Thursday 27 October 2011

Review of William Morris: Story, Memory, Myth at Two Temple Place

William Morris: Story, Memory, Myth
Two Temple Place
27 October 2011 – 29 January 2012

Arriving at Two Temple Place, I was met at the gate by a smartly clad commissionaire. This certainly raised my expectations for what I would see on the other side of the grand wood panelled door, and I was not disappointed. The house was built, with no expense spared, in the early 1890s, as the estate office and family base in London for the first Viscount Astor, William Waldorf. The grand neo-Gothic mansion was designed by pre-eminent Victorian architect John Loughborough Pearson, and its interior was heavily influenced by Astor’s love of literature. He wanted specifically that the décor “personify literature in addition to being representative of art, craft and architecture,” and this is evident, for example, from the many characters beautifully carved and gilded by Nathaniel Hitch on the cedar wood panelling of the Great Hall, and the rilievo frieze of 82 Shakespearian characters in the gallery.

The mansion is now owned by the Bulldog Trust, who intend to use it as the first exhibition space in London dedicated to showcasing works from museums and collections from across the country. Launching with the exhibition William Morris: Story, Memory, Myth, this is the first time that the building has been fully opened to the public.

The exhibition, which includes many of the highlights from the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow (closed until July 2012 for renovation), considers Morris’ work from the standpoint of his own love for literature and legend. Alongside some of his better-known wallpapers and furnishing fabrics, tapestries, and a charming pencil and ink study of Jane Morris (ca. 1861), are various manuscripts of Icelandic sagas, classical tales (from Cupid and Psyche to Chaucer), and Arthurian legends. It is said that their discovery of a copy of Thomas Malory’s book, Le Morte D’Arthur, in 1855, was a turning point in the careers of both Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, who were greatly inspired by the ideals of brotherhood and fellowship represented therein. Morris’ favourite story was that of Tristram and Isoude, and his contribution to a 13 panel stained glass window, created along with Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti for Harden Grange in Yorkshire, was the four panels depicting scenes from this tale, also now on show in the Lower Gallery.

Upstairs in the library is a feast for children – Brer Rabbit fabrics, tile panels depicting the fairy tales of Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast (said by Georgina Burne-Jones to provide her husband with a welcome outlet for his “abounding humour”), and a larger, collaborative series of tiles produced by Morris, Burne-Jones, Rossetti, Ford Madox Brown, and Philip Webb, The Labours of the Months (1863), on which the months of the year are represented both by astrological signs and traditional agricultural tasks. An extra nice touch is that the water carrier depicted for Aquarius is said to be based on a portrait of Morris himself.

As Lorna Lee, director of the William Morris Gallery, commented: “We are delighted that some of the highlights from our collection will be housed in Two Temple Place. This exhibition […] enables a deeper understanding of William Morris’ output by exhibiting his works together with others by him from collections across the country in such a magnificent and fitting location.” This couldn’t be more true. Either the exhibition or the house alone would be worth visiting in isolation from one another, but both together provide a unique and exquisite treat.


Gallery with ebony pillars, Two Temple Place © Will Pryce

Love Leading the Pilgrim through the Briars from The Romance of
the Rose embroidered frieze
Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris (1874-82)
Linen embroidered with silks, wools and gold thread
Embroidered by Margaret Bell and her daughter Florence
© William Morris Gallery, London

Beauty and the Beast tile panel with Swan border tiles
Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris (1862)
Hand-painted on tin-glazed earthenware Dutch blanks 
Painted by Lucy Faulkner for Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co.
© William Morris Gallery, London

Review of Mr Brainwash at the Opera Gallery

Mr Brainwash
Opera Gallery London
6 – 31 October 2011

Thierry Guetta, better known to the public as Mr Brainwash, or simply MBW, first shot to fame as the unlikely filmmaker whose documentary footage of street artists at work ended up being turned into a film, Exit through the Gift Shop (2010), directed by the elusive subject whom Guetta had initially set out to record, Britain’s own Banksy. During his days and months spent filming and helping out the likes of Shepard Fairey and Invader (Guetta’s cousin, through whom he was first introduced to street art), the alter ego MBW was born and effectively acquired training as a street artist in his own right. Debuting with his first show, Life is Beautiful, in Los Angeles in June 2008, MBW has since gone on to be commissioned by the likes of Madonna (for the cover of her greatest hits album, Celebration, 2009) and the Red Hot Chili Peppers (for the launch of their 2011 album I’m with You). Baku magazine recently went so far as to dub him “the new Jackson Pollock” (autumn 2011 issue, p.18).

