Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Turner Prize, 2009 - The Independent, London 8 December 2009

All that glisters turns out to be gold after all. The least demonstrative, and the most unassuming, of this year’s Turner Prize nominees gets it for a painting-cum-drawing that covers one entire wall at Tate Britain – yes, that’s all there is, my friends (as Peggy Lee once sang), to Richard Wright’s show - and which is likely to disappear altogether when the show is over.

Those who thought that Enrico David might make it with all that noisily transgressive, slightly delinquent-feeling, vaudeville stuff were wrong. Those who thought that something ultra-cerebral by Roger Hiorns might do the trick were also wrong. No, the judges have once again opted for an art which pays homage to restrained, non-figurative patterning - as it did in 2006 when the prize was won by an interesting abstract painter called Tomma Abts.

Yes, Wright is into a kind of laboriously hand-crafted repetitive patterning that often makes for an almost invisible art – in a certain light over at Tate Britain, you can barely see it at all. Last time he had a show in London, I had to look hard to find the work at all. Why? Because there was nothing at all on the floor or the walls. The main piece was up on the ceiling, where I had forgotten to look, and another in a back room which you had to seek hard to find.

Where does it come from? You could say that its roots are in traditions of Islamic calligraphy; you could also say that its roots are in decorative fabrics – well, the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive, are they? How does Wright work? A little like Carl André, another man made famous by the Tate – in André’s case, it was for a configuration of bricks.

Like André. Wright goes into a space empty-handed, without finished works. He looks at it. He sizes it up. Then he draws, in situ, on its surfaces, responding to the shape of the space, its atmosphere, the context of what he has been invited to appropriate, engulf, characterize, re-define. But only temporarily. These drawings don’t go anywhere afterwards. Nobody tries to peel them off the walls. They remain for the duration, they are documented with photographs, and then they get destroyed.

Wright, like so many of his contemporaries, makes an art which comes and goes, and which perhaps is therefore making an allusion to the passing nature of life, and the necessary impermanence of art.

It’s not just that they come and go though. The whole enterprise, here on this wall, seems so tentative, as if it were a kind of effrontery to do more than he has done. And how exactly would you categorise this kind of art? Nodding again towards André, you could call it minimalist if you liked. But it is also, for all its thin and somewhat ethereal nature, quite luxurious in its way. But it’s a luxury that always threatens to pass away, and it does indeed pass away after a little while.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Design for Real Serpentine Gallery, London The Independent, London 30 November 2009

The Serpentine Gallery in Kensington Gardens exists to show off art. Art, as we all know, is perfectly useless. It exists to be admired. Now, all of a sudden, the Serpentine Gallery has had a change of heart. It has hired a curator with a mesmerisingly unpronounceable surname, Grcic, to assemble a show of forty-six objects which are useful. (I hear the man who is making the podcast for the Guardian newspaper first asking how the name’s pronounced, then taking several runs at it, falling back, and running again.) What is more, these particular objects are examples of their kind. There are variants upon them everywhere that we look. I am sitting on one of them now. Yes, everywhere we turn our heads these days there is a bed, a child’s bicycle, a plastic chair, the arm of a wind turbine flailing the air.

So what happens when we show off useful objects in an art gallery? We begin to relate them to the art experience. We just can’t seem to help ourselves. We look for beauty, elegance, singularity. We check out the colours for evidence of harmonious relations between one hue and another. We wonder why this bed, for example, seems, in part, to resemble an abstract painting, and whether it is a better, a more pleasing bed, for doing so. Most of all, we pause, and stop regarding them solely as objects of utility. We begin to respect them a little more. We begin to scrutinise them with a little more delicacy. We ponder upon the relationship between beauty and usefulness, and we speculate upon the fact that when a good designer gets it right, our lives are perhaps improved a little.

And that is the purpose of this rather delightful show, to make us reflect upon the nature of objects that are designed for our use, to speculate upon whether they are good or bad, ergonomically sound or otherwise, good for the world or not. The objects are well spaced and well displayed, often humorously so. Look at this perfectly gorgeous copper fishing lure, with its brazen feathered tail, and how it is mounted for our pleasure, behind glass. And then there is a plastic chair – oh that blasted modernist ideal! – which seems to hang from the wall, half way up, like one of those balloons we used to rub and rub on our arms, and then stick onto the top of uncle’s bald head for the sheer hell of living.

The central area is good too. It consists of a circle of 25 kg sand bags, heaped four high, across which we are invited to sprawl. A circle of tv screens spews out random facts about injection moulding, the usefulness of robots, etc. Computers invite us to explore more fully all the objects we have just seen on the show’s website: So what do we find out about the design and fabrication of objects such as these raise? Bicycle production outstrips car production world-wide three to one, for example. And some not so evident ones too, verging on the metaphysical: the speculation that lightness may be a human objective. Hmmm.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Hockney Makes Another Splash - The Independent, London

How wise is it for a brand new art centre in a major provincial city such as Nottingham to open its doors with a show by David Hockney? Isn’t the Hockney story – and aren’t Hockney’s works in general - just too well known to deserve yet another outing? In part this must be true. We know too much about Hockney. We’ve seen too much of Hockney. There have been several shows devoted to his works which have opened in the past two or three years, including an exhaustive – far too exhaustive - survey of his portraiture at the National Portrait Gallery, a show of his recent landscape paintings at Annely Juda in London, together with a major museum show in Swabia.

The difficulty in part has to do with Hockney himself. He has always pushed himself forward as a big part of the story of his art. He still does. It’s the tale of the gutsy, cussed Yorkshire laddo with the dyed blonde hair who stormed London at the beginning of the 1960s, and then rapidly re-invented himself as a cool painter of Californian pool-side languor with a special homo-erotic charge. The fact is we always seem to know what he has been doing, and in the relatively recent past he has been as much partially failing as partially succeeding. Do you remember those awful brown paintings of his dogs? Or those weak re-paintings of Picasso? Why in heaven’s name did Picasso need re-painting anyway? And we can’t forget them very easily either because the abiding presence of Mr Hockney is always helping to draw our attention back to them.

