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

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.