Sunday, 22 December 2013

Bitter Southern-Belleing – the Art of Kara Walker at Camden Arts Centre

Recent Films such as Django Unchained directed by Quentin Tarantino and former Turner prize winner Steve McQueen’s 12 Years have brought the horrific history of slavery into focus. Talking at the Toronto press conference of the film McQueen stated that “It’s one thing to read about slavery, to have these illustrations – but when you see it on celluloid and within a narrative, it does something different starts a conversation, wonderful, excellent, it’ll be about time… Yes, race is involved, but it goes beyond that.” In fact McQueen goes even further stating that the film, which includes harrowing scenes of extreme violence, is a “film about love…there is a lot of pain in love sometimes and you have to get through it. It’s the journey of Solomon Northup, who gets back to his family.”

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Daniel Silver’s Dig

Katee Woods examines a derelict site near Tottenham Court Road and comes to some surprisingly Freudian conclusions about the lost civilisation she finds there.

Emerging from the derelict remains of the old Odeon site, Artangel’s latest commission Dig is presented as an archaeological excavation, unearthing hundreds of culturally diverse statues of human-like form. The arrangement of limbs and partial body parts is both museum-like and reminiscent of a butcher’s shop, yet without the context of the larger sculpture (that is to assume these are parts of a whole), these cuts of meat often remain unidentifiable. This sense of mystery and the unknown pervades throughout the exhibition.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Nathan James' Punchlines

Garageland reviewer Joe Turnbull pays a visit to Nathan James' exhibition Punchlines at KK Outlet and asks: 'just because the punchline's obvious, does that make it any less hilarious?'

It has been estimated that we are exposed to over 3000 advertisements every day. Small wonder then that our brains develop certain filtering mechanisms to deal with such a bombardment of images. Nathan James is all too aware of this, and in Punchlines he exploits it ruthlessly. On first glance his lush oil paintings Turning on the Water Works, Spring Break Fo'ever and Picnic Panic depict the voluptuous, too-perfect curves of a typical airbrushed ad or Hollywood pin-up. It's only once you take a step back that you realise these seductive figures are topped with grotesque cartoon faces, often contorted into guffawing poses.

Turning on The Water Works (2013) and Hey Girl (2013)

Monday, 21 October 2013

A Conversation with Beth Fox

Garageland reviewer Gala Knörr catches up with an old classmate to ask about the pitfalls of one-liner art and for some logistical solutions to transporting oversized Toblerone pieces.

I met Beth Fox whilst studying in the Central Saint Martins College of Art Master of Fine Art program a couple of years ago, a course on which numerous personalities, styles, mediums collided into one big ball of stress, nicotine addiction, thesis writing and art critiquing. 

Her work always stuck out when walking around the studios – extremely aware of its own flaws, almost innocently proud of its lack of craftsmanship and reflective of a humorous approach to how ridiculous life on the frontiers of the art world can sometimes be. When needed to give a lecture about her work to her peers, she simply imitated word-for-word the lecture of her previous classmate in front of the incredulous faces of her colleagues. From that moment on, I knew she would be one to watch.

Friday, 18 October 2013

A Snapshot of Frieze London

Mimei Thompson guides us through the inimitable Frieze London – her personal snapshot of the paintings at the art fair (and a lovely pair from the Sunday art fair too).

Sanya Kantarovsky at Mark Foxx, Los Angeles    

Allison Katz at Laura Bartlett Gallery, London

Friday, 11 October 2013

Fragile but Never Tenuous

Recalling the exhibition In This Fragile Place at Vyner Street Gallery, Joe Turnbull asks what it was that wove the works together so well when so many group exhibitions fall flat.

Ineffectively curated multi-artist exhibitions either hang together awkwardly, tenuously strung up by a single common thread, or are crassly bunched together by a homogenising theme. In this Fragile Place at Vyner Street Gallery does both and neither at the same time. The result of a long and collaborative process by the three exhibiting artists, the show benefits from this more organic way of working, making the symbiosis between the pieces feel natural and complimentary rather than forced. And it is this sense of process which shines through, albeit in a haunting milky half-light, in each of the finished works.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Casually Perfect: Jo Addison at Tintype Gallery

Burrowed between a taxidermist and a nail parlour on Islington’s Essex Road, Tintype’s new gallery space is holding its first exhibition, Jo Addison’s Not Trees and People. Travis Riley braves the startlingly middle-class Islington Streets to find out more.

Unkk (2013)

Through the gallery’s colossal new front window a display of eight small pieces, simply hung, can be seen. The most obtrusive work in the show, the satisfyingly named Unkk (2013), is a plywood protrusion from the left wall, in the shape of a semi-circular prism. Whilst the bottom of the work is suspended just off the floor, the flat top of the piece is at seat height and a bite has been taken out of its edge.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

A Conversation with Teresa Grimes of Tintype Gallery

Travis Riley talks with Teresa Grimes co-director of Tintype Gallery about the benefits and the bores of moving a gallery across London.

