Juliet Margaret Cameron and Francesca Woodman: Photographic Storytelling

Published in Artlyst

Art Criticism

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

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

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

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

Woodman Cameron, National Portrait Gallery. Photo © Artlyst 2024

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

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

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

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

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

Barbara Kruger: I Shop Therefore I Am 1987/2019

Published in Artlyst

Artlyst Significant Works

‘The past’, wrote L.P. Hartley in his 1953 novel The Go-Between, ‘is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’ Revisiting Barbara Kruger’s work in the 21st century, I’m struck by how much it encapsulates the tone of its times that, seen in retrospect, seem so committed and fervent compared to the dystopian ennui that we are living through today.

Born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1945, Kruger was part of the wave of assertive political feminist artists that included Cindy Sherman, Martha Rosler and Jenny Holzer, a reaction against the conformity of their mother’s generation, the sort of women baking cookies in the suburbs encountered in American novelist Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road. Everything in these artists’ lives was a fit subject for protest, deconstruction and analysis. How women should interact with traditional societal norms was a source of continuous debate. Nothing was taboo: menstruation, childcare, orgasms, class and racial solidarity. In 1987 that shopkeeper of conservatism, Margaret Thatcher, claimed in an interview with Woman’s Own that there was ‘no such thing as society’. On the contrary, this was a generation of feminist artists for whom the ‘personal was political’. Everything reflected some aspect of society.

Kruger’s work is big and bold, direct and to the point. There are no namby-pamby ‘trigger warnings’ or safe zones here. She tells it how it is. Combining found photographs with bold text in her signature colour scheme of black, white, and red (revolutionary colours), she overlays these images with provocative phrases that explore how ideological messages infiltrate daily life through the mass media. This was, no doubt, influenced by the media guru of the day, Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian academic who coined the phrase ‘the medium is the message’. For McLuhan this meant that the medium in which messages were sent significantly impacted society. This became a point of departure for artists such as Kruger whose work melds words and image, borrowing from the blatant language of advertising, magazines and graphic design.

The phrase ‘I shop therefore I am’ playfully and ironically twists René Descartes’ famous philosophical proposition ‘I think, therefore I am’. While Descartes emphasised thought as proof of our existence, Kruger associates that proof with consumer behaviour. It is as if capitalism offers consumers – particularly women – shopping in place of thinking. The implication is that shopping can dull the mind in a similar way to soma, that recreational drug in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World used to raise ‘a quite impenetrable wall between the actual universe and their minds’. Soma was a ‘happy’ drug: ‘the loving cup of strawberry ice-cream soma was passed from hand to hand, whilst uttering the mantra, ‘‘I will drink to my annihilation…’. Its primary purpose was unadulterated pleasure that made those who drank it avoid reality so that their vacant minds could be controlled. The inference in Kruger’s work is that the endless consumer culture of late capitalism does exactly the same. Mindless shopping and material acquisition stand in the place of individual thinking and impair the road to self-hood.

The video of ‘I shop therefore I am’ begins with the central image shattered into a disarray of puzzle pieces, which are then reassembled. Once complete, we are confronted with variations on the theme: ‘I shop therefore I hoard/’I need therefore I shop’/’I love therefore I need’/’I am therefore I hate’/’I sext therefore I am’/’I died therefore I was.’ Each aphorism implies that capitalism and the acquisition of goods essential to its maintenance is a form of soma that prevents the population engaging with political or philosophical debates. Shopping malls become the new cathedrals, whilst the goods purchased feed the addiction that whispers – buy, buy, buy. The language of advertising becomes the new 20th shibboleth replacing that of religion. Joy and self-hood are now achieved by the purchase of the latest fashion or electronic item.

Kruger’s art transcends traditional boundaries, appearing not only in galleries but also on everyday items like shopping bags and T-shirts.. It challenges materialism and invites us to reconsider our relationship with mass consumption ‘ I shop therefore I am’ exemplifies the shift from modernism to postmodernism, where barriers between high art and popular culture are removed and, with a nod to Walter Benjamin, take on a mechanically reproduced form, an aesthetic dependent on the media of mass-distribution.

Her work put centre stage that of women marginalised, at the time, by the dominant patriarchy, Taking commodities from the consumer world, she presents them both as pastiche and the new normal. Previously religion had attempted to make sense of our world through objects and ritual. Still, in a society where the death of God is ubiquitous, ‘I shop therefore I am’ provides a mantra for the lost souls of the 20th century. Kruger takes the tropes of consumerism and replaces philosophy and religious ritual with the eclectic sacrament of shopping and the endlessly new. Therefore, a search for meaning and self-hood is not to be found in the great cathedrals of Chartres or Canterbury but in the shopping malls of our new ticky-tacky towns. And art itself becomes subject to this encompassing consumerism. The greater the price of an artwork, the ‘greater’ its creative value. Art is no longer defined by its sublimity or metaphysics, but by its price tag, and as McLuhan foresaw, the ‘medium becomes the message’.

Kruger’s visual style has influenced countless graphic designers, making her a powerful force in contemporary art and cultural critique.

