Saturday, 13 June 2020

Paul Housley, The Poets Elbow

Toby Upson breaks free from the lockdown to see some actual real life art - Paul Housley's visceral paintings in his show The Poets Elbow at Belmacz in Mayfair, London.

Turning off Oxford Street I was almost flattened by a portly fellow on a mid-afternoon run. (though describing his pace as a run is pushing it somewhat.) Writ large on his felt-grey t-shit ‘Fuck The Tories.’ And adorning his hands, dayglo, DAYGLO marigolds. Strange encounters have been a daily part of my lockdown, and I’m sure I am not alone in this. Glitchy Zoom calls, hit and run postmen, shit-show online exhibitions, and mounting tensions with flatmates who have left their dirty dishes on the side, again! After 77 days of confinement in my 2.5 x 4m bedroom/office/gym/studio, I am finally outside and on my way to see some paintings. None of that HD backlit stuff, some real life oil on canvas, paintings. Paul Housley’s exhibition The Poets Elbow at Belmacz to be precise. 

Paul Housley works with the stuff that is paint. Objects in themselves, paintings do not get much grittier than this. Drawn in and spat out, I spend my first five minutes flopping around the small gallery space; overwhelmed, like a pig in shit - or to be more precise an art hoe who hasn’t been in a white cube for about three months - bathing in the sheer physicality of the PAINTINGS!!!

Paint Bores (2020), a mighty diptych, is the work that opens the show. Its presence is announced not only by its sheer size but by its rapturous surface. The painting depicts four male figures, drunk and sweaty, cast against a toxic yellow background. Their eyes baggy, their teeth rotten. Their faces conveying a life burnt away: gambled on a barely imagined future, one dreamed up in the lonely lonely hours when one is cast adrift in the studio (to paraphrase the texts in the exhibitions accompanying book). The group has a powerless presence. Details such as a painterly ‘punk’ pin badge and cliche ‘I ’ banner give me the impression that this band was once hot stuff (think 1D with added east end grunge), but now, in their dishevelled state, their only audience are the regulars down at the Poets Elbow; that sticky six-story inn, two streets behind the main road - you know the place, the pub that doesn’t do white wine. Exuberant jabs of oil give each figure a recognisable ego. Caricatures of Monet and Van Gogh, whose ear has been dissected by the join in the diptych, are positioned in the centre of the scene. They are flanked by a one-eyed Guston and a bleary Pollock. As a painter whose focus is the stuff of paint, Housley’s formal handling calls to mind the bold styles practised by these ‘masters.’ But rather than leading to pure autonomy Housley’s twisted faces pastiche any notion of high art, sending my mind running. 

Paul Housley, Paint Bores, 2020, oil on canvas, 154 x 244cm

After a while Paint Bores spits me out. As I spin around the gallery, a full 180 degrees, the double-faced figure of The Embracer (2020) greets me. A wrestler, donning nothing but leatherette Speedos and matching boots, fills an ill-defined ring. In stark contrast to the thickly painted busts of Paint Bores, The Embracer is so painterly any macho associations with wrestling disintegrate. Thin layers of ghostly oil reveal every tentative brushstroke, every sleight of hand. I am particularly drawn to the trembling marks Housley uses to flesh out his protagonist. Rather than opting for a fully constituted body, this approach creates a duality: is the figure a mirage with a disembodied arm, or a meaty giant too massive to fully take in, the cellulite around his stomach spilling out from those tight black briefs. This translucency strips the scene of any shallow theatrics, that are so evocative of my pre-pubescent years being forced to passively gaze at WWE wrestlers spewing nonsensical ‘big-talk.’ Rather than relying on TV performativity, Housley foregoes a midground and uses triangular forms to emphasise his figures presence. This immediacy is reinforced by the strong horizontal band of beige at the bottom of the composition which places me firmly in The Embracer’s pictorial space. Am I in the ring!? Just the thought is enough to make me feel faint…

