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)