Friday, 16 September 2011

Hello blog followers,

Thank you for reading my comments on the arts through my blog: RT. I've now been faithfully blogging for two years, and this is not about to change, but I am moving over to where there's my RT blog, extra RT blog and even more... Keep reading and keep commenting.


Sunday, 11 September 2011

The Chapman Brothers, at two White Cubes

The infamously rowdy Jake and Dinos Chapman have the kind of cheek that falls somewhere in the region of a pair of dirty schoolboys. Like all the YBAs (young British artists), their bolshy art makes you feel like they may never grow old. But unlike just naughty children or rebellious adolescents, this exhibition is the validates that this isn’t an exhibition of immature art. It’s often dark, always tainted, sometimes [almost] too aware of the world because of what its already seen.

If you start where you ought to, at Mason’s Yard White Cube, you will descend a flight of stairs to the underground gallery, to be confronted by the stares of a white-eyed military manikin. This room is populated with an army of these plastic Nazi men, haunting the room with their presence, and mostly with their piercing porcelain eyes. The first’s eyes beckon your glance, to be directed by an outreached arm to another figure. Some figures say, “behold!” some stand in awe, some in disgust, one hushes with his finger, but few hide their eyes.

It is through their eyes that we view this first half of the exhibition. They tell us both where to look, and how to respond to incidents played out through other figures positioned in the instillation. Thereby this army becomes both the art, and the audience. And we, as we meander around from one glance to another, become an active and impressionable audience.

The crimes are blatant and unquestioned (as the Brothers have created many eye-soring instillations in the past designed to critique morality, politics, sexuality and religion). Instead it’s the watching on of these incidents that is questioned. Are these plastic officers allowed to watch on, and should they? It’s like being back with the boys in a playground, peeking round the bike sheds to see what’s hitting off… By beginning to explore the intrigue in the looking on of an event unquestionably crude, they are seeing not so much how far they can push their art, but how far they can push their viewer, before the tender balance between attraction and repulsion sends something flying.

I was certainly attracted to the work in the western White Cube. True to Chapman character, the human model plays its part because it is art about people – about society. This show had the potential to be different from all of their previous shows, as for the first time the brothers worked independently of each other, not even discussing their ideas until the exhibit was uncovered in July.

Yes, it fulfilled that potential through a variety of bits and bobs. The figures at the Mason Yard gallery could quite easily steal the attention from some noteworthy prints around the four walls, but I didn’t let it. On the back wall is a series of beautiful worked-up Goya-esque (‘The Disaster of War’ especially) prints, most are as dark as a Rembrandt at its finish. Then opposite, on the near wall is a collection of art montages playing around with Hamilton’s original pop art, ‘Just What Is It that Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?’ The answer of course being a Chapman instillation.

In Hoxton Square’s upper room is four Chapman ‘religious’ instillations entitled ‘God Does Not Love You’. These I didn’t dare get too close to. A Madonna, with a serpent’s face, drips blood down her chest. Again the porcelain eyes pop out, all possessed with something unpleasant. These; torn-back skin, daggers, and blood, sheen on an otherwise matt sculpture. Only then was I a little bit offended…

Jake or Dinos Chapman is at the White Cube in Mason Yard and Hoxton Square until 17 September.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Thomas Struth at the Whitechapel Gallery

It could seem like a bold statement for the artist Thomas Struth to position himself in the place of Michelangelo’s David, and let crowds of tourists gaze in wonder at him…couldn’t it? Especially as this is the first of his life-size photographs one looks upon entering his retrospective (1978-2010) at the Whitechapel. But Thomas Struth appears to have only just accepted that the art world may view him as a photographer at all. In his mind he is and will always be an artist (who uses a camera).

The first gallery of work seems geared to such a paradigm. There are, like those initial prints: ‘Audience 06’ and ‘Audience 01’, scenes in and in front of museums and iconic buildings, which point to art and culture since the 80s. Then there are shots of technology at work such as the underside of a space shuttle at Kennedy Space Centre, and a distillation column at Gladbeck. Both topics have been dealt with in a logical, and ordered manner, which seems to me terribly German, and not entirely art of the now, yet I love it. These scenes however are a statement of our period – a secularizing society is putting its faith into technology, and adoring and pious church-goers are now culture-hungry tourists.

The key to his neatness seems to be that in each photo only the best bits are left. Asking himself at each re-evaluation: what don’t I want in this picture? And as only a talented photographer could, in each shot much of interest remains. The picture of the Pantheon (Rome, 1990) is one of his most sober. One man stands two thirds of the dome’s width across staring up to the temple’s oculus. Behind him a crowd gather, to their left, and to their right in triangular form, a couple of visitors stand. There’s a little red here, and a little red there.

We’re told this is posed, which makes sense of its streamlined patterning and colouring, but this is not the case of any other of his photographs, which are all found as they are later seen. In this case, Struth seems to have an in-built ordering eye, that finds a shot that makes great sense in each place that one is taken. Even in ‘National Gallery 2’ where all that is photographed is one of Vermeer’s ladies in an interior, proportions are perfect. The light the surrounds the painting, and hits off against the adjacent wall sets the tone for the golden light of the oil, and the barrier that only just enters the space of the shot, is as golden as both of these – a light is reflected on the ideal diagonal.