Paul Housley, The Embracer, 2020, oil on canvas, 40 x 30cm

I have never been one to face off with a triangular Goliath. In my teens, WWE was a shallow bore rather than a captivating epic. Back then I much rather play Peeping Tom, peering into the scandalous lives of celebrities, sniffing out the ‘dirty side of glamour.’ And of course, the apogee of my hunt, rich bodies writhing next to (and on top of) one another - thank you TV. Despite the mediated gaze and the obvious ‘fauxness,’ there was something tantalising about being the voyeur. Standing in Belmacz, gazing down the gallery’s stairwell, the wholly staged placement of Dr. Louche (2020) ignited in me that very same phantasmic eroticism. Situated in a smoky room, the painting depicts a single ghostly figure reclining in a grandiose red armchair. Unlike the lonely figure of The Embracer and the incessant slurring of the group depicted in Paint Bores, this skinny figure appears wholly hallucinatory: constituted by the steam emanating from my loins and that magic powder I picked up in the bathroom. He is more than a mere Casanova or passive Hugh Grant. Stripped of everything but his ornate Manolo Blahnik loafers, and exuding a dark Yves Saint Laurent exoticism, the figure’s barely defined face nods us forward and we approach, mesmerised. Housley’s thick application of paint not only elongates the figure but gives his skin a haptic quality: oily, sweaty, that residue left after a gritty encounter ending on cloud nine.

Paul Housley, Dr.Louche, 2020, oil on canvas, 50.5 x 40cm

Such confidence, such conviction, in the visceral power of paint to conjure elusive dreamworlds runs throughout the show. Not only in the works I have mentioned here but in the small sketches Housley has been working on and sending to the gallery whilst the show has been closed – due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Quick A5 sketches of recognizable ‘Housley’ subject matter, owls, still lives, gangly figures, in pen, in pastel, and classy felt tip constitute this correspondence. Far from mere accompaniments, these sensitive works reveal Housley’s softer side. Frantic, yet precise; mushy, and detached, they read like love letters, not so much to the works on display but to the very act of painting itself; that is, the gritty process of corralling strange encounters locked-down in the artists’ twisted mind. 

Toby Upson

The Poets Elbow
Paul Housley
Belmacz, London.

until July 17 2020 
Gallery iopen Monday to Friday 11.00 - 17.00 (by appointment).

Thursday, 27 February 2020

Isadora Now: A Triple Bill

Rosemary Cronin finds no body shaming in the free-flowing fabrics and wetness on show at a very contemporary re-enactment of the powerful work of the revolutionary dancer Isadora Duncan.  

Viviana Durante Company, Isadora Now, Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan, Begoña Cao, image credit David Scheinmann

Isadora Duncan fans will recognise the core motifs of our favourite dancer from the moment the show starts; the sound of crashing waves, a strong red hue over the stage, classical pillars, flowing fabrics and rose petals. At first I was worried that the performance would simply replay these motifs, and however joyful it is to see classical works enacted on stage the spirit of Isadora Duncan is far too fierce to be reflected by memories. 

After the interval any worries I had were daintily kicked away with the piece Unda, choreographed by Joy Alpuerto Ritter. The safety curtain revealed a simple staging of large classical bowls with light and running drops of water streaming down from the heavens into each bowl. Elegant body movement lines were punctuated with isolated incisive limb movements with the five dancers transformed into a contemporary set of Furies, like an all-girl dance band you want to be in or watch forever. Serene Zaccagnini was particularly mesmerizing with her sharp but fluid movements.

Viviana Durante Company, Isadora Now, Unda, Christina Cecchini and Joy Alpuerto Ritter, image credit David Scheinmann

Farooq Chaudry’s production and Marie Canteny’s Studio for set and costume design serve to greatly enhance the girls’ movements. The costumes, whilst taking elements of Duncan’s original inclination to flowing fabrics (allowing the body to move freely and adding to the flow of the solar plexus), introduced a contemporary structure through the considered cuts and folds in their designs. 

As the piece edged towards a particularly furious climax, the intensity was increased as the dancers covered themselves with water and threw their hair around with abandon. The costumes at this point used wetness in a strikingly relevant way, reminiscent of fashion designer Di Petsa, where the wetness is used as a celebration of the female body rather than referring to humility or bawdiness. 

What really ignited this all girl ensemble was the presence of female musicians on stage in both the Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan (Frederick Ashton) with Anna Geniushene on piano, and in Unda original music composed and performed by Lih Qun Wong, with her heart wrenching cello accompaniment. 

Viviana Durante Company, Isadora Now, Dance of the Furies, image credit David Scheinmann

I also realised how important it was to be reminded of the history of Isadora Duncan’s earlier works as demonstrated by the first two pieces from this triple bill, which allowed the audience to be transported back to the early 1900s when Duncan’s works were truly revolutionary. They allowed us to truly appreciate her influence on contemporary dance. Sadly, Viviana Durante was unable to perform on the night I went, but that didn’t shake this tight knit female ensemble and their timely reminder of Duncan’s immense power.

