Staring at art from the Tate's collection and thinking about it

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Akua-Ba - John Skeaping

John Skeaping, Akua-Ba, 1931, acacia wood, 1117 x 560 x 500 mm, Tate.

At first, this self-consciously primitive work by British modernist sculptor John Skeaping seems the total opposite of last week's Maillol.  There are no direct allusions to a classical past here.  It's not even in bronze.  He's just gone and carved it out of some wood, like a poor person.  But it's not totally dissimilar. Both are still, calm works, with a fine sense of balance.  There's a thick monumentality to both forms, that in the Maillol, feels like a nod to primitivism, and in the Skeaping, like a tip of the hat to classicism.  While the blank eyes of the Maillol gaze into nothingness, however, those of the Skeaping look directly out into our world.  Maillol's Venus is a goddess concerned with her own god-business.  Skeaping's sitting woman wants to connect.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Venus With a Necklace - Aristide Maillol

Aristide Maillol, Venus With a Necklace, c. 1918-28, bronze, 1753 x 610 x 400 mm, Tate.

Maillol's particular brand of classicism, with its ever-so-slight modernist sheen, reducing to essential forms that bit more than old school classicism was already doing, was hugely influential.  Most Western European cities have a public statue somewhere that looks something like a Maillol.  He gave a tiny flavour of the new for those who would otherwise be threatened by it, on a great big dollop of the old.  But what to make of him now?  Now that the modern has been pretty much absorbed, do we really need him for anything?  I suppose we could enjoy him purely for his calmness.  He's pretty much the anti-Rodin.  But then we've got Brancusi.  Think the boat may have sailed on this one.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

The Picture Book - A.R. Middleton Todd

A.R. Middleton Todd, The Picture Book, 1939, oil on wood, 356 x 454 mm, Tate.

By the 1930s, even in Britain, you could include a slight Impressionist patina to your work without people assuming you wanted to fire-bomb Parliament.  This is a nice slice of England, well away from the Modernist fire-bombs, also perhaps showing the influence of the Euston Road School.  The appliance of paint on the blouse enjoyably mirrors the petals on the flowers, while the fact that the subject looks away from the picture book, lost in thought either about what she's just seen or something else entirely, adds some rudimentary psychological depth.  The best thing here, is the potato-like sofa.  I can feel the lumps.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

z.B. Skulptur - Joseph Beuys

Joseph Beuys, z.B. Skulptur, 1978, print on paper, 833 x 592 mm, Tate/National Galleries of Scotland.

Not so much a work of art, more a piece of paper telling you where some are.  It's an exhibition poster.  It is a good one.  It tells you where and when the exhibition is, and what's in it.  You can't really ask for much more.  (Actually, entry price would be nice.  And directions from Dudley, on foot.)
   What's of interest here is why the Tate has got it in the first place.  It has quite a few Beuys exhibition posters.  Of all the many gaps in their collection, the one marked 'Joseph Beuys exhibition posters' was one they chose to fill back in 2008.  This was because they were making a collection of Beuys-related material to be sent round the country as part of their Artist Rooms project.  It is currently in Worcester.
   At the moment, the acquisition makes sense.  But one day, in the far future, the Artist Room project will be no more, and some future mutant-person rummaging in the vaults will ask, why on earth do we have so many Beuys exhibition posters?  Another mutant-person will shrug, and wonder why the money wasn't spent on a work by the Greatest of All Artists, Ron Wood.  Then they'll put on their jet-packs, fly off into the Sun where they live, and forget all about it.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Self-Portrait as Jealous Tiger - Dieter Roth

Dieter Roth, Self-Portrait as Jealous Tiger, 1973, screenprint on paper, 578 x 686 mm, Tate.

Dieter Roth was a Swiss artist associated with Fluxus and Arte Povera, whose materials included rotting foodstuffs, coffee stains and rabbit shit.  True to form, the Tate bought some of his screenprints.  I don't know that much about him or his ideas, but I'm guessing that the absurdity of having a self-portrait as a selfish tiger in which no tiger can be seen here is meant to playfully challenge the serious work-based ideology of capitalism, ultimately leading to a revolution and the spontaneous rebirth of society as a joyful utopia of perpetual amusement.  That's generally how this sort of thing turns out.  Anyway, I couldn't find a way into this piece, or feel that compelled to, but on the plus side I have quit my job and covered my local branch of TSB in silly putty.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Sunflower Seeds - Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei, Sunflower Seeds, 2010, porcelain, overall display dimensions variable, Tate.

This is the work that Ai Weiwei produced specially for display in the Tate Turbine Hall.  Many, many sunflower seeds, hand-crafted out of porcelain, none of them the same.  The idea was that you could walk about in them and pick them up, but unfortunately it was discovered that coming in to contact with them would turn some visitors into giant balloons and zoom around the Turbine Hall like Augustus Gloop.  It was a health and safety nightmare.  The display went ahead, with the field of seeds cordoned off.  Everyone put a brave face on it, but it was a massive let-down which raised the question, if an interactive work of art can't be interacted with, exactly how much art is left?
   This seed-dune arrangement is arguably more satisfying than the field, as you wouldn't really want to dive into it unless you liked the idea of death by porcelain sunflower seed suffocation, and allows for the inspection of a greater number of seeds without having to pick them up.  It is, however, a less comforting vision of the individual amongst the mass.  Here the unique seeds are on top of each other rather than all nicely laid out.  You wouldn't want to be the seed on the bottom of the pile.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

1. 'Ah! This life is so everyday' - Patrick Caulfield

Patrick Caulfield, 1. 'Ah! This life is so everyday', 1973, screenprint on paper, 410 x 359 mm, Tate.

I've generally found Caulfield's works reproduce dreadfully, as the factor of scale is all.  A flat patch of colour covering a sizeable area in front of you is very different from a little block of it on a page.  As with Lichtenstein, by making it small, you're left with something not that different from the low-art source material the artist has fed off.  This, however, is a screenprint and not that big, so not so much is lost.  From a folio of works inspired by the poetry of Jules Laforge, there is a magnificent tension here.  Yes, what we see is so everyday - a curtain, birds, the sky - but in these everyday things is the glory of nature, life, and the infinite sky, stretching out into space in all its flat blue glory.  The 'Ah!' is one of wonder.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Circus Artist and Child - Pablo Picasso

Pablo Picasso, Circus Artist and Child, 1905, ink and watercolour on paper, Tate.

