Art Criticism

Artes Mundi 3 Wales Inernational Arts Prize

Published in The Independent

Lida Abdul White House 2005
Lida Abdul White House, 2005

The biennial Artes Mundi, the Welsh international art exhibition and prize, has become a hub of serious contemporary art. This third competition is no exception.

Lida Abdul was born in Kabul in 1973 and fled after the Soviet invasion, living in Germany and India before moving to the United States. Her lyrical films, set in the rocky wastelands of Afghanistan, use damaged architecture as a poignant metaphor for human destruction and suffering. Brick Sellers of Kabul shows a line of windswept boys selling bricks gleaned from ruins to build new buildings.

In contrast, the Portuguese artist Vasco Araújo employs a mix of media to investigate different aspects of the human condition. Porcelain figurines from junk shops have been placed in museum cases alongside texts from the Marquis de Sade, in a sort of mock-salon setting, to talk about incest; meanwhile, a video shows a young girl in a white dress playing with dusty bones in a deserted children’s sanatorium that dates from Salazar’s regime, in an evocation of lost histories.

Vasco Araújo Hereditas
Vasco Araújo Hereditas

The most knowing of the works is one by the young Romanian artist Mircea Cantor. His film, Deeparture, depicts an empty gallery in which a wolf and a deer circle each other suspiciously. Making reference to Joseph Beuys’ notorious performance with coyotes, it subverts expectations of what would normally be a predatory scene.

Another of the nominees is the Scottish collaboration Dalziel and Scullion, who use photography, video and sculpture to explore the relationship between humanity and the natural environment, and encourage the viewer to experience nature as if they were part of the flora and fauna.

A degree of humour is provided by the Indian artist NS Harsha, whose six-panel painting Come Give Us a Speech looks like an Indian miniature writ large. Not only does it contain details of daily life but, on closer inspection, witty references to world events and art history.

NS Harsha Come give us a speech 2007-08
NS Harsha Come give us a speech, 2007-08

Abdoulaye Konaté was born and raised in Mali, then went to Cuba to train as an abstract painter. Now, he has turned to making large-scale textiles as a pragmatic response to the availability of cotton and the difficulty of obtaining oil or acrylic. Using traditional materials with a sophisticated eye, he brings together both Western aesthetics and local concerns.

Susan Norrie is an Australian artist whose powerful video work, HAVOC, depicts a town in East Java made uninhabitable by a ceaseless, and apparently unstoppable, geyser of hot mud, which appeared after drilling for gas and oil. The work melds documentary footage with large videos that borrow from Romanticism and myth.

Elsewhere, the work of Rosângela Rennó from Rio de Janeiro explores people from the margins of society through old images gleaned from newspapers, police files and family albums. Her installation – made up of 39 photographs of Cuban newlyweds from the Eighties – turns an intimate moment into something staged.

From the outset, Artes Mundi decided to celebrate artists whose work discussed the human condition. Such a baggy definition might have been risky. In fact, it has allowed a broad spectrum of mostly emerging artists to make work that is brave, subtle and demanding, and that addresses human truths and political dilemmas free from easy art-world clichés. An overall winner for the £40,000 prize will be selected from the shortlist by an international panel.

Artes Mundi 3 at the National Museum, Cardiff until 8 June 2008
Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2008
Image 1: © Lida Abdul
Image 2: © Vasco Araújo
Image 3: © NS Harsha

Published in The Independent

Art Criticism

Gillian Ayres
Interview

Published in The Independent

Vital, anarchic, bold and immoderate Gillian Ayres is Britain’s grande dame of Abstraction, says Sue Hubbard

 

Gillian Ayres
Gillian Ayres

When I last stayed with Gillian Ayres at her home in Cornwall one of her dogs peed on the carpet before dinner and then died in the night. When I came down in the morning it was lying in the wheelbarrow, in her pretty three-bears cottage garden, stiff with rigour mortis. It is sometimes hard to believe that some of the best-loved contemporary British paintings have been produced at the end of this wooded lane in this warmly chaotic milieu full of books and pets. Now there are fewer animals and a cleaner, who also happens to be a painter, controls some of the domestic muddle. And there are no more cigarettes. It used to be forty a day untipped Senior Service. But then there was the heart attack and she was forced to be sensible and moderate.

Moderation is not an Ayres characteristic. Even as a child growing up in bourgeois Barnes she was, by her own admission, “a brat”. When she was 10 she rode round on her bike collecting bomb cartridges, walking back, one day, through Barnes High Street with an unexploded shell. In her early teens she announced to the headmistress at St. Paul’s Girls’ School, where Shirley Williams was among her best friends, that she didn’t believe in God and would no longer be going to prayers. At 16 she walked out of her exams and threatened that if she was not allowed to go to art school she’d run away to Scotland. Her kindly but slightly bemused parents agreed; maybe, she says, they thought it would help her choose nice curtain fabrics. Though her headmistress warned of “the sort of men you get in art schools.” Nevertheless she enrolled at Camberwell. To start off with her mother took her on the bus. It might, she thinks, have been different if she’d been a boy.

Born in 1930 she is, today, one of the grandes dames of British painting. Highly intelligent, feisty and fiercely independent her compulsive creative energy and generosity are reflected in her lyrical yet muscular works. Staying with her in 1997 at The British School in Rome when she held the Sargent Fellowship, I was struck not only by her knowledge of art history but also by the breadth of her reading. She is a committed modernist, part of a generation that, after the war, subscribed to the possibility of a ‘brave new world’, to the affirming power of a creativity based on a restless and vigorous questioning. She has always eschewed fashion and “followed her nose”, believing in the humanistic value of painting and is also deeply committed to the intellectual and emotional freedoms – a legacy perhaps of 50s Existentialism – inherent in abstraction. Having a conversation with her is like inhabiting one of her canvases. Ideas and words flow and swirl in all directions. You think you are in the equivalent of a red square only to find she has plopped you down in a blue arc.

In 1943, while still at school she discovered monographs on van Gogh, Cezanne and Monet and thought “my god, so this is what painting can do.” In those days there was huge suspicion of ‘modern art’ and she was desperate to find people who shared her interest. This she did at Camberwell where demobbed servicemen, such as Terry Frost and Harry Mundy (later her husband) were studying as mature students. Ayres temperament soon led her to reject the muddy English colours and “the measuring thing” of the dominant Euston Road School aesthetic. When Coldstream one day remarked condescendingly in her presence that “Matisse can pass me by” she answered with characteristic brio “He may pass you by but he won’t pass me by”. As she says, she could be an argumentative brat. But it was her involvement with the AIA Gallery, which in 1951 mounted the first post-war exhibition devoted to abstraction with artists such as Hepworth, Roger Hilton and Victor Passmore and her discovery of American Abstract Expressionism, of Pollock and Rothko, that was to define her own idiosyncratic visual language. She experimented with Riplon, a household paint, and other ‘non-art’ materials, working on hardboard to create an abstraction where not only the visible traces of her actions but the characteristics of the material itself were apparent. It was around the time she was commissioned to make a mural for South Hampstead High School for Girls that she also started to paint on the floor pouring and tipping paint in pools of colour. She had certainly seen Hans Namuth’s famous photo of Pollock dripping paint but was, at this point, not that familiar with his work. But Ayres was interested in something deeper than mere experimentation. She was interested in visual truth. She is not an intellectual aesthetician; her influences are other painters such as Titian, Rubens or Turner and her love of colour and light, which she appropriates from the natural world to create works full of movement and energy like polychromatic jewels.

Elements in her paintings – she later returned to oils – often resemble natural objects such as stars or leaves, petals and moons. But it is not nature she is attempting to paint but a comparable feeling of pleasure and awe evoked through the paint itself. She works intuitively, creating arcs with the sweep of an arm, pulling her fingers through the thick paint. She also spends a great deal of time looking and this visual intelligence is translated into the variations of light and colour, the vitality of movement that characterises her work. Despite ill health she paints ceaselessly when not rushing around making wonderful meals for family and friends. While I was with her the papers were full of the New York disaster and talk of impending war and there was much discussion about moral certainties and the role and value of art. Yet for her painting is about the fact of being alive. The very act of ‘doing’, the endless intuitive creative search, the “condensation of sensation to perception” that can be shared between artist and viewer, is utterly life affirming. Her work is, like her, vital, anarchic, bold and generous spirited. In the end, she says, “The act of painting is an act of belief.”

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2001
Image © Roger Mayne

Published in The Independent

Art Criticism

Gillian Ayres
Paintings and Works on Paper
Alan Cristea Gallery, London

Published in The Independent

There is no mistaking a Gillian Ayres painting. You enter a room and there it is like a voluptuous jazz singer in mid-riff, drawing you in with its improvisations, its loops and swirls of melodic colour. Gillian Ayres is, along with Sandra Blow, Prunella Clough and Bridget Riley, one of our most significant post-war woman abstract painters; having said that she is probably one of the most significant British abstract painters. Part of a generation of women artists for whom feminism was not a debate, for whom it was simply painting that mattered. In a hard drinking, male dominated art world they just got on with it, staking out their claims based solely on talent and determination. In the last three decades she has, regardless of the vagaries of fashion, produced a body of work that with its loosely biomorphic forms and thick gloopy paint, reveals what it is to be a sensual, sentient being alive to the vividness of the visual world.

Gillian Ayres Piper at the Gates of Dawn 2007
Piper at the Gates of Dawn, 2007

I first met her in 1984 and, as a young critic, was rather scared of her reputation but found a shy, feisty, kind, self-deprecating, witty and wonderfully knowledgeable painter. Born in 1930 she attended St. Paul’s Girls School, where her best friend was Shirley Williams, then went on to Camberwell College of Art. Now despite a degree of ill health she has produced, in two years, a glowing body of new work which is among the most vivacious and exciting she has done yet.

The 1950s saw her closely involved with the leading British abstract artists of her day, such as Roger Hilton, but she was soon seduced by European tachism and American abstract Expressionism, for a time following Pollock’s gestural involvement with the canvas by painting flat on the floor. She has been through a number of styles, all essentially abstract, but it was in the 80s that her work really began to glow. Like some enormous firework display, where by accident the whole box had been let off at once, her paintings were a wealth of stars, loops, zigzags and rainbows.

Gillian Ayres Tender is the Night 2006
Tender is the Night, 2006

Now she has moved on again. She has always insisted that she is an entirely abstract painter but recently she has allowed subtly figurative elements to re-enter her work. There are fronds and seed heads, leaves and hearts all embedded in a marvellous cacophony of vertiginous loops and swirls. It is as though she is so engaged with the actual world that she can’t quite keep it out. And the colour? Well the colour is sublime. A strong black, mottled with red, abuts a line of umber, which then moves into a swirl of fleshy pink, which wriggles its way into an area of crimson that flows into a wave of orange that has been placed next to an amoeboid patch of purple, in her large canvas Maritsa. And so it goes on in painting after painting. There are lozenges and ribbons of colour that, of course, are reminiscent of Matisse or Howard Hodgkin. But they are never simply decorative, for to stand in front of these works, particularly the gem like carborundum etchings painted by hand, where a blue and vibrant red bleed into the surrounding yellow with bravura confidence, is like listening to Beethoven’s Symphony no 9 in D minor, Ode to Joy.

Sadness and melancholy are so often the stuff of art. What is so rare about Gillian Ayres’s work is that it is about the life force. Her titles, such as Tender is the Night and Piper at the Gates of Dawn, reveal her love of literature and poetry. So it is, perhaps, not inappropriate that this wonderfully affirming work should remind me of the lines of the great American poet, Walt Whitman, who wrote out the sheer exuberance and love of life “I celebrate myself, and sing myself, and what I assume you shall assume, for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”

Gillian Ayres Paintings and Works on Paper 2005-7 at Alan Cristea Gallery, London from 17 May to 16 June 2007
Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2007

Published in The Independent

Art Criticism

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

Published in The Independent

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

Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion were painted over the course of two weeks in 1944 in the ground floor flat at 7 Cromwell Place, South Kensington, which had once been the studio of the artist John Everett Millais. During the day the converted billiard room served as Bacon’s studio, and at night as an illicit casino.

Bacon recalled that at the time he was drinking heavily and that he painted the studies in an alcoholic haze. Later he was to admit that he hardly knew what he was doing, though he believed that alcohol had loosened his style. Yet, despite this unpromising genesis, the triptych of three writhing, anthropomorphic figures, with their featureless, scarcely human faces contorted into what might be either pain or exquisite ecstasy, set against a background of visceral oranges, reds and blacks, marks a watershed in British painting.

Bacon had been painting the Crucifixion since 1933, commissioned by his then patron, Eric Hall, but he considered the works unsuccessful and destroyed them, and, for a while, abandoned painting. When he did return to the subject of the Crucifixion 11 years later he was influenced by his reading of Aeschylus’s savage drama The Oresteia (itself a trilogy) which tells the tale of the curse of the House of Atreus and the pursuit, by the avenging Furies (or Eumenides), of those responsible for murder. Generally considered to be his first masterwork, Bacon was at some pains to suppress the showing of any paintings that pre-dated the Three Studies.

Executed in oil and pastel and, for economy, on light Sundeala boards rather than canvas, Bacon’s Eumenides are barely recognisable as human figures, for they have no eyes but only gaping, silently screaming mouths. The creature on the left, seated on a table of sorts, is the most recognisably human. Partially draped in a length of cloth, this bent form, with its hunched white shoulders, its stumpy, malformed arms and bowed head topped with a mop of dark hair, might be a mourner at some unnamed wake, while that in the central panel, with its grimacing mouth set directly into its elongated neck, is blindfolded by a white cloth – a motif taken, perhaps, from Matthias Grnewald’s Mocking of Christ – and resembles some large, flightless bird. The figure on the right appears to have most of its upper face missing. Its head is thrown back, its mouth stretched open to reveal its teeth, as if in the grips of some bestial orgasmic spasm.

The heads of all three figures point downwards, following a series of converging lines that radiate out from the central plinth and imply a room or an enclosed space. The mood is one of bleak isolation and violent angst. This work is to painting what Sartre’s Huis Clos is to literature; a paean to existential despair.

This is also a Crucifixion with a difference, for there is no evidence, not even a shadow, of the actual event. No trace of Christ or his cross, though Bacon did say in a letter in 1959 that Three Studies were, “intended to [be] use[d] at the base of a large Crucifixion which I may still do”. Yet how genuine this remark was is hard to gauge from the bleakly nihilistic non-believer who once said, “I think of life as meaningless; but we give it meaning during our own existence …” “we are born and we die, but in between we give this purposeless existence a meaning by our drives.”

Distortion and fragmentation are the tools that Bacon used to explore these elemental states, for he was at enormous pains to eradicate what he saw as any figurative illustration. What he wanted to convey was something visceral, a presence beyond mere likeness; of beings controlled by chthonic urges and base instincts, the Dionysian Calibans of human existence rather than the Apollonian Ariel’s; his territory was what Freud would have called the id.

The sense of futility that Bacon was trying to capture is not surprising, given that it was 1944, and that rumours of the Nazi death-camps had begun to leak out. Such nihilism is also present in much of the work of TS Eliot. Bacon had come to know Aeschylus through Eliot’s 1939 play, The Family Reunion, in which the central character, Harry, is haunted by “the sleepless hunters/ that will not let me sleep.” Here the Furies embody the guilt and remorse felt by Harry, who harbours a dark secret.

Like many other artists and writers of the early 20th century, Bacon had read Nietzsche, and shared something of his hypothesis of “a strong pessimism”. He had been particularly attracted to The Birth of Tragedy. Nietzsche’s passionate rejection of Christianity, and his passion for life resonated with Bacon, who said: “… you can be optimistic and totally without hope. One’s basic nature is totally without hope, and yet one’s nervous system is made out of optimistic stuff.”

The American critic, Donald Kuspit, thought Bacon’s figures were “sick with death – not necessarily literal death but rather the feeling of being nothing.” Their loneliness, he suggested, depicted a “general sense of oblivion.”

Bacon had always been fascinated with images of the mouth, in particular diseased mouths, after he found a second-hand book in which these were illustrated in a series of coloured plates. He spoke of “the glitter and colour that comes from the mouth”, and said that he “always hoped in a sense to be able to paint the mouth like Monet painted a sunset.” He was also taken with a photograph by the Surrealist J-A Boiffard in the radical magazine, Documents, in which the editor, the French writer and philosopher of the abject, Georges Bataille, had written a short text on La Bouche. Bataille rejected traditional literature and considered that the ultimate aim of all intellectual, artistic or religious activity should be the annihilation of the rational individual in a violent, transcendental act of communion.

For Bacon, as for Bataille, the open, gaping, screaming wound of the mouth expressed something of our most intense emotional experiences and brought us close to our bestial selves. The linking of the noble and the base, of man and beast so as to blur the distinction between them, was part of Bataille’s attack on the “idealist deception” that man practices upon himself. The open mouth of Bacon’s right-hand figure ends in a savage, snarling, snout of teeth. For the promiscuously gay and sadomasochistically inclined Bacon the mouth had obvious sexual connotations. He was also, almost certainly, thinking of the scene in Battleship Potemkin where the wounded nursemaid stands screaming on the Odessa steps; in addition to making a reference to the despairing mother in Poussin’s Massacre of the Innocents.

First shown at the Lefevre Gallery in 1945, the triptych caused a sensation. The critic John Russell was shocked by “images so unrelievedly awful that the mind shut with a snap at the sight of them. Their anatomy was half-human, half- animal…” Yet by 1971 he was able to write, “there was painting in England before the Three Studies, and painting after them, and no one… can confuse the two.” More than 60 years later it has still not lost any of its power.

About the Artist

Francis Bacon was born in Dublin in 1909 of English parents, the second of five children. He was asthmatic and had no conventional schooling. In 1925 his father threw him out for wearing his mother’s clothes. In London he worked as a decorator and began to paint. In 1936 he submitted work to the International Surrealist exhibition but was rejected as “not sufficiently surreal”. Between 1941-4 he destroyed all his work, and was pronounced unfit for military service. In 1945 he resumed painting. In 1953 Three Studies was acquired by the Tate. In 1955 he had his first retrospective at the ICA. In 1960 he had his first exhibition at Marlborough Fine Art, London. In the early 1960s he and George Dyer became lovers and he painted Three Figures in a Room.

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2007
Image © Estate of Francis Bacon. Courtesy of the Tate

Published in The Independent

Art Criticism

Andrey Bartenev
Disco-Nexion
Riflemaker London

Published in The Independent

Riflemaker, London

The old gun-makers of Soho are probably turning in their graves. For in the window of Riflemaker, a former gun shop in Beak Street, is a psychedelic installation by one of Russia’s campest artists. Queues formed outside last summer’s Russian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale to see Andrey Bartenev’s coloured lake of 50 LED mirrored light spheres where the message “lost connection” circled in endless orbit.
Andrey Bartenev Disco-Nexion
Disco-Nexion

In Soho this has been “remixed/remodelled” by the artist with the words “disco” and “nexion”. Enclosed in a “glass discotheque” of fairground mirrors, this kinetic colour field of lights appears infinite as it bleeds into the darkening Dickensian street and on to the surrounding buildings.

Embedded within each sphere is a tiny heart, “to symbolise the frustration that awaits us all in this world of virtual and passive communication”. And it does, indeed, capture something of the loneliness of the dance floor, where revellers dance together yet somehow remain alone and disconnected; as a metaphor for the alienation of techno-culture it works rather well.

Inside the gallery this mood is echoed in the three TV monitors Disco-Nexion and Disco-Nexion Red and Blue (the titles are borrowed from Krzysztof Kieslowski’s French trilogy of films Trois Couleurs)

Born in 1969 in Norilsk, reputedly a bleak filthy city, in Russia’s Arctic Circle, Bartenev must have had a hard childhood. His grandparents were apparently exiled to this most northerly city for some minor misdemeanour. A psychoanalyst would presumably have little difficulty in understanding his love of display and excess against such a background.

Andrey Bartenev Disco-Nexion
Disco-Nexion

As a student he attended the Krasnodar Institute of Arts where he studied stage design. Since then he has worked in every medium from graphic art to painting and from three-dimensional sculpture to performance art – including a performance with burlesque dancer Dita von Teese – and one with the theatre director Robert Wilson.

With his penchant for the enigmatic and the kitsch, Bartenev seems to fit the bill as the former Soviet Union’s answer to Andy Warhol. “If I weren’t an artist,” he has said, “I would want to be a kind of dancing pianist.

When I’m not creating art, I enjoy swimming in the pool at night. People who know me best might describe me as a Russian from the Moon. They might be surprised to learn that I’m from Venus.”

His collages such as And like Miso Soup, constructed meticulously of hand-cut images from sources as diverse as culinary and porn magazines, are an eccentric mix of geometric patterns of pink and green and orange.

Andrey Bartenev Disco-Nexion
Disco-Nexion

In I’m from another world and everything passes me by, a strange shamanic priestess with a feathered headdress stands amid rows of domestic clutter of shower heads, sprockets and Hoover nozzles next to a rank of soap powder boxes unbelievably called New Abracadabra.

Other collages have been worked into light boxes. Dressed in an exotic piece of head gear, Nick Kamen of Levi ad fame has been collaged to a green rectangle from which sprout a pair of woman’s legs in gold sandals. The result is rather like a gay grasshopper lost in a swirly op-art background. In this essentially camp world of spectacle it’s as if Disney has had a run in with Russian Constructivism.

With London friends such as Zandra Rhodes and Andrew Logan, Bartenev has plenty of chances to be outrageous. But he does seem genuinely to want, in this commodified world, to be iconoclastic and avant-garde.

It’s not that he really has much to say, but that you can’t help but enjoy the way that he says what he does. It’s no surprise to learn, therefore, that his life’s philosophy is “to laugh while your organs allow you to”.

Andrey Bartenev Disco-Nexion at Riflemaker, London until 16 February 2008
Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2008
Images © Andrey Bartenev 2008

Published in The Independent

Art Criticism

Jordan Baseman
The History of Existentialism

Published in The Independent

Wigmore Fine Art, London

Jordan Baseman, Untitled (Hackney Hospital), 1995
Jordan Baseman, Untitled (Hackney Hospital), 1995

Wanting to make the grand millennial statement must be tempting. But it’s probably better resisted. Jordan Baseman is an artist I’ve always rather enjoyed. I remember a piece, some years ago, made of black latex and huge dressmaker’s pins. It resembled a sado-masochist’s lavatory brush crossed with a fox’s tail. It was its witty ambiguity that made it appealing. Poignant, too, was a piece shown in 1995 at the abandoned psychiatric hospital in Hackney. A rack of children’s blue school shirts, each with a hallmark tuft of hair, stood in mute isolation. Neither work attempted “the big statement” and was all the better for it. Meaning was fluid and the viewer left to fill in the gaps. But “The History of Existentialism” aims at the big theme. (And what bigger than the end of a millennium?) But it comes across as rather contrived. Existentialism is a loaded word, conjuring intense Sixth Form debates on Sartre and the meaning of life while being cool in Juliette Greco black. Here Baseman leaves us in no doubt as to his theme with a single slide projecting the words “THE END” just above the skirting board. In the basement, three video monitors show a McDonald’s paper cup blowing in an anonymous industrial landscape (the evils of capitalism?), a mangy old crow pecking in a park (ecological devastation, perhaps?) and a defunct fountain in a run-down urban locality over which the words of a lullaby are played (urban decline and the collapse of rooted society?). Next to these is “a modified carbon dioxide dispenser, its tubes ready for insertion into the nostrils” – necessary, no doubt, as we gasp our last, hurtling towards the end of history, and a bottle of sulphuric acid, which sits ominously on a large wooden table, presumably in case we don’t think it’s worth it and want out.

Jordan Baseman The History of Existentialism at Wigmore Fine Art, London until 14 Jan 2000
Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 1999

Published in The Independent

Art Criticism

Sandra Blow
Space & Matter
Tate St Ives

Published in The Independent

She came, she saw, she painted it in lots of blobs Veteran abstract artist Sandra Blow has had a long love affair with St Ives. She confesses all to Sue Hubbard

Sandra Blow Space & Matter 1959
Space & Matter, 1959

On a Sunday it takes seven hours to get from Paddington to St. Ives by train. A reminder of how far away both geographically and psychologically it is from the metropolis. As early as 1884, when Whistler and the young Sickert spent part of a winter there, it became, for a group of British artists what Brittany had been for Gauguin; a place of escape, set in wild landscape, at the margins of civilized urban culture. Rivalled by Newlyn across the narrow Penwith peninsular, St. Ives achieved prominence in 1939 with the arrival of Ben Nicholson, Hepworth and the Russian Gabo. D.H. Lawrence had already written The Rainbow in nearby Zennor during the First World War, when gossips took his German wife to be a spy and Katherine Mansfield and Middleton Murray had briefly been neighbours. Later, escaping from the drabness of post-war London, a second generation of painters began to gather; Peter Lanyon, Roger Hilton, Terry Frost, Patrick Heron, attracted by cheap living and the luminous light of the bay.

Born in 1925, the painter Sandra Blow was trained at The Royal College and had spent a year working in Italy, when in 1957 she went to Zennor to visit Heron and his wife and took a cottage in nearby Tregerthen. Although for most of her career based in Sydney Street off the Fulham Road, in one of those wonderful 19th century artist’s studios that are now so expensive that only architects and film-makers can afford them, she moved back to St. Ives, buying up an old furniture warehouse as her studio, in 1994. A painter of gleam and shimmer, space, texture and light, it is not surprising that Blow has made her home there. She is not a gestural painter like Pollock or Ayres, nor does she make work full of ironic references, or ‘art about’ art. An unabashed Modernist, colour, balance, rhythm are what motivate her. Whilst never figurative or illustrative, she strives to create a visual equivalence of moods and feelings encountered in the natural world; a glimpse of light on water, the drift of tides, the spatial relationship between sea and land. Her work is, as she says, “of the world.” Whilst she would not use spiritual words, she concedes the power of those such as ‘balance’ and ‘harmony’. “I wait for pictures to ask for things,” she explains as we stand in a beam of winter sunlight in her studio, amid the preparations of her new show at Tate, St. Ives.

Her work has changed over the years. Early on there was a hint of Hilton’s line and palette, while the earth colours and addition of sand and sacking, showed the influence of Alberto Burri. Burri, an Italian doctor, had gone through the war in North Africa and been a prisoner-of-war. His use of charred sackcloth and other non-art materials shared something with Beuys’s of being expressive of inexpressible experience. Ten years older than Blow, he became her lover for her year in Italy. “We travelled from Sicily to Venice. I saw work through his eyes. I also lost my virginity in a vineyard in Assissi.”

Sandra Blow Vivace 1988
Vivace, 1988

After the year she came back to England. She was, she says a passionate and intense young woman, who fought tooth and nail to put her work first. She also needed to break free of Burri’s influence. She has never been married or had children, the lack of which she now occasionally regrets. “But, she says, as if not to seem ungracious, “I’ve had a very good life.” Perhaps such single-minded dedication was understandable in the male-dominated art world of the 50s and 60s. Established at Gimpel Fils at the age of 26, she remembers William Geer turning to her one day and saying caustically, “Every time you sell a painting you take bread out of one of my children’s mouths.”

She still works tremendously hard and is, for a woman in her mid-seventies, surprisingly youthful with her kohl-smudged eyes, in leggings, big paint-spattered shirt and woollen native-American style hat. This new exhibition will include paintings and collages from the 50s up to the present day. She has been working on what she calls a new installation, a wall piece consisting of 12 small interrelated square canvases. It is above all about colour. Each canvas is monochromatic with geometric spaces revealing the ground beneath. These are decided by moving around bits of paper on the surface of the canvas before she paints. Ice cream pinks, acid yellows, peppermint greens, the thin translucent acrylic zings. You could go on and on experimenting” she says, “it’s very difficult to get spatial effects with colour. I don’t feel I’ve got where I want to be yet.” In a beam of bright November sun the paintings shimmer, optimistic and youthful. “There is a joy in colour,” she says.

Sandra Blow Space & Matter at Tate St Ives, London from 11 December 2001 to 10 March 2002
Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2001
Images © the Estate of Sandra Blow
Courtesy of the Tate

Published in The Independent

Art Criticism

Christian Boltanski
Les Abonnés du Téléphone
South London Gallery

Published in The Independent

Absence makes the art grow stronger The disappeared, the dead, the lost … Sue Hubbard finds that Christian Boltanski’s work draws potency from what is not there, as well as what is.

Christian Boltanski Les Abonnés du Téléphone 2002
Les Abonnés du Téléphone, 2002

In Language and Silence, George Steiner talks of being a “kind of survivor”. There is a way that I, even born some years after the war, am still implicated by the might-have-beens that link me, as someone who was born Jewish, by an invisible thread to others who were less lucky. Like Boltanski, I do not really know anything of Judaism’s festivals, orthodoxies or theology but know that like him, for the Nazis, I would have been defined as such. And because of that label history places on us, I and he are inextricably united to that past.

Boltanski’s work is much more subtle than simply being about Jewish history, the Holocaust, or even guilt and survival. Yet it is the fact of this cataclysmic event that gives colour and shade to his work. As the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard said, “We are all Jews after the Holocaust”. By this he meant that we are all capable of being caught up in atrocities, in the events of Bosnia and Rwanda, in the conflict in the Middle East. More than anything, Boltanski’s work is about the fact of dying. In his work, death becomes an aspect of life. When we meet he reminds me of Christ’s last words, “Father why have you forsaken me?… It is finished”. He finds it both incredible and beautiful that a whole religion should have been built on a moment of weakness and despair. Christian narratives are embedded in his work as much as Jewish history, he explains. If he had to choose a religion, it would be Christianity. This, I believe, is because his work is also about redemption and love.

“I am nobody. The more I work, the more I disappear”, he reflects. We are sitting talking amid thousands of telephone directories in the South London Gallery, where he is installing his new show. With his shaved head and unshaven face, this small nervy Frenchman in a grubby black jumper, obsessively poking strands of tobacco into his pipe with stubby stained fingers, is the epitome of Gallic Existentialism – an escapee from a Camus novel. Boltanski is a bundle of paradoxes, a quintessentially 20th-century artist working in the 21st century, a Judeo-Christian artist who has no belief in God, a man who describes himself as a painter, yet who makes installations, a Communist sympathiser who was never a Communist but rather a romantic sceptic.

He first came to prominence with major exhibitions in the mid 80s and early 90s at the Georges Pompidou Centre, Paris and at The Whitechapel Gallery, where he created magical installations using personal objects presented as archival artefacts, which acquired an iconic status. His use of non-art materials – school photos, family albums, rusty archives and biscuit tins, along with piles of old clothes – memorialises the unnamed and unknown: the dead citizens of a Swiss town, the workers of a Halifax carpet factory, as well as the erased children of the Holocaust. These are the traces left by individual, yet anonymous, lives. Beneath flickering shadows and bare light bulbs, the spaces in which he works take on something of the hushed reverence of a church or theatre to generate poignant evocations of loss. He prefers factories and churches to galleries, and has made work in Grand Central Station, New York and La Chapelle de l’Hôpital de la Salpêtrière, Paris. He creates, he says, “small memories” that give substance to the unofficial histories of the ordinary. It is as if this collection of ephemera might ward off death, keep its final, all-encompassing anonymity at bay. Like the makeshift shrines at the site of a crash, these works ritualise grieving and create ways of coming to terms with the most modern of taboos, death.

All work, he claims, begins with a kind of trauma. Child psychotherapist Melanie Klein talks about art being a form of reparation for infantile rage at the abandoning mother. She describes how, out of the smithereens of anger, something new can be reconstructed. Born in France in 1944, the son of a Jewish father and a Catholic mother, Boltanski experienced a childhood that was coloured by experiences of anti-Semitism. His father had spent much of the war hiding in basements. His is the enduring angst of the outsider. Early on, he pretended to speak of his childhood, though the reality disappeared in a construct of false mythologising. He cannot now remember what was true and what a fabrication, having created a kind of universal childhood that binds him to the mass of humanity. This humanistic web is central to his vision.

Whilst he implicitly deals with big themes such as the Holocaust, his art can also be read as a psychoanalytic journey; a process of mourning, not only for the victims of the Shoa, but for the death of his own childhood or, maybe, for the lost child within us all. His is a search for self-forgiveness. It is no coincidence that Freud was also a Jew. Western culture is, for Boltanski, about stories. We create our own myths. Stories are attached to objects and to the small moments and memories that, like Marcel Proust’s madeleine, they yield. A photograph, an old dress – each detonates its hidden histories. These are traces not only of something lost, but also of something shed. This shedding implies transformation; a movement from state to state, from unconsciousness to some greater consciousness.

For Boltanski, who is not conventionally religious, art is the religion of our day. And art, like religion, is a form of ritual, a way of ordering and making sense of the world. It is, he says, about recognition. That’s why he uses familiar objects such as biscuit tins. There is always a moment when something clicks in the mind or the heart. What philosopher and writer Roland Barthes called the punctum, that “Ah yes, that’s it!” moment that pierces the consciousness. Boltanski also works within the tradition of Christian art using the icon, and the sense of mystery, theatre and kitsch so beloved by the Catholic Church. He has said he no longer knows what it means to be an artist. Since the collapse of the Berlin wall, we have lost all sense of utopias. For him, art either works or it doesn’t. Aesthetics no longer mean anything. It is not a question of good or bad. “What I make, is something different to art”, he says. He tells a story of setting up an installation in Santiago de Compostela when an old lady asked what he was doing. “Commemorating the dead Swiss”, he said, and she seemed quite happy. If he had told her he was making a piece of conceptual art, she might have felt he was defiling the place.

A child of the 60s, he was part of that decade’s radical zeitgeist, influenced by the magical, priestly rituals of Joseph Beuys and the mutely enigmatic silences of the Catholic Andy Warhol. In the late 1960s and early 70s, he made little balls of modelled clay, along with small makeshift knives and roughly carved lumps of sugar, which he exhibited with bits of recycled string. This essentially non-hierarchical and democratic art followed the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss’s model of bricolage: art made from the ad hoc. Art, he feels, has to struggle against what is established. For many years, he was a member of a lose network of Parisian artists that included his partner Annette Messager, for whom art was a form of resistance against the strictures of bourgeois society. In 1970, invited to illustrate the cover of an American poetry magazine, ‘Blue Pig’, devoted to the poet George Tysh, he supplied a photo of a single, bare, electric light bulb and a few balls of earth. Tysh gave the issue the title ‘Cheapness means forgiveness’, an apt epigram for Boltanski’s work. There is a lack of preciousness about what he does and the objects he uses. If he had been an Italian, he might easily have been part of the arte povera movement. In a way, he is a deeply unfashionable artist. Committed and involved, he believes in issues.

He has claimed that the displays of inconsequential little objects – their use and function now long forgotten – in the big metal cases of the Parisian anthropological Musée de l’Homme were a major influence on his work. In 1973, he began a 15-year series, ‘Inventories’, which involved displaying all the household objects of a deceased person, without any commentary. In another work, using the archives of Michel Durand-Dessert – Durand being the most common French surname – he placed photos from the family album in a plausible chronological order, which, of course, was different from the narrative attributed to them by their owners. Photographs, with their implicit associations with loss, absence and death, have become a potent vehicle in Boltanski’s work. For memory is fragile, dependent on the icon and the relic. We need evidence, such as The Mandylion of Byzantium or The Veronica of Rome, it seems: rational explanations for the mysterious. Boltanski never takes photographs himself, and claims to feel more like a recycler than a photographer.

In 1988, he was invited to make an installation in Toronto. He called it ‘Canada’. The name not only referred to the host country, but also to the euphemism used by the Nazis for the depot where the effects – clothes, shoes, spectacles, even hair – of their victims were deposited before recycling. The piece consisted of thousands of articles of clothing acquired in flea markets, and was followed, at the end of the 80s, by other works such as ‘Reserves: The Purim Holiday’. In the vocabulary of psychoanalysis, the word “phantom” describes the secret pain passed from generation to generation without ever being made explicit. Boltanski refutes Theodor Adorno’s claim that it is not possible to make art after Auschwitz. These works represent the slow labour of mourning, the coming to terms with guilt and the secrets buried, not only at the heart of nations, but of families.

His 1991 installation, using photographs of dead Swiss (a people who have never been involved in war), poses questions about the uniqueness of suffering. Photos of Nazis, photos of Jews, of dead Swiss, they are all, he claims, just people. As viewers, we cannot assess who is a victim, who a torturer. All of us have the capacity to be both. He photocopies the photographs again and again, so that they become reproductions of reproductions and individuality becomes lost in a sea of humanity. What these works force us to do is face the mechanisms that made the Holocaust possible – misanthropy, abstraction, self-loathing, objectification. These things do not just belong to history. They are with us every day: now. He claims that he finds it hard to accept that dying is part of life. He acknowledges that we are each unique, yet but a speck in the flow of history. He quotes Napoleon’s infamous remark as he looked down on the carnage of Austerlitz – both shocked at its cold-blooded callousness, whilst also acknowledging its truth – that “A night of love in Paris will replace everybody”.

When the Tate Gallery bought Dead Swiss on Shelves with White Cotton, they amused him by asking what they should do if the cotton went yellow after a few years. He told them to change it. When asked what to do if the photos faded, he replied that there were always more dead Swiss. Then when they complained that the shelves would not fit, as they had been made for a different room, he told them to get more shelves. When a slightly exasperated curator asked just what it was that the gallery had actually bought, Boltanski responded that they had bought photos of dead Swiss, and shelves with white cotton: an idea not an object.

When he first introduced biscuit tins into his work, he peed on them to make them rust. But he used so many tins that he had to switch to Coca Cola. When they were exhibited in Hamburg and Oslo, the curators unpacked them wearing white gloves. This was ridiculous as the gloves immediately became rusty and red. The biscuit tins weren’t precious and should never have been treated as such. They could easily have been replaced. Boltanski’s work is about relics. In fact, it shares a similarity with the art of other cultures, such as Africa, where religious or ritual masks have no financial or material value and, when no longer used ceremonially, are, often, left to rot.

He views his work as a musical score. Akin to a musical composition, the piece he creates has no real existence until it is brought into life by a new performance or installation. It is, in a way, about reincarnation. For when a pianist plays a work of Bach, it is always Bach, though it might be Bach interpreted by Artur Rubinstein or Daniel Barenboim, just as a Boltanski might be interpreted by curator “Mr. Jones”. His work is unlike, say, a Willem de Kooning or a Mark Rothko, where the autograph of the artist is paramount. He also sees himself as closer to the geometrical abstraction of Piet Mondrian and Kasimir Malevich than to the emptied Modernism of Donald Judd and Carl Andre. Like the 19th-century French writer Gabriel-Desire Laverdant, he believes that avant-garde art is an “attempt to lay bare… all the brutalities, the filth, which are at the base of our society”. It seems impossible now to imagine an artist of a younger generation having such a politically engaged response to art.

