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 -