Friday, 13 December 2019

Interview with VALIE EXPORT


VALIE EXPORT (b1940, Linz, Austria) is one of the most significant artists in the field of performance and new media, and has been awarded the 2019 Roswitha Haftmann Prize. Her career, which spans five decades, has been pioneering in film, video and installation art. However, she is probably best known for her groundbreaking Aktions and performances of the late 1960s and 1970s, which introduced a new radical form of feminist art to Europe. 

In 1980, EXPORT represented Austria at the 39th Venice Biennale (alongside Maria Lassnig). For her first exhibition at London’s Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, this installation has been brought to the UK, and is every bit as powerful now as four decades ago. 

Read the full interview here

Saturday, 16 November 2019

The Role of Reinterpretation in Annie Zamero’s ‘Royal Revolutions’

The Role of Reinterpretation in Annie Zamero’s ‘Royal Revolutions’

‘Reinterpretation,’ writes the anthropologist John H Hamer, ‘[…] is the way in which people seek to relate and adapt their changing experiences by using the past as a marker for interpreting the present.’[1] Annie Zamero’s work is all about reinterpretation. It was described in the New Art Examiner as ‘follow[ing] the example of Picasso, amongst others, to make a radical reinterpretation of earlier iconic works’[2]. Indeed, Zamero combines aspects of Old Master, Baroque and Rococo paintings with imagery of contemporary icons of power – royalty and politicians – typically portraying them as if viewed in a fairground mirror, distorted to the point of abstraction. Zamero creates caricatures – or political cartoons – but seeks to elevate them to the level of fine art, in part by adding this historical gravitas, but also by her clearly defined methodology – which involves far more than simply taking a likeness to the extreme by exaggerating prominent characteristics. ‘They’re not really cartoons – some of my studies are quite serious character studies,’ she told Jude Cowan Montague on Resonance FM[3].

Zamero is fluent when she talks about her work. She describes the process of photographing herself or others dressed in the costume of her chosen character so as to increase her sense of identification with the subject. ‘Doing a caricature,’ Zamero says, ‘is much harder than doing an exact likeness. That’s the easy bit. Then you need to make the decision about what features you’re going to play with. If you choose too many, you can’t recognise the person – it’s a very fine balance between changing it and losing the likeness.’[4] Once she has finished the ‘proper’ drawing, Zamero redraws it – without looking – to see what she can create spontaneously, allowing a sense of naivety in the cartoon-like forms. 

Zamero’s work embodies satire, which, she is keen to point out, is no mere bagatelle. According to the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition, satire is: ‘the use of humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticise people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues’. Accordingly, Zamero uses humour as a vehicle for more serious matters, ‘a more digestible way of saying something that’s difficult, or perhaps unacceptable’. She adds: ‘I think humour generally helps us cope and digest the world’ – and goodness knows we need that right now.[5]

Take, for example, Zamero’s painting of Donald Trump, Trump Lights Up the Darkness, after the Spanish painter Francisco Goya’s The Inquisition Tribunal (1812-19). Goya was a liberal opposed to the absolutist policy of Ferdinand VII of Spain, which included such things as bullfights, madhouses, flagellations and auto-da-fé, as depicted here. Zamero adopts and dresses Trump in the tall, peaked cap, with its associations both with the dunce’s cap (alluding to Trump’s alleged lack of intelligence) and also to the Ku Klux Klan, referencing his racist comments and policies, and the terrifying contemporary rise of the Far Right in the US and beyond. 

Zamero has also depicted the former UK Prime Minister in Tony Blair Turns Catholic, after Spanish painter Diego Velazquéz’s Portrait of Innocent X (1650). For many, this original Spanish work is best-known for the series of some 45 distorted variants, the ‘Screaming Popes’, made by Irish-born painter Francis Bacon in the 1950s and 60s, described by the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze as ‘an example of creative reinterpretation of the classical’. In Zamero’s rendition, Blair is shown not screaming but laughing, in a colour palette which blends that of Velazquéz and Bacon with its rich, regal purples and reds. It was painted at the time when Blair turned Catholic, since his doing so created a certain amount of publicity concerning his motives and why he might deem himself in need of absolution by the Pope. ‘I thought that as Tony was rather a megalomaniac,’ Zamero says, ‘he may not be content with being accepted by the Pope, but instead would like to be one himself, which is why I dressed him in the Pope’s clothes’.

