Monday, 25 May 2009

Abstract America, Saatchi Gallery, London - The Independent, London

There are two kinds of art. One has to do with looking at the world outside of us – the human form in all its horror and all its beauty; the terrible turbulence of nature. The second kind closes its eyes and responds to the world non-representationally. We call this second category, very loosely, abstract art, and it has been with us for thousands of years. Abstract art was in at the very beginning of sign-making. Abstract art was a way of expressing reverence for that which was unpicturable – the idea of the eternal, for example. 

To see some fine examples of this second group, open up – very gingerly, lest it fall apart - your dog-eared copy of The Story of Art, a classic text by the late Sir Ernst Gombrich which was first published more than half a century ago, and is still in print to this day, and quite deservedly so. Here are two or three fine examples of abstract art from that book: a page from the Lindisfarne Gospels, dating from the seventh century; the carved lintel which once belonged to the house of a Maori chieftain; and Frater Ruffilus’s writing of the letter ‘R’, from an early thirteenth century manuscript. As these various examples make abundantly clear, there are many different kinds of abstraction. Some have their toe in the world – they seem, in part, to be abstracted representations of organic forms such as flowers and leaves; other examples – think of the long history of Islamic art, for example – look like pure patterning of a much more cerebral kind, more akin to mathematics than anything else.

   This week a new show at the Saatchi Gallery in London will throw a spotlight on yet another manifestation of abstract art, and this one will consist of a group show of work – paintings and sculptures - by young artists from America who are responding to a form of abstraction that was invented there in the aftermath of the Second World War. 

   The story goes something like this. After the Second World War, dear old Paris, art capital of the Western world for almost as long as the ideas of taste, luxury and sexy connoisseurship had been in currency, suddenly lost the right to call itself the guardian of the newest of the new in art. Tired in spirit, humiliated by occupation, and with many of the artists and dealers either dead or fled, the torch, by the beginning of, say, the 1950s seemed to have passed to New York, where a group of individuals loosely labeled the Abstract Expressionists were beginning to make very loud claims for themselves. And, even more important, were beginning to have very loud claims made on their behalf. What was everyone shouting about?

   Abstract Expressionism was, in part about spontaneity, lavish painterly gesture, the freeing up of the native American spirit.  In common with the ambitions of Surrealism, it was an attempt to set free the creativity that was locked inside every human mind. The various artists associated with this group included  Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Ad Reinhardt and Mark Rothko. In fact, they were making two quite different kinds of abstract art. One kind seems more like frenzied calligraphy, often on a giant scale. Pollock was the man whose spirit seemed to embody this first idea of Abstract Expressionism. He laid his canvases on the floor, poured paint directly on to them, and then danced around for as long as it took. It was pure, wild, colourful and undeniably expressive, from first to last. Pollock was America’s first Action Man. The plastic toys came limping after.

   Anyone who wishes to experience what feels like a quite different variety of Abstract Expressionsm should spend a few hours wandering around the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC, where some of the best known and most frequently reproduced images by the likes of Robert Motherwell, Ad Reinhardt and others are often on display. This group of painters were making abstract marks in a very particular, if not narrow, way. This is soulful stuff too, but this variety of soulfulness is earnestly inward-looking, spiritually self-searching, myth-making, more inclined towards the quietly contemplative. There’s no whooping and shrieking here. In fact, some of these painters – not all by any means – make us feel as if their souls had been shriven by exposure to some terrible desert over a period well in excess of forty days. Their art is extremely severe and unyielding and unsmiling. We are suffering, it seems to say. Our work is being extruded from us with the utmost pain. We have reached down to the core, it intones gloomily, and it is hard and cold and lonely down here. These artists often work on a giant scale: tremendous, gaunt slashings and shiverings of black against white. Yes, many of them do not do colour – well, barely. They do not do exuberance either. They do not do frivolity or popular entertainment of any kind. They do not do the outside world, not at all. Any resemblance between what you see in their paintings and the living or the dead seems purely accidental. They do not welcome you in to their circle; in fact, that circle seems to be enclosed by an electrified fence. They say to you: life is an extremely severe discipline. Approach it – and us – with a respectful degree of wariness. We are the pitiless masters of an almost overbearing austerity. Embrace us at your peril.

   Yep, an afternoon spent down at the Hirshhorn can leave you feeling rather dry-mouthed, spent, and even chastened.

