George Shaw

Published in Elephant Magazine

Art Criticism

The English painter has long taken inspiration from the Midlands estate where he grew up, conjuring visions of comfort, nostalgia and, more recently, right-wing rumblings. Shaw talks to Sue Hubbard about his father, life at the Royal College in the early nineties, and the place he will always know as home.

Scenes from The Passion: The Black Prince, 1999. Courtesy Anthony Wilkinson Gallery

I last saw George Shaw in the small, crowded upstairs room of a Soho pub where he was singing the Morecambe and Wise signature tune, Bring Me Sunshine, while his friend accompanied him on the ukulele. We were there for the Yale University Press book launch of A Corner of a Foreign Field, a big and learned tome on Shaw’s work. The title comes from Rupert Brooke’s famous poem The Soldier. Although Brooke never actually saw active service in the First World War, his lines: “If I should die, think only this of me/ That there’s some corner of a foreign field/ That is for ever England” are the patriotic outburst of a young man contemplating the slaughter of tens of thousands in a cruel and pointless war. Since then, his words have acquired a more flag-waving, UKIP-esque resonance. It’s these complex shifts in English life that Shaw mirrors with a forensic clarity, tinged with tender romanticism, in his meticulous paintings.

Mum’s, 2018

Today, we’re meeting in Soho House and he’s dressed more like a prosperous young farmer from the West Country where he lives—in a smart tweed jacket and waistcoat—than a cutting-edge artist. Sitting by the real wood fire we both mention that the newly decorated room retains something of the old Soho. History, nostalgia and authenticity are important to Shaw. For more than twenty years he’s walked round the same small corner of the Tile Hill council estate in the Midlands where he grew up, taking photographs to create an encyclopaedic reference library that he uses for his paintings.

For Proust it was a madeleine dipped in lime tea. For Shaw it’s Tile Hill Estate’s run down terraced houses with their sagging net curtains, the playing fields and lock-up garages where bored youngsters hang out to kick footballs, sniff glue and look at girlie magazines that bring his childhood gushing back. But his is not a bleak dystopian vision, rather it’s a nostalgic, elegiac image of an all but vanished England, “a dream of Britain, an island I have come to know as a landscape of ghosts and haunted houses, of fair to middling weather and stony prehistory but also a backdrop for injustice, criminality, humour, suspicion and sparse grace.”

The Old Religons, 2017

It is, he says, “a homely and unsettling vision”. This contradiction between the homely, what Freud called (heimlich) and the uncanny (unheimlich) is central to Shaw’s paintings. Although he left Tile Hill at eighteen (his mother still lives there) to study art, the estate remains the emotional core and catalyst at the centre of his work.

“As an artist you can’t just rely on style. You have to rely on intention but it’s hard. As Beckett knew there’s a lot of potential for failure but you just have to keep going”

What, I ask, did it feel like to grow up there during the Thatcher years that badly disrupted the cohesion of such communities? His dad, he tells me, worked in a storeroom of the Standard-Triumph Motor Company in Cranley Coventry, which was swallowed up by British Leyland in 1968 and then closed in 1980. After that he never worked again. But far from giving up, he took the opportunity to educate himself.

“My dad read Pinter and Beckett. We watched TV together on our little black-and-white telly, discussed the kitchen sink dramas, and endless repeats of Hammer horror films. He was a clever man, my dad, aspirational, but he had few opportunities. His motto was ‘question everything’. Mum was Irish and worked in the local pub and saw education as a way out. My sister learned Latin and somehow Dad bought us a piano. He saved money in a box file. Put away £5 a week for Christmas. He’d start doing that the previous year. We always had presents.”

Ash Wednesday: 8.00am, 2004/5

And school? “Well I suppose I was a bit weird but I was never ostracized. There was a lot of violence around then with skinheads and racism around Coventry. But I was mostly up in my bedroom reading. It was a bit of a disappointment, then, when I eventually got to the Royal College expecting this rich cultural life to find that no one much read. My dissertation was on the body in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man. Before that—in 86 to 89—I was doing my BA in Sheffield. I’d been painting in my room since I was ten, life drawing since I was eleven. After my degree I got a job as a medical illustrator at Charing Cross and Westminster Medical School, because I could use a video camera. Then I moved back to Sheffield, worked as a secondary school teacher, teaching children with learning difficulties and had a small studio. Loads of the people there were applying for the Royal College. So I thought, I’ll have a go. I can do that. Though the work I was doing then was closer to Rauschenberg than anything I do now.”

The Man Who Would Be King, 2017

From an early age Shaw had a natural talent for drawing (his uncle was a gifted self-taught artist). At the time the Royal College of Art was a bastion of painting under Paul Huxley, but he didn’t want to offer Shaw a place, saying he’d be depriving kids of a good special needs teacher. Shaw’s response was to demand “a fucking place”. He got in. This allowed him, even as the 1997 Sensation opened at the Royal Academy showcasing the slightly older YBAs, to follow his own trajectory. It was at the Royal College that he embraced Tile Hill as his core subject. At first he’d treat the graffiti he found on a garage door, say, in a gestural way. Then someone suggested he just paint the door instead of pretending to be an expressionist.

The result has been an extraordinary body of work famously created with Hombrol paints—enamel paints traditionally used for painting model airplanes—which has become a love song to the suburbs. An acute observer of the shades of English life, he’s made poetry from the council estate and odes from playgrounds and wasteland. This is a world where the slow erasure of the pastural dream has gone almost unnoticed, as woods become liminal spaces between suburb and country, between then and now. His sylvan scenes from the Passion series resonate with the romanticism of Caspar David Friederich. While others from the same series, such as The Blossomiest Blossom, reflect the spirituality of his lapsed Catholicism. His rows of modest houses also speak of loss. Of a post-war utopianism, expressed through architecture, that believed in social change and a fairer society.

“There’s a way that this place is always home. I had a happy childhood there. I remember watching the play A Voyage Round My Father with my dad in our living room”

There is a strong desire to create narratives from Shaw’s work. Yet the most recent story, suggested by the Cross of Saint George flag sagging in one of the windows of the estate, is a tougher and more despairing one than the warmth expressed in his earlier more wistful paintings. This is the tale of the hubris and xenophobia that is Brexit. Entitled The Man Who Would Be King, the painting resonates with a sense of collapse and spiritual dilapidation.

Scenes from the Passion: The Blossomiest Blossom, 2001

“When I went back to the estate,” he says, “I wondered what I was doing there. I thought I had nothing more to say. I resisted doing the flag paintings for a year. I worried I might seem condescending or even right-wing. Might be criticized for living in a nice house on Dartmoor and painting a shithole. But there’s a way that this place is always home. I had a happy childhood there. I remember watching the play A Voyage Round My Father with my dad in our living room. It’s a strong memory. I suppose we’re all continually looking for our home, even though we know ‘the past is another country’. Still, we try and find the unfamiliar though the familiar. As an artist you can’t just rely on style. You have to rely on intention but it’s hard. As Beckett knew there’s a lot of potential for failure but you just have to keep going. I think it was Novalis who said, ‘Philosophy is really home sickness: the urge to be at home everywhere.’” The same might be said of George Shaw’s paintings.

Published in Elephant Magazine

Deep in the Woods with
Cathy de Monchaux

Published in Elephant Magazine

Art Criticism

“Art is never about just one thing. Good art can be read on many levels.” Sue Hubbard visits Cathy de Monchaux in her studio again after twenty years—and discovers a change in the British artist’s practice from the “profane and pagan” to her latest series of twisted woodland works.

Studio portrait by Anthony Lycett

The last time I visited the sculptor Cathy de Monchaux she was holed up in her huge Peckham studio. “Was it really twenty years ago that you came to see me there?” she asks. “The commute was doing my head in, so I left,” she says bringing me her brand new spotty Bengal kitten to admire, which immediately starts attacking my shoe laces.  She works, now, in her home in Hoxton Street and as the kitten does battle with my shoes, her assistant sits twisting bunches of copper fuse-wire into tree-like shapes at the kitchen table. Downstairs in her studio, where the walls are covered with large charcoal drawings and sculptural maquettes, is a big double bed covered with rich velvet drapes. “I love sleeping down here. If I’m worrying about a piece of work I can get up in the middle of the night and deal with it.”

It was soon after we met that her 1997 one person show at the Whitechapel led to a nomination for the Turner Prize. Although at Goldsmith’s during the 1980s, the same time as Damien Hirst, she was never really part of the YBA gang. Leather straps, brass and red velvet were bolted, riveted and lashed together into uncanny, erotically charged objects that borrowed their imagery equally from fairytales and the Marquis de Sade. With their spikes and festoons of black ribbons they tapped into feminist debates, at the time, around female eroticism. Embracing the burlesque they equally suggested a sense of saint-like  religious rapture, with a nod to Georges Bataille’s view that: “Of all problems eroticism is the most mysterious.” Both a celebration of female sexuality, and a mirror of repressed and guilty female desire, her sculpture was profane and pagan, Gothic and theatrical, and touched on what Kristeva called the abject. Or to use the words of the poet WB Yeats, there was “a terrible beauty” about her work.

Raft, 2016

Now, as we sit and munch on our Pret sandwiches, I ask if there’s been a change in her practice, whether she’s left behind feminist debates about the body. “Well,” she replies, “as human beings and artists we change and move on. My imperatives at fifty-eight are different to those of twenty years ago. When I was younger it was an optimistic time. As women artists we thought we had an open space to do whatever we wanted. That it would all be fine. I was like, ‘Bring it on’. But twenty/thirty years later it just doesn’t feel good enough. We haven’t really arrived. Look at the #MeToo campaign. In many ways to be a feminist now is to be marginalized and side lined. And galleries have changed. I’m not represented by anyone now. I work mostly for commissions. When you’re young you’re establishing a reputation. There’s a commercial imperative to keep making work but some of my pieces take years. I’m happier now that I can work at my own pace, supported by some wonderful collectors. In many ways it gives me greater creative freedom. It’s a choice I’ve made. It’s harder and harder to be true to the work.”

“When I was younger it was an optimistic time. As women artists we thought we had an open space to do whatever we wanted”

Did she feel, I ask, that having become a mother to her son had affected her career? She thinks for a long time before answering. “I think it probably did,” she says. “It’s complicated all that juggling between work and picking up from school. I had an abortion at thirty-two, which affected me much more deeply than I could have imagined. When I got pregnant again, accidentally at thirty-nine, I knew there was no question about having the child. As to my work? Well I think the process, the rhythm, has become slower. It’s not about chasing shows any more, of producing one piece after another for a gallery.”

Looking around the studio I detect a shift from the sexualized body of her early sculptures to an exploration of the unconscious imagination. Forests abound and its not hard to see in her sculptural panoramas references to Paola Uccello’s The Hunt in the Forest, and to Shakespeare’s forest of Arden.

Migration, 2016

It’s no accident that traditionally so many fairytale characters found themselves lost in forests. At one time Europe was covered by dense woodland that presented all sorts of unknown dangers. In more modern times the forest has provided symbolism to the likes of Jung, Freud and Bruno Bettelheim to explore what lies lurking in the unconscious. Cathy de Monchaux’s forests of painted copper wire, twisted into gnarled and knotted trees, are full of half-hidden unicorns. Each is handmade and placed within these dense trees. They allude to the dreams we aspire to and can’t reach, the chivalry of mediaeval hunts and tapestries, even My Little Pony. “Art is never about just one thing,” she insists. “Good art can be read on many levels.” She also makes the point that these are threatening places that people have to cross. This very night, she reminds me, there’ll be people in Europe waiting on the edge of a forest somewhere, trying to cross a border, running for their lives, running from hunters and dogs. All these people must have their own dreams of unicorns.

The copper wire she uses for her scenarios is so thin and flexible that it’s almost like drawing in 3D. It allows her to arrange the trees however she wants and for them to stay put. Her work inhabits a territory that’s hard to define, somewhere between sculpture, drawing, painting and even needlework. In earlier scenarios she was using small female figures instead of unicorns. With their lack of features and rotund bellies they stand in rows like a female army, chthonic goddess rooted to the earth through their fecundity.

Photo by Sue Hubbard

More recently she’s been embroiled with the Guardian about headline that described her new work Beyond Thinking (the title is taken from Virginia Woolf’s landmark essay “A Room of One’s Own”), commissioned for Newham College to celebrate the seventieth anniversary of the first degree ceremony for women graduates, as a “two-storey vulva”, a description which she and the college strenuously deny. “It so lacks insight and sensitivity. The college is a place of learning for women from all sort of backgrounds and faiths and it’s just an inappropriate and lazy description,” she says angrily. This towering artwork that runs up the side of the new college extension resembles, if it resembles any body part at all, a spine or back-bone, a much more apposite image for the struggles of women attempting to achieve equality through education.

