Sunday, 18 July 2021

Turner @ Tate

Toby Upson visits Turner's Modern World at Tate Britain and notices connections to Rothko's Seagram murals which are now also installed at the gallery.

It is rare that the cool air swirling around a Victorian painting gallery adds something romantic to the works pinned, steadfast, to their often colour-block walls. But here I am, sitting on a rather welcoming bench, taking in both art-work and air-con. Specifically, I am in Tate Britain (the Turner’s Modern World exhibition), looking at a rich mushroom wall, and Philip James de Louthbourg’s The Battle of the Nile, 1800, whilst a dead whirring of electrified air reverberates about me. In front of this particularly crisp image, with the sound of treated air rushing into the enclosed gallery, I am enamoured by something particularly atmospheric. Moved by something harrow in its formal hollowness. 

Drama lies in action, and as I sit, feel, taking in de Louthbourg’s painting, I am left thinking about the stories not told, or rather those possibilities that are foreclosed, in this high-sea battle scene. De Louthbourg’s is an allegorical work - a modern history painting: crashing about the foreground little dinghies helplessly drift, manned by a hodgepodge crew of ship mates and masters; framed by battleships, the core of the composition is dominated by an eruption, a blaze, through which we are just able to discern a shadow of a ship’s mast within the vortex of white-hot flames and plumes of smoke. It seems fitting that such a powerful visual record of this ‘crucial British victory’ over the French (as described in the display caption), is executed in such a definitive manner. Personally, it is as if the weight of the finish is meant to recall or mirror the weight of nationalist pride felt amongst ‘Great Britons’ upon reading about this important win that secured the Mediterranean and re-affirmed British sea power. Action is deployed here, in other words, to propagandic affect.


Philip James de Loutherbourg, The Battle of the Nile, 1800, oil on canvas


De Louthbourg’s patriotic scene apparently had a profound influence on Joseph Mallord William Turner, leading to his first paintings of modern warfare (although Turner’s direct response to this painting, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1799, cannot now be traced). Indeed, de Louthbourg’s use of brilliant colour, to add astute highlights to areas of action within the composition - areas such as rip-roaring flames in the glimpsable distance - recalls those touches of white, zinc, and bold primary colours used by Turner to evoke a sense of deep awe within his later works (War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet, c.1842, is a case in point). Unlike de Louthbourg, whose use of contrasting hues render this newsworthy battle spectacular, Turner uses colour accoutrements to enhance the sublimity of his subject matter. In other words, colour is what gives Turner access to romance. Indeed, it is colour under Tuner's hand that lets loose possibilities.

Joseph Mallord Turner, War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet, 1842, oil on canvas


As a curator I am a big lover of serendipity, I thrill off the spontaneous, superfluous, and sometimes superficial connections between things (those who know me will recognise my skittish pull to eke the meta out if everything). Prior to opening the Turner’s Modern World exhibition, Tate set about rehanging and moving some of its 'masterpieces' further down the Thames. Dislodged from their position in Tate Modern, Mark Rothko's Seagram Murals - large weepy canvases composed from hazy rectangles of red and maroon, that, to quote Jennifer Campbell’s Garageland review of the works, ‘overlap and hover [...] creating a new colour that [ones] eye cannot fix’ - now sit in the older of the Tate siblings. Positioned next to, and curated as to be in conversation with, a free display of yet more Turner's (part of the Turner Bequest), I am a little lost as to the language the two artists are conversing in, aside from jubilant praise from Jr to Sr Modernist.

Maquette for installation of Mark Rothko's Seagram murals at Tate gallery, 1970

More than just a pairing of formalist romantics, who sought to break with the old through chromatic affect, this later, free, exhibition had for me more of a resonance than the 'blockbuster' that is Turner’s Modern World. Perhaps this is due to curatorial intent: Turner’s Modern World is framed as a historical survey, ‘examin[ing] what is meant to be a modern artist during Turner's lifetime’, whilst the conversation between Rothko and Turner is one of deep admiration and personal resonance - Rothko gave his Seagram Murals to the Tatebecause of the wonder and respect he had for his predecessor's work.