Words: Sue Hubbard Top Photo: P C Robinson Image © Artlyst 2024.

Women In Revolt at Tate Britain

Published in Artlyst

Art Criticism

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

“Talkin ‘bout my generation” – The Who

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

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

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

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

Jill Poesner

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in Artlyst

Art Criticism

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

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

Damien Hirst Gagosian

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

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

Blindspot Gallery Hong Kong

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

Chantal Joffe at Victoria Miro

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

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

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

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

Marina Abromović (Detail)

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

Sophie von Hellermann

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

El Anatsui (Detail) Jack Shainman Gallery

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

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

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

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

Three More That Artlyst Liked:

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

Philip Guston Tate Modern – worth the wait

Published in Artlyst

Art Criticism

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

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

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

Philip Guston, Painting, Smoking, Eating, 1973

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

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

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

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

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

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Sarah Lucas: Two Fried Eggs And A Kebab 1992

Published in Artlyst

Artlyst Significant Works

Sarah Lucas’s solo show has just opened at Tate Britain. Lucas has always been the baddest of the bad YBA girls. Unlike Emin, who was rather partial to attending private views in her Vivienne Westwood best, Sarah Lucas, who grew up on an Islington council estate, preferred, with her Doc Martins, lank hair, fags and pints, to be seen as one of the lads.

It’s hard to believe that this mauvaise fille has now hit 60. Not known for her subtlety or nuisance, this new Tate Britain exhibition reveals something of a maturing aesthetic. So, I thought it would be interesting to revisit one of her earlier works from 1992, Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab, which, surprisingly, is not included in this show.

The 1990s was the era of Trainspotting. The novel by the Scottish writer, Irvine Walsh, described by The Herald as: “… a loosely knotted string of jagged, dislocated tales that lay bare the hearts of darkness of the junkies, wide-boys and psychos who ride in the down escalator of opportunity…”. The sensibility of the novel, as well as that of Lucas’s work during this period, was iconoclastic, irreverent and bawdy. After the downfall of Thatcher, the anarchy and irreverence avowed by the Sex Pistols became the cultural mood music of the time. Being ironic was the new black. Both artist and novelist were telling the world to fuck off. Postmodernism had hit the streets.

Attending the uber-cool art school of the 80s, Goldsmiths College, where she became a multi-media artist, Sarah Lucas was included in Damien Hirst’s seminal exhibition Freeze, going on to have a solo exhibition at City Racing and then opening The Shop in Waterloo with Tracey Emin. (I remember a visit I made for Time Out when Tracey was dancing around after a night out in her knickers). In 1997, Sarah Lucas was included in the Royal Academy’s seminal exhibition, Sensation.
Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab quickly became notorious. It both delighted and enraged gallery goers in equal measure. Like Duchamps’ urinal, it was barely an artwork at all, just a worn table on which Lucas placed two newly fried eggs (sunny side up) alongside a pocket of pitta bread stuffed with shredded kebab. But this tongue-in- cheek mimicking of the breasts and genitalia of a woman was too much for some. There were those who argued it was a feminist critique that challenged assumptions around gender, sexuality, eroticism and power. While others saw it as simply sticking a finger up to the establishment.

Women have, all too often, had an obsessive relationship with food. Female desire and food have often been intertwined. Meret Oppenheim’s white high heels, bound and trussed on a silver platter and decorated with frilly white paper noisettes like lamb chops, suggest the fetishisation of food. From Freudian theory – (“no one who has seen a baby sinking back satiated from the breast… can escape the reflection that this… serves as the prototype of the expression of sexual satisfaction in later life”) – to adverts of women performing fellatio on Cadbury’s chocolate flakes, food has been recognised as not only a source of erotic pleasure but, also, of female shame and self-destruction. The world is full of young women with eating disorders, with bulimia and anorexia nervosa. While the media constantly tells them they should be desirably skinny, food has become associated with pleasure, danger and the erotic. Female fat is seen as a sin. Whilst adverts equate orgasm and sexual satisfaction with the solitary, guilty pleasure of eating a tub of Häagen Dazs ice cream. It may be naughty, but it’s nice.

Women are all too well aware of these connections between food and sex. Sarah Lucas conflates these female secret vices with the way that, for many men, the feminine body is simply there to be consumed. Two fried eggs and a kebab can be eaten at any time, particularly after a drunk night out, without much thought and with few consequences. They are nothing special, there for instant gratification, to satiate hunger or sexual desire. By reducing the female body to three elements that can easily be eaten or thrown away, Sarah Lucas is emphasising not only female abjection but invisibility. When this work was made in the 90s, it’s more than likely that what she wanted to do was to épater le bourgeois. In fact, what she made was a work that critiqued the sexual commodification of women within late 20th-century society.

