Anxious Objects

Published in New Statesman

Art Criticism

Sue Hubbard ponders the perennial question of how to decide boundaries of art

Marcel Duchamp Fountain
Marcel Duchamp Fountain

The big question in art is: “Is it art?” Is an outsized Brillo box or a pickled shark art? Ever since 1917, when Marcel Duchamp’s porcelain urinal, scrawled with the pseudonym “R Mutt”, was submitted to the Society for Independent Artists in New York (and rejected) for exhibition as Fountain, the cognoscenti have considered such objects as art. The critic Harold Rosenberg called such works “anxious objects”. What artists made mattered less than what they thought. They now approach the condition of philosophers (I think, rather than paint, sculpt or draw: therefore, I am).

Artists see it as their job to refute what has gone before – especially as it is now impossible to say “avant-garde” before new examples become absorbed into the voracious maw of the mainstream and lose their power to shock.

In 1994 the racing fan and Turner Prize nominee Mark Wallinger bought and named a racehorse A Real Work of Art, with a view to entering it in races and causing his “art” to be piped into bookies up and down the country. This may not be the accepted “Royal Academy Summer Exhibition” view of art, but that it challenged perceptions was a large part of the point.

Mark Wallinger A Real Work of Art
Mark Wallinger A Real Work of Art

Recently, millions signed a petition calling for the Costa Rican artist Guillermo “Habacuc” Vargas not to be included in this year’s Bienal Centroamericana Honduras 2008. The reason? Well, Habacuc, as he likes to be known, also used an animal in his artwork Eres lo que lees (You are what you read), but this time it raised complex moral issues. The artist paid street children to catch a stray dog that was then named Natividad (“nativity”), which was chained up in the Códice Gallery in Nicaragua and, reputedly, left to starve to death.

Even if the dog did escape, as gallery and artist contend, there was nothing to indicate that this would be the case to the viewers, for the dog appeared ill, thin and dehydrated. But the point – if point there can be to pointless suffering – was that although a few visitors to the gallery requested that the dog be fed, they were banned from doing so, and no one actually intervened to release the suffering animal.

Animal rights campaigners went ballistic; and who, in their right mind, would want to see an animal suffer? The event smacked of bread and circuses and the decadence of throwing Christians to the lions as entertainment. It is also not hard to think of the Stanford Prison Experiment, in which psychologists designated students as either guards or prisoners, only to have to stop the exercise when the guards started living out their role with too much enthusiasm.

Guillermo Habacuc Eres lo que lees
Guillermo Habacuc Eres lo que lees

In the case of poor Natividad, did people not intervene because he had the authority and status of art? And what did the event say about that same audience, which every day passed by not only starving dogs but also children in the streets? Cowardly, self-serving, distasteful and immoral it may have been, but if it is the business of art to ask questions, this certainly raised a few.

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2008
Image1: © Estate of Marcel Duchamp. San Francisco MOMA
Images maybe subject to copyright

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Diane Arbus
Artist Rooms National Museum Cardiff

Published in New Statesman

Art Criticism

Diane Arbus’s striking portraits illuminate the small tragedies of life
Diane Arbus Puerto Rican Woman 1965
Puerto Rican Woman, 1965

“I really believe there are things which nobody would see unless I photographed them.” Diane Arbus’s photographs of people, many of whom were on the margins of life, were rooted in an understanding of the relationship between photographer and subject. Attuned to the small tragedies of contemporary life, she was to photography what Raymond Carver was to literature. As John Szarkowski, organiser of the Museum of Modern Art’s landmark 1967 “New Documents” exhibition, said: “The portraits of Diane Arbus show that all of us – the most ordinary and most exotic of us – are on closer scrutiny remarkable.”

Arbus was born Diane Nemerov to a wealthy Jewish family in 1923; her father was the son of a Russian immigrant and her mother the daughter of the owners of Russek’s Fur Store in New York. The large apartment, the cooks and chauffeurs led her to have a “sense of unreality”, further complicated by her father’s frequent absence at work and her mother’s depression. At the age of 18 she married Allan Arbus, an employee at her parents’ store, whom she had met when she was 13. It was he who gave her her first camera. They worked together in fashion photography until she went her own way professionally, after which their marriage broke down. In July 1971, at the age of 48, she ended her own life with pills and a razor. Like Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, she was beautiful, tragic and complicated.

Diane Arbus Burlesque Dancer Blaze Star 1964
Burlesque Dancer Blaze Star, 1964

By the 1960s her portraits for magazines such as Esquire and Harper’s Bazaar had assumed a distinctive look. She would frame her subjects in ordinary settings, posed looking straight at the camera. Unblinking and quizzical, they assumed an air of disquiet, as if some secret was about to be exposed. No sentimentalist, she began to seek out the people she wanted to photograph: young children and socialites, nudists and dwarfs, transvestites and circus performers.

Arbus has been accused of being interested only in aberration, a poor little rich girl getting her kicks from life’s seamy side, from tortured sexual identities and the shock value of mental feebleness and physical deformity. Even now, many of her images seem shocking, in that they bring the viewer up close to experience the damaged humanity behind the glitter, the showgirl outfits and socialite dresses.

Why did people agree to let her into the privacy of their bedrooms and reveal themselves at their most vulnerable?

In this exhibition there are plenty of such examples – the stripper with bare breasts in her sordid dressing room in Atlantic City in 1962, who sits in spangled armbands, not bothering to disguise her spare tyre; or the “naked man being a woman in his room in NYC” in 1968, posing provocatively with his hand on his hip and his genitals tucked away between his legs; or the nudist lady in a flower-petal hat and diamanté swan sunglasses. There is something complicit in these images, as if the subjects needed Arbus as much as she needed them.

Diane Arbus Tattooed Man at a Carnival 1970
Tattooed Man at a Carnival, 1970

Most of her photographs depended on her subject’s active participation; being photographed gave a moment of colour to their otherwise anonymous lives. People must have been flattered. Inside they simply felt themselves, and did not realise that, in front of her lens, whether they were Mrs T Charlton Henry, a raddled dowager from Philadelphia in a negligee, or a Puerto Rican woman with heavily painted eyes and a beauty mark, they would end up looking like axe murderers.

But it is her photographs of people in residences for what is euphemistically called “developmental difficulties” that are the hardest to look at. Those with Down’s syndrome or with other deformities are dressed in masks, their faces painted as if for some medieval pageant. Arbus loved “freaks”. As she explained: “There’s a quality of legend about freaks. Like a person in a fairy tale who stops you and demands that you answer a riddle . . . Freaks were born with trauma. They’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats.”

Perhaps, in the end, this is the true power of her images – that they not only throw light on those who seem odd and dispossessed, but that they illuminate our own responses when faced with the different and the damaged. In that sense Arbus is a revealer of souls.

Diane Arbus Artist Rooms at the National Museum Cardiff until 31 August 2009
Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2009
Works of art acquired by the nation in 2008

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Francis Bacon Retrospective
Tate Britain

Published in New Statesman

Art Criticism

The impact of Francis Bacon’s disturbing paintings has not diminished one jot

Francis Bacon Head VI 1949
Head VI, 1949

With his pimento-shaped face, reminiscent of an overstuffed hamster, Francis Bacon appears in photos taken by his contemporaries and in a famous portrait by his friend Lucian Freud – stolen in 1988 never to be seen again – as one of the most recognisable artists of the 20th century. Doyen of Soho drinking clubs, he led a reprobate life that has been well documented, from an Anglo-Irish childhood, with a repressive father who threw him out for showing an overdeveloped penchant for stable grooms and for his mother’s underwear, to his sadomasochistic love affairs with numerous men of the demi-monde.

The new Bacon retrospective at Tate Britain, the first since 1985, allows for a reassessment of his work in an age when shock and violence are common fare, in the art world and in daily life. An avowed nihilist and atheist, he was fraught with contradictions. “You can,” he claimed, “be optimistic and totally without hope … I think of life as meaningless; [but] we create attitudes that give it meaning while we exist.” Painting, alcohol and sex were the ways he sought that meaning.

Bacon, widely regarded as Britain’s greatest painter of the figure, aimed to inherit a place in the pantheon beside Michelangelo, Velázquez and Rembrandt. He insisted that his pictures “were to deserve either the National Gallery or the dustbin, with nothing in between” – and undoubtedly won that gamble. Yet despite his extraordinary innovation and recasting of the human form, he cannot be seen as a true modernist. He was, for most of his career, sidelined by the American critics, who saw him as too figurative, too narrative, and too concerned with European art history and Christian iconography. Neither did he share their boundless optimism nor care much for the abstract expressionism promoted by the American critic Clement Greenberg. As he said: “I do not believe in abstract art because you must have a starting point in reality.”

Francis Bacon Study for the Head of George Dyer 1967
Study for the Head of George Dyer, 1967

Today, as one looks back, more than a decade after his death in 1992, Bacon’s sensibility seems supremely European. His postwar angst springs from the same ground as that of Giaco metti and Jean Dubuffet, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Jean Cocteau, whose bleak dictum “If you see your whole life in a mirror, you will see death at work” Bacon admired. His 1955 painting based on the life mask of William Blake, that great outsider of British literature, nails his colours to the mast of iconoclasm and individuality. He lived by his own rules, both in his art and in his relish for the bohemian lowlife (homosexuality was still illegal) of Soho and the Colony Room. T S Eliot was a huge influence. The poet juggled with religious imagery for a secular age, whilst Bacon was a committed atheist, but both caught something of the existential isolation and abjection that defined postwar Europe.

Francis Bacon Study for Figure II 1945-46
Study for Figure II, 1945-46

Yet Bacon strongly denied a narrative message. He wanted his paintings to address the viewer’s “nervous system directly” and to “unlock the valves of feeling” with his distorted forms, derived through chance, accident and appropriation. His paintings, he claimed, were a form of “exhilarated despair”, and mankind “nothing but meat”. He rejected the idea that his screaming popes, based on Velázquez’s Portrait of Innocent X, shut in their claustrophobic glass cases, had anything to do with the image of the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, standing in a glass witness box during his trial in Jerusalem, or that his mauled, contorted bodies were born out of the horrors of the Second World War. Yet the famed detritus of his studio, posthumously saved by his heir John Edwards, reveals not only Bacon’s passion for photography and film, but that his paintings were informed by images as diverse as illustrations from medical textbooks on diseases of the mouth, or the nanny’s blood-spattered face from Battleship Potemkin. They were not, in other words, totally intuitive. It has long been acknowledged that Eadweard Muybridge’s early photographs of movement were fundamental to Bacon’s work.

So where should we place him now? To stand in front of his Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, painted in the 1940s, is still a deeply visceral and gut-wrenching experience. Bacon had come to know Aeschylus’s Oresteia through Eliot’s 1939 play The Family Reunion. The artist’s three writhing Eumenides are barely recognisable as human figures. They have no eyes, only silently screaming mouths, bespeaking the fascination of that first generation of post-Freudians with the id and “the hidden presence of animal trends in the unconscious”. Bacon’s screaming baboons, sniffing dogs and bulls all blur the line between culture and abject nature.

Francis Bacon Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion 1944
Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, 1944

There is also something prescient about both the popes and Bacon’s men in suits. Study for Figure II, 1945-46 shows a solitary man with blank eyes and gaping mouth, in a jaundice-yellow suit, isolated on some sort of platform against an empty, black space. This figure, which bears an uncanny resemblance to George W Bush, is one of Eliot’s hollow men, heads stuffed with straw, whose “dried voices, when/We whisper together/Are quiet and meaningless”. There is nothing, Bacon seems to be saying, so isolating and dehumanising as power. His impact has not diminished one jot.

Francis Bacon Retrospective at Tate Britain until 4 January 2009
Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2008
Images © Estate of Francis Bacon

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Miroslaw Balka
Modern Art Oxford

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Art Criticism

Into the shadows

A refreshingly earnest look at Europe’s dark past

Miroslaw Balka Bambi (Winterreise) 2003
Bambi (Winterreise), 2003

It is, in case you didn’t know it, Polska! Year, an official campaign aiming to introduce Polish culture to the British public. One of the highlights is Topography by the artist Miroslaw Balka, who is also the creator of Tate Modern’s current Turbine Hall exhibit: a black box that is luring crowds into its dark centre. How we remember and how we choose to forget are his subjects. “Every day,” he says, “I walk in the paths of the past.” The grandson of a gravestone carver, Balka claims: “Contemporary time does not exist. We cannot catch the continuous.”

In the flickering, black-and-white shadows of his videos, projected on to the gallery walls at Modern Art Oxford, images return, again and again, like troubling dreams. Born in 1958, the shadow of the Holocaust haunts Balka’s work. On the far wall of the gallery, there is a projection of a frozen pond surrounded by trees in a snowy landscape. The uncanny stillness and apparent silence tap into the romanticism of Caspar David Friedrich and those half-remembered illustrations from childhood fairy tales. It is a genuine shock, then, to learn that this idyll is the site of the concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. Suddenly, we are forced to ask what this place has witnessed, what it remembers or keeps veiled behind this neutralising blanket of snow. In Bambi, 2003, young deer forage in the snow looking for food. They leap over the ribbons of rusting barbed wire that encircle the ghostly vestiges of the camp’s prison compound. The title implies the danger of Disney-fying history, of turning away from the truth by making such places into “Holocaust theme parks”.

Miroslaw Balka Flagellare A, B and C 2009
Flagellare A, B and C, 2009

In recent works, such as Flagellare A, B and C 2009, Balka offers a more physical, less literal expression of both ritual and violence, drawing parallels between the two. Videos inserted in the floor show the shadow of a leather belt whipping the gallery floor, which seems to have transformed into a canvas of skin. The repeated swish suggests not only brutal torture but also Christian flagellation, with its motifs of guilt, redemption and reparation. There is something painterly about the way the soft, blue-and-yellow light flits across the surface.

It is no coincidence that, within classical religious art, light implies the spiritual and the divine. These are complex, multilayered works. Sound accompanies a number of the videos: the burr of a truck driver’s foot on an accelerator accompanied by a Polish lullaby or a clockwork wind-up toy shuffling around the studio. These desensitise and disorientate.

Talking with Balka, I suggest that in Polish contemporary art such soul-searching is much less common than among postwar German artists such as Anselm Kiefer, Joseph Beuys or Georg Baselitz. He tells me that, being younger, he has had to educate himself about the Holocaust and that, having done so, he now has a responsibility to communicate this knowledge through his art. It is an idealistic and refreshingly uncynical view. “We are,” he says, “so close to the erasure of the subject that, by making such work, maybe there can continue to be an honest dialogue.”

Miroslaw Balka Topography at Modern Art Oxford until 7 March 2010
Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2010
Images © Miroslaw Balka

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Jake and Dinos Chapman
Bad Art for Bad People
Tate Liverpool

Published in New Statesman

Art Criticism

The art of the Chapman brothers is cynical and morally bankrupt

Like Laurel and Hardy, Flanagan and Alan, Gilbert and George, the artists Jake and Dinos Chapman have realised that being part of a duo is a good career move. The audience get two for the price of one and there is always someone around to act as a foil. The self-appointed bad boys of British art, they came to prominence as part of the notorious YBA generation. Now they have produced Bad Art for Bad People and the more they shock us, like pigs wallowing in their own muck, the happier they are. “We are sore-eyed scopophilliac oxymorons …our discourse offers a benevolent contingency of concepts, a discourse of end-of-sale remnants, a rationalistic hotbed of sober categories…” belligerently declares a mud spattered manifesto plastered on the gallery wall. But what are they really up to with their infantile penile-nosed manikins and their obsessive scenarios of death camp horror made from myriads of tiny plastic bodies like those used by small boys for air fix models?

Jake and Dino Chapman Great Deeds! Against the Dead 1994
Great Deeds! Against the Dead, 1994

For ‘nothing loses its effectiveness more quickly than shock’ wrote Peter Bürger, in his account of the avant-garde. Provocation cannot be repeated indefinitely without either losing its muscle or upping the anti. One generation’s shock – Impressionism, for example – becomes another’s tea towel decoration. Shock is nowadays, mostly, to a shock-hardened generation, not very shocking at all but it is all good PR and its a legacy stretches back from the Chapman’s copulating dolls via the Surrealists to medieval visions of hell. But does the Chapman’s work reveal or criticise anything or is it simply excreta emptied from the bowels of an impoverished society; sterile, commercial diarrhoea for profit and titillation? They may occasionally make us laugh but is it gallows humour, the jeers of the crowd at a gladiatorial contest through which, as spectators, we become complicit in their end-of-everything schadenforh humour? For theirs is a scornful, cruel, caustic wit that rejects all forms of enlightenment morality and humanist endeavour and where the viewer’s involvement and discomfort leaves the last laugh with them. For shock is part of their agenda, part of their manifesto, along with cynicism it forms the dual prongs of their credo. At the very end of postmodernism when God has been dead for more than a hundred years, these heirs of Nietzsche and Bataille play with the shards of a morally bankrupt society like children in a war zone picking over gruesome remains.

Jake and Dino Chapman Sex I 2003
Sex I, 2003

The Champman brothers are fully versed in the critical scaffolding that supports their position, one minute nodding in the direction of Walter Benjamin and his arguments about repetition and reproduction and the next towards critics such as Rosalind Krauss who have dismissed the notion of innovation or genius as a ‘modernist myth’. To create work (to use their own words) of ‘vertiginous obscenity’ they have repeatedly returned to Goya, particularly his series Disasters of War, in which he portrayed the atrocities he had witnessed in the Peninsular War between Spain and France (1808-14). Yet while Goya’s unflinching aesthetic was born out of moral anger at the politics of his time and his despair at man’s bestial treatment of man, the Chapman’s aesthetic grows not from outrage but out of post-moral ennui. Goya’s men, mutilated and bound to their tree like flayed versions of Christ may well have called out to a God whom they believed had forsaken them yet for the Chapman’s the image represents a celebration of the abject. For as Jake (the articulate one) has written ‘We’ve always argued that pornography is the perfect representation of twenty-first-century sexuality because it hints at sex through an act of reproduction and repetition’. Provocatively, he added, that Goya’s copper plates for this series are scarred ‘with indelible signs of auto-eroticism’.

Jake and Dino Chapman Token Pole 1997
Token Pole, 1997

They would, no doubt, argue that their work reveals the ruptures and hypocrisies within modern culture and that they are interrogating what we value as art and that their subversive strategies question the role of the artist within contemporary society. They may also add that at the end of history, as utopian modernist values crash around our ears, that their encrusted skeletons dangling from a tree in a pastiche of Goya’s image, but now crawling with luminous worms and putrid maggots, is the only possible response to this moment in history. For this vision of putrefying decomposition, rendered with painstaking detail, offers a disquietingly ambiguous response to the horrors of violence and the total loss of any belief system. For as Julia Kristeva has written: ‘Abjection is above all about ambiguity’. Here, through the pornography of violence and death, Eros transcends the abject horrors of Thanatos. As with the erotic violence of de Sade the visual pleasure the piece offers is in direct correlation to the pain it evokes.

Such sadism is evident in their investigations of evil, where a mass of squirming, uniformed and torturing figures made from tiny models has turned into a version of Dante’s Hell or a Nazi death camp. No other of their images so signals the failure of Enlightenment values. For this theatre of cruelty represents a world of perpetual torment where the title Arbeit McFries conflates the totalitarianism of Fascism with that of contemporary commerce. In another glass case a writhing mass of tiny soldiers decapitate one another and place the dismembered heads triumphantly on spikes in an evocation of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, where the once benevolent Kurtz, corrupted and coarsened by the endless brutality in the Congo, cries out against his native workers, ‘Exterminate the brutes!’ Ill with “jungle fever” and almost dead, Marlow seizes Kurtz and endeavors to take him back down the river in his steam boat. As Kurtz dies he utters the immortal words, “The horror! The horror!” Examining ideas of the struggle between good and evil, light and dark, savagery and civilization, Conrad, nevertheless stresses through the novel the importance of restraint in balancing the destructive impulses of the Dionysian Id. For those who break its boundaries are doomed to an endless existential cycle of destruction. Whilst Conrad observes the collapse of a moral frame work and illuminates its dangers we do not know whether the Chapman’s are critics or advocates of the present state of society, or whether like bullies watching a victim being mugged, they are simply standing on the side lines laughing.

Jake and Dino Chapman Bad Art for Bad People is at Tate Liverpool until 4 March 2007
Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2007
Images © Jake and Dino Chapman 1984-2003
Courtesy of the Tate

Published in New Statesman

Francesco Clemente
Three Worlds
Royal Academy of Art

Published in New Statesman

Art Criticism

He is probably best known not as painter, but as the cropped head, with dark-lashed eyes and a three-day growth of designer stubble, staring soulfully from the ad for the designer wear of Comme des Garcons. Such a public and commercial act illustrates something of the ambiguity of the visionary artist Francesco Clemente.

Born in Naples in 1952, he has made his home in New York, with long spells spent in Madras. Clemente likes the buzz, the bustle, and the colour that these cities offer. Coming from a cultured family – his parents published a collection of his juvenile poetry when he was twelve – he trained as an architect, before turning to painting. Clemente has always claimed to be more influenced by poetry than by art. “I am a fan of poets,” he says. “I think of all art forms as voice. For me, man’s greatest moment must have come before painting, writing or music, when there was only the voice”.

For the young Clemente, the poets of the Beat Generation were living symbols of true artists. In the street, credibility and spirituality met. He was drawn to the Beats’ rejection of academic values and social structures in favour of the search for the self. Theirs was a path of exploration, the spiritual made flesh in daily repetitive acts.

Francesco Clemenete Pinxit
Francesco Clemenete Pinxit

Clemente also warmed to Kerouac and Ginsberg’s interest in Eastern philosophy. Ginsberg, with whom Clemente has on several occasions collaborated, once described him as a “Blake-inspired painter”. For to enter into Clemente’s works is to enter into an esoteric cosmology of his own making: a world of symbols that appear to be archetypes, but which are wholly idiosyncratic, and unrelated to any historic imagery.

Clemente’s formative years were influenced by the Italian movement of the late 1960s and 1970s known as Arte Povera, which used unorthodox non-art materials borrowed from the scrap heap in its rejection of ‘high art’ and market demands. As a way out of the intellectual closure of much of the period’s art, he developed an affinity to the alchemical leanings of artists such as Janis Kounellis and the shamanistic possibilities suggested by Joseph Beuys. With his first trip to India in 1973, Clemente was to find not only “gods who left us a thousand years ago in Naples”, but a diversity of spiritual and visual images: temples, beggars, garish film posters and plaster gods – a sensory kaleidoscope that was to revitalise his imagination.

His time in India began a prolific period in which he drew on classical, as well as Indian mythology. He collaborated with local craftsmen, young miniature painters from Jaipur, Tamil board painters and paper makers from Pondicherry. He was drawn back to the ritualistic possibilities of art and also to the body, as if responding with his Italian sensibilities to the eroticism of Hinduism.

Clemenete has never been interested in a minimalist honing-down, but rather, like an exotic Walt Whitman, to opening himself up to whatever influences have fed him. One of the most extraordinary works from this period is the series of twenty-four miniatures Francesco Clemenete Pinxit, painted in gouache on pages from an antique Persian book from which the text has been eradicated. Although executed by Indian assistants, the ideograms are entirely Clemente’s. Esoteric and hard to read, he has produced a unique microcosm. Maimed and able-bodied youths cavort through formal Indian landscapes: a hermaphrodite lays an egg into a spoon, another excretes turds that turn to delicate decorative flowers, and there is the portentous symbol of the hand with the severed finger.

Francesco Clemenete Name 1983
Name, 1983

Insofar as Clemente is ever didactic, this severance serves to remind us of the psychic disasters that can ensue if we cut off from our physical nature. Clemente is not un-aware that the eroticism inherent in Tantric yoga is spiritual. The image of the hand is recurrent: elsewhere whole and inclusive, it rises like a great colossus from the oceans to hold a map of the world.

By contrast to the Indian paintings, those executed in New York are vibrant, edgy and colourfully expressionistic. Self-portraits abound, as if to paint, and paint again, one’s own image is to define existence. A body made of eyes sits on a bandaged head, emphasising that ‘seeing’ is not intellectual but visceral. There is a luminosity, a bringing together of fragments, emphasised in the numerous twins and doubles. Despite his geographical schizophrenia, Clemente knows that, as the poet Robert Creeley said, “The local is not a place but a place in a given man – what part of it he has been compelled or else brought by love to give witness to him own mind. And that is the form, that is the whole thing, as whole as it can get”.

Francesco Clemente Three Worlds at the Philadelphia Museum of Art from 21 October 1990 to 23 December 1990 and then the Royal Academy of Arts
Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 1990
Images © Francesco Clemente

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Prunella Clough
50 Years of Making Art
Annely Juda Fine Art London

Published in New Statesman

Art Criticism

Prunella Clough’s thoroughly unflashy work recalls a quieter, more modest era in British art

Prunella Clough Array 1986
Array, 1986

The modernist American poet William Carlos Williams declared in his poem “A Sort of Song” that there were “no ideas but in things”. Such a phrase might well describe the output of the late Prunella Clough. She was essentially a painter of landscape and still life, and though in later life her work hovered close to abstraction it was always rooted in the minutiae of the observed world. In the 1940s, when she came of age as an artist, she painted streets, docksides and factories as symbols of modernity, as well as farmers, labourers and the fishermen of Lowestoft engaged in honest toil. These paintings were monochromatic and suffused with the sort of English romanticism associated with her immediate predecessors and peers: John Piper, Graham Sutherland, Paul Nash, Robert Colquhoun and Keith Vaughan.

Clough’s work was informed by the technical precision she learned from her wartime training as a mapping and engineering draughtsman. When I interviewed her just before her death, she explained how different the postwar London art world had been: hermetic, innocent and slightly xenophobic. There were, she said, few professional painters and even fewer galleries and magazines. London was a grey, bomb-damaged place where poets such as Louis MacNeice rubbed shoulders in down-at-heel Soho pubs with the likes of Francis Bacon. This was reflected in the muted tones of English painting and in the grey realities of Mass Observation.

Prunella Clough Ceramic Rose 1996
Ceramic Rose, 1996

A retrospective at the Annely Juda Fine Art gallery comprises more than 60 paintings, drawings and reliefs covering Clough’s career from the early 1940s until her death in 1999. It encompasses the most important shifts in modern British art from early modernism to conceptualism. Study for a Scene on Ruined Beach, 1944, a brooding seascape in muted colours, draws on the Romantic tradition. Man With Goggles and Man With Printing Press, painted in the 1950s, owe something to social realism.

Gradually, as Clough found her own artistic language, her imagery became more abstract. She was influenced by the small and the inci­dental, by urban detritus: a discarded plastic bag caught in a swirl of wind, a broken packing case dropped in a market skip, or a seep of oil that had leeched a dark stain on to a pavement. Splash, painted in the 1970s, shows a black leak that has bled into the ground of yellow pavement beneath. Often it is not until we read the title of a painting that it reveals its association with the real world, as in Mesh with Glove I, 1980, with its almost pointillist blobs of black delineating a wire fence seen close up, or the dark triangular slash placed centrally on the paper in another work, which turns out to be a dressing gown.