Street art might have existed since the 1980s, with the likes of Jean-Michel Basquiat in New York and Blek le Rat in Paris, and, indeed, in 2008, Tate Modern held a groundbreaking exhibition bringing this outdoors genre inside the gallery space, but it remains, nevertheless, something of a surprise to find it making its way on to the walls of a Bond Street gallery. For Opera Gallery’s current exhibition, however, this is precisely what has happened, as MBW was given “carte blanche” to do just as he wished within the space.

In some ways, the outcome is a bit of a disappointment, since the hang is sparse and sedate, with neat labels, and not a drop of paint touching the actual walls themselves. Nevertheless, most boxes of expectation have been duly ticked. There is, of course, a token Banksy, albeit rather tiny at just 30 x 25cm, in the form of a stencilled canvas of an elephant with a torpedo strapped to its back, Heavy Weaponry. A nod is also made to earlier days with Blek le Rat’s life-sized stencil of a fully armoured and helmeted Paintball Cop, armed with baton, and pictured against a wall decorated with paintball explosions. Perhaps teetering on the edge of what is and isn’t street art in its strictest sense, Scottish sculptor and installation artist David Mach’s Full Stop, a collage of the Piccadilly Circus tube station sign, can be seen as a gesture to the London location of the show, despite its range of international artists.

Unsurprisingly there are a fair few of MBW’s own works on display, including his broken record collages of The Beatles, The Jimi Hendrix Experience and Bob Marley. Kate Moss, on the other hand, is made up from six repeated images, torn like advertising billboards to reveal a layer of graffiti underneath, with a distinct Warholian element in the painting over of the eyebrows, hair and lips in different bright colours. Next to this hangs Italian artist Mimmo Rotella’s Marilyn Incredula, a similar idea in the form of a torn poster, this time of the iconic Marilyn Monroe. Does its title suggest the underlying conceit that these media celebrities have become the incarnations of our modern day Madonna?

For me, the work most fitting to the location is MBW’s Chocolate Vandal, an oil on canvas of an old fashioned maid, very much in the style of Vermeer, except that she is wearing a gas mask and paint-splattered apron, carrying a tray of spray cans and household paint, and standing with a graffiti-covered wall behind her. Perhaps this is MBW’s way of commenting on the tradition and value of the graffiti and street art genres, and of justifying such curatorial experiments, suggesting that these works should be seen as equally as worthy as, say, the 17th century Dutch masters? Jean-David Malat, director of the Opera Gallery, seems, for one, to concur: “There is no doubt that [street art] is now becoming the movement of the 21st century.” As to whether or not his faith is warranted, I guess only time will tell.

Photograph from the Mr. Brainwash preview, © Daniel Barnett Photography, 2011.

Thursday 20 October 2011

Review of The First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons at the National Portrait Gallery

The First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons
National Portrait Gallery
20 October 2011 – 8 January 2012

“Actresses are now models, models are singers, singers are actors. The job description is becoming very blurred […] Celebrity is so unbelievably celebrated now.” Such are the words of actress Wunmi Mosaku, one of the 39 contemporary actresses to have her portrait appear in the supporting exhibition to the National Portrait Gallery’s new show, The First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons. And plus ça change! This lavish exhibition of 53 portraits, some of which have not previously been seen in public, charts the rise of the actress in the 17th and 18th centuries, following permission being granted for women to perform on stage in the early 1660s, after the Restoration of King Charles II. In so doing, it provides an insight into what can unarguably be seen as the early days of celebrity culture.

Starting with Nell Gwyn (1651? – 87), one of the first actresses to perform on the English stage, and, according to curator Professor Gill Perry, the first real “it-girl”, visitors can see just how popular portraits of actresses became. They served various purposes and contained many symbolically loaded visual tropes, such as the less than subtle inclusion of a discarded corset and an advertisement for the spectacle of “a most surprising hermaphrodite” in order to provoke moral debate about the questionable conduct of a lady revealing her ankles on stage in a cross-dressing role (An Actress at Her Toilet, or Miss Brazen just Breecht, anonymous artist after John Collet, 1779). Other iconological elements include the careful placement of stage props to indicate the sitter’s role as an actress, such as a mask in the hand of Lavinia Fenton (possibly by George Knapton, c. 1739), or a guitar being played by Mary (“Moll”) Davis (Sir Peter Lely, c. 1674), and the exposure of one or both of Nell Gwyn’s nipples was a common device to mark her status as a courtesan (Simon Verelst, c. 1680). In a similar vein, Gainsborough’s portraits of Giovanna Baccelli (exhib 1782) and Elizabeth Linley (c. 1785-7) capture the social contradictions of an actress being permanently caught both in and out of role – the result of the public conflating her stage role and private life in its thirst for salacious gossip about these early superstars – by posing them against a typically rural Gainsbourgian landscape, but simultaneously over-exaggerating their stage paint make-up.