So why Hockney again, and what’s new about this show? The new director answers the first question without a second’s hesitation. A new gallery such as this one can’t afford to take any chances and, well, Michael, who is as well known as Hockney? Isn’t he our first near-guaranteed crowd-pleasing, crowd-pulling blockbuster? There’s a bit more to it than that though, thankfully. This show brings back into the spotlight not only some of those first major encounters with California, but it also cleverly draws our attention to the way in which Hockney himelf was responding, in his very earliest paintings, to the fashionable art of his time, to minimalsm and abstract expressionism, for example. Hockney is not by instinct an abstract painter – he never has been – but he makes us aware of the ways in which various kinds of austere abstraction work on us. Then, quite suddenly, as if blowing a raspberry – Hockney has always been very good at blowing raspberries - he has a bit of a joke at its expense. And he often does it as a way of saying, with quite willful and undaunted pride, that he is a gay man in a country where homosexual acts would remain illegal for at least another half decade.

So you can read many of these early works as quite pointed acts of political defiance, not only finding a new way to paint modern, but also a new way to paint and point up a message. So some of these very early works, ‘Going to be a Queen for Tonight ‘(1960), for example, have a wonderful raw, sweeping energy which seems to draw on the muscular excess of gestural painting, but also lightens it, and even pokes fun at it, by adding bits and pieces of text or unexpected splashes of colour, and all this seems to be saying – more shouting than saying – that, yes, there is more to life than a kind of heady, self-enclosed spirituality.

And so, much to my surprise, to find myself looking at Hockneys such as these proved to be something quite special after all. The difficulty proved to be that after the brilliance of those early years, he then had to live with himself for the rest of his life, and that kind of thing is always difficult.

David Hockney: A Marriage of Styles is at Nottingham Contemporary until 24 January 2010

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Jeff Koons at the Serpentine Gallery, London - The Independent

What a mind-numbing spectacle have we here! This summer the Serpentine Gallery, those staid former tea rooms in Kensington Gardens, has been transformed into something that at first glance seems to have more in common with a cross between Las Vegas and Blackpool Pleasure Beach than a public art space for the usual gang of slouch-shouldered, frowny cerebrals.

Here you will find a riotous mixture of ready-mades and replicas of plastic toys of the kind you might find flung around a suburban pool and, on the walls, zappy, computer-manipulated images of soft porn and PopEye, with a few high-minded cultural references thrown in to add just a touch of spice to the mix. The juxtapositions are violent and strange enough to please even a proto-surrealist such as the Comte de Lautreamont, who wrote, in 1869, of ‘the chance meeting on a dissection table of a sewing machine and an umbrella…’

The ready-mades include a step ladder, a stack of plastic chairs, and a rubbish bin. A brightly spotted lobster hangs in the air upside down like some circus strong man, supporting himself between a tippling chair and a wonky rubbish bin. Elsewhere, jug-eared monkeys with brightly slashed cartoon smiles hang down from the ceiling, lazily locked arm to toe. Inflatable beach toys lie around – or hang around from ferocious meat-hooks painted in gay yellows and reds. A multi-armed caterpillar with a green head and sweet, doey eyes eases its way – easy does it, critter! – between the rungs of an aluminium step ladder. A dolphin makes a mighty, arcing leap through the air. A noisy gaggle of pots and pans – all regular kitchenware - are suspended from its underside.

These over-size pool-side inflatables and kids’ toys are not the real things, of course. They are beautifully, painstakingly made replicas, usually in stainless steel and aluminium, polished and then painted, faithful to every last crease and fold of the original plastic. Amidst all the kiddy mock-innocence there are lots of side glances at S&M and raunchy hetero sex too – most of the inflatables are painfully worming their way through mesh of one kind or another. The artist from whose studio all this stuff has originated is an American showman called Jeff Koons. Yes, loony Koons is in residence in London all summer, presenting for our delectation a group of works loosely tied to the theme of Popeye and his gang of late 1920s’ miscreants. It is not only Popeye, exactly eighty years old this year as it happens, who is being remembered here. The works make many other references to the heroes that populate Koon’s pantheon – Salvador Dali, Marcel Duchamp and, more generally, the Surrealists and the Dadaists, with their zany, inconsequential humour.

Sometimes it is quite difficult to know whether to laugh or to cry at the work of Jeff Koons. It seems utterly preposterous, almost beyond the most absurd critical joke, that anyone should take this stuff seriously at all, or have the gall to stick the label of art on it. And yet they do, and the buyers come flocking. In 2007, A giant magenta ‘Hanging Heart, made out of stainless steel, sold for $23.6 Million dollars. M. Pinault is a big buyer. Koons’ ‘Balloon Dog’ – a giant, stainless steel version of the kind of dog that Uncle Harry would have made for you at your seventh birthday party, twisting it up and about, if you had had the presence of mind at such a tender age to hand him a long, partially inflated balloon – stood outside the Palazzo Grassi, overlooking the Grand Canal, when that museum opened in 2006. At the moment Koons is overseeing the fabrication of a giant replica of a steam train – which will be complete, when it’s finished, with intermittent chug-chugg-chuggs and woo-woo-woos. It carries a price tag of $25 million. Some museum on the East Coast of America is said to be hyper-ventilating at the prospect.