Morgan Wong's Performance: Filing Down a Steel Bar Until a Needle is Made
at Tintype's new gallery space.

My first visit to Tintype found me wandering the backstreets of Clerkenwell. It took three passes up and down St Cross Street to find the gallery, hidden away in a little upstairs room.

The gallery’s new home, resplendent on Islington’s Essex Road between a taxidermist and a nail salon does not succumb to the same criticism. Before its conversion to gallery the property was a haberdashery shop called ‘Sew Fantastic’ – though in its new guise this is tough to imagine. The gallery’s façade, framed in ornate stonework, has been fitted with a colossal new window, looking in on pristine white walls.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

The Devil In All Of Us: Michael Landy’s Saints Alive

On a visit to the National Gallery, Garageland reviewer Bethany Pope notices a peculiar change befall the viewers of Michael Landy's self-flagellating saints.

Saints Alive by Michael Landy is an astonishing mixture of the new and the old. The theme is startlingly appropriate for an artist who made his first mark with a work centered around a saint-like rejection of material goods, his startling performance piece Breakdown (2001). Michael Landy gathered all of his belongings together, from furniture and books to birth certificate, piled them into a pyre, and set them alight – a visible rejection of the consumerist world. One could view this accessible National Gallery piece as a natural continuance of that theme.

Saint Apollonia, 2013

Friday, 30 August 2013

A Distant Echo of the Body Electric

Stopping off at Calvert 22, East London's foundation for Russian and Eastern European art,  Garageland Reviewer Joe Turnbull finds he has to listen very closely to hear the whispers of the body electric.

What was once a vociferous mantra of anti-communism is now just a whisper; a muted spectre of Cold War propaganda. Nevertheless, it remains imprinted on the western cultural psyche like a faded tattoo. Nowhere is this more manifest than in the curation of exhibitions containing artwork from the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. When presenting work from the former Soviet states, galleries all too often either exhibit work that is tantamount to state-funded propaganda or, as has been the case more recently, present work that stiflingly critiques the censorship and oppression of those regimes through coded Aesopian symbolism.

Friday, 23 August 2013

The Animal in the Gallery

Over the years a veritable menagerie of live animals has been introduced into gallery spaces in the name of art. In an exploration of the topic Travis Riley meets some birds, a coyote, a fox, an elephant and 12 horses.

In his work Untitled, 1967 shown at Rome’s Galleria l’Attico, Jannis Kounellis exhibited paintings with artificial flowers and birdcages containing live birds. In images of the exhibition the cages are shown stacked on either side of a canvas with three, cotton, leaf-like forms stuck to its centre. The cages form a considerable part of the material of the installation; black and white photographs show the walls of the gallery space marked with a grid of shadows. What the pictures cannot show is the inevitable clamour and aviary aroma that comes with the presence of the animals.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Der Blaue Reiter at Lenbachhaus, Munich

Visiting Munich Garageland reviewer Liza Weber takes in Gabriele Münter's staggering expressionist donation to Lenbachhaus and wonders where exactly Kandinsky's pianist has got to.

Franz Marc, Blaues Pferd I (Blue Horse I), 1911

On turning eighty years old Gabriele Münter gave, rather than received, an inestimable gift. In 1957 to Munich’s Lenbachhaus or, more accurately, to the world, she donated 90 oil paintings, 24 glass paintings, 116 watercolours and coloured drawings, 160 drawings, 28 sketchbooks and an entire collection of prints. Their corners confessed not the signature of her modest umlauted ‘M’ however, but rather nine upper case letters spelling that reddened name ‘KANDINSKY’.

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Like A Monkey With A Miniature Cymbal

Whilst visiting Aid & Abet's show of perpetual loops Corinna Spencer meets Mrs Craven, who is passionate about her greenhouse, and a monkey that just won't give up.

Rhys Coren, Smile/Drop the base soundscape, 2013

All of the works in this show hold a sense of the continuous. Loops populate the gallery space, they are seen in film and paint, in sound and action, but in each instance, just before the loop becomes an exercise in futility, everything is transformed and filled with a sense of obsessive enjoyment. Paintings are worked over again and again and references are made to the heroic and to simple everyday endeavours.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Their Own Special Creations

Alex Michon raids her dressing up box of reminiscences to review Club to Catwalk at the Victoria & Albert Museum, an exhibition full of fashion-tastic hedonism.