Portraiture was therefore, in itself, a form of performance. A new type of “theatrical portrait” – the representation of well-known actresses during a performance, placed centre-stage, within a dramatic scene (see, for example, Francis Abington, Thomas King, John Palmer and William Smith in ‘The School for Scandal’, James Roberts, 1777) – became increasingly popular, and was often exhibited in Royal Academy shows, thus strengthening an already tight bond between the visual and dramatic arts, and helping to elevate the latter in status. Engravings were often made of these portraits, and were sold alongside playing cards, fans, and other easily reproducible items: fan club merchandise in its early days!

As Professor Perry concludes: “[There is an] idea of Nell Gwyn as an early celebrity, whose life story and appearance are known through biographies and salacious gossip. But she was a shrewd manipulator of her own public image.” And surely much the same could be said of many an actress today?


Eleanor ('Nell') Gwyn
Simon Verelst, c.1680
Copyright: National Portrait Gallery, London  An Actress at Her Toilet or Miss Brazen just Breecht 

After John Collett, c. 1779
Copyright: The Trustees of the British Museum

Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse 
Studio of Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1784 
Copyright: Cobbe Collection, Hatchlands Park

Monday 17 October 2011

Review of Liane Lang: House Guests at WW Gallery

Liane Lang: House Guests
WW Gallery
6 – 22 October 2011

For those weary of the bright lights, vivid neons, and white cube displays of Frieze week, why not take a trip across to Hackney and enter the dark, brown-walled interior of Liane Lang’s House Guests installation piece at WW Gallery: a “museum to the individual”, in this instance, the well-known, if ambivalently received, author Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936).

A graduate of both Goldsmiths and the Royal Academy, Lang, who works primarily with sculpture, photography, and video, began this project when she stumbled upon internet pictures of Kipling’s self-built house, Naulakha, in Vermont. She began to read his work and became increasingly interested in his own life story. Intrigued, Lang went to spend a week at Naulakha, planning, initially, to take a series of photographs. Once there, however, she became so captivated that her project turned into a full-scale animation film and installation.

“Kipling led such an ambiguous life,” explains Lang, “and I wanted to bring some ambiguity into the installation.” The gallery space is divided into three main parts, and, upon entering, visitors have first to readjust to the gloaming darkness of a dim interior, complete with Persian rug, bench, perpetually ticking cuckoo clock, mocked up death mask of the man himself, and small bookshelf holding the “expurgated version” of his complete works, leather bound and decorated with the left-facing swastika, common on many of his older editions, and deriving from the Sanskrit, meaning “auspicious object”.[1] I say “expurgated”, since one volume, the ghost stories volume, is absent. And this is by no means happenstance. Lang found Naulakha to be quite eerie, alone there in the company of her own copy of this missing volume, and she seeks to convey this ghostly or spectral presence in her work.

The film is projected on to stacks of paper, a gesture, perhaps, towards Kipling’s profuse output during his time at the house. The 3D nature of this “screen” leads to an interesting interaction between structure and image, producing a sculptural object of its own. This technique of projecting on to something physical began by accident when Lang was watching footage in her studio, and was trialled last year in an installation in a shipping container in a Dalston car park.  The fissures running through the image create a “cracking” effect, which Lang enjoys both “visually and conceptually”.

Indeed, this sense of brokenness, of age, and of disrepair, resonates throughout the film itself. Opening with a view of the house from outside, glimpsed through swirling mists and to the sound of a rasping wind, it appears eerie and deserted, and, already, one feels a sense of intruding. We then penetrate to the interior, where we bear witness to a figure, seemingly unaware, writhing in a bedspread. To the sound of growling, a small plaster cast wolf statue takes to life: “Animals are so central to Kipling, it was only a small step to animate one of them and use him as a vehicle through the house.” So, we proceed at a low level and hurried pace, to the accompanying noise of scurrying feet. Out on the veranda, a figure, shrouded in a sheet, rocks back and forth on a rocking chair. Crickets, birds, the creaking of the door as it opens, seemingly by itself. And, in the blink of an eye, the figure is gone. This is to repeat itself indoors, on the sofa. Furniture creaks, books and clothes move by themselves. A hand appears polishing the banister, and the door of an iron stove taps and its hinges squeak. Signs of familiarity, but distorted and empty. A lifetime past. Ghosts of what was.