Still more critical is her painting of Blair’s number two, Gordon Brown, entitled The Accountant, after Two Tax Gatherers (c1540) by the Dutch Renaissance painter Marinus van Reymerswale. This time, in both Zamero’s work and the original, the writing man wears a heart-shaped hat of the style worn by fashionably-dressed women in the mid-15th century. The contemporaneous personification of Avarice by Pieter Bruegel the Elder in his drawing from 1556 (now in the British Museum) is similarly a woman wearing a heart-shaped hat – might this iconography therefore also be applied to Zamero’s depiction of the former Chancellor?

Zamero’s work has been featured in the press on a number of occasions, with The Evening Standard calling her ‘controversial’ – an adjective she embraces, noting that controversy at least sparks interest and starts a conversation. The paper further describes her painting Take One, made for the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, as a ‘panegyric offering’. The painting, after The Triumph of Zephyrus and Flora (1732) by the Italian Rococo painter Giovanni Battista Tiepoli, depicts the Prince and his bride in an airborne carriage, drawn by a royal horse. Prince Harry wears his military uniform; Markle, on the other hand, has nothing more than a bath towel, in reference to her role in the television series Suits, for which she was apparently often told by the director to be thus clad for hot, steamy scenes. The clapperboard similarly references Markle’s acting career, which is, as Zamero phrases it, ‘a small sting’, since it is generally acknowledged that the now Duchess of Sussex is trying to leave her former career behind her.

For the union of Prince William and Kate Middleton, on the other hand, Zamero created The Royal Couple, after Vincent van Gogh’s Peasant Turfing (1885). The reference is clear: Middleton is being likened to the ‘peasant’ that she was – ie. a commoner, not royalty – something which, at the time, was very much a hot topic. The digging also acts on a metaphorical level, intimating, perhaps, that she was seen to be digging for gold by marrying into such wealth. Similarly to Zamero now, Van Gogh was, during this period, intent on creating character studies that really caught the essence of the workers he depicted. In Peasant Man and Woman Planting Potatoes (also 1885), a man and woman work together, he turning the earth with a spade, she planting the potato seed. In Zamero’s painting, it is instead the Duchess of Cambridge who holds the spade. Conversely to the idea of her being the mere commoner, this might also be a symbol of her having the upper hand in the relationship? Of female power in general? Of the hard graft that women must do daily – and frequently thanklessly? Of course, if one goes down the route of sexual metaphor, it is indeed more accurate for the woman to be ‘opening the ground’ for the man to ‘drop in the seed’…

Other works referencing the royal family include Bubbles, depicting Prince Harry lying supine on the grass, one foot raised, balancing a glass of red wine – of which it appears he has already enjoyed a few (not least due to the lack of trousers!). The painting, made just before the Prince became a father, and referencing his bachelor days of hard partying, is after the French Post-Impressionist Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884), one of the most reinterpreted and parodied paintings ever. It has been repurposed in Playboy, on Broadway, in films (including Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Muppet Babies), on television (The Simpsons and The Office), and even in a topiary park in Columbus, Ohio. The Marxistphilosopher Ernst Bloch, however, wrote of Seurat’s picture that is was ‘one single mosaic of boredom, a masterful rendering of the disappointed longing’[6] and Linda Nochlin likewise dedicated an essay to describing it as an ‘anti-utopian allegory’[7]. Once more, timing-wise, Zamero is spot on, honing in on an aspect of his life, which Prince Harry is trying to leave behind him. Also playing with this theme of (endless) recreation (to the point of ennui?), Zamero’s painting One’s Day Off depicts the Queen, after Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s The Swing (1767). Today this is a ‘chocolate-box’ painting, which, even at the time, was seen as whimsical, and became the target of Enlightenment philosophers, demanding a more serious art to show man’s nobility. Fragonard’s painting depicts numerous men, all of whom have been omitted by Zamero – one pushing the swing; another, concealed by foliage, watching. What, at first glance, appears an innocent image of a woman at leisure, thus becomes risqué, with the swing itself a conventional symbol for infidelity. With the young woman kicking her legs apart and sending a shoe flying, there is even an element of the erotic. Again, questions abound. Did Zamero intend any of this iconography to be carried over into her painting of Queen Elizabeth, or are we, without this 18th-century cultural context, left to interpret as we wish, and see simply a powerful head of state having a moment of freedom and frivolity? There is so much left open to reinterpretation that the viewer might almost create a new narrative on each return to the work.[8]