For all his genius (and I have absolutely no truck with the 'Picasso doesn't really matter any more' school of thought), Picasso did suffer occasional lapses into trite sentimentality, and this is an early of example of this.  Although sentimentality was a key feature of his Blue Period, from which this work arises, (note the tell-tale 'blueness') it was generally offset by an emotional rawness, with the hand-to-mouth existence of the circus performers usually depicted starkly captured.  This sketch, however, is like the bits of a classic Chaplin film enthusiasts now apologise for.  The reference to the tradition of Madonna painting is tiresomely obvious, while the pathos of the poverty-stricken figure wearing a costume tiara is forced.  The bottle is nice.  Overall, though, bad work from one of the greatest artists who ever lived.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

The Adding Machine - R.B. Kitaj

R.B. Kitaj, The Adding Machine, 1972, screenprint on paper, 752 x 549 mm, Tate.

The other week I was roundly defeated by a work of Kitaj's, overwhelmed by his fearsome reading habit and not feeling up to negotiating the dense wall of references he had erected.  But the cosmic law of the art-selection system I employ wouldn't let me leave it at, of course.  So here is another book-themed work by Kitaj, one of many screenprints he made of book-covers, some, but not this one, collected in a folio under the title 'In Our Time'.  It suggests a view of books as both the physical manifestation of circulating ideas, and the means by which they circulate.  'The Adding Machine', for instance, was a play from the '20s, about an accountant replaced by technology before ending up in Heaven undergoing exactly the same ordeal.  The social reality of workplace mechanisation, and the romantic ideas about the essential human soul presented in the play are both captured in the totem of the book-cover here.  In our time, people have experienced this, it says, and felt and thought this.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

aaing j gni aa - Barry Flanagan

Barry Flanagan, aaing j gni aa, 1965, fabric and plaster, 1700 x 1450 x 1450 mm, Tate.

This early work by Flanagan (later of leaping gold hares fame) can be seen as both a break and a spoof of the British Modernist sculptural tradition, in particular Henry Moore.  Whereas Moore carved and cast, exerting his mighty will on his mighty materials, Flanagan pours wet plaster into fabric bags.  He only has partial control over the form the objects will ultimately have.  Where Moore was hard, Flanagan is soft, and in the sixties, the idea of sculpture being soft was still pretty mind-blowing.  But these soft forms are also phallic, totems somehow drained of their power and rendered cuddly.  Again, the masculinity of the great carving sculptor is undermined.  The form in the bottom left of the picture, meanwhile, is practically Moore-esque with the space opening up beneath it.  The title is primitive, not in the manner of much Modernism, appropriating what was found out in the colonies for its own po-faced purpose, but nonsensically so, like the gibberish a child would say as part of a game of pretend.  Indeed, this is Modernist sculpture turned into something wilfully childish, a return to Dada.  It's a piss-take that says of old gods, 'we don't believe in you any more'.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

W - Wittgenstein and Muhammed - Joe Tilson

Joe Tilson, W - Wittgenstein and Muhammed, 1969-70, screenprint on paper, 749 x 500 mm, Tate.

More from Joe Tilson, the artist who my I Ching-powered art selection system favours above all others, no doubt for cosmic reasons, and his 'A-Z Box'.
   'W' is for Wittgenstein.  In the '60s, 56% of all art produced in Britain was influenced by the ideas of the Austrian philosopher, and was pretty much incomprehensible to anyone who hadn't thought about it all really hard for several years.  Much of this art was therefore misunderstood completely and  roped in with Pop Art.  Artists such as Paolozzi, Tilson and Kitaj were not interested in celebrating pop culture for its own sake however.  Instead they saw it as part of a larger visual vocabulary, which brings us to Wittgensten and his ideas regarding language, notably language-games (each entry in a conversation analogous to a move in a game), and how meaning of words emerge from their use.   These artists saw the modern urbanised world as one large visual conversation,in which the meaning of images arising from how they were used.  Actually, I don't know if these artists thought all that.  I'm just guessing.  But I'm definitely right.  Anyway, Wittgensteinian artists were very fond of expressing their admiration through series of screenprints, which were then purchased by the Tate, making up a significant proportion of their overall collection, before being left in a basement and ignored for years.
   Here, Wittgenstein is given the occulty-starburst effect we've seen in Tilson's work before, denoting his overpowering insight.  Around him, the haircuts of otherwise-obscured '60s people pop out.  Is each haircut a move in a language-game of hair?  Underneath is an abstract collection of dots.  On its own, it's pretty meaningless, raw visual material not doing much.  But by being included in a work of art, it inherently gains some meaning through its use, and so gets sent out in the world, a move in a bigger language-game.
   On the back of this piece, meanwhile, is a screenprinted photo of Malcolm X and accompanying Nation of Islam paper headline, black holes bringing grimly to mind the bullet-holes of his assassination.  It's powerful enough, but I'm not sure what this is doing here.  My move in this language-game is 'eh?'

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Good God Where is the King! - R.B. Kitaj

R.B. Kitaj, Good God Where is the King!, 1964, screenprint on paper, 765 x 508 mm, Tate.

Ok, you're going to need your zoom functions for this, whacked up to about 300%.
   R.B. Kitaj, whose life story is a tragic warning not to take your critics too seriously, is a hard artist to get a handle on.  The problem is, however many books you've read Kitaj has probably read more, and unless you've read the same ones as him, as referenced in his art, you will always have a sense that his work is doing something on a level you simply don't have access to.  It's not a question of whether he's good, more of the impossibility of being able to see exactly how good.  Here in this screenprint, pages from various books are collaged together.  Recent and ancient world history, with an emphasis on the military features.  Also, Al Capone's in there somewhere.  I could make an effort to decode it all.  But I don't, because I know I would never be able to do it well enough in order to do Kitaj's intentions justice.  I haven't read enough books.  I haven't read the right books.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Stonehenge X - Henry Moore OM, CH

Henry Moore OM, CH, Stonehenge X, 1973, intaglio print and lithograph on paper, 455 x 294 mm, Tate.

