data he creates worlds that are at once fictional and realistic, flights of fancy as well as enhancements of the truth.

Ruff has had an enormous effect on a generation of artists who have turned to the internet as a source of inspiration. In his Jpeg series he created pixilated images of subjects ranging from fake landscapes to war. In the Britannia Street gallery a large photograph of white blossom – the flowers and branches blur to become a grid of form and colour – formalises nature making it into an artificial construct, while in another image – a pool of dirty water lying on waste ground and surrounded by electricity pylons – becomes a reflective lake of purples, greens and blues, proving the mendacity of the camera.

Thomas Ruff nudes dr02, 2011
nudes dr02, 2011

Over in Davies Street, Gagosian’s other gallery, there are series of his large nudes culled from pornographic sites. These are enlarged to the point where the women’s bodies are veiled in a gauzy haze of pixels curbing the images more blatant in-your-face sexuality. The nude is hardly a new subject for art and turning titillation into culture, whether in Courbet’s the Origins of the World (1866) or the Pre-Raphaelite, John Collier’s Lilith (1892), – simply an excuse for a bit of snake bondage given respectability by a biblical title – is what male artists have always done. But Ruff’s blurred distortions, while distinguishing the images as ‘art’, also rob the women of their individuality so that they become mere screens (as is always the case in pornography but is not always the case in art) onto which all male fantasy can be projected. Unlike the work of other artists who work with photos, such as his compatriot Gerhard Richter, the images are not transformed or taken to another plane by his interventions. Blurry they may be but they still remain, essentially, what they started as – porn – and are a reminder of John Berger’s perceptive statement that: “A man’s presence suggests what he is capable of doing to you or for you. By contrast, a woman’s presence … defines what can and cannot be done to her.” The postmodern insouciance and ironic knowingness of these buffed and polished, no doubt consenting and highly paid, models somehow doesn’t alter that fundamental fact.

Thomas Ruff MA.R.S. is at Gagosian Gallery, Davies Street, London from 8 March to 21 April 2012

Thomas Ruff Nudes is at Gagosian Gallery, Britannia Street, London from 8 March to 21 April 2012

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2012

Images © Thomas Ruff 2011. Courtesy of the Gagosian Gallery

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Thomas Schütte
Serpentine Gallery

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

What is a portrait for? What does it tell us? Before the camera it was the only way of recording human presence. All other images of the human face were transient: a reflection caught in a pool of water or a pane of glass. To put paint on canvas was to render a person immortal and, in many cases, it gave the sitter authority, status and power. For women it was often a passport to marriage (though the perils of lying paint were demonstrated when Hans Holbein’s portrait of the dumpy Anne of Cleeves beautified the princess so that on her arrival in England in 1539, Henry VIII, already in his late 40s, sick and ageing and married three times, rejected his prospective bride as not attractive enough.)

But with the invention of the camera ‘truth’ became the domain of photography, while painting was left to ‘express’ the soul of the sitter though, as John Berger points out in his essay The Changing View of Man in the Portrait, town halls and provincial museums are full of lifeless, boring likenesses that reveal little skill and even less about the human soul. Berger asks whether you would rather have a photo of someone you love or a painting. Go on, be honest, you’re not really going to keep an oil painting propped up on the pillow beside you when yearning for an absent love, are you? This suggests, then, that the average painted portrait was traditionally – with honourable exceptions such as Rembrandt or Van Gogh – about something else: status, aggrandizement, a legacy to history. Each year the BP Portrait Award is full of achingly skilful works that say little about the sitter and even less about contemporary painting. Those that do manage to do so stand out like diamonds. So what is the point of the contemporary portrait and why has an artist such as Thomas Schütte returned to concentrate on figures and faces?

Thomas Schütte Vater Staat (Father State) 2010
Thomas Schütte Vater Staat (Father State), 2010

At 57, Schulte is one of Germany’s most visible artists, a product of the Dusseldorf Kunstakademie and nearly as famous as his former teacher Gerhard Richter. The black and white self-portrait in photo realist style at the beginning of the exhibition is a direct reference to Ritchter’s tutelage. But Schütte soon went on to embrace all sorts of other media – models, sculptures, banners, architectural installations, ceramics – and is generally lauded for his versatility. For the last two decades he has created a vast array of eclectic work but, here, at the Serpentine, the emphasis is on the figure and the portrait. The exhibition includes watercolours and drawings of friends and acquaintances, along with a series of self-portraits. Schütte is a difficult artist to categorise, one of a generation who, under Richter’s influence, returned to figuration after being absorbed by minimalism, His work is quirky, strange and, at times, outright odd.

As you enter the first gallery you are greeted by the bust of a bearded man. He has slightly crazy eyes and tangled hair and stares from the top of a steel plinth, his arms raised at the side of his head. Schütte has called the work Memorial for Unknown Artist, saying he that it reminds him of a Leonardo-like archetype. Though, personally, I think he looks more like Moses. There is something in his inscrutable expression that reminds me of the celebrated Michelangelo that so obsessed Freud and I wonder if there might be some connection. In the central gallery there is a towering figure, Vater Staat (Father State), in rusted steel, a sort of postmodern colossus that dominates the proceedings, casting a shadow of slightly malevolent authority of the whole space. Yet, at the same time, there’s something vulnerable and isolated about him – like God, himself, perhaps. Again Freudian notions about patriarchy and paternal domination creep in. With his chiselled features, his little cap and flowing robes it is not hard to see him as some Slavic potentate, an authoritarian father-figure of absolutism. Outside on the grass are two monumental bronze sculptures with two heads and torsos bound together like Siamese twins on wooden supports. They are part grotesque, part ridiculous and look as though they are taking part in some absurd three-legged race. They are from the Untitled Enemies series of 2011 and reminded me of T.S. Eliot’s Hollow Men. They, too, can be understood in psychological terms, as two parts of the same whole, the split personality that is within us all, the Janus who cannot make up his mind which way to face.

Thomas Schütte Memorial for unknown artist 2011 / Walser’s wife 2011
Thomas Schütte Memorial for unknown artist 2011 / Walser’s wife 2011

A reference to Janus brings us to Schütte’s interest in classical sculpture, including the busts of Roman emperors housed in the Capitoline Museum. He was, he says, in Rome in 1992, the year there was this peaceful revolution in Italy where the heads of State and a lot of prominent people were being exposed and discredited and sent to jail “so the caricature and the satire (were) a reality.” Installed in the second gallery are a series of disturbing busts in blackened bronze. Placed high on the wall, as if in a museum, they seem to form part of the architecture. Some have bushy eyebrows, others hooked- noses or flattened brows. They have been poked, pummeled and gouged like a child’s play dough heads and manage, at one and the same time, to create and air of authoritarian threat as well that sense of paranoid aloofness that so often surrounds authoritarian leaders. It is a reminder of how many German artists are, so long after the war and the collapse of the Berlin wall, still obsessed with authority.

These monumental works are in direct contrast to his delicate and often very subtle water colours. Using Monet’s trick of painting in series he is able to capture different moods and attitudes. He takes a similar approach in his Mirror Drawings where he observes his own face in a round mirror or lens so that the viewer has a strong sense of the artist’s presence both as subject and object. Schütte is a skilled draftsman as is evident in his Luise series from the mid-Nineties, The fragile washes and graphite and ink lines display sensibility and a lightness of touch.

In Britain he is best known for his sculpture on the empty fourth plinth, Hotel for Birds, a playful absurd, yet rather beautiful structure. Absurdity seems to play an important role in Schütte’s thinking. It appears to be a way of diluting impotency in the face of absolute power as in the satirical water colour of Adolf duck, a rubber duck complete with Hitler’s moustache and a swastika.

Thomas Schütte United enemies 2011
Thomas Schütte United enemies, 2011

Schütte is not an artist who is necessarily easy on the eye and, at times, the exhibition at The Serpentine can feel a bit confused so that it takes a while to work out the themes. Yet his constant reassessment of the figurative tradition and his willingness not to flinch from the unpalatable role that authority and power play in the modern world render him a significant player.

Thomas Schütte Faces & Figures at the Serpentine Gallery from 25 September to 18 November 2012

A solo exhibition of Thomas Schütte’s work can also be seen at Frith Street Gallery, 18 Golden Square, W.1 until 18th November.

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2012

Images © the Thomas Schütte 2012
United enemies Photography © 2012 Gautier Deblonde

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Sean Scully
Wall of Light Desert Night 1999

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

Sean Scully Wall of Light Desert Night 1999

In the Nineties, Sean Scully began his Wall of Light series. Among the most lyrically potent is Wall of Light Desert Night (1999). The inspiration for this painting came from a night-time drive into the Nevada desert. Having been invited with his partner, the painter Liliane Tomasko, to watch the boxing in Las Vegas, he began to feel trapped by the architecture of the hotels, which are built in a sort of wheel, all leading to the casino. Finding himself in Egypt one minute and in medieval England the next, he needed to escape from this discombobulating experience.

So they drove out into the desert, to the Valley of Fire. As they drove back in the dusk the colours seemed extraordinary. The shadows cast on the desert floor by the rocks appeared to be made of sand, dust and light. Scully held these – the blues, the greys and pinks, the blacks and blue-blacks – in his mind’s eye until he returned to the studio. There, a large canvas just happened to be waiting and he painted the work virtually in one hit.

Scully’s bricks of colour are connected to people and places. Though an abstract painter, his paintings convey the real world. Deceptively simple, they seem to have been laid down quickly, with great ease, while, in fact, their relationships are complex, unsettling and full of potent emotion. Scully is a Romantic in Modernist clothing, a painter who is profoundly connected to the tradition of European painting while being wedded to the expansion of painting’s contemporary vocabulary.

