Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Picasso: the Mediterranean Years Gagosian Gallery, London - The Independent

It is always quite difficult to know what to do with Picasso. We have seen too much of him already, almost everywhere. Our shelves are already groaning with brick-heavy catalogues. We think we know him already, top-to-toe, every period, thematically, stylistically. Our children paint like him every day. Can there be room for yet another major show of his work? Well yes, perhaps, because there is so always much of him. According to his biographer John Richardson, he made about three objects a day almost every day of his life. He worked all day almost every day, and often for most of the night. His advice to a young painter was: if you want to do something, do it. He was the exemplar of his own approach: he never stopped doing. Only death slowed him down, and the work he has created for his successors – critics, taxonomists, dealers, sexologists, bankers, criminals and forgers on every continent – has been enormous. Even when he was not at his best, he was interesting, turning over one idea after another, trying to quicken materials into life. The wonder is that he should have triumphed so often. The sadness is that he made so much, and tried so hard, that we are often obliged to stare at much that is only fairly good. That is the case with this show. It’s a Picasso taxonomist’s delight, and it deals with the relatively neglected decade and a half which culminated in his eightieth birthday. Yet another Picasso emerged after that, which has already been the subject of a major show at Gagosian.

This is a portrait of Picasso in the post-war years. Post Paris. Post austerity. Re-entering his own birthright beside the Mediterranean Sea (he was born in Malaga) in the south of France. Basking in the sunny warmth of his acclaim and success. And, of course, quite befittingly, the mood has changed dramatically. Much of the greyness has drained away from his palette; a new playfulness has entered into the making. He is creating different kinds of things too, including huge quantities of ceramics and sculptures, large and small. These ceramic objects and these sculptures are the best things in the show. Many of the paintings – the portraits of women, for example – are dull ‘revisitings’ (ie often rather poor near-copies) of his stylistic mannerisms of the past. But these sculptures! They have a reckless derring do about them – look at the gorgeous girl skipping, torso fashioned from an old basket, which faces you as you enter the main gallery, or the wooden sculpture, fashioned from sticks and blocks, so delightfully crude, of a mother winging her child up into the air. These are sculptures which seem to say: what have I to lose by making this at breakneck speed from the unpromising stuff that surrounds me in the studio or just outside? Or examine the wonderful baboon whose face has been made from a toy car. Who but Picasso would have pressed that car into service in this way? There is an intense preoccupation with children, for themselves, and at play. He paints children enjoying themselves with a reckless childishness, as they might have painted themselves had they been him. You spot it the moment you enter into the central gallery, children everywhere, represented in painting and sculpture. His own children – sleepy-eyed Paloma, for example. There were always so many to choose from. One or two were even legitimate. Always so much to do, always so many jismic marvels.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010), The Independent, London

She was the first artist to be invited to make something of the Tate Modern’s near impossibly unwelcoming Turbine Hall in the year 2000, and what she created was entirely characteristic of her art from first to last – a nasty, long-legged spider on a giant scale to keep watch over us from the overhead bridge, and three horribly impersonal steel watchtowers to keep us under surveillance at ground level. South Armagh meets a hair-raising denizen of the dense jungle, you might say.

Surveillance is a word which resonates when it comes to appraising the art of the extraordinarily long-lived and ceaselessly productive Louise Bourgeois. Usually it is the onlooker who appraises the work of art. After all, is it not the onlooker’s privilege, having paid the price, to do so? It was the opposite with Bourgeois. When you entered a room of work by her, you felt stripped bare all of a sudden, as if voices were shouting questions into your ears, demanding some explanation of why you had lived as you had lived. It seems almost surprising that death should have caught up with her at last, that she is no longer alive to jab the bony finger.

Another entirely fitting word would be a coining of Albert Camus’: dis-ease. Not unease. That would be too easy. Camus’s word means that we are somehow complicit in our own undermining, that we may have brought on our sufferings by being precisely what we are. No, you never felt comfortable in the presence of a work by Bourgeois.

You felt, somehow, that you were not only under scrutiny, but even that you were being played with, even terrorized, as Hitchcock so often played with you. Things could only get worse. The staging always helped – and the props of her installations, which often consisted of old doors, bits of shabby furniture, creaky beds, bleak, prison-perimeter meshing, often organised in strange, seemingly ever shrinking circles. Shabby old doors enclosed tiny moments of oppressive, shabby domesticity, dreams of a nightmarishly unhappy childhood perhaps. So little looked pristine. Almost everything seemed gimcrack, just off the skip, pressed into service against its will, unhappily re-livingg its own wailingly posthumous life. The whole effect was always so unsettlingly dramatic, almost ghoulishly filmic. There was always so much darkness, so many pockets of eeriness in which dread could be left to propagate. There would be deep thrusting shadows to witness, or strange corners to turn before you entered, in the case of her many ‘Cells’, the desolate, three-dimensional structures with which much of the exhibition space was filled at her last major retrospective at Tate Modern, which happened just three years ago, when she was already climbing the long hill, undaunted, towards her hundredth birthday.

She was female all right, but she never fell victim to that old cliché of the essential softness of the feminine. She was soft only in the way that well worn leather boots are soft. She wrenched the feminine about in her work; she made us feel on our pulses what it was to be a woman who suffers the excruciating physical tumult of childbirth. There was eroticism a-plenty, but it was an eroticism stepping out in conjunction with pain. Many of the objects she made looked like anthropological specimens, artefacts which threw back at us our own peculiar cultural habits. One entire gallery in that Tate show was organised to look like such a museum display. She picked us apart, bit by bit, and then sewed us back together again, with an ungainly lumpishness. She never held up the idea of the human for glorification or celebration. She was no female Michelangelo. Nor was she a surrealist, though she knew many of them, and she moved in their circles. For all that, her kind of psychological disclosure was theirs too: to expose the often repulsive underside of things, those secretly oozy that we can barely acknowledge about ourselves, the grossness of the human, the worm that ceaselessly turns in all our buds. Some of her most celebrated works were her soft sculptures – she inherited from her parents a love of sewing – made from fabrics and stuffing. She helped to dignify the idea of softness, to give it gravity and feeling.