This new installation, Les Abonnés du Téléphone, transforms the space into a huge reference library with some 3000 telephone directories collected from around the world. Visitors can sit at tables and browse through the directories beneath the stark light bulbs, searching for lost friends abroad or trying to interpret the arcane listings in a language such as Japanese. Accompanying this is a sound piece in which the names of 12,000 registered voters living within a 10-minute radius of the gallery are emitted from shelves around the space. Central to this work are the implicit tensions between the global and the local, the individual and society, the included and the dispossessed. For, like all archives, this, by definition, is incomplete and flawed. How many of those whose names appear in the directories have died since their printing, and how many disappeared? In the theatrical semi-darkness a number of other more disturbing resonances are suggested: the efficient lists of the Nazi exterminators, of psychiatric patients and prisoners.

As Boltanski fiddles with his pipe, he emphasises that his work is a resistance to what he calls the “post-human”. I ask what he means, and he says cloning, genetic engineering, science that takes away our individuality and uniqueness. This piece, he says, nodding at the telephone directories, is a very Christian work. It is about community. These people are his brothers and sisters, just like the dead Swiss, the children of the Holocaust, and even the Nazis. He never, he says, suggests answers, only poses questions. Like Janus, he manages to look in two directions at once, turning to history whilst trying to make sense of the present.

Christian Boltanski Les Abonnés du Téléphone at the South London Gallery from 27 March to 5 May 2002
Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2002
Images © Christian Boltanski 2002

Published in The Independent

Art Criticism

The Boyle Family Scottish
National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh

Published in The Independent

The sixties according to Philip Larkin, did not really start until 1963 around the time of The Beatles first LP. Before that the world had been different; hierarchical, class ridden, culturally conservative and circumscribed. Slowly the old order had begun to crumble. Politicians were found sleeping with call girls who were considered a threat to national security, Kenneth Tynan said fuck on TV, censorship was abolished, Jimmy Porter got angry and respectable students at the LSE grew their hair long. Welcome to the permissive society.

Boyle Family Tidal Series
Tidal Series

In the mid-50s Mark Boyle, son of a Scottish lawyer, enrolled at the University of Glasgow to study law, leaving the following year to join the Scot’s Guards. Meanwhile Joan Hills had just left her course in architecture at Edinburgh College of Art to get married, set up a beauty parlour and paint on the side. When Joan and her husband split up she went to live in Harrogate in a small flat above a café, where the young Boyle, who organised supplies for the Ordnance Corps, went to write poetry. Thus was born an artistic collaboration that has lasted until the present day and now includes the couple’s two children, Sebastian and Georgia. In his first published statement in 1965 concerning his artistic practice, Mark Boyle said, “My ultimate object is to include everything in a single work…In the end the only medium in which it will be possible to say everything will be reality.”

In 1964 Boyle and Hill invited an audience to an event at a venue in London where they were led through an entrance marked “Theatre” and seated in front of a curtain. When the curtain was raised the audience found themselves looking through a shop window at passers by who, in turn, stared back at them. Thus the boundaries between viewer, actor and event were erased and the hierarchy of looking broken down. This ‘performance’ followed on the heels of the first Happening in Britain on the final day of the International Drama Conference at the Edinburgh Festival in September 1963 (they exhibited in Edinburgh on a number of occasions with Richard Demarco at the new Traverse Art Gallery). The conference had been turned into a spontaneously anarchic event during which, rather than ‘discuss’ drama, a drama had been ‘created’ and the ‘actual’ material of the world presented as ‘art’. Such subversive action grew out of the Dadaist philosophy that saw the world and humanity as nihilistic and without purpose – a position that accorded with the 60s zeitgeist and a desire to break down old taboos and constraints. This ‘total action’ was to become very much part of Boyle and Hill’s aesthetic. Art was to include everything, to avoid any form of preferential selection. The artist had to become as objective as the scientist in order to portray ‘reality’.

After spending time in Paris the Boyles returned to London where they had begun, in the summer of 1962, to make a series of assemblages. Without funds or conventional art training they pillaged the demolition sites – the results of bombing and slum clearance – that covered swathes of west London. This use of detritus fitted with their ‘inclusion of everything’ aesthetic. It also acted as a potent anti-art and anti-establishment metaphor. Assemblages that included bedsprings, doors from an old wardrobe, shoes and rusting paint cans needed no special skill or equipment to put together. This methodology owed much to Kurt Schwitters and paralleled the spirit of other artists working with non-art materials such as those within the arte povera movement in Italy and Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns in America.

Boyle Family Skin Series
Skin Series

When the Boyles chanced upon a discarded grey television surround, it was radically to alter their working methods. Throwing it like a dice they decided that whatever portion of a site it framed would became the subject of their next work, even if it fell on a patch of bare earth. Chance – which had so appealed both to the Dadaists and Surrealists – was to become a major component of their work. Resin was now used, onto which they pressed the collected surface material. But beyond saying that, it impossible to explain how they make their ‘paintings,’ for they resolutely refuse to discuss their working methods. It is probable that they make some sort of caste – so that the subject is at the same time both real and replicated. Their first experiments were made in Camber Sands, East Sussex in the late 60s where they recreated the tidal patterns left on the beach over seven days. Sites for subsequent works in London, around Notting Hill where they lived, were chosen by throwing darts into a map. The darts would select sites in a way that was entirely random. A carpenter’s right-angle was then thrown into the air to delineate the bottom edge. A series of printed cards claiming that they were members of the Institute of Contemporary Archaeology usually prevented any unnecessary official interference. In 1968 they took the project to its natural conclusion and invited friends to throw darts at a map of the world. The aim was to “take the actual surface coating of earth, dust, sand, mud, stone, pebbles, snow, grass or whatever. Hold it in the shape it was in on the site. Fix it. Make it permanent.” So huge was the project that it is still unfinished.

From their early childhood the Boyle offspring, Sebastian and Georgia, have been involved in the making of work, accompanying their parents on all their trips. It has taken the family to Norway to create snow pieces, to a German coal mine and to stony escarpments in Sardinia and to Israeli and Australian deserts. Unlike Christo, the wrapper of buildings and landscapes, who seeks the permission of officials and dignitaries, the Boyles tend to work in secret.

And what is it that they have ended up making? Are they paintings or sculptures? Well they are, in fact, closer to painting than sculpture, for primarily they are about surface; the surface as earth, the surface as skin, the surface of a mundane object that was once horizontal but which now hangs vertically on the wall as an art object. They have made work that replicates potato fields and paths – the sort that lead to countless London houses, complete with intricate Victorian mosaic – they have fabricated gutters and pavements where the yellow stripes painted on the road read like the zips in a Barnett Newman painting or the regular concrete slabs of a sidewalk like a minimalist Carl André. They have taken sections of Mark’s magnified skin and blown it up so that it looks like cracked mud or a lunar landscape. Like magicians they have produced a series of stunning tricks, illusions that ape reality. It is as if by collecting numerous specimens of the actual, material world, that like crazy Victorian fossil hunters or palaeontologists, they can make sense of it. Despite the fact that their work is composed of fragments it has little to do with post-modern sensibilities. There is no irony here, nor is their work a metaphor for anything, for it stands for nothing other than itself.

Boyle Family London Series
London Series

Art made by committee raises all sorts of questions and hackles. There are Gilbert and George, of course, that Derby and Jones of Brit Art, and Art and Language. But a family? Artistic endeavour is historically seen as male, heroic and the struggle of an individual psyche to create a unique aesthetic. The Boyles describe themselves as four argumentative individuals, but mostly it is Mark who talks on video about the work. So do they divvy out the tasks, do they all work on the same piece at the same time, do the younger Boyles have any life of their own? Didn’t they ever want to run away to become accountants? Perhaps these questions are not pertinent to the work but they are the ones everyone wants to know.

Mark and Joan are now in their seventies and this is largest show ever mounted of their work; a retrospective spanning 40 years. Comparisons have been made with photography, with that eternal frozen moment when the shutter closes. Yet somehow their work is more visceral than that; its physical presence, the memory of its previous state more insistent. What grew out of the alternative counterculture of the 60s – the ideology that nothing was of greater value than anything else, that chance was as good a ‘belief’ system as any other on which to base human destiny – has evolved into a unique way of seeing the world. Such a vision has its limitations. For it accepts as axiomatic that art is always amoral and objective. Yet despite this insistence on objectivity, something else happens – perhaps something over which they have no control – in the making of this work; a form of transformation of the mundane into the aesthetic. The ordinary suddenly becomes elevated to the extraordinary when our eyes are opened to the world, to a world we largely take for granted or ignore. As Francis Bacon said, a friend and a fan of the Boyles, “If only people were free enough to let everything in, something extraordinary might come of it.”

The Boyle Family at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh from 14 August to 9 November 2003
Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2003
Images © The Boyle Family 2003

Published in The Independent

Art Criticism

Edward Burra
Crane Kalman Gallery London

Published in The Independent

Edward Burra was a true English upper-middle-class eccentric. He could be waspish, camp and difficult. In 1961, while painting at home, the Royal Academy rang to ask if he would consider becoming an associate. His acerbic response was to shout downstairs to his manservant, who was speaking to them: “Tell them I’m busy.”

Edward Burra Birdmen and Pots 1947
Birdmen and Pots, 1947

The eldest son of barrister Henry Curteis Burra and Ermentrude Anne Robertson-Luxford, he was born on 29 March 1905 in South Kensington. An attack, at the age of 13, of anaemia and rheumatic fever cut short his education and his parents, considering him too sickly for regular employment, encouraged his interest in art. After studying at home he went, in 1921, to Chelsea Polytechnic and then subsequently to the Royal College of Art.

Although not openly gay, he visited gay bars and had gay friends such as the dancer and theatrical director William Chappell, with whom he, reputedly, had an affair – though some accounts of his life suggest that he always remained celibate. He also had a camp sensibility and his copious writings have the astringent wit of an arty Kenneth Williams. A prodigious letter writer, he wrote to one friend that “I’m taking up my pen for Sunday venom, dearie, it relieves me.” A visit to London from his home in Rye, where he lived all his life, was referred to as a trip to “TinkerBell Towne”.

Best known for his paintings executed in the 1920s and 1930s of seedy urban scenes, he stands outside the modernist tradition, though among English painters there is an obvious affinity with Stanley Spencer and, to some extent, Paul Nash, who was his mentor. At a time when the avant-garde were obsessed with abstraction, Burra was more interested in painting people; whether big blondes in the local boozer, zoot-suited gangsters on Harlem streets, or musclebound sailors.

Today Burra is a rather neglected painter. His work has always been hard to define – perhaps because he worked not in oils but watercolour (it was easier on his arthritis) and because his credo was “always join the minority”.

Edward Burra Frogmen 1959-1961
Frogmen, 1959-1961

He had six paintings in London’s International Surrealist Exhibition in 1936, but was never formally a Surrealist, and for most of his life he was represented by the Lefevre Gallery. From his 1930s Harlem pictures to the late landscapes, Burra’s view of the world was unlike that of any of his contemporaries.

His vivid paintings of Harlem in the 1930s captured a moment in history epitomised by jazz and street life and have an affiliation with de Chirico and George Grosz. The current Tate exhibition The Life and Times of Edward Burra concentrates on this, his most celebrated period.

To coincide with this, and the publication of a recent biography, the Crane Kalman Gallery is showing 30 rarely seen watercolours, primarily on loan from private collections. They span every decade of the artist’s career, from the 1930s Burlesque performers in Harlem and Marseilles, to the Surrealist images painted on the brink of war, and the later rural scenes executed in the 1960s and 1970s, redolent of Nash, which presaged the decay and demise of traditional English rural life.

These works emphasise his idiosyncratic, often rather macabre, vision and his rich sense of colour. He was a painstaking draughtsman and a great traveller. Not only did he visit Harlem and Marseilles but also Barcelona, Seville and Morocco, where he painted scenes influenced by the Spanish civil war, as well as New York, Dublin and Paris. When he became too ill to travel abroad he concentrated on England.

His work during the late 1920s to the 1940s recorded, with a sharp eye and a trenchant satirical wit, the soft underbelly of a society of cabarets and music halls, tottering towards war. His later work never quite lived up to the early panache.

Edward Burra Crane at the Kalman Gallery, London from 10 April to 10 May 2008
Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2008
Images © the Estate of Edward Burra. Courtesy of the Crane Kalman Gallery

Published in The Independent

Art Criticism

Mat Collishaw
Shooting Stars
Haunch of Venison London

Published in The Independent

Mat Collishaw Shooting Stars

After Freud, the world could never look the same, for we are all too aware of the worm in the apple. Myths and fairy tales cannot be read without the filter of psychology and psycho-analysis. Innocence, along with religion and belief, are dead; we are all knowing now. It is this territory Mat Collishaw has colonised, blurring the distinctions between reality and fantasy, innocence and profanity. Walking into hiss new exhibition is like trawling through the dark basements of the subconscious.

An animated video of the Swiss symbolist painter Arnold Böcldin’s The Island of the Dead sets the tone. Böcklin’s allegorical paintings, many based on mythical creatures, anticipated 20th-century surrealism, His early style consisted of idealised classical landscapes. In the 1870s he turned to German legends, inhabiting similar territory to Richard Wagner. His later works, such as The Island of the Dead, became increasingly dreamlike and nightmarish. Collishaw’s version is projected onto a two-way mirror in which the unsettling movement of shadows pass like an eclipse during a 24-hour period. Caught like some alienated figure in a Caspar David Friedrich painting, looking out into an existential void, is the reflected image of the viewer. The lone figure from Böcklin’s original painting which is absent here, has turned up in a recreated duguerreotype on an adjacent wall. Here the negative image of a girl only appears positive when passed over by the viewer’s shadow. The ectoplasmic nature of the work and the use of mirrors remind us of the tricks used in the 19th century by spiritualists and séance lovers.

Collishaw’s installation, Shooting Stars, has a disturbing dreamlike quality. Photographs found on the internet of Victorian child prostitutes in vulnerable, yet alluring poses, are projected on to the gallery walls and mingled with similar images re-staged by the art with an older model. Fired on phosphorescent paint, they flare briefly before slowly fading from view. The ghostly after-images suggest the children’s short, fragile lives, blighted by violence and sexual diseases. For many of these girls “their lives were not much longer than the fleeting exposure of the camera shutter,” comments Collishaw.

The top floor is dominated by a zoetrope, a cylindrical device that produces the illusion of motion from a rapid succession of static images. As it begins to spin in the eerie twilight, the small figurines of Throbbing Gristle – a minotaur ravaging a maiden, the Three Graces, a she-wolf and a wine-swigging cherub – begin magically to move, conjuring in flickering shadow the dark underbelly of Victorian life and its concerns about death and sex.

In 1917, two cousins, 10-year-old Frances Griffiths and 16-year-old Elsie Wright, presented two photographs they’d taken showing them in the company of fairies and gnomes in a nearby glen. Their mother gave the photos to Edward L Gardner of the then-popular Theosophical Society. The story reached Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who had become obsessed with spiritualism after the death of his son. Conan Doyle encouraged Gardner to give cameras to the girls, in the hope they would come up with new fairy portraits.

The cousins produced three new photos, which were accepted as genuine by Conan Doyle, who wrote about them in The Strand Magazine. As claims about the pictures’ authenticity flew, they became the centre of one of the greatest science vs superstition controversies of the early 20th century. Collishaw’s series of backlit, ultraviolet light boxes make these fugitive images seem even more uncanny.

Playing on notions of the forbidden, Collishaw questions what defines personal and social morality. The Victorians veiled their transgressions behind a veneer of morality, while Collishaw reveals that we are all, largely, a mixture of the dark and the light.

Mat Collishaw Shooting Stars at the Haunch of Venison from 11 July to 31 August 2008
Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2008
Images © Ben Collishaw 2008. Courtesy of the Haunch of Venison

Published in The Independent

Art Criticism

Dan Coombs
Visual Arts: Art for Sale
The Approach London

Published in The Independent

Dan Coombs, a one-time Saatchi bratpacker, is the grunge guru of 3D bricolage. His past installations, which included objects that looked as though they had been found at a car-boot sale or the back of a toy cupboard, assembled with other randomly assorted kitsch elements, have given way to something more painterly. He has always used paint-bomb splutterings of colour, but these are now big paintings with bits stuck on to them, rather than installations splattered with paint.

Dan Coombs Princess M 2005
Princess M, 2005

Finding a subject for contemporary painting is always a problem. The Abstract Expressionists did the sublime and the heroic; the Minimalists did, well, minimal; and the Warhol generation did popular culture. Hockney bagged boys and swimming pools; Freud is big on modern “old masters”; and Saatchi’s kids claimed New Neurotic Realism – so the territory is pretty packed. Coombs makes a fairly good stab at doing something of his own with these strange juxtapositions of collage, construction and a nod at a formal painterly language.

His colours are synthetic, trippy acid yellows, pinks, mauves and oranges, sprayed, painted and dribbled on to the canvases. On these surfaces he adds plastic bric-a-brac and illustrations from papers and magazines of TV and film celebrities. It’s as though Rauschenberg or Oldenburg had run a workshop for pre-school tots who had been dropping Acid tabs.

Born in the 1970s, Coombs appropriates images from the pop culture of his salad days. In Princes M, a lurid flock of fluorescent budgie cutouts have been stuck on to the surface to accompany those of TV’s Buffy, the teen vampire slayer, and a plastic Incredible Hulk. Hidden within all this are a number of photocopies showing step-by-step images of a man performing the trick of taking off his waistcoat without removing his jacket.

There is nothing restful about these works, with their swirling lines and cacophony of colour. It’s rather like listening to techno music first thing in the morning, when stone-cold sober – it is spiky and jars – whereas the night before, in a dark, sweaty club under the influence of something mind-changing, it all made perfect sense.

Dan Coombs Butterfly 2005
Butterfly, 2005

One of the oddest paintings, Butterfly, is vaguely reminiscent of those Victorian fake photographs of fairies. The head and torso of a heavyweight boxer has been grafted on to the tutu and legs of a dancer to create a surreal image that is repeated several times across the canvas. On his back, he sports a pair of 3D butterfly wings, and trips through the lurid green landscape, bordered by a collaged picket fence. It makes for a striking, disturbing image.

It is hard to say what these works are about, because they defy any categorisation. What Coombs has managed to do with a certain deftness is to rearrange the elements of painting. He appropriates, mixes and matches whatever he chooses, stirs it around, shakes it up and spits it out as something comparatively new. In so doing, he keeps alive the possibility of painting.

Dan Coombs Visual Arts Art For Sale at The Approach, London until 13 March 2005
Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2005
Images © Dan Coombs 2005

Published in The Independent

Art Criticism

Michael Craig-Martin
A is for Umbrella
Gagosian London

Published in The Independent

To walk into Michael Craig-Martin’s new exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery is to be reminded of those children’s alphabet books full of bright primary colours, where each letter is accompanied by an image. Yet before we even enter the gallery, our expectations are confounded. The show’s title, A is for Umbrella, immediately alerts us to Craig-Martin’s ongoing concern with language, meaning and reality. For this is no nursery primer.

Michael Craig-Martin A is for Umbrella 2007
A is for Umbrella, 2007

Against flat backgrounds of vibrant colour, Craig-Martin reproduces the outlines of everyday objects such as a light bulb, a sandal or an umbrella, which function as signs for contemporary life. Over these, he has painted a single letter or combination of letters that spell words such as SEX, ART, GOD or WAR.

As a species, we are driven by a need to establish meaning. Instinctively, we create these through our interpretation of “signs”. Signs take the form of words, images, sounds, acts and objects, things that have no intrinsic meaning but become signs when we invest them with meaning. “Nothing is a sign unless it is interpreted as a sign,” declared Charles Sanders Peirce, the founder of American pragmatism.

Anything can be a sign, so as long as someone interprets it as “signifying” something and it refers to, or stands for, something other than itself. We interpret things as signs largely unconsciously by relating them to familiar systems. A perfect example is a Coca-Cola bottle that becomes emblematic of the American way of life, or Magritte’s Pipe or Jasper John’s Flag, which, though primarily common visual objects, have been moved a stage further and divorced from their symbolic connotations and reduced to something “in themselves”. It is this use of signs that is at the heart of semiotics, the philosophical system central to the work of Craig-Martin.

His highly stylised images of everyday objects imply the existence of a prototype, the “real thing” once seen and experienced. But in his paintings he dissolves the coherence of these objects so that the lines of one thing flow into those of another, and we are left struggling to make sense of the work before us. Colour is the major key used to delineate forms in these pictogram-like images layered with text. Objects are freed from their representational function and reduced to their formal characteristics so that there are just enough visual clues left for them to be universally read.

Michael Craig-Martin Untitled (WAR) 2007
Untitled (WAR), 2007

The form of one object a drinking glass, say intertwines with another such as a light bulb so that we are hardly able to tell them apart, just as we barely consciously distinguish most of the everyday objects in our lives. Our eye flows between these shapes, only partially making sense of them, a process of association that often occurs with reading and language. For the sort of seeing that occurs in front of these paintings is not seeing as “recognition”, but as understanding. Craig-Martin is continually asking us about the nature of perception.

Although born in Dublin, Craig-Martin grew up and was educated in the States, where he studied fine art and architecture. His involvement in the postgraduate course at Goldsmith’s College of Art, which produced the Frieze generation, along with his celebrated An Oak Tree (1973), a glass of water presented on a shelf that questioned the nature of reality, have ensured his prominence in the visual arts scene and influenced the way much contemporary art is read.

While there is no doubt that Craig-Martin’s work insightfully tracks not so much the movement of the eye but the processes of the alert mind, this is a vision of the world that looks through a rather narrow telescope, for where in this vision is “birth, copulation and death” the only subjects, according to the poet TS Eliot, worthy of art?

Michael Craig-Martin A is for Umbrella at the Gagosian Gallery, London until 31 January 2007
Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2007
Images © Michael Craig-Martin 2007. Courtesy of the Gagosian Gallery

Published in The Independent

Art Criticism

Tacita Dean
Tate Britain

Published in The Independent

Water, water everywhere … Tacita Dean draws her inspiration from the sea and the coastline. Sue Hubbard finds her works evoke deep longing and desire

Tacita Dean Banewl 1999
Banewl, 1999

As a metaphor for the unconscious the sea is hardly an original one but in Tacita Dean’s hands it becomes revitalised and transformed into a newly potent image. At art school in Falmouth its tides and rhythms entered her soul. It became, for her, a symbol of the edge, the place where inside and outside, wilderness and culture, fixity and movement meet. Her work is concerned with mapping both the actual physical wilderness and the internal space of unconscious desires. Her journeys, both inner and outer, are a quest for some sort of unnameable and, by definition in this fractured modern world, unobtainable Grail. Her work reaches towards the sublime and, indeed, is full of Caspar David Friedrich sunsets, of lighthouses blinking against dappled roseate skies, of endless expanses of blue sea. It also might be said, particularly in Banwel, 1999, shown on an anamorphic (film-format) screen, which frames a herd of gently munching Holsteins as the sky blackens above a Cornish field during the recent eclipse, that Dean is making reference to Constable and Turner and the whole tradition of English landscape painting. Yet other of her pieces highlight obsolescence, decay and dereliction. Objects – often architectural – and places are charged with the tristesse of a failed and abandoned vision. Her work is not in any usual sense ‘post-modern’ – lacking the brittle irony that has now become its hallmark- but its melancholia mirrors the unrealised hopes of the utopian modernist enterprise, reveals the actual and emotional detritus that those ideologies and dreams have left behind.

Tacita Dean Disappearance at Sea 1996
Disappearance at Sea, 1996

Dean first came to public prominence when, in 1998, she was short-listed for The Turner Prize. Trained as a painter, she now works in a variety of media, including drawing, photography and sound, but is probably best known for her seductive, meditative 16 mm films. That she should choose to work in film, whilst so many of her contemporaries work in video, is no accident. For Dean is obsessed by the nature of time – “Time present and time past/Are both perhaps present in time future/And time future contained in time past”, as Eliot wrote in Burnt Norton – and the linearity of film allows for an exploration of its historic and poetic properties. She has differentiated the use of digital video by describing it as a form of ‘looking’ and the use of film as ‘seeing’.

Tacita Dean Teignmouth Electron
Teignmouth Electron

Her pilgrimages have taken her as far a field as Rozel Point in a search for the lost site of Robert Smithson’s seminal, but now submerged Earth Work, Spiral Jetty, 1970, to the Caribbean, to a television tower in Berlin and to the Cornish coast. Her fascination with the sea has led to an abiding preoccupation with the story of the lone sailor, Donald Crowhurst, who disappeared in his fragile trimaran, the Teignmouth Electron, during the Golden Globe Race in 1968. A chancer, desperate to reinvent himself and create a distance from the events of his past life, Crowhurst soon ran into difficulties in his untested vessel. Unable to face failure and withdraw from the race, he faked his navigational records, finally throwing himself overboard with the ship’s chronometer, as if he had run out of metaphysical as well as actual time. Whilst afloat, Crowhurst retreated into a private world where conventional notions of time and space became blurred. In this liminal state a sort of madness set in. It was as if he had become pure Id, lost in an amniotic ocean of fantasy and desire. The Crowhurst story has proved the genesis for a number of Dean’s works including Teingmouth Electron, 1999, a photograph of Cayman Brac in the Caribbean, showing what is believed to be Crowhurst’s abandoned trimaran beached amid tropical vegetation next to the abandoned shell of a 1970s ‘bubble-house’; a failed futuristic structure that was supposed to withstand hurricanes. It also inspired Disappearance at Sea, 1996 and Disappearance at Sea II (Voyage de Guérison), 1997. Filmed at two light houses on St Abbs Head and Longstone Lighthouse on the Farne Islands, the beams of the lonely beacons – flashing a fixed number of times each minute – act as sirens calling lost sailors home across the empty reaches of the sea. Archetypal journeys such as those of Jason and the Argonauts or Tristan and Isolde are invoked. In fact, the subtitle Voyage de Guérison (journey of healing) refers to the near mortal wounding of Tristan, who relinquishing himself to the forces of the sea, was washed up on a magical island where supernatural forces healed him.

Tacita Dean Sound Mirror 1999
Sound Mirror, 1999

In Sound Mirrors, 1999 the sense of being on the edge has a particular resonance. The film is haunted by the presence of great concrete dishes that during the 20s and 30s formed part of our coastal defence system. An acoustic early warning system, their inaccuracy soon led to them being supplanted by radar. Left to crack and crumble on the mudflats of the Kent coastline, these lumbering architectural relics, their angles caught against the fading light in Dean’s grainy grey film, look like sculptural monoliths. Part Brancussi, part Easter Island heads, they slowly erode and decay, subjected to times remorseless melt, as they are absorbed back into the landscape rather like Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. The desolation of shingle and shale is interrupted only by the traces of human existence, the barely audible sound of a train, a light aircraft taking off from nearby Lydd airport. Timeless and anachronistic, the film might have been discovered among the archives of Mass Observation.

Tacita Dean Fernsehturm 2000
Fernsehturm, 2000

Dean’s most recent work Fernsehturm (Television Tower) was made in Berlin in October, 2000. Having spent time in the city as a student she remembered the tower on her return as a guest artist of the Berlin Artist’s art programme. Built at the height of the Cold War in 1969, the Fernsehturm has dominated the skyline above Alexanderplatz, achieving notoriety through Alfred Doblin’s novel Berlin Alexanderplatz. Dean was attracted by the modernist architecture that seemed to encapsulate a lost historic vision and an optimistic belief in a now defunct social system. She was drawn particularly to the tower’s restaurant poised on a circular revolving platform that turned 360 degrees every half hour, allowing the diners a panoramic view of the city during a full rotation. Using a static camera she filmed the interior, recording the comings and goings throughout the day. Bathed in daylight the restaurant gradually metamorphosises into a claustrophobic womb-like space as the evening draws in and the electric lights are switched on. The tower takes on a mythic quality, the divisions between the windows resembling, in silhouette, the columns of a Greek temple. Light has traditionally played a huge part in painting from Turner to the Impressionists, as, indeed, it does in photography and film. Here the changing light both emphasises the specificity of each moment – for on any other day the experience would be different – whilst also implying historic change. For this building, once enclosed in East Berlin, now finds itself in a newly democratic world looking both back to the past and forward to the future.

So much contemporary art is about art that ‘life’ seldom gets a look in. What Tacita Dean does is to restore us to the world, both natural and manmade, to the experiences of looking and being, reconnecting us to our deepest emotions of longing and desire.

Tacita Dean at Tate Britain from 15 February to 7 May 2001
Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2001
Images © Tacita Dean 1996-2000

Published in The Independent

Art Criticism

Joan Eardley
National Gallery of Scotland

Published in The Independent

Joan Eardley Street Kids 1949-51
Street Kids, 1949-51

Joan Eardley is not much known south of the border. As a gauche, young Scottish painter happier keeping company with street children in Glasgow or working on the north-east Scottish coast around Catterline than forging a place in the art world, her work has tended to be ignored outside Scotland.

Now there is a chance to re-assess her career, which was cut short in 1963 when she died of breast cancer at the age of 42. It’s a reassessment worth making, for if Eardley had not been a shy woman hidden away amid the squalor of post-war Glasgow, her work might have found greater favour.

Today, her place on the margins which is where she chose to work, as a social realist in the vein of the English Kitchen Sink School while also developing her own form of northern Abstract Expressionism in her messy, moody seascapes and landscapes is clearer. Being so cut off from the “art world”, she seemed unconcerned with the post-war battles between abstraction and realism. The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins talked of “inscape” as being the “essence” of a subject, and Eardley was similarly concerned with a true emotional translation of the world through paint on to canvas.

Joan Eardley Children and Chalked Wall 3 1962-63
Children and Chalked Wall 3, 1962-63

Eardley was born in Sussex in 1921, the daughter of an army captain who committed suicide as a result of depression brought on by the First World War. She was raised in an all-female household, where she was encouraged to take up painting. When the family moved back from London to Scotland, she enrolled at the Glasgow School of Art and in 1948 won a travelling scholarship that allowed her to spend time in Italy and France.

Her beautifully observed drawings of Italian peasants show her concern with the poor and marginalised. Other figurative paintings, such as The Mixer Men, 1944 and Back Street Bookie, 1952, share the identification with the labouring poor found in the early work of Prunella Clough or the wartime Port Glasgow paintings of Stanley Spencer, which had been a profound influence.

But Eardley will be best remembered for her tender, humane, often humorous paintings of Glasgow slum children, mostly from the large Samson family, who found their way into her dilapidated attic studio, and for the seascapes and storms painted in Catterline.

Of the two genres, it is possibly the Glasgow children that cause the most problems for the modern viewer. While they are raw, unsentimental and utterly authentic, our reading of them has been skewed by countless cheap Montmartre pastiches of large-eyed waifs tugging at our heartstrings.

Joan Eardley Catterline in Winter 1963
Catterline in Winter, 1963

So it is the landscapes and seascapes that hold up best. In these wild seas and storms, Turner is never far away. Eardley painted in situ, weighing down the boards on which she painted with rocks. The paint is scored, applied with a palette knife, dribbled across the surface. In some, grit, grass and seed heads have been included in works that might have been made by Anselm Kiefer a couple of decades later.

It is hard to know what she might have done had she lived longer. But there is no doubt that here is a painter who worked out of deep feeling and captured what a 1948 issue of Picture Post referred to as the “Forgotten Gorbals”. In that sense, she is closer to photographers such as Bert Hardy and Bill Brandt than to the works of, say, Lucian Freud.

Of her seascapes, she said: “When I’m painting in the North-east, I hardly ever move out of the village. I hardly move from one spot. I find the more I know the place, the more I know the particular spot… the more you can get out of it, the more it gives you…” And it is these paintings, with their fluid, muscular beauty and visceral truth, that I think will continue to demand attention.


Joan Eardley at the National Gallery of Scotland until 13 January 2008
Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2007
Images © The Estate of Joan Eardley

Published in The Independent

Art Criticism

The Enlightenments
Dean Gallery Edinburgh

Published in The Independent

You need the patience of a saint to sit through Tacita Dean’s film The Presentation Sisters. With its longuers and silences, some may feel it’s the aesthetic equivalent of watching paint dry. Others will see in its small acts of quiet devotion and ritual, which define these elderly Irish nuns’ lives, a poetic evocation of the Sisters’ spiritual existence.

Tacita Dean The Presentation Sisters
Tacita Dean
The Presentation Sisters

The Presentation Sisters is a teaching order and the sisters spent their working lives in far-flung places such as Africa and Alaska. The film opens with the sound of bird song. Early morning sunlight plays on the gravestones of the convent’s small cemetery:a reminder that the five women are approaching the end of their lives. Following the rhythm of their day, we witness the cycles of cooking, cleaning and praying, as they vacuum already spotless rooms, bake scones and make endless cups of tea. Dressed in neat blouses and skirts, with the same cropped grey hair and glasses, they have all come to resemble one another.

The predominant mode of the film is silence, which reverberates down the convent’s polished halls. Dean lingers on empty rooms filled with heavy mahogany furniture like something out of a dark Victorian painting, and on beams of light flooding through stained glass windows into stairwells to create pools of mulberry-coloured light.

Lee Mingwei Letter Writing Project
Lee Mingwei
Letter Writing Project

We see the sisters in a row at prayer in high-backed chairs, but more surprisingly find them enjoying a football match on TV. These are evidently worldly nuns, though even here their enthusiasm is decorous and muted. They joined the order when it was enclosed and when the garden inside the outer wall formed the perimeter to their physical world. Brides of Christ, they all wear wedding rings. Though they choose not to wear the veil, they are unable to recruit young novices in this secular age. Their life of devotion and ritual based around meals, domestic tasks and prayer is fast becoming an anachronism and it is this realisation that gives the film its poignancy.

Dean’s work forms part of a group show at the Dean Gallery that comes under the Edinburgh Festival visual arts programme’s umbrella title of The Enlightenments. Edinburgh epitomises the ideals of the 18th-century Scottish Enlightenment, and the theme offers contemporary observations on religion, philosophy, architecture and scepticism. This leads to a rather dry show, where the Turner prize-nominee Nathan Coley’s painted tree trunks strain unconvincingly to question belief systems and investigate architectural structures inhabited by faith, while Joshua Mosley’s digital film of animated clay figures, representing a fictional encounter between Rousseau and Pascal, seems like a version of The Magic Roundabout for philosophers.

But as well as The Presentation Sisters, there is a poignancy to Lee Mingwei’s Letter Writing Project. Visitors are invited to take off their shoes and enter a Shinto-looking shrine to write letters to whomever they choose. These are left for visitors to read. Some of the confessions and outpourings are full of regret for the remembrance of things past and genuinely moving.

The Enlightenments at the Dean Gallery, Edinburgh until 27 September 2009

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2009
Image 1: © Tacita Dean
Image 2: © Lee Mingwei

Published in The Independent

Art Criticism

The Fifth Floor Ideas Taking Space
Tate Liverpool

Published in The Independent

Peter Liversidge 120 Proposals
Peter Liversidge 120 Proposals for
‘The Fifth Floor: Ideas Taking Space’, 2008

Be careful what you wish for, the saying goes, because you might get it. Would Marcel Duchamp, submitting his urinal to an exhibition in 1917 in order to show that art is anything we want it to be if we know how to look, or Joseph Beuys’ insistence that everybody is an artist, be happy with where so much contemporary art has ended up? What once seemed so fresh and iconoclastic often now seems like a series of tired nostrums.

To mark the end of Liverpool’s year as European Capital of Culture, Tate Liverpool is presenting what it hails as “a groundbreaking exhibition inspired by ideas and proposals from people across the city”. The title, The Fifth Floor, refers to a level in the gallery that does not, in reality, exist. Through a series of artist-led workshops with local groups, Tate Liverpool asked what sort of exhibition the people of the city wanted. One wag suggested that they should “take away all the art and replace it with people, all kinds of people, eccentric people, to emulate what was there…”

Olivier Bardin Exhibition Continues 2008
Olivier Bardin Exhibition Continues, 2008

Instead, they bundled up a ragbag of proposals and invited a collection of international artists to “interpret” them. This sounds like art by committee, though Tate Liverpool would, no doubt, claim that The Fifth Floor provides an imaginary, democratic space for encounter, collaboration and creativity, where views can be exchanged, decisions and responsibilities shared, and where we can each rethink the role of artist, curator and audience, roles that much of this work suggests are interchangeable. No need for three years at art school, then.

Over and over again, work blurs the boundaries, as that old cliché goes, between artist and spectator, whether in Peter Liversidge’s neon “room” that frames the viewer; Olivier Bardin’s rows of nine leather armchairs, in which the gallery visitor can sit and become “part of the work”; or the Dutch artist Rineke Dijkstra’s photographs and videos made with Liverpool high-school pupils and in local nightclubs. It is as if the modern subject has become so self-obsessed and uncertain of his or her identity that only be uttering the mantra, “I observe myself, therefore I am”, can they apparently have any sense of self in this chaotic and uncertain world.

Art that in some way does not “mirror” or “reflect” the viewer hardly seems to exist here; it proliferates through everything, from tenantspin’s Community TV Channel interviews, to Paul Rooney’s film of aspiring comics telling each other stories in an old cinema, and Tino Sehgal’s tiresome exchange with a local person pretending to be a Tate Liverpool assistant (a rehash of a similar work shown recently at the ICA) about the current economic climate.

Paul Rooney Futurist
Paul Rooney Futurist

And however much fun the group of toddlers had in the baby disco in the interactive, modular “film-set” space created by the Swedish art collective International Festival, will this translate one day into any of them walking into a gallery to look seriously at a Titian, or even a Kiefer or Viola? The most satisfying piece here is by Xijing Men, a collective of three artists from China, Japan and South Korea. Inspired by the oral histories from their respective countries, they have produced a series of drawings that were used by a local youth theatre to create storyboards for performances reminiscent of a Javanese shadow-puppet show.

That public galleries have to appeal to a wide range of people and justify their funding goes without saying, but what a contrast this empty show makes when compared with the beautiful and, when I attended, almost empty William Blake exhibition, on the ground floor. There could not be a more graphic contrast between this and the spurious claims of The Fifth Floor to illustrate how far we have come from Blake’s belief in the importance of a spiritual art for a material age, an art potentially redemptive of humanity, where we can “see a world in a grain of sand/ And a heaven in a wild flower”.

The Fifth Floor Ideas Taking Space at the Tate Liverpool until 1 February 2009

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2009

Image1: © Peter Liversidge
Image2: © Olivier Bardin
Image3: © Paul Rooney

Published in The Independent

Art Criticism

Anya Gallaccio and
Chantal Akerman
Camden Arts Centre

Published in The Independent

Life, decay and death are the elemental subjects of Anya Gallaccio’s work. Her sculptures and installations, like traditional vanitas paintings, are metaphors for the transience and fragility of life. She has made works with apples and oranges, as well as flowers, that have been left to rot slowly in the Tate, showing how they turn from something beautiful into a fermenting mess.