Rosemary Cronin

Isadora Now: A Triple Bill
Viviana Durante Company at The Barbican, London
21 – 29 February 2020

Tuesday, 8 October 2019

It’s not all blue: CMYK dreamscapes at Frieze London

Toby Upson surveys the greasy beast, pop-up big top, that was Frieze London 2019

As the sun sets on a decade of mounting doom…Scratch that…On the brink of sunrise, we sit, waiting for the cold autumn dew, waiting for the darkness that has enveloped us to lift; burnt away by the radiant morning sun…cough art-wanker cough…

How do you begin writing, indeed thinking, about Frieze Art Fair? Now in its sweet-sixteenth London iteration, with hubs in New York and LA, this year’s fair is marketed as ‘the most international yet.’ (Fanfare… as inclusivity quotas finally make it as sexy marketing materials…) It is easy to be critical of the Fair, slating its capitalist connotations, mocking its un-coolness, and vilifying it as an artist ‘killer’, not an artist ‘feeder;’ but what’s the point? In our age of homogenous neoliberal reductivism, Frieze, like much of the art world, like much of western reality, is a greasy beast, but one that’s here to stay. So, let’s stop crying with loaves under our arms and blag our way in and enjoy the cringy delights that reside in the pop-up big top; after all we all love a dirty kabab and a cheesy chick flick once in a while.

Sunrise and sunset, they often look similar but lead in two different directions: night in, night out; up for work, burrowing down till noon, and it’s from this perspective of pastel pink and cold cyan that I began to ponder Frieze 2019. 

Francis Picabia, Untitled, 1933, coloured pencil, ink on paper, 27x21cm

I love Francis Picabia, and it was nice to see his weary presence in this contemporary art fair. Situated amongst a constellation of small drawings all made by western modernist/contemporary masters, Picabia’s intimate sketch Untitled, 1933, depicts a knackered petit maître, gazing past us, overlooking the fair’s frolicking youth. As a group the collection of drawings resembles a troop about to perform some great act… no wait, they resemble the troop post performance, I mean look at that face, it needs a coffee!

Exceeding the confines of the discarded envelope, Picabia uses sharp lines of cold blue ink to define his characters facial forms; with looser washes being used to create dramatic arched eyebrows and glittering eyes. It’s not all blue however, Picabia injects drama with exaggerated scratches of deep red around his figure’s cheeks and curvaceous lips. The effect; a sense of exhaustion paired with bitch please sass (totally calling to mind Snoop Dogg’s 1998 album cover).  

Snoop Dogg, Bitch Please, No Limits Records album cover, 1998

A similarly affective use of blue and pink can be seen in Johannes Kahrs Untitled (women and can), 2019. Here Karhs’ fluid application of paint creates a figure that appears as an unstable apparition: as a mirage, something akin to a late night ‘is that you?’moment. Emerging from a shadowy backdrop the isolated figure almost pops out of the canvas to join us trawling the fair. Armed with a glinting can of Dutch courage, she seems up for going all night long, though I wonder if she needs anymore of that intoxicating nectar.The figures present-ness, her full-on charge out of the gloom, when paired with the ephemerality of her construction, creates a delicate tone, one reminiscent of those poetic moments of transference between day and night: one that reverberates softly, shifting ever so slightly every second until the moment is over and normality can continue. 

Johannes Kahrs, Untitled (woman and can), 2019, oil on canvas, 91x130cm

A sense of poetic normality is again rendered in painterly touches of pink, blue and radiant gold pigments in Claire Tabouret’s Patricia with her eyes closed (blue), 2019. Here Tabouret, whose delicate figures can be seen in a number of booths, captures an elegant ‘soccer mom’ in a state of whimsical dreaming. Concealed behind the golden skin Tabouret’s figure seems at peace with herself as she contemplates a dreamscape of CMYK possibilities. Hand to cheek, leaning ever so slightly to the left the figure does not force her way to another plane, instead she seems to evaporate through a paradoxical use of texture; coarse brushwork is used to define her loose curls, with definite lines constructing her flowing clothing. This contradictory use of formal elements makes me think about the idea of the façade and the faux-corporeal projections we all wheel out now and then (something that is omnipresent at Frieze). 

Claire Tabouret, Patricia with her eyes closed (blue), 2019,  acrylic and ink on paper, 76x56cm

Relief, passion and awe, the pretty colours that inevitably flood the sky twice a day mark not only the unstoppable movement of our planet around the sun, but also provide a reflective moment from which we can get hyped-up! or begin to snuggle down. As time un-Friezes and London’s art world returns to its more manageable pace, I am left thinking more snuggly nights in are called for (for the next week or so anyway).