The American anthropologist Melville Herskovits claimed that the basis for any act of reinterpretation is psychological. He also noted a level of intentionality owing to the individuals’ previous ‘cultural conditioning’ which causes them to interpret change in terms of what they already understand.[9] That is, people act on what they bring with them from their past in an effort to affect a reinterpretation, but these parameters are never set in stone, because new encounters bring about new (ie. different) histories and therefore new potential futures. Returning to Hamer, with whom we set out, this ambiguity is seen as the very strength of reinterpretation. He concludes: ‘[T]hat which is new in form or meaning never meshes totally with the old and this lack of goodness of fit sets a precedent for doubt and critical evaluation of old forms or meanings’.[10] And it seems to me that this triggering of critical thought and evaluation is precisely what Zamero hopes to engender through her use, firstly, of satire, and, largely as an outcome of this, of reinterpretation. 

[1] John H Hamer, ‘Identity, Process, and Reinterpretation. The Past Made Present and the Present Made Past’, Anthropos 89, 1994, p181
[2] Charles Thomson, ‘Modernism, Postmodernism, Remodernism’, New Art Examiner volume 32 no 1, September/October 2017, pp20-27 [, accessed 17 August 2019]
[3] The News Agents, 3 November 2018, [accessed 17 August 2019]
[4] Ibid
[5] Ibid
[6] Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope, volumes 1-3, 1954, 1955, 1959, cited in Linda Nochlin, ‘Seurat’s Grande Jatte. An Anti-Utopian Allegory’ in Mary Tompkins Lewis (ed), Critical Readings in Impressionism and Post-Impressionism: An Anthology, 2007, p253
[7] Linda Nochlin, ‘Seurat’s Grande Jatte. An Anti-Utopian Allegory’ in Mary Tompkins Lewis (ed), Critical Readings in Impressionism and Post-Impressionism: An Anthology, 2007, p253
[8] Buckingham Palace wrote a complimentary letter to Zamero concerning this painting, when declining an invitation to an exhibition where it was on display. One wonders whether the Queen herself ever saw the image and, if so, how she (re-)interpreted it.
[9] Hamer, 1994, p182
[10] Ibid, p188

Images © the artist

Full exhibition catalogue here

Interview with Larissa Sansour

Interview with Larissa Sansour

Larissa Sansour (born in East Jerusalem, 1973) is a Palestinian artist who now lives and works in London. She has studied at the Byam Shaw School of Art, London, the Maryland Institute College of Art, New York University, the University of Baltimore and the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. Her work, frequently filmic, employs the genre of science fiction as a means of providing an alternative perspective on current social and political issues. In 2018, Sansour was appointed by the Danish Arts Foundation to represent Denmark at the Venice Biennale 2019, the 58th International Art Exhibition. For this, she created a new film, In Vitro, shown as part of a larger installation with the overall title Heirloom. 

I spoke to Sansour by Skype about the political motivations behind the work, its complex concept and layers of meaning, and how she feels about identity and memory – especially as a Palestinian.

Read the full interview here

Wednesday, 30 October 2019

Review of Laura Knight: A Working Life at the Royal Academy of Arts, London

Laura Knight: A Working Life
Royal Academy of Arts, London
2 September 2019 – 2 February 2020

Despite popular belief, Laura Knight (1877-1970) was not, in 1927, the first woman to be elected to the Royal Academy of Arts, London (as an Associate Royal Academician) since the founder members, Angelica Kauffman and Mary Moser (selected, however, by the King, not elected by fellow members). Five years previously, Annie Swynnerton had received the same honour at the age of 78. Nevertheless, Knight’s election was something of a coup. It went on to take a further nine years for her to become a full member, and 30 more on top of that before she was invited to the institution’s annual dinner. Such were some of the myriad obstacles in the way of female artists at the time – but more on that to come!