She never ceased to change and change again. Her sculptures were such weird things, as much animistic as modernist. Her whole spirit seems to be summed up in this tiny extract from her diary, written when she was a mere 70 years of age, and with much of her long, wayward creative road still to travel: ‘The only access we have to our volcanic unconscious and to the profound motives for our actions and reactions is through the shocks of our encounters with specific people’. Such telling words. Those shocks she felt are the same shocks that we experience, time and again, when we come up against her bruising work.

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Saturday, 10 April 2010

De Chirico, Max Ernst, Magritte, Balthus - Palazzo Strozzi, Venice - The Independent, London

Giorgio de Chirico is one of those painters we know so well from all the reproductions we used to display on our walls when we were breathless students: those lonely, wind-swept piazzas, headless statues and tiny humanoids with their weirdly over-stretched shadows... In fact, as with so many other painters, his work often looks better in reproduction. The crudity of application is smoothed away. All we are left with is the strangely disturbing idea of the work itself, and – in the very best of his art - the bald, bold use of contrasting primary colours. Look at the poster created for this exhibition for example, or the laminated cover of the press pack. They are more arresting than the painting called ‘The Enigma of the Arrival and the Afternoon’ that they use as their starting point.

This exhibition at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence is an attempt to create a lineage of influence, to say that first there was De Chirico, and then along came others in his wake – Max Ernst, Rene Magritte, Balthus, Morandi and others. All these spirits were influenced by De Chirico to a greater or lesser degree, we are told. Is this true?

The answer is: well yes, in part, but… De Chirico’s most memorable works were created during the second decade of the twentieth century, the decade, it could be argued, when the world of the West changed irrevocably. The terrible blight of world war saw to that. Now De Chirico never painted war – but he undoubtedly painted the atmosphere of anxiety and incertitude provoked by war, the pervasive feeling that a mighty gulf had opened up, and that it would be the task of writers and artists to stare into that beckoning gulf, and to report on what they saw down there. They just couldn’t help it. Things were falling apart for everyone – and that included W.B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, and Georg Trakl, to name not artists at all but three poets, all kindred spirits of artists like De Chirico.

The fact is that everyone was influencing everyone else.

Of course there were De Chirico’s particular props – his mannequins, his towers, etc. Those props undoubtedly had an influence, and in fact the best part of this show is when you stop looking at De Chirico and turn your attention to two artists whose names are barely known at all, but certainly deserve to be. Those names are Pierre Roy (b.1880), who was a nephew of Jules Verne, and a Swiss German called Niklaus Stoecklin (b.1896). Stoecklin and Roy are the stars of this show, and the message they sing out is this: that around this time the way objects were painted seemed to suggest they had taken on a strange life of their own. Although they may have been painted side by side, objects look set apart from each other as if they are intent on dreaming their own dreams. Is this Surrealism? Is this ‘magic realism’ (a term coined by a German critic in 1925), or is this a result of being influenced by the ‘metaphysical’ style of De Chirico? We don’t care what it’s called. All we can see is that it is happening.

So in a wonderful, formally rigorous – almost academically rigorous - painting by Niklaus Stoecklin called ‘Games of Dominoes’ (1928), we see a game in progress. The pieces are set upright, facing each other. The empty wooden box from which the pieces were extracted yawns open like a catafalque. There are no players. Stoecklin was in the habit of making his own frames, and this one is particularly disturbing: the inner frame is gilded, cheerfully glistering; and the outer is black, funereal in mood. There are no players. But the game must go on. De Chirico, Max Ernst, Magritte, Balthus - A Look into the Invisible Palazzo Strozzi, Florence until 18 July

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Lucian Freud at the Centre Pompidou, Paris

Yes, it cannot be denied. There has been something problematical about Lucian Freud and the French public, Cécile Debray, the Pompidou’s curator of the first major survey of Freud’s work in Paris for almost a quarter of a century, tells me over Steack a la Sauce Bearnaise in the Pompidou’s sixth-floor Restaurant Georges, giving me her most winning smile. Freud was last exhibited here at the Pompidou in 1987, during the dog days of summer. The show wasn’t well attended. Such attention as it received was quite dismissive: one critic called it a species of kitsch.

Cécile finds it quite difficult to describe what the problem was - perhaps she is already tired of talking to mere journalists – but it has something to do with the fact that, for a long time, the French thought that he was practising an art whose time had come and gone: he was a figurative painter, practising the ancient art of portraiture. Why wasn’t this man into abstraction and conceptualism like almost all the rest? Why did he choose not to benefit by the lessons of Abstract Expressionism? Why did he have to persist in being a cussed, independent-minded individualist? Why had he chosen to leave modernity behind?

And so, unfortunately for the French, by that moment in 2008 when Freud became the world’s most expensive and collectible living painter, they seemed profoundly out of step with the rest of the world. French collectors had shown practically no interest in his work, and the Pompidou itself owned just one small painting, dating from the 1940s. And now, even if they wanted to buy them, they couldn’t possibly afford to…

Now, of course, he cannot afford not to be accommodated. And yet, and yet… even today, I feel, as I walk around this themed show of Freud’s work situated elsewhere on the 6th floor of the Pompidou Centre, there is still something about the way it is presented which is seeking to intellectualise him in order to make the French public understand quite why they should be taking him so seriously. To intellectualise is to give status, credibility. That is the Pompidou’s gift to Freud. Yes, the French must have him on their own terms – and these are not quite the terms of the painter himself.

The exhibition consists of 55 works, spread across four galleries, which means that it is about one third of the size of the great Tate retrospective of 2003, and it has a theme: Freud and the Studio. The walls are two shades of grey, as is the floor. Visual austerity is the key to seriousness. As in the Giacometti retrospective of 2004, Freud is critically appraised in relation to his various studios, the crucible of his creations. The studio is a limiting, a framing space, behind closed doors, in which performances take place involving painter and that with which he chooses to surround himself – objects, plants, human flesh. The studio is a ‘metaphor’ for painting, not a real place with paint-smeared walls, heaps of old rags, a half-bust divan bed, and a tap drip-dripping into an old butler’s sink.

