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.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Gauguin: Maker of Myth at the Tate Modern

The success of Tate Modern’s Gauguin: the Maker of Myth exhibition can, in my opinion, be attributed to that fact that as an artist “Gauguin’s no visionary, he’s a schemer” This, perhaps the most insightful description I’ve heard on the work of Paul Gauguin, was beautifully stated by his contemporary Camilla Pisarro. It is as a schemer that Gauguin became crucial for the beginnings of modern art, and it is the art of scheming that is a defining feature of what makes modern art, modern.

The Impressionists represent the visionaries, who sought to capture what they viewed when sat painting en plein-air, discovering a representative romance. They were however, as visionaries, only skirting around modernism, not venturing quite far enough from what they already knew, or far enough into their imagination. It was those who came post the Impressionists, the bohemian radicals such as Paul Gauguin, whose imagination for what art could be, led them to discover the real shock of the new.

To be modern is to scheme so that materials are transformed into a work of art. It is certainly to encompass more than is provided before your eyes, or to your fingertips.

The most dramatic examples of Gauguin’s are those, which exemplify his fearless approach to all elements of colour. The enigmatic Breton Girls dancing Pont-Aven, 1888, depicts three Brittany maidens held momentarily in scalene triangular form – each facing and reaching into their own separate direction. The magic of this is that in all parts of the room, it feels as though they are inviting you in. The light is delightfully different on each face, absorbing into the skin a range of surprising hints, which come to echo the blanket chromaticism of the painting. There is potency to these potentially excessively (but not actually,) variegated and uncomplimentary colours. - This is the daring flair of a successful modern artist.

The palette represents a surprisingly sophisticated soberness of colour – muted limes shade the grass the girls dance upon; pastels lights in the sky highlight the village buildings and shrubbery; and fiery hints define patches of exposed skin otherwise pale, jaundice and carrying ill teals tints. The artist may well have endorsed the archaic Breton stereotypes, but he equips the images with an accurate, if borderline-abstract drama.

The creativity of colour is just one of the ways Gauguin schemes. He is the self-created bohemian artist, he formed himself into a character when he transformed from Bourgeois banker to avant-garde artist. His character became the weight behind his art - where he lacked in formal training, belief in his own abilities became the self-motivator of his career declaring, ‘I am a great artist I know it.’

This is one striking method that modern artists have taken to become the painter-schemer – he/she builds an outlandish character to better advertise themselves by gaining press and selling their art by establishing a celebrity brand. Whether this is Damien Hirst or Andy Warhol, the role of artist persona has been exaggerated to a much greater significance.

Though Gauguin was far from known and popular in the day, this is the most popular exhibition I have ever visited. It seems more than a little ironic that an artist who so fervently sought the primitive past for inspiration, and wished to escape from the art world community, became a leader in modern art. What he did come to represent by doing so however, was an adventurer into new places across the world - to the Pacific and Caribbean islands of Martinique, Masquesas, and most decidedly – Tahiti; and consequently into new places in art via a daringness to discover. Even if new finds are just old things uncovered.

Gauguin: Maker of Myth is at the Tate Modern until 16th January

This article also features in Warwick’s student newspaper ‘The Boar’

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Venice: Canaletto and his Rivals at the National Gallery

What is it that warrants Canaletto (and let us not forget, his rivals) an exhibition at the National Gallery? What differentiates these paintings from others known for their landscapes – Claude, Turner and Constable? Perhaps, even more pertinent a question ought to be: what differentiates Canaletto from his rivals – Marieschi, Belotto, Carlevarijs and Guardi?

What struck me first about Canaletto’s scenes of Venice, was the glow of warming light that basks the building forming dramatic shadows, and highlights the ripples in the lagoon. Yet, his work is unlike the seventeenth-century hero of the landscape genre, Claude and his inseparable infamous glow. For Canaletto’s brushstroke, composition etc. lacks the fantastical air of Claude’s classical landscapes – the classical that represents the element of mythology - the invented. Therefore I see Canaletto’s landscapes as both more assessable and relational.

It is true that here Canaletto (and his rivals) portray an idealised view of the city – always seen in pleasant weather and complimentary light. However the other aspects of its formal qualities assure us Canaletto’s Venice can be trusted with our eyes. Crisp lines, perfect perspective, well-plotted compositions, and deep shadows – His chiaroscuro is the well balanced mid between natural visual drama and mistrusted melodrama. Such shadows are entirely considered so that they are not a wayward add-on, but factored into the very composition. It seems impossible that even in the darkness of the shadows, there is the warmth of Canaletto.

As far as beautifully painted landscapes and cityscapes go, this is a worthy collection of paintings to view in exhibition. However I must confess, I sped around the six rooms of paintings in under thirty minutes. This is a thematic exhibition of Venetian scenes – you cannot come expecting a menagerie. It will be of no surprise then that I struggled to identify the painting I wished to buy at postcard stand, now in smaller size. It’s an exhibition I’d invite an art lover, traditionalist, or general romantic (to which looking upon pictures of Venice alone conjures up a good reception). In structure it’s strikingly similar to ‘Turner and the Masters,’ where indeed some Canaletto’s and Guardi's were shown, last winter at the Tate Britain. And my belief is that if an artist is to stand up against Turner, that artist will lose.

In terms of how Canaletto measures to his rivals in Venice and at the exhibition, I admired Guardi’s creative tease on the city’s views. Particularly in A Regatta on the Grand Canal c. 1777 the subtle sway of the buildings clustering the riverbank that lean inwards sandwiching the scene together. It’s that light adaptation, like Canaletto’s stark shadows, which become a part of the cohesion of the composition. I did not at all fall for Carlevarijs’ overtly Baroque scenes of Venice in festivities. There is great, refined taste in Canaletto’s paintings that can’t be denied.

The exhibition stays in the Salisbury Wing of the National Gallery until 16 January 2011 -