   And then, from the early 1960s onwards, came a second wave of abstract painters and sculptors, which included Brice Marden, Frank Stella, Carl Andre and Donald Judd. This second group were dubbed Minimalists by various enterprising art commentators, ever ready to neaten up and categorise the daily, pell-mell flux of things. The Minimalists lightened things up a little, but not too much. Here are some of what you might loosely call minimalist ‘doctrines’: be truthful to the materials you are using. Do as little as possible with what you are given. Change it barely at all. Be as anonymous as possible. Pretend to be a maker of something that could just as easily get made on the factory floor. Don’t make loud claims for yourself as that maker. Keep it pure, simple, true. Don’t try to imitate anything else. Matter may be sufficient unto itself. Dress and look like a blue-collar worker.

   Carl Andre has that image to this day: he habitually wears the blue overalls of the honest artisan, this blighted man whose honest-john appearance is marred only by the fact that he may or may not have murdered his wife some years ago (he was finally acquitted). ‘Well, you see I’m a matterist really, not a minimalist. I didn’t invent that word.’ That’s what Carl Andre once said to me when I asked him why he did so little to the materials he used – he just organises them when he gets to a gallery. He has no studio of his own. He’s an itinerant. So if it happens to be bricks, and there’s a floor, that it’s, folks…

   Now it is within the context of this almost surprisingly complicated, and almost self-contradictory, mixture, of self-abnegation and self-celebration within the various strands of post-war American abstraction that we need to view this new generation of young American artists. And, yes, they are doing abstraction all right, just like their artistic forefathers before them, but the spirit and the feel of this work could not be more different from what was happening in New York and elsewhere from the 1940s through to the 1960s. Is it correct then to call these young artists heirs to all those who went before? Well, it’s both true and misleading in just about equal measure. These new ones have been touched by influences unavailable to their predecessors, the most significant of which is cyberspace, whose manifold seductions we can fall a prey to at any time of the day or night, and where we can be everywhere and nowhere all at once. Cyberspace turns life into a non-stop collage of fleeting impressions, and the spirit and the intrusive cacophony of cyberspace spreads like a seeping red stain in a white linen suit through all this work.

   Non-stop. That is a very important idea for these young artists. If you listened in on their conversational buzz, you would probably hear something like this. Well, yes, this is something I’ve made, but it could just as easily be something else, and it may well become so in due course. I call myself a painter now, but the fact is that I’m a multi-media guy/gal of whatever I choose to make, and what I choose to make it out of is what happens to become available to me when I start sniffing around here, there and everywhere…

   This feels like work which is gloriously impure, and polluted by the world that surrounds it. It’s a kind of snatch-it-from-here-there-and-everywhere kind of work. Artists are natural scavengers – they always have been – but these artists are experts at it. This work contains elements of story-telling, something that would have been anathema to the Abstract Impressionists, who wanted to purge art of the superficiality of narrative in order to get to the very essence of stark sign-making. This is an art which has the capacity to laugh at itself and the art world of which it is a part. It feels looser and freer and, well, funnier too. It makes time for casualness and superficiality because life in part consists of those things. It does not feel sufficient unto itself.

   Which brings us to another interesting issue which is seldom talked about by either art critics or artists because it is a very awkward one. It is, however, very pertinent to this show. What are you supposed to be thinking about when you look at an abstract painting? This is somewhat akin to the question: what are you supposed to be thinking about when you are listening to classical music? I once put the first of these two questions to the celebrated American abstract painter Brice Marden when we were staring together at a particularly gorgeous sequence of looping the loops. He laughed, slightly uncomfortably, and told me that he often thought about his daughters. Was he confessing to some kind of act of self-betrayal? But how do you think about patterning which, to some degree, seems to relate only to itself? How long does it take before you start thinking about your daughters?

   The fact is that in this new show over at the Saatchi Gallery you are actively being encouraged to think about the fact that what you are looking at is out in the world because it is so often referring to what happens in the world, whether that be art making, commerce or popular entertainment. Sometimes it is a mixture of all three. A new pact seems to have been established here, whose terms are as follows: we are makers of abstraction in the American manner, but what that means has been changed irreversibly by what has happened in the world outside of us. We are no longer the monks of yesteryear. Nor are we the showmen. Nor do we feel reverential towards the materials that we use. There is no such thing as a material which is either appropriate or inappropriate. Everything is grist to our mill. We, the youthful scavengers of our frenzied world, are proclaiming a new doctrine: our art is constrained by what we choose to do. All ages are present to us. We make of it what we will, when we will, as we will.