The figures in the film are not real. Lang makes them out of rubber or silicon, and they appear in many of her works. There is a deathly pallor to them, and often their cast lines remain visible, suggestive of scar tissue. Their sudden disappearance, along with the general jerky motion of the film as a whole, is achieved through the use of time lapse, which Lang believes endows the work with a performative aspect.

In the second main room, still part of the Naulakha installation, we find a wall hung with objects – mainly carved animal and human heads – collected from countries which were part of the British Empire, and which Kipling himself visited and wrote about. Named The Burden of Objects, after Kipling’s Imperialist poem The White Man’s Burden, these “pieces of colonial kitsch” form what Lang terms her own “found sculpture”. Beside them is a small shelf with a miniature writing desk, the closest she could get to Kipling’s actual roll top model, complete with green glass lamp and candles. This is surrounded by tin soldiers: some have suggested that Kipling’s patriotic representation of camaraderie in the ranks might have been partially responsible for the large number of boys who signed up to fight in the First World War.

The final room is a shocking contrast. Opening out with huge bay windows over Hackney Downs, light floods in, and the visitor steps back to let her pupils adjust. Inside hang just three photographs, taken in an old cottage, which Lang took to refer to the boarding house in Southsea to which Kipling was sent to live as a child, when his parents feared he was becoming “too native” in Lahore. Equally haunting, their bright white interiors open out on to views up a staircase and into bedrooms, flooded with a strange dusky pink light, or an other worldly presence. In one, a Gothic shaped mirror reflects a portrait on the opposite wall, and a mist swirls above the bedspread.

Interestingly Lang doesn’t believe that ghostly presences are inherent to old houses, and regardless of strategically placed objects attempting to conjure up the spirit of past residents, one need only look at the tired and bored expressions of many a visitor traipsing through a National Trust property in search of the tea room, to see that a certain amount of imagination is required in order to glimpse an image of the former inhabitant’s life. As a “house guest” of Kipling’s, however, privy to the strange ongoings of a now (semi-?)deserted house, I really did feel as if I’d travelled not just to Hackney, but all the way to Vermont.

[1] Kipling later ordered this feature to be removed lest he be mistaken for a Nazi supporter, following Hitler’s reappropriation of the ancient symbol. Unfortunately such false rumours nevertheless persist.

For further information and details of opening times, please visit the WW Gallery website.

Review of George Condo: Mental States at the Hayward Gallery

George Condo: Mental States
Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre
18 October 2011 – 8 January 2012

“Occasionally real life is crazier than anything that can come from our imagination. You only have to look around you to see how nuts it can actually be.” Such is the opinion of artist George Condo (born 1957, New Hampshire), whose Hayward-organised show, which premiered first in New York, and is now stopping over in London, before continuing its tour to Europe, provides ample support for this belief. Divided into three thematic sections – Portraiture, Abstract-Figuration, and Mania and Melancholy – the show constitutes something of a “conceptual survey” of his work from the past three decades, beginning when he moved to New York’s East Village in 1980.

Upon entering the gallery, one is first confronted by a large blue headless figure, looming down from a larger than life canvas – The Executioner (1984). With long black swirls encircling his body, emanating from his wrists (one could be forgiven for mistaking him for something from Pirates of the Caribbean), he sits against a creamy background filled with scribbled eyes, mouths, and other bodily features. A green head on the ground, also decorated with swirling patterns, is evocative of a medical study object. There are echoes of Picasso and Miró, but this is the stuff of nightmares, the worst fears of an executioner, as his life’s work comes back to haunt him.

Leading from this, along the narrow corridor to the larger galleries beyond, we find a row of gilded bronze heads (all 2002). Their proportions and display are modelled upon classical Greek statuary, and Condo has said that his motivation for gilding them was to create the illusion of excavated buried treasure and relics of a lost civilisation. There is a distinct element of tragedy, with titles such as The Alcoholic, The Crying Girl, and Lamentation, but these are beautiful objects, quite at odds with the grotesque imagery of his paintings.

And, of course, it is for his painting that he is better known, and primarily, at that, for his portraits: “an investigation into human physiognomy and its capacity to convey varied ‘mental states’.”[1] Take, for example, his series of nine portraits of the Queen (2006): some appear to be straightforward, “normal” portraits (Young Queen Elizabeth II; Queen Elizabeth II); some have just the one “peculiar” addition (The Queen is Her Queen, which has a carrot penetrating her head; Pop Queen, with a bizarre laugh and a pop out eye); some carry a variety of Condo’s trademark clown features (Comic Queen, with made up clown eyes; The Mad Queen and The Blonde Queen, both with green noses); and one in particular, Metaphysical Queen, is almost fully abstracted, with recognisably Cubist elements to her face.