Anya Gallaccio
Anya Gallaccio

Now she has filled one of the galleries at the Camden Arts Centre with the crown of a felled horse chestnut. Separated from the trunk it was cut into predetermined lengths before being transported to the gallery where, with steel pins and climbing ropes, it has been hoisted back together so that it now sits silent and forlorn, rigged up on pulleys, like a crash victim in a hospital ward, raising questions about how far we can push the boundaries of art before they collapse. A tree outside the gallery is, after all, just a tree, but, inside, it is a metaphor.

There is something both magnificent and pitiful about seeing this arboreal skeleton hemmed in in this white space. It is not just that the outside has been brought inside but that there is a sense of entrapment, of something free and natural having been tamed and diminished by culture.

The tree’s brittle, decaying branches spread from wall to wall, while its thick knobbly bark is reminiscent of the hide of some prehistoric creature. To be this large the tree must have been quite an age and there is a poignant sense of history coming to an end. Children must have climbed in its branches and lovers embraced beneath its boughs. Quite literally cut off from its roots, it sits in the gallery constrained by the walls it pushes against. A broken fragment of something once whole; it might almost be a metaphor for our age.

Influenced by Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le fou, 1965 the French film-maker Chantal Akerman attended film school in Belgium but then abandoned her studies in 1968 to produce her first short, Saute ma ville. Here, in her first solo exhibition in this country, she is showing two large-scale video installations alongside a single screen film, Hotel Monterey, from 1972.

Chantal Akerman, Women from Antwerp in November (Femmes d'Anvers en Novembre) 2007
Chantal Akerman, Women from Antwerp in November (Femmes d’Anvers en Novembre), 2007

Entering the main gallery is a mesmeric and moving experience. Text flickers across two curved screens to the strains of melancholy classical music. Fragile and ephemeral, the French words blur, as the viewer walks between the screens, then enlarge and dissolve like ghosts to become barely legible in the flickering light. Inspired by Akerman’s family history, as a second generation Polish Jewish survivor of the Holocaust, the words come from the her maternal grandmother’s diary – miraculously discovered after she perished at Auschwitz.

In the next room, grainy black-and-white images show the artist talking to her mother about the diary. Lyrical, poignant and somehow very French, they discuss the mother’s experience of the camps and her methods of survival, as well as her unrealised dreams to run an haute couture business after the war.

In halting, half-forgotten Polish Akerman’s mother attempts to translate her own mother’s salvaged words. Not only is this a testimony to the amazing power of individual survival but it explores the legacy of three generations of women. Chantal Akerman’s mother, an elegant woman with an acquired French grace, tells how her own mother had been, before her death, a talented artist. Whilst the mother laments that she did nothing with her life except support Akerman’s father, she expresses the belief that her daughter has inherited her grandmother’s artistic legacy.

In contrast, the film Women from Antwerp in November (2007), uses two projections, a female face in close-up, and a cityscape. The highly evocative shots of women in dark streets, often lit only by a single light source waiting in solitary suspense amid curls of cigarette smoke, not only pay tribute to classics such as Hitchcock’s Vertigo, but also draw on the edgy angst and emotional longueurs that are the hallmark of so many French films.

Anya Gallaccio and Chantal Akerman at Camden Arts Centre from 11 July to 14 September 2008
Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011
Images © Anya Gallaccio and Chantal Akerman

Published in The Independent

Art Criticism

Loris Gréaud
ICA London

Published in The Independent

Loris Gréaud Cellar Door (Once is Always Twice)Loris Gréaud Cellar Door (Once is Always Twice)
Cellar Door (Once is Always Twice)

Loris Gréaud’s work is full of Gallic chic, a sort of stylish marriage between Eurotrash and Roland Barthes. Depending on your taste and point of view, it is either a web of complex ideas that fuses different fields of activity and knowledge, oriented around processes rather than finished forms; or it is a load of French intellectual cobblers.

Cellar Door is an “artistic” experiment made up of a range of manifestations, one of which is the current installation at the ICA, itself entitled Cellar Door (Once is Always Twice). Another is an exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris; a third is an opera scored by Thomas Roussel, with a libretto by Raimundas Malasauskas and Aaron Schuster, to be staged by the Paris Opera at the end of the year; and a fourth is an actual studio that Gréaud is building on the outskirts of Paris. The notion of an artist’s studio is fundamental to the project, both as a physical space and as the starting point in a perpetual cycle of activity.

For the ICA installation, Gréaud has created three identical rooms that reveal his preoccupation with doubling and repetition. His favourite book, it turns out, is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Here, everything is black and white. The black carpet is covered with a white geometric pattern partly derived from the coordinates of stars, and partly from architectural geometry. The architect Buckminster Fuller – famous for his experiments with the geodesic dome and as forefather to the current debate on architecture and global economy – is an emblematic figure for Gréaud.

In the centre of each room are special light-emitting speakers (rather like giant illuminated profiteroles). The libretto of the opera being transmitted describes the multiplication of rooms. Triplets dressed as waiters (in black and white, of course) serve rather unpleasant black champagne, and on the walls of each room is a text created from mirrored lettering that reads: “When people tell me that I know how this story is going to end I usually tell them: wait till the end and you will see yourself…”

The final component is a series of high-speed automatic doors, which open like shutters (or, one fears, might close like guillotines) to separate the three rooms.

Loris Gréaud Celador a taste of illusion 2007Loris Gréaud Celador a taste of illusion 2007
Celador, a taste of illusion, 2007

The title Cellar Door is inspired by J R R Tolkien’s essay, English and Welsh (1955), in which the author and linguist remarked on the beauty of the words “cellar door”. This is given yet another, and some might feel tortuous, twist in Caladour. These are packets of sweets, complete with ad campaign, on sale from the vending machine in the ICA’s bar. Conceived by the artist, they are, of course, no ordinary sweets, for they have no taste, suggesting that the “sucker” can project whatever flavour he or she chooses on to the bland confection. This, according to Gréaud, reflects the open-ended and collaborative nature of the project.

He describes his body of work as “machines where things are transformed, distorted and displaced… In my works, the origin and production of a piece are not meant to coincide.” (Space does not permit analysis of this arcane statement.) The general effect is very theatrical and rather decadent. For the viewer/ participant, it is rather like being part of a fin de siècle Aubrey Beardsley drawing. One would hardly be surprised if Oscar Wilde and Bosie were to wander on to the set at any minute and stand languidly beside the Art Nouveau-style profiterole-speakers sipping the black champagne and wearing green carnations.

To that extent, it is all a rather playful and witty artifice. And if only we could read it as just an ironic spoof, it would be so much more fun than the claims that it is “a grand spectacle distended in time and space” that challenges “ideas of repetition and identity” and “uniqueness and perception”.

Loris Gréaud at the ICA London until 22 June 2008

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2008

Images © Loris Gréaud 2008
Produced by DGZ Research (Dölger, Gréaud, Ziakovic)
Courtesy the Artist and Yvon Lambert, Paris & New York
Photograph by Steve White

Published in The Independent

Art Criticism

Gwen John
A Corner Of The Artist’s Room In Paris (With Open Window)

Published in The Independent

Gwen John A Corner Of The Artist's Room In Paris (With Open Window), 1907-1909

Gwen John’s A Corner of the Artist’s Room in Paris (with Open Window) of 1907-9 shows a wicker chair set next to a small wooden table. It was painted in her attic room of an 18th-century house in the Rue du Cherche Midi. On the table is an open book and on the chair a discarded dress of luminous blue. Light floods in through the open window, and our gaze is drawn outside to soft flowery blues and greens, and beyond to a pale blue, probably, morning sky.

It is spring or early summer. All is fresh, clean and radiant. It is as close to a love poem as a painting can get. In 1904, the Welsh painter, sister of the flamboyant Augustus, came to Paris where she became a model for Auguste Rodin, with whom she fell obsessively in love. Setting her up in a room for which he paid the rent, she wrote to him: “My room is so delicious after a whole day outside, it seems to me that I am not myself except in my room.”

For a time, her affair with Rodin obliterated any interest in painting, but when he began to ignore her, she started painting the corner of her room, a placid scene, that belies her maelstrom of conflicted emotions. “It /is /me,” John told a friend. But it is also a representation of how the much the older Rodin counselled her, as he withdrew from their liaison, to be; a picture of: “contentment, peace, a life lived sweetly and quietly. No mess, no trouble, no agonizing”.

The room is striking for both her absence and his. Everything is spick and span – “fraiche et jolie” – as if permanently awaiting Rodin’s presence. The open window, the book, and the empty dress all denote her vulnerability, her longing and her availability. She has created perfection in this her little bit of Paris, but still he does not come. The painting is virtually a self-portrait. Beside herself with despair, she stayed in all day awaiting his visits, which more frequently did not happen. And while waiting she painted, to avoid what feminist scholars have termed “the madwoman in the attic” syndrome; a state of rejected despair that can be traced through the work of great 19th-century writers such as Emily Dickinson.

Yet there is also a contradiction at the painting’s heart. For despite her “scorching, exalting” passion for Rodin, John consciously avoided the “ultimate impediment” of domesticity, writing to a friend in 1910: “I think to do beautiful pictures we ought to be free from family conventions as ties … I think the family has had its day.” She was an ambitious painter who chose her art over domesticity and motherhood.

The calculated geometry of her compositions, the pale tones and subtle colouring all speak of formal concerns. She had a talent for obsession, but the repetition in her work (there is more than one version of this painting) speaks as much of a modernist engagement with the process of picture making, similar to that of Monet’s Haystacks, as it does her state of mind. Her room is a potential love nest, and a site of desire, but it is also, ironically, what Virginia Woolf called “a room of one’s own”, a tranquil space essential to the life and work of an independent woman artist.

Feminists have tended to claim John as their own. Yet, she was not particularly discriminated against, had, since childhood, enjoyed a good deal of freedom, and was the beneficiary of a generous patron. Nor did she align herself with nascent feminist ideas, but rather with the Catholic revival. Both her interiors and her female subjects are still and subdued, like convent rooms or holy sisters; “recueilli” as she liked to describe herself. Yet this was also the same woman who had walked unchaperoned from Bordeaux to Toulouse, lived independently, and posed naked for Rodin, making love with him on his studio floor.

For all their femininity John’s paintings have a determined strength about them. She wrote: “I don’t live when I spend time without thought”. The canvases she painted of her Parisian room show that process, pathos, and self-examination are all inextricably joined. The paintings’ power is in their conjunction.

About the Artist

Born in Pembrokeshire, in 1876, Gwen John had a sister and two brothers, one of which, Augustus, was to become a flamboyant and successful painter. In 1895 she went to the Slade, then to Paris. There she modelled for, and fell in love with Rodin who was a major influence on her work. Setting exacting standards she painted quiet, intense paintings mostly of women in rooms. Today she is considered a more significant and original painter than her brother.

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2008

Image Courtesy of the National Museums of Wales

Published in The Independent

Art Criticism

Hadrian
British Museum

Published in The Independent

Hadrian British Museum

For many people, the thought of an exhibition full of white marble Roman statues might seem boring. But this promised blockbuster at the British Museum is anything but. It has sex, rebellions, wealth and intrigue, and best of all it has artefacts that have never been seen before.

At the opening of the exhibition is a real showstopper, the magnificent marble head, leg and foot with sandal from a colossal statue of Hadrian excavated at Sagalassos, south-west Turkey, only a year ago. This is the first time it has been seen. It is easy to think of Roman statues as idealised and generic, but this is thought definitely to be Hadrian, not only because of the hair and the beard, but because of deep characteristic creases in his earlobe that are the sign of heart disease. Another remarkable piece is a bronze head recovered from the Thames near the old London Bridge in 1834. This, too, has Hadrian’s characteristic earlobe creases and is a potent reminder that London was once a Roman city.

A complex and a gifted individual, Hadrian was intellectually talented and energetic, with a passion for Greek culture that earned him the nickname “graeculus”, or “little Greekling”. While he was a hardened military man, he was also gay and seemed to fall genuinely in love with the “shameless and scandalous boy”, the young Greek Antinous, for whom he built the city of Antinoopolis on the banks of the Nile, following his death by drowning in rather murky circumstances. One of the most beautiful exhibits is the magnificent head of Antinous from a villa near Friscati. With his strong nose, sensual mouth and ringlets it is easy to see why Hadrian fell for him.

Hadrian, Emperor from AD117 to 138, was not destined to rule. Born in Rome “on the ninth day before the kalends of February in the seventh consulship of Vesperian and the fifth of Titus”, he was, on the death of his father, adopted by a distant relative, Trajan, a successful general during a period of simmering conflict. Trajan had himself been adopted by the elderly and childless Emperor Nerva. When Nerva died, Hadrian’s succession was assured.

Hadrian was to transform the character of the Roman Empire, thus ensuring its survival for centuries. But his empire was characterised by revolts in many quarters.

One of the most infamous was in the province of Judea in AD132, when the Jewish population rose up.

The Bar Kokhba rebellion became known as “the first Holocaust”. The rebels and members of the Jewish civilian population fled to underground hideouts and caves in the Judaen desert. There the arid climate preserved a remarkble array of artefacts. On show here are everything from mirrors and house keys to a glass bowl that is so pristine it could have just been bought in John Lewis. But most important from an archaeological perspective, are the handwritten documents detailing the event that were found in the caves.

Hadrian built himself an extraordinary villa east of Rome. It is the largest known from the Roman world, a vast architectural playground with enough baths and theatres for a small town, a model of which can be seen in the exhibition. It was this passion for architecture that prompted contemporary historians to say “he built something in almost every city”.

He may have been a military dictator on a grand scale but it is his architectural legacy and contributions to buildings such as the Pantheon in Rome that are his continuing gift to the modern world. The remarkable peacocks made of gilded bronze from his mausoleum and then used by the Popes to decorate a fountain outside St Peter give some idea of his charisma.

This may not quite get the crowds that the Terracotta Army exhibition attracted; but it’s still one worth queuing for.

Hadrian at the British Museum from 24 July to 26 October 2008

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2008

Image Courtesy of The British Museum

Published in The Independent

Art Criticism

Tom Hammick
Holding
Eagle Gallery London

Published in The Independent

Tom Hammick Garden II 2009
Garden II, 2009

It is the colour one notices first in Tom Hammick’s new paintings: the midnight blues, the searing yellows and vibrant reds. The first painting in the show is tiny; an apparently felled or fallen pine lies darkly silhouetted against an inky evening sky, flushed by the blaze of a sinking red sun. It is a highly romantic work. The little pine, alone in the great wilderness of nature, seems to embody a sense of isolation, and evokes something of Caspar David Friedrich, that archetypal German Romantic painter, whose subjects stand on the edges of cliffs and mountains, their backs to the viewer, staring out into the empty void as if searching for meaning.

Hammick has always been a strong colourist but here his colours bear little relation to the natural world – less even than in his earlier work. His stormy purples and deep, slightly toxic oranges and saturated reds contribute to a sense of dreamlike otherworldliness, suggesting, as did the German Expressionists, a direct connection with the artist’s emotions translated onto canvas. As in the Fauvist paintings of André Derain, or Kirchner’s sickly yellow Bathers in a Room, painted in the early 1900s, Hammick uses colour to evoke states that are at once haunting and uncanny, ominous and tender.

Tom Hammick Path 2009
Path, 2009

Isolated figures in fields, a mother and child, or a single man digging a garden are recurring motifs. Marooned in flat plains of intense colour, these essentially lonely subjects seem to connect to something elemental and atavistic. Because often the newly dug vegetable and flower beds – painted in solid blacks and browns – look more like empty graves than fertile patches for growing flowers or food. An achingly lovely blue tree, sprinkled with pink almond blossom, spreads over these dark pits in Three Beds like a beacon of hope. To label these religious paintings would be an overstatement, yet implicit in this work, with its strange little figure lying in one of the black rectangles like an Indian widow in a red sari committing sati, is, I think, the notion of some sort of resurrection and an enduring relationship with the cycles of nature.

Pattern forms an important part of Hammick’s work. It is as if he is deliberately taking on that guru of Modernism, Clement Greenberg, who wrote in 1957: “Decoration is the spectre that haunts modernist painting, and part of the latter’s formal mission is to find ways of using the decorative against itself.”

Tom Hammick Two Beds 2009
Two Beds, 2009

As in Matisse, Hammick’s canvases are enhanced by the tension between the decorative surface and the figurative elements. A talented printmaker, he has been influenced by Japanese woodcuts and masters such as Hokusai. This fusion between the simplicity of the Japanese print and his symbolist colours evokes a similar sense, found in Rothko and Barnet Newman, of “secular spirituality”.

There is a quiet poetry in Hammick’s work that stands in opposition to much of the noise and brouhaha of the current art scene. He begins with what is local and known, depicting the land and seascapes around his home in East Sussex. Unafraid of being beautiful or emotional, or of speaking with authentic feeling, these paintings of lonely figures looking out across moonlit fields, or standing isolated, as in Path, on a green ground contemplating the narrow way ahead, seem to suggest the transience and fragility of human existence.

A small canvas, in blacks and deep blues, of a bend in a night-time road, shows the reflective chevrons pointing into the haunting darkness ahead. Everything is silent and still. There are no figures, no cars and, one feels, no noise. The painting evokes, with great pathos, what awaits us all. For as TS Eliot wrote in East Coker:

 
“O dark dark dark.
They all go into the dark,
The vacant interstellar spaces, the vacant into the vacant,
The captains, merchant bankers, eminent men of letters,
The generous patrons of art, the statesmen and the rulers,
Distinguished civil servants, chairmen of many committees,
Industrial lords and petty contractors, all go into the dark…

Tom Hammick Holding at the Eagle Gallery, London until 4 October 2008

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2008

Images © Tom Hammick 2008. Courtesy of Emma Hill Fine Art Eagle Gallery

Published in The Independent

Art Criticism

Mona Hatoum
Present Tense
Parasol Unit, Foundation for Contemporary Art

Published in The Independent

Mona Hatoum Nature morte aux grenades, 2006-2007
Nature morte aux grenades, 2006-2007

Maps are an abiding motif for the artist Mona Hatoum. A small carpet, like a prayer mat, depicts a map of the world. Sections seem to have been eroded to leave a negative space in the form of Peter’s Projection, which reveals the true proportions of distributed land mass, as opposed to that which is shown on traditional Western maps.

Elsewhere, a grid of 2,400 blocks of olive oil soap from the town Nabus, north of Jerusalem, sits on the gallery floor in a Carl André-style grid. Its surface is embedded with tiny beads that depict the map of the 1933 Oslo peace agreement between Israel and Palestine. Also marked are the territories that should have been handed back to Palestine. Present Tense, as it is called, was originally made in 1966, in Jerusalem and was Hatoum’s response to her first visit to that city.

Born to Palestinian parents, her family fled Haifa in 1948 because of Israeli attitudes and settled in Beirut, where she was born in 1952. During a visit to London in 1975, civil war broke out in Lebanon and it became apparent that she would not be able to return. Instead, she enrolled at the Byam Shaw School of Art and then the Slade.

Mona Hatoum Keffieh II (Detail)
Keffieh II (Detail)

Hatoum stands outside the prevailing ironic mood of today’s art scene. Not having been to Goldsmiths and being slightly older than the YBAs that it spawned, she makes work that supports the old adage that the personal is political. In fact, her work has more in common with that of Seventies feminist artists such as Nancy Spiro, or Europeans such as Anselm Kiefer, or the French artist, Christian Boltanski, who also deals with memory and loss.

In 1989, I first saw her The Light at the End. This heavy metal gate, installed at the end of a corridor, with glowing elements arranged like vertical bars, was a simple, authoritative and potent metaphor that spoke eloquently of detention and confinement. Discarded hair has also played an important part in her work, evoking a multiplicity of associations, from Auschwitz and fairy tales to fetishist objects. Her continued fascination can be seen in her delicate etchings, Hair and There, in this new exhibition at Parasol Unit.

To call Hatoum a political artist would be to create too narrow a category, for her work extends beyond the boundaries of such a definition. Certainly there are works here – such as Keffieh II, a silk organza scarf reminiscent of those worn by Palestinians that has been embroidered with metal string to resemble barbed wire – which could be classified in that way, but other works have a more universal appeal. Mobile Home II, an installation at one end of the gallery, conjures feelings of displacement through the poignant arrangement of objects: a washing line, a child’s soft toy, a tin bowl and a battered suitcase that might belong to any refugee family from Bosnia to Zimbabwe.

Mona Hatoum Mobile Home II 2006
Mobile Home II, 2006

In other works, her meanings are more oblique. Undercurrent, a mat of woven, cloth-covered electric cables, speaks of many things, from day-to-day electricity shortages to a subliminal sense of ever-present threat. Her lattice-work steel ball, Globe, also evokes multiple meanings, suggesting not only entrapment and instability but the image of Sisyphus – a metaphor, perhaps, for endless failed peace negotiations.

Hatoum’s work is undoubtedly political in the sense that it forces us to reconsider our place in the modern world and our relationship to its continuing conflicts. Full of paradoxes, it makes us question notions of “them” and “us” and what it means to be an exile. On a deeper level, these questions cease simply to be political but become an investigation of the sexual, racial and psychological barriers that we erect to keep ourselves apart. An artist unafraid of exploring diverse media, she creates highly articulate symbols that are able to express oppression and power, as well as human frailty.

Mona Hatoum Present Tense at the Parasol Unit, Foundation for Contemporary Art, London until 8 August 2008

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2008
Images © © Mona Hatoum 2008

Published in The Independent

Art Criticism

Utagawa Hiroshige
The Moon Reflected
Ikon Gallery Birmingham

Published in The Independent

Like the Japanese poetic form, the haiku, with its minimalist structure devoid of superfluous decoration, the Japanese woodcut is a synthesis of mood, skill, balance and line.

Utagawa Hiroshige Dawn Clouds at the Licensed Quarter
One Hundred Famous Views of Edo
Dawn Clouds at the Licensed Quarter

Now, in a break from the Ikon Gallery’s normal contemporary-art programme, the British artist Julian Opie has curated an exhibition of woodblock prints from the British Museum by the 19th-century Japanese artist Utagawa Hiroshige, demonstrating the continuing relevance that historical art practices can have on contemporary artists.

The role that Oriental and Japanese art had on European modernism has been well documented. Hiroshige’s Plum Estate, Kameido, with its white blossom against a pink evening sky, was famously copied by Van Gogh, and the Japanese influence can be seen in work from Gauguin to the Arts and Crafts movement. Opie’s preference is for the Japanese artist’s later work, which tends to accentuate aesthetic concerns over narrative. His interest is not surprising given that both he and Hiroshige focus on landscape and figures, refining them into stylised, flattened compositions that evolve into abstractions of everyday life.

Born in Tokyo (or, as it was then known, Edo) in 1797, the son of a fire-warden, Hiroshige studied printmaking and painting to became an illustrator of story books, as well as following briefly in his father’s footsteps. Concentrating on making landscape prints of well-known Japanese views, it was his publication of The Fifty-three Stations of the Rokaido Road, around 1833, that secured his reputation. His prints functioned as souvenirs for visitors, for Edo was, at the time, one of the biggest cities in the world.

Utagawa Hiroshige Misaka Pass in Kai Province
36 Views of Mount Fuji (1858)
Misaka Pass in Kai Province

The three series shown here, Famous Views of the Sixty-odd Provinces 1856, One Hundred Famous Views of Edo 1856–58 and Thirty-six Views of Fuji 1858, were made at the end of the artist’s career, and feature the novel, and for the time unconventional, vertical format, evoking both the Chinese hanging scroll and the print form known as tansaku, used for traditional poem cards. An astonishing luminescence of colour was achieved by the frequent occurrence of bokashi, a technique where the ink was only partially wiped off the block before printing to create extraordinary cross-fading effects that can be seen in the variations of light in the sky and the wonderful modulations of blue in the sea.

Hiroshige was a bit of an armchair traveller, relying on images from gazetteers known as meisho zue, or “picture-views of famous places”, but with consummate skill he transformed these small, black, map-like drawings into stupendous single-sheet multi-coloured “brocade prints”, nishikie-e, four times the printed area of a typical book page.

His lowered viewpoint and the establishment of a horizon line for greater immediacy, along with his experimentation with the vertical format that dramatically played with new angles and compositional styles, created something entirely his own; works that are both evocative and beguiling, that fuse the simplification of subject matter with the aesthetics of mood to create images that are at the same time poignant and redolent with meaning.

Also included are some fascinating earlier sketchbooks, and the exhibition concludes with three glorious triptychs known as Snow, Moon and Flower, which are breathtaking in their subtlety and scope. The flowers are actually the whirlpools and spirals of breaking waves of the Naruto Straits, while the other two works show a moonlight bay and the Mountain River on the Kiso Road blanketed by the great silence of falling snow.

Utagawa Hiroshige The Moon Reflected at the Ikon Gallery, Birmingham until 20 January 2008

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2008

Image: 2: © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Published in The Independent

Art Criticism

David Hockney
Retrospective Photoworks
National Museum of Cariff

Published in The Independent

David Hockney Retrospective Photoworks
David Hockney Retrospective Photoworks

This formidably large exhibition can’t help begging the question of whether Hockney’s forays into photography are interesting in themselves, or only as an adjunct to his career.

It’s difficult to reach an opinion because the works themselves are so varied in quality. The recent laser-printed photos of the seafront at Bridlington are pitifully poor; unremarkable compositions made to look even worse by tacky colour and slapdash presentation. Elsewhere, things perk up, although the best shots are often those with the most gossip- value: portraits of Bigger Splash-era Peter Schlesinger; numerous prints of Henry Geldzahler looking melancholy; Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy or Billy and Audrey Wilder collaged; Hockney in a hotel bathroom with extravagantly jock-strapped friends.

The Polaroid collages of the 1970s and 1980s are often the most satisfying, if only because they wear their craft on their sleeves. Back then, it really looked as if Hockney had found a new form. A collage of Brooklyn Bridge from 1982, with the tips of the artist’s brogues peeking out at the bottom of the picture, is superb. After that, the technology gets more advanced but the art mostly doesn’t. For any Hockneyphile, however, the show is essential.

David Hockney Retrospective Photoworks at the National Museum Cardiff until 5 Jan 2000

Paul Fusco
RFK Funeral Train
Photographers Gallery, London

Paul Fusco RFK Funeral Train
Paul Fusco RFK Funeral Train

Paul Fusco The Photographers Gallery There are many contenders for the moment when the utopian agenda of modernism collapsed and began its slide into the winner-takes-all state of postmodernism: the 1968 student riots in Paris, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the election of Thatcher. For Paul Fusco, the American photographer, it was the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. Many believed that when his brother had been elected President there would be a new inclusive brand of politics that upheld the rights of the have-nots rather than the privileged haves. When Kennedy was gunned down in Dallas, dying in a blood-spattered heap in Jackie’s lap, there was both the belief and hope that his brother Bobby would take on the mantle of reform. But tragedy struck again. Just past midnight, in the early hours of 5 June 1968, in the pantry of the Ambassador Hotel, Los Angeles, Bobby was gunned down and with his death something else died.

After his funeral in St Patrick’s Cathedral, New York, his body was taken by train to Arlington Cemetery, Washington, his coffin placed in the last of the 22 carriages, elevated on chairs so as to be visible through the windows. Paul Fusco was on the train and photographed the mourners waiting along the track gathered to pay their respects. Town bands, cub scouts, nuns, fat men in shorts and children in sneakers all gathered to bid farewell as the train passes. These are ordinary, working Americans. As the train passes though trailer parks and downtown suburbs an elderly black woman kneels in prayer while a solitary white matron stands in a field waving a white handkerchief clasping a bunch of hastily plucked daisies. The photographs are arranged round the room like the journey. One can almost feel the hope draining away.

Paul Fusco RFK Funeral Train at the Photographers Gallery until 5 Feb 2000

Jordan Baseman
The History of Existentialism
Wigmore Fine Art, London

Jordan Baseman Untitled (Hackney Hospital), 1995
Jordan Baseman Untitled (Hackney Hospital), 1995

Wanting to make the grand millennial statement must be tempting. But it’s probably better resisted. Jordan Baseman is an artist I’ve always rather enjoyed. I remember a piece, some years ago, made of black latex and huge dressmaker’s pins. It resembled a sado-masochist’s lavatory brush crossed with a fox’s tail. It was its witty ambiguity that made it appealing. Poignant, too, was a piece shown in 1995 at the abandoned psychiatric hospital in Hackney. A rack of children’s blue school shirts, each with a hallmark tuft of hair, stood in mute isolation. Neither work attempted “the big statement” and was all the better for it. Meaning was fluid and the viewer left to fill in the gaps. But “The History of Existentialism” aims at the big theme. (And what bigger than the end of a millennium?) But it comes across as rather contrived. Existentialism is a loaded word, conjuring intense Sixth Form debates on Sartre and the meaning of life while being cool in Juliette Greco black. Here Baseman leaves us in no doubt as to his theme with a single slide projecting the words “THE END” just above the skirting board. In the basement, three video monitors show a McDonald’s paper cup blowing in an anonymous industrial landscape (the evils of capitalism?), a mangy old crow pecking in a park (ecological devastation, perhaps?) and a defunct fountain in a run-down urban locality over which the words of a lullaby are played (urban decline and the collapse of rooted society?). Next to these is “a modified carbon dioxide dispenser, its tubes ready for insertion into the nostrils” – necessary, no doubt, as we gasp our last, hurtling towards the end of history, and a bottle of sulphuric acid, which sits ominously on a large wooden table, presumably in case we don’t think it’s worth it and want out.

Jordan Baseman The History of Existentialism at Wigmore Fine Art, London until 14 Jan 2000

 

João Penalva
336 PEK

Camden Arts Centre, London

João Penalva 336 PEK
João Penalva 336 PEK

The gallery has been turned into a cinema. A blurred image flickers. It seems to be a park of some sort. There are trees and grass. People, a dog, children pass to and fro like pale ghosts. A subdued voice, in Russian, breaks into the silence. “And his question was `What do you remember of your father?'” The monologue continues against the monochromatic backdrop, like someone speaking in a dream. “I remember the sound of his lighter, opening and closing.” The voice later states: “Had I been asked the same question one minute, one second earlier or later, I would have answered with another image”.

This is a mesmerising, riveting work by the London-based Portuguese-born Joao Penalva: an hour-long video, with 1,000 subtitles – the original English text of the Russian translation. The central image of 336 PEK is Lake Baikal, with its 336 tributaries. The folklore of the lake and the personal memories of the speaker (including the poignant story of an old couple who fill their tiny apartment with bin bags of refuse) are spun into an hypnotic meditation on the nature of truth, identity and narrative. Listening to the voice is like entering a trance; events and memories, true and false, are woven into a poetic palimpsest. The lake becomes a metaphor for the imagination. Dark, black and deep, it is a place where both noxious rubbish might be buried and from which fairytales of swan maidens, symbols of longing and desire, emerge. For the final 15 minutes the voice intones the names of all 336 rivers, only to state: “These are not the names of the 336 rivers I learned in school. Because now, we are told there are 460 and only 277 have been named.” With its poetic intensity and lack of easy irony, this extraordinary work has the poignancy of a Chekhov short story.

João Penalva 336 PEK at Camden Arts Centre, London until 23 Jan 2000

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 1999

Image1: © David Hockney
Image 2: © Paul Fusco
Image3: © Jordan Baseman
Image4: © João Penalva

Published in The Independent

Art Criticism

Jenny Holzer
Detained
Sprüth Magers, London

Published in The Independent

The nature of any government can be judged by the records it keeps. Who keeps records on whom, and why? While in the modern world we expect basic data to be held by official agencies, the issue of record-keeping and its legitimacy has become increasingly sensitive, with the loss of information including Child Support Agency statistics and data pertaining to Iraq.

Jenny Holzer

Jenny Holzer is an American artist best known for her Truisms. Born in 1950, she began as an abstract artist who, in the 1970s, started to use text which she placed in unorthodox public spaces. Her street posters and hoardings bearing cryptic textual aphorisms could be found clandestinely pasted on walls or inside telephone booths.

More recently, she was commissioned to mark Samuel Beckett’s centenary by projecting light-poems onto London landmarks such as City Hall and Somerset House, and many will have seen her light-piece high above Piccadilly Circus without even realising that it was “art”. In 2007 her Venice Biennale project was devoted to a continuing series of declassified-document paintings. These have been made – thanks to Freedom of Information legislation – using declassified US government documents such as sworn statements, e-mails and other official material, which relate to the war in Iraq. Most of the information was found in the public domain by visiting the website for the American Civil Liberties Union, which believes that, “we must preserve the protections and the checks and balances in the Constitution against government abuses of power that violate our rights and values”.

In this new exhibition, Holzer’s large oil-on-linen paintings depict the official handprints of American soldiers accused of crimes, including detainee abuse and assault, and which, for reasons of secrecy or national security, have been censored so that the owner of the print can no longer be identified. Some have been subjected to total erasure by the censor’s black ink, while others have had skeletal black lines drawn through the palm and along each finger like the bones visible in an X-ray. Still others have been destroyed by a scribble or a lattice of lines which reveal the rather bizarre creativity of individual censors. All other official information has been obliterated and some of the documents have been stamped: “For official use only. Law Enforcement Sensitive”.

Jenny Holzer

Despite her source material Holzer does not offer an easy ideological reading, for the hands of those charged with serious abuse hang next to those of the wrongly accused. for this is the hazy netherworld of military combat where the murky is perpetrated in the name of “national security” and “democracy”. These handprints are stigmata generated by Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, where the negative becomes positive and positive becomes an erased negative in a world of endless paradox.

Animating the front gallery and bleeding light out into the street is Holzer’s sculptural LED artwork built of 10 semi-circular rotating signs in red, white, blue and purple light, entitled Torso. The work appropriates and displays statements and extracts from the case-files of accused soldiers, layering these voices, without comment, blame or defence, to create a palimpsest that suggests complex levels of abuse, blame and culpability.

Jenny Holzer Detained at Sprüth Magers, London to 15 March 2008

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Images © Jenny Holzer

Published in The Independent

Art Criticism

Shirazeh Houshiary
Lisson Gallery London

Published in The Independent

Shirazeh Houshiary Black Light 2008
Black Light, 2008

In his rather gnomic text From the Book to the Book, the French mystic philosopher poet Edmond Jabès wrote: “Writing… is an act of silence directed against silence, the first positive act of death against death.” The art of Shirazeh Houshiary, the Iranian-born painter who was nominated for the Turner Prize in 1994 and who was responsible for the new East window recently created for St Martin-in-the-Fields church in central London, has always had a strong relationship with the word. Writing forms the basis of her elusive and beautiful paintings. Each work has been derived from a word unknown to the viewer, a word that has a relevance for the artist. Like clouds, they appear to hover insubstantially over the solid aquacryl backgrounds.

These canvases seem to ask questions. Is this a painting? If so, of what and what does it mean? But these are the wrong questions. For these are not paintings of objects, nor are they, in the conventional sense, abstract paintings; rather they are emotional states made manifest in paint. Like the whirling dervishes, for whom their twirling dance is one of the physical methods used to reach religious ecstasy, these paintings have a similar (though more secular) function. Their making can be considered a form of meditation and as in meditation concentration on the breath is paramount.

Shirazeh Houshiary Untitled 2008
Untitled, 2008

Breath, light, air and the prolonged act of attention are the hallmarks of these ethereal works. The blue and grey pencil marks littered across their surfaces have an otherwordly quality, while those in red and blue read like the colour of skin tinged with light. As in great religious paintings from the quattrocento, such as those by Fra Angelico, light implies a state beyond the quotidian. In Cypher, the blue and grey marks on a white ground suggest the blue of heaven. In Shroud, the screen is impregnated by a breathing presence that’s palpable yet invisible. The pink and blue marks look both like linen and flesh.

Also on show here are Houshiary’s new series of spiral towers. Made of anodised aluminium, the open bricks are held together by tension. There is a relationship both to the study for Brancusi’s Endless Column proposed for a site in Romania, as well as to the columns in Fra Angelico’s The Annunciation. They also suggest columns of light or, in their rhythmic movement, whirling dervishes.

These are sculptures and paintings that do not insist. They are dependent on the viewer taking time. As TS Eliot said in “Burnt Norton”:

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is…

Shirazeh Houshiary at the Lisson Gallery, London until 26 July 2008

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2008

Images © Shirazeh Houshiary 2008. Courtesy of the Lisson Gallery

Published in The Independent

Art Criticism

Rachel Howard
How To Disappear Completely
Haunch of Venison London

Published in The Independent

Rachel Howard Suicide Painting 2
Suicide Painting 2

“This is the silence of astounded souls,” wrote Sylvia Plath in “Crossing the Water”. She may well have been talking of suicide, for Plath, more than any other poet, knew about the landscape of despair. She would, I think, have appreciated Rachel Howard’s new paintings, have felt that they capture something of the psychological state and the lonely tragic fact of suicide.

A graduate of Goldsmith’s College, and Damien Hirst’s one-time assistant, Howard might be expected to take a fashionably ironic position. But, raised as she was in a Quaker household, art for her is a serious business, something she is committed to “for the long term”.

Howard is not afraid of the big subject; art that pulls at the guts rather than being clever and self-referential, too afraid to say boo in case it finds itself in the realm of the real rather than of the ersatz.

A series of small paintings on the ground floor of this, her first exhibition, How to Disappear Completely, sets the theme. A pair of scissors, a potential instrument of self-harm, is set next to a painting of a small black dog, a recurring image that speaks of vulnerability and neglect, melancholia and depression.

Ambiguous and disturbing in their quiet beauty, these small works are hung alongside the black silhouette of Halfway House, which, with its high pitched roof and blank façade, suggests not only the dosshouse of strained circumstances but the emotional limbo experienced by those in a suicidal state.

Rachel Howard Suicide Painting 3
Suicide Painting 3

Howard trawls newspapers and forensic sites on the internet to find her subject matter. She came to the subject through the suicide of a friend, which affected her deeply. Suicide is, she considers, one of the last taboos. A trussed figure hangs from a rope; a faceless boy looks blankly out at the viewer, while the body of a woman lying across an iron bedstead recalls the dark psychosexual claustrophobia of Walter Sickert. All are faceless because there is nothing to celebrate about loss and suffering, displacement and pain. These are images of the ultimate human crisis. For, unlike Beckett’s dictum that we all fail but tomorrow we will attempt to fail again better, here all hope has finally been extinguished.

Intrinsic to Howard’s work is a tension between process and subject. She uses household paint, which is poured and pulled by gravity to create shiny lacquered surfaces of great finesse, on to which her figures are painted with a loaded brush. These are executed very quickly in black paint, as if doing a watercolour in order to meld, as she puts it, the tragic beauty of Zola’s Nana with Capote’s In Cold Blood.