“Art is never about just one thing. Good art can be read on many levels”

Cast in bronze it’s made of individual sections that reach up the side of the building. Far from being a series of vulvae, they show tiny female figures emerging from a thicket of branches laid across the pages of a book. It’s as if these tiny women are coming into being, emerging into visibility through language and learning. Forests are symbols of transformation. Boundaries between what is human and animal, plants and trees, the physical and the metaphorical world. As Duke Senior says at the beginning of Act II in As You Like It, “Our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything.”

Looking back over the development of De Monchaux’s work these twenty years or so, what I see is an artist who has continued to expand her vocabulary from the young woman concerned with the aesthetic resonances and politics of female sexuality, to one who is discovering new ways of being, delving deeper into the creative unconscious to explore the ongoing processes of birth, creativity, life and death.

Published in Elephant Magazine

Liliane Lijn’s
Seductive Psychic Drama

Published in Elephant Magazine

Art Criticism

“My feelings about science—in particular the physics of light and matter—are that they are pure poetry.” American artist Liliane Lijn discusses the intersection of language, science and art with Sue Hubbard.

Liliane Lijn, Striped Koans, 1995-7 © the artist

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void: and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, let there be light and there was light.

No, I haven’t gone all religious. But as a metaphor for knowledge over dark ignorance, for intellectual enlightenment over a lack of curiosity, for the development of language out of silence, you can’t beat this old quote from Genesis. It also symbolizes the spirit of Liliane Lijn’s eclectic work which, for more than forty years, has explored our phenomenological relationship with the world we inhabit and our sense of being and becoming. From the microcosmic to the macrocosmic, from the human body to the physical properties of light, she investigates, through her far-reaching visual language, what it means to be sentient and alive.

Liliane Lijn, Get Rid of Government Time, 1962 © the artist

I first came across her work more than twenty years ago when I was writing for Time Out and discovered her kinetic Poem Machines (1962-8) that pioneered the use of rotating poetic texts, initially cut from newspapers and Letraset. I can’t remember, now, where I first saw them. Simply the sense of excitement that I felt as a young female poet discovering a woman artist working at the intersection of the visual arts and language, myth and philosophy and the hitherto largely male world of technology and science. Since then I’ve got to know her and her diverse body of work. The early expressive paintings and explorations of the body, the kinetic sculptures and projects that involve complex physics, often undertaken in collaboration with top scientists.

Liliane Lijn, Am I Who, 2010, © the artist

Today I’ve come to her large elegant studio in north London. It’s a lovely space. Full of books and sculptures and, this afternoon, flooded with balmy late September light. Her assistant works away quietly in a far corner, filing and doing essential paperwork, while we talk. Well-read and with a wide-ranging intellect, Liliane Lijn was born in the US in 1939, four months after her mother and grandmother, of Russian Jewish descent, arrived from Antwerp.
“My feelings about science—in particular the physics of light and matter—are that they are pure poetry”

Her parents’ early divorce lead to school in Switzerland where she became fluent in both French and Italian, leading her to study archaeology at the Sorbonne and art history at the École du Louvre. But these academic subjects were soon given up in order to pursue the life of an artist. In Paris she met André Breton, the French poet and surrealist, and later, back in early sixties New York, she moved in the same hip circles as beat poets such as William Burroughs and Gregory Corso.

She has, she says, always been interested in language and writing but that changing languages from English to Italian interrupted the flow somewhat. This, she suggests, might be why she chose to express herself primarily visually. Though she sees the disciplines of writing, visual art and science as permeable. Moving between them creates a dialogue, a way of asking questions and investigating the world. “My feelings about science—in particular the physics of light and matter—are that they are pure poetry,” she tells me.

Lilian Lijn, Mars Koan, 2008 © the artist, photo Richard Wilding 2015

As we sit in the autumn sun at a glass table held up by legs made from her multi-coloured cones, she describes her work as “a constant dialogue between opposites. My sculptures use light and motion to transform themselves from solid to void, opaque to transparent, formal to organic.”  She’s just come back from Athens, she tells me, where she’s been installing Cosmic Dramas at Rodeo Gallery. It’s an interesting and timely revisiting of her early work. The bold choreography of the Conjunctions of the Opposites: The Woman of War (1985) and The Lady of Wild Things (1983)—two looming kinetic “figures” that stand more than three meters high and use LED light, smoke, lasers and brushes—touch on ancient ideas of the female goddess, though constructed with modern industrial materials. Although made at different times, she doesn’t think of them as set in opposition.

Liliane Lijn, Woman of War, 1986 © the artist

They are, she explains, neither male nor female, but cosmogenic gods. Hermaphrodites that are bisexual in nature and through whom we experience the strongest and most striking opposites. When set side by side they create a seductive psychic drama. “They’re spiritual archetypes. Powerful, angry sexual pieces. The Woman of War sings a bold, audacious song. A song, that when I wrote it, seemed to come into my mouth straight from the earth. The idea came to me when I was a young student in Paris and living on the sixth floor in an empty apartment which I was using as a studio. Standing on the balcony one evening I had a vision. The sky was lit by an extraordinary sunset and I saw the image of a goddess in the clouds. Woman of War grew from an attempt to reconstruct that experience.”

Liliane Lijn, Lady of the Wild Things, 1983 © the artist

I ask if she thinks feminism has changed since the works were made, at a time when women were looking for new narrative models to describe their lives. Did she think that they could be easily understood by the #MeToo generation? Populism, she says, concerns her. There’s a sense of dumbing down. A need to jump on bandwagons. She feels people are afraid of complexity and ambiguity. But, she adds, it was interesting that so many of those who came to the opening in Athens were young. “They were excited. They seemed to get it. And it wasn’t just young women but also men.”

Anyway, she insists, she was never a typical feminist. What interested her was the intellectual pursuit of subjects seen as predominantly male. Her work in the late 1970s to the 1990s was largely based around the body and feminine archetypes: The Wife, The Medusa, The Lady as Bird, The Darkness. But then there was a pivotal moment when she decided to stop making art that was autobiographical and expressive, to move outside and dematerialize the body. That’s when she began working with light. Her approach to the use of light is, she suggests, less architectural, less mechanistic than that of many male artists. For her light is liquid and has an almost anthropomorphic quality.

Liliane Lijn, Heavenly Fragments, 2008 © the artist

This summer she’s been busy working on Sunstar, a large-scale daytime “spectroheliostat” art installation sited on the top of the historic 150-Foot Solar Tower on Mount Wilson in Pasadena. The work is a collaboration with the astrophysicist John Vallerga. A beam of diffracted sunlight is projected onto the Los Angeles landscape, making the solar spectrum visible at specific locations.  “The spectrum is broken down. It creates a single incredibly bright point of light. It’s very small, very brilliant like a star or a jewel that can be seen in the day.
“What interests me is scientific discovery. What it means to be alive, to live in this world”

Normally we can’t really look at the sun. But this allows us to look at a tiny fragment of it. Would she have liked to study physics? “No, I don’t think so. I like what I am. I have a lot of freedom. But I’ve read up about it over the years. You can only get to the kernel of things through physics and chemistry.” They help her, she continues, explore the issues that really interest her such as: what is essence, what is something’s essential character. “I’m not really interested in finance or politics. That’s all such a mess, anyway, and there’s little as individuals that we can do to influence them. What interests me is scientific discovery. What it means to be alive, to live in this world.”

Converse Column, new public art commission, University of Leeds, autumn 2018

Recently she was commissioned by Leeds University to create a nine-metre high revolving drum of transforming words, Converse Column, which will be sited next to the university’s new design centre, Nexus, that opens this autumn. Words and phrases were suggested by students around the concepts of knowledge and interconnection. These were then cut up so that the text and light used becomes fluid in these spinning drums. The aim is to create a work that provokes questions and encourages debate. She was inspired by the concept of Nexus. “So much of my work is about just that: connections relation, conjunction, invention and research.”

As we talk I can detect no signs that Liliane Lijn is slowing down in her eighth decade. There’s a youthful, restless intellectual hunger about her that continues to spur her on to make original eclectic work—work that challenges the very paradigms of what constitutes art.

Published in Elephant Magazine

What Is the point of the Turner Prize?

Published in Elephant Magazine

Art Criticism

It’s that time of year again. As the Turner Prize exhibition opens at Tate Britain with four film works, Sue Hubbard asks “Is there any validity in awarding a prize for art?”

Charlotte Prodger, BRIDGIT, 2016. All images courtesy of the artist, Koppe Astner, Glasgow and Hollybush Gardens, London

It’s that time of year again. Our summer suntans are fading, the nights are drawing in and the leaves are turning. The children have gone back to school and the art world has that beginning of term feel. There’s the jamboree that is Frieze art fair, as well as the opening of the Turner Prize exhibition. Two events that have become as synonymous with autumn as bonfire night. But what exactly is the Turner Prize for? And is there any validity in awarding a prize for art? Imagine a year when Picasso, Braque and Modigliani were all competing. Who would you give the prize to then? How can a prize evaluate unique creative voices, one above the other?
“In a world of the social media we seem to crave shock and awe and soundbites”

But prizes have become a ubiquitous feature of modern cultural life, from the Man Booker Prize and the National Poetry Competition to the John Moores Painting Prize. But art isn’t an Olympic sport where timed performances or superior physical prowess will give you a clear winner. In many ways these prizes distort the cultural landscape, simply promoting flavour of the month by curators who, themselves, are trying to find a place in the limelight. In a world of social media we seem to crave shock and awe and soundbites.

Charlotte Prodger. Portrait, 2017. Photography © Emile Holba 2018

First awarded in 1985, the prize, named after the English painter JMW Turner was founded by a group called the Patrons of New Art under the directorship of Alan Bowness. Their aim was to encourage a wider interest in contemporary art and assist Tate in the acquisition of new works. Between 1991 and 2016 only artists under fifty were eligible, but this flirtation with youth was removed in 2017. Usually held at Tate Britain, the prize has tried to counter criticisms of metropolitanism by being staged in other UK cities, but this year it’s back in London.

From the start it needed commercial sponsors. These have included Drexel Burnham Lambert, Channel 4 and Gordon’s Gin. And where there’s money involved, those who invest want value and visibility for that money. And visibility in the art world usually means “controversy”. The artists are chosen based upon an exhibition in which they have shown during the previous year. Nominations from the public are invited but this is largely cosmetic, as the journalist Lynn Barber confirmed when she was a judge in 2006. The process is arcane. The prize is not actually awarded based on the accompanying Tate show, but on the original exhibition for which the artist was selected, and the real power lies with the panel of judges, which includes fashionable curators and critics.

Naeem Mohaiemen, Tripoli Cancelled, 2017. Single channel film. Commissioned by Documenta14. Co-commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation and Art Jameel. Additional support by Locus Athens, Hellinikon AE and Experimenter.

In 1985, although the conceptual group Art and Language was nominated, painting was still considered central enough that the prize was awarded to Howard Hodgkin. This year any pretence that painting is at the forefront of contemporary art has been abandoned. All four artists work with either video or film. Much of my criticism of previous Turner prize shortlists has been the tired reliance on postmodern irony but, finally, this year—a year when we face Brexit, a migration crisis, the rise of the right wing across Europe and a very real threat to our democracy—the art does appear to engage with current events and cock something of a snoop at the financial trillions of international art dealers and collectors. But is it any good? Well, yes and no.

Luke Willis Thompson, Autoportrait, 2017. Installation view, Chisenhale Gallery. Commissioned by Chisenhale Gallery and produced in partnership with Create. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Andy Keate.

That the work is worthy is not in doubt. But good art also needs to engage the viewer. Charlotte Prodger’s statement that her “installations and performances look at what happens to speech and other representation of the self as they metamorphose via time and space and various technological systems…” made my heart sink. Mainly about sexual identity and queer politics, her rather disconnected ramblings lack any narrative cohesion though she tries to ally them with the Neolithic stone circles and ancient cult of the mother goddess found in her native Aberdeenshire. Whilst there are some lovely painterly shots of rust and purple Scottish landscapes, and her cat, the whole feels like the filmed version of a rather over-complicated dissertation.

Luke Willis Thompson, _Human, 2018, depicting the artwork of Donald Rodney My Mother, My Father, My Sister, My Brother, 1997. Commissioned and produced by Kunsthalle Basel. Courtesy of the artist, Hopkinson Mossman, Auckland/Wellington; and Galerie Nagel Draxler, Cologne/Berlin

The same could be said of Luke Willis Thompson’s 35mm Kodak Double-X black-and-white film, that gives a whole new meaning to the word slow. At thirty, he is the youngest nominee. His Autoportrait was based on the shooting of Diamond Reynolds’ partner Philando Castile by a police officer during a traffic stop in Minnesota. Also showing is his filmed study of Donald Rodney, entitled _Human (1997). Rodney was undergoing treatment at King’s College Hospital for sickle cell anaemia and, before he died, made a small architectural model of a house from his own skin held together with dressmakers pins. This can be seen at the beginning of series of the ten-minute films—we see it from every angle. Then Willis Thompson hones in on the silent faces of his protagonists who seem, in some way, to be bearing witness. Their gazes are intense as painted portraits. But the whole is arcane and lacking in narrative connections that might grab the viewer.