Kristin Baker makes works which seems to embody the thrill and the dash of the passing moment. She uses industrial materials, and she often looks as if she is engaged in sign-painting. ‘Excide Batteries Beer a Sphere’ (2003) is a typical piece of work – a rich, onrushing mix of media spectacle executed with a fine painterly flourish.


Matt Johnson

If you thought you knew what to expect from a piece of origami, you had not reckoned on the playfulness of Matt Johnson in a work entitled ‘The Piano’. Johnson has taken a giant piece of tarpaulin, folded it into the form of a pianist sitting, arms raised, at a grand pian, fin menacingly raised, and coloured it an exhilarating, Yves Klein Blue.

Elizabeth Neel

Neel’s work is a refined take on carnality and ferocity. The bloody, torn carcass of an animal falls away from a tree in a shattered, blood-soaked blur, having just been blasted by hunters to eternity. But the palette she uses is so luscious and seductive.

Ryan Johnson’s sculptures are made from a riotous cast of materials: casting tape, glass, plywood, cement, cardbosrd, spray paint. He makes comically grotesque walking or leaning figures, pathetic veterans of life or war – both? - with gouty feet and legs blown off. Political cometnary? You bet.

Chris Martin is the point at which outsider art meets formalism. His paintings consist of blobs, dots, lines joined-together like constellations, and all painted with a kind of gloopy innocence and crudity. It looks a bit like a physics text book which is being read upside down and then used as a child’s colouring-in book.

Mark Grotjahn

Mark Grotjahn paints recessive linear perspectives in colours which remind you of Cubist experimentation from one hundred years ago -  geometric forms, with very thin lines, and closely worked in coloured pencil.

Dan Walsh is a natural heir to the grid-making of the Minimalists, though with a much quirkier touch. In ‘Red Diptych II’, two large-scale paintings hang side by side. One consists of solid blocks, the other of concentric tiles. As you look from one to the other, one seems to recede as the other advances towards you.

Bart Esposito's geometric paintings seem to be a mixture of curvaceous graphic design and pop art. The colours are groovy browns and oranges. The forms twist and twist impossibly, smooth as gum.

Amy Sillman’s work is as close as any of these young artists gets to the contemplative manner of some of the Abstract Expressionists. Rich, colourful, with shapes that seem to be dissolving into other shapes even as we look at them, they feel weightless and fragmentary.

Aaron Young’s work often seems to begin in Pollock-like scribblings –except that the marks on ‘Greeting Card 10a’ have been made by motorbikes roaring back and forth across the canvas. Pollock would surely have approved.




Friday, 22 May 2009

Transmission Interrupted Modern Art, Oxford - Art Review

Political art so often shouts too loudly. Like most political poems, it knows where it’s going long before it gets there, so there is no element of real surprise or genuine imaginative engagement. This choice new group show at Modern Art Oxford, which exhibits works by fourteen young artists from around the world, is quiet and nuanced by comparison. This is political art as it should be made, wheedlingly purposeful, skilful, quietly memorable.

   Take ‘Timeline: Romanian Culture from 55BC until today’ by Lia Perjovschi, for example. This piece runs riot around the walls of one of the first floor galleries, a kind of crazy, seething mass of scribbled notations on 40 sheets of paper, randomly placed photographs and incomprehensible crowdings in of information. It makes you laugh out loud to see it because it mocks the kinds of absurdities that historians and cultural commentators indulge in all the time, the rapid, pat analysis of the complexities of national history. Another equally engaging piece is an assemblage of  objects displayed on a long, curving table by Michael Rakowitz called ‘The invisible enemy should not exist (recovered, missing, stolen series)’. Rakovitz has re-made a selection from the thousands of object that went missing – and remain missing - from the Iraq National Museum after the invasion of 2003. Except that he has made them out of trash – Middle Eastern product packaging, sheets of newspapers, glue. They are all solemnly displayed chronologically, as they might be in the British Museum. They are a powerful reminder of absent, priceless things, re-made out of trash.

   We impose meanings from outside when we deal with cultures other than our own. What do we make of Mircea Cantor’s ‘Monument for the end of the world’? Once again, this piece works its way with use through humour. A table-top display shows us what resembles a scale model of something that looks somewhat akin to Macchu Picchu. Wooden blocks stand in for built structures – yes, it is a kind of scale model. Tiers of steps ascend to nothing more meaningful than a wind chime,  gently stirring in the breeze, and suspended in  the air by the arm of a crane. It has all the trappings, and all the strange atmosphere, of a sequestered place of hidden ritual, but its meaning is completely opaque to us, if not absurd. Once again, we are forced to stand on the outside and look in, abandoning our clever games of cultural appropriation even before we begin.