More Moore, this time a print from his Stonehenge series. (Is Stonehenge on a moor, or is it a tor?  Gore, Waugh, drawer, floor... I could go on.) There's a lot of time in the image.  The stones have stood out there for over two millennia, exposed to the weather and Victorians with chisels.  Moore, a man with a vested interest in carved stone, has obviously also spent a fair amount of time looking at them.  The close cropping of the image means that you could almost be looking at the weathered bark of ancient trees, or the legs of an elderly elephant.  Ok, maybe not the elephant.
   The cropping also creates the illusion of the stones being right next to each other, when in fact they would be separated by a few feet, possibly with a third stone resting horizontally on top. (But then you know that.)  Henganatics could, no doubt, identify the stones from the contours and markings alone.
   Moore captures the sheer monumental solidness of the stones so well that he makes me want to go and feel them.  Except they won't let you do that anymore.  Moore.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Five Sisters Bing - John Latham

John Latham, Five Sisters Bing, 1976, books, 190 x 622 x 457 mm, Tate.

Here Latham uses his regular medium of book to echo the contours of a derelict land site in the Midlothian and West Lothian area.  The plan was to build book-shaped monuments on them, but I'm glad that never happened because it would probably end up like some late-Claes Oldenburg awfulness.  And besides, libraries do the job of publicly celebrating the written word so much better.
   I enjoy this, however.  That you can get a sense of the contours a large outdoor space from this simple cropping and arranging of everyday items is a neat piece of shamanism.  Curiously, the Tate's exhaustive cataloguing tells me that one of the books used is by top comedy writer David Nobbs, creator of Reggie Perrin.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Pool V - Tim Scott

Tim Scott, Pool V, 1971, steel and plastic, 940 x 1994 x 686 mm, Tate.

Here we return to the moronic activity of looking at sculpture via a photograph.  Scott, part of the 'New Generation' of sculptors who followed in the wake of Anthony Caro and explored the new materials and methods of manipulation that modern industry made available, a decisive break from the stone carving and bronze casting of Henry Moore . Here steel is rendered floppy, so it resembles leather, or handwriting, or some sort of musical notation hanging from the bar line.  Possessing aesthetic weight, whilst itself being witty and light, looking at this it seems a shame that the 'New Generation' were usurped themselves so quickly by the 'New, New Generation' of conceptual sculptors such as Richard Long and Gilbert and George.

Monday, 2 September 2013

A E I O U - Joe Tilson

Joe Tilson, A E I O U, 1970, printed papers on screenprint on paper, 740 x 489 mm, Tate.

More from the Tate's collection of Joe Tilson screenprints, which is so enormous that if laid end-to-end, would comfortably wrap around the world several times.  Here, Tilson provides us with some sexy vowels, as in the noises a lady might make when touched by a young, virile pop artist, with the shapes of the letters mirrored in anatomy.  Whereas most of the points of similarity are obvious, there are some subtleties here, witty in a swingin' sexist sixties way.  The 'e' of the woman's nipple, for instance, does not reflect the capital letter below it, but the absent lower-case, while 'U' is tied to the black hairs of the male palm that explores the female body.  And what's going on in the top half of the image?  Failed attempts to write the letters, or a map of particularly touchable areas of skin?
   It's easy to write this off as dated, Austin Powers nonsense, but there's an analytical detachment in Tilson's work that suggests he's exploring the semiotics of the body, that is, how it is presented in the media of the day, rather than simply fiddling about with one.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

The Garden - Gillian Wearing OBE

Gillian Wearing OBE, The Garden, 1997, Screenprint on paper, 651 x 889 mm, Tate.

A variant on Wearing's 'Signs That Say What You Want Them to Say and Not What Someone Else Wants You to Say' series.  Here the concept is a bit more ambiguous.  Wearing and companions pose in sloganed t-shirts.  But are the slogans declarations of their honest thoughts, or are they what they expressions of what they wish they could think and say?  Does Wearing really think she's as cool as Garfield?  Does the woman next to her believe her breasts to be brilliant?  I'm guessing the woman on the end (who looks vaguely familiar - it's not Joanna Lumley is it?) really does consider herself to be shy, as that's not generally an aspiration.  But then, did they choose their own t-shirts?  It's all a mildly interesting mystery.
   The execution, with the lettering coloured in on an otherwise monochrome image, is artless and naff, as it generally is in Wearing's work.  This, however, adds to it by creating a sense that we are witnessing a genuine and cheerful attempt at open and direct communication. Due to the title being a little less explanatory than normal for the artist, we don't quite get that here, but that's ok.  A bit of vagueness in a generally all-too readable oeuvre adds variety.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Bookplate: S. Anthony - Eric Gill

Eric Gill, Bookplate: S. Anthony, 1926, intaglio print on paper, 121 x 86 mm, Tate.

 Bookplate from the most problematic artist in modern British art history until Graham Ovenden came along and knocked it out of the park.  Leaving aside Gill's awful personal life (why did I allude to it at all? I'm cheap), this is an image of perfect balance.  St. Anthony spreads his legs to perch on a seat, which sits between vegetation either side, while he reads a book, inevitably revealing two pages.  The way the putto clings on to the sphere containing St. Anthony, as if it would float away if he didn't, while the female angel throws herself on top to weigh it down, is witty.  Anthony himself looks like he could drift out of the bubble at any time, presumably as his study has taken him out of the physical realm, while the book he is reading appears to be held down by his hands.  It is a picture about light and weight, spirit and form, Heaven and Earth.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

R.B. and W. Spiral for A. - Sir Terry Frost

Sir Terry Frost, R.B. and W. Spiral for A., 1991, oil paint and acrylic paint on canvas, 1905 x 1905 mm, Tate.

This is a good-size painting, so the sheer thrill factor of standing in front of a great big fuck-off spiral is somewhat diminished on a computer screen.  Nevertheless, you can see how the image works, with the Op Art disorientation of the spiral form working against the impreciseness of the free line Frost's brush leads us down. If it were any looser, it wouldn't be a spiral at all.  It would just be an uncoiling mess.  But Frost knows exactly how far to push it.