So this approach is both stimulating and limiting. It means that there are paintings here which are not first-rate. They’re here to illustrate a theme - or a sub-theme within that overarching theme of the studio. And there are others which fit oddly with that theme. Here is the argument of the exhibition. Freud is not first and foremost a figurative painter, feeling his way forward, doing what he feels compelled to do, by his gifts and his temperament. He is, above all things else, a painter who is reflecting upon the nature of figurative painting by painting figuratively. That is the great distinction here: he is reflexive. He is, in short, intellectualising as he works. If he were not, the charge of being an old-fashioned portrait painter could be levelled at him. And that charge needs to be avoided at all costs. If that happened, the French public would continue to disdain him, and the show would bomb. So it is simply not true that he merely belongs in a certain tradition. He is interrogating that tradition, testing the limits of is validity.

Now anyone who has read the few searching interviews that Freud has ever given knows that this doesn’t not quite square with the character or his working methods. This is not to say that Freud is not immensely thoughtful or that he has not spent much of his life looking long and hard at paintings – his own and other people’s. It is to say that he is not a conceptualist. He does not deal in ideas which then transform themselves, as if by some miracle, into paintings. At his best, he deals in the stink, the feel, the sheer immediacy of human flesh, the nowness of our brutish presences on earth. The Pompidou slightly begs to differ.

But the problem is a little more general than that. The trouble with Freud is that his spirit does not like to be pinioned. He is the arch-individualist. He is not easily compartmentalised. In fact, he is almost legendary for daring to be himself, quite uncompromisingly. In the past this has included fist fights, and roaring through the night with Francis and Muriel at the Colony. So when we read in one of the gallery’s extended wall texts that so and so forms part of what has become part of the evolution of an entire oeuvre, that word so beloved of the French, it strikes the wrong note altogether. Freud has never thought in those terms. His work may have evolved, but he would be the first to admit that there have been many significant failures, paintings that deserve to be forgotten. An oeuvre doesn’t make space for failure. It believes in a monumental totality. By conceptualising in this way, the account slightly falsifies. It also falsely aggrandises.

In the third of the galleries, Freud revisits the classics – which means Freud’s re-workings of paintings or motifs by Chardin, Cézanne and Constable. The Chardins are wonderful, the large reprise of the Cézanne is not. It is awkward and unresolved. The greatest of Freud’s re-imaginings of the classics, a large figure group after Watteau called ‘Large Interior W11’ (1981-1983), is not present at all – in spite of the fact that it should have been here because it figures prominently in the catalogue. We feel, once again, that the sub-theme is here to prove that Freud does not work intuitively, day by day, investing every precious moment. He is forever standing back and positioning himself, not only in relation to other painters, but in relation to other ideas about painting. This was never really true of Freud – and it is still not quite true of this man of 88, who continues to paint, when he can, with a kind of manic urgency. The fact is that he doesn’t like his own past, not all that much. As with any true maker, writer or artist, he lives and breathes for the unfolding riches of the present moment, for what he will achieve, not for what he has achieved.

Just one of the four galleries is an unqualified success, and that is the fourth gallery, which gives itself over to large-scale paintings of the most abundantly fleshy of Freud’s sitters. Here are figures in poses of total abandonment, Leigh Bowery from the front and from behind, or that gloriously fleshily abundant portrait of Sue Tilley, ‘Benefits Supervisor Sleeping’ (1995), cheek squashed up against the end of the sofa, breasts like great donging bells, which sold for $33 million in 2008. They sprawl, they wallow, about the picture space in states of extreme lassitude. No bed, no sofa is big enough to contain these bodies. The flesh looks so dense, so animal. Nothing seems to be in movement; time stands still. Flesh is nothing but dead weight. There is no refinement of any kind and no posing here. This looks like flesh felled in the way that a great tree is felled. These are not pre-arranged compositions. They are paintings which have emerged into being over time – sometimes the making process can be quite considerable - without any preparatory drawing whatsoever. Freud begins at the centre and works his way out towards the periphery. If it so happens that the composition is moving in the direction of an awkward shape, an extra bits gets added on. Paintings will prove to be what they prove to be. Freud’s job is to keep at it. As he said quite recently, ‘I want to go on until there’s nothing more to see.’ Atta boy.

Lucian Freud is at the Centre Pompidou, Paris, until 19 July

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Kingdom of Ife - Sculptures from West Africa, The Independent, London

There are so many Africas, and so many arts of Africa. Picasso and Matisse thought they had hit on the essence of Africa during the first decade of the twentieth century. The African masks and sculpture that influenced such works as Les Demoiselles D’Avignon (1909) seemed to be the very embodiment of a youngish Spaniard’s priapic idea of the primitive: wonderfully, savagely stylized; bursting with a toe-curlingly alien erotic charge. How patronizing of Picasso to think that that’s what African art amounted to. Well, perhaps that’s a little unfair. The point was that Picasso, ever grasping, ever restless, was seeking out new ways of representing the female body.

Yes, anthropologists quickly began to prove that Picasso was either wrong or telling just one tiny part of an immensely complicated story. In 1910, the first major excavations took place at Ife, a site in what is now south-western Nigeria, not too far from Lagos. (The walled city-state of Ife, legendary homeland of the Yoruba, flourished for three hundred years, from about 1,100-1,400 AD). Thirty years later, in 1940, another great cull of objects from the same site hit the headlines again: ‘Worthy to rank with finest works of Greece and Italy,’ shrilled the Illustrated London News.

Many of the works that those anthropologists found are now on display in this major show of north-west African sculpture, and the works here do indeed lend credence to that headline writer’s claim. At the same historical moment that Andrea del Verrochio was doing his wonderfully painstaking, high-Renaissance drawing of a female head which can be seen elsewhere in this building, anonymous artisans in Ife were working with brass, bronze - yes, these Africans knew all about bronze casting long before the Europeans arrived to show them how - copper and terracotta to produce a series of exquisite heads that are not only the equal of Donatello in technical brilliance, but also just as naturalistic in their refinement. So much for African primitivism.