Sarah Lucas: Happy Gas, Tate Britain 28 September 2023 – 14 January 2023

Ryan Gander: A Principled Humanist

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Art Criticism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jeremy Deller: The Battle Of Orgreave 2001

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Back in 1984, when he was a young person living through the Thatcher era, Jeremy Deller remembers seeing on TV what has now become an iconic moment. The violent confrontation between the police and the striking miners outside the coking plant in Orgreave, Yorkshire, and the miners being chased uphill, pursued through the village. That scene has become legendary. No single image so exemplifies the shift of the political tectonic plates in this country and the Thatcher government’s determination to break up the unions and, with them, traditional working-class communities and their way of life. The strike was to have a traumatically divisive effect, becoming an ideological battleground for the soul of the mineworkers. Families were torn apart, and the union movement split in its support for the NUM. For the young Deller, watching the police line up with their riot shields against the angry miners, it felt like civil war.

Then, in 1998, he saw an advert for open submissions to Artangel, that organisation which, in its own words, has ‘always gone where others fear to tread’ in facilitating the work of artists who think outside conventional boxes. Receiving a commission from them allowed him to do what he thought was impossible, stage a re-enactment of the Battle of Orgreave. After two years of research, it finally took place on 17 June 2001 with the collaboration of the filmmaker Mike Figgis and a cast drawn from more than twenty expert historical re-enactment societies under the direction of the re-enactment tactician Howard Giles. Participants included veterans who had fought on both sides of the political battle lines.

The film weaves together original footage with re-enactment scenes and interviews. Mac McLoughlin, a former miner and then a serving police officer, talks of how he recognises, in retrospect, that he unwittingly played a part in breaking up his own community. While David Douglass of the NUM speaks about the relevance of the confrontation to the trade union movement. Tony Benn emphasises that there were deliberate distortions and untruths in the press reporting, including footage showing miners throwing stones at a phalanx of mounted police so that they looked like the aggressors when, in fact, they were responding to a belligerent police charge. An untruth that was later admitted by the BBC.

There’s also a poignant interview with the very articulate Stephanie Gregory (Women’s Support Group), whose reminiscences show the effect the strike had on family life. At first, she was suspicious of Deller’s project, but his involvement and diligence won her over. The treatment of the miners was, she said, ‘barbaric’. She insists these were ‘honest working men’ who, if they turned up for a peaceful demonstration, were branded troublemakers.

To revisit the film after all these years is to be taken back to a very different political landscape. The sound of drumming, the police with their riot shields and visors lined up against the jeering miners – many with mullets and sideburns – conjures a mediaeval battlefield rather than a labour dispute. The hurt and the anger felt by the busload of men travelling to the site for the re-enactment are still apparent. This is a subject that seems to have been talked about little, and the consequences are hardly addressed. For many, the enactment seems to be a cathartic moment when they can finally be seen and heard. As David Douglas of the NUM makes clear, the strike could have gone either way. It was so bitter because the men were fighting for their livelihoods, their very existence. If they’d won, he suggests, our political landscape might have looked very different. No privatisation. No zero-hour contracts. No food banks. Who knows, perhaps even no Brexit? Towards the end of the film, there is a shot of Thatcher, all bouffant hair and clipped vowels, insisting like some headmistress that industry must be modernised.

For Deller, it was important to include veterans of the original campaign in his reimagining. In an age of the blue-chip gallery, he is an artist who explores the differences between artifice, documentary record and historic fact, making him one of the most thoughtful around today. In the film, we encounter him in 2001 as a fresh-faced youth looking back on 1998, when he was a boy. For him, the strike clearly showed what was so wrong with this country that the government could behave like that to its own people. Now, 25 years on, its value is even more potent. This was the re-staging of a historic moment every bit as important as The Peterloo Massacre, one that occurred within living memory and forever changed the landscape of our lives. Watching it now, it seems to reflect a world with different values, one that belongs more to the last century than to our own. What was at stake was a working man’s pride in his labour and in his community. Those jobs in the pits have now been superseded by those in Amazon warehouses or shelf stacking in Iceland. However tough it was working underground, the miners could take a pride in keeping industry and the home fires burning. At the time, the print media contributed to a polarisation in society to the point where there appeared to be little space for a middle ground. Deller has no doubt that it was a pivotal moment, one that left a deep scar on this country. In all but name, it was an ideological battle between two opposing sections of British society. Now, as the event recedes into the shadows of history, The Battle of Orgreave, 2001, stands as a testament to the injustice done to the miners. It was not so much the closing of the pits as the trashing of their communities that caused so much damage. Deller has caught that devastating political moment for posterity. ‘It was,’ he says, like ‘digging up a corpse and giving it a proper post-mortem.’

Lead image: Jeremy Deller, The Battle of Orgreave, 2001. Production photograph: Martin Jenkinson courtesy of Artangel

Vermeer: Stillness and Light Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

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Art Criticism

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

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

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

The Little Street 1659 Rijksmuseum

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

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

The Milkmaid 1659 Rijksmuseum

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

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

Girl With A Pearl Earring 1667

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

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

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

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

Andy Goldsworthy: Storm King Wall 1997 – 1998

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‘The child,’ Wordsworth famously remarked, ‘is father to the man.’ Growing up in West Yorkshire, the land was always close to Andy Goldsworthy’s heart. At 13, he began to spend his free time working as a farm labourer, developing an awareness of the seasons and what the poet T. S. Eliot identified as the cycle of ‘birth, copulation and death’. He has likened the repetition of farm work to the physical nature of making sculpture. During his time as an art student at what is now the University of Central Lancashire, he created ephemeral works of rock and stone at nearby Morecambe Bay, which were washed away by the tide, adding the element of time to his use of found natural materials.