Knight (at this stage still Laura Johnson) began submitting (always rather large) paintings to the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition in 1895, but was not successful until 1903, the year that she and Harold Knight married. They had met at Nottingham School of Art, where she had enrolled at the age of just 13, having been encouraged by her mother to become an artist. A portrait he painted of her a year later, in 1891, is included in this one-room exhibition, showing her in profile. Knight recalled how it was during the sittings for this painting that she “first got a hint that I meant as much to him as him to me”. 

Luckily for her career, Knight was a self-acknowledged extrovert, who promoted her work wherever and however she could. She featured, for example, in a British Pathé newsreel, sketching and painting models in a mock studio, and she further published two autobiographies: Oil Paint and Grease Paint (in February 1936, the month she was elected to full membership of the RA, and which became an immediate bestseller) and The Magic of a Line (in 1965, the year of her retrospective exhibition at the Royal Academy – the institution’s first one-woman show). Certainly, she exhibited widely, initially together with her husband Harold, and she also showed work at the Royal Society of Painters in Watercolour, the Women’s International Art Club, the Venice Biennale (1914 and 1924), and with the Society of Women Artists, of which she became president in 1932. As early as 1929, she was made a Dame of the British Empire in recognition of her services to art.

Read the full review here

Saturday, 12 October 2019

Interview with Madeleine Kennedy

Interview with Madeleine Kennedy
The Enchanted Interior
Laing Art Gallery
12 October 2019 - 23 February 2020

Published in the autumn 2019 issue of Art Quarterly

Interview with Katrina Brown

 Interview with Katrina Brown

Published in the autumn 2019 issue of Art Quarterly

Q: Morehshin Allahyari

Q: Morehshin Allahyari

Published in the autumn 2019 issue of Art Quarterly

Book Review: Bacon and the Mind: Art, Neuroscience and Psychology

Book Review: Bacon and the Mind: Art, Neuroscience and Psychology

Published in the autumn 2019 issue of Art Quarterly

Meet the Collectors: Ellen Sharples

Meet the Collectors: Ellen Sharples

Published in the autumn 2019 issue of Art Quarterly

Interview: Lucy Joyce

Interview: Lucy Joyce

Lucy Joyce: Electric Blue
E-WERK Luckenwalde
14 September 2019 - 28 March 2020

One of the two inaugural exhibitions at the former coal power station in Luckenwalde, a small town in the middle of the East German state of Brandenburg, is an expanded work, Electric Blue, by the British artist Lucy Joyce. It began as a flagpole commission (something the co-director Helen Turner – former senior curator at Cass Sculpture Foundation, near Chichester – would like to run annually), and grew to include an exhibition of drawings relating to the power station, the town, and their history, and a live “Aktion” on the opening day. The latter involved seven performers hoisting seven-foot mirrored arrows above their heads on the rooftops of the building, containers and parked vehicles, muttering the words: “Hope is not enough.” The seven performers represented seven Luckenwalde inhabitants Joyce had worked with in a research capacity during her residency in the run up to E-Werk’s opening. These ranged from Herr Schmidl, a former senior employee of the power station, to Turner herself. Miniature 3D-printed figurines of these seven characters also stand above the door to the gallery in which Joyce’s work is displayed. They will, she hopes, remain displayed somewhere in the new arts centre, long beyond the period of her residency and exhibition – a reminder of all those who made the project possible.

Joyce’s work is always multilayered, typically creating an interface between passersby and the cultural institution, or inviting people who are unfamiliar with contemporary art to discover points of access. For Turner, therefore, Joyce was the natural choice, because, as she explains: “I was really resistant to making this an isolated contemporary institution. I didn’t want it to just have the Berlin art crowd coming here, or even the international crowd; I wanted it to be a place that the locals felt welcome to come to as well and I knew Lucy would produce a really sensitive, generous commission in this regard.” 

