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

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.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

#1 - Sean Scully

Sean Scully, #1, 1991, aquatint on paper, 117 x 174 mm, Tate.

I've never really got on with Sean Scully's work.  It always seemed to me a bit of a late rehash of modernist giants like Rothko and Mondrian, but small and craftsy, rather than epic and monumental.  Of course, not liking something because of what it's not is a miserable reason to dismiss it, and there's a fair bit of Scully coming up, so I may well end up liking him.

This is the first of a series of works made for a limited edition of Conrad's Heart of Darkness.  It is an aquatint, which is a printmaking technique that involves a paddling pool and a full set of scuba-diving equipment.

Although it's an abstract image, the fact that it's designed to accompany a novel suggests that we could read it either as in some way representing a location or moment in the story, or the movement through time and space that occurs within it.  I haven't actually read Heart of Darkness, but I'm guessing it's just Apocalypse Now, but more boring because it's olden days and no one's got any Doors tapes.  There's a river in it though, right?  So, on a basic, thick-person's literal reading of an obviously abstract image, we could say that the black and white stripes on the left are one bank, the orange and black ones on the right are the another, and the reddish-brown and black ones represent the river itself.  Of course, this doesn't work, because you would need the stripes on both banks to be going the same way, and they don't.  If anything, the middle stripe is more like a bridge between two waterways moving in different directions.  Which doesn't make sense either.  But do we get a sense of currents, of water meeting land, and a change in movement when switching from one to another?  Yeah, I think we do.

Stupid thought.  Nearly all Sean Scully pictures look like Licorice Allsorts.  Does he know this?  He must do, surely, as he grew up in the UK.  Which means he just doesn't care, I guess.  I look forward to his late 'Curly Wurly' period.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

! 1971 - Julius Koller

Julius Koller, ! 1971, 1971, ink on paper, 111 x 309 mm, Tate.

(Hey, me sticking these images here is fair use, right?  Right?  I've stuck a link to the Tate page anyway, so if anything, I'm doing them a favour.)

Some hardcore conceptual art to get us going then.  Ah, good.  Now I'm down with conceptual art, so if you've come here looking for someone to sympathise with your raging about how art isn't art anymore because technique has gone out the window, I'm really not your man.  All that interests me is if the experience of being in front of an object (or in the case of this blog, distanced from it by bloody miles but looking at a photo of the thing on a computer screen) someone has said is a work of art is a worthwhile one.

I'm not that familiar with Koller, and this work no doubt fits into a wider practice which gives it a much greater resonance and meaning, but essentially, on a folded piece of paper, Koller has stamped an exclamation mark, along with his name, and rough details of when and where he did it.

So, at a certain point in time, at a certain place, Koller did a thing, and that thing was to state '!'  Punctuation without a text to punctuate.  A modifier without anything to modify.  All that we can say about '!' is that it is emphatic.  It says that something definitely is, or definitely is not the case.  But what?  Well, anything, and therefore, potentially, everything.  Everything that is and everything that isn't.  Isolated, the exclamation mark takes on the role of a question mark, and asks you, the viewer, to look at the world around you, and ask: What is?  What is not?

Ok, not bad for a start.  Probably lost a few people in the last paragraph.  But is that because I didn't communicate clearly or because the idea was complicated?  Hmm.

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

What is the fucking point of this blog?

Many years ago, before I was a minor author of literary fiction, I studied art.  Not how to make it, but art history.  I studied it quite a lot.  At A-Level.  At degree level.  At post-graduate level.  I nearly got a doctorate in the stuff.  For better or worse, I even taught it a bit, and wrote precisely one exhibition review for art magazine Frieze.

But then I stopped.  Why?  Various reasons.  The money ran out, there seemed to be less and less of a future in it, undiagnosed autism was sending me a bit mad, and so on.  But one of the reasons was that I just didn't know what anyone was talking about half the time.  The whole discussion of art, at least in the English-speaking world seemed to be increasingly bogged down in what someone has called International Art English.  Meaning was obscured, rather than clarified.  People were being kept out, rather than being welcomed in.  I didn't want to be in the gang, and I didn't feel the gang particularly wanted me.

And so I haven't even thought about art much for the past decade.  And seeing as I don't live near that many decent art galleries, I haven't looked at it either.  During this time, however, questions have nagged at me from the back of my skull: how could we talk about art?  What is worth saying about it?  How do you keep the conversation open without treating people like idiots?  In this blog I want to feel my way in the dark, and see if I can stumble upon something, anything, that's useful.

To do this, I have set myself an utterly impossible, and perhaps totally stupid task.  I can't get up to art galleries to look at art right now.  I'm too poor.  I'm raising a small child.  Ain't gonna happen.  The Tate website, however, does contain many images from its collection. What I'm going to do is study these images by staring at them really hard and doing a bit of background reading, and write down my thoughts, in the hope that this will ultimately lead me somewhere worth being.

This is obviously moronic on a number of levels.  Firstly, an image on a computer screen is not the same as an object in front of you.  Any art object will possess qualities that can't be captured in reproduction.  Having said that, however, I did look at an awful lot of art over the years, and I reckon I can fill in some of the blanks from experience.  It won't be good enough, but it will be something, and something is better than nothing, unless that something is leprosy or something.

Secondly, the Tate website contains far more images than I could ever meaningfully study in a lifetime.  Seeing as I'll be working alphabetically, I'll be lucky if I make it to 'B'.  But I draw inspiration from the artist Roman Opalka, who spent much of his life counting to infinity.  Needless to say, he never got there, but it was the doing it that was the point.  In fact, I'd go further and say that all creative endeavour is, in some way, counting to infinity.  I haven't a fucking clue what that means right now.

So, these are the rules.  Working through the Tate catalogue, alphabetically, as found on its website.  One entry a week, on a Sunday, I expect, as everyone has a good rest and stares at art on a Sunday. Works from 1900 on only.  That's when the Tate's international collection starts.  Before that, it's British art only (fine though that is) and about a million scraps of paper that Turner blew his nose on.  My understanding of historical perspective isn't good enough to say anything worth saying about it, so it's going to have to be someone else's ridiculous blog project to wade through all that.  

I could be about to blow the door of perception wide open.  Most likely I'm wasting my life.  We'll have to see.