Forensic Architecture, Killing in Umm al-Hiran, 18 January 2017 (still). Annotations by Forensic Architecture on Israeli police footage

The other two works are more direct. Forensic Architecture is a fifteen-member collective of architects, investigative journalists, software developers, scientists and filmmakers based at Goldsmiths in South London. Their aim is to use technology and art to uncover various human rights abuses around the world. Here, together with the collective Activestills, they’ve attempted to unravel official statements about the events of 18 January 2017 when a nighttime raid by the Israeli police on a Bedouin village in the Negev/Al-Naqab desert resulted in the death of two people. It’s a powerful and shocking piece but I question how elastic the definitions of art should become and whether this would have been more suited to a documentary film award.

Naeem Mohaiemen, Two Meetings and a Funeral, 2017. Three-channel installation, Hessisches. Landesmuseum, Kassel, Documenta 14. Commissioned by Documenta 14. Co-commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation and Ford Foundation/Just Films. Supported by Arts Council, Bengal Foundation, Tensta Konsthall. Additional support by Experimenter and Tate Films. Photo by Michael Nast

For me, the work by the British-Bangladeshi artist Naeem Mohaiemen is the most satisfying. His first fiction film, Tripoli Cancelled, follows the daily routine of a man who lived alone in an abandoned airport for a decade. Wandering among the detritus of this empty building in a crisp tan suit and white shirt is like watching someone lost amid the shards of the twenty-first century. Picking up a phone in a smashed phone booth in an attempt to call his wife, he is unable to get through and tells the operator that he’ll try again the following week. Then sitting on the steps of a frozen escalator he quietly sings Never on a Sunday as a tear rolls down his cheek and he lights up a cigarette. With poetic sensibility Mohamiemen suggests a sense of dislocation and the plight of refugees trapped in stateless limbos. Call me sentimental, but I had a lump in my throat.

Published in Elephant Magazine

Life, Death and Reincarnation
with Boo Saville

Published in Elephant Magazine

Art Criticism

“Before I was always wary of the idea of beauty.” Boo Saville talks to Sue Hubbard about finding solace in her colour field paintings, following her mother’s death.

Boo Saville at True Colours, Newport Street Gallery

Boo Saville is a rarity among painters in that she’s both a figurative and an abstract artist. She has, in the past, been labelled as new gothic because her work has long dealt with death. As we sit down to lunch in the Newport Street Gallery in London, where she’s part of the group show True Colours with two other artists, Sadie Laska and Helen Beard, I ask how she developed such a mawkish interest.

Like many children, she tells me, she thought about death a lot. It might have been something as simple as a pet dying that stimulated her young imagination. She can’t quite remember. It’s not that she came from a religious household or believed in heaven and hell. It’s just that at an early age, she realized that at some point we’re all going to die. At art school she made a secret painting of a mass grave, like those in Auschwitz, that released something in her. Skulls, ghosts and decay became recurring symbols.

She used to go to museums to draw and just take a biro, working in layers to build up the surface like an old master painting. Butter Skunk, for example, featured biro recreations of photographs of mummified bodies found in Danish bogs the 1950s. But, more recently, something’s changed. She’s making large colour field paintings like those in True Colours that, for the viewer, create a kind of sublime immersion. In 2014 her mum died, and she was poleaxed by grief. Something changed, she says, in her vision. The way she saw the world went through a transformation.

Installation view, True Colours

“As I walked around it was a bit like being on ecstasy, as though all the love and emotion I felt for my mum was somehow being reabsorbed. It was really important when planning her funeral that everything was beautiful. This experience stimulated a new relationship with colour. Before I was always wary of the idea of beauty, somehow skirting around it.”

“If I’m making an 11-foot painting up on a scissor lift, I have to really believe in it”

I ask where she gets her ideas. If she’s influenced by what she reads, but she admits that she hardly reads at all, except for books on mental health or people like Fred West. “Though I do spend a great deal of time online and when I’m working I listen to playlists. I like movie soundtracks. Stuff that’s varied and emotional. I don’t have a telly. I work all the time. If I’m not working I don’t get out of bed for days. It takes it out of me. If I’m making an 11-foot painting up on a scissor lift, I have to really believe in it. It’s a big commitment. I listen to music on my earphones and paint to the soundtrack. There’s a performative element to it. I can’t hide behind anything. It’s so uncool, so uncontemporary to work like this but I just want to connect with people, to create works that bring people together and make them feel.” She likes, she says, the idea of her audience reflecting on her paintings, projecting their own thoughts and feelings onto them, filling them in with their lives.

Boo Saville, Ain (Eye of the Bull), 2018. Photo Prudence Cuming Associates

And while working, a word, a completely extraneous word, may just float into her head such as “tiptoe” that will trigger all sort of associations and images. “It’s like drawing a map in one’s own brain.” The big paintings, though, are essentially intuitive. “I might think this time I’d like a dark one, but the process is very fluid. The paintings themselves dictate the directions that they take. But they’re hard work. I want them to look as though they’ve just appeared, not that they’ve been worked on.” She talks of them as if they were cheeses. Some, she says, are young. Others more mature.

I ask about her life. She tells me that she and her husband Adam, who’s doing a PhD, used to live in one room in a shared house. Then, after her parents died, they moved to a one bedroom flat in Margate near where she has her studio. “It’s on an industrial estate behind B&Q, between a roofer and a sign maker. Not at all trendy,” she says. She’s the only woman in the place and the only artist and has to share a communal loo. When she first moved in she found a note saying: “A lady’s moved in. Put the seat down and mind your language boys.”

“Making this work is a mix of intuition and rigorous technique”

But she loves Margate and hasn’t looked back since she left London. She starts her working day at about 8am with coffee, puts on music, checks her brushes are dry enough to work with and selects which ones she’s going to use. “I love mixing paint and I’m very obsessional about my brush-cleaning habits because they have to be super-soft and not leave any brush marks, as each layer needs to be completely smooth. Between each one the canvas is sanded and washed. So, making this work is a mix of intuition and rigorous technique”.

Installation view, True Colours

She doesn’t work with an assistant and does everything herself. “I don’t want another person in the room with me. I’m completely at home when making work. I’m never lonely when painting. I was on my own a lot as a child”. Has she ever wanted children? I ask. Well, it’s just not happened, she says, and work has just taken over, become more important.

And how does she see the future? “Well, I dream of being in my seventies and at the top of my game like Phyllida Barlow. I love the sense of freedom in her work but I’m still too anxious to be that free.”

Installation view, True Colours

So, did she know she always wanted to be an artist? “Yes, I told my mum aged six that’s what I was going to be. I had a little plastic glow worm toy—mine was an artist one—so I’ve been on that path ever since. You could say I’ve had tunnel vision. Mum was a primary school teacher and my dad did a PhD in education. We had a little primary school at home where we could draw on the walls. I put so much of what I do down to my mum. The truth is that she’s completely there in these new colour field paintings.”

So, I ask, are they a form of reincarnation, a secular form of life after death? “Yes”, she says, “They wouldn’t exist if I hadn’t lost her. I cried when I saw the show. It was like losing her and finding her all over again.”

All images courtesy Newport Street Gallery

Published in Elephant Magazine

A Drama of Ideas
with Christo

Published in Elephant Magazine

Art Criticism

“I love the heat and air, wet and cold. I’m not very interested in the clinical space of the gallery.”

Christo discusses his literally monumental practice with Sue Hubbard, as his latest work of art is unveiled at the Serpentine Lake in Hyde Park.

It’s a beautiful chmmer morning as I make my way past the lakes and fountains, towards the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, where I’m to meet Christo, one of the few contemporary artists to be known only by one name. The wild heron balanced on top of the lakeside Henry Moore seems propitious. A collision between art and nature in an urban setting; a theme that runs deep through Christo’s work. The day before our meeting marked the opening of The London Mastaba, his temporary sculpture of 7,506 horizontally stacked blue and red painted barrels set on a floating platform in the Serpentine Lake, like a great pyramid.

I have my questions carefully prepared. What was the effect of his communist upbringing? Does he consider himself a land artist? How does he see his legacy? But, before I can get out the first question, he’s off—his sentences running as fast as a greyhound out of the starting box. This isn’t so much an interview as a private lecture by one of contemporary art’s most genuinely original artists.

“I owe everything to my parents,” he tells me. “My father was half Czechoslovakian, half Bulgarian. My mother, Macedonian. From the age of seven they encouraged me. I had private art lessons, real painting, real sculpture, real architecture. It was not so much that I escaped Communist Bulgaria in 1956,” he says, “rather that I went to live with relations in Prague. The world was chaotic. There was a lot of violence. Austria was divided. We feared WWIII. I’d done four years at the academy and the curriculum was very nineteenth century. We studied the decorative arts and even did two semesters of anatomy.

“I belonged nowhere. I was young and had never seen any real contemporary art so headed for Paris”

The course was eight years, but I left after four. I became a stateless person. I had no means, nothing at all. I had a “white passport”, a Nansen passport issued by The League of Nations. I belonged nowhere. I was young and had never seen any real contemporary art so headed for Paris where I did all sorts of odd jobs. It was in Paris that I met my late wife and life-long collaborator, Jeanne-Claude.”

I ask if he believes his comprehensive art education was of value. After all, his beautifully drawn plans have the precision of an architect’s project. “Well, the first critic who wrote of the wrapped Reichstag was an architectural critic. Space is such an important element in this work.”

“It’s an adventure, a drama of ideas but also very physical. I used to have huge arguments with Jeanne-Claude”

Where does he get his ideas from? They’re quite unlike anyone else’s. “I’m interested,” he says, “in the things we don’t know how to do, that engineers don’t yet know how to make. I work with a pool of people in the small hub of my nineteenth-century building. It’s an adventure, a drama of ideas but also very physical. I used to have huge arguments with Jeanne-Claude. We’d argue all the time. That’s how we developed our ideas. I’m not interested in modern technology. I can’t drive. I don’t use a computer. There is no elevator in my block. I spend six or seven hours a day standing in the studio. I like what’s real. I love the heat and air, wet and cold. I’m not very interested in the clinical space of the gallery. We call the thinking time the “software period”.

Educated as a Marxist, he set up a corporation to fund his projects largely from the proceeds of his drawings and other permanent artworks. He’s never had public funding and feels this gives him total aesthetic freedom. “Anyway,” he says, “in the early days no one was interested in our work.” He develops several projects simultaneously and emphasizes that he makes the work entirely himself and has no assistants. But he does need teams to help with the complex logistical planning and installation. It’s very expensive. The London Mastaba will have cost around £3,000,000. And it’s hard to get permissions. Twenty-three projects have been successfully made; forty-seven never happened.

“We work with the urban and the rural but in places touched by human habitation… Everything is based in the real”

Does he know what a work will look like when it’s finished? “Oh, yes. We find places to make them in secret, test the materials. For the Pont Neuf piece, we went to a small French village where the mayor owned a Monet and asked to wrap up his bridge.”

Does he feel connected to the tradition of land artists, such as Robert Smithson and his Spiral Jetty? “No. We work with the urban and the rural but in places touched by human habitation. We need the lamppost or church to give comparative scale. Everything is based in the real”.

How does a work evolve? “Well, in the places where people or collectors support us.” In the 1980s Miami was a place of race riots, refugees and violent crime. He and Jeanne-Claude arrived in town attracted by the flatness of the landscape, intending to dress the islands, built from piles of trash in Biscayne Bay, with hot-pink skirts. The result was lyrical and visually stunning. The idea was Jeanne-Claude’s, he reminds me, and it’s evident that he still misses her.

On 9 October 1991, their 1,880 workers began to simultaneously open some 3,100 yellow and blue umbrellas in Ibaraki, Japan and California. Why umbrellas? “Ah,” he says, “the work is like a diptych based in two of the richest countries in the world, but that have huge cultural differences. There’s a comparison in the space. Japan would virtually fit into California, which is much less densely populated. California is essentially flat, Japan mountainous. We started with the idea of shelters, but that was too difficult. Then tents.

We wanted to incorporate the idea of the nomadic. In the end it became umbrellas: roofs without walls. Yellow for California where the grass becomes burnt. Blue for Japan where there are rivers. We placed them near churches and gas stations. Real places. The umbrellas had bases where people sat. Families picnicked there. But in Japan, they took off their shoes. That’s a cultural difference. People think umbrellas were invented in Japan, but it was in Mesopotamia. Our umbrellas were eight meters wide and nine meters high. The size of an average two-storey Japanese house.”

Next, I ask about a typical Christo day. “I like to start the morning hungry. I might take a little yoghurt with garlic, a banana and some coffee. I need to feel edgy and alert, so I eat in the evening. The day is for creativity, the evening for classifying and ordering.” He doesn’t read anymore. “Because I’m running out of time,” he says. “The only thing that matters, now, is my art.”