Clough spent a lifetime looking not so much at what was centre stage, but at what existed on the margins. “I am an ‘eye’ person, totally affected by visual facts,” she said. She believed the tonal basis for her work had as much to do with the English wind and weather as anything else. “I work from subject matter, things perceived, and the things that I see tend to be somewhat murky.” Although her palette was subdued (in this respect she had something in common with the modesty of Gwen John), there are electric moments. An arc of red, yellow and blue is placed among the scrubbed tones of Still Life to pull the eye towards the horizon. In Sweet Jar, 1992, a cluster of brightly coloured circles seems to have fallen to the bottom edge of an otherwise black and white canvas.

Prunella Clough Still Life 1986-89
Still Life, 1986-89

Once referred to as “the best-kept secret in British art”, Clough is often spoken of as “an artist’s artist”. Consistently acknowledged by her peers to be among the most distinguished painters of the postwar period, she was never widely celebrated in her life. When she won the Jerwood Prize just before her death, the Times referred rather patronisingly to “a little-known artist” of 80, as if she were some sort of parvenu, as opposed to someone who had been teaching and painting for half a century. This may partly be because Clough never sought the limelight. There is something quintessentially unflashy about her paintings. She was modest both in her demeanour and in the scale of her work – though never in her determination to capture something original, spare and true.

Her abstracted forms, underpinned by initial traces of drawing, insinuate themselves into the mind of the viewer. Although figures were absent from her later work, a recently departed presence is often suggested. Each canvas holds its own space with a quiet yet muscular rectitude. There is a quirky strangeness about them, a feel of something slightly odd and uncanny.

As she told Michael Middleton in an interview nearly 50 years ago, “I like paintings that say a small thing rather edgily.” Clough’s ability to draw our attention to the beauty and pathos in the ordinary is deliciously out of sync with times in which sound and fury often signify so little. Hers is an unobtrusive but unique voice.

Prunella Clough 50 Years of Making Art at Annely Juda Fine Art, London until 21 March 2009
Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2009
Images © Estate of Prunella Clough 2009. Courtesy of Annely Juda Fine Art, London

Published in New Statesman

Edinburgh Festival 2007

Published in New Statesman

Art Criticism

Visual art once had only a walk-on part at the Edinburgh Festival.
With a fine selection of shows this year, it is now centre stage.

Picasso Amorous Minotaur with a Female Centaur (Minotaure amoureux d'une femme-centaure)
Picasso Amorous Minotaur with a Female Centaur (Minotaure amoureux d’une femme-centaure)

“The greatest artist of the 20th century” is the claim made for Picasso in the catalogue accompanying “Picasso on Paper” at the Dean Gallery in Edinburgh. Such statements inevitably tend towards inaccuracy and hyperbole. In this case, however, the 125 prints and drawings on display do reveal the extraordinary range of Picasso’s inventive genius. His achievements over 70 years range from a striking pastel and watercolour of a couple on a prancing horse, done when the artist was 17, to a dextrous ink drawing, made in 1971 when he was 89. For this obsessive draughtsman, printmaking was not simply a means of reproducing images from his paintings, but a creative process in its own right. He also embraced lithography, engraving and even linocuts.

Picasso Nude Woman with Necklace (Femme nue au collier) 1968
Picasso Nude Woman with Necklace (Femme nue au collier) 1968

Picasso’s skills were precocious; he could, according to his biographer Roland Penrose, draw before he could speak. “Picasso: Fired with Passion”, at the National Museum of Scotland, explores his creativity between 1947 and 1961, when he lived in the south of France. The exhibition demonstrates his creative hunger, stylistic range and diverse use of materials, concentrating on ceramics and collected memorabilia. It is rather inelegantly installed – there are far too many information boards, creating a sense of clutter – but it provides a fascinating glimpse into his family life and friendships with contemporaries such as Jean Cocteau and Georges Braque.

A few years ago, visual art at the annual Edinburgh Festival was the poor relation of theatre and comedy. Now, with the fourth Edinburgh Art Festival co-ordinating a series of exhibitions and art-related events in galleries around the city, it is taking centre stage. The two Picasso shows are running alongside several other exhibitions of contemporary work, by local artists and international names. A quick tour of the shows in the Athens of the north gives a good sense of the varying strands in modern and contemporary art, proving that the festival’s art scene has become truly international.

Richard Long A line in Scotland 1981
Richard Long A line in Scotland, 1981

At the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art is a major new exhibition, “Richard Long: Walking and Marking”. Since the late 1960s, Long has been investigating the relationship between the human trace and the natural world, principally by walking through landscapes and making art along the way. Working with mud, sticks and stones, he has created a visually spare, poetic language that has ancient roots as well as modern relevance. The photographs detailing journeys are not the most beautiful works here – that distinction goes to the untitled mud paintings on paper and the fingerprint drawings created on found objects such as a piece of African door or a Berber tent peg.

National Museum of Scotland
National Museum of Scotland

Back in town, the pillars of the National Gallery of Scotland have been transformed into giant cans of Campbell’s soup to mark the impending 80th anniversary of Andy Warhol’s birth and the 20th anniversary of his death. The gallery’s neoclassical pediments and dados supply an unlikely backdrop to the baroque kitsch of Warhol’s cow wallpaper and floating silver clouds. A highly skilled draughtsman and one-time shoe designer, Warhol displayed a patriotic enthusiasm for America’s rapidly growing postwar economy, which made products such as Coca-Cola, Campbell’s soup and even Brillo pads universally available. His cool, urbane sensibility was influenced by Marcel Duchamp’s concept of the found object, and marked a shift in fine art away from the existential struggles of abstract expressionism.

Consumer products, film stars and celebrities became Warhol’s endlessly repeated subjects. In 1962, however, his friend Henry Geldzahler suggested: “That’s enough affirmation of life. Maybe everything isn’t always so fabulous in America. It’s time for some death. This is what’s really happening.” The result was Warhol’s Death and Disaster series of paintings, depicting war and burning cars. Suicide (silver man jumping) (1963) shows a solitary figure leaping from a high-rise building, and feels eerie in today’s political landscape. Although Warhol remains best known for his multiple silk screen prints of Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Onassis, this comprehensive exhibition exposes the darker side of his world-view. It will help dispel the idea that he was a dumb-blonde celebrity babe: this is insightful social commentary.

Where Warhol’s serial portraits essentially presented the sitter’s public persona, nakedness is, intrinsically, a more private affair. “The Naked Portrait” at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery considers the use of this ubiquitous genre over the past hundred years.

The naked human body elicits an array of intense psychological responses and, to some extent, turns us all into voyeurs. The body can be viewed as both powerful and vulnerable when stripped of the clothes that provide it with a persona and facade. The naked portrait – the phrase is taken from Lucian Freud – becomes a way of understanding not only ourselves, but questions of gender and sexuality, as well as attitudes to the imperfect body. This insightful exhibition has some fine photographs by John Coplans, investigating the process of male ageing, by Diane Arbus and by Francesca Woodman. The paintings on show are by artists as diverse as Freud, Paula Modersohn-Becker and Alice Neel.

William McTaggart Wave, 1881
William McTaggart Wave, 1881

If you want something a little more indigenous, you could do worse than visit “Beyond Appearances” at the City Art Centre. Though there is a whiff of the municipal about the gallery itself, the show cleverly investigates the stylistic qualities and pure thematic concerns that might be considered to characterise Scottish painting from the late 19th century to the present day. There are works by Callum Innes and Boyle Family; the star of the show is William McTaggart’s beautiful Wave, 1881.

Jock McFadyen Tate Moss
Jock McFadyen Tate Moss

The Paisley-born painter Jock McFadyen has become an aficionado of urban desolation, fav ouring London canals and petrol stations along bleak dual carriageways as his subjects. Now he has turned a searing eye on Orkney, painting landscapes and the abandoned hulks of cargo ships that lie submerged in offshore waters, like rusting Loch Ness Monsters. His exhibition captures something of the old make-do festival spirit, appropriating the Grey Gallery, a disused warehouse on Old Broughton.

Alex Hartley, Fruitmarket Gallery
Alex Hartley, Fruitmarket Gallery

If cutting-edge is more your style, you could visit the Fruitmarket Gallery, where Alex Hartley has clad the outside of the venue in an image of itself. Hartley is a conceptual artist who likes to confront our standard responses to both built and natural environments. He incorporates his interest in climbing and photography in his practice; his most resonant works are those where hazy photographs of architectural interiors have been trapped like flies in amber within columns of glass. The images of some of his architectural climbs seem rather contrived, but those of remote terrains on to which he has constructed physical fantasy dwellings are subversive, with a touch of utopian pathos.

Doggerfish, Nathan Coley
Doggerfish, Nathan Coley

At Stills, on Cockburn Street, John Stezaker has breathed new life into photographs from forgotten film archives and obsolete magazines. He creates uncanny duos of wide-eyed children with furry cat features, and classic profiles interrupted by old postcards of landscapes. Such surreal interventions suggest the world of dream. At the trendy Doggerfisher contemporary gallery, also in the city centre, the photographer and sculptor Nathan Coley, shortlisted for this year’s Turner Prize, has produced a visually incoherent show. The most successful works are a series of confession boxes nearly obliterated with harsh spray enamel paint, hinting at the failure of religion. If, on the other hand, all this seems a bit heavyweight and you yearn for something playful, you could pop into the university’s Talbot Rice Gallery for the first major solo exhibition in Scotland of David Batchelor’s sculptural detritus. His multicoloured constructs, made from a forest of domestic clutter such as sieves, clothes pegs and feather dusters gleaned from pound shops, create a forest of colour that gleams like a collection of Argos jewels.

Talbot Rice Gallery, David Batchelor
Talbot Rice Gallery, David Batchelor

Edinburgh Art Festival runs until 2 September 2007

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2007
Image 1: Moma Collection
Image 2: Tate Collection
Image 3: © Richard Long
Image 5: Collection Kirkcaldy Museum and Art Gallery
Image 6: © Jock McFadyen
Image 8: © Nathan Coley
Image 9: Courtesy of Talbot Rice Gallery

Published in New Statesman

Gilbert and George
major exhibition
Tate Modern London

Published in New Statesman

Art Criticism

Gilbert and George’s work is seen to be gritty and provocative. But in fact it owes its international reputation to the sycophancy of the art world

Gilbert and George 'fates' 2005
‘fates’, 2005

Gilbert and George are well known for dressing in suits that make them look like a pair of tailor’s dummies from a Burton shop-window display, circa 1963 – the year, Philip Larkin claimed, that sexual intercourse was invented. (In fact, George looks rather like Larkin, and, with their shared love of Mrs T and all things scatological, they might have got on rather well.) They are also famous for being gay; for living in an 18th-century house in the East End of London that is now worth megabucks; for not having a kitchen and eating the same meals every day at local cafés; for being polite and charming to journalists; and for never saying what they really mean or meaning what they say. Most of all, they are known for taking relish in épatant le bourgeois. It is the armature on which their highly lucrative artistic careers have been built.

Gilbert and George Red Sculpture 1975
Red Sculpture, 1975

Those shocked by their vast photomontages littered with giant turds, sputum, spunk, blood and a smattering of pretty gay boys of various races have called them fascist, disgusting and many other things besides. Their supporters counter that they are misunderstood outsiders who make “art for all”. Their work, we are told, has nothing to do with the elitist, bourgeois art to be found in Cork Street or the Royal Academy. It can be appreciated by any Tom, Dick or Harry down at the spit-and-sawdust local.

However, with their recent South Bank Show visual arts award, and now a retrospective at Tate Modern, it is clear that the contemporary art world has, in fact, clutched them to its breast. We know this is a “major exhibition” because that is what the Tate has bombastically called it. (Surely it is up to us to decide?) British artists are meant to show at Tate Britain rather than its modern-art counterpart. But Gilbert and George wanted the cathedral halls of Tate Modern and, after a little argy-bargy, that is what Gilbert and George got – two whole wings of the place. The work goes on for miles.

The exhibition begins with a large, pastoral, five-part “charcoal on paper sculpture” (a large drawing to you and me), on which they have written: “WE BELIEVE THAT LOVE is the PATH for a Better WORLD of ART in which GOOD & BAD GIVE WAY for GILBERT and GEORGE TO BE.” As heirs to Andy Warhol, they understood from the beginning of their career that irony, enigma and self-promotion were to become the true obsessions of late 20th-century art. Their manifesto of 1969, The Laws of Sculptors, reads:

1. Always be smartly dressed, well groomed relaxed and friendly polite and in complete control.
2. Make the world to believe in you and to pay heavily for this privilege.
3. Never worry assess discuss or criticise but remain quiet respectful and calm.
4. The lord chisels still, so don’t leave your bench for long.

Gilbert and George 'england' 1980
‘england’, 1980

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

They went on to use the building in which they lived, working to present themselves as characters from a Sunday-afternoon black-and-white B-movie with Dusty Corners, 1975. The piece is evocative, even poetic in an Old Curiosity Shop sort of way, but it was Coming, a 1975 series of nine black-and-white photos of the pair in insouciant poses amid pools of spilt beer (or spunk), fingers loosely held in a provocative V, that was to point the direction of their later work.

Since then, ordinary photographs have given way to slick, technicolour photomontages, hovering somewhere between cartoons and Gothic pastiche, about copulation, coprophilia and death. The run-down inner city becomes a sort of solipsistic, prelapsarian gay playground in which they feature as the main players. To an extent, they are the Joe Ortons of the art world, only without Orton’s wit. In works such as Shitty Naked Human World (1994), with its crucifix of four brown turds, and Spit Law (1997), which shows them bent over, baggy Y-fronts crumpled around their ankles to expose their bum holes, the artists are reminiscent of small boys behind the bike shed who think they are being ever so smutty when, in fact, they are simply being boring. Gilbert and George want us to be shocked, but would be rather less happy if they knew that the primary feeling they elicit is ennui.

Gilbert and George 'death hope life fear' 1984
‘death hope life fear’, 1984

Another of their obsessions is God and the kitschy trappings of religion. And yet, without a jot of religious doubt or philosophical questioning, religious signs and symbols – crucifixes, Masonic compasses, pseudo-Islamic lettering – are raided like a dressing-up box. Even their recent works about the London bombings, such as Terror and Bombs (2006), seem like cynical appropriations. Theirs is a solipsistic world where there are no women, old people, or even children – no one but them and their cast of beautiful boys. Yet an essay in the exhibition catalogue would have us believe that their art is a sort of expansive humanitarian enterprise, illustrating human frailty and involving a process of “unremitting self-exploration and self-exposure, not out of self-importance or vanity . . . but as an example to others of the necessity for a fully examined life”. The case is also made for their multiculturally inclusive approach, evidence of which is the number of black and brown youths they use for their photos. Yet even this smacks of essentialism and exoticisation. If these were images of women made by heterosexual men, would we react differently?

Gilbert and George’s work is not objectionable because it is crude, raw, or in-your-face: many paintings by Picasso are cruel and ugly, and surrealism relished the profane and degraded. But with this pair, there is the suspicion that their fat bank accounts and international reputations are supported by the sycophancy of much of the art world. There is nothing real behind these works – no vituperative anger, no despair, no existential doubt, no love or passion – nothing, in fact, that makes art a meaningful and important human activity. That we accept it as great work worthy of such huge space at Tate Modern shows how lacking in confidence we have become about insisting that art should actually show what is painful, true and meaningful. We should not be fobbed off by these ersatz, commodified visions. Oddly, it is the sealed, glossy, sanitised slickness of these works that makes them objectionable, and not their supposedly iconoclastic content.

“Gilbert and George: major exhibition” is at Tate Modern London until 7 May 2007.

Gilbert and George: the CV

George Passmore is born in Devon
Gilbert Proesch is born in a small village in South Tyrol, Italy
Gilbert and George meet while studying sculpture at St Martin’s School of Art in London. Shortly afterwards, they move to Fournier Street in the (then) working-class East End neighbourhood of Spitalfields
The duo begin a period working as performance artists with their student creation The Singing Sculpture, followed by a series of live-performance works involving their getting drunk
Gilbert and George win the Turner Prize for their exhibition at the Guggenheim in New York and their major European touring show
They start producing provocative large-scale photomontages, notably the Cosmological Pictures
The series of photomontages Naked Shit Pictures prompts a media furore
The artists are chosen to represent the UK at the Venice Biennale with a series called the Gingko Pictures. The presentation makes press headlines with a picture depicting the artists flashing the V-sign

Kylie Walker
Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2007
Images © Gilbert & George 1975-2005. Courtesy of the Tate

Published in New Statesman

Andy Goldsworthy
Yorkshire Sculpture Park

Published in New Statesman

Art Criticism

Best known for his beautiful coffee-table books, Andy Goldsworthy is now making art from blood and human hair.
Nature is brutal, he tells Sue Hubbard

Andy Goldsworthy Hanging Trees 2007
Hanging Trees, 2007

In Yorkshire, the landscape reveals a long history of human intervention. What the uninitiated eye of the urban visitor may see as merely picturesque has evolved through years of toil, of working and husbanding the land. Forestry has shaped the woodland, while the hooves of grazing sheep or those corralled for dipping and shearing have sculpted the contours. Drovers’ roads and footpaths criss-cross the dales and hills to leave their trace of historic activity.

The latest exhibition by Andy Goldsworthy – the largest and most ambitious ever mounted by Yorkshire Sculpture Park, to mark its 30th anniversary – could be seen as an extension or reflection of this tradition. Goldsworthy is best known for a series of beautiful coffee-table books containing photographs of his ephemeral constructs fashioned from snow, ice, leaves and twigs. The works in this new show, however, are constructed from mud, stone, wood, clay, hair and blood. They underline his profound relationship with the landscape, and speak of the violence of nature, of the cycles of death, putrefaction and renewal, with an uncompromisingly elemental beauty. Goldsworthy is to environmental art what Ted Hughes was to poetry.

I find him, when I visit, high on a platform in one of the sculpture park’s underground galleries. As I approach, his first comment is a ty pically earthy “Bollocks” – he and an assistant are in the middle of lifting a heavy wooden pole in order to finish the roof of his yurt-like structure Wood Room.

Andy Goldsworthy Wood Room 2007
Wood Room, 2007

Goldsworthy is as far removed as you can get from the polished, trendy metropolitan art world. A smallish, wiry man in his fifties, with thick grey hair and a tattoo on his arm, he looks more like a gardener than a powerful creative force. And indeed, although he studied art at Preston Polytechnic in the mid- to late 1970s, he also worked as a farm labourer from the age of 13.

Inside Wood Room, the sensation is of being in a dark womb where the smell of newly cut chestnut is all-pervasive. It forms part of a series of installations that move from darkness to light. On entering the galleries, the viewer has to squeeze past Stacked Oak, a cone-shaped pile made from branches that were felled locally, which have been interlaced so that the piece is held up by its own bulk. Next is Stone Room, filled with 11 Yorkshire sandstone domes (apart from chestnut, all materials for the exhibition were sourced locally). The low, beehive-like forms, constructed with the same method used to build dry stone walls, have had holes cut in the centre to expose dark, circular voids. To stand amid this stony hush is like being in a burial chamber for the ancient dead.

Andy Goldsworthy Clay Room 2007
Clay Room, 2007

After that comes Clay Room. For this, tonnes of clay were dug from the grounds of the park, then dried, sieved and mixed with human hair and applied to the walls by huge teams of volunteers. The fine filaments of hair, just visible in the cracks, peek out like the secrets of an archaeological dig and bind the mud as it splits to leave an intricate crazed pattern. There is a potent melancholy to the piece that is in complete contrast to the atmosphere of light and air in the final work, Leaf Stalk Room. Here, horse-chestnut leaf stalks gathered from trees around the park have been pinned together with blackthorns to create an ecclesiastical screen, seemingly made of air. The piece is constructed to form a central empty space – a recurring trope that tacitly poses philosophical and theological questions. The twigs seem to float in a weightless evocation of Zen calligraphy.

When Goldsworthy finally climbs off his platform to talk, we meet in the project room. He is charming, but intensely reluctant to engage in any interpretation of his work, which he insists should speak for itself. However, he does say one of the aims of this exhibition was to “reclaim the landscape from the sentimental and the pastoral”.

Andy Goldsworthy Stone Room 2007
Stone Room, 2007

We turn to the “blood drawings” Hare, Blood and Snow, which form a triptych. Goldsworthy tells me that, driving home one night, he hit a hare. Upset, he went back to collect it. “When I skinned it I was surprised by the amount of blood. After all, it’s the blood that gives the richness to that traditional dish of jugged hare.” Later, he mixed the blood with snow, which he stuffed into the hare’s stomach, hanging the animal up so that the melting liquid dripped from its mouth and nostrils on to sheets of paper.

Conceptually and visually, this is a compelling work, a modern-day version of 17th-century Dutch vanitas paintings, which remind viewers of man’s mortality. When I suggest that the piece resonates with religious references – blood, death and renewal – he does not demur.

The cycles and uses of a working landscape are reflected in the Sheep Paintings, some of which were made in Dumfriesshire, where Goldsworthy lives. The pieces look like classic minimalist works, although they were made entirely with hoof prints and sheep droppings, the animals moving across the surface of the spread canvas to reach a central salt lick which, on its removal, created a clear circular void.

Andy Goldsworthy Stacked Oak 2007
Stacked Oak, 2007

“A good piece of work has intense clarity and truth and somehow makes sense of why you are here,” says Goldsworthy. “You must never lose sight of that. The work is a journey, a reflection about your life and its connections. I think of Matisse in old age, with his brush on a stick, and Rembrandt’s late self-portraits.”

Goldsworthy’s work has its roots in “land art”, the genre which began in 1960s America in an attempt to challenge the supremacy of museums and galleries, as well as the prevailing hegemony of abstract expressionism. It was a riposte by exponents such as Robert Smithson and Nancy Holt to the anodyne decorum of the gallery and the growing commodification of art.

Goldsworthy has made a number of pieces in the grounds of the park that feel as if they are hardly “art” at all. In the centre of a newly constructed stone sheep pen is another enclosure containing a huge flat wedge of sandstone. Visitors are encouraged to lie on the block in the rain to create “rainshadows” – transitory imprints of the human form – which are then photographed. As with the new commission Hanging Trees, a triptych of walled enclosures created from the original ha-ha in the park’s landscaped gardens, in which three felled oaks stripped of their bark hang suspended like the bleached bones of skeletons, these works suggest burial chambers and the relationship of the human body to the landscape. Archaeology, local history and the work ethic are all implied in these powerful, yet surprisingly modest, interventions.

Andy Goldsworthy Cow Dung on Glass 2007
Cow Dung on Glass, 2007

For some years now British landscape artists such as Goldsworthy, David Nash and Richard Long have been looked down upon by many in the art establishment. They have been regarded, despite their wide appeal and international success, as latter-day 1960s renegades, too metaphysical, too intense, too lyrical and unapologetically moral. This is an age that is more comfortable with cynicism than with the stench of dung and death. Yet never has there been a time when these artists’ work was more resonant, as the planet warms and old landscapes are destroyed. There is something inspirational in Goldsworthy’s devotion to the skills of handling wood and stone, to the crafts of stonewalling and forestry that are rapidly dying out in rural life. He deals with the big questions: those of mortality, memory, history and our place in the fast-disappearing natural world.

Andy Goldsworthy is at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park from 31 March 2007 until 6 January 2008

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2007

Images © Andy Goldsworthy, 2007. Courtesy of the Yorkshire Sculture Park

Published in New Statesman

Arshile Gorky
A Retrospective
Tate Modern

Published in New Statesman

Art Criticism

How one man’s traumatic youth revolutionised painting.

He was a bridge not only between surrealism and abstract expressionism, old Europe and a new American culture, but also between a vanished eastern world and the west. Like the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, who wrote under a series of heteronyms, Arshile Gorky’s tragic past led him to reinvent himself according to the poet’s dictum that: “Life is whatever we conceive it to be.” Indeed, there are few painters for whom autobiography and artistic output are so intimately linked.

Arshile Gorky Artist and his Mother, c1926-36
Artist and his Mother, c1926-36

His adoption of the pseudonym “Gorky” was an attempt to link himself to his celebrated contemporary Maxim Gorky, and to disguise his Armenian origins. He was born Vostanik Manoog Adoyan in 1904 in a rural part of what was then the Turkish Ottoman empire. An attack on the city of Van by the Turks in 1915 had prompted virtually the whole of the population of western Armenia to walk a hundred miles to the east, in a desperate evacuation over the mountains.

Gorky’s father had already left in 1908 to work in Rhode Island, leaving mother and children behind (until the money could be raised for their passage). During the winter of 1919, as the Russian civil war raged, Gorky’s mother died of starvation before he and his sister, Vartoosh, finally began the long journey to join his father in New York. This tragedy was to colour Gorky’s relationship to his art. Issues of loss, nostalgia and belonging haunt these edgy, intense paintings.

Studying works in the museums of Boston and New York in the 1920s, Gorky became passionate about contemporary art. His early paintings show him somewhat overwhelmed by the painterly language of his heroes Picasso and Cézanne, to the extent that his self-portrait and still lifes of 1928 might actually have been done by the latter.

Arshile Gorky Waterfall, 1943
Waterfall, 1943

It took him a decade to complete his most celebrated works, two portraits of himself as a boy with his lost mother. In the first, the flat areas of earthy colour, his averted gaze and his mother’s firmness of mouth show an attempt to capture a lost reality. In the second painting, with its soft, pink tones, Gorky seems to be trying to regain a moment that he knows has long been lost. His mother has slipped down the canvas, her face ghostly and pale, while the young Gorky wears differently coloured shoes, as if having one foot rooted in the past and the other in the present.

Slowly, he began to find his own idiosyncratic visual language, influenced by de Chir­ico’s dreamlike sequences. In the 1930s, his style loosened as he shifted away from cubism to the more biomorphic forms of surrealists such as Jean Arp and Joan Miró. The experience of drawing in Connecticut and Virginia further transformed his technique, as is evident in the visceral and fluid Waterfall, 1943, which combines observation with buried memories of childhood.

A fire that destroyed his studio in 1946, followed by the diagnosis of cancer and a period of depression, led Gorky to take his own life in the summer of 1948. But his strange shapes and intense, saturated colours, born primarily out of lived and felt experience, opened doors to a new way of making art.

Arshile Gorky A Retrospective at Tate Modern until 3 May 2010

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2010

Images © Arshile Gorky 2010. Courtesy of the Tate

Published in New Statesman

Antony Gormley
Blind Light
Hayward Gallery London

Published in New Statesman

Art Criticism

Sue Hubbard admires Antony Gormley’s ambition, but is curiously unmoved by his new show

I must confess I’ve never been a big fan of Antony Gormley’s art. The Angel of the North, 1995 has always seemed a rather bombastic affair to me, more authoritarian logo than resonant artwork, more populist than serious. It wasn’t until 1997’s Another Place, the group of figures looking out to sea from Crosby beach like a cluster of wistful emigrants, that I began to feel a sense of insightful vulnerability. So it was with mixed expectations that I visited Blind Light, the first major London show of Gormley’s work for 25 years.