   Downstairs, one entire gallery is occupied by the giant hulk of a blackened, burnt out car – except that it has been made in terracotta by Adel Abdessemed. This object which, out in the street, would create a frisson of fear has been tamed into a monumental piece for a museum of modern art. Some trace of a street war has been pleasingly aestheticised. No one need worry any more. 

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Royal Society of Portrait Painters Annual Exhibition 2009 - The Independent, London

Portraiture is where art meets commerce head on. I notice that as soon as I walk into this lunchtime’s seething private view of the annual exhibition by members of the Royal Society of Portraiture down at the Mall Galleries, which is, appropriately enough, just a hop, skip and a jump from the Palace. An area is dedicated to something called ‘portrait enquiries’. There’s a table, a ledger (yes, it looks quite that high falutin’), pens, and prints of artists’ works on what look like storyboards. And this year, as ever, the walls are teeming with portraits, almost all of them smartly framed. (Portraits can’t afford to look scruffy.) Choose your style. Choose how you would like to see yourself. Then write down your name beside the portraitist of your choice and, gulp, ask him how much - for such and such a size - in these lamentably straitened times.

   That is the thing about portraiture. It is immediately accountable to its subject, and to fairly traditional notions of what reality exactly consists of in a way that much contemporary art is not. Contemporary art tests reality until it bends and nearly breaks. People laugh at it. People mock it. Then some poker-faced Mr Anonymous in a city suit lays down a million or two by phone line, and the mockers fall silent, and the art critics start to pen long and difficult sentences.

   No, commissioned portraiture just can’t get away with the wild levels of experimentation which characterised so much of the art of the 20th century. All those isms! People want to be reassured by their portraits, They want to recognize themselves in what they see, to know themselves as they believe themselves to be, and not only their own hands, faces and bodies, but the kinds of contexts in which they live and move and have their day-to-day being: The college they preside over with such strictly avuncular authority; the medals that shine, so richly deserved. And the portrait painter, by and large, needs to satisfy their needs so that money will shift relatively easily, and with more than a modicum of good will – another satisfied sitter, you might say - from patron to portraitist. It’s as simple as that. It always has been.

   And yet there is a problem here. Much of the stuff on these walls is excellently painted - after all, these people are professionals at what they do. And yet much of it doesn’t stir us very much. It doesn’t have the excitement of work which is breaking new ground. We know it for what it is, for what it is expecting us to feel, almost without looking at it. It presses such familiar buttons. It is, for example, satisfying easy assumptions about class, respectability, eminence, correct behaviour. It is making a lot of people feel that this is how the dependable world works. It doesn’t court risks. It’s never nasty or slightly troubling. We look at portraits of comfortably prosperous families sitting on a chaise longue, and we recognize that this is exactly the kind of scene that Gainsborough would have painted for a similar family two hundred years ago. The price would have been high – as it is now. And the head of this memorialised family would have been hugely proud that they had the money to confirm their own status as a serenely prosperous family. Not all of it is like this, mind you, but a lot of it is.

     The dreariest paintings are of human beings we know both too well and not at all: Mrs Thatcher, the Princess Royal. Now why do these paintings seem so tediously unlikeable and uninteresting? Well, they seem to be identikit – if not mulch - works, and not even especially good likenesses – we’ve all seen much better press photographs. They feel like general impressions which have had the reality wrung out of them. Public figures as visually edible as last months’s mouldering baguette behind the radiator. Or is it that we never really liked the idea of these women much anyway?



Saturday, 16 May 2009

Jerwood Contemporary Painters - The Independent, London

Who are the best young painters at work today? This group show of about thirty works is the choice of the Jerwood’s three judges, who are all practising artists themelves. Very few of these twenty-six young people are fresh out of college; they are not really, in that strange, queasiness-inducing locution, emerging. Quite a few of them are well established, and already represented by first–rate galleries. Take Ryan Mosley, for example, who two years ago had just graduated from the Royal College of Art, and was chosen by this newspaper as the talent to watch out for in 2008. His large canvas in this show, ‘Psycho Cubist Picnic’, is a kind of surrealist-cum-cubist-cum Gustonish act of zany, venturesome play with figures and things – or rather parts of figures and things. All the bits of the world seem to be falling and spinning apart in hilariously comic style. It seems to have been painted in a kind of wild, Picasso-like dash, and it’s full of a tremendous sense of vim and gusto.