In the 1980s, land artists such as the great Robert Smithson of the monumental Spiral Jetty made in 1970 took work outside the gallery, the sacred space of the modernist white cube, to question the status of and the framework around a contemporary art object. By placement within a natural setting, the viewer was challenged to consider preconceived notions of what constituted a work of art. In the late 50s and early 60s, the materials of technology and industry, as used by sculptors such as David Smith and, later, Sir Anthony Caro, became the dominant language of the New York Art World. Any notions of ‘craft’ pretty well collapsed. The result was that many artists felt estranged from the land, from the slow accretions of time and entropy. Curatorial control became prevalent, with the imposition of limits set by someone other than the artist.

In the 80s, Andy Goldsworthy became associated with the burgeoning Environmental Art Movement

in which artists were beginning to question how human societies affect the environment in which we live. In America, these included the likes of Nancy Holt and in the UK, Richard Long and Hamish Fulton. Drawing on Romanticism, they moved the debate along from simply feeling awe at the natural world (as did Turner and Constable) to examining the connections between the sociological and the environmental. Turning to science, ecology and philosophy, artists began to suggest an ethical relationship to climate change and environmental damage, an awareness of the world in which we live. Seeking out new and unusual locations meant they could work away from the gallery system and the commercial art market. Incorporating his love of photography, Andy Goldsworthy documented his often ephemeral, beautiful works constructed with stones, leaves, snow and ice before they disappeared. ‘Each work,’ he said, ‘grows, stays, decays – integral parts of a cycle which the photograph shows at its height, marking the moment when the work is most alive…..Process and decay are implicit. His aim was for his audience to experience the natural world, to feel how we all exist as part of its warp and weft. Instead of simply representing the landscape in the manner of a traditional landscape painter, he embedded his work into the landscape itself, collaborating and negotiating with it, allowing his materials to speak for themselves, to tell their own stories. Storm King Wall,1997-1998, is one of the artist’s most iconic works.

In 1989, Goldsworthy constructed his serpentine Wall that Went for a Walk in Cumbria. A decade later, he built the 2,278-foot stone wall, Storm King Wall, on the foundations of an old dairy farm wall found in the woods overlooking Moodna Creek in New York’s Hudson Valley. Made to last, it evokes a lost agricultural past. Using no mortar, he simply interlocked and fitted field stones together in the manner of the Yorkshire dry stone walls of his childhood, built for centuries on the moors and in the dales. Constructed in a coppice near a creek, it took three weeks, five men and 250 tons of stone to build. If a wall is a delineation between spaces, one that defines, say, the ownership between two fields or stretches of land, this refuses to play that role as it loops around and between trees and saplings on its way down to a pond, creating a relationship between ground, sky, water and trees.

Goldsworthy speculated that, gradually, these same trees would cause the wall to collapse, just as their roots had probably caused the demise of the original wall. In many ways, it is unremarkable because it has become so integrated into the landscape with its simple serpentine elegance. But it’s more than a delineation between this place and that or a declaration of ownership. It is a way marker, which, if walked along or beside, changes how we experience the contours of the land, even our relationship to the sky. It defines the place, making it special, as it curls and doubles back between the trees, emphasising them so that, if it were not there, we probably wouldn’t notice. This observation is made more poignant in the knowledge that it will be the trees and their roots that one day will destroy the wall.

Although made nearly 40 years ago, this work could not be more relevant to the current debate about what our relationship should be with the natural world. While we still pump out fossil fuels into the atmosphere, mine lithium for batteries and pollute the seas, this built intervention snaking its way through the landscape reminds us, as we pillage and destroy, that we can build and live on this planet if, only, we adopt the credo from the Hippocratic oath: First, do no harm. Beautiful in its quiet monumentality, Storm King Wall demonstrates that it is possible to live in creative harmony with the world.

Top Photo: Andy Goldsworthy British, b. 1956: Storm King Wall, 1997–98 Fieldstone 60 in. x 2278 ft. 6 in. x 32 in. (152.4 cm x 694.5 m x 81.3 cm) Gift of the Ralph E. Ogden Foundation, Mr. and Mrs. Joel Mallin, Mrs. W. L. Lyons Brown, Jr., Mr. and Mrs. James H. Ottaway, Jr., the Margaret T. Morris Foundation, The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation, the Hazen Fund, the Joseph H. Hazen Foundation, Inc., Mr. and Mrs. Ronald N. Romary, Dr. Wendy Schaffer and Mr. Ivan Gjaja, and an anonymous foundation Photo ©Andy Goldsworthy, courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co., New York Photo by Jerry L. Thompson.