Antony Gormley Blind Light

It is certainly an ambitious exhibition. The art extends from the confines of the gallery out into the streets, walkways and rooftops of the city. One of Gormley’s figures, a cast taken from the artist’s own body, stands naked and unashamed not far from the bus stop on Waterloo Bridge as if waiting for the number 4 bus; as I walked past some teenagers were standing in the rain making jokes about its willy. Others are poised like lookouts on both sides of the Thames on buildings from the Thistle Hotel at Charing Cross to the Union Jack Club. Gormley becomes ubiquitous and the effect is disquieting, like being watched by silent snipers or surveillance snoopers.

These foreign bodies sit on the city’s skyline, insinuating themselves into the landscape, so that it appears reduced to the scale of a model. They certainly make us look at London with fresh eyes. Yet there is something inert about them – they never quite achieve the existential vul nerability of the figures created by the late Juan Muñoz for his 2001 Tate Turbine Hall installation Double Bind, which must surely have been an influence on Gormley.

Antony Gormley Blind Light

Even before you enter the gallery, these sentinel forms signal his themes. Taking the body as his point of departure, he explores how we orientate ourselves within the built environment and architectural space. He also seems to be asking questions about who the audience is and who it is who’s doing the watching. He suggests that art is not simply to be observed by passive onlookers: it is dependent on the viewer who walks through it, navigates and negotiates the spaces around it. Gormley has said he prefers the word “body” to “figure” – wanting, no doubt, to distance himself from conventional figurative art. These featureless incarnations are not in dividuals, because, although their origins are unique, they can be endlessly reproduced.

Inside the Hayward, Gormley has mixed old works with new. Tilted precariously on its side is Space Station, a 27-tonne structure that looks like a gargantuan Meccano model, the sort boys made when Gormley was growing up. Full of peepholes into its interior void, it is a labyrin thine space evocative of the prisons etched by Giovanni Piranesi. It also looks like a giant colander. Only when you look at it from a higher level does it become obvious that its genesis was as a curled foetal figure. It set me thinking about the fashion for outsize sculpture – Anish Kapoor’s Marsyas or Louise Bourgeois’s Maman. In many cases, big now seems to equate with beautiful – or at least innovative. In fact, some of the most powerful sculptures I have ever experienced are Alberto Giacometti’s tiny, evocative postwar figures.

Antony Gormley Blind Light

Space Station is lit only by the glow from Blind Light, both pieces having been commissioned for this show. Brancusi said that “architecture is inhabited sculpture”, and Blind Light, 2007, a luminous glass room filled with dense cloud, seems to embody that. From the outside, those who enter the vaporous space are visible only as traces on the glass walls. On the inside, the discombobulated viewer is entirely enveloped by the bright light and cloud. Architecture is supposed to give a sense of security, to be a refuge from the elements. Within Blind Light, however, it feels like being lost in a thick mist at the top of a mountain. Thus immersed, the viewer becomes an integral part of the work.

In another gallery stands Allotment II, 1996, 300 sarcophagus-like, life-sized concrete blocks. Each one is derived from the actual dimensions of a citizen of Malmö in Sweden aged anything from one and a half to 80. Massed together, with apertures for the mouth, ears, anus and genitals (but no eyes), they form intimate and moving relational groups. The grid structure of the work also suggests a city’s high-rise buildings and, as I stood looking down their ranks, the graves of the dead from the Great War.

Antony Gormley Blind Light

Upstairs are examples of Gormley’s early work, such as a rather droll piece made from slices of bread with a central figure eaten into the middle. His “matrices” and “expansions” (2006-2007), bodies made of steel rods and tubes that seem like fluid drawings in space, are beautiful but somehow uninvolving. There is something calculated about them (literally, as they must have been generated on a computer) that creates a sense of distance. Hatch, 2007 is a small built room where a maze of aluminium rods of varying lengths creates the illusion of solid divisions. The body feels in constant peril of being spiked.

Do I like Gormley any better than before? Well, a bit. It is hard not to be impressed by his grand aspirations and the earnestness of his intentions; no one could accuse him of postmodern indifference or ennui. But to make and instal this work, with its ambitions of scale, must have cost a pretty penny, and ultimately I remained curiously unmoved. I kept thinking of the modesty and power of those Giacometti figures and how less, so very often, really is more.

Antony Gormley Blind Light at the Hayward Gallery, London until 19 August 2007

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2007

Images © Antony Gormley 2007. Courtesy of the Hayward Gallery

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Philip Guston
Works on Paper
Timothy Taylor Gallery London

Published in New Statesman

Art Criticism

In 1967, abstract painting collided with politics

Philip Guston Untitled (Cherries) 1980
Untitled (Cherries), 1980

The return of the American painter Philip Guston to figuration, in 1967, was seen as a betrayal by many of his contemporaries. At the time, they were championing abstraction, particularly abstract expressionism, with an almost religious, not to say nationalistic, fervour. With its emphasis on the flat surface, which differentiated it from the perspectival concerns of the Old Masters, abstraction was modern.

Above all, it was American: a break with the traditions of Europe, and a heroic art fit for a New World. The critic Clement Greenberg was its guru and Jackson Pollock his star. Guston accounted for his abandonment, saying: “My quarrel with modern painting … was that it was too easy to elicit a response. Painters could put down swatches of colour and still get a response.” As he argued: “Anything in life or art, any mark you make, has meaning – and the only question is: ‘What kind of meaning?'”

Philip Guston Untitled (Book Ball and Shoe) 1971
Untitled (Book Ball and Shoe), 1971

As an adolescent, Guston was obsessed with comic-book cartoons and had shown a talent for drawing. His early career was spent as a politically motivated muralist, using his study of Italian Renaissance painters and the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera to underpin his work. In the 1940s, influenced by his high-school friend Pollock and the composers Morton Feldman and John Cage, Guston became fascinated with Zen Buddhism and started to move his art towards a more abstract language. But by 1967 he had begun to feel that the vocabulary of abstraction was “too thin”.

The Timothy Taylor Gallery’s exhibition of his works on paper shows how the immediacy of drawing pulled him back into figuration. The shift was gradual, as can be seen from the economic marks of The Hill, 1965, with its ambiguous forms – two rectangles and a circle placed on a curve – that might just be read as standing stones or henges. Guston began to create a highly idiosyncratic, pictorial alphabet of tragicomic forms. There are piles of shoes and legs and sinister, hooded figures, whose occasional resemblance to raspberry blancmange is even more disquieting at the realisation that they allude to the Ku Klux Klan. Although this personal grammar is used to address the political upheavals and civil unrest of 1960s America, these images are, more than anything, metaphors and ideograms that give clues to Guston’s internal world.

Philip Guston Untitled (Book) 1968
Untitled (Book), 1968

The meaning of the objects is always ambivalent. On the simplest level, Shoes, 1976 might have grown from seeing a pile of shoes chucked in the corner of his studio, but there are other allusions – to the mounds of footwear left by exterminated Jews before they perished in the Nazi death camps, or the writhing figures falling from the boat in the right-hand corner of Michelangelo’s Last Judgement, their immortal “souls” in peril. (Who knows whether or not the pun was intended?)

Late in life, Guston repeatedly insisted that what he did was not art. He called himself a “laboratory scientist”, a “fire-and-brimstone preacher – a tortured Talmudist”. In his 1981 lithograph Painter, a figure appears smoking a cigarette in front of a canvas. His eyes and mouth are bound with Band-Aids. Deprived of both language and sight, the only things worth painting, Guston seems to be saying, come from within.

Philip Guston Works on Paper at Timothy Taylor Gallery London until 20 February 2010

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2010

Images © Philip Guston. Courtesy of Timothy Taylor Gallery

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Nigel Hall
Sculpture and Drawing (1965-2008)
Yorkshire Sculpture Park

Published in New Statesman

Art Criticism

Nigel Hall’s sculptures are points of stillness in a chaotic world

Nigel Hall Slow Motion 2001
Slow Motion, 2001

The poetics of space and the articulation of its geometry are the essence of Nigel Hall’s work. Now, a major exhibition at Yorkshire Sculpture Park is reassessing his output over 40 years with an extensive survey of both his sculpture and his works on paper.

In his practice as a sculptor, Hall has been primarily concerned, through his execution of elegant and thoughtful lines, with enclosing and occupying space in order to reveal light and shadow. Although his language is abstract – the grammar consists of circles, cones and ellipses – he is a Romantic, in that his inspiration often begins in landscape.

“My work has always been about place,” he has said. “I am fascinated by the way geometry can be discerned in landscape.” Resident in London, he has nonetheless sketched in the open air since he was eight, when his family moved to the Gloucester countryside. Since then he has steadily created what he calls “portraits of places”. These are not literal representations, but distillations of his response to the rhythms of landscape, translations created with a vocabulary of abstraction.

Nigel Hall Kiss 2000
Kiss, 2000

He always carries a small notebook in which to record new sculptural ideas. These form a visual diary and include measurements, lists and evocative phrases. The notebooks fill two shelves in his studio, providing a continuous record of four decades of observation.

It would be easy to pigeonhole Hall with that phrase “an artist’s artist”, which denotes both respect and a certain rarefication. Yet such a definition is too restrictive. Certainly there is a quiet, metaphorical quality about his restrained artworks. Like the sparse words of a Japanese haiku, they are both simply what they are and so much more. It is not surprising, therefore, to find that the Japanese printmaker Hokusai has been a considerable influence.

Hall’s interest in poetry is also underlined by his series of “book drawings” based on the writings of Hart Crane, Walt Whitman and E E Cummings. A web of diagonal lines, created using carbon paper and a dried-up ballpoint pen, links the beginnings and ends of stanzas. Although he considers his drawing and sculpture as distinct practices, the finely poised and elegant sculptures often feel akin to drawings in space.

Nigel Hall The Now 2000
The Now, 2000

Unusually among contemporary artists, Hall is first and foremost a maker. He does not, even at the age of 64, have a posse of assistants, but takes pride in making the work himself. His grandfather was a stonemason, which has had a profound influence on his approach. The chisel cut, as he has said, “will, at one and the same time, make a mark in space, an edge and a shadow. [This] has resulted in a preoccupation with linearity, precision, light and shadow and spatial interval.”

Placed throughout the park, his sculptures have a natural sense of rightness and seem to sit organically within their allotted space, whether the work in question is one of the two monumental Crossing pieces (vertical and horizontal), made in 2006, in which the sky forms a natural backdrop to the comb-like fingers of Cor-Ten steel, or his elegant Views of the Interior, 1992, which acts as a frame or proscenium arch for the surrounding landscape.

Hall was born in Bristol in 1943 and was raised, a war baby, in an environment that encouraged creativity. His perceptions were profoundly influenced by his parents’ stories about bombing raids on the Bristol docks. Freeze I and Freeze II, student works of the mid-Sixties on display in the garden gallery, capture these anxieties, and spring from an incident, witnessed by his mother during a raid, when a bomb shattered a window and the curtains were sucked out and left flapping by the blast. In these early pieces Hall has attempted to encapsulate space and there is a potent sense of inner and outer, as well as an impression of the void hidden behind the walls of these surreal, Martello-like structures.

Nigel Hall Siglio VI 1996
Siglio VI, 1996

The music of Miles Davis and time spent in the Mojave Desert in southern California during the late Sixties had a lasting effect and provided Hall with a route into abstraction. That boundless, empty landscape, with only the occasional water tower or telegraph pole protruding against the horizon, provided a new lexicon of images. Soda Lake, 1968 was his initial response. It was a foretaste of a sparer, more minimal art, in which “space and its components determine how the space is channelled, trapped or disclosed”.

Since 1984, Hall’s sculptures have become more dense, solid and grounded. For his elegant birch veneer pieces of the early Nineties, in which the surface is covered in a white stain, then painted with a clear, water-based varnish and polished with wax, the language is still entirely abstract but the emotions precipitated are those of relationships: a subtle, tender pairing and doubling occurs in many of these forms.

These quietly meditative works, which evoke a sense of calm and order, are the distillation of careful thought and long practice. The sculptures convey feelings of fullness and emptiness, stillness and movement. As you walk around them, your viewpoint and mood are constantly subverted and challenged, your experience of them opening out and then closing in as planes and vistas change. In essence, it is the visitor that provides the dance and movement around these elegant and poetic still points of contemplation, in what T S Eliot referred to as this constantly “turning world”.

Nigel Hall Sculpture and Drawing (1965-2008) at Yorkshire Sculpture Park until 8 June 2008

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2008

Images © Nigel Hall. Courtesy of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park

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Susan Hiller
Only in Dreams
Tate Britain

Published in New Statesman

Art Criticism

For four decades, Susan Hiller has investigated the spaces between dream and reality. Her main theme is how we absorb cultural and personal memories. Juxtaposing knowledge derived from her studies as an anthropologist with psychoanalysis and other scientific disciplines, she melds psychological, intellectual and visual concerns. And by investigating what is repressed, forgotten or pushed to the margins of society, her art confers legitimacy on that which lies beyond the bounds of conventional experience.

Hiller was born in Florida in 1940 but, since the early 1970s, she has lived and worked in Britain as an artist. Her extensive body of work, now the subject of a major survey at Tate Britain, has taken many forms, from installations of humdrum objects, placed like talismans in archaeological archive boxes at the Freud Museum, to multi-screen videos such as Psi Girls, 1999, in which adolescent girls perform telekinetic feats that offer subversive ideas about the potency of female desire and pubescent sexuality.

Susan Hiller Witness 2000
Witness, 2000

Ritual and the power of the human imagi­nation are subjects that Hiller has returned to frequently in works such as her 1970s “group investigation” Dream Mapping, in which participants met to discuss their dreams, and Sisters of Menon, 1972-79, created while she was engaged in another group experiment that explored telepathy. Here, mindless scribbles turn into a stream of words in a handwriting that is not the artist’s own; it is an investigation into individual identity within the collective.

The Tate exhibition, which focuses on her major works, is a powerful argument for Hiller’s status as one of the leading artists in Britain. At the heart of the exhibition is Belshazzar’s Feast, the Writing on Your Wall, 1983-84. In a mock-up living room, a fire glows on a tele­vision screen like a homely hearth, accompanied by a strange soundtrack. Issues of belief and faith are also explored in Witness, 2000, a forest of dangling speakers, which, when put to the ear, play out individual witness accounts of UFO sightings from around the world in a range of languages. In Hiller’s work, something elusive and uncanny lurks beneath the surface of what may, at first, seem familiar or easy to understand.

Her background in feminist politics has informed her work but, first and foremost, she is a visual artist whose practice was influenced by the tenets of minimalism and conceptualism, at a time when such thinking provided an alternative discourse to the grand, gestural statements of (mainly) male painters. Her debt to art history is acknowledged in her Homages, a series of tributes to the 20th-century artists Marcel Broodthaers, Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Beuys and Yves Klein.

Susan Hiller Monument 1980-81
Monument, 1980-81

Among her most potent works is The J Street Project, 2005, which charts every street sign in Germany bearing the prefix Juden (Jew). It speaks eloquently about the absence of a people who have been erased from the places that carry their name.

Another is her installation Monument, 1980-81, based on George Frederic Watt’s Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice in Postman’s Park, London – a tribute to ordinary people who died saving the lives of others. Hiller’s version, made from a collage of photographs, supplies a park bench on which the viewer can sit and listen to a recording of the artist as she delivers a series of thoughts on death, heroism and the power of memory. The Last Silent Movie, 2007 gives voice to the last speakers of extinct or endangered languages, using recordings from sound archives. Accompanied only by a black screen and white subtitles in which the languages are transcribed, this moving work brings together Hiller’s explorations of language, memory and identity.

Susan Hiller at Tate Britain from 1 February to 15 May 2011

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Images © Susan Hiller 2011. Courtesy of the Tate

Published in New Statesman

Howard Hodgkin
Tate Britain

Published in New Statesman

Art Criticism

A memory, a place, a smell, a lover’s touch: Howard Hodgkin captures the emotion of a moment with spectacular intensity. Sue Hubbard explores the evocative world of Britain’s most sensual painter

Of all Baudelaire’s poems it is Corres-pondances, originally published in Les Fleurs du mal in 1857, that speaks most articulately of what he considered to be the task of the modern painter. It is a poem that particularly illuminates the work of Howard Hodgkin.

Like long-held echoes, blending somewhere else
into one deep and shadowy unison
as limitless as darkness and as day
the sounds, the scents, the colours correspond.
There are odours succulent as young flesh,
sweet as flutes, and green as any grass
while others – rich, corrupt and masterful –
possess the power of such infinite things
as incense, amber, benjamin and musk,
to praise the senses’ raptures and the mind’s.

I quote the poem at length because it will give those unfamiliar with Hodgkin’s paintings an accurate sensual image of his work. The world is both concealed and revealed in his colourful, swooping brush marks, and they show a synaesthetic correspondence between scents, colours, sounds, tastes and tactile sensations.

Howard Hodgkin Snapshot, 1984-93
Snapshot, 1984-93

Tate Britain’s landmark Hodgkin retrospective, which opens next month, brings together for the first time works spanning his entire career, from the 1950s to the present day. It traces the development of his distinctive visual vocabulary, from early portraits and interiors through to the gradual loosening of his style in recent years. The exhibition offers an insight into the development of his work over four decades, demonstrating the qualities that have made him one of the most popular painters of his time with cognoscenti and punters alike.

Hodgkin is a very poetic painter. I do not use the word to mean beautiful, though his paintings, rich in col-our as any stained-glass window, are indeed beautiful. He is poetic in that his paintings, like poems, conjure the emotions of a moment, a memory, a place, a smell, even a lover’s touch. He paints what eludes verbal expression, concentrating on feelings rather than facts.

Hodgkin’s paintings are not, however, cathartic outpourings. Only very occasionally in his later work, in a painting such as Italy, 1998-2002, does he come near to true expressionism. Rather, the residue of feelings is the stuff of his art. Emotion is his fuel but, as Wordsworth said of a good poem, it is “emotion recollected in tranquillity”.

Howard Hodgkin Lovers 1984-92
Lovers, 1984-92

There are other ways in which these paintings resemble poems. Hodgkin’s brush marks have a sense of their own weight and rhythm. His paintings are self-contained worlds. Like a poet, he creates framed spaces which are not narratives but where emotion, incident and meaning can occur. In Snapshot, 1984-93 a dark border, which functions like a proscenium arch, directs the eye to a space beyond the picture frame, one that is luminous, pastoral in its suggested forms, yet also inchoate and ecstatic. It conjures many things: a sacred space, a lost domain, a paradise out of reach, or even a mood. All this is articulated with a huge sensual and visual intelligence and an understanding of the materiality of paint. The green here is, as Baudelaire writes, as “green as any grass”, while the vibrant yellow orb and the red and purple zones imply the power of “infinite things”.

Colour is, of course, what characterises a Hodgkin painting. Seductive and jewel-like, it is never simply there for its own sake. In this he belongs to a distinctively European tradition, with the French post-impressionists Édouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard, and with Henri Matisse. As Susan Sontag pointed out, he is mindful of the ancient quarrel between Michelangelo’s preference for disegno over Titian’s for colore. It is as though he wants, she said, “to give colore its most sumptuous exclusive victory”.

Howard Hodgkin Undertones of War 2001-2003
Undertones of War, 2001-2003

Hodgkin’s paintings could not be mistaken for anybody else’s. He has created an immediately identifiable choreography of marks, spots and stripes. The harsher, more geometrical forms in his earlier work give way to looser, bravura curves and lyrical swirls, which allow him to occupy the border between figuration and abstraction. His titles – Haven’t We Met?, Counting the Days, In Central Park and Venice, Evening – read like song titles and remind us that all his paintings start as an emotional rather than an intellectual response to a situation. There is lovemaking, as depicted in the fecund curve and comma of Lovers, 1984-92; there are dinner parties, India, Italy, gardens and Venetian glass, as well as the small, the incidental and the commonplace, observed in the little grey painting Dirty Mirror, 2000. And there is war.

Undertones of War, 2001-2003, a canvas more than six feet high and eight feet wide, is different from anything else in the exhibition. Bare wood surrounds the painting, as if it had been stripped of all lyricism. The marks are urgent and tortured, truncated rather than flowing; the colours are muted, muddy blues, blacks and browns with a touch of red. There is enormous force behind the marks, as if Hodgkin had lost patience with his own visual language. In its looseness and determination to work against his natural virtuosity, it reminds me of late Picasso. It is a potent and tragic statement. There, amid all the brilliant colour, among the sweeping crescendos and diminuendos of red and blue, seems to be Howard Hodgkin’s Guernica.

Howard Hodgkin A Rainbow 2004
A Rainbow, 2004

Though Undertones of War suggests a more introverted, questioning and tragic “late” style, the trajectory of the painter’s career is not so clear. A Rainbow, 2004 returns us, with its raindrop splodges of green and yellow, to the joy of the sensual.

These paintings speak first to the eye, then to the heart, and finally to the mind. They stir memories of particular times and places, of smells and sounds and emotions. They conjure spring rain, or the partial view from the window of the sea; they suggest rooms where lovers have loved or friends have met. Like poems, they capture the intensity of a moment: what it is to be sentient, erotic, conscious and alive.

Howard Hodgkin opens at Tate Britain on 14 June 2006


Howard Hodgkin: a life

1932 Gordon Howard Eliot Hodgkin is born into an artistic Quaker family. Sent to Eton, where his teacher is Wilfrid Blunt (brother of the art historian Anthony). He hates it, and runs away. Later attends Bryanston, Camberwell School of Art and the Bath Academy of Art.

1940 Taken to America to live on Long Island with his mother and sister. On leaving Eton, he persuades his psychotherapist to recommend that he return to the States.

1955Marries Julia Lane, with whom he has two sons.

1962 First solo exhibition at Arthur Tooth & Sons, London.

1964 Visits India, which begins a lifelong obsession with art from the subcontinent. It is to have a profound influence on his work.

1976 First major exhibition of 45 paintings at the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, and the Serpentine Gallery, London.

1983 Meets and falls in love with the musicologist Antony Peattie, who has been his partner ever since. Hodgkin has come out and separated from his wife several years earlier.

1984 Breakthrough year. Represents Britain at the XLI Venice Biennale, and is nominated for the first Turner Prize. Malcolm Morley wins, but Hodgkin claims the prize a year later.

1992 Awarded a knighthood.

Mary Fitzgerald

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Images © Howard Hodgkin 2006

Published in New Statesman

Image and Idol Medieval Sculpture
Tate Britain

Published in New Statesman

Art Criticism

Sue Hubbard finds long-hidden medieval sculptures resting on new plinths at Tate Britain

Image and Idol Tree of Jesse
Tree of Jesse (Detail), St Mary’s Priory in Abergavenny

In the past few weeks, the church has pronounced the virtual death of Christianity as a force in this country. With multifaith religious instruction the norm in most schools, who, any longer, knows the Bible’s stories, let alone anything of the hierarchy of saints or the religious iconography so familiar to those who inhabited the medieval world? So what is a modern audience likely to make of a new exhibition of medieval sculpture at Tate Britain, curated by the medievalist Phillip Lindley and installed by the artist Richard Deacon? What readings and what relevance can such an exhibition have?

Image and Idol Installation

Many visitors to Tate Britain must have wondered what came before the ranks of po-faced 16th-century portraits and genre paintings that form the beginning of the gallery’s collection. In fact, the art that followed the Reformation resulted directly from the fierce battles that were fought over the role of religious imagery – particularly figure sculpture – between the Catholic Church and the new Protestantism. The clash of ideologies almost totally obliterated the religious images of the Middle Ages, and continued to have an effect on sculpture from the 16th until the 19th centuries.

Central to the debate was the exhortation from Exodus: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” Yet the highly skilled craftsmen of the 15th and 16th centuries produced increasingly naturalistic images for churches and cathedrals, often heavily painted and studded with gems. But it was their very skill, which often seemed to blur the line between the image and what it represented, that many believed encouraged the slide into superstition. Some, like the Virgin at Walsingham, were endowed with particular potency, as was St Wilgefortis of St Paul’s (a beautiful virgin given a beard to keep her chaste), and were prayed to by women to rid themselves of undesirable husbands. With the radical reform movements arriving from northern Europe and a return to the fundamentals of scriptural text made possible by the new processes of printing, the battle lines were drawn between word and image. The result was that, in English and Welsh churches between the early 1530s and roughly 1650, around 98 per cent of statuary was destroyed in a glut of Protestant iconoclasm.

Image and Idol St Christopher, Norton Priory
St Christopher, Norton Priory

The works for the Tate exhibition have been borrowed predominantly from churches and cathedrals across England and Wales. At the centre is the Tree of Jesse, the largest surviving wooden sculpture from the 15th century. Carved in oak, it has never been seen outside its home church, St Mary’s Priory in Abergavenny.

However, this is not simply an arcane display of rare items, but rather an exhibition that seeks, through the interventions of Richard Deacon, to create new historical perspectives and, inevitably, new ways of reading these artefacts. Inspired by the experience of seeing the huge hand of Ramses II being moved for the reinstallation of the British Museum’s Egyptian galleries in the 1970s, when the sculpture seemed to become dynamically alive, Deacon was concerned that the work shown here was enhanced by, at the same time as adding to, the architectural space of the long Duveen Gallery, so that the viewer has a sense of an object’s weight and its vulnerability. “New plinths for old sculptures”, is how he describes the style-breaking bases he has created, juxtaposing contemporary materials with medieval alabaster and limestone. In the centre of the gallery, 13th-century effigies of knights in full armour (somewhat reminiscent of Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly), with one open eye peeping through the slit in their helmets as they await the Resurrection, lie on mattresses of shiny aluminium tread plates on low plinths of grey MDF, while a finely preserved St George and Dragon (c1510), from Eton College, sits aloft a tall, black, painted steel column like some sort of medieval Nelson.

Image and Idol Installation

Even though one of the central aims of the exhibition is to bring historic sculpture to new audiences, this daring installation allows viewers to project their own interpretations on to the work, which, for most of us, consists of relics and fragments emptied of their original symbolic meanings. And yet, as Deacon says, “these objects are survivors” and “this rich imagery” provides the background against which British art was formed. Although these pieces would have looked very different, with their polychrome surfaces, to the pilgrims who visited them at Wells or Winchester cathedrals, there is something about their stripped, spare beauty, emphasised by this new display, that appeals to a modern sensibility. While we may not be able to relate to them by drawing immediately on the context of the biblical stories that they were originally created to illustrate, they seem now like silent witnesses to the process of history. Reformations, revolutions and regicide, world wars and the nuclear age, these sculptures have seen them all.

Image and Idol medieval sculpture at Tate Britain until 3 March 2002

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2002
Images © God ad infinitum

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Anish Kapoor
Kensington Gardens London

Published in New Statesman

Art Criticism

The camera obscura (Latin for a darkened room) is an optical device that projects an image of its surroundings on to a screen and was one of the inventions that led to photography. Consisting of a box or room with a hole in one side, light from an external scene passes through the hole and strikes a surface inside where it is reproduced, upside-down, but with colour and perspective preserved.