Perhaps the neatest of all is one of his family portraits, ‘The Richter Family.’ Mother and Father sit each on one leather chair, with one half of the landscape frame each. Perching upon Mrs Richter is her daughter, gripped by her mother’s open hand held to her stomach. Mr Richter leans back on his chair, his lap open for his son to sit upon, he supports himself by an outreached hand to a nearby glass table. His son’s left hand too sits on the table, but limply his hand speaks. Its power chills the viewer and it is so satisfying to only look upon.


Audience 06, Florence, 2004

National Gallery 2, London 2001

The Richter Family, Cologne, 2002

If you like Thomas Struth’s photographs you may also like Hannah Starkey’s (as I did) so have a read of my blog from January.

This Thomas Struth retrospect stays at the Whitechapel Gallery until 16 September – catch it soon!

Sunday, 17 July 2011

BP Portrait Award 2011 at the National Portrait Gallery

I’ve been enjoying the annual BP Portrait Award for some years now (see previous blogs). Knowing what the exhibition is about, and what kinds of works it often celebrates, and so from this, I also ought to be able to identify what was distinctively 2011, new and groundbreaking, about this year’s selection…

Entering the usual National Portrait Gallery room, I saw something very usual. It wasn’t the sense l had the first time I saw a Tim Okamura in 2009, but with the models of 2010 featuring in 2011, suddenly his portraits feel too known. Too aged. As I continued on, by a few portraits in I had decided around one quarter I could identify as being the work of an artist I’d seen before, just by looking at their technique. I could recall where I’d seen it before and whose face had been replaced in a similar looking background. Oh.

The winner, ‘Distracted’ by Wim Heldens, I personally think isn’t as show-stopping as its title would suggest. In a gallery context, with its dulled tones, it isn’t exactly dramatic (is drama all we’re after, maybe not). Certainly it’s not so enigmatic when compared to the second-prize winner ‘Holly’. Where ‘Holly’ feels like it would be suitably set in a church whose worship is to classical art and the cult of beauty, ‘Distracted’ would be most complimented in a home, so maybe there I’d like it more. The painting depicts an unpretentious young man peering around a door with a pencil in hand. It would be in a home that the subject’s real presence, and thus the painting’s real presence would be felt.

Self-taught Dutch artists, Heldens was included in 1998, 2008 and 2010’s exhibitions. Could this have become about congratulating the artists on the journey they’ve taken over the years they’ve been included, and less the individual portrait itself? Are the judges just getting nostalgic as they track the lives and works of their favourite portrait painters? Is the prize designed to be about the artist or the painting? (I had thought the latter.) Is the real impression of this exhibition that the presence of the sitter or the presence of the artist greater and more worthy of reward?

Considering all this, ‘Holly’ by Louis Smith - a contributor in 2009 – is something quite out of the ordinary. And like nothing I’ve seen in contemporary portraiture, like nothing I’ve seen since… Da Vinci. Consequently, this painting has provoked quite some discussion. Disguised as an altarpiece, the content is…surprising. The nude ‘Holly’ is cuffed by her wrists to a wall, and thrusts her beasts out in full shameless exposure. The rocky wilderness provides no comfort, except for a flourishing white plant of hope. Suddenly style has come to the forefront of the show’s considerations, and the question: is the painting of a nude, or is it a portrait simply because it’s called ‘Holly.’

I also greatly approved of the BP Travel Prize winner. This, a grant given in advance of a proposed portraiture project, was wisely awarded to an artist who delivered. The wall-wide painting of a nudist beach in Corfu is one of a place yet it does remain a portrait. For, it doesn’t just include people, it brings together portraits due to the characterisation, individualisation and idealisation of people pictured.

I also enjoyed the variety across: the discotheque of a portrait of Boy George by Layla Lyons; ‘Venus as a boy,’ which was one of few to that tapped heavily into art’s history (and it still achieved surprising results); and ‘Six decades’ which triumphed in concept, execution, and impression, but despite this description was modest in size leaving us positively yearning for more.

And so I’m once again left questioning: is it the presence of the painting, or of the person the portraitist paints, that makes an award-winning portrait? What I could glean from this exhibition was that the presence most felt was that of recurring artists and their works. Though I still left with the images in my mind of many great portraits I'd seen there.

Pictured: Holly, and Six Decades

BP Portrait Award 2011 is at the National Portrait Gallery until September 18

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Joan Miro: The Ladder of Escape, at the Tate

I gulped entering the exhibition – Miro was described as “the most surreal of us all” by the very founder of Surrealism, Andre Breton – and I thought, oh dear, I don’t like surrealism all that much and nervously turned to the back of my booklet to discover there was thirteen rooms filled with the stuff. But, I’m not one to close myself off to the possibility of a change of heart with art. And the first room was to surprise me with its content. (You see the Tate curators made this super decision to put the introductory text outside of the exhibition space to ease overcrowding around art works, and I would guess also to tempt people in through a literary taster – very smart.)