And his legacy? Well, the work is all temporary, fragile. Like people striking a camp in the desert. It’s there one minute, then taken down. “In the end, what do we know about ourselves? What remains are ruins and memories. We can make a sort of archaeology, but reconstruction isn’t real. The computer chip is the most reliable way of recording what’s real. These will give the only true records of the present in the future. But I don’t like nostalgia. I love life too much. I’m not interested in retrospectives. I have too many new projects in mind.”

Published in Elephant Magazine

Hughie O’Donoghue on
Van Gogh and
Terrible Beauty

Published in Elephant Magazine

Art Criticism

“You must give yourself up to the process. Subjects emerge slowly, like archaeology.”Hughie O’Donoghue’s hazy works are viscerally dreamy, rich in colour and texture. Sue Hubba rd speaks with the painter about the sacrifices of Van Gogh and the dangers of irony.

I first came across Hughie O’Donoghue’s work as a young critic when, in 1989, I went to review his solo show, Fires, at Fabian Carlsson. I can still remember the profound effect his intense semi-abstract paintings, with their old master blacks and fiery oranges, had on me. The late eighties were the high point of irony. Goldsmiths, where O’Donoghue did his masters, was the driving force behind this knowing, often conceptual approach to art. But these works were different. They hit you in the solar plexus. Clutched you around the heart in a way that completely eschewed fashion. Here was someone who cared about painting. Not only the substance and materiality but also the emotional, poetic and philosophical depths that paint could explore. In an age of the too-clever-by-half, here were works that, unapologetically, looked back to art history, pitting themselves against the greats. Edgy, authentic, visceral, they reverberated with that sense of “terrible beauty” referred to by WB Yeats in his poem, Easter 1916.

Since then I’ve got to know O’Donoghue and his wife, Clare, well. I’ve written about him on several occasions, talked to him for hours about his work in his different studios, always impressed by his deep knowledge of and commitment to painting.

“The conceptual context in which I grew up killed painting. Van Gogh talked of himself as a painter, not an artist. You can’t make a conceptual painting, it’s a contradiction”

Today we are speaking about his new show at Marlborough Fine Art in London, Scorched Earth, which takes as its starting point Van Gogh’s lost painting—The Painter on the Road to Tarascon—which O’Donoghue believes was destroyed in a fire during the Second World War. The exhibition is a tribute to Van Gogh, to the idea of Van Gogh and his passionate, idiosyncratic commitment to painting.

“It’s the last two years of his life that were so significant,” O’Donoghue says. “If he’d died before the final paintings we may well not have known who he was. Those last paintings are truly revolutionary.” Van Gogh is, for him, the painter who stands in contradiction to so much in the contemporary art world: the commercialization, the razzmatazz, the conceptual theory. “Van Gogh painted without fear,” he says. “The conceptual context in which I grew up killed painting. Van Gogh talked of himself as a painter, not an artist. You can’t make a conceptual painting, it’s a contradiction. You must give yourself up to the process. Subjects emerge slowly, like archaeology. Van Gogh felt that he sacrificed his sanity for his painting. He had a brilliant intellect but was plagued by mental health issues. He might have been bipolar or suffering from the effects of syphilis, but he still managed to peruse his painterly vision. Painting provided solace, but it was also visceral, felt, direct. Conceptual art developed with Marcel Duchamp as a response to the slaughter in WWI. It grew out of a loss of certainty, a loss of faith. It represented the end of an era.”

The figure of Van Gogh, walking alone on a hot day is, for him, that of the everyman. He makes no real attempt to paint a portrait or capture an exact likeness but rather attempts to distil or capture Van Gogh’s essence. “The lonely figure striding out down the road represents the individual journey that we all make, particularly the artist, through life.” In his large tarpaulin painting, Hammering the Earth, the model is O’Donoghue’s son Vinnie. He wears his father’s suit and is carrying his great-grandfather’s cardboard case and his grandfather’s cane as he makes his way along the road outside the studio in County Mayo, Ireland. There are layers of meaning here: the solitary quest of the artist, the image of migration from rural Ireland. O’Donoghue’s own grandfather left Kerry to work on the railways in Manchester in 1911. From the hot orange of the painting Lavender Field, the image of what might be a soldier emerges. The figure is that of a French Poilu, an infantryman, a farm worker from the fields—the nickname means hairy one—which mirrors his own father’s wanderings through wartime France. Thus son, father and grandfather form a web of connection between O’Donoghue and Van Gogh.

Among the most powerful works at the Marlborough are the series of heads. Bald, wild-eyed or covered in a bandage, these expressionistic paintings show what it might have been like to inhabit the mind of the disturbed genius. I mention Dostoyevsky’s Idiot. “Yes”, says O’Donoghue, “there’s something of the innocent savant about them.”

For O’Donoghue, being a painter is a serious business. The subject is important as it acts as a trigger, an anchor point. Van Gogh is a valid subject because he’s an example of what is purest in art. “He always called himself a painter, not an artist. When I was at art school irony was the only show in town, but painting establishes meaning differently to conceptual art. It’s visceral and physical. There’s a quote by George Bernard Shaw that’s relevant here: ‘Revolutions have never lightened the burden of tyranny, they have only shifted it to another shoulder.’”

It was as a teenager that O’Donoghue first saw Van Gogh at Manchester Art Gallery. “They happened to have on loan one of the first pictures he made in Arles.” A tree in blossom in the snow. Then, at twenty, he made a pilgrimage to Arles. Since then Van Gogh has been his barometer. “A touchstone, a real painter, with a sense of the material: the mud that is paint. What’s so important is that he invented new genres. The painting of his chair, for example, is a portrait. No one had done anything like that before. These aren’t conceptual paintings. They deal with memory, the resonance of ordinary things. Van Gogh imaginatively reconstructed the world and defined what it is to be a modern painter.”

Photography © Anthony Hobbs

Published in Elephant Magazine

The Many Sides of
Eileen Cooper

Published in Elephant Magazine

Art Criticism

Artist, mother and now first female Keeper of the Royal Academy Schools, Eileen Cooper reflects on the challenges and triumphs of her remarkable career.

As I sit with Eileen Cooper on the roof terrace of the NED hotel looking over the London skyline, large snowflakes swirl outside the plate glass window and we calculate that the first time we sat down together to discuss her work was thirty-three years ago. The circumstances were rather different then. I was a young art critic and poet, a single mother new to London, writing for Time Out. Eileen was an “emerging” artist. She had a gallery in the West End and was getting noticed. Her work was much favoured by women writers for their book covers. I, myself, used a powerful charcoal drawing Carefully (1993) on the front of my first poetry collection, Everything Begins with the Skin. At that first meeting we sat huddled in a bedroom of her south London home that was then being used as a kitchen, while the downstairs was slowly being converted. We talked about art and the struggle to be both mothers of small children and creative women. It’s a long time ago now. But those times shaped who we are. The lives of women, relationships, fertility and sexuality have long been the enduring themes of Eileen Cooper’s very human work.

Breathing Space, 2016

As I sit with Eileen Cooper on the roof terrace of the NED hotel looking over the London skyline, large snowflakes swirl outside the plate glass window and we calculate that the first time we sat down together to discuss her work was thirty-three years ago. The circumstances were rather different then. I was a young art critic and poet, a single mother new to London, writing for Time Out. Eileen was an “emerging” artist. She had a gallery in the West End and was getting noticed. Her work was much favoured by women writers for their book covers. I, myself, used a powerful charcoal drawing Carefully (1993) on the front of my first poetry collection, Everything Begins with the Skin. At that first meeting we sat huddled in a bedroom of her south London home that was then being used as a kitchen, while the downstairs was slowly being converted. We talked about art and the struggle to be both mothers of small children and creative women. It’s a long time ago now. But those times shaped who we are. The lives of women, relationships, fertility and sexuality have long been the enduring themes of Eileen Cooper’s very human work.

Interval, 2016

Born in the Peak District, Derbyshire in 1953, she went, as she says, to an ordinary comprehensive. It was a long journey from there to become the first female Keeper of the Royal Academy Schools since the RA began in 1768. Drawing has always been the basis of her practice. She’s an organic, intuitive artist who discovers things through the process of making, through experimentation in the studio. Her drawings, prints and paintings are peopled with strong, independent women. Often, they are the main nurturers among a cast of men, boys and animals that range from cats to tigers. Monumental and assured, many of her women are nude. Some dance. She’s not interested in the naturalistic but in symbols and implied narratives.

Totemic and wild, her women are closely allied with nature. Halfway between humans and goddesses. In The Two Gardeners (1989) a pair of naked females, painted in bright vermillion, swing from a scroll of vines above their gardening fork and spade, while in Enchantress (2000) a woman covers her face with a mask of leaves like some sort of ecological dance of the Seven Veils. There’s an ecstatic, chthonic quality to her movement, as though she’s just escaped from the Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Primitive, shamanic and atavistic, T.S. Eliot’s clodhopping dancers come to mind: “Leaping though the flames, or joined in circles, /Rustically solemn or in rustic laughter/Lifting heavy feet in clumsy shoes,/ Earth feet, loam feet lifted in country mirth….”

Her figures pulse with energy, part of the matrix of life in which we all find ourselves entwined. They are living, breathing, sensing bodies that draw their sustenance from the soil, from plants and animals. Of late she’s been making sculptures but says she’s happiest working in two dimensions. Her influences are Indian miniatures and mediaeval painting. The German expressionists from Nolde to Kirchner. Picasso and the Fauvists. Like these artists she is a powerful colourist.

Pussy Willow, 2017

Has she always been a feminist? Yes, she answers. But it’s only now, when she looks back on her time as a student in the early 70s at Goldsmiths, that she realises how often she was excluded from core activities. Then she hardly noticed. She just got her head down and worked. She only had male tutors. Though some, like Basil Beattie and Bert Irvin, were supportive of women. When she started teaching she was unusual: both a woman and a figurative painter.
“Networking is so important to success as an artist. But a gap opens up for young women with families.”

Is her work autobiographical? “Not directly”, she answers. But it does “draw from my experience. It’s about movement and balance. About juggling. The figures are contained within a rectangle. I think of it like theatre where I explore issues of creativity, work and family relationships. Networking is so important to success as an artist. But a gap opens up for young women with families. Going to private views is out because that’s children’s tea-time. It’s hard to keep going.”

Hear the Wind Cry I, 2017

I ask what she thinks about the current #MeToo campaign and, like many women of our generation, she is ambivalent, feeling that the slogan is too simplistic. “I tend,” she says, “to put the past behind me and live in the present. Class was, in fact, as much an issue for me as being a woman. I didn’t come from a background where people went to art school.” She feels it’s important to help students find their way through a system that’s always favoured the privileged and the male. Even now, she claims, there are far fewer women in major collections than men. “And that,” she says, “is in modern collections, not just historic ones” But, she passionately believes in the value of a liberal arts education, whether or not students go on to be artists, and feels that it’s in danger of being cannibalised. “Education is a thing in itself. It’s not just about qualifications.”
“I try not to take myself too seriously. There’s so much pomposity in the art world.”

And now that she’s handed on the baton of Keeper, I ask, what does she plan to do? She’s lucky, she says. She has the time to take her practice in new directions. As a process-based artist, she likes to work outside her comfort zone, experimenting with new materials and ideas. “I try,” she says, “not to take myself too seriously. There’s so much pomposity in the art world. Of course, in the studio, I’m deadly serious, but I like to take a step back, to help young artists. Education changed my life. I’m proud of my time at the Academy Schools. It’s a centre of excellence.”

Body Talk 3, 2017

Centre Stage 2, 2017

And now there’s a new development. She has a gallery in Beirut, Lebanon. Going there has given her fresh ideas. She’s fascinated by the ancient mosaics she’s discovered, experimenting with how she can incorporate them into her work. She likes how, when we walk on them, they connect us to the past, give us a direct route back through time to older civilizations. She’s always trying to improve as an artist but admits there’s probably only so much work inside her. Now, for the first time, she can take things a bit easy. She might take longer on an individual work or spend more time preparing. If she’s working on paper she often draws flat on the table, beginning with a charcoal outline. Other times she’ll work on an easel, changing and experimenting as she goes along, rubbing out with tissue paper and rag, then transforming and rebuilding. Drawing will always be central, but she is working on three new big canvases. And she loves printmaking. The co-operation, the sociability. Working in a team.

Like Paula Rego, who is a decade and a half older, Eileen Cooper shows us the world, after centuries of seeing it through the male gaze, through female eyes. She creates narratives of the collective female experience in a universe peopled by women, their partners and children. Her work is intimate and accessible, concerned above all with how we make sense of our lives as mothers, wives and friends. But it’s also knowing, informed and packed full of influences from Giotto to Matisse, and as much about the process of being an artist—the use of materials, the medium etc—as it is about exploring the experiences and adventures of being a modern woman.