Anish Kapoor C-Curve 2007
C-Curve, 2007

To come across Anish Kapoor’s startlingly beautiful C-Curve sculpture in the middle of Kensington Gardens is to experience the effects of the camera obscura but without the darkened room. Walk towards the highly polished concave surface of stainless steel and the surrounding lawns, autumn trees and people will appear upside down like a child’s vision of Australia, where everything is topsy-turvy. Move around to the bulging convex facade and the world will be the right way up again.

Clouds, dog-walkers, babies and bikers all pass across the silver screen in a filmic version of real life. The players in this pageant stroll on and off stage passing, only for a moment, like the shadows in Plato’s cave. “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, And then is heard no more,” Macbeth despaired. What is real? What is a chimera? asks Kapoor in these mirroring multiplications and inversions of our surroundings, which pose questions about our very existence.

Anish Kapoor Sky Mirror Red 2007
Sky Mirror Red, 2007

From the first encounter with these four stainless steel structures placed within Kensington Gardens, we are reminded that the world is rarely what it seems. As Alice discovered in the looking glass, reality is a slippery concept. The symbolism of the mirror is ancient; from Narcissus to Snow White, it is an image that has caught the human imagination.

Legend has it that in 212 BC Archimedes repelled the Roman fleet, laying siege to the island of Syracuse by using a multitude of flat mirrors that acted like a huge concave mirror to direct the sun’s rays to burn the attacking Roman fleet. In the 17th century, Newton realised that mirrors rather than lenses could solve a problem called chromatic aberration. By using curved mirrors in telescopes the integrity of light could be maintained rather than defracted. For 2,000 years geometry had been flat but by the 19th century mathematicians had overturned Euclid’s thesis that the angles of triangles had to add up to 180 degree and that parallel lines did not meet. Kapoor’s curved reflective surfaces reveal the universe as it really is, a place where light warps and bends and things are not what they seem.

Anish Kapoor Non-Object (Spire) 2007
Non-Object (Spire), 2007

Sitting in the Round Pond in front of Kensington Palace is a polished red dish like a vast setting sun, which reflects the movement of the clouds above. As with the human mind, images float across its surface, staying a while and then drifting away. Though Kapoor is, presumably, not responsible for the swans that swim around it, he must have been aware how their white forms sailing past are a perfect visual complement to his primary red.

The placing of Kapoor’s sculptures in the park is critical. The long vista leading down to Kensington Palace accentuates the sense of infinity within the works’ reflected surfaces. Elsewhere Non-Object (Spire), a reversed trumpet shape that echoes his Tate Marsyas, sits among the trees, its silver skin covered with rain drops: part religious icon and part futuristic form. As you walk towards it a second spire is reflected in the base of the larger. When you arrive up close it disappears like a mirage in an oasis. So much of Kapoor’s work is dependent on the involvement of the viewer.

Walk across to The Longwater and there you will come across another Sky Mirror, a vast sphere standing like some huge satellite dish where a Henry Moore sculpture once stood. On a grey day it looks inert but when the light plays across its surface, boundaries between sky, reflection, reality and dream are blurred.

From his early pigment sculptures that constructed deep voids, Kapoor has asked questions about the nature of existence and belief. He investigates what we hardly know, turning the world upside down and inside out to extract meaning. It gives us a glimpse at the mysteries both of the human imagination and the universe we inhabit.

Anish Kapoor at Kensington Gardens London until March 2011

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Images © Anish Kapoor
Photography by Dave Morgan

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Gustav Klimt
Painting Design and Modern Life in Vienna 1900
Tate Liverpool

Published in New Statesman

Art Criticism

The lavish, decorative works of Gustav Klimt and his associates provided the rich and privileged few with a retreat from the problems of the Industrial Age

Gustav Klimt Judith II, 1909
Judith II, 1909

For those of a certain age, Klimt’s The Kiss was the must-have student poster. All that lan guor ous passion, all those Technicolour Dream coats. It went along with loons and long hair, and looked down silently on countless messy college copulations. It became so ubiquitous that it stopped being a painting and became simply an inexpensive way to cheer up grotty digs.

Now Tate Liverpool is mounting Gustav Klimt: Painting, Design and Modern Life in Vienna 1900, the first major exhibition of his work in this country. But before all you Klimt lovers jump on a train to Lime Street, I should point out that the title is a bit misleading. It is Klimt’s influence on the design and modern life of Vienna in 1900 that is the real focus; anyone going in search of the opulent glory of his gold paintings, including The Kiss, 1907-08 and the almost equally infamous Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, 1907, will be disappointed, for these are not in the show. In fact, there are only 23 of Klimt’s paintings on display. Perhaps they were simply too costly to borrow. After all, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer fetched a mind-boggling $135m (£73m) in 2006, becoming one of the most expensive paintings ever sold. “Mehr Blech als Bloch” (more brass than Bloch), sniped one wag at the original unveiling of this painting, encased like a Greek Orthodox icon in its coat of gold or like a woman rendered inert by Midas’s insidious touch.

Gustav Klimt Water Nymphs, 1899
Water Nymphs, 1899

Seductive and easy on the eye, Klimt’s painting makes few demands on the viewer. What began as an avant-garde movement has, ironically, ended up as art for those not really interested in the challenges of art. What once seemed fresh and new quickly became moribund, epitomising the decadence of fin de siècle Vienna. Chthonic, brilliant, darkly sexual, excessively decorative, the work of Klimt and his associates presents a vision of the collective id of a nation on the verge of disaster. If Sigmund Freud had not existed, the Viennese of the 1900s would certainly have needed to invent him.

Among the important paintings on show in Liverpool is the superbly crafted 1902 picture of Klimt’s companion Emilie Flöge, dressed in a symphony of blue swirls and golden rectangles, and the Munch-like Nuda Veritas, 1899. There are also the ghoulish symbolist heads of his Water Nymphs, c.1899, their dark, flowing locks echoing the cadaverous, snake-clad nudes of the unfinished Beethoven Frieze. And there is Judith II (Salome), with her exposed breasts, pale face, black hair and parted cherry lips. It takes a moment to notice that her eyes are hooded in an orgasmic trance as her hands claw at the locks of John the Baptist’s severed head. This is a vision of a vagina dentata disguised in a swath of op-art gilded swirls. As for Portrait of Eugenia Prima vesi, 1913-14, if it were not for her realistically painted face and hands, the dissolving floral patterns that surround her might almost be by Monet. And amid the landscapes, if you take away the realism of the tree trunks in The Park, 1909-10, for example, you are left with pure Seurat.

Gustav Klimt Portrait of Eugenia Primavesi, 1913-14
Portrait of Eugenia Primavesi, 1913-14

One of the surprises of this exhibition is the person of Klimt himself – bearded, stocky and dressed in a mock-peasant smock. The contemporary photographs show him looking more like a balding, dishevelled farmer than a rarefied aesthete in the Aubrey Beardsley mould. It all began with high ideals: the founding of the Viennese Secession in 1897 is generally regarded as the birth of Viennese modernism. “To the Age its Art; To Art its Freedom” was the group’s credo. Reinforced by its connections with the British Arts and Crafts movement, the aims were wide-ranging. The Wiener Werkstätte (“Viennese workshops”), started by the architect Josef Hoffmann, the designer Koloman Moser and the financier Fritz Wärndorfer, under the influence of Klimt, wanted to set up “a productive co-operative society of artist-craftsmen”. Yet despite lip service to the ideals of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement, there was no political agenda here, no agonising over the destiny of mankind. Art may have been regarded as a surrogate religion in a secular society, but it was a church that only the rich could afford to join. Mass production was, after all, for the masses.

The Wiener Werkstätte was elitist from the start, believing that it was “better to spend ten days on one thing than to produce ten things in one day”. It was a reaction against the new industrialised processes that were churning out factory-made household goods and was, from the first, a movement that embraced only the few. An early marketing ploy by the fine Scottish craftsman Charles Rennie Mackintosh, to whom the founders turned for advice, was to encourage his Viennese colleagues to think in terms of “a brand” that would be known for “its individuality, beauty and precision”. Every piece would be produced for a “specific purpose and place”.

Gustav Klimt The Park, 1909-10
The Park, 1909-10

Just as much as Conran is today, this was art as a lifestyle choice. The meticulously designed interiors, with their matching cabinets and chairs, sugar bowls, light fittings, gorgeous cutlery and crafted loo-paper holders, all spoke of informed good taste. Even Klimt’s tiepin and cufflinks, along with the jewellery he gave Emilie for Christmas, were made by the Wiener Werkstätte. But slowly this utopian vision of an aesthetic wholeness began to turn inward, away from any notion that this art might really be for general consumption by the Volk. In 1901 Hoffmann wrote that it was “no longer possible to convert the masses. Thus it is all the more urgent to satisfy the few who appeal to us.” His talk of “a sense of priestly dignity” smacked of solipsism.

In his essay The Metropolis and Mental Life, Georg Simmel, one of Germany’s first generation of sociologists, argued that, as a society becomes ever more impersonal, people feel the need to assert their idiosyncratic individuality in the face of the dehumanising effects of the modern world. Gradually these highly ornate interiors of the rich became citadels against a different calibre of modernism that had been unleashed by the Machine Age and mass production. They provided retreats away from the messy problems of the public realm, places to disappear into the apparent luxury and safety of the private sphere. Rooms were so carefully co-ordinated, in colour, texture and form, as to resemble stage sets. “Even the electric chimes,” the architect Adolf Loos remarked witheringly, “played motifs from Beethoven and Wagner.”

Gustav Klimt The Beethoven Frieze (Detail), 1901-2
The Beethoven Frieze (Detail), 1901-2

Everything had its rightful place in this frozen perfectionism. No wonder Freud had a field day; it was as if all emotional, sexual and political disorder could be held down with the strictures of good design. Throughout the 19th century there had been utopian movements, particularly in fine art, which had sought to heal the prevailing social and political fissures through synthesis. The composer Richard Wagner espoused such ideas, along with the unification of German culture, with his concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk, described in his 1849 essays “The Artwork of the Future” and “Art and Revolution”. It would not be too long until an altogether different synthesis would be proposed: the totalitarian state

That so many of the Wiener Werkstätte’s collectors were Jewish, including the wealthy industrialist father of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, is an interesting conundrum. It would be absurd to claim that either Klimt or the Secessionists in general were in any direct way precursors to Nazism, yet it is not too far-fetched to suggest that the deeply controlling aesthetics of the Secessionist drawing room set an aesthetic tone that would find an echo in the synchronised and highly staged rallies at Nuremberg, designed by that supremo of architectural synthesis, Albert Speer. Modernism had two possible roads to take through the wood of the first half of the 20th century. One road led towards totalitarian unity and synthesis, the other towards inevit able utopian collapse and the fragmented shards of postmodernism.

Gustav Klimt Painting, Design and Modern Life in Vienna 1900 at Tate Liverpool until 31 August 2008

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2008

Images maybe subject to copyright

Published in New Statesman

Maria Lassnig
Serpentine Gallery London

Published in New Statesman

Art Criticism

The art world has suddenly “discovered” Maria Lassnig at the venerable age of almost 90

Surviving into old age is a good career move for a creative woman. Even if she has been ignored during her middle years, she might be “discovered” if she hangs on in there. Never mind that she has been there all along just getting on with it. Suddenly the world will be amazed that she is not only not dribbling in a corner, but actually making new and challenging work. Think of Louise Bourgeois or the novelist Mary Wesley, both of whom entered the public consciousness well into pensionable age. Now the Serpentine has put on the first solo UK show for the Austrian artist Maria Lassnig, who is in her 90th year.

Maria Lassnig You or Me 2008
You or Me, 2008

As you enter the gallery, you meet her naked self-portrait. Her green eyes pierce like bullets and her ageing body displays a bald, childlike pudendum. With one hand she holds a gun to her own head, while aiming another point-blank at us, the viewers. It is quite a greeting, as if she is saying we must accept these paintings on her terms or one of us will cop it.

Arriving to meet her, I get a feisty message that she is in the middle of something and that I will have to wait. I hang around, keeping an eye out for a little old lady, and fail to identify her in her polo shirt and trainers. She looks a good 20 years younger than she is. It is hard to believe she was born in Carinthia, Austria, in 1919 and has been producing these edgy, confrontational paintings – bleak, full of cruelty and implicit self-loathing – for 60 years. She appears in them over and over again. There are stumpy women without arms, like the torsos of thalidomide victims, as well as strangely morphed bodies with snub noses and piglike tails set against an acid yellow ground.

The figures are reminiscent of Paula Rego’s early paintings of angry cabbages and murderous monkeys. In one self-portrait from 1995, Lassnig appears, Bacon-like, with open mouth and crooked teeth, blinded by a cooking pot that she wears on her head like a soldier’s tin helmet, as if implying that she has seen more than her fair share of psychological battles. There is so much pain here that, if it were not for their flashes of humour and tenderness, these paintings would seem pathological.

Maria Lassnig The Illegitimate Bride 2007
The Illegitimate Bride, 2007

Lassnig has coined the phrase “body-awareness paintings” to describe her visual language, which illustrates the sensations experienced from within; though it is hard to discern where physical sensation and psychological effect begin and end. “There are too few words,” she has said, “and that is why I draw.” When I ask if she ever suffered from an eating disorder – there is a large painting entitled Madonna of the Pastries, 2002 in which the subject sits, a saggy nude, in front of an array of creamy gateaux – she dismisses the question. Yet these uncomfortable images seem to embody the raw anxiety and trauma that so many women project on to their bodies.

Lassnig has had an interesting life. Trained in Vienna, she went on a scholarship in 1951 to Paris, where she met Paul Celan and André Breton, which brought her into contact with surrealism. Between 1968 and 1980 she lived in New York, where she made inventive, wacky animations on the complexities of relationships and her experience of being a female artist, a number of which are on display in the current show. On her return to Austria in 1980 she became the first female professor of painting in a German-speaking country.

I saw the exhibition just after hearing of the disturbing case of Josef Fritzl, which made the painting of a fat man crouched naked over a prostrate rag doll of a child take on a particularly disturbing resonance. The Illegitimate Bride (2007), with her blank, backlit face and pendulous breasts, half hidden beneath a veil of stiff plastic, also suggests something potentially awful. Spell, 2006 and The Power of Fate, 2006, for which Lassnig painted models messing around in the cellar of her house wrapping themselves in clear plastic, imply something tainted and subterranean. Stark and often set in the middle of an empty canvas, her figures seem to float in their own space without reference to any wider world. “Background,” she has said, “creates mood and atmosphere, and I don’t need that.”

Maria Lassnig Spell 2005
Spell, 2005

Her models are from rural Carinthia. Adam and Eve in Underwear, 2004 – in which the couple might be embracing or about to strangle each other – are her local priest and his girlfriend. Often, when painting herself, she lies on the floor beside the canvas as if looking into a mirror. Brides are a constant theme; most look sad, veiled and cut off from the world, separated from the connection sought in the act of marriage.

In many ways, Lassnig’s paintings are totally idiosyncratic: a personal mix of dark humour and vulnerability. There are, however, links to the work of the German painter Wols, with their childlike influences and curious metamorphoses, as well as to the transmutations of Dorothea Tanning and Leonora Carrington. Alice Neel’s expressionist palette and Marlene Dumas’s vulnerable exhibitionism also come to mind. With consummate skill, Lassnig – expressive, raw and crude – uses bravura colour to construct her virtuoso figures.

Like Bourgeois and Frida Kahlo, and like the poets Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, Lassnig has mined the depths of her vulnerability to make art. There is nothing false, nothing done here for mere effect. Her paintings are raw and real. You can almost hear them scream.

Maria Lassnig at the Serpentine Gallery, London until 8 June 2008

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2008

Images © Maria Lassnig. Courtesy of the Artist, Hauser & Wirth Zürich London; Friedrich Petzel Gallery, New York

Published in New Statesman

Richard Long
Heaven and Earth
Tate Britain

Published in New Statesman

Art Criticism

In The Songlines, his remarkable book about the ancient, invisible pathways criss-crossing Australia that carry hymns to the land’s creation, the late Bruce Chatwin wrote that by “singing the word into existence … the Ancestors had been poets in the original sense of poiesis, meaning ‘creation’.

No Aboriginal could conceive that the created world was in any way imperfect. His religious life had a single aim: to keep the land the way it was and should be. The man who went ‘walkabout’ was making a ritual journey.”

Richard Long
A Line and Tracks, Bolivia, 1981 / Midday Muezzin Line, Siwa Egpyt, 2006 / Karoo Crossing, South Africa, 2004

The artist Richard Long has found new ways to make and use walks which not only connect him to these ancient wanderings, but also have their own, particular purpose. He likes common materials: stones, sticks, mud and water, with which he creates symmetrical patterns that link time and place, the wilderness and the gallery. His talent as an artist, he says, “is to walk across a moor, or place a stone on the ground”.

It all started in 1967, when, at the age of 22, Long conceived A Line Made by Walking, and in so doing changed our understanding of sculpture. A student at St Martin’s, he took a train from Waterloo, got off at the nearest station and found a suitable field, where he walked back and forth until the flattened grass became visible as a line in the sunlight, whereupon he took a photograph. There were no materials involved, no welding, and no “making”. The piece simply involved an idea, a minimal physical act and a photograph. A Line Made by Walking has been likened in its impact to Kasimir Malevich’s Black Square of 1915, changing the face of sculpture much as Malevich’s work cancelled previous concepts of what constituted a painting.

Richard Long An Eleven Day Winter Walk
An Eleven Day Winter Walk

The previous year, Long had gone to a performance in London by the experimental composer John Cage. Cage’s theories about the interchangeability of art and life, and his interest in Zen Buddhism and Taoism, were to have a profound effect. This abiding interest is apparent in the opening room of Long’s first major survey exhibition in London for 18 years, where the visitor is greeted by two hexagrams from the I Ching running from floor to ceiling. But it is his solitary walks, whether through the Dorset landscape or further afield on the plains of Canada, Mongolia and Bolivia, that are the backbone of his practice. Long’s interventions are always minimal – a ring of stones arranged in the middle of the Gobi Desert, a line of small standing stones on Cul Mor, Scotland, or a zigzag of campfire ash left by Lake Titicaca. He understands the human longing for wilderness, and through his modest interventions forces us to evaluate the marks and traces we leave behind in the landscape. Unusually for a contemporary artist, there is no cynicism in his work, and even less ego. He simply disappears off into the wild, creates his resonant, archetypal forms and then photographs them. Other work is made specifically with the gallery in mind, and at Tate Britain the large central room is devoted to six major stone sculptures, including Norfolk Flint Circle, 1990, an eight-metre stone circle placed on the floor, and the beautiful Red Slate Circle, 1988.

Richard Long Tate Britain
Richard Long Heaven and Earth Installation

Long’s explorations of the relationship between time, distance and movement are also mapped in text works fixed to the gallery walls. These are verbal traces of his walks, in which Long simply chronicles what he has seen. In the din of modern life, there is something deeply refreshing about these still points in an endlessly turning world.

Richard Long Heaven and Earth at Tate Britain until 6 September 2009

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2009

Images © Richard Long 2009. Courtesy of the Tate

Published in New Statesman

Federico García Lorca
Huerta de San Vicente Granada

Published in New Statesman

Art Criticism

An exhibition inspired by Federico García Lorca’s beloved country house sheds new light on the poet

Roni Horn
Roni Horn

It is said that those whom the gods favour die young. Federico García Lorca, along with Keats and James Dean, is one of that select band. His brooding matinee-idol good looks (a cross between Dirk Bogarde and Antonio Banderas), his homosexuality, his friendships with Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, who exposed the young poet to surrealism, and the mystery surrounding his untimely death have all contributed to the legend. Arguably the most important Spanish poet and dramatist of the 20th century, he was born on 5 June 1898 in Fuente Vaqueros, a village near Granada, the son of a liberal landowner and a pianist/former schoolteacher mother. As a child, he showed a talent for language and is said to have held conversations with inanimate objects, which he imbued with their own personalities.

While Lorca was still a schoolboy the family moved to Granada. Summers were spent at the Huerta de San Vicente, a country house on the edge of the city, which became a sanctuary where he could “write … with the greatest serenity”. Now the Huerta de San Vicente has been turned into the Lorca Foundation, which is run by his niece Laura García-Lorca de los Rios. Inside, the Swiss curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, normally resident at the Serpentine Gallery in London, has created the first part of an innovative three-part exhibition for which he has invited international artists to interact with the house and Lorca’s work in a spirit of “curiosity and freedom”.

Rivane Neuenschwander
Rivane Neuenschwander

Driven by an interest in the crossover between literature and the visual arts, Obrist wanted to enable artists to connect with what Lorca called that momentary burst of inspiration found in “duende”. And what is duende? In Andalusia, people speak of it as containing what is dark and atavistic. Goethe referred to duende when he described Paganini’s playing as “a mysterious power that all may feel and no philosophy can explain”. At the centre of this passion is a point of stillness, found both in flamenco and in Lorca’s poetry, which provided the catalyst for the show’s title, Everstill/Siempretodavía.

In a development that Lorca would surely have enjoyed (the poet himself drew), art punctuates the stillness of the house, with its traditional tiles and wooden furniture. The spiritual affiliation between Lorca and the city of Granada, with its Arab influences, its gypsy music, its searing summer heat and deep Andalusian shadows, reverberates throughout his work like the refrains within flamenco. In 1922 Lorca organised the first “cante jondo” festival, in which Spain’s most celebrated guitarists and singers of “deep song” participated. After the success of Romancero gitano (The Gypsy Ballads) in 1928, he went on a trip to New York. Although he took neither to Anglo-Saxon culture and the dehumanising life of the modern city nor to the crowds holidaying on Coney Beach, he was entranced by Harlem, where the African-American spirituals reminded him of his native “deep songs”. Most evocative of the newly sited works, therefore, is the soundtrack of Granada’s haunting church bells, interwoven with flamenco rhythms by the great singer Enrique Morente. This emanates from the kitchen, with its iron range and stone sink, like the heartbeat of the house.

Tacita Dean Lorca Olive
Tacita Dean, Lorca Olive

Also in the kitchen, spouted clay water jugs decorated with text by Pedro Reyes stand in rows inside the kitchen cupboards, and a dish of oranges and lemons inscribed with the letters of the alphabet by the Brazilian artist Rivane Neuenschwander sits on the table.

In the main living room, Cy Twombly melds text and image in a delicate pencil drawing with the famed quotation from Lorca: “Verde que te quiero verde” (“Green because I want you green”). Observant visitors might notice on the dining table a single postcard, sent from Dalí’s home near Cadaqués, in Catalonia. Tacita Dean has organised for a new card to be sent every day from the Dalí Foundation, thus emphasising the early bond between artist and poet. The Viennese artist Franz West has created a small sculptural work in a vitrine in the corner of the room that is accompanied by a rather arcane text about Lorca and the unconscious.

Gilbert and George
Gilbert and George

To enter his bedroom is a bit like entering a monk’s cell. Small, with a large desk, single bed and tiled floor, this is where a number of artists have chosen to work. They include Gilbert and George, who have photographed themselves lying side by side and fully dressed on Lorca’s narrow bed, like stone effigies on a tomb. Wickedly, they’ve entitled the image In Bed With Lorca. Beneath the foot of the bed, the young Spanish duo Bestué e Vives have created a drama of small animated insects inspired by a little-known early Lorca play on the same subject. The bed is covered with a counterpane embroidered with local birds by Rivane Neuenschwander, who has also placed an old Olivetti typewriter on the desk next to a couple of green ceramic jars by Roni Horn.

Across the narrow hallway, Cristina Iglesias has filled a narrow alcove with tendrils of green bramble that echo the view through the bedroom door and out of the window into the garden, reminding us that the forest is synonymous with the unconscious, the site of creativity. On the stairs, the Albanian photographer Anri Sala has produced a moody, black-and-white photo of a tree, not inspired directly by Lorca’s writings, but evocative of his lonely ending.

Other works are fairly minimal interventions – for instance, Philippe Parreno’s repainting of the window grilles in the original silver grey and Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s blue carpet in the piano room, surrounded by her favourite books, which link, rather enigmatically, to her feelings about Lorca. The poet’s suit has been altered to fit the small Korean artist Koo Jeong-a, and hangs in the cupboard under the stairs. Sarah Morris has produced the only painting based on the tile motif in Lorca’s bedroom, while in the garden the American poet and performance artist John Giorno, a one-time friend of Andy Warhol, has created texts inscribed on ceramic tiles in the traditional blue and white, which he has placed in the shallow water of the fountains.

Philippe Parreno
Philippe Parreno

In the turbulent days preceding the Spanish civil war, Lorca, who was living in Madrid, was uncertain whether or not to return home to Granada as he did each summer, unclear where he would be safest in the event of a Nationalist coup. In the end, he took refuge in the home of a fellow poet, Luis Rosales, whose family had connections with the local Falangist party. Another guest, the civil governor of Granada, ordered Lorca’s arrest; he was executed by firing squad three days later on a hill above his beloved city. For many years, his death was a forbidden topic in Spain. Not only was it an embarrassment to the Franco regime, but there were rumours that it had as much to do with a homosexual liaison and his association with flamboyant bohemian artists as it did with politics.

This exhibition is evidence that Lorca’s work continues to influence new generations of artists and writers. Although some of the works feel rather slight individually, as a total installation they puncture the static history of the house, detonating bursts of inspiration that revitalise our relationship with the great Spanish poet.

The Lorca exhibitions continue throughout 2008

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2008

Image 1: © Roni Horn
Image 2: © Rivane Neuenschwander
Image 3: Tacita Dean
Image 4: © Gilbert and George
Image 5: © Philippe Parreno

Published in New Statesman

Martin Maloney
Actress Slash Model
Timothy Taylor Gallery London

Published in New Statesman

Art Criticism

Martin Maloney’s paintings take the temperature of tabloid culture. Just don’t look to them to inspire

Martin Maloney Actress Model 9 Paris and Roma 2007
Actress Model 9 Paris and Roma, 2007

If it’s deep and meaningful that pushes your button, Martin Maloney’s work won’t be for you. But, of course, that’s not what he’s after. Surface, not depth, is what attracts this one-time Goldsmiths student and member of the Britart pack. Popular culture, advertising and soaps are what turn him on. It was through Charles Saatchi’s 1997 Sensation, which showcased the work of the Young British Artists, and New Neurotic Realism (1999) that Maloney’s faux naïfs paintings of the London club scene and fuck-rooms, where boys did more than wiggle their willies behind a bike shed, really came to prominence.