Toby Upson

Frieze London
Regent's Park
3-6 October 2019

Wednesday, 25 September 2019

Rosebud Lips and Shingled Hair: The Art of Madge Gill

Cathy Lomax visits the William Morris Gallery to see Myrninerest, an exhibition of the work of the visionary local artist Madge Gill.

Born in East London in 1882, Madge Gill had a life filled with tragedy. These experiences, which we are told inspired her artwork, are, in common with other outsider artists, the starting point in any conversation about Gill. Set up in advance with this biographical knowledge I am ashamed to say that it is precisely this that hooked me and pulled me to Walthamstow to see this recent exhibition.

Gill’s hardships included being sent to an orphanage, transportation to Canada as part of a child-labour scheme, the death of two children and a long-standing mental illness. It was at the age of 38 after treatment for an undiagnosed psychiatric condition that she began to draw, an activity that she claimed was encouraged by a spirit guide called Myrninerest, whom she came to embody. It is said that Gill drew, played piano, wrote in a strange language and crocheted whilst in a trance state (although the Society for Psychical Research in London judged the drawings to be ‘more of an inspirational than of an automatic kind’). Whatever the status of her artworks Gill went on to be a medium in her Upton Park neighbourhood and is is said to have organised séances at her home, drawing up horoscopes and offering spontaneous prophecies.

Crucifixion of the Soul (detail), commenced 1 June 1935,
black & coloured inks on calico

Gill we are told received no formal art training. The repetitive blocks of pattern and line that fill the paper and calico she worked on are familiar to anyone who has a passing knowledge of outsider art. You can imagine the hours spent creating these impressively detailed works, which if cut down into smaller pieces could resemble the kind of images we might have dreamily made ourselves in our school exercise books. 

Crucifixion of the Soul (detail), commenced 1 June 1935,
black & coloured inks on calico

In the darkened downstairs gallery the work is over-hung to emphasise its obsessive nature – the wall covered by rhythmically inked swirls and cross hatching; a controlled chaos of movement. The frenetic disquiet is punctuated by little pools of light, which reveal themselves as faces, or is it just one face repeated over and over again? This woman’s face is simplified to exemplify a type, a flapper with rosebud lips, shingled hair, smoky eyes and every now and then a headband. This is an idealised image of how someone might want to look in the early part of the 20th century – a schematic that went on to become a blueprint for the Biba face of the 1970s. The room is dominated by a huge work called Crucifixion of the Soul, which at 147 x 1061 cm fills a complete wall. It’s an arresting room that visualises the disquiet we imagine being in the mind of this artist. The rippling lines are thought-waves; the face pools are dreamy imaginings of a fantasy self.  

Gill exerts her presence over the gallery quite literally in the form of a larger-than-life photograph above the staircase. She is smartly dressed in a swirly colourful print and looks down at something she is holding in her hands, decidedly uninterested in meeting our gaze. Upstairs are a series of smaller postcard sized works – some featuring her figurative line drawn women and some a more abstract design. On a nearby screen Peter Blake talks about her work. 

Viewing outsider art is in some ways like reading misery porn. A biographical portal into a life that we hope we will never have to come anywhere near experiencing. Beyond this we have a longing and admiration for its purity, it is art as necessity, art as a lived fantasy. This haunting exhibition showcases Gill’s outsiderness well but it left me wanting to see more of her art. I would like to see her work hung in relation to other artists in our national collection (Tate Britain please) so it can be admired for its artistic merits rather than seeing her as a kind of carnival, sideshow oddity.  

Cathy Lomax

Madge Gill: Myrninerest
William Morris Museum
Forest Road, Wathamstow
London E17

22 June - 22 September 2019

Tuesday, 30 July 2019

Poolside Postgraduates

Alex Michon takes a short dip into Goldsmiths MFA

Visiting the Goldsmiths MFA show in New Cross, South London, on a sweltering day in July, the weather and my own existential angst at returning to the site of my old (highly critical) alma mater defeated my attempts to see the whole show. Abandoning the work in the vast Ben Pimlott and St James Hatcham buildings I plumped instead for the works on show at the invitingly cooling sounding Laurie Grove Baths.

Built between 1895 and 1898 these Jacobean style baths, following their closure to the public, were acquired by Goldsmiths in 1999 and converted into studios and teaching rooms for students on the MFA’s Fine Art and Curating courses. For the degree show the large pool showed a selection of paintings and installations, whilst the small pool was given over to artists' film and moving image.

Lydia Blakeley, The Three Graces, 2019, oil on linen, 180x250cm

Lydia Blakeley’s series of paintings entitled National Velvet presented a kind of ironic 'Carry On' romp through a day at the races. In The Deposition an Eastender-a-like Phil Grant character is seen in an unseemly rumpus grabbing a spectator in an arm lock. Whilst The Winners Enclosure and The Three Graces depicted pastel dressed, ascot hatted girls behaving badly. These bum exposing, worse for the wear drinking escapades highlighting a particularly broken British bacchanalia. 

Lydia Blakeley, Is This Internet Art? (3) and (2), 2019, oil on linen, 45x35cm each

Around the main exhibition area the trope of showing smaller works in the small changing booths felt  unnecessarily forced. The exception was Blakley’s cubicle in which she showed a series of paintings of curiously enigmatic, what I assumed to be white monkeys, but which I later discovered on her Instagram she calls Cats in a Cubicle with each painting numbered from 1 – 8 and titled Is This Internet Art?. These ambiguous anthropomorphic creatures with their ghostly yet humorous quality worked well within the smaller enclosed space. For me they were the stand out paintings of the exhibition. 

Marijke Vasey, Untitled, 2019, oil & acrylic on canvas, 150x190cm

In Marijke Vasey’s works, including Untitled and Marginalia, the surface planes were painted as voids in monochromatic or graded colourfields, appeared to me to be paintings about paintings. These voids were variously surrounded by richly Roccoesque painted embellished frames. My immediate response was that the artist was perhaps questioning a certain canonical disdain for the decorative, and presenting it as being consigned to the edge. 

David Mullen Can We Have a Meaningful Dialogue? 2019, oil on canvas 180x140cm.
Getting Madder and Madder, 2019, oil on linen (rose madder, reseda [yellow lake from weld], indigo, yellow ochre, titanium white, terre verte), 190x140cm.

There is no hint of such disdain in the work of David Mullen. In his large bold plant paintings the artist luxuriates in exploring the tensions between abstract and figurative representation, some teeter on the edge whilst others cannot resist dissolving into grand gestural glupey-dauby brush strokes where the original plant image remains only as a distant echo. With a title such as Can We Have a Meaningful Debate? Mullen seems to be addressing the contemporary place of abstract painting with perhaps a sly reference to his time at Goldsmiths? The artist’s practice has recently taken an interesting shift, making the plant motif in the work conceptually significant. ‘My ambition’ he states ‘is to create oil paintings that, if unsuccessful, could safely be put onto a compost heap rather than into landfill. The paintings must therefore be biodegradable and non-toxic'. Cultivating his long long-standing interest in colour and the materiality of paint, Mullen has begun to use natural earth and organic pigments synthesised from plants. Getting Madder and Madder, and Greenwashing (Still Life with Weld) have been made according to this new methodology. Each painting is based on one of the aforementioned plants and contains pigment produced from that plant.

Ginou Choeiri, Rhythm of Forgetting, video still

From the artist’s film & moving image selections in the small pool I found Ginou Choeiri’s film Rhythm of Forgetting to be the most engaging mostly for one extraordinary image of a lone woman in a vast expanse of sea wearing a strange jester like hat. Choeiri is a Lebanese artist and although the film needed a second viewing to decipher all the underlying themes, it had a rare humanity amongst the other more cerebral, abstract, mostly landscape dominated films. On a purely visual level Choeiri’s images of girls braiding hair and the aforementioned startlingly original sea jester stayed with me more than the others.

Having gone through the ‘grind them down’ Goldsmiths treadmill myself back in the day I was pleasantly surprised to find that despite their best efforts they still haven’t manage to completely purge the art world of pesky persistent painters. A reminder perhaps to the next Goldsmiths’ graduates that ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’.

Alex Michon 

Goldsmiths MFA Degree Show
Laurie Grove Baths
London SE14
19 - 23 July 2019

Van Gogh was here. From China, with Love

Abigail Ashford looks at some re-configured cultural stereotypes that take Van Gogh’s influence beyond the Western canon at a show at San Mei Gallery, London.

The heading 'Van Gogh was here. From China with Love' is at once reminiscent of a tourist-scrawled line of graffiti, and indicative of the trans-global underpinnings of this show, in which UK-based artists Cai Yuan, Sheng Qi and Xi Jianjun respond to the mythologised work and life of Vincent Van Gogh. San Mei Gallery (also responsible for the newly restored Hackford Road house where the Dutch artist lived in 1873) broadens the ongoing discussion around Van Gogh’s legacy by exploring a history of art and influence beyond the Western canon. At the same time, the figure of Van Gogh and the history of Western modernism provides a framework for thinking through these established artists’ practices anew, questioning measures of value and exchange between different cultures and temporalities. 

Can Yuan, Stargazer, 2019
Can Yuan, Sheng Qi, Xi Jianjun,  To Old Van Gogh, 166 with Love, 2019

Six canvases covered by a layer of golden rice form the conceptual glue of the show. The lowly staple food takes on a luxurious albeit garish quality, disguised as gold filigree, beautiful but inedible. Aside from evoking Van Gogh’s densely textured brushwork, the Stargazer series scrambles notions of good and bad taste, questioning signifiers of high and low society by reconfiguring cultural stereotypes. The central installation, To Old Van Gogh, 166 with Love, literally turns the Dutch artist’s work on its head, sending a cascade of sunflowers spilling out of a jug suspended upside down in mid-air, like flowers pulled from a magician’s hat. 
Two of the featured artists, Cai Yuan and Xi Jianjun, were officially banned from all Tate premises following their ‘interventional performances’ of the 1990s as creative duo Mad for Real. Their rap sheet includes jumping into Tracey Emin’s My Bed installation at the Turner Prize Exhibition of 1999 and starting a pillow fight. When I mention the infamous work to Cai, he gleefully tells me that the intervention was a spur of the moment decision, likening it to kids exuberantly jumping on their parents’ beds. For exhibition curator Katie Hill, these disruptive acts constituted part of the pair’s ongoing challenge to the ‘presumption of who is expected to appear where and why’ within both cultural institutions and national bodies. 

Cai Yuan, One Man Demo, 2011

The current show continues in a tone of joyful rebellion, re-enacting the playful disregard for propriety of the earlier UK-based performances. One print documents Cai’s One Man Demo, a work in which he defied the newly erected security barriers to stand on Ai Weiwei’s 2011 Sunflower Seeds installation at Tate Modern. I remember going to see the work as a teenager and, like many others, being disappointed to find that visitors could no longer walk on the porcelain seeds as the artist had originally intended. The inclusion of Cai’s work is of course a nod to Van Gogh’s iconic Sunflowers, but it also updates the figure of the struggling artist, and calls attention to the power of art institutions in their role as mediators between art, artist and public. 
With the Van Gogh and Britain show on display at Tate Britain just a few miles away, it seems only right that a fledgling gallery space, outside what Hill has previously dubbed ‘the narrow elitism of the art world’, should be representing artists who can identify with Van Gogh’s outsider status. The show combines a collection of responses to the liminal zone in which those perceived as ‘foreigners’ still exist today. This strange and ambiguous zone is given material form in Cai Yuan’s new quasi-anthropological installation, documenting his 2015 residency in the then dilapidated Hackford Road house. He connects to Van Gogh’s experience of the space through a series of intimate photographs and an assemblage of common objects, and Cai’s own experience of settling in the UK is expressed through surreal parodies of Van Gogh’s actions and paintings. 

Sheng Qi, Salute to Van Gogh, 2019

The deep blue of the freshly painted gallery walls appears to reference the ominous, heavily laden skies of paintings such as Wheatfield with Crows, 1890 and Starry Night Over the Rhone, 1888; a fitting canvas for Sheng Qi’s Salute to Van Gogh and Salute to Yves Klein, 2019. These seemingly uncomplicated little paintings show a red and a white handprint against backgrounds made up of thick paint strokes in the cheery complimentary colours that recur throughout Van Gogh’s oeuvre. Before leaving China following the Tiananmen massacre of 1989, Sheng cut off the little finger on his left hand and buried it in a flowerpot. He is perhaps best known for a haunting series of photographs showing his mutilated upturned hand against a red background, cradling tiny pictures of people from a past from which he had been violently severed.
Despite a certain naivety of form and colour in Sheng’s new work, the paintings are a direct response to Chinese 20th century history, recalling and subverting the Communist regime’s sinister adoption of a colour scheme. From the beginning of the Mao era in which all three artists grew up, art was conscripted into the government’s revolutionary arsenal. Both art and literature were prescribed the utilitarian function of transmitting and reinforcing party propaganda amongst the masses, glorifying Chinese Communism and its deified helmsman Chairman Mao Zedong, as emphatically and singularly as possible. Thus, the styles of Western modernism that had found purchase in China earlier in the 20th century could not easily fulfil these objectives. Nor could the ancient Chinese brush and ink tradition, which was branded bourgeoise and therefore counterproductive to the aims of the party. 
The aesthetic preferred by the regime consisted of bright and shining, mainly primary colours, employed in a strictly realist style. Propaganda posters dominated the visual culture until the 1980s when pressures on artists were relaxed and examples of canonical modern art from around the globe became available in China once again via books and catalogues. Hill emphasises how transgressive the immediacy of touch of the European modernist tradition became for a generation who had grown up under Mao’s revolutionary art programme. Sheng’s work is a salute to this fusion of aesthetic ideas that enabled him to truthfully express his own life experience through the physical, tactile act of painting. Proclaiming ‘Van Gogh was here’, this show reminds us of alternative art histories, of fraught transmission and of the transformations art and artists undergo as they cross cultures.  

Cai Yuan, Untitled, Hackford Road (detail), 2015
Cai Yuan, Untitled, 2019

Beyond formal continuities, it is an insolent desire to break rules through which the contemporary artists’ ideological linkages to Van Gogh and other modernists are most strongly articulated. In a characteristically tongue-in-cheek gesture, Cai Yuan has taken a copy of Gombrich’s Eurocentric bible, The Story of Art, painted it’s cover gold to match the rice-covered canvases, blacked out the author’s name, and pasted it, like a flayed and mutilated corpse in an innocuous spot on the gallery wall. Like happening upon a witty piece of graffiti, you can’t help but smile at the vandalism, that seems to conjure more than it obscures. 

Abigail Ashford

San Mei Gallery
London SW9 
Until 15 August 2019 

Monday, 8 July 2019

Majestic Memoirs

In the recent British Library talk 'Queens of Punk: Jordan and Poly Styrene', Alex Michon finds much to inspire contemporary shy girls to find their inner She Punk.

Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard
But I say...
Oh Bondage! Up yours!

X-Ray Spex

In 'Shadow Selves and Artifice' the most recent episode of Projections podcast (a dialogue about film and psychoanalysis), Mary Wild and Sarah Kathryn Cleaver discussed the 2011 Marie Losier directed documentary The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye. This controversial film charts the couple’s Pandrogyne project where each undergo a series of cosmetic procedures to merge their identities, becoming figures of a third gender. Both Cleaver and Wild were critical of the fact that all the agency of the film was driven by Genesis P Orridge of Psychic TV, with his wife Lady Jaye’s contribution being significantly mute. Similarly, Cleaver recalled how irritated she was on watching When Punk Broke, a documentary featuring the band Sonic Youth’s tour of Europe in 1991. ‘Thurston Moore just talks and talks’ she says, whilst Kim Gordon, Moore’s wife and bass player ‘says practically nothing. I just could not watch it in the end’.

Punk was a moment when everything changed for women in music, however it is only perhaps in the last 10 years that the voices of those revolutionary women active in the movement are increasingly being rediscovered by latter day feminists and heard, though books, films and talks, such as this one at the British Library.

Vivien Goldman music journalist, documentarian, former member of new-wave bands Chantage and The Flying Lizards and now Adjunct Professor teaching Punk was the talk’s eminent convener. Describing her recently published memoir Revenge of the She Punks A Feminist Music History from Poly Styrene to Pussy Riot, Goldman said ‘If it weren’t for punk I don’t know what my life would be. I am super thrilled that I came of age with punk. I wanted to write this book because people say that punk has become commodified, but it was in that moment that women finally found their voice and that punk spirt set fire to women around the world, with our work continuing to inspire women as far away as Columbia. The more revolutionary aspects of it were right here in London, making a new paradigm where the role of women was tremendously important’.

Defying Gravity; The Story of Jordan, a collaboration between Jordan and writer Cathi Unsworth is an account of Jordan’s life and times. A legendary presence at the very epicentre of punk, her white beehive and dramatic make-up defined a look that has been an iconic part of pop culture ever since. Talking about her time working as shop assistant at Vivien Westwood’s shop Sex on the Kings Road, Jordan recalled that ‘it was an inspiring magical place, like cafes in Prague where philosophers would meet, it was a place where there was always something happening.’ Describing her collaboration with Unsworth she said ‘Cathi was a great co-writer, when you are in the middle of a vortex you can’t really see yourself because you are in the middle of it. Memories came back in the ether, writing was like giving birth to a baby from my head. It was like making a garment, we had the toile and both worked on the structure’. After a clip from the film Jubilee was shown, Jordan recalled her time working with its director Derek Jarman ‘he was really a punk himself, a lovely man and a genius, he was intrepid and a true artist because he had no consideration for if the film was going to be popular or not’.

Explaining her fearlessness in dressing in outrageous fetish gear, ballet tutus and experimental makeup, Jordan said that she ‘always wanted to be a work of art’. In describing her journeys, thus attired, from her home in Seaford to London, she would ‘just avoid eye contact with the bemused commuters on the train. It was still a time when men whistled at you on the street and looked at you as a sex object’. Although Jordan claimed that ‘punk was a time of sexual liberation’ she also acknowledged that the gay world was still very much underground. Keen to applaud the role of gay clubs she said ‘In places like Tricky Dickies, which was a gay disco, I would feel most comfortable’. Punk for her was a time when she could be who she wanted to be, part of a community of people who ‘didn’t give a shit about what people thought of how you looked.’

It is easy to mythologise those times, yet all members of the panel admitted that aside from punk’s adoption of reggae, there were very few members from the BME communities visible within the movement. As Vivien Goldman stated ‘they had their own strong thing going on in reggae, perhaps this is why there were so few punks from those communities but this is also what makes Poly Styrene’s contribution all the more significant’

Marianne Joan Elliott-Said, who sadly passed away in April 2011, was known by the stage name Poly Styrene. She was a British musician, singer-songwriter, and front-woman for the band X-Ray Spex. With a Somali father and Scottish/Irish mother, Poly was one of very few non-white punk musicians. Dayglo the Story of Poly Styrene is a book written by her daughter Celeste Bell in collaboration with Zoe Howe. With her un-ironed hair and braces, Poly did not fit into either a conventional mode of femininity nor punk archetype. Eschewing all stereotypical tropes Poly mixed twinsets with army helmets and designed her own clothes which she sold on a stall in Beaufort Market. Whether having a sly dig at bondage trousers in her rousing feminist anthem Oh Bondage Up Yours! or ironically singing 'I am a cliché', Poly was a true original who went on to join the Hare Krishna movement, making devotional music after she had left X Ray Spex. Vivien Goldman commented that ‘had she lived and continued to make devotional music I imagine that her music could have been seen in the same vein as Alice Coltrane.’

Speaking about the genesis of writing the book, Poly's daughter Celeste Bell said that for years she had many unopened boxes of her mum's stuff, ‘Diary entries from the 70s, notebooks, drawings, lyrics and letters’. For a long time Bell was not able to open these boxes, she was dealing with the grief of her mother’s death and also carrying out her request that her ashes be scattered into a holy river in India. It is only recently that Bell was able, with the help of Zoe Howe, to turn to her mother’s archive and publish the book which she wanted to be a ‘coffee table art book’. There is also to be a forthcoming documentary celebrating Poly’s life entitled I am a Cliché.

Jordan, who had been manager of Adam and the Ants, remembered Poly from when X-Ray Spex played gigs with the Ants, as ‘a modest yet very talented lady and a genuine person’. Goldman also remembered her as ‘a gentle person with no axe to grind. Poly was so unassuming yet one of the deepest artists we have’.

It is precisely in these descriptions of Poly Styrene as gentle and unassuming that I feel a more nuanced understanding of the majesty of She Punks lies. Both Poly and Jordan were around 19 at this time, Jordan herself for all her bravado still avoided eye contact with strangers on the train, Poly, we were told would get upset when the music press described her as not being conventionally attractive.
Revolutionary and provocative as these She Punks may have been they were still young women feeling the fear but doing it anyway, and for all the shy girls out there this might be more inspiring. Seeing past the pink hair and the outrageous clothes is the message that whatever you wear or look like, it’s the courage to do what you want to do in the way you want to do it; to be seen and heard, that is ultimately important.

Alex Michon

Queens of Punk: Poly Styrene and Jordan
Talk at the British Library, London
Vivien Goldman, Jordan, Celeste Bell, Cathi Unsworth & Zoe Howe
4 July 2019

Jordan and Cathi Unsworth, Defying Gravity Jordan’s Story (Omnibus Press, 2018)
Celeste Bell and Zoe Howe, Dayglo the Poly Styrene Story (Omnibus Press, 2019)
Vivien Goldman, Revenge of the She Punks A Feminist Music History from Poly Styrene to Pussy Riot (Omnibus Press, 2019)