Art Criticism

Hannah Collins, El Tiempo del Fuego at Maureen Paley

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HANNAH COLLINS Salt (5), 1996 silver gelatin print mounted on canvas 220 x 263 cm
© Hannah Collins, courtesy Maureen Paley, London

Photography is a kind of language that has its own vocabulary. It might be black and white or colour. A modest holiday snap or a snatched press photo. By its nature black and white photography is an abstraction of reality that allows for the dramatic modification of tonal contrasts and densities, a distilling of the world. In today’s culture it announces itself as serious, in contrast to the gaudy razmataz of coloured imagery that shouts out from every advertising hoarding, every video game.

Born in 1956 Hannah Collins came to prominence in 1993 with a Turner prize nomination. Collective memory and the spaces that mark our social and cultural history are the hallmarks of her work, as is history, transformation and loss. Her photographs have a rare authenticity in a world dominated by indifference or irony. Ten years ago she discovered that she had cancer. Lying in hospital, hooked up to machines, she longed for the healing properties of nature. A year later she found herself in the Columbian Amazon where she worked with a small group from the Cofan tribe, learning about the plants used to sustain their lives. During the dark days of lockdown, she revisited the images of the forest that had offered healing and transformation.

One evening, whilst walking through the jungle with a local shaman, he’d cut a groove in a copal tree and lit a small, flickering flame that gave light but didn’t burn the tree. As they walked he continued to cut and light trees to illuminate a path back after their night-time excursion. In Collin’s silver gelatine print, Small Flame Copal Tree 1, 2001, the flickering flame stands as a beacon in the psychic dark of illness. Whilst Flaming Forest 2001, a large pigment print on paper suggests, with its heightened black and white contrasts, the uncanny, the chthonic and the dark forest of the Freudian unconscious. What the viewer experiences is a world of heightened senses where the mysteries of existence might be revealed.

To take photographs is to name what we don’t always understand and cannot articulate. As Susan Sontag suggested. “Photography [is] one of the principal devices for experiencing something, for giving an appearance of participation.” Fire, for Hannah Collins, is a metaphor for transformation that emphasises the fleeting fragility and interdependence of all life and stands for the flame that burns within the human imagination, even in our darkest of times.

Ash, charcoal and salt. It’s as if Hannah Collins is creating her own alchemical lexicon of base elements. A cone of salt, Salt (5) 1996, stands like Lot’s wife, white against a deep black ground. Made in Barcelona, when she lived 30 years ago, ‘ before globalization when trade and commerce were visible through accumulation rather than packaging’, the naturally dried salt from the Mediterranean took many months to crystalise before being photographed. After the shot it was returned to the sea from whence it came, thus emphasising our cycles of interdependence with the natural world.

Displayed throughout the exhibition is a series of wax candles in vitrines, each carved with leaves and exotic Amazonian flowers. All have charred wicks. Not listed as art works, they sit like votive offerings protecting what feels to have been turned into a sacred space. Throughout, ashes and fissures suggest entry points into other dimensions, other realms. In the Mexican State of Michoacan, a farmer experienced the eruption of a volcano that was initially gushing smoke and flames from a small fissure in the earth. In her silver gelatine print Paricutin 2021, Collin’s shows the classical tower that emerged to stand like an altar piece or a sacrificial table.

The alchemical properties of fire are further explored in a very different geographical location. In the Course of time (12) Small Fire 1966, documents a redundant industrial setting in Silesia, Poland, created during the old Soviet regime. With the fall of the Berlin wall and the end of the Cold War, coal dependent factories fell into disrepair. Many were abandoned, left to a lone caretaker to oversee, who’d burn bits of these huge ghost buildings to stay warm. Bricks were stolen and used for other purposes. Once the power houses of the Soviet regime, like Shelley’s Ozymandias, these buildings decay so eventually nothing will remain. Kings, political regimes, and industrial might, all fall away to become so much ash in a constant cycle of metamorphosis.

In the silver gelatine print, 120 Years Ago Today, 2019-20, extra-terrestrial bodies flash across the heavens over the Atacama Desert, the driest place on earth. These pathways of starlight connect us to time past and time future, to eternity and nothingness. As Roland Barthes noted in his seminal Camera Lucida, all photography is an agent of death. ‘Death’, he observes ‘must be somewhere in a society, if it is no longer (or less intensely) in religion, it must be elsewhere, perhaps in this image which produces Death while trying to preserve life. Contemporary with the withdrawal of rites, Photography may correspond to the intrusion, in our modern society, of an asymoblic Death, outside of religion, outside of ritual, a kind of abrupt dive into literal Death. Life/Death: the paradigm is reduced to a simple click, the one separating the initial pose from the final print.’