He painted with the sort of insouciance that seemed to claim good painting was for wimps. Arms looked like logs, fingers like bananas and faces like an accident waiting to happen. Careful was not a word in his vocabulary. The paint was slapped on and pushed around with a studied attitude of cool indifference. “Childishly sweet and banal figure paintings” was how the critic Julian Stallabrass described them, arguing that it was not “that the work comments on the media, but that the media has made the work and its author what they are”. Maloney, always one to own up to his own shallowness, joked to a friend that he painted “men I wanted to fuck and girls I wanted to be. The more I paint, the more I am learning about my fantasies …”

Martin Maloney Actress Model 1 Aphrodite 2007
Actress Model 1 Aphrodite, 2007

He has talked of working with an “expressive painted language”. He is a fan of Willem de Kooning. He has also given nods in the direction of Vermeer and Baselitz, Francis Bacon and Kandinsky, placing himself firmly up there in the pantheon. More recently he decided that sticky-backed plastic was an easier medium than slopping about with paint and started to make collages out of the sort of vinyl used for signage in galleries. Of his “Pastoral Paintings” at the Delfina Project Space in 2001, he said: “This is a painting of a group of people having a lunch-time break in a London square … The figures were randomly taken from photographs and then projected on to the canvas and arranged to form the composition. The characters and colour relationships come from intuition, invention and my imagination. I stuck down one colour and then responded to that by adding another, to create subtle tonal variation or a clash of complementaries. I wanted to make a painting that is both a believable representation of a real-life scene and that reconsiders abstraction’s decoration and patterns. I try in the characters to make figures that are clear types but have an individual psychology. Sometimes when I have invented a character someone I know stares back at me; at other times it is a composite of several people.”

Martin Maloney Actress Model 3 Ruby Green 2007
Actress Model 3 Ruby Green, 2007

Now he is making collages again. This time Maloney is using his old canvases, which have been chopped up and reassembled into new forms. All this has plenty of respectable art- historical precedent: Matisse’s paper cut-outs, Kurt Schwitters’s Merz collages and the Fauves’ wild colour. Maloney may be shallow but he certainly isn’t ignorant. And his theme this time? Maybe these are the girls he once said he would like to be. For he has taken that old chestnut, the page-three pin-up, along with other skimpily clad nymphets, and reconstructed their come-hither poses in large-scale collages/paintings and works on paper. Here models with names such as Kali, Ruby and Kitten, wearing little more than itsy-bitsy, teenie-weenie polka-dot bikinis and toothpaste smiles, pose and preen like those girls on the phone booth cards. Their fractured faces lack all expression. Fragile, brittle, their images have been pieced together with a bit of this and a bit of that. Flaunting their walnut-whip breasts topped with glacé cherry nipples, these are the Barbies of the collage world. In fact, in their plastic girliness they look more like ladyboys than real women, however much Maloney insists that they are inspired by nudes from art history.

Martin Maloney Actress Model 10 Lolita 2007
Actress Model 10 Lolita, 2007

He has said that collage is “a substitute for a variety of brushstrokes, which, if I was doing a painting, I wouldn’t be able to make”. Collage allows for resounding clashes of colour: he likes to make unlikely pairings, whether tonal or textured, abstract or figurative. In this, he is a true postmodernist, constructing a whole from old fragments and plundering the past to make it his own. In a lecture given last year he spoke of a work by Poussin that he had transformed into a painting of a teenage rave. That these works have a presence, and that Maloney can handle colour, is not in doubt. And the pencil drawings, which rely on techniques such as frottage, do have an unmistakable originality.

But should we consider him a poseur who simply flirts with the rude, the vulgar and the aggressive, or a Poussin or Picasso de nos jours? Well, it all depends what you think the function and purpose of art is in a modern society. If you are of the “barometer” school – of the opinion that art takes the collective temperature of a culture – Maloney’s empty, facile, but accomplished and knowing images mirror the celeb-hungry sexfest that fills our screens and tabloids daily. If, on the other hand, in a world where church and politics inhabit a moral vacuum, you want art to inspire and raise (if not answer) difficult philosophical questions, Maloney’s work is not what you are looking for.

Martin Maloney Actress Slash Model at Timothy Taylor Gallery, London until 17 May 2008

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2008

Images © Martin Maloney 2007. Courtesy of Timothy Taylor Gallery

Published in New Statesman

Annette Messager
the Messengers
Hayward Gallery London

Published in New Statesman

Art Criticism

Annette Messager subverts the stereotype of women as nurturing creatures

In the late 1960s the American fine art critic Harold Rosenberg coined the term “anxious object” to describe works that deliberately seemed to undermine their own status as art – such as Andy Warhol’s pictures of soup tins and Brillo boxes. Ambiguity by its nature unsettles, which explains its appeal both to the Romantics and the avant-garde. Freed from any functional use, objects become unstable – instead of anchoring us in the world, they disrupt our accepted ways of seeing.

Annette Messager Them and Us, Us and Them, 2000
Them and Us, Us and Them, 2000

The French artist Annette Messager uses this technique to disturbing ends. Born in 1943, she is little known in Britain, but in 2005 she became the first female artist to represent France at the Venice Biennale. Her installations use photo­graphy, drawing, knitting, embroidery and text, along with objects she has collected, to challenge fixed definitions of art and the culturally assigned roles of women. Her work deals with sexual and physical abuse, sin, obsession and fairy tales, by means of “female” materials and techniques such as sewing. Now, an exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London – Messager’s first major retrospective in the UK – ranges through her work since the 1970s.

Fragments, particularly of the body, are used to explore small, obsessive, everyday rituals. Messager’s investigations revolve around the nature of identity, desire and cruelty. In The Borders, 1971-72, rows of dead sparrows are dressed in doll-sized, hand-knitted pink and lemon jackets and lined up in a row in a glass case, like stuffed objects of Victorian taxidermy. Others have been tied on to little iron bars in a way that recalls the often sadistic behaviour of children’s play. Looking at the tiny, feathery corpses, I kept thinking of those last, terrible minutes of James Bulger’s life. That some of the birds have batteries and clockwork motors attached, presumably to make them jump, is even more disquieting.

Stuffed toys are another constant, but there is nothing very cuddly about them lying discarded in funereal piles on the gallery floor, or skewered on the ends of pikes like guillotined heads from the French Revolution. A disembowelled toy elephant, a flayed lion, a fluffy lime green paw and a pink ear are just some of the animals and disembodied parts nailed to the wall in a way that implies properties similar to those objects used in black magic or voodoo. Without wanting to get too psychoanalytical about it all, these “part objects” speak, as Melanie Klein might have done, of the lost mother and childhood rage.

Annette Messager Inflated , Deflated, 2006
Inflated , Deflated, 2006

Early on in her career, Messager played with issues of identity, creating two personalities to mirror the division in the activities carried out by her in her small Paris apartment: “Annette Messager the Collector” and “Annette Messager the Artist”. The Secret Room, a small sealed section of the gallery which, frustratingly, we cannot enter, is full of diary notes, images cut from magazines, misogynistic terms for women embroidered on to fabric, and black-and-white photos from the early 1970s showing barbaric forms of beauty treatment. Elsewhere there is a display of her “best” signatures, written over and over, in the manner of an adolescent schoolgirl practising her name in the back of a textbook.

Further on in the exhibition, My Vows, 1989 includes a large number of small photographic close-ups of body parts – a pair of breasts, a penis, a mouth – all framed in black and hung unisex-style from bits of string in a circle, like those votive offerings found in Catholic churches. It is in this work, more than any of the others, that we can hear echoes of Messager’s partner, the great French artist Christian Boltanski.

This tendency to break up, catalogue and name is everywhere. Many of the works on show incorporate text. In Lines of the Hand, 1988-90, photographs of decorated female hands have been placed above a column of writing done directly on the wall, in which a word has been repeated over and over like a prayer or mantra. It is very much a visual mirror to the writings of the French feminist thinkers Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray, who attempt to construct a uniquely feminine form of speech, and of Julia Kristeva, who has written about the abject. Their presence lurks behind all Messager’s work.

Annette Messager Articulated Disarticulated, 2001-02
Articulated Disarticulated, 2001-02

Many of her recent pieces are more ambitious, as well as, at times, absurdly humorous. Inflated-Deflated, 2006 is a kinetic display of intestines and other internal body organs that sigh and deflate in an erotic, writhing mass. In Articulated-Disarticulated, 2001-2002, numerous heaving mannequins lie in a variety of positions while the carcass of a stuffed cow is pulled by a small motor around the edge of the installation – a reference to the mass slaughter during the mad cow epidemic. Yet these larger, more theatrical works are less successful. It is the domestic scale and sense of personal transgression in the smaller installations that continues to resonate after you leave the exhibition.

At her most powerful, Messager subverts stereotypes of the nurturing woman to hint at secret eroticism and abuse. Like some surreal femme fatale, she weaves webs of entrapment to create her own theatre of cruelty. Her justi­fication for this is unflinching: “Vulnerability is so much greater in the world than in any artwork that it is impossible today to create anything more obscene than reality.”

Annette Messager the Messengers at the Hayward Gallery, London from 4 March to 25 May 2009

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2009

Images © Annette Messager 2000-06

Published in New Statesman

Boris Mikhailov
Case History
Saatchi Gallery London

Published in New Statesman

Art Criticism

He pays his subjects to strip, then exposes their naked dereliction to the chattering classes of the west. Sue Hubbard asks the controversial Russian photographer Boris Mikhailov if he’s just a voyeur?

Boris Mikhailov Case History

Boris Mikhailov is 63, has dyed black hair, a white moustache and a young wife. He was born in Kharkov in Ukraine. He has recently exhibited at the Photographers’ Gallery in central London, has just been awarded the Citibank Photography Prize, and the Saatchi Gallery is now showing his work Case History, which consists of more than 400 photographs taken in Ukraine. Anyone with a taste for postmodern irony will find plenty of it here. Mikhailov takes pictures of the bomzhes, the homeless down-and-outs, victims of the economic and social collapse in the former USSR. But Mikhailov is no Bill Brandt or Don McCullin, capturing life’s gritty realities with a clear humanist agenda, nor is he an objective eye simply documenting what he sees from behind the lens. Rather, he is a director, a creator of mises en scene, who seeks out the alcoholic, the drug addict, the ill and the dispossessed and then pays them not only to pose for him, but to expose themselves – genitals, scars, menstrual blood and hernias – to his scrutinising gaze. This is the ultimate market exchange: the sale, for a few kopeks, of these people’s only resource, their bodies. Like all capitalists and entrepreneurs, they sell what they have for the best offer, in this case to a photographer who takes their pictures, which will then be consumed by the international art world. The irony is brought full circle, in a game of signifiers and signs, with Saatchi, the advertising guru who gave us 18 years of Thatcherism, who is playing host to these photos showing some of the world’s most abject people. What, I kept wondering, would these subjects make of the private view, where the likes of Tracey Emin quaffed champagne in the latest Agnes B while surrounded by their exposed and blistered penises, black eyes and filthy bodies? And what does it say about us who look at them?

Boris Mikhailov Case History

When I met Mikhailov, he insisted that his aim was to act as a witness to a particular moment in history, that he wanted to show the bomzhes as “normal” people, as a “class”, a “clan”, with its own structures and psychology, before its members became what he called “hardened”. But unlike the work of, say, Diane Arbus, who came upon her subjects in all their weird and idiosyncratic individuality, Mikhailov encourages (though he would probably argue that he “facilitates”) those he photographs to act in ways that turn them into objects. Arbus’s “freaks” were simply being themselves – however odd – and did not act for the camera. The same is true of the work of the British photographer Richard Billingham, who takes pictures of his tattooed and drunken parents in the domestic squalor of their northern tower block. Billingham documents what he actually sees and, although it’s often shocking, there’s a sense that it has been recorded with a sort of love. But one cannot escape how many of Mikhailov’s subjects seem to be “performing”. Perhaps for a new coat, a few coins, for their 15 minutes of fame – who knows? He claimed, when I asked, that he had their consent, but just what they thought they were consenting to is impossible to know. Tom Wolfe once famously wrote of the symbiosis between the glitterati of New York and Jackson Pollock. Cash was exchanged, not just for a painting, but also for an appropriated slice of life in the fast lane. Pollock had the street cred and they had the money, and the contract allowed the well-fed and the well-bred to go back to their bourgeois apartments, their maids and their offices in Wall Street feeling oh-so-very hip for having purchased the work of such a cutting-edge artist.

Boris Mikhailov Case History

And yet, it’s too simple to dismiss all of Mikhailov’s work as opportunistic or voyeuristic, because there’s a huge charge to many of these life-sized colour photographs, an unsentimental pathos. The images of street children glue-sniffing have a raw and terrible beauty. The inflated pink plastic bags from which they inhale noxious fumes echo, with a shocking aestheticism, the pink of one of the young girls’ T-shirts. Many of the children are blond and beautiful, if somewhat scruffy, and pose and smile, half out of their minds, with their bottles and cigarettes. As with so many street children around the world, the pathos and the pity lie in the hope and innocence still visible behind their world-weary, brutalised faces. These children sleep, eat and rob in gangs, which is the nearest many of them will ever know to a family. Their early sexual activity is not only a way of earning cash, but all too often a substitute for other forms of communication and warmth. The images of crumbling, rusting factories; of a newly installed Coca-Cola sign poking incongruously out of a drift of dirty snow in front of an old Soviet building; of men carting filthy animal ribs, flapping with a few ribbons of meat, through the potholed streets; of the broken and bruised faces of the drunks and the drugged – all speak of social disintegration, anarchy and decay.

And perhaps it is this that provides a clue as to how we might read the seemingly “amoral” positioning of Mikhailov towards his subjects. When I tried to push him on the issue of ethics, he was evasive and talked only of making work that was new, of showing things in a way that had not been seen before. For him, ethics were “not special”; anything that was legal was “OK”. Although he did claim to be concerned about what his subjects felt, it was hard to establish – as he hid, somewhat disingenuously, behind his lack of English – whether this stemmed from compassion or from a desire to create a photographic charge. Yet maybe it is this lack of empathy, this “amorality”, that most truly reflects the condition of social breakdown that has resulted from the break-up of the Soviet Union. Perhaps it is this harsh vision – of life as cheap and expendable, and of how individuals can rely only on themselves and their wits – that mirrors a reality which for us, in the west, is more shocking than the poxy penises of Mikhailov’s subjects displayed like pastiche Mapplethorpes. Whatever we feel about the injustices of the old structures and systems, this exchange between the have-nots and the photographer-who-has is a product of capitalism, not communism. The shocking truth implied by these photographs is that compassion itself is a liberal luxury.

Boris Mikhailov Case History at the Saatchi Gallery, London from 13 September to 25 November 2001

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 1999

Images © Boris Mikhailov

Published in New Statesman

Juan Muñoz Retrospective
Tate Modern

Published in New Statesman

Art Criticism

The sculptor Juan Muñoz was keenly aware of the difficulties we face in expressing ourselves

A small, stooped, grey figure stands absorbed by his own reflection in a mirror at the gallery’s edge. It’s as if he’s trying to reassure himself he exists. As observers, we can only watch, fascinated and excluded by this alienating act. For the sculptor, Juan Muñoz, philosophical questions about the nature of the self, time and slippages between fact and fiction run through his diverse works.

Juan Muñoz Two Seated on the Wall 2000
Two Seated on the Wall, 2000

Muñoz was the most significant sculptor to emerge from Spain after Franco’s death in 1975, though much of his artistic education was actually acquired in New York and London, where, for a time, he worked as a dishwasher. Best known for his powerful dystopian cityscape Double Bind, created for the Tate’s Turbine Hall in 2001, Muñoz had just begun a sculptural career when it was brought to an end by his death at the age of 48, that same year. Double Bind, with its false floors, its ambiguous levels and its shadowy grey men who seemed at once boringly bureaucratic and redolent of malice, was the high point of his short but substantial life as a sculptor.

It was an appropriate swansong for Muñoz, whose work was always concerned with architecture and the illusions of space. Details such as lifts or handrails litter the gallery. Lilliputian metal staircases lead nowhere, while typically Spanish balconies are set high on the gallery wall beside a metal sign that reads “Hotel”: this is one that manifestly has no rooms and no guests.

Muñoz was significant among his generation of sculptors, who tended to be concerned predominantly with the language of art and materials. Although never interested in “representational” art, he happily reintroduced the human figure to act as both cipher and philosophical sign. He was as much influenced by the literature of Joseph Conrad, Günter Grass and T S Eliot as he was by Velézquez, Picasso, Francis Bacon, Robert Smithson or Thomas Schütte.

Theatre was also an abiding influence, particularly the work of Samuel Beckett and Pirandello. In his Raincoat Drawings, he created large chalk images of rooms, often formally furnished, that look like storyboards for old Hollywood films. All are devoid of human presence. A squashed sofa cushion, a door half open into a long, lit hall – they evoke the absence of people who only moments earlier had inhabited these spaces.

Juan Muñoz Conversation Piece 1996
Conversation Piece, 1996

Like Pirandello’s famous characters in search of an author, these are locations in search of characters. Rooms become stage sets in which the Beckett-like failures of human life are played out. The silence becomes an existential hell arising from the impossibility of speech and meaning. Muñoz’s series of drawings of disembodied mouths evokes Beckett’s Not I – in which just a mouth, illuminated by a single beam of light, speaks but says nothing – as well as the silent screams of Bacon’s popes.

Acrobats, shop mannequins, ballerinas without legs, dwarfs and ventriloquists’ dummies provided Muñoz with his cast of characters: outsiders all, rendered mute or impotent in this Borgesian game of life. The dwarf, influenced by the Infanta Margarita’s young maid of honour in Velézquez’s Las Meninas, is a constant figure. It not only recalls the protagonist of Grass’s The Tin Drum, but the jester, the fool and the savant of Shakespeare.

In The Wasteland (the title is taken from Eliot’s poem), a tiny ventriloquist’s dummy sits on a metal shelf above a floor covered in a sea of complex marquetry. He looks as if he is waiting for his master to come and give him a voice – a master whom we, with our modern sensibilities, know is no more likely to come than the one for whom Godot’s Estragon and Vladimir wait. In The Prompter, 1988, a male dwarf made of papier mâché stands in a box in front of an empty stage of black and white geometric tiles, which create an optical illusion reminiscent of the floors of great baroque houses. At the far end is a drum. If we peer into the prompter’s box we see that not only does the dwarf have no eyes, but he possesses no text. Drum and prompter alike are mute, the drum waiting for a drummer, the prompter waiting for actors or a script.

Juan Muñoz Many Times 1999
Many Times, 1999

Both these works reflect Beckett’s sentiments that human beings have the urge and imperative to express thoughts and emotions but struggle to find the means. The same idea is played out in the large group of not quite life-size Chinese figures, all of whom gesture and beam the same enigmatic smile, frozen as the timeless characters on Keats’s celebrated Grecian urn.

Muñoz died suddenly on 28 August 2001, just months after the installation in the Tate of Double Bind. Without his existential and humanistic vision, the contemporary art world seems just that bit more glib and self-satisfied. Who knows what he would have gone on to make if he had reached his full maturity? But here was an artist unafraid of the big questions, of what it means to strive to remain an individual in this complex, modern world.

Juan Muñoz Retrospective at Tate Modern, London until 27 April 2008

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2008

Images © the Estate of Juan Muñoz. Courtesy of the Tate Modern

Published in New Statesman

Alice Neel
Painted Truths
Whitechapel Gallery London

Published in New Statesman

Art Criticism

Alice Neel’s emotional intelligence and her commitment to figurative painting during the heyday of American abstract expressionism marked her out as a maverick. A painter of social movements, historic events and cultural trends, she could be described as the Diane Arbus of painting. But whereas Arbus exposed “freaks”, Neel revealed human vulnerability in all its rawness and tenderness.

Alice Neel Andy Warhol, 1970
Andy Warhol, 1970

Though her career stretched from the 1920s to the early 1980s, Neel was an isolated figure. A woman painting during a period when realist art – dependent on narrative and pictorial illusion – was seen in modernist circles as retrograde, she had her work drowned under a welter of high-minded, essentially male, abstraction. Portraiture of the kind she liked was regarded as bourgeois, subjective, tied to traditional techniques.Now, for the first time in Europe, the White­chapel is presenting 60 major works that span her career. The exhibition includes portraits of children, pregnant nudes, the elderly and cityscapes, along with two films that show Neel’s paintings.

From Picasso, who distorted and fragmented the body, to the gestural simplifications of Willem de Kooning, the portrait in the postwar period had become anti-individualistic: a generalised signifier for existential disquiet, rather than a disclosure of individual character. While some of Neel’s works share the unforgiving vision of Otto Dix or Max Beckmann, she saw herself as committed to a “combination of realism and expressionism”. Like Balzac, whom she greatly admired, she used her talents to depict ordinary lives, exposing oppression and hardship wherever she found it.

Motherhood preoccupied Neel. Wide-eyed mothers and babies cling to each other, haunted by exhaustion and anxiety. A painting of her Haitian cleaning woman, Carmen, whose beatific face contrasts with the wraithlike body of her disabled child lying in her lap, unable to locate her nipple, is enough to bring a lump to the throat. That is the power of Alice Neel’s work and a reminder of what great art can do.

Alice Neel Painted Truths at the Whitechapel Gallery from 8 July to 17 September 2010

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Images © Alice Neel. Courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

Published in New Statesman

No Logo

Published in New Statesman

Art Criticism

Public art does not have to be grand and bombastic.
It is sometimes more effective when it is modest and reflective

Mark Wallinger Angel of the SouthAngel of the South Mark Wallinger

What is the point and purpose of public art? Once, it was clear: you were a general or an admiral and if you won a big enough victory you got a bronze statue stuck on a plinth. Or, if it was a very big victory against those dastardly neighbours, the French, you would even get a 151-foot granite column in Trafalgar Square. Nationalism was the point, or, in the case of Charles Sargeant Jagger’s Royal Artillery Memorial at Hyde Park Corner or Great Western Railway War Memorial in Paddington railway station, a dignified commemoration of the dead was.

Angel of the South Daniel Buren
Angel of the South Daniel Buren

Today, in a democratic age, everyone has an opinion to voice on public art, from the cogno scenti to Joe Bloggs complaining about the waste of public money. Anyone who “knows” about art is likely to take the long route to avoid the horrendously kitsch and overblown Meeting Place at St Pancras Station, but who is to say that hundreds of ordinary people don’t love it and use it as north London’s version of Waterloo’s celebrated clock?

And what about those ubiquitous Antony Gormleys that filled the skyline over the South Bank recently or which stare wistfully out to sea from Crosby Beach in Liverpool? Do you love them or hate them? As if there weren’t enough “Gorms” around already, there is Angel of the North, and everyone has an opinion on that; from fascistic and bombastic to imaginative symbol of place. Take your pick.

Now we are to get what has been called Angel of the South, a £2m project sited on the new Ebbsfleet development in Kent. The towns of Dartford and Gravesham in the Thames Gateway are the scene for Britain’s most ambitious attempt to establish pioneering sustainable communities around Britain’s new international Eurostar station.

Angel of the South Richard Deacon
Angel of the South Richard Deacon

More than 20,000 new jobs and 10,000 homes are planned. This area of deprivation, which is neither city nor country, has until now largely been forgotten. Art is seen as a symbol of regeneration. Everywhere wants its own version of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim that changed the fortunes of Bilbao. The shortlist here is comprised of five artists: Rachel Whiteread, Christopher Le Brun, Richard Deacon, Mark Wallinger (the favourite) and a token Frenchman, Daniel Buren.

And what is each artist proposing? Daniel Buren’s idea is probably the most ambitious – a signal tower of five stacked cubes through which a single laser beam of light reaches indefinitely into the sky. The work does not seem quite right for this rather ordinary site adjacent to the A2, even though it would look wonderful on a hill or in an empty plain with a long approach. Richard Deacon’s painted steel latticework, a “stack” of differently shaped polyhedrons, certainly echoes the skeletal frames of the nearby electricity pylons, bringing notions of engineering and geometry to a rural location, but seems a bit intellectual to sit in a field.

Angel of the South Christopher Le Brun
Angel of the South Christopher Le Brun

Christopher Le Brun has always made work that refers to myth. His disc and giant wing are symbolic of flight, reminding those who mind about such things that the winged Mercury was the god of both travellers and commerce. Made from concrete – one of the principal products of this part of north Kent – it would be made by first carving the shape into the chalk landscape and then casting the negative spaces in the chalk in concrete; the piece would create a giant grassed amphitheatre. Rachel Whiteread’s proposal is rather disappointing, from a usually imaginative artist known for casting the interior spaces of domestic objects and places. Her life-size cast in terior of a house placed on a craggy “recycled mountain” is, in many ways, just a reiteration of the house she made in the East End of London in 1993, and seems too dour for this site.

So that leaves Mark Wallinger’s enormous white horse, which probably presses all the right buttons. Witty enough to appeal to the cogno scenti and redolent with associations of Anglo-Saxon chalk white horses, it is also easy enough on the eye for the average person not to have to ask: “Is that art?” Thirty-three times life size, it will certainly function as a landmark and provide the logo that the developers of the site probably want. In the interests of democracy, those attending the nearby Bluewater shopping mall will be given the chance to comment on the selection (though they won’t have any real power to influence the outcome).

Angel of the South Rachel Whiteread
Angel of the South Rachel Whiteread

But the real question is: Does public art always have to be monumental and so expensive? Some of its most effective uses have been modest – in hospitals and schools, for example. Andy Goldsworthy, with his Lower Manhattan memorial to victims of the Holocaust, worked eloquently with nature’s most elemental materials – stone, trees, soil – to create a garden that is a metaphor for the tenacity and fragility of life. The work of Peter Randall-Page integrates people with their surroundings and nature in order to convey a strong sense of place. Always precisely and quietly sited, it provides a deep connection to a locality through the use of organic forms.

I was commissioned during a residency as the Poetry Society’s Public Art Poet to create a poem in the underpass at Waterloo Station that leads to the Imax cinema. The purpose of this piece was simply to make people feel comfortable walking through a urine-soaked, subterranean tunnel. Mark Wallinger’s work, if it wins the Ebbsfleet competition, will provide a focus, a logo, a brand. But public art at its most effective can be both more modest and more reflective. At its best, it changes our relationship to a space and our feelings about how we inhabit it.

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2008

Images maybe subject to copyright

Published in New Statesman

Object Gesture Grid
Tate St Ives

Published in New Statesman

Art Criticism

How did a fishing village become an avant-garde haven?

Margaret Mellis Number Thirty Five 1983
Margaret Mellis Number Thirty Five, 1983

Many artists we now label “modern” in fact reacted against the forces of modernity that led during the first half of the 20th century to two world wars, political and social unrest and spiritual disillusionment. With the outbreak of war in 1939, Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson, along with the psychoanalytically inclined critic Adrian Stokes and his wife, the artist Margaret Mellis, sought refuge in St Ives, Cornwall.

Leaving the “centre” for the periphery was nothing new. Attracted by the seaside town’s superb light, Whistler and Walter Sickert had made the long journey west to St Ives in the winter of 1883-84. Gauguin had gone to Brittany to paint peasants, believing they exemplified a sort of spiritual purity in contrast to the urban. The end of the 19th century had brought the rise of utopian communities such as the French Barbizon school, which painted en plein air, and the Worpswede group on the north German moors. These far-flung locations provided artists with a kind of primitive essence, a sense of timeless authenticity amid great social and political change.