Down in his studio in Chelsea, New York, Koons employs up to 100 studio assistants at a time, making all those stainless steel replicas of inflatable toys with such loving care, beneath Koons’ ever attentive eye. Yes, he really cares about the idea of the perfectly burnished finish. But, really, what is the point when the work itself seems so fatuously pointless, so mind-numbingly tasteless, and so utterly superficial? And yet Koons himself does not see his work as tasteless kitsch at all. In fact, he is tremendously high-minded about it, always, almost messianically so. He takes himself tremendously seriously. The argument which he regularly deploys in defence of his artistic practice is as follows. My art is all about democracy, he preaches. The general problem with art is that people feel intimidated by it. They feel set apart from it, inferior to it. Koons wants to get rid of all that kind of old-fashioned guilt by making an art which is readily approachable, understandable and enjoyable. He wants to be entirely non-judgmental. He doesn’t want people to have to feel that they are nervously looking up at something that they don’t quite understand. He doesn’t want people to have to think and worry about pesky things like meaning. What you see is what you get. Koons brings us all together, in one big happy family. He makes us feel good about ourselves in the presence of art (which is definitely not Art). Here is how he puts it, in a nutshell: ‘They don’t have to bring anything with them other than exactly what they are, and they’re perfect for that experience because it’s about them…’ So: no training; no thinking; no work. Who needs a critical eye when you, the all-important one, are already fully empowered from the moment you walk in the door?

Can this grown man really believe such tosh?

Koons grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania. His father owned a furniture store. Young Koons admired the way furniture got displayed – lighting; positioning; juxtaposition. His father, as Koons confided to us at a press conference this week, taught him everything he needed to know about aesthetics. The young man also sold candy door-to-door to earn some pocket money. Koons himself, now 54 years old, with short-cropped hair and a ready smile, talks like a compulsive salesman for his own product. He’s eager looking, boyishly optimistic. What he says is often not quite comprehensible, but it sounds good – until you think back at what he has said and wonder, sheer banalities aside, whether it really means anything much at all. He is especially fond of the word transcendental. ‘Art is a vehicle that connects you to human history,’ he said this week. ‘I want people, when they look at my art, to have engaging moments. I want them to feel that everything about their lives is perfect – their history, their culture, their selves. Everything is in play. Everything is possible…’

Are these the statements of a man who is a serious artist? Or are they the easy bletherings of a flattering trickster? Up on the wall behind him, multiple computer-manipulated images of Popeye were swelling their engorged biceps in readiness to pop yet another can of spinach, and mouthing ‘I yam that I yam that I yam…’

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Shani Rhys James - Two Ateliers Connaught Brown London W1 - The Independent

If a work of art is too readily enjoyable, a pall of suspicion can hang over it. Perhaps popular means, oh lord, panderingly populist. Similarly, if something plays hard to get, if it’s only really understood when some kind of elaborate explanation has been offered in justification of its obscurities - think of much conceptual art, for example - it’s easy to overvalue it, and especially if you pride yourself on being more thoughtful than your clownish next door neighbour.

The Welsh painter Shani Rhys James belongs to the first category. The enormity and the sheer visual seductiveness of her talent hit you full in the face the moment it confronts you. I defy any reader of this newspaper not to be pretty enthralled by her new exhibition of twenty or so oil paintings in Albemarle Street – even when you are separated from them by the thickness of a robust glass window.

Rhys James paints women - most often herself, sometimes wary, sometimes brashly naked – and she paints still lives, often of fairly ordinary domestic things such as baskets, colanders and pots and pans, though in her most recent work, she has taking to painting rather elegant bits of French furnishings too – a rather delicately worked rattan-backed chair, for example - and this serves to introduce a new and almost sombrely classicising restraint, if not a certain politesse, into her work. She often paints the two in combination, playing the inanimate off against the animate. She is a tremendous colourist, and the vases of flowers she paints – these paintings are full of flowers – have a kind of riotously spiky and rip-roaring energy about them – a bit like those thistles in that poem by Ted Hughes which were always ready to ‘burst open under a blue-black pressure’. There’s something quite mad, wild and even thuggish about this work, such its total lack of restraint or decorum. It seems to be gulping at colour – oranges, flaring reds, brilliant yellows - like a cat going hell for leather at a great bowl of best Cornish clotted.

She lathers and slathers on the paint with a kind of unrestrained glee. No wonder the eyes of the model are always slightly bulbous with a kind of childish wonderment. They can’t really believe their eyes. They can’t really believe that the world of flowers is such a carnival for the eyes. And yet there’s something else in the way she paints eyes too, something which seems to set the human slightly at odds with what she is surrounded by. The face, often quite small, often peeks out, just off centre, from behind the jungle of flowers, as if it’s not quite worthy, or as if it’s not quite up to speed. There’s a touch of bewilderment in this female face, a note of self-apology. It’s not strutting in the way these flowers and these pots and pans are strutting. Even though it’s the brains around these parts, it feels, somehow, less, diminished, just a touch cast adrift. It can’t carry off its own identity with the same panache as a flower can. Flowers are just unapologetically themselves, non-stop, head-long. We gorge on them. We can’t believe that they’re quite this emphatic, quite this visually noisy. What’s a woman beside a flower? Who would have the temerity to contradict a flower when it’s in bloom to the extent that these flowers are in bloom?

Two studios. That’s the title of this show. And there is a difference of mood and manner between the works painted in her Welsh studio, and those painted in France. The Welsh paintings are dancing all night. It’s what they do. Over in France, the paintings go to bed earlier. They gnaw at their nails, they are more cerebral. They argufy. They look at books devoted to the masters of eighteenth century French painting, and they wonder about tradition, tonal values, laying black against grey and then what – o such abstract anxieties!

Back in the homeland, you paint as if you barely need to think at all. It’s just there, spurting. Everything comes out, wallop, just as it is.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Fernando Botero, The Circus Thomas Gibson Fine Art, London - ARTnews, June 2009

There has long been a tremendous pathos associated with the idea of the circus. The comic and the grotesque, the brashly and the brazenly colourful – all these elements often seem to be the barest of disguises for sadness, if not tragedy. Columbian artist Fernando Botero continues this tradition of ambivalence in a new suite of oil paintings in London.