   And that, in fact, is the overall tone of this show – a kind of reckless, experimental joy in the use of paint on canvas, a rooted belief that the world is the painter’s oyster, and that if you should happen to choose to gild and prettify that oyster these days, it’s entirely your prerogative. There’s nothing hole-in-corner about any of this work, no feeling that the art of painting itself might be beleaguered, or under some kind of a threat from the newer media. It’s all very self-confident stuff that we see here; it’s work that often connects up stylistically with the recent – and even the distant past (look at Matthew Weir’s fascinating take on an Adam Elsheimer, for example), but it is also forging ahead into the future without any flinching or hesitation. And when it does pay homage to the past, it often does so playfully. The past is there for the joyous plundering. The past is there to give a kind of density, a kind of layering, to the present. It is playful and confident, seldom poker-faced, seldom over-earnest, always unconstrained. There is no evidence of any particular school or tendency, no dominating trend of any kind, no particular look-at-me brashness, no calculated wish to disgust us or to shock us. Instead, a kind of wilful eclecticism seems to be the order of the day. There’s a steady commitment to the idea of the importance of the art of painting. But most of all the show seems to be shouting back at us: Who can do it better than a painting? Painting is just as young and vibrant as it is old and venerated. In short, it’s here to stay – and, by the way, it always has been.

   Is the work predominantly figurative or abstract? A variable mixture of the two. Much of the best work is abstract, but it does not have the severity of the pioneers of abstraction. It is does not set out prove that abstraction represents a kind of unassailable purity of vision, something which is set apart from, and disdainfully rises above, the mess and the muck of the world. This is an abstraction which is often within a jokey nodding distance of recognisability. Here, for example, is a piece by Sam Windett which looks, with its geometrical severity, like a take on Constructivism. But it’s only partially that. There’s too much cheekily understated colour washing about the work. What is more, the title gives the game away: ‘Mobile (white)’. And this is often the case with the abstract work in this show. Colour gets poured in to lighten and free up a mood, repeatedly – there’s none of the priestly poker-facedness of Abstract Expressionism about this confidently cheerful gang.

  Some of the figurative work has a beautifully delicate tonal simplicity, a paring back to the essentials – look at David Webb’s representation of a Monarch butterfly, what he has made of the form, and how he has contextualized it within its painterly environment. It’s all very simple, beautifully judged and poised – just like a fecklessly evanescent butterfly, in fact.

Luke Fowler at Serpentine Gallery, London - The Independent

Luke Fowler is a young, experimental (for want of a better word) film maker who won the first  Jarman Award in 2008. This show at the Serpentine Gallery in Kensington Gardens is a kind of mini-retrospective of his major projects of recent years, and in part a documentation of those projects. This is what artists so often do these days. They make something, and then they scrupulously record the various stages they went through on the long and serendipitous journey towards its conclusion. They are both the creators and the archivists of what they have created, opening up their own inner workings, letting us see art as the process that it must inevitably be. Is this always interesting? Not at all.

   In Fowler’s case, it is quite interesting because he has opened up the discussion to take in our assumptions of what exactly a film is, and what makes up its constituent parts. So much is up in the air for film makers these days. Film. Video. DVD.  Isn’t it a bit passé to use film at all in a digital age? Not at all, say certain purists such as Tacita Dean. Fowler bring lots of different things together to create a kind of multi-layered filmic experience, which is part art film and part a kind of free-flowing and free-ranging approach to documentary making. Two films in particular in this show help us to see the direction in which he is heading. Pride of place – it occupies the entire central gallery - is given to Composition for Flutter Screen, the strangest  and most recent piece of all.

   Here is what you experience. Total Darkness. Then, a second or two later, a huge, white, fluttery taffeta screen is lit up by two lamps, trained to left and right of it. It’s a brilliant white, five-metre square spectacle, and the screen itself is overlaid by an additional strip of white light, curved like a scimitar wound. There’s a tremendous amount of agitation, and there’s noise too, not only the whirr of the projector, but also a sound track, which comes and goes, and the sound of the agitation of the screen itself which, unusually, is in a state of perpetual motion.