Ben Nicholson Untitled c1936
Ben Nicholson, Untitled c1936

With connections to Picasso, Braque, Brancusi and Jean Arp, Nicholson’s and Hepworth’s studio in Hampstead had already become part of the avant-garde European art scene. It was a magnet for growing numbers of British and European artists, many of them cultural émigrés fleeing the political chaos sweeping Europe. These included the Dutch abstract painter Piet Mondrian and the Russian constructivist Naum Gabo, who followed Nicholson and Hepworth to Cornwall. The sense of displacement brought about by the war had a profound effect on a generation of British artists.

The centre of the art world was already shifting from Paris to New York. The utopian vision of art as a form of spiritual renewal and social advancement, which had been the ideal of many modernists before the war, became less sustainable in its aftermath. Fresh tensions arose between reality and imagination, figuration and abstraction, elements of narrative and formalistic purity. A new exhibition, sourced from the Tate’s collection, explores the shared visual language of artists working in Europe and America from the 1930s to the late 1970s. Far from being a parochial corner of the British Isles where artists simply sought shelter from the Blitz, St Ives became pivotal in the development of modern art – a hothouse of ideas from both the New World and old Europe.

The exhibition is divided into three sections: object, gesture and grid. The first section highlights the connections between artists such as Hepworth and Brancusi, Braque and Picasso. Here, the painted image is no longer presented simply as a window on the world, but rather, in the case of Nicholson’s “constructed” and painted boards, as an object. The biomorphic, sexualised forms of Hepworth draw heavily on the psychoanalytic imagery of surrealism, while the fragmented still lifes of Braque and Margaret Mellis’s driftwood assemblages show the influence of cubism.

Eva Hesse Untitled (Detail) 1967
Eva Hesse, Untitled (Detail) 1967

Gesture considers the materiality and expressionist possibilities of paint, linking European movements such as tachism and art informel with American abstract expressionism. Many of the St Ives artists had connections and friendships with the Americans. These dialogues are highlighted in paintings by Roger Hilton, Patrick Heron, Peter Lanyon and Sandra Blow, which are shown next to works by Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning.

Grid takes a more austere, geometric path, in contrast to the gestural mark. A sign of rational thinking, harmony and space, the grid represented a universal – as opposed to personal – language. For modernists seeking a new form of expression after the First World War, it became synonymous with their egalitarian social, political and philosophical agendas. In works by Josef Albers, Donald Judd, Robert Ryman, Mary Martin and Eva Hesse, the viewer is drawn both psychologically and physically into the artwork.

So what has been the importance of St Ives? The concentration of artists’ studios there and the gathering of international art-world figures, leading to the arrival of the Tate in 1993, have generated aesthetic debates and produced new work that have given a very distinct flavour to British modernism.

Object Gesture and Grid at Tate St Ives until 26 September 2010

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2010

Image1: © The Estate of Margaret Mellis
Image 2: © The Estate of Ben Nicholson
Image 3: © the Estate of Eva Hesse

Published in New Statesman

Panic Attack! Art in the Punk Years
Barbican Art Gallery London

Published in New Statesman

Art Criticism

Punk art exploded into the decay and collapse of the 1970s, bringing a message of racial and sexual empowerment. A new exhibition struggles to capture its raw spirit

Robert Mapplethorpe Patti Smith
Robert Mapplethorpe, Patti Smith

I will admit that punk largely passed me by; I was a young single parent, and the only safety pins I was familiar with were the ones I was sticking into nappies. I associate that period with flares, stacked heels, big hair and everything being covered in horrible orange and brown flowers. For me, the 1970s were more Abba than anarchy.

I do recall, of course, that Britain was in crisis. The oil crises of 1973 and 1979 created a severe fuel shortage; there were power cuts, strikes, rocketing inflation and unemployment; rat-infested rubbish lay uncollected in the streets. An odour of decay and collapse hung in the air during the “winter of discontent” of 1978-79. Then Margaret Thatcher swept to power, and began her systematic vandalisation of the welfare state, public services and the mining industry, with the attendant destruction of its close-knit working-class culture. On the other side of the pond, New York was crime-ridden, bankrupt and experiencing the bitter aftermath of the Vietnam War, while Watergate had exposed a president prepared to lie to his country to save his skin.

The punk counterculture was both a symbol of and an angry riposte to those ravaged times. Intentionally or otherwise, it set about dismantling the white, male, straight, middle-class hegemony, replacing it with a do-it-yourself culture in which the predominant discourses were gay, feminist and working-class. The oil crisis highlighted the social and economic inequalities in both Britain and the United States, and the art scene became increasingly politicised. Many artists addressed issues of economic injustice and later turned their attention to racial and sexual empowerment.

Andy Warhol Mick Jagger
Andy Warhol, Mick Jagger

The music scene in Britain was flooded with art-school graduates and dropouts. For the postwar generation, art school provided opportunities to those whose access to education was limited either by class or little conventional academic success. In the 1960s, musicians such as John Lennon, Pete Townshend, Eric Clapton and Pink Floyd had emerged from this niche; in the 1970s it spawned punk, which has been called the ultimate art-school music movement.

Punk is usually associated with music and fashion, but the primary focus of Panic Attack! Art in the Punk Years, a major retrospective at the Barbican in London, is visual art. It is a surprisingly tame show; without the sounds and the clothes, it is hard-pressed to capture the raw, in-your-face-spirit of the movement. This is punk with its rotten teeth pulled.

The genesis of punk as a musical phenomenon was in the States, where a scene formed in New York around bands such as Television and the Ramones, but also involved visual and performance artists who congregated in the same downtown spaces. In Britain, the Sex Pistols and their influential manager, Malcolm McLaren, brought the movement into the public consciousness. McLaren had been inspired by a trip to New York in 1974.

God Save the Queen
God Save the Queen

The most iconic image on show is Jamie Reid’s cover for the Pistols’ infamous 45-inch single God Save the Queen, which was released to coincide with Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee. Reid had met McLaren when they were both studying at Croydon Art College. Taking Cecil Beaton’s celebrated photograph of the monarch, he blindfolded and gagged her with strips of collaged lettering that spelled out the song title and the band’s name. It provided a suitably angry graphic accompaniment to the Pistols’ music and lyrics.

Collage already had a long radical history, having been used by the Dadaists and the surrealists as a hallmark of dissent. Punk was the obvious heir to these trends. The anarchic, amateur nature of collage fitted the mood of punk, which turned the tear or rent into a signifier of protest and the safety pin into the fetishised symbol of the movement. Bricolage (literally “tinkering”) and making objects out of rubbish also became synonymous with the punk aesthetic. The work of the young sculptors who transformed urban detritus into art fed into the “new British sculpture” of the early 1980s, which produced stars such as Bill Woodrow and Tony Cragg.

Victor Burgin Today Is The Tomorrow You Were Promised Yesterday
Victor Burgin, Today Is The Tomorrow You Were Promised Yesterday

The moral panic that punk generated pushed many fine artists and musicians outside the mainstream. Victor Burgin, a pioneer of conceptual art, wrote that “no activity is to be understood apart from the codes and practices of the society which contains it”. He sought, with others such as Martha Rosler, Stephen Willats and David Lamelas, to expand photographic practice to incorporate advertising imagery that then acted as a critique of the culture it mimicked. In Burgin’s UK76, a Tudor cottage stands as a sign of privileged middle-class life; another photograph in the same series depicts a migrant Indian worker, revealing the realities of sweated labour.

London in the 1970s still bore signs of bomb damage from the Second World War, and these wasted spaces and dilapidated warehouses were colonised by groups of drug-takers, artists and drag queens. The street became an experimental playground for subversion and resistance with a flowering of performance art that involved the body. In America, a masked and naked Paul McCarthy made his video Rocky (1976), in which he obsessively punches his head and smears his genitals with ketchup. Cindy Sherman adopted a variety of disguises that evoked stereotyped female characters from B-movies. And London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts hosted “Prostitution”, one of the most incendiary exhibitions in the ICA’s history. It lasted just eight days and featured used tampons, among other things.

In 1974 the artist Andrew Logan and the film-maker Derek Jarman had moved into Butler’s Wharf, where Logan and his bohemian pals held the drag Alternative Miss World extravaganza. Jarman made a Super-8 film of the punk icon Jordan, dressed in a white tutu and dancing around a bonfire in a wasted industrial landscape – like a character from A Clockwork Orange turning up in Swan Lake. Many artists were involved in gay and feminist subcultures, and sexual limits were pushed to the extreme. Robert Mapplethorpe photographed Patti Smith for her debut album, Horses, looking subversively androgynous, and tested the boundaries of acceptable represen tation with his “sex pictures” depicting sadomasochistic practices on New York’s gay scene.

Jenny Holzer Inflammatory Essays
Jenny Holzer Inflammatory Essays

The street became the theatre for other artists. Jenny Holzer plastered her installation series Inflammatory Essays and Truisms on the walls of cities in the US, and Keith Haring made chalk drawings on empty New York subway advert ising panels. Jean-Michel Basquiat also merged elements of graffiti with neo-expressionism to create a unique, black street style.

With its interest in the fragment and its habit of appropriation, punk segued easily with the discourses around postmodernism. Marxism, psychoanalysis, feminism and queer politics all provided alternative critiques of mainstream society. This exhibition graphically shows how punk, with its nihilistic and anarchic ethos, offered a means of dissent and a different way of being in a culture where many felt silenced, marginalised and dispossessed.

Panic Attack! Art in the Punk Years at the Barbican Art Gallery, London until 9 September 2007

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2007

Image 1: © Robert Mapplethorpe
Image 2: © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts
Image 3: Sex Pistols Cover designed by Jamie Reid
Image 4: © Victor Burgin
Image 5: © Jenny Holzer

Published in New Statesman

Picasso Peace and Freedom
Tate Liverpool

Published in New Statesman

Art Criticism

The Politics of the 20th Century’s Greatest Artist
Picasso The Charnel House, 1945
The Charnel House, 1945

This fascinating exhibition attempts to present Picasso as a politically engaged artist. Until now, his political commitments have been one of the most underexplored areas of his life and work, but new scholarship, based on a little-studied file labelled “Political Correspondence sent to Picasso” held at the Musée National Picasso in Paris, has yielded a rich vein of material. Revealed are his generous donations to African, Muslim and Jewish causes, as well as his support for the refugees of the 1956 Hungarian uprising, striking miners in northern France, and Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, executed in the US for passing on atomic secrets to the USSR.

It was the Spanish civil war that politicised Picasso. In the 1920s, his close friend and dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler described him as “the most apolitical man I have ever known”, but by 1944 he had joined the French Communist Party and remained a member until his death in 1973.

Picasso Dove (La Colombe), 1949
Dove (La Colombe), 1949

At Tate Liverpool, Picasso is reframed as a “history painter”. After the success of Guernica in 1937 came The Charnel House, 1945, based on a short documentary film about a Spanish Republican family slaughtered in their kitchen. The austere use of grisaille (monochromatic tones of grey, black and white) emulates the grainy newsreel and newspaper photographs of the period. Still lifes executed during the last years of the Second World War are filled with animal skulls and that harbinger of death, the owl, to evoke traditional forms of vanitas and memento mori paintings.

Other series, such as the War and Peace murals, reflect Picasso’s attitude to the cold war. His Las Meninas series (1957) viciously satirises – in the tradition of Goya – the Spanish monarchy and Franco’s bid to instal the young exiled prince Don Juan as his puppet.

The critic Robert Hughes once chastised Picasso for his political affiliations, claiming that he “gave enthusiastic endorsement to Joseph Stalin … and scarcely received a word of criticism for it, even in cold war America”. Politically naive, an idealist or simply a pragmatist? It’s hard to say. But then mixing politics and art is a tricky business.

Picasso Peace and Freedom at Tate Liverpool until 30 August 2010

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2010

Image 1&2: Collection MOMA

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The Pre-Raphaelites and Italy
Ashmolean Museum Oxford

Published in New Statesman

Art Criticism

John William Inchbold On the Lagoon, Venice, 1863-4
John William Inchbold (1830-1888)
On the Lagoon, Venice, 1863-4

The BBC2 bonk-buster Desperate Romantics presented the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood as a story of sex, drugs and seduction. Arrogant, young and full of laudanum, it was a wonder that amid all the bodice ripping anyone had any time to paint at all.

The Pre-Raphaelites have suffered from their popularity. Teenage girls of a romantic persuasion tend to identify with the beautiful dresses and the copious hair of the female models, whilst Andrew Lloyd Webber is a collector. Now the Ashmolean has launched, as its first major exhibition in its new temporary exhibitions centre, The Pre-Raphaelites and Italy. It brings together over 140 pictures from the Ashmolean’s own Pre-Raphaelite collection, along with international loans. The serious scholarship goes a long way to reclaim the Pre-Raphaelites from the lid of the chocolate box and to remind us that, in their day, their art was radical, vital and, yes, beautiful.

Edward Burne-Jones Music, 1877
Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898)
Music, 1877

Italy’s culture and landscape was a source of inspiration to the group, who met at the London home of John Everett Millais in September 1848, with the intention of altering the course of British art. The close study of nature was their credo. Their champion, John Ruskin, had written in Modern Painters, published in 1846, that artists “should go to Nature in all singleness of heart…rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing.” The name Pre-Raphaelite was chosen to exalt Italian work before Raphael, who was considered the epitome of the classical style by the Academy, and in order to signal their determination to defy convention and the supremacy of history painting. In fact, if they had been better informed about early Italian art they would probably never have chosen the label, for an interest in the Italian primitives had become almost conventional by 1848.

In the early years the Brotherhood chose Italian subjects for their paintings. Yet apart from Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who grew up in an Italian speaking household, their knowledge of Italy and its literature amounted to little more than a faux medievalism acquired from English poets such as Keats and Browning. Unlike many of their continental contemporaries the members of the brotherhood did not spend time in Italy. There were no mechanisms to study there and most did not have parents who could fund a Grand Tour.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti Monna Vanna, also known as Belcolore, 1866
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882
Monna Vanna, also known as Belcolore, 1866

Rossetti, arguably the most influential member and the most ardently Italian of them all, never actually went there, perhaps afraid that the real country would fall short of the one he had constructed in his imagination. Millais and his wife did visit in 1865 as tourists, while Holman Hunt ended washed up in Florence and Naples on his way to the Holy Land because quarantine restrictions put pay to his travel plans. Ruskin, on the other hand, visited Italy when he was 14, and over the next fifty years no fewer than fifteen times.

Ruskin was a passionate conservationist who believed that Europe’s architectural heritage was being irretrievably destroyed by inappropriate “restoration”. The exhibition includes many of his painstaking studies of the buildings at risk. Also included are the little known and rather wonderful designs by Burne-Jones for the American Episcopalian church in Rome, an invitation that was the culmination of a dream he had had for much of his life.

John Brett Val d'Aosta, 1858
John Brett (1831-1902)
Val d’Aosta, 1858

It is also strong on the associates of the Brotherhood. Holman Hunt’s pupil, Edward Lear, lived in Rome and painted landscapes, while Frederic Leighton, another sometime resident of Rome, learnt the art of landscape painting from Giovanni “Nino” Costa, an ardent patriot who founded a new school that become known as the Etruscans.

Gradually the term Pre-Raphaelite was to evolve from meaning a Ruskinian “truth to nature” to a more sensual celebration of the Venetian masters of the High Renaissance, such as Titian and Veronese. During my visit, it was the wall of Rossetti’s women – his Aurelia and Monna Vanna and his languid study for La Pia de’Tolomei, based on the model Jane Morris – that attracted the most attention. Full of emotional and sexual suggestion these voluptuous, eroticised images will always be what, for most people, define the Pre-Raphaelites.

The Pre-Raphaelites and Italy at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford until 5 December 2010

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2010

Image 1: © Leeds Museums & Galleries
Image 2: © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford
Image 3: © Tate, London
Image 4: © Private Collection

Published in New Statesman

Marc Quinn
Tate Liverpool

Published in New Statesman

Art Criticism

Sue Hubbard on a man who takes apart conventional models of beauty and humanity

Marc Quinn Kiss 2001
Kiss, 2001

For a member of the brat pack of Young British Artists, someone who uses blood, shit and his baby son’s placenta to make art, Marc Quinn is surprisingly quiet and serious when we meet on a rain-lashed day at Tate Liverpool for the opening of his new exhibition. Outside the gallery window, the Mersey forms a grey backdrop of storm-tossed waves. It’s an image he likes: a vast amniotic soup slurping around as we talk about what he calls the age-old themes of art – life, birth and death. Indeed, Quinn might be a junior philosophy lecturer at some former polytechnic, rather than an artist. So it is no surprise to learn that he never went to art school, but studied art history at Cambridge. He can’t be naive, then, I suggest, to the references that abound in his work. The blood, the pregnant women, the family must draw, intentionally, on traditional Christian iconography. “Of course,” he mutters enigmatically.

Quinn first gained recognition in 1991 with his provocative sculpture Self, a life-size caste of his head made from his own frozen blood. This was followed in 1998 by the flayed bodies at the South London Gallery – part torture victims, part saints hanging from the ceiling, their skins peeled back like unzipped bananas. I kept thinking of a small boy looking inside a torch and taking it to bits to see how it works. Quinn’s interest in science, in how things are made, in their intrinsic nature, is a legacy, no doubt, of having a physicist father. Although the work in the Liverpool show includes a wide range of media – drawing, sculpture, painting, photographs and installation – it is all concerned with exploring issues of procreation, perfection, decay and mortality. When his son Lucas was born, Quinn pureed the frozen placenta and poured it into a mould he had modelled of the baby’s head. It sits in its refrigerated unit like a religious reliquary or a grizzled pope’s head by Francis Bacon.

Marc Quinn DNA Garden 2001
DNA Garden 2001

Genetic and generational bonds are also explored in the photograph of Quinn’s son and his own grandmother, but less conventionally in DNA Garden and Family Portrait. Here, apparently empty stainless-steel frames (which conjure those Byzantine icons embedded in silver, or Christian Boltanski’s photographic installations) actually hold polycarbonate agar jelly, bacteria colonies and cloned DNA (both plant and human). Virtually invisible, they act like biological photos (or rather negatives), as portraits of possibilities. Quinn tells me that he is really interested in matter and in the material world, as we are the first generation to be able to see the instructions for making ourselves.

He also freezes flowers. Eternal Spring (Lilies) I consists of a bunch of frozen blossoms. These draw on the tradition of 17th-century Dutch flower painting, in which loss of perfection and subsequent decay are reminders of our mortality, but they also make oblique reference to the work of the late Helen Chadwick, who explored similar territory. Quinn likes it that these pieces can exist only in a society with an infrastructure where refrigeration is possible – also true of that wish-fulfilment technology, cryogenics, which allows the rich and batty to be frozen after death “just in case”.

Marc Quinn Alison Lapper and Parys 2000
Alison Lapper and Parys, 2000

One day, when in the British Museum, it suddenly occurred to Quinn that visitors looking at fragmented, limbless sculptures – ideals of classical beauty – would react very differently if they were looking at real people who were thus “disfigured”. Both traditional and contemporary ideals of perfection are explored in his works made of white marble. Using disabled models as subjects, his sculptures challenge viewers’ preconceived notions of what constitutes beauty and “appropriate” eroticism. Approaching the athletic male figure of his marble Kiss from behind, the torso looks like an example of heroic perfection. But his arms, in fact, have been deformed by thalidomide and his female partner has also lost one of hers. This is Rodin for a postmodern age.

The piece that will probably provoke the most predictable outcry is Quinn’s Shit Painting, made from his own excrement. Actually, it looks like an American abstract expressionist painting of the 1950s. Quinn is not the first artist to use his faeces to make art. Piero Manzoni displayed his shit in small paint tins in the 1960s. Bodily fluids, for Manzoni as for Quinn, are metaphors for our humanity, our materiality and flux. It is our material make-up, the physical components that make us unique, which fascinate Quinn. His most enigmatic piece is Mirror Self-Portrait 2000, a looking glass in which he looked every day for 12 months. A mirror is, he says, “the ultimate indifferent object. It celebrates you while you are there and then when you are gone it forgets you immediately.” No traditional vanitas painting could illuminate the fleeting nature of our material existence with greater potency.

Marc Quinn at Tate Liverpool from 1 February to 28 April 2002

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2002

Images © Marc Quinn 2000-01. Courtesy the Tate

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Peter Randall-Page
Yorkshire Sculpture Park

Published in New Statesman

Art Criticism

Primal patterns of a seemingly chaotic world come to the surface in sculpture

Peter Randall-Page In the Mind of Monk 1994

In the Mind of Monk, 1994

In his essay “Carving and Modelling”, the now rather unfashionable, psychoanalytically inclined art critic Adrian Stokes wrote: “Carving creates a face for the stone, as agriculture for the earth, as man for woman. Modelling is more purely plastic creation: it makes things, it does not disclose, as a face, the significance of what already exists.” Stone, he suggests, “is the symbol of the outwardness, of the hoarded store of meaning that comes to the surface”. Carving, therefore, acts as a form of disclosure, a means of revealing “deep” harmonies, not only within the stone itself, but within the human psyche.

Peter Randall-Page Secret Life IV, 1994
Secret Life IV, 1994

The sculpture of Peter Randall-Page, perhaps best known for his contribution to the Millennium Seed Bank at the Eden Project in Cornwall, can easily be understood in relation to Stokes’s description. This summer Yorkshire Sculpture Park presents an extensive exhibition of his work, with more than 50 pieces showcased in the gallery and the park. This display features ambitious new and recent works, including two monumental sculptures made especially for YSP from Kilkenny limestone, each weighing more than 13 tonnes and standing over two metres high.

Influenced by organic forms and scientific structures, his ambiguous sculptures refuse to be defined as either figurative or abstract, biomorphic or mathematical, but disclose something of what it means to be human within the natural world. The possibilities they reveal are multiple, for, like a poet, Randall-Page uses metaphor to suggest meaning. His interests in Euclidean geometry, botany, philosophy, music, patterns and structures form a constant refrain that runs through his massive Kilkenny limestones with their black-grey surfaces, as silky as the skin of a whale, his gritty flint and granite works, his fired-clay pieces and the painted bronzes.

Yet Randall-Page describes himself as “an absolute rationalist”. He does not believe in a collective unconscious in the Jungian sense. Rather, he says, “plants, in common with the rest of the world, enter our consciousness as subjective feeling as well as … information; we recognise them as an aspect of the biological system of which we ourselves are part; they nourish our spirits”.

Peter Randall-Page Shapes in the Clouds (Plato Dreaming of Artemis) 2005
Shapes in the Clouds (Plato Dreaming of Artemis), 2005

His concern with patterns of order in an apparently chaotic universe is central to his practice. He explores symmetry, camouflage and how systems of geometry break down and adapt themselves within the natural world, much like natural selection itself.

These binaries are apparent from the first room in the Underground Gallery. Here cloud-like pieces, made of Rosso Luana marble from Carrara, are based on four of the five Platonic solids, and share their internal geometry. Yet despite their theoretical underpinning, the sensuality of Shapes in the Clouds (Plato Dreaming of Artemis), made in 2005, is reflected in the voluptuous curves and coloured veining of the stone, reminding us that Artemis was the Greek goddess of fertility. Within the same gallery is the older piece Mother Tongue, 1998. The intestinal curves of the dark Kilkenny limestone, suggestive of both tongue and gut, are based on a mouse’s gall bladder discarded by Randall-Page’s cat.

Peter Randall-Page Corpus and Fructus 2009
Corpus and Fructus, 2009

The sculptural vocabulary of Corpus, 2009 and Fructus, 2009 is bodily and botanical. Corpus is divided into two lobes, so that the internal coiled gut seems to push against the taut outer membrane like an embryo inside a yolk sack; while in Fructus, the weighty lobes suggest not only overripe fruit but also the pendulous multiple breasts of the Ephesian goddess Diana.

Order and chaos are further explored in the harsh geometric patterning incised into the coarse-grained boulders of Finnish glacial murrain. Here, geometry must adapt to the natural form of these huge stones, so large elastic nets are stretched over the surfaces in order that they can be mapped and subdivided into sections. There is something very powerful about the boulders, which are thousands of years old and silent witnesses to the world’s history. Their monumentality stands in contrast to the innovative series of wall works made of fired clay and based on the memory of patterns created by raindrops or the delicate symmetry of an insect’s wing.

Randall-Page’s work is informed by a lifelong study of organic form. Nature’s myriad complexities provide the catalyst for his work; from the underlying mathematical principles that drive life and growth to the intricate patterns of the natural world.

Peter Randall-Page at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park until January 2010

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2009

Images © Peter Randall-Page. Courtesy of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park

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Rebels and Martyrs
The National Gallery

Published in New Statesman

Art Criticism

Damien Hirst learned his bad-boy posturing from the Romantics, finds Sue Hubbard

Gustave Courbet Self-Portrait
Gustave Courbet Self-Portrait
The Despairing Man, 1843-45

The image of the artist as a tormented genius and outsider is a persistent archetype. From Van Gogh cutting off his ear and Jackson Pollock allegedly peeing in Peggy Guggenheim’s fireplace to Tracey Emin drunkenly mouthing expletives on TV, we have come to expect artists to be passionate, iconoclastic, temperamental. But where does the idea of the rebel artist come from?

There have always been bold and individualistic artists – the drunken, bellicose Caravaggio and the towering Michelangelo, for instance – but, before the 19th century, artists were largely regarded as craftsmen and artisans. It was during the social and political upheavals in Europe at the end of the 18th century that artists, in keeping with a general disenchantment with neoclassicism and the decline in conventional religion, began to adopt personae driven by Romantic notions of the self, individuality and creativity. It is this development that is charted in Rebels and Martyrs at the National Gallery in London.

The artist was seen and saw himself (Roman ticism was, with a few exceptions, essentially a male position) as the heroic, misunderstood outsider: a seer and prophet battling against the strictures of philistine society, one who had a special hotline to essential truths not understood by mere bourgeois mortals. Madame de Staël coined the term “vulgarity” to describe debased middle-class taste, satirised in an 1846 lithograph by Honoré Daumier, in which a would-be picture buyer can be seen measuring a painting – no doubt to fit into his newly decorated salon – with his cane. The business of art had taken off with the rise of the new class of merchants and entrepreneurs. Yet the demands of these very markets, and the increase in exhibitions as a method of selling, were viewed with dismay by artists who did not want to pander to bourgeois taste. This brought about a split between easy populism and the avant-garde, and the image of the rebel artist was born.

Henry Wallis Chatterton 1856
Henry Wallis
Chatterton, 1856

The exhibition opens with a self-portrait of Sir Joshua Reynolds, first president of the Royal Academy of Art – an establishment created to raise the status of the artist – resplendent in the scarlet robes of a doctor of civil law, with a bust of Michelangelo behind him. It is an image of confidence and authority that suggests a long line of artistic precursors. Compare this to the haunted gaze of the boyish Samuel Palmer in his Self-Portrait, painted around 1825, or to Self-Portrait at the Easel by the German Victor Emil Janssen, painted about 1828, which shows a sickly young man stripped to the waist, with tousled hair and draped shirt suggestive of a loincloth. The allusion to Christ’s Passion is inescapable, along with the implication that the artist must suffer for his art, misunderstood and alone on the margins of society. But it was Courbet above all who came to represent the defiant and independent bohemian. “In our oh-so-civilised society,” he said, “it is necessary for me to lead the life of a savage …” In The Meeting (Bonjour Monsieur Courbet!) he depicts himself on a country road, staff in hand and bearded like a prophet or 19th-century Jack Kerouac, in a secular reworking of Christ meeting his disciples.