It starts with half a dozen pieces from c. 1918 onwards of his home in Catalonia. These rural scenes are painted with a much greater attention to detail than is known of Miro, and the overall impression is of patterned patchwork quilt. ‘The Rut’ is such an example, and in this painting is evidence that Miro has a great understanding of colour that he would later exploit and/or purposefully ignore in his move towards the more surreal and abstracted. These early paintings of scenes familiar to the artist are interesting because they highlight the two-sided debate in the visual voice of the artist across his life (, and thus this exhibition).

In ‘The Farm,’ 1921-2, the largest and most important of this period, (not least because it is his home that he paints,) features a range of objects, of which those that are particularly habitual to him are partially enlarged. Miro depicts what vision naturally does – it draws you nearer, so that you take further notice of that which you already recognize. Yet, in the next room, when Miro is settled into surrealism, and it is now since the Surrealist Manifesto (of 1924) has been published, he declares, “I don’t think it makes sense to give more importance to a mountain than to an ant.” This is reflected in his approach to drawing a scene and in his choosing of subject matter – he no longer is looking for what is known, but searching the subconscious.

The artist switches between these two things throughout his career - acknowledging the familiar, and rethinking what was visually familiar in contemporary art. Still, this is always done under the pretense of escaping into creativity. His abstract pieces of the 1940s+ were influenced by the expressionists and so are much more rhythmic. For example then, it could be argued that in ‘The Passage of the Divine Bird’ from 1941 (in room 7), that rhythms provides a sense of reassurance – a reassurance that is found in the consistencies of daily life – in what is familiar.

The impact of Miro choosing not to give more significance to a mountain than an ant, is obvious in the scale he allocated items across a composition. In ‘The Barcelona Series’ (named after the city in which it was printed), 50 lithographs shout aliens ahoy! – What I think appear like aliens, are probably only the distortions of a figure according to an artist who is readdressing priorities. Suddenly beady eyes, grasping hands, and killer jaws become what are significant in these pieces. This attitude is hardly surprising as these pieces, exhibited in room 6, were completed during the time of the Spanish Civil War. And here we discover one of the reasons Miro might have repeatedly wished to escape into creativity across his lifetime, via, The Ladder of Escape (as the exhibition is fully entitled). The time of war was when Spain’s cultural identity was under siege. Who’s art could show a greater grappling with a new cultural identity?

Saying that, sometimes my only assumption when I look at a Miro is that I’m looking at a painting made of a Dalmatian rolled around in a fauvist palette. It’s true that much of his work feels playful - something I don’t often associate with surrealism. His ‘Painting (head)’ of 1927 in the second room just made me smirk, not because I think it’s crap like so many assume of Miro’s emptier paintings, but because who couldn’t giggle imaging a Spaniard with whiskers such as he painted. It seems so obviously humoured.

I have to credit again the curators, because I believe my favourite part of the exhibition is very much due to their great curatorship. In the final third is two great octagonal rooms displaying paintings as large as the walls. They are his most simplistic paintings but his most stunning, positioned as they were they are utterly overwhelming. I watched joyfully as others entered the rooms and saw their expressions – the exhibition was worth it just for this (oh and I had a rather nice chat with a middle-aged mummy who’d gone back into art history education with an enthusiastic bump). The great acclaim that these massive murals to colour received when they were exhibited in Paris has lasted. The sensation of colour is a continuation of that early sensitivity, but with a shot of shock. Imagine: bursts of the brightest colours you can consider, splashes of cooling oases, spots of attention homing, and streaks of evening out. This has to be the best of Miro…

The key piece of summer at the Tate, check Miro out before 11 September 2011. See it as part of late night at the Tate as I did!

Friday, 8 July 2011

A Feast for the Mind - Hilary Jack

Hilary Jack’s art has been brought my attention through her current exhibit ‘And Scent of Pine and the Woodthrust Singing,’ in Manchester. These installations in Castlefields Gallery, compose a narrative are the best of Britain’s woodland creators and wildlife, wittily composed in 3D collage. A favourite of mine is 'Almost Sleeping Fox', which epitomises traditional British taste. On a floral settee (that reeks of my Grandmother), a pre-raphaelitic redhead dozes. She’s nestled within a bed of wild, waterside foliage, that screams of the foxy Elizabeth Siddal bathing as for Millais’ ‘Ophelia.’

Her tongue and cheek pieces could quite easily be a parody of ‘The Wind and the Willows’. The conscious titling of the exhibition to include the phrase ‘a scent of pine’ draws attention to the knowledge that pine evokes memory. These sculptures are nostalgic of a childhood spent in books about talking animals, but in light-hearted humour we are prompted to the absurdity of that thing we once so believed in.

Jack combines taxidermy, throw-away materials, and rejected old furniture into sometimes sinister, but mostly whimsical sculpture-come-installation. Quite sinister, I’d like to rename the piece ‘Stag Woman in a Blue Dress Holds Yellow Flowers’, ‘Evil Eyes.’ - The sloping stag horns, leaning neck and lifted dress are all uncomfortably on the lurk. Paradoxically ‘Women with Sage Bush Hair’ is only comic, and could quite easily be a reinvention of Wuthering Heights. An agreeable and temperate [ceramic] lady carries her basket across the windy moor, where her hair, blown about by the strength of the gust, becomes conditioned to brittle. Though the ceramic somewhat places it within a time of England past (when village-life ruled), the unruly windswept hair is as true to Bridget Jones, and so to us, as it is to Wuthering Heights.

