Art Criticism

Francis Bacon: Birth Copulation And Death – Royal Academy

Published in Artlyst

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

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

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

Francis Bacon Head I 1948 Photo © Artlyst 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Significant Works Artlyst

Frank Auerbach: Head of E.O.W.II – Significant Works

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Painting for me is a set of connections, a set of sensations of conflicting movements and experiences, which somehow, one hopes, has congealed or cohered or risen out of the battle into being an image that stands up for itself. – Frank Auerbach

How do you make sense of your life if on your 8th birthday you’re put on a train in Germany with a neatly labelled suitcase, to be bundled out of the country, never to see your parents again? Such was the fate of the painter Frank Auerbach, sent in 1939 to England only to learn, years later, that his parents had perished in Auschwitz. He has always claimed that he had a happy childhood at Bunce Court, the liberal boarding school that catered for the children of refugees and intellectuals, that he never enquired into the details of his parents’ death. ‘I did this thing which psychiatrists frown on; I am in total denial. It’s worked for me very well…I went to a marvellous school, and it was truly a happy time. There’s just never been a point in my life when I felt I wish I had parents.’ Those same psychiatrists might suggest that the coping mechanism for this emotional trauma has been his obsessive commitment to – above anything or anyone – his role as a painter. Though he has admitted, elsewhere with more candour, that: ‘I was always aware of death because of my background. And, in some curious way, the practice of art and the awareness of the imminence of death are connected.’ Frank Auerbach has always painted as if his life depends on it.

Frank Auerbach Head OF E.O.W. II, 1964

One of this country’s most challenging post-war artists, he has rigorously eschewed isms and movements. Arguably, his most important influence was his tutor David Bomberg whom he met when, as a 16 year old new to London, he enrolled at the Borough Polytechnic. He realised, early, that to be serious, he had to bring ‘some experience that is your own and to try and record it in an idiom that is your own, and not to give a damn about what anybody else says to you.’ He is notoriously reclusive and works every day without fail, wrestling in his own complex and determined way in his sparse studio with the materiality of paint to create unique images that say something new about the world. He does not make ‘pictures’, he does not copy what he sees in front of him in order to flatter or to make something ‘artistic’, pleasing or decorative. Rather he tries to describe the thingness of the thing in front of him. Its essence. He might be described as the Gerard Manly Hopkins of the art world for the late 19th-century poet-priest Hopkins broke new ground with his concept of ‘inscape’, by which he meant the unified complex of characteristics that gave each thing its uniqueness and yet differentiated it from everything else. If Auerbach believed in mantras, this might be his.

His work consists mainly of two groups: ‘landscapes’: urban scenes of Primrose Hill and Mornington Crescent near his studio, places that he returns to again and again, and portraits of a few people to whom he is close and who have sat for him regularly over many years – wives, lovers, his son, and a few trusted art world friends. His working method is slow, gruelling and obsessive. He scrapes back the surface of a painting hundreds of times in order to begin afresh and achieve something united and, above all, truthful. One of his most consistent models was Stella West (1916-2014), whom he met when he was 17 (she was 15 years older) whilst involved in a production of Peter Ustinov’s House of Regrets. He became her lodger and she became his lover and muse.

He painted her again and again and in 1959 said: ‘with someone, one knows one’s got to destroy the momentary things. At the end comes a certain improvisation. I get the courage to do the improvisation only at the end…..in painting, one destroys everything. In life, one can’t…. It’s a sort of rage… I always finish a picture in anger….One never has power over anything, can never do anything clearly or purely… that’s why one paints the things one loves because one is aware of all the relevances maybe, it’s the only way to get power over the things one loves…..’