Pause, 2017

Published in Elephant Magazine

Rose Wylie
Duck, Duck, Goose

Published in Elephant Magazine

Art Criticism

“What you remember is what was special and significant for you as a child.”
War, football and family homes are threaded through the latest exhibition of work by celebrated British painter, Rose Wylie.

All images: Installation view, Quack Quack at Serpentine Sackler Gallery, London © 2017 Mike Din

“I see you like dark lipstick too. It’s great, isn’t it? Not really like lipstick at all, more like paint,” Rose Wylie remarks as we settle down in an ante-room of the Serpentine for a chat about her new exhibition, Quack-Quack. “It’s nice to meet you. I feel as though I’ve known you for a long time from your writing.”

“The paintings remain fresh, curious and playful. Age is just a number. Imagination and curiosity are all.”

Born in 1934, Rose dresses like an art student. Grey hair cut into a bob that flops over her round Harry Potter specs. A baggy tweed jacket worn with a short skirt over tights and trainers. And, of course, the dark red lipstick. She is very friendly, very unaffected and tells me she’s enjoying her new-found fame. I remind her of Louise Bourgeois’s acerbic comment to a journalist on becoming a celebrity in her nineties that she’d been “‘ere all along”. Rose Wylie laughs. Yes, she’s been here all along, too, busily painting away. Though, as a second child, she says, she’s used to being put in her place. “So, when something finally happens that’s funny and surreal, it’s really rather nice.”

She’s been accused by detractors of making “childish” images. But that is completely to miss the point of her work. It takes a good deal of insight and self-awareness to paint this freely. Unlike a child there’s a sophisticated editing process. Decisions have to be made as to what to use and what to discard based on an instinctive sense of aesthetic “rightness”. An endless evaluation of what works and what doesn’t. The past, for her, is not so much another country but one that is continually alive and present in her work. She does not “depict” things “as they are” but rather creates memory-maps. Rosemount (Coloured), 1999, reframes some of her early childhood memories. A central black house sits surrounded by a front lawn and privet hedge, allotments and chicken run, all signposted in her loopy handwritten script. She had difficulty, she says, remembering which side of the house the chimney went. So first she had to remember which door she’d used, where the fireplace was, where the cat sat and the chickens lived. Only then, by going through all these things in her mind’s eye, could she be sure to which side of the house the chimney belonged. “What you remember,” she says, “is what was special and significant for you as a child.”

Park, Dogs and Air Raid, 2017 grew from memories of living for a short period, when she was five, close to Kensington Gardens during the Second World War. Dogs, ducks and lakes, along with the present-day Serpentine Gallery, are all thrown pell-mell into the mix, as Messerschmitts and Spitfires lour overhead in the Blitz. The Quack-Quack of the exhibition title onomatopoeically mixes the memories of ducks in the park with the more sinister sound of “ack-ack” fire. There’s an extraordinary physicality and fluidity to her paintings that remind me in their delightful irreverence of early Paula Rego or Philip Guston’s loose cartoonish shapes. I mention Cy Twombly’s use of text and she pulls a face. “Too highfalutin, too erudite,” she says.

Usually, she tells me, she paints what she sees. A work often starts with a drawing, a close observation. Though the scale may change and she may fiddle with the rules of gravity. Repetition is also important. Going at things from different perspectives and angles. It’s as if she’s grappling not to describe how things actually are, but rather what they feel like. As though the physical act of painting becomes a mechanism for remembering.

“Her use of language is anarchic and wayward. Sometimes words are misspelt or slip over the edge of a painting to remind us that they’re really a form of painterly mark-making.”

There’s a strong sense of place in her work and the text helps to detonate and to fix memories. She’s a fan of the poetry of JH Prynne, the Cambridge poet, also in his eighties, known for his powerful, dense and experimental poetry. Her use of language is anarchic and wayward. Sometimes words are misspelt or slip over the edge of a painting to remind us that they’re really a form of painterly mark-making. Her sentences are not captions but an intrinsic part of the visual whole. They may look as though they have been written by a first-year infant, but there’s a knowing physicality to them. She labels the parts of a horse in Irreverent Anatomy Drawing, 2017 in the way a child at school may label them in a biology lesson: sternum, femur, tibia, etc. Her paintings are scruffy and messy as though the one element of childhood that hasn’t abandoned her in her eighties is the ability to play.

Football—Yellow Strip, 2006, with its Eadweard Muybridge sense of sequential movement—and film are also important influences. Many of her paintings can be read like cinematic storyboards. Kill Bill (Film Notes), 2017 explores one scene from the Tarantino film from slightly different points of view. While NK (Syracuse Line Up), 2014 evokes a freeze from antiquity, Knossos, say, or an ancient wall painting from Pompeii, as well as the frames of a film. Her love of cinema is also alluded to in ER & ET, 2011, in which a generic Liz Taylor lies languidly in skimpy swimwear, surrounded by a plethora of eyes and ears. These were appropriated from the decoration on a cloak belonging to Elizabeth I and suggest that we all become voyeurs and spies when we gawp at the famous and their personal lives become public. The two parts of Pink Table Cloth (Close-Up) (Film Notes), 2013, inspired by the 2005 film Syriana directed by Stephen Gaghan, are based on a panoramic long shot and a close-up of a meeting in the desert that takes place at a table draped, rather surreally, in a pink table-cloth. As in this work, Wylie often adds sections to her paintings, another panel, say, to run along the bottom, building them into almost sculptural forms.

There’s a wonderful anarchy to her work that seems to reach back to make connections with early cave paintings—the desire for human beings to chart and explain the world—while also embracing popular culture.  Above all Rose Wylie is a testament to “doing one’s own thing”. To the integrity of individual vision rather than the slavish following of fashion. She may be in her eighties but the paintings remain fresh, curious and playful. Age is just a number. Imagination and curiosity are all. And, no doubt, she will still be sporting the dark red lipstick when she is in her nineties.

Published in Elephant Magazine

Sean Scully: Facing East

Published in Elephant Magazine

Art Criticism

Sean Scully finds a suitable setting for his work at Multimedia Art Moscow, where he draws welcome parallels with the great Russian works of Kandinsky and Malevich.

Wall of Light Blue Black Sea
, 2009, oil on aluminium

All human life is defined by boundaries—from the garden fence to the border between states. Boundaries tell us who we are. Me and not you or them. They divide the physical from the metaphysical, one side of the river from the other. Sometimes they involve choice. Other times war. Sometimes they are permeable. On other occasions rigid. We create them for our physical safety and, occasionally, we are brave enough to let them dissolve when we want to get close to others either personally or politically.

“Where does he belong except to the language and landscape of paint?”

Moscow, then, could not be a more pertinent city for Sean Scully to show his work in Facing East, this first major exhibition at Multimedia Art Moscow. Not quite Europe, not quite Asia, the fault line for so long between the so-called free world and communism, the city provides, with its backdrop of extraordinary art—from the Kremlin frescoes to the stunning Impressionists in the Pushkin Museum—the perfect mise en scène for Scully’s work. The notion of borders also reflects something more personal, Scully’s comparative statelessness. An artist of Irish origin, he grew up largely in London and went to English art schools, though he has lived and worked much of his life in Barcelona, Germany and New York. How, then should such a peripatetic artist define himself? Where does he belong except to the language and landscape of paint?

Backs and Fronts, 1981, oil on linen

Scully is a painter who divides artists and critics. There are those who see him simply as painting grids in the modernist tradition, or as a Romantic whose beautiful brush marks continue to seduce the viewer in an age of hard-edged conceptualism. But that, I believe, is to misunderstand the timeless metaphysics of these paintings. The struggle, the journey. Like a Russian Orthodox monk who sings the limited repertoire of notes of a Gregorian chant over and over, or a Japanese haiku master who constantly returns to the same poetic form of 5/7/5, Scully uses the constraints of the grid to go deeper and further into the terrain of the metaphysical. In the early twentieth century, Alexander Rodchenko tried to uncover the very foundations of painting and explore its molecular and atomic components in line and colour. Kandinsky saw music “as the ultimate teacher” of the painter, ideas that he explored when writing about his Christian eschatology in Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Whilst Scully’s work, by comparison, is secular art for a secular age, he is still compelled by what Kandinsky called “an internal necessity”, where one boundary presses up against another with a sense of purpose or dissolves and shrinks away from its adjacent companion.

The thirty paintings, watercolours, mixed-media compositions and pastels featured in Moscow chronicle Scully’s rise to artistic heights. As the art critic and cultural philosopher Arthur Danto insisted, he “belongs on the shortest of shortlists of the major painters of our time.” As we move through the exhibition, from the sole figurative study undertaken in 1967 to the comparative sparseness of the Landlines created half a century later, we travel with the artist as he develops his thinking and approach. The cartography of these deceptively simple latitudinal and longitudinal stripes, refined over a period of fifty years, transcend the materiality of paint to become coordinates that map inner landscapes. To appropriate John Berger’s famous phrase, they provide the viewer—if the viewer is willing or able to engage with an open mind—new “ways of seeing”. For as Kazimir Malevich remarked: “Reality can never be attained or perceived.”

Installation view, Facing East, 2017 at Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow

The Moscow space heralds the visitor with Scully’s large wall of tight horizontal and vertical stripes, Backs and Fronts from 1981. This painting, comprising eleven separate panels of different dimensions and proportions of stripes, started out as four musicians in a homage to Scully’s friend Pablo Picasso, who painted three musicians. But three were not enough for Scully, so he made it four. Slowly other panels were added like performers joining a band. Finally, as it evolved over time, the painting acquired its new name, suggestive of the buildings in New York where Scully has lived for much of his life. Like Grey, 1973, with its strict diagonal logic and Black Composite, 1974, Backs and Fronts denotes a more rigorous formal period of Scully’s work, which is tighter and more constrained than the humane fluidity of his later work. In Moscow, Passenger Red White (1999) has been hung high up alongside Backs and Fronts in acknowledgement of Malevich.

“They display the confidence of one who has developed a fluency in his own chosen language that allows the viewer to conjure imagined horizons and landscapes.”

By 1991, Facing East shows a greater relational association between the lines and rectangular forms than is in evidence in the complex layered grid of, say, Backcloth, 1970. In Facing East, there’s a binary tension between dark and light, between what is disclosed and kept hidden. The central ochre rectangle in the left half of the painting and the black bars that cut across the lighter yellowish tone emitted from the central rectangle in the dark right-hand section imply, as in a Rothko, a place beyond the flatness of the surface. As viewers we are invited into other dimensions, into perspectival depths. While in Red Chamber, 2012 the Guston-like pinks and reds take on an altogether hotter, more sensual tone. One that suggests flesh and speaks obliquely of the body and human connections.

Installation view, Facing East, 2017 at Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow

When we come to the Landline paintings these show the thinking of a mature artist who no longer worries about debates around formalism or the battle between pure abstraction and figuration. They display the confidence of one who has developed a fluency in his own chosen language that allows the viewer to conjure imagined horizons and landscapes. Here we see the blue-blacks of darkening evening abutted by the shadowy green horizontals of the land where the light is fading. Flickers of yellow break through this dimming veil like the last moments of the dying day. While in Four Days, each period is defined by the almost synaesthesiac colours that express the mood of individual days to remind us that vision is, in fact, a complex sense, one that relies on memories of smell, atmosphere, touch and even hearing, as well as what we absorb with our eyes.

Facing East, 1991, oil on linen and steel

In Arles-Abend-Vincent 2 we become witnesses to the struggle of each rectangle and colour to hold its own, to speak in its distinct voice beside that of its neighbour. There is the insistence of separate blocks both to their unique and separate individuality, as well as the need for connection. Although entirely abstract, these slabs of colour and the negative spaces between them speak as much about human relationships as Morandi’s delicate anthropomorphic bottles.

That Scully, like Kandinsky, wants his art to aspire to “something like the condition of music” is hardly a surprise.  He rarely works without listening to music, for music is at one and the same time the most abstract and inchoate of the art forms, the most sinuous and fluid, yet also the one that can most directly pierce the psyche. This piercing is what Roland Barthes calls a punctum, that sudden stab of recognition sharp as a wound that comes with all good art. For Scully it is apparent that paint allows something of the same freedom as music to explore philosophical and poetic ideas, emotions and experiences, without ever having to express or name them directly. It is this depth of emotion that Sean Scully—a big, laconic, physically forbidding man who was once a judo black belt—reaches towards with such delicacy and sensibility.