There is much more to see than heads, mere heads, in this show, of course - there is a gorgeous stone representations of a mud fish, lying so slyly low on its rather proper-looking maroon plinth (granite body; menacingly plug-like, iron eyes) and the scaly crocodile; there are intimidatingly indomitable monoliths from sacred groves; there are extraordinary terracotta sculptures of bodies disfigured by ricketts and elephantiasis (look out for the hugely swollen testicles); and there is also a wonderful top of a staff, which shows the heads of two male criminals, back to back, one young, the other old, their mouths gagged with rope to prevent them cursing their fate – but it is to the heads that we return, again and again. Such is their extraordinary visual seductiveness.

A typical Ife head is life-size. The expression is harmonious and beautifully serene, the surface extremely smooth, cheek bones often quite prominent, lips full, neck long. The face is likely to have vertical striations. The head may be adorned with a tiered head-dress or a delicate pill box hat, built up in concentric rings, simulating woven basketry. The abdomen is likely to be adorned with swags of beads. If a king is being represented, look out for rosettes, a beaded crown.

What were these heads for? we ask ourselves repeatedly. Were they memorials? Did they beautify altars? Were they made for coronation ceremonies? One of the most exquisite is described as the copper mask of Obdufon II, who was the Ife’s third king. In spite of the fact that it weighs in at five kilos, the mask was actually made to be worn by some long suffering devil – surely not the king himself. Below the eyes you can see small, crescent-shaped slits – the wearer would have been able to see through these slits. What marvels he would have seen – nothing quite so marvellous as himself though.

Kingdom of Ife – Sculptures from West Africa British Museum 4 March- 6 June

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Paula Rego, Mat Collishaw and Tracey Emin at the Foundling Museum London - The Independent

The Foundling Hospital in Bloomsbury was created in the 18th Century by a venturesome sea captain and shipwright called Captain Thomas Coram. It existed to alleviate the appalling suffering of the many wretched foundlings who were abandoned on the streets of London. Captain Coram’s hospital took some of them in – alas, not all of them by any means. The great hospital itself was swept away in the 1930s, but there is still a Coram Foundation devoted to the needs of deprived children, and a glorious open space where the hospital once stood called Coram’s Fields. One of the most entertaining public notices to be read in the whole of London is displayed at its entrance. This is not a public park, it reads. No adult is to enter unless accompanied by a child. We critics sometimes feel that way about exhibitions of contemporary art, that the sanity of a small child might help to refresh our eye.

And then, right at the back of Coram’s Fields and the little public park which abuts it, there is the Foundling Museum, first created in the 1930s – as a penance perhaps for having wantonly destroyed that finer hospital. It is in this building that Coram and his achievements as an exemplary philanthropist are memorialized. Here is panelling from one of the great hospital’s rooms, a replica of its picture gallery (complete with pictures), and many of the fine paintings and objects that were donated by teems of benefactors, which included Handel, Hogarth and many others. There is even a Handel Room on the top floor, which contains manuscripts, his books, and other fascinating memorabilia.

For the next couple of months three contemporary artists have joined the ongoing conversation here about the plight of children by displaying sympathetic works in various parts of the building. And even outside the building. It is often quite difficult to find their contributions. In fact, it proves to be a game of hide and seek, which is sometimes interesting and at other times exasperating. As you walk up the steps of the building, you spot the first artwork – Tracey Emin’s tiny bronze cast of a baby’s sock, painted a suitably grubby pink, and folded back as if about to be slipped onto a tender foot. The morning I visited, the sock itself was partially overshadowed by a bullying leaf.

The single most arresting intervention is Paula Rego’s huge ‘Oratoria’, which sits on the first landing, opposite a bench from which you can sit and contemplate its shockingly arresting display of miseries and horrors. ‘Ugh, scary!’ says a teacher as she hurriedly pushes past me, pulling at the arm of a small child. I couldn’t agree more. This is a huge tableau, with opening wings. Painted, papier-mache figures, life-size and tricked out in 18th Century Foundling Hospital costumes, sit and loll around at its centre; paintings rise up at their back, and on its opening wings. It is just like something tiny grown nightmarishly large. An emaciated, puppet-like child hangs over the knees of a black nurse like some grotesque pieta. The figures have over-large heads; they have a demonic fairy-tale quality about them in common with so much of the work of Paula Rego.

In another room, amidst venerable portraits of beaming male benefactors, a rack of baby clothes, courtesy of Tracey Emin, waits patiently for a baby. Mat Collishaw’s ‘Children of a Lesser God,’ a giant, wall-mounted transparency blown up to the size of a portrait of an eminent benefactor, makes the flesh creep. Two ferocious looking wolfish dogs, surrounded by scraps of torn animal skin and animal offal, seem to be protecting two naked young babes inside a wire compound. ‘An image of paternal strength and pride,’ reads the exhibition guide. Hmm.

Friday, 19 February 2010

Irving Penn at the National Portrait Gallery - The Independent, London

He is the only man here without a face. That is the first thought that strikes you as you are about to leave this extensive, 70-year-spanning retrospective of photographic portraiture by the late Irving Penn, one of the great American innovators of our time, at the National Portrait Gallery. We’ve seen Dietrich, Duke Ellington, Giacometti, Stravinsky, Nureyev, Nicole Kidman, Woody Allen tricked out to look like Charlie Chaplin and, last but not least, the swashbuckling portrait of Julian Schnabel which Penn took in 2007, not long before his death. But where, amidst all these artists, movie stars, painters, writers, musicians and ballerinas, is Penn himself? There is not a single image of him in this show. The photographer whose image – by Penn - we do see and remember here is that of his contemporary Cecil Beaton, the flamboyant society photographer, looking as loud, elegant, and wispily charmlessly charming as ever.

Penn’s tactics as a photographer could scarcely have been more different from Beaton’s. In the world of Beaton, Beaton himself was a large and raucous part of the glamorous society story he was telling. He was amongst the glamorous beauties he was offering up to the world on a sugary platter. Penn was never that sort of a man. He was gentle by nature, as self-effacing as his Rolleiflex, someone who preferred to notice rather than be part of what was noticed. And that is the reason for his greatness as a photographer.