From Club to Catwalk flyer, styled by John Derry Bunce
(aka John Dairy Queen)

'That's the effect of living backwards,' the Queen said kindly: 'it always makes one a little giddy at first--'
'Living backwards!' Alice repeated in great astonishment. 'I never heard of such a thing!'
'--but there's one great advantage in it, that one's memory works both ways.'
'I'm sure MINE only works one way,' Alice remarked. 'I can't remember things before they happen.'
'It's a poor sort of memory that only works backwards,' the Queen remarked.’ Alice Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

The Trouble with Counter-Culture

Garageland Reviewer Joe Turnbull's report from The Trouble with Counter-Culture talk at the ICA, in which it turns out that counter-culture is indeed very troubled. 

The trouble with counter-culture is that it's difficult to define. Any attempts to pigeonhole and demarcate could arguably be the first step in the mainstreaming process that neuters and assimilates it.

The trouble with counter-culture is its hegemonic cultural counterpart is not monolithic but fluid and diffuse. Counter-culture must constantly change and adapt to remain effective.

The trouble with counter-culture is it is such a complex and diverse concept that a one and a half hour talk could never satisfyingly address it.

Friday, 2 August 2013

Museum of Contemporary African Art

Garageland Reviewer Marianna Michael takes us on a guided tour of Meschac Gaba's banknote-stuffed Museum of Contemporary African Art and leaves us time to play with the board games and building blocks.

The Draft and Architecture Rooms

The mingling sounds of building blocks crashing to the ground and playful laughter radiate from entrance of Meschac Gaba’s much anticipated exhibition at Tate Modern, a bewildering draw proffered to those about to enter.
Born in 1961 Cotonou, Benin, Gaba conceived the concept of the Museum of Contemporary African Art during a residency at the Rijksakademie, Amsterdan in 1996. The now completed work, a 12-room display, was developed between 1997-2002 and has recently been acquired by Tate Modern.

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

A Beautiful World of Googly Eyes and Jelly Fish

A visit to Tate Modern finds Cathy Lomax pondering the existence of an underwater black Atlantis. This is her review of Ellen Gallagher's AxME, a show about a world of beautiful liberation.

Ellen Gallagher, Wiglette from DeLuxe, 2004

Ellen Gallagher employs multiple art-making personalities in order to convey the concerns that interest her. In AxME (say it out loud to get it) her solo show at Tate Modern, she paints, prints, collages, draws, sculpts, films and installs in order to tell us about the strange and cruel stereotyping of being other (and more particularly black) and her fantasy about escaping this and becoming immersed in a world of beautiful liberation.

Monday, 29 July 2013

Suppose a Salon

Alex Michon visits the grand confines of Chelsea College's banqueting hall, the meeting place of the Suppose a Salon /Symposium, and learns of a recipe that she's eager to try out.

Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas

Where do stoner culture, lesbian sex, food, burlesque nipple tassels and high art modernism converge? These items were all on the agenda at the Suppose A Salon /Symposium which was held in conjunction with the Suppose An Eyes exhibition currently at Transition Gallery.

Friday, 26 July 2013

Love, Language and Contagious Diseases

After a circuit of Heather Phillipson's corporeal Baltic Centre exhibition, Garageland reviewer Iris Priest leaves the art behind for a guided tour of Newcastle's backstreets.

I am sat with three strangers, all of us deeply inclined on pillows. My spot is still warm from the previous occupant and their lingering body heat stirs a simultaneity of comfort and unease in me. 

This is an apt beginning to Heather Phillipson’s exhibition at the Baltic centre Yes, surprising is existence in the post-vegetal cosmorama a show that oscillates between states of bodily and intellectual uncertainty, playfully testing the boundaries of self and other and occasionally obsessing over issues of personal hygiene and love.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

An Ascent of the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion

Today we follow Marianna Michael on a precarious clamber up the 2013 Serpentine Gallery Pavilion designed by Sou Fujimoto. 

Walking through the green fields of Kensington Gardens my eye is caught by the distant emergence of a white scaffold. Squinting through the blinding sun it is just possible to make out people trespassing on the construction site. On coming closer, however, the structure represents something entirely different. It is a building, a work by architect Sou Fujimoto, and an irresistibly delicate piece of architectural design.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Parker Portending: Cornelia Parker at Frith Street Gallery

Liza Weber ducks into Cornelia Parker's Frith Street Gallery exhibition to escape Soho's sudden influx of riot police.

It was the drone of a police helicopter overhead, not the Star of Bethlehem, that led me to Frith Street Gallery 17:00 BST on the 11th June 2013. Paying homage to British sculptor and installation artist Cornelia Parker was, befittingly, met with breaking news of local criminal activity: 'Riot Police Storm Soho G8 Protest Squat'.

Prison Wall Actract (A Man Escaped), 2012-2013

Where Parker was exhibiting – amongst other works – Prison Wall Abstract (A Man Escaped) 2012-13 in Frith Street, a stone’s throw away in Beak Street, protesters were staging a ‘Carnival Against Capitalism’. It seemed that in Soho the heretofore unnoticed was, quite literally, being rallied into high relief. For Cornelia Parker’s Pavement Cracks (City of London) 2012-13 are not forgotten underfoot, but are rather elevated to ankle level. We walk precariously amongst the fractures. 