His painting of E.O. W. II, 1964 – as Stella was always referred to – encompasses this complex gamut of emotions and aspirations. The palette is primarily blue, black and white, with flashes of ochre and a sliver of red delineating her sad, downturned mouth. It is not a ‘likeness’. You would not have recognised Stella from the portrait if you had bumped into her in the street. It is, rather, a presence. Something essential. A clue to what it must be like to be Stella, to feel like Stella posing for this man she loves, who labours away hour after hour, often on his knees, on the canvas between you. The more time one gives to the portrait, the more the piercing sad blue eyes draw in the viewer’s gaze and the more tension one feels in the work. It is as if this person has finally found her way out of a deep thicket or wood and is emerging, tired, damaged and a little distressed into the light. The smears, the black holes and crevices, the accretions of paint, the swirls and truncations of line all hint at the ‘face’ behind the ‘face’, something akin to an authentic self. Stella once said that when posing for Auerbach: ‘Nothing stood in his way.’

Much has been made of Auerbach’s thick paint. But it is not a style nor a mannerism – he has at times wrongly been called an expressionist – instead, it is a process of mapping, like that of a cartographer exploring uncertain terrains. The marks, brush strokes and docked lines are a way and means of seeing. If he resembles any other painter, it is undoubtedly Giacometti, whose marks pose a series of existential questions. Like Sam Beckett, Auerbach understands that ‘there is nothing to express… together with the obligation to express.’ For him, painting is a Sisyphean enterprise. He knows he will ‘fail again’ but hopefully ‘fail better’. He has said, ‘I never visualise a picture before I start…I have an impulse and I try to find a form for that impulse.’ This painting of Stella is, in turn, intimate, angry, perceptive and tender. A courageous, bravura ‘portrait’ always on the right side of collapse. Their turbulent relationship lasted for around fifteen years and caused a hiatus in his marriage to his wife Julia and his relationship with his son Jake. Fresh, visceral and passionate, the work is an intense observation plumbed from the depths of the artist’s being, from that sanguine place the poet W.B. Yeats called ‘the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.’

Top Photo: FRANK AUERBACH B. 1931 HEAD OF E.O.W. II, 1964 Detail – Courtesy Ben Brown Fine Arts London

Art Criticism

Lubaina Himid: So Many Competing Ideas Tate Modern

Published in Artlyst

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

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

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

Lubaina Himid Tate Modern

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

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

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

Lubaina Himid Tate Modern

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

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

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

Lubaina Himid Tate Modern Until July 2022

Significant Works Artlyst

Marlene Dumas: Oscar Wilde and Bosie – Significant Works

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Plus ca change, plus c’est le meme chose, the homily goes. Yet, Marlene Dumas’ portraits of the writer Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) and his young lover, Lord Alfred Douglas (1870–1945), known as ‘Bosie’, illustrate that social attitudes do change that images can, over time, take on a different resonance. Based on original nineteenth-century photographs, Dumas’s dual portraits were first shown as part of Inside: Artists and Writers in Reading Prison, 2016 – an installation developed by Artangel to respond to Wilde’s punitive incarceration for his affair with the callow young socialite, Douglas, and the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of male homosexuality.

Marlene Dumas’ psychologically nuanced paintings and drawings explore identity, gender, race and sexuality – SH

Born on the outskirts of Cape Town and educated at an Afrikaans-speaking school, before going to an English speaking university, Dumas admits that she’d never sat with a person of colour in the same class, never had dinner with a Jewish or Muslim family, but as a student started to read the poet Allen Ginsberg and the critic Lucy Lippard and decided that making art was all about asking questions. She never paints from life, but her psychologically nuanced paintings and drawings explore identity, gender, race and sexuality. At times controversial and hard-hitting, there’s a sensual urgency to her work that touches on death and guilt, the transgressive and the profane and investigates how painting transforms a given image. Her portraits of Wilde and Douglas are stark reminders of the conflict and hypocrisy that existed between public and private realms in the Victorian era. Reputation and respectability were all, and life a perpetual game of snakes and ladders where reputations could be lost in a flash. Status was paramount. Yet behind a tightly regulated social veil lay the murky world of child prostitution, wife-beating and rent boys, where blackmail could easily exploit the rift between public constructs and personal behaviour.