A Cubist influence is apparent in a good number of Condo’s other works too, in some more overtly than others. Memories of Picasso (1989) and Spanish Head Composition (1988) are both direct homages to Picasso (the former an adaptation of Weeping Woman, 1937), and Expanding Canvas (1985), one of a series where Condo chose to begin in the centre of the canvas and paint outwards until reaching the edges, depicting whatever images came to his mind in the process, is a brownish-orange colour, and incorporates candlesticks and other compositional elements, much akin to some of the early Analytic Cubist still lifes.

Other artists who are said to have been of particular interest to Condo include Rembrandt, Velázquez, and Goya, but I also recognised distinct elements of German artists George Grosz and Otto Dix, as well as of William Hogarth and Francis Bacon. Echoes of the latter abound in particular in Screaming Priest (2004) and the three crucifixion paintings: Gestas, Jesus, and Dismas (2007).

Many of the portraits comprising the salon-style hang, opposite these, are equally sadistic, disturbing, and ugly. “If somebody said to me: ‘Do you think they’re hideous? Do you think they’re ugly?’ I’d say: ‘Yeah, absolutely!’” declares Condo, unabashed.  “But they’re ordinary, nice people, you know. That’s what my relatives look like. That’s what the early American settlers looked like.” Well, maybe not with the cartoon features and green noses? No, but Condo contends that all cartoon characters are also based on real people. “I like to think that my characters have a life before they hit the canvas, and a life after. But I think they’re completely abstract in terms of narrative. The meaning may be abstract, even if the painting itself is figurative.”

That said, the paintings in the final section, Mania and Melancholy, are undeniably a commentary on contemporary society and its material excesses. Characters roll around drinking, smoking, having sexual encounters, destroying both body and mind. “These things disturb me, and I have to paint them out of my system,” explains Condo. And this, I would venture, brings me back to the opening statement: case in point.

[1] Wall text in exhibition.


The Butler, 2000
Oil on canvas
101.6 x 73.7
Private Collection
© George Condo. Image courtesy the artist

Installation view of George Condo: Mental States at the Hayward Gallery
Photo: Linda Nylind

Couple on Blue Striped Chair, 2005
Oil on canvas
165.1 x 152.4
Private Collection, Courtesy Simon Lee Gallery
© George Condo. Image courtesy Luhring Augustine

Sunday 16 October 2011

Review of Gerhard Richter: Panorama at Tate Modern

Gerhard Richter: Panorama
Tate Modern
6 October 2011 – 8 January 2012

For anyone who doubted that art could be a substitute for language, take Gerhard Richter (born Dresden, 1932) as evidence. A prolific artist, whose oeuvre includes paintings, drawings, glass works and sculptures (see, for example, Ball III, 1992, a stainless steel sphere, so unassuming one might pass it by unnoticed), yet who, in person, is most taciturn, responding to questions posed at the press conference to mark the launch of Panorama, his Tate Modern retrospective, at most with an “I don’t know”, and, more often than not, just a shrug.

There have been many shows of Richter’s work in recent years in the UK, including those at the Royal Scottish Academy (2008), the Serpentine Gallery (2008) and the National Portrait Gallery (2009), but no full retrospective. As the title “Panorama” suggests, Tate Modern’s aim is to provide “a picture containing a wide, unbroken view.”[1] Rather than being arranged thematically, the works are hung chronologically, which leads to smaller figurative paintings, such as Betty (1977) and Reader (1994), being interspersed amongst large abstract canvases, such as Yellow-green (1982) and Abstract Painting (1990) respectively. But, as Mark Godfrey, co-curator of the exhibition (alongside Tate Director Nicholas Serota), explains, the figurative and the abstract are not necessarily mutually exclusive in Richter’s work: “Abstraction and figuration dissolve into each other throughout the show.”

Certainly what comes across quite clearly is Richter’s fondness for the element of chance. From the random arrangement of colours in works such as 4096 Colours (1974), inspired by the samples and charts produced at paint shops, to the obscuring effect of the squeegee, at once blurring and concealing, whilst also revealing layers of underpainting and snapshots of earlier moments in the existence of the work, we are taken on a journey with serendipity. Achieving similar effect to his favoured tool, the squeegee, in Abstract Painting (1997), Richter peels off sections of the outer skin of paint, revealing sections which, to me, echo the appearance of falling leaves.

There is an element of contingency also in the sculptural 4 Panes of Glass (1967), a response to Duchamp’s Large Glass (1915-1923), since the angle of tilt changes with each installation. Likewise, the order of hanging of 18 October 1977 (1988) – Richter’s most celebrated series, depicting members of the Baader Meinhof group – is not fixed and varies from one exhibition to the next.