Saturday, 29 June 2013

Easy Does It

A visit to Aid & Abet in Cambridge in which Corinna Spencer meets a toothless patchwork snake and a money cactus.

Kevin Hunt, The Money Cactus, 2013

Leaning, balancing and quietly standing while the trace of 'us' is caught just out of the corner of the eye. This is what happens when visiting Easy Does It at Aid & Abet.

These objects are familiar and have an air of ease about them. Their installation is beautiful and uncomplicated. It avoids any hint of clutter or sense that they are detritus. They have been purposefully and painstakingly placed in relation to one another, and to the space, and the approaching visitor.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Notes From Venice: The Natural History Museum

Annabel Dover, our Garageland Venice Correspondent, continues her guided tour of this year's Venice Biennale. Today we enjoy a very educational trip to the Natural History Museum. Click here for previous Notes From Venice (Manet Returns to Venice & Bedwyr Williams' The Starry Messenger).

The Natural History Museum of Venice is a fantastic place to visit with or without Biennale art. A long thin room with bottle-glass windows houses ceiling high cabinets of flayed geese, legions of finches, herbariums and rocks. It also houses the least successful artwork, a twee paper cut out of plant silhouettes, draped over a botanical album.

Friday, 21 June 2013

Venetian Magic: An Overview of This Year's Biennale

As a Venice first timer I found the whole experience of the Biennale pretty exciting. I am also suffering from the feeling that I have missed out on so much, and desperately want to go back.

One of the first openings I went to really set the scene, an enchanting Antoni Tàpies exhibition hosted at the Museo Fortuny. Tàpies work was shown alongside the museum collection, a stunning selection of mysterious artefacts, dresses and paintings that belonged to the nineteenth century designer and art collector Mariano Fortuny.

From the Museo Fortuny collection

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Notes From Venice: Caffè Florian and Bedwyr Williams' The Starry Messenger

Annabel Dover, our Garageland Venice Correspondent, continues her guided tour of this year's Venice Biennale. Today we enjoy a dalliance in Caffè Florian followed by a visit to Bedwyr Williams' exhibition. Click here for previous Notes From Venice.

As I walk past the heavy damask curtains of Caffè Florian I see the glittering diamond necklace and bitten lip of an illicit affair. The lagoon fills St. Mark's square past my knees and the couple are stranded in a red velvet booth, surrounded by the heavy scent of bougainvillea and cigarillo.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Quarry at IMT Gallery

Corinna Spencer's sense of discovery and adventure take her to IMT Gallery, where Charles Danby and Rob Smith are showing an examination of Robert Smithson's 1969 work Chalk Mirror Displacement

This collaboration between Charles Danby and Rob Smith seems to be one of travel, seeking, doing and perhaps some longing for Robert Smithson's notion of 'non site', something that may well be unattainable. The project is based upon an exploration of the site of Smithson’s 1969 work Chalk Mirror Displacement. 

I imagine excavation and discovery but with a methodical zeal and delight. The main room of the gallery is deceptively empty, but looking closer you can see the Smithson quarry in a huge barely visible image on one long curved wall. The rotating panoramic view moves across the walls, then onto the smooth side of a split chalk, then across the floor and over me.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Art of Ephemera

Camden Arts Centre’s posthumous exhibition of Dieter Roth’s work is headlined by his video diaries (Solo Scenes, 1997-8). The room is filled with TV sets, stacked five-high on simple wooden shelving units. The footage is at once banal and compelling. Roth goes about his day-to-day life – eating, sleeping, working and using the toilet – with a tragicomic circularity and lack of incident. His age is apparent, as is our knowledge that this is the margin of his life; that he died making this work somehow doesn’t seem incidental.

Dieter Roth, Flat Waste, 1975-6/1992

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Eli Cortiñas: Awkward Studies and a Decent Take on Serious Matters

Confessions With an Open Curtain, 2011 (still from single-channel video)

The film Confessions with an Open Curtain is my favourite piece in this show. So much can be gleaned from the back of a person, perhaps she is waiting for someone, or someone has just left her alone. Maybe she has entered a room to find it unexpectedly empty. Even emotions like shock and sadness can be seen through a posture viewed from the back. All of these are possibilities for the women on the screen.

Friday, 7 June 2013

Notes From Venice: Ostaria al Garanghelo and Manet Returns to Venice

Annabel Dover, our Garageland Venice Correspondent, gives us her guided tour of this year's Venice Biennale. Today we start with Manet and a light meal; stay-tuned, there's more to come.

'Food first, then morality' Bertolt Brecht.