What he has captured in Wall of Light Desert Night is that unique atmosphere in the wilderness when the shadows grow long and the air suddenly cools so that, for a moment, one feels connected to something ineffable. It is a painterly translation of an epiphany. There are no figures and no ground – nothing is set behind anything else. It is an intensely democratic work for there is no visual hierarchy; each element holds its own weight. In the mid-Eighties and early-Nineties Scully’s paintings told stories, mostly about love and failed relationships. But here he moves out from the self to reaffirm his relationship to the painterly tradition.

In 1983, while in Mexico, he was taken by the abandoned architecture of the Yucatan and the play of light on the walls and made a small watercolour called Wall of Light that was to become the genesis of this series. Usually the paintings from this group are associated with specific places and times in Scully’s life, such as Chelsea Wall I, 1999, which was made in his Manhattan studio and captures something of the shabby urban grime of Chelsea, while Wall of Light, 1999 takes its pinks and cream blues from a De Kooning painting, whose source was Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. In Wall of Light Desert Night the monochromatic tonalities seem almost bled of colour like those in a photo taken as the sun is beginning to set.

As a young man Scully travelled to Morocco and Mexico, which changed his visual thinking. Photography, urban topography and the practice of karate added to his aesthetic lexicon. In the Seventies his work was very austere. The formal arrangement of lines was based on the Modernist grid created by using masking tape within a restricted palette. The perfect Zen beauty excluded the viewer and seemed to veil the artist’s emotions. In Wall of Light Desert Night, by contrast, there is a strong sense of the artist’s presence, and a robust sensuality.

The silver-greys abutted with areas of black speak of creeping twilight shadows. There is a sense of things both illuminated by the fading light, of being hidden by the encroaching dark and buried beneath a blanket of night sky where the only trace of colour left is that of the pale sand. In the end the darkness wins out over the sand so that we are left with a sense of the desert’s infinity, the weight of its silence and the mystery of the night.

For many religions the desert represents a place in which to confront the self. Christ spent 40 days and 40 nights there wrestling with his demons. The purity of the desert, untouched by the human ego, provides a place detached from the self and from desire, or, as Mondrian sought, an environment in which to search for the mystical Absolute.

In this painting, both artist and viewer come face to face with the human spirit, with love, despair, beauty and death but most of all with what is mysterious and unknowable. For the experience of travelling through the desert at night is, in fact, very much like that of the journey made by the Romantic painter. All these elements combine in Wall of Light Desert Night to give it its lyrical force.

The work is full of pathos. Like the Old Masters, Scully is concerned with the brush stroke and the touch of the human hand that reveals the artist’s hesitations, his thought processes and vulnerabilities. The desire to make marks is connected to man’s atavistic need to record his presence. Both potent with hope and, because it is the result of human activity, riddled with doubt and potential failure, such a painting is an act of faith.

Yet it affirms the struggle of the human spirit in a world overloaded with technology and mechanisation for it has been painted with the body and heart and not just the head. As with Mondrian, who spoke of his restricted forms as a mystical pursuit of the Absolute, which he justified in terms of his theosophical beliefs, Scully’s painting has its own profound spirituality. To paint a painting such as this is a way of discovering how to be in the world. It is an affirmation of life. Cogito ergo sum. I paint therefore I am. As Mondrian wrote of Mark Rothko, “a great abstract painting offers one the possibility to travel without having to endure the tedium of a journey.”

Although apparently completely abstract, like a Chardin still life, Scully’s Wall of Light Desert Night evokes the experience of mood and touch. But instead of the tactile experience of a bowl of fruit or the glint of silver tableware, it suggests, not only the physical presence of an actual wall, but also of being enveloped by moonlight in an empty landscape. As with Rothko we are presented with a sensation of awe and a confrontation with the Sublime. Scully has said that he paints to reassure himself that he is not alone in the universe. With this painting he has produced a religious masterwork for a secular age.

About the Artist
Sean Scully was born in Dublin on 30 June 1945. In 1949 his family moved to London, where in the early 1960s he worked as a messenger in a graphic design studio and as a plasterer’s labourer. He then became apprenticed to a typesetter and attended evening classes at Central School of Art, London. From there he went on to Croydon College of Art and Newcastle University.

In 1971 he won the John Moore’s. He taught at Chelsea School of Art and moved to the US, where he received the Harkness Fellowship. He became Visiting Arts Professor at Princeton and Professor at Parsons School NY. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1983 and became a US citizen. He was nominated for the Turner Prize in 1989. He lives in New York, Barcelona and Munich.

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2007

Image © Sean Scully

Published in The Independent

Richard Serra
Greenpoint Rounds
Gagosian, Rome

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

Richard Serra Greenpoint Rounds

Richard Serra is known for his gargantuan minimalist sculptures such as Snake, a trio of sinuous steel sheets creating a curving path, permanently located in the largest gallery of the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao. One of the pre-eminent sculptors of his generation, Richard Serra has long been acclaimed for his challenging and innovative work, with its emphasis on materiality and engagement between the viewer, site, and work. In the early 1960s, Serra and other Minimalist artists turned to industrial materials not conventionally used in art in order to accentuate the physical properties of their work and explore the spatial and the temporal. The results were monumental, philosophical, architectural and yet lyrical. This exhibition is exclusively showing his drawings. Serra has made drawings, not as precursors to sculptural works, but as separate and immediate forms of expression in their own right, throughout his career. As with his mammoth metal works they are forms of investigation, philosophical intentions translated into marks and visual surfaces.

Serra began working on Greenpoint Rounds in the last spring of 2009. In these large-scale works, which each measures 80 inches square, he has embedded a big black circle in the surface of the heavy paper. Using black paint-sticks, which he heats, sometimes to the point of fluidity, he builds up dense, irregular forms to create structures each with a unique surface. The name given to each is that of a writer: Melville, Primo Levi, Calvino, and Cormac McCarthy etc., those who, no doubt, have influenced Serra’s thinking. Yet walking round the gallery I thought immediately of Barnett Newman’s Stations of the Cross, for these works have the same transformative intensity. Here the very origins of life are being explored. Time, materiality, beginnings and ends create an Eliot-like circularity. It is not possible to read these marks without thinking of planetary explosions, matter and atoms. The scattered black pigment speaks of process, of time, the accretions of history, of space and the infinite. If one looks carefully there are footprints embedded in the thick visceral surfaces like Neil Armstrong’s first footsteps on the moon.

As in mediaeval alchemy these drawings are a mixture of science, philosophy, art and mysticism. Medieval alchemists approached their craft with a holistic attitude believing that purity of mind, body and spirit was necessary to pursue the alchemical quest and that all matter was composed of four elements: earth, air, fire and water. With the right combination of elements, it was believed that any substance might be transmuted into another. This included precious metals as well as elixirs to cure disease and prolong life.

Dark and light, ying and yang, being and non-being – Richard Serra’s powerful, minimal carbon-like surfaces are meditations on existence, visual haiku on dissolution and rebirth. Here art, science and philosophy meld in a powerful visual debate of meanings and origins.

Richard Serra Greenpoint Rounds at Gagosian, Rome from 9 April to 15 May 2010

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2010

Image © Richard Serra 2010. Courtesy of Gagosian

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Shadow Catchers Camera-Less Photography
V&A Museum London

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

In his Allegory of the Cave, Plato’s chained prisoners, trapped in their subterranean world, mistook shadows cast on the wall for reality. When they spoke of the objects seen what was it they were speaking of; the object itself or its shadow? Such conundrums lie not only at the heart of western philosophical debate about the nature of reality but, also, of photography. The essence of photography involves an apparent magical ability to fix shadows on light sensitive surfaces. As far back as the second half of the eighth century, the Arab alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan (c.721-c.815) recorded that silver nitrate – the significant element of the light-sensitive emulsion of photographs – darkened in the light. In the eighteenth century Thomas Wedgwood experimented with painting on glass placed in contact with paper and leather made chemically sensitive to the effects of light. Sadly the results remain unknown as Wedgwood lacked the know-how to fix his images.

William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877)
William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877)

From 1834 William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877) created ‘sciagraphs’ (the depiction of shadows) and ‘photogenic drawings’ using botanical specimens and lace placed on sensitized paper. These spectral images implicitly posed questions about the nature of reality. The term for all such works is a ‘photogram’, though strictly speaking they do not depict shadows as they are caused by the blocking of light rather than by a cast shadow. The photogram was later usurped by the process of projecting negatives through an enlarger lens. In an increasingly mechanist age this new technology proved more seductive to the scientifically minded Victorians than camera-less photography, which became the idiosyncratic realm of those interested in exploring the subconscious and the so-called spirit world. The playwright August Strindberg took to leaving sheets of photographic paper in developer exposed to the night sky, believing that his resulting ‘celestographs’ were caused by this exposure to the heavens rather than to the more prosaic explanation of dust collecting on the surface of the paper. In 1895 the previously unwitnessed interior of the human body was revealed by Wilhelm Konrad von Röntgen’s newly discovered x-rays, mirroring a growing interest in the unconscious and the revelation of that which could not be seen by the naked eye.

During the 1920s the photogram was rediscovered by a number of modern artists, particularly the Dadaists. Man Ray and László Moholy-Nagy were both attracted by its automatic qualities and the possible patterns of light that could be developed on sensitised paper without the use of any apparatus. László Moholy-Nagy wrote: “The photogram opens up perspectives of a hitherto wholly unknown morphosis governed by optical laws peculiar to itself. It is the most completely dematerialized medium which the new vision commands”. In 1937 his move to Chicago, to teach at the New Bauhaus, ensured that an interest in camera-less photography was transported across the Atlantic.