Antony Gormley: Angel Of The North

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We are enthralled by gigantic statues. The ancient Greeks referred to them as kolossoi. The word was first used by Herodotus to describe the massive stone statues built by the Pharos of Egypt. Two such famous statues in Herodotus’ time were Pheidias’ Athena Parthenos on the Acropolis of Athens, reputedly clad in gold and ivory to glimmer and shimmer under the Greek sun, and the statue of Zeus at Olympia, built around 430 BC, considered to be one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

The Angel of the North is a reminder of how important it is to create markers of memory that give meaning to our communities – SH

The Colossus of Rhodes was the largest statue erected in antiquity. A miracle of ancient engineering, it represented the sun god Helios. Built in 280 BC to celebrate the victory by Rhodes over Demetrius Poliorectes, it supposedly stood towering over the island’s military harbour before being destroyed in an earthquake. Cast in bronze and standing on a white marble plinth, it was around 33 meters high. ‘Few people can make their arms meet round the thumb’, wrote the historian Pliny the Elder. The Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World (to give it its full title), erected on a pedestal on Liberty Island in Upper New York was a gift to the USA from France and based on the Rhodes colossus. It soon became a beacon of freedom, welcoming immigrants arriving in America by sea. When erected in 1886, it was the tallest statue in the world but has since been surpassed by the Spring Temple Buddha, a 420 feet high-gilded copper version of Buddha Vairocana in China’s Henan Province.

Though the A1 doesn’t quite have the exotic ring of ancient Egypt or Greece, Antony Gormley’s The Angel of The North has, if not put Gateshead on the international map, become one of the most recognisable pieces of public artwork in this country. In 1990 the Lower Tyne Colliery pithead baths were reclaimed with a view to erecting a public sculpture to commemorate the work of the miners and to mark the difficult transition between the end of the industrial era and a slow (and sometimes painful) move into the age of technology. Using the vernacular of Tyneside engineering, famous for its shipbuilding, the Angel is ten times life-size, a self-supporting structure fabricated in fibreglass and Corten steel, based on Gormley’s own body. The oxidisation of the steel gives it its distinctive rusty colour. Before its erection, there was a lot of nimbyism and cries of a ‘waste of money’. A local paper even dug up a picture of a winged figure built during the Third Reich that they published under the headline: NAZI…BUT NICE.

The technical challenges were enormous. How could it withstand the prevailing south-easterly winds, the rain, sun and snow? Erected on a mound near the A1 motorway, the scale is important as the valley is a mile and a half wide and the viewer likely to be travelling past at speed in a car. Slowly the local residents have been won over, taking pride in the 20 metres (the height of a five-story building or four double-decker buses) statue with its 54-metre wing span (bigger than a Boeing 757 or 767 jet) standing on 500 tonnes of concrete that gives their locality a special distinction.

Way markers have been erected since humans first moved from place to place to tell us who we are and help us find our way home. In remote heathlands and mountains, travellers could die if they lost their way in poor weather and way markers, at first often no more than simple cairns or a heap of loose stones, provided reference points in a hostile landscape. Romans erected them to mark the way for their soldiers, while the early Christians placed crosses at road junctions. In the 17th century milestones, such as the Trinity Hall series between Cambridge and Royston on the B1638, were erected with the advent of the Royal Mail to help post riders make good progress and know where they were. Pilgrims on the Camio de Santiago follow stone markers and mounds, as well as the famous scallop shell. These not only guide them on their way but offer a symbolic and spiritual sense both of leaving and arriving.

In an alien, frightening world before widespread urbanisation, humans needed to calibrate where they were to orientate themselves. Unmediated space was frightening. Creating markers in the landscape was not only practical but implied control over untamed nature long before there were maps by which to orientate ourselves. The Sphynx in the desert makes that bit of desert singular and stand out from the endless sea of surrounding sand. Space is what sculptors work with. Their objects are designed in encompass and mediate space. Since the beginning of time, they have worked with human dimensions, measuring in hands and feet. A sculpture converses with its location, with the space in which it has been placed. Unlike a painting, it is not an illusion but a three-dimensional ‘thing’ that we are able to approach and walk around. It inhabits a space with its physical presence, much as we inhabit it with our bodies. The Angel of the North is a reminder of how important it is to create markers of memory that give meaning to our communities, both past and present, as well as mirror our sense of place in the wider world.

Photo: This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Attribution: nikko23_99

William Kentridge: Ubu Tells The Truth

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Ubu Roi was first performed on December 10th, 1896, at what is now the Théâtre de Paris on the Rue Blanche. A stylised burlesque by the French playwright Alfred Jarry, it satirised power, greed, bourgeois complacency, along with the institutional abuse of power. The scatological language, the apparently childish writing and production in which Jarry insisted that King Ubu wear a cardboard crown on his head like a character from a mummer’s play caused a riotous response. Something of a cause célèbre, it opened the door to Dadaism, Surrealism and the theatre of the absurd. A parody of Macbeth (with a smattering of Hamlet and a soupçon of King Lear thrown in for good measure), its single performance was lambasted by those who saw it, with the exception of W.B. Yeats and the poet and essayist Catulle Mendès, who considered it to be a ground-breaking work. Since its inception, successive generations have reinvented Ubu Roi to suit their own ends.