Studio International spoke to Joyce about her residency and project on the opening day of E-Werk – just ahead of her Aktion.

Read the full interview here

Mandy Payne: Out of Time

Mandy Payne: Out of Time
Huddersfield Art Gallery
5 October 2019 - 4 January 2020

‘What began as a utopian project to design new schools, libraries, hospitals, housing estates, city halls, using the most cutting-edge building techniques, was deemed to have failed; resulting in ugly, inhuman buildings, unfit for purpose,’ says arts writer Liz Hoggard at the start of an article entitled ‘Why we must learn to love brutalist architecture’[1]. Artist Mandy Payne needs no convincing. She has long been inspired by the urban landscape – in particular Brutalist architectural structures, modernism, social housing, and notions of utopia and dystopia. She seeks, in her work, to capture not just often-iconic buildings and estates before they disappear to make way for luxury housing, but also the traces that people leave behind, and the memories that the buildings absorb. ‘The Lamp of Memory’ is indeed one of Victorian art critic John Ruskin’s chapters in his architectural treatise Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849), and the idea that buildings are receptacles for what has passed through them is common in contemporary social sciences as well, where reference is frequently made to ‘collective’ or ‘cultural’ memory. Unlike objects, buildings remain rooted where they are, but can simultaneously change their type, thus becoming a fascinating and unique representation of time.
Payne, whose observational paintings are highly process driven, and full of different marks, textures and patinas, works with materials that have a physical connection to the sites themselves. She casts her own concrete (possibly a hangover from her previous career as a dentist, during which she would work with dental plaster and stone, wax and metals) into small canvases, which she works on directly, using micro masking tapes and spray paint (to reference graffiti) to build up zones of flat colour and then oil paint to add layers of finer detail. Until recently, her works were constrained by their medium, being no larger than 30cm square, but. for a while now, she has been exploring making larger works, using lighter, glass-fibre reinforced concrete panels. Another recent innovation is the use of marble as the substrate to highlight the perceived social inequalities of building materials. Funding from Arts Council England has enabled Payne to explore multiple locations in the lead up to this exhibition.

From 2015-17, Payne held a part-time fellowship in Stone Lithography at Leicester Print Workshop (with grants from Arts Council England and the Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation). During this time she pushed her practice still further, and now, as can be seen in the gallery vitrines, often creates lithographs with the same narratives as her paintings, which she frequently prints on to Japanese paper and collages on to concrete. A process of rebuilding? Of retrieving and reconciling a memory? 

Surrealist artist Salvador Dalí spoke of people’s ‘hunger’ and ‘thirst’ for ‘concrete images’ and, although he wasn’t speaking in as literal terms as Payne’s practice, her works certainly meet that basic human need, providing documents of these dying concrete constructs, which modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe described as ‘by nature skeletal buildings […] buildings consisting of skin and bones’ – as important to us, then, in our collective memory, as our own ancestors. 

[1] Liz Hoggard, ‘Why we must learn to love brutalist architecture’, in The Telegraph, 28 January 2016 [, accessed 07/08/19]

Image: Mandy Payne, Out of Time, 2019 © the artist 

The Role of Reinterpretation in Annie Zamero’s ‘Royal Revolutions’

The Role of Reinterpretation in Annie Zamero’s ‘Royal Revolutions’

‘Reinterpretation,’ writes the anthropologist John H Hamer, ‘[…] is the way in which people seek to relate and adapt their changing experiences by using the past as a marker for interpreting the present.’ Annie Zamero’s work is all about reinterpretation. It was described in the New Art Examiner as ‘follow[ing] the example of Picasso, amongst others, to make a radical reinterpretation of earlier iconic works’. Indeed, Zamero combines aspects of Old Master, Baroque and Rococo paintings with imagery of contemporary icons of power– royalty and politicians – typically portraying them as if viewed in a fairground mirror, distorted to the point of abstraction. Zamero creates caricatures – or political cartoons – but seeks to elevate them to the level of fine art, in part by adding this historical gravitas, but also by her clearly defined methodology – which involves far more than simply taking a likeness to the extreme by exaggerating prominent characteristics. ‘They’re not really cartoons – some of my studies are quite serious character studies,’ she told Jude Cowan Montague on Resonance FM.