Monday, 5 August 2013

Q - Questions - Joe Tilson

Joe Tilson, Q - Questions, 1969-70, screenprint on paper, 750 x 501 mm, Tate.

Another from Tilson's A-Z Box.  Here Tilson moderately tinkers with the 1931 publicity shot of Greta Garbo as the Sphinx, adding text ('Q?'), a slight psychedelic starburst effect exploding from Garbo's eye, and a tint.  You could argue that such meddling adds nothing much, other than a mild amplification of what's already there.  Garbo is the Sphinx, she is an enigma.  The Sphinx had its riddles, Garbo had her own mysteries.  Is this just a case of yet more blank pop art, mutely putting something already in the world on display?
   Well, not quite.  I actually left off one intervention Tilson has made.  He's shifted Garbo several inches towards the right, so that she is now in front of the Great Pyramid of Giza, instead of off it to the side.  This lining of her head with it's diagonal, and the interplay between the lines of the starburst and those of the pyramid somehow create an occult charge that is absent from the source image.  We've moved from kitsch into something more unnerving, like a card from a Tarot pack.  You half-expect Kenneth Anger to stage a ritual in front of it all.  We are drawn into Garbo's face, and the mystery is no longer some banal thing about why she doesn't want studio-hands to do interviews much.  She is the Sphinx.  Her mystery is death.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

[no title: p. 239] - Tom Phillips

Tom Phillips, [no title: p. 239], 1970, lithograph on paper, 190 x 140 mm, Tate.

On a bad day, Tom Phillips is an artist I sometimes confuse with Joe Tilson, whose work we looked at a couple of weeks back.  Indeed, superficially, the image here and the Tilson are remarkably similar.  Found text messed around with so that the original meaning is lost.  Their aims are quite different, however.  Tilson is interested in language and semiotic systems, exploring them by chopping them up so they don't work so well any more.  This print by Phillips, however, is part of a much larger and ongoing work, A Humument, in which a found, forgotten novel called A Human Document is altered page by page, so a new ambiguous and poetic story emerges from the parts of the text Phillips isolates.  It verges on Surrealism, with Phillips letting new arrangements of words emerge in the same way Max Ernst saw fantastical creatures in wood rubbings.  There is also a sense that we are hearing fragments of thought ('repeated... music of your mistake') that recalls Joyce.  Reading it is a surprisingly powerful, out-and-out modernist experience.
   It is not simply literature presented as art, however.  The fact that there is no clear order in which to read the text, which rests on a pointillist background of summer colour, means that navigating it is reliant on the eye finding its own way around the structure of the image.  It is art and literature simultaneously.  Or if you will, literarture!  No, wait, forget I said that.  Oh Christ, I'm so ashamed.  DELETE DELETE DELETE

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Amoha O Fetise - Neville Gabie

Neville Gabie, Amoha O Fetise, 1998, screenprint on paper, 380 x 260 mm, Tate.

Part of a wider project in which South African artist Gabie photographed makeshift goalposts across the world, admirably describing them as examples of 'dirty minimalism'.  This screenprint, in which the standard football pitch layout is distorted, connects well with that concept of a blueprint being imperfectly followed, potentially by nearly anyone in any place.  Well, maybe not Lou Ferrigno in a tiny lift, but you get the idea.
   There's a quote from Shakespeare at the bottom that I could live without, as that sort of thing makes me feel like the artist is asking for a pat on the head for having done reading.  No need to show your working out, artists!

N - Newsletter - Joe Tilson

Joe Tilson, N - Newsletter, 1969-70, screenprint on paper, 737 x 500 mm, Tate.

Another work acquired due to the Tate's seeming policy to purchase every print made in Britain in between 1968 and 1976.  Part of the A-Z Box, in which pop artist Tilson explores various types of visual communication.  Here the language of newsletter is subjected to Dada cut-up, so that it is rendered nonsensical.  While Tilson's contemporaries the Situationists would use this device to undermine the Capitalist Spectacle and thereby bring about a new world order built around messing about in a giant playpen for adults, Tilson opts for the usual pop ambiguity of balancing on the wall separating criticism and celebration.  Newsletters ought to be examined, the work says, but they're probably not evil.

Provence - Charles M. Gere

Charles M. Gere, Provence, 1926, ink, crayon and watercolour on paper, 324 x 457 mm, Tate.

Charles M. Gere does a watercolour of his holiday in Provence, as about a billion and one other British artists had done for over a century and a half before him.  What distinguishes him from his predecessors?  At first glance, not much.  He hasn't shattered the image and rearranged it in a Cubist stylee, or turned the colour knob up like an over-excited Expressionist.  But, if you look closely, you can just about tell this is from the twentieth Century, and not the nineteenth.  There's a flattening of the areas of colour that gives a hint that Gere may have once seen a Gauguin, and results in the impression that the ground is as liquid as the river running through it.  Much British art of the time is in this vein.  A nod to the undeniable fact that something's changed, but not wanting to be foolish and throw all the old stuff away in a rash moment.  Many sneer at this, but it's a reasonable enough attitude.  Most people are not revolutionaries, but are also not totally conservative.  This type of work captures that large slice of human experience nicely.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

The Founding of Australia 1788 - Algernon Talmage

Algernon Talmage, The Founding of Australia 1788, 1937, oil paint on canvas, 2290 x 3200 mm, Tate.

Another example of what the Tate was actually buying doing the modernist era.  Weirdly, the actual painting was presumably too tedious to photograph, and instead is represented here by this line sketch of it featured in the 1937 Royal Academy catalogue.  So instead of a presumably unremarkable history painting (I've seen a detailed oil sketch and you'd have to be really big on the founding of Australia to get much out of it), we get this curious ghost version of it.  Print out and colour in.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Print K - Version VIII - Ian McKeever

Ian McKeever, Print K - Version VIII, 1997, woodcut on paper, 1129 x 798 mm, Tate.

McKeever has been exploring a lattice motif punctuated by torn voids for some years now.  This woodcut is more void than lattice, so maybe isn't that exciting, a bit like zooming in on the boring bit in a fractal picture.  If you look at it as part of the larger 'Eight By Twelve' series it comes from however, the emergence of the deep blue space has power.  Indeed, the collection as a whole carries a lot more weight than any isolated work from it.  It is the Exile on Main Street of the woodcut world.