Penn’s story begins in the 1930s, and it opens in spareness, austerity, a skilful use of economy of means, traits that would be forever associated with the Penn portrait. Pared back to their essentials, that is how Penn’s subjects always look when they are photographed in his studio. The studio setting itself is usually pared back too. There’s almost a sense of visual drought. Everything is in monochrome, from first to last. The walls look a drab, hazy, pocky grey; the floors have bits of threads adhering to them. You can occasionally glimpse a strew of cigarette butts or some rubble. The lighting is never fussy or stagey or glarey. It is either daylight or simulated daylight. There are scarcely any props. Rather than using a table for his sitters to sit at – tables of a certain kind do incline towards the distinctive, especially tables with fussy detailing – he would throw a length of carpet over a plinth, and let his subjects lean or lounge against it, or settle into it like swimmers beached amongst the waves. Or he would take a couple of theatre flats and enclose his sitters within them, as if they are being squeezed by two enclosing walls. So there is no glamour about the context, no baroque extravagance, nothing to distract from the matter in hand, which is, from beginning to end: dissection of character.

This intense focus upon the subject includes a minute degree of attention to the least little gesture – a movement of the hand, an inclination of the head. How hands work with faces is an enduring interest from first to last, how the hand is used to conceal or to lend gravity to a face. It is these things that we tend to remember about a Penn portrait; it is these tiny details which make them especially memorable, the way in which Peter Ustinov clutches his chin, or Le Corbusier his temple. And these small things seem to yield up a great deal. An entire characterization is gifted to us by the way in which Truman Capote is oddly hunched inside these two flats. Time and again, Penn seems to have captured character on the wing, unstudiedly, unlabouredly, as if the hidden inside of the human has, all of a sudden, become visible to the naked eye. Some of his subjects even look like more exaggerated and over-emphatic versions of themselves – see a portrait here of Duke Ellington for example, taken in 1971. If it were not a photographic image, you might be inclined to accuse it of being a bit of mischievous caricature.

The very first portrait in the show is an image of the painter Giorgio de Chirico, taken at the foot of the Spanish Steps in Rome in 1936. The young Penn had never met the man, but he knew what he looked like. And de Chirico allowed himself to be photographed by this eager, near-idolatrous stranger. The portrait is a marvel because of its humour – although Penn had a great capacity for humour, it was a weapon he used sparingly. De Chirico’s head seems to be enveloped in a wreath of leaves, as if he is a force of nature. Or perhaps he is wearing the laurel crown. Or he may be in the throes of being metamorphosed into a tree – as Daphne once was by Ovid – but this time by the magic of the photographer himself…All these possibilities are held in delightful and affectionate balance. As Penn once said: ‘We don’t shoot people…It’s really a love affair.’

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Gillian Ayres at 80 Alan Cristea Gallery - The Independent, London 9 February 2010

Late flowerings – that rage against the imminent dying of the light – are not especially unusual. Titian painted into his 80s; W.B. Yeats, late in his 70s, wrote, in the final stanza of a late great poem, of nymphs and satyrs copulating in the foam. John Cowper Powys wrote the finest of his huge novels during his 70s. Call it, if you like, a kind of manic exuberance before the shutters come down.

And so it is with Gillian Ayres, who suffered a terrible loss when many of her paintings of the 1980s were consumed in the MoMart warehouse fire in east London five years ago. It took her a long time to recover from what must have felt like a species of bereavement. Paintings, unlike poems, cannot be replicated. But now she is back, with a show which fills two large gallery spaces on Cork Street, and leaves you feeling almost giddy with pleasure.

Abstract painting is not much of a muchness, though many who are not especially over-fond of it are inclined to think so. It comes in many varieties, though, in essence, the kinds boil down to two: the austere and the not so austere. There is the abstraction which looks to geometry as the ground of its being. It feels austere, severe, as if, finally, it is the distillation of something neatly cerebral. It barely notices that it has been born out in a world of sweat and tears and fleshiness. The Constructivists were such artists. We don’t cry for joy when we see their work. We don’t readily embrace it as if we had reached harvest home. We stand back, rub our chins, and immensely admire it.

And then there are the abstract painters who are most of all in love with the tangibility of the world they observe and encounter every day of their lives. Their paintings are about a sudden, almost brutish coming-up-against the world, day after day. They make a kind of rich brew of all the world’s manifold ingredients - its sights, its sounds, its colours – and then they serve it up for our delectation. Gillian Ayres is this kind of an abstract painter.

Gillian Ayres doesn’t give titles to her paintings. She leaves that to her friends. Extract a few words, almost at random from these titles, and you have captured the mood of the work: flight, sparks, song, jumping, flying, shouts. The paintings are full of gorgeous colour and movement, swoopings, turnings, gliding, pirouettings. There are flame-like torsions. Movements feel arrested in full flight. They remind us in their crisply edged forms of the natural world - glancingly, you might say. A hint of a moon or a fan or a starfish or a jellyfish. For the most part, colours tend not to overlap or to merge. Patches of colour are discretely defined. Each colour feels like a strident statement of intent. Many of the paintings are grounded in a nocturnal blue, but it is a blue of cheerful, questing reverie, not a Munch-like blue of gloom and anxiety. Two forms are often set in juxtaposition – the upright, flower-like chalice on a stem, and a more yielding, limp-leaf-like presence beside it.

The title of one painting in particular, ‘The Seeds that Woke the Clay’, seems to best sum things up. That title has an almost biblical resonance, and the work too feels biblical in its distant roots. The forms seem to be erupting into a new kind of life, the kind of life which only this painting, this moment of worming, squirming witness, has managed to define. And here you have it again, in the shapes, a thrusting up into life, and a wilting, a dying, away, the two side by side, as if the artist is saying: this is the whole human gamut, like it or not. This is all there is. And, my good, it’s more than enough.

Friday, 5 February 2010

Giacometti's Walking Man hits £65 million at Sotheby's - The Independent, London

It is not in the least surprising that a figure of a walking man by Alberto Giacometti should have broken all auction records for a work of 20th century art at Sotheby’s. Giacometti, though diminutive in scale himself, was one of the giants of 20th-century art. It was just a matter of time before the collectors noticed.