This redefinition of the artist from artisan to prophet had complex causes. Perhaps most important was the reaction to the excessive rationalism of the Enlightenment; there were also the effects of the French revolution, which loosened conventional hierarchies. Nietzsche then came off his mountain and announced that God was dead, leaving a void at the centre of human existence that could be filled, many believed, by these new secular prophets: artists and poets.

incent van Gogh Pieta after Delacroix 1889
Vincent van Gogh
Pieta after Delacroix, 1889

Creativity, imagination and suffering were their tools. Such ideas found early expression in the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, whose solitary heroes stare from rocky peaks, surveying the wilderness and contemplating the ether beyond. For many, this was a period of youth- ful optimism – one akin in spirit, perhaps, to the 1960s. As Wordsworth recalled, “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,/But to be young was very heaven!” The vision of the young artist or poet, inspired, impoverished and standing alone against a corrupt and uncaring world, is encapsulated in Henry Wallis’s 1856 painting of Thomas Chatterton. The boy poet and forger, spurned by society, lies white as marble on his deathbed, having taken his life by swallowing arsenic.

So deeply rooted is the image of the tortured genius in the popular imagination that such posturing has almost become de rigueur for “celebrities”, affecting not only the Britart generation of Damien Hirst and Sarah Lucas but footballers (and their wives) as well as pop stars. For the Romantics, however, placing themselves outside 19th-century society with its strict hierarchies, rigid class structures and moral codes was a way of embracing real artistic and political freedom. For Elstir in Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, his studio was “the laboratory of a sort of new creation of the world”. Now, when the japes of artists are reported in the social diaries of tabloid dailies and their work is routinely appropriated into advertising imagery, the role of the artiste maudit has run its course to become simply the new orthodoxy: empty, vacuous, self-indulgent and pointless.

Rebels and Martyrs the image of the artist in the 19th century at the National Gallery, London until 28 August 2006

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2006

Images 1: Private Collection
Images 2: Tate Collection
Image 3: van Gogh Museum

Published in New Statesman

Alexander Rodchenko
Revolution in Photography
Hayward Gallery London

Published in New Statesman

Art Criticism

Alexander Rodchenko’s photographs captured the idealism and pioneering spirit of the early Soviet Union

Alexander Rodchenko Revolution in Photography

“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,/But to be young was very heaven!” wrote Wordsworth about the French Revolution. Those words might equally have belonged to the Russian photographer Alexander Rodchenko. He created a photographic vocabulary that mirrored the social and political upheavals of the former Soviet Union during a period that extended from the intellectually adventurous Lenin years to Stalin’s cultural oppression. He used bold camera angles, aggressive perspectival foreshortening and intimate close-ups, and pioneered the use of photo montage, a process that we now take for granted but which, at the time, must have seemed incredibly radical and modern.

Having already gained an international reputation as a painter, sculptor and graphic designer, Rodchenko took up photography in the 1920s, believing it to be the medium of the future. Together with other members of the avant-garde, he supported the Bolshevik cause, and in 1918 had joined the newly founded visual arts department of the People’s Commissariat for Enlightenment. Abandoning “pure” art for a medium through which he could address a mass audience, he applied himself, using photomontage, to designing and producing posters, magazines and book covers, as well as advertisements for state-owned grocery and department stores.

The new “Rodchenko method” spread rapidly. “New forms in art”, claimed the philosopher and critic Viktor Shklovsky, “are created by the canonisation of peripheral forms.” Photography became not only a means of reflecting reality but also a vehicle for representing novel intellectual ideas and socio-political change. Joining forces with other avant-gardists – poets, writers, critics and architects – Rodchenko worked on the magazine LEF (Levyi Front Isskustv, or “Left Front of the Arts”), dedicated to defining “a Communist direction for all forms of art”. His aim was to make “completely believable photos, the kind that never existed before, pictures that are so true to life that they are life itself”.

Alexander Rodchenko Revolution in Photography

Rodchenko’s vision of a brave new world full of electrical pylons, car gears and camshafts, a world of light bulbs being produced en masse, coupled with his photographs of choreographed parades in Red Square, not to mention his highly evocative images of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed Young Pioneers smiling optimistically into the future, helped to build the collective dream of an ordered Soviet utopia. It had been as a student at the Kazan Art School, in what is now the Russian Republic of Tatarstan, that he had first come into contact with the Russian futurists and the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, with whom he later collaborated. It was also there that he met his future wife, Varvara Stepanova.

One of his first subjects was Mayakovsky, a brooding, good-looking man who seemed never to smile. Among the others were fellow members of the LEF group, such as the poet Nikolai Aseyev, the writer and critic Osip Brik and the architect Alexander Vesnin. These portraits, like a psychologically-charged shot of Rodchenko’s mother now on show in London and his experimental photo graphs of Stepanova and the painter Alexander Shevchenko, form an unusual archive of a tumultuous period in history.

Cinema, rather than fine-art portraiture, influenced these compositions. Rodchenko was interested in capturing an individual’s essence and felt it necessary to “record a person’s life not just with one ‘synthetic’ portrait, but in a mass of momentary photos”. He worked systematically with angled viewpoints, which he considered to be one of the most important factors in establishing a new photographic language. Many of his experimental photos were taken with a Kodak Vest Pocket roll-film camera.

It was this stylised approach that was to get Rodchenko into trouble. In 1931, he was accused of plagiarising western photographers, of being a formalist and of advocating bourgeois ideas through his innovative foreshortening. He was accused of misrepresenting and distorting the Soviet ideal in his Pioneer series. Soviet photography had polarised into two camps: the Russian Association of Proletarian Photographers, which represented the ideologically correct (and often sentimental) proletarian path, and the avant-garde October Group, of which Rodchenko was one of the leaders, that the political powers that be considered to be made up of petty bourgeois formalists far removed from the class struggle.

Alexander Rodchenko Revolution in Photography

Stalin’s first five-year plan had been accompanied by a cultural revolution in the arts which insisted on realism. Eventually expelled by the October Group, Rodchenko turned to reportage (for which he needed a permit) and produced a series of stunning images that, despite state censorship, showed the construction in 1933 of the White Sea-Baltic Canal, which was being built with forced labour. He also began to experiment with photographs of movement. His images of athletes not only reveal rhythm and grace, but seem to be paeans to Soviet sporting prowess.

Official parades, the theatre and the circus also became themes. The circus allowed him both to express his love of geometric form and to indulge in nostalgia and Romanticism. It is not far-fetched to imagine that, ill and continually harassed by the state, Rodchenko saw the circus as a metaphor for life. Communism may be dead, but its spirit of optimism, and the belief that a social revolution can be choreographed visually, live on in these extraordinary photographs.

Alexander Rodchenko Revolution in Photography at the Hayward Gallery, London until 27 April 2008

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2008

Images © Alexander Rodchenko

Published in New Statesman

Tate Modern

Published in New Statesman

Art Criticism

Mark Rothko’s paintings are spaces within which we can contemplate the stillness at the core of who we are – a space to daydream

The sea-reach of the Thames stretched before us like the beginning of an interminable waterway. In the offing the sea and the sky were welded together without a joint … the very mist on the Essex marshes was like a gauzy and radiant fabric, hung from the wooded rises inland, and draping the low shores in diaphanous folds.

Rothko Red on Maroon 1959
Red on Maroon, 1959

This famed description from the beginning of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, of the yawl Nellie waiting to set sail on the Thames, is as close an analogy for Mark Rothko’s Brown and Grey paintings (1968-69) as literature provides. Conrad (unknowingly, of course) gives us a literary equivalent, expressing what it feels like to stand in the presence of these paintings even if, for Rothko, the images were remorselessly abstract. The sky welded to the sea and the gauzy mist might describe these sombre late works. Divided into two parts, each work has its upper section painted in a blackish brown acrylic, while the lower half – though the ratios differ from painting to painting – is made up of scrubbed, mudflat greys. What has been removed is the ingredient that made up Rothko’s classic works of the 1950s: deep veils of colour. Everything has been reduced to subtle and barely visible variations of tone and brushstroke.

There has been a tendency to see these late paintings as intimations of Rothko’s suicide (he slit open his veins at his New York studio in February 1970), but the powerful new retrospective of his work at Tate Modern reveals a more universal concern. As Rothko stated, “The exhilarated tragic experience is for me the only source of art.” Elsewhere he wrote: “I’m not interested in the relationship of colour or form or anything else. I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions: tragedy, ecstasy, doom …”

As in Conrad’s novel, these late paintings suggest a psychological journey, a voyage into the unknown. Life and art are stripped to the bone as we, the viewers, are left staring into the inky void. Seeing is what all great art demands, but none more so than these late Rothkos – not a cursory “look”, but a fully engaged relationship from the viewer. The artist appears to be saying that these dark washes are all there is; God is, indeed, dead.

Rothko Mural for End of Wall 1959
Mural for End of Wall, 1959

Yet the paintings also seem to suggest a dualistic relationship between light and dark at the centre of the human psyche. Adopting the strategy of repetition and variation, not unlike that employed in Monet’s 1890s haystacks, Rothko illustrates his belief that “if a thing is worth doing once, it is worth doing over and over again – exploring it, probing it, demanding by its repetition that the public look at it”. If we stand long enough and strive to look until we see, we might ultimately come to know this place as though for the first time.

Rothko was born Marcus Rothkowitz in 1903 in Dvinsk, an important commercial town in the Russian Empire (now Daugavpils, Latvia) with a large Jewish population. His father, Jacob, was a pharmacist and socialist intellectual who provided his children with a secular upbringing. As a child, Rothko suffered anti-Semitism and witnessed some of the occasional attacks on Jews by Cossacks. In 1913, he emigrated to America, where he won a scholarship to Yale; he then abandoned his general studies and took up fine art. He was taught by the painter Max Weber, who helped introduce cubism to the States, and was a contemporary of Barnett Newman, another exemplar of abstract expressionism. Both Weber and Newman were also eastern European Jewish émigrés. Rothko has been called a spiritual and a religious painter, but he is a religious painter for a secular age, providing what the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard called “a space to daydream”. It is a space in which we can contemplate not only the natural grandeur of the world, but the silence and stillness at the core of who we are.

The convoluted history of Rothko’s Seagram murals has become one of the abiding myths of 20th-century art. In 1961, New York’s Museum of Modern Art honoured the then 57-year-old Rothko with his first major retrospective. At the centre of it were the paintings that form the core of the Tate exhibition: ox-blood, melancholic yet muscular, originally commissioned to decorate the Four Seasons dining room of Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building in New York. At first, Rothko seized on the project with enthusiasm, renting a former gymnasium that allowed him to simulate the restaurant’s proportions, and completing the work by the summer of 1959, when, with his family, he set sail for Europe. Speculation has long been rife as to why, on his return, he withdrew the paintings. Some ascribe it to his liberal background (like his father, he was passionate about workers’ rights) and to his apparently vituperative remark that he hoped “to paint something that will ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch who ever eats in that room”.

Rothko Black on Maroon 1959
Black on Maroon, 1959

The truth, more likely, is that he felt a mismatch between his client’s wishes to decorate an upmarket dining room and his own desire to achieve much more. There is also evidence that he was exasperated with the general misinterpretation of his earlier, more lyrical and colourful works as decorative. Tragic grandeur was what mattered. His paintings had to create a “miraculous” psychological and spiritual empathy between artist and viewer.

In this new exhibition, for the first time, eight of the Tate’s nine Seagram murals – Rothko bequeathed them to the gallery in November 1969 after years of negotiation, on condition that the gallery devote a room to them – are shown with a selection of those from the Kawamura Memorial Museum of Art in Sakura, Japan, and from the National Gallery of Art, Washington. Though a final scheme for the Four Seasons was never devised and the building could accommodate only seven paintings, Rothko made 30. The resonant surfaces resulted from his application of overlapping translucent and opaque paints. These were applied without ever losing the distinction between the various layers.

Rothko Sketch for Mural 4 1958
Sketch for Mural 4, 1958

With their floating frames and portals, they have something atavistic about them. Rothko likened the effect they create to the claustrophobic atmosphere of Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library in Florence. But, walking around the Tate, I kept thinking of Stonehenge, or the megalithic gateway at Mycenae. Even the colours, the deep maroons and blacks, conjure something ancient: the burnt pigments of cave painting.

Architecture was to play an important role in his next commission. After making the Seagram murals, Rothko was invited by the art patron Dominique de Ménil to create a set of paintings for a non-denominational, purpose-designed, octagonal chapel in Houston. These hard-edged, stripped-down compositions, which are not in the exhibition, share something of the qualities found in Rothko’s 1964 series of so-called Black-Form paintings, which, with their lack of hovering fields and feathered edges, mark a complete break with his colour-field works of the 1950s.

At first glance, they seem totally black, and again, it is only through the process of engaged looking that the gradations of tone and texture are slowly revealed. Perceptions are challenged by complex layers that, rather than annihilating light, appear to radiate with an intense luminosity. Like some dark baptism, they surround the viewer, so that the experience becomes a form of sensual immersion. As with the Brown and Grey works on paper, they are a heroic re-evaluation of everything that Rothko had done.

Rothko Untitled 1969
Untitled, 1969

In his final essay, published posthumously in On Late Style (2006), Edward Said considers late work by writers and musicians as examples of not “harmony and resolution but … intransigence, difficulty and contradiction”, suggesting that they can reopen questions supposed to have been long resolved. At a point when an artist is fully in command of his medium he may choose to abandon communication with his established audience in a form of self-imposed exile. This, I would suggest, is exactly the territory of Rothko’s late works.

Rothko formed a bridge between the Old and the New worlds, between the tragedies of war and genocide that had so recently coloured Europe and the optimism of mid-20th-century America. The next generation of American artists would abandon spiritual concerns and deconstruct the uniqueness of the art object: if a work of art could be reproduced endlessly, it no longer had a value as a “sacred” object (think of Andy Warhol’s silk screens). Rothko was one of the last, great philosophical painters to put aesthetics before money and to believe in the redemptive power of art.

Rothko Retrospective at Tate Modern until 1 February 2009

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2008

Images © Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko

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Ed Ruscha
Fifty Years of Painting
Hayward Gallery London

Published in New Statesman

Art Criticism

Ed Ruscha’s paintings play with the typography of the US

Ed Ruscha Back of Hollywood 1977
Back of Hollywood, 1977

If Jack Kerouac had been a painter, he might have painted like the American artist Ed Ruscha. Like Kerouac, for whom the road became a metaphor of freedom, Ruscha has made the landscape of mass American culture the subject of his art. “I’m into the iconography of the country – street stuff and word stuff and highways and ribbons of asphalt,” he said

Ruscha’s work, which encompasses drawings, prints, artist’s books, films and photography as well as painting, has plundered the signs and signifiers of American culture – the graphic lettering of its advertisements and street names, its typography and print media – to redefine our relationship with words and images in a way that is at once playful and profoundly disorientating.

This retrospective at the Hayward, which focuses exclusively on his paintings, assembles seminal works from across the US and Europe to survey each phase of Ruscha’s career. Born in 1937, he has been based for all his working life in Los Angeles, a city that he has called “the ultimate cardboard cut-out town” and which has fed his passion for “the raw power of things that make no sense”. He has been described as a pop artist, and certainly his 1962 painting Large Trademark With Eight Spotlights, with its red, iconic letters that read “20th Century Fox”, suggests an affinity with Warhol, as well as with conceptual art, Dada and surrealism.

Ed Ruscha Large Trademark With Eight Spotlights 1962
Ed Ruscha Large Trademark With Eight Spotlights 1962

Ruscha treats words as objects and forms of still-life; ultimately abstract shapes that suggest as much through their shape, context and typographic use as through their apparent meaning. Light and dark are constant refrains, as are the intimations of mortality suggested in paintings such as Exit, 1990 and The End, 1991, which reflect his religious upbringing.

Among his most evocative works are the dark silhouettes, which Ruscha describes as “smoky and difficult to see”, in which archetypal American symbols – a howling coyote, for instance – show an older, fast-disappearing America. Blank, horizontal bands suggest the erasure of words or the censor’s obliterating strip, hinting at the loss of history, roots and collective memories.

Ed Ruscha Fifty Years of Painting at the Hayward Gallery, London until 10 January 2010

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Thomas Schütte
Forth Plinth Fake/Function

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Art Criticism

Thomas Schütte’s sculpture for Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth is a genuinely public work

Thomas Schütte Forth Plinth

It is a dull morning and the heavy November sky seems to press down on the grey stone of the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, as assorted press and a few stray tourists gather for the unveiling of Thomas Schütte’s new sculpture for the fourth plinth, Model for a Hotel. Veiled in silky white covers, the breeze tugs at the hem, lifting it up like a Victorian lady’s skirts to reveal, not ankles, but flashes of red, yellow and blue glass. The Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, makes a speech and threatens any pigeons, audacious enough to dirty the sculpture, with his infamous hawk. Schütte, though, has expressed more tolerance of the birds’ presence. For him the sculpture provides a real hotel for the birds and his original maquette, first shown in 2003, was called Hotel for the Birds. “I don’t want to interfere,” he has said. “The droppings will inevitably be there, along with the wind and rain and the buildings around the square.”

And then the covers are pulled off, floating away in the breeze like a giant hot air balloon, to reveal a gem-like structure in flat glass sections that might have been influenced as much by a boy’s Meccano kit as by modernist architecture or Russian constructivism.

And what is it like? Beautiful, actually. As you walk round it seems different from every angle. The colour looks particularly rich against the monochromatic stone, and the sharp angles created by the sheets of glass seem to incorporate the flat areas of grey sky into the structure itself. It is as if someone has picked up a paintbrush and filled in a black-and-white painting by numbers with bold primary colour. Model for a Hotel is constructed in the shape of an architectural model composed of three blocks, a building with 21 storeys, a big lobby, and a horizontal block of eight storeys, extending over the edge of the plinth. Each part is attached to the other, so that it reaches a total height of 5 metres and is about the same size as the plinth.

Located in the north-west corner of Trafalgar Square, opposite the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery, the fourth plinth was originally designed by Sir Charles Barry and built in 1841 to display an equestrian statue, but insufficient funds meant the plinth remained empty until in 1998 the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce commissioned a series of three works by Mark Wallinger, Bill Woodrow and Rachel Whiteread for temporary display. The project was such a success that the plinth has continued to be used for an on ongoing series of temporary works by leading artists.

Thomas Schütte Fake / Function, Henry Moore Institute
Fake / Function, Henry Moore Institute

Thomas Schütte, unusually for a contemporary artist, does not seek the limelight. This project came out of his series of architectural models for imaginary buildings begun in 1980. At the age of 53, and as a past student of the painter Gerhard Richter at the Düsseldorf Academy, he has always been a bit of a maverick who has taken his ideas as much from set design and architecture as conceptual art. Presently on show at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds, his early work investigates the nature of art and illusion. His website lists a plethora of enterprises from architectural models to ceramics, from watercolours, drawings and installations, to sculptures in which he has used a baffling array of materials and styles.

Model for a Hotel is, in every way, a contrast to Marc Quinn’s white, armless figure of Alison Lapper Pregnant, the most recent occupant of the plinth. Hotel is much more likely to become a popular landmark. You can imagine it being used as a contemporary version of the clock at Waterloo Station and becoming a recognised meeting point. It will appeal to revellers on their way home after a late night, who will stand and watch its coloured sheets being lit up by the early morning sun like the stained glass in a church window, or those hurrying to work who, passing it on a daily basis, find that each time it looks different due to the changing conditions of the light. And that is, of course, what good public art should do; become a landmark for private reflection. Iconic, yet unexpected, Model for a Hotel quietly insists that the viewer stop and think about the city and his or her role in it. It is, of course, also quietly ironic, playing with notions of kitsch and monumentality; aware, in its DayGlo party colours, that it is usurping, here in Trafalgar Square, the monumental tradition of the General on his Horse and a certain naval dignitary lording it over the populace below.

While it looks utilitarian, it also appears to suggest the possibility of sustenance, shelter, companionship and civic involvement. It obliquely nods at all sorts of utopian enterprises and their dystopian counterparts.

Using colour, steel and glass to explore ideas about outside and inside (and by definition what is included and what excluded), Model for a Hotel asks fundamental questions about the artist and society. It may also provide protection for those unwitting pigeons from Ken’s hawk.

Thomas Schütte Fake/Function at the Henry Moore Institute, Leeds until 6 January 2008

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2008

Images © the Thomas Schütte

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Surreal Things surrealism and design
V&A Museum, London

Published in New Statesman

Art Criticism

The surrealist enterprise has been absorbed into our sensually overloaded world

Giorgio de Chirico Costumes and set designs for Diaghilev's Le Bal Dalí's Venus de Milo aux tiroirs
Giorgio de Chirico
Costumes and set designs for Diaghilev’s Le Bal
Dalí’s Venus de Milo aux tiroirs

From the absurd linguistic jokes of the Goons to Madonna’s conical bras, from Monty Python sketches and the animations in The South Bank Show’s opening credits to the Chapman brothers’ penile-nosed mannequins, surrealism has affected the way we experience the world. “Surreal” has become a woolly and rather debased term, a byword for anything bizarre, odd or uncanny. In the popular imagination it conjures up little more than Salvador Dalí’s melting watches or Magritte’s oddly discombobulating images. It was, in fact, a complex movement that had its genesis in radical literature and political protest, and which evolved from iconoclastic practice into commodified chic.

The movement for which the term was coined by Guillaume Apollinaire in 1917 and then taken up by André Breton, the acknowledged leader of the surrealist group, was born out of the political ideology of Karl Marx and the psychoanalytic investigations of Sigmund Freud. After the publication of the First Surrealist Manifesto in 1924, the group explored the unconscious through automatic writing, drawing and painting techniques. Unconscious desires and drives, closely allied with “the primitive”, were seen as an antithesis to the legacies and constraints of 19th-century bourgeois society. The cat of repression, so to speak, was let out of the bag, and the ero ticised, the fetishised and the profane – all of which had previously been taboo – were suddenly made highly visible. Dreams were important currency revealing (or so it was supposed) all that was chthonic and elemental in the land of the Id: heady stuff that stood in opposition to the prevailing tastes and modes of the bourgeoisie.

Max Ernst Pétale et Jardin de la nymphe Ancolie, 1934
Max Ernst
Pétale et Jardin de la nymphe Ancolie, 1934

In many ways, surrealist design stood at the opposite end of the spectrum to the “pure” reductive aesthetics of modernist architects such as Le Corbusier. The modernists sought efficient, rational ways to house large numbers of people and raise quality of life for the lower classes. Surrealist objects, on the other hand, were one-offs, whether it was Dalí’s Venus de Milo With Drawers, complete with little compartments carved into her torso and decorated with pompons, or Elsa Schiaparelli’s “skeleton” evening dress. Dalí summed up this philosophy by saying: “I try to create fantastic things, magical things, things like in a dream. The world needs more fantasy. Our civilisation is too mechanical. We can make the fantastic real and then it is more real than that which actually exists.” Surrealism, it might be argued, was the irrational, dark underbelly of the clean-cut utopian modernist enterprise. “Surreal Things: surrealism and design” – the new blockbuster show at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London – investigates the surrealist movement’s influence on architecture, fashion, jewellery, theatre and interior design. It shows the undeniable effect that these objects had on the contemporary aesthetic landscape.

From the outset, the relationship between surrealism and commerce was tense. Man Ray was left to exploit the commercial opportunities of fashion photography apparently without reprimand. But, for a purist and sometime communist such as Breton or the artist Louis Aragon – who later became a Stalinist – it was anathema that Max Ernst and Joan Miró should sully their hands to produce painted backdrops for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes production of Romeo and Juliet. Breton called Dalí “Avida Dollars” (a piquant acronym of his name) because of his evident delight in engaging with the commercial world. At least Dalí, unlike his rather more hypocritical compatriot Pablo Picasso, made no bones about it, exclaiming flamboyantly: “Picasso is a genius! Me too! Picasso is a Spaniard! Me too! Picasso is a communist! Me neither!”

Salvador Dalí Mae West Sofa
Salvador Dalí, Mae West Sofa

It was in collaboration with his friend the English eccentric and millionaire Edward James that Dalí set about designing surrealist objects such as his lobster telephones. James’s home, originally a shooting lodge designed by Sir Edwin Lut yens, became an idiosyncratic, surreal fantasy covered with purple stucco and filled with an uncanny juxtaposition of objects. It is perhaps a small blessing that Dalí failed in his desire to realise a room that pulsated “like the stomach of a sick dog”. One of his most famous pieces, the Mae West Lips Sofa, had appeared in a design for an apartment based on the actress’s face: a feminised interior in stark contrast to minimal modernist design. This gradual shift away from text and image towards the constructed object, which was driven by a desire to engage directly with the commercial world, is perfectly exemplified early in the exhibition by Man Ray’s photograph of a glamorous blonde model lying in a red-satin-lined wheelbarrow designed by Óscar Domínguez.

The approach to the first room at the V&A, through a pair of voluminous red drapes, feels like entering a dream. The womb-like space is altogether appropriate, because fantasy and sex were big with the surrealists, whether in the fetishised photographs of Hans Bellman’s disturbing doll constructs, Leonor Fini’s Corset Chair or Meret Oppenheim’s infamous 1936 fur-covered teacup, Object: le déjeuner en fourrure. (Sadly this is not in the exhibition, though her original beaver fur-and-metal bracelet, which prompted Picasso to remark that she could cover anything in fur, even a coffee cup, is on display.)

Elsa Schiaparelli Skeleton Dress
Elsa Schiaparelli, Skeleton Dress

Perhaps the idea that women were closer to “irrational” nature (something later much derided by feminists) led to this obsession with the female body. Paris shop window displays were a favourite source of surrealist imagery. So, too, was the mannequin, which embodied many of the contradictions of modern life, blurring the boundaries between the animate and inanimate, the human and the machine, the male and the female, the sexualised and the androgynous. Mannequins also existed on the interface between the body and fashion, where they could be manipulated and fetishised. The body united the physical and psychological spheres, allowing for sexual explorations of a kind that was considered completely modern. Without the surrealists, there surely would have been no Ziggy Stardust, no Boy George or Madonna.

Among the most disturbing objects on show at the V&A, displayed amid the more desirable fashion items such as Dalí and Schiaparelli’s shoe hat or Schiaparelli’s black suede gloves with red snakeskin nails, are her pair of suede boots and a coat trimmed with long black tresses of monkey fur that muddy the distinction between the human and the bestial, thinly disguising the (racist?) fascination with miscegenation made so popular through the Tarzan novels, first published in 1912.