Hannah Collin’s photographs function like dreams, like shamanic devises with which to explore other states of consciousness. To use Barthes description, they are similar to haikus, for the haiku, is ‘undevelopable: everything is given, without provoking the desire for or even the possibility of rhetorical expansion.’ The photograph is trapped in the past, without a future, it is a sort of embalming, a sort of death. It’s this mournful poetry that Hannah Collins illustrates in these sparks and flames, the shooting stars and pillar of salt.

HANNAH COLLINS 120 years ago today, 2021 silver gelatin printframe: 61.8 x 49.8 x 3 cm
© Hannah Collins, courtesy Maureen Paley, London

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Art Criticism

Imagining Landscapes – Paintings by Helen Frankenthaler, 1952-1976

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‘A really good picture looks as if it’s happened at once.’
Helen Frankenthaler

The history of modern painting is that of a form which spent much of its energy on detaching itself from illusion in order to acquire its own frame of reference. As that guru of Modernism, Clement Greenberg, wrote: “The essence of Modernism lies… in the use of the characteristic methods of a discipline to criticise the discipline itself…” Art was to be rendered ‘pure’ in its independence and self-definition, freed from the painterly dissembling of Old Masters with their illusionistic tendencies. As Greenberg insisted, “Where Old Masters created an illusion of space into which one could imagine oneself walking, the illusion created by a Modernist is one into which one can only look, can travel through only with the eye.”

Revisiting Helen Frankenthaler’s saturated paintings at Gagosian, Grosvenor Hill, it seems that Greenberg was only partly right. The human mind makes associations, sees shapes and colours in terms of memories: objects and places, landscapes and wide skies. In his bid for purity, his desire to decouple painting from any possible narrative that might not be implicit within the medium itself, Greenberg’s strictures forgot the power of poetic metaphor that was to be explored in the 1960s in the phenomenological writings on perception of Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

Helen Frankenthaler’s art career was launched in 1952 with the exhibition Mountains and Sea. During the 50s her works tended to centre around pictorial incidents that took place in the middle of the picture space, where the edges were of little consequence. Slowly she began to experiment with more linear and organic shapes, eventually using single stains and blots of solid colour against plain white grounds, moving in 1963, to work in acrylic paint that allowed for a greater opacity.

Whilst intellectually acutely aware of the risks of placing a mark on a blank canvas, the influence of Jackson Pollock encouraged her away from her formal art training towards a fluid spontaneity. This allowed shapes and forms to develop on her canvas, to flow so that unconsciously they transformed into an image. Despite her awareness of spatial possibilities, of the pushed and pulled effects of the thinned pigments, the adjustment and blurring of her edges, it’s the emotional quality of these flooded works that give them their power. They are not simply intellectual exercises but felt, sentient works. Shapes open and close, coalesce and dissolve. Light is vibrant, then dematerialises, as in the luminous Sea Goddess, 1963 or Narcissus of the same year, suggesting the sense of being in the work, in a landscape or a sunset rather than describing a landscape or sunset of itself.

Sea Goddess, 1963, Oil on unsized, unprimed canvas, 70 x 94 in, 177.8 x 238.8 cm © 2021 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / DACS, London, Photo: Robert McKeever, Courtesy Gagosian

It was in the 1960s that the term Colour Field painting was used to describe Frankenthaler’s large areas of saturated colour. By the 70s, the soak and stain technique had given way to a thicker, brighter, almost Fauvist use of colour. The physical act of painting – as for Pollack – was an emotional one as she knelt on the floor, pouring and soaking her unsized duck cotton – manipulating the paint in her own personal choreography. Like Pollack, her paintings express her bodily relationship with the canvas – the stretch of an arm, the heft of her shoulder. Her soak-stained technique doesn’t portray the world in any graphic or photographic sense – though at times they do read like aerial views and it’s hard not to see a figure or landscape emerging from the pools of colour – but make demands on the viewers’ perception. Nothing feels quiet complete. There’s an invitation for the mind and the eye to take the image further, to run with it towards an, as yet, undefined totality. Frankenthaler’s art is one of incompleteness. Its signature is openness. It is not proscriptive, rather it’s a process, a reaching towards. There are the echoes of Rothko and Barnett Newman, of that Jewish mystical sensibility which permeated so much post-war American Abstract Expressionism. As in Rothko, there’s a sense of otherworldliness that goes beyond simply formal concerns. Though in Frankenthaler these states tend towards the joyful and the lyrical rather than dark introspection. As for many other modernists, accident played a big part in her process. A photograph in her studio on West End Avenue, New York, in 1957, shows her crouched over her canvas on the floor, a tube of paint in one hand, applying it with the fingers of the other. It’s a lyrical image. A beautiful young woman completely absorbed in the making of her art.