Giacometti worked in a variety of mediums - he painted, he sculpted, he drew, he wrote texts - at the tiny, austere studio in Montparnasse which he occupied for almost forty years, from 1926 onwards. But it was for sculptures such as this one that he will be most deservedly remembered. The fact is that these ghostly, over-stretched, attenuated figures, which seem like spectral essences of themselves, haunt the mind and the memory. The sculptures look fragile and lonely, as if they are operating on the extreme outer edge of themselves where only the coldest of cold winds blow. They lack the fuss and the essential sociability of detail. They look stony and bleak in their pared-backness. It is as if Giacometti has boiled man down to his godless essence – yes, don’t forget that he was at his most productive when Existentialism was at its most fashionable in the French capital, that lonely, bleak philosophy which tells us that there is nothing beyond the self which we choose to invent, day in, day out. There is no essence, and no spiritual being to rescue us, this walking man seems to be muttering. This kind of bleakness imbues Giacometti’s work from first to last. It represents a long, hard pitiless stare into the emptiness of all human life, a distillation of what it is to be a human being, now or then. All we can do is to walk and to keep on walking, ever restless, ever unsatisfied, hand in hand with Samuel Beckett.

And yet there is also an amusing paradox at the heart of all this. Giacometti was also gifted with a touch of worldly calculation. He would not have been entirely displeased, we feel, by what has just happened at Sotheby’s. He carefully cultivated the legend of his ruthlessly focused, monastic life from first to last. That hirsute appearance, that leaden, repitilian eye, were photographed by some of the world’s greatest photographers – Irving Penn, Robert Doisneau, Karsh. Were he being photographed today, he might even hazard a small smile of satisfaction.

Friday, 22 January 2010

Chris Ofili at Tate Modern The Independent, London, 22 January 2010

Many artists and writers have made bold attempts to define the nature of modernity, and have rashly speculated upon the possible date of its inception. The novelist Virginia Woolf, for example, once famously wrote that human character changed in 1911. Her statement was an apology for writers such as herself, of course, who were beginning to re-define the nature of the reality that they themselves were experiencing by writing about it, in wholly unfamiliar ways, in fiction and poetry.

The painter Chris Ofili has had to rise to quite a different challenge. It too concerns the nature of modernity, and how he represents it now, but it is one which would never have occurred to the likes of Virginia Woolf, immured as she was in her white, middle-class, Bloomsbury fastness. Her notion of A Room of One’s Own (the title of one of her greatest books) would probably not have encompassed the possibility of having the likes of Chris Ofili as her next-door neighbour.

As a black man born in Manchester and now living in Trinidad, half a world away from the endless machinations of the London art world and London’s art dealers, how has Ofili defined his own experience of being alive, and succeeded in establishing his own black cultural identity through his art? These are the most important issues in Ofili’s art, and they are ones which he has wrestled with from the very beginning. This major retrospective at Tate Britain will give us an opportunity to judge for ourselves to what extent he has succeeded in becoming anyone other than a stranger to himself.

First of all, let us ask a simple question: when did modern Brit art first begin? For the sake of argument, let’s fix that date at 18 September 1997. That was the day on which the ‘Sensations’ show opened at the Royal Academy in London. The exhibition caused near universal outrage. On display were works with which the names of the artists would forever be identified. There was Damien Hirst’s shark, Tracey Emin’s tent, Marcus Harvey’s ‘Myra Hindley’ and the Chapman Brothers’ lurid, tasteless re-creation in three dimensions of a Goya etching of corpses draped over a blasted tree. And then, a little off to the side, almost unassumingly so, there was a glitzily colourful painting of a black Virgin Mary, leaning against a wall, and supported on little globs of elephant dung, by a young artist called Chris Ofili.

When the exhibition then travelled on to the Brooklyn Museum in New York, it was Ofili’s work which was singled out for the most vehement condemnation. The Archbishop of New York, Cardinal John O’Connor, decided that it was probably an attack upon religion itself. Could that really be true? The work, when you come to look at it now, seems too joyously decorative, to be carelessly revelling too much in its own visual splendour to be grimly pigeon-holed as some godless man’s act of wanton provocation. On the other hand, the devil is often in the detail, and when you examined it closely enough, it was very easy to spot the tiny illustrations of female genitalia clipped from porn mag…

Some of Ofili’s most interesting early works had already been painted by the time the Sensations show opened. The first of his ‘Captain Shit’ paintings, in which he introduced a character who looked like a crazed, sinister Lord of Misrule – part drug dealer, part savant, part reggae gangster - dates from 1996. In this series of paintings Ofili is already trying to seek out ways of defining his own identity as a young black artist from Manchester. The answer, then and for many years to come, was to present himself as a provocative shape-shifter, as an artist who both seemed to be defining notions of ‘Afro-Beauty’, but also somewhat standing back from them. Playing with them and perhaps even caricaturing them to a degree.

The question is this: how does an artist with Ofili’s background avoid the feeling that he is somehow fated to define ‘the black experience’ (whatever that is), and to be always regarded as ‘the Voodoo King, the Voodoo Queen, the witch doctor, the drug dealer, the magicien de la terre, the exotic’, as he once put it? One way was to treat all human experience as a kind of great lumber room to be plundered, to let everything in willy nilly, the sacred hand in hand with the profane. The world is just one giant, teeming department store asking to be looted. ‘I always think of the work as coming out of hip-hop culture, which is an approach to making and looking at things with no hierarchy. Everything just gets everything.’

In 1998, Ofili snatched the Turner Prize. Outrage once again, with accusations of political correctness, sophisticated headlines from the red-tops such as ‘dung great’, and random references to ‘damned dots and spots’, mind-numbing triumphs of idiot industry, concentrated tedium, etc, etc.. By now the Ofili style was becoming quite recognisable. It consisted of intensely worked and layered surfaces which made use of a variety of different materials - from glitter pins to paint and collaged images - and, within the intensive discipline of all that careful making, a spirit of almost riotous abandon, in the course of which Ofili seemed to be snatching images from all kinds of sources, and then gorgeously smothering all that image-making in layers of resin.

But that elephant dung was proving to be a problem. It was too silly and too memorable, in part, too easy a thing to be known and caricatured by. Ofili should have stopped using it years ago. It was too steamily redolent of what the white-middle class audience would pigeon-hole as symptomatic of the colourful – which, ultimately, means ridiculous - exoticism of the non-white.