Read the full essay here

Tuesday, 8 October 2019

Laura Jean Healey: The (Un)Holy Trinity

Laura Jean Healey: The (Un)Holy Trinity

Laura Jean Healey is an award-winning film-maker who uses the medium of film to explore the nature of the cinematic experience. Her particular focus is on the role and objectification of the female form on the screen. Her holographic film installation, The Siren (2012), shot underwater in slow-motion, won the Passion For Freedom Gold Film Award in 2014. She is currently working on a new project, The (Un)Holy Trinity, exploring the representation of three legendary ‘unnatural’ women: Lilith, Eve and Salome.

Can you summarise the concept behind your forthcoming work – a triptych of digital films, portraying Lilith, Eve and Salome, entitled The (Un)Holy Trinity? What do these three women represent, both in existing legend, and for you? 

Throughout history, these three women – taken directly from the Bible (Eve and Salome), or inspired by the inconstancies found within the book (Lilith) – have been vilified for their ‘unwomanly’ actions and used to serve as a warning as to how destructive female sexuality can be if left unchecked. 

According to Jewish law, Lilith was the first wife of Adam. She was made in the same manner as him and considered herself his equal. When he wanted her to lie beneath him, she refused to submit, enraging both Adam and God. In her frustration, she fled from paradise, and, in so doing, became a succubus (temptress of innocent men), breeder of evil spirits, and child-murdering monster of the night.
Eve, unlike Lilith, was not made as an equal to Adam. Even though both she and Adam ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, bringing about the Fall of Man, it was Eve alone who bore the ultimate responsibility and was punished with the pain of childbirth and being subjected to her husband’s will.

Salome was a young virgin, who danced for her uncle/step-father, in order to win the head of John the Baptist. In her desperation to possess him, she exerted a more dominant, ‘masculine’ sexuality and was punished for this ‘monstrous’ nature

I have always been fascinated by these women’s stories. It is these cautionary tales of the ‘unnatural woman’ that have been used to justify holding back women throughout history. Even today, women are often still inherently judged by these unfair and contradictory standards.

Read the full profile interview here

Review of Power Night: the Launch of E-Werk Luckenwalde

Power Night: the Launch of E-Werk Luckenwalde
E-Werk  Luckenwalde, Brandenburg, Germany 
14 September 2019

If you want to ensure that the launch of a new arts centre goes with a bang, who better to invite to curate the opening night’s programme than the now veteran London-based international performance art festival and commissioning body Block Universe? Founded in 2015 by Louise O’Kelly, the all-woman team, which now includes Katharina Worf, Xica Aires and Tatjana Damm, is celebrating its fifth year of programming, and, following a successful fifth edition of the annual festival in London in May, and the first performance festival as part of the Venice Biennale, 14 September saw the already-international team take its cutting-edge mixture of contemporary visual art, dance and music to the seemingly peculiar location of Luckenwalde, a small town 30 miles south of Berlin, in the middle of rural Brandenburg, in the former East Germany. The occasion was the launch of E-Werk Luckenwalde, a new arts centre, sited in a former coal power station, acquired in 2017 by Pablo Wendel, the CEO of Performance Electrics, a not-for-profit energy provider he established in 2012. The conceptual art and energy outfit produces and supplies what Wendel terms “Kunststrom” (or “art electricity” – produced through art installations, sculptures, performances and interventions, which employ renewable energy technologies). 