Red Chamber, 2012, oil on linen

Facing East
Until 10 December at Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow
All artwork images courtesy the artist © Sean Scully

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Stephen Chambers
The Court of Redonda

Published in Elephant Magazine

Art Criticism

As I do battle with the delays on the District Line to arrive flustered at the Academicians’ Room in the Royal Academy to meet Stephen Chambers and discuss his forthcoming exhibition, he is already comfortably ensconced. Snuggled into a big woolly jumper, he’s working on his iPad, having beaten the rush-hour traffic by travelling into central London on his ubiquitous scooter. Although for many years Chambers has been a near neighbour, this is the first time we’ve sat down to have a serious discussion on art. He asks me what I’d like to drink. “I don’t normally drink whe n I’m doing interviews, ”I tell him.“ Well, it is cocktail time,” he says. “I’m going to have a mojito.” So I join him.

Elected an Academician in 2005, Chambers’s trajectory to Burlington House and his show The Court of Redonda, curated by the Eagle Gallery’s Emma Hill as a collateral event to this year’sVeniceBiennale,wasfarfromcertain.His mother was a book illustrator and his father a building surveyor, and Chambers was brought up in what he calls “the privileged bohemian west London of the sixties”. He went to school with Tony Benn’s son. Holland Park Comprehensive was much favoured by sixties intellectuals. “But I left with no exams. Just Art ‘O’ level, and not a very good grade at that,” he tells me as our drinks arrive. “I was a posh fat boy at the local comp and just fell behind.When my parents split up I was sent to a grammar school in Hampshire but felt out of my depth academically. I did, though, learn German.”

Was he brought up with art? “Well,therewere reproductions of Bruegel, Degas and Dufy on the walls.The usual stuff.” But it was a founda- tion course at Winchester that, eventually, led to an ma from the Chelsea School of Art and a clutch of scholarships and awards, including a Rome Scholarship, the Mark Rothko Memorial Trust Travelling Award, and, in 1998–99, the post of Cambridge Fellow at Kettle’sYard and Downing College. Throughout his career Chambers has paddled his own idiosyncratic canoe, eschewing fashion to remain a resolutely figurative and decorative artist, whose immediately recognizable works create esoteric myths and narratives.

So how, I ask, did he get the idea for The Court of Redonda? “Well,” he says, “I decided to step outside the commercial gallery system. I’m not really a club person, despite the fact that we are sitting in the RA. I began to find making paintings for exhibitions less and less interesting. I wanted to explore bigger themes. My only regret is that I didn’t do it years ago. I like to work in different places and in 2014 had a studio in Brooklyn. Just down the road there was a very interest- ing bookshop. I was on my own so hung out there two or three times a week and did a lot of reading. I discovered the Spanish novelist Javier Marías, whose best-known work in this country is A Heart So White.” Marías also wrote a novel, Todas las almas (All Souls), which includes a por- trayal of the poet John Gawsworth, the third king of Redonda.

Redonda is, in fact, a tiny, uninhabited island in the eastern West Indies. “A round lump of rock,” according to Chambers, “that’s good for nothing.” Discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1493, who claimed it for the Spanish Crown, it was named Santa María de la Redonda. In 1865, it came into the possession of a merchant trader, Matthew Dody Shiell, who claimed it as his own personal fiefdom and later crowned his fifteen-year-old son, Matthew Phipps Shiell (1865– 1947), as monarch. The latter subsequently moved to England, where he had some success as a science-fiction writer, popularizing the legend of his royalty to the level of an “alternative fact”. Before his death in 1947, Shiell decided that the crown should not be hereditary but passed down through a literary line, and appointed the English poet John Gawsworth as his succes- sor. He assumed the title of Juan I Gawsworth. “Nobody else wanted the place,” Chambers says. “It has no history of substance, no independent raison d’être.” Permanently impecunious, John Gawsworth discovered that selling Redondan knighthoods in a variety of London pubs was a good little money-spinner. He bestowed honours on numerous literary friends to create an eso- teric court of writers, poets and ne’er-do-wells.

Although the fate of the Redondan monarchy was contested after the death of Gawsworth, the “reigning” king, Jon Wynne-Tyson, abdicated and passed the crown to Marías in 1997; a title he held until 2012.These events were chronicled in his “false novel”, Dark Back of Time, inspired by the reception of Todas las almas. Many claimed —  falsely, according to Marías — that they were the source for characters in the book. “A pub in Southampton,” Chambers says, “even tried to get round the smoking ban by declaring themselves to be the Redondan Embassy in Britain, insisting that people could smoke on ‘foreign soil’. They took their case to court but lost.”

He became, he explains, intrigued by the idea of creating a court of Redonda.To date he has painted around a hundred portraits on wooden panels of 48 x 39 cm—“a convenient size to pack in a suitcase”. Painted in oil on wood, they hark back to the archaic panel-painting techniques of the sixteenth century. “There is,” he continues, “a degree of narrative within each paint- ing. Some people have hands and hold hats or pens. Others are more truncated. I wanted them to be visually seductive but not too well-bred or elegant.” The narratives are largely oblique. I suggest that they conjure up the alternative narratives and fantastical stories of writers such as Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges and Jeanette Winterson, that they don’t quite feel modern. “Well,” he replies, “I remember a conversation with Paula Rego, when she said that if you set something now it’s out of date tomorrow. I took that on board.These paintings exist in some recent fantasy past.”

He envisages them as a single work, an invitation to the viewer to speculate not only on the various relationships of those portrayed but a chance to create a silent communication between individual subject and viewer. Never didactic, Chambers wants them to act as cata- lysts for the fabrication of possible narratives. Executed in his hallmark style, they pay tribute, in their formal construction, to the flattened perspective of il Sassetta and the naturalistic expression of Masaccio, and reflect his many visits to Italy. Although he could, he says, have sold individual “portraits” many times over he has always refused. He’s chosen, he says, to show them behind glass in order to give them a certain gravitas. He enjoys that the glazed sur- faces induce a slight reflection of the viewer so he or she becomes a part of the work. Roughly lifesize, his cast of characters invite immediate eyeball-to-eyeball communion between viewer and viewed.

He starts by using charcoal on a coloured ground when the images are, to use his words, “quite raw”. He’s keen that they should not be too generic. “I’m not a portrait painter but I want them to have their own character,” he says. “The job of artists is to be curious and take risks, to make decisions. I don’t want the images to look too finished or contrived. I just do the best I can, with all the inherent awkwardness that entails. I want the work to have a not-quite- good-enough quality, otherwise it’s simply craft. Virtuoso painting is boring.”

The installation in Venice will be arranged in the shape of the island on the walls of the piano nobile of a seventeenth-century palazzo, Ca’ Dandolo, in order to reflect the kingdom of Redonda.The “court” is counterpointed with three large canvases entitled The State of the Nation, which, with their tumbling rider, hint at the precarious state of contemporary poli- tics. “The first painting,” he explains, “is about Brexit, the second takes place during the campaign and the third reflects the result.”

I suggest that Venice and its associations with travel and crossroads, with literature and art, is an interesting environment for this exhibition. He agrees. “The umbrella theme is migration and Venice is the perfect location. A port, a hub, the starting point for adventures. These works are the ignition point of unresolved narratives, a web of fact and fiction, a meeting of East and West.” Drawing on a range of narrative influences Chambers has created an extraordinary parallel universe filled with his imaginary courtiers — a world where past and present intersect; where myths and fiction hold up a mirror to a labyrinth of infinite creative possibilities.

“The Court of Redonda” continues at Ca’ Dandolo,Venice, until November.

Published in Elephant Magazine

Windows to the Future

Published in Elephant Magazine

Art Criticism

“It might well depend on your age as to whether you experience this exhibition as an exciting vision of a tech-utopia or some sort of nightmarish dystopian hell.” Sue Hubbard visits ARS17 at Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma; a show that explores the digital present and a potentially terrifying future.

Recently I was in Finland to take part in the LIWRE international literary festival as a poet. At this time of year, Finland is a land of midnight sun. With a few days to spare in Helsinki, I decided to check out the contemporary scene. As an art critic, as well as a poet, I’m like a homing pigeon when it comes to new cities. Find my way to a gallery and I feel instantly in familiar territory. So I headed for the Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma where, by chance, they were hosting ARS17 Hello World! Windows to the Future, which celebrates the hundredth anniversary of Finnish independence (Finland, a small nation of some five million people, has been part of both Sweden and Russia). The ARS exhibitions are a series of international contemporary art shows that have taken place in Finland since 1961. ARS17 is the ninth in the series and the fourth to be held at the Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma. The building itself is striking. The result of an architectural design competition held in 1992 and won by the American Steven Holl.

Dedicated to exploring the digital present, the exhibition also looks to the future with an exploration of state-of-the-art technology, images from the internet, and digital games. There are artists from thirteen different countries and three generations, from the children of the sixties to millennials born in the eighties who, unlike their older counterparts, have grown up in a burgeoning digital world and for whom the physical and virtual seem to merge quite naturally into a single reality. As I belong to the first age group, I experienced a good deal of what was on show with a sense of angst, as if I was seeing through a porthole into a post-human world. It might well depend on your age as to whether you experience this exhibition as an exciting vision of a techn-utopia or some sort of nightmarish dystopian hell.

We live in an age permeated by the digital. Just how much so we are made aware when we walk into this exhibition. In our Western consumer society the digital revolution has infiltrated and shaped our relationships on social media, as well as the way we buy and consume, find sexual partners, or learn about politics. Many individuals even develop identities that are entirely technology driven. What this exhibition does then, whether we like it or not, is capture the mood and cultural practices of the early twenty-first century by emphasising how the digital is embedded, in ways to which we’re often oblivious, in the objects, images, and structures that we encounter on a daily basis. In his 2013 book PRESENT SHOCK: When Everything Happens Now, Douglas Rushkoff argues that we no longer have a sense of a future, of goals, or a direction because we seem to be living in a constant now. Life is but one click away. This is underlined by Nina Canell’s sculptures and installations where the cut wires of internet circuitry are displayed like archaeological fragments on traditional white plinths, reminding us that today’s technology becomes tomorrow’s obsolescence. These surprisingly beautiful aborted bits of technology seem to suggest a departure from the word, from logos, from the forms of communication that have hitherto been associated with human interaction.

Elsewhere the artist Julia Varela litters the gallery floor with broken, bent, and distorted plasma screens, which she describes as “an act or resistance”, a “hijacking”. Lying contorted and twisted they seem to evoke the end of something, as Joseph Beuys’s iconic work once signalled the End of the 20th Century. This detritus, only very recently used to do something–transmit information, news, and entertainment–is now presented as redundant, a collection of mediaeval relics as technology moves on its inexorable course.

Cécile B Evans, Jacolby Satterwhite and Hito Steyerl’s visual language graphically encapsulates the atmosphere of today’s digital ubiquity. Satterwhite’s works that fuse video, 3D animation, drawing, and performance explore the history and the future of the relationships between different media. While Cécile B Evans’s avatars, dancing in server farms where memories have become detached from human individuals, create a spine-chilling dystopian vision. In Factory of the Sun (2015) and The Tower (2015), Hito Steyerl fuses documentary footage with video games and speculative fictions to expose the aesthetics and politics of digital capitalisation. Ryan Trecartin’s video Temple Time (2016)—the artist likes to refer to his works as “movies”–has characters who explore an eerie empty building, talking about what they see rather than what they feel, to create flat one-dimensional identities, more comic-strip video construct than human.

Art has always posed questions and forced us to face uncomfortable verities, challenged the status quo, and smashed existing categories to question who and what we are. This new digital art explores the intersections between the personal and the corporate, along with ideas that surround personal identity as it exists within both actual and virtual physical space.

Among the four floors of images there is one that has stayed with me, one that made me feel truly uncomfortable: Charles Richardson’s Headbone (2015). In front of a homely floral sofa floating on the screen is a 3D photo-scanned image of two hyperreal male figures twirling in space. One is seated on the sofa dressed in a woman’s sundress. The other, a legless torso, slowly spins to reflect the male figure cradling both a pregnant belly and a mobile phone. His arms and stomach appear completely realistic, the skin white and covered with fine hairs. His head and upper body are wrapped in African fabrics and taped with a strange array of detritus, from gardening gloves to Elastoplast and felt-tip pens. Dangling down his naked back is a cheap 1950s diamond paste necklace. But what is so uncanny is that as the figure turns and pivots we can see right through its centre into an empty void. It’s completely hollow despite its admittedly bizarre lifelike appearance. This apparently “real” gender-bending figure not only subverts received notions of masculinity but seems to question whether an actual sentient individual will, in future, be the source of procreation, whether such a thing as a flesh and blood human will even exist. This might be exciting if you’re under twenty-five. But I found it terrifying.

Please stop the world. I want to get off.

Published in Elephant Magazine

Confessions of a Biennale Virgin

Published in Elephant Magazine

Art Criticism

Although I’ve been an art critic for more than twenty years, I admit to being a biennale virgin. I’ve been to Venice before but never to the biennale, which is almost as phantasmagoric as the sinking, labyrinthine city itself. Chaotic, glitzy and impossible to manoeuvre, it nonetheless yields up, among the dross, some wonderful surprises.