Four years later, Ofili showed a room-sized installation called ‘The Last Supper’ at the Victoria Miro Gallery in East London, which was later to be purchased by, and then installed, at Tate Britain to howls of controversy. Why? Because Ofili was by then an establishment man himself; in fact, he was a trustee of the very gallery which had bought his own work. Was that quite right and proper? Well, the work hasn’t been hasn’t shipped back to Wharf Road, and it will be on show at his Tate Britain retrospective later this month.

‘The Last Room’ is a quasi-religious, sacred and profane spectacle, from first to last. Ranged down the sides of the rooms, as if in procession, are giant, glittering paintings of rhesus monkeys, winking, glittering back at you. They look – such is the cunning with which the light sources have been embedded – as if they are iluminated from within. And then, at the far end, there is a far more indistinct image, of yet another monkey. The sheer spectacle of it all, the spacing, the pacing, together with the enveloping darkness, instil a mood of reverence. But why are we feeling reverence? Because this room has all the trappings of religiosity. And if we don’t see any Christian iconography here, what about the monkeys? Isn’t the monkey god Hanuman sacred to the Hindus?

Once again, there is a strange ambivalence at work here. How does the artist expect us to respond to this piece? Is this an example of spirituality-lite - or not? Are we to take it seriously? Or is he off on some gorgeous decorative riff of his own? This may be a fatal weakness at the heart of much of Ofili’s early work, that he didn’t really know whether he should be taking himself and his work seriously, and he instilled this mood of uncertainty in his audiences. In short, he often came across as an artist who was playing vaudeville with his own identity.

The installation at the Tate was created by David Adjaye, the architect who also re-fashioned the interior of the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2003, the year that Ofili was Britain’s official representative there – accolades were being heaped upon accolades.

Once again, things were very stagey. The fairly predictable, neo-classical interior was completely obliterated. Looking up at the ceiling, you saw strange, threatening jaggings of glass, which looked like weird references to exotic vegetation. You turned small, sharp corners, almost groping your way around a space that felt labyrinthine, hot, oppressive – and yet, thanks to the nature of the works on the walls, unexpectedly carnivalesque too. Where exactly where we? It didn’t seem to matter all that much. The works themselves were from the Afro series. They showed beautiful black lovers against a flat red ground smooching in lush, paradisal settings. Some were naked, others got up for a night of hot squeezes at the cabaret. It felt a bit like a whoozy Garden of Eden of the mind. A garden of Eden fabricated in London, where Ofili was them living, we need to remind ourselves.

Once again, these works seemed to be at odds with themselves, and at odds with the environment within which they were being displayed. They were pretending to be both serious and unserious simultaneously. What was the truth behind all this extravagant posturing? Or was the extravagant posturing as much the truth as anyone could know – even the artist himself?

Now much of that has changed. Ofili decamped to Trinidad four years ago, and his paintings have changed too – both in their subject matter, and in their manner of making. We need to joke no longer about elephant dung because the elephant dung has gone. Thank god. (Thank Hanuman?) They are no longer so layered or so labour-intensive. Now there are even moments when the canvases are left blank and unpainted. In the past Ofili showed us paradisal gardens of the mind. He seemed to be swimming amongst images, snatching them from the air. The were in service to a gorgeous kind of pattern-making. Now things have changed. He is working in relative isolation at last, far from any clamouring metropolis. He is, in part, recording his own raw experience of the nature that surrounds him. Yes, that is the word for the tenor of some of these recent paintings: rawness.

A new openness. A new and more immediate receptivity. And a new rawness. In short, a new absence of superficial, pop-culture lumber.

What exactly are these recent paintings like? Many of them are starker and simpler than we have been accustomed to. They often use fewer colours. They are less elaborate in their making. They are not so fussy in their details. Colours don’t jump and jive together to the same extent. They stand apart from each other, making their own individual marks…

In the past there has always been the feeling, behind all the labour, and all that immaculate layering, that the work was perhaps just a little too mannered, a little too muffled in its dense detailing, even a little too facile. What exactly does facile mean in this context? It means that Ofili seemed to be working from the surface of himself, that, too closely watched by dealers, buyers and museums from too young an age, he had not had the time or the space to dig more deeply into himself, and discover exactly who he was, who he is, who exactly he will become. ‘It got to a point where I felt the work was really known in a public sense, that the division between public and private was like a thin membrane,’ he said in Trinidad recently. ‘And I didn’t feel that gave me a greater sense of freedom. The public is not within my control, but the work is, and I wanted to make changes within the work. That couldn’t happen in an arena that was familiar to me.’

Yes, now that much of that bustle and bother has fallen away, we can see more clearly the nature and the extent of the talent he has been gifted with. Now he can perhaps contemplate the nature of his own blackness without being regarded as a precious, token talent who can dance, at any hour, for the delectation of the art world.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Art and Illusions: masterpieces of trompe l’oeil from antiquity to the present day - The Independent, London

Every work of art contains a calculated element of deception. But the art of trompe l’oeil pushes deception to new extremes. It is flagrant, almost hubristic, in its wish to deceive, like some conjuror whose final hand is a risky act of sheer bravura at which he simply cannot afford to fail. Trompe l’oeil, in short, is optical illusionism overlarded with attention-grabbing special effects.

This big show, staged in a sixteenth century palazzo in Florence, tells the story of trompe l’oeil down the centuries, from the Roman times to our own day. It is a stagily staged show about an art of pure staginess. As we pass from gallery to gallery - these are often false galleries set within larger galleries - we find ourselves twisting, turning about, doubling back on ourselves, wondering whether at some point we will meet ourselves, perplexed, coming back. The gallery entrances are often tricked out to resemble picture frames. One long corridor looks like the three-dimensional re-enactment of a particularly effective piece of trompe l’oeil. Many of the paintings hang in recessed spaces, as if the framed object is being framed by the gallery itself.

The works themselves – the greater part of them are paintings, but there are also books, medical specimens, sculptures, fabrics, decorative wall tiles and much else – are often quite small, and very often they look smaller still because of their fussy attention to detail. What is more, the paintings often show us objects which are comfortably familiar, relatively unchallenging in their predictability. A game bird hanging from a hook. A vase of begonias. There are too many game birds reeking, upside down, in this show. We get a little tired of seeing them. There are also works in this show which should not have been here at all – these medical specimens from the 18th century, for example. What have they to do with trompe l’oeil?