Born in 1928 to a wealthy, cultured and progressive Jewish family – her father was a New York State Supreme Court judge – unusually, for the period, Franthenthaler was encouraged to have a professional career and studied at the Dalton School under the muralist Rufino Tamayo and at Bennington College in Vermont. Pollock, Cubism and Ashile Gorky were all influences of her early mark-making. A five year romantic relationship with Clement Greenberg, then marriage to Robert Motherwell – they were known as the ‘golden couple’ – assured her a place at the high table of modernism in an era when American abstraction was largely seen as a male affair. This allowed her to develop a language of her own, with its liquid forms and dissolving edges, its challenging spatial and perceptual innovations that extended the boundaries of painting for future generations of women artists, allowing them the space to create a multiplicity of visual possibilities.

Imagining Landscapes: Paintings by Helen Frankenthaler, 1952–1976 , installation view 2021 © 2021 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / DACS, London Photo: Lucy Dawkins, Courtesy Gagosian

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Art Criticism

Matthew Barney at Hayward Gallery

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At around 2 hours and 15 minutes it’s virtually as long as a modern production of King Lear but without the breaks. At the beginning of the press view a cluster of other socially distanced critics in masks gathered in the Hayward’s dark space to watch Matthew Barney’s new film Redoubt but by the end I was, so to speak, the last person standing, the rest having slowly peeled away. During this marathon I went through a variety of emotions. Struck by the sheer beauty of Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountain range and the stunning photography I was, at first, captivated by the silence of the snow, the clusters of pristine pines like something from a Freudian dream or a German Romantic painting and the wildlife – wolves, pumas, eagles in their natural habitat – but, as time dragged on, I simply couldn’t decide whether this was a masterwork or a giant exercise in extended hubris. Why did it need to be so long?

The seed for Redoubt (a military term for a form of defensive fortification often improvised in natural areas to which an army can retreat) was first planted in the 1980s. As a teenager Barney grew up in Boise, Idaho and witnessed the debate between re-wilders and local farmers about the reintroduction of wolves into this remote area. The debate ran along political fault lines. Wolves had been hunted to extinction in the United States as early as 1926. In the 1980s and 1990s a federal wolf recovery team began their reintroduction to the anger of local farmers who feared for their livestock. More recently ‘American Redoubt’ has become the term favoured by American survivalists in the north western US, including Idaho, that has among the most relaxed gun laws in the country.

The film opens with drone shots of a snowy wilderness where eagles soar in an empty sky and the mountains are speckled with dark pines like a Peter Doig painting. It’s so beautiful, so ‘pure’ its takes the breath away. The stary night skies and soaring white peaks evoke the American sublime, painters such as Thomas Cole and Frederic Edwin Church who explored the awe and terror experienced in the untamed American outback and the spiritual quiet found there where a modern soul could come face to face with themselves, as all true Romantics must.

But this is no David Attenborough eco-fest but a film that uses myth, dance and art interwoven with the ‘story’ of six hunts to say something about creativity versus nature, destruction versus regeneration and transformation. Whether you think it succeeds is in the end, I suppose, a matter of taste. Barney draws on cosmology, Greek myth (the three Graces) and American First Nation traditions. At the centre of the film is the (loose) story of the Greek goddess, Diana, deity of hunting and overseer of innocence and purity and Acteon, the hunter who invades her privacy and is punished for his pains. Charting the movements of six characters the film creates a web of overlaps and intersections. Diana, in Barney’s version, is a sexy sharp-shooter dressed in figure hugging camouflage attended by her acolytes the Calling Virgin (often seen making chthonic wolf cries) and the Tracking Virgin. We find them first sleeping in their camp site. The two ‘virgins’ hung high in a hammock amid the trees wearing just white vests and long johns curled in a variety of semi-erotic poses. Interwoven with their actions – preparing ammunition, making fires and tracking the wolves on horseback through the snow – is the role of the Engraver (played by Barney himself) who also appears to be a Ranger, driving around in a US service pickup truck to strap a night vision camera on the trunk of a tree. Later we see him in a remote trailer, the apparent home of the sixth character (and dancer) the Electroplater. Here the two, in a rudimentary laboratory of acid baths, wire pulleys and books on electroplating work together, wordlessly, on a series of copper plate etchings that seem to suggest transformation and alchemy. Copper, used in the making of bullets has been found throughout the Rocky Mountains and was once mined in central Idaho where the film is shot. The theme of cosmology is touched on when the Electroplater builds a model of the Lupus constellation identified by Ptolemy in the 2nd century AD. Her role seems to be to act as a transforming conduit between the constellations and earth.