While I’m not suggesting that the artist’s work relies on these associations, certainly an atmosphere of Britishness, and of a society ridding themselves of old possessions and memories, is at the core of these recycled composites. Jack transforms things of no use to things of vital purpose within the new creation. And the result is witty, and most of the time, attractive.

Catch Hilary Jack at Castlefields art gallery in Manchester, before 24 June

Thursday, 7 July 2011

A Feast for the Eyes - Hector de Gregorio

Hector de Gregorio’s exhibition - New Work - at the Opus Gallery in Newcastle looks to be spectacular. His portraits are so heavily a product of art past; yet pose the most creative solution I’ve long seen to art future.

Could the heritage of portraiture be more blinding? – the realism of Caravaggio, the elegance and beauty of the Renaissance artists, the overindulgence of the Baroque period, the grotesque of Hieronymus Bosch, and then (inevitably in such a varied composite) the surrealism of Dali. These stylistic influences are blended delicately, and yet the result is far from subtle. It’s edgy, and it is in fact very contemporary, proving a valuable point - that to reference what has past, is not to be stuck in the past yourself.

Partially the appearance is subtle because of the artist’s confidence in and exploration of a mixture of mediums. It starts with a photograph, which is taken of the sitter, then, he or she is dressed in digital and physical (oil paint) layers, adorned in golf leaf, waxed and varnished. Partially it is much more…

‘Queen’ is perhaps my favourite. A serpent Queen Lizzie I, has acquired a Gaga quiff, a dress fitted with 80’s shoulder-pads, a 50’s waistline, and cut from 16th century material, yet she is poised as a Hindu goddess...? Then there’s the suggestion of lust AND chastity, which cause a tension that continually teases and perplexes the viewer. Her cherry red lips, and yet her porcelain blemish-free skin, her devil’s tail that could strike one deathly swing; and yet her hair is the red of the Virgin Queen’s. Who can she mean to be?

Certainly, so contrite, she plays a role. This is Cindy Sherman’s 1980’s masquerading pieces and then some. The sitter has been hidden amongst numerous identities, which is a point Sherman very concept. Cindy Sherman dresses herself one by one as a series of female personas, which she records in photographic portraits. De Gregorio dresses his sitters as many identities in one image.

This is an even more contemporary concept – that individuals carry not one, but many identities all within one body. The subtlety in which the artist combines what is contradictory in ‘Queen,’ illustrates that his portraits are not to be read as montages in which elements are placed along side each other but do not become one. They are one, diverse individual.

A bold blending of mediums and styles makes de Gregorio the new de Chirico.

De Gregorio’s new works opened at the beginning of the week and remain in the Opus Gallery until the end of July:

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Hubert Dalwood

The Mead Gallery this term presents an extensive collection of the works of the 20th century sculptor Hubert Dalwood. This prolific, but not widely recognised post-war artist, worked every two to three years towards a showcasing opportunity with a differing approach to sculpture, never resting in on the unsatisfactory, always challenging and changing. The Mead exhibits pieces to represent the artist’s voluminous variety. The gritty fusion of Degas and Giacometti of the lead statuette ‘Woman Washing Arm’ couldn’t appear any starker in comparison to ‘Venusberg’ – a large scale polished aluminium installation that has the crisp lines of contemporary architectural design. Dalwood certainly held no allegiances to one style.

If he had no concerns of style, what was his greater interest? Often it is a fascination of surface, or the mystic. Repeatedly it is people and place. This is no distinct people or location, because as Dalwood urged “What we can and must reinstate is the primacy of the imagination.” What this only emphasises is that his works are the art of exploration, and as people what we enjoy exploring and discovery most is the body and the land.

‘Beginning’ is perhaps the best example of the correspondence between people and place in his work. The aluminium wall hanging in engraved with symbols therefore its appearance, primitive and magical. Its title alludes to ideas of procreation, and its structure could easily be compared to that of a cell. The surface is graffitied with swirls reminiscent of Van Gogh’s stormy skies, which could also quite easily be grassland, and the whole relief, an aerial landscape. It is characteristic of the atmosphere many of his pieces foster – a mysterious combination of an undefined people or place.

While his work appears to jump between textures, materials and forms, it does in fact morph quite gradually over the distinguishable periods of 2-3 years. In most cases, he will develop an approach from the representational to the abstract, and this is most evident in his figurative pieces. ‘Woman Washing Arm’ could be an opening example – this lead miniature is tackled with a flare of Degas and Giacometti, with a kind of ‘kitchen sink’ realism - never idealised. ‘Standing Figure’ shows how Dalwood condenses the figure so that it becomes almost monolithic, gluing its limbs tightly together, and gripping its feet to the floor. The grotesque figure is a slave to gravity – distorted so that a sense of its weight can be felt. In both her skin is a ruptured surfaces, caused by the tactile modelling in clay.