During the Second World War the role of documentary photography, with its ability to act as a witness to unpalatable truths and humanitarian concerns, became ever more important. In 1947 Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger and David “Chim” Seymour – photographers who had all been very much affected by what they had witnessed during the conflict – began the photographic agency Magnum, leaving the more experimental practice of camera-less techniques to the fringes of fine art practice. Now the V&A have mounted an intriguing exhibition entitled Shadow Catchers , the first UK museum exhibition of the work by contemporary camera-less photographers that includes Pierre Cordier (Belgium), Floris Neusüss (Germany), Susan Derges and Garry Fabian Miller (UK) and Adam Fuss (UK/USA).

Pierre Cordier Chemigram 25/1/66 V 1966
Pierre Cordier
Chemigram 25/1/66 V, 1966

Pierre Cordier discovered the chemigram over 50 years ago, on the 10th November 1956, to be exact. With his puffed grey hair and whimsical sense of humour – exemplified by his allegorical tale The Life and Times of Chemigram, or The Tale of Mr. Painting-Physics and Mrs. Photo-Chemistry’s Illicit Love, 1987 he exudes the air of a slightly dotty alchemist. Yet his rectangular labyrinthine works evoke not only the minimal paintings of Joseph Albers and Agnes Martin, along with the esoteric calligraphy of Henri Michaux, but the philosophical games of writers such as Jorge Luis Borges and Umberto Eco. Seen as an oddity – neither as pure science nor quite art – his work has rather languished in an aesthetic backwater despite the fact that his way of working has many similarities to that of the painter and the printmaker. On seeing his work the photographer Brassäi said; “The result of your process is diabolical – and very beautiful. Whatever you do, don’t divulge it!”

Wax, glue, oil, egg and even honey are applied to the photographic emulsion in which Cordier makes incisions or marks. Repeated dipping into the photographic developer and fixer creates a variety of chemical and physical reactions that are both eerie and slightly wondrous. Like the rings of a cut tree the number of lines flowing from the original mark indicates the frequency of the dipping. The resulting images might be Islamic texts or Buddhist mandala. Given his fascination with both randomness and control it is not surprising that his Chemigram 31/7/01 is a Hommage à Georges Perec, that experimental Jewish French writer whose novels were often constructed around chess-based mathematical problems and challenged language’s absolute authority. Yet beyond the element of games playing there is a strange spiritual beauty to Cordier’s work. The labyrinth at the Abbey of St. Bertin in St. Omer, France, as well as the one on Crete that housed the Minotaur, are all alluded to.

Floris Neusüss Untitled (Körperfotogramm) Berlin 1962
Floris Neusüss
(Körperfotogramm), Berlin, 1962

The German artist Floris Neusüss pioneered the use of life models in his photograms after abandoning a career as a muralist. Using the simple technique of laying a model directly on the photographic paper he has created white figures on black ground and, using auto-reversal paper, black figures on white. The parts of the body in closest contact with the paper register more clearly than those further away, creating a ghostly effect. In their suspended state his silhouettes seem to fly or tumble through space as in a dream. His shadowy female archetypes they might be read as figures in a frieze or as psychic muse. There is a theatricality to his work which evokes the cut-paper silhouettes popular in the eighteenth century or the art of Javanese shadow puppets. His debt to photographic history is played out in his Hommage à William Henry Fox Talbot: Sein ‘Latticed Window’ in Lacock Abbey als Fotogramm, Lacock Abbey, 2010. Elsewhere he has allowed natural forces to produce mysterious and abstract works. The first, Gewitterbilder, was made by placing photographic paper in a garden at night during a thunderstorm and letting lightening expose the paper to painterly and expressionistic effect.

Susan Derges Arch 4 (Summer) 2007-08
Susan Derges
Arch 4 (Summer), 2007-08

The natural world also plays a big part in Susan Derges’s work, best known for her evocative, metaphorical images of water. Despite her original training as a Constructivist painter at the Chelsea School of Art in the 1970s her work has strongly naturalistic and Romantic associations. These she melded with an interest in Japanese minimalism to create her first major work Chladni, inspired by the research of the German physicist Ernst Chladni (1756-1827) into the visualisation of sound waves. Sprinkling powder onto photographic paper that was exposed to sound waves of different frequencies she was left with a variety of geometric patterns, making what had previously been invisible visible.

Throughout 1992 Derges made a cycle of photogram works Full Circle, Spawn and Streamlines that charted the transformation of clouds of frogspawn and chains of toad spawn into tadpoles, frogs and toads. Vessel No.3, 1995, a series of nine photographs also explores the life cycle of these amphibians. Water becomes the element of birth, of dissolution and change. A move to Dartmoor in the southwest of England lead her to study the River Taw and to making a series of delicate abstract images of the frozen and defrosting river that suggest flow and fixity, transience and depth. For Dergis the river becomes a stream of consciousness, a circulatory system within the landscape that sustains and connects everything. In her recent series Arch she has created four dreamlike landscapes that represent the seasons. These pantheistic images evoke a prelapsarian domain, like something unobtainable just out of reach. In autumn the golden ferns create a luxuriant bower, while in winter the scene is bleached and spectral.

Garry Fabian Miller The Night Cell Winter 2009-10
Garry Fabian Miller
The Night Cell, Winter, 2009-10

Gary Fabian Miller has also lived on Dartmoor for many years. It must have been back in the late eighties that I visited his remote cottage to write about his work. Essentially over the years his approach has not changed. He still uses the essential photographic elements of time and light to create stark, minimal and very beautiful imagery. This is ‘slow’ art that explores the cycles of the days, months and seasons. At the centre of his practice is his vision of the contemplative life of the artist inspired by being a Quaker. An extreme sense of calm and stillness flows from his work that may at times, as in the series Reed with Eight Cuts, 1985, with its trinity of spear-like forms that highlight the changes that occur in the plants from summer through autumn and winter, suggest religious symbolism.

Gradually he has abandoned the use of leaves and plants to make works in the dark room with beams of light, cut-paper forms and glass vessels full of liquid. A sense of distillation characterises this work. Becoming Magma, 2004-05 not only makes implicit reference to the landscape around his Dartmoor home but the circular shapes evoke planets and space as well as minimalist abstract painting. Influenced by Joseph Albers Interaction of Color, 1963 that advocated practical experimentation and personal observation over theory, Gary Fabian Miller has spent more than twenty-five years working with camera-less photography. Full of ecstasy and wonder his displays of incandescent light appeal equally to the heart and the head. His images contemplate the universe and its processes and are at once secular yet spiritual, visionary yet based in natural science.

Adam Fuss, Invocation 1992
Adam Fuss
Invocation, 1992

Adam Fuss grew up between rural Sussex and Australia before moving to New York in 1982. Originally a commercial photographer it was when working on a job taking photographs of old Master prints for a scholarly encyclopaedia that his subject matter began to have an influence and he started to make his own work, breaking into and photographing the inside of abandoned New York warehouses. It was by accident that he discovered camera-less photography but once discovered it appealed to his desire not to document what he could see but to discover what he could not. Drawing on childhood memories and personal experience his work, which has a strong element of composition and formal elegance, deals with an array of metaphorical themes. Using recurring symbols such as the serpent he alerts us to our inner shadows and to the possible redemption of light. He has created a richly emblematic lexicon that includes spirals, snakes, ladders and birds in flight to illuminate the ephemeral nature of life and to ask questions about death. “The darkness is me, my being,” he has said. “Why am I here? What am I here for? What is this experience that I am having? This is darkness. This is a question I ask, and when I ask it, it’s like looking into a black space. Light provides an understanding.”

In this digital age the rising interest in camera-less photography can perhaps be understood as a desire to return to fundamentals, a way of reaching back to experience that is unmediated by technology, to the smear of breath on glass, the fingerprint on a walnut table or bird tracks left in the snow. Icons and relics such as the Turin shroud that seem to have been made from nothing but light suggest the miraculous and the alchemical. They like all camera-less images speak of essences, of the mysterious, of making visible that which is invisible, in a way that still seems, even to modern minds, somewhat magical.

Shadow Catchers Camera-less Photography at the V&A Museum, London from 13 October 2010 to 20 February 2011

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

2 Image © Pierre Cordier
3 Image © Collection Chistian Diener, Berlin. Courtesy of Floris Neusüss
4 Image © 2007/08 Susan Derges
5 Image © Garry Fabian Miller. Courtesy of HackelBury Fine Art London
6 Image © Adam Fuss, 1992. Courtesy of Adam Fuss/V&A Images

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The Shape Of Things To Come
Saatchi Gallery

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

What, I wonder, would a visitor from the future make of the sculpture show The Shape of Things to Come at the Saatchi Gallery if they were to visit it, say, in a couple of hundred years time? What would it tell them of the state of the society that had made this artwork? Seen from such a distance those coming back from the future might be forgiven for thinking that this was an era of extreme distress, one that lacked confidence, dreams, vision and hope. Smashed cars wrapped around pillars, sexual orgies of faceless participants, horses in a state of destitution and collapse, and fragments everywhere speak of a community that has lost faith in itself and the future. Compared to the thrusting optimism of Modernism with its utopian faith in the benefits of technology and scientific progress, the world presented here is one of post-technological ruin, distortion and despair.

Roger Hiorns Copper Sulphate Chartres & Copper Sulphate Notre Dame, 1996
Roger Hiorns
Copper Sulphate Chartres & Copper Sulphate Notre Dame, 1996

Previous shows put on by Saatchi have been packed full of irony, a cheeky in-your- face insouciance that when it first arrived in the brazen 80s and 90s was iconoclastic, witty and fun. But over the passing decades it has all too often become the default position of many young artists eager to make their mark. Form has dominated over content, while meaning and metaphor have often been subsumed to novelty for its own sake.