The show’s most interesting works are by Americans, and especially the paintings of a little known artist called Otis Kaye, who died in 1974. The subject matter of Kaye’s works is American money, the greenback, pinned to a board, hanging by a thread, tangible enough to be snatched at. Given the illusory nature of money, and what an act of deception it often proves to be, it is perhaps not at all surprising that trompe l’oeil should be employed to show it off at its slippery best. So real. So trickily unreal.

Art and Illusions: masterpieces of trompe l’oeil from antiquity from antiquity to the present day Palazzo Strozzi, Florence until 24 January 2010

Ellsworth Kelly – Early Drawings, 1954-62 The Independent 11 January 2010

Middlesborough is quite a slow, grinding hike up England's East Coast Line at this miserably inclement time of year. The snow just never seems to stop flurrying against the carriage window. So think of your visit to see this fairly small, and very unusual, show of works by an American modern master of abstraction as a kind of new year pilgrimage.

Ellsworth Kelly is one of the most significant figures in the development of post-war American abstract painting. When the words America and abstraction are uttered together, you immediately think of Abstract Expressionism, that muscular, groundbreaking style of painting on the grand scale with which we associate the names of Motherwell, Pollock and Rothko. Kelly, though he began painting when Abstract Expressionism was helping to define New York as the new capital of world art, is not exactly a member of that school – in fact, he is not really a pupil or teacher of any school.

Consider the works in this show, for example. These are all drawings from the 1950s - in gouache, graphite, ink and pencil - when Kelly had a New York studio. But they don’t feel like the kind of works that would come out of a New York studio during the years when Abstract Expressionism was on its triumphal march. They are too fanciful, too quiet, too intimate, too sunny, too soft, too curvaceous, too engaged with the outside world, and too modest in size. Not a single one of them is more than one foot square. They don’t pressurise the onlooker, they don’t pose, they don’t posture. There is no wilfully aggressive brushwork, and in fact no sign of texture at all. They occupy a single, well-lit gallery on the first floor of the building, quite baggily too, as if to say: this is all there is, and it is quite enough. They are also very short on American machismo. Why do they feel so set apart when in fact he was in the midst of it all?

Because it was in 1954 – the year of the first of the 25 drawings in this show, which span almost a decade - that Kelly came back from eight years of living in Paris, where, having profited by the provisions of the GI Bill to study in Europe after the end of the Second World War, he had been learning to be an artist by looking at the likes of Matisse, Arp, Brancusi, Calder Picasso and others, and travelling around and visiting the great cathedrals and momuments of France. (Kelly served in a camouflage unit during the Second World War which, you could say, was also quite a good preparation for a career as an artist.) So when you look at a drawing in this show called ‘Study for a Palisade,’ and wonder why this specific combination of colours, and the particular way in which they are working together, remind you of the clerical robes that Matisse designed and had made for the chapel of St Paul de Vence at the beginning of the 1950s, you would be spot on. You will also notice that there seems to be the feel of European – perhaps even Mediterranean - light in these drawings. Yes, they feel European, tonally. What is also interesting to note is how different these works are in mood from the younger abstract artists from the USA who were so recently on view at the Saatchi Gallery in London. In the world of the young, everything is coming at you all the time. By comparison, Kelly seems to be moving at walking pace, as if plucking berries, one by one, from a bush. The choice is always his. He is not at the mercy of imagery.

In these works Kelly is teaching himself about colour, form and line. What happens when you put that particular blue against this particular green? What happens when a circular shape is squeezed or cropped by a rectangle, or when a bulgy black circle gets its edges shaved off? How close should a shape come to one that you half-recognise from the natural world – or to a shape that you glimpse down a microscope? What kind of sensuous energy does that inject? There is an ongoing tension between the shapes and how they are framed – straight line butting up against curve like a bull snorting at a gate.

These works may be called drawings, but they are often exercises in patchings and matchings of colour. The colours chime and rhyme melodically, sensuously; they seem to swim into almost effortless conjunctions with each other as if they have been feeling their way for quite a long time. There is patterning, but not patterning with the regularity of Frank Stella’s paintings of the 1960s. Kelly’s regularities always prove to be slightly wayward, slightly awkward, slightly irregular. And that makes you smile. They have a fluid, pared back shapeliness, a yielding sensuousness, about them. There is no spectacular trickery here, just attempts, time and again, to establish how a form establishes an identity for itself within a confined space. These works don’t have the sombreness, the anxious, Freud-oppressed, self-regarding sobriety of works by those Abstract Expressionists. In short, they lack onanism and braggadocio. In fact, they point the way forward to that jolly trickster, Robert Rauschenberg. And as you stare at them, you come to understand why Kelly kept them by him, why he needed to have them with him. These drawings helped to define his future as a painter. They are small-scale maps for ambitious future journeys. Yes, they are almost ready to be scaled up to ten times this size.

Why is this show of hitherto unseen drawings - yes, this is the very fist time in fifty years that they have left his studio as a group, and gone on international exhibition - by an artist in his eighty-sixth year who lives these days in Spencertown, Upstate New York here anyway? It’s not going anywhere else after this showing – except straight back to the artist’s studio. Which is where it came from in the first place. These are all works from Kelly’s private collection, stuff that he has kept by him for the past half century to learn lessons from; lessons in what to do next, and how.

And why are they being displayed here at MiMa in Middlesborough? Well, since it first opened its doors three years ago, MiMa has been establishing quite a track record as a place to go if you take drawing seriously. So this show of what you might describe as a series of small prototypes - in pen, charcoal, pencil, gouache and graphite - for a lifetime of paintings is a natural extension of what has gone before.

But Ellswothy Kelly won’t have all of them back. MiMa was recently given a grant of £1 million from the Art Fund to acquire works on paper, and Kelly agreed to sell two of the works which are currently on display in this show. So 25 arrived and 23 will be going back. Let’s hope he doesn’t miss them too much. Let’s hope that his future development as a painter isn’t put in jeopardy.

Ellsworth Kelly: Early Drawings, 1954-62 MiMa, Middlesborough until 21 February 2010