The artist introduces in motif of place in his first non-figurative piece ‘Tree’, which has been made in skin bronze. The link between this sculpture and ‘Standing Figure’ figure could not be more obvious. The tapering body is mirrored in the tapered tree with its bolstering trunk. The structure compacts leaves into squares, yet this seemingly unnatural habitat, still manages to hold a nest suggested the life it can host.

The most intriguing piece is still a blur to me. Hubert Dalwood acknowledged the ambiguity of his works and did not claim to it to be a weakness, arguing instead for the impossibility of simple story telling in sculpture. The question is, even if this sculpture gripped me, will it continue to though remaining unsolved? What could be a clearer example of the mystery of Hubert Dalwood’s art than his ‘Signs’ of 1959? (The answer in this case, therefore, is yes.)


2) ‘'Standing Figure’

1) ‘'The Beginning’

The Mead Gallery, part of the University of Warwick’s art centre, is holding this exhibition until 25th June. Entrance is free!

Monday, 16 May 2011

Fall-ing Apart?

The two pieces on paper depict a relationship enacted and played out according to their response to their fall into sin…

Jan Gossaert painted certain sixteenth century common-place scenes, so many times, that in viewing just a selection (as was at this exhibition) of the artist’s work, you may think you have seen all the depictions given of the Virgin and Child or Adam and Eve in the entire Renaissance – something the curators evidently intended to be noted when titling the show ‘Jan Gossaert’s Renaissance.’ It is not that the Dutch artist is particularly known for being the face of the Renaissance, or even the Northern Renaissance – that would be Albrecht DΓΌrer almost undoubtedly – but that in a small study of his work, we see embodied many of the things that define the Renaissance, and a variety in approach to subjects that speaks for the North and the South, the printmaker and painter, the classically inclined and the landscape enthusiast.

I wanted to bring to you two of his Adam and Eve’s – not his most well known, and epically proportioned oil painting from c.1520, but some smaller more telling pieces on paper from around the same year. In the oil painting Adam and Eve stand frontally, like marble statues, while they hold onto each other shoulders alluding to their partnership, they are two separate being, uncomfortably posed before us. The two pieces on paper depict a relationship enacted and played out according to their response to their fall into sin.

The studies are quite different. Deviating from the model – the woodcut of 1520-5, finds the pair seated. The timings are somewhat unclear. Is Adam, caught in the intimacy of his wife’s approach, about to take from her the evil fruit? This could be true, but he has already been dressed in fig leaves. Could the grasping represent the desperation of their mistake, the intimacy representing the appeal of sin, but then the restoration of relationship? That actually, despite the apple, held between them, their relationship, a marriage to represent all of mankind, has no need to be eternally harmed by blame and separation – a relationship of restoration from God awaits in Jesus Christ.

I find the blame between Adam and Eve the ugliest of their sins. But ‘Adam and Eve’ of 1520 is quite aside form this. A tired Adam clings to Eve who holds the apple in her left hand. He doesn’t engage with the apple in the way that Eve stares at it distastefully. No, he is lost in his own shame. His melancholy leads him to reach for his wife for comfort – she who knows the shame he is experiencing, and is ready to angrily thrust the apple from out of the palm of the hand, onto the floor, where it will be out of sight, and through redemption their sin can be forgotten.

To me, these are truly unique and deeply psychological views of the unlikely protagonists Adam and Eve, that do not allow the viewer to take the moral high ground, but reflect on the complexity of the couple’s emotions at their fall from paradise, and lead us to reconsider the power of relationship.

You’ve only got to the end of the month to see these works featured in the exhibition at the National Gallery.

Friday, 29 April 2011

The Cult of Beauty at the V&A

I’m noticing a fad in today’s art for the Victorian revived, and in turn all that the Victorians enthusiastically and valiantly brought back to life. It seems that then the V&A hit the nail on the head by collating and exhibiting the work of the Victorian Aesthetic Movement of 1860-1900 in perfect time.

What this exhibition led me to consider is: why is it now that everyone interested in Aestheticism? When for some time its been considered something along the lines of a blue cheese. Why, on a boiling day in the Easter holidays, was I struggling to find space between the crowds of heads to see the art between the gaps?

How more stark a comparison could you make between the Frederic Leighton’s Peacock Princess ‘Pavonia’ (exhibited here) and Damien Hirst’s ‘Let’s Eat Outdoors Today’ – a scene of rotting meat resting over a cold BBQ, surrounded by hundreds of flies, only separated to the audience by a glass (exhibited at Modern British Sculpture). Contemporary art is failing quite consistently to entertain a wide range of people who might otherwise be interested in art. It has lost many with its bizarre and sometimes simply crude ideas. The art of the ugly is taking over - some works are intentionally ugly in rebellion, some don’t mean to be. Either way, for the traditionalists among the population, and of course the Victorians were traditionalists on many measures, art required, and still requires beauty.

This was the very thesis of the Aesthetic movement – to create beautiful things whose sole function was to be beautiful. And this is where I see contemporary art going – back towards an emphasis on the heart-warming nature of aesthetics. It seems to me that contemporary art (as we know it) is slowly imploding on itself. To many it has come to the end of the road – they are disinterested. To most creation is an act of love and joy, rather than anger, because it is anger, which destroys. It is obvious that these Victorian artists made out of love for their objects when viewing the copious paintings, drawings, prints, furniture, fashion designs, interior designs and architecture exhibited..