In contrast this show, rather ominously, opens with a gallery full of megalithic boulders. Kris Martin’s found stone slabs look like pre-historic monoliths from some lost pagan religion. Each is topped with a fragile, almost invisible paper cross. In its monumentality the piece is reminiscent of Joseph Beuys’s The End of the Twentieth Century. Its meaning is fluid. Man’s success in conquering the limits of awesome nature, the ruins of war and the collapse of civilisations are all implied. The tiny crosses equally suggest the shrinkage of faith in a late capitalist age or, depending on your point of view, act as tiny beacons of hope. “Dreams are what keep people going.” Martin says.

Dirk Skreber Untitled (Crash 1) & Untitled (Crash 2)
Dirk Skreber Untitled (Crash 1) & Untitled (Crash 2)

In the next gallery we come across Dirk Skreber’s crashed cars wrapped around supporting metal pillars. It is hard not to think of J.G. Ballard’s Crash, his novel in which a group of alienated people, all of them former crash-victims, re-enact the crashes of celebrities, and experience what the narrator calls “a new sexuality, born from a perverse technology” that explores the effects of technology on human psychology. Dust, earth, papier mâché, fur, plaster, rock, Styrofoam, copper sulphate, Victorian tiles and neon tubes have all been used in various of these art works, as if the artists had been scavenging through the streets to search among the detritus left by a failing consumerist society. Peter Buggenhout’s large lumps of ‘stuff’ look as though have just been dug from the foundations of a building site, while the charred concrete rubble, from which traces of steel beams jut, suggest the chaos and damage left after a nuclear attack, earthquake or tsunami.

Rebecca Warren She (Untitled) 2003
Rebecca Warren She (Untitled), 2003

Mostly the human subject in this exhibition is rendered as incomplete, as if it were impossible for a contemporary psyche to be presented undamaged and whole. Mathew Mohan shows the human figure in a state of corruption. Influenced by the archaeological remnants of classical statuary, as well as futuristic cyborgs, his dark cast of broken and distorted characters include the mythical Green Man as an evil golem. In David Altmejd’s The Healers, 2008 a group of faceless figures and figurative parts – hands, spines and genitalia – mingle in a symphony of endless sexual debauchery like something from Dante’s Inferno, while Thomas Houseago’s Joanne, 2005, a semi-figurative form made in plaster, hemp, steel and graphite, suggests abjection and defeat despite the art historical allusions to Michelangelo and Picasso’s cubist figures. Similarly, the previous Turner prize nominee, Rebecca Warren, positions herself within the lineage of the western sculptural tradition reworking and intentionally misappropriating existing images by accepted masters. Here she has created bold new female part nudes: a pair of legs teeters on high heels and a single breast explodes from the amorphous clay. Many of her figures were inspired by Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, while others allude to Robert Crumb, and 1970s rock culture. Taking as its starting point the composer’s deafness John Baldessari’s Beethoven’s Trumpet (With Ear) Opus # 133, 2007, isolates a single ear to stand in for the whole person and highlight how meaning can be arrived at through all the senses.

Folkert de Jong Seht der Mensch: The Shooting Lesson 2007
Folkert de Jong
Seht der Mensch: The Shooting Lesson, 2007

Folkert de Jong’s creates more recognisable human forms in Seht der Mensch: The Shooting Lesson, 2007. These desolate, powerless figures have been recreated from Picasso’s Les Saltimbangues. Other characters, made from a single mould, are based on a composite of a 16th-17th century trader melded from the likes of Pedro de Alvarado and Hernand Cortes, with a touch of Rembrandt’s Nightwatch. All have a sense of disquieting melancholy. In contrast Martin Honert’s meticulously rendered Riesen (Giants) based on childhood memories drawn from photographs and schoolbooks are like Brobdingnagian outsiders who have wandered by chance into the gallery from a post-apocalyptic world. But the most unsettling figures are those by Berlinde De Bruckere, where human and equine forms set on plinths or inside cabinets, speak of emotional, physical and psychological collapse in a way that is both poignant and nightmarish. The profound human need for shamanic totems and ritual objects, in a world where most conventional religion is in decline, is made evident in Joanna Malinowska’s Boli, 2009, a huge primitive sculptural form of an elephant based on a traditional talisman from the Bamana culture in West Mali.

Found objects are an essential feature of much of the work here. There is Oscar Tuazon’s bleak, unwelcoming DIY Bed that has all the allure of a squatter’s sleeping arrangements and David Batchelor’s Brick Lane Remix 1, 2003, a stacked grid of coloured light boxes that makes use of the leftovers of modern life. Light is also the central motif in Björn Dahlem’s The Milky Way, 2007, a room sized sculpture of neon lamps that alludes to cosmic theories and genetic models, and of Anselm Reyele’s collapsed pile of neon tubes that suggests the Piccadilly Circus illuminations after some Armageddon. The use of bricolage in contemporary sculpture is nothing new, but within this exhibition it is extended not only to make connections with classical and modernist sculpture and architecture, but also to open up debates around appropriation.

Björn Dahlem The Milky Way 2007
Björn Dahlem The Milky Way, 2007

Feelings of dystopia seep through the work of the ambiguously named Sterling Ruby, who conducts an assault on a wide range of materials that suggest marginalised societies such as prisons and rundown estates. While Matthew Brannon’s Nevertheless, 2009 – art as stage-set – reads like a hotel room where ideas of artificiality and simulacra are suggested by the impotence of the objects: the clock without hands and a bed that cannot be slept in. David Thorp, on the other hand, borrows motifs from the Victorian Art and Crafts movement to make modernist cubes and grids, while process and change are the intrinsic elements of Roger Hiorn’s Copper Sulphate Chartres and Copper Sulphate Notre Dame, 1996, where model cathedrals slowly transmute into enchanted castles of blue crystal.

I have to admit that I’ve never been much of a fan of this latest Saatchi Gallery, a former military barracks off the King’s Road in Chelsea. There is something bland about it, with its white walls, strong lighting and wooden floors. It is a bit soulless and tends to draw the life out of much of the work on display. Yet this exhibition, which takes its name from a work of science fiction by H.G. Wells published in 1933, which speculates on future events between 1933 and 2106, not only demonstrates the breadth of what might now be considered sculpture, but provides an array of metaphorical interpretations and bleak prophesies as to what the future might hold: The Shape of Things to Come.

The Shape Of Things To Come at the Saatchi Gallery, London from 27th May to 16th October 2011

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Images © the Artists. Courtesy of the Saatchi Gallery

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David Shrigley
Brain Activity
Hayward Gallery London

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Art Criticism

The term black humour was first coined by the Surrealist Andr´ Breton in his 1940 anthology of texts, which traces the literary history of the satire of death. In 1896 Alfred Jarry’s Absurdist play Ubu Roi ushered in Surrealism which created a platform for political and psychological disruption against the events of the early 20thcentury, particularly the atrocities of the First World War. Satire provided a way of facing death as well as subverting authoritarian thinking.

David Shrigley River for Sale
River for Sale

Absurdist humour forms the basis of David Shrigley’s art practice. His drawings with their dead-pan one line jokes, his videos and taxidermy have created a whole new category that sits somewhere between popular culture and fine art. It’s as if the jottings of a nerdy comic loving teenager had been plastered round the Hayward Gallery. Some of his drawings are very funny indeed: the pair of feet that says ‘clap your hands’, the wall painting of a man where his ankle has been labelled ‘tooth’, and his penis ‘chimney’. Or the sign high on the gallery wall that simply reads: Hanging Sign. Yet as I write this down something is stripped away. It just doesn’t sound so funny – but it is. Often it is simply the tension between the object, the context and the text, the stating of the obvious in a way that’s never quite obvious until Shrigley does it, that creates the humour. There is also something very English about it. His are the sort of jokes you might find in those old school boy comics the Dandy and the Beano or in Monty Python.

David Shrigley Leisure Center
Leisure Center

A course in Environmental Art at the Glasgow School of Art in the late 1980s and early 1990s seems an unlikely springboard for such zany work. Yet it appears to have provided a sense of context for his absurdist interventions. Leisure Centre, 1992 depicts a white flimsy cardboard box with a cut-out door on which he has written LEISURE CENTRE. Placed in the middle of a muddy building plot it implicitly comments on the paucity of local authority services. Another placard stuck in dry ground announces RIVER FOR SALE, whilst a sheet of paper pinned to a tree simply reads: LOST. GREY+WHITE PIDGEON WITH BLACK BITS. NORMAL SIZE. A BIT MANGY-LOOKING. DOES NOT HAVE A NAME. CALL 2571964. The bathos and pathos of this little narrative are almost worthy of Sam Beckett.

All Shrigley’s drawings – however intuitive and seemingly slap-dash – are made in a disciplined manner in his organised studio. Their casual appearance belies the fact that he does many dozen in one stretch and, like any good writer, will then leave them for a period to be subjected to the editing process of his‘artistic distance box’, before destroying the majority. As a student he’d spend time looking for new words in his much used thesaurus, learn them and then set them to work. Although drawing is central to his practice his sculptures, with their exaggerated scale and sense of the uncanny, form a large part of this exhibition. The squashed aluminium ladder at the entrance recalls the soft sculptures of Claes Oldenburg, whilst the row of big black ceramic boots suggests not only the paintings of Philip Guston but also, rather uncomfortably, marching jackboots and a faceless army. Then there is Ceramic Ear, 2010 that lies on its low plinth like a piece of pink ceramic bacon or something out of Blue Velvet, and his ridiculously big white ceramic eggs each painted with the word EGG and his Very Large Cup of Tea, 2012 complete with cold brew that made me think of Meret Oppenheim’s teacup without the fur or the sexual innuendo. Shrigley is not afraid of art history. Duchamp is an obvious precursor as is the whimsy of René Magritte.