When I posed in the RA life room years ago, my fellow subjects were the flayed smuggler in a case and Stubbs' horse cast, respectively crouching and standing nobly. These two figures bring to my mind Venetian speciality cuisine: Sfilacci di cavallo (frayed, dried horse) a smugglers treat, and the mud loving goby fish with its gormless expression, floating open mouthed along the milky waters of Venice, squeezed into a net and onto the plates of Ostaria al Garanghelo, a small, cosy restaurant furnished with knick-knack tat, Venetian glass lights and friendly waiters and waitresses.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

The Scandalized Mask at Josh Lilley

A couple of strides in from the door of Josh Lilley Gallery is a faux-wood, round-legged, knee-high coffee table. Its surface has been causally strewn with Hello and Men’s Health magazines. Behind it, bright-blue upholstered chairs with grey legs are arranged in twos, back-to-back. More seating lines the walls, breaking at the corner to make room for a potted plant. This is, without doubt, the quintessential waiting room, but there is no receptionist sat at the gallery’s white desk, and the space is eerily still.

Friday, 31 May 2013

Subodh Gupta: What does the vessel contain, that the river does not

Cast ashore Savile Row’s Hauser & Wirth, Subodh Gupta’s What does the vessel contain, that the river does not is driftwood…Keralan found, London abounding.

From India’s muddied docks, Gupta’s seventy-foot boat has drifted upstream to this post-industrial, fluorescent-lit gallery space, where the detritus of its migration is pellucid. That is, the artist’s weathered vessel is the receptacle of a tired soul in transit. Caught between belonging and displacement, arriving and departing, it is the embodiment of intermediate existence. Liminality is Gupta’s poetry.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Scott of the Hepworth

William Scott (1913-1989) is one of the forgotten painters of twentieth century British modernism, something that The Hepworth Wakefield is trying to correct in a show that mainly focuses on his almost abstract work of the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Scott's paintings of this period feature reoccurring motifs – frying pans, pears, bowls, kettles and fish – but rather than depicting them in a downbeat kitchen sink manner they exemplify the thing that makes British modernism compelling, they bring a pragmatic realism into the abstract mix.

William Scott, Still Life with Orange Note, 1970

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Four Sculptures on the Top Floor of Tate Modern

There is much more to the current exhibition of Saloua Raouda Choucair’s work at the Tate than just four sculptures. Her geometric paintings are evocative of traditional Islamic design and yet are curiously contemporary and her nude studies are colourful, vibrant and patterned, yet unremittingly flat and slyly redolent of recognisably famous compositions; however, in the case of this blog post, there are four sculptures I would like to focus upon, three of which are Choucair’s.

Poem Wall, 1963-5

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Jimmy De Sana: Suburban Color Sex Pictures

Perfectly sparse in its hang, Wilkinson Gallery has given these photographs the right amount of room. The viewer has to move deliberately to the next photograph, there is no feeling of rushing on from one image to another. Often these works need, or even demand, a double take. What may at first seem ridiculous becomes serious and darkly violent before then tipping into the surreal.

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Jane and Louise Wilson: Unfolding The Aryan Papers

There are layers to this film but the work isn't enhanced by an attempt to unstick them. Trying to pick the separate narratives apart was only a distraction when I should instead have immersed myself in the visual illusion of the installation. When I allowed the stills, moving image and the voice of the actress to wash over me, slowly the retelling of fictional and real stories became defined.

In the film the actress Johanna ter Steege talks about her time with Kubrick during the original pre-production for his unfinished Holocaust film Aryan Papers, intercut with the story of a highly risky romantic relationship. At times the footage seamlessly illustrates the story or the memory, and at magical points, the images stretching out to the left and right of me into infinity manage to convey both.

Corinna Spencer

Thursday, 25 April 2013

On the Stage with Gert and Uwe Tobias

The way that Romanian twin brothers Gert and Uwe Tobias make their art is akin to a ‘ballet’ explains the curator of their show at the Whitechapel Gallery in London. This dance of making means that each brother’s individual mark becomes indistinguishable in the twists and turns of process that go towards their combined output, which includes print, sculpture and collage.

Untitled, 2012

The gallery is painted in a nostalgic Farrow and Ball style teal, which gives a tasteful 50s edge to the folksy atmosphere of the work. Blocks of dense wood-blocked ink in midnight blue, mustard and the aforementioned teal are the ground for figurative motifs – thistles, owls, strange duck-footed creatures – characters from the grimmest of fairy tales. Other works collage cut-outs against techno grids or are formed from misshapen hunks of clay balanced with sprigs of brittle foliage. The spiky dried-out bones of nature also appear as motifs on large prints where the balance between figuration/abstraction and nature/culture is played out in a way that brings to mind the mid-century British painter Graham Sutherland.