Ubu Tells the Truth is among Kentridge’s most impassioned and violent works

The white south African artist William Kentridge has used the play to express his views against South African apartheid and its vicious attacks on its black citizens. Born in 1955 to liberal Jewish parents, lawyers who represented those marginalised by the system, Kentridge grew up in a highly politicised household. Despite a precocious artistic talent, he studied Politics and African studies at Witwatersrand university before embarking on a diploma in Fine Arts and studying mime and theatre at the famous L’ École de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq in Paris. Originally he wanted to be an actor and between 1975 and 1991 acted and directed with Johannesburg’s Junction Avenue Theatre. These diverse creative strands, along with a comprehensive knowledge of film and opera, have contributed to a singular body of work that incorporates elements of theatre, cinema and drawing to create hard-hitting social and political commentary that steps into areas where few white artists have dared to go.

In 1994 Nelson Mandela was elected President of South Africa after his long Robin Island incarceration. The following year, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was set up under the auspices of Archbishop Desmon Tutu to address the wounds inflicted by apartheid. In 1997 Jane Taylor, a long-time collaborator with Kentridge, wrote Ubu and The Truth Commission, a theatrical piece which was developed with the Handspring Puppet Company and directed by Kentridge.

Ubu Tells the Truth is among Kentridge’s most impassioned and violent works, which highlights the shenanigans of a ridiculous but devastating despot. As with Jarry’s original play, power is revealed and undercut through the use of the absurd. Built from a palimpsest of etchings and charcoal drawings, clips were created by the constant erasure of an image and then adding further layers of charcoal. These were then mixed together with archival footage and animations from the original stage production. The film has been exhibited on its own, or as in the show at the RA, with accompanying wall drawings.

A grotesque, cartoon-like man, corpulent and over-fed, sporting a curled moustache, struts across the screen full of menace and self-importance. The sketchy black and white animations endlessly transmute. A drawing of an eye blinks, then transforms into a real staring eye, evoking the notorious razor scene in Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou. Later it metamorphosises into a camera fixed to a tripod (to become the eye of surveillance?), scuttling across the screen like Kafka’s cockroach in Metamorphosis. Human skulls and bones, scissors, and a hack saw (the instruments of torture) all tumble down a shower plughole, along with human skulls and bones and a seemingly, innocent bird to disappear in what might be seen as an act of washing away guilt and evidence. The head of a pig appears out of a cloud wearing earphones, and a curvaceous female body dances before evolving into a scissor-wielding skeleton. A dance of death, or a nod to the pornography of violence, perhaps? It is difficult to know, for there is no exact translation of Kentridge’s imagery. Nothing is spelt out. The images simply pile one upon the other in an orchestrated symphony of implied violence to create dreamlike associations.

There are fat men in striped suits and black bodies that fall from skyscraper windows or have their heads rammed into buckets in empty rooms before being lassoed by the feet and left to swing like Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit from trees. Drawings of broken bodies and pools of blood flash past. Interspersed with these are short archival film clips of the South African police violently attacking black unarmed apartheid protestors with whips, charging into a running crowd in Cato Manor in 1960 or storming a group of students at Wits University in 1985, along with footage from the 1976 Soweto uprising. All the while, the balletic camera/tripod/eye scuttles past on its thin mechanical legs, watching, recording, and noting.

Ubu Tells the Truth makes for uncomfortable viewing with its absurd, jerky, brutal juxtapositions of sound, cartoon-like drawings and photographic material. As in all of Kentridge’s work, the viewer is never let off the hook. There is no place to hide. No ideological position, no didacticism or moral lesson is offered. Instead, he lifts a Swiftian mirror to show that this is what humans are capable of doing, one to another when power becomes absolute. The political artist has become a rare beast in our postmodern world, but Kentridge has shown with passionate commitment that it can still have teeth.

William Kentridge, Royal Academy of Arts, 24 September – 11 December 2022

Women Making Modernism A Revisionist History – Royal Academy

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Art Criticism

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

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

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

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

Käthe Kollwitz, Mother Pressing Her Baby to Her Face 1925

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ai Weiwei Receives Praemium Imperiale 2022 Award From Lord Patten

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Art Criticism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Words and photos Sue Hubbard ©Artlyst 2022

Carolee Schneemann – Breaking Artistic Boundaries At The Barbican

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Art Criticism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theaster Gates – Black Chapel Serpentine Pavilion

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Art Criticism

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

A sacred space for the 21st century

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

Theaster Gates © Sue Hubbard

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

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

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

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

Cornelia Parker: Cold Dark Matter 1991

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Artlyst Significant Works

In her 1994 essay The Body in Pieces: The Fragment as a Metaphor of Modernity, the feminist art historian, Linda Nochlin, cites the French Revolution, and the guillotine in particular, as the symbol that finally severed the stranglehold of ancient autocratic power and ushered in an era of radical, more fluid politics and culture. Fragmentation has become the very hallmark of modernity, symbolising the destruction of the prevailing orders of church and state, the hierarchies of traditional privilege in favour of a greater diversity and inclusivity from the margins. Although written in 1994, before the grip of the digital age, Nochlin’s proposition that the fragment expresses the flattening and democratisation of meaning still appears to hold true.