Secondly, everyone admires the beautiful. Though it’s fair to say, you could describe Aestheticism as a cluttered attic – full of beautiful things but often overbearing at first glance. It is true then that Aestheticism’s idea of beauty was not always conventional. Models, such as the face of the Pre-Raphaelites - Elizabeth Siddal - weren’t the voluptuous, fair image of feminine beauty. And who could fail to notice the monobrow on the face of a Leighton protagonist, in the otherwise stunning The Syracusan Bride Leading Wild Beasts in Procession to the Temple of Diana? Which I shall add, is alone worthy of the ticket price for the meaty sized, meaty figured and meaty execution of the painting.

So, you’re thinking, the jist of it is that these artists (painters, poets and designers) were…shallow. Their art was led by chasing attractive girls and cataloguing the beauty and pleasure these goddesses of art then impart Well something like that. But, in their defence, isn’t beauty what we are all looking for? Isn’t that why we want art in the first place – to decorate our homes, to have things to be seen and to be admired? Art to please the hoards and even more so the hoarders, needs to be beautiful. Hense the movement produced all sorts of beautiful things could also fill the home.

Aside from the ideals of the movement, why should this exhibition be praised? It was positively prim, curated to ravish each piece in a setting of consumable beauty. With peacock’s feather - a repeated motif within the art – created into emblems, then arranged and projected into the walls at any point of uncrammed ‘attic space’. Then there was the skewed text stencilled to surfaces like headings; art deco structures built in; and luxurious coloured walls such as the greenery-yallery of Grosvenor Gallery, as Gilbert and Sullivan once called it. There was poetry spoken over a tannoy, and beautifully produced booklets to document it all – the utter density of it.

What can I say? Beauty is captivating. And I was captivated just as much by the ideas possessing the artists about beauty, as by the works describing such beauty. Perhaps then, the success of this exhibition is due to the enthusiasm its visitors have had to share the beauty they had seen…

The Cult of Beauty: Aestheticism 1860-1900 is at the Victoria and Albert Museum until 17 July, so you still have plenty of time to view it during and after this third term.

Monday, 28 March 2011

Essential Anselm Kiefer

Anselm Kiefer is one practitioner on my list of contemporary artists whose artwork I can always depend upon for visual stimulation, hence why I was so keen to see his latest exhibit at the White Cube in Hoxton. Relatively unknown to those who have yet to stray from mainstream consumption, the German national and French resident, has in fact showcased numerous solo shows across Europe, always to a standard and style distinctively his own. More than a review of ‘Des Meeres und der Liebe Wellen’, I’m going to introduce you to the artist I’ve nearly written about many a time, and almost once paralleled to Turner and Rembrandt’s idiosyncratic painting technique discussed in ‘Visual Indigestion’ (December 2010.)

The exhibition of multimedia relief photographs (predominantly), sketchbooks and one epic relief painting, fills not only the main, but upstairs galleries.

So what is it about Anselm Kiefer that makes me so enthusiastic? The artist subtly but ambitiously combines interplay of techniques, exploitation of media, and a thoroughly ‘felt’ response.

The twenty-four large seascapes that make up ‘des Meeres und der Liebe Wellen’ in the main gallery of the Cube, are a melee of techniques ceased fire. With colours, and textures at hazy peace with one another. He heightens black and white photographs with splashes, drips, smudges and the most radical – electrolysis. This provides a stunning contrast between primitive patterns from nature and man-made experimentation. The latter, is enigmatic, especially in places where it appears even outside of the artist’s hands, highlighting the idea of the sublime.

The first I knew of the artist was his exploitation of oils, often mixed with sand, to build up heavily textured impasto paintings such as ‘Rorate Caeli desuper et nubes pluant iustum’, mixed media, 2006 - that has also been exhibited at the White Cube. He uses an aggressive application of materials that associates itself with the history of Germany he often seeks to portray. And I always find myself complimenting the artists whose subject and technique align to additive affect.

It is due to the first and second reason that works that are almost always 2D, stray, like much of contemporary art, into the 3D – not content with established and boxed techniques. Kiefer is able to combine the abilities of paintings to depict the strength of colour and design, and sculpture to be sensational. For example the nine pieces of ‘I hold all the Indias in my hand’ from my favourite part, the upstairs gallery are, as those downstairs, photographs worked over. These images of him bathing in the sea echo the idea brought about by the title, which is an extract from a seventeenth-century poem by Francisco de Quevedo, meditating on love and loss. These are overlaid with bath crystals to emphasis spume; and by marbling techniques in complimentary peppermint greens and burnt rusting umbers, which frame the figure as well as areas of natural water patterning such as ripples. In places, this forms the mist of misconception of the naive, whereas the burnt oranges arise like a fire of passion. All continuing what the downstairs room began with insinuating – the sublime. He uses technique to deep poetic effect – assumed even before the quotation to literature is observed.

I would encourage you to do as I, always see the work of Kiefer when it is advertised…

Paintings are pictured in the order they are referenced across the article.

This exhibition is at the White Cube in Hoxton, N1, until 9 April 2011.