Monday, 17 June 2013

Waterlow Park, Highgate - Rodney J. Burn

Rodney J. Burn, Waterlow Park, Highgate, c. 1924, oil on canvas, 1480 x 2970 x 55 mm, Tate.

This large painting was one of eight large works offered by a group of artists to decorate the new County Hall in London.  Unfortunately, County all didn't want it, so it's taking up space in Tate storage instead.
   A curious work, with modern Londoners depicted in the classical style.  A water-nymph straight out of Poussin leans on a picnic hamper, while a putto raises itself out of a pram.  Meanwhile a swam glides on still water.  The semi-circular frame creates the sense these well-to-do leisure-seekers of yesteryear are trapped in a glass paperweight forever.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Mother and Child With Wave Background I - Henry Moore OM, CH

Henry Moore OM, CH, Mother and Child With Wave Background I, 1976, lithograph on paper, 175 x 265 mm, Tate.

A late print by Moore raises the question: Why do the people in his drawings look like his sculptures?  As a good modernist, his sculptural figures look the way they do because he's being true to the nature of his material.  So his stone mothers and children look heavy and block-like because that's pretty much what stone is like.  Bronze, also on the weighty side.
   But why draw them like that?  This isn't a preparatory work for a sculpture.  It's its own thing.  It's almost as if Moore has set his sculptures loose in their own comic book.  The temptation to cover drawings like this in word balloons and onomatopoeic sound effects is overwhelming.  Although not so overwhelming I'd actually do it.

Monday, 3 June 2013

H-Block Prison Protest, Newry - Paul Graham

Paul Graham, H-Block Prison Protest, Newry, 1985, printed 1993-4, photograph, colour, on paper, 680 x 880 mm, Tate.

A photograph from Graham's 'Troubled Land' series, in which he documented subtle intrusions into the Northern Ireland landscape that provide evidence of the Troubles.  The graffiti on the path here is not readable, and seems innocuous enough.  That it in fact refers to the Maze Prison creates a gap of perception between the seeming banality of the scene and the politically charged reality encoded into the environment - a language of signs readily understood by its inhabitants but barely visible to the outsider.
   (I realise I'm verging on the tedium of the average gallery explanatory plaque here, but I don't feel like being funny about Northern Ireland, and there are some things it is impossible to say anything useful about without having immersed yourself in the subject first.  So better to just grimly explain how the image works and move on.)

Sunday, 2 June 2013

G. Space Age Archaeology. Left: Fathers. Right. Sons - Sir Eduardo Paolozzi

Sir Eduardo Paolozzi, G. Space Age Archaeology. Left: Fathers. Right. Sons, 1971, etching on paper, 244 x 222 mm, Tate.

More from Paolozzi's 'Cloud Atomic Laboratory' series of prints, in which images from the early years of the Space Race are revisited post-Moon Landing.  As the title states, this is 'Space Age archaeology'.
   Thankfully, this reproduces a bit better online than the last, so we can see how the source material (photographs? illustrations?) has been uniformly smoothed to produce complimentary images that enter in a disturbing dialogue with each other.  The 'father' test pilots in the left image appear cheerfully engaged in unthreatening scientific endeavour, while the 'sons' on the right, with their toy guns and fallen soldiers, let the cat out of the bag.  Despite appearances of adventure for the sake of adventure, this is all to do with gaining military advantage.  They are the future their fathers are bringing about.  The smiling technician, meanwhile, is eerily echoed by the marionette in the playroom, not dissimilarly dressed.  Science is a puppet here.  The imagery isn't subtle, but not everything has to be.  It stings.  It works.
   (If you find some of these images too small, by the way, I recommend the zoom function on Chrome.  It really does let you get into the detail.  Yes, yes, I know Google are using the information to programme a sentient robot version of yourself who will one day replace you in the night, but that's a separate issue.)

Saturday, 1 June 2013

[title not known] - F. Derwent Wood

F. Derwent Rees, [title not known], 1916, bronze, 235 x 110 x 120 mm, Tate.

This is one of a number of studies that Rees made when he took part in a two-horse race with Alfred Drury in order to win a commission to make a statue of Sir Joshua Reynolds for the Royal Academy forecourt .  He came second.  Oh well, never mind, F.  Happily his widow donated the studies to the nation so his unfulfilled vision can still be enjoyed.  Yay! goes the nation.  There's an pleasing contrast between the rough modelling of the original clay and the permanence of the bronze casting in the plinth, while there seems to be a weird Phantom of the Opera-mask thing going on with Sir Joshua's face that all goes to make this study more palatable to the contemporary eye than your average finished heroic bronze statue.  Weird to think Picasso had already passed in and out of Cubism when this was made.  This, however, is the forgotten mainstream of art in the early decades of the twentieth century.  It served a purpose then, but who knows what to do with it now?  Is it a case of it being of no interest, or do we simply not know how to be interested in it?  Answers on a postcard, please...

Monday, 13 May 2013

E. Quoined Chase - Gordon House

Gordon House, E. Quoined Chase, 1970, etching and aquatint on paper, 377 x 378 mm, Tate.

House (pop-cultural claim to fame: designed the back cover of Sgt. Pepper) fills a square elegantly with some op-art shimmer.  You get an illusion of depth if you look at it for long enough, so that's good.  Part of a wider series in which similar squares are filled in a range of groovy sixties ways.  Essentially art as interior design (as in the arrangement of enclosed space), which is appropriate considering his surname.  House, get it?  Oh, never mind.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

D. Top: Culture: Monkeys May be the Next Space Travellers on US Made Satellites. Bottom: X-15's Maiden Flight - Sir Eduado Paolozzi

Sir Eduardo Paolozzi, D. Top: Culture: Monkeys May be the Next Space Travellers on US Made Satellites. Bottom: X-15's Maiden Flight, 1971, etching on paper, 386 x 190 mm, Tate.