This concern and confrontation with German history is another resonating theme throughout the show. Right from the start, in room one, we are confronted with poignant subjects, and the intertwining of Nazi history and Richter’s own family past. Aunt Marianne (1965) is based on a photograph of his mother’s sister holding him as an infant. Suffering from mental illness, she was later sterilised and killed by the Nazis as part of their eugenics programme. In uncomfortable contrast to this, Uncle Rudi (also 1965) is a portrait of his uncle in Wehrmacht uniform. Later on, Richter’s Townscapes from the 1960s offer aerial views of various cities struck by aerial bombings during the Second World War. Through the use of heavy impasto, they are painted as if still bombed out, in stark contradiction to the general mentality of the period which was the wish to repress such images and memories of destruction.

Richter does, however, question the viability of painting to adequately express and represent such subjects. For example, he has produced not one but three images of Ulrike Meinhof following her death (Dead, 1988), implying his dissatisfaction with the medium’s capacity to depict such a sorrowful fate. More recently, September (2005), based on a photograph of the 9/11 attacks, is small and deliberately subtle, certainly not one of the most startling images of the event. Worked over with a knife, the artist’s struggle with the subject matter is viscerally expressed.

Whilst the scope of the exhibition is indeed panoramic, unfortunately the hang is less so. If I were to have one criticism, it would be that the paintings are not allowed to breathe, or to bask in the space required for a full appreciation. This is a shame, but, nevertheless, for anyone wishing to acquire an overview of the vast work of this great artist, who celebrates his 80th birthday next year, you can’t go far wrong. Although Richter confesses that there is nothing in the current news or politics which is inspiring him, he is also famous for having said: “Art is the highest form of hope,” so let’s just hope that there are a good deal more works to come.

[1] Mark Godfrey, co-curator.

Gerhard Richter Abstract Painting 1990 CR-724-4 Private Collection © Gerhard Richter
Gerhard Richter Aunt Marianne [Tante Marianne] 1965 (CR 87) Yageo Foundation, Taiwan © Gerhard Richter

Report on the Proliferation of Text Art at Frieze Art Fair 2011

Frieze Art Fair
Regent’s Park, London
13-16 October 2011

The problem – and also the joy – of visiting an art fair as vast as Frieze is quite where to begin, and how to get through it all without going into overload. This year, given my interest in the area, I decided to go on a trawl through the 170 exhibiting galleries looking primarily for art works involving text. This, as it turned out, didn’t necessarily cut down my scope all that much, since language – be it lengthy narratives, pithy phrases, solitary words, or isolated letters – is now fairly ubiquitous in the contemporary art world. They say if you’re looking for something, you start to see it everywhere, but I defy even the least textually-oriented visitor to come away unaware of its proliferation down the aisles.

We have, of course, many of the usual suspects in this field: Ian Hamilton Finlay (with a stone slab engraved with its title It’s Scotland’s Atlantis, undated), Barbara Kruger (Untitled (PRAY), 2011), Jenny Holzer (TOP SECRET Sleep Deprivation, 2011), a red and blue LOVE sculpture by Robert Indiana (1966-1995), and a couple of Tracey Emin neons (And I Said I Love You and You Made Me Love You, 2010), but these do not even begin to constitute the main core of the text collection on display.

Neon, for example, seems to really have caught on. Alongside Emin, we find the neatly written, bright white Time Here Becomes Space, Space Here Becomes Time (2004), split across the two sides of White Cube’s display space, by the equally well-established neon writer Cerith Wyn Evans. More colourful, and espousing a somewhat different philosophical opinion, is Peter Liversidge’s rainbow-hued Etc. (2011), nineteen repetitions of this word, linked by dot dot dots: empty conversation held by superficial acquaintances as they greet one another at one of the commercial art world’s largest annual events? A newer convert to this medium, and restrained with just the one word, is video and installation artist Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, whose red neon After (2009) has an almost graffiti-like appearance, projecting from against a wallpaper of bricks.

Jack Pierson looks beyond to a time of no afters with his metallic word sculpture relief of the word DEAD (unlabelled). Similarly abrupt, but dealing, in contrast, with the present, is NOW (#2 Mirror) (2011) by Doug Aitken. As the title would suggest, the three letters are built out of clear glass and mirror, sculpted in the form of a crystal, reflecting back the acute reality of the point in time referred to. Not for the first time, Douglas Gordon also combines mirror and text, with a large looking glass engraved in the top left and bottom right hand corners, forwards and backwards respectively, It’s Not About You, It’s All About You. Here the audience become part of the work, and it is amusing to watch the interaction as people unashamedly check their teeth and adjust their ties! Invoking the existence and loss of a third-party, Zhang Xiaogang, on the other hand, uses a mirror as the backdrop for a poem, written in English on the left, and Chinese on the right, separated by a yellow baby in weighing scales. The poem, a meditation on death and dreaming, is haunting and sorrowful, with the pitiful refrain of Gloomy Sunday.