Thursday, 24 March 2011


I always feel doubly enlivened by a creator discussing his creation. Last Summer I wrote about Dryden Goodwin’s Jubilee line portraits from the series entitled ‘Linear’ (see On My Travels – June 2010.) This evening I heard the multi-media portraitist speak on his work in discussion with the writer Geoff Dyer and the curator-come-chairman Camilla Brown, and found inspiration in discovering the series ‘Cradle’, exhibited at the photographer’s gallery (- a place I must take a vow now to visit.)

‘Cradle’, a series of high contrast black and white photos of strangers on the streets of London is but another fulfilment of our modern world so frequently expressed by artists in street photography. Yet, Goodwin has “disrupted the surface” of the print with the scarring of line from an etching needle. What he has described as daring form of ruin, is in fact not subtractive but positively additive. He has cradled the heads of his subjects with the workings of his hands – the tactile nature of the drawn, manual medium in contrast to the detached digital media. He encases this fragile part, protecting it from the unknown turns of the city. It stabilises the body in a moment where it would other wise just be moving through. Without this act, it is more an image of the impermanency of modern life, and less a portrait. This enforcement of the contours of the face, individualises the ‘sitter.’ Without it, it wouldn’t be more than the changing face – as the talk entitled ‘Picturing Everyman’ so knowingly echoed.

The artist described his falling in love with the face of the sitter he draws. Whether he did momentarily, or it is just the undivided focus, the lack of interest in all that is besides it, that suggests to him the euphoria of love, I’m not sure. But certainly, he seeks to contain that moment of the delight in looking at and creating the face, to hold in that place a permanent image – the engraving so sunk it can’t be undone – around the face. The contours are beautiful. From a coarsely carved line is in fact the gentleness of the fluidity of his hand, caressing as he sculpts the face, that in photographing he could only document not altar. Lines like tears, like wrinkles and like dimples charge the face with a psychological depth needed to mar the absence of the photographer, which is felt from pictures like voyeurism. He effectively creates a second image – for when the light shines on the reverse there is only the face that the artist has moulded. However as the artist wished to emphasis he sought an image of “portraying not betraying that person.” He has not really created this person, he has only defined on paper what he has noticed.

This talk was part of series of talks at the National Portrait Gallery entitled ‘Picturing the Self’

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

‘Carved, Cast and Modelled’ – Sculpture from the Barber Collection

‘Carved, cast and modelled’ could be described as an antipode to the capacious sculpture exhibition currently held at the Royal Academy of Arts in London - ‘Modern British Sculpture.’ That is, if the Royal Academy show questions what sculpture is and should be in the future, the Barber Institute efficiently envisages a definition of the tradition of western sculpture in its 2000 years of established existence, in a manner that its curator rightly described as balanced. This is a triumph that a collection of this size can boast such a wide selection. The staff admitted that they have in the past struggled to pass misconceptions locals had, that there is little of wonder inside this one-brick-to-shape-all-bricks building found on the University of Birmingham campus.

The speakers at the opening were keen to labour these points – that the success of the gallery has come out of Sir Thomas Bodkin’s bold directorship in purchasing so bravely many sculptures at a time of war, or worst even, just after the war, when buying art was a major financial risk. This did of course pose one key advantage – the relative cost of works was cheap, and the Barber could afford that which (more or less) the national galleries could. In other words, this is a rather delightful collection. And it is duly deserved that these sculptures be set aside, to be distinguished and made holy as a unique collection within the wider collection.

Speaking of making holy, it is right to begin with ‘Christ as the Man of Sorrows’, a stirring marble relief from the Baroque period, that is far from the expected austerity, and instead has the rough expressionism of the International Gothic period. The sculptor, Orazio Marinali (1643-1720) has carved Jesus’ face with assertion of humility and sacrificial suffering. The tears and the crown of thorns, which are both far from subtle, remind us of the emotional and physical torture endured by Christ. In complete juxtaposition, the nose and cheek have porcelain-like perfection, thus representing divinity. The finest details are undoubtedly for me: the taut skin of the gaunt face, and the deep nostrils that propel the sculpture’s nature to that further than mere relief.

On quite another theme, ‘The Bust of Juliette Recanier’ by Joseph Chinard, c.1800, is perhaps the most beautiful of them all. If ‘Christ as the Man of Sorrows’ touches us, then this calls us to touch. The model’s limp-hands attempt to hold on the shawl to cover her. Between her fingers she gathers the fine, patterned fabric – just compliant enough to remain hooked over her sloping left shoulder, and then to be indecisively stretched from her arm to breast. Although she is half exposed, from a three-quarter view, her lowered glance hides all knowledge of it. In subject matter and handling she couldn’t be more sensitively rendered. This is only furthered by the poetic play on the heroic marble goddess - Juliette is serene like her classical counterpart, but unlike a goddess, her beauty is tainted. She is not untouchable.

One of the key beauties of sculpture resonates: it is a tangible subject, which is so engaging because it allows us to explore, to move about the object, and to find surprises in the revision of each view. Sculpture is, and this exhibition does nothing but prove it, an interactive discipline. It provokes a perceptive response and to know this, you must only go and stand before them.