Howard trawls newspapers and forensic sites on the internet to find her subject matter. She came to the subject through the suicide of a friend, which affected her deeply. Suicide is, she considers, one of the last taboos. A trussed figure hangs from a rope; a faceless boy looks blankly out at the viewer, while the body of a woman lying across an iron bedstead recalls the dark psychosexual claustrophobia of Walter Sickert. All are faceless because there is nothing to celebrate about loss and suffering, displacement and pain. These are images of the ultimate human crisis. For, unlike Beckett’s dictum that we all fail but tomorrow we will attempt to fail again better, here all hope has finally been extinguished.

The results are powerful and troubling, as if our worst nightmares had been dredged from some murky subterranean place. Those she has conjured are the discarded, the forgotten and the lost for whom she has created a poignant requiem.

Rachel Howard Drawings

On the top floor of the gallery, her preliminary line drawings suggest the edgy pathos of Egon Schiele. There are also five important large-format abstract works – though she does not distinguish between abstraction and figuration; for her, it is all simply painting. Colour is built in layers and veils of paint, and the mood is transcendental. Unlike other painters of her generation, she not afraid to acknowledge her debt to the past – to Mondrian, Rothko and Barnett Newman – though the signature of the poured lacquered surfaces is her own. Light seeps through grids to suggest entrapment, or the alienation of urban spaces where the lit windows of high-rise buildings bleed on to deserted night streets.

Howard is a perfectionist and admits to many failures. The creation of these ambitious canvases is a psychological and physical battle, which demonstrates that there is still a role for emotionally articulate art that has something important to say about the poignancy and tragedy of the human condition.

Rachel Howard How To Disappear Completely at the Haunch of Venison from 11 Jan to 23 Feb 2008

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2008

Images © Rachel Howard. Courtesy of the Haunch of Venison

Published in The Independent

Art Criticism

Henrik Plenge Jakobsen
J’Accuse
South London Gallery

Published in The Independent

Henrik Plenge Jakobsen J'Accuse 2005
J’Accuse, 2005

The Dreyfus affair was one of the most disgraceful in French history. Alfred Dreyfus was an obscure captain in the French army who came from a Jewish family that had left its native Alsace for Paris when Germany annexed that province in 1871. In 1894, papers discovered in the office of a German military attache made it appear that a French military officer was providing secret information to the German government. Dreyfus came under suspicion, and the army authorities declared that his handwriting was similar to that on the papers. Despite his protestations of innocence, he was found guilty of treason in a secret court martial, during which Dreyfus was denied the right to examine the evidence. The army stripped him of his rank and he was sentenced to life imprisonment. By 1896, the generals involved knew Commandant Ferdinand Esterhazy was the culprit, but it took 12 years for Dreyfus’s conviction to be overturned.

The case underscored the bitter divisions in late 19th-century France between monarchists and republicans, the right and left, the Catholic Church and the army, and was tainted by the whiff of anti-Semitism. In 1898, the French novelist Emile Zola wrote J’Accuse in defence of Dreyfus. The article led to the author being tried for criminal libel. Public passion was aroused, as the political right and the leadership of the Catholic Church – both of which were openly hostile to the Republic – declared the Dreyfus case to be a conspiracy of Jews and Freemasons designed to damage the prestige of the army and, thereby, destroy France.

The Danish artist Henrik Plenge Jakobsen has used the case as the starting point for his installation at the South London Gallery, where he has transformed the space into a black-and-white mise-en-scene that melds something of Peter Greenaway’s film The Draughtsman’s Contract with the optical art of Bridget Riley.

Henrik Plenge Jakobsen Mineral Judges 2005
Mineral Judges, 2005

To make sure that we know we are in the 17th century, the sound of a harpsichord and an organ lend a period flavour. A court bench and a judge’s chair provide the seating to view The Mineral Judges, a video in which three fictional characters in legal gear and wellies search for “evidence” in the mud-flats of the Thames. Separate showcases house sculptural installations entitled The Bank of Evidence, The Bank of England, The European Central Bank and The Bank of Accusations, assembled from buckets of gravel, mud and detritus, euro coins, dollar bills and beer cans. Spades and a judge’s wig appear as other “exhibits”.

In the centre of the space is a large stage painted in black and white, with loudspeakers, keyboards, a turntable and an amplifier. On the opposite wall are rows of black-and-white vinyl EPs of music by Purcell and something by Jakobsen. Fixed in rows along the wall, the discs look like the blank faces of an impassive jury.

The press release urges us to believe that Jakobsen “draw[s] parallels between Zola’s letter and the current climate of fear and suspicion generated in an environment of political spin”. But without all the attendant commentary, the piece would not really be intelligible; it just does not deliver what it sets out to do and simply claims too much. Three guys dressed up as judges digging in the mud of the Thames and a pile of dollars bills do not make a political critique; and it is unclear who is being accused and of what. Any parallels between the Dreyfus affair and, say, the illegal incarcerations at Guantanamo Bay are just too wide and insufficiently signalled within the work itself.

While it is commendable in these times of cultural indifference towards politics that any artist should feel the need to become involved in current debates, Jakobsen’s offering adds up to little more than a critique of the funny wigs worn by the English judiciary and something vague about the pervasive power of the dollar.

Henrik Plenge Jakobsen J’Accuse at the South London Gallery from 14 January to 27 February 2005

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Images © Henrik Plenge Jakobsen 2005
J’Accuse Photo: Marcus Leith

Published in The Independent

Art Criticism

Frida Kahlo
A Ribbon around a Bomb

Published in The Independent

The personal is political. Thus went the credo of the 60s and 70s feminist movement. Feminists argued that sexual difference was produced through the interconnection of social practice and institution. The destabilising of traditional gender roles which saw women primarily as carers and mothers – financially disempowered, dependent domestic angels – was also part of the matrix that identified white male patriarchy as the root of both colonialism and world poverty. To explore the history of women in culture and art was to reveal how history itself was written; to expose it prejudices, its assumptions, its stubborn silences. Such investigations did not simply make visible the role of women in society but held up a mirror to the way society itself was constructed. Women, along with the poor, were its silent, disenfranchised victims. Neither group had a voice, neither had the power to determine the way their destinies unfolded. Women, before the age of contraception, were enslaved by their bodies to years of childbearing, miscarriages and abortions; the poor were enslaved to their landlords and bosses.

Frida Kahlo My Grandparents, My Parents and I 1936
My Grandparents, My Parents and I, 1936

Twenty years ago feminist art critics such as Griselda Pollock argued that a Marxist understanding of history was “extremely pertinent and necessary for producing a feminist paradigm for the study of what it is proper to rename as cultural production… a feminist historical materialism does not merely substitute gender for class but deciphers the intricate interdependence of class and gender, as well as race, in all forms of historical practice.” Many feminists suggested, as did the French critic Foucault, that ‘sexuality’ was fundamentally bourgeois in origin. “It was in the great middle classes that sexuality, albeit in a morally restricted and sharply defined form, first became of major ideological significance.”

The life and work of the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo has achieved near cult status and resulted in numerous books, a feature film and now a major new exhibition at the Tate. Her total output was small, no more than 150 paintings. Yet her exotic, provocative and colourful life has become the stuff of modern myth. Kahlo lived in remarkable times. Born in 1907 she witnessed profound political changes that occurred during the uprising that was to become the Mexican Revolution. So closely did she identify with the poor, the peasantry and the underdog, rather than with the bourgeois class into which she was born, that she changed the date of her birth to 1910 to coincide with the start of the Revolution. The mood of political freedom engendered a new pride in Mexican nationalism, fostering a renaissance in indigenous art, craft and native traditions known as ‘indiginism’. A bright young woman of mixed European and Mexican origin – her father was a German Jew and her mother half Mexican, half Indian – she was one of only thirty-five girls out of a total of two thousand students to enter the highly competitive Preparatory school. Her aim was to study medicine. She had a particular interest in social science, biology and botany. Culturally aware, her friends formed part of a radical intellectual and political elite that looked to Pre-Columbian Mexico rather than to the United States or Europe for their cultural roots.

Frida’s life was characterised by a series of dichotomies – the pull between Europe and Mexico, between the masculine and feminine, dark and light, ancient and modern, illness and health, the personal and the political. These conflicts led to her life-long investigations of female sexuality, sexual difference, marginality, cultural identity, power, passivity and pain. Her painting My Grandparents, My Parents and I of 1936 traces her ancestry and maps this sense of dualism. A small naked girl stands in the courtyard of the Blue House in Coyoacán (today the Frida Kahlo museum) holding a red ribbon. It reaches back to both sets of grandparents, encircling her parents and echoing the red umbilicus that connects her own growing foetus to her mother’s stomach.

Frida Kahlo Nurse and I 1937
Nurse and I, 1937

Frida Kahlo had a complicated childhood. Her mother was her father’s second wife and she grew up amid rivalry with her half-sisters. Although her father, a photographer, was cultivated and sensitive to his daughter’s needs, her mother (known by Frida as el Jefe – the Chief) was more inclined to effusive religious avowals than to displays of maternal affection. When her eldest daughter, Matilde, fled the household she refused to speak to her for twelve years. On the birth of Frida’s sister Cristina, born only eleven months after her own birth, she was placed with a wet nurse. Her sense of angry deprivation is graphically illustrated in My Nurse and I painted in 1937 where she depicts herself “with the face of a grown woman and the body of a little girl, in the arms of my nurse, milk dripping from her breasts as from the heavens.” The face of the nurse, who is naked from the waist up, has been replaced by a pre-Columbian Teotihuacan stone mask, conflating European Christian images of the Madonna and Child with those of an indigenous earth mother goddesses. Female sexuality, maternity, death and Mexico thus become intrinsically entwined.

At the age of six Frida caught polio. One leg became very thin and her foot deformed, cruelly resulting in the nickname “peg-leg Frida” at the German College in Mexico City to which she had been sent. It was her father’s idea for her to have a German education. A loving but fragile man, subject to epileptic fits, she helped him touch up his photographs in the studio and he encouraged her interest in art and reading. He had an extensive library of German classics: Goethe, Schiller and other philosophers and kept a photograph of Schopenhauer above his desk. As an adolescent she attempted to hide her deformity behind trousers – which appealed to her innate sense of androgyny – and later beneath exotic Mexican skirts. On 17th September 1925, on the way home from school with her then boyfriend, Alejandro Gómez Arias, the bus she was on collided with a tram. She suffered multiple injuries, particularly to her back and pelvis, lost her virginity and spent three months confined to bed in a plaster caste. During that time she read a good deal, everything from the Chinese poetry of Li Tai Po, to Proust and articles on the Russian Revolution. It was whilst she was immobilised that she started to paint self- portraits from a mirror fixed to a canopy over her bed. “I paint myself,” she wrote, “because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best.”

With her recovered health she resumed acquaintance with her political and radical friends. In 1928 she joined the Communist party, marching into the Ministry of Public Education where the already famous muralist and fellow Communist, Diego Rivera, was working, to demand an opinion on her work. In response Rivera included her in his fresco at the Secretariat of Public Education with a red star pinned to her breast. They soon, despite the twenty year age gap and their physical discrepancies – he was tall and fat, she tiny – were romantically involved. Their friends dubbed them the dove and the fat frog. Later she was to claim that she had had two accidents in her life; the tram crash and her meeting with Rivera. Despite numerous mutual infidelities – he with her sister Cristina, she with Trotsky to whom she and Rivera gave political asylum – they remained soul mates – with a brief divorce – for over 20 years.

Frida Kahlo Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair 1940
Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair, 1940

From 1930 to 1934 she and Rivera went to live in America where he had been commissioned to paint murals in New York and Detroit. He was to have his contract terminated when he gaave one of workers in his mural with the face of Lenin. Rivera thrived in America, but she Frida was lonely, missed Mexico and suffered a dramatic miscarriage. She had already had her first pregnancy terminated in 1930 owing to the incorrect position of the foetus. The couple’s relationship was beginning to break down.

The very personal images of her broken and battered body have become iconic, rather as the late poems of Sylvia Plath have done, attracting a body of women who identify Kahlo and Plath as victims – the used and abused casualties of their domineering male partners – Diego Rivera, in the case of Kahlo and the poet Ted Hughes in that of Plath. But whilst Frida Kahlo certainly developed a strongly autobiographical pictorial language to map the emotional events of her life, her message is neither so singular nor hermetic.

Certainly she suffered physical pain from her injuries, depression due to her miscarriage and her inability to carry a child to term, as well as despair at Diego’s constant affairs and these events contributed to the rich idiosyncratic language of her paintings. Her naked, bloodied body lies on an iron bedstead in Henry Ford Hospital recovering from her miscarriage linked by blood vessels to a snail, a pelvic bone, a female abdomen, a lock and an orchid. While in hospital she asked to see her lost foetus and also referred to illustrations in medical text books. The Two Fridas, painted shortly after her divorce portrays a duel self – part European, part Mexican, both the dutiful wife with a bleeding heart and a more autonomous woman in national costume. In Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair, painted in 1940 during her estrangement from Diego, she sits alone cutting off her long locks, the symbol of female beauty and sexuality, dressed asexually in a man’s suit. As I wrote of her sense of loss in my poem Frida:

You opened me like a door
onto a room of rose light,
now my shattered heart lies trussed in its
orthopaedic brace,
scar tissue puckered like the red zip of closed lips.
In the dark of my room
I sit in a man’s suit cutting my long hair,
watching each lock
as it falls, then lifts in the dawn wind like
a black-headed gull.
Frida Kahlo Henry Ford Hospital 1932
Henry Ford Hospital, 1932

Whilst her powerful imagery is strongly autobiographical and likely to touch any woman who has ever been betrayed in love, it also has its roots in retablos, the Mexican vernacular votive paintings of Christian saints and martyrs as well as in pre-Columbian myth. In Mexican folklore La Llorona is the archetypal ‘evil woman’; a sexually voracious predator who stands in contrast to the blessed wife and mother. Unwed and abandoned by her lover she commits, in a bout of deviant erotic energy, an act of Medea-like infanticide. The painting Henry Ford Hospital is, therefore, not simply a cry of personal despair. It is also breaks a number of taboos by portraying a woman for whom conception was obviously not immaculate, a woman who gives birth not to a holy child but to a pool of unclean uterine blood, a woman stigmatised and marginalised by both her sexual appetites and her infertility. Implicit also is the suggestion that a woman who cannot bring forth a child can make art. The very act of painting becomes a substitute for physical birth. With this rejection of the archetypal feminine role Kahlo engages with a broader political discourse about the place of women within Mexican society.

She has often been labelled a Surrealist. Whilst she certainly met André Breton on his visit to Mexico in 1938, and travelled to Paris in 1939 to exhibit in an exhibition he organised, this link has tended to blur her political ambition and led to her work being seen as exclusively about women’s experience. This is largely due to the (male) Surrealists belief that women were closer to the unconscious (like criminals and the insane) than men. For Breton there was “no art more exclusively feminine… by turns absolutely pure and absolutely pernicious.” But this male centred, essentialist view and obsession with Kahlo’s ‘otherness’ and ‘exoticism’, obscured the scope of her political engagement. For Breton could see only “what was alien to the rational world of the white European male – madness, women, the exotic.” The closest he got to understanding her real political vision was when he described her as “a ribbon around a bomb”. For it is easy to forget, amid the facts of her colourful love life, that Frida Kahlo was already a committed ‘Third World cultural nationalist’ with strong revolutionary leanings before she even met Diego Rivera. It was presumably these that led her to have an affair with Trotsky, who was not, after all, known for playboy good looks.

Frida Kahlo The Two Fridas 1939
The Two Fridas, 1939

Her ill health – she had further operations on her spine, spent time in an iron corset and eventually lost a foot to gangrene – her affairs with both men and woman, her passion for exotic Tehuana dress, all became absorbed into the vocabulary of her art. The dualistic principle, which characterises many of her paintings, can be traced back to pre-Columbian myth. It is evident in those self-portraits where she divides the ground into mirror opposites of dark and light, night and day. This bipartite view of the universe is also extended to herself as the wife and artist, the native Mexican and European, the lover of women and men. What makes her art so strongly ‘feminine’ is this use of autobiographical material. She increasingly employed it as a means of psychological exploration, as a way of making sense of her own psyche. But it was not totally solipsistic, for what is often overlooked is that in so doing she also formulated a language of art which questioned the values of neo-colonialism. As the writer Claudia Schaefer has claimed her paintings can be seen as “private allegories” of “the embattled situation of the public third-world culture and society.” Her political sensibility is clearly visible in her less flamboyant still lives of fruit and vegetables, which express a pride in Mexican identity, in the paintings that examine the imbalance of power between Mexico and the US, as well as in the images of her broken body which reflect the shattered dreams of the Mexican revolution. The personal is, in the case of Frida Kahlo, very definitely political.

So what is her legacy? How important is she as an artist? Her rather flatly painted canvases have little to do with ideas of gesture and surface being explored by mostly male artists within the modern art movements of Europe and America in the first half of the 20th century; borrowing, as they do, from popular and native Mexican art. But as in Sylvia Plath’s poetry there is something atavistic about her imagery that continues to speak directly to the most vulnerable and wounded parts of many women. By becoming her own subject she mirrored the current interest in Freud, psychoanalysis and the unconscious, as well as reflecting the changing role of women within contemporary society. Whilst her friend Georgia O’Keeffe painted flowers that made covert reference to female eroticism no woman had previously painted such personal and blatant images of their own sexuality as had Frida Kahlo. In so doing she opened the door for artists such Louise Bourgois, Paula Rego and Tracy Emin to mine their own psycho-sexual histories.

Describing her life and work in 1943, Diego said “Frida’s art is collective-individual. Her realism is so monumental that everything possesses universal dimensions, and, as a consequence, she paints the outside, the inside, and the very bottom of herself and the world.”

Sue Hubbard’s poem ‘Frida’ is available in her collection ‘Ghost Station’ published by Salt.

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2005

Image 1&3: Collection MOMA
Image 2: Frida Kahlo Foundation
Image 4: Collection of Dolores Olmedo Mexico City, Mexico
Image 5: Collection Museum of Modern Art Mexico City, Mexico

Published in The Independent

Art Criticism

William Kentridge
Fragile Identities

Published in The Independent

William Kentridge is South Africa’s most famous artist. Born in Johannesburg in 1955, he studied politics and African studies before doing fine arts at the Johannesburg Art Foundation, and studying mime at the famous Ecole Jacques Lecoq in Paris. Originally he had hoped to become an actor; however, he was, he says, so bad that he was reduced to becoming an artist. Since then he has worked in theatre and in television as an art director. In 1999 he won the Carnegie International Medal.

William Kentridge Zeno Writing, 2002
Zeno Writing, 2002

Best known for his animated films, these evocative, powerful and disturbing works are constructed by a process of filming and drawing. A charcoal drawing is filmed, erasures and changes are made, and then it is shot again. A single drawing is altered and filmed this way until the end of a scene.

Unlike a film, where each frame is painted or digitally created, there is something about this process of cons-tant erasure that is akin to dreaming. Things emerge and transform to reveal something of Kentridge’s personal odyssey through the fraught landscape of apartheid and colonialism. Although a political artist, he says he is primarily interested in “an art of ambiguity, contradiction, uncompleted gestures and uncertain ending an art (and a politics) in which optimism is kept in check, and nihilism at bay.” Meaning is reached towards, stumbled upon and suggested. Philosophical of bent, his work is essentially existential, rooted in surrealism and the theatre of the absurd.

William Kentridge Ubu Tells the Truth, 1996-7
Ubu Tells the Truth, 1996-7

This new show, split between the University of Brighton Gallery and a partially restored Regency townhouse, presents animated and anamorphic films, stereoscopic photogravures, prints and drawings. The work in the university gallery includes a number of Kentridge’s print series such as Ubu Tells the Truth (1996-7), a collaborative celebration with artists Deborah Bell and Robert Hodgins on the centenary of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi that surrealist invective against the casual power of tyrants and Zeno Writing (2002), inspired by Italo Svevo’s 1923 novel Confessions of Zeno, about a man socially, politically and personally paralysed by inaction set against the background of a Europe trudging inexorably towards war.

Kentridge’s production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute was premiered at La Monnaie in Brussels in 2005. His series of prints, shown here, suggests a renewed emphasis on the opera’s themes that deal with the struggle of Enlightenment values against the forces of superstition and self-interest.

William Kentridge Stereoscopic Photogravures, 2007
Stereoscopic Photogravures, 2007

The nature of perception is a question that is of fundamental concern and is explored in the Stereoscopic Photogravures (2007). Here, dual images are brought together so the viewer perceives a depth of field previously not present in the separate prints.

This is not simply some perceptual trick but underlines Kentridge’s point that “the activity of seeing, or the work that we do in seeing… is a philosophical point about epistemology… it is about not understanding ourselves as merely passive receivers, or objects of manipulation, but people who are actively involved in constructing our world the whole time…” The nature of free will is the discourse that fuels Kentridge’s work.

William Kentridge What Will Come (has already come), 2007 Series
What Will Come (has already come), 2007 Series

While the prints are, without doubt, interesting, it is his animated work that has the most impact. Back-projected onto the street and turned on at dusk to the delight of passers-by, seven films in honour of the early cinmateur Georges Mlis have been framed in the gallery windows.

Up the road, in the distressed beauty of a partially renovated Regency house in Brunswick Square, is the centrepiece of the exhibition, the mesmeric and provocative anamorphic film What Will Come (Has Already Come) (2006), which uses the Italian assault on Abyssinia to highlight the universal misery of wars fought by those with superior technology against those who cannot adequately defend themselves. This powerful, intelligent work, which grows out of the tradition of European Expressionism and the work of painters such as George Grosz and Otto Dix, reminds us of the fact that all life is in some way political.

William Kentridge Fragile Identities at the University of Brighton Gallery and The Regency Town House, Brighton until 31 December 2007

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2007

Images © William Kentridge

Published in The Independent

Art Criticism

Anselm Kiefer
Margarete 1981

Published in The Independent

Anselm Kiefer Margarete 1981

The Romanian poet Paul Celan was the only member of his family to survive incarceration in a concentration camp during the Holocaust, but committed suicide in 1970, at the age of 49, after producing a body of work that included the searingly painful poem, “Death Fugue”. In it he talks of the inhabitants of the camp drinking black milk and digging graves in the sky. Two figures are contrasted in the poem and act as the central metaphor: Margarete, with her cascade of blonde Aryan hair, and Shulamite, a Jewish woman whose black hair denotes her Semitic origins, but which is also ashen from burning.

The theme of Celan’s poem has been a preoccupation of the German artist Anselm Kiefer, for whom Margarete and Shulamite have become the metaphoric protagonists in a series of paintings, of which Margarete (1981) is the concluding work. Art and history have a complex and uncomfortable relationship within Kiefer’s work. In the Seventies, he was concerned with depicting the land where historic events might have occurred. An archetypal landscape began to dominate where the earth was burnt or blackened, and the high horizon line seemed to prevent escape.

As Kiefer’s 1980s series on Margarete and Shulamite evolved, like Celan, he developed a series of visual tropes to characterise the two women. Shulamite’s black hair is usually painted, while Margarete’s is depicted in straw embedded in the paint. Mirror images of each other, Kiefer implies that the destinies and cultures of these women were inextricably linked. Straw added to a painting of Shulamite suggests Margarete’s golden tresses, while black lines or tangled areas of black paint in Margarete imply the silent, erased presence of Shulamite. For Kiefer, Germany had maimed itself by the Holocaust. By pairing these two women in paint, he attempts a restoration of wholeness.

Having exploited the metaphoric resonances of lead and sand, Kiefer first used straw in the early Eighties. With its potential to be burnt and turn to ash, it not only implied a landscape scarred and formed by history, war and fire, but also the possibility of alchemical transformation. Margarete, indicated by straw, symbolises the German love of land, and the nobility of the German soul, allowing Kiefer to play with complex notions of racial purity. The image of Margarete owes much to the vision of German womanhood created by Goethe. In Faust, Margarete (also known as Gretchen) exhibits a pure, innocent love for Faust. But love leads to a series of deceits and the killing of her own baby. While lying in prison on a bed of straw, Faust murders her brother. Thus Margarete’s innocence is tainted. Goethe depicts women as sacred preservers of moral values, undone by male power, yet able to be both saved and redeemed. This is a model to which Kiefer often refers, though, for him, there’s an ambivalence about the implied purity of such women.

In Margarete (1981), the name is scrawled in black across the surface like graffiti, part-prayer, part-memorial. Tendrils of straw curl upwards like smoke from death-camp chimneys, ending in candle-like flames. Meaning is ambiguous. For this flourishing crop might imply resurrection, yet the soil from which it grows is charred, while the tangles of black paint evoke the shorn piles of hair found at Auschwitz. Of his limited palette, Kiefer has said that only the French traditionally use a range of colours; as a German, he’s less familiar with the practice.

Kiefer abandoned law in 1966 for art. His intellectual and artistic evolution mirrored the concerns of other German artists. He rejected the American influence of Abstract Expressionism, Pop and Minimalism to search for a German viewpoint to reflect the upheavals of the war-torn past. Moving from art for art’s sake, he explored the past to learn lessons for the future. Influenced by Beuys, he saw art as a healing, spiritual process, and adopted myth and metaphor to investigate the “recent terror of history”.

This impetus for examining the Nazi era may have partly derived from the 1960s spirit of revolt against the legacy of previous generations. Sensing the unaddressed presence of the Second World War everywhere within contemporary Germany, he felt compelled to confront the silent taboos of post-war German society.

These straw paintings are among the most powerful of Kiefer’s works, and echo Rilke’s words: “For /beauty/ is nothing but the beginning of /terror/, which we are still just able to endure.” In Margarete, straw acts as a symbol for emotions stirred by the idea of land within German history. There is, Kiefer seems to imply, a dark blemish on the soul of the German nation that it will still take generations to erase.

About the artist

Anselm Kiefer was born in Donaueschingen in 1945. He studied law at Freiburg University, giving it up, in 1966, to study art. He is best known for huge paintings that deal ironically with 20th-century German history. He has developed an array of visual symbols commenting on the tragic aspects of German history, particularly the Nazi period. In the Seventies, he painted a series of landscapes that captured the sombre German countryside. In the Eighties his paintings became more physical, and featured unusual textures and materials.

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2008

Image © Anselm Kiefer 1981. Courtesy of the Saatchi Collection

Published in The Independent

Art Criticism

Liliane Lijn
Stardust
Riflemaker London

Published in The Independent

In the semi-darkness of the small upstairs gallery at Riflemaker in London’s Beak Street there are a number of show cases filled with a strange, beautiful and fragile substance. It has an ethereal, otherworldly quality, like spun air.

Liliane Lijn Stardust

It is Aerogel, a substance used by Nasa in its Stardust project to collect both cometary and interstellar dust. Attached to a spacecraft, it has been exposed to a stream of interstellar particles flowing from outer space, far beyond the planet Mars, into the solar system.

During her 2005 ACE and Nasa-funded residency at the Space Sciences Laboratory in California, the artist Liliane Lijn worked with the scientist Andrew Westphal, director of the Stardust project, to explore her interest in light. One of the pioneers of the transformation of scientific thought into art, Lijn has been fascinated not only with the properties of light, sound and movement, but has also expanded her work into the fields of performance and video.

In the 1960s she experimented with her Poem Machines and Poemcons that used kinetic texts to explore movement and stillness, solidity and opacity, transparency and emptiness. Inspired by Milarepa, an 11th-century Buddhist teacher and poet, she took from his teachings the notion that all was void and light, and that it was “the business of art to find the patterns in the noise”.

Liliane Lijn Stardust

Now she has used this strange and delicate material, Aerogel, to make discs and cones. Cones have been part of her aesthetic vocabulary since the Sixties. An ubiquitous form, they were everywhere she looked, from traffic cones to women’s skirts, from church spires to rocket parts.

Always interested in the language of diverse materials, she began to explore the properties of Aerogel, which is used as a thermal insulator for delicate instruments in space. On receiving packages from the Jet Propulsion Laboratories, Pasadena, she realised how vulnerable it was to shattering and fragmentation. These ruins, she felt, equated with the fragments of our material history, with buildings, cities and the traces left by past civilisations.

History is comprised of memories of human experience, while video is memory encoded in light. Because of its essentially empty nature, video projected on to Aerogel was only partly reflected and mostly passed through filtered in layers. In Lijn’s work, footage of ancient temples, markets, people from different cultures dancing, all dissolve in a constant flux of fragile light and colour to blur preconceived and constructed meanings. Order, she suggests, is precarious, and the limits of our known world simply what we have learnt to perceive.

Liliane Lijn Stardust

Born in New York in 1939, Liliane Lijn studied at the Sorbonne, where she came into contact with writers such Gregory Corso and William Burroughs. Arriving in London in 1967 for a solo exhibition, she found that the gallery had unexpectedly closed. Offered a debut instead at the newly opened Indica in Masons Yard, her international career took off from there. Her explorations have included early light sculptures and Poem Machines, artists’ books such as Crossing Map 1983, her performing Goddesses and large-scale public sculpture.

Also on show here, alongside the Aerogel works and early kinetic Koans and conical forms in wood, plastic, acrylic, ceramic and aluminium, is the video Solar Hills, which grew out of her residency at the Space Sciences Laboratory at the University of California, and was a collaboration with John Vallerga. A large-scale installation in the landscape, it fills the horizon with natural solar light that draws people’s attention to the line between heaven and earth in a poetic evocation of the natural world.

The exuberant diversity of form of Lijn’s work has both excited and perplexed the art world since she burst on to London’s art scene in the mid-1960s. Forty years on she still manages to keep alive the spirit of the avant-garde that was such a hallmark of that era.

Liliane Lijn Stardust at Riflemaker, London until 5 July 2008

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2008

Images © Liliane Lijn 2008

Published in The Independent

Art Criticism

Marisol Malatesta
I’m not pregnant!, Meals & SUVs

Published in The Independent

Beyond the established West End galleries and slick architectural spaces such as Victoria Miro or White Cube, with their stable of blue chip artists that tend to get written about in these pages, there exists a whole other art world. Not just the hip galleries in the industrial wastes of Vyner Street, the East End’s answer to Cork Street, but small artist project spaces where the young and unknown show their work. One such space is Meals & SUVs, a small gallery complex on the first floor of a dilapidated building in Haggerston Road, Dalston. It is here that a young Peruvian artist, Marisol Malatesta, has a one-person show.

Born in Peru, Malatesta completed her fine art MA at Byam Shaw in 2003. Since then her work has been shown in a number of group exhibitions, including the arcanely named Did You Feed the Duck? at the former Nylon Gallery. Her rather engaging abstract paintings were based on architectonic structures such as Tatlin’s famous unbuilt tower.

Marisol Malatesta There's a bitch in everyone of us 2007
There’s a bitch in everyone of us, 2007

The blurb for this show suggests her work “references the disciplines of architecture and archaeology in its incorporation of the monumental and the mythic…” Big claims. She better describes her collection of figurative drawings shown here as “cheerful characters in weird scenarios”.

Working as a gallery attendant at the Undercover Surrealism show at the Hayward she came across George Bataille. Attracted to his notion that the beautiful, the subversive and the seductive are close bedfellows she began to explore Peruvian Pre-Inca vases and artefacts, which she has drawn using children’s marker pens and crayons.

Marisol Malatesta Miss Fortune 2007
Miss Fortune, 2007

Malatesta claims that it was through the rediscovery of Pre-Raphaelite painters such as Millais and artists such as Goya, Hogarth and Brueghel that she came to explore human physiognomy in an attempt to “understand” the psychology of facial expressions.

In an anteroom inspired by museum archival “black rooms”, where objects are hidden from public view, are a series of drawings based on erotic Peruvian artefacts. The tensions of being a young South American female artist, are, according to Malatesta, what fuel her work and there is an implicit assumption that the whole somehow creates an overarching narrative, which, quite frankly, it doesn’t. For the theoretical underpinnings and references don’t really make up for the rather unresolved ideas. It’s still a long way to those blue chip galleries.

Marisol Malatesta I’m not pregnant!, Meals & SUVs at Londontwostar until 9 March 2008

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2008

Images © Marisol Malatesta 2007-08

Published in The Independent

Art Criticism

Edouard Manet
Impressions of the Sea
Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam

Published in The Independent

Edouard Manet is famed for his studies of Parisian life. What’s less well-known is his obsession with the sea. Sue Hubbard was granted a sneak preview of the first ever exhibition of his maritime paintings

When he was only sixteen, the painter, Edouard Manet sailed on a round trip from Le Havre to Rio de Janeiro. His father, Auguste, a judge, had expected his son to follow in his footsteps and enter the law, but Edouard was both a disinterested and inadequate student. He did, however, persuade his father that he wanted to become a sailor and in July 1848 took (and failed) the entrance exam for the French naval officers’ school. The exam was only held once a year but a newly enacted law allowed candidates to re-sit the examination if they had served on a French navy or merchant ship whose course crossed the equator. It was thus that the young Manet set sail on a small three mast ship, on what was, in fact, a floating crammer. On board his naval studies did not fare much better than they had on land but, as he wrote to his mother in 1849, he had “developed a reputation during the crossing. All the ship’s officers and all the instructors asked me to make caricatures of them. Even the Captain asked for one, as his Christmas present.” Years later, as a mature painter, he was to write:” I learnt a lot on my trip to Brazil. I spent countless nights watching the play of light and shadow in the ship’s wake.”

Edouard Manet Battle of the Kearsarge and the Alabama 1864
Battle of the Kearsarge and the Alabama. 1864

The sea and the lure of the deep have, since ancient times, exercised a strong hold over the human imagination. Images of seafaring appear on Egyptian tomb paintings, Minoan frescoes and Greek ceramics. From Jason and the Argonauts to Moby Dick the sea has stood as a potent symbol of human struggle, one which embodies the desire for adventure, mastery and conquest. An awesome natural force, the sea was perceived as an essentially feminine entity from which all life evolved. An arena for both discovery and trade it has also loomed large in the unconscious as a place of mystery and terror representing all that was powerful, fathomless and essentially unknowable. Mediaeval maps illustrated a world surrounded by ocean where mythical monsters lurked, while the marine genre of painting that emerged in Europe during the Renaissance expressed an essentially Christian view-point, depicting the world from on high and integrating human activity into God’s cosmos. The sea remained a relatively unexplored motif in European art before the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, appearing as little more than a backdrop for battle scenes. In England, Nelson’s naval victories inspired a generation of sea painters, while for the mercantile Dutch, seascapes expressed their national pride in the prosperity acquired through trade. But for France, Catholic, aristocratic and without an extensive sea trade, the sea remained a comparatively undeveloped theme. The paintings that were produced were historic, patriotic accounts of naval battles, though, the plight of doomed sailors clinging to a fragile craft adrift on a boiling, murderous sea in Théodore Géricault’s Raft of the “Medusa” of 1819, appealed to a burgeoning Romantic sensibility. And with this growth of Romanticism the sea began to take on ever more complex meanings. For Jean-Jacques Rousseau it was something ‘exotic’ and ‘untamed’, while for other artists and intellectuals it came to represent the mystical and stood as a symbol of personal freedom. For Manet and his contemporaries it provided a new aesthetic challenge, for unlike landscape, the sea was in constant flux; an ever-changing phenomenon that needed its own unique descriptive language.

Edouard Manet Steamboat Leaving Boulogne, 1864
Steamboat Leaving Boulogne, 1864

By the mid-1860s certain critics felt that the tradition of official marine painting was already in decline, just as the young Eduoard Manet was about to begin his investigations into the form, though this had as much to do with nineteenth century social changes as it did with aesthetic ones. For with the development of the railways middle-class Parisians, who may never before have seen the sea, were able to leave behind the soot-chocked cities and within a few hours stroll along the new promenades and indulge in the previously English vogue of sea bathing in the new resorts that were springing up along the Channel coast. The colonisation of villages such as Etretat and Honfleur by painters like the English Richard Parkes Bonington and Louis-Gabriel-Eugène Isabey, who had gone there as early as the 1820s to produce illustrated books and travel guides, gave rise to a new genre of painting, the Picturesque, which depicted the workaday life of fishing villages and encouraged tourists to seek out these previously remote locations. All along the Normandy coast the destructive force of the sea, from which man had previously had no protection, was being tamed by architecture; by lighthouses and jetties and the transposed trappings of urban life – hotels, casinos and beach clubs. The tight social rituals and cultural strictures of city life were also being loosened along with women’s stays and the adoption of bathing gear. The beach and the seashore were becoming newly democratic spaces.

Edouard Manet Moonlight over the Port of Bologne 1869
Moonlight over the Port of Bologne, 1869

In fact, there was something of an explosion of marine painting in the 1860s, though not by artists necessarily connected with the Academy or bound by official commissions. For these ‘unofficial’ artists, working en plein air, colour and tone were used to express the sentiment of the place. Manet’s embrace of sea-painting in the summer of 1864 began against this changing social background and coincided with the historic US Civil War naval battle that had recently taken place off the coast of France near Cherbourg. His imaginative re-inaction of the encounter between the U.S.S Kearsarge and the C.S.S. Alabama was, within a few weeks of its execution, on view to the Parisian public in Alfred Cadart’s fashionable gallery. In this powerful monochromatic painting Manet conjures all the immediacy of the battle. By the 1860s writers such as Jules Michelet, Baudelaire, Hugo and Jules Verne were using the sea as a metaphor for both self-awareness and freedom. Soon artists began to follow suit. Having claimed the landscape as an arena for experiment, the watery deep was now to provide fertile territory. Manet and his writer friend, Baudelaire, have often been described as the pioneers of modernity. Both possessed a somewhat Romantic sensibility combined with the dispassionate scepticism that we have now come to associate with modernity. When the Symbolist poet Mallarmé visited Manet’s studio he said of his seascapes: “Each time he begins a picture… he plunges headlong into it, and feels like a man who knows that his surest plan to learn to swim, is, dangerous as it may seem, to throw himself into the water.” For Manet’s work was never formulaic. He realised that he had to begin afresh with each canvas he painted. After his Civil War canvas his interest developed in a new painterly approach; how to show the fluidity and shifting quality of water, air and light. How could he depict comparatively static forms (boats) amid an ever-changing natural environment? Using wet-on-wet applications for both water and sky, the liquidity of Manet’s medium intuitively reflected the transient quality of his subject matter. There also emerged a newly confident ‘lack of finish’, along with the adaptation of a higher horizon line which stemmed from his interest in the new fashion for Japanese prints that was also to influence other artists of his generation. In the calm transparency of his of 1864, Steamboat Leaving Boulogne, the black sailed boats running before the wind have been placed like calligraphic marks against the flat surface of the turquoise sea that rises high into the picture plane, indicating the artist’s journey towards a greater compositional abstraction. It is both a perfectly balanced and an astonishingly modern work.

On his travels and family holidays Manet sketched. From his visit to Bolougne in 1868 two sketchbooks survive. The studies and small paintings of ships, of people on the beach, of the crowds of passengers on the deck of the ferry leaving Folkstone, all became the subjects of paintings that he was later to execute back in his studio, giving a sense of distance between observed reality and the finished work as in the magical painting Moonlight, Boulogne, with its pale moon illuminating the white bonnets of the huddled group of Brittany women on the quay,which he regarded as one of his most ‘honest’ works. Though whether this was painted direct from life or was reliant on the drawing of the crescent moon washed quickly across a double page in his sketchbook, it is hard to say.