David Shrigley Nutless

Yet for all its off-the-wall humour he is not afraid to take on the subject of death treating it with a shoulder-shrugging indifference. The obsession is there in his The dead and the dying, 2010, a vitrine of 40 miniature clay figures in various states of demise, and the granite gravestone inscribed with a shopping list that includes baked beans and Aspirin. It is there, too, in his taxidermy; in the headless ostrich that greats you at the entrance to the gallery (a headless ostrich, head in the sand, get it??) and the squirrel, entitled Nutless, 2002 that sits on a log disconcertingly holding its own head in its paws, and the small stuffed terrier that has become the poster pin-up for the show, which stands on his hind legs holding a placard that says “I’m dead”. Shrigley’s friend the artist Jonathan Monk, with whom he once shared a house, compares the piece to On Kawara’s early telegraphed work: I am still alive. It is an interesting point, but this is a stuffed dog announcing that it’s dead and not a disappeared Japanese artist claiming to be alive, so I’m not sure he’s right. Still there’s something both sad and funny about this little Jack Russell. He reminded me of the man who used to walk up and down Oxford Street carrying a placard proclaiming that the end of the world was nigh and insisting that we should all renounce protein because it enflamed lust. Perhaps, on second thoughts, this might actually be his dog. You never know.

David Shrigley Brain Activity
Brain Activity Installation

Headlessness is something of a favoured theme in Shrigley’s work explored in his new animation the Headless Drummer, 2012.The frenzied sound track can be heard throughout the gallery as you walk round making everything seem just that bit more mad. This is shown alongside other films including Light Switch, 2007, his take on Turner Prize winner Martin Creed’s conceptual The Lights Going on and Off, 2008, and Sleep, 2008, a series of drawings of a little man breathing whilst tucked up in bed. What is clear is that for Shrigley life is absurd, simply a prequel to endless oblivion. All we can do is wile away the time and we might as well distract ourselves while we do. As Vladimir says in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot “Well that helped to pass the time.” “It would have passed anyway,” replies his companion Estragon.

I first came across Shrigley’s work in his self-published books from his own The Armpit Press. These were cheaply printed and to be found in alternative shops under titles such as Merry Eczema, 1992 and Blanket of Filth, 1994. Their reputation was largely spread by word of mouth and lead to his first gallery exhibition at Glasgow’s Transmission Gallery in 1995. Now he has published 30 books and created drawings for The Independent, The New Statesman and The Guardian. “I started to draw,” he says, “in the way that I do as an attempt to reduce my ideas to their barest form; to communicate as simply and directly as possible.” In so doing he has defined his own aesthetic that bridges fine art, graffiti and popular culture. The seductive, childlike appearance reveals the absurdities and mini psychodramas of daily life. Like Shakespeare’s clowns and fools Shrigley holds up a mirror to the uncanny, to violence and death with dead-pan humour and a straight face.

David Shrigley Brain Activity
Brain Activity Installation Photo: Linda Nylind

And the show at the Hayward? Well it seems a misjudged. Clowns and fools are, by definition, outsiders. Shrigley’s natural habitat is the alternative bookshop and the small gallery where he can observe, poke fun and be as wacky as he likes. This show turns him into an establishment artist; and that’s a pity.

David Shrigley Brain Activity at the Hayward Gallery from 1 February to the 13 May 2012

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2012

Images © David Shrigley 2012

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Diana Thater, Chernobyl
Hauser and Wirth London

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

Diana Thater Chernobyl
Diana Thater Chernobyl

At 1:23 am on April 26, 1986 two explosions ripped through the Unit 4 reactor of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the Ukraine. The reactor block and adjacent structure were wrecked by the initial explosion as a direct result of a flawed Soviet design, coupled with serious mistakes made by the plant operators. The resulting steam explosion and the subsequent fires released at least 5% of the radioactive reactor core into the atmosphere, though it was not until 2 p.m. on April 27th that workers were evacuated. By then 2 people were dead and 52 in hospital. Nearby buildings were ignited by burning graphite projectiles. Radioactive particles swept across the Ukraine, Belarus, and the western portion of Russia, eventually spreading across Europe and the whole Northern Hemisphere.

The graphite fires continued to burn for several days despite the fact that thousands of tons of boron carbide, lead, sand and clay were dumped over the core reactor by helicopter. The fire eventually extinguished itself when the core melted, flowing into the lower part of the building and solidifying, sealing off the entry. About 71% of the radioactive fuel in the core (about 135 metric tons) remained uncovered for about 10 days until cooling and solidification took place. 135,000 people were evacuated from a 30-km radius exclusion zone and some 800,000 people were involved in the clean up. The radioactivity released was about two hundred times that of the combined releases at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Millions were exposed to the radiation.

The large proportion of childhood thyroid cancers diagnosed since the accident are likely to have been caused by the fallout from radioactive iodine. Vast expanses of Belarus, Ukraine, Russia and beyond were contaminated. Two days after the explosion workers at the Forsmark Nuclear Power Plant in Sweden (680 miles away) found radioactive particles on their clothing, while, the prevalence of Down’s syndrome in West Berlin peaked nine months after the catastrophe.

The actual death toll is hard to determine. Greenpeace Ukraine estimates the total number to be about 32,000. The rate of thyroid cancer in children up to the age of 15 has increased 200 fold in Gomel Oblast, Belarus since the accident. The incidences of birth defects have also increased in heavily contaminated areas. Most genetic mutations resulting from exposure to radiation are recessive and, therefore, not likely to appear until those affected have grandchildren.

Millions of people have suffered from mental and emotional illnesses; from digestive disorders, high blood pressure, heart conditions, sleeplessness and alcoholism. Living conditions in the three affected republics are substandard, while the economy is deteriorating and health services are in total collapse. People are malnourished and diseases, such as tuberculosis, are on the increase.

Chernobyl was cataclysmic; the biggest man-made disaster of all time according to the International Nuclear Event Scale. Nuclear rain from the Chernobyl fell as far away as Ireland. Following the explosion of Reactor No. 4 the complex was buried in a massive concrete tomb known as “The Sarcophagus.” This hastily constructed structure was supposed to be replaced but a quarter of a century later it is still there and showing serious signs of wear. According to the Polish newspaper Zycie Warszawy, the surface is cracked and riddled with fissures large enough for rats to pass through. Inside it is full of mosquitoes, which are said to be ‘larger than normal.’ It has been suggested that the entire structure would collapse if there was earthquake, sending clouds of radioactive dust across Europe for a second time. The billions of dollars needed to improve the structure are considered to be prohibitive.

It is against this background that the Los Angeles artist Diana Thater made ‘Chernobyl’, a powerful video installation that catalogues the devastation left behind in the wake of the disaster. Thater spent time filming in the existentially named ‘Zone of Alienation’, the abandoned 100 mile radius that surrounds the site of the accident. Filling the interior of Hauser and Wirth’s Piccadilly gallery her multiple screen video charts, in a series of filmic palimpsests, the eerie stillness of the eroded and crumbling architecture and the invasion of wildlife into an area now completely abandoned by humans.

The haunting, dreamlike footage of this post-apocalyptic landscape depicts the desolate remains of Prypait, the purpose-built town constructed to house the plant’s workers. Here we see abandoned class rooms and the collapsed carcass of the movie theatre where, amid the detritus, a grand piano stands as if still awaiting a pianist. What is particularly uncanny is that because of the way the projectors are installed the viewer’s silhouetted shadow becomes superimposed on the landscape like the trace of a radiated victim. This may not have been intentional but it is powerful incidental intervention in the work.

Chernobyl is the only post-human landscape on earth, the only test tube example of what the world might be like after a global nuclear holocaust. Although the city is in ruins it is still recognizably a city, a perfectly preserved 1970s Soviet town where, only minutes before the explosion, people had been getting on with their lives. There is something of the feel of the concentration camp about the place. Rusted beds in an abandoned maternity ward and piles of children#s shoes speak of a once vital community, a calendar for 1986 flaps on a peeling wall, a memorial to a single tragic moment. Electricity pylons stride through the landscape like ghosts. Autumn leaves blow in the wind reminding of cycles of decay and renewal. In the absence of humans wild animals – foxes, swans and most significantly a sub-species of the rare and endangered Przewalski Horse that once faced extinction in its native habitat in central Asia – now roam freely in this cityscape turned wilderness.

For over two decades Thater has explored the precarious relationship between culture and nature. Through her complex layering of filmic and physical space she juxtaposes prelapsarian images of nature with the shards of a collapsed civilisation, thereby contrasting man’s successes with his abject failures. The work highlights many things – a falling out of love with science, the disintigration of a political system and a way of life. With the Chernobyl explosion a man-made catastrophe abruptly halted conventional notions of time and progress. Yet it seems that, even when man overreaches himself, the urgent imperative of nature to go forth and multiply cannot be completely quelled. This starkly beautiful work is both a cause for despair at man’s hubris and optimism at life’s tenacious hold.

Diana Thater Chernoby at Hauser and Wirth, London from 28 January to 5 March 2011

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Images © Diana Thater 2011, Photography: Peter Mallet. Courtesy of Diana Thater and Hauser and Wirth.

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Turner Contemporary Margate: Art Regenerate a Community?

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

Can art regenerate a community? Can building an architect designed gallery in a socially deprived area change its fortunes? Everyone wants a Bilbao Guggenheim. Almost overnight Bilbao was transformed from a culturally moribund commercial centre in an unfashionable corner of Spain’s Basque region to a must-see destination. After its opening in 1997 hundreds of thousands of tourists began to pour into the city just to visit Frank Ghery’s new building. Then came the knock- on effects: the new hotels, the expanding of the airport, the upgrading of facilities and extra employment and, hey-presto, Bilbao was changed forever.