   Why? Those two fans which stand on the ground, to left and right of it, are blowing air at it, causing wave-like ripple effects to flow back and forth, combing it, seaming it like a ploughed field. Is this then what we have come to see, the fluttering spectacle of a giant, ghostly taffeta screen? No. That’s just the beginning. The fact that the screen never stops moving disrupts our ability to see the image – when it comes…

   Darkness again, and then a rectangle of the screen is filled with an image – a vessel brimming with water, meniscus bulging, or, later, a candle, doubled, with a strangely smokey bud of flame. The images are both vivid and partially unreadable, and when that projection faders, as it soon does, they leave a ghostly after-image of themselves…

   From agitated painterly abstraction, to A Pilgrimage from Scattered Points, a film which is equally tricksy in certain technical respects, but this time you understand very well why it’s happening. Fowler has a fascination with various counter-cultural figures – elsewhere in the show there’s a film about R.D. Laing, that rebellious anti-psychiatrist.

   Pilgrimage examines the life and slow death of the Scratch Orchestra, a phenomenon of the 1970s. Various musicians came together to make  music, and to encourage others that music could be made by anyone. It didn’t have to be the prerogative of some elite. Cornelius Cardew was perhaps its most celebrated spokesman. And it was Cardew who helped to bring about the death of the experiment because of the degree of hatred he felt for the bourgeoisie. Regrettably, certain group members felt that they belonged to the bourgeoisie and, no matter how hard they searched their souls, they couldn’t find it within themselves to call themselves truly bad people.

   Now all this fractiousness, and this musical experimentation, is caught in the way the film is made - rapid cuts and quick fades; odd blurrings; off-beat angles; interviews from then and now. The fact that it is so spasmodic and jumpily collage-like seems to mirror its subject matter perfectly. This is experimental film making at an unusually intelligent and focused level.


Gerry Judah at Wolverhampton Art Gallery, Gallery Guide

When is a painting not exactly a painting? Gerry Judah’s paintings occupy an uneasily anxious zone mid-way between painting and sculpture. Given that their obsessive subject matter - and Gerry Judah is nothing if not obsessive - is the terrible aftermath of conflict, this uneasy occupation seems to rhyme with their meaning. They hang from the wall, but they are built out from it, weirdly, and in a way that, when we look at them, and peer down into them, as if with the eye of a bird or a drone, almost induces a sickening sense of vertigo. They seem to be clinging to the surface of the canvas as if by some miracle. They show us an entirely shattered zone of conflict, human habitations which have been pulverized almost out of existence. We recognise bits and piece of tottering, leaning, listing shapes. These were once fairly drab municipal buildings or apartment blocks. None of these structures was an object of beauty. Paradoxically, they seem to have gained a little more magnificence, a little more grandeur, in their extreme decrepitude, in the way in which they seem to be crying out to us for pity. Look to the left and to the right of these collapsing buildings, and you see that the surface of the painting is pitted with fragmentary shapes, scorings of lines, odd ribbings, some circular, others straight. Is this evidence of earlier human occupation? As you look, you dig in with the eye of the archaeologist, combing the surface for fragmentary evidence of what may once have been here. Paintings usually have a flat surface and traffic, often quite easily, in the nature of illusion. There is nothing easily illusory here. Everything is a bit betwixt and between.

   Yes, everything is ruined and posthumous here; everything represents some terrible, settled aftermath of the destruction of normality. This desolation on an epic, if not a theatrical, scale. And yet there are no people here to testify to what seems to have happened. There is no smeary blood letting of any kind. Apartment blocks lean into each other, as if for support in their tribulations. Smashed aerials and satellite dishes hang awry. The buildings are often so close together, so hugger mugger, that we can often barely see between them, and sometimes when we do try, we peer down into shafts of near-darkness. Things look fossilized, fused, almost buried in the canvas. And these battered and bruised fragments of buildings have to stand in for the complete absence of any evidence of human suffering.

    Judah works in two colours only, white and black. Most often white. Any other colour, you feel, would not be right for what he is endeavouring to do. Colour, variegated colour, is often a mighty distraction. It draws us off in different, and often quite serendipitous, directions. It seems to be playing many different tunes simultaneously. It introduces thoughts of the decorative. It invites us to single out, and then to separate, one thing from another, to play off this against that. It encourages different kinds of playfulness and levity.