Making an artwork is like throwing a pebble into a still pond. The artist may not be able to predict where the ripples will lead – SH

In 1991, just before Nochlin wrote her essay and a year before Damien Hirst exhibited his iconoclastic shark in formaldehyde, the artist Cornelia Parker exploded a garden shed with the help of the British army. She’d contacted them for advice and was invited to the Army School of Ammunition, where they demonstrated the potential of various explosives by blowing up a table and a car. In the end, she decided on plastic explosives as these seemed to provide an ‘archetypal explosion’ without pyrotechnics or special effects. Blowing up a shed was something she’d long wanted to do.

Making an artwork is like throwing a pebble into a still pond. The artist may not be able to predict where the ripples will lead. Cold Dark Matter, as Cornelia Parker’s 1991 piece was called, made connections between the world of science, space and the everyday. After the explosion, she collected and suspended the blackened, twisted objects from transparent wires in the Tate Gallery. These were lit with a single light bulb that hung in the centre of the installation. The apparently floating debris might have been the result of the Big Bang, a terrorist attack or be a 3D model demonstrating chaos theory. The dramatic shadows on the walls added both drama and a sense of disembodiment. Boundaries were blurred. Edges dissipated. Underlying Yeats’ famous quote from his poem The Second Coming that: ‘Things fall apart: the centre cannot hold.’ Here, then, was a visual metaphor for the political, spiritual and cultural decay of a world constantly being altered by violence that, through its reconfiguring, signalled the possibility of regeneration. For Cornelia Parker, the world was constantly being bombarded with images of violence from action films and comic strips, along with relentless, never-ending reports of conflict and war. Exploding a garden shed was a simple yet effective visual embodiment of the end of history. A history defined by capitalism and industrialism, where issues such as colonialism, global warming and traditional gender roles were beginning to take centre stage.

Walking around this three-dimensional sculpture, the viewer became an integral element of the work. The charred debris mirrored Baudrillard’s premise that no matter how valuable an object is, its principal value resides in how it mirrors and is an object of prestige in a capitalist society. The industrialism of modernity tended to treat people as herds, as a means of production. Postmodernity shattered that hegemony giving – at least theoretically – a greater voice to diverse positions and to the marginalised. The centre was no longer holding. Suspended in the gallery like the bones of some prehistoric fossil, the charred and buckled remains of the shed functioned as a collection of memento mori, tokens of death and of past lives. It represented a multiplicity of voices and viewpoints, each as valid as the other. Before being hung up, they’d been laid on the gallery floor like the shards collected from an archaeological dig or the detritus found in a mass grave. Suspended and lit, they threw off the aura of death to embrace a new existence outside their previous category. They might have been meteorites or planetary bodies—new worlds.

The very mundanity of a garden shed – that ubiquitous image of suburban England embodying the fantasy of a private, secret and inviolate space – being blown up suggests the destruction of class systems and historic hierarchies, the opening up of new spaces and possibilities. Cornelia Parker has long been fascinated by artistic processes and the transmogrification of materials, flattening and stretching them to test their physical as well as metaphorical limits. In one case, she stretched two wedding rings into a thin 40-foot wire, changing not only the form but the meaning from one of containment into one capable of delineating a border between two spaces.

The middle of three sisters, she grew up on a Cheshire smallholding and, like Hirst, Andy Warhol, Ed Ruscha and a number of other artists, was raised a Catholic. She ‘went to High Mass every week’ where the one-and-a-half-hour mass conducted in Latin gave her a good deal of time to contemplate the Stations of the Cross. It’s no surprise, therefore, that her work evokes reliquaries and votive offerings. She’s said that due to her Catholic upbringing, ‘I grew up thinking that Armageddon was just around the corner – now I know it is, with global warming and all. I can keep it at bay by doing the work. It’s sort of reverse sympathetic magic. I’m always doing it, so it doesn’t happen to me.’

She has squashed a whole brass band of instruments, stretched lead bullets into wire to make Spirograph drawings, and fired the pearls of a necklace through a shotgun. Despite its apparent violence, her work is full of pathos, ritual and renewal. Once a Catholic, always a Catholic. Out of death and destruction comes resurrection. Out of the wreckage of her apocalyptic pieces, to use Yeats’ phrase, a ‘terrible beauty is born.’

London Art Fair 2022: A New Seriousness

Published in Artlyst

Art Criticism

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

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

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

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

Tiffanie Delune, Ed Cross Fine Art

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Francis Bacon: Birth Copulation And Death – Royal Academy

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Art Criticism

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

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

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

Francis Bacon Head I 1948 Photo © Artlyst 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frank Auerbach: Head of E.O.W.II

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Artlyst Significant Works

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

Lubaina Himid: So Many Competing Ideas Tate Modern

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Art Criticism

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

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

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

Lubaina Himid Tate Modern

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

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

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

Lubaina Himid Tate Modern

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

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

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

Lubaina Himid Tate Modern Until July 2022

Marlene Dumas: Oscar Wilde and Bosie

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Artlyst Significant Works

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.