Architect David Chipperfield<
Architect David Chipperfield

It was a far sighted decision by the local burghers even though there was, at the time, much opposition. But the result is one of the most extraordinary and beautiful modern buildings you will see anywhere. Tate St. Ives, above Porthmeor beach, has also been a success. But here the project was built on an historic legacy, for St. Ives has, due to its especial clarity of light, had a thriving artistic community since the 19th century. The tiny fishing village, a popular middle-class holiday destination, already attracted people who might be expected to visit a gallery.

But the opening of Turner Contemporary this week, in the rundown seaside resort of Margate, most famous in recent years as the childhood home of the artist Tracey Emin, has a bigger challenge on its hands.

Margate, within the Thanet district of East Kent, is an hour and a half’s train journey from St. Pancras International. Its history is closely tied to the sea. It was a “limb” of Dover in the ancient confederation of the Cinque Ports. A traditional holiday destination since Victorian times for Londoners drawn to its sandy beaches, it slipped down the social scale in the 1960s and 70s when working families were able to take cheap package holidays to the continent where the sun shone and cheap alcohol was guaranteed. As with resorts such as Brighton and Southend, Margate became infamous in the ’60s for gang violence between mods and rockers, while its once elegant 18th and 19th century facades were ripped out and replaced by tattoo parlours, amusement arcades and fish and chip booths. Unemployment soared.

Daniel Burenm, Borrowing and Multiplying the Landscape
Daniel Burenm, Borrowing and Multiplying the Landscape

Now Margate has its own brand new art space, the Turner Contemporary designed by the internationally acclaimed architect, David Chipperfield, winner of the 2007 RIBA Stirling Prize and RIBA Gold Medal for Architecture. Established in 2001, Turner Contemporary has already been using a number of temporary exhibition spaces while the new gallery was in the process of being built. In 2005 it undertook, with Modern Art Oxford, a two year collaboration to introduce works of art from the expanded European Union. A far reaching education programme is also at the heart of its programme.

Cashing in on its association with Britain’s best-known painter, JMW Turner, a regular visitor to Margate, the gallery has been built on the seafront on the site of the guesthouse frequented by the artist, who enjoyed a clandestine relationship with its landlady, Mrs Booth. Flooded with natural light, the double height gallery provides a dramatic space in which to showcase art work, and takes maximum advantage of the dramatic setting with its panoramic views of both sea and town. An external terrace will be used for everything from film screenings to corporate events and weddings. It is a beautiful building, but it is not the Guggenheim Bilbao. Tasteful, full of light and ubiquitous glass it is a great showcase for contemporary art but doesn’t quite have the wow factor of the Gehry that might make people jump on a train from London and travel the 90 minutes simply to see the building. It also does not have a permanent collection. Unlike that other new Chipperfield gallery, The Hepworth, Wakefield, which opens later this spring in Yorkshire and will house a unique collection of Barbara Hepworth sculpture, the nation’s Turners will not be housed here but remain at the Clore Gallery, Tate Britain; though Margate is to have at least one in permanent residence. A member of the Plus Tate partnership, a UK-wide network of 18 partner galleries, Turner Contemporary aims to become part of the innovative art scene that has burgeoned in the UK in the last twenty years.

Douglas Gordon Afterturner 2000
Douglas Gordon Afterturner, 2000

But can artistic and economic change be imposed as a top down initiative? After all Hoxton in London, SoHo in New York, and even Montmartre in Paris grew, organically, as cultural sites of activity because they were cheap and attracted artists to live and work there, not because of the initiative of some cultural quango. So can this work? Can a new gallery really rejuvenate a economically depressed area?

Well it will depend on a difficult balancing act. The gallery aims to put on exhibitions of international significance, but these may not feel relevant to a local population less versed in the language and aesthetics of contemporary art than those who mount them. Revealed: Turner Contemporary Opens, the inaugural exhibition, is centred on Turner’s magnificent painting The Eruption of the Soufrier Mountains, in the Island of St. Vincent, at Midnight, on the 30th April, 1812, from a Sketch Taken at the Time by Hugh P. Keane, Esqre, 1815; an event not actually witnessed by the artist. The painting stands as a testimony to the power of the imagination and the curiosity engendered by new places and natural phenomena that contributed to the zeitgeist of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries; an era of discovery and innovation when artists and scientists worked in close dialogue. Featured alongside Tuner’s extraordinary painting is the work of six international contemporary artists: Daniel Buren, Russell Crotty, Teresita Fernández, Douglas Gordon, Ellen Harvey and Conrad Shawcross, including four new commissions. Michael Craig Martin has also created a new version of a big neon book, Turning Pages, originally displayed outside Margate Library.

Teresita Fernández Sfumato (September 18) 2009
Teresita Fernández Sfumato (September 18), 2009

Less a group show and more an individual response to the location with its associations and history, its play of light and ever-changing vistas of sea and sky, these artists each present works for a separate space within the building. The French artist Daniel Buren has made a dramatic piece for the two-storey Sunley Gallery on Turner Contemporary’s ground floor. Attention is drawn to the view outside by the large empty circle, which functions like a picture frame or tondo painting, within the pattern of vertical translucent white and transparent yellow vinyl overlaid on the glass. Placed on either side are large mirrors that display an infinite series of repeated reflections. Echoing the economic purity of the architecture the piece acts as a porthole framing the natural drama outside.

During the final weeks of his life, Turner’s mistress, Sophie Booth, reportedly spoke of him struggling to climb out of bed to see the sun. On one occasion he was heard to utter ‘the sun is God’. Whether the words meant something more devout, ‘the Son is God’, is impossible to know. The artist Douglas Gordon has played on this ambiguity to create a text work that has been installed on the risers of the stairway.

Daniel Crotty The Cape, 2010
Daniel Crotty The Cape, 2010

Minimalism is also the hallmark of the American artist Teresita Fernández. Eruption (Small) is a roughly ovoid aluminium plate covered in an abstract image of orange, red and yellow, with a dark purplish centre, overlaid with glass beads to suggest the mouth of a volcano. An accompanying wall piece, made in 2009, Sfumato (September 18) alludes, tangentially, to Turner’s volcanic reconstruction. Sfumato in Italian means ‘to evaporate like smoke’. It also makes oblique reference to the Renaissance painting convention, in which artists often presented their subjects in a veil of smoke.

The Californian Russell Crotty has created an installation of three large globes suspended from the ceiling to the precise height of 54 inches from the ground to their ‘equators’. An amateur astronomer, Crotty is used to the view through a traditional telescope where everything is observed through a circular eye piece. This is reflected in his fragile globes constructed of fibreglass, covered with rigid layers of paper and then painted with gouache and ink and covered with hand written text, that create pictorial landscapes. Taken from notes and jottings these ‘narratives’ form a continuous thread-like a walk through the landscape.

Ellen Harvey Arcadia 2011
Ellen Harvey Arcadia, 2011

Ellen Harvey, a Kent-born American artist, has created a nostalgic relationship with both Margate and Turner. A shack made from plywood sits in the gallery alluding to Turner’s studio. Leaning against the outer wall, lit with the sort of light bulbs used to decorate fairground rides, is the word ARCADIA. This is a reference to classical notions of the pastoral idyll and the way in which traditional British seaside holidays, with their side shows and slot machines, their candy floss and amusement arcades, function as an escapist fantasy from the humdrum. Inside the shack forty four frameless pictures hang salon-style, in the sort of chaotic disarray that was found in Turner’s London studio after his death. Engraved with diamond point – like lino-cuts on the reverse side of cheap Plexiglas that has been back-lit – Harvey has created an installation that is both nostalgic, with its picture post-card views of Margate frozen in time, and addresses Romantic notions of the Sublime. The tradition of the “Wish you were here,” picture- postcard, along with those crazy distorting mirrors found in seafront amusement arcades are also suggested by her highly skilled artworks.

Conrad Shawcross Limit of Everything (5.4) 2011 Harmonic Manifold (5.4) 2011
Conrad Shawcross
Limit of Everything (5.4) 2011
Harmonic Manifold (5.4) 2011

A concern with the nature of knowledge underlies the work of Conrad Shawcross, whose love of constructing eccentric ‘Heath Robinson’ machines illustrates an interest in the utopian views that drove the technological inventions of the Industrial Revolution. Shawcross’s whimsical structures have no practical use. The blades on a suspended oak and metal tripod move in a rhythmic sequence, at a ratio of 5:4, which in musical terms constitutes a ‘perfect third’ casting light onto a vertical structure in the centre of the room, which is the physical manifestation of a musical cord. Elsewhere are a series of drawings made with an adapted drawing machine based on a ‘harmonograph’, an instrument originally made in the 1890s to create geometric images of sound.

The opening of Turner Contemporary has required a huge leap of faith in these difficult financial times. There is a great will to make it succeed both aesthetically and in terms of its socio-economic impact on the town. Maybe in a few years Margate will have made it onto the list of destinations favoured by cultural weekenders tired of Paris and Rome. Bilbao may have its Gerhy building and be close to the delightful San Sebastian, home of the great sculpture Chillida, but Margate has ‘our Tracey’ and offers, not only the opportunity to see new art in a dramatic setting, but something as uniquely English as a stick of rock.

So make mine a cod and chips, please, and I’ll just nip down to the beach and watch the tide go out and the children on the bouncy castle on the golden sands, before making my way back up to the new landmark to see some more art.

