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

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.