Edouard Manet Croquet at Boulogne 1871-72
Croquet at Boulogne, 1871-72

One of the characteristics that makes Manet seem so modern is his dispassionate observation of social ritual, for there is something of the flâneur about his witty watchful, non-participatory study of, say, Croquet in Boulogne, with its players of the newly fashionable game imported from England and the south west breeze flattening the stream of smoke from a distant steamer as the women hold onto their hats and flags whip in the wind.

Remarkable for their freshness and immediacy Manet was, in his marine paintings, to develop his own inimitable style. Using interwoven brush-strokes and a limited palette, he was to combine painting and drawing – for it is the essentially abstracted shapes, forms and volume defined by the play of light and shadow of his ships and jetties rather than an Impressionistic capturing of the moment dependent on colour – that today still seems so incredibly modern. Within the exhibition Manet’s work is framed by works from the history of marine painting, dating back as far as the seventeenth-century Dutch masters Willem van de Velde the Younger and Lieve Verschuier and continuing with the revival of the genre in France in the first half of the nineteenth century by Eugène Delacroix, Paul Huet and Louis-Gabriel-Eugène Isabey among others. And, although at times, this approach can feel over didactic, as if every painting can only be looked at in comparison with another rather than on its own merits, the curators have also tracked the interplay of Manet’s seascapes with those of his contemporaries; Gustave Courbet, the expatriate American artist James McNeill Whistler, Eugène Boudin and the Dutch painter Johan Barthold Jongkind. Also included are lesser known works by Berthe Morisot, who married Manet’s brother Eugène, and placed herself firmly in the avant-garde by her participation in the Impressionist exhibitions, along with a single work by Eve Gonzalès, Manet’s only pupil, who first took lessons with him in 1869 and whose artistic career was truncated by her untimely death in 1883. But it is in the work of succeeding generations that we see the debt owed to Manet, by painters such as Monet and Renoir, who were to push the abstraction of their subject to new heights. For in their painterly seascapes, where the subject dissolves in a rendering of swirling brush marks and complex manipulation of colour which describes the physical energy of the sea, we can see how a concern with paint and the picture surface began to dominate rather than a desire for a ‘true’ depiction of the actual world. The value of this exhibition is not only that it examines a great painter in a new light but that it also reveals the connections between artists working in France at a remarkable moment of artistic discovery, so that we are able to identify the growing concerns that would come to dominate the painterly preoccupations of the 20th century.

Edouard Manet Impressions of the Sea at Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam from 18th June to 26th September 2004

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Image 1: The John G. Johnson Art Collection
Image 2: Potter Palmer Collection
Image 3: Collection Musée d’Orsay, Paris
Image 4: Private Collection

Published in The Independent

Art Criticism

Jason Martin
Day Paintings
Lisson Gallery, London

Published in The Independent

“To make visible that there is something which can be conceived and which can neither be seen nor made visible: this is what is at stake in modern painting,” suggests the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard. He proposes two distinctions in contemporary art; those forms which cater to the nostalgia for an unattainable ‘wholeness’ and those ‘ingenious’ forms – to which he gives the name ‘postmodern’ – through which the very impossibility of this attachment is what is presented by the artist. It is this dialectic – rather than the easy acceptance of one position over the other – that Jason Martin makes his territory. For in the light of such thinking it is it is well-neigh impossible for the young painter today, any longer, to make the romantic, heroic gesture. Perhaps the American Expressionists – Rothko with his sublime saturated canvases, Pollock with his visceral viscous lines – were the last for whom this was possible with any degree of certainty or innocence. Now the postmodern artist (and it might be argued because of the accidents of history we are all postmoderns now) is in the position of the philosopher. The work he makes is not governed by pre-established rules and cannot be judged by familiar categories, for it is these very rules and categories for which the art is searching.

Jason Martin Day Paintings

Jason Martin, a one time graduate of Goldsmith’s, has limited the possibility of the ‘gesture’ within his painting to create a level of detachment and objectivity, though he has not erased it completely. Each painting begins as an entirely zinc white surface over which he lays subtle layers of pigment to create ‘a floating transparent veil of colour’ which he then ‘rakes’ with either a section of draft excluder or a comb-like piece of metal or board. This is an act of faith, a journey across the panorama of the surface in which the history of the painting’s making, the trace left by his chosen implement are integral to its ‘meaning’ and ‘interpretation’. For these are not the cathartic, expressive, calligraphic marks of the modernist, rather they seem to be asking, where now with painting? What is still possible within its narrow confines?

Martin’s work commands the gallery space. It is architectural – painting as sculpture – and has a self-confident, even arrogant sense of its own presence, opening up the volume of the surface to the viewer. While his language is entirely abstract, his work is made in the world and, therefore, refers, obliquely, to it; to the body, to the movement of light, to organic forms, to the processes of making which can still be seen retained at the painting’s edges, where the history of the layers that have gone into constructing the surface are still visible like striations in rock.

Jason Martin Day Paintings

And there is, of course, colour; monochromatic colour that is at once subtle and complex, fan-like arcs and loops of black on black, organic feathers of ox-blood in Fecund and shifting tones of white that undulate across the surface of the large horizontal panorama Untitled 2004, slashed by two diagonal flashes of creamy yellow that run from top to bottom, attracting and refracting light in balletic shafts that shimmer and glimmer and move. In the front gallery are two works that have been made in situe. A large tondo and a third of a circle covered in, what looks like, molten gold which has dripped and collected on the floor. Abstract they may be but they appropriate some of the drama and dynamism, some of the luxury and self-assertion of Aztec images of the sun. Within all these works Martin acknowledges a dichotomy: the desire to find a reductive purely painterly language alongside the human imperative to make work that ‘speaks’ on a more visceral level. But these paintings insist that there is no going back to the discredited utopianism of modernism. For as Jürgen Habermas wrote in ‘Modernity – An Incomplete Project’, “the avant-garde must find a direction in a landscape into which no one seems to have yet ventured.”

Jason Martin Day Paintings at the Lisson Gallery, London from 21 April to 22 May 2004

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2004

Images © Jason Martin 2004. Courtesy of the Lisson Gallery

Published in The Independent

Art Criticism

Jonathan Miller
Metal Wood and Paper Constructions
Boundary Gallery, London

Published in The Independent

When Jonathan Miller’s tall figure loomed into view he began talking straight away as though resuming a previous conversation. His wife had been bagging leaves in the garden when I arrived. Go in, she said, he’s expecting you. He had, after all, phoned several times to check I was coming. I had expected to be bulldozered by his formidable intellect but this was obviously not going to be a formal interview, we simply wandered chatting into the garden to take a look at the metal constructions that would form part of his show at the Boundary Gallery. He had been taught to weld in Santa Fe, he said, where he had been directing opera. He’d toured the local junk yards in a pick up truck then stripped to the waist and got down to work; a touch of Chillida here, a smidgen of David Smith there. Of course, as you can see, he insisted, I’m a Formalist, an old fashioned modernist. I don’t have much sympathy with postmodernism. Some people would probably say that what I make is derivative but all great artists – not that I would call myself an artist, more a putter together of this and that – are influenced by others.

Jonathan Miller Metal Constructions
Metal Constructions

Miller, despite his ageless appearance, is now pushing 70 and much less manic and more modest than I had expected. Yet his enthusiasm for all things philosophical, aesthetic and scientific is as intense as ever. Please don’t call me a Renaissance man, he said. It’s such a contemporary view to think it odd if one is interested in wide range of subjects. Yet his conversation is littered with verbal ‘foot notes’ as his mind races tirelessly from topic to topic; from Shakespeare to opera, from the unconscious and psychiatry to anthropology and his dislike of contemporary French philosophy – “Foucault fucking around”, he is an admirer of the Anglo-American school – stringing them all together as an accomplished composer might handle a complex melody or a conductor the different instruments in an orchestra. He still has the same intellectual curiosity that lead him, as a young boy, to discover the delights of biological symmetry which set him on the course to study medicine.

It was Beyond the Fringe, of course – that glittering revue of irreverent satire in the early 60s – that brought him to public notice. Since then he has directed theatre, TV and opera from New York to Florence, written and presented a series on the history of medicine and was executive producer of twelve of the BBC Shakespeare series and there was his delightful film of Alice in Wonderland. So why the art? Wasn’t all that more than enough for one man? Well, he has always made art. His father, a psychiatrist, was also a very competent sculptor, his mother a writer. He was brought up surrounded by books and paintings, many of which still fill, to bulging point, the Camden house he has lived in for years. The walls of the narrow staircase are crammed with prints and etchings: Piranesi, Greco-Roman columns and pediments, Muybridge’s photographs on the analysis of movement. You see, I just like form, he says as we climb another flight to look at paintings in the bedroom, photographs in the loo.

Jonathan Miller Collage Constructions
Collage Constructions

He also makes collages from bits of detritus. Mostly shreds of advertising posters scrapped off walls in NY or Italy. During rehearsing, say Tosca, he might be found during the siesta hour peeling choice samples from local hoardings. What he is interested in is the incidental, what is passed by. His art, if it is about anything, is about making the negligible visible. What Constable confessed to as a love of “old rotten banks, slimy posts and brickwork.” He talks of the pleasures of fiddling with bits and pieces, though his is, of course, a highly informed aesthetic. Whilst at Cambridge, amid the Footlight reviews and the medical exams, he found time to take in a good deal of art history. He draws on Kurt Schwitters, on Joseph Cornell and Braque. But the results are also very much Jonathan Miller; eclectic, idiosyncratic like that of a highly visual and literate magpie.

He is in the middle of filming a programme for television on atheism. Did he then, consider art to be the thing that filled the God-shaped hole in contemporary society? Did it perhaps provide the only possible route by which, in a post-Nietzschian world, we might momentarily encounter the metaphysical or the sublime? And then he was off again like a fox-hound that had sniffed its quarry. It was all to do with the expression of human co-operation rather than anything mystical. Co-operation leads us to have empathy with each other. Or to use the word he prefers, the word used by the philosopher Adam Smith, sympathy. But wasn’t that just too mechanistic a view to explain how we feel when we hear Beethoven’s Eroica or Bach’s St. Matthew passion or a speech by Shakespeare? And he starts to talk of his love of Lear, which he has directed many times, and as we sit in his homely kitchen drinking coffee at his long kitchen table next to the wall covered with children’s’ drawings, photographs of him with the young Alan Bennet et al, his children and grandchildren, he quotes Lear, who, when half out of his mind on the heath, turns to his daughter and says “I think this lady to be my child Cordelia,” and breaks down in tears. It is a moving moment. He is genuinely affected and takes time to compose himself. Now this is a man with an enormous mind. Yet at this minute, I can’t but help feel that he is wrong. That what he had just experienced is more than a highly sophisticated evolutionary response.

Jonathan Miller Collage Constructions
Collage Constructions

So we have another go at a definition, after he asks, with great curtsey considering it’s his kitchen, if I mind if he smokes. Is what he has just felt equivalent to what the poet Wilfred Owen called ‘pity’? Yes, that’s something like it. But it is a human pity. I ask if he accepts Melanie Klein’s notion of art as a form of ‘reparation’. This is a theory he rather likes, and later, as I am leaving, he tells me a funny story about an interview he did with Hanna Segal, the Kleinian psychoanalyst, on TV – it is easy to forget in all this cultural chat that he has a great sense of humour – though he doesn’t think much of Freud. Freud just got the unconscious wrong, he says. He prefers the views of the cognitive behaviourists; the unconscious not as a dark vault full of secrets but as an ‘enabling unconscious’, like a computer, where the desktop is too small to keep everything needed on it, so thoughts and information are stored in files and folders which can be accessed when necessary.

I try and bring him back again to art. Really it is shape and form that please him. He pops upstairs to bring down an antique cobbler’s last and an antique wooden beret stretcher and takes great pleasure in showing me how form has followed function. He talks of the delight of making, how we deeply underestimate the pleasure of doodling, and play. That’s what artists are good at, and through play they are able to take time to notice what is incidental and place it for a moment central frame. Think of Auden’s great poem Musée des Beaux Arts. How Brueghel places Icarus, falling from the sky, at the edge of his picture when the main thrust of life, the ploughman ploughing, the ship sailing seems to be going on elsewhere. Breughel makes us aware of the previously overlooked. Art can do something like that.

Jonathan Miller Metal, Wood and Paper Constructions at the Boundary Gallery from 26 September to 1 November 2003

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2003

Images © Jonathan Miller 2003

Published in The Independent

Art Criticism

Paula Modersohn-Becker
Self-Portrait on her
Sixth Wedding Anniversary

Published in The Independent

Paula Modersohn-Becker Self-Portrait on her Sixth Wedding Anniversary, 1906

She stands there, naked to the waist, a young woman with big cow-brown eyes meeting the viewer’s gaze. Her auburn hair is parted in the centre and swept up into a chignon, while her head is held on one side like that of a quizzical blackbird listening. Her eyes are level with those of the viewer, for the artist has portrayed herself life-size, as if painting her reflection in a mirror. Her smile is restrained and confident, yet knowing. A skirt of white cloth is tied loosely around her hips as she clutches her, apparently, pregnant stomach with raw, workman-like hands. Her right arm frames her upper body in a protective curve, while the left seems to protect her lower abdomen. Together they form an “S” that breaks the S-shaped stance of the otherwise static, slightly monumental pose. Around her neck she wears a necklace of lozenge-shaped yellow amber beads that glows warmly against her bare skin and falls between her breasts, close to her heart.

Her face has something of the land about it. The nose is broad, the cheeks rosy, the lips full and red. Yet for a pregnant woman, her breasts are still small and pert, the nipples and surrounding areola not darkened or swollen. The top of the cloth around her hips is level with her lower hand. Ethereal and white, yet with a tinge of blue, it is reminiscent of the loincloth that covers Christ in countless paintings of the Crucifixion, and seems to suggest some sort of spiritual sacrifice on the part of the artist.

The young German painter Paula Modersohn-Becker painted this, one of her most subtle and emotionally complex self-portraits, on the occasion of her sixth wedding anniversary, as she has written in olive-green paint in the lower right-hand corner of the canvas. She has signed it “PB”, for Paula Becker, her maiden name, leaving out the Modersohn, which she had acquired on marriage.

Paula Modersohn-Becker was 30 when she painted this self-portrait on 25 May 1906. She had recently left her native Germany to live and work in Paris. What was extraordinary about this move was that, at the time, she was married to Otto Modersohn, an academic painter some 10 years her senior, whom she had met when she lived in an artist’s colony at Worpswede, on the moors in northern Germany, near Bremen. There, her fellow-artists, encouraged by Julius Langbehn’s eccentric and now notorious book, Rembrandt as Educator, along with their interest in Nietzsche, Zola, Rembrandt and Drer, idealistically embraced nature, the purity of youth and the simplicity of peasant life.

In Worpswede, Paula not only came under Modersohn’s influence but also fell in love with the dark moors and the peasants who inhabited them, making their modest living from cutting peat. Yet she was soon to realise, rather like Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, that she had to break free of the shackles of conventional matrimony in order to develop as a serious painter. So, very unusually for a young, well-bred woman of that period, she abandoned her husband, much against his wishes, to go to Paris to paint. There she joined her close friend, the sculptor Clara Westhoff, with whom she shared a complex relationship with the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke.

This painting, then, is not simply a nude self-portrait but a declaration of liberation. Not only from the ties and duties of marriage, but also from the constraints and expectations of Paula’s time and class. As she wrote in a letter to Rilke before leaving for Paris: “I am myself…” For she has painted herself as blooming and quietly exhalant, set against a dappled surround of spring leaf-green. Here she is her own woman, on the brink of fulfilling her true potential, at one with herself. When she arrived in Paris, she wrote: “Now I have left Otto Modersohn, I stand between my old life and my new one. What will happen in my new life? And how shall I develop in my new life? Everything must happen now.”

In fact, Paula was not pregnant in this painting. Only the previous month she had written that she did not want to have a child yet, particularly with Otto. The painting, then, is a metaphor for how she felt about herself as a young artist: fecund, ripe, able for the first time in her life to create and paint freely in the manner that she wished. What she is about to give birth to is not a child but her mature, independent, artistic self. Traditionally, nude portraits of women had been painted for the delectation of the male gaze, but here Paula creates a new construct: a woman who is able to nurture herself outside the trappings of marriage, who does not need a man to be fulfilled.

For there had always been an unequal relationship between the male painter (however radical and avant-garde) and his model and muse. Women were sex objects, and models were purchased in a financial exchange that, by definition, privileged the male painter. In this portrait, Modersohn-Becker confounded this norm simply by painting herself.

Her nudity is confident and unabashed. Implicit is a level of self- awareness, for Paula would not have been unfamiliar with the debates about the unconscious that were raging in Vienna around Freud, and beginning to infiltrate both art and literature. The solid monumentality of the pose, the flattened forms and stripping away of detail indicate her awareness of both Gauguin and Czanne, whose work she discovered in Paris between 1899 and 1906. Both of these artists had a huge effect on their peers. The mask-like features and Paula’s easy, natural sexuality show not only a familiarity with their work but also an awareness of the “primitive” art that had so inspired them and other painters of the time, from Nolde to Picasso. She stands there in her amber necklace, just as Gauguin might have portrayed one of his Tahitian girls garlanded with tropical flowers. For, like Gauguin, she was seeking the expression of some primordial power in the natural world.

Yet, for Paula Modersohn-Becker, in this self-portrait and its companion painting, Self-Portrait with Amber Necklace (1906), there is no subtext of violence or the sexual exploitation and appropriation that can be read into some of Gauguin’s colonised Tahitian nudes with their blank expressions or downcast eyes. What she portrays is the solid dignity of the earth-mother, the liberated woman painted with a direct and fearless gaze.

She gives birth to the expression of her new fearless, artistic self. She was among the very first women painters to explore these concerns. That she collapsed with an embolism and died just weeks after the birth of her daughter, a mere year later, in 1907, gives the painting a haunting poignancy.


About the Artist

Born in Dresden in 1876, Paula Modersohn-Becker was 12 when her family moved to Bremen. In 1892, she received her first drawing instruction, and a year later came to England to learn English. In 1877, she saw an exhibition at Bremen’s Kunsthalle by the members of the “Worpsweders” commune, artists who lived on the moors outside Bremen and took the French Barbizon school as their model, rejecting city life.

In 1896, she studied at the Society of Berlin Women Artists. She became close friends with the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, but married Otto Modersohn and settled in Worpswede. She later left him to live and work in Paris, where she immersed herself in French art. A reconciliation of sorts led her back to Worpswede, where, in 1907, aged 31, she died of an embolism after the birth of her daughter.

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2007

Image Courtesy of the Paula Modersohn-Becker Museum, Bremen

Published in The Independent

Art Criticism

Re-opening of Moderna Museet Stockholm

Published in The Independent

Moderna Museet Stockholm

Those of us who live in London or New York tend to think the confines of the contemporary art world begin and end in Hoxton, downtown Chelsea or SoHo. It is a narrow view. The Moderna Museet in Stockholm dates back to 1958 when it was housed in an old naval drill hall. In 1998 it moved to a new building on the island of Skeppsholmen only to be closed when serious damp was discovered. The interior has now been largely re-vamped and when I visited it was packed. Situated on an island the building is to Stockholm what Tate modern is to London. On the cold grey day ducks bobbed on sheets of ice outside the large plate glass windows between the moored ferries.

For a country with a small population the museum has a remarkable permanent collection, thanks largely to one if its first directors, Pontus Hultén, whose discerning eye and friendships with artists such as Niki de Saint Phalle, Sam Francis, Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol meant he acquired their work long before it achieved international acclaimed. It is this private collection which forms the heart of the museum. The museum’s own collection is displayed in reverse chronological order from contemporary works by international artists such as Zarina Bhimji, with her evocative film installation Out of the Blue, through Pop and Minimalism back to the earliest movements of the 20th century. There are some fine examples by Picasso, Braque, de Chirico and Kirchner, an excellent collection of Duchamp and the museum has just received a unique donation of seven beautiful Paul Klees. But for the British visitor it is, perhaps, the discovery of works by Swedish artists, not necessarily known here, that is most interesting, to see how they responded to the major art movements of the 20th century, including those who chose to turn their backs on European Modernism to concentrate on domestic motifs influenced by folk art. This group that included Hilding Linnqvist, Eric Hallström, Gideon Börje and Axel Nilsson were interested in how the pre-industrial world met modernity and in the peripheral spaces between city and country. They painted the little turreted houses with their fenced gardens, the parks where families can be seen enjoying the short Scandinavian summer. In the 1930s there emerged a group known as the ‘Gothenburg colourists’. Carl Kylberg was the dominant figure, something of a colour mystic who wanted to express a spiritual dimension in his art through reference to theosophy and Christian and Indian mysticism. The evocations of loneliness and the strong emotions he expresses through paint run parallel to the work of the better known German painter, Nolde.

One of the most interesting of the Swedish painters is Dick Bengtsson, a self-taught painter born in 1935, who made his living as a postman. His ambiguous works critique modernity’s requirement for purity and are charged with a strong sense of social commentary. His paintings, with their infamous hallmark of a black swastika, allude to the work of Edward Hopper, Clifford Still and Malevich. Öyvind Fahlström dreamed of creating an art that would, in true 60s style, fuse playfulness with social and political insight. Making interactive versions of Dominoes and Monopoly, he wanted to mass produce work that would reach beyond the narrow clique of the art world and strike a blow at the commercial market.

The downstairs gallery currently houses an exhibition by Anna Riwkin, the Swedish photographer who died in the 1970s, famous not only for her children’s books, collaborations with authors and her portraits of famous Swedish dancers, choreographers, artists and writers but also for her compassionate, insightful studies that mirrored life on the margins of the mainstream European (largely Aryan) world. These include photographs of Swedish Roma taken in the 1950s where she has captured, neither with sentimentality nor condescension, their hard yet colourful way of life. In the early 60s she photographed Jewish settlers and Bedouin in the desert and children in Korea. But, perhaps, her most potent images are those of the Sami of Lapland dressed in national costumes, driving their vast reindeer herds across the empty tundra and using woodworking and building skills that have now been all but forgotten.

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2001

Images maybe subject to copyright

Published in The Independent

Art Criticism

Monet
The Seine and The Sea
National Galleries of Scotland

Published in The Independent

If you say the name Monet, what do you think of? Water lilies dissolving in light, a garden at Giverny basking beneath a soft French summer sun, huge queues at the Royal Academy of ladies- who-lunch and paintings circles up from Surrey for the day walking away with Monet carrier bags full of posters and place mats covered with shimmering haystacks and How-to-paint books. For Monet is the quintessential Impressionist. What was once considered so radical that it was rejected by academic artists and hostile critics alike – along with the work of other painters who were then exhibiting at the Impressionist exhibitions – as the possible results of Daltonism (the inability to distinguish between red and green) has now become the best loved and most accessible of all art movements. It is, therefore, hard to experience Impressionism now as it was experienced in the late 19th century, as radical, disturbing and new. To imagine what a stir it caused. To see how revolutionary it was to understand light and colour as form and the small villages and orchards, the costal fishing ports that formed the subject matter of these artists as workaday and not simply as mirrored through the soft-tinted glow of nostalgia.

Monet Gare Saint Lazare 1877
Gare Saint Lazare, 1877

In 1878 Monet left Paris for the village of Vétheuil, where, for largely economic reasons, he decided to settle with his own and the Hoschedé family with whom the Monets had become close. Fresh from painting the modernity of the capital – the station of Gare St-Lazare with its railways engines and billowing clouds of smoke – he was to embark, over the next few years, on reworking the older traditions of French landscape as represented by a previous generation of French painters such as Corot, Courbet and Millet. In many ways it was a retrograde step. From the excitement, the gritty urbanity of the modern city, Monet seems to have been content to paint what was comparatively safe in the rural backwater of Vétheuil with its slow curling river, it medieval church, its orchards and tapestry of poppies dotting the surrounding fields in mid-summer, which are so much an emblem of traditional French landscapes. After the Franco-Prussian War, the fratricide of the Paris Commune and the humiliating cession of Alsace-Lorraine to Germany the abiding cultural atmosphere in France was conservative. The state’s purchases from the annual Salons favoured, in the field of painting, images of a timeless French countryside, a place of peace and tranquillity not a country under the threat of invasion, civil war and rural depopulation. Painting tended to be formulaic with little room for personal expression. And as the prosperous 1870s gave way to the more uncertain economy of the 1880s, Monet’s career, like that of other painters was affected financially. When he moved to Vétheuil Monet not only had two children and an invalid wife to support, but it seems his fortunes, in ways that are not quite clear, became linked with the Hoschedé family. (He was later to marry Alice after her estrangement from Ernest Hoschedé and the death of his own wife, Camille.) To some extent Monet was, therefore, forced to paint what the market demanded.

The years between 1878 and 1883 roughly divide into two periods, the first in Vétheuil where the river and village landscapes painted between 1879 and 1880 seem to result in a period of retrenchment and the bolder more experimental work of the seascapes and costal motifs he painted in 1881 through to early 1883. Always keen on maintaining and establishing his individuality as an artist this period necessitated degrees of both contradiction and compromise. When he moved to Vétheuil he was thirty-eight. The 1860s had been characterised by the ambitions and false starts of a talented young artist trying to find his voice. It was his fellow Norman Eugène Boudin and the Dutch Johan-Barthold Jongkind who had introduced him to working en plein air, encouraging him to become aware of the changes in weather and its ‘effets’, while Manet’s influence persuaded him of the importance of personal expression that was to become a hallmark of modernity. The view that Monet, himself, encouraged, of an artist who worked primarily out of doors, was to a large extent a myth and a deceit as his canvases were increasingly reworked and retouched away from the subject. In essence this exhibition asks, as no doubt Monet asked himself, what was the essence of landscape painting, how could one order paint in a manner that was both descriptive yet invigorating, describe weather in a way that felt as if one was actually experiencing it?

Monet Poppy Field near Vetheuil 1879
Poppy Field near Vetheuil, 1879

The paintings that Monet mostly produced at Vétheuil are what we think of as the quintessence of Impressionism; apple trees in blossom, poppy fields shimmering in the late afternoon heat, light on water; the summer idyll. But more often than not it is his winter paintings, the village covered with snow or the brown tones of slush in The Road into Vétheuil, Winter 1879, that are among the most interesting works; less gorgeous, less seductive and predictable than those of summer. His habit of painting the same views both in summer and winter was to be developed in his more famous series of haystacks and Rouen Cathedral executed in different lights.

After the death of Camille the bleakness of his own life was reflected in one of the harshest winters on record when the Seine froze and great blocks of ice crashed down the river which such force that it woke the Monet family from sleep. The limited palette of cool blues, greys and soft green he uses to convey the ice floes creates a sombre chilling effect that moves away from faithful representation towards the greater abstraction achieved in later years. For Monet the need to cultivate his own sense of looking was paramount and when he pushed it to its limits the commercial results were often disastrous. He never sold, perhaps his finest painting of this period, Vétheuil in the Fog, 1879, where the ghostly bleached church seen from across the river seems to dissolve in the pearly light.

Although Monet would not have used the word, it is this sublime quality that he is reaching towards, a way of expressing something of the nature of human feebleness in the face of nature. This can be seen most dramatically in the paintings of sunsets over the rocky coastline of Etretat when the world has been reduced to its primal elements of rock, water and fiery sun, more Expressionistic in mode than Impressionistic. One of his most dramatic paintings is The Manneporte, Etretat, 1883, a great arch of rock surrounded by a boiling dark green and pearly sea, where two tiny figures such as those beloved by the German Romantics, appear dwarfed by the elements as they stare out to the distant horizon. During his stay at Fécamp, on the coast between March and April 1881, he painted three canvases of heavy breakers crashing onto the beach. Of these Rough Sea, 1881, is the most dramatic in its shift from representation to virtual abstract expressionism. Here the whole painting is filled with nothing but the curled strokes of blue, white and green waves beneath a heavy slate grey sky. It is these paintings that point the direction that Monet would eventually take, where paint and vision would seem to meld into one experience. It is these works that prefigure the shifts of light, that dissolution of looking which reaches it apotheosis in the later water lilies and are the paintings that elevate Monet from simply being a painter of 19th century pastoral scenes to a true precursor of modernism.

Monet Rough Sea 1881
Rough Sea, 1881

This is possibly the most prestigious exhibition ever held in Scotland. It is a large show, in many ways, perhaps, too big, including a number of extraneous paintings. The title is The Seine and The Sea, so it seems unnecessary to confuse and dilute these themes with paintings of still lives or vases of flowers just because they happen to have been painted during this period. Over explanatory, also, is the inclusion of the occasional work by precursors such as Courbet or Corot. It is also lacks aesthetic sensibility to hang information boards among the paintings rather than at the beginning of the galleries, for they interfere with the coherent flow of ideas and themes suggested by the work itself. For the paintings, both the weak and the strong, are enough for anyone with eyes and a catalogue in hand to understand something of the struggles and shifts through which Monet passed. This relatively short period has been largely overshadowed by the rest of Monet’s creative life at Giverny. This exhibition places as centrally important these transitional years in Vétheuil. Here Monet pitted himself against his immediate precursors in a way that enabled him to break through the problems thrown up in the execution of this relatively traditional body of landscape paintings to create the truly innovative works produced at Giverny and establish himself as one of the great modern masters.

Monet The Seine and The Sea at the National Galleries of Scotland from 6 August 2003 to 26 October 2003

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Image 1: National Gallery, London
Image 2: Foundation Collection E.G. Bührle
Image 3: National Gallery of Canada

Published in The Independent

Art Criticism

David Nash
Making and Placing Abstract Sculpture 1978-2004
Tate St Ives

Published in The Independent

Years ago, when writing another piece on the sculptor, David Nash, I went to visit him at Capel Rhiw, his home and studio in a converted Methodist Chapel in Blaenau Ffestiniog, a dour village set high in the Welsh hills surrounded by slag heaps of slate. It has been his home since 1968 when he left, what he felt to be, the materialistic south-east where he had been born and bred. He had fallen in love with the valley after spending holidays there as a boy, roaming with his brother. The place is very important to him and to his work. It takes a long time to get there. On the last lap you have to take a tiny train that winds up through the folded hills where streams tumble into the valleys. But the slowing of pace, the sense of going on a journey is an appropriate mindset through which to view David Nash’s work.

David Nash Boulder
Boulder by Pete Telfer

One of the first things he did was to take me to a stream in the Cynfal Valley where he had pushed a rough hewn wooden boulder over a waterfall into a stream. Black and water-logged, it had become stuck below a bridge and had been there for months. It looked just like another dark rock. From 1978-2004 Nash visited his wooden boulder regularly, documenting its progress. It has been covered in snow and ice, has remained in one place for years at a time washed by the icy stream and baked in the occasional sun, until one day it was swept away by floods to rest on a sand bank in the Dwyryd Estuary. In 2003 the tide floated it out to a salt marsh where it lurked like some dark lake monster in the shallows until, suddenly, it disappeared, no doubt washed out into the Irish Sea. Nash does not consider his boulder lost. “It is wherever it is,” he says, philosophically, though he still hunts for it. “My search is part of the work.”

The film Boulder by Pete Telfer forms the centre piece to this exhibition of Nash’s work at Tate, St. Ives and includes documentary footage that charts the progress of this large wooden sphere over twenty years. It encapsulates many of Nash’s most important themes: the notion of time, of evolution and life’s natural cycles, the nature of transformation, change and chance that evoke the Greek philosopher, Heraklitus’s, famous remark that we cannot step into the same river twice; that life is, in essence, a continuing journey.

David Nash Pyramid, Sphere and Cube 1997-98
Pyramid, Sphere and Cube 1997-98

David Nash has been working in wood for thirty years, mainly with broadleaf trees such as oak, beach, ash, lime, cherry, elm and birch, choosing each for its unique properties. Birch, for example, he describes as benign, feminine, yielding, a loving wood, while oak is a keos, very male, hard and resistant. When he hits it with an axe, it answers back, like carving stone. The sound of the blow keeps him attuned to the correctness of the cut. Lime is one of the best carving woods. It is slow growing with a purity of whiteness, it also has fantastic warping and cracking potential – processes of chance that are intrinsic tools in Nash’s sculptural repertoire.

For Nash context is all. He has made work especially to be sited outside – as can be seen in many of the sculpture parks around the country – as well as work for public and commercial spaces where he has to take into account the immediate architectural environment. Here he has found a sympathetic milieu among the St. Ives Modernists whose work is on show in a new hang in the first gallery. When Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth moved to Cornwall they were exploring the possibilities of non-representational art. By the thirties it had been stripped of all unnecessary decorative accretions. Hepworth described herself as “absorbed in the relationship in space, in size and texture and weight, as well as in the tension between forms”. Such sentiments could well describe David Nash’s work nearly eighty years later. He returns to the pared purity of the pyramid, the cube and the sphere again and again; universal forms that belong to all cultures and are owned by no one. His large charred and blackened Three Forms, Cube, Sphere, Pyramid, 2003/4 has an atavistic presence that dominates the small gallery and contains echoes of the ancient henges scattered across the surrounding Cornish landscape.

David Nash Three Charred Panels (Detail)
Three Charred Panels (Detail)

Three Charred Panels of beech have been hung like a triptych. The cuts in each are vertical, diagonal and horizontal. Against the white wall they have a severe minimalist beauty, for black absorbs light rather than giving it back. Scorching has long been an important process for Nash. It has a practical as well as a semi-mystical purpose. Fire both cauterises and purifies. For despite the earthy muscularity of his work he has, over the years, been much influenced by the philosophy of Rudolph Steiner, by Plato’s vision of reincarnation and Tao Tai Ching, a form of Buddhism. Charring removes the narrative history of the living wood, erasing what he considers to be the aesthetic distraction of the grain. As carbon, the sculptural form can be viewed with greater clarity. Charring is also associated with the transformations that occurred in mediaeval alchemy when two opposing elements are heated in a crucible to produce a new synthesis. The phoenix rising from the ashes is an alchemical symbol of renewal and rebirth; themes that occur subtly but insistently throughout Nash’s work. For as the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard wrote in The Psychoanalysis of Fire, “Fire is the ultra-living element. It is intimate and it is universal … Among all phenomena, it is really the only one to which there can be so definitely attributed the opposing values of good and evil”.

The cuts and tools used are also crucial. Nash’s preferred implement is the electric chain saw, which he wields with the fluency of the painter’s brush. The scores he leaves on the raw wood evoke the painter’s marks. In his totemic Crack and Warp Column, 2003 he has very nearly sliced through the thick trunk of lime to form thin leaves or sheets, which as they dry buckle and warp. The splits, knots and cracks in the unseasoned wood and the slips of the saw are all left visible. As a young man Nash was deeply influenced by the simplicity of Brancussi’s forms. He likes to quote one of his aphorisms that in art the “simple” is very “complex”. He also has a respect for his peers who work within the environment: Richard Long, Hamish Fulton and Andy Goldsworthy; artists who in another age might have become landscape painters, but who wanted to be absorbed in the actual physical world.

David Nash Rising Crack and Warp Column
Rising Crack and Warp Column, Tilleul/Lime tree, 2003

In the seventies Nash saw how David Smith had developed a fluency of language using metal and wanted to do the same with wood. He insists, though, he is not a wood ‘craftsman,’ though a ‘truth to materials’ is essential. He likes his wood raw, unpolished and pure. It is the poetry and geometry of movement that is of interest. “Geometry represents an order in nature or path for me,” he has said, “like my line of cut”. It is both human order and a process of understanding. Works such as Capped Block, 1998 and Extended Cube, 1996 expand our concept and understanding of universal forms. The wood is cut away and the cubes dismantled and extended into space, rather like the segments of a telescope. Volume is dramatically increased. He is, he says, very satisfied – as Moore and Hepworth discovered – when he can see through, in and around a form. Beauty exists in that simple rightness, the truth of it. Although such a sentiment smacks of a Keatsian Romanticism, Nash somehow manages to meld this vision with the more conceptual elements of a work like Wooden Boulder. That is his skill. He may be a Romantic at heart, but his head is that of a Modernist.

Even though the sculptures in the curved, sea-facing gallery – which includes the vertical Sheaves; Elm Frame, Fourteen Cuts and the powerful yet maternally enfolding Coil – seem a little squashed in the comparatively small space, there is also a certain rightness to their placement in relationship to the sea; like great logs of driftwood or planks from wrecked ships, they feel as if they could have recently been washed up on Porthmeor Beach just outside the window. Earth, air, fire and water. All these four basic elements exist in Nash’s work.

Working away from the metropolis, in his remote Welsh chapel amid the slate slag heaps of the Ffestiniog Valley, David Nash has been able to hold onto that rare commodity, integrity. It may be desperately unfashionable, but he believes that there is a moral requirement involved in the practice of art, a necessary level of consciousness as to how what an artist makes affects the world. He speaks of his own feelings when he came across Richard Serra’s great big torque pieces for the first time. The tenderness he felt. In the end that is what he wants to transmit through these great chunks of hacked, sawn, cut and burnt wood, wood that, like us, has lived and died; a certain tenderness.

David Nash Making and Placing Abstract Sculpture 1978-2004 at the Tate St Ives from 20 May to 26 September 2004


Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2004

Boulder by Pete Telfer.
Images © David Nash 2004

Published in The Independent

Art Criticism

Alice Neel
Works of Paper
Victoria Miro London

Published in The Independent

“Drawing”, wrote the American painter, Alice Neel, “is the discipline of art.” One of the great painters of the twentieth century, she was a pioneer among women artists; a representational painter of people, landscape and still life in an era dominated by the essentially masculine language of Abstract Expressionism.

Alice Neel Young Man, 1930
Young Man 1930

Clement Greenberg, the high priest of formalism, had insisted that the canvas be freed of all personal narrative, autobiography and literary content. Influenced by Expressionism and Realism, Neel overtly disobeyed this mantra of Modernism. Against this background of heroic male art she made sense of the world through an essentially female gaze that encompassed the body and personal emotion. She was not, she said, against abstraction, but could not stand that the Abstractionists had “pushed all the other pushcarts off the streets.”

What she produced were images of friends and lovers, poets, celebrities and the poor – Hispanics, blacks and the elderly – from Spanish Harlem where she chose to live in line with her strong social conscience and left-wing beliefs. Her cast of characters was portrayed with an incisiveness that was never clouded by sentimentality or illusion. Through the body’s idiosyncrasies and vulnerabilities she revealed, with searing honesty, the psyche and soul of her sitters, their suffering, endurance, courage and insecurities hidden behind carefully constructed facades. What she captured, in a form of “internal portraiture”, was the inner texture of their lives. “Every person,” she said, “is a new universe, unique with its own laws emphasising some belief, a phase of life immersed in time and rapidly passing by.”