   Judah wants none of this. He strives for a certain undistracted wholeness of vision, a sharp, unrelieved, singular focus. So white enshrouds everything. It is the colour of Pompeian dust. It is the colour of ghostliness. It is the colour of a shroud. Yes, this white is enshrouding everything which is unspeakable, and it feels so eerie and hushed and set apart from us.

   The paintings are of two shapes, rectangular and circular. The rectangle suggests the customary idea of the landscape. When we look at a rectangle, we fall into the idea of landscape – such is our cultural conditioning. With the circle it is quite different. With the circle, the eye finds it more difficult to come to rest. It has to be pinioned in some way, and Judah has pinioned one of these circular paintings by creating a formation of buildings in the shape of the symbol of the cross. We still see the same remnants of human habitation here, but they are aligned, symbolically, on a north-south, east-west axis. The atmosphere of this circular painting is quite different from that of the others. It seems to occupy a different kind of space. It feels, because of its shape, more globally marooned, more rootless, more islanded, more symbolic than actual, more iconic than pictorial.

   All these paintings begin in model-making – in Gerry Judah’s studio in north London you can see the models lined up, made from foam board, all beautifully detailed, one behind another, a whole series of what look like rather dreary Eastern European – or perhaps Middle Eastern - apartment blocks. But this work is not about model-making. Model-making is merely its point of departure. After the models have been attached to the canvas, Gerry Judah then begins to destroy them – on the day I visited, he suddenly showed me how, with his clenched fist.

   Yes, this is only the beginning. Then comes the real work - of adding plaster, paint, rubble, glazes until, having passed through the influence of Tapies, Rauchenberg and others, we begin to move much closer to the idea of the re-invented painting. Yes, this is, finally, as much what the work is concerned with: issues of texture, light, painted surface. But let us not forget the overwhelming sense of menace.    

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Barry Fantoni: Public Eye, Private Eye Thomas Williams Fine Art, London W1 - The Independent

Of a Saturday night, you can often catch him in the bar at the Chelsea Arts Club, swinging a tenor sax from side to side, blowing out his lungs. Today Barry Fantoni, veteran Private Eye cartoonist, is showing off half a century of paintings and drawings, large, medium and small – portraits of women, still lifes, landscapes, cartoons - in a high-toned, first-floor gallery overlooking Old Bond Street. There is no chronological arrangement about this show. You begin at the end, and end at the middle – which feels about right for this agreeably talented shapeshifter of a man. Some are on the walls, others are propped up on chairs. It all feels a bit sprawly and slightly raucously glass-clinking. The styles are all fairly casual mix’n’match too – it’s as if Fantoni  has been moving from tailor to tailor in the past fifty-odd years, trying on things for style, finding out what suits the moment. Is it to be the replication of a Rubens today or a take on Mondrian? Well, how does it look out of doors?

In the 60s, Fantoni was part of the Pop Art scene, and here’s a painting of the Fab Four in 1963 to prove it – painted in that rather flattened, brash, commercial way that the pop artists made their own.

Sometimes Barry likes to sit back and contemplate the passing scene – there is a small series of bucolic looking Spanish roofs here, and another - one of the best paintings in the show – of a corner of Clapham Common and the Windmill pub, dominated by beautifully wispy trees. When he paints figures (usually women) in a room, he places them very carefully, slightly off centre, to give the tiniest edge of anxiety, and focuses our attention – in fact, gives exaggerated emphasis to - the seductive power of the eyes. Much of the show sees him responding to figures in the public eye, catching the mood of the times for the dailies  – he had a spell as front-page cartoonist for The Times - keeping up with the relentless now, now, now of the present.

Here is Harold Macmillan sitting up in bed, rigid, looking like a startled puppet in desperate need of the absent puppeteer. Another drawing, of 1963, gently satirises that fierce, all-action queen of the ‘60s, the high-leather-booted Honor Blackman, sitting in front of a two-bar electric fire, wrapped in a shawl, reading a book called Acting for Late Starters, other books strewn carelessly about her feet – Yoga; How to Stay Young -  while her husband, partially concealed from view, catches up with the ironing. The satire gets a bit fiercer when he turns his guns on a moustachioed Billy Butlin, king of the seaside holiday camp business - except that Fantoni has drawn him as a Nazi camp commander, with rolls of barbed wire and watchtowers at his back. Could it really have been as bad as that for all those holiday makers during works’ weeks?