1 Image Courtesy of Richard Bryant/ Photography by David Grandorge
3 Image © Douglas Gordon. Courtesy of the Artist. Photography by David Grandorge
4 Image © Teresita Fernández. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin Gallery, New York.
5 Image © Daniel Crotty. Courtesy the Hosfelt Gallery. Image David Grandorge.
6 Image © Ellen Harvey. Courtesy the Artist and Galerie Gebruder Lehmann, Locks Gallery and Meessen de Clercq. Image David Grandorge
7 Image © Conrad Shawcross. Courtesy the Artist and Victoria Miro Gallery. Image David Grandorge.

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

The Turner Prize 2010
Tate Britain

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

The trees are turning and London is awash with art. It’s Frieze week and there are openings everywhere. Down at Tate Modern the Turbine Hall looks as if it’s mutated into a giant granary with millions of handcrafted porcelain “seed husks” that form Ai Weiwei’s new seductive installation. Then at Tate Britain there is the annual Turner Prize. Past winners have included Damien Hirst, Gilbert and George and Anish Kapoor. This year there is a figurative painter, a painter whose work could be read as sculpture, a group of video makers and a sound artist.

Dexter Dalwood Burroughs in Tangiers 2005
Dexter Dalwood Burroughs in Tangiers, 2005

Dexter Dalwood’s paintings give pictorial form to events that have shaped history and culture. Though the main protagonist is absent from the canvas, clues are given in the titles. Using layers of collage Dalwood builds fantasy interiors and landscapes. Writers are a source of fascination: Oscar Wilde, Herman Melville, William Burroughs. With its retro feel Burroughs in Tangiers (2005) borrows something from Richard Hamilton’s, Just What Is It that Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing? 1956. Appropriating Robert Rauschenberg’s Rebus 1955 (painted around the time Burroughs was writing Naked Lunch), along with Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, Dalwood has set them alongside flat areas of dripped paint. A collaged typewriter and a painted four-poster bed (which introduces a hint of the Matisse foliage) conjure the chaos the poet Allen Ginsberg found in Tangiers when he visited Burroughs who was high on Eukodol. In Greenham Common, 2008 and Death of David Kelly, 2008, Dalwood deals with recent British political events. In the latter a bone-white moon hangs behind a solitary pine. Set against a deep blue sky it evokes the lonely tragedy of the British UN weapons inspector who mysteriously committed suicide in 2003.

Angela de la Cruz Deflated IX 2010
Angela de la Cruz Deflated IX, 2010

When is a painting not a painting? Angela de la Cruz interrogates this conundrum in her minimalist single tone paintings, which she then violates. Ripped, smashed and broken they are pulled from their stretchers like skin from the bone to flop on the floor, hang in corners and ripple in doorways. This is a post-modern denial of the painting as “sacred” object, a liberation of the canvas from the constraints of classic Modernism. De la Cruz’s vocabulary is highly charged. She sees the stretcher as an extension of the body. These wounded forms, not without a touch of absurdist humor, speak of human vulnerability and physical frailty. Born in Spain in 1956 de la Cruz has always been a larger-than-life figure on the London art scene. Her recent stroke makes these works all the more poignant. The shiny yellow skin of Deflated IX, 2010 hangs on the wall like a pair of collapsed lungs. Other work is concerned with volume, mass and gravity. Using containers that reproduce the exact measurements of her body, she has, in Untitled (Hold no.1), 2005, precariously fixed a metal filing cabinet to the wall twinned with a second coffin-like metal container. The effect is both slapstick and somehow uncanny.

The Otolith Group at Turner Prize 2010
The Otolith Group at Turner Prize 2010

The Otolith Group was founded by Kodwo Eschun and Anjalika Sagar in 2001 to explore “the capacity of the essayist to exploit the seductive power of the moving image, whilst concurrently questioning and destabilizing it, in order to re-imagine notions of truth and history.” Well that may be so if you have several lifetimes to sit in front of the multifarious screens of Inner Time of Television, 2007-2010 that reconfigure the 13-part television series The Owl Legacy about Ancient Greek heritage made with the French filmmaker Chris Marker. Or Otolith III, in which a young boy from a remote Bengali village befriends a visiting extra-terrestrial. Polyvocal in its narration, the fact that this work draws on Pasolini and other film directors does not make it any less tedious to watch and proves that intellectually driven concepts alone are not enough to make engaging art.

Susan Philipsz Lowlands 2008/10
Susan Philipsz Lowlands, 2008/10

In stark contrast, Susan Philipsz has presented Lowlands, 2008/2010, a 3-channel sound installation of the 16th-century Scottish lament Lowlands Away. Her hauntingly evocative voice fills the empty gallery with a veil of sound that is nostalgic, mournful and original. There is the sense that one is listening to something very intimate, eavesdropping on something culled deep from the collective memory of generations. Modified for the gallery, one can only imagine how affecting this must have been when installed outdoors on Glasgow’s River Clyde, reverberating back and forth across the water under the city’s three bridges.

And who should win? Well it depends what you want art to do. It would be good to see it going to a painter, but either de la Cruz’s vulnerable forms or Susan Philipsz ghostly Scottish lament would do it for me.

Turner Prize Exhibition is at Tate Britain until 3 January 2011
The Turner Prize is announced on 6 December 2010.

20 Nov/Dec 2010 artillery

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Image 1: © Dexter Dalwood, Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery. Photography by Prudence Cuming Associates
Image 2: © Angela de la Cruz, Courtesy of the Lisson Gallery
Image 3: © Otolith Group
Image: 4: © Susan Philipsz

The Turner Prize 2009
Tate Britain

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

Many factors have lead to London’s pre-eminence in the contemporary art world: the importance of Goldsmith’s College to the Hirst generation of YBAs, Saatchi’s ubiquitous influence as a collector, Jay Joplin’s White Cube gallery, the founding of the annual Frieze art fair, and of course, the Turner Prize, that annual award set up in 1984 to celebrate new developments in contemporary art presented each year to a British artist under fifty for an outstanding exhibition in the preceding twelve months. It has always been a controversial affair. There was, of course, that bed (it didn’t win) and Martin Creed’s minimal light bulbs that simply went on and off. Last year, the shortlist was universally derided as opaque and pretentious. But looking back over its history, love it or hate it, The Turner Prize has become a barometer of the British art scene. Those nominated, often previously unknown outside the art world, usually end up as household names.

Lucy Skaer, Thames and Hudson  2009
Lucy Skaer, Thames and Hudson, 2009
including Leviathan Edge, 2009

This year the short list feels subtly different, not only is there an absence of videos (accident not design, it is claimed) but the work is thoughtful, complex, crafted and, in several cases, rather beautiful. There is little irony. Seriousness, it seems, is this season’s new black.

Glaswegian artist Lucy Skaer (the only woman) has named her installation Thames and Hudson, a reference to both those mighty rivers as well as to the celebrated art publisher. Yet, somehow, the whole feels made up of rather too many disparate parts. A dismantled chair has been used to make some rather obtuse prints, while her Black Alphabet is a version of Brancusi’s 1923 sculpture Bird in Space, caste 26 times in compressed coal dust – though her purpose and message remain rather a mystery. Her pièce de résistance, however, is the skull of an adult male sperm whale (a comparison with Damien Hirst’s formaldehyde shark is unavoidable) on loan from a Scottish museum. Suspended so that it is only partially visible through a series of screens, its sad bony hulk is reminiscent of those Victorian curiosities peered at through fairground peep holes.

Enter the second gallery and, at first, it seems to be mostly white. Yet, at the far end, a baroque style design made of gold leaf has been applied straight onto the wall. Standing in front of it patterns begin to emerge: a pelvis, a spine and even female genitals. Elsewhere the gold bursts into a sunray, which made me think of Louis XIV, The Sun King, which then started me musing about the transient nature of power and provoked the thought that this rather beautiful piece would last only as long as the exhibition, before being painted over and returned to being just another gallery wall. It could, therefore, be seen as a sort of contemporary vanitas painting. All this beauty, we are subtly reminded, will be erased to become so much white wash. Just as we, too, will eventually be erased. This is decorative art with a serious twist.

Enrico David Absuction Cardigan
Enrico David, Absuction Cardigan

The next gallery comes as a complete contrast. Enrico David’s installation, titled Absuction Cardigan is fun, annoying and serious in about equal measure. I did not go much for his humpty dumpty black figures set on skis but his mis en scène, raised on a sort of stage, is deeply unnerving. A huge black, stuffed doll-of-a-creature, with a neck and tail the length of the room, lies draped over a variety disquieting props. Its face, a flat wooden mask, is comprised of nothing but bore holes. Part floppy toy, part dead animal and sexual playmate, it draws on Louise Bourgeois and Annette Messager’s transgressive figures, and on Hans Bellmer’s erotic dolls.

Roger Hiorn’s work inhabits the final space. Here lumpy sculptures of cast plastic have been injected with bovine brain matter, so that what was once sentient has been rendered inert and mummified. Metaphors of death are also strong in his beautiful, evocative landscape, in subtle shades of grey and black, made from an atomised passenger jet engine and scattered on the floor to resemble the Himalayas or the surface of the moon. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust; like all good art it evokes a number of readings that range from the disaster of 9/11 to a globally warmed and violated earth.

This year’s Turner short listed artists still have some way to go.

The Turner Prize Exhibition is at Tate Britain from 6 October 2009 to 3 January 2010.