Alice Neel Two Puerto Rican Girls 1956
Two Puerto Rican Girls, 1956

Now there is a chance to see the first exhibition in this country of her works on paper. Her pencil, ink and gouache compositions from the 1930s to the 1960s include both individual portraits and closely observed scenes of daily urban life. “I love you Harlem,” she wrote in her diary, “your life, your pregnant women, your relief lines outside the bank full of women who no dress in Saks Fifth Avenue would fit.”

Her stark graphic drawings include a row of old women with dishevelled hair and beaky profiles waiting patiently in line, no doubt, for hand-outs, and another of three black women on a bus. With its acute observation it is a prize example both of her compassion and honesty. Executed in soft pencil on paper it shows them in their veiled church hats and gloves staring out at the viewer, isolated, proud, dignified and afraid. Fundamental to her expression is her use of line, which at first glance appears casual but is, in fact, the product of great awareness. In these drawings we are allowed to see a record of her creative process in its most immediate and intimate form.

Alice Neel Cora Kaye 1958
Cora Kaye, 1958

There is also an intense life-sized drawing of the American feminist poet Adrienne Rich with her awkward face and two ink-on-paper portrayals of Walter Gutman, the New York stock- market analyst and patron of underground art films that are almost caricatures, showing him as a squat impresario dressed in a tight raincoat holding his homburg, with a lid of lank hair flipped over his balding patch.

She also has great sensitivity to children. Her pencil drawing of a young girl done in 1930 not only evokes the finesse of Picasso’s early drawings but reveals the vulnerability of this short moment just before puberty. With her hair in plaits, and dressed in a polka- dot swimsuit that reveals her still flat nipples, the girl in this little drawing is a study in poignancy, while the children in the park, executed in pen and ink, have the blank stares and empty eyes that evoke the existential alienation of Munch and emphasise Neel’s belief that “Death, the great void of life, hangs over everyone.”

 


Alice Neel Works on Paper at Victoria Miro London until 14 May 2009

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Images © Alice Neel. Courtesy Victoria Miro, London

Published in The Independent

Art Criticism

Rivane Neuenschwander
Suspension Point
South London Gallery

Published in The Independent

Rivane Neuenschwander Suspension Point 2008
Suspension Point, 2008

Built in the 19th century to show large Victorian paintings, the South London Gallery has been completely transformed by the Brazilian artist Rivane Neuenschwander. Using the building’s features, she has followed the picture-rail to divide the space in two by the insertion of a wooden floor. This not only transforms the gallery but creates two new environments, each with its own character: the dark lower space with its struts forming the skeleton of the structure, and the light, airy upper space.

Within the darkly claustrophobic lower space, two flickering films are projected on to the walls. The only other light sources are a bulb and the light pouring down from the stairs. In this disorientating atmosphere, inchoate sounds emanate from different points. There are bangs and taps and the sound of water dripping. It’s hard to say what it all means, but it’s like being in a leaky warehouse full of evocative noises with a poetic life of their own.

Looking up, the eye spies a microphone, which amplifies the drips falling into a metal basin embedded in the upper floor. The idea of It’s raining out there (La fora esta chovendo), created this year with the artist O Grivo, is to link, by an association of ideas and sounds, the upper and lower spaces.

Rivane Neuenschwander Continent-Cloud 2008
Continent-Cloud, 2008

The downstairs “gallery” provides the context for the two films. The silent black-and-white Inventory of small deaths (Blow), made with Cao Guimaraes in 2000, depicts a huge soap bubble floating seductively across a tropical terrain. Dreamy and hypnotic, its changing shape implies transformation, but it’s never realised: the bubble never bursts. Arabian Nights 2008 depicts a circular area of flickering light, a moonlike image created by punching 1,001 holes in a 16mm strip of film.

The light of the upper space provides a complete contrast. The glass roof suggests elevation and connection to the sky, and running round the white walls is a frieze-like series of “tear here” perforations. Forming a tentative horizon line, they imply a microcosmic landscape, an idea further developed by the little mountain of residue dust from the drilled holes, and the “lake” suggested by the aforementioned bowl. There is an implied merger of internal and external landscapes, dreamscapes and reality, as though the outside has somehow been brought inside.

Neuenschwander’s work is certainly evocative, though what exactly is being evoked is harder to say.

Rivane Neuenschwander Suspension Point at the South London Gallery until 30 November 2008

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2008

Images © Rivane Neuenschwander. Courtesy of South London Gallery

Published in The Independent

Art Criticism

A Continuous Line
Ben Nicholson in England
Abbot Hall Kendal

Published in The Independent

The first wife of the painter Ben Nicholson, Winifred Nicholson, summed up the utopian beliefs of British modernism when she wrote: “To say a thing was modern was to say it was ‘good’, sweeping away Victorian, Edwardian, Old Theology, Old Tory views. In the new world there would be no slums, no unnecessary palm trees, no false ornament – but clarity, white walls, simplicity.”

Ben Nicholson Cold Fell 1922
Cold Fell 1922

Ben Nicholson has long been recognised as one of the leading exponents of British modernism, and this delightful exhibition underlines the importance of his role. The son of the celebrated Edwardian painter William Nicholson, Ben made his reputation by absorbing what was essentially a European abstraction – influenced by artists such as Piet Mondrian and Naum Gabo – into English art. His white reliefs, first produced in 1934 and continued into the Forties, represent the high point. Emptied of all extraneous detail and colour, whiteness stood for what was pure, modern and spiritual. In a period of political turmoil, they offered a new way of thinking about the world and Englishness.

Of particular interest in this exhibition is the emphasis on the lesser-known periods of Nicholson’s art, which reveal the fluidity between his faux-naïf representation and abstraction. British abstraction was never as intellectually assertive as its European counterpart, or as muscular as it was to become in America. Here, it had a good deal to do with throwing off the constraints and dark palette of 19th-century academic painting. It embraced light and freedom in opposition to Victorian constraints with its obvious class values.

Many of the early works on show here were painted in Cumbria, and these small landscapes have a whimsical, idealised Englishness. Nicholson was attracted to peripheral places – such as Cumbria and later Cornwall – that had an undiluted poetic intimacy. Simplicity was what mattered to him. This was, no doubt, a reaction against the Edwardian art of his father, but also an expression of his own Christian Science beliefs – the mind, body, spirit philosophy of his day. There is a sweetness to his rolling hills with their whitewashed farms and clunky horses that float within the picture plane without any sense of scale or perspective.

Ben Nicholson 1945 (still life)
1945 (still life)

Much of this apparent innocence was the result of his meeting with the self- taught painter-fisherman Alfred Wallis, whose “untrained and innocent depictions” of Cornish fishing life, along with his use of “lovely dark browns, shiny blacks, fierce greys and strange whites, and a particularly pungent Cornish green”, had a profound effect on Nicholson and other British modernists. Nicholson’s white horses in Cumbrian fields were soon to be replaced by plucky little barques seen from cottage windows in Mousehole or St Ives. Where Picasso turned to the African mask to find primitive authenticity, Nicholson looked to a Cornish fisherman.

Nicholson’s work changed when he left Winifred for the sculptor Barbara Hepworth. The three-dimensional object became more important, and culminated in his first carved reliefs, whose textured surfaces evoked something of simple rural craftsmanship.

During the war, he and Hepworth settled in St Ives. In the Thirties, he had appropriated a more Cubist approach, perhaps due to his relationship with Hepworth, but by the Forties he was again making still lifes based on objects placed in windows. These suggested the tension between two places: between outside and inside, and between the domestic and nature. Less to do with the early Cubism of Picasso and Braque, and more to do with the liberty of appropriation, Nicholson developed his own version of Cubism. The jugs and mugs with question-mark handles on window ledges remained, but set within new spatial frameworks.

Not only does this exhibition emphasise the lyrical nature of British abstraction, but it charts its gradual shift away from representation to reveal something of the new spirit of the early post-war years.

A Continuous Line Ben Nicholson in England Abbot Hall, Kendal until 20 September 2008

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2008

Images © The Estate of Ben Nicholson

Published in The Independent

Art Criticism

Nought to Sixty
ICA

Published in The Independent

Seamus Harahan Valley of Jehosephat
Seamus Harahan
Valley of Jehosephat/Version – In Your Mind, 2007

Established in 1947 by a collective of artists, poets and writers to champion contemporary culture, the ICA has been a haven for the avant-garde, showing experimental work by numerous artists, performers and writers, and engendering debates on a range of contemporary topics.

According to its current director, Ekow Eshun, it is “the home to the best new art and culture from Britain and around the world… the ICA is not so much a place as a principle. A belief in the new. An enduring faith in the creativity of tomorrow.”

Brave words. But in 1947 there was an establishment to rebel against, and a cultural orthodoxy that needed to be shaken. Since the late Eighties the art world has become dominated by commercial values. What is new is absorbed into the mainstream quicker than you can say “pickled shark”. This leaves the modernist quest, to make things new, in a predicament. The result has been that many of the ICA’s recent shows have seemed pretentious rather than radical.

Eileen Campbell
Eileen Campbell

Now, Nought to Sixty is celebrating 60 years of artistic activity. The season of exhibitions and events aims to have a communal and discursive aspect, emphasising the ICA’s founding role as a club for artists and a laboratory for experimentation. Most of the artists are under 35 and few have had significant commercial exposure. In some cases this is their first opportunity to mount a solo project in a major public space. In this, the second stage of the programme, there is a documentary video by Seamus Harahan, Alastair MacKinven’s Escher-like paintings, a voice-work by Aileen Campbell and lighting interventions by Matthew Darbyshire.

Born in Belfast in 1968, Harahan uses a video camera to take hand-held, seemingly amateur, footage. In Valley of Jehosephat/Version – In Your Mind, images of the Bloody Sunday commemoration in Derry are projected onto two screens. These are accompanied by a late-Seventies roots reggae track by Max Romeo, which refers to a biblical valley of judgement, and by Brian Ferry’s 1977 song, In Your Mind, which suggests some sort of personal philosophical quest. Set against this insistent musical backdrop, Harahan’s shaky camera shots of murals and tribal banners, of uniformed bandsmen and drummers marching through the derelict estates of Derry, have a nostalgic and mythic quality. The bleached light suggests something dreamlike and timeless so that this march becomes an archetypal image of all such political protests.

Alastair MacKinven Et Sick In Infinitum Again 2007
Alastair MacKinven Et Sick In Infinitum Again, 2007

Born in 1971, Alastair MacKinven is a performance artist and painter with an obsession about the body. In this series of paintings entitled Et Sick In Infinitum Again, he uses the so-called “Penrose stairs”, familiar from MC Escher’s 1960s lithograph Ascending and Descending, which appear to connect in an infinite loop. Echoing something of the romanticism of Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, MacKinven also destabilises notions of the grid so beloved by modernist painters from Mondrian to Sean Scully. The hospital-style handrails, used by the infirm and the elderly, which surround these paintings, give them a corporeal, sculptural dimension. But MacKinven’s odd and edgy paintings are interesting enough without the inclusion of the rather awkward sculpture based on an inverted metal walkway that has been plonked in the middle of the gallery.

Alongside these two artists is the work of Scottish sound artist Eileen Campbell, who explores sound-making through the female voice – often employing odd guttural and bodily sounds – while using performance to play with the visual expectations of her audience; and Darbyshire’s lighting adaptations in the public spaces around the building that appropriate lighting schemes and colours more associated with commercial companies such as Orange and BP.

Through its exhibition programmes and monthly salon discussions the ICA is aiming to create a wider audience for the contemporary arts, but to do so it may need to drop the tired mantra of the “new”. Now may be the time to go for something really radical: the visceral and the authentic.

Nought to Sixty at the ICA London until 2 November 2008

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2008

Image 1: © Seamus Harahan
Image 2: © Eileen Campbell
Image 3: © Alastair MacKinven

Published in The Independent

Art Criticism

Hughie O’Donoghue
The Geometry of Paths
James Hyman Fine Arts London

Published in The Independent

Hughie O'Donoghue The Yellow Man I 2008
The Yellow Man I, 2008

In a culture that values solipsistic irony over the heroic and the mythic, Hughie O’Donoghue’s intensely serious paintings rather stand alone. Because the contemporary art world is so highly commodified, artists tend to produce work that conforms to a recognisable “brand”, with the result that any serious questions about the human condition often seem secondary.

O’Donoghue is an artist deeply embedded in the history of painting and the work of masters such as Titian and Géricault. Yet to be a painter today is to employ a language that has, in many ways, been sidelined by photography, film and video, where the veracity of an image can easily be blurred.

For O’Donoghue, every mark and brushstroke of his sensuous canvases is significant. History and memory inform his work, and war – or, to use Wilfred Owen’s phrase, “the pity of war” – is a theme to which he continually returns, as if to understand the past is somehow a way to make sense of the present. Inhabiting much of his previous work, like the ghostly presence of the Unknown Soldier, is the shadow of his father, Daniel O’Donoghue, whose war campaigns in Italy have been the subject of many of O’Donoghue’s previous paintings.

Hughie O'Donoghue No.22 Bourg Leopold
No.22 Bourg Leopold 3 Hours 40 Minutes, 2008

Now a different presence has infiltrated the work, that of Van Gogh. Inspired by Van Gogh’s The Painter on the Road to Tarascon, which was lost in a Second World War bombing raid and now only survives in photos, O’Donoghue has created a potent, if complex, synergy between this lost work, the series of paintings by Francis Bacon based on the same image, and the seemingly unrelated event of an RAF plane en route to bomb Cologne in 1944.

The title of the exhibition, The Geometry of Paths, suggests that diverse events are in fact linked, and that history is cyclical in nature. These richly resonant paintings, which consist of many layers and films of oil pigment, have been worked and reworked so that their making becomes mimetic of the processes and understanding of history itself.

Photographs are embedded in O’Donoghue’s paintings, adding another layer of imagery and metaphor. His Yellow Man series signifies a new departure and a greater realism. In these extraordinarily intense works, he not only pays homage to Van Gogh but also seems to evoke the spirits of Everyman and Piers Plowman. A central figure, with what appears to be a bandaged head, looms like a wraith through the fog of paint, while in another canvas the phantom of Joseph Beuys in his famous hat is conjured. All seem to carry intimations of mortality.

Hughie O'Donoghue No.37 Stuttgart
No.37 Stuttgart 7 Hours 20 Minutes 24.7.44 (Red Letter Days), 2008

The complementary sequence Red Letter Days depicts the nocturnal journeys of a pathfinder bomber over the devastated German cities. The oranges and reds evoke both the horror of fire and the elemental grandiosity of Turner.

In the 12 paintings that form The Geometry of Paths, photography evokes a place between fact and memory. Starry Night on the Rhine and The City of Cologne give aerial views of targets below. These have been reduced to their abstract elements. The areas partly erased by paint feel like the process of struggling to remember real events through the haze and trauma of shell shock.

The thesis of this exhibition feels a little strained, yet the viewer who does not strive to make logical connections can simply feel the potent, visceral lyricism.

Hughie O’Donoghue The Geometry of Paths at James Hyman Fine Arts, London until 19 April 2008

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2008

Images © Hughie O’Donoghue. Courtesy of James Hyman Fine Arts

Published in The Independent

Art Criticism

Hughie O’Donoghue
Painting Caserta Red
Imperial War Museum

Published in The Independent

Hughie O’Donoghue paints very big paintings. During the opening of his exhibition at The Imperial War Museum one critic was heard to mutter “bombast” and “hubris” – but that is completely to miss the point of these brave, expansive works that deal with memory and myth, the epic and the personal. Complex, forceful and profoundly moving these ambitious paintings – in oil on linen canvas, often incorporating inkjet on gampi tissue to entrap a photographic image beneath – attempt to grapple with birth, life, death and redemption in a way that few contemporary artists – except perhaps the German painter Kiefer – would dare. Homer, Titian, Goya, even Michelangelo are the sources that inspire and against whom O’Donoghue pits himself. Despite an MA at Goldsmiths in the early 80s, you won’t find any fashionable irony here or discourses on art about art. For early on O’Donoghue eschewed formalism for the supremacy of the image and its metaphorical resonance. War, in this exhibition, is his theme, but one that runs like a subterranean river leaving behind mineral traces of its existence rather than advertising itself with shock and gore. He draws parallels with the “classic epic poem with the individual pictures functioning like chapters, verses or lines.”

As did the poets, Owen and Sassoon, he universalises from the particular. The particular, here, is his father, Daniel O’Donoghue, born in Manchester of Irish descent, who served as an infantryman in WWII and chronicled his experiences in letters home to his wife. It is these eye witness accounts, along with the artefacts Daniel carried with him: his flute, goggles, sheet music, a camera and books, plus material Hughie O’Donoghue has gleaned from the archives of the museum, that acted as catalysts for the son’s visual meditation on what Owen called “the pity of war”. Yet this exhibition is not a sentimental homage to a father by a son – “we disapproved of each other for most of our lives”. Rather it acts as “passing-bells for these who die[d] as cattle”, as Owen described the invisible young men; the Unknown Soldiers sent from every corner of Suffolk and Somerset, Cornwall and Co. Durham to fight in the Great War. Or for that matter for all those sent since to the front lines in Kosovo or Iraq, who have ever been sold: “The old lie” of “dulce et decorum est pro patria mori”.

O’Donoghue has built this body of work around these found images in order to describe the wanderings of a soldier in retreat during the Fall of France in 1940 and the experience of ‘Crossing the Rapido’ in southern Italy in 1944. Among Daniel’s effects were snapshots and postcards sent from Italy and Greece, including a photo of a 1930s bronze diver and a postcard of the ancient Greek sculpture of Marsyas – the satyr flayed for challenging Apollo to a musical contest, famously painted by Titian. O’Donoghue has long admired Titian’s late, edgy work and its many sculptural variants. When Marsyas, who played the pipes, lost the contest, he was not only brutally flayed, but also silenced. O’ Donoghue draws a poetic parallel with his father, Daniel, who lost his flute while he and his fellow soldiers were crossing the Rapido. These imaginative coincidences are further woven into the paintings, for among Daniel’s papers were the widely reproduced images of the executed corpses of Mussolini and his collaborators hanging by their ankles from the roof of a Milanese garage in 1945. The parallels between this gruesome image and the Marsyas are unmistakable. During the painting process the appropriated photograph has become buried in Rapido VI, while in Rapido IV it is juxtaposed with a photograph of a German soldier whose skin has been badly burnt. Thus ancient and modern are fused; echoes of mythic cruelty and modern brutality intertwining and reverberating like the lost notes of Marsyas’s pipes.

Photographs of Grauballe and Tollund Man, discovered during the 1970s excavations of Danish peat bogs, and a shocking newspaper clip, pinned to his studio wall, of a figure falling headfirst from the sky in New York City on 9/11, also contribute to the palimpsest of O’Donoghue’s imagery. The central motif of a falling or diving figure has haunted his large canvases with its raw physical presence for many years. The Sleeper series of the 1980s and the later Red Earth paintings are precursors to his recent Diver paintings where the central figure, in its naked vulnerability, makes implicit reference to the Crucifixion. These often S-bend bodies also relate to the ancient mummified ‘bog figures’, preserved in the peat of Ireland, which have inspired the gritty poetry of Seamus Heaney, with whom O’Donoghue has worked, on occasion, since moving from Britain to Kilkenny. A deep sense of melancholy for something unnameable, for something that has been lost, permeates these paintings. Like suppressed memories – both collective and individual – of famine and war, of trauma and decimation, these shadowy figures act as signs for what is buried deep in the bog of the unconscious, whilst also giving expression to the regenerative power of nature and the ancient cyclical myths of birth, death and Resurrection. As Heaney wrote in his evocative poem, Kinship: “Quagmire, swampland, morass: …Ground that will strip/its dark side,/nesting ground,/outback of the mind.”

Hughie O'Donoghue German Tanks Forges-les-Eaux 1996-99
German Tanks, Forges-les-Eaux, 1996-99

It is these expressions of suffering and journeys, of half submerged memories that O’Donoghue weaves into his courageous paintings to form complex psychological maps. At once both gorgeous and lush – with their deep blues, ochres and ox-blood reds, their glazed surfaces – they are also, in the true sense, awe inspiring. There is no postmodern amorality here, no hedging of bets but an unapologetic view as to both the pain and the value of life, and the enormity, yet prosaic nature, of death. Images rise to the surface like his divers slipping through dark water, like ghosts, like memories, like photographs finding form in developing solution.

There has always been something inescapably tragic in O’Donoghue’s work, a sense of the fatality of history. His paintings of the late 1980s, Fires, showed a brooding awareness of the ruthlessness of nature and the fragility of human endeavour. He has never been attracted to making coded or elitist work full of in-jokes, but has sought to create visual equivalents for sensations and emotions which have the directly visceral appeal of, say, music.

Born in 1953, too young to remember the war and the urbane voices of BBC announcers, echoing from the mesh grids of bakelite wireless sets in the corner of front rooms across the land, announcing yet another Allied defeat or victory, these works are not drawn from reclaimed memories. Rather they are an imaginative leap; an emotional and psychological re-enactment of what it must have been like for his father, and those other bewildered young men of his generation, to be sent off to war. Perhaps they could best be described as aesthetic acts of empathy. For empathy, like all serious art, is a creative act, requiring not only humanity but imagination. It is this quality that prevents the grandiosity of these paintings from becoming, as that misguided critic at the private view suggested, hubristic. The scale of O’Donoghue’s work has long placed him firmly in the Grand Tradition. Whilst the turbulent surfaces suggest the influence of Abstract Expressionism, these are by no means, either in their conception or their making, gestural paintings but rely on Old Masterly patience. For O’Donoghue builds up his surfaces in thin layers of paint and varnish, a technique that owes a great more to the traditional craft of painting than is met with in most modern painters. This is work that speaks to all those who believe in art and its regenerative power, who believe that its important themes remain the universal ones that T.S.Eliot once described as, birth, copulation and death. In a secular age, O’Donoghue dares to make art which deals with the bits of the psyche that religion once nurtured and are, so often, now left out in the cold.

These are paintings that assert that art matters, that life matters, that history is not dead and that we are part of its continuing warp and weft. War and its devastation are likened to archaeological fragments. Only through a gradual sifting, through a voyage into our own depths, and into those of the past, can we begin to fathom something of the complexity of human nature. “History and painting,” O’ Donoghue asserts, unfashionably and with faith, “have the same goal … truth.”

Hughie O’Donoghue Painting Caserta Red at Imperial War Museum from 19th June to 7th September 2003 and Imperial War Museum North from 27th September 2003 to 18th January 2004

Hughie O’Donoghue, Painting, Memory, Myth (ISBN:18584 204 7) by James Hamilton is published by Merrell. £29.95, hardback.

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2004

Images © Hughie O’Donoghue. Courtesy of Imperial War Museum

Published in The Independent

Art Criticism

Outlines
Gimpel Fils

Published in The Independent

Julian Opie Flocked Painting 19 (Medium) 2007
Julian Opie
Flocked Painting 19 (Medium), 2007

In 1995, Michael Craig-Martin curated an excellent exhibition, Drawing the Line, which brought together drawings from prehistory to the present, placing them in unusual juxtapositions that encouraged the viewer to reappraise many of the works. Craig-Martin claimed that drawings are “the great secret of art: vast in number, mostly unknown, often thought of as secondary, rarely reproduced, and, because of their sensitivity to light, seldom seen”.

Part of what attracted him to drawings was their characteristics of modesty and intimacy, qualities that accord with modern sensibilities. Drawings also have a spontaneity that is essentially different from the worked, formal composition of a painting.

The outline has a double role. It marks the surface of the paper or canvas, while establishing a structure that allows the viewer to contemplate a particular object. Within the drawing, there is a sense of experimentation and directness, as well as a certain rawness, which appeals to the contemporary mindset. For the drawing functions as a mental map; it delineates the passage of creativity, revealing the artist’s processes, vulnerabilities and fragilities. Within the drawing there is no place to hide; hiatuses, erasures and doubts are all visible. It is as close as possible to getting inside the artist’s head.

Patrick Caulfield Paris Separates 1973
Patrick Caulfield
Paris Separates, 1973

Now Gimpel Fils has come up with its own version of the idea, bringing together art works made since the late 1940s. But, being a commercial exhibition, the range of work is rather more restricted and, unlike the original Craig-Martin show, there aren’t the same interesting pairings and juxtapositions that encourage comparison between very disparate drawings, the old and the new.

Robert Adams’s Figure Studies of 1949 reveal the figure in movement and have the quality of Eadweard Muybridge photographs. The viewer is able to follow the development of his marks and shapes as his sketches become increasingly abstract, while Claude Heath’s drawings, images of Ben Nevis (contact prints on fibre paper, made in 2006) look like black and white diagrams of internal circuitry or neural pathways.

By contrast, the layered black ink drawings on tracing paper by Hannah Maybank have the quality of architectural or draughtsman’s plans and mark the intersection between the initial idea and its completion as final painting.

It takes a bit of looking to realise that the outline of Julian Opie’s black “flocked” painting reveals the human figure through a minimum of graphic lines that have removed all extraneous detail, while Andrew McDonald’s DVD John and the Machine, with its scratchy animated lines, conveys something of the quality of William Kentridge’s surreal animations but without his sociopolitical subtext.

Patrick Caulfield’s 1973 Paris Separates, a black and white striped awning above a shop front painted with meticulous care in oil on board, is a witty melding of text and visuals and still looks surprisingly modern.

Michael Craig-Martin Untitled (Self Portrait No.6) 2005
Michael Craig-Martin
Untitled (Self Portrait No.6), 2005

But it is Ben Nicholson’s etchings, with their economy of line and their meditations of form and balance, that are among the most satisfying works in the show. And Craig-Martin himself makes a guest appearance with his Untitled (Self Portrait No 6) of 2005, which demonstrates that, for him, the outline is an essential artistic tool. Through the linking of disparate everyday objects, such as a shoe, a camera, a pair of sun glasses and a table, he invites us to reconsider how we perceive our ordinary, daily world, which, through familiarity, we hardly see.

Drawings have a tendency to feel fresh and modern whatever period they come from. This is largely because of the quality of economy that we have come to value and associate with 20th- and 21st-century art. Yet all too often they are seen as an afterthought, modest “secondary” works that are merely the preparations to the finale of the painting. An artist who practises or works in drawing is often dismissed as a mere draughtsman. This exhibition reminds us that that is certainly not the case.

Outlines at Gimpel Fils, London until 5 April 2008

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2008

Image 1: © Julian Opie 2007
Image 2: © Patrick Caulfield 1993
Image 3: © Michael Craig-Martin 2005

Published in The Independent

Art Criticism

Panamarenko
Hayward Gallery London

Published in The Independent

All aboard for a flight of fancy The Belgian sculptor-engineer Panamarenko is a poet and a dreamer. But are his rickety flying machines and ironic inventions visionary art or just kids’ stuff?

Flight has, since we crawled out of caves, been one of man’s most abiding fantasies. The image of Icarus falling from the sky, after his father, Daedalus’s D-I-Y disaster, has fascinated artists and writers from Bruegel the Elder to W.H. Auden. Leonardo da Vinci was intrigued with the mechanics of aviation. As both an artist and inventor, he was, no doubt, as much attracted to the metaphorical implications of flight, as he was with sorting out the mechanics. The desire for weightlessness, to soar free unbounded by the earth’s gravitational pull, is atavistic. Dreams of flying are, as we all know, extremely common.

Panamarenko Aeromodeller 1969-71
Aeromodeller, 1969-71

The Belgium artist, Panamarenko, is a man with a life-long obsession with flight. Like the Portuguese poet, Fernando Pessoa, he has, from the first, adopted a pseudonym to hide from the public gaze. It is not apparent why. But in Pessoa’s case it enabled him to live out a creative and emotional Jekyll and Hyde existence, to strive for psychological consolidation and completeness. No one seems sure of the genesis of Panamarenko’s name. It’s been suggested it’s a reference to the now defunct Pan Am Airways, and that the Russian-sounding suffix is a whimsical take on the cold war that was at its height when he emerged onto the Antwerp art scene in the 1960s. Panamarenko is the Walter Mity of the art world, a utopian dreamer, an ‘artist-technologist’ who has spent thirty years constructing Heath Robinson contraptions from an assortment of bicycle peddles, sprockets, rubber bands, wheels, balsa wood (the stuff small boys use to build model aeroplanes) and thingamajigs. What’s more, he believes he can make them fly. Looking at some of his machines I was reminded of those go-carts kids used to drag around the streets made from old pram chassises – bound with tape and string – before the emergence of skateboards. Peter Pan, you will remember, also had a thing about flying. And he never wanted to grow up.

Panamarenko Kepi 1997
Kepi, 1997

In the 60s, Antwerp, like Amsterdam, was a haven for alternative life-styles: American draft-dodgers, hippie dropouts, drifters, would-be artists and poets. It was during this period of social flux that Anny De Decker and the young German artist, Bernd Lohaus – a student and friend of Joseph Beuys – opened the doors of their new Wide White Space Gallery with an evening of ‘Happenings’. This included Panamarenko who had recently graduated from Antwerp’s Royal Academy. Within a year the gallery was showing a heady mix of avant-garde artists such as Marcel Broodthaers, Beuys, Fontana and Manzoni. Suspicious of the slick reductivism of much conceptualism, these young artists wanted to create a more fluid art that was open to new inclusive forms and ideas, one that was concerned with deeper issues than mere style. It was in this atmosphere of artistic licence that Panamarenko flourished. Like Beuys, he had always been interested in the natural sciences. Though while the mystical and the Gnostic were, with his predilection towards romanticism, to seduce Beuys, Panamarenko claims he remained closer to the tradition of hard science. Yet both men shared a common desire to expand the definition of what could constitute a work of art. For each had begun to see the limitations of an art that had been split off from science where the rigours of Descartian methodology had become more concerned with the mechanistic ‘hows’, than the metaphysical ‘whys’. In this sense Panamarenko is a very European artist, standing apart from the macho heroics of American Expressionism and pop culture that dominated at the time.

Panamarenko Das Flugzeug 1967
Das Flugzeug, 1967

At the 1968 Dussoldorf exhibition his Das Flugzeug – a phantasmagoric pedal-powered helicopter-cum-aeroplane, made from racing-bike parts, rubber driving belts, Styropor wings and occupying a space of 16 by 7 meters – formed the central focus of the show. Its zany inventiveness was to set the tone for Panamarenko’s later work: flying saucers, gismos with propellers that can be strapped to the human body and Meganeudons – small flying machines that replicate the wing beats of insects. Panamarenko sets great store by the notion of ‘invention’. The word, for him, resonates with ideas of adventure and discovery. He eschews the prosaic and actual in preference for the ‘hardly probable’ or ‘merely possible’. As with Voltaire’s God, because his artefacts did not already exist, he needed to invent them. His work is, as much as anything, about an act of faith. But a faith in what is not always clear. A clue might found, whatever his claims about ‘real’ science, in a work made in 1970, entitled The Teachings of Don Juan, based on the utterances of that peyote drinking hippie guru, Carlos Casteneda. Casteneda, and his shamanistic hero Don Juan were, of course, committed to a voyage of mood enhancement and to fantastic transports of transcendental delight.

Panamarenko Meganeudon 1 1972
Meganeudon 1, 1972

Panamarenko has created his own bizarre version of the Theory of Relativity Toymodel of Space (A Mechanical Model Behind Quantum Mechanics), 1992. “In the art world,” he says, “nobody understands it. In the world of science everybody thinks it is silly, even before they read it.” Looking at his Aeromodeller, 1969-71 – a huge rattan, picnic-basket-of-a-contraption held together with ropy looking bolts and suspended beneath a large hot-air balloon – one is inclined to believe that this man is more Jules Verne than a latter-day Einstein. The limp, woolly space suits lying on the floor of the craft seem like something from a child’s fancy dress box rather than equipment that would prevent oxygen starvation and weightlessness. Panamarenko also does a good line in ironic Ruritanian peaked caps. Kepi, 1997, an army hat topped with a fish, is ‘designed to withstand environmental conditions and people’.

So should we be flocking to see the work of this obscure 60s throwback? And is what Panamarenko makes even art? Well yes. For however Boys Own some of it may appear, there is something rather touching about the obsessive enterprise of this mad visionary and dreamer, this poet-inventor. For unlike so much art that was made during the last years of the 20th century, and will presumably go on being made well into the 21st, this has nothing to do with either the market, money, investment or exchange or even with notions of celebrity. There is no material gain to be had from this work. It is simply the culmination of one man’s dreams and reveries. A mad utopian bid for some sort of transcendence. Like Carlos Casteneda, Timothy Leary, R.D.Laing, love-ins, and hippie bells it all seems to belong to another, more innocent age. Yet I can’t help but feel, that in this mitigated, self-promoting world, we need all the visionaries and dreamers we can get.

Panamarenko at the Hayward Gallery from 10 February to 2 April 2000

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Images © Panamarenko 1969-1997

Published in The Independent

Art Criticism

Jorge Pardo
Haunch of Venison London

Published in The Independent

In a recent interview, the artist Jorge Pardo, responded, when asked about the effect on his work of growing up under the political and economic system in Cuba, which formed the backdrop to his youth, that he was a “post-Marxist” who didn’t “believe in any of that shit”.

Jorge Pardo

Born in Havana, he moved with his family to Chicago in 1969 and studied biology before turning to art. During his time at the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles, there was significant debate as to what constituted art and its practices. Pardo’s work, which has been widely exhibited in museums and galleries since the 1980s, grew out of such discussions. But it remains hard to define.

Usually described as crossing boundaries between art, design and architecture, he incorporates recognisable everyday objects such as furniture, paintings and even actual houses into his “installations”. To walk into this current show is a bit like wandering into the lighting department of Ikea and being told that it is really a gallery. So is this art as set design or is it something more?

The very question: “is it art?”, ubiquitous in the experience of much innovative art of the last century, places ambiguity centre-stage in the appreciation of modern and contemporary art. The critic Harold Rosenberg coined the phrase “the anxious object” to describe this situation. Ambiguity can, of course, equally be the hallmark of very good or very bad art.

Jorge Pardo

This awareness can, itself, breed a certain ambivalence. What I am looking at could either be very fine or equally it could be very poor. Ambiguity, so beloved by the Romantics and the Surrealists, by its very nature unsettles so that responses are, themselves, destabilised. The aim of all this, of course, is to disrupt preordained ways of seeing and experiencing the world and ambiguity remains one of the main weapons in the armoury of the avant-garde. Collages, montage, the found object, painting from photographs all exploit the gaps and discrepancies in exploded certainties. All challenge the boundaries of cognition.

For his second show at the Haunch of Venison, Pardo has created a series of works inspired by his project Mérida House – a dilapidated building bought by the gallery in the Mexican city of Mérida, which is being “restructured and reworked” by the artist using influences derived from the local culture and landscape. In fact, the house is undergoing a complete reconstruction, from the interior to the landscaping of the garden and swimming pool.

The idea is that it should function as a sculpture as well as a residence and that the furniture, objects, wallpaper, tiles, lamps and paintings should cross boundaries between the disciplines of art, design and architecture. But whether this adds up to more than an intellectual version of one of those TV home improvement makeovers is hard to say.

Jorge Pardo

The exhibition is a rather odd affair. All the walls of the gallery have been covered with life-size photographic murals of the Mérida House, which looks like expensive designer wall paper. Digitally created, multifaceted objects that obviously take their genesis from native South American masks – they look vaguely leopard or fish-like – hang on the walls between what Pardo refers to as “paintings”; sculptural objects not, in fact, made of paint but digitally constructed using the decorative elements and patterns of tiles and floors. Between these are five sets of eight intricate lamps constructed from transparent recycled plastic that look like big dandelion clocks.

Recently, Phaidon has published a new monograph on Pardo’s work and for his last exhibition the gallery produced a glossy catalogue with an almost unintelligible essay by the artist Liam Gillick insisting on the importance and gravitas of this work. Yet, try as I might to feel real enthusiasm, all this “ambiguity” and “crossing boundaries” just seemed like so many rather dull and well-worn paths and this did feel more Ikea than art.


Jorge Pardo at the Haunch of Venison, London until 19 April 2008

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2008

Images © © Jorge Pardo 2008. Courtesy of The Haunch of Venison

Published in The Independent

Art Criticism

Pictures of Innocence Children
in 18th Century Portraiture

Published in The Independent

The past, it has been said, is another country. Every childhood is, by definition, ‘lost’. It is a land that we have all known but to which, as healthy adults, we can never return. ‘Childish’ and ‘childlike’ are not compliments; think Michael Jackson. In contemporary society the child is largely perceived as in need of protection from the harsh realities of the adult world. The sex abuser is considered transgressive because he besmirches the purity of the child’s existence. Such attitudes were not always the case. For the role of the child is as much socially constructed as it is biological and has changed through the ages.

The eighteen century witnessed a revolution in the fundamental attitudes toward the nature of childhood. In previous ages children had been seen as miniature and immature adults tainted, at birth, by original sin. Until the 18th century, portraits of children had been painted according to conventions that had been established in the Renaissance. Boys were portrayed as future leaders, girls as brides and potential breeding stock. By the 18th century the offspring of the nobility and the growing middle classes were beginning to play a more prominent role in family life. The age of enlightenment saw the birth of the ‘nuclear’ family. In 1692 the English philosopher John Locke published his thesis Some Thoughts Concerning Education which had a huge influence on the upbringing of those children lucky enough to receive education. Locke saw the child’s mind as a tabula rasa ‘white paper, or wax, to be moulded or fashioned as one pleases’.

Among the moneyed classes parents and their children engaged in more ‘permissive’, loving relationships which engendered mutual affection and respect, shifts in child rearing and educational attitudes included new interests in sport, games and play. It was no longer considered necessary that all ‘childish’ activities should be dispensed with, sometimes as young as the age of seven, in order to concentrate on studies that would produce conduct appropriate to a future role in society. The wealthy began to treat their children as objects on whom they were prepared to spend large sums of money not only for their education, but also for their entertainment and amusement. These attitudes were reflected in the images of children presented within painting, particularly the portrait.

Pictures of Innocence: Children in 18th-century Portraiture is a smaller version of an exhibition previously shown at the Holburne Museum, Bath, which has been aimed at a more general, less specialised audience and tailored to fit Abbot Hall, itself built in the 18th century. By showing much of the work in a domestic setting amid the Adams style interiors with their damask lined walls and contemporary furniture and by providing an interactive room for children it is hoped to attract a wider, more family orientated audience; though whether this really is an exhibition to attract and interest children I rather doubt.