Like any good discourse, these two exhibitionary conversations add so much and reward each other. Or rather, I should say that the insights gained from the historical survey enlivened the Rothko-Turner discussion for me. For example, we soon learn from Turner’s Modern World that the artist wasn't much 'good' at figurative work: the people who dot his early allegorical and genre paintings lack a liturgical festering; they seem more blob-like, banal, than active agents in a story - just like those naive figures in Rothko’s early canvases. Indeed, as with Rothko, as Turner's career ticks on, the figures in his compositions dissolve like a mist into the eerie scenes that beautifully haunt the Turner Bequest - the unfinished oils left in the painter's studio, such as Norham Castle, Sunrise, c.1845, are perhaps some of the strongest works in either of the Tate displays. This is not to say that the 'best' of Turner's paintings are purely surface - like a Rothko - works such as Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On), 1840, and Peace - Burial at sea, 1842, have an intoxicating narrative within their composition, inviting prolonged engagement and moral rumination through their choice use of figuration and pools of transcending colour. There is nothing propagandic about these evocative scenes, they suggest subtly, with the harrowing quality of their lament lying in the cataclysmic drama unfurling within us viewers.


Joseph Mallord Turner, Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On), 1840, oil on canvas

Mark Rothko, Red on Maroon, 1959, oil on canvas

And on that note, where better to turn for a 'modern' point of conversation than Rothko's ecstatic tomb. Originally commissioned for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York, the Seagram Murals perfectly encapsulate the modernist spirit embodied by Rothko: ‘I am interested only in expressing basic human emotions – tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on.’ It is of note that Rothko subsequently pulled this commission two years after receiving it in 1960, as his ‘ambitions for the works grew, [and] he no longer saw the restaurant as an appropriate location for his paintings.’ It was following this move that he gifted the series to Tate in 1969. Personally, sitting with this Rothko series recalls that feeling of sitting with de Louthbourg; the entombing installation feels like another form of scripted address: ‘one must feel, feel the sublimity of your emotions.’ In this way, rather than inviting romantic reflection, the Seagram Murals dictate subjective state in order to cause affect. To me this runs counter to Turner’s romantic ideas, where even the subtlest action invites subjective speculation – complicating the ‘basic’ in Rothko’s ‘basic human emotions.’ 


If New York's mid to late 1900 modernity played out in high-rise hotels, the modern world Turner was working through was very much the high seas. Indeed, instead of the secular church of the dining hall, Turner's faith lies in the sun, the sky, and the storms of the world - aspects of his life narrated for us in Tate's Turner’s Modern World. The earthly dramas captured by Turner, via his lush mists of colour, do not so much push for a self-referential search for ‘basic human emotion’ - as Rothko seeks - but invite romantic rumination, freeing, in their dispersed nature, polyphonic possibilities. Just as the cool-air of the painting gallery slowed me down to contemplate the shallow script of de Louthbourg’s battle, so to the audible winds rushing through Turner's later, unbounded, work whistle a hollow tune - a romantic call asking for a response.

Toby Upson


Joseph Mallord Turner, Sunrise with a Boat between Headlands, 1840-45, oil on canvas

Joseph Mallord Turner, Norham Castle, Sunrise, 1845, oil on canvas


Turner’s Modern World 
Tate Britain, London 
until 12 September 2021.


Friday, 16 July 2021

Linder Sterling - Bower of Bliss Performances


‘The BBC were due to film the 11.30 performance, but they've been delayed’, says a  member of the Liverpool Biennial staff. There are other concerns. ‘We're just checking the sound levels’, says a voice nearby. No sooner have these words been uttered, than a sombre wash of pre-recorded strings signals the beginning. Two theatrically clad dancers stride in funereal slow motion towards a marked-off performance space...

Against a backdrop of uniform brick, Linder Sterling's Bower of Bliss mural blooms into life; its joyous crimsons, pinks and magentas foregrounded. KEEP A BOWER QUIET FOR US; a recent text overlay by Kajsa Ståhl cites Keats' Endymion: A Poetic Romance. In a busy weekend shopping thoroughfare, we're summoned to a place of sanctuary, with its abundant poetry of magic, enchantment & transformation.  

This specially commissioned work forms part of The Stomach And The Port, the final chapter of the 2021 Liverpool Biennial, curated by Manuela Moscoso. In addition, a series of performances - or 'sense activations', as Sterling describes them, form part of a series of weekend events across the city, marking the Biennial's conclusion.

The term sense activation seems apt, reflecting the aspirations of an artist who sometimes appears frustrated by the limitations of the picture frame. In recent years, Sterling has sought to create collaborative pieces inhabiting three-dimensional space; itself part of a wider desire to explore realms of sense beyond the purely visual. With this in mind, a company of musicians, dancers, and costume designers is on hand, well versed at playing to their own and each other's strengths.