Anish Kapoor

The Royal Academy

Anish Kapoor Yellow 1999
Anish Kapoor Yellow, 1999

Proof that the Tuner prize does sometimes get it right can be seen at the Royal Academy where the 1991 Turner Prize winner, Anish Kapoor, has one of London’s most outstanding exhibitions. There have been those who have complained that is sensationalist, too male and too reliant on gadgets and props. I admit that I never much liked his Masaryas that filled Tate Modern’s turbine hall – too much bravura engineering and not enough poetry. But this is one of the most evocative exhibitions I’ve come across in a long time. Not only technically brilliant and thought provoking, its scale is heroic. It starts in the courtyard with a major new sculptor Tall Tree and the Eye, inspired, according to Kapoor, by the words of the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke. Made of, apparently, precariously balanced steel balls that reflect back the surrounding Palladian architecture, this signals that Kapoor is not afraid of beauty. An unfashionable component in much contemporary art, there is much to be found inside Burlington House.

In the first room is a group of early pigment sculptures from the 70s and 80s, strongly influenced by his Indian origins, and which reinforce his reputation as a colourist. The unmixed heaps, built into pyramids and ziggurats of bright blue, cinnamon yellow and cayenne red, resemble rather sophisticated sandcastles and evoke piles of Indian spices in a way that, although not particularly demanding, stir a remembrance of things past.

Move through the galleries and you will find a barely visible pregnant lump protruding from the white gallery wall, and another huge large yellow wall where the indentation is concave. The effect is like standing in front of some Aztec shrine where one is seductively sucked into the sun-like void, and invited to think of beginnings and endings, origins and destruction.

Anish Kapoor Svayambh 2007
Anish Kapoor Svayambh, 2007

Then there is Shooting into the Corner, a new work where gobbets of red wax are fired from a canon through one of the Royal Academy’s elegant 18th century doorways. This happens three times an hour. Many visitors seem simply to have been taken up by the drama in a man-fired-from-cannon sort of way. But I found it very disturbing. A gallery assistant dressed in black stands with military bearing stuffing cartridges into the canon. The explosion, when it comes, is deafening. In this palatial setting, as the red wax splatters the white walls and the surrounding Adams style doorway, like the visceral effluvia of executed bodies, I kept thinking of the final moments of the last Tsar and his family or Manet’s Execution of Maximilian.

A multiplicity of readings can also be applied to the monumental work Svayambh, 2007. Already shown in previous locations this is probably its most dramatic setting. Svayambh means ‘self-generated’ in Sanskrit and the piece reinforces Kapoor’s interest in sculpture that actively explores this process. Again many viewers were taken with the theatre of the moving mechanism, running between galleries to watch as the vast block of red wax was slowly squeezed, like a great juggernaut, through the doorways of Burlington House. And certainly one is reminded of those huge Indian carts from which the name juggernaut comes, and of the annual procession at Puri in east-central India where worshipers throw themselves under the wheels of the huge wagon on which the idol of Krishna is carried. But for anyone with a poetic imagination, this red gash of an object, moving relentlessly along the rail tracks like a piece of raw meat, covering the doorways along the way with coagulated red carnage, must have historical resonances, evoking the trains that took thousands to their death in the Nazi transports or those who gave their life’s blood in acts of enforced labour to build railways in the Far East during the last world war. Huge and monumental, its movement almost imperceptible, it marks, as it slowly lumbers its way through the gallery like a slow birthing of the building itself, the passing of time. And yet despite all the layers of meaning that it invites, it is, ultimately, an abstract work of art, an act of the imagination and an exploration of the possibility of materials.

The exhibition is huge. There are beguiling sculptural mirrors that reflect the gold leafed ceiling and the self back to the self, blurring the lines between perceived and actual experience; and piles of coiled cement, which suggest the history of pot making and the touch of the human hand, but which, in fact, have been arrived at by a rough sketch being fed into a computer and attached to a cement-mixer, which, in turn, has been attached to a machine adapted from the food industry to excrete the cement like icing; and a vast, rusted steel Richard Serra-like sculpture Hive, an enormous pod, splayed open at one end to reveal a deep central void, which is at once both erotic and chthonic.

Kapoor is not a philosopher, nor does he claim to have anything, as a visual artist, particular to say. The power of this work lies in its ability to provoke questions about origins, perception, belief and self definition. Comparison can be made with the spiritual leanings of Yves Klein (homage is surely paid in Kapoor’s early blue pigment works) but where Klein’s spirituality was derived from the arcane complexities of alchemy and Rosicrucianism, Kapoor’s work is never didactic. There is an openness about his quest which is not wedded to a single belief system, but reminds us, as Keats once did, that there is, indeed, truth in beauty.

Anish Kapoor is at the Royal Academy from 26 September to 11 December 2009

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2009Image © Lucy Skaer 2009

Courtesy of the Trustees of the National Museums of Scotland
Photography by Sam Drake and Gabrielle Johnson, Tate Photography
Image © Enrico David 2009
Photography by David Parker
Images © Anish Kapoor, Courtesy of the Tate and the Lisson Gallery

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

James Turrell
Light and Time
Gagosian London

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

This morning I had what felt like a near-death experience. I also underwent something that possibly resembled a re-birthing. No I was not on LSD, nor have I joined a hippy-dippy cult. I was looking at or, rather, was totally immersed in the art of James Turrell. After walking up the steps to a spherical chamber in the Gagosian Gallery in Kings Cross, a young woman in a white coat invited me to I lie on a bed and put on a set of earphones. I was then trundled inside the machine like a patient about to have an MRT scan. As the door closed l felt like a mummy in sarcophagus. I tensed, my breathing became quick and shallow, and I experienced a wave of panic. Clasping the escape button close to my chest I had been told that on no account must I sit up. Although I had signed a disclaimer that I didn’t have epilepsy, the white coated young woman suggested that, as I suffer from migraines, I should opt for the soft, rather than the hard version, which had less intense flashing lights. As ambient sound played through the head phones I tried to relax despite the sense of claustrophobia.

James Turrell Bindu Shards 2010
Bindu Shards, 2010

Then, opening my eyes I was surrounded by a heavenly blue light. No, not surrounded, enveloped; for I had no sense of space or scale. There was no horizon. The blue seemed infinite. As I lay there I felt as though I was floating – in space, in water, even in amniotic fluid. Then the lights changed, pulsing from a central nebula. I couldn’t watch as I couldn’t bear the intensity of the flashing – what, I wondered would the hard version have been like? – and had to shut my eyes, though I could still see the lights through my closed lids. I half opened my eyes and was bathed in a deep red. It was like being in the womb. Then things went dark and the bright lights pulsed again. Sometimes it felt as if I was hurtling through space or deep under the sea. Was this what it had felt like to be born? I knew that I was in the capsule for fifteen minutes so tried to estimate how much time had passed in order not to panic. Towards the end the light turned blue again, then slowly faded and darkened leaving me feeling strangely calm. So this, I thought, is what death will feel like.

Bindu Shards, 2010, was developed from the Ganzfeld sphere entitled Gasworks built in 1993 at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds. The phenomenon experienced will be familiar to any mountaineer who has ever been caught in a snowstorm whiteout unable to distinguish whether what they are seeing is real or in the mind. This, of course, poses huge questions about the nature of perception and, even, religious or spiritual experience. What does it mean to see something or to ‘know’ that you have seen something? Is this what a vision is?

James Turrell Dhatu 2010
Dhātu, 2010

Next I took off my shoes and queued for Dhātu 2010. Climbing the steps I entered a room where the curved walls and hazy atmosphere made it impossible to estimate the dimensions of the space. Ahead was a screen size aperture of blue light. It felt as if I was standing at the gateway to heaven and might fall into the rectangle of light in front of me and disappear into another dimension. As the colour changed, so did my emotions. Born in California in 1943, James Turrell has been working with light and optical phenomena since the 1960s. With a degree in experimental psychology and a masters in art, he explores the extremes of human perception. Both these works at Gagosian feed back into his body of work Roden Crater, one of the most ambitious landworks of contemporary art and an ongoing project. In the late 1970s Turrell purchased a three mile chunk of desert near the Grand Canyon and, through a feat of engineering wizardry worthy of the ancient Egyptians, aligned the movement of the sun and the moon, allowing viewers to experience solar and celestial phenomena. He has claimed that: “Two thousand years from now it will be perfectly aligned and 4,000 years from now it will be as accurate as it is today but from the other side”. For everything, he says, is moving: the earth from the North Star, even the terrestrial plate on which the volcano sits.

Turrell’s investigations of the sensations of space and perception, what he calls ‘the architecture of thought’, fit into a new kind of art by the likes of Anish Kapoor and Olafur Eliasson that meld science, art and theatre in order to pose questions about the nature of existence and ask who we are and where we fit in this material universe.

James Turrell Light and Time at Gagosian London from 13 October to 10 December 2010

Christian Marclay
The Clock
White Cube, Mason’s Yard

Down at White Cube in Mason’s Yard, the artist Christian Marclay, who was born in California but now lives in London, has also been involved in a major new project The Clock, which investigates how we experience and understand time. Constructed from myriads of cinematic clips that feature clocks, someone looking at a watch or simply a clue such as a meal to indicate a particular time of day, Marclay has ingeniously edited thousands of filmic fragments so that they flow in real time. The experience of sitting in the gallery, which has been turned into a cinema, is both destabilizing and, surprisingly, absorbing. Scenes change so that disrupted narratives flow off in different directions.

Christian Marclay The Clock
The Clock

And yet, somehow, there seems to be a real narrative tension to the piece. Each snippet pulls us in to its individual drama, which we glimpse, only in part, rather like a view out of the window of a moving train. Nazis from a 1950’s war film are juxtaposed with modern American movies, a snippet of French film or a sequence from James Bond, black-and-white comedies are spliced with continental art-house films, sci-fi and horror movies. As characters check their watches and clocks tick anxiety mounts and waiting becomes the overarching theme, underlain with frustration, anxiety, trepidation and disappointment. Time passes and there is nothing we can do about it. Relentless and unforgiving, it is indifferent to the lives that unfold within it.

Not only does The Clock