A century on, it all looks interesting but oddly dated. Once upon a time, this arena of unfettered dreams and sexual desire must have seemed shocking, but it has been thoroughly absorbed into our sensually overloaded world. Only a couple of decades later, the surreal became available to any Tom, Dick or Harry, in the form of yellow submarines and girls in the sky with diamonds – for the next stop would be the drug culture.

Surreal Things surrealism and design at the V&A Museum, London until 22 July 2007

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2007

Image 2: The Menil Collection
Image 3: Gala Salvadore Dali Foundation
Image 4: Collection V&A

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Sam Taylor-Wood, Yes | No
White Cube London

Published in New Statesman

Art Criticism

A new show by Sam Taylor-Wood hints that there may yet be a serious artist
hiding behind the celebrity and glamour

Sam Taylor Wood Escape Artist
Escape Artist

Sam Taylor-Wood, now a fixture at glamorous London art-world parties, came from humble beginnings. She grew up on a Peabody estate and then a hippie commune in Crowborough, East Sussex, where the inhabitants wore orange robes and the cats ate out of the chip pan. Her biker father abandoned her mother, who disappeared shortly afterwards; Taylor-Wood glimpsed her in a house down the road, and only then realised she had moved in with another man. She was sucked into the whirlwind of the Young British Artists’ movement, when she fell in love with Jake Chapman (one half of the notorious Chapman brothers art duo, then a fellow student at Goldsmiths), and later married the old Etonian owner of the White Cube gallery, Jay Jopling, from whom she recently separated after 11 years. The opening of her current exhibition, Yes I No, was attended by an inevitable array of celebrities, including Guy Ritchie and Daniel Craig.

Her art draws on a powerful sense of loss, no doubt engendered by her fraught early years and her more recent struggles with cancer (which she has said made her want to “do everything, try everything, be everywhere”). But straddled across two sites, Yes I No also illustrates a tension at the centre of Taylor-Wood’s work: on the one hand, the shallow, glitzy world of fame, and on the other, the serious business of making art.

The first part, displayed in the Piazza in London’s Covent Garden, consists of two series of photographs: The Escape Artist and After Dark. The first shows the artist herself, her yoga-toned body in stylish Agent Provocateur vest and knickers and manicured toenails, suspended rag-doll-like from a bunch of coloured helium balloons. It is a trick, of course; she employed the expertise of an S&M specialist known as Mr Rope Knot, whose ties leave no marks, and whose ropes were digitally removed from the final prints.

In the second series a clown, complete with the obligatory grease paint, big nose and baggy trousers, looks melancholy in a variety of abandoned industrial buildings and under dripping railway arches. Even knowing that these works are in many ways autobiographical – the artist, we understand, is an escapologist refusing to be pinned down, and a sad entertainer – one feels manipulated by them rather than moved. They might have been shot for a Benetton ad; they deliver more style than substance.

This is not the first time such a charge has been levelled at Taylor-Wood. She has played into her reputation as a talented networker and self-promoter with works such as the Crying Men series, 2004, which featured celebrities weeping, and a video of a sleeping David Beckham that drew crowds of adoring women to the National Portrait Gallery. When she is not gazing at the stars, she often places her own body centre stage, with her trousers down in Fuck, Suck, Spank, Wank (1993), and wearing an expensive black trouser suit and holding a dead hare (Self-Portrait in a Single Breasted Suit with Hare, 2001).

Sam Taylor Wood Sigh

The second part of the exhibition, at the White Cube gallery in Mason’s Yard, St James’s, gives us a glimpse of quite a different kind of artist. Upstairs is Ghosts, a series of photographs taken around Haworth on the Yorkshire moors and inspired by Taylor-Wood’s reading of Wuthering Heights. She has caught the spirit of the novel in this wild, unpeopled landscape, where a solitary sheep shelters from the buffeting wind in a hollow by a stone wall. Not only that, but she has captured something of the brutality and awe that is the essence of romanticism. In a leafless tree, bent by the wind on the top of a hill, she has found an image that speaks eloquently not only of the destructive passions of Cathy and Heathcliff, but also communicates her own intimations of mortality.

The piàce de r´sistance, however, is Sigh, which had visitors clapping after each performance. In a darkened room, a circle of eight video screens show a conductor conducting an orchestra with no instruments. The music surrounds the viewers, inviting them to feel part of the performance. The eye is drawn to the bowing hands of the violinists and their accurate, sensitive fingering, to the pursed lips of the flautist whose every breath and swallow can be observed. We are reminded that it is not the instruments that make music, but the people who play them. This is a poignant warning that we cannot simply be defined by our outward trappings.

Sam Taylor-Wood Yes | No at White Cube and the Piazza London until 29 November 2008

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2008

Images © Sam Taylor-Wood 2008. Courtesy of White Cube.

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Turner and the Masters
Tate Britain

Published in New Statesman

Art Criticism

As arguably Britain’s greatest painter Joseph Mallord William Turner’s humble beginnings were not auspicious. His father, William Turner, was a barber, originally from Devon. His mother, Mary Marshall, came from a family of butchers and ended her life in the madhouse. Their home was Maiden Lane, a dark alley between the Strand and Covent Garden. Filled with muck from the market and the backwash from rudimentary sewers, its name was derived from the fact that it was a favoured hunt of prostitutes.

Turner Crossing the Brook 1851
Turner Crossing the Brook, 1851

The young Turner showed a precocious talent for drawing and his father was soon buttonholing his customers, claiming “my son, sir, is going to be a painter.” Displaying the boy’s drawings in his shop, he sold them for three shillings each. By the time Turner was twelve, he was well aware of his talent, was making money from his work, and spending much of his time down by the river studying boats and their rigging. From the beginning he was ambitious, extremely tidy and a hard worker. When one of Turner senior’s clients died leaving him a small legacy, he apprenticed his son to an architectural draughtsman. Short of stature, with a rough London accent that he never lost, and rather unprepossessing looks, Turner managed, nevertheless, to be accepted in 1789, at the age of fourteen, into the Royal Academy Schools, then at Somerset House. It was to be the beginning of a life-long association with the Academy where, in 1802, he would become an RA and, in 1807, Professor of Perspective.

There is a tendency to see Turner as a unique genius, the first great “modern” painter, which, indeed, in many ways he was, and to interpret much of what happened later in painting as his legacy. But from the first he was determined to pit himself against the greats of the past by entering into direct competition with artists he considered talented enough to be worthy rivals to his growing fame. He set out to build his reputation as an oil painter by throwing down a gauntlet to the old masters and producing works that could be displayed alongside theirs. There was something defiantly pugilistic in his approach. He quite simply wanted to be the best. He considered his main inspiration and rival to be the seventeenth-century landscape French painter Claude Lorraine. “Pure as Italian air, calm, beautiful and serene springs forward the works”, he once said admiringly, “and with them the name of Claude Lorraine”. Asked why he had burst into tears in front of Claude’s The Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba he answered: “Because I shall never be able to paint anything like that picture”.

Poussin The Deluge 1660-64 / Turner The Deluge, 1605
Poussin The Deluge, 1660-64 / Turner The Deluge, 1605

Turner was consciously staking a claim among the immortals. He did not simply want to be as good as them, he wanted to surpass them. He understood that the problem of modern art lay in the deepening of self-consciousness and the weight of the intimidating legacy of the past; a baton that would, later, be taken up again by Picasso and Francis Bacon in his re-workings of Vel´zquez.

Turner Regulas 1828
Turner Regulas, 1828

This exhibition gives an unprecedented opportunity to see Turner’s works alongside an array of masterpieces not only by Claude, but Canaletto, Titian, Aelbert Cuyp, Poussin, Rembrandt, Reubens, Jacob van Ruisdeal, Willem van de Velde, Veronsese, Watteau, Constable and R.P. Bonnington, and to understand his paintings as both acts of homage to these great masters, as well as a sophisticated form of art criticism. As one walks around there is a tendency to award points. Seven, say, to Poussin’s Winter or The Deluge, 1660-4 but nine to Turner’s dynamic painting of 1805, with its sweeping diagonals and bravura energy, on the same subject. Whereas when it comes to Turner’s 1803 painting of the Holy Family modelled on Titian’s The Virgin and Child in a Landscape with Tobias and the Angel, 1535-40 with its luminous Venetian reds and blues, one contemporary critic said of Turner’s murky brown version that he had “spoilt a very fine landscape by very bad figures”, whilst another simply dismissed it as “unworthy of his talents”.

It could be argued that when it comes to the figure, Turner comes off worst. His painting Jessica 1830, possibly inspired by Rembrandt’s tender and beautiful Girl at a Window, 1645, was described in the Morning Chronicle, 3 May 1830, as “a lady getting out of a large mustard-pot” because of the insistent passages of brilliant yellow. While William Wordsworth commented that “It looks to me as if the painter had indulged in raw liver until he was very unwell”.

Turner Depositing of John Bellini Three Pictures in La Chiesa Redentore, Venice 1841
Turner Depositing of John Bellini’s
Three Pictures in La Chiesa Redentore, Venice 1841

But turn to Turner’s seascapes and views of Venice and they are, in the true meaning of the word, sublime. Where Canaletto describes Venice in all its precise architectural detail, Turner, in his Depositing of John Bellini’s Three Pictures in La Chiesa Redentore, Venice 1841, renders it as a shimmering dream, closer to the magical visions conjured in Calvino’s Invisible Cities. While Claude gives us a sense of an important imperial trading hub in Seaport at Sunset, 1639, Turner, in his brazen borrowing for his own Regulus, 1828, creates, with his smeared white, blinding sun, something other worldly and pantheistic.

Turner also pitted himself against his contemporaries such as Thomas Girtin and Richard Parkes Bonnington. His answer to Bonnington’s French Coast with Fishermen, 1826, was Calais Sands, Low Water, Poissards Collecting Bait, 1830. With its fisherwomen, their skirts tucked up around their knees, working on the wide wet sands beneath a setting sun, it is, quite simply, sublime and secures Turner’s reputation as one of the greatest landscape painters of all time.

Turner and the Masters at Tate Britain until 31 January 2010

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2009Images © Courtesy of the Tate

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The Turner Prize 2007
Tate Britain

Published in New Statesman

Art Criticism

With its emphasis on the “young” and the “fresh”, the Turner Prize has pandered to disposable celebrity culture. It’s time to change the rules

Turner Prize 1984 - Malcolm Morley
Turner Prize 1984 – Malcolm Morley

Being asked to write about the Turner Prize is a bit of a poisoned chalice. To criticise Britain’s biggest prize for modern art is to risk aligning one self with the Daily Mail’s “call that art?” brigade. To defend it, on the other hand, is to endorse the shallow theoretical tosh that is served up to give the prize its supposed gravitas. With the short list for 2007 due to be announced in the coming week, it’s that time of year again, and the media machine is cranking into action. The Turner has become a triumph of publicity over substance; like contestants in the Big Brother house, it has become famous simply for being famous.

This year, the awards ceremony will be held in Liverpool for the first time, to coincide with the city’s European Capital of Culture celebrations for 2007-2008. It is hoped that the new location will give the tired prize a fillip by association. Perhaps the idea is also to escape the criticism that the Turner is stitched up by the metropolitan art mafia – though one suspects that they will all simply be despatched from the capital to Lime Street, with the principle of public input remaining just a charade. Being a judge has its own problems: last year, the journalist and jury member Lynn Barber revealed her misgivings about both the quality of the work and the judging process. And when that high priest of art criticism, the writer Robert Hughes, was asked if he would ever consider being a judge, his succinct “I’d rather fuck newts underwater” said all there was to say about his attitude to the prize (it might also have marked him out as a latecomer to the realms of performance art).

Turner Prize 1993 - Rachel Whiteread
Turner Prize 1993 – Rachel Whiteread

The problem with the Turner is embedded in its rules, which state that no artist can be nominated twice, and that the prize must go to an artist under the age of 50. According to the website for Channel 4, the former sponsor of the prize, the main criteria for judging are “freshness and originality”. This raises the question: Are freshness and originality virtues in their own right? Or do they need to be put to some good use? And why only artists under 50? Do the brain cells rot and ideas stop flowing on one’s 50th birthday? The truth is that the Turner Prize, and conceptual art in general, have become means for getting the visual arts into the news pages. Elephant dung, transvestite potters in pretty party dresses and sheds that turn into boats provide good copy for journalists and, therefore, encourage sponsors and ensure continued funding for the organiser of the prize, the Tate.

As such, judges have been hand-picked because they won’t rock the boat or challenge the bland consensus (the choice of Barber being an accidental exception). Looking back over some of the winners, who include Martin Creed, Simon Starling, Gillian Wearing and Steve McQueen, one wonders if this rather dreary list really represents the best British art of its day. Press, critics and curators all scurry to endorse each winner, fearful of pointing out that the new emperor is really stark bollock-naked.

Turner Prize 2003 - Grayson Perry
Turner Prize 2003 – Grayson Perry

The problem is that the whole circus endorses what Hughes calls “the modernist myth of continual renewal. You can’t just expect terrific artists to pop up on cue.” Most years, the Turner offers the mediocre masquerading as the significant. Which is not to say that there have been no serious winners in the past – Howard Hodgkin and Rachel Whiteread are two notable exceptions – but since the inception of the competition in 1984, it has lost aesthetic and philosophical credence by pandering to the next morning’s headlines.

Its most vociferous critics, the rather silly Stuckists, have cornered the market in Turner criticism. I have some sympathy with their call for “renewal of spiritual values for art, culture and society to replace the emptiness of postmodernism”. It’s just a shame that the alternative they offer is second-rate figurative painting. Such critics have their eyes tightly shut to any creative possibilities offered by the best conceptual art. The argument should not be about form, or the merits of painting versus conceptual art. Good art, real art, can be any of these things. What matters is passion and content, and the ideas behind much conceptual art are all too often intellectually half-baked.

In a world where global warming, the arming of new nuclear powers and the mass migration of economically impoverished cultures dominate the agenda, cynicism and indifference are no longer options. Somewhere in the 1980s, art lost its high-minded postwar moral agenda. It grew tired of seriousness. Feeling was too complicated and too demanding; being famous, as Andy Warhol testified, was so much more hip. With our senses dulled, the only art that could touch us was art that could shock, so along came portraits of Myra Hindley, sharks in formaldehyde and unmade beds. But shock has a narrow emotional range. Human society and the human psyche are diverse and complex; if art is to continue to have any meaning, it has to reflect this.

As long ago as 1966, the late Susan Sontag set out her stall in Against Interpretation, stating what she considered to be the function and purpose of art. She wrote that “what is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more … In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.” We have had decades of cynicism and irony, but art cannot survive on a diet of celebrity and solipsism. The time has come for a new seriousness.

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2007
Images maye subject to copyright

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Cy Twombly Tate Modern

Published in New Statesman

Art Criticism

Cy Twombly has been described as a graffiti artist, but that is to belittle his intuitive exploration of intellectual and emotional experience

In a recent article in the London Review of Books, Terry Eagleton wrote about the linguistic similarity between Samuel Beckett and Theodor Adorno. “What is most drastically impoverished in Beckett is language itself,” he wrote. “Adorno’s style reveals a similar austerity as each phrase is forced to work overtime to earn its keep … Like Beckett’s, Adorno’s is a language rammed up against silence, a set of guerrilla raids on the inarticulable.” For both these writers, the deficiencies and untruths of language had been revealed in the “crazed assurances of fascism and Stalinism”. Language itself had become discredited. Only what was indeterminate could in any way approach the truth. It was this that led to Beckett’s much-quoted remark about trying to fail better. His favourite word, apparently, was “perhaps”.

Cy Twombly Bacchus 2006
Bacchus, 2006

“Perhaps” might also be the favourite word of the American painter Cy Twombly, whose marks and expletives, handwritten quotations and dissolving textural pencil lines stutter across the surface of his paintings like signs in search of meaning. A form of visual poetry, reminiscent in its arcane mark-making of that of the Franco-Belgian artist Henri Michaux, his appropriation of calligraphy – a point where art and writing become indi visible – creates something new in the interstices between both. Twombly never asserts; rather, his paintings are an intuitive exploration. He is frequently described as a “graffiti” artist, but that is too narrow and speaks simply of a style rather than philosophical content. Language, and its inherent inability to articulate, are what concern him, as much as experiments in the application of paint.

For Twombly, just as for Beckett, there is a great compulsion to find a means of expression, but an awareness of the near impossibility of doing so. He once said of his work: “It’s not described, it’s happening … The line is the feeling.” Twombly’s paintings are essentially about pro cess, investigation and discovery, hesitant diagrams that attempt to chart intellectual and emotional experience.

Cy Twombly Empire of Flora 1961
Empire of Flora, 1961

“And what is it you do?” Jackson Pollock asked the younger painter on each of the four occasions that they met in 1956, when Pollock was considered to be the high priest of modern American painting. Twombly’s enormous body of work, with its scratches, scribbles and frenetic lines, can now be seen as a subversion of the dominance of abstract expressionism and Pollock’s macho loops and swirls of paint. Here was the artist not so much as hero, but as errant schoolboy, scribbling in lessons and writing “fuck” on the schoolyard wall. Twombly understood that in the modern world there can be no dogmatic certainty, just as Adorno had asserted the impossibility of lyrical poetry after the Holocaust.

Born in Lexington, Virginia in 1928, Twombly studied in Boston, Washington, Lexington and then New York. It was there that he met Robert Rauschenberg at the Art Students League in 1950. Later he attended the influential Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where he studied under Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell. A number of things led to his interest in calligraphy: the influence of Motherwell, and that of the surrealists, with their investigations into automatic writing and the nature of chance, along with his conscription as a cryptographer into the US army, where he studied and deciphered code.

Influenced by his travels in North Africa, the early paintings in this major retrospective of Twombly’s work at Tate Modern, such as Min-Oe, emphasise a fascination with architectonic forms as well as classical, archaeological and tribal artefacts. They recall the work of artists such as Jean Dubuffet and Alberto Giacometti. His untitled sculptures – makeshift bits of wood lashed together with strips of dirty cloth and string – look like African fetishes, but show the influence of Rauschenberg, that guru of detritus, with whom he travelled during 1952-53.

Cy Twombly Tiznit 1953
Tiznit, 1953

In the spring of 1957, Twombly left America and set sail once again for Italy, leaving the citadel of modernist painting for a world steeped in ancient mythology and struggling with the aftermath of war. White and bleached, his paintings from this period are full of the effects of the harsh Mediterranean light. His Poems to the Sea series, executed in a single day in 1959, is crammed with classical and poetic references. “Whiteness,” said Twombly of these spare, lyrical works that elide calligraphy, poetry and painting, “can be the classic state of the intellect, or a neo-Romantic area of remembrance.” There is an austere purity to all this classical whiteness as his snaking pencil lines, erased by the smears of white paint, unravel into a syntax of approximate meaning.

Later, as he worked from a studio in the hot summer streets of Rome, in a part of the city frequented by prostitutes and petty thieves, his paintings became more scatological and transgressive, with scribbled genitals and orgasmic ejaculations of paint. His 1961 Ferragosto series, named after a Roman fertility festival, seems to leak with putrefaction and overripeness, the canvases smeared with the blood and faeces of some ancient Dionysian rite. As Roland Barthes observed of Twombly, he injected an aspect of the aberrant by “deranging the morality of the body”. In contrast, the Bolsena paintings (1969), with their manic scribble of apparently symbolic signs, their scattered vectors and meaningless measurements, look like the crazed workings of some mad scientist who is determined to find order in chaos. Embedded in these works is the feeling that the struggle between opposing forces – reason and experience, Eros and Thana tos – is never far away.

The frantic sense of working out becomes ever more pared down in his Treatise on the Veil, 1970. The initial influence for these huge paintings came from an Eadweard Muybridge photograph that Rauschenberg gave Twombly, which apparently showed a bride passing in front of a train. Finding in the mid-1960s that he was being dismissed as outmoded by the cognoscenti of the New York art world, he violently changed trajectory to embrace the grid, that archetypal emblem of modernist painting, along with more stringent minimalist forms. These works look like enormous blackboards covered with sparse diagrammatic rectangles, and imply some sort of geometric calculation, or even the storyboards for a film.

Cy Twombly Treatise on the Veil (Second Version) 1970
Treatise on the Veil (Second Version), 1970

A graffito mark, according to the critic Rosland Krauss, is “a registration of absence”. It is the trace that remains as imprint and aftermath. What is left by the presence of the person who has done the tracing is a residue, or, as Beckett might have implied, a pregnant silence. In the beautiful and melancholy Nini’s Paintings, 1971, an elegy to the wife of Twombly’s gallerist, his tumbling seascapes of swirling marks stutter towards articulation only to dissolve into the incoherence of grief. In contrast, the rich reds and dark blues and greens, the thick impasto and rolling brush marks of his 1980s paintings of the sea, based on the legend of Hero and Leander, seem to return to Turneresque experimentation with the expressive possibilities of paint. This watery theme is taken up in the astonishing suite of nine green paintings produced for the 1988 Italian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale that seem to fuse Monet, abstract expressionism and the baroque, in an almost mimetic evocation of the watery canals of Venice, with their deep, dark shadows cast by the crumbling Renaissance palaces.

Cy Twombly Quattro Stagioni
Quattro Stagioni

The cycles The Four Seasons, 1993-95, painted in Twombly’s mid-sixties, come at the end of the exhibition. They explode with intensity, like a great choral work, assaulting the senses with their sensual colour and scribbled fragments from the poets Rainer Maria Rilke and Giorgos Seferis. The two series, one from New York’s Museum of Modern Art (1993-94) and one from the Tate collection (1994-95), each comprising four great paintings, have been reunited here for the first time. But nothing quite prepares one for the shock of the last room, with its orgiastic swirls of red paint that loop and ooze across the canvas, like the blood from some debauched, bacchanalian sac rifice. From the near silences of Cy Twombly’s early monochromatic works, where marks stutter towards meaning and articulation, the exhibition ends with a great crescendo of euphoric, orgiastic and frenzied release.

With his pimento-shaped face, reminiscent of an overstuffed hamster, Francis Bacon appears in photos taken by his contemporaries and in a famous portrait by his friend Lucian Freud – stolen in 1988 never to be seen again – as one of the most recognisable artists of the 20th century. Doyen of Soho drinking clubs, he led a reprobate life that has been well documented, from an Anglo-Irish childhood, with a repressive father who threw him out for showing an overdeveloped penchant for stable grooms and for his mother’s underwear, to his sadomasochistic love affairs with numerous men of the demi-monde.

Cy Twombly at Tate Modern until 14 September 2008

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2008
Images © Cy Twombly. Courtesy of the Tate

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Unfolding the Aryan Paper
BFI Southbank Gallery

Published in New Statesman

Art Criticism

Can you treat the Holocaust as an appropriate subject for contemporary art?
Not if you use it to give weight to an otherwise thin idea.

In 1976, the late film-maker Stanley Kubrick travelled to New York to try to interest the Jewish novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer in writing an original screenplay for a project on which he was working, about the Holocaust. Not a Holocaust survivor himself, Singer declined, saying he did not know the first thing about it.

Unfolding the Aryan Papers

The project was shelved until Kubrick read Louis Begley’s short novel Wartime Lies, about a young Jewish boy and his aunt who manage to escape from Poland by pretending to be Catholics. In 1993, Kubrick made a deal with Warner Brothers to make a film called Aryan Papers (a reference to the documentation required to fend off deportation to the concentration camps). The film was developed and went into pre-production. Sets were located, costumes were designed, and Julia Roberts and Uma Thurman were considered for the main role of the aunt, Tanya. Eventually Kubrick settled on the Dutch actress Johanna ter Steege. Yet the film was never made.

Being of Jewish-European origin, Kubrick had been fascinated by the Holocaust his whole life, but was extremely sceptical as to whether any film could do it justice. When Frederic Raphael, who worked with him on the script of Eyes Wide Shut, suggested the subject of Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s List, Kubrick’s acerbic response was: “Think that’s about the Holocaust? That was about success, wasn’t it? The Holocaust is about six million people who get killed. Schindler’s List is about 600 who don’t. Anything else?”

Kubrick, like many Jewish thinkers and artists of his generation, had a very real anxiety about how to represent the horror of mass extermination artistically, echoing the German critic Theo­dor Adorno’s belief that to write poetry after the Holocaust was barbaric. Kubrick, according to his widow, sank into a depression while working on Aryan Papers. He also learned that Steven Spielberg had started working on Schindler’s List. He therefore shelved the project and concentrated instead on Eyes Wide Shut.

Unfolding the Aryan Papers

Now the British duo of Jane and Louise Wilson, who were nominated for the Turner Prize in 1999, have made a new work – Unfolding the Aryan Papers – based on research they conducted during a residency at University of the Arts London’s Stanley Kubrick Archive. The Wilson twins have worked together for more than 20 years on research-based projects that have focused on, among other subjects, the dilapidated former Stasi headquarters in Berlin, Greenham Common and, in their “New Brutalists” exhibition, the murky waters of colonialism. Using film, photography and sculpture, they have created theatrical and atmospheric installations that investigate the darker side of human experience.

This gallery installation concentrates on newly shot footage of Johanna ter Steege and stills from period images of the Warsaw Ghetto and other Holocaust images drawn from the pre-production period of Aryan Papers. The film opens with a shot of the back of ter Steege’s blonde head. The voice-over relates her experience of working with Kubrick, of how he made a point of observing the way she stood and her gestures, especially those of her hands. She recounts how he seemed to have something definite in mind and was looking for not just an actress, but “a human being”.

Shot in the faded 1930s grandeur of Hornsey Town Hall, with its marble main staircase, brass banisters, heavy wooden panelling and deco glass lamps, the Wilson twins’ film concentrates on shots of ter Steege standing in the empty corridors and offices of this rather austere bureaucratic building, either in her petticoat or dressed in period costume.

Unfolding the Aryan PapersUnfolding the Aryan Papers

But what does the piece amount to, beyond the pleasure of the elegant cinematography and watching an attractive older woman standing around in some nice clothes in an interesting building? The Wilson twins say that it is not really about the Holocaust, as they are “not qualified to make a film about something so dark”, but rather the story of a woman and an actress, and the narrative of a film that was never made.

Yet there is something uncomfortable about this work, as if the Holocaust could be reduced to a period backdrop against which to make a piece of contemporary art. Although Kubrick’s motivation for dropping the original film is not completely clear, it is obvious that he took the ethical problems concerning this historical subject very seriously. Johanna ter Steege may have been resurrected from relative obscurity by the project, but the ghosts of millions of women lost to the gas chambers hover in the wings of the film, unacknowledged and unseen.

Adorno worried that attempting to condense the incomprehensible suffering of the Holocaust into a few lines of poetry would “violate the inner incoherence of the event, casting it into a mould too pleasing or too formal”, and considered silence as the only appropriate response to the tragedy. The Holocaust is one of the darkest failings of the human imagination. In Unfolding the Aryan Papers, a fairly thin idea is, with postmodern insouciance, given gravitas by association, diminishing this livid stain on our history to a stage set for a fashion show, and betraying those voiceless dead.

Unfolding the Aryan Paper at the BFI Southbank Gallery, London 15 June to 5 September 2010
Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2010
Images © Jane and Louise Wilson

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