Marlene Dumas: Portraits Of Oscar Wilde & Bosie exhibited In Wilde’s Cell At Reading Gaol In 2016- Photo: © PC Robinson Artlyst

Oscar Wilde was one of the most famous figures of his generation, known for his glittering literary talent, his foppish sense of style – think blue carnations – and his razor-sharp wit. The epitome of a modern celebrity before such a concept was even born. He’d had his fair share of tragedies: the loss of his beloved sister Isola when he was just 12 years old, the defection of his first love, Florence Balcombe, to his rival, Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula. But his seemingly happy marriage to Constance Lloyd and his loving relationship with his children – for whom he wrote some of the most spellbinding children’s stories in English literature – allowed him to keep his homosexuality under wraps. Then he met the mercurial Bosie and they became lovers. It was an obsessive, self-destructive relationship. Bosie introduced Wilde to a world of gay prostitutes and glittering parties. Bosie’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry, a deeply conservative, vicious man, blamed Wilde for the gossip surrounding his son. When he publicly accused Wilde of being a homosexual — illegal at that time in England — Wilde, encouraged by Bosie, chose to fight the charges instead of fleeing abroad to the more sexually enlightened France. A psychopath, the Marquess condemned his family to unmitigated misery, bulling Alfred and describing his other son Percy, as a ‘sicked-up looking creature…swathed in irons to hold him together it used to make me sick to look at him and think that he could be called my son.’

While Wilde was serving his sentence in Reading prison, Bosie failed to keep in contact, just as he had failed to defend him in the dock. A spoilt narcissist, he carried traits of the family’s genetic instability. Wilde suffered terribly from the harsh physical conditions and emotional isolation. However, an unusually enlightened prison governor thought writing might be more cathartic than hard labour and allowed him to write to Bosie “for medicinal purposes”. Though not permitted to send the letter, each page was taken away as it was completed and only returned to Wilde on his release on 18 May 1897. An indictment of Bosie’s vanity and his own weakness, De Profundis charts his spiritual growth during those dark prison days when he allied himself with Christ, whom he saw as a heroic, romantic artist. The result is one of the great works of prison literature.

Broke and lonely, after his release, Wilde lived in a series of cheap hotels in the Hôtel d’Alsace in the 6th arrondissement in Paris. An ear infection that had troubled him for years appears to have flared up and his last days were probably spent in terrible agony. Buried in a pauper’s grave in southwest Paris, his remains were later moved to Père Lachaise. It was a tragic end for a man of such wit and glittering bravura. Wilde wasn’t just a great writer of plays, stories and profound moral tales – but also an amazing dinner guest, a raconteur sought after for his company and frequent witticisms. An aesthete, he believed that art existed for its own sake. That beauty was its own purpose.

In Dumas’s paintings, Bosie’s calculated look stands in contrast to Wilde’s dreamy poetic gaze that emphasises not only his creativity but his vulnerability. More usually known for her paintings of women in various degrees of physical exposure that reveal the psychological landscape beneath the surface of her subjects, Dumas, here, shows a dissolute, immature man prepared to destroy his lover for his own self-indulgent ends. The two paintings, hung side by side, unpack notions of complicity and victimhood, whilst seeming to suggest that in a more enlightened age Wilde could simply have been himself, celebrated for being the great writer he was, a lover of both men and women.

Art Criticism

Turner Prize 2021: A Collective Experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gentle/Radical Photo: Sue Hubbard

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

Array Collective Photo: Sue Hubbard

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

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

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

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

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

Project Art Works, Hastings Photo: Sue Hubbard

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

Words/Photos: Sue Hubbard © Artlyst 2021

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Significant Works Artlyst

Chris Ofili: The Holy Virgin Mary – Significant Works

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In October 1999, when the exhibition Sensation opened at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Mayor Rudy Giuliani – he of the running hair dye and lawyer to Trump – threatened to close it down on the grounds that the image of Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary was religiously offensive.

The jewel-like surface of the painting is made up of a shimmering gold ground – SH

Whilst the negative reaction to the exhibition in this country was largely based around Marcus Harvey’s gratuitous image of the Moors Murderer, Myra Hindley, created from a series of child handprints, for America, a pious country that believes it has a God on its side, an African Virgin Mary perched on two large balls of dried elephant dung was simply too much for the righteous people of the US of A to put up with. In protest, an elderly visitor declared it ‘blasphemous’ and smeared it in white paint.