   Botero’s trapeze artists, jugglers, uncicyclists and acrobats are full-figured, monumental, exaggeratedly pneumatic presences, more fantastical than real, gaudily tricked out in brilliantly colourful costumes, who seem to crowd out the pictorial spaces they occupy. They are often seen in full, reckless flight across the canvas, making boldly outflung sculptural shapes in the air. Their very monumentality makes the fact that they engage in such feats all the more remarkable. And yet, in spite of all this vigour, there is a strange and almost pitiful vulnerability about them too. The eyes are unusually small, watchful, and almost fearful. They are always unsmiling. The gaze is always distant, otherwhere. In spite of the occasional presence of an audience - always rendered at some distance, with loosely abstract dibs and dabs of paint – they seem to exist inside a terrible, arrested silence, within a mood of curiously frozen introspection. Their very monumentality helps to make the objects which they use all the more delicate, insubstantial, if not fantastical. A white pierrot strums a stringless ukelele. The stubby strumming hand moves almost mechnically, as if it is going through the motions of making music.

A great trumpeting of shape and colour seems to go hand in hand with an almost fathomless emotional emptiness.  

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Venice Biennale 2009 - The Independent, London

Film. Film. Film. It seems to have spread like a stain through the Venice Biennale this year. The Brits have chosen film-maker Steve McQueen as their official representative. The Welsh have John Cale, co-founder of Velvet Underground and newly into film, and Northern Ireland has opted for Susan MacWilliam, who makes films about the paranormal. Only Scottish artist Martin Boyce has demurred, choosing instead to fill seven rooms of the Palazzo Pisani with giant stepping stones, steel chandeliers and over 20,000 fake leaves. Elsewhere, Fiona Tan is showing films in the Dutch pavilion, film-maker Mark Lewis is representing the Canadians, and then there are the Poles and the Rumanians…
   The British Pavilion feels quite different from how it did when Tracey Emin was representing Britain in 2007. Then the whole, multi-roomed villa had painting and drawings on the walls, and it was opened up to the light. Now it's been transformed into a narrow, boxlike cinema space with fairly austere, tiered seating. Appropriate enough, you might think, for a man who takes film-making quite as seriously as McQueen does.
   The title of McQueen's triple-screen projection is Giardini, and it’s a moody, 30-minute rumination upon the nature of the very gardens in which the national pavilions are sited. What happens when the art world disappears?Everything gets dismantled. The gardens fall back into a kind of gentle dilapidation. Lean dogs scavenge amidst the debris. Birds and insects re-populate the space. McQueen shows this stripping away of identity. He also shows, primarily through sound, how the world of human kind is crowding around just beyond the trees. A cruise ship passes in the night, reminding us that the gardens are at the very edge of the lagoon. The roar of a crowd is heard, stage off.  Venetian church bells bend in the air. Then, three quarters through the film, two men embrace in the darkness. This homoerotic strand - reminding us that the Giaridini, off-season, is a site of a rather different kind of transaction:sexual  assignation - is left hanging in the air.
   Over on the Giudecca, in a former brewery, John Cale mistreats us to 46 minutes of fairly bemusing agitprop about his own tortured sense of Welsh identity. It is an oblique portrait of his mother country, spread across five screens which are positioned at irritatingly odd angles to each other. It is an even more oblique portrait of Cale himself, the Welshman who has spent so much of his life outside Wales. The film proceeds at snail's pace. It has fine visual moments. A phantom pianist slowly appears at the keyboard of an old upright piano.  A stuttery, hand-held camera crawls across the floor of a disused slate quarry. At the end, Cale suffers waterboarding. Why such pain? The English. The English. But between these fleeting moments of dramatic interest, there are many long minutes of tortured and unforgiveably unfocused self indulgence, which include even longer minutes when the screens are entirely blank and we nod and pray for early release.
   Frenzied film-making aside, the outstanding work in the Giardini this year is to be found in the pavilions of the United States of America, Egypt and Spain. That mad man Bruce Nauman brings his own particular brand of wackily serious gusto to the usually rather staid looking American pavilion. The frieze of neon signs on the outside of the building heralds the serious playfulness to be found within. JUSTICE reads one. That sign is immediately overlaid by another in a different colour which reads AVARICE. The show is an anthology of works from the 1980s onwards. Water pours down onto suspended, upside down heads. A neon Double Poke in the Eye is exactly what it says it is. A clay hand slowly modulates into a mouth. A man in a black skull t-shirt circles me as I circle the room. That seems rather uncomfortably appropriate.
   Fifty metres away, the Spanish Pavilion is showing off the large-scale paintings of Miquel Barcelo. These robustly textured works feel like a mixture of desertscape and moonscape. The tenderest and most haunting work in the Giardini is way at the top of the gardens, in the little visited Egyptian Pavilion. Two artists, one a painter of monumental figurative works called Adel el Siwi, and the other, Ahmad Askalany, a maker of figures in straw, paint a picture of a society in transition, haunted by the ghosts of its past.  
   Some of the very best work is to be found in Making Worlds, the enormous themed show curated by Daniel Birnbaum, the Biennale's director. I say that it is themed, but the only real theme is the fact that artists invent new worlds for themselves which are somewhat at a tangent to our own, and you could scarcely be more thematically banal than that. The show itself is spread across the various interminably long gallery spaces in the Arsenale, and somewhat hidden away at the back of what is now called the Palazzo delle Esposizioni within the Giardini itself. There are some wonderful works here. Tomas Saraceno has engulfed an entire room with the gossamer-like filaments of the Black Widow Spider on a disturbingly giant scale. A suite of watercolours by Allesandro Pessoli plays quixotically with Christian themes. And Nathalie Djurberg has made a room full of gloriously repulsive flower- and plant-like forms, larded if not drenched with colour, that menace just as much as they delight.
   This year the single most spectacular addition to the Venetian cultural landscape is the transformed Customs House, known as the Punto della Dogana, at the very tip of the Grand Canal. This prow-like sliver of a building, re-modelled by Tadao Ando, now houses the pick of Francois Pinault's collection of contemporary art. No visitor to the Biennale should leave without seeing the likes of Rachel Whiteread, Jeff Koons and Sigmar Polke penned so elegantly between the Grand Canal and the Zattere.