William Hogarth The House of Cards 1730William Hogarth The House of Cards 1730

With the advent of the cult of sensibility that dominated art and aesthetics in the second half of the eighteenth century human affection rather than reason or judgement became increasingly valued as the basis of moral life and was considered among those of a liberal and enlightened bent to be more virtuous. It was William Hogarth who, arguably, was the first European artist to develop the child portrait as a genre in its own right. In 1730 he painted the first of his portraits focusing exclusively on children, a pair of small-scale works known as ‘conversation pieces’ The House of Cards and The Tea Party, which are shown here. Although the children are seen doing childish things these portraits are laden with symbolic references and can be interpreted as allegories. The children themselves are decidedly odd, with large heads, bulging eyes and small doll-like bodies. Hogarth had no children of his own but his fondness for them can be seen in his more realistic, fresh faced portraits of Hannah and George Osborne, offspring of Dr. John Ranby, surgeon to George II.

Whilst paintings such as Francis Cotes’ Lewis Cage (The Young Cricketer) of Milgate Park, Maidstone, Kent, painted in 1768 aimed to show their subjects in an ostensibly informal light with unbuttoned waistcoat and collapsed stocking, enjoying the increasingly popular game of cricket, the pose – leaning on a cricket bat – is borrowed from antique sculpture and the paintings of Van Dyck. The young Lewis Cage is thus established, at only five years old, as master of all he surveys.

Thomas Gainsborough The Painter's Daughters chasing a Butterfly 1759
Thomas Gainsborough The Painter’s Daughters chasing a Butterfly, 1759

In contrast Thomas Gainsborough’s portraits of children are among the first to show their unique physical and psychological characteristics. In his late career he had enormous success with his ‘fancy pictures’, sentimentalised images of rustic peasant children in poetic landscapes often at a cottage door. But it is his lovely painting of his two daughters chasing a butterfly that shows real affection and a sensitive awareness towards his subject. More naturalistic than any of his commissioned portraits the little girls are portrayed as individual, quizzical and intelligent in their pursuit of a white butterfly – image of the transience of childhood – against the backdrop of a dark wood, itself symbolic of the dangers of the wider adult world.

Ideas of empathy were very much part of the ‘cult of sensibility’ and their development was seen as central to a moral life. This was an important factor in the treatment of children and their subsequent representation within art. In an era of shockingly high infant mortality this sentiment is apparent in the portraits commissioned to commemorate dead children. It is quite chilling how many of those portrayed in this exhibition died before reaching maturity. Pompeo Batoni’s Thomas and Mrs Barrett-Lennard with their daughter Barbara show the couple united in grief by their posthumously painted child, struck down by a fever whilst they were travelling in Italy. The poignant oil sketch by the Scottish painter, Allan Ramsay, of his fourteen month old son on his deathbed was executed as a way of dealing with his grief.

Johan Zoffany Three Sons of John, 3rd Earl of Bute / Three Daughters of John, 3rd Earl of Bute c1763-4Johan Zoffany Three Sons of John, 3rd Earl of Bute / Three Daughters of John, 3rd Earl of Bute c1763-4

Following on from the publication of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile, ou de l’education in 1762 childhood was seen as a ‘pure’ state that stood in contrast to the detrimental effects of civilisation. In Johan Zoffany’s paintings of the Bute family, the two groups of children are not portrayed as miniature adults but shown playing with a pet squirrel and looking for a bird’s nest. Though the rather arch arrangement of figures and the luxury of their fashionable dress leave us in no doubt that these were essentially social portraits.

Among the most modern and psychologically profound paintings on show is Joshua Reynolds A Boy Reading painted in 1777. In this tender, brooding, introspective portrait, with its Rembrandtesque tonalities, the young sitter is shown lost in concentration reading a book. At the end of the dark, enclosed room where he sits is a small window – an image, perhaps, of the power of the imagination to open up new vistas. The irony of this penetrating portrait, painted by a man who had no children, is that the model was known to Reynolds only at ‘Net Boy’ for he made a living making and repairing nets and was almost certainly illiterate.

Sir Thomas Lawrence Lady Georgiana Fane
Sir Thomas Lawrence Lady Georgiana Fane

After Reynolds death in 1792, Sir Thomas Lawrence became the most fashionable painter of the child portrait. Often painted outside his children are shown enjoying the extremes of landscape as in the depiction of Lady Georgiana Fane. Here the little girl is seen barefoot, dressed in ragged clothes against a wild and rugged backdrop. The image reflects the new spirit of Romanticism exemplified by Wordsworth’s poetry, while the unusual setting and choice of clothes is likely to have been that of her fashionable socialite mother, the second wife of the 10th Earl of Westmorland, the heiress Jane Saunders, eccentric for her humour and wit. Nowadays she may well have been called Peaches or Fifi Trixibell.

By the 1790s the child portrait was fully established as a branch of portraiture with its own rules, codes and etiquette, children were also for the first time dressed in clothes especially designed for children. As the 18th century turned to the 19th images of children became increasingly mawkish and sentimental. The portrait of Penelope Boothby, by Joshua Reynolds, the only child of Sir Brooke Boothby, friend and publisher of Rousseau, is depicted as a sweet little blonde in a white lawn dress and big floppy hat. Shortly before her sixth birthday she died suddenly. Her parents had been arguing over which doctor to call and parted at her grave to remain tragically permanently estranged. Not exhibited until 1871 it became one of Reynolds’ most celebrated works influencing Sir John Everett Millais’s Cherry Ripe where the small girl is dressed similarly to Penelope only with pink ribbons adorning her attire rather than blue. The painting earned Millais 1,000 guineas. The child portrait had been transformed into a sentimental marketing object which would come to grace the lid of a thousand of biscuit tins. The Edwardian era was filled with idealised pictures of childhood from Peter Pan to Alice in Wonderland. It was not until the advent of Freud that the image of childhood would change once more. More recently Nabokov and Ian McEwen in literature, Paula Rego and Balthus in art all attest to the way adults re-invent images of childhood. After them it can never be seen as quite so innocent again.

Pictures of Innocence Children in 18th Century Portraiture at Abbot Hall Art Gallery Kendal from 12 July to 8 October 2005

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2005

Image 1: Collection National Museum Wales
Image 2: The National Portrait Gallery
Image 3,4&5: Tate Collection

Published in The Independent

Art Criticism

Richard Prince
Continuation
Serpentine Gallery London

Published in The Independent

Richard Prince Continuation 7
Continuation 7

When Richard Prince was growing up on the outskirts of Boston, the posters on his bedroom wall were not of The Beach Boys or his local baseball heroes but of Franz Kline and Jackson Pollock. The images did not show the artists actually painting. Prince was not particularly interested in their art. What attracted him were the artists themselves, with their machismo cool and insouciant self-confidence. He wanted to be like them. That is why he became an artist.

The press release for this new show Continuation, his first major British exhibition, suggests that Prince is “one of the world’s most celebrated artists and one of its greatest innovators”. It is a huge claim and not one that’s always substantiated by this exhibition.

Prince’s subject is the American dream: cars, girls, motorbikes, cowboys and empty landscapes. His passion for cars means that right beside his painting and photography studios in upstate New York is a “body shop”, where his collection of car bonnets are turned into art. Bonnets as both sculptures and painting abound here, painted in pale greys and greens. His pièce de résistance is a Buick called Covering Hannah (1987 Grand National). Here he’s wrapped a car in a vinyl print of naked girls, turning a car into the ultimate object of male desire.

Richard Prince Continuation 3
Continuation 3

Born in 1949, Prince is a child of the Sixties. He took part in the 1968 anti-Vietnam marches in Washington, and resistance and rebellion have coloured his life. What he has succeeded in doing is making a virtue out of a lack of originality through the act of appropriation. Spoken of as being iconoclastic and redefining authorship, as well as raising questions about authenticity and the uniqueness of an art work, his appropriated images taken from magazines, popular culture and pulp fiction follow in the wake of Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes. Yet it is hard to tell whether they are, in fact, a critique of consumerist culture or simply a symptom of it.

It all began in the late Seventies when Prince started to re-photograph commercial photos, passing them off as “original” works. In 2005 he achieved a degree of notoriety when his image Untitled (Cowboy), lifted from the Marlboro Man commercials, became the first photograph to fetch more than $1m (£500,000) at auction. What Prince does is to unsettle our sense of reality, by selecting and representing what already exists. His cowboy image reminds us that the concept of the Wild West is simply a construct and a fiction, and that his appropriations are in themselves fictions, distorting mirrors reflecting the consumerist society from which they are culled back at itself.

Richard Prince Continuation 2004-05
Continuation 2004-05

The relationship between image and language, which has been a key investigation for many conceptual artists, is played out in his Monochrome Joke series, begun in 1987. These silk-screened popular jokes, produced as an ironic dig at the art market, have since been appropriated by that very market. For they have sold rather well, raising further tricky questions about authenticity and value.

His eye for women is largely pornographic. Semi-nude girl bikers in his Gang series pose provocatively on large machines, while his Nurse paintings are culled from the front covers of trashy paperbacks. One, entitled Washington Nurse, shows a well-endowed woman in a white uniform being embraced in front of the White House by someone who looks alarmingly like Ronald Reagan.


Richard Prince Continuation at the Sepentine Gallery until 7 September 2008

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2008

Images © Richard Prince

Published in The Independent

Art Criticism

Print The Legend
The Fruitmarket Gallery Edinburgh

Published in The Independent

Print The Legend The Myth Of The West
 

For the Victorians it was the “exotic” East, as the late Edward Said pointed out in Orientalism, which revealed how fiction so often seems preferable to fact, and how we have a need to construct a mythological place on which to project our secret dreams and fantasies.

And so with the Wild West, argues Print the Legend: The myth of the West. That, too, was just as much a construct and the Western a celluloid vision of a prelapsarian playground where men were men and women knew their place. This idealisation, argues the curator, Patricia Bickers, goes back to Bishop Berkeley’s 18th-century imperialist musings, when he claimed that, from Europe, “Westward the course of empire takes its way”. The visionary American poet Walt Whitman also spoke of America’s “manifest destiny”, writing “for these states tend inland, and towards the Western sea, and I will also” (though he never travelled further west than the Mississippi.)

The Wild West has continued to exert a powerful influence both as image and metaphor on the American psyche and on Europeans who have never visited the continent, but grew up with cowboys riding across their Sunday-afternoon TVs.

How many of us remember the mythic heroes from our youths such as The Lone Ranger with his sidekick, Tonto, or the strong silent Raw Hide, who just kept those wagons rollin’ rollin’ rollin’? But how does all this work as an exhibition and, as with so many ideas-led shows, is the theory more interesting than the event?

Print The Legend The Myth Of The West

In John Ford’s late Western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the editor of the local paper proclaims “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend”. It is this line that gives the show its title. Longing and desire meld in Isaac Julien’s three-screen projection about two gay cowboys meeting in a cattle market. This draws on the homoerotic backdrop that colours so many Westerns where the “true” relationships – as in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – are between men.

Adam Chodzko’s photographic diptych also plays with fact and fantasy by placing hoardings describing a north London car park and Flagstaff, Arizona in their opposite locations and Peter Granser’s ersatz “cowboys” never look more than their Teutonic, role-playing selves located among neat suburban German streets.

In Gillian Wearing’s video we, the viewers, watch Western enthusiasts as they sit drinking and watching themselves acting a “shoot out” in the Hayward Gallery.

The white screen sited on waste ground opposite the gallery appears to be a blank canvas – on to which we might project anything – until the sun goes down over Edinburgh and an image of John Wayne comes up. Slowed to one frame every 23 minutes and running 24 hours a day, the length of Douglas Gordon’s work corresponds in real time to the five-year search that is the subject of John Ford’s classic 1956 Western The Searchers. Images of longing weave through other works, such as Salla Tykka’s adolescent rite of passage choreographed to the swelling score of Ennio Morricone’s music from Once Upon a Time in the West, while Mike Nelson’s underground scarlet cavern of desire, hidden like something illicit in the basement, references Clint Eastwood “painting the town red” in High Plains Drifter.

Print The Legend The Myth Of The West

Simon Patterson’s hand-painted installation that reflects shades of Kodak grey takes its structure from the shoot-out in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, but unless you knew that it wouldn’t make a lot of sense; Cornelia Parker’s Embryo Firearms: Colt 45 guns in the earliest stages of production, is redolent of the West’s violent past.

So does the show work? Well such heavy conceptual underpinnings are always tricky, but it does emphasise the myth of the American West as a land fit for heroes, a myth that seems to be as potent and as politically and culturally charged today as ever.

Print The Legend at the Fruitmarket Gallery until 5 July 2008

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2008

Images maybe subject to copyright

Published in The Independent

Art Criticism

Paula Rego
Jane Eyre and Other Stories
Marlborough Fine Arts London

Published in The Independent

Paula Rego is a teller of tales, a discloser of secrets. Her Portuguese childhood was filled with stories. As an only child, she would while away the hours alone in her nursery, drawing. Hers was a strict upbringing in which many things were forbidden. Fears lurked in the dark corners of the house as well as in the world outside. The Catholic Church was, in late 1930s and 1940s Portugal, very repressive, with good and evil an ever present reality, as was the strict code of manners that ruled the bourgeois society in which she grew up.

Stories were provided by female relatives, by aunts and grandmothers. Often, she would have to dress up for them in her party best. And clothes have always had an important function in Paula Rego’s paintings, as if to create costumes for her models and characters was an allowable form of adult dressing-up. Girls and women fill her work. The smell of domination and rebellion, freedom and repression, suffocation and escape permeates her imagery. Early on she painted knife-wielding monkeys and tearful cabbages that acted as projections for her fears. Fear, she once said, has to have a face.

Fairy tales and children’s stories have provided fertile soil for her vivid imagination. She has illustrated nursery rhymes, created ink and watercolour drawings to illustrate Peter Pan, and a series of etchings for the poet Blake Morrison’s Pendle Witches. More recently, at Dulwich Picture Gallery, she worked on a group of paintings influenced by the 17th-century Spanish artist Murillo, and the 19th-century story The Sin of Father Amero, by the Portuguese writer, Ece de Queiros.

Paula Rego Dancing for Mr Rochester 2002
Dancing for Mr Rochester, 2002

Now, she has found another perfect subject to express her themes of frustration, fear and repressed eroticism – Jane Eyre. For almost a year, from the summer of 2001, she worked obsessively to produce a series of pastels and her first major suite of lithographs. The result is that electrifying Rego mix of the edgy and the uncanny. As in Jean Rhys’s novel Wide Sargasso Sea, the former Mrs Rochester, Bertha, normally safely under lock and key in her attic, is brought centre stage in this series of theatrical scenes. We see her in petticoat and stays, biting the arm of Rochester in an image full of violent eroticism, or sitting, skirt around her thighs, on the ground like a fractious, angry child. Part maniacal-harridan, part-vulnerable, sexually precocious girl, she is presented in Rego’s large pastel as a mulatto beauty lying on her bed in skimpy shift and black platform fuck-me shoes, a toy monkey placed strategically between her thighs.

Paula Rego Bertha's Monkey 2002
Bertha’s Monkey, 2002

This monkey returns again in the disturbing 6ft triptych of Jane, Edward and Bertha’s Monkey. Here the strange dishevelled cloth creature seems to act as a metonym for Bertha; dressed in a strait jacket-like white robe, its cloth arms tied together, it sits perched, a picture of both threat and dejection, on the edge of a ladder. Jane, by contrast, with her down-turned mouth, dressed in plain governess satin, lurks distrustfully behind a damask awning, a brooding jealous presence.

Among the pastels is a series commissioned on the theme of La Fete, and a number of works that grew from a commission by Modern Painters magazine to create images for a colouring book to raise money for Unicef. It was then that Rego’s white rabbits reappeared, not having featured in her work for a number of years. Feeling the need to respond to the war in Iraq, she has created a searing painting based on masks and mannequins that she has arranged in the studio. A blank-eyed rabbit cradles another rabbit, with a bloody and tattered face, and wearing a pink dress, in her arms. The look of anguish, dread and despair speaks eloquently of the horror of war, with some of the force of Goya.

Paula Rego’s visual tales give voice to all that is transgressive, furtive, punitive, and just a little afraid in our natures. It seems that we can all recognise something of that.

Paula Rego Jane Eyre and Other Stories at Marlborough Fine Arts London from 14 Oct to 22 Nov 2003

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2003

Images © Paula Rego 2003. Courtesy of Marlborough Fine Arts

Published in The Independent

Art Criticism

Dodi Reifenberg
See how you Feel
Maddox Arts London

Published in The Independent

No single item has come to represent our wastefulness like the plastic bag, scudding down wind-blown streets and country lanes, the enemy of landfill sites and wildlife. Dodi Reifenberg, an Israeli-born artist living in Berlin, takes the plastic bag as his starting point and his medium.

Dodi Reifenberg B.H. Obama 2008
B.H. Obama, 2008

He has three main genres: portraits, stitched works and sculpture. He cuts the bags into slivers of micro-mosaic, which he sticks down to build his meticulous portraits based on photographs. The result is like a marriage between Kurt Schwitters and Roman tessellated tiling. His sombre portrait of Barack Obama shows the new President emerging from the left-hand side of the picture space into an inert field of empty black plastic, eyes downcast as if contemplating the enormity of his task. The muted tonalities of his portrait of Virginia Woolf reveal her introversion; in contrast, his portrait of Dr Wangari Maathai, the activist who, in 2004, became the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, is colourful and flamboyant.

Dodi Reifenberg Aung San Suu Kyi 2008
Aung San Suu Kyi, 2008

Most potent is the large portrait of Walter Benjamin, the quintessential Berlin Jew, who stares out at the viewer from one lens of his glasses, the other half of his face seemingly obliterated. Benjamin’s own Arcades project (a montage of reflections on the commodification of things and the fragmentation of modern life) renders him the perfect subject to be fashioned from the discards of consumerism.

Plaiting and weaving provide the methodology for works such as SCAN (2008), where the coloured areas of the woven surface reflect those taken from a brain scan of someone in love. Elsewhere, weaving and plaiting have been used to create sculptural works with art-historical references, such as Soutine Schinken (2003), which acknowledges Chaim Soutine’s painting of a side of beef, and Bacon’s Bacon (2007), conjuring a similar meaty quotation.

Reifenberg collects plastic bags wherever he can, even asking friends to help. One work, a chicken wire and wooden container, stands in the gallery holding discarded plastic bags, to which the visitor is invited to contribute. Collage and the appropriation of non-art materials is not new, but Reifenberg’s clever use of the most disdained object of modern consumption gives it a 21st-century context.

Dodi Reifenberg See how you Feel at Maddox Arts, London until 7 March 2009

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2009

Images © Dodi Reifenberg 2008. Courtesy of Maddox Arts, London

Published in The Independent

Art Criticism

Sean Scully
Paintings of the 70s
Timothy Taylor Gallery London

Published in The Independent

Sean Scully Blue 1979
Blue, 1979

It must have felt insulting at the time but now Sean Scully must surely be grateful that he got away. For he was one of the artists unceremoniously offloaded by Saatchi when he sold off his collection before homing in on the yBAs. It is almost impossible to imagine this humanistic work, this lyrical, painterly painting sitting amidst some of the slosh and tosh, the glib solipsistic daubings owned by Saatchi. For Scully is not a fashionable or postmodern painter in the sense that he puts ego, theory, irony, systems, pastiche or even language before the poetic mystery of being a painter. What is more his abstract paintings, with their vertical and horizontal rectangles of complex colour and nervy ‘bled’ edges express a deep sense of both morality and human frailty. As well as being physical objects they are quests, in an age of deconstruction, to find and construct an affirmative, even spiritual voice in the etiolated grammar of so much contemporary culture.

Born in Dublin in 1945, his family left, taking a boat across the Irish Sea still filled with wartime mines, to find work in England. His childhood memories are of being Irish in the impoverished Irish community of South London rather than in Ireland. His boyhood experiences of the Catholic Church left him with a deep ambivalence for organised religion but, nevertheless, a hunger for something to fill its place. Early on he looked at Cézanne, who also came from a humble background, and identified with the technique and structure of his paintings that convey both a deep commitment to the problems of paintings along with strong emotion. The London in which Scully grew up was full of post war mess and filth; some of the streets were still lit by gas lamp so that the urban landscape often seemed to resemble a Turner painting. His was a wild youth. He worked as a messenger, a plasterer, ran a discotheque, sang in a band with his brother and got into trouble with the police for brawling and burglary before going to Croydon College and then on to art school in Newcastle.

Scully was deeply marked by the 60s, for as Wordsworth might have said: bliss was it that dawn to be alive but to be young was very heaven. Something of that youthful idealism and romanticism has stayed with him ever since. He is, in a way, an expressionist; his paintings a means of creating visual metaphors for human emotion and experience. He often works in diptychs. It is as if this pairing, this coupling reflects an obsession with the relational – both with the interior self and the other. He unashamedly follows in the wake of painters such as Newman and Rothko in whose work there is an existential acknowledgement that both pain and pathos lie in close proximity to beauty at the heart of the human condition. In 1969 after a summer of travelling he made his first true stripe painting, Morocco, from glued blue, black and yellow stripes of dyed cloth cut to hang down against the white wall. This ‘window’ was to be the precursor to the inserted panels found in many of his later paintings. In other works from this period, such as Blackcloth, 1970 or Red Light, 1971, he used masking tape to create taut grids, cages of horizontal and vertical lines that created tight spatial fields of woven colour and complex depths of field that owed something to Mondrian, as well as, no doubt, to the endlessly repeated patterns of the Moroccan rugs and carpets he must recently have seen on his travels. Soon, though, he began to feel isolated in the artistic provincialism of London and moved to New York. For him America was about defining the future. It may have produced crackpot extremists but it also allowed for experiments in living and searching that didn’t, he felt, exist elsewhere.

He took some time to come to terms with the “gridded jungle of stones whose deeply radiant colour is so dark” but soon became enamoured by going out into the night- time city. He wanted to make something deeper, less decorative than the complex tartan webs which had been preoccupying him. So, as he puts it, “he burnt down his own house” and what was left was the colour of ash. It was like beginning again. As a natural colourist the restraint was hard. The paintings that resulted during the 70s, which are now on show at Timothy Taylor’s gallery, were in the strictest sense classical minimalism, reminiscent in their stillness and spiritual quietitude of the work of Agnes Martin. All that was extraneous had been swept away. The basic motif in these paintings is a stripe of pigment. Using masking tape he painted flat and raised bars of, say, black on black, to create subtly luminous surfaces that vibrate with a meditative intensity that owes something to the spirituality and aestheticism of Zen Buddhism. This reductionism was very much a characteristic of American painting of the time; of the Minimalism of Ryman and Reinhardt. There was, too, about the grid, an implicit lack of hierarchy that must have appealed to this old Communist. The absence of narrative and lack of possibility for the projection of language into the visual domain resulted in a space of aesthetic purity. The predominant mode of these works is one of attentive silence. It is as if the peeling back of all representation, this return to ground zero, to the ‘spiritual’ essence of the act of painting allowed for a process of discovery, a journey, a ‘coming into being’. The very act of repetition involved in the making of these paintings was what was important. The aesthetic economy mirrored the repetitive physical acts of, say, breathing or washing; which when done with due awareness have long been the basis of spiritual exercises and the rituals of meditation. To stand in front of Blue, 1979 or Blue Blue, 1980 is to be forced to slow down, to look with real attention at the interrelationships between the blue, ochres and blacks, the subtle monochromatic shifts, almost like the minute changes that occur in the sound of wind or within a phrase of music. Thin bands of matt pigment highlight the weave of the linen beneath the paint, to create both spatial planes and as well as veils. Stripped back to the essence, it was from this space that things could be built anew.

Sean Scully Untitled, 1978
Untitled, 1978

But eventually Scully was to reject these constraints. For it no longer felt as if he was working within a transformative space but rather was trapped in one that was too empty, controlled, elegant and remote for his engaged nature, rather like the confines of orthodox religion. Moving away from pure minimalism must have seemed like his childhood rejection of Catholicism all over again. It was at that point that he reconnected to the form of abstraction that had come immediately before what he saw as a “formulaic decline”. That point was Abstract Expressionism. It is ironic, that perhaps the last exponent of this great American movement should be an Englishman.

Working on converting loft spaces in New York and understanding how the space could be divided architecturally, along with an exclusive use of oils, encouraged him to experiment with the structure of his paintings. The volatility of oil paint allowed for a fluidity, a mysterious alchemy. A new roughness, a new physicality and sensuousness was about to enter his work. Colour was to return. It was as if he had turned up the volume on all that silence. His paintings became more expressive. Impatient with all that minimalist perfection, he began to paint panels freehand, enjoying the ensuing collisions, erasures, mistakes and imperfections. He realised that he wanted to paint human paintings; those that expressed vulnerability and the pathos of relationships. Where the surfaces had been smooth they now became rough, inserts of horizontal lines sat against fields of broader bands of rich earthen colours. He began to let the world around him into his paintings to echo the relationships between doorways and windows in buildings, the colour of walls, the rhythms of jazz. Time spent in Europe, in Barcelona and Munich, also fed into his work. Colours suggested locations or seasons. As a student he had been struck by Gauguin’s notion that you can make colour that is equivalent to nature. Like good songs his colours and ragged rectangles create harmonies and counterpoints; what they sing of is a lust for life, an erotic sensibility that acknowledges the impossibility of attaining perfection, yet understands the human need and compulsion to connect and express.

The minimal work of the 70s shown in this exhibition marks a turning point in Scully’s work. From this place of restraint he goes on to close the classic Cartesian gap between mind and body. Whilst appropriating the language of minimalism and abstraction and turning it to his own ends, he makes paintings as sensuous as skin, yet his work is also an attempt to release the spirit through formal strength and very direct painting. These are not fashionable ideas in an age when fracture, surface, ironic reference all form a barrier to shield both viewer and artist from the authentic. But what Scully seems to have understood is that important art is not achieved simply by making something which is perfect, something which is beautiful; but in making that which is true.

A monograph on the work of Sean Scully by David Carrier, published by Thames and Hudson, price £39.95 has just been published.

Sean Scully Paintings from the 70s at Timothy Taylor Gallery, London from 30 March to 8 April 2004

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2004

Images © Sean Scully 2004. Coutesy of Timothy Taylor Gallery

Published in The Independent

Art Criticism

Tino Sehgal, ICA

Published in The Independent

Tino Sehgal ICA

As I walked up the staircase towards the upper gallery at the ICA, I encountered a man at the top standing with his back to me. When I entered the gallery, it was empty except for four people standing facing the walls. They seemed to be mumbling. Slowly, the mumbles became louder, and I could decipher phrases such as: “The object of this work is to become the object of a discussion, to create some sort of reaction.” Questions were posed and reactions bounced backwards and forwards between the two women and two men. At all times, they stood with their backs to the centre of the room, so I couldn’t see their faces.

Another man entered the gallery. He seemed to be a punter. I wondered if he was wondering if I was part of the work. He went up to one of the mumbling men and stood in front of him. The man turned away to face the wall. The proposals and counterproposals between the four continued. Then it was suddenly over.

In the lower gallery, a man rolled very slowly across the floor. His eyes were closed. As he rolled, he pulled his knees up into a foetal position or put his arm over his face as if hiding some inner torment. I crouched beside him. He continued his movements, ignoring me

This is the first of three solo exhibitions at the ICA over a three- year period by the London-born artist Tino Sehgal. Sehgal, who lives in Berlin, has a background in choreography and economics, both of which inform his work. Born in 1976, he has shown throughout Europe and been selected to participate in the German pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale.

His belief that art and society are inextricably related, that both are reliant on the production and exchange of goods and commodities, imbues his work. The scenarios he orchestrates concern the transformation of acts and the production and exchange of ideas and meaning. Without producing anything tangible or creating objects of any sort, these transitory situations investigate fundamental philosophical issues.

Yet all that exists is a series of gestures and words that have been worked around a skeletal theme. Sehgal’s only materials are the human body and the voice. The results are deeply affecting, disrupting and thought- provoking. The roles of viewer and performer become blurred, as do questions about where meaning resides, and who creates and who interprets it.

In such a materialistic age, this is a revisitation of the political interventions of the Sixties, then known as “happenings”. There is something refreshing about this work that is both modest and yet far-reaching. Without glitz and spurious clutter, Sehgal stakes out a radical position within the tradition of sculpture and installation. In so doing, he returns art from the arena of the marketplace to one of aesthetic debate and humanistic questioning, where it most readily belongs.

Tino Sehgal at the ICA London until 3 March 2005

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2005

Images © Tino Sehgal 2005

Published in The Independent

Art Criticism

George Shaw
What I did this Summer
Ikon Gallery Birmingham

Published in The Independent

George Shaw Scenes from the Passion: Blossomiest Blossom 2001
Scenes from the Passion: Blossomiest Blossom 2001

In George Shaw’s world it is always late afternoon, a wet afternoon on a small provincial English housing estate; November, perhaps, or February. Everywhere there is a smell of damp. In the small rain-soaked gardens of the hunkered bungalows that line the silent streets, in the empty blue bus shelter outside the run down flats. The tarmac glistens; green mould stains walls and concrete. There is no one about. Children are home from school sprawled in front of the TV, the dog lies by the grate snoring. Dampness seems to seep from the fabric of things. This is the landscape of a lived life. If Edward Hopper were English this is what he might have painted; these suburban streets, the windows blanked by net curtains, the dripping back gardens divided by a grid of fences and corrugated garden sheds, the rundown breeze block garages where weeds sprout through the cracks of concrete among the wind strewn litter of greasy chip papers and photos torn from pornographic magazines.

This is a world where it is always twilight and teatime. “Four o’clock: wedge-shadowed gardens lie/Under a cavernous, a wind-picked sky”, as Philip Larkin once wrote. The trees are bare. The pigeon-coloured skies lour with rain clouds. At any minute there might be another downpour. It is a world that is quintessentially provincial, lower middle class and English, where the slow erasure of the pastoral dream has gone almost unnoticed as new council estates have encroached on what must once have been open fields and woods. Now it is scrub, waste land, a hinterland between two forms of existence – then and now – where children ride bikes and make camps away from adult eyes, people walk their dogs and men expose themselves to the unwary. In the summer children might even pick a few blackberries from among the tangled brambles staining their mouths purple in remembrance, as it were, of some lost rural rite.

George Shaw Scenes from the Passion: A Few Days before Christmas 2002-03
Scenes from the Passion: A Few Days before Christmas 2002-03

Then and now. Loss. These are the themes that underlie George Shaw’s work. Not a soft focused nostalgia but a mirror held up to the quiet smallness of most lives. Though this is not quite despair, for it is redeemed by love; a love of the actual and the real, of a life remembered and lived. This has nothing to do with the oversaturated technicolour of American suburbia, of the well watered lawns of Blue Velvet. You will find no ears lurking in the long grass here. The deserted municipal play grounds with their empty slides and swings streaked with rain contain nothing more than the remembrance of summer games and scrapped knees, a first kiss, a bullying pinch. The church brings back memories of weddings, full of Larkinesque girls in lilacs and yellows, of an ill fitting suit and tie borrowed for the day, of an elderly neighbour’s funeral or the Cub Scouts’ Christmas concert. And the war memorial? Remember the war memorial? That’s where you hung around when you bunked off school, a can of illicit beer and a cheap packet of fags in your pocket.

George Shaw Scenes from the Passion: Late 2002
Scenes from the Passion: Late 2002

This is a world of margins, of perimeters, of places in between. In between then and now; here and there. Where a path that runs across scrubland is known as ‘behind the shops’ or forms a short cut through the new estate, once known as Ten Shilling Wood, that now leads, from nowhere particular to nowhere particular, perhaps from the new surgery to the bus stop into town. Every corner reverberates with the lost sounds of childhood; the Action Man fort hidden among the dock leaves down behind the swings, the secret gang that met in the abandoned garage. And now, seen again through different, adult eyes, eyes that have taken in a wider world, what is there? The smallness of home and a tree; a cherry tree extravagant as a bridal gown, with the “bloomiest blossom” that shimmers like a small epiphany in the fading evening light, bright against the house that looks pretty much like all the others houses in the street. That is what happens when you go back. What once seemed like the whole world looks tiny, run down, dowdy. What must once have felt like a smart new pub, a forbidden adult zone, The New Star – the very name is redolent with a touching optimism – now looks drearily dilapidated with all the conviviality of a DHSS office.

George Shaw Scenes from the Passion: The First Day of the Year 2003
Scenes from the Passion: The First Day of the Year 2003

This is George Shaw’s past. Born in 1966, he grew up on a council housing estate in Tile Hill, Coventry before leaving for an MA at the Royal College of Art via Sheffield Poly. This is the land of his childhood with its empty playing fields, peeling comprehensives and run down housing estates. Where mothers marry young and many of the men are unemployed. The title of the show What I did this summer reads like the essay subject given to young children on return to school in the autumn term. Implicit in it is a Wordsworthian remembrance of childhood, that moment “of splendour in the grass”, which despite the actual, mundane reality seems, on reflection, like an endless summer; a lost land on the other side of adulthood. Shaw has written that “for me, time has…become diagrammatic around certain points in my childhood.” So he makes paintings – always devoid of people – that function as archetypal scenes rather than being located in specific moments or memories. To this end he takes long rambling walks around Tile Hill, taking hundreds of photographs along the route. There is nothing aestheticised about these photos, they are simply snaps, developed at the local chemist. But among them may be one with that special quality he is looking for – some mood, some trigger of a memory. Then he makes a drawing which he describes as being similar to something copied from a ‘How To Draw’ textbook. The drawing is coated on the reverse with charcoal dust, then pinned to a piece of previously primed white MDF onto which he traces the outline with a fine pencil before beginning to block in areas of colour. All his paintings are made with Humbrol enamel paints – the kind used by small boys to paint airfix models – which he builds layer upon painstaking layer, so that the specificity of the trees, say, resembles the fine detail of early Dutch landscapes or the highly polished finish of the Pre-Raphaelites. It is a lengthy painstaking process. The model paint is important, forming a bridge between his boyhood and his later, adult awareness of art history. For his influences are broad, from the chiaroscuro of the Victorian painter John Atkinson Grimshaw to an awareness of modernist architecture. Many of his earlier drawings and installations rely on the dark figures of popular culture, such as Peter Sutcliffe, mythologised in the sensational pages of the tabloids. Photographs in the catalogue of his studio show books ranging from the poems of T.S.Eliot and the complete verse of Belloc, to those on Caspar David Friedrich, Picasso and the Look-In Television Annual. Interspersed with these are the photos he has taken of Tile Hill with ones of Tony Hancock, astronaughts and clutch of museum postcards of paintings.

George Shaw Scenes from the Passion: The Middle of the Week 2002
Scenes from the Passion: The Middle of the Week 2002

There is a strong desire to create narratives from Shaw’s work. Each painting conjures a poetic atmosphere, a possible story, so it is not surprising to learn that he is also interested in writing. But most of all what these paintings evoke is an overwhelming remembrance of things past, a tenderness towards something lost that can never quite be regained because what is being portrayed can no longer be experienced from the inside but is now seen with the eyes of some one who has left, someone who has been changed by a wider perspective. Perhaps the melancholy is due not only to a loss of the past, but to the loss of a certain uncomplicated innocence. Yet there is nothing haughty or patronising about these works. In the shadows of these wet gardens and quiet streets, these recreational grounds and community halls, these hinterlands of suburban banality Shaw discovers meaning and a kind of love. Larkin said of this encroaching suburbanisation “And that will be England gone,/The shadows, the meadows, the lanes,/The guildhalls, the carved choirs.” “There’ll be books”, he wrote. And also, one might add, paintings that capture that indefinable moment between then and now, here and there, the past and the present, paintings that show us who we are, where we have come from. In the microcosm of these slumbering estates, lies a whole world.

George Shaw What I did this summer at the Ikon Gallery, Birmingham from 30 July to 14 September 2003

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2003

Images © George Shaw 2001-2003

Published in The Independent

Art Criticism

Santiago Sierra
New Works
Lisson Gallery

Published in The Independent

Feeling stuffed? Got a hangover? At this time of year many of us will not only be reaching for the Alka Selza but possibly also be feeling a little ethically challenged as we muddle through the season’s festivities assuaging our guilty indulgence, perhaps, by popping a cheque in the post to a favourite charity. For this is the age of the moral fudge. We know what we should be doing in terms of global warming, world poverty and pollution but mostly we don’t act, for on the whole it’s all we can do to keep afloat as we’re swept along on the tide of late modernity.

“Progress and doom”, wrote the philosopher Hannah Ardent, “are two sides of the same coin” and it is this coin that the Spanish artist Santiago Sierra, who in recent years has gained international recognition with shows in Berlin, New York and Mexico and as Spain’s representative in the 50th Venice Bienniale, picks up and examines. His is not protest art that makes claims for utopian alternatives to advanced capitalism of which both he and we are part; rather it is art that holds up a mirror to the world and reflects it back to us as it is.

Santiago Sierra 21 Anthropomentric Modules Made of Human Faeces by the People of Sulabh International, India21 Anthropomentric Modules Made of Human Faeces by the People of Sulabh International, India

The gallery at 52-54 Bell Street is dedicated to just one work. What look like classic minimal rectangles, à la Carl Andre, are displayed on the gallery floor in open packing cases. Propped on their protective blankets they conjure the 70s felt installations of Joseph Beuys. In fact the work is shit. The 21 modules, which each measure 215 x 75 x 20cm have, quite literally, been made from human faeces. The faecal matter was collected in New Delhi and Jaipur. After having rested for three years so that it composted to the equivalent of earth it was then mixed with Fevicol, an agglutinative plastic, and dried in wooden moulds. Workers of the sanitary movement Sulabh International of India, who were responsible for its collection, are mostly scavengers who, by virtue of birth, have to undertake the physically and psychologically painful task of collecting human faecal matter as part of the karmic cycle in which they repay moral debts accrued in a previous life. But Santiago Sierra’s piece does not simply reflect their degradation. For workers of the Sulabh International, an organisation that aims to improve their lot, worked for free to make these ‘anthropometric modules’ now being sold in a chic London gallery for a small fortune. Not only were they not paid but there is no documentation or photographic record of their labours. They have quite simply been erased and rendered invisible. The installation is uncomfortable for it provides neither high minded moral comment nor humanistic catharsis but simply exposes the capitalist system and the art market for what it is.

Among the five projects presented at 29 Bell Street is Economical Study of the Skin of Caracans, 2006, which consists of 35 black and white photographs. Whilst these vulnerable and rather beautiful images of naked backs that recall Matisse’s famous sculptures were taken with the agreement of the individuals photographed all the participants remain anonymous. Their economic circumstances have been ‘calculated’ according to ‘political monochromes’, different gradation of greys ranging from black to white based on skin colour, which articulate issues of power and social division into disquieting formal equations.

Santiago Sierra Palabra de Fuego (Word of Fire), 2007Palabra de Fuego (Word of Fire), 2007

Submission is a work of monumental scale realised in Anapra, a semi-desert area on the Mexican side of the border with the United States, which pays homage to land artists such as Robert Smithson. Created on a piece of land where the US government is planning to build a huge wall along the border it encountered numerous difficulties with the authorities as it attempted to reflect something of the socio and economic displacement of migrants who cross the border to seek better life chances. Extending the boundaries of sculptural and artistic language Santiago Sierra debates the possible moral and ethical roles for art within late modernism, whilst acknowledging that we are all ensnared within the system on which it currently depends.


