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.