Chris Ofili: The Holy Virgin Mary
Photo: P C Robinson Artlyst 2015

Now, if that elderly visitor had read his Durkheim, he’d have realised that the sacred and the profane are two sides of the same coin. The sacred-profane dichotomy was a concept suggested by the French sociologist Émile Durkheim whereby: “religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden.” According to Durkheim, the sacred represents the interests of the community embodied in holy objects and totems, whilst the profane involved everything else that concerned daily life. Durkheim explicitly stated that the sacred–profane binary was not equivalent to a system of good and evil. The sacred might be either, as could be the profane. After all, the sacred could not really be sacred unless there was a concept of the profane to counter it. In fact, what counts as sacred and what counts as profane is often deeply ambiguous. For example, blood is profane to many Jews and Muslims but drunk as the blood of Christ in the Christian sacrament. Sex is taboo to many religions, which is why Mary was a virgin, but Herodotus suggested that the practice of sacred prostitution was practised in the temples of Babylonia and the Near East.

Standing on two balls of elephant dung inscribed with glittering letters that spell out the title of the work, Chris Ofili’s Virgin stares out directly at the viewer with her large googly eyes. The thick lips of her big mouth are sensually parted. She has a broad nose. It’s as if all the white tropes and caricatures of a black women have been brought together here but, in this case, are being used ironically by a black artist to suggest to his (presumably) largely white audience that they cannot see a black woman without sexualising her. The ubiquitous blue gown associated with the Virgin Mary falls open over her curvaceous body to reveal a sphere of lacquered elephant dung where her breast should be, and she is surrounded by cut out images from pornographic magazines of women’s buttocks, playing, again, with racial stereotypes around sexuality, availability and blackness. There is wit, here, too. For as Jesus’s was a Virgin birth, sex, let alone pornography, probably had little to do with it.

The image also asks us to consider why the Virgin shouldn’t have been black – a distinct possibility from the part of the world from which she hailed – and a critique of the assumed Anglo-Saxon Sunday School whiteness of many biblical figures. Ofili has said that: “As an altar boy, I was confused by the idea of a holy Virgin Mary giving birth to a young boy. Now when I go to the National Gallery and see paintings of the Virgin Mary, I see how sexually charged they are. Mine is simply a ‘hip hop’ version”.

The jewel-like surface of the painting is made up of a shimmering gold ground created from dots of paint and glitter. This use of gold makes reference to the icons of the Byzantine world. Gold has been used in art as far back as the Incas, who believed it to be ‘the tears of the sun and in western Christian art, it symbolises the transcendent, divine light that embodies the invisible, spiritual world. It has also been used in the background to mosaics and altar triptych panels, in both Christian and Islamic illuminated manuscripts, as well as in the unique Passover text, the Golden Haggadah (c1320-1330), that probably belonged to a wealthy Sephardic Jewish family in Spain. The psychedelic patterning, bright colours and batik inspired textured surfaces pay homage to African wax prints, known as Ankara and Dutch wax prints. These are a type of nonverbal communication between African women carrying their messages out into the world, with many named after cities or celebrities, places or specific occasions.

Born in Manchester to Nigerian parents, Ofili was awarded a British Council grant in 1992, which had a big impact on his work. This he used not to return to his homeland but to visit Zimbabwe, where he was inspired by the abstract rock paintings of the San Bushmen, the oldest inhabitants of Southern Africa, hunter-gatherers who’ve lived in the region for at least 20,000. As a result, his work became as concerned with decoration and visual sensuality as with politics. If Rudy Giuliani had had a little more culture, he might have realised that by incorporating high and low art and art historical narratives along with religious imagery and pop culture that Ofili was making a deeply eloquent and relevant contemporary image of the Virgin Mary for our times.