Read the full review here

Thursday, 3 October 2019

An Elusive Presence. WG Sebald: His Writing and Photography

Lines of Sight: WG Sebald’s East Anglia
Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery
10 May 2019 – 5 January 2020

Winfried Georg Sebald – known as WG to the literary world and as Max to his friends – was born in the Bavarian Alps on 18 May 1944. After studying German and English Literature, first at the University of Freiburg (Germany) and then the University of Fribourg (Switzerland), Sebald came to the UK in 1966, where he was a lector at the University of Manchester, before moving to – and settling in – East Anglia, with his Austrian-born wife Ute, in 1970. He first became a lecturer at the University of East Anglia (UEA), later being appointed to a chair of European Literature, and going on to become the founding director of the British Centre for Literary Translation. Author of four genre-defying novels, largely concerning the themes of memory and loss – Vertigo (1990), The Emigrants (1992), The Rings of Saturn (1995), and Austerlitz (2001) – as well as numerous essays, Sebald was tipped as a potential future winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature when he tragically died, in 2001, aged just 57, in a car accident, triggered by an aneurysm. 

Read my full essay here

Tuesday, 1 October 2019

Review of Helene Schjerfbeck at the Royal Academy of Arts, London

Helene Schjerfbeck
Royal Academy of Arts, London
20 July – 27 October 2019

It is the same old story over again: a female artist, with a vast number of works to her name, successful during her lifetime, but since largely forgotten to the world at large (albeit still a known name in her native Finland). Her male contemporaries, whose influence is visible in her work (but would this have been a reciprocal relationship?), remain, of course, well known even outside the core of the art world. As deserving as the many other “rediscovered” women being brought out of the closet and put back into the spotlight, Helene Schjerfbeck (1862-1946) is currently having her turn with her first UK solo exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, London (organised together with the Ateneum Art Gallery/Finnish National Gallery). 

Born in Helsinki, Schjerfbeck was discovered young by the Finnish painter Adolf von Becker, who secured her a place at the Finnish Drawing School when she was just 11 years old. Five years later, she moved to Becker’s private academy, from where she travelled to Paris to study at the Académies Trélat and Colarossi. Living the life of an educated artist, she flitted between Paris, Pont-Aven, St Petersburg, Vienna, Florence and even St Ives, Cornwall, exhibiting successfully across Europe, particularly in the Nordic countries, but never especially so in the UK. A major exhibition planned for the United States in 1939 was cancelled due to the outbreak of the second world war. Schjerfbeck, who died when she was 83, represented Finland posthumously at the Venice Biennale a decade later, in 1956. 

Read the full review here

Alexandro Pelaez and the Magical in the Realism

Alexandro Pelaez: Eclectic 
Bermondsey Project Space,London 
1 - 12 October 2019

“Magical Realism” is a term typically associated with Latin American literature, where the roots of the genre took hold after the Cuban revolution of 1959, applied to a new type of writing known for its matter-of-fact portrayal of magical events. The term, an adaptation of the German “Magic Realism” (minus the -al), which had been coined in the 1920s as an alternative name for the artistic movement of “New Objectivity”, has since been variously used, in the worlds of both art and literature, often simply to refer to the magic of the day to day, and the realities that we miss as we go about our mundane tasks. Professor Matthew Strecher, an expert on the subject, defines it as “what happens when a highly-detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe”. For Venezuelan-born, London-based, award-winning analogue photographer Alexandro Pelaez, the concept has become increasingly relevant in his work over the past few years, as he has progressively developed a style of fiction, able to capture a realistic view of the modern world, simultaneously adding magical and, at times, almost unnatural, elements. 

Pelaez achieves this primarily through his use of double exposure, meaning that you at once see both a “real” picture, but also a layer of the “unreal” or dreamlike. His pictures demand close observation, so that these details and layers may be unpicked – a task which is not always possible, since his scenarios are often so persuasive – and, either way, ought not some level of fantasy always be maintained, since to unpick it entirely would destroy the magic and leave behind mere reality? Pelaez began experimenting with the process of double – and even multiple – exposures in 2008, when he was creating his Heroes & Villains series using action figures. He has continued to develop the process in more recent work. Using his LC-A Lomography film camera, he takes the first image, with no specific duration between that and the next – it might be a minute, an hour, or even a whole day. These two frames meld as one as early as at the stage of the negative. What you see there is what you get. There is no need for any superimposition or postproduction. The only postproduction work Pelaez carries out is, in fact, scanning in his chosen negatives so as to apply a little extra contrast to the colours, heightening their surreality.