Untitled, 2012

The Tobias' fairy tale aesthetic resonates with layer on layer references – Brueghel, colour field abstraction, Chinoiserie – but ultimately it’s hard to avoid the feeling that the whole thing is retrogressive, wistfully looking back to a time when artists created beautiful things for a bohemian elite. The work averts its eyes from political turmoil and financial meltdown and would much rather be costumes and backdrops for Diagaliev’s Ballet Russes. Of course the Tobias brothers do investigate the oppositions between old and new and nature and culture, but ultimately this is a classic case of (Eastern European cabin in the woods) style over (meaningful concept driven) content.

Untitled, 2012

Cathy Lomax

Friday, 19 April 2013

Schwitters Speaks My Dialect

Schwitters was born in Hannover 1887, and died in Kendal 1948. My father was born in Hanover 1951. A Tibetan Buddhist Iconographer, he now lives in the Lake District and pops into Kendal for his printing.

His recent afternoon visit to me in London found him on an RA exhibition epic – Constable et al. Manet, Mori – followed by commercial Cork Street, where we happened upon Schwitters at Bernard Jacobson Gallery. He recalled how thirty years ago, portfolio in hand, he walked this same street to make it big, only to find he did not fit. His story is not unlike Schwitters’ who, decades earlier on the neighboring steps of Trafalgar Square, jotted in his notebook, ‘Why did the director of the National Gallery not even want to see me? He does not know that I belong to the avant-garde in art. That is my tragedy.’

Das Kegelbild, 1921

I would like to think that Schwitters’ sense of belonging grew out of his artistic metamorphoses of materials. He belonged to Merz, his ‘principle of equal evaluation of the individual materials’. He fitted somewhere in amongst his old bus tickets, miniature plastic dogs, paper doilies, and scrubbing brush, and through collage, the process of sticking it all together, he found harmony. Yet within the arcade game aesthetic of Das Kegelbild (The Skittle Picture, 1921) wooden bobbins lie like cannons with miniature toy sheep as their fodder. Schwitters’ art was a sacrificial game.

Indeed what Tate Britain fail to mention in their current large-scale retrospective of Schwitters is that he was pitifully poor, having once traded a portrait of local, Francis O’Neill, now hanging in Kendal’s Abbot Hall Art Gallery, for a loaf of bread. To buy an apple was a big deal. Dealers at Bernard Jacobson Gallery now value his smaller than A5 ‘fourth one from the left’ collage at ‘forty’ – that is, my father and I overheard their receptionist quote to a briefcase customer, forty thousand pounds. Oh how Schwitters must be laughing, with Ursonate’s fümmsböwötääzää and rakete rinnzekete’s, from his beyond, for Schwitters espoused British sarcasm; chewing on his success at an annual Ambleside flower show he once spat, ‘Mrs Vartis's roses got the first prize and Mr Bickerstaff's Chrisanthemum [sic] the second. So I got two prizes. The only thing is that the prizes are low 1½ gns. But the honour! People here know now that I am able to paint flowers.’

EN MORN, 1947

Flowers, portraits, Lake District fells, Schwitters could paint. But what will he be remembered for? The Curator Emma Chambers choice of Schwitters publicity image seems somewhat of a spent salute to pop art; EN MORN’s (1947) Barbie is the Tate’s toy. She kindly paves the way for the pop generation of Richard Hamilton and Eduardo Paolozzi. Yet when Chambers, recently in her blog, opened up her search of the mystery Barbie to her readers, she soon received an answer from a Mr John Eaton who found the advertisement ‘These are the things we are fighting for’ for Community Silverplate cutlery in which she appears as a teacher representing ‘the right to teach truth … not propaganda’. The question is, is the Gallery’s advertisement of a ‘retrospective’ truth or propaganda?

These reservations are unfounded, for the Tate methodically tracks Schwitters life history. Yet, like the Gestapo, they seem to be forever chasing his tail. Schwitters has fled Norway for Edinburgh before he has even flown the Nazi nest and their totalitarian sticky ‘Entartete Kunst’ (‘degenerative art’) tags. Until of course he runs face first into British Internment. Got ‘im! Nicely captured in Douglas Camp, Isle of Man. Conceived as one of the ‘pioneers of European Modernism’, is it not quaint that Kurt Schwitters is exhibited at Tate Britain not Modern?

Merzbarn Wall, 1947-48

Despite his shackles - physical, psychological, or otherwise - Schwitters does not slot into a single ‘school’ of art. Rather, his paradoxical lot (I like to think of his work as organised chaos) finds him at the margins of mainstreams, in his final years he was working, quite literally, in his hillside shed at a remove from the water. If he was broken, for the world around him certainly was, then ‘new things had to be made out of the fragments’.

Where the bow of his three-dimensional collage Merzbarn Wall (1947-48) ­­(into which found items were slotted and then covered with plaster and paint) was drawn towards the small window in his Elterwater barn, the arc of his career never left its cobbled floor, often flooded with water. An artist always working towards the light, his adopted country repeatedly obscured him from view: imprisonment, poverty, and pneumonia. Until now, our Nation’s indifference was his tragedy. 