Santiago Sierra New Works at the Lisson Gallery, London until 19 January 2008

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2007

Images © Santiago Sierra. Courtesy of the Lisson Gallery

Published in The Independent

Art Criticism

Small is Beautiful XXVI
Flowers, London

Published in The Independent

Diamond skulls and pickled sharks – who needs them now? They are so last year, so boom before the bust. In these credit-crunch times, it doesn’t look so cool any more to be surrounded by over-hyped, over-priced stuff that simply announces the size of one’s executive bonus. After all, no one wants to look like a postmodern Marie Antoinette hanging out in their architect-designed glass loft extension with 1,000 ecologically unfriendly halogen light bulbs burning away to illuminate that very expensive dot painting executed by one of Damien Hirst’s assistants. Frankly, it doesn’t look hip, just cheesy.

Patrick Hughes Box of Love
Patrick Hughes
Box of Love

Now is the time for real art. By that, I mean paintings and sculptures where the artists have got their own hands dirty, not stuff that comes off a studio production line. So for those looking for a little affordable art to bring them some winter cheer, they could do worse than visit Flowers East’s annual exhibition, Small is Beautiful, in which a group of invited artists have made work in a variety of media within a size limit of 9×7 inches. And to bring a seasonal glow to the face, and a feel-good factor to the heart, the theme this year is “Love”. Eminent figures of the British art world such as Sir Anthony Caro, with his small steel Love Box, and Albert Irvin have been joined by an array of respected mid-career artists including Trevor Sutton, Carol Robertson and John Bellany to show alongside newcomers and selected recent graduates. Prices start as low as £58.

Right at the beginning of the exhibition, we get into romantic mood with Love in New York, a small painting by Daniel Preece, and A Symbol of Love (Pomegranate) by Susan Wilson. Elsewhere, Sam Mundy’s exuberantly abstract Je t’aime, executed in delicious sweetie colours, echoes Les Coleman’s Sweetheart further on in the exhibition, made from a collection of those sherbet love hearts with messages on them that we used to suck on the way home from school.

There is figurative painting, abstract painting and sculpture, and among the best of the figurative paintings on offer is Zara Matthews’s The Lovers’ Room. Painted in monochromatic shades of grey and white, this little work, showing a tousled bed of crumpled sheets and pillows, is both technically adept and evocative in mood. Claerwen James’s tiny portrait of a young girl, Who Did He Really Love?, is also redolent with understated emotion, as is the powerful little head by Freya Payne. The glowing lights from Tom Hammick’s caravan set under a starry sky in Off Pear Tree Lane evokes something lonely and uncanny. If, on the other hand, it’s a little humour you are after, there is always Glen Baxter’s small drawing of a man and a crocodile both wearing paper hats, and sitting under a paper chain, with a caption that reads: “It looked like another quiet family Christmas.” Not quite art, perhaps, but it will certainly raise a smile.

Vicky Hawkins The Result of a Passionate Love Affair Between Ethel & Adam
Vicky Hawkins
The Result of a Passionate Love Affair Between Ethel & Adam

Among the abstract works, there is John McLean’s colour ladder Avanti and Tess Jaray’s very cool, spare Pale Blue Drop, a small grid-like work on a turquoise green ground. Gary Wragg’s Vyner Street, Web Return 2 encapsulates something of the urban grittiness of this East End street known for its cutting-edge galleries. It is also good to see a lovely little painting, with its characteristic grid of colours (which is not for sale) by the late Noel Forster.

Of the sculptures, Philip King is showing a small table piece of classic modernist shapes in painted steel, wood and mixed media, which contrasts with Neil Jefferies’s quirky little curly-haired figure in painted aluminium and Nicola Hicks’s baby bronze elephant, collapsed on its knees, entitled Love.

With such a wide range of artists, there is something for everybody here. Some of the participants, such as Patrick Hughes, are very obviously populist and commercial, while others, such as Basil Beattie, are showing demanding, serious works. For less than the price of a designer handbag, or that bean-to-cup espresso maker, which will only ever be used a couple of times over the holiday period before being left to languish in its box, these small works of art are the perfect token of love.

Small is Beautiful XXVI at the London, London until Jan 3 2009

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2009

Image: 1 © Patrick Hughes
Image 2: © Vicky Hawkins
Images Courtesy of Flowers Galleries

Published in The Independent

Art Criticism

Gregory Smart
Eye Blood You
Empire Gallery, London

Published in The Independent

Many adolescents fantasise about escaping parental constraints and running away to the circus. That was never an option for Gregory Smart who was born into a famous circus family.

Gregory Smart Eye Blood You
Eye Blood You

His upbringing was somewhat schizophrenic. Sent off to Bryanston public school, he returned to spend his holidays looking after baby elephants and chimpanzees at the Royal Windsor Safari Park, which had been built by his great grandfather Ronnie Smart.

He performed even after receiving his BA from Farnham, and toured with the family’s New World Circus both as a clown and junior ring master. Then in 2002 he was awarded a scholarship to study for an MA at the Prince’s Drawing School in Shoreditch, where he now works and lives. This is his debut show.

Gregory Smart Yellow Fever 2008
Yellow Fever, 2008

Drawing is the basis of his practice whether he is making etchings, which form a large part of this show, or paintings. Although much of his imagery appears to be abstract, his visceral serpentine shapes make oblique reference to the body. These labyrinthine coils not only suggest lymphatic systems or rivers of blood but Celtic knots and the metalwork structures of cloisonné enamel or stained glass.

His sinuous lines belie the controlled process involved in making the etching plates, and their intuitive muscularity is offset by the underlining grid, an image drawn from the sparking overhead cables that electrify fairground dodgems.

Other fairground imagery, including arcade games and machines, also informs his work, though Smart’s translation is not literal but suggested in enmeshed lines or the rows of smudged blue circles. All incidental marks are retained so his prints have the raw touch of images drawn by hand, which gives them an immediacy in this age of digital printing.

Gregory Smart Painter on the Edge of Town Rudi II 2009
Painter on the Edge of Town Rudi II, 2009

His watercolours are disquieting. The paint is edgy and the mood uncomfortable. His colours bleed and dissolve, implying ambiguous sexual conflict. The female figures sitting on the laps of their male partners look like blow-up dolls or even dead bodies, and echo something of the erotomania of Hans Bellmer. The tone, though less explicit, is not dissimilar to that found in Marlene Dumas’s subversive paintings.

There are a number of larger oils. Blue is a favoured colour. He says it reminds him of the circus. In Self as Success the style is loose and expressionistic. A blue figure lies in a louche bacchanalian pose eating grapes.

Also on show are a number of polished etching plates and the impregnated rags used to wipe the coloured ink from those plates, which have been poked into barbed wire in a colourful display that evokes the carnivalesque.

Smart is a young artist who is still finding his aesthetic voice but with his idiosyncratic imagery, his strong sense of colour and his exotic circus background he might be one to watch.

 

Gregory Smart Eye Blood You at the Empire Gallery, London until 6 April 2009

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2009
Images © Gregory Smart

Published in The Independent

Art Criticism

Wolfgang Tillmans
If one thing matters, everything matters
Tate Britain

Published in The Independent

In the second half of the 19th century the great American poet, Walt Whitman, wrote his huge poem Leaves of Grass. People never before associated with poetry made their debut into literature: drovers, peddlers, brides, opium-eaters, prostitutes were all jumbled up pell-mell. It was as if this inclusiveness echoed something of the structure of the idealised democratic society, released from the hierarchies and restraints of the Old World, which Whitman dreamt of for the new America. The poem is an anthem-song of early Modernism; value-laden, forward-looking, Utopian.

Wolfgang Tillmans Wake 2001
Wake, 2001

Fast forward a century and a half to Tate Britain to the exhibition of the young German artist, Wolfgans Tillmans, born in 1968 in Remscheid, Germany, educated and living in England and a former Turner prize winner. His first one person show in Britain, if one thing matters, everything matters, is also a highly inclusive affair. Shot to fame in the late eighties and early nineties at an early age by his photographs for magazines, such as i-D and The Face, of gay pride activists, eco-warriors and clubbers, Tillmans was dubbed, by some, a chronicler of his generation. Seven rooms of the Tate are filled with his photographs, many of them reflecting his relationship to London. None have labels (there is a map for those who insist on titles) and they are grouped together in no apparent thematic order. His friends Alex and Lutz sitting naked, except for raincoats, in the branches of a tree, jostle for space with a classic still-life shot of a vase of pink roses or a mess of roadworks in some undisclosed location. There are lots of friends, lots of parties, a lot of erect penises and masturbation. All the works are pinned to the wall, none are framed. The effect is that of a student bedroom collaged with posters, photos of friends and reminders of nights on the razzle. A beautiful Rothko-like sunset – a brooding black sea beneath an orange horizon-line and navy sky – is placed next to a photograph of a pile of black rubbish sacks being investigated by a rat. An overhead source of light illuminates the surfaces of the sacks so that they appear as luminous as the sunset. There is no hierarchy to these images. All are presented as having equal value. But unlike Whitman in the 19th century there is no Utopian vision here, no sense of democratic inclusivity. This is a postmodern matrix. If one thing matters, everything matters. Or alternatively nothing really matters very much so why select, why choose? And anyway on what basis could any rational choice be made? What belief system could be employed in such an editing process? As in the newly published book of Tillmans’ work, the exhibition comprises a personal choice, containing most of the images that he has released to date and many others which he feels “are or were at some point in the past of relevance to me.”

Wolfgang Tillmans Rachel Auburn & son 1995
Rachel Auburn & Son, 1995

Tillmans claims he wanted to avoid being seen as overly art historical, of relying on ‘worthy’ categories such as ‘portraiture’ and ‘still life’. For they are, he claims, not part of the way we live our lives. “When we see a person, we don’t think ‘portrait’; when I look at my window-sill I see fruit in a bowl and light and respond to them, I don’t first see ‘still life’. That’s how I want to convey my subject matter to the viewer, not through the recognition of predetermined art historical/image categories but through enabling them to see with the immediacy that I felt in that situation.”

It has been argued that he subverts our ideas of conventional beauty, and who is to say that his painterly colour-field photographs of the Arctic or of blush-like ‘skin’ are any more beautiful than the semi-erect cock held in the hand of one young breakfaster, which seems to be intruding into the fast-food tray on his lap like a pink German sausage? Is it only outdated Kantian notions of the Sublime that lead us to believe that one is a more beautiful, more uplifting image than the other? In a world where we have been told ad nauseam that history is dead, that ideology crumbled along with the Berlin wall and the collapse of that last belief system, Marxism; where all is now fracture and surface, is not Tillmans’ anarchic view of beauty as valid as any other? And if we don’t like it, if we regret the passing of art that uplifts and vivifies, should we perhaps be careful not to shoot the messenger for delivering, what to some of us may seem like, an unpalatable message?

Wolfgang Tillmans

Although some of the photographs such as the gnarled trunk of Shaker Tree, 1995 or the Conquistador sunsets have a slick, crafted quality and are obviously the work of a professional photographer, many of the smaller images are not any different to the snaps you and I might take on holiday or at a friend’s birthday party. So why then are they art? Because Tillmans has decided they are, because they are in the Tate, because they are grouped together for public display. Because they are of as much value as anything else we might term art in a society that no longer wishes its artists to edify and instruct, even to anger or deconstruct but rather to entertain, to shock on the ersatz level of Big Brother. Why bother to make choices, to spoil the fun, the night out clubbing with the gang when it’s easier to shrug nonchalantly when asked for an opinion, and answer: whatever. This is a world of single issue politics – gay-pride marches and eco-conflicts – where spectacle is as important as vision. Being seen is the new caring.

Wolfgang Tillmans Arctic 6, 2002
Arctic 6, 2002

Yet the fact that this work is photography means that by its very nature it is about the passing of time, about nostalgia and memory. In ten or twenty years time we may look back on these images and say of the computerised base-line amplifier lying in the grass, how funny, how old fashioned, did we really use such stone-age equipment? Or: my god, did people really dress like that? By photographing everything – the down-and-out lying on the pavement that has special bumps to prevent him sleeping on the hot air ducts, the concrete pylons of Macau Bridge that have not yet been joined together, an ashtray of fag ends, or a supermarket shelf rowed with soap powder – Tillmans, consciously or otherwise, does become a chronicler of contemporary life. These images, whether we like it or not, reflect something of our 21st century world. In 1995 Tillmans took a photograph of a young man approaching a deer on a beach. It is impossible to tell whether this deer, which looks so out of place, has been imported especially for the photograph, whether it is actually alive or stuffed. How are we meant to read this image and does it matter anyway if it succeeds in perplexing us or making us smile? Who cares about messages and truths?

Image 35 shows his studio after a party. All that can be seen are two big mirrors leaning against the wall like a diptych. They reflect back the studio, empty now except for the detritus of beer cans, fag ends, paper cups and bottles. These fragments are all that are left when everyone has packed up and gone home. The overriding feeling is one of satiated despondency and emptiness. But there is also another photograph of his studio. A close up of the window and sill. On it are a carefully arranged collection of postcards, paintings by Caravaggio. Perhaps as in Animal Farm when all the animals were declared equal but some were actually rather more equal than others, Tillmans is (unconsciously?) acknowledging that even in a culture where image appears to be the great homogeniser and equaliser and surface is all ; if one thing matters, there will always another thing that matter just that bit more.

Wolfgang Tillmans If one thing matters, everything matters is at Tate Britain from 6 June to 14 September 2003

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011
Images © Wolfgang Tillmans 1995-2002

Published in The Independent

Art Criticism

Towards A New Utopia
Public and Land Art

Published in The Independent

The 4th November was the Saturday before the UN Climate Talks (COP 12/ MOP 2) in Nairobi (6th-17th November). There were demonstrations demanding urgent action on climate change all around the globe. Those taking part believe that only coordinated international action can avert the massive threat posed by climate change and that the failure of world leaders to act – especially the US under George Bush who failed to sign the Kyoto Protocol agreement – is threatening the very existence of life on earth.

Amy Balkin Public Smog
Amy Balkin Public Smog

Can art do anything to change the mindset of politicians or entrepreneurs who seem to care more about the status quo and making big bucks than carbon emissions? Or does it merely provide an impotent side show producing sanctimonious truisms for a middle-class audience not prepared to change their lifestyles? It’s one thing to nod approvingly at a work in the Tate, quite another to forgo that cheap airfare. To look at art seriously means a willingness to be changed but such epiphanies tend to be personal. Is Jerry Saltz, critic of the Village Voice, right when he says “Art can opine about hierarchy and demagogy, it can be a critic of the state of the world and the human condition. It can ask political questions… however it cannot …turn back global warming; it cannot change the world except incrementally and by osmosis.”?

The solipsistic theories of late modernism now appear to lie exhausted as a beached whale, while the tired irony of the YBAs – a largely metropolitan group with concerns that really only refer to a very narrow arena of artists – appears to be running out of steam. For as the American artist Peter Halley wrote in his essay Notes on Abstraction “… the 70s represented not the last flowering of a new consciousness but rather the last incandescent expression of the old idealism of autonomy. After this no cultural expression would be outside the commodity system…capital is, in fact, a universe of stasis…governed by immutable self-perpetuating principles… The world of essences turns out to be dominated not by spirit, but by commodity.” And so, it seems, that the problem for contemporary art is the very same as that faced by the environment – vested interest.

The idea of art as the beleaguered vehicle of spiritual value in a secular age is not something that should be left examined by contemporary critics and artists. At the end of the last war the theorist George Steiner said that art had failed because it had not been able to civilise enough to prevent the holocaust. Even camp commandants, he reminded us, had listened to Bach. Perhaps that was the beginning of the loss of faith in high culture. For there has quite simply been a death of high culture in favour of a one that promotes celebrity over seriousness, ease and surface over complexity and depth; the agenda of success overrides any moral agenda. Who now reads writers such as Simone Weil or even Sartre? It is as though nothing existed before notions of deconstruction. There is no sense of history, of how culture fits together, how it is a continual reaction and debate to what has gone before. I have taught students who do not know the difference between Romanticism and Rationalism between the Gothic and the Baroque. It is high time that art was reclaimed as an arena of seriousness.

Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey Cape Farewell Project Ice Lens
Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey Cape Farewell Project Ice Lens

The 60s, when I grew up, is seen now as a Utopian decade. But the loosening of the reigns of old structures and the celebration the contemporary weren’t meant to detract from the canon that had gone before; happenings did not mean that we no longer had to look at Rembrandt or read Shakespeare. There is a difference between high and low culture between Big Brother and Bach. We have lost a sense of history, of what has gone before and culture’s importance in the order of things. We no longer know what art is for. And that is what, after I have finished speaking, I want us to debate. As Susan Sontag wrote in her collection of essays Where the Stress Falls, ‘there are two poles of distinctively modern sentiment – nostalgia and Utopia. The interesting thing about what we now label the sixties is, she said that there was so little nostalgia. In that sense it was indeed a utopian moment. But the world that we attempted to create then no longer exists and the age we are living in now feels like the end of something. The end of idealism, the end of altruism, of morality, of political systems, of history, even if, global warming continues, of the planet or at least life organised within culture as we know it. This is an age of endless endings and very little becoming. Sontag also suggested that there could be no true culture without altruism and that is what I also want us to discuss. What does it mean for you today to be artists? Why have you chosen to become artists rather than estate agents or restaurateurs? In the sixties we believed we were on the threshold of a huge transformation of culture and society. We believed in liberty but that liberty has simply become licence, and those freed from the confines of repressive regimes such as communism, have not in any true sense become free but simply fallen prey to the demands of the free market. Everything has its price or to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, we live in an age where we know the price of everything but the value of nothing. The sixties have been relegated to an object of nostalgia as the triumphant values of consumer capitalism continue to promote a travesty of what was being fought for then. There has been a sea-change in the culture, what Sontag calls a ‘tansvaluation’ of values – for which there are many names. One, she suggested was Barbarism, another, to use Nietzsche’s term, is nihilism. Though, I would say that we are in danger of entering an age of post-morality and that artists are every bit as culpable as everyone else.

For when I have been teaching, all too often the question that young artists ask is how can I get Saatchi to visit my studio, while the real question they should be posing is what do I care about, what do I know, what do I want to say? Art does not always have to be about self expression. This is something that we have come to accept from Romanticism onwards and reached it apotheosis in Modernism. In earlier epochs the role of art was mostly religious or perhaps a commission to paint a portrait of someone else, a simple act of craftsmanship and commercial transaction. It wasn’t though essentially about the artist or how she or he felt.

Mine is not a fashionable notion. It is one as I have said that owes more to the romantics than to the post modernists. The romantics saw the artist and poet as a seer, one who has a sensibility that allows him to see what others can not. Modernism also saw the artist as a form of hero but one concerned with the arguments, forms and structures of the things he (and it was usually a he) that he was making, rather than an engagement with social issues. (Joseph Beuys is, perhaps, here an exception as was the whole movement of arte povera) There are many things that art can be about and we currently live in a world of political instability, where there is a threat to the very fabric of our existence through global warming, where we need artists to care and to take a stand. So what now is the role of the poet and artist as the world hots up and religious fundamentalism stalks all corners of the globe?

Joseph Beuys 7,000 Oaks
Joseph Beuys 7,000 Oaks

There are artists working on the peripheries blurring the boundaries between art, science and practical engagement often doing very small and practical things as in the case of the American Brandon Ballengée who, collaborating with The Gia Institute and The New York State Museum, has worked to populate waste water management sites with native amphibians that will control mosquito populations and act as health monitors for the wetlands. While in this country Jeremy Deller, recent Turner prize winner, is working with the Arts Council and the Bat Conservation Trust to design a bat house at the London Wetlands and Wildfowl Centre. Heather Ackroyd & Dan Harvey are two artists who have been collaborating since the 1990s and have recently been involved with Cape Farwell, when scientists, writers, artists and filmmakers spent a week on board an old Dutch schooner in the High Artic in order to make work that draws attention to rising CO2 levels. Working closely with the Cetacean Stranding Programme at the Natural History Museum, they removed the skeleton from a minke whale washed up in Skegness, cleaned and immersed the bones in a highly saturated alum solution, encrusting the skeleton with a chemical growth of ice-like crystals. As the work progressed so did their understanding of how the ocean absorbs carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuel and how in the last two hundred years the chemistry of the ocean has changed for the first time in millions of years.

Their current project, Fly Tower, which involves covering the North and West face of the Lyttleton Theatre on the South Bank with clay and grass seed, has had to be temporarily halted due to potential problems from hose pipe bans and droughts. On discovering excess ground water in the car park they are now laying pipes to use this forgotten source to irrigate their installation. “We have often worked with grass in the past,” Heather Ackroyd says “to investigate processes of growth and decay but these are difficult times and we need to ask serious questions about what we are doing, how we are doing it and who we are doing it for. This has lead to reframing the way we work. Now we have to think where the water comes from.”

The feminist critique of land and environmental art of the 1970s significantly contributed to new approaches in sustainable art practices. In addition to criticising the effects of patriarchal thinking in art and society, the first generation of eco-feminists set out to establish relationships based not on traditional hierarchies but on a sense of respect, awareness and interconnection. Renata Poljak’s film Great Expectations, suggests through a story of overbuilding on the Dalmatian coast and the resulting disruption to the local, organic architecture, the existence of a link between patriarchy and environmental degradation. Social critique and cross disciplinary research are also the catalysts for American conceptual artist Amy Balkin. Her work asks “how people can live together and share common resources”. Her project Invisible-5, an audio tour of the highway corridor between San Francisco Bay and Los Angeles, articulates how historic geopolitics impacts on the health and welfare of local people through the distribution of toxic risks. This is the Public Domain, 2003 involved the purchase of a parcel of land in Tehachapi, California, to be held in common for public use; “we are,” she says, “still trying to find a judicial framework for its public handover”. Existing in a space between art and activism hers is an attempt to construct new narratives that allow the ecologically disenfranchised a voice. With Public Smog, she has been buying and withholding carbon gas emission credits from international markets to create a temporary clean-air park and intends to submit an application to qualify the entire atmosphere as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Walter De Maria Lightning Field 1977
Walter De Maria Lightning Field, 1977

A quick search on the web reveals a host of sites where artists and scientists come together to work across disciplines. The greenmuseum.org. aims through artistic and educational outreach activities to increase awareness of ecological issues, while the RSA is working in partnership with the Arts Council to create a programme of events involving artists, ecologists and scientists. And for over 20 years PLATFORM has brought together environmentalists, artists and human rights campaigners to create innovative projects driven by the need for social and environmental justice.

For artists in the 1960s working with the land symbolised a separation from the spatial autocracy of the white cube, a breaking free from strict modernist aesthetics along with the financial hegemony of the fine art market, which fitted in with the iconoclastic mood of the times; for this was a utopian moment when students and artists believed the world was on course to a better future and working outside the gallery gave a chance to experiment in democratic non hierarchical spaces. Joseph Beuys, the founder of Germany’s Green Party and the creator of that seminal work 7000 Oaks, a project begun at Documenta in 1982, is usually cited as the catalyst. In America artists such as Robert Smithson, who built Spiral Jetty, 1970, an earthwork that juts into the shallows off the shore of Utah’s Great Salt Lake and his partner Nancy Holt, along with Agnes Denes, Betty Beaumont and Walter De Maria, best known for his Lightning Field, 1977 built in New Mexico, were all engaged in opening up this field.

In this country Richard Long and Hamish Fulton have turned the walk into an art form, while Andy Goldsworthy’s ephemeral constructs (which are then photographed) have been described by fellow sculptor, David Nash, as a bridge between the public and art’s more “astringent practitioners”. In 1967 Nash, himself, moved to North Wales where he has worked with that most natural of elements, wood; hacking, splitting and charring it into Pythagorean forms, the harmony of which echoes something of his anthroposophical concerns. His ring of 22 ash trees, tended over a thirty year period to form a natural domed cathedral, is typical of the ongoing nature of his work. By contrast Peter Randall Page’s recent piece for the Eden project, a hewn Cornish granite slab, is set not within the wilderness but surrounded by the possibilities of eco-technology. While Chris Drury looks at the body as landscape, finding equivalents with ecological systems in the workings of the heart in his Systems in the Body and Systems in the Landscape and Planet.

David Nash Ash Dome
David Nash Ash Dome

Although this ‘first’ generation of land artists would probably not consider themselves eco-warriors, their work within the natural world and outside the galley space (though not always beyond its monetary reach) has created a climate for younger artists to experiment across the boundaries between science, research and activism.

So what power can art have as a catalyst for change? A turning away from the metropolis (and the gallery/museum/investor matrix) to work on the ecological margins is for many artists a statement that not all art has to be driven by the market and vested interest. An aesthetic response to the natural world is, in the end, a barometer of a society’s sense of universal connectedness and directly related to the future strategies it chooses to take for the planet’s environmental sustainability. It is often said that forests are the lungs of the earth; perhaps artists, may, yet, become the keepers of its soul.


Amy Balkin’s project curated by MA Curating Contemporary Art students at the Royal College of Art at Peer, Hoxton, London until 7 November 2006

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2006

Image 1: © Amy Balkin
Image 2: © Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey
Image 3: © Joseph Beuys
Image 4: © Walter De Maria
Image 5: © David Nash

Published in The Independent

Art Criticism

Triumph of Painting
Saatchi Gallery

Published in The Independent

Charles Saatchi has done an about-turn from the frivolity of Britart. As Sue Hubbard finds, ‘deep and meaningful’ is back.

Contemporary critics, art historians, and artists alike must often seem to those outside the art world, when talking about painting like family members gathered around the bed of a terminally ill relative, discussing them as if they had already kicked the bucket.

But, if painting is in its death throes, it’s refusing to go quietly. For down on the South Bank of London, at the Saatchi Gallery, just when everyone had got used to dead sharks and things in formaldehyde, Triumph of Painting Part 2 follows on from the recent Part 1. You have to hand it to Saatchi. Whatever you think about him, he keeps us on our toes, for who would have thought he would move so seamlessly from Britart flippancy to German angst? Suddenly, “deep and meaningful” is back.

Dirk Skreber It Rocks Us So Hard - Ho, Ho, Ho No.2, 2002
Dirk Skreber It Rocks Us So Hard – Ho, Ho, Ho No.2, 2002

So, what is this new painting about? Well, it seems, just about “the end” of everything: the end of history, the end of painting, the end of ideology. Take the paintings by Dirk Skreber, born in Lübeck in 1961, working in Düsseldorf and New York, which are the first you see as you walk into the gallery. Skreber is keen on car crashes. There are smashed VWs wrapped around posts, and another vehicle that has collided with a motorbike, lying across a desolate stretch of motorway like a piece of roadkill.

There is something of the necrophilia of J G Ballard’s Crash here. Skreber’s canvases are well painted, in a detached sort of way, and have an alluring, sterile beauty. He seems to be portraying the end of some not clearly definable road, a space where hope, ethics, emotion, even technology appears to have run out of steam and ended up as so much scrap.

It is, perhaps, no coincidence that for those arch-Modernists the Italian Futurists, the car was a metaphor for everything that was positive about the modern world: speed, technology, a forging of new horizons. In his book on America, the French critic Jean Baudrillard claimed, “All you need to know about American society can be gleaned from an anthropology of its driving behaviour.” America is unthinkable without the car. So that’s, perhaps, another end highlighted in these mutilated car carcasses: capitalism on the skids.

Albert Oehlen Piece, 2003
Albert Oehlen Piece, 2003

There is something bombastic about the work of Albert Oehlen, the oldest of the artists, who was born in 1954 in Krefeld, Germany, and now lives and works in Spain. Oehlen studied with Sigmar Polke in Hamburg in the Seventies and emerged in the Eighties, along with Martin Kippenberger, who featured in Triumph of Painting Part 1, as part of a newly iconoclastic generation.

His canvases are large, insisting that we take them seriously and that they have something to say. There are plenty of visual tropes that make reference to recent art history, to the Abstract Expressionists, to Picasso, to Philip Guston. It’s all rather navel-gazing stuff, very concerned with the “consequence of painting in a post-painterly era” rather than anything in the real world such as politics, injustice, love or death. Although he has a prominent space in the gallery’s rotunda, none of his images adhere to the retina, none lingers in the mind or touches the heart, for they all seem unstable, in a state of flux. The rather pretentious blurb talks of “raw confrontation with the deficiencies of visual language”. So that’s presumably another “end”: the inability of paint to evoke authentic emotion.

Wilhelm Sasnal Airplanes, 2001
Wilhelm Sasnal Airplanes, 2001

Wilhelm Sasnal is the only Pole in this predominantly German group. Born in 1972, he lives and works in Tarnow. Factory, taken from a famous propaganda image, depicts two white-coated women on the production line, though detail of the original photograph has been erased, leaving them stranded, as it were, in history – an irrelevance from a bygone age. Sasnal is one of the more interesting painters in the batch and is particularly good at spare, emptied images. In Portrait of Rodchenko, Lady, he resurrects a vision of utopian socialism, though the face of the young pioneer looking out into the future has been reconstituted in dark black and white shadows like some sort of death mask. So that’s another “end”, then; the end of Communism.

Thomas Scheibitz Skilift, 1999
Thomas Scheibitz Skilift, 1999

Thomas Scheibitz, born in Radeberg in 1968, and Franz Ackermann, who was born in Neumarkt St Veit in 1963, both live and work in Berlin and combine the language of figuration and abstraction with oblique architectural references. Ackermann is described as something of a perpetual tourist. He searches out 21st century exotica in Asia, the Middle East and South America to exemplify cultural difference and describes his paintings as “mental maps”. Each kaleidoscopic canvas depicts his experience of a place. Appropriating imagery from pop and mixing it with brash colour and package-holiday poster promise, he creates psychedelic models of collapsed utopias that have become non-places, triumphs of marketing and consumerism over the real.

Scheibitz blurs the boundaries between painting and sculpture and has often been described as a “post-cubist”. Taking images he collects from a variety of media, he uses them to construct recognisable elements of landscape, architecture, and still life within his abstract canvases. His subjects are recognisable locations – bland suburban houses, a ski lift. His Cézanne-like mountain in Skilift looks as if it has just landed from cyberspace. Framed by the glass entrance to the lift, nature seems to have been boxed, commodified and pushed to a safe, sanitised distance. This is the architecture of illusion. With his geometric shapes and flat, colourful planes Scheibitz deconstructs the language of abstract painting and reconfigures it to create edgy visions empty of all feeling and of any form of personal engagement.

cccc Christ and the Repentant Sinner
Kai Althoff Christ and the Repentant Sinner

The most accomplished and interesting painter of the lot is Kai Althoff. Althoff engages with the history of German painting, appropriating the language of Egon Schiele, Georg Grosz, Otto Dix and Georg Baselitz to explore the dark underbelly of German Romanticism. On top of that, he can actually draw. Male domination and the sensuality of violence are played out against backdrops of war and male ritual. Prussian soldiers attack another soldier within a barely veiled homoerotic subtext that suggests secret societies, blood-brothers and other transgressive activities. Althoff reminds us of the potency of nationalistic ideas and their dangerously seductive appeal of “blood and soil”.

Central to his enterprise is a longing for reconciliation with German history. From historic war-zones to clubland raves, he explores the essence of masculine experience; the pack-mentality of the soldier and heroic youth. He touches on the longing, the romanticism, the guilt and desire for some sort of redemption. The line of his drawings and the application of oil paint display a provocative sensuality. His work is a mix of tender eroticism and carnal cruelty.

Perhaps the most surprising image is a collage of Christ and a repentant sinner. Here, German Catholicism, Thirties-style fascism and homosexual taboos are elided on translucent paper, suggesting, perhaps, that repentance is often only paper-thin.

What the exhibition does, I think, is reveal a world fraught with anxiety, where image and sign matter more than ethics, where style, form and theoretical dogma count for more than emotional eloquence or engagement. If art is a barometer of the psychological health of an age, then this exhibition suggests not so much the end of painting as a practice, but more of the humanistic agenda that has largely informed it since the Renaissance. Painting may still be alive; it is the human spirit that I am worried about.

The Triumph of Painting Part 2 at the Saatchi Gallery, London until 30 October 2005

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011Image 1: © Dirk Skreber

image 2 : © Albert Oehlen
Image 3: © Wilhelm Sasnal
Image 4: © Thomas Scheibitz
Image 5: © Kai Althoff, Courtesy of the Saatchi Gallery

Published in The Independent

Art Criticism

Vincent Van Gogh and Expressionism Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam

Published in The Independent

After Vincent ; A new show reveals how Van Gogh’s transgressive art and life inspired the early Impressionists. Sue Hubbard wants to know why such an important exhibition isn’t coming to Britain?

You will have to go to Amsterdam or New York if you want to see it as it is not coming to London. But it’s worth making the effort for the paintings in this exhibition are stunning and a constellation such as this is not very likely to be put together again in a hurry. For this is the first show to highlight the impact of Vincent Van Gogh on the German and Austrian Expressionists. There are almost a hundred paintings, prints and drawings from the Van Gogh Museum and Neue Galierie in New York, as well as loans from international museums and private collections, some of which have not been seen in the public domain for a long time.

Van Gogh Self-Portrait With a Straw Hat and Artist's Smock 1887
Van Gogh
Self-Portrait With a Straw Hat and Artist’s Smock, 1887

For many, Van Gogh is the quintessential bohemian artist who cut off his ear and painted swirling sun flowers but here we see, through the juxtaposition of his impassioned paintings with those of the younger generation of German Expressionists, the influence he had on that early 20th century movement and, as a result, later on the American abstract expressionists and artists such as Pollock and de Kooning. As the art historian Werner Haftmann remarks, Van Gogh was “forever on the brink of the abyss, courting disaster” so that his example became “a hidden force behind the whole outlook of modern artists”.

For in his audacious high-wire paintings he demonstrated that art was not simply a study of the visible world but an expression of the artist’s internal emotional response to what he saw. It was his departure from the slavish copying of nature to penetrate the deeper underlying truths of existence that created the break with the nineteenth century shackles of realism. In the words of the Expressionist poet Ernst Blass “…Van Gogh stood for expression and experience as opposed to Impressionism and Naturalism. Flaming concentration, youthful, sincerity, immediacy, depth, exhibition and hallucination.” He was, as Max Pechstein claimed, “Father of us All.”

Karl Schmidt-Rottluff Self-Portrait 1906
Karl Schmidt-Rottluff
Self-Portrait, 1906

After his death it took some ten years for Van Gogh’s paintings to emerge from obscurity, particularly as his greatest champion, his brother Theo, was also dead. While in France the Fauves, such as Matisse, André Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck responded to Van Gogh’s vibrant palette, it was in Germany and Austria that Expressionism took hold like a whirlwind in both art and literature. Here young artists were seduced not only by his mark making and colour but also by the dramatic and unconventional story of Van Gogh’s life. A dedicated network of dealers and critics promoted his work, despite the chauvinistic opposition of some of the conservative art establishment who saw it as un-German. His vibrant colours and animated brushwork spoke directly to the young Brücke (Bridge) artists in Dresden and the Austrian Expressionists in Vienna as they tried to break free both from the constraints of the bourgeois salon and from Impressionism. Whether Van Gogh would have accepted this role of guru is uncertain. For his distortions of line and energetic brush marks were his own passionate response to the world and nature, and he always saw himself as a realist.

The exhibition is divided into four parts: Van Gogh and Die Brücke, Van Gogh and Der Blaue Reiter, Van Gogh and Vienna and Van Gogh and (self) portraiture. The artists who founded the Brücke group in June 1905 – Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and Fritz Bleyl – came from a background of the decorative arts and met while studying architecture at the Technical College in Dresden. Deeply influenced by Jugendstil (the German equivalent of Art Nouveau.) they took their name – the bridge – from a passage in Nietzsche’s seminal text, Thus Spoke Zarathustra – “what is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal”. These young artists wanted to affect both a renewal of art and life in order to break the stifling conventions of their age. A contemporary photograph at the opening of the exhibition shows one of them dancing naked in his studio, while others depict nude sea bathing and a youthful Kirchner with Erna Schilling lounging in his studio under tented drapes. It was all very bohemian but as the painter Erich Heckel claimed, “what we needed to get away from was clear to us…where we were heading for was not so clear”.

Otto Dix Sunrise 1913
Otto Dix
Sunrise, 1913

What Van Gogh showed the Brücke artists was how it was possible to move away from an Impressionist perception of nature and reveal the underlying life force that mirrored their interest in Nietzsche’s vitalist philosophy. A number of them also felt a strong identification with Van Gogh’s ‘outsider’ life story as can be seen in Kirchner’s edgy Self-Portrait with a Pipe, based on Van Gogh’s Self-Portrait with Straw Hat, which is shown here for the first time since disappearing into private hands. For Max Pechstein it was not the agitated brush work, but Van Gogh’s palette that he appropriated. In his wonderfully insouciant portrait, Young Woman with a Red Fan, he echoes (and transposes) the bright green and reds of her dress and hat, which Van Gogh used in his portrait The Zouave, turning them into flat areas of complimentary colour.

Van Gogh’s influence was also felt in Munich by the looser group of painters known as the Blaue Reiter that gathered round Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc, editors of the Blaue Reiter Almanach, an ambitious publication of art theory and writing. Though unlike the Brücke group, who remained more faithful to figuration, the Blaue Reiter group tended to move towards abstraction and never really developed a collective style. It was their quest, as Kandinsky said, for ‘inner’ compulsion and an anti-materialism that held them together, though direct echoes of Van Gogh can clearly be seen in their use of colour and in the psychological intensity of their paintings.

Wassily Kandinsky Murnau Street with Women 1908
Wassily Kandinsky
Murnau Street with Women, 1908

When Van Gogh’s work was discovered at the turn of the century Vienna was the dazzling capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Despite being rigid with tradition it had a strong avant-garde that emerged in the fine arts, literature, philosophy and, of course, in the writings of Freud. Van Gogh’s paintings were a huge influence on the generation of artists, who like their German contemporaries, were turning their backs on naturalism. Even the decorative Gustav Klimt was affected by seeing Van Gogh’s work in 1906; while Van Gogh played a seminal role in the development of the visual language of Oskar Kokoschka and the nervy lines of Egon Schiele.

At the beginning of the twentieth century Van Gogh gave the Expressionists a new painterly language which enabled them to go beyond surface appearance and penetrate deeper essential truths. It is no coincidence that at this very moment Freud was also mining the depths of that essentially modern domain -the subconscious. This beautiful and intelligent exhibition places Van Gogh where he firmly belongs; as the trailblazer of modern art.

Vincent Van Gogh and Expressionism is at Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam from 24 November 2006 to 4 March 2007

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2007
 
Image 1: Collection Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)
Image 2: Collection Stiftung Seebüll Ada und Emil Nolde, Seebüll
Image 3: Private Collection
Image 4: Private Collection Courtesy Neue Galerie New York

Published in The Independent