Photography is care of the Barber Institute.

This exhibition is open until 2nd May.

This article also features in Warwick student newspaper: the Boar -

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Intellect as Art’s Enemy? 2

“People have an inbuilt sense of art, particularly the ones who haven’t had it taken out of them.”
Quinlan Terry

It has always been my ambition that everyone can take hold of the joy in art [even slightly] that I do, and quotes like this remind me that it is not my opinion that education is the only way to understand art – understanding as I discussed in ‘Intellect is…the enemy of art’ (January 2010) that prohibits many from engaging themselves uninhibited. After all it is understanding that stabilises one’s confidence. However, it is my understand of art, that like the creativity that creates the art itself, is in fact intuitive. Appreciation isn’t taught, it is felt; and likewise for understanding. Therefore although I have practised and studied art, I am no more the likely to identify the beauty in an artwork.

Sometimes I wonder if education only builds a veil, of terminology, pretence and ordered analysis, over ones’ eyes. Do not get me wrong, I yearn to learn, it is what I am deeply passionate about – not just appreciating art, but knowing about it. But I do not believe a crash course in Rodin is necessary for a viewer to sense the emotional content in one of his sculptures, to identify the character of its making, and the attitude of the artist. This is purely observation, closer to body-language studies than art history (in this case).

My foundation art tutor was, while I was under his instruction, working on a project with a similar theorem. He studied the art he asked his children to create, and the way in which they appreciated and understood art, believing that they had as much potential as he – a trained teacher and fine art practitioner.

I don’t wish to sound like a bohemian. I am very consciously aware as I write, that I sound like an expressionistic tutor from the early Bauhaus – those that were deeply criticised for their methods of teaching, and scared many of their pupils away from art because they must have feared that they would sound as crazy as them at the end of their education…However, I’ll risk it for a biscuit, because I believe I’m speaking rationally: Art could do with being less taught, and more affectively, experienced.

So I’ll end where I begun - with something someone else said. E. H. Gombrich advised his readers not to loosen their tongues, but to open their eyes. So look and then you will love, because you are bound to observe something lovable. Personally this detail from Ford Madox Brown’s ‘Baa Baa Lambs’, 1851-59, does it for me…

Sunday, 30 January 2011

Hannah Starkey ’29 pictures’

Hannah Starkey, celebrated British contemporary, is currently exhibiting a collection of photographs that from the entitling: ’Twenty Nine Pictures,’ would seem fit for a mindless assortment, and yet this retrospective is a highly cohesive, well-formed and prima facie, thematic show of stalwart pictures.

As an important aside, before I launch into an account of the artist’s work viewed at the Mead Gallery, (as I fear I shall never return from the black hole of shear enthusiasm), it is first right that I attribute praise to the curator - Diarmuid Costello, who has laid out a logical and assessable exhibition, with potential to appeal to all….

The work of Hannah Starkey is both charming and thought provoking –something I consider a rare combination. It supersedes contemporary standards for these documentary scenes are neither detached, nor forcefully controversial for the eye. These qualities I find to be the two greatest flaws in work of the moment; that the world can be made to appear utterly hostile via the representation of human indifference, or confrontation. Neither of these properties produces pleasant work, even if they are ‘challenging.’ In opposition, here is a body of work that still oozes intelligence and a newness that contemporary art aims always to achieve.

The twenty-nine pictures are unashamedly composed, expressing the refined beauty and skill the photographer possesses in constructing an aesthetically pleasing, steadfast shot. This is not just the ability to take a striking, accurately focussed picture; it is that which must be held by artists of all descriptions – to lay out colour, line and form across a space in places and of quantities that construct commanding harmony. Starkey introduces patterns into a setting that compliments its reading by the viewer. Primarily these are well-positioned forms that echo shapes throughout - these are highly rhythmic pieces. And in being such, they feel alive, subtracting from them the potentially suppressive atmosphere provoked by her subjects’ melancholy.

In being so formulated, they are playful because close-to all contain artificial subtleties. This becomes a game for the audience – to detect the deceptive element in each photograph by closely observing the patterns weaved into the pieces seen before.

Frequently, Starkey plays with the relationship between the foreground and background, suggesting consequently how the figure feels a part of the natural (of urban) world. This is when a mirror gains creative potential, such as in Untitled, January 2001 and Untitled, September 2008 (seen above.) The detachment is not deep enough to dampen our visual senses - we still feel involved, engaged, interested.

In Untitled, August 1999 (also above) it is a reflection of other sorts – two women stand apart from each other, beneath a spotlight. To their side, a couple of shadowed figures, which appear very similar respectively to the pair, are engaged in friendly conversation. This is to me, a beautifully expressed comment on the pair’s relationship, that is then only further enhanced by the whole photograph being split into two distinct horizontal areas, one sourced by outside light, one lit from the room behind the curtain.

Hannah Starkey’s ‘Twenty-Nine Pictures’ is an effigy to artistic tools used to their greatest potential. She crafts into of a scene: a narrative without saying anything, emotion without attending to the face, and beauty without a banal assemblage of beautiful things.

You’ve just missed the opening! Fortunately this exhibition will be held until 12th March 2011.