This etching based on space-age source material (which unfortunately doesn't reproduce online that well, so any qualities as a print it might possess are pretty much lost), marks a significant turning point.  When Paolozzi began collecting imagery such as this back in the 1940s, before anything had been sent into space at all, and it was all just a distant dream.  By the time he was producing print series based on it in the early '70s (this is from a collection called 'Cloud Atomic Laboratory'), a man had walked on the Moon.  The future that was dreamed of had become the past.  Indeed, it could be argued that the Moon Landing was the moment when, for the time being, we could get no more modern and, as anything after that could only be an anti-climax, such as was the case with the later Moon landings, then the West inevitably slipped into a state of post-modernity, becoming nostalgic for the sense of moving forward to a brighter, better tomorrow.  Old earnest optimism turned to kitsch.  This work is an early indication that people were feeling that.

Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Untitled C - Cindy Sherman

Cindy Sherman, Untitled C, 1975, photograph, gelatin silver print on paper, 430 x 355mm, Tate.

Sherman was in her very early 20s when she took this photograph.  It's actually student coursework.  Nevertheless, she has already found her theme, style and begun her body of work proper.  That's pretty impressive, when you consider how many important artists don't find 'it' until their 30s or even 40s. 
Sherman is a great artist, one of the very best of the late twentieth century. There, I said it.  What makes her great is that her work hovers beyond easy description, and is generally therefore described wrongly.  What is usually said of this phase of her work is that her photos of herself, made-up and costumed, capture stock figures, usually female, from the history of cinema.  Although she does not recreate any specific character, with rare exceptions, we know what sort they are.
This is wrong.  We don't.  We almost do, but we don't.  Who is the girl she is pretending to be here?  What movie have we seen her in?  It's almost there, but it eludes us.  Instead, the girl emerges nameless from darkness, as if arising from the collective unconscious.  She does not capture cliche, but stands one step away from it.  She creates the illusion of cliche, pointing us in its direction without being so boring as to present it.  This pretty amazing feat puts her way above most other artists doing some deconstructing of media images shtick, and shows them up to be the pedantic, joyless, theory-obsessed bores they are.  Sherman's work cannot be contained by theory.  It rises above it, doing something strange and unknowable, as all great art does.

Sunday, 28 April 2013

[no title] from 'Pair B' - Grenville Davey

Grenville Davey, [no title] from 'Pair B', 1993, screenprint on paper, 716 x 839 mm, Tate.

Davey won the Turner Prize in 1992 for his sculptures based on the forms of buttons, corks, and the like, blown up to many times their original size.  This is one of his screenprints, and again magnification is a key element.  We see a photo of a spotlight, enlarged to varying degrees to the point that the image breaks down into pixels.  This is a work about the limits of observation.  It tells us that closeness is not necessarily clarity, and to examine an image of a thing is not to examine the thing itself.
   Despite being about the act of looking (and taken from a larger series called 'Eye') it's not that visually interesting, however, and I've seen enough pixelated images in art over the past twenty years or so I can't really get that excited when I see another one.  It's a stimulating enough work, I guess, although the thoughts it inspired aren't the most interesting ones I've ever had, and I can't help but feel that Davey's sculptures are always going to be the main event.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

-12° - Alfred Manessier

Alfred Manessier, -12°, 1956, oil paint on canvas, 1143 x 1460 mm, Tate.

This work by Manessier is a prime example of what artists were up to in Paris after World War II once the centre of the art world had shifted to New York.  While the Abstract Expressionists were often explosive, splattering the canvasses with their very souls, the 'Lyrical Abstractionists' were elegant, calm, bordering on the polite.  If Pollock was bebop, then this is cocktail jazz.  It's what I think of as 'Set Design Art' - that is, the sort of paintings that Hollywood created for when a character in a light-hearted film wanted to splash out on an edgy, modern work to show how 'with it' they were.  Often with hilarious consequences.
   That's not to say it's bad at all.  Manessier also worked in stained glass, and he recreates the effect here, with blocks of colour gradually emerging out of the darkness of the forms.  The yellow is like sun falling on the snow-covered landscape the title evokes.  There's a pleasing harmony between the weight of the forms in the bottom right and the seeming weightlessness of the rising cone in the top left, with the right-angled central form acting as a hinge between the two.  The dark forms evoke wood in the snow, tents,shelters, a paddle?,  maybe even reindeer's antlers.  An enjoyably cold, silent painting.

Monday, 8 April 2013

+ - - Joseph Beuys

Joseph Beuys, + -, 1962, oil on card, two parts, (left) 309 x 228 mm (right) 310 x 228 mm, Tate.

Beuys is one of those artists who requires a period of deep immersion in their work, due to his allocating materials and objects with symbolic meaning arising from the personal mythology he awarded himself (Beuys is probably the only artist with a superhero-type origin story).  I've never given him that much of my time, essentially because to do so has always felt like deciphering the teachings of a New Age cult leader for comfort.  He's probably all right, though.  I mean, no one died.
  Some of Beuy's most impossible work was in performance, and at first these appear to be be instructions for an action.  Jump over a beanbag, and then... um.   Anyway, the Tate website artwork decipherer sees the plus and minus here refering to male and female energy, which is reasonable, but it got me thinking of Nietzche's (and others) idea of Apollonian and Dionysian creativity.  The figure on the left is Apollonian - it is graceful, ordered, in a state of balance.  The mass on the right is Dionysian - chaotic, convulsive, creation arising out of destruction.  The two opposites ideally exist in a state of equilibrium.  If the former gets out of hand, you end up with bad tower blocks, or the Third Reich, or the Paul McCartney album London Town.  If the latter, Yeltsin's Russia, that new Hendrix outtakes thing, or a performance poet just going 'NEEAARRRGHHH!' into a microphone.
   Aesthetically, at first this looks quite scrappy, but if you live with it a bit the brushwork reveals a surprising gracefulness.  The work itself achieves an Apollonian/Dionysian balance.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

$he(1958) - Richard Hamilton

Richard Hamilton, $he(1958), 1982, cellotype and screenprint on paper, 384 x 280 mm, Tate.