Moving to examples of more factual text, there is a vast array of works incorporating newspapers. Rirkrit Tiravanija reappears with a smaller scale version of his series from Frieze 2009, The Days of This Society are Numbered, showing here a single enlarged newspaper front page with the words, this time in Spanish, painted over it in orange: Los Días de esta Sociedad son Contados. Marine Hugonnier’s Art For Modern Architecture GIr Guardian Iranian Revolution/Hostage Crisis (2011) and Sandra Gamarra’s Autocensura (2011) both involve a series of framed newspaper front pages (Hugonnier’s are 1979 editions of The Guardian; Gamarra’s are recent copies of El Pais), respectively silk-screened with blocks of colour over certain stories and columns, and painted over with white drapes to blot out photographs. (Holzer’s TOP SECRET, incidentally, follows a similar format, painted, with oil on linen, to resemble a U.S. government document with blocked out portions of text.) Tobias Putrih takes his obfuscation one step further in Times (April 12) (2011), in which a copy of The New York Times with strips cut from it hangs from a string on the wall. Finally, Melissa Gordon reproduces her own collage-effect of newspaper cuttings, painted on canvas, with bare patches showing through, in a compilation of stories entitled Double Perspective (Cassius Clay/Muhamed Ali) (2010).

First generation Conceptualist, Adrian Piper, is displaying two enlarged photographic cut outs set against silk-screened text, and a further photographic narrative, accompanied by a straight passage of explanatory text, is Nan Goldin’s sad 15 print documentary of the decline and death from AIDS of a movie star diva, Cookie Mueller (March 2, 1949 – November 10, 1989).

Nedko Solakov (Untitled from the Series Murmurings, 2007) and Stefan Bruggeman (Untitled (Definitions and Jokes), undated) both provide words and their definitions, whilst Heimo Zobernig composes a colourful amalgamation of seemingly random letters, superimposed on one another, on a canvas divided into quadrants. Equally bright is Deborah Kass’ diptych, Frank’s Dilemma (2009), upon which the words Daddy I Would Love to Dance blend into the technicolour camouflage. Simple and ironic is Ricci Albenda’s Diptych (2011) – ironic because it is a single frame painted with the incongruous text. Another real diptych, however, is offered in the form of James Richards’ The Best of The Worst of (2011), where PVC badges emblazoned with those words are pinned to printed nylon fabric, evoking both mass production of cheap objects and mass media mantra. This consumerist obsession is further reflected in Jonathan Horowitz’s Coke/Pepsi (80 cans) (2011), a play on Warhol’s Soup Cans (1962). Gabriel Kuri’s material receipt also calls into question the value of modern day commodities.

In some works, the text is playful, as, for example, in David Shrigley’s Untitled (This is Nothing) (2011), constituted by nine ink cartoons, including such sound bites as Put on lipstick and see what happens and We are constrained by ideas. In others, it is downright disturbing, as, for example, in Banks Violette’s I’d Rather Be Killing My Family (2011).

For some, the text is purely background, as is the case with Tim Rollins and K.O.S.’s Oedipus Rex (After Sophocles) (2008), seven frames, each of an eye, printed on paper with the imprint of Greek writing. For others, the lettering constitutes the entire work, as, for example, with Liam Gillick’s Why is Produced (2011), where black vinyl letters have been applied directly to the wall. Dan Perjouschi’s Freedom of Speech II (2010) takes this one stage further still by importing a cut out section from an actual wall installation, originally hosted at NBK Gallery, Berlin.

As well as the gallery spaces, Frieze annually commissions a number of projects, inviting selected artists to come and respond to the architecture and enviroment and produce works which visitors will encounter as they move between the stands. Unsurprisingly, one of this year’s projects also involves text: Laure Prouvost has decorated various walls with comical white on black, hand-painted signs, often quite discordant and always provoking a smirk. So really, wherever you go, you cannot help but be confronted by words that are art, and art that is words. I could go on, but you are probably already at your own saturation point by now! Maybe next year I will need to narrow down my focal point somewhat further, for if the use of text in art continues to grow at this rate, I might need to spend even longer than one full seven hour opening stretch even to make a scratch on the surface of all there is to offer.