The 57th Venice Biennale, entitled Viva Arte Viva and curated by Christine Macel, opened to the public on 13 May. Marcel has called it an exhibition “designed with artists, and for artists”. In a world shaken by terrorism, economic crisis and right-wing populism she believes strongly in art for art’s sake. A single theme was thought to be too limiting so she worked closely with artists putting their practices centre stage. Viva Arte Viva is divided into nine “Trans-pavilions” including the Pavilion of Earth and the Pavillion of Shamans.

My first full day was spent in the Giardini trying to make sense of so much creativity. In the Central Pavilion and Pavilion of Artists and Books, Macel seems to be saying that in this frenetic contemporary world we need time to think. There are wall-mounted book assemblages by John Latham and beautiful, quiet book-works by Liu Ye, as well as 30 years of small notebooks by Abdullah Al Saadi packed into sardine cans and cigarette packets.

In the British Pavilion, Phyllida Barlow has produced a massive, complex installation. There’s an apocalyptic feel to this monumental work that evokes something of Joseph Beuys’s The End of the 20th Century. A sense of things collapsing and falling apart. When I caught up with her she said she’d been working on it throughout the Brexit debate, which had deeply depressed her. From there it is a quick hop to the German Pavilion where Anne Imhof brings together in a spare, brutal space, a choreographed performance that confronts the “rapid and fundamental political, social, economic pharmaceutical and technological changes that we are currently facing” with her brand of “hard” realism. While in the US Pavilion, Mark Bradford’s pertinent contribution feeds on his understanding of the crisis in US social and political life. In April he opened a shop in the Frari district of Venice where prisoners make and sell products alongside a local co-operative that has coloured his abstract and collage-based works.

Questions about displacement, “them and us”, colonialization and the refugee crisis abound. In the Australian Pavilion, Tracey Moffatt’s work exists somewhere between fiction and history. Using photography, video and film Moffatt constructs theatrical scenarios and has created two new photographic series—Body Remembers and Passage—and two videos—Vigil and The White Ghosts Sailed In under the collective title Horizon. Evocative and poetic they deal with loss, longing and a desire for a sense of home.

The Romanian Pavilion has produced a strong show of both old and new work by the 91-year-old Geta Brătescu—much of it unseen outside her native Romania. Full of colour and invention this is a wide-ranging survey of her multimedia work that deals with issues such as memory and femininity. In complete contrast, Xavier Veilhan, assisted by the Swiss-American artist Christian Marclay, is hosting in the French Pavilion around 70 invited musicians who perform in a plywood studio, inspired by Kurt Schwitters’s lost Merzbau. With no delineation between performer and visitor, there’s a continuing sense of risk about the ongoing process of creativity. The Russian Pavilion presents Theatrum Orbis featuring artist Grisha Bruskin, Recycle Group and Sasha Pirogova, alongside contemporary Russian composers, in a powerful interlinked theatrical installation that includes sculpture and video.

Though the Swiss Pavilion was built by Alberto Giacometti’s brother, Bruno, Switzerland’s most famous artist flatly refused to show his work at the biennale. His absence is felt in the mesmeric The Women of Venice by the Swiss-American duo Teresa Hubbard/Alexander Birchler. An evocative, double-sided film/video installation, Flora is based on their discoveries about the tragic life of the largely forgotten American artist who, for a time, was Giacometti’s lover and muse. Presented through the voice of her 81-year-old son this potent, painful work asks multiple questions about the male artist and female muse, about talent, sacrifice, personal relationships and art.

Over at the labyrinthine Arsenale, you have to have stamina not to be overwhelmed by the amount of art on offer. Of the numerous pavilions, it was the Pavilion of the Shamans that stood out. Following on from the legacy of Joseph Beuys, it presents the idea of the artist as visionary. The Brazilian artist, Ernesto Neto, journeyed to meet the Huni Kuin people in the Amazon jungle and has created work around their rituals. As I lay with an aching back in their shamanic tent, two native Brazilian women sat beside me doing traditional face painting, while small children drummed and played the maracas.

One of the most potent works in the Arsenale is by the Chilean artist Enrique Ramírez, Un Hombre que Camina—a symphony of sea and open sky filmed in the salt pans of the sacred landscape of Chile. Dressed in a shamanic mask a man pulls behind him, through briny ankle-deep water, a raft of floating suits towards the distant sun, followed by a traditional South American brass band. Mesmeric and powerful this work illustrates how ritual and art can both give meaning to life and death.

Another poetically charged work in the Arsenale is the Georgian contribution Living Dog Among the Dead Lions by Chachkhiani. In an abandoned house purchased from the mining town of Chiatura, water pours continually through the roof soaking the rotting floorboards and faded blue paint of the porch. In this modest interior, which shows signs of having been recently abandoned, the continual sound of the rain dripping onto the floor, the bed and into a tin bowl suggests lives attacked from the outside by social historical circumstances and is a potent metaphor for death.

Ireland at Venice is presenting a powerful work grounded in history and myth by Jesse Jones. Entitled Tremble Tremble it’s inspired by the 1970s Italian wages for housework movement, during which women chanted “Tremate, tremeate, le streghe sono tornate!” (Tremble, tremble, the witches have returned!) Jones’s atavistic work emerges from the rising social movement in Ireland that calls for a transformation of the historic relationship between church and state.

Supported by the Arts Council of Britain and opened by Sir Nicholas Serota, the Diaspora Pavilion, outside the main event at the Palazzo Pisani at Santa Marina, showcases the work of eleven emerging UK-based artists from racially and culturally diverse backgrounds, along with ten leading artists from similar backgrounds who have acted as their mentors. Artists, among others, include Sokari Douglas Camp and Isaac Julien, whose video installation is set in the landscape of Visconti’s masterpiece, The Leopard, juxtaposed with images of the deadly journeys made by migrants. There’s also a superb piece by Yinka Shonibare, The British Library, made of books covered in his hallmark Dutch wax-printed cotton batik that display the names of immigrants who have made a significant contribution to British life.

Also outside the main event at Il Capricorno, San Marco 1994 30124 is Victoria Miro’s Poolside Magic where Chris Ofili is showing a suite of watercolours in which a man in tails serves a naked woman beside a swimming pool. These dream-like images that might have been spawned by a meeting between Francesco Clemente and William Blake touch on sexuality, mutability and the occult.

Staying with narrative themes I moved to the collateral event curated by Emma Hill of the Eagle Gallery, London at Ca’ Dandolo Grand Canal, where Stephen Chambers, RA is showing his The Court of Redonda. Chambers has produced a series of fantasy portraits hung on the walls of a beautiful private palazzo that depict a cast of 101 characters from a legendary tale based on the fate of the tiny uninhabited West Indian island of Redonda. In 1865 the rock was claimed by a merchant-trader Matthew Dowdy Shiell, who elected himself monarch. Perfect for this dreamy mercantile city Chambers has woven a wonderful “collision between fact and fiction” worthy of Italo Calvino.

But, for me, the highlight of the biennale was the exhibition of Philip Guston and The Poets at the Galleries dell’Accademia that illustrates the relationship between the humanistic themes of writers including D. H. Lawrence and Wallace Stevens and the imagery and philosophical reflections of Guston. It is an exhibition that demands time. More time than I had.

After three footsore days, there was still much I hadn’t seen. But the queues were growing and my energy waning. I didn’t see the epic Hirst, for example, preferring to spend the final morning away from the razzmatazz of the biennale in the quiet of the stunning Galleria Giorgio Franchetti, with its spectacular mosaic floors covered with watery shadows from the sunlight outside and superb exhibition of rugs and carpets that are a reminder of Venice’s role as a crossroads between east and west.

Installation view, folly, Phyllida Barlow, British Pavilion, Venice, 2017.
Photo: Ruth Clark © British Council. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

Installation view, folly, Phyllida Barlow, British Pavilion, Venice, 2017.
Photo: Ruth Clark © British Council. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

Teresa Hubbard / Alexander Birchler, Flora 2017, Synchronized double-sided film installation with sound, 30 mins, loop, Installation view: Swiss Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2017
Courtesy the artists, Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York and Lora Reynolds Gallery, Austin
Photo credit: Ugo Carmeni

Vajiko Chachkhiani, Pavilion of Georgia, 57th Venice Biennale install.
Photo: Maria Nitulescu. Courtesy: The Pavilion of Georgia / Vajiko Chachkhiani

Vajiko Chachkhiani, Pavilion of Georgia, 57th Venice Biennale install.
Photo: Maria Nitulescu. Courtesy: The Pavilion of Georgia / Vajiko Chachkhiani

Xavier Veilhan, Installation view French Pavilion, Biennale di Venezia
Photo © Giacomo Cosua © Veilhan / ADAGP, Paris, 2017

Xavier Veilhan, Installation view French Pavilion, Biennale di Venezia
Photo © Giacomo Cosua © Veilhan / ADAGP, Paris, 2017

Published in Elephant Magazine

Susan Hiller
Communications From The Chthonic Unconscious

Published in Elephant Magazine

Art Criticism

Despite making the first video installation to be bought by the Tate, SUSAN HILLER—an American long resident in the uk—says she has never quite felt ‘at home’ here. Likewise, her startling artistic investigations of the irrational and uncanny refuse to be domesticated or comfortably explained away. ‘If talking and thinking and working with ideas were enough,’ she tells SUE HUBBARD, ‘then why should we make art?’


‘And I reason at will, in the same way I dream, for reasoning is just another kind of dreaming.’
Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet

I first got to know Susan Hiller around 1999 when I included her work in my exhibition, Chora (co-curated with Simon Morley). Recently, when we met for lunch, after seeing her 
debut show at the Lisson Gallery, she told me how much of an outsider she continues to feel despite a major show at the Freud Museum, a retrospective at the Tate and recently joining this prestigious gallery. ‘For example, I’ve never been invited to join the RA’, she says over our green tea and satay. ‘Some of my students have, but I don’t fit. I’m not part of the establishment.’ With her multimedia practice of over 40 years, she is one of the most original and influential artists of her generation. But, perhaps, there’s some truth in her self-assessment. An American who has lived in London since the ’6os, she’s never felt quite ‘at home’ in her adopted country. ‘I’d never heard a woman called a cow before I came to England,’ she says, a phrase incorporated in her installation 008: Cowgirl from the Freud Museum, London (1992–94).

First trained as an anthropologist (a fact that, if given too much weight, annoys her), Hiller displays the intellectual rigour and curiosity of the academic, counterpointed with the ‘irrational’ explorations of the artist. Her work poses complex questions about identity, feminism, belief and the role of the artist. Never cynical or market-driven, it remains uncompromising, erudite and complex. The sort of art that forces you to think. She describes it as ‘a kind of archaeological investigation uncovering something to make a different kind of sense of it’, focusing ‘on what is unspoken, unacknowledged, unexplained and overlooked’. She explores what, to many, may seem irrational, sidelined and marginal aspects of human experience. She is interested in the traces we leave behind, be they the automatic writing generated in Sisters of Menon, a work made in the ’70s that investigates the permeable boundaries between conscious and unconscious utterance, or the investigations in Lucid Dreams (1982), where the presence or absence of her own face, photographed inside a photo booth, underlines the fragile nature of identity and the transience of existence like a series of grungy, do-it-yourself vanitas paintings. For the J Street Project (2000–05), she searched for every street sign she could find in Germany that included the word Juden (Jew). A chilling reminder that these are places from which whole populations and histories have been erased.

Her sources are eclectic, ranging from arcane texts and psychoanalysis, to popular culture. In her 2002 lecture at the Edinburgh College of Art, she quotes Freud who, in 1921, wrote: ‘It no longer seems possible to brush aside the study of so-called occult facts; of things which seem to vouchsafe the real existence of psychic forces… which reveal mental faculties, in which until now, we did not believe.’ Freud, she writes, claimed ‘that an uncritical belief in psychic powers was an attempt at compensation for what he poignantly called “the lost appeal of life on this earth” and that the problem with believers in the occult is that they want to establish new truths, rather than scientifically “take cognisance of undeniable problems” in the current definitions of reality’.

Her Lisson debut, which occupied both gallery spaces, interwove these tensions between the scientific and the rational with our desires and instinctual drives, in four ongoing themes: transformation, the unconscious, systems of belief, and the role of the artist as collector and curator. The presence of rare and unseen early works from the ’70s and ’80s underlined her interest in alchemy and psychological transformation. The 1970–84 Painting Blocks—made from cutting up and reassembling old paintings into sculptural ‘books’, labelled with the dates and dimensions of the original work—were shown alongside the small, ash-filled vials of Another (1986). Packed with the remnants of burnt paintings, these illustrate the reconfiguring of objects (or identities) in a transmuted form, one that echoes the theories of the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein on reparation and creativity.