Over twenty years after producing the original work that I looked at last week, Hamilton returned to $he for this print.  I'm not sure why he did this, but for me it epitomizes what had happened to the perception of pop art in the intervening years.  Any critical edge it may once had was now blunted by over-familiarity.  It wasn't so much that people couldn't see it, it's just that it no longer had the power to bother them.  In fact, it had been reduced to nostalgia, something along the lines of: 'Do you remember when all those artists told us that our consumer culture was a hollow lie, draining our lives of any spiritual content and reducing us to mindless automatons?  Ah, good times.'  The dissolving cyborg figure of the original looking out of us with a single eye, pleading for help, is here replaced by a smiling doll.  The conversion process is complete.

Monday, 25 March 2013

$he - Richard Hamilton

Richard Hamilton, $he, 1958-61, oil paint, cellulose nitrate paint, paper and plastic on wood, 1330 x 944 x 98 mm,Tate.

Here we come to our first acknowledged masterpiece.  It's difficult to say much about Hamilton's pop-art oil/collage work of the '50s that hasn't been said before.  It's quite an easy image to read.  Consumer products, a woman reduced to the level of the commodities around her etc.  I guess what I find interesting is the treatment of the body.  The woman is dissolving.  Whereas Bacon emphasized the fleshiness of his subjects, here the figure is losing her physical reality, like Mike Teavee being turned into a television signal in Willy Wonka's factory.  This sense of the physical world breaking apart at a molecular level is mirrored in the image of the toaster, with the popping toast itself absent, instead represented by a series of dots showing its trajectory.  The work can be read as proto-Ballardian sci-fi, with the organic losing its essence in the white, clean, manufactured modern kitchen environment designed to serve it.  One key detail is the collaged eye staring out, as if there's someone trapped in a cyborg casing.  Half-woman, half-fridge, and the toaster blocks the exit.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

#8 - Sean Scully

Sean Scully, #8, 1992, aquatint on paper, 116 x 174mm, Tate.

The final work in Scully's Heart of Darkness series.  Here the horizontal and vertical lines evoking land meeting water and the flow of currents return, and we get a sense of departure as the narrative comes to a close and we leave Kurtz and the Heart of Darkness of the Congo.
   So what has been achieved by this reading of abstract images in the context of a Wikipedia summary of the plot of Conrad's novel?  On the one hand, I think it's been rewarding.  I'd say the links between the story and the images I found weren't totally insane. (Or were they?  An interesting thought experiment I'd like to carry out in regards to this series is to get an abstract series of works by Mondrian or somebody, tell a test subject they relate to the story of Jack and the Beanstalk, and see what links they come up with.  Would their reading be more or less convincing than mine regarding this series?)  It has also taken my appreciation of Scully's work beyond 'it all looks like Licorice Allsorts'.  There's a starkness in the contrasts he uses that stops me from viewing it as I once did, as being pleasantly decorative but little else. 
   On the other hand, by concentrating on finding the narrative in the images, I haven't got very far in finding a means, accessible to the lay(wo)man, of discussing the formal aspects (shapes, colour, balance etc.) of abstract work that is much more than just saying what I see.  Maybe I'm not the person to do it.  As an author, I'm generally going to be more interested in questions of what/where/who are we looking at over how does the yellow counteract the green or whatever.  Oh, I dunno.  We'll get there.

Monday, 11 March 2013

#7 - Sean Scully

Sean Scully, #7, 1992, aquatint on paper, 312 x 260mm, Tate.

Scully at his most Rothko.  While obviously alluding to the Abstract Expressionist's 'windows', the human brain's innate desire to read facial imagery into pure shapes kicks in (I admit, I am thinking of Kang and Kodos from The Simpsons here), and so this is another work from the Heart of Darkness series that suggests a presence rather than a place.  It's an act of some mental effort to read it as a location, and even more of one to think in terms of pure abstract forms.  Maybe it/s a mistake to give into a figurative reading so easily, but the work does have an eerie totemic presence that I just can't shake.  Is this what looks out at you once you have reached the heart of darkness?

Saturday, 9 March 2013

#6 - Sean Scully

Sean Scully, #6, 1992, aquatint on paper, 123 x 178 mm, Tate.

This is the kind of Licorice Allsort-resembling work by Scully that would have bored me not so long ago, but in the context of an illustration for Heart of Darkness speaks to me of the scuttling, imprisoning insanity of Colonel Kurtz.  You could argue that it's not much of an abstract image that requires a narrative framework in order to be appreciated, but that's a bit like saying Ghostbusters wouldn't be much good if it didn't have Bill Murray in it.  But it did, so everything's fine.  It will be interesting, however, to see what I make of Scully's work outside the Heart of Darkness series if and when I encounter it.

Monday, 25 February 2013

#5 - Sean Scully

Sean Scully, #5, 1992, aquatint on paper, 312 x 258mm, Tate.

More watery abstraction from Scully's Heart of Darkness series.  This time the yellow ochre brings to mind the muddy bottom of the river.  I can imagine what it would be like to sink a pole into this.  It feels like we're going deeper and deeper into the Congo here.  It's an ominous image, full of sickly heat.  Once again, the deep contrast holds you back from relaxing into it, while the vertical and horizontal lines suggest imprisonment.  There's no gap through which to escape.  We've gone too far.

Saturday, 23 February 2013

#4 - Sean Scully

Sean Scully, #4, 1992, aquatint on paper, 205 x 176mm, Tate.

Here we enter a solid month of Scully, as we work our way through the Heart of Darkness series.  Obviously it would be tempting just to round them up in one blog post, but if I did that, I would be drummed out of the Obsessive and Pointless Blog Project community.  And besides, the whole philosophy behind this blog is to find out what happens when you don't just rush on to the next thing, and instead simply look at the thing in front of you.

Although ostensibly an abstract, all I'm seeing is Mickey Mouse with square ears baring his bloody teeth.  Now, obviously this is a stupid thought, but again, I'm interested in where stupid thoughts that have no place in any other area of art writing can lead.  The Mickey Mouse thing is probably just me, but did Scully really not think that vertical red and white stripes wouldn't make the viewer think of teeth and blood?    And a it's an accompanying image to a novel, is a figurative reading really so dim?  Is this image meant to conjure up the spirit of Colonel Kurtz, perhaps?  Whatever the intention, whereas Scully's previous images in this series convey a sense of place, this very much gives me a sense that there's someone there, looking out.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

#4 - Richard Diebenkorn

 #4, Richard Diebenkorn, 1978, etching, aquatint and drypoint on paper, 277 x 200 mm, Tate.