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Art Criticism

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

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

The exhibition starts with a bang – SH

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

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

Lecture Room, RA Summer Exhibition 2021

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

RA Summer Exhibition 2021

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

Photos: PC Robinson © Artlyst 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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Sean Scully: Paul 1984 – Significant Works

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

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

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

Sean Scully: Paul 1984 Collection Tate © Sean Scully

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top Photo: P C Robinson © Artlyst 2021

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Marc Quinn: Alison Lapper Pregnant 2005 – Significant Works

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

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

Marc Quinn Alison Lapper Pregnant The Fourth Plinth 2005

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mark Wallinger: State Britain 2007 – Significant Works

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

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

Mark Wallinger 2016 © Artlyst

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cecily Brown The Girl Who Had Everything, 1998

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

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

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

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

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Rachel Whiteread: House 1993 – Significant Works

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Sylvia Plath, Daddy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drawing Paula Rego

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Art Criticism

Cacophony: Four Iranian Artists AB-ANBAR Cromwell Place

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

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

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

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

Majid Fathizadeh

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

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

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

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

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

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Art Criticism

Eileen Agar:
A Surrealist Trailblazer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ceremonial Hat for Eating Bouillabaisse, 1936

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tony Bevan RA: Head 2004 – Significant Works

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sir Richard Long Photo: P C Robinson © Artlyst 2017

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

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

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

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Jenny Saville: Propped 1992 – Significant Works

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

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

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

Jenny Saville Propped 1992
Photo Courtesy Sothebys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Art Criticism

Mary Wollstonecraft: A Lumpen Statue By Maggie Hambling

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mary Wollstonecraft – Maggie Hambling

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

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

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

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

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Jock McFadyen RA: Popular Enclosure 2005 – Significant Works

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forthcoming exhibitions (Dates could vary due to COVID)

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

Read More About Jock McFadyen RA
www.jockmcfadyen.com

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Art Criticism

Zanele Muholi Explores A Black Queer And Trans South Africa

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

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

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

Zanele Muholi

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

Zanele Muholi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rachel Howard:
Suicide Drawings – Significant Works

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

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

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

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

Rachel Howard – Suicide Drawings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top Photo: P C Robinson © Artlyst 2020

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Peter Doig: White Canoe 1990/1 – Significant Works

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

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

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

Peter Doig White Canoe 1990/1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Kara Walker: Fons Americanus 2019 – Significant Works

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Art Criticism

London Art Fair

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charlie Smith London Painting
Left Geraldine Swayne Middle Hugh Mendes

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

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

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

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Art Criticism

Dora Maar: Shedding The Muse Label

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

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

Pablo Picasso The Conversation 1937

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

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

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

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

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

Dora Maar Nusch Éluard

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

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

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

Dora Maar and Pablo Picasso

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

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

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

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Art Criticism

Rembrandt-Velázquez and de Hooch: Two Major Autumn Exhibitions

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

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

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

Pieter de Hooch Card Players in a Sunlit Room 1658

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

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

Rembrandt Self Portrait as the Apostle Paul 1661

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

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

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

Velázquez The Buffoon El Primo 1644

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

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

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

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

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Art Criticism

Susan Hiller
An Appreciation

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

Her brilliance was both critical and aesthetic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Art Criticism

Diane Arbus
Street Of Secrets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Art Criticism

All the Rembrandts
Rijksmuseum

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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Art Criticism

Jock McFadyen
Interview

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

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

“So, what’s going to be your theme”?

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

Jock McFadyen RA with Sue Hubbard January 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Jock McFadyen  Kill Matthew Barney 2007-2008

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

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

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

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

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

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Art Criticism

Gillian Ayres
My Fiercely independent Friend

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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Art Criticism

Tacita Dean
Triple Header

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Art Criticism

Matisse Studio RA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photos P C Robinson © Artlyst 2017

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Art Criticism

Howard Hodgkin
India My Somewhere Else

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Credits

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

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Art Criticism

Mat Collishaw
Forms Of Illusion And Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Art Criticism

Art Now, Lucy Beech and
Edward Thomasson
Tate Britain

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Alice Rawsthorn,‏ Art Now via Twitter

Published in Artlyst