Over the course of the film we follow the Engraver as he sets up his stand in the snow to etch the copper plates that he takes back to the trailer. Meanwhile Diana and her Virgins continue their antics, at one point the pair bathe erotically in a stream, their white long johns and vests becoming fashion-shoot, nipple-revealingly transparent, while Diana sits on a rock watching. Elsewhere there are sequences of them doing Martha Graham style movements in the snow, falling down mimicking the kill of a hunt and the skinning of prey, rather hammering home the point that ‘culture’ and ‘nature’ often stand in opposition. Dance and movement are the emotionally expressive language, here, that hold this silent film together. The one time it shifts away from the wilderness is when the Engraver goes to a bar in the grim settler town and we see a Hoop Dance performed by Sandra Lamouche (Bigstone Cree Nation) inside the gloomy American Legion building. Flapping her red hoops like an eagle’s broken wings the dance, performed in this soulless civic space, seems to imply something of the sad diminishment of indigenous American culture. But it is the wolf that is the real hero of the work. Towards the end a pack goes on the rampage in the trailer, pulling everything apart. Nature reeking revenge perhaps?

Throughout the rest of the Hayward there are the ‘spin off’ artifacts from the film. Engravings on copper in charred pine frames, the artworks created by the voyeuristic Engraver who we saw engraving his plates on a tripod shooting bench out in the deep snow. Barney made five unique ‘states’ of electroplated copper plates, adjusting the electroplating variables of current, temperature and duration. Elsewhere a huge sculpture based on a charred pine dominates the space. The core of the tree was removed and spiralled channels carved into its surface. Encased in a mould, it was then burned away to create a hollow form in copper and brass. The resulting vast sculpture lies on the floor, its roots like coppery veins, part felled tree, part giant rifle, part in-yer-face phallus.

There’s no doubt that the ambition and reach of this show is immense and at times, it’s certainly beautiful, but the film seems overlong and rather full of its own self-importance, and does the world really need so many huge copper sculptures? The smell of commercialism, it seems, is never far away. As I left, I couldn’t help thinking of William Blake’s famous lines:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity for an hour

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Art Criticism

Woman with Her Throat Cut – Alberto Giacometti, 1932

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‘A fetish is a story masquerading as an object’
Robert Stoller

This morning I heard on the radio that the body of Sarah Everard, a young woman missing for a week, has been found in undergrowth and that a member of the Metropolitan police has been arrested. We may never know the disturbing back story to this murder but, yet again, a woman’s life has been cut short by a man. A man full of anger and hate. Yet again women will feel unsafe walking home from a night out with friends, just as they so often feel unsafe in the workplace among those who use their sexuality as a form of control or, too often, particularly during lockdown, in their own homes with an abusive partner. Despite the MeToo movement nothing has really changed. It’s 50 years since the campaign to Reclaim the Night, yet women remain in danger.

In 1932 Alberto Giacometti made an enigmatic and perplexing sculpture, Woman with Her Throat Cut. At the time he was living in Paris, a part of the Surrealist group. The shocking image reflects Surrealism’s fixation with the irrational, with sexual duality and archetypes. Juxtaposition and aggression were a part of the Surrealist language used to mine the new(ish) interest in the hinterlands of the psyche and the chthonic depths of the unconscious. As de Sade wrote: “there is no better way to know death than to link it with some licentious image”.

Led by André Breton and Max Ernst, the largely male group were well versed in the writings of Freud. Art allowed them to give voice to long submerged desires, to explore the connection between death and sexual excitement. At the beginning of the 20th century the ‘primitive’ held a fascination for intellectuals and artists expressed as an interest in African art and in the ‘dark’ urges uncovered by psychoanalysis. These instinctual drives were perceived to stand in contrast to the mundane behaviour displayed by the bourgeois world; to be the cross-roads between ‘civilization’ and the ‘savage’. Freud’s map of the psyche placed the ego (the Ich, the I) at a point between the civilizing super-ego and the primitive libidinous id. Surrealism provided a visual language with which to break through the niceties of daily existence to explore feelings that were more ‘authentic’ than those encountered in polite society.