And just around another corner, there’s a scene from the fag end of the ‘60s, when everyone had grown weary of the cynicism of old Labour politics. Yes, it’s Harold Wilson himself, on a Private Eye front cover, craftily bibulous, with a ‘sod the lot of you’ look in his pouchy eye, and a glass of tonic wine raised up high to toast us for our infinite patience over a decade of scheming and procrastinating.

Which is the real Fantoni? Where is his heart in all of this? You may well ask. It’s quite difficult to say. The really fine work is not located in any particular decade. There’s a lovely and slightly sombrely watchful self portrait from quite early on, and some quite tenderly meticulous early landscapes of London scenes, almost as small as pages from Constable’s sketch books. And a pleasing nostalgia-soaked scene of Brockwell Park Lido in the summer, teeming with skinny – that dates it – frolicking bodies. But Fantoni always wants to be off and away. There’s always another mountain to climb, always another riff to be blown or another fine suit to stride out in.


Friday, 1 May 2009

Hockney: Just Nature - The Independent, London 30 April 2009

Now here’s a curious fact. If you want to really understand what David Hockney has been pouring his energies into these past several years, you need to visit a museum in a small, medieval town in Swabia. Why could this not have happened in England? The question hangs in the air, waiting for a collective response from the curators of England’s great cultural institutions.

   It has to be said that Hockney seemed, for large tracts of time, to be off the boil during the '80s and '90s – think of those dreadfully garish, sub-Picasso abstracts, or the cringing, chocolatey paintings of his beloved dogs. There’s been a dramatic change in recent years though. A change of subject matter. And a change of location. The name Hockney no longer means the heat-struck langours of Southern California.

   Hockney’s now back living in Yorkshire, his natal county, and he’s painting the East Yorkshire landscape en plein air just like those Impressionists used to do. He’s out at the crack of dawn, when the light’s at its best and the shadows at their longest, pootering along narrow, deserted, twisty country lanes in his old car. He’s living in the house in Bridlington which he once bought for his mother and sister, and he’s wrestling with his new theme with tremendous energy and gusto – especially for a man of 72. When you walk around this exhibition, which is occupying the entire two floors of this large museum in the little town of Swabisch Hall, you are astonished by how much work he’s painted over such a relatively short span of time. And it’s not only the works themselves, it is also the scale of these works – many of these paintings are multi-panelled. Some consist of six panels; the largest (which had an airing at the Royal Academy’s summer show two years ago) is made up of 50 – 50! – panels. For Hockney, painting a single canvas on this kind of scale is out of the question because once you’re up a ladder, you can’t get the same flexibility of handling. You’re always considering issues such as safety and balance. So – ever technologically astute - he makes a mock up of the finished multi-panelled painting on the computer screen, but only ever works on discrete bits of it. Then the whole thing gets assembled. The tragedy about the hanging of this particular work here - and it is in fact an ink-jet reproduction of the work we saw at The Royal Academy, and not the thing itself – is that it is hung at the bottom of a stairwell, which partially obscures it from view. (What also troubles us is slightly is the fact that it seems neither better nor worse in reproduction.)

   Like the Impressionists also, Hockney wants to chart the changing of the seasons, and so we see several different views of the same triumvirate of great of trees or of the same rutty track, canopied like a chapel. Last Friday afternoon, he said how eager he was to get back to nature as quickly as possible because the next few days and weeks were crucial. ‘It’s action time,’ he said, with some evident frustration that he was stuck indoors in a smart grey suit. Then he went back to drawing on his IPhone – as he’s wont to do when faced by interminable questions from earnest German journalists.

   But how good are these paintings? Has Hockney brought something distinctive to this hoary old subject? Yes and no. The paintings are at their best when seen from a considerable distance – say, about 40 feet away. Then you grasp the way in which he has dealt with space, and don’t get tangled up in too much detail. You see how much he is enjoying the sheer theatricality of nature, her tricksy habits. Close up, the brush work can look a bit globby and gloopy and laboured and clotted and crude. He is brilliant when he is being most rash with his colour contrasts, when he seems to be transforming the countryside into some tremendous set for the Metropolitan Opera, when he’s erring on the side of the Fauvishly fanciful. Some of his brashest and most successful paintings are of felled trees and tree stumps. ‘Totem Tree’, for example, looks like a stubby, indomitable sacred symbol. It’s painted in a glorious, full-frontally naïve manner, vividly anti-naturalistic, and not wholly unlike Van Gogh.

   This curmudgeonly Yorkshireman is going to slosh on the paint till he drops.