Her son Maxwell, composer, double bass player and sound designer, though not in attendance, is musically present via a pre-recorded soundtrack. His layered textures are enhanced by live stylings supplied by Kenichi Iwasa, seated on a carpet, surrounded by an array of unorthodox musical instruments. While most spectators lining the opposite wall could be described as 'art crowd', there's also a smattering of weekend shoppers more than happy to be drawn into the piece's more contemplative time frames. 

The two dancers, Lauren Fitzpatrick and Kirstin Alexandra Halliday, seem, at times, like spirits torn between breaking free of constraint, or pursuing an elusive union. Fitzpatrick's performance, by turns, more solar, fiery, playful and insouciant, Halliday's more cool, lunar, angular and cryptic. Their costumes, designed by Louise Gray, channel strong colour themes within the mural – the reds in Fitzpatrick's picking up the florid foregrounds, the whites & blacks in Halliday's transmitting the more diffuse, contrasting elements.

The stage props, an ironing board with iron, recall Sterling's late 70s oeuvre, with its confining domestic spaces. Clasping the iron to her ear like a telephone, Fitzpatrick's grin replicates not only grinning mouths within the mural, but those of an entire timeline; one of several repeat motifs evident within the Bower of Bliss (alongside whorls of rose petals, cosmetics, bird heads in profile, glamour models – all repurposed from their original sources and contexts). Yet, for this reviewer at least, there's never a feeling of jadedness when encountering these elements in Sterling's work.

At one point during the second performance, the man from the BBC finally arrives. He shoots a few frames before disappearing in search of the next story. Over at a nearby coffee chain they're counting customers in and out, but meanwhile, in a performance space now strewn with flowers, the two dancers join hands and take a bow...

William Garvin 

Linder At Bower of Bliss 
Liverpool Biennial
19 June 2021

Tuesday, 25 May 2021

Fairy Tale Yin and Yang

Cathy Lomax visits two new shows at the Hayward Gallery which are situated at opposite ends of a fairy tale thread.


Matthew Barney’s Redoubt, a film and a series of sculptures and copper wall pieces, is dark with a luxuriously sinister veneer. In the dimly lit downstairs gallery Cosmic Hunt, a huge steel sculpture cast from a charred and debarked tree with added wolf pelt, sits on a tripod. It is a gun/phallus cocked and ready to fire. 

Matthew Barney, Cosmic Hunt, 2020, cast stainless steel

This is framed by a series of highly polished copper plates, etched with forest scenes, shimmering under their spotlights like vulgar symbols of ostentatious wealth. Above on the mezzanine is the centrepiece – a huge screen showing Barney’s film in which camo-clad dancing hunters chase down and kill a wolf in the snowy mountain wilderness of Idaho, while an engraver in his studio spins an artist’s (played by Barney) observations into copper etchings. Wolves, forests and mythology evokes The Company of Wolves (1984) and continuing the British filmic fairy tale theme there is a visual thread that connects the dancing engraver with Robert Helpmann’s shoemaker from the sublime The Red Shoes (1948). But this is the macho American wilderness and not the claustrophobic female world of dark European fantasy. The wolves here are not hairy on the inside, instead they are hunted and skinned and disempowered. 

Matthew Barney, Redoubt

Barney’s exposition does initially have atmosphere, but this is melted away by its over-production, the digital hyper-real clarity of the film and the impossibly shiny copper plates, quash the dark mood, infiltrating it with corporate blandness as stylistic refinement segues into empty detachment. 

Installation view of Matthew Barney, Redoubt at Hayward Gallery, 2021
© Matthew Barney, 2021. Photo Mark Blower

The production budget must have been colossal, and this goes someway to explain the upstairs section of the show where the copper and bronze wall hangings and sculptures are brightly lit as if in a showroom (or supermarket). Damian Hirst’s 2017 Venice Biennial folly Treasures from the Wreck of The Unbelievable came to mind as I descended the staircase to visit the second exhibition at the gallery.