“The domain of eroticism”, wrote Bataille, “is the domain of violence, of violation… the most violent thing of all for us is death which jerks us out of a tenacious obsession with the lastingness of the discontinuous being.” Death reminds us that we are alive. For Bataille, it was a state of dissolution that mirrored the transition from what was ‘normal’ to what was erotic. In these encounters the female was the essentially passive partner transformed into a deviant sexual object of male desire.. “The whole business of eroticism is to destroy the self-contained character of the participators as they are in normal life,” wrote Bataille. Such detached thinking allowed men to act out their inner fantasies and explore repressed taboos.

Woman with Her Throat Cut is an emotionally highly charged work. The first of six bronze casts acquired by Peggy Guggenheim from the artist in 1940. Approximately three feet long and nine inches high it loosely depicts a woman lying on her back. Her throat appears to have been slashed and there are signs of rape, even of attempted murder. Yet she still seems to be alive, moving and sexually available. A spidery arm reaches out. Her legs are spread open. Her long neck arches backwards in what could either be agony or ecstasy. A reminder that the French phrase for orgasm is ‘le petit mort’. Full of ambiguity and contradiction the work is violent and cruel, yet playful and ironic. The jagged neck suggests not only the marks of a razor blade but the frets of a violin. This woman is a musical instrument on which the male can play his misogynistic tunes. It may be a coincidence, but in 1932 the aristocratic Donna Madina Gonzaga visited Giacometti in his studio prompting feelings of embarrassment and shame at his humble surroundings. Afterwards he became obsessed with her long, elegant neck.

Part animal trap, part vagina dentata, Woman with Her Throat Cut conjures a strange nightmarish mutation reminiscent of Gregor Samsa’s beetle in Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Or a praying mantis – the female of the species consumes the male after sexual congress – favoured, Michael Berison suggests, by the Surrealists to illustrate the dangers of female sexuality. Stretched and elongated the figure appears to be in her death throes, breathing her last, dying alone.

Like Picasso, Giacometti came from a society that held very conservative views about women. Born in the mountain hamlet of Borgonovo in Eastern Switzerland in 1901, he enrolled in 1915 at the Evangelical School in the town of Schiers. It would be surprising, therefore, that this early upbringing, which presented women in stark contrast to those he’d meet later in the sophisticated artistic circles of Paris, didn’t have some effect on his conditioning and create numerous contradictions about his attitudes to women.

Yet beyond the imagery of gender politics, the jagged points evoke the barbed wire of the First World War trenches and are a painful reminder of a conflict that devastated the psyche of a generation, and of the young men slaughtered in their thousands on the battlefields of northern France. Perhaps it’s not too great a leap to consider that the hard metal surface depicts something of the feel and smell of heavy artillery, for the mechanisation of warfare made the 1914-18 conflict the most destructive the world had seen to date.

Along with other of Giacometti’s uncanny sculptures such as Suspended Ball (1930-31) a phallic form trapped in a metal cage; Woman with Her Throat Cut belongs to a period of distinctly Surreal work. Yet just as Giacometti was finding fame as a Surrealist he turned his back on that thread of Modernism to return to the tradition of the human figure. As a result he was excommunicated from the movement by André Breton. Knowing and clever, surrealistic sculpture was dependent on the juxtapositions and absurdities thrown up by dreams but Giacometti felt the need to abandon this theatricality to investigate the alienated feelings of the human subject experienced in the depression of the post-war years. Along with Beckett, Giacometti was to become one of the great exponents of existentialism, exploring notions of social isolation and anxiety, creating figures that Sartre described as “always mediating between nothingness and being.”

Asked by Genet why he approached male and females differently, Giacometti admitted that it was because he didn’t understand women, that they seemed more remote. As an adolescent he’d suffered badly from mumps, which had left him infertile as well as, partly, impotent. A state most easily cured by detached sex with prostitutes. Looking at Women with Her Throat Cut a century after it’s making – particularly in the light of the tragic murder of Sarah Everard – it still has the power to shock. Men of Giacometti’s generation were brought up to believe that women were either Madonna’s or whores. But the real outrage is the realisation that little has changed. ‘Give us a smile’, ‘you know you want to’, ‘don’t you have a sense of humour?’ men still quip as if by divine right, while women continue to be perceived as sexual objects. Objects of male fantasy, desire and hate that, even now, can be the catalysts to unspeakable murder.

Alberto Giacometti
Woman with Her Throat Cut
1932 (cast 1940)
23.2 x 89.1 x 60 cm
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, 1976

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