Belief and the boundaries between the unconscious and the paranormal are examined in another work on show, Belshazzar’s Feast (1983–84), the first video installation ever to be bought by the Tate. As with much of Hiller’s work, the readings are fluid. This new bonfire version (which surely evokes notions of burning heretics and witches at the stake) is built from a stack of television sets that each frame a flickering orange flame. Accompanied by Hiller singing, whispered reports from people apparently seeing ghostly images on their TV screens, her young son’s reminiscences of the biblical story and Rembrandt’s painting of the same name, it creates a work that evokes primitive uncanny feelings.

In her 2012 Emergency Case: Homage to Joseph Beuys—that quintessential shamanic artist—Hiller extends her investigations into faith, the irrational and reason. Vials of ‘holy’ water, from as far afield as the Ganges and an Irish sacred spring, allude to traditional beliefs, as well as to contemporary ‘alternative’ systems of healing. Clustered in reclaimed wooden cabinets picked up in antique markets, the installation is reminiscent of a medieval apothecary’s shop, as well as Damien Hirst’s medicine cabinets, suggesting that faith and reason are, to a large extent, cultural and historical.

It was in the eighteenth century that Carl Linnaeus devised a system of taxonomy, that branch of science concerned with classification which drew together species into rational groups and gave meaning to the modern world. This desire to define and categorize is inherent in A Longing to Be Modern (2003), an installation made up of 32 ceramic vases from the old East andWest Germany, along with 18 recycled cast bronze letters from gravestones, arranged on a kidney-shaped table in the gallery.

The role of curator and collector has long been part of Hiller’s practice. In the ’70s, a seminal work, Dedicated to the Unknown Artists (1972–76), consisting of a collection of over 300 postcards by unnamed artists, all bearing the words ‘Rough Sea’ and picturing stormy seas around the British coast, used the methodology, labelling and tabulation of a scientific research project. The investigations of this highly conceptual work have, more recently, been revisited in On the Edge (2015), a piece that presents 482 views of 219 locations along the coast of Britain where rough seas meet the land. Not only does this work tap into notions of English landscape and sea-scape painting, with its Romantic penchant for untamed nature and the sublime, but, in the use of ephemeral postcards, evokes that very British love of the untamed and unspoilt; that need to get away from the hurly-burly to become immersed in the authentic, raw and unmitigated. The phrase ‘on the edge’, of course, carries multiple readings—on the edge of sanity, of mainstream society, and of artistic or psychological breakthrough (or down). The relentless stormy tides battering this small island could easily be understood as the chthonic unconscious beating at the doors of reason or anarchy pommelling the gates of polite society.

Over lunch Susan Hiller is cautious about explaining too much about her work. ‘If talking and thinking and working with ideas were enough,’ she insists, ‘then why should we make art?’ She has no overarching authorial narrative and does not provide resolutions but simply offers the viewer a complex palimpsest of ideas. What is unique about her work is that her past anthropological studies help to frame a series of questions that are then translated through the sensibility and language of art.

A prodigious writer herself, Hiller is mindful of the possible interpretations, in our de-centred world, between the discourses of art, anthropology, religion and psychology. Her evocation of the work of Joseph Beuys seems to emphasize a belief that the traditional ways in which artists make and speak about their work are largely exhausted. She does not seek definitions or clarifications but rather reflects the ambiguities of the society in which we live. Like psychoanalysis, these are built on a chain of associations that are often slippery and fluid. ‘Truth’, a principal allegorical character in the discourse of modernism and humanism, has within this postmodern narrative been replaced by notions of relativity and legitimacy. Hiller refuses to pander to established tastes or prejudices but, to some extent, creates the audience she needs to respond to her work. Never nostalgic or self-consciously poetic, her archeological rummaging through the iconography of the past results in a series of investigations into the arbitrary and the marginal that run like fault lines though the contemporary world.

Published in Elephant Magazine

Rachel Howard:
A Dedicated Unfollower of Fashion

Published in Elephant Magazine

Art Criticism

A nineties graduate of Goldsmiths, unlike many of her contemporaries Rachel Howard has tended to eschew the limelight. Not that that has hampered her development or the steady growth of her reputation. ‘I feel happiest in a state of failure,’ she tells Sue Hubbard. ‘I need fire in my belly to get up in the morning.’

It’s a freezing day and Rachel Howard is up from Gloucestershire, where she lives when she isn’t working in London. We meet at the Society Club, hidden down a back street in the heart of Soho. A café, cocktail bar, bookstore and art gallery where poetry collections line the walls, it feels a bit like your auntie’s rather dated front room. A throwback to 1950s bohemianism. The choice is no surprise, for Rachel Howard is an avid reader and claims that poetry gives her the same inexplicable buzz as a good painting.

She is an unusual person: a successful, sociable artist with four children (though, as she says, this would probably not be newsworthy if she were a male artist) and a close friend of Damien Hirst, for whom she once worked as an assistant. She, though, eschews the limelight and dislikes talking about herself. We have known each other for a number of years and recently did a show together, Over the Rainbow at 11 Spitalfields, which included my poems based on her powerful suicide paintings.

So we agree, as we chat over our coffee, that it feels rather odd to be doing a formal interview. I ask about her childhood and she tells me that she grew up on a farm in the north of England next to a now-redundant coalmine. ‘It’s been grassed over like Teletubbyland,’ she says, ‘as if it was never there. A whole culture wiped out by Thatcher.’ I wonder what it was like growing up in the country. ‘It gave me a taste for freedom and allowed me time to be bored, to be alone and understand what sets us apart from animals and makes us human.’ There she witnessed ‘birth, life and death. Blood, shit and guts.’ Sitting on the back of her father’s combine harvester, she could, she says, just be, just exist. ‘Nature makes you live in the moment. It just ticks away, doing its own thing.’

So how did she become an artist? ‘Well, it’s not that I woke up one morning and decided to be one. It was always there.’ Her aunt was a fabric designer and her uncle, the painter Jonathan Trowell, taught her to paint in oils. When she was 11 he introduced her to t.s. Eliot. Being a painter at Goldsmiths during the high-water mark of conceptual art must, I suggest, have felt as if she was swimming against the tide.

‘I loved that, or, more to the point, sticking with what I wanted and not changing to suit fashion. I feel happiest in a state of failure, having something to fight about. I need fire in my belly to get up in the morning. It seems ludicrous to have been a painter there at that time, but it was an incredible training ground because of the rigorous critical dialogue. I’ve never been anything other than a painter, so wasn’t in a quandary as to what medium to use. Though 24 years on, I’m now flirting with sculpture.’

Unusually she is both an abstract and a figurative painter. Is there, I ask, any difference between the two approaches? ‘No,’ she says. ‘No difference. It’s all painting. One informs the other. I paint what I want, when I want. I’m absorbed by the world around me, the human and the natural, the political and the personal, the internal and external. How we clash and harmonize. When I painted the suicide paintings it was because I had to. When I paint about human cruelty it’s about getting things off my chest. My two recent series, Repetition Is Truth and Paintings of Violence—Why I Am Not a Mere Christian, are about the political and the human, as well as the nature of painting.’

In the past she has predominantly used household gloss, but she is now returning to oils. Why’s that? ‘I think I used household gloss because I knew about oil from an early age—what I could do with it—and wanted to flout convention. Household gloss is wonderful but limited and unforgiving. I wanted to make it do what it wasn’t supposed to do. To layer it, using the varnish and the pigment separately, as I did for over a decade. But I knew I’d always go back to oils. Oil is a beautiful medium. That’s why it hasn’t been usurped. It gives the artist more time to work on a painting, to build up layers or remove paint. It’s altogether a slower process, with a less aggressive surface. Moving on from household gloss was like leaving a lover. But I was ready for change and had gone as far as I felt I could with it.’

One of the features of her work, I suggest, is its physicality—from the suicide paintings to her abstracts in oozing red paint. ‘Thinking back,’ she says, ‘this visceral quality was probably embedded in me at Goldsmiths. I’m not at all interested in being shocking but I’m not afraid of saying what I want. Not having moved in very painterly circles, I don’t have any particular constraints. I’m free from any notion of how a painter should behave.’

So who has influenced her? ‘The American Abstract Expressionists have always given me a frisson. American painting of that period is bold and brave. I love the simplicity and power of Franz Kline, for example. I’m really influenced by everyone and no one. I love painters such as Soutine, Auerbach, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Whistler and Walter Sickert. And I’m drawn to the We Are Not the Last drawings of Zoran Music.’

Recently she’s been asked to curate an exhibition at the Jerwood Gallery in Hastings. At Sea will open in July and consist of a number of new works made especially for the show, juxtaposed with those chosen from the permanent collection. ‘I feel really honoured to be hanging out with the likes of Keith Vaughan, John Hoyland, Walter Sickert and Prunella Clough, whose Back Drop 1933 bears a strong resemblance to the patterning in my own title painting for the show. Though I’d never seen hers before I made mine, so imagine how excited I was when I found it.’

Colour has been removed from her work, here, in order to return to the line; pushed to the background and edges so that it peeps through but doesn’t draw attention to itself. Removing colour, she suggests, is like the purity of returning to the word. It takes her back to the essence of painting. There’s something fragile, almost dreamlike, about these paintings that mirror the metaphorical, as well as literal, meanings of the show’s title. Faded memories seem to linger in Rutting Shed and Lean-to, where the ghostly presence of the buildings evokes the pitch-black net drying huts that stand on the Hastings foreshore, adjacent to the gallery. When she was growing up on the farm, the sea was only two fields away. The constant horizon line became very important, and it’s this feeling that there’s a constant truth that line never changes, which informs the exhibition at the Jerwood.

This is the first time that she has curated a show in a major public space, and I wonder what it is that she’s hoping to achieve. ‘A sense of balance. Not unlike painting a painting or creating an installation where the eye keeps moving but finds intervals of rest. This is a show by a group of painters—some alive, some dead—who share a love for painting.’

She is not afraid to experiment with new techniques. A recent visit to her studio revealed draped curtains of lace, which she’s been using as ‘stencils’ to create complex textures on the surface of the canvas. I ask if she thinks these are softer, easier than the suicide paintings. ‘In theory they are not dissimilar. They started as a homage to the invisible. Like the suicide works, they are a celebration of the unseen. A way of bringing the background into visibility. They are atmospheric. Less an exercise in what a painting can be but more an exploration or metaphor of uncertainty and instability. It’s this pursuit that’s so exciting. Not knowing what will come next: if what I’m doing will be lost or brought back from the brink. It is a very solitary endeavour. Wherever I’m working, London or Gloucestershire, I’m always alone with the thing in front of me.’

She has a busy year ahead. There is a group show in Vienna and she is working with the Bohen Foundation at a major US institution on an exhibition that will concentrate on her abstract alizarin oils on canvas: Paintings of Violence—Why I Am Not a Mere Christian. The name of the series is constructed from the title of a tract by the philosopher Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not a Christian, merged with that of C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. Howard attended a Quaker school in York, and in these paintings she explores issues of ‘controlled violence’, such as 9/11. For her, ‘intelligent violence is the antithesis of Bacchanalian violence. There are ten paintings that echo the Ten Commandments.’

As she gets older she finds she looks inwards more. ‘You can paint in two ways,’ she says, ‘looking in or looking out.’ Like the Roman god Janus, she looks in both directions, to the outer world and inwards into our often hidden psychological depths. The range and variety of her work—her haunting, ectoplasmic portraits taken from photographs of family and friends that were shown in 2008 at Museum Van Loon, Amsterdam, the hard-hitting suicide paintings and the visceral abstracts—give her the widest vocabulary possible to explore not only a wide range of emotions but also what it means to be a painter in the modern world.

Published in Elephant Magazine

Grayson Perry Interview
Elephant Magazine

Published in Elephant Magazine

Art Criticism

Grayson Perry Interview

There isn’t a bow-peep frock in sight when I meet Grayson Perry at the Victoria Miro Gallery. Instead he’s dressed in the standard gear of the successful artist: ubiquitous white T-shirt, jeans and some rather snazzy tortoise shell glasses. Known to many as that bloke in a dress who won the Turner prize for his outré pots with their explicit scenes of sadomasochism, bondage and transvestism, in his day-to-day male persona without the glitter eye shadow and lipstick, he has a strong, nearly[ good looking face. It is only the longish hair that gives any clue to his alternative life as Clare, when he then styles it into a blond bob.

After his successful show at the British Museum, The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, for which he raided the museum’s archives extracting rare treasures that he then juxtaposed with his own artwork to create not only a personal take on world history, but what he calls “a journey through my mind”, he has recently acquired a wider audience, beyond the confines of the art world, with his witty, insightful series for Channel 4: All in the Best Possible Taste. In this he examined the British class system, along with the subtle complexities of signs and signifiers that define them. These included a torch song singer in a working men’s club, aspirational yummy mummy cup cakes and stolid middle class William Morris wall paper. A night out in drag, drenched in spray tan, with the girls of Sunderland was followed by a social bash among the ‘nobs’.

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2012

Images © Perry Grayson 2012

Published in Elephant Magazine