I'm generally suspicious when painters do series of prints, especially when, as they so often do, they resemble a photo of one of their paintings that has been sent via fax.  I find it hard to convince myself that the work has some merit in its own right, and that in fact it's just art world product, existing to provide a cheap range for those who might find the price of a painting a bit steep.
   Although I get a bit of a sense of that here, what this work does do is emphasize the importance of line in Diebenkorn's work.  Tying in with his 'Ocean Park' series of paintings, in which he captures the feel of the Californian coast (or to be tediously Marxist, the joys of Californian beachfront property ownership), we can see a fragmented Cubist approach to space, with lines that conjure up the sea sandwiched between areas of land.  Indeed, positively identifying much is tricky, but nevertheless a sense of place is expertly communicated.  An image that rewards close and sustained viewing, as a location slowly reveals itself from the apparent jumble of elements.  A formalist might argue that the work should succeed or fail on its own merits, regards of its ability to connect the viewer to its subject matter, but, you know, fuck 'em.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

#3 - Sean Scully

Sean Scully, #3, 1992, aquatint on paper, 319 x 260 mm, Tate.

Further into the Heart of Darkness with Sean Scully.  A simple checkered pattern given a rippling, liquid feel by the looseness of the borderlines.  I find I'm actually enjoying Scully's work a lot more sat at home in front of my computer than I have ever done when looking at it in a gallery.   There are two possible reasons for this.  Firstly, Scully's work is often grouped with other artists who rose to prominence in the 80s as part of the 'return to painting'.  In the company of their muscular, anxious, Expressionism-on-steroids works, his look unadventurous and timid.  It seems he really deserves his own space.  Secondly, the Heart of Darkness prints were never designed for gallery viewing.  They are book illustrations.  They are intended for the personal, domestic space.  (Glad they're online though.  The book currently retails for $4,500.)  So while any aesthetic joys that might be possessed by the Anthony Caro paper sculptures are lost when flattened by photography and parceled through cyberspace into your living room, these prints actually thrive.  Which is good, because there's about a month's worth coming up soon.

Sunday, 3 February 2013

#2 - Sean Scully

Sean Scully, #2, 1992, aquatint on paper, 323 x 278 mm, Tate.

The second from Sean Scully's Heart of Darkness series.  Still watery.  Actually prefer this.  There's a tension between the restfulness of the implied ripples and the contrast between the light and dark.  I want to sink into it but it won't let me.  I like its attitude.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

#15 Point - Sir Anthony Caro

Sir Anthony Caro, #15 Point, 1993, Card, acrylic paint, watercolour, felt pen, graphite on cardboard base, Tate.

Another Caro paper sculpture, this time one that alludes to music manuscript paper.  Again, the colour of a Crowded House bass player's waistcoat (He's taking off the paisley one halfway through the set, only to come on in a gold one for the encore).  I love Anthony Caro's earlier stuff, and some later stuff.  I get about the formal relationships between different elements and all that.  The fact I can't explain meaningfully explain why I don't care for this in terms other than that of a spiteful 90s Melody Maker journalist is a failure.  But this, I'm not feeling.  Is anyone else?

Update: OK, I've given it a lot of thought, and I think I might have worked out what winds me up a bit about these Caro paper sculptures ('Not my cup of tea' is not an acceptable criticism).  Essentially, they are fiddling disguised as innovation.  The problem for Caro is that he is one of the last great modernist artists.  Now, modernism followed a very linear idea of artistic progress.  What a modernist artist did to earn their place in art history was find the unanswered questions arising out of the work that preceded and go about answering them.  If you did that in way that didn't totally suck, then congratulations! you're part of the story.  Unfortunately, once you've made your great contribution, there's very little for you to do except refine the big thing you did for the rest of your career, or just needlessly muck about.  If your work is monochrome, throw in more colours.  If your work is flat, make it 3-D.  If abstract, throw in a few figurative elements.  Change materials.  Do something, as long as it's a bit like your old stuff but not so much you're just producing copies.  Unless the change is so fundamental that it really throws the viewer in a Dylan-going-electric type-way (or Picasso going neo-classical), then it is ultimately just fiddling.  In David Bowie terms, this is Black Tie, White Noise.  In Rolling Stones terms, this is Voodoo Lounge.  It's nice, it reminds you a bit of past glories, but does it stand on its own merits?  Not really.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

#11 Dusty - Sir Anthony Caro

Sir Anthony Caro, #11 Dusty, 1993, ink, oil pastel, graphite, acrylic and paper, 280 x 350 x 358 mm, Tate.

If there's anything more stupid than attempting to look properly at a painting or drawing online, it's trying to look at a sculpture online.  Actually, that's not quite true.  Sticking your knob in an electric pencil sharpener is stupider than either, but you get my point (as does the electric pencil-sharpener).  It's a three-dimensional object.  We don't have 3D internet yet.  Do we?  I don't think we do.

I'm giving it a go anyway, though, because if you click on the handy link above you will be able to see today's work of art, a paper sculpture by 'Sir' Anthony Caro, from four different points-of-view - front, the left, the right, and, wait for it, the back.  Not that there's any front or back when it comes to modernist sculpture, really.

This is actually more post-modern than modern, dating from a period when previously fiercely abstract artists such as Caro, Stella and Phillip King began to incorporate decorative or even loosely figurative elements into their work.

I'm not keen on it here.  The giant-sized pencil-sharpenings effect (Intentional? It must be, surely) makes me think of a humourless Claes Oldenburg, while the patterning brings to mind a Crowded House bass-player's paisley waistcoat.  Perhaps because autumnal colours were very much 'in' around about when this sculpture was made, it seems very much of it's time rather than transcending it.  And maybe it's because it reaches for some sort of timelessness, while unaware of how rooted in the moment of its making that it fails.

So I've decided I don't like a sculpture, after viewing some photographs, because of some trite aesthetic reasons.  It's just taste.  Does that matter?  Does it mean anything?  Not sure.