Friday 14 October 2011

Review of Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman at the British Museum

Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman
The British Museum
6 October 2011 – 19 February 2012

“Do not look too hard for meaning here. I am not a historian, I am an artist. That is all you need to know.” This is the warning placed in the very first wall text by artist, curator, and guide, Grayson Perry, as one enters The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, the fruit of a two and a half year long project at the British Museum. Yet, as Director Neil Macgregor points out, such a grand scale assemblage of art and artefacts almost begs us to do just that. The exhibition contains some 200 objects selected by Perry from the museum’s collection, along with around 35 pieces of his own work, a mixture of both old and new, of which nine are his trademark ceramic pots. The title of the show is, in part, a reminder of the many unrecognised artists’ and craftsmen’s work included alongside Perry’s, but, as he says, it could also be another name for the British Museum itself.

Whilst it is increasingly common practice for contemporary artists to be invited in to make their “response” to a historical collection, this is not what Perry has done here. Instead, he chose to first produce his own work, and then to find objects in the collection which respond to this. Arrogant and self-aggrandising? Perry argues not, since, after all, everything in the British Museum was, itself, contemporary once. Thus we find pairings of similar objects which bridge both time and space, starting, for example, with a ceremonial headdress from Asante, Ghana, made of shell, gold, deerskin, silver, and hair, displayed next to the imaginative Early English Motorcycle Helmet, actually made in 1981 by Perry himself, and Bodyguard’s Helmet (2010), the white, pink and green crash helmet worn by Perry, in his role as driver and bodyguard, when he took his teddy bear, Alan Measles, on a trip across Germany in his “pope mobile” shrine, AM1.

“[The exhibition] is basically a short tour through my head. I’m here with all my flaws, all my eccentricities, all my perversions. I’m a bit mad! My job is to play in public, but this is not an easy thing to do. There’s an amphitheatre in my head populated by cynical journalists and avaricious collectors.” Nevertheless, Perry manages well to provide an exploration of his own invented civilisation, structured around various key themes which include shrines, souvenirs of pilgrimage, scary figures, magick, maps, sexuality and gender, craftsmanship, and, of course, star of the show, Alan Measles.

“When I was a toddler Alan was the name of my best human friend and I also had measles.” Such were the humble origins of the bear who went on to become a military hero, surrogate father figure, embodiment of Perry’s suppressed male rebelliousness, and, later, his personal god and guru. “The idea of Alan as a god, like so many of my ideas, began as a joke when I was in Japan. [But] soft toys, particularly those that become a child’s special favourite, their “transitional object”, have much in common with traditional gods.” Thus, alongside a section which contains representations of bears throughout history, ranging from a wooden figure of the Egyptian god Bes to a German medal from 1916, we also find Shrine to Alan Measles (2007), made of glazed ceramic, and inspired by the Buddhist and Shinto roadside shrines Perry saw everywhere in Japan. “Shrines to me embody the essence of what I do. I put significant artefacts in a special place for us to contemplate upon [sic].” Likewise, the concept of pilgrimage plays a key role in this collection, not least because, as Perry points out, “the British Museum is the central site of pilgrimage in Britain – the number one tourist attraction,” but also because “I come on a journey every time I visit the British Museum […] I can have an encounter with the entire world.”

For Perry, creativity is all about cultural exchange. But, in his eyes, it is like a game of Chinese whispers, where, as traditions and ideas get passed on, mistakes are made. Craftsmanship is often mistaken for precision, but this is not what it’s about. You do not necessarily need state of the art tools to produce a masterpiece. Perry’s personal favourite from his own work in the exhibition is a case in point: made on the kitchen table of his squat, back in 1983, La Tour de Claire (Claire being his female alter-ego) is a fairy-tale turret built of small pieces of flint, wood, and other found objects, all crowned with a weather vane in the shape of Alan Measles. My own personal favourite, however, of the items not created by Perry, is a doll found in grave in Peru (AD 900-1430), which really does look like an ancestor of Alan himself (and not that much more worn, either!).

Disappointed not to get a glimpse of the great guru, I ask Perry where Alan Measles is today, and whether or not he will be coming along to his exhibition at any point. The answer, it would seem, is no (hence the competition, run in the lead up to the opening, to find three replacement stunt bears to sit in Alan Measles’ shrine on AM1). “[He’s] at home in bed. He’s so precious to me that I don’t even trust the British Museum with him. He’s beyond security!” Ah well. The pilgrim to this great shrine will simply have to satisfy himself with the vast array of false icons in their myriad of forms. I don’t think any twinge of disappointment will last for long.

A catalogue to accompany the exhibition, Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman (British Museum Press, 2011), is also available, containing further wise words by Perry.
See also Alan Measles’ blog: