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 Hause Der Statistik, Alexanderplatz, was, as the pandemic curtain came down, swiftly re-imagined by the students as a zine (which can be downloaded form 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 Troger'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, Troger 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 Troger, suit wearing can, like the iconoclastic artists Gilbert and George, be considered a conversely subversive act. Troger 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.


Friday, 12 March 2021

Dawn in the Studio

Musa Mayer's new book about her father, Philip Guston, ticks all of Guston fanatic, Michael Ajerman's, boxes. 

There is no specific flavour that captivates and also repels people to and from Philip Guston’s work. The range of styles and approach creates a mix of allegiances, usually the abstract works or the late works. The early works not so much, sadly. One autumn in Woodstock, New York I crossed paths with a painter who happened to revere Guston's plus and minus paintings and thought everything after was a crime. These feelings, these beliefs are real. 

Everyone sees the nexus of the late work and its importance on their own terms. Maybe it was the late 1960s rejection of Guston’s peers and the banishment of the New York School. Making a personal artistic bunker in Woodstock where he would cook up a new secret world, then coming out almost a decade later and 'right.'

It is hard to convince anyone. If you see it - no let me rephrase that - more importantly, you feel it. It is there. 

The directness of the approach, some people say that Guston removed his sense of painterly skill. But I don't see it that way. You truly see the thing, the forms, being wrestled and being made in order to become a non-predicted mass. The sensation of it being made before you, leads to assumptions, which convince that you could do it. Maybe if one had the nerve. But deep down, you do not know how it is made. The opposite would be de Kooning's paintings from the same time period, the 1970s. You look at the painterly language bloom before you. But it is all a fog, almost impossible to retrace that Dutchman's steps.

Eight years after Philip Guston’s death, his daughter Musa Mayer published Night Studio. An account of trying to make sense of him (the man, the painter, the husband, the father) much as it is Mayer trying to make sense of herself. It is an important text in the Guston cannon but an uncomfortable read. Passages that are so filled with family unease that one truly wants to look the other way or skip a few pages.  

It is now over 30 years later. Musa Mayer is now older than when her father passed away at the age of 65 and has now published Philip Guston. Placing Night Studio and Philip Guston as siblings seems logical but it is a clumsy attempt. Mayer now presents a text on her father that goes - and goes fast. Her aim is straight and clear. Lean. There is no fat on any of these bones.  

Reading it reminds me of being on the A Train in Manhattan. Warp speed from 42nd Street to 125th Street. You are getting to your destination, glimpsing all the non-essential stations wizzing by, amazed at the speed, but wishing you could go a little slower to see the sites.

Precise answers to all the Guston whys are given along with anecdotes and scenarios. Mayer feels the ‘Leg Paintings’ of the 1970s DO reference the documented photographs of Holocaust Concentration Camps. Her presentation of The Door, 1976, is an eye opener. The clustered mountain high, form of shoes, seem to bash through the door like a tsunami. The forms as an intruder from the outside world that have a total disregard for the doorbell. A foreign hell invading a domestic soil. The number 660 inscribed in the painting, is the Guston family house number. 

Mayer is the most qualified to write this book, she now heads the Guston Foundation (the website is truly incredible). For anyone new to, or wanting a revision of the Guston saga, this is a short and solid entry to the life and the oeuvre. The book can even fit in your coat pocket. Would she want to write Night Studio Part II? And how could she as it is 30 years later, and does the world really need it. Would she?

Philip Guston feels like a truly successful one day painting. The roads are clear. The vision without much distraction, detours, or diversions. Writing like this never comes easy. It is harder than it looks, editing is key. Reproductions are truly phenomenal, especially Clockface, 1968 where you can see and feel the previous attempts below dancing with the final layer of paint. Kept alive.

Michael Ajerman

'Philip Guston' by Musa Mayer is published by Laurence King

Tuesday, 19 January 2021

A Hollywood Star Runs Amok at Billy Smarts Circus

The latest issue of Garageland is Living British Cinema. To accompany this we have a Garageland Reviews exclusive extra in which Cathy Lomax teases out the camp delights of the 1967 British set circus thriller Beserk which stars Joan Crawford in one of her least appreciated roles as a circus ringmaster 

Cathy Lomax, Confrontation, 2021, oil on card

Joan Crawford’s extraordinary film career began at the end of the silent era and ran for 45 years during which time she won an Academy Award, was the queen of the MGM lot and never left home without looking like Joan Crawford the movie star. As she entered her 60s glamorous film roles became harder to find and along with other Hollywood legends she travelled further afield to work, notably to the UK. In 1967 she signed on for what would be her penultimate film, the grand guignol thriller Beserk, in which she plays circus owner and ringmaster Monica Rivers. Although a key film in the grotesquely titled hagsploitation genre, Crawford at 62 is still resplendently the star even if everything else around her falls well below the standards of classical Hollywood. Showing off her legs in fishnet tights and an Edith Head designed leotard (alongside a wardrobe of her own brightly coloured tailored outfits) she cracks her whip and romances the high wire hunk. Filmed in gloriously saturated colour at Shepperton Studios and Billy Smarts Circus (while pitched in Blackheath) with a supporting cast of British actors, including Diana Dors and Judy Geeson, this is regarded by many Crawford fans as a low point in her career. However, if considered in the context of British film with connections to Hammer’s schlocky horror output and the hard-bitten sarcasm and double entendres of British humour, it is, I would suggest, more worthy of the tag camp cult classic. 


Alongside the gruesome killings, Beserk, in common with other circus films, showcases a host of big top acts, many of which feature animals. Although these are distasteful to contemporary eyes the sight of a huge elephant stepping delicately over a line of women is somehow poignant and compelling, and poodle owner Crawford’s delight at introducing a trope of the performing dogs is palpable. Reports from the film’s cast and crew mostly highlight Crawford’s professionalism with Judy Geeson adding that she was ‘very likeable’, and although Crawford declined to talk about the film in later interviews, the fact that she returned to the UK to make Trog just a few years later seems to indicate that it wasn’t an all-together terrible experience. It’s true that much of Beserk is perfunctory with, as a New York Times review describes, ‘bloodless characterisations [of] a petty and conniving gang of meanies’. However, any film that includes Phyllis Allen and her Intelligent Poodles and Crawford berating Dors with the line ‘you slut, you miserable ingrate’, surely deserves to be watched!

Cathy Lomax

Beserk (Jim O'Connolly, 1967)