Turner Prize 2021: A Collective Experience

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Art Criticism

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gentle/Radical Photo: Sue Hubbard

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

Array Collective Photo: Sue Hubbard

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

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

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

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

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

Project Art Works, Hastings Photo: Sue Hubbard

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

Words/Photos: Sue Hubbard © Artlyst 2021

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Chris Ofili: The Holy Virgin Mary

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Artlyst Significant Works

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

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Art Criticism

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

The exhibition starts with a bang – SH

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

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

Lecture Room, RA Summer Exhibition 2021

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

RA Summer Exhibition 2021

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

Photos: PC Robinson © Artlyst 2021

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

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Art Criticism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sean Scully: Paul 1984

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Artlyst Significant Works

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

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

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

Sean Scully: Paul 1984 Collection Tate © Sean Scully

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top Photo: P C Robinson © Artlyst 2021

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Marc Quinn: Alison Lapper Pregnant 2005

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Artlyst Significant Works

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

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

Marc Quinn Alison Lapper Pregnant The Fourth Plinth 2005

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mark Wallinger: State Britain 2007

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Artlyst Significant Works

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

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

Mark Wallinger 2016 © Artlyst

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cecily Brown: The Girl Who Had Everything 1998

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Artlyst Significant Works

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

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

Cecily Brown The Girl Who Had Everything, 1998

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

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

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

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

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Rachel Whiteread: House 1993

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Artlyst Significant Works

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Paula Rego: The Policeman’s Daughter 1987

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Artlyst Significant Works

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

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

– Sylvia Plath, Daddy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drawing Paula Rego

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Cacophony: Four Iranian Artists AB-ANBAR Cromwell Place

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Art Criticism

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

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

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

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

Majid Fathizadeh

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

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

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

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

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

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Eileen Agar:
A Surrealist Trailblazer

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Art Criticism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ceremonial Hat for Eating Bouillabaisse, 1936

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

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

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

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

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Mona Hatoum: The Light at the End 1989

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Artlyst Significant Works

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tony Bevan RA: Head 2004

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Artlyst Significant Works

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Richard Long: A Line Made By Walking 1967

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Artlyst Significant Works

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sir Richard Long Photo: P C Robinson © Artlyst 2017

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

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

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

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Jenny Saville: Propped 1992

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Artlyst Significant Works

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

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

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

Jenny Saville Propped 1992
Photo Courtesy Sothebys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mary Wollstonecraft: A Lumpen Statue By Maggie Hambling

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Art Criticism

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mary Wollstonecraft – Maggie Hambling

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

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

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

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

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Jock McFadyen RA: Popular Enclosure 2005

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Artlyst Significant Works

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forthcoming exhibitions (Dates could vary due to COVID)

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

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Zanele Muholi Explores A Black Queer And Trans South Africa

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Art Criticism

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

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

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

Zanele Muholi

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

Zanele Muholi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rachel Howard:
Suicide Drawings

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Artlyst Significant Works

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

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

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

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

Rachel Howard – Suicide Drawings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top Photo: P C Robinson © Artlyst 2020

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Peter Doig: White Canoe 1990/1

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Artlyst Significant Works

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

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

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

Peter Doig White Canoe 1990/1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Kara Walker: Fons Americanus 2019

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Artlyst Significant Works

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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London Art Fair

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Art Criticism

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charlie Smith London Painting
Left Geraldine Swayne Middle Hugh Mendes

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

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

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

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Dora Maar: Shedding The Muse Label

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Art Criticism

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

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

Pablo Picasso The Conversation 1937

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

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

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

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

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

Dora Maar Nusch Éluard

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

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

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

Dora Maar and Pablo Picasso

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

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

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

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Rembrandt-Velázquez and de Hooch: Two Major Autumn Exhibitions

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Art Criticism

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

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

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

Pieter de Hooch Card Players in a Sunlit Room 1658

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

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

Rembrandt Self Portrait as the Apostle Paul 1661

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

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

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

Velázquez The Buffoon El Primo 1644

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

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

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

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

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Susan Hiller
An Appreciation

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Art Criticism

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

Her brilliance was both critical and aesthetic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Diane Arbus
Street Of Secrets

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Art Criticism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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All the Rembrandts

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Art Criticism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jock McFadyen

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Art Criticism

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

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

“So, what’s going to be your theme”?

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

Jock McFadyen RA with Sue Hubbard January 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jock McFadyen  Kill Matthew Barney 2007-2008

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

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

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

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

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

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Gillian Ayres
My Fiercely independent Friend

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Art Criticism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tacita Dean
Triple Header

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Art Criticism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Matisse Studio RA

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Art Criticism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photos P C Robinson © Artlyst 2017

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Howard Hodgkin
India My Somewhere Else

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Art Criticism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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Mat Collishaw
Forms Of Illusion And Truth

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Art Criticism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in Artlyst

Art Now, Lucy Beech and
Edward Thomasson
Tate Britain

Published in Artlyst

Art Criticism

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Alice Rawsthorn,‏ Art Now via Twitter

Published in Artlyst