Monday, 25 May 2009

Abstract America, Saatchi Gallery, London - The Independent, London

There are two kinds of art. One has to do with looking at the world outside of us – the human form in all its horror and all its beauty; the terrible turbulence of nature. The second kind closes its eyes and responds to the world non-representationally. We call this second category, very loosely, abstract art, and it has been with us for thousands of years. Abstract art was in at the very beginning of sign-making. Abstract art was a way of expressing reverence for that which was unpicturable – the idea of the eternal, for example. 

To see some fine examples of this second group, open up – very gingerly, lest it fall apart - your dog-eared copy of The Story of Art, a classic text by the late Sir Ernst Gombrich which was first published more than half a century ago, and is still in print to this day, and quite deservedly so. Here are two or three fine examples of abstract art from that book: a page from the Lindisfarne Gospels, dating from the seventh century; the carved lintel which once belonged to the house of a Maori chieftain; and Frater Ruffilus’s writing of the letter ‘R’, from an early thirteenth century manuscript. As these various examples make abundantly clear, there are many different kinds of abstraction. Some have their toe in the world – they seem, in part, to be abstracted representations of organic forms such as flowers and leaves; other examples – think of the long history of Islamic art, for example – look like pure patterning of a much more cerebral kind, more akin to mathematics than anything else.

   This week a new show at the Saatchi Gallery in London will throw a spotlight on yet another manifestation of abstract art, and this one will consist of a group show of work – paintings and sculptures - by young artists from America who are responding to a form of abstraction that was invented there in the aftermath of the Second World War. 

   The story goes something like this. After the Second World War, dear old Paris, art capital of the Western world for almost as long as the ideas of taste, luxury and sexy connoisseurship had been in currency, suddenly lost the right to call itself the guardian of the newest of the new in art. Tired in spirit, humiliated by occupation, and with many of the artists and dealers either dead or fled, the torch, by the beginning of, say, the 1950s seemed to have passed to New York, where a group of individuals loosely labeled the Abstract Expressionists were beginning to make very loud claims for themselves. And, even more important, were beginning to have very loud claims made on their behalf. What was everyone shouting about?

   Abstract Expressionism was, in part about spontaneity, lavish painterly gesture, the freeing up of the native American spirit.  In common with the ambitions of Surrealism, it was an attempt to set free the creativity that was locked inside every human mind. The various artists associated with this group included  Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Ad Reinhardt and Mark Rothko. In fact, they were making two quite different kinds of abstract art. One kind seems more like frenzied calligraphy, often on a giant scale. Pollock was the man whose spirit seemed to embody this first idea of Abstract Expressionism. He laid his canvases on the floor, poured paint directly on to them, and then danced around for as long as it took. It was pure, wild, colourful and undeniably expressive, from first to last. Pollock was America’s first Action Man. The plastic toys came limping after.

   Anyone who wishes to experience what feels like a quite different variety of Abstract Expressionsm should spend a few hours wandering around the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC, where some of the best known and most frequently reproduced images by the likes of Robert Motherwell, Ad Reinhardt and others are often on display. This group of painters were making abstract marks in a very particular, if not narrow, way. This is soulful stuff too, but this variety of soulfulness is earnestly inward-looking, spiritually self-searching, myth-making, more inclined towards the quietly contemplative. There’s no whooping and shrieking here. In fact, some of these painters – not all by any means – make us feel as if their souls had been shriven by exposure to some terrible desert over a period well in excess of forty days. Their art is extremely severe and unyielding and unsmiling. We are suffering, it seems to say. Our work is being extruded from us with the utmost pain. We have reached down to the core, it intones gloomily, and it is hard and cold and lonely down here. These artists often work on a giant scale: tremendous, gaunt slashings and shiverings of black against white. Yes, many of them do not do colour – well, barely. They do not do exuberance either. They do not do frivolity or popular entertainment of any kind. They do not do the outside world, not at all. Any resemblance between what you see in their paintings and the living or the dead seems purely accidental. They do not welcome you in to their circle; in fact, that circle seems to be enclosed by an electrified fence. They say to you: life is an extremely severe discipline. Approach it – and us – with a respectful degree of wariness. We are the pitiless masters of an almost overbearing austerity. Embrace us at your peril.

   Yep, an afternoon spent down at the Hirshhorn can leave you feeling rather dry-mouthed, spent, and even chastened.

   And then, from the early 1960s onwards, came a second wave of abstract painters and sculptors, which included Brice Marden, Frank Stella, Carl Andre and Donald Judd. This second group were dubbed Minimalists by various enterprising art commentators, ever ready to neaten up and categorise the daily, pell-mell flux of things. The Minimalists lightened things up a little, but not too much. Here are some of what you might loosely call minimalist ‘doctrines’: be truthful to the materials you are using. Do as little as possible with what you are given. Change it barely at all. Be as anonymous as possible. Pretend to be a maker of something that could just as easily get made on the factory floor. Don’t make loud claims for yourself as that maker. Keep it pure, simple, true. Don’t try to imitate anything else. Matter may be sufficient unto itself. Dress and look like a blue-collar worker.

   Carl Andre has that image to this day: he habitually wears the blue overalls of the honest artisan, this blighted man whose honest-john appearance is marred only by the fact that he may or may not have murdered his wife some years ago (he was finally acquitted). ‘Well, you see I’m a matterist really, not a minimalist. I didn’t invent that word.’ That’s what Carl Andre once said to me when I asked him why he did so little to the materials he used – he just organises them when he gets to a gallery. He has no studio of his own. He’s an itinerant. So if it happens to be bricks, and there’s a floor, that it’s, folks…

   Now it is within the context of this almost surprisingly complicated, and almost self-contradictory, mixture, of self-abnegation and self-celebration within the various strands of post-war American abstraction that we need to view this new generation of young American artists. And, yes, they are doing abstraction all right, just like their artistic forefathers before them, but the spirit and the feel of this work could not be more different from what was happening in New York and elsewhere from the 1940s through to the 1960s. Is it correct then to call these young artists heirs to all those who went before? Well, it’s both true and misleading in just about equal measure. These new ones have been touched by influences unavailable to their predecessors, the most significant of which is cyberspace, whose manifold seductions we can fall a prey to at any time of the day or night, and where we can be everywhere and nowhere all at once. Cyberspace turns life into a non-stop collage of fleeting impressions, and the spirit and the intrusive cacophony of cyberspace spreads like a seeping red stain in a white linen suit through all this work.