Liza Weber

Monday, 8 April 2013

Marcel Dzama: Sister Squares

Amongst the many works of Marcel Dzama’s show Puppets, Pawns, and Prophets at David Zwirner is the premier of the video installation Sister Squares (2013). The work is named after Marcel Duchamp’s Opposition and Sister Squares Are Reconciled (1932), a chess handbook with a focus on pawn and king endgames.

A disco drumbeat invites viewers into the gallery. It is an accompaniment to Death Disco Dance (2011) a video shown on two-stacks of monitors facing-out into the street, filling the gallery’s windows. Dancers clothed head-to-toe in black and white, polka-dot leotards perform a choreographed game of musical statues; dancing simple disco routines in unison, halting with the rhythm of the drum.

Death Disco Dance, 2011 

The first room of the show is filled with Dzama’s watercolours. Drawn in the vernacular of theatrical diagram, the palette of the images is limited to rich midnight blue, crimson red and chocolate brown. Scenes depict surreal backstage and onstage scenarios; costumed mobsters chat idly with Batman and Robin; strange multi-headed monsters take part in a frothy dance number and a rather macabre hanging scene forms the backdrop to a salacious revolution.

Further compositions take the form of costume schematics and diagrammatic images. Linear sequences of dots running across the surface of the watercolours create the impression of a score for a play or dance. Across all of the images there are some unusual recurring characters; strange, black and white costumed, faceless creatures, just like those from Death Disco Dance. They are chess pieces, and they are brought to life in Sister Squares.

The Renowned Union Jackoff, 2013

Four monochromatic projections are arranged as a grid on the gallery wall, and are musically accompanied by dramatic flamenco, which drifts in to the surrounding gallery spaces. The video contains more than just a hint of silent-movie aesthetics.

Two gentlemen sit down to a chessboard on a deserted, rubble-strewn street and a game commences. The act takes place in the bottom left projection, and aside from the occasional cutaway, from this point on the projection rests mainly upon an animated birds-eye-view of the chessboard, a diagram of the battle.

The three remaining projections cut between the flamenco musicians at work, an audience of rattle-wielding, white-masked spectators, their features oversized and frozen in state of voyeuristic pleasure, and a dramatic dance battle with much posturing, and eventually much spurting blood.

Sister Squares, 2012

The black and white chequered dance-floor is provides the perfect board for the chess-piece dancers. The pawns (who we have met before) are spry, spotted ballerinas, the rooks are relentlessly spinning circular robots and the queen is a sharp-edged monster with triangular eyes and spiky hands.

As the game heads towards its conclusion a black pawn is queened in a ritualistic coronation and the white ballerinas advance towards her, side-on and on-point, to begin a formidably elegant final fray. The match ends, however, with a macabre twist. An unknown sniper-wielding gunwoman (who suspiciously, might be one of the black pawns) assassinates one of the gentleman players before the game can be concluded. A black pawn dances amongst the rubble of white pieces and takes a bow, and the vacuous spectators wave their rattles triumphantly.

The Queen’s Head, 2012

Though the chess match will never reach its endgame, the video succeeds as an ecstatic and eccentric dramatisation of an on-board battle, pushing and pulling seamlessly between the connotations of war, the internal dance of the chess match and the placid players moving the pieces.

Upstairs in the gallery are multi-coloured tin masks and hanging tin puppets, many more opulent watercolours and a set of beautifully intricate, small-scale dioramas. Despite the illustrative quality of the drawings, and the prop-like attributes of the sculptures, they are quite evidently not just preparatory works for the video. In their complexity and richness they provide a labyrinthine, theatrical mythology that surrounds and buoys the video work, only adding to the sense of an inexplicably cohesive yet completely unfathomable allegory at work in the space.

Travis Riley

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Richard Ducker: Dark Matter

Ducker's ink drawings have a creeping heartbreak about them. In each, smoke rises from intimated destruction. In some images there is more than one point of impact; more than one trail rising slowly up, thick and black.

The drawings are numerous and arranged methodically. Looking at one after another is reminiscent of the evening news, daily horror, peppered with the 'stop and take notice' punctuations of certain images. 

Dark Matter's sculptures can be experienced in this way. Sharp edged objects that cut through the smoke and remind the viewer of the solid objects twisted, charred, destroyed and hidden.

Corinna Spencer

Friday, 15 March 2013

Stoker: A Fantasy Fulfilled

Stoker is the English language debut of Korean director Park Chan-Wook, of The Vengeance Trilogy fame. The film has received mostly scathing reviews based around criticisms such as ‘style over substance’, ‘unconvincing’ and ‘over-indulgent’. Well, maybe. It’s certainly stylised, a vehicle for a director’s personal vision and contains an unlikely plot, but couldn’t that criticism be applied to Psycho, Pulp Fiction and Blue Velvet?

