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)

Calle Tredici Martiri (Alley of the Thirteen Martyrs)

Toby Upson reviews 'Calle Tredici Martiri' (Alley of the Thirteen Martyrs) a new book by Jason Koxvold & Aldo Varisco recounting the Italian partisan struggles of the mid 1940s and finds in the faded jottings and dusty photographs an important message for those wishing to tell truth to power today.

Paper backed and bound without a spine. The schizophrenic Calle Tredici Martiri pairs faded jottings, like those found on the back of an encoded postcard, with dusty photographs.

Described as a ‘fictionalised photographic reinterpretation’ Calle Tredici Martiri (Alley of the Thirteen Martyrs) brings together diary entries, archival and contemporary photographs, to narrate a poignant history of human struggle against regimes of narcissistic political power. 

Taking his grandfather’s daily jottings from the mid-1940s as a point of reference, Calle Tredici Martiri is the result of Jason Koxvold’s wider research into the partisan resistance, in northern Italy. Labelled as a bandit Koxvold’s grandfather, Aldo Varisco, was an instrumental figure who co-ordinated an array of direct action with the intention of disrupting the power held by the German National Republican Guard, and the Italian Fascists alike. Collected here, the translated fragments abstracted directly from Varisco’s diary’s take us on a torturous tour through grassroots resistance meetings, militant campaigns, and the deadly repercussions of being caught. 

In keeping with the unstable times of 1940s Italy (we think we have it hard…) Varisco’s memoirs unfurl with an explosive speed: names of co-conspirators, roles, dates, locations, planned movements and campaign results are recorded with minimal subjectivity. This lack of the fleshy human voice calls to mind the limits placed on personal liberty by those holding power.

As a continuation of his grandfather’s spirit, Koxvold strategically divides the 79 pages of text with archival photographs and postcards. These nostalgic interventions haunt the text; providing a visual ambiguity which clashes with the directness of each diary record. The juxtaposition between the text and the whimsical archival photographs, alludes to the fragility of memory and indeed of history. ‘History is always told by the victor,’ an old cliché but I am going to roll it out here as it highlights precisely the issue at hand; that is, who gets to speak, who gets remembered, and who ultimately shapes our reality. 

The fog-grey chapter that holds Varisco’s history is enveloped with page after page of spectral photography. Pairing idyllic shots of early morning Venice with sterner photographs of modern architecture and political meeting spaces, Koxvold shifts the means of communication from the objective recounting of history, through text, to a more ambiguous narration, via the camera. In doing so he exacerbates the idea of controlled history and the erasure of narratives. Koxvold’s snapshots capture an emancipated Venice in a state of stasis, the jade green waters and skin toned architecture slowly fade like a negative left in the sun, whilst bureaucratic buildings are captured in sharp black and white clarity. 

Memory is always a hazy ideal without the regimes of history making it concrete. Throughout the book Koxvold not only provides a space to celebrate the achievements of his grandfather, but questions the power dynamics which are still being wielded today by men in economic/political power, to clinically remove the messy mass of humanity from its (poisonous) ideal society.

Toby Upson

Jason Koxvold & Aldo Varisco
Calle Tredici Martiri 
(2019, Gnomic Book)

Sunday, 23 June 2019

Lily Gilding

Releasing their own personal genies from their magical makeup bottles, three artists look at beauty salons, finding surprisingly serious sub-texts in these overlooked feminised spaces.

In consideration as a site for intellectual, aesthetic or socio-political attention, the beauty salon has invariably been overlooked. Historically shunned for shallowness and often relegated to the realm of feminine frivolity, recent developments in feminist theory have seen a shift in these attitudes and this is what makes the recent Beauty Salon exhibition an exciting addition to this contemporary liberation of what is allowed through the canonical door for serious study.

Featuring works by Jennifer Campbell, Cathy Lomax and Alli Sharma the exhibition turned its gaze on the lily gilding that goes into achieving and maintaining the surface of appearance by ‘confronting, critiquing and celebrating the ritual and routine of beauty’. 

Cathy Lomax, Type: Unreadable, 2019, oil and mirrors on cardboard, installed at Beauty Salon.

In the celebrating corner we find Cathy Lomax whose painting constituency is firmly rooted within film, her paintings capture selected images culled from movies, stilled moments re-configured in new often ambiguous narratives. In Beauty Salon alongside images of iconic ice-queen blondes such as Catherine Deneuve and Eva Marie Saint, Lomax also shows paintings of beauty’s tools, those magical genies locked within their glass bottles, colouring tubes of foundations and glossy nail varnishes. A critique of these luscious make-up advertising and packaging conceits is somehow implied without however overlooking or denying their allure. There is also the obvious connection between beauty and painting products both coming out of tubes both dealing with application and illusion. 

Cathy Lomax, Beauty Grabs, 2019, oil on paper installation at Beauty Salon.

With Lomax these products are personal, back in the day, before her current career as painter she was a make-up artist initially working for Cosmetics a la Carte where she became an expert at mixing foundations especially for women of colour. In the accompanying catalogue for the exhibition writing about how professional make-up artists are often unable to match skin tones of black models she quotes South Sudanese model Nykhor Paul’s recent embittered Instagram post 

‘Dear white people in the fashion world! Please don’t take this the wrong way but it’s time to get your shit right when it comes to my complexion! Why do I have to bring my own make-up to a professional show when all the other white girls don’t’

Cathy Lomax, Skin, 2019, oil & acrylic on paper, 18x25cm.

It is an issue which Lomax is obviously aware of as evidenced by the inclusion of several paintings of black models such as Venus De Milo and Highlighter. Alongside these are two larger paintings which she defines as non-white - Dangerously Shiny and Beautiful in Basalt - both based on classical statues. Explaining their inclusion Lomax says ‘when beauty becomes fixed in stone it becomes easier to control - it is halted and static and has little to do with the messiness of a living person.’ 

In her recent PhD thesis Leslie Jones re-defines the concept of the beauty salon. She traces a path from the intellectual salons of 18th century France where writers and artists would gather at the home of a female host, to recent black feminist scholarship on beauty salons describing them as ‘community based epicentres for black females to gather, discuss politics and initiate social activism.’

Accompanying the paintings Lomax also included an essay film a joyous romp through 1930s ladies elevating out of powder puffs, stars being pampered and made-up to the moment and Legally Blonde where Reese Witherspoon shows the ladies in a beauty salon how to flirtatiously pretend to pick something off the floor to get a man’s attention.

More than celebrating, Lomax is unashamedly investigating her own fascination with beauty, not only within the realm of old school Hollywood ‘woman as spectacle’ but also taking in more contemporary concerns. To quote Catherine Breillat, writing about the film Baby Doll ‘Beauty is her prerogative’.

Jennifer Campbell, Smoke it up Definer (detail),  2019, found wooden panel, acrylic paint, shredded paper documents, found image. Cathy Lomax, Dangerously Shiny, 2017, oil on linen, 90x80cm. Installed at Beauty Salon.

More obvious critiquing and confronting come via Jennifer Campbell and Alli Sharma. Campbell’s complex part sculpture, part painting constructions, present an intriguing and intelligent counterbalance to the show’s theme. They are somehow inexplicably critical of the beauty business. She says ‘my artworks document an obsession with surface colour, yet my personal approach to make-up is quite masculine and almost chromo-phobic’. In contrast to slick representations of cosmetic containments Campbell uses paint almost like stage make-up which she ‘slathers onto shabby materials such as discarded polystyrene or paper pulp’. Her paintings suggest make-up as experienced through a prism of joyful papier mache classroom art lessons. 

Jennifer Campbell, Colour Me Miracle, 2019, polystyrene, silk clay, sea sponge, acrylic paint, artificial sand, tarmac, novelty bottle, jade stone, makeup sponge, novelty wooden egg half, installed at Beauty Salon.

In amongst the purple glitter explosions, the sweet-like hundreds and thousands with golden eggs, and a coral coloured shell holding a purple elastic scrunchy amidst what looks like a cluster of worms, I am intrigued and amused to see a small collage of a men-in-tights image of Robin Hood.

Jennifer Campbell, Sea Witch, 2019, paper, paper pulp, acrylic paint, artificial sand, artificial hair, found sand scooper, polymorph plastic, air dry clay, clay sculpting tool, silk clay, installed at Beauty Salon.

Campbell says she went back to her 12-year-old self, when she would spend her pocket money on iridescent baby blue lipsticks and nail polishes ‘always with a layer of glitter gloss on top’. But as the work progressed she was led to a deeper exploration ‘between the ideas of the feminine and ideas about transformation and mutability’. This questioning of gender stereotypes presumably explains the men in tights inclusion. Campbell also offers the notion that with the imagined threat from AI, far from dismissing feminine experiences maybe they can offer ‘a vital pluralistic approach to how we can view the structure of human identity’.

Alli Sharma, Chippy 3, 2019, oil on canvas, 26x20cm.

Alli Sharma’s paintings of chipped nail varnish are a much more up-yours attitude towards the beauty industry. Admitting to liking a good manicure she also states that she actually ‘loves the way chipped nails look - suggesting the aftermath of a glamourous occasion’. Her punky finger salute reminds us that perfection is not always achievable. Sharma has also included within the show’s catalogue a series of photographs of women putting on their make-up on the tube which adds a slice of the reality of everyday life far removed from the shiny seductive clinical environs of most beauty salons. 

Alex Michon

Beauty Salon
Jennifer Campbell, Cathy Lomax, Alli Sharma 
Alison Richard Building
University of Cambridge
9 May – 14 June 2019 

Saturday, 22 June 2019


Touching on current debates around artificial and plant intelligence whilst evoking horror film props and prosthetics, artist Dean Kenning’s mechanised science fictional sculptures playful enact his Promethian attempts at bringing matter to life
A pair of plastic protuberances bump together awkwardly to the laboured thrum of obscured machinery which creaks and groans as if to say ‘I am exhausted, please look after me.’ Sparring flaccidly, the two tentacular figures atop the podium are caught between desperate caresses and a flailing battle for an impossible victory. Brief gaps punctuate the rounds of the doomed dual, in which the white limbs fall trembling into stillness and the space becomes silent; the voyeuristic guilt of the claustrophobic encounter somehow less pronounced.

Untitled (Rubber Plant), 2019, mixed media kinetic sculpture

Dean Kenning’s exhibition at Matt’s Gallery extends the artist’s ongoing series of kinetic sculpture into a quasi-botanical realm. The rubber plant on display here is a much meatier incarnation of the nervously wobbling plantoids that appeared in the artist’s 2007 Berlin and 2009 New York shows. His motorised practice aims, in his own words, ‘to develop a compulsive aesthetic and a pseudo-autonomous art object by bringing matter to life’.

Kenning’s Renaissance Man sculpture of 2017 is one memorable experiment in this vein. A grotesque reimagination of the artist as a ‘mechanised animal’, the figure’s hollow aluminium body gyrates methodically up and down in a strange quadrupedal press-up. The metal arms strain in a convincing mimicry of muscular movement and exertion, and the swaying hair attached to the modelled face subtly animates the inert technology.

Kenning’s sculptures are overtly and proudly mechanical but, through an emphasis on kinesis, draw attention to the ease with which technology reflects the natural and human world around it. Like horror film props and prosthetics, a frightening reality is brought to life not by visual verisimilitude alone, but through the uncanny performance of familiar motions and sounds. Conscious movement tends to signal a nervous system identifiable as alive, yet a lack of recognisable movement, as plant neurobiologists remind us, does not signify a lack of intelligence.


My Animal Friends, 2019, enamel and gloss on ply

On three of the four gallery walls are colourful diagrammatic drawings picturing various routes through questions of origins and values. Kenning has previously used triangular and Venn diagrams to map out his observations of neoliberal crisis and the rise of right-wing populism, and these works offer a similar visualisation of critical thinking through drawing. Asking Where do you come from artwork? he reflects on the creation of the aforementioned rubber sculpture, illustrating different potential moments of conception, from the artist’s mind to the transformative gallery space. These two origins are captioned in a theatrical tone to imply a scepticism regarding the ahistorical, while the remaining two options of materials, processes + contexts that make it up and the naturo-social world it represents seem more sincere suggestions, embedded in cultural production. With this question of how matter is brought to life Kenning weaves his practice together with current debates around both artificial and plant intelligence, questioning human beings’ uncertain autonomy and status within these networks.

Where Do You Come From Artwork (2020), enamel and gloss on ply

‘Life’, in inverted commas, is also interrogated by philosopher John Roberts in an essay specially commissioned for the show. Roberts perceives in old, outdated machinery the fundamental truth that technology never really arrives at its destination. The resultant uncanniness or ghostliness of said technology detached from its usefulness (in rationalising and organising human needs and desires) is what he deems Kenning’s refunctioning of old machines and parts to be concerned with. The impotent silicone rubber figures of Untitled (Rubber Plant) can never resolve their fight (or flirtation), and in this failure is revealed the truth of technological progress; what Roberts terms the ‘death-drive of technology’. The machine is forever locked in self-destructive limbo, unable to die as it is upgraded and adapted in a human-dictated process of evolution. Kenning’s rubber plant is given a new, synthetic existence, but it is a far cry from the rogue, super-intelligent and antagonistic plant-life of science fiction.

Untitled (Rubber Plant), 2019, mixed media kinetic sculpture

Kenning ponders this longevity by mapping the vital heat of an animal onto a drawing of Renaissance Man. The result playfully disputes Descartes’ 17th century theory of animals as automata, directly comparing a rodent: ‘ZERO HEAT = DEATH’, to a machine: ‘ZERO HEAT = MAX. EFFICIENCY’. In his analysis, Roberts brings burgeoning anxieties around being outlived by our creations, whether these be kinetic sculptures, plastic bags, or AI, to bear on current ecological thinking and a probable ‘future world of thinking and self-organizing plants and other life-forms’. He (somewhat abruptly) carries his sense of the futility of mechanistic movement into an argument against an assumed ‘solidarity’ between human and the nonhuman. He suggests instead an ‘immanent violence of the human-indifferent human-created nonhuman’ and that therefore there ‘is no harmony with nature waiting for us, even if we get through this current global ecological crisis.’ Unless, he states, humans were to put aside their egoism and offer themselves up to nonhuman lifeforms, as foodstuffs…

Although Roberts’ essay provides a compelling navigational tool, I cannot help but recoil from his pessimistic philosophising of the post-anthropocentric conflict that apparently awaits us. For me, his analysis misses an optimistic message implicit in Kenning’s work; that however uncomfortable, ugly and unfamiliar, there are lives that exist outside human aims, desires and value-judgements. And by working through the uncertainties, and inner conflicts such lives provoke in us, we might better equip ourselves to accept and accommodate these differences.

Abigail Ashford

Dean Kenning
Matts Gallery
London SE16
8-30 June 2019

Friday, 7 June 2019

Bullets for Bottoms

In the Brazilian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, Toby Upson finds everything he could freaking wish for in a biennale presentation namely: depth, ethics a little political charge and beautiful bodies pulsating in time with contemporary club classics 

‘We must respond to the aestheticisation of politics with the politicization of aesthetics.’ 

Walter Benjamin’s now infamous line echoes across this year’s Venice Biennale and across the wider artworld discourses of late. Indeed, politics seem to be becoming a more and more prominent subject in contemporary art. Often didactic or activist in ideology, far from creating any form of change or triggering any wider conversation on socio-political issues, the proliferation of white cube political art risks casting a spectacular shadow over this whole practice. 

How then can artists (in the expanded term) manoeuvre in this context to generate aesthetic experiences that suitably percolate conversations about contemporary socio-cultural issues without reproducing radically grandiose statements, or clinical vitrines brimming with quasi-anthropological research? 


I am enticed into the Brazilian Pavilion by an electro drum-beat and a sudden drop in the club like baseline. Unlike anything you can gleam about pop phenomena from Drag Race, the cavernous space contains a cacophonous pool of energetic movements, sweat, and raw sexual energy. Who wouldn’t want to investigate!

Two rooms in the Pavilion are given over to the artist duo Bárbara Wagner and Benjamin De Burca to present the latest iteration of their long-term research with marginal communities in Recife, Brazil. Taking its name from swingueira – a modern day form of communal dance much like, square dancing or samba – Wagner and De Burca’s Swinguerra twists the words ending (from gueira to guerra - meaning war) imbuing it with political charge, and indicating the complex threads woven through the artistic research displayed. Don’t fret there are no vitrines in sight. Simply split over two darkened rooms, Swinguerra pairs simple photography with a genre blurring film, to create a clean yet highly enjoyable presentation, teaming with a socio-political undercurrent. 

In the first room a series of photographic portraits capture a number of Recife’s urban dance troops. Popping with cinematic vitality, each portrait shows the regiments standing strong in formations against a dark backdrop. In an iconographic metaphor for the political climate in Brazil, this order and the petrified agency gained through the high contrasts, gives the troops a collective powerful sense of purpose and pride.

Moving into the second room the tempo steps up. The energy bound up in the portraits erupts onto the big screen (a two-channel screen, one at each end of the rectangular room) with full-on pop drama. In a hi-octane, S&M come High School Musical film, Wagner and De Burca blur documentary type footage of the works participants including the dancer’s lives, training regimes, and acts of self-progression, via social media, with the full-on spectacle of music video dance sequences. As the semi-narrative unfolds, perceptions of genders, race, and identity dissolve until we are left with a wonderfully ‘tasteless’ display of pop identity: one free from high or low culture binaries, and evangelistic ideals.

Sweaty and straight faced, recurring iconography and dance movements give the dancers’ routines a particular socio-political prominence: the exaggerated thrust, the cock grab, the twerk, and double handed wank, can all be read as signs of the male western hegemony perpetuated by digital media and indeed the capitalist idea of democracy that accompanies this flow of global nationalism. The infectious effect of this right-wing ideology is woven throughout the film. Dressed in black, we see the participants training in their clammy sports hall; and immediately a parallel image is called to mind; one of dictatorial regimens, of national strength, and shows of military power. If the sold mass of military might was once the primary gauge of a certain male fantasy of national power, in the digital present the speed of bullets has been replaced by the vibrations of bottoms. 

Intermingled with the footage of the troops training and performing, under the guide of their captain, we see the participants going about their day to day lives, whether taking selfies, smoking or getting changed these small acts give the work a humanity, something often lacking in socio-research based practices. In these moments of respite, we glimpse the participants visions of their troop’s collective future: dancing in perfect synchronicity at the centre of a classically polis style stadium. But just like the smoke bellowing from their cigarettes, these hazy aspirations disintegrate before long, and they are back in sweaty reality.

More than just a racy stream of dew soaked youths dancing, given the political climate in Brazil (a country in the grips of a right-wing regime that does not support culture) and the global drive towards an ever more heterogeneous social whole, the film acts as a spectacular metaphor for the contemporary (2019) incarnation of the  ‘order and progress’ ideology. Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro (the Pavilion’s curator) is keen to assert that the socio-political undercurrents that run through Wagner and De Burca’s work does not play a part in the construction of the films narrative: much like the issues themselves, social relations and the political situation are embedded within the artists’ research by the bodies, movements, scenes and traditions of the Brazilians they collaborate with.

I’m not afraid to say I freaking love this Pavilion! It has everything I could wish for in a biennale presentation, and art in general: depth, ethics, a little political charge, and of course beautiful bodies pulsating in time with some contemporary club classics. 

Toby Upson

Bárbara Wagner & Benjamin de Burca
Brazilian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale
Giardini Castello, Venice 
11 May – 24 November 2019