Although Igshann Adams’ Kicking Dust (the second show at The Hayward), has its own fairy tale rationale, its soft diffusion of beaded tapestries and clouds of delicately twisted wire works could not be more different from the dark machismo of Barney’s RedoubtKicking Dust is described as a single installation made up of a number of components. The inspiration for these works lie in Adams’ South African heritage as reflected by their Afrikaans titles. Particularly poetic are the pathways or ‘desire lines’ that allow us to walk amongst the weavings on the gallery floor which reflect Adams’ field research in the suburbs of Cape Town, and the wire clouds, which are inspired by the dust kicked up in a dance performed in the Northern Cape and infuse the gallery with a soft haziness.

Igshann Adams, Kicking Dust, installation view, 2021


Emerging from the delicate pastel-toned world of Kicking Dust involves a short immersion in the harshness of Redoubt – two shows which really could not be more different in tone.

Matthew Barney: Redoubt & Igshann Adams: Kicking Dust

Hayward Gallery

Southbank Centre, London

19 May - 25 June 2021

Monday, 3 May 2021

a sky . a sea . distant mountains . horses . spring .

Months of Zoom have twisted Toby Upson’s usually joyful outlook on life, with the result that for his review of Ugo Rondinone’s new show at Sadie Coles, he has (in his own words), ‘been a bitch’. 


'Eeyore: not so much a frivolous neigh, rather a dreary response to something lacking any sense of profundity.' This is perhaps the first line and a bit of art-writtery-wank that I have spewed (to a public) in 2021. So let's step back - perhaps a bit too far - and begin from somewhere a bit more recumbent.


April 2021. I have been dreaming, for the first time in a long time. About what I cannot remember. Nothing good - nothing erotic - all dull, blasé, romantic. You know the stuff: meta-fluff. But still, I have been dreaming. Perhaps the lack of visual stimulation - or ability to practice some kind of ‘haptic looking’ to use Laura U Marks’ term - over the last few months has forced me to create for myself some sort of transcendent experience, like the kind I would normally find in a gallery. (1)  Now upright and in the (art)world, I am flying around town, perhaps naïvely falling back into a corollary routine foregrounding the accumulation of cultural capital. (Yes, a routine that I am continuing with this very text...) 


There is something quite poetic about seeing blue glass horses following the coronavirus induced hibernation. At a time when aesthetic experiences were primarily defined and disseminated by a tiresome blue light of a computer screen, this gentle re-embodiment of art back in a gallery space feels… nice.  The 15 individual blue glass horses that comprise Ugo Rondinone’s herd (in one half of his split gallery presentation across two of Sadie Coles’ London spaces) appear just that... nice. The formal qualities of these knee-high painterly ponies reminds me of the smoothed faces of Jelly Babies, or maybe to be more adult, dulled seaglass aged through exposure in the tough old ocean. Either way, the cumulative effect of these forms seems to emphasise the space of the gallery. Have you ever looked up in Sadie Coles (Kingly Street)? Indeed, have you ever stared intently at Maynards Bassetts’ packaging?


Taking their titles from various seas from around the world, the play-doh-uous ponies, we are told in the press release, ‘embody ideas of space, time and nature,’ themes recurring throughout Rondinone's practice. These figurative pieces seem to depart from what I know of Rondinone's oeuvrethe fluorescent towers of pebble-like shapes as seen in his series of Mountain sculptures - but ultimately retain the same sense of placidity. That is, a calm romanticism, or simple sugar induced high to be seen. The allure of the natural world, and in particular its transcendental possibilities, seems to be lost or rather overly foreclosed here by the way spiritual metaphor is squeezed into the forms of each sculpture. Literally embodying the rise and fall of the sun/moon on a horizon line - those cliché magical hours - each horse  feels somewhat contrived - or to pun, blue. For me personally underworked theory is never sexy. 


The ethereality referenced in the landscapes confined within the bodies of Rondinone's horses is perhaps better seen, or at least sketched out, in the series of minimal watercolour works that seem to connect the two of gallery spaces. Minimal is the operative word here, simple circular shapes and a crisp horizontal line are used to picture something of an art deco-esque (or childlike) sun rise/set. Debased of complex narrative subject matter, the surfaces of these predominantly small works (achtundzwanzigsterjunizweitausendundzwanzig, 2020 being an exception) recall the painterly exteriors of Rondinone's ponies, creating a nice link between the two and three dimensional works. (You can imagine - someone - buying one of each; you can never have just one Jelly Baby after all.) 