Park isn’t a director to ascribe any kind of message to his work, dealing instead with stunning visuals and devastating plot twists, but that doesn’t mean that Stoker isn’t rife with an infinite number of themes and symbols to pick over. The other thing about this film is it gives the viewer a reason to be sitting in a dark auditorium on a winter evening – excitement. Sensually speaking, Stoker provides an overdose, from the mint green walls of the Stoker residence to the strains of Nancy Sinatra during a seduction scene. A scene that sees Mia Wasikowska play a piano duet with Matthew Goode whilst suspended in a state of sexual ecstasy is enough to encourage a repeated trip to the cinema. 

The film is a gothic horror centred around India, (Mia Wasikowska) an introverted teenager left with her brittle and beautiful mother Evie (Nicole Kidman) after the death of her father. When her mysterious Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) turns up to the funeral and begins to charm Evie, India retreats from this charming stranger, suspicious, resentful and watchful. The film veers in genre from wicked stepfather fairytale to crime-spree love affair and finally to somewhere completely different. And it’s not about vampires, despite the leading title. However, on second thought, it is rather heavy on talk of blood.

Since this is a director whose most famous film contains a disturbing twist based on familial relationships – a twist that will temporarily shatter anyone who has ever been a father, daughter, brother or sister – it seems reasonable to explore his portrayal of the Stoker family. To begin with, there is the strained mother-daughter relationship between Evie and India.

Evie’s bitterly honest words to her daughter, of whom she seems resignedly terrified, ‘personally speaking I can’t wait to watch life tear you apart’ slightly echo a line from another Gothic horror, another film symbolising female adolescence and burgeoning sexuality. Ginger Snaps (2000) tells the story of two teenage sisters whose close relationship is threatened when the elder of the two simultaneously hits puberty and becomes a werewolf. In a scene in which Ginger recounts her realisation of her blood lust, she says, ‘I get this ache... and I thought it was for sex, but it's to tear everything to fucking pieces.’ By the end of Ginger Snaps, the pre-adolescent Ginger has disappeared, along with her sisterly relationship. All that’s left is an autonomous being, a monster.

Despite the emphasis on relationships of all kinds, from the familial to the romantic, films like Stoker imply that at least the final step of this journey towards maturity requires compulsory loneliness. This could be why, at the end of most gothic horror films featuring strange girls, from The Craft to Carrie, there is often one girl left, wrenched apart from her fellow characters by an event that has changed her irrevocably. Though her friends, lovers and relatives may have a hand in pushing her along, she reaches the other side alone.

This idea that once grown we are on our own must leave Park thinking about what it is we can instill in our children before it is too late. Park has made a career of hauntingly beautiful but violent films dealing in dark themes of revenge, incest and the origins of evil. In 2006 he made a romantic comedy, I’m a Cyborg, But That’s Ok, mainly so his daughter would be able to watch one of his films. Stoker contains a reference to his daughter, explained by Park in an interview for The Guardian. 'There's this element I brought into the film, this talk of wine', says Park of a loaded dinner-table scene:
There's a line where Evie appreciates how mature the wine is, and Charlie says: well, you can't compare it to a younger wine, which is too tannic. But we realise later on that he didn't pick the wine for Evie, but for India. When he pushes the wine to India and says, "1994: the year you were born." And that was the year my daughter was born, so it was a nod to her. 
In the film, India’s father literally arms her before he dies, teaching her to hunt. How well or badly this skill will mix with her nature, only time will tell. Park has said he is interested in the origins of evil, and Stoker asks this question without ever really answering it.

Another director ceaselessly accused of putting style over substance and indeed over ethics is Quentin Tarantino. Over his career he has answered questions about violence in cinema, most recently on the subject of his latest film, Django Unchained. He defends his work in his signature straightforward style. 'If you ask me how I feel about violence in real life, well, I have a lot of feelings about it. It's one of the worst aspects of America. In movies, violence is cool. I like it.'

'Transportive' may be a more useful word than 'cool'; taking the viewer to a place where the fantasy fulfilled is not necessarily a violent one or a vengeful one, but a simple desire to get everything right first time. In a word: resourcefulness. This feeling of watching a character make a decision and execute it perfectly is one of the most joyful experiences in cinema, because it’s rare we would even let ourselves try. Django, Bond, Bourne and India Stoker are all characters with this quality of resourcefulness. One scene in Stoker involves India pre-emptively arming herself with a sharpened pencil and using it to stab her bully in his fist as he raises it to punch her. 

It may be that resourcefulness is all Park will be able to impart to his daughter, one day she will grow up, watch Oldboy and be faced with horror both around and within her. At the very least she’ll be the goth girl survivor at the end of the movie. At the most? Perhaps the goth girl directing the movie.

Sarah Cleaver