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