Rather than ‘painterly ponies’ grazing the gallery floor, in Sadie Coles’ Davies Street space, monumental amorphic canvases fill the walls of the lower gallery-come-chamber. Recalling Rondinone's Mountain sculptures, that I am far more familiar with (albeit squashed), my attention here is drawn to the surfaces of these seemingly precarious towers. Quick slithers of thin oil on deformed canvas give these paintings a sense of speed as well as texture. It is as if a young child - high on those very same Jelly Babies - has broken into a paint store and sloshed around using anything - hand, foot, brush - to make manifest the energy now unbound through sugary rapture. Far from being wholly free however, the raw marks that give a über-fast slickness to the surfaces of these paintings are contained, enclosed by the deformed stretchers of each canvass. It appears the artist has paid attention, hemming in his gestural ablutions, keeping the overall tone of the works within a canonical lineage more transcendental colour field than macho expressionism. 


As with Rondinone's 15 sculptural works these large paintings seem so self-referential that they emphasise the space of the gallery, the very confines the artist’s work operates within here. (2) Rather than becoming ‘prisms that alter the space around them’, as the press release suggests, I feel that the works accentuate the enclosing packaging of the gallery space, offering perhaps an apt reference to the semi-re-opened (and highly capitalist) times I find myself in. It’s nice to be out about again, but like so much of the meta-fluff that I have been dreaming about over the last year or so, I doubt I will be remembering this exhibition for too long. 

Toby Upson



Ugo Rondinone, a sky . a sea . distant mountains . horses . spring . 

Sadie Coles

1 Davies Street & 62 Kingly Street, London W1

until May 22, 2021. 




(1) 'Haptic looking tends to move over the surface of its object rather than to plunge into illusionistic depth, not to distinguish from so much as to discern texture. It's more included to move than to focus, more inclined to graze than gaze.' Laura U Marks, Skin of the Film, 162

(2) Rondinone’s work has a very different quality outside of the gallery - I feel this is important to note. 

Wednesday, 14 April 2021

Costume as Activator

Alex Michon on how nine international artists ‘putting together the never-ending puzzle of identity’ went about investigating the transformative potential of costuming.


Costume has often played a significant role in the work of multi-media artist Delaine Le Bas. As visiting professor at the University of the Arts, Berlin, she recently invited her international cohort of students to respond to the idea of how a garment or costume can play a transformative role within an art process. This project, initially intended to accompany Le Bas's work for the 11th Berlin Biennale as part of the Art in Context space at the Haus Der Statistik, Alexanderplatz, was, as the pandemic curtain came down, swiftly re-imagined by the students as a zine (which can be downloaded from the link at the end of this post). 

Antonis Dalkiranidis

Antonis Dalkiranidis's Setting your Shoulder Pads on Fire, taken from a slang term for a homosexual, refers to the camp way in which a gay man supposedly swishes his arm around whilst smoking a cigarette, thus setting his shoulder pads on fire. Recalling a time in 1998, when the popular Greek singer Rouvas caused an outrage in Greece by wearing a skirt on stage, was a revelatory moment for the nine-year-old Dalkiranidis.  Having long been taunted by being called a faggot, he remembers determining to ‘take in my own Rouvas and start to put together the first never-ending puzzles of my own identity.’ In his piece he has used a collection of gold votives (small metal panels which are meant to be left in a sacred place for religious purpose) to create a Courrèges-a-like skirt with the metal metaphorically standing in as negativity repelling armour. His work incorporates personal memory with fabulous fashion whilst referencing serious concerns relating to the sacred and the profane, and homophobia. At the time of writing Dalkiranidis was still working out the 'setting on fire' element which he will film to accompany his iconic image.

Bruna Mayer


Bruna Mayer's Stamped on My Skin viscerally explores ideas around self-identity and stereotyping. The words stamped onto Mayer's naked skin propose a kind of visual metaphor for imposed societal categorisation, questioning the necessity and accuracy of these second-hand words that dress us up to play roles, not always of our own choosing. Identity, Mayer argues is not fixed. The artist is Brazilian so in Europe she is classed as a 'foreigner'. Her work reveals how literal categorisation exists to maintain unequal structures relating to power and privilege. This work she says is about self-reflection, thinking critically about the self and further acknowledging human complexity which maybe can never be explained by words alone. 


Interdisciplinary artist Dior Thiam's minimial identity is part of her ongoing artistic project located at the intersection of poetics, installation and photography. The artist states that her work is 'based on the assumption that identity has meaning and is created as something constantly pre- and re-defined as well as enclosed within a specific language of visual and associative codes'Presenting a series of enigmatic cinema noirish hair-piece images with accompanying text, the artist questions ‘How much information do we really need to generate or read meaning onto objects, words and bodies?’

Thiam took notes of individual words from The Physics of Blackness by Michelle M. Wright turning them into lists, creating a kind of cascading visual concrete poem, from which new meanings evolved. This is evident in the dissection of the title which re-reads as ‘minimal’‘id’ and ‘entity’. The hair, which is her own worn in braids can also be read as an entity in itself; 'a separate costume which can be worn'. Although Thiam is of German and Senegalese parentage the hair does not, immediately read as ethnically black hair. By its disassociation from the physical body it perfectly poses Thiam's question of whether it can still be read as a predominantly black signifier. 

Dior Thiam

George Demir's This Mortal Clitch strays into the post-human, digital world, questioning the role of clothes in this virtual territory. The cyber aesthetic he employs incorporating elaborate masks with their peek-a-boo eyes touches on how individual social performance transforms and manifests itself in virtual spaces, ‘Dress me up I'm your avatar’, he announces. In a world where we can present ourselves through an idealised image configured to be anything we want to be where our clothes can be ‘tailored to fit our screen and size’ where digital fashion can make us a gorgeous as we want to be, Demir questions the future necessity of physical garments. But, for Demir working with mistakes and misalignments in this computerised realm is an important reminder that it is the flaws along with the perfections which all add to the wealth of experience in this his mortal space in-between. 


Jonas Tröger's Wearing Suit is Punk, mixes a polemically charged text with a suit-wearing self-portrait to not only question male costuming tenets but also highlight disinformation about punk. What started out as a DIY rebellion celebrating individuality, has solidified into a hideous spiked haired rent-a-punk cartoon. His dialectical title, proposing a seemingly contradictory stance, actually reveals a more nuanced argument. The idea of the suit, as an embodiment of a conservative symbol of capitalism is, Tröger argues, outdated. He proposes that ‘The wearing of an image does not have to be the wearing of its contents, but can also be its reversal.’  Asserting  that  ‘Millennials as well as Generation Z with their second hand fashion and neon-coloured eye-catchers could be said to represent a new uniformity’. For Tröger, suit wearing can, like the iconoclastic artists Gilbert and George, be considered a conversely subversive act. Tröger wears a suit not to fit in but to ‘stand out’.

Mara Hohn

Mara Hohn dedicates her piece Shorewaves to the environmentalist poet Ishigaki Rin. By including an image of herself caked in sand and ‘washed by the cold waves’, Hohn, stripped of clothes, ‘assuming the expression of rocks’, presents herself garmented in the metaphorical mud of nature itself. Her accompanying haiku asserts that she is connecting herself to the ‘continent of life’, which in line with her chosen poetic form she sees as a ‘tiny tiny land’. However, in a call to a universality which belies outward appearances and gets to the very heart of the human experience Hohn asserts that if we ‘all join hands together’ we can, like Hohn, see ‘a splendid coastline’ on the horizon.

Mariam Sow

Mariam Sow's Tribute to My Red Coat juxtaposing the image of a coat she has made with a poem she has written, explores the lyrical potential of costuming. Dressed up in her bright signal red coat, Sow enjoys the feeling of being noticed by ‘every eye in every direction’. It is a feeling she cherishes, ‘look at me’ she is shouting to the world, because today she is here for being looked at, her lovely coat giving her the confidence to own her own body with ‘no shame’. By taking ownership of this others looking ‘without asking’, Sow's coat symbolises her internal power, covering up any interior timidity. She performs the wearing of her coat as if she herself were a poem, no longer human with ‘no voice nor a name’, she has transformed herself into pure colour.


LiJung Choi's untitled piece relates to her work investigating history and personal family memory and the way in which an individual life is situated as a microcosm of society.

By presenting an image of small trees, juxtaposed with one of a toy man shown against a pin-art boxed screen, where the pins change shape when anything is pushed against them to create a three dimensional relief, Choi creates a visual metaphor of remembrance and forgetting. ‘The other side of the toy is constantly moving’, she explains, ‘but this is not immediately evident, it is as if we are currently in the course of history, but because we live such busy individual lives we forget or do not see the bigger picture.’

LiJung Choi


In External WorldYu Lu's white suit with the pants sewn into a folding fabric chair, gifted to her by her grandparents, was inspired by a series of photographs she had taken of homeless people in China. Her performative sculptural work combining two differing representations of relaxing in the street reveals, in a delicately humorous way the strong empathy Lu felt for the homeless. ‘Nothing else seems to matter when you just want a bed for the night’, she says, ‘so I decided to make a moving bed for a person to sleep in in the street’. Acknowledging that ‘we are never going to live in a social neverland’ Lu's suit nevertheless poetically imagines a transformative potential for clothing. 

The Costume as Activator zine can be downloaded here




Wednesday, 31 March 2021

Four Questions for Musa Mayer

 Following on from his review of ‘Philip Guston’, Musa Mayer’s book about her artist father, Michael Ajerman was invited to ask Mayer some questions. This is how their interchange went…



Michael Ajerman: I wanted to ask you how you felt about returning to the subject of your father. 'The Night Studio' (Mayer’s first book about her father) and 'Philip Guston' have such a different tone and feel. Was this a conscious decision?

Musa Mayer: It was very much a conscious decision. Over 30 years and close to half a lifetime separates the two books, and my purpose and state of mind in writing them was very different. While Night Studio is in part biography, it is told in the context of a daughter’s quest to know a largely absent father, and to come to terms with his influence in her life. First and foremost, it is a memoir, told in first person, in my own voice. By contrast, Philip Guston was commissioned by Laurence King as a profusely illustrated but inexpensive introduction to the artist, with a brief text that I hope tells his story in a concise way. It is written in the third person. I’d said what I needed to say about my own feelings about my father long ago, and now felt I could approach this recent text in a more objective way, as part of the legacy work I’ve been doing since my retirement six years ago. I’ve worked with The Guston Foundation staff on our website to bring forth a catalogue raisonné, for which I wrote an illustrated chronology. This new small Guston book is in line with those efforts and is also meant to serve as a complement to the large format major monograph also from Laurence King, with extensive text by Robert Storr, Philip Guston: A Life Spent Painting.

While his New York peers seemed to vacate after the infamous Marlborough Gallery exhibition, De Kooning remained a constant friend and ally in painting. I know both artists where on their own individual paths in the 1970s, artistically and personally. Did either ever visit each other’s studio that decade (Guston in Woodstock / De Kooning in East Hampton)? Was there any one-to-one conversations of opinions about each other’s solo exhibitions of the 1970s?

Unfortunately, no.

I wanted to ask you about Guston’s very late work. The acrylics on the paper; round bulbous orbs, tea pots, and cherries dominate. There are also drawings of full heads of men done in pencil. They seem to be a cross between lost hippies and wandering shaman. Little is known or discussed about this second group of work of drawings. Could you please address them or do you recall any conversations you had with your father about these?

These heads drawn in pencil, from 1980 are distant echoes or tributes to some of his earliest drawings from half a century earlier, in 1930 that were copies of heads from Masaccio frescoes. My father taught himself to draw by copying old masters reproduced in library art book. You can see these at the beginning and end of our slide show of selected drawings on the works page of our website. 

There is the incredible Guston painting of the joys of food, entitled 'Eating', 1977. The pasta that your father made was a meal to gather friends and family around the table for conversation and connection. I wanted to know if you could share the recipe or tell us what was in the famous concoction?


I love that painting, too. My father was a wonderful cook and did love to cook for his friends. He specialized in Italian dishes, but I don’t recall a specific pasta dish like this. But how about this quote from a talk he gave to New York Studio School students in January 1969? He seems to prefigure this painting, almost as if he conceived of it then, but only dared to paint it eight years later. That day in 1969, he was discussing abstraction and ‘essence’ painting and his passion for the image in his work. It’s on page 109 of the book Clark Coolidge edited, Philip Guston: Collected Writings, Lectures, and Conversations (University of California Press, 2010): 


Image making, I mean painting what's around you, what's there. Paint your hand. The other day I was up for two nights, and I painted... What do you paint? I don't want to paint Art, you know? All I know is that I had spaghetti that night, and so for three days, I was involved with painting a plate of spaghetti. But I don't want to paint a plate of spaghetti because I just ate it. Things get transformed. The mound got higher, like I wanted to make it bigger. I'm not advertising a spaghetti restaurant, so the mound gets higher and higher. Pretty soon it becomes like a Gustave Doré illustration. Millions of people in this big mass. It becomes a big, bloody carnage. You know, image making is the most fascinating--it's the only thing. The rest is just a lot of shit. Making colors and selling yourself a bill of goods.