This current exhibition, curated by Mara Alves, is entitled ‘Eclectic’. It draws from the Londoners series, which Pelaez has been working on since 2016, shooting almost every week, as well as from images of Chichester, Hong Kong, Miami, Rome, San Francisco, Seoul, Shanghai, Tulum, Venice, and Vietri sul Mare. The selection process, therefore, of 28 images, was no simple feat – leading, in part, to the title. Another element is the breaking down of the works into four groups – cityscapes, street environments, moving-image works of the former, and landscape details – using different sizes for the printing of each set. For Pelaez, the resonance of “eclectic” meaning “to derive from a broad range of sources” is also significant, for, although using the same method, he always seeks to capture the uniqueness of the personality of every city or subject he photographs. “Eclecticism,” adds Alves, “draws upon multiple theories, styles or ideas to absorb complementary insights into a subject – just like Alexandro’s works – often without conventions or rules dictated, but with the same combinations of multiple different approaches”. The variations in scale of the works on display invite viewers to become absorbed by the larger pieces – almost as if they were traversing the streets, or walking the parks pictured, noticing the many details and being surprised by the unexpected – while the small-scale images offer a certain tantalising intimacy, bringing the viewer in close, reminding them that this is but a photograph, something magical, not quite something real.
For each of the places Pelaez visited, there was a specific reason, be it work, holidays, or visits to family or friends. Some places he knew well, and thus he might have a vision in mind for his shoots; others were new discoveries, where he had first to take time to get to know the environment, responding more instinctively with his lens. Rome, for example, is a city he has been visiting yearly since the age of two. His image of Piazza Navona is one of his favourites, showing the typical, old Roman buildings, their colours, the extravagant fountain, and the many street artists selling their work. To get the image he had in mind, Pelaez had to shoot a roll and a half of film in 40 degrees Celsius heat. “I was going back and forth, shooting again and again, and changing the settings of the camera every time. I’m sure the tourists, the waiters – everyone – thought I was crazy!”

Another of his favourites is London in the Rain II. “London has been my home for the last 18 years,” Pelaez explains, “and when I shot this picture (as for most of the series), it was a typical cold and rainy London day. I was sitting at the front of a double-decker bus, just entering Piccadilly Circus – when I finally saw the picture developed it felt like it was a version of Gotham City! But I believe it represents itself so well that it could almost be a self-portrait of London.”
San Francisco, on the other hand, was a city new to Pelaez, and so, in this instance, he walked and walked, shooting continuously, collating potential material. “I’m a bit of a perfectionist,” he says, “so when I am in a different country, I don’t want to take any chances and not capture the image that I worked so hard on.” By the second day, however, he feels, with hindsight, that he had an idea of what he wanted; of what he saw to be the true essence of the city. Nevertheless, no matter where he is, he continues to shoot, and, from a roll of 36 images, he selects on average maybe just one or two to keep. 
It is this search to capture the “true essence” that is Pelaez’s driving force. “I want all and nothing!” says the artist, himself inspired by the likes of Ansel Adams, Peter Lindbergh, Emmanuel Lubezki and Steve McCurry. “To capture that true essence of the moment or location is what inspires me. I love energy, so if I am walking on a busy street, I need to capture that vibrant scenario. I love it when there is a crowd, traffic, movement, and rhythm as well. I believe it gives the image life and lots of energy. If I’m shooting on a beach, however, I want to capture the calm and peace of it, the magic light of the sunset, or the strong colours of the blue sky or water and their surroundings.” Again, eclecticism at play – Pelaez always tries to capture the “vibe” of the moment; what that particular and unique frame has to offer. The question one might ask, then, is whether what they offer him is the same as what they offer the viewer? For Pelaez, it doesn’t matter. He loves observing how someone approaches an image for the first time, trying to understand what is happening, being captured by a detail, and then stepping back to process the picture in full, building their private narrative. And this is perhaps the most “magical” aspect in the overarching realism – the calling into play of each individual’s power of observation and each individual’s imagination; the taking them out of reality, for however brief a moment, to an otherworldly, dreamlike – and perhaps even eclectic – place. 

Liverpool St & Brick Lane © Alexandro Pelaez
London in the rain © Alexandro Pelaez