   Non-stop. That is a very important idea for these young artists. If you listened in on their conversational buzz, you would probably hear something like this. Well, yes, this is something I’ve made, but it could just as easily be something else, and it may well become so in due course. I call myself a painter now, but the fact is that I’m a multi-media guy/gal of whatever I choose to make, and what I choose to make it out of is what happens to become available to me when I start sniffing around here, there and everywhere…

   This feels like work which is gloriously impure, and polluted by the world that surrounds it. It’s a kind of snatch-it-from-here-there-and-everywhere kind of work. Artists are natural scavengers – they always have been – but these artists are experts at it. This work contains elements of story-telling, something that would have been anathema to the Abstract Impressionists, who wanted to purge art of the superficiality of narrative in order to get to the very essence of stark sign-making. This is an art which has the capacity to laugh at itself and the art world of which it is a part. It feels looser and freer and, well, funnier too. It makes time for casualness and superficiality because life in part consists of those things. It does not feel sufficient unto itself.

   Which brings us to another interesting issue which is seldom talked about by either art critics or artists because it is a very awkward one. It is, however, very pertinent to this show. What are you supposed to be thinking about when you look at an abstract painting? This is somewhat akin to the question: what are you supposed to be thinking about when you are listening to classical music? I once put the first of these two questions to the celebrated American abstract painter Brice Marden when we were staring together at a particularly gorgeous sequence of looping the loops. He laughed, slightly uncomfortably, and told me that he often thought about his daughters. Was he confessing to some kind of act of self-betrayal? But how do you think about patterning which, to some degree, seems to relate only to itself? How long does it take before you start thinking about your daughters?

   The fact is that in this new show over at the Saatchi Gallery you are actively being encouraged to think about the fact that what you are looking at is out in the world because it is so often referring to what happens in the world, whether that be art making, commerce or popular entertainment. Sometimes it is a mixture of all three. A new pact seems to have been established here, whose terms are as follows: we are makers of abstraction in the American manner, but what that means has been changed irreversibly by what has happened in the world outside of us. We are no longer the monks of yesteryear. Nor are we the showmen. Nor do we feel reverential towards the materials that we use. There is no such thing as a material which is either appropriate or inappropriate. Everything is grist to our mill. We, the youthful scavengers of our frenzied world, are proclaiming a new doctrine: our art is constrained by what we choose to do. All ages are present to us. We make of it what we will, when we will, as we will.





Kristin Baker makes works which seems to embody the thrill and the dash of the passing moment. She uses industrial materials, and she often looks as if she is engaged in sign-painting. ‘Excide Batteries Beer a Sphere’ (2003) is a typical piece of work – a rich, onrushing mix of media spectacle executed with a fine painterly flourish.


Matt Johnson

If you thought you knew what to expect from a piece of origami, you had not reckoned on the playfulness of Matt Johnson in a work entitled ‘The Piano’. Johnson has taken a giant piece of tarpaulin, folded it into the form of a pianist sitting, arms raised, at a grand pian, fin menacingly raised, and coloured it an exhilarating, Yves Klein Blue.

Elizabeth Neel

Neel’s work is a refined take on carnality and ferocity. The bloody, torn carcass of an animal falls away from a tree in a shattered, blood-soaked blur, having just been blasted by hunters to eternity. But the palette she uses is so luscious and seductive.

Ryan Johnson’s sculptures are made from a riotous cast of materials: casting tape, glass, plywood, cement, cardbosrd, spray paint. He makes comically grotesque walking or leaning figures, pathetic veterans of life or war – both? - with gouty feet and legs blown off. Political cometnary? You bet.

Chris Martin is the point at which outsider art meets formalism. His paintings consist of blobs, dots, lines joined-together like constellations, and all painted with a kind of gloopy innocence and crudity. It looks a bit like a physics text book which is being read upside down and then used as a child’s colouring-in book.

Mark Grotjahn

Mark Grotjahn paints recessive linear perspectives in colours which remind you of Cubist experimentation from one hundred years ago -  geometric forms, with very thin lines, and closely worked in coloured pencil.

Dan Walsh is a natural heir to the grid-making of the Minimalists, though with a much quirkier touch. In ‘Red Diptych II’, two large-scale paintings hang side by side. One consists of solid blocks, the other of concentric tiles. As you look from one to the other, one seems to recede as the other advances towards you.

Bart Esposito's geometric paintings seem to be a mixture of curvaceous graphic design and pop art. The colours are groovy browns and oranges. The forms twist and twist impossibly, smooth as gum.

Amy Sillman’s work is as close as any of these young artists gets to the contemplative manner of some of the Abstract Expressionists. Rich, colourful, with shapes that seem to be dissolving into other shapes even as we look at them, they feel weightless and fragmentary.

Aaron Young’s work often seems to begin in Pollock-like scribblings –except that the marks on ‘Greeting Card 10a’ have been made by motorbikes roaring back and forth across the canvas. Pollock would surely have approved.




Friday, 22 May 2009

Transmission Interrupted Modern Art, Oxford - Art Review

Political art so often shouts too loudly. Like most political poems, it knows where it’s going long before it gets there, so there is no element of real surprise or genuine imaginative engagement. This choice new group show at Modern Art Oxford, which exhibits works by fourteen young artists from around the world, is quiet and nuanced by comparison. This is political art as it should be made, wheedlingly purposeful, skilful, quietly memorable.

   Take ‘Timeline: Romanian Culture from 55BC until today’ by Lia Perjovschi, for example. This piece runs riot around the walls of one of the first floor galleries, a kind of crazy, seething mass of scribbled notations on 40 sheets of paper, randomly placed photographs and incomprehensible crowdings in of information. It makes you laugh out loud to see it because it mocks the kinds of absurdities that historians and cultural commentators indulge in all the time, the rapid, pat analysis of the complexities of national history. Another equally engaging piece is an assemblage of  objects displayed on a long, curving table by Michael Rakowitz called ‘The invisible enemy should not exist (recovered, missing, stolen series)’. Rakovitz has re-made a selection from the thousands of object that went missing – and remain missing - from the Iraq National Museum after the invasion of 2003. Except that he has made them out of trash – Middle Eastern product packaging, sheets of newspapers, glue. They are all solemnly displayed chronologically, as they might be in the British Museum. They are a powerful reminder of absent, priceless things, re-made out of trash.

   We impose meanings from outside when we deal with cultures other than our own. What do we make of Mircea Cantor’s ‘Monument for the end of the world’? Once again, this piece works its way with use through humour. A table-top display shows us what resembles a scale model of something that looks somewhat akin to Macchu Picchu. Wooden blocks stand in for built structures – yes, it is a kind of scale model. Tiers of steps ascend to nothing more meaningful than a wind chime,  gently stirring in the breeze, and suspended in  the air by the arm of a crane. It has all the trappings, and all the strange atmosphere, of a sequestered place of hidden ritual, but its meaning is completely opaque to us, if not absurd. Once again, we are forced to stand on the outside and look in, abandoning our clever games of cultural appropriation even before we begin.

   Downstairs, one entire gallery is occupied by the giant hulk of a blackened, burnt out car – except that it has been made in terracotta by Adel Abdessemed. This object which, out in the street, would create a frisson of fear has been tamed into a monumental piece for a museum of modern art. Some trace of a street war has been pleasingly aestheticised. No one need worry any more. 

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Royal Society of Portrait Painters Annual Exhibition 2009 - The Independent, London

Portraiture is where art meets commerce head on. I notice that as soon as I walk into this lunchtime’s seething private view of the annual exhibition by members of the Royal Society of Portraiture down at the Mall Galleries, which is, appropriately enough, just a hop, skip and a jump from the Palace. An area is dedicated to something called ‘portrait enquiries’. There’s a table, a ledger (yes, it looks quite that high falutin’), pens, and prints of artists’ works on what look like storyboards. And this year, as ever, the walls are teeming with portraits, almost all of them smartly framed. (Portraits can’t afford to look scruffy.) Choose your style. Choose how you would like to see yourself. Then write down your name beside the portraitist of your choice and, gulp, ask him how much - for such and such a size - in these lamentably straitened times.

   That is the thing about portraiture. It is immediately accountable to its subject, and to fairly traditional notions of what reality exactly consists of in a way that much contemporary art is not. Contemporary art tests reality until it bends and nearly breaks. People laugh at it. People mock it. Then some poker-faced Mr Anonymous in a city suit lays down a million or two by phone line, and the mockers fall silent, and the art critics start to pen long and difficult sentences.

   No, commissioned portraiture just can’t get away with the wild levels of experimentation which characterised so much of the art of the 20th century. All those isms! People want to be reassured by their portraits, They want to recognize themselves in what they see, to know themselves as they believe themselves to be, and not only their own hands, faces and bodies, but the kinds of contexts in which they live and move and have their day-to-day being: The college they preside over with such strictly avuncular authority; the medals that shine, so richly deserved. And the portrait painter, by and large, needs to satisfy their needs so that money will shift relatively easily, and with more than a modicum of good will – another satisfied sitter, you might say - from patron to portraitist. It’s as simple as that. It always has been.

   And yet there is a problem here. Much of the stuff on these walls is excellently painted - after all, these people are professionals at what they do. And yet much of it doesn’t stir us very much. It doesn’t have the excitement of work which is breaking new ground. We know it for what it is, for what it is expecting us to feel, almost without looking at it. It presses such familiar buttons. It is, for example, satisfying easy assumptions about class, respectability, eminence, correct behaviour. It is making a lot of people feel that this is how the dependable world works. It doesn’t court risks. It’s never nasty or slightly troubling. We look at portraits of comfortably prosperous families sitting on a chaise longue, and we recognize that this is exactly the kind of scene that Gainsborough would have painted for a similar family two hundred years ago. The price would have been high – as it is now. And the head of this memorialised family would have been hugely proud that they had the money to confirm their own status as a serenely prosperous family. Not all of it is like this, mind you, but a lot of it is.

     The dreariest paintings are of human beings we know both too well and not at all: Mrs Thatcher, the Princess Royal. Now why do these paintings seem so tediously unlikeable and uninteresting? Well, they seem to be identikit – if not mulch - works, and not even especially good likenesses – we’ve all seen much better press photographs. They feel like general impressions which have had the reality wrung out of them. Public figures as visually edible as last months’s mouldering baguette behind the radiator. Or is it that we never really liked the idea of these women much anyway?



Saturday, 16 May 2009

Jerwood Contemporary Painters - The Independent, London

Who are the best young painters at work today? This group show of about thirty works is the choice of the Jerwood’s three judges, who are all practising artists themelves. Very few of these twenty-six young people are fresh out of college; they are not really, in that strange, queasiness-inducing locution, emerging. Quite a few of them are well established, and already represented by first–rate galleries. Take Ryan Mosley, for example, who two years ago had just graduated from the Royal College of Art, and was chosen by this newspaper as the talent to watch out for in 2008. His large canvas in this show, ‘Psycho Cubist Picnic’, is a kind of surrealist-cum-cubist-cum Gustonish act of zany, venturesome play with figures and things – or rather parts of figures and things. All the bits of the world seem to be falling and spinning apart in hilariously comic style. It seems to have been painted in a kind of wild, Picasso-like dash, and it’s full of a tremendous sense of vim and gusto.

   And that, in fact, is the overall tone of this show – a kind of reckless, experimental joy in the use of paint on canvas, a rooted belief that the world is the painter’s oyster, and that if you should happen to choose to gild and prettify that oyster these days, it’s entirely your prerogative. There’s nothing hole-in-corner about any of this work, no feeling that the art of painting itself might be beleaguered, or under some kind of a threat from the newer media. It’s all very self-confident stuff that we see here; it’s work that often connects up stylistically with the recent – and even the distant past (look at Matthew Weir’s fascinating take on an Adam Elsheimer, for example), but it is also forging ahead into the future without any flinching or hesitation. And when it does pay homage to the past, it often does so playfully. The past is there for the joyous plundering. The past is there to give a kind of density, a kind of layering, to the present. It is playful and confident, seldom poker-faced, seldom over-earnest, always unconstrained. There is no evidence of any particular school or tendency, no dominating trend of any kind, no particular look-at-me brashness, no calculated wish to disgust us or to shock us. Instead, a kind of wilful eclecticism seems to be the order of the day. There’s a steady commitment to the idea of the importance of the art of painting. But most of all the show seems to be shouting back at us: Who can do it better than a painting? Painting is just as young and vibrant as it is old and venerated. In short, it’s here to stay – and, by the way, it always has been.

   Is the work predominantly figurative or abstract? A variable mixture of the two. Much of the best work is abstract, but it does not have the severity of the pioneers of abstraction. It is does not set out prove that abstraction represents a kind of unassailable purity of vision, something which is set apart from, and disdainfully rises above, the mess and the muck of the world. This is an abstraction which is often within a jokey nodding distance of recognisability. Here, for example, is a piece by Sam Windett which looks, with its geometrical severity, like a take on Constructivism. But it’s only partially that. There’s too much cheekily understated colour washing about the work. What is more, the title gives the game away: ‘Mobile (white)’. And this is often the case with the abstract work in this show. Colour gets poured in to lighten and free up a mood, repeatedly – there’s none of the priestly poker-facedness of Abstract Expressionism about this confidently cheerful gang.

  Some of the figurative work has a beautifully delicate tonal simplicity, a paring back to the essentials – look at David Webb’s representation of a Monarch butterfly, what he has made of the form, and how he has contextualized it within its painterly environment. It’s all very simple, beautifully judged and poised – just like a fecklessly evanescent butterfly, in fact.

Luke Fowler at Serpentine Gallery, London - The Independent

Luke Fowler is a young, experimental (for want of a better word) film maker who won the first  Jarman Award in 2008. This show at the Serpentine Gallery in Kensington Gardens is a kind of mini-retrospective of his major projects of recent years, and in part a documentation of those projects. This is what artists so often do these days. They make something, and then they scrupulously record the various stages they went through on the long and serendipitous journey towards its conclusion. They are both the creators and the archivists of what they have created, opening up their own inner workings, letting us see art as the process that it must inevitably be. Is this always interesting? Not at all.

   In Fowler’s case, it is quite interesting because he has opened up the discussion to take in our assumptions of what exactly a film is, and what makes up its constituent parts. So much is up in the air for film makers these days. Film. Video. DVD.  Isn’t it a bit passé to use film at all in a digital age? Not at all, say certain purists such as Tacita Dean. Fowler bring lots of different things together to create a kind of multi-layered filmic experience, which is part art film and part a kind of free-flowing and free-ranging approach to documentary making. Two films in particular in this show help us to see the direction in which he is heading. Pride of place – it occupies the entire central gallery - is given to Composition for Flutter Screen, the strangest  and most recent piece of all.

   Here is what you experience. Total Darkness. Then, a second or two later, a huge, white, fluttery taffeta screen is lit up by two lamps, trained to left and right of it. It’s a brilliant white, five-metre square spectacle, and the screen itself is overlaid by an additional strip of white light, curved like a scimitar wound. There’s a tremendous amount of agitation, and there’s noise too, not only the whirr of the projector, but also a sound track, which comes and goes, and the sound of the agitation of the screen itself which, unusually, is in a state of perpetual motion.

   Why? Those two fans which stand on the ground, to left and right of it, are blowing air at it, causing wave-like ripple effects to flow back and forth, combing it, seaming it like a ploughed field. Is this then what we have come to see, the fluttering spectacle of a giant, ghostly taffeta screen? No. That’s just the beginning. The fact that the screen never stops moving disrupts our ability to see the image – when it comes…

   Darkness again, and then a rectangle of the screen is filled with an image – a vessel brimming with water, meniscus bulging, or, later, a candle, doubled, with a strangely smokey bud of flame. The images are both vivid and partially unreadable, and when that projection faders, as it soon does, they leave a ghostly after-image of themselves…

   From agitated painterly abstraction, to A Pilgrimage from Scattered Points, a film which is equally tricksy in certain technical respects, but this time you understand very well why it’s happening. Fowler has a fascination with various counter-cultural figures – elsewhere in the show there’s a film about R.D. Laing, that rebellious anti-psychiatrist.

   Pilgrimage examines the life and slow death of the Scratch Orchestra, a phenomenon of the 1970s. Various musicians came together to make  music, and to encourage others that music could be made by anyone. It didn’t have to be the prerogative of some elite. Cornelius Cardew was perhaps its most celebrated spokesman. And it was Cardew who helped to bring about the death of the experiment because of the degree of hatred he felt for the bourgeoisie. Regrettably, certain group members felt that they belonged to the bourgeoisie and, no matter how hard they searched their souls, they couldn’t find it within themselves to call themselves truly bad people.

   Now all this fractiousness, and this musical experimentation, is caught in the way the film is made - rapid cuts and quick fades; odd blurrings; off-beat angles; interviews from then and now. The fact that it is so spasmodic and jumpily collage-like seems to mirror its subject matter perfectly. This